Sunday: shore or boat dives, depending where the viz is!
A cold front arrives tonight and will make itself felt until Saturday evening. Sunday will be best for diving. I have student dives to complete; if the inshore conditions are good, we’ll shore dive. If the visibility is only to be found further out, we’ll launch Seahorse. If you’re keen to get wet, let me know and I’ll update you on Saturday afternoon.
For the sake of completeness, here are a few opportunities for ordinary citizens to contribute to science and conservation in Cape Town in the terrestrial realm. If it’s marine citizen science and conservation you’re after, read this post.
Western leopard toads
Western leopard toads are gorgeous, endangered palm-sized toads that are found from Rondebosch to Bergvliet to Hout Bay, Sun Valley (hello!) and Glencairn. They are threatened by urbanisation, particularly during their breeding season. On rainy evenings in August they migrate en mass from neighbourhood gardens like ours – where they live quiet lives – to communal breeding ponds. This often entails dangerous road crossings, where hundreds of toads used to become roadkill.
Enter Toad NUTS. I’ve blogged before about the Noordhoek Unpaid Toad Savers project, but in the interim exciting developments have expanded the reach and effectiveness of the program. A mobile app has revolutionised the process of collecting and reporting on toad sightings, enabling rigorous data collection. All sorts of analyses are possible once some good data is obtained.
In terms of direct interventions to reduce toadkill during the breeding season, the most effective one has been a temporary barrier on each side of Noordhoek Main Road is used to capture toads attempting to cross. The barrier is patrolled by volunteers, who then move the toads from one side of the road to the other.
The Urban Caracal Project aims to determine the size of the caracal population on the Cape Peninsula, as well as the threats facing these gorgeous red cats – of which urbanisation and its trappings may be chief. If you don’t know what a caracal (or rooikat) is, ask the google. They are incredibly charismatic creatures.
You can help by reporting caracal sightings, and calling in any caracal roadkill that you see while travelling Cape Town’s roads. You can find contact details for the project on the Urban Caracal Project website, or send them a message on facebook.
Here are a few ways for Capetonians to save the ocean. Some through direct action, and others through support for scientific research that enables policy makers and conservationists to make good decisions about which species and habitats need protection.
I’ll update this list as new projects are brought to my attention. If you know of an opportunity for ordinary citizens to make a difference for marine science and/or conservation, let me know and I’ll add it here.
The Spot the Sevengill Shark project has a facebook page where you can submit images of broadnose sevengill cowsharks taken in False Bay and surrounds. The unique markings on these sharks enable repeat identification from well-composed images. Information about the sex, general appearance and behaviour of these sharks is also useful. There’s some information about the research project here. This is also a great project to follow (on facebook) to keep up to date with the tagging studies that are currently being done on this population of sharks.
For a more global flavour, you can check out the Sevengill Shark Identification Project. It operates mostly in the San Diego area in the USA, but accepts sevengill cowshark sightings from locations around the world, including from South Africa. Their facebook page recently celebrated the first logged sighting from False Bay.
You can either report the sighting via the Shark Spotters website, or you can call or text +27 (0) 78 174 4244. Provide as much information as possible, obviously including the location where you saw the shark, and when. If you have a photo or video, that’s a bonus!
Sharks and rays
The ELMO (South African Elasmobranch Monitoring) project collects reports of elasmobranch (shark and ray) sightings along the South African coastline. For the avid beachcomber, their database includes egg cases. The data collected is available to any interested party for their own projects, and can assist conservationists and politicians to make good decisions in order to protect species that need it.
The ELMO website is full of excellent information, including identification guides for egg cases and elasmobranchs, and a handling guide for live animals (aimed at fishermen, not people who are grabby – don’t be like that). You can submit your sightings online.
Upload photographs of the marine species you see to the iSpot, SAJellyWatch, or one of the Avian Demography Unit’s project pages. These observations are a help to researchers tracking species distribution – for example, as part of climate change and invasive species research.
Here are some suggestions for things you can do at (or near) home that can have a positive impact on the environment.
The first suggestion is the most important!
Be a busybody
Keep tabs on what’s going on in your area. Are there new building projects or developments planned? Community newspapers are an excellent source of information. Attend meetings that give opportunities for public participation, register as an interested and affected party, make objections, write letters to the environmental consultants and your local council representatives. Also, tell your friends and buddies about opportunities to participate as concerned citizens.
Remember that a development doesn’t necessarily need to be in or on the ocean to affect the marine environment. For example, False Bay is where a large amount of the city’s effluent is pumped out. More people means more pressure on the ecosystem. Demand responsible solutions from municipalities and developers.
Keep tabs on proposed amendments to existing laws, and new laws and bylaws. Who is getting permission to do what? Are these decisions well thought out? Is it wise to allow whelk and octopus fisheries to operate in a bay that is visited by large numbers of whales and dolphins?
Hold the government (specifically DAFF and the Department of Environmental Affairs) to account. The environment belongs to all of us, and if it’s being mismanaged, it’s your heritage that’s being squandered.
An excellent example of the concrete results this kind of action by ordinary citizens can have is the recent flip-flop done by the authorities on the proposed diving ban in the Betty’s Bay MPA after many local divers, marshalled by Indigo Scuba and Underwater Africa, registered as interested and affected parties and submitted objections to the proposal.
Banning diving in the area would have essentially left it wide open for poaching. While the local law enforcement can’t and doesn’t do anything to stop illegal harvesting of perlemoen, eyes in the water in the form of recreational divers can at least keep tabs on what’s happening in the reserve.
Wear your heart on your sleeve. Let your friends know that conservation issues and protecting the environment are important to you. Don’t be scary and wild-eyed, just be yourself. (If you’re naturally scary and wild-eyed, I can’t help you.)
When you get an opportunity to discuss an environmental issue with someone who doesn’t know or care as much as you do, stick to the facts. Point them to other sources where they can find information to back up what you’re saying, if they are interested. That way, if they want to relay your argument to someone else, they can do so. Raw outrage isn’t necessarily transmissible (and if you’re too hot under the collar, they may just think you’re a lunatic).
Don’t use jargon. Don’t use cliches (people are smarter than you think). Don’t assume that everyone knows as much as you do about your pet issue – check that you’re pitching your pitch appropriately. Don’t be boring. Show people how beautiful and wonderful and intricate the environment is.
Get your hands dirty
Participate in beach cleanups and underwater cleanups. If you see garbage on a dive (and nothing has taken it for a home), stuff it into your BCD for disposal on land. Get into the habit of picking up stuff that doesn’t belong. Keep an empty bag on the boat for collecting rubbish as you drive in and out of the harbour. Hout Bay is an excellent spot for this. Most harbours are actually filthy.
Consume less of everything
Reduce your carbon footprint. This encompasses all the obvious things: recycle, buy local, seasonal produce, eat less meat, and participate in more recreational activities that are carbon neutral. (Unfortunately diving isn’t technically one of those; even if you do a shore dive, you still need to get your cylinder filled using a compressor that consumes energy.)
Here’s a good carbon footprint calculator that’ll help you identify the areas of your lifestyle that are having the greatest negative impact on the environment. Mine is my commute to work, which produces a horrific amount of carbon dioxide each month. (If I ever needed a justification for running away to sea with Tony and the cats, this is it.)
If you eat seafood, make wise choices that are kind to the ocean. If you fish for fun, follow the regulations defining what and how much you’re allowed to catch.
If you have financial resources and want to make a donation to a conservation organisation, first do your research.
What will the money be spent on?
What is the track record of the organisation? What projects have they worked on already?
Do you agree with their aims, objectives and methods? (Would you be proud to have your name associated with their work?)
Will the money be spent on branding and advertising (some people mistake this for real action), or on observable projects that will have a direct impact on an environmental issue that’s important to you?
Remember that addressing an environmental problem may very well involve work with people. Sustainable Seas Trust (not an endorsement, just an example) addresses poverty and food security as a way to relieve pressure on the ocean’s scarce resources, thus caring for people and the sea at the same time. It’s great to take kids snorkeling, but after a while (and a lot of kids) I hope funders can demand a bit more originality and effort in that area.
Personally, I prefer to support organisations that follow scientific advice or include a research component in their activities, because I feel that conservation that isn’t based on scientific data is just marketing… But you may feel otherwise.
If your donation is a significant one, ask for feedback on how it was spent.
Don’t fool yourself
Finally, remember that writing tweets and sharing pictures on facebook doesn’t achieve anything concrete (ok here’s an exception), even though your rate of hashtagging may make you feel like your efforts are putting Greenpeace to shame. Sorry kids. Even Shonda Rhimes says so.
This is a citizen science project in the best sense. Four web-based atlases, each focusing on a particular type of marine life, are being established, with contributions from researchers, students, and people like you and me – mostly recreational divers, who get to see firsthand what lives underwater. The four atlases are:
There is also a section of the database for historical photographs of fishing activities prior to 1970. This will assist in establishing a baseline from which changes (that we have wrought, mostly) in the abundance and distribution of fish species can be measured. This part of the project is called FisHistory, and even if you don’t have any old photos of your dad holding a two metre long tuna and wearing a mullet and satin hotpants, you can still take a look at the contributions from others.
As was pointed out several times during the evening, the aim of the initiative is to “start a conversation” between the widely disparate users of our oceans in order to get a better picture of what’s down there, how it is threatened, and how it is changing. It’s really exciting that recreational divers can assist with this project, and make ourselves useful.
I am excited to see that iSpot is already buzzing with activity from OMSAC members! iSpot is probably the best place for you to get going, submitting your underwater photos of marine life. You need to provide the location at which the photo was taken (which can be hidden if it’s your super secret reef with a super secret waypoint), and take a stab at identifying the creature – but you don’t have to know what it is. If you don’t know what your creature is, other users of the system will help with identification. If you’re not into photography but are interested in species identification, you can also contribute by identifying other users’ contributions. For more about how iSpot works, visit their help pages.
Here is an explanation, in relatively simple terms, of why cowsharks are tagged for scientific research. Tell your friends.
We don’t know much about sevengill cowshark behaviour and habitat use in South Africa’s waters. Actually we know almost nothing.
Because we don’t know for sure where they mate, give birth, and rest, we don’t know how best to protect them.
We can’t protect every bit of coastal water and every species of fish. Because why? Because we live in the real world, where there are extensive commercial interests, finite amounts of funding, and a lack of resources and will to police things.
We can’t go on suspicions and gut feel when deciding which areas and species to protect. This is because there are extremely limited resources (see above), and designating a certain area an MPA or a no-fishing zone needs iron-clad justification. Just try and tell an angler that he can’t fish somewhere, without giving a reason.
Scientific research provides us with facts, on the basis of which wise and informed decisions can be made.
The way to find out, scientifically, where sevengill cowsharks go, and what they do there, is to tag them. There is no other way to find out what they do when they’re not swimming around you at Shark Alley. The ocean is (ahem) quite large.
Once we know where they go, we can find out how to protect them. The most important sevengill habitats to conserve are those related to reproduction. The fact that Shark Alley is in an Marine Protected Area isn’t enough: the sharks don’t give birth there, and there is almost no policing of MPAs in South African anyway. A baby sevengill is about 45 centimetres long. Have you ever seen one less than a metre long at Miller’s Point? I thought not.
If you enjoy diving with the sevengills (from the shore or a boat), if you enjoy photographing them and winning photo competitions with your images, if you make money from taking other divers to see these sharks, or if you’re in favour of making the best effort to get the maximum results with the very limited conservation resources that are available in South Africa, then I hope you can see that this is vital research for the future of the species.
What sort of tags are used?
There are two types of tags suitable for use on sevengills. The primary one is acoustic tags, which send out a ping every two minutes. Receivers placed in False Bay and around South Africa’s coast (many of them part of the Ocean Tracking Network) register and save these pings when a shark is close enough (up to 500 metres away in deep, still water; significantly less in shallow, noisy areas). The data is downloaded from the receiver after retrieving it from its position in the sea.
Acoustic tags are about the size of your little finger and are surgically inserted into the shark’s abdomen. The procedure takes approximately two minutes and the incision heals remarkably fast (as animals that bite each other during mating, it’s in a shark’s best evolutionary interest to be a fast healer). Their battery life is measured in years, so a tagged shark can provide data over multiple reproductive cycles. This is how large scale movement patterns are picked up, much like the white shark research in the US that I wrote about recently. This enables scientists to identify what the sharks use different areas for.
The other type of tag that has been used on three of our local sevengills so far is a pop up archival tag (PAT). Meaghen McCord explained these tags to us when she talked about her research on bull sharks in the Breede River. These tags are applied externally and programmed to release from the shark and float to the surface after a certain number of days. On the surface, they broadcast their location and start transmitting some of the data that they’ve collected. The full suite of data, including diving depths, is only accessible if the tag is physically retrieved.
What results have been obtained so far?
So far seventeen female cowsharks have been tagged with acoustic tags. The tagging was done in March, at Shark Alley. Blood and tissue samples, from which hormone levels can be obtained (to indicate a readiness to mate, or pregnancy, for example), were also taken.
Three PAT tags were deployed. One popped up after 48 days far out to sea on Agulhas Bank, the other came off after 88 days between Gordon’s Bay and Pringle Bay, and the third came off after 136 days close to Silwerstroom Beach on the West Coast, just before Langebaan. The cowshark whose tag popped off on Agulhas bank had spent most of its time at depths between 10 and 60 metres. The West Coast shark had spent the bulk of its time between 10 and 40 metres’ depth. The False Bay shark, interestingly, recorded most of its time at depths of between 40 and 60 metres – pretty much the maximum depth you can get in False Bay. So it didn’t just hang out at Shark Alley while in False Bay!
Go and like the Spot the Sevengill Shark – Cape Town page on facebook. Then get your camera out and go for a dive, or dig through your photo library. The researchers are looking for photographs of sevengills taken from above, with the following accompanying information: the date, the shark’s gender (males have two external claspers, females have smooth abdomens), and the location. Software and some human intervention (when the computer falls over) will be used to identify sharks by the markings on their bodies. This will enable the researchers to build a database of shark individuals, and to track their presence at the known aggregation sites visited by recreational scuba divers.
There is a slightly similar citizen science project on sevengills happening in San Diego. It’s very exciting for us to be able to advance the cause of a species that is so charismatic and beloved by the Cape Town diving community.
I am a beeeeg fan of citizen science. This is what happens when non-professional scientists, such as you and I, gather scientific data or do experiments that can lead to real scientific results. This is immensely satisfying, specially for someone like me who is probably in the wrong (non-scientific) career, but (for various reasons) isn’t going to change it any time soon.
When I was at university, my friends and I participated in the SETI@home project, donating our computers’ spare processing cycles to analysing radio telescope data in search of aliens (and other interesting data). In this way the researchers were able to analyse far more data than if they’d just used the computing power at their personal disposal. These days, Tony and I participate in western leopard toad research by submitting photos of our resident toad (Franklin) to iSpot.
With modern sampling methods, silly amounts of data can be generated – more than a single scientist or team could process in several lifetimes. Enlisting the help of the man on the street to filter the data down to what is interesting saves time, and enables studies of impressive magnitude to be undertaken.
The Seafloor Explorer project allows the general public to analyse images taken by HabCam, a camera that flies above the ocean floor (towed by a ship) taking six images per second. The camera is completely non-invasive, and the latest version actually comprises two cameras in stereo, which allows size measurements to be taken, as well as some other sensors. Participants in the project will look through photos from the camera, and identify the material of the ocean floor (for example, sand or gravel) and what organisms they can see in each frame. The interface also allows measurements to be taken.
One way in which this system can be (and is being) used is for fisheries management of benthic species such as scallops. This enables better quotas to be set. One could also assess habitat damage from trawling activities. The interface is simple, and interesting images can be shared on Twitter and facebook if participants desire to do so.