Conservation News: Climate Change, Antelopes, and Abalone

Republicans Release a Plan to Fight Climate Change Just As Antarctica Takes A Hit

The latest daily figures have shown that Antarctica’s sea ice has hit a worrisome milestone, reaching its lowest recorded extent this week, according to data from the US National Snow and Ice Data Center. This recent Tuesday had the all-time low since 1997: 2.22 million square kilometers (858,691 square miles).

Unlike the Arctic sea ice, which has shown a relatively steady decline over the past three decades as global temperatures rise, the Antarctic sea ice has yielded more erratic and controversial data since monitoring began the late 1970s.

In 2012, Antarctic sea ice actually hit a record monthly high, with scientists theorizing that melting ice shelves were contributing to the growth. Since then, further evidence of Southern Hemisphere ice melt has accumulated.

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Via British Antarctic Survey/NASA

Melting ice is one of the biggest indicator of global warming and causes concern about the following sea-level rise and other climate impacts. Though the timing and the extent of those impacts have been highly debated, the trends are another set of data to pressure countries to curb greenhouse gas emissions that are contributing to a warmer climate.

Antarctica’s sea ice all-time low was announced the day before former Republican cabinet members and economic advisers released “The Conservative Case for Carbon Dividends” to slash emissions. At a Wednesday press conference, the newly established “Climate Leadership Council”— a consortium of Republican Party stalwarts including officials from the Reagan and both Bush administrations—unveiled their plan for a gradually increasing, revenue-neutral tax that puts a price on carbon dioxide emissions.

Their proposal called for a $40 tax on each metric ton of carbon dioxide emissions, with the tax steadily increasing on an annual basis. All proceeds, which is estimated to be $200 to $300 billion per year, would be distributed back to American citizens in the form of dividend checks. Furthermore, the authors claim that the carbon taxes on foreign imports and rebates for US exports would keep US-made goods competitive, benefiting the domestic economy.

“If you look at the priorities of President Trump, our plan ticks every one of his boxes,” says Ted Halstead, the group’s founder and CEO. “It is pro-growth, pro-jobs, and pro-competitiveness linked with balanced trade…It would be good for working-class Americans.”

The plan also calls for cutting many of the current US regulations on carbon emissions, particularly the Clean Power Plan, an Obama-era EPA rule that aimed to slash carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, which generate a total of 37% of the country’s emissions. (Legal challenges have stayed the rule’s implementation.)

This is in line with the current public opinion with a poll conducted by Yale and George Mason University showing that increasing numbers of Americans see the value of solving climate change. Just 28% of Trump voters think that the US should back away from the Paris Agreement but more than six in ten of Trump voters support taxing or regulating the pollution that causes global warming.

The reasoning behind the carbon tax is that it would add pressure towards markets to adopt carbon-efficient energy sources and a decrease in emissions. And surprisingly fossil fuel companies have given their support since the taxes would provide stable, predictable regulatory costs. As recently as October 19, 2016, U.S. Secretary of State and former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson endorsed carbon taxes.

But not everyone is on board.

“A carbon tax is certainly better than not doing anything, but people can pay a tax and not do anything,” says Mark Jacobson, a Stanford civil-engineering professor and proponent of renewable-energy standards. “It doesn’t actually require that people reduce their emissions.”

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Photo By: Luke Sharrett

If projections hold true, US emissions could drop precipitously. Its plan cites a recent U.S. Treasury Department report that shows a similar plan could reduce U.S. carbon emissions by a fifth in its first decade. Furthermore, it would be enough to meet US commitments to the Paris Agreement, which came into effect in late 2016. Under the pact, the United States has said that by 2025, it will reduce its emissions by 26 to 28 percent from 2005 levels. (By 2015, the U.S. had decreased its emissions 12 percent from 2005 levels.)

Environmental groups have largely welcomed the Climate Leadership Council’s plan, though some opposed the plan’s call for rescinding EPA authority over greenhouse gases.

“We’re encouraged to see a distinguished group of conservatives offering a market-based solution aimed at achieving significant reductions in carbon emissions,” said Mark Tercek, chief executive for the Nature Conservancy, in a statement. “We have to be talking solutions now on both sides of the aisle, and this proposal is an opportunity to do that.”

There’s no denying that the Republican plan faces an uphill climb against the Republicans in the White House and Congress.

President Trump’s economic agenda relies heavily on the resurgent fossil fuel industry, with his administration working hard towards stopping efforts to slow climate change and greenhouse gas emissions. On Wednesday when the plan was pitched to his administration, Trump stated that he did not support a carbon tax.

Congress is even less willing. In June 2016, the House of Representatives voted 237-163 on a non-binding bill condemning carbon taxes as “detrimental to American families and business.”

To some conservative environmentalists, however, the unified Republican U.S. government offers a ray of hope: room to solve climate change in a way that avoids interventions conservatives would abhor.

“It’s solution aversion that’s caused conservatives to doubt the existence of the problem,” says Bob Inglis, a former Republican congressman from South Carolina and head of the environmental group republicEn.

“But if those of us on the ‘eco-right’ show Republicans a solution that fits with our deeply held conservative values, then I think we’ll see many embrace this exciting, free-enterprise opportunity,” said Inglis.

Antarctica’s Sea Ice Shrinks to New Record Low

More evidence of global melt: Antarctic sea ice hits record low

U.S. Conservatives Unveil Plan to Fight Climate Change

The Conservative Case for Carbon DividendsThe Conservative Case for Carbon Dividends

‘Extinct’ Antelope Released into the Wild in Southern Sahara

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The 25-strong herd of Scimitar-horned Oryx has arrived in the Ouadi Rime-Ouadi Achim Reserve. Photo By: Abu Dhabi Enviroment Agency

This past week, a second group of scimitar-horned oryx, antelope declared extinct in the wild, have been reintroduced to their original home of the edge of the Sahara desert. This second group of 14 oryx were bred in captivity and will join the first group in Chad that was reintroduced in August 2016.

Scimitar-horned oryx were once widespread across the southern Sahara, but were driven to extinction during extended civil unrest in the region in the 1980s and 1990s and officially declared extinct in the wild since 2000.

A captive breeding program was established in the United Arab Emirates, involving zoos around the world, and has kept the species alive. Furthermore, efforts by the government of Chad and Abu Dhabi’s environmental agency, backed by organizations, have restored its former habitat in a vast nature reserve where both groups have been sent to.

“Our plan is to bring in new shipments of oryx at regular intervals, thus seeding a viable wild population over the next 3 to 4 years,” said Dr Shaikha Al Dhaheri, executive director, terrestrial and marine biodiversity sector.

Each of the newly released animals, six males and eight females, have been fitted with GPS collars that will allow scientists to track its journey across the 78,000 square kilometer (48,457 square miles) reserve. In the first few days since their release the new herd has been seen grazing peacefully, a sign that acclimatisation was taking place. It is expected that they will go deeper into the reserve over the next few weeks.

Conservationist Tim Wacher, who has worked on scimitar-horned oryx projects since 1985, describes the release as “an emotional moment for all involved.” Furthermore, “We have high hopes that one day in the not-too-distant future, herds of scimitar-horned oryx will once again be a common sight across their huge protected reserve and hopefully beyond.”

The program is expected to continue for the next four years with the aim of reintroduce 300 to 500 oryx back into the west African country.

Group of ‘extinct’ antelope released into wild in southern Sahara

Herd of scimitar-horned oryx reintroduced to Chad

Poaching for White Gold Reaches Fever Pitch

In South Africa, the booming illegal trade in abalone, the world’s most valuable shellfish, is fueling a social and environmental crisis.

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An abalone. Photo By: Craig Foster

“It’s no man’s dream to be an abalone poacher,” said Angelo Josephs, as we sat inside his tiny township shack perched on the mountainside above Hout Bay, a suburb of Cape Town. His wife made tea while their three kids played with their dogs on the dusty floor. He describes how high the risks are.

“When you say, ‘Goodbye baby,’ that’s maybe the last goodbye.”

These poachers leave for the Atlantic when the weather is rough when there isn’t any cops patrolling the waters but many have lost their lives this way.

“Just back here we’ve lost a lot of brothers, friends, nephews, uncles, daddies. In my lifetime I can say I know more than 200 lost to the sea. But a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do—a kid’s gotta eat. A hungry child can’t learn in school.”

Abalone are found in kelp forests in ocean waters along most continents, including the southern coast of South Africa. These large mollusks graze on the plants and keep the kelp forests, which support many other species, in good condition. However, they are also relished in restaurants throughout Ais for their pearly flesh, nicknamed “white gold.” Demand has soured and fueling a multibillion dollar global export industry. Of the 56 global species, five are found in South Africa, and one of these, Haliotis midae, is regarded as among the tastiest.

Since 2001, it is estimated that 75 million abalone (40,000 tons) have been plucked from South African waters, about 10 times the legal quota. In 2015 alone, the total legal largest was 105 tons, according to Markus Bergener of the Southern Africa branch of TRAFFIC. However, his estimates for poaching during that same year was 3,477 tons.

In November 2016 two abalone kingpins, Akthar Naeem Cassim and Ernest Chen, were arrested near Beaufort West, in the Western Cape, with two tons of dried abalone in a truck. Last month, on January 20, four smugglers were found guilty of shipping $1.5 million worth of abalone to Hong Kong. And just last week two seizures of abalone estimated to be worth $2.8 million were made in the Cape Town area.

But, according to Josephs, much illegal abalone goes undetected because some local police officers are corrupt and are bribed in order to turn a blind eye.

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Poachers often use a screwdriver to pry out an abalone’s flesh. Photo By: Craig Foster

About two years ago, Josephs said, he decided to quit poaching abalone out of belief that the current rate of harvesting was unsustainable and that if he didn’t look for other options, he’d find himself and his family without a livelihood when stocks collapsed.

As we spoke, one of his kids dashed between us and leaped onto the couch, followed by the dog. Josephs shooed them both away. “We can’t go on like this,” he said emphatically. “We can’t have people dying to feed their family.”

Donovan van der Heyden, a former poacher, explained that the changes put in place during the early 1990s by South Africa’s post-apartheid government was the reason that pushed small-scale abalone fishermen like him into poaching. During the change, the government’s new fisheries policies did not include small-scale traditional and artisanal fishermen. This legally prevented those who have been fishing their entire lives to lose their quotas and many turned to poaching.

Then, when demand for abalone in Hong Kong exploded during the early 2000s and the government reduced the legal quota from 800 tons per year to 80 out of fear that wild populations had crashed from over-harvesting, this led to even more poaching.

Van der Heyden gave up abalone poaching because he wanted to help fight for his community’s access to the fisheries and to be a part of a solution that would ensure the survival of both the abalone and the traditional fishermen. However, he fears that the situation has gotten worse.

In many fishing communities “the criminal syndicates have gotten involved,” peddling drugs as currency—cheap methamphetamines and heroin from China—and luring impressionable kids from the poor coastal townships to dive illegally for abalone. “You won’t easily find a lot of talk about the syndicates,” he said. “It’s a very sensitive subject, very dangerous.”

Pierre De Villiers, who has a masters in fisheries science and is the coastal program manager for CapeNature, echoes van der Heyden. Recently, a colleague of his had disappeared to a safe house in the mountains behind town after being told by an informant that local abalone syndicate had placed a hit on him.

According to De Villiers, multinational criminal syndicates not only pay off divers, carriers, and police but also government officials to ease the path of abalone from South African kelp beds to Asian markets. “There’s serious corruption,” he said. The syndicates “have critical people in law enforcement all the way up.” He didn’t want to be more specific out of fear for his safety.

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Hundreds of abalone shells carpet a shallow pool near Hout Bay, Cape Town, discarded after poachers shucked out the snails living inside them. Photo By: Craig Foster

In De Villiers’s view it doesn’t make sense for the fisheries department to “be both the player and the referee,” as it is now, responsible for managing quotas and food security for fishermen with one hand and enforcing policing the harvesting of abalone with the other. “This inevitably places officials under huge pressure and can lead to a conflict of interest,” he said.

What would make more sense, he said, would be to divide responsibilities among different government agencies: one to issue quotas based on sound science, another to manage abalone conservation, and one—the country’s priority crime unit, known as the HAWKS—to focus on organized crime. But, he said, such a structural change would mean the government would have to find more money and resources for marine conservation and crime prevention.

If the illegal trade isn’t shut down soon, De Villiers warned, South Africa’s wild abalone will become critically endangered. But if it’s shut down without a plan to help the thousands of local fishermen who would lose their livelihoods, that could lead to a “massive social problem” when these people “turn to other forms of crime to get by.”

To make matters worse, farmed versus illegal abalone fetch different prices. According to Werner Piek, marketing manager of Abagold, the world’s largest land-based abalone farm holding up to three million of the shellfish, producing quality abalone for the market “is more complex than making wine.”

According to Piek, illegal producers don’t have the technique, the recipe, the training, or the facilities to offer abalone of consistently high quality. That, he said, is why “illegal abalone sells for a third of the price of farmed of legal abalone—it’s the lowest value product in the world on the abalone market.”

Abagold’s dried abalone, for example, sells for just over $200 per pound. Dried illegal abalone brings about $70, and the divers, who take on most of the risk, make no more than about $10 of that.

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Abalone clinging to the ocean floor, where they feed on kelp leaves, make an easy target for poachers, many of whom are beholden to criminal syndicates. Photo By: Craig Foster

“Our poaching problem isn’t the fault of the Chinese,” Piek said. “It’s a result of our people not having jobs—they don’t have an alternative income. If somebody can earn a few dollars for a day’s work, they’ll do it.”

One possible solution is to follow Japan’s example, seeding wild abalone populations with abalone spat, developing abalone, raised on farms. According to Piek, the additional tax monies from this “blue economy” would amount to three times what the government now makes from confiscating and selling illegal abalone. It would also decriminalize more than 15,000 jobs and allow overstretched law enforcement to focus on the organized criminals.

However, there is a catch. Sprinkling farmed abalone into the ocean to boost wild stocks will create a genetic bottleneck, a lack of diversity in the wild gene pool. This would leave wild abalone at risk from disease or changes in the environment.

But, he conceded, “ranching is one solution—though we’d then need a plan to divide the coast up and dedicate specific areas for reseeding and ranching and other areas where wild abalone can thrive.”

He added: “We need to start looking at solutions no matter who or what you stand for. If we all work together, then maybe we can solve this problem.”

Poaching for Abalone, Africa’s ‘White Gold,’ Reaches Fever Pitch

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