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Date of Issue: October 19, 2006

Sandscript

OK, now cue the iceberg to self-destruct! Sea lions, too!

It's been likened to an action movie: Spectacular beginning, lots of drama and tragedy in the middle with a catastrophic ending from worlds far, far away.

OK, so we're just talking about the birth and death of an iceberg, but it's a pretty neat tale nonetheless.

In March 2000, a huge chunk of the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica broke away, according to an article in the journal "Nature." "Huge" is probably an understatement - the berg was roughly the size of Jamaica. Scientists called it B-15.

It was the biggest floating object on the planet.

"After drifting in the Ross Sea for a couple of years, B-15 split into several daughter icebergs," according to "Nature," and B-15A, the biggest of the chunks, was formed.

After drifting around some more, it ended up at a glacial runoff point on the coast and grounded.

Now comes the dramatic part of the film.

The grounded iceberg was blocking the wind and currents that allows the waters of McMurdo Sound to melt in the Antarctic summers. The sound is a key ingress-egress for South Pole scientists. It's also a popular penguin hangout, and there were concerns that the mountain of ice would block the penguins from regaining their roosts on shore.

But after a dramatic pause, the iceberg shifted back into the open sea. Cue cheering penguins and relieved researchers.

Then came the big finish to B-15A.

A year ago, a huge storm in the Gulf of Alaska formed. Huge waves were generated that traveled the length of the earth. The waves, about 30 feet high, traveled about 13,500 kilometers to hammer what was left of the iceberg and caused it to pretty much disintegrate.

Big finish, huh?

There has been some talk that the formation of the giant iceberg was and is a sign of global warming. Researchers generally dismiss the talk, since icebergs the size of Jamaica form so seldom that there isn't much available science.

But they sure make for a good story.

 

... and now for a sad story

Some new data indicates that as many as 73 million sharks are killed worldwide annually, about four times the numbers the United Nations reports.

Again, according to the journal "Nature," "scientists have long suspected that the UN numbers were too low, thanks to a large chunk of illegal, unregulated or unreported trade in sharks. But data have been hard to come by.

So researchers, including some from the University of Miami's Pew Institute for Ocean Science, started to do what is referred to in the scientific world as "ground truthing."

The scientists hit the heart and soul of the shark world fishery - markets, both above-board and black, in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and began to do a shark body count. A real body count, not something that the fishers reported to the government. The numbers were staggeringly high.

"For centuries, well-heeled Chinese have enjoyed the delicacy of shark-fin soup," the "Nature" article continues. "The sharks' cartilaginous fins are used to make noodles, which are traditionally thought to bring long life to those who eat them.

"Whole sharks often don't reach the ports where fishermen report their catches. Shark meat isn't considered valuable - its high urea content makes shark less appetizing than tender, flaky, white fish. So fins are often removed and the shark carcasses simply tossed back into the water."

Species identification was very difficult to make on the shark fins, since they're usually dried by the time they reach market. And since the shark fins were dried out, it took some fancy math to work out the total number of real fins by weight to determine the total number of sharks needed to fulfill the results.

The scientists also did some DNA mapping of some fins to help come up with species ID's.

The numbers for some species being caught and killed isn't good.

Blue sharks, for example, appear to be turned into soup at a rate of about 10 million deaths per year. Based on total blue shark population estimates, that puts them "near or exceeding the sustainable yield" - science-talk for meaning the sharks may become extinct if all fishing isn't halted immediately.

Worldwide organizations have the blue sharks classed as "near threatened."

Oh, the World Conservation Union, the group that assesses the shark and other populations worldwide, has concluded that 20 percent of shark species are threatened with extinction.

The point of all this is that catch-and-release for our local sharks is definitely the way to go. Keep legal-size redfish, trout or snook - they taste better anyway.

 

Sea lion snapshots

Here's a chance to watch some rare interactions of an endangered species from half a world away from the comfort of your personal computer.

Maybe.

The Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward has a Web camera trained on an island in the Gulf of Alaska that is covered with Steller sea lions. They animals are raising their young and generally doing what sea lions usually do, and by going to www.alaskasealife.org, you can see and hear all the fun.

The biologists warn that it isn't G-rated, Disney-type viewing. "Sea lions don't have any sense of modesty," one researcher said.

And I've got to warn that I'm suggesting this site without visiting it as yet. After the Associated Press moved the article last week, I've found that the cameras have been "undergoing maintenance" the times I've tried to access the site.

Good luck.

 

Sandscript factoid

You might want to catch the Web cam of the sea lions before too much time passes, racy or not.

Steller sea lion populations are down about 70 percent since the mid-1970s, although the numbers have been rising at a steller rate of a "whopping" 3 percent a year since 2000.

Whoopee.

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