Environmental Hazards, Nature

Invasive Carp Jumps Barrier to Great Lakes

A fisherman caught an invasive silver carp nine miles from the Great Lakes. Photo: Shutterstock

A live Asian carp has been caught 9 miles from Lake Michigan.

This is a big deal. These fish “are voracious eaters, able to consume 5 to 20 percent of their body weight each day, leaving far less of the microscopic plant and animal life (phytoplankton and zooplankton) to support native fisheries,” says Fisheries and Oceans Canada. They have been blamed for pushing out native species and lowering water quality.

There are four types of Asian carp that are considered a threat to the Great Lakes: bighead, silver, black, and grass.

Millions of dollars have been spent to construct an electrified barrier designed to keep the invasive carp from entering the Great Lakes. But this carp, weighing 8 pounds and measuring 28 inches long, got past that barrier. It was caught “with a gill net by a contracted commercial fisher,” the Asian Carp Regional Coordinating Committee said in a statement.

“The news of an Asian carp found within nine miles of the Great Lakes is cause for serious concern,” Ohio Republican Senator Rob Portman said in a statement. “The fishing industry in the Great Lakes is a $7 billion a year economic engine and it would be severely threatened if Asian Carp are allowed into the Great Lakes.”

This finding comes as the Trump administration considers cutting the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, a $300 million-per-year program that helps states with environmental projects such as keeping invasive Asian carp out of the lakes.

“Asian carp are a very serious threat to our Great Lakes economy,” Michigan Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow tweeted. “The Trump Admin must immediately release the study they have been blocking so we can permanently stop the Asian carp!”

“This is one more reason why we must fully fund the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative again. I have fought proposed cuts from both the previous administration and the new one and I will continue to lead efforts in this Congress to ensure this critical initiative is fully funded,” Portman said.

The Illinois department of natural resources and the Asian Carp Regional Coordinating Committee said, “It is important to note that this preliminary finding does not confirm that a reproducing population of Asian carp currently exists above the electric dispersal barriers or within the Great Lakes.”

Nonetheless, the group is launching “two additional weeks of intensive sampling in the area.”

Climate Change, Environmental Hazards

Climate Change Bringing Tropical Diseases to Higher Latitudes

Tropical diseases are spreading farther north as the climate continues to warm.
The Anopheles mosquito is responsible for the spread of malaria. Its range may be increasing due to climate change. Photo via Pixabay

It’s been known for a long time—like, since Roman times—that climate change brings disease. Roman aristocrats would move to summer homes in the mountains in order to avoid malaria-transmitting mosquitoes, for example.

But even the appearance of malaria mosquitoes was simply a summer phenomenon that was a regular part of south European climate. Nowadays, we have more to be worried about, thanks to global climate changes.

Tropical diseases like viral illness Chikungunya, West Nile Virus, and Zika; bacterial infection Vibrio vulnificus; and parasitic infection malaria are finding their way farther and farther north as greenhouse gases boost temperatures around the world.

The Asian tiger mosquito and yellow fever mosquitoes infect humans with Chikungunya. The virus had been limited to tropical regions of Africa, Asia, and South America, but as temperatures have warmed, the geographical distribution of these mosquitoes has grown. If climate change continues unchecked, a team at the University of Bayeruth warns, the virus could even spread to southern Europe and the United States.

“People have already been infected with Chikungunya in Italy, France, and Florida,” said Dr. Stephanie Thomas, a biogeography researcher at the University of Bayeruth. “However, such cases are still too rare to play any significant role in our model. The climactic potential for new diseases in southern Europe and the U.S. is probably being underestimated.”

Vibrio illnesses are caused by bacteria that occur naturally in warm ocean waters. Although Vibrio infections have been seen sporadically in warm seas from Texas to Maryland, Vibrio bacteria are spreading north. Vibrio illnesses have even appeared as far north as the Arctic Circle.

We are seeing lots of new hospitable areas opening up for these bacteria,” said Craig Baker-Austin, a Vibrio expert at the UK’s Centre for Environment, Fisheries, and Aquaculture Sciences laboratory in southern England. “Climate change is essentially driving this process, especially warming.”

In Europe, ticks that carry Lyme disease, that once only appeared in southern Europe, are now appearing as far north as Sweden. A region near Russia’s Ural Mountains has seen a 23-fold increase in tick-borne encephalitis over the past 20 years. The sand flies that host the parasite-borne illness leishmaniasis are showing up in north Texas.

“So often so many of the things we talk about with climate change are ‘this is going to be a problem in 2030 or 2050 or 2100, and it sounds so far away,” said Stanley Maloy, a microbiologist at San Diego State University. “But we’re talking about things where our one-degree centigrade change in temperature is already enough to affect infections. We have clear evidence in many cases things are happening already, and they’re tightly correlated to changes in ambient temperature, extreme weather, or water temperature.”

Regardless of whether people believe climate change is real, it’s inevitable that even the greatest skeptics will soon find themselves being affected by the spread of tropical diseases to higher latitudes.

Conservation, Environmental Hazards, Environmentalist, Green

Judge Says More Environmental Study Needed for DAPL Operation

A federal judge has temporarily blocked the Dakota Access Pipeline, saying that the Army Corps of Engineers needs to redo some of its environmental studies.
A Portland, Oregon Dakota Access Pipeline protest solidarity rally. Photo: Diego G Diaz / Shutterstock.com

On June 14, a federal judge put a temporary block on the use of the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline by stating that the Army Corps of Engineers needs to reconsider some of its environmental impact studies.

U.S. district judge James Boasberg said that the corps had failed to take into account the level to which a spill might affect “fishing rights, hunting rights, or environmental justice, or the degree to which the pipeline’s effects are likely to be highly controversial.”

Boasberg had previously rejected two of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s appeals—one based on the fact that construction threatened sites of historical and cultural significance to the tribe, and the other that oil in the pipeline under Lake Oahe would damage sacred waters.

“Now that the court has rejected these two lines of attack, Standing Rock and Cheyenne River here take their third shot, this time zeroing in on DAPL’s environmental impact,” Boasberg wrote in his decision. “This volley meets with some degree of success.”

The judge wrote that while the Army Corps of Engineers had “substantially complied” with the National Environmental Policy Act, federal permits issued for the pipeline were in violation of the law in certain ways. “To remedy those violations, the Corps will have to reconsider those sections of its environmental analysis upon remand by the Court,” Boasberg wrote.

Later on, the judge will consider whether the pipeline must halt operations while the additional research is being conducted. A status conference is scheduled for the week of June 19.

Whether the pipeline is shut during the review or not depends on whether the omissions in the Corps’ analysis can be addressed quickly, or whether they’re large errors that might require more study.

“We applaud the courts for protecting our laws and regulations from undue political influence, and we will ask the Court to shut down pipeline operations immediately,” Standing Rock Sioux Chairman Dave Archambault said in a statement.

Just days after being sworn in, President Trump issued an executive order directing the Corps to do whatever it needed to do to get the pipeline construction underway. In February, the Corps granted the final easement needed to finish the pipeline.

This decision marks “an important turning point,” said Jan Hasselman, attorney for Earthjustice, which is representing the tribes in the lawsuit. “Until now, the rights of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe have been disregarded by the builders of the Dakota Access pipeline and the Trump administration…prompting a well-deserved global outcry.”

Although the protests by the Standing Rock tribe and its allies were effectively over in February, when the main encampment was cleared and the pipeline completed, this decision by Judge Boasberg shows that the struggle for justice—both for the environment and for the tribe—is not over yet.

Environmental Hazards, Nature

California Sea Lions Dying Due to Poisonous Algae Blooms

California sea lions are being killed by toxic algae blooms.
California sea lions are being killed by toxic algae blooms.

In the first two weeks of April, the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach, California, recorded 14 sea lion deaths due to poisoning by domoic acid. Another nine are in various stages of recovery.

Domoic acid poisoning occurs when animals eat fish that have been feeding on toxic algae.

Marine Mammal Center spokeswoman Krysta Higuchi told the Los Angeles Times that 10 years ago, the last time the problem was this severe in southern California, 79 sea lions died due to domoic acid poisoning.

“Other rescue facilities are also seeing the same animals,” Higuchi said. They’re “all over the place.”

How does domoic acid poisoning happen? Normally, blooms of single-celled algae occur for about a week in the spring. However, the heavy rains California has been receiving have intensified the blooms by flushing nutrients from fertilizers and other sources into the Pacific Ocean, and this has intensified the blooms. Small sea animals like anchovies, clams, and mussels feed on the algae, and the sea lions then feed on those animals.

“When the sea lions eat these toxic anchovies, they have serious neurological problems,” said Kathi Lefebvre of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries in Seattle. “The sea lions will have seizures, in some cases they’ll die, in some cases they’ll recover but have permanent brain damage.” In addition, many pregnant sea lions miscarry. The pups that do survive until birth often suffer from the effects of domoic acid poisoning.

The Marine Mammal Center in the northern California city of Sausalito has also treated two sea lions it suspects were poisoned by domoic acid.

Dr. Shawn Johnson, director of veterinary science at the Sausalito center, said that it’s possible more sea lions in northern California may be affected as the water temperatures rise in the summer and fall.

“There’s still a lot of unknowns about what triggers these blooms of algae and what triggers them to become toxic, because not all the blooms are toxic,” Johnson told SFgate. “There’s a lot of research going on to better understand [the causes] so we can better predict when these blooms will happen so that fisheries can be monitored, and for us, so we can be prepared for increased stranding [of sea lions].

California officials have warned consumers not to eat mussels, clams, or whole scallops harvested recreationally in Santa Barbara County. Commercially harvested seafood is typically tested for safety before being distributed.

Environmental Hazards, Environmentalist, Science

National Academy of Sciences Says EPA Pollutant Studies Are Necessary

EPA employees protest job cuts, March 2, 2017
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) workers and supporters protest job cuts during rally in Chicago, Illinois, March 2, 2017. Photo: John Gress Media Inc / Shutterstock.com

The EPA periodically performs controlled human inhalation exposure (CHIE) studies, in which people are exposed to air pollutants in order to study their short-term effects. The concentration and duration of such exposure is minimal, intended to not have any lasting harm on participants, and of 845 such participants in eight studies between 2009 and 2016, only one person had an unexpected complication.

But that does mean that there is some potential risk to participants who, while they are provided with information about the potential risks of such studies, are given that information through highly technical consent forms. The National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recently finished a study that found that the value of the CHIE studies outweighs their risk, with some caveats.

Primarily, they suggest that the EPA develop clearer language for participant consent forms, in order to prevent further dangers. “While communicating with potential participants, it’s particularly important to appropriately characterize the risks,” said Robert Hiatt, professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of California, San Francisco. “EPA needs to make every effort to ensure that these descriptions are accurate, scientifically grounded, and comprehensible to people.”

But overall, the studies have been found to benefit society far more than they endanger participants, which is exactly what one might want from such studies. By looking at how pollutants interact with human biology on their own, we can learn more about those pollutants in particular, which informs laws about air quality. It also helps us to determine what might be to blame when pollutants mix in the atmosphere and cause otherwise unforeseen problems.

The findings by the National Academy come at a time when the EPA is under considerable scrutiny by Congress and the President. Anything that can help the EPA prove that they’re helping the American people will be welcome in keeping that agency funded and active, which is necessary if we’re to do anything about climate change and other human activities which damage the planet.

Climate Change, Conservation, Environmental Hazards, Green, Nature

Climate Change is Already Threatening Some Species

Polar bear walking near water
Climate change is affecting endangered animals even more than we might think. Image: Shutterstock

Often, when we talk about climate change, we talk about the future, about how it’s going to affect the world. But more and more, we’re realizing that it already is affecting the world, that it is no longer a “future threat” but a very real, very current problem. And part of that problem is climate change.

There are currently 873 species of mammals and 1,272 species of birds listed as threatened, but of those, only 7% of mammals and 4% of birds are considered “threatened by climate change and severe weather.” However, a recent study by researchers from the University of Queensland and the Wildlife Conservation Society has found that as much as half of those mammals and a quarter of the birds “have already responded negatively to climate change.” This means that those species, such as the mountain gorilla, will have an even greater chance of being negatively affected by future changes.

The problem is that we aren’t seeing enough studies of animals, already classified as threatened or not, that take climate change into effect.

Climate change’s effect on animals isn’t anything new to us, even if previous studies have been few and far between. Back in 2014, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was already warning us that many animals were migrating further north or south toward the water in an effort to survive catastrophic changes to their natural habitats. Only the truly flexible species will be able to make it through as habitats shift and temperatures fluctuate.

Still, these studies might not be all doom and gloom. While the threats posed to these species are very real (and likely to get worse), knowing that these problems exist allows us to start addressing them. And knowing that climate change is already negatively affecting at least some species might make it easier to motivate people to care about climate change as something that’s happening right now…something we have a chance to deter, if not stop entirely.

Environmental Hazards, Nature, Science

Conservation Tillage Can Have Unanticipated Consequences

Conservation tillage can have unanticipated consequences when it's not combined with fertilizer management.
An algae-covered rock in Lake Erie. Photo: Shutterstock

The rise of conservation tillage, in which farmers leave the remnants of plants that have been harvested in the fields until they are ready to plant new crops, has helped to reduce erosion and soil loss. However, it might also be contributing to an increase of phosphorus in Lake Erie and presumably other bodies of water as well. This increase is mostly in the form of soluble phosphorous, which is being used more often in agricultural fertilizers. Unfortunately, it is also getting into rivers, streams, and lakes, where it is leading to dangerous algal blooms.

The algae feed off the phosphorus, and since there’s so much more of it, an overabundance of algae blooms. These are dangerous to fish and other animals, as well as plants, in those bodies of water. In 2014, an algae bloom in Lake Erie resulted in 400,000 people in Toledo, Ohio being unable to drink their city tap water.

In 2016, the American and Canadian governments took steps to start reducing phosphorous levels in Lake Erie by 40 percent, which should help, but more research is needed to discover the best ways to do this.

“Effective conservation is an adaptive process,” said study co-author Professor Andrew Sharpley of the University of Arkansas. “In the case of Lake Erie catchments, reduced land tillage dramatically reduced erosion, but without changing fertilizer management practices, this effectively trapped phosphorous at the soil surface.”

There is never one simple solution to the challenges of maintaining threatened or damaged ecosystems. That a solution has worked in some ways but failed in others does not mean that we should abandon it outright, but we do need to find ways to further adapt and improve our conservation efforts.

“The main lesson learned is that there can be unintended consequences of changing farm conservation practices, which should be recognized,” Sharpley said.

Ideally, further research into this problem will help us determine the best way to conserve soil and soil nutrients in agriculture, while also not leading to dangerous algal blooms in water ways.