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Dispatches : Nature

Thousands Flee Water After Shark Sighted Near Popular Australian Beach

This is what reducing chance looks like on the Australian coast: thousands of beachgoers scurrying to the water's edge of Bondi Beach in New South Wales after a siren warns of a shark sighting. The alarm was sounded on New Year's Day after lifeguards said they spotted a roughly six-foot-long shark swimming nearby. After a 20-minute helicopter patrol and the all clear, beachgoers were free to return to the water. Most preceded gingerly, preferring not to venture too far out into the deep, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.

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Long After the Storm: The Ongoing Struggle to Rebuild New Orleans

Brian_IMG_3077Planting bulrush in Bayou Sauvage. Photo: Joe Spring

It's been seven years since Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, killing more than 1,800 people and leaving molding shambles in its wake. New Orleans is still recovering, in some places more than others. This past May, more than a dozen employees from the New York City Parks Department used a week of their vacation time to help the city rebuild. —Friday, May 11, 2012, Lower Ninth Ward

“THIS IS WHERE YOU are,” Tom Pepper said to a roomful of roughly 20 volunteers.

Pepper is the director of Common Ground Relief, a non-profit perched near the levee’s edge of the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans. He held up a book titled The Great Deluge, and pointed at a two-story white house on the cover. The yards around it were flooded with water. A deep olive sea reflected second-story windows and the crowns of trees. A burgundy barge floated amidst the ruins. A few hundred feet away, where the wall of the Industrial Canal should have been, whitewater rushed into the city.

The volunteers stood around Pepper in the living room of the house, which is now purple. Common Ground Relief gutted, rebuilt, and painted the house after the storm. The color helped it fit in, at least a little, with the surrounding 70-plus funky, pastel, acutely-angled homes built by Brad Pitt’s Make It Right foundation.

Pepper continued. On August 29, Hurricane Katrina’s eye hovered 25 to 30 miles east of here and sent a 25-foot high tidal surge up the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, whose fixed banks funneled the water toward the city and into the Industrial Canal. Tulane University geographer Richard Campanella described the incident. The water in the canal rose 14 feet above normal levels. Pressure built, and shortly after 7 a.m., two giant sections of the wall collapsed. All that saltwater, and then that barge, poured into a neighborhood that is four feet below sea level in some places.

Cameras focused on the barge, but the water knocked down walls, splintered homes, and drowned people. Some people climbed onto roofs. The water sat, turning into a toxic soup, held still in the bowl of a city. More than a week later, over 60 percent of the city was still flooded. Many of the people who climbed onto roofs were saved, albeit with memories of their neighbors dying.

Still, people wanted to come back. Even though the Lower Ninth Ward had a high crime rate, was below sea level, and was surrounded on three sides by water, it also had a much higher rate of home ownership than the city as a whole. An estimated 20,000 people lived in the neighborhood before the storm. The area has been slow to recover. Pepper said the deluge destroyed more than 4,000 homes. A New York Times Magazine story published this past spring described sections of the neighborhood as a jungle, returning to nature. Roughly 5,500 people live here now.

Common Ground Relief is trying to create a welcoming environment for the people who want to return. Pepper said they have gutted more than 3,000 homes in the city and rebuilt more than 130 in the Lower Ninth Ward. The organization also teaches families to build raised gardens so they can grow vegetables in toxin-free soil, runs a legal clinic that offers free advice to lower income residents, and replants marsh grasses to help build a natural buffer around the city. They've done all this by relying on a rag tag army of roughly 40,000 volunteers. Today’s volunteers include 14 people from the New York City Parks Department, who plan to wade through waist-deep water in a bayou filled with bugs, snakes, and, they’ve heard, alligators—all to plant a few blades of grass.

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What We've Learned About Tiger Sharks in Hawaii

Tiger2Working on a tiger shark. Photo: Carl Meyer

For 19 years, University of Hawaii scientist Carl Meyer has caught sharks up and down the Hawaiian archipelago, a 1,500-mile-long chain that runs from the Big Island northwest to Kure Atoll. He’s fished up sandbar sharks, tiger sharks, and Galapagos sharks and tagged them with tracking devices in the gin-clear shallows of remote atolls, in the dark blue depths around a fish farm cage off the Big Island, over rainbow reefs where outfitters take North Shore tourists shark diving, and in turquoise waters just offshore from any number of the state’s white sand beaches.  

In 1993, he arrived at the University of Hawaii green, at least as far as big tropical sharks were concerned. In 1991, a tiger shark had attacked and killed a 41-year-old woman, and the state responded—as it had numerous times before—by culling the predators. Meyer began tagging and following the animals with his mentor, Kim Holland. What they found led the Hawaiian government to change their response to fatal shark attacks. We’ll let him tell that story below, as well as several other stories related to his studies that have changed our understanding of how humans and sharks interact in the aloha state.

When did you see your first shark?
I had seen sharks while fishing as a kid, albeit small ones found coastally in Europe. I didn’t see a tiger shark for the first time until 1993, when I came to Hawaii.

What was the context of that?
In Hawaii, over time, there had always been a low number of shark attacks, but back in the late 1950s there was a fatal attack on a guy named Billy Weaver. As a result, the local government decided that they should instigate a shark-culling program. That program was predicated on the concept that tiger sharks were highly residential. In fact, they used the word territorial, which has additional meaning to a biologist, implying active defense of space. The untested assumption was that these sharks hang out in one area, and you could have a program that would take out the problem animals and make the water safe. They had a number of shark control programs in the '60s and '70s, and they killed thousands of sharks, including 554 tiger sharks from 1959 to 1976.

It was the standard MO for the state of Hawaii in those days, built on the belief that they could make the water safer. Eventually, the programs were stopped for more than 10 years. Then, in 1991, there was a fatal shark attack on the island of Maui. Unusually in that case, when the emergency services showed up, the shark was still on site. It was a large tiger shark. This particular event prompted renewed calls for the culling of sharks. In 1993, I had just started as a graduate student with Kim Holland, together with Chris Lowe and Brad Wetherbee, who are now professors on the mainland. We said: “Well, hold on a second. Nobody’s ever tested the assumption that tiger sharks are territorial or highly residential, and this whole culling concept is built on that cornerstone.”

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How You Can Track Great White Sharks on Your Phone

Shark Net app for iOS devices-2_Courtesy Stanford UniversityShark Net. Photo: Kip Evans

Tagging technology now allows anyone with a computer or mobile device to follow the movements of great white sharks.

Along the East Coast, people are tracking Mary Lee and Genie, two great whites. A group named Ocearch captured and tagged the sharks off the coast of Massachusetts earlier this year. Each time, they baited a hook, hauled the shark aboard a specialized platform, put a pipe in the animal's mouth that streamed running water through the gills, drilled holes through the dorsal fin, attached a SPOT tag, and let the predator go. Their tagging methods attracted some controversy. Environmentalists filed a petition with 750 signatures on change.org asking for Ocearch's permit to be rejected. They said tagging methods that involved hooking and lifting sharks out of the water could cause harm. A September New York Times story mentioned that one shark tagged by Ocearch during a South African expedition died. The Ocearch crew brought scientists on board in Massachusetts to monitor the sharks, and sucessfully tagged and released the two sharks. Now, whenever one of those shark's fins breaches, a signal is sent to a satellite and then on to the Ocearch website. The locations of the sharks show up on an interactive map.

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George Burgess Talks About Shark Finning and Conservation

Shutterstock_101559460Shark fins. Photo: Elira/Shutterstock

In 2000, a graduate student at the Imperial College of London named Shelley Clarke began using shark fin data from the auction houses of Hong Kong and the ports of Taiwan to estimate how many sharks, and what species, were heading off for sale at the world’s biggest market. She used her data to estimate a global take of 38 million sharks a year—though she said that that number could be as low as 26 million and as high as 73 million.

Her paper was important in that it provided the first scientific estimate for the number of sharks being traded based on the take of fins, offering scientists and fisheries managers a number for the global shark trade they could rely on. Though people in many countries eat shark flesh, fins are the most valuable part of the fish. As a result, fins made it to market, while bodies often didn’t. Some fishermen sliced the fins off and let the live sharks drown. Others took the fins off dead sharks, but with no set rules in place, there was no way to tell. As a result, many countries have now required shark fins to be taken ashore with the corresponding body. Most recently, the European Union ruled that fishermen must take the fins and the body to dock.

There are 471 species of sharks in the world, and scientists with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) have categorized at least 73 of them as threatened. The truth is, scientists know very little about almost half of those species—212 shark species are categorized as data deficient. To find out more about the conservation status of sharks and finning, we talked to George Burgess, a vice chair of the IUCN’s Shark Specialist Group.

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