How cruise ships bring agonising death to last Greek whales

Government promises action on crashes to avoid carnage on busy shipping routes

In an office up a steep hill in a seaside suburbium of Athens, a tiny blue light flickers from a computer terminal. Dr Alexandros Frantzis, Greece’s foremost oceanographer, phases it out. The illumination, he says, tracks marine traffic” in real time “.

It is key to saving one of the world’s most endangered whale populations.

” It logs the position, course and velocity of a ship entering Greek waters ,” he tells.” And that is vital to mapping shipping densities in areas populated by sperm whales .”

Frantzis has expended nearly a one-quarter of a century examining marine mammals. His desk, like his small Pelagos Cetacean Research Institute, is testimony to a passion that has helped transform understanding of dolphins, porpoises and whales in a country where little was known about marine life scarcely two decades ago.

Shelves are stacked high with the bones of sea mammals big and small. The remains of a sperm whale’s lower jaw are propped against a wall up his back office. And in a room beyond, the skeletons of two whales- gargantuan, crusty and yellow- lie neatly assembled across the floor.

” Greece’s marine environment is very rich in species ,” tells Frantzis.” In antiquity cetaceans were taken very seriously. Aristotle wrote the first scientific study, his Historia Animalium , about them. You could tell Greeks are the first and the last to come to the field, which is why urgent measures are being taken .”

Sperm whales are the focus of Frantzis’s latest campaign. Although prevalent in other oceans there are fewer than 300 in Greek water, their largest habitat in the eastern Mediterranean.

Like marine mammals in most places, the whales face a multitude of threats, from entanglement in fishing nets to ingestion of plastic waste.

In Greece there is the added danger of noise pollution from Nato warships conducting underwater sonar drills- exercisings blamed for disorienting whales reliant on their own sort of sonar to navigate and hunt.

Seismic surveys, in accordance with the discovery of underwater hydrocarbons, also pose a threat.

But Frantzis tells the biggest danger to local cetaceans is the chance of colliding with a ship. He singles out the water off the western Peloponnese, an area where whales swarm but one of the busiest roads for shipping.

Last month a nine-metre whale washed up on a beach in Santorini, the latest in a series of strandings. Frantzis now has a large white bone- one of its teeth- on his desk.

For sperm whales, death by collision is by far the most painful, he claims, with propellers often leaving the animals torn and gashed.

” We don’t know how this latest incident resulted ,” he sighs, dispelling reports that huge amounts of plastic had been found in the mammal’s digestive tract.” But what we do know is that at the least one whale every year is killed as a result of a ship ten-strike. It’s a death rate the species in these portions cannot survive .”

Conservationists are saying that if shipping lanes were routed farther offshore, the risk of ship strikes would fell dramatically.

” Sperm whales like waters off steep underwater gradients but unfortunately the Hellenic trench off the Peloponnese is also the direct route for ships moving parallel to the coast ,” the British marine mammal scientist Russell Leaper told the Observer .

A dead whale washed up on a Greek beach- injuries from a large ship’s propeller are obvious. Photo: Dr Alexandros Frantzis/ Pelagos Cetacean Research Institute

” The solution would be to move ships a little bit offshore into deeper water less favoured by whales ,” he said from the Scottish island of Coll, where he was find minke whales and dolphins last week. A marine mammal expert with the International Fund for Animal Welfare, Leaper has spent more than 20 years analyzing ship ten-strikes and says that in Greek oceans they account for more than 60% of whale demises although most, he adds, go unreported and unrecorded.

Greece is not alone. The southern tip-off of Sri Lanka- one of the world’s busiest shipping routes- represents a similar danger for the blue whale population.

Environmentalists have won unexpected support from the shipping industry. The International Maritime Organization, recognise their own problems, has drawn up guidelines.

Earlier this month, the International Whaling Commission exhorted the Greek government to take action, saying scientific proof showed that ship ten-strikes needed to be tackled.

” There are times when whales have been caught in the bow of a ship with half a tail ripped off ,” Leaper says.” Sometimes you get a body that shows no external meanders but the bones have been crushed. In all cases it is a very horrible route to die .”

Prime pastor Alexis Tsipras’s leftist-led coalition is expected to submit proposals to the IMO to reroute shipping lanes the summer months. Frantzis and his squad have helped identify water that are prone to ship strikes because of the overlap of high densities of whales. Much of their studies has been based on mathematical analysis conducted by Leaper, who believes shifting traffic five miles farther offshore would suffice. He also quotes the example of approaches being altered to the Panama canal and off the shores of the California.

” For a cruise liner running at 20 knots, that[ five miles] would add 15 minutes to the entire journey ,” he says.” It’s a pressing preservation and welfare problem and very easy to solve. Greece has the opportunity to come forward with proposals that will help resolve this, and might also help other countries come forward as well .”

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‘Incredible’ bioluminescence gives California coastline an eerie blue glow

An unusual algal bud, known as a red tide, has drawn many to the beach in the hopes of witnessing the stunning spectacle

A dense bloom of bioluminescent algae off the coast of southern California has lit up the Pacific Ocean with an eerie and fantastical neon blue light, sending photographers and spectators to the beach at night in hopes of witnessing the natural phenomenon.

The algal bud, also known as a red tide, was observed this week lighting up the waves along a 15 -mile stretch of coastline.

” Bioluminescence happens all the times, merely not at that level” said Dr James M Sullivan, a bioluminescence researcher at the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute.” This is an incredible one .”

It is not known how long the current display will last. In September 2013, the last day San Diego assured a red tide, the conditions lasted for a week. Other red tides have been known to last for a month or even longer.

The glowing coastline seen from Torrey Pines state beach in San Diego, California. Photograph: Alexander S Kunz/ Getty Images

According to Michael Latz of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, the present red tide is made up of dinoflagellates, including one- Lingulodinium polyedra – that is well known for bioluminescent displays. The sheer concentration of tiny organisms constructs the water seem reddish during the day day. But the real display occurs at night, when any physical disturbance, like the motion of a wave, causes the organisms to emit light.

Dinoflagellates are basically tiny plants that they are able swimming, Sullivan explained. Like any plant, they require certain conditions( nutrients, sunlight, hot) to prosper, and when the conditions are right, its own population can explosion, creating a massive bloom.

Sullivan compared the process by which the organisms make illuminate to glow sticks, which contain two chemicals that create a fluorescent incandescence when mixed. Similarly, dinoflagellates contain an enzyme and a protein that, when disturbed, blend and release a quick flashing of sunlight. Each wave or passing fish, he told, is” just like violating a light stick “.

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Sharks love jazz but are stumped by classical, say scientists

A study at Macquarie University in Sydney found that sharks could recognise jazz if there was food on offer

Researchers at Sydney’s Macquarie University have discovered that sharks can recognise jazz music.

In a newspaper published in Animal Cognition, the researchers, led by Catarina Vila Pouca, developed juvenile Port Jackson sharks to swim over to where jazz was playing, to receive food. It has been thought that sharks have learned to associate the audio of a boat engine with food, because food is often thrown from tourist boats to attract sharks to cage-diving expeditions- the study shows that they can learn these associations quickly.

The test was induced more complex with the addition of classical music- this confounded the sharks, who couldn’t differentiate between jazz and classical.” It was obvious that the sharks knew that they had to do something when the classical music was played, but they couldn’t figure out that they had to go to another location ,” said researcher Culum Brown.” The task is harder than it sounds, because the sharks had to learn that different locations were associated with a particular genre of music, which was then paired with a food reward. Perhaps with more develop, they would have figured it out .”

Vila Pouca added:” Sharks are generally underestimated when it comes to learning abilities- most people assure them as mindless, instinctive animals. However, they have really big brains and are patently much smarter than we give them credit for .” She said that the evidence would hopefully inspires more conservation work.

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Facing extinction, the North Atlantic right whale cannot adapt. Can we? | Philip Hoare

Once the right whale to hunt, Eubalaena glacialis is now been hit by nets, ships and changing seas. We are losing a beautiful beast

As if to confound everyone, this past week Dr Charles ” Stormy ” Mayo and his squad from the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies reported insuring up to 150 right whales in Cape Cod Bay. Dr Mayo- who has been studying these animals for 40 years and has a scientist’s aversion to exaggeration- is stunned.

” It is astounding for such a rare and utterly odd being ,” he tells me. All the more amazing since he knows this great assembling could be a final flourish. By 2040, the North Atlantic right whale may be gone. He hesitates, then uses the e-word: extinction.

How can such a huge mammal simply disappear within reach of the richest and most powerful nation on globe? Shifting food sources- due to climate change- are leading whales to areas where maritime industries are unused to them. In the past 12 months, 18 rights have died after ship strikes or entanglement in fishing gear. With as few as 430 animals left, 100 of them breeding females in a reduced gene pool, the species is unsustainable.

The right whale may be the strangest brute in the ocean. Vast and rotund, its gigantic mouth is fringed with two-metre strips of baleen, once “harvested” by humen to furnish Venetian blinds and corset remains but used by the whale to strain its diet of rice-sized zooplankton from the sea.

These bizarre animals are not easily known or imagined. They live far longer than us- like its Arctic cousin, the bowhead, the right whale may reach 200, perhaps more. Someones could be older than constitutional America. They exist beyond us in time, dimension and experience. If we lose the right whale, “were losing” part of our planet’s biological history.

If any whale were to be so foolish as to claim nationality, the North Atlantic right whale would be American, spending all its life in US or Canadian waters. Its modern moniker, the urban whale, provokes its habit of foraging close to shore. Its historic name speaks to its fate. Being a surface-feeder, so near to land, made it vulnerable to humen. And when it was killed, its belt of blubber ensured that it floated conveniently. The right whale was in the incorrect place, at the wrong time.

By 1935, with as few as 60 breed people left, the situation was so dire that the right whale became the first cetacean to be protected by statute. But by the start of this century, the numbers seemed to recover. Shipping lanes were shifted and fishing industries took on board the whale’s protected status. It even got its own air exclusion zone.” Like a Hollywood superstar ,” as John Waters quipped to me.

For 18 years I’ve followed that tentative recovery in the water off Cape Cod. I’ve stumbled on to the winter beach to witness their fins and flukes tumbling so near the tide line I might have waded out to them. I’ve even watched them from my bed overlooking the bay. And on research cruises with the Center for Coastal Studies, special licence allowed us to approach close enough to see the whale louse( cyamids) crawling round their heads.

On one memorable trip-up in April 2015, scientist Christy Hudak and her team spotted 80 animals- nearly 20% of the population. It was like watching dinosaurs, but such is the sensitivity of the center’s work that I cannot show you the dozens of photo I took that day.

A North Atlantic right whale at the surface. Photo: Brian J. Skerry/ NG/ Getty Images

That sense of a huge animal being and not being there speaks to a paradoxical fragility. Veteran whalewatch naturalist Dennis Minsky, are stationed in Provincetown, takes this story personally:” An ancient and noble animal is constitutionally unable to adapt to an array of anthropogenic menaces- speeding water craft, the myriad horizontal lines of fishing gear, an increasingly noisy ocean and poorly understood changes in water quality .” Federal and country efforts to help seem little more than” mere tinkering “. And with 80% of right whales showing scars from entanglement, what about their individual suffering?

” The lucky ones, I suppose, drown ,” Minsky tells.” Others go for months or even years, succumbing an excruciating demise .” Minsky shrugs, summing up the situation in five pithy terms:” They cannot adapt: can we ?”

Like Minsky and Mayo, I feel an intimate connection to the whales of the Cape, a place I hymn in my new book. This is the edge of our world, where we meet the other. As I swim in its water, winter and summer, I find it hard to see this as a site of mortality rather than life. What could save its most enigmatic, sensate and sentient animal? New fishing gear technology, tighter regulations? Maybe. But out there, swimming under the blue expanse that Melville called ” the ocean’s scalp”, Eubalaena glacialis requires one thing more than anything else. Our empathy. Just for a moment, can we stop thinking human, and start thinking whale?

  • Philip Hoare’s RISINGTIDEFALLINGSTAR is published in the US by University of Chicago Press. An exhibition based on the themes of the book opens at the Merola Gallery, Provincetown, on 25 May

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Destroying the world’s natural heritage: ‘Komodo is reaching a tipping point’

The Indonesian national park boasts some of the worlds best dive sites and spectacular marine life, but illegal angling and unsustainable tourism is threatening its Unesco status

It was the unusual thrashing on the water that caught their attention. As those onboard the dive boat in Indonesia’s Komodo national park described closer, it became clear it was a green turtle entangled in rubbish and thick angling net.

The divers managed to lift it out of the water, cut the blue bind from its shell and then set the turtle free, but dive operator Ed Statham says it is just one of the increasing and alarming signs the Unesco heritage site is fast being destroyed.

Each day Statham and his squad place barges illegally fishing inside the protected Coral Triangle area, atop some of the best dive sites in the world.

” It is not just fishing with lines and little boats, it is net fishing, anchoring on diving sites, obvious carcass lying around, shark finning. And it is happening on a bigger scale than it are applied to ,” explains Statham over the phone from Labuan Bajo.

” If things continue as they are now, Komodo is going to reach a tip-off phase in the next few years and we are not going to be able to recover .”

A photo taken in February of a dead reef shark missing its top fin. Photo: Arabi Balasubramanian

Located at the confluence of two oceans, Komodo national park is a series of dramatic hilly islands, home to the famous Komodo dragon, but also a spectacular and diverse marine life, including pelagic fish, manta rays and turtles.

In recent years local dive operators say illegal fishing has become rampant, and while daily park entrance fees were raised nearly 500% in 2015 to 175,000 rupiah( PS9)- it is now more expensive to dive in Komodo than the Galapagos- the number of marine patrols has only decreased.

On top of that, as term about Komodo spreads, tourism has grown rapidly.

Destructive and illegal fishing be included with unsustainable tourism are putting huge pressure on Komodo’s precious ecosystem. But what happens when a Unesco site is getting destoyed?

Dr Fanny Douvere, coordinator of Unesco’s world heritage marine programme, says there are numerous steps the heritage body can take to help preserve these areas.

Once a site is engraved as Unesco-heritage listed, it instantly becomes part of a regular evaluation system. If serious problems are seen they are addressed by the world heritage committee, which can include putting a site on its “in danger” list.

The danger listing often helps produce the attention and funding requirements to rescue a site in critical condition.

There are 29 Unesco marine sites around the world and several are on the hazard list, including the Belize Barrier Reef.

In collaboration with Unesco, the governmental forces of Belize has adopted new environmental management laws and a protection scheme, and introduced a moratorium on offshore drilling.

” Once it is on the peril listing there are strict indicators to get off ,” explains Douvere.

A pristine coral reef surrounded by fish at famous dive site, Batu Bolong, in Komodo national park, Indonesia. Photo: Christian Loader/ Alamy Stock Photo

In rare but worst-case scenarios, sites can be also be “delisted” by Unesco, as was the case in 2009 with Germany’s Dresden Elbe valley, after the government approved the construction of a four-lane bridge through the unique scenery, or Oman’s Arabian oryx sanctuary in 2007.

But there are success tales too. In July last year the Unesco site of Tubbataha reef in the Philippines was designated as a” particularly delicate sea region “, meaning that large boats are now required to avoid the area, reducing noise, pollution and future ship groundings.

Meanwhile in Kiribati, its Unesco listing led to a ban on commercial foreign fisheries operating around its Phoenix Islands.

When it comes to Komodo, Unesco tells recent concerns are being taken seriously.

” Komodo has not been submitted to the world heritage committee ,” tells Douvere.” But as people do write to us and that becomes a serious problem, then that’s definitely our official route forward .”

Pulau Padar near Labuan Bajo in Indonesia. Photograph: Danaan Andrew/ Alamy

Aware that Komodo lacks a plan on how to manage its marine surrounding, the international heritage body sent a squad of experts to Komodo last December to start working with local authorities.

Back in Labuan Bajo, the gateway to the national park from the island of Flores, Statham is pushing for urgent action.

He says that when he first arrived in the area as a dive master more than five years ago, the diversity of Komodo” blew his intellect” and he is keen to make sure it bides that way.

Thanks to Komodo’s location at the meeting point of two oceans, it is unique in that it does not face the same warming of the seas, and harrowing coral bleaching that many reefs around the world are facing, he says.

” We should be ahead of the game, but we’re not ,” says Statham,” It’s not mother nature that’s destroying Komodo, it’s us .”

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‘Mega-colonies’ of 1.5 million penguins discovered in Antarctica

The discovery shows the remote area is a vital refuge for wildlife from climate change and overfishing and should be protected by a new reserve, say scientists

Huge ” mega-colonies” of penguins have been discovered near the Antarctic peninsula, hosting more than 1.5 million birds. Researchers say it shows the area is a vital refuge from climate change and human activities and should be protected by a vast new marine wildlife reserve currently under consideration.

The huge numbers of Adelie penguins were found on the Danger Islands in the Weddell Sea, on the east side of the Antarctic Peninsula. It is a tough place to reach and has seldom been visited. But scientists, prompted by spacecraft images, mounted an expedition and used on-the-ground counts and aerial photography from dronings to reveal 751,527 pairs of penguins.

Aerial footage disclosed an enormous breeding colony of Adelie penguins in the Danger Islands. Photo: Thomas Sayre-McCord/ WHOI/ MIT

The researchers then analyzed satellite images going back to 1959 and believe the colony has been stable over that time. In contrast, Adelie colonies to the west of the Antarctic Peninsula, where the impact of climate change and human activity are much greater, are in decline.

” This was an incredible experience, discovering and counting so many penguins ,” said Tom Hart, at the University of Oxford and part of the international research team. Its report, Survey of Adelie Penguin Mega-colonies Reveals the Danger Islands as a Seabird Hotspot, is published in the publication Scientific Reports.

The researchers employs drone footage to calculate the number of penguins. Photo: Rachael Herman/ Stony Brook University/ Louisiana State University

Michael Polito, at Louisiana State University and also part of the team, said:” I was astonished by the sheer number of Adelie penguins I saw. The water around the island boiled with penguins .”

Hart said:” The sizing of these colonies attains them regionally important and stimulates the lawsuit for expanding the proposed Weddell Sea Marine Protected Area( MPA) to include the Danger Islands. More than that, I think it highlights the need for better protection of the west Antarctic Peninsula, where we are seeing deteriorations .”

Rod Downie, at WWF, said:” This exciting discovery shows us just how much more there still is to learn about this amazing and iconic species of the ice. But it also strengthens the urgency to protect Antarctic waters from the dual menaces of overfishing and climate change .”

The proposed MPA is huge– 1.8 m sq km or five times the size of Germany. It would ban all angling in a vast area of the Weddell Sea and around the Antarctic Peninsula, safeguarding killer whales, leopard seals and blue whales, as well as penguins that rely on the krill targeted by fishing ships. The MPA already has the support of several countries, including the UK, and will go before a seminar of the Antarctic nations in October.

The discovery of the mega-colonies is a major development for polar scientists- and greet good news. In October, they reported that simply two chicks had survived from a colony of 40, 000 at Petrel Island, a few thousand kilometres west of the Antarctic peninsula.

Other penguins are also facing an uncertain future. On Monday, researchers warned that king penguins could nearly vanish from Antarctica by the end of the century unless climate change is curbed.

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First images of creatures from Antarctic depths revealed

Photographs of rare species from unexplored area of Antarctic seabed highlight need to protect life in one of the most remote places on the planet

The images below are the first of creatures found in a previously unexplored region of the Antarctic seabed offering a fascinating glimpse of life in one of the most remote and pristine places on the planet.


The rare species were found by Dr Susanne Lockhart, an Antarctic biologist who visited the seafloor in a submarine last month as part of a scientific expedition organised by campaigning organisation Greenpeace.

Now they are being transported back to the laboratory where they and hours of footage taken from the submarine will be examined to reveal the secrets of this unexplored underwater world. It is hoped that some of the samples collected may prove to be new species.

Lockhart said the findings hold great significance for the future of the Southern Ocean.


By identifying vulnerable marine ecosystems and registering their locations with CCAMLR (the body set up to manage Antarctic marine life), they can then be incorporated into the mathematical models that are being used to help generate Marine Protected Areas for this region.

She added: Therefore, not only is it important for us to learn and understand the invertebrate communities that live on the sea floor around Antarctica but these discoveries can then be used directly to help protect the ecosystem as a whole.




Furthermore, maintaining a healthy krill population is as important for the marine invertebrates of Antarctica as it is for the penguins, seals and seabirds, Lockhart added.

She said she had found an incredible diversity of animal life on the seafloor.



The range of colors and species diversity in certain important groups such as the soft and gorgonian corals and the colonial tunicates (or sea squirts) were truly spectacular.

Bryozoans and hydroids also carpet the seabed, making it look like a wondrous garden. Feather stars and their relatives decorate enormous vase shaped glass sponges. And icefish and octopus can be found hiding if you look carefully enough. Even the water column was teeming with a surprising diversity of life.


  • A comatulid feather star collected at a depth of about 420 meters

Lockhart said the findings had left her more excited than at any time in her 25 years as an Antarctic biologist.

I can now see first-hand what I have been studying for so many years, she said.

Great Barrier Reef coral bleaching has started early, biologist says

Photographs show only localised bleaching but there is concern it has come so early in the season

How did half of the great Florida coral reef system disappear?

Overfishing, developing and pollution have all contributed to the reefs deterioration, but climate change is its biggest threat. UN targets must be met to stop ocean acidification

The great Florida coral reef system stretches hundreds of miles down the eastern seaboard of the US. It is the world’s third largest, and nearly 1,400 species of plants and animals and 500 species of fish have been recorded there.

But last year marine scientists procured almost half the reef was missing. They took the most recent satellite images, compared them with precisely described 250 -year-old British admiralty charts and found them nearly identical.

But where the historic charts presented there had been extensive coral reef close to the coast in the 1760 s, the satellite maps disclosed simply sea grasses and mud. Merely those reefs far from the coast were still intact and alive with fish and plants.

So when and why did so much of the world’s third largest reef system only disappear?

Natural forces like spells of extreme rainfall and heatwaves may have played some portion, but it is more likely that human was responsible.

In those 250 years, fishing off the Florida Keys intensified, causeways and cities were built, pollution increased and the flow of freshwater, sediments and nutrients from the land all changed. Any of these factors could have led to the stress and decline of the reef, but it probably took a combination to kill off half the corals.

Something similar to what took place over 250 years off the Florida coast is now accelerating across reefs around the world as natural and new anthropogenic threats emerge and blend with deadly effect.

Corals are intolerant both of temperature and salinity change and it just takes a rise of 1C for a few weeks or extreme rainfall for them to begin to die. In the past 20 years, extreme climate links between El Nino events and climate change has hit the world’s shallow reefs hard.

Abnormally warm water caused the world’s first recorded widespread coral bleaching in 1998. Stretchings of the Great Barrier Reef off Australia, and other reefs off Madagascar, Belize and the Maldives, were left white and seemingly dead.

Most recovered because corals survive if conditions return to normal. But since then, widespread bleaching and other events have occurred nearly every year, leaving many of the world’s reefs stressed and vulnerable to cancer.

Over 20 years the trend of deterioration and loss has been inexorable. In 2001, and again in 2005, even warmer oceans damaged many more reefs. From 2008 -1 1, extreme summer temperatures led to major flooding and pollution in Australia which badly damaged the Great Barrier Reef.

Carysfort reef off Key Largo, Florida. Widespread bleaching and petroleum pollution has left the reefs emphasized and vulnerable to cancer. Photograph: Amy Massey/ AP

2013 saw sea temperatures rise again and the longest global coral bleaching event on record began in 2014 with another exceptionally strong El Nino. The 2016 and 2017 mass-bleaching events may now have affected virtually two-thirds of the world’s shallow reefs.

The fear now is that natural resilience is being lost and injury reefs will not have time to recover before the next extreme event further weakens and then kills them.

But reefs are now beset with more problems than bleaching. Just as off Florida in the 19 th century, local pollution, overfishing, loss of oxygen and excess nutrient runoff have increased, and now growing acidification of the oceans is a real danger. Most organisms can withstand some stress but few can cope with this tsunami of trouble.

Much of the early damage to near pristine Pacific and Indian ocean reefs may have been done in the 1980 s when overfishing peaked in tropical and subtropical seas. Shark fishing and the use of cyanide and explosives to supply fish to Hong Kong, Singapore, and mainland China has wiped out whole fish populations. Fishing gear dragged along the ocean floor has crushed corals, dynamite has shattered colonies and cyanide has killed hosts of living creatures.

A vast natural gem is rapidly being lost. The world’s reefs may merely cover 2% of the ocean floor but they are thought to be home to up to a one-quarter of the world’s 500,000 known species living in the oceans.

Aside from providing food for many millions of people, reefs are now recognised as essential to the whole marine ecosystem. Fish spawn and grow around coral, which in turn helps to regulate carbon dioxide levels in the oceans and protects coastal areas from corrosion. Take out any one part of the reef system and the whole is threatened.

Economically, too, reefs are increasingly important. Tourism and angling on the Great Barrier Reef is estimated to be worth at the least $6.4 bn Australian dollars( PS3. 7bn) a year. The Maldives’ tourist economy would collapse without its reefs. Together, the world’s coral reefs have been valued at$ 1tn a year.

The full ecological and economic damage done by 20 years of intense exploitation and warming seas is not yet known, but some scientists believe the world may already have lost half its shadow reefs, with the rest likely to be threatened within 30 years.

The solutions are political and technical and must address the entire marine ecosystem. Protected reserves are urgently needed and fishing must be controlled and policed.

But the answers will come primarily on land. For reefs to have any chance of surviving, farmers, cities and mining corporations must reduce their pollution and avoid the runoff of sediment and nutrients into the seas.

But above all, climate change must be addressed. If the oceans continue to absorb CO2, the increased acidity is likely to be fatal and coral bleaching will worsen. All that may be left are the deeper reefs.

The UN target to drastically cut emissions and hold temperature rises to 1.5 C must be met. If not, then the the world’s rich, diverse and astonishingly beautiful coral reefs may all but disappear within a lifetime. Recklessness on this scale would have unimaginable consequences.

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‘Not ashamed’: dolphin hunters of Taiji break silence over film The Cove

Members of the tiny Japanese community, which was vilified in the 2009 documentary, speak to the Guardian about fishing and their unique way of life

Taiji is still in darkness when a dozen humen gather at the quayside and warm themselves over a brazier. While the rest of the town sleeps, they sip from cans of hot coffee, smoke cigarettes and talk in hushed tones.

As soon as the sunlight edges above the peninsula, they take to their barges, steering out to ocean in formation in search of their prey: the dolphin.

It has been eight years since the Oscar-winning film The Cove propelled this community in an isolated corner of Japan’s Pacific coast to the centre of a bitter debate over the pursuit of dolphins for human consumption and entertainment.

The film’s graphic footage of dolphins being slaughtered with knives, turning the surrounding ocean a crimson red, shocked audiences around the world.

Unaccustomed to international attention and wrong-footed by their social media-savvy opponents, the town’s 3,200 residents simply went to ground. Requests for interviews with town officers went unanswered; the fishermen took a vow of silence.

But after years of keeping their counseling, Taiji’s anglers have finally spoken out, agreeing to talk to the Guardian about their work, their whaling heritage, and their determination to continue hunting dolphins.

” We’ve largely remained silent since The Cove, and that’s why our point of view was never put across in the media ,” says Yoshifumi Kai, a senior official with Taiji’s fisheries cooperative.

Taiji’s dolphin hunters head out to ocean Photograph: Justin McCurry for the Guardian

Kai attributes that reticence down to what he claims are endeavors by activists from Sea Shepherd and other conservation groups to manufacture showdowns, which they film and post online, and challenges claims that the practice of slaughtering dolphins beneath tarpaulin sheets proving that he and his fellow anglers have something to hide.

” Activists say we are disguising something because we know that what we are doing is immoral, but that’s nonsense ,” he says.” You never insure cattles or other animals being slaughtered in public. It’s not something you do out in the open .”

The earliest recorded coastal whale huntings in Taiji can be traced back to the early 1600 s. Scrolls on display in the town’s whale museum illustrate dozens of boats decorated with emblems taken from Buddhism and Japan’s indigenous religion, Shinto, in pursuit of a whale big enough to sustain the entire community for months.

” Foreign activists ask us why we kill these cute animals, but we ensure them as a vital source of food, even now ,” says Taiji’s mayor, Kazutaka Sangen.” When I was a boy, a third of the town would turn out to greet a whale being brought back to shore, because they were desperate to eat its meat. We are grateful to the whales- we want Westerners to understand that .”

Taiji Japan map

By killing dolphins and other small whales, fishermen are continuing a tradition that enabled their ancestors to survive before the working day of mass transport and the fact that there are other sources of nutrition, adds Sangen.

” We couldn’t grow rice or vegetables here, and we had no natural water supply. We needed to kill whales to feed, and hundreds of people died doing so. This was a so difficult place to survive, and we will always be grateful to our ancestors for their sacrifice. It’s because of them that we are all here today .”

For Sangen, everything in Taiji- from services for elderly residents to education and tourist infrastructure- depends on the income it builds from the sale of dolphins to zoos and aquariums. Several hours during the course of its interview he refers to kujira no megumi – literally, the boon of the whale.” Whaling enables this city to function ,” he says.

Using remote-controlled helicopters and concealed underwater cameras, The Cove graphic footage of Taiji’s infamous drive hunts, whose critics include the former US ambassador to Japan, Caroline Kennedy.

Typically, anglers seek pods of dolphins across open seas, banging metal poles against their barges to confuse their hypersensitive sonar, before herding them into a narrow inlet. There, they are either slaughtered for their meat or selected and sold for large sums to aquaria and marine parks.

While dolphin meat for human consumption generates only modest profits, Taiji’s anglers can reportedly sell a live specimen to brokers for about 8,000 US dollars. A fully trained dolphin can then fetch more than 40,000 US dollars if sold overseas, and about half that in Japan.

Minke whale sashimi served at a restaurant in Taiji Photograph: Justin McCurry

The 20 or so Taiji fishermen who take to the sea between September and April to hunt bottlenose dolphins, pilot whales and other small cetaceans have been emboldened by the release of Okujirasama( A Whale of a Tale)- a documentary by the New York-based filmmaker Megumi Sasaki that counters what she describes as The Cove’s one-sided treatment of a complex issue.

While inducing her cinema, Sasaki concluded that the debate over Taiji is an irreconcilable conflict of cultures- between the global, and Western-led, animal rights movement and local traditions immersed in religion and ancestor worship.

‘ Whaling is the glue that holds this town together ‘

” If dolphins are so important to the local community, then why kill them- that’s what many Westerners can’t understand ,” Sasaki says.” But we think of animals as a resource , not that they are special animals that can do things humen can’t do. It’s a totally different way of thinking. Whaling is the glue that holds this city together – it’s inseparable from local identity and pride .”

Kai rejects claims that that he and other fishermen employ a singularly cruel technique to kill the dolphins.” The route we work has changed with the times ,” he says. In response to criticism, anglers now dispatch the animals by inserting a knife into their neck, severing their brain stem- a method he claims is the most humane possible, but which some experts have said does not result in a painless or immediate demise.

On a recent morning, the seafront in Taiji is free from confrontation, although activists have tweeted their regular early-morning photos of the banger boats heading out to sea.

The anglers appear to have reached an uneasy truce with overseas campaigners, first from Sea Shepherd, and now from the Dolphin Project, a group formed by the dolphin trainer-turned activist Ric O’Barry.

Warning signs near the cove in Taiji. Photo: Justin McCurry for the Guardian

But there is still little interaction between the two sides.” They don’t want to listen, only to provoke us ,” Mitsunori Kobata, chairwoman of Taiji’s dolphin-hunting association, says over a dinner of minke whale sashimi and steamed rice flavoured with thin strips of whale blubber.

” They’re here to do whatever they can to obstruct our business, so we don’t see any phase in engaging with them. They’re never going to change their intellects, whatever we say .”

Pointing to slicings of sauted meat, from the belly of a short-finned pilot whale, that he has brought from home, Kobata adds:” In the working day when there was no refrigeration, people preserved meat like this in salt. Of course, there are lots of other sources of protein around these days, but people of my generation and older still have the right to eat whale if we want to .”

Both men hope Sasaki’s documentary will restore some equilibrium to a debate that has cast a shadow over Taiji for almost a decade.

They point out that they kill just under 2,000 small cetaceans a year, a one-tenth of Japan‘s annual quota, adding that none of the species is jeopardized or covered by the 1986 global moratorium on commercial whaling.

” We’re not ashamed of hunting dolphins and would never deem stopping ,” Kai says.” It’s the most important part of our local tradition.

” Just look what i found … if we didn’t make a living from the sea, there would be nothing left. People keep telling us to stop whaling and find another way of earning a living. But what on earth would we do instead ?”

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