Conservation News: Koalas, Turtles, and Plastic Smells Like Food?

Koalas Under Danger As Policy Changes Will Destroy Habitat

In an EPA report, National Parks Association argued that the New South Wales (NSW) government is failing to protect this iconic species. Three separate policies proposed by the Baird government will extend the Regional Forest Agreements, allowing for further land clearing, logging, and habitat destruction on both native forests and private lands. The report also mentions that the declining koala populations are also threatened by the failure of local government protections to identify more koala habitats as they were intended.

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Photograph: FloGabriel, GuardianWitness

Between 1990 and 2010, koala populations in NSW were estimated by the federal government to have declined by 30%. And another report released earlier in May by the NSW Environmental Protection Agency found that all koala populations in NSW have continued to decline, with at least one population now considered endangered.

In light of the increasing threats, the paper calls on the NSW EPA to protect koala habitats. Especially because it reported that koalas prefer larger trees and mature forests. Logging results in exactly the opposite: smaller tree sizes and younger forests.

“The NSW government is completely failing to conserve and protect koala habitat,” the report says. “Koalas can lay claim to be the most poorly managed species in eastern Australia at present – which is hugely disappointing in light of their beloved status.”

On private land, a draft NSW legislation will significantly weaken controls around the clearing of native vegetation on private land. It will allow farmers to clear native vegetation without approval in many cases, and give others access to “offsets” so that they can also clear their land. According to WWF, if Mike Baird’s land clearing laws were implemented, 2.2 million hectares of koala habitat can be lost across New South Wales on private land. And that doesn’t count the millions of paddock trees, an important habitat feature for koalas, could also disappear.

In response to WWF’s analysis, NSW government said that it was “alarmist”, arguing that local government laws prohibited the clearing of koala habitat. The National Parks Association said that was the intention of the laws, mapping koala habitat and classifying them as “core”, and then used to guide development. But, the report mentioned that in the 21 years since that law was introduced, only four plans protecting koala habitats have been approved.

250koala0-300x211 Incredibly, koalas also do not have a current recovery plan at either a state or federal level. The Saving our Species (SOS) koala strategy in New South Wales has yet to be released.

NPA CEO Kevin Evans said: “The government’s fall-back response to criticism on land clearing is to cite their investment in SOS. But against the background of land clearing and logging, the paltry $3 million invested over five years through SOS will be no more than tinkering round the edges and is doomed to fail.”

Dr Oisín Sweeney, NPA senior ecologist, also adds: “Mike Baird just doesn’t get it. He’s not an ecologist, he’s a banker, so you can excuse him for not grasping the link between habitat and species. But you can’t excuse him for not listening to those voices that do understand. Environment groups, including NPA, have done the government’s job for them in regards identifying priority reservations for koalas. So why are they still sitting on their hands and watching koalas drift towards extinction in NSW?”

With the Regional Forest Agreements poised to be renewed, and NSW set to pass relaxed land clearing laws, the National Parks Association said NSW has a decision to make: to protect koalas or allow logging and land-clearing to drive them to extinction.

Koalas ‘Under Siege’ from Policy Changes Set to Destroy Habitat, Report Says

Iconic Status Won’t Be Enough to Save Koalas Unless Baird Changes Tack

Will America’s Turtles Be Eaten Into Extinction?

In the early 1900s, turtles were considered a gourmet meal, its meat making an appearance everywhere from presidential dinners to the first transcontinental trains. In order to satiate demand, trappers began to wipe out species from the U.S. wetlands.

Despite the turtle craze fading out by the 1920s and populations began to slowly rebound, demand became to soar in China as pets, food, and traditional medicine. By 2000, China’s turtles had been decimated. Some 75% of Asia’s 90 freshwater turtle species became threatened with extinction. For the past few decades, U.S. turtles, majority from the southeastern states, have been making up for the shortage, exacerbating the effects of U.S. demand for pet turtles and turtle meat as well as habitat loss within their range.

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Workers at the Qingping Market in Guangzhou, China, unload two truckloads of freshwater turtles for sale to restaurants. Photo By: Mark Leong

In recent years, turtle-rich states such as Florida and Texas have banned or restricted their capture, fearing that overcollection could lead to the collapse of wild populations. However, Louisiana still allows almost unrestricted collection and has the most permissive turtle harvesting policies. There, people can apply for a license to trap any of the state’s 19 freshwater species, except for alligator snapping turtles, box turtles, and razor-backed musk turtles. License for a resident only costs $25, and out-of-staters, $80, with no limit on how many they can take.

Currently there is a petition filed by the Center for Biological Diversity and the Gulf Restoration Network to the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries calling for the state to ban harvesting wild turtles for commercial purposes.

“Turtles are a very important part of the food web,” says Elise Bennett, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity. They’ve been around for 300 million years, and they help maintain the health of rivers and lakes by scavenging snails, water plants, and dead aquatic creatures. “The fact that someone could take as many as they wanted is a huge concern,” she says.

Biologist Amity Bass, director of the coastal and nongame resources division at the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, agrees. “We need to get a handle on our regulations and how we can make them more current and meaningful.”

Before August of this year, the state didn’t require turtle retailers to record their purchases, making it impossible to know how many turtles have been taken from the wild for commercial purposes.

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Licensed harvesters bag a spiny softshell turtle at their farm in Holdenville, Oklahoma. Photo By: Joel Sartore

Export papers collected by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service might help in filling in some gaps. The information reveals that 17 million live wild turtles were shipped commercially from the United States between 2012 and 2016, with 16 million passing through New Orleans. But, Fish and Wildlife Service acknowledges that these numbers are flawed. Inspections of shipments indicated that most of those “wild” exported turtles have actually come from turtle farms in Louisiana. Even then, the origin isn’t specified as farmers will often designate their turtles as wild, not captive. The inaccuracy makes it difficult to evaluate existing conservation policies.

IUCN does not list most of Louisiana’s turtles as vulnerable, but turtle experts worry that profligate collection of wild turtles could put them on such a path. Turtles are especially vulnerable to exploitation because it can take as long as 20 years for them to sexually mature and many predators hunt for their eggs and hatchlings.

In Louisiana, farms have helped alleviate some pressure on wild turtles. The state’s operations rake in millions of dollars annually selling hatchlings as pets and to turtle farms in China. But, farms can’t meet all the demand and it isn’t profitable to rear turtles to adulthood and some collectors favor wild turtles over captive-bred ones. Furthermore, turtle trends in China change quickly and it is possible that future demand for species not being farmed today will threaten new wild populations tomorrow.

Turtle advocates say that as long as governments fail to monitor and protect the creatures, losses could be extreme.

“We learned over a hundred years ago that [commercial] hunting was a very bad idea that led to the elimination of wild animal populations,” says Michael Forstner, a biologist with Texas State University. You need look no further for evidence of this, he says, than to the near demise of the American bison and the extinction of passenger pigeons, once the world’s most abundant bird.

In Louisiana, state biologist Amity Bass hopes to prevent that. She’s working on draft regulations that would further restrict collection of wild turtles. She hopes to present the regulations to Louisiana’s wildlife commission, which will vote on the plans, early in 2017.

Petition to End Unlimited Commercial Harvest of 20 Freshwater Turtle Species or Subspecies

Will America’s Turtles Be Eaten Into Extinction?

Study Suggests Animals Eat Ocean Plastic Because it Smells Like Food

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Photo By: Frans Lasting

Plastic debris can be found in oceans around the world, the majority due to poor waste management. Scientists have estimated that there are over five trillion pieces of plastic weighing more than quarter of a billion tons floating at sea globally. Plastic doesn’t biodegrade, causing hundreds of marine species to consume it. As such, marine animals suffer from malnutrition, intestinal blockage, or slow poisoning from chemicals in or attached to the plastic. Seabirds are especially at risk; a study published last year by scientists in Australia concluded that virtually all seabirds have consumed plastic.

Though there were several explanations, researchers don’t know why animals continue to consume the inedible plastics. It may be that the flimsy plastic bags look like jellyfish to species like the turtles. For birds, it has been commonly assumed, but rarely tested, that seabirds eat plastic debris because it looks like its natural prey.

However, a new study suggests that seabirds may be attracted to the plastic debris because it produces an odor that birds associate with food. The floating debris provides the perfect platform on which algae can thrive. Algae are then consumed by krill, the primary food source for many seabirds, and as the algae breaks down, it emits a sulfur odor known as dimethyl sulfide (DMS). Seabirds hunting for krill have learned that the sulfur odor will lead them to their feeding grounds. However, instead of feeding on krill, they accidently feed on plastic.

“DMS is the dinner bell,” says Matthew Savoca, a doctoral student at the University of California, Davis, and lead author of the study. “When people hear the dinner bell, we know food is going to be in the area. This is the same sort of idea. Once the birds’ noses have told them this is where they should expect to find krill, it gets their foraging mode turned on, and their threshold is down for what the food is. ”

Savoca and his coauthors first created a database, collecting every study they could find that recorded plastic ingestion by tube-nosed seabirds over the past 40 years. It contained information from over 20,000 individuals of more than 70 species. It also revealed that species that used DMS as a foraging cue eat plastic nearly six times as frequently as species that are not attracted to the smell of DMS while foraging.

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UC Davis graduate student Matthew Savoca sits beside a research buoy as part of his marine plastic research. Photo: Courtesy Matthew Savoca

Then, Savoca’s team took beads of the three most common types of floating plastic (polypropylene, low-density polyethylene, and high-density polyethylene) and sewed them inside custom mesh bags. These bags were then attached to two buoys in Monterey Bay and Bodega Bay off the California coast. After three weeks, they retrieved the buoys.

“They reeked of sulfur,” Savoca recounts.

He brought the plastic to the Robert mondavi Institute for Food and Wine Science at UC Davis. There, the scientists used a gas chromatograph, specifically built to detect sulfur odors in wine, beer, and other food products, to measure the chemical signature of the experimental marine debris.

In every sample of plastic collected was coated with algae and had substantial amounts of DMS associated with it. Levels of DMS were higher than normal background concentrations in the environment and were well above levels that tube-nosed seabirds can detect and use to find food. Their results provide the first evidence that, in addition to looking like food, plastic debris may also confuse seabirds that hunt by smell.

The findings have important implications. It suggests that plastic debris may be a more insidious threat to marine life than what the scientific community previously believed. If plastic looks and smells like food, it is more likely to be mistaken for prey. Secondly, their results provide a deeper understanding for why certain marine organisms are inexorably trapped into mistaking plastic for food. The patterns found in seabirds should also be investigated in other groups of species that are also known to consume plastic like fish or sea turtles. Reducing marine plastic pollution is a long-term, large-scale challenge, but figuring out why some species continue to mistake plastic for food is the first step toward finding ways to protect them.

Animals Eat Ocean Plastic Because it Smells Like Food

Why Do Seabirds Eat Plastic? The Answer Stinks

Plastic Garbage Chemical Attracts Hungry Seabirds

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