Fishy Science at NOAA, Something to Celebrate and the Blue Frontier at the Blue Hole
July 5, 2005
By David Helvarg
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility is a great group of civic-minded activists and lawyers who have helped whistle-blowers get the word out about government waste, fraud and abuse as it relates to our natural resources. Their wry and courageous Executive Director Jeff Ruch is one of Blue Frontier’s advisory board members. Together with the Union of Concerned Scientists they have just released a survey they did of NOAA Fisheries scientists. 124 of 464 recipients filled out and returned their 34-question survey. What these biologists and other scientists had to say is not reassuring (at least not if you have fins and breath through gills).
Among their findings – 53 percent were aware of cases in which “commercial interests” had inappropriately forced the reversal or withdrawal of NOAA Fisheries scientific findings. 58 percent knew of cases where high-level political appointees or managers had “inappropriately altered NOAA Fisheries determinations.” Not surprisingly 69 percent doubted the agency could effectively aid in recovering threatened and endangered species (sorry you sea turtles, rock fish and manatees). Less than 2 percent agreed that “NOAA Fisheries is moving in the right direction,” while nearly 60 percent disagreed. Politicized Science in fisheries management? Under the Bush administration, it seems, no good science goes unpunished.
For more details contact PEER’s Chas Offutt at 202-265-7337 or UCS’s Suzanne Shaw at 617-547-5552
Something to Celebrate
Blue Frontier’s ‘Ocean and Coastal Conservation Guide 2005-2006’ has finally arrived at the Island Press warehouse and is now available. Leon Panetta who chaired the Pew Oceans Commission says, “Our oceans are in crisis and our nation has a responsibility to act now to protect them. This great directory is the first comprehensive guide to the organizations and agencies that are on the front line of the effort to protect this great resource.”
We’ll be having a book launch and fundraising ‘Celebration of the Sea’ at the Bay View Boat Club in San Francisco, Friday July 29. For more info on the event or how to order the book go to our website.
Blue Frontier at the Blue Hole
Rebel photoJune 22 – I’m dropping down into Belize’s Blue Hole letting my body free fall past a rugged wall into cooler clearer waters until a large cavern appears and the dive master who’s been drifting below me puts his hand to his head – the signal for shark. Though I look around and fail to see one. I hold up at 145 feet and enter the cavern, swimming around huge column-thick stalactites in what was once a massive cave complex before the roof collapsed. After eight minutes of exploring this underwater Howe Caverns it’s time to return to the surface. At this depth you don’t have much playtime before the nitrogen builds up in your tissue threatening you with the bends.
Our group halts at 90 feet, gathering on a sandy ledge as the dive master points up. Forty feet above us half a dozen large Caribbean reef and bull sharks are circling. Soon I notice a couple more cruising below me. We begin making our way towards the surface along an underwater dune as a dozen of the curious 6-7 foot sharks slide past within yards of us. Unlike the shallow water nurse sharks that some dive masters like to hug and hold out for novice divers to pet, no one attempts to approach these big fellas. Bull sharks are the species responsible for more human deaths than any other and have been implicated in the recent attacks off Florida. Still the odds are unfairly stacked. Last year seven humans were killed by sharks while we killed over 100 million of these sleek, slow-growing top predators, mostly for their fins that are used in a tasteless but expensive soup popular in Asia.
After the blue hole we dive the wall and swim-through caves by Half Moon Caye. I watch a ray feasting on a field of queen conchs, big luminescent aqua parrot fish and garden eels bending in the current. Having been on the water half a day, including 3 hours bucking 5 foot seas to get here accompanied only by frigates, flying fish and dolphins, we take a lunch break on the coconut palm and coral sand island that’s chock-a-block with big chunks of coral and conch shells tossed up by hurricanes (as was the wreck of a large freighter now turning into sculptural metal on the lagoons reef line) A walk through the mangrove, ziricote and gumbo limbo brings me to a metal observation tower. Shooing a large lizard out of the way I climb to the top and find myself among hundreds of red footed boobies who’ve colonized the tops of the mangroves with their penthouse view of the aqua, azure, jade, cobalt and cerulean blues of the sea. After finishing a repaste of stewed chicken, plantains cole slaw and soda we do a final dive at the aquarium, which along with its predictable litter of colorful fish (some 200 chub, yellowtail snapper, sergeant majors and two big groupers accompany us throughout our dive) this site also has an assortment of big healthy corals along with barrel sponges the size of wine barrels. Swimming outside the reef’s outer wall at 70 feet, above a 3,000 feet drop-off with black branching corals the size of scrub oaks thrusting out from narrow ledges I feel like I’m flying with the eagles (or eagle rays) along a wild mountain cliff unburdened by the drag of gravity.
A week’s worth of other dives with a couple of buddies from California including spur and grove coral canyons near the booming tourist town of San Pedro impress me that the world’s second largest barrier reef which runs along Belize is in good shape, even if the third (the Florida Keys) is beat to hell by coral diseases, overfishing, physical impacts and bleaching linked to human activities.
belize map Of course the threat of unplanned development and sprawl that has taken over San Pedro and much of Belize (with the government simultaneously selling off the national infrastructure including telecommunications, the airport, even the prison system) suggests that the good news may not last. I first visited the small island of Caye Caulker after reporting on Belize’s (formerly British Honduras’s) independence in 1981. At the time it was a lobster fishing community of 100-200. When I visited it this time the postage stamp island has its own airport runway, bars, restaurants, hotels and a permanent population of 1,500 catering to the laid-back 20-something tourists who follow the gringo trail (recently expanded to the Gringo freeway). From the air San Pedro also looks like what it is, a once scenic village undergoing a building boom of concrete hotels and homes along its ocean side and wooden box houses in the reclaimed mangrove swamps on its narrow leeward side to house an influx of poor service employees from the mainland and Mexico.
To date, Belize has managed to avoid the worst excesses of high-rise resort style development seen further north in the Yucatan (check out the septic lagoon behind Cancun). It’s recognized the potential of ‘ecotourism’ and been spared the brunt of hurricanes by its barrier reefs and mangrove forests. As a result it’s established a number of protected marine and terrestrial parks and reserves. Still disgust is growing among many Belizeans towards the corruption of their once- social democratic government, the social impact of foreign cruise ships, agro-export shrimp farming, and fly-by-night developers, and the transfer of the nation’s resources to private – largely foreign – entities such as the U.S. based Carlysle Group. The answer to these threats will likely come from bottom up democratic action by citizen activists like Odinga Lumumba, a Belizean nationalist leader who recently passed away. As a banner I once saw leading a march of thousands at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit proclaimed: “When the people lead, the leaders will follow.”
So having blown some bubbles and gotten salty for a week I’m ready to roll up my wetsuit sleeves (thanks for the
loan Scott) and get back to work with my fellow seaweed rebels.
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