Solstice and Christmas time give a chance for reflection. Around the holidays many people contemplate what the year has brought and what is coming up in the new year. Following the news stories, especially the environmental news can be daunting, sometimes make a person feel depressed, powerless and small. I tend to be an optimist and I try to see bad news as an opportunity for a challenge and a fight, a problem as an invitation to find a solution. I do believe in the ingenuity of people to overcome and work for the positive, and I see it happening all around me; good people fighting the good fight.
I did not want to write this column as a summary of all the bad news of the year 2019, so I did a search on “good news 2019” and found a news network that concentrates on delivering good news. To be honest, some good news looked to me like bad news in a sugar coating of goodiness but more importantly, there are good news and we need to celebrate them. This dark time of year when the days are short and the outdoors is less accessible has been chosen by pageants hundreds of years back as a time of celebration to bring cheer and warmth. The Christians celebrate the time of Jesus’ birth, which is where the gift giving comes from, but the tree and lights originate from earlier solstice festivals. I digress, I meant to write about good news for the ocean and the planet in 2019.
According to the latest Alaska Fisheries report radio news, Kodiak will have a tanner crab fishery in January. This is good news, because whether there is a fishery or not is determined based on surveys of crab abundance. Only if there are enough crab for a sustainable fishery, fishermen are allowed to catch a quota, making sure enough crab are left to sustain the population. Of course, this is not an exact science, because some factors that affect crab survival can change unexpectedly in a complex ecosystem, but fisheries management uses their best data and a pinch of caution to set the harvest rates on each species.
Also, according to the Alaska Fisheries report, Togiak herring fishermen are expecting a huge harvest in 2020. Since herring roe is a high value fishery, that should make for a Happy New Year for some fishermen.
As a surprise for Kodiak I have some breaking news: There is an energetic and excited group of people who are planning events for a New 2020 whale fest to celebrate the migration of the gray whales past our island, the abundance of marine life and especially all the amazing whales that visit our shores every summer. Between April 3-April 20, 2020, we will celebrate whales through art and science with many events. For those interested in getting involved and organizing, please watch friends of Kodiak or the Kodiak whale fest facebook page for dates of planning meetings. The next meeting is on Jan. 7 at noon at the Kodiak Seafood and Marine Science Center (former Fish Tech Center).
As far as good news go, the comeback of the whale fest mirrors the comeback of many populations of whales that had been hunted to the brink of extinction in the whaling years. When I learned as a little child what a whale is, there was always the association of great intelligent beings that were hunted until there were hardly any left. I remember imagining as a child how these big animals would swim through empty oceans calling for one another and not getting any answers. Now, the humpback whales are no longer considered endangered and neither are the West Coast gray whales.
Another piece of whale news from this year is that with new DNA sequencing technology a study comparing 150 samples of individual fin whales in the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean found that they are two distinct subspecies. Prior to the study it was believed that there were only two subspecies of the large finback whales; one in the Southern Ocean and one split between the Atlantic and Pacific, now we know that there has not been any interaction between the Atlantic and Pacific fin whales for a long enough time that the species are growing apart. Fin whales are the second largest whales in the world and are the fastest swimmers among the baleen whales, yet we know very little about them, because they spend much of their lives in offshore waters, in an ocean world that humans yet have little access to.
If the whales decide to make it a habit to feed so close to the town of Kodiak in the summer, this may boost a whale watching tourism. While tourism, especially whale watching has a bit of a bad reputation and can get disruptive to the whales while they are going about their business, it is exactly this change of mind in the way people see the whales and want to experience the exhilaration of being in the presence of the huge animals that saved the whales from going extinct. Far away in Peru, a similar story developed over the past few years: There, seals and sea lions were hunted for food and skins until less than 100 were left. An effort by environmentalists to make it more profitable for local fishermen to take tourists to photograph the rare mammals led to a change in perception and resulted in fishermen protecting the animals. In 2019, the population counts were up to 5,000. Saved from extinction by love and pictures!
If your mind is wandering off to Florida at this time of year, here is one last story that intrigued me: On the coasts of Florida, there is an invasive fish with a voracious appetite and no predators. If you are a Star Trek fan and ever watched the Next Generation series, you have seen the lionfish in captain Picard’s ready room aquarium. Apparently, those lionfish can eat up to 12 fish per day, which can be up to half the size of the predator. Lacking Picard’s replicator technology, the reefs run out of fish, because everything gets eaten by the invaders. While lionfish are edible and there is a targeted harpoon fishery on them, they congregate so deep that the divers cannot get there. Now, the inventor of my vacuum cleaner came to the rescue. One of the founders of the company that builds the roomba robot has now developed a submersible, that can see (with a camera), euthanize, vacuum into a holding tank, and transport to the surface up to 20 lionfishes at a time.
Merry Christmas anemone, good Christmas fishes and a Happy New Year filled with good amazing nature news and solvable challenges!