Oceana filed a lawsuit in federal court in California late Wednesday challenging the National Marine Fisheries Service's decision to withdraw a proposed rule that would have protected endangered species, including whales and sea turtles, and taken an important step forward in efforts to clean up one of the nation's dirtiest fisheries—drift gillnets targeting swordfish off California. The rule would have required an immediate closure of the fishery if limits on the injury or death of nine protected species were reached.
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The new federal administration withdrew a proposed rule Monday that would have protected endangered species—including whales, dolphins and sea turtles—caught and killed in the drift gillnet fishery targeting swordfish off California. Monday's decision demonstrates the administration's blatant disregard for recommendations of its own fishery advisors and reverses course on commitments made by the previous administration.
June 16 is World Sea Turtle Day and while we all know they're pretty, that the younglings rush to the water after they hatch and that they often become victims of plastic waste, there's so much more to these guys. Their age, anatomy and physical abilities are astonishing and undeniably justify giving these guys their own special day.
Sea Shepherd Conservation Society supporters Richard Dean Anderson and Holly Marie Combs are lending their names as producers on the company's crowd-funded documentary feature Why Just One?
The documentary follows Sea Shepherd's 2015 sea turtle defense campaign, Operation Jairo, which took place in Honduras, Florida and Costa Rica. Why Just One? focuses specifically on the sea turtle defenders' successes and struggles of the ground campaign in Costa Rica.
The Costa Rican campaign takes place on the remote Pacuare Island and Moin Beach, the latter where Costa Rican turtle defender Jairo Mora Sandoval was brutally murdered on May 31, 2013 while attempting to protect leatherback turtle nests. Sea Shepherd named Operation Jairo in his honor.
From death threats to attacks, from protecting sea turtles and their eggs, to interviews with Costa Rican activists and Sandoval's best friend, Why Just One? seeks to answer the question of why only one in one thousand sea turtles survive to maturity.
The documentary also looks to answer why sea turtles are disappearing from the beaches of Costa Rica—and can we save them in time?
“This species which has survived so much, may not survive us," Sea Shepherd founder Captain Paul Watson commented.
Executive Producer Anderson, a close friend of Watson who is best known to fans in the title role of the hit TV series MacGyver, says he hopes the film will bring world-wide attention to the “heart-breaking plight" of sea turtles.
“My support for Captain Paul Watson and the hearty hordes of volunteers who make up the crews venturing out to sea, has exposed me to the kind of on-going education that continues to enlighten me, both head and heart," said Anderson. “It is my hope, as executive producer, that this documentary will shed a bright light on a dire situation and proceed to enlighten ALL of us to care about these endangered turtles, as well as ALL of our earths marine life.
Associate Producer Combs, who came to prominence on the TV series Charmed and currently appears on Pretty Little Liars, added: “I became a Sea Shepherd supporter a few years ago when I learned of their amazing work defending the oceans and her inhabitants. Sea Shepherd has shined an international spotlight on the slaughter of dolphins in Japan and the documentary Why Just One? will bring that same international spotlight on the poaching of sea turtles in Costa Rica. I look forward to many more years of working with the courageous and dedicated volunteers of Sea Shepherd."
Watch the trailer here:
Why Just One? Reached its initial funding on Indiegogo in less that 24 hours and has backers from more than 40 counties. It is scheduled for release July 2016. A stretch goal was announced and additional perks were added for a limited time only. To support this film and learn more, visit http://bit.ly/WhyJustOne.
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By James Hoggan
My years of research for I'm Right, You're an Idiot, as well as decades of experience in public relations, have persuaded me that we humans have a fickle relationship with facts. We paint a picture of the world according to facts that appeal to us, and we unconsciously blur the edges or use brushstrokes of denial when faced with disagreeable realities and alarming truths.
Why is this? Columbia University professor Elke Webber says we tend to ignore or deny unpleasant facts because we have a finite pool of worry, a personal well of anxiety that has only so much room in it. When our lives overflow with bad news we turn away.
Psychologist Bob Doppelt adds that denial is an active form of avoidance often driven by fear, shame or pain. In the case of climate change, many of us work hard not to notice the reality, to avoid feelings of embarrassment and distress, because our worldview would crumble if we were to acknowledge the truth about global warming or ocean acidification, and its link to our misplaced need to exploit and control nature.
To overcome this inertia we must face up to the challenge, not ignore it. Naturally, we always need to balance uncomfortable facts with hope and the courage to act, but we deny frightening facts at our peril. As Doppelt put it, “No tension, no change."
Every scientist and activist I know has at some point been berated by a well-meaning person who accused him or her of being too alarmist, but we need to recognize certain facts in order to change the way we interact with the world if we are to solve these problems.
For example, a new climate change study published in the March 2016 issue of the journal Nature predicts high greenhouse gas emission levels could raise the oceans as much as two meters by the end of this century, and by 13 meters—from Antarctica alone—by 2500. Past estimates did not include the melting of Antarctica, but the study suggests when this continent is taken into account we will see a doubling of previous forecasts.
As television journalist Bill Blakemore once told me, after a producer criticized his climate change reporting for being too gloomy: “Nobody likes to be Chicken Little, but the sky really is falling."
In my new book I discuss why critical messages aren't getting through and how to improve our communications, but in this blog I first explain why we need to ring the alarm bells. Here are some warnings from some of the 97 percent of climate scientists whose peer-reviewed papers show human caused global warming is indeed happening and a serious problem.
It is already too late to avoid climate change because temperatures are rising, says University of Hawaii associate professor and ecologist Camilo Mora, but if dangerous greenhouse gas emissions are stabilized soon, the effects could be modified or delayed. For instance, imagine you're driving at 100 miles per hour and there is a hazard in front of you, he said. Even if you slam on the brakes you will likely hit the hazard, but it's much better to hit it a 20 miles per hour rather than 100.
Earth is similarly hurtling towards a hazard, a time when many of today's most populous cities—places like New York, London, Singapore and Cairo—will become unbearably hot. His 2013 study, published in Nature, The Projected Timing of Climate Departure from Recent Variability, predicts the first of these apocalyptic changes will be seen in Indonesia as soon as 2020, and unprecedented temperature shifts will spread to other regions soon after. We can expect a heavy toll on humans and many species as extreme weather accelerates beyond anything we have experienced.
Even Mora was shocked by the results of his study because, rather than using standard deviation, he based his study on the largest extremes he could find in historical records dating back 150 years. Despite this conservative approach, he discovered that climate will move outside those bounds by 2047. This is the year he therefore defines as “climate departure," the date when the historic maximum temperatures will become the new minimums.
One of the areas Mora is most concerned about is species extinction and although 20,000 species are disappearing every year, neither he nor any other scientist can predict which will vanish next. He offers a vivid analogy: “Imagine you are climbing a ladder to the second floor of a building and you fall. Can you accurately predict, given the height of the fall, whether you're going to be injured or precisely what your injuries will be?" Whether you hurt both legs, sprain a wrist or break your neck depends on many factors. If you're lucky, perhaps you will limp away — but you might never walk again. Likewise, scientists cannot predict all the fallout from climate change, but humanity can minimize the impact by using its experience and knowledge.
Mora was also lead author in a 2013 study published in the journal PLOS Biology that looked at the disruptive impact of climate change on the oceans. Eighty percent of the animal protein consumed in the world comes from fish but he calculates by 2100, roughly 98 percent of the oceans will be affected by acidification, warming temperatures, low oxygen or lack of biological productivity. This will threaten up to 870 million of the world's poorest — those who rely on the ocean for food and jobs.
Mora, who studies how biodiversity is impacted by overexploitation, habitat loss and climate change, advises we are losing six million hectares of forest a year, three million hectares of mangroves, 100 square kilometres of seagrasses, and we have already said goodbye to 90 per cent of the top predators since 1950. He believes people who don't care about driving species down to extinction display a shockingly selfish view and lack of foresight.
The good news is, our knowledge of climate is improving, as is our capacity to analyze what we learn, thanks to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that is gathering data from 39 models in 21 different locations. The bad news is, readings are disturbing. By 2050, the panel predicts the available fresh water per capita in India will be two-thirds what it is today. Some places are already heavily water-stressed, warned past panel chair Rajendra Pachauri, when I interviewed him, prior to the most recent IPCC report being released. He anticipated a global scarcity of food, which is particularly alarming as the panel predicts crop yields will likely decrease by up to two percent each decade, while the world's population rockets to nine billion by 2050.
Rapidly melting Himalayan glaciers will affect 500 million people in South Asia and about 250 million people in China and the Tibetan Plateau. “This nexus between climate change, water availability and food security is something that needs a lot of study, and quickly, so we can institute water resource management changes," he warned.
Pachauri said any suggestion that reducing greenhouse gas emissions would lead to massive reductions in economic output is incorrect. “We estimate that if we were to carry out very stringent mitigation beginning today, the maximum loss of GDP would be about three percent of global GDP in 2030," he said. "That's not a very heavy price to pay for avoiding some of the worst impacts of climate change. And there are many attractive, positive benefits. The sooner we act the cheaper it will be."
While climate change deniers have attacked the IPCC in the past, it is interesting to note that thousands of leading experts around the globe have sought to contribute to the assessments and comprehensive reports. That high number shows the panel's strong backing by the scientific community, said Pachauri, who was re-elected by acclamation in 2008 and stepped down in 2015.
The past chairman's message is just as powerful today as it was when we spoke. Earth's climate is changing and the data shows how it is happening. We know the results of inaction will be extremely serious, particularly in the most vulnerable regions of the world. “If you want instant change, then you also get instant frustration —but we must believe that in the end, human beings will be rational," he said.
The panel's predictions of increasing frequency and intensity of floods, droughts and heat waves were echoed in a report, Turn Down the Heat, commissioned in 2012 by the World Bank. If we fail to act it forecasted a potentially devastating four-degree rise in temperatures by the end of this century. Prepared by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Climate Analytics, the report spelled out cataclysmic changes. World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim forecasted the inundation of coastal cities and increasing risks for food production as dry regions become dryer, wet regions wetter. He predicted unprecedented heat waves and water scarcity in many regions, “increased frequency of high-intensity tropical cyclones; and irreversible loss of biodiversity, including coral reef systems."
Close to a quarter of the world's coral reefs have already vanished and another third are threatened by pollution, habitat destruction, over fishing, increasing ocean temperatures and acidification. Coral bleaching has devastated parts of the Great Barrier Reef in northeastern Australia and now the problem has spread to Kimberley in the northwest. It is being blamed on climate change and that region's unusually warm waters during the summer of 2015/16, combined with the largest El Niño ever recorded. Reporting across the Pacific shows the extensive nature of the problem and the dramatic impact of temperature changes on reefs. Experts say the effect on marine life could be catastrophic.
One of the world's leading marine conservation biologists, Callum Roberts, a British research scholar at the University of York believes, “We're not just losing pretty marine life, we're losing a lot of the values that we look to marine environments for."
He offers a frightening example of the devastation happening around the world when he talks about the Irish Sea, a body of water between Ireland and England. Reports from the 1820s and 1830s described an abundance of huge fish here including cod, conger eels, ling, halibut and giant skates measuring meters across. But problems began when sailing trawlers moved into the area and started dragging nets across the seabed, pulling up seaweeds, sponges, sea fans, corals and more. Fish stocks declined and the seabed habitat was degraded.
By the late 19th century trawlers with steam engines were towing much bigger nets, going deeper, farther offshore and fishing round the clock. The abundance of fish was knocked down even more, while impacts on the seabed broadened as diesel engines intensified trawling and new technologies such as better fish finders were developed.
As fish became less plentiful people turned to harvesting scallops and prawns, using fine mesh nets and heavy dredges to scour the seabed. The result? “The Irish Sea has been stripped of its wildlife," said Roberts who dived there a couple of years ago and was both slightly cheered and horrified by what he saw. In a bay that was declared off-limits to scallop dredging and prawn trawling for 20 years he saw life starting to return in the form of anemones, sponges, fish and small rays, but an area still open to scallop dredging “looked like a six-lane highway. I only saw five things that were alive and one was dying: two scallops, two sea urchins and a smashed clam perforated by a dredge spike."
The oceanographer explains this kind of harvesting is bad for all the ecological processes that go on in the sea, including sequestering carbon from the atmosphere and locking it away in sediments, a process greatly reduced by the removal of filter feeders on the seabed. “We are seeing increasing outbreaks of things like jellyfish which are now predator-free since we've taken out most of the things that eat them," he said. "A jellyfish species called Mnemiopsis leidyi was accidentally introduced into the Black Sea in the 1980s and proceeded to eat everything, eventually becoming 95 percent of the biomass there."
We are witnessing an increase in harmful algae blooms that are toxic to plankton and he predicts a time when people will not want to holiday at the seaside because it will be too dangerous and unpleasant. For example, intensive pig farming in France releases huge amounts of nitrogen and phosphorous into the sea, producing masses of slimy seaweed that wash up along the coast in Brittany. Rotting in vast heaps, it produces lethal hydrogen sulfide gas and has resulted in the deaths of people and animals exposed to the slurry.
Some argue that dredging the seabed is no worse than plowing the land, but there is a fundamental difference: In the oceans we can't use chemicals to manipulate the environment. We have to rely on the sea's ability to repair itself.
Roberts worries about the loss of biodiversity in the ocean because when we convert it from the richness and complexity of two centuries ago to the monocultures of prawns and scallops of today, we lose a great deal of the ecosystem's resilience and stability. Already there is an increasing frequency of disease affecting prawns, crabs and other crustaceans. “It is in the interest of everyone to rebuild ocean life," Roberts said. “To have abundance, we need diversity and complexity."
If we continue on this course many of the iconic species people know and love—albatrosses, penguins, leatherback sea turtles that have been around for 100 million years—could become extinct. It's one thing to inadvertently deplete a species, but another entirely when actions are taken with full knowledge they will push a species to the edge. He fears we're getting to a stage where corporations are so controlling of the political process that increasingly risky and counterproductive decisions are being made.
“Big fish like bluefin tuna and dolphins will not make it through the transition," he predicts and we're already seeing a shift from bigger life to smaller life. Mini-fauna is replacing mega-fauna. “We had huge fish in the Irish Sea 200 years ago, now we have scallops and prawns. Eventually the kingdom of the worms will prevail on the sea floor."
We need to start communicating better about these issues so people start seeing the world as it really is, so the public is not tricked or misled by PR spin or propaganda.
In the next post I talk to environmentalist, geneticist and zoologist David Suzuki; anthropologist and ethno botanist Wade Davis; and archaeologist and author Ronald Wright who emphasize why we need to change our behavior immediately and why it's essential to clear the air in the public square.
In my next post I will explain how we find the courage and the tools to fix these problems, and how we can inspire hope not despair.
James Hoggan is president of the Vancouver PR firm Hoggan & Associates, chair of the David Suzuki Foundation and founder of the influential website DeSmogBlog. He is also the author Climate Cover-Up, Do the Right Thing and the recently released I'm Right and You're an Idiot.
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By The Goldman Environmental Prize
The Goldman Environmental Prize honors grassroots environmental heroes from the world's six inhabited continental regions: Africa, Asia, Europe, Islands & Island Nations, North America, and South and Central America. The prize recognizes individuals for sustained and significant efforts to protect and enhance the natural environment, often at great personal risk. The Goldman Prize views “grassroots" leaders as those involved in local efforts, where positive change is created through community or citizen participation in the issues that affect them. Through recognizing these individual leaders, the prize seeks to inspire other ordinary people to take extraordinary actions to protect the natural world.
Here are the 2016 Goldman Environmental Prize winners:
Baltimore Youth Changes Hearts and Minds to Prevent Toxic Incinerator in Community Beset by Pollution
Last year Freddie Gray's death put Baltimore at center stage in the national dialogue about race in America. Much of the focus has been on police brutality and differential treatment of racial minorities by law enforcement and the criminal justice system. There has been less attention to the environmental consequences of institutional racism, which are disproportionately experienced by poor people of color.
For decades, residents of South Baltimore have been plagued by pollution from heavy industry. The area hosts the nation's largest medical waste incinerator, alongside chemical plants, coal piers and associated diesel-truck traffic. The small neighborhood of Curtis Bay is the epicenter of a community's fight against South Baltimore's aggressive industrial expansion. In recent years, it was determined to have the worst toxic air pollution in the U.S., but development continues apace.
The latest threat is another behemoth—the nation's largest trash incinerator. The project's legal approval was secured by developer Energy Answers under the pretense that the facility would produce renewable energy as clean as solar and wind by burning waste. The reality is different. Although Energy Answers' incinerator was ranked in "tier 1" of Maryland's Renewable Portfolio Standard, research revealed that it would wreak havoc on the community's health and environment. It would emit vast quantities of toxic heavy metals such as mercury and arsenic that have been linked to lung cancer, asthma and heart disease—in a community already plagued by industrial pollution.
The only thing standing in the way of the incinerator's construction is Curtis Bay native and college student Destiny Watford. From the age of 16, she mobilized her disaffected community to fight the incinerator using social media and performing arts, coupled with a creative strategy to limit Energy Answers' ability to fund the project.
Watford, now 20, became an environmental activist when she learned about Energy Answers' proposal to build the incinerator in Curtis Bay. Her first-hand experience watching neighboring towns wither from industrial pollution motivated her to protect her battered community. With clear-eyed enthusiasm, Watford and other public high school students united the people of Curtis Bay in support of their efforts.
After attempts to halt the project by invoking local health-related regulations were unsuccessful, Watford turned to arts and information as modes of activism. Inspired by a play she saw about pollution and deception, Watford called for her schoolmates to utilize their passions in videography and design to put pressure on 22 local organizations—including the Baltimore City Public School system—that had pledged to purchase energy generated by the as-yet-unbuilt incinerator. Through education she provided about the incinerator's impacts, Watford convinced 18 of the 22 organizations to nullify their contracts, effectively cutting off the main source of revenue for the incinerator.
However, the threat of the incinerator looms. Energy Answers still holds the lease on the 97-acre site, and Watford has reached an impasse with the Maryland Department of Energy, which has the ability to force Energy Answers out since it violated its permit by not beginning construction.
Despite this, Watford is not sitting idle. She has a vision to transform the site for the true benefit of the community by exploring alternatives like solar technology, filling the site with community-owned panels to make it the largest solar farm on the eastern shore board. This would provide clean energy jobs for locals and would be a first step to encourage sustainable development. Toward this end, Watford is collecting signatures and video testimonials appealing to the Maryland Department of Energy to enforce the law and evict Energy Answers. With enough support, Watford hopes to begin the process of re-claiming Curtis Bay for its resident.
Uncovering Phnom Penh: Cambodian man reveals government's destruction of indigenous farmers' homes and forest land for timber sales
In Cambodia, where eighty percent of the population depends on the land for its livelihood, large swaths of forest and arable land are being taken from farmers and destroyed. The seizures are permitted by a 2001 law that allows the government to take over citizens' property for development purposes through deeds called Economic Land Concessions (ELCs). Under the guise of clearing space for agricultural and industrial projects, the government has used ELCs to force 300,000 rural Cambodians off their land. Once the people are removed, timber companies illegally fell rare trees such as the Siamese Rosewood to make luxury wood furniture for the international market, mostly in China and the U.S. While a handful of companies with powerful political allies have made a fortune on the illicit sale of exotic timber, Cambodian villagers have been left homeless, jobless and hungry.
Ouch Leng, 39, grew up in the post-Khmer Rouge era when government corruption, violence and impunity for elites were ubiquitous. Ouch vowed from an early age to dedicate his life to protecting Cambodia's forests and defending the human rights of his people. As land grabbing via ELC deeds accelerated, Ouch founded the Cambodian Human Rights Taskforce (CHRTF), a nonprofit organization focused on exposing human rights violations behind ELCs. His work bridges human rights and environmental defense because ELC-initiated deforestation ravages wildlife habitat and devastates indigenous populations. Through his investigations into ELC-related human rights violations, Ouch found that most illicit logging occurred under deeds issued to Try Pheap, a Cambodian logging tycoon with close ties to Prime Minister Hun Sen.
For years, Ouch worked undercover, posing as a Try Pheap Group employee or hiding in muddy fields near logging sites to gather firsthand evidence of Try Pheap's criminal activity and of his company's alliance with the Cambodian government. Following multiple clandestine research initiatives, Ouch released findings to the international media, which demonstrated that Try Pheap and high-ranking government officials were colluding in illegal timber trade. Since then, Ouch and CHRTF have released a series of reports detailing the malfeasance. When the government was undeterred by the embarrassing revelations, Ouch mobilized Cambodian citizens to stage peaceful protests in the streets of Phnom Penh and block the illegal loggers from accessing their land. The added pressure from the protests led the government to nickname Ouch the “Land Revolution," as his activism was beginning to threaten the ELC system and the government's timber fortune.
In 2014, much as a result of Ouch's persistence, the government cancelled nearly 50,000 acres of ELCs granted to Try Pheap Group inside the Virachey National Park, which is home to sun bears, small-clawed otters and dholes, an endangered species of wild dog.
Ouch's work has put him at immense personal risk. It is unusual for a whistleblower in Cambodia to be so openly critical and willing to identify himself. A Global Witness report released last year revealed that Cambodian activists have been killed for standing up against these injustices. Today, Ouch lives in hiding following numerous threats to him and his family. Despite this danger, he continues fighting rampant government corruption to save the Cambodian forest for future generations.
Ouch wants to make the international community aware of the devastation caused by ELCs and illegal logging. To discourage the government from continuing this practice, Ouch calls for people around the world to make sure any wood furniture they purchase is sourced sustainably.
Puerto Rican Man Saves One of the Island's Last Few Pristine, Undeveloped Coastal Strips
For more than 15 years a battle has been fought over a segment of pristine coastline on the Atlantic tip of Puerto Rico known as the Northeast Ecological Corridor (the corridor). The 3,000-acre area nestled between the seaside municipalities of Luquillo and Fajardo is highly biologically diverse. Comprised of a patchwork of public and private parcels, the corridor is home to nearly 900 varieties of flora and fauna, including several endangered species such as the leatherback sea turtle. Often referred to as an “ecological wonderland," the corridor packs coastal wetlands, mangroves, tropical rain forest and desert-like habitat into a relatively small area.
In the 1990s, private developers seeking prime real estate for luxury hotel projects quietly arranged with politicians to build two mega-resorts along corridor beaches. Residents and environmental advocates didn't want the untouched area to succumb to development like so many other places in Puerto Rico. One local man has steadfastly combined legal savvy and traditional organizing to unite communities against the development.
Luis Jorge Rivera Herrera, 43, is an environmental scientist who grew up on a family farm near Luquillo that has been passed down through four generations. Living and surfing in the corridor, Rivera Herrera was awestruck by nature from an early age. Rivera Herrera was especially taken by the massive female leatherback sea turtles that haul themselves onto the beaches to lay eggs. Then hatchlings, scarcely the size of a human hand, scamper into the ocean. The corridor is one of a dwindling number of suitable nesting sites for the largest species of sea turtle. Rivera Herrera believes the corridor is Puerto Rico's natural patrimony, and that it should be kept safe for humans, sea turtles and other wildlife to enjoy.
When the Puerto Rican government announced proposals to build the San Miguel and Dos Mares resorts in 1999—projects that were backed by Marriott and Four Seasons—Rivera Herrera sprung into action. He gathered data about the corridor's ecosystems and paired it with details about the resorts' construction plans. Rivera Herrera brought this information to the communities, and he also brought community members to the proposed resort sites to emphasize what was at stake.
After years of raising awareness among local people, Rivera Herrera founded the Coalition for the Northeast Ecological Corridor (NECC) in 2005 to formalize his volunteer efforts and those of community groups. This included the Puerto Rico chapter of the Sierra Club, which had recently been established on the island with the corridor's conservation as its flagship issue. This marked a turning point for the campaign.
Rivera Herrera initiated a legislative act to protect the corridor as a nature reserve. The bill failed to pass in the legislature, but Governor Aníbal Vilá saw enough public support to pass an executive order in 2007. However, in a stunning example of the precariousness of legal protections, the next governor, Luis Fortuño, repealed the corridor's designation a mere two years later. This repeal caused speculation about the independence of Fortuño's decision given that Dos Mares resort contributed funds to his campaign.
In spite of this crushing setback, Rivera Herrera parlayed widespread public outcry over Fortuño's reversal to mount a second attempt to pass a bill that would permanently protect the corridor. His legislative campaign found success in 2012, and the following year, Governor Alejandro García Padilla signed the bill into law, protecting the corridor's public lands and ending the threat of development.
Due to financial constraints that have prohibited Puerto Rico's Department of Natural and Environmental Resources from hiring a manager for the newly protected corridor, Rivera Herrera is acting as interim manager. He is working with others to develop a plan to develop sustainable tourism in the corridor. His biggest challenge, however, is raising funds to purchase the private parcels that remain in the corridor, a condition of the bill that must be met within eight years. The government earmarked funds for this purpose but they are in jeopardy due to Puerto Rico's fiscal crisis.
Environmental Lawyer Breathes Life into the Law to Stop Landfills in Slovakian Villages
For years, Slovakia has been a cheap and willing customer in the dumping of Western EU countries' waste. Its loose construction laws—which govern the management of waste disposal facilities—do little to prevent under-the-table deals between the national government and private developers, while individual municipalities are left with little choice but to store unwanted waste that they have no hand in approving. As a result, in villages across Slovakia illegal landfills sit just meters away from residential areas and leach toxic chemicals into the soil and groundwater. They also release pollutants into the atmosphere, creating environmental and human health hazards that last for decades.
At a glance, the town of Pezinok—located just 13 miles outside the capital of Bratislava—seems to be an exception. Vineyards that once produced royal wine surround the small town at the base of the Little Carpathian Mountains. Yet, the rate of leukemia in Pezinok is eight times higher than the Slovak average. A landfill built in the 1960s, without any permits, sits at the town's edge, containing waste from medical facilities and chemical factories. Despite Pezinok's 2002 urban plan, which prohibited landfills within the city limits, construction began on a second landfill in 2003 due to the owner's connections with regional authorities. Though the country's nascent democratic system that operates on clientelism would have ordinarily provided an easy path for this new project, one community member began a fight that would challenge 'business as usual.'
Zuzana Caputova, 42, resides in Pezinok with her two young children. Having been born and raised in the town, the environmental lawyer was all too familiar with the negative effects of its illegal landfill. When the local people needed a leader to fight against the new landfill, they reached out to Caputova for help. But Caputova did more than mobilize her community. She combined legal know-how and bottom-up activism to take on the Slovakian people's illegal dumping problem in law and in practice.
Noted as one of the largest grassroots efforts since the Velvet Revolution, Caputova's fight to stop Pezinok's landfills marked one of the first times local residents took a stand on the waste dump issue. Caputova filed injunctions to shut down the older landfill, then turned her attention to halting construction on the new landfill before it was too late.
While Caputova and her public advocacy law firm, Via Iuris, filed petitions with officials to stop the new landfill, she also encouraged residents to organize. What resulted was a citizens' initiative called “Dumps Don't Belong in Towns," as well as the uncovering of illegal permits that gave Caputova the indisputable evidence she needed. By empowering others, Caputova inspired a demonstration involving 67,000 locals that convinced the municipality to acquiesce and cease the landfill construction.
But Caputova's fight did not end in Pezinok. In 2014, residents of nearby village, Smolenice, contacted her. They had heard of Pezinok's success and sought Caputova's help to stop a waste gasification plant that would convert garbage into fuel and electricity using a new, untested technology. The people of Smolenice didn't want to be guinea pigs. Caputova helped them prevail and since then eight other municipalities in Slovakia facing similar struggles have received help from Caputova.
Notably, Caputova has set her sights at the federal level to address the legal root of the landfill issue once and for all. She recently assisted in drafting an amendment to Slovakia's 49-year-old Construction Law—the source of the problem when it comes to the harmful effects of waste storage. The amendment would give a larger voice to municipal governments and increase public participation in the waste disposal and landfill development process. The Construction Law will be reviewed by parliament in March of 2016 and many have indicated support for the amendment.
To further the legal assistance of many Slovakian municipalities—and strengthen the country's judiciary system through advocacy—Caputova is encouraging all supporters to donate to Via Iuris, the not-for-profit public advocacy firm that she has partnered with to fight these landfills and challenge the Construction Law.
Peruvian Grandmother's Struggle to Stop Mega-Mine in Andean Highlands
Like many developing countries, Peru is the site of natural resource extraction projects that drive out local people with legal rights to their land. Corrupt private partnerships with regional governments and international investors leave the ordinary people whose lives are affected with nowhere to turn. But in a remote corner of Peru's northern highlands, one woman has put a wrench in the plans of Colorado-based Newmont Mining Corporation, which is angling to build a huge mining project in her backyard.
Máxima Acuña, 47, is a subsistence farmer, grandmother and unwitting activist whose fight to prevent Newmont from building the Conga Mine was born of her drive to protect her land and her right to peacefully live off of it. An unconventional environmental champion, Acuña has no formal schooling nor is she affiliated with any advocacy organization. Yet her iron spine and deep sense of injustice have put her at the forefront of a movement to stop the Conga Mine.
More than 20 years ago, Acuña and her husband purchased the land that they live on and farm. Their 60-acre homestead is located at the edge of Laguna Azul (Blue Lake), one of several high-altitude lakes that supply fresh water for her family and that of countless others downstream. The stark Andean mountain terrain has rich soil in which Acuña grows her crops, and native grasses that sustain her livestock.
In 2011, the Peruvian government granted Newmont a 7,400-acre concession to build the Conga Mine that included Acuña's property. In order to move forward with the project, Newmont would need access to Acuña's land. Her parcel provides optimal access to Laguna Azul, one of four lakes that Newmont plans to drain and convert into tailings ponds to collect toxic mining byproducts such as cyanide and arsenic.
After receiving the concession, Newmont representatives tried to persuade Acuña to sell her property. She refused, knowing that the mine would poison the region's fresh water, and because she feels a deep connection to the land she has tended for more than two decades. A year later, in 2012, Newmont won a lawsuit against Acuña in a local court, having accused her family of squatting on land Newmont claims it purchased as part of a bundle of properties.
Acuña enlisted the help of GRUFIDES, a local NGO that provides legal assistance for rural communities against mining companies. With GRUFIDES' help, Acuña appealed the local verdict in a higher regional court, often walking 10 hours over treacherous mountain paths to make her court appearances. In 2014, the higher court overturned the original verdict, lifting the criminal charges against Acuña. While this victory meant that Newmont couldn't proceed with building the mine, it has come at a high personal cost for Acuña as the company continues to dispute Acuña's land rights and harass her family.
Since refusing to be bought out, Acuña and her family have been monitored and threatened. Peruvian state police, working as private security contractors on behalf of Newmont and its subsidiaries, tried to evict her and they forbade her from planting crops on her land. Newmont put up a fence around her land, restricting Acuña's movement. Agents have destroyed her home two times, razing the structure and absconding with her possessions. When Acuña and her daughter tried to intervene they were beaten unconscious.
Despite relentless harassment, Acuña is standing her ground. She never sold her land to Newmont and won't hand it over. In the oral tradition, Acuña sings about her struggle to protect the land and her way of life. The lyrics of her songs communicate her wisdom and her voice reflects the trauma she has endured. However, Acuña's open expression and warm smile convey that she won't allow her spirit to be crushed.
Newmont may appeal the regional court's decision in the Peruvian Supreme Court in order to move forward with the mine. For the time being, Acuña has managed to block the construction of the Conga Mine in a region of Peru where one-half of all land has been granted to extraction projects.
Tanzanian Community Leader Secures Indigenous Land Rights through Innovative Use of Land Law
The native people of Tanzania are better known for their colorful cultural expressions than for their innovative approaches to addressing land rights disputes. Despite enduring decades of displacements, pastoralist and hunter-gatherer indigenous communities like the Maasai and the Hadzabe have co-existed with wildebeests, gazelles, rhinoceroses and other mega-fauna in Tanzania's arid rangelands for more than 40,000 years. Due to government policies that have prioritized foreign investment and development over traditional land use practices, the Maasai and Hadzabe constantly face the threat of losing their land, and with it their ways of life. One man has been able to secure hundreds of thousands of acres of indigenous territory via the creative application of a law intended to manage village land.
Edward Loure, 44, is a member of the Maasai people and is the Program Coordinator for the Simanjiro region with nonprofit Ujamaa Community Resource Team (UCRT). Having grown up during a time when the government forcibly evicted the Maasai from their communities in order to create national parks, Loure was inspired to demonstrate that native peoples are good stewards of the land, caring for ecosystems while practicing traditional livelihood activities such as livestock grazing. Recognizing that the lack of legal documentation demarcating indigenous territory allowed outside actors to buy up land they considered to be unclaimed, Loure set about making the Maasai and Hadzabe's plans for their ancestral lands intelligible to the state.
During the last 50 years, land that was historically populated by endemic peoples has been sold to commercial hunting and eco-tourism operations, or to large-scale commercial farmers who produce crops for export. To date, the Maasai have lost more than 150,000 acres of rangeland across northern Tanzania. As the supply of available land in Tanzania decreases, pressure on areas managed by the Maasai and Hadzabe, often perceived as 'empty,' increases. This has resulted in multiple clashes between indigenous people and outsiders. The Maasai and Hadzabe defend against encroachments on their land and reject assumptions that they don't protect habitat and wildlife.
In 2003, Loure and UCRT set out to address the problem. They began meeting with indigenous community members and village leaders to discuss an unprecedented approach to documenting land rights. Loure used a provision called the Certificate of Customary Right of Occupancy (CCRO) from the Tanzanian Village Land Act to formalize land rights for the Maasai and Hadzabe. The rule was meant to manage individual land holdings within villages; however, Loure used it to recognize land rights on behalf of a community.
When they approached communities about creating CCROs, Loure and UCRT were met with apprehension. Maasai and Hadzabe people had been misled in the past. But over many conversations, Loure worked with communities to map the boundaries of their territories and create land use plans. In the years Loure spent shepherding the creation of CCROs, and navigating conflicts, he gained the trust of the people and earned a reputation for fairness and inclusion. It is not common for a Maasai man to work on behalf of the Hadzabe people but they knew he had their best interests at heart.
By 2013, after nearly a decade of work, Loure had secured more than 200,000 acres of land for the Maasai and Hadzabe using CCROs. For the Hadzabe, Loure negotiated an agreement between the group and Carbon Tanzania, a nonprofit, for the Hadzabe to be paid for the carbon sequestered in their forests.
Loure's success has inspired other indigenous groups to use the same tactic to protect land, and Loure is currently working on 12 additional CCROs to secure rights for more than 970,000 acres of land, mostly in northern Tanzania.
Looking ahead, Loure hopes the success of CCROs will draw awareness to the issue of land rights for indigenous people and increase support in Tanzania. To further the development of CCROs, Loure and UCRT need funds to support their work. Those interested in helping are encouraged to donate to the local fund for UCRT, here.
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Plastic in our oceans—a problem much worse than we thought—is a major threat to marine life. Earlier this summer, turtle researcher Nathan Robinson helped remove a 4-inch plastic straw from a male olive ridley turtle's nose. Not only did the disturbing footage go viral, it probably convinced a lot of people to reconsider using these single-use, non-biodegradable items.
Still, the pervasiveness of plastic trash and its harm to aquatic life isn't going away anytime soon, with roughly 8 million tons of plastic dumped into the world’s oceans every year. Case in point: On Dec. 6, only a few months later after saving the first turtle, Robinson was on a beach in Costa Rica and came across yet another olive ridley with plastic lodged deeply in its nostril—this time a 5-inch plastic fork. Thankfully, Robinson and biologists Brett Butler and Collin Hertz were able to relieve the turtle and she swam back safely to the ocean shortly after. Footage of the save has been posted onto YouTube, and this video is looking likely to go viral too.
"This fork, like the straw, was probably eaten by the turtle. When she tried to regurgitate it, the fork did not pass out of her mouth but went out her nose," Robinson, who works with the The Leatherback Trust (TLT), wrote on a Facebook post.
Robinson added that while he was able to remove the fork, countless other animals are suffering from plastic debris in our oceans. "Your efforts to reduce, reuse and recycle will make a difference," he wrote.
Dr. George Shillinger, the executive director of the Monterey, California-based conservation nonprofit where Robinson works spoke to EcoWatch about the incredible video as well as the increasing threat of plastic pollution on turtles and other ocean life.
Theoretically, Shillinger said, if Robinson and the team hadn't been there to relieve the turtle, the plastic fork would eventually cause an infection, impact its breathing or swallowing, or the turtle's body would probably form scar-tissue around the fork.
"It's just painful in general to have that thing in there," he said. "The plastic is certainly not going to go away and until it breaks out, the turtle would probably be stuck with it until it died."
TLT researchers are encountering more and more turtles that have been impacted by plastic recently, and one of the reasons is down to increasing rates of pollution, Shillinger said.
"In many parts of Latin America it's a big problem because sewer systems often aren't as upgraded as you'd find here in the states," he said. "Plastic waste works its way from backyards, waste dumps and car windows into watersheds and eventually everything flows downhill to the sea."
While it's actually uncommon to see straws or forks stuck in turtles' noses, plastic's devastating impact is mostly unseen. Plastic is often ingested by turtles that mistake it for food. It fills their stomach and causes chronic health problems, disease, infection and impedes turtles' normal behaviors and physiology, Shillinger said.
"We've known for a long time that marine organisms consume plastics. Turtles in particular are vulnerable," Shillinger said. Some turtle species, such as Leatherbacks, are particularly prone to consuming things like plastic bags because they mistake it for jellyfish.
Plastic waste, of course, is a problem on a global scale. "It's just the tip of the iceberg," Shillinger said. "This was an isolated incident involving a single turtle in a small area off a nesting beach in Costa Rica. Just imagine globally what's happening."
"This leads to long-term systematic population health problems," Shillinger said.
Earlier this year, researchers from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization in Australia and Imperial College London released a report with the startling finding that 90 percent of seabirds today have eaten plastic, and if humans don’t stop dumping plastic into the ocean, it’s predicted that 99 percent of seabirds will swallow plastic by 2050.
When asked if this trend is also happening with turtles, Shillinger replied without hesitation: "Totally. Turtles are occupying the same habitats ... Without a doubt these animals are consuming plastics in areas where they'd otherwise go to consume prey."
"It's something we have to monitor across populations and across the life history of different species," he added.
That said, if you ever come across a turtle impacted by plastic, Shillinger advised that you should quickly find the nearest rehab center or veterinarian to help. But if you happen you be on a beach in the middle of nowhere with no expert nearby, you should remove the object yourself in order to save the animal.
"Act with alacrity and without hesitation," he said.
As for what can be done about reducing our own plastic footprint, Shillinger said that it all starts with consumer awareness. "We'd love for people to do what they can, to think about what they wear, what they eat, and think about their environmental impact and everyday choices," he said.
Robinson wrote on a TLT blog post: "As long as we keep using single-use plastic, these instances are going to become increasingly more common. We are all going to have to make an effort to reduce plastic pollution if we don’t want to see more events like this."
To learn more about TLT's work, check out their website at leatherback.org.
#plasticpollution is 1 of many threats to #seaturtles. read about this turtle + the fork https://t.co/tmeMLjV2G5 https://t.co/VOZb6Eh0CW— TheLeatherbackTrust (@TheLeatherbackTrust)1449873563.0
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We know that ocean plastic can have a devastating impact on aquatic life such as seabirds, fish and whales. Now, researchers have found that 60 percent of post-hatchling loggerhead turtles stranded on southern Cape beaches in South Africa have been impacted by growing quantities of human-caused debris such as plastic fragments, packaging and fibers.
A new study published in Marine Pollution Bulletin last month reported that 24 out of 40 of loggerhead turtles died within two months of stranding in April 2015. Of the turtles that died, 16 had ingested plastic. Gruesomely, 11 of these turtles died because plastic was blocking their digestive tracts or bladders.
Here are other key points from the study, as reported by South Africa's Times Live:
- Plastic comprised 99 percent of debris collected.
- The majority—77 percent—were hard plastic fragments‚ 10 percent were from flexible packaging and 8 percent were fibers.
- Industrial pellets comprised 3 percent, compared to around 70 percent in a previous study between 1968 and 1973.
- In the earlier study‚ only 12 percent of stranded post-hatchlings contained plastics‚ compared to the 60 percent of the current study.
"Our results indicate that the amount and diversity of plastic ingested by post-hatchling loggerhead turtles off South Africa have increased over the last four decades, and now kill some turtles," the study says.
South Africa’s beaches are inundated with plastic, the Sunday Times reported in December. According to data released by Plastics South Africa, there are roughly 400 pieces of plastic per square meter. Another study found that South Africa ranks as the 11th worst country for dumping plastics in the ocean, between Bangladesh and India, the publication noted.
The turtle study's lead author, Peter Ryan of the Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology and the DST-NRF's Centre of Excellence at the University of Cape Town, told the Sunday Times that South Africa needs multiple strategies to clean up its plastic problem.
Prof Ryan of @Fitztitute: Just how bad is plastic pollution in South Africa's oceans? https://t.co/qrGlAfkC73 #turtle— NRF South Africa (@NRF South Africa)1461918442.0
“There’s nothing wrong with plastic—the problem is what people do with it‚” Ryan said‚ explaining that half of South Africa’s solid waste does not go into formal waste streams.
He also pointed out that plastic packaging such as candy wrappers are difficult to recycle.
“Every time you do one of these (beach litter) surveys you discover a whole new kind of packaging‚” Ryan said. “We need to be more proactive about how we package things.”
Ryan, however, said that a solution is possible.
“It’s a question of making sure that we dispose of plastic properly and working towards making sure there is a value attached to waste plastic‚” he said. “It’s a completely solvable problem.”
Plastic pollution is impacting sea turtles around the world. Last summer, EcoWatch posted a viral video of researchers from The Leatherback Trust removing a 4-inch plastic straw from a male olive ridley turtle’s nose in Costa Rica.
A few months after saving the first turtle, the researchers found another olive ridley in Costa Rica with plastic lodged deeply in its nostril—this time a 5-inch plastic fork.
Thankfully, the research team was able to relieve both turtles, but as Dr. George Shillinger, the executive director of the Monterey, California-based conservation nonprofit, told EcoWatch, it's “just the tip of the iceberg.”
“This was an isolated incident involving a single turtle in a small area off a nesting beach in Costa Rica," Shillinger said. "Just imagine globally what’s happening.”
Last year, researchers from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization in Australia and Imperial College London released a report with the startling finding that 90 percent of seabirds today have eaten plastic, and if humans don’t stop dumping plastic into the ocean, it’s predicted that 99 percent of seabirds will swallow plastic by 2050.
When asked if this trend is also happening with turtles, Shillinger replied without hesitation: “Totally. Turtles are occupying the same habitats … Without a doubt these animals are consuming plastics in areas where they’d otherwise go to consume prey.”
Exclusive Interview: Researchers Remove Plastic Fork Lodged in Turtle's Nose https://t.co/kwjVHFBn69 @TheLeatherback https://t.co/mSO9OuwUtW— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1450540021.0
Approximately 8 million metric tons of plastic waste is dumped into our oceans every year, and the pollution is only getting worse as consumer use of plastic and plastic-intensive goods intensifies in emerging countries.
Not only that, an alarming study by the University of Delaware physical oceanographer Tobias Kukulka reported that there might be much more plastic than what’s estimated.
“My research has shown that ocean turbulence actually mixes plastics and other pollutants down into the water column despite their buoyancy,” Kukulka said, according to UD Daily. “This means that surface measurements could be wildly off and the concentration of plastic in the marine environment may be significantly higher than we thought.”
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[Editor's note: Gov. Brown signed SB 270 on Sept. 30, making the plastic bag ban official.]
The California Senate voted 22-15 late last night to pass a statewide ban on single-use plastic bags. The bill, SB 270, will phase out single-use plastic bags in grocery stores and pharmacies beginning July 2015, and in convenience stores one year later, and create a mandatory minimum ten-cent fee for recycled paper, reusable plastic and compostable bags.
Photo credit: Shutterstock
The bill, which passed both houses of the California State Legislature now heads to the Governor's desk. If signed, California will become the first state in the U.S. to ban what advocates call "the most ubiquitous consumer item on the planet."
Senators Alex Padilla, Kevin de León and Ricardo Lara authored the measure that will implement a ban while promoting recycling and California manufacturing, and provides financial incentives to maintain and retrain California employees in affected industries.
“In crafting this compromise, it was imperative to me that we achieve the goals of doing away with single-use plastic bags, help change consumer behavior, and importantly, support and expand California jobs,” said Senate President pro Tempore-elect Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles). “SB 270 is a win-win for the environment and for California workers.”
Senate Bill 270 will:
- Increase the use of recycled content for reusable plastic bags to promote recycling and California manufacturing. In 2016, bags will be required to have 20 percent recycled content and in 2020 be made of 40 percentrecycled content.
- Support recycling of agriculture plastic film which is currently sent to landfills.
- Require large grocery store chains to take back used bags for continued recycling.
- Require third party certification of reusable plastic bags to ensure compliance with bag standards which support California manufacturing.
- Grandfathers existing local ordinances related to grocery bags.
More than 120 California local governments have already banned single-use plastic bags with more than 1 in 3 Californians already living somewhere with a plastic bag ban in place, in an effort to drive consumers towards sustainable behavior change.
The Clean Seas Coalition, a growing group of environmentalists, scientists, California lawmakers, students and community leaders has worked since 2008 to reduce sources of plastic pollution, and help pass this legislation.
"Data from the over 121 local plastic bag bans, like Los Angeles City, Los Angeles County, San Jose and San Mateo has proven that bans are effective at reducing litter and changing consumer attitudes, and have refuted industry’s claims of apocalyptic impacts on jobs and poor communities," said Leslie Tamminen, director Seventh Generation Advisors and facilitator for the Clean Seas Coalition. "A state plastic bag ban saves taxpayers huge amounts of money spent on litter cleanup, and protects the environment."
Plastic bags create a direct threat to wildlife, like the Pacific leatherback sea turtles, that mistake the bags for food. A study of more than 370 leatherback sea turtle autopsies found that one in three had plastic in their stomach, most often a plastic bag. Plastic bags are also one of the most common items littered on California’s beaches according to Ocean Conservancy’s annual beach cleanup data, according to Ocean Conservancy.
“This important step forward shows that we can achieve lasting victories for ocean and environmental health,” said Nathan Weaver, oceans advocate with Environment California. “Nothing we use for a few minutes should pollute our ocean for hundreds of years. I congratulate Senators Padilla, de León, and Lara for their victory today, and I thank them for their leadership to protect our environment.”
“The experience of over 120 cities shows that this policy works,” concluded Weaver. “I urge Governor Brown to sign SB 270 into law.”
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By Nicole D'Alessandro
Worldwide, a trillion single-use plastic bags are used each year, nearly 2 million each minute. Usage varies widely among countries, from more than 400 a year for many East Europeans, to just four a year for people in Denmark and Finland. Plastic bags, made of depletable natural gas or petroleum resources, are often used only for a matter of minutes. Yet they last in the environment for hundreds of years, shredding into ever-smaller pieces but never fully breaking down.
The Pacific Fishery Management Council—the 14 member voting body tasked with managing fisheries three to 200 miles off the coasts of California, Oregon and Washington—decided yesterday to cease consideration of a proposal to expand the use of deadly drift gillnets off California and instead requested extension of emergency regulations that went into effect last year to protect endangered sperm whales from entrapment in drift gillnets, until permanent protections are implemented.
The meeting in Sacramento, CA, drew unusually high numbers of public comments, including more than 40,000 written comments from Oceana supporters alone. Oceana provided testimony at the meeting and is co-sponsoring California state legislation, AB 2019, to eliminate these mile-long "walls of death" off California and replace them with cleaner and more selective gear types to ensure a vibrant, healthy, sustainable marine ecosystem and ocean-based economy into the future.
“The council took the right action by finally throwing out a proposal to expand the use of deadly drift gillnets into critical habitat for endangered Pacific leatherback sea turtles, a conservation area that is working,” said Ben Enticknap, Oceana senior scientist. “However, the fact that these invisible nets still take these magnificent sea turtles—in addition to over a hundred marine mammals and thousands of other fish annually—means the real answer is getting these nets off the water altogether.”
Drift gillnets, used to target swordfish and thresher sharks off California's coast, form dangerous underwater barriers that entangle a myriad of marine mammals, sea turtles, sharks and recreationally important fish. Once entangled in these nets, the animals become critically injured, often unable to surface for air, and most eventually drown. Between May 2007 to January 2012, the drift gillnet fishery discarded 63 percent of all marine animals it caught. Below, a Google map documents marine mammal, sea turtle, and seabird bycatch (click on image for interactive map):
AB 2019 will prohibit the use of drift gillnets to take swordfish or sharks while allowing continued fishing for swordfish and sharks with hand-held hook and lines, harpoons and experimental gears. The bill also establishes a new state policy to support a federal prohibition on drift gillnets off the U.S. West Coast. This effort is long overdue. The legislation is joint-authored by Assemblymembers Paul Fong (D-San Jose) and Marc Levine (D-San Rafael), principle co-authored by Mark Stone (D-Monterey Bay), and co-authored by Anthony Rendon (D- Lakewood), Das Williams (D- Santa Barbara) and Lorena Gonzalez (D- San Diego).
Both Washington and Oregon have already prohibited their fishermen from using drift gillnets, and the U.S. has worked for more than two decades to eliminate drift gillnets from the high seas. Federal waters off California are the only place on the West Coast that drift gillnets can be used to catch swordfish and sharks.
“We are committed to ridding the California Current of this wasteful fishing gear that results in more marine animals being thrown overboard than fish retained,” said Geoff Shester, California campaign director at Oceana. “The sooner these nets are off the water, the faster we can revitalize a sustainable swordfish fishery that is safe for California’s treasured ocean wildlife.”
In an effort to demonstrate the destructive nature of drift gillnet gear and to raise public awareness for the need to transition to cleaner alternatives, Oceana submitted a Freedom of Information Act Request to the National Marine Fisheries Service requesting images of marine life injured and killed in drift gillnets off California. The slideshow included a sampling of some of these photos.
Visit EcoWatch’s BIODIVERSITY page for more related news on this topic.
President Roosevelt’s creation of the Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge in Florida enjoys a prominent place in conservation lore, both for the public lands precedent it set and the rather forthright way he did it. But beyond this, it paved the way for a popular movement that valued wildlife in its own right, encouraged curiosity about how different flora and fauna lived and sought to check the effects of habitat loss.
Today, under the authority of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Wildlife Refuge System has more than 560 units, protecting (and in some cases restoring) about 150 million acres as habitat for thousands of species, many threatened or endangered. National wildlife refuges can be found in every state, comprising a multi-billion dollar economic engine that draws tens of millions of visitors each year. More than 20 million acres of these incredible landscapes are also part of the National Wilderness Preservation System.
Recent hardships—exemplified by the cancellation of National Wildlife Refuge Week in 2013 due to the government shutdown, as well as chronic budget shortfalls—have only underscored the importance of these places for conservation and education. Here are 15 extraordinary animals from the USFWS database, iconic and obscure alike, and some of the refuges where you might be able to spot them (if you’re lucky).
Bigger and less-common than its cousin, the American alligator, the American crocodile is primarily found in South Florida, where a small population resides in swamps, coastal lagoons and estuaries. Some good news: though seldom seen and once very close to extinction, the prehistoric-looking giants have made a comeback in recent years. Despite their fearsome appearance, these reptiles, which grow up to 13 feet in length in the U.S., rarely attack humans (in fact, they tend to avoid us altogether). For fellow wildlife, it’s a different story: their muscular jaws are suited for preying on most fish, turtles, birds and small mammals.
The red wolf, like many other threatened and endangered species, was once common in the U.S., but habitat loss and other factors during the early twentieth century took their toll, leaving the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to develop a last-ditch breeding program and bring the predators back from the brink of dying out entirely The agency did this using a few red wolves recovered from Texas and Louisiana, eventually reintroducing the offspring to a national wildlife refuge in North Carolina. Now, more than 30 years after they were officially declared extinct, that state, part of the historical range, contains more than 100 animals.
Hawaiian monk seal
The beloved, besieged Hawaiian monk seal can grow to 450 pounds and has jaws suited to cracking crab shells with ease. However, it remains utterly at the whim of habitat loss and indiscriminate fishing operations, which have helped make it one of the most endangered marine mammals in the world. Found only in U.S. waters, the big predator is referred to as “Ilio holo I ka uaua,” or “the dog that runs in the rough water,” by native Hawaiians. Without a doubt, that vaguely canine appearance has helped buoy its public standing as a loveable beach-dweller.
Karner blue butterfly
Where to see it: Necedah National Wildlife Refuge (Wisconsin)
These butterflies’ larvae feed only on the leaves of the wild lupine plant, greatly restricting their range. As a result, habitat loss has wreaked havoc on the species, its numbers dwindling nearly to extinction in the past 15 years. To compound that, the tiny, delicately-patterned adults are a coveted catch for butterfly collectors--and the collection of even a few can significantly impact the broader population. Recently, conservation measures in national wildlife refuges and zoos have helped reintroduce the Karner blue butterfly to its historic home range.
A huge, regal bird whose name is almost synonymous with back-from-the-brink conservation success stories, the California condor is nonetheless perpetually on the brink of extinction, with only a few hundred birds left in the wild. National wildlife refuges and other protected public lands like Pinnacles National Park are especially important for their survival, as condors tend to do better in areas with controlled human intrusion and less development. Bald-headed and jowly, these scavengers are not conventionally beautiful, but their presence bespeaks a dinosaur-like mystique, and any birdwatcher would be extremely fortunate to see one in the flesh.
Despite their massive bulk, humpback whales are closely associated with a penchant for moving—specifically, the annual migrations that take them thousands of miles from tropical or subtropical waters (their wintertime calving grounds) back north to feed. Though they can be found in every major ocean, the 25-to-40-ton filter-feeders face threats including whaling, accidental boat collision and entanglement in commercial fishing equipment. Fortunately, their numbers are increasing in much of their range, and with continuing conservation efforts, their eerie “songs,” meant to attract mates or challenge rivals, will hopefully not be silenced any time soon.
Status: Endangered (possibly extinct)
You might catch a glimpse of the sinuous, dusky Jaguarundi somewhere in Florida, but any population there is thought to have originated from pets released in the 1940s. Jaguarundis found in the south of Texas are the real article, though even they are extremely rare, having dwindled over the course of several decades due to farming and other development in the mixed-brush landscapes of the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Some say the species is effectively extinct in America, with only unconfirmed sightings attesting to their presence since 1986. Recently, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published a plan to formally reintroduce a population of the wild cats to Texas.
California red-legged frog
Historically, these richly-colored frogs, the largest native to California, were found throughout the state, from Mendocino County in the north to Baja in the south, as well as in the eastern foothills of the Sierra Nevada. However, this range has been considerably reduced, and they remain at-risk due to invasive species and habitat loss from development and farming. The California red-legged frogs that remain can be found in slow or standing bodies of freshwater with plant cover. They have voracious appetites, and have been observed preying on fish, mice and fellow frogs in addition to the usual array of small invertebrates.
Where to see it: Bogue Chitto National Wildlife Refuge (Louisiana/Mississippi)
This subspecies of Atlantic sturgeon breeds in freshwater only after migrating upriver from marine and estuary habitat and is limited to a small area of the Gulf of Mexico from Tampa Bay, FL, to Lake Ponchartrain, LA. The gulf sturgeon is a fascinating example of a living fossil—an armored, torpedo-shaped fish that has been slow to evolve and doesn’t look much different than when dinosaurs roamed the earth. These partly cartilaginous giants are known for leaping from the water without warning. Sadly, they are at-risk due to overfishing—widespread for nearly a century until fisheries were closed in the mid-1980s—water pollution, habitat destruction, dredging and dams.
Leatherback sea turtle
Where to see it: Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge (Florida), Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge (Florida), Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge (Texas), Breton National Wildlife Refuge (Louisiana), Fisherman Island National Wildlife Refuge (Virginia) and others.
Leatherback sea turtles can easily be distinguished from their flippered kin by the parallel ridges running down their stiff, rubber-like carapaces and their tremendous size and weight (sometimes exceeding one ton). But like other sea turtles, they are threatened by habitat loss, hunting, marine pollution and boat strikes. In U.S. waters, leatherbacks in the Atlantic Ocean have fared better than those in the Pacific. When unencumbered, these powerful swimmers thrive in the open sea, and, despite their sparse numbers, enjoy wider global distribution than any other reptile.
In winter and spring, the male spectacled eider in full breeding plumage resembles a sea duck from Mars, with its bright orange bill, bold white goggles and wig-like green feathers. Unfortunately, this exotic-looking bird has become extremely rare since the 1970s, prompting its “threatened” listing in 1993. Reasons for this decline are not well-understood, but pollution and lead poisoning from birdshot have been contributing factors. While they spend most of their time at sea feeding on mollusks and crustaceans, the ducks also depend on Alaska’s Arctic coastal plain as breeding ground.
Audubon's crested caracara
Where to see it: Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge (Florida)
Audubon’s crested caracara, a large, striking member of the falcon family, can be found in wet prairies and some wooded areas in Florida and the Gulf Coast region, but habitat loss and human interference (especially in the form of motor vehicle traffic) have made it a rarer sight than it used to be. It eats carrion and small animals, part of a diet that is unusually varied for a bird of prey. The way they get that food is pretty unique, too; caracaras have been reported stealing carrion from vultures and other birds, sometimes even in mid-flight.
Where to see it: Ozark Plateau National Wildlife Refuge (Oklahoma).
Befitting its name, the Ozark big-eared bat's hearing organs can reach one-third the animal’s total body length. Fewer than 2,000 of these tiny insectivores are thought to remain in the wild, and while conservationists have worked to restore the species since it was added to the federal endangered species list more than 30 years ago, cave vandalism and assorted human disturbance have made it an ongoing challenge. Oklahoma’s Ozark Plateau National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1986 in large part to aid recovery of this and other cave-dwelling creatures.
West Indian manatee
Where to see it: J. N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge (Florida), Pine Island National Wildlife Refuge (Florida), Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge (Florida), Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge (Florida), Savannah National Wildlife Refuge (Georgia/South Carolina) and others.
Whether or not this placid coastal river- and estuary-dweller is truly the inspiration for mermaid tales of yore, the West Indian manatee is uniquely beloved, a flagship species for conservationists and Floridians at-large. Like some human inhabitants, the “sea cow” typically spends winters in and around the state, straying west and north when it warms up (in one famous case, the same manatee was spotted in the Chesapeake Bay twice, 17 years apart). Resembling what could be loosely called a sport utility seal, the gentle, bulky creature has benefited greatly from conservation efforts since the 1970s, but is still vulnerable to human-caused habitat loss, boat collisions, entanglement in fishing gear and entrapment in flood gates and canal locks.
Higgins eye pearly mussel
Where to see it: Great River National Wildlife Refuge (Iowa/Illinois/Missouri), Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge (Iowa/Illinois/Minnesota/Wisconsin).
The Higgins eye is a freshwater mussel that likes deep, relatively gentle water. Though little-noticed, beds of these mussels serve many important roles, including as a food source for raccoons, otters and muskrats; filtering water to improve quality; and providing river-bottom microhabitats for other aquatic life. Populations on the Mississippi River and elsewhere are imperiled by invasive zebra mussels, pollution, dredging, boat traffic and other dangers. Let this serve as a reminder: national wildlife refuges don’t only protect habitat for big or cuddly animals.
While our national wildlife refuges offer great opportunities to see rare plants and animals, preservation of these species for future generations requires that we take precautions not to interfere with them. This means keeping a respectful distance and maintaining healthy habitat by following “leave no trace” rules: never take anything out of a wildlife refuge or leave anything behind.
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A unanimous California Court of Appeal upheld San Francisco’s expanded plastic bag ban, marking the latest in a string of victories for local laws phasing out single-use plastic bags.
The lawsuit, brought by the Save the Plastic Bag Coalition, had disputed the procedures San Francisco used to expand its plastic bag ban in 2012 and the legality of banning plastic bags in restaurants. This is the first appellate court to consider the restaurant issue. Yesterday’s ruling sets the stage for more cities to adopt and strengthen local laws phasing out plastic bags.
“This is a great victory for our oceans,” said Nathan Weaver with Environment California. “The court’s decision makes clear once again that our communities have the right to keep plastic out of the Pacific by banning plastic bags and encouraging reusable bag use."
This decision is the latest in a series of failed legal challenges to plastic bag ordinances by the plastics industry and its allies. The California Supreme Court famously upheld the City of Manhattan Beach’s plastic bag ban in a unanimous 2011 ruling. The California Court of Appeal upheld Los Angeles County’s plastic bag ordinance earlier this year, rejecting a lawsuit filed by Hilex Poly Co. and its allies. Marin County’s plastic bag ban won decisively in the Court of Appeal this June. Lower courts have upheld plastic bag bans against CEQA challenges in San Francisco and San Luis Obispo County. Lawsuits against Long Beach, Palo Alto, Santa Cruz, and Santa Cruz County have been settled on favorable terms leaving the local plastic bag ban in effect.
Single-use plastic bags are one of the most common garbage items on California’s beaches according to Ocean Conservancy beach cleanup data. The bags are a threat to ocean wildlife, like the leatherback sea turtles that mistake them for edible jellyfish. One in three leatherback sea turtles studied had plastic in their stomach, most often a plastic bag, according to an analysis of 370 autopsies. So far, 90 California local governments have banned single-use plastic bags.
“Nothing we use for a few minutes should pollute the ocean for hundreds of years,” commented Weaver.
The case is Save the Plastic Bag Coalition v. City and County of San Francisco, No. A137056.
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