China’s appetite for fish.

We are depleting the world’s oceans of fish by over fishing, and now 90% of the world’s fisheries are fully exploited or are facing collapse. Millions of people in the world and especially in the developed world depend on the sea for food and income. One country above all has an enormous impact on the fisheries of the world, China.

China with its population and its growing wealth are directly affecting some of the fish in the oceans. Having depleted the fisheries close to home Chinese fishermen are now sailing further and further away to exploit other fisheries. With the home government subsidizing the fishing fleet exploiting far flung areas of the globe for fish is possible.

Africa is now the destination of choice for the Chinese fishermen, more precisely West Africa. They are drawn to the area by corruption and weak governments that cannot enforce their own laws. Experts now say that two-thirds of the Chinese boats engaged in fishing there contravene international or national laws.

To illustrate the power of this Chinese fishing fleet suffice to say that the fleet has now grown to 2,600 vessels while the United States as fewer than one-tenth as many. These ships are so large that they scoop up as many fish in a week as Senegalese boats catch in a year.

What makes all this possible is the subsidies that the Chinese government gives to the boat owners who without this could not fish off the coast of Africa. In some cases these subsidies made the difference between a profit or a loss for the them. And that does not include the subsidies given to Chinese ports.

The impact on a poor country like Senegal has been massive; fishing stocks have plummeted and the locals cannot compete with the mega trawlers used by the Chinese. With less sea products there is less income for them and this results in higher food prices for the Senegalese citizens.

But there is a push back now by some affected countries. Indonesia has impounded some Chinese boats caught poaching in their waters and the Argentines sank a Chinese vessel that tried to ram a coast guard boat. Clashes between Chinese fishermen and South Korean authorities have resulted in deaths.

Perhaps eventually the Chinese government will cut back on those subsidies, especially if the rate of growth diminishes in the future or if an ecological movement can flourish in China. Faint hopes of course when faced with a dictatorship such as the one found in China.

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The lowly caterpillar and plastics.

It seems that scientists have discovered something that could have great consequences in reducing pollution from plastic bags. Caterpillars of the greater wax moth seem to have the ability to degrade polyethylene, the material used in plastic bags.

Scientists have exposed a hundred wax worms of the caterpillar moth to a plastic bag and holes appeared after 40 minutes. It seems that it is the chemicals in the caterpillars that break down the plastics and not the chewing of the plastics by the worms.

Hopefully if a single enzyme is responsible for this degradation then it could be possible to reproduce on a large scale using technology. Polyethylene represents 40% of the total demand for plastic products. It would therefore be possible to get rid of the plastic wastes that have accumulated in landfills as well as in the oceans. A truly remarkable discovery!

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Littering the Arctic waters.

This is sad but true; a lot of our plastics are finding their way into Arctic waters. The world’s oceans are littered by these plastics coming from bottles, bags and others articles, most of which are mostly tiny particles of plastic.

The fault for this littering is due to an ocean current mainly from the North Atlantic that carries these bits of plastics and leaves them on the surface of the frigid waters and possibly even on the ocean floor.

Every year more than 8 million tons of plastic get into the oceans and scientists estimate that 110 million tons of plastic are in the oceans. This pollution has already made its way into the food chain and no one knows the effects it has on life, including on us.

Most of the plastic found in the Arctic waters is in fragments, and small at that. Other plastics were in the form of fishing line, film or pellets. Most scientist think that only an international agreement could solve the issue of plastic pollution. Good luck with that with an American president who thinks climate change is not true.

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A moral problem.

British scientists have discovered in an underwater mountain some rare minerals, among which are tellurium, a mineral that has concentrations 50,000 higher than on land. This mineral is used mainly in some solar panels. Other elements called rare earth were found and these are used in wind turbines and electronics. The moral problem is this; should we mine this area even if it seriously contaminates the sea floor? Is it better to do this rather than do it on land where everyone can see the damage this type of mining does?

Deep-sea mining is perhaps an idea whose time has come, but so far there is no rush to begin. If it is begun the damage to marine environment could be severe. There is a cost to making green energies and this is one of them. Effectively this is a trade-off, doing some damage now and hoping to reduce overall the damage to the planet long term.

Mining on the seabed could extract more riches in a smaller area with no impact on people but it would kill marine life as well create devastation on a wider scale. Plumes of dust could scatter for long distances and smother life where it settles.

Studies on seabed mining seem to show that marine creatures could recover within a year but over longer periods of time few would return to levels that were before mining occurred.

It is clear that we know very little about what lies on the seabed and how the various marine creatures could be affected by deep-sea mining. More studies are required but in the end we might have to bite the bullet simply because of a lack of alternatives.

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Can plants save us from global warming?

It has been known for some time that carbon dioxide that is released in the atmosphere by man will have an effect on plants. But how great the effect and how they would be affected by global warming was unclear. Until now.

By looking at one chemical in the air bubbles trapped in Antarctic ice scientists now know the effect on the growth of plants, and it is stupendous. Plants have been growing at a rate faster than at any other time in the past 54,000 years. They have been converting 31% more carbon dioxide into organic matter than before the Industrial Revolution.

Sine 1840 carbon dioxide has increased 40%. Scientists had always wondered how all those gases were affecting plant growth. They knew that there would be an effect but to quantify it was hard. And then they discovered that by concentrating on one compound called carbonyl sulphide they would be able to have a hard measurement. Plants draw in this compound and then destroy it. Only in Antarctica is the air so well mixed that the growth worldwide of plants is reflected.

What is incredible is that the pace of change in photosynthesis has increased by 136 times what it was in the past. As the plants take in this extra carbon dioxide they are cooling the planet. The problem is that current models show that at a certain point plants will not be able to absorb all this extra carbon. According to scientists we may see plants continue on this path for another fifty years but after that they will hit a plateau and they will no longer buffer us from the effects of global warming. Let us hope that we will have reduced the rate at which the earth is warming by then. And no, plants will not save us from climate change but they sure are giving us a helping hand in fighting it.

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Solar geoengineering to the rescue!

Scientists have come out with a new way to reduce global warming, but this could entail consequences that we do not know. What would happen is that the atmosphere would be shaded from the sun and this would cool the earth, thus compensating for global warming. It is a risky plan.

The concept called solar geoengineering, implies that tiny particles would be injected in the atmosphere. These then would act as a sun shield reflecting sunlight back in space and cooling the planet.

Of course, scientists say that the scheme is not as crazy at it sounds as Nature does it all the time. When volcanoes erupt they spew particles in the atmosphere that do exactly what scientists propose. On a smaller scale the same would happen, with a fleet of aircraft spraying 250,000 metric tonnes of sulfur dioxide into the lower stratosphere. The particles would change how much sunlight is reflected back to space, with less reflection thus a cooling of the planet. Only one percent of sunlight reflected back into space could provide enough cooling to balance the effects of the warming caused by carbon emissions.

Naturally the project would have to be an international effort and would cost about 1 to 10 billion dollars per year. It sounds a lot but could be well worth the effort. After all the United States spends well over 670 billions dollars per year on the military alone.

It is a risky scheme when one tinkers with Nature and a system that has been in use for billions of years. No one can predict the consequences of rolling the dice. What if things become worse? I think it is best to think of this solution as a last gasp, a Hail Mary pass in case we really have no other choices. The best thing is still to drive down emissions and to have countries cooperate to fight global warming as it is in our interest to do so. We all have a stake in this.

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Face to face with an owl!

It was a cold Sunday morning but at least it was a dry cold; the sun was shining and there was no wind. I felt great. I knew that on a day like that most people would simply stay indoors, but not me. I love photography and love a challenge as well, and taking pictures in -20 degrees Celsius or -4 degrees Fahrenheit for my American readers is certainly a challenge.

I was in the botanical garden, a place that I know well as it is barely fifteen minutes from where I live. There one can find foxes, raccoons, groundhogs as well as all sorts of birds, including large birds such as hawks and of course, owls.

I had previously seen owls in the garden, but all were seen from afar as they tend to stay in high in trees or they are well hidden sitting on a branch inside a conifer. I had previously seen a barred owl sitting on a branch not too far from me and I had taken some nice pictures but the owl was in the shade. This time it was different.

I had walked for well over 90 minutes with nothing to show for. Of course in winter just going for a walk let alone walking 90 minutes in freezing conditions is good for one’s health, but not having taken a single picture and going home empty-handed is bad for one’s morale. And waiting for the bus with nothing to show for is even worse. I was now in the last moments of my stay in the garden and I knew it. I was ready to cry uncle and leave as there are limits to my patience as well as my stamina. I was entering an area called the alpine gardens. I looked around the area and thoroughly searched it visually as well as physically, no small feat as the area was slippery. I then decided to return home by going by the same way that I had entered, a rarity for me as I usually do the opposite. For once it served me well.

I was walking towards the path when from afar my eye was attracted to something on a branch. It looked like an empty beehive with its characteristic gray color. I decided to use my lens and zoom in on the object and it was then that I realized that it was not a beehive. What I saw was a beak, a small yellow beak. I looked at the rest of the image and discovered that it was a small owl called a saw-whet owl.

Immediately I was seized by excitement, followed by fear. I was too far to take a picture and I imagined someone walking towards it and forcing it to flee. I started to walk towards it slowly, taking pictures at regular intervals. I did want something to show for. But as I got closer I was able to see that the small owl was not moving as it seemed to enjoy the sun. It was opening its eyes and did sway its head to locate the birds around it but it looked content to remain as is, sitting on a branch in the sun.

I was finally able to get so close to the owl that I could have petted it on the head. That close. For over thirty minutes I took pictures from every angle possible and still the owl would not move. I believe that it must have eaten soon before as I discovered in looking over my pictures a drop of blood on its body.

About towards the end of my stay a walker arrived behind me. I was torn between showing him my discovery and just seeing if he was going to discover the bird by himself. He walked by the bird without seeing it. I was not surprised having long thought that most people walking are simply not there, the body being there but the mind is away.

Having had my fill of good owl pictures I left the owl in the same area as I had found it, happy that in spite of frigid conditions I had seen a bird that people rarely see in broad daylight. Now only if that sort of thing happened every day….

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