The coral reefs of Bora Bora

Bora Bora, Society Islands, French Polynesia – I dove in the beautiful lagoon that surrounds the tall island to have a first hand look at how the coral reef is doing in this South Pacific resort island. The report is not good.

Descending to ninety feet it was immediately clear that the reef has been hammered in the past few years. I’ve come here every year for the past decade and have seen incredible change.

I spent most of the morning observing the still-growing reef system just ten to thirty feet below the surface. Although the waters are warm and magnificently clear an invasive predators and natural disaster have both taken big tolls.

Populations of acanthaster — more popularly known as the Crown of Thorns starfish – mysteriously arrived in Polynesia in 2006. No one is sure exactly how they got here or where they originated, though invasive species are well known for hitching rides on cargo ships and jumping off far from home. Here in the shallows surrounding Bora Bora – as they have done to reefs on nearby Moorea, Raiatea-Tahaa, Huahine and Maupiti – the predatory starfish have eaten, thus killed, hundreds of acres of coral.

The natural disaster occurred in February 2010, when Cyclone Oli whipped the nearby seas to a froth of eighteen to twenty-one feet, pouring over the protective reef and across the lagoon. The impact on the corals was devastating, as deep as 100 feet below the surface.

At twenty feet below, the coral was ripped off at its base and forever destroyed. Rather than coral, today much of the shallows of the lagoon floor are covered instead of by a fine pale yellow algae mat. The deeper you dive, the less destruction you see, but the powerful storm – the first cyclone to hit here in fourteen years — still managed to break, mangle and kill coral. The only slight upside is that it was also hard on the starfish population.My dive corresponded with having just read a new report from the D.C.-based World Resource Institute – “Reefs at Risk Revisited” – which suggests that 75 percent of the world’s coral reefs are currently threatened by local and global pressures. It blames climate change, including warming seas and ocean acidification, but points fingers primarily at human pressures, primarily overfishing, coastal development and pollution. Hurricanes and invasive starfish are not mentioned.

Around the globe more than 275 million people live in the direct vicinity (within 18 miles) of coral reefs. In more than 100 countries and territories reefs protect over 93,000 miles of shoreline, helping defend coastal communities and infrastructure against storms and erosion.

The reef encircling Bora Bora helps protect the island from typical weather and seas. Human pressure on the reef and lagoon come from development: Thirteen big hotels are built either on the mainland or one of its several big motus. In the past decade the human population has swelled to 9,000, thanks to tourism. But the twin pressures of more building and more people is having a direct impact on the very thing – its amazing natural beauty – that attracts visitors in the first place.

My morning dive led me to a conversation in the late afternoon with French-German marine biologist Denis Schneider. Despite his mainland birth, Schneider has been an island-rat most of his adult life. He guesses he spend 30 hours a week – five hours a day, six days a week – in the ocean. He only occasionally wears shoes. His company – Espcae Bleu – works to rebuild reefs in Indonesia, the Maldives and Bora Bora.

“The three biggest problems for the reef here – before the starfish arrived – were people, especially fishermen and their motors, the Red tide which warms the water and kills the coral, and hurricanes.” He and his team have taken on the unenviable attempt to clear out the venomous starfish. “Touch a sea urchin and the sting will last for a few minutes,” he says. “Brush your skin against a Crown of Thorns and it will sting for months.” The solution to ridding the lagoon of the starfish is injecting them one by one, using giant hypodermic needles, with a chemical solution that kills them. (He changes the subject when I ask what impact the chemicals may have on the lagoon ….)

To try and resuscitate reefs, especially near the hotels, Schneider and compatriots from the Maryland-based Global Coral Reef Alliance, build unique domes out of rebar which they flip over and sink to the lagoon floor. The metal rusts very quickly and the chicken-wire mesh covering it is soon grown over by calcium-rich marine life. Coral is transplanted onto the faux reef and within a year it is nearly completely covered with colorful, living coral. They’ve dubbed the patented system Biorock and its trick to growing coral on the super-structure fast is that the underwater structure is “electrified.” To encourage fast-growing coral a low voltage current courses through the metal structure, usually created from solar, wind or tidal sources. .

“What we are building are really ‘boosters’ for the reefs, growing three to five times faster than normal coral,” says Schneider. “In some cases 20 times faster. “

The Biorock system is just one of a variety of man-made attempts being made around the world to encourage new coral growth, including concrete forms and, around the coast of the U.S., purposely dumped buses, tanks and aging military boats.

“The reality in Bora Bora is that the island, like all in Polynesia, is sinking. Slowly, very slowly. But in 70,000 years the island will be gone and all that will remain will be the reef surrounding the lagoon. I wish we could come back then and see how the coral has done.”

[flickr image via Jon Rawlinson]

Whale Wars resumes: Sea Shepherd and Japanese Fleets Head Back to the Southern Ocean

sea-shepherd-whale-warsWhaling season in the Southern Ocean is off and gunning, with both Japanese and Sea Shepherd ships alike steaming for the fertile hunting grounds off Antarctica

Last season was largely regarded a “win” for the conservation group (even though it sacrificed its $2 million chase boat, the “Ady Gil,” in a collision with a whaling ship) since the whalers missed their goals by a wide margin.

The Japanese fleet of seven ships had hoped to take home 850 minke whale — in the name of science and research in order to avoid the international moratorium against whaling that’s been on the books since 1986 — but successfully hunted only 506. They’d also hoped for 10 fin whales, but killed just one.

This year, perhaps due to the increased visibility the Shepherd’s campaign has attracted thanks to Animal Planet’s “Whale Wars” series (the upcoming season will be the fourth it has documented), the Japanese fleet left port several weeks later than usual for its annual five-month hunt.

The size of its fleet was reduced as well. Last year it included a factory ship, three harpoon ships, a supply ship and two patrol vessels; this year’s fleet has been cut by at least three ships. At the same time the Shepherd’s have beefed up their harassment team by replacing the sunken “Ady Gil” with a 115-foot monohull named “Gojira,” Japanese for Godzilla, which combines the words for “gorilla” and “whale.”

The state of Washington-based group’s mainstays the “Bob Barker” and “Steve Irwin,” as well as a faster helicopter, all of which departed Hobart, Tasmania last week, will join the speedboat, which previously held a record for blasting around the world in just 74 days.(The off-season was hardly quiet for the Shepherd’s, particularly the “Ady Gil’s” skipper Pete Bethune who spent four months in a Japanese jail and was given a two-year suspended jail term by a Japanese court for boarding one of the whaling ships. Despite having spent an estimated $1 million defending Bethune, after the trial the group’s charismatic commodore Paul Watson engaged in a public spat with the just-freed Kiwi over who exactly and what had caused the sinking of the “Ady Gil.” Apparently peace has been made though, and Bethune has launched his own group intent on protecting pilot whales in the Faroe Islands.)

Pro-whaling countries are not backing down from a fight. In a two-day meeting last week in Shimonoseki, Japan, representatives from 24 countries and regions convened to “map out their joint campaign” for resuming whaling.

Greenpeace campaigners predicted from Tokyo that this was saber rattling and that the reduced Japanese fleet and late departure means the 2010-2011 hunt will produce less than half of last year’s hoped-for-quota.

“As of August 2010, there were over 5,700 tons of whale meat in frozen storage, over a year’s supply,” said Greenpeace’s Wakao Hanaoka. “This wasteful taxpayer-backed program produces product no one in Japan wants.” He cited surveys that suggested even a majority of Japanese are against whaling in the distant high seas.

flickr image via gsz

From the Shores of Louisiana – Is gulf seafood safe?

Baton Rouge, Louisiana: It’s rare for me to see 67-year-old Wilma Subra – chemist, MacArthur Grant ‘genius,’ grandmother of six – so worked up. But when I asked last week how things were going in the Gulf, where she’s been measuring levels of toxicity in air, water and fish long before the BP gusher began she was adamant that things are still bad out there.
“My biggest concern is that the message is ‘The oil is all gone.’ We are planning on being out in the field monitoring the wetlands, estuaries and beach areas for the impacts of the oil over the next several years,” she says, insisting that only then will we truly know about the impact on marine life, the environment and human health created by the BP mess.
But Subra’s biggest immediate concern is that the seafood coming from the Gulf may not be safe and that the federal agencies, specifically the FDA and NOAA, have cooked the books by adjusting the amount of some of the chemicals allowed in the fish they are testing… as a way to get fishermen back onto the Gulf and to restore confidence in the seafood market.
She forwarded me the criteria NOAA is using for testing, which makes it clear that its first test is smell and second for chemicals. Subra’s main concern is Polynuclear Aromatic Hydrocarbons, of which the BP crude had large percentages.
In June, says Subra, while the spill was still unfolding “the FDA, in association with NOAA, raised the acceptable levels of PAH, without providing a rationale for why.”

“Here’s part of its statement in the Protocol for Interpretation and Use of Sensory Testing and Analytical Chemistry Results for re-opening oil-impacted areas closed to seafood harvesting by the FDA, published June 18, 2010: ‘The new numbers were developed specifically for the unprecedented Deepwater Horizon Oil spill event and will not necessarily be applicable after all fisheries closed due to oil contamination are re-opened for safe harvest. Levels of concern and other factors for any subsequent oil spill event would be independently evaluated based on case-specific information.”

In other words, according to Subra and other scientists, the acceptable levels of PAH in the Gulf’s marine life were raised simply to address the impacts of the BP spill. It smacks less of concern for long-term human health, and more about getting the economy going again.

Subra’s complaints go bigger: “There is no testing for dispersants. In addition the calculations of the meal size used to calculate the consumption quantity is based on things like four shrimp per meal.” Who in Louisiana, or elsewhere, eats just four shrimp at a meal? Which begs another issue, which is that by allowing more chemicals to be in the seafood that is being taken from the Gulf it most-powerfully impacts those who eat it most often … which are the residents of the Gulf.

The bottom line, says Subra, is that “the concentrations of PAHs in seafood, based on the FDA acceptable levels, are inadequate to protect the health of seafood consumers.”

Dr. Jane Lubchenco, administrator of NOAA, has defended both her agency and the FDA’s approach and that they are doing “comprehensive testing,” which includes a two-part test: A team of sensory experts tastes and smells the seafood and if it” passes muster,” is sent to a lab and tested for 12 types of hazardous compounds. “

Subra is not alone in not buying the agency’s modus operandi.

Dr. William Sawyer, a Florida-based toxicologist hired by a New Orleans law firm to look at test results of water and seafood samples, said seafood safety could not be guaranteed using those tests. “Absolutely not, especially with respect to Louisiana shrimp.”Senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, Gina Solomon, concurs, and on September 21 urged federal officials to undertake “more rigorous” testing. She claims “NOAA only used data from 12 samples of shrimp, consisting of 73 individual shrimp for its evaluation. That’s just too small, she said, for an area the size of Connecticut.”Lubchenco, NOAA and the FDA continue to defend the testing and claim “the Gulf seafood taken from these waters is safe to eat” and the reopening of Gulf fishing waters “is another signal to tourists the northern Gulf is open for business.”

[flickr photo via Ms. Gail M Tang]

From the shores of Louisiana – SoLa premiere



Baton Rouge, Louisiana –
Last weekend I premiered my new documentary film about water and man in Louisiana – “SoLa, Louisiana Water Stories” – in the belly of the beast, in the heart of the state’s capitol.
The showing was at the beautiful Manship Theater and drew a crowd of Louisiana’s environmental cognoscenti, from activists to lawyers, politicians to fishermen. After the screening I was joined on stage by several of the characters interviewed in the film. I hadn’t been to Louisiana in a couple months – certainly not since the BP gusher had been finally capped – and was curious to gauge their take, emotional and statistical, on the status of the mess in the Gulf.
Former head of Louisiana’s Department of Environmental Quality, Paul Templet, admitted he hadn’t seen signs of change in the state level, or even yet at the federal agency level in regard to oversight of the offshore oil business. “My only sense of optimism,” he said, “lies with the courts. I think if BP is ultimately held to its promises it will be because of judges not politicians.”
There was worry among the crowd that BP may not live up to its promises of restitution – the $20 billion promised and currently being administered by Kenneth Feinberg, which many believe could grow to $100 billion, which could bankrupt the company.
Attorney Danny Becnel, Louisiana’s answer to F. Lee Bailey, from Reserve, Louisiana, filed the first suit in federal court against BP just 10 days after the spill, has since filed dozens more on behalf of fishermen, oil workers, restaurant and hotel owners and more. “The legal fights are going to go on as long as there is oil in the Gulf, which will be a long time,” he tells the crowd.

Dean Wilson, the Atchafalaya Basinkeeper, who watches over the environmental health of the most biodiverse swamp in the country, says while there is no oil in the basin …yet … his biggest concern post-spill is the continued lack of political will in the state. “We’ve been able to stop a lot of local environmental problems, like the cutting of the cypress swamps, but without the support of government and legislators. I think what we saw throughout the BP spill was the same thing … a lack of political will necessary to stop big pollution.”

“I don’t think (Governor Bobby) Jindal has ever even said the word ‘environment’ out loud,” quipped Templet. Prompting a shout-out from the audience, “But we know he can say ‘berm,’ ” reference to the governor’s fervent efforts during the spill to get a too-little-too-late $400 million berm built at the mouth of the Mississippi.

“Where has Mr. Jindal gone,” someone else asked from the audience. “He was all over the TV during the spill, calling for federal help. Now he’s nowhere to be seen.” Apparently his efforts these days are focused on getting the November 30 moratorium on new drilling lifted early.

Marylee Orr, the executive director of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, reminded a crowd that is impacted by Louisiana’s disasters first hand, whether hurricanes, oil spills or Saint’s losses, reminded that local time is now told “pre-spill and post-spill.” She guesses she did more than 400 radio, television and print interviews at the height of the spill and worked 20-hour days for more than 3 months. Is she optimistic now that the well has been capped?

“Only time will tell if we can afford optimism. The notion that is now being spread around the world that the spill is over, that the problem is over, that everything’s back to normal … is not okay. Nothing is back to normal.”

Supporting her was chemist Wilma Subra, who has literally been on the ground since day one of the BP gusher, measuring toxins in the air, water and fish. She is not impressed by any of the numbers and is most angered by the “spin” being put on the issue of whether Gulf seafood is good to go … or not.

“The director of NOAA stood in front of a group of fishermen last week and said, repeatedly, ‘Seafood from the Gulf is not contaminated.’ Well, I don’t think we know that for sure yet.” Her biggest concern is that the government has changed the “allowable percentages” of certain chemicals found in fish, to ensure the fisheries reopen, choosing economic incentive over environmental cautions.

“It will still be many years before we know for sure how these coastal communities are going to fare,” said Subra. “Anything else you hear is a rush to judgment.”

Bowermaster’s Adventures: Baptism by waves

I hadn’t thought much about baptism since the last time I watched “The Godfather” until I saw a photo a couple weeks ago of 29 Marines (the Ohio-based 3rd Battalion, 25th Regiment) on the verge of setting off for Afghanistan being given full rites in the Pacific Ocean near Camp Pendleton.

Which made me wonder exactly how many people use the ocean for baptism … and where did the notion of being plunged underwater to affirm ones Christian beliefs come from anyway?

Marines interviewed said they believed the rite would help them “perform our job the way we need to in a very challenging environment” and bring them home safely. Initially I thought their Sunday morning full-submersions — administered by the battalion’s chaplain and part of Operation Sword of the Spirit, a program meant to prepare the battalion for duty in the Taliban stronghold of Helmand province — was unusual. (Other Marines weren’t not so pleased by the very public baptisms, suggesting that the images gave the Taliban spin-masters too-easy p.r. photos suggesting that the U.S. truly is engaged in some kind of Holy War.)

But the almighty Google proved that baptism by waves is still common. Apparently many times a week somewhere along the edge of the country – from Ocean Grove and Pacific Palisades in California to the sand beaches of Florida and New Jersey – Christians, both adults and children, walk voluntarily into the sea to have their beliefs affirmed.
Typical mass-baptism announcements are abundant and include the Where (Pier Ave and the Strand, Hermosa Beach); the Date (July 11, 2010); the Time (3 p.m.), the Features (kids, open to all, volunteer) and Dress Code (ladies, wear dark t-shirt and shorts over your swim suit; guys, please wear a t-shirt and swim trunks).

Just a few weeks ago the fifth-annual Bridgefest in Old Bridge, NJ, kicked off with a free surfing clinic and closed with an appearance by an American Idol contestant (Mandisa?!?), but centered on a “massive ocean baptism with hundreds dedicating their lives to Christ.”

The practice is popular enough that it now has its own celebratory pop tune, (“The full immersion ocean water baptism by sea, Welcomin’ the people who are new to the family, People singin’ praises as they watch from the harbor wall …”).

And advice columns like this from Mrzboopie, counseling an 18-year-old wondering if she should go ahead and just do it. Yes, affirmed Mrzboopie: “The assistant pastor who was with me said a prayer and then I held my nose as he quickly dunked me under the water, then it was all done and everyone was clapping and praising God and all that.”

Ocean baptisms are hardly limited to the U.S. of A.; a recent photo of 700 Mozambiquans – among the poorest people on the planet — lined up in pairs to have their sins cleansed, dressed in tattered blue jean shorts and colorful dresses.
Early interpretations of the New Testament suggest a “water-rite for the purpose of purification, washing and cleansing of vessels or of the body” is a good thing. Despite its popularity there is still debate among Christians as to where the practice originated and about some of its hows and whys.

For example, must you be fully immersed for it to take, or will a partial submersion do? Will a simple sprinkling of water on the head (known as aspersion) suffice? Or must it be affusion (pouring water over the head)?

Baptists, Seventh-Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Latter-day Sainters all belief total immersion is the only way to go, “just as Jesus Christ was baptized … a person’s whole body should be put under the water momentarily.”

Just where Jesus stood on the whole ablution thing is still a matter of debate among Biblical scholars. That he was baptized (in the River Jordan, by John the Baptist) is not contended. But his take on the necessity of baptism sparks debate; apparently Jesus himself never baptized anyone.

Water plays an important role in other religions, too. Sikhs are known to drink water from an iron bowl for forgiveness. Muslims are encouraged to wash before prayer. But the Quakers have disavowed the practice of baptism, encouraging followers to find redemption inside, not from outside sources.

As for those Marines heading off for Afghanistan, any extra talisman is probably a good thing. Forty-six Marines and two Navy corpsmen of the same battalion were killed in Iraq, 14 on a single day.

[flickr image via Jesse Gardner]