climate change

Threats to Whales and Dolphins

Wales and dolphins are a vibrant part of the global ecosystem and their populations have been severely affected in various ways. Many species have been over-hunted in the past, and several populations are reduced to a small fraction of their original levels. They are vulnerable to entanglement in fishing gear and incidental catch in gillnets is one of the most serious threats to marine mammals. These fishery operations may well cause the extinction of several small cetacean populations within the next few decades, including the Vaquita and Chilean dolphins. Collisions between larger whales and ships (ship strikes) occur with regular frequency and represent a significant cause of death and traumatic injury. Because toothed whales and dolphins are top predators and thus at a higher tropic level in the food chain, they are especially prone to bio-accumulating toxins, such as heavy metals, persistent organic pollutants (POPs) and endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs). However, as recent research has demonstrated, such toxins and pollutants also negatively impact baleen whales.

Another threat to the health of whales and dolphins comes from the petroleum industry. Seismic surveys, which are used to discover oil and gas field situated below the seabed are, at a minimum, suspected to damage the complex hearing system of these marine mammals. Once the oil extraction processes is under way, the negative impacts shift habitat loss and exposure to hydrocarbons, lubricants and outright pollutants and toxins used in the process.

Loss of whale and dolphin habitat is directly linked to increasing human activity in and along marine environments. The aggregation of wastes we allow to flow into our streams and estuaries, and ultimately into the oceans, is a biochemical soup carrying thousands of different chemicals. Rainwater and snow melt, that run off from congested urban areas, collect street oil and chemicals as well as many metals. Runoff into streams and rivers adjacent to farmlands carry tons of suspended particles of soil. This is not only damaging to fish but can also choke-out submerged oxygen-giving grasses in coastal woodlands, bays or estuaries. Runoff from timber harvesting activities, especially clear cutting, deprives the exposed land of thousands of tons of soil and has caused the pollution of some of the most valuable spawning grounds for trout and salmon in the Pacific Northwest. Runoff of the nitrogen and phosphorus components of fertilizers leads to an oxygen depletion in the water. This depletion has caused massive fish die-offs and can wipe out whole areas of marine habitat necessary to maintain the life cycles of myriads of species of aquatic life.

Marine debris is a visible expression of human impact on the marine environment. Debris is more than an aesthetic problem, it poses a real danger. Ocean currents carry milk cartons, toothbrushes, cigarette lighters, and other familiar plastic items around the world. In some areas, such as the Central Pacific Gyre, plastics outnumber plankton seven to one. The number of marine mammals that die each year due to ingestion and entanglement of debris approaches 100,000 in the North Pacific Ocean alone. Worldwide, 82 of 144 bird species examined contained small debris in their stomachs. Plastic is the most far-reaching man-made threat facing many marine species. Over time, it reacts with sunlight and turns into small plastic polymer molecules. It turns out that these plastic polymers are sponges for DDT, PCBs and other toxins that don’t dissolve in seawater. Plastic pellets have been found to accumulate up to one million times the level of these poisons that are floating in the water itself. These pellets are consumed by baitfish, which in turn are consumed by larger fish, eventually finding their way into the stomachs of large predators, such as dolphins and toothed whales, and our own.

Other human activities, such as the construction of shipping channels and marinas, and the recreational use of coastal areas, including resort development, are likely to have a negative impact on the lives of whales and dolphins using the same areas.

Last but not least, climate change, with its changes of sea temperature, sea level rise, changes in salinity, just to name a few, will undoubtedly change the socio-ecology of whales and dolphins. Species inhabiting the high latitudes, such as bowhead, narwhal, beluga may be the first to feel the impact due to diminishing food resources, such as krill. But other species, such as humpback whales and killer whales will likely experience significant changes in their food supply, resulting in changes of existing migration patterns and a shift of home ranges.

Whales and dolphins are facing enormous challenges and threats. They are the ocean canaries, warning us about the disastrous effects of pollution and habitat destruction, and they can be our guides to where to look for answers about how our oceans work. If we have any philosophical leanings towards preserving these wonderful creatures and the oceans, either for future generations or for its own value, than learning enough to prevent any further damage is crucial.

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Can we discipline ourselves?

As humans we have the desire to understand and explain the world around us. For millennia we have strived to answer questions about life, physics and natural laws. Now it seems we are forced to seek answers to problems we have caused ourselves. The questions are whether we still have time to act, or whether the natural systems have already reached a point of no return.

During times, when nature in general seemed to be indestructible, exerting power and control over all remaining life was considered a natural right. Nature was considered an interference factor and we did not think, and many still don’t, that our own behavior could, in one way or another, significantly impact the natural systems, let alone throw them out of balance. The reality is that the planet reacts very slow; so slow in fact that it requires long-term observations to measure disturbances, disruptions, breakdowns and malfunctions. Hence, the warning signs reach us with such a delay that we mistakenly conclude we could behave and do what we want without consequence. And so we release smoke, soot and toxins into our environment, polluting the place that gave us life, nurtured us, quenches our thirst, provides food and fills our lungs with air.

A mere 150 years ago, natural disasters were practically not influenced by humans at all. Solely reacting to events for millennia, many of which we could not even put into any context, let alone explain, we are incapable to anticipate the outcomes of our actions over the time periods our planet needs to react to man-made pressures and changes.

An additional handicap is that man’s time horizon is short, at best 25 years. He will, if he was alone, do nothing to protect the earth. In an ironic twist of fate it is our intellectual abilities and our technology-based civilization (which have advanced the quality of our lives) that now threaten the survival of all living things on earth – including humans. As the German philosopher Hans Jonas put it, in man nature has disturbed itself with our morality being the only mitigation factor. We are approaching the abyss, and the fundamental question we are facing is whether or not we will be able to discipline ourselves and change course.

We have lived through paradigm shifts before: we once believed that the sun moves around the earth only to have science prove that the opposite is true. Now we are told that the problems (global warming, sea level rise, depletion of the life-protecting (stratospheric) ozone layer, marine pollution, soil degradation and the loss of species and biotope diversity) don’t exist, are not as urgent, are not caused by us, or a combination of all of the above. Again, science has been providing evidence to the contrary but many people continue to believe that the future will be much like the past, the task of avoiding disaster falling to markets and technologies. But think about this: the earth is stable, it does not grow. The input of the sun likewise remains constant. Much of the wealth, derived from that input and stored over tens of millions of years in fossil fuels, has already been consumed in less than two centuries. No technology in the world can alter this equation. The greatest problem is the illusion that subtle changes in course direction could guide us towards a life of cozy shopping malls while ensuring the survival of the natural systems, the glorious diversity of life that surrounds us, and our own species.

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Towards an enduring society

The scope of today’s environmental problems is fraught with catchwords such as greenhouse effect, depletion of the life-protecting (stratospheric) ozone layer, marine pollution, soil degradation and the loss of species and biotope diversity. Our steadily narrowing spectrum of consumed products from agriculture, forestry and fisheries, and the concentration on a few economically valuable species, has resulted in a specialization of land and marine food harvesting systems. Combined with the conversion of habitats, these are prime causes of species loss within any particular ecosystem. Obviously, all our activities, especially the harvesting of natural resources, have tremendous impact on the ecosystem. Equally obvious is the fact that non-sustainable harvesting, and causing the extinction of species, is ethically unacceptable and unjustifiable. Because we all need nature; for food, health and scientific innovation, the prevention of floods, droughts and epidemics, the mitigation of natural disasters, and of course we need wild places, animals and plants for recreation, renewal, and inspiration. Consequently, we need to consider the carrying capacity and flexibility of the economic and social systems, but also the cultural diversity, which helps people adapt to changing conditions. perhaps the biggest challenge is that our knowledge about the world tends to be organized in small segments. It is our fascination for parts and pieces that blinds us to the whole. What is needed instead is a holistic view that helps us understand patterns of complexity and interaction that point towards balance over time.

The internationally acknowledged basis for agreements on environmental protection, resource management, and conservation, relies on the principles of sustainable development and the maintenance of bio-diversity.

The concept of sustainable development, first introduced in the Brundland Commission’s report Our Common Future, is based on the realization that the conditions for economic activities will continue to deteriorate in the future, if the natural resources underlying these activities are destroyed at the present rate. By exploiting non-renewable raw materials, we consume resources as if making withdrawals from a limited saving account, without making deposits. At the same time, our species is using renewable resources above and beyond their regeneration capacity. The earth’s limited absorption capacity is strained by emissions and waste volumes, resulting in ecological costs that can no longer be ignored. In other words, to prevent future generations from suffering from shortages of natural resources, or a deterioration of environmental quality, this capital stock should at least be kept at a constant level. But rather than focussing on specific issues, such as resource availability and absorption capacity, I like to think of sustainable development as a means that helps preserve the vital functions of the environment, including the potential for change, evolution and self-regulation.

Bio-diversity is meant to be all-inclusive; it is the genetic-based variation of living organisms at all levels. It includes the world’s millions of species and the ecological systems they live in, ranging from Polar Regions with relatively few species, to the tropics with their great abundance of different life forms. Preserving bio-diversity provides us with at least three domains of benefit: the maintenance of our ecosystems in healthy condition, a potential source of new resources such as pharmaceuticals, crops, fibers etc., all holding economic value, and biophilia, a term used by E.O. Wilson to describe the natural affiliation humans have for the nature. It is our failure to recognize our connection with the global ecosystem that lies at the center of the biodiversity crisis facing our planet. We have to recognize that biological diversity is part of our heritage and is incomparably older and more complex than anything else.

Of the 5-30 million species that exist today, humans consume nearly half of the land-based ecosystem production, and 25% of all plant energy from the land and sea combined. Today there are less than 1 million elephants, but 100 million cattle on earth. These numbers do not reflect intrinsic worthiness, but rather developed usefulness. And yet, we must confront the demographic realities honestly, if we hope to create a sustainable lifestyle and preserve bio-diversity. Although nobody knows the exact rate of extinction, estimates are that about 26,000 species are lost each year, which means that three species are lost forever every hour. It is also commonly accepted that there is a relationship between habitat loss and species numbers. Reducing a habitat’s original size by 10% is thought to eventually lead to the numbers of species inhabiting that area dropping by half. Every species that disappears is a loss of evolutionary potential and potential resource. Human-caused extinction is believed to be between a thousand and ten thousand times greater than what it was before Man populated our planet. This is far in excess of the rate at which new species are being created. So again, we are quickly depleting the capital that took millions of years to create.

To better manage natural resources the following guidelines may be helpful:

  • The depletion rates of renewable resources should not exceed their renewal rates;
  • The consumption of non-renewable resources should be limited to levels at which they can either be replaced by physically, or functionally, equivalent renewable resources, or at which consumption can be offset by increasing the productivity of renewable or non-renewable resources;
  • Disposal of any substances should take into account the maximum absorption capacity of the specific environment with all it’s functions, including ‘hidden’ and more sensitive regulating ones;
  • There should be a balanced ratio between the time frame of man-made environmental footprints, and the time scale of the corresponding natural processes (reaction capacity of the environment).

In principle, a detailed evaluation of how to best address these challenges can be achieved in two ways: the first is inductive and based on the analysis and the assessment of selected substances and potential fields of application. The second is deductive, aimed at substantiating the model of sustainable development within a general context. In addition, we can distinguish between ecological, economic and social objectives, as well as between preservation and restructuring objectives.

Mankind faces the enormous challenge of developing a sustainable global society and economy. This constitutes one of the biggest opportunities in the history of commerce, with billions of dollars in revenues. Business and science, it seems, are the only organizations with the resources, technology, global reach and ultimately, the motivation to achieve this goal. However, the business and scientific communities have never developed appropriate mechanisms for interaction between them; nor have the critical relative balances of scientific knowledge, profit and societal benefits been satisfactorily established. We must strive to create an enduring and resilient society with a system of commerce and production where each and every act is inherently sustainable and restorative; where economics, natural and human systems are integrated and profitable, and expandable companies created that do not destroy, directly or indirectly, the world around them. In other words, the key to restoring and sustaining the earth’s environmental health lies in integrating and balancing the needs of both environmental and human systems through practical choices in pollution prevention, conservation, economic development and a societal shift towards preferences for sustainable products and services.

In the end, all this will contribute to a better understanding of the impact we have on our planet. You can’t have seven billion people growing and running around on a planet without having some major impacts. Right now we are making choices we don’t even understand; better to make an informed choice don’t you think? The technologies needed to stop, or at least slow, the possible dismal inheritance of our children and their children are available. It is the individual and society who will have to accept the necessary and profound changes in life styles, priorities and values as well as the enormous costs. The choices are ours. As Shakespeare succinctly said in one of his plays, ‘Delays have dangerous ends’.

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