Category: Human Well-Being

Bristol Bay Blog, Part 2: The Salmon Portfolio

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a three-part blog on the Conservancy’s recent research at Bristol Bay, conducted to provide a risk assessment of the proposed Pebble Mine. Yesterday’s blog covered background and research methods.

This is a land shaped by salmon—in ways large and small, apparent and obscure. Fly over Bristol Bay, and the impact of salmon is everywhere, in literally every living thing.

“Salmon built much of the Alaska we see today,” says Dave Albert, director of conservation science for The Nature Conservancy in Alaska. “At historic levels of abundance, salmon are a fundamental driver of any ecological system they inhabit. They’re in the bears and the eagles and the trees and the berries and the people.”

Unlike at most salmon-producing regions of the world, at Bristol Bay scientists can still study a full and functioning salmon ecosystem. The sockeye salmon populations in this region are the most productive in the world. These stocks have contributed an estimated 51 percent of all global sockeye production since 1970. And there are four other salmon species found here as well.

The life history of salmon is well documented. Salmon are hatched in freshwater streams. After growing large enough to make the lengthy journey, they swim to the sea. In the ocean, they grow large while eating smaller fish.

After two to four years, they return to the stream of their birth, lay eggs that will become a new generation of salmon, and die. Their bodies become food for bears and a whole host of other scavengers. Bits of salmon flesh are gobbled by rainbow trout, char and other fish. They nourish algae in the water that provides food for aquatic insects that in turn become food for the next generation of salmon offspring.

“Salmon are in essence a nutrient-delivery system,” says Albert. “They bring nutrients from the rich marine environment to the nutrient-poor rivers and lakes, generation after generation.”

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Long Island’s Elephant in the Room: Nitrogen Pollution

“How about we initiate a ‘poop at work’ campaign?”

My colleague Carl was kidding about how to improve water quality on Long Island, but his joke went right to the heart of the problem. Many Long Island residents commute to New York City for work every day. Carl’s idea would solve the problem that we are grappling with on Long Island, as are many estuaries around the world: There is too much nitrogen in coastal waters and much of it is coming from inadequately treated human waste.

Social science research the Conservancy has carried out tells us that the average person living on Long Island cares deeply about clean water, whether it is to swim or fish in, or live near, or it is clean, freshwater we drink. Our social science research also tells us that the average Long Islander does not know:

  • where their drinking water comes from (answer: groundwater);
  • where their waste goes when they flush the toilet (answer: mostly septic systems, which are not designed to remove nitrogen, or sewage treatment plants in the more urbanized areas); and
  • that nitrogen from human waste, fertilizer and burning fossil fuels are polluting Long Island bays and harbors.

And if we do not tackle nitrogen and nutrient pollution on Long Island, our work could fail.

The Conservancy on Long Island has a long-standing marine program focused on estuarine restoration and coastal climate change resilience and adaptation. And by many counts we have been successful. We re-directed land acquisition to better protect estuaries. We acquired 13,500 acres of underwater land and transplanted over 7 million clams in over 100 sanctuaries. We supported science and policy to protect and restore seagrass, and we developed a network of monitoring sites to determine whether salt marshes are keeping pace with sea level rise.

Yet the ultimate success of all these projects hinges on nitrogen: Excessive nitrogen loading will impede our efforts over the long-term.

Why? Because regardless of the millions of hard clams returned to Great South Bay, it suffers from harmful algal blooms hampering the growth and adequate recruitment of bivalves. Regardless of the availability of land to which salt marsh can migrate, excessive nitrogen loading is a key driver of marsh loss. Regardless of successful passage of legislation we crafted to protect seagrass, science has found that impacts from excessive nitrogen and warming sea temperatures together inhibit seagrass growth and expansion even when physical impacts are limited.

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Margaret Wente on Kareiva and the ‘Enviro-Optimists’

Salt evaporation ponds formed by salt water impounded within levees in former tidelands on the shores of San Francisco Bay. There are many of these ponds surrounding the South Bay. As the water evaporates, micro-organisms of several kinds come to predominate and change the color of the water. First come green algae, then darkening as orange brine shrimp predominate. Finally red predominates as dunaliella salina, a micro-algae containing high amounts of beta-carotene (itself with high commercial value), predominates. Other organisms can also change the hue of each pond. Colors include red, green, orange and yellow, brown and blue. Finally, when the water is evaporated, the white of salt alone remains. This is harvested with machines, and the process repeats. Image credit: dsearls/Flickr user through a Creative Commons license.

Salt evaporation ponds formed by salt water impounded within levees in former tidelands on the shores of San Francisco Bay. (More on how the colors are formed below.) Image credit: dsearls/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.

Over the weekend, Toronto Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente sharply laid out what she and other journalists such as Keith Kloor have called the key philosophical battle of environmentalism today – between, as she puts it:

the purists and the pragmatists, the pessimists and the optimists – between the McKibbenists, who believe we’re on the brink of global catastrophe, and those who think human beings are more resourceful and the Earth is more resilient than the doom-mongers say they are.

Exhibit A of these eco-optimists for Wente? Peter Kareiva, chief scientist of The Nature Conservancy. Wente says that “Kareiva and his fellow enviro-optimists are the key to saving environmentalism from terminal irrelevance.”

As Wente puts it:

He argues that the purists have been terrible for environmentalism because they’ve alienated the public with their misanthropic, anti-growth, anti-technology, dogmatic, zealous, romantic, backward-looking message. (As a young scientist, he testified in favour of restricting logging to save the spotted owl. Then he saw the loggers sitting at the back of the room, with their children on their shoulders. After that, he became convinced that environmentalism wouldn’t work so long as it was framed in terms of either/or.)

Read Wente’s full column and let us know what you think.

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Fish and Chimps

Chimpanzees don’t eat fish. They don’t even swim. But at Lake Tanganyika in western Tanzania, scientists have found that to save chimps, they must look underwater.

That’s because here, everything—people, fish, water, forest, and chimps—is interconnected. Attempting to conserve the apes without accounting for the health of the fishery that provides food and income for local people would doom these efforts.

Today, fish supplies are dwindling, villages are growing fast and chimps are getting squeezed into smaller and smaller forests.

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Flushing Out the Truth About Sewage and Coral Reefs

I never expected to be so intrigued and excited about poop, until a paper in PloS ONE came out in 2011 that demonstrated that a common human pathogen found in human wastewater, Serratia marcescens strain PDR60, caused white pox disease in elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata), the foundation species in Caribbean coral reefs.

Caribbean reefs have been plagued by disease in recent years and figuring out the source of the pathogens has been a challenge. Human sewage has long been a suspect, but the science behind this suspicion was always tenuous. I think most people would assume that exposing reefs to partially treated or untreated sewage couldn’t be a good thing, but there were no clear data that made the connection of human sewage to the degradation of corals so clearly until this paper.

Unfortunately, there is plenty of untreated sewage making its way into tropical seas.

In the Caribbean, most sewage isn’t actually treated, rather it is put into containers that sit in the ground — the ground being comprised of porous calcium carbonate rock (limestone) that is characteristically leaky.

In many places in the Pacific, the ocean is the toilet.

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How to Measure Human Well-Being in a Conservation Project

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Debate: What Good Are Planetary Boundaries?

Commissariat Point, South Australia, Australia. Image credit: Georgie Sharp/Flicker through a Creative Commons license.

Commissariat Point, South Australia, Australia. Image credit: Georgie Sharp/Flicker through a Creative Commons license.

Bob Lalasz is director of science communications for The Nature Conservancy.

Does Earth have limits — limits to how far we can push its natural systems and deplete its resources, beyond which we will incur major blowback?

Almost every environmentalist would answer “yes” — and have pugnaciously strong opinions about what we should do (or stop doing) to avoid crossing them. But what does science tell us about those limits? Which are really science-based? Can innovation can stretch any of them?  Are they useful for motivating policymaking and behavior change?

A world-class panel of scientists grappled with these questions last Thursday’s during “The Limits of the Planet: A Debate” — the final forum in this year’s “Nature and Our Future” discussion series, sponsored by The Nature Conservancy and held at The New York Academy of Sciences headquarters in lower Manhattan.

The major disagreements of the evening came over whether outlining global limits for the stable functioning of nature (as opposed to tipping points for individual ecosystems) is good science — and whether “limits” are the correct approach to achieving environmental goals. On this point, not everyone was in the Bill McKibben/350.org camp.

“The evidence is incontrovertible that there are local tipping points — for coral reefs, for instance– but not so for global ones,” said Erle Ellis, a panelist and associate professor of geography and environmental systems at the University of Baltimore, Maryland County. “It’s not a runaway train. Ecosystems change, but it’s not a domino effect. You can change all the systems on the planet. But does that constitute a global tipping point?”

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Review: Two from Tibet

Tibet Wild: A Naturalist’s Journeys on the Roof of the World. By George B. Schaller. Island Press, 2012. 372 pages. 

“I am less a modern field biologist devoted to technology and statistics than a nineteenth century naturalist who with paper and pencil describes nature in detail,” writes George Schaller in his latest book, Tibet Wild.

And, indeed, no one can accuse Schaller of being a lab- or desk-bound scientist: Few have spent more time among the large, wild beasts. He’s studied Serengeti’s lions, India’s tigers and Brazil’s jaguars. He’s lived with gorillas and tracked snow leopards in the Himalayas. He led one of the first comprehensive studies of giant panda habitat and conservation.

But perhaps his most important work has been his three decades of research in the Tibetan Plateau, a remote region little known to most outsiders (including many wildlife enthusiasts). He first began exploring the region seeking the migration route of the chiru, a little-known antelope species that embarks on one of the great seasonal mammal movements in the world.

Schaller’s search for chiru reads like adventure from an earlier time—with horrible weather, impassable routes and dead ends galore. He and his teammates persevere and map the migration through one of Asia’s wildest regions.

However, he has never been content to merely record biological detail; he has been a fierce advocate for conservation throughout his career. As a biologist for the Wildlife Conservation Society and Panthera, he uses the information gathered to inform plans for protected areas and community-based conservation projects.

Over the decades, Schaller has witnessed alarming changes in Tibet. For millennia, nomadic herders and huge herds of grazing wildlife thrived together on the grasslands. But that deep relationship has been changing, fast. In part, that can be traced to the end of nomadic traditions. Herders have been encouraged (or forced) to settle, which means their livestock is fenced to one patch of land, leading to overgrazing, wildlife conflicts and economic hardship.

Schaller details a distressing list of problems facing plateau wildlife: fences, poaching, the slaugher of antelopes for fashion, corrupt trophy hunting programs, the poisoning of pikas, mining, roads and more.

He remains optimistic, though, that by involving local people in conservation programs that benefit them, the great herds, large predators and productive grasslands can once again thrive.

Tibet Wild is one of Schaller’s best works, combining wild adventure with insightful recommendations for people and nature. And it demonstrates why “old-fashioned” field biology is still an essential part of conservation, and of science.

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Why and How Conservation Needs to Tackle Human Well-Being: A Conservation with Heather Tallis

Bob Lalasz directs science communications for The Nature Conservancy.

Can conservation make a decisive and systematic contribution to solving social problems and improving the lives of people — especially the world’s poor?

Finding out is Heather Tallis’s job: As a new lead scientist at The Nature Conservancy in charge of the Conservancy’s new Human Dimensions Program, it’s her task to bring “people metrics” to assess the impact of the Conservancy’s work on the ground on people. She’s also charged with integrating innovative economics and social science into the organization’s field work in a way that builds conservation methods and tools that can benefit everyone.

The challenges are many — among them, getting those metrics right (something conservation has struggled to do); designing conservation from the ground up to impact people positively; and helping  policymakers and other decision-makers to recognize the value of conservation for answering many of the big questions facing the planet.

I sat down with Tallis to talk about where she and the Human Dimension Program will begin addressing those challenges:

Why does conservation need an initiative to attack human well-being head-on?

HT: Well, I like the way the folks from the Stockholm Resilience Center say it: “There are no natural systems without people, nor social systems without nature.” This is our reality, especially as the Conservancy moves to thinking about and managing whole ecological systems.

But this is obviously not the way most people see the world, so our personal decisions, our political ideas and our management process are out of synch with this reality. The next 20-30 years will see dramatic change in the face of the planet — and what lives on it or doesn’t — as society decides how to double food production, build hundreds of billions of dollars worth of infrastructure and create more megacities.

Conservation needs to be in those decisions. And we won’t get past the door unless we know and can describe what nature has to do with major social problems, and how nature can contribute to human well-being solutions.

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Salmon Cam Returns

We’re pleased to return Salmon Cam, a live view of spawning Chinook and coho salmon and steelhead trout.

What is Cool Green Science?

noun 1. Blog where Nature Conservancy scientists, science writers and external experts discuss and debate how conservation can meet the challenges of a 9 billion + planet.

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Cool Green Science is managed by Matt Miller, the Conservancy's deputy director for science communications, and edited by Bob Lalasz, its director of science communications. Email us your feedback.

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