Tag Archives: population

Extinction is forever

The Living Planet Report 2016 – risk and resilience in the new era

by Stan Hirst

4ff8753daf761f70af20b5e0c0ed9b0cExtinction is one of those words in the English language which seem distant and not particularly relevant to anything until you grasp the context. For me the significance of the term came on a hot summer day more than 60 years ago when my high school class shuffled obediently through the musty halls of the Transvaal Museum in Pretoria, South Africa.  We stopped in front of one ancient cupboard from which the museum guide brought forth a yellowing and battered skull, no jawbone attached.  It looked like a horse or a donkey, but Mr Naudé proudly advised it was the skull of a quagga which had once roamed the barren plains of the Karoo. We were sombrely reminded that the quagga had been extinct since 1885.

Gone forever, extinct not just in the Karoo or just in southern Africa, but everywhere in the world. Hunted to extinction because they were considered by farmers to be expendable and a damned nuisance, competitors with their sheep and cattle for scarce grazing, and good for nothing except maybe for the hides which made passable thongs for stock whips.

Extinction seemed profound to me at the time but it has always been passé for Earth. Over the past 500 million years there have been five major periods of mass earth wide extinctions, each one linked to profound changes in climate.  The Cretaceous mass extinction 65 million years ago is famously associated with the demise of the dinosaurs. Virtually no large land animals survived, while plants were greatly affected and tropical marine life decimated.

Now we’re well into the sixth extinction which has garnered the name Anthropocene extinction because of the strong causal links to human activity.  At least 875 extinctions of whole families of plants and animals  – mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and arthropods – have been documented to date by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.  The rate of extinction has been roughly estimated at something like 140,000 species per year, making it the greatest loss of biodiversity since the Cretaceous extinctions.

lpr-coverScientists have been warning for decades that human actions are pushing life toward a sixth mass extinction, and more evidence comes from the recent 2016 Living Planet Report. This report documents how wildlife populations have declined, on average, by 67 per cent over the past decade, mainly the result of rampant poaching and wildlife trafficking.

The Anthropocene climate is changing rapidly, oceans are acidifying and entire biomes are disappearing – all at rates measurable during a single human lifetime. The future of many living organisms is now in question. Not only are wild plants and animals at risk, we ourselves are now the victims of the deteriorating state of nature. Climate and other predictive models indicate that, without decisive action, the Earth is on its way to becoming considerably less hospitable to modern globalized society.

global-living-planet-indexThe Living Planet Index (LPI) is a measure of biodiversity.  It draws on population data from 14,000 monitored populations of 3,700 vertebrate species (mammals, birds, fishes, amphibians, reptiles) around the world and then calculates an average change in abundance over time.  From 1970 to 2012 the LPI showed a 58 per cent overall decline in vertebrate population abundance. That means that global vertebrate populations have, on average, dropped by more than 50% in little more than 40 years.

Five threats show up consistently as the causes of wildlife population declines:

comp-fig

The most common threat to declining terrestrial populations is the loss and degradation of habitat, followed by overexploitation by humans. For marine species overexploitation is the main impacting factor, followed by loss and degradation of marine habitats.

wordl-populationWe have strained the limits of natural resilience all the way to the planetary level. The world’s population has grown from about 1.6 billion people in 1900 to today’s 7.3 billion.

In the early 1900s an industrial method was developed for fixing nitrogen into ammonia; the resulting synthetic fertilizers now sustain more than half of the world’s population, but at the same time causing massive pollution of air, water and soils. Fossil fuels incur tremendous costs in terms of rising atmospheric CO2 concentrations and resultant global climate change. (Figure C)

Since the early 1970s we have been demanding much more than the planet can sustainably provide. By 2012, the biocapacity equivalent of 1.6 Earths was needed to provide the natural resources and services we humans consumed in that year. Exceeding the Earth’s biocapacity to such a degree is simply not possible in the long term. We cannot cut trees faster than they mature, harvest more fish than the oceans can replenish, or emit more carbon into the atmosphere than the forests and oceans can absorb. The consequences of this “overshoot” are already abundantly clear everywhere.

How can we change the course of socio-economic development onto a pathway that does not conflict with the welfare of the biosphere? How can we begin to affect development in a way that will make essential changes at a relevant magnitude?

We’d better decide fast.  In the time it took to read this post one more species somewhere on Earth – maybe a plant, an  insect, a fungus, a bird, a fish, a marine invertebrate  or maybe a mammal, went extinct.

 

 

The silver tsunami

Its time for elders to step forward and play a stronger role in addressing serious global environmental changes

senior hikers planMore than 40 years ago the late Maggie Kuhn, an American social activist and devout Presbyterian, was forced into retirement on her 65th birthday. That was the accepted code of practice at the time. Maggie responded, not by taking up her knitting needles and seeking the porch rocker, but by founding the Gray Panthers movement to work for social and economic justice and peace.

Maggie Kuhn reasoned that her aims could be achieved through honouring maturity, unifying generations, being actively engaged and encouraging participatory democracy. She famously explained her view of the elder role in society in characteristically down-to-earth terminology – “The old, having the benefit of life experience, the time to get things done, and the least to lose by sticking their necks out, are in a perfect position to serve as the advocates for the larger public good.

This type of declaration had an unquestionably strong emotional underpinning when it was first uttered, but the underlying motivation has recently been backed up by hard statistics. For example, in December 2012 the Huffington Post reported an interview with Dr Dilip V. Jeste, Director of the Stein Institute for Research on Aging at the University of California. The Institute conducted in-depth interviews with a thousand older adults and concluded that, even in the midst of physical or cognitive decline, most respondents reported a feeling that their well-being had improved with age. Factors which were found to counteract actual health deterioration and which appeared to significantly contribute to subjective success in aging were education, better cognitive functioning, better perceived physical and mental health, less depression, and greater optimism and resilience. In other words, many elders feel they have become better able to tackle difficult issues and, in so doing, may actually improve their own health.

As we move into 2013, Canada’s population has just edged past the 35 million mark for the first time in history. One in every seven of these millions is over the age of 65, and the fastest-growing population segment is the over-80s. In the years following World War II Canada had a large baby boom which swelled the ranks of the work force in the last decades of the 20th century and played a significant part in the country’s historic growth and development. The boomers are now starting to retire, and the ratio of the employed to the retired has started a decline which is projected to last for a very long time.

In the previous century people in their later years received a level of acknowledgement quite different to that on offer to today’s seniors. The older members of communities were regarded as elders and respected for their counsel and for their historical knowledge of events, resources and natural phenomena. This situation still prevails for elders in many First Nations communities, but in non-native communities embedded in a shopping mall culture and submerged in electronic information clouds, seniors have, to a large extent, become invisible.

Today’s seniors face pressures of marginalization from their younger compatriots, but many remain aware of the creative role they once played in society, and of the moral and intellectual resources which they still have. They can point with some pride to the fact that actions and protests against environmental and societal ills and grievances are not a unique feature of today’s Generations X and Y. The environmental movement was launched 50 years ago by some who are now elders in response to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring indictment of the pesticide assault on the environment. Images of the current protests in B.C. against oil pipelines and oil tankers reveal a noticeable proportion of grey heads and wrinkled faces amongst the throngs.

Concerns and actions over pensions and health care have long been the main concerns of seniors, and will certainly continue to be foci of attention in coming years. But for a growing number of elders, sometimes defined as “seniors with attitude”, the rapidly deteriorating global climate outlook and the intransigence of governments in coming to grips with dying oceans, melting ice caps, and extinctions of species and ecosystems have become the sparks for growing concern and rising indignation. Modern medicine and technology have tipped the scales for elders, giving them a decade and more of additional time in which to be active and involved, either within elder ranks or by joining with their much younger but similarly motivated compatriots,

Some of today’s elders will recall that they have been here before. As young disaffected people in the late 1960s they rejected the post- World War II system of their parents. From their ranks came the anti-Vietnam War demonstrators and the dedicated activists who established environmental organizations such as Greenpeace. Aging boomers now have an opportunity to return to their youthful idealism and to work to improve the environment and address pressing problems such as climate change. They have an opportunity to volunteer and to actively embrace newly rediscovered values.

Elders might have to reluctantly admit that they were themselves part of the system that created the present global environmental situation. In fact, a nagging sense of guilt might underlie some elders’ growing concerns over the increasing vulnerability of the ecosystems which underpin our 21st century life-styles.

There are many role models for elders to follow if they elect to address the enormous challenges of the rapidly changing world. Vancouver’s own David Suzuki, himself now an elder after more than 40 years service as a scientist, broadcaster and author, gives a definition of humanity which serves well as an elder objective. “Our great evolutionary advantage has been the ability to lift our sights and look ahead, to imagine the world as it could be and then make the best choices to move toward that vision”.

Salmon farming: the real dispute

The Get Out Migration march in April and May of 2010 in which thousands of people walked from points between Echo Bay in the Broughton Archipelago to the steps of the British Columbia legislature in Victoria, British Columbia, is yet another chapter in the long crusade against marine net-cage feedlots in western Canada. Led by biologist Alexandra Morton, the marchers and the watching crowds represented commercial and sport fishermen, First Nations, businesspeople, organizations, residents, scientists, government employees and pretty much everyone else with a connection to salmon and other resources in one of Canada‘s richest resource regions. Their goal was plainly stated: to make a stand against the perceived biological and social threat and commerce of the industrial marine feedlots which dot the north-eastern and western coast line of Vancouver Island. The campaigners hold that marine feedlots are a threat to wild salmon populations by intensifying diseases, depleting valuable fishery resources [which make up the feed for the caged fish], privatizing ocean spaces and threatening sovereign rights to food security.

The salmon aquaculture industry in B.C. developed from ten operating farms in 1984 to a peak of 135 farms in 1989, and today number about 130. Marine feedlots hold a variety of finfish species, mainly Atlantic, Chinook and Coho salmon, as well as smaller numbers of black cod and halibut. Through rationalization and consolidation, the number of companies holding aquaculture licenses has declined from 50 in 1989 to 12 today. Especially irksome to the campaigners against net-famed salmon is the fact that more than 90% of the farmed salmon are held by just three large Norwegian companies – Marine Harvest, Cremaq and Grieg Seafood.

Salmon diseases are a major issue of concern for the anti-fish farm brigades. They point to fish diseases such as ectoparasitic sea-lice, infectious hematopoietic necrosis and infectious salmon anaemia [both viral diseases] which are known to occur in penned salmon and which are potentially highly infective for migrating wild salmon passing near salmon farms. They point to big drops in runs of Fraser River sockeye salmon, Broughton Archipelago pink salmon and Clayoquot Sound chinook salmon in recent years, and find significant correlations between these phenomena and the presence of nearby salmon farms. They point too to correlations between the presence of net-penned salmon along the coastlines of Ireland, Scotland and Norway, on one hand, and outbreaks of salmon lice infestation in wild salmon passing through marine waters close to these pens, on the other.

But the government agencies responsible for regulating salmon farming in B.C. coastal waters don’t quite see things the same way. The Federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans cites agency research to demonstrate that marked periodic fluctuations in numbers have long been a feature of pink salmon runs, and in fact pre-date the introduction of salmon farms to the area. Their data show that pink salmon populations in this region are highly variable and cyclical in nature. There have been years when pink salmon abundance was extremely low, and these years were followed by a gradual increase to very high abundance. They observe that sea lice existed on wild salmon for tens of thousands of years before the first salmon farm was ever established in Canada. They cite ongoing departmental research which shows that the levels of sea lice found in wild Pacific salmon in the Broughton Archipelago have declined each year since 2004. And anyway, they say, sea lice levels are controlled on salmon farms to levels which take the risk to fish outside the farm to negligible levels.

The provincial Ministry of Agriculture and Lands weighs in with the view that its comprehensive health management program for salmon aquaculture is based on a precautionary approach, and that regular monitoring consistently shows that B.C.’s aquaculture industry upholds a high level of environmental standards and is serious about co-existing with wild salmon stocks. Monitoring thus far has identified no new diseases that had not already been reported in wild, hatchery-reared or research salmonids in B.C.

Now, how can this be? On one hand, a deeply concerned and unquestionably committed community with a vested interest in the well-being of salmon; on the other hand, groups of professional biologists, veterinarians and experienced fishery resource managers, all looking at the same issue and coming up with radically different conclusions. It’s not a unique situation. Consider the similarly wide distances [and emotionally-generated rancour] between protagonists and antagonists of other thorny issues like climate change or the efficacy of homeopathic remedies. Different themes, same problems.

Three observations can be made by the dispassionate observer, if indeed there be such a thing where salmon in British Columbia are concerned, which may help unravel the problem. The first is that neither side in the salmon farm dispute can prove conclusively that they are right and the other is wrong in terms of the impacts of salmon farms on wild salmonid populations. Neither side has ever seen wild salmon in large numbers actually dying of sea-lice or a viral disease. When tribesmen in East Africa reach the conclusion that their cattle herds have been decimated by drought, they do so while standing on a grassy, waterless plain surrounded by the carcasses of hundreds of their dead cattle. Such certainty does not exist in the B.C. marine environment. Sick and dead salmon are rapidly consumed in the depths and are removed from human view. What biologists and salmon farmers in fact see are relatively small numbers of fish in a sample haul, or larger numbers of farmed fish inside a net pen. They have to project, through calculations, correlations and complicated mathematical models, from their observations to the population at large in the sea, which is mostly out of sight and out of reach. They do so in the knowledge that the factors they measure, be they the numbers of sea lice on a caught salmon or the condition of the caught fish are but a few amongst many environmental and population factors which affect salmon in their life cycle from stream to seas again. Fisheries biologist Brian Harvey waded through all available reports on sea-lice and salmon and came to five conclusions – salmon farms produce large numbers of sea louse larvae; encounters between farm-produced larvae and salmon cannot yet be observed [but are completely plausible biologically]; the percentage of sea lice on wild salmon that come from salmon farms can’t be quantified; the role of alternate [not from salmon farms] sources of sea lice is not yet understood nor quantified; and understanding the direct link between sea lice from salmon farms and wild salmon populations will be a “lively” area of research.

The second observation is that the arguments over diseases and impacts of farmed salmon on wild salmon may be important to scientists and local communities, but are small beer in relation to real economics. The Canadian aquaculture industry is a major food production segment of the national economy, generating more than $1 billion in GDP in Canada in 2007, more than $320 million in direct GDP and about $685 million in spin-off business. It is responsible for an estimated 14,500 full-time equivalent jobs, many of them in coastal and rural communities in Canada. In British Columbia, salmon farming is the province’s largest agricultural export, and generates $800 million in economic output annually and provides employment for 6,000 men and women in direct and supply and service jobs, many in coastal communities where other opportunities are limited. This level of economic activity obviously generates a commensurate amount of political weight.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the two sides in the dispute are really contesting something much deeper rooted than sea-lice or fouled water. These are just focal points for the polemic. For the coastal communities, the fishermen, the First Nations bands and the marchers on Victoria, wild salmon are not just fish. They are a symbol of place in the northwest, a marker of the community of individuals, enterprises and organizations committed to live in a way that strengthens local and regional economies, sustains the natural abundance of resources, and provides a nurturing for the spirit. For them, salmon are food, a basis for commerce and a vital source of nutrition for the land. For the salmon-farming industry, the fish have become just a corporate-produced commodity, akin to broiler-reared chickens or monocultured corn spread across the prairies, generating huge amounts of food, cash flows and corporate profits. The one view deals with resource communities as they were and as we might choose them, the other best befits the future beset by distant and burgeoning global populations who need the food, know little about the Salmon Nation, and in fact care not a whit about it.