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How Genetics and Pollution Are Threatening Wild Dolphins

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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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Green Planet

How Climate Change Has Been Politicized?

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We are living in a world where the political side of individuals is ruling over the highly sensitive issues like Climate Change even. It is evident that political ambitions of individuals and states have overruled the threatening issue of global climate change and the fact that it is highly politicized. Looking at the discourse that surround the topic of climate change or global warming entails terms like cap and trade, emission intensity, policies, measures etc. but what is still missing is the realization of the impact of human behavior that without any doubt is adding more to the threatening issue.

Scrutinizing the roots of issue from the past, it shot up when industrialization and the race among states to gain more technology, industries, economy and military might have caught everyone’s attention. After that there was a slight wave of realization majorly in the second half of twentieth century, as a result of which mass media started to emphasize on climate change narrative and there were discourses spread through print media to create awareness. As the awareness seemed to have increased the concerns of public regarding the issue also rose ultimately leading to the birth of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 1988. A legacy followed after IPCC and climate change for the first time was coined as an environmental or green issue. There were NGOs like Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council and The Environmental Defense Fund that took the voices for Climate Change as their prime priority.

Parallel to this there was a prominent backlash to these efforts too. In late 1980s there was emergence of coalition among many industrial companies of oil and cars that were the highest voices for business at the international level whose prime focus was to make business and turning a blind eye towards the threatening Climate Change. Moreover, the Convention that was considered to be a highly effective one, aimed at reducing global emissions of Carbon and greenhouse gases was framed. But even Kyoto Protocol turned out to be a battle among states whose ambitions were their national interests. In the pursuit of their offensive power and politics the quota allotted to all the member states of the convention was overruled. The richer states started to buy carbon quotas from the poorer states and both were in pursuit of what they needed the most; richer countries emitting carbon and poorer ones getting money. Hence the aim of the convention was severely affected. Adding more to the issue in 2001, the then US President George W. Bush called the Kyoto agreement as fatally flawed and the concern of climate change was no more considered to be a Green issue.

From that day till now, the issue has witnessed lesser ups and major downs in its magnitude and modern times have witnessed degradation of environment due to limitless cycle of consumption and production. As a matter of fact, 2015 to 2018 were recorded as the four hottest years ever. Two major evidences that depict how the issue of severe attention has been politicized for material gains are US withdrawal from Paris Climate Agreement and Kyoto Protocol that went in vain merely because of states only wanting to pursue their material interests and ambitions.

It now turns out to be easily understandable how and why the enigma between soft issue like Climate and hard core politics have led to severe degradation of nature and still the world is not realizing that the future of humanity has been put at risk. Unfortunately, the pursuit of leaders still depict that the humanity would continue to be at risk as long as they are not willing to shift their focus towards the need of the day that is climate change.

Immediate realization is necessitated that the short time political gains of the world is threatening the future of generations to come and the world cannot afford to lose another decade of dismay because decisions and actions done in this decade is going to impact the century to come. If only the world realizes the need of immediate measures, actions and strict compliance and the need of spreading the awareness of the demanding issue through mass media and discourses, then the world would be able to cope the issue and endeavor to save the future of generations to come.

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World Ocean Day And Economic Potential Of Oceans

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The World Ocean Day is celebrated internationally on 8 June every year since 2008, with an aim to advance awareness of the vital importance of oceans, the role they play in sustaining a healthy planet, and to foster public interest in their protection, and the sustainable management of their resources. This year’s theme is “The Ocean: Life and Livelihoods”.

The oceans cover over 70% of the planet. It is our life source, supporting humanity’s sustenance and that of every other organism on earth. These produce at least 50% of the planet’s oxygen. It is home to most of earth’s biodiversity, and is the main source of protein for more than a billion people around the world. The oceans are key to our economy with an estimated 40 million people being employed by ocean-based industries. The mode of transportation through the sea is the cheapest as compared to rail, road, and air. There are around 56,000 merchant ships trading internationally.  Some 11 billion tons of goods are transported through seas.

The oceans offer many organisms including dried sponges, corals & jellyfish, shells of crabs, oysters, conch and other mollusks, pearls and cuttlefish ‘bones’, sea cucumbers, sea horses and many other marine animals to prepare medicines such as antibiotics, powders, ointments and decoctions. Oceans are also a big source of energy in the form of oil and gas. An average 28% of world energy source is from off shore. The coral reefs which are found closer to the coast provide an important ecosystem for life underwater. Thousands of species can be found living on one reef. The reefs protect coastal areas by reducing the power of waves hitting the coast, and provide a crucial source of income for millions of people.

Another importance aspect is Deep Seabed Mining (DSM) to collect metal-rich resources from the deep seafloor, like seafloor massive sulphides, cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts, and polymetallic nodules. Oceans are also a big source of entertainment and sports. As of December 2018, there are 314 cruise ships operating worldwide. This has become a major part of the tourism industry, with an estimated market of $29.4 billion per year, and over 19 million passengers carried worldwide annually. Numerous type of water sport is provided by the seas such as surfing, sailing, swimming, water skiing, scuba diving, canoeing, fishing, and snorkeling etc. It is pertinent to mention that in the Holy Quran, the sea (Albehar) is mentioned 41 times in the verses giving its importance to mankind.  One is quoted here, “It is He who has subjected the sea on to you, that ye may eat fish thereof that is fresh and tender, and extract there-from ornaments to wear, and thou seest the ships therein that plough the waves that ye may seek to enrich yourself of the bounty of Allah and that ye may be grateful (16:14)”.

The oceans need special attention from the mankind to keep these clean especially from various forms of pollutants. The developing and underdeveloped countries usually discharge industrial waste and sewerage into the seas and harbors without proper treatment which pollute the beaches and the harbors. Ships cruising through the oceans sometimes discharge their sludge to clean bilges and sewerage tanks. This unwanted waste virtually reaches to the beaches. It is also injurious to marine life. Although IMO laws exist not to pollute the oceans but some dhows and other small vessels do not follow in letter and spirit. Mangroves are special plants which grow in the salt water in the swampy areas. These are breeding ground for the marine life and provide valuable ecosystem services by protecting the coastline. These plants need special attention for preservation as well as regular forestation.

Pakistan is blessed with about 1002 km long coast. The Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) extends up to 200 Nautical Miles (370 KM) and extended continental shelf 350 NM (648 km), total area 290,000 square km. Pakistan has not been able to utilize its vast area except for carrying out fishing and means of transportation. Pakistan needs to utilize this huge area by employing latest technological developments in the maritime field to derive maximum economic benefits. Mangroves along the coast are usually used by the poor residents because of no alternate source of energy. The supply of LPG at subsidized cost may be considered. The enforcement of laws regarding industrial waste and sewerage going to sea without proper treatment may be ensured by the concerned authorities.  Pakistan needs to focus on a ‘Sustainable Ocean-led Development Paradigm’ to ‘improve the policy and governance of the marine ecosystem.’ Citizens should be made aware of the importance and potential of this sector for the economy and for job creation. Regular TV talk shows may be conducted for the awareness of the masses. Maritime-related subjects should be included in the curriculum of the universities.

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Green Planet

Water Crisis: Pakistan running dry

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Water is considered to be one of the most important elements on Earth, with two thirds of it covered with water, it is the basic component of human life. Global environment is changing due to the high involvement of humans into nature; they unknowingly contribute to major exploitation of natural resources and then have to face the consequences. Pakistan is already facing a severe water shortage issue, and it is expected that if no emergency measures are taken then the country will dry in the coming years. Pakistan is lacking an efficient water management mechanism, drastic changes are required in policy making regarding the issue in order to secure water for future generations.

Pakistan is a country whose major part of the economy is dependent on agriculture and for the agriculture sector to flourish the country requires continuous supply of water and it is very necessary to ensure availability of water for all domestic, industrial, and economic sectors. By 2035 it is predicted to become a water scarce country, though some experts analyse that this may happen in 2020’s, if not earlier. The on-going water condition is very serious and indicates that Pakistan is on the verge of ending up dry because there is no proper mechanism to ensure water security. Pakistan is ranked amongst one of the most water stressed countries. The availability of water is less and the demand is a lot more. This situation is also known as the ‘Tragedy of Commons’.

There are various major and minor causes of the emerging water crisis in Pakistan. Starting with the Water clash with India which is a constant fear for Pakistan as on various occasions India has threatened and practically stopped the flow of water towards Pakistan and often violated the Indus Water Treaty. Moreover the mismanagement and wastage of resources had added much to this crisis; lastly the political elite still shows no seriousness regarding this issue which is further deteriorating the situation. The Water Scarcity in Pakistan is the result or consequence of inefficient water management by the country. It is time that the country gets serious on the issue and generates proper mechanisms to ensure water security. From the very individual level steps should be taken to conserve water. Political parties should make this issue part of their manifestos and government should initiate National Action Plan to conserve water and reduce wastage of water, through lining of canals, construction of dams and creating awareness all across the country about the adverse situation and what measures are to be adopted in order to overcome this severe crisis. If this adverse situation prolonged it is expected that within Pakistan amongst provinces and internationally amongst countries a war will start, “War on Water”.

Water is not only important for sustenance of life but equally essential for socio-economic development. The rapid growing need of water in the country can only be met through continuous supply of water and for that Pakistan needs to formulate proper mechanisms to conserve water through all possible measures. Therefore, construction dams/reservoirs and an effective water management strategy are the need of time.

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