By Richard Black
Environment correspondent, BBC News
Environmentalists say leaders at June’s Rio+20 summit must urgently step up nature protection, as a report confirms a 30% decline in wildlife since 1970.
The Living Planet Report combines data on more than 9,000 populations of animals across the world.
Rio+20 is billed as a chance for world leaders to put global society on a sustainable path.
But the report’s main authors, WWF, say progress on nature protection and climate change is “glacial”.
“The Rio+20 conference is an opportunity for the world to get serious about the need for development to be made sustainable,” said David Nussbaum, CEO of WWF-UK.
“We need to elevate the sense of urgency, and I think this is ultimately not only about our lives but the legacy we leave for future generations.”
The Living Planet Report uses data on trends seen in various species across the world, compiled by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL).
Further analysis from the Global Footprint Network aims to calculate how sustainable our global society is in terms of its overall ecological footprint – a composite measure of issues such as fossil fuel burning, use of cropland to grow food, and consumption of wood and wild-caught fish.
For this edition of the report, ZSL has examined more species (2,600) and more populations of those species (9,014) than ever before.
Overall, these populations show a decline of about 30% since 1970 – the same figure as in the last edition, published two years ago.
Tropical species show a decline of more than 60%, while in temperate regions there has been an average recovery of about 30%.
The worst affected species are those in tropical lakes rivers, whose numbers have fallen by 70% since 1970.
Scripps Institution of Oceanography / University of California, San Diego
A 100-fold upsurge in human-produced plastic garbage in the ocean is altering habitats in the marine environment, according to a new study led by a graduate student researcher at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego.
In 2009 an ambitious group of graduate students led the Scripps Environmental Accumulation of Plastic Expedition (SEAPLEX) to the North Pacific Ocean Subtropical Gyre aboard the Scripps research vessel New Horizon. During the voyage the researchers, who concentrated their studies a thousand miles west of California, documented an alarming amount of human-generated trash, mostly broken down bits of plastic the size of a fingernail floating across thousands of miles of open ocean.
At the time the researchers didn’t have a clear idea of how such trash might be impacting the ocean environment, but a new study published in the May 9 online issue of the journal Biology Letters reveals that plastic debris in the area popularly known as the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” has increased by 100 times over in the past 40 years, leading to changes in the natural habitat of animals such as the marine insect Halobates sericeus. These “sea skaters” or “water striders”-relatives of pond water skaters-inhabit water surfaces and lay their eggs on flotsam (floating objects). Naturally existing surfaces for their eggs include, for example: seashells, seabird feathers, tar lumps and pumice. In the new study researchers found that sea skaters have exploited the influx of plastic garbage as new surfaces for their eggs. This has led to a rise in the insect’s egg densities in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre.
Such an increase, documented for the first time in a marine invertebrate (animal without a backbone) in the open ocean, may have consequences for animals across the marine food web, such as crabs that prey on sea skaters and their eggs.
“This paper shows a dramatic increase in plastic over a relatively short time period and the effect it’s having on a common North Pacific Gyre invertebrate,” said Scripps graduate student Miriam Goldstein, lead author of the study and chief scientist of SEAPLEX, a UC Ship Funds-supported voyage. “We’re seeing changes in this marine insect that can be directly attributed to the plastic.”
The new study follows a report published last year by Scripps researchers in the journal Marine Ecology Progress Series showing that nine percent of the fish collected during SEAPLEX contained plastic waste in their stomachs. That study estimated that fish in the intermediate ocean depths of the North Pacific Ocean ingest plastic at a rate of roughly 12,000 to 24,000 tons per year.
The Goldstein et al. study compared changes in small plastic abundance between 1972-1987 and 1999-2010 by using historical samples from the Scripps Pelagic Invertebrate Collection and data from SEAPLEX, a NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer cruise in 2010, information from the Algalita Marine Research Foundation as well as various published papers.
In April, researchers with the Instituto Oceanográfico in Brazil published a report that eggs of Halobates micans, another species of sea skater, were found on many plastic bits in the South Atlantic off Brazil.
“Plastic only became widespread in late ’40s and early ’50s, but now everyone uses it and over a 40-year range we’ve seen a dramatic increase in ocean plastic,” said Goldstein. “Historically we have not been very good at stopping plastic from getting into the ocean so hopefully in the future we can do better.”
Coauthors of the study include Marci Rosenberg, a student at UCLA, and Scripps Research Biologist Emeritus Lanna Cheng.
Funding for SEAPLEX was provided by the University of California Ship Funds, an innovative program that allows a new generation of scientists to gain valuable scientific training at sea, Project Kaisei/Ocean Voyages Institute, the Association for Women in Science-San Diego and the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship program. The NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program (2010 Always Exploring expedition) and National Marine Fisheries Service provided support for the 2010 samples. Other study support was provided by Jim and Kris McMillan, Jeffrey and Marcy Krinsk, Lyn and Norman Lear, Ellis Wyer and an anonymous donor. Other support was provided by the California Current Ecosystem (CCE) program, part of NSF’s Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) program.
Dianna Cohen explains the mission of the PPC, her role within the organization and why “cleaning up” the gyre is not a viable solution to the plastic pollution problem in part two of the “Beaches, People & Plastic” series.