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Dear EarthTalk: Recent news reports have revealed the discovery of previously unknown species inhabiting the deepest parts of our oceans. Is anything being done to protect this habitat before humans have a chance to fish it to death or otherwise destroy it? -- Matthew Polk, Gary, IN

DeepSeaFish
Scientists speculate that some 10 million different species may
inhabit the deep sea. Pictured: a ghostly grenadier on the
Davidson Seamount, an undersea mountain 75 miles off the
coast of Central California. The seamount is 7,480 feet tall,
yet its summit is still 4,101 feet below the sea surface.Credit:
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Unfortunately it may already be too late for some of the deep sea’s undiscovered life forms. Advances in so-called “bottom trawling” technology in recent years has meant that fishing boats now have unprecedented access to deep ocean habitats and the sea floor itself where untold numbers of unknown species have been making a living for eons. Scientists speculate that upwards of 10 million different species may inhabit the deep sea. This is biodiversity comparable to the world’s richest tropical rainforests.

The Deep Sea Conservation Coalition (DSCC), a group of more than 50 environmental and other groups dedicated to protecting cold-water corals and vulnerable deep-sea ecosystems, reports that trawlers today are capable of fishing deep sea canyons and rough seafloors that were once avoided for fear of damaging nets. “To capture one or two target commercial species, deep-sea bottom trawl fishing vessels drag huge nets armed with steel plates and heavy rollers across the seabed, plowing up and pulverizing everything in their path,” the coalition reports. In addition, adds DSCC, large quantities of coral and unwanted fish species are hauled up only to be thrown back dead or dying. Indeed, the result of a few hours of trawling can be the destruction of fragile deep-sea habitats, such as delicate coral and sponge communities, that may have taken centuries to grow and thrive.

Bottom trawling also stirs up the sediment at the bottom of the sea. The resulting undersea plumes of “suspended solids” can drift with the current for tens of miles from the source of the trawling, introducing turbidity throughout the water that inhibits the transfer of light down to the depths where it is needed for photosynthesis in plankton, sea kelp and other undersea plants that serve as the basis for the marine food chain. Also, ocean sediments serve as natural safe resting places for many persistent organic pollutants (such as DDT and PCBs). Dredging these sediments up effectively reintroduces such toxins into the water where they are unwittingly absorbed and consumed by the fish we eat and other marine life already trying to cope with otherwise compromised undersea habitats. The sediment plumes also reintroduce nutrient solids from agricultural and other practices, increasing demand for oxygen in the water (causing algae blooms) and contributing to the outbreak of ocean “dead zones” devoid of marine life.

What can be done? For its part, the United States has banned bottom trawling in its offshore jurisdictions, but the practice continues mostly unabated throughout Europe and out on the world’s high seas. DSCC has gotten upwards of 1,400 marine scientists from 69 different countries to sign onto a statement expressing profound concern “that human activities, particularly bottom trawling, are causing unprecedented damage to the deep-sea coral and sponge communities on continental plateaus and slopes, and on seamounts and mid-ocean ridges.” The statement calls on governments and the United Nations to adopt a short-term global moratorium on deep sea bottom trawling to try to provide immediate protection to the mostly undiscovered biodiversity of deep sea ecosystems while governments hash out longer term conservation and management regimes. In the meantime, bottom trawling continues unabated in sensitive areas of the North Atlantic and elsewhere, harvesting now for us what our grandchildren may never know.

CONTACT: DSCC, www.savethehighseas.org.



Dear EarthTalk: The World Bank is often cast in a bad light by green groups and in the press. What are their eco-crimes, and are there any reforms in the making?   -- J. Bloch, Newark, NJ

WorldBank
The World Bank has been widely criticized for funding
numerous environmentally damaging projects around
the globe. Pictured: Construction of the Sardar Sarovar
Dam, a controversial World Bank-funded project on the
River Narmada, India that flooded thousands of acres
of land and displaced hundreds of thousands of people.
Credit: International Rivers, courtesy Flickr.

Originally created to finance the rebuilding of Europe after World War II, the World Bank later took on a larger mandate to try to alleviate poverty around the world. Unfortunately, many of the Bank’s policies and practices in intervening years clashed with conservation priorities. But the more recent onslaught of global warming threats, along with greater overall public environmental awareness, has forced the World Bank to factor sustainability concerns into how it encourages development moving forward.

According to the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS), a non-profit think tank, the World Bank has been widely criticized for funding a series of environmentally damaging projects in the 1980s, including the building of dams on the Narmada River in India, road building into the Brazilian Amazon and transmigration (re-settlement) efforts in Indonesia. “These projects have led to a variety of adverse impacts in borrower countries, including deforestation and displacement of indigenous peoples,” reports the group.

In response to the criticism, the World Bank adopted a set of policies and procedures in the late 1980s to better assess the potential adverse environmental impacts of its projects. The Bank further developed a series of polices to guide investment in such areas as forestry and energy. “For example, the bank’s forestry policy prohibits the institution from financing logging in primary tropical forests,” adds IPS.

Other highlights of the Bank’s first round of greening included the creation of a special unit to oversee environmentally and socially sustainable development, and the recruitment of staff with technical environmental credentials to supplement its professional core of economists. IPS reports that with these changes in place, the bank has been able to start developing a portfolio of environment-sector projects “ranging from support for national environmental agencies to investments in national parks.”

But an independent internal review of the World Bank’s sustainability impacts between 1990 and 2007 found that even these new sustainability-oriented policies fell flat. Researchers found that the bank’s private-sector funding arm, the International Finance Corporation, was still promoting the expansion of livestock herds, soybean fields and palm oil plantations—all which accelerated deforestation in the tropics, hastening the pace of climate change for the rest of us.

“They need to begin to see the inextricable link between sustaining environment and reducing poverty,” said Vinod Thomas, director of the World Bank group that performed the review. “It is clear now from the Amazon to India that if environmental sustainability is not raised as a priority, then all bets are off.”

The World Bank tried to address many of these concerns with the release of a beefed up Environment Strategy in 2001, but analysts remain critical of the organization’s performance and general commitment to sustainability. In June 2011 the World Bank will release a new Environment Strategy which it will use as a sustainability roadmap for its projects over the coming decade. The focus of the Bank’s sustainability work will be mitigating climate change through the promotion of clean energy technologies.

CONTACTS: World Bank, www.worldbank.org; Institute for Policy Studies, www.ips-dc.org.

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Ebola outbreak

Are you worried about the possible Ebola outbreak in the United States?
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