Thursday, October 27, 2016

The Whaling War

The world's whaling nations - and those that are just sort of interested, apparently (the International Whaling Commission includes nations with no whaling traditions) are gathered to debate continuation of the moratorium on taking large whales (sperms and all the baleen whales).  Japan is arguing furiously for an expansion of its "scientific" whaling, taking advantage of a clause allowing limited taking for scientific research that,has, in practice, created a loophole big enough to sail a factory ship through.
There are essentially two points of debate. One is whether the conservation of whales demands we maintain the near-moratorium (in addition to the scientific clause, some whaling by aboriginal peoples in coastal waters is allowed, including in Alaska.)  (Smaller whales and dolphins, BTW,  are not covered and are still subject to major hunts in Japan, Norway, and elsewhere.)  The other major question is whether it is ever morally acceptable to harvest some of the world's most intelligent mammals, given that, while they are certainly useful to aboriginal communities, no human population absolutely needs whales to survive.

The minke whale, subject of most current whale hunting (NOAA)

At the very least, we need to maintain the moratorium and close the "scientific" loophole. Japanese whalers who claim they take only minke whales (the second-smallest and  by far the most numerous of the baleen whales) under the science clause have in fact taken other species, as meat in Japanese markets has been proven by DNA sampling to come from humpbacks and other species.  (In one case, there was no question because a sample found in a market in 1993 could be identified as a specific whale: an incredibly rare blue/fin hybrid, killed off Iceland in 1989.) That can't happen by mistake. It can only happen by deliberate negligence. Japan argues much legitimate science has come out of its program, including the astonishing discovery of Omura's whale, a 10m long animal described only in 2003. Japan's opponents argue the science hasn't been nearly worth the cost to get it.
I argue that, even if the science exemption was valid, Japan has forfeited the right to use it by taking species they say they are not taking.  Japan argues they are being singled out, since Norway takes several hundred minkes under a formal objection to the moratorium (an artifact of the Vienna Convention which governs treaties: to summarize, you can lodge a formal objection and do something prohibited, but the other signatories have the right, individually or collectively, to impose sanctions and otherwise pressure you.)
But the fact Norway has been treated a little easier than Japan doesn't make Japan right. It just makes Norway also wrong. Protecting the large baleen whales still in great danger (blue, fin, etc.) requires that whale be kept off the market.  That does mean sacrificing any science coming out of hunting, but as non-invasive approaches including the use of UAVs keep becoming more capable, it's an acceptable trade.  Anything other than continuing the moratorium keeps up the pressure on the huge, smart, and emotional animals we nearly wiped off the planet.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

First look: script for Leo DiCaprio's new Captain Planet movie

Hey, kids! Remember the old Captain Planet(TM) TV show, with our weird-looking hero constantly saving the planet, even though the writers were so dumb they showed friendly aliens "saving" a Steller's sea cow by imprisoning it on a beach, where it would have died almost instantly?

Well, environmental scold/hero Leo DiCaprio is bringing it to the big screen!

We have an exclusive peek at the draft script.


Captain Planet's whale friends help him push the giant polluting mega-yacht Leo is sharing with his Hollywood friends back to the dock. With a crunch, it slides aground, never to sail again.

Leo, with a party to make on the Riviera, calls for his private jet, but at the airport he discovers one of the Planeteers somehow canceled his jet's reservation and replaced it with a seat on a commercial plane that's fifty times as fuel-efficient.

Wiped out, Leo goes home to his mansion, where he finds the useless wings of ballrooms and party spaces have been bricked up so only a suite of rooms adequate for any one person, well insulated, is left available.

"Damn you, Captain Planet," he says. "This 'do as I say, not as I do:' stuff used to be FUN."

So remember, kids: being an environmentalist is important! (It really is: we don't need Gaia to tell us the planet's in trouble.) But being a REAL one who practices what he preaches is priceless!

Sunday, October 09, 2016

Latest wave of species from the Amazon

A recent expedition has cataloged another 60 plant and animal species from the Amazon basin. An expedition of 70 scientist and support personnel to the Serra da Mocidade National Park several months ago has made its first report. Three mammals, one bird, one frog, and six fish joined 22 aquatic invertebrates joined a haul that also included fungi and terrestrial plants.  The mammals are small, but all mammal finds are significant, and bird discoveries, once expected to tail off to nearly nothing long before now, keep coming in at a rate of two or three a year. 
Conservationists have said it for a long time: before you protect nature, you have to know what's there. Kudos to these explorers for adding to our knowledge. 

Thursday, October 06, 2016

The Space Age began....

October 4, 1957....
A bugler sounded off at a remote launch site in Russia.
A slightly modified ICBM, the R-7, was readied for launch.
An 84kg satellite was powered up, its arming key removed, its batteries activated, its transmitter coming to life.
And with a road and flash that rippled for miles through the cold fall night, the Space Age began.
Sergei Korolev, Chief Designer, the man whose very name was a state secret, watched with tears in his eyes. For this he had ensured purges, imprisonment, the gulag, and come out of all that more determined than ever to put the Motherland into space.

Sputnik display in the Boeing museum in Seattle (my photo)

Engineers cried, "It's off! Our baby is off."

Erika and I were proud to make our own contribution to bringing this age to life for modern readers.


Saturday, October 01, 2016

Apollo 11 Model Rocket Celebration

A concept for NASA and space organizations to celebrate the great achievement of Apollo 11: coordinate space enthusiasts to launch model rockets at exactly 0932 EST on July 16 next year, the moment of the launch. Think of it: hundreds of thousands of launches simultaneously, tied to lessons on space? Wouldn't that be inspiring and awesome?

High Strangeness for New Species

New species are turning up in a never-ending stream. Some are interesting but routine.   Scientists in India think they have five new species, of fleas, nice for them, but not unexpected.  
 A new genus of freshwater crab found in a Chinese pet market got a little more attention because it's bigger and really handsome-looking (photo in article here) as well as being important to carcinologists,  Some new species are more startling.  Bees who chew their way into sandstone to excavate burrows?  Totally wild.  New mammals always make news: this new rodent from Sikkim, a species of pika named Ochotona sikimaria,  is important and, of course, cute.   
Finally, a new ant might not be important by itself, but an ant found in frog vomit? OK, it doesn't live in the vomit or stomach of the poisonous frog in question - it was eaten, and thus not surprisingly dead.    And new ants are everywhere. But I can't recall a species discovered only because another species threw up.