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(US TX) Lost at sea September 25, 2005 6:00 PM

 
 
Our oceans are on the brink of a sea change, with many species, including the 10 described here, at risk of bowing out -- forever

By LISA DAVIS

Special to the Star-Telegram


It seems impossible that the world could ever run out of fish. But the oceans aren't as impervious as we might have believed. More and more scientists are warning that we are on the verge of "a gathering wave of ocean extinctions," as Ellen K. Pikitch of the Pew Institute for Ocean Science told The Washington Post.

The ocean and its inhabitants have always seemed invulnerable, partly because of their sheer abundance. But that is changing, in large part because of industrialized fishing, but also because of warmer ocean temperatures, and because we humans keep building hotels and condos on the beaches.

Here is a brief look at 10 marine species that are in peril. They are not particularly cute. They are not cuddly. But that doesn't mean we can afford to write them off.

We are all affected by the plight of the oceans. After all, warns the IUCN, the World Conservation Union, a fisherman without fish isn't worth very much.

RIGHT WHALE

One of eight whales covered by the Endangered Species Act, the right whale is the rarest of all marine mammals. They suffered tremendous losses at the hands of whalers, who liked them because their thick layer of blubber caused them to float to the top of the ocean once they'd been killed. More recently, right whales have been killed after becoming entangled in fishing nets, or from collisions with ships.

The northern right whale, found in the North Atlantic and the North Pacific, could be extinct within 200 years. On the American side of the Atlantic Ocean, only a few hundred whales are left; on the European side, there are probably no more than 20.

HAMMERHEAD SHARK

The shark with the best-known head -- those widespread eyes help with hunting -- is one of more than 75 species of shark that are in dangerous decline. Sharks are hunted for sport and for their meat, and many are caught inadvertently in fishing nets. The hammerhead shark is particularly prized for its fins; shark fin soup is a very expensive Asian delicacy. When a shark is "finned" by a fisherman, it isn't killed. Its fins are simply chopped off, and it's dumped back in the ocean, where, unable to swim, it sinks to the bottom and dies. Shark finning is banned in U.S. waters, but that doesn't mean it doesn't happen.

Sharks only have a few babies a year, so they can't reproduce fast enough to make up for all their numbers being lost to fishing.

Granted, it's hard to get worked up about possible shark extinctions. Wouldn't the world be better off without sharks? In a word, no. There are more than 300 species, and only a handful pose a threat to humans. Remember, sharks are at the top of the oceanic food chain. If you knock them out, the food chain gets all out of whack. One study found that, in the Caribbean, without sharks to eat the fish that eat the fish that eat the algae, the algae overtakes the coral reefs.

SMALLTOOTH SAWFISH

The smalltooth sawfish -- one of the most visually delightful fish -- is the first marine fish to be protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Its "saw" is really a long snout studded with teeth. As it swims, it swings its saw from side to side, snagging fish, which it then scrapes off and eats. Babies, mercifully, are born without teeth on their saws.

Sawfish are facing extinction because of habitat destruction and overfishing. They are prized for their saws, of course, but also for their liver oil. They used to range from New York to Texas, but are now found only in south Florida, where three wildlife refuges have been set up to protect them.

MONK SEAL

It's been 53 years since anyone has seen a Caribbean monk seal; they were declared extinct in 1996. They were gentle, easily approachable animals -- not at all living up to the moniker given them by Christopher Columbus, who dubbed them "sea wolves," and who had eight of them killed to feed his crew. They had brown backs and pale yellow bellies. They were easy prey, and were hunted extensively in the 17th and 18th centuries, by fishermen and museum collectors. They also suffered as humans developed their habitat in the Caribbean Sea.

Two other species of monk seals still exist but are endangered. The Hawaiian monk seal, which lives on the beaches of some of the smaller islands in the Hawaiian Archipelago, numbers about 1,300-1,400. The Mediterranean monk seal once frolicked all over the Mediterranean, and was well known in ancient societies. Homer and Aristotle wrote about them, and the head of a monk seal is minted on one of the earliest Greek coins. The Romans hunted them voraciously -- for food, fur and oil. In the last 50 years, Mediterranean monk seals have retreated to two remote colonies, where about 300 to 500 of them are all that is left in the world.

JOHNSON'S SEAGRASS

Even some of the plants in the ocean are threatened with extinction. Johnson's seagrass -- a true flowering plant that has adapted to life underwater -- is one of the most precarious. It

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 September 25, 2005 6:01 PM

 It grows along the eastern coast of Florida, and is eaten by two other endangered marine animals: West Indian manatees and green sea turtles.

The future does not look good for Johnson's seagrass; it's uprooted by boat propellers and anchors, and by dredging. It's also vulnerable to hurricanes, and pollution from all the fertilizer that washes from farms and suburban lawns into the ocean.

STURGEON

Sturgeon -- the fish that produce the eggs that are better known as caviar -- are truly ancient creatures. Huge fish, covered with bony plates, they look a lot like what fish looked like during the time of the dinosaurs. Sturgeon are long-lived -- up to 100 years -- and slow to mature. It can take 20 years for a female to start producing eggs. The largest sturgeons can reach 30 feet and 1,800 pounds.

Sturgeon were once plentiful in North American rivers -- there used to be a thriving trade in Hudson River caviar -- but they're now pretty much fished out. It's worse in the Caspian Sea in Russia, home to the famed Beluga sturgeon, which is rapidly disappearing. The growing demand for caviar -- it's not just for czars anymore! -- has led to overfishing.

TOTOABA

Croakers make for some of the best ocean fishing in the Atlantic. The little fish are plentiful -- and can be easy to find, thanks to the croaking, drumming noise they make underwater. That trademark sound comes from a large swim bladder, which the fish fill with air to help them float.

It's a different story with the totoaba, a giant croaker found only off the shores of Mexico. The totoaba, a beautiful fish that can grow to the size of a marlin, is facing extinction.

Poachers are also decimating the totoaba; the large swim bladders are prized in Chinese medicine, and can sell for $100 each on the black market.

SEA TURTLES

Sea turtles have to return to beaches to lay their eggs, often after a long migration. The female turtles are vulnerable when they're out of the water; their eggs and tiny hatchlings even more so.

There are seven species of sea turtles, six of which are found in the United States, and all six of which are protected under the Endangered Species Act.

The sea turtle that nests on the Texas Gulf coast is the Kemp's ridley, one of the smaller sea turtles, and perhaps the most endangered. They tend to get caught in shrimping nets, though that has declined with the use of TEDs (turtle excluder devices) on shrimp trawls. Before TEDs, it's estimated that shrimpers killed 500 to 5,000 Kemp's ridleys each year.

The turtles are also at risk because their nesting grounds have been developed or destroyed. Their major nesting beach is on the northeastern coast of Mexico, at Rancho Nuevo, where they enjoy only tenuous protection from development. They're also threatened by spills from oil rigs in the Gulf, and the growing amount of floating trash.

The Kemp's ridleys are slowly re-establishing their nesting grounds on the Texas coast; this year, the Sea Turtle Restoration Project counted 51 Kemp's ridley nests here. In addition, three greet turtle nests and one loggerhead nest were found at the Padre Island National Seashore.

CHINOOK SALMON

It might be surprising to find salmon on an endangered species list, but that's because there aren't many places left in the wild for the Chinook salmon to spawn. The Chinook is the largest salmon, usually about 40 pounds but sometimes up to 120 pounds. They range along the Pacific coast from the Bering Strait to Southern California.

The Chinook is in decline because of drastic changes in their spawning grounds, thanks to dams on the rivers, with water being diverted to farms and power plants. In most Western states, about 80 percent to 90 percent of the salmon's traditional habitat is gone, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Fisheries Service, which is charged with protecting 61 threatened or endangered marine species. California alone has lost 91 percent of its wetlands. There's precious little chance of getting any of them back.

BARNDOOR SKATE

This big flatfish, which can grow to 3 feet wide, is a member of the shark family. It is found only off the Atlantic coast of Canada, and has all but disappeared. In itself, it is of no value to the fisherman. Instead, the skates get caught in the nets as boats trawl for cod or redfish.

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