Protein mining the world’s oceans

31 03 2009

Last month David Agnew and colleagues published a paper in PLoS One examining the global extent of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing (Estimating the worldwide extent of illegal fishing), estimating its value from US$10-23.5 billion and representing between 11 and 26 million tonnes of fish annually. The value is roughly the same as that lost from illegal logging each year. Wow.

Of perhaps most interest is that Agnew and colleagues found evidence for a negative relationship between IUU fishing as a proportion of total catch and an international (World Bank) governance quality index. This suggests that improving governance and eradicating corruption may be the best way to curtail the extent of the illegal harvest.

We have just published a paper online in Fish and Fisheries about the extent and impact of IUU fishing in northern Australia. Entitled Protein mining the world’s oceans: Australasia as an example of illegal expansion-and-displacement fishing, the paper by Iain Field and colleagues advocates a multi-lateral response to a problem that has grown out of control in recent decades.

IUU fishing is devastating delicate ecosystems and fish breeding grounds in waters to Australia’s north, and can no longer be managed effectively by individual nations. The problem now requires an urgent regional solution if food security into the future is to be maintained.

The paper is the first big-picture account of the problem from Australia’s perspective. Although there had been a decline in IUU fishing in Australian waters over the past two years, possibly linked to large Australian government expenditure on enforcement and rising fuel prices, the forces driving illegal fishing have not gone away and are likely to resurface in our waters.

We expect that the small-scale illegal fishers will be back to prey on other species such as snapper, trochus and trepang as soon as it is economically viable for them to do so. To date, these IUU fishers have focused mostly on high-value sharks mainly for the fin trade, to the extent that the abundance of some shark species has dropped precipitously. IUU fishing, which has devastated fish resources and their associated ecosystems throughout Southeast Asian waters, is driven by deep economic and societal forces. For example, the Asian economic crisis in the late 1990s drove a large number of people out of cities and into illegal fishing.

It is not enough to maintain just a national response as the problem crosses national maritime zones, and it poses one of the biggest threats known to marine ecosystems throughout the region. These IUU fishers are mining protein, and there is no suggestion of sustainability or factoring in fish breeding or ecosystem protection into the equation. They just come into a fishing area and strip-mine it, leaving it bare.

Illegal fishing in Australian waters started increasing steeply about 10 years ago, largely because of over-exploitation of waters farther north, peaking in 2005-06 then falling away just as steeply. There are three factors behind the recent downturn: Australian government enforcement measures estimated to have cost at least AU$240 million since 2006; the high price of fuel for the fishing boats; and, most importantly, the fact that the high-value species may have been fished out and are now economically and ecologically extinct.

The $240 million has funded surveillance, apprehension, transportation, processing and accommodation of the several thousand illegal foreign fishermen detained each year since 2006. These activities have been successful, but it is doubtful whether they can hold back the IUU tide indefinitely – the benefits to the illegal fishers of their activities far outweigh the penalties if caught.

With increasing human populations in the region, the pressure to fish illegally is likely to increase. Regional responses are required to deter and monitor the illegal over-exploitation of fisheries resources, which is critical to secure ecosystem stability as climate change and other destructive human activities threaten food security.

CJA Bradshaw (with IC Field, MG Meekan and RC Buckworth)

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Tropical Turmoil II

8 03 2009

In August last year I covered a paper my colleagues (Navjot Sodhi and Barry Brook) and I had in press in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment entitled Tropical turmoil – a biodiversity tragedy in progress. The paper is now available in the March 2009 issue of the journal (click here to access). We were also fortunate enough to grab the front cover (shown here) and have a dedicated podcast that you can listen to by clicking here about the paper and its findings. I encourage ConservationBytes.com readers to have a listen if they’re interested in learning more about the woeful state of tropical biotas worldwide, and maybe some ways to rectify the problems. The intro to the podcast can be viewed by clicking here.

CJA Bradshaw





One more (excellent) reason to conserve tropical forests

26 02 2009

© K. Sloan Brown

© K. Sloan Brown

Another nail in the deforesters’ justification coffin – tropical forests are worth more intact than cut down. This one from Mongabay.com and one for the Potential section:

Undisturbed tropical forests are absorbing nearly a fifth of carbon dioxide released annually by the burning of fossil fuels, according to an analysis of 40 years of data from rainforests in the Central African country of Gabon.

Writing in the journal Nature, Simon Lewis and colleagues report that natural forests are an immense carbon sink, helping slow the rise in atmospheric CO2 levels.

“We are receiving a free subsidy from nature,” said Simon Lewis, a Royal Society research fellow at the University of Leeds. “Tropical forest trees are absorbing about 18% of the CO2 added to the atmosphere each year from burning fossil fuels, substantially buffering the rate of climate change.”

But the good news may not last for long. Other research suggests that as tropical forests fall to loggers, dry out due to rising temperatures, and burn, their capacity to absorb carbon is reduced.

The research, which combined the new data from African rainforests with previously published data from the Americas and Asia, lends support to the idea that old-growth forests are critical to addressing climate change. Recent climate negotiations have included debates on compensating tropical countries for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (“REDD” or “avoided deforestation”).

“To get an idea of the value of the sink, the removal of nearly 5 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by intact tropical forests, based on realistic prices for a tonne of carbon, should be valued at around £13 billion per year,” said study co-author Lee White, Gabon’s Chief Climate Change Scientist. “This is a compelling argument for conserving tropical forests.”

“Predominantly rich polluting countries should be transferring substantial resources to countries with tropical forests to reduce deforestation rates and promote alternative development pathways,” added Lewis.

The new findings show that tropical forests account for roughly half of the 8.5 billion tons of carbon that is sequestered in terrestrial sources each year, the balance is absorbed by soils and other types of vegetation. Another 8.5 billion tons dissolved in oceans, leaving 15 billion of the 32 billion tons emitted by humans each year in the atmosphere. Deforestation accounts for roughly 6 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions – greater than the emissions from all the world’s planes, ships, trucks, and cars.

Note – the contention by Muller-Landau that the Lewis and colleagues’ findings are not realistic due to ‘regeneration’ demonstrates her ignorance of recent work demonstrating the sequestration aspect of mature forests. But more importantly, this cherry-picked gripe, even if it were plausible, is almost of no consequence. With much of the world’s tropical forests already badly degraded or destroyed, there will inevitably be large areas of regenerating forests for centuries to come (i.e., time periods relevant to climate change projections). We haven’t even managed to reduce the RATE of tropical deforestation, so the opportunities for regeneration will persist, making the Lewis result all the more important. Muller-Landau is known for her unrealistic and anti-conservationist views, so her comments are hardly surprising. My advice – take her opinions with a very large shaker of salt (or better yet, ignore entirely).

CJA Bradshaw





Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss II: frog legs

1 02 2009

I couldn’t resist this. Given the enormous response to our soon-to-be-published paper in Conservation Biology entitled Eating frogs to extinction by Warkentin, Bickford, Sodhi & Bradshaw (view post How many frogs do we eat?), I just had to put these up. Enjoy this subclass of biodiversity loss cartoons for what they are worth.

CJA Bradshaw

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How many frogs do we eat?

20 01 2009

IMG_20130209_141200A paper that my colleagues and I wrote soon to appear in Conservation Biology describes the massive worldwide trade in frog parts for human consumption. I bet you had no idea…

This report from New Scientst:

Are frogs being eaten to extinction? We’re used to hearing about how disease, climate change, and habitat degradation are endangering amphibians, but conservationists are warning that frogs could be going the same way as the cod. Gastronomic demand, they report, is depleting regional populations to the point of no return.

David Bickford of the National University of Singapore and colleagues have called for more regulation and monitoring in the global frog meat market in order to avoid species being “eaten to extinction”.

Statistics on imports and exports of frog legs are sparse as few countries keep track of the amount of meat harvested and consumed domestically.

According to UN figures, global trade has increased in the past 20 years. France – not surprisingly – and the US are the two largest importers; with France importing between 2500 and 4000 tonnes of frog meat each year since 1995.

But although frog legs are often thought of in the West as a quintessentially French dish, they are also very popular in Asia.

Bickford estimates that between 180 million to over a billion frogs are harvested each year. “That is based on both sound data and an estimate of local consumption for just Indonesia and China,” he says. “The actual number I suspect is quite a bit larger and my 180 million bare minimum is almost laughably conservative.”
Local depletion

Even top French chefs may be unaware of where their frogs are coming from. Bruno Stril, teaching chef at the Cordon Bleu school in Paris, France, is unsure where his suppliers source their frog legs. “I would like for them to come from France,” he says. But he expects that most of the meat comes from other countries.

Stril is on the right track. Indonesia is the world’s largest exporter of frog meat, exporting more than 5000 tonnes of frog meat each year, mostly to France, Belgium and Luxemburg.

Bickford and colleagues say European kitchens initially found their own supplies in the surrounding countryside, but the fact that they are now importing from Asia suggests local populations were over-harvested. This, they say, could be a sign that frog populations, like many fish populations, will be harvested to near extinction.

“Overexploitation in the seas has caused a chain reaction of fisheries collapses around the world,” the researchers write. “This experience should motivate better management of other exploited wild populations.”
Anonymous legs

James Collins, of the World Conservation Union, says the Californian red-legged frog offers some evidence for the theory. This species was first harvested for food in the 19th-century California gold rush and eventually the population began to crash.

However, Collins cautions that “at the moment we have no data indicating that commercial exploitation has led to the extinction of any amphibian species.” He says the Bickford team’s evidence is worrisome, but inconclusive.

Most harvested frogs are skinned, butchered and frozen before being shipped overseas. This makes it difficult to know exactly what species are being killed. Indonesia is thought to mostly export crab-eating frogs, giant Jana frogs, and American bullfrogs. How much meat is consumed within Indonesia’s borders is also something of a mystery. Some studies suggest it could be between two and seven times what is exported.

“There are a hell of a lot of frogs being eaten,” says Bickford. “Much more than most people have a clue about.”

Original article soon to appear: Warkentin, IG, D Bickford, NS Sodhi, CJA Bradshaw. 2009. Eating frogs into extinction. Conservation Biology DOI: 10.1111/j.1523-1739.2008.01165.x

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More greenwashing from the Malaysian oil palm industry

17 11 2008

© ?

© ?

A recent article from Mongabay.com. What the good doctor Basiron appears to gloss over rather well is that his own country’s very economic future, well-being of its citizenry and long-term sustainability absolutely depends on maintaining large tracts of intact primary forest. The value of its forests far outweighs the short-term ‘development’ gains from palm oil. The backflips, greenwashing and overt profiteering will only be a blip in Malaysia’s economic development, so keep on with the propaganda while you can, Basiron. Why don’t you call a spade a spade – it’s greed, not so-called ‘development’ that’s raping your own country.

Dr. Yusof Basiron, the controversial CEO of the Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC), blogs about the sustainability of palm oil.

Scientists should compare the biodiversity oil palm plantations to other industrial monocultures, not the rainforests they replace, said Dr. Yusof Basiron, CEO of the Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC), in a post on his blog.

“I would also like to encourage environmental scientists not to compare the biodiversity of an agricultural crop such as the oil palm with that of rain forests,” he wrote. “The findings would not win you a Nobel price [sic].”

“If a comparison is to be made, the biodiversity of the oil palm, an agricultural crop, should be compared with that for soyabean or rapeseed, corn or sugarcane or other agricultural crops,” he continued. “Biodiversity that exists in the oil palm plantations is a bonus for all to benefit, while we enjoy the supply of oil for our food need, in addition to palm oil – an agricultural commodity – helping to promote economic growth not only in the developing countries but also in all other countries involved in using the product.”

Oil palm plantations and logged over forest in Malaysian Borneo. While much of the forest land converted for oil palm plantations in Malaysia has been logged or otherwise been zoned for logging, expansion at the expense of natural and protected forest does occur in the country. Reserve borders are sometimes redrawn to facilitate logging and conversion to plantations.
Basiron’s comments are noteworthy because until now he has maintained that oil palm plantations are “planted forests” rather than an industrial crop. Oil palm plantations are indeed biologically impoverished relative to even heavily logged forests – a study published earlier this year showed that oil palm plantations retain less than one-sixth the biodiversity of old growth forests and less than a quarter of that in secondary forests. However when compared with soy or rapeseed farms, which support almost no wildlife, oil palm plantations look a little less like biological deserts. Small measures – like maintaining and restoring forest cover along waterways, conserving peatlands and high value conservation areas, and reducing the use of fertilizers and pesticides – can help augment the biodiversity of existing plantations.

Basiron also noted that oil palm is the highest yielding conventional oilseed on the market – far outstripping the production per unit of area for rapeseed and soy. While its high yield makes oil palm exceedingly profitable – especially during the recent boom in palm oil prices, which recently ended, coinciding with falling oil prices – it also theoretically means that less land needs to be converted to produce the same amount of oil had the land been cultivated with other crops. The problem, say environmentalists, stems from the practice of clearing natural forest for oil palm plantations, which reduces biodiversity, hurts ecosystem functioning, and results in greenhouse gas emissions. While Basiron and the MPOC have flatly denied that natural forest has been cleared for the establishment of oil palm plantations, ground and satellite evidence proves the claims quite false. Nevertheless there are opportunities to covert degraded and abandoned agricultural lands for oil palm, mostly in Indonesia, rather than Malaysia where most land is already under cultivation or forested. While returns would be lower without the “logging subsidy” generated by selling the timber harvested from forest land prior to planting with oil palm, such plantations would face less criticism from the environmental community.

A third point made by Basiron is that Malaysia is a sovereign nation that has same rights to develop its economy as industrialized nations have had. The same concept has been put forth by Brazil over deforestation of the Amazon and China with regards to its rising greenhouse gas emissions.

Basiron writes,

“It is also unethical, immoral and somewhat patronizing for NGOs of the developed countries in Europe to ask developing countries such as Malaysia to stop developing its land. Asking Malaysia to stop developing its land will lead to conflicts and misunderstanding because some states in Malaysia have not yet had the opportunity to develop their agricultural land as they were until a few decades ago under oppressive colonial rule.”

“Sarawak [a state on the island of Borneo] which achieved independence from the British later than Peninsular Malaysia had only developed 8% of its land for agriculture compared to the UK which has over 70% of its land under agriculture. But there are still opportunities in Sarawak and other parts of Malaysia to develop degraded logged over land for planting rubber and oil palm to increase the country’s sources of foreign exchange while not involving the deforestation of the pristine permanent forests.”

While Basiron’s comments will likely be dismissed or ignored by many environmental groups, his points are not the sort that typically provoke outcry from the green lobby. MPOC lands in the most trouble with the environmental community when it attempts to deliberately mislead the marketplace on the environmental performance of palm oil, an approach the group has used repeatedly in recent years with advertising campaigns, “greenwashing” and “astroturfing” techniques, and other propaganda. Of course MPOC is not alone in using these tactics – it follows the model employed widely by industries ranging from U.S. ethanol producers to big oil. The problem for MPOC – and other industries – is that misleading campaigns are only providing more fodder for its enemies. But MPOC is hedging itself. The palm oil marketing group is also employing a second strategy that may pay better dividends in the long run – an effort to improve the environmental performance of palm oil. While the initiative – known as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) – has stumbled a bit coming out of the blocks, it appears there may be a market for certified palm oil, which would offer producers a premium for mitigating the environmental and social impacts of producing the vegetable oil. The first RSPO-certified palm oil is expected the reach Europe today. Unilever, one of the world’s largest consumers of palm oil, has already pledged to buy only certified palm oil by 2015.

See also previous posts on oil palm at ConservationBytes.com:

Unexpected benefits of falling palm oil prices

Oil palm plantatations destroying tropical biodiversity

Another nail in Borneo’s biodiversity coffin





Unexpected benefits of falling palm oil prices

10 11 2008

© Google Earth

© Google Earth

This one from Mongabay.com and the Jakarta Post. It would almost be humorous, if it weren’t so pathetic. After years of so-called ‘greenwashing’ tactics to downplay the environmental degradation caused by expanding oil palm plantations (see also related post here), falling world palm oil prices may just be the thing needed to curb the greed. As a side note, I recently visited China and now realise where a good proportion of the oil palm is going – while the food was fantastic, the amount of oil used in almost everything is a bit over the top. For a ‘developing’ nation, there sure were quite a few fatties on the street. Convincing China to eat less oil will also reduce demand for oil palm and save SE Asia’s dwindling biodiversity.

The agricultural ministers for both countries [Indonesia and Malaysia] agreed to initiate a 300,000-hectare replanting program that will replace aging trees with seedlings of higher-yielding varieties. The seedlings will begin to bear oil palm fruit “fresh fruit bunches” for harvest in three to four years’ time.

“Demand is projected to slow down in every sector next year as a result of global recession. We’re preventing a possible oversupply of palm oil that may occur next year by replanting trees,” Achmad Mangga Barani, the director general for plantations for Indonesia’s Agriculture Ministry, was quoted as saying. “This hopefully will help boost the palm oil price to a normal level — at around US$700 to $800 per metric ton.”

Palm oil prices in Malaysia have fallen from more than $1200 per ton earlier this year to a three-year low of around $376 per ton on Oct. 28. Palm oil prices have lately moved in step with the price crude oil, which has also rapidly retreated from recent record high nominal prices.

The decline in palm oil prices is expected to slow expansion of oil palm plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia, a development that will please environmentalists who blame the palm oil industry for large-scale destruction of rainforests across Southeast Asia.

The new plan calls for replanting of 50,000 hectares in Indonesia and 250,000 in Malaysia. Indonesia, which has significantly lower palm oil yields than Malaysia due to marginal oil palm varieties and fewer industrial producers, will aim to replant 125,000 ha by 2011.





Oil palm plantations destroying tropical biodiversity

18 09 2008

This one from MongaBay.com

Conversion of primary rainforest to an oil palm plantation results in a loss of more than 80 percent of species, reports a new comprehensive review of the impacts of growing palm oil production. The research is published in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution.

“By compiling scientific studies of birds, bats, ants and other species, we were able to show that on average, fewer than one-sixth of the species recorded in primary forest were found in oil palm,” said led author Emily Fitzherbert from the Zoological Society of London and University of East Anglia. “Degraded forest, and even alternative crops such as rubber and cocoa, supported higher numbers of species than oil palm plantations.”

The results confirm that oil palm plantations are a poor substitute for natural forests when it comes to conservation of biological diversity.

The study warns that burgeoning demand for palm oil for use in foods, household products, and biodiesel will continue to fuel expansion in the tropics. Because planters can subsidize operations by the initial logging for forest plots, it seems likely that forests will continue to fall for new plantations despite the availability of large tracts of degraded and abandoned land.

“There is enough non-forested land suitable for plantation development to allow large increases in production without large impacts on tropical forests, but as a result of political inertia, competing priorities and lack of capacity and understanding, not to mention high levels of demand for timber and palm oil from wealthy consumers, it is still often cheaper and easier to clear forests. Unless these conditions change quickly, the impacts of oil palm expansion on biodiversity will be substantial,” the authors conclude.

See also Koh & Wilcove. 2008. Is oil palm agriculture really destroying tropical biodiversity? Conservation Letters 1: 60-64

CJA Bradshaw