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A Simple Measure is Dramatically Reducing Albatross Deaths in South African Waters

15 of the world’s 22 albatross species are at risk of extinction, but they can be saved

Using an albatross as a central motif for his epic poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge explored the theme of unintentional and dire consequences being brought about by a wilful act of desecration of the natural world. Coleridge’s mammoth poem entrenched the albatross as an enduring symbol in the myths and legends of maritime lore. More than two centuries later, with 15 of the world’s 22 albatross species at risk of extinction, the albatross metaphor is still deeply relevant.  

Black-browed AlbatrossPhoto by David CookA black-browed albatross and her chick in a natal colony in the Falklands Islands. These magnificent long-distance ocean birds live primarily at sea, travelling thousands of miles to find food and only returning to large natal colonies at islands like the Marion and Prince Edward Islands, Falklands Islands,and Tasmanian Islands, to breed.

Albatrosses are the largest flying birds on earth. At more than 11 feet from tip to tip; their wingspan is the largest of any bird species. Most albatrosses are only found in the Southern Hemisphere. These magnificent long-distance ocean travellers live primarily at sea where they forage and rest on the ocean waves, travelling thousands of miles to find food, and only returning to large natal colonies at islands like the Marion and Prince Edward Islands, Falklands Islands, Gough Islands, Tristan da Cunha, Tasmanian Islands, Crozet Islands and Kerguelen Islands, to breed. Exceptionally long-lived, albatrosses may live for 60 years or longer, and a pair bond may last for life.

Seabirds as a whole, and albatrosses in particular, are among the most threatened groups of birds in the world. The single greatest threat facing many seabird populations today is accidental deaths from fishing. More than 300,000 seabirds, including 100,000 albatrosses, are caught each year by tuna longline fleets and trawl fisheries.

When fishing vessels process their catch on board, they often discard unwanted heads and gutted fish off-cuts, throwing them overboard. This practice attracts albatrosses and other scavenging seabirds, which then become entangled in the fishing lines and the thick cables that attach large trawling nets, and drown. The birds may also strike the trawl cables while in flight, sustaining serious injuries such as broken wings.

These deaths at sea are especially devastating for albatross populations. When a foraging albatross which has left a brooding partner and …more

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Brazil Spends Billions on “Green” World Cup, But Does Little to Protect Environmentalists

South American nation holds the dubious distinction of having the highest number of murders of environmental activists

I wouldn’t call myself an avid soccer fan, but I’ve certainly been seduced by the World Cup (not to mention Tim Howard’s beard). As a result, I’ve been disturbed by reports about the environmental toll of the world’s most popular sporting event. I’ve also been struck by the fact that Brazil is today the most dangerous place in the world to be an environmental activist. By the end of Sunday’s final match, an estimated 3.7 million people will have flocked to Brazil to support their home teams. And if statistics hold true, at least two Brazilian environmental activists will have been murdered over the course of the tournament.

Apiaká indigenous leader in front of police blockadePhoto by Brent Millikan/International RiversAn Apiaká Indigenous leader in front of police blockade (file photo). Since 2002, a total of 448 enviromental activists have been assassinated in Brazil, making the 2014 World Cup by and far the worst place to be an environmental activist.

According to a report by Global Witness, an organization that works to expose the economic drivers behind conflict, corruption and environmental destruction, 908 environmental activists have been killed worldwide since 2002, which averages to one death every week. Since 2010, this rate has doubled to roughly two deaths a week. With 448 — or nearly half — of those deaths occurring in Brazil since 2002, the World Cup host is by and far the worst place to be an environmental activist.

Most of the assassinations of local activists and land defenders are triggered by disputes over land rights. The majority of the murders can be traced to increased exploitation of natural resources in remote corners of the world. As loggers, farmers, and miners move into new regions, Indigenous communities are especially likely to find themselves in conflict with corporate interests, as their land rights often go unrecognized by national governments.

In Brazil, deforestation has become a national problem, increasing by 28 percent between 2012 and 2013. It has also emerged as the biggest force behind land conflicts, pitting the notoriously corrupt logging industry against local communities deep in the Amazon. Brazil is particularly lax in enforcing logging restrictions, and even amended the national forest code in 2012 to provide greater amnesty for illegal logging. Loggers also often serve as “gateway” developers in remote regions, paving the way (sometimes literally) for large-scale …more

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“The Whole City Would Have Burned”

One year later, the small town of Lac-Megantic is still at the heart of oil-by-rail debate

Jean Dubé runs an office supply store in the Quebec town of Lac-Megantic. Both his store and home were badly damaged in last year’s devastating oil-train derailment that killed 47 people and destroyed more than 40 buildings. Oil filled the basement. Still, he opened three days after the accident and relocated his inventory to an employee’s garage. Basic office supplies were in high demand so they delivered everything by car and truck. One of Dubé’s cousins, Marie France Boulet, was killed in the accident. She lived and worked in the center of town. Because of the extraordinary heat of the burning oil—the fire could be felt from more than a mile away—her body was never recovered. Six months later, her older sister, Louise Boulet, died of a heart attack.

A veiw of La Megantic a day after the train accidentPhoto by Michel GagnonLac-Megantic a day after the oil train accident that killed 47 people and spilled 26,000 gallons of oil into the Chaudiere River. One year after the disaster, this small Canadian town still faces the enormous task of cleaning up and rebuilding.

When I met Dubé in late January he had reopened in a makeshift warehouse just across the tracks from where the train exploded. He still didn’t know what would happen to his home and store. But he had little doubt that oil, much of it from North Dakota’s Bakken formation, would once again be transported through Lac-Megantic. He rubbed his thumb and index finger together and said flatly that it was all about the money.

Indeed, soon after Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway Inc., the Maine-based railroad company blamed for the derailment went bankrupt and was purchased by the New York-based Fortress Investment Group in May, talk of resuming oil shipments began.

In the past five years shipping oil by rail has dramatically boosted rail industry profits and that has, in turn, increased the number of accidents and oil spills. At first, the Lac-Megantic disaster was viewed as a freak accident. But since then trains carrying Bakken crude oil have derailed in Alabama, North Dakota, Philadelphia, and Virginia. Last year more oil spilled in rail accidents — 1.15 million gallons — than the previous 35 years combined. (Read my Journal’s cover story “Highly Flammable,” to learn more about this.) Given the huge profits …more

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Farming for Developers

Coastal Commission Stories – Lesson One

“Oh, what a tangled web we weave…when first we practice to deceive.” Walter Scott, Marmion

Last week I got an email from a New York venture capitalist asking for advice about building a house in the California Coastal Zone. For six and a half years I served as a public official on the California Coastal Commission. The email reminded me that it’s been a year since I resigned, and it’s time to tell a few stories of what I learned as a coastal commissioner. Each and every month I learned that not everything was how it seemed.

Here’s Lesson One: Farming for Developers.


The California coast is a panorama of open farm fields and hundreds of miles of undeveloped land. Highway 1 (the Pacific Coast Highway) follows the coast for almost the entire length of the state. The kind of road you see in car ads and movies, it looks like it was built to be driven in a sports car with the top down. In fact, the nearly 400 mile coastal drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco is one of the road trips you need to do before you die.

aerial photo of a farm field adjacent to the shorephoto by Glenn Nelson, on FlickrAn artichoke farm on the California coast.

With 39 million people in the state, there’s no rational reason why there aren’t wall-to-wall condos, hotels, houses, shopping centers and freeways for the entire length of our state’s coast (instead of just in Southern California). But luckily, almost 40 years ago, the people of California passed Proposition 20 – the Coastal Initiative – and in 1976 the state legislature followed with the Coastal Act, creating the California Coastal Commission and saving California from looking like the coast of New Jersey.   

Essentially the Coastal Commission acts as California’s planning commission of last resort for all 1,100 miles of the California coast. Thanks to the Coastal Act and the Coastal Commission, generations of Californians and our visitors enjoy the most pristine and undeveloped coast in the country, with recreation and access for all. It’s an amazing accomplishment.

The downside is that the coastal zone has the strictest zoning and planning requirements in the country. As a new commissioner I learned quickly what …more

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Southeast Chicago’s Battle Against Petcoke

Residents and local environmental groups face well-financed foes – Charles and David Koch

On August 30, 2013, a vicious windstorm ripped through Chicago’s Southeast Side, blowing clouds of thick, black dust into the neighborhoods of this working-class corner of the city. The winds deposited the sticky dust on windows, screens, porches, lawns, and sidewalks. If you were unlucky enough to be outside, the dust attached itself like leeches to your skin. People couldn’t just rub it off; they had to scrub it off.

photo of an industrial plant by a watercoursephoto by Christopher JohnsonDuring storms, petcoke and its array of chemicals can wash into the nearby Calumet River.

The black dust was petroleum coke – petcoke for short – a byproduct of tar sands oil refineries that resembles coal. In this community of Chicago, huge mountain-like piles of petcoke sit out in the open, rising as high as five stories tall, and even a slight breeze can blow the dust into nearby neighborhoods. When a windstorm kicks up like the one last August, Southeast Side communities are blanketed with the sticky, smelly substance. As a result, during the past two years, the Southeast Side has become ground zero in the battle over petcoke.

Chicago is not alone. Detroit once had similar mountains of the stuff, but when storms blew dust over adjacent homes in August 2013, then-Mayor Dave Bing ordered the Detroit Bulk Storage Company to move the piles of petcoke outside of city limits.

In Chicago, though, the solution to this pernicious pollutant hasn’t been so simple. That’s because Southeast Side residents and local environmental groups face supremely well-financed foes – Charles and David Koch. One of the Koch brothers’ subsidiaries, KCBX Terminal Company, stores the towering piles of petcoke at two locations, together covering about 140 acres.

Some of the petcoke makes its way to KCBX from nearby Whiting, Indiana, where a gigantic BP refinery processes tar sands from Alberta, Canada. A byproduct of the refining process is a residuum, or residual material, which the refinery then sends through a coking operation, producing some 2.2 million tons of petcoke a year. The resulting substance fuels power plants, cement kilns, and steel mills – and enhances the profitability of tar sands. Producers export about eighty percent of the petcoke, primarily to China, India, Mexico, and Turkey. But until it’s shipped overseas, it has to be stored somewhere, and that’s where KCBX comes in. …more

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UN, Scientists Alarmed Over Plan to Dump Dredged Mud In Great Barrier Reef

Australia’s coal port expansion project could place reef on UNESCO “World Heritage in Danger” list in 2015

After waffling about changing the Great Barrier Reef’s World Heritage Site status for the last two years, the United Nations recently let Australia off with a warning that the iconic reef could be added to the “World Heritage in Danger” list in 2015 if the country went ahead with a proposal to dump 3 million cubic meters of dredged spoil in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

photo of a long pier on a coastline, wide sea and tropical clouds to the horizonPhoto © Tom Jefferson / GreenpeaceAbbot Point, surrounded by wetlands and coral reefs, is set to become the worlds largest coal port should the proposal to expand it go ahead.

At the UNESCO’s world heritage committee’s annual meeting in Doha in June, the committee said that Australia shouldn’t have approved the dumping “prior to having undertaken a comprehensive assessment of alternative and potentially less impacting development and disposal options.”

Most of the 46 sites in the current World Heritage in Danger list are in developing or war-torn countries, with Syria and Congo dominating the list.  Only a few sites, such as Florida’s Everglades National Park, are in developed nations. 

Australia has said in the past that the impact of the dredging would be offset by a series of programs to bolster the reef’s health, which would improve the water quality by 150 percent. But the UN world heritage committee says it hadn’t seen a clear proposal for how that would be achieved. Australia now says it will provide a long-term plan for how it will care for the reef before the UN committee meets again in 2015.

The Australian and Queensland governments have approved the dumping proposal as part of the massive expansion of the coal port Abbot Point, which is located near the reef – a decision that’s been met with protests from the public, environmentalists, and the World Heritage Body. Government officials say they’ve looked closely at the issue and cite the 47 safety stipulations attached to the approval of the dumping. The port, they say, will greatly increase Australia’s ability to export coal and will bring jobs to Queensland.

Environmentalists and 233 scientists disapprove of the plan, saying that the effects of the dredging are yet to be really studied and adding more stress to the already struggling reef is perilous to …more

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31-Day Undersea Mission has Been a Boon for Marine Scientists

A young researcher talks about Fabien Cousteau’s underwater living experiment

Three years ago, I dove 63 feet undersea at the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary to visit Aquarius — the world’s only remaining underwater research lab — and gawked through the portholes at the researchers (they are called “aquanauts,” by the way) living inside the 81 ton, 43 by 20 by 16.5 foot, yellow, not-quite submarine (it’s stationary). I’ve been fascinated with that lab ever since and have been keeping track of its fate, from its near death by federal budget cuts in 2012, to its miraculous rescue in 2013 by Florida International University (FIU).

Aquarius Reef BasePhoto by Kip Evans/Mission31Aquarius residents can spend up to nine hours a day diving to depths of 99 feet without risking decompression sickness — a gift of time that allows researchers to accomplish in a few days what would otherwise take several weeks or months of diving from a boat.

The Aquarius Reef Base, as it’s officially called, is all kinds of cool. The structure is pressurized so that researchers can live for weeks underwater. It can sleep six people, has hot water, power, and high speed Internet. Using a technique known as “saturation diving,” Aquarius residents can spend up to nine hours a day diving to depths of 99 feet without risking decompression sickness — a gift of time that allows researchers to accomplish in a few days what would otherwise take several weeks or months of diving from a boat. Built by the federal government and currently managed by FIU, the 27-year-old facility has hosted everyone from marine biologists studying ocean ecosystems and endangered corals to NASA astronauts training for near-zero gravity missions in space.

Right now the Aquarius is hosting a unique 31-day research and education outreach mission spearheaded by ocean explorer and documentary filmmaker Fabien Cousteau. The Mission 31 expedition, which ends tomorrow, was conceived as an homage to the first underwater living experiments in the Red Sea 50 years ago pioneered by Cousteau’s grandfather, the legendary French ocean explorer Jacques Yves Cousteau. (Mission 31 is so named because it will last one day longer than that first expedition in 1963.)

A team of filmmakers and researchers dove to Aquarius with Cousteau on June 1. After 15 days, the FIU researchers traded places with researchers from Northeastern University, who will emerge from the waters with Cousteau and …more

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