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Delay in Dungeness Crab Fishing Season Offers a Big Climate Lesson

Toxic algal bloom that’s poisoning sea life is linked to an incredibly persistent patch of warm water off the West Coast

The annual Dungeness crab season is already underway yet harbors all along the West Coast of North America are ghost towns during a time when they are expected to be chaotic with activity. “Normally on the season opener our parking lot looks like an entire city, with RVs and cars and people, and the harbor is absolutely bustling with activity,” says Tom Mattusch, a charter boat captain based in San Mateo County, California. “If I showed you a picture of the parking lot now, it’s just commercial equipment stacked up. They haven’t even loaded the boats yet.”

Photo of Dungeness CrabsPhoto by California Department of Fish and WildlifeThe commercial crab seasons in California, Oregon, and Washington have been indefinitely postponed.

The reason? Dungeness crab samples taken this year by officials at various locations along the coast contained domoic acid, a dangerous neurotoxin, prompting the indefinite postponement of the commercial crab seasons in California, Oregon, and Washington. California’s season was slated to begin November 15, while Oregon and Washington were originally expected to open their seasons December 1. Ingestion of domoic acid can cause loss of short-term memory, seizures, or even death, so health officials are not taking chances when it comes to this biotoxin.

The organism responsible for wreaking havoc on the crab industry is a large bloom of an algae species known as Pseudo-nitzschia, which produces the domoic acid. Linked to unusually warm ocean temperatures off the West Coast, this year’s bloom stretched from Alaska to California, making it the largest and most persistent occurrence of Pseudo-nitzschia ever recorded.

“The unique thing this year is the geographic extent and duration of the bloom,” research biologist Kathi Lefebvre explains. “Usually, we have more regional blooms that last up to a few weeks. This one is along the entire West Coast of the US, and it’s lasted longer than we’ve ever seen before.” Even though Lefebvre has studied harmful algal blooms for 17 years, most recently with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center, she was surprised by the magnitude of this year’s bloom.

The bloom came as an even greater shock to the commercial and private fishermen on the West Coast, where millions of dollars are at stake in the seafood industry. Mattusch, who also serves as president of San Mateo County’s harbor commission, …more

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Peddling a New Model of Urban Farming

Bike-riding farmers in Orlando, Florida are helping communities produce their own food – right on their own front lawns

The smile on Heather Grove's face competes with the bright shine of the sunflowers surrounding her. "Sunflowers are amazing – they actually remove toxins from the soil," she beams as she showcases a Fleet Farming garden. This "farmlette" was created on a neighborhood yard by a team of volunteers Grove organized. "One thing that's very important is the quality of our produce – I don't want people to think that local isn't better."

Fleet's happy farmers spreading the word. | Photo (CC BY-SA): Fleet FarmingPhoto (CC BY-SA): Fleet FarmingFleet's happy farmers spreading the word.

Grove leads a crew of 10 to 20 volunteers who come out for bike rides every other Sunday to maintain 11 farmlettes. The team rides through the Winter Park area of Orlando, Florida, where unique bungalows line residential streets that curl in all directions, much like a flowering vine. "We're going plot to plot, pollinating ideas on urban farming," Grove says.

A Canadian design, tweaked in Florida

Fleet Farming came to Orlando via John Rife, owner of the East End Market, a culinary food hub in the community. In a converted church, the Market houses booths for all things food – from local produce and fresh breads to sushi, juices, craft brews, and educational materials. "East End is our own playground – a sandbox for ideas," says Rife, who introduced his idea for Fleet Farming to a community group that meets monthly at the market. Organized by IDEAS, a local nonprofit that sponsors sustainability projects around the world, these meetings bring interested parties together to address local issues.

Fleet Farming is based on a model developed by Curtis Stone, who has established an urban farming project in British Columbia, Canada. Orlando resident Heather Grove says the group in Florida has tweaked Stone's design a bit to make Fleet Farming even more sustainable, adding the bicycle brigade and using more permaculture techniques. The neighborhood project is designed to take resources such as water and fuel that help maintain lawns and use them instead to grow food in the food desert that the city of Orlando has become. "We help save gas: Americans use about 800 million gallons of gas a year mowing their lawns. We think the 10.7 million gallons dumped …more

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Are Americans Becoming Disenchanted with Black Friday?

Retailers encourage consumers to avoid the post-Thanksgiving shopping craze and get outside instead

Black Friday is traditionally one of the biggest shopping days of the year, but this year there seems to be some backlash.

REI made waves last month when it announced that it would be closing all of its 143 retail locations, headquarters and two distribution centers on both Thanksgiving and Black Friday. All 12,000 full- and part-time employees will receive paid time off as the company encourages them to #OptOutside instead.

Photo of Hiker in CaliforniaPhoto by Miguel VieiraRetailers are encouraging people to rethink their shopping habits on Black Friday and beyond.

According to REI CEO Jerry Stritzke, the company made the decision to close on Black Friday because it wanted to be “authentic” to its brand. Many companies and organizations have publicly supported REI’s anti-Black Friday movement.

And now the states of California and Minnesota are making it even more affordable to do so. Save the Redwoods League was inspired by REI to sponsor free admission to 49 participating California redwood state parks on Black Friday, billing it as “the best bargain you’re going to find this Black Friday,” according to NBC Bay Area.

Minnesota’s Lieutenant Governor Tina Smith told The Minnesota Post that fees for the state’s 76 state parks and recreation areas will be waived on Black Friday.

“Visiting these parks is a great way to spend time with family and loved ones, relieve stress and enjoy exercise in the great outdoors,” Smith said.

But is this what the majority of Americans truly want?

Research says yes. According to a report published by WalletHub earlier this month, more than half of those surveyed believe that shops should not open at all Thanksgiving Day. Bankrate, a personal finance organization, determined that 62 percent of consumers are cutting back on their Black Friday spending, according to Albuquerque Business Journal.

Despite the growing distaste for Black Friday, nearly 100 million people still plan to shop on the holiday, according to the National Retail Federation’s annual survey. About 85 to 90 million people turn out every year. Though the number of shoppers has been on a slight decline, as has overall spending, it’s not as if Black Friday will completely disappear any time soon. Americans are projected to drop some $50 million over the Black Friday weekend.

But the discontent for the shopping spree is hard to ignore.

“In recent years, both retailers and consumers have witnessed a backlash against encroaching Black Friday hours,” said more

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FDA’s Approval of GE Salmon Based on Bad Science, Say Consumer Advocates

Agency’s move sets a low bar for future approvals of genetically engineered animals for human consumption

More than 20 years after the first genetically engineered plant hit American grocery stores, the FDA has approved the first transgenic animal for human consumption: a salmon.

The AquaBounty Salmon, as it is known, is an Atlantic salmon genetically engineered to grow more rapidly than its non-GE counterpart, allowing it to reach market size in just 18 to 20 months, compared to the standard 28 to 36 months. 

Photo of GE Salmon ProtestPhoto by Steve Rhodes The FDA received roughly 2 million public comments in opposition to the approval of GE salmon.

The FDA’s announcement last week was met with frustration, if not surprise, by environmental and consumer groups, who point to inadequate information regarding the potential impacts of GE salmon on both the environment and human health.

“We were very disappointed in the FDA for this approval,” says Michael Hansen, senior scientist with the Consumers Union, a nonprofit that works for a fair and safe marketplace for consumers. “We think it’s based on bad science.”

The GE fish was approved based on FDA findings that it is safe to eat, that the introduced gene is safe for the fish itself, and that the engineered salmon meets claims that it is faster growing than non-GE salmon. The approval pertains to two land-based salmon facilities: one in Prince Edward Island, Canada, where eggs will be produced, and one in Panama, where fish will be raised. The salmon raised in Panama will then be shipped back to the US for sale.

Hansen and other advocates have pointed to several areas in which the research relied upon by the FDA was severely wanting, including the impact of genetic engineering on human health, the impact of genetic engineering on the health of the fish, and the potential implications for wild fish populations. 

Take, for example, the AquaAdvantage salmon’s potential impact on wild fish. In its environmental assessment, the FDA found that the GE salmon would not have a significant environmental impact because they could not escape the Panama or Prince Edward Island facilities. Even if they did somehow escape, the FDA concluded the fish couldn’t survive in the surrounding environments due to water temperatures. 

However, the FDA did not conduct an analysis of the environmental impacts should the fish actually escape and survive in …more

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Turn Up the Heat Locally, Urge Climate Groups Following Cancellation of Marquee Paris March

Concurrent marches planned in cities across the world during COP21 have now taken on added significance

It’s final: The November 29 marquee climate march in Paris has been cancelled.

A week ago (November 17) we reported climate change activists saying that they would press on with a major march in Paris on November 29 despite the French government’s decision to suspend the march for security reasons following the November 13 terrorist attacks. French officials had first said that the organizers could have a stationary rally instead with only 5,000 people in attendance. (The long-planned march, similar to the People’s Climate March in New York last year, was expected to draw as many as 200,000 people.)

Photo of NYC People’s Climate March Photo by Climate Action Network International Climate groups have decided that there was no way to hold the Paris climate march without putting people’s lives at risk.

Apart from the climate march, other planned demonstrations included a “People’s Summit” on December 5 and 6 and civil disobedience actions on the last day of the talks.

But on Wednesday (November 18), after a police raid of an apartment building in a Paris suburb that left two suspected terrorists dead, Paris police cancelled all outdoor demonstrations during COP21. Given the extreme security threat, climate groups finally figured that there was no way to hold the march without putting people’s lives at risk.

The development has, of course, been a huge disappointment for climate and civil society activists who have been scrambling to put together alternative plans. "We realize the gravity of the situation, but now more than ever, we need to find creative ideas to call on people to unite around climate action,” Juliette Rousseau, coordinator of the Coalition Climat 21, an umbrella group of more than 130 civil society groups that’s been coordinating the mobilizations, said in a statement. "There is no COP21 without mobilizing civil society." 

So far it seems that the Citizens Climate Summit to be held on December 5 and 6 in Montreuil (Seine Saint-Denis) and the Action Zone Climate (ZAC), to be held from December 7 to 11 at Paris-CENTQUATRE will go forward as planned. These mobilizations will be two great opportunities to demonstrate that civil society is fighting for and implementing solutions to climate change, and determined to fight against the climate crisis. The Climate …more

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US Dolphin Safe Tuna Label is Unfair to Mexico, WTO rules yet again

Marine mammal advocates accuse trade body of putting business above dolphin protection

If Mexico and the World Trade Organization have their way, those “dolphin safe” cans of tuna you’ve been buying at the supermarket might actually come stained with dolphin blood.

Last Friday, the global trade body again ruled against the United States in a long-running dispute with Mexico over US “Dolphin Safe” tuna-labeling regulations, saying that the regulations unfairly discriminate against Mexico. The decision by the WTO's appellate body is the latest development in a trade dispute between the two countries that dates back to the establishment of the Dolphin Safe tuna label in 1990.

tuna cansPhoto by The Hamster Factor/FlickrThe dolphin-safe label (the small oval yellow logo on these cans) has helped save countless dolphins since it was established in the 1990s.

“While we are disappointed with the Appellate Body’s findings, this need not be the end of the road for dolphin-safe labeling," Kitty Block, vice president of Humane Society International said in a statement. Block says animal advocates will urge US trade officials to work with Mexico to figure out a solution that wouldn’t jeopardize dolphins.

The dolphin-safe label has helped save countless dolphins in the Eastern Tropical Pacific Ocean (ETPO) — a large marine region running from Southern California to Peru and extending out into the Pacific Ocean almost to Hawai’i  — where schools of tuna tend to swim along with dolphins. Mexico and several other countries allow their tuna industry to deliberately target, chase, and surround the dolphins with nets in order to get to the tuna. More than 7 million dolphins have died after being trapped in nets since this fishing method was introduced in 1957.

In 1990, after years of campaigning by Earth Island Institute’s International Marine Mammal Project, the Dolphin Safe tuna label was established in the US. The label can only be used for tuna that is not caught by chasing and netting dolphins. It also can’t be used if dolphins are killed or seriously injured during a tuna fishing expedition. According to IMMP, since the label was established, dolphin deaths from tuna fishing have declined 98 percent. Currently, only Mexican, Venezuelan, and Colombian tuna vessels are still chasing and netting dolphins.

Mexico has objected to this labeling for years, claiming these restrictions to protect dolphins — which until recently only applied to tuna fishing in …more

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Seeking Crop Elders

Scientists and crop breeders are racing to identify the wild ancestors of domesticated plants before a warming world hastens their demise

David Rupple presses two thumbs into the soft tissues of the sunflower’s broad, droopy face and parts a few of its several hundred mini florets. This flower is most likely an oil producer but he won’t know for sure until he sees the seeds. “Oils are usually all black and a smaller seed,” he says. Hanging chest high from the top of a single fat stalk and laced with a scraggly mane, the flower appears to stare back at him, hot-summer-day bored. Rupple presents two small, black fly-like seeds in his palm. “That’s probably an oil seed there.” He walks over to a much smaller flower a few yards away and plucks two seeds from its face. These large, grey seeds – more clothes moth than black fly – barely seem related to the others.

photo of young plants with wooden markersphoto Simon Giebler

I’m surprised Rupple doesn’t know which is which by sight. Some, like this one, have dinner plate-sized faces, others stand taller and produce smaller, brighter saucers. But Rupple, a fourth generation farmer, is not a sunflower expert. Even with 500 acres of sunflowers planted, that’s less than 10 percent of his 6,500 total acres in Colorado’s Prospect Valley, where he also grows winter wheat, sugar beets, hay, red beans, and corn. More to the point, this is not one of Rupple’s productive acres. We’re standing in a test plot he hosts for Colorado State University Extension, which is running a trial of some 30 recently-bred sunflower varieties for performance in actual farm conditions.

Sunflowers are drought tolerant and easy to grow, but they’re slow to mature and a pain to harvest. Pathogen and pest pressures come into play, too. “We used to just have to deal with seed weevil and now we have head moth also,” Rupple says. To meet his crop buyer’s requirement that less than 2 percent of the harvest have insect damage, Rupple employs aerial pesticide applications. At $26 to $30 per acre that’s a $13,000 input cost. On a good year, one application does the trick.

Of course, sunflowers are not alone in all of this. Each of Rupple’s crops, indeed all domesticated plants grown for food or fiber, face disease and pest challenges of some sort. Agriculturalists are, therefore, forever seeking new …more

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