Category Archives: mass extinction

One in three fish species threat of extinction

Fish and Fly

A shocking picture of over one in three freshwater fish species struggling for survival has emerged.

In a first ever assessment of European fish research shows how 100 years of industrial development has wreaked havoc on river systems.

The study done by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) and published in the Handbook of European Freshwater Fishes reveals that 200 of the 522 species are threatened with extinction – 12 are already extinct.

William Darwall, from IUCN, said: “Many of these species, not considered as ‘charismatic’ or with any apparent ‘value’ to people, rarely attract the funds needed for their conservation.

“They risk disappearing with only a dedicated few noticing the loss.”

He went on to say that many of the species could be saved just by simple water purification and flood control.

Examples of fish most in danger include the European eel (Anguilla anguilla), Gizani (Ladigesocypis ghigii) and Jarabugo (Anaecypis hispanica).

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Mediterranean sharks and rays in danger of extinction, says coalition

 Fish Update

THE Shark Alliance is repeating its call for a strong Plan of Action to improve the status of European sharks and rays in response to new IUCN findings that 42% of shark and ray populations in the Mediterranean Sea are threatened with extinction.

A report released today by the IUCN Shark Specialist Group (SSG) and the IUCN Centre for Mediterranean Cooperation reveals that the region has the highest percentage of such species assessed as “Threatened” in the world, due primarily to overfishing through targeted and incidental fisheries.

European Union (EU) resource managers, led by the European Commission, are developing what the alliance describes as “an overdue” Plan of Action for the conservation and management of sharks. The European Commission is also expected to propose the first EU limits for porbeagle shark, identified by IUCN as “Critically Endangered” off Europe, by the end of November for consideration by EU Fisheries Ministers in December.

“From devil rays to angel sharks, Mediterranean populations of these vulnerable species are in serious trouble,” said Claudine Gibson, Programme Officer for the IUCN Shark Specialist Group and co-author of the report. “Our analyses reveal the Mediterranean Sea as one of the world’s most dangerous places for sharks and rays,” she continued.

The report details the findings of an expert workshop at which all 71 Mediterranean species of sharks, rays, and chimaeras (cartilaginous fishes) were categorised using IUCN Red List Criteria. Participants deemed 42% (30 species) of these species Threatened, of which 18% are Critically Endangered, 11% Endangered and 13% Vulnerable. Another 18% (13 species) were assessed as Near Threatened while a lack of information led to 26% (18 species) being classified as Data Deficient. Only 14% (10 species) are considered to be of Least Concern.

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The Maltese skate, angular roughshark and three species of angel sharks, taken principally as “bycatch” in bottom trawl fisheries, are classified as Critically Endangered. The shortfin mako and porbeagle, taken primarily in longline fisheries and prized for their meat and fins, are also considered Critically Endangered. The giant devil ray and sandbar shark have been categorised as Endangered. The blue shark, which often falls victim to “finning” (the practice of cutting off a shark’s valuable fins and discarding the body at sea), qualifies as Vulnerable to extinction in the Mediterranean.

There are no catch limits for fished species of Mediterranean sharks and rays. Shark finning is prohibited, but enforcement methods are lenient. Eight species of sharks and rays have been listed on the four international conventions relevant to Mediterranean wildlife conservation, but only three species have received any protection as a result: white and basking sharks are protected in Croatian and European Community waters while Malta and Croatia protect the giant devil ray.

“Never before have the EU’s Mediterranean countries had more reason or opportunity to safeguard the region’s beleaguered sharks and rays,” said Sonja Fordham, Deputy Chair of the SSG and Policy Director for the Shark Alliance. “Fisheries and Environment Ministers should heed the dire warnings of this report and act to conserve sharks and rays through immediate protections for porbeagle and a comprehensive Community Plan of Action for all sharks and rays. Such action is necessary to change the current course toward extinction of these remarkable ocean animals,” she continued.

This week, in Turkey, fisheries managers at the annual meeting of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), which guides Mediterranean rules for species taken in tuna fisheries, are considering establishing international measures for sharks. ICCAT scientists have identified the porbeagle shark as a species of concern and recommended reducing fishing for shortfin mako sharks.

The Shark Alliance is a not-for-profit coalition of non-governmental organisations dedicated to restoring and conserving shark populations.

http://www.fishupdate.com is published by Special Publications. Special Publications also publish FISHupdate magazine, Fish Farmer, the Fish Industry Yearbook, the Scottish Seafood Processors Federation Diary, the Fish Farmer Handbook and a range of wallplanners.

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How we’re destroying our habitat

 The Australian

LIKE a recklessly profligate spendthrift, humanity has largely ignored ever shriller environmental warnings and continued on a destructive path that has already done extraordinary damage.

Climate change, air pollution, land degradation, overpopulation, increasing natural disasters: all these are the symptoms of a sick planet.

An extensive new audit of the Earth, written by 400 scientists and reviewed by 1000 experts under the aegis of the UN Environment Programme, contains an urgent call to action.

The fourth Global Environment Outlook report runs to more than 500 pages of detail on the world’s woes.

The audit has found that each human being now requires one-third more land to supply their needs than the planet can provide. Humanity’s footprint is 29.1ha a person, while the world’s biological capacity is on average only 15.7ha a person. The result is net environmental degradation and loss.

Failing to address persistent atmosphere, land, water and biodiversity problems, UNEP says, “may threaten humanity’s survival”. The report’s authors say there is no significant area dealt with in the report where the foreseeable trends are favourable.

More than 30 per cent of the world’s amphibians, 23 per cent of mammals and 12per cent of birds are now threatened with extinction. More than 75 per cent of fish stocks are fully or overly exploited. Six in 10 of the world’s leading rivers have been either dammed or diverted. One in 10 of these rivers no longer reaches the sea for part of the year. More than two million people die prematurely every year from indoor and outdoor pollution. Less than 1 per cent of the world’s marine ecosystems are protected.

The report’s foreword is written by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who warns that “issues of energy and climate change can have implications for peace and security”. Competition for dwindling natural resources such as water, he notes, may become a trigger for conflict.

James Cook University’s pro vice-chancellor Chris Cocklin went to a concept meeting at the UNEP headquarters in Nairobi two years ago, where he was invited to help frame the GEO-4 report.

There had been some dissatisfaction with previous GEO reports, he says, and there was concern the reports had lacked the level of peer review required by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

That shortcoming has been remedied in part and Cocklin, an environmental scientist, considers the latest report credible. “I think the UN does have a degree of distance; they are reading the evidence and presenting the report around the evidence, rather than making ambit claims.”

Cocklin, though, takes issue with the notion that humanity’s survival is at risk. “We’re a bit like cockroaches, really: we can survive quite a lot,” he says. “But the quality of life is absolutely at stake; that’s under serious threat, if you like looking at green trees and seeing animals and birds.”

He says biodiversity is at an important point where action is needed to maintain the balance, and there isn’t much room for delay.

The GEO-4 report notes that the accelerating loss of biodiversity is linked to humanity’s increasing use of energy, and warns changes in biodiversity and ecosystems can lead to changes in disease patterns and human exposure to disease outbreaks.

Maintaining present biodiversity levels, the report says, is critical. Functioning ecosystems provide buffers to extreme climate events, filters for waterborne and airborne pollutants, and carbon sinks.

Cocklin says that at the rate we’re going, the survival of certain parts of the globe will soon come into question. “Some of the world’s leading experts in biodiversity are warning of a mass extinction of plant and animal species,” he says.

The report elaborates on the theory that the available evidence points to a sixth “major extinction event” now under way. Unlike the previous five extinction events, which were the result of natural disasters and planetary change, the present loss of biodiversity can mostly be sheeted home to human activity.

The Australian Museum’s principal research scientist Daniel Faith says he reviewed part of the GEO-4 report, and although he largely agrees with its conclusions, he took exception to one measure of biodiversity – mean species abundance – which he believes can distort the real picture. For instance, mean species abundance in a specific place can be quite high, but certain species can still be depleted.

“But overall I think it’s a very good study,” says the biodiversity specialist. “It’s really difficult to work with a broad brush at a global perspective.”

As well as assessing the planet’s health, the report focuses on human wellbeing: essentially two indivisible elements making up the world picture.

Humans affect, and are affected by, the environment to an enormous degree. The GEO-4 report includes a number of disquieting statistics on humanity. The global population has grown by 1.7 billion in the 20 years since 1987, to a grand total of 6.7 billion. And these 6.7 billion humans consume like a plague of ravenous insects. One small example noted in the report: every year, 1.1million to 3.4million tonnes of undressed wild animal meat, or bushmeat, is eaten by people living in the Congo basin.

And people are flocking to the cities. By the end of this year, more people will be living in cities than in rural areas for the first time in history. Already, more than one billion people live in slums across the world. Water-related diseases, such as cholera and diarrhoeal infections, kill about three million people a year. Ten million children under five die every year – 98 per cent of them in developing countries – and three million of these deaths are the result of unhealthy environments.

The report considers seven distinct regions and Australia slots into the category of Asia and the Pacific. Home to 60 per cent of the world’s population, the region has seen some solid gains, the report says, including improvement in environment protection, energy efficiency and the provision of clean drinking water. Yet vastly increased consumption and its associated waste have accelerated existing environmental problems and contributed to some of the worst urban air quality in the world. The World Health Organisation estimates that more than one billion Asians are exposed to excessive air pollution.

The report says climate change is likely to cause more severe droughts and floods in the Asia-Pacific region, as well as soil degradation, coastal inundation and saltwater incursions caused by rising sea levels. Agricultural productivity, it warns, is likely to decline substantially because of warmer temperatures and shifting rainfall.

Murdoch University’s Frank Murray, one of the GEO-4 report’s authors, says one of the broad themes concerns the relationship between humanity’s wellbeing and economic development, and how they largely depend on the health of the environment. Murray, an environmental scientist, was on the team that wrote the chapter on atmosphere, including climate change, air pollution and ozone depletion.

Murray used the Kuznets curve – devised by the Nobel prize-winning economist Simon Kuznets – to explain how the environment degrades as development proceeds. This continues until a certain level of development is reached and the general public – now mostly richer and better educated – begins to agitate against air pollution or water pollution. Agencies are then established to control development and pollution. “Air pollution and water pollution in the US is much lower than it used to be,” he says. “China is trying to clean up Beijing, with (next year’s) Olympics in mind.”

Murray says the GEO-4 report is a flagship UNEP publication that has taken a number of years to research, write and edit. Various governments, he says, did remove certain elements they didn’t like, but that simply meant the assessment was moved to a broader regional level rather than an individual national level. “Rarely is any individual government criticised in this report,” he says. “Countries are very sensitive about being named adversely.”

One of the big issues in the report, which has been comprehensively addressed by other organisations, is climate change. “Climate change is a major global challenge,” the report says. “Impacts are already evident, and changes in water availability, food security and sea-level rises are projected to dramatically affect many millions of people. Drastic steps are necessary.”

The report ranks climate change as a global priority, yet the authors note a “remarkable lack of urgency” and a “woefully inadequate” global response.

Murray says change is on the way. Although very little happened for many years, climate change has now been recognised as a fact of life by ordinary people in developed nations, and governments are responding to community pressure. Remedies are possible, he says. Ozone depletion, for instance, has been halted by global action to ban chlorofluorocarbons.

Cocklin is less sanguine and he is doubts whether relying on governments to effect change is a good idea. “We certainly can’t look to politicians for leadership on climate change,” he says. “The leadership, if it’s anywhere, has come from the private sector.”

Ominously, UNEP warns that some of the damage resulting from the world’s most persistent problems could be irreversible. Tackling the underlying causes of environmental problems, the GEO-4 report says, often means dealing with the vested interests of powerful groups that can influence policy decisions.

“Our common future,” the report says, “depends on our actions today, not tomorrow or some time in the future.”

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 Mother Jones – Julia Whitty

So what happens to species already on the brink when fires, fueled by our changing climate, visit like never before? Nature reports that the San Diego Zoo suffered damage to one of its California condor breeding facilities—though the birds, thankfully, were safely evacuated ahead of the flames. The zoo also lost a planned habitat for endangered mountain yellow-legged frogs—a habitat designated after the frogs’ original home was burned in the huge wildfires of 2003. The frogs may now have to be moved to another zoo altogether.

At Camp Pendleton, one of only two known habitats of the endangered Pacific pocket mouse was burned. No one knows yet whether the mice survived.

Sadly, these are just the kind of stressors that healthy populations can survive but which wipe out those species already reeling from the blows of over(human)population, habitat loss, pollution, illegal wildlife trade, and border fences.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones’ environmental correspondent. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

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Extinctions Linked to Hotter Temperatures

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Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — Whenever the world’s tropical seas warm several degrees, Earth has experienced mass extinctions over millions of years, according to a first-of-its-kind statistical study of fossil records.

And scientists fear it may be about to happen again — but in a matter of several decades, not tens of millions of years.

Four of the five major extinctions over 520 million years of Earth history have been linked to warmer tropical seas, something that indicates a warmer world overall, according to the new study published Wednesday.

“We found that over the fossil record as a whole, the higher the temperatures have been, the higher the extinctions have been,” said University of York ecologist Peter Mayhew, the co-author of the peer-reviewed research published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, a British journal.

Earth is on track to hit that same level of extinction-connected warming in about 100 years, unless greenhouse gas emissions are curbed, according to top scientists.

A second study, to be presented at a scientific convention Sunday, links high carbon dioxide levels, the chief man-made gas responsible for global warming, to past extinctions.

In the British study, Mayhew and his colleagues looked at temperatures in 10 million-year chunks because fossil records aren’t that precise in time measurements. They then compared those to the number of species, the number of species families, and overall biodiversity. They found more biodiversity with lower temperatures and more species dying with higher temperatures.

The researchers examined tropical sea temperatures — the only ones that can be determined from fossil records and go back hundreds of millions of years. They indicate a natural 60 million-year climate cycle that moves from a warmer “greenhouse” to a cooler “icehouse.” The Earth is warming from its current colder period.

Every time the tropical sea temperatures were about 7 degrees warmer than they are now and stayed that way for millions of enough years, there was a die-off. How fast extinctions happen varies in length.

The study linked mass extinctions with higher temperatures, but did not try to establish a cause-and-effect. For example, the most recent mass extinction, the one 65 million years ago that included the die-off of dinosaurs, probably was caused by an asteroid collision as scientists theorize and Mayhew agrees.

But extinctions were likely happening anyway as temperatures were increasing, Mayhew said. Massive volcanic activity, which releases large amounts of carbon dioxide, have also been blamed for the dinosaur extinction.

The author of the second study, which focuses on carbon dioxide, said he does see a cause-and-effect between warmer seas and extinctions.

Peter Ward, a University of Washington biology and paleontology professor, said natural increases in carbon dioxide warmed the air and ocean. The warmer water had less oxygen and spawned more microbes, which in turn spewed toxic hydrogen sulfide into the air and water, killing species.

Ward examined 13 major and minor extinctions in the past and found a common link: rising carbon dioxide levels in the air and falling oxygen levels. Ward’s study will be presented Sunday at the Geological Society of America’s annual convention in Denver.

Mayhew also found increasing carbon dioxide levels in the air coinciding with die-offs, but concluded that temperatures better predicted biodiversity.

Those higher temperatures that coincided with mass extinctions are about the same level forecast for a century from now if the world continues its growing emissions of greenhouse gases, according to the Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

In April, the same climate panel of thousands of scientists warned that “20 to 30 percent of animal species assessed so far are likely to be at increased risk of extinction” if temperatures increase by about 3 to 4 degrees Fahrenheit.

“Since we’re already seeing threshold changes in ecosystems with the relatively small amount of climate change already taking place, one could expect there’s going to be severe transformations,” said biologist Thomas Lovejoy, president of the H. John Heinz Center for Science, Economics and the Environment in Washington.

University of Texas biologist Camille Parmesan, who studies how existing species are changing with global warming but wasn’t part of either team, said she was “blown away” by the Mayhew study and called it “very convincing.”

“This will give scant comfort to anyone who says that the world has often been warmer than recently so we’re just going back to a better world,” Pennsylvania State University geological sciences professor Richard Alley said.

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Right Whales Remain Rare and Elusive

Associated Press – Mary Pemberton

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — Scientists searching for what is likely the world’s most endangered whale came up empty-handed this summer during a one-month tour of an area in the Bering Sea where Pacific right whales like to feed.

From July 31 to Aug. 28, an international team of scientists surveyed an area almost the size of New York in search of Pacific right whales, which have been teetering on extinction for decades.

“We did not see a single whale the entire time,” said Phil Clapham, team leader and chief scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center in Seattle. “The bottom line, they were not in the places they had traditionally been in the last six or seven years.”

This summer’s survey where scientists used high-powered binoculars and underwater listening devices is part of a larger four-year project to assess the seasonal distribution of the whales, their numbers and where they travel in the Bering Sea.

The Minerals Management Service is paying for the surveys at an annual cost of about $1 million. The research is required under the federal Endangered Species Act because the area where the whales like to spend summers overlaps an area the federal government this year approved for oil and gas development. Lease sales could begin by 2011.

The whales weren’t found this summer because it is a “cold pool year” in the Bering Sea, Clapham said. That means the water is colder than normal. The colder water likely affected the distribution of plankton, which is what the large whales feed on, he said.

Many scientists considered right whales a lost cause until a few years ago when 23 were spotted, including two with calves, in an area of the Bering Sea where they like to feed.

However, numbers remain exceedingly small, making it difficult to find them, Clapham said.

“It is very much like a needle in a haystack given there are so few animals,” he said.

Right whales have been listed as endangered since the early 1970s.

Scientists spent two weeks aboard a NOAA research vessel that departed from Dutch Harbor in late July. Scientists from Russia, the Dominican Republic, Brazil and South America joined the NOAA scientists.

For the last two weeks of the survey, the team took up the search in a 155-foot crab boat.

“We had a lot of humpbacks,” said Clapham, who for 20 years has hoped to see a right whale. “We saw a lot of fur seals. You kind of get sick of fur seals.”

The Bering Sea is changing as rapidly as any ocean on the planet because of global warming, said Brendan Cummings, ocean programs director for the Center for Biological Diversity, which successfully sued the federal government to get critical habitat designated for the whales. Those changes have affected where animals go, he said.

While it will take a longer, wider look to find out what is happening with right whales, some things are apparent now, he said.

“We know … for the past decade that the southeastern Bering Sea is the most important spot on the planet for North Pacific right whales. We need to not open it up for oil drilling,” he said.

The whales, which can grow to more than 60 feet long and weigh 100 tons, have been protected since 1935.

Clapham said this is the first time that there has been dedicated funding to survey the whales, which he described as “arguably the most endangered population in the world.”

He said scientists will go out again next year.

“It is very important for a lot of reasons to keep up with them,” he said.

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Taiwan, China join to save rare sea bird from extinction

GMA News (AP)

TAIPEI, Taiwan – Taiwanese and mainland Chinese conservationists are joining hands to save an endangered sea bird from extinction by urging fishermen to stop collecting and eating the birds’ eggs, a Taiwanese birdwatcher said Monday.

The Chinese crested tern – white with a black-and-white crest – migrates to eastern Chinese coasts between May and September, Taiwanese conservationists say. It’s thought the birds fly there to escape the heat in South Asia, although they have not been seen outside of China or Taiwan.

The sea bird was spotted for the first time in 2000 on the Taiwan-controlled Matsu island – just 1 kilometer (0.6 mile) from China’s southeastern coast. Matsu authorities have since stepped up monitoring the bird and set aside several locations in the island group as sanctuaries.

Taiwanese have stopped eating sea birds’ eggs in recent years, but Chinese fishermen often sneak onto Matsu to collect the eggs, which are prized as a delicacy in parts of China, said Chang Shou-hua, head of the Matsu Birdwatching Society.

”Sea birds’ eggs are smelly and infected with parasites, and when fishermen collect the eggs in the grass they disrupt the birds’ breeding habitats,” Chang said.

A Chinese survey conducted over recent successive breeding seasons found that the number of crested terns had fallen to 50 birds, about half the population found three years ago, according to Birdlife International, a conservation group based in Cambridge, England. The group warns that the crested tern could become extinct in five years if protection efforts are not stepped up.

Taiwanese birders recently sought to collaborate with mainland conservationists after learning the bird has appeared along the coasts of China’s Zhejiang and Fujian Provinces, said Chang.

A group of conservationists from Jiushan islands off east China visited the Matsu sanctuary two months ago and agreed to strive for the bird’s preservation, first by seeking legislation to bar fishermen from collecting the sea bird’s eggs, Chang said.

The Chinese and Taiwanese have also agreed to begin a joint survey next summer – during the birds’ migration period – to determine the size of their population, he said.

Taiwanese conservationists are studying whether to use global positioning system to track down the sea bird’s mysterious migration routes, Chang said.

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