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How Genetics and Pollution Are Threatening Wild Dolphins

Meena Miriam Yust

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Dolphins are beautiful, highly intelligent and uncannily human in their interactions. Yet, they also have a language we humans cannot fully hear, and a culture that is in some ways similar to our own, and in others, a complete mystery.

Like us, they have circles of friends and acquaintances, with different greetings for different individuals, as if by name. They travel swiftly within a home range of about 100-square kilometers but can go further when they want to. They have the sleek design of a jet plane fuselage and the intelligence that comes with a 1,600-gram complexly structured brain. (The human brain is 1,300 grams.)

Found in almost all the world’s oceans, they communicate with friends and family through clicks and whistles, and echolocation allows them to view the world around them. They pass on knowledge of culture and tools through the generations from mother to daughter, a matrilineal line that preserves and protects their heritage.

Approximately 40 species of dolphins exist. Many belong to the Delphinidae (ocean dolphin) family, including the orca; others live in rivers. Collectively, there are approximately 90 species of cetaceans, the order comprising whales, dolphins and porpoises.

Scientists analyzing the dolphin brain have determined that, like us, they possess a very complex neocortex — a region of the brain linked to awareness, emotions, problem-solving and other human-like abilities. Further, the limbic (emotional) system in some species is even more complex than humans.

These sensitive creatures have made the headlines in the past few months. An endangered orca known as Tahlequah mourned the tragic loss of her baby, carrying her dead calf for a record 17 days and 1,000 miles on what some have deemed a “tour of grief.”

Shortly following Tahlequah’s tragedy, the Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit against the National Marine Fisheries Service regarding the species of orca on the West coast of the US that has become critically endangered. The suit alleged that the agency has neglected to establish habitat protection for the orcas. With only 75 of these orcas left, the population is the lowest it has been in 30 years.

Meanwhile, a combination of factors is threatening the very survival of these animals.

Genetics and Pollution

A recent study published in the journal Science delivers a serious warning as to the likelihood that dolphins and other marine mammals could be extirpated by pollutants. The discovery concerns an evolutionary change to DNA approximately 53 million years ago, which makes cetaceans particularly sensitive and therefore vulnerable.

Their bodies underwent various gradual changes during this evolutionary period. One of these changes was the alteration of DNA that codes for a particular enzyme known as PON1. Scientists believe the enzyme’s metabolic processes were no longer needed for a life underwater. Terrestrial mammals, by contrast, maintained the intact DNA and its enzyme, which humans have to this day.

But 53 million years later, the genetic change has become marine mammals’ Achilles’ heel, thanks to human invention. The enzyme has a second function — an ability to defend against neurotoxins found in pesticides. Without PON1, these animals are unable to break down the neurotoxin and can be poisoned.

Dolphins and other sea creatures with the PON1 problem are thus defenseless against agricultural runoff containing pesticides. Part of the reason the endangered infant orcas off the coast of California are having trouble is this kind of pollution. Marine mammals by the Florida coast are at risk as well, as scientists sampling waterways have found significant levels of chlorpyrifos pesticide contamination.

Dolphins have also been disappearing from areas around the globe they once inhabited, such as off the coast of Argentina. There, where dolphins were once common, only “a single resident population” is believed to be left. Heavy metal contamination and overfishing are likely contributors the decline. Elevated levels of lead, zinc, copper and cadmium have been found in mollusks, crustaceans and sea lions, as well as elevated levels of mercury, cadmium, zinc and copper in bottlenose dolphins. Metals pass from mother’s milk to the baby, resulting in the newborn dolphin having a weakened immune system and a lower probability of survival. The bottlenose dolphin is believed to be a common species globally and consequently people are less concerned about it than they should be; in certain localities these dolphins are quietly disappearing, as along the Argentinian coast. Scientists warn that the Argentina study “provides an example of how the failure to recognize local population declines can threaten the national (and eventually the international) status of a once common marine species.”

To be sure, dolphins are facing similar toxic threats around the world. While metal pollution off the coast of Argentina is assumed to have resulted from decades-old mine waste, it is by no means unique to South America. Scientists examining the waters of Lake Geneva, Switzerland, discovered high levels of toxic metals including bromine, lead, mercury and cadmium. The toxins came from plastics, some of which had been banned or restricted decades ago, indicating the toxins remain in the environment for years. Plastic pollution is especially pervasive in oceans that dolphins inhabit – estimated at 150 million metric tons, with 8 million more tons added annually. Tellingly, a Malaysian dolphin was found dead after digesting nine pounds of plastic bags.

Chemicals can have a lasting and sometimes irreversible impact on the environment. Without containment, poisons that were banned years ago seep out of landfills, into streams and oceans, permanently contaminating water. For some species, a death sentence has already been passed. Change has come too late for the orca variety of dolphin, also known as the killer whale. This is the sad revelation recently published in the journal Science regarding polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and orcas. PCBs banned more than 30 years ago have leached into the oceans, and killer whales as apex predators are “the most PCB contaminated mammals in the world,” say the researchers, who found some of the killer whales had 1,300 milligrams per kilo of PCBs in their blubber – 50 milligrams per kilo has been shown in previous research to be sufficient to cause infertility and serious immune system problems. As with metals, mothers pass the PCBs on to their babies through milk. The researchers predict that “PCB-mediated effects on reproduction and immune function threaten the long-term viability of [more than] 50% of the world’s killer whale populations.” They forecast a population collapse of orcas near industrialized regions, as well as in regions where orcas feed on larger prey. In short, half of the world’s orcas will be gone in just a few decades.

Some dolphin species are already very close to extinction. The Yangtze River dolphin, also known as “baiji,” has lived in the river for 20 million years. There were thousands in the 1950s, but in the year 2000, there were a mere 13. By 2006, scientists pronounced the species extinct after an unsuccessful six-week hunt by conservationists. Its current status is either extinct or near extinction — in 2016, some amateurs believe they may have seen a baiji, although they are not certain. The baiji would be the first dolphin made extinct by humans, in this case through pollution, dam-building, overfishing and boat traffic.

Dolphins face threats from climate change as well. Twelve dolphins were washed ashore in one week this summer in Florida, as a result of a red tide disasterdue in part to rising temperatures, with six killed in 24 hours. Such numbers have usually been an annual loss in the past.

Dolphins face a particular and cruel peril in Japan. The town of Taiji holds an annual dolphin “drive hunt” in which more than 1,000 dolphins are massacred each year. Hunters find a pod of dolphins and first create a clamor to disrupt the dolphins’ sonar, upsetting the dolphins and driving them into a cove, where they are then killed one by one, as the water in the cove turns red.

Even when dolphins are captured and kept in captivity, they react to their surroundings.

Dolphin Intelligence and the Future of the Animal Population

That dolphins are highly emotional is well-known. Peter — a dolphin kept in captivity after being moved to a smaller facility and permanently separated from the regular keeper he loved — fell into depression. Dolphins do not breathe air automatically the way humans do; each breath must be made consciously. A dolphin who has lost the will to live does not swim to the surface for his next breath. This was the fate of Peter; imprisoned and friendless at the new facility, he did not swim up for air and was found lifeless on the tank floor.

The emotional intelligence of dolphins reveals that trauma and separation will hurt dolphin families for years to come. The bloody waters of Taiji might hold the carcasses but not all the casualties. The many Peters of the world, having lost loved ones forever, can also lose the will to live.

At the 2010 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, scientists pondered the ethical and policy implications of dolphin intelligence. Neurobiologist Lori Marino argued that they may be Earth’s second-smartest creature. One can only agree.

A philosopher at the meeting proposed that dolphins perhaps ought to be considered “nonhuman persons.” He marvels at how, in addition to emotions and self-awareness, dolphins have personalities, exhibit self-control and even treat others ethically.

If a dolphin species becomes extinct, we lose not only a beautiful animal but a society and its culture. Dolphin habitat often spans the seas of many countries. Preserving them at home only to have them slaughtered on another shore is heart-wrenching. Preserving them abroad only to see them poisoned by pollution here is equally tragic. Countries must work together to ensure the survival of dolphins who swim beyond our borders, particularly as risks are compounded by climate change and pollution. The killing of whales for commercial purposes has been banned for many years. At the very least, this can be extended to their cousins now that we know they are under threat.

Pesticide use has to be regulated, particularly along the coasts to minimize PON1-related neurotoxic poisoning. Allowing a 53-million-year-old Achilles’ heel to be shot with the dart of human invention would be a tragedy. Minimizing plastic pollution is essential to dolphins as well. Preventing further PCB leakage into the oceans must also be a priority to save the orca populations, half of which are already facing collapse due to PCB-poisoning.

We have already witnessed the long-lasting effects of chemical runoff, from the decades-old plastic-derived toxins in Lake Geneva, to the 30-year-old PCBs seeping into oceans around the world. Once waters are contaminated, no one can go back. It is already too late for some orcas. Consequently, while we still can, we must prevent further contamination.

If nations can work together to minimize ocean pollution and affect laws to prevent chemical runoff, perhaps then Tahlequah and her fellow orcas will have greater success with the next generation of calves, and our children and grandchildren will continue to know the pleasure of seeing an orca or a bottlenose dolphin leap magnificently from the ocean.

Author’s note: this article first appeared in Truthout.org.

Meena Miriam Yust is an attorney based in Chicago, Illinois. Educated at Vassar College and Case Western Reserve University School of Law, she published a draft Migratory Insect Treaty with commentary in the Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law.

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Lessons from China on large-scale landscape restoration

MD Staff

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Photo by Fengting Yang

In the 1980s, the hilly Qianyanzhou region in Jiangxi Province, southern China, faced severe soil erosion due to deforestation and unsustainable farming practices. Fertile red soil was being washed away causing crop yields to tumble.

But a remarkable change has taken place in the last 30 years thanks to a government-backed land-use plan which has seen the upper hills reforested, citrus orchards planted on moderate slopes, and rice paddies in valley bottoms. Within a few years, this mosaic of sustainable land use was yielding higher incomes. Biodiversity and environmental quality, as well as the microclimate, improved.

In early November 2018, the head of UN Environment’s freshwater, land and climate branch, Tim Christopherson, together with his colleague Xiaoqiong Li, visited several sites in the area to better understand how large-scale ecological restoration works.

Huimin Wang, the director of an ecological research station in Ji’an, Qianyanzhou region, briefed UN Environment on the problem and the centre’s role in restoring the landscape.

“Thirty years ago, this area was denuded of trees and vulnerable to landslides. Erosion gullies washed fertile red soil away,” says Wang.

“We set up this ecological research station to work out how best to restore the land. We brought together experts from around the world, including from the Federal Agency for Nature Conservation in Germany.”

Research focused on forest structure optimization and how to improve ecosystem services from the forest; the structure and functions of forest ecology; carbon, water and nutrient cycling in forest ecosystems under climate change; and the Qianyanzhou upgrade model to be achieved by improving ecological and economic benefits in the watershed.

Another key element of the restoration process was agroforestry, supported by the local government: farmers continued to grow cash crops such as peanuts, sesame and vegetables among the restored orchards, and breed Silkie chickens (black-boned with fluffy plumage) in orchards and forest plantations. This ensured economic returns in the early stages of the project and helped improve soil fertility. As well as building dams and ponds, government agencies provided loans to households to help them get started.

Success story”

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, about 21.9 per cent, or 206,861,000 hectares of China, was forested in 2010. In just one decade, the Qianyanzhou restoration drive has increased China’s total forest area by 74.3 million hectares. Qianyanzhou’s forest coverage has increased from 0.43 per cent to nearly 70 per cent.

Qianyanzhou restoration efforts have helped the region and the country take a big step towards implementing the UN Sustainable Development Goals, in particular Goals 1 (No Poverty), 6 (Clean Water and Sanitation), 8 (Good Jobs and Economic Growth), 12 (Responsible Consumption), and 15 (Life on Land), as well as the Bonn Challenge and the New York Declaration on Forests, all of which fall under UN Environment’s programme of work.

Forests are a major, requisite front of action in the global fight against catastrophic climate change, thanks to their unparalleled capacity to absorb and store carbon. Forests capture carbon dioxide at a rate equivalent to about one-third the amount released annually by burning fossil fuels. Stopping deforestation and restoring damaged forests, therefore, could provide up to 30 per cent of the climate solution.

The United Nations Collaborative Programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries (The UN-REDD Programme) was launched in 2008 and builds on the convening role and technical expertise of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the United Nations Development Programme and UN Environment.

UN Environment

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Plastic recycling: An underperforming sector ripe for a remake

MD Staff

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While there is no silver-bullet solution to the toxic tide of plastic surging into our oceans, recycling must form part of the answer. The problem, many experts say, is that current processes are not fit for purpose.

The world produces around 300 million tonnes of plastic waste each year. To date, only 9 per cent of the plastic waste ever generated has been recycled, and only 14 per cent is collected for recycling now.

The reasons are complex. Not all plastic can be recycled and a lack of public awareness means plastic collections are often contaminated. This can increase the cost of recycling.

In the United States, for example, the introduction of single-stream recycling—where recyclables are not separated in household collections—led to a huge surge in recycling rates, but as plastics became more complex, people started placing the wrong things in their bins. Waste Management, the largest processor of residential recycling in North America, says that one in every four items in recycling bins today is not recyclable.

“Chemicals added to plastic polymers, products made of mixed materials and food packaging contaminated with food waste make recycling difficult and costly,” wrote the authors of UN Environment’s The State of Plastics report.

The need to rethink recycling became more apparent when China, which has imported nearly half the world’s waste since 1992, stopped taking foreign plastic waste this year. China’s decision exposed weaknesses in recycling facilities in many other countries.

There are financial reasons for the shortfalls. Depending on the oil price, it is often cheaper to make virgin plastic while the market for recycled plastic is notoriously volatile, making investors reluctant to commit to the sector.

For years, activists have argued that packaging producers and retailers should pay more to cover the cost of dealing with their waste. While many brands have committed to using more recycled plastic, the pressure is growing for them to do more.

In Britain, the government is said to be planning to charge supermarkets, retailers and major drinks brands tens of millions of pounds more towards the cost of recycling. The strategy would include plans to increase contributions from retailers and producers from an average of about 70 million pounds a year to between 500 million pounds and 1 billion pounds a year. There are also plans to include smaller producers.

The European Commission unveiled a Plastics Strategy in January, saying that its drive to make all plastic packaging recyclable or reusable by 2030 could create 200,000 jobs but only if recycling capacity was multiplied fourfold. The European Union recycles less than 30 per cent of its 25 million tonnes of plastic waste each year, and half of that used to be sent to China.

As part of its strategy, the European Union will develop new rules on packaging to improve the recyclability of plastics and increase demand. It wants to see improved and scaled up recycling facilities and a more standardized system for the separate collection and sorting of waste.

UN Environment, which started its Clean Seas campaign in 2017 to push for the elimination of unnecessary single-use plastics, also supports the implementation of integrated waste management systems through its International Environmental Technology Centre in Japan.

There is clearly a need to support waste management strategies in poorer countries, where municipal authorities often do not have the capacity to implement suitable policies. Some of these countries are also among the biggest marine polluters: 90 per cent of the plastic in our oceans comes from just 10 rivers, with eight of those in Asia.

Some of the industry’s top players have spotted the gaps. In October, waste management company Veolia and consumer goods giant Unilever said they would work together to invest in new technologies to increase recycling and move towards a circular economy.

The three-year partnership will focus, at first, on India and Indonesia where the firms will work to scale up waste collection and recycling infrastructure.

Circulate Capital, an investment management firm dedicated to preventing ocean plastic, said in October that it expected US$90 million in funding from some of the world’s leading consumer good groups and chemical companies, including PepsiCo, P&G, Dow and Coca-Cola.

Created in collaboration with Closed Loop Partners and the Ocean Conservancy, Circulate Capital aims to demonstrate the value of investing in waste management and recycling in South and Southeast Asia. It uses philanthropic and public funds, as well as technical assistance, to support and develop public and nonprofit entities to implement new approaches and build capacity that can support large institutional capital commitments.

“We have recognized that financing is a key barrier—as people always want to know ‘who is going to pay for it?’ By removing capital for infrastructure and operators as a barrier, we believe we can accelerate solutions to policy, education, supply chains and more,” said Rob Kaplan, the founder and CEO of Circulate Capital.

Big name corporations are not the only players. In many developing economies, recycling is carried out by millions of waste pickers, often women, children, the elderly and the unemployed. They may be on the frontline of sustainability but their own lives are often marred by unhealthy working conditions, lack of rights and social stigma.

The World Bank said in its What a Waste 2.0 report that when waste pickers are properly supported and organized, informal recycling can create employment, improve local industrial competitiveness, reduce poverty and decrease municipal spending.

Citizens also have a role to play but education and information are essential. The World Bank cites the example of Jamaica, where environmental wardens, employed by the National Solid Waste Management Authority, teach their neighbours about environmentally friendly disposal of waste. The communities involved collect plastic bottles and remove plastic litter from shared spaces and drains. They then sell the collected bottles to recyclers.

“There is no silver bullet to solving ocean plastic and scaling global recycling—investing in public education without infrastructure won’t achieve results, and vice versa,” said Circulate Capital’s Kaplan. “It is a systems challenge that requires systems solutions.”

UN Environment

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Towards zero deforestation

MD Staff

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The human population is still growing and needs space and resources. It is, therefore, not easy to reconcile development, biodiversity conservation and climate change mitigation efforts. Which areas can be allocated for development and what should be off-limits to conserve forests and biodiversity? And how do we ensure that stakeholders, including governments and the private sector, respect minimum standards for land use planning processes?

Two tools are relevant here: one is the High Carbon Stock Approach, a new global methodology that helps answer such questions and implement No Deforestation commitments. It’s a land use planning tool focused on achieving No Deforestation. It integrates social considerations—local community customary rights, livelihoods and needs, high conservation values, peatlands, riparian zones and plantation operational aspects.

The other assessment tool is the High Conservation Values Approach. It focuses on biodiversity conservation rather than climate change mitigation. However, this approach does not address deforestation in degraded low-to-medium-density natural forests.

“I would strongly encourage both approaches to be used in parallel,” says Johannes Refisch, coordinator of UN Environment’s Great Apes Survival Partnership (GRASP). You can easily have areas which rank high on high carbon stock and low on high conservation values and vice-versa but they are worth protecting.”

Refisch points to a recent study on sustainable palm oil cultivation in Gabon which called for the application of both approaches (Austin et al, 2017).

In November 2017, proponents of the two approaches agreed to launch the Integrated Manual to address both issues in parallel.

Over 25 global organizations support the High Carbon Stock Approach

Members of the High Carbon Stock Approach are organizations which are committed to No Deforestation: plantation companies (such as New Britain Palm Oil Limited and Wilmar), commodity users (such as Unilever, Nestle and Procter & Gamble), non-governmental organizations (such as World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and Forest People Program), technical support organizations (such as Rainforest Alliance, The Forest Trust and ProForest), and smallholder groups. The initiative is also developing partnerships with the USAID – Bijak Program, World Resource Institute, World Cocoa Foundation and others.

Though starting with just a few, the number of members has now reached 27 global organizations and is still growing.

UN Environment supports the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil, which recently endorsed the approach.

“In November 2018, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil made a big leap forward to address deforestation by requiring the High Carbon Stock Approach in its certification standards, and as further recognition, the French Government has referenced High Carbon Stock Approach in their importing deforestation strategy,” says prominent zero deforestation campaigner and High Carbon Stock Approach Advisor Aida Greenbury.

This underlines the links between the High Carbon Stock Approach and the UN-REDD Programme, a joint programme of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the United Nations Development Programme, and UN Environment to fight deforestation and forest degradation.

The approach also enables land use managers to better protect peatlands and is aligned with the aims of the Global Peatland Initiative. The initiative supports the sustainable use of peatlands, in particular tropical peatlands, one of the most carbon intense landscapes in the world.

The Great Apes Survival Partnership has been working with Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil and partners to assist great ape range states in Africa to direct palm oil cultivation to degraded lands and to avoid deforestation. Tropical peatlands are home to important populations of orangutans and Western lowland gorillas.

Initially only supported by member fees, in the last two years the United Kingdom Department for International Development’s Partnership for Forests has lent a hand. To date, over half a million hectares of High Carbon Stock forests have been identified and are in the process of being conserved.

“We have been working with the High Carbon Stock Approach in the development of the Smallholder Guideline. I am proud that our union members are working hard to ensure that their practices are free from deforestation,” says Mansuetus Darto, the National Coordinator of Indonesia’s Palm Oil Smallholder Union.

The approach—initially developed by the Forest Trust, Greenpeace and private sector players—allows agricultural or plantation development to reduce its environmental impact by not clearing forests that are important to local communities or have high carbon or biodiversity values.

“The real strength of the approach is that it captures forest restoration processes well, in particular in tropical peatlands,” says Johan Kieft, a UN Environment forest ecosystems specialist.

Nearly 500 companies vow to address commodity-driven deforestation

Today, close to 500 global companies have made public commitments to address commodity-driven deforestation. In general, these commitments include the protection of high conservation values, high carbon stock forests, peatland and the rights of local communities through the implementation of free and prior informed consent.

There is no absolute carbon threshold in defining High Carbon Stock forests—it’s rather based on vegetation structure and density.

In May 2017, The High Carbon Stock Approach released its Toolkit Version 2.0, a new and unified global methodology for protecting natural forests and identifying lands for responsible commodity production.

“I welcome the launch of the High Carbon Stock Toolkit to support the enabling condition to achieve our government’s National Determined Contribution target,” said Kindy Rinaldy Syahrir, Deputy Director for International Cooperation and Climate Change Finance at the Ministry of Finance of Indonesia at the time.

“More work still needs to be done but the approach succeeds because it is practical and involves multi-stakeholder-based collaboration,” says Kieft.

UN Environment

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