Shark Repellent: a new study indicates visual cues could be a deterrent

As a follow up to my post this past Sunday on the Australian government's attempts to control white sharks off the Western Australian coast by a variety of often fatal means, new research has come out regarding another avenue for developing a shark repellent: Eyesight.

According to, researchers from Australia have been studying the brains of cartilaginous animals, which includes sharks and rays, and their conclusions point to some species of shark as having a more developed brain than previously thought.

There isn't an implication that the sharks are "smarter" than previously thought, as that often implies intelligence of a sort that we associate with humans.  Rather, while some sharks have developed brains along an evolutionary path that is similar to vertebrates including humans, the sensory abilities of the sharks are perhaps broader in scope and therefore can have an impact on their behavior more than previously suspected.

While chemical shark repellents have focused on confusing or disrupting a shark's sense of smell, the new research poses the idea that visual cues might serve as effective repellents.

“Great white sharks have quite large parts of the brain associated with their visual input, with implications for them being much more receptive to repellents targeting visual markers,” said Kara Yopak, a shark researcher at the University of Western Australia.
And what visual image would a shark possibly find threatening or repelling?

“A shark may recognize a poisonous sea-snake’s markings and swim away, for example, and we can use this information to cue a response.   It’s about understanding how their neurobiology affects their behavior,” Yopak said.  “This information may direct researchers’ efforts towards targeting the visual system when developing repellents for sharks.”

Imagine that the ultimate shark repellent turns out to be a black and white striped banner with the words "This is a giant sea snake.  Go away," emblazoned across the front.  Or perhaps we scuba divers will all start wearing wetsuits with markings that look similar to orcas - a known shark predator.   Anything is worth a try when the alternative is hooking and killing any shark that happens to cruise within the vicinity of a popular beach.


Underwater Eden: new book explores the Phoenix Island Protected Area

The Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA) came into existence in 2006.  It was, at the time, the largest marine protected area in the world and was the result of a courageous step by the government of the Republic of Kiribati - a South Pacific nation consisting of what was once known as the Gilbert, Phoenix, and Line Islands.  With scientific support from Conservation International and other research institutions, like the New England Aquarium, an area of over 157,000 square miles was designated as a protected area, including eight islands, several major submerged reefs, hundreds of square miles of corals ecosystems and vast areas of open ocean protected from commercial fishing.  In 2010, PIPA was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site and, while it has been surpassed in size by other marine protected areas, it still stands as a major success in forward-thinking ocean management.

But how did such a monumental step in marine ecology management come to pass?  How did the government of Kiribati come to this ground-breaking decision?  What did marine researchers find in assessing the area?  What makes PIPA so special in terms of sealife? And what are the plans for the future?  To answer these questions, many of the people involved in the development and study of PIPA have put pen to paper and a new book will be available in November, Underwater Eden: Saving the Last Coral Wilderness on Earth.

Edited by Greg Stone, PhD., chief ocean scientist at Conservation International, and David Obura, PhD., adjunct senior scientist with the New England Aquarium, Underwater Eden details the evolution of the Phoenix Islands Protected Area from the difficult political decision-making (the formation of PIPA would entail the loss of international commercial fishing licenses totaling in the millions of dollars), the initial scientific expeditions to catalog the various species of animal and plant life - from fish to seabirds to invasive insects, to the future plans to ensure not only the health and vibrancy of PIPA but the economic well-being of the Kiribati people.

The Kiribati people figure prominently in this book.  Their culture is one that has been forever tied to the sea.  While the ocean is an important key to their survival, they also understand that the ocean, too, must survive.  Both their fates are intertwined and their commitment to PIPA is both heart warming and encouraging.  If only the rest of the planet could see the oceans through the eyes of the Kiribati people.

Through words and striking pictures from top notch photographers like Brian Skerry, Paul Nicklen, and Cat Holloway, Underwater Eden presents the treasures of the Phoenix Islands that rest just beneath the waves.  From 2000 to 2009, four scientific expeditions set out to observe the variety of sealife and document the condition of the coral reefs.  Such studies established a baseline by which the health of the protected area could be monitored and assessed.  However, even in a pristine environment, there can be threats.  Early in PIPA's history, it was impacted by shark fishing poachers (who were ultimately apprehended) and by a coral bleaching event in 2002.  Fortunately, the shark population rebounded as did the coral reefs, serving as examples of nature's resiliency when given a chance to recover.

Greg Stone has often said that through the Phoenix Islands he is able to get a glimpse as to how the oceans were a thousand years ago.  And through Underwater Eden: Saving the Last Coral Wilderness on Earth, we are able to get our own glimpse as to just what he was talking about.  Full of personal first-hand accounts, interesting sidebars, and great photos, this is a book that will strengthen the resolve of dedicated ocean conservationists and enlighten those who do not yet understand the importance of marine protected areas.

You can pre-order Underwater Eden through Amazon in its hard copy edition, just in time for the holiday gift season.  It is very reasonably priced and, most importantly, all of the proceeds go to support the Phoenix Islands Protected Area.  In bringing the back story of one of the most significant steps taken in ocean conservation, this book also provides you with the opportunity to make a contribution to preserving an amazing coral wilderness which continues to serve as a model for critically-needed protected areas worldwide.

Available at

Sharks At Risk In Australia: tagged sharks may be victims of Western Australia hysteria

Researchers in Australia are trying their best to foster calm and rational thinking in the wake of five fatalities in Western Australia due to great white sharks in the past 12 months.  As the number of human-shark interactions increased, so did the demand for some kind of action to be taken by the Australian government.

It's really a classic and unfortunate case of public concerns for safety mixed with businesses concerned over loss of potential business that has fueled, ala Jaws, demands for action ranging from protecting beaches with shark nets and drum lines to actively pursuing sharks that are spotted close to shore to culling sharks in the hopes of reducing the potential for deadly encounters.

The media is subtly fueling the hysteria with reports (see below) of sharks "lurking" off local beaches.  Yes, lurking.  Not swimming  as they have for hundreds of thousands of years in oceans that were always meant for their existence, but lurking.

According to a report in Australia's Herald Sun, in September the Western Australia government authorized $4 million to use drum lines and track any sharks that come close to beach swimmers.  This decision came, in contradiction, on the heels of a government-funded report by Queensland's Bond University that found that drum lines provided no discernible measure of safety from sharks and, in fact, would succeed in catching many other unintended species.  Drums lines are floating drums anchored to the bottom with baited lines attached.  The idea behind them is that, unlike shark nets which are designed to prevent sharks from entering an area or that inadvertently ensnare them, drum lines are specifically designed to hook and kill a shark.

The random killing of white sharks threatens the efforts of researchers who tag and track sharks using various telemetry devices that can provide information on the shark's location.  In fact, the Western Australia government has even voiced an interest in killing tagged sharks when their studied movements bring them close to populated beaches.  But with ongoing tracking information of Western and Southern Australia's white sharks (a population reported to be only around 1,000), scientists can learn more about their movements - seasonal patterns, migration routes, and more - and in so doing can best advise as to methods that would provide for public safety while also protecting the sharks as they roam within the environment nature intended.

"Killing tagged sharks is the worst thing we could do right now,'' said Tim Nichol, marine coordinator for the Conservation Council of Western Australia. "We need to learn more about white sharks and these are the sharks giving us information about their movements.  It is very expensive and difficult to tag white sharks and only a small proportion of the population is currently tagged.''

I can hear the voice of Amity mayor Larry Vaughn, "Now you do what you have to to make these beaches safe, but these beaches will be open for business." 

Source: Herald Sun

Ocean Acidifcation: Center for Biological Diversity initiates new campaign

Ocean acidification is garnering more and more attention within the ocean conservation community.  And well it should.  It was only a few years ago that the issue started to reach a state of critical mass within the ocean advocacy community.  And as more and more research is taking place to understand its causes and effects, we are more and more coming to understand its insidious impact on the marine environment.

With today's massive amounts of CO2 being discharged into the atmosphere, the ocean itself is absorbing more and more of the carbon as it settles to earth.  Where once we thought that the ocean could actually be a storage facility for large quantities of carbon (called carbon sequestration), we now find that the amount far exceeds what the seas are capable of handling.  The result is a decrease in the pH of the ocean, making it more acidic.  That is the essence of ocean acidification.

“The havoc wreaked by ocean acidification is unfolding faster and more severely than anyone thought it would. Coral reefs are collapsing, and food chains may break apart as our oceans go through a dangerous transformation,” said Miyoko Sakashita, oceans director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “If we’re going to stop this crisis from getting far worse, we’ll need national leadership at the top levels of our government.” 

The effects of ocean acidification is a reversal of many of the other threats imposed by man.  Overfishing, particularly of pelagic predators like tuna, billfish, and sharks, among other fish commercially sought after, is a top down assault on marine ecosystems.  Ocean acidification, on the other hand, works primarily from the bottom up.  The decreased pH level destroys many of the microscopic animals that make up plankton, a basic building block in the aquatic food chain.  Also animals like shells and coral that use calcium carbonate in the making of their exoskeletons are put at risk as the increased pH retards or breaks down the growth of calcium carbonate.

The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) has started a new ocean acidification campaign, Endangered  CBD specializes in taking conservation issues to the doorsteps of government agencies by wielding the power of the courts.  Working in consort with other organizations, the Center has initiated many lawsuits and other legal actions to force U.S. government agencies to abide by the mandates that currently exist, but are often ignored, within federal and state environmental laws.  And they have a track record of many successes.

However, ocean acidification is a challenging nemesis for CBD to take on as it is a truly global issue.  The CO2 being pumped into our atmosphere - from factories, automobiles, energy plants, just to name a few - does not recognize political or geographic boundaries.  Every nation has a responsibility to act not only for they sake of their own people but for humankind as a whole - not to mention the oceans themselves.

While I was attending the BLUE Ocean Film Festival and Ocean Conservation Event last month in Monterey, California, another important conference was also taking place in the same hotel and conference center.  It involved over 500 scientists who had come together to discuss the current state of ocean acidification, where it's heading, and what needs to be done about it.

"Carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of coal, oil and gas are causing the oceans to acidify more and more rapidly than at any time since the extinction of the dinosaurs. It's time for actions that reduce carbon pollution in our oceans before it's too late,” said Ken Caldeira, climate scientist in the Carnegie Institution Department of Global Ecology at Stanford University. 

Learn more about CBD's Endangered Oceans campaign and circulate their new infographic (shown above, click on the image to enlarge) among your friends and colleagues - those who may not be aware of ocean acidification and the threat it imposes on the oceans and ourselves.

Source: CBD Press Release