Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Just Clowning Around

Clown Doctors at Work
As usual I missed a couple of things this week. The first was the National Day against Bullying on March 16th and the second was World Water Day on March 22, both important issues, but I have had a bit of difficulty getting on the Web lately (Was it something I said?) and I feel like something a bit lighter myself today, so I thought I might get in early for once and talk about something cheerful.
April 1 appropriately, is Smile Day, a fundraising day for the Clown Doctors who have been bringing laughter and joy to children and the elderly in our hospitals.  Anyone who has ever been confronted by a hospital procedure as a child will appreciate what they do. It has also been found to have physical and psychological benefits. In Australia there are 55 Clown Doctors working with around 100,000 people in major hospitals. Their motto is:

Smiling is highly infectious. Help spread it around.

Easy ways to help are to have a fund raising morning tea, a funny hat competition at work or at school or even a comedy night. The last two would be especially good, given that it is April Fool’s Day. Clown Doctors near you could also come to speak to your group, or your workplace may want to sponsor a clown doctor. There are many more ideas on their website. You can also make a donation there or via the Commonwealth Bank. No one has many good things to say about banks lately, but the Staff Community Fund at the Commonwealth has been supporting the Clown Doctors for eleven years. 

This joke is from their website where they usually feature a joke of the week.

What cheese is made backwards?

P.S. Why are ant eaters so healthy? Cause they are full of anty-bodies.
If like moi, you don't have too much cash, at least send them some more jokes.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Fences and Walls 3 - Closing the Digital Commons

A small window of opportunity still exists to protect access to information, freedom of speech and the democratic processes of the World Wide Web.

Congratulations to Google, Facebook and others for refusing to co -operate with authoritarian regimes and not participating in the installation of massive surveillance technology being installed in countries like Syria and Pakistan which aid in pinpointing the location of dissidents, leading to their arrest and sometimes torture and death. Thanks also to Facebook for vowing to take legal action against employers who demand employee 's passwords thus helping to preserve the right to individual privacy. So far too, ACTA, SOPA and PIPA legislation in various countries which were ostensibly about making Internet providers liable for copyright violations but instead lead to continual tracking of all users and content, have been defeated, but don't break out the Champagne just yet.

In the first instance, more unscrupulous companies such as Huawei, Hewlett Packard, Area (Italian), NetApp (American), Qosmos (French), and Utimaco (German) , and to a lesser extent (more by way of default in their equipment to meet EU requirements) Nokia -Siemens, have no qualms about jumping into the breech left by the other companies. This is a great tragedy and we hope anyone who does business with them will stop until until they change their tune. Click Here to stop them. Cisco Systems also continues to help Chinese authorities in their quest to stamp out criticsm and debate. Send them a message Here.

The same technology is also being deployed in Indonesia where a journalist was recently tracked down and beaten for writing about illegal logging. In Vietnam it was used to prevent the environmental impact of a Chinese bauxite mine becoming public, while in Argentina mining companies (Aluminium Corp of China, China Metallurgical Group and the Canadian companies Yamana Gold and Pacific Rim), oil companies (Shell, Addax and Synopec), wood pulp companies (Sinar Mas and Riau Andalan Pulp and Paper) and two French multinationals (Bolloré and Areva) were identified in an independent investigation by Reporters without Borders " as having a direct or indirect role in cases of intimidation or censorship." In Russia, while the Internet appears to be open unlike in China, and is even used to gauge public opinion on certain proposed policy initiatives, this does not stop anonymous thugs carrying out beatings or arrests on those who make any criticism. Free online speech is also under threat in Thailand where the government has arrested a number of bloggers and blocked 777,286 sites. However, none of this is just about far away foreign places which have no understanding of democracy.

In western countries the attacks are more subtle but while SOPA, ACTA and PIPA may be temporarily defeated in the courts due to international public outrage, attempts are underway to secure compliance by other means as in Free Trade Agreements like the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) which would be set to continue indefinitely once passed, regardless of changing conditions. This time the powers that be are not taking any chances that the public will be able to comment. Not only are  negotiations are being conducted behind closed doors, but in Australia not even the list of attendees is available via Freedom of Information. Meanwhile they are exercising censorship the Chinese way. Not through the courts or any other open and accountable way, but by issuing secret takedown notices and making Internet providers and Telecom companies liable for what is posted on their websites.

The arguments regularly trotted out to justify this invasion of privacy are not only about protection of copyright, but for national security, to prevent criminal activity and to stop kiddie porn and cyber crime. However, we already have legal mechanisms in place which allow monitoring when criminal activity is suspected, without violating the rights of everyone and without stifling public debate. To protect children from adult content we have Net Nanny programs in place in libraries and public access areas which block inappropriate content, though a less desirable effect is that they sometimes inadvertently block helpful sites such as information on breast cancer or breast feeding and there are far more effective ways of catching fraudsters and criminals and preventing bullying and serious abuse. Where is the law enforcement against the kind of Cyber bullying being carried by corporations like Shell against small environmental groups and people such as deep - pocketed millionaire Frank Vander Sloot, against news outlets and bloggers to keep legitimate information from the public?

We know from the emails found on the Heartland Institute website detailing private conversations of a Huffington Post writer, that private interests already have ways of securing information which have nothing to do with national security or criminal activity. There are also abundant examples of abuses such as unfair blacklistings, take down orders, denial of service and other practices in Rebecca Mackinnon’s excellent book Consent of the Networked, or in the Hall of Shame on the Electronic Frontiers Site. What we really need is protection of the public from vested interests and from governments out of control and no longer beholden to the interests of the people whom they are supposed to represent and serve. We have Watergate and the McCarthy era to remind us governments do not always act in our best interests, not to mention commercial interests and other third parties to which private companies, commercial entities (remember News of the World?) and individuals fall prey.  

Powerful as they may seem, it is neither fair or right to have to leave it up to private companies such as Google and Facebook, much less smaller companies to stand up for our rights and defend our freedom, especially when they can be compelled by law to obey. As Rebecca MacKinnon writes in Consent of the Networked, we need a special International Charter protecting Internet Freedom and the Digital Commons in the same way the Magna Carta sought to protect the rights of the people against abuses by sovereigns.

As The Court of Justice in the European Union has ruled in rejecting ACTA 
"... generalized Internet filtering violates the fundamental rights of European citizens including the right to the free flow of information online. Protection of copyright cannot be protected at the expense of the protection of other basic rights such freedom of information and privacy. "
Reporters without Borders also reports that the Court of Justice ruled that such a generalized system of surveillance is not permitted. It said national courts must respect a directive “which prohibits national authorities from adopting measures which would require an ISP to carry out general monitoring of the information that it transmits on its network.”

As I write, the USA is building the largest facility ever for monitoring and recording every keystroke you make, everything you upload, write or say, every time you connect on the Internet, all your phone calls and emails, what searches you undertake, which books and medicines you order and who your friends are. Take a stand now, while you still can.

"There is no freedom without freedom of information. There is no freedom of information without Internet freedom."                     (from the website of the Global Internet Freedom Consortium)


Don't let the TPP become the new ACTA

Stop Google tracking your every move Stop the sale of surveillance equipment to Syria
Stop Shell suing NGOs

Protect Internet Freedom
Support those who are presently denied access
Columbia - Page Rights not Copyrights
India Stop Censorship

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Fences and Walls 2 - The Great Leap Backwards

One of the things I missed while I was busy, was International Women's Day on March 8. It seems that a lot of other people missed it too. In fact there is a petition by a man, yes, a man, saying we should commemorate it more. Usually the event is celebrated here with a breakfast or luncheon and a rosy picture in the morning paper of the handful of women who have made it in business or public life. When I think back to the days when I was the first female 'counterboy' in the insurance company I worked for, when married women could not sign cheques or obtain a loan, or how my mother was a temporary public servant for twenty three years with no raise in pay or status, because married women could not advance, I think for a moment that we have come a long way, yet by lunchtime there will be a discussion about closing childcare facilities or why having paid maternity leave as other OECD countries do, will lead to even more women becoming part of the underpaid, unprotected casualised workforce and the whole affair is forgotten.

Legal Rights

While women in most countries won the right to equality under the law when the the UN Declaration on the Rights of Women was unanimously adopted by 130 countries in 1981, this has not translated into effective action in most places. The majority of women continue to be underpaid, marginalised and exploited in various ways and even gross abuses -such as cutting off noses,  and even witch burnings for heaven's sake, continue to be tolerated and trivialised as being 'tribal' in nature.

The UN can only intervene at the request of those countries themselves, so its responses are limited  to educative processes rather than taking punitive action against offenders. That's why the petitions are so important. It is one of the few ways of letting the powers that be know that such behaviour is unacceptable to large numbers of people in the world and yes, we are watching. I will only include a few representative ones at the end of the post. There are many more on the Care2 site under "Women."Not only is there little evidence of improvement but many countries - even so called economically advanced ones seem to be going backwards instead. While there are hundreds of issues which could be mentioned in this context, I shall only focus on two here, besides the basic one of having political rights. The first concerns reproductive rights - the right of a woman to decide what happens to her body and whether she bears a child or not. The second is about violence towards women because many of the others can be understood in that light. The issue of sexual exploitation and human human trafficking is really part of this, but I shall leave this for another  post.

The Right to Control over our Bodies

There used to be a really bad joke doing the rounds a few years ago. It went something like this.
Q. “Why did the woman cross the road?
A. “Who cares. What was she doing out of the kitchen?”
Well, there seem to be an awful lot of people trying make sure that she never gets out again. Curiously, the USA appears to be one of the worst offenders in this regard. This is a great pity since the USA has until recently been the role model and poster child for individual freedom in much of the world. To its great shame, the USA is one of only seven countries not to have ratified the UN Declaration on the Rights of Women  (along with North Korea and a few other reprobates) and now seeks to further limit women's reproductive rights. Between 2000 and 2011, the number of states who were either neutral or positive towards abortion dropped from nineteen to nine, while the number of states hostile to abortion rose from 13 to 26, leaving some 50% of young women of reproductive age living in states which  have imposed restrictions of various kinds - from outright bans or long waiting periods, to defundung of family planning clinics, denial of insurance coverage, requirements for invasive ultrasounds or inadequate sex education. 

If  all these bizarre laws are passed, much of the USA will be entering a new Dark Age which denies women freedom and independence and the chance to rise out of poverty. Of course some countries never had any in the first place. In the Philippines for instance, a reproductive rights bill giving women the right to family planning and maternal health services, has still not been passed despite lying on the table since 1998. Honduras is about to pass a law requiring six years gaol  for women who take the morning after pill, even after rape, and to punish the providers of the pill as well.  Apart from the effects on women themselves, this strikes me as utterly irresponsible at a time when overpopulation, dwindling resources and rising consumption are major concerns. We should at least be helping those women who want to limit their families - some 200 million around the world according to Population Connections, especially in very poor countries such as Afghanistan, Niger and Guinea - Bisseau  where women continue to have seven children per family,  but do not have access to modern contraception. As well as helping women in the USA to reassert their rights to same, I urge you to support their petition. Click Here.

ls the worldwide recession responsible for this backlash -the need to get women back into the home so that the employment figures don’t look so bad? That also happened after men came home from WW II. Suddenly women who had competently managed businesses, industry and farms were told that their job was to look pretty and be homemakers,  but that doesn’t explain some of the more retrograde steps that are being taken all around the world to make women subordinate and powerless again, if they ever had any power to begin with. It looks more like the rise of religious conservatives.  Even in newly hatched democracies such as Egypt, dictatorship by one family appears to be being replaced by dictatorship by a fundamentalist religious group, the Muslim Brotherhood. I know that in Australia at least as far back as the census of 2000, Catholics whose religion forbids abortion and contraception, outnumbered other religions. I suppose that is one way of ensuring the dominance of your beliefs even if they no longer make sense in a crowded world. I do not mind what people believe, so long as they don't impose their beliefs on others, or non -believers have to live with the consequences.

Freedom from Violence

Some would argue that invasive ultrasound or forcing a woman to bear unwanted children are a form of legalised violence. On top of this the USA as a whole has failed to reauthorise the Violence Against Women Act which provides women with some legal protection from domestic violence. In other cases it is a failure to enforce laws against domestic violence or follow through on restraining orders which cause women to suffer and fear for their lives. Minimal sentences for perpetrators or judges saying women should not wear this or that (Canada) also send the wrong message.
Rape within marriage is still condoned by many countries and rape as a weapon of war also continues in several regions despite the work of many organisations  and new guidelines being issued by the UN's new Special Representative on  Sexual Violence in Conflict and Post Conflict, Margot Wallström.

  There are fears now that once foreign troops leave Afghanistan things will worsen there for women too. Without support centres they too will be vulnerable to sexual and other forms of exploitation as has been seen in the Congo. Urging Japan to apologise and pay compensation to the few surviving South Korean  'comfort' women exploited by its troops in World War II, would show that such behaviour will not be tolerated or forgotten by the rest of the world.

For many of the 186 signatories to the UN Convention  it seems that violence towards women is just business as usual. In the UK it there have been 2823 reported cases of honour crimes, including threats, kidnappings, forced marriages, acid attacks, mutilations and beatings. Many more go unreported for fear of reprisals. The UN estimates that worldwide 5,000 girls and women are murdered by their own families each year. At least the recent Canadian case where a father, his second wife and and his son were convicted of first degree murder for killing his first wife and three daughters sends the right message. India too, which has been guilty of treating such cases too leniently, plans to make them a capital offence. However, other assaults small and large on women and their rights continue. In Karnataka, also in India a self styled Hindu 'moral'  militia is systematically assaulting women who are out and about; the Australian Navy gives only a one year sentence to an officer accused of sexual assault on a female subordinate; the 16 year old Moroccan girl forced to marry her rapist kills herself; and is the proposed invasive ultrasound testing in the USA all that different from forced virginity tests on female prisoners in Egyptian goals which caused univeral outrage last year?

Will we soon be saying on entering the USA what pilots used to say upon entering Bahrain. "You are now entering Bahrain, turn your clocks back six hundred years." Let's hope we have better things to report next International Women's Day.  Oh yes, and there was another petition from a male saying we needed a special Office for Men and Boys too. I couldn't agree more. It should be especially tasked to instruct men that it is never OK to assault women, not sexually or otherwise, that "No" means "NO" and that making comments on women's dress or body, or lack of children (especially women in public office) is not cool.

Tell Mali not to Turn Back on Women's Rights
Mexico Free Irene 
Morocco Change the Law to Protect Women not Rapists 
Protect Women's Property Rights in Pakistan
Demand a Woman Friendly Justice System in Pakistan
Stop Police Attacks on Women's Rights leaders in Zimbabwe 
UK Overturn ridiculously lenient Sentence in Child Rape Case


Monday, March 19, 2012

Is there Anyone Out There?

(Graffiti in the Rivulet)
I am supposed to be fixing up the bad formatting in some of last week's posts, but there have been a couple of distractions. In the first instance, while trying to contact a human at Discovery to request permission to use the lovely cartoon which was featured in Mad Magazine in 1974, I typed Contact in the search box and all I got was news about Alien Invasions and a bit about Contact Lenses. It looked rather like this:

SETI 2060, Do We Make Contact By Then? : Discovery News
Will SETI observations be successful 50 years from now? We imagine possible scenarios.
Do Aliens Exist? If So, Will They Kill Us? : Discovery News
In a new Discovery Channel documentary "Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking", the world-famous physicist goes on the record about his concern for
Spooky Eye Contacts Can Damage Eyes: Discovery News
Those spooky lenses may complement your ghastly attire, but they can come at a price -- your eyes.

A couple of other items tickled my funny bone this week. The first was in a story on the ABC Current Affairs Program Four Corners  about the Irish Debt crisis, in which the people are being asked to pay back the enormous debt created by its banks.The subject is not funny, but what one of the commentators said was. Apparently upon opening of the Bank of Ireland's books, they discovered " of the greatest works of fiction to come out of Ireland since Ulysses."

In another discussion on the ABC, this time on Q & A, panellists were asked if there was a danger in using social media for causes such at the Kony Affair, because of young people’s short attention spans, to which Malcolm Turnbull (Liberal Party member and Shadow Communications Minister) replied,
 “Well there's no point in trying to capture their long attention span.”
Nice to see a glimmer of wit here and there. There was also a brilliant headline in the Sydney Morning Herald last week. “Bogans* in Business Suits." I thought the story was going to be about individuals with excessive personal wealth trying to dictate government policy. It wasn’t. It was about business travellers who travel economy but insist on putting their seats back in the recline position, thereby crushing the knees of the person behind, or forcing their coffee up their nostrils.

To finish off on a more serious note, four  small petitions crossed my desk this week. The first is urgent, the second relates to the previous work on Oceans and Reefs, the other two are heartfelt pleas on behalf of  loved ones brought by their families:

1.   URGENT must be signed today.  Aussie journalist Austin Mackell, his translator Aliya Alvoi and US student, Derek Ludovici who have been arrested and gaoled in Eygpt. Austin faces seven years goal  for reporting on the situation in Eygpt. So please click here to have a Senate motion tabled today.
2.  Save Moreton Bay, Queensland
3.    A mother pleading for the life of her son and that of another young man in Belarus.
4.    One calling on the Italian and French authorities not to give up searching for passengers still missing   as a result of the sinking of the Costa Concordia.

STOPPRESS 20/3/2012

* Bogan for those unfamiliar with the term  and eager to learn more about Australian culture  “Bogan” used be a somewhat derogatory term similar to Redneck in the USA, applied  to persons with little education, a particular style of dress and  a preference for utes or large petrol guzzling SUVs, beer and football.  . More  recently it is also being applied to people who may be able to afford Armani suits, but still don’t have any manners.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Garden Tour and a Small Plea for Cultural Heritage

A couple of lighter stories so that it's not all Gloom and Doom

(Thanks for this one T!)

No it’s not spring. It just feels like it, so I have been out inspecting the “garden.” I was so inspired by my son’s magnificent strawberry patch, that I planted some myself.  I am pleased to report that the sole survivor is at last getting new leaves. The orphan tomato seedlings are also doing well as are the companion weeds. Despite the fact that I use tons of rosemary on things like rosemary potatoes and Portuguese chicken, the rosemary plant also continues to thrive. Anyway, I took some to a garden swap last week and one of the ladies gave me an excellent tip. Use it instead of skewers when making shashlik or satay beef and the flavour will go right through it.  Haven’t tried that yet, but I’m sure it will be delicious. 

Not my Strawberry Patch
I love the garden swap, not that I ever have much to bring except rosemary, but you always find interesting things you rarely see in shops like kale, heritage tomatoes and striped zucchini. This time I came away with sorrel – potato and sorrel soup coming up, a lovely old fashioned herb called lovage and some cherry sauce. As well as finding out what grows well here you also get to know the neighbours. It was a lovely atmosphere so  thanks for putting up with me.

My Strawberry Patch

Thanks too to the Botanic Gardens for identifying some of my mystery plants and no, you can’t eat them. The one with the black berries (Portuguese Laurel) looked quite delicious and eminently suitable for making jam, but it turns out that they are probably poisonous even though the birds love them. 

The Orphan Tomato Seedlings which I also got from the Garden Club

A Plea for the  Retention of a Little bit of Cultural Heritage

As I have been walking I have been wondering why it is that most Europeans, Australians and Americans deplore the mistreatment of animals, yet the concept of animal welfare seems almost unknown in many other parts of the world.

I suspect that we owe this at least in part to the writings of late C18th romantics who, as the ugliness of the industrial revolution became apparent, began to laud the simple life and nature, just as it was slipping away. These ideas also found expression across the Atlantic a few decades later in the works of John Muir and Henry David Thoreau who had the time to contemplate nature. Muir particularly was instrumental in having a few natural areas of great interest and beauty set aside, before they too were ‘developed’ and this idea also spread to Australia, giving us many of our National Parks today.

As children these ideas filtered down to us as via books and stories. The first book I can consciously remember is Bambi ( by Felix Salten, first published in Austria in 1923 but subsequently burned by the Nazis),  being read to us one chapter at a time. It not only gave wonderful insights into seeing and feeling things from an animal’s perspective but also contained valuable life lessons, though I can’t claim to have understood that then.  Nor was it just a case of anthropomorphising animals. We could see from the sick owl we tended and our other animals, that they felt pain just as we did and that they responded to care and attention. When my own children were young, it was books like Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows (1908) and Richard Adam’s Watership Down (published in 1978 and still Penguin’s best -selling novel of all time).

 I was very sad then to learn that Sandleford Park, the place which inspired Watership Down was under threat of development.  A.A. Milne’s Hundred Acre Wood (Ashdown Forest) which was the setting for his Pooh Bear stories is now a national treasure, so why not the downs, especially given that alternatives are available. Cornwall is a magical place.  Please don’t take away the magic.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Fences and Walls I - Defending the Defenders

It was a grey rainy day yesterday and as I looked through the bleak square of window I thought about people in prison. For them it must look like that too with not even the hope that the view will be better tomorrow, so I started off writing a message of support to a man awaiting trial in Florida for taking photos inside the Marine Mammal Conservancy. 

Florida  is one of those places that wants to have an "Ag Gag Bill" which would make it illegal for anyone to take photos on factory farms - the only way we have known about the cruel conditions under which much of our food is produced, so I thought it was pretty important to do that. At the same time, I got to thinking it would be even better to help to get someone released, so I started looking through some of the many petitions, especially about people who were arrested for trying to stand up for others or righting a wrong. There were many, far too many. Just a few are listed below. A big thank you too to all those people and organisations who have brought these things to our attention - like Amnesty, Change Org, Frontline Defenders, Care 2,  and Human Rights Watch to name a few. 



Abdulhadi Al -Khawaja is the Director of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights and the Front Line Human Rights Co ordinator for the Middle East and North Africa. After being detained and tortured, he was sentenced to life imprisonment on June 6th. 

Many medical professionals have also been given long prison sentences in Bahrain for helping the injured during the uprising and repression last February.  Please give Frontline Defenders the Human Rights Organisation who is defending them, all the support you can. Can you wrap a building? It is particularly important for Europeans to do so as Abdulhadi is in fact an EU citizen.


"Syria: The Syrian authorities must reveal the fate of Mazen Darwish and SCM staff

14 human rights Organisations publish a letter to urge the Syrian authorities to reveal the fate of eight SCM members, who were arrested on 16 February 2012 during a raid on their Damascus offices."

Meanwhile the killing and violence in Syria continues. It has been estimated that 8000 to 9000 people have been killed to date along with the Reporters Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik. No foreign journalists are now allowed in and overtures by the U.N. have been turned down.  Likewise Russia and China have vetoed a Security Council resolution asking President Bashar al -Assad to step down.   ASK WORLD LEADERS TO TAKE ACTION NOW . A similar Petition calls on Russia on the Amnesty site.


The Egyptians are also feeling the pain of repression. Although Egyptian activist, blogger, and software developer Alaa Abd El Fattah has now been released, many other journalists and bloggers are still being detained. As Eygpt’s largest donor,  the  US is being asked to ensure that the military steps down and hands over to democratic government as soon as possible. Read more and sign The petition

Jigme Guri is one of at least 850 prisoners known to have been detained in China. Many more are missing. Two hundred and three people were arrested just last year and many more are languishing in prison. There are many other cases of concern. You can also send some cheer by writing to prisoners. There are some guidelines Here.

BANGLADESH -Update: Renewed threat to human rights defender Shampa Goswami posted on: 2012/03/14 

IRAN - Free Iranian Journalist  Hengameh Shadidi 

IRAN - Free Human Rights Lawyer Abdolfatta Soltani

LIBYA - Free British Journalists, Allow Doctors without Borders in

MEXICO -UPDATE: Human rights defender to appear in court on 15 March to appeal against his imprisonment on fabricated murder charges posted on: 2012/03/13



  Azam Farmanov, human rights defender,

Front Line Defenders expresses serious concern over the lack of investigation into the reports of torture of human rights defender Azam Farmonov while in detention.

VIETNAM  -Joint letter to Prime Minister calling for the release of human rights defenders posted on: 2012/03/13 

 Some Successes and Semi Successes

BRAZIL-UPDATE: Three persons accused of killing of human rights defenders José Claudio Ribeiro da Silva and Maria do Espírito Santo to face a trial by jury posted on: 2012/03/07 

On 7 March 2012 , the three persons accused of killing human rights defenders José Claudio Ribeiro da Silva and Maria do Espírito Santo on 24 May 2011 will face a trial by jury
I want to finish this post with some words I just saw on a small petition,

"Let your voice be heard by defending the rights of others, or there may be no one left to defend yours"
Maybe we should all sign that one too. Click Here.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Troubled Waters - Reflections

The main reason for the survival of these whale mothers and their young is that their breeding grounds are protected. It also helps that they are a long way from human habitation and that they do not rely on echolocation to find mates or food.
For some places and species it is already too late. There has been no recovery of Canada's gigantic  Newfoundland cod fishery, even though fishing has been banned there since 1992 and, despite ever lower catch quotas, the northern cod fishery continues to plummet too. Likewise the catch of bluefin tuna. The yellow fin appears to be fished out. Yes, we can and we must continue to sign petitions. We  should continue to ask national governments to set up reserves, stop destructive practices and prosecute offenders effectively if they disobey the rules, but it is all too apparent that our efforts are fragmentary and that we are putting out spot fires, rather than dealing with the ongoing problems of ocean degradation and habitat change, especially when these extend way beyond national borders. This also applies to migratory species of both fish and birds. 

There have already been stand -offs between fishing fleets going back at least to the Cod Wars between Iceland and the UK 1972. The Faulklands War in 1982 is rumoured to have started because of a dispute over fishing rights. Icelanders and Scots were still in dispute over cod in  2010. I hate to think what will happen when fish disappear completely in one community, because of activity in the next. And who will be the Policeman when one country acts with complete disregard for the rest?  At present, the UN seems powerless to enforce anything. Sometimes what is good for individual countries, is detrimental to the whole e.g. Japan’s UN sponsorship of small Caribbean  nations in exchange for their support to overturn the ban on Whaling, or in the case of others, development assistance in exchange for fishing rights (Indonesia). 
 The tragedy of the latter is that this often displaces local populations who have traditionally made their livelihoods from the same seas. What should they live on, once the resource is gone – something that was inconceivable under traditional fishing regimes, but entirely possible under modern factory –style fishing? Join the waves of immigrants into already crowded cities? Or risk life and limb by becoming refugees in 'leaky boats?  As European fisheries began to decline and their  “heavily subsidised fleets converged on  the West Coast of Africa –buying licenses to fish off the coasts of Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Mauritania, Morocco, and Senegal" they found themselves in competition with fleets from China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and Taiwan, because income from fishing licences " can account for half of government revenue in  poor countries such as Mauritania and Guinea-Bissau."  The upshot of this, as Janet Larsen  of the Earth Policy Institute explains, is that

 "Unfortunately for the Africans, their fisheries too are collapsing. In Senegal, where local fishers with small boats once could quickly fill their craft with fish, on many days now they cannot catch enough fish to cover even their fuel costs. As one Senegalese tribal elder said, “Poverty came to Senegal with these fishing agreements.”  Read More....

I fear that something similar may be happening in the Pacific Islands. When I visited four years ago, all government ministers of one nation had just been given shiny black cars - (Mercedes?),  by a Chinese delegation in gratitude for having been granted fishing rights. (Ironically only two of the nation's 83 islands had anything that could be called a road). Most islanders still make a subsistence living from the sea - usually with traditional tools such as simple outrigger canoes, pole and line or at most, small open boats fitted with an outboard motor, so would have no idea of what factory -style fishing would mean for the delicate lagoons and reefs which have provided most of their own food for centuries. Though they may look poor to Westerners and use very little money, they could always be self sufficient, even with little formal employment. In that respect, despite a recently developed taste for cell phones and televisions, they are richer than we are. For this reason, I am very pleased that Greenpeace has taken up this issue. It would be better still however, if Development Agencies working in those countries, paid more attention to such unequal partnerships to prevent the inevitable overfishing and displacement in future. While the fishing fleets will simply move on, the islanders cannot.

The good news is that on February 24, 2012  a new coalition,  The Global Partnership for Oceans was announced. In partnership with the World Bank, it includes many governments, international organizations, civil society groups, and private sector interests.  As head of the the World Bank Robert Zoelleck said  in his keynote speech,

"The world’s oceans are in danger, and the enormity of the challenge is bigger than one country or organisation. We need coordinated action to retore our oceans to health…."

According to Janet Larsen the two biggest Issues which need to be tackled are stabilising global population and stopping further climate change. Beyond that, there is a need for more reserves (only 2% of the world’s oceans are presently protected compared to 12% of the land), and adequate protection of same.

Watching the wreck of the Costa Concordia lying on its side leaking oil  in Pelagos Sanctuary for Mediterranean Marine Mammals, a World Heritage Area created by France, Italy and Monaco and home to five kinds of dolphin, five different species of whale, tuna, swordfish and sharks, all manner of seabirds and the endangered Mediterranean monk seals, makes me think that no international shipping  at all should be allowed in Internationally Protected  World Heritage Areas.  Whale watching by 23 small boat operators generated 1.730,000 euros in 2005. Carefully managed, it could provide sustainable long term employment for local people without grave risk the resource base. Read more.... 

 We also need better practices on fish farms and an end to pouring effluent into to the sea. The good news on this front is that when Soviet occupation of neighbouring lands around the Black Sea stopped, and fertiliser use declined with no noticaeble loss of agricultural production, the dead zone at the top of the Black Sea declined also. Read more...

Combined international pressure such as boycotts and economic sanctions could help stop the worst forms of pollution and bring rogue nations to heel, but given that the response so far to Rio +20 in June, has been muted at best, we must continue to support the dedicated people and organisations who have been working constantly to protect marine life for years - doing research, lobbying governments, looking for solutions and creating public awareness. Many of them have recently joined forces too as the Ocean Alliance.  This does not however, absolve us of our other responsibilites as individuals. Here are more things which you can do. 

Personal Challenges 
  1. Oppose foreshore developments and industrial activities such as dredging, port building and drilling for oil, tourism. Any self -respecting developer or investor would do well to heed the advice of insurers, who are already alarmed at the number of hurricanes, storm surges and  king tides, let alone tsunamis and are considering not insuring anything within 200m of beaches.
  2. Same goes for buying imported goods, less fuel, fewer shipping hazards. When trans - shipping begins to reflect the cost to the environment, it may be cheaper once more to make things at home, and to keep local jobs there too. 
  3. Phase out use of plastics - Make sure your own use of plastics is eliminated, lobby councils, states and federal and national politicians to phase out bags, bottles. Think of the petroleum saved too. This may help to prevent drilling in oceans 
  4. Know where your fish comes from and buy only from sustainable sources. Do not eat sharkfin or turtle soup. Boycott restaurants that serve it 
  5. Don’t buy any products or souvenirs made from endangered species such as turtles and especially not the particularly hideous example below
  6. Change household cleaning products to environmentally friendly ones, dispose of batteries and things which leak toxics like lead, chemicals  and oil safely (is there safe disposal) and make sure your car or boat does not leak fuel or oil. Don’t use toxic chemicals on lawns or gardens 
  7. Minimise fertiliser use and run off on farms – berms might help 
  8. Abide by the rules when fishing – catch limits, size limits, don’t let your anchor destroy sea grass beds, no rubbish overboard, or destructive methods. Don't allow bilge water or oil to leak 
  9. Make sure your local council treats its sewerage. Use biodegradable paper. Dispose of all waste properly and away from water courses 
  10.  Report abuses – that’s our ocean too and there’s no ‘blue frontier” any more. 
  11.  Support the organisations 
  12.  Spread the word, tell your friends, share on Facebook
Just to finish off on a more positive note the EPA in the USA, has finally agreed to taking action on regulating emissions, and Austin, Texas has succeeded in banning plastic bags, along with Seattle, Santa Monica, San Francisco, Mexico City, Dhaka in Bangladesh, Oyster Bay in Australia, and Hawaii’s Big Island and Kauai and Maui. I hope they won't be serving sushi or shark fin soup at RIO +20 and start signing those petitions or there won't be any fish left.

Useful Links and further reading


Ocean Life in the Balance: Will Science Overcome Politics at Rio+20 Conference?
Drowning in Plastic
Clean the Ocean, Green the Economy, UN Urges

Special thanks to Janet Larsen of the Earth Policy Institute for allowing me to quote her so often !

Petitions - Just a few of the many

INTRODUCE NURDLE LEGISLATION These are the small pellets used to make plastic bags and packaging and are very toxic to marine life


Another Pointless and Destructive Custom!!!

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Troubled Waters - Distress Signals

Another endangered species?
So far we have mostly looked at the direct effects on fish and the fishing industry. Even in remote places such as the west coast of Western Australia or the most southerly fishery in Australia, I hear the same complaint: that the fishing industry is no longer viable for small fishing enterprises like these. Despite this, there are still 35 million people in 20 million boats ploughing the oceans in search of fish.

But its not just the fish or the fishing industry. Every day there are new groups or individuals raising the alarm about this maritime creature or that  -from seahorses in Malaysia to sea lions in Chile, from sea turtles  in Indonesia to the Gulf of Mexico and Cap Verde in Africa, to polar bears and seals in Alaska. Those which are not dying directly as a result of destructive fishing practices, or because they are competing for diminishing supplies of food, are dying because of enormous changes in their habitat. Apart from those reasons already mentioned in the case of fish, new ones are constantly emerging. For Arctic marine species such as the polar bear, the ground is literally disappearing beneath their feet as the polar ice shrinks. It has retreated by 75% over the last 30 years. Over 1000 a year are also shot by hunters in the five countries where they still exist. In the Antarctic, warmer waters are enabling subtropical predators to travel further south, thereby threatening existing species.

You will also notice a lot of petitions about sharks, either about creating reserves to protect them or to ban shark finning. Rising affluence in China is leading to huge demand for shark fin soup which is considered a delicacy. This means 700 million sharks are being killed annually and often cruelly and wastefully, just for their fins which is helping to drive some species to extinction. Many states have already made shark finning illegal, but do not do enough to enforce it. Some such as the USA, Columbia, and Costa Rica insist that sharks must be landed with their fins intact, while still others such as the Maldives and Honduras have gone further by establishing shark sanctuaries.  Should additional reasons be required for ending this custom, it has been found that sharks, being at the top of the food chain, concentrate high levels of mercury and that the fins themselves contain a neurotoxin which is implicated in brain disease.

 As sharks are the top predator in most regions, this creates imbalances in the food chain, allowing some species to thrive at the expense of others. This also occurs with transcontinental shipping which allows accidental introductions of new species into regions where they have no natural enemies. A case in point are the plagues of  starfish  which we now have in Tasmania. The Northern Pacific Seastar which is thought to have arrived in the ballast water of visiting ships is taking over intertidal zones and driving out more desirable species such as shellfish.

While we are by now almost accustomed to the horrifying sight of oiled seabirds and blackened beaches as a result of the breakup of ships - and they do not have to be oil tankers, there are also more insidious forms of marine pollution which attract little attention until beaches are closed to swimmers or mystery ailments appear in farmed oyster stocks. It has been estimated that there are now four hundred  "dead zones " around the world -places in the sea where no marine life exists, usually at the deltas of major rivers and off the coast of large cities, some of the largest of them being in the Baltic Sea, the Gulf of Thailand, at the mouth of the Yellow River and in the Gulf of Mexico. 

While point sources of pollution are usually easily identified, the dead zones are usually the cumulative effect of multiple sources - e.g. fertiliser and chemical run -off from farms, chemicals from industrial processes, sewerage, droplets of oil and rubber carried in storm water from roads and the detergent from thousands of sinks. Even soil from farms or from land clearing or flooding can become a pollutant and, as the US National Atmospheric and Oceanographic Administration (NOAA) points out so can particulates in the atmosphere.For an interesting picture of how air pollution carries across the ocean from Asia see this article  in the Discovery News.
As a biologist remarked while I, along with hundreds of other volunteers was helping to wash penguins  after ship ran aground in Tasmania's coastal waters. "Where were all these people when the pilchards died?"  It's true that we are much more moved by the plight of large furry animals, but the reality is that if  the base of the food chain is being lost due to pollution - the molluscs, the plankton or the smaller fish, then the larger species will suffer, no matter how much we try to save them.

Solid Rubbish 
Another contributor to the dead zones is solid rubbish. Solid rubbish also affects marine life both directly, as when seabirds, fish, turtles and mammals, drown after being caught or injured by nets, lost fishing tackle and debris, or because of rubbish discarded from the land and lost from ships, but also indirectly because of disruption to their endocrine systems believed to be caused by the ingestion of plastics.  
 According to a respondent in Donovan Hohn's Moby Duck (p. 24) thousands of shipping containers are washed overboard every year e.g. in January 2000, “it was 26,000 Nike Sandals, another 10,000 children's shoes and 3,000 computer monitors." He also mentions the surprising number of cargo ships lost - approximately two a week. Most of the rubbish however, about 80% of it according to a 2004 report, originates on land. While some of these tragedies may not be preventable, there are many that are.

 For example, banning the use of plastic bags, ring tops and six pack rings, disposable takeaway containers and drink bottles or at least putting deposit legislation on these, would greatly reduce the amount of rubbish entering our waterways and ultimately the sea. We now have not only the Great Pacific Garbage Patch which covers an area the size of Texas, but five other similar ones where ocean currents converge. In a bit of poetic justice for air pollution travelling eastwards across the ocean to America, plastic rubbish originating in the USA has been found washing up on beaches in China. 
I tell a lie. I have just read an article that says, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is 'only' twice the size of Texas. Read More ...

Another Preventable Tragedy? 

I have just been reading about the disproportionate amount of rubbish and pollution produced by cruise ships which have just won the "Dinosaur of the Year Award" for amongst other things, failing to properly dispose of their rubbish, effluent and waste water. Read more....

Noise  Pollution

Also of concern is the amount of noise now being made in the ocean. Noise travels a long way under water and it has been doubling every decade for 60 years. It has long been thought that this is responsible for the many strandings of whales and dolphins around the world, but I have just read some research which found that it also affects things like lobster, shellfish and shrimp and causes enough stress in these and  other marine species, especially those which rely on sound, to affect their reproduction. Read more ...

It is no longer a question of just saving the Whale. We have to try to save everything. I know that we can't simply stop everything at once, but could we please at least stop the most destructive practices and the most unnecessary. If we cannot curb our voracious appetite for fish – there are several guides which show which ones have been caught sustainably – on the Greenpeace UK site for Europeans and a new listing of sustainably caught tuna on their Australian one. We must also do our best to eliminate those practices which lead to more species becoming extinct, including better regulation and policing of those regulations when and where they exist.  I hate to use what has become a cliche but you have to agree with the words attributed to chief Seattle.

“Only When the Last Fish has gone, will we realise that we cannot eat Money.”

These are just some of many petitions

Albatross in SOUTH AFRICA
Beluga Whales in ALASKA, Keep Whale protection
Beluga Whales in ALASKA and Mining
Whaling and Dolphins - Keep the Ban on and include Dolphins, UN
Ban Dolphins in Captivity, NORTH ATLANTIC
Dolphins End capture, JAPAN Capitivity Everywhere
Dolphins JAPAN
Blue Fin Tuna - Create a Marine Sanctuary, SPAIN
Sea Turtles, KENYA
Sea Turtles Gulf of Mexico