Friday, September 28, 2012

Death to Sharks

The Western Australian government will kill sharks on sight.  Boats and helicopters will aid the attack on sharks.  After attacks on people this year, this is the official response.

The edict is ill-timed for sharks.  Sharks are already hammered by multiple human forces including the deadly shark fin soup, which scientists estimate accounted for millions of shark deaths last year.

In the nearby western Indian Ocean, the French government there went one step farther to ensure sharks were killed.  They put a price -- a backward bounty -- on sharks so that tourists could bathe freely.

Meanwhile, great whites, the targeted species in Australia, are considered  protected in some parts of Australia.  In the US, the Pacific great white may be listed as endangered.

What's more, targeting sharks does not even work.  Christopher Neff, a shark-attack researcher at the University of Sydney in Australia, said that statistics and an ineffective decade long cull in Hawaii prove that 'shark hunts just don't work to reduce the number of attacks,'" according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.  

The good news is that most people consider the death-to-sharks approach the wrong one. 

According to the real-time poll on the NBC news site, 60% of respondents do not agree with pre-killing great whites Down Under saying "we're the ones entering their habitat; we should assume there will always be a risk."

George Burgess, curator of the University of Florida's International Shark Attack File, used the words "archaic" and "sad",  according to NBC News.

Conquering and fighting nature brought us to where we are now, and most people agree, we have messed up nature pretty badly.  We won, but spoiled the spoils.

How about connecting with nature rather than conquering it?  Sharks are important top predators that are key to healthy oceans, and healthy oceans mean healthy people.  There must be another way.

image: universal studios

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Paddling with Survivors

The flat water reflected the scene almost perfectly. 

A giant mirror doubling the panorama of cloudless, bright silver-blue horizon over wide pads of green spartina marsh grass, squat pines, and dark underbrush edging the water.  My kayak appeared to be plying the sky.

I was visiting the far inland extent of a tidal preserve.  The inlet to a greater bay at the other end of this body of brackish water was a good half hour paddle away.  The wide bay on the other side of that inlet was known for little neck clams and at times, thousands of migratory birds, and at one time, oysters.

Sea turtles know it, too, for a youthful feast.  They visit the shallow bay once in their lives, only when they are about five years old, on some juvenile right of passage the details about which biologists are uncertain.

Biologists do know marine turtles of many types (and degrees of perilously-close-to-extinction), including loggerheads, Kemp's ridley, and green swim thousands of miles through the nearby mighty grey-blue mid-Atlantic ocean and into the bay.  They come to gorge themselves on spider crabs and jellyfish.  Then they're off, back to not sure where, but never to return to the big, wide bay.

If one of those turtles made a few wrong turns and ended way up through the narrow inlet and swam up into this back wetlands where I paddled, it would be unbelievable, especially since marine turtles are navigators extraordinaire.

I knew I would not see a sea turtle but I was hoping to see some fish in the shallows or breaching the surface.  Maybe an osprey, a muskrat, a water moccasin, a heron or two, or a few odd jellyfish.  I am always more than willing to be surprised by nature.

The little tidal preserve had somehow been spared development unlike almost all other swatches of land in the area.  On one side, homes glowered on the banks, boxy and inelegant.  I gave them my back and paddled toward the giant mirror of greenery.

As I entered the marsh proper, I scanned the water.  Any wrinkle on the smooth water was something, and I  investigated as stealthy as possible.  It was so calm, I tried to paddle as softly as a whisper.

I attempted a stroke my canoeist friend once taught me that he said some Native Americans mastered as they were often experts in quiet paddling.  Their next meal depended on it.  Basically the oar stays in the water the entire time, and basically, I am not good at it.

I explored every small cut into the marsh until the grasses closed in and the water became shallower and shallower.  The slight smell of sulfur and rich organic matter occasionally wafted by my nose.

The bow of my kayak bumped against the strong peat topped with cord grass as if it was the hairy scalp of the marsh.  The grass was discolored at the base and halfway up the stalks where the water level had reached more than once.  But today the water was low and I had to back the kayak out of some of the small marsh cuts, pushing my paddle along the muddy bottom like a Venetian gondolier. 

Some of these little cuts looped around and some came to dead ends at pools calmer than even the calm main body.

Black mussel shells and pink and blue crab carapaces littered the bottom.  The remnants of some creature's feast.

I floated over clumps of live mussels half buried in the silt sipping the water with their shells open just so, like drowsy eyes.  Snails were abundant along the bottom, scattered about and all about the size of a pinky nail, jet black. 

When the kayak brushed against the grasses, hundreds of tiny white bugs filled the air like confetti.  They came to rest, speckling the boat, the paddle, and me in white dots.  On closer inspection they looked like grasshopper runts especially when they moved.  A little breeze of my hot mammalian breath and they jumped out of sight. 

Near one natural beach of small pebbles and a spot of sand cut into the grass, the surface of the water roiled and small ripples spread out.  Something was going on. 

I thought maybe it was a few larger fish chasing minnows.  I paddled closer, mindfully muffling my excitement, and came upon two creatures doing what the spark of life has fueled all creatures to do forever -- mate.

They were horseshoe crabs, known as living fossils and they are aptly named.  Their shells like some kind of souped-up dinosaur shield that would make a rhino or tortoise envious. 

When you pick up a horseshoe crab, as I did many times as a kid, rows of legs and claws under the shield dance as if to say, "Put me down, I'm 450 million years old!"  One of nature's designs that needed little enhancing, at least not in millions of years.

I remember holding them aloft by their one distinguishing spike in my young fingers.  I felt the stout and ancient tug of life.

The long tail looks like a menacing spike but it is as docile as the whole crab.  It's a rudder as the living fossil travels underwater, and if the crab flips over, the tail flips it back.

Horseshoe crabs are co-stars in a gorgeous story about nature's balance and synchronicity.  Every spring in North America thousands of birds stop over on mid Atlantic beaches, in places people call Maryland, Delaware, and New Jersey.

The birds are on their way north after wintering in the warm Caribbean.  Some of the birds like red knots are going very far, all the way to the Arctic to -- you guessed it -- reproduce.

By the time they land in the mid-Atlantic, they're tired and famished.  So what do they eat?  Millions of horseshoe crab eggs, because also in the spring along that same coast, horseshoe crabs mate.  They lay enough protein packed eggs to feed the birds and get them to their nesting destination with enough eggs left over to carry on future generations of the living fossils.  

Enter humans.  People heavily harvest horseshoe crabs.  Seems the chopped up crabs serve as great bait for whelk, and people like to eat whelk.  Scientists are worried about the future of the red knots and the horseshoe crabs.  They say that killing fewer horseshoe crabs each year will help.

The last thing I thought about was bait when I saw the two crabs doing the ancient dance in the tidal preserve. 

It's not much of dance, actually, with one crab, the male, half on top of the female, with all the action happening under their submerged shells.  But I thought it was odd they were mating in August, pretty far from spring.  Plus it was not night, close to sunset sure but not late night, when the crabs often do their thing.

Then I took another look at the carapace of the female.  Not only was it massive, probably the biggest a horseshoe crab can get, but it was also dark and dented and mottled with a few blemishes, and even small barnacles clung to it.  Badges of honor of a long life lived by this living fossil.

Horseshoe crabs can live up to twenty years or more and I think she was pushing that envelope.  The other crab, the male, was smaller and looked younger, its shell spotless and lighter in color.  So this old matron was still at it, this studly female of power, mating with young bucks in this small preserve.

The clever girl has probably been hiding out back here for years, far from the inlet, far from the fishermen, far from her roots in the coastal ocean carrying on like the queen of a small band of survivors.  A mother keeping Mother Nature's prehistoric flame lit.

Maybe she's figured out a new strategy for the survival of her genes.  Maybe this lone crab will be the last crab left one day but will carry on her kind like one of nature's heroes. 

On my paddle out of the tidal marsh, the sun was low enough to blaze the purplish tips of all the surrounding swaths of grass.  I plied the water toward the houses, my car, and all that civilization.

I thought again about the old horseshoe crab, though, and smiled in a solitary little moment of hope.

Image: Creative hammer

Friday, September 21, 2012

Those Fossil Fuel Jokesters

The fossil fuel industry has co-opted the English language.  Maybe they're just zealous. 

“President Obama has placed a de facto embargo on energy production on American lands and shores. It’s irresponsible and overzealous,” said Benjamin Cole, a spokesman for the fossil fuel lobby called American Energy Alliance, according to a recent New York Times article.

The two words are kind of astonishing: irresponsible and overzealous.  They're almost perfectly applicable to the fossil fuel industry.  I sometimes marvel how people say these things with a straight face.

What British Petroleum did to the Gulf of Mexico seems hugely irresponsible and overzealous.

Spending hundreds of millions of dollars to spread doubt about climate change to ensure that nothing gets done also seems enormously irresponsible and overzealous

It is actually a classic technique the fossil fuel lobbyist is employing -- use the language of the opposition, in this case anyone in favor of clean energy, against them.  An obvious attempt to neutralize the message and cloud the facts. 

Here I thought it was an attempt at humor.

Probably no time to laugh with all the checks they're fervently writing.  The fossil fuel industry is fanatically spending $153 million on pro-fossil fuel industry television advertisements in the 2012 Presidential Campaign as we speak, according to New York Times research.

The clean energy industry and people in support of a healthier planet concede that they just can't compete. 

Ok, that's not funny.


Tuesday, September 18, 2012

How Did We Get Here? Don't Ask

This is one of the best arguments I've seen for applying the precautionary principle and supporting sustainable fisheries for the sake of fishermen (not to mention the fish): Northeast fisheries have been declared an economic disaster. 

This releases funds that will hopefully help but it's not quite clear where the money will go.

"If funds are appropriated, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration would work with federal lawmakers and state officials to develop plans to preserve coastal communities from Maine to New York," according to MSNBC.

Also, three regions in Alaska were declared disasters.

"The numbers indicate a sudden, stunning decline in recent years, about which scientists have not settled on an explanation. On the Yukon, for example, 1,488 pounds of salmon were harvested in 2011, down from more than 859,000 pounds in 2006, a state study found," according to NYT and the Alaska Dispatch

Not exactly happy news! 

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Sharks and Elephants

What do sharks and elephants have in common?

Sharks are killed in the millions in nearly every ocean and now we learn African elephants in the thousands.  For what?  Shark fins go to make shark fin soup, a thin broth posing as a status symbol, and elephant tusks are made into pricey ivory trinkets.

To paraphrase a Princeton biologist in a New York Times article:  "Do you want your kids to grow up in a world without sharks and elephants?"  

There's also some of the last white rhinos killed for their horns.  The horns, made of the same stuff as hair and fingernails, go to make traditional medicines -- meaning over 400 years ago a medicine man said ground up rhino horns can cure people's ills.  One modern scientist looked into this and concluded that people would be just as well off biting their fingernails.

On the East Coast US, horse shoe crabs are steadily being over harvested because they make good whelk bait, and people pay up to eat whelk

So what do sharks and elephants and these other natural gems have in common?  China -- a major market, and sometimes the market, for all of these products plundered from nature.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Never Enjoy Leaving the Beach

On Labor Day, the mood was blue under crisp blue skies near Montauk, NY.

The waves were nice low riders, you could spend an afternoon in them.

Stand in waist deep water, see the swell rise up, shout it out, jump in, feel the exhilarating push of the wave and then you're riding it. You're riding it!  Short ones, seconds of joy at most, but you ride all the way to the far edge to end belly on the sand, surely smiling.  Get up and do it all over again.

You could sit in a chair on the sand and watch a few kids wild with excitement building something, a castle, a fort, or just digging and digging.  One auburn-haired kid requests to be buried up to his neck. 

You could look out and see the clean, bright light shimmering on the waves.  Just stare at it, and maybe not think anything.

You knew it was the last official beach day, and for most people, the last beach day until next year.

Some people had their cars already packed to the windows, bikes stacked on the back rack, boogie boards slid in at the end, in the beach parking lot.  They were going straight home from the sand.

Near the end of the day, pink light on the tips of vibrant green dune grasses, I heard one young boy bawling, we all heard him, up and down the beach.

He was completely distraught.  His painful sobs pounded over the surf.

"No! No! No, Mommy no!"

His mother had his hand, her arm stiff but sympathetic, and was almost literally dragging his collapsed body off the sand.  He just didn't want to it to end. 

One of my friends said, "It's ok kid, we're all crying inside."

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Those Lying Prices

Here's a provocative quote from a former oil executive:   

"Socialism collapsed because it did not allow prices to tell the economic truth. Capitalism may collapse because it does not allow prices to tell the ecological truth," said Oystein Dahle, retired VP of Esso Norway.

At first blush it seems doubtful that something so touchy feely as ecology can impact something as powerful and manly as capitalism.  But it's not about those adjectives. 

It's about failing to include the cost of fouling nature in the price of fossil fuels to run our vehicles and to produce our electricity.

It's the value of nature lost.  That's trillions of dollars in countless benefits including bountiful clean air, water, land, and oceans.  And losing money -- any money but especially that much money -- is the enemy of the for-profit system we call capitalism.

So maybe Oystein is right.  But not yet.  We can avoid his dire prediction about the collapse of capitalism by including the true costs of fossil fuel pollution in the prices we pay at the pump and meter.  If and when that happens, capitalism will make sure that the market for clean energy thrives.

Why support clean energy businesses?  Do it for capitalism!  It makes good sense, wallet sense, anyway. 

Read the whole True Cost of Fossil Fuels piece by Peter Lynch in Renewable Energy World.  It's familiar stuff, especially in this blog, but he spells it out in a fresh way.

Image: UNEP