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Combating Blast Fishing in Malaysia

Protecting healthy reefs and restoring damaged ones in the Coral Triangle

We are freediving near a gorgeous coral reef along the coast of Kalapuan Island, a small Malaysian island few have ever heard of. Located in the Coral Triangle, which is the global center of marine biodiversity, one would expect to find countless types of corals, fish, and other marine life here. A few meters below the surface, however, we find a stark contrast — an incredibly colorful and vibrant seascape right next to a scene of complete underwater devastation.

Photo of Reef in BorneoPhoto by Christian HollandShark Stewards and TRACC are working to establish a locally managed marine protected area encompassing the Kalapuan reef.

Dr. Steve Oakley, president of the nonprofit Tropical Research and Conservation Centre, surfaces in his yellow football jersey gripping a handful of living but broken coral fragments.

“We will keep these in the fish box and we will bring them back and plant them,” he says, as he places the small branching corals into a box floating at the surface.

“See this sheared rock?” Oakley asks as he hands me a large chunk of white coral. Along the top edge, the cups from the coral polyps indicate the edge of the once-living coral. “This kind of damage only comes from blasting.”

Oakley is referring to the practice of blast fishing, whereby fishermen toss explosives into the water, often a bottle of fertilizer and kerosene with a lit fuse. The resulting blast produces a large crater in the reef, and kills or stuns fish within a 15 to 25 meter radius. The fish float to the surface, where they are easily collected for market. In areas that have been heavily blasted, the practice leaves behind a wasteland of flattened coral rubble that can take decades or even centuries to recover. It is an illegal but rampant form of fishing here in the Coral Triangle, where locals often live hand-to-mouth and rely on the sea to survive.

I’m here with Shark Stewards, an Earth Island Institute project working to protect sharks and critical marine habitat. We are diving and filming with Oakley in eastern Malaysia for an online series called Borneo From Below, which showcases Borneo’s diverse marine environment. The shallow reef where we are diving projects from a long reef flat nearly a kilometer from Kalapuan Island. A …more

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Scottish Whisky Goes Green

Reducing the environmental footprint of Scotland’s third largest industry

Energetic business, distilling. Not necessarily in the sense of hauling weighty sacks of malt about, but in the sense of bringing wort up to mashing temperature, holding it there while the sugars are extracted, cooling it down to pitching temperature, and then heating it up again in the still for distillation. In a single year, Scottish distilleries process five billion liters of wort — a sweet liquid that is fermented to make whisky  — so cleaner, cheaper energy is a priority in the whisky industry.

Photo of Whisky StillsPhoto by Yves CosentinoThe Scottish whisky industry is working to reduce the environmental impacts of whisky production.

Then, too, 90 percent of the water and all of the grain used in the production process ends up as waste. And since it makes sense to site whisky factories near the raw materials, many distilleries have been built in isolated glens; fuel (except peat, where applicable) has to be shipped in, and all of the product has to be shipped out.

For decades, the Scottish whisky industry has been making modest efforts to reduce its environmental impact. Simple waste reduction measures such as feeding spent grain (“draff”) to livestock and using the protein-rich pot ale left over after distillation as soil conditioner have long been the norm. In the 1970s Glengarioch, one of the oldest operating distilleries in Scotland, briefly used its waste heat to warm nearby greenhouses. And since 1990, waste heat from Bowmore’s distillery has made a tropical spa of the community swimming pool, sited in a former warehouse at the distillery gates. 

But it took the slowly-unfolding emergency of climate change to trigger a coordinated attack on energy consumption and waste. The Scottish whisky industry made its first Climate Change Agreement with the UK Government in 1999. Then, in 2009, the Scotch Whisky Association, with the support of both UK and Scottish governments, launched an independent environmental strategy, a list of targets it describes as “the most ambitious voluntary sustainability strategy of any manufacturing sector.” Since then, the pace of change has continuously accelerated.

By 2012, the industry had cut its carbon dioxide emissions by 10 percent from 2008 levels, despite an 11 percent increase in whisky production. Meanwhile, its energy consumption grew by little more than 1 percent, and the proportion of energy …more

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India’s Emissions Could Push World into Dangerous Warming Zone, Scientists Warn

Experts say that if nation grows at expected rate without emission controls, Earth will breach critical two degree rise

India’s growth in emissions could tip the world over the threshold to dangerous climate change, experts have said.

The alert comes as the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, prepares to visit the UK on Thursday for talks on issues including the environment.

Photo of Port in IndiaPhoto by Geo ThermalA port in Chennai, India. Experts warn that without emissions controls, economic growth in India could push world past two degree warming threshold.

India is due to ask the UK and other rich nations to share breakthroughs in renewable energy and other “clean” technology, and for help financing a huge expansion in efficiency and solar and wind power. It is unclear whether British officials will pressure Modi to consider a tougher emissions target.

Before the UN climate summit in Paris in December, India has pledged to increase carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions more slowly than the economy grows. The latest analysis of India’s plan calculates that if it expands as it hopes — by more than 8.5 percent a year — emissions will reach 9 billion megatons by the end of the next decade.

This is about one-fifth of the total annual emissions that scientists calculate the world can emit in 2030 and still have a more than a 50 percent chance of avoiding the global temperature rising more than two degrees Celsius, considered a dangerous threshold. Although India would rank second behind China for total emissions, unlike China and other large emitters it has not set a date by which they would peak, while new coal-fired power and other new infrastructure would commit the country to relatively high pollution levels for decades.

“If India’s plans to burn coal go ahead, it will make it hard for us to make the two degree target,” said Bob Ward, policy director of the Grantham institute on climate change and the environment, at the London School of Economics, which carried out the study. “The chances are growth will be lower, but it’s hard to imagine we’ll get down to a pattern consistent with two degrees.”

Further pressure has been put on India by the International Energy Agency, which on Tuesday published it’s annual report on global energy use, and considered the Indian case to be so critical that it devoted several chapters to the country’s rapidly …more

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No, SeaWorld Is Not Phasing Out Orca Shows

The marine entertainment company is reworking its orca shows, not eliminating them

Yesterday’s headlines proclaiming that SeaWorld will be ending orca whale shows were almost as misleading as the alleged "educational value" of the shows themselves.

On Monday, SeaWorld announced that it will “phase out” the San Diego park’s theatrical killer whale show in 2016, and unveil a “new orca experience” in 2017. According to the announcement, which was made in a presentation to investors, the new experience will be "informative." SeaWorld also says the new shows will be take place in a “more natural setting” and that they will carry a "conservation message inspiring people to act.”

Photo of SeaWorld Orca ShowPhoto by Josh HallettSeaWorld is not phasing out orca shows, just calling these shows by a different name.

This announcement was quickly picked up by media outlets around country, generating headlines that SeaWorld was “ending,” "getting rid of," and "drawing the curtain on" its killer whale show.

Unfortunately, many of Monday’s headlines exaggerated the announcement. SeaWorld’s infamous orca shows are being reworked, rather than eliminated, at the San Diego, California park. (The announcement does not pertain to SeaWorld’s other parks.) The announcement does not mean that SeaWorld will end orca exploitation, or that it will release orcas to marine sanctuaries, the preferred course of action among many advocates.

The lack of meaningful change left many advocates frustrated. “SeaWorld fully intends to continue forced breeding of orcas in captivity,” says David Phillips, director of the International Marine Mammal Project (IMMP), an Earth Island Institute project that works to protect dolphins and whales. “They will continue to keep orcas in concrete tanks with no intention of retirement or release. They intend to continue to import and export orcas to other captive facilities as they see fit.”

Responding to the announcement in a press release, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals said: “This move is like no longer whipping lions in a circus act but keeping them locked inside cages for life.”

SeaWorld has faced mounting public pressure in recent years. The 2013 release of Blackfish, a popular documentary criticizing SeaWorld’s treatment of orcas, sparked public outrage, and company profits have taken a hit. The marine mammal giant has also faced several lawsuits this year, including one by Earth Island’s IMMP, arguing that SeaWorld has misled the public about the health and …more

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Anti-Dam Activists Gather in Sarawak State to Celebrate Second Anniversary of Baram Dam Blockades

Indigenous communities successfully prevent any progress on the dam for two years

In October, Indigenous activists from around the world gathered on the banks of the Baram River in Sarawak to celebrate the second anniversary of the Baram Dam blockades. Indigenous Kenyah, Kayan, and Penan people have continuously occupied the two blockades for the past two years. The blockades have successfully prevented any progress on the Baram Dam, one dam in a series of 12 proposed hydro-electric dams in Sarawak. If built, the 1,200-megawatt Baram dam would displace as many as 20,000 Indigenous people living in more than 26 villages, and would flood 400 square kilometers of rainforest.

Photo of Baram Dam BlockadesPhoto by EWISER participants and people from Baram standing in solidarity at the Baram River. 

The anniversary event was preceded by Sarawak Chief Minister Adenan Satem’s July announcement of a moratorium on the Baram dam Sarawak state, a huge victory for activists on the ground that have been working tirelessly to save their communities. This victory is met with cautious optimism from activists in Sarawak. According to Peter Kallang, chairman of the indigenous grassroots network SAVE Rivers, there is still "a great sense of anxiety" because the land gazetted for construction of the dam has not been legally returned to the communities and logging continues. 

Residents of Sarawak are already all too familiar with the devastating impacts of mega dams. In 1998, an estimated 10,000 people were moved from their ancestral lands to facilitate construction of the Bakun dam, which began operating in 2011. More than 15 years later, they are still struggling to get by in their resettlement village of Sungai Asap.

Indigenous anti-dam activists from Indonesia, the Philippines, Cambodia, Brazil, the US, Honduras, as well as activists from throughout Malaysia, travelled to Sarawak to stand in solidarity with local activists at the blockade anniversary event, named the World Indigenous Summit on Environment and Rivers (WISER). The weeklong summit was hosted by SAVE Rivers, a network that has been working to stop the Sarawak dams by spreading awareness among communities that will be displaced.

In addition to celebrating the success of the Baram blockades, WISER helped strengthen ties between Indigenous communities around the world. During celebrations — which took place at the two blockade sites, the proposed dam site, and at a conference in the town …more

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Obama Rejects Keystone XL Pipeline

President says transporting crude oil from Canada won't help the economy, lower gas prices, or increase the United States' energy security

In a huge win for environmentalists, President Obama rejected the Keystone XL pipeline proposal today.

Had transport company TransCanada's proposal been approved, the pipeline would have transected six states, carrying crude oil 1,700 miles from Canada’s Alberta tar stands to refineries on the Gulf Coast.

President Obama at his desk Official White House Photo by Pete SouzaThe President said that the pipeline was neither be a silver bullet for the economy, nor the express lane to climate disaster.

In a White House press briefing this morning, Obama said that the pipeline “would not serve the national interest of the United States.” The President cited three main reasons for rejecting the project — it wasn’t going to help the economy in any meaningful way, it wouldn’t lower gas prices for Americans, and it wouldn’t increase the country’s energy security.

“Now, for years, the Keystone Pipeline has occupied what I, frankly, consider an overinflated role in our political discourse,” he said. “It became a symbol too often used as a campaign cudgel by both parties rather than a serious policy matter. And all of this obscured the fact that this pipeline would neither be a silver bullet for the economy, as was promised by some, nor the express lane to climate disaster proclaimed by others.”

Echoing what many pipeline opponents have been saying, and acknowledging the impact the project would have had on climate change, he added: “Ultimately, if we’re going to prevent large parts of this Earth from becoming not only inhospitable but uninhabitable in our lifetimes, we’re going to have to keep some fossil fuels in the ground rather than burn them and release more dangerous pollution into the sky.”

The announcement was major victory for environmental advocates, who had been campaigning against the project for years based on its climate impact as well as the precedent it would set for American energy policy.

“This is a big win,” May Boeve, executive director of, said in a statement. “President Obama’s decision to reject Keystone XL because of its impact on the climate is nothing short of historic — and sets an important precedent that should send shockwaves through the fossil fuel industry.” Boeve said Obama’s decision affirmed “the power of social movements” to change politics. “We’re looking to build on this victory, …more

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Mauritius’ First Female President on Science, Biodiversity, and Climate Change

In Conversation: President Ameenah Gurib-Fakim

Ameenah Gurib-Fakim made history in June when she became the first female president of Mauritius, a small island state in the Indian Ocean. She was appointed to the ceremonial position by parliament, and took office on June 5.

Photo courtesy of Ameenah Gurib-Fakim Gurib-Fakim is the first female president of Mauritius.

Gurib-Fakim has a background in chemistry and ethnobotany rather than in politics. After earning her PhD in chemistry from Exeter University, she returned to her native Mauritius in 1987 as a professor at the University of Mauritius. She left the university in 2010 to open a research center, Centre International de Développement Pharmaceutiquem (CIDP), where she served as managing director. CIDP conducts research on the medicinal, nutritional, and cosmetic uses of plants.

Gurib-Fakim believes her background in science will come in handy as president. In particular, she thinks that innovation and research can facilitate sustainable economic growth in Mauritius. In the field of ethobotany alone, the country’s incredible biodiversity offer a vast resource for research and development. Noting that the small island nation is already feeling the effects of climate change, she also hopes Mauritius will receive the support it needs from other countries for climate adaptation efforts.  

What inspired you to pursue a career as an ethnobotanist?

Actually, I did not intend to go into ethnobotany. I got drawn to ethnobotany while I was still following my passion for chemistry. I returned home to Mauritius with a PhD in organic chemistry and realized that I could not do organic chemistry the way I was used to so I started exploring plant chemistry and eventually discovered the beauty of ethnobotany. Ethnobotany, examines the relationships between people and plants, and links culture, traditions, and the sciences. It is a short cut towards the discovery of new potential biologically active molecules from natural sources that can be used in modern medicine, as well as in other fields.

As president of Mauritius what issues are you focusing on?

As president, I am limited by what the constitution allows me to do. But I think there is still a place to focus on issues that are important for the country. I am very keen to drive the science, technology, and innovation agenda, which can be transformative for any economy. After all, the difference between the North and …more

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