Let’s Look at Past Successes to Encourage the Vision of a Brighter Environmental Future

Too often the tone of environmental discourse —Crisis! Dire failure!—promotes hopelessness and paralysis. Brock Bernstein, President of the National Fisheries Conservation Center (Global Ocean Health is a program of NFCC), takes a different view. He was recently asked to write a blog entry for the journal Integrated Environmental Assessment and Management, and we think it’s an important message.

By Dr. Brock B. Bernstein

Pervasive doom and gloom dominates much of the popular news about the environment. Global warming, sea level rise, ocean acidification, drought, wildfires, overfishing, or overpopulation—it all contributes to a feeling of despair and hopelessness, particularly among young people. This struck home for me on a personal level during a recent conversation with my college-aged son and a few of his friends—they felt they were “totally screwed” because of the inevitable impacts of climate change.

Cuyahoga River fire, 1952. Courtesy clevelandmemory.org

One value of getting older is that you’ve seen more and have a longer history to draw on. I grew up in southern California from the 1950s through the 1970s when environmental problems were severe and visible – air pollution (I remember frequent episodes of eye-burning smog that caused incessant coughing fits during water polo practice) and sewage contamination that led much of Santa Monica Bay’s beaches to be permanently closed to swimming (1,2). While I was in graduate school, I visited a colleague in Cleveland in the late 1960s, just a couple of years after the Cuyahoga River caught on fire again, because it was so polluted that, as Time Magazine put it, the river “oozes rather than flows” (Time, August 1, 1969).

Los Angeles smog

Smog over Los Angeles basin. Credit: Al Pavangkanan, CC BY 2.0.

And yet, we’ve solved many of these and other problems that seemed so overwhelming at the time, and we’ve made major progress on newer ones such as the ozone hole. One useful thing about getting older is that it provides some protection against the shifting baseline phenomenon in which our perceptions are dominated by more recent information while the past recedes in our collective memory and is not part of our current awareness. For good reason, environmental advocates typically focus on shifting baselines that cause us to see current, degraded conditions as normal. For example, the average size of top-of-the-food chain fish, such as swordfish, has declined substantially since the 1800s (3), to the extent that most people cannot even imagine a 400-pound swordfish. Yet shifting baselines also diminish our awareness of past successes and the effort that went into them. My son and his friends were only vaguely aware of southern California’s decades-long battle against air and water (2) pollution. As a result, they have no experience of hard-won success to draw on as they consider what their future holds. And because they’re not in the engineering facilities and meeting rooms where solutions to California’s current extreme drought and likely drier future are being crafted and implemented, they—and much of the rest of the public—don’t appreciate the stunning speed with which solutions such as stormwater capture and the potable reuse of treated wastewater are being developed and implemented.

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Acid Seas Threaten Creatures that Supply Half the World’s Oxygen

Ocean acidification is turning phytoplankton toxic. Bad news for the many species – us, included – that rely on them as a principal source of food and oxygen.

June 16th, 2014 By Martha Baskin and Mary Bruno, crosscut.com

What happens when phytoplankton, the (mostly) single-celled organisms that constitute the very foundation of the marine food web, turn toxic?

phytoplankton pseudonitzschia_Their toxins often concentrate in the shellfish and many other marine species (from zooplankton to baleen whales) that feed on phytoplankton. Recent trailblazing research by a team of scientists aboard the RV Melville shows that ocean acidification will dangerously alter these microscopic plants, which nourish a menagerie of sea creatures and produce up to 60 percent of the earth’s oxygen.

The researchers worked in carbon saturated waters off the West Coast, a living laboratory to study the effects of chemical changes in the ocean brought on by increased atmospheric carbon dioxide. A team of scientists from NOAA’s Fisheries Science Center and Pacific Marine Environmental Lab, along with teams from universities in Maine, Hawaii and Canada focused on the unique “upwelled” zones of California, Oregon and Washington. In these zones, strong winds encourage mixing, which pushes deep, centuries-old CO2 to the ocean surface. Their findings could reveal what oceans of the future will look like. The picture is not rosy.

Scientists already know that ocean acidification, the term used to describe seas soured by high concentrations of carbon, causes problems for organisms that make shells. “What we don’t know is the exact effects ocean acidification will have on marine phytoplankton communities,” says Dr. Bill Cochlan, the biological oceanographer from San Francisco State University oceanographer who was the project’s lead investigator. “Our hypothesis is that ocean acidification will affect the quantity and quality of certain metabolities within the phytoplankton, specifically lipids and essential fatty acids.”

Acidic waters appear to make it harder for phytoplankton to absorb nutrients. Without nutrients they’re more likely to succumb to disease and toxins. Those toxins then concentrate in the zooplankton, shellfish and other marine species that graze on phytoplankton.

Consider the dangerous diatom Pseudo-nitzschia (below). When ingested by humans, toxins from blooms of this single-celled algae can cause permanent short-term memory loss and in some cases death, according to Dr. Vera Trainer, an oceanographer with NOAA’s Fisheries Marine Biotoxins Program. Laboratory studies show that when acidity (or pH) is lowered, Pseudo-nitzschia cells produce more toxin. When RV Melville researchers happened on a large bloom of Pseudo-nitzschia off the coast of Point Sur in California, where pH levels are already low, they were presented with a rare opportunity, explains Trainer, to see if their theory “holds true in the wild.”

Multiple phytoplankton populations became the subjects of deck-board experiments throughout the Melville’s 26-day cruise, which began in mid-May and finished last week.

Another worrisome substance is domoic acid, a neuro-toxin produced by a species of phytoplankton. Washington has a long history of domoic acid outbreaks. The toxin accumulates in mussels and can wind up in humans. “Changes in the future ocean could stimulate the levels of domoic acid in the natural population,” says Professor Charles Trick, a biologist with Western University in Ontario, and one of the RV Melville researchers. Which means that the acidified oceans of tomorrow could nurture larger and more vigorous outbreaks of killer phytoplankton, which could spell death to many marine species.

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Update of Fisheries Law Pits West Coast Against East Coast

Two recent articles have come out based on a paper co-written with one of our board members, Suzanne Iudicello, and our Director, Brad Warren. This is the second article.

Seattle Times. May 10th, 2014. By Kyung M. Song

The Magnuson-Stevens Act was enacted in 1976 to protect fisheries collapsing from overfishing and poaching by foreign trawlers. But the upcoming fourth reauthorization of the main federal fisheries law has split American fishing factions by coastlines.

WASHINGTON — The nation’s chief fisheries law was enacted in 1976 in a climate of alarm: the oceans were losing fish faster than they could reproduce, and most of the diminishing harvests were being scooped up by an armada of Soviet and Japanese factory trawlers.

In response, Congress passed the legislation now commonly called the Magnuson-Stevens Act. It asserted exclusive American fishing rights out to 200 miles from shore. It also entrusted the federal government to protect Alaska pollock, Atlantic haddock and hundreds of other stocks from overfishing and to guard the water’s bounty for perpetuity.

Today, the fight to ensure sustainable fisheries has turned entirely domestic.

The Magnuson-Stevens Act expired last September. Republicans in the House Natural Resources Committee and Democrats in the Senate Commerce Committee have released separate bills to update the 2006 reauthorization.

The dueling drafts have split fishing factions by coastlines. Bering Sea crabbers and West Coast commercial groundfish harvesters, for instance, want the law’s conservation measures left largely intact.

But some of their counterparts in New England and the Gulf of Mexico are demanding key changes. The collapse or overexploitation of such iconic stocks as cod and red snapper have battered their livelihoods and curtailed sport fishing, and the fishermen want more elastic mandates on overfishing and on rebuilding depleted fish populations.

Meanwhile, recreational anglers, a sizable economic force, are pressing harder than ever to amend the law to secure longer, predictable fishing seasons and permission to hook bigger trophy fish.

The schism has hardened despite — or because of — the fact that U.S. fisheries on the whole are rebounding from catastrophic overfishing that pushed some species to possible extinction.

In 2006, “overfishing was so endemic everyone realized we needed to take measurable steps,” said George Geiger, former chairman the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council, one of eight regional councils responsible for overseeing the law.

“There is much more acrimony associated with this reauthorization.”

High stakes

The heightened tension reflects high stakes. Commercial fishermen hauled in $5.1 billion worth of fin fish and shellfish in 2012, the latest economic data available. That in turn generated another $34 billion in income for processors, wholesalers and all who touch the seafood on its journey to the table.

In Washington, the seafood industry supports 61,000 jobs, fourth-highest behind California, Massachusetts and Florida, says the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Seattle is home to major seafood processors and most of the Alaska crabbing fleet.

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Carbon pricing is catching on around the globe — just not in Washington, D.C.

June 5, 2013  By John Upton

More than 40 national governments and 20 states or other “sub-national” governments are now charging polluters for emitting greenhouse gases, or plan to start in the coming years, according to a new report from the World Bank.

The U.S., of course, is not one of the countries with a national cap-and-trade plan or carbon tax, but California and parts of New England are pushing ahead despite Congress’ refusal to act.

All in all, about 7 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases are now priced — the equivalent of 3.3 gigatons of carbon dioxide out of the total 50 gigatons emitted annually worldwide. Not a lot. But, says the report, “If China, Brazil, Chile, and the other emerging economies eyeing these mechanisms are included, carbon pricing mechanisms could reach countries emitting 24 [gigatons of CO2 equivalent] per year, or almost half of the total global emissions.”

From The Washington Post:

The World Bank report also notes that many cap-and-trade programs are beginning to join together — California is partnering with Quebec, and the E.U. has joined up with Switzerland — which, in theory, should make it easier for companies to make the easiest cuts first. And many programs are trying to expand coverage. Australia and Korea are hoping to get 60 percent of their emissions covered, while California is aiming for 85 percent.

That said, the World Bank concludes that there hasn’t been nearly enough progress to avoid the worst effects of global warming. “The current level of action puts us on a pathway towards a 3.5–4°C warmer world by the end of this century, [which] would threaten our current economic model with unprecedented and unpredictable impacts on human life and ecosystems in the long term.”

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