Wednesday, February 15, 2017

A Prayer for Rob Stewart

Rob in Saipan
I'm one of the many people whose life was enriched by knowing Rob Stewart.  I met Rob about six years ago on Saipan.  He worked on sharks, I worked on sharks.  We were destined to be friends.

Most of us will never have the impact that Rob's life had.  In the five years that I worked in shark conservation, I heard over and over from people in more than a dozen countries how it was Rob that had first told them about the plight of the world's sharks.  I heard Richard Branson say this with my own ears.

Rob helped kick off the modern shark conservation movement with his film Sharkwater.  He helped a sixth grade class on Saipan protect sharks, and then he helped a group of kids on Guam do the same on their island.  His vision to protect sharks spread across the world, but first it spread across Micronesia, where today all sharks are protected in an area as large as the United States.  But his work was not yet finished when he passed away.

Losing Rob is devastating, and it will take scores of us to carry on with the burden he took on at such a young age.  But we will carry it, and we will remember Rob.  And in carrying on with his life's mission, we will become better, and stronger, and we will think of him when we eventually succeed.

Rob was already a celebrity by the time I met him, but other than the giggling high school teachers -- yes, teachers, not students -- you wouldn't have known it.  He was just a dorky kid who really loved sharks and the ocean, and wanted to share that love with the rest of the world.

Rob inspired people all across the globe, and we share in the sorrow that his family and friends face today.  I hope that they find solace in knowing that although Rob is gone, he will not be forgotten, and his life's work will carry on.

A few years ago, Rob agreed to be an ambassador for Shark Stanley, my little project to help protect sharks through shark sanctuaries and other means.  I asked Rob what advice he would give to aspiring filmmakers and conservationists, and this is what he said: "Take the first step, don't be afraid.  Lean in.  By working for good, for life, or for conservation, your task will call out the best in you.  There has never been a better time to be a filmmaker or conservationist and the world has never needed you more."

This is even more true today.

Rob in Guam
Rob's funeral is this Saturday in Toronto at the Bloor Street United Church at 1 PM.  There will be a celebration of his life following the funeral.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Moana: We Are Explorers Reading Every Sign

Moana and Maui
The Disney film 'Moana' tells the story about the daughter of the village chief, who is chosen by the ocean itself to cross the sea in search of the demi-god Maui to force him to help her save her village by returning the stolen heart of the goddess Te Fiti.  If that's confusing, just think of it as Lord of the Rings (shoeless young person returns stolen jewelry) meets Call it Courage (island kid goes on an adventure and comes home awesome) with songs. 

Early in the film, Moana learns that her people are descended from voyagers -- something that everyone in the village had collectively forgotten.  Then she goes off on her adventure, learns how to wayfind and sail from the demi-god Maui, defeats a giant coconut crab and a lava monster, and saves the world!

"I am everything I've learned and more."

While she uses the stars, the winds, and the clouds, to navigate her canoe, it is her education that she uses to navigate her epic adventure.  It is this knowledge that Moana uses to save the world, and unfortunately for her, in the beginning of the film she doesn't know very much.  She wrecks her first canoe on the reef.  Then she's not a particularly good sailor once she gets the second canoe past the reef.  She gets captured by the giant crab.  And it's her fault that Maui's giant magic hook almost gets destroyed in the first battle with the lava monster. 

Repeatedly, Moana comes up with a plan based on her best available evidence, then tests it, fails, and realizes it was a really bad plan.  So she refines the plan, tests it again, and succeeds -- most of the time.  That's not just good story telling, that's the scientific method!  

Moana is not a Disney princess.  She's a Polynesian scientist!  And she's helping me make arguments for why we need large scale marine protected areas in the ocean.  Let me explain:

The scientific method is also how traditional wayfinding, so central to the story of Moana, developed in the real world.  Traditional wayfinding, voyaging across the ocean without the use of modern navigation tools, as it is practiced today, developed over time using observations of the natural environment such as the sun, moon, stars, cloud movements, wind, ocean swells, and birds and fish to sail across the sea.  This knowledge was obtained over centuries and was passed down from teacher to student using chants in the oral tradition.

"We are explorers reading every sign."
--Moana's wayfinding ancestor

The fact that Moana's people had forgotten they were voyagers mirrors real life.  By the middle of the 20th Century, voyaging had completely disappeared from Polynesia and most western experts questioned whether people could have purposely crossed the Pacific without the use of modern navigation tools.  The last vestiges of traditional wayfinding were only found on a few small atolls in Micronesia, known by a dwindling number of master navigators.

That all changed in 1976 when Mau Pialug, a 44 year old navigator from the island of Satawal in the Federated States of Micronesia, shared his knowledge of wayfinding with the Polynesian Voyaging Society and successfully guided a canoe from Hawaii to Tahiti (paralleling the story of Moana).  That first in centuries feat led to a renaissance of traditional voyaging and culture in Hawaii and across the entire Pacific.  Today there are navigators in many countries, including Hawaii, New Zealand, and Tahiti.

This renaissance in culture and Pacific identify has grown in parallel with the modern environmental movement, particularly the growth of large scale marine protected areas around the world.  The need to protect large swaths of ocean should be obvious to anyone who has ever visited the national parks in the United States.  Yellowstone National Park is the greatest example of America's natural heritage, and if it had not been protected in 1872, the trees would have been cut down long ago to make way for highways and cities.

Similarly, the only way our grandchildren will have areas of the ocean that are left as the Creator made them is if we identify and protect them today.  And while it's important to have areas that are close to shore for all the reasons that marine protected areas are created, it also makes sense to protect huge swaths of ocean just like we've been protecting huge swaths of land for nearly 150 years.

Protecting ocean ecosystems is going to have to be a priority if the renaissance in Pacific culture is going to continue.  As Jane Lubchenco and Kirsten Grorud Colvert pointed out in a recent article in Smithsonian Magazine, for most of history, the ocean was a de facto fully protected area, simply because humans could not access it.  In order for wayfinders to have the full suite of navigational tools available to them, they will require healthy, intact ocean ecosystems, particular those provided by large scale marine protected areas.

"For most of its history, the ocean was a de facto fully protected area, simply because humans could not access it. It is only in the last half-century that most of the ocean has become accessible to extractive activities."
-- Jane Lubcheno & Kirsten Grorud-Colvert

There are numerous ways traditional knowledge, modern Western science, and the need for conservation can be tied together.  For example, one tool that navigators use to find their target islands are birds.  Depending on the species, the direction it is flying, and the time of day, wayfinders can use birds to help them expand the target area of the islands they are trying to find.  This is because certain birds are spotted at predictable distances from islands.  This knowledge has been known to wayfinders for centuries.

This phenomena is captured in the song 'We Know the Way' from the film.  In the clip, Moana realizes that she's descended from voyagers, and as she does she receives a vision from her ancestors.  The navigators ply the open seas day and night, in the rain and sun, and then just as the song is ending, a bird flying overhead guides the navigator and the canoes to their target island.

The bird guides the voyagers to the island.
Modern science has confirmed this phenomena, too.  Studies have found that different species of seabirds can be found at predicatable distances from their nesting islands, which is likely due to interspecies competition for feeding on small fish.  Some species, like the black noddy (Anous minutus) and the blue grey noddy (Procelsterna cerulean) stay relatively close to shore, looking for food in a radius around their home islands not much greater than 9 kilometers.  Red tailed tropic birds (Phaethon rubricauda), on the other hand, venture as far as 1034 kilometers from their nests in search for food.  Other species where these distances are known include boobies, shearwaters, and frigate birds.
Concentric circles show range of different foraging bird species while nesting.
Graphic from Maxwell & Morgan 2013
The reason the birds fly out over the ocean is to search for small forage fish that school in tight groups after being forced close to the surface by larger predators such as sharks and tuna.  As the sharks and tuna attack the forage fish from below, seabirds hone in from above.  Smallboat fishermen around the world know about this phenomena and search out flocks of birds in search of fish.

Ocean predators facilitate seabird foraging by forcing small fish to the surface.
Graphic from Maxwell & Morgan, 2013.
While the voyagers depend on the birds to find their target islands, the birds depend on the big predators to find the forage fish; the forage fish would not school at the surface if not for the predators.  It stands to reason that if there are no predators, or reduced numbers of predators, the schools of small fish will not be forced to the surface, and as a result the birds are going to end up in the wrong place, which in turn has the chance to lead voyagers astray.

This is a real worry.  The numbers of ocean predators have declined precipitously in the last 100 years.  Pacific Bluefin tuna (Thunnus orientalis) and bigeye tuna (Thunnus obesus) are so overfished that they are now assessed as threatened with extinction by the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species.  As for sharks, more than 100 million are killed each year in fisheries.  As a result, the populations of more than half of all species assessed by the IUCN Red List are threatened or near threatened with extinction.  Some populations, like oceanic whitetip sharks (Carcharhinus longimanus) in the Gulf of Mexico, have declined by as much as 99%.

But all is not lost.  There are still places in our ocean that are healthy, and places where it can return to its prior abundance.  For example, the Northwest Hawaiian Islands, now the highly protected Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, stretch across more than one and a half million square kilometers in the central Pacific ocean.  These waters are sanctuary for sharks, whales, fish, turtles, and birds, but are also a sanctuary for Hawaiian culture to grow and flourish.  In these protected waters, Native Hawaiians aboard traditional vessels can reconnect with their identify and learn about who they are and where they are going as a people.

As the renaissance in Pacific cultures continues to stretch across the Pacific, it will only achieve its full potential with an equal renaissance in ocean conservation.  We need more huge places in the ocean where the ecosystem is like the Creator intended, a place where fish, birds, and other animals and their connections to Pacific cultures can thrive free from the damaging effects of human development and extraction.

I recently started a project looking at tying together traditional knowledge, particularly that associated with voyaging and wayfinding, and western science and modern needs for ocean conservation. I'll post updates as things develop.

Sunday, January 08, 2017

'Avatar' Director James Cameron Lends Support

Mark Thiessen/National Geographic
11 says left in the Obama Administration...

The Marianas Variety and Saipan Tribune report on the support from James Cameron:
James Cameron, director of Hollywood blockbusters 'Avatar,' 'The Abyss,' and 'Titanic,' has penned a letter to President Barack Obama asking him to “finish the work of protecting the Mariana Trench Marine National Monument through a national marine sanctuary designation.” Cameron is also the only human to ever dive solo to Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench, the deepest point in the world’s ocean.

The letter states that the Obama Administration has built a legacy of ocean protection unrivaled by any president in American history. The letter also points to the role of the ocean as the planet’s largest ecosystem and crucial role as a climate regulator.

“Large, strongly protected marine reserved have emerged as important policy solutions which carry the dual benefit of both marine climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies,” wrote Cameron. “By increasing ocean health, strongly protected marine reserves are one of the most efficient means to protect Earth and its climate.”

The International Union for Conservation of Nature recommends protecting 30% of the ocean.

“We are thankful to Mr. Cameron for helping us bring more protection to the Mariana Trench,” said Ignacio Cabrera, Chairman of the Friends of the Marianas Trench. “His dive in 2012 shone a bright light on our unique and globally significant natural resources, now he is helping us bring attention to the need to protect it for our kids and their kids.”

In September, Governor Ralph Deleon Guerrero Torres and US Delegate Gregorio Camacho “Kilili” Sablan wrote to President Obama, kicking off a local effort to bring the NOAA Sanctuary program to the Northern Mariana Islands.

The plan has raised the ire of the Vice Chair of the controversial Western Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Council (WESPAC), who argues that industrial fishing and deep sea mining are a better use of these rare ecosystems and natural resources (Marianas Variety Comments, January 6, 2017). However, the plan enjoys the support of nearly every elected official in the Northern Mariana Islands, including the legislature, mayors, and municipal council members.

Saturday, January 07, 2017

Ike: Things Are Coming Together

Paul, Joni, Carey, Harry, Ike, and Kilili in Washington, DC last month.
Ike penned a letter to the editor last week updating the community about the effort to begin the process to designate a Marianas Trench Marine National Sanctuary.  A lot has happened in the last year and it was the result of people in the federal government, local government, and community working together.

I predict that we'll find out this week if the White House is going to do anything.  Only 12 more days until the new Administration is sworn in.
Since the Marianas Trench Marine National Monument was declared 8 years ago, the pace of developing the monument has been slow and frustrating to many people, especially to me. But over the last several months there have been several positive developments regarding the monument.

The Friends of the Marianas Trench have engaged in a public outreach effort the last three months by talking to government offices and talking to our leaders about these things. Here is a list of the things we discussed, along with updates of how our monument is progressing.

There has been increased global interest in the Marianas Trench. In the last 12 months, scientific expeditions led by the Chinese government, US government, and private foundations have used remotely operated vehicles to explore the depths of our surrounding water.

Many new discoveries have been made in our waters, including species new to science.

The submerged lands deal that was promised by the Bush Administration to Governor Fitial with the declaration of the monument is complete. Department of Interior Secretary Jewell and Governor Torres signed an agreement last month.

The US Fish & Wildlife Service has hired staff to manage the monument.

NOAA Fisheries is close to hiring staff to help manage the monument.

A draft management plan will be released in the coming months for public review. This will be one of the final steps before active management begins.

Governor Torres and US Delegate Kilili have written to President Obama about bringing additional educational and research funds to the Northern Marianas using the NOAA sanctuary program.

The Pew Charitable Trusts helped us with the paperwork to start a sanctuary process here.

Nearly every elected official has written to the Obama Administration to ask for the sanctuary program to come to the Northern Mariana Islands.

The Marianas Trench has been nominated as a new UNESCO World Heritage Site, one of only nine places in the United States being currently considered for such an honor.

I know that there is a perception that nothing is happening with the monument, but the opposite is actually true, and we’re just getting started. You started hearing a lot more about the Marianas Trench in 2016, and now I predict you will hear about it a lot more.

Ignacio Cabrera
I Agag