Global Hunger, Dying whales, noisy fish and a day of hope
May 1, 2008
By David Helvarg
Food Riots and Fish Sticks
Population growth, climate linked droughts, spiraling oil prices (for petroleum based fertilizers and food transport), commodity speculation on the Chicago Board of Trade and elsewhere — not unlike what went on in Britain during the Irish famine – and the global shift to bio-fuel production using corn and other food crops are all cited as cascading events driving the last few weeks global food crisis that has led to hunger riots from India to Egypt to Haiti (22 Haitians then drowned when their boat sank as they tried to flee to the U.S.)
Obviously we’ve known some of this was coming. As soon as the global conversation turned to “alternatives” to carbon-based energy we began to see corporations gaming the system. The first off the block was U.S. farm commodity interests pushing ethanol. Not only has a report in Science magazine suggested you actually generate more CO2 with corn ethanol but the 5 percent expansion of corn production in the Midwest has translated to the two largest seasonal Dead Zones ever recorded in the Gulf of Mexico as the surplus fertilizer follows gravity down the Mississippi River to grow a second crop of algae each spring (see Blue Notes #37). Now that the ethanol craze is being critically re-examined expect even more noise about energy from “clean coal,” the greatest technological advance since low-tar cigarettes.
While examining the immediate food crisis we should also consider the long-term impact of the global collapse of wild fisheries that historically provided 17-20 percent of human consumption of animal protein but could be commercially extinct by 2048.
The late fisheries scientist Ram Myers and his colleague Boris Worm (who was also a lead author of the 2048 projection) used historic data to show that 90 percent of large pelagic (open ocean) fish including sharks, big tuna, and billfish like Swordfish and Marlin have disappeared in what seems to me the blink of an eye since I was born in 1951. Actually they didn’t disappear. We know where they went. Onto our plates, mostly in the white linen restaurants, supermarkets and fast-food joints of the developed world including Japan, the U.S. and Europe where it was not hunger but appetite that drove the killing frenzy that continues even today.
Baby Fin strokes
Small steps are now being taken to reverse the trend including most recently A planned push by NOAA’s fisheries service to ban shark fining and reduce takes for Sandbar and other sharks caught for this purpose. Unlike with Bluefin tuna where the U.S. tried to get the European Union to do a fishing moratorium without doing one themselves, this time the U.S. will have the moral authority to fight for the global protection of sharks at an international meeting this November.
Also California just approved plans for a second network of protected no-take zones (wilderness parks within the sea) along the state’s northern Coast where fish and other marine wildlife will be able to reproduce and grow large in undisturbed habitat.
And Senator Barbara Boxer is about to introduce an ocean protection bill that will be linked to the Ocean 21 bill that just passed its first committee hurdle in the House. Her bill will focus on creating an ‘ecosystem based management’ standard for any action or impact on our public ocean taken by government and also create a trust fund to support local and regional initiatives to protect the sea.
As Vikki Spruill of the Ocean Conservancy said in recent testimony to Congress we have to use the precautionary principle in our oceans that, “first you do no harm.”
Narwhales, Ribbon Seals, Bears and Dodos
Though much harm has already been done. Narwhales with their single horns are the origin of the unicorn tale while Ribbon Seals look like something out of a Dr. Seuss tale. And both may soon become figments of our imagination.
While the Polar Bear has become the carnivorous symbol of Climate Change, new studies suggest the Arctic Narwhale and Ribbon Seal may go extinct even sooner than the bears because they’re so dependent on sea ice habitat that continues to decline in the Arctic.
Meanwhile in late April U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken gave the Department of Interior till Mid-May to decide whether to list the Polar Bear as an endangered species resulting form climate change. It was supposed to decide in January but has been delaying even as another part of the Department has been leasing oil drilling sites in the Chukchi Sea, prime ice bear habitat (see Blue Notes #43)
I suppose, based on the Bush administration’s interpretation of science, if they start drilling and spilling oil the white bears would become black bears and black bears are not an endangered species.
Greenpeace Sponging off the Arctic.
At least that’s how Robert Murdoch might banner the news that following its deep diving exploration of the Pribilof Canyons in Alaska’s Bering Sea last summer Greenpeace has announced the discovery of a new species of deepwater sponge that also highlights “…how little is known about the deep sea,” says GP’s John Hocevar. Though slimier and more transparent than the tropical sponges in the accompanying photo, this discovery may help win the canyon’s deep coral and sponge communities protected status from the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. That would also protect them from any “scientific sponging” the Japanese sponging fleet might attempt to carry out.
A Sea of Passion
While there’s an April 8 New York Times story on how the loud mating calls of black drum, toadfish and others has disturbed the peace of waterfront communities from Cape Coral Florida to Sausalito California that’s not what I’m referring to.
Rather it’s my essay “Saved by the Sea” that appears in the new book “A Passion for this Earth,” coming out from Greystone Books in May in honor of David Suzuki. Other contributors include Bill McKibben, Rick Bass, Helen Caldicott and fellow fish hugger Carl Safina, although unlike me, Dr. Safina can also whisper their names in Latin.
Victories All Around Us
My Aunt Renate Justin came to town last week and after walking along San Francisco Bay we drove on scenic Highway One over to Point Reyes National Seashore for an afternoon of cliff and beach hiking with a friend of hers. It’s a stunning coastal wilderness full of wildflowers and wildlife just 25 miles north of the Golden Gate where she got to see sea stacks, laurel, chaparral and the first elephant seals of her life.
Yet in the 1960s and ’70s the Army Corps of Engineers wanted to fill in two-thirds of San Francisco Bay for industrial flatlands. Cal Trans hoped to expand scenic 2-lane Highway One into an eight-lane freeway and developers were planning to convert what’s now the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and Point Reyes Seashore into a string of new cities and upscale housing developments.
It was opposition from seaweed activists including three Berkeley women who founded ‘Save the Bay,’ coastal Sierra Club activists, public officials like the late Congressman Phil Burton and other heroes who turned the tide in favor of conservation, protection and restoration. In renewing our connection with the coastal ocean that day my Aunt, her friend and I paid homage to those who fought for the best of what we have and gave me hope that we can do better in turning the tide and restoring the balance on our blue planet.
The Blue Beat
Sea Studios, “Strange Days on Planet Earth” now in its second season is addressing the other 71 percent of our Ocean Planet including new forms of sustainable aquaculture. Though I missed the first showing I’m not worried. It’s PBS. I’m sure it’ll be on again…and again. Check it out!
Be the Blue
The Blue Frontier Campaign is looking for a DC based Campaign Director. This should be someone with at least 4-5 years experience in non-profit fundraising, grassroots organizing and administration, with good writing and computer skills, someone who can work on their own but also inspire others. Please send a letter of interest and resume to Helvarg@bluefront.orgwith your contact info.