Progress for Dolphins and Other Seaside Creatures

DolphinLife in the Anthropocene means facing an ever-accelerating pace of environmental change. We, the prime movers of this new epoch, have made significant impacts to the world’s ecosystems by producing an enormous amount of ourselves—seven billion souls wanting air conditioners, cars, frozen foods, and laptops. Our environmental struggles are intense and many, but wildlife face even greater stresses.

This year an unusually high number of dead or dying dolphins are washing ashore along East Coast beaches. Teri Rowles of the National Marine Fisheries Service reports that 357 dolphin bodies have floated onto beaches from New York to North Carolina since July 1, and additional reports have spotted numerous carcasses floating in the ocean.

The cause is unclear, but most authorities point to morbillivirus, which harms the lungs and central nervous systems of oceanic animals under extreme stress. The last outbreak among Atlantic dolphins killed 740 in 1987. However, only a few have tested positive this year for the disease, leading researchers to believe other factors are involved. Many scientists suspect that increased competition for territory and water pollution from human activities are stressing these brilliant sea mammals, making them more susceptible to dangerous pathogens.

Today’s oceans have become plastic-clogged dumping grounds and noisy shipping lanes filled with heavy metals, pesticides, and hydrocarbons. Most newspapers have reported on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch; a swirling gyre roughly twice the size of Texas clogged with light bulbs, bottles, lighters, and clouds of unidentifiable shreds of plastic. The Pacific’s problem is not unique. Similarly sized patches of human detritus exist in all five of the world’s oceans.

Crowded, polluted ecosystems on land are causing problems for the honeybees, who are dying out by the millions. Time Magazine reports that in the past five years commercial beekeepers in the U.S. have seen annual death rates nearly triple, rising to a staggering 30% of their colonies dead each year. Currently, there are 2.5 million honeybee colonies in the U.S., a drastic reduction from 6 million circa 1950.

Massive human populations may “need” Big Ag for cost-effective food production, but the incursion of industrial monocultures into wild areas of flowering plants makes for another kind of debilitating factor. Bees need a variety of plants in their area to ensure that blossoms remain available for pollen throughout most of the year. Economies of scale that fill an ecosystem with one kind of crop take over the land where wildflowers grow and bees forage. Furthermore, Big Ag production relies heavily on pesticides, the other major factor weakening the already stressed bumbles and honeys. Entomologist May Berenbaum, an expert on Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), argues that no single threat is killing the bees, but a host of pathogens. She says, “It’s like a perfect storm.”

Last fall an unusually early winter storm from the Caribbean met Arctic air from the north to create Hurricane Sandy, one of the deadliest storms to hit the East Coast in history. Flooding, power outages, and other damage cost the U.S. alone $65 billion. The super storm was most intense in the Greater Antilles, but it kept going, bombarding the entire eastern seaboard with record level waves and intense winds.

Climate changeOffering an explanation for the perfect storm that blasted eastern North America last year,  Bloomberg Businessweek led with a cover reminiscent of James Carville and the 1992 presidential election. Above a picture of flooded lower Manhattan, it read in all caps:  “It’s Global Warming Stupid.” Like the magazine’s explicit environmentalism, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo went on record as the first politician to blame a warming atmosphere and rising oceans for the super storm. He told a news briefing in late October after surveying local damage, “Climate change is a reality. Extreme weather is a reality. . . . There’s only so long you can say, ‘This is once in a lifetime, and it’s not going to happen again.’” While Sandy could have happened if climate change was not occurring, most experts agree that atmospheric trends over the past century indicate that sea levels will continue to rise and hurricanes will move farther north.

International agreements like the Kyoto Protocol pave the way for managing global warming, but ratification is slow. Individual consumers can buy in bulk and use cloth sacks at the grocery store to cut down on the plastic refuse collecting in the world’s oceans. They can also discourage the use of dangerous pesticides by shopping for good, organic produce. However, no small changes will make life in the Anthropocene easy. Unfortunately, the bees and the dolphins will continue to face the ecological dangers of an increasingly human-crowded world, and coastal cities and island nations will continue to see the stormy effects of rising waters. Progress here will require us to want fewer air conditioners, cars, frozen foods, and laptops. This kind of progress will be very hard to make.

Jason Hertz

Jason Hertz is a writer based in Lincoln, Nebraska. He approaches environmental stories from the perspective of a semi-nomadic PhD student. In addition to researching and teaching literature, Jason writes and blogs in order to tell stories that inspire good and lasting relationships between each other and the natural world.

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Author: Jason Hertz

Jason Hertz is a writer based in Lincoln, Nebraska. He approaches environmental stories from the perspective of a semi-nomadic PhD student. In addition to researching and teaching literature, Jason writes and blogs in order to tell stories that inspire good and lasting relationships between each other and the natural world.

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