Middle East pesce?

February 16, 2009

Fishers in Bahrain have just gone on strike, protesting declining fish stocks and environmental quality.  The island nation off the coast of Saudi Arabia has seen fish stocks decline in response to land development.

While the latest protests seem to center around land development, the shrimp industry was damaged in 1991 because of oil spills related to the Gulf War – another incident showing the connection between land and water.  Events less catastrophic, such as erosion, declining water quality, and habitat loss, can be equally devastating to sustainable management of aquatic resources.

The story is unfolding, but click here to read about the story from a regional English newspaper.

Some of the most meaningful advances in environmental problems fly under the radar.  So if “Development of a biomass charcoal combustion heater for household utilization” doesn’t sound like a groundbreaking paper, consider a catchier title: “Smart folks offer plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and provide energy with renewable resources.”

That’s the idea of a new study published in Industrial & Engineering Chemistry Research.  And it’s relevant because Asian countries like Japan have millions of households with charcoal heating – so by improving the efficiency of these heaters, it will reduce the amount of carbon dioxide burned and the amount of biomass used.

The two main ways the researchers achieved greater efficiency were using a thin layer of charcoal and fuel that converted a high ratio of the mass to heat.  Additionally, the fuels come from sustainable sources: waste from wood processing, coffee beans, and soybean fiber.  Most of the biomass stoves in the U.S. have an efficiency of 46-54%, while the new design reaches efficiencies of 60-81%.

To reduce carbon dioxide emissions, we need smart ways to get more from our limited resources.  This study, along with similar efforts to increase the efficiency of some of the dirtiest engines in developing countries, probably won’t make headlines.  But it represents some of best hope for rapidly reducing our impact on the environment and slowing climate change.

Click here to read the article.

Corn’s ecological footprint

February 13, 2009

High-yield corn agriculture in America provides obvious benefits, but a new study shows it’s also correlated with environmental problems – some of which can be detected by fishers thousands of miles away.  While using the words corn and nitrogen in the same sentence may sound as boring as a discussion of tractor tires, the issue is actually one of the most important environmental issues around.

High-yield corn production requires fertilizer to provide nutrients for the plants.  As reported in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, this practice is also linked with higher nitrogen in nearby rivers: much of the nitrogen fertilizer washes away from the fields and winds up in streams that feed larger rivers.  Broadly speaking, this creates two major problems.

First, the excess nitrogen in the water fuels “dead zones” in rivers and in oceans.  Just as the nitrogen helps corn grow in fields, it also helps algae grow in water.  But because algae has a much more rapid life cycle – it grows and dies quickly – algal blooms create masses of decaying algae in a short period of time.  As algae decompose, oxygen is rapidly depleted, and fish and shellfish are unable to survive in these areas.  

Secondly, though we need nitrogen, we need a delicate balance of it to sustainably enjoy crops and fish.  Excessive nitrogen can be as problematic as scarce nitrogen.  This issue has received less attention than global warming and carbon footprints, but scientists are increasingly concerned about the impacts of using nitrogen unwisely.

The new study showed a strong correlation between intensive corn production and nitrogen in rivers, indicating this type of agriculture is associated with the two problems described above.  But where more types of crops were grown, the levels of nitrogen in rivers decreased.  

The study authors suggest their findings should play a role in determining agricultural policies to curb nitrogen runoff. Some existing practices which can help reduce runoff include increasing buffers between cropland and surface water, changing in crop rotation, and using native plants in some parts of fields to help keep the nitrogen from leaving the fields.

The article is free to read on the journal’s website.

It’s not quite turning water into wine, but turning beer scum into fish is still pretty impressive.

Entrepreneurs at Oberon FMR have developed a method to use the otherwise useless (and expensive to dispose) byproducts of beer manufacturing to create food for farmed fish.  The innovative solution takes an existing waste product and converts it to a desperately needed replacement for fish meal.

On a global scale, aquaculture still relies too heavily on wild-caught seafood to feed farmed fish, contributing to the problem of overfishing.  Oberon FMR sidesteps the wild fish by using the remnants of barley and hops to create protein using bacteria; this protein is used to create a fish food without the heavy ecological toll of harvesting more fish.  According to the company, the process becomes even more sustainable to implement because it requires little in the way of new equipment – most of the basic requirements already exist in water treatment plants.

The young company has attracted attention recently and recently won the grand prize at a biotech venture capital contest. It’s a good example of a using science to create more sustainable protein sources, as well as a nice example of a green business (Colorado’s New Belgium Brewery) helping to foster innovation by providing the raw materials used in the pilot study.

It’s a story straight out of a spy novel: it begins in a sleepy town, where government agents assume local names and cautiously enter a thriving black market.  Several million dollars change hands.  With the some helpful advice from a coroner, it ends in an upscale Georgetown neighborhood and winds up covered in the Washington Post.  

But instead of foreign intelligence agencies and military secrets, the case revolves around a delicious bass.  

As reported in the Washington Post, Maryland fishers have been charged with illegally harvesting rockfish, or striped bass, from the Chesapeake Bay.  While there’s a legitimate market for these fish, the case revolved around the size of the fish caught and the methods by which they were caught.

As with many species of fish, the oldest and largest striped bass are the most important for reproducing.  To protect these fish and ensure robust future generations, there’s an open slot length for striped bass: fish that are too small cannot be caught, and neither can the large, older fish so valuable for maintaining a healthy population.  The fishers charged are accused of knowingly taking the protected breeders.  The fish were also likely to have been caught with nets, which are banned, instead of hook and line.

These illegally harvested fish were then passed on to markets and unknowing consumers, highlighting one of the great difficulties of protecting fish: by the time a consumer is staring at a restaurant menu or looking at a cut of fish at the market, it’s virtually impossible for them to know how the fish was caught.  So in the nexus of policy-makers and wonkishly-informed consumers that is Washington, even the most conscientious shoppers would have no idea they were contributing to unsustainable fishing practices by eating striped bass.

The engaging story can be read in full at the Washington Post’s website.

An ocean victory

February 7, 2009

Climate change is already producing dramatic changes in Arctic ecosystems.  In response to this, commercial fishing and conservation groups have agreed to close over 150,000 square miles of the Arctic sea to commercial fishing.

It’s a smart move because the ecosystem is changing rapidly, making it difficult to predict the impact any fishing might have.  The protected area has only recently been accessible as sea ice has melted in recent years, so the agreement will not affect areas of the Arctic sea that are currently fished.

It’s heartening to see commercial fishing interests and conservation groups reach such an agreement, and it should be good news for all.  Click here to read more details.

Overfishing describes the common practice of harvesting unsustainable levels of fish (or shellfish, crustaceans, etc.).  This has several consequences, some obvious and some less obvious:

First, overfishing robs the future – by taking too much today, we reduce what’s available tomorrow.  As an analogy, consider a bank account accruing interest.  If you deduct more than your earn in interest every year, you’ll soon run out of money.  It’s the same with fish populations – if we continue to harvest too many fish, the population will eventually collapse.

Overfishing isn’t sustainable economically.  Once a local stock has been overharvested, fishers have two options: 1) go further to find an exploitable population or 2) stop fishing.  Going back to the banking analogy, it’s not possible to live off your interest if you keep deducting from the principal. 

Overfishing has unpredictable and harmful indirect impacts.  Consider the example of sharks, rays, and scallops on the Atlantic coast of America.  As Science reported in 2007, worldwide overfishing of shark populations might have helped their prey – smaller rays – grow to much higher levels.  Rays eat scallops, and when ray populations expand, they eat more scallops – bad news for people who make a living harvesting scallops.  So poor management of sharks has impacts throughout the ocean.

Overfishing can change ecosystems dramatically – and this has direct impacts on our economy and diet.  A good example is Atlantic cod in the Canada.  These populations have been closed to fishing or heavily restricted for over a decade, yet many populations have not recovered.  Increasingly, evidence suggests other species are taking the roles cod once played – but they’re not species that provide us with the same benefits.  When invertebrates and plankton replace cod in ecosystems, the people who once ate or sold the cod don’t have a palatable replacement.


Here are some ways you can contribute to more sustainable oceans.


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