Whales in Trouble

BUSTLING SHIPPING LANES, deep water oil exploration, pile driving and military sonar exercises have made the ocean a pretty noisy place. According to scientists at the Bahamas Marine Mammal Research Organisation (BMMRO) excess noise in the ocean stresses marine mammals, interferes with their communication and navigation systems and can sometimes lead to death. “Most marine mammals communicate with acoustics, so they are using noise. It’s a simple equation. If the ocean is too loud for them, that creates a number of issues,” says BMMRO researcher Charlotte Dunn.

Scientists at the BMMRO are working with the United States Navy to understand what impact navy sonar has on marine mammals—especially beaked whales. The deep water near the Great Abaco Island in the Bahamas, where the BMMRO is located, is ideal habitat for beaked whales. This area also houses the United States Navy’s Atlantic Undersea Test and Evaluation Center (AUTEC) on Andros Island.

The two worlds collided on March 15, 2000 when at least 14 beaked and 2 minke whales ended up stranded in the shallow waters in the Northeast and Northwest Providence Channels of the Bahamas.  Researchers found one beaked whale in front of the BMMRO research facility and were able to guide it back to deeper waters. Soon after, they heard of another stranded whale a mile away, and while they struggled to keep the second whale wet, they received notice of a third whale stranding. By the end of the day researchers became suspicious that this was not a normal mass stranding, and that the whales were desperately trying to get away from something.

“The alarms go off when you have a number of [species] stranding together. That suggests that it’s not due to disease. It’s something that changed in their environment,” says BMMRO researcher Diane Claridge, who helped rescue the stranded whales.

Later scientists found out that the United States Navy had been operating submarines and ships that day with sonar activity. The military uses powerful mid-frequency sonar to explore the ocean and its inhabitants. By sending out sound waves and deciphering how they bounce off objects, the military can search the ocean for suspicious activity.

Although researchers are unsure of why beaked whales are so sensitive to noise, they speculate that the noise causes behavioral changes. A sudden loud sound may frighten the whales and in their panic make them ascend or descend too quickly.  A whale’s middle ear is full of air and, just like humans, they have to equalize in pressure during ascent or descent in the water. A rapid change can be extremely painful and damaging.

By studying beaked whales, Claridge and Dunn can provide the Navy with population and migration information. That way the Navy can plan their activities with the least amount of impact on the whales. Mass strandings have occurred in conjunction with military activity around the world in Greece, the United States and the Canary Islands. According to Claridge and Dunn, noise in the ocean is the number one concern for the health of all marine mammal species.

Published in Americas magazine by Chris Hardman


Purses from Plastic

THE UBIQUITOUS PLASTIC grocery bag—used for lunches, garbage cans, and groceries—is one of the most prolific sources of pollution in modern-day society. Scientists estimate that worldwide people use 500 trillion plastic bags each year. In the Americas alone, the United States reports using 380 billion plastic bags a year. Cheap to buy and easy to store, the plastic bag has become the favorite of grocery stores who no longer ask, “Paper or plastic?”

Lack of recycling programs and improper disposal of the bags create a waste nightmare and environmental hazards that are too complex to track. Non biodegradable plastic bags travel on the wind polluting our oceans and forests or take up permanent residence in our already overcrowded landfills.

Since 2006 an innovative program that started in Costa Rica is using those bags in a most environmentally friendly way. Women living in small villages on the Caribbean Coast convert the plastic bags into thread and weave attractive and colorful purses with them.

Weaving for Nature is run by WIDECAST, a conservation organization that protects sea turtles in the Caribbean and its surroundings. The program solves several problems at once. The bags are re-used, eliminating the need for disposal, and the business gives people an environmentally friendly income source.

The program is organized to promote fair trade standards with an environmental mission. The weaver receives 75% of the profit and the rest goes toward sea turtle conservation efforts. The weavers, mostly housewives in small villages, work under fair and relaxed conditions and are compensated for all stages of production from collecting and washing the bags through the finished product.

According to Didiher Chacon-Chaverri, WIDECAST Country Coordinator in Costa Rica, weavers produce about 3 purses a week that means they can earn $180 a month to supplement their family’s main income.

To date the project has employed more than 50 women in villages on the coast of Costa Rica, Panama and Nicaragua. In 2008 the sale of bags, coin purses, plastic figures and Christmas Tree ornaments generated $75,000 in income for the four coastal communities.

The environmental benefits of this program are far-reaching. Along the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica and other countries, the plastic bag is a deadly enemy of marine habitats.

Because many of these bags are thrown on the ground or tossed into rivers, they often end up in the sea where they suffocate coral and kill sea turtles. For the hapless sea turtle gliding through the ocean, a plastic bag looks just like its favorite food, the jellyfish. The turtle gobbles up the bag and either chokes on the plastic or feels full and stops looking for real food.

Unfortunately plastic waste of any kind affects the entire marine environment. Because plastic bags are made of polyethylene, they are not biodegradable, and even if the bags are broken into smaller pieces, their tiny particles invade all levels of the food chain causing disease and sometimes death for marine life.

The Dolphin Research Center in Florida estimates that 100,000 marine mammals die each year from eating plastic bags.

WIDECAST estimates that each purse made is removing approximately 70 plastic bags from the environment for a total of 12,000 plastic bags a month. The bags are sold throughout Costa Rica in tourist areas and gift shops and online through http://www.inbio.ac.cr.

They range in color and size and come in various styles including beach bags, calabash bags, messenger bags, water bottle cases, and coin purses. For more information about the project, visit latinamericanseaturtles.org.

Published in Americas magazine, September-October 2009, by Chris Hardman