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Wintry Warrnambool


20140723-132435-48275171.jpgWhile I’m missing the summer flat spells and warm weather activities, there’s something special about winter on the Shipwreck Coast. No tourists around, fresh cold southerlies and some calm clear days when the whiting are biting! Here’s a few shots of the local marine sanctuary from last week- some heavy downpours have caused the river to flood but the area still looks petty impressive.


Local marine sanctuary loved and ignored in equal measure

This is a great recent video from the Friends of the Merri Marine Sanctuary, a small and dedicated group helping – as one goal – to remind local people about the amazing natural features and marine life on their doorstep.

At a lecture and networking day on the weekend hosted by Deakin University and the Victorian National Parks Association, a member of the Friends group mentioned how hard it can be to get the support and interest of people outside the conservation community. I could see similar parallels with another spectacular  occurrence that Warrnambool people often ignore.

Living near one of the calving grounds for southern right and humpback whales, people in this area can tend to be ambivalent about the excitement generated in the tourism industry each time the whale watching season approaches.

A recent humorous list of 30 things only a local would understand had this gem at number 23:




Funny (maybe just as a Warrnambool local) but it highlights that disinterest I spoke of – we’re happy the whales are here but we’re just as happy to ignore them because it doesn’t suit us to stand around for hours (and it can be hours between ‘showings’). Same goes for conservation – local people are generally happy that someone is doing it but not bothered to get involved themselves.

What can you do with apathy like that? It was an open question to the weekend’s session and though there were some good suggestions, as usual it was hard to come up with the perfect answer. My idea was to keep the good work these people do at the forefront, tell the media, tell politicians, help to get relevant policy change at the state and federal level and let your own passion inspire other people. Al Gore was one who helped ‘cure’ apathy over climate change on a global level but it’s even more important to make small communities like ours care about the natural wonders they take for granted.

Oceanic microplastics: the implications of tiny pollution

My classmate Dom Lawler deserves most of the credit for producing this video on microplastics, made in less than four days using iMovie for a university assignment on aquatic pollution.

Check the film out and watch some other related one on YouTube if it sparks your interest.

Here’s some quick details on the plastic pollution issue:

– 10% of the 280 million tonnes of plastic produced annually worldwide ends up in the ocean, contributing to 60−80% of all marine debris (Kaposi et al. 2014)

– First reports of plastic litter in the ocean were in the 1970s (Andrady 2011)

– Plastics could take centuries to completely mineralise or biodegrade (Moore 2008)

– 10% of all static fishing gear – including plastic nets, fishing line and ropes  – is lost worldwide (FAO 1991)

– In the environmental context, microplastics are regarded as pieces of plastic debris less than 5mm in size

– Studies have found that 267 species of marine organisms worldwide are known to have been affected by plastic debris, a number that will increase as smaller organisms are assessed. (Moore 2008)


References (and other useful video sources)

Plastic Oceans, broadcast on Catalyst, ABC TV1, 6 September 2012:

Plankton film clip: Ren Kyst, Norway

Plastic planet:

FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization), Canada, 1991. In: Smith, A. (Ed.), Report of the Expert Consultation on the Marking of Fishing Gear, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, 14–19 July, 1991.

Moore, CJ 2008, ‘Synthetic polymers in the marine environment: A rapidly increasing, long-term threat’, Environmental Research, vol. 108, no. 2, pp. 131-9.

Andrady, AL 2011, ‘Microplastics in the marine environment’, Marine Pollution Bulletin, vol. 62, no. 8, pp. 1596-605.

Kaposi, KL, Mos, B, Kelaher, BP & Dworjanyn, SA 2014, ‘Ingestion of microplastic has limited impact on a marine larva’, Environmental Science and Technology, vol. 48, no. 3, pp. 1638-45.


New year, same attack on the sharks


Around this time last year, fishermen were hanging up their prize catches in a big annual fishing competition here in Warrnambool.
One of the fish that brought the biggest crowd was a 110kg mako shark- a common enough catch in Southern Australia but still of concern given the huge global exploitation of various shark species.
The Standard newspaper posted this photo yesterday of an 81.3kg mako from the first 2014 competition and it looks like nothing has changed – same happy crew posing with a trophy shark that may win them more praise than competition prizes. Catch and release should be the protocol for fish such as this: get the photo on the boat, have it signed off by judges and leave the fish in the ocean. The article stated that fishers in the competition had caught “several sizable Mako sharks”.
A local fishing group has been criticised lately for its targeting of unnecessary species for competition points, criticism that was definitely warranted. I attended one of their club meetings recently and a few members were complaining about fishing restrictions that stop them racking up points for certain species. Given that one member caught more than 30 fish in two days, some of which were inedible or destined for the closest rubbish bin, their whinging seemed pointless.
These groups may slowly understand the effect of their ‘overfishing’ when they pull in less the next year or have to hunt harder for elusive species (just like the global commercial industry).

Seadragon, sunset and seascape




Mako shark still seen as trophy fish for local club competition

I was walking with my favourite Park Ranger yesterday on our usual wander near the Warrnambool Breakwater (the long stone wall in the background of these shots) and noticed a crowd around the weigh-in scales.

At first I thought one of the local tuna fishermen had hoisted up a decent fish for the benefit of tourists (who usually don’t appreciate the plight of the southern bluefin, but that’s another story). On making a path through the onlookers, my partner and I were pretty horrified to see a 110kg mako shark on the scale and a few impressed fishermen boasting about the catch.


Of course fishing for various shark species such as mako (Isurus oxyrinchus) and gummy (Mustelus antarcticus) is still legal in Australia (limits vary by state and territory) but hearing one fishermen state this was a “common shark in these waters” made me cringe: they are still heavily fished and listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List.

Hanging one up in front of a crowd helps continue the “man vs shark” stereotype that is continuing to push down shark numbers worldwide, whether for commercial or recreational purposes. Sizing up the shark when it’s caught, using circle hooks and operating on a catch-and-release basis is the only way to go for maintaining healthy shark populations.


It’s leatherjacket season! Also, this is not a fashion article…

Six-spine leatherjacket

Yellowfin leatherjacket

Leatherjackets are amazing fish, in such colourful varieties. In the past two months, I’ve spotted five different species from the Horseshoe to the Yellowfin species (Meuschenia trachylepis) pictured. This species is often seen with the Six-spined leatherjacket, which I mistook this fish for in my original post on Facebook.

Some people have the idea that marine biologists shouldn’t be out fishing for the species we are studying but it can be a great way of identifying fish, learning where they are and aren’t present and the warning signs when stocks start dwindling.

Spearfishing is now one of my favourites sports – it’s low-impact on the marine environment as opposed to other fishing forms, as we target specific fish and only go for the type and size we want.

Obviously some people still abuse catch and size limits as in any form but the crew I dive with all play by the rules (we’re all marine biology undergrads and my partner also works for the government department dealing with fisheries compliance…)

Leatherjacket teeth

Leatherjacket teeth

This species has some serious teeth, used for crushing molluscs and slow-moving sessile animals. Anecdotally, leatherjackets aren’t fast-moving like the local zebrafish or bluethroat wrasse – most of the leatherys I’ve seen tend to hide under ledges or in crevices rather than try to outswim their prey.

“SHARK ATTACK!” NB: does not feature an actual shark attack

Marine biologists, social scientists and many shark conservation groups have been battling the stigma about sharks for decades, even before the Jaws films made going in the water a scarier prospect.

A Photoshopped image of a shark attack that fooled many viewers

A Photoshopped image of a shark attack that fooled many viewers

But despite the many graphs showing the minute number of attacks over hundreds of years, shark stories – like the crocodile yarns in the Northern Territory News – capture the imagination and are obviously relished by sub-editors who are usually responsible for the inaccurate headlines.

This article in the Guardian explores recent research on the reporting of ‘shark attacks (emphasis on last two paragraphs is my own):

Would a shark attack by another name would be any less terrifying? Researchers say it would, arguing that the current all-purpose “attack” label is unnecessarily scary, inaccurate, and is helping to drive sharks into extinction.

A study published this week in the Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences makes the case that the use of the term “shark attack” is overly emotional, and steeped in Jaws-type lore about “man-eating” and “rogue” sharks preying on unsuspecting beachgoers.

Instead, they suggest a sliding scale of new descriptions, from “shark sightings” to “fatal shark bites”.

To support their case, the researches note that records from the two global shark “hotspots”, New South Wales and Florida, indicate the majority of encounters were sightings or, in cases where there was contact, involved small species of shark that pose no real danger to humans.

In the case of Florida, records kept since 1882 show only 11 of the 637 confirmed cases of shark attacks ended in death – fewer than 2%. About three-quarters of the 637 encounters involved shark species that were only capable of inflicting small wounds or scrapes, and were not associated with life-threatening injuries.

The proportion of fatal shark encounters was also in the single digits for New South Wales. And yet all those incidents were lumped together under the label “shark attack”.

The researchers, Christopher Neff, a social scientist at the University of Sydney, and Robert Hueter, a marine biologist who heads the shark research centre at the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Florida, instead suggest such incidents should be re-classified according to severity.

“Until new scientific information appears that better explains the physical, chemical and biological triggers leading sharks to bite humans we recommend that the term ‘shark attack’ be avoided,” the paper said.

Future encounters should be categorised as shark sightings, where the animals are nearby but no contact takes place; shark encounters, such as a close call with a swimmer or a surfboard where there is no injury; shark bites, where there is only a single bite and only minor injury; and fatal shark bites for the small proportion of events that end in death.

The nomenclature is important because it feeds an irrational fear of sharks, the researchers said. The Jaws scenario of great white sharks belongs to the realm of fiction, Hueter said.

“When surfers hold a contest where 4ft or 5ft sharks are actively feeding and a few get bitten on their toes, and these all get reported as shark attacks, you present a wrong picture of what is going on,” he said.

The reality is very different; the sharks are the ones in peril. Shark populations have fallen drastically over the last few decades, with some populations in areas of the Pacific falling by 90%.

Conservation groups estimate that tens of millions of sharks are slaughtered each year for their fins, which are used as a thickener for shark fin soup. “When we try to argue for the need for shark conservation because of depletion of sharks, in the public mind and even in the minds of government officials, that is counteracted by this perception that these are man-eaters and that they attack people,” said Hueter.

“More than 90% of these incidents are not fatal. Most are very minor incidents and in many cases there is no injury at all, but when these things are reported and discussed as shark attacks you get a certain mindset about the behaviour of these animals. When you actually look at the outcomes, you get a very different picture.”

It’s an important argument that we should fight the notion of all sharks being human-eaters in order to make their slaughter for shark fin soup and other food products.

I know from experience seeing a shark in the water that it’s a scary prospect but much of that fear comes from watching the shark attack-focused movies, reading biased stories and listening to people who are too afraid to swim in the ocean.

My town of Warrnambool last had a serious shark attack in the 1980s but in telling a few friends about seeing a 1.5m gummy shark while spearfishing earlier this week, there was still the sense that the fear is ever-present in most people. I was able to quickly identify the shark under a ledge as a harmless gummy and saw no reason to be scared of it, so education about the different types of sharks could help more people get over their fear and start to care about shark conservation.

Smooth Stingray at the Warrnambool pier




2012 in review, thanks for making it a great year!

Thanks for helping make 2012 a fantastic year, by reading, commenting and generally being involved! I used to wonder sometimes, as a journalist at small community newspapers, whether anyone really cared or read what I wrote.

Blogging seems to take more of the guesswork out of it: if they like it, then they’ll ‘like’ it! And also always, comments are very welcome: special thanks to Sheltered Cove MarinaBarbra & Jack Donachyseathechangeargylesockbehrm and others for your welcome feedback!!

It’s been a huge year – starting fulltime uni as a marine biology undergrad, moving 3.5 hours southwest to Warrnambool, meeting an amazing woman and getting back into diving and fishing in a big way.

Now for the annual report for this blog:

Here’s an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 3,500 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 6 years to get that many views.

Your most commented on post in 2012 was Krill Bill: new-age fad contributing to overfishing, food web destruction and climate change

Click here to see the complete report.

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