Tag Archives: #marine life

Failed Elver Balance

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As the season comes to an end for harvesting the young American eel known as elver, I thought I would revisit a topic I’ve often written about on ChampagneWhisky. The American eel was once a remarkably abundant marine animal along the eastern seaboard of the United States and Canada. Along with its close cousins, the Japanese eel and the European eel, it was so plentiful in coastal waterways that people could go out with pillowcases and easily fill them with eel.

The American eel was a staple of early Colonial life, and was the main dish served at early Thanksgiving meals. Japanese eel was so popular that it was fished to near extinction in the 20th century, and the same holds true for the European eel.

Father William balances an eel on his nose from Alice in Wonderland.
Illustration: Charles Folkard

These days, elvers are fished in a very limited number of locations, during a short season – transparent, around the size of an earthworm, they are sold by the pound for shipping to aquaculture facilities in Asia. The appetite is large, the supply of local eel all but decimated outside of fish farms.

It’s not just the overfishing that is putting this mysterious animal at risk around the world. Habitat loss in the form of compromised river ways, climate change, pollution that affects reproductivity, barriers like dams or hydroelectric plants that block the progress of eels and elvers to their traditional grounds.

In Maine, where elvers represent an annual revenue of around $10 million (not counting the lucrative black market, of course), elver fishermen who hold the highly coveted and non-transferable licenses are, on the average, over the age of 50. There’s concern that their skills and knowledge won’t be transferred if the licensing process isn’t opened up to include younger newcomers via lottery.

Father William balances an eel on his nose from Alice in Wonderland
Illustration: John Tenniel

In the United Kingdom, fishing for the critically endangered European elvers is highly restricted, and patrols try to control any poaching.

Here’s my question: All three major eels used for human consumption are classified as endangered on the IUCN Red List, or in the case of the European eel, critically endangered. These animals have complex life cycles that still hold a large measure of mystery – they breed and spawn in the ocean, they return to rivers and lakes to grow. This complex process is one reason they can’t simply be farmed like some other fish.

They traverse thousands of miles in ever smaller numbers, and if this year’s catch included 600,000 elvers, that’s half a million fewer than will now be able to keep their species alive through all the other threats.

Glass eel, unpigmented elver, post-larval stage of the American Eel (Anguilla rostrata)
Photo: G. Verreault/Gov’t of Canada Species at Risk Registry

With all due respect to the fisheries along the eastern coast of North America, to the revived fisheries of the UK, to the aquaculture of Asian countries, maybe it’s time we lost our appetite for eel, at least for a while. Let’s grow other industries, other appetites, other revenues that aren’t carried out on the sinuous backs of ancient animals.

We think we can balance our relationship with the eel – but this won’t last.

Let the ageing fishermen of Maine record their knowledge, let the practices fade until they can, perhaps, be revived if and when the eels return.

Enduring Collection

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The image below, of bottles and some kind of a collection, immediately made me think of marine life. Maybe it’s the small, irregular pieces carefully arrayed beneath each bottle. Maybe it’s the size of the bottles and their tidy alignment, paired against the sandy randomness of their spilled contents.

 

I thought it might be a collection of sand types, something from the Sand Atlas.

Samples from various beaches, perhaps.

 

These are forams (Sorites), Cyprus.
Source: Sand Atlas

 

The round bottles also made me think of sewing and buttons.

Maybe these were shards of buttons that had been found in an archeological dig.

 

Buttons
Source: Tyrs/Wikimedia

 

Or perhaps the image is a tiny environmental art installation of natural materials.

 

The Darkness, an installation taken from part of a collapsed Sussex cliff.
Artist: Cornelia Parker

But no. The collection turned out to be none of those things, although each jagged piece will outlast almost anything else I had imagined. Each small piece here, even if it hadn’t been retrieved and catalogued, will endure for decades if not centuries.

I was correct about the marine life connection. The pieces had been battered and reduced from their original forms by water. But before they found their way into these lab bottles, each piece found its way into the mouth of a turtle hatchling, and each bottle represents the stomach contents of a hatchling either starved to death on a belly full of plastic, or that died as a result of damage caused by the plastic.

Stomach contents of deceased hatchling and post-hatchling sea turtle patients.
Source: Loggerhead Marinelife Center

Larger turtles can survive some level of plastic ingestion, which includes everything from small debris to entire plastic fishing nets. The hatchings can’t pass the plastic through their systems.

According to Jack Lighton, head of the Loggerhead Marinelife Center in Florida where these samples were collected, “It’s no longer a question of ‘if a sea turtle has ingested marine pollution,” it’s now a question of “how much the turtle has ingested.”

And because it’s not just turtles swallowing our garbage, but all manner of other animals on land and water, it’s something to consider in our ongoing world of packaging, non-reusable items like straws and plastic forks, plastic bags and plastic furniture.

 

Beneath the Sea

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It always counts as a surprise when we find out that unexpected networks have been operating right under our collective noses. We use the word ‘discovery’ to describe the newness to our understanding, even if, in retrospect, it might be a bit like describing a city’s take-out food delivery system as a ‘discovery’ just because no one had noticed a connection between all the scooters with restaurant names and the arrival of restaurant food at private homes.

The discovery, in this case, is something that makes a lot of sense: At least one kind of sea grass that flowers underwater manages to employ underwater pollinators in a manner similar to terrestrial flowering plants that use airborne pollinators like bees, bats and birds.

A meadow of Thalassia testudinum, turtlegrass. Photo: ICMyL via DGCS

A meadow of Thalassia testudinum, turtlegrass. Photo: ICMyL via DGCS

There aren’t many plants that actually flower under water – most produce their flowers above the water surface. Thalassia testudinum, known as turtlegrass, grows in large meadows, and produces small flowers near the seabed. The male flowers release pollen in the evening, and until now it was thought that the pollen was carried to female plants solely via water currents.

But a study published last fall in Nature Communications showed that there is another factor that increased the distribution of pollen. In a series of aquarium-based experiments, it was demonstrated that a variety of invertebrates, from spider crab larvae to tiny crustaceans to marine worms, are drawn to the male and female flowers, and these fauna were proven to fulfil the criteria of being characterized as pollinators* even in the absence of water flow.

The researchers from the National Autonomous University of Mexico state that that other, larger animals might also contribute to pollination, but that these were not included in this particular study. Unlike bees, there’s no hive or honey involved. But, like their terrestrial counterparts, the fauna here were attracted to the flowers for feeding, and moved between the blossoms in search of more food.

A male turtlegrass flower releases its nocturnal pollen. Photo: ICMyL via DGCS

A male turtlegrass flower releases its nocturnal pollen. Photo: ICMyL via DGCS

Look at the intelligence of turtlegrass. It has small flowers, and they aren’t packed densely together, waving in the breeze. Rather, they are close to the sea bed and spaced well apart. Relying solely on water flow to pollinate might not do the trick. Why not make the petals sticky and attractive to the myriad small creatures abundant in the water, and get them to do a bit of the heavy pollen lifting for extra evolutionary insurance?

I applaud lead researcher Brigitta van Tussenbroek and her research team for noticing and studying this fascinating network of activity, which they have given the name zoobenthophilous pollination, i.e. pollination carried out by animals close to the sea bed. The discovery of the role fauna play in underwater pollination could help better understand and protect these ecosystems, which, as van Tussenbroek and her colleagues state, “are amongst the world’s most productive ecosystems. (They) improve water transparency, stabilize coastlines and store carbon, and also provide food and shelter to a diverse faunal community.”

I have the feeling it may just be the beginning of a deeper understanding of many things that are right in front of us, but which we aren’t yet seeing. All it requires is a willingness to shift our perspective.

A female turtlegrass flower with visiting invertebrates, bits of pollen and sand. Photo: ICMyL via DGCS

A female turtlegrass flower with visiting invertebrates, bits of pollen and sand. Photo: ICMyL via DGCS

*From the study “Experimental evidence of pollination in marine flowers by invertebrate faunathe criteria for the animals to be considered pollinators are:

(1) both male and female organs (of the flowers) are visited, (2) the visitor carries pollen, (3) the visitor transfers pollen between male and female sexual organs, (4) pollen deposition by the visitor results in successful fertilization, estimated as pollen germination on the stigmas, pollen tube growth or seed set.

Surround Sound

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I was out on my usual running loop yesterday evening when I heard the alarm blare from our local volunteer fire department. Minutes later, I heard the first siren, then another. Another few minutes passed, and I heard a helicopter approaching. As I ran down the long crest that leads home through recently harvested corn fields, I saw a medical helicopter landing in what looked like the center of our small village, and could hear its blades stop turning once it disappeared behind the tree line at the bottom of the fields.

From this auditory information, I gathered that an accident had occurred, and that at least one person had been seriously injured enough to warrant a helicopter rather than an ambulance. By the time I’d gotten back home, there was a silence of activity, the helicopter hadn’t taken off, no sirens approached or departed. And I knew what that meant.

3D City Soundscapes Source: Sydney Living Museums

3D City Soundscapes
Source: Sydney Living Museums

Our human world is alive with auditory information, yet we only hear the smallest sliver of all the stories being told in any given place because, well, our range of hearing isn’t particularly impressive. And we aren’t very good at listening to anything but ourselves.

I’ve written before about the metaphorical symphony of the natural world, but the subject here is the actual symphony of life, the chorus of everything that we can’t hear, from the purring of the male wolf spider (Gladicosa gulosa) to the low ‘foghorn’ of the Black Jewfish (Protonibea diacanthus), to the kind of sounds we can, like wind blowing through summer oak (and if you listen to the recording here, you’ll hear a chorus of much more) or Arctic wolves howling (Canis lupus arctos) (again, if you listen, you might wonder if they are responding to the calls of a different animal entirely).

It’s only in the last few decades that we’ve been able to hear, really hear, a wealth of sounds that are outside our own limited range. There have been countless conversations taking place just outside our perception, and we have yet to interpret most of them. After all, we’ve been listening to dogs, cats and birds for millennia and we still aren’t very good at figuring out more than the food/pet/love basics without anthropomorphizing.

Sound frequencies rendered tangible as sculptures representing a sample of time. 'Breath' (3D printing) Artist: Andy Huntington

Sound frequencies rendered tangible as sculptures representing a sample of time.
‘Breath’ (3D printing)
Artist: Andy Huntington

I was able to realize the event of an accident without ever hearing the accident itself, and able to interpret the gravity of that accident without necessarily knowing who had gotten hurt or how. As it turned out, I was right about both the accident and the severity: A bicyclist had been hit by a car at the main crossroad of our little village, and it hadn’t gone well for the cyclist.

In a similar way, those who have been recording the sounds of the natural world over the past decades might not be able to say exactly what is being said between individual species, but they can say this with certainty: The world is getting louder with humans and quieter with everything else. Recordings made by soundscape ecologist and musician Bernie Kraus and others demonstrate a reduction in diversity that reflects what we can actually see and count, but goes further.

Seahorse (3D printing) Artist: Andy Huntington

Seahorse (3D printing)
Artist: Andy Huntington

Kraus looks at how geophony, the non-biological sounds that occur, wind in the trees, water in the streams, and biophony, the collective sound that is made by all the species in a given habitat, can get lost amidst our distraction with anthrophony, human generated sound.

The California drought, for example, has resulted in a great silencing of acoustic diversity. For the first time in four decades of listening to spring unfold near his home, Kraus recorded a spring without birdsong or the sound of a nearby stream.

Kraus: ‘How noisy the world is with human endeavour; how important it is to quiet it down and listen to the sounds around us. It’s the sound of life.’ 

We talk about noise pollution, but maybe we can stop listening to the loud sound of our own voices for long enough to slow the growing silence around us, lest we be left the only ones talking.

Soundscape (3D printing of atmospheric sounds) Artist: Sukyoung Lee

Soundscape (3D printing of atmospheric sounds)
Artist: Sukyoung Lee

Fewer Footprints

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When we were out on the Pacific Coast in California a couple of weeks ago, two things in particular caught my attention:

One was the lack of shorebirds, the skittering types that chase waves and scurry in tight huddles. Maybe it was just the wrong season. There were signs posted indicating that snowy plovers were nesting in the dunes, although we didn’t see any from the waterline where we walked. The estuary between Limantour Beach and Drakes Beach holds a diverse population of wild birds, so maybe we were just unlucky or unobservant.

Photo: PKR

Photo: PKR

While there were seagulls, great egrets and turkey vultures–we even saw a red-tailed hawk diving for fish and carrying off a squirming catch–we saw a sum total of five sandpipers.

Researchers only really started noticing a general decline in shorebirds around twenty years ago, when counting got underway in earnest. It’s hard to know just how much the populations have declined – but I can say that compared to when I visited my favorite beaches thirty years ago, the number of birds has dropped dramatically. There were far fewer footprints in the sand from birds than I remember from my youth.

Photo: PKR

Photo: PKR

There are a number of reasons for the decline in shorebird and migratory bird populations. Loss of migratory habitat has to be the most relevant. There’s just so much more land development and reclamation along coastlines and wetland areas, the very places the great internationalist shorebirds stop to rest, to eat, to breed.

Another aspect, though, is the amount of plastic in our seas.

Birds eat plastic, presumably because it looks like food, and can end up starving to death with a belly full of plastic. Between 60-90% of birds in shoreline regions have been found to have plastic in their bellies. At this point, it’s probably more surprising to find a bird without plastic in its stomach.

Which brings me to the other thing that caught our attention on our numerous beach walks:

An estuary tree blooms with great herons. Photo: PKR

An estuary tree blooms with great herons.
Photo: PKR

Back in the 1980s, when there were more birds, I also used to notice large pieces of junk on the beach. Wrecked picnic coolers, plastic containers, styrofoam appliance packing, plastic bottles galore. This time, there were very few pieces of large plastic. This might be a positive side of the recycling movement.

Microplastics. Photo: Puget Sound We Love You

Microplastics.
Photo: Puget Sound We Love You

What I did notice, however, were countless pieces of plastic flakes that looked almost like shell flotsam, the kind that’s always there in a receding tide. Except the flakes were all the wrong colors. Blue, bright green, pink. And such an edible size for smaller animals.

Today is World Oceans Day. The focus of this year’s awareness is plastic in oceans.

The next time you take another plastic bag for produce, or buy a plastic box of cut vegetables instead of cutting them yourself, or throw away plastic in general, think of where it might end up. Even if you live far from the sea, chances are, at least some of that plastic will end up in a waterway, and at some point, in an ocean.

 

 

The Dire End of the Bandit 6

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Pirates, those outlaws of the high seas, have held a blurred fascination for generations. They share the allure of an in-between realm with horseback bandits, a place free of everyday rules and constricted spaces. Who doesn’t fantasize, from time to time at least, about being outside the drudgery of convention?

Just exactly who the pirates are, though, depends on whose rules they are breaking.

Pirate ship from a children's book. Image: thegraphicfairy

Pirate ship from a children’s book.
Image: thegraphicfairy

For years, the activities of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society have been considered piratical by the ships and governments they follow and attack. Mainly, by whalers and nations that still permit whaling. And, to a lesser extent, by the allies of these countries. The Sea Shepherd’s logo plays with their self-image as pirates who challenge laws that protect those who hunt endangered marine species.

Back in 2014, the Sea Shepherd began Operation Icefish, a project to chase down and defeat another group that many would call pirates: The Bandit 6, a group of industrial fishing ships that regularly flouted international law by illegally fishing on a grand scale.

By sailing between the loopholes of international fishing regulations, frequently changing registries and flags, and leveraging conflicts between the nations that might have otherwise joined forces to stop them, the ghost ships of the Bandit 6 spent years plundering fish stocks of the Patagonian toothfish, otherwise known as Chilean sea bass.

Patagonian toothfish. Image: Reuters

Patagonian toothfish.
Image: Reuters

The Sea Shepherd mission saw the longest sea chase in recorded history – 110 days – which resulted in the captain of the Thunder scuttling his ship to bury evidence of its activities. Scuttling is such a fun-sounding word for sinking the ship in deep waters and then calling on its Sea Shepherd pursuers to rescue the captain and crew according to maritime convention and law.

The Bandit 6 ships weren’t under attack because the Patagonian toothfish is endangered. At issue was the fact that the vessels, their owners and their buyers operated without accountability. Moreoever, it appears that at least some of the vessels were using slave labor to man their ships and process the catch. It’s estimated that the pirate ships hauled over six times the legal fishing limits of the so-called ‘white gold’ on an annual basis since the late 1990s.

So, as of yesterday, the Viking, the final ship in the loose fleet of the Bandit 6, was blown up by the Indonesian government off the coast of West Java.

Destruction of the Viking. Screenshot/Image: Sea Shepherd

Destruction of the Viking.
Screenshot/Image: Sea Shepherd/YouTube

It follows the scuttling of the Thunder, the capture of the Songhua and Yongding in Cabo Verde as well as the detaining of the Perlon in Malaysia.

The Sea Shepherd organization was instrumental in notifying authorities of the ships’ whereabouts, and obtaining evidence to implicate their captains. In the case of the Thunder, this involved Sea Shepherd crew members boarding the ship as it sank to retrieve the ship log and frozen catch, the very things the captain had hoped to put out of reach.

Since 2014, Indonesia has bombed 150 foreign-owned fishing ships accused of poaching, a policy meant to stop illegal fishing and promote the local fishing industry.

The wreck of the Viking is to be left as a monument against illegal fishing and a warning to the pirates currently known as illegal fishing poachers.

Winged hourglass and skull and crossbones. Glasgow Cathedral, Glasgow, Scotland, UK. Photo: Leo Reynolds/Flickr

Winged hourglass and skull and crossbones.
Glasgow Cathedral, Glasgow, Scotland, UK.
Photo: Leo Reynolds/Flickr

 

Fading Indelibility

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Old habits die hard. So, it turns out, do new ones.

Back when I was living in Japan, I had a friend who was born near Tokyo in the 1950s. His family wasn’t poor, but with the scarcity of protein that Japan faced for many years after World War II, he grew up eating whale meat. He told me that while he hadn’t particularly liked it, and no longer ate it, it had a taste for him of childhood nostalgia.

Kuniyoshi print of fisherman. Source: printsofJapan

Kuniyoshi print of fishermen.
Source: printsofJapan

According to an article on the BBC web site, large-scale Japanese whaling only began after the war, at the encouragement and with the support of the U.S. military. While the Japanese whaling culture goes back hundreds of years, in contrast to the American whaling for oil, traditional Japanese whaling made use of the entire animal, and it was mostly at a subsistence level.

Whaling increased during the 1930s, but long-distance Antarctic whaling only started once the U.S. helped the Japanese convert two Navy tankers into whaling factory ships to meet food demand.

So while I was eating hamburgers and chicken and fish and chips and spaghetti, kids my age in Japan were eating whale meat. Not because it was an age-old tradition across the entire country, but because it was an immediate solution to the aftermath of war, a solution created by a winning army used to doing things on an industrial scale.

Whaling Scene on the Coast of Gotō. An ukiyoe by Hokusai. Circa 1830. Via: Wikipedia

Whaling Scene on the Coast of Gotō. An ukiyoe by Hokusai. Circa 1830.
Via: Wikipedia

When I was in Japan – around 25 years ago – everyone was eating hamburgers and chicken and fish and chips and spaghetti in addition to their udon and ramen and fish. Then as now, there was no need for cheap protein, especially not protein as heavily subsidized as whale meat. I saw whale meat for sale my very first day in Tokyo at the Tsukiji fish market, and was shocked – but I was told that almost no one bought the stuff, it was a specialty item.

But the people, the men in particular, who grew up in the post-war era, are now the men who fill many bureaucratic and political positions across Japan. And they have an appetite for both nostalgia, and for the whale meat of their youth. And not just for its taste, but for what it does.

Even as the consumption for whale meat has been in steep decline in the country as a whole, and even as whaling is condemned internationally, the Japanese continue to hunt whales in the name of ‘scientific research’ and we often find ourselves wondering why.

Japanese whale tattoo. Source: Pinterest

Japanese whale tattoo.
Source: Pinterest

The BBC article concludes that the reason the Japanese still hunt whale is simple: During the post-war period, a bureaucracy grew up around whale meat.

It quotes former Greenpeace researcher Junko Sakuma as stating the simple political reasons for continued whaling: “Japan’s whaling is government-run, a large bureaucracy with research budgets, annual plans, promotions and pensions.

“If the number of staff in a bureaucrat’s office decreases while they are in charge, they feel tremendous shame.

“Which means most of the bureaucrats will fight to keep the whaling section in their ministry at all costs. And that is true with the politicians as well. If the issue is closely related to their constituency, they will promise to bring back commercial whaling. It is a way of keeping their seats.”

Japanese whale tattoo. Source: Pinterest

Japanese whale tattoo.
Source: Pinterest

This comment made me wonder: How many practices that we call conventional yet unsustainable, from pesticide use to forestry practices to livestock treatment to fossil fuel dependency, are the result of the same kind of thinking?

We know the practices don’t work in the long-term, the appetite for them is decreasing, and they don’t date back as far as we’d like to think. In fact, in almost all cases, the practices we now know are unsustainable only date back to the post-WWII era.

Like the stale bureaucracy around Japanese whaling, we’ve built an entire world economy around them, as if they are all indelibly inked into our future as well as our past.

 

 

Furrows of Unseen New

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The cold weather is settling in these days, and no matter how long or hot the summer was, it looks like we will still get a real winter as its counterbalance.

The lush leaves of summer are falling on empty fields and it’s that season of bleak acceptance that it will be a while before it gets truly warm again.

It’ll get darker before it gets lighter again.

There was the news this week that follows on something I’ve written about before, the epic sea chase of one of the sea’s most notorious illegal fishing boats, the Nigerian-registered Thunder, by the environmental activist vessel, the Sea Shepherd.

Fallen leaves on bare furrows. All photos: PKR

Fallen leaves on bare furrows.
All photos: PKR

The world’s longest recorded pursuit on the high seas ended in July, after 110 days and 10,000 nautical miles, with the captain of the Thunder deliberately sinking his own ship and the entire cargo to prevent any evidence that could incriminate them.

Who rescued the crew? Why, the Sea Shepherd, of course – but not before boarding the sinking ship and retrieving some of the frozen, and pirated, Patagonian toothfish (aka Chilean sea bass) at the heart of the whole chase.

The story of the Thunder makes for grim reading – besides the industrial-scale poaching, the flouting of international laws and including a side story of alleged human trafficking victims that made up the Indonesian deck crew – there is a silver lining.

Because this week, a court in São Tomé and Príncipe, the island nation off the west coast of Africa where the Thunder crew was taken after rescue, convicted the captain and two senior crew of multiple charges linked to illegal fishing, including forgery, pollution, and damage to the environment. photo 2-3

Lacking jurisdiction to prosecute illegal fishing in the Antarctic, the courts nonetheless found charges they could make stick – the Nigerian flag under which the Thunder had been operating had been rescinded by the Nigerian government because the company that allegedly owned the Thunder didn’t exist; the Chilean government had stripped the Chilean-born captain, Luis Alfonso Rubio Cataldo, of his fishing license in 2014.

The three convicted Thunder crew have each been sentenced to almost three years in prison and collectively fined $17 million – which I’m assuming their yet-to-be identified employers (some Spanish fishing companies are under investigation) won’t pay, so unless these guys actually kept bank accounts somewhere for all those fishing profits, it’s a symbolic fine to indicate the magnitude of the crime.photo 1-3Pulling back to focus on the larger picture, this latest and very rare conviction is a step forward, perhaps one that provides more of a template than more direct approach of Palau to fighting illegal fishing – the Pacific island nation has started seizing boats suspected of illegal fishing and burning them to the water line.

Here in France, there’s seed out in the garden birdfeeders for migrating birds on their way south, and for the hardy little souls that remain here over the winter, so that they can find spring again and reproduce.

The bulbs are going into the chilling earth to get the shiver they require to germinate next year. The winter wheat is being seeded out under circles of falling hedgerow leaves.

In seasons and in the fight against illegal fishing, some endings beget other beginnings, even if we can’t quite see them yet.

Patch Job

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A study published earlier this year pointed to a decrease in the size of the ozone hole over the Antarctic.

This healing process indicates the success of the Montreal Protocol, the 1989 treaty intended to limit the production and use of ozone-harming chemicals.

Ratified by all United Nations Members, as well as Niue, the Cook Islands, the Holy See and the European Union, it’s been hailed as “perhaps the single most successful international agreement to date.” (Kofi Annan)

Ten Circles - magnolia leaf crotched with cotton yarn Artist: Susanna Bauer

Ten Circles – magnolia leaf crotched with cotton yarn
Artist: Susanna Bauer

It’s worth noting that the movement to reduce the production and use of gases that affect the ozone layer came long before ‘scientific consensus’ was actually reached.

Like the discussion surrounding carbon emissions and climate change, scientists who argued for a reduction in chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) production and use (mainly for refrigeration purposes and aerosol spray propellant) faced an array of opposition.

One, Two, Three Artist: Susanna Bauer

One, Two, Three
Artist: Susanna Bauer

DuPont held the patent for Freon, a CFC widely used around the world, but one which was losing profitability. The company put up aggressive arguments against any regulation of CFC production for several years – while searching for replacement alternatives.

The publication of ozone hole images in the 1980s focused public attention on the issue, just around the time DuPont felt it had found viable gas alternatives and the Freon patent had expired.

DuPont switched course, became an active supporter of CFC limitation and a strong proponent of international action. It also earned itself a reputation as a company concerned with the environmental impact of its products. (It bears mentioning that most of the alternative products also count as harmful greenhouse gases with varying levels of atmospheric toxicity.)

Common Ground (II) Artist: Susanna Bauer

Common Ground (II)
Artist: Susanna Bauer

The Montreal Protocal was the result of a rare confluence of public opinion, environmental interests and corporate action. Corporate and government reluctance to limit CFC production was otherwise similar to today’s climate change discussion.

In the end, it always seems to come down to habits, inertia and money (or lack thereof) on the one side, and an amassing of scientific proof and activism on the other.

Moon (II) Artist: Susanna Bauer

Moon (II)
Artist: Susanna Bauer

Perhaps what the Montreal Protocol really had going for it was the image of the hole in the atmosphere, a singular lens that could focus attention, fears, research and opinion.

It’s profoundly encouraging that the positive effects of an international treaty on a large-scale environmental challenge can be measured in a relatively short span of time.

Here’s hoping this visible progress can impact the usual cost-benefit conversations when it comes to climate change negotiations.

Images of the Antarctic ozone hole. If current trends continue, the hole is expected to close by 2040. Images/graphic: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/ Business Insider

Images of the Antarctic ozone hole. If current trends continue, the hole is expected to close by 2040.
Images/graphic: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/ Business Insider

 

Adding It Up

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Not so very long ago, processing large amounts of data was a tedious business, riddled with human error, machine failings and limited reach.

These days, information availability can feel like a tsunami. There’s so much of it, all the time, all around. It’s become easier than ever to share information and images, sometimes involuntarily.

The sheer abundance of facts available all the time can mask what’s missing, namely, synthesis and understanding of the facts at hand.

The constant flow of information can also mask that we don’t really have all the information necessary to assess specific environments or track changes.

Old adding machine. Photo: Kevin Twomey

Old adding machine.
Photo: Kevin Twomey

The rise of citizen science projects has sought to harness both the ability to share information and the need for more facts on the ground.

A positive example of this is the Capture the Coast project getting underway in the United Kingdom. Financed by lottery funds to the tune of £1.7 million ($2.7 million), several universities and non-governmental organizations are collaborating to train 3000 volunteers to gather data on species up and down the UK coastline.

This data will be collected and analyzed by the various institutions to better track and understand climate change.

A somewhat less positive example of data sharing can be found in Wyoming, which recently passed a law that makes it illegal to gather and transmit data from open land (including photos or sample results) to the state or federal government.

The first page of Wyoming bill WY SF0012, passed in March 2015.

The first page of Wyoming bill WY SF0012, passed in March 2015.

In effect, this means that you can be arrested if you are a concerned citizen or scientist who is documenting a particular issue. And the issue at hand here is mainly the documentation of high levels of E. coli bacteria in streams due to poor ranching habits and bad herd management.

But once a law like this has been passed, it can be applied to anyone who is collecting data that could make someone else uncomfortable.

According to this Slate article, while other states have similar laws that protect the powerful agricultural industries from a concerned citizenry, Wyoming’s law is the first to actually criminalize taking a photo on public land.

Old adding machine. Photo: Kevin Twomey

Old adding machine.
Photo: Kevin Twomey

Rather than embrace collaboration that connects and supports a better understanding of the environment, these moves seem to be an attempt to turn back time, to go back to an era when information could be stashed in a filing cabinet somewhere in the basement, or simply shredded.

But these days, it’s like trying to hold back the tide. Will this kind of obstructionism slow understanding that points the way to better solutions? Probably. There might be gaps here and there, but the data will still flow.

It’s a shame that some people would rather service the gears and methods of outdated structures and habits.

It doesn’t add up now, and it never will.

Old adding machine. Photo: Kevin Twomey

Old adding machine.
Photo: Kevin Twomey