Frontline Dispatches – December 2020 Vol. II, No. 12
‘Blue carbon capture’ depends on big fish. Scientists report that leaving more big fish in the sea reduces the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere. Large fish such as tuna, sharks, mackerel and swordfish are about 10% to 15% “blue carbon”—carbon stored in the world’s ocean and coastal ecosystems. When a fish dies naturally, it sinks to the bottom with all the carbon contained within it. But this natural phenomenon has been severely disrupted by industrial fishing. The study—in Science Advances in November—shows that ocean fisheries have released at least 730 million metric tons of CO2 into the atmosphere since 1950, about 25% more than previously estimated. “Fishing boats sometimes go to very remote areas—with enormous fuel consumption—even though the fish caught in these areas are not profitable and fishing is only viable thanks to subsidies. The annihilation of the ‘blue carbon pump’ represented by large fish suggests new protection and management measures must be put in place, so that more large fish can remain a carbon sink and no longer become an additional CO2 source. We need to fish better.”
Just 5% more ocean reserves would produce 20% more food, report researchers at the University of California Santa Barbara. Now, just 2.4% of the oceans are set aside as MPAs, marine protected areas, nurseries for fish species. By mapping the distribution, life history, spillover potential and catch data for 1,338 commercially fished species, scientists showed that protecting only 5% more of the sea would increase global food fisheries by 9 to 12 million metric tons each year. Anthropocene ran the story on October 30.
The remote Tristan da Cunha islands in the South Atlantic—1,600 miles west of South Africa and 2,300 miles east of South America—are the center of the world’s newest MPA, a 265,347-square mile (687,245 sq km) marine sanctuary three times the size of the UK. This will protect tens of millions of seabirds, including albatrosses and penguins, as well as seals, sharks and whales. NatGeo.com reported the news on November 12.
Another marine environmental concern: seafood fraud. According to a November 16 report from Advanced Conservation Strategies, “seafood fraud”—mislabeled catch—is being recognized for its impacts on the marine environment. Approximately 60% of the mislabeled seafood sold just in the US (420 and 550 million pounds annually) involves wild-caught stock; the substitute products come from less-healthy fisheries with greater impacts on bycatch species.
The Arctic Ocean is undergoing ‘Atlantification,’ says an October 28 article in the online magazine The Conversation. The ice is now getting hit both from the top by a warming atmosphere and at the bottom by a warming ocean (see Animated Maps: Arctic Sea Ice Age Decline). The rapidly warming temperatures and ice loss are now changing the behavior of Arctic birds, according a November 6 paper in Science on November 6.
Super storms can be super-spreaders. The record-breaking 2020 Atlantic hurricane season, already notorious for damage, likely had another, less-known but still devastating impact: spreading invasive species to new habitats. The October 27 report on NatGeo.com focuses on the US but has global application.
In a circular pee-conomy, recycled urine could provide a solid fertilizer containing 10% nitrogen, 1% phosphorus and 4% potassium and, if implemented globally, replace nearly a quarter of the synthetic nitrogen fertilizer used in agriculture, report researchers at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in The Conversation on November 6.
Self-watering soil could transform farming says a Nov. 20 news release from the University of Texas at Austin, where engineers have formulated soil that can absorb water from cooler, humid air at night and then, in the heat of day, release it to plants. Each gram of soil can extract some 3-4 grams of water, so 0.1 to 1 kilo (2.2 lb) of the soil can provide enough water to irrigate about a square metre of farmland. “This could enable “free-standing” agriculture in areas where irrigation is unavailable or too costly.
North, South & Central America
Is Alaska’s Pebble Mine finally dead? The New York Times reported that on November 25, the proposal was denied a clean-water permit by the Army Corps of Engineers, “likely dealing a death blow to a long-disputed project that aimed to extract one of the world’s largest deposits of copper and gold ore, but which threatened breeding grounds for salmon in the pristine Bristol Bay region.” In July, the Corps had approved the mine’s Environmental Impact Statement, but a few weeks later, after outcry by environmentalists, Native American communities and the fishing industry, the Corps backtracked and asked for more information. The mining company may appeal the decision. (See also, in November Dispatches, “Secret Tapes Reveal Pebble Mine Dig Could Last 200 Years.”)
Facial recognition is a new bear-conservation tool in British Columbia. What started as an app that puts mustaches on dogs has developed into an intricate algorithm that was recently able to identify individual brown bears (“captured” digitally by cameras at research and bear-viewing sites) with 84% accuracy, a scientist from the University of Victoria told The New York Times last month. “BearID” is still in early stages of development, but the software has positive implications for First Nations’ bear stewardship and local ecotourism.
More than 40 game migration corridors have now been mapped in the western US, according to the US Geological Survey. The November 12 news release highlighted the need for better conservation and management of deer, elk, pronghorn antelope, moose and bison in the face of human population growth in states like Arizona, Idaho, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming. These migration maps will inform future land-use and stewardship decisions and should also help mitigate threats such as chronic wasting disease.
Wolves are ‘first responders’ against chronic wasting disease, a research project in Yellowstone National Park suggests. Wolf predation may delay outbreaks of fatal CWD in their prey species and can reduce the scope of disease outbreaks, per an article in The New York Times on November 12.
Future howls? Colorado does want wolves—barely. In one of Election Day’s tightest ballot contests, eight of the 11 Front Range counties—which are some of Colorado’s most urban—voted to reintroduce gray wolves by 2024, reported NPR on November 6. Opposition largely came from more rural districts, where ranchers fear livestock predation. Colorado is the first state to put the decision about wolf reintroduction into the hands of its citizens, a move dubbed “ballot box biology.”
The first high-res map of US land values, based on data from real-estate website Zillow, reveals an underestimation of the true costs of conservation, according to a November 13 news release from Boston University. The map and affiliated study lead to some daunting conclusions—for example, that the $4.5 billion earmarked for conservation in the Great American Outdoors Act will cover fewer goals than intended.
174,000+ acres of public land in Tennessee, Arkansas, North Carolina and Florida are landlocked inside private property and inaccessible for outdoor recreation, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership announced in late October. TRCP partnered with mapping company onX to identify these areas, and now a collaborative effort hopes to improve accessibility. Earlier this year, onX and TRCP released similar reports (see unlockingpubliclands.org) on the Upper Midwest and the Mid-Atlantic regions. To date, TRCP and onX have identified 16.43 million acres of inaccessible public lands across 22 states.
Alaska’s Tongass National Forest will in fact be opened to timber harvest, announced a federal notice on October 29. A Washington Post story points out that the Tongass is one of the “world’s largest intact temperate rainforests,” creating an ecosystem dubbed “the lungs of North America.” More than 9.3 million acres have been removed from protection.
A global initiative to conserve 30% of US lands and waters by 2030 has received support from a new coalition of 13 outdoor and sporting groups. An article on The Wildlife Society website reports growing support for the international movement, with benefits that will include carbon sequestration, recovery of plant and animal species, and recognition of the role fishing and hunting plays in conservation and connecting people with the outdoors.
5th-graders get extended free entry to public lands, compensating for the opportunities they lost as fourth-graders due to COVID-19. The Every Kid Outdoors Annual 4th Grade Pass program allows the nation’s fourth-graders and their families to explore parks, refuges and waters at no charge, but many of these places were closed by the pandemic in 2020. The Dept. of the Interior offers a link to download the free pass.
Some ash trees resist the devastating emerald ash borer, Science Magazine reports, and offer hope for the future. The Asian insect has destroyed most of North America’s ash trees in recent years, but forest geneticists hope to uncover the source of the immunity to the invasive pest that a few ash trees demonstrate.
After weeks of tracking, the first ‘murder hornet’ nest in the US was found—and eradicated—in a tree near the Canadian border in Washington after officials attached radio trackers to three trapped hornets, reported The New York Times on October 23. The giant Asian hornet, an invasive alien, can devastate honeybee populations.
41 conservation, hunting, fishing, outdoor recreation and landowner groups in the US have joined to urge Congress to pass bipartisan legislation that addresses climate change. (#OurLandWaterWildlife) Read the coalition statement here.
The American West has been both hot and dry—the perfect recipe for massive wildfires—and warm water in the Gulf of Mexico has helped fuel more tropical storms in the Atlantic Ocean than there are letters in the alphabet. If you’ve been ignoring climate change or hoping that it will just go away, now is a good time to pay attention. (These comprehensive reports appeared in The Conversation last month.)
The Wild Sheep Foundation will host Sheep Week online on January 11– 16 as an all-stakeholder, all-inclusive, total immersion event, with the opportunity to engage a significantly larger audience of hunter-conservationists than at an in-person show.
Wildlife can ride out hurricanes only if their ecosystems keep providing them with food, breeding habitat and protection from predation. Researchers from Mississippi State University have found that coastal development, with rising sea levels and larger tropical storms, make it increasingly difficult for marshes and the species that live in them to recover. Their report appeared in The Conversation on October 28.
Farmers are depleting the Ogallala Aquifer because the US government pays them to do it, says a University of Kansas scientist in The Conversation. Researchers found that federal subsidies (about $37.2 billion annually) put farmers on a treadmill, working harder to produce more for less return while draining one of the world’s largest groundwater sources, extending from South Dakota through the Texas Panhandle. “. . . the vast majority of farmers in the region want to save groundwater. They will need help from policymakers to do it.”
Alberta has made little progress on protecting or recovering caribou, despite their being listing as “threatened” under Canada’s Species At Risk Act since 2003. The Canadian and Alberta governments recently signed an agreement to work towards caribou conservation but, in his November 11 blog, Conservation Frontlines contributor Paul McCarney is pessimistic about the outcome.
A teenage Diana turns up in Peru’s Andes. A New York Times story and a report on ScienceMag.org in early November describe the discovery of a 9,000-year-old skeleton of a woman, “about 17–19 years old” and outfitted as a high-status hunter, during the excavation of an artifact-rich site at about 13,000 feet near Lake Titicaca. The find challenges the thinking that among paleolithic peoples, only men speared big game.
Also from Peru: ecologically responsible chocolate. Reportedly, demand for food from the tropics that meets environmental and social standards is rising sharply as consumers hear of low wages, child labor and environmental destruction. An October article in Trends in Ecology and Evolution describes a co-op of small farms in Peru earning organic and fair-trade certifications by cultivating native varieties of cocoa beans and making social and ecological improvements.
The world’s largest tropical wetland has become an inferno. Since last January, at least 22% of the vast Pantanal wetland in Brazil, home to exceptionally high concentrations of wildlife, has burned in wildfires worsened by climate change, reported The New York Times on October 13.
A sweeping climate model of the Red Sea will help guide the development of “sustainable megacities” along the shore. King Abdullah University of Science & Technology announced on November 16 that its scientists have combined knowledge of weather, oceans, waves, air pollution and marine ecosystems to create a comprehensive, supercomputer-driven climate model for the region. Saudi Arabia generates nearly one-fifth of its income from Red Sea-based tourism, shipping, agriculture and fishing and gets 90% of its fresh water from desalinated seawater.
No more than 80 Sumatran rhinos are believed to survive, scattered across isolated and fragmented habitats in Indonesia. An animated short film from Mongabay depicts the species’ slide toward extinction.
China’s Restoration Initiative promises to improve the health and management of State Forest Farms, which cover 8% of the country, or 77 million hectares (190 million acres). Traditional management of SFFs focused principally on wood production with little attention to ensuring ecosystem health; the initiative will consider ecological, social and economic impacts, said a senior forestry engineer in an IUCN interview on October 29.
Protecting the goitered gazelle in Central Asia is one of the priorities of SOS Central Asia. Four conservation projects across Kazakhstan support local action for sustainable management and habitat restoration, poaching prevention and mitigating the fragmentation of habitat by fences.
COVID-19 hurts permit prices in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province. Bids for hunting permits for four Kashmir markhor and 10 Himalayan ibex reportedly fell well below the record highs achieved in 2019. The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Wildlife Department therefore re-issued the public tender, due to open on November 24, in the hope of achieving better revenues.
A colossal coral reef popped up off Australia. While the country’s Great Barrier Reef is dying, scientists have discovered another massive coral reef just beyond it, off Cape York at the northern tip of Australia. At 500 metres (555 yards) from top to bottom, this previously unknown “detached” reef is taller than the Empire State Building. With a base about 1.5 kilometres (1 mile) wide, the reef tapers to a point just 40 metres, 150 feet, below the ocean surface. BBC News reported the find in late October, calling it the first discovery of its kind in 120 years; the Schmidt Ocean Institute has posted this dive video.
Switzerland pays citizens to promote biodiversity. A government program reimburses Swiss farmers for managing 7% of their lands as Biodiversity Promotion Areas—meaning they must use little or no artificial fertilizer and mow about once per year—to conserve the country’s tremendous plant diversity. Biodiversity and Conservation reported on the program in October.
Germany has 128 wolf packs, 35 pairs and 10 individual wolves, according to the latest census—significantly more than a year earlier. Wolves were detected in 15 of 16 federal states in 2019/20, reported Spektrum.de on October 30 (the article also features a detailed chart of wolf occurrence). A second article discusses the conflict potential of further expansion of wolves.
The Iberian lynx claws back from extinction as a result of a 20-year project that has seen their numbers rise to 855 across the peninsula, reported The Guardian on October 25. The latest phase of the Life Lynxconnect project has a budget of €18.8 million ($15.8 million), 60% of which comes from the EU.
Hunters in Germany harvested 882,231 wild boar in the 2019-20 season—47% more than during the previous season. The president of the German Hunting Association views this an important contribution toward fighting the African Swine Fever epidemic.
The return of large carnivores to Europe is a conservation success, but also raises coexistence challenges. On November 18, the European Parliament’s Biodiversity, Hunting, Countryside Intergroup held a conference titled “Coexisting with Large Carnivores: Next steps in conservation and management” with more than 360 online participants and a wide-ranging Q&A discussion. The proceedings and speakers’ presentations can be seen at this video recording.
The UK will ban sales of new gas and diesel cars in just nine years. BBC News carried the story in late November: “New cars and vans powered wholly by petrol and diesel will not be sold in the UK from 2030, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said.” Some hybrid-drive vehicles will still be allowed, however. The ban is part of the British government’s ambitious 10-point plan for a “green industrial revolution.” Top Gear magazine predicts that few Brits will want internal-combustion vehicles by then anyway.
Some 5,000 Cape fur seal fetuses have been found along the shores of Namibia by an Ocean Conservation Namibia researcher who flew a drone over Walvis Bay’s Pelican Point seal colony in early October. A Guardian article on October 15 notes that lack of food, disease and toxins are all possible causes, but there is not enough data yet to confirm the reason for the mass mortality.
Lake Tanganyika fishermen report a decline in fish, according to a story in ScienceDaily on November 4. Exploitation, pollution, poor management and unsustainable and illegal fishing methods put fish stocks under pressure. Lake Tanganyika, the second-largest freshwater lake in the world, lies in four countries: Democratic Republic of the Congo, Tanzania, Burundi and Zambia.
Illegal charcoal markets have erupted across eastern Zambia to supply urban families with fuel for cooking, leaving landscapes once rich with forests and wildlife depleted and poor (between 2013 and 2020, the region has lost 31%—518,119 h or 1.28 million acres—of its forest cover), reported the Zambian NGO COMACO in November. Efficient paraffin cookers could reduce energy needs and help Zambia keep its forests safe.
In Namibia, drilling two test oil wells smack on elephant migration routes between Mangetti and Khaudum national parks is set to begin this month. If ReconAfrica finds oil, the goal will be to drill “hundreds of wells” in the area and open at least some of them using “modern frac stimulations,” reported NatGeo.com on October 28.
African Parks manages 19 national parks in 11 Africa countries. The company’s business model relies on “three Ms,” explained CEO Peter Fearnhead in The Economist on October 22: a clear mandate from a government, sound management and money from donors such as the European Union. Zakouma National Park in southern Chad is NP’s flagship operation; in May, the company signed an agreement with the Central African Republic to extend its operations in the Chinko Wildlife Refuge; in July, AP announced it would expand in northern Benin and in October it agreed to manage Rwanda’s Nyungwe national Park.