environment

US bill restricts use of science in environmental policymaking

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is facing a future in which its hands will be tied on making many policies if a new bill becomes law.

Last week the US House of Representatives passed a bill, the HONEST Act, that would prevent the EPA from basing any of its regulations on science that is not publicly accessible – not just journal articles themselves, but all of the underlying data, models and computer code. Read more in New Scientist.

Are we ready for the gold rush on the sea floor?

One firm reckons its planned sea-floor mines are more sustainable than those on land. But the diggers could destroy rare life and more.

THE submersible Alvin encountered its first “black smoker” 2000 metres deep off the coast of the Galapagos Islands. It was 1977, and the realisation that life could survive in pitch darkness next to deep sea hydrothermal vents was about to stun the world. Now we are returning to those vents, this time on the other side of the Pacific – and armed with diggers.

The hot water shooting out of these vents contains all sorts of dissolved precious metals. On contact with the cold ocean water, these immediately precipitate out, showering the vicinity with gold, silver, copper and more. Some want to tap into this booty, arguing that deep sea mining is not only lucrative, but also a more sustainable alternative to mineral extraction on land. But not everyone is convinced we can exploit the deep without damaging it. Read more in New Scientist.

The Ghosts of Fishers Past

Photo by Brian Owens

Photo by Brian Owens

Lost fishing gear keeps on doing the job it was designed for long after its owners are gone.

Lacuna is like most other humpback whales in the Atlantic Ocean. He overwinters in warm Caribbean waters—where humpbacks breed and give birth—and heads north in spring, toward colder waters to feast on the abundance of krill, copepods, and other tiny marine life.

For nearly two decades, Lacuna, recognizable by the unique pattern of black and white marks on the underside of his tail fluke, has beaten the same watery path from the southern Atlantic to the Bay of Fundy in eastern Canada without incident, managing to avoid the dangers an animal his size might encounter. But last July when whale watchers spotted him in the bay, he was entangled in ropes—he had run afoul of fishing gear.

Although it was impossible to tell the origin of the gear Lacuna was hauling around, the whale’s plight highlighted a growing threat worldwide, abandoned or lost fishing gear that endangers marine life—ghost gear. Ghost gear does the job it was designed for: to catch marine animals. The problem is that it continues to catch fish, turtles, birds, and whales, for as long as the gear exists. Even worse, as animals die in lost traps or nets, they act as bait to attract other marine life and the cycle continues for years or even centuries.

Around 640,000 tonnes of fishing gear is lost or abandoned worldwide each year, accounting for around 10 percent of all marine litter. Ghost gear entangles and kills an estimated 136,000 whales, seals, and other marine mammals annually, and likely millions more animals with lower profiles: fish, crustaceans, turtles, and birds. Read more in Hakai.

When Good Fish Die Young

Rising temperatures are suppressing survival rates for young fish.

Climate change is making fish die young. Over the past six decades, the proportion of fish that survive to adulthood has been going down, by three percent per decade on average, according to a new analysis of global fish stock data.

Compiling statistics on changing fish stocks for 127 species of fish in 39 different marine regions, ecology doctoral student candidate Greg Britten calculated that the bulk of the increase in fish juvenile mortality can be attributed to rising ocean temperatures and the declining abundance of phytoplankton. Read more in Hakai.

A Fishy Plan

Canada’s new government says it’s going to expand the country’s marine protected areas. Scientists worry the government is cutting corners to hit its goal.

Canada has a long way to go in protecting its oceans. The United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity wants 10 percent of the world’s marine and coastal environments protected by 2020. So far, Canada has set aside just 1.3 percent.

With Canada’s change in federal government this past October, meeting the UN’s marine protection target has leapt to the top of the priority list for Hunter Tootoo, Canada’s new minister of fisheries and oceans. In his mandate letter for the new minister, Prime Minister Trudeau listed—as his very first line item—the goal of protecting five percent of Canada’s coastal waters by 2017, and the full ten percent by 2020.

That’s good news, says Rodolphe Devillers, a marine geographer at Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. But he says that, in their enthusiasm, the government seems to be looking to cut corners. Read more in Hakai.

Oil Sands Dilbit Causes Developmental Problems in Fish

Scientists have very little idea what the environmental effects of an oil sands “dilbit” spill would be.

The oil that flows in pipes away from Canada’s oil sands is not the same as conventional crude oil. Known as diluted bitumen, or “dilbit,” this proprietary blend of oil and chemicals behaves differently in the event of a spill. Or, scientists suspect it does. So little research has been done on the environmental and ecological effects of dilbit that it’s hard to say for sure. As a first step toward understanding the risks posed by dilbit, scientists working with Alberta oil sands dilbit found that the tacky mixture can cause a range of serious toxic effects in fishRead more in Hakai.

Pharmaceuticals in the environment: a growing problem

Drugs taken by humans and animals find their way into rivers, lakes and even drinking water, and can have devastating effects on the environment.

When Rebecca Klaper searched for signs of pharmaceuticals in Lake Michigan, she got a surprise. The most common drug she found was one she hadn’t even considered looking for — metformin, a diabetes drug.

“It wasn’t even on our radar,” says Klaper, a freshwater scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in the United States. “We only found it because the Environmental Protection Agency just happened to add it to the detection assay we used.”

Perhaps even more surprising was how far the drug had spread from the point it entered the lake via treated sewage. “Lake Michigan is huge, so we expected a big dilution effect, but we were still finding drugs, including metformin, three miles from the sewage treatment plants,” she says. Read more in The Pharmaceutical Journal.

Can Winter De-Icers Go Completely Green?

Environmentally friendly additives to road salt may still have tradeoffs.

Every year, as winter closes in, transportation authorities prepare to deploy their vast stockpiles of salt and sand to keep the roads and highways safe and ice-free for drivers.

In the United States, roughly 18 million metric tons of road salt are spread on the roads each year, with another 5 million used in Canada. In Minnesota, nine tons of salt are applied per lane mile each winter – meaning a single mile of a four-lane highway gets 36 tons of salt dumped on it each year.

But all that salt does not just disappear along with the ice in the spring; it sticks around, and can have major effects on the surrounding ecosystems and even drinking water. Read more at Inside Science.

BMA votes to end investment in fossil fuels

The British Medication Association set an international precedent with a vote to end its investment in fossil fuel companies. The motion also urged the BMA to switch its electricity supply to renewable sources and to help create an alliance of health care bodies to promote the health benefits of reducing greenhouse gasses. Read more in CMAJ.