Showing posts tagged as "jim covel"
A Sad Anniversary—and a Cautionary Tale for Our Oceans
By Jim Covel, Director of Guest Experience
September 1 marked the 100th anniversary of the death of the last passenger pigeon. Named “Martha,” this bird has the dubious distinction of being an “endling,” meaning she was the very last of her species. Martha spent most of her estimated 29 years at the Cincinnati Zoo in one of the first captive breeding programs, which was ultimately unsuccessful.
What makes Martha’s story so remarkable—and regrettable—is that a century earlier the number of passenger pigeons in North America was estimated as high as 3-5 billion birds! The flocks depended on large tracts of hardwood forest for food, nesting and roosting areas. One nesting area in Wisconsin was estimated at 850 square miles hosting over 130,000,000 passenger pigeons. Migrating flocks would darken the skies for hours or days at a time.
Despite those unimaginable numbers, in less than 100 years only Martha remained—and then there were none. Unregulated commercial hunting wiped out one flock after another. The bird’s habit of consistently returning to the same areas facilitated the slaughter. Removing vast tracts of forest that were essential habitat for the passenger pigeon put the final nail in the species coffin.
In retrospect, Martha and her kind provided an awful awakening that we humans had the power to drive nearly any species over the precipice into extinction. Martha inspired a new round of conservation measures that limited and eventually eliminated many forms of commercial hunting. It would be nice to know that we learned that lesson well. But have we?
Passenger Pigeons of the Ocean?
If we look to the sea rather than the sky, there are fishes that might be considered the passenger pigeons of the ocean—species once so abundant their numbers were considered both inestimable and inexhaustible. The great runs of salmon on our Pacific Coast might be one example. Most major rivers along this coast supported runs of salmon ranging from the hundreds of thousands to over 10 million in the Columbia River. These fish were concentrated into defined spawning runs, much like the passenger pigeons occupied specific nesting and roosting areas. Early fishers could row from shore placing large seine nets around the salmon and then using teams of horses to drag the laden nets up onto shore.
Yet today many salmon runs are considered endangered. Commercial salmon fishing is highly regulated as is sport fishing, so why are salmon numbers still in trouble? The quality of salmon habitat—particularly spawning streams and rivers—continues to decline. Just as farmland replaced the extensive hardwood forests the passenger pigeons relied upon, human demands for fresh water leave less and less available in streams for the fish. A universal truth in nature is that any species is only as healthy as the habitat it depends upon.
So if we work toward healthy oceans and healthy streams, perhaps we can enjoy healthy populations of many important fishes well into the future. The very thought that someday there could be an “endling” coho salmon, or bluefin tuna is too terrible to contemplate. Remember Martha, and as we acknowledge her regrettable anniversary we can renew our commitment to prevent similar tragedies in the future.
Learn more about conservation at the Aquarium
(Image from Smithsonian Institution Archives)
Will fish and other #ocean animals get left high and dry? Learn more in our latest podcast.
What can you do to help our oceans? The Aquarium’s Jim Covel shows how simple steps make a big difference.
Spring has Sprung—Underwater!
By Jim Covel, Senior Manager of Guest Experience
With the official arrival of spring on March 20 we all start to look forward to longer days, more sunshine, warmer temperatures and perhaps putting away those winter clothes for a while. We see those signs of spring reflected in nature as well. Dormant plants come to life and bloom. Birds begin singing as they announce nesting territories and start looking for a mate. Perhaps you catch a glimpse of a small, spotted fawn accompanying mom. While these sure signs of spring are familiar to us, have you ever stopped to think about what spring looks like beneath the surface of the ocean? You can actually observe “underwater spring” here at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Let’s start in the forest—the kelp forest. The giant kelp and bull kelp are much like land plants, springing to life with longer days and more sunshine. These seaweeds photosynthesize like land plants; you could say they “eat” sunshine to get the energy to live and grow. With more sunshine available, growth rates pick up dramatically, exceeding five inches per day in our Kelp Forest exhibit! If you’re a regular visitor, you’ll see our kelps rapidly stretching for the surface where they can get closer to more sunshine. Just now, looking at the Kelp Forest web cam, I could see the distinctive scimitar blade at the tip of a growing frond of kelp. (The same scimitar blade that forms the aquarium’s logo.)
Sunnier days usually translate into warmer days on the land, but that’s not true in Monterey Bay. Spring signals the traditional start of our upwelling season, where cooler water surfaces from a few hundred feet deep, so spring and summer actually bring some of the coldest water temperatures to our part of the coast. While that may not be the best news for surfers and divers, it’s great news for ocean animals. That upwelled water is rich in nutrients that stimulate the growth of large seaweeds and microscopic phytoplankton. This is the season of plankton blooms which are the base of most marine food chains. Those blooms of tiny organisms feed larger organisms which feed krill, which feed squid and salmon and blue whales and much more. So springtime upwelling season is the start of some of our best fishing and wildlife viewing.
Welcome to spring above and below the surface of the ocean!
By Jim Covel, Senior Manager of Guest Experience Training & Interpretation
Not many animals get their own national holiday. Perhaps that’s why Groundhog Day is one of my favorite holidays. If you missed the headline, Punxsutawney Phil didn’t see his shadow when he poked his head out of his burrow, so we can expect an early spring. With all due respect to Phil, there may be better ways to predict weather trends.
That’s where phenology comes in. The science of phenology doesn’t get much attention, yet it’s one of the oldest sciences practiced by humankind and one of the most important to our survival. Phenology is the observation and documentation of the cycles in the natural world around us. For thousands of years we humans have tracked when plants bloom or bear fruit, when creatures migrate, when to plant, when to harvest, or when to prepare for particular weather changes or events.
Monterey Bay Rhythms
Monterey Bay has its own cycles, many of which are evident right now. The annual migration of gray whales is at its peak along the central California coast. Northern elephant seals are gathered on beaches for their annual season of birthing and mating. Our winter bird visitors are with us—surf scoters, loons, grebes and mergansers. Yesterday the Brandt’s geese arrived off our deck, right on time. Soon we’ll be looking for harbor seal pups and nesting pelagic cormorants.
In earlier eras humans depended heavily on phenology. Our food supply relied upon knowing when the salmon or steelhead would run; when flocks of birds would arrive during migration time; or when wild berries, bulbs and fruits would be ready to harvest. Agriculture helped stabilize our food supply, but it was still just as critical to know when to plant, irrigate or harvest. The Farmer’s Almanac is one of the best tributes to phenology. Since 1818 we have consulted this volume to forecast seasonal events and recommend planting times for all types of crops.
An Old Science with Modern Implications
While phenology may not get as much attention as some other sciences, it may be more critical now than ever before. The forces that help regulate Nature’s calendar—heat, cold, rainfall, atmospheric and oceanic circulation patterns—are shifting as we energize our atmosphere. We observe this as changing migration patterns, plants blooming earlier, animals shifting their home ranges, changes in the nesting times for some bird species. The science of phenology has provided important baseline data as well as ongoing documentation of changes from all over the planet. This has been some of the best evidence we have about the extent of climate change impacts across the globe.
Phenology is a great example of “citizen science” where all of us can participate in science and research efforts. In fact, the more of us that participate the better. It’s easy to make regular observations of natural events around us and record that information. As we provide more data, scientists have more material to work with in documenting changes in the world around us. If you’d like to join the growing number of citizen scientists practicing phenology, you might want to visit the website for the USA National Phenology Network.
Perhaps we can get Punxsutawney Phil to join the phenology network and start logging his annual shadow observation.