Category: People and Conservation

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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Eddie Game: Why Tanzania is Wrong to Pursue ‘Fortress Conservation’ with the Maasai

Maasai milking a cow, Tanzania. Credit: mar is sea Y/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.

Maasai milking a cow, Tanzania. Credit: mar is sea Y/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.

The recent move by Tanzania’s government to seal off 30,000 Maasai people from access to 1,500 square kilometers adjacent to the Serengeti in the name of wildlife conservation has drawn intense protests from both the Maasai and non-governmental organizations working in the country. The government will prevent the Maasai from grazing their cattle on a choice grazing area in the Loliondo Highlands — which the Maasai consider ancestral lands — but will allow a “Dubai-based luxury hunting and safari company” access to the land, reports The Guardian. The argument is that Maasai grazing practices are harming wildlife.

Eddie Game, conservation planning specialist at The Nature Conservancy, has written a blog post for the Australian site The Conversation arguing that the Tanzanian government’s tack is an example of “fortress” conservation that is “unnecessarily blunt and crude.” While Maasai grazing practices have reduced long-lived grass species prevalence in Tanzania in favor of seasonal species with deleterious effects for wildlife, Game says northern Kenya provides a shining example of “how pastoral livelihoods and wildlife conservation can be compatible.” Money quote:”

Through the agreement of community-run conservancies, sections of communal pastoral lands in northern Kenya are set aside as grass banks. These areas are reserved for wildlife to graze but can be used by traditional pastoralists as emergency grazing lands for cattle in times of drought.

The grass banks are complimented by establishing rotational grazing practices that encourage pastoralists to graze their animals together and in a systematic fashion, allowing land to rest ungrazed for a period each year. Regular treatment of cattle for disease (a concern also in the Maasai lands) is provided as an incentive for collective grazing. A guaranteed price and safe transport of livestock to markets gives pastoralists the security to reduce their herd sizes. And the rapid spread of mobile connectivity and mobile banking technology is providing an alternative avenue for savings in remote rural areas.

Tourism is also thriving in these community-run conservancies, notes Game — with tourists clamoring to see both wildlife and pastoralists at work. “It is sad indictment of the Tanzanian government that the international public are being presented with an overly simplistic and unnecessary choice between wildlife and the traditional lifestyle of the Maasai,” Game concludes.

Read his full post here.

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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.

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