The Weekly Anthropocene, July 13 2022
Dispatches from the Wild, Weird World of Humanity and its Biosphere
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The Southern Ocean
Southern Ocean fin whales (Balaenoptera physalus quoyi) were devastated by industrial whaling, with an estimated 700,000 individuals killed between 1904 and 1976, reducing the population to somewhere below 8,000. But since the catch quota for fin whales was set to zero in 1976 and all commercial whaling was banned in 1986 (after a long and epic series of direct action campaigns by activists, among other factors), the1 species has been slowly recovering. Now, new feeding groups witnessed by the Alfred Wegener Institute whale research team give hope that southern fin whales are finally recovering their historic population density. An expedition on the icebreaker Polarstern in 2018 found groups of 50 to 70 fin whales feeding on krill together near Elephant Island off the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula, the largest ever recorded for the species in modern times. A return the next year observed groups of up to 150 fin whales feeding together, resembling the “from horizon to horizon” densities described by early Antarctic explorers in the pre-whaling period. (Pictured, above, from video).
This isn’t just great news for the species, it’s good news for overall Antarctic ecosystem functioning and even the fight against climate change. In the naturally low-iron waters of the Southern Ocean, baleen whales (a group including fin whales, humpback whales, blue whales etc.) fertilize the environment with their plumes of iron-rich feces, allowing blooms of phytoplankton to grow, providing food at the base of the ecosystem (for krill especially!) and sequestering lots of CO2. Yet another awesome example of how if we let wildlife alone, they can thrive once more alongside us on Anthropocene Earth!
Hawaii was the first state in the country to set a legal deadline for reaching 100% renewable electricity, passing a law in 2015 that mandated 100% renewables by 2045. (Pictured: solar panels on Oahu). Now, it’s making great progress, despite the heavy handicap of starting with high fossil fuel use and with six disconnected island grids. Hawaiian Electric (providing all electricity for every Hawaiian island except tiny Kauai) reached 34.5% renewable electricity in 2020, up from just under 10% in 2010. The state is pioneering a fascinating new distributed production model that integrates homeowners’ generation and battery systems into the grid, and it’s booming: 37% of single-family homes in Oahu have rooftop solar panels, and a new “battery bonus” program incentivizing small-scale battery storage is underway. Now, Hawaii’s last coal plant is set to close by September 2022, and more large grid-scale renewables projects are planned to come online by 2024, after having been delayed been the pandemic. Great news!
A few farmers in North Carolina are responding to the warming climate by growing taro (Colocasia esculenta), a heat, drought, and storm-resistant tropical vegetable once cultivated across the Pacific by Polynesian explorers.
The U.S. Attorney's Office in Oregon and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are pioneering a world-first form of restorative justice in wildlife conservation. In the new program, three convicted wildlife traffickers have been sentenced to community service working with conservation experts to help root out wildlife crime online.
Connecticut approved the 2022-2024 Conservation and Load Management Plan, a $708 million energy efficiency initiative that will invest more in weatherization and other efficiency initiatives for residents across the state. The program is estimated to generate $1.7 billion in savings and avoid 4.6 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions. This is the kind of common-sense progress that stays out of the headlines but adds up to big change!
Spix’s macaw (Cyanopsitta spixii, pictured) looked to be on the verge of extinction. After decades of habitat destruction and harvesting for the illegal pet trade, it had essentially disappeared from its native Brazilian caatinga forest by 2000 and was declared extinct in the wild in 2019, with only 100-200 individuals in captivity, mostly in illegal collections. However, in recent years an international conservation program has successfully brought together the scattered captive populations and bred several hundred macaws in captivity, helped by their controversial yet effective policy of working closely with German and Qatari breeders and collectors who made their illegally-obtained birds available for the common good.
Now, 8 Spix’s macaws have been released into the wild in a reserve in Brazil’s Bahia state on June 11, 2022. Innovatively, they were accompanied by eight Illiger’s macaws that were captured wild and kept with the Spix’s in order to provide “role model” wild birds that would help the captive-bred macaws acclimate to their natural habitat. If all goes well, 12 more Spix’s macaws will be released in December: nest cavities have already been prepared in the area. Great news!
Seriously, the campaigns to stop whaling in the 1970s and 80s were nothing short of heroic, and truly incredible to read about. For a book-length treatment of the early years and the first-ever direction action campaigns, Rex Weyler’s Greenpeace: An Insider's Account is excellent.