Monday, October 31, 2011

Tuna: Big Fish, Big Problem

It's Hallowe'en tonight, so I thought it appropriate to tell you a horror story of sorts. For many years, I've been unhappy about how much damage is being done by the fishing industry; this is an often overlooked topic because when we think of food production we think of farms first. The problems with fishing bother me so much that I wrote about them within a few days of starting this blog! A few months ago I also explored the issue of mercury contamination in big fish. Needless to say, these days I'm quite picky when it comes to my consumption of fish and seafood, and I'm always on the lookout for more information and news. So today I give you four sad truths about the canned tuna industry (originally published by Grist) in hopes that we will all make smarter choices on our next trip to the supermarket.

1. Fish Aggregating Devices

These contraptions are appropriately named because they manage to attract a lot of fish to one area, making their capture almost insultingly easy. It turns out that fish aggregating devices, or FADs, are almost like ecosystem creators: a fishing vessel will drop a big floating object onto the surface of the ocean, leave it behind with a radio beacon for later retrieval, and soon enough small plants root themselves onto the object, which attract small fish seeking a hiding place, which attract larger fish seeking a food source. Tuna in particular love to hang around beneath this floating world of activity. And so it comes to pass that fishing vessels net entire schools of skipjack tuna... but the FAD also gives them sharks, dolphins, other fish, and juvenile yellowfin and bigeye tuna. In other words, two types of tuna that are already disappearing at an alarming rate now face an even greater challenge because we're killing their young before they've had a chance to breed. Just so that we can spend no more than a couple of bucks on a can of skipjack tuna. What a teensy price to help bring animals closer to extinction!

2. Longlines

What matters about longlines aren't that the lines sometimes stretch as far as a few miles between buoys, but rather that the leads dangling from the main line have baited hooks attached at the end. As with FADs, longlines catch more than they should. Instead of reeling in only albacore tuna, the typical variety found in cans marked "white tuna", fishing vessels will find a bycatch of turtles, albatross, sharks, and numerous sea birds attracted to the shiny metal of the hooks and the food dangling from them. Shockingly, the non-targeted animals killed by longlines account for about 30% of the catch! I can't think of any other industry in which such a large margin for error is tolerated. And it's not just error, it's unnecessary death. I guess the albacore fishing industry makes so much money that it just doesn't matter.

3. The Wild West on the High Seas

Every island nation in the Pacific is entitled to an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the sea, in which limits are set on how much fish may be caught. In order to manage tuna stocks sustainably, countries must be able to impose and enforce strict quotas, otherwise all ocean wildlife will be fished until there is nothing left. What is a greedy company to do to make more money? Set sail for the high seas pockets outside of the the 200-mile boundaries of neighbouring island states' EEZs. These pockets are unregulated and unpatrolled, allowing fishing vessels to net as many fish as they'd like without having to stay within a maximum limit and without having to pay any fees to the nearby countries. The companies multiply their profit margin, the fish stocks get decimated, the Pacific nations are stuck with less healthy and robust tuna stocks that they must manage with less money. The fishing companies win, and everybody else loses.

4. Social Injustice

To add insult to injury, the Pacific island states that can't afford to defend their waters fall victim to bullies: large, wealthy nations like Taiwan, Spain, and the United States in conjunction with tuna corporations that lack an ethical code. Their fishing vessels literally take what isn't theirs inside of these nations' EEZs with no regard whatsoever for the desperate need of islanders to make a living off of tuna, as it is their only resource. In response to this bullying, some of the Pacific island states have decided to join forces to better defend themselves and maintain their tuna stocks. This new collaborative is called the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA), and it involves Micronesia, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and Tuvalu. 25-30% of global tuna stocks are managed within the EEZs of these eight states, so there is a lot to lose if the Nauru Agreement isn't better supported by fishing companies.

What Can You Do?
  • If you're looking for light tuna, make sure it's labelled as pole-and-line or FAD-free skipjack.
  • If white tuna is on your grocery list, what you'll want is the pole-and-line albacore variety.
  • Support companies that make it a point to avoid fishing in the high seas pockets.
  • Buy only from companies that publicly support the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA).

Image of yellowfin tuna used under Creative Commons from Roro Fernandez (flickr).
Image of albatross used under Creative Commons from marj k (flickr).
Image of fishing vessel/coast guard used under Creative Commons from Coast Guard News (flickr).
Image of pirate flag used under Creative Commons from Chris Evans (drumminhands/flickr).

Friday, October 28, 2011

In the News Today

Hold on to your hats, folks, I've got a great WTF!? post for you today. This week Coca-Cola announced a redesign of their cans to advertise their newest environmental campaign: $2 million will be donated to a project that seeks to protect polar bear habitat in arctic regions. So it comes as no surprise that the new cans will feature the iconic bear on a white background:

It saddens me that Coca-Cola has partnered with the World Wildlife Fund on this project; poor WWF must be pretty cash-strapped to choose to team up with a soft drink company for money. But that's not what's shocking about this story. Rather, it's the motivation behind the campaign, and how incongruous it is with Coke's modus operandi. Let me explain.

The polar bear is the focus of this project in part because the animal has been featured in Coke ads since 1922 and also because its population has been declining due primarily to warming arctic waters, i.e. climate change. Briefly, rising temperatures in the north cause sea ice to melt earlier in the summer. Without this ice, polar bears have a really hard time hunting seals, and they end up on dry land with less food and not enough fat to see them through the season. Many lose even more energy just trying to make it to the coast, now that there are greater distances to swim between ice floes. Tragically, pregnant female bears can't always build effective dens in thawing permafrost. There are many more threats to polar bears' survival that are related to climate change, and you can read about them here.

Red areas show the projected loss of optimal polar bear habitat over the next 40 years.

I have no issue at all with the efforts being made to protect these majestic bears. My beef is with Coca-Cola. How can they expect us to see this as anything besides greenwashing? They want to save the bears that are harmed by climate change... while contributing to climate change by making soft drinks... WTF!? I may not be a climate scientist, but if the company is responsible for over 1.6 billion servings of its various beverages every day, then I'm willing to bet that the carbon footprint of this worldwide production is not exactly negligible.

The syrup/concentrate alone accounts for much of this, since Coke is made with high fructose corn syrup. HFCS is really complicated to produce, starting with the monoculture farming of a variety of corn that is rich in starch and utterly devoid of nutrients. Vast amounts of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides (which, in and of themselves, require plenty of energy to produce) are applied to the corn, which must subsequently be milled into corn starch, processed into corn syrup, mixed with enzymes, purified, enriched, and evaporated to yield HFCS. Imagine just how much energy is required to make this happen... and how many greenhouse gases are emitted by the coal-fired power plants that feed the processing plants! All in the name of profit...

There are other issues related to the production of soft drinks, not the least of which is the depletion of groundwater in the areas surrounding Coca-Cola's bottling plants, notably in India. I don't need to tell you that messing with the water cycle has a serious impact on global climate. Another big factor is packaging: the production of single-use plastic bottles and aluminum cans only adds to the already enormous carbon footprint associated with making Coke. I don't need to go on. It's clear that making this beverage is as bad for the planet as consuming it is hazardous for human health. Spending $2 million on protecting polar bear habitat just doesn't make up for the damage that has already been done. Where is the accountability?

Photo of new Coca Cola can used under Creative Commons from José Roitberg (flickr).
Image of changes in polar bear habitat sourced from Wikimedia Commons.
Image of Coca Cola's impact in India sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Tuesday Toxin Talk

I'm currently reading Slow Death by Rubber Duck, by Rick Smith (Executive Director of Environmental Defence) and Bruce Lourie (President of the Ivey Foundation). The book examines the toxins that leach out of commonplace items in our homes and workplaces and wind up in our bodies. Smith and Lourie experiment on themselves, purposely exposing themselves to everyday products over a four-day period, and use the results to raise awareness about the dangers that surround us. I'd like to use this space every few Tuesdays to share some of this vital information with you. For more in-depth coverage, please buy the book!


Let's talk about pesticides.

I might as well begin with a fact: every year in the US, lawns are sprayed with 90 million pounds of pesticides and herbicides. I don't need to tell you that this is a serious problem - and that's before I reveal the kinds of health problems associated with 2,4-D, the most widely used herbicide in the world. 2,4-D is a "weed and feed" product, which does exactly that: it simultaneously fertilizes lawns while controlling the weeds that try to take hold there. 2,4 dichlorophenoxyacetic acid is a synthetic chemical "hormone herbicide", meaning it messes with plants' hormone systems in order to kill them by causing them first to grow uncontrollably, then suddenly die. This unique strategy is not the only attractive feature of 2,4-D: the herbicide also selectively targets weeds like dandelions without harming grass. No wonder it is considered to be the perfect remedy for unwanted plants not only on residential lawns but also in fields of corn, grains, and rice, all of which are in the grass family.

So, what makes 2,4-D such a bad product? Consider these short-term effects of exposure:
  • nausea
  • headaches
  • vomiting
  • eye irritation
  • difficulty breathing
  • lack of coordination
Would you want to experience any of that just because you happened to walk past a lawn while 2,4-D was being sprayed? Much more harrowing are the long-term consequences of getting this stuff in your system:
  • non-Hodgkin's lymphoma (a blood cancer)
  • neurological impairment
  • asthma
  • immune system suppression
  • reproductive problems
  • miscarriage
  • birth defects

The good news is that the City of Toronto banned the cosmetic use of pesticides way back in 2004, which means eight summers have already gone by during which, presumably, only very little 2,4-D has come anywhere near me and those I hold dear in this city. Hundreds of other municipalities in Canada have passed similar bylaws, and to date there are province-wide bans (some looser, some stricter) in Quebec, Ontario, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and PEI, as well as restrictions on the use of "weed and feed" products specifically in Alberta. The province of British Columbia is working on a ban, too.

There are, of course, still many areas in which there are no regulations on the use of pesticides. But I am hopeful because concerned members of those communities can and will organize movements to achieve this goal - that's exactly how the first municipal bylaw banning pesticides was passed in Canada! There are a growing number of us who care, who are worried, who want the government to take action to protect us. After all, this is a no-brainer of an issue. Weed-free lawns are not only unnecessary, they're making us sick!

Image of chemical structure of 2, 4-D sourced from Wikimedia Commons.
Photo of grass lawn used under Creative Commons from AdamKR (flickr).
Photo of pesticide sign used under Creative Commons from Michelle Tribe (Greencolander/flickr).

Friday, October 21, 2011

Does Recycling Deserve Applause?

You tell me. Watch this video and let's talk about it.

I absolutely loved this video when I first saw it (thanks to Laura from The Mindful Merchant for posting it back in March). While I'd hate to be in the spotlight like that and would probably freak out a little receiving a standing ovation in such a public area, it is nevertheless awesome that the folks who make the Testé sur des humains TV show came up with this flash mob idea. Briefly, the show features staged situations (with show hosts and guests as actors) that are meant to elicit a reaction from the public to test out whether everyday people are willing to step outside of their comfort zone. In essence, the show explores the human condition, and it's definitely a thought-provoking version of reality TV.

So, does recycling deserve applause? Did the woman in the video feel motivated to keep up the good work in her personal life, perhaps to take on a more challenging green lifestyle change? It's hard to say. I'm not sure exactly what matters here: recycling, or understanding that we share the responsibility for keeping public spaces clean? Maybe some of the people who came before the woman are avid recyclers but feel no need to tidy up after someone else. I'm sure at least one of those people believes it's the cleaning staff's duty, so why bother? From a scientific perspective, there are too many variables that can't be accounted for, making it difficult to pinpoint why one woman did what tens or dare I say hundreds of others did not do. However, I'd like to believe that if green behaviour was more appreciated in the same way that acts by good Samaritans are praised, we'd live in a cleaner world.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Some People Don't Give a Flick

A few years ago, I joined the Green Team at work. We met as a group only bi-monthly, but as individuals, we acted as full-time eco ambassadors in our departments, encouraging and promoting environmentally friendly behaviour and communicating new green initiatives being implemented company-wide. It was a fun and rewarding volunteer role that added some excitement to my job.

I remember feeling pretty inspired when we were given a set of bright, colourful stickers meant to be placed beneath or beside light switches to remind everyone not to leave the lights on in empty rooms. My pet peeves: the private bathrooms (one door, one toilet, one sink, and no shared space - therefore, no need to leave the light on for anyone else) and the mail room / photocopy room. These are rooms that everyone uses multiple times a day but never for longer than a few minutes, with long periods of time passing between uses.

Within a few months of placing the stickers and consistently turning the lights off, people started getting the picture and flicking the light switch back into the off position when they left the rooms. Success! But it's not the stickers alone that did the trick, because at my current workplace, similar reminders have been placed beneath the light switches in the lunch room / photocopy room, and nobody seems to pay attention. Granted, I've only just begun to set the example, and I shouldn't expect anyone to catch on without direct intervention. But it's hard to engage others in conversation around this issue when I overhear people saying things like, "what's going on in here with all the lights off, are we trying to conserve or something?", as though only an energy shortage should encourage us to turn lights off in rooms that aren't in use. Sigh.

The kicker is that unlike the mail room at my old workplace, the lunch room at my current job has three sets of south-facing windows, but nobody bothers to open the curtains in the morning because flicking a switch takes less effort. It's infuriating, because with the curtains pulled back, there is plenty of light! Now, you're probably wondering why I'm making a big fuss over a small issue like this, especially when I'm usually disillusioned when people make small changes that won't amount to much anyway. Well, in this case I'm worried because I'm theorizing a worst-case scenario: not caring to conserve electricity by turning off lights probably goes hand-in-hand with cranking the heat at home over the winter, using a car to get around on a daily basis, and lots of other wasteful behaviours that contribute to the mess we're in. After all, if you can't be bothered to engage in the simple act of turning off the lights, there's no way you have any interest in making changes that demand greater commitment and effort!

So the question is, is it even worth trying to encourage change in people who seem resistant to it?

Photo of light switch used under Creative Commons from Mike (anotherpioneer/flickr).
Photo of window used under Creative Commons from Simon Tong.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Constructive Criticism

Two weeks ago I told you about the 12th annual Planet in Focus environmental film festival taking place this week in Toronto. On Wednesday I had the honour of chaperoning Chris Paine, Director of Revenge of the Electric Car, at the Opening Night Gala (to make sure he knew where and when to meet with interviewers, walk the green carpet, and watch the Canadian premiere of his film). Since then I've also lent a hand to Industry Series programming and taken in my share of screenings. What I truly love about helping at the festival is meeting other volunteers, especially those who open my eyes to issues that I hadn't previously considered.

Which brings me to Roberto: he's a student from Chile currently on exchange taking courses in Ryerson's Film Studies program. He and his friend are trying to put together an environmental film festival of their own back home, which is no small feat for two kids in their early 20s. What I wasn't expecting to hear from him is that in addition to featuring films that cover green topics, he hopes to make the festival itself as eco-friendly as possible - and not just greenwash it.

Don't get me wrong, Planet in Focus is getting some things right. VIP Directors, including Mr. Paine and his two guests, were brought to the festival from the airport by green taxi (in other words, in a hybrid Prius). Also, anyone attending the Opening Night Gala and coming on two wheels was treated to a complimentary bike valet. And the two venues at which the screenings are being held are walking distance apart. But sometimes it's the little things that betray either a lack of planning or a disinterest in going the extra mile.

Take the Green Networking Lounge, for example. This event reminds me of speed-dating, where filmmakers get fifteen minutes to chat one-on-one with funders, commissioning editors, and other film and television executives. The festival provided coffee, water, and an assortment of muffins for this event. What was missing? Unlike last year, there were no real plates, real mugs, or real cutlery (instead: countless paper cups, napkins, and stir-sticks). The only concern seemed to be to avoid handing out plastic water bottles. Not that I disagree with that guideline, but it's only a starting point. This is an environmental film festival, after all.

Roberto, bless his young and ambitious heart, wants to see if it's possible to screen films at his festival using stationary bike power. Perhaps we don't need to go quite so far. I'm being a little nit-picky about the finer details and ought to point out that Planet in Focus bought carbon and green energy offsets, which is actually a pretty big deal. And the foodie in me was really happy to see organic milk in glass bottles alongside the coffee! To be completely honest, what motivated this post was the difficulty I'm experiencing in reconciling the fact that in order to bring awareness to the public of issues afflicting the world, film crews have to fly around the globe a few times and then take even more plane trips to tour with their documentaries, and then we sit and watch these films under less than ideal circumstances. I guess for now I have to suck it up and hope that spreading the word about the kinds of issues covered this week is more important than the carbon footprint of filmmaking - and the greenness of the festival itself.

Photo of box office used under Creative Commons from Rae Allen (flickr).
Photo of live music powered by bike used under Creative Commons from Earthnwork (flickr).

Monday, October 10, 2011

Come Hike with Me Again

Two weeks ago I hiked the Hockley Valley Nature Reserve and found peace among the trees. This weekend I explored the Nottawasaga Bluffs, part of the Bruce Trail near the Blue Mountains. Although I mainly enjoy posting my hiking photos on the blog because I endorse spending time in nature as a way to stay physically and mentally healthy, I also wanted to share these images to be able to highlight the value of keeping our natural wonders intact. See the third picture? It shows the entrance to crevices that were formed thousands of years ago when water would pool in cracks in the rock and then expand when freezing over the winter. The pressure that the ice exerted on the rock forced the cracks to widen into fissures, then crevices, as you can see in photos 4 and 5. One of the deepest caves goes down ten metres and has four levels, the lowest of which is cold enough that it is covered in ice throughout the year. Being able to explore geological history like this is priceless. I wish we could make a greater effort at protecting our conservation areas, and increasing their size and number!

Friday, October 7, 2011

Friday Feel Good News

It's Friday, and in my books, that means it's time to feel good. Let's set aside the doom-and-gloom stories for a moment and focus on some good news!


Okay, so maybe the really good news today is that the Progressive Conservative Party was not elected in yesterday's provincial election. But my voter apathy rant from earlier this week (though justified because voter turnout hit an all-time low at 49.2%) kind of filled my quota for political content on my blog for a while, so let's talk about something else!

Recently I heard from two of my readers who live in Boston that their city lags behind in green initiatives. Today I'm happy to tell Sabrina and Lori that they can at least feel good about these cool new bike repair stations located next door in Cambridge! Costing about $1,000 each, the stations provide cyclists with basic tools for making quick-fix repairs while on the go. The number of cyclists in Cambridge more than doubled between 2002 and 2008, so the need is apparent. Stations like this keep existing bike riders happy, and I'd like to think they also encourage more people who typically walk or drive to hop on a bike instead, knowing they won't have to buy a repair kit to carry around with them.

While it's possible that someone may want to steal the tools - all they would need are wire cutters, after all  - I would like to think that this type of vandalism wouldn't happen with a cycling-related initiative, just like it's not happening with the BIXI bikes here in Toronto. I don't always have a lot of faith in humanity, but the folks around here seem to feel a sense of ownership and perhaps a bit of a protective attitude towards communal bike infrastructure... which means I hope we get these bike repair stations, too!

To my Canadian readers, have a great Thanksgiving weekend! To my American readers, happy Columbus Day - hope you get the day off work. :)

Photo of bike repair station used under Creative Commons from Chris Devers (flickr).

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Ranting about the Election

No, this isn't a political rant. I won't mention parties, candidates, attack ads, or key issues. What's left to complain about? Voter apathy!

Ontario is holding a provincial election on Thursday. Today, two days before the big day, I overheard a 20-something male say to his 20-something female girlfriend, "the election is on Thursday, so I guess I won't vote. My home riding is up north. You'd think they'd choose an election day that is more convenient to those of us who travel". If there had been a wall to bang my head against when I heard this, the bruises on my forehead would be showing by now.

Let me be very clear: in Canada, voting is a simple and straight-forward process. The information about how to vote is easily accessible. Overcoming the general disinterest many people in this country show in the politics that affect them... well, that's tough to deal with, given the numerous contributing factors and systemic issues. But making the voting process as convenient as possible? That problem has been solved. True, we aren't voting over the internet from the comfort of our homes yet, but there are so many other ways to do it. It is simply unacceptable that someone would choose not to vote because it's inconvenient. What could our young friend have done to ensure his voice was heard?

  • He could have voted in advance by mail from anywhere in the world (this works if you're a few hours away, across the country, or on the other side of the planet).
  • If he prefers voting in person, he could have done so at an advanced poll when he was still at home. While these locations don't always open first thing in the morning, they remain open until well into the evening - you can come home from work, make dinner, take the kids to soccer, and still make it in time to vote!
  • If he is too cool for snail mail, as so many 20-somethings are, and if he wasn't home at all during the ten days that the advanced polls were open (maybe he was a jet-setting executive in disguise), he could have voted at his local returning office anytime in the last four weeks. Four weeks!

Special circumstances have been accounted for, too: people who are temporarily hospitalized can vote because special ballot officers visited hospitals for three days last week. Even those who were staying in a hospital that was outside of their electoral district could vote, and patients could use their hospital bracelet as identification! Home visits have been arranged over the past four weeks for those with disabilities, those who are unable to read and write, and for those who for whom it is impossible or unreasonably difficult to get to their local returning office.

So Mr. 20-something, you with your able body, literacy skills, and good health: you don't get an excuse not to vote. Every day you probably spend hours on Facebook and Twitter - can't you spare twenty minutes to vote? Every weekend, you've got places to go and things to do on short notice - can't you plan a quick trip to the polling station with four weeks of advance warning? You live in a democratic country. You and your girlfriend have the right to vote - unlike millions around the world who don't. Your ballots won't be thrown out due to corruption. You have plenty of choices among the candidates, whether they represent the dominant parties or fringe interest groups, or even if they have registered as independent candidates. You live in the biggest city in Canada, with polling stations no more than a few blocks apart and nobody hanging around out front harassing or threatening you. There. Is. No. Excuse. Please start treating your right to vote like the privilege that is actually is.

Voter Apathy Party used under Creative Commons from Jessica Allan Schmidt (flickr).
Photo of ballot used under Creative Commons from Looking&Learning (flickr).
Voting poster used under Creative Commons from Infrogmation of New Orleans (flickr).