Archive | Ecosystems

Malaysia Rapidly Destroying Ecologically Important Peatlands

Malaysia is destroying forests more than three times faster than all of Asia combined to make way for palm oil plantations, according to a study released Tuesday.

Analyzing data acquired from satellite images of the region, researchers  said the country obliterated an astonishing 872,263 acres, about one-third of its biodiversity-rich peatswamp forests, in the past five years.

The report, which was commissioned by the Netherlands-based Wetlands International, found that the swamps of stored carbon from decomposed plants could disappear from the state of Sarawak by the end of the decade if the clearing continues.

The country is deforesting an average two percent a year of the swamps on Sarawak, Malaysia’s largest state on its half of the island of Borneo, which it shares with Indonesia and Brunei.

That’s nearly 10 percent in the last five years. Asia in its entirety deforested at a rate of just 2.8 percent in that period.

“We never knew exactly what was happening in Malaysia and Borneo,” said Wetlands spokesman Alex Kaat, according to AP. “Now we see there is a huge expansion (of deforestation) with annual rates that are beyond imagination.”

The Sarawak peatswamps, home to such animals as the Borneo pygmy elephant and the Sumatran rhino, were initially harvested for timber. Now companies are totally clearing the forests to make way for palm oil plantations.

“As the timber resource has been depleted the timber companies are now engaging in the oil palm business, completing the annihilation of Sarawak’s peat swamp forests,” Marcel Silvius from Wetlands said in a statement.

“Unless this trend is halted, none of these forests may be left at the end of this decade.”

Malaysia and Indonesia contribute about 85 percent of global production of palm oil, a cheap alternative to vegetable oil used in cooking oil, cosmetic products, soap, bread, margarine, and chocolate.

Kaat said the report proves that deforestation is occurring at a faster rate than the Malaysian government has admitted.

“The new studies conclude that 20 percent of all Malaysian palm oil is produced on drained peatlands. For Sarawak, this is even 44 percent,” researchers said.

In addition to the risk it poses to the forests’ many rare species, the draining of peatswamps causes massive carbon emissions.

“The production of palm oil is welcome only if expansion can be done in a sustainable way,” the environmental group said.

The study was conducted by satellite monitoring and mapping company SarVision.

Posted in Biodiversity, Conservation, Ecosystems, Trees & Forestry0 Comments

Penguins Hampered by Tagging, Scientists Say

Tagging wild penguins with flipper bands threatens their chances of survival and has skewed data on the effects of climate change, biologists said Wednesday.

Researchers at the University of Strasbourg in France followed 50 banded adult King penguins and 50 non-banded penguins with under-the-skin transponders for 10 years.

Conducting their research on a French island in the southern Indian Ocean between Africa and Antarctica, they found the flipper-banded penguins had 39 percent fewer chicks and were 16 percent likelier to die than their untagged counterparts.

Study author Yvon Le Maho theorizes that the metal bands, which are tied around the top of the flipper, increase drag on the penguins when they swim.

“The picture is unambiguous,” Le Maho told news agency AFP. “Among banded penguins, the least-fit individuals died out in the first five years of the study, which left super-athletic birds.

“In the remaining five years, the mortality rate between the two groups was the same, but the reproductive success of banded penguins was 39 percent lower on average.”

Le Maho said this is the first study showing the long-term detriments of penguin tagging practices, and disproves the long-held assumption that the birds adjust to the bands.

He said banded birds respond differently to the climate, arriving later (16 days later on average) on the island to breed. This tardiness endangers the survival of their offspring, because late chicks face harsher weather conditions and more predators.

Consequently, studies that use banded penguins to measure the impact of global warming on marine life need to be reviewed, researchers said. Although climate change is still harming penguin populations, the data may be skewed.

“…[W]hen there was a rise in sea temperature and food was less abundant, the penguins had to swim farther, and banded penguins stayed longer at sea to forage compared with non-banded birds,” said Claire Saraux, like Le Maho a member of France’s National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), according to AFP.

The findings were published in Wednesday’s edition of the Nature science journal.

Posted in Aquatic Life, Birds, Conservation, Ecosystems, Effects0 Comments

Oil Still Devastates La. Marshes, Tour Finds

Officials say oil from the Deepwater Horizon disaster still heavily pollutes the marshes along Louisiana’s coastlines.

State and parish officials gave the press a boat tour of the oil-fouled swamps of Barataria Bay, calling for a stronger cleanup effort from BP and the Obama administration.

Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser called the state of the marshes “the biggest cover-up in the history of America,” The Associated Press reported Friday.

Robert Barham, the secretary of Louisiana’s Department of Wildlife and Fisheries and an outspoken critic of the cleanup effort, also participated in the tour.

AP writer Harry Weber reported that oil is pooling in some areas and boom barriers are often absent or overwhelmed by oil.

“Clearly there is oil here in the marsh but we are working as a team to find a best way to clean it up,” said Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Dan Lauer, who accompanied the press and officials on the tour.

The rapidly eroding marshes along the coast play a key role in protecting Louisiana from hurricanes.

The oil also endangers vulnerable reeds and grasses that feed microscopic marine life, with consequences that will reverberate up the food chain.

The BP oil spill, set off by a blowout on a Macondo rig on Apr. 20, leaked an estimated 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

Posted in Aquatic Life, Drilling for Oil, Ecosystems, Oceans & Coastlines, Oil & Petroleum, Rivers, Lakes & Wetlands, Well Drilling0 Comments

“Aflockalypse” Mapped on Google

The recent string of mass animal deaths that the Washington Post and some bloggers have taken to calling “the aflockalypse” can now be monitored on Google Maps.

The regularly updated resource pinpoints mass animal kills all over the world with blue arrows, tracking the die-offs from Dec. 2010 to the present.

All the fuss began last week when 5,000 red-winged blackbirds mysteriously dropped dead in the small town of Beebe, Ark. When more birds rained down on a Louisiana stretch of highway and thousands of drum fish washed up along the Arkansas River, people began to connect the dots.

Since then, as Google’s tool confirms, a slew of significant die-offs have cropped up all over the world–from crabs to penguins to manatees.

While many express religious or environmental concerns over the cause of the kills, the scientific community remains firm in saying these events are unrelated and not all that uncommon.

Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson says these incidents normally pass under the radar, and that advances in technology are to blame for a perceived connection.

“This instant and global communication, it’s just a human instinct to read mystery and portents of dangers and wondrous things in events that are unusual,” Wilson told The Associated Press on Thursday. “Not to worry, these are not portents that the world is about to come to an end.”

Posted in Animals, Birds, Ecosystems, Fish, Mammals0 Comments

Fishing Nets Killed More Sea Turtles than BP Spill

Fishing Nets Killed More Sea Turtles than BP Spill

Endangered sea turtles in the Gulf of Mexico may face more dangers from fishing operations than the BP oil spill, according to an essay published Wednesday in the Miami Herald.

Jane Lubchenco, the administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, writes that marine biologists initially feared that the Deepwater Horizon disaster would be catastrophic for sea turtles in the Gulf. Populations were already dwindling from years of unrestrained hunting, coastal development, fishing, and pollution, and the crisis occurred just in time for the nesting season of loggerhead and Kemp’s ridley sea turtles.

But researchers were surprised to find that most of the sea turtles found dead during the oil spill were killed by fishing operations.

NOAA, the Gulf states, and several nonprofit organizations worked to de-oil and rehabilitate over 400 turtles. 96 percent were successfully released back into the wild. The teams also relocated 25,000 eggs from heavily oiled coastlines to safer waters.

But necropsies on the 600 dead sea turtles determined that the majority appear to have drowned in fishing gear.

“When NOAA became aware that a large number of stranded turtles may have drowned in fishing operations, we alerted state marine resource officials,” Lubchenco writes. “In response, the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources issued a rule in June to further restrict the time shrimp skimmer trawls could be towed to help prevent sea turtles from being caught and drowning.”

Lubchenco advised that fishermen be required to use devices that allow turtles to escape from skimmer trawls, called turtle excluder devices, or TEDs.

“The heightened scrutiny of the Gulf of Mexico during the oil spill brought to light the need for stronger cooperation between NOAA, the Gulf states, and the fishing industry to address the significant ongoing problem of sea turtles drowning in fishing operations. More enforcement is needed for TED requirements and tow time limits,” Lubchenco concluded.

Posted in Aquatic Life, Ecosystems, Oceans & Coastlines, Reptiles0 Comments

7 Brazilian Birds Make U.S. Endangered List

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has listed seven imperiled Brazilian birds as protected under the Endangered Species Act, the New York Times reports.

In a statement issued Tuesday, the agency called Brazilian federal protection laws “inadequate” in preserving the threatened species, several of which are considered at risk of extinction.

Registering the birds on the U.S. endangered list will speed the flow of federal grants toward international conservation projects and aid negotiations to improve protection efforts, the Times said. The move will also draw attention to development projects proposed by the U.S. government and multilateral lending agencies that might destroy the birds’ habitat.

The majority of the birds live in Brazil’s Atlantic Forest and Cerrado biome, which have been ravaged by deforestation for agricultural and resource extraction purposes. Only about 7 percent of the original Atlantic Forest remains intact today, the Times said.

“Protecting these species under the Endangered Species Act will give them a better chance of survival, and it will help attract worldwide attention to the urgent plight of these animals,” Justin Augustine, staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement. “We hope the Obama administration continues to undo the significant backlog of foreign species that deserve protection but have yet to receive it.”

The newly proctected species include: the black-hooded antwren, Brazilian merganser, cherry-throated tanager, fringe-backed fire-eye, Kaempfer’s tody-tyrant, Margaretta’s hermit, and southeastern rufous-vented ground-cuckoo.

Posted in Birds, Ecosystems, Policies0 Comments

Bighorn Sheep Relocated to Historic Range in Texas

A decades-long effort to restore bighorn sheep to their historic habitat gained ground in the days before Christmas when dozens of sheep were transported to a Texas state park.

Conservation supporters cheered as the 46 animals bounded up the slopes of their new home in Bofecillos Mountains along the Rio Grande.

Federal wildlife officials captured 12 rams and 34 ewes in a remote area in West Texas and released them in their original range in Big Bend Ranch State Park, AP reports.

The population of mountain bighorns in Texas was all but obliterated by hunting practices, fencing, and disease from other animals by the 1960s. But conservation efforts brought the number of Texas sheep up to 1,115 this fall, up from 822 in 2006 and 352 in 2002, Texas Parks and Wildlife Service said.

The population of sheep was growing crowded in Elephant Mountain Wildlife Management Area, a small town about 25 miles south of Alpine. Officials captured the animals with net-guns fired by helicopter.

After biologists took blood-samples and administered tracking devices, the blindfolded ewes and rams were placed in livestock trailers and crates and driven 80 miles to their new terrain.

The capture-and-release lasted two days and cost about $40,000, AP reports.

Bonnie McKinney, director of the Bighorn Sheep Society, says the bighorn are a crucial part of the region’s ecosystem.

“When you bring them back, you’re putting it back in balance,” she said. “It was man that messed it up but we can fix it.”

Posted in Biodiversity, Conservation, Ecosystems, Mammals0 Comments

Navy Testing May Hurt Whales along Pacific Coastline

New U.S. Navy testing off the Washington, Oregon, and California coasts will pose a danger for orca whales, environmentalists say.

The Obama administration recently approved a plan to expand sailor training, weapons testing, and underwater training minefield for submarines in the 122,400 nautical square miles off the West Coast.

The Navy has been training in that range since  World War II, but environmentalists worry that new missile and sonar testing along with the dumping of depleted uranium could harm the population of 150 orcas known to live along the Pacific coast.

Howard Garrett, the president of the Washington-based nonprofit Orca Network, claims the hazardous materials could pose a serious risk for vulnerable orcas.

“They’re all very susceptible,” Garrett told AP. “The Navy is single-minded and they’re focused, and the whales are very much a secondary concern to them.”

The Natural Resources Defense Council also expressed concern over the new program, saying it “would pose a significant risk to whales, fish and other wildlife,” by releasing “thousands of rounds of spent ammunition and unexploded ordnance containing chromium, chromium compounds, depleted uranium,” and other hazardous materials, AP reported Saturday.

The Navy’s mid-frequency sonar testing could damage the orca navigation and communication skills and could even cause brain damage and affect reproductive rates, the NRDC said.

But Navy officials maintain that the expanded practices will have no effect on marine life.

“We are not even permitted to kill even one marine mammal. … What people don’t seem to understand is we share the environment with everybody,” Navy spokeswoman Sheila Murray said, according to AP. “It’s our environment, too. Of course we want to take care of it. The Navy goes to great lengths to protect the marine environment.”

Garrett remains skeptical. “I’m not convinced by the assurances that the Navy gives that there will be no effect,” Garrett said. “I can’t imagine there won’t be mortalities.”

Posted in Aquatic Life, Conservation, Ecosystems, Fish, Mammals, Noise Pollution, Oceans & Coastlines, Toxic Substances, Water Pollution0 Comments

Yellowstone National Park Takes on Long-Term Bison Study

Yellowstone National Park’s American bison are truly a sight to behold. The only population of free-ranging buffalo in the lower 48, they number over 4,000 strong and remain a powerful tourist draw. Bison were famously pushed to near-extinction in the 19th century, and only recently sprang back to healthy numbers.

But the rapidly increasing size of Yellowstone’s bison population has some worried about the long-term stability of the park’s grasslands. Syracuse University biologist Douglas Frank, who has examined the effects of climate change and herbivores on Yellowstone’s grasses for two decades, plans to embark on an extensive study to assess the bison’s impact.

“During the late 1980s, similar concerns were raised about the size of the park’s elk herd and whether the herd was negatively impacting grasslands,” says Frank, according to Syracuse University’s website. “Rather than having a negative impact on the grasslands, we found that increases in elk grazing actually stimulated plant growth.”

Frank, a professor in Syracuse University’s College of Arts and Scientists, plans to spend three years on the project. He will work with the National Park Service to monitor the herds’ grazing habits, using research methods he developed in his 20 years studying the park’s grasslands.

“Fossil records indicate that prior to the industrial revolution, the Earth’s grasslands and large herds of migratory herbivores coexisted for millennia,” Frank says. “These systems were stable, despite having sustained very intense levels of grazing. My work in Yellowstone explores why and how this happens.”

In Frank’s previous work on elk grazing habits, he found that several factors contributed to plant growth. For one, elk feces and urine in grazing areas provided ample fertilizer for plants. The intensive feeding also stimulated plants to grow new shoots and leaves, enhancing the overall health of the grasslands.

“Heavy grazing also increases the amount of nitrogen in the leaf material, which increases the quality of material that falls to the ground,” Frank says. “The high-quality litter is quickly broken down by soil bacteria, which in turn enriches the soil around grazed plants.”

Regardless of the outcome, the study will provide scientists with further insights into Yellowstone’s ecosystem.

“We also intend to use this opportunity to better understand the complex and fascinating ways in which the interactions among plants, herbivores, and soil organisms foster the stability of grassland systems,” Frank says.

Posted in Animals, Ecosystems, Land & Soil, Mammals0 Comments

Oil Spill: U.S. Sues BP and Others for Deepwater Horizon Disaster

The Department of Justice is suing BP and eight other companies over the catastrophic oil spill that devastated the Gulf of Mexico region last April.

The United States filed a civil lawsuit in the U.S. District Court in New Orleans Wednesday, alleging that federal safety violations contributed to the largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history.

“We will not hesitate to take whatever steps are necessary to hold accountable those who are responsible for this spill,” Attorney General Eric Holder said in a press conference, according to the New York Times.

On April 20th, the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and sank, killing the eleven workers onboard and leaving millions of gallons of crude oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico from the well it was drilling. The leak was not sealed until July.

The 27-page complaint requests that the companies be held liable for removal costs and damages. While it does not mention a specific amount, the suit could cost BP and the other companies tens of billions of dollars, The New York Times reports.

“This is welcome and long overdue news to the fishermen and others who depend upon the Gulf of Mexico for their lives and livelihoods,” Waterkeeper Alliance, an environmental organization, said in a statement, according to UPI.

Aside from BP, the lawsuit also involves: Anadarko Exploration & Production LP and Anadarko Petroleum Corp.; MOEX Offshore 2007 LLC; Triton Asset Leasing GMBH, Transocean Holdings LLC, Transocean Offshore Deepwater Drilling Inc., and Transocean Deepwater Inc.; and QBE Underwriting Ltd.-Lloyd’s Syndicate 1036.

Posted in Drilling for Oil, Ecosystems, Fish, Oceans & Coastlines, Oil & Petroleum, Water Pollution, Well Drilling0 Comments

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