The Pentagon’s Scary Plan to Militarize Ocean Life
By Maia Danks
The U.S. military has plans to create genetically modified marine organisms that can be used as underwater spies for the military. Fantastic as this idea may seem, the Pentagon's research arm, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), has actually launched a new program that aims to tap into the "natural sensing capabilities" of marine organisms, who are highly attuned to their surroundings, to track enemy traffic undersea.
The project out of DARPA's Biological Technologies Office, called the Persistent Aquatic Living Sensors (PALS) program hopes to use everything from bacteria to large fish to find underwater vehicles by recording the creatures' natural reactions to these vehicles and sending the data to an outside base.
A recent press release about the program said it would "study natural and modified organisms (emphasis added) to determine which ones could best support sensor systems that detect the movement of manned and unmanned underwater vehicles."
"Beyond sheer ubiquity, sensor systems built around living organisms would offer a number of advantages over hardware alone," the release said, explaining the program's reasoning. "Sea life adapts and responds to its environment, and it self-replicates and self-sustains. Evolution has given marine organisms the ability to sense stimuli across domains—tactile, electrical, acoustic, magnetic, chemical and optical. Even extreme low light is not an obstacle to organisms that have evolved to hunt and evade in the dark."
The program is currently seeking proposals that would help capture the responses of marine organisms—both natural and transgenic—to the presence of underwater vehicles, interpret those responses and relay them to a network of hardware devices.
It is unclear right now as to how this will happen. DARPA has stated that "intelligent mammals" and endangered species will not be used in the experiments or in the program itself, but it has been vague as to how it defines "intelligent mammals." Questions as to the involvement of dolphins and other marine mammals arise, particularly since the U.S. Navy, is notorious for holding nearly 100 dolphins captive in San Diego, conducting experiments on them and using them for military purposes.
Though the program states that if any modified organisms are used it would require "appropriate environmental safeguards to support future deployment," it is highly likely that a genetically modified marine organism released into the ocean will interbreed with an organism of the same (or similar) species whose genes hadn't been tinkered with. And as the animals breed with each other, they will cause more and more of their kind to adopt the genetically modified traits. With time, the entire ocean could be filled with GM creatures and that could lead to changes in marine ecosystems that we can't even begin to anticipate.
DARPA has said it would create and test modified species strictly in "contained, biosecure facilities." But as this VICE report points out, "to actually deploy modified species, the military would have to release them into the wild, where they could drive out, outeat, or outbreed unmodified species."
Another worry with genetically modified sea creatures is the likelihood that humans will consume them. With the amount of fishing and by-catch that currently happens around the world, it is inevitable that many people will end up consuming the GM animals. (While there has been no conclusive evidence linking GM food to negative health impacts, concerns remain that GMOs may cause yet unknown genetic changes, allergies or other serious harm to human health.)
These concerns apart, forcing these creatures to be spies for the U.S. military is inherently, morally wrong. No animal should be a tool for the military. Animals should not be treated as objects that can be altered and used for their natural gifts. They should be valued for what they are, and for being a part of ocean ecosystems.
It is clear that DARPA needs to stop this program. As the creators of the program, it has the ability to discontinue it and place its resources and abilities in more beneficial areas of technology. It needs to understand that the repercussions of a program like this will affect more than just the military; it will hurt the ocean, its creatures and the people who depend on it.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Earth Island Journal.
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Naomi Larsson
For centuries, the delicate silver dove has been a symbol of love and fidelity.
Biodiversity and Habitat Loss<p>Their near extinction is a symbol of the <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/global-biodiversity-outlook-targets-extinction-summit-new-york-pledge/a-54932895" target="_blank">biodiversity crisis</a> in the UK, largely driven by habitat destruction. Britain is now one of the countries with the most <a href="https://www.wwf.org.uk/future-of-UK-nature#:~:text=The%20UK%20is%20one%20of,than%20half%20are%20in%20decline" target="_blank">depleted nature</a> in the world according to the World Wildlife Fund. Half its plant and animal species are in decline and more than <a href="https://www.rspb.org.uk/about-the-rspb/about-us/media-centre/press-releases/let-nature-sing-wales/#:~:text=a%20natural%20tragedy.-,Over%2040%20million%20birds%20have%20vanished%20from%20UK%20skies%20in,unaware%20of%20the%20impending%20danger" target="_blank">40 million birds</a> have vanished in just half a century.</p><p>"[Turtle doves] are the canary in the [coal] mine because there are all these other species before it and after it," said Tree. "It's an umbrella for all the other species that are heading that way."</p><p>Turtle doves migrate south through Europe to sub-Saharan Africa between July and September, ending up in dry woodland and farmland areas of countries like Mali and Senegal for winter. </p><p>Droughts in West Africa and the Sahel region are believed to have contributed to the fall in turtle dove species recorded in northern Europe, with low rainfall reducing supplies of the seeds and insects the birds rely on for energy for the long journey home.</p>
Conservation and Farming<p><a href="https://www.operationturtledove.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Operation Turtle Dove,</a> a partnership project of charities including the Essex Wildlife trust, works with landowners and farmers to actively build turtle dove habitat.</p><p>Outten works with <a href="https://www.ebws.org.uk/birdsites/blue-house-farm-ewt-north-fambridge" target="_blank">Blue House Farm</a>, a 660-acre nature reserve in the UK county of Essex, where they have replicated weedy fallow plots. </p><p>"We work on it every year to make sure it's in the condition it needs to be with plants such as clovers and black medic," Outten said. "These plants are native to the landscape and produce the seed the birds feed on." </p><p>The birds eat a wide range of seeds from various plants that would have been abundant 50 or 100 years ago, added Guy Anderson, program manager for species recovery with The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). </p><p>"But it's simply true that with the gradual process of <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/farming-without-pesticides-how-can-we-make-agriculture-greener/a-52216796" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">intensifying our agricultural production</a>, the availability of those seeds has dropped and dropped," said Anderson.</p><p>Part of the project includes supplementary feeding — providing sources of food in the form of seed or grain. Under the Countryside Stewardship Scheme in England, farmers can receive financial support to create a turtle dove habitat. </p><p>Though they haven't recorded an increase in doves across the sites in the four years of working on the project, Outten said they are seeing improvements in how landowners and farmers manage habitat for the birds. </p>
A Turtle Dove Haven<p>The 3,500-acre Knepp Estate in West Sussex is another project taking a different approach and one of the few places where turtle dove numbers are increasing.</p><p>Isabella Tree and her husband Charlie Burrell converted their intensively farmed land into a rewilding project almost 20 years ago. They have let the land return to nature.</p><p>Just one year after they'd finished <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/uks-most-talented-architects-are-not-human/a-35952128" target="_blank">rewilding</a> the southern part of their property, they heard turtle doves for the first time. It's now a breeding hotspot for the birds with an estimated 19 pairs. Knepp is also home to <a href="https://www.rewildingbritain.org.uk/rewilding/rewilding-projects/knepp-estate" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2% of the UK's population</a> of nightingales. </p><p>Tree is critical of supplementary feeding schemes that, in her view, are short term. She questions the chances of turtle doves getting to feed on scattered seeds before other mammals eat them first.</p>
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