By John R. Platt and Tara Lohan
Let's be honest, 2019 was a rough year for the planet. Despite some environmental victories along the way, we saw the extinction crisis deepen, efforts to curtail climate change blocked at almost every turn, and the oceans continue to warm. We also heard new revelations about ways that plastics and chemicals harm our bodies, saw the political realm become even more polarized, and experienced yet another round of record-breaking temperatures.
1. The Poster Child of the Extinction Crisis<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjQ4NDQ5NS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyNjkyMTI1Mn0.Hg4h4TvduITsOlry7kUZ1ThmXOUwNkYy_W9qF0PEWoA/img.jpg?width=980" id="f9f22" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="d1fdeb3094743dc117ca37f437baebc6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Tom Jefferson / NOAA Fisheries West Coast<p>We expect to see a wide range of endangered species in the news this coming year, but few will face threats so urgently as the vaquita porpoise (<em>Phocoena sinus</em>).</p><p><span></span>As we've written here before, <a href="https://therevelator.org/saving-vaquita-new-promises-threats/" target="_blank">the vaquita is in perilous territory</a>, with a population of as few as 10 now remaining. The good news is that scientists recently observed adult vaquitas with two newborn calves, so they're still finding each other and breeding. The bad news is that Mexico has failed in its promises to keep fishermen and illegal gillnets off the water, so the pressures on this species continue to rise.</p><p>We anticipate that 2020 will show whether human beings will let this species go extinct in full view of the world or step up to save it.</p>
2. The Supreme Court<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjQ4NDQ5NC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzMTI2NjM3OX0.7YiKhoT7mUFRR-eaQDuk5Ex6Gstf1qTA0ngqwY9UI8c/img.jpg?width=980" id="c880c" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8f3693f29675138f3a231276b052d806" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Mark Fisher / CC BY-SA 2.0<p>The lasting impact of the Trump administration may soon be felt in the courts, especially in the Supreme Court, where Brett Kavanaugh has made clear his devotion to the "less is more" principles of government espoused by the Federalist Society.</p><p><span></span>If the Society and Kavanaugh get their way, the federal government could lose much of its ability to allow agencies like the EPA to regulate…well, anything. As Ian Millhiser wrote recently in <a href="https://www.vox.com/2019/11/26/20981758/brett-kavanaughs-terrify-democrats-supreme-court-gundy-paul" target="_blank"><em>Vox</em></a>:</p><blockquote><em>"It's impossible to exaggerate the importance of this issue. Countless federal laws, from the Clean Air Act to the Affordable Care Act, lay out a broad federal policy and delegate to an agency the power to implement the details of that policy. Under Kavanaugh's approach, many of these laws are unconstitutional, as are numerous existing regulations governing polluters, health providers, and employers."</em></blockquote><p>The conservative wing of the Supreme Court currently holds the majority, and that's not likely to change anytime soon (<a href="https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/zmj9bw/mitch-mcconnell-is-about-to-steamroll-democrats-with-another-30-conservative-judges-before-the-end-of-the-year" target="_blank">thanks, Mitch McConnell</a>), so we expect this issue to rear its ugly head sooner rather than later, and well beyond the next presidential election.</p>
3. Climate Change: Peak or Panic?<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjQ4NDQ4Ni9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzODc2ODcyMX0.A6ZESFo_Iec4agzMiqExonTfALLfYT8UCYmgfiX2oT0/img.jpg?width=980" id="c6d51" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="99d2cfa7c0e5c73ec8cf440d49e5dcae" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Greta Thunberg at a climate change rally in Denver, Colorado, 2019. Anthony Quintano / CC BY 2.0<p>Will we experience a true climate tipping point this year? If so, which way will it tip?</p><p>On the one hand, people are clamoring more and more loudly for climate action, with activists like Greta Thunberg leading the charge.</p><p>On the other hand, the most recent UN climate change conference (COP25) was…a bit of a disappointing failure, thanks in no small part to the fact that <a href="https://heated.world/p/the-corporate-takeover-of-cop25?token=eyJ1c2VyX2lkIjo2OTQzNzgsInBvc3RfaWQiOjE5NDgzNCwiXyI6IlhialBOIiwiaWF0IjoxNTc2MTA1NDg5LCJleHAiOjE1NzYxMDkwODksImlzcyI6InB1Yi0yNDczIiwic3ViIjoicG9zdC1yZWFjdGlvbiJ9.ApMI4Uj7KLtN04V95wSCqGAV7kg9-AA-h52ym8KGEK4" target="_blank">the fossil fuel industry <em>sponsored </em>much of the event</a>.</p><p>Still, we're going to see a lot of new data and science come out this year, and we may find out if the efforts we've already started making have paid off yet. One noteworthy example: The coal industry is in the process of dying a slow death, so even though total worldwide emissions are up, coal emissions are headed down.</p><p>What does that mean? According to the experts, this could be the year greenhouse gas emissions peak or flatline — or they could start climbing even more. It's up to us.</p>
4. Drinking Water<p>After the federal government dropped the ball in 2019, we expect to see another push this year for meaningful action to limit the harm caused by per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) — the suite of toxic "forever chemicals" that stubbornly don't break down in the environment or our bodies.</p><p>PFAS are found in thousands of consumer and industrial products, including nonstick pans, waterproof clothing, stain-resistant furniture, food wrappers, personal care goods and firefighting foam. They've been linked to cancer, liver damage and reproductive and immune-system problems. Millions of Americans are believed to be drinking water contaminated with PFAS, including the residents of <a href="https://www.militarytimes.com/2019/07/14/heres-an-updated-map-of-military-sites-where-dod-found-cancer-causing-chemicals-in-the-drinking-water/" target="_blank">175 military installations</a>, and the dangerous chemicals have been found in soil and food, too.</p><p>After federal agencies did nothing substantial on the issue, it looked like there might be congressional action. But language that would have required the EPA to set a drinking-water standard for PFAS and for the federal government to aid in cleaning polluted areas was <a href="https://www.freep.com/story/news/local/michigan/2019/12/10/pfas-trump-defense-authorization-bill/4383945002/" target="_blank">dropped from the National Defense Authorization Act</a> in December. Democrats have vowed to take up the issue again this year, and advocates want to see a federal standard strict enough to protect public health. We expect vigorous discussions and more than a few worries along the way.</p>
5. Ocean Action<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjQ4NDQ4NC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1NDEwNzA4Nn0.ABl1YZH8dEik-BmIMhl9p95hmmcmnOkdxtNv-NegNZ0/img.jpg?width=980" id="171db" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="b25f8b2403df236507cce6cfbd8dbdcb" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Ocean Biology Processing Group at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center / public domain<p>In 2019 we got serving after serving of bad news about how climate change is warming waters, driving <a href="https://www.iucn.org/news/marine-and-polar/201912/marine-life-fisheries-increasingly-threatened-ocean-loses-oxygen-iucn-report" target="_blank">oxygen loss</a> and increasing <a href="https://www.npr.org/2019/09/25/755859707/earths-oceans-are-getting-hotter-and-higher-and-it-s-accelerating" target="_blank">sea level rise</a> in the ocean — threatening <a href="https://ipbes.net/news/ipbes-global-assessment-preview" target="_blank">biodiversity</a>, fisheries and coastal communities.</p><p>This year we could see some steps toward solutions.</p><p>Drawing on language from the much-discussed Green New Deal for equitable environmental action, ocean advocates in 2019 <a href="https://grist.org/article/the-big-blue-gap-in-the-green-new-deal/" target="_blank">called for a Blue New Deal</a> — a comprehensive plan for protecting our oceans and coastal communities. Senator and Democratic presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren picked up the gauntlet before the year closed out, <a href="https://elizabethwarren.com/plans/blue-new-deal?source=soc-WB-ew-tw-rollout-20191210" target="_blank">releasing her own</a> Blue New Deal that would expand marine protected areas, end offshore drilling, build more offshore renewable energy, reform flood insurance, boost fisheries and invest in regenerative ocean farming.</p><p>Expect to hear more about action on ocean protection this year, not just in the U.S. but internationally. After years of talks, the United Nations is set to finalize a <a href="https://www.un.org/press/en/2019/sea2118.doc.htm" target="_blank">global ocean treaty</a> in 2020, although there's a fear it will <a href="https://www.greenpeace.org/international/press-release/24024/global-ocean-treaty-negotiations-at-the-un-greenpeace-response/" target="_blank">fall far short</a> of what's needed to thwart the biodiversity crisis.</p>
6. Public Lands<p>Many of the country's most remote and wild public lands face big threats this year, continuing the trend we've seen since the last presidential election. Two will remain particularly noteworthy.</p><p>One, the Forest Service is expected to finalize a <a href="https://www.npr.org/2019/10/24/772939221/trump-wants-to-exempt-tongass-national-forest-from-roadless-rule" target="_blank">Trump administration proposal</a> to lift the Roadless Area Conservation Rule for Alaska's <a href="https://therevelator.org/road-ruin-wild-places/" target="_blank">Tongass National Forest</a>. The rewrite, due this summer, could open millions of acres of old-growth forest and salmon spawning habitat to timber, mining and other development.</p><p>Two, the decades-long <a href="https://www.eenews.net/energywire/stories/1061708927" target="_blank">battle over drilling</a> continues in the <a href="https://therevelator.org/trump-drilling-alaska-arctic-refuge/" target="_blank">wildlife-rich and culturally important</a> Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. A rider in a 2017 tax bill passed by the Republican-led Congress greenlighted two oil and gas lease sales in the refuge's coastal plain. The Trump administration is likely to hold those in 2020. It's unclear yet how interested oil companies will be, but a move to begin drilling in the refuge is staunchly opposed by Indigenous communities, environmental groups and the <a href="https://climatecommunication.yale.edu/publications/americans-oppose-drilling-arctic-national-wildlife-refuge-2019/" target="_blank">majority of U.S. voters</a>.</p>
7. Plastic Pollution<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjQ4NDQ4My9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzMzUxMzc5M30.6r5_LPksr6WwHTp3wqVMsS2CpeLzJQvWWzykBGHBR-g/img.jpg?width=980" id="5c8b4" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="f5184089b6ac12309a674e2e15b30be8" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
John Platt / CC BY-NC-ND 3.0<p>With pending legislation that aims to cut plastic waste 75 percent by 2030, California will take another run this year at passing a first-of-its-kind (in the United States) effort to hold companies that make plastic products <a href="https://therevelator.org/california-plastic-legislation/" target="_blank">accountable for their waste</a>. The bill stalled last year, but proponents will renew efforts in 2020.</p><p>They face stiff opposition from plastic and fossil fuel companies that are busy turning cheap fracked gas into more plastics. Petrochemical companies are planning a massive buildout of infrastructure in the <a href="https://www.propublica.org/article/what-could-happen-if-a-9.4-billion-chemical-plant-comes-to-cancer-alley" target="_blank">Gulf coast</a> and the <a href="https://www.ehn.org/petrochemical-industry-ohio-river-2641494525.html" target="_blank">Ohio River Valley</a> to facilitate the production of more plastics, both at home and <a href="https://stateimpact.npr.org/pennsylvania/2019/10/02/shale-gas-off-ramp-pa-s-fracking-boom-produces-a-glut-of-ethane-thats-helping-fuel-plastics-production-overseas/" target="_blank">abroad</a>.</p><p><span></span>We expect to see continued efforts to inform consumers about their buying choices, but in the next year the fight against plastic pollution will be much less about straw bans and more about fighting the root causes and stopping it at the source.</p>
8. The 2020 Election<p>The upcoming presidential election will dominate the conversation in the coming months, but let's make sure to pay attention to every other race out there on the federal, state and local level. All these elections will add up — and collectively they could determine the future of just about every environmental issue listed above.</p><p>In other words: Stay tuned.</p>
- New Border Wall Construction Threatens 8 Species With Extinction ... ›
- A Call to Action as Planet's Essential Groundwater Is Being Rapidly ... ›
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By John R. Platt
When it comes to solving problems related to wildlife trade, there are an awful lot of "sticky widgets."
- Scientists Create Fake Rhino Horn to Fight Poaching - EcoWatch ›
- The Biggest Issues for Wildlife and Endangered Species in 2019 ... ›
Six months: That's how much time Mexico now has to report on its progress to save the critically endangered vaquita porpoise (Phocoena sinus) from extinction.
Demonstrators with The Animal Welfare Institute hold a rally to save the vaquita, the world's smallest and most endangered porpoise, outside the Mexican Embassy in DC on July 5, 2018.
SAUL LOEB / AFP / Getty Images<p>Next, <a href="https://fronterasdesk.org/content/1204916/conservationists-fishermen-unsatisfied-mexicos-efforts-protect-endangered-porpoise" target="_blank">600 Mexican antipoaching troops</a> are scheduled to arrive in the region soon to enforce a "zero tolerance" fishing policy in the vaquita's habitat.</p><p>But those troops may find themselves in the midst of a renewed struggle with local fishermen. Mexico has paid shrimp fishermen to stay out of vaquita habitat since 2015, but those compensation funds reportedly stopped arriving last December, after President Andrés Manuel López Obrador took office. With fishermen now struggling to feed their families, their leaders say fleets could resume operation any day. "We know about the vaquita, and we've done what we can, but we have needs and we have to work," Lorenzo Garcia, president of the region's largest fishermen's federation, told <a href="https://fronterasdesk.org/content/1189691/without-government-aid-fishermen-return-vaquitas-habitat" target="_blank"><em>Fronteras</em></a>.</p><p>Even with the imminent arrival of Mexican soldiers, the resumption of gillnet shrimp fishing in the Gulf of California represents a major shift in vaquita conservation efforts. Will it push the tiny porpoises closer to disappearing? The world will be watching.</p><p><em>Reposted with permission from our media associate <a href="https://therevelator.org/saving-vaquita-new-promises-threats/" target="_blank">The Revelator</a>.</em></p>
- Just 'Days' Left to Save 6 to 19 Remaining Vaquitas - EcoWatch ›
- Vaquita Still Doomed Without Further Disruption of Totoaba Cartels ... ›
- Only 10 Vaquita Porpoises Remain in the World, Scientists Announce ›
Scientists announced Thursday that only 10 vaquita porpoises likely remain in the world and that the animal's extinction is virtually assured without bold and immediate action.
- Vaquita Still Doomed Without Further Disruption of Totoaba Cartels ... ›
- WATCH: Poachers Ambush Sea Shepherd Vessel Protecting Nearly ... ›
- Vaquita ›
My organization, the Elephant Action League (EAL), spent 14 months investigating and infiltrating the illicit totoaba swim bladder supply chain, from Baja California in Mexico to Southern China. We released a public report on what we called Operation Fake Gold in July 2018. Since then, we have continued to submit intelligence to Mexican, U.S. and Chinese authorities in order to facilitate disruption of the totoaba supply chain. As a result, further review of the situation surrounding the totoaba trade and its effect on the extinction of the vaquita is warranted.
The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society says that its vessel, the M/V Farley Mowat, was ambushed on Jan. 31 by a group of poachers posing as fishermen while the ship was conducting maritime conservation patrols in a vaquita refuge in Mexico's Gulf of California. It's the second such attack in less than a month.
The conservation organization says its ship was surrounded by more than 50 assailants on 20 high speed boats, according to a press release shared with EcoWatch.
Sea Shepherd released a video showing fishermen shouting, hurling objects and trying to foul the propellors of the M/V Farley Mowat, a Sea Shepherd vessel used in campaigns against illegal fisheries activities.
In a crucial win for the quickly vanishing vaquita porpoise, a federal appeals court sided with conservationists Wednesday when it upheld a ban on Mexican seafood imports caught with gillnets, which drown the endangered marine mammal. "Immediate pressure on Mexico to ban all gillnets in the upper Gulf of California and to clear the area of illegal nets is necessary now for the vaquita's survival," said Giulia Good Stefani, a staff attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
WATCH: Less Than 30 Vaquitas Remain. Sea Shepherd Is Determined to Save World's Most Endangered Marine Mammal
Watch as Sea Shepherd Ship Manager Rebecca Benjamin-Carey takes viewers on a tour through Operation Milagro V's latest vessel: The M/V White Holly. EcoWatch's Facebook / https://www.facebook.com/EcoWatch/videos/282268175718393/
Sea Shepherd will soon launch the White Holly vessel from Fernandina Beach, Florida to Mexico's Sea of Cortez in an effort to advance their latest campaign, Operation Milagro V. The campaign is focused on saving the the vaquita porpoise—the world's most endangered marine mammal.
EcoWatch teamed up with Sea Shepherd in this exclusive Facebook live video below to hear about their mission to save the vaquita. Asia's wildlife blackmarket is on track to driving the vaquita to extinction. Poachers causing the crisis are not actually after the vaquita, but the totoaba fish, as one totoaba bladder sells for $20,000 USD in China's blackmarket. As a result vaquitas are tragically getting trapped in illegal nets and dying at rapid rates.
Last year, an international vaquita recovery committee rang alarm bells after reporting that there were just 30 left on the planet, with more recent estimates pegging the tiny porpoise's population at only 12.
Now, the plight of the world's most endangered marine mammal—and the intense conservation efforts to save it—is the subject of a new documentary from Red Bull's Terra Mater Factual Studios, Variety reported Tuesday.
'Unprecedented Rescue Operation': Sea Shepherd Saves 25 Critically Endangered Totoabas at the Height of Spawning Season
At 7:45 p.m. PST Monday, the Sea Shepherd vessel M/V SHARPIE came upon an illegal gillnet within the Vaquita Refuge in the Northern Sea of Cortez, Mexico. The gillnet was entangled in a longline. As the ship's crew began to separate the illegal fishing gear, they noticed live totoaba bass in the net, embarking on an unprecedented rescue operation.
It is the height of totoaba bass spawning season in the Upper Gulf of California, when the endangered fish migrate directly to an area inhabited by the vaquita porpoise. The vaquita is currently the most endangered marine mammal in the world, and continues to be threatened as bycatch in the illegal totoaba trade.
By Douglas McCauley and Paul DeSalles
(The views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily Mongabay.)
1. U.S. Drops Out of Paris
In our 2015 ocean top 10 list, we celebrated the adoption of the Paris agreement as a monumental achievement for slowing the warming, acidification and deoxygenation of our global oceans. In 2017, remaining nations like Afghanistan, Nicaragua and Syria ratified the agreement, bringing the total number of ratifying nations to 171. But in a radical about-face of global leadership on climate action, the Trump administration officially declared that the U.S. would withdraw from the Paris agreement, citing unfair impacts on the American economy.
It's been a big year for conservation.
Together we assured the world that the U.S. is still an ally in the fight against climate change through the We Are Still In movement, a coalition of more than 2,500 American leaders outside of the federal government who are still committed to meeting climate goals. WWF's activists met with legislators to voice their support for international conservation funding. And we ensured that Bhutan's vast and wildlife-rich areas remain protected forever through long-term funding.