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by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss

E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: Is there any environmental risk from all that Japanese tsunami debris that is starting to wash up on the U.S. west coast? -- Bailey Thigerson, Seattle, WA

The Japanese government estimates that some 1.5 million tons of debris is afloat in the Pacific Ocean as a result of the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster. No one knows exactly how much of this debris will wash up on American shores or end up absorbed by the water column or trapped in mid-ocean gyres, but state coastal authorities from California to Alaska are readying response plans.

One certain threat is invasive species. Scientists from Oregon State University’s Hatfield Marine Science Center confirmed the presence of dozens of species native to Japanese coastal waters—including barnacles, starfish, urchins, anemones, amphipods, worms, mussels, limpets, snails, solitary tunicates and algae—that were on a large floating dock in Japan that washed ashore at Agate Beach near Newport, Oregon in June 2012. According to researchers, the 66 foot long dock contained some 13 pounds of organisms per square foot, and an estimated 100 tons of living matter overall. While there is no evidence to date that anything from the float has established on
U.S. shores, researchers fearing the worst but hoping for the best are continuing to monitor the situation.

Of course, what worries researchers more is that the dock may just be the tip of the iceberg, so to speak, in regard to what else might wash ashore. “I think that the dock is a forerunner of all the heavier stuff that's coming later, and amongst that heavier stuff are going to be a lot of drums full of chemicals that we won't be able to identify,” says Chris Pallister, president of the non-profit Gulf of Alaska Keeper, a group dedicated to cleaning marine debris from Alaska’s coastline. He worries that the onslaught of debris will be “far worse than any oil spill ... or any other environmental disaster we’ve faced on the West Coast” as a result of the sheer amount and variety of debris and the wide geographic scope it is likely to affect.

Officials at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) believe the Japanese tsunami debris has already spread over an area of the
Pacific Ocean roughly three times the size of the contiguous United States. While some of the debris has already made landfall in the U.S., the bulk of it will take several more months to make it across the Pacific. Seattle-based oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer, who has been tracking huge gyres of trash in the ocean for two decades and runs the Beachcombers’ Alert website, thinks the majority of tsunami debris will reach U.S. shores as early as October 2012.

Another concern: Researchers were “startled” to find detectable levels of radioactivity from the
Fukushima nuclear disaster in bluefin tuna, a favorite sushi fish, off the coast of California. While the levels of radioactive cesium were some 10 times higher than the amount measured in tuna off California in previous years, it is still below safe-to-eat limits in both Japan and the U.S. The researchers are continuing to study more bluefin tissue samples to see if elevated radiation levels persist, and are also looking into radiation levels in other long distance migratory species including sea turtles, sharks and seabirds.

Hatfield Marine Science Center, www.hmsc.oregonstate.edu; NOAA, www.noaa.gov; Beachcombers’ Alert, www.beachcombersalert.org.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine ( www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe. Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.

E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: I recently saw an article extolling the virtues of natural gas as an abundant, inexpensive and domestically produced automotive fuel. Is this going to be the automotive fuel of the future and how green is it? -- Jason Kincaide,
New Bedford, MA

It is difficult to say which of the growing number of fuel options will power the cars of the future. But natural gas, given its domestic abundance, low price and lesser carbon footprint, is certainly a contender, at least as far as researchers at the federally funded Argonne National Laboratory are concerned. Some of the same engineers there who developed the batteries now used in electric cars have been tasked with improving natural gas powered engine technologies, thanks to anticipated consumer demand for vehicles powered by something cheaper and greener than gasoline but without the hassles of other alternative fuels.

“Our conclusion is that natural gas as a transportation fuel has both adequate abundance and cost advantages that make a strong case to focus interest in the technology as a real game changer in U.S. energy security,” Mike Duoba, an engineer at Argonne’s Transportation Technology Research and Development Center outside of Chicago, told the Talking Points Memo news blog. “In terms of consumer ownership and use costs, the case to make a switch from current fuels to compressed natural gas (CNG) is much more compelling than for other alternative fuels like ethanol and electricity.”

Given this promise—in addition to a February 2012 Department of Energy announcement of a $30 million competition aimed at finding ways “to harness our abundant supplies of domestic natural gas for vehicles”—Duoba and his colleague have been ramping up vehicle systems analysis and engine research and testing around CNG as a way to wean ourselves off of foreign fuel sources.

Their goal is to improve the efficiency of the CNG combustion process so that it can fit into a new line of engines that can run on gasoline or CNG equally as well, giving consumers the flexibility of choice without any trade-offs. Duoba thinks such a vehicle would have significant consumer appeal, especially in light of sluggish sales of the latest round of electric vehicles from the major automakers.

At least for some time, compared to plug-in vehicle batteries, CNG storage offers lower weight, higher energy storage and lower costs—as well as faster refueling/recharging.” And while CNG vehicles would generate emissions from their tailpipes, the Argonne team believes that their overall emissions footprint would be smaller than that of an electric vehicle drawing power from the fossil-fuel-based electric grid.

But to Duoba the appeal of CNG is more about reducing America’s dependence on foreign oil sources than on saving the planet. “Various technologies have been successful at reducing the environmental impact (criteria pollution) over the decades,” Duoba wrote. “To the extent that consumption of foreign petroleum has not been reduced to acceptable levels, this could be viewed as the principal motivation.”

But CNG faces the same major hurdle to becoming widely accepted as any other challenger to gasoline as king of the road: a lack of refueling stations. Whatever does finally unseat gasoline will no doubt have to have a system for refueling that rivals the convenience we’ve come to expect from our corner gas stations.

CONTACTS: Argonne Center, www.transportation.anl.gov.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine ( www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe. Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.

E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: How are the world's reptile species faring in terms of population numbers and endangered status? What's being done, if anything, to help them? -- Vicky Desmond,
Troy, NY

The world’s reptiles—turtles, snakes, lizards, alligators and crocodiles—are indeed in trouble. The International Union for Conservation of Nature, which publishes an annual global roster of threatened and endangered species called the Red List, considers some 664 species of reptiles—representing more than 20 percent of known reptile species worldwide—as endangered or facing extinction. Meanwhile, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service considers about 10 percent of American reptiles threatened or endangered.

Why care? The non-profit Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) considers reptiles “amazing creatures” with clever adaptations that have helped them survive for millions of years.
CBD also points out that reptiles are valuable indicators of wider ecological health. “Because many reptile species are long-lived and relatively slow-moving, they suffer from disturbances like habitat loss or pollution for extended periods,” the group reports, adding that a diverse community of reptiles living in a given area is evidence of a healthy ecosystem that can support the plant and animal life they and other species need for food and cover.

So what’s causing the reptiles’ decline? “While habitat loss is the most obvious cause of endangerment, declines are even even occurring in pristine areas from threats such as disease, UV radiation and climate change,” reports CBD. Overcollecting and unregulated hunting also are taking a toll on reptile populations.

In order to help stem the tide of reptile loss, CBD leverages the court system to pressure the federal government to protect at-risk species. For instance, back in 2004 the group worked with the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection in filing a petition to add the
Tucson shovel-nosed snake, which dwells in the quickly disappearing wild desert around fast-growing cities like Tucson and Phoenix, to the federal list of endangered species. Finally in 2011 the federal government agreed that it would add the snake to its list of endangered species which will help it get the habitat protection needed to ensure long term survival.

CBD also works on other fronts for reptiles. The group’s campaign to outlaw “rattlesnake round-ups”—contests whereby hunters collect and kill as many snakes as they can in a year—has helped stem population declines of eastern diamondback rattlesnakes. And
CBD’s efforts to educate the public about the plight of freshwater turtles, which are “overcollected” for food and the pet trade in the southern and midwestern parts of the U.S., helped convince several states for the first time to regulate turtle harvests.

One way everyone can help reptile species in decline is to make our backyards friendly to them. The U.S. Geological Survey’s
Patuxent Wildlife Research Center offers tips on what to plant and how to arrange a landscape to encourage reptiles and other wildlife. Landowners that take these steps may be rewarded with fewer pests, given reptiles taste for large numbers of mosquitoes and other insects as well as small rodents. Other pro-reptile tips include driving carefully (road mortality is a big issue for snakes, turtles and other species) and keeping outside areas around your property free of garbage that might attract raccoons, crows and other pests that also prey on reptiles.

CONTACTS: CBD, www.biologicaldiversity.org;
Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, www.pwrc.usgs.gov.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine ( www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe. Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.

E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: What’s the deal with
New York City buildings switching over from heating oil to natural gas? Is this a trend in other U.S. cities as well? -- Mitchell Branecke, Yonkers, NY

Anyone who has lived in New York City knows that particulate matter is omnipresent there. Commonly referred to as soot, such particulate pollution is comprised of fine black particles derived of carbon from coal, oil, wood or other fuels that have not combusted completely.

Due to this preponderance of soot in the air, asthma rates in some parts of the Big Apple (like Harlem and parts of the Bronx) are sky high. Environmentalists have been pointing the finger for years at the dirty residential heating oil used by so many New York City buildings, many of which were built before natural gas was widely available. According to the non-profit Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), just one percent of the buildings across the five boroughs of New York City burn noxious heating oils, but those structures send more particulate matter airborne than all of the city’s cars and trucks combined.

That’s why mayor Michael Bloomberg announced this past June that an innovative public-private partnership (known as NYC Clean Heat) between the city’s government and leading banks, energy providers and environmental groups would be putting up $100 million in financing and other new resources to help buildings there make the switch to cleaner fuels. NYC Clean Heat kicked off last year when the city ordered the phase-out of the dirtiest home heating fuels: No. 4 and No. 6 oils that are still used in some 10,000 New York City buildings and which create a significant air pollution hazard. Switching out those fuels with cleaner burning oil (such as No. 2), biodiesel or natural gas will go a long way toward meeting Bloomberg’s aggressive new “PlaNYC” goal of reducing soot pollution some 50 percent by 2013. The mayor’s office reports that the new restrictions will save 120 lives and prevent 300 asthma-related hospital visits a year, while generating some $300 million in construction activity in the short term.

Property owners interested in a clean heat conversion can access the funding, which is coming from a combination of city coffers and financial institutions including Chase, Deutsche Bank, Hudson Valley Bank, Citi and the Community Preservation Corporation. On the environmental side, EDF is offering technical assistance and outreach to buildings that are undergoing fuel conversions by making available a team of trained energy professional to help evaluate conversion options, coordinate with utilities and beef up energy efficiency measures. As for the utilities, Con Edison and National Grid, the two primary providers for the New York City metro area, have agreed to upgrade their natural gas infrastructure to make it easier and cheaper for buildings to make the switch. And Hess Corporation, the city’s largest residential heating oil provider, has begun to offer customers new incentives to switch to natural gas, ultra-low sulfur No. 2 heating oil and biodiesel.

Large numbers of buildings in several other older U.S. cities, mostly in the Northeast, still rely on dirty heating oil, mostly because they were built before natural gas was widely available. Whether some of these locales will follow New York City’s lead in marshalling resources to facilitate a wholesale switchover remains to be seen and may hinge upon the success of New York City’s program. But no doubt individual property owners who can make the switch are doing it of their own accord due to the low price of natural gas versus oil.

TACTS: NYC Clean Heat, www.nyccleanheat.org; EDF, www.edf.org.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine ( www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe. Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.

E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: We’ve been hearing for years how producing red meat is bad for the environment while consuming it is bad for our health. How do other types of meat, fish, dairy and vegetable proteins stack up in terms of environmental and health impacts? -- Julia Saperstein, via e-mail

Not all forms of protein are created equal as to the environmental and health implications of raising and consuming them. A 2011 assessment by the non-profit Environmental Working Group (EWG) found that “different meats and different production systems have varying health, climate and other environmental impacts.”

The quantity of chemical fertilizers, fuel and other “production inputs” used, the differences in soil conditions and production systems and the extent to which best practices such as cover cropping, intensive grazing or manure management are implemented all affect the amount of greenhouse gas emissions a meat product is responsible for generating. To wit, lamb, beef, cheese, pork and farmed salmon raised “conventionally” (e.g. with inputs including hormones and antibiotics and feed derived from crops grown with chemical pesticides and fertilizers) were determined by EWG to generate the most greenhouse gases.

EWG partnered with the environmental analysis firm CleanMetrics to assess the climate impacts via lifecycle assessments of 20 popular types of meat, fish, dairy and vegetable proteins. EWG’s assessment calculated the full “cradle-to-grave” carbon footprint of each food item based on the greenhouse gas emissions generated before and after it left the farm—from the pesticides and fertilizer used to grow animal feed all the way through the grazing, animal raising, processing, transportation, cooking and even disposal of unused food (since some 20 percent of edible meat gets thrown away by Americans).

According to EWG, conventionally raised lamb, beef, cheese and pork also generate more polluting waste, pound for pound. Of these, lamb has the greatest impact, followed by beef and then by cheese—so vegetarians who eat dairy aren’t off the hook. “Beef has more than twice the emissions of pork, nearly four times more than chicken and more than 13 times as much as vegetable proteins such as beans, lentils and tofu,” summarizes EWG.

On the health front, EWG reports that “eating too much of these greenhouse gas-intensive meats boosts exposure to toxins and increases the risk of a wide variety of serious health problems, including heart disease, certain cancers, obesity and, in some studies, diabetes.”

Besides cutting out animal-derived proteins altogether, the best thing we can do for our health and the environment is to cut down on our meat consumption and choose only organic, humane and/or grass-fed meat, eggs and dairy. “Overall, these products are the least harmful, most ethical choices,” says EWG, adding that grass-fed and pasture-raised products are typically more nutritious and carry less risk of bacterial contamination. “While best management practices can demonstrably reduce overall emissions and environmental harm, the most effective and efficient way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and environmental impacts from livestock is simply to eat, waste and produce less meat and dairy.” For more information, check out EWG’s free online “Meat Eater’s Guide.”

CONTACTS: EWG Meat Eater’s Guide, www.ewg.org/meateatersguide.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe. Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.

E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: Why were some environmental websites blacked out all day back on June 4? Was this some sort of protest, or did they get hacked? -- Ned Cooper, Detroit, MI

It wasn’t hackers this time. In fact, a group of environmental and social justice organizations representing millions of Canadians blacked out their websites for 24 hours this past June 4 to protest efforts by Canada’s conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper to push through a budget bill that would significantly weaken environmental protections.

Organizations leading the black-out include the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, the David Suzuki Foundation, Ecojustice, Greenpeace, Nature Canada, Sierra Club Canada and World Wildlife Fund Canada, and several others. More than 13,000 other websites—including those of many major U.S. green groups including the Sierra Club—also participated in the black-out and continue to support the effort calling for stronger, not weaker, environmental protections. Reports the Black Out Speak Out website: “The environmental changes are particularly undemocratic and worrisome given the extent to which the government is going to please powerful oil interests...”

Green leaders say Harper’s motives stem from his interest in expanding and exploiting Canada’s tar sands oil and gas deposits, which constitute the second largest petroleum reserve in the world (after Saudi Arabia’s).Harper’s attacks are happening for many reasons, not the least of which was the success of environmental groups in Canada, the U.S. and Europe in threatening what Big Oil wants most: unlimited tar sands expansion and pipelines like the Keystone XL to send its oil around the globe,” reports Michael Marx, director of the U.S. Sierra Club’s Beyond Oil campaign, on the Huffington Post website. “He put the interests of the oil industry first and looked the other way when it came to enforcing laws about air and water pollution, endangered species and the health of downstream communities.”

Marx says that “tar sands oil companies are destroying a pristine forest the size of England, accelerating the rate of climate change, causing thousands of wolves, bears, migratory birds, and caribou to die, and leaching toxic chemicals into rivers, as downstream communities experience a spike in cancer rates.”

According to Marx, Harper’s government is trying to disarm its opposition by threatening the charitable status (and thus the fundraising ability) of green groups who oppose tar sands, subjecting them to onerous tax reporting requirements to bog them down. “‘Black Out, Speak Out’ is a warning that the Harper Government has gone too far,” says Marx. “This protest has brought together a diverse array of Canadians to defend their democracy and right to have an open debate about the future of their country.”

“Hopefully Black Out, Speak Out will mobilize thousands of Canadians and Harper will learn that it’s one thing to attack environmentalists and quite another to attack freedom of speech,” says Marx. “If the Harper government pursues this repressive policy, it should expect the backlash to spread in Canada, the U.S. and in Europe.”

CONTACTS: Black Out Speak Out, www.blackoutspeakout.ca; Huffington Post, www.huffingtonpost.com; Sierra Club, www.sierraclub.org.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine ( www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe. Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.

E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: Has an alternative to air conditioning to keep rooms cool been invented that is significantly cheaper and/or that uses significantly less energy than traditional air conditioning? -- Ashutosh Saxena, Allahabad, India

Unfortunately the modern day air conditioner, with its constantly cycling, energy-hogging compressor and environmentally unfriendly chemical coolant, still reigns supreme throughout the world—and increasingly so in rapidly developing countries like India and China where possession of air conditioning connotes middle class status. And while the chlorofluorocarbon coolant widely used in air conditioners through the 1980s was phased out because its emissions were causing damage to the globe’s protective ozone layer, the chemicals that replaced it worldwide, and which are now in use in hundreds of millions of air conditioners, are some 2,100 times stronger as greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide. We may have saved the ozone layer, but—whoops!—there goes the climate.

Just because people aren’t using them much doesn’t mean there aren’t some good alternatives. The best known is an evaporative cooler (AKA swamp cooler). Better for hot, dry climates, these electrified units cool outdoor air through evaporation and then blow it inside. They make for a nice alternative to traditional air conditioners, using about a quarter of the energy overall. They are also quicker and cheaper to install, and can be moved around to different rooms as needed. But swamp coolers can require a lot of maintenance and may not keep the interior space as cool as some AC-hungry inhabitants might like.

Apartment/condo and commercial/industrial buildings might consider augmenting their existing roof-top air conditioning systems with the cooling power of ice. California-based Ice Energy makes and sells the Ice Bear system, essentially a large thermal storage tank that makes ice at night—when the cost and demand for energy is lower—and then doles out ice water into the air conditioning system during the day to efficiently deliver cooling when it’s needed. Since the air conditioner’s energy-intensive compressor can remain off during peak daytime hours, the electricity required for cooling can be minimal, with some customers achieving 95 percent electricity savings using the system. And utilities across the country are starting to encourage its use by large customers.

Stanford University has been utilizing its own version of similar technology since 1999 to keep its campus buildings cool. Since upgrading to an ice-based cooling system, Stanford saves some $500,000 a year on its campus cooling bill. If such technology could be adapted to augment home air conditioning systems, it could go a long way toward reducing air conditioning’s environmental footprint overall.

Of course, let’s not forget that a small investment in a fan or two to create a breeze or wind tunnel through inhabited interior spaces can go a long way to offset summer heat. Even better, get a professional to install a “whole-house fan,” which draws in cooler air through lower level open windows and exhales hotter air through specially designed attic vents synced to open when the system is operating.

The race has been on in the air conditioning business for some time to find a coolant that doesn’t destroy the ozone or add to global warming, but progress has been slow. Meanwhile, global warming itself will beget the need for more air conditioning, which will only exacerbate an already dire situation, especially as the rest of the world starts to demand artificial cooling just like we’ve enjoyed in the West for decades.

CONTACT: Ice Energy, www.ice-energy.com.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe. Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.

E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: I was appalled by the pollution haze I saw on a recent visit to Acadia National Park in Maine, and was told by a ranger that it was from smokestacks and tailpipes hundreds of miles away. Is anything being done to clear the air in Acadia and other natural areas where people go to breathe fresh air and enjoy distant unobstructed views? -- Betty Estason, via e-mail

This pollution haze, which emanates from urban and industrial centers to the south and west, has been a problem at Acadia National Park and elsewhere (e.g. Great Smoky Mountains, Shenandoah and Voyageurs national parks) for decades despite a 1977 Congressional dictum calling for the nation’s greatest natural treasures—known as “Class 1” areas—to be free of the unhealthy air plaguing cities. The haze is caused when tiny pollution particles absorb and/or scatter sunlight before it reaches the ground, reducing the clarity of what we see. According to the National Park Service (NPS), which is working with other agencies and state governments to help remedy the situation, “Some types of particles, such as sulfates, scatter more light than others, particularly during humid conditions,” reports the NPS.

Of course, the pollution in the air causing the haze is also not good for our health or the environment. “Exposure to very small particles in the air has been linked with increased respiratory illness, decreased lung function, and even premature death,” reports the NPS. Also, the most common particles, nitrates and sulfates, contribute to acid rain, which renders some water bodies unsuitable to support aquatic life.

Analysts with the Mid-Atlantic/North East Visibility
Union (MANE-VU), a regional planning agency with representation from all Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states as well as two tribes and four federal agencies, calculated that 100 miles in visibility should be the norm throughout these regions but that 40-60 mile visibility is typical today because of pollution. They also warn that haze can reduce visibility to just a few miles at times. The fact that these problems exist in natural areas hundreds of miles from the sources of pollution is particularly troubling to environmentalists, park visitors and seekers of fresh air.

In November 2011 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) agreed to finalize requirements for states to create haze pollution clean-up plans—those first called for in 1977. These plans will require the worst polluters to install “Best Available Retrofit Technology” (BART) to clean up particulate pollution.

But a recently proposed addendum would allow 28 eastern U.S. states to avoid direct compliance, since they are already required to cut emissions through the Cross State Air Pollution Rule (CSAPR). “While the emission trading program created by CSAPR will result in significant air quality benefits for many eastern states, it will not require some of the most egregious polluters of iconic Class I national landscapes to clean up their pollution to the same level that would be required under BART,” reports the National Parks Conservation Association, which would like to see EPA drop its proposed BART rule exemption.

Readers can do their part by using less energy and making sure some of the power offered by their utilities comes from renewable sources. And stay away from haze-prone locales on humid days when conditions are ripest for the formation of particulate pollution and the negative health effects that can come with it.

CONTACTS: EPA, www.epa.gov/region1/topics/pollutants/haze.html; MANE-VU, www.otcair.org/manevu; National Parks Conservation Association, www.npca.org.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine ( www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe; Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.

E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: Commercial whaling was banned around the world years ago, but some nations continue to hunt whales. Why is this and what’s being done about it? -- Jackie O’Neill, Hershey, PA

Sadly for our world and its biodiversity, whales are still being killed despite an international ban on commercial whaling. Indeed, rampant whaling over the last two centuries has decimated just about every whale population around the globe. According to Greenpeace, many whale species are down to around one percent of their estimated former abundance before the days of commercial whaling.

Fourteen whaling nations came together in 1946 to form the International Whaling Commission (IWC) to manage whale stocks and recommend hunting limits where appropriate. But the continuing decline of populations forced the IWC to call for an outright ban on all commercial whaling in 1986. But Japan, Norway and Iceland continue to defy the ban, each harvesting hundreds if not more whales every year.

“The Japanese invented the concept of ‘scientific’ whaling in 1987 as a way around the moratorium on commercial whaling,” reports Greenpeace. “Their research is not really research. It is an excuse for supplying whale meat on the Japanese market.” The research consists, among other things, of analysis of the contents of the digestive tract. The data on what the animals eat is then used to argue that whales eat too much commercially important fish and that the populations should be culled to save the fish, argues Greenpeace, and that the Japanese selectively release data on certain species and ignore data on others.

Norway resumed whaling in 1993 “as an attempt by the political party in power at the time to gain popularity in northern Norway,” says Greenpeace. “In order to justify its hunt, Norwegian scientists calculated a population estimate, which was later found to be much higher than the data supported.”

Iceland increased its whaling dramatically in recent years. “In 2010 alone, Icelandic whalers killed hundreds of whales—including endangered fin whales—and shipped more than 750 tons of whale meat and products to Japan, whose market is already glutted with whale meat from its own ‘scientific research whaling’ program,” reports the non-profit Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

Several green groups including NRDC recently petitioned the Obama administration to take action against
Iceland under the Pelly Amendment to the Fisherman’s Protective Act. “The Amendment allows the President to impose trade sanctions against a country that is ‘diminishing the effectiveness’ of a conservation agreement—in Iceland’s case the whaling moratorium and another international treaty that prohibits trade in endangered species,” says NRDC. The petition names several Iceland firms—including major seafood companies with ties to Iceland’s whaling industry—as potential targets for trade sanctions.

Greenpeace has been pressuring
Japan to not only end its own whaling but also its support of whaling by other nations not abiding by the IWC moratorium. “We are working around the world to increase the pressure put on Japan by conservation-minded governments at the IWC to close the political loopholes that allow the reckless hunt to continue,” says Greenpeace, “and to highlight the vote-buying that keep these loopholes in existence.”

CONTACTS: IWC, www.iwcoffice.org; Greenpeace, www.greenpeace.org; NRDC, www.nrdc.org.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe. Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.

E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: I couldn’t believe my ears: “genetically engineered mosquitoes?” Why on Earth would they be created? And I understand there are plans to release them into the wild?

-- Marissa Abingdon, Sumter, SC

Yes it’s true, genetically engineered mosquitoes, which were bred in the lab to transmit a gene during the reproductive process that kills their offspring, have already been used on an experimental basis in three countries—the Cayman Islands, Malaysia and Brazil—to counteract the quickly spreading mosquito-borne viral infection dengue fever. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that as many as 100 million cases of humans infected with dengue fever—which causes a severe flu-like illness and can in certain instances be fatal—occur annually in more than 100 tropical and sub-tropical countries.

The British company behind the project, Oxitec, is focusing initially on dengue fever, given that the particular virus which causes it is only carried by one sub-species of mosquito. This makes the illness easier to target than malaria, for instance, which is carried by many different types of mosquitoes.

Oxitec first released some of the genetically modified mosquitoes in the Cayman Island in the Caribbean in 2009, much to the surprise of the international community and environmental advocates, many of whom are opposed to genetic engineering in any of its forms due to the unknown and unintended side effects that unleashing transgenic organisms into the world could cause.

Brazil, where the largest experiments have been carried out to date, the government is backing a new facility designed to breed millions of genetically engineered mosquitoes to help keep dengue fever at bay.

Dengue fever isn’t considered to be a big problem in the
U.S. as yet. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that most of the dengue fever cases showing up in the continental U.S. are among those who have travelled to sub-tropical and tropical areas of the world. Still, WHO reports that the incidence of dengue fever in the U.S. has increased some thirty-fold over the last half century.

A proposal by Oxitec to test its transgenic mosquitoes in the
Florida Keys has some locals upset. In April 2012, the town of Key West passed an ordinance prohibiting the release of the mosquitoes pending further testing on possible implications for the environment. In the meantime, Oxitec has applied to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for a patent on their mosquito and permission to release them in the U.S.

Some 80,000 people have signed onto a campaign on the Change.org website calling on the FDA to deny Oxitec’s application. Mila de Mier, the
Key West mother who launched the campaign, is concerned about the potential consequences of releasing an experimental organism on a delicate ecosystem.

“Oxitec’s business goal is to sell genetically modified mosquitoes in the
United States,” said de Mier. “…we’ve already said we don’t want these mosquitoes in our backyards, but Oxitec isn’t listening.” More definitive scientific study is needed, she says, that looks at the potential long-term impacts.

CONTACTS: Oxitec, www.oxitec.com; Change.org, www.change.org.

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