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Landlocked

I’m going to be keeping a very low profile for the next month, since I’m about to disappear into the black hole of early parenthood. All being well, my wife will be giving birth to twins in the next few days… Have got that traditional mixture of excitement and fear coursing through my veins. I’m looking forward to adding some champagne on the day!

It’s quite a month to be ducking out of ocean world. There’s a lot going on. Europe’s Common Fisheries Policy review process is hotting up (with the help of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s well-fought Fish Fight). The UK government is about to announce what it’s going to do to end the ludicrous imbalance that sees our most sustainable fishing fleets tied up in harbour for lack of fishing rights while factory trawlers keep our stocks at rock-bottom levels.

The race among retailers to lead the sustainable seafood pack (or should that be chase, with the ever-baying hound of Greenpeace always at their heels) has got more and more interesting. It’s now being led by a department store, Selfridges, who have devoted all their Oxford Street windows to their ‘Project Ocean’, committed to a raft of sourcing policies and even bankrolled their own Marine Protected Area in the Seychelles…

There’s action in the Arctic, the Southern Ocean, in Libyan waters and as ever with the Somali pirates. But for now I’m signing off, heading for the baby bubble…


North Pole shuns explorers with bad weather

Posted from Resolute Bay, Canadian Arctic

British polar adventurer Ben Saunders will return to London this morning [Monday] after bad weather aborted his attempt at the fastest solo, unsupported trip to the North Pole.

Not a single expedition has managed to leave for the Pole this year – either from the Canadian or Russian territories that border the Arctic – as a result of ‘freak’ weather above North America.

Adventurers aiming for the North Pole from land (the only ‘authorised’ way of saying you’ve walked there) traditionally leave from two main departure areas, Cape Arkticheskiy in Russia and Ellesmere Island in Canada. In recent years wide ‘leads’ of open water between Russia and the Arctic sea ice have delighted shipping companies but thwarted would-be polar heroes.

On the Canadian side this spring, extreme skiers have been unable to fly from the frontier town of Resolute to their start points at Ward Hunt and Cape Colombia at the northern tip of Ellesmere Island, leaving at least four frustrated teams stuck on land. Consistent low cloud and blowing snow has meant pilots are unable to discern between ice and horizon or scout for suitable landing areas.

“There’s been very strange weather over the Arctic this year. I’ve never seen anything like it since I started watching this sort of thing in the 1990s,” said Mr Saunders as he prepared to board a flight back to the UK. This was his third attempt at beating the current record time of 41 days to reach the North Pole solo and unsupported.

“I’m devastated. I’m fitter and better equipped than I’ve ever been, but it was impossible to land the plane,” he said.

Arctic adventurers aiming for the North Pole have a tight departure window. To walk in daylight they must wait until the end of February for the sun to rise high enough, yet they must arrive before the sea ice at the top of the world becomes too thin to take the weight of a plane.

“Most expeditions aim to get to the Pole by late April. Historically they went much later – in the 1990s they were landing there in June, but that’s out of the question now,” said Mr Saunders.

There will still be people at 90 degrees north this year. A Russian company establishes an Ice Station near the geographic North Pole every year to host scientists and adventure tourists. Bulldozers are parachuted in to create a landing strip (some of which are reputed to have sunk at the bottom of the ocean having fallen through thin ice), allowing jets to land and provide adventurers with a relatively cheap exit from the ice.

Despite the weather problems a team from the Catlin Arctic Survey aims to fly to the Pole next week and start skiing back towards Greenland, measuring ice thickness and ocean currents as they go.

“We need a break in the weather to get us up there but we’re interested in gathering data on what is happening with the ice, not breaking records. If we have to wait a while for a window it might mean we get a shorter transect, but we’ll still accomplish our goals,” said the British co-leader of the expedition, Ann Daniels.

Mike Christiansen of the Polar Continental Shelf Program in Resolute said that their operations had been unaffected by the bad weather. “It’s pretty standard up here. Every year has ebbs and flows. Operating in this environment is what we do.”

The Arctic is warming faster than anywhere else on the planet, and so far less sea ice has formed than at any other year on record, tying with 2006. Some have blamed the unusual weather on the shrinking ice:

“I’ve never seen this before. Usually in March it’s quite cold and very sunny, making for superb flying conditions. Now it’s completely different, very warm with a continuous stream of low pressure systems coming up through the region. I suspect it’s the thinning and lessening ice that’s causing this,” said Wayne Davidson, who has runEnvironment Canada’s weather station in Resolute since 1997.

The more the sunlight-reflecting sea ice retreats, the more the dark, open ocean absorbs heat. Ice-covered areas of the Arctic have warmed by 3 degrees centigrade, and where ice has been lost average temperatures have increased by 5 degrees. An unusually warm Arctic caused havoc in Northwest Europe last December when polar conditions were pushed south.

British explorer Wally Herbert was the first to reach the North Pole in 1969 having travelled by dog sled (there are earlier claims, but are all contested). More than 200 people have accomplished the feat since then. Herbert was also the only person to have traversed the Arctic Ocean by its longest axis, skiing from Alaska to Svalbard.

No-one has ever repeated this feat, and open water now blocks the route.

Mr Saunders is realistic about future prospects for expeditions over the Arctic sea ice: “I’d like to be back in 2013 and have another go, but I’ll wait to see what the ice is like then.”


Exposed: the £2.5 billion black market behind the world’s most valuable fish

A £2.5 billion fraud is behind the collapse of Bluefin Tuna stocks in the Mediterranean, according to a new report.

Cheating fishermen, colluding government officials and laundering of illegal catches led populations of the world’s most valuable fish to be halved in just ten years, says the study by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

Using high-powered vessels bought through EU subsidy schemes, French, Spanish and Italian fishing fleets ran amok between 1998 and 2007. One in three Bluefin Tuna caught in the Mediterranean during this decade were sold through a black market worth £250 million a year, the report claims.

“Everyone cheated, “ said Roger del Ponte, the owner of a French tuna-fishing operation. “There were rules, but we didn’t follow them.”

Del Ponte and five other French fishermen are now facing criminal prosecution. Industry leaders allege that French officials conspired them to disguise the size of the illegal catch, but no-one from government has yet been charged.

Scientists from the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT) issue yearly quotas aimed at ensuring the sustainability of the population, but until 2008 the industry routinely caught four times the agreed amount. Stocks of the East Atlantic Bluefin Tuna, which spawn in the Med, are now less than a quarter of what they were in 1950.

Alarm over the state of the Bluefin led ICCAT to introduce a Catch Documentation Scheme in 2008, but was so poorly administered that 75 per cent of catches from the large, ‘purse-seine’ fishing vessels that dominate the industry were untraceable due to missing information. Illegal operations are now moving towards Turkey and North Africa where the new rules are applied even more loosely.

The 60 or so tuna ‘ranches’ in the Mediterranean where juvenile Bluefin are fattened up for sale are often used to launder illegally-caught fish, the investigators say. Captive breeding of the species is currently impossible, yet more fish are sold from the farms than are delivered to them. These increases are often masked by claiming ‘biologically impossible’ weight gains.

Japan, which buys 80 per cent of the Mediterranean’s Bluefin Tuna, blocked moves to ban international trade in the species in March but are now moving to block illegal shipments and officials say they may support a moratorium at the annual meeting of ICCAT next week in Paris.

Sergei Tudela, a tuna specialist for WWF, is sceptical: “the Japanese are the designers and financiers of the Mediterranean farming system. They wanted the fatty fish and they recruited the people who could carry out this work for them. Now that the system is out of control and markets are saturated, they are scrambling to distance themselves from it.”

 


Even the best make mistakes

For the last year I’ve been speaking to men who’ve been trapped on board submarines for a book about a dramatic rescue pulled off by the Royal Navy five years ago. Slow suffocation, brutal cold and harrowing uncertainty are recurring themes in their memories. Some endured crushing pressures to escape.

The crew of HMS Astute might have been plummeting down the abyss on one last, fatal journey. They might be facing an agonising wait while submarine rescue craft were scrambled to their rescue, or perhaps be plucking up courage to launch themselves from the emergency escape hatch up through the cold sea.

Instead, the crew of one of Her Majesty’s most powerful and advanced weapons are being subjected to a merciless, crushing agony. . . of embarrassment. Submarine navigators are supposed to be the best of the best. They have to feel their way through the shifting currents of the deep with only sound for guidance. Sonar pulses refract and reflect in strange ways as they travel through the water, turning the already alien environment into a hall of mirrors.

GPS satellites can’t help: their signals are unable to pierce the waves. It’s down to the proud cunning of the navigator to see the submarine safe.

There’s a certain glory to slamming into an uncharted seamount, as happened to the Los Angeles-class nuclear submarine, USS San Francisco, in 2005. But to run aground on rocks in calm weather just outside your home port is a mistake that would have even a part-time yacht skipper cringing. The sailors serving in HMS Astute are anything but part-timers. These are the Royal Navy’s finest, puffed up with pride at being chosen to crew a first-rank nuclear submarine. No longer.

The accident is likely to have been caused by miscommunication between the officers on the bridge and the navigation room as they tried to transfer sailors from the crewboat that was alongside.

But even if very few are to blame, the crew will share the shame. Taunts doubtless await them back at the Faslane naval base.

Astute may be equipped with the very latest equipment, but even that couldn’t save her from that most ancient and deadly of maritime threats: human error.


Highly toxic jellyfish poised to invade British Coastlines, say scientists

Swarms of highly venomous jellyfish are poised to invade British seas from the northeast Atlantic, researchers have warned.

The jellyfish, known as the Mauve Stinger, is already causing havoc in the Mediterranean, where increasing numbers have forced bathing beaches to close. When touched by the tentacles of the jellyfish – which can reach 3 metres long – human skin breaks out into welts and can remain with severe scars.

“This is one of the most venomous of the jellyfish species,” said Dr. Kirby, a scientist from the University of Plymouth who helped lead the study.

According to the research, published in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters, changing ocean currents are driving the jellyfish northwards, where they are now able to thrive thanks to the warmer temperatures; the surface of the northeast Atlantic has warmed by around 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees fahrenheit) in the last forty years.

In 2007 a swarm of the jellyfish, known to scientists as Pelagia Noctiluca, filled some ten square miles of sea and was carried onto the east coast of Ireland, killing some 100,000 salmon that were caged in a fish farm.

“In gillfish the stings cause acute inflammation of the gills, which stimulates production of masses of mucous and the fish suffocates,” Dr. Kirby told The Times.

“What we’ve shown is that this was not a freak occurance. Although they haven’t killed fish in fish farms, large numbers of this species of jellyfish now occur year on year in the north Atlantic.”

Dr. Kirby and his team analysed data from the world’s longest-running continuous plankton survey, run by the Sir Alistair Hardy Foundation for Ocean Science, to map the abundance of the invading jellyfish. While whole jellyfish are not recorded by the plankton recorders that are attached to commercial shipping, molecular investigation revealed their presence in alarming numbers.

Like all jellyfish, the Mauve Stinger is unable to swim against ocean currents. The current that bore the 2007 invasion does not reach the popular bathing beaches of southern England, but Dr. Kirby warns that they may still appear, as North Atlantic currents are particularly sensitive to climatic fluctuation.

If conditions are right, their range will increase beyond where currents take them, and may result in them becoming a more prevalent species in British waters, he said. Such changes have already been noticed in other species, with the ranges of some copeopod plankton currently moving northward by 23 kilometres a year.

The gathering swarms of Mauve Stingers so far north are only a symptom of a wider phenomenon in the ocean, as jellyfish numbers soar. Scientists are unsure exactly what is behind the boom, but know that in warmer seas jellyfish reproduce both more often and more productively.

Dr. Kirby believes another explanation may also contribute: overfishing.

“Jellyfish feed on plankton and share that plankton resource with the larvae of fish. Overfishing may also be benefitting jellyfish abundance because there is now more food available for jellyfish. This increase may be a combination of both overfishing and climate change,” he said.

“Some of the greatest of the changes that are occurring to climate are occurring in the seas off our coast, of which the swarms of Pelagia noctiluca are one. But we often don’t notice, as what happens in the sea is too often out of sight, out of mind.”


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