Best of our wild blogs: 3 May 11

black spitting cobra @ SBWR 30Apr2011
from sgbeachbum

wolf snake @ KNT 30Apr2011
from sgbeachbum

Neap Week: mangrove meanders
from wild shores of singapore

Black-naped Oriole feeding on scraps of Sea Apple fruits
from Bird Ecology Study Group

First look at Lorong Halus Wetland
from wonderful creation

"the dead tree gives no shelter"
from The Annotated Budak

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Another Side of Tilapia, the Perfect Factory Fish

Elisabeth Rosenthal The New York Times 2 May 11;

AGUA AZUL, Honduras — A common Bible story says Jesus fed 5,000 people with five loaves and two fish, which scholars surmise were tilapia.

But at the Aquafinca fish farm here, a modern miracle takes place daily: Tens of thousands of beefy, flapping tilapia are hauled out of teeming cages on Lake Yojoa, converted to fillets in a cold slaughterhouse and rushed onto planes bound for the United States, where some will appear on plates within 12 hours.

Americans ate 475 million pounds of tilapia last year, four times the amount a decade ago, making this once obscure African native the most popular farmed fish in the United States. Although wild fish predominate in most species, a vast majority of the tilapia consumed in the United States is “harvested” from pens or cages in Latin America and Asia.

Known in the food business as “aquatic chicken” because it breeds easily and tastes bland, tilapia is the perfect factory fish; it happily eats pellets made largely of corn and soy and gains weight rapidly, easily converting a diet that resembles cheap chicken feed into low-cost seafood.

“Ten years ago no one had heard of it; now everyone wants it because it doesn’t have a fishy taste, especially hospitals and schools,” said Orlando Delgado, general manager of Aquafinca.

Farmed tilapia is promoted as good for your health and for the environment at a time when many marine stocks have been seriously depleted. “Did you know the American Heart Association recommends eating fish twice a week?” asks the industry Web site, But tilapia has both nutritional and environmental drawbacks.

Compared with other fish, farmed tilapia contains relatively small amounts of beneficial omega-3 fatty acids, the fish oils that are the main reasons doctors recommend eating fish frequently; salmon has more than 10 times the amount of tilapia. Also, farmed tilapia contains a less healthful mix of fatty acids because the fish are fed corn and soy instead of lake plants and algae, the diet of wild tilapia.

“It may look like fish and taste like fish but does not have the benefits — it may be detrimental,” said Dr. Floyd Chilton, a professor of physiology and pharmacology at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center who specializes in fish lipids.

Environmentalists argue that intensive and unregulated tilapia farming is damaging ecosystems in poor countries with practices generally prohibited in the United States — like breeding huge numbers of fish in cages in natural lakes, where fish waste pollutes the water. “We wouldn’t allow tilapia to be farmed in the United States the way they are farmed here, so why are we willing to eat them?” said Dr. Jeffrey McCrary, an American fish biologist who works in Nicaragua. “We are exporting the environmental damage caused by our appetites.”

Defenders of tilapia aquaculture point out that this young and rapidly growing industry has begun improving standards and toughening regulation. The two-year-old Aquaculture Stewardship Council, the brainchild of the conservation organization WWF and I.D.H., a Dutch sustainable trade program, is rolling out an inspection program for tilapia farms independent of the industry. Those that choose to participate — and pass — will receive labels identifying their product as “responsibly farmed.”

In a nod to its growing popularity, this year tilapia’s will be the first of 10 fish certification programs to be initiated. Aquafinca, which began adopting more environmentally friendly cultivation in 2006 to better appeal to large corporate customers like Costco, this year became the first farm to pass an initial inspection.

Proponents say tilapia aquaculture will only grow in importance because it provides food and jobs in a world of declining fish stocks and rising population. “There are going to be more farmed fish each year,” said Kevin Fitzsimmons, a biologist at the University of Arizona. “Think about it: if we tried to get beef from hunting, there would be a lot of hungry people.”

From Africa to the World

Native to lakes in Africa, this versatile warm-water fish was deployed by many governments in poor tropical countries around the world in the second half of the 20th century to control weeds and mosquitoes in lakes and rivers. In a cistern or pond, a few fish yielded dietary protein.

In retrospect, that global dispersal “maybe was not the best idea,” said Aaron McNevin, a WWF biologist who is coordinating the development of standards for tilapia farms, because tilapia “is one of the most invasive species known and very hard to get rid of once they are established.” Today, wild tilapia has squeezed out native species in lakes throughout the world with its aggressive breeding and feeding.

By the 1990s, businesses saw opportunity in farming this hearty species, which tolerates crowding and does not need expensive meat-based feed. Using selective breeding, scientists created today’s industrial strains: big, fleshy fish with tiny heads and tails, and intestines that allow them to absorb food faster. Farmed tilapia reaches its sales weight of about two pounds in roughly nine months of intensive feeding.

“Nature is for maintaining species; what we do is make fillets,” said Danilo Sosa, a technician at the tilapia breeding pens of Nicanor Fish Farms, outside Managua, Nicaragua, plopping a tilapia used for breeding on a wooden table and scanning the chip in its gut that identifies its breeding line.

Last year, more than 52 million pounds of fresh tilapia were exported to the United States, mostly from Latin America, as well as 422 million more pounds of frozen tilapia, both whole and fillet, nearly all from China, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.

The growth has been abetted by the creation and marketing of new products like fleshy “tilapia loins” — even though fish do not possess that anatomical feature.

For United States shoppers picking up tilapia from China or Honduras or Ecuador, there is little guidance. “It’s such a complicated job for consumers to decide what to eat, with aquaculture production expanding so rapidly,” said Peter Bridson, aquaculture research manager of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which produces the popular Seafood Watch, an independent consumer guide to buying sustainable fish.

The new sustainability standards being developed for aquaculture will be tailored by species to address their diverse environmental risks. For tilapia, that means fish cages can be placed only in lakes where tilapia already live, and must be designed to prevent escapes. To limit overtaxing of lakes, the new guidelines establish water quality rules for oxygen and phosphorus, a product of fish waste.

Fish farms may not use prophylactic antibiotics. But even the new rules allow for some practices considered unacceptable in the United States, where cage farming in lakes is generally forbidden. In many states, tilapia must be housed in specially designed pens with roofs to prevent birds from carrying the fish elsewhere; their waste is often collected to use as fertilizer rather than released. Also, the new standards allow for baby fish to be fed testosterone even though markets like Whole Foods will not buy hormone-treated seafood.

For the moment, Seafood Watch lists tilapia raised in the United States as a “best choice,” tilapia from Latin America as a “good alternative” and tilapia from China as “to be avoided.” Less than 5 percent of the tilapia consumed in the United States is farmed within its borders, and that is mostly whole fish. Dr. Bridson said these rough ratings were largely based on the presence of effective monitoring in those places and how farms disposed of their waste.

The Pollution Problem

But many biologists worry that the big business of tilapia farming will outweigh caution, leaving dead lakes and extinct species.

Dr. McCrary has spent the past decade studying how a small, short-lived tilapia farm degraded Lake Apoyo in Nicaragua. “One small cage screwed up the entire lake — the entire lake!” he said of the farm, which existed from 1995 to 2000.

Waste from the cages polluted the pristine ecosystem, and some tilapia escaped. An aquatic plant called charra, an important food for fish, disappeared, leaving the lake a wasteland. Today, some species of plants and fish are slowly recovering, but others are probably gone forever, said Dr. McCrary, who works for the Nicaraguan foundation FUNDECI.

That experience explains why Dr. Salvador Montenegro, director of Nicaragua’s Center for Aquatic Resource Investigation, has spent a decade fighting to close the much larger Nicanor tilapia farm in a remote corner of Lake Nicaragua. “This kind of intensive fish farming jeopardizes a lake that is a national treasure, already under stress from pollution,” he said, once comparing its effect to allowing 3.7 million chickens to defecate in the water. Weaker fish, like the rainbow bass, have been disappearing from Lake Nicaragua as the number of tilapia has increased, said Ben Slow, a local fisherman.

But David Senna, the manager of Nicanor, said the company’s cages occupied only a tiny fraction of the lake, in an area with deep water and strong currents sufficient to carry away fish waste; it has taken monthly water samples to prove it. While he acknowledged that early on there were some escapes — one involving 10,000 tilapia — he noted that tilapia were introduced to Lake Nicaragua in the 1980s, “so if they’re going to take over, it was already doomed.”

Nutritional Concerns

For doctors, the debate has centered more on tilapia’s nutritional benefits, or lack thereof. Like all fish, tilapia is a good source of protein, with few of the unhealthy saturated fats in red meats. But unlike most other fish, tilapia contains relatively little of the fish oils that medical research has shown assist brain development and protect against heart disease, stroke and abnormal heart rhythms: a pair of omega-3 fatty acids.

“When people talk about the need to eat more fish, they are using that as a metaphor for fish oil, DHA and EPA,” said Edgar R. Miller III, associate professor of medicine and epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “So what do we do about the fact that tilapia and catfish, which are farm raised, have very low levels of these compounds?”

While a portion of tilapia has 135 milligrams of omega-3 fatty acids, a portion of salmon has over 2,000 milligrams. And farmed tilapia may have even less than wild tilapia because fish acquire omega-3s by eating aquatic plants and other fish. “They are what they eat,” Dr. Bridson said.

In farmed tilapia, raised largely on corn and soy, omega-3 levels depend on how much fish meal or fish oil the farm’s breeders mix in. While most fish species need a good helping of these fatty acids to grow, herbivorous tilapia grow decently with little or none. And there are compelling reasons to skimp on fish meal or oil additives: they are costly and create more pollution.

“The content can vary dramatically and the consumer won’t know it,” said Bruce Holub, a professor of nutritional science at the University of Guelph in Ontario, who said that omega-3 levels should appear on every fish label.

He and other experts echo the industry’s message that tilapia is nonetheless beneficial to eat as a lean source of protein and one that still contains some omega-3, where protein alternatives like red meat and chicken have none. But others are concerned about research showing that another type of fatty acids, the so-called omega-6 acids, outnumber the beneficial omega-3s in farmed tilapia by a factor of 2 to 1. Some research suggests that ratio increases the risk of heart disease; in salmon and trout the ratio is reversed.

With this in mind, the Mayo Clinic advises patients that some typically farmed fish, like tilapia and catfish, “don’t appear to be as heart-healthy.” More research will be needed to see whether improving fish feeds enhances tilapia’s health benefits, and whether the omega-6 levels in tilapia are significant relative to its already high prevalence in the American diet.

The Choice

Although environmentalists long battled to shut down Nicanor, the Nicaraguan fish farm is failing for another reason: cheap frozen tilapia fillets from China.

Imports of frozen tilapia to the United States rose 30 percent in 2010, as fresh fillet imports dropped 2 percent, reducing demand from smaller producers like Nicanor. Much of the fish that China exports is what producers call “refreshed,” which means it is frozen and packed in carbon monoxide to preserve color so it can be thawed and sold in fish displays, where it will appear to have been recently caught. Even in Managua, the capital of Nicaragua, the tilapia on supermarket shelves is from China.

“People wanted to pay $3.99 a pound for this frozen stuff rather than $5.99 for fresh, especially during the recession,” said Mr. Senna, the Nicanor manager. Chinese fish farms are regarded as poorly regulated, Dr. Bridson said, which is why the world needs clearer standards for sustainable fish farming and consumer labeling. Until then, the biggest producer offering the cheapest product is poised to win.

“If I have 100 tilapia in a pond, I may have happy tilapia because they have room to swim, but I won’t be able to sell them since I won’t get access to the global market,” Dr. McCrary said, adding that, for now, “there’s no tilapia equivalent of free-range chicken.”

Blake Schmidt contributed reporting from Managua, Nicaragua.

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'Million-dollar sharks' a boon to eco-tourism: report

Yahoo News 2 May 11;

PARIS (AFP) – A single reef shark can be worth nearly two million dollars in tourism revenue over its lifetime, according to a study released Monday by researchers in Australia.

The analysis from the Pacific island nation of Palau shows that sharks -- hunted worldwide for their fins, a Chinese delicacy -- are worth many times more to some local economies alive than dead.

"Sharks can literally be a 'million-dollar' species and a significant economic driver," said lead author Mark Meekan, a scientist at the Australian Institute of Marine Science.

"Our study shows that these animals can contribute far more as a tourism resource than as a catch target," he said in a statement.

Sharks have reigned at the top of the ocean food chain for hundreds of millions of years.

But because they mature slowly and produce few offspring, the consummate marine predators have proven vulnerable to industrial-scale fishing.

Tens of millions of the coastal and open-water sharks are harvested every year to supply a burgeoning appetite for meat and especially shark-fin soup.

The researchers found that the annual value to the Palau tourism industry of an individual reef shark at one of the country's major scuba-diving sites is 179,000 dollars (121,000 euros) a year, or about 1.9 million dollars (1.3 million euros) over the animal's lifetime.

Shark diving accounts for about eight percent of the tiny country's GDP and 14 percent of its business tax base. It also generates more than a million dollars annually in salaries.

In 2009, Palau became the first country in the world to declare all of its territorial waters to be a shark sanctuary, followed last year by Honduras and The Maldives.

The US state of Hawaii, the territories of Guam and the Northern Marianas, and the Republic of the Marshall Islands have all banned the possession, sale or distribution of shark fins.

"Shark tourism can be a viable economic engine," said Matt Rand, a shark expert at the Washington-based Pew Environment Group, which commissioned the research.

"This study provides a compelling case that can convince more countries to embrace these animals for their benefit to the ocean and their value to a country's financial well-being."

About a third of open-water sharks face extinction, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Regional studies have shown that when shark populations crash the impact cascades down through the food chain, often in unpredictable and deleterious ways.

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Record Wildlife Die-Offs Reported In Northern Rockies

Laura Zuckerman PlanetArk 2 May 11;

A record number of big-game animals perished this winter in parts of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming from a harsh season of unusually heavy snows and sustained cold in the Northern Rockies, state wildlife managers say.

"Elk, deer and moose -- those animals are having a pretty tough time," said Wyoming Game and Fish biologist Doug Brimeyer.

Snow and frigid temperatures in pockets of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming arrived earlier and lingered longer than usual, extending the time that wildlife were forced to forage on low reserves for scarce food, leading more of them to starve.

Based on aerial surveys of big-game herds and signals from radio-collared animals, experts are documenting high mortality among offspring of mule deer, white-tailed deer and pronghorn antelope.

This comes as big-game animals enter the last stretch of a period from mid-March through early May that is considered critical for survival.

Wildlife managers estimate die-offs in the tens of thousands across thousands of square miles that span prairie in northeastern Montana, the upper Snake River basin in Idaho near Yellowstone National Park and the high country of northwestern Wyoming near the exclusive resort of Jackson.

Brimeyer said the estimated death rate doubled among deer fawns in the Jackson area this year, rising to 60 percent or more from 30 percent.

He said many thousands more elk have crowded the feeding grounds of the National Elk Refuge near Jackson, yet another sign of the toll winter is exacting.

The trend also is pronounced in a wildlife management area near McCall in the mountains of central Idaho, where the estimated mortality rate among mule deer fawns is 90 percent this winter, compared with an average annual rate of 20 percent.

Mike Scott, regional wildlife biologist in McCall for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, said how animals fare during the lean months of winter -- when snow blankets the woody shrubs and wild plants they favor -- is tied to fattening in fall.

"Deer are mostly living on body fat through the winter. If it goes on too long, they run out of gas," he said.

Fawns born in early June are more resilient than fawns born as late as July since older offspring have more time to add to their body mass.

Pronghorn antelope have been hit hard in eastern and northeastern Montana, where wildlife managers say nothing akin to this season's die-offs has been seen in 30-plus years.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologist Howard Burt said pronghorn in winter seek to migrate to areas of less snow.

This season, that migration turned deadly for 700 or more antelope in northeastern Montana after the animals traveled along plowed railroad corridors and were killed by trains.

Scientists said their aim is to mitigate the effects of the die-offs by reducing pressure placed on herds by such activities as hunting and by delaying opening of wildlife habitat areas to people and vehicles.

As Idaho wildlife biologist Bret Stansberry put it: "We can't do anything about the weather, we can only deal with the aftermath."

(Editing by Steve Gorman and Ellen Wulfhorst)

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Indonesian minister calls on public to support six priority forestry policies

Antara 29 Apr 11;

Jakarta (ANTARA News) - Forestry Minister Zulkifli Hasan has called on all elements of society to help make the implementation of its main priority policies for forest preservation and equitable people`s welfare a success.

The six policies included forest rehabilitation, improvement of river basin carrying capacity, and empowerment of people living surrounding forest areas, Minister Zulkifli said here Thursday.

The implementation of the six policies involved all personnel of the forestry ministry in Jakarta and all other regions, he said in a written speech read out by the ministry`s Inspector General Irhan Jafar.

The government has set a target of rehabilitate forest and land areas measuring 500,000 hectares annually, consisting rehabilitation of conservation areas measuring 100,000 hectares and land rehabilitation covering 389,000 hectares.

Besides, the ministry will develop 1,000-hectare urban forests, and rehabilitate mangrove, swamp, peat and coastal areas measuring 10,000 hectares throughout the 33 provinces.

The ministry will also develop 10,000 units of small-holders` seedling nurseries and 23 permanent seedling nurseries in 22 provinces.

Another program is to rehabilitate 1.9 million hectares of non-forest areas and 40,000 hectares of peat and mangrove areas, according to the minister.

Recently, the forestry minister said in Jakarta that the ministry has allocated 700,000 hectares for the people`s and rural forest programs, an increase from around 600,000 hectares in 2010.

The minister said it would be impossible to regreen Indonesia without the support of the people in general, he said.

As part of the International Forest Year 2011`s activities, Indonesia plans to plant 1.5 billion trees this year.

"Last year, we planted 1.3 billion trees of the target of one billion trees," he said.

To support the tree planting program, the ministry has allocated Rp3 trillion, or 50 percent of its total budget of Rp6 trillion in 2011(*)

Editor: Aditia Maruli

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