Field Notes

Field Notes

Marine Conservation

A Cure for Sea Sickness

Jeffrey Rotman

Contemplating what's ahead for the world's oceans, Steve Palumbi sees a future as dark as the deepest waters. Consider the 90 million metric tons of food being pulled from the sea each year. "In the Caribbean, virtually all the coral reefs are overfished to the point where you can't even see a fish in some places," he says. Elsewhere, entire fisheries are collapsing or, as with the North Atlantic cod, have collapsed. Pollution from sewage and other runoff is leading to widespread disease and toxic algal blooms. Habitat destruction is rampant; in the Philippines, fishermen blast fish out of the water with dynamite, leaving gaping holes in the reefs.

But there's hope, according to a recent landmark review of 69 worldwide marine reserves. In the first comprehensive examination of reserves--or no-fishing zones--scientists have discovered that ecologically protected areas produce bigger fish and a greater diversity of species, and restore plummeting fish populations. The findings were presented in February at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The body of evidence galvanized more than 150 leading marine biologists to issue a joint statement at AAAS, which Palumbi helped draft, calling for a worldwide network of "underwater parks" to preserve the planet's dwindling ocean life. Currently, less than one-tenth of one percent of U.S. and international waters are protected in reserves.

The data from the 69 reserves--which average 17 square miles and are up to 40 years old--showed that population densities are 91 percent higher in marine reserves than in unprotected areas, that the average animal is 31 percent larger, and that species diversity is 23 percent higher. "It all happens within two to four years, and it lasts for decades," says Robert Warner, a marine ecologist at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

But perhaps the most significant finding is the spillover benefit to waters outside a reserve. Scientists found that fish larvae, via their dispersal by ocean currents, were reseeding adjacent, overexploited waters. The results of the study have paved the way for a proposed reserve off the coast of California's Channel Islands, where there is already a federal marine sanctuary. (Oil drilling is prohibited, but most fishing is allowed.) Scientists believe that setting aside 30 to 50 percent of the sanctuary as a "no-take" zone will help stem the decline of dozens of species, including the commercially viable rockfish. But instead of one large reserve for the Channel Islands, biologists have proposed a network of loosely connected smaller reserves, based on the new evidence that no-take zones help replenish fish populations outside a reserve's boundaries. "The design for the Channel Islands reserve," says Warner, "is the model for future marine reserves." It may also be a blueprint for saving the world's oceans.

--Keith Kloor


Crossed Signals

Having no idea that he was approaching a wildlife official, a photographer strolled over to Thomas Zeiber, a biological technician with Yellowstone National Park's Wolf Project, as Zeiber was standing beside a road with a handheld antenna, listening to a series of beeps emitted by the radio collar of a distant wolf. From the signals, Zeiber was able to monitor the movements of the wolf and its pack, which had been reintroduced to the park. On this day last spring, the photographer cheerfully produced a receiver of his own and said to Zeiber, "I see you use one of these, too."

Among large-mammal researchers, that seemingly harmless encounter served as a chilling reminder of a new, high-tech threat to wildlife. By using radio receivers available in most electronics stores, anyone can track down even the most elusive big-game animal. Wildlife specialists now fear the technology is falling into the wrong hands. Many worry that it's only a matter of time before there's a repeat of a gruesome incident that occurred in the late 1980s in North Carolina's Pisgah Black Bear Sanctuary, where poachers killed a female black bear that was not only hibernating but was also thought to be pregnant. They had tracked her to a hollow tree by following signals from a collar attached by biologists from North Carolina State University.

The use of telemetry--tracking animals by intercepting signals from radio collars--is essential to research on animals such as bears, wolves, bison, elk, moose, bighorn sheep, and cougars. It allows biologists to work undetected from an airplane or a distant road to obtain data on movements, migration, habitat use, and survival rates. "There's a lot of worry about the issue of amateurs tracking collared animals," says Lynn Irby, a large-mammal ecologist at Montana State University. "Telemetry has been one of the best innovations we've had, but there's another, darker side."

Currently, nothing prohibits the use of telemetry gear in Yellowstone. But that may soon change. Park managers are considering an outright ban on unauthorized use of the technology. And officials in other states, concerned over the misuse of telemetry, are moving to address the issue. Alaska, for example, recently enacted regulations requiring users to obtain permits.

If such regulations fail to curb the problem, abusers might take note that telemetry, like so much of modern technology, can cut both ways. Wildlife officials in Alberta recently found the body of a poached wolf by following signals from its collar--right to the culprit's garage.

--Barry Estabrook


Ragweed Reign

Ever wonder why the pollen count seems to climb every year, along with your misery index? You can blame rising CO2 associated with global warming, says Lewis Ziska, a plant ecologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Working out of the USDA's Climate Stress Laboratory in Maryland, Ziska has grown ragweed--the bane of hay-fever sufferers everywhere--by exposing it to various carbon dioxide levels. The CO2 pumped into the atmosphere from vehicle emissions and factory pollution happens to be a great growth stimulant for plants. Ziska estimates that ragweed's pollen-producing capacity may have doubled in the past half century and could quadruple by the end of the 21st century. "I have hay fever, so naturally I'm interested in ragweed physiology," says Ziska. "Of course, whether plants along the roadside will respond exactly as I showed in the lab is uncertain. But my hay fever has gotten worse since I've been on this project."

--Mary Woodsen


Gary Hovland

If you're a college-bound senior mulling your choices, perhaps you should consider the Harvard of higher, greener education: the Environmental Living and Learning Center at Northland College, in Ashland, Wisconsin. Since 1998 the center has featured solar panels, waterless compost toilets, and furniture made from recycled milk jugs--to name but a few of the ecological amenities. Built at the urging of Northland's student body, the dorm has proved to be a huge hit with its 90 residents. "I love it here," says Amber Rizen, the center's residential adviser. "It's a living example of what can be done." The center has also become the place to live on campus. "Living there is something that is sought after," says Doug Stoves, Northland's director of residential life. "A lot of juniors and seniors get in, though, because they have first dibs." While the center is doing wonders for the environment, being a freshman remains as torturous as ever.

--Matthew Woods

Hannibal of the Sea

Gary Hovland

Last April the two killers left Florida and headed west, stowed deep within a shipment of rocks bound for the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California. By the time they were discovered, hiding out in the children's section of the aquarium, it was too late to save many of the valuable sea snails, hermit crabs, and barnacles included in the Live Coral exhibit. Tucked away in 1,500 pounds of rock, the two "killer" shrimp were using their powerful, super-fast claws to chow down on the exhibit's marine life. One of the pair, nicknamed Sparky, was immediately plucked from the tank with a pair of tongs. But its partner is still at large, making it perhaps the only crustacean to be tagged a public enemy.

--Chris Chang



© 2001  NASI

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