Earth Day: Thinking Big

April 22, 2009

Happy Earth Day! For my Earth Day, I’m attending a seminar on Google Earth (totally hot interactive kmz documents await you, lovely readers) and thinking about the environmental effects of racism, socioeconomic interest, and partisan politics here on the US-Mexican border.

The new ever-so-impermeable border fence will definitely stop endangered bighorn sheep and desert frogs in their tracks, though it probably won’t do much about people desperate to feed their families. Though it’s good to recycle and cut down on plastic bags, the really big problems are going to need really big cooperative solutions.

Check out National Geographic’s photos of life along the border fence. Here’s my favorite – a juvenile mountain lion in southern Arizona.

What stops population growth?

March 17, 2009

I’ve written before about why I think discussing population control became a taboo, but I’m glad to say I have never heard anyone arguing that poor children should just die. Disgusting.

But in case you have heard that argument, Hans Rosling is here to explain why it’s wrong. And he also explains why he thinks that a permanent world population of 9 billion is inevitable.

Via Anna and Think or Thwim

The Managed World: A Tale of Two Trophic Troubles

February 18, 2009

Macquarie Island, before and after cat elimination. (From 80 Beats at Discovery Network)

There is no place on earth, no matter how remote, untouched by humans. We are mighty: we can trawl the deep, explore the South Pole, and fish every single island in the South Pacific. But as every young nerdling knows, with great power comes great responsibility. The Managed World is an occasional series in the Oyster’s Garter that explores the hard choices that come from a human-dominated world.

Most food webs look more like a tangled web than the Great Chain of Being – since predators eat each other and most animals eat more than one prey species, their relationships are complicated. But sometimes changing the population of a single predator can bring the entire ecosystem down like dominoes. It’s called a trophic cascade.

The New York Times has two examples of humans changing the populations of key species, and the consequences that result. The first took place on Macquarie Island, a small island between Australia and Antarctica. Like on many isolated islands, the native birds evolved without predators and live in burrows. Introduced cats were eating the birds and running amuck. So researchers embarked on an intensive cat-elimination program. Sounds good so far – kill the kittehs, save the birds.

Elk feeding. (NYT)

The only problem is that there are also introduced rabbits and introduced plants. With no more cats, the rabbits bred like rabbits and ate all the native plants. Introduced plants took over the bare slopes and prevented the native birds that this was all supposed to help in the first place from nesting in the best burrowing sites.

The second involves a lawsuit over feeding elk in Jackson, Wyoming. When elk were depleted and starving at the turn of the century, people started feeding them. Now Jackson has an elk overpopulation that eats all the native willows and breeds disease (that can then be passed on to cattle). But if the lawsuit wins, stopping the elk feeding would cause a kind of economic cascade – there’s an entire tourism economy built around the easy-to-find elks. And while unnaturally large populations of elk breed disease amongst themselves, starving elks stealing cattle feed would pass disease, too. So nobody knows what to do. (I don’t suppose anyone wants to introduce more wolves? They’re proven to control elk and I bet they’re good for tourism!)

The conclusion: it is  very, very hard to predict (as Donald Rumsfeld would say) the unknown unknowns. There’s a million stories like these – even Lyme disease in the Northeast is thought to be connected to a trophic cascade with wolves, deer, mice, and ticks. To end with a slight non sequiter, this is why I’m leery of geoengineering. If we can’t even properly manage the ecosystem of 21-mile-long Macquarie Island, I worry that the cure for global warming could be even worse than the disease.

Conceivable Waste

February 6, 2009

I find it almost impossible to grasp just how much sheer stuff gets used up by our current society. It’s just one of those ideas hard to get your mind around, like how some numbers are too large for us to comprehend. Photographer  Chris Jordan tries to help us grasp what we’re throwing away partly by taking pictures of vast piles of trash, but also by making detailed representations of waste.  I found his stuff via a New Scientist slide show, but his website has some staggering photos of a mountain of sawdust, piles of dead cell phones, and other mind-numbing displays of waste. The whole thing makes me think of how Slumdog Millionaire and Wall-E manage to find beauty in piles of garbage.  I recommend flipping through the whole slide show, but here’s one example, and then a close up of it.

There are 320,000 light bulbs in this image. This is equivalent to the number of kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity wasted in the United States every minute from inefficient residential electricity usage, such as poor wiring and computers left in sleep mode.

And then the close up of the center:

Sustainable Chilean sea bass?

December 22, 2008

Last week, Deep Sea News readers had the opportunity to submit questions to Dr. Carole Baldwin, a fish expert at the Smithsonian who has recently written a sustainable seafood cookbook. I asked:

The Marine Stewardship Council recently certified a Chilean sea bass fishery as sustainable. Can certain slow-growing deep sea fish can be harvested sustainably?

As part of the new Smithsonian webisode series “The Scientist is In”, Dr. Baldwin answered three questions on video, and mine was one of them!  In short, she believes that the MSC certification of Chilean sea bass is legit, and that you can eat it without guilt.

Though I’m happy she responded to the question, I wish that she had provided more details. Is even the MSC-certified fishery sustainable in the long term? Do consumers have to worry about fish from non-sustainable fisheries being sold fradulantly under the MSC label? Does demand for the MSC-certified fish drive overfishing of unprotected fish?

To get Dr. Baldwin’s full answer, watch the video (with bonus sassy question from Mark Powell).

Off-duty kayaking not ok if you work for the Army Corps

December 11, 2008

It can be tough to be a governmental scientist. An Army Corps of Engineer scientist was recently exonerated from the dread charge of “off-duty kayaking.” Heather Wylie disagreed with the Army Corps’ ruling that the LA River was not a river because it was not navigable. This is critical to the enforcement of the Clean Water Act, since it applies only to navigable waters. So Wylie kayaked the LA River to demonstrate that the river was in fact a river.

The Corps hit her with a 30-day suspension for “off-duty kayaking” and “circulating a news article via e-mail documenting Clean Water Act enforcement problems.” The second one at least makes sense, but how on earth can the Army Corps regulate its employees leisure time?

The Army Corps settled the case yesterday, and Wylie will not face a suspension. Unsurprisingly she’s leaving the Corps anyway to become an environmental lawyer.

And what of the poor polluted concrete-lined LA River? The EPA is taking over from the Army Corps, rendering the navigation question irrelevant. Idealistic reaction: Yay, this will help restore a much-abused urban river! Cynical reaction: Sure, the EPA makes everything better. The Simpsons warned us about EPA!

Thanks to Oceana for the Philly Inquirer article!

How quickly nature falls into revolt when gold becomes her object!

August 28, 2008

Alaska has voted for gold instead of salmon. The Pebble Mine will be located right on the headwaters of one of the last great wild sockeye salmon runs. The salmon would have run for thousands of years, bringing at least $300 million to Alaska’s economy each and every year, but Alaska has traded them for 40 years of enriching foreign investors. Alaska seems to be hell-bent on becoming Nauru writ large.

The most painful and ridiculous part of the NY Times article was this quote:

“Perhaps it was God who put these two great resources right next to each other,” said John T. Shively, the chief executive of a foreign consortium that wants to mine the copper and gold deposit. “Just to see what people would do with them.”

I expect that God would weep. (I’m not a Christian, but I can Google like one!) From Christian Ecology:

Lev. 25:23-24. The land is mine and you are but aliens and my tenants. Throughout the country that you hold as a possession, you must provide for the redemption of the land.

Ezekiel 34:17-18. As for you, my flock… Is it not enough for you to feed on good pasture? Must you also trample the rest of your pasture with your feet? Is it not enough for you to drink clear water? Must you also muddy the rest with your feet?

Luke 16:2,10,13. And He called him and said to him, “What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your stewardship, for you can no longer be steward. He who is faithful in a very little thing is faithful also in much; and he who is unrighteous in a very little thing is unrighteous in much. You cannot serve both God and mammon.

Title quote from Shakespeare’s Henry the Fourth.

For the Love of Sharks Answers!

August 20, 2008

Time’s up!

Here are the answers to the somewhat leading quiz I dropped yesterday.

photo from the News-Journal Online.

1.) B: In the South Africa, the shark catch rate in the longline swordfish fishery dropped 36% when the fishery was required to switch from using J hooks with squid bait to wider circle hooks with fish bait.

A 36% decrease in dead sharks is great, and this result happened in Hawaii as well when fishers there were required to switch to circle hooks with fish bait. This would seem to indicate that circle hooks and fish bait are good for preventing shark bycatch… but hold on. The source paper for this quiz points out that studies have found that fish bait works, but circle hooks don’t. More research is being done, but the key ingredient here appears to be using mackerel as bait instead of squid.

2.) A: Before restrictions on shark finning were enacted, 76% and 64% of sharks were finned in the Hawaii tuna and swordfish fisheries.

This is a case of a regulation working. Before the 2000 state rule requiring fishers to bring back the entire shark carcass belonging to each fin, shark-finning was seen as a way to supplement income using shark bycatch. Heck, if you have a shark flopping around on your boat that you can make a couple bucks off of, why not kill it and take the fin. Then the regulation came along and all of a sudden there’s no money to be had from the shark fin unless you tote 1,000 pounds of worthless meat back to port. In 2006 91% and 93% of sharks were released alive in the same fisheries.

3.) C: In developing countries, shark catches went from 76,000 metric tons in 1950 to 575,031 metric tons in 2000.

It’s the biggest one of course. And that’s just the reported catches. Actual catches are probably much higher. Shark catch by weight in Chile fisheries went from 1000 tons in 1950 to over 10,000 ton in 2005. These shark exports from Chile and Peru go to fresh and frozen meat markets in Uruguay, Spain, Brazil and Colombia.

Photo from the NOAA

Photo from the NOAA

4.) C: To avoid injury and increase efficiency, crew kill the shark before removing shark fins.

Many species of shark survive being hooked and dragged on the boat. The study sites that most blue sharks survive being caught and can be returned to the water with a good chance of survival. That means they probably won’t sit still to be finned. I’m not sure how they do the actual killing, though.

5.) C: Out of nine attitudes found in the fishing industry, which of the following was the only one that was NOT identified anywhere the interviews were conducted? We want to minimize shark fishing mortality because we are concerned with overfishing.

The attitudes chart from the report includes this as a possible response, but there are no takers. What does that mean for shark conservation? I would guess that regulatory action and economic incentive are going to be far and away the best way to appeal to the world’s fishers … because they ain’t worried about running out of sharks.

For the Love of Sharks

August 19, 2008

Here at the New England Aquarium, shark week is never over. So come on down shark experts! Let’s play a shark game show!

Here in the Aquarium, shark bycatch means a game of tag.

Here in the Aquarium, shark bycatch means a game of tag.

What’s the topic? It’s the paper “Shark interactions in pelagic longline fisheries.” It was published in the May 22, 2007 issue of Marine Policy. One of the many co-authors is NEAQ shark expert John Mandleman, but it has a lot of other co-authors because it was a massive undertaking. Basically a team of researchers gathered worldwide shark bycatch data from regulatory agencies, company logbooks and interviews with fishers in major ports around the world. I picture an researcher with a clipboard furiously writing while Robert Shaw growls “fish like that swallow you whole.”

However, the results of this study are stunning to me. But then I’m just a l’il old me. Let’s see if they’re stunning to you. Riddle me this!

1.) In the South Africa, the shark catch rate in the longline swordfish fishery dropped 36% when ____.
the Southeast Asian tsunami changed global migration patterns
B. the fishery was required to switch from using J hooks with squid bait to wider circle hooks with fish bait
C. Madonna adopted all the sharks

2.) Before restrictions on shark finning were enacted, 76% and 64% of sharks were finned in the ____ fisheries
A. Hawaii tuna and swordfish
B. Australia tuna and billfish
C. Mad Max Thunderdome

3.) In developing countries, shark catches went from 76,000 metric tons in 1950 to ____ metric tons in 2000.
A. 42
B. 77,000
C. 575,031

4.) To avoid injury and increase efficiency, crew ____ before removing shark fins.
A. anesthetize the shark
B. wear suits of armor
C. kill the shark

5.) Out of nine attitudes found in the fishing industry, which of the following was the only one that was NOT identified anywhere the interviews were conducted?
A. Revenue from catching sharks is exceeded by costs from shark interactions.
B. Shark interactions are an expected and unavoidable part of longline fishing.
C. We want to minimize shark fishing mortality because we are concerned with overfishing.

So there you have it! I will post the correct answers in a future post … unless a shark accidentally eats me thinking I’m a seal. (See what I did there).

Not all environmental news is bad

July 29, 2008

Slowly, so slowly, we’re changing the gluttonous habits that have laid the groundwork for planetary doom. Here are a couple of happy bits of news I’ve learned while reporting this past week:

• Sustainable construction is now being driven in part by major investors. Fund mangers like the ones govenring CalPERS (the California state pension) are trying to put together real estate investments made up entirely of sustainable buildings. If there’s one thing we learned from the sub-prime mortgage debacle, it’s that the demand of big investment funds motivates people to create a supply.

• The Green Building Council, which created the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification process, unveiled LEED for Homes in January.  It’s the first attempt at certifying single-family or smaller multi-family homes. Just eight months after establishing the process, they have 12,664 homes in the certification pipeline, representing half of all registered projects. There are many criticisms of  LEED, but when people apply for certification, it at least suggests that they want to construct buildings on environmentally sound principles.

• Bank of America has made a commitment that all new construction of branches and offices will be LEED-certified.

• Both Meeting Professionals International and The Association of Meeting Professionals have been meeting (who plans the meetings of the meeting planners?) to find ways to make all those conventions and annual gatherings more environmentally neutral. Among recent brain storms: Get rid of individual water bottles in favor of a single reusable water cooler.

• A recent white paper from Norm Miller of the University of San Diego analyzed Energy Star and LEED certified buildings against non-certified buildings. The paper (PDF) indicated that the greener buildings had higher occupancy rates despite charging higher rents.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.