Requiem For A Natural Wonder…

(Acropora at English Wikipedia)

RIP, Great Barrier Reef:

New aerial data from Professor Hughes and other scientists released on Monday shows example after example of overheating and damage along the reef, a 1,500-mile natural wonder. The survey amounts to an updated X-ray for a dying patient, with the markers of illness being the telltale white of coral that has lost its color, visible from the air and in the water.

The mass bleaching indicates that corals are under intense stress from the waters around them, which have been growing increasingly hotter.

The world’s oceans, which absorb 93 percent of the heat trapped by the greenhouse gases that humans send into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels, are warming up 40 percent faster on average than scientists estimated six years ago.

Nature is under constant pressure from humanity. But when large-scale systems are failing before our eyes, you have to wonder what the trophic consequences will be.

I’m not sure if the rampant degradation of the natural world–particularly its icons, like the Great Barrier Reef or the Amazon rainforest–will ever trigger a real shift in human culture and practice. I suppose, eventually. Now would be good, though.

Can The Vaquita Be Saved? Probably Not But…

“What the heck did I ever do to anyone to deserve becoming the most endangered cetacean on the planet?”

Next month will see the start of a Hail Mary effort to save the rapidly dwindling population of vaquitas in the Gulf Of California. Great backstory on why the vaquita is disappearing in this Hakai article, which describes the upcoming effort thus:

This October, Mexico’s Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT) plans to launch a Hail Mary that will cost more than $5-million in 2017 alone to round up as many vaquitas as possible, and hold them in captivity for as long as it takes to make their habitat safe. Scientists, veterinarians, and experts from organizations in Mexico, the United States, and other countries hope to find them by using acoustic monitors, visual observers, and trained US Navy dolphins. Then, they’ll place nets in their path, and if they can catch them, immediately disentangle them and transport them to temporary open-water enclosures in the Upper Gulf until a more permanent sanctuary can be developed. It’s risky: not all porpoise species tolerate captivity. Even if vaquitas turn out to be among those that do, little is known about what they need to thrive and breed. “We have to be incredibly rapid students of how to deal with fully captive populations and be in there for the long term,” says Barbara Taylor, lead of the US-based Southwest Fisheries Science Center’s Marine Mammal Genetics Program and a key member of CIRVA. “It’s going to be decades.”

It’s unclear how many vaquitas will be left to catch. This past spring, Jaramillo-Legorreta quietly deployed a handful of acoustic monitors a few months earlier than usual. Then, not long before vaquitas reached peak media visibility in June—with US movie star Leonardo DiCaprio and Mexico’s richest man, Carlos Slim, throwing their weight behind vaquita conservation efforts—CIRVA revealed that the creatures had all but disappeared. The monitors detected vaquitas only twice, far fewer times than anticipated. Until results are in from this summer’s full monitoring effort, “the data are hard to interpret,” Taylor says. But they “make us very worried.”

As I say, total Hail Mary. And an opportunity for marine park trainers to put some of their experience to real conservation for once (see this urgent call for trainers to help care for any vaquitas that are captured and moved to a net pen).

Of course it would be nice if we managed our fishing industries, and poverty, well enough to avoid this sort of crisis. Not to mention putting an end to the Asia-driven poaching of all sorts of rare and fragile species around the globe. But until our species gets its act together, any and all nonhuman species-saving strategies, no matter how unlikely or hare-brained, are well worth the effort.

More On Salmon And Southern Residents

“Damn, these things are getting hard to find.”

From Erica Cirino in The Revelator. Again, the focus is on dams:

According to experts, the reason for the starvation in the Southern Residents is most definitely a lack of salmon, which make up the largest and most nutritious part of their diet. Wasser and his fellow researchers found that levels of thyroid hormones were lowest in the Southern Resident whales following known drops in Chinook salmon from the Fraser River, while increases in salmon in the river were associated with increases in thyroid hormone levels.

In the past 10 years, salmon — particularly those spawning in the Columbia River — have decreased. While that’s certain, Wasser said what’s not well understood is why their numbers are dropping. Overfishing and habitat loss due to development could play a role in the fish’s demise. However, it appears more likely that the construction of hydroelectric dams on rivers where salmon spawn and migrate are to blame.

“Some say dams are key, including the Snake River dam, which impacts levels of early spring Chinook, some of the fattiest fish known and essential to replenish whales from the harsh winter and sustain them until the Fraser River Chinook run peaks in the summer,” said Wasser.

Giles takes a stronger personal stance when it comes to discussing the threats to survival the Southern Residents face. She said it’s clear that fishing restrictions and dam removal are necessary in order to replenish salmon and killer whale populations in the Pacific Northwest. But making her voice heard has been something she’s been criticized for doing as a scientist.

“I won’t stop telling the truth about what’s happening just because it’s politically ‘incorrect’ or unpopular,” said Giles. “We need to take action now or we’ll lose these genetically and culturally distinct whales forever.”

Whether we succeed in doing what is necessary to help this population survive, or whether we let them dwindle away, is a true test of whether anyone really cares enough about the rest of the species on this planet. Everyone says they love killer whales. But if they can’t be mobilized to help a species they love, then what hope do all the other species have?

The Cost Of Snow Crabs

“I know you think I am tasty. But how about letting me, and all the vulnerable right whales out there live in peace.”

North Atlantic right whales have been dying in unusual numbers this year (14 or more so far). For a population that is endangered and numbers around 500 individuals, this is a rate that is highly threatening to the future of the population.

I’ve already touched on this ongoing tragedy. But I am coming back to it because detail is important in understanding the impact of choices we make on the planet. And a dead North Atlantic right whale was just towed ashore. A necropsy will be performed, but there is not really any mystery. The poor animal was thoroughly trussed up by lines from a snow crab trap:

The animal was tightly wrapped in heavy ropes, and deep cuts were apparent in its body, mouth, fins and blubber.

Local people who saw the whale towed by the Canadian Coast Guard said a large snow crab net had to be cut off the carcass after it was brought ashore.

Not a nice way to go, and even worse the dead whale appears to be a female, so that is yet another breeder removed from a tenuous population. But the point I really want to make here is: snow crabs? Is it so important that we be able to eat snow crabs that this result can be tolerated? I don’t think so. I’ve never eaten one? Have you? If you have, I am sure it tasted good. But I am also sure that your life would not be altered in any meaningful way if you never had the option of putting a snow crab on your plate. Yet, an important, gentle and sublime species of whale is being threatened by this industry.

In any moral calculus, I can imagine some human needs that are so great that impacts on other species are justified and understandable. But it is simply not possible to suggest that our taste for snow crab (or any of the other fisheries that keep entangling whales) can justify the ongoing winnowing of a majestic whale population. Yes, fishermen need to earn a living and take care of their families. But we need to get a lot smarter about helping fishermen and others transition from industries that can’t be justified in light of their impacts on the natural world.

For this, and many other reasons, I don’t think most of the human population needs to eat any fish or crabs. Even in a world that does eat from the sea snow crabs can easily be taken off the menu. And if we aren’t more thoughtful and rigorous about what we eat and how it impacts the rest of the planet we will casually, and without thought, eat our way through much of the beauty and wonder that this planet offers us.

Photo Of The Times: Realism Rather Than Romanticism

“Sewage Surfer.” Photo by Justin Hofman / Wildlife Photographer of the Year

This photo is both very sad and very powerful, and tells you all you need to know about what we are doing to our oceans. Fittingly, it is a finalist in the Wildlife Photographer Of The Year competition, and that is a good thing because it is important that wildlife photography do more to show things as they are instead of romanticizing a pristine and unspoiled natural world that no longer exists.

Here is the explanation of the photo provided by the UK Natural History Museum:

Hopping from one floating object to another, seahorses often hitch rides on currents and grasp onto ocean debris with their delicate tails.

But the subject of photographer Justin Hofman’s lens swam into trouble when it let go of a piece of seagrass and seized a thin piece of clear plastic. As a brisk wind picked up at the surface of a reef near Indonesia’s Sumbawa Island, the small swimmer’s ride became a rough one.

In search of a more stable raft, the seahorse then landed upon a waterlogged cotton bud that washed in on the incoming tide.

Indonesia is known for having the broadest selection of marine biodiversity in the world. But the country is also second only to China in its contribution to marine plastic – fuelling the growing concern that unnatural ocean waste could outweigh fish by 2050.

Justin not only captured the seahorse and its unnatural vehicle, but also murky water filled with debris.

Indonesia has pledged that by 2025 it will reduce the amount of waste being discharged into the ocean by 70%.

You can get more of the backstory of the photo, and comments from Justin Hofman, here. And follow Justin’s Instagram here.

Escaped Atlantic Salmon Dispersing Into The Pacific

Not a surprise (to me, anyhow), but Atlantic salmon that escaped as a result of the great Pacific Northwest fish spill have now been spotted more than 250 kilometers from the San Juan islands, the site of their collapsed net pens:

The non-native species of salmon have been reported as far north as Tofino on the west side of Vancouver Island and Campbell River on the island’s east side, according to Byron Andres, head of the federal Atlantic Salmon Watch program.

“Quite a distance. I’m not sure whether we should be surprised by that but they have travelled further than I initially anticipated,” Andres told Gregor Craigie, host of On the Island.

The Atlantic Salmon Watch program has been monitoring B.C. waters since 1991 and in that time has rarely logged confirmed sightings.

Between 2011 and 2017, there were only three confirmed reports of Atlantic salmon in B.C., with some appearing as far north as Hecate Strait and the Kitimat River. There had been zero reports in the three years leading up to the escape.

So now we monitor and try to assess what happens when you release hundreds of thousands of salmon from one ocean into an entirely different ocean. Exactly the sort of science project you get when you play Sorcerer’s Apprentice by manipulating and short-circuiting nature with the goal of farming lots of affordable salmon.

Here’s the audio for a fuller version of the story.

Fish Consumption and Collateral Damage (Round 2)

Crabcakes? No chickpea cakes. It’s just not that hard. (via: https://www.pinterest.com/cookitkind/)

Of course, another semi-obscure impact of fish consumption is the varied environmental impacts of fish farming, especially in net pens–recently highlighted by the escape of a few hundred thousand Atlantic salmon into Pacific Northwest waters.

Hakai magazine does a nice job of looking at better alternatives to net-pen aquaculture, and discovers that there are no easy answers:

Moving from marine- to land-based or closed-containment aquaculture is a decidedly uphill battle. Terrestrial systems can cost several times as much as sea pens. Even though net-pen farms are restricted to suitable coastal sites, the ocean provides space and water, and free access to water circulation. On land, a similar arrangement may work on a small scale, but be prohibitively expensive on a commercial scale.

Land operations have hidden costs, too, says Tony Farrell, an animal physiologist at the University of British Columbia. Existing terrestrial operations take a lot of energy and produce a lot of greenhouse gases, he says. “They will get better,” he says, but the development of new technologies should proceed in a “positive, but cautious, way.”

I once looked into the many impacts of fish consumption, and how to reduce the impact of eating fish if you give a damn. And while there are definitely better and worse ways to consume fish (the best I concluded is to stick to farmed mussels), I came away thinking it just seems easier to me to simply not eat fish. The impact of that choice is both positive and beneficial to the oceans in countless ways.

Is it really that hard to not eat salmon and tuna? I feel completely out of touch with consumers who feel that their desire to please their palates (yes, salmon is healthy, but there are other ways to eat healthy) outweighs all the profound impacts of fishing and aquaculture on the planet. Yes, that is a judgement. But the cold balance of logic just seems so clear to me.

Fishing’s Collateral Damage

When people think of environmental impacts of fishing, they usually think about overfishing (which endangers fish stocks) and unintended bycatch (which is ridiculously wasteful). What should also be considered is all the fishing gear out there, either operative or drifting through the seas, that entangles marine mammals.

Entanglement is one of the major threats to large whale species (and turtles) and the numbers just keep going up (despite all the inspiring whale disentanglement videos you love on Facebook). It’s just one more problem with the human love of fish protein.

There are many places on the planet where human populations really do rely on the bounty of the sea to eat (though most of those fishing operations are more subsistence than industrial). But most of the entanglement damage is being done by fisheries that are feeding people who could easily choose not to eat fish. Sure, people like crab, lobsters, and swordfish. But they are a matter of taste and preference, not of nutritional requirement. At some point it is important to consider whether simple taste and culinary preferences are worth the collateral damage. Because they really aren’t.

 

A “Lonely” Whale, Needy People

I’ve long been bemused by the story of 52HZ, the off-frequency blue or fin whale that the human race somehow decided had to be lonely. It seems like such a bizarre example of how humans like to impose their own stories on animals they really don’t understand or know.

But I had no idea how many people 52HZ’s story (or the story that we assigned to 52HZ) truly mobilized and inspired until I read this story:

For all her scientific unease with the whole media circus, Daher admitted to me that, “It’s interesting, isn’t it, that people appear to identify with this whale?” There was a pattern to those who reached out to her, as if she could somehow help. “It’s amazing. I get all sorts of emails, some of them very touching, genuinely. It just breaks your heart to read some of them — asking why I can’t go out there and help this animal. We as humans, we are very softhearted, caring creatures. It’s mostly females who write to me — not always; I also get males — but there are a lot of females who identify, feeling they’re not part of a pack.”

The story is full of people who wrote plays, created art, set out to make documentaries or were otherwise inspired to take action thanks to 52HZ’s perceived loneliness. But I can’t help wondering what any of these people are really doing to help 52HZ and all the other whales who are inundated with human noise and pollution.

Are they forsaking seafood to restore ocean food chains and reduce stray fishing gear?

Are they reducing their consumption of container-shipped goods that has turned the oceans into noisy superhighways, and resulted in numerous ship strikes?

What changes to their lives have they made that might improve 52HZ’s life in some small way? I hope many (I know actor Adrien Grenier was inspired to start an ocean conservation foundation and at least struggles with the fact that his acting work celebrating conspicuous consumption is what gave him the resources to do so). A whale can’t do much with empathy.

It is the frequent disconnect between what people say they care about and what they actually do with the choices they make in their own lives that is absolutely central to what the planet will look like–and how 52HZ will fare–in coming decades.

I have a lot more changes to make (especially when it comes to carbon footprint), but in an effort to take some pressure off the oceans I stopped eating seafood years ago. I am also doing everything I can to NOT buy anything new. It makes me feel out of step with our culture. I sense my wife and kids experience a range of reaction from annoyance to mild understanding. And I have to make a concerted effort to not come off as too deranged.

But out of step is exactly where I want to be because being in step does 52HZ no good at all.