Friday, October 9, 2009

Bermuda Sun: Renowned naturalist's voyage into Bermuda's waters

10/9/2009 10:27:00 AM
Renowned naturalist's voyage into Bermuda's waters
A queen conch fish is not the kind of creature to get everyone's pulse racing.

Compared to a hump back whale, a tiger shark or a manta ray, the tiny shell-dweller barely registers a blip on the interest level of most amateur ocean ­explorers.

But when you've classified, described and photographed almost every known fish in the ocean, coming across something you haven't seen before is a genuine thrill.

Ned de Loach wrote the book on scuba diving - literally.

His encyclopedic 'fish identification' manuals, compiled along with Paul Humann, are bibles for divers everywhere.

A soggy well-thumbed copy of the regional edition - a consultative manual that put a name and a face to the mysterious creatures that lie beneath the ocean's surface - can be found on most dive boats around the world.

Mr. de Loach has been diving for forty years - taking pictures of sea creatures and documenting their behaviour.

The founder of the Reef Environmental Education Foundation is here with his wife Anna, also a renowned underwater naturalist, and a team of recreational divers surveying and documenting fish populations on Bermuda's reefs.

For them, the thrill is not in close encounters with the 'sea monsters' that populate those breathless Discovery Channel documentaries and dwell in the imaginations of armchair enthusiasts.

The real joy lies in the discovery of something new - like the queen conch some of the group discovered on their first trip with Triangle ­Diving on Sunday.

This obsession with the minutiae of marine life - with finding, naming and classifying the ocean's ­diverse complexities - might seem a bit like trainspotting to those who don't share the passion.

But for Mr. de Loach it is a voyage of discovery that is elemental to what it means to be human.

"To understand that you have to get a bit philosophical about it. It is a human need to understand our place in the environment, to know about the living world. We've been doing it for years, so why stop now?

"We're the first generation that has been able to swim with the fishes. We've been studying the natural world on land for eons, we're only just beginning to look at the oceans.

"People always say 'there must be some really fascinating stuff out in ­thousands of feet of water but I could take you out in waist deep water and show you stuff that would blow your socks off. I've been diving for 40 years and I love it just as much as I always did. Every dive I see something new. The more you know, the more you realize there is to know."

Mr deLoach is a 'rock turner' - someone who is always exploring, always looking under the next new rock to find something unique.

The group of divers he has brought with him to Bermuda are cut from the same cloth.

They are part of his REEF organization, set up to enlist recreational divers in the quest to bring order and understanding to the chaos and mystery of the underwater world.

They are here conducting fish surveys - counting and recording the variety of different species on Bermuda's reefs.

The surveys - also ­conducted periodically by Bermuda based volunteers - help contribute to a worldwide database which scientists and environmental planners can use to ­inform future policy.

The more we understand about our reefs, says Mr. DeLoach, the easier it is to protect them.

He believes Bermuda's reef system is among the healthiest in the world. And he praised the island's forward-thinking environmental policies for helping to preserve it.

But he said Bermuda could make the most of the reef as a valuable resource by doing even more to protect it.

"I haven't seen any healthier coral in the western hemisphere. The reefs in the Caribbean are degrading to the point where if you want to see a good, rich coral habitat you have to come to Bermuda. That's something worth ­preserving."

Friday, October 2, 2009

Bermuda looks to a 'Sustainable Fisheries Strategy'

From Royal Gazette, Oct. 1st 2009 [link]

By Tricia Walters

Photo by Tricia Walters Forward thinking: Director of the Department of Environmental Protection, Dr. Fred Ming and Marine Resource Officer, Dr. Tammy Trott.

The sea is not a limitless resource, nor can it absorb any and everything we humans put in it. As the world's population grows so too does competition for limited marine resources, resulting in a cycle of adverse changes to our oceans. Some of the worst culprits are overfishing and pollution, together with emissions of excessive amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the air, which in turn raises the temperature of the ocean, while also making the seas more acidic.

A diverse array of fish species is an essential part of our aquatic environment and the health and size of our fish stocks is an indicator of environmental quality. Historically fishing was a means of survival, and while some still earn their living this way, fishing has also become a way to relax. According to a report earlier this year in the journal Science, several of the world's leading marine biologists concluded that: "If bad fishing practices continued, in a worse-case scenario all fish and seafood species worldwide will crash by 2048".

Whether this, and similar conjectures come true depends on how we respond to the biological and economic decline of fisheries. The good news is that Bermuda is changing course.

Green Pages met with the Director of the Department of Environmental Protection, Dr. Fred Ming and Senior Marine Resources Officer, Dr. Tammy Trott to talk about the Government's work on a "Sustainable Fisheries Strategy", and what this means for both commercial and recreational fishermen.

"Sustainable fishing is a global objective that has emerged over the years in recognition of diminishing stocks of economically-important species of fish," Dr. Ming explains.

With this objective in mind, fisheries scientists and conservation biologists across the globe are working together to ensure information is shared as to the health of our oceans — this includes healthy fish stocks.

Thanks to the ongoing efforts of Bermuda's Department of Environmental Protection, particularly the Marine Resources Section, Dr. Ming feels the Island is well placed to respond to the global movement. But first, he points out, existing, but outdated scientific measurements and evaluations for maximum sustainable yield need to be updated.

Bermuda has two categories of fish that are monitored. One is migratory fish, the other is reef fish.

Dr. Trott elaborates: "Migratory fish require the cooperation of everyone in the region in order to manage these resources, because these fish travel across countries' borders. The fish we get here in the spring and the fall come from other areas of the Atlantic Ocean, so a mandate was set up through a regional management body to assist in the management of these species."

This does call for the cooperation of all countries where these fish are "harvested" or caught and Dr. Trott adds: "This means conducting research so that you know when the species are found in your waters and gathering data on the amount of fish caught; however, trying to get a handle on these stocks isn't always easy."

Why? Because the Island can't account for what is caught by recreational fishermen. Dr. Ming adds that there is currently no requirement for this group to participate in data collection.

"Until we can get to that point, there will always be gaps in our statistics and understanding of what the status of stocks are that pass through our 200 mile Exclusive Economic Zone", he says.

Dr. Trott agrees, adding: "A lot of recreational activity takes place for migratory species such as Wahoo, Yellowfin Tuna and Marlin."

In fact, recreational fishing is on the increase in Bermuda and Dr. Ming believes that up to 30 new recreational vessels are being registered each month. With this comes an added burden on fish stocks, from both commercial fishing and recreational fishing. This in turn puts pressure on Government to manage this fragile resource.

"Research is needed, supported by legislation that will require fishers to report their catch," Dr. Ming insists. "We have legislation requiring commercial fishermen to report their catch and if they don't report their stats we can take away their license. And, we do mean business."

He adds that this year some 17 commercial fishermen received warnings of this nature and are at risk of losing their licenses.

There are currently 326 registered commercial fishermen; however, these fishermen all fish from 200 licensed commercial fishing vessels as some are boat owners and some are crew.

Dr. Ming is also concerned about the reluctance of some for the need for stricter control: "From recreational fishers and those in fishing clubs, to people who are decision makers and who want to serve the people of Bermuda and not put them 'in a box', we all want to make our lives better in Bermuda. But increasingly as the pressures grow on our limited reef system, we are coming to the point of having to change the way in which we do business."

This is where the Sustainable Fisheries Strategy comes in. Issues it will address include management of species and the ecosystem of which they are a part.

Dr. Trott elaborates that this includes doing research on potential nursery grounds and fish movement patterns.

Management of the commercial fishing sector and non-commercial fishing sector will also be addressed.

However, one area, which is of great concern to both Dr. Trott and Dr. Ming, is climate change and its effect on Bermuda's reef.

"We need to find ways to make the reef system more resilient for the species that live there," Dr. Trott points out.

As for the die-offs in reef fish over the last month and a half, Dr. Ming says: "While we are at the earliest stages of our investigations into the die-offs in reef fish over the last month and half, there is a very strong suspicion that temperature is a major driver behind the problem. Not in a direct way, but in a more indirect way in that temperature change is stressful to fish. Globally, the month of August has seen sea temperatures of more than a degree Celsius above the norm and we can't help but think that this is perhaps one of the reasons that fish died."

The investigation is ongoing, with overseas fish expert Dr. Wolfgang Vogelbein this week confirming that a variety of factors may have contributed to the fish dying off, including an unusual rise in sea temperature. (See story below)

On a final note, Dr. Ming says the feasibility of culture fisheries is also being investigated: "There has been work done on a few local species that may prove suitable for culture in commercial numbers, but Government's role will be to provide technical support for managing issues like nutrition and fish health. Our role will be supportive and the private sector will drive the growth of that new sector."

So what can you do to help? Recreational fishermen are invited to sign up for a voluntary logbook scheme, which should be launched early next year to help with research. Green Pages will notify the public before the scheme is officially launched.