Month: May 2007

Tuesdays with Turtles – Why Adult Turtles Die so You Can Eat Fish

An interesting paper featuring a North Carolinian turtle researcher Larry Crowder from Duke University:

Blackwell Synergy – Conservation Biology, Volume 21 Issue 1 Page 79 – February 2007 (Full Text)

Abstract: Although some sea turtle populations are showing encouraging signs of recovery, others continue to decline. Reversing population declines requires an understanding of the primary factor(s) that underlie this persistent demographic trend. The list of putative factors includes direct turtle and egg harvest, egg predation, loss or degradation of nesting beach habitat, fisheries bycatch, pollution, and large-scale changes in oceanographic conditions and nutrient availability. Recently, fisheries bycatch, in particular bycatch from longline fisheries, has received increased attention and has been proposed as a primary source of turtle mortality. We reviewed the existing data on the relative impact of longline bycatch on sea turtle populations. Although bycatch rates from individual longline vessels are extremely low, the amount of gear deployed by longline vessels suggests that cumulative bycatch of turtles from older age classes is substantial. Current estimates suggest that even if pelagic longlines are not the largest single source of fisheries-related mortality, longline bycatch is high enough to warrant management actions in all fleets that encounter sea turtles. Nevertheless, preliminary data also suggest that bycatch from gillnets and trawl fisheries is equally high or higher than longline bycatch with far higher mortality rates. Until gillnet and trawl fisheries are subject to the same level of scrutiny given to pelagic longlines, our understanding of the overall impact of fisheries bycatch on vulnerable sea turtle populations will be incomplete

Adult sea turtle killing by humans occurs due to

  1. Harvest, killing them deliberately for food
  2. Incidental bycatch in fishing nets
  3. Habitat loss

The paper focuses on long line fishing and its effects on turtle mortality. So, if like me, you’re not a fisherperson, what is long line fishing and what are some other kinds of fishing techniques that have effects of sea turtles? Well, the Duke Project GloBal research team on studying bycatch has a nice primer. Some highlights:

  1. Longlines: As the word suggests, longlines are very long (>10 km) lines of 2000+ individually baited hooks that drift close to the surface and are used to catch tuna, swordfish, halibut, etc. Crowder’s paper suggests that while each individual longline hook has low probability of catching a turtle, because of their number and ubiquitousness, they catch many many turtles.
  2. Gillnets: These are giant rectangular mesh nets, either stationary or drifting, that catch marine life indiscriminately. There’s not much that can be done by way of reducingsea turtle catch in gillnets, except monitoring, observation and just using less of them
  3. Trawls: Big funnel shaped bags that catch fish. Bottom trawling fishing boats used to, and still catch turtles at an alarming rate. Trawls are now (at least in the U.S and other “developed” countries) required to be outfitted with Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDS) to let turtles swim to safety.
  4. Purse Seines: These are weighted on the bottom and float at the corners. They are indiscriminate, and especially hard on dolphins. It appears that mitigation efforts aimed at reducing dolphin mortality have the unintended effect of increasing sea turtle catch. Battle of the cute species!!

Take home message? Catching fish causes a lot of turtles to die. While trawl fishing is the worst culprit, it is also the most studied and the technique for which a viable mitigation strategy exists. THe other kinds of fishing are less studied, and there is precious little that can be done to avoid sea turtle bycatch.

Happy fishing!

All eyes on China

First it was the melamine. Then this weekend, there was that horrible story about deaths in Panama linked to the use of diethylene glycol in cough syrup. Now, pigs are dying mysteriously.

Epidemic Is Killing Pigs in Southeastern China – New York Times

Hong Kong television broadcasts and newspapers were full of lurid accounts today of pigs staggering around with blood pouring from their bodies in Gaoyao and neighboring Yunfu, both in Guangdong Province. The Apple Daily newspaper said that as many as 80 percent of the pigs in the area had died, that panicky farmers were selling ailing animals at deep discounts and that pig carcasses were floating in a river.

Lovely. China has exploded out of the gate with its development and incredible growth. But its infrastructure, bureaucracy, attitudes, government accountability and transparency are obviously way behind. The whole world faces the consequences of this lag. But my guess is that it is the rural Chinese and the ones who have been “left behind” that suffer the most, something to keep in mind I guess as people rush to blame China for yet another safety issue. We have the option of being more careful, the rural Chinese don’t.

Liquid Coal – Temporarily Frozen

Liquid coal is back in the news (at least my news!). Via the excellent Grist, Jon Tester (D-Montana – think coal!) casts a principled vote to kill an amendment that would have “mandated” a certain amount of liquid coal be used as part of an omnibus energy package bill.

Panel rejects coal amendment

Thomas accused Tester and other Democrats of failing to act on their words of praise for transportation fuels made from coal. But Tester said he couldn’t support the amendment because it would have scuttled the entire bill to which it was attached.

Tester voted against the provision during a meeting of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee to assemble an energy package. The legislation contains measures boosting biofuels, energy efficiency and research and development on carbon capture and storage technology.

Thomas’s amendment would have required 21 billion gallons of coal-based fuels to be used annually by 2022. The bill already had a provision mandating 36 billion gallons of biofuels by 2022. The amendment was defeated on a 12-11 party-line vote.

The Democratic and Republican heads of the Energy Committee had tried to prevent the coal-to-liquids issue from coming up during the panel’s meeting. They wanted to pass a bill out of committee easily and deal with contentious issues, including that one, during debate on the Senate floor

With such powerful friends, this amendment will not go away. Expect it to be brought back on to the senate floor when it leaves committee. The coal senators of Illinois, West Virginia, Kentucky and the mountain west love the money this will bring to their states. They can pretend to look away from all the devastating effects of coal mining, and the CO2 emissions, etc. by invoking “energy security”. I give you senator Craig Thomas (R-Coal):

“The bill we’re talking about of course does not include coal and the new opportunities to change the process for developing coal, which would not only enhance our security but it would also reduce and help with the global warming situation,” Thomas said. “I really think if we don’t deal with one of our most abundant resources then we fail to deal with energy security.”

Yes, using liquid coal will “reduce and help with the global warming situation”. I mean, can’t you at least come up with a plausible half-truth?

Liquid coal produces more CO2 than gasoline, so how will it help with the global warming situation? Seriously…

March Babies not so Bright? – Pesticides to Blame?

An Indiana scientist makes a rather provocative argument that exposure to pesticides in the womb can explain why Indiana babies conceived in July-August (Born March and April?) have lower achievement scores than the other kids.

ScienceDaily: Conception Date Affects Babys Future Academic Achievement

Dr. Winchester and colleagues linked the scores of the students in grades 3 through 10 who took the Indiana Statewide Testing for Educational Progress (ISTEP) examination with the month in which each student had been conceived. The researchers found that ISTEP scores for math and language were distinctly seasonal with the lowest scores received by children who had been conceived in June through August.

“The fetal brain begins developing soon after conception. The pesticides we use to control pests in fields and our homes and the nitrates we use to fertilize crops and even our lawns are at their highest level in the summer,” said Dr. Winchester, who also directs Newborn Intensive Care Services at St. Francis Hospital in Indianapolis.

“Exposure to pesticides and nitrates can alter the hormonal milieu of the pregnant mother and the developing fetal brain,” said Dr. Winchester. “While our findings do not represent absolute proof that pesticides and nitrates contribute to lower ISTEP scores, they strongly support such a hypothesis.”

Well, that is a bold leap of faith, and use of a correlation=causation argument that I don’t appreciate in most cases. Has this kind of work been done in other countries, or in urban environments without pesticide use?

I am sure that many chemicals have subtle, but significant effects on developing fetuses. And the chemicals the authors mention have links with hypothyroidism..

Nitrates and pesticides are known to cause maternal hypothyroidism and lower maternal thyroid in pregnancy is associated with lower cognitive scores in offspring.

There is a link, but without further data, I think the conclusions are a stretch. But, something to keep in mind I guess if you live in Indiana and want to plan a baby!

Disclaimer: I was conceived in June, and was in the upper echelons of achievement through school. So, by the power of personal experience, I am predisposed to scepticism. OTH, I grew up in a big city with consistently high pollution levels throughout the year and not much pesticide exposure.

California Ban on Diacetyl?

Flavoring-Factory Illnesses Raise Inquiries – New York Times

For a good background on flavoring-factory lung disease (formerly known as popcorn worker’s lung), check out the Pump Handle’s many posts, especially this recent one. Short primer, diacetyl is the chemical that gives popcorn its so called buttery taste (and smell, it’s fake!!). Well, there’s pretty good evidence that diacetyl causes bronchiolitis obliterans. Some symptoms…

Bronchiolitis obliterans renders its victims unable to exert even a little energy without becoming winded or faint.

“The airways to the lung have been eaten up,” said Barbara Materna, the chief of the occupational health branch in the California Department of Health Services. “They can’t work anymore, and they can’t walk a short distance without severe shortness of breath.”

OSHA has been unwilling to seriously regulate diacetyl, so California, as it is wont to do, is considering banning this killer chemical.

But in California, which has 28 flavoring plants known to use diacetyl, some legislators and government officials seem unwilling to wait. A bill to ban diacetyl in the workplace by 2010 has passed two committees in the State Assembly and could be taken up by the full body this summer. It is the first proposal of its kind in the nation. Assemblywoman Sally Lieber, the author of the bill, said she introduced it because of what she said was the slow response by the flavoring industry, which is largely self-regulating on occupational safety. “What we’ve heard is that the flavoring industry has known for years that this is potentially a problem, and they haven’t taken action,” said Ms. Lieber, a Democrat.

I am all for California’s regulation. But as written, this law will only protect workers in California. They should also consider going one step further by restricting the use of diacetyl in food sold in California. Only then can the giant market that is California exert its influence on the diacetyl manufacturers and users.

Brazil bypasses patent on U.S. AIDS drug – Yahoo! News

As I mentioned previously, compulsory licensing is a perfectly legal option underlined by TRIPs (Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) in response to national emergencies for governments to authororize the bypassing of drug patents. Thailand threatened to do it recently, Brazil goes one better.

Brazil bypasses patent on U.S. AIDS drug – Yahoo! News

President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva took steps Friday to let Brazil buy an inexpensive generic version of an AIDS drug made by Merck & Co. despite the U.S. drug company’s patent.

Silva issued a “compulsory license” that would bypass Merck’s patent on the AIDS drug efavirenz, a day after the Brazilian government rejected Merck’s offer to sell the drug at a 30 percent discount, or $1.10 per pill, down from $1.57.

The country was seeking to purchase the drug at 65 cents a pill, the same price Thailand pays.

This story fits the script in every possible way. Here’s the drug company’s “disappointed” response:

Amy Rose, a spokeswoman for Whitehouse Station, N.J.-based Merck, said earlier that the company would be “profoundly disappointed if Brazil goes ahead with a compulsory license.”

“As the world’s 12th largest economy, Brazil has a greater capacity to pay for HIV medicines than countries that are poorer or harder hit by the disease,” Merck said in a statement after Silva’s announcement.

Ah, the irony of a large pharma company appealing to Brazil’s sense of fairness!

The usual US government/chamber of commerce type’s scold and threat to withold further foreign investment:

But the U.S.-Brazil Business Council said the decision was a “major step backward” in intellectual property law and warned it could harm development.

“Brazil is working to attract investment in innovative industries … and this move will likely cause investments to go elsewhere,” the council said in a statement.

Who are the US-Brazil Business Council? It is an affiliate of the U.S Chamber of Commerce. Its website reveals it to be a lobbying and networking group of high powered U.S executives “fostering” U.S-Brazil trade relations. Hmm, I wonder who’s side they will take!

But, we forget what this is about, the health of thousands of AIDs patients (and the money it costs to treat them).

Brazil provides free AIDS drugs to anyone who needs them and manufactures generic versions of several drugs that were in production before Brazil enacted an intellectual property law in 1997 to join the WTO.

But as newer drugs have emerged, costs ballooned and health officials warned that without deep discounts, they would be forced to issue compulsory licenses.

Efavirenz is used by 75,000 of the 180,000 Brazilians who receive free AIDS drugs from the government. The drug currently costs about the government about $580 per patient per year.

Brazil is doing absolutely the right thing by bargaining and playing hardball. it wants to pay the same prices Thailand pays, and should continue to bargain till it gets there. There’s no sense in being a sovereign powerful nation if you can’t shakedown a pharma company, is there!

An Indian History Book to Read

Ramachandra Guha has written a new book about modern Indian history (independence in 1947-Present). Sounds interesting, here is an excerpt (h/t the always wonderful blog, 3QD).
The Miracle That Is India :

Is India a democracy, then? The answer is well, phipty-phipty. It mostly is, when it comes to holding elections and permitting freedom of movement and expression. It mostly is not, when it comes to the functioning of politicians and political institutions. However, that India is even a 50 per cent democracy flies in the face of tradition, history, and the conventional wisdom. Indeed, by its own experience, it is rewriting that history and that wisdom. Thus, Sunil Khilnani remarked of the 2004 polls that they represented “the largest exercise of democratic election, ever and anywhere, in human history.

Sounds like fun, people ask me about India all the time and while I have great experiential knowledge, this book would (if good) give this experiential knowledge some factual and structural backing.


Bhutan to pay for others climate sins

Bhutan is a small country nestled in the Himalayas, breathtakingly beautiful and “quaint”. Unfortunately, it’s about to be hit by a truck!

Reuters AlertNet – FEATURE-Bhutan to pay for others climate sins

The retreat of Bhutan’s glaciers presents an even more formidable and fundamental challenge to a nation of around 600,000 people, nearly 80 percent of whom live by farming.

Bhutan’s rivers sustain not only the country’s farmers, but also the country’s main industry and export earner — hydro-electric power, mostly sold to neighbouring India.

For a few years, Bhutan’s farmers and its hydro power plants might have more summer melt water than they can use. One day, though, the glaciers may be gone, and the “white gold” upon which the economy depends may dry up.

The threat led the government’s National Environment Commission to a stark conclusion.

“Not only human lives and livelihoods are at risk, but the very backbone of the nation’s economy is at the mercy of climate change hazards,” it wrote in a recent report.

Scientists admit they have little solid data on how Bhutan’s climate is already changing, but say weather patterns are becoming increasingly unpredictable.

Well, as I keep saying, Americans and Europeans will be incovenienced by global climate change, Asians and Africans will die. I don’t have an answer, though, which is depressing on this gray and cloudy Friday morning…

NC Smoking bill dead this year

The vote was 55-61, and one of the arguments advanced was by Representative Paul Stam (h/t N&O’s new political blog):

This is pushing smoke out of places where only adults are, but into places where children are. A person who’s addicted to tobacco and can’t smoke all day will get in that car and have to light up three or four or go home and do what they didn’t do during the day. That seems common sense to me.”

Yeah, and if you stop a murderer from killing in public, he will kill at home, so we should just let him shoot people randomly in public.

North Carolina General Assembly – House Bill 259 Information/History (2007-2008 Session)

Whatever, it does not matter, smoking in public will be history even in the South in a decade or less, just a few lawsuits away. I think we first need to overturn the laws against local government passing anti smoking legislation.

Melamine – And Cyanuric Acid, A deadly pair?

Like melamine, cyanuric acid is also used to artificially increase the nitrogen content of the food (detected as protein in protein tests).

ScienceDaily: Pet Food Recall: How Melamine Impairs Kidney Function

Perry Martos and colleagues in the Agriculture and Food Laboratory at Guelph’s Laboratory Services have found that melamine and cyanuric acid can react with one another to form crystals that may impair kidney function. Tests conducted at the University’s Animal Health Laboratory (AHL) and elsewhere have identified these crystal-like substances in the kidneys and urine of affected animals. The experiments conducted at the Agriculture and Food Laboratory showed that the chemical composition of the crystals that are formed when these two compounds interact matches the composition of urinary crystals removed from affected animals. Tests conducted at the University’s Laboratory and in the United States have identified the compounds as contaminants in gluten used to make a variety of pet food and treat products.

Interestingly enough, the analytical test for cyanuric acid is to precipitate it with Melamine, so it is not as if these guys “discovered” this reaction, as the press release seems to intimate. There is also speculation that the  cyanuric acid was a metabolic byproduct of melamine from bacterial action, which is possible if the gluten was not stored correctly. It seems to me that Chinese manufacturers were using melamine or cyanuric acid to boost protein content for a while now. But it may have been only recently that they started adding both to the same food. The other possibility (and have you ever read the ingredients list in pet food, it takes a while!), is that one ingredient contained melamine, the other, cyanuric acid and when mixed…

Either way, neither of these compounds belong in pet food.