Thursday, 28 July 2011

All UK's canned tuna now 'wildlife-free'? Almost..

A glimmer of hope was flashed through the Pacific swell today, as Greenpeace announced that the last of the UK's big tuna companies – John West – had fallen into line over the dropping of destructive purse seine fishing. Now all tinned tuna sold in the UK will only use the more sustainable line and pole fishing methods, a significant victory for sharks, turtles and juvenile tuna. They have been scooped up in massive numbers, when fishing vessels use the indiscriminate netting of purse seines.

Purse seines are often combined with Fish Aggregation Devices (FAD), which send out signals to draw in tuna. They also have a big pull on other marine animals, though, such as turtles and sharks. When the huge purse nets are closed, it is often found that 10% or more of the catch are creatures other than turtles, which then get discarded as 'waste'. Switching to FAD-and-purse-seine-free methods cuts the bycatch by a tenth – to around 1%.

Additionally, John West has signed up to the Greenpeace-inspired Pacific Commons marine reserve. These are 4 areas in the western Pacific where it is hoped that all fishing and marine-exploitation can be halted, providing a breathing space for marine wildlife. Although though no formal agreement on banning fishing from these areas exists, pressure from Greenpeace and other ocean conservation groups, has led to many major companies agreeing not to fish there.

The ultimate aim is to stitch together much of the oceans that are outside of national waters into oceanic reserves. These would eventually take in some 40% of the world's oceans. That's a mammoth undertaking, but one that may be necessary to shield the oceanic ecosystem from a gathering collapse – and so sustainably secure their use for all. Greenpeace UK's director, John Sauven, said ''Marine reserves in the Pacific Commons would provide much needed protection for fish stocks, the oceans and the millions of people dependent on them for food and jobs.''

Both moves are big steps forward in aiding marine wildlife conservation, and in creating sustainable tuna stocks – the UK gobbles down the second biggest helping of the global tinned tuna catch. Tuna are under serious threat, with 5 of 8 species on the slippery slope towards extinction. Reducing the catch of young tuna – who often get caught in purse seine nets – together with improved protection in the Pacific, may be the start of a reversal to that seemingly inevitable slide.

In announcing the moves by John West, Sauven was hoping they could create wider waves globally. ''Just a few months ago, only a minority of tinned tuna retailers had cleaned up their act, but in a short amount of time there’s been a groundbreaking shift across the tinned tuna industry,'' he said. ''This move is hugely important beyond the UK too, because it means that changes will have to happen at sea. We should now start to see a real shift towards greener tinned tuna around the world in the very near future.''  

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Who wants to win this one?

Arctic sea-ice in race to bottom...  published on the Earth Times yesterday. 

What is happening in the Arctic offers an interesting pair of dilemmas. As the sea-ice slips inexorably towards extinction, there is a a good chance that the alarm bells will go off very loudly across the world. That could be enough to jolt us out of our sloth-like tackling of the climate change juggernaut.

But the problem is that, because we've been wearing ear-mufflers all this time, hearing those alarm bells now may be just a tad too late to stop us from getting toasted. That very human weakness of short looking the other way will have aught us out.

The second dilemma rests on another aspect of humanity's foibles. Greed. One man's disaster is another's opportunity. Despite those alarm bells, the Arctic is on the verge of a black gold rush, as oil companies queue up to exploit the resources uncovered by global warming - a warming they have had a big hand in creating.

Almost reeks of the arsonist collecting the fire insurance premiums, that one..

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

It's all his fault..

Protecting the 'known unknowns' from extinction ... published on EarthTimes yesterday

The China conundrum - two eco-wrongs don't make a right

China seems to have developed something of a split personality overnight, in the global warming stakes. After a decade of being painted as the villain of the piece, with many wagging their fingers disapprovingly at China's multiplying smokestacks, a paper published overnight has turned things on their head. It seems that China's noxious emissions have actually been helping to cool the climate, if the tabloid interpretation of the study, published online by the PNAS, is to be believed.

If CO2 emissions are the bad boy of climate change, then SO2 is the newly painted hero, helping to vanquish the seemingly irrepressible warming, that carbon dioxide has trailed in its wake. The paper has tied the recent slowing down of global warming, over the decade since 1998, to a burst of sulfate emissions from China's coal-burning power stations.

Of course, the idea that global warming has left the scene over the last decade is something hotly debated. Cherry-picking years on the wildly wiggling graph of global temperatures can easily 'prove' that global warming is 'absent' at any time in the last 40 years– conveniently forgetting that it is the long term average that matters. Yearly changes are the rule, and invariably larger than the 'drip-drip' feed of a warming climate, due to greenhouse gases.

But on most measures of global temperature, averaged over 10 or 15 years, the decade since 1998's El Nino has certainly shown a slower rate of warming – still warming, just not as fast. So asking why that might be the case is an important line of inquiry to follow. And the answer gleaned by this research team is that the rise in the China's dirty-coal burning, from 2000 onwards, has helped partially mask the warming from CO2.

Sulfate particles from coal combustion cause a hazy smoke around power plants – and that haze helps to reflect sunlight back into out into space. So more sulfate emissions means more cooling. This isn't the first time that something such as this has happened. The period from 1940 to 1970 saw massively rising sulfate pollution, which rose three-fold over that period. And global temperatures were definitely affected – with an general flat-lining of global temperatures over that period.

But sulfates particles don't hang around in the atmosphere. They get washed out – literally – falling as increasingly acidic rain. It was the deafening-hush of forests, stripped of life by acid rain, that led to action to remove sulfates from smokestack fumes, across the industrialized world, in the 1970s. It worked, but that also heralded the start of three decades of faster rising temperatures across the globe.

Now that respected researchers are again making a link between increased SO2 and global cooling, you can almost here the mental cogs turning amongst certain 'business-as-usual' opinion-makers. Maybe we shouldn't be scrubbing out all those nasties from smoky Chinese coal-powered stations. Perhaps we should be paying the Chinese to keep pumping out their sulfates, and 'cancel' global warming for ever.

The problem is that the global ecosystem isn't a single-issue problem. We are assailing Planet Earth on many front simultaneously, producing effects that both reinforce, and cancel, in ways that will always be poorly understood. The real lesson is that we need less of both CO2 and SO2, and all the other pollutants that our society so blithely foists on the natural world. We can only right these wrongs by learning to live within the limits of the planet that sustains us; not by wildly pressing levers in the hope we can 'fix the machine'.