Juggling Interactions

There’s a lot of talk these days about supporting biodiversity, but what does that really mean?

Once, my personal understanding of biodiversity involved a focus on the big, noticeable species – the endangered animals like whales and polar bears and elephants, as if biodiversity was the same as protecting threatened species.

It’s much more than that, of course.

We are really just beginning to untangle just how important an entire web of interactions can be for a habitat, a region, a set of species, for the climate, for ocean health, and so on. We’ve tended to think in terms of linear lines, like food chains, which suits our human need for order. Often, we can only hold so many different elements in our minds as relevant to the same issue before we start losing focus like a bad juggler with too many objects in the air.

Sometimes we choose to think that if a species goes missing in a habitat, for whatever reason, the multiplicity of species will close around the hole left by the animal or plant that is now gone. Adjustments will be made and life will go on.

We are now beginning to comprehend just how much we don’t know about the interactions that sustain healthy environments – and our comprehension is being outpaced by the disappearance of species. This is as true of urban environments as it is of the ever-dwindling places we might think of as ‘wild.’ The good news is, we can actually work on an individual and community level to help support biodiversity.

Today is designated by the United Nations as the International Day for Biological Diversity.

species, biodiversity, Antarctic, research, endangered

A sampling of life beneath the water’s surface around Antarctica.
Source: British Antarctic Survey

Toothfish Piracy

*Update below (July 29).

There are a couple of cinema-worthy chase scenes going on right now, all located in the Southern Ocean.

The New Zealand navy is currently chasing two ships sailing under the flag of Equatorial Guinea for illegal fishing, and a Sea Shepherd vessel has been chasing a Nigerian trawler, the Thunder, since December 17. The Sea Shepherd chase, over 1000 nautical miles at this point, has already broken the record for longest documented sea chase. And it’s not over.

So, what’s at the heart of this high seas drama?

Fish Artist: Si Scott

Fish
Artist: Si Scott

A deep-sea fish that was once deemed bland, ugly and unmarketable. It got its commercial start as a base for fish sticks. Later, its lack of overtly fishy flavor was turned to culinary advantage because chefs could do almost anything to it; what it lacked in strong flavor it made up for in flaky white flesh.

The Patagonian toothfish (Dissostichus eleginoides) was renamed the Chilean sea bass by an American fish merchant in 1977, and became truly popular in haute cuisine during the 1990s. Also known as White Gold, the fish otherwise known as toothfish can currently be found on the menus of high-end restaurants mainly in the United States, Europe and Japan.

Since luxury markets combined with scarcity usually mean high prices for a product, illegal fisheries have been chasing the toothfish for years now.

Patagonian toothfish Source: National Marine Fisheries Service

Patagonian toothfish
Source: National Marine Fisheries Service

A number of international initiatives were undertaken to protect the toothfish, an animal integral to a number of ecosystems. It reproduces slowly and has a long life span – up to 50 years, two factors that make it vulnerable to overfishing.

For me, the Patagonian toothfish, together with the Antarctic toothfish (Dissostichus mawsoni) also sold as Chilean sea bass, exemplify how difficult it can be to be a responsible consumer.

In the early 2000s, illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing (IUU) was estimated to account for up to 80% of all toothfish that was harvested. Recommendations to avoid Chilean sea bass in stores and restaurants have been cautiously revised because of the success of programs in fighting IUU fishing. The Marine Stewardship Council offers certification for sustainably fished toothfish, and provides possible purchase points.

And yet, we have two groups, a national navy and an environmental organization, in pursuit of industrial-scale operations fishing for what will be sold as Chilean sea bass. The poachers obviously have reliable markets to whom they can sell.

Chilean sea bass with the MSC label can generally be bought with confidence, but how often do we ask our restaurant servers or fishmongers whether the fish they are serving is appropriately labeled?

Levels of toothfish over-fishing (2013). Click on the image for a larger view. Source: Rochelle Price

Levels of toothfish over-fishing (2013).
Dark grey=quota levels, Red=estimated IUU catch. Click on the image for a larger view.
Source: Rochelle Price

 

* The Sea Shepherd’s spectacular chase only ended in April, with the crew of the Thunder allegedly sinking their own ship to destroy evidence – and then being rescued by crew members of the Sea Shepherd’s two pursuing ships. A riveting article in the New York Times provides more detail than I can here, and I encourage taking the time to read it.

The ships being pursued by the New Zealand navy have been found in Thailand and Cape Verde, respectively – renamed and reflagged.

 

Southern Swirl

Hurricanes and tropical storms since 1851 Credit: John Nelson/IDVSolutions Click on the image to go to the full-size version.

Hurricanes and tropical storms since 1851
Credit: John Nelson/IDVSolutions
Click on the image to go to the full-size version.

Over on the ever-mesmerizing UXBlog, I found these hypnotic examples of historical cartography – a backward glance at a century of hurricanes. These maps are oriented with the Antarctic at the center, and show both the trajectory and intensity of each storm for which data was available.

According to John Nelson, who created the maps, ”┬áThe fine folks at NOAA (*National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) keep an archive of storm paths with wind speed, storm name, date, among other attributes, and are always updating and refining information for past events based on historical evidence and educated hunches.”

Of course, with the introduction of satellites, big data collection and heck, even the telephone, for communicating storm information, we know more about storms now than we did 160 years ago. Also, during the course of working out these maps, Nelson realized that “we only really started logging the East and South hemisphere versions of these things around 1978” – by ‘we’, I’m assuming he is referring to the US-based NOAA.

And this wouldn’t come as a surprise to me – it is only with the spread of globe-spanning communication and data technology that many have lifted their gaze from their own immediate surroundings and extended it to the rest of planet to see wider interactions.

Just as interesting is Nelson’s description of how he created these maps and how he arrived at this particular ‘bottoms-up’ perspective. The circle that looks like an iris around the pupil of the Antarctic is the equator – notice that the storms all swirl away from it in either direction.

Here’s an animated version of the map that displays all storm seasons dating back to 1978.

Hurricanes & storms by season, 1978-2010
Credit: John Nelson/IDVSolutions
Click on the image to go to the full-size version.