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 disaster, due 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.
Bicycle comeback amongst initiatives to help Hangzhou cut air pollution
The city of Hangzhou in eastern China was once described by the Italian explorer Marco Polo as the, “finest and most splendid city in the world”. Today it is once again on the map thanks to a range of initiatives to cut air pollution and increase the livability of the city.
Indeed, many cities across China have suffered from the effects of air pollution. To remedy the situation, China introduced an Air Pollution Action Plan in 2013 to reduce dangerous particulate matter (PM) 2.5 levels.
For the city of Beijing, the solution has been to drastically eliminate the use of coal: the city closed its coal-fired power stations and banned people in surrounding areas from burning coal for heat. The city’s efforts were so effective that, while in 2013, Beijing ranked as the 40th worst city for PM 2.5 by the World Health Organization, it ranked in 187th place in 2018. As part of nationwide efforts to curb air pollutants, other cities in China followed suit and dramatically reduced their PM 2.5 levels.
The new 2018-2020 Three-year Action Plan for Winning the Blue Sky War, announced in July 2018, is the successor of the original air pollution action plan. It calls for a reduction of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide by more than 15 per cent compared with 2015 levels by 2020.
Hangzhou’s bike-sharing success
The bustling city of Hangzhou, home to nearly 10 million people, is world-famous for being home to the high-tech industry, including the world’s leading e-commerce group, Alibaba.
However, like other cities in China, Hangzhou has had to tackle the scourge of air pollution. Since most of the Hangzhou’s PM 2.5 pollution comes from vehicle emissions, Hangzhou city authority started China’s very first public bike-sharing scheme. Launched in 2008, the primary purpose of this initiative was to a provide a convenient public service for short journeys in the city. They ended up with two knock-on benefits: less traffic and a reduction in air pollution.
In 2017, when the number of bikes hit a peak, a total of 10 companies, including commercial ones, operated more than 882,000 bikes. The number of bike trips is estimated in the range of hundreds of millions since 2008.
Furthermore, the integration of the public bike-sharing scheme with other public transport in the city has increased its attractiveness and ease-of-use. “This healthy transport has made our city better and its air quality is good,” says Tao Xuejun, general manager of the Hangzhou Public Bicycle Service.
China was known as the “Kingdom of the bicycle” in the 1980s. With economic progress, many people moved to motorized forms of transport. The re-emergence of the bicycle in Hangzhou since 2008 may have been somewhat unexpected but its contribution to helping reduced air pollution is undeniable.
In 2017, the Hangzhou bike-sharing scheme won an award from the Ashden charity which said that “the combination of convenient and free bicycles, well separated bicycle lanes and good public transport appears to have led to reduced use of cars and their associated congestion, pollution and greenhouse gas emissions”.
“Hangzhou is a great example of how cities can introduce initiatives like bike sharing to encourage people to get out of their cars and reduce air pollution,” says Rob de Jong, Head of UN Environment’s Air Quality and Mobility Unit. “We really need to encourage city governments and planners around the world to design cities for people, and not cars – leading to safer and cleaner living spaces”.
Switching to non-polluting vehicles an international priority
Tackling air pollution by removing cars from the road is the focus of UN Environment’s Share the Road Programme. The Programme is centered around the concept that everyone begins and ends their journeys as pedestrians, and in cities, some people rely almost exclusively on walking and cycling. Yet, investors and governments continue to prioritize road space for cars. To make the switch to more eco-friendly means of transport, UN Environment supports governments and other stakeholders in developing countries to systematically prioritize and invest in infrastructure for pedestrians and cyclists.
Bike-sharing schemes have not been without criticism, however. As the number of bicycles grew rapidly across China, many found their way to massive dumps, as companies went bankrupt because of insufficient demand. Vast piles of impounded, abandoned or broken bicycles have become a familiar sight in many big cities.
Hangzhou itself has had to cut the number of bikes. Cities around the world are learning from this example and ensuring they have full control over the number of bikes released into the city within their bike-sharing schemes.
Other initiatives in Hangzhou to reduce air pollution
Conscious of the risk air pollution poses to health, Hangzhou has implemented many other measures to improve air quality. It expanded its metro system to reduce traffic and invested in thousands of electric buses and taxis.
The city also developed an innovative battery-swapping mechanism for the its electric taxi fleet, allowing one electric taxi to travel for 230 kilometers on two to three fully charged batteries every day. Hangzhou’s goal is to reach a total fleet of 1,000 electric taxis, ultimately aiming at a zero-emission taxi fleet.
Putting the brakes on fast fashion
Fashion revolves around the latest trends but is the industry behind the curve on the only trend that ultimately matters – the need to radically alter our patterns of consumption to ensure the survival of the planet.
The fashion industry produces 20 per cent of global wastewater and 10 per cent of global carbon emissions – more than all international flights and maritime shipping. Textile dyeing is the second largest polluter of water globally and it takes around 2,000 gallons of water to make a typical pair of jeans.
Every second, the equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles is landfilled or burned. If nothing changes, by 2050 the fashion industry will use up a quarter of the world’s carbon budget. Washing clothes also releases half a million tonnes of microfibres into the ocean every year.
Then there is the human cost: textile workers are often paid derisory wages and forced to work long hours in appalling conditions. But with consumers increasingly demanding change, the fashion world is finally responding with A-listers, like Duchess Meghan Markle, leading the way with their clothing choices and designers looking to break the take-make-waste model.
“Most fashion retailers now are doing something about sustainability and have some initiatives focused on reducing fashion’s negative impact on the environment,” says Patsy Perry, senior lecturer in fashion marketing at the University of Manchester. For example, last year, Britain’s Stella McCartney teamed up with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation to launch a report on redesigning fashion’s future.
“However, there is still a fundamental problem with the fast fashion business model where revenues are based on selling more products, and therefore retailers must constantly offer new collections. It would be unrealistic to expect consumers to stop shopping on a large scale, so going forward, I would expect to see more development and wider adoption of more sustainable production methods such as waterless dyeing, using waste as a raw material, and development of innovative solutions to the textile waste problem,” she says.
Pioneering solutions to address environmental challenges will be at the heart of the fourth UN Environment Assembly next March. The meeting’s motto is to think beyond prevailing patterns and live within sustainable limits—a message that will resonate with fashion designers and retailers seeking to reform their industry.
At the March meeting, UN Environment will formally launch the UN Alliance on Sustainable Fashion to encourage the private sector, governments and non-governmental organizations to create an industry-wide push for action to reduce fashion’s negative social, economic and environmental impact and turn it into a driver for the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals.
Across the United Nations, agencies are working to make fashion more sustainable, from the Food and Agricultural Organization protecting arable land, to the Ethical Fashion Initiative set up by the International Trade Centre to the work of UN Environment in fostering sustainable manufacturing practices.
And some entrepreneurs are already designing the fashion of the future:
Spain’s Ecoalf creates shoes from algae and recycled plastic as part of its Upcycling the Oceans collection. Founded by Javier Goyeneche in 2012, Ecoalf collects ocean plastics from 33 ports and turns the trash into shoes, clothing and bags.
In Amsterdam, GumDrop collects gum and turns it into a new kind of rubber, Gum-tec, which is then used to make shoes in collaboration with marketing group I Amsterdam and fashion company Explicit. GumDrop says around 3.3 million pounds of gum end up on Amsterdam’s paths every year, costing millions of dollars to clean. It takes around 2.2 pounds of gum to make four pairs of sneakers.
Outdoor gear retailer Patagonia, based in California, has been producing fleece jackets using polyester from recycled bottles since 1993, working with Polartec, a Massachusetts-based textile designer. Patagonia also encourages shoppers to buy only what they need, and mends and recycles older items.
Gothenburg-based Nudie Jeans uses organic cotton for its jeans and offers free repairs for life. Customers also get a discount if they hand in their old jeans.
Cambodia-based Tonlé uses surplus fabric from mass clothing manufacturers to create zero-waste fashion collections. It uses more than 97 per cent of the material it receives and turns the rest into paper.
In the Netherlands, Wintervacht turns blankets and curtains into coats and jackets. Designers Yoni van Oorsouw and Manon van Hoeckel find their raw materials in secondhand shops and sorting facilities where donations are processed. San Francisco- and Bali-based Indosole turns discarded tyres in Indonesia into shoes, sandals and flip-flops, while Swiss firm Freitag upcycles tarpaulins, seat belts and bicycle inner tubes to make their bags and backpacks.
In New York, Queen of Raw connects designers, architects and textile firms with dead stock of sustainable fabrics from factories, brands and retailers. Queen of Raw says more than US$120 billion worth of unused fabric sits in warehouses, waiting to be burned or buried.
Novel Supply, based in Canada, makes clothes from natural and organic fabrics and is developing a take-back programme to find alternative ways to use garments at the end of their life. For founder Kaya Dorey, winner of UN Environment’s Young Champion of the Earth award in 2017, the aim is to create a zero-waste, closed-loop fashion model.
Retailer H&M has a successful garment collection scheme and in October, lifestyle brand and jeans manufacturer Guess said it was teaming up with i:Collect, which collects, sorts and recycles clothes and footwear worldwide, to launch a wardrobe recycling programme in the US. Customers who bring in five or more items of clothing or shoes, will receive discounts. Wearable items will be recycled as secondhand goods, while unwearable items will be turned into new products like cleaning cloths or made into fibres for products like insulation.
Some argue that recycling is itself energy intensive and does not address our throwaway culture—the number of times a garment is worn has declined by 36 per cent in 15 years. An alternative might be found in a viable rental market for clothes. Pioneers in this field include Dutch firm Mud Jeans, which leases organic jeans that can be kept, swapped or returned, Rent the Runway, Girl Meets Dress and YCloset in China.
“The rental model is clearly a winner for the higher end of the market where consumers may have no intention of wearing an occasion dress more than once… but at the lower end, it’s all too easy to go online and be able to buy outright any trend or item,” says Perry. “For rental to be a success at this market level, companies need to offer sufficient choice of brands and styles that would engage consumers and tempt them away from outright purchase, and the rental service needs to be smooth and faultless.”
Her best fashion advice? Less is always more.
“Keep your clothing in use for longer to reduce its environmental footprint, as well as reducing the amount of new stuff you need to buy and the consequent use of resources. This also reduces the impact of the disposal of perfectly good but unwanted clothes.”
New e-portal for the protection of the Caspian marine environment
A new, upgraded, online platform was launched on 8 November 2018 to support joint action under the Framework Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the Caspian Sea, also known as the Tehran Convention. The objective of the completely revamped Caspian Environment Information Center is to provide the Parties to the Tehran Convention with an online collaborative information-sharing tool, making it easier for different stakeholders from the Caspian littoral states to collaborate on environmental issues. The platform has been developed by GRID-Arendal with the support of British Petroleum Exploration (Caspian Sea) Limited in Baku, Republic of Azerbaijan.
A major step forward was made in 2003, when the Tehran Convention was signed as the first legally binding agreement among the Caspian littoral states. The expanding work under the UN Environment-hosted Convention identified the need for a reliable and easy way to exchange information. An initial portal was set up in 2012 to facilitate collaboration across the region. Six years later, the Caspian countries have been provided with an enhanced version with a broader data base and an expanded array of tools.
“The Caspian Environmental Information Center is a portal that is a kind of library where you can find information related to the Caspian environment, biodiversity, monitoring, the economic potential of the region, etc. The portal also contains information on activities carried out in the Caspian littoral countries”, said Nurgul Tastenbekova, a 23-year-old user from Kazakhstan. “The portal is very convenient to use and well thought-out”, she added.
The online portal contains a series of functions that enable easy access to Caspian Sea environmental data. Stakeholders such as governments, administrators, academia, private companies and non-governmental organizations can become users and join different groups, contributing to public and private information sharing. It has been pivotal in the ongoing process of preparing the Second State of the Environment Report for the Caspian Sea. Even for the casual viewer, the site provides access to a wide range of information included in the collections of documents, news, events, forum discussions and maps.
Supporting implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals
The portal aims at contributing to the achievement of several Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), particularly number 17 “Partnerships for the goals” and 16 “Peace, justice and strong institutions”. This online tool provides the Caspian countries with a technological means for regional cooperation and information sharing, promoting policy and institutional coherence. Furthermore, by encouraging private, public and civil society engagement on the platform, it contributes to increased openness and public awareness on environmental issues in the Caspian region. The portal is set up for inclusive and participatory knowledge creation, aimed at informing decision makers, scientists and civil society stakeholders. Ultimately, this will contribute to achieving goal 14 “Life below water” by supporting the sustainable use and conservation of the sea and its marine resources.
The Tehran Convention Interim Secretariat (TCIS) is located within UN Environment’s Europe Office, in Geneva, Switzerland. The Secretariat supports the Conference of the Parties and the implementation of the Tehran Convention in organizational, administrative and technical matters.
GRID-Arendal is a center collaborating with UN Environment, which provides support to monitoring, assessment, reporting, information exchange, back-up networking and research, and environmental management and administration-related work.
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