Talking Points: Spring 2020

News in Brief


Flourishing Fisheries?

Now here’s a study that goes against the grain. Key fishing grounds in Europe, South America, and Africa are in better health than assumed, it finds, and many fish populations are recovering as a result of effective management practices.

New findings indicate that fisheries management may be more effective at improving fish stocks than it often gets credit for. Photo by Jon Anderson.

The study, an international project led by the University of Washington (UW), is based on an analysis of data from fisheries around the world. The researchers paired information about fish stocks with recently published data on fisheries management activities in about 30 countries. Their findings, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in January, concluded that more intense management led to healthy or improving fish stocks, while little-to-no management led to overfishing and poor stocks.

“There is a narrative that fish stocks are declining around the world, that fisheries management is failing and we need new solutions — and it’s totally wrong,” says the study’s lead author Ray Hilborn, a professor in the UW School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences. “Fish stocks are not all declining around the world. They are increasing in many places, and we already know how to solve problems through effective fisheries management.”

But Hilborn — who has been criticized as an “overfishing denier” in the past for his controversial views on overfishing and his opposition to marine protected areas — might be overstating the case a bit. The good news only goes so far. There’s little information out there about the status of fish stocks in South Asia and Southeast Asia that aren’t being scientifically managed, especially in countries like India, Indonesia, and China, which alone represent 30 to 40 percent of the world’s fish catch.

And as demand for seafood continues to rise worldwide, it’s very likely that the fisheries in these regions are being overexploited.

“Many of the countries that have made progress domestically still import from countries where the situation isn’t as nice. That is something else we should be conscious of,” Beth Fulton, a marine scientist with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) in Australia, who was not involved with the new study, told the publication Chinadialogue Ocean.

The study’s authors admit that there are still major gaps in the data that are difficult to fill. “This is because the available information on smaller fisheries is more scattered, has not been standardized, and is harder to collate, or because fisheries in many regions are not regularly monitored,” says co-author Ana Parma, a principal scientist at Argentina’s National Scientific and Technical Research Council.

But, the researchers say, their findings show that fisheries management works when applied and offers a solution for sustaining worldwide fisheries. They also pointed out that there’s no “one-size-fits-all” management approach and that management practices should be tailored to fit the characteristics of the different fisheries and the needs of specific countries and regions.


Dye Disparity

The beauty industry enjoys a long leash within the US regulatory system. Cosmetics companies can use virtually any chemicals they like, they don’t have to provide toxicity information to customers, and in the case of products used in professional salons, they don’t even have to provide ingredient lists. These regulatory gaps may have some significant health implications for hair dye enthusiasts, implications that are not borne equally by all.

photo of a woman looking in a calendar
A new study has found that permanent hair dye use increases breast cancer risk by 47 percent in black women compared to 7 percent in white women. Photo by Freepik / user17007025.

New research indicates that using permanent hair dye increases black women’s risk of breast cancer by 47 percent. Using the dye more frequently increases that risk even further: Black women who dye their hair every five to eight weeks have a 60 percent greater risk of breast cancer. By comparison, permanent hair dye use increases breast cancer risk by 7 percent in white women.

The study, published in the International Journal of Cancer in December, tracked nearly 48,000 American women over eight years. During that period, 2,794 breast cancer diagnoses were made.

Only 4,087 of the women in the study, however, were black. Alexandra White, head of the Environment and Cancer Epidemiology Group at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and one of the report’s authors, notes that the small number of black women leaves some uncertainty about the findings.

“The take-home message is that these risks are potentially important, but we know that a lot of different factors contribute to a woman’s risk of breast cancer,” she said in an interview with The New York Times.

There’s at least one possible explanation for the discrepancy between the cancer rates in black and white women: Previous studies have found that cosmetic products designed for and marketed to black women have more endocrine disrupting chemicals, which have been linked to a variety of medical problems including cancer. These can include things like formaldehyde, parabens, and lead compounds, which are not included among the mere 11 chemicals banned or curbed in cosmetics products in the United States. (The European Union bans closer to 1,300.)

“The current standards are ineffective and inadequate, and it’s especially bad for black women because products marketed to them are the most toxic,” Janet Nudelman, director of Breast Cancer Prevention Partners’ Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, said in an interview with The Guardian.

The researchers also found that regular use of chemical straighteners increases breast cancer risk by 31 percent, regardless of race. Even there, however, black women are at greater risk, as they are much more likely to use such products than are white women.

The disparities don’t end there. Whether cosmetics contribute to their breast cancer or not, black women diagnosed with the disease have a 40 percent higher mortality rate than white women.

The research team says there’s not enough information yet to make a firm recommendation around permanent hair dye and chemical straighteners, but that avoiding them might be one more thing women could do to reduce cancer risk. Or here’s another thought: Rather than place the burden on consumers, we could put it on the $90 billion US cosmetics industry to clean up its act, and on the federal government to keep Americans safe.


Poison Out, Poison In

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Flame retardants and pesticides have now surpassed heavy metals as the biggest cause of intellectual disability in the US, researchers say. Photo by Freepik.

Thanks to decades of regulation, childhood exposure to heavy metals like lead and mercury, which are highly toxic to the developing brain and nervous system, is on the decline in the US. The bad news is that another group of harmful pollutants, still in use, is significantly contributing to IQ loss in our kids.

Flame retardants and pesticides, which are the target of far fewer restrictions, have now surpassed heavy metals as the biggest cause of intellectual disability in the US, according to a new study by researchers at New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine.

The researchers found while IQ loss from the toxic chemicals analyzed in their study dropped from 27 million IQ points in 2001 and 2002 to 9 million IQ points in 2015 and 2016, there was a concerning shift in which type of chemicals represented the greatest risk. They discovered that among toxin-exposed children, the proportion of cognitive loss resulting from exposure to chemicals used in flame retardants, called polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PDBEs), and organophosphate pesticides increased from 67 percent to 81 percent during the same study period.

“Our findings suggest that our efforts to reduce exposure to heavy metals are paying off, but that toxic exposures in general continue to represent a formidable risk to Americans’ physical, mental, and economic health,” says Abigail Gaylord, lead investigator of the study that was published in the journal Molecular and Cellular Endocrinology in January. “Unfortunately, the minimal policies in place to eliminate pesticides and flame retardants are clearly not enough,” says Gaylord, who is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Population Health at NYU Langone.

The substances the researchers analyzed are found in household products from furniture upholstery to canned tuna fish, and can build up in the body and cause damage to organs. Experts say exposure at a young age to any of these toxins can cause learning disabilities, autism, and behavioral issues.

The researchers found that everyday contact with these substances during the 16-year study period resulted in roughly 1,190,230 children affected with some form of intellectual disability. They estimate that overall childhood exposures cost the nation $7.5 trillion in lost economic productivity and other societal costs over the study period.

Americans can avoid exposure to these toxins by avoiding the use of household products or foods that contain them. “Frequently opening windows to let persistent chemicals found in furniture, electronics, and carpeting escape, and eating certified organic produce can reduce exposure to these toxins,” says senior study author Leonardo Trasande, who is chief of environmental pediatrics at NYU Langone’s pediatrics department. But he noted that the impact of these chemicals may be worse than the study captured since there are far more hazards that affect brain development than the four toxins highlighted in the investigation. There are also other potential consequences beyond IQ loss.

“All the more reason we need closer federal monitoring of these substances,” he says.


Keeping Up Appearances

Remember the US Bureau of Land Management’s big decision last year to shift headquarters from Washington, DC to a building in Grand Junction, CO that houses offices of several oil and gas companies? Well, it appears that while the move has been confirmed, the bureau is struggling to fill staff positions there.

According to E&E News, at least 14 senior positions — more than half the estimated 27 positions BLM says will occupy the Grand Junction headquarters — are technically vacant and have not been permanently filled. The bureau has been trying to fill these positions over the past few months, formally advertising them on USAJobs.

In the meantime, in order to give its new headquarters the appearance of life, the bureau has temporarily reassigned about a dozen of its existing employees in Colorado — including staffers from the Southwest District Office and Colorado River Valley Field Office in Silt — to the Grand Junction office. Both the district office and the field office are more than 60 miles from Grand Junction. The employees were told they would be moved back to their original offices when the new headquarters is fully operational this spring.

“The temporary local staff move is a minor misuse of tax dollars and probably also a minor disruption to normal workflow, but I think noteworthy for the deception,” a BLM employee told E&E News. “It does, however, allow BLM to truthfully say HQ staff are already working in Grand Junction.”

The move to populate the empty head office comes amid increased congressional scrutiny over the merits of moving the BLM’s headquarters, as well as another 220 or so DC-based positions, to state offices across the West. The Government Accountability Office, at the request of House Natural Resources Chairman Raúl Grijalva, is investigating the relocation, focusing especially on the number of staffers leaving the bureau.

BLM has defended the relocation as an opportunity to put bureau officials closer to the land they are responsible for, and — ironically, given the new office space is in the same building as oil companies like Chevron and Laramie Energy — farther from special interests. It now says it moved field staff into the Grand Junction office to “help identify any needs we may have to make this facility a well-functioning, efficient headquarters.”

The anonymous employee told E&E News: “It is unclear to me who this charade is supposed to impress.” It’s unclear to us as well.


Stable State

Need an upbeat spin about our massive carbon emissions? Apparently, the world’s energy-related CO2 emissions held steady at 33 metric gigatons (Gt) in 2019 despite the global economy growing by 2.9 percent, the International Energy Agency (IEA) reported in February.

photo of wind turbines
The expanding role of renewable energy sources like wind and solar helped keep carbon dioxide emissions steady in 2019 even as the global economy has grown. Photo by John McCarthy.

The agency cited several factors for this, including “a sharp decline in CO2 emissions from the power sector in advanced economies, thanks to the expanding role of renewable energy sources (mainly wind and solar PV), fuel switching from coal to natural gas, and higher nuclear power output.” Milder weather and slower economic growth in several emerging markets also played a part, it said.

“We now need to work hard to make sure that 2019 is remembered as a definitive peak in global emissions, not just another pause in growth,” IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol said in a statement. “We have the energy technologies to do this, and we have to make use of them all.”

The largest declines in emissions were seen in the developed world, the report says, with the US having cut the most CO2 on a per-country basis, “down almost 1 Gt from their peak in the year 2000, the largest absolute decline by any country over that period.” Much of this decline was due to a 15 percent reduction in the use of coal.

In the European Union, Germany reported the most significant drop in emissions, “by 8 percent to 620 Mt [megatons] of CO2, a level not seen since the 1950s, when the German economy was around 10 times smaller.” This again, was due to drop in the use of coal for power generation. The developing world, by contrast, saw an increase in CO2 emissions of 400 metric Mt, of which 80 percent occurred in Asia.

On the flip side — this isn’t the first time the IEA has made such claims about global emissions flatlining. It made a similar statement about emissions holding steady from 2014 to 2015. As Forbes reports, the Paris-based agency that gathers statistics on the global oil and energy industries has been criticized in the past for producing optimistic reports that favor the oil and gas industry.

It’s not clear whether the figures the IEA is citing indicate an actual drop in greenhouse gas emissions in the real world. Research by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has so far shown no easing of atmospheric CO2 concentrations. In fact, a day before the IEA report was released, global carbon dioxide levels hit a new daily high of 416.08 parts per million (ppm), up from 411.97 ppm a year ago, according to data collected by NOAA’s Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaiʻi.


Polar Plunge

In January, British-South African endurance swimmer and ocean advocate Lewis Pugh went where no human has gone before — and where few would probably want to follow. He swam one kilometer in nearly freezing water in a subglacial river under the Antarctic ice sheet. Pugh, 50, was in the water for just over ten minutes.

photo of a man swimming in ice and water
Endurance swimmer Lewis Pugh swam one kilometer in an East Antarctic subglacial river in January to draw attention to our climate emergency. Photo by Kelvin Trautman

If that doesn’t make you shiver, this fact might: If the rapidly melting “doomsday” Thwaites glacier, also in East Antarctica, melts completely, global sea levels are predicted to rise by nearly 3 feet. Just a week after Pugh’s swim, scientists were startled by the discovery that water under the glacier, one of the fastest melting in the world, was two degrees above freezing temperature. This “warm” water could further speed up the glacial melting process.

Pugh took the plunge to draw attention to our climate emergency. He’s also pushing for the creation of a marine protected area in the region, which, as he says, “will protect this last wilderness from the industrial overfishing that has devastated all the oceans of the world, and crucially make this region more resilient to the climate crisis.”


Nightmare Initiative

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has long been saying he planned to open Indigenous reserves to development. In January, he submitted a bill to Congress that would do just that. As Mongabay reports, the legislation, if passed, would permit mining, oil and gas exploration, new dam projects, tourism, cattle ranching, and agriculture in protected areas where they’ve been prohibited for decades.

“The Indian is a human being exactly like us,” Bolsonaro said. Because of that, he added, they will welcome development on their land. Indigenous populations would still have a right to consultation, but in most cases would have no means to reject development projects. Bolsonaro has described the proposal as a “dream” initiative.

Marco Santilli, a former head of Brazil’s Indigenous affairs agency FUNAI, has a different take. The legislation will “not promote the economic development of the Indians, but guarantee the exploitation by third parties of their natural resources,” he says. “It would encourage Indians to live from royalties while watching the dispossession of their lands.”


Bad News for Bees

The news keeps getting worse for insects. Colony collapse disorder is wiping out honeybees. Habitat loss is decimating monarch butterflies. Overall insect mass is declining from Puerto Rico to Germany. Now, it seems, we have one more bit of bad news to add to the list: As the climate warms, bumblebees are struggling to hold on.

photo of a bee and a flower
New research links climate change to bumblebee declines, particularly in warming regions like Mexico and Spain. Photo by James Johnstone.

A new report published in Science finds that bumblebee populations are facing steep declines in North America and Europe. Researchers, who mapped where bumblebees used to live compared to where they are now, found that the likelihood of a site being occupied by the insects declined by a striking 46 percent in North America and 17 percent in Europe in less than a single generation.

“It was the weirdest thing ever,” Jeremy Kerr, a coauthor of the report and a biologist at the University of Ottawa, told Sierra magazine. “We were going over our numbers, and we realized that actually what we were looking at over the course of half a generation of humans was the progressive mass extinction of a taxom … I mean, it’s an astonishing rate of change.”

The researchers looked at 66 different bumblebee species, comparing bee observations between 1901 and 1974 with those between 2000 and 2015, by which time the impacts of climate change could be observed. They found bee declines were most pronounced in warming southern regions like Mexico and Spain that are experiencing higher temperatures related to climate change, and where bumblebees are already living at the edge of their temperature range.

“Bumblebees thrive in cool, temperate climates,” Dave Goulson, bumblebee expert and a biologist at University of Sussex, told Inside Climate News. “They are scarce in warmer regions where they tend to overheat in hot weather. It seems likely that a rapidly warming future climate may be the final straw for many of them.”

What’s bad for bumblebees is also bad for a range of plants, including both wild species and food crops like berries, tomatoes, and squash. Bumblebees have a longer pollination season than most other insects, beginning earlier in the spring and continuing further into the fall, due to their tolerance for cooler climates and capacity for longer flights.

The researchers hope their finding will inform bumblebee conservation work, which must include climate mitigation measures as well as habitat preservation. They also believe their methodology to predict extinction risk could be applied to a wide range of other animals, including reptiles, birds, and mammals.

“Predicting why bumblebees and other species are going extinct in a time of rapid, human-caused climate change could help us prevent extinction in the twenty-first century,” Kerr says.


Flight Risk

In January, amid a spurt of environmental rollbacks, the Trump administration handed industry yet another win when it proposed a new regulation pertaining to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA). Under the new rule, companies would not be fined for “incidental takes” — or accidental killings, in non-legalese — of migratory birds.

As David Yarnold, president and CEO of Audubon, put it on Twitter: “The Trump Administration’s Bird Killer Department, formerly known as the Department of the Interior, just gets crueler and more craven every day. And today they are doubling down despite the fact that America did not elect this administration to kill birds.”

The proposed policy would cement a legal opinion issued by the Department of the Interior in 2017 that said the act — which allows for fines of up to $15,000 per bird death — only applied to intentional killings. Under the new rule, businesses would no longer be held responsible for unintentional deaths, such as when birds get stuck in uncovered oil pits, struck by wind turbines, or bulldozed by construction crews. Environmental groups, some of which have already sued over the policy change, says businesses will be less incentivized to take even simple precautionary measures like installing red lights on communication towers or removing bird nests before building atop important habitat.

Here are just a handful of the hundreds of migratory bird species likely to be impacted by the change.

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Sources: American Bird Conservancy, Audubon, CNN, High Country News, the New York Times, US Fish and Wildlife Service.

1 Black Skimmers

Even before the administration proposed the official rule change, Interior policy was being informed by the 2017 opinion, to the great detriment of birds, a New York Times investigation points out. In one telling example, the state of Virginia had been planning to mitigate the effects of a major bridge and tunnel expansion project in the tidal waters of the Chesapeake Bay. The nesting grounds for some 25,000 migratory sea birds, including black skimmers, gulls, and royal tern were to be plowed over for the project. But the state was considering building an artificial island that would mitigate the loss. In 2018, the Department of the Interior stepped in, informing the state that such mitigation was no longer required under department policy. The state subsequently abandoned the artificial island project.

2 Whooping Crane

Scientists estimate that anywhere between 12 and 64 million birds are killed every year due to collision with or electrocution from power lines. Whooping cranes, and particularly juvenile cranes, are especially vulnerable — power lines are the greatest source of mortality for the young birds. Today, there is only one self-sustaining population of whooping cranes in the world — the roughly 500 birds that migrate from Northern Canada to Texas each winter. The best way to prevent such deaths is to build new power lines underground. Where that’s not practical, outfitting lines with devices that make them more visible can help, which is what utilities have done in certain important stopover grounds in Kansas. Utilities will no longer be incentivized to take such measures under the MBTA, though in the case of the federally listed whooping crane, at least, Endangered Species Act protections will still apply.

3 Mallards

Uncovered oil pits and ponds, as well as oil spills, often attract and trap insects, which in turn, attract birds and other animals that can become stuck in the oil and die of exposure or starvation. An estimated 500,000 to one million birds die in this manner each year in the US. Oil companies have been subjected to significant fines for such deaths under the MBTA. For example, in 2009, ExxonMobil pled guilty to “taking” 85 birds — including mallards, ibis, owls, and more — in uncovered pools in five states. The company was fined $600,000, and was required to take measures to prevent future deaths, such as covering the ponds with netting.

4 Golden Eagles

An estimated 140,00 to 328,000 birds are killed by wind turbines every year. Eagles appear to be particularly susceptible — a significant number of golden eagles in particular have been killed by wind farms in Western states. Researchers have studied a variety of ways to decrease turbine-related bird deaths, including brightly colored blades, bright lights, and even artificial intelligence technologies that recognize approaching birds and slow or stop turbines to avoid collisions.

5 Black-Footed Albatross

The black-footed albatross, listed as near threatened on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature RedList, faces a variety of threats, including climate change, plastic pollution, and invasive predators in nesting habitats. Like many sea birds, they are also vulnerable to entanglement and drowning in gillnet and longline fisheries. (Globally, an estimated half-million seabirds die in gillnets every year.)


Greening Himalayas

Normally, when you hear that plant life is expanding in a region, it portends a positive trend. But when that region is the upper reaches of the Himalayas where vegetation has typically been sparse, it can be cause for concern.

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The Himalayan mountain range is witnessing in increase in plant growth in the area between the treeline and the snowline. Photo by Karen Anderson.

A team of researchers have discovered that the Himalayan mountain range, which is home to the world’s highest peak, Mount Everest, is witnessing an increase in plant growth in its subnival regions — the area between the treeline, which is the edge of the habitat at which trees are capable of growing, and the snowline. Little is known about these remote, hard-to-reach ecosystems that cover between 5 and 15 times the area of permanent glaciers and snow. The only plants that thrive here tend to be grasses and shrubs.

Using satellite data from between 1993 to 2018 to measure the extent of plant cover between the treeline and the snowline, University of Exeter researchers measured plant growth in four height brackets — from 4,150 to 6,000 meters above sea level — and found “small but significant increases” in vegetation across all four brackets. The biggest increase in plant cover was in the 5,000 to 5,500m bracket.

The study, which was published in the journal Global Change Biology in January, doesn’t examine the causes of the change, but its findings are consistent with modelling that shows an increase in areas where temperatures are warm enough for plants to grow across the Himalayan region due to global warming.

It’s unclear what this greening means for the Himalayan ecosystem but the researchers say we need to invest in further studies to figure that out quickly.

“Snow falls and melts [in this region] seasonally, and we don’t know what impact changing subnival vegetation will have on this aspect of the water cycle — which is vital because this region (known as ‘Asia’s water towers’) feeds the ten largest rivers in Asia,” says Dr. Karen Anderson, a geographer at the University of Exeter who led the study.


Grandmas Rock!

We humans have at least a few things in common with whales. For starters, we’re both mammals. We’re also the only mammals known to go on living well-beyond our reproductive age. And according to new research, we may share at least one more thing in common, too: We benefit big-time from having grandmas.

According to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, orca matriarchs help their grand-calves survive, particularly during difficult times of food scarcity. The so-called “grandma effect” has only been documented in one other animal: elephants, for whom menopause isn’t really a thing.

photo of orcas at sea
Young whales with living maternal grandmothers have a higher survival rate than those without, new research suggests. Photo by Bart van Meele / Unsplash

As senior study author Daniel Franks of the University of York sums up the findings: “This is the first nonhuman example of the grandmother effect in a menopausal species.”

The researchers based their findings on 40 years of data on two killer whale groups, including 378 orcas known to have maternal grandmothers. Those whose grandmas died had a significantly higher mortality rate, about 4.5 percent higher, in the two years following her death than those with living grandmas.

The grandmother effect could come down to a few factors. Menopausal orcas are known to lead their pods to foraging grounds, particularly when salmon — the studied orca groups’ primary food source — are harder to come by. They also help other whales hunt, share food with young relatives, and may, scientists think, babysit young relatives.

The study offers yet more evidence that orcas’ advanced social structure “is extremely important in the survivorship of the population,” Bradley Hanson, a team leader for the marine biology program with NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center, told The Washington Post. This new information, he adds, could prove valuable in efforts to recover endangered orca populations in the US and Canada.


Going, Going …

Environmental, labor, and public health activists celebrated a victory in February when Corteva, the largest US-based producer of the toxic pesticide chlorpyrifos, announced that it would no longer manufacture the product. Scientists have linked the pesticide — which is widely used on crops like strawberries, almonds, and citrus — to neurological problems in children and respiratory problems in adults, especially farmworkers and their families.

“We definitely see this as a win,” Marisa Ordonia, a senior associate attorney for the environmental group Earthjustice, which has sued the US government to ban chlorpyrifos, told The Washington Post. “But we are still in the fight for a full ban, so that children and farmworkers will no longer be exposed to it.”

The Obama administration announced a federal ban on chlorpyrifos in 2015. But before the ban went into effect in 2017, the Trump administration reversed it.

Corteva, formerly Dow Agrosciences, made its announcement on the same day that a California ban on the pesticide — which is also banned in the European Union, Hawaiʻi, and New York — went into effect. In a statement about the decision, the company made it clear that the choice was motivated by reduced demand, not concerns about health risks.

The pesticide is still manufactured by several other US-based companies.

“The science on chlorpyrifos is clear and unambiguous, and it has no place on our food or in our fields. With this announcement, the writing is truly on the wall,” Senator Tom Udall (D-NM), who is among more than a dozen senators backing a ban on chlorpyrifos, said in response to the Corteva announcement. “The only question now is whether the Trump administration will finally stop doing the bidding of big corporations and start putting the health and safety of our children and farmworkers first.”

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