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February 2012    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 27, No. 2   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Loving the Chambered Nautilus to Death

from the February, 2012 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

With all the focus on depleting numbers of sharks and other marine creatures, there's not much attention paid to the chambered nautilus, a living fossil dating back a half-billion years but now in danger of being wiped out. Peter D. Ward, a biologist from the University of Washington, did a census of the marine creature in the Philippines last summer, and told the New York Times, "A horrendous slaughter is going on out here."

Sales of jewelry and ornaments derived from the nautilus's pearly shell have grown, and fishermen have been killing it by the millions to satisfy worldwide demand. On eBay, small shells sell as earrings for $20, and big ones, up to the size of plates, can be found for $56. Catching the nautilus is a largely unregulated free-for-all in which fishermen from the South Pacific accept $1 per shell. But the rising demand may end up eradicating an animal that grows slowly and needs 15 years or more to reach sexual maturity.

The nautilus lives in the Pacific's deep coral reefs, as much as 2,000 feet deep. But it's easy to catch them with baited traps on long lines, and some liveaboards drop traps and bring them up from below so divers can see them. Navot Bornovski, owner of the Ocean Hunter boats in Palau, says his boats do so "to show the public the different faces of underwater creatures. By showing photos of deep sea creatures like the nautilus, I hope the public will understand the importance of saving creatures at all depths."

He says local dive operators don't harm them. "They are trapped at 900 feet and brought to the surface to be viewed, photographed and documented. After the session, we take them down to 150 feet and release them. Over 18 years, we have not had one single case of a nautilus dying in the trap. They all swim back to depth. In Palau, we have established a pool of data regarding local nautilus. And because of many published photos of live nautilus, Palau tourists almost entirely avoid buying dead shells." While it's illegal to do any shelling in Palau, or sell or buy artifacts of local nautilus, the stores there still sell shells, they just import them from Southeast Asia.

Now there may be no dead Nautiluses in the cages, or no threats of the bends from being raised from the depths, but our friends from the Fiji liveaboard Nai'a think there are other threats. Nai'a co-owner Alexxis Edwards got a request from scientists chartering the boat 12 years ago to trap and bring nautiluses up to the surface for viewing. "It's incredible to see them up close; they are amazingly beautiful. But then came the time to release them, and we realized that free-swimming nautilus making their way back down were a yummy target for many predators. There was nothing we could do but to release them and say a quiet prayer. We never did it again."

Ward, the biologist, took his census last summer off the Philippine island of Bohol, paid for by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. His team worked with local fishermen to set 40 traps a day, but they were catching two creatures at most, a fraction of the rate of a decade ago. He suspects that one particular kind of nautilus is already extinct, or nearly so, in the Philippines. His team plans to go to the Great Barrier Reef in December to expand the census. The hope is that data from there, the Philippines and four other Pacific sites will allow scientists to estimate the world's remaining nautilus population, and what might constitute a sustainable catch.

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