How Changes in Our Diet Can Help Mitigate Climate Change
By Anne-Sophie Brändlin
October 16 marks World Food Day this year, a day celebrated every year by the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
World Food Day is a call to make healthy and sustainable diets affordable and accessible for everyone, while nurturing the planet at the same time.
But how can this be achieved?
One way, according to a new study, would be to introduce different ways for countries across the world to adapt their diets.
Researchers at the U.S. based Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future looked at diets in 140 countries across the world and measured the ecological impact of their food production in order to identify ways to mitigate climate change.
The study, called Country-specific dietary shifts to mitigate climate and water crises found that an important first step would be to shift Europe and the United States away from a diet heavy in meat and dairy.
But study co-author, Martin Bloem, notes that the solutions needed are not one-size-fits-all.
"The situation for poorer countries is not the same as for high-income countries and the solutions for high-income countries are much more straight-forward," Bloem said.
Why Meat and Dairy Are Bad for the Climate
Livestock are responsible for almost 15 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the FAO.
Cattle is the biggest culprit. Raised for both beef and milk, cows represent about 65 percent of the livestock sector's emissions, followed by pork (9 percent), buffalo milk (8 percent), and poultry and eggs (8 percent).
A byproduct of cow digestion is methane (CH4) and accounts for the majority of livestock emissions. The greenhouse gas is estimated to be at least 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
But livestock production is also responsible for other greenhouse gas emissions, such as nitrous oxide (N20) and carbon dioxide (CO2), mainly through the production of their feed, which often involves large applications of nitrogen-based fertilizers.
The Opposite Approach to Combat Hunger?
But with over 800 million people still going hungry every day, impact on the climate cannot be the only guide for what people eat, the study points out.
Animal source foods, specifically milk and eggs, are in fact a valuable source of protein and nutrients like calcium, which are especially important for young children and pregnant women.
"Some countries, such as Indonesia, India and most of the African countries may actually need to dramatically increase their greenhouse gas emissions and water use, because they have to combat hunger and stunting," Bloem said.
In these countries, there is still a 40 percent rate of stunting, a side effect of undernutrition that results in lower than average growth in children.
Stunting also has a major, long-term impact on the cognitive abilities of the children.
"It's irreversible by the age of two, so stunting has huge implications for the human capital in those countries. That's why it's very critical that we prevent stunting and we need animal source foods for that," Bloem said. "We cannot keep that out of the equation when talking about climate protection."
Another solution, according to Bloem, would be to fortify certain products, like cereal. This would help reduce the need to get nutrients through animal products. It's a practice already in use in many developed countries, but so far hasn't been applied in many poorer countries.
Fish Could Make All the Difference
Diets in which protein came predominantly from low food chain animals – such as small fish and mollusks – were found to have nearly as low of an environmental impact as a vegan diet.
"Small fish are really critical for poor people, particularly in Africa and Asia, as that's one of the main sources for protein and calcium, because the milk intake is very low in those countries," Bloem said.
"But 80% of all the fish produced nowadays actually comes from Asia and is imported in Europe and the US. And the feed for some of these bigger fish we import are actually those smaller fish, which means the poorer people have no more access to this vital source of protein and calcium."
Researchers also determined that a diet that reduced animal food consumption by two-thirds – termed by study authors as going "two-thirds vegan" – generally had a lower climate and water footprint than vegetarian diets that included eggs and diary, but not fish.
Where You Get Your Food From Matters
Researchers also found that local production wasn't always the best way to go from a climate perspective.
The production of one pound (0.45 kilograms) of beef in Paraguay, for instance, contributes nearly 17 times more greenhouse gases than one pound of beef produced in Denmark. Often, this disparity came from deforestation to create grazing land, according to the study.
"So a food's country of origin can have enormous consequences for the climate," Bloem said.
"In Europe the soil is much more fertile, for instance, which makes the production there more efficient. So trade could actually be good for the climate if food is produced in places where the climate impact is the lowest," Bloem said, adding that this is the case even when emissions from transportation are factored in.
The study concludes that middle- and low-income countries need to be guided and supported by developed countries to avoid environmental mistakes the planet is already paying for.
"It needs to be a close collaboration between developed and developing countries. It's a joint problem. We are all in this together," Bloem said.
Another way industrialized countries could reduce their impact on the climate is reducing food waste — one-third of all food produced worldwide ends up in the bin, with Europeans on average throwing away 95 kilograms (209 lbs) of food per person, per year. In low-income African countries south of the Sahara, it's only 6 kilograms (13 lbs).
Context Is Key
But despite the findings, one key conclusion of the report is that there aren't always straight-forward answers, according to Bloem.
"That's why we conducted analyses in all these different countries so that you can see what the most optimal way is for each individual country – but also the entire world to deal with diets and health criteria, as well as climate and sustainability," he said.
In the end, the study came up with nine plant-forward diets, ranging from no red meat to pescatarian (a vegetarian diet that includes seafood), lacto-ovo vegetarian (a vegetarian diet that includes dairy and eggs), to vegan, which are to be presented to policymakers in each country.
At the same time, the study urges people in the Western world to do more.
Baby boomers in the developed world, for instance, on average spend less than 10% of their income on food, while the same generation in countries like Nigeria, Kenya or Bangladesh spends 50 to 60% of their income on food, according to Bloem.
"For us in the Western world, we can pay more for our food so that we can pay for the unintended consequences."
Reposted with permission from our media associate Deutsche Welle.
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By Jessica Corbett
From fake oil spills in Washington, D.C. and New York City to a "people mural" in Seattle spelling out "Defund Line 3," climate and Indigenous protesters in 50 U.S. cities and across seven other countries spanning four continents took to the streets on Friday for a day of action pushing 20 banks to ditch the controversial tar sands pipeline.
"Against the backdrop of rising climate chaos, the continued bankrolling of Line 3 and similar oil and gas infrastructure worldwide is fueling gross and systemic violations of human rights and Indigenous peoples' rights at a global scale," said Carroll Muffett, president of the Center for International Environmental Law.
"It's time for the big banks to recognize that they can and will be held accountable for their complicity in those violations," Muffett added. His organization is part of the Stop the Money Pipeline coalition, more than 150 groups that urge asset managers, banks, and insurers to stop funding climate destruction.
#Line3 is being built through Indigenous territory without consent. If built, Line 3 would release as much greenhou… https://t.co/Qla18Rhnmm— Mark Ruffalo (@Mark Ruffalo)1620396780.0
The global protests on Friday follow on-the-ground actions that have, at times, successfully halted construction of Canada-based Enbridge's Line 3 project, which is intended to replace an old pipeline that runs from Alberta, through North Dakota and Minnesota, to Wisconsin. The new pipeline's route crosses Anishinaabe treaty lands.
Simone Senogles, a Red Lake Anishinaabe citizen and organizer for Indigenous Environmental Network, declared that "no amount of greenwashing and PR can absolve these banks from violating Indigenous rights and the desolation of Mother Earth."
"By giving credit lines to Enbridge, these institutions are giving the oil company a blank check to attack Anishinaabe people, steal our lands, and further guide this planet into climate chaos," Senogles said. "Those who financially back Enbridge are directly implicated in its crimes. To put it bluntly, blood is on their hands."
The Stop the Money Pipeline coalition launched the #DefundLine3 campaign in February. At the time, Tara Houska — a citizen of Couchiching First Nation, tribal attorney, and founder of the Giniw Collective — wrote for Common Dreams:
It is my duty as an Anishinaabe woman that compels me to support people in taking direct action to stop the construction of Line 3. Direct action, like when Water Protectors recently locked themselves inside a section of pipe, blockaded the entrances to construction sites, and locked themselves to trucks being used to carry Line 3 pipeline materials.
It is from this sense of duty that I am asking you to join us in this campaign. Together, I know that we can do this. Throughout history people-powered movements have changed the world. And they sure as hell can stop Line 3.
Appearing on Democracy Now! Friday, Jackie Fielder of Stop the Money Pipeline noted that "Line 3 would result in an additional 193 million tons of greenhouse gases every single year, and it violates Indigenous rights of the Anishinaabe people and their right to free, prior, and informed consent."
WATCH 📺 Our very own @JackieFielder_ on @democracynow this morning talking about our Global Day of Action. The 2… https://t.co/JI5SkkPMkO— Stop the Money Pipeline (@Stop the Money Pipeline)1620397129.0
While critics of Line 3 continue to call on U.S. President Joe Biden to intervene and block the pipeline, activists also hope that increasing pressure on banks could quash not only this project but others like it.
"Wall Street may think it can keep profiting off disrespect for Indigenous rights and desecration of the natural world, but it needs to think again," said Moira Birss, climate and finance director at Amazon Watch. "From the Kichwa in the Amazon to the Anishinaabe in Minnesota, Indigenous peoples and their allies are ramping up resistance, and we will hold accountable the financial enablers of this destruction."
As 350.org co-founder Bill McKibben explained: "Let's just say it straight. These banks are trying to profit off the end of the world, and the ongoing desecration of Indigenous land. History will judge them for it, but we're trying to speed up the process."
Activists and supporters shared updates from the protests on social media:
Today we smeared fake oil over @WellsFargo. The bank is one of the world's biggest climate criminals. It is making… https://t.co/sW7Ttj6iFl— Extinction Rebellion Washington DC (@Extinction Rebellion Washington DC)1620404699.0
Line 3 is being built through Indigenous territory without consent. We're here in Minneapolis with @MNIPL to deman… https://t.co/ghxjlBm4b8— MN350 (@MN350)1620399831.0
BREAKING: we’re outside @wellsfargo in London calling for them to pull their money out of a climate wrecking tar sa… https://t.co/QLOXnk6gr0— Fossil Free London (@Fossil Free London)1620385988.0
"Nearly every major U.S. bank has now promised that they will align their business with the Paris agreement," noted Alec Connon, Stop the Money Pipeline coalition co-coordinator. "But the fact that those exact same banks are continuing to bankroll a tar sands oil pipeline that is completely incompatible with the Paris agreement and curtailing climate chaos shows just how hollow their promises are."
The 2015 Paris agreement's more ambitious goal is to limit global temperature rise to 1.5˚C by the end of the century. However, based on nations' current plans to cut planet-heating emissions, the world is on track to hit 2.4˚C of warming by 2100, according to a projection published earlier this week by the Climate Action Tracker.
Osprey Orielle Lake, executive director of Women's Earth and Climate Action Network, asserted that "financial institutions must be held accountable for their role in financing the destruction of the climate, the violation of Indigenous rights, escalating harms to public health during a pandemic, and increased rates of violence toward Indigenous women living near 'man camps' associated with pipeline construction."
"In solidarity with Indigenous leaders, we are calling for fossil fuel divestment to protect the water and climate, and the health and survival of Indigenous communities," she said. "As multiple crises in 2021 proliferate, business as usual must not and cannot continue."
"Now is the time for financial institutions to align with the Paris agreement, respect human rights, divest from Line 3 and planet-wrecking companies, and instead invest in our communities, renewable energy, and a regenerative economy," she added. "There is no time to lose!"
Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.
Much of what we've been able to learn about the underwater world has built on the legacy of underwater explorer and pioneer Jacques Yves Cousteau. In 1943, Cousteau invented the aqua-lung, which completed his self-contained underwater breathing apparatus (SCUBA). This technology forever changed how humans interact with the blue world and remains the precursor of modern-day scuba diving equipment.
Cousteau's eldest grandson, Fabien, was born to continue his grandfather's legacy. Fabien learned to scuba dive on his fourth birthday and joined his famous grandfather on his legendary ships, the Calypso and Alcyone. Now, the younger Cousteau is following in his grandfather's footsteps and bubbles, taking the ocean exploration and conservation he grew up with and giving it a modern, technology-driven, community-focused revamp.
EcoWatch recently joined Fabien and members of his team at the Fabien Cousteau Ocean Learning Center (FCOLC) on marine debris cleanup dives in the Florida Keys. Funded and organized by the "Goal: Clean Seas Florida Keys" program, the program is a partnership between the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation and Blue Star Diving Operators, who are trained in the best practices for marine debris removal. The community-led collaboration grew out of the devastating aftermath from Hurricane Irma in Sept. 2017, which displaced approximately 154,000 lobster traps, many of which were dragged across sensitive ocean habitats for up to 15 miles. In its first year alone, trained operators helped remove more than 10,000 pounds of marine debris from sanctuary waters. Now in its third year, the program teamed up with locals from the Florida Keys and the FCOLC team to spread ocean awareness and remove traps from local coral reefs.
During a clean-up dive, Fabien Cousteau and Jesus Gudino use lift bags to bring derelict lobster traps up from the seafloor. Tiffany Duong / Ocean Rebels
While helping the environment, EcoWatch took the opportunity to interview aquanaut and ocean conservationist Fabien about all things ocean.
EcoWatch reporter Tiffany Duong (far right) joins Fabien Cousteau and FCOLC members Martín Molina Castellnon and Pamela Fletcher for a marine debris clean-up. Tiffany Duong / Ocean Rebels
Tiffany Duong (EcoWatch): First, how much debris did we take off the reefs today?
Fabien Cousteau: 664.8 pounds — we smashed the old record!
Fabien Cousteau removes rope tangled around a coral reef in the Florida Keys. Tiffany Duong / Ocean Rebels
EW: Why oceans? What's the appeal?
FC: When one has experienced the ocean world, it's impossible to turn your back on it. It's a privilege and a responsibility to share the adventure and the passion with other... And, I love it. I'm addicted to oceans.
EW: What is your favorite thing about the oceans?
FC: The sense of being, the sense of community. The sense of tranquility that it gives. The fact that it gives us everything that we require as well as the things that make us — the intangibles that give us our humanity.
EW: How do you remember your grandfather?
FC: I had the luck of spending the first 30 years of my life with my grandfather around. For years, maybe the first decade and a half, I just saw him as my grandfather. We would see him in family gatherings, whether in the field or at home. He would tell us stories. He would be how I imagine most grandparents are — very interested in their grandchildren and spending time with them. It wasn't until we were in a Japanese restaurant in New York City one day and people kept coming up to our table to interrupt our family time asking for him to sign things that I realized our grandfather wasn't just for us. We were sharing him with the world. And that's when I realized — very naïve of me — what an iconic public figure he was, especially for the ocean world.
Fabien Cousteau is pictured with his pioneering grandfather, Jacques Yves Cousteau. Fabien Cousteau
EW: Why should others care about the oceans?
FC: Without the oceans, we're a brown rock in space like all the others. The oceans set our planet apart and allow us to survive and thrive. We share the planet with all kinds of sentient beings. To envision a better future, we have to live in symbiosis with all of them.
EW: What's the current state of the planet?
FC: We're facing a terminal illness if we don't do something. It's not trite to say that... As a species, we are directly responsible for our very own future. We're the only species that can do that, that can determine its own future. And that's the most fundamentally important thing everyone needs to understand.
Fabien Cousteau is an aquanaut, ocean advocate and conservationist. Carrie Vonderhaar
EW: You're not just taking this sitting down. Tell us about the Fabien Cousteau Ocean Learning Center and what you're trying to do.
FC: The mission is to educate, empower and engage. It's based on a quote my grandpa told me as a kid: People protect what they love, they love what they understand, and they understand what they're taught. The only way we're getting out of this is if we fill the proverbial bucket together one drop at a time — one action at a time. We're all responsible for what we see today, so the solution isn't from one source like myself or an individual doing their best, it's all of us pitching in.
EW: What does that look like for you and FCOLC?
FC: We all need to do our part and invest in ocean protection, conservation and science. Our Nicaragua program is a great example of all three.
(Editorial Note: Per FCLOC Nicaragua Program Manager Pamela Fletcher and Operations Manager Martín Molina Castellnon, the Nicaragua program addressed three phases, and involves mangrove restoration and sea turtle conservation.)
- Phase 1 involved the local and indigenous communities in mangrove restoration. As a critical blue carbon sink, mangroves sequester more carbon than any other plant or tree, Fabien noted.
- Phase 2 evolved into the current sea turtle conservation project. Nesting beaches of several species are patrolled, and nests are protected from poachers. Eggs are then relocated to guarded hatcheries, and the community and local university students are empowered to create a future in conservation and science.
- Phase 3, which has already started, will grow to include the empowerment of local women and girls. In transitioning the conservation program management to them, they take on the responsibility of protecting sea turtles and spreading awareness to their local communities. This builds the foundation for girls to envision a future in conservation and STEM. Girls and women also learn the tools for making conservation a viable business that can sustain them and their families.
Pamela Fletcher: Our biggest success is the shift we're seeing in how [the girls helping with the sea turtle program] value themselves in the community and value protecting these amazing species.
Martín Molina Castellnon: In Nicaragua, these things are all managed by men, and we transitioned them to be women. It's taken off like a rocket. One little girl who's only eight years old has been in the program for two years, and she collects plastics, brings them to school and tells her friends about what's happening in the oceans. She's our future pioneer.
FC: She's a trailblazer.
MMC: Women empowerment has really changed their lives. And, it's made a big difference in the community.
Proteus is a new prototype underwater research station that could revolutionize how research is conducted and what it can uncover. Yves Béhar / Fuseproject
EW: Now, tell me about Proteus.
(Editorial Note: Proteus is a conceptual underwater research station that Fabien hopes will change how underwater research is tackled. It will be the world's largest and most advanced underwater habitat located 60 feet below the surface in Curaçao. The goal is for it to be completely modular and customizable, run by renewable energy and filled with cutting-edge technology.)
FC: This is a very large project. Proteus will be like the International Space Station of the sea. That was by design, and it's meant to give people that image because a lot of science will be coming out of it. Educational components and broadcasting will be for the social good, for the benefit of humanity and the planet. Underwater habitats are the missing tool in underwater exploration. It doesn't take away from ships, ROVs, probes, scuba, etc. — it's something that fills a big gap we currently have.
EW: What gives you hope?
FC: What's exciting to me is that we know so little about the oceans. We've explored only five percent. That's a huge opportunity. But, we also need to understand we're having a huge impact on our oceans, too. We're treating it as a garbage can, but really, it's a closed-loop system that we're banking on. Now, that bank account is going bankrupt, so we need to fill it back up.
EW: Any advice to those reading?
FC: Protect the ocean as if your life depended on it — because it does.
Locals joined Fabien Cousteau and his team from the FCOLC for a marine debris cleanup dive in the Florida Keys. Tiffany Duong / Ocean Rebels
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More evidence has emerged that humans have been altering the environment for much longer than the current climate crisis.
A new study published in Science Advances Wednesday found evidence that humans used fire to change the landscape around Lake Malawi in Africa as early as 92,000 years ago.
"This is essentially what we call the earliest anthropogenic landscape on Earth," study coauthor and University of Oslo archeology professor David Wright said in a press release.
The finding was the result of a collaboration between scientists who study ancient ecosystems and scientists who study ancient humans, Scientific American explained. In 2018, Pennsylvania State University paleoecologist and study coauthor Sarah Ivory published a study on climate conditions around Lake Malawi over the past 636,000 years. Pollen, fossil, and sediment records showed that forests would grow around the lake during wet periods and disappear during dry periods. This remained unchanged until around 86,000 years ago. At this point, the forest returned briefly during the wet period, only to suddenly fade and shift into grassland along with some fire resistant tree species.
Yale University paleoanthropologist Jessica Thompson was also working around Lake Malawi. She told Ivory about a spike in human artifacts around 92,000 years ago, suggesting that humans had moved to the area. Investigating further, the researchers found increasing evidence of charcoal deposits in cores drilled from the lake bed following human arrival. Could humans have burned down the forests and permanently altered the vegetation?
"Hunter-gatherers who go after hooved mammals can find it hard to hunt prey when it's in a closed tree environment. So we suspect the humans who arrived in the Karonga district [around Lake Malawi] started burning down the forest to open the landscape for hunting," Wright explained in the University of Oslo release. "It may also have provided new foods like starchy tubers that like to grow in open areas."
There are other possible explanations, Thompson acknowledged in a Yale University press release. It is possible that the fires were not lit intentionally, but were started accidentally. The charcoal could just come from smaller fires lit for cooking or warmth.
But, either way, it shows that humans have long had a transformative impact on their environments.
"One way or another, it's caused by human activity," Thompson told Yale. "It shows early people, over a long period of time, took control over their environment rather than being controlled by it. They changed entire landscapes, and for better or for worse that relationship with our environments continues today."
Though it dates from the earliest point, the study is not the first to present data that hunter-gatherers altered landscapes with controlled burns. Other evidence has emerged from 50,000 years ago in Borneo, 45,000 years ago in New Guinea and 40,000 years ago in Australia, Scientific American pointed out.
For Wright, this may set back the date for the Anthropocene — the term for when human presence and activity altered the geologic record. On local levels, Wright says, this process began tens of thousands of years ago.
"Wherever humans are, we transform landscapes because of our natural vulnerabilities as a species," Wright told the University of Oslo. "We cannot manage landscapes without changing them."
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By Brett Wilkins
The critical importance of reducing global methane emissions, including those generated by the fossil fuel industry, is more significant than previously understood, according to a report published Thursday by the United Nations Environment Program.
The new global methane assessment concludes that slashing a pollutant that is 84 to 87 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period is a crucial step needed to tackle the climate emergency.
According to the report, cutting methane emissions dramatically is relatively inexpensive and could be accomplished by repairing leaking fossil fuel pipelines, preventing natural gas venting during drilling, capturing gas emitted by landfills, and reducing animal agriculture.
"Reducing human-caused methane emissions is one of the most cost-effective strategies to rapidly reduce the rate of warming and contribute significantly to global efforts to limit temperature rise to 1.5°C," an executive summary of the report states, referring to the more ambitious goal of the Paris climate agreement.
"Available targeted methane measures, together with additional measures that contribute to priority development goals, can simultaneously reduce human-caused methane emissions by as much as 45%, or 180 million tonnes a year (Mt/yr), by 2030," the summary continues. "This will avoid nearly 0.3°C of global warming by the 2040s and complement all long-term climate change mitigation efforts."
"It would also, each year, prevent 255,000 premature deaths, 775 000 asthma-related hospital visits, 73 billion hours of lost labor from extreme heat, and 26 million tonnes of crop losses globally," it adds.
In a statement announcing the new report, UNEP Executive Director Inger Andersen said that "cutting methane is the strongest lever we have to slow climate change over the next 25 years and complements necessary efforts to reduce carbon dioxide."
Methane pollution is fueling the #ClimateCrisis, & the latest data from @CCACoalition and @UNEP shows that global m… https://t.co/SFO6qqiqSX— Climate Nexus (@Climate Nexus)1620331440.0
As Common Dreams reported last month, a study published by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration revealed that both carbon and methane emissions rose in 2020 to levels unseen on Earth for more than three million years, despite the temporary reduction in global emissions due to the coronavirus pandemic.
"The benefits to society, economies, and the environment are numerous and far outweigh the cost," Andersen said Thursday. "We need international cooperation to urgently reduce methane emissions as much as possible this decade."
"It is absolutely critical that we tackle methane and that we tackle it expeditiously," she stressed.
Environmental groups weighed in on the new report, with Center for Biological Diversity population and sustainability director Stephanie Feldstein noting the impact of animal agriculture on methane emissions.
"Methane from meat and dairy production has been ignored for far too long even though it's a leading source of climate pollution," Feldstein said in a statement. "Americans eat three times the global average of meat. We can't lower methane emissions with unproven half-measures that cater to the ag industry. We have to reduce meat consumption and production if we're going to effectively address agricultural methane."
Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.
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By Nika Paposhvili
The wide-ranging sea duck known as the velvet scoter can be found in the skies and waters of nearly a dozen European and Asian countries, but it has almost disappeared from some of them. Just a few years ago, it was thought that the geographically isolated breeding population of these birds in the Caucasus was completely extinct. But a study conducted on the Javakheti plateau in 2017 revealed that Lake Tabatskuri in Georgia still holds a small breeding population of just 25-35 pairs. The long-term survival of this tiny population remains in serious jeopardy.
Velvet scoter or velvet duck (Melanitta fusca)
The velvet scoter is a medium-sized, stocky diving duck. The name comes from the velvety plumage of a male bird. The orange bill and light-blue eyes, with a tiny white mark under the eye, make it even more fascinating during mating season.
Where It's Found:
The breeding population of velvet scoter has disappeared in Armenia and Turkey, and nesting is now confined to just one site in the entire Caucasus: Lake Tabatskuri. This beautiful lake is in the Javakheti plateau region of southern Georgia, 2,000 meters (6,500 feet) above sea level. A small island in the northern part of the lake is now the birds' only natural breeding place in the region.
A velvet scoter duckling on Lake Tabatskuri, Georgia, which harbors the last breeding population of the species in the Caucasus. Nika Paposhvili. Used with permission.
IUCN Red List Status:
The velvet scoter is classified as vulnerable and is considered to be decreasing worldwide, with a three-generation decline estimated at 32-46%. However, the Caucasian geographically isolated population is in much more trouble and is a critically endangered species regionally.
Nesting sites have been lost or disturbed through habitat degradation to irrigate adjacent agriculture land, as well as hay cutting on peninsulas and islands in the lakes. Additional factors that led to diminished numbers in the Caucasus include eutrophication (caused by agricultural intensification and wastewater), disturbances by boats, overfishing and bycatch, illegal hunting, removal of eggs by locals for food, and duckling and egg predation by Armenian gulls (Larus armenicus) that compete with the scoters for nesting sites. It is therefore crucial to protect these last remaining ducks before the species is completely wiped out.
Velvet scoter vs. Armenian Gull. Photo: Nika Paposhvili. Used with permission.
They still face some of the threats that led to their decline, with predation on ducklings by Armenian gulls having the greatest impact. This problem is compounded by the fact that numbers of Armenian gulls have dramatically increased in recent years — likely due to the easily accessible food at landfills as more human settlements have been established. Despite attempts by the brood-hen to deter attackers, most of the ducklings (roughly 60-70%) currently become victims in the few days after they hatch.
Notable Conservation Program(s) or Legal Protections:
Conservation actions to ameliorate conditions have already been initiated under our Conservation Leadership Programme project. As a result of raising awareness among local people and involving them in the project, anthropogenic factors (hunting, collecting eggs on the island, disturbance by boats in the feeding area) have been significantly reduced. But competition between species on the nesting grounds and gull predation on the scoter ducklings remain major problems, and we're now working to find appropriate ways to solve these problems. At the same time, we are working to form a long-term conservation action plan for the successful conservation of the breeding population.
My Favorite Experience:
It was a rainy, windy cold day when I first got to Lake Tabatskuri and set myself and my telescope up for birdwatching, looking for these rare birds. The rain was hitting me in the face, wetting the telescope and restricting my vision. Everything was against me, but I would not give up and stubbornly looked for a black duck in the raging waves, trying not to miss any part of the lake.
Finally, where I least expected it, in the one bay near to the village, I spotted a small flock of velvet scoter riding on the waves. It was a joy and at the same time a great assault on my emotions, hard to describe in words — like the feeling a father has when he first sees his first child.
I do not know how long I stood there, shell-shocked, before a local passerby found me and took me to her house to bring me back to reality.
What else do we need to understand or do to protect this species?
Lethal or nonlethal control of the gull population would have a positive impact on the scoters' reproductive success. However, a more detailed study is still needed before making this decision.
Nika Paposhvili has been obsessed with birds since childhood. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in business and administration and then worked at a bank for several months, but the dull experience convinced him to return to birds. He is now a Ph.D. student in the Faculty of Natural Sciences at Ilia State University, working on waterfowl and actively involved in their conservation in Georgia.
Reposted with permission from The Revelator.