Category Archives: endangered species

Shriveling the Salt Lakes of the World

Mountains of the Great Salt Lake in Winter. Image from wikipedia

Utah Great Salt Lake has shrunk to a depth of about 14 feet—nearly half its former average since it was settled by the Mormons 170 years ago. Under a controversial engineering plan, the lake would recede even further.  State engineers want to siphon off some of the river water that flows into the lake and use it for the Salt Lake City area’s booming population. Proponents say the plan, which calls for lapping up a fifth of Bear River’s current unused flow, is essential for meeting the region’s needs.

But critics note that the diversion would cause the lake to drop by almost a foot, according to state estimates, eventually exposing 30 square miles of lake bed and potentially worsening the dust storms that regularly blanket the region and ruining a fragile wetlands habitat.

The debate echoes concerns heard in many other arid parts of the world. Salt lake ecology is especially delicate and requires a certain amount of fresh water to maintain a saline balance. Brine shrimp, for instance, could die off if the water becomes too salty.

In the Middle East, diversion of the Jordan and other rivers that feed the Dead Sea has shriveled the famous body of saltwater and its once robust tourism. The Aral Sea between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan has shrunk to about 10% of its original size after diversions.

Critics, including environmental groups and affected businesses, say that under the new diversion plan lake-dependent businesses such as brine shrimp fishing would suffer, as would farmers whose land could be inundated upstream if existing dams are raised to retain more water. In all, the lake accounts for an estimated $1.3 billion in annual economic output, according to Utah State University, much of it from the shrimping industry, as well as mineral extraction and tourism.

The plan would also destroy wetlands along the lake shoreline that provide food and habitat for an estimated eight million birds, said Zach Frankel, executive director of Utah Rivers Council, an environmental group opposed to the project.

But proponents say the diversion of up to 72 billion gallons of water—enough to meet the needs of a city of one million for a year—is needed to forestall anticipated shortages for one of the fastest-growing regions in the country....“If Utah continues to grow, it’s not a matter of if but when we are going to need more water,” said state Sen. Stuart Adams, the Republican majority whip, who sponsored a bill to begin funding the estimated $1.5 billion project.

Excerpt from Utah Searches for Water Solution, Wall Street Journal, Sept. 14, 2017

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Whale Wars and 2017 Armistice

Sea Shepherd Conservation Society flag. Image from wikipedia

Environmental activists are abandoning their annual anti-whaling campaign in the Southern Ocean near Antarctica, saying Japan’s threat to defend its fleet is too daunting.  Capt. Paul Watson, the founder of anti-whaling group Sea Shepherd, said Japan’s threat to dispatch its military was unprecedented.“For the first time ever, they have stated they may send their military to defend their illegal whaling activities,” Capt. Watson said in a statement Tuesday. “The Japanese whalers not only have all the resources and subsidies their government can provide, they also have the powerful political backing of a major economic superpower.”

The Japanese embassy in Canberra, Australia, didn’t immediately respond to Sea Shepherd’s announcement, but it previously accused the group of sabotage and “acts of violence which seriously endangered the safe navigation of vessels.”  Some of Sea Shepherd’s tactics include ramming whaling vessels and throwing stink bombs onto the decks of Japanese ships. In January 2010, one of Sea Shepherd’s boats sank after a collision with a whaling vessel.

The group’s decision to suspend its campaign after 12 years leaves Japan’s fleet free to resume whaling through the coming Antarctic summer without disruption. Japan’s whaling fleet reported in 2016 killing 333 minke whales, with plans to cull about 4,000 whales over the next 12 years under a quota set by the Institute of Cetacean Research in Tokyo.

The International Whaling Commission put in place a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986. The next year, Japan embarked on a cull that it said was in the name of science, not commerce. Japan says it has a right to monitor whales’ impact on the fishing industry, though it also claims they are an important part of its cultural and culinary heritage.

Activists say scientific whaling is aimed at circumventing the 1986 ban.Last month, Japan’s Parliament passed a series of laws allowing for the protection of commercial whaling fleets. The International Court of Justice ruled against Japan in a scientific-whaling case in 2014.  Australia’s government condemned Japan’s new whaling laws in July 2017 saying they weren’t consistent with the 2014 ruling. Tokyo has withdrawn from the court’s jurisdiction with regard to whaling cases...

Capt. Watson said Sea Shepherd would resume anti-whaling efforts in the future, not only against the Japanese, but also in opposition to Norwegian, Danish and Icelandic whaling. “This is what we have been doing for 40 years,” he said.

Excerpts from  Foes of Whaling End Campaign, Wall Street Journal,  Aug. 30, 2017

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Policing the Amazon Jungle

Transamazon Highway, image from wikipedia

The small town of Apui sits at the new frontline of Brazil’s fight against advancing deforestation...  The home of 21,000 people in southern Amazonas state was long protected by its remote location from illegal loggers, ranchers and farmers who clear the forest.  Now those who would destroy the jungle are moving in from bordering states, following the Transamazon Highway, which is little more than a red-dirt track in this part of the rainforest.

First come the loggers, who illegally extract valued lumber sold in far-off cities. The cattle ranchers follow, burning the forest to clear land and plant green pasture that rapidly grows in the tropical heat and rain. After the pasture is worn out, soy farmers arrive, planting grain on immense tracts of land...

Roughly 7,989 square kilometres (3,085 square miles) of forest were destroyed in 2016, a 29 percent increase from the previous year and up from a low of 4,571 square kilometers in 2012, according to the PRODES satellite monitoring system.

Then there are the fires.  Apui ranked first in the country for forest fires in the first week of August 2017, according to the ministry.

At their best the environmental agents can slow but not stop the destruction. They raid illegal logging camps, levy large fines that are rarely collected and confiscate chainsaws to temporarily impede the cutting.  Costa acknowledges that the roughly 1,300 environmental field agents who police a jungle area the size of western Europe have a difficult task, at the very least.

Excerpt from Brazil’s agents of the Amazon fighting loggers, fires to stop deforestation, Reuters, Aug. 20, 2017

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Can’t See them but Can Feel them: data against fish poachers

Iceland ship versus UK ship at the third Cod War (image from Wikipedia)

Australia is at the forefront of efforts to combat poaching. Its patrol ships have chased illegal trawlers almost as far as South Africa, a distance of 4,600 miles, to stop the plunder of prized Patagonian toothfish—sold in the U.S. as Chilean sea bass.  Australian government scientists and Vulcan Inc., Mr. Allen’s private company, have developed a notification system that alerts authorities when suspected pirate vessels from West Africa arrive at ports on remote Pacific islands and South America.

The system relies on anticollision transponders installed on nearly all oceangoing craft as a requirement under maritime law. These devices are detectable by satellite.  A statistical model helps identify vessels whose transponders have been intentionally shut off. Other data identifies fishing boats that are loitering in risk areas, such as near national maritime boundaries...

“On one hand you can’t see them [if their transponder is switched off], but on the other it means they’ve just flagged themselves as avoiding surveillance, and as a risk indicator, that’s at the top of the list,” he said...

And a third of all fish sold in the U.S. is believed to be caught illegally. Seafood consumption in wealthy nations has soared in recent decades, increasing reliance on imports. Between 1980 and 2014, U.S. seafood consumption rose 60%, with imports now meeting 90% of the demand, according to Global Fishing Watch and the World Wildlife Fund....

Illegal fishing causes commercial losses of up to $23 billion a year world-wide, according to the U.N....

The researchers’ satellite-based tracking tool will begin operating in October 2017 and will be free to access. It was set up in response to a treaty aimed at eradicating illegal fishing that came into force on June 2016.The Agreement on Port State Measures...

China is the world’s largest seafood producer, followed by Indonesia, the U.S. and Russia. The most critical area for poaching is off the coast of West Africa, where illegal, unauthorized and unregulated fishing accounts an estimated 40% of fish caught, according to the World Ocean Review. Other areas of concern include the western and southern Pacific and the southwest Atlantic. Illegal trawlers contribute to overfishing that threatens marine ecosystems and food security in some of the poorest countries.

Last year, Argentina’s coast guard opened fire on and sank a Chinese trawler that was fishing illegally in its waters. South Korea’s coast guard fired on Chinese poachers several months later.  Australian authorities have said geopolitical tensions in the South China Sea, a rich fishing ground, may be driving more illegal fishing vessels into the South Pacific from China, Taiwan and Vietnam.

Excerpts from Trawling Scientists Find a Better Way to Reel In Illegal Fishing, Wall Street Journal, June 26, 2017

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The Mad Killing Spree: Rhinos in South Africa 2017

white rhinos image from wikipedia

According to news reports,  there appeared to be no letting up in the “relentless rhino poaching onslaught” in South Africa... The country...was on track to lose more than a thousand rhinos for the fifth straight year.
Unofficial kill figures show the country has lost 483 rhinos to poachers in the first five and a half months of 2017.

Excerpts from Poachers kill six rhino in one night in Hluhluwe-Imfolozi, DefenceWeb, July 5, 2017

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At Least Preserve Something

Pendjari National Park

Benin is hiring scores of extra park rangers and bringing in conservation scientists to rehabilitate part of West Africa's largest wildlife reserve, which contains big cats and thousands of elephants that have largely died out elsewhere in the region. The W-Arli-Pendjari (WAP) complex is the region's biggest remaining expanse of savannah, covering more than 30,000 sq km of Benin, Niger and Burkina Faso.

The tiny nation has partnered with NGO African Parks for the 10-year project centred on the 4,800 sq km Pendjari National Park, part of WAP and seen as the most viable tourist hub for the area, officials involved told Reuters.

"Pendjari is an opportunity for Benin and the region," Jose Pliya, director of Benin's national tourism agency, told Reuters. "This partnership will help us make it a sustainable tourism destination and a lever for development and employment for Beninoise."

Boosting ecotourism faces challenges, not least because jihadists are thought to have infiltrated parts of the wider reserve. France, former colonial master of the three nations straddling the park advised it citizens against all travel to the Burkina Faso side of the expanse.

To better police the park, the project will recruit 10 officers or specialists, train 90 guards, set up a satellite communications network and put a 190 km fence around it, a joint statement from African Parks and Benin said.

Excerpts from Moves to save part of west Africa’s last big wildlife refuge, Reuters, June 2, 2017

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The Final Development Frontier

glacial lake Tsho Rolpa, Nepal.

While India, Pakistan and China have all developed massive hydropower plants along the Himalayan mountains, Nepal’s civil war and political instability scared off investment for decades.  Now, thanks to an inclusive peace process that allowed the country’s main rebel leader to be elected prime minister twice, the focus is shifting to Nepal. Hydropower projects worth billions of dollars are in progress, with geologists and investors scouring the landscape for more.

Government surveys show Nepal’s abundant water resources can feasibly yield hydropower equal to more than 40% of U.S. output, a 40-fold increase from today. Officials project almost a third more hydropower capacity will come online this year. More than 100 projects under construction—over 40 since last year—and others in development will yield at least a tenfold increase in the next decade to 10 gigawatts of power, they say.

Nepal is ramping up its development of hydroelectric power plants in the Himalayas, but building in the region can be risky work. Photo: Brian Sokol for The Wall Street Journal  “There’s such an energy shortage that any project you build will find a market,” said Allard Nooy, CEO of InfraCo Asia, a development body funded by the U.K., Swiss and Australian governments that is financing one hydro project and seeking to develop two more.

Still, power companies don’t face an easy ride.  Among the hurdles are natural ones: earthquakes, landslides and inland tsunamis from glacial lakes as warmer temperatures prompt ice melt. Two years ago a series of massive quakes killed 9,000 people and shattered the country.

Opposition from environmental groups is another difficulty, especially for a new generation of dam projects. In the past, the World Bank and Japan’s Asian Development Bank have withdrawn support for projects amid opposition from environmental groups that say large dams can damage natural habitats like wetlands, threaten migratory fish stocks, and displace traditional farming communities.

Activists are concerned over the effects hydropower projects have on the environment and communities. Here are some of their top worries.

Displacement Dams flood valleys and in many cases require communities to abandon their land. A number of dam projects under consideration in Nepal would require whole villages to relocate.
Earthquakes A growing body of research suggests large dams can trigger quakes by adding pressure to areas near fault lines, a phenomenon known as “reservoir-induced seismicity.”
Wildlife Projects can disrupt the natural migration of fish and other river life. Environmentalists in Nepal are particularly concerned about the country’s small population of endangered Ganges River Dolphins.
Seasonal River-based hydropower projects, which are popular in Nepal, only generate electricity when water is flowing, making them less effective in the dry season. Dams can generate power in any season.

The greater stability has boosted momentum for rising investment in the Himalayas—a region dominated by Nepal, India and Bhutan that is considered the final development frontier in South Asia. Hydro energy projects are the biggest focus.  “The only resource we have, like the Arabian countries have oil, is water,” said Chhabi Gaire, project manager at the Rasuwagadhi Hydroelectric Project, a 1f11-megawatt plant under construction near China’s border.

Funding for projects is increasingly coming from Nepalese working abroad, says the Nepal Electricity Authority. Their remittances reached $6.7 billion in 2015, according to the World Bank, more than even Thai and South Korean workers abroad sent to their own countries.  Meanwhile, India’s cabinet approved $850 million in February to build a plant on Nepal’s Arun River that would export most of its energy to India. A month earlier, the Chinese-state owned China Three Gorges Company agreed to a joint venture with Nepal’s government to build a $1.6 billion hydropower plant on Nepal’s Seti River, also mainly for electricity export to India...

Workers on Nepal’s hydropower projects face sometimes deadly risks in the steep mountain valleys of the Himalayas such as landslides, falling boulders and flash floods...  [T] he 456-megawatt Upper Tamakoshi project, funded by a group of Nepal’s major banks and pension funds, is now under construction and set to open in mid-2018 with a reservoir to enable energy generation in the dry season.  It’s is also a risky project.

To the East the dangerous glacial lake Tsho Rolpa threatens to burst its banks. To the West, the Gongar river routinely spits boulders the size of two-story buildings over the valley wall. A bridge the developers built over the Gongar was swept away in a flash flood during monsoon season. Landslides triggered by quakes swept away swaths of the access road. To keep working, project developers built a steel truss bridge and drilled a new road tunnel through a collapsed valley wall.  Moreover, the project is built on such volatile terrain that the turbines and delicate transmission equipment were buried 460 feet beneath the surface.

Excerpts from In the Himalayas, a New Power Rises: Water, Wall Street Journal, May 18, 2017

 

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Looking Desperately for an Air Bridge

Land reclamation in Bingzhou Peninsula (formerly, island) of the Dongzui Bay ,Tong'an District, Xiamen, China. Image from wikipedia

The spring of 2017 50 million waterbirds will move from their winter homes in South-East Asia, Australia and New Zealand to their breeding grounds in Russia, Mongolia, northern China, the Korean peninsula, Japan and even Alaska. They rely on intertidal flats teeming with nourishing molluscs, worms and crustaceans, as well as plants, to supply the food that fuels their journeys.  Of the eight big flyways, the East Asian-Australasian is also the one displaying the sharpest decline in the number of birds. Of its 155-odd waterbird species, at least 24 are now globally threatened. They include the diminutive spoon-billed sandpiper, a wader whose numbers are down to fewer than 200 pairs.

Transiting one of the world’s most dynamic industrial regions is clearly taking a toll. Asia’s migratory waterbirds face immense pressures, from hunting, pollution, ingested plastic and competition from aquaculture. But the biggest disaster is the destruction of coastal way-stations. Since 1950 China has lost over half its coastal wetlands to “reclamation”. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the Yellow Sea, into which the Yellow River flows, has lost over 35% of intertidal habitat since the early 1980s. An especially destructive moment was the run-up to the Beijing Olympics of 2008, for which a lot of heavy industry was moved from the capital to the coast.

Xianji Wen, who works for the WWF, describes the Yellow Sea as a “bottleneck” for the whole flyway: so many waders pass through it that the loss of habitat there is particularly consequential. Four-fifths of Asia’s red knots, having wintered in Australasia, stop on their way north at one spot, Luannan, east of Beijing. The bar-tailed godwit flies non-stop from New Zealand to the Yellow Sea—over 6,000km. After recovering there, the species flies non-stop again to its breeding grounds in the extreme north of Russia.  Populations of both species have crashed by over a third, probably because of coastal development.....

There is a silver lining, however. The vast middle class created by the region’s breakneck growth is becoming interested in conservation...In China several hundred birdwatchers gather for the spring migration by the Yellow Sea near the North Korean border. And Mr Wen says that local governments in China increasingly take pride in the acclaim they win for conservation schemes—several work with the WWF. In 2016 China and New Zealand even signed an agreement—an “air bridge” between the two countries—to protect the habitat of the bar-tailed godwits, whose annual departure, Maori mythology holds, is for the homeland of the ancestors who first colonised New Zealand.

South Korea’s conservation movement is feeble. But the government of North Korea, by failing to develop the country, has inadvertently preserved a greater share of valuable waterbird habitats. It recently agreed to designate one as a protected site under the “Ramsar” international convention on wetlands....

Excerpt from Canaries in the Coal Fumes, Economist, Apr. 22, 2017

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Ecological Hooliganism: smashing the coral triangle

Giant clams are one of Buddhism’s “seven treasures”, along with gold and lapis lazuli. China’s new rich prize their shells as showy ornaments. Each can fetch as much as $3,000, so each haul was worth a fortune to the fishermen of Tanmen, a little fishing port on the island province of Hainan in Southern China.  But Chinese government banned the clam fishing...
The ban is surely welcome. [S]ome of the most biodiverse coral reefs on Earth have been destroyed in the South China Sea thanks to giant-clam poachers. In the shallow waters of the reefs, crews use the propellers of small boats launched from each mother-ship to smash the surrounding coral and thus free the clams anchored fast to the reef. Though the practice has received little attention, it is ecological hooliganism, and most of it has been perpetrated by boats from Tanmen.

The fishermen have not been the reefs’ only adversaries. China’s huge and (to its neighbours) controversial programme since late 2013 of building artificial islands around disputed rocks and reefs in the South China Sea has paved over another 22 square miles of coral. When the two activities are taken together, Mr McManus says, about 10% of the reefs in the vast Spratly archipelago to the south of Hainan, and 8% of those in the Paracel islands, between Hainan and Vietnam, have been destroyed. Given that Asia’s Coral Triangle, of which the South China Sea forms the apex, is a single, interconnected ecosystem, the repercussions of these activities, environmentalists say, will be huge...

But still..A few streets back from the waterfront in Tanmen, elegant boutiques sell jewellery and curios fashioned from the giant clams—and clam shells are still stacked outside. And the provincial money that is so clearly being lavished on Tanmen sits oddly with the illegality of its townsfolk’s way of life. .. [I] n 2013 President Xi Jinping himself showed up in Tanmen. Boarding one of the trawlers he declared to the crew, according to state media, “You guys do a great job!” The media did not report that a year earlier the trawler in question had been caught in the territorial waters of Palau, and in the confrontation with local police that followed one of the crew members had been shot dead. In Chinese propaganda, Tanmen’s fishermen are patriots and model workers.

Over the years Tanmen’s fishermen have become part of China’s power projection in the South China Sea, an unofficial but vital adjunct to the Chinese navy and coastguard. The biggest trawlers are organised into a maritime militia ready to fight a “people’s war” at sea. Though generally unarmed, they undergo training and take orders from the navy.

They are facts on the water, and have been involved in China’s growing aggression in the South China Sea. In 2012 boats from Tanmen were part of a navy-led operation to wrest control of Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines, chasing Philippine fishing vessels away. In 2014 they escorted a Chinese oil rig that was being towed provocatively into Vietnamese waters. On land, Vietnamese expressed their rage by ransacking factories they thought were Chinese-owned. At sea, boats from Tanmen rammed and sank one of the rickety Vietnamese vessels coming out to protest.

Mysteriously, though, the giant trawlers of the Tanmen militia are now rafted up, their crews sent home. Perhaps China is keen to lower tensions in the region....A policy introduced in January aims to cut the catch from China’s fishing fleet, the world’s largest, by a sixth, in the name of sustainability. That will hit Tanmen’s fishermen hard, making them less willing to defend China’s claims. Francis Drake would have understood: pirates are patriotic, but usually only when it pays.

Excerpts from Clamshell Phoneys, Economist, Mar. 25, 2017

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How to Become a Legal Person: World Rivers

Whanganui River, image from wikipedia

The new law that declares the Whanganui river, New Zealand’s third-longest, a legal person, in the sense that it can own property, incur debts and petition the courts, is not unprecedented. Te Urewera, an area of forested hills in the north-east that used to be a national park, became a person for legal purposes in 2014....

The law, which was approved on March 15th, 2017 stems from disputes over the Treaty of Waitangi, by which New Zealand’s indigenous Maori ceded sovereignty to British colonialists in 1840. The treaty was supposed to have protected Maori rights and property; it was observed mainly in the breach. In recent years the government has tried to negotiate settlements for breaches of the treaty with different Maori iwi, or tribes. For the Whanganui iwi, the idea of the river as a person is nothing new. The iwi professes a deep spiritual connection to the Whanganui: as a local proverb has it, “I am the river and the river is me.” The law acknowledges the river as a “living whole”, rather than trying to carve it up, putting to rest an ownership dispute that has dragged on for 140 years. When it was passed, members of the iwi in the gallery of parliament broke into a ten-minute song of celebration.

In practice, two guardians will act for the river, one appointed by the government and one by the iwi. Mr Finlayson, the minister in charge of negotiations tied to the Treaty of Waitangi, hopes the change will help bring those who do environmental damage to the river to book. Under the settlement the government will also pay the iwi NZ$80m ($56m) as compensation for past abuses and set up a fund of NZ$30m to enhance the “health and well-being” of the river. It is one of 82 deals that aim to remedy breaches of the treaty, including one with the Tuhoe iwi that made Te Urewera into a person.

Days after the law passed, an Indian court declared two of the biggest and most sacred rivers in India, the Ganges and Yamuna, to be people too. Making explicit reference to the Whanganui settlement, the court assigned legal “parents” to protect and conserve their waters. Local lawyers think the ruling might help fight severe pollution: the rivers’ defenders will no longer have to prove that discharges into them harm anyone, since any sullying of the waters will now be a crime against the river itself. There is no doubt that of the 1.3bn-odd people in India, the Ganges and the Yamuna are among the most downtrodden.

Excerpts from Hydrological Jurisprudence: Try me River, Economist, Mar. 25, 2017

See also Do Trees have Standing? by Christopher Stone