EarthTalk: How are wild dolphins faring on
the high seas? Recent reports of dolphin deaths in the Gulf
of Mexico may well be due to last year’s BP oil spill,
but I imagine there are many threats to dolphins from pollution,
human overfishing and other causes.
—Henry Milken, Atlanta, GA
International Union for the Conservation of Nature,
which maintains a worldwide “Red List”
of at-risk wildlife species, considers 36 of the
world’s 40 dolphin species to be in trouble.
Threats include certain tuna fishing practices and
run-off of agricultural and industrial chemicals
into rivers that drain into coastal areas of the
ocean where dolphins spend much of their time. Pictured:
Bottlenose Dolphins jumping.
Tom Brakefield, Thinkstock
are probably the most iconic and best loved species of the
marine world. Their playful nature and high intelligence
have endeared them to people for eons. But our love of dolphins
might not be enough to save them from extinction brought
on by overfishing, pollution, climate change and other environmental
affronts perpetrated by humans.
nonprofit International Union for the Conservation of Nature
(IUCN), which maintains a worldwide “Red List”
of at-risk wildlife species, considers 36 of the world’s
40 different dolphin species to be in trouble. Yes, specific
events can cause problems for dolphins—researchers
believe that the deaths of 300 dolphins in the Gulf of Mexico
over the last year can be blamed on the BP oil spill there.
But more widespread and constant forms of pollution—such
as run-off of agricultural and industrial chemicals into
rivers that drain into coastal areas of the ocean where
dolphins spend much of their time—are having a more
lasting negative effect on dolphins by poisoning them and
causing reproductive problems.
dolphins have long been the unwitting victims of fishermen
targeting large prey, such as tuna. According to Defenders
of Wildlife, fishermen started to notice a half century
ago that schools of yellow fin tuna seemed to follow dolphins
that swim higher in the water column, especially in the
Eastern Tropical Pacific. “Fishermen there have consequently
found that setting nets on dolphins to catch the tuna swimming
underneath is a lucrative technique for tuna fishing, despite
the fact that the practice is extremely injurious to dolphins,”
reports the group, adding that some seven million dolphins
have since been killed as a result of the practice.
our unrelenting demand for seafood—which has caused
rampant overfishing throughout the world’s oceans—means
that dolphins, which feed on smaller fish such as mackerel,
cod and herring as well as squid, are having a harder and
harder time finding food. And in Turkey, Peru, Sri Lanka,
Japan and elsewhere, dolphins are hunted as a delicacy and
also to decrease competition for fish resources.
As if these problems weren’t enough, climate change
also looms as one of the biggest threats of all to dolphins.
“Due to the rapidly rising oceans temperatures, the
dolphin’s primary food sources are seeking deeper
cooler waters,” reports the Defenders of Wildlife.
“Scientists are concerned that the dolphins will have
difficulty adapting as quickly as necessary to find new
feeding grounds to sustain their populations.”
although the situation seems dire for dolphins, many countries
and thousands of scientists remain committed to helping
them survive. Marine mammal advocates are optimistic that
the Panama Declaration, an international agreement signed
in 1997 by several Eastern Tropical Pacific countries and
others that bans using dolphins to track tuna, has already
helped curtail the process that has been so destructive.
Whether these efforts will suffice to get dolphin populations
healthy enough to deal with what promises to be the biggest
challenge yet to their survival—global warming—remains
to be seen.
EarthTalk: What is “tar sands oil”
and what is the controversy over possibly building a pipeline
for it from Canada into the United States?
—Bill Berkley, Omaha, NE
call for the completion by 2013 of a 2,000-mile-long
tar sands oil pipeline stretching from Canada to
U.S. Gulf Coast refineries. It will carry as much
as 900,000 barrels of oil per day, passing through
six states and possibly jeopardizing the integrity
of farmland, public water sources and wildlife habitat.
Pictured: A Rainforest Action Network protest against
the project in front of the Canadian Consulate in
© Rainforest Action Network
Tar sands oil
(or “tar sands”) is slang for bituminous sand,
a mixture of sand, clay, water and an extremely gooey form
of petroleum known as bitumen, which resembles tar in appearance.
Extracting commercially viable crude oil from tar sands
is especially difficult because the thick and sticky mixture
won’t flow unless it is heated or diluted with other
hydrocarbons. Turning the extracted bitumen into liquid
fuel requires large inputs of energy; the process also uses,
pollutes and wastes large amounts of fresh water.
shown that these processes alone generate as much as four
times the amount of greenhouse gases per barrel of final
product as the post-extraction production of conventional
oil. Taking the entire life cycle of both final products
into account, the extracting, processing and burning of
liquid fuel from tar sands emits between 10 and 45 percent
more greenhouse gases overall than conventional crude. Extraction
of oil from tar sands also damages land to the point where
it can no longer sustain forestry or farming.
Despite the environmental
pitfalls of harvesting oil from tar sands, those countries
that have them are making the most of them. More than half
of Canada’s relative sizable oil production comes
from the tar sands of Alberta and other areas, while Venezuela
is also a big producer of tar sands oil.
Tar sands have been in the news of late because green groups
and many U.S. public officials are worried that the construction
of a new pipeline to transport tar sands crude from northeastern
Alberta into the U.S. —TransCanada’s Keystone
XL project—would greatly increase American consumption
of this carbon-intensive fuel and jeopardize U.S. efforts
to reduce its oil consumption and overall carbon footprint.
Plans call for
running the 2,000-mile-long pipeline all the way from Canada
to Gulf Coast refineries. On the way it will carry as much
as 900,000 barrels of oil per day, passing through six U.S.
states and possibly jeopardizing the integrity of farmland,
public water sources and wildlife habitat.
In June 2010,
50 members of Congress signed a letter asking Secretary
of State Hilary Clinton to block approval of Keystone XL
because it would “undermine America’s clean
energy future and international leadership on climate change.”
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency subsequently announced
that the State Department’s draft environmental impact
study for Keystone XL was in need of revision because it
didn’t sufficiently take into account oil spill response
plans, safety issues and greenhouse gas concerns.
In December 2010,
several concerned U.S. nonprofits—including the Natural
Resources Defense Council and Sierra Club—launched
the No Tar Sands Oil campaign to urge President Obama to
halt Keystone XL, which is scheduled for completion by 2013.
In March 2011 some two dozen U.S. mayors got into the act,
asking Secretary Clinton to stop approval on Keystone XL
as it could “undermine the good work being done in
local communities across the country to fight climate change
and reduce our dependence on oil.”
Keystone Project; No
Tar Sands Oil.
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