Shared Outrage against a Licence to Kill in Pursuit of Oil
By Ben Ayliffe
Several of Greenpeace’s friends recently filed a lawsuit to challenge a decision by the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) allowing oil company Apache Alaska Corporation to kill up to 30 Cook Inlet Beluga Whales.
The NMFS decision to issue a deceptively bland-sounding “incidental take authorisation” will allow Apache to kill up to 30 whales every year as part of its three-year seismic surveying programme for possible oil and gas reserves.
It has been estimated that there are less than 300 Beluga whales left in the inlet, so the decision effectively means that no action will be taken against Apache even if up to 1-in-10 of the local beluga population is killed as a result of the seismic testing it will carry out over 160 days in the area.
This testing involves using underwater airguns and explosives to map the geology of the inlet and work out if there is any oil to drill for. Under the authorization, Apache also has carte blanche to “incidentally take” 50 harbour seals, 20 harbour porpoise, 10 orca and 20 Steller sea lions.
Rightly outraged by the decision, our friends at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), along with the Native Village of Chickaloon, the Centre for Water Advocacy and Centre for Biological Diversity, jointly filed the lawsuit challenging the NMFS decision.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has classified the Cook Inlet beluga whale as “critically endangered,” meaning it is “considered to be facing an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild” because it “has experienced a precipitous decline in recent years.”
There are now thought to be less than 300 of this genetically unique population left in the Cook Inlet. They are protected by the U.S. government under the Endangered Species Act and the IUCN believes that “the population cannot withstand” further losses to its numbers, explicitly noting that remaining animals are threatened by “noise associated with oil and gas exploration and production.”
Despite this, Apache plans to begin seismic surveys in the coming months.
Many marine mammal and fish species rely on sound to find food, navigate and communicate. NRDC argues that Apache’s operations will generate “some of the loudest, most disruptive sounds that humans put in the water … entirely within the designated critical habitat of a declining and endangered species.”
The noise created will be “greater than 235 decibels at their source—billions of times more intense than the noise thresholds known to compromise foraging and other vital behavior in marine mammals.” These sounds are likely to be “loud enough to mask whale calls over thousands of miles, destroying their capacity to communicate and breed; it can drive whales to abandon their habitat and cease foraging, and closer in it can cause hearing loss and death.”
NRDC and its allies argue the NMFS authorization breaches not only the Endangered Species Act, but also the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Administrative Procedure Act. As one of the signatories to the legal challenge said, it is hard to imagine that the permit “could not significantly contribute to their extinction.”
More than two decades after the Exxon Valdez spill coated much of Cook Inlet, the region is still feeling the after-effects of our addiction to oil.
At the same time that Shell’s rusting drill ships are preparing to drill in the pristine, icy waters of the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas of the Alaskan Arctic, giving Apache the green-light to decimate the already threatened local beluga population is the latest example of the appalling cost of our thirst for the last drops of oil on the planet.
We’ll be watching how the challenge proceeds from here and deeply hoping that it will prove successful.
Sweden's reindeer have a problem. In winter, they feed on lichens buried beneath the snow. But the climate crisis is making this difficult. Warmer temperatures mean moisture sometimes falls as rain instead of snow. When the air refreezes, a layer of ice forms between the reindeer and their meal, forcing them to wander further in search of ideal conditions. And sometimes, this means crossing busy roads.
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By Aaron W Hunter
A chance discovery of a beautifully preserved fossil in the desert landscape of Morocco has solved one of the great mysteries of biology and paleontology: how starfish evolved their arms.
The Pompeii of palaeontology. Aaron Hunter, Author provided<h2></h2><p>Although starfish might appear very robust animals, they are typically made up of lots of hard parts attached by ligaments and soft tissue which, upon death, quickly degrade. This means we rely on places like the Fezouata formations to provide snapshots of their evolution.</p><p>The starfish fossil record is patchy, especially at the critical time when many of these animal groups first appeared. Sorting out how each of the various types of ancient starfish relate to each other is like putting a puzzle together when many of the parts are missing.</p><h2>The Oldest Starfish</h2><p><em><a href="https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/216101v1.full.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Cantabrigiaster</a></em> is the most primitive starfish-like animal to be discovered in the fossil record. It was discovered in 2003, but it has taken over 17 years to work out its true significance.</p><p>What makes <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> unique is that it lacks almost all the characteristics we find in brittle stars and starfish.</p><p>Starfish and brittle stars belong to the family Asterozoa. Their ancestors, the Somasteroids were especially fragile - before <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> we only had a handful of specimens. The celebrated Moroccan paleontologist Mohamed <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.palaeo.2016.06.041" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Ben Moula</a> and his local team was instrumental in discovering <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0031018216302334?via%3Dihub" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">these amazing fossils</a> near the town of Zagora, in Morocco.</p><h2>The Breakthrough</h2><p>Our breakthrough moment came when I compared the arms of <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> with those of modern sea lilles, filter feeders with long feathery arms that tend to be attached to the sea floor by a stem or stalk.</p><p>The striking similarity between these modern filter feeders and the ancient starfish led our team from the University of Cambridge and Harvard University to create a new analysis. We applied a biological model to the features of all the current early Asterozoa fossils in existence, along with a sample of their closest relatives.</p>
Cantabrigiaster is the most primitive starfish-like animal to be discovered in the fossil record. Aaron Hunter, Author provided<p>Our results demonstrate <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> is the most primitive of all the Asterozoa, and most likely evolved from ancient animals called crinoids that lived 250 million years before dinosaurs. The five arms of starfish are a relic left over from these ancestors. In the case of <em>Cantabrigiaster</em>, and its starfish descendants, it evolved by flipping upside-down so its arms are face down on the sediment to feed.</p><p>Although we sampled a relatively small numbers of those ancestors, one of the unexpected outcomes was it provided an idea of how they could be related to each other. Paleontologists studying echinoderms are often lost in detail as all the different groups are so radically different from each other, so it is hard to tell which evolved first.</p>
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