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Japanese Fisheries Collapsed Due to Pesticides, New Research Says

Animals
Spraying chemicals on rice crop in Japan. Stockbyte / Getty Images

Scientists announced today that pesticide use on rice fields led to the collapse of a nearby fishery in Lake Shinji, Japan, according to a new study published in the journal Science.


The long-term study seems to have borne out the prophecy of Rachel Carson's seminal 1962 book Silent Spring, in which the author describes the nefarious trickle down effects of chemical pesticides that could "still the leaping of fish." While it is impossible to say that the use of pesticides caused the collapse of the fishery, the correlation is extremely strong.


The researchers looked at the degradation of the food chain around rice paddies after the introduction of the pesticide neonicotinoids in 1993 in Japan. The study showed an immediate decline in insect and plankton populations in Lake Shinji after the pesticide was sprayed in nearby rice fields, as The Guardian reported.

The decline in insects and plankton then led to the collapse of eel and smelt populations, which rely on the tiny insects for food. The scientists looked at other possible causes for the collapse of the smelt and eel fisheries, but those were all ruled out. The scientists say there is "compelling evidence" that neonicotinoids are the culprit, as The Guardian reported.

The pesticide has previously been linked to declines in pollinator populations. Researchers have found that it lowers the sperm count of bees and shortens their lifespan, as EcoWatch reported. Its role in colony collapse disorder and in declining butterfly populations caused the European Union to ban the world's most popular insecticide for all outdoor use in 2018, as Reuters reported.

Previous studies have also linked ripple effects of the pesticide's application to cause collapses of mayflies, dragonflies and snails. A Dutch study found that bird populations declined where the insecticide was sprayed. In that case, the absence of swallows, starlings and tree sparrows does not mean they were dying, but possibly moved to riper feeding grounds.

By contrast, the study is the first time a potential link has been shown between the insecticide and its effect on other animals, including vertebrates, according to a press release from the American Association for The Advancement of Science.

The year that the insecticide was first applied, 1993, coincided with an 83 percent decrease in the average amount of springtime plankton. A year later, the smelt harvest collapsed from 240 tons per year to just 22 tons in a single year, according to the study. Additionally, the midge, Chironomus plumosus, which smelt also feed on, was one of the worst affected bugs. It vanished completely from all 39 locations sampled in 2016, despite being abundant in 1982.

The researchers noted that Rachel Carson's book was prophetic. In their paper, The Guardian reported, the Japanese researchers said how "she wrote: 'These sprays, dusts and aerosols are now applied almost universally to farms, gardens, forests and homes – nonselective chemicals that have the power to kill every insect, the 'good' and the 'bad', to still the song of birds and the leaping of fish in the streams.' The ecological and economic impact of neonicotinoids on the inland waters of Japan confirms Carson's prophecy."

"This disruption likely also occurs elsewhere, as neonicotinoids are currently the most widely used class of insecticides globally," worth more than $3 billion per year, they said, as The Guardian reported.

The German company Bayer is the world's largest producer of neonicotinoids.

"The annihilation of humble flies and the knock on effects on fish serve as further testament to the dreadful folly of neonicotinoids," said Matt Shardlow, from the charity Buglife, to The Guardian. "Let's hope this is a wake-up call for Asian countries and they move to quickly ban the chemicals from paddyfields."

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"Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island," the police said in their official statement. "Police is working urgently to confirm the exact number of those who have died, further to the five confirmed deceased already."

The eruption happened on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island, an islet jutting out of the Bay of Plenty, off the country's North Island. The island is privately owned and is typically visited for day-trips by thousands of tourists every year, according to The New York Times.

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At the time of the eruption on Monday, about 50 passengers from the Ovation of Seas were on the island, including more than 30 who were part of a Royal Caribbean cruise trip, according to CNN. Twenty-three people, including the five dead, were evacuated from the island.

The eruption occurred at 2:11 pm local time on Monday, as footage from a crater camera owned and operated by GeoNet, New Zealand's geological hazards agency, shows. The camera also shows dozens of people walking near the rim as white smoke billows just before the eruption, according to Reuters.

Police were unable to reach the island because searing white ash posed imminent danger to rescue workers, said John Tims, New Zealand's deputy police commissioner, as he stood next to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a press conference, as The New York Times reported. Tims said rescue workers would assess the safety of approaching the island on Tuesday morning. "We know the urgency to go back to the island," he told reporters.

"The physical environment is unsafe for us to return to the island," Tims added, as CNN reported. "It's important that we consider the health and safety of rescuers, so we're taking advice from experts going forward."

Authorities have had no communication with anyone on the island. They are frantically working to identify how many people remain and who they are, according to CNN.

Geologists said the eruption is not unexpected and some questioned why the island is open to tourism.

"The volcano has been restless for a few weeks, resulting in the raising of the alert level, so that this eruption is not really a surprise," said Bill McGuire, emeritus professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, as The Guardian reported.

"White Island has been a disaster waiting to happen for many years," said Raymond Cas, emeritus professor at Monash University's school of earth, atmosphere and environment, as The Guardian reported. "Having visited it twice, I have always felt that it was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano by boat and helicopter."

The prime minister arrived Monday night in Whakatane, the town closest to the eruption, where day boats visiting the island are docked. Whakatane has a large Maori population.

Ardern met with local council leaders on Monday. She is scheduled to meet with search and rescue teams and will speak to the media at 7 a.m. local time (1 p.m. EST), after drones survey the island, as CNN reported.

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