Backcasts archive: Through Aug. 15, 2008

Blog calendar: Aug. 15 | Aug. 14 | Aug. 12 | Aug. 11

posted Aug. 15, 2008

What's the size of Oregon, sucks the life out of fisheries and can't be stopped?

What's the size of Oregon, sucks the life out of marine fisheries and can't be stopped?

Sounds like a nightmare of a monster.

And it is.

So-called "dead zones" are wreaking havoc in the brine, and the New York Times has dedicated valuable space and energy to explaining the awful phenomenon.

In a study to be released today in the journal Science, according to the newspaper's Web site, the number of dead zones – swaths of oxygen-depleted waters caused by nitrogen-laden nutrients from crop fertilizers that all but extinguish marine life – around the globe have doubled every decade since the 1960s. All totaled, the areas impacted are greater than the size of the Beaver State. (Fortunately, beavers don't appear to be impacted.)

Though these spots are found the world over, one that has received much press is the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, which, according to the Times, is the size of Massachusetts and has doubled in area during the last 20 years.

"There are large areas of the gulf where you can't catch any shrimp," Nancy N. Rabalais, executive director of the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, told the Times. "It's sort of a losing battle."

We'd love to explore the issue more, but we're out early today (woo hoo!) so we encourage you to read the Times piece.

Quote of the week comes from the study's leader author, Robert Diaz, in a wire version of the New York Times article that appeared today in the Seattle Times:

"We can say that human activities really screwed up oxygen conditions in our coastal areas."

Unfortunately, it's very difficult to reverse the effects of dead zones.


posted Aug. 14, 2008

Got your goat? In Ireland that would mean a new king is crowned

When at festival's end a mountain goat is crowned king of Ireland, you just know there has to be drinking involved.

Indeed, music and imbibing are at the center of an ancient ceremony called the Puck Fair held each August in the town of Killorglin in the southern part of the Emerald Isle, Reuters reports from Dublin.

And after much merriment and spirits a male goat is, according to Reuters, paraded through the town with much fanfare before reigning as king for three days.

"Deep down it satisfies the Irish humor," Declan Mangan, chairman of the fair's organizing committee, told Reuters. (Of course, Reuters uses the spelling humour and organising, which we find fairly humourous.)

Sorry, but after bestowing the honour – blimey, make that honor – on the animal, we would have just said, "Off with his head," and had dinner.

Instead the billy was dubbed "King Puck" and was to enjoy a few days of pampering and meals fit for a … well, fit for a goat.

And this from the Land of Saints and Scholars? Go figure.

But apparently it's all a very big deal in the land o' blarney; more than 100,000 festivalgoers were expected.

After the royal treatment, the goat was to be set free in the surrounding mountains where he was originally captured.

And when it was suggested that the goat was quite lucky not to have wound up on the buffet table, the billy turned to its releasers upon safely bounding away and said, "Let them eat grass."


posted Aug. 12, 2008

Insects are everywhere, so could they be a viable food source in famine?

While scientists are telling us that bugs could eventually ease famine, a lost Aussie recently discovered in outback that insects can be a much more immediate solution to hunger.

Earlier this year participants at a United Nations-sponsored conference in Thailand suggested that crickets, caterpillars and grubs high in protein and minerals could be key sources of food during droughts and other emergencies, according to the Associated Press.

We here at Backcasts just had to wait long enough for the right story to crawl our way to back up that claim. And, boy, did we find a doozy.

Indeed, a gold prospector survived four days in a remote stretch of Western Australia last month by eating termites and other bugs before being rescued, according to The Australian.

Theo Rosmulder, 52, of Yarrawonga, Victoria, became separated from his party of gold diggers without food, water, matches or a GPS unit, the Web site of the New South Wales newspaper reported. While searchers scoured the rugged area in planes, motorcycles and 4WD rigs, Rosmulder survived on insects.

And here's the kicker: This guy is a pest controller.

His daughter-in-law, Michelle, said he used his knowledge of insects before eating them, according to the news site. "He's a pest controller, so he would know what he's doing," she said.

Yes, Michelle, you would certainly think so, and we're glad your father-in-law pulled through when an Aborigine found him. It was not known whether the Aborigine was tracking him or found him by accident, The Australian notes.

And if Mr. Rosmulder's ordeal is any proof, and we (in our uneducated guess) think it is, then, yes, creepy crawlers could be a way of dealing with hunger.

Hey, considering that some 1,400 species of insects and worms are eaten in almost 90 countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia, according to U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization estimates, we'd definitely be willing to try some tasty Thai crickets and silk worms, good ol' grasshoppers from Africa and scrumptious South American ants.

Seriously, though, in a world where people go to bed hungry this has got to be good news, right?.

"In certain places with certain cultures with a certain level of acceptance, then insects can very well be seen as part of the solution" to hunger, said Patrick Durst, a Bangkok-based senior forestry officer at the Food and Agriculture Organization.

Of course, there are bound to be naysayers – oh, and here's one, a fairly important one, now: a senior nutritionist at the World Food Program, another U.N. agency, who doubts bugs would be beneficial on a large scale because they are seasonal and don't store well.

Food for thought, we suppose.


posted Aug. 11, 2008

Editor's note: My Back Pages recalls previous columns penned by the author.

My Back Pages: The Sturgeon General

These fish are different; so are the folks who try to catch them

COLUSA, Calif. — You know you're in sturgeon country when you see heads of the prehistoric bottom feeders mounted on fence posts along country roads like so many gladiator trophies.

Bizarre? Without question.

But wait, it gets stranger when you consider the odd bait, setups and hours these Sacramento River anglers keep in pursuit of a baffling creature that never made it onto the same evolutionary track as its gilled brethren.

These hardy, eccentric souls fish under the cloak of darkness with 100-plus-pound-test line and shrimp wrapped in panty hose, sewing thread and some of the rudest-smelling concoctions ever brewed – all for an animal considered a dining delicacy despite having been hit hard by the ugly stick.

I know a guy – and, believe me, he is one of many – who has the sturgeon bug so bad he loses sleep over the ones that got away and dreams up new ways to hook the primordial denizens that are spoken of by anglers as the legendary equivalents of dragons in the California counties of Yolo, Sutter and Colusa.

"They are really hard to catch and test your tackle skills to the limit," said Tom Schroyer, a big-time fisherman and hunter who cut his teeth on sturgeon growing up in nearby Woodland, a stone's throw from the muddy Sacramento. "Most of it is done at night, and that adds the fear to it because it's a big critter out there that you can't see and you can never can tell what it's going to do.

"You never know if it's going to be a big one or a little one – the bite is the same on both. But if you hook up on a humongous one and it strips your line out, you live for the thrill of having something that big take your line that way. The mystery is what keeps you going back. You're out for the battle, and many times it ends up winning."

In high school, Schroyer fished regularly from the river's banks with his chums trying to snag the beasts. And 23 nights in a row his line came up empty. Discouraging? You bet, but nowhere near enough to stop this determined angler.

Some people can go a lifetime without catching one of the anadromous fish – that is, they grow and mature in saltwater and spawn in sweet water. They are notoriously difficult to catch. I'm 0 for 1 in my only at-bat. But Schroyer, now 35 and making his home a ways to the south in Galt, Calif., has a career total of 25 hits on sturgeon, a remarkable achievement.

Schroyer recently guided me on my first sturgeon trip, an all-night affair anchored just north of here in a section of the Sacramento known as the Chico Straits. Famed as a holding area for sturgeon, it produced a nine-foot, 400-plus-pound leviathan a decade or so back.

We picked up our bait – ghost shrimp, with a single extended claw looking like a one-armed bandit – at Knights Landing Sports Center, which is more of a dusty drinking hole and pool hall than a sports center.

"They're still catching a few," a grizzled patron perched atop a bar stool noted between swills of beer as we prepared to depart.

Along a bumpy northbound back road with his 17-foot, open-deck Boston Whaler in tow, Schroyer pointed out hot spots for the diamondback, the beast's moniker derived from the rows of sharp, bony plates along its topside. Second Beach. Portuguese Bend. Glory Hole. Indian Bar. Red Sea, where banks of clay turn the water crimson. All renowned locales where stalwart anglers come to joist the dragon.

The white sturgeon, our target, spawns in the Sacramento over long periods but primarily from late February to late April. Some swim upstream as early as January and a few stragglers meander up into July. Biologists can't make heads or tails of its spawning habits, which adds to the mystique of the fish and the bane of the angler.

The inside edges of river bends near deep holes and sand bars are popular places to bait up, but from there it's luck multiplied by the amount of time spent on the river.

"I've been on every inch of this river, but I still haven't figured out the sturgeon's pattern," said Schroyer, a fish and wildlife assistant with the state Department of Fish and Game in Stockton. "It's so hit and miss it's not even funny."

His statement proved a foreshadowing for this uneventful evening.

Biologists know that sturgeons move at night, but there is no indication that they feed more frequently under the moon. Our efforts certainly didn't suggest otherwise.

No matter. I was plenty entertained by Schroyer's fishing stories and his baiting technique.

He regaled me with tales of playing a sturgeon from shore after it had broken his rod, of a monster specimen that yanked his 135-pound-test line so violently it dislodged his anchor and knocked him down before snapping a 9/0 hook, of how he landed his biggest prize – a 7½-foot, 157-pounder – some 10 years ago.

I watched him carefully load up the hooks, sandwiching them with pairs of shrimp and chasers of Sturgeon Cocktail – a fish-scent product so foul he used gloves to handle it. Diamondbacks feed by smell; it's a wonder they missed this fetid potpourri.

I dubbed my guide the Sturgeon General and we shared a chuckle before I retired to the bow, where a bed of plywood awaited. A tarp suspended over the railing warded off the drizzle, and the hum of the anchor line was like a distant symphony.

The closest thing to a bite that night was an occasional splash of a breaching diamondback, a sound something akin to a cannonball striking the water.

"It's a pretty sight, but it drives you nuts," Schroyer said. "They jump right next your lines and you come up with nothing."

But the memory of fish of such enormity getting airborne within earshot is quite enough to get me back on the murky Sacramento to duel the dragon with the Sturgeon General.

Sturgeon are awash in mystery

Ichthyologists are fascinated by the sturgeon's long life span, impressive size and late maturity, but overall this creature, which has existed in its present form for millions of years, is largely misunderstood.

"There is a lot of information that is not known about the fish," said Dave Kohlhorst, senior biologist with the state Department of Fish and Game at the Bay Delta Division in Stockton, Calif.

"For instance, we don't know all the factors that control abundance or survival of young sturgeon. We're not at all sure about where they spawn in the Sacramento River or their spawning habitat requirements in general."

"No natural science is a real exact science," said Kohlhorst, a specialist in sturgeon and striped bass. The statement has never been more true than when applied to the sturgeon.

Here's a rundown of what is known about the animal:

It is nicknamed diamondback for the five rows of bony plates, or scutes along its back. They probably offer some protection from predators for younger animals, but since adults have few natural enemies it's unclear why they are needed.

Females don't spawn until age 15 to 25 but have an extraordinarily high fecundity rate. A white sturgeon at age 15 may produce 100,000 eggs. An older fish (they reach 7 feet at 30 years, 8 feet at about 40) may produce 1.5 million to 2 million eggs.

There are stories about 100-year-old sturgeons. The oldest the DFG has aged is 47 years, which weighed 405 pounds and was caught on the Sacramento River upstream of Sacramento. The sturgeon's life span is nothing short of remarkable considering that some fish, like delta smelt, live only one year and many salmon live just three or four seasons before they spawn and die.

The state record for a sturgeon caught sportfishing is 468 pounds, boated in Carquinez Strait, south of Vallejo, in the late 1980s. Kohlhorst has heard tales and seen old pictures of sturgeon that were claimed to weigh 1,800 pounds. The biggest found in the Sacramento River system is thought to have weighed 1,300 pounds, caught in the vicinity of Sacramento around the turn of the century.

Rather than having a bony skeleton, the sturgeon is cartilaginous like the shark but doesn't share the same family tree.

It is a bottom-feeder that uses barbels – wormlike sensory organs on the bottom of its protruded snouts that function like our senses of taste and smell – to locate clams, shrimp, marine worms and fish eggs, especially herring eggs. Contrary to popular belief, it is not a scavenger, preferring live prey to carrion.

The western portion of North America is home to two species, the green and the white sturgeon, which spawn primarily in the Sacramento and San Joaquin river systems, the Columbia River and the Fraser River in British Columbia.

White sturgeon, a mild-flavored white-meat fish commonly broiled, grilled, fried, smoked and added to stews, may spawn as far along the Sacramento River as Hamilton City, Calif., some 200 miles upstream. Green sturgeon, which are less abundant and not often targeted by anglers because of their reputation for poor eating, swim 245 to 290 miles to spawn between Red Bluff and Redding, Calif.

The white variety spends most of its life in estuaries and rivers, whereas the green sturgeon, considered by some a candidate for threatened-species status, is predominantly found in the ocean.

This article originally appeared May 23, 1996, in the Los Angeles Daily News

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    About the author: Brett Pauly spent nearly six years editing and publishing ESPNOutdoors.com before moving on to produce the ESPN.com Sports Travel site. He is a national award-winning writer and editor with 14 years of experience in the newspaper trade, including stints at the Los Angeles Daily News and Seattle Times. The Evergreen State is where he now makes his home. Click here to email him.

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