The Shrimp of Shrimps

July 26th, 2014

Shrimp are now the most popular seafood in North America. More than lobsters or tuna or even salmon.

Whiteleg Shrimp: Who can resist this?fiveinthechamber.com)

Whiteleg Shrimp: Who can resist this?(fiveinthechamber.com)

Getting shrimp to us has become infamous for all the collateral damage it has created. Shrimp trawlers, trawling for adults in the shallow tropics and sub-tropics of the world, have damaged bottom habitats and tossed out an immense load of unwanted bycatch – both features that should continue to condemn the method to oblivion.

Farming shrimp in coastal tidal ponds creates a whole different suite of equally damaging effects: mangroves are destroyed to make the ponds, and the ponds are moved every few years leaving behind nothing but devastation; pollution and waste are extensive; lethal disease is frequently widespread; salination of the underlying water table occurs; and in some regions people who do the farming or collect the fish for fishmeal may work in close to slave conditions, provoking concerns about human rights and social justice. It’s pretty well all bad.

One species in particular, the Whiteleg Shrimp (Litopanaeus vannamei) has become the species of choice for farms from Mexico and the Caribbean to India, Thailand, Vietnam, China, Indonesia and the Philippines. It is native to the warm Pacific coastal waters of Central America from Sonora Mexico south to Peru, and it grows faster, requires less protein to grow, and is more resistant to disease than other species. Everyone wants it.

Adult Whiteleg Shrimp, Litopanaeus vannamei (regisbador.com)

Adult Whiteleg Shrimp, Litopanaeus vannamei (regisbador.com)

In 1990 a modest annual Whiteleg fishery of 90,000 tons existed. Then, as the mangrove farms in Asia embraced the species, the fishery grew huge, reaching 3.2 million tons in 2012, dominating the market.

In 2010, because of the mangrove destruction and the human rights abuses, Greenpeace designated Whiteleg Shrimp a Redlist species. A reasonable conclusion would surely be to say sayonara to the whole sorry mess of shrimp farming and trawling.

But all is not yet lost.

Gradually, ‘intensive’ farming has begun, moving the ponds away from the shores, though still dealing with water supply problems, contamination, and disease. Not great news, but better.

Then, in the past few years, a new method of ‘superintensive’ farming has emerged, and it is very promising. The shrimp are bred and the larvae are grown in hatcheries, and post-larvae are then shipped to inland culture facilities. At their best, these facilities grow the shrimp to market size in a few months in biosecure tanks under controlled temperature conditions, using recirculated sea water, requiring no pesticides or antibiotics.

Whiteleg Shrimp larvae are grown in hatching facilities and then sent to the super-intensive tank farms. (intechopen.com)

Whiteleg Shrimp larvae are grown in hatching facilities and then sent to the super-intensive tank farms. (intechopen.com)

One of these super-intensive farms near Boston was featured recently in the NY Times, but 22 others are scattered across the US – in Iowa, Minnesota, even one near Las Vegas. This is revolutionary. Suddenly many of the problems associated with trawling or coastal pond culture disappear. No habitat destruction, no pollution, no added chemicals, no abused humans.

The Blue Oasis superintensive tank farm for Whiteleg Shrimp, near Las Vegas (lasvegassun.com)

The Blue Oasis superintensive tank farm for Whiteleg Shrimp, near Las Vegas (lasvegassun.com)

There’s sophisticated science to all this of course: selective breeding of Whiteleg adults to produce disease resistant larvae requires great care and patience. The largest breeding companies are now in Florida and Hawaii – the one on Molakai for instance. Comparable facilities in Vietnam and China now do their own selective breeding of Whiteleg for farms, but super-intensive tank culture is still uncommon there.

Meanwhile, the companies that have started tank farming in the US are quite excited. Should they be?

Their main remaining challenge is cost, and mostly they supply high end restaurants. But people in America are increasingly concerned that their food is produced in the least damaging way, agreeing to pay more for it where they need to.

Tank farmed Whiteleg Shrimp has now won the highest rating from Monterrey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch. So let’s buy this stuff. Let’s insist on shrimp that have been raised in tank farms.

Then the tank farms will flourish and spread, replacing mangrove farms and shrimp trawls. The warm water coastal ecosystems will be far better off, bycatch will be radically reduced, and mangroves will not be destroyed for farming shrimp.

Everyone wins.

The Growth of MPAs

July 15th, 2014

To reduce global overfishing, we struggle to nourish sustainable fishing through better regulations, monitoring and enforcement, by eliminating subsidies and destructive fishing methods, and by protecting coastal fishing communities and involving them in co-management.

At the same time, we are establishing more and larger Marine Protected Areas – MPAs. The total area protected has doubled since 2010. This is good news.

Currently, there are about 6000 MPAs around the world, varying immensely in size as well as in what actually gets protected.
Using his executive authority just as Presidents Bush and Clinton did before him, President Obama now is creating the largest MPA yet, this one in the South Central Pacific. The area is already partly protected as the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, but it will now become a lot larger, expanding from 224,000 sq km to 2,017,000 sq km – a little larger than Mexico – and it will become a lot more protected, prohibiting all commercial fishing.

The new Marine Protected Area proposed by President Obama will be huge, remote, isolated, and sparsely populated (propresobama.org)

The new Marine Protected Area proposed by President Obama will be huge, remote, isolated, and sparsely populated (propresobama.org)

The new MPA lies southwest of Hawaii and includes the ocean around Palmyra Atoll, Howard and Baker Islands, Kingman Atoll, and Wake Island (of World War II fame). It is so remote that the only commercial fishing there is for tuna – about 3% of the central and western Pacific catch now occurs there, and will have to shift. Remote indeed.

In fact a huge amount of what has been protected globally lies in the Pacific Ocean – the Coral Sea and around New Caledonia, the Great Barrier Reef, Papahanaumokuakea (in nw Hawaiian waters), and soon around both the Pitcairn Islands and Palau. All are huge MPAs, ranging from 360,000 sq km to 1.3 million sq km. Not surprisingly, most of them are also in the EEZs of remote and often sparsely populated islands.

Palmyra Atoll, southwest of Hawaii is one of the 7 islands around which the recently announced MPA will be established (e360yale.edu)

Palmyra Atoll, southwest of Hawaii is one of the 7 islands around which the recently announced MPA will be established (e360yale.edu)

If it weren’t for the growing stresses of climate change, the South Pacific would be the safest region on the planet for tropical organisms to live. Despite the challenges of enforcing protective regulations where there are few people, little land, and lots of ocean, this is all very reassuring.

Palmyra Atoll has an airstrip, a protected lagoon, and few inhabitants: not a controversial site to protect.(travel-images.com)

Palmyra Atoll has an airstrip, a protected lagoon, and few inhabitants: not a controversial site to protect (travel-images.com).

What if we look globally instead of just South Pacifically? Only about 1.17% of the world’s total ocean area is protected, and only about 2.86% of the world’s EEZs are protected. Since an MPA rarely means no fishing, just that some protection from some use occurs, even those low numbers are misleadingly high: of all the area covered by MPAs, only 8% is actually ‘no-take’, truly protected from fishing.

An MPA may still allow multiple uses, and only a restricted region is usually 'no-take' (pcouncil.org).

An MPA may still allow multiple uses, and only a restricted region is usually ‘no-take’ (pcoouncil.org).

Where a lot people actually live, on the crowded coasts of our continents, MPAs are so much harder to create. Those that exist are usually small, multi-use, and not isolated. The resistance to MPAs by commercial fishing, industrial users, residential users, everyone with any kind of stake, can be great.

At the other extreme, on the High Seas beyond the 200-mile EEZ limits of the world’s coastal countries, there really are few constraints and regulations, despite efforts at international cooperation. Protecting a lot of the South Pacific is possible only because of the many remote islands that exist there. The rest of the Pacific as well as the North and South Atlantic Oceans are a different matter.

Enforcement of existing or imagined protection remains the greatest challenge – but in coastal regions it could be done for much less than coastal nations currently spend on subsidizing their fisheries.

Meanwhile, dreams of protecting the High Seas drift closer to reality as discussions about High Seas no-take regions continue, even at the UN. Imagine making 60% no-take, enforced through automatic monitoring of all fishing vessels.

The conversation about MPAs is now also broadening to encompass ecosystem protection – safeguarding ecosystem services, including stronger links with coastal communities.

Obviously we have a long way to go to adequately protect our marine resources from ourselves, and getting there may look impossible. But it isn’t.

Illegal fishing: still low risk, high return

June 26th, 2014

In early April the US Congress did something quite amazing: it overwhelmingly agreed to ratify an FAO sponsored international agreement, the Port State Measures Agreement. By this agreement, the US will deny port entry to fishing vessels suspected of carrying illegally caught fish, and will warn other ports about the fishing vessel.

Many species are caught illegally, but both Albacore and Bluefin Tuna are particularly vulnerable because they are large and very valuable (environment1.org)

Many species are caught illegally, but both Albacore and Bluefin Tuna are particularly vulnerable because they are large and very valuable (environment1.org)

A lot of countries signed on to this agreement in 2010 but 25 have got to ratify it before it becomes international law. So far 13 countries have done so – besides the US, Norway, New Zealand, Chile and the EU have ratified it, along with Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Uruguay, Oman, Gabon and the Seychelles. Not surprisingly, no sign of Canada as yet. Though not yet international law, it is well on its way, and it will happen.

It’s an important step. Up to about 20% of the fish caught globally (and 32% of the fish marketed in the US) are caught illegally. Illegal fishing is big business, renowned for its high return on relatively low risk.

A US Coast Guard cutter escorts a stateless IUU fishing vessel that had been fishing for albacore with drift nets (oceanfad.org)

A US Coast Guard cutter escorts a stateless IUU fishing vessel that had been fishing for albacore with drift nets (oceanfad.org)

Illegal fishing occurs in lots of ways – using banned floating gill nets, fishing in protected areas, fishing without licenses, fishing protected species, fishing over quota, falsifying documents, the options are many. Often fishing under flags of convenience, ownership of illegally fishing vessels can be very difficult to determine.

In the fisheries business, illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing are known as IUU, and that spreads the problem further, for coastal nations must regulate their fisheries and establish clear reporting methods before illegal fishing can be identified. This occurs most places, but not all – some nations lack the government or the political will to regulate, and some EEZs are just too huge to enforce any regulations that do exist. The high seas, beyond the 200 mile limits of the EEZs, of course are especially vulnerable.

Illegal fishing may be relatively low risk, and therefore irresistible, but the potential damage is huge. Stocks are depleted, marine habitats are damaged, management estimates of stock sizes and health are inaccurate, fishermen fishing legally are hurt economically, and coastal fishing communities suffer.

Italian fishing vessels set illegal drift nets for Bluefin tuna in the Mediterranean (pewenvironmentalgroup)

Italian fishing vessels set illegal drift nets for Bluefin tuna in the Mediterranean (pewenvironmentalgroup)

And there is more. Since the fishing activity itself is illegal, other miserable and also illegal activities occur as well – a ship’s crew may be underpaid or may even be bonded slaves, and the ships may be used for both human and drug trafficking.

So illegal fishing is pretty horrible from all points of view, including conservation and issues of social justice. The new FAO agreement helps – it lacks enforcement beyond port denial, but it still helps. It’s a start.

of course we need to do a lot more. The International Maritime Organization has onboard transponder tracking systems on the global merchant fleet, on all vessels over 24 m long, and it works – but fishing vessels are not included. Every fishing vessel of that size should not be tracked as well (the technology exists in a variety of forms) Information on vessels fishing illegally should be widely shared. We need stronger regulations to protect declining stocks.

None of this is impossible. Of course, strong enforcement needs to exist: illegal fishing is criminal, and the crimes need to be recognized.

And we as consumers can help. Markets need to care where their fish come from – we need to keep IUU fish off the shelves.

So ask where the fish you buy come from. Ask for evidence that it was caught legally. Force our markets to care.

They will if we do.

Signal from Sea Butterflies

June 8th, 2014

Sea butterflies are in the news, stressed by ocean acidification.

What do we now know about the decline in pH of ocean waters?

Well, we know that the pH has dropped from 8.2, where it was at the start of the Industrial Revolution, to its current level of about 8.1, and that the rate of change has increased in the past several decades. This may not sound like much, but in fact it indicates a 30% increase in the concentration of H+ ions in sea water. That is plenty to stress species that depend on carbonate ions in the water to build the calcium carbonate shells and skeletons that they depend on.

pH of ocean water in 1850 was about 8.2, with lower levels occurring in a few areas of coastal upwelling (igbp.net)

pH of ocean water in 1850 was about 8.2, with lower levels occurring in a few areas of coastal upwelling (igbp.net)

At current rates of global atmospheric CO2 emissions, ocean pH will drop further to 7.8 by the end of the century.

By 2100 ocean pH will have dropped to about 7.8, with extensive coastal areas particularly affected (igbp.net)

By 2100 ocean pH will have dropped to about 7.8, with extensive coastal areas particularly affected (igbp.net)

Ocean acidification has occurred before on the planet, but this event is different: it is happening 100 times more rapidly than any previous events we know of. Geochemists are looking 300 million years into the past, and there is nothing like it.

As CO2 levels in the atmosphere have risen, about 30% has dissolved in ocean water, where pH has dropped (igbp.net)

As CO2 levels in the atmosphere have risen, about 30% has dissolved in ocean water, where pH has dropped (igbp.net)

And it matters. Anything with an exposed calcium carbonate shell or skeleton will be affected – think mollusks, corals, and shellfish like crabs, shrimp and lobsters. With more CO2 dissolved in the water, there are more more bicarbonate ions along with the greater levels of H+ ions, and as a result less carbonate is available to make calcium carbonate. The shells are vulnerable to dissolution unless the surrounding water is saturated with carbonate ions, for they then lose calcium back into the water. As the shells erode and weaken, the animals become stressed, misshapen and potentially dead.

We’ve known about the increasing threat of ocean acidification for some years, but perhaps it has seemed a more distant threat than others associated with our increased CO2 emissions. But we know there already has been an impact on shell growth of oysters and mussels, and we know that coral reefs are particularly vulnerable as pH continues to decline. We have certainly been warned.

Sea butterflies are planktonic snails abundant over the world's continental shelves (realmonstrosities.com)

Sea butterflies are planktonic snails abundant over the world’s continental shelves (realmonstrosities.com)

Now we are warned once again, this time by sea butterflies. Also known as pteropods, these actually are pea-sized snails that live in the plankton where they are predators of other plankton and the common prey of fish. They are very beautiful to us – translucent, graceful, with the snail foot modified into what look like flapping wings. The shell is much reduced, though still very present, and the shells of species living in the California Current along the west coast of the US are showing signs of unusual erosion from exposure to the lower pH.

Electron micrographs of the shell of a healthy sea butterfly on the left, and the eroded shell of one stressed by lower pH on the right (arstecnhica.com)

Electron micrographs of the shell of a healthy sea butterfly on the left, and the eroded shell of one stressed by lower pH on the right (arstecnhica.com)

There are several key issues here. The rate of ocean acidification is unprecedented, and we don’t really know what lies ahead. We also know that vulnerable organisms will have insufficent time to adapt even if adaptation were possible. Eliminating vulnerable species like pteropods – or brittle stars, corals, mollusks or crustacesns – from ecosystems where they play a critical role as prey or predator will change the communities in ways that may also effect the top predators we want to catch. We are not short of discouraging examples of such community restructuring.

Do poster species help? Though the looming loss of coral reefs has not galvanized us to action, effective conservation campaigns have been built on the images of a variety of mammals, from whales and polar bears to koalas and pandas.

But sea butterflies as poster species? Because of their beauty, perhaps that isn’t impossible. It can’t hurt.

Canadian Government Fails Again

May 27th, 2014

For the past six years delegates from 98 countries have hammered away at a document with the catchy title ‘Voluntary Guidelines on Securing Sustainable Small-Scale Fisheries’. Sponsored by the FAO, it is in its final draft, heading toward presentation to the FAO Fisheries Committee next month.

Coastal fishing communities and fisheries, like this one in Vietnam,  are particularly vulnerable in Asia and Africa (worldfishcenter.org)

Coastal fishing communities and fisheries, like this one in Vietnam, are particularly vulnerable in Asia and Africa (worldfishcenter.org)

Canadian delegates have participated throughout, helping to create what is surely one of the more idealistic and humane documents of international cooperation. Now, suddenly, Canada has withdrawn its support for the document, jeopardizing its future.

Ninety percent of fisheries are small-boat, family-owned operations, landing about 2/3 of all fish caught, and providing protein for billions of people. However, over the past decades, nations have increasingly supported industrial fishing and aquaculture at the expense of small-scale fisheries.

Small-scale fisheries need top down support to survive in the presence of the heavily subsidized large-scale fisheries (jenniferjacquet.com)

Small-scale fisheries need top down support to survive in the presence of the heavily subsidized large-scale fisheries (jenniferjacquet.com)

The Guidelines try to rectify this imbalance. They focus on human rights, cultural concerns, and Indigenous rights, and they emphasize the need for gender equity and equality. They invoke the need for the precautionary approach, ecosystem-based management, community-based co-management, and the rule of law. They emphasize that priority should be given to small-scale fisheries communities, and that with recognition of such tenure rights come responsibilities.

Women do much of the work in small-scale fisheries once the fish have been landed. Their role needs to be clearly recognized. (toobigtoignore.net)

Women do much of the work in small-scale fisheries once the fish have been landed. Their role needs to be clearly recognized. (toobigtoignore.net)

They also recognize that the real world has become one too often characterized by poverty, violence, corruption, crime, and economic abuse of women, and that coastal communities also face the accumulating stresses of climate change, pollution, coastal erosion, and destruction of coastal habitats.

That is what makes this document so valuable to the world. It is a model of what could be, and of what should be. It is, in the face of all that is wrong and threatening, a defense of the sustainability of small-scale fisheries and fishing communities, a defense of the poor and the marginalized, and a defense of women’s rights.

It is worth reading.

Even in Canada there are many fishing communities that are small, vulnerable, and in need of support (smallscales.ca0

Even in Canada there are many fishing communities that are small, vulnerable, and in need of support (smallscales.ca0

So what now, at the last minute, is the problem that Canada’s Harper Government has with the document? It seems that the most recent draft includes wording, proposed by Mauritania, that calls for the protection of fishermen “in situations of occupation“. The Harper Government apparently views this is as a pro-Palestinian, anti-Israeli intrusion, and Harper’s pro-Israeli political stance trumps any support he might have for improving global human rights and sustaining small-scale fisheries and communities.

In recent years the Harper Government has made clear its contempt for the UN, for other global agreements such as on fire arms and climate change, and within Canada for environmental protection and even for democratic processes. But this one is really beyond the pale.

The Canadian delegates are of course deeply embarrassed, and hope for a resolution. A number of Canadian fisheries scientists have written a concerned ‘Open Letter to the Government’. But we in Canada need a bigger solution. We need a government that recognizes we are part of a troubled world beset by human injustice and environmental threats. We need a government that believes in social justice and sustainability.

Canada should be a model to the world, not a pariah.

We need a new government, as soon as possible.

Military Dolphins

May 15th, 2014

Two coastal cities, San Diego and Sevastopol, one in California, the other on the Crimean coast in what was the Soviet Union and then the Ukraine and now is Russia. In each, the military has trained dolphins to help fight wars.

The dolphin pens near San Diego Naval Base (seattletimes.com)

The dolphin pens near San Diego Naval Base (seattletimes.com)

You may remember hearing about the San Diego unit long ago in the ’60s. The training there and in Sevastopol never stopped, though it was winding down in the Ukraine until last month when Russia got it back.

The Soviet, then the Ukrainian, and now the Russian  navy have trained dolphins at Sevastopol (vacationstogo.com)

The Soviet, then the Ukrainian, and now the Russian
navy have trained dolphins at Sevastopol (vacationstogo.com)

Trained in San Diego, bottlenose dolphins helped the US military in Vietnam and the Persian Gulf Wars. Those trained in Sevastopol – well, we don’t know if or when they were used.

Of course it is remains difficult to know what is true, but for whatever it means, the New York Times, The Wire and Izvestia at least agree on what is now happening.

It appears the two groups of dolphins may, if not meet, at least soon share the same piece of ocean for a while. The US is bringing some to the Black Sea for ‘NATO exercises’. The Sevastopol contingent, a couple of months ago headed for retirement or more likely continued labor in aquarium shows, will get renewed training by the Russian navy in the same Sea.

Dolphin in training, Sevastopol (rt.com)

Dolphin in training, Sevastopol (rt.com)

What on Earth are we doing?

We don’t know much about most species of dolphins, but we know quite a lot about bottlenose. We know they are intelligent, curious, social, and sexually very active. And we know they are very alien, relative to ourselves, in how they relate to each other, how they communicate, what they communicate, how and if they think, what and if they think of us, and what and how they feel.

Despite some heart warming stories of how they protect swimmers, they are not our friends and we are not theirs, no matter how much some of us really want them to be.

We have used animals, mainly horses, to help us in warfare for a long time. Dolphins are different.

We send them off as if they were independent parts of our military teams to set explosives, clear mines, and do possibly other nefarious things that are very hard to prove. They are trained to do stuff surreptitiously that our own divers are not strong or swift or crazy enough to do.

Another one in training in San Diego (thewire.com)

Another one in training in San Diego (thewire.com)

This really should stop. We can kill each other perfectly well and efficiently without making dolphins do it for us. We also can’t just toss them back into the wild when they’re no longer needed. Perhaps they don’t fare much worse than many of our human war veterans, but they are not us. They simply shouldn’t be involved.

Our militaries rationalize the situation by saying the dolphins live long as captives and appear to be happy, but surely we know all too well how absurd those words really are.

Instead, we need to leave them alone, and let them live their own lives in whatever ways they naturally do. They have plenty to cope with in our deteriorating ocean ecosystems without having to endure slavery.

The Current and Sixth Mass Extinction

April 30th, 2014

Elizabeth Kolbert has written a most unusual book. She has described the current mass extinction, known as the the Holocene extinction, or the Anthropocene extinction, or the Sixth Extinction. comparing it with the previous mass extinctions, of which 5 are famously massive. The cause varies – in each case something major and global occurred and changed the world: glaciation at the end of the Ordovician, global warming and changes in ocean chemistry at the end of the Permian, an asteroid terminating the Cretaceous. The cause of the current mass extinction is us.

Elizabeth Kolbert and her new book (salon.com)

Elizabeth Kolbert and her new book (salon.com)

Kolbert writes lucidly and with good humor about the history of the idea of catastrophic evolutionary change, including the resistance by many (including Darwin) to that idea despite the overwhelming evidence. Over the past 200 years, that evidence has become increasingly strong and detailed, combining detailed excavations of fossil beds, reconstruction of the chemistry of past atmospheres and oceans, and an understanding of continental drift forever forcing continents together and ripping them apart again.

Five mass extinctions have been identified in the fossil record. Each one changed the world.  (washingtonpost.com)

Five mass extinctions have been identified in the fossil record. Each one changed the world.(washingtonpost.com)

Mass extinctions have been defined in different ways, but one of them is that 75% of existing species must be lost in a relatively brief geological time. Since we obviously haven’t lost that many species yet, are we really in a the midst of a mass extinction? The data are sobering: at the current rate of species achieving endangered, threatened or extinct status, we will hit that 75% mark with a couple of thousand years if not a lot sooner. That is an extremely brief geological time. We are well into what can only be called mass extinction if we don’t change course.

Species of birds,  mammals, reptiles, amphibians, insects,  corals and plants are becoming endangered or lost at a rate typical of a mass extinction (nature.com)

Species of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, insects, corals and plants are becoming endangered or lost at a rate typical of a mass extinction (nature.com)

The current loss of marine species is harder to document than the loss of terrestrial species, but fisheries have collapsed from overfishing, coastal ecosystems have been radically altered by human development and pollution, ocean acidification now threatens oceans globally, and coral reefs have little future. The loss is everywhere.

Wooly rhinos, along with many other very  larges species mammals and birds were hunted to extinction (angelfire.com)

Wooly rhinos, along with many other very larges species mammals and birds were hunted to extinction (angelfire.com)

All of this is well accepted fact, and Kolbert tells the story well. Only at the very end of the book do her conclusions emerge. They are, to say the very least, not optimistic.

She proposes that we are causing the current extinction not with malevolent intent, but because we are genetically driven: “With the capacity to represent the world in signs and symbols comes the capacity to change it, which, as it happens, is also the capacity to destroy it…Indeed this capacity is probably indistinguishable from the qualities that made us human to begin with: our restlessness, our creativity, our ability to cooperate, to solve problems and complete complicated tasks.”

Neanderthals did not coexist with us for long, though long enough that we carry a few of their genes (ornl.gov)

Neanderthals did not coexist with us for long, though long enough that we carry a few of their genes (ornl.gov)

And there Kolbert ends her book. It deserves to be the best-seller that it is, but I do wonder if people are really reading her last chapter. It is a very cold bath.

So let’s continue past her ending. Can we change ourselves sufficiently to sustain reasonable biodiversity that let’s us all live on a livable planet? I think so. I have to think so.

We are way over-populated now, but a stable and even declining global human population lies not far ahead. That will help.

We can also, now, thoroughly protect very large ecosystems – like the Arctic and Antarctic, Canada’s Boreal forest, the Amazon basin, north and south cold-temperate coasts – along with many smaller ecosystems. That will help.

We can continue to educate the people of the world so that the seriousness of the the issues is truly recognized. Given knowledge, we are not stupid. Ignorance is treatable.

We can continue to press for more alternative fuels, reduced burning of fossil fuels and and lower emission rates of greenhouse gases: even the oil companies are prepared for Carbon taxes, if only they were forced to comply.

Our destructive dark side – war, poverty, greed, corruption and all the rest – can seem to be overwhelming, but we can continue to struggle to learn ways to diminish and suppress them, as we have done with slavery and racism: we know they need not dominate our various cultures. Velvet revolutions and true cooperation are not just dreams.

Our greatest challenge of course is ultimately time. We may not have enough of it. We may still slip over the edge into the bleakest of futures that won’t even include us.

But that is not inevitable, and we are more than the product of our genes.

We have to be.

Krill and Omega 3

April 25th, 2014

TV ads, pharmacy shelves, it’s hard to miss bottles of Omega 3 capsules, derived from krill, promising relief or protection from cardiovascular and other diseases.

Krill oil pills are marketed far too well (leehayward.com)

Krill oil pills are marketed far too well
(leehayward.com)

There are two serious problems with this. One is the impact this will have on krill populations, and the other is the validity of the evidence of the benefits.

Antarctic krill, Euphausia superba, is the primary source of krill oil (healthyplanetcanada.com)

Antarctic krill, Euphausia superba, is the primary source of krill oil (healthyplanetcanada.com)

First the source. The main source is Antarctic Krill, Euphausia superba. It grows to 5cm long, and lives in huge schools in the the near-ice regions around Antarctica. Much of its food comes from the algae growing on the under side of the ice. Its predators? Pretty well every marine vertebrate living or hunting in the Southern Ocean: baleen whales, seabirds (penguins), most of the seals, many fish species, and now humans.

A small school of Antarctic krill - you can see how easily trawled the shrimp are (healthpost.co.nz)

A small school of Antarctic krill – you can see how easily trawled the shrimp are (healthpost.co.nz)

In our illustrious past as hunters in the Southern Ocean, we eliminated the Antarctic fur seals by 1900, most of the great whales by the 1930s, pelagic fish by the 1970s, and bottom finfish by the 1980s. That has left krill.

Krill trawling began in the 1970s, and didn’t look promising: the animals had to be processed within hours of capture to avoid rapid enzymatic breakdown releasing toxic flourides. Now, however, ships process the krill quickly, rapidly removing the oil, and freezing or drying the meat.

The Southern Ocean is remote, hard to protect, and under stress (underwatertimes.com)

The Southern Ocean is remote, hard to protect, and under stress (underwatertimes.com)

We don’t actually eat krill meat – that goes into fish meal for chickens – but during the past decade the oil has become an increasingly popular source of Omega 3 as a human dietary supplement.

The current level of krill fishing in the Southern Ocean may appear to be sustainable, but the signs of ecosystem stress are everywhere. Apart from Southern Humpbacks, the great whales have not recovered; Adelie and chin-strap penguin populations are in decline; in warmer water areas of the West Antarctic Peninsula non-nutritious gelatinous salps are outcompeting krill; and in areas where sea ice is shrinking, less under-ice algae exists for krill to feed on.

Penguin populations are in decline, an indirect indication of a stressed ecosystem (noaa.com)

Adelie Penguin populations are in decline, a direct indication of a stressed ecosystem (noaa.com)

The Southern Ocean ecosystem depends on krill, but even without our krill fishing, something is clearly very wrong. The deepest, newest threat to the krill is our desire for Omega 3, for we are too numerous, too obsessed by our health, and too susceptible to sophisticated marketing. We are insatiable.

Now, to complicate things, and just published in The Annals of Internal Medicine, comes a meta-study of 72 studies of the dietary use of Omega-3 fatty acids in treating coronary disease, altogether involving 600,000 participants from 18 countries. Its conclusion? No support actually exists for cardiovascular guidelines that promote high consumption of Omega 3.

We are extracting oil from Antarctic Krill for medical benefits for ourselves that are dubious at best, to supplement fish meal which is ecologically short-sighted, and to supplement what we feed our pets. None of this is necessary, and appears in fact have no true value for any of us: chickens, cats, dogs or humans.

This isn’t a hard situation to resolve: we can stop krilling. At stake is the viability of an immense, critical and threatened ecosystem.

Iconic Southern Humpack in the Southern Ocean (earthtimes.org)

Iconic Southern Humpack in the Southern Ocean (earthtimes.org)

Chandrika Sharma and ICSF

March 25th, 2014

Most of the best leadership and action related to many of the stresses now plaguing our planet comes from international NGOs.

Sorting shrimp in Bagladesh. Small scale coastal fisheries vary immensely, but all need support (consult-poseidon.com)

Sorting shrimp in Bagladesh. Small scale coastal fisheries vary immensely, but all need support (consult-poseidon.com)

An effective example is The International Collective in Support of Fishworkers (ICSF). In the face of the calamitous impact of offshore, industrial fishing fleets, its ambitious mission is “to support fishing communities and fishworker organizations, and empower them to participate in fisheries from a perspective of decent work, equity, gender-justice, self-reliance and sustainability”.

ICSF encourages the development and protection of small scale fisheries, like this one in Cambodia (flikr.com)

ICSF encourages the development and protection of small scale fisheries, like this one in Cambodia (flikr.com)

It started up 28 years ago and now involves coastal fishing communities around Southeast Asia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and East Africa. The ongoing challenge continues to be to achieve recognition of the importance of small-scale fisheries, fishworkers and fishing communities.

One of its publications is An Ecosystem Approach to Fisheries that emphasizes the need for balancing human wellbeing and ecological wellbeing, for application of both the adaptive and precautionary approaches, for recognition of the value traditional knowledge, and for community participation in co-management.

This truly identifies the needs and hopes of the coastal fisheries of the whole world.

Chandrika Sharma was Executive Secretary of ICSF. She was a passenger on Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, on her way from KL to Beijing and then on to Mongolia where she would have represented ICSF at the 32nd Session of the FAO Regional Conference for Asia and the Pacific.

Chandrika Sharma

Chandrika Sharma

We so need rational, articulate, committed, persistent and well-informed social activists like Chandrika Sharma to give us at least some hope in these increasingly perilous times.

Losing her is distressing for too many reasons.
I wish that I had known her.

Grassroots Alternative

March 12th, 2014

How do we achieve a global response to the challenges of climate change? How do we protect the planet from the risks of global change?

Arguments built on evidence-based science of course are essential, but they are also clearly insufficient. More evidence isn’t going to sway the deniers or the oil and energy corporations.

Better leadership is always worth pursuing, and some good leaders do exist, but the process of changing poor leaders for good ones is painfully slow, unpredictable, and anything but inevitable – no matter whether we look at the US, Canada, Russia or China.

unfccc

The UN would seem to be a likely forum, with its annual UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) Conference of the Parties (COP) meetings – but these are highly politicized and very frustrating meetings of government representatives, and exclude the representatives of the many NGOs and civil organizations that are forced to meet around the edges and have very little influence.

At every annual COP meeting, Canada has received 'Fossil of the Day Awards' for its abysmal action and leadership in dealing with climate change (climateactionnetwork.ca)

At every annual COP meeting, Canada has received ‘Fossil of the Day Awards’ for its abysmal action and leadership in dealing with climate change (climateactionnetwork.ca)

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon is calling together what he hopes will be a more inclusive Climate Summit in NYC in 2014, and perhaps it will do better, but too many of the government players remain the same.

The 2)the annual Conference of the Parties, COP 20, organized by the UNFCCC will be held in Peru this year (mocicc.org)

The 2)the annual Conference of the Parties, COP 20, organized by the UNFCCC will be held in Peru this year (mocicc.org)

We clearly need something more – more global, more representative of civil views as well as those of scientists and NGOs.

A proposal has emerged from several directions: we need an annual conference along the lines of the International AIDS Conference, with the intent of provoking global cooperation to protect the climate.

Like the IAC it would include scientists, NGOs, and representatives of civil society, but not the UN and not individual governments. Like the IAC, it would be a forum for sharing information, for developing policy, for advocacy, a place where we can encourage action and where we can also call out nations and corporations that are behaving badly, like Canada.

The International AIDS Society has also been holding annual AIDS conferences for 20 years. AIDS 2014 will be held in Melbourne, with 20,000 delegates expected. (iasociety.org)

The International AIDS Society has also been holding annual AIDS conferences for 20 years. AIDS 2014 will be held in Melbourne, with 20,000 delegates expected. (iasociety.org)

This is not an impossible dream. The IAC started small and has grown huge. It has effected important changes. Obviously there are many differences, not the least being the sense of immediate and personal medical urgency that has driven the IAC.

Still, the urgency we face with the risks of climate change gets greater every year. To deal with them, we need global cooperation. So far the UN conferences and other government gatherings have achieved little of substance. We need another route to building a global voice.

Why don’t we start up a Global Conference on the Risks of Climate Change? It needs to come from us, a grass roots initiative that ignores governments and corporations.

It can start as small as it has to, but why not start?

Why not? (le-mot-juste-en-anglais-typepad.com)

Why not? (le-mot-juste-en-anglais-typepad.com)