By John R. Platt
Spiders need our help, and we may need to overcome our biases and fears to make that happen.
"The feeling that people have towards spiders is not unique," says Marco Isaia, an arachnologist and associate professor at the University of Turin in Italy. "Nightmares, anxieties and fears are very frequent reactions in 'normal' people," he concedes.
Perhaps that's why spiders remain under-represented across the world's endangered-species conservation plans. Average people don't think much about them, relatively few scientists study them, and conservation groups and governments don't act enough to protect them.
That's a major gap in species-protection efforts — one that has wide repercussions. "Efforts in conservation of spiders are particularly meaningful for nature conservation," Isaia points out. Spiders, he says, have enormous ecological value as food for birds and other animals. They're also important to people, both as predators of pest species and as inspiration for medicines and engineering.
And yet they remain neglected.
How bad is the problem? A new paper by Isaia and 18 other experts digs into the conservation status of Europe's 4,154 known spider species and finds that only a few have any protection at the national level. Most have never even been adequately assessed or studied in detail, so we don't know much about their extinction risk or their ecological needs.
Italy, for example, is home to more than 1,700 spider species, but fewer than 450 have had their conservation status assessed and only two have any legal protection in that country.
Greece, meanwhile, has nearly 1,300 spider species within its borders, but scientists have only assessed the conservation needs of 32 of them. None are legally protected.
A jumping spider in Greece. Miltos Gikas / CC BY 2.0
Researchers found the same results — or lack thereof — throughout Europe.
"What surprised us most while assembling the data was the extremely poor level of knowledge about the conservation status, extinction risk and factors threatening the survival of European spider species, despite Europe being one of the most studied regions of the world in terms of biodiversity," says Filippo Milano, the study's lead author and a Ph.D. student in Isaia's research team. "And even when the conservation status of the species was provided, information was often incomplete or out-of-date, resulting in assessments based on poor quality information and high levels of subjectivity."
It's not just individual European nations; the problem is continent-wide. The researchers say just one spider — the endangered Gibraltar funnel-web spider (Macrothele calpeiana) from the Southern Iberian Peninsula — is protected at the European level by the Bern Convention, an international treaty about habitat and species conservation on the continent and some African nations, and European Union Habitats Directive.
Macrothele calpeiana. Gail Hampshire / CC BY 2.0
And of course, this is not unique to Europe; other countries and continents fail to protect arachnids, and for similar reasons.
"Spiders are understudied, underappreciated and under attack by both the climate crisis and humans affecting our environment," says spider expert and science communicator Sebastian Alejandro Echeverri, who was not affiliated with the study. "These are one of the most diverse groups of animals that we don't really think about on a day-to-day basis. There's like 48,000-plus species, but my experience is that most people don't really have a sense of how many are in their area. In the United States, for example, we have just 12 spiders on the endangered species list out of the thousands of species recorded here."
This lack of information or protection at the national level affects international efforts. At the time the research was conducted the IUCN Red List, which includes conservation status assessments for 134,400 species around the world, covered just 301 spider species, eight of which are from Europe. That number has since increased — to all of 318 species from the order Araneae. (And perhaps tellingly, it's worth noting that the Gibraltar funnel-web spider has not currently been assessed for the IUCN Red List.)
The great raft spider (Dolomedes plantarius), listed as vulnerable by the IUCN. Charlie Jackson / CC BY 2.0
The Red List does not grant protections to any species, but it's often used by governments and conservation groups to seek protections on the national or international level.
That dearth of IUCN data seems likely to change, since one of the paper's authors is also the chair of the IUCN Spider and Scorpion Specialist Group, but they have a monumental task ahead of them.
The Web of Borders
As we see with so many other wide-ranging species, a transnational border is often not a spider's friend. The paper identifies several examples of species protected in one country but not its neighbor, despite being found in both places. According to the paper only 17 spider species are protected by conservation legislation in two or more European countries.
"Animals aren't limited by our political lines on a map," notes Echeverri. "You can protect something here, but if that animal's habitat extends past your border and the people next door don't know about it or don't protect its habitat in the same way, it could still be pushed toward extinction even though you're doing your best."
At the same time, cross-border protection can also create problems if legislation is based on out-of-date scientific data. The Gibraltar funnel-web spider — the one species that's listed on the Bern Convention and the EU Habitats Directive — has "protection against all forms of disturbance, capture, keeping, deliberate killing, and damage or destruction of breeding or resting sites," according to the paper. That's essential in its native habitat, but at the same time it's now rapidly spreading through the commercial olive-tree trade and has been spotted in at least four countries outside its range. "As a matter of fact, it seems that the unique spider protected at the European level is considered an alien species in many countries," says Milano.
How Do We Fix This?
Echeverri calls the study "an important call to action." In particular, he points out how it compares different spider assessment and conservation approaches in each country. "This gives people in the IUCN and lawmakers a tool to say, 'hey, this system seems to be working really well, let's take what we can from it that will work great in our country.'"
Isaia notes that they hope this paper spins out a wide-reaching web. "We hope to stimulate environmental government agencies, stakeholders and decision-makers to include spiders in effective conservation strategies and fostering processes that may contribute to the conservation of threatened spider species," he says. Examples, he says, would include "promoting risk assessment procedures for spider species, or including threatened spider species in planning protected areas and biodiversity action plans."
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Susan Cameron searches moss mats for the spruce-fir moss spider. G. Peeples / USFWS
But moving forward will require a lot of effort — not to mention some money.
"There's not a lot of funding for naturalists to go out and survey these animals," says Echeverri. "It's this ongoing crisis within science. You don't know a lot about the species, so you don't know who's there. You don't know how many are there. You don't know how they're doing or what habitats they're in, and we need to make our conservation plans based on scientific data. If that data doesn't exist, even if there is a desire to do something for these animals, we can't plan anything because we don't have the fundamentals."
The researchers hope others will take up their mantle to understand and protect spiders. "Highlighting general patterns and identifying the main strengths and weaknesses in biodiversity conservation across Europe is an appropriate starting point to plan achievable solutions focusing on the local context," says Milano. "The same model may be adopted to other geographic regions and may certainly apply to other taxonomic groups."
And maybe, along the way, their work can help inspire people who fear spiders to look at them in a different light — or even to help look for them, like the Map the Spider project that asks citizen scientists to upload locations of the complex webs woven by elusive purse-web spiders.
Who knows, that might even inspire a new generation of arachnologists — a field of scientists who are currently in short supply.
"Focusing on spiders has been a very important choice in my career," Isaia says. "There are those who, like me, see spiders as miracles of the natural evolution. You may study their web, their venom, their bizarre behaviors, the interactions between different species, their role as predators, their amazing taxonomical and functional diversity, their key role in the maintaining ecosystem equilibrium. You may also use them as sources of inspiration in architecture and visual arts. Aren't these good reasons to find them attractive?"
John R. Platt is the editor of The Revelator. An award-winning environmental journalist, his work has appeared in Scientific American, Audubon, Motherboard, and numerous other magazines and publications. His "Extinction Countdown" column has run continuously since 2004 and has covered news and science related to more than 1,000 endangered species. He is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and the National Association of Science Writers. John lives on the outskirts of Portland, Ore., where he finds himself surrounded by animals and cartoonists.
Reposted with permission from The Revelator.
By Nika Paposhvili
The wide-ranging sea duck known as the velvet scoter can be found in the skies and waters of nearly a dozen European and Asian countries, but it has almost disappeared from some of them. Just a few years ago, it was thought that the geographically isolated breeding population of these birds in the Caucasus was completely extinct. But a study conducted on the Javakheti plateau in 2017 revealed that Lake Tabatskuri in Georgia still holds a small breeding population of just 25-35 pairs. The long-term survival of this tiny population remains in serious jeopardy.
Velvet scoter or velvet duck (Melanitta fusca)
The velvet scoter is a medium-sized, stocky diving duck. The name comes from the velvety plumage of a male bird. The orange bill and light-blue eyes, with a tiny white mark under the eye, make it even more fascinating during mating season.
Where It's Found:
The breeding population of velvet scoter has disappeared in Armenia and Turkey, and nesting is now confined to just one site in the entire Caucasus: Lake Tabatskuri. This beautiful lake is in the Javakheti plateau region of southern Georgia, 2,000 meters (6,500 feet) above sea level. A small island in the northern part of the lake is now the birds' only natural breeding place in the region.
A velvet scoter duckling on Lake Tabatskuri, Georgia, which harbors the last breeding population of the species in the Caucasus. Nika Paposhvili. Used with permission.
IUCN Red List Status:
The velvet scoter is classified as vulnerable and is considered to be decreasing worldwide, with a three-generation decline estimated at 32-46%. However, the Caucasian geographically isolated population is in much more trouble and is a critically endangered species regionally.
Nesting sites have been lost or disturbed through habitat degradation to irrigate adjacent agriculture land, as well as hay cutting on peninsulas and islands in the lakes. Additional factors that led to diminished numbers in the Caucasus include eutrophication (caused by agricultural intensification and wastewater), disturbances by boats, overfishing and bycatch, illegal hunting, removal of eggs by locals for food, and duckling and egg predation by Armenian gulls (Larus armenicus) that compete with the scoters for nesting sites. It is therefore crucial to protect these last remaining ducks before the species is completely wiped out.
Velvet scoter vs. Armenian Gull. Photo: Nika Paposhvili. Used with permission.
They still face some of the threats that led to their decline, with predation on ducklings by Armenian gulls having the greatest impact. This problem is compounded by the fact that numbers of Armenian gulls have dramatically increased in recent years — likely due to the easily accessible food at landfills as more human settlements have been established. Despite attempts by the brood-hen to deter attackers, most of the ducklings (roughly 60-70%) currently become victims in the few days after they hatch.
Notable Conservation Program(s) or Legal Protections:
Conservation actions to ameliorate conditions have already been initiated under our Conservation Leadership Programme project. As a result of raising awareness among local people and involving them in the project, anthropogenic factors (hunting, collecting eggs on the island, disturbance by boats in the feeding area) have been significantly reduced. But competition between species on the nesting grounds and gull predation on the scoter ducklings remain major problems, and we're now working to find appropriate ways to solve these problems. At the same time, we are working to form a long-term conservation action plan for the successful conservation of the breeding population.
My Favorite Experience:
It was a rainy, windy cold day when I first got to Lake Tabatskuri and set myself and my telescope up for birdwatching, looking for these rare birds. The rain was hitting me in the face, wetting the telescope and restricting my vision. Everything was against me, but I would not give up and stubbornly looked for a black duck in the raging waves, trying not to miss any part of the lake.
Finally, where I least expected it, in the one bay near to the village, I spotted a small flock of velvet scoter riding on the waves. It was a joy and at the same time a great assault on my emotions, hard to describe in words — like the feeling a father has when he first sees his first child.
I do not know how long I stood there, shell-shocked, before a local passerby found me and took me to her house to bring me back to reality.
What else do we need to understand or do to protect this species?
Lethal or nonlethal control of the gull population would have a positive impact on the scoters' reproductive success. However, a more detailed study is still needed before making this decision.
Nika Paposhvili has been obsessed with birds since childhood. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in business and administration and then worked at a bank for several months, but the dull experience convinced him to return to birds. He is now a Ph.D. student in the Faculty of Natural Sciences at Ilia State University, working on waterfowl and actively involved in their conservation in Georgia.
Reposted with permission from The Revelator.
The contents of our mattresses are often an afterthought. That's a mistake, as research shows that the quality of your sleeping surface can significantly impact your health.
As consumers gain awareness about the health effects of sleeping on potentially toxic compounds, mattress companies are responding with new beds made from better materials. Today, you can choose from a broad range of mattresses made from all-natural components, including organic wool, cotton, and latex. Here's a summary of the best non-toxic, eco-friendly mattresses available today and how to decide between them.
Why You Should Choose an Organic Mattress
Traditionally, mattresses contain trace amounts of chemicals known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that act as flame retardants and coatings on plastic components. While the popular view is that these VOCs are found in too low of concentrations to be concerning, a 2019 study published in Environmental Science and Technology indicates that body heat may transform them into toxic vapors that you breathe in through the night.
That's a reason for concern, as according to the US Environmental Protection Agency, the potential health effects of VOC exposure include headaches and eye, nose, and throat irritation. In extreme cases, they may trigger cancer cell development or organ damage.
8 Top-Rated Organic and Natural Mattress BrandsEach product featured below has been selected by the writer. You can learn more about our review methodology here. If you make a purchase using the included links, we may earn a commission.
- Best Overall – Avocado Green Mattress
- Best Cooling – GhostBed Natural Mattress
- Best Hypoallergenic – Plushbeds Botanical Bliss
- Best for Lower Back Support – Saatva Zenhaven Latex Mattress
- Best for Couples – My Green Mattress Natural Escape
- Best 100% Certified Organic - Happsy Mattress
- Best Fair Trade Certified – Birch Natural Mattresses
- Most Affordable – Eco Terra Latex Hybrid
- Best Give Back Program – Awara Organic Luxury Hybrid Mattress
How We Chose These Products
When comparing the best natural mattress options, we looked at several specific factors to determine which ones stand out. Here are some of the distinguishing features.
The best non-toxic mattress brands today exclusively use certified organic textiles like cotton and wool.
Is it certified GOLS (Global Organic Latex Standard) or GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard)? As the leading natural certifications for textiles and latex materials, GOLS and GOTS-certified products meet stringent requirements for responsible social and environmental practices.
The best nontoxic mattresses are compressed into boxes for shipping and then expand to full size once you unpack them. Environmentally speaking, smaller packages mean less fuel wasted on transportation. Others are sent in pieces or in full form and require a delivery team for installation.
Give Back Programs
The best eco-friendly mattress brands also support nonprofit programs that benefit the environment. We like brands where a percentage of your purchase may go towards a worthwhile cause.
Many of the best organic mattresses are handcrafted in the United States, which shrinks their environmental footprint by keeping production and transportation within a smaller area.
Standard practice in the mattress industry is to offer sleep trial testing periods. These range from three months to a year or longer.
Direct to Consumer
Direct-to-consumer mattress companies are increasing in popularity. They tend to be less wasteful than traditional retailers because the brand isn't putting resources towards maintaining showrooms.
9 Best Natural and Organic Mattresses of 2021
Best Overall - Avocado Green Mattress
- Materials – 100% GOTS certified cotton and wool, 100% natural latex, steel support coils
- Manufacturing – Handmade in USA
- Delivery – Mattress arrives compressed in a box
- Certifications – GREENGUARD Gold, Rainforest Alliance, eco-INSTITUT®, and Formaldehyde-Free certified, OEKO-TEX® Standard 100 certified wool, GOTS and GOLS certified materials
- Sleep Trial/Warranty – 100-night sleep trial, 25-year warranty
This mattress-in-a-box brand doesn't compromise its eco-friendly principles for low cost or convenience. The Avocado Green mattress boasts a gentle latex support system for balanced firmness that's ideal for larger people and those who sleep on their back or side.
Why buy: Avocado is a leading brand for affordable mattresses made from natural materials. The Green mattress makes this list for its affordable price point and five-zone support system with up to 1,400 pocketed steel support coils. Equally impressive, Avocado maintains control over its whole supply chain and employs strict social and environmental standards for every product.
Best Cooling - GhostBed Natural Mattress
- Materials – Natural wool, GOLS certified Dunlop & Talalay latex, USDA organic and GOTS certified cotton
- Manufacturing – Manufactured in the USA
- Delivery – Mattress arrives vacuum sealed in a box
- Certifications – USDA organic, Control Union certified, OEKO-TEX® certified, GOLS and GOTS certified materials
- Sleep Trial/Warranty – 101 night sleep trial, 25-year warranty
The GhostBed Natural mattress offers five layers of natural comfort materials. Each mattress is made from natural wool, genuine Dunlop and Talalay latex, and organic cotton for solid support and air-flow cooling. This is an eco-friendly mattress made for comfort, cooling, and support.
Why buy: The GhostBed Natural mattress is a great option if you tend to get hot when you sleep, as it includes both a naturally cooling latex core and cooling airflow coil technology to help you sleep better. We also love that it is made in the United States with organic and natural materials like sustainably-sourced latex and USDA organic cotton.
Best Hypoallergenic - Plushbeds Botanical Bliss
- Materials – GOLS certified latex, GOTS certified cotton and wool
- Manufacturing – Handcrafted in California
- Delivery – Delivered in two boxes, the customer must assemble
- Certifications – GOLS certified latex, GOTS certified cotton and wool, GreenGuard Gold Certified, OEKO-TEX® Standard 100 Certified, eco-INSTITUT® certified, Control Union Certified, Forest Stewardship Council Certified
- Sleep Trial/Warranty – 100-night sleep trial, 25-year warranty
Plushbeds mattresses are handcrafted in the US from certified organic materials. Orthopedic specialists recommend them for their buoyant support and pressure point relief, along with an organic latex core you can customize.
Why buy: With Plushbeds' Botanical Bliss mattress, you get a non-toxic, hypoallergenic sleeping surface that keeps you cool through the night. This bed is dust mite resistant to eliminate most home's primary allergy problems and includes an organic cotton cover for comfort.
Best Luxury - Saatva Zenhaven Latex Mattress
- Materials – Certified organic cotton, all-natural Talalay latex, 100% organic New Zealand wool
- Manufacturing – Made in USA within 19 independent factories
- Delivery – Purchase comes with free white glove delivery and setup, including old mattress removal
- Certifications – OEKO-TEX® Standard 100, eco-INSTITUT®, Rainforest Alliance, and Cradle to Cradle certified
- Sleep Trial/ Warranty – 180-day sleep trial, 20-year warranty
The Saatva Zenhaven mattress is naturally hypoallergenic and made using environmentally responsible practices. The manufacturing process is entirely water-based and produces minimal byproducts. Even the certified organic cotton cover is protected by a proprietary nontoxic botanical antimicrobial treatment. Rather than using traditional flame retardants, the mattress contains a protective layer of organic New Zealand wool.
Why buy: As Saatva's premium mattress, the Zenhaven is made for low back support and a cooling, comfortable night's sleep. This 100% Talalay latex mattress contains durable materials for supported rest and boasts a flippable design for two firmness levels. This is the best option for a luxurious yet eco-friendly mattress.
Best for Couples - My Green Mattress Natural Escape
- Materials – GOTS certified cotton, GOLS certified Dunlop latex
- Manufacturing – Handcrafted in a certified organic factory in Illinois
- Delivery – White glove delivery service available for $199 for setup and old mattress removal.
- Certifications – GreenGuard Gold Certified, GOTS Certified cotton, GOLS certified Dunlop latex
- Sleep Trial/Warranty – 120-night sleep trial, 20-year warranty
The Natural Escape mattress boasts a responsive zoned pocketed coil spring system covered with GOLS certified Dunlop latex for breathability. With an adaptive support system that conforms to the contours of your spine, the company recommends it for couples with opposite body types or who prefer different sleeping positions from each other. The mattress itself is button tufted to pull the layers together without the use of any potentially toxic adhesives or VOCs.
Why buy: The Natural Escape mattress from My Green Mattress delivers stellar lumbar support and proper spinal alignment—all underneath a comfortable organic cotton cover. It also provides limited motion transfer thanks to an upgraded innerspring system, making it a great option for couples as you won't disturb your partner when you move.
Best 100% Certified Organic - Happsy Mattress
- Materials – Organic cotton filling, organic wool, certified latex
- Manufacturing – Handmade in USA
- Delivery – Ships compressed in a single box
- Certifications – GOTS-certified cotton, Certified Made Safe, GOLS-certified latex, Forest Stewardship Council Certified, Rainforest Alliance Certified, GreenGuard Gold Certified, Underwriters Laboratories verified formaldehyde-free, Green America Certified Business
- Sleep Trial/Warranty – 120-night sleep trial, 20-year warranty
Happsy's mattresses combine comfort, the latest technology in certified organic mattress design, and premium earth-friendly materials for a bed you can feel good about from every angle. In fact, the included zipper lets you peek inside to see what you're really sleeping on. The mattress utilizes a breathable coil system designed to wick moisture away to keep you cooler at night than sleeping on heat-trapping synthetic foams.
Why buy: Happsy is a small mattress brand focused on making mattresses with a conscience — meaning that all materials are chosen for being easy on the environment. The company forgoes all glues and adhesives in favor of its own pocketed spring design that keeps the mattress supportive, but never "bouncy."
Best Fair Trade Certified - Birch Natural Mattresses
- Materials – Organic cotton, wool, birch wool, natural latex, steel coils
- Manufacturing – Handmade in USA
- Delivery – Ships compressed in a box
- Certifications – GreenGuard Gold Certified, GOTS Certified, OEKO-TEX®Standard 100, Eco INSTITUT® Tested Product, Wool Integrity NZ, Fair Trade Certified Factory
- Sleep Trial/Warranty – 100-night sleep trial, 25-year warranty
Birch by Helix makes a range of natural bedding options constructed in ways that support the environment. Each mattress is made from premium materials that together work to relieve your body's pressure points, no matter how you prefer to sleep. The company claims this premium product has natural flexibility that allows it to retain its shape to provide enough softness for coziness while still offering full-body support.
Why buy: We love that all Birch mattress wool comes from New Zealand sheep farms that meet Wool Integrity NZ standards, which ensures the animals are treated ethically at every stage of production. Plus, the cotton within each mattress is Fair Trade certified, making this a responsible sleep option.
Most Affordable - Eco Terra Latex Hybrid
- Materials – 100% natural latex foam rubber, organic wool, organic cotton
- Manufacturing – Designed and handcrafted in Los Angeles, CA
- Delivery – Free standard delivery across the US, White Glove delivery available for an extra cost
- Certifications – OEKO-TEX® Standard 100 certified, GOTS Organic wool, GOTS organic certified cotton
- Sleep Trial/Warranty – 90-day sleep trial, 15-year warranty
Eco Terra offers a budget-friendly latex hybrid mattress that includes natural materials, unobtrusive pocket support coils, and a 90-day sleep trial. Eco Terra's latex mattress is available in both a medium and medium-firm firmness level to support a wide range of sleepers. The bed is free of synthetic foams and VOCs, favoring a three-inch-thick layer of Talalay latex instead.
Why buy: Eco Terra offers a more budget-friendly option than other latex hybrid brands, making this mattress an excellent choice for comfortable sleep without compromising on natural materials. One thing to note is that this latex isn't GOLS-certified, though the other materials are GOTS certified.
Best Give Back Program - Awara Organic Luxury Hybrid Mattress
- Materials – Dunlap latex, organic New Zealand wool, organic cotton, steel coils
- Manufacturing – Made in China
- Delivery – Arrives compressed in a box
- Certifications – Rainforest Alliance certified latex, certified organic wool, certified organic cotton
- Sleep Trial/Warranty – 365-night sleep trial, Forever Warranty (lifetime guarantee against sagging and manufacturing defects)
Awara features premium Sri Lanka latex and wrapped coil springs to provide contour and a touch of bounce for supportive sleep throughout the night. At the core of this mattress are nine-inch pocketed coils that are thicker than standard. This gives the bed a firmer, more responsive feel that minimizes the sense of sinking when you reach the outer edge, so it's suitable for back, side, and stomach sleepers alike.
Why buy: Awara's natural latex mattress stands out for being slightly firmer than some other options. The mattress itself is made from quality materials with GOLS, GOTS, and Rainforest Alliance certification. Awara also partners with Trees for the Future to support forest systems throughout Africa. Every purchase funds the planting of ten trees throughout Kenya, Senegal, Uganda, or Tanzania.
The best night's sleep takes place on a mattress that won't make you or the environment sick. Today, there are more options than ever for finding the best organic and nontoxic mattress for your family. Seek out brands that use certified organic materials and that guarantee each bed is free from VOCs to rest easy every night.
Lydia Noyes is a freelance writer specializing in health and wellness, food and farming, and environmental topics. When not working against a writing deadline, you can find Lydia outdoors where she attempts to bring order to her 33-acre hobby farm filled with fruit trees, heritage breed pigs, too many chickens to count, and an organic garden that somehow gets bigger every year.
By Tara Lohan
A familiar scene has returned to California: drought. Two counties are currently under emergency declarations, and the rest of the state could follow.
It was only four years ago when a winter of torrential rain finally wrestled the state out of its last major drought, which had dragged on for five years and left thousands of domestic wells coughing up dust.
That drinking-water crisis made national headlines and helped shine a light on another long-simmering water crisis in California: More than 300 communities have chronically unsafe drinking water containing contaminants that can come with serious health consequences, including cancer. The areas hardest hit are mostly small, agricultural communities in the San Joaquin and Salinas valleys, which are predominantly Latino and are often also places classified by the state as "disadvantaged." Unsafe water in these communities adds to a list of health and economic burdens made worse by the ongoing pandemic.
California took a step toward addressing the problem back in 2012 when it passed the country's first state law declaring the human right to water. That was followed by a 2019 bill to help meet that mandate by establishing the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund.
But just how much cash is needed to address the problem?
The answer, we now know, is about $10 billion, according to a new "needs assessment" from state agencies and the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation that provides a detailed look at the scope of the problem and cost of solutions.
"The study is unique in that it's the first — certainly for California, but I think also for any state — that looks across every source for drinking water purposes that can be quantified," says Gregory Pierce, the study's principal investigator and an adjunct assistant professor of urban planning at UCLA. This includes all public water systems regulated by the Safe Drinking Water Act, as well as domestic wells and "state smalls" with fewer than 15 connections.
"I think this takes us many steps forward to better understanding where we need additional funding and what areas we should be focusing on in terms of proactively addressing at-risk systems," says Michael Clairborne, directing attorney at the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, which works on water-equity issues in the state. "It also demonstrates that there's still a real need for additional infrastructure funding for drinking water."
Understanding the Problem
So how bad is it?
The causes of the state's drinking water woes are varied — and worrisome. Nitrate, mostly from farms and dairies, is the costliest water contaminant, the study found. Nitrates are especially dangerous for infants, and can cause lethargy, dizziness and even death. Other groundwater contaminants include bacteria from leaking septic systems and uranium, which can cause kidney damage. Several other contaminants have been linked to cancers, including the industrial pollutant chromium-6, the pesticide 1,2,3-trichloropropane, and human-made and naturally-occurring sources of arsenic.
Nitrate pollution from agricultural operations poses a health threat in Calif. Tara Lohan
Contamination is also widespread.
The study looked at 2,779 public water systems across the state and evaluated their water quality, affordability, accessibility, and technical and financial capacity. It found that 326 public water systems qualified as "human right to water communities" — the ones where water systems are consistently failing to provide affordable, safe drinking water.
For anyone tracking this issue (or living in these communities), that part wasn't news.
But the report also found that another 617 public water systems are at risk of failing. Virtually every county in the state had at least one system on this list, but those with the highest numbers were in rural areas with large numbers of smaller water systems, including Tulare, Fresno, Monterey and Kern counties.
"What's really novel is that it also tries to comprehensively assess where our water quality is likely to fail next if nothing is done to prevent it," says Pierce.
And that should be a big wake-up call.
"This is the next logical step to try to get a handle on the drinking-water crisis in the state," says Clairborne. "We really have to proactively address these high-risk systems before they fail, provide them the support they need, and potentially consolidate high-risk systems with nearby systems to improve sustainability."
The research also found that almost one third of domestic wells (78,000) are at high risk of failure, as are half of California's 1,236 state small systems.
And it highlighted another critical issue, too: money.
"The report reinforced what we unfortunately already know too well — that California is facing a major water affordability crisis," says Jonathan Nelson, policy director of the Community Water Center. "Nearly 1 in 3 water systems were identified either as having water rates that were higher than what is deemed affordable for families or high levels of water shutoffs."
Unsafe drinking water comes with an additional economic burden: Many families are also forced to spend more money on bottled water, with some spending as much as 10% of their monthly income on water, according to the Community Water Center.
One of the main reasons for persistently unsafe water has to do with scale: Larger water systems have more resources to fund treatment technologies, while small systems often lack the resources to meet water-quality challenges.
A new chromium-6 treatment plant in Willow, Calif. Florence Low / California Department of Water Resources
Getting those struggling water systems more funding to upgrade their water-treatment systems can help. But those technologies need ongoing maintenance, and often the most cost-effective measure is consolidation. Small water systems or homes on domestic wells can be connected to larger systems that can better treat contaminated water sources.
Historically the state hasn't been that good at consolidation because many larger water providers didn't want to take on small, failing systems. But in 2015, Senate Bill 88 granted the California State Water Resources Control Board authority to mandate consolidation for failing water systems. Now another bill, Senate Bill 403, would expand that to include systems at risk of failure.
"That would help to address the needs of those nearly 620 at-risk water systems, as well as state small systems and domestic wells," says Clairborne. "The state has made some progress in the last few years, with several hundred consolidations since 2015, compared to fewer than 200 for the 40 years prior."
When it comes to addressing the affordability crisis, Nelson says the state legislature can take action to establish a water rate assistance fund, which is especially important now because "California families are carrying $1 billion in pandemic-caused water debt," he says.
The report also found that a broader, more regional look at potential solutions could cut costs. In one example outlined in the study, if 85 small water systems in Monterey County are incorporated into a nearby larger system, the cost for each new connection falls from $39,000 to $7,000.
"If we can prioritize those [regional solutions], the cost could come down considerably, and our infrastructure would be much more integrated," says Pierce.
Finding the Money
Bringing costs down will be key, as the price tag for implementing interim and long-term solutions for water systems and domestic wells that need assistance over the next five years is upwards of $10 billion. Some efforts are already underway to address paying for that, with allocations from the state and contributions from local governments, but that still leaves an estimated $4.6 billion shortfall, according to the report.
"Unless addressed, this funding gap will perpetuate the divide between those who have safe water in California and those who don't," says Nelson.
More money is needed from either the federal or state government, says Pierce. And even though the price tag seems steep, he says, the costs of not fixing the problems will be higher in the long run and bring a lot more suffering to communities.
Some California residents rely on expensive bottled water because their tap water is unsafe. Tara Lohan
"Unsafe water can not only cause physical health impacts, it can also cause a lot of direct affordability impacts and mental health stressors on people," says Pierce. "One way or the other society pays for this and it's better to invest up front — from a human right and equity standpoint, and also from an economic one."
One recent bright spot is the potential for more spending at the national level, with the Biden administration's current discussions around a major infrastructure bill in Congress.
That could represent a paradigm change. "The federal government's role in funding drinking water infrastructure has dropped dramatically since the 1970s compared to other types of infrastructure," says Pierce.
Even if such investments do come from Washington, though, they won't solve all of California's water problems.
"I hope it can be a substantial amount of what we need, but I would be very surprised to see it meet the whole need," he says. "I think that much of what would be allotted to California would likely go to larger systems for broader infrastructure investments and drought-related resilience."
Additionally, a lot of the bill's equity focus is on lead. "Which I don't disagree with, but California doesn't have nearly as big of a lead problem in drinking water as many other states," he adds.
The fact that California has already done the work to understand its drinking-water problems, identify solutions and tally the costs can make the process of getting federal dollars easier — and that could also help inspire other states to better quantify their water needs.
"I do think you'll see more states do this, but it was a considerable effort: The water board basically created a new unit with multiple staff to do this work," says Pierce. "But most of the data was the water board's own, so I think a lot of this could be done by other states without too much effort, if they can learn from what was done here and maybe even enhance that."
Money to shore up water systems, improve affordability and ensure clean water for all residents also comes with a ripple effect of benefits.
"Investments in water projects can help create drought and climate resiliency," says Nelson. "And water investments can be an engine of equitable economic growth, creating good jobs in communities that need them. We have a tremendous opportunity to both address this public health crisis and help our economy recover at the same time."
Tara Lohan is deputy editor of The Revelator and has worked for more than a decade as a digital editor and environmental journalist focused on the intersections of energy, water and climate. Her work has been published by The Nation, American Prospect, High Country News, Grist, Pacific Standard and others. She is the editor of two books on the global water crisis.
Reposted with permission from The Revelator.
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By Daniel Henryk Rasolt
On a recent, pre-pandemic journey to the High Andes of Colombia, I found myself surrounded by one of the region's emblematic species, the flowering shrubs known locally as frailejones or "big monks." These giant plants, relatives of sunflowers from the Espeletia genus, mesmerized me, their yellow buds and silvery hairs glistening in the intense, ephemeral sunlight.
Looking out over the vast, rolling landscape, I wondered how such a stunning, incomparable ecosystem can be taken for granted.
I'd accompanied National University of Colombia agricultural scientist Jairo Cuervo, that day, to Sumapaz — about 25 miles (40 km) southwest of Bogotá — to better understand the impacts of an expanding agricultural frontier on rich páramo soils.
Sumapaz is the world's largest páramo — a type of high-altitude moorland ecosystem found in the South and Central American neotropics that functions as a sort of sponge, efficiently absorbing and storing rainwater and moisture into its vegetation and rich soils. The water is then released slowly and steadily, which is particularly important in dry seasons. Sumapaz and the nearby Chingaza páramo, for example, provide most of the water for the entire Bogotá savanna.
Páramos, experts say, may also serve as a sort of buffer against climate-change-induced recession of tropical mountain glaciers and extended droughts — if we can protect them.
Cuervo pointed to a potato farm and some grazing cows in the distance, where they'd taken over from the native vegetation. "Despite the páramo providing us with water to live, they are largely forgotten, neglected and at terrible risk," he says.
Agriculture is just one of many interconnected pressures threatening these unique ecosystems and the people and wildlife who depend on them.
High Risk in the High Andes
In an exquisitely diverse country, no ecosystem is as unique and directly integrated into the health and well-being of Colombian society as the High Andean páramo.
Some of Colombia and Ecuador's major rivers also rise in the páramos, and large cities such as Bogotá, Medellin and Cali in Colombia and Quito in Ecuador are almost completely dependent on them for their water supplies. Tens of millions of people in the region rely on the páramo ecosystem for drinking water and a range of agricultural and industrial activities — an estimated 70% to 80% of the Colombian populace.
Coconucos Páramo. Cauca, Colombia. D.H. Rasolt
These "water towers," as they're commonly known, are also one of the world's most rapidly evolving ecosystems.
"Páramos are a hotspot within a global hotspot, as they're located mostly within the threatened tropical Andes," says Santiago Madriñan, a botanist from the Universidad de los Andes and an expert on páramos.
In an influential 2013 study, Madriñan and his team made the claim that páramos are the planet's coolest and fastest evolving biodiversity hotspots, a conclusion established through genetic analysis of páramo plant species and comparison to other rapidly evolving biodiversity hotspots, such as the Mediterranean Basin, the Hawaiian Archipelago and the California Floristic Region. Some analogous processes being uncovered in parts of the Tibetan Plateau may give the páramos competition to this "hotspot of all hotspots" claim, but even so the páramos are undoubtedly special.
"The páramo, like the famed Galápagos Islands, are like a laboratory for studying the process of evolution," Madriñan says. "We can learn how these species adapted to changing climatic conditions over a relatively short period of geological time. The páramo only came into existence within the last 2 to 3 million years, at which time uplift of the Northern Andes mountains rose above the tree line."
For extended periods, especially during past glacial periods, páramo ecosystems remained more connected and evolved more uniformly at lower altitudes within mountain valleys due to a lower tree line. Since then, they've shrunk dramatically, while their evolutionary potential has practically exploded.
"The ensuing warmer epochs such as our present Holocene disconnected and isolated páramo complexes, creating 'sky islands' with very high species diversification and endemism," explains Madriñan. "Most of the more than 3,000 plant species so-far discovered are highly specialized to the extreme conditions of the páramo." These conditions include powerful ultraviolet radiation, drastic day-night temperature swings and abrupt changes in weather.
And páramos are not only rich in plant life. They contain hundreds of endemic and threatened bird, reptile, amphibian, insect and mammal species, including the majestic Andean condor (Vultur gryphus) and spectacled bear (Tremarctos ornatus).
Rising Temperatures Threaten Páramos
While páramos serve as a buffer against climate change and water scarcity, they're threatened by rapidly rising temperatures themselves — as are the plants and animals that live there.
The high altitude, isolation and specialization of many species limits their so-called "adaptive capacity" and ability to migrate upwards.
"There is no time or space to adapt to present trends of rising temperatures for many of the páramo plant species, including the Espeletias," says Madriñon, who co-authored a recent study that showed Espeletias' vulnerability to climate change. "They will be pushed out of existence."
Rising temperatures in the páramo are also bringing some unwelcome guests.
"With climate change, insects often migrate upwards much faster than other species," says Thomas Walschburger, a conservation biologist and science coordinator for TNC-Colombia. "There are some species arriving in the páramo ecosystem, such as beetles, caterpillars and other potential pests, that can have an unwanted impact, including on the frailejones. It's unknown if the frailejones will have the time and ability to adapt to their presence."
Climate change may also bring increased risk of fires within the páramos. Research has shown that fires in the páramo are mostly of human origin, sparked to clear vegetation and create open grassland. The higher temperatures and potentially drier conditions under climate change will make these fires both easier to start and harder to control. In February 2020 a massive fire burned at least 11 square miles (30 square km) in Sumapaz. The flames were bad enough to mobilize Colombia's Disaster Risk Management Agency and cause air-pollution alerts in nearby Bogotá.
This isn't just a local or regional problem. The waterlogged páramo soils are rich in organic matter and extremely dense in carbon, on the range of 0.2 – 1.4 tons per hectare, depending on depth. Scientists say the loss of the páramos' carbon storage capacity will likely lead to a net-release of carbon into the atmosphere, contributing to global climate change.
Encroaching Mining and Agriculture
Other threats continue to chip away at páramo ecosystems.
Legal loopholes are at the center of ongoing conflicts regarding hundreds of mining concessions granted within and around the páramos in Colombia. The ecosystems are supposed to be protected by law from such extractive activities, but that has done little to deter the ambitions of shortsighted corporations looking to exploit their mineral wealth.
Nowhere has this battle been more contentious than Minesa's massive gold-mining concession within and around the Santurbán páramo, in Colombia's Santander department.
Lagunas Negras, Santurbán páramo circa 12,000 feet (3,800 meters). Santander, Colombia. D.H. Rasolt
In a 2018 letter for Science, Madriñan and 13 other highly regarded researchers from around the world emphasized that the protection of biodiverse páramos and Andean forests has been largely neglected in Colombia. They wrote:
"We urge environmental authorities to take the necessary action to stop the Santurbán [Minesa] goldmining project and instead promote the active preservation and restoration of the páramos and Andean forests, particularly in this biologically important area of the country."
Meanwhile the rapidly expanding high-Andean agricultural frontier, particularly for cow pastures and potato farming, poses perhaps the most tangible and immediate threat to páramos. Cow grazing requires large swaths of grassland and ruins páramo soil quality, while potato farmers drain bogs and often intensively deploy agrochemicals.
Cows grazing in the subpáramo, 10,000 feet (3,100 meters), in Cauca, Colombia. D.H. Rasolt
"With cattle, their weight compacts this naturally sponge-like soil, so if cattle grazing becomes even more extensive in the páramos, it could lead to the loss of the páramos' vital function of efficient water absorption and slow release," explained Jairo Cuervo while we were in the Sumapaz páramo. "There would also be increased runoff, soil erosion and flood risk, accompanied by decreased water quality that is exacerbated by agrochemical use for expanding potato cultivations in the páramos and subpáramos."
The Challenge of Delimiting and Protecting the Páramo
The success of conservation efforts and attempts to limit the expansion of mining and agriculture into páramos will depend greatly on one critical element: maps.
But delimiting individual páramos and the entire global area of páramo, which exist at altitudes between the tree line and the snow line, is no easy task.
A widely cited statistic for the global páramo area estimates them at 13,500 square miles (35,000 square km), and within this estimate, more than half of the páramo area (7,300 square miles, or 19,000 square km) is within Colombia's delimited páramo complexes. But that may leave a lot of these ecosystems unrecognized and unprotected.
"The most current accepted area of páramo in Colombia is around 3 million hectares [11,500 square miles]," said Brigitte Baptiste, a Colombian biologist and the former director of the Humboldt Institute, the entity responsible for delimiting Colombia's páramos.
The remaining páramo is found in parts of Peru, Ecuador, Venezuela and Costa Rica.
What holds back efforts to draw more conclusive lines around the páramos? "I think the top challenges for the delimitation are not technical but social," says Baptiste. "There are different ways of dealing with physical and biological issues by local people as well as by institutions and at other scales. Therefore it's quite difficult to get an agreement about where to draw the line, and to get a science policy process in place which allows us to negotiate this definition."
Regardless of the challenges, it is critical that the páramos' limits be properly defined if they're to be conserved. "The effects of páramo delimitation are clear: no mining, no agriculture, within the accepted legal area of páramo," says Baptiste.
The Need for Socio-Ecological Balance
There are clearly conflicting interests among farming communities living within or around the páramo, mining companies looking to exploit the region, researchers enthralled by the unique ecosystem, and the multitude downstream who depend on páramos for water.
It wasn't always this out of balance between humans and the páramo.
Indigenous peoples such as the Muisca lived in harmony with and worshipped the páramo for thousands of years, before their lands were stolen and cultures destroyed. Today some resilient Indigenous peoples remain and continue to protect the vital sacred páramo.
"The páramo is the originator of life and connects us to our ancestors. It should never be mined, burned, grazed or cultivated, as many shortsighted people do today," Nasa leader Maria Pito told me in November 2019 from within the Pisxnu Páramo in Cauca, Colombia.
Pisxnu Páramo. Cauca, Colombia. D.H. Rasolt
Science is just starting to catch up with holistic traditional knowledge by providing data-driven socio-ecological reasons for protecting these ecosystems. For example, integrated modeling of the páramos' complex and still largely unknown hydrological processes by the Stockholm Environmental Institute in Colombia, Ecuador and Peru has uncovered some important trends. It's a difficult task, as researcher Cristo Pérez explained to me: "To properly model the páramos' hydrology, one must account for the dynamic interplay between large amounts of groundwater, surface water, precipitation and the many rivers born in the páramos."
But that complex hydrology is already suffering, and the problems are expected to get worse. In a 2016 SEI study of Peru's Quiroz-Chipillico watershed, the authors concluded: "As expected, the model showed that rising temperatures and reduced precipitation would affect water availability. But land use change — specifically, the conversion of páramo to new uses and degradation of the páramo — had an even greater effect." These projections further enforce that water availability will decrease not just for local communities and biodiversity, but for millions of people and ecosystems downstream.
The Time for Coordinated Action
The experts I spoke with all agreed that the interconnected pressures of climate change and human land use pose an existential threat to the páramos. Climate change will both directly affect specialized páramo species and will make the clearing of their vegetation by fire more common and efficient. As fires clear more land, cow pastures and potato cultivations will reach progressively higher altitudes within the páramos unless there are stronger efforts to limit their expansion. This, in turn, will further degrade soils and affect species' ability to adapt and migrate.
Then there's the question of water. Some research suggests that upward-migrating Andean forests may help to fill part of the dynamic hydrological function left by the disappearing páramos, but not if those lands are simply cleared for human activities.
"Maybe some of the water regulation can be made by High Andean forest, but we don't know for sure as there would be changes to the structure and composition of water-retaining páramo soils," says Walschburger. "Regardless, the impacts on biodiversity will be terrible if the páramo disappears."
My own time in the páramos working with Indigenous peoples and a diverse spectrum of researchers has often given me the opportunity to venture alone to absorb the tranquility, complexity and breathtaking biodiversity of this neglected high-altitude paradise. These experiences have instilled in me that the páramos are an irreplaceable ecosystem in need of the highest levels of local, regional and global protection.
Whether they're a vital source of water for tens of millions of people, megadiverse "sky islands" that can serve as a laboratory for the study of endemic species and evolutionary biology, buffers against climate change, or a sacred and awe-inspiring source of biocultural heritage, their loss would be an irreparable tragedy for both the region and the planet.
Reposted with permission from The Revelator.
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By John R. Platt
Humans and whales have a complex relationship.
We've hunted whales for food for centuries, celebrated them in our art and culture, admired their familial relationships and songs, and even worshipped them as gods.
But at the same time, we've overhunted multiple whale species to the brink of extinction, overfished their prey, poisoned their bodies and habitats, and scarred or killed them with our oceanic vessels.
While we've made great strides on many of those fronts, there's still a lot to do and many reasons to worry. Here are some of them, followed by an archive of related stories from The Revelator:
1. We're Still Discovering What's Out There — and What's Not
You'd think a large species like a whale would be easy to find.
Several new cetacean species have been discovered in the past few years, most recently the rarely seen Rice's whale in the Gulf of Mexico. Previously thought to be a subspecies of the Bryde's whale, the newly recognized species was identified just in time. Scientists estimate that fewer than 100 Rice's whales remain — perhaps as few as 60 — and say the species is critically endangered.
Similarly, it's often hard to realize what we're losing in the vast expanses of the ocean. In part that's because whales are hard to count — especially dead ones. While many whale carcasses wash up on beaches, most sink to the bottom of the ocean or are consumed by scavengers. That presents a challenge to understanding how many whales are being killed or, if we do find a body, how they died. This has important conservation implications. For example, recent research suggests we're undercounting the deaths of critically endangered North Atlantic right whales by 64% — and that's one of the world's most heavily monitored whale species, which all too often die after being struck by shipping vessels.
North Atlantic right whales. Sea to Shore Alliance / NOAA, under NOAA permit #15488
Speaking of which…
2. Ships vs. Whales
Globalization means more and more gigantic shipping vessels traversing the globe every day, where they can cross into whale feeding grounds or through migratory routes.
And when a ship strikes a whale, it's not the ship that loses.
Kees Torn / CC BY-SA 2.0
Most recently, necropsies revealed that at least two gray whales found dead near San Francisco Bay had been injured by ships, while an injured humpback whale was observed near Vancouver. Similar stories play out regularly around the globe.
And it's not just big ships. Fishing vessels of all sizes pose threats, either directly or through lost fishing gear. This April a research drone captured footage of a baby gray whale entangled in fishing line, dragging a buoy behind it.
3. Climate Change Comes Calling
Warming oceans pose multiple threats to whales, some of which relate once again to the shipping industry. In recent years the industry has rushed to newly ice-free waters in the Arctic, bringing with them noise, pollution and other harmful changes.
Additional threats from climate change continue to emerge, and exactly what's happening isn't always clear. One recent study found that a population of bowhead whales failed to make its annual autumn migration away from solid ice in the Bering Sea, but the reason remains undiscovered. One theory is that warming waters could have resulted in an increase in their food supply. Another theory suggests changing temperatures could have allowed more killer whales to block the bowheads' migration.
Similarly, climate change has resulted in decreased herring abundance in Quebec's Gulf of St. Lawrence, and this loss of food has resulted in fewer humpback whale pregnancies coming to term.
Meanwhile, there's a big reason to protect whales from climate change: their very existence helps protect us from climate change. Their feces help feed phytoplankton, which photosynthesize and absorb carbon dioxide before dying, sinking to the bottom of the ocean and sequestering that world-changing greenhouse gas. Whale bodies, similarly, also store an enormous amount of carbon that can be sequestered when they die.
4. Plastic: A Painful Threat
When whales accidentally consume plastic waste that they find floating in the ocean, the results can be deadly — either immediately or over time.
All too often, investigations into the cause of whale deaths find plastic to blame. One of the most recent examples occurred in Bangladesh, where two dead whales washed up near a resort town in April. "Primarily we think the two have died from consuming plastic and polluted objects," Jahirul Islam, executive director of Marine Life Alliance, told AFP.
And remember that new whale species that was just discovered? One of the reasons we know the species exists is because a carcass washed up near the Florida Everglades in 2019. Scientists found that it was killed by a tiny, 2.5-inch piece of jagged plastic that lodged in its stomach and caused internal bleeding and necrosis.
Smaller plastic particles may also have health implications for whales in even the most remote locations. A study published in 2020 found that seven beluga whales harvested by Inuvialuit hunters all had plastic fibers and fragments in their digestive systems. All the particles were what's considered microplastic, smaller than 5 millimeters in size. These may not be immediately fatal, but nearly half of the particles contained chemicals that could cause potential health problems, much like they could in humans. The risks whales may face from microplastics remains a field of active scientific investigation, with hundreds of papers published in just the past year.
A team of specially trained NOAA rescuers successfully free a humpback whale from a life-threatening tangle of fishing gear off the Kona Coast of Hawaii. R. Finn / NOAA MMHSRP permit #932-1905
Larger plastic waste, such as lost or discarded fishing lines and nets, poses an even bigger threat. "Imagine walking around with weights tied to your ankles," researcher Greg Merrill recently wrote in New Security Beat. "Whales struggle to get untangled from large nets and they end up dragging this weight along with them, expending extra energy they need to migrate and raise their young. An increasingly common tragedy is when whales become so overburdened by the weight of the plastic debris they cannot surface to breathe and drown."
5. Public Perception Still Lags
People generally love whales and support their conservation, but how much do they really know about whales and the threats the face?
Not much, it turns out.
A recent scientific survey found that the majority of people cared about legislation to protect whales, but at the same time they didn't know much about various whale or cetacean species. The researchers found that people thought common species such as bottlenose dolphins needed the most protection, didn't know about some of the most endangered species such as the vaquita, and believed more countries actively engaged in whaling than really do today.
Perhaps most strikingly, the survey presented people with the names of several fictional whale species (like the "pygmy short-finned whale"), which respondents said they believed needed protection more than real at-risk species.
This might not seem like a huge problem at first, but the future of whale conservation may rely once again upon grassroots efforts from caring citizens. As the researchers concluded, "A lack of awareness of the conservation status of whales and dolphins and continued whaling activities suggests that greater outreach to the public about the conservation status of whale and dolphin species is needed."
Reposted with permission from the Revelator.
By Federico Kacoliris
The El Rincon stream frog only lives in hot springs at the headwaters of a small Patagonian stream. With just a handful of decimated populations remaining, the critically endangered frog is struggling to survive.
El Rincon stream frog, also known as the Somuncura or Valcheta frog (Pleurodema somuncurense)
This small frog is almost entirely aquatic. Its coloration is green and brown with several dorsal spots, and some individuals can have a clear vertebral line.
Where it’s found:
The hot springs of the headwaters of the Valcheta Stream, in northern Patagonia.
IUCN Red List status:
Critically endangered due to a continued decline in extent and quality of its aquatic habitat and the local extinction of some subpopulations
Invasive predator salmonids (rainbow trout, Oncorhynchus mykiss) have cornered these frogs in their last habitat. And even there, they also face habitat destruction by livestock.
Notable conservation program(s) or legal protections:
The Wild Plateau Initiative (Somuncura Foundation) is running an action plan framed on habitat restoration and population recovery of this species. The recovery program is based on ex situ breeding and reintroduction of individuals into restored habitat.
My favorite experience:
I was part of the first reintroduction attempt of this endangered species in the wild — in a restored habitat where a local population had become extinct. Releasing captive-born individuals into a wild habitat, where they will be protected and free of threats, makes me happy and confident about being able to do something for the sake of the wild.
What else do we need to do to protect this species?
Next steps include continuing with ongoing conservation activities, promoting the legal protection of the frog's habitat, and engaging the local community in conserving it.
- Velasco M, Berkunsky I, Akmentins M, Kass C, Arellano M, Aguirre T, Williams J, Kacoliris 2019. Status and population dynamics of the Critically Endangered Valcheta frog Pleurodema somuncurense on the Patagonian Somuncura Plateau. Endangered Species Research, 40: 163 – 169.
- Martinez Aguirre T, Calvo R, Velasco MA, Arellano ML, Zarini O, Kacoliris 2019. Re-establishment of an extinct local population of the Valcheta Frog, Pleurodema somuncurense, in a restored habitat in Patagonia, Argentina. Conservation Evidence. 2019.
- Velasco MA, Berkunsky I, Simoy MV, Quiroga S, Bucciarelli G, Kats L, Kacoliris 2018. The rainbow trout is affecting the occupancy of native amphibians in Patagonia. Hydrobiologia, 817: 447 – 455.
Federico Kacoliris has a Ph.D. in natural sciences. Over the past decade, he has focused on the conservation of some of the most endangered species in the southern corner of South America. Ten years ago he started the Wild Plateau Initiative (today, Somuncura Foundation) with the aim of protecting endangered species in Patagonia. His work with amphibians, which is supported by the Conservation Leadership Programme and the People's Trust for Endangered Species, is one of the first of its type in Argentina.
Reposted with permission from The Revelator.
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By David Shiffman
As we enter what's hopefully the home stretch of the COVID-19 pandemic, it's time to take stock of how it affected every aspect of our world, to consider what happened, what could be done different to avoid those problems in the future, and what's next.
That might mean confronting some of our earlier conclusions. For example, at the start of the pandemic we were bombarded with often false stories about suddenly quiet cities and waterways experiencing animals reclaiming what was once their habitat. "Nature is healing" stories like this seem to have created an overly rosy picture of the pandemic's impact on the natural world.
The reality is much more complicated, and I'm not just talking about things like the well-publicized millions of inappropriately discarded plastic bags and protective masks ending up in the ocean. Many other changes to the world's waters, including some potentially harmful ones, are taking place beneath the surface.
"Protected and conserved areas and the people who depend on them are facing mounting challenges due to the pandemic," says Rachel Golden Kroner, an environmental governance fellow at Conservation International. Indeed, for the past two decades a sizable chunk of global biodiversity conservation has been funded by ecotourism, a funding source that dries up when international travel slows down, as it did this past year.
While any global complex event has many impacts including some that we almost certainly can't predict at this point, many of the medium and long-term effects are likely to be bad.
And You Thought Your Virtual Meetings Were Bad
It's not just your workplace that's been meeting online this past year. It's every meeting, including international wildlife conservation and management meetings.
Some of these important events have been postponed, stalling critical political momentum that scientists and activists have been building for years. Others have met virtually, with notably less effectiveness.
The highest profile example of this was the December 2020 failure of the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission. The IATTC is an international gathering that governs a multi-billion-dollar series of global tuna fisheries, and meetings include representatives from all over the world who hammer out fishing quotas and other rules. The 2020 meeting closed without reaching an agreement on 2021 quotas. If allowed to stand, this would have meant that starting on January 1 of this year, a multi-billion-dollar global industry would have had absolutely no rules governing it. Imagine if your city council failed to agree on a policing budget, and this meant that "The Purge" was suddenly real — that's what nearly happened in the world of tuna management this past winter.
The pandemic didn't create the problem of tuna management politics, but experts believe that the virtual meeting, which precluded "schmoozing" in the hallway during coffee breaks and added an element of multiple time zone chaos, contributed to this year's unprecedented breakdown in negotiations.
"These meetings are often difficult to get through, but usually they keep working until they get it done, until there's at least a decent solution," says Grantly Galland, a global tuna conservation expert with Pew Environment. That's hard enough in person, but this year "the meeting started at 6 p.m. for me in D.C., which was midnight in Europe, and early morning in Japan. People were often frustrated. As discussions dragged into the night the incentive to keep going disappeared, and the meeting ended without rules."
Fortunately, after receiving intense pushback from environmental groups and the concerned public, the commission met for an emergency meeting a few weeks later and fixed this problem by just carrying over the 2020 rules to 2021 — hardly an ideal solution given existing problems with the 2020 rules, but a lot better than open ocean anarchy.
Still, this near-disaster shows how dependent our system of environmental management is on face-to-face meetings.
Whenever there's any economic crisis, industry will ask for a temporary (or even permanent) rollback of environmental protection regulations that they find economically burdensome. Marine and coastal protected areas, long a priority for science-based conservation and long opposed by elements of the fishing industry, have been no exception.
For example, a fisheries management council asked then-President Trump to allow fishing in currently protected areas, and the Trump administration did roll back fishing protections in the Atlantic around that time.
NOAA OKEANOS Explorer Program, 2013 Northeast U.S. Canyons Expedition
Marine protected areas also face other threats stemming from the pandemic. Rachel Golden Kroner, who also authored a recent paper on the impacts of the pandemic on protected areas, says: "Key challenges for marine protected areas include budget cuts, declines in tourism revenue, disruption of seafood supply chains and challenges in implementing management activities."
Golden Kroner shared examples of the near-collapse of the tourism-associated hospitality industry in Kenya, the Galapagos, Indonesia and Australia, noting that some of these industries employed former members of the fishing industry who had been persuaded to work in tourism instead.
While some coastal communities and protected areas face these serious issues, the good news is that this problem is far from universal.
"While the shutdowns, restrictions, and closures of coastal areas disrupted access and temporarily interrupted stewardship and harvest activities across Hawai'i, the connections between humans and nature forged over generations ensured that marine management actions never lost momentum," says Ulu Ching, the program manager for community-based conservation for Conservation International's Hawaii office. "Well-established community networks in collaboration with government resource management agencies continued to advance the work of mālama i ke kai (caring for the ocean) through the development and establishment of community-driven marine managed areas across the islands during the pandemic."
A young monk seal underwater in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands. NOAA/PIFSC/HMSRP
Additionally, Golden Kroner points out that while some momentum for creating protected areas has stalled and some industry groups have called for rollbacks, there is good news in the form of expanded protected areas in a handful of places around the world. But it's clear that despite some positive signs, momentum in creating new marine protected areas has stalled in many places, tourism that funded their operations has slowed to a crawl, and some industries have been successful in rolling back protections.
Threats Continue, But Monitoring Has Stalled
One of the primary tools in the conservationist's toolbox for making sure that the commercial fishing industry follows the rules is observer coverage: independent people on board fishing vessels who monitor and record the catch. Due to COVID-19 safety regulations, observer coverage in much of the world has been reduced or eliminated — but fishing continues.
"For countries with fewer management resources, I can imagine that less observer coverage could lead to more rules being bent," says Simon Gulak, a fisheries consultant with Sea Leucas LLC who used to coordinate fisheries observers for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
"Fisheries observers provide fisheries management with accurate information on all discards/bycatch at sea, not just the cuddly protected species," he says. "They're a bit like a fisher's auditor and are liked about as much."
The problem with a lack of observers means that we generally have no way of knowing if bad things are happening on the water, but there are certainly cases of fishing vessels who only follow the rules because they'll get fined if they don't.
Gulak notes that in fisheries subject to electronic monitoring — including GPS trackers and cameras that document all catch and bycatch — observers may be less important because all relevant data is recorded automatically and it's harder to get away with breaking the rules.
Galland, the tuna conservation expert, also stressed the importance of ramping up electronic fisheries monitoring efforts. If the pandemic leads to an increase in e-monitoring, that may be a long-term good. In the meantime, we just don't know what's going on in many fisheries that were previously monitored by human observers.
It's not just fisheries observing that's stalled due to workplace safety concerns, but also fish market surveys, an important scientific tool for monitoring catch from boats too numerous and small to have observers or electronic monitoring equipment. In large parts of the world, fish market surveys are the only data we have on local catch composition. Without them, we wouldn't know how many endangered species are caught, or if formerly common species started to disappear.
Monitoring of things like sea turtle nests has similarly slowed down. These nest surveys are a critical way for scientists and managers to keep track of population trends of iconic endangered species, and to protect the nests themselves by marking them so beach drivers of off-road vehicles know to not crush the hidden nests.
A recently emerged sea turtle hatchling. Becky Skiba/USFWS
So what does the pandemic mean for ocean conservation? Experts caution that it's probably too early to tell. However, it's not all stories of dolphins frolicking in suddenly quiet rivers. Environmental planning meetings, funding schemes for protected areas, and monitoring of fisheries and endangered species populations were all disrupted, giving us good reasons to fear that the story is far more complicated, and far less happy, than many of us have been led to believe.
David Shiffman is a marine biologist specializing in the ecology and conservation of sharks. He received his Ph.D. in environmental science and policy from the University of Miami. Follow him on Twitter, where he's always happy to answer any questions anyone has about sharks.
Reposted with permission from The Revelator.
By Charan Saunders
Last year the world reacted in shock when Namibia announced plans to auction off 170 live elephants to the highest bidder.
Despite criticism, the plans have continued to move forward — and that may just be the start. Tucked away in a Feb. 1 press release justifying the auction was a rehash of the country's oft-repeated desire to also sell ivory. The Namibian Ministry of Environment, Forestry and Tourism's stated:
"Namibia has major stockpiles of valuable wildlife products including ivory which it can produce sustainably and regulate properly, and which if traded internationally could support our elephant conservation and management for decades to come."
Namibia is not alone in this desire to capitalize on its wildlife. In Zimbabwe's national assembly last year, the minister of environment valued the country's stockpile of 130 metric tonnes (143 tons) of ivory and 5 tonnes (5.5 tons) of rhino horn at $600 million in U.S. dollars. This figure, which would value ivory at more than $4,200 per kilogram, has since been seized upon by commentators seeking to justify the reintroduction of the ivory trade.
I'm an environmental accountant dedicated to ethical conservation, so I wanted to understand these numbers and how they motivate countries. In truth, I found not even full black-market value comes close to arriving at this figure.
Black-market values are, of course, often invisible to the general public, but the most recent data from criminal justice experts finds that unworked (or raw) elephant ivory sells for about $92/kg on the black market in Africa, while rhino horn is currently selling for $8,683/kg.
Therefore, a more realistic valuation of Zimbabwe's ivory stockpiles, using an optimistic wholesale price of $150/kg, would give a potential income of only $19.5 million in U.S. dollars.
This is a 30th of Zimbabwe's estimate.
And even then, those numbers fail to account for the disaster that would happen if ivory sales return — as we saw in the all-too-recent past.
The One-Off Sales
International trade in ivory has been banned since 1989, following a 10-year period in which African elephant numbers declined by 50%, from 1.3 million to 600,000. However, in 1999 and 2008 CITES allowed "one-off sales" of stockpiled ivory, to disastrous effect. The selling prices achieved then were only $100/kg and $157/kg, in U.S. dollars respectively, due to collusion by official Chinese and Japanese buyers.
Illegal ivory. Gavin Shire / USFWS
The intention of CITES in approving the one-off ivory sales was to introduce a controlled and steady supply of stockpiled ivory into the market. The legal supply, coupled with effective systems of control, aimed to satisfy demand and reduce prices. This in turn should have reduced the profitability of (and the demand for) illegal ivory. Poaching should have followed suit and decreased.
Instead, the sales led to an increase in demand and, consequently, an increase in elephant poaching. The 2008 ivory sale was accompanied by a 66% increase in illegally traded ivory and a 71% increase in ivory smuggling. An investigation in 2010 by the Environmental Investigation Agency documented that 90% of the ivory being sold in China came from illegal sources.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) comparison of elephant poaching figures for the five years preceding and five years following the sale showed an "abrupt, significant, permanent, robust and geographically widespread increase" in poaching.
The problem has not faded away. Most recently the two African elephant species (savanna and forest) were declared endangered and critically endangered due to their continued poaching threat.
Regina Hart / CC BY 2.0
Still, some African nations look fondly at the 2008 sale and have long hoped to repeat it. The Zimbabwe Ministry's 2020 statement follows yet another proposal to the 18th CITES Conference of the Parties (COP18) by Namibia, Zimbabwe and Botswana to trade in live elephants and their body parts, including ivory. The proposal was not accepted by the parties.
Why Didn't Ivory Sales Work?
The one-off sales of ivory removed the stigma associated with its purchase, stimulated the market demand, and increased prices.
The ivory that China purchased in 2008 for $157/kg was drip-fed by the authorities to traders at prices ranging between $800 and $1,500 per kilogram. This meant that the bulk of the profits went to filling Chinese government coffers — not to African nations — and in doing so, created a large illegal market which drove prices even higher.
Raw ivory prices in China increased from $750/kg in 2010 to $2,100/kg in 2014. The market had been stimulated, prices increased and the volume of legal ivory available was insufficient to meet demand as the Chinese government gradually fed its stockpile into the market.
Japan, the other participant in the one-off sales, has systematically failed to comply with CITES regulations, meaning that there were (and still are) no controls over ivory being sold, allowing the illegal markets to function in parallel to the legal one.
In a very short space of time, criminals ramped up poaching and elephant numbers plummeted.
What Has Happened to the Price of Ivory Since Then?
With no recent legal international sales, combined with the significant U.S., Chinese and United Kingdom domestic ivory sales bans, the price for raw ivory paid by craftsmen in China fell from $2,100/kg in 2014 to $730/kg in 2017. That's when China closed all of its official ivory carving outlets and theoretically stopped all official ivory trade.
The price currently paid for raw ivory in Asia, according to an investigation by the Wildlife Justice Commission, is currently between $597/kg and $689/kg, in U.S. dollars. Ivory sourced in Africa and sold in Asia has additional costs such as transportation, taxes and broker commissions. The prices paid for raw ivory in Africa have decreased correspondingly from $208/kg to $92/kg in 2020.
Those numbers pale in comparison to a living elephant. A 2014 study found that live elephants are each worth an estimated $1.6 million in ecotourism opportunities.
One half-truth is that the money earned from the legal sale will be used to effectively fund conservation.
One of the CITES conditions of the 2008 sale was that funds were to go to the conservation of elephants. South Africa placed a substantial portion of the income from its share of the pie in the Mpumalanga Problem Animal Fund — which, it turns out, was well-named. An internal investigation found the fund had "no proper controls" and that "tens of millions" of rand (the official currency of South Africa) had bypassed the normal procurement processes.
Ironically, proceeds were also partly used for the refurbishment of the Skukuza abattoir, where most of the 14,629 elephant carcasses from culling operations between 1967 and 1997 were processed.
All the while, Africa's elephant populations continued to decline.
How to Stop Poaching
In light of these deficiencies — and in light of elephants' recently declared endangered status — the very reverse of actual conservation can be expected if any nation is again allowed to sell its ivory stockpiles. The cost of increased anti-poaching efforts required from the consequent increase in poaching will outweigh the benefit of any income from the sale of ivory stockpiles.
To stop poaching, all international and local trade must be stopped.
John Culley / CC BY 2.0
Repeating this failed experiment will send a message that it is acceptable to trade in ivory. Ivory carving outlets in China will re-open and demand for ivory will be stimulated. The demand for ivory in an increasingly wealthy and better-connected Asia will quickly outstrip legal supply and poaching will increase.
Meanwhile, the management of a legal ivory trade requires strong systems of control at every point in the commodity chain to ensure that illegal ivory is not laundered into the legal market. With recalcitrant Japan continuing to ignore CITES, "untransparent" Namibia "losing tolerance" with CITES, and Zimbabwe ranking 157 out of 179 on the corruption perceptions index, not even the basics for controlled trade are in place.
Therefore, aside from the strong theoretical economic arguments against renewed one-off sales, the practical arguments are perhaps even stronger: If international ivory and rhino horn sales ever again become legal, the cost to protect elephants will skyrocket and these culturally valuable animals will plunge into decline — and possibly extinction.
Charan Saunders grew up in Cape Town and studied genetics and microbiology and then went on to qualify as a chartered accountant. She has worked in London in the forensic science field and was the chief financial officer of a major vaccine manufacturer for six years. She now serves as a financial director in the field of conservation.
Reposted with permission from The Revelator.
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By Muntasir Akash
The smallest of the planet's 13 otter species finds its habitat shrinking every day. We know little about these mustelids — especially in Bangladesh, where I conduct my research — but they face a horde of threats.
Species Name and Description:
The Asian small-clawed otter (Aonyx cinereus) has a typical otter build with webbed digits, dark brown to blackish upper parts, and a pale vent. It can be distinguished from other otter species by its blunter muzzle, acutely arched back and a white neck devoid of any spots or streaks. Its claws are noticeably short and even often absent — a feature of its genus, Aonyx.
Where It's Found:
These otters live in the Himalayan foothills, Ganges Delta, Northeast India, Indochina, South China and Philippines, with isolated population in southern India. Their habitats range from forests and wetlands to coasts and mangroves. In Bangladesh they're thought to be confined to the Sundarbans mangrove.
A small-clawed otter in Bangladesh. Via iNaturalist and © Guenther Eichhorn, some rights reserved (CC-BY-NC)
IUCN Red List Status:
Vulnerable, with a globally decreasing population trend; endangered in Bangladesh
Poaching for fur and extraction to supply a recently spiked demand in pet trade is the number one threat to Asia's most trafficked otter species. Habitat destruction, conflict with fishers, drying up streams, decreasing food supply and attacks by feral dogs are also affecting its already sharply plummeting population.
Otter pelts in India. © Ashwin Viswanathan, some rights reserved (CC-BY). Via iNaturalist
In Bangladesh there exists no study on the species outside the Sundarbans, its known habitat in the country. Even there, only a handful of research has been undertaken to date.
Notable Conservation Programs or Legal Protections:
In 2019 the species shifted to CITES Appendix I from Appendix II to plug the illegal trade and trafficking.
The IUCN Otter Specialist Group and International Otter Survival Fund are the strongest voices for the species. Although the animals are protected by law, there is no conservation scheme so far in Bangladesh.
My Favorite Experience:
Watching camera-trap footage of not one, not two, but multiple otter families is unforgettable. Hearing the cooing of otter pups on screen was heart-melting and one of those now-I-can-die-in-peace moments. And all these images were from a region that has long been deprioritized in conservation, without any prior systematic study.
The small-clawed otter, a globally vulnerable small carnivore, can still be found in certain protected areas of northeastern Bangladesh. This is the first camera-trap image from the region. Muntasir Akash / Northeast Bangladesh Carnivore Conservation Initiative
However, the joy comes with a caveat. In all existing anecdotes, northeastern forests are described as the home of the larger Eurasian and smooth-coated otters. Otters showed up, true. But to my extreme surprise, it was a species that has always been attributed to the Sundarbans — a forest hundreds of miles away from the study site. Although finding the Asian small-clawed otter here has sparked hope for the region, the apparent absence of the other two expected species has left me with an uneasy feeling: Do the larger otters really roam these forests? Or is the Eurasian otter, the rarest of the three, to become the next extinct carnivore in Bangladesh?
What Else Do We Need to Understand or Do to Protect This Species?
We need extensive studies on ecology and threats to the species in both known and newly discovered habitats in Bangladesh. Connecting otters with the exceptionally rich ichthyodiversity of riparian streams and mangrove creeks can strengthen conservation practices in the country.
Muntasir Akash is a lecturer at the Department of Zoology, University of Dhaka, Bangladesh. He is focusing his career on the conservation of lesser-known carnivorous mammals, leading camera-trapping work in northeastern Bangladesh funded by the Conservation Leadership Programme, a partnership between BirdLife International, Fauna & Flora International and WCS.
Reposted with permission from The Revelator.
By Tara Lohan
Atlantic salmon have a challenging life history — and those that hail from U.S. waters have seen things get increasingly difficult in the past 300 years.
Dubbed the "king of fish," Atlantic salmon once numbered in the hundreds of thousands in the United States and ranged up and down most of New England's coastal rivers and ocean waters. But dams, pollution and overfishing have extirpated them from all the region's rivers except in Maine. Today only around 1,000 wild salmon, known as the Gulf of Maine distinct population segment, return each year from their swim to Greenland. Fewer will find adequate spawning habitat in their natal rivers to reproduce.
That's left Atlantic salmon in the United States critically endangered. Hatchery and stocking programs have kept them from disappearing entirely, but experts say recovering healthy, wild populations will require much more, including eliminating some of the obstacles (literally) standing in their way.
Conservation organizations, fishing groups and even some state scientists are now calling for the removal of up to four dams along a 30-mile stretch of the Kennebec River, where about a third of Maine's best salmon habitat remains.
The dams' owner — multinational Brookfield Renewable Partners — has instead proposed building fishways to aid salmon and other migratory fish getting around dams as they travel both up and down the river. But most experts think that plan has little chance of success.
A confusing array of state and federal processes are underway to try and sort things out. None is likely to be quick, cheap or easy. And there's a lot at stake.
"Ultimately the fate of the species in the United States really depends upon what happens at a handful of key dams," says John Burrows, executive director of U.S. programs at the Atlantic Salmon Federation. "If those four projects don't work — or even if just one of them doesn't work — you could basically preclude recovering Atlantic salmon in the United States."
The best place for salmon recovery is in Maine's two largest watersheds.
"The Penobscot River and the Kennebec River have orders of magnitude more habitat, production potential and climate resilient habitat" than other parts of the state, says Burrows.
The rivers and their tributaries run far inland and reach more undeveloped areas with higher elevations. That helps provide salmon with the cold, clean water they need for spawning and rearing. Smaller numbers of salmon are hanging on in lower-elevation rivers along the coastal plain in Maine's Down East region, but climate change could make that habitat unsuitable.
"There's definitely concern about how resilient those watersheds are going to be for salmon in the future," says Burrows. "To recover the population, we need to be able to get salmon to the major tributaries farther upriver, in places where we're still going to have cold water even under predictions with climate change."
One of those key places is the Penobscot, which has already seen a $60 million effort to help recover salmon and other native sea-run fish. A 16-year project resulted in the removal of two dams, the construction of a stream-like bypass channel at a third dam, and new fish lift at a fourth. In all, the project made 2,000 miles of river habitat accessible.
Veazie dam on the Penobscot River is breached in 2013 as part of a river restoration project. Meagan Racey / USFWS
While there's still more work to be done on the Penobscot, says Burrows, attention has shifted to the Kennebec. The river has what's regarded as the largest and best salmon habitat in the state, especially in its tributary, the Sandy River, where hatchery eggs are being planted to help boost salmon numbers.
"That's helped us go from zero salmon in the upper tributaries of Kennebec to getting 50 or 60 adults back, which is still an abysmally small number compared to historical counts," says Burrows. "But these are the last of the wildest fish that we have."
The Sandy may be good salmon habitat, but it's also hard to reach. Brookfield's four dams stand in the way of fish trying to get upriver.
At the lowest dam on the river, Lockwood Dam in Waterville, there's a fish lift — a kind of elevator that should allow fish that enter it to pass up and around the dam. But if fish do find the lift — and only around half of salmon do — they don't get far.
"It's a terminal lift," says Sean Ledwin, division director of Maine's Department of Marine Resources' Sea Run Fisheries and Habitat. "The lift was never completed. So we pick up those fish in a truck and drive them up to the Sandy River."
That taxi cab arrangement isn't a long-term solution, though, and was part of an interim species protection plan.
Only the second dam, Hydro Kennebec, has a modern fish passage system. But how well that actually works hasn't been tested yet since fish can't get by Lockwood Dam. As part of a consultation process related to the Endangered Species Act, Brookfield has submitted a plan proposing to fix the fishway at Lockwood and add passage to the third and fourth dams.
But federal regulators found it inadequate.
"Brookfield's proposal was rejected by the Federal Energy Regulatory Committee [which oversees hydroelectric projects] and all the [federal management] agencies," says Ledwin. The company now has until May 2022 to come up with a new plan.
State scientists aren't convinced Brookfield's plan would work either.
"We have really low confidence that having four fishways would ever result in meaningful runs of all the sea-run fish and certainly not recovery of Atlantic salmon," says Ledwin. "We don't think that it's going to be conducive to recovery."
In addition to considerations related to the Endangered Species Act, Shawmut Dam, the third on the Kennebec, is currently up for relicensing, which triggers a federal review process by FERC.
And at the same time the Maine Department of Marine Resources has drafted a new plan for managing the Kennebec River that recommends removing Shawmut Dam and Lockwood Dam. A public comment period on the proposed plan closed in March.
Brookfield isn't happy with it and responded with a lawsuit against the state.
It was good news to conservation groups, however, which would like to see all four of the dams removed if possible — or at least a few of them.
"There's no self-sustaining population of Atlantic salmon anywhere in the world that we know of that have to go by more than one hydro dam," says Burrows. He believes that having Brookfield spend tens of millions of dollars on new fishways will just result in failure for salmon.
Atlantic salmon parr emerging from a stream bed in Maine. E. Peter Steenstra / USFWS
It's partly a game of numbers. Not all fish will find or use a fishway. And if you start with a low number of returning fish and expect them to pass through four gauntlets, you won't be left with many at the end.
"If you're passing 50% of salmon that show up at the first dam, and then you've got three more dams passing 50%, that means you're left with only an eighth of the population you started with by the end," says Nick Bennett, a staff scientist at the Natural Resources Council of Maine. "You can't start a restoration program where you're losing seven-eighths of the adults before they even get to their spawning habitat."
And getting upriver is just part of the salmon's journey. Juvenile salmon face threats going downstream to the ocean as well, including predation and warm water in impoundments. They also risk being injured or killed going through spillways or turbines. Only about half are likely to survive the four hydro projects.
Atlantic salmon, unlike their Pacific cousins, don't always die after spawning, either. So some adults will also make the downstream trek, too.
"Just looking at our reality, at least two dams need to go, hopefully three, and it would be amazing if all four would go," says Burrows.
The fate of Atlantic salmon hangs in the balance, but so do the futures of other fishes.
The Pacific coast of the United States is home to five species of salmon. And while the Atlantic side has just the one, it has a dozen other native sea-run species that have also seen their habitat shrink.
"Those dams are preventing other native species like American shad, alewives, blueback herring and American eel from accessing large amounts of historic habitat," says Burrows.
Ledwin says removing dams on the Kennebec could result in populations of more than a million shad, millions of blueback herring, millions of eels and hundreds of thousands of sea lampreys.
"The recovery of those species would actually help Atlantic salmon as well because they provide prey buffers and there are a lot of co-evolved benefits," he says.
Salmon are much more successful at nesting when they can lay their eggs in old sea lamprey nests, explains Bennett. "But sea lamprey are not good at using fish lifts and we've essentially blocked 90% of the historic sea lamprey habitat at Lockwood dam. We need to get those fish upstream, too."
Dam removal advocates don't have to look too far to find an example of how well river ecosystems respond when dams are removed.
The removal of the Edwards Dam on the lower Kennebec River in 1999 and the Fort Halifax Dam just upstream on the Sebasticook in 2008 helped ignite a nationwide dam-removal movement. It also brought back American shad, eel, two native species of sturgeon and millions of river herring to lower parts of the watershed.
Alewives returned by the millions after the Edwards and Ft. Halifax dams were removed. John Burrows / ASF
"We've got the biggest river herring run in North America now due to the dam removals," says Ledwin. "And the largest abundance of eel we've ever seen on the lower Kennebec."
The resurgence of native fishes helps the whole ecosystem. When they returned, so too did eagles, osprey and other wildlife.
"When people see all those fish in the river and the eagles overhead, it just kind of blows their minds because they never realized what had been lost for so long in our rivers," says Burrows.
Rebuilding key forage fish like herring also benefits species that live not just in the river, but the Gulf of Maine and even the Atlantic Ocean. The tiny fish feed whales, porpoises and seabirds. They're also used for lobster bait and can help rebuild fisheries for cod and haddock, which has economic benefits for the region, too.
"We have to rebalance the scales if we want to have marine industries and commercial fishing industries and if we want the ecological benefits of what sea-run fisheries do for us," says Bennett.
The Path Ahead
The process to determine whether any — or all — of the four Kennebec dams that stretch from Waterville and Skowhegan are removed will take years, a diverse coalition, financial resources and agreements to meet the concerns of communities and the dam owner.
"These things come down to compromise, so there may be situations where one of those dams might not be a candidate for economic or social reasons," says Burrows. "But it will be interesting to see if in the next couple of years we can get to a place where we can have meaningful conversations with federal agencies, the dam owner and continue to engage the communities about the potential of removal at some of these sites."
And if removal of the four dams did happen, it wouldn't open up the river all the way to its headwaters. Another nine dams still lie upstream in the watershed that obstruct fish passage.
"Some of those are major dams in terms of power, production and economics," says Burrows. "So we're not calling for those to be removed."
The four lower dams provide just 46 megawatts of power — enough to supply about 37,000 homes and 0.43% of the state's annual electricity generation. It's a small amount of power relative to the damage they cause sea-run fish, says Bennett.
"By comparison we expect to add 1,200 megawatts of solar generation in the next five years," he says. "So these four dams aren't particularly important in our climate fight." And removing them would open up substantial amounts of habitat to aid salmon recovery that seem worth the tradeoff in lost power.
That's not the case, he says, for the nine larger dams upstream.
"We need those dams. We need hydroelectric power in Maine," says Bennett. "But we made big mistakes in our past use of our rivers. And we went way overboard in favor of hydroelectric power at the expense of fish."
Outside of the rivers, Atlantic salmon still face a tough road. Climate change is warming ocean temperatures, changing salinity and altering food webs. But having so many unknowns in the marine environment in the coming decades provides more reason to focus efforts on restoring rivers where scientists already know what works, says Burrows.
And if that's done right, the benefits will extend far beyond salmon.
"It's not just about salmon — it's about these other native fish, it's about the wildlife, water quality, economic opportunity for ground fishermen and lobstermen, and more sustainable forms of recreation and community development," says Burrows. "If we remove a dam or two here and rebuild these fish populations to pretty big levels that really impacts a whole bunch of different parts of society. That's what we want to try to do here on the Kennebec."
Reposted with permission from The Revelator.
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By Tara Lohan
Mined lands reclaimed for biking trails, office parks — even a winery. Efforts like these are already underway in Appalachia to reclaim the region's toxic history, restore blighted lands, and create economic opportunities in areas where decades-old mines haven't been properly cleaned up.
The projects are sorely needed. And so are many more. But the money to fund and enable them remains elusive.
Mining production is falling, which is good news for tackling climate change and air pollution, but Appalachia and other coal states are also feeling the economic pain that comes with it. And that loss is more acute on top of pandemic-related revenue shortfalls and the mounting bills from the industry's environmental degradation.
Local leaders and organizations working in coal communities see a way to flip the script, though. The Revelator spoke with Rebecca Shelton, the director of policy and organizing for Appalachian Citizens' Law Center in Kentucky, about efforts focusing on one particular area that's plagued coal communities for more than 50 years: cleaning up abandoned mine lands.
Shelton explains the history behind these lands, the big legislative opportunities developing in Washington, and what coal communities need to prepare for a low-carbon future.
What are abandoned mine lands?
Technically an abandoned mine land is land where no reclamation was done after mining. Prior to the passage of Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act in 1977, coal-mining companies weren't required to reclaim — or clean up — the land they mined.
What SMCRA did, in addition to creating requirements for companies to do reclamation into the future, was create an abandoned mine land fund to distribute money to states and tribes with historic mining so that they could clean up those old sites. The revenue for that fund comes from a small tax on current coal production.
The program has accomplished a lot. It has closed 46,000 open mine portals, reclaimed more than 1,000 miles of high walls, stabilized slopes, and restored a lot of water supplies.
It's been a successful program, but the work is far from done. A conservative estimate is that there's still more than $11 billion needed to clean up existing identified liability across the U.S. [for sites mined before 1977].
What are the risks if we don't do this?
There are safety, health and environmental issues.
Just this spring we've already gotten calls from folks living adjacent to abandoned mine lands that are experiencing slides [from wet weather causing slopes destabilized by mining to give way]. People's homes can be completely destabilized, and if they don't get out in time, it can be really dangerous.
There's also a lot of existing acid mine drainage across coal-mining communities, which is water that's leaking iron oxides and other heavy metals from these abandoned mine lands. This is bad for the ecology of the streams, but heavy metals are also not safe for humans to be exposed to.
Acid mine drainage in a stream. Rachel Brennan / CC BY-NC 2.0
There's legislation in Congress now that could help deal with this issue. What are those bills?
One bill is the reauthorization of the abandoned mine land fund. That bill is absolutely critical because the fee on coal production, which is the only source of revenue for the fund, will expire at the end of September if Congress doesn't take action.
If Congress fails to extend that, we may not see any more funding for the $11 billion needed to clean up abandoned mine lands. If passed, the bill would reauthorize the fee at its current level for 15 more years.
The challenge is that even if the fee is reauthorized, it'll likely generate only around $1.6 billion — based on current coal-production projections — and that's vastly inadequate to cover all of the liabilities that exist.
Also, when the abandoned mine land fund was first started, there were some funds that were not redistributed to states and tribes and have just remained in the fund — [about] $2.5 billion that's not being dispersed on an annual basis.
So another bill, the RECLAIM Act, would authorize [an initial] $1 billion to be dispersed out of that fund that would go to approximately 20 states and tribes over the next five years. This money would be distributed differently than the regular funds in that any kind of project would have to have a plan in place for community and economic development.
So though the funds can only be used for reclamation, they need to be reclamation with a plan. There are so many high-priority and dangerous abandoned mine land sites that exist, and the RECLAIM Act funds would prioritize supporting community and economic development for communities adjacent to these lands.
How much support are you seeing for these bills?
We see momentum in this Congress, and there's a lot of conversation around investing in our nation's infrastructure. We see abandoned mine lands and their remediation as natural infrastructure that we need to invest in to keep our communities safe and prepare them for the future.
But we also see these bills as important pieces of an economic recovery package. COVID-19 has really exacerbated so many of the existing health and economic crises already in coal communities.
When we talk about economic stimulus and job creation, we also see reauthorizing the abandoned mine land fund as contributing to that because it takes a lot of work and creates a lot of jobs to do land reclamation.
Abandoned mines can pose serious health and safety hazards, such as landslides, erosion and surface instability. USGS
We've talked about the legacy issues from lands mined before 1977, but what concerns are there from current or recent mining? Is that reclamation being done adequately?
That's an area that also needs a closer look.
As the industry declines, we've seen coal companies file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy or reorganization. And when they do this, oftentimes they're granted permission to get rid of liabilities that would affect their solvency. Sometimes those liabilities are reclamation obligations, pension funds or black lung disability funds.
And then what you see is smaller companies taking on these permits that the reorganizing company no longer wants. But many are under-capitalized and they sometimes don't have the ability to even produce coal, or if they do they can't keep up with the reclamation. And it's dangerous for communities if there's environmental violations that aren't getting addressed.
I'll give you a recent example. Blackjewel [the sixth-largest U.S. coal producer] went bankrupt in the summer of 2019. Since then there's been very little done to address any kind of environmental violations existing on their permits.
Because of SMCRA, companies are required to have bonds in order to obtain their mining permits, but these bonds are not always adequate. The Kentucky Energy and Environment cabinet made a statement in the Blackjewel bankruptcy proceedings that it estimated that reclamation obligations on these permits were going to fall short $20 to $50 million.
What else is needed to help coal communities transition to a low-carbon economy?
That's a big question. We have to address these legacy issues in order to help transition these communities into the future. And we have to address the problems right now of folks who are losing their jobs and need to be supported through training programs or through education credits.
But we also need to be thinking about the future more broadly. What will be in place 20 years from now for the younger generation?
There's going to be a lot of gaps in local tax revenues because so much of the tax base has been reliant on the coal industry, which makes it really difficult for communities to continue to provide public services and keep up infrastructure as that industry declines. It's going to be critical to think about that and invest in that.
I think the best approach is to find solutions that work for [specific] places. And to do that we need to listen to community leaders and folks in these communities that have already been working to build something new for many years. There are solutions that I think can apply to all places, but there also needs to be a targeted intention to create opportunities where communities can develop their own paths forward.
Tara Lohan is deputy editor of The Revelator.
Reposted with permission from The Revelator.
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By Tara Lohan
European green crabs arrived on the eastern shores of North America in the early 1800s, likely as ship ballast stowaways or affixed to boat hulls. They found their way to the continent's western shores by the 1980s, and they've caused trouble in every new ecosystem they invade.
Wherever green crabs (Carcinus maenas) land, scientists have documented them decimating food webs by devouring benthic invertebrates that provide nourishment for shorebirds, fishes and other species. Over the years, they have eaten their way onto a list of the world's top 10 most unwanted species.
The economic toll of their appetite is large, too. European green crabs were estimated to have caused $22 million in damage a year to the East Coast commercial shellfishery alone.
Causing both ecological and economic harm has put green crabs in the spotlight, and a team of researchers from the University of California, Davis and other institutions have been studying how to best eradicate them. Along the way the scientists made a surprising discovery that they believe could change how managers deal with other invasive aquatic species.
Green Crab Revelations
In 2009 the researchers decided to see if they could eradicate the invasive species from a small area where the crabs had newly arrived — the Seadrift Lagoon in Stinson Beach, California, about half an hour from San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge.
"We thought we could undertake this kind of proof of concept to determine how many bodies, how many traps and how much effort it would take to get rid of the green crab in a fairly small, contained area," says one of those researchers, Edwin (Ted) Grosholz, a professor at U.C. Davis.
They were successful at reducing the population by more than 90% — from 125,000 crabs in 2009 to fewer than 10,000 by 2013. "We were feeling very good with ourselves," he says, "But then suddenly the population exploded, and we were faced with even more crabs."
Catching invasive European green crabs. USFWS
By 2014 the number of green crabs in Seadrift Lagoon shot up to an alarming 300,000. Other nearby bays didn't experience a similar population explosion, leaving the researchers wondering what the heck could have caused it.
It turns out that this rather counterintuitive ecological response — where removal efforts can trigger a steep population rebound — had been found in theoretical models, uncontrolled studies and anecdotal reports for decades. "But we were the first who showed in an experiment with controls that in fact, this can happen, it did happen," says Grosholz.
The reason why they believe the population took off? Quite simply, green crabs are cannibalistic. Adults keep the population in check by eating some of the youngsters. But traps to eradicate the crabs caught only the adults, which left a slew of uneaten offspring ready to grow big and strong.
Given time things could have gotten even worse, as a female green crab that reaches maturity can produce up to 185,000 eggs.
These findings revealed important data for managing invasive European green crabs, which have now made their way to five continents, but the researchers believe the implications go far beyond one species.
"The results of this study provide an urgent warning to those involved in the management of invasive species," they write in a new study in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences.
The factors that led to the population explosion — known as the hydra effect — aren't unique to European green crabs. It could happen with other aquatic species, too, says Grosholz, including almost all crabs, lobsters, shrimp, and even a number of fishes.
And it's not just species that eat their young, either. "You can see this response in any species where the adults consume a lot of the resources that their offspring might use," he says.
Their findings, he says, suggest that ecologists and managers may need to rethink how they manage invasive species that fit these criteria.
"The bigger picture is that there are people all over the planet spending a lot of money trying to eradicate invasive species — in marine ecosystems in particular — and our message here is to stop, back away," he says. "Let's give up trying to fully eradicate these types of species."
A better idea, he says, is to reduce the species down to a lower level where the harm they cause is eliminated or reduced, but not so low that the species have an opportunity bounce back.
Another recent study in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, by Grosholz and University of Alberta biologist Stephanie J. Green, lays out how to undertake this strategy of "functional eradication."
Grosholz and Green surveyed more than 200 aquatic invasive-species specialists about how they try to manage invasive species and whether they focus on eradication, containment or suppression. What was most interesting, says Grosholz, was that virtually none had specific population targets for the invasive species they were managing.
"It's either 'we're going to go get them all' or 'we're going to try to knock the population down,' but they don't have any specific number," he explains. "So we actually provide a way of suggesting how managers who are undertaking these programs can use the data that they usually already have to come up with the best target."
The goal is to determine the ideal range of population where managers can begin to recover the native species or ecosystem function that's been harmed by the invasive species. And often the answer isn't simply linear, he says. "It's not like if you reduce the invasive species a little bit more, you can bring more native species back — there's often a threshold you need to hit for recovery to begin."
If the number is too low, the invasive species will still damage the ecosystem. If the number is too high, managers might be putting in more work than they need to.
Their research on functional eradication aims to help invasive species specialists more quickly find that crucial number.
An invasive red lionfish in the Bahamas. James St. John / CC BY 2.0
For example, they calculate that reducing populations of another deadly invasive species, the red lionfish, to below 25 individuals per hectare in the tropical Western Atlantic "could prevent predation‐induced declines in native fishes and result in low rates of recolonization."
Doing the Work
Having that data is a critical first step. But getting the work done on the ground is another issue. For managers working to control invasive species in aquatic systems it can be particularly challenging — and resource-intensive.
"With a lot of terrestrial invasions, especially involving things that don't move like plants, it's pretty easy to know when you succeed and when you've gotten them all," says Grosholz. "But when you're thinking about things in the water — in lakes or estuaries or oceans — you often can't even see them. So in most cases, when the horse is out of the barn, it's going to be very difficult to eradicate something in these ecosystems."
That's where community scientists can come in, he says.
"We have throughout this [work in California] relied on volunteers to help pull the traps and count the crabs. We put out 90 traps a day and pull in thousands of crabs a day," he says. "Volunteers were really instrumental in reaching our goals for the project. And now they're really instrumental in maintaining this low population level."
The key to community science, though, is finding people who are concerned enough to do the work — and have the time.
When those two things align significant conservation work can be accomplished — and it's work that will become increasingly important as climate change and other environmental pressures further threaten biodiversity.
Invasive species have contributed to many examples of loss of biodiversity, but driving species to extinction isn't the only threat, says Grosholz. Invasive species can also cause "functional extinction" of native species.
"In other words, the role in the ecosystem — whether it's exchanging energy biomass or contributing to trophic support — can be eliminated," he says. "So we may not entirely lose the native species, but we may lose the function they provide to the ecosystem — and that's really important, too."
Tara Lohan is deputy editor of The Revelator and has worked for more than a decade as a digital editor and environmental journalist focused on the intersections of energy, water and climate. Her work has been published by The Nation, American Prospect, High Country News, Grist, Pacific Standard and others. She is the editor of two books on the global water crisis.
Reposted with permission from The Revelator.