Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Polar Bear Peril

The Presidential Report on Climate Change released last year addresses the significant risk multiple species are presented with due to global warming. Among the most vulnerable is the polar bear. The report projects that two thirds of the world's polar bears could be gone by 2050 and there could be no wild polar bears in Alaska by 2085 unless immediate action is taken to address climate change.

According to the White House report, "about two-thirds of the world’s polar bears are projected to be gone by the middle of this century. It is projected that there will be no wild polar bears left in Alaska in 75 years."

As the polar bear depends on sea ice for hunting and foraging, any ice loss effect them immediately and adversely. NASA has found that perennial sea ice is melting at a rate of 9% per decade and could disappear entirely within the century. Without sufficient sea ice on which to hunt, the bears are faced with few good options. They can either turn inland to forage and face the consequences of human interaction or confront the likelihood of starvation or drowning.

Climate change effects polar bears by impacting their prey species as well. Less snow can result in inadequate snow cover for seals to construct birth lairs, reducing seal reproductivity and by extension, the ability of polar bears to sustain themselves and their cubs.

Warming temperatures also effect the ability of female polar bears to give birth to and raise their young. Bears build dens in dense snow pack to hibernate several months a year and to give birth to cubs. Warmer temperatures mean less snow in which to build dens and the possibility of den collapse or decreased insulative properties, resulting in lower litter survival rates. The cubs, who are born weighing only 1 pound, may quickly freeze to death or be crushed by collapsing ice.

There are some international cooperative efforts already underway to maintain polar bear populations. The International Union for Conservation of Nature Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG) was formed in 1965 when representatives from Norway, Canada, Denmark, the United States and USSR met in Fairbanks to address polar bear conservation due to concern that populations were being over harvested. Members of the PBSG signed an agreement in 1973 to plan for the protection of the polar bear by mandating national research programs relating to the conservation and management of the species. The PBSG most recently met June 29th-July 3rd of last year and once again recognized that the greatest threat currently facing polar bears is climate change.

In response to a suit brought by ESC member organizations, a federal judge ordered the Department of the Interior to reconsider its 2008 decision not to provide polar bears the most complete protection possible under the Endangered Species Act.

Polar bears need the strongest protection possible if they’re going to avoid extinction. Up-listing them from "threatened" to “endangered” will provide needed resources and allow authorities to craft policies to save polar bears from extinction.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The $4B Bluefin Blackmarket

Just days before the start of the annual meeting of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), a new report by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) has detailed a vast global blackmarket in critically endangered Atlantic bluefin tuna and the widespread fraud that is enabling it.

The report, Looting the Seas: How Overfishing, Fraud, and Negligence Plundered the Majestic Bluefin Tuna, paints a sobering picture of irresponsible and even criminal fishing practices and the complicit regulatory bodies that have allowed the eastern Atlantic bluefin spawning stock to be depleted to a quarter of what it was just four decades ago.

The report traces the frequently illegal process from catch (often in "purse seine" nets that can catch as many as 3000 of the giant fish at once) to rancher (where the fish are fattened to increase their market value) to trader (where the documents are often falsified to cover for illegal takes). Along the way, details of the size of the catch are obscured or totally eliminated, rendering take quotas practically ineffective.

Among the more alarming allegations is that fisheries in France "fixed" catch numbers even when accurately reported by fishermen so as to avoid international criticism. The report states that between 1998 and 2007 more than a third of the Atlantic bluefin caught worldwide was done so illegally.

It wasn't until 2007 that France declared accurate catch numbers of nearly 10,000 tons, nearly double its quota for the year. A criminal investigation followed, resulting in charges against the six of the nation's biggest fishing captains, yet fisheries officials have so far gone unsanctioned. 

The lawlessness isn't limited to France however. Regulators recently seized a catch of 500 illegally harvested baby bluefin in southern Italy. In North Africa and Turkey, where there is less established enforcement mechanisms, less accountable fleets are capitalizing on the thriving illicit trade. An Algerian ship owner and 2 of Algeria’s Ministry of Fishing officials were recently convicted of trafficking in blackmarket bluefin.

This blackmarket industry is fed by a growing and already enormous bluefin demand for sashimi and sushi, largely in Japan (roughly 80%), though there's increased demand for it in Europe and elsewhere.. This has led to a hyper-inflated market wherein a single fish can fetch as much as $177,000.

Efforts to ban international trade in bluefin at this spring's meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) were unsuccessful despite U.S. backing.

Less than a month after the CITES meeting, the Gulf oil spill would deal yet another blow to the fish. Atlantic bluefin are separated into 2 stocks, eastern and western. The eastern stock spawns in the Mediterranean Sea while the western stock spawns in the Gulf.  Researchers using satellite data recently estimated that the spill killed more than 20 percent of the juvenile Atlantic bluefin in the Gulf. There are additional worries about the impacts of chemical dispersants such as Corexit on the long term survival of the fish.

This combination of overfishing and habitat destruction make it imperative that the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) act now and grant the Atlantic bluefin tuna protections under the Endangered Species Act before it's too late. By protecting this highly migratory species in U.S. waters, we can help to facilitate the giant fishes' recovery worldwide.

NMFS is taking comments now. Please take action on behalf of Atlantic bluefin today by sending NMFS a letter in support of ESA listing for the Atlantic bluefin.

Friday, November 5, 2010

What Does This Election Mean for Endangered Species?

By Leda Huta
Executive Director
Endangered Species Coaliton

This election isn't good news for wildlife. Although the Endangered Species Act (ESA) was signed by Richard Nixon and passed with bipartisan support, times have changed. Politicians now use endangered species to score cheap political points, scapegoating wildlife protections for complex problems. Relying on misleading, tired old refrains like fish vs. farmer, they ignore root causes and real solutions in favor of dismantling wildlife protections that will do little to address problems they care about.
In the House, Committee for Natural Resources Chair (an endangered species ally) Congressman Nick Rahall (D-WV) will lose his leadership. With the Republicans taking over, Congressman Doc Hastings (R-WA), the Ranking Republican, is poised to become Chairman. Congressman Hastings, elected under the Contract with America banner, received a League of Conservation Voters (LCV) score of 0% most years. On endangered species, he supported President Bush's crippling of science in endangered species decisions. He advocated for the Columbia River to be prioritized for irrigation instead of wildlife protections under the ESA. And he voted for Congressman Pombo's 2005 Extinction Bill to dismantle endangered species protections.
Congressman Rob Bishop (R-UT), ranking member of the National Parks, Forests and Public Lands Subcommittee and Western Caucus Chairman wants to deslist the wolf via Congress and to open more public land to drilling. The Congressman states that the ESA "overemphasizes listing" (even though listed species are much less likely to go extinct), opposes the listing of Sage grouse as endangered, blames the Sonoran Pronghorn for our immigration problems, and reproaches endangered species for California's drier conditions.
The current Ranking Minority Member of the Water and Power Subcommittee, Congressman Tom McClintock (R-CA) -- with a 0% LCV score -- opposes protecting the ecosystem and endangered species of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. The former Chair of the committee, Don Young (R-AK) created the ESA Task Force chaired by Congressman Richard Pombo, leading to Pombo's ultimately unsuccessful Extinction Bill. Other wildlife foes on the committee -- each with an LCV score of 0-4% and on the wrong side of endangered species issues -- include: Congressmen Paul Broun (R-GA), Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), John Fleming (R-LA), Louie Gohmert (R-TX), Doug Lamborn (R-CO), Adrian Smith (R-NE) and Congresswoman Cynthia Lummis (R-WY).
Unfortunately, one of Pombo's staunches allies -- Congressman Steve Pearce (R-NM) -- is back in his old seat. Last time around, Congressman Pearce went after the Mexican wolf reintroduction program, stating that nothing is more attractive to wolves than the sound of a crying baby. If he gets back on this committee, Congressman Pearce could once again make quite a team with the other wildlife foes, unrestrained by any moderate, pro-wildlife Republicans (none of whom currently serve on the committee).
Congressman Jerry Lewis (R-CA) is the Ranking Minority Member in line to take over the Appropriations Committee. He consistently voted against endangered species, even cosponsoring a bill that weakened the ESA, under the guise of flood control. He vehemently opposed the protection of the endangered San Bernardino kangaroo rat (much cuter than it sounds) and hired a lobbying firm to find ways of weakening protections for it and the endangered Delhi sands flower-loving fly.
Congressman Mike Simpson (R-ID) -- a member of Speaker-in-waiting John Boehner's inner circle--is in line for Chairman of Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, which approves U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) budgets. While he has been a conservationist on some issues, like wilderness designation for the Boulder-White Clouds range, there are still strong reasons for concern, namely his LCV score of 6%, his legislation to delist wolves and his co-sponsorship of legislation to repeal the designation of critical habitat.
In the Senate, the news appears better only on the surface. There were some very important wins, like Senator Barbara Boxer, Chairman of the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. But, active endangered species foes like Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) are also back in. And here, Democrats are problematic, entertaining exemptions to the ESA for salmon and wolves. Senators Diane Feinstein (D-CA) and Max Baucus (D-MT) are particularly in positions from which they could do a lot of damage. If they pursue their exemptions strategy, we'll see a precedent whereby Congress gets into the wildlife management business, while hacking away at the ESA. Insider sources claim we're likely to see this issue in the lame duck session, probably attached to an appropriations bill.
Holding the line on endangered species protections in Congress just got incredibly challenging. In light of that, we hope President Obama will use administrative tools to strengthen wildlife conservation. We need a FWS Director who can implement scientific integrity, consultation requirements for drilling, and guidance on protecting endangered species from climate change. Even without Congress, President Obama can keep species from going extinct on our watch.