SciTechBlog
March 12, 2009

Whale sedated at sea - a scientific first

Posted: 11:33 AM ET

Two drops of whale tranquilizer is enough to kill a person.

But last week, scientists used rifle-like guns and foot-long needles to shoot two cups’ worth of the stuff into an endangered whale off the coast of Georgia.

Scientists on Friday use poles and knives to try to untangle a whale off the coast of Georgia from fishing line.

And, for the first time, it worked.

Never before Friday had a wild whale been successfully tranquilized and freed from an entanglement that threatened its life, researchers told CNN. (See video of the dangerous encounter.) The whale - a rare, school-bus-sized whale named Bridle - was freed from hundreds of feet of fishing line that threatened the whale's life, scientists said.

That’s big news in the whale world, said Jamison Smith, large whale disentanglement coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It means that researchers have a new tool to help whales in dangerous circumstances.

Previously, when scientists tried to sedate whales, nothing noticeable happened.

The scientists cautiously upped the dosage until they were successful. The fear of using too much tranquilizer on a whale is great, because it could cause a whale to stop swimming and drown, he said.

Bridle is a North Atlantic right whale, which is one of the most endangered large whales on earth. Only about 400 of the school-bus-sized creatures remain, and scientists are worried by the fact that they’ve seen more of the rare whales entangled in fishing lines and gear this year than ever before.

Some of the right whales are giving birth through the end of the month off the Atlantic coasts of Georgia and Florida. Record numbers of whales are being born - which is a great thing, since scientists say each one gives the species a slightly better chance for survival.

But five whales have been found entangled in fishing line in the last six weeks, Smith said. He called that news "alarming," and said it's unclear what's causing the increase.

The lines wrap around their bodies and cause cuts and infections that often prove fatal.

Bridle, the whale that was sedated, was named because it had a rope strung through its mouth, like a bridled horse, said Katie Jackson, a marine mammal biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. (Read more about how Jackson and others free the whales.)

Friday was the fifth time scientists had tried to free Bridle. In other attempts, he didn’t respond to sedation and dove deep into the ocean and turned sharply to avoid tiny boats filled with rescuers, Jackson said.

Smith said the whale’s injuries are extensive. So, despite the fact that the whale was freed from hundreds of feet of rope, his chances for survival are still uncertain.

Jackson said Bridle’s recovery partly will depend on the whale’s will to survive.

“He’s a little bit emaciated and has been having to deal with this entanglement for months now - at least. So he’s not doing well overall,” she said. “He still may not be able to survive this ordeal. It’s just going to depend on him really - and his ability to bounce back from it.”

To learn more, check out these right-whale resources online:

- Watch video of scientists trying to disentangle Bridle

- See a CNN report on efforts to save these 'ugly' whales, which are slow swimmers and have funny warts on their heads

- Listen to a scientist tell the stories of individual right whales - from Stumpy to Van Halen

- And flip through a catalog of right whale sightings to learn more about their stories.

Posted by:
Filed under: Animals • environment • Oceans • Scientists • whales


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January 16, 2009

Would you eat a sea kitten?

Posted: 12:46 PM ET
You can make a cute little sea kitten character like this at the new section of PETA's Web site, peta.org/sea_kittens.

You can make a cute little sea kitten character like this at the new section of PETA's Web site, peta.org/sea_kittens.

You don't have to look at the page views of Web sites like cutelittlekittens.com to know that a lot of people adore kittens. Conversely, not as many people adore fish - in fact, cutefish.com has only the number 0.

The animal rights campaign group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, PETA, has decided to play off of our awe of kittens by re-branding fish as "sea kittens" in order to discourage people from killing and eating them.

"Would people think twice about ordering fish sticks if they were called Sea Kitten sticks? Help us save fish by changing their names!" PETA writes on its Web site.

The new sea kitten Web portal is complete with a petition, cute little stories about sea kittens - some attend Clamster University! - and a tool to design your own sea kitten. The petition has more than 4,544 signatures as of this writing.

"Given the drastic situation for this country's sea kittens - who are often the victims of many major threats to their welfare and ways of life - it's high time that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) stop allowing our little sea kitten friends to be tortured and killed. Who'd want to hurt a sea kitten anyway?!" the Web site says.

How far will this "sea kitten" label extend? Will people find themselves ordering the "Chilean striped sea kitten with mashed potatoes"?

Certainly there are already vegetarians out there who do not consume fish for ethical reasons. Princeton professor Peter Singer, famous for his arguments about why not to consume meat, similarly advocates avoiding eating fish in Animal Liberation, although notes that things do get fuzzier when considering simpler forms of marine life, such as mollusks and oysters.

Of course, besides being a favorite delicacy at restaurants and family dinners, fish also form part of specific eating rituals in certain cultures. For example, in China, the fish is served whole - with the head and tail intact - to represent prosperity, especially on Chinese New Year’s Eve. In Slovakia, it is traditional to let a carp swim in the family bathtub in the days before the feisty critter becomes part of the Christmas meal. And, it is a Jewish custom eat fish on the Sabbath, one reason being that the numerical value of the Hebrew word for fish, "dag," adds up to 7, and the Sabbath is the 7th day.

So what do you think: Is it ethically acceptable to eat fish? Will the sea kitten campaign be effective? Would your goldfish mind being called a sea kitten?

Posted by:
Filed under: Animals • Oceans


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November 19, 2008

Saving the waves

Posted: 11:40 AM ET

Over the years, cruise ships have been under fire for sometimes sketchy environmental practices.  But it's looking like the green movement is even moving to the aqua-blue waterways. 

Celebrity Cruises' new ship, Solstice.

I just got off the inaugural sailing of the new Celebrity Solstice cruise ship.  This boat is big pimpin' - stylishly appointed with all the bells and whistles. But what may be more impressive than all the onboard comforts are the advances Celebrity has made to help protect the ocean.

Save the Waves is a comprehensive environmental protection program Celebrity established 20 years ago.  You might say its just PR greenwashing, but some steps they take to be green are pretty dramatic.  For instance, recycling bins for aluminum, plastic, and glass containers are a breeding ground for bacteria. The only way to prevent the bacteria from growing is to cool the containers, so they store recyclables in a massive refrigerator.

On the alternative energy front the Solstice is the first cruise ship to utilize the sun with solar panels spread out around the ship.  They don’t generate a ton of juice but every little bit helps, as do the 25,000 LED light bulbs used onboard. 

What I found most cool was what they did with the hull of the ship.  The hull is coated with a non-toxic silicone to create less friction with the water.  The coating also reduces the growth of barnacles and algae on the ship, which helps reduce the chances of transporting an invasive species into a habitat it shouldn’t be in.  (Like the Zebra Mussels that are creating havoc throughout the Great Lakes.)  

As for physical design, they moved the longitudinal center of buoyancy forward to create smaller angles in the aft of the ship, resulting in smoother flow of water to the propeller.   They also put a kind of reverse spoiler on the stern to help reduce drag.  More than 90 wind tunnel and water tank tests were done to help design a hull that is 30 percent more fuel efficient than older ships.  That’s a huge reduction on greenhouse gases AND a huge cost savings to the bottom line.  (Though like just about any large oceangoing vessel, Celebrity Solstice still runs on diesel.   A lot of it.) 

Oh, and the ship also has a seaworthy lawn with real grass.  Its more of a novelty than an environmental initiative, but it does bring a literal accent to a ship that's trying - and succeeding - to be a little greener.

–Rob Marciano, CNN

Filed under: Energy • environment • Oceans


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September 29, 2008

Right whales: On the move, on the rebound?

Posted: 09:00 AM ET

For the 29th year in a row, scientists from the New England Aquarium have spent the summer observing North Atlantic right whales in the Bay of Fundy, between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Still critically endangered and still mysterious, there's some cautious optimism from researchers that the 300-350 animals left may be making a comeback.

Placards like these warn ship captains to watch for slow-moving right whales. Scientists say shipping companies are getting the message off the coast of eastern Canada. Courtesy Dr. Moira Brown

"Between the recent protection measures, and the fact that right whales doubled in reproductive output in the past seven years, there is room for hope and optimism," said Dr. Moira Brown, senior scientist at the New England Aquarium in Boston, Massachusetts.

"In the latter part of my career, maybe I will be able to monitor the recovery of this species. For me to see that would be my wildest dream," said Brown.

The protection measures Brown talked about include a voluntary measure that took effect June 1, involving the Roseway Basin, a 1,000-square-nautical-mile region south of Barrington, Nova Scotia. It is a primary feeding and socializing ground for right whales. The International Maritime Organization, the U.N. body that regulates shipping activities, adopted Canada's proposal that the Roseway Bay be designated an "Area to Be Avoided," or ATBA.

Basically, ships 300 tons and larger make a slight alteration to their route to steer clear of the 70 ton mammals, during the six months (June to December) that the whales spend in those cold northern waters.

Scientists at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia have monitored ship compliance with this voluntary measure, and according to Brown it is about 70%.

Brown said she's found a desire by many shipping companies to increase their awareness of these slow moving animals, and says average citizens have also played a part.

"I think public awareness in eastern Canada has been huge," said Brown.

The whales are also doing their part to preserve their species. The New England Aquarium team believes at least 25 calves were born this year, surviving their critical first 8 months.

"And they're looking healthy," said Brown.

Right whales are just beginning their annual 1000+ mile migration from Canadian/New England waters to their calving grounds off the Georgia/Florida border. Whale moms somehow figured out that their newborn calves have a much greater chance of survival if they are born in those warm southern waters. Most calves are born in December, January, and February.

For the 20th summer, Aquarium researchers have also gathered genetic samples from as many right whales as possible.

"We are developing genetic profiles and a life history database to add to the photo identifications we have kept for years," said Brown.

Scientists hope to learn more about the level of genetic variation in this small population, and find out more about how robust the marine mammals are. Brown estimates that 75% of the population has been biopsied.

But the whales are by no means out of the woods.

There is still no final action on a U.S. proposal to help avoid ship strikes on right whales. In August, The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) filed its final environmental impact statement on the rule, which has been languishing in the Office of Management and Budget for more than a year.

By Marsha Walton, CNN Science and Technology Producer

Filed under: Animals • environment • Oceans


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September 6, 2008

Hanna/Ike, 11am Sunday Update

Posted: 12:22 PM ET
Here's the 11am Sunday update, based on the National Hurricane Center's forecast and info from CNN's meteorologists;
IKE:  Category Four, major storm, Max Sustained Winds 135 MPH, forward speed 13 mph.  Ike is tearing through the Turks and Caicos and extreme southern Bahamas, with some potentially catastrophic collateral damage to Haiti from heavy rain, floods, and mudslides.

Projected track of Hurricane Ike as of 11am ET Sunday, according to the National Hurricane Center.

Projected track of Hurricane Ike as of 11am ET Sunday, according to the National Hurricane Center.

 
The storm is now expected to track the length of Cuba, including mountainous areas, that could really deflate the storm.  But after exiting Cuba, Ike will re-intensify, and is expected to recover to Cat Three strength.  All of the forecast models are within about fifty miles of each other for Ike's path across Cuba.
 
The lower Florida Keys could see some impact from the storm on Tuesday, but are pretty much out of danger from a direct hit.  The forecast models are a bit scattered on an ultimate US landfall, ranging from Galveston Bay/Houston to the west and Mobile Bay to the east.  Earliest possible landfall, if the storm takes the shortest path and stays east, would be Thursday.   Friday or Saturday is more likely, but as always, this is way too far out to make more than a guess for Ike's destination, arrival time, and intensity at landfall.

Hanna is offshore, likely to impact Nova Scotia and Newfoundland today, and tracking to cross the ocean and possibly cause a bit of grief in Scotland/Northern Europe later this week, but its US impacts are done.
 
Josephine is off the maps completely, now a mid-Atlantic disturbance posing no threat to land.

 

 

Peter Dykstra   Esecutive Producer, CNN Science, Tech, & Weather

Filed under: environment • Flooding • hurricanes • meteorology • Oceans • Severe weather • Weather


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September 4, 2008

Tropics brace for the Ike & Hanna show

Posted: 12:42 PM ET

Position of the three tropical systems as of 11am ET Thursday, according to the National Hurricane Center

Position of the three tropical systems as of 11am ET Thursday, according to the National Hurricane Center

The good news? Josephine is well out in the mid-Atlantic, and if its track holds, it will stay there.
The wobbly path of Tropical Storm Hanna continues, and as of 11am ET Thursday, the best guess of the National Hurricane Center is that the storm will strengthen to a Category One hurricane and make landfall, perhaps near Wilmington, North Carolina, at about midnight Friday. Hanna could spread its damage all the way up the US East Coast as it tracks toward the northeast.

Hurricane Ike could be a big one. It strengthened from a Category One to Category Four storm in less than half a day yesterday, and its current track could bring it into south Florida on Tuesday as a Cat Three. Ike's entry into the Gulf of Mexico is still a strong possibility.

One reason for the projected weakening of the storm is that Hanna could steal some of Ike's thunder (and winds, and rain), according to CNN Meteorologist Rob Marciano: Tropical systems stir up deeper, colder water, and some of the ruckus that Hanna has caused. As Ike passes over that cooler surface water, it could be weakened just a bit.

Peter Dykstra Executive Producer CNN Science, Tech & Weather

Filed under: climate change • environment • hurricanes • meteorology • Oceans • Severe weather • Weather


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September 3, 2008

Watching the Arctic ice melt

Posted: 12:59 PM ET

September marks the time of year when polar ice cover is at its lowest. After last year's record low, Arctic researchers say we're in for another bad year – and what is perhaps an irreversible trend.

Polar ice cover as of yesterday. Source: Univ. of Illinois Polar Research Group

On Tuesday, scientists reported another Manhattan-Island-sized chunk broke off an Ice Shelf on Ellesmere Island in the Canadian Arctic.

a University of Illinois site allows you to bring the out-of-sight/out-of-mind Arctic to your desktop. If you want to track the day-by-day status of the Arctic ice cap, and compare it to past years, go here. The images, from the Illinois Polar Research Group, track Arctic ice coverage day by day back to 1979. See for yourself, and let us know what you think.

Also - more tomorrow on our parade of hurricanes across the Atlantic: Hanna looks to have uncertain potential for East Coast damage; Josephine hopefully will remain a mid-Atlantic storm and not reach land; but Ike could be a big one for the Gulf of Mexico.

Peter Dykstra Executive Producer CNN Science, Tech & Weather

Filed under: climate change • environment • hurricanes • meteorology • Oceans • Severe weather • Weather


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August 28, 2008

Katrina again?

Posted: 09:33 AM ET

NOAA's 7am Thursday update shows Gustav taking aim at Jamaica

NOAA's 7am Thursday update shows Gustav taking aim at Jamaica

Wednesday morning, a groan went up in the CNN newsroom as several of us viewed the latest forecast track for Tropical Storm Gustav - projected to strengthen, possibly to a Category Three hurricane. Nearly three years to the day after Katrina flooded New Orleans and leveled much of the Mississippi Coast, we were looking at the possibility of Hurricane Gustav doing the same thing.

Gustav has brought heavy rains and floods to the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Cuba. Late Wednesday, the storm took an abrupt left turn. Instead of skirting north of Jamaica, Gustav could now score a direct hit on Jamaica and the Cayman Islands.

Next stop is the bathtub-warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico - 87 or 88 degrees Fahrenheit in some places. With precious little wind shear to knock the storm down, it's a recipe to cook up a major hurricane, possibly hitting the U.S. Gulf Coast by Tuesday.

If Gustav stays on its current track, it'll pass through the Gulf of Mexico offshore oil fields, offering a possible repeat of the damage and disruptions caused by Katrina, Hurricane Rita a month later, and by Hurricane Ivan in 2004. Oil markets are already edgy, with a dollar-a-barrel jump on Wednesday blamed on the risk from this storm.

That's one thing. A repeat of Katrina's damage would be another. If this storm does indeed hit New Orleans and the Mississippi Coast, will it be a knockout blow for a struggling region? As of Thursday morning, the forecast track has shifted a bit to the west of New Orleans. Either way, it's time to say a prayer for the Gulf Coast, and for one of the most unique cities on earth.

There are two other tropical systems worth watching. A tropical depression, located about 400 miles east of Puerto Rico, could reach hurricane force and threaten the Bahamas next week. Another system could form in the mid-Atlantic over the next few days.

Peter Dykstra Executive Producer CNN Science, Tech & Weather

Filed under: climate change • environment • Flooding • hurricanes • meteorology • Oceans • Severe weather • Weather


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August 26, 2008

Fish Food for Thought

Posted: 11:11 AM ET

Attention all seafood lovers. Put down your forks, knives, and crab mallets for a moment and listen up.

According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, Americans consume close to 5 billion pounds of seafood annually. But that’s only a third of the marine life the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization estimates fishermen discard globally each year as bycatch, or species unintentionally caught in fishing gear. What’s more, the FAO classifies 75% of the world’s fisheries as either fully exploited or overexploited.

Source: Seafood Watch

Scientists today may understand the environmental consequences of overfishing and harmful fishing practices, but for the Average Joe it’s not so cut and dry. It’s difficult for regular consumers to know whether their seafood dinner is simply tasty protein or a contributing factor to a fishery’s collapse.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium Foundation is trying to change that with their newly updated Seafood Watch Pocket Guides.

About the size of a credit card, the Seafood Watch Pocket Guide fits easily into any wallet. But it’s the information inside the guide that’s really impressive. Based on fisheries’ management, sustainability, and environmental impacts, the Pocket Guide ranks common seafood products into three categories: Best Choice, Good Alternative, and Avoid.

It also gives advice on seafood to avoid for health reasons, such as the increased mercury and other contaminant levels in species with high fat content.

The Pocket Guide is updated twice a year to ensure seafood recommendations correspond to current events in the world of fishing. For example, the new version removed California and Oregon wild-caught salmon from the guide altogether because the fisheries were recently closed to fishing. (Watch this for more information).

Seafood Watch hopes the guide will help consumers make smart choices when purchasing seafood at restaurants, grocery stores, and even sushi bars.

“Consumer purchasing power can make a difference by supporting those fisheries and fish farms that are better for the environment, while at the same time relieving pressure on others that are not doing as well,” says Sheila Bowman, the program’s Outreach Manager, “The choices we make as consumers drive the seafood market place.”

Seafood Watch distributes its national and regional Pocket Guides through partner organizations across the United States and Canada. You can download your own guide at www.seafoodwatch.org or get it on your cell phone by pointing its internet browser to mobile.seafoodwatch.org.

Julia Griffin, CNN Science & Technology

Filed under: environment • Oceans


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August 13, 2008

The Pacific "toilet bowl that never flushes"

Posted: 12:48 PM ET

You've heard about it - that huge floating mass of garbage in the Pacific Ocean.

This odd looking vessel is raising awareness about the toxic plastic soup in the Pacific Ocean. Photo courtesy Algalita Marine Research Foundation

Depending on whose sister's brother-in-law you believe, this trash heap is as big as (pick one):

Massachusetts
The continental United States
Pluto

The correct answer: no one is exactly sure.

While the story may sound as far-fetched as reports of hundreds of alligators wandering the New York City sewer system, unfortunately, the great Pacific Garbage Heap tale is true.

What's difficult for most of us land-based creatures to understand is that this is not one solid mass of junk that can be photographed by satellites or tracked with remote cameras. No scientist can say, with precision, "It is 450 square miles and weighs a hundred million tons." It's more like an enormous, amorphous, nasty soup that stretches for hundreds of miles.

"Discarded fishing nets are the noodles; bottles, buoys and all kinds of larger items are the vegetables and meat, and basically the entire Pacific is this broth of plastic soup," said Anna Cummins, education adviser at the Algalita Marine Research Foundation in Long Beach, California. The non-profit foundation has studied plastic marine debris in the North Pacific for the past decade.

Cummins is one of the coordinators of an Algalita project to educate consumers about how trash, especially plastic, is fouling the marine ecosystem.

Her colleagues Marcus Eriksen and Joel Paschal are in the midst of a voyage from California to Hawaii on a boat made of 15,000 plastic bottles and parts of a Cessna 310. Their mission is to raise awareness about the plastic that's killing marine life up and down the food chain. Both are experienced sailors, though in far more traditional sailing craft.

To quote the JunkRaft blog:

"The North Pacific Gyre is a clockwise rotating mass of water roughly twice the size of the U.S. where currents and winds slow down. It's like a toilet bowl that never flushes."

You can follow their journey, which began June 1 from the Long Beach Aquarium, at http://junkraft.blogspot.com.

Eriksen is a science educator, weather expert, and Marine veteran of the 1991 Gulf War.

Paschal is a filmmaker who previously worked for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration studying marine debris. He is chronicling the JUNK voyage for a documentary.

"We want to gently educate about the problem, and get consumers to move toward re-usables, " said Cummins.

The plastic junk comes from all over the world, primarily Asia, Europe, and the United States.

The detritus has been found in fish as small as an inch long. And when dead seabirds such as the albatross were necropsied, scientists sometimes found more than half their stomach contents was human trash-from bottle caps to plastic pen caps to fishing bobbers. Plastic that never degrades also kills turtles and whales.

"The best solution now is to try to prevent the problem from getting any worse," said Cummins. "It's hard to conceptualize how to fix it. Logistically, it would be like sifting the Sahara Desert."

The sailors expect to arrive in Hawaii sometime late this month.

So, any ideas from the brains of our astute blog readers? How would you fix this? Outlaw single use plastic items? Push for plastics that biodegrade? Put a litter cop on every ocean-going vessel? Teach your kids to respect the planet?

- Marsha Walton, CNN Science and Technology Producer

Filed under: environment • Oceans


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