Category Archives: biodiversity

Crude Oil in the Bile of Fish: BP Horizon Oil Spill

Since the 2010 BP oil spill, marine scientists at the University of South Florida (USF) have sampled more than 2,500 individual fish representing 91 species from 359 locations across the Gulf of Mexico and found evidence of oil exposure in all of them, including some of the most popular types of seafood. The highest levels were detected in yellowfin tuna, golden tilefish and red drum. The study represents the first comprehensive, Gulf-wide survey of oil pollution launched in response to the Deepwater Horizon spill.

Over the last decade have examined the levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), the most toxic chemical component of crude oil, in the bile of the fish. Bile is produced by the liver to aid in digestion, but it also acts as storage for waste products.

“We were quite surprised that among the most contaminated species was the fast-swimming yellowfin tuna as they are not found at the bottom of the ocean where most oil pollution in the Gulf occurs,” said lead author Erin Pulster…Pulster says it makes sense that tilefish have higher concentrations of PAH because they live their entire adult lives in and around burrows they excavate on the seafloor and PAHs are routinely found in Gulf sediment. However, their exposure has been increasing over time, as well as in other species, including groupers, some of Florida’s most economically important fish. …

Oil pollution hot spots were also found off major population centers, such as Tampa Bay, suggesting that runoff from urbanized coasts may play a role in the higher concentrations of PAHs. Other sources include chornic low-level releases from oil and gas platforms, fuel from boats and airplanes and even natural oil seeps — fractures on the seafloor that can ooze the equivalent of millions of barrels of oil per year.

Excerpts from Firste Gulf of Mexico-wide survey of oil pollution completed 10 years after Deepwater Horizon, Science Daily, Apr. 15, 2020

Our Biggest Weakness: Weak Biodefenses + Malicious Viruses

The coronavirus that has killed over 180,000 people worldwide was not created with malice. Analysis of its genome suggests that, like many new pathogens, it originated by natural selection rather than human design. But …“Covid-19 has demonstrated the vulnerability of the US and global economy to biological threats, which exponentially increases the potential impact of an attack,” says Richard Pilch of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. In theory, bioweapons are banned. Most countries in the world are party to the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) of 1975, which outlaws making or stockpiling biological agents for anything other than peaceful purposes. But some countries probably make them secretly, or keep the option close at hand. America accuses North Korea of maintaining an offensive biological-weapons programme, and alleges that China, Iran and Russia dabble in dual-use biolgical research (for peaceful and military usage) research. Toxins like ricin have also been bought and sold on shady recesses of the internet known as the dark web.

Germ warfare briefly rose to prominence in September 2001, when letters laced with anthrax spores were mailed to American news organisations and senators, killing five people. That was a wake-up call. Public health became part of national security. BioWatch, a network of aerosol sensors, was installed in more than 30 cities across America. But in recent years threats from chemical weapons, like the sarin dropped by Syria’s air force and the Novichok smeared on door handles by Russian assassins, took priority.

Though the Trump administration published a national biodefence strategy in 2018, it shut down the National Security Council’s relevant directorate and proposed cuts to the laboratories that would test for biological threats. Funding for civilian biosecurity fell 27% between fiscal years 2015 and 2019, down to $1.61bn—less than was spent on buying Black Hawk helicopters.

Yet many pathogens used as weapons tend to differ from respiratory viruses in important ways. Those like anthrax, caused by bacteria which form rugged and sprayable spores, but do not spread from human to human, have the advantage of minimising the risk of rebound to the attacker. With the notable exception of smallpox—a highly contagious and lethal virus that was eradicated in 1979 but preserved by the Soviet Union for use against America (but not Europe), and now exists only in two laboratories, in America and Russia—most biological weapons would therefore have more localised effects than the new coronavirus.

Even so, the slow and stuttering response to the pandemic has exposed great weaknesses in how governments would cope…demonstrating that every part of public-health infrastructure is either broken or stretched to the max. The centrepiece of America’s biosurveillance programme, a network of laboratories designed for rapid testing, failed, says Mr Koblentz, while the national stockpile of face masks had not been substantially replenished in over a decade. Would-be attackers will take note.

In 2016 American intelligence agencies singled out genome editing as a national-security threat for the first time. Two years later a major study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine warned that synthetic biology, a potent set of methods for tinkering with or creating organisms, could, in time, be used to re-create viruses like smallpox or make existing pathogens more dangerous, such as resistant to antibiotics. In 2011 Dutch and Japanese scientists said that they had created a version of bird flu that could be transmitted between mammals by the respiratory route—an announcement that prompted the Netherlands to treat the relevant academic papers as sensitive goods subject to export controls.

In January 2020 Canadian scientists funded by an American biotech company used synthetic DNA from Germany to synthesise a microbe closely related to smallpox, indicating the ease with which it could be done. “If a potential bad actor pursues a weapons capability using sars-cov-2, the virus is now attainable in laboratories all around the world, and blueprints for assembling it from scratch have been published in the scientific literature.”

 The trouble is that biodefence has evolved slowly, says Dan Kaszeta, a former biological weapons adviser to the White House. Compact devices that can detect chemical threats and warn soldiers to don a gas mask have long been available. “That doesn’t exist for anthrax or any of the other aerosol pathogens,” says Mr Kaszeta. “Telling the difference between an anthrax spore and a bit of tree pollen is not something you can do in a couple of seconds.”

Excertps from Biodefence: Spore Wars, Economist, Apr. 25, at 19

Naked Commercial Whaling and Toxic Whale Meat

Scientific “research” was also the reason Japan’s government gave for continuing to kill whales in the vast Southern Ocean after a global moratorium on commercial whaling came into force in 1985. But international criticism along with environmental groups’ attempts to sabotage the annual hunt proved too costly to Japan’s reputation and purse (the government bankrolled the hunt). In late 2018 Japan declared it was giving up killing in the Southern Ocean .

The Southern Ocean is now a sanctuary. But it comes at a cost. Japan walked out of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), accusing the anti-whaling members of failing to appreciate the cultural significance of whaling in Japan and of imposing their values on others. Freed from the IWC’s strictures, the government said commercial whaling would resume in Japan’s own extensive waters. But…whaling in home waters is troubling. Most whale populations in the Southern Ocean are healthy. In Japanese waters, stocks are less bountiful….

The whaling lobby is powerful in Japan. For now, the subsidies continue, supposedly to help ease the switch to nakedly commercial whaling but they coud be gone in two or three years. Other fleets complain that whaling gets far more than its fair share of subsidies for fisheries.

The challenges are immense. Whalemeat consumption has fallen from 230,000 tonnes a year in the early 1960s to 3,000 tonnes today, and whale is no longer cheap. Local whales have higher accumulations of toxins (such as a mercury) than those in the Southern Ocean. One packager of sashimi admits he sources his whale meat from Norway.

Excertps from Japan wants to catch whales. But who will eat them?, Economist, Apor. 25, 2020

Elephants and Cattle: Benefits of Co-existence

Wildlife and cattle can coexist.  In fact, elephants can help distribute nutrients into the soil, via their poop and their habit of knocking over trees…Common grass contained about 50% more nitrogen in the grazing areas with elephants than the areas without them, making that grass more nutritious. That should benefit both cows and smaller wildlife, such as gazelles….This is why ranchers must protect elephants.

Excerpts from Conservation Ecology: Elephants Restore Depleted Soil, Science Mag., Apr. 3, 2020, at 12

Can Traditional Medicine Cure COVID-19? China’s Take

Around the world officials are advising people to be wary of alternative treatments for covid-19. The opposite is true in China, where remedies known as traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) are being heavily promoted by the state. In January 2020, as the crisis escalated, the health ministry listed TCM treatments among those it recommended for the disease. It sent nearly 5,000 specialists to Hubei to administer them to patients (including sufferers at a sports centre in Wuhan that was turned into a TCM hospital for people with mild symptoms). Now China is keen to promote its remedies abroad.  TCM practitioners have joined Chinese medical teams sent to help manage outbreaks in Cambodia, Iraq and Italy. In mid-March, 2020 state media quoted a Tanzanian health official saying that China’s use of TCM for covid-19 may be “a model” for Africa to follow…

The use of animals in TCM sometimes involves appalling cruelty. One of the TCM remedies that the health ministry has recommended for use in the treatment of covid-19 patients includes powdered bear bile. In China this is often extracted from live bears kept in grim farms even though its active ingredient can be created synthetically. In February 2020 China banned the sale of wild animals as food—close contact in markets between live specimens and merchants may have helped the coronavirus to leap from animal to human. But the new rules do not prevent trappers and breeders from selling animal parts for use in TCM.

Officials do not say that traditional remedies can cure covid-19. But they do claim that TCM can reduce death rates by preventing patients with mild or moderate symptoms from developing more serious ones. They also say that TCM can speed up recovery. A website set up by China Daily, a state newspaper, called “Fighting covid-19 the Chinese way”, says that TCM can “remove the trash which causes illness”, leaving the virus “no room to survive”.

Excerpts from Fighting it the Chinese Way: Traditional Medicine, Economist, Apr. 11, 2020

Oceans Restored: the 2050 Deadline

A study published in Nature on April 2, 2020 claims that marine ecosystems could recover in just 30 years because of the growing success of conservation efforts and the ocean’s remarkable resilience. Some of these conservation efforts include the increase in Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) from less than 1 percent in 2000 to almost 8 percent today and the restoration of key habitats such as seagrass beds and mangroves

One great success is the restoration of humpback whales that migrate between Antarctica and eastern Australia. Their numbers have rebounded from a few hundred in 1968 to more than 40,000 today. Sea otters in Western Canada have also jumped from dozens in 1980 to thousands. Green turtles in Japan, grey seals and cormorants in the Baltic and elephant seals in the United States have all also made remarkable comebacks. However, “If we don’t tackle climate change and raise the ambition and immediacy of these efforts, we risk wasting our efforts,” Duarte, one of the authors of the study, told BBC News. The initial price tag on all this is hefty: $10 to $20 billion a year until the 2050 recovery date.

Excerpts from Oceans Can Recover by 2050, Study Shows, EcoWatch, Apr. 2, 2020

Better Alive than Dead: The Crocodile Trade

Around 6m tonnes of bush meat are thought to come out of the Congo Basin each year… The trade has emptied out parts of the forest; 39% of it is at severe risk of over-hunting, the study says. Everything from bonobos (an endangered species of ape) to cobras, antelopes and, occasionally, elephants, appear at market stalls in Mbandaka.

Over-hunting has made life more dangerous for crocodile hunters. The number of dwarf crocodiles, once common in the Congo river, is dwindling. So hunters have to chase the ferocious Nile crocodile instead. There are plenty of those. Their scaly bodies stretch to six metres and they often kill humans. Stalkers in canoes go after them at night, shining a torch while stirring the water. “The crocodile does not like that,” says Mr Nyalowala. “He begins to writhe and then comes to attack.” As the animal pounces so do its pursuers, spearing it.

A live crocodile fetches more than a dead one in the markets in Mbandaka, so hunters bind their jaws and transport them some 200km downstream in their canoes. They sell for around $150 each. A teacher at a state school, by comparison, earns around $170 a month, though many did not get paid at all last year.

Croc in the pot: The toils and spoils of Congo’s crocodile-killers, Economist, Mar. 19, 2020