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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.”


Sharks hammered as nations vote to eat them, not keep them

The hammerhead shark has long had a reputation as a man-eater, but the tables have turned: now it’s the shark that should be scared to be in the water.

Their distinctive, anvil-shaped heads may have made them famous, but it is their fins that have turned them from predator to prey. Hacked off the body of the still-living shark, the fine cartilage is a prized ingredient for Chinese shark-fin soup.

At a UN meeting on wildlife protection yesterday, proposals to control the trade in shark fins of all three species of hammerhead were rejected. Populations of the shark have plummeted by over 98 per cent in the northwest Atlantic, and by 90 per cent elsewhere.

Oceanic white-tip sharks are in similarly dire straits. Their wandering, open-ocean lifestyle has led them to develop outsized fins, which are prized not for their quality but for the quantity of cartilage they contain.

An estimated 73 million sharks are killed every year, the majority to supply this trade. There is currently no organisation that manages the fishing.

In all, six species of shark were proposed to the Convention on Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) in Doha, Qatar, as being in need of regulation. The US, the EU and Palau were leading the call, but despite strong scientific evidence delegates of the 175 nations turned down all but one: the porbeagle, a large shark found in British waters.

In the case of the sharks no ban was being sought, just a monitoring system to ensure that the catch was sustainable. Chinese delegates said that this would be too difficult to administer.

“Hammerheads are an endangered species,” said Susan Lieberman, Director of International Policy at the Pew Environment Group. “They were being asked to support some trade regulation, some paperwork. But they’ve said no, it’s too difficult so we’ll just let this species go.”

With fins cut from the sharks at sea and the body dumped overboard – often with the animal still alive – China says identification of individual species is too difficult. Conservationists counter that traders in Chinese markets routinely separate fins from giant hammerheads and oceanic whitetips because of their higher value.

Conservationists say it has been a disastrous ten days for endangered marine species at the convention. High hopes for an outright ban on international trade in Atlantic bluefin tuna were dashed as nations voted to continue business as usual despite clear evidence that stocks are perilously close to collapse.

The Atlantic bluefin is the most commercially valuable species ever to have been discussed at Cites, with single specimens reaching over £65,000. Japan – which buys eight out of every ten sold – has conducted what conservationists have called a “full scale” campaign against any fishing restrictions. This is thought to have been behind the failure of almost every attempt to protect marine species.

Japan has further angered conservationists by twice serving bluefin tuna at official functions.

It’s not just seafood that has been affected. Slow-growing red and pink corals can no longer be harvested from the depths of the Mediterranean, forcing the jewellers of Spain and Italy to buy from the Pacific instead. Those populations are now severely depleted, but calls to control trade were also defeated.

“The devastating result… sees hammerheads and oceanic whitetip sharks join the Atlantic bluefin, and red and pink corals, as victims of short-term economic interest winning out over efforts to save species from extinction,” said Oliver Knowles, an oceans campaigner for Greenpeace.

Terrestrial conservationists were cheering, however, as controversial attempts to relax a ban on trading elephant ivory failed to win the required two-thirds  of the vote. Their celebrations are on hold until tomorrow, for all decisions risk being overturned in a final session as a result of last-minute lobbying.


Tiny island nation battles China over whether endangered sharks should be eaten or admired

A tiny Micronesian island nation is taking on the might of China in a battle over the future of sharks at a conflict-ridden UN meeting on wildlife protection that yesterday voted to continue trading in endangered bluefin tuna and polar bears.

Palau, a young state in the western Pacific, is leading a broad coalition of western nations in a struggle to control the trade in shark fins that saw 73 million sharks killed last year. There is currently no management of shark fishing, and 90 per cent have already disappeared.

“We need the sharks. They bring tourists and keep our marine ecosystems in balance,” said the Minister of natural resources for Palau, Harry Fritz.

At the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites), Palau is proposing that trade in eight species of endangered shark be regulated, not banned, but China is lobbying hard to keep the market in shark fins, eaten as in soup as a delicacy, entirely free of controls. They are backed up by Japan, who are opposing the protection of any marine species at the meeting as a point of principle.

“It’s something of a David against Goliath battle,” said Susan Lieberman, director of international policy for the Pew Environment Group. “We hope it will work out better than with the tuna.”

Conservationists were reeling yesterday after nations overwhelmingly voted to reject a ban on trade in Atlantic bluefin tuna. National delegates at the convention opted not to listen to the strong scientific evidence that populations face total collapse if fishing pressure continued, apparently as a result of a long-running campaign by the Japanese government.

“Now that Japan has destroyed the bluefin proposal they’re turning their attention to sharks,” said Ms Lieberman.

Palau does have some heavy-hitting allies on its side. The United States – which administered the islands until 1994 – is putting its weight behind the call for controls on trade in Hammerhead and Oceanic White-tip sharks, while the EU is backing a proposal to do the same for the spiny dogfish and the porbeagle, a cousin of the Great White Shark.

There are three species of hammerhead shark, and all are critically endangered. Their fins are among the most highly prized for shark-fin soup, due to the consistency of their cartilage. A bowl of the soup sells for around £65, with single fins worth more than £850.

The Maldives, another coral archipelago, is also campaigning the fin trade to be brought under control. Following Palau’s lead, they declared their waters a shark sanctuary earlier this month.

“The Maldives is protecting its sharks for ecological and economic reasons,” said President Nasheed of the Maldives. “Sharks are apex predators that play a vital role in keeping our reef ecosystems healthy. Sharks also help make the Maldives one of the world’s top scuba diving destinations. In short, sharks are more valuable to us swimming in the sea than they are floating in people’s soup.”

The sharks are being proposed for Cites’ Appendix II, which obliges governments to control exploitation of the species through the issue of export permits to ensure a legal and sustainable trade. Great White Sharks are one of three shark species already protected in this way.


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