Best of our wild blogs: 3 Jul 12

Surprises on a newly visited Changi shore
from wild shores of singapore

Learning more about Singapore's seagrasses at Siti's workshop from wild shores of singapore

Guiding at Semakau
from Wonderful Creation

Some essential tools on my field trips – iPhone apps
from Otterman speaks

Rhythm with Nature @ Gardens by the Bay
from Lazy Lizard's Tales

The Rail Corridor Open Day 2012
from Photojournalist

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Changes in Singapore 'dwarf those of New York'

Cheong Suk-Wai Straits Times 3 Jul 12;

HAVING never visited Singapore, New York City's parks and recreation chief Adrian Benepe expected to land on an island crowded with tall, grey buildings.

But a weekend jaunt on the Forest and Canopy Walks linking Henderson Waves with HortPark off Alexandra Road left him struck by how green Singapore is.

'We don't have anything that spectacularly beautiful and fun in New York, so it's spurring me to want to do the same,' he said. 'The only thing is we worry about people doing dumb things, like jumping off tall structures while high on drugs, which we unfortunately have to deal with.'

Mr Benepe was no less impressed by the newly opened Gardens by the Bay, which he found 'astounding'.

The 55-year-old, who started as a park ranger, took in these sights before he received the Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize on behalf of New York City last night from Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean at an awards dinner held in conjunction with the ongoing World Cities Summit.

The award, for cities transformed into epitomes of sustainable living, was given to New York City for its nifty use of abandoned industrial and wharf land.

Among other things, Mr Benepe and his team transformed a disused elevated railway that was an eyesore into a popular sky park 30m above the ground.

Still,he envied Singapore's commitment to greening.

'There is even greenery on your bridges. Back home, they would be horrified because they'd say all that soil from roots overhead would dirty everything.'

He was also impressed by 'the sense of energy and entrepreneurialism' in the streets of Singapore which mirror that of his home. But, he added: 'Singapore's extraordinary changes in the last 40 years dwarf those of New York.'

Like his city, he and his team are not standing still.

They are creating Freshkills Park on what was once the world's biggest rubbish dump.

It will have an amphitheatre and community seed farm that will 'use goats as lawn mowers' to eat up the weeds.

He is also encouraging New Yorkers to plant vegetables and fruit on the roofs of their apartment blocks, to add to the city's 600 community gardens today.

But what can Singapore adopt from New York City? 'I think Singapore should be more friendly to pedestrians and cyclists.

'I found it hard to walk safely in the downtown area here,' he said, perhaps alluding to Manhattan's Times Square which has become a vibrant public plaza after it was closed to all vehicles.

Still, he said: 'It makes me very happy to see so many young families in Singapore out having a great time; that tells me this is a happy, healthy and safe city.'

Need to keep cities liveable, sustainable
Impending urban explosion requires long-term planning, experts note
Feng Zengkun Straits Times 3 Jul 12;

CITIES are the way of the future, so more thought needs to go into planning them and keeping them liveable and sustainable.

That was the key message from world leaders, who tossed up ideas yesterday at two environment meetings at the Marina Bay Sands convention centre.

The events were part of the Singapore International Water Week, World Cities Summit and the inaugural CleanEnviro Summit, which end by Thursday.

The number of megacities - urban areas with more than 10 million people - has grown from just four in 1980 to 21 today, said Minister for the Environment and Water Resources, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan.

By 2050, the United Nations estimates that 70 per cent of the world's population will live in cities.

Coping with the stresses on infrastructure that this impending urban explosion will bring will involve some long-term planning, said government, industry and international organisation representatives who spoke at the events.

Japan, for instance, is planning to build a high-speed train that would ferry citizens between Tokyo and Osaka in about an hour, said Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara. The cities are about 500km apart.

This would revive the waning Osaka and ease the pressure on Tokyo, he said.

But cities also need to be self-sufficient, said the panellists.

Dr Balakrishnan gave the example of Singapore, which does not subsidise essentials such as power and water to impress upon citizens the need to conserve resources.

Instead, the Government gives the poor cash.

'People will then ask themselves, do I want to leave the tap running and pay more, and do I really want to buy more food if it will go to waste?' he said.

With large populations within a dense, urban environment, sustainability is vital. That involves everything from managing traffic to recycling and being prudent about energy use.

Dr Roland Busch, chief executive of infrastructure and cities at industrial conglomerate Siemens, said there could be road pricing systems that automatically respond to traffic conditions by adjusting toll charges.

Studies have also shown that good practices such as switching off lights when they are not needed could reduce buildings' energy use by three times, said Mr Henri Proglio, chairman of global electric utility company Electricite de France.

Dr Balakrishnan said cities that provide a green and welcoming environment soothe their citizens and gain a competitive advantage.

'If you provide blue skies and clean streets, people will want to stay and invest in your economy,' he said.

The two meetings yesterday were part of a slate of high-profile events throughout the day, which included the Water Lecture by Dutch professor Mark van Loosdrecht, winner of this year's Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize.

Prof van Loosdrecht was lauded for his work in removing pollutants from used water.

He received his award at a ceremony at Marina Bay Sands last night.

About 15,000 delegates are expected to attend the three summits this week, which will also include business forums and a round-table of water experts.

The closing dinner will be held in the Flower Dome conservatory at the new Gardens by the Bay tomorrow.

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New index for ranking world's cities

Singapore-conceived system bases results on ordinary city dwellers' concerns
Goh Chin Lian Straits Times 3 Jul 12;

A SINGAPORE institute has come up with its own ranking of the world's cities, which it believes is more comprehensive than others in the market.

Its creators at the Asia Competitiveness Institute, which is part of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, also tout the index as more representative of ordinary city residents' concerns, and also more constructive.

The Global Liveable Cities Index, which was released at the World Cities Summit 2012 yesterday, ranks Singapore third, after Swiss cities Geneva and Zurich.

Senior research fellow Woo Wing Thye said rankings typically measure either a city's clout in the world or the comfort it offers to its inhabitants. But the new index marries both measurements.

'We are a happy medium between the two,' he said.

One major difference is that the index uses indicators that apply to the ordinary city dweller earning the median income, instead of a member of the social elite or an expatriate, as many other indexes tend to do.

Such a dweller has a limited budget and is concerned with issues like the average quality of education and the cost of health care, noted Professor Woo.

The index also tries to go beyond ranking just for ranking's sake: Researchers took each city's 20 weakest indicators and simulated its new rankings if it improved in these areas, to encourage cities to work on their weaknesses.

The Global Liveable Cities Index, which covers 64 Asian, European and American cities, is based on five categories: economic vibrancy and competitiveness; environmental friendliness and sustainability; domestic security and stability; social-cultural conditions; and public governance.

Singapore was ranked within the top five in all categories except for the environmental segment, where it placed 14th.

The co-director of Asia Competitiveness Institute, Dr Tan Khee Giap, indicated that Singapore could have done better if indicators such as water leakage in pipes and biodiversity were included. They were omitted because comparable data in other cities could not be found.

The lack of data also led to San Francisco - a strong contender as a liveable city - being left out.

To address such limitations, the researchers aim to conduct more field surveys to collect local data, and cover more cities.

To refine the index, ordinary city folk will also be polled for their own weightage of indicators. The index is scheduled to be published again in 2014.

The push for a new index came from the Government four years ago. It had 'noticed gaps in numerous well-known liveability rankings of cities... each catering to very specific purposes and targeted audiences', and commissioned the institute to start the project in 2008, the team said in a book on the index.

But Prof Woo dismissed any suggestion of the index being tilted in favour of Singapore, saying it gave equal weightage to all five categories of indicators used.

The new index also addresses a sticking point in some studies that rank Singapore poorly for environmental impact.

While those studies use criteria such as the amount of pavement used or the capacity to produce food, the Singapore institute's index looks at a city's carbon emissions measured against economic growth.

Prof Woo said 'the goal is a higher level of income' without polluting more than what one can take responsibility for.

Best cities for ordinary folk
New index aims to rank comfort of the majority
Robin Chan Straits Times 7 Jul 12;

THIS week, the Asia Competitiveness Institute unveiled its Global Liveable Cities (GLC) Index as urban experts gathered here for the World Cities Summit.

Dr Tan Khee Giap is the institute's co-director.

How is the Global Liveable Cities Index different from the many other indices that have been developed to rank cities?

It is superior to existing, similar studies out there because it assesses liveability for ordinary residents. It covers comprehensively five equally weighted categories of liveability, consisting of nearly 100 indicators, with minimum dominance from any single indicator, thus ensuring objectivity.

Liveability, which measures the comfort of ordinary, and hence the majority, of a city's inhabitants, is the most relevant approach.

This new index which you worked on also takes into account median income. What does median income tell us about a city's liveability?

Median income tells us more about the liveability of ordinary - and hence, the majority - of a city's inhabitants. They shape the character, content and lifestyle of each city, be it big or small, developed or developing, in any corner of the world.

There are quite a few city rankings out there. What is the benefit of having these indices?

Typically, the different city ranking indices each have certain narrow objectives or criteria in mind.

For example, certain city indices were constructed to provide guidance for multinational corporations as to how to remunerate and compensate their expats sent to a particular city, through ranking its cost of living and purchasing power and wages. Another city ranking index may simply try to measure the liveability of the city by ranking its ability to respond and overcome natural disasters, through crisis management.

With the Global Liveable Cities Index, we are - through the relative ranking of 64 major world cities - highlighting a city's clout in the world by benchmarking liveability in a globalised world.

The aim is to encourage more liveable cities for more inhabitants through peer pressure and contest.

After all, globalisation nowadays is increasingly taking place not just at the national level but even more rapidly at city level, championed by dynamic mayors.

The GLC Index ranks Singapore third. What are Singapore's weakest areas and how can it improve?

Singapore is ranked 14th in the category of indicators under environmental friendliness and sustainability, which covers pollution, depletion of natural resources and environment policy initiatives.

There are quite a number of indicators on which Singapore fares well, but statistics for these are not available for most cities; hence, we did not use it in the ranking exercise.

The second stage of the study is therefore to collect and survey other cities on these indicators so as to ensure more consistent comparability.

How do you expect the order of the cities to change two years from now, when your next ranking is due?

On the other four broad categories of indicators - economic vibrancy, cultural diversity and social harmony, safety and security, governance and effective leadership - Singapore ranked among the top positions of 64 global cities.

We do expect their relative positions to be maintained; hence, overall ranking should not change drastically. A city's liveability is not built overnight and neither would it become unliveable within a short time.

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Clouded leopard caught on camera in Sabah forest

The Star 3 Jul 12;

Rare shot: The clouded leopard which was captured on camera in Sabah’s Malua Forest Reserve.

KOTA KINABALU: The elusive clouded leopard has been caught on camera as it roamed the Malua Forest Reserve close to the well-known Tabin Wildlife Reserve in Lahad Datu.

The clouded leopard, which is the biggest cat in Borneo jungles, was captured by a camera trap set up by Cardiff University student Penny Gardner, who was doing a study on wild cattle known as banteng or tembadau.

The pictures, which were uploaded to the Danau Girang Field Centre’s Facebook page, showed wild animals including the bearded pig, Borneo pygmy elephant, crested fireback bird and orang utan in the wild around the Malua forest.

According to Gardner, the large clouded leopard was caught by a camera set up next to a logging road in the Malua forest area.

Her camera snapped the elusive cat on June 22 and the pictures were uploaded to Facebook two days ago.

The clouded leopard population on Borneo island is estimated to be around 5,000.

Meanwhile, Sabah Wildlife Department field veterinarian Dr Sen Nathan said that it was a chance find.

He said the clouded leopard had always been elusive and capturing it on camera in the wild was very rare.

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Malaysia: Shrimp ponds posing a threat to firefly colony

S. Ista Kyra New Straits Times 3 Jul 12;

CALL FOR HELP: Villagers want govt to act quickly

TAIPING: ON a moonless night, most fishermen would not risk going to the river without a torchlight.

But for those in Kampung Dew, near here, it is the best time to enjoy the luminescence from thousands of fireflies on the trees lining the banks of Sungai Sepetang.

Fisherman Yusop Ishak, or Wahab as he is fondly known as, recalled a time when the natural glow from the insects was so bright that it was redundant to rely on any equipment for light.

"It was not necessary to hold a torchlight or lantern to manoeuvre in the river.

"It was bright enough for us to see what catch we had netted in our traps.

"But that was more than 50 years ago."

The 60-year-old, who was born and bred in the village, said the scene remained the same today, albeit with a slightly lower luminosity.

"The firefly population was at its peak back then and the residents have been carefully trying to preserve their number.

"We know there are at least some 140 trees here which are frequently lit up with the glow of the insects."

However, Yusop has noticed that the number of fireflies has been dropping since last year following the establishment of commercial shrimp ponds in the area.

Representative for the education, awareness and publicity of Kampung Dew fireflies, Shukor Ishak, 42, said pollution from the shrimp ponds had affected the ecosystem and the firefly habitat.

"The shrimp pond tanks are cleaned and disinfected with lime water solutions and other chemicals.

"These are then disposed of into the river without being treated and without any filtration system, causing pollution."

There are about 46 shrimp ponds spread over 35ha.

"We suspect the pollution is killing a species of snails which the fireflies feed on.

"The snails are usually found at the base of Nipah trees and known to be sensitive to water conditions.

"Since these snails are diminishing in number, the firefly colony is also getting smaller," he said.

Shukor said a study conducted by Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia and the Malaysian Nature Society showed that no other animals in the area were preying on the fireflies.

"Therefore, in order to maintain the colony of fireflies, we need to only ensure that the balance in their habitat is not disturbed."

He said in February, village representatives had met state government officials to ask for at least 50m of the river banks be gazetted to prevent further encroachment by commercial shrimp ponds and other activities that might disturb the fireflies.

"However, we have not heard anything from them since."

Shukor said gazetting was important to the villagers who depended on the firefly attraction to boost their income.

He said there were some 100 households in the village, comprising mostly fishermen, who doubled up as tourist guides during the holiday season.

"At least 21 of them have been trained and qualified to give explanations about the insects to local and foreign tourists.

"They are also able to take tourists to view other animal attractions here, such as rare birds and crocodiles.

"The demand for their services is strong, especially foreigners from Canada and the United States."

Shukor pointed out that during the promotions for Visit Perak Year 2012, Kampung Dew was named as having the highest tourism potential in the state.

He, however, said there was a need to upgrade facilities in the village to better cater for tourists.

"Currently, tourists who visit have to spend the night in Taiping or Penang as there are no homestays available here.

"There is a lack of funding to create basic amenities such as toilets and a proper parking area."

Shukor said despite the firefly jetty being located just 100m from the North-South Expressway's Taiping Utara toll plaza exit, signboards to the place were obscure.

"We hope the state government will help us in providing assistance to upgrade facilities as well as protect the firefly colony here from disappearing."

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Malaysia: Shark saviour - Scott Cassell

Tan Cheng Li The Star 3 Jul 12;

Over-fishing of sharks is upsetting the delicate balance of species composition in the oceans and one man wants to do something about it.

WHEN a ferry sank off Batangas, the Philippines in late 2009, rescuers witnessed a gory scene: giant squids feeding on the victims. The sighting was proof that the man-sized Humboldt squids do attack humans, but it also raised one pertinent question: What were the squids doing there when they had never been sighted in the area before?

That observation reaffirms that the cephalopod, which can grow up to over 2m long, is invading many of the world’s seas.

First described in 1635 from the seas off Peru, they used to be confined to the Pacific coast of South America. In recent years, however, they have spread as far north as North America and Alaska, and across the Bering Sea to Russia. And now they’ve worked their way over to Asia.

The squid invasion has puzzled scientists for years, with some attributing the phenomenon to warming seas. Ocean activist and researcher Scott Cassell, who has studied the squids for over 15 years, however, points to another environmentally tragic cause. He says the squids got this big and this widespread, because their natural predators, sharks and tunas, have been fished out.

“They never used to be in these many places. The reason they’re there now is because of the reduction of sharks. Each female Humboldt squid reproduces some 20 million eggs and with fewer predators to keep them in check, a massive population explosion has occurred. As we remove sharks from the sea, we are getting a replacement by a different species,” says California-based Cassell, one of few researchers to have filmed the jumbo squids in their natural environment.

“The hammerhead shark, one of the squid’s primary predators, gives birth to just 20 pups on average in a litter. So you can imagine, with these statistics, how ecologically and economically devastating a continued explosion in Humboldt squid can be,” says Cassell, who was recently in Sabah for a quick survey of the reefs of Sipadan and Mabul islands, as part of the Save the Sea project by watch company Luminox (see story on page 6).

A self-described “ocean warrior”, Cassell has an unwavering commitment: the protection of the world’s oceans and their inhabitants. He heads two organisations: Sea Wolves Unlimited gathers evidence to bring poachers and polluters to justice while Undersea Voyager Project helps marine researchers, students and “citizen scientists” explore the marine realm through dives in a submersible. Documentaries of his marine exploits have aired on various TV channels, including the Discovery Channel, Animal Planet, NatGeo, and BBC.

Squid invasion

The squids are not something we want to have plenty of. They are said to have caused declines in catches of food species like salmon, hake and anchovy.

“The squids are voracious eaters,” says Cassell. “They eat every species they encounter that can’t swim faster. I’ve seem them eat fish, jelly fish, coral, shrimp, even sea lions. They vacumn-up everything in their path. When they’re gone, they leave behind a desert.”

And of course, they attack humans. Cassell knows this only too well. “I have had as many as a thousand squids as big as people, swimming around me, attacking me. They have dislocated my right arm, blown out my right eardrum. The scars on my face were caused by the ring teeth of the squids.”

In contrast to the devastating nature of Humboldt squids, sharks are vital to the health of the oceans. As apex predators, they keep fish populations in balance. The disappearance of sharks will send ripples throughout the marine food chain, as seen in the population explosion of the squids.

When shark numbers drop, ecosystems can collapse, warns Cassell.

“If we eat one shark, there are 50 to 60 other animals in the reef that will die because of the imbalance. So one shark can cause the death of many thousands of animals below it. The case of the Humboldt squid population explosion and the over-fishing of sharks send a message about the sea’s fragility and the intricate inter-dependency of the global food chain.”

To illustrate this point, he says that when you eat sharks and tunas, you are responsible for grizzly bears attacking people in Alaska. Here’s why: When sharks and tunas are over-fished, other animals that they normally eat grow in numbers, such as the Humboldt squids. Wild salmon are naturally programmed to swim upriver to spawn but before they do, they stay in the brackish water of the river mouth to acclimate first. While there, however, they are gulped down by huge schools of squids.

This never happened in the past as the squids were never there before. Now, when the bears wake up from their winter hibernation, there are barely any salmon in the river. They begin to starve and start venturing into human settlements, in search of food. This has led to more encounters with humans and, hence, more attacks.

“So, people who are eating sharks are responsible for people being attacked by bears. You can’t eat a shark without affecting something else,” says Cassell, who made the link three years ago in a documentary for National Geographic.

It is estimated that some 73 million sharks are killed each year just for their fins. Approximately 97% of the blue shark population in the Catalina Channel off California has been killed over the last 20 years, the same period during which Asia has had a wonderful economic spike. The current population of hammerhead sharks along the Pacific coast of the United States is only 10% of what it was 30 years ago.

No more sharks

A sea emptied of its sharks came to light during Cassell’s shark survey last September in the waters off California. He encountered no sharks during his 11 hours underwater in the record-breaking “30-Mile Dive” from Catalina Island to San Pedro. Cassell would see 40 to 100 sharks in a single dive there less than two decades ago.

“It was the perfect time of the year and the exact location known for a high density of sharks. I should have seen hundreds but I didn’t see a single one. I felt like I was swimming through a graveyard of my friends.”

To help the environment, Cassell says we have to leave the sharks alone.

“I understand that shark fin soup has an established place in traditional Chinese cuisine but consumption levels have become unsustainable. I’m sure you don’t want to see a world or your next generation to inherit a world where the shark is extinct, and the Humboldt squid takes over.”

Signs of strain

In the waters off Pulau Mabul on the south-east coast of Sabah, the effect of shark over-fishing is already visible to Cassell. Diving there last month, he observed a proliferation of parrot fish – the biggest single schools he has ever seen. “This is not a natural population,” he asserts. “Why are there so many parrot fish here? Because they’re no sharks to eat them.”

Parrot fish may be pretty to look at but they feed on corals. So, an abundance of them means that corals are constantly being chewed up. In the past, dynamite fishing devastated much of the reefs of Mabul, and now, the feeding frenzy of large schools of parrot fish is adding to the damage. The seascape here is pretty barren save for small mounds of corals, and even these have gnaw marks on them.

“This reef is dying, and it has a lot to do with the death of the top predator,” says Cassell. He also notes that the corals were covered in dirt. “That’s not normal. A lot of these corals have been wounded, so their polyps aren’t strong enough to shove off the dirt. If you go to the Bahamas, you don’t see this. The corals clean themselves like how a cat does.”

Over at the island of Sipadan, he gladly notes that sharks still roam the reef but he counts only six of them during one dive – white tip, reef and silky sharks. “There should have been 10 times more in such a reef. The population of sharks here is painfully low. Someone is still actively wiping them out a few kilometres out. In healthy reefs which I have dived in the Caribbean, Bahamas, Africa, Atlantic ... they all have more sharks than here.”

His trip to Sabah was also to explore the possibility of a shark survey, similar to last year’s 30-Mile Dive project. In that mission, he swam in the Catalina Channel at depths of between 6m and 10m for some 11 hours, using a computer-controlled mixed-gas rebreather.

He is keen to study the sharks of Sabah, as there is potential over-fishing of the hammerhead shark, one of the Humboldt squid’s primary predator.

“Sabah is one of Asia’s last strongholds of the hammerhead shark and we need them to ensure that a similar Humboldt squid population explosion does not happen in Asian waters and threaten the livelihood of Asia’s fisheries. Sharks are a lot more valuable alive than dead.

“You have a beautiful ecosystem ... why not build up the ecotourism industry? Draw the tourist dollars by protecting your sharks. They are needed to ensure your oceans’ ecosystems stay healthy and beautiful and to keep away the Humboldt Squid from the types of fish you love to eat.”

Hunting the hunters

Diving since 1977, Cassell, 50, has chalked up over 14,000 hours underwater. His fascination with the ocean was triggered by the movie 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea when he was six.

“As I watched the giant squid attack the submarine Nautilus, I knew then and there that my life would involve the ocean, submersibles, and the giant squid!”

By the age of 15, he had become a commercial diver-welder and soon thereafter, a US Coast Guard-rated submersible pilot-captain. This paved the way to a career as a counter-terrorism combat diver in the US Army and eventually, “ocean warrior” as he puts it.

The turning point towards ocean activism came 15 years ago. Try as hard as he might, Cassell could not film the rarest fish in the world, the Mexican totoaba – not alive anyway, as he could never see one unless it was dead in a poacher’s net. Also in the nets were dead dolphins, extremely rare vaquita porpoises, sea lions and sharks.

“The poachers were killing everything around and no one seemed to care. So I went to work filming poachers killing rare, endangered and protected species and anonymously delivered it to the government and legal bodies.”

Having spent 20 years in the military, three of those in combat, Cassell has had some tragic experiences and these have influenced his crusade to save the seas.

“I’ve seen adults using machetes to kill children, innocent women being gunned down in the street, explosions going off and killing innocent people walking by. When I see innocent people die, I get pissed off. I hate a bully. I feel the same way when I see people killing sharks, sea turtles and dolphins. I see bad people behaving badly, killing things that are needed to keep the ocean in balance. That’s why I hunt poachers.”

His gentle demeanour and boyish good looks belie the tough guy underneath – one trained in anti-terrorism skills that he uses in the hunt for poachers. In a typical operation, his partner would drop him off in the open ocean in the dark. Cassell then quietly swims ashore to the poachers’ camp and hides in the bushes – sometimes for as long as two days, without eating or drinking. He then films the poachers breaking the law.

“I’ve done this, like, 20 times. I’ve come back with 300 ant bites and each one of them infected. I always come back wounded, I always come back sick. But I’ll never stop. I’d do it again. That’s how much I love sharks, that’s how much I love sea turtles, that’s how much I love the sea.”

He often sneaks out into the sea at night to cut nets and traps to release trapped animals, or to drag nets ashore and burn them. As he has no power of arrest, he can only gather evidence, which he passes on to the authorities. To date, he has helped put 11 poachers in prison and another 14 are facing prosecution. These are cases in Mexico, Central and South America, and Alaska.

“That’s all the money I have for. I’d go all over the world to do this but I’m only one person,” he says, dejectedly.

To safeguard himself, he cannot reveal much about these cases but he discloses that in one, he filmed poachers catching sea turtles in the Sea of Cortez off Mexico. They killed over 400 sea turtles in four weeks.

“Some 30,000 turtles are killed every year and sent to China just from the waters off the Baja Peninsula (in Mexico). The odds aren’t good for the sea turtle, which is why I make these people afraid to go to sleep at night, as they’ll never know if I’m out there looking at them.”

In the hunt for poachers, he has been shot at, has had a boat-hook lodge in his chest, and has been almost run over by a boat.

“Yes. I can die doing this. However, I will never stop. As long as I live I will be able to look anyone in the eye and tell them I have done the most I could with my resources as long as I could without fail. A warrior never gives up.”

Undoing Jaws

One poacher whom Cassell wows to track down is the one who killed Spots, a great white shark found off Baja which he had filmed for various documentaries. The 5m-long and 1,570kg fish was found washed ashore dead and minus her fins in April.

“For 20 years, I looked forward to seeing her swim by in majestic beauty. I would scratch her, ride on her back. I would play with this magnificent fish because not once has she made an aggressive move towards me. Millions of people have seen her on TV. Not only was she my friend, she was a magnificent ambassador for the sea, showing that great whites have a gentle side, have individual personalities and show more intelligence than we ever knew they possessed,” says Cassell, who still tears up when he talks about it.

Now, he is terrified that the same thing would happen to Emma, a 450kg tiger shark in the Bahamas, with whom he plays catch with, with an old licence plate. Cassell’s interaction with Spots and Emma serves to dispel the fearsome reputation of sharks, thanks to the ferocious image given to the creatures in movies like Jaws.

“Sharks are not man-eaters. Yes, there have been attacks on surfers by great white sharks but it is more often than not a case of mistaken identity, as surfing boards look like their natural prey, seals and sea lions. If people who eat shark fin soup saw me rolling Emma upside down and patting her belly, they wouldn’t want to kill her. Worldwide, approximately 10 people a year are killed by sharks, but three sharks are killed every second by humans.”

While some purists disagree with the handling of wild animals, Cassell thinks otherwise.

“I never pursue an animal. I let the animal come to me. I spend time with it so that the animal becomes curious about me, and we end up touching each other. It is important that people see human animal interaction, so that they will want to save the animal.”

What worries Cassell now are the changes taking place in the chemistry of the ocean.

“Studies show that over 70% of the planet’s oxygen is generated from the ocean. Plankton are at the greatest risk of ocean acidification, and it is the plankton that creates that oxygen. Plankton die-off is like a nightmare. I wake up in the middle of the night and I can’t sleep for hours because I’m thinking about how I can help.

“I’ve seen the ocean change colour and this happens because pollution and carbon dioxide in the water allow certain things to grow and certain things to die. It’s like the ocean is feeling a fever and getting sick. If you were ill right now, I’d do anything to make you better. It’s the same with the ocean for me. But she’s huge, and millions of people are inflicting damage.”

He says dives made in many regions of the US Pacific coast as part of the Underwater Voyager Programme have found the ocean to be full of microscopic plastic dust, and very likely all species of fish are either exposed to or possibly have even ingested these toxins.

“The sea is a living organism that gives all of mankind life. It is a creature and we’re wounding her badly. This place needs love and attention.”

It’s about our survival

But some things give him hope, like the e-mail he received from a teenager in Beijing, who, after learning about the 30-Mile Dive project, started an anti-shark fin soup campaign.

Also, the Underwater Voyager Programme has discovered a new species of protist (unicellular microscopic organisms) and submerged ancient forests in an alpine lake.

What’s more, almost every child he spoke to during the organisation’s outreach programme wants to be an explorer or scientist to help save the oceans. “It gives me great hope for the future ... if we can just keep the oceans alive long enough for the new generation of scientists to develop.”

Cassell shuns red meat and fish, and eats only chicken and vegetables. To protect everything in the sea, he says we can start by not netting sharks.

“We should seriously think about fishing all of the oceans. People who are killing sharks, people who are eating sharks, are in the chain of responsibility for what is destroying the ocean. Sharks keep reefs safe. Without sharks, reefs decay, Humboldt squids take over, complete ecosystem break down will occur, and in the ensuing chain reaction, who knows what the effect will be on humankind. But evidence from scientists is saying that it will cause the extinction of most life on the planet. It really is connected that closely.”

This warrior has dedicated his life to saving the oceans, and he says that is because “the oceans need to survive if we hope to.”

For more on Scott Cassell, go to

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Australia: Wetlands no longer a shore thing

Geoff Maslen The Age 3 Jul 12;

SOME parts of Victoria's coast have lost more than 60 per cent of the salt marsh and mangrove areas that flourished before European colonisation, according to Australia's first large-scale study of coastal wetlands by Victoria University researchers.

Backed by a $470,000 grant from the National Heritage Trust's Strategic Reserve, the team spent months exploring Victoria's coastlines, studying the different types of wetland vegetation and poring over maps drawn by early surveyors to obtain accurate details of the wetlands that had disappeared.

Professor Paul Boon, from the university's institute for sustainability and innovation, undertook the project with colleagues from a range of government and consulting organisations. He says salt marshes, mangroves and other types of estuarine wetlands once covered nearly 300 square kilometres of Victoria's coastal areas.
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Those that remain are critical habitats for a large number of birds, including those stopping over on cross-hemisphere migrations or locals such as the critically endangered orange-bellied parrot, which winter on the marshes.

"The wetlands are also particularly important for providing habitats for small invertebrates and fish which, when they mature, then move into the estuaries on out-going tides," Professor Boon says.

"Since the arrival of Europeans, however, large areas of the salt marshes and mangroves have been displaced as land was cleared for agriculture, the development of cities and towns, ports and industrial complexes."

His study found the western shore of Port Phillip Bay has suffered a 50 per cent depletion of its wetlands, the Lonsdale Lakes area on the Bellarine Peninsula a 60 per cent loss and the Powlett-Kilcunda and Anderson Inlet sectors of the South Gippsland coast up to 65 per cent. Some inlets, such as Shallow Inlet on the South Gippsland coast, lost all their mangroves after Europeans arrived.

"The marshes which originally occurred in inner Melbourne and around the port have been destroyed by the growing city while those of Altona retain much of their area but have been corralled within a largely suburban landscape," Professor Boon says. "The Cheetham wetland at the mouth of Skeleton Creek has been almost entirely converted to salt evaporation ponds and the upper marsh has been replaced by the Sanctuary Lakes housing development."

He says that on the Western Port coast at Lang Lang "phenomenal land erosion" is taking place and sweeping salt marsh and agricultural land into the bay. The sediment is also affecting sea grasses, which have suffered over the past three decades because of increasing turbidity. Suspended material in the water prevents light reaching the sea grasses and, because they can't photosynthesise, they die. Yet the sea grasses are essential for recreational fishing and protecting the sea bed against erosion.

Worse is to come for the wetlands that remain. Climate change is inducing sea level rises around the world while increasingly frequent and bigger storm surges will carry seawater further inland. Professor Boon says these will be just as important for their ecological as well as their social and economic significance.

That's because, if predicted rates of sea-level rise are realised, much of Victoria's public land that now support inter-tidal vegetation will be inundated. When that happens, conservation of salt marshes and mangroves will require large areas of currently freehold or leasehold land to be set aside so they can shift inland.

Around coastal cities and towns, however, salt marshes and mangroves cannot shift to escape the rising seas because of stone walls, expensive houses, industrial estates or land that has been cleared for agriculture. Professor Boon says this means the salt marshes will be trapped between increasing sea levels and a mangrove community that has become more vigorous.

Mangroves are limited in southern Australia by low winter temperatures and frosts. But, as water and air temperatures rise, it is likely mangroves will extend their range. He says in New South Wales mangroves are already pushing into other areas, possibly because of higher temperatures but also because more sediment is flowing down rivers — a result of more episodic storms and bushfires.

"Salt marshes will be caught between a rock and a hard place — literally," he says. "I did my PhD in Queensland on sea grasses, then came to Monash to do post-doctoral research on salt marshes in the mid-1980s yet there has been little investment in research into coastal wetlands in southern Australia since then.

"That's in contrast to the millions spent on the Murray-Darling Basin scheme and recent findings from the United Kingdom that coastal wetlands are roughly three times as valuable as an equivalent area of inland freshwater marsh."

"Our project showed how important salt marshes and mangroves are, especially for preventing soil erosion: one of the best ways to protect the inland from storm surges is to have a wide belt of active wetland vegetation that muffles its energy. Another is the way the marshes intercept nutrients coming off the hinterland into coastal areas; if this doesn't happen, algal blooms occur in the sea and indirectly cause the loss of sea grasses which are shaded out. And a third one is providing habitat for our own and the migratory birds as well as all the invertebrates and young fish."

Professor Boon says the problem for the salt marshes and mangroves is that they belong to a part of the environment where traditionally refineries, housing estates and ports are located, where channels are dredged for shipping — all without adequate consideration given to the ecological implications.

"Estuaries have fallen between two stools: there is a lot of strong marine research in Australia as well as a lot of strong freshwater work whereas the estuaries and coastal wetlands have missed out. Management authorities used to look at the hinterland for agricultural purposes and freshwater areas for irrigation impacts but no one looks at the coastal lands. Yet these are the regions where most of us live or where we take our holidays and that's the part that's going to hit by climate change."

Professor Boon has not long returned from an international conference on wetlands in America. There he heard a report by Dr Stefan Rahmstorf from the Potsdam Institute outside Berlin, who is widely respected for his "level-headed predictions and models" of sea level rises. Dr Rahmstorf now says sea levels will rise by an average of at least a metre before the end of the century while a rise of at least 1.5 metres "is not out of the realms of possibility".

"But the situation depends on a large number of local factors, too, such as whether the coasts themselves are rising or falling because of continental plate movement and other regional influences," Professor Boon says. "Most of northern Australia is sinking as the Australian tectonic plate collides with Asia whereas in the south, as in Gippsland, the coast may be subsiding because of anthropogenic factors such as oil extraction. That would give us a double whammy — rising sea levels and a subsiding coast ..."

* The Victoria University report can be downloaded at

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Whaling nations defeat proposed Atlantic sanctuary

Shaun Tandon AFP Yahoo News 3 Jul 12;

Japan and its allies shot down a Latin American-led proposal to create a sanctuary for whales in the southern Atlantic Ocean, reigniting international tensions over Tokyo's whaling.

The International Whaling Commission, which has long been torn by disputes, fell into familiar divisions just hours after officials opened the main session of their week-long annual meeting in Panama City.

Argentina, Brazil, South Africa and Uruguay put forward a proposal to declare the southern Atlantic a no-kill zone for whales, a largely symbolic measure as whaling ended there long ago.

Thirty-eight countries voted in favor of the measure and 21 voted against, with two abstentions. Under commission rules, proposals need to enjoy a "consensus" of 75 percent support for approval.

Jose Truda Palazzo, who spearheaded the proposal for the Atlantic sanctuary when he was Brazil's representative to the International Whaling Commission, blamed nations that receive Japanese aid for scuttling the proposal.

"Japan doesn't want to give an inch on anything that may compromise their ability to roam the world doing whaling as they see fit," said Truda Palazzo, who is now at Brazil's non-governmental Cetacean Conservation Center.

"You can't really believe that Nauru or Tuvalu has an interest or has studied the sanctuary. They are voting because Japan tells them to."

But environmentalists saw some silver lining, saying the proposal was enjoying growing support. At last year's meeting held on the English Channel island of Jersey, whaling nations walked out to prevent a vote on the Atlantic sanctuary.

Japan each year kills hundreds of whales in Antarctic waters that are already considered a sanctuary, infuriating Australia and New Zealand, where whale-watching is a lucrative industry.

Japan, whose Antarctic expeditions are routinely hindered by the militant US-based Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, says it is technically abiding by a 1986 moratorium on commercial whaling as its activities are for research.

The International Whaling Commission allows lethal science on the ocean giants, with the meat then going to consumption.

Japan argues that whaling is part of its culture and accuses Western nations of insensitivity. Environmentalists say few Japanese eat whale and that the country's position is driven by its powerful fishing industry.

Norway and Iceland are the only countries that openly defy the commercial whaling moratorium, although their hunts are confined to nearby waters. The two countries also voted against the proposed Atlantic sanctuary.

China, Russia and South Korea -- which all have faced friction in the past over their fishing industries -- also opposed the Atlantic sanctuary.

South Korean delegate Kang Joon-Suk told the session that the International Whaling Commission needed to move beyond its divisions and support both "conservation and sustainable use" of whales.

Monaco, which despite its small size has been assertive on whale conservation, submitted a proposal that would invite the United Nations to take a role in enforcing the authority of the International Whaling Commission.

"The main problem facing this commission, in our analysis, is that its own resolutions are ignored by its members," Monaco's delegate Frederic Briand said, referring to Japan's whaling in the Antarctic sanctuary.

Japan, meanwhile, said it would seek to hold Commission meetings every other year instead of annually.

"The friction between countries that have a cultural demand (for whaling), like Japan, and nations that do not, has weakened the substance of International Whaling Commission," Takahiro Sasaki, senior vice minister of agriculture, forestry and fisheries, told reporters before the talks.

Delegates are set Tuesday to look at new quotas by the United States, Russia, Greenland and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines for whaling by aboriginal peoples.

Most whaling opponents do not seek to block small-scale aboriginal hunts as they do not threaten whale populations. But environmentalists have questioned the authenticity of claims by Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, a small Caribbean nation, that it has an indigenous whaling tradition.

Whale sanctuary bid for South Atlantic falls short
Richard Black BBC News 2 Jul 12;

A proposal to declare a whale sanctuary in the South Atlantic Ocean has been defeated at the International Whaling Commission (IWC) annual meeting.

Latin American countries argued that declaring a sanctuary would help whale conservation and whale-watching.

The bid gained more than half of the votes but fell short of the three-quarters majority needed to pass.

Observers noted that the vote was orderly and without rancour, in marked contrast with previous years.

Further votes at the meeting in Panama are anticipated, on issues ranging from subsistence hunting by indigenous peoples to whether the United Nations should be asked to take charge of whale conservation.

Marcos Pinta Gama, Brazil's commissioner to the IWC, said he was disappointed by the result, but pleased that the vote had happened.

"We believe that the sanctuary is a very important initiative in order to ensure the protection of whales within the whole South Atlantic, to promote the non-lethal use of cetaceans and and benign research that's important for conserving whales," he told BBC News.

Whale-watching and ecotourism, he said, were becoming important industries for coastal communities.

"In many countries including Brazil, those activities are bringing in financial resources to local communities, it's really expanding, and we think the sanctuary would very much strengthen this kind of activity in the region."

The proposal covered almost the entire Atlantic Ocean south of the Equator, from the west coast of Africa to the east coast of South America.

It would have joined up with the two existing whale sanctuaries approved by the IWC, in the Southern and Indian Oceans.

However, delegations opposing the motion said there was no need for it.
'Symbolic issue'

They pointed out that countries such as Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil can do what they want in their coastal waters where whale-watching takes place, and that there is no whale hunting in the region anyway.

A Japanese statement said that as there is already a global moratorium on commercial whaling, adding a sanctuary here was unnecessary - "building a roof on top of a roof".

And Joanne Massiah, minister of state for Antigua and Barbuda and the Caribbean nation's IWC commissioner, described the sanctuary proposal as "a feel-good, self-serving measure".

Even some delegates voting for the sanctuary said in private that it was principally a symbolic issue.

However, Mr Pinta Gama said the sanctuary would enable better conservation of migratory species that might not be hunted in the South Atlantic but were under threat elsewhere.

With 38 votes in favour and 21 against, the bid failed to pass the three-quarters threshold.

For the rest of the week, most attention will fall on whaling by indigenous groups - mainly in the Arctic, but also in the Caribbean.

Denmark, on behalf of its territory of Greenland, has submitted a bid to increase the number of whales hunted by Inuit people.

But some other nations, including EU members, are concerned by a recent report that found whalemeat on sale to tourists, raising questions over whether the Greenlanders really need quotas as large as those they currently have.

The EU is supposed to maintain a united front in forums such as the IWC, and a joint position is being decided back in Brussels.

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