Monday, July 21, 2014

Two Years Wasted

I spent nearly two years on Saipan from 2006-2007 advocating for the protection of coral reefs.  The slogan I came up with was, "What we do on land affects our marine environment."  My focuses were land use practices, particularly reducing pollution and runoff.  I took students on field trips, planted thousands of trees to reduce erosion, and tried to start a stream sampling project that never really took off after the DEQ staffer quit and moved back to the mainland.

I look back on that work and realize I had it all wrong.

In my new work with sharks, I try to find ways to make sharks relatable to island leaders.  Shark Stanley helps reach out to the masses, but political leaders are a different sort.  I've found that most island leaders understand the threats of climate change and the importance of coral reefs to ecotourism, especially dive tourism.

About a year ago, a colleague at the University of Hawaii recommended I read Forest Rohwer's book Coral Reefs in the Microbial SeasForest is molecular biologist who pioneered the use metagenomics and investigates the role of viruses and microbes in coral reef health and disease.  His book is my new bible.

This book, through Forest's pioneering work on viruses, postulates that the biggest threat to coral reefs is not nonpoint sources of pollution from agriculture and sewage, but overfishing, particularly the removal of large predators such as sharks.

Corals are not fragile creatures. They are tough, extremely well-adapted, and adaptable organisms, yet we are killing them. Worldwide, 30% of coral is severely damaged. The Great Barrier Reef has lost 20% of its coral in the last 60 years; Eighty percent of the Caribbean reef coral has died in the last 30 years.

Forest goes through all of the threats to corals, including temperature and acidity changes due to increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and finds that overfishing is the main culprit in killing corals.  Simply put, no sharks, no corals.

The process is somewhat complex, but once it gets started it feeds itself in a positive feedback loop.  Overfishing down the food web from sharks to herbivores increases the amount of algae on a reef, which in turn releases large amounts of sugars and carbohydrates (something he calls dissolved organic carbon or DOC), which feed microbes, which smother and kill coral.  When the coral dies, it creates more space for the algae to grow, resulting in even more sugars and carbohydrates in the water, more microbes, and more coral death, until the ecosystem flips from a coral-dominated ecosystem with lots of fish, to an algae-dominated ecosystem with very few fish.  Adding nutrients from agriculture runoff and sewage only fuels the process, as nitrogen and phosphates increase algal growth.

The book is a must read for anyone working on coral reefs today.  Forest's recommendations at the end of the book are to protect large predators and herbivores, such as sharks and parrot fish, create marine protected areas, and reduce pollution.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Friday on a Plane

The frequent flier miles rack up when you travel often to the Pacific.  A round trip ticket between Washington to Saipan earns more than 15,000 miles and for every 25,000 miles you travel you reach a new status.  It does not take long to jump from Silver to Gold to Platinum and then 1K.  When you hit Platinum status, United gives you a handful of Regional upgrades.  At Platinum you get Global upgrades.  Then every 25,000 miles, you get even more.  As a result, if you keep up a heavy travel schedule and your 1K status, you can fly business on almost every flight.

For this last trip to the Marshall Islands I used a Regional upgrade for the flight out, and a global upgrade for the flight home.  I wasn't upgraded between Majuro and Hawaii, but I sat in business the rest of the way home.

UA 72 Majuro to San Francisco
The Honolulu Airport is closed when the flight from Majuro lands.  After going through immigration and customs, you get dumped out on the street with all of your luggage.  The outdoor lobby is full of sleeping travelers or homeless people, I'm not really sure.

When leaving Hawaii for the mainland, the first step in the check-in process is to x-ray your bags.  I don't know what they are looking for, but they don't look very hard.  I saw someone put a suitcase of shark fins through the machine once and all they got was a friendly "mahalo." 

USDA doesn't open the machine until 4 AM, so scores of travelers queue their luggage.  Some stand, others sleep.

I was second in line for the x-ray.  United wasn't open yet, so I took my scanned bags over to the premier line to stand in line again.  The United check-in counters must be set to come on automatically, because they all popped on at the same time.  I didn't need to check in again, just drop off my luggage.  The whole process took all of 30 seconds once they opened.

Then I was the first person through security.  My boarding pass said I had TSA pre-check, but it wasn't open yet, so I had to take my shoes out and remove my laptops.

Starbucks wasn't open yet, so I went to the United lounge.  It wasn't open either, so I found a comfortable spot on the carpet outside near a electrical outlet to charge my phone and check my email.  I was able to pick up the free wifi through the walls.

The flight boarded at 5:30 AM.  I boarded with group 1, got myself settled with my bags in the overhead, sat down, and fell asleep.

I woke up with about 2 hours left in the flight.  I scoured the movie selection and decided on Noah.  It was really terrible.

UA 1574 San Francisco to Washington Dulles
When given the option of transiting through San Francisco or Los Angeles, I much prefer the former.  San Fran has lots of delicious food options and I've never had to leave secure area to go to another terminal.  LAX has a Wolfgang Puck's, but I've never NOT had to switch terminals there.

In San Francisco I bought an Italian sausage pizza and walked over to my gate to eat it.  While I waited for my flight to board I used the airport's free wifi.

I must have been exhausted because as soon as I boarded I fell asleep.  I woke up when they brought the food out and then watched the new Captain America movie.  There were two hours of flying time left when that ended, so I watched the CNN coverage of the airplane crash in Ukraine, then an episode of The Big Bang Theory, and then South Park, and then I read.

The flight landed about 10 minutes late and then it took 40 minutes for the luggage to come out.  I got home at about 1:30 AM, ate some ramen, watched an episode of Bill Maher, and then passed out.

My next flight is on Thursday.  I'm going to Palau to attend the Pacific Islands Forum

Friday, July 18, 2014

Godzilla Tour of Destruction

United Airlines 155 Majuro - Honolulu
Today is one of those days that never seems to end.  My Friday the 18th will last 40 hours because I'm crossing the International Dateline.  I'm on the Godzilla tour of destruction, visiting three locations that were attacked in the most recent movie.  Starting in the Marshall Islands, I'll have layovers in Honolulu and San Francisco on my way back to Washington, DC.

There was a time that I thought the Continental Island Hopper was the greatest thing ever.  Now I am old and jaded.  The flight from Majuro to Hawaii is the second worst flight in the world, surpassed in misery only by the flight from Pohnpei to Hawaii.  It's not so bad when you are just going to Hawaii, but if you are connecting it sucks because you lose a night of sleep.

I checked out of the Robert Reimers Hotel in Majuro just before 5 PM and the hotel staff drove a group of us travelers to the airport about 30 minutes later.  In the van was a fellow University of Richmond alum; Tom is the legal council for the Pohnpei Senate and lived in Saipan in the 1970s.  I've known Tom for a few years, but didn't find out these two facts until this trip.  It turns out we know a lot of the same people.

The Majuro airport was bustling at 6 PM.  People who fly in and out of Majuro usually fly often, so the premier line was just as long as the regular line.  When checking in the United staff open your luggage and manually give it a search.  I've never thought to ask what they are looking for.  It could be fish.  About half of the suitcases leaving Majuro are coolers, and the United staff has to help ensure everyone is following the procedures for traveling with raw fish.

There is an amazing bar called Harry's hiding in a small room behind the check-in counter.  In all of my previous visits to Majuro I had not noticed it existed.  The place has more character than most bars in Micronesia.  It's a great way to cap off a great trip.

After two beers, the fearless travelers piled through security and into the departure lounge, where we proceeded to drink two more beers and snack on tuna jerky, which is some of the most pungent, yet delicious grub ever made.

The flight itself was uneventful.  The flight was full, but I had an exit row seat with an empty chair between me and the person in the aisle.  I had a nice chat with her; she was an environmental lawyer and we talked about the work we each did in the islands.  After some time, we each pulled out our respective books and politely ignored each other for the rest of the flight.

The flight left Majuro at 8:05 PM and landed in Hawaii at 2:50 AM, the morning before we left.  Thanks to the International Dateline, with a long layover, you live the same day twice.  With a short layover, you arrive just hours after you left.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

33rd APIL General Assembly

The Association of Pacific Island Legislatures meeting finished up last night.  This is my fourth meeting.  I've previously attended the meetings in Palau, Saipan, and Hawaii.

On one of the days we hosted an event on tuna and shark conservation at a bar by the water.  Sitting in the Majuro lagoon were about a dozen purse seiner and transhipment boats.  It was a great location for the topic we were discussing.  One of the presenters pointed out that at any one time, as much as $10 million worth of tuna is sitting in the lagoon.

This is the Pacific, man, so things were informal.  We had some chairs and tables set up, but we ended up having the talks right along the water.

I am alumni of an organization called Micronesians in Island Conservation.  Once a year the members get together to discuss regional issues, and to learn from our each other about how they deal with the similar issues we were dealing with back home.  I learned more from those retreats than I did in college.

APIL has a very similar feel, and although I am not a lawmaker, I can see how important this annual meeting and organization is to all of Micronesia.  The things the members learn from each other are invaluable to their citizens back home.

And APIL has been very gracious to allow me and other representatives of my employer to work with them on important environmental issues.  And everyone is just so amazing, on top of that!  This is Marshall Islands Nitijela Speaker Donald Capelle.

APIL always hosts a friendship softball game after one of the day's meetings.  Do you recognize the catcher in this photo?  The CNMI contingent was split this year, so I won't say which team won.

It's not about winning, though; it's about how you played the game.  But no hard feelings, right Joe?  See, we're still friends.

Senator Kenneth Kedi from the Marshall Islands is the APIL president-elect.  He's a big champion of the world's largest shark sanctuary.

I never noticed on my previous trips, but it would appear that Rita Elementary School is home of the shark.  I took my picture with the sign, and some of the locals thought that was hilarious.  This guy came over and took his photo with me.

Although most of these photos are of me, I did take many others.  They are posted to Facebook.