Archive for April, 2013

The Revolution Movie

Monday, April 29th, 2013

Rob Stewart has now made another movie, Revolution. He started out intending it to be about save the oceans, but realized the issues were greater than that, and shifted his intent to saving the planet.

Revolution, the new movie by Rob Stewart, (therevolutionmovie.com)

Revolution, the new movie by Rob Stewart, (therevolutionmovie.com)

He describes the death of coral reefs, the threat of ocean acidification, the endless use of carbon fuels, the destruction caused by the Alberta Tar Sands, the impact of deforestation, the increase in coastal dead zones, and the occurrence of ‘death by climate change’. He joins and films the growing recognition by people, particularly young people, that action is needed now.

Rob Stewart, film maker and now activist (therevolutionmovie.com)

Rob Stewart, film maker and now activist (therevolutionmovie.com)

If you are new to some of this, then Revolution is worth seeing. It certainly has heart. It has won best documentary and audience favorite documentary at film festivals, and it is attempting to have a life in commercial theaters now.

Scattered through the film are some truly unusual and beautiful sequences – a spectacular and poisonous cuttlefish, delicate seahorses clicking their way around a branch of coral, Madagascar lemurs running in their bizarre sideways gallop, reminders of all that we stand to lose.

But a film about saving the planet is the hardest of all to make. The topic is huge, the possibilities for enticing narrative are very limited, the target audience difficult to identify, and the opportunities for depth and insight are limited. Even Al Gore’s famous film Inconvenient Truth struggled with the same problems.

Sharkwater, Stewart's first movie (sharkwater.com)

Sharkwater, Stewart’s first movie (sharkwater.com)

Better to focus, I think, on an issue that perhaps represents the whole, but makes story telling possible, and allows time to dig into the issue. Stewart’s first film, Sharkwater, was like that, showing us the beauty of sharks and the ugly practice and devastating impact of shark-finning. It helped, and continues to help, in the efforts to regulate and ban shark-finning, even though the harvest goes on, and sharks remain under threat of extinction. Limited in scope, it is an effective film.

At the end of Revolution Stewart films some of the young people protesting the formal, closed meetings of the climate change conference, COP 16, held at Cancun in 2010. Their concerns were real, justified, and ignored, and emotions ran high.

COP 16 had many thousands of delegates, and no impact (cop16.com)

COP 16 had many thousands of delegates, and no impact (cop16.com)

This was just another protest, however, and not the beginning of any bottom-up revolution. The world continues with business-as-usual, unconvinced that catastrophe lies ahead, irritated with unpragmatic environmentalists.

Except that the predicted human upheaval and global insecurity associated with climate change are now worrying military and intelligence communities, as well as The World Bank. They are considering the probable yet somehow unthinkable consequences of the global temperature rising by 4 degrees, which is where we are headed unless major reductions are made in our CO2 emissions. This is an odd kind of hope – top-down ‘revolution’ is hardly an attractive prospect.

Placard at COP16 - frustration with inertia

Placard at COP16 – frustration with inertia

The best advice remains, as Will Rogers once said, and Bill McKibbon quotes concerning our current carbon-fueled rush toward a 4 degree increase: If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.

Culling Seals

Wednesday, April 24th, 2013
Cape Fur Seals breed on the coast of Namibia, where the annual 'hunt' removes about 90,000 seals, most of them pups (africareview.com)

Cape Fur Seals breed on the coast of Namibia, where the annual ‘hunt’ removes about 90,000 seals, most of them pups (africareview.com)

The Canadian government has approved a cull of 70,000 Grey Seals over the next four years to protect cod (guardian.co.uk)

The Canadian government has approved a cull of 70,000 grey seals over the next four years to protect cod (guardian.co.uk)

Seals of course eat fish. As opportunistic feeders, they’ll eat any fish they can catch.

When those fish decline in numbers or fail to recover when fishing is curtailed, a natural response has been to blame the seals.

Culling seals to protect fish populations of interest to human fishermen has been going on for more than a hundred years – California Sea Lions, Ringed and Grey Seals in the Baltic Sea, Harbor Seals in both BC and along US East Coast, Grey Seals on the US East Coast, Iceland, Norway, and the UK, and currently Cape Fur Seals in Namibia. In all cases seal populations experienced huge declines.

Culling, as opposed to harvesting, refers to killing the seals without intent to market them in some way. Though the market for seal parts is now close to non-existent, Canada considers its annual Harp Seal hunt to be harvesting, not culling.

Grey Seals on Sable Island: are they really responsible for failure of cod to recover? (truenorthimages.com)

Grey seals on Sable Island: are they really responsible for the failure of cod to recover? (truenorthimages.com)

But have the culls resulted in increased fish stocks for human fishermen? Oddly enough, nobody actually knows! There simply are no data, no experiments, nothing to indicate whether culling is effective or not. If anything, almost all of the examples suggest that no particular impact occurred on the target fish species.

Is there then any evidence we can point to indicating an effect of culling? This is of current concern, for Canada has approved a cull of Grey Seals to encourage the recovery of cod, and the Baltic States are considering a cull for the same reasons.

Fishermen want the cull, politicians are sympathetic, and marine scientists are unanimous in opposing culling. This is a familiar stand-off. What’s needed is evidence.

And now there is some, and it illustrates just how complicated ecosystem dynamics are.

Sable Island is an arc of sand on the Scotian Shelf, where Grey Seals breed in large numbers, in a region where cod were once abundant (oceantrack'org)

Sable Island is an arc of sand on the Scotian Shelf, where Grey Seals breed in large numbers, in a region where cod were once abundant (oceantrack’org)

It involves cod. Following the moratorium on fishing North Atlantic Cod following the collapse of stocks in the early 1990s, everyone assumed the stocks would recover. They didn’t. But Grey Seal numbers exploded to around 400,000, particularly those breeding on Sable Island on the Scotian Shelf, near one of the past major cod stocks. That seems to indicate that seals have suppressed cod recovery, and therefore culling ought to help.

475 ships have wrecked on Sable Island since the 17th Century. Feral horses are the only permanent residents (getimage.php)

475 ships have wrecked on Sable Island since the 17th Century. Feral horses are the only permanent residents (getimage.php)

Instead the story goes like this. When the Scotian Shelf populations of cod and haddock, both large bottom predators, crashed from overfishing in the early 90s, the result was a major restructuring of the food web, a ‘regime change’ of the sort we have now learned to expect to occur. With the loss of the cod and haddock, planktivorous fish like herring, capelin and sand lance, as well as macro-invertebrates like Northern Shrimp and Snow Crabs became abundant instead – hugely so in some cases, and they have supported alternative fisheries. A new and stable balance of species seemed to have developed, with cod and haddock unrecovered. Grey Seals numbers increased greatly during this time.

Herring exploded in numbers, but have now crashed (fisherycrisis.com)

Herring exploded in numbers, but have now crashed (fisherycrisis.com)

But this was not in fact a stable system. The biomass of fish in the system increased to an estimated 10 million tons, where carrying capacity is estimated to be less than half of that amount. The fish ran out of food – the zooplankton abundance crashed, the herring and capelin starved, and their populations crashed.

And then, with the herring and capelin gone as predators on cod and haddock larvae, cod and haddock have begun to recover. Particularly haddock. A return to the earlier food web appears to be underway, though how far it gets is unknown, for of course so much else is also involved, such as the impact of climate change, pollution, and continued fishing.

Cod show signs of some recovery (fisherycrisis.com)

Cod show signs of some recovery (fisherycrisis.com)

Haddock recovery is greater (fisherycrisis.com)

Haddock recovery is greater (fisherycrisis.com)

The really good news is that ‘regime changes’ can reverse back to what previously existed. And in this case, in this ecosystem, the evidence indicates that Grey Seals, though obviously eating fish, are not responsible for preventing the recovery of the cod over the past two decades.

Since culling seals probably has no impact on the recovery of overfished populations, decisions to cull them anyway are then political, disregard science, and are so unfortunate.

Grey Seals, Sable Island, waiting to be culled (theglobeandmail.com)

Grey Seals, Sable Island, waiting to be culled (theglobeandmail.com)