Losing Wild Fish Would Be a Nuisance in Some Places, a Health Crisis in Others
By Amy McDermott
Local, wild seafood is essential for global health. Around the world, more than 3 billion people rely on fish as a substantial part of their diet. Nearby fisheries offer vitamins and minerals otherwise unavailable in poor coastal areas.
But local seafood, and the nutrients it provides, is at risk. More than half of wild fisheries are threatened. Without seafood, many coastal communities would lose access to key nutrients, leading to chronic illness.
"There's a large proportion of the planet, where losing access to seafood will drive people further and further into undernutrition," said Chris Golden of Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health, "derailing much of global progress in food security."
Fishermen clean their catch in San Pedro, Belize. Oceana / A. Ellis
A Global Need
Fish is a staple in dozens of countries according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N. The majority are developing nations, where coastal people often turn to fish as their main source of essential micronutrients like zinc, iron and iodine, that the body needs in small amounts for proper development.
In Bangladesh, for example, whole small fish are a major source of vitamin A. Madagascar's coastal Vezo people rely on wild seafood for the majority of their diet, said economist Andrés Cisneros-Montemayor with the Nereus Program at the University of British Columbia. Coastal indigenous peoples eat 15 times more seafood per capita than non-indigenous populations, and often live in remote areas, far from grocery stores, he added. Without seafood, many of these communities wouldn't have zinc, iron and other essential micronutrients. Chronic health problems would likely plague such remote and rural areas, researchers say, if fish disappeared.
Prevention is key because micronutrient deficiency is hard to recognize. It's an insidious kind of malnutrition often called hidden hunger. "In the vast majority of cases, you'd never be able to look at someone and know if they were deficient," Golden said. "It's in the details of their blood that you gain understanding of this."
More than 2 billion people suffer from micronutrient deficiencies worldwide, and so face an elevated risk of disease. Many more would be afflicted without wild fish.
A woman holds a fish at market in Moalboal, Philippines. Oceana / Jenn Hueting
Wealth and Access
Dig into the connections between wild fisheries and food security, and patterns start to emerge.
In wealthy nations like the U.S. and Japan, offshore fisheries could collapse, and plenty of people wouldn't even notice. Grocery stores and restaurants would absorb the shock by importing fish from somewhere else.
Most of the fish that Americans eat aren't local or wild anyway, said fisheries scientist Eddie Allison at the University of Washington in Seattle. And if people can't get hold of fish, "there are plenty of other things to eat," he said.
Less affluent countries have fewer options. People will respond in one of several ways, depending on their access to nourishing food, and its cost, Golden said.
In places like Madagascar, where cheap and nutritious alternatives to wild fish are hard to find, many people would suffer from zinc, iron and vitamin A deficiencies. Other countries, like Brazil, Mexico and Pacific island nations, are already turning away from traditional diets, to cheap fast food. Collapsing fisheries would only accelerate the transition. Fish farming could temper nutrient deficiencies and worsening diets in some places, like Bangladesh, Thailand and Vietnam, Allison said, but not everywhere.
Divisions exist inside countries, not just between them, said Cisneros-Montemayor. "Even within countries, there are segments that are much more vulnerable than the rest," he said. Towns fringing the coast tend to rely most heavily on fisheries, especially in developing nations.
Some of these are indigenous communities, in remote areas. They need seafood for nutrition and often as a connection to their cultural heritage, Cisneros-Montemayor said. Familiar issues of access and cost dictate how they can respond when fisheries change. "In many places there are just no stores, or the roads are bad," he explained. When stores do come to very rural areas, like the Canadian Arctic, "a liter of orange juice is, like, $20."
Fishermen unload their boat in Ramena, Madagascar. Oceana / LX
Wealthy and impoverished regions will have very different responses to a changing ocean. But no coast exists in isolation; the sea touches them all.
Fishing has globalized in the last century. Now, wealthy countries send their fleets around the world, often taking fish off the coasts of developing nations. That's not necessarily a bad thing, Allison said. It depends what foreign fleets are catching, and if they help or hurt local economies.
It's hard to tell the extent to which wealthy nations drive developing nations into fisheries decline, Cisneros-Montemayor added. But it would be foolhardy to think of rich and poor as separate. "When it comes to seafood, the whole world is connected," he said. "And unfortunately, it's always the poorest people who suffer the biggest impacts."
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By Emily Grubert
Natural gas is a versatile fossil fuel that accounts for about a third of U.S. energy use. Although it produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants than coal or oil, natural gas is a major contributor to climate change, an urgent global problem. Reducing emissions from the natural gas system is especially challenging because natural gas is used roughly equally for electricity, heating, and industrial applications.
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What RNG Is and Why it Matters<p>Most equipment that uses energy can only use a single kind of fuel, but the fuel might come from different resources. For example, you can't charge your computer with gasoline, but it can run on electricity generated from coal, natural gas or solar power.</p><p>Natural gas is almost pure methane, <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/" target="_blank">currently sourced</a> from raw, fossil natural gas produced from <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/where-our-natural-gas-comes-from.php" target="_blank">deposits deep underground</a>. But methane could come from renewable resources, too.</p><p><span></span>Two main methane sources could be used to make RNG. First is <a href="https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/inventory-us-greenhouse-gas-emissions-and-sinks" target="_blank">biogenic methane</a>, produced by bacteria that digest organic materials in manure, landfills and wastewater. Wastewater treatment plants, landfills and dairy farms have captured and used biogenic methane as an energy resource for <a href="http://emilygrubert.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/eia_860_2017_map.html" target="_blank">decades</a>, in a form usually called <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/biomass/landfill-gas-and-biogas.php" target="_blank">biogas</a>.</p><p>Some biogenic methane is generated naturally when organic materials break down without oxygen. Burning it for energy can be beneficial for the climate if doing so prevents methane from escaping to the atmosphere.</p>
Renewable Isn’t Always Sustainable<p>If RNG could be a renewable replacement for fossil natural gas, why not move ahead? Consumers have shown that they are <a href="https://www.nrel.gov/analysis/green-power.html" target="_blank">willing to buy renewable electricity</a>, so we might expect similar enthusiasm for RNG.</p><p>The key issue is that methane isn't just a fuel – it's also a <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/ghg_report/ghg_overview.php" target="_blank">potent greenhouse gas</a> that contributes to climate change. Any methane that is manufactured intentionally, whether from biogenic or other sources, will contribute to climate change if it enters the atmosphere.</p><p>And <a href="http://doi.org/10.1126/science.aar7204" target="_blank">releases</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wasman.2019.07.029" target="_blank">will happen</a>, from newly built production systems and <a href="https://theconversation.com/why-methane-emissions-matter-to-climate-change-5-questions-answered-122684" target="_blank">existing, leaky transportation and user infrastructure</a>. For example, the moment you smell gas before the pilot light on a stove lights the ring? That's methane leakage, and it contributes to climate change.</p><p>To be clear, RNG is almost certainly better for the climate than fossil natural gas because byproducts of burning RNG won't contribute to climate change. But doing somewhat better than existing systems is no longer enough to respond to the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2923" target="_blank">urgency</a> of climate change. The world's <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/chapter/spm/" target="_blank">primary international body on climate change</a> suggests we need to decarbonize by 2030 to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.</p>
Scant Climate Benefits<p><a href="https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/ab9335/meta" target="_blank">My recent research</a> suggests that for a system large enough to displace a lot of fossil natural gas, RNG is probably not as good for the climate as <a href="https://investor.southerncompany.com/information-for-investors/latest-news/latest-news-releases/press-release-details/2020/Southern-Company-Gas-grows-leadership-team-to-focus-on-climate-action-innovation-and-renewable-natural-gas-strategy/default.aspx" target="_blank">is publicly claimed</a>. Although RNG has lower climate impact than its fossil counterpart, likely high demand and methane leakage mean that it probably will contribute to climate change. In contrast, renewable sources such as wind and solar energy do not <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/carbon/" target="_blank">emit climate pollution directly</a>.</p><p>What's more, creating a large RNG system would require building mostly new production infrastructure, since RNG comes from different sources than fossil natural gas. Such investments are both long-term commitments and opportunity costs. They would devote money, political will and infrastructure investments to RNG instead of alternatives that could achieve a zero greenhouse gas emission goal.</p><p>When climate change first <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/1988/06/24/us/global-warming-has-begun-expert-tells-senate.html" target="_blank">broke into the political conversation</a> in the late 1980s, investing in long-lived systems with low but non-zero greenhouse gas emissions was still compatible with aggressive climate goals. Now, zero greenhouse gas emissions is the target, and my research suggests that large deployments of RNG likely won't meet that goal.</p>
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By Charli Shield
When an elephant dies in the wild, it's not uncommon to later find its bones scattered throughout the surrounding landscape.
Elephant Burial Grounds<p>Highly social creatures that form deep familial bonds, elephants have long been observed gathering at the site where a peer or family member has died — often spending hours, even days, quietly investigating the bodies or the bones of other dead elephants.</p><p>Although the popular idea that dying elephants are instinctively drawn to special communal graves — so-called "elephant graveyards" — is a myth, their tendency to go out of their way to visit the bones and tusks of the deceased isn't unlike human rituals at graveyards, says animal psychologist Karen McComb.</p><p>"They spend a lot of time touching and smelling skulls and ivory, placing the soles of their feet gently on top of them, and also lifting them up with their trunks," McComb, who's been studying African elephants for 25 years in Kenya's Amboseli National Park, told DW.</p><p>The most striking part of watching an elephant experience loss, Poole recalls, is the quietude. She still remembers one of the first elephant deaths she witnessed; a mother who birthed a stillborn calf. That elephant stayed with its baby for two days, trying to lift it and defending it from vultures and hyenas.</p><p>"I was so struck by the expression on her face and her body. She looked so dejected. It was really like, 'Oh God, these animals grieve…'. It was just so different," Poole told DW. </p>
Witnessing Emotions in Animals<p>Not all scientists are comfortable concluding that elephants grieve. Among the more than 30 reports of elephant reactions to death that Wittemyer co-reviewed in <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10329-019-00766-5" target="_blank">a study published in November 2019</a> were accounts of "enormous variation and nuance" he says. "It can be incredibly involved and intricate for extended periods or can be relatively cursory checks."</p><p>In Wittemyer's own experience, it can be difficult not to attribute some kind of emotional experience to the more involved interactions between elephants and their dead.</p><p>He shares the story of an "extraordinary event" involving the death of a 55 year-old matriarch in Kenya in a protected area that happened to be near his place of work. She was visited by multiple unrelated families while she was dying, including another matriarch that exerted such enormous effort attempting to lift her to her feet that she broke her tusk, which Wittemyer says, is "like breaking a tooth." </p><p><span></span>"It was a remarkable example of this heightened emotional state, it was very clearly a very stressful interaction," he says.</p>
A Different Sensory World<p>One factor that limits our ability to fully grasp the way elephants process and respond to loss is our markedly different sensory experiences of the world.</p><p>An elephant's world is fundamentally olfactory — based on smell. Ours is visual. Previous <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25053675/" target="_blank">research</a> has shown elephants possess the most scent receptors of any mammal, and can <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17949977/" target="_blank">use smell</a> to discern the difference between different human tribes from the same local area.</p><p>That could explain why elephants exhibit such interest in sniffing the bones and tusks of others, as a <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1617198/" target="_blank">2005 study</a> from McCombs highlighted. When presented with the skulls and ivory of long-dead elephants and those from other large herbivores, including rhino and buffalo, McCombs and her team found elephants approached and were specifically attracted to the remains of their own species. </p><p>Without access to the smells an elephant picks up on, Wittemyer says "an enormous amount of stuff" could be missed by humans when studying these behaviors.</p>
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