Best of our wild blogs: 5 Feb 11

CNY nature walk at Chek Jawa Boardwalk - 12 Feb 2011
from Adventures with the Naked Hermit Crabs

Vulturine Guineafowl spotted in Singapore
from Bird Ecology Study Group

Myrialepis paradoxa: Paradoxically Yours
from Flying Fish Friends

Little Sisters Island
from Singapore Nature and wonderful creations and wild shores of singapore

Museum Hopping for Bunnies
from My Itchy Fingers

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That predatory hunger for shark's fin

Imports of delicacy nearly doubled since 2003 despite campaigns
Lester Kok & Grace Chua Straits Times 5 Feb 11;

EVERY Chinese New Year, campaigns by conservation groups ask diners to stop eating shark's fin.

But recent figures show that Singapore's imports of the delicacy have nearly doubled since 2003. The Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA), which supplied the numbers, said nearly 2,500 tonnes were imported last year, up from 1,300 tonnes eight years ago.

The figures include dried, salted and canned fins, and refer to those meant for both domestic consumption and export.

And last week, conservation group Traffic delivered more alarming news: a report that a decade-long United Nations shark conservation scheme has failed.

Shark's fin importers here say that demand is rebounding, after a small dip due to 2009's economic crisis.

The price of shark's fin goes up 10 to 15 per cent a year, but demand is rising even quicker thanks to growing affluence in East Asia.

Mr Melvin Foo, managing director of seafood importer and exporter Sineurope, explained that 95 per cent of what he imports goes to places like Japan and China. Just two to three tonnes, or less than 5 per cent of his imports, are sold here.

All imports of sharks and shark's fin are regulated through an AVA licensing scheme. According to Mr Foo, shark's fins sold here must be landed along with the body of the shark, to prevent a practice known as live shark finning, where fishermen slice the fin off the fish and dump it back into the water. And, he says, demand for shark meat actually comes from Europe, where it is more valued and fins are considered waste.

The World Wide Fund For Nature (WWF) wildlife conservation group would prefer sharks not to be eaten at all. In its Singapore Seafood Guide published in February last year, WWF Singapore advised people to choose seafood from sustainable sources and to avoid all shark products.

Its website,, states it is not aware of any shark fisheries that are sustainably managed.

A Singapore-tailored online campaign was also launched by the group last week: the 'Say No to Shark Fin' pledge.

Sharks are typically either caught deliberately or as accidental bycatch.

When overfished, their populations are slow to recover as they take a long time to reproduce and mature. And according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List of endangered species, six species of shark are considered critically endangered, meaning their populations have declined by as much as 90 per cent in the past couple of decades.

But campaigns here are soldiering on.

The latest, by Project: FIN on social networking site Facebook, asks people to change their profile pictures to an image which reads: Celebrate Chinese New Year with no shark's fin soup.

A year ago, the WWF launched its Sustainable Seafood Guide for Singapore, in which it noted that most shark fisheries were unregulated and many species were overfished.

And posts on government feedback site Reach have asked for all government functions not to serve shark's fin.

Already, some hotels like those at Resorts World Sentosa do not serve the dish. The Fairmont Singapore has removed not only shark's fin, but also Chilean sea bass and bluefin tuna - which are also overfished - from its menu.

Other hotels like the Marriott are moving away from it. A spokesman said: 'We have made a conscious decision to substantially reduce the number of shark's fin dishes available on our a la carte menu.'

But the Marriott continues to serve shark's fin when guests ask for it, out of respect for local culture and guest preferences, she added.

Still, hotels like the Marriott and Mandarin Orchard say more couples are asking for shark's fin alternatives for their wedding banquets.

WWF Singapore's managing director, Ms Amy Ho, said the practice of eating shark's fin will stop only when the customers choose to stop.

She said sharks play an important role as top predators in the marine ecosystem, adding: 'All these ecosystems are very important to preserve nature for future generations to come.'

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Study launched to preserve animals in Kinabatangan area

New Straits Times 4 Feb 11;

KINABATANGAN: A recently launched Kinabatangan Carnivore Programme aims to study animals more closely to ensure their conservation.

Sabah Wildlife Department director Dr Laurentius Ambu said the programme initiated by the department intended to advance understanding and conservation of the diverse carnivores of the Lower Kinabatangan floodplain.

Launched by the department, Danau Girang Field Centre (DGFC), a non-governmental organisation Hutan and WildCRU, the programme is funded by four American zoos -- Houston, Columbus, Cincinnati and Phoenix -- and private donors in New York.

"We are collaborating with Andrew Hearn from WildCRU (University of Oxford, United Kingdom) who spent the last four years studying clouded leopards and other carnivores in Danum Valley and Tabin Wildlife Reserve. His experience with camera trapping is primordial for the success of this project," said Ambu.

DGFC director Dr Benoit Goossens said it would be a long-term programme to provide insight into Bornean carnivore ecology and density and develop Bornean carnivore species distribution and habitat suitability models.

Two undergraduates from Cardiff University Rob Colgan and Rodi Tenquist said last November they found a sequence of 12 pictures showing a clouded leopard female and her cub walking along a trail.

"Our preliminary data show that carnivores are still present in the Kinabatangan floodplain. However forest fragmentation and habitat destruction result in their decline. The pictures show that these animals rely on forest corridors for moving around forest patches," they said.

Hutan co-director Dr Marc Acrenaz said like other species such as orang utans, gibbons, proboscis monkeys and elephants, carnivores needed corridors of forest for surviving in the Kinabatangan.

"Without these corridors, most populations will decline and go extinct."

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UN hopes for fast ratification of biodiversity treaty

Yahoo News 4 Feb 11;

MONTREAL (AFP) – The UN Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity said Friday it hopes a global treaty on the harvesting of genetic resources will be ratified by early 2012.

The Nagoya Protocol enters into force 90 days after it is signed by 50 states.

"We hope to get them (the 50 signatures) before the end of the year," the Montreal-based organization's spokesman David Ainsworth told AFP.

Adopted in October 2010 at a conference in Nagoya, Japan, the protocol sets out new rules for the collection of genetic resources such as wild plants to make medicines, cosmetics and other products.

It also calls for a fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the use of genetic resources.

Coveted by drug and other companies in developed nations, these materials are mostly found in developing nations such as Brazil with its treasure trove of resources in the Amazon basin.

The legally binding protocol ensures that countries with genetic resources enjoy some of the profits of the assets' commercial development.

However, many details of the protocol, such as how much this may cost pharmaceutical companies and developed nations, were left for later negotiations.

During a ceremony in New York on February 2, representatives of Colombia, Yemen, Brazil and Algeria signed the Nagoya Protocol. It is to remain open for signature until February 1, 2012.

Genetic resources from plants, animals or micro-organisms are used for various purposes, ranging from basic research to the development of products.

Users of genetic resources include research institutes, universities and private companies operating in sectors such as pharmaceuticals, agriculture, horticulture, cosmetics and biotechnology.

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Seven New Species of Fish

ScienceDaily 4 Feb 11;

Things are not always what they seem when it comes to fish -- something scientists at the Smithsonian Institution and the Ocean Science Foundation are finding out. Using modern genetic analysis, combined with traditional examination of morphology, the scientists discovered that what were once thought to be three species of blenny in the genus Starksia are actually 10 distinct species.

The team's findings are published in the scientific journal ZooKeys, Feb. 3.

Starksia blennies, small (less than 2 inches) fish with elongated bodies, generally native to shallow to moderately deep rock and coral reefs in the western Atlantic and eastern Pacific oceans, have been well-studied for more than 100 years. It would have been reasonable to assume that there was little about the group left to discover. Modern DNA barcoding techniques, however, suggested otherwise. While trying to match larval stages of coral reef fish to adults through DNA, the team of scientists noticed contradictions between the preliminary genetic data and the current species classification. Further investigation revealed that the team was dealing with many species new to science, including the new Starksia blennies.

"DNA analysis has offered science a great new resource to examine old questions," said Carole Baldwin, a zoologist at Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History and lead author of the paper. "This discovery is a perfect example of how DNA barcoding is illuminating species that we've missed before, particularly small cryptic reef fishes like Starksia blennies. We don't know where we stand in terms of understanding species diversity, and our work suggests that current concepts may be surprisingly incomplete."

But DNA analysis cannot stand on its own -- Baldwin and her team only recognize genetic lineages as species if they are supported by morphology. So traditional morphological analysis, such as comparing patterns of pigmentation and numbers of fin rays, is conducted to solidify their findings.

One interesting aspect of the research is that Starksia species that were thought to be broadly distributed throughout the Caribbean -- as most Caribbean reef fish species are -- break up into multiple species with geographically restricted ranges. One species in the study, for example, was divided into three -- a species in the east (Bahamas/Turks and Caicos), one in the south (Curacao, Netherlands Antilles) and another in the west (Belize, Central America). Baldwin predicts that other widespread species in the genus may also represent species complexes that break into multiple, geographically distinct species after further study. Furthermore, the team's DNA data suggest that other types of Caribbean fish (e.g., some gobies) may similarly represent species complexes comprising numerous new species, and traditional concepts of speciation in the Caribbean may need to be re-evaluated.

The team's combined molecular and morphological approach has not only increased the number of currently recognized species, it serves as an example of the continuing nature of scientific discovery. Because the resiliency of marine populations to human exploitation may be linked to species richness, an improved understanding of the diversity and distribution of deep-reef life may be critical.

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The 'weird' predatory fossa of Madagascar is threatened

Matt Walker BBC News 4 Feb 11;

It is one of the most unusual of all big predators, but the odd-looking, cat-like fossa, the largest carnivore on the island of Madagascar, faces an uncertain future.
Few fossa can now be found in a place that was once a stronghold, as villagers hunt the animal as bushmeat and in a bid to protect their own livestock, which the fossa eats.

Its population may be declining rapidly, says one of the few scientists to have studied it in the wild, and it could already be critically endangered.

Fossa are a highly specialised predator.

Secretive and cat-like, they are expert climbers and well equipped for chasing down lemurs in the forest, preying on even the largest lemur species.

But they also take small shrew-like creatures called tenrecs and almost any other vertebrate animal living in Madagascar's forests, with the exception of humans, crocodiles and possibly wild boar.

However, very little is known about them, as only a handful of scientists have been able to study fossa closely in the wild.

For example, it was once thought to be closely related to civets and their relatives, but genetic evidence suggests it is actually related to other Malagasy carnivores that together are related to mongooses.

Little is also known about how many fossa exist on Madagascar, with official estimates suggesting that fewer than 2500 survive and the animal should be considered as Endangered.

But according to one scientist studying it, the fossa could be in an even more perilous state.

Ms Mia-Lana Lührs is currently studying the fossa for her PhD at Germany's University of Göttingen and the German Primate Center.

She has also helped the upcoming BBC natural history series Madagascar film the creatures in the wild.

Within the past three years, she has recorded a substantial fall in the numbers of fossa living in Kirindy, a reserve within forests on the west of the island.

This area was considered to be a stronghold of the fossa.

In 2007, Ms Lührs recorded 18 different males regularly visiting a particular tree that male and female fossa use to mate in.

In 2008, she recorded 14 males, and in 2009 just ten.

Last year, only two males were sighted.

"Fortunately, I have seen seven males shortly before in another part of the forest where I observed, so I know that at least nine males are still alive," she told BBC News.

But overall, her studies, which use GPS tracking collars to follow individual fossa, suggest no more than 30 fossa of either sex now exist in Kirindy.

A forest fragment that size would be expected to be home to many times that number.

"That is not sufficient for the population to survive without management," she says.

Habitat destruction is one significant cause of the fossa's recent decline reason.

But the large predator is also coming into conflict with people, as it leaves the dwindling forest in search of food.

A survey conducted last year by colleague Moritz Rahlfs in villages surrounding Kirindy found that 12 fossa had been killed recently by people living in just eight villages, to prevent the fossa from stealing their chickens.

"If the killings continue at such high rates, we have three years left to see fossas in Kirindy," says Ms Lührs.

The carnivore also faces other threats.

A separate recent piece of research by PhD student Christopher Golden of the University of California, Berkeley, has already found that fossa are hunted for food by people within 55 to 60% of those villages studied in northeastern Madagascar.

Fossa body parts are also used in traditional medicines in some parts of the island.

Ms Lührs suspects the fossa may already be critically endangered.

"There is this fascinating weird creature at the other end of the world and it might soon go extinct," she says.

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Conservationists push action on protected turtles

Alex Dobuzinskis Reuters 4 Feb 11;

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Conservation groups served notice on Friday that they would file suit accusing the federal government of failing to protect leatherback sea turtles along the U.S. West Coast as required under the Endangered Species Act.

The three groups said the National Marine Fisheries Service, a U.S. Commerce Department agency, missed a January 5 deadline for designating Pacific habitat critical to the survival of leatherbacks, listed as an endangered species since 1970.

The notice of intent gives the agency 60 days to resolve the situation before a lawsuit is filed in federal court.

Leatherbacks, which can grow to more than 6 feet in length and weigh nearly 200 pounds, are believed to number in the thousands throughout the entire Pacific, with the biggest human threats to them posed by commercial fishing operations.

"They are the largest, deepest-diving sea turtles left on the planet," said Chris Pincetich, a marine biologist at the Turtle Island Restoration Network.

"They've survived the extinction of the dinosaurs, but ... they may have as little as 10 years left."

Joining his group in threatening legal action were the Center for Biological Diversity and the conservation group Oceana.

The Fisheries Service last year proposed designating 70,000 square miles of ocean off the coast of California, Oregon and Washington state as critical habitat for leatherbacks that migrate there from Indonesian nesting grounds to feed on jelly fish. But those regulations have yet to be finalized.

The proposed rules would require any changes in fishery management or approval of other commercial activities in the habitat area to take the well-being of the turtles into consideration.

In 1992, the government took what was regarded as a major step toward safeguarding all sea turtles when it began requiring shrimp trawling nets to be equipped with special devices that help prevent turtles from being swept up.

Jim Milbury, a spokesman for the Fisheries Service, declined to comment on the legal action by the three groups.

The groups said some 2,100 adult female leatherbacks are believed to inhabit the entire Pacific, but a precise estimate for males is impossible to come by, because they spend their entire lifetime at sea. Females can only be counted when they crawl onto beaches to lay their eggs, Pincetich said.

Determining a sustainable population target is difficult, he said, but environmentalists would eventually like to see them number in the millions in the Pacific.

(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis: Editing by Steve Gorman)

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For Want of a Pollinator, a Flower May Be Lost - or a Forest

The extinction of bird species in New Zealand - and elsewhere - may be making it more difficult for plants to propagate
David Biello Scientific American 4 Feb 11;

Earth's last passenger pigeon—Martha—died in 1914 at the Cincinnati Zoo, the final remnant of flocks that once darkened the sky. What's unknown, even nearly a century after this extinction, is how many of the plants in the eastern woodlands of the U.S. might have suffered as a result—or even gone extinct themselves. Now, new findings from halfway around the world suggest plants may indeed suffer in the absence of the animals they have relied on for pollination or dispersing seeds.

The work was done by a team of biologists, fresh from showing that New Zealand's mistletoe species are struggling due to a lack of pollinating birds, who set out to determine if other plants shared this problem. After all, the country has lost nearly half of its native land bird species since 1839.

They homed in on one native shrub—Rhabdothamnus solandri, or New Zealand gloxinia, renowned for its brilliant orange flowers—which relies on several species of birds for pollination, and is found nowhere else in the world. The tui (Prosthemadera novaeseelandiae), bellbird (Anothornis melanura) and stitchbird (Notiomystis cincta) all have beaks and long tongues perfectly suited for the shrub's 10-millimeter-long orange flowers. But bellbirds and stitchbirds are gone on the New Zealand's North Island thanks to bird-eating animals brought along by European colonizers, such as house cats (Felis catus), ship rats (Rattus rattus), stoats (Mustela erminea) and brushtail possums (Trichosurus vulpecula).

Fortunately, those bird species survive on some small islands off the coast—Little Barrier, Tiritiri Matangi and Lady Alice—too small to have had much contact with humans or the invaders they often bring along. And in many cases mammal pests, such as the feral cats that roamed Little Barrier Island until 1980, have been eradicated.

So the biologists painstakingly catalogued the instances of the flowering shrub in plots on both the bird-friendly islands and the mainland. As a result of the missing birds, the flowering shrubs on the mainland produce smaller fruit and only 37 seeds per flower, compared with 232 seeds per flower for shrubs on the bird-friendly islands. Nearly 80 percent of flowers on the small islands showed evidence that birds had visited, whereas only 25 percent of mainland flowers did so. And although fully grown shrubs persist on the mainland in roughly similar numbers, there are less than half as many young plants sprouting up to replace them.

This pollination failure has likely been going on for a long time. "Pollination probably failed about 1870, which is when bellbirds and stitchbird densities on the North Island plummeted," says biologist Dave Kelly of the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, one of the scientists involved in the research.

Other possible pollinators, such as insects, apparently are not up to the task in the case of R. solandri, unlike the case for endemic New Zealand mistletoes or trees that have also lost bird pollinators, according to Kelly. Flowers encased in chicken wire mesh cages on the mainland and the offshore islands to keep out birds also failed to produce many seeds, "showing that birds are essential for pollination," the biologists wrote in the paper detailing their findings, published online in Science on February 3. Kelly adds: "Usually when a bird-adapted flower is not well pollinated by insects it's because the flower is too big for insects to touch the right parts [for pollination] as they visit it."

Of course, humans could take over for the missing birds, pollinating by hand and sowing the seeds. When the biologists did so, R. solandri immediately boosted its numbers. As for why the decline of the brilliantly colored flowering shrub had gone unnoticed, Kelly offers the idea of "shifting baselines"—people (and scientists) tend to ignore reports of abundance that existed before their own lifetimes—and wrote in the Science paper, "This decline could very easily have escaped notice, because it is so gradual…. It may be that similar slow plant declines as a result of failing ecological interactions have begun elsewhere."

After all, many regions of the world host plants that rely on specialized birds for pollination, from the tropics of Central and South America to South Africa and Southeast Asia. "I would bet that there are other plants declining in other parts of the world for this same reason, but it's not been measured yet," Kelly says. "In New Zealand we want to check other bird-pollinated plants to see if they too are declining. We know that a majority of them have [a] reduced seed set."

At the same time, R. solandri is still not considered in danger of extinction for two reasons: First, it still manages to produce some seed even without effective pollinators. Second, the shrub can apparently live for years. "We don't know exactly how long-lived the plant is as it does not seem to have growth rings," Kelly admits.

As for 19th-century North America, the passenger pigeon was a big consumer of the nuts of hickories, beeches and chestnuts in the vast eastern deciduous forest of North America. That forest has largely disappeared—and chestnuts were almost entirely wiped out by disease—but it is possible that the trees are also missing their one-time avian agent of dispersal. That could very easily be a problem for plants the world over, given that at least 190 species of birds have gone extinct since 1500 and more than a thousand are currently at risk of disappearing.

"The interactions among species are important for keeping ecosystems functioning properly," Kelly notes. "If we can get the birds right, the plant conservation will come as a secondary benefit."

New Zealand scientists record 'biodiversity breakdown'
Neil Bowdler Science reporter, BBC News 4 Feb 11;

Scientists in New Zealand say they have linked the modern-day decline of a common forest shrub with the local extinction of two pollinating birds over a century ago.

They say the disappearance of two birds - the bellbird and stitchbird - from the upper North Island of the country has lead to a slow decline in common plants, including the forest shrub New Zealand gloxinia.

Ship rats and stoats imported into the country around the year 1870 are blamed for the birds' demise.

The researchers claim the study, published in the journal Science, offers rare experimental proof of a breakdown in a local ecosystem.
Rats and stoats

New Zealand gloxinia or Rhabdothamnus solandri is a gangly forest shrub, which grows in the shade to about 2m high and produces an orange tubular flower. It depends on three birds for pollination - the bellbird, stitchbird and the tui.

While the latter now seems only to feed higher up in the forest canopy, the former two vanished from upper North Island in the late 19th century. It is thought they were killed off by rats brought in by ships or by stoats introduced to control the local rabbit population.

The researchers wanted to observe the impact on New Zealand gloxinia of these disappearing bird populations and so compared the situation on the mainland with that of three nearby island bird sanctuaries where the birds remain abundant.

What they found was that pollination rates were vastly reduced on the mainland with seed production per flower 84% lower compared with the islands.

While this has yet to fully manifest itself in the density of adult gloxinia populations on the mainland, the researchers found 55% fewer juvenile plants per adult plant on the mainland vis-à-vis the islands.

The researchers could also quantify how often - or how little - birds visited the plant, as birds make distinct markings on the flower as they feed on the nectar.

"This plant is in trouble but it's a slow motion disaster," said Professor Dave Kelly of New Zealand's University of Canterbury, who led the research. "It hasn't been well pollinated for about the last 140 years - that's about when these birds disappeared off the North Island."

"In that time there haven't been enough seedlings coming through and so the plant is quietly crumbling away, fading away."
Mistletoe trick

It is not just gloxinia which is feeling the effects of these disappearing birds. An estimated 49% of all land birds have been lost in New Zealand, say the researchers, and the consequences of that are far greater than those outlined in this study.

A recent survey of all the country's bird-pollinated plants found only a fraction were pollinating normally. Species of mistletoe have been linked to the decline in bird species.

"Certain mistletoes have large red attractive flowers and they're quite widespread though the South Island and up into the lower North Island," says Dr Kelly.

"The buds ripen and send a colour signal but they don't open up until a bird comes along and squeezes the top and if that doesn't happen the plant doesn't get pollinated. It turns out these native pollinating birds are pretty much the only birds that know the trick of opening these."

Professor Stephen Hopper, director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, said the work was an elegant piece of research which "highlights the cascading effects of extinction".

Nor was he surprised by the long lag between the disappearance of the birds and the effects on plantlife.

"You often see these lag effects in plants. In this case they're looking at woody plants and we know very little about their longevity," he told the BBC. "In some cases you may see big tress in the landscape and assume everything is going well when in fact they've stopped reproducing."

He says the events which can spark these ecological breakdowns are many, from the introduction of alien species such as in New Zealand, to land clearance to climate change.

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Timor Sea oil spill firm allowed to work despite reservations

Peter Ker Sydney Morning Herald 5 Feb 11;

THE company responsible for one of Australia's worst oil spills is being allowed to continue, and potentially expand, its operations in Australian waters.

Barely 18 months after PTTEP Australasia caused a 10-week oil spill off the north-west coast, the company is poised to proceed with a five-year plan that includes more projects in Australia.

In a decision that has concerned environmentalists, the Minister for Resources and Energy, Martin Ferguson, said changes promised by PTTEP after the Montara disaster had convinced him the company could continue to operate safely in Australian waters.
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He made the decision despite an independent report warning him that nothing more than PTTEP's "intent" to improve its performance could be assessed at this time.

The report, by consultants Noetic, said PTTEP's plans to improve its performance would "depend entirely on the quality of execution" and it recommended the government maintain close scrutiny of the company's progress in coming months.

Mr Ferguson accepted the recommendation, saying he would subject PTTEP to a "rigorous" 18-month monitoring program to ensure the improvement plans were "implemented to the letter".

The minister's approval was welcomed by PTTEP, which revealed a five-year plan last year that named Australia alongside Burma, Indonesia and Thailand as countries in which the company wanted to "expand growth" through mergers and acquisitions.

Any expansion plans by PTTEP would be subject to an extra layer of conditions and scrutiny on application, Mr Ferguson said yesterday.

"There is a clear message to the industry that your social licence to operate in Australia cannot be taken for granted.

"Yes, this industry is exceptionally important to us, from an export and employment point of view, but we also require strict adherence to the best possible standards in terms of health, safety and environment," he said.

A spokesman for the Australian Marine Conservation Society, Darren Kindleysides, said the federal government's response sent a bad signal to the resources industry.

"This sends a signal that major oil companies can continue as business as usual, even if they do cause major spills," he said.

"Montara was one of Australia's largest ever environmental disasters.

"It seems they can get away with a rap on the wrist."

Montara decision sends wrong signal: WWF
Andrea Hayward and Ed Logue AAP Sydney Morning Herald 4 Feb 11;

A decision to allow a Thai company behind Australia's worst oil spill to continue operating locally sends the wrong signal to oil companies, environmentalists say.

Resources Minister Martin Ferguson on Friday announced that Thai government-owned company PTTEP Australasia would be subject to a rigorous government monitoring program.

A commission of inquiry found PTTEP had not used sensible oilfield practices, which led to its Montara wellhead, off Western Australia's northwest coast, leaking oil and gas condensate into the Timor Sea for 10 weeks in 2009.
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Failure to comply could result in its production and exploration licences being cancelled at any time.

The decision followed an independent review of the company's action plan which it submitted to address deficiencies identified by the inquiry.

Mr Ferguson said he had not issued a show-cause notice to the company as to why it should be allowed to continue to operate because PTTEP was "on the path" to better governance and practices in the action plan.

PTTEP will have to report monthly and meet quarterly with Mr Ferguson under a binding agreement for the next 18 months.

"You should also not forget, that I ... have the option to issue a show cause following due process at any time in the future," Mr Ferguson said.

The review did not recommend PTTEP's seven exploration licences, five production licences and seven other leases in Australia be revoked.

PTTEP spokesman Chris Kalnin said the company's action plan was under constant review.

"The drilling operations of PTTEP have changed substantially since the Montara incident occurred," Mr Kalnin said.

WWF WA director Paul Gamblin said there was a real concern the signal sent to big oil companies is they could cause large environmental disasters and expect to continue business.

"There is no disincentive, there's no penalties," Mr Gamblin said.

"That's what I think many Australians will be scratching their heads about."

PTTEP footed the entire clean-up bill of about $300 million, backed by the Thai government and it faces prosecution for breaches of health, safety and regulatory breaches.

Mr Gamblin said the government's response to the environmental disaster was inadequate and the true environmental cost of the oil spill may never be known because of poor government monitoring systems before and after the spill.

The government had failed to establish a single national regulator as promised and is facing opposition from the WA government to do so, he said.

"Nothing's really changed," he said.

An additional set of conditions will be imposed on the renewal or future granting of offshore petroleum title applications to PTTEP in Australia.

Australian Greens Senator Rachel Siewert said it was unacceptable for new licences to be granted to PTTEP while there were questions about the company meeting industry standards.

"I remain concerned that there are significant safety and regulatory problems within our offshore oil and gas industry that are not limited to PTTEP," she said, adding that the Greens would push for tougher regulations.

Mr Ferguson said the entire oil industry was on notice to meet community expectations.

Australia lets Thai oil firm stay despite spill
(AFP) Google News 4 Feb 11;

SYDNEY — A Thai government-owned company behind Australia's worst oil spill was given the go-ahead to continue local operations but will be subject to a rigorous government monitoring programme.

PTT Exploration and Production's response to issues raised by the massive Montara oil spill in the Timor Sea two years ago was a key factor in renewing their licence, Australia's Energy Minister Martin Ferguson said in a statement on Friday.

"The company has cooperated fully throughout the review process and demonstrated significant changes to improve its leadership, governance and operating practices," Ferguson said.

Still, its production and exploration licences could be cancelled any time in the next 18 months if the firm fails to meet strict new standards, he said.

A wellhead at the company's Montara oilfield leaked oil and gas condensate for 10 weeks off Western Australia's northwest, in 2009.

Thousands of barrels of oil poured into the sea before it was capped, prompting conservationists to warn of an environmental catastrophe for the region's marine and bird life.

An independent report into the August 2009 incident found "widespread and systemic" shortcomings in PTTEP's procedures were a direct cause of a loss of well control.

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Arctic Fisheries' Catches 75 Times Higher Than Previous Reports

ScienceDaily 4 Feb 11;

University of British Columbia researchers estimate that fisheries catches in the Arctic totaled 950,000 tonnes from 1950 to 2006, almost 75 times the amount reported to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) during this period.

Led by Prof. Daniel Pauly, the research team from UBC's Fisheries Centre and Dept. of Earth and Ocean Sciences reconstructed fisheries catch data from various sources -- including limited governmental reports and anthropological records of indigenous population activities -- for FAO's Fisheries Statistical Area 18, which covers arctic coastal areas in northern Siberia (Russia), Arctic Alaska (the U.S.) and the Canadian Arctic.

The Arctic is one of the last and most extensive ocean wilderness areas in the world. The extent of the sea ice in the region has declined in recent years due to climate change, raising concerns over loss of biodiversity as well as the expansion of industrial fisheries into this area.

The details are published this week in the journal Polar Biology.

"Ineffective reporting, due to governance issues and a lack of credible data on small-scale fisheries, has given us a false sense of comfort that the Arctic is still a pristine frontier when it comes to fisheries," says lead author Dirk Zeller, a senior research fellow at UBC's Fisheries Centre. "We now offer a more accurate baseline against which we can monitor changes in fish catches and to inform policy and conservation efforts."

Official FAO data on fish catches in Area 18 from 1950 to 2006 were based solely on statistics supplied by Russia and amounted to 12,700 tonnes. The UBC team performed a detailed analysis and found that it's only the tip of iceberg.

The team shows that while the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service's Alaska branch currently reports zero catches to FAO for the Arctic area, the state agency, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has collected commercial data and undertaken studies on 15 coastal communities in the Alaskan Arctic that rely on fisheries for subsistence. The estimated fish catch during this period in Alaska alone totaled 89,000 tonnes.

While no catches were reported to FAO by Canada, the research team shows commercial and small-scale fisheries actually amounted to 94,000 tonnes in catches in the same time span.

Meanwhile, Russia's total catch was actually a staggering 770,000 tonnes from 1950 to 2006, or nearly 12,000 tonnes per year. "Our work shows a lack of care by the Canadian, U.S. and Russian governments in trying to understand the food needs and fish catches of northern communities," says Pauly, who leads the Sea Around Us Project at UBC.

Researchers from the Sea Around Us Project have previously shown a trend of fish stocks moving towards polar regions due to the effects of climate change. This, coupled with increased accessibility of the Arctic areas due to melting sea ice, will place immense pressure on the region for future large-scale fisheries.

"This research confirms that there is already fishing pressure in this region," says Pauly. "The question now is whether we should allow the further expansion of fisheries into the Arctic."

"Conservation efforts in the Arctic have so far focused on the exploitation of marine mammals -- seals and polar bears are frankly easy on the eye and plain to see," says Zeller. "None of them would survive, however, if we allow over-exploitation of fish in this delicate but so-far neglected ecosystem."

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Crops Wither and Prices Rise in Chinese Drought

Keith Bradsher New York Times 4 Feb 11;

HONG KONG — A severe drought in northern China has badly damaged the winter wheat crop and left the ground very dry for the spring planting, fueling inflation and alarming China’s leaders.

President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao separately toured drought-stricken regions this week and have called for “all-out efforts” to address the effects of water shortages on agriculture, state media reported on Thursday. Mr. Wen made a similar trip just 10 days ago and called for long-term improvements in water management.

Rising food prices were a problem last autumn, even before the drought began, prompting the government to impose a wide range of price controls in mid-November. The winter wheat crop has been parched since then in northern China while unusually widespread frost has hurt the vegetable crop in southern China. State media began warning a week ago that price controls on food might not be effective.

Some of the driest areas are close to Beijing, which has had no appreciable precipitation since Oct. 23, although there were brief snow flurries on Dec. 29. If the drought lasts 11 more days it will match one in the winter of 1970-71 as the longest since modern recordkeeping started in 1951, according to government meteorologists quoted by state media.

Particularly hard hit have been Hebei Province, which is next to Beijing and which Mr. Hu visited from Tuesday to Thursday, and southern Shandong Province to the east, which Mr. Wen visited on Wednesday and Thursday. The dirt in farmers’ fields has become bone dry and is easily lifted by breezes, coating trees and houses in fine dust.

Food prices have been rising around the world, a result of weather problems in many countries, like the unusual heat wave in Russia last summer. High food prices have been among the many reasons for protests in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world.

But even a prolonged drought in China appears highly unlikely to cause acute food shortages. China has spent years accumulating very large government reserves of grain and also has $2.85 trillion in foreign exchange reserves, giving it virtually unlimited ability to import food as long as major grain producers do not limit exports.

When commodity prices last surged in 2007 and 2008, however, at least 29 countries sharply curbed food exports in attempts to prevent domestic food prices from rising as quickly as world prices. And if China does become a large importer of wheat — it imports a lot of soybeans but tries to be essentially self-sufficient in rice and other grains for national security reasons — then it could push up world prices and make it harder for poor countries to afford food imports.

Gary Blumenthal, chief executive of World Perspectives, a Washington-based agriculture trade consulting company, noted that wheat was grown in many countries and said that Chinese purchases would not necessarily result in a sustained jump in already high world prices. “The wheat market can restore any imbalances more readily than perhaps other grains,” he said.

China’s wheat imports have risen to 893,700 metric tons in 2009 and 1.2 million metric tons last year from just 31,900 metric tons in 2008, according to figures from Global Trade Information Services, a data company in Columbia, S.C.

But those totals are small compared with global output that according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations reached 682 million metric tons in 2009, the most recent year for which figures are available. China accounted for one-sixth of global wheat production that year, which could make a broad failure of the Chinese crop hard to replace immediately.

Higher food and energy prices are spreading to other parts of China’s economy, contributing to broader inflation. Prices rose 4.6 percent last year, according to the consumer price index, but Chinese and Western economists say that the index understates the true extent of inflation because of methodology problems. The National Bureau of Statistics has said that it is trying to improve the index.

The government has cushioned the effects of rising food prices by encouraging provinces and cities to sharply raise the minimum wage, which has been climbing 18 percent a year in Guangdong Province, in southern China.

Accelerating inflation in China is starting to show up in the prices that American companies pay for imports from China. After years of showing little change, a United States Bureau of Labor Statistics index of average import prices suddenly jumped 0.3 percent from September to October, then jumped the same amount in November and again in December.

As many Chinese exporters demand double-digit percentage increases for the renewal of contracts this year, American buyers have delayed signing contracts, producing a hiccup in trans-Pacific trade. Shipping lines are discounting rates and canceling some sailings this spring while waiting for exporters and buyers to reach deals.

But imports from China are equal to only 2 percent of American economic output, so most economists expect inflation in China to have a limited effect on broad price indices in the United States.

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Mangroves may get growth spurt from Queensland floods

New Scientist 4 Feb 11;

MANGROVES may be the unlikely winners from Australia's recent floods, benefitting from the nutrient-rich sediment that was washed into their forests.

So says Catherine Lovelock of the University of Queensland in St Lucia, Australia, whose team was recording how mangroves in Exmouth Gulf, Western Australia, respond to artificial phosphorus and nitrogen fertilisation when cyclone Pancho hit the area in 2008.

Before the cyclone, the trees' stems grew by less than 25 centimetres per year. After the cyclone, however, some stems shot up by 65 centimetres per year, thanks to floodwaters washing in soils enriched with nutrients from agricultural products. The team's preliminary results were presented at last year's International Congress of Ecology in Brisbane.

Lovelock says sediment is already collecting in mangroves around Moreton bay, Queensland, following the recent floods and suggests that they, too, will experience a growth spurt.

Coastal water habitats are less likely to benefit, though. Michele Burford of Griffith University in Nathan, Australia, fears the sediment may stimulate algal growth in Moreton bay, which could lead to oxygen-starved dead zones similar to those seen in the Gulf of Mexico in the wake of last year's oil leak. "Already, the algae are growing faster," she says.

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Cyclone Yasi likely to have ravaged Great Barrier Reef

Scientists fear the storm has pulverised coral into rubble and left a swath of destruction
James Woodford 4 Feb 11;

On its way to ravaging cities and towns in north Queensland, severe tropical cyclone Yasi will almost certainly have left a swath of destruction on the Great Barrier Reef off Townsville.

Early last month, as floods struck southern Queensland, I accompanied a team of divers from the Australian Institute of Marine Science on an expedition to a 300-mile part of the reef – a fifth of the 1,400-mile-long World Heritage Area.

The researchers dived 13 reefs – from Myrmidon, which is 75 miles out to sea, to areas around the inshore Palm Island group, just off the mainland. Much of what we saw was spectacular and showed the reef recovering from a decade of devastation caused by coral bleaching and crown-of-thorns starfish, both of which have been responsible for large areas of coral mortality.

It may be weeks or months before scientists can fully survey and assess the damage from cyclone Yasi but, based on the effect of previous large cyclones, they will not be optimistic. Tropical cyclones generate huge waves, which pulverise coral reefs into rubble.

In March 2009, category four tropical cyclone Hamish travelled in an unusual path from north to south, tracking parallel to the coast and not making landfall. It is estimated to have affected a quarter of the Great Barrier Reef.

A year later I was able to dive in one of the areas hit by cyclone Hamish, also with scientists from the Australian Institute of Marine Science. Much of what we saw at the Swains, at the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef, was denuded of life. Numerous coral bommies, many the size of big cars, had been lifted up on to the reef flat by the force of the storm. It can take years, or even decades, for such a coral ecosystem to recover fully.

Scientists fear that as climate change tightens its grip devastating storms such as cyclones Yasi and Hamish will become more frequent and intense. However, it is not just the direct impacts of these storms that can damage the reef.

In the wake of the Queensland flooding, a coral ecologist at the Australian Institute of Marine Science, Dr Katharina Fabricius, warned that floodwaters carrying high nutrient loads from agricultural and urban catchments could lead to outbreaks of crown-of-thorns starfish. The starfish feed on coral, quickly denuding entire reefs.

Last year Fabricius and her colleagues published new evidence that nutrients in floodwaters provide food to the starfish larvae, increasing their survivability.

These are nervous days for the marine biologists who study the Great Barrier Reef and the authorities responsible for its good health.

James Woodford is the author of The Great Barrier Reef (Pan Macmillan)

Yasi does 10yrs damage to Barrier Reef
ABC News 5 Feb 11;

Authorities say hundreds of kilometres of the Great Barrier Reef hit by Cyclone Yasi will take up to 10 years to recover.

It is still too early for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority to send divers out to do a full assessment, but coral from the reef has been washing up on nearby shores.

The damage is expected to be similar to that of Cyclone Larry five years ago.

The authority's chief executive, Russell Reichelt, says all the progress the reef has made since then will now be destroyed.

"We can expect to see smashed coral beds, movements of coral boulders, sand and rubble moved around," he said.

"If there's any sand islands there and importantly sea grass beds, when they get disturbed - which they do by cyclones - then animals like dugong get affected."

Mr Reichelt says cyclones are not as damaging to reefs as the effects of climate change.

But he says Yasi will have still caused major destruction.

"Coral will begin regenerating immediately and be visibly restored in five to 10 years, but it changes the shape of the reef for very long periods - islands can be formed, boulders can be thrown up," he said.

Cyclone adds to Barrier Reef's flood woes
Matt Siegel (AFP) Google News 6 Feb 11;

SYDNEY — Hammered by a monster cyclone just weeks after flooding spewed toxic waste into its pristine waters, Australia's Great Barrier Reef could face a slow recovery due to climate change, experts warn.

Severe Tropical Cyclone Yasi, a top-category storm, ripped through Australia's northeast tourist coast Thursday, levelling houses and decimating crops as it hit land near the city of Cairns, gateway to the Reef.

Though it is too early to assess the extent of the damage, marine experts said the sprawling coral structure was bound to have been harmed by Yasi's blistering 290 kilometre (180 mile) per hour winds.

"Cyclones do damage reefs," Nick Graham, a senior research fellow at James Cook University, told AFP.

"They tend to be be particularly damaging in shallow waters, so they can break corals and kill areas of live coral, so you get a reduction of coral cover.... And that then can have a knock-on effect," Graham said.

The world's largest living organism, which stretches for 345,000 square kilometres (133,000 square miles) off Australia's northeast coast, was already suffering after last month's record flooding washed a mucky cocktail of debris, sediment, pesticides and other run-off out to sea.

Storms such as Yasi have the power to reduce reefs to rubble and wreak severe damage on living corals.

Smashed fragments have already begun washing up on Australian beaches, according to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, who estimate that recovery could take 10 years.

"Cyclones are regular events and do affect the coral reef ecosystem dramatically," said the authority's chairman Russell Reichelt.

"However, they tend to be localised to a specific area, compared to other large-scale effects such as mass coral bleaching caused by climate change."

Cyclones are a fact of life on the reef -- there were 55 between 1969 and 1997 according to a recent study -- but warming and acidification of the ocean linked to climate change have both increased their frequency and left corals more vulnerable.

"What normally would have recovered in the past in many other places in the world takes a long time because the reefs are not optimal; they don't have a lot of resilience," said Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldenburg, Director of Queensland University's Global Change Institute.

"The second thing that is happening is that as we heat the oceans through global warming, we are increasing the frequency of mega cyclones like Yasi.... which potentially, given (the) circumstances, can have really big impacts on coral reefs, reducing their ability to bounce back."

Coral growth has slowed markedly on the reef since 1990 and parts of it have suffered severe bleaching due to rising sea temperatures and acidity that kill its plant-like organisms, leaving just the white limestone skeleton.

Overall, both this and cyclone damage are symptoms of worsening and dangerous climate change, said John Merson, from the University of New South Wales.

"I think probably more damage is being done (to the reef) by the rising temperature in the ocean which is causing the cyclone, as well as the reef to be damaged," said Merson.

"The other question is the complete lack of attention being given to the fact that we have a category five cyclone because we have climate change, yet we completely ignore this factor in the whole thing.

"The same thing -- the heating of the water -- is going to increase coral bleaching which will knock out the reef in the long term anyway."

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La Nina helps fuel monster cyclone Yasi

David Fogarty Reuters 2 Feb 11;

SINGAPORE, Feb 2 (Reuters) - Record ocean temperatures and an intense La Nina weather pattern have helped spawn one of the most powerful cyclones in Australia but whether there's a direct climate change link is less clear.

Cyclone Yasi, a maximum category 5 storm, was within hours of making landfall in far northern Queensland state and zeroing in on urban centres where more than 400,000 people live.

If it maintained its current intensity when it crossed the coast, it would be the strongest cyclone to hit Queensland since 1899, said Alan Sharp, national manager, tropical cyclone warning services, of the Australian Bureau of Meteorology.

The March 1899 cyclone struck a pearling fleet in Bathurst Bay on Cape York Peninsula, killing more than 300 people in Australia's deadliest storm.

"Yasi is not enormously unusual but it is at the top-end of the scale as far size goes as well as intensity," Sharp told Reuters from Melbourne on Wednesday.

Sharp said the current La Nina was helping drive the record ocean temperatures around Australia that were helping fuel Yasi by providing abundant heat and moisture.

La Nina events historically bring floods and an increase in cyclones during the Australian storm season from November to April.

"We can't say any particular cyclone is caused by climate change. There has been a slight trend towards more intense storms around the world," Sharp said, adding it was hard to figure out what was natural variability or climate-change related.

Scientists say there is a likely climate change link to the current La Nina through higher sea surface temperatures. The world's oceans and atmosphere have steadily warmed over recent decades and that warmth could be providing monsoons and storms with an extra kick.

A major global study in 2010, based on complex computer modelling, found that tropical cyclones will become stronger, with the intensity increasing between 2 and 11 percent by 2100.

And while in some regions, such as the western Pacific and around Australia, the average number of storms might decrease, the number of intense storms in the category 4 and 5 range will increase, along with wind speeds and the amount of rainfall.

Yasi, though, isn't the only monster cyclone to menace Australia.

Cyclone Tracy wiped out much of the city of Darwin on Christmas Day 1974, killing 71 people. The anemometer at Darwin airport recorded a gust of 217 kilometres per hour (135 miles per hour) before the instrument was destroyed, according to the Bureau of Meteorology.

Cyclone Larry ravaged the northern Queensland town of Innisfail in March 2006, becoming Australia's second costliest storm after Tracy.

Weeks later, Cyclone Monica became one of the most intense cyclones ever recorded as it moved just off the coast of the Northern Territory, sparing major townships.

Cyclone George in March 2007 was a large category 5 storm that struck near Port Hedland in northwest Western Australia state, causing three deaths and widespread flooding.

Cyclone Olivia in April 1996 generated a wind gust of 408 km/h on Barrow Island off the Western Australian coast -- a world record.

(Editing by Nick Macfie)

Yasi forecast to be most powerful cyclone to hit Australia
Reuters 1 Feb 11;

SYDNEY, Feb 2 (Reuters) - Cyclone Yasi, which is approaching the coast of northeast Australia, is forecast to be the most powerful cyclone to hit the country ever, Sky TV cited the country's weather bureau as saying.

Yasi, which has been upgraded to a maximum-strength category five storm, is about 650 km (404 miles) off the coast of northeastern Australia and is expected to make landfall at 10 pm local time (1200 GMT) on the Queensland coast between Cairns and Innisfail. (Reporting by Ed Davies; Editing by Gyles Beckford)

Yasi not the only monster storm to hit Australia
David Fogarty Reuters 2 Feb 11;

SINGAPORE, Feb 2 (Reuters) - Cyclone Yasi is the strongest storm to threaten Australia in living memory, but the country has long record of powerful cyclones causing death and destruction.

Only Australia's relatively sparse population along much of its northern coastline has limited the damage in the past. But booming mining communities, ports, agriculture and tourism businesses mean more property in the path of storms.

Scientists say Yasi's size and strength is being fed by historically high sea surface temperatures that are providing fuel and moisture to power the storm.

The region is also in the grip of one of the strongest La Nina weather patterns that historically bring floods and an increase in cyclones during the Australian storm season from November to April.

Yasi's current strength is similar to Hurricane Katrina, which reached maximum category 5 in the U.S. Gulf before weakening a little as it made landfall near New Orleans, triggering a massive sea surge that flooded the city.

Forecasters are also expecting a large storm surge to hit the northern Queensland coast.

In the recent past, a number of powerful cyclones storms have hit Australia.

Cyclone Tracy wiped out much of the city of Darwin on Christmas Day 1974, killing 71 people. The anemometer at Darwin airport recorded a gust of 217 km/h before the instrument was destroyed, according to the Australian Bureau of Meteorology.

Cyclone Larry ravaged the northern Queensland town of Innisfail in March 2006, becoming Australia's second costliest storm after Tracy.

Weeks later, Cyclone Monica became one of the most intense cyclones ever recorded as it moved just off the coast of the Northern Territory, sparing major townships.

Cyclone George in March 2007 was a large category 5 storm that struck near Port Hedland in northwest Western Australia state, causing three deaths and widespread flooding.

Cyclone Olivia in April 1996 generated a wind gust of 408 kph (255 miles per hour) on Barrow Island off the Western Australian coast -- a world record.

Scientists can't yet say if cyclones are becoming more powerful because of global warming.

But a major global study in 2010, based on complex computer modelling, found that tropical cyclones will become stronger, with the intensity increasing between 2 and 11 percent by 2100.

And while in some regions, such as the western Pacific and around Australia, the average number of storms might decrease, the number of intense storms in the category 4 and 5 range will increase, along with wind speeds and the amount of rainfall. (Editing by Nick Macfie)

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Climate mass migration fears 'unfounded'

Roger Harrabin BBC News 4 Feb 11;

New research challenges the view that people would migrate to other nations as a result of climate change.

The study by the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) said people tended to stay in their own country.

It added that people had been uprooted by a range of factors, not just changes to the climate.

The report challenges the widely held view that climate change would trigger an influx of cross border refugees.

It had been forecast that as many as 50 million environmental migrants might be on the move by 2010.

The IIED report says new studies in Bolivia, Senegal and Tanzania found no evidence that environmental degradation would result in large flows of international migrants.

Migration myth

Lead author Cecilia Tacoli said most displaced people wanted to stay as near home as possible, adding that most stayed within their own borders, although there was a serious lack of information within countries facing widespread internal migration about the numbers involved.

But Dr Tacoli added that if sea level rose as projected then it was likely that there would be many international environmental refugees from small island states.

"Environmental change undoubtedly increases the number of people mobile," she told BBC News.

"But catastrophe like droughts and floods tend to overlap with social and structural upheaval, like the closure of other sources of local employment that might have protected people against total dependence on the land," she told BBC News.

"Of course we need to act on climate change, and rich nations have a moral obligation to help poor people affected by it. But it's often easier and quicker to address the socio-economic factors."

The report observed that families living in areas of environmental decay would often choose to send one family member to a city to earn money to bolster rural incomes. This was a positive outcome of migration, Dr Tacoli suggested.

The projection that 50 million people would be environmental refugees by 2010 was made back in 1989 by Mustafa Tolba who, at the time, was executive director of the UN Environment Programme (Unep).

In 2001, a report by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said more people were forced to leave their homes because of environmental disasters than war. It estimated that approximately 25 million people could currently be classified as environmental refugees.

Dr Tacoli said the absence of data in countries facing most internal migration made it impossible to verify these figures.

A Unep spokesman told BBC News: "The scale and pace of environmental change, from climate to the loss of forests, freshwaters and other key ecosystems, is increasing the vulnerability of humanity. Many scientists are also now warning of 'tipping points' that could trigger irreversible changes to the planet's life-support systems.

He added that how these changes, if left unaddressed would displace people was the subject of a "great deal of academic debate".

"It is complex and it is unclear," he explained, "but what is clear is that such risks are rising, not receding.

"Whether they are termed environmental refugees or not, they way societies manage or mismanage their environmental assets are likely to increasingly define movements and migration patterns over the coming decades--what would you do if your town or village ran out of water or productive land? "

The idea that people displaced by shifts in the climate, especially from poor nations, could materialise as a migrant problem for rich polluting nations became a political weapon for scientists and environmentalists demanding carbon cuts.

Environmentalists would point out that internal migration also presents huge challenges to nations, and that the world has not begun to see the sort of potentially catastrophic changes envisaged under the more extreme scenarios of climate change.

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