Saturday, May 31, 2014

Turks & Caicos

I've been back in Washington, DC for about a week now, but prior to that I spent about five days in The Bahamas and five days in the Turks & Caicos Islands.  I feel like I've known about The Bahamas my entire life, but Turks & Caicos only recently came on my radar.  It is a British Overseas Territory that is just on the other side of The Bahamas to Florida.

The Turks & Caicos are considering shark protections, so I went down there with Rick MacPherson to discuss with government, the private sector, and community members whether or not my employer could play a role.  I make it a point to not talk about political decisions on this blog anymore, but I can say that we had some very good discussions.

We spent an entire day on Grand Turk and spent most of the afternoon with a biologist who has been working with the local fishermen.  We got to meet Big Bitch.  I am not sure if the boat is named after the fisherman, or if the fisherman is named after the boat.  I hope to find out on my second trip.

Conch is a new thing to me.  I had a bite of it almost every day in The Bahamas and TCI.  Normally creatures living in shells aren't very appealing to me.  When I see shellfish, I think of the seagulls who would shit on the mussels along the beach in Cape Cod.  I prefer my seafood in fish form.

Conch is good, don't get me wrong.  I just think shells are gross.  Even so, one of the fishermen gave me some conch pistol, which I am told has the same affect as Viagra.

During my 10 day trip to the Caribbean I flew on 9 airplanes.  A few of them were small like this.  It would have been 10 airplanes, but it was raining in Bimini and my plane couldn't land.

I know how excited you are to look at my work photos, so I posted a few more to Facebook.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Memorial Day Stroll Along the Potomac

Edz and I visited Great Falls in the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Park just outside DC on Monday.  I didn't take any photos of the crowds, but they were big.  We weren't the only people to have the idea to spend Memorial Day reconnecting with nature.  I posted a few more photos to Facebook.

Monday, May 26, 2014

The Bahamas Beautiful

Me, Minister V. Alfred Gray, the Boss, and Director Michael Braynen
Last week I was in The Bahamas with Rick MacPherson and my new boss to meet with government officials and NGOs in Nassau, The Bahamas to discuss the shark sanctuary they declared in 2011.  My employer sponsored a number of efforts in the year immediately preceding and following the declaration and we are looking to see if there are any ways that we can continue to be involved.  In short, the answer was yes.

I wish I had seen more of the islands.  I spent most of my time in a conference room and a whole day at the airport trying unsuccessfully to get to Bimini.  Hopefully next time I'll be able to get in the water and see some sharks.

The Boss, Minister Kenred Dorsett, Me, and Mrs. Coral Miller
The creation of the shark sanctuary in The Bahamas was an important one.  At the time, a Chinese company that was exploiting sea cucumber resources made its intention known that it wanted to start collecting shark fins.  The government responded by banning all commercial shark fishing.

In many islands passing a law is a simple matter.  I know this all too well being from Saipan.  The hard part is implementing the law over the course of your lifetime -- and your children's lifetimes.  That also includes finding funding for implementation when priorities like keeping the power on and the schools open take precedence.

Civil society and the private sector don't have the power to govern (cynical opinions about the US Congress aside), but there's definitely a role for us to play.  I honed those skills when I worked with Cinta, Gus, Tina, Reina, Ken, Marites, and all the others to create and manage Beautify CNMI for four years.  In this new chapter of my life I get to see how those skills apply to other places in the world.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

5 Things That Are Scarier Than Sharks

Sharks get a bad rap, but they are not the worst creatures in the ocean.  Here are 5 things that are scarier than sharks.

#1 Stone Fish
Stonefish are a family of cryptic little bastards that can't wait to kill you.  When my uncle Frank was a young man he stepped on a stone fish and nearly died.  This is probably why nearly every cousin I've ever been spearfishing with will kill every stone fish they encounter immediately.

#2 Fire Coral
Fire corals aren't really coral; they're also not really fire (I should write another post on ocean things that aren't really what we think they are).  When I was 17 my stomach brushed against some fire coral and I had a festering wound the whole summer.  It is best to avoid fire coral.

Titan triggerfish in Beqa Lagoon, Fiji
#3 Titan Triggerfish
The triggerfish I was most familiar with as a child was the Picaso triggerfish, the colorful state fish of Hawaii.  We didn't fish for them because my father said their scales were too tough.  So we just snorkled with them and all was happy.  Then I learned to dive and I found out about titan triggerfish, the big daddy triggerfish on the reef.  These babies aren't so bad normally, but if they are laying eggs they will attack divers to defend their nest.  In 2012, during a dive in Ulong Channel in Palau, several dozen titan triggerfish were laying eggs in the center of the channel, right where our drift dive was supposed to be taking place.  We gave the fish a respectful distance, and enjoyed the dive from the edge of the reef, not the center of the channel.

#4 Sewage and Garbage
As far back as I remember, the locals on Saipan have not eaten the fish in Puerto Rico (the village in Saipan, not the island in the Caribbean) due to contamination from the dump and the waste water treatment plant.  For years the people of Tanapag village have had to ask themselves what level of PCBs they were comfortable ingesting.  Sharks will not keep me out of the water, but the thought of human waste and industrial contamination do.

#5 Sea Cucumbers
Sea cucumbers, sometimes called bĂȘche-de-mer, are bottom dwellers that crawl along the ocean floor hoovering up little bits of whatever they find tasty. This helps clean our beaches. I don't care. I hate them. They look like footlong turds. Sea cucumbers are the grossest thing swimming in the ocean, and there are a lot of gross things in the ocean. On Saipan the boys would (yes, this is not going to be very conservation minded, so if that bothers you, stop reading now) pick them up out of the water and fling them at the girls who would delightfully scream and cry. There was one species that my cousins told me to never touch because it was particularly horrible, but I don't know the english name.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Win, celebrate, and move on to the next battle

The British Virgin Islands declared a shark sanctuary on Thursday, becoming the tenth place in the world to fully protect sharks. There are now 12.7 million square kilometers of ocean set aside as protected shark habitat, an area about the size of Mexico and the United States combined.

I was flying home from Providenciales in the Turks and Caicos Islands as the announcement was being made in Brussels, Belgium. I didn't share in any of the champagne (assuming there was any), but I did return my tray and seat to the upright position.

The Associated Press picked up the story and quoted me. I said the Caribbean territory is "showing that small islands can have a big impact on global biodiversity." The story was picked up by the New York Times, Washington Post, Miami Herald and about 400 other media outlets.

I've been trying to use my own Twitter rather than Shark Defenders lately, so I tweeted this:

The other guy who was quoted in the story, you know, that billionaire genius playboy philanthropist Sir Richard Branson, had a much more popular tweet:

In the next couple of months I'll travel to the British Virgin Islands to talk to the government about how my employer can be involved in implementation. We'll probably also see how we can brand the islands as a shark destination, similar to what Palau and Fiji have done so well. Maybe I'll even get to meet Sir Richard again. I wonder if he remembers not meeting me at the Obama Inauguration in 2009?

In the meantime, there are one hundred other fires raging around the world. For about a year the Obama Administration and NOAA have been attempting to overturn state and territory laws that limit shark fishing beyond requiring that sharks are brought to shore with their fins naturally attached (Is it treason to criticize your president in a foreign newspaper?). This has not been much of an issue in the mainland because the seven laws from California to New York exempt some level of fishing for sharks. The laws in the Pacific, however, ban shark fishing period. The federal government claims that these laws interfere with federal fisheries. I'd argue that they compliment the federal law, since the intent of Congress was to protect sharks, not kill every fish in the ocean.

In April I went to Guam to help citizens there stand up for their local laws. Now I'm helping my fellow Americans in Hawaii. The legal arguments on this issue could go either way and will likely ultimately be handled by the courts. In the meantime the decision is a political one, so thousands of my fellow Pacific Islanders are hoping that the Hawaiian president will make the right one.

The Hawaii petition has really taken off. We got it up late on Friday, and with the long weekend looming decided not to blast out any activist emails. Social media didn't care about our intentions, as thanks to Facebook the petition has more than 2,000 signatures after less than 24 hours. If you'd like to send a message to President Obama to protect sharks, I encourage you to sign the petition as well.

And with that, the race is on to create the next shark sanctuary. Will it be the Federated States of Micronesia or Kiribati? Or will it be somewhere in the Caribbean?

Friday, May 23, 2014

World Turtle Day

Sea turtles are my favorite animals. Just this last week I got to go swimming with them in the Turks and Caicos Islands. A few yards off shore in the Bight Reef in Provindenciales, I found a medium sized hawksbill and two small greens.

That doesn't mean that I can't have a little fun. There are many animal campaigns out there -- and sharks eat most of them.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Worcester Villagomez Ford O'Connor Walshes

Angelo, Tiana, Gabriel, Alexander, Catherine, and Kevin
Here we are in all our glory.  Let me explain the names.  My mom makes up one fifth of the Worcester O'Connor Walshes (the product of Mr. O'Connor and former Ms. Walsh), and her marriages to Mr. Villagomez and Mr. Ford resulted in the four of us.  Alex is the only one with kids, so this photo contains two full generations of our particular branch of the family tree.

I really love this photo and plan to hang it on my wall at home. The times my siblings are able to all get together are far too rare, and mostly dependent on me.  It will be even harder to get together in a few years when Kevin and Catie head off to college.

Friday, May 09, 2014

Chuuk Declares Shark Sanctuary

Chuuk Senate
Chuuk State declared a shark sanctuary yesterday in a ceremonial signing in Weno.  I wasn't there, but I was there last month meeting with the Senate on the day the law was introduced.  You can read about the declaration on the Pew and Shark Defenders websites.  I'm hoping a few newspapers write about the declaration, too.

The declaration of the shark sanctuary in Chuuk completes the legal framework agreed to by the members of the Association of Pacific Island Legislatures.  I helped negotiate that agreement along with my good friends Carlotta Leon Guerrero and Matt Rand in 2011.  Prior to that agreement, Palau, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands had protected sharks.  Since then, the Marshall Islands, American Samoa, Kosrae, Yap, Pohnpei, and now Chuuk have protected sharks.

It has been a fun ride, and now we get to spend the rest of our lives implementing and refining the protections.  The champions of the policy, the Micronesia Conservation Trust, Chuuk Conservation Society, and my employer, The Pew Charitable Trusts will follow up with enforcement training and continued outreach and education.

Carlotta and me
The trip last month was my fourth trip to Chuuk, and my second this year.  I visited in 2008 to attend a TNC led Conservation Action Plan training and went again in 2012, when I visited Shark Island.