Author Archives: Penny Pepperell

About Penny Pepperell

Penny Pepperell is a writer and environmental activist who follows science, nature and politics in the Great Lakes and Georgian Bay: kayaker; grandmother; long distance swimmer; birder and opera lover. Buffleheads are her favourite ducks. Buffleheads are shy ducks who pass through Georgian Bay on their way north in the spring. The males have striking black heads with large white patches that look like giant ear phones. The females are a more subdued grey/brown with what looks like a white smudge of flour across their cheeks as if they've been making bread. They nest in holes bored by Northern Flickers, another of Penny's favourites.

Who knew that the way to control an invasive species was to import another one, or two or three?

Canadian flag in snowBefore we became deeply worried about Phragmites australis, the feather-topped scrawny-stalked, wet-footed invasive, we were concerned about purple loosestrife. Lythrum salicaria, a pretty but aggressive plant that was masterminding a takeover of our wetlands.

A native to Europe and Asia, purple loosestrife most probably arrived via soil used in the ballast of ships and released in North America in the early 19th Century. Each plant is covered in flowering stems, which can spit out 2.7 million seeds a year that are then easily dispersed by water, wind and wildlife. Its dense matted root system shrinks nutrients in wetlands and ditches, degrading habitat for wetland critters and pushing out native plants. Farmland and canals were choking on the stuff, when people were happily carting these plants home for installation in their gardens. Purple loosestrife had swept across Canada and the U.S.

And then suddenly, it seemingly vanished from people’s consciousness and the landscape. What happened?

Purple Loosestrife became one of the most successful case studies of biocontrol, the introduction of more invasives to chill out the target invasive.

400px-LythrumSalicariaBigBiocontrol may raise the hackles of the we-shouldn’t-play-God faction but consider the alternatives. Pesticides and herbicides provides only temporary, geographically limited solutions and they come with a host of side effects like poisonings, cancer-causing agents, other health impacts, environmental impacts, and encouraging the genetic resistance to them in the pest species. And chemical solutions are expensive, and keep on being expensive.

In contrast, natural enemies can be self-sustaining and self-dispersing agents. They don’t require repeated applications and they hold out the hope that they will adjust their population size to that of their target species, and moreover they are unlikely to cause cancer. Once introduced, they do their job and that’s the end of it.

Still, biocontrol has been the subject of considerable controversy. Biologists have been getting much better at it, as the rules and regs for its application have become increasingly restrictive and uniform when once they were chaotic, subject to change and lacking any clearly understood national or bi-national models.

Asian Carp, introduced to deal with algae in fish farms, is an example of biocontrol gone badly, badly wrong.

Invasives typically arrive without their co-evolved predators, parasites and pathogens or in the case of weeds, herbivores. Without these checks, populations can spread rapidly.  Biocontrol requires locating the natural enemies of these target pests, evaluating the likely results of importing them, confining them for a period in quarantine and testing whether they would be likely to harm non-target species.

None of this is easy. Evaluating the ecological impacts of introducing a species requires a great deal of data that has to be garnered from the host country over many years. An understanding of the life history, dispersal, phylogeny and behavioural effects are necessary. The difficulties in getting this information can warp the data such that a disproportionate amount of info can be  learned about the particular predator/target species relative to the broader category of predator/non-target species.

Moreover, quarantine conditions can hardly replicate the complexity of interactions in the natural environment. Confining critters to petri dishes or cages obviously changes their behaviour. Under these conditions, predators have been known to go after sub-optimal prey (a form of stress eating perhaps), which can exaggerate the impact an introduced predator species might have in the wild, creating false positives.

Potential consequences for non-target species are difficult to evaluate, population dynamic data difficult to come by. The closer taxonomically the non-target species is to the target species, the greater the risk of unintended consequences. And even comprehensive studies are unlikely to identify how or whether the predator species will undergo evolutionary or adaptation changes as a result of being introduced to a new environment.  Unfortunately,  looking for trouble after the introduction of a biocontrol program can be extremely difficult. Throw in the unknown impacts of climate change, and getting a successful program looks doubtful.

How extraordinary then is the success of the biocontrol program for purple loosestrife. Research began in 1995, and by 1992, the Canadian and U.S. governments had approved the release of two European leaf-eating beetles, Galerucella calmariensis and Galerucella pusilla plus a root feeding weevil, Hylobius tranversovitattus.

Following a period of inactivity in the fall and winter, the leaf-eating bugs feed on the leaves as they emerge in the spring. They mate and lay their eggs on the leaves. After hatching, the larvae move on to eating the tips, which prevents them from growing or producing flowers.

The root-feeding weevil either survive the winter as dormant adults in the leaf litter or as larvae in the roots of the purple loosestrife. Overwintering adults feed on leaf and stem tissue. Eggs are deposited in the stem just above ground level at the rate of one or two a day. A single female will live two or three years and lay about 300 eggs.  Overwintering larvae begin to feed as the soil warms up. They then complete their development, pupate and emerge as adults in mid to late summer although some larvae may take more than one full summer to complete their development inside the root.

The purple loosestrife program has been deemed a remarkable success.  Vast stands have been wiped out without the introduction of chemicals or unintended impacts on non-target species.

Unfortunately phragmites doesn’t lend itself as easily to biocontrol, being too similar to native species, that would run the risk of becoming the prey of a predator species that was introduced. Phragmites should not be composted, root fragments (rhizomes) and seeds should be disposed of in the garbage, and stands of it should be avoided so as to reduce the risk of spreading seeds. This is a no-fun plant.

Separating critters into native and invasive categories implies a before and an after, which in turn leads us to expect that if only we could pluck out the invasives, we will find the world the way it was. But nature is always dynamic and disturbances are ongoing and inevitable.

In the old days, biocontrol was primarily directed at ridding agricultural or other “useful” land of pests. Now we have moved on to wanting to save the natural environment from introduced species. This is much more difficult to do, and layers on more morally taxing issues about how much meddling we’re prepared to do.  Fortunately, biologists know much more about the complexity of the natural world than they used to.  This is important work and we should provide  them with the means to do it.

Biological Control of Purple Loosestrife Program, Illinois Natural History Survey http://wwx.inhs.illinois.edu/research/loosestrife/

Biological Control of Purple Loosestrife, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources http://www.dnr.state.mn.us/invasives/aquaticplants/purpleloosestrife/biocontrol.html

Biological Control of Purple Loosestrife, Richard A.Malecki, Bernd Blossey, Stephen D Hight etc. http://www.dnr.state.mn.us/invasives/aquaticplants/purpleloosestrife/biocontrol.html

Invasive Phragmites, Ontario Invading Species Awareness Program http://www.invadingspecies.com/invaders/plants-terrestrial/invasive-phragmites/

Furthering Harper’s Stealth Agenda, the Pipeline Agency is Grabbing the Fisheries File

Prime Minister Harper’s squeezing of environmental protections continues in its characteristic drip, drip fashion. In the latest example the National Energy Board, responsible for the approval of pipelines, is poised to assume some powers to protect fish and fish habitat, from Oceans and Fisheries Canada in accordance with a Memorandum of Understanding posted on the NEB website.

Graffiti and iceLimiting the regulatory agencies overseeing a project might seem like a admirable move towards increased efficiency that will no doubt please the proponents of energy projects, but it raises serious questions about whether the NEB has the resources and willpower, unsullied by conflicting agendas, to responsibly protect the fish that get in the way of energy projects.

The Harper government talks relentlessly about balancing the budget and lowering taxes—that’s what  we got when the Conservatives won their majority, with 38% of the popular vote. What the government hasn’t admitted to is its assault on science and the weakening of environmental protections, which trundle along behind its cosseting of the oil sands sector. The closing and consolidated of the science libraries, the muzzling of scientists, the abandonment of the Experimental Lakes Area, the cancelling of the long-form census: this pileup suggests that the Conservative government is quietly suppressing, reducing and sidelining evidence-based, science-based challenges to its economic hegemony. This is part of Harper’s stealth agenda.

The Memorandum of Understanding, dated December 16, 2013, states that (for now) DFO retains responsibility for issuing permits under the Fisheries Act (permits that allow parties to undertake an activity that results in serious harm to fish) until such time as the two departmental bodies “propose regulations that would prescribe the NEB as a person or entity who would be authorized to issue Fisheries Authorizations.”

It’s an open question whether, as a result of departmental cuts, a greatly truncated DFO could ramp up a robust defense of fish and fish habitat that unfortunately find themselves in the path of an energy project. How less likely would the NEB be to do so, given the agency’s very different mandate.

The NEB is a quasi-judicial body that conducts hearings and issues rulings, enforceable by law, regarding pipelines, energy projects and trade. Its jurisdiction stretches over 71,000 Km of pipelines and 1,400 Km of international power lines. Fifty environmental, social-economic, land and engagement specialists carry out the NEB mandate that stretches over the NEB Act, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, 2012, the Canada Labour Code and the Canadian Standards Association for occupational safety. They also work with the Transportation Safety Board for accident investigations. And soon they’ll be getting the fisheries file to look after.

But just how deep can their expertise possibly be?

It looks like the government has sacrificed expertise on the altar of expediency. The guiding principles behind the NEB/DFO Memorandum include directives “to facilitate effective and efficient use of government resources in order that regulatory decisions are made in a timely manner by applying a one-project one-review approach; and to promote clarity and consistency of the regulatory process.”

But should the inevitable conflicts between development and the environment be buried in one over-stretched, Medusa-headed federal agency?

tracksOurs is a big country with a lot of water around and in it. DFO has, or had 10,000 employees. According to a secret document released under an Access to Information Request, DFO is facing cuts of $96.5M by 2015 affecting coast guard search and rescue; ice-breaker services; libraries; marine communication, rescue boats; buoy tending; species-at-risk Atlantic salmon production facilities; biodiversity and fish hatcheries; conservation and protection offices; lifeboat services; control surveillance; funding for the Northwest and Nunavut Territories; Arctic ports; the Experimental Lakes Area;  the Atlantic Lobster Sustainability Measures Program; the At-Sea Observer Program; the restructuring of habitat and ecosystem management; and finally, contaminant research especially the elimination of in-house research programs on the biological effects of contaminants, pesticides, oil, gas and diluted bitumen. This will be replaced with a small advisory group.

Some of these concerns are moving to other agencies. In other cases changed circumstances justify these cuts—a 90% drop in the number of serious cases of non-compliance by foreign fishing vessels since 2005 for example.  But in other respects, the DFO budget should be increased in acknowledgement of stepped up marine traffic, technological changes, climate change impacts, and extended shipping seasons. These increased demands on DFO’s services were noted in briefing notes to DFO Deputy Minister Matthew King as quoted in a PostMedia News article by Mike De Souza.

Harper’s slash and burn approach is compounded adversely by changes to the Fisheries Act that were buried inside the 2012 omnibus budget. These eliminated DFO’s responsibility to protect all fish and their habitat and replaced it with a mandate to protect fish that serve some recreational, commercial or Aboriginal purpose. (You can imagine how the federal government might find this jurisdictional vacuum useful when developing the vast remote pristine regions of the Arctic, where there are bound to be  some fish that don’t serve any one’s interests.)

DFO does not deliver frontline services to Harper’s tax-paying base. In the short term the DFO cuts are visible only to those people directly involved in Canada’s waters and to conscientious environment watchers. But Canadians are responsible for about 23% of the world’s fresh water, and we’re bordered by three oceans. We are a marine country that requires a lot of looking-after and we’re not getting  it.

Sources for this blog are noted below.

Memorandum of Understanding between the National Energy Board and Fisheries and Oceans Canada for Cooperation and Administration of the Fisheries Act and the Species at Risk Act Related to Regulating Energy Infrastructure http://www.neb-one.gc.ca/clf-nsi/rpblctn/ctsndrgltn/mmrndmndrstndng/fshrscnscnd2013_12_16-eng.html

NEB begins slow takeover of DFO’s Fisheries Act Powers, ipolitic http://www.ipolitics.ca/2014/01/06/neb-begins-slow-takeover-of-dfos-fisheries-act-powers/

DFO Cuts http://www.scribd.com/doc/194092303/DFO-cuts

Harper Cutting More than 100 Million Related to Protection of Water, by Mike de Souza, PostMedia News http://www.canada.com/Harper+government+cutting+more+than+million+related+protection+water/9328179/story.html

Changes to the Fisheries Act, June 29, 2012 http://www.dfo-mpo.gc.ca/pnw-ppe/changes-changements/index-eng.html

2012-2013 Departmental Performance Report, Fisheries and Oceans Canada http://www.dfo-mpo.gc.ca/dpr-rmr/2012-13/dpr-rmr-eng.html

A Do-It-Yourself Guide to Learning Bird and Gaining the Key to the Natural Universe

Winter RobinBird watching is trophy hunting (not killing, obviously.) It’s a competitive sport although birders don’t talk about that.  It usually involves taking pictures (with a tripod, telescopic lenses and a sore back), checking off lists, and identifying exotic migrants—assuming you can identify that pesky eye ring or count the stripes on its tail feathers as your bird takes off.

In contrast, bird language is acquired close to home, no binoculars necessary, and is the ticket to the vast complex universe of the natural world.

Young_ROBIN_cvr_spineThe best birders (who know at least a restaurant level of Bird) spot their subjects by listening first and then they site it. What they see is a bird doing something, not idly strumming his vocal chords while he takes in the scenery.

Bird is the route to a deep understanding of the ways in which forest critters take account of one another as they conduct their everyday survival.

What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World by Jon Young holds out the hope that ordinary people studying very ordinary birds in a small defined neighbourhood, perhaps focusing on an area as small as 50 yards across and 20 feet high, (the territory of a small bird) can pick up the most ancient of languages, one that was undoubtedly crucial to our survival as hunters and gatherers and possibly fundamental to the development of the human brain.

Native Americans could spot advancing armies miles off by “bird plows”, a sudden sideways, and herd like exit from the bush of birds fleeing an unusual threat.

“Using the birds as a first alert greatly improved our odds of finding two wolves (without radio collars) in a million acres of wild country,” writes Young. “If the birds were busy eating grasshoppers in the cold morning we moved on, but if they were gathered low in the trees and acting somewhat skittish, we paused, because ravens gathered in a focused group could be protecting a carcass and keeping their eyes out for other nearby scavengers, including wolves.”

Birds operate on a very lean energy budget; of course all critters do, but birds especially, which puts a premium on their calibrating exactly the right amount of effort necessary to achieve a given result. A quick get away can be costly, even if successful, as the bird may succumb to exhaustion in the end anyway.

“Pell-mell flight might also put the flying sentinels in jeopardy of predators who have sized up the situation as a good wake-hunting opportunity and are moving in for the kill. Better to stay home and stay organized,” reasons Young.

Birds don’t just fly away at the sight of a cat. They judge from its behaviour whether it’s stalking, or moseying home to its canned fish and a cushion, and they have calls to match.

Birds have calls that distinguish among lowest of the low, the egg robbers, corvids, jays, raccoons, weasels, snakes, coyotes, wolves, and birds of prey, and whether these dangers are actually worth worrying about at any particular moment.

“A tense, stressed coyote moving faster than usual in her efforts to feed those whining pups back in the den will elicit a stronger set of alarms than the more relaxed coyote, maybe responsible only for itself, whose movements seems less anxious and stressed.”

Birds, because they have such complex vocalizations, acute eyesight and excellent vantage points (ground feeders excepted) from which to observe, are the inter- and intra species news broadcasters. And everyone else equally dependent on their own lean energy budgets are guided by the birds, (unlike the bounding labs tearing off through the underbrush with never a worry about their next meal.)

These opportunistic interdependencies constitute a complex society.  Birds will squirm around in anthills hoping to annoy the insects that will then release formic acid and drive the lice from their feathers. Magpies follow deer because they kick up the dirt exposing insects. And herding animals are great sources of ticks and a free ride. Red-tailed hawks hang around highways, travelling along with the vehicles taking advantage of their noise to disguise their own.

Chickadees have some of the most complex alarm calls, matching the number of their “dee, dee, dees” to the level of threat, if sometimes straying from the truth.

“Chickadees sometimes produce false alarms, causing the gullible to fly away and leave that much less competition for food. This behaviour indicated that the chickadees can make fine distinctions between fake and real alarms.

“I’ve seen a chickadee sitting right in front of me—pumping away, with its bill wide open—and heard its call coming to me from over there, many feet away, in midair: nothing less than ventriloquism. In my experience this phenomenon occurs when the predator is a sharp-shinned or Cooper’s hawk.”

Bird alarms can also have an unintended effect. “Hearing an alarm for another predator, an accipiter [hawk] glides in that direction, knowing that the birds are distracted by the first predator, making the second predator’s odds just a little better.”

Meanwhile back in the nest, the squawking of chicks is a dinner bell for corvids, peregrines, cats, raccoons and foxes. “Establish a post near a hawk’s nest during nesting season, and you will be astonished by how often the parents fly in with a songbird to feed their young. I’ve watched a Cooper’s hawk deliver a bird to one of its own two or three chicks three times within half an hour.”

Jon Young’s book is an impressive inspirational guide to getting to know the most common backyard species, and he claims you don’t need binos. By choosing what he calls a sit spot and recording what you hear, including truck noises, airplanes, slamming doors, barking dogs, sitting there quietly every day, preferably early in the morning so not too far from home, you will eventually, with help from audio guides and a few online lessons, understand the patterns of behaviour of individual birds in your sit spot universe.

You’ve first got to figure out what the baseline, normal situation is, the dimensions of a given bird’s territory with its food sources, hiding places and vantage points. You’ll learn how to avoid taking deliberately quiet steps that could be interpreted as stalking behaviour, while also not causing unnecessary noise.

You’ll learn about the vocalizations: songs, companion calls, male-to-male aggression, adolescent begging and alarm. Understanding the baseline will tell you what the quiet means. “If something alerts one towee, it will freeze and a split second later so will all the others. Then they may casually move—almost fade—into denser, safer cover. No noise whatsoever, no big production, but they are gone. It could be a minute or more before the song sparrows look up.”

If you find a nest, back off quietly so as not to attract the attention of predators. Sit with your back to the brush so you can hear anyone coming.

We may not have any need to anticipate an advancing cavalry charge coming down our driveway, but learning Bird, however imperfectly, will attach us more to the natural world and that’s a good thing.

Jon Young’s website, offers Bird Language Basics, a free email course, and DVDs.

http://whattherobinknows.com/biography/author-jon-young/

Plants and Climate Change: The Story is Getting Very Complicated

Since we started worrying about climate change and the pileup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, scientists have turned their attention to how exactly plants breathe in the stuff. As a result, studies and reports are raining down upon us. The studies are not necessarily contradictory as difficult to place in their relative importance. We haven’t got a good grip on how these innumerable findings fit together because behind every one, there’s a “yes, but…”

Fallen treeThis risks confusion but better to learn up on these findings as they unfold so we have something to fight back with, should someone claim that what’s good for the tar sands is good for trees. So here are a few intriguing ideas that have turned up lately.

Plants absorb carbon dioxide differently depending on the season, drawing in their breath in the spring and summer when they are growing and exhaling slowly over the course of the fall and winter. As a result there is more CO2 in the atmosphere during the  winter than in the summer.

The last 50 years have seen this trend grow more pronounced. Heather Graven, a post-doctoral researcher at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, has been graphing these seasonal variations, and it looks like the jagged edge of a saw. As CO2 has increased (from 315 parts per million to 400 parts per million over five decades) plants have been gobbling up more of the stuff. The net effect: more and bigger plants, fueled by longer growing seasons, more CO2, and a warming planet.

Branches against the snowYes, but this new carbon-fueled growth may be finite. Another study, this one published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, asserts that there are limits to how much carbon dioxide a plant or plants can absorb. “Global warming of four degrees Celsius will result in the earth’s land vegetation becoming dominated by negative effects, such as ‘moisture stress’, caused by plant cells getting too little water.” This means that despite the anticipated growth in plants, both in their number and size, the environment won’t be able to support them particularly well.

From Wikipedia: “Moisture stress occurs when the water in a plant’s cells is reduced to less than normal levels. This can occur because of a lack of water in the plant’s root zone, higher rates of transpiration than the rate of moisture uptake by the roots. Moisture stress is more strongly related to water potential than it is to water content.” (Wikipedia has good definitions for these as well.)

Yes, but if this new extra carbon-dioxide-fueled growth has its limits, what do you make of the finding that big mature trees continue to grow i.e. pack on carbon dioxide into old age and are in fact better consumers than adolescent trees?

Nathan Stephenson, an ecologist at the U.S. Geological Survey in Three River California says, “The trees that are adding the most mass are the biggest ones, and that holds pretty much everywhere on earth that we looked.”

This finding, as reported in Nature challenges the long held theory that growth plateaus as trees mature. But Stephenson and his colleagues found, after studying data related to 673,046 trees and 403 species, that “the largest trees gained the most mass each year in 97% of the species, capitalizing on their additional leaves and adding more girth high in the sky.” Old trees may have tired, less efficient leaves than younger trees but because they have more of them, they net out ahead of the kids.

Yes, but all this growth may not be good for us after all at least in the Arctic. Increases in vegetation are evident and measurable from outer space, especially in the Boreal forests and on the Arctic tundra. Shrubs trap snow that would otherwise blow away, providing an insulating blanket for the tundra that as a result is experiencing a greater rate of decomposition and the subsequent release of carbon dioxide. The Boreal forest, one third of which has a floor of permafrost, is now under threat of warming with gigantic consequences for how much CO2 will end up in the atmosphere.

tree with broken limbIn another respect, these invading, northward-bound shrubs are bad because they detract from the reflectivity of the snowy plains. Two Dartmouth scientists claim that snowy treeless, shrub-less fields offer greater climate change benefits than an equivalent stand of trees; snow reflects solar energy back into space, the albedo reflectivity effect, whereas dark leafy substances absorb it.

“In some cases, the cooling influence of albedo can equal and surpass the climatic benefits of carbon sequestration from forest growth,” says postdoctoral fellow David A. Lutz and professor of environmental studies and Richard B. Howarth in a paper presented to the American Geophysical Union. They suggest that countries such as Canada with large expanses of snowy barren areas should be given a climate credit for these areas in international negotiations around global warming.

Let’s start a conversation about this. I would love to hear from people who know more than I do.

Tree Growth Never Slows: http://www.nature.com/news/tree-growth-never-slows-1.14536

Swinging Co2 Levels Show the Earth is Breathing More Deeply: http://www.npr.org/2013/08/08/210243967/swinging-co2-levels-show-the-earth-is-breathing-more-deeply

Plants Could Stop Being the Brake on Global Warming: http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/climate-change/plants-could-stop-being-brake-on-global-warming-9009067.html

Dartmouth Study Finds that Logging, Deforestration may Better Serve Climate in Some Areas. https://fallmeeting.agu.org/2013/press-item/dartmouth-study-finds-more-logging-deforestation-may-better-serve-climate-in-some-areas/

Learning to live with our water levels, whatever they are, and be happy

Georgian Bayers may have dodged a bullet for now. Ice cover, a significant determinant of lake levels (as well as summer water temperatures and spring plankton blooms) should reach 57-62% across the Great Lakes by February say GLERL scientists (Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratories.) This is slightly above the long-term average. Last year ice cover came in at 38.4%.

Nelly with big stickThe U.S. Army Corps of Engineers predicts all the Great Lakes except Huron-Michigan will reach their average water levels or exceed them this summer, but a wide swath of uncertainty still remains.

The turn around poses special problems for shoreline communities. They’re now up against the reality that water levels go up as well as down and this can happen fast. (Of course fluctuations are a given, we know this, but much of the lobbying for doing something about low water levels has focused on low and lower water levels.)

Sadly, the upswing this year, doesn’t change the fundamentals of climate change; the Great Lakes are evaporating at a greater rate than we would like.

Shoreline communities around the world are the hardest hit as people and critters have always chosen homesteading on the edges of waterways.  Entire mini societies and species face complete annihilation.  That is not true of communities on the Great Lakes, but a radically refashioned shoreline is pitting nature against us for prime and shifting real estate.

The up-and-downness of it all poses serious dilemmas for higher levels of government considering bailouts for these communities. What’s normal? Are 100-year storms going to show up every couple of years? Given the extent of climate change, who should be compensated and who should fend for themselves? It will take the wisdom of Solomon to thread our way through short-term thinking and dodge the loudest screamers and false prophets to figure out where to slap down our billions. (I’m hoping the long-anticipated Council of Great Lakes Region’s economic study will throw some light on this.)

Winter puddleAnd don’t think for a second that the restoration of water levels/St. Clair River project that the International Joint Commission recommended to the Canadian and U.S. governments will address the fallout from climate change. It is meant to compensate for what drained away via dredging in the ’60s.

In an excellent report by UNESCO on learning to live with climate change, the authors warned against such boutique projects. “Avoid skewing financing to specialty projects that might be easily labeled adaptation but do not necessarily maximize net benefits.” Let’s hope the federal governments who are expected to come up with a response to the recommendations of the International Joint Commission keep their sights firmly on climate change.

The big questions are, what is the quality of our environment, our economy, our water supply, and how can we fix what’s ailing. Through the prism of adapting to climate change, we can address questions we should have asked ages ago, infrastructure questions as well as local questions such as, is it possible for a dock to coexist with an encroaching wetland—seeing as the old wetland is now a meadow?

Grey rock w snowGovernments and think tanks are jumping into adaptive management but their attempts seem  soporifically bureaucratic. It’s still early days. Success will depend on innovation and big thinking, but just as importantly it will come from ordinary folks figuring out how to run their lives and businesses in a testier world. This could be a job creator. Yes we badly need engineers and lots of money, but also small, incremental, artisanal, locally made solutions, and millions of cut-and-paste proposals.

IJC Adaptive Management Plan: Building Collaboration Across the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence System: http://www.ijc.org/en_/amplan

Water and Climate Adaptation: Policies to Navigate Uncharted Waters: www.oecd-ilibrary.org/environment/water-and-climate-change-adaptation_9789264200449-en

The International Joint Commission Advice to Governments: http://www.ijc.org/files/publications/IUGLS-IJC-Report-Feb-12-2013-15-April-20132.pdf

Council of the Great Lakes Region: the economic study should be released early this year. http://councilgreatlakesregion.org/

Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratories: http://www.glerl.noaa.gov/data/ice/

The Closing of the Science Libraries, its Media Coverage and the Government’s Spin

On December 5th, The Winnipeg Free Press ran a story that described scientists and marine consultants rushing to the library at the Freshwater Institute at the University of Manitoba to haul away materials slated for landfill.

Winter RobinNorth/South Consultants, who specialize in field research and environmental assessments for government and corporate clients, drove up with several vehicles including a flatbed truck. “Old environmental impact statements done for past projects were at the top of the rescue list, in part because they offer baseline data on such things as fish populations and toxicology as well as novel methods to do proper assessments, said one scientist who used the library frequently. ”

On January 3rd, The Huffington Post ran, “How the Harper Government Committed a Knowledge Massacre”. This was quickly followed by the C.B.C.’s “Fisheries and Oceans Library Closings Called Loss to Science.” and the Globe & Mail’s “Purge of Canada’s Fisheries Libraries Called Historic Loss Scientists Say.”

Margaret Munro, national science writer for Post Media News, actually broke the story about the closing and consolidation of federal science libraries back in April. She quoted scientists and academics explaining their profound misgivings that historically valuable documents would be kept, and that only duplicates and so-called “grey material” would be culled and the remainder digitized.

“Information destruction unworthy of a democracy,” said Peter Wells, an ocean pollution expert, Dalhousie University. Eric Mills, a specialist historian of marine sciences at Dalhousie called it a “disaster.”  “It could make fisheries science a lot less effective,” said Jennifer Hubbard, a science historian, Ryerson University.

Broken TreeAs described in Munro’s story, the libraries contained one of the world’s most comprehensive collections of information on fisheries, aquatic sciences and nautical sciences, reports detailing the DDT pollution that wiped out young salmon in New Brunswick in ‘50s; vivid descriptions of native fisheries and the huge cod stocks of the past; 50 illustrated volumes of Britain’s Challenger expedition in the late 1800s; not to mention baseline data so essential to understanding changes in our environment.

Here’s how this sad saga started. A secret federal government document, “Strategic and Operating Review” (made available through an access to information request by Postmedia) laid out cuts of $79.3 million to the Department of Oceans and Fisheries’ (DFO) for 2014/15, on top of cuts totalling $17.2 million in the previous two years. These included cuts to library services and the consolidation of its programs at four locations. “Main activities include culling materials in the closed libraries or shipping them to the two locations, and culling materials to make room for collections from the closed locations.” Projected savings: $443,000. No mention of digitizing the collections.

In response to the dust up resulting from this story, the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, Gail Shea issued a press release about “serious misinformation about the consolidation of DFO libraries.”

“It is not fair to taxpayers to make them pay for libraries that so few people actually used…In 2011, over 95% of the total documents provided to users were provided digitally…All materials for which DFO has copyright will be preserved by the department…Duplicate materials, including books, from the libraries being consolidated were offered to other libraries and third parties if they wanted them. They were also offered to the DFO staff on site at the library, then offered to the general public, and finally were recycled in a “green” fashion if there were no takers. It is absolutely false to insinuate that any books were burnt.”

Minister Shea reveals a rather skewed idea of science libraries.  Of course ordinary tax-payers are unlikely to use them, but that doesn’t reflect on their value. Sadly, culling collections is a necessary evil and integral part of library science, but it requires great care, human resources, knowledge of the particular subject matter and time, which are inconsistent with culling in great haste to save money. And digitizing collections is not inexpensive or clear cut either. (The Canadian Library Association has expressed some concerns about digitizing and the future of Canadian libraries in general.)

Also, limiting a collection to what is copyrighted seems overly restrictive. I assume the Canadian government wouldn’t have the copyright to the 50 illustrated volumes of Britain’s Challenger expedition in the late 1800s for example.

Libraries are invaluable. Their holding, cataloguing and retrieval of the bits and pieces of our past, especially when these scraps in and of themselves aren’t particularly pertinent, is crucial to our understanding of an issue. In the Winnipeg account, some baseline data would appear to have been “saved”, but no one other than the guys with the flatbed truck would know where to find it or what exactly the scavenged papers contain; moreover, the value of their haul is diminished simply because it is no longer the property of a public institution and readily available for peer review.

The library story is one more to add to the pile of Harper’s-assault-on-science stories, one more to add to the muzzling of Canadian scientists, the cancelling of the long form census, the trampling of climate science, the shutting of the Environmental Lakes Area, the draconian gutting of departments and on and on. Thank you, you dedicated Harper watcher bloggers and web masters for keeping these issues alive.

But why hasn’t the library closing story penetrated beyond the science sections and into the realm of general public discourse? (An exception: The Fifth Estate did a piece called “Silence of the Labs.”) Does the library story sound too much like a rant from the usual pointy-headed wets? Is it too squishy: he said, she said? Or does the traditional press think the larger “we” don’t care. Perhaps we don’t. Or perhaps the neglect of the story is just another example of the beleaguered and desperate paucity of the press these days.

There is more at work here than Harper government’s relentless drive for efficiencies. Money for communication officers to police the discourse between scientists and journalists, prisons and to promote the War of 1812 ($28 million) isn’t lacking.

The closing of science libraries is not the sort of issue that bites you in the neck, but the effects, especially when you bundle it with all the other closures, cancellations, and mangling going on, will eventually impact the quality of our lives and our health, not to mention our democracy. That’s under threat now.

Closure of Fisheries Libraries called a Disaster for Science by Margaret Munro. http://o.canada.com/news/science-news/closure-of-fisheries-libraries-expected-to-stifle-science/

Secret Memo Casts Doubt on Feds’ Claims for Science Library Closures http://thetyee.ca/News/2013/12/30/Harper-Library-Closures/

DFO Press Release re closure of libraries http://www.dfo-mpo.gc.ca/media/npress-communique/2014/20140107-en.html

Scientists go fishing for old documents http://www.winnipegfreepress.com/local/scientists-go-fishing-for-old-documents-234554691.html

Nation’s Library Advocate Raises Questions about Federal ‘Culling’ http://thetyee.ca/News/2014/01/13/Library-Culling-Questions/?utm_source=daily&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=130114

Asian Carp: is it too late to keep them out? A major report on the options

They might be here or they might not be here just yet: Asian carp, the silver and bighead kind, 60 lb. monsters that can suck up 10% of their body weight in a day, stealing food from other fish.  They could fundamentally change the aquatic character of the Great Lakes.

Jumping Asian CarpLast spring, a single water sample taken from Lake Michigan showed detectible remnants (environmental DNA) of silver carp. Subsequent samplings turned up nothing. It may have travelled to Lake Michigan attached to a boat, or a bird, having eaten a carp may have defecated in the lake, or indeed this may have been evidence of a really bad fish now in the Great Lakes.

If it did signify a real fish, it may have come to the Great Lakes via the Chicago Area Waterways Systems, (CAWS), five waterways, 128 miles long, connecting Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River. However in a recently released white paper, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said emphatically, “There is no evidence that Asian carp are bypassing the [electric barriers in Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal.] Nor is there any indication that Asian carp are in the vicinity of the barriers. The closest adult Asian carp found in the Illinois River are about 55 miles from Lake Michigan, and no small Asian carp have been observed closer than 131 miles from Lake Michigan.”

But given the findings of this same white paper, this isn’t particularly reassuring. It found that fish are being transported across the electrical barrier via “vessel-induced residual flows” created by barges. The recess area between two barges provides the dominant transport mechanism. Of the 72 samples taken, 44 included at least one school of fish passing through the barrier; and of this group of 44, 61% saw multiple fish slipping by. Research is ongoing.

asian-carp_face2(If silver and bighead carp get here, they may likely find a comfortable home. Last October Lisa Borre reported on a finding of grass carp in the Sandusky River, a Lake Erie tributary: only one-year old but with the potential to become spawning adults. Analysis revealed they were native to the river.)

The potential invasion by this really bad fish is the subject of a widely-anticipated study of what might be done to stop them. Issued on Monday by the Great Lakes and Interbasin Mississippi River Study (GLMRIS), it delineates eight options for reducing the risks posed by 13 aquatic nuisance species (ANS) including silver and bighead carp, for either the Mississippi watershed or the Great Lakes. The threat of invasives goes both ways. Which of the eight proposals is chosen is the prerogative of U.S. lawmakers; the study does not provide recommendations.

Here is a brief description of Plan 5, the Cadillac option, the most expensive at $18,389,000,000, not including annual costs.

It would address the risks posed by all thirteen ANS.  It would include nonstructural measures such as the removal of nuisance species, chemical control, controlled waterway use, inspection and cleaning of watercraft before and after entry to a water way. (These are common to all the options.) This part of the plan could be implemented immediately.

Plan 5 would provide a physical barrier between the water bodies at four locations in CAWS. To remedy the stagnant and other water quality impacts at the barriers, three of these locations would see treatment plans installed that would take Lake Michigan water, treat it and discharge it into CAWS. Water quality in Lake Michigan would see a definite uptick as sewer and storm water flows would be confined to CAWS. To address the risk of flooding two new reservoirs and conveyance tunnels would be built.

Whatever the plan and whatever the costs, a successful outcome is not assured. Prevention is regarded as the best defense, but as the GLMRIS authors make clear, “‘prevent’ means the reduction of risk to the maximum extent possible, because it may not be technologically feasible to achieve an absolute solution.”

Furthermore, aquatic pathways exist along the entire 1,500-miles between the basins, and these aren’t addressed by the engineering marvels proposed for CAWS.  And then there are the non-aquatic methods of crossing the watersheds including waterfowl migration, fishing, accidental and unregulated fish stocking.

Costs and timing pose real stumbling blocks. The cheapest option, Plan 2, wouldn’t include any water regulating structures or barriers, would only keep out five ANS not including Asian carp from reaching the Great Lakes, and would cost 68 million. From there, the Plans go all the way up to almost $18.5 billion.

Plan 5 would take 25 years to complete, that means bighead and silver carp wouldn’t be dealt with until 25 years had passed, and the clock hasn’t started ticking yet, which leaves us relying on the fine tuning of the existing electrical barriers that USACE is researching now.

Scientists take comfort in the fact that we know so much more about Asian carp than we used to. And no one doubts there is a great deal at stake. Still, we’re getting awfully close to replacing discussions of how to keep them out with how to control them once they’re with us.

The Great Lakes and Mississippi River Interbasin Study: http://glmris.anl.gov/

Summary of Fish-Barge Interaction Research and Fixed Dual Frequency Identification Sonar (DIDSON) Sampling at the Electric Dispersal Barrier in Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal http://www.lrc.usace.army.mil/Portals/36/docs/projects/ans/docs/Fish-Barge%20Interaction%20and%20DIDSON%20at%20electric%20barriers%20-%2012202013.pdf

Asian Carps Reproducing Naturally in Great Lakes Tributary by Lisa Borre http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/?s=Lisa+Borre

Asian Carp face-2: photographer Kate Gardinr; Jumping Asian Carp: photographer JasonLindsey.com