Dispatches

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Legal action over dumping in barrier reef park

Claire Miller

Two lawsuits have been launched against planned dredging and dumping in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park (GBRMP) as part of a coal port expansion. The Mackay Conservation Group (MCG) lodged papers in March alleging that Australian Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt violated his international obligations in December 2013 by allowing the Abbot Point expansion within the UNESCO World Heritage-listed site. “We have concerns about the ecological impacts, from destruction of sea-grass and issues with water quality, to what it will mean for inshore reefs and increased impacts on megafauna from more shipping”, says MCG's Ellen Roberts (Mackay, Australia). “The World Heritage Committee has already expressed concern about the number of proposed port developments. This is a system already under stress, nobody would deny it, and we are adding another stress.”

Figure 1.

Underwater protest over planned Queensland coal port developments.

This follows the North Queensland Conservation Council's legal action in February, challenging the science behind the GBRMP Authority's decision to permit dumping of dredged material or “spoil”. Five million metric tons of sediment dredged at Abbot Point will be dumped underwater at a site consisting of silt and sand. But the Authority's environmental assessment unit warned of the potential for long-term, irreversible harm to nearby sea-grass meadows and coral reefs due to muddy plumes.

Russell Reichelt, the head of the GBRMP Authority (Townsville, Australia), argues that the assessment was conducted before the minister imposed stringent conditions, including no dumping during coral spawning and seagrass growing periods, or when currents could push plumes toward sensitive habitats. Reichelt claims the Authority understands the need to “learn the lessons” from past developments, including Gladstone, Australia's biggest dredging project. Approved in 2010, Gladstone coincided with mass deaths among marine fauna and is now the subject of a federal inquiry.

Jon Brodie, chief scientist at the Centre for Tropical Water and Aquatic Ecosystem Research (Townsville), doesn't trust the reassurances when Gladstone also had strict conditions and when other options exist for Abbot Point, such as constructing longer jetties or dumping spoil on land. “Instead they chose the option that ensures the most damage to the reef.”

Deforestation-related climate impacts may vary by soil

Noreen Parks

Forest ecosystems are critically dependent on subterranean networks of bacteria, fungi, and other microorganisms that regulate the availability of carbon and nitrogen. Over recent decades, the broad-scale conversion of natural forests to grasslands globally by timber harvesting and agricultural activities has released enormous stores of CO2 to the atmosphere and seriously diminished biodiversity both above- and belowground. CO2 emissions from deforested soils currently account for some 12% of human-induced impacts on climate. Yet new research (Global Change Biol 2014; doi:10.1111/gcb.12565) indicates that such biodiversity and climate effects may be greater in some soils than in others.

Soil microbial communities vary considerably due to biogeochemical, geographic, and other factors. To investigate how soil microbes might respond to deforestation in different areas, Thomas Crowther (Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, New Haven, CT) and colleagues collected soil samples from forested and deforested (now unmanaged grassland) sites in 11 US regions, from Hawaii to northern Alaska. The researchers analyzed the mix of microbes in each sample (66 in all), their levels of biological activity, and total CO2 production. The team then compared disparities between the forest and grassland samples from each site and evaluated factors – including temperature, moisture, nutrient concentrations, and soil pH – that might contribute to the differences. The degree of “before-and-after” deforestation change varied considerably. However, Crowther reports, “We found that the most drastic changes in microbial community composition and CO2 production were in sites with sandy soils. In contrast, clay-like soils showed fewer effects. Soil texture largely determines how much organic matter is lost following deforestation. In sandy soil, where particles are relatively large, with greater air space, microbial communities are more vulnerable to damage than in fine-textured soils.”

Using historical data, the team also investigated whether deforestation effects on microbial biodiversity could dissipate over time. Contrary to their expectations, they found little if any change in the magnitude of effects – even over the course of 200 years, in one case. This suggests that microbial diversity is unlikely to rebound in deforested sandy soils unless steps are taken to support forest regeneration, according to Crowther.

The findings have led to the development of a nationwide map that identifies areas susceptible to soil disturbance and microbial diversity loss from deforestation. “Anticipating the consequences of land-use change on the biodiversity and carbon storage of forest ecosystems worldwide, and protecting the most vulnerable areas, is essential if we are to minimize these losses”, Crowther concludes.

Chile withdraws controversial seed patent law

Jen Fela

In late March, the Government of Chile announced it would withdraw the controversial Plant Growers Law – also known as the “Monsanto Law” – from the legislative process and subject it to further analysis in light of current knowledge about genetically modified crops (GMCs) and to ensure that the rights of small farmers and the country's seed heritage are protected. The announcement was a victory for small farmers and environmental groups, who have led nationwide protests against the legislation.

The Plant Growers Law was introduced to the Chilean Congress in 2009 with the intention of bringing the country up-to-date with the most current version of the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants Convention (UPOV 91), the purpose of which is to protect the intellectual property rights of corporations and others who create new varieties of plants. Proponents of the law believe that its passage would allow Chile to remain competitive on the world agricultural market; although the sale of GMCs is prohibited within the country, Chile currently grows large quantities of GMCs for export.

Under the law, farmers are required to pay for new strains of seeds that are patent-protected. Some contend that corporations could patent new varieties of seeds that are based on centuries-old strains and begin charging indigenous farmers for their use. In addition, farmers may sometimes unknowingly plant genetically modified seeds or have their crops become contaminated by those seeds, which can result in corporations legally demanding payment from the farmers.

Environmental groups emphasize the need for seed varieties to be freely exchanged to maintain crop diversity. Wilhelmina Pelegrina, Senior Campaigner for Sustainable Agriculture for Greenpeace International (Quezon City, Philippines), explains: “The customary rights and practices of farmers to save, use, exchange, and sell seeds is necessary in maintaining seed diversity on-farm, which is a cornerstone of resilient agricultural biodiversity; this, in turn, is an important pillar for ecological agriculture and food security. We need diversity to buffer us from the impacts of extreme conditions: droughts, floods, pests; it is part of addressing climate-change impacts in agriculture. We also need to ensure, with respect to global food security strategy, that we are not dependent on a few corporations for our food supply.”

Environmental groups expressed cautious optimism about the action, stressing that amendments to the law are pending, which means it could be reintroduced at a later date.

Salmon hitch a ride to the sea

Robin Meadows

California's dry winter left water levels in rivers so low that young salmon were unable to swim from inland hatcheries (where they were reared) to the ocean (where they will mature). So wildlife agencies decided to truck them to the sea instead. This emergency measure began in March with the delivery of 2.5 million fall-run Chinook (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) smolts from a federal hatchery near Anderson to the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta, a distance of almost 290 km.

The big question is whether any of these ~7.6-cm-long smolts will ever find their way back to spawn. “We usually release all 12 million smolts in Battle Creek so they can imprint on the water”, explains Steve Martarano, spokesman for the US Fish and Wildlife Service (Sacramento, CA). “But we felt this was the only way to get any return as opposed to zero return.”

Figure 2.

Trucked salmon smolts acclimate in net pens before release.

It might help that the smolts are being transported in local river water. “We have our fingers crossed that they'll be imprinted enough to return to their native waters”, says Andrew Hughan, spokesman for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (Sacramento), which routinely trucks millions of young salmon each year from state hatcheries and is coordinating this unprecedented federal operation.

An April rainstorm gave the second wave of 4.5 million smolts a reprieve, allowing them to be released into Battle Creek as usual. “This rain was not a drought-buster”, Martarano observes, “but river flows have increased quite a bit”. As for the remaining 7 million smolts yet to be released over the course of the spring, at press time their fate was anyone's guess.

Either way, there will be a mix of trucked and creek-released fall-run Chinook. Tags on some fish in each group will let biologists track which ones make it back to spawning grounds in 2016. “We'll be able to see how many – if any – of the trucked fish return”, Martarano notes. That could be critical to the run's survival because drought has historically been the rule rather than the exception in California, according to paleoclimatologist Lynn Ingram (University of California, Berkeley). And a return to a drier climate could mean more vehicle-assisted migrations for salmon.

Adieu to an invasive flatworm

Chelsea L Wood

Escargot enthusiasts reeled at the news, reported in March (PeerJ 2014; doi:10.7717/peerj.297), that a recently detected, non-indigenous species could threaten French snail production. The voracious snail predator Platydemus manokwari, a terrestrial flatworm native to New Guinea, was discovered in a hothouse in Caen, Normandy. “This is the first record for France and for Europe”, says Leigh Winsor, an author of the study and an Adjunct Senior Researcher at James Cook University (Townsville, Australia). “The flatworm was most likely transported to Europe together with potted plants, probably from the Pacific region.”

Eight P manokwari individuals were detected in a single hothouse at the Jardin Botanique de Caen. These specimens were provisionally identified as P manokwari from photographs, and molecular techniques were used to confirm the identification. The introduction is alarming because P manokwari is among the world's most dangerous invasive species, according to the Global Invasive Species Database (www.issg.org/database/welcome). Winsor explains, “We can learn from the situation in the Pacific region, where P manokwari was deliberately introduced as a biological control agent to counter a major agricultural pest species, the giant African snail, Achatina fulica. This it appeared to control, but then the flatworm preyed on the native snail populations”. Several of these snails were driven to extinction or experienced dramatic population reductions. Winsor continues, “Were the flatworm to spread in Europe, it could possibly have negative impacts on both introduced and native snail populations”, including snails produced by escargot farms.

Figure 3.

P manokwari preying on a snail.

But the detection reported by Winsor and his colleagues may have come in time to avert an invasion. Jean-Lou Justine, a co-author of the paper and a Professor of Zoology at Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle (Paris, France), explains, “After our paper was published, the French media informed the public and we received new records of flatworms from various hothouses – none was Platydemus”. Eradication efforts and controls on plant transfer from the single affected hothouse have already been initiated. “We believe that the invasion will be stopped”, he says. “However, it is not unlikely that new specimens will come to Europe in the future, with potted plants imported from the Pacific region.”

EU sanctions three countries for illegal fishing

Katherine Blackwood

The EU has banned the importation of seafood from three of eight countries – Belize, Cambodia, and Guinea – that were warned in 2012 to take action against illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing. This type of fishing damages marine ecosystems, threatens food security, and in some cases interferes with the economic viability of law-abiding fisheries. Belize, Cambodia, and Guinea were singled out for failing to implement international fisheries obligations, which include mandates for monitoring vessel operations, penalizing illegal practices, and managing vessel registries appropriately. Vessels licensed by the three countries are now barred from selling their catch to EU markets, and vessels registered in EU member states are forbidden from fishing within these nations' waters.

The common practice whereby a vessel operated by a business from one country is licensed under another country's “flag of convenience” is central to the issue of IUU fishing. Flags of convenience are attractive to fishing vessels, says David Pearl, foreign affairs specialist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA; Washington, DC), because “penalties imposed are not stringent, the flag state has a weak legal framework, or there is lax oversight over vessel registration and monitoring”. Belize and Cambodia are widely recognized for their open registries and ease of application.

The EU is the first government body to confront IUU fishing with an outright ban on seafood from “non-cooperating” nations. In the US, NOAA Fisheries consults with countries officially identified for IUU activities and can recommend penalties to Congress. So far, however, every NOAA-identified nation has sufficiently addressed its offenses. In 2011, Belize and Cambodia were mentioned, though not identified, for revoking vessel licenses after those vessels were caught breaking fisheries laws at sea.

Critics of the sanctions argue that they are primarily symbolic, because fisheries imports to the EU from Belize, Cambodia, and Guinea are relatively insignificant. “Nevertheless, they've failed to comply with several international obligations. The EU is merely implementing its IUU Regulation”, asserts Marta Marrero, EU lead for The Pew Charitable Trusts' Ending Illegal Fishing Project (Brussels, Belgium). With these sanctions, Marrero believes “the EU is sending a clear message to non-EU countries that without action, red-listing will follow”. Five of the eight countries warned in 2012 to adopt measures against IUU fishing have done so, and thus avoided sanctions. The spotlight now shines on Curaçao, Ghana, and South Korea, countries that may also face EU bans if they do not demonstrate a commitment to combating IUU fishing.

India to explore eco-sanitation options

Dinesh C Sharma

India is investigating “green” technologies to mitigate its massive sanitation problem. Nearly half of the country's population defecates in open spaces, thereby polluting surface and groundwater sources that, in turn, facilitate the spread of water-borne diseases. Due to inadequate or absent sanitation facilities, water bodies in or near rural villages and urban slums essentially become sewage receptacles. The current practice of onsite waste storage in septic tanks or latrine pits is unsustainable, while providing flush toilets for all would require enormous investments in infrastructure such as sewer pipelines and treatment facilities. Innovative toilet technologies could not only help conserve water but also facilitate safe onsite treatment using renewable energy sources.

In order to find such cost-effective and green solutions, the Indian Government's Department of Biotechnology (DBT), in collaboration with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, decided to back six new solutions selected through an open contest. The chosen waste-treatment innovations rely on different technologies that remove harmful pathogens and reduce odor, converting waste into useful products. “Prototypes resulting from this exercise will be applied in different social settings so that potential solutions can be found”, says K Vijaya Raghavan (DBT, New Delhi, India). Ecofriendly toilets developed elsewhere, such as the Anaerobic Digestion-Pasteurization Latrine developed by Duke University, will also be field-tested in India. “Anaerobic digestion converts waste into biogas, which is used to heat-sterilize digested effluents”, explains Aaron Forbis-Stokes (Duke University, Durham, NC).

According to Vinod Tare (Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, India), “High-end technologies for ecological sanitation may not work in India because their operation may be overly complicated for users. Since flush toilets are widely acceptable, we need options that keep [the front-end appearance of such a toilet] unchanged while reducing water use and facilitating onsite treatment.”

One challenge is the considerable reluctance of people to accept the necessity of separating urine and feces – a fundamental requirement of ecological sanitation. However, Kumar Jyoti Nath, President of the Institution of Public Health Engineers (Kolkata, India), says “newer technologies and concepts would be acceptable, provided they address the needs of society and are contextual to ethnic and cultural values of the community”.

Saving the environment by using more wood

Lindsay Deel

Greater use of wood – and less concrete and steel – in construction could substantially decrease CO2 emissions and fossil-fuel consumption, according to new research by scientists at Yale University (J Sustain Forest 2014; doi:). The study finds that construction using wood products in place of concrete or steel consumes less energy, and that efficient and responsible harvesting practices save more atmospheric CO2 through avoided emissions than that lost from harvested forest.

These findings are somewhat controversial, as many past studies have emphasized limiting wood harvesting for conservation and carbon storage reasons. As Chad Oliver (New Haven, CT), lead author of the study and Director of Yale's Global Institute of Sustainable Forestry, explains, “Most [of these] analyses showing the opposite conclusions do not consider the fossil fuel and CO2 avoided by not making steel or concrete because wood was used instead. Also, some people do not consider the regrowth of forests as a future store of CO2; consequently, they consider forest harvest as a net depletion of CO2, just as burning fossil fuel is.” In addition to reducing CO2 emissions, judicious management of woodlands produces a more diverse forest structure that benefits biodiversity, according to Oliver. “Scientists now accept that the forest is dynamic, but many people still erroneously think of the ‘natural’ forest as purely closed, ‘old growth’ instead of a mixture of structures”, he says.

Figure 4.

Many construction companies are now moving toward using more sustainable wood products as structural material.

Although increasing the use of wood in construction can potentially reduce CO2 emissions and fossil-fuel consumption, mitigate forest fires, and promote biodiversity, Oliver acknowledges that careful management of forest resources is key. “The most negative implication is that, if we do not harvest, regrow, and manage forests carefully, we may save CO2 emissions and fossil fuels, but we could further degrade the forest's ability to provide biodiversity and other values.”

The construction industry is already adapting to this approach by developing innovative products such as Cross Laminated Timber, a type of engineered wood designed to provide greater structural support for wood-based buildings. Oliver believes “the next steps are to develop policies and incentives to ensure that forests are managed sustainably and for [the protection of] ecosystem services as this wood is being harvested. We have the technical tools for such management but lack the policies or incentives.”

Python farming to placate fashion demand

Virginia Gewin

For more than eight decades, wild harvest of two species of Asian python (Python molurus bivittatus and Python reticulatus) has been carried out to satisfy the fashion industry's demand for high-end leather, raising concerns about the impacts on and illegal trade of wild pythons.

On April 2, the Python Conservation Partnership – a collaboration between the IUCN's Boa and Python Specialist Group (BPSG), the International Trade Centre, and the fashion company Kering – released a report (Assessment of Python Breeding Farms Supplying the International High-end Leather Industry) suggesting that captive python breeding could assist conservation efforts if farming reduces unsustainable wild harvests and discourages illegal transfer of wild-caught pythons.

BPSG members visited 39 python farms in China, Thailand, and Vietnam (out of an estimated 1000 such farms throughout Southeast Asia) to study the economic viability of production efforts. Since the fashion industry generally requests skins that are 3 meters in length, it was unclear whether income outweighed the costs of raising animals to that size; the largest farm visited by the BPSG incurs production costs at ~80% of their income.

Figure 5.

A python captive-breeding operation in Southeast Asia.

The report further highlights that while the visited farms operated within the law, some countries export high numbers of captive-bred pythons despite little evidence of farming operations. “This report is a first step in coming to grips with a complex, under-researched topic”, says Angelo Pernetta, a conservation biologist who studies wildlife trade at the University of Brighton (Brighton, UK). Captive breeding is increasingly seen as a potentially sustainable approach to wildlife utilization, according to Pernetta, who agrees with the report's recommendation that a sound chain of custody –from farm to handbag – would enable authorities to trace captive-bred skins back to their farm of origin, thereby helping to stem illegal trade.

“I wouldn't want to promote farming as a single alternative to wild harvest”, says Daniel Natusch, a coauthor of the report and a reptile ecologist at the University of Sydney in Australia. “Sustainable-use incentives for wild harvest can actually protect wild python populations and their habitat, whereas farming doesn't provide that incentive”, he adds.

Defining the Anthropocene

Amy Coombs

Grassland ecosystems may not experience unprecedented climate change due to anthropogenic emissions, according to research that shows most – but not all – ecoregions will warm beyond the temperatures of the mid-Holocene. The results appear in Global Ecol Biogeogr (2013; doi:10.1111/geb.12097) and may help resolve the debate over when the Anthropocene began.

Nobel Laureate Paul Crutzen coined the term “Anthropocene” in 2002 to describe the modern epoch of human-induced environmental change. A proposal to declare an end to the Holocene and the beginning of the Anthropocene is now under review at the Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy, the organization responsible for naming geological epochs. However, research shows that Neolithic and Iron Age fires set by humans altered global climate much earlier in the Holocene, when global temperatures were up to 2.5°C higher.

To reconcile past and present climate change, Marta Benito-Garzón and colleagues at Paris-Sud University in Orsay, France, hypothesized that warming might vary by region. To test this, the team ran climate simulations across 14 biomes and 766 ecoregions. Models compared precipitation as well as maximum, minimum, and mean temperatures between the 1850–1900 Industrial Age, 21st-century forecasts, and mid-Holocene thermal maxima.

Findings reveal that the prairies of North America and China may only slightly exceed mid-Holocene limits, while the western US and temperate Europe may not face changes of a relatively greater magnitude. “We wanted to find changes in the past that matched changes in the future, and we observed this in a few ecoregions”, explains Benito-Garzón. “However, overall climate change will be greater during the Anthropocene.”

Excluding savanna, most ecoregions will surpass pre-industrial and mid-Holocene limits, and circumpolar and equatorial regions will be hardest hit. This relationship between past and future change characterizes the Anthropocene. The Amazonian Basin may shift to dry seasonal forest and then to savanna, but the region adapted to dryer conditions during the Holocene. The Andes are more vulnerable because populations experienced lower past temperature shifts.

Yet, the present study may underestimate Anthropocene outcomes by comparing the magnitude, rather than the rate, of change. “High temperatures in previous climates did not result in mass extinction because flora and fauna could adapt, but the extremely fast rates [of warming] since 1975 restrict species' ability to adapt”, warns Andrew Gilkson, a Visiting Fellow at the Australian National University (Canberra).

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