Trading the Oceans

11 March 2011

From precious coral and slimey sea cucumbers to luxury fish lips and beautiful seahorses, this month Naked Oceans explores the many ways we trade the oceans. We sift through some of the highest price-tags in the sea and find out what impact this all has on ocean life. Helen pays a visit to an aquarium that breeds seahorses and finds out how to mail them around the world. And we ask, Is Blue Carbon the new green? Will converting marine life into carbon credits help fend off climate change? And in Critter of the Month we meet a very rare animal, with a very big appetite.

In this episode

01:42 - Reefs at Risk Revisited

A new report draws a global map of the threats facing coral reefs today

Reefs at Risk Revisited

Helen - This month saw the launch of a major new report on coral reefs. Reefs at Risk Revisited has compiled a detailed global map of the problems these vital ecosystems are facing today.

The report was launched this month at a special meeting at the Royal Society in London, and I went along to meet some of the people behind the report.

The main headline findings are rather depressing. One of the report authors is Mark Spalding from the Nature Conservancy.Bleached Coral

Mark - The top headline is that 75% of the world's coral reefs are now threatened by human actions. That includes a combination of the direct imapcts of people on reefs, things that we can control really at relatively local levels. Those direct impacts are affecting 60, just over 60% of the world's reefs. When we factor in recent climate change, this is what's happened to date, not the future, that pushes our number up to 75% of the world's reefs.

Another headline that we looked at was predictions of the impacts of future climate change. And we sat those, if you like, on top of the results of threat to date, and they become extremely gloomy. By the 2030's we're up to 80% of the world's coral reefs being threatened and by the 2050's we're at 99%.

You can't stick your head underwater everywhere in the world, there's to much, there's not enough scientists, some of these places are very remote. So instead we've built a model which predicts how much is threatened and we've had that verified by hundreds of scientists from around the world.

Helen - And in terms of what's causing this risk to reefs, what are the threats we're looking at? What are reefs suffering from today?

Mark - It's a huge host of threats, really and quite often one piled on top of another. The biggest one is certainly unsustainable fishing. Just taking too much and sometimes taking it in extremely damaging ways using explosives to catch fish.

On top of that we have what's washing off the land. We have sediments and pollutants just being washed out of agricultural areas, from deforested slopes, into rivers and out onto the reefs. So that's kind of the watershed threat.

Then we've got coastal development. Human populations are burgeoning everywhere but particularly in the coastal zone. And as buildings are built and sewage is pumped into the ocean, that's a huge threat.

And the final local threat is shipping and other sources of marine pollution, oil and gas installations, boats cross-crossing the oceans and so on.

And sadly what we've added to that, already that long litany of threat, is the issue of chancing climate, changing oceanography.

Helen - And talking about reefs at risk, what does that really mean? Are we talking the reefs that are at risk aren't going to be here in a number of years time? How do we get a handle on what that actually means in the real world?

Mark - We need to remember this is a mode. We're trying to predict the condition and if you stuck your head under the water in many of these places you'd see different things. In some cases it is a measure of things already declining but in all cases it's a measure of potential for decline that could be any day, the pressures are immense.

Helen - Mark Spalding there introducing the key points raised by the Reefs at Risk Revisited report about the threats facing coral reefs today.

This new report follows on from a previous Reefs at Risk report that originally took on the challenge of painting a global picture of coral reef threats. Kristian Teleki chaired the Reefs at Risk Revisited launch. I spoke to him about how the whole thing got started.

Krisitian - Reefs at Risk got started in 1996-1997 when a number of scientists got together and were concerned that they weren't having enough information about all the things that were happening around the world on coral reefs. So they got together and they thought let's put this analysis together and we'll do a quick assessment of the entire world's reefs and are they are threat based on these different levels of threat indicators.

And that came up with some really useful statistics, and it actually boiled it down to these two or three key statistics that were cited over and over again. And we know that it's been cited over 400 times in the scientific literature, but it's been cited thousands and thousands of times and I remember seeing this constantly being recycled in the press in the media about these statistics.

And so really it was in thinking, in my previous job as the director for the International Coral Reef Action Network, that this was a great opportunity to revisit these statistics and update them. Because a lot has changed, both in the ecosystems, in the climate, and at a political level. So it was really important to go back and have a look at this but also not only compare the statistics but revisit some new nuances about social vulnerability, climate change, ocean acidification, these key threats to the importance of coral reefs. 

So, it really was the revisited that we thought that this would make a really interesting story to revisit these old statistics.


Helen - And I assume, am I right that generally the changing picture since '98 is one 

Kristian - Sure, I think there's been a general net decline in reef health, there's not doubt about that.  You don't have to be a rocket scientist to go out and look and see that there's an impact.

I think the message is that it's not a straightforward story. I remember when we did work in the Seychelles in 1998 during the peak of the bleaching event, we went out in the southern Seychelles and we actually found that there was a lot of heterogeneity and mixed responses in terms of the bleaching event. Some reefs were bleached, some died, some didn't. And in fact, that told a very interesting story because when we came back the big story was all reefs are dying in the Indian Ocean, well that wasn't actually true.

Table CoralSo, I think what this report highlights is that there are pockets and areas that are resilient for one reason of another, they're doing well for one reason of another, and we really need to look at those very carefully as potential seed banks for other parts of the ocean.

Yes, while the net message is a depressing one, I think we're finding more and more cases where there are areas of hope and we really need to look at those carefully, because we can do something about it.

Find out more

Reefs at Risk Revisited website

Reefs at Risk Revisited report (Download PDF)

Interactive global map

08:54 - Top ocean price-tags

We offer a rundown of some of the top price-tags on marine species we like to eat and wear

Top ocean price-tags
with Helen Scales and Sarah Castor-Perry

Sarah - This month on Naked Oceans we're diving into the many ways we trade the oceans, because there are all sorts of marine species that become incredibly valuable and sought-after once they've been caught and brought on land - and when there's lots of money to be made, people will of course go out and catch as much as they can until wild stocks start running out.

We thought we'd give you a run down of some the highest price-tags in the oceans. So, Helen what have we got to start things off?

Helen - Well, a lot of the top-priced ocean wildlife is, as you might guess, stuff that we eat. And some of it is really quite weird. Juvenile humphead wrasse

I did my PhD on a giant denizen of coral reefs called the humphead wrasse, and yes, the adult males do have big bumps on their heads. Some people say they're ugly, but I happen to think they are really very beautiful. And in Asia they are something of a delicacy. They feature in restaurants lined with aquarium tanks packed full of live fish so that diners can pick out the fish they want to eat just moments after it's whisked out of the tank.

One of the big problems is that many large reef fish like humphead wrasse are caught using cyanide. Divers swim down, squirt just enough cyanide to stun a target fish, and then they bring it back up to the surface and hope that it revives. And the thing is that cyanide lingers on the reef where it kills all sorts of other marine life. And it's one of the destructive fishing methods highlighted by the Reefs at Risk Revisited report as being one of the top threats to reefs.

Sarah - I mean Cyanide is very Agatha Christie, dastardly murder! It's not exactly the sort of thing you'd think you'd want to put onto a reef, that doesn't sound like a very good idea at all. I know you worked on them, but have you ever tried eating humphead wrasse? Are they nice? Do they taste good?

Helen - Well, actually no I haven't tried them. I always said that I wouldn't pay my own money to buy one because that just felt wrong, but if someone offered it them I would give it a go, but that never happened. So no I haven't tried them.

Live Reef Fish RestaurantI heard they, obviously people do like them and the ultimate luxury, which is really weird I think, is a plate of their lips. They sell for hundreds of dollars. The males, these huge males, because they change sex they start life as females and become males as they get bigger, and they have these enormous lips, and people like to eat their lips. Weird! Very gross I think.

But there's another luxury seafood with a really high price tag that I have tried, and that's sea cucumbers, those tubular relatives of starfish.

Sarah - Well, funnily enough because I have actually tried sea urchins, which are another relative of the sea cucumber and I tried them in Japan and they were every strange. I'm not sure I'd really like to eat sea cucumbers, though, because they're sort of tubular and brown, and they don't really look like something you'd really want to eat.

Helen -Yeah, actually I've seen them being prepared, they're being fished out, then you have to boil them for hours to break down the tough walls inside them, and smoke them and dry them, and they do look pretty disgusting by the time they're done.

And then, I ate them while I was at a Chinese banquet in Malaysia and before I could say no someone had loaded my plate full of these slimy lumps, and I have to say they were really quite hard to chew and swallow, it was disgusting. They don't really taste of anything though, it's just that texture.

But, so I certainly, personally, couldn't imagine why you'd want to eat echinoderms. But they are considered quite the delicacy, and a growing number of people around the world think they're fantastic and sea cucumbers are one of those foods that supposed to be very good for you, they've even made anti-wrinkle creams out of them, and some people think they're at aphrodisiac.

Sarah - So, are they quite an expensive thing to buy then?

Helen - Yeah, so supposedly the most expensive soup in the world is something called "Buddha Jumps Over the Wall" and that contains various ingredients including sea cucumber and sharks fin, and the story goes that it smells so good that it would even tempt vegetarian Buddhist monks to jump over the monastery wall to try some.

Sarah - That sounds actually really disgusting, uh, no I'm not convinced by that. Not to mention the fact that it would be really bad for all the species that are involved.

Obviously people eating all this stuff and it being really popular, obviously the use for anti-wrinkle creams, and you know, it's great for you, is that causing problems for them in the wild?

Ok, so lots of people are eating sea cucumbers today - is this causing any problem for these slippery critters in the wild?

Helen - Well, yes. The problem is, as you might imagine that catching a sea cucumber is very easy. You don't have to do much more than just swim down and grab it off the sea bed, or dredge them up.

And what we've seen in the past few decades as there's been this increasing demand for sea cucumbers is a kind of boom and bust with fisheries opening up in new areas, fishermen cleaning out all they can find, and then moving on to the next place. So we've got this global trade marching around the world, hoovering up sea cucumbers as it goes. 

But to be honest we can find some good news in all this, which is that we are becoming more aware of what's going on, and people are starting to talk about putting in measures to help protect sea cucumbers, because the are hardly, like we said, the most loveable of invertebrates. But there are even a few marine reserves being set up specifically for sea cucumbers including the Lau Lau Sea cucumber sanctuary in the Northern Mariana Islands in the Pacific, and you can check out on the Protected Planet website we mentioned on Naked Oceans a couple of months ago and we'll put a link to that on our website.

Sarah - So, obviously there's a bunch of high-priced marine species that aren't doing very well in the wild because the demand for them is increasing, so things like sharks caught for their fins, you've got the bluefin tuna that are sold for huge amounts of money in Japan to make sushi, and oysters as well, which we talked about on Naked Oceans last month.

But it's not just about the things that we eat that get traded is it?

Red coral jewelleryHelen - No absolutely. There's also lots of stuff we'll pay top dollar for because they look pretty. Obviously pearls are one of the most ancient jewels and they come from the oceans, they do come from freshwater pearls as well, but there are marine ones, like the fabled black Tahitian pearls.

And like you say, with declines in oysters around the world, wild pearls are extremely rare and amazingly expensive these days.

And there's another gemstone that grows in the sea and that's coral. Since ancient times people have made jewelry and ornaments out of red, pink and black coral. And these aren't corals that build reefs in shallow waters, but they live in the deep sea and they grow branching, tree-like skeletons made from really dense calcium carbonate that can be cut and polished and it really does look quite beautiful.

Sarah - And those are the ones that get their Latin name from Medusa, the snaked-haired gorgon in the Greek myths?

Helen - Yeah exactly, the story goes her blood dropped into the sea and turned some seaweed into coral, and so there's a big group of corals called gorgonians.

But these days, many deep sea corals are being overexploited in many parts of the sea and conservationists are urging people not to buy and wear coral any more. And there are also efforts underway to have red corals listed on CITES, that's the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, and that would help to regulate and monitor the trade.

But really, I think what this comes down to is a lot about us as potential customers and consumers, and we're the people who, we can buy and we can decide what to eat and what to wear. And if we don't agree with exploiting corals or sea cucumbers, or whatever then we can make our say by not buying them.

Sarah - Yeah, I think there definitely is a bit role for consumer, people pressure to play, you know pressuring supermarkets and retailers of things like fish or things like coral jewelry and things, not buying specific things or calling for, right we want regulation, we want the fish that you sell to be regulated by the Marine Stewardship Council, or we want to make sure it's caught safely, and caught in a sustainable way. So I think definitely consumer pressure is going to play a big role in the future of that.

Find out more

Too Precious to Wear - Seaweb

Sea cucumbers - A global review of fisheries and trade. FAO.

Lau Lau sea cucumber sanctuary - Protected Planet.

Humphead wrasse (Cheilinus undulatus) on Fishbase

Monitoring the live reef food fish trade - Live Reef Fish Information Bulletin (PDF)

31:27 - Critter of the month - North Atlantic Right Whale

Mark Baumgartner from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution chooses a very rare critter with a huge appetite.

Critter of the month - North Atlantic Right Whale
with Mark Baumgartner, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Mark - My name is Mark Baumgartner, I work at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts and I am a biological oceanographer. And if I were a critter, a marine critter, I'd be a North Atlantic right whale.

The reason I would be a North Atlantic right whale is because I like to eat. And the job, the most important job of a right whale I think is eating.

North Atlantic Right WhaleThey eat a lot, they eat often.

They have a funny way of eating. They have very large heads, and basically their mouth is a net and they catch plankton And the things that they feed on are about the size of a flea. And so they need to eat a lot. In fact, we estimate that they have to eat 1-2 billion of these creatures every day. These creatures are called copepods, they're little crustaceans, a lot like a crab or a lobster but much, much smaller, the size of a flea.

So in terms of, so to put that in terms that we can understand that's about 3000 big macs, every day. Or the weight equivalent of a Volkswagen Beetle, in food every single day. So, I like to eat, right whales like to eat, that's great.

In the ocean, it's eating or it's being eaten. And so size has a lot to do with whether you're going to get eaten or not. And for the whales they have very few predators because they're very large. So, as a whale you would be less prone to being eaten by anything but you'd get to eat all the time.

So, that's not to say that right whales don't have problems. They have some serious Copepod. Calanus finmarchicusconservation issues in the North Atlantic. They tend to get hit by ships and get entangled in fishing gear and because their population is so seriously endangered, there's only about 400 right whales in the North Atlantic, this is a big problem for them. Just loosing one or two animals from the population, particularly females, is a big problem.

So, life is not all fun and games for right whales, they have these interactions with right whales that tend to be not so good for them. But there's a lot of work being done on that front, there's a lot of good will on the part of the shipping industry, the fishing industry.

It's pretty clear that there is a problem and people really want to solve the problem, and there's a lot of good people, both scientists, government scientists, policy-makers, and people from the industry that want to improve the prospects of North Atlantic right whales and there's been a lot of good work done, including moving shipping lanes and changes to fishing practices.

So I think the outlook for right whales is actually quite good, the population has increased over the past decade. When I started studying right whales they used to say there's probably only about 300 whales and now there are 400 whales which is given me a lot of hope for the species.

Find out more

Mark Baumgarnter's lab at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium

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