Monthly Archives: September 1996

Long-line fishing hooks threaten mighty albatross

Published September 30, 1996 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©1996 Susan Scott

WHILE visiting Midway about a year ago, I saw a black-footed albatross with both ends of an enormous hook poking out of its neck. The bird seemed unfazed by this involuntary body-piercing. It strutted the nesting grounds like an outlaw. “Stand back,” the albatross seemed to say. “I’m bad.”

Even though the bird was apparently unharmed, refuge manager Ken Neithammer decided the hook must go. It was both a handicap and a potential danger for this native seabird.

Three people worked to remove the 3-inch-long hook, embedded in the superficial flesh of the animal’s neck. When the bird was released, it huffed away, disgruntled but healthy looking.

I picked up the beefy hook and turned it over in my hand. “This is some hook,” I said.

“It’s from a long-line fishing boat,” Ken said.

“I thought long-line hooks hung down really deep,” I said. “How would the bird get to it?”

“They dive for the bait as the fishermen set them out.”

“Is this common?” I asked.

Ken waved his hand over the black-footed albatross nesting grounds. “No one knows. But the number of birds in these nesting grounds is dropping each year. We’re worried.”

TODAY, wildlife managers are worried more than ever. The rate at which albatrosses and other seabirds are being killed on long-line fish hooks worldwide is so high that some species are approaching extinction. The world population of the wandering albatross, a southern hemisphere bird, has declined 41 percent in the last 30 years.

Wandering albatrosses continue to dwindle about 10 percent per year, a rate that can’t go on much longer if the species is to survive.

Other albatrosses, such as our black-footed albatross, and the critically endangered short-tailed albatross (only about 600 remain), also are suffering severe losses from long-line hooks.

Long-line fishermen are getting the word about this problem. In Australia and New Zealand, laws already mandate that fishing lines have bird-avoidance gear on them. No such laws exist in the United States, but unless long-liners voluntarily adopt seabird preservation measures, it’s inevitable.

LAST week, Honolulu workers from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Western Fisheries Management Council had a meeting with Hawaii’s long-line fishermen to discuss the problem and ways around it. The point is to stop catching seabirds before the problem causes more trouble for both the birds and the fishery.

The fishermen, who seemed interested and willing, don’t want to catch seabirds. Not only does it waste bait and time, the fishermen need these birds to show them where the fish are.

At little or no cost, long-liners can nip this problem on their own. They can:

 Set long-line gear at night. Albatrosses are most active during the day and at dusk.

 Decrease lights that illuminate the water at night. Lights only help the birds find the bait.

 Throw hooks into the water from the lee side of the boat. Hooks sink faster there than on the turbulent windward side.

 Haul in gear as fast as possible and keep the line coming up at a steep angle to the surface.

 Thaw bait completely. Frozen bait floats.

 Only buy bait with deflated swim bladders. Air trapped in bait bodies makes them float.

At some cost to fishermen, they can:

 Buy and use bird lines. These contain lightweight flags that scare off birds.

 Use weighted hooks to help them sink faster.

Albatrosses, the legendary guardians of the ocean and seamen, are in big trouble. If long-line fishermen don’t take care of this problem, the federal government surely will.

 

Ancient Jewish command on shellfish makes sense

Published September 23, 1996 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©1996 Susan Scott

Today is Yom Kippur, the most important holiday in Judaism. Some people fast on this day to atone for their sins.

This fasting practice got me wondering about other Jewish food restrictions, shellfish in particular. I called a Jewish friend.

“Why don’t Jews eat shellfish?” I asked.

“Shellfish are scavengers,” he said. “It’s healthier not to eat them.”

“Was it a health issue when it started?”

My friend wasn’t sure, so he referred me to Rabbi Avi Magid of Temple Emanu-el.

“It’s more a philosophy than a health issue,” Rabbi Magid told me. “Jews have a maxim: You are what you eat – and that was long before Frank Zappa was around. So we don’t eat animals that prey on other animals, either dead or alive. That includes shellfish and fish without scales.”

“Is there a Bible passage about this?”

“Yes. Leviticus 11, verses 9-12: “These you may eat of all that are in the water: whatever … has fins and scales… that you may eat. But in all the seas or in the rivers that do not have fins and scales… they are an abomination to you… you shall not eat their flesh.”

This ancient command makes sense. I once traveled to a remote seaside village in the Philippines with Vernon Ansdell, a Hawaii physician who specializes in tropical medicine.

We had just been served steaming platters of enormous red shrimp, which I piled high on my plate.

Vernon leaned close to my ear as I was peeling my first shrimp. “Those are filter feeders,” he whispered.

“What?” I said.

“Consider where we are,” he said. “They don’t have sewage treatment plants in these villages.” His plate held only rice and cooked greens.

I couldn’t gracefully return my shrimp to the serving plate, and I had trouble choking them down. It was the last time I ate shellfish in a developing country.

What diseases can you get from eating these scavengers? It depends, of course, on what’s in the water the animals are filtering and how thoroughly they are cooked during preparation. Heat kills most viruses and bacteria, but some shellfish are savored raw or undercooked.

Hepatitis is one notorious illness that can accumulate in shellfish growing in areas where untreated sewage gets into the ocean.

This was the disease Vernon was most worried about during our Philippines trip, where we were served shellfish at nearly every meal.

Clams and oysters sometimes carry diseases closer to home.

On both U.S. coasts, entire shellfish beds are sometimes closed to harvesting due to red tide, a flood of toxin-bearing marine organisms. Red tides cause shellfish poisoning when people eat contaminated bivalves. Cooking does not destroy this toxin.

Vibrio, a brand of bacteria that live naturally in warm seawater, can also get into oysters, crabs and other shellfish.

People in California and Florida have died from Vibrio vulnificus infections after eating raw oysters. (Vibrio is killed with thorough cooking.) All the infected oysters came from restaurants or markets.

In Japan, where people eat large amounts of raw seafood, Vibrio parahaemolyticus is a common cause of food-borne diarrheal illness.

This infection is rarely diagnosed in the United States. However, in 1972, Hawaii experienced a significant outbreak. Thirty-one people suffered diarrhea after eating raw crabs infected with Vibrio parahaemolyticus. All survived.

Shunning shellfish may be a fundamental religious principle for Jews, but sometimes, it’s also a healthy choice.

Plover monograph must be ordered from mainland

Published September 16, 1996 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser
©1996 Susan Scott

My desk is piled high with notes to myself and tidbits of marine news. The biggest note says, “Plover monograph.” This refers to the 10 or so calls I received from readers asking for information about a golden plover monograph I mentioned in a recent column.

There’s good news and bad news about this publication. The bad news is local bookstores can’t get it. This means you have to order it from the mainland, which adds about $5 to the already hefty $15 price.

The good news is I tracked down two 800-number places that can be called to order it. One is Buteo Books in Virginia (800-722-2460); the other is American Birding Association Sales (800-634-7736). Ask for monograph #201-202 (American and Pacific Golden Plover) in The Birds of North America published by The Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia (1996).

The up-to-date information in this 40-page reference is worth the cost.

You can’t beat the price of the Waikiki Aquarium’s docent training program – it’s free. Celebrate the Year of the Coral Reef and get a marine biology fix at the same time by volunteering for this comprehensive education program.

The five-week training program begins October 8. Classes are taught by the education staff Tuesday and Thursday evenings from 7 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. and Saturdays 8:30 a.m. to noon.

As a volunteer docent, you learn about Hawaii’s marine environment, then share that knowledge with students and teachers. For more information, or for a brochure featuring the aquarium’s fall activities and field trips, call 923-9741.

Here’s a piece of marine biology information to share: The U.S. Navy has asked for a type of patent on a method of teaching beluga whales to fetch.

The invention involves training the white whales to carry in their mouths a tool that latches onto sunken objects.

The animals dive 1,000 to 1,500 feet, use their natural sonar system to find hardware such as unarmed test torpedoes, attach their recovery tool, then bring the object back to the surface.

The whale project is out of favor with the Navy because it’s so hard to move whales around to different locations. (This is why they’ve gone public on the formerly secret project by asking for a patent.) But sea lions travel just fine.

Navy workers train sea lions to walk onto a plane like a dog, then fly the marine mammals to retrieval sites. As long as something in the object makes a noise, sea lions will dive to it over and over all day long. The disadvantage is that sea lions don’t dive as deep as whales. Sea lions usually go only about 600 feet down.

Speaking of sea lions, remember Hondo, the largest California sea lion on record who gained his girth by snatching steelhead trout from Seattle’s locks? Hondo was one of three sea lions exiled to Florida’s Sea World last spring for such clever poaching. But even though he was the biggest, he did the worst – Hondo died September 2 from an infection.

No one knows yet how, where or why this magnificent specimen of a sea lion got such a lethal infection, but a necropsy is being done.

Fortunately, the infection type is not usually contagious, so Hondo’s buddies, Big Frank and Bob, aren’t at much risk. The two are eating well and have active love lives in their new home with 48 other sea lions.

Hondo’s death came as a surprise to Sea World’s workers because he looked and behaved normally right up to his death. This isn’t unusual for wild animals, which often mask symptoms of illness to avoid falling prey to other animals.

We loved you for being bad, Hondo. Rest in peace.

Whatever they’re called, it’s great they’re around

Published September 9, 1996 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©1996 Susan Scott

A couple of weeks ago, my friend sailed to Lanai for the weekend. When he returned, he told me about the channel crossing, the weather conditions and the performance of his new sails.

“Oh, and we saw a pod of pilot whales,” he added.

I perked up. I’m interested in sailing, but mostly because it takes me to where the animals are.

“Pilot whales?”

“Well, maybe they were something else. We weren’t sure. They were big and black with these roundish snouts. . . . Definitely not dolphins.”

“How many?” I asked.

“About 50, I think. It was hard to tell. One was jumping up over and over. But there were a lot of others in the water.”

“It was breaching?”

“Yes.”

“Maybe they were false killer whales,” I said.

“Could be,” my friend agreed. “How can you tell the difference?”

Good question. These two animals are so similar that even the most seasoned whale watchers can confuse one for the other.

Both pilot whales and false killer whales belong to the dolphin family. These brawny, black dolphins are called whales because of their size, up to 16 feet long and weighing nearly two tons.

Another similarity between pilots and false killers is their tendency to live in herds ranging from a few dozen to several hundred individuals.

No one knows why, but herds of both species occasionally beach themselves. These animals are fairly common in Hawaii’s offshore waters, but mass strandings don’t occur here.

So if you see a large group of small black whales in Hawaii’s channels, they’re likely either pilot whales or false killer whales.

How to tell which? One way is to remember that false killer whales are much more vigorous and acrobatic than pilot whales. Anyone who has visited Sea Life Park during the false killer whale show will remember these sleek black whales jumping joyously into the air. Pilots rarely do this.

Also, pilot whales aren’t inclined to investigate passing boats, but false killers are. So if you see lots of leaps out in the channel, or if the creatures race to your boat for a bow ride, it’s likely false killers.

If you get lucky and have a close encounter with black whales, take a look at the shape of their heads. False killer whales have small, sleek heads, whereas pilot whales have distended, round heads. One nickname for pilot whales is potheads, named for this prominent bulge (rather than a tendency to smoke).

I know whale experts who could rattle off several other features to look for, such as shape of the dorsal fin, the type of “blow,” and so on, but I can rarely see these subtle differences.

I’m still not sure which species my friend saw. The breaching suggests false killers; the round heads suggest pilots.

But who cares? What counts is that the animals were there and my friend had fun watching them. He can call them anything he likes.

Honoring mothers’ labor in human, animal worlds

Published September 2, 1996 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©1996 Susan Scott

ON a Labor Day long ago, during a picnic, my mother went into labor and subsequently gave birth to my brother. This was such a huge event in my 11-year-old mind that the Labor Day holiday was permanently marked as a celebration of motherhood.

It wasn’t until much later, however, during my clinical training in nursing school, that I learned the true meaning of motherly labor. At 18, I witnessed my first human labor and delivery, so casually called L&D in the maternity wards. Wide-eyed and gaping, I was astonished at the tremendous pain the woman endured, and then promptly forgot.

Human females probably aren’t the only ones that have pain during the birth process.

ONCE, years ago, after sailing to Lanai’s Manele Bay, I struck up a conversation with the harbor mistress there. She had written a book in the 1970s about her experiences with whales.

“Sometimes I sit for hours on this bluff at night, just listening,” she told me. “I can hear female humpbacks laboring.”

“You mean in labor? As in giving birth?”

“Yes.”

I raised an eyebrow. “How can you tell they’re in labor?”

“I hear their agony. Sometimes it goes on all night.”

“Oh.”

“I can also hear their joy when the calf finally comes out.”

“Mmm.”

I left as politely as I could. This New Age, communing-with-whales stuff was not for me.

Later, I climbed that same bluff and sat silent for a long time, watching the ocean. Gradually, my skepticism softened. Who was I to say a whale didn’t suffer the pains of labor or the joy of birth – and be vocal about it in the process?

I have never seen, or heard, a whale give birth, but I was once lucky enough to watch a green sea turtle lay her eggs.

Now there’s labor.

Female sea turtles must haul their heavy bodies up the sandy beach of their birth, dig an enormous hole, lay a hundred or so eggs, cover them with sand, then return to the ocean.

THIS might not be such hard work except that sea turtles have flippers suited to swimming, not walking. So, rather than taking steps like land turtles, sea turtles must “row” themselves up the beach.

This is exhausting work. The turtle reaches forward with her front flippers, digs into the sand, then with visible effort heaves herself forward. So tiring are these “steps,” the turtles must rest after just one or two.

Digging nests with these streamlined flippers is no easy task under the best of circumstances, but for my turtle it was even worse: She had a handicap.

Only a small portion of her left rear flipper remained, likely the result of a shark bite. The turtle, however, didn’t seem to know the flipper was mostly missing. She dug furiously with her stub to no avail.

After an hour or so, it was clear that the turtle would not be able to dig her egg nest deep enough without help. So, every time the turtle swung her ineffective stub, wildlife biologists and I reached into the hole and pulled out handfuls of sand.

IT worked. The tired turtle positioned herself over the hole and began dropping wet, white eggs. I was thrilled. But, oh, was she working hard. I could see it in her face and body.

“Do you think it’s painful?” I whispered.

One of the male biologists shrugged. “Who knows? When they’re laying, it’s like they’re in a kind of trance.”

“Trance?” the female biologist scoffed. “She’s in labor.”

Labor Day is a good time to remember all mothers, human and animal, who give life through their labor. It may be the ultimate work experience.