By Elizabeth Claire Alberts
The California condor has been teetering on the brink of extinction for decades. When the species was first assessed in 1994 for the IUCN Red List, the global authority on the conservation statuses of species, it was listed as "critically endangered." Nearly 30 years later, its status has not changed. But this doesn't tell the whole story.
Conservationists have actually been working hard to keep the California condor (Gymnogyps californianus) alive with captive breeding and reintroduction efforts. "They would be extinct without conservation by now," Claudia Hermes, a Red List researcher at BirdLife International who has worked on the California condor listing, told Mongabay. "But with conservation, they actually respond fairly well."
Now, a new addition to the IUCN's Red List — the IUCN Green Status of Species — illustrates the condor's positive response to conservation efforts, despite its critically endangered status, and its high recovery potential if these efforts are maintained.
"The Green Status really fills this gap because it tells us that despite the fairly high extinction risk that we still have this hope," Hermes said.
The preliminary green status for the California condor (Gymnogyps californianus). IUCN
A new paper published July 28 in Conservation Biology introduces the IUCN Green Status as a new assessment framework that provides information about the ecological functionality of a species within its range, and also how much a species has recovered due to conservation efforts. A team of more than 200 international scientists from 171 institutions presented preliminary Green Status assessments for 181 species, ranging from the pink pigeon (Nesoenas mayeri) to the gray wolf (Canis lupus) to the Sumatran rhinoceros (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis).
"It's providing a more nuanced picture of what's going on with a species and that's going to provide information that's really important for conservation planning and also measuring and celebrating the impact of past conservation," lead author Molly Grace, a researcher at the University of Oxford who led the development of the IUCN Green Status, told Mongabay. "The Red List is a wonderful tool, but when we try to use it beyond what it was made to do, which is to measure extinction risk, then we sometimes get answers that are a bit misleading or don't tell the full story."
The IUCN Green Status will classify species into nine recovery categories that will use historical population levels to indicate if a species has been largely depleted from its range or if it is nearing recovery. The assessment framework will also measure the impact of past conservation efforts, species' reliance on conservation action, and how much a species could gain in the next 10 years due to conservation action. It also offers a long-term view of species' recovery potential over the next 100 years.
A pink pigeon (Nesoenas mayeri) photographed in its native Mauritius. Sergey Yeliseev / Flickr
Sometimes a species' Red List status will align with the Green Status, but other times the two metrics will not match up. Take the burrowing bettong (Bettongia lesueur), a small marsupial, for example. The species' Red List status is "near threatened," which suggests that while the species is in peril there isn't an immediate risk of extinction. But the Green Status shows that the burrowing bettong is actually "critically depleted" from its range and does not have a high recovery potential due to the difficulties in controlling invasive species like cats and foxes that prey upon these animals.
Less than 2% of the surveyed species had a conservation impact metric of zero, which indicates "that conservation has, or will, play a role in improving or maintaining species status for the vast majority of these species," the authors write in the paper.
Co-author Elizabeth Bennett, vice president for species conservation at the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), says the new framework can help incentivize conservation action.
"There are... donors that are starting to be interested in this because it's more fine-tuned and sensitive to change than the Red List," Bennett told Mongabay. "So within a granting period, you potentially could improve the green status of a species, where the Red List status tends to be much slower to react to change."
Burrowing bettong (Bettongia lesueur), a near threatened species that is critically depleted from its native range in Australia. Daniele Parra / Flickr
The IUCN Green Status will be officially launched online at the start of the IUCN World Conservation Congress, which will take place in Marseille, France, from Sept. 3-11, 2021.
"The core thing that excites me is that it's an optimistic view of where we want to go with species conservation," Bennett told Mongabay. "And it gives people a really good clear roadmap about that for each species. So instead of just saying, Oh, we don't want this species to go extinct… we can say, but we want it to be thriving, and we want to be playing its full ecological role. And this is what it could look like. And this is how we can get there."
Reposted with permission from Mongabay.
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By Elizabeth Claire AlbertsThe Mexican government will no longer protect the habitat of the critically endangered vaquita in the Upper Gulf of California, but has opened the area up to fishing, according to a news report.
It's estimated that there are only about nine vaquitas left in the world.The vaquita (Phocoena sinus), a bathtub-sized porpoise endemic to the Sea of Cortez in Mexico's Upper Gulf of California, has experienced a sharp population decline in the two past two decades, mainly due to illegal gillnet fishing for the critically endangered totoaba (Totoaba macdonaldi).
In 2017, the Mexican government established a "no tolerance" zone to protect the vaquita from illegal fishing, and even expanded the area last September. But now the government has given fishers open access to the refuge, the only enforcement being a "sliding scale of sanctions if more than 60 boats are repeatedly seen in the area," according to Mexico News Daily.
"I fear this might be the death knell for the vaquita, as the plan that has been proposed by Mexico will convert what should be a straightforward 'no go' zone into a complex enforcement area with varying levels of monitoring and deterrence depending on the amount of illegal fishing taking place in the area," Kate O'Connell, marine consultant at the Washington, DC-based Animal Welfare Institute, told Mongabay. "The vaquita are being mismanaged to death."
Two vaquitas in the Sea of Cortez. Sea Shepherd
O'Connell said gillnet fishing is technically still banned in the Upper Gulf of California, but will likely take place in the former "no tolerance" zone without proper monitoring and enforcement.
"Mexico's fisheries authorities are indicating that they are either unable or unwilling to do all that is necessary to save the vaquita and are willing to accept a certain level of gillnet fishing activity," she said. "One hundred percent monitoring and enforcement of the fishing ban only kicks in once more than 50 illegal vessels are seen, or more than 200 meters [660 feet] of illegal gillnets are found in the area."
Andrea Crosta, executive director of Earth League International (ELI), an NGO that has been actively investigating totoaba trafficking in the region, said this move will likely seal the fate of the critically endangered species.
"It means the extinction of the vaquita and in general an increase of illegal gillnets that will have a significant impact on the marine life in the Sea of Cortez," Crosta told Mongabay. "It's like saying to illegal fishermen and totoaba traffickers, do what you want from now on."
Crosta said he thinks that abolishment of the "no tolerance" zone is a political move on behalf of the current Mexican government.
"I think that the current populist administration in Mexico is concerned only about voters, certainly not about environmental protection and endangered species, if this gets in the way of political gain," he said. "And if the vaquita will go extinct I am sure the current administration in Mexico will blame the administration before."
A vaquita swims near a fishing boat using gillnets. CONANP / Museo de la Ballena / SEA SHEPHERD
While this move could be advantageous to local fishers, Crosta said it will be the international totoaba traders, most of whom are Chinese nationals, who will reap the most benefits. "[They] will make a ton of money with even less risks than before," he said.
There have been multiple efforts and hundreds of thousands dollars spent to save the vaquita over the years, ranging from seafood sanctions to gillnet removal programs to illegal fishing patrols. In 2017, there was even an attempt to take the remaining vaquitas into captivity until illegal fishing ceased in the Upper Gulf of California. However, the plan was abandoned when the first captured vaquita died from the stress of capture.
The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, an international NGO that has been patrolling the Sea of Cortez since 2015, told Mongabay that it "remains committed to preventing the extinction of the vaquita" and that there are plans to return to the Upper Gulf of California as soon as possible to resume its gillnet retrieval efforts.
O'Connell said that AWI, along with the Center for Biological Diversity, the Environmental Investigation Agency and the Natural Resources Defense Council, have made urgent pleas to the international community to "both provide logistical and financial support to Mexico and to put pressure on the government by means of trade sanctions and other actions to ensure that the vaquita is saved."
"Despite their low numbers, there is still a slight glimmer of hope for the vaquita, if an actual complete shutdown of gillnet activity in the area can be achieved," O'Connell said. "The few remaining vaquita appear healthy and a number of calves have been spotted in recent years by researchers."
But Crosta said that unless the Mexican government works to dispel the totoaba cartels, he doesn't see "any hope for the vaquita."
"This is what happens when you focus only on anti-poaching and local communities, and not also on the trafficking networks and organized crime that run the whole show," he said. "This is what happens when there is a lot of indifference and incompetence."
Reposted with permission from Mongabay.
While solar energy has plenty of benefits, there are also high upfront costs associated with installing a home renewable energy system. So, at the end of the day, are solar panels worth it?
If you want to minimize your ecological impact while reducing or even eliminating monthly utility bills, solar panels may be well worth the money. But they may not be the best solution for every home. In this article, we'll review solar panel costs, longevity and return on investment to help you decide whether they're right for you.
Each product featured here has been independently selected by the writer. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.
How Much Do Solar Panels Cost?
The first thing to be aware of is that installing a residential solar system is always going to be expensive. Yes, saving money on your monthly utility bills can help balance that startup expense, and you can get some incentives to help undercut the cost of solar panels (more on that in a moment). But ultimately, there's no way around it: Investing in a residential solar system can be pricey.
How pricey, exactly? Your total solar energy system cost will depend on a myriad of factors, including the type of solar panels you choose, the number of panels required for your home, and the specific solar panel installation company you hire.
With that said, according to Sunrun, the average cost of installing solar panels in 2021 is between $16,200 to $21,400. And it's worth noting that this actually represents a significant drop in the price tag for solar panels. Solar installation is becoming more and more affordable, even if the startup price remains a little daunting.
Offsetting the Cost of Solar Panels
Something else to be aware of is that, over the past decade or so, both the federal government and many state governments have unveiled programs to provide financial incentives for solar installation. These programs include local and federal tax credits and other rebates. Top solar companies are usually able to help you identify and apply to any programs you are eligible for.
The current federal solar tax credit, called an Investment Tax Credit (ITC) provides a 26% credit for systems installed between 2020 and 2022. State incentives can be added on top for even more savings. However, even with numerous solar incentives, pricing and solar panel installation costs can still be steep.
How Long Do Solar Panels Last?
As you think about the initial startup investment in solar panels, another question to consider is system longevity. After you buy solar panels, how long do they last? Will they function long enough for you to get your money's worth?
Again, the answer can vary slightly depending on the specific type of solar panels you choose. As a rule of thumb, however, most residential solar systems last between 20 and 30 years and require only the most minimal maintenance and upkeep. Most of the best solar panels come backed with fairly rigorous warranties, ensuring your system holds up for at least two decades. Of course, when purchasing a solar panel system, you'll want to take a close look at the warranty information offered.
The longevity of your solar panel system can also add to the value of your home. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, buyers nationwide have been willing to pay an average premium of about $15,000 for a home with a solar array. In many cases, that alone can cover most of all of your solar investment.
How Much Money Will You Save With Solar Panels?
Related to the question of panel longevity is the question of a solar power system's return on investment, or ROI. How much power is a home solar system going to generate? How much money will it save you? Will month-to-month electric bill savings mean that your solar system "pays for itself" after a few years?
The amount of money you save on your monthly utility costs can vary depending on the efficiency and power of your solar panels, as well as your household energy consumption habits. Keep in mind that your savings will be greater if you live in an area where electricity rates are higher; by contrast, if you live somewhere with a lower cost of electricity, the money you save from going solar may be comparatively meager.
EnergySage notes that, over the lifespan of your solar system, you're likely to save anywhere from $10,000 to $30,000 on utility costs. This may or may not be enough for the unit to "pay for itself," though an upside of solar power ROI is that it's fairly instantaneous. Once your system is installed, you'll be able to start saving money right away.
Free Quote: See How Solar Panels Would Cost for Your Home
Fill out this 30-second form to get a quote from one of the best solar energy companies in your area. You could an average of $2,500 each year on your electric bills and receive a tax rebate.
Are Solar Panels Worth It for Your House?
Ultimately, whether solar panels are worth it will need to be evaluated on a case-by-case and home-by-home basis. Simply put, solar power is a smarter option for some than for others. The question is, how can you tell whether you're a good candidate for solar panels?
Best Candidates for Solar Power
Solar panels tend to be a better investment for homeowners who meet the following criteria:
- Ample exposure to sun: If you live in a part of the country that gets lots of exposure to sunlight throughout the year, then you'll probably get more mileage out of your solar panels. It's little wonder that solar power is most popular in places like Arizona, Texas, California and even North Carolina.
- Accommodating roof space: A good solar system will require plenty of surface area on your roof, unobstructed by skylights, chimneys or other fixtures. With a smaller roof, you can still potentially install a system, but you'll need to find the most efficient solar panels (which are often more expensive) to maximize your limited space.
- High electricity bills: The amount of money you save by going solar will be directly proportional to the amount you spend each month on electrical costs. So, if you live in a community where the price of electricity is pretty high, you stand to achieve greater savings when you go solar.
Who's Not a Good Candidate for Solar Power?
By contrast, some homes may not be as well-positioned to reap a high solar power ROI.
- Homes without much sun exposure: If you know anything about how solar panels work, it won't be a surprise that darker areas benefit less from this renewable energy source. In a place where there tends to be a lot of cloud coverage or more limited solar exposure for good chunks of the year, the jump to solar may not be as advantageous.
- Homes with too much shade: Similarly, if your roof tends to be shaded for long stretches of the day (for example, if your home is in the shadow of a larger building or a lot of dense trees), then your solar panels may not get the sun exposure they need to generate a solid ROI.
- You pay lower costs for electricity: If your electrical bills are already fairly minimal, then installing a residential solar system will yield more modest and measured savings.
- You don't have the right kind of roof: Certain types of roofs just aren't as well-suited for solar power installation. For example, older or historic homes that have particular kinds of tiled roofs and homes that have larger skylights may not be good matches for solar energy.
How to Determine Your Solar Power ROI
Is solar worth it for you and your household? There are a few steps you can take to weigh solar energy pros and cons and make an informed decision.
One option is to consult with a solar panel installation company that can assess your roof and your positioning in relation to the sun, then supply you with a basic estimate of how much money you could save by installing solar panels. Reputable installers can also provide greater detail about the different types of solar panels that are available and recommend the technology you'll need to realize a significant solar power ROI for your home.
Even before you take the initial step and meet with a solar installer, a number of solar companies offer online calculators, which you can use to estimate your monthly utility savings. We'll stress that these calculators only give a very rough estimate and should be taken lightly, but they can still create a basic sense of whether solar panels are worth it for your home.
So, Are Solar Panels Worth It? It All Depends...
The bottom line for homeowners: Solar energy represents one of the best ways to reduce your dependence on traditional utility companies. And for many homeowners, solar power ROI will be well worth it. With that said, the startup cost can be prohibitive, and not every homeowner will achieve the same bang for their buck.
As you consider whether solar panels are a sound investment for your home, make sure you take into account cost, warranty, longevity and overall efficiency, all while seeking guidance from qualified solar experts.
By Malaka Rodrigo
Up to 100 turtles and 20 dolphins have washed up dead on Sri Lanka's beaches in the past month, as experts fear a link to the leak of toxic chemicals from a sunken freight ship.
Marine turtles washing up dead on the Indian Ocean island are common around this time of year, which is when the peak of the monsoon turns the seas rough and leads to the turtles being fatally injured.
But this June, the waves have brought in an "abnormally high" number of turtle and even dolphin carcasses, Kapurusinghe told Mongabay.
The carcass of an olive ridley turtle. Lalith Ekanayake
But this period has also been marked by what environmental activists and experts warn is the biggest maritime disaster unfolding in Sri Lanka's history. In late May, the Singapore-flagged cargo ship MV X-Press Pearl caught fire off Colombo, on Sri Lanka's western coast, and sank in early June. It was carrying a cargo of nitric acid and plastic pellets, among other items, and was loaded with 378 metric tons of bunker fuel. Modeling by researchers has shown that ocean currents would carry these pollutants south, right through the path of the turtles and toward their nesting sites, Ekanayake told Mongabay.
"The timing of the accident couldn't have been worse than this as the number of turtles in our waters would be high during this time as April-May records the highest number of nesting occurrences, going by past research," Ekanayaka said.
Satellite tracking data show that most migratory turtles nesting in Sri Lanka move along the west coast closer to shore up to the Gulf of Mannar in the north before moving out to their feeding grounds. This makes them more vulnerable to any pollution from the ship accident, Ekanayake told Mongabay.
Kapurusinghe highlighted what he said was a disturbing trend revealed by the turtle carcasses reported from various locations: most of the dead turtles are juveniles. Immature turtles are more likely than nesting adults to stay close to shore, mainly to feed. That makes it "possible that these deaths are linked to some food contamination, probably due to pollution caused by the freighter," Kapurusinghe said.
The carcasses have been sent to the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) for further analysis.
Suhada Jayawardana, DWC's veterinary surgeon who performed necropsies on the dead turtles found along the western and southeastern coasts, said it was difficult to identify a single reason for most of the deaths. He said there were a few with fin cuts, a telltale sign of entanglement in fishing gear. One turtle showed injuries that may have been by the explosion of the X-Press Pearl. Further laboratory tests are being conducted to get a conclusive answer.
According to Jayawardana, most of the dead turtles are olive ridleys (Lepidochelys olivacea), but there are also some green turtles (Chelonia mydas), hawksbills (Eretmochelys imbricata) and leatherbacks (Dermochelys coriacea).
Around 20 dolphins and 4 whales have also washed ashore during the past month. Most are dolphins, while there was also a juvenile blue whale. "I have been observing whale strandings and deaths for over 30 years and this is a clear increase of their deaths," said Ranil Nanayakkara, co-founder of the NGO Biodiversity Education And Research (BEAR).
Nanayakkara added that, unlike sea turtles, marine mammals tend to sink to the seabed after dying, so only one in four may get washed ashore. This suggests that far more marine mammals have died than the number that have washed ashore.
During the first few days after the X-Press Pearl's sinking, it was nearshore dolphin species such as humpbacks (Sousa chinensis) and spinners (Stenella longirostris) that were washing ashore. Later, there were other species, including the dwarf sperm whale (Kogia sima), spotted dolphin (Stenella attenuata), striped dolphin (Stenella coeruleoalba) and melon-headed whale (Peponocephala electra), indicating the impact of possible spreading of pollution, Nanayakkara said.
But some of these deaths may not be related to the ship accident, he added. A case in point is the juvenile blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus) found in northern Sri Lanka, away from where the pollutants may have spread. Nanayakkara said it's important to carry out a thorough analysis of each carcass to determine the cause of death.
A striped dolphin found washed ashore on June 19. Supun Jayaweera
There's no consensus within Sri Lanka's scientific community over whether the sinking of the X-Press Pearl and the high number of marine animal deaths are linked. The Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA) and other government agencies have appeared hesitant to put an end to the speculation, and several politicians have forwarded their own theories for the animal deaths.
Asha de Vos, a marine biologist with Oceanswell, said in a tweet that "We have to be cautious about making assumptions without evidence." She noted that "The truth is, animals die at sea. If currents flow shoreward (As they are doing on our southern and western coasts right now), the carcasses get pushed on the beach."
She called for an end to speculation and theorizing, and for scientific reasoning to identify the cause of death. She also noted that the reporting of more carcasses than before could also be a result of "observer bias," where people who previously didn't pay attention to the issue were now more conscious of it as a result of the ship disaster.
"The main the issue here is the lack of baseline data to compare the environmental parameters and the number of marine creature stranding to quantify whether there is a widespread pollution due to the sinking of the ship and an increase of turtle and marine mammals deaths," said Nishan Perera, co-founder of the Blue Resources Trust.
He said Sri Lanka urgently needs national-level, long-term monitoring of environmental parameters in the ocean using a standardized methodology. He said such data should be published transparently so that other researchers and volunteers can contribute to it. Such a program will assist in quantifying the true impacts of isolated incidents such as the X-Press Pearl sinking and would also assist in monitoring the status of various marine environment variables, Perera added.
Reposted with permission from Mongabay.
By Claudia Geib
In the 1980s, video of dolphins dying in fishing nets sparked a public boycott of tuna and the development of "dolphin-safe" labeling programs for canned tuna that have become ubiquitous in many countries. Now, one organization wants to use that model to protect whales from collisions with ships.
The Italian NGO World Sustainability Organization launched the new "Whale-Safe" label in March via its Friend of the Sea project, which certifies fisheries, aquaculture, and tourism efforts as sustainable.
Run-ins with ships are a major cause of death and injury for whales. An estimated 80 whales die from ship collisions off the western U.S. annually. In the Mediterranean, one in five stranded whales recorded have marks from ship strikes. And while the International Whaling Commission (IWC) has compiled ship strike records from nearly every corner of the globe, these records are understood to be incomplete; crews on larger vessels may not notice if they hit a whale, and even observed strikes often go unreported.
With marine traffic increasing, these strikes have serious implications, particularly for vulnerable species. More North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis) die from ship strikes and fishing gear entanglement than are born each year.
"Time is not on our side, and we need to act," said Paolo Bray, founder of Friend of the Sea, in an interview with Mongabay. Bray is also the European director of the California-based Earth Island Institute's Dolphin Safe Monitoring Program, which certifies that enrolled tuna companies outside the U.S. meet dolphin-safe standards.
A diver removes a dead fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus) caught on the bow of a cruise ship docked in Vancouver, Canada, in 2009. The crews of large ships are often unaware when they hit a whale. Tyler Ingram via Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
The Whale-Safe certification requires participating large ships to meet criteria that increase the odds of spotting, avoiding and documenting whales. Vessels must have an observation system operating at all times. This could include a human observer, but Bray said an infrared camera system would be more effective by allowing constant monitoring, including at night and during poor weather when human vision is limited.
Participating vessels must have a protocol, approved by Friend of the Sea, for how to react when they sight a whale, though the certification does not dictate what that reaction should be. They must use some sort of digital platform to access and share sighting information with other vessels. Bray also added that vessels must report any whale collisions to the local coast guard and the IWC database. (There are no legal requirements to do so.)
Some whale experts expressed skepticism about these criteria. John Calambokidis, a research biologist studying human impacts on marine mammals at Cascadia Research Collective in Washington state, said the program's focus on sighting whales rather than attempting to keep ships from interacting with them in the first place may undermine its success.
"Their suggested solution seems almost completely focused on the idea of sighting and avoiding whales to reduce ship strikes, which has generally not been considered a particularly effective strategy," Calambokidis wrote in an email to Mongabay.
The challenge, Calambokidis said, lies in how difficult it is to spot whales at night and in poor weather. Infrared cameras of the sort Bray suggested for low-visibility conditions are currently in the testing phase and remain unproven, he said. Ships also have limited ability to take evasive action.
Instead, he said, most ship strike reduction strategies aim to slow ships down or reroute shipping lanes outside of whale habitat, which have proven benefits.
Whale-Safe will require vessels to comply with local regulations, including speed requirements and navigational routes specific to whales. The program will track compliance by collaborating with local agencies, or by using platforms that already track ships throughout their route. The goal, Bray said, is to "provide flexibility" by allowing ships to prove their compliance via services they already use.
Friend of the Sea plans to regularly publish a list of maritime companies that comply with Whale-Safe requirements. It also plans to release a study assessing the compliance of the biggest cruise and cargo operators.
The goal is to whip up public pressure as a way to galvanize companies to participate. "I think that once the consumers start to be aware of what is going on with whales, they will push for change," Bray said.
A container ship passes close to a surfacing blue whale off California. NOAA / Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary.
This strategy may be more effective for some types of maritime traffic than for others.
René Taudal Poulsen, an associate professor at the Copenhagen Business School, studies sustainability in maritime industries. He said current sustainability certification schemes for the shipping industry, which primarily focus on carbon emissions and air pollution, are most effective in consumer-facing sectors.
Container-shipping companies and cruise lines, for example, interact directly with the companies and travelers in their customer base. Their ships also often return to the same ports over and over. This creates a public-facing image that can be subject to community pressure. It also enables local incentive schemes, such as reduced dock fees in their home ports in exchange for cutting air pollution.
Yet the same inducements don't apply to tankers and bulk carriers, which together make up about half of all merchant maritime traffic. These large ships are run by many small companies with little public image. They travel globally, maintaining few ties with port communities, and have little motivation to work for local incentives.
"These initiatives are converting the pressure the port experiences from the port community, or converting the pressure that major branded goods experience from consumers, into incentives," Taudal Poulson said in an interview with Mongabay. "But the tankers and bulkers, they're transporting commodities like grain, iron ore, fertilizer — things you don't buy in a supermarket. So, public pressure has not been driving a lot of improvement so far."
Yellowfin tuna (Thunnus albacares) caught by fishermen in Seychelles. "Dolphin safe" labeling, along with other regulations, helped lower the number of dolphins killed by tuna fishing. Joe Laurence / Seychelles News Agency via Wikimedia Commons
"We want to face [companies] with the issue, and it's going to be a gradual process. We don't expect things to change immediately," Bray said. "But we hope by bringing through the media this issue to the surface, and also making the general public more knowledgeable about this problem, we think that gradually the approach of the companies will change."
If companies do volunteer to participate in Whale-Safe, and comply, the final challenge will lie in assessing how much of an effect the label truly has. Take the model for the new program, dolphin- safe tuna labeling. Dolphin deaths caused by the tuna fishery in the eastern Pacific Ocean have fallen drastically since the 1980s, from more than 100,000 per year to closer to 1,000. But experts attribute this improvement not only to dolphin-safe labels, but also to other measures enacted around the same time. These include the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 and the La Jolla Agreement of 1990 that set limits on dolphin mortality in tuna fisheries.
If tuna fishing serves as a prototype, it seems clear shipping companies won't be able to label their way out of their whale collision problem. Reducing whale deaths is likely to require a much broader response.
Reposted with permission from Mongabay.
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Ten days ago, Sebastian di Martino was kayaking along the Bermejo River in Argentina's Impenetrable National Park when he heard a splash. He looked around and saw a brown-furred animal swimming through the water, occasionally dipping below the surface and then reappearing. It was a giant river otter (Pteronura brasiliensis), a species believed to be extinct in Argentina.
"I was surprised and excited," Di Martino, director of conservation at Fundación Rewilding Argentina, told Mongabay in an interview. "At the beginning, I couldn't believe what I was seeing."
Di Martino took out his phone and started filming. "Otherwise it's kind of complicated that someone believes that you saw a giant otter," he said.
From the time of European colonization, giant otters began to slowly disappear from Argentina, mainly due to hunting pressure. The last giant otters in the country were spotted in a river in the Misiones Province in the 1980s — but there have been no known sightings since.
At the moment, it's not clear where this particular otter came from. The nearest known giant otter populations are in the Paraguayan Pantanal, thousands of miles away. Di Martino says it's possible that the otter broke away from its family group and swam here. But it's also possible that otters have remained in Argentina unbeknown to conservationists.
The giant otter spotted in Argentina's Bermejo River. Image courtesy of Rewilding Argentina
Impenetrable National Park was established in 2014 with the help of Rewilding Argentina and Tompkins Conservation as part of a grand effort to reinstate the region's biodiversity. Working with governments and local communities, the two organizations have helped establish multiple national parks across Chile and Argentina, protecting nearly 6 million hectares (15 million acres) in the southern tip of South America.
Last year, a lone jaguar (Panthera onca) was also sighted in Impenetrable National Park, and with the help of the Rewilding Argentina team, it was introduced to another jaguar and has since sired cubs.
The reintroduction of giant otters into Argentina's Impenetrable National Park would be a boon for the local ecosystem, according to Di Martino: "As top predators, the giant river otter exerts a regulatory influence on plants and other animals which contributes to the health of aquatic ecosystems."
Alondra and Coco, the two otters slated for release in the near future. Image courtesy of Rewilding Argentina
The giant otter sighting happened, quite coincidentally, a few days before another significant event for otters in Argentina. A pair of captive otters, Coco and Alondra, which the Rewilding Argentina team plans to release into Argentina's Iberá National Park, gave birth to three healthy pups. The pair had two previous litters that did not survive. Now the team plans to release all of them together once the pups have grown and they are ready.
"These three cubs represent a future where human communities and the natural world can thrive together," Kristine Tompkins, president of Tompkins Conservation, said in a statement. "As we enter the UN Decade on Ecological Restoration, I strongly believe that our most urgent task is helping nature heal. Rewilding puts us on that path."
Reposted with permission from Mongabay.
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A coalition of groups, including a newly formed organization backed by actor Leonardo DiCaprio, have mobilized $43 million for efforts to restore degraded habitats in the Galápagos Islands, an archipelago renowned for its endemic species and central role in scientists' understanding of ecology and evolution.
The Galápagos initiative has three immediate priorities: Helping restore Floreana Island, one of the islands most degraded by human activities in the Galápagos; increasing the population size of the critically endangered pink iguana on Isabela Island; and strengthening protection of the archipelago's marine reserves, which are critical to the local economy yet have been besieged by foreign fishing fleets in recent years. The initiative involves more than 40 partners, ranging from local NGOs to governments to international organizations, leveraging decades of collective experience working across the archipelago.
One of the groups leading the effort is Re:wild, an organization that was just formed between Global Wildlife Conservation and Leonardo DiCaprio, who is a founding board member of the new entity. The Galápagos initiative is Re:wild's first project under its new brand, but the group plans to scale up its existing global work, putting renewed emphasis on the concept of rewilding, or restoring species and ecosystems to previous levels of abundance and health.
"Rewilding, a positive reframing for nature conservation, involves holistic solutions to remove barriers and reestablish vibrant wildlife populations and intact, functional, and resilient ecosystems that effectively integrate people," said Re:wild in a press release. "Re:wild is a movement to build a world in balance with the wild."
"We work to protect and restore nature in its wildest form as the primary solution to the triple threat of climate change, mass extinction and pandemics."
Sea lions in the Galapagos. Rhett A. Butler
In the case of the Galápagos, the new initiative has focused initially on targeted opportunities. For example, Floreana Island has great potential for restoration after loss of native vegetation and species from land clearing, intentional fire-setting, and the introduction of invasive species in the 18th and 19th centuries. The Galápagos initiative aims to reintroduce 13 species that have gone extinct and help increase the population of the island's 54 threatened species.
The efforts in Floreana Island would be expanded to other parts of the Galápagos under the initiative, which over the next decade, hopes to restore another two dozen islands, "halt and reverse" the decline of 250 threatened species, and vastly increase the extent of areas under effective protection and management. At the same time, the initiative plans to help bolster the capacity of local and regional conservation and restoration experts as well as support the development of more sustainable and resilient economies for communities in the Galápagos.
To mark the start of the new initiative, DiCaprio is turning control of his social media accounts over to Paula A. Castaño, a veterinarian and biologist with Island Conservation who lives in the Galápagos Islands, for the day. DiCaprio has more than 86 million followers across his official Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook accounts.
"When I travelled to the Galápagos Islands, I met with Paula Castaño and other environmental heroes in Ecuador working day in and day out to save one of the most irreplaceable places on the planet. I'm excited to share her team's work and to support the longstanding effort to protect and restore these iconic islands, alongside the team at Re:wild," said Leonardo DiCaprio. "Around the world, the wild is declining. We have degraded three quarters of the wild places and pushed more than one million species to the brink of extinction. More than half of Earth's remaining wild areas could disappear in the next few decades if we don't decisively act. Fortunately, conservation leaders like Paula are showing us that it is not too late to reverse this alarming trend.
"Re:wild offers a bold vision to amplify and scale the local solutions being led by Indigenous peoples and local communities, nongovernmental organizations, companies, and government agencies, to help increase their impact around the world. The environmental heroes that the planet needs are already here. Now we all must rise to the challenge and join them."
Castaño said that lessons from the efforts in the Galápagos could eventually be applied in other geographies to scale impact and reverse biodiversity decline.
"Time is running out for so many species, especially on islands where their small populations are vulnerable and threatened," Castaño said in a statement. "We know how to prevent these extinctions and restore functional and thriving ecosystems — we have done it — but we need to replicate these successes, innovate and go to scale,"
"We need catalytic investments like the one announced today to replicate our successes in the Galápagos and elsewhere."
Wes Sechrest, Re:wild chief scientist and CEO, who was formerly in the same roles at Global Wildlife Conservation, echoed Castaño's sentiments.
"In order to reverse the climate crisis and ecosystem collapse, we need to focus on a 'technology' that took billions of years to refine, that is free, and that sustains us every single day: nature, in its most wild form," said Sechrest in a statement. "Where better to begin than the Galápagos, which, as the first-declared World Heritage Site, is among the most extraordinary wild places on the planet. Re:wild's work with partners is hope in action – from Darwin's laboratory to Australia's wildlands to the Congo forests of Central Africa."
Reposted with permission from Mongabay.
The Australian government has moved to create two new marine protected areas that cover an expanse of ocean twice the size of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.
The two parks will be established around Christmas Island and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands in the Indian Ocean to the northwest of continental Australia. The new parks cover 740,000 square kilometers (286,000 square miles) of ocean.
The decision was immediately welcomed by conservation groups.
"Christmas and Cocos (Keeling) Islands are uniquely Australian and globally significant – there's nowhere like them on Earth," said Michelle Grady, director of The Pew Charitable Trusts, in a statement. "Most famous for its annual red crab migration, Christmas Island was referred to as one of the 10 natural wonders of the world by David Attenborough himself. Its thriving rainforests, deserted beaches and fringing reef provide a haven for unique and rare seabirds, land crabs and marine life."
"Christmas and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands are recognized as globally significant standout natural wonders," added Darren Kindleysides, CEO of the Australian Marine Conservation Society, in a statement. "Oceans across the globe are in deep trouble from pollution, overfishing, habitat loss and the very real and immediate impacts of climate change. Establishing marine parks to provide a safe haven for our marine life is critical in helping stop our oceans reaching a tipping point."
Satellite image of Cocos (Keeling) IslandsMaxar Technologies
Christabel Mitchell, director of the Save Our Marine Life Alliance, applauded the move but urged the Australian government to work "collaboratively" with local communities to "co-design" the protected areas.
"Healthy oceans and sustainable fishing are central to the Christmas and Cocos Islanders' way of life, their culture and their livelihoods," said Mitchell in a statement.
"Creating world-class marine parks for this region will provide crucial protection for a wealth of marine life, make a significant global contribution to the health of our oceans and support the local communities' culture and aspirations," said Mitchell. "We look forward to working with the government and the island communities to preserve this unique part of Australia, for our marine life and future generations."
The new parks will bring the percentage of Australian waters under protection from 37% to 45%. Conservation groups around the world are pushing for the protection of 30% of global oceans and land mass by 2030.
Reposted with permission from Mongabay.
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During 18 months, Mongabay investigated allegations challenging the "sustainable" status of the Brazilian palm oil supply chain, revealing impacts including deforestation and water contamination, and what appears to be an industry-wide pattern of brazen disregard for Amazon conservation and for the rights of Indigenous people and traditional communities in northern Pará state.
In this behind-the-scenes video, Mongabay's contributing editor in Brazil, Karla Mendes, takes us on her reporting journey as she and the team track how the palm oil industry is changing this Amazonian landscape.
Karla herself experienced a rapid onset of coughing, shortness of breath, nausea and headaches when she inhaled fumes from these oil palm trees doused with pesticides. "I came back to the car because the smell is very strong. I started coughing, it's horrible," she says.
The Mongabay team also witnessed a wide range of wrongdoing, including the dumping of alleged palm oil residue in the Acará River and the lack of a buffer zone around Indigenous reserves, which are all surrounded by oil palm plantations.
The Mongabay investigation will be used by federal prosecutors as evidence to hold a palm oil company accountable for water contamination in the Turé-Mariquita Indigenous Reserve.
Read the full investigative report here:
Related listening: hear Mongabay's reporter Karla Mendes discuss these issues along with researcher Sandra Damiani and federal prosecutor Felício Pontes Júnior on Mongabay's podcast:
Reposted with permission from Mongabay.
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By Malavika Vyawahare
"Tell me what you eat, and I shall tell you what you are," the French lawyer Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin wrote in his 1826 opus, Physiologie du Goût. This is quite literally the case, scientists decoding the human body have found.
Now, an analysis of chemical signatures in human hair and nails shows that as more of our food is mass-produced, we are beginning to "look" increasingly similar. If not in the flesh, then in the bones.
"Reliance on international food distribution and industrial agriculture has changed the chemistry of the entire human race," said Michael Bird, first author of a recent paper in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Only communities that rely on subsistence agriculture have bucked the trend, the paper found.
This change is especially true for urbanized and wealthier communities. In nations where annual per capita income exceeds $10,000, supermarkets supply most of the food. Another hallmark of the modern diet is the reliance on wheat, maize, rice, and a handful of other starchy cereals.
A supermarket in North America. Image courtesy of Flickr
Archaeologists routinely draw conclusions about past diets from skeletal remains. Bird and his collaborators analyzed hair and nail samples from present-day populations and compared them with archaeological data on the diets of people living before 1910. It was around this time that synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, one of the pillars of industrial farming, came into widespread use.
The researchers looked specifically at the ratio of different isotopes of nitrogen and carbon found in corporal remains. Isotopes are versions of the same element that differ in mass. By studying these ratios, scientists can draw conclusions about the food that people eat.
In the case of nitrogen-based fertilizers, the proportion of nitrogen isotopes reflects their ratio in the atmosphere, not what would exist in naturally fertile soils. When nitrogen-fixing microbes extract nitrogen from the atmosphere, it yields a different ratio of the two isotopes than chemical fertilizer.
When plants take up nitrogen from the soil, they absorb two stable nitrogen isotopes in a fixed proportion. This ratio changes as the nutrients make their way up the food chain via the guts of other organisms. The lighter form of nitrogen is more likely to be used for bodily functions and excreted as waste, but the body retains heavier isotopes. Thus, more of the heavier nitrogen isotope survives the ascent from prey to predator.
For folks buying food at mega marts supplied by factory farms, nitrogen isotope values across populations are in general lower and lie within a narrower band. If you consume meat from cows on large industrial-scale farms or plants grown in monoculture fields with the help of fertilizers, the nutrients come to you through an artificially shortened route.
"We're sort of short-circuited many of the natural processes that go into making the food for people in prehistory, or people who still live a subsistence lifestyle," Bird said.
Carbon isotopes, in turn, shed light on what kinds of foods people consume: a diet rich in corn or one where rice is a staple will leave behind a different carbon isotope signal in human tissue. The range of values for carbon isotopes has also shrunk today, the analysis found, because we're eating similar kinds of food.
"We know that agricultural production and food consumption patterns were narrowed down globally over the last 100 years due to research and policy concentrating mostly on a few major crops — cereal grains, oilseeds, sugar — while neglecting many others," said Matin Qaim, an agricultural economist at the University of Goettingen, Germany, who was not involved in the study. "Of course, food collection from the wild — roots, leaves, berries — also declined in importance for most humans in modern times."
However, communities that rely on subsistence agriculture exhibit isotope ratios that are similar to pre-1910 human diets.
That's not necessarily a good or bad thing in terms of health. "The authors of this paper show that diets were more diverse on average before 'industrial agriculture' started, but this does not mean that people had a better nutritional status back then," Qaim said.
The problem with this mode of sustenance, divorced from natural complex food chains, is a loss of resilience. The simplification of the food chain and overreliance on one- or two-step food chains worry researchers like Bird. "It's a demonstration that being reliant to a very great degree on technology in the form of industrial agriculture is potentially a risk," he said.
A disruption, like a plant disease, locust invasion, or pandemic, can throw the entire system into disarray. Short of dismantling the industrial, agricultural complex, there is no way to revert to earlier production modes. Given the ballooning human population, such a campaign would also undermine the food security of millions of people. According to economic historians, the availability of chemical fertilizers is one major reason for the burgeoning human population in the first place.
"Agricultural production and food consumption patterns should be diversified, meaning that more different types of crops should be produced and consumed locally and globally. This would have nutritional, health, and environmental benefits," Qaim said. "We cannot roll back agricultural technology to what it was 100 years ago. We need technology, including new technologies to feed and nourish the world, but need more diversity and reduce the environmental footprint."
Reposted with permission from Mongabay.
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Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon surged during the month of April, ending a streak of three consecutive months where forest clearing had been lower than the prior year. The rise in deforestation came despite a high-profile pledge from Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro to rein in deforestation in Earth's largest rainforest.
According to preliminary deforestation alert data released Friday by Brazil's national space research institute INPE, deforestation in the Brazilian portion of the Amazon amounted to 581 square kilometers in April, a 43% increase over April 2020 and the highest April tally since 2018.
Soy field in the Rondônia, the Brazilian Amazon. Fabio Nascimento
However, by INPE's count, deforestation is still pacing behind last year's rate: When measured since the start of the "deforestation year" — which begins August 1 — 4,640 square kilometers of rainforest has been lost, a decline of 15% for the nine-month period.
But the trend reported by INPE is not matched by data from Imazon, a Brazilian organization that independently monitors deforestation. Imazon's data shows eight straight months of rising deforestation: Through the end of March, Imazon puts forest loss as 33% above last year's level.
The discrepancies between the systems can generally be chalked up to the different methodologies they use. And both systems generate "preliminary data" which is used primarily for tracking where deforestation is occurring on a near-real-time basis, rather than comprehensively documenting forest loss.
The annual assessment, which uses higher resolution imagery and measures loss between August 1 and July 31, is considered the official baseline. Using that approach, deforestation for the 2019-2020 year amounted to 11,088 square kilometers, the highest on record since 2008.
Deforestation has accelerated sharply since Bolsonaro took office January 1, 2019. Based on deforestation alert data, forest clearing during his administration to date is about 98% higher than the same period of time under his predecessor, and 206% higher than Dilma Rousseff's first 16 months in office.
Reposted with permission from Mongabay.
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The "America the Beautiful" report, released by the Departments of Commerce, Interior, and Agriculture, includes few specifics but conceptualizes how the U.S. can better protect and restore biodiversity, improve the resilience of ecosystems to climate change, and increase the accessibility of the nation's parks and wilderness areas. The document devotes significant attention to social justice, noting the government's campaigns that forced Indigenous Peoples from their lands and discriminatory policies that have limited opportunities for communities of color and low-income communities to access natural spaces.
"Together, these three issues pose grave risks to the abundance, resilience, and accessibility of the natural resources that are at the foundation of America's economy and well-being. These challenges, however, also present opportunities," states the document, which goes on to point out the potential for the "30×30" plan to create job opportunities and drive more sustainable economic growth, while combatting the effects of climate change and environmental degradation.
Kayakers off the Hawaiian coastline. Rhett A. Butler
The report envisions farms and ranches functioning as wildlife corridors and carbon sinks, fishery management practices that stabilize fish stocks, and a job creation plan through a Civilian Climate Corps akin to the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s. It also proposes creating more "safe outdoor opportunities in nature-deprived communities" and supporting tribally-led conservation and restoration initiatives as well as increasing access for outdoor recreation, including hunting, fishing, and hiking across public lands that are currently inaccessible.
Given the potential Congressional opposition to the Biden Administration's agenda, the report tried to put emphasis on the bipartisan nature of conservation, including a number of statements from a range of organizations, coalitions, and lobby groups on their visions for "30×30", including what the policy could entail and deliver for their constituencies. For example, the American Farmland Trust called farmers, ranchers, and foresters "essential allies in the effort to reach the 30×30 goals for biodiversity conservation and climate mitigation."
"To be successful, these policies must embrace USDA's legacy of voluntary, incentive-based, and locally led conservation and be strategically targeted," said the group.
The Grand Tetons in Wyoming. Rhett A. Butler
A letter from Tribal Leaders and Tribal organization leaders published in the report said 30×30 needed to recognize the stewardship and sovereignty of Tribal Nations.
"Tribal Nations are key to the success of the 30×30 policy initiative in the U.S. as they are intrinsically linked, presently and historically, to existing and prospective protected areas. Tribal Nations are the original stewards of these lands and waters and have been the most effective managers and protectors of biodiversity since time immemorial," stated the letter. "The 30×30 policy serves as a vitally important opportunity to safeguard the environment, Tribal cultural values, strengthen the Nation-to-Nation relationship, and uphold Tribal sovereignty and self-determination."
Protecting 30 percent of the planet has emerged in recent years as an ambition of a number of countries, organizations, and movements. Proponents of the approach say it could help humanity make progress toward addressing some of the most critical environmental problems we've created, from the extinction crisis to climate change.
Reposted with permission from Mongabay.
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By Marlowe Starling
Clear-skied, low-wind summer days are rare off the coast of California. But they're a blessing if you're a researcher tracking down critically endangered leatherback sea turtles.
Marine ecologists Scott Benson and Karin Forney, with NOAA's Southwest Fisheries Science Center, spent many of those days tag-teaming a decades-long research effort to collect data on one of the world's oldest and largest marine reptiles. Forney sits in the clear belly of a NOAA surveying plane, scanning the dark waters like a hawk, notifying the team when she spots a leatherback sea turtle (Dermochelys coriacea). Benson, her husband, is among the scientists on the boat below, prepped at the hull with a large net, anticipating the moment they can heave the prehistoric giant on board.
Then comes the sampling: blood tests, tissue samples, attaching transmitters, recording weight. It's an hour-long ordeal, Benson says, and "an all-consuming task." In a month and a half, the team gets maybe five good-weather opportunities to collect data on this massive but little-understood species. And it could be their last chance to save this population.
The western Pacific leatherback sea turtle is at high risk of extinction, according to a study published in Global Ecology and Conservation. The researchers, including lead author Benson and co-author Forney, used roughly three decades of data to assess the population's status. Combining their observations of foraging turtles in California with data on nesting patterns in Indonesia, the researchers estimate the population has declined at a rate of 5.6% annually, suffering an overall 80% decline from 1990 to 2017.
Both on land and at sea, the turtles face a series of existential threats in the Pacific. The situation is so dire that scientists on both sides of the ocean have dedicated their lives to reeling the distinct populations back from a dangerous tipping point.
The Leatherback in the Pacific
The world knew little about Pacific leatherbacks prior to the 1980s, when scientists started collecting more data. Without modern-day technology like satellite transmitters to track turtles' movements, biologists couldn't have known that the leatherbacks foraging off the Californian coast were the same as those nesting in the western Pacific.
Today we know that leatherback sea turtles span the globe with seven genetically distinct subpopulations: the eastern and western in the Pacific Ocean, as well as three in the Atlantic Ocean and two in the Indian Ocean. While the IUCN lists the species as a whole as vulnerable, both Pacific subpopulations are considered critically endangered.
"We know what a thriving sea turtle population needs, but the expanse over which this drama is playing out in the Pacific is so huge, it's hard to understand the whole puzzle and which parts need to be leveraged," said Kyle Van Houtan, chief scientist of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, who was not involved with the study.
All leatherback sea turtle populations are declining, but those in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans are more robust than the plummeting Pacific populations, Benson said.
Pacific leatherbacks feed in seven known areas of the ocean, stretching from New Zealand to Japan to California. While the eastern subpopulation nests in Mexico and parts of Central America, western Pacific leatherbacks nest primarily in Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu.
The research team recorded an average of 140 individuals in central California's foraging patch from 1990 to 2003, but that number dropped to an average of 55 by 2017.
Still, the data only account for a fraction of a population that is scattered across the entire Pacific Ocean and migrates at unpredictable time intervals. Benson said the annual decline of nesting females in West Papua, Indonesia, closely mirrors the rate of decline his team calculated in California, providing further evidence that the entire western subpopulation is suffering.
There is no exact count of how many western Pacific leatherback turtles are left. An analysis in 2013 by the IUCN estimated around 1,400 adult turtles survived in the subpopulation. The IUCN also forecasts the population will dip below 1,000 individuals by 2030.
Scientists say a concrete population estimate is difficult given the nature of western Pacific leatherbacks. It is the only subpopulation with a bimodal nesting pattern, meaning some females nest in the summer while others nest in the winter. Compounding the uncertainty, western Pacific leatherbacks only visit foraging and nesting grounds every two to five years.
Western Pacific leatherbacks are attracted to the Monterey ecosystem in California due to the "the immense productivity … because of the upwelling, the deep offshore currents coming up to the surface, causing these cascades of nutrients and life," Van Houtan said. "That's why we have these leatherbacks."
Unlike most reptiles, leatherback turtles can self-regulate their body temperature, allowing them "to go places where no other sea turtles can go," Van Houtan added. These long-evolved marine reptiles — "living fossils," as he describes them — date back to the Cretaceous Period, when dinosaurs roamed the Earth. Today, they are the only living species in the Demochelys genus.
Weighing up to 900 kilograms (2,000 pounds) and growing up to 2 meters (7 feet) long, leatherbacks are the largest turtle species on the planet. They are also the most migratory sea turtle, traveling up to 16,000 kilometers (10,000 miles) a year between nesting and feeding sites. These giants can dive more than 1,200 m (4,000 ft) deep — deeper than any other sea turtle — thanks to their soft shells, which won't crack under pressure.
But even evolution's long helping hand may not be enough to protect them from humanity's reach.
Threats at Sea and On Land
Pacific leatherback turtles face a multitude of perils both at sea and on land. Among them are impoverished villagers who poach eggs or adults for meat, and habitat degradation in the Pacific islands, where coastal development and cyclones have eroded nesting beaches. But the biggest threat, according to scientists, are fishing vessels that accidentally kill turtles as bycatch.
Drift gillnet and longline fisheries — large-scale fishing operations on the open ocean that harvest an abundance of seafood, like swordfish — are notorious for killing sea turtles that get caught in nets and other fishing gear. Worse, scientists say existing bycatch data probably underestimate the true numbers.
"It's the wild west out on the open ocean," said George Shillinger, a marine biologist who has studied leatherbacks for three decades and is executive director of Upwell, an NGO dedicated to sea turtle conservation. He added that even if nests are protected, ship strikes and bycatch will continue to decimate the population. And then there's the further obstacle of subsidized fisheries, expanding fishing fleets and more intense artisanal fishing, he said, noting "we are really challenged to stave off the relentless pressures."
Across the Pacific, marine scientist Deasy Lontoh champions for leatherback protection in West Papua, Indonesia. She is the research coordinator for the Abun Leatherback Project, which seeks to combat threats that are difficult and costly to mitigate at sea by protecting what's on shore: nesting females and eggs.
Lontoh co-authored a recent paper outlining threats to the largest remaining nesting population on two beaches in West Papua, known as Jamursba-Medi and Wermon. Lontoh's team says it hopes to protect at least half of leatherback nests with the help of local communities.
Lontoh is trying to avoid what happened in Malaysia when a nesting population of western Pacific leatherbacks vanished entirely. Egg harvesting was a rampant, and legal, way for locals to make money until the Terengganu Turtle Sanctuary Advisory Council outlawed it in 1988. From the 1950s to 1995, Malaysia went from 10,000 nests annually to a mere handful. No nests have been reported in almost a decade.
But even when people don't harvest turtle eggs, juvenile survival is naturally a gamble. Scientists estimate that only one in every 1,000 eggs survive to maturity, while females lay around 80 eggs in each nest.
"A lot of hatchlings will die, so we just need to produce high enough numbers … and assume that some of them will become adults in 15 or 20 years," Lontoh said.
Climate change further mars the leatherbacks' future. More extreme storms can decimate nesting sites, while rising temperatures can bake eggs to death. Lontoh said that, locally, sands can reach a lethal 33° Celsius (91° Fahrenheit), and temperatures are rising in the area alongside global trends.
Under normal circumstances, leatherbacks would be less fragile, Benson notes. For one, they lay eggs in multiple locations and span much of the world's oceans. They have also survived several natural climate changes over the past 80 million years. But scientists don't know how the recent, and rapid, changes in water temperature, ocean currents, and upwelling of nutrients will affect leatherbacks.
"Climate change is thrusting all of those things that they depended on up into the air," Van Houtan said. "We need to listen to these signals that the ocean is telling us, because the ocean is the driver of life on our planet."
As the Pacific leatherback population size continues to shrink, climate change and human pressures become a daunting threat to their survival.
"Something more needs to be done," Shillinger said.
Turtle Needs: Regulations and Tourism
For a species inhabiting millions of square miles, keeping it out of harm's way is a monumental task. Scientists have spent the past two decades calling for stricter fishing regulations. But the lack of transnational cooperation and enforcement by governments has been an obstacle to protecting the turtles through policy and regulations.
"One government won't solve it," Shillinger said. "Everyone's got to be involved.
"By the mid-1990s, emerging data revealed high bycatch rates for large marine animals like sea turtles. To mitigate bycatch, the U.S. government created the Pacific Leatherback Conservation Area in 2001: a seasonal protected area off the U.S. West Coast that covers 650,000 square kilometers (250,000 square miles) of ocean and prohibits drift gillnet fishing during the months leatherbacks feast on jellyfish.
Dubbed a "time-area closure," the new regulation helped reduce leatherback bycatch from an average of about 15 turtles per year to fewer than two a year after 2001, according to NOAA.
Additional regulations have helped save turtles in U.S. waters. For example, California's commercial fisheries aren't allowed to use pelagic longlines that can accidentally bait sea turtles. Meanwhile, Hawaiʻi's longline fishery comes with 100% observer coverage, meaning there is always someone documenting bycatch. California is also testing newer technology like deep-set buoy gear, which bypasses leatherbacks feeding on jellyfish to hook swordfish at lower depths.
However, none of these rules apply in international waters. For better protections, Benson and Forney say member countries of regional fishery management organizations like the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission need to encourage safer fishery practices.
For the leatherback populations to recover, scientists have suggested a 40% bycatch reduction over the next two decades.
It's an ambitious goal, Shillinger said, adding "what really has to happen is to elevate political will … and make governments accountable for protecting their resources."
In the meantime, Benson called on people to ask waiters at restaurants how and from where their fish is sourced.
"Please consume U.S.-caught swordfish or tuna, because it comes with a side dish of Endangered Species Act rather than a side dish of dead turtle or dead dolphin," he said.
Leatherback conservation also needs to move forward at nesting sites. The Abun Leatherback Project, which works primarily in remote and impoverished villages in West Papua, attempts to protect western Pacific leatherbacks by employing the help of locals. A team of 10 monitors patrols the beaches while others help measure leatherbacks, release hatchlings or create shades made from palm fronds to keep nests cool.
Conservation success is contingent upon local people, Lontoh said: if they don't care about leatherbacks, they won't try to save them.
"[Locals] have strategic roles," Lontoh said. "In the future, they're probably the ones who will [either] help take care of the leatherbacks or help them go extinct."
But that requires incentives and income. Lontoh said the local government set forth an agenda in 2019 to develop the nearby area for tourism. In rural areas with limited resources, women have prepared to make souvenirs, such as the traditional noken woven bags, to sell to tourists.
"To get [rural people] to see that the leatherbacks are worth protecting, they need to feel benefits from conservation," Lontoh said.
Tourism has funded conservation efforts in other areas of the world already, Shillinger said.
"Leatherbacks bring in a lot of ecotourism projects around the world," he said. "Turtles are really charismatic, benign, attractive animals, and no one wants to see them harmed. So culturally, economically and socially, turtles play an important role."
An Ocean Without Leatherbacks
The question remains: What if western Pacific leatherbacks do go extinct? Scientists warn it could happen in a matter of decades without immediate action.
"In the West Pacific, there's a little bit of a window left, but it's not much," Benson said. "It's definitely 11:55 on its way to midnight."
Losing leatherbacks could throw the entire ecosystem off-balance. Leatherbacks, with their ferocious appetites (eating up 40% of their body weight daily), gobble down huge amounts of jellyfish that in turn devour fish larvae and plankton. By eating these bountiful yet low-nutrition "jellies," the turtles help keep jellyfish numbers under control. In recent years, however, Benson said he's noticed an increase of brown sea nettle (Chrysaora fuscescens), one of the leatherbacks' favorite jellies, in California's waters.
"Over time, this might be an illustration that the number of leatherbacks is so reduced now that they can't serve part of their ecological roles," Lontoh said.
Because jellyfish eat fish larvae, more jellyfish may mean less fish overall, likely impacting small-scale artisanal fisheries and rural Pacific islanders who depend on fish for food or income. Fish provide about 3.3 billion people worldwide with nearly 20% of their animal protein, according to the most recent Fishery and Aquaculture Statistics report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N.
A world without leatherbacks "would still function," Shillinger said, "but there would be some big shifts that we still don't understand."
As the forces of climate change are amplified — cyclones that wash away nests, sand temperatures so hot that hatchlings bake to death, a rapidly changing California Current — a conservation biologist's job becomes no easier.
"This is kind of a higher calling," Benson said. "This is a species threatened with extinction, a lot of people don't know about it, so it's my job to provide some data to increase the opportunities for recovery of the population."
Ironically, Shillinger said, many Californians are unaware that their state marine reptile is the Pacific leatherback.
"Losing a species is a tragedy, something that humanity should really be concerned about," Shillinger said. "As the turtles go, so too does everything else — including ourselves."
Reposted with permission from Mongabay.