Best of our wild blogs: 11 Jul 14

Update on coral bleaching at Sultan Shoal (Jul 2014)
from Bleach Watch Singapore

The Dollarbird (Eurystomus orientalis)
from Bird Ecology Study Group

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Making haze crimes pay


The newly-proposed fine for haze crimes is a crystal-clear sign of the Government’s determination to stop slash-and-burn tactics used by the agroforestry resource sector in land clearing. Announced in Parliament on Monday after a month-long public consultation, the toughened Transboundary Haze Pollution Bill penalises companies up to S$2 million if they subject residents in Singapore to choking haze through their commercial activities. This is an almost seven-fold jump from the earlier proposed fine of S$300,000.

However, it is unclear if the stiffer fine would be an effective deterrent. The maximum penalty of S$2 million — to be imposed on companies guilty of causing haze for a continuous period of 20 days or more — may seem punitive, but it is, in fact, a paltry sum to agroforestry firms, which make hundreds of millions, if not billions, in profits every year. If we take the net profit of seven key agroforestry companies last year, a back-of-the-envelope calculation shows that S$2 million represents less than 1 per cent of their average earnings.

Still, even if the fine is not sufficiently high to hurt the bottom lines of bigger players, a conviction should be a strong-enough damper as companies would not want to put their reputations at risk. Any conviction in a Singapore court will affect their financial standing and threaten their access to bank loans and government tax incentive programmes.

What else can Singapore do to strengthen the legislation and prevent a recurrence of the choking haze last year?


First, while the amended Bill makes it possible for individuals to file civil suits against errant firms, most members of the public are unlikely to be able to afford a legal fight. It would be good if an additional provision can be introduced to allow third-party groups, such as a public hospital or non-governmental organisation, to act on their behalf.

Overlapping land concessions in Indonesia are another nagging problem. In Indonesia, which is home to around 70 per cent of the peatlands in South-east Asia, it is not uncommon for the central government, state government agencies or even community leaders to issue permits for the same plot of land to different parties. Worse, such information is not always consolidated and updated at the national level.

While the amended Bill has cast the judicial net wider to make sure all parties involved can be hauled to court, the Government should explore whether to make it explicit that overlapping concessions cannot be accepted as a defence. If such a provision is included in the revised Bill, it would strengthen the deterrence against slash-and-burn or, at least, nudge companies operating on the ground to start working on fire management plans collectively.

Also, Singapore’s collection of fines should not be seen as self-serving. If the court-imposed fines can be partially channelled to the ASEAN Transboundary Haze Pollution Control Fund to help finance haze-fighting efforts in neighbouring countries, it will help boost regional leaders’ receptivity towards the Bill, since their citizens living closest to the hot spots are most likely to benefit from the fund.


Lastly, it is also imperative to secure the cooperation of all Association of South-east Asian Nations governments to operationalise the haze monitoring system (HMS). The system can then host information on hot spot locations and concession maps, so such data can be used as evidence in court.

Leaders from Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, in principle, endorsed the HMS last year, when all three countries experienced one of the worst episodes of haze in recent years, but concession maps have yet to be submitted. Without credible evidence on exactly who owns the land where the fires occurred, legal action specified in Singapore’s Transboundary Haze Pollution Bill cannot be taken further.

It is a pity that Indonesia’s outgoing President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono would probably be unable to see through the implementation of the HMS during the remaining months of his term. With the imminent swearing-in of a new administration, it is important for Singapore to start engaging the next batch of leaders and officials.

Although environmental concerns did not feature prominently in the just-concluded Indonesian presidential election, candidate Joko Widodo — a forestry graduate — had made clear his resolve to tackle overlapping land permits in his team’s manifesto. Mr Prabowo Subianto, who had lived in Singapore when his economist father was forced into exile, also had frequent contact with leaders here during his days in the military.

Not a bad start, it seems, for our leaders and officials to register Singapore’s concerns on Indonesia’s agenda.


Chua Chin Wei is deputy director and fellow for the environment and resources and Cheong Poh Kwan is a policy research analyst at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.

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Sustainable seafood is no fishy business

Mok Fei Fei The Straits Times AsiaOne 11 Jul 14;

When seafood supplier Global Oceanlink started casting about for a business strategy to give it an advantage over its competitors, it reeled in a fresh idea - a sustainably-sourced food chain.

Operation director Dennis Ng said the firm, which was incorporated during the throes of the 2008 global financial crisis, hit on the idea of catering to the growing number of restaurateurs and consumers looking for responsibly-sourced food.

"We don't see ourselves merely as a seafood supplier; we give solutions to our customers, and customer service has always been one of our top priorities, as much as seafood quality," Mr Ng says. He adds: "We always work with our customers to understand their needs."

Things really began to take off for Global Oceanlink when the integrated resorts Marina Bay Sands and Resorts World Sentosa began operations in 2010.

They boosted Singapore's culinary scene as Michelin-starred master chefs brought their exotic menus here, beefing up demand for seafood in the process.

The ones at Marina Bay Sands, in particular, were very particular about using sustainably-sourced food. "We have chefs coming from all over the world to Singapore, so the major change we saw was that, for example, Marina Bay Sands changed the entire food and beverage scene," says Mr Ng.

"Their celebrity chefs wanted more premium products and were more conscious about protecting the environment."

Mr Ng says Marina Bay Sands heavily influenced Global Oceanlink's decision to enter the sustainably-sourced seafood supply business as it did not want to pass up the chance of working with such a major client.

The move has paid off for the firm, which derives about 20 per cent of its income from Marina Bay Sands.

Its other big-name customers include fast-food franchises KFC and Domino's Pizza, as well as Dairy Farm, which operates the Cold Storage and Giant supermarket chains.

Its revenue also expanded exponentially, growing fourfold since its inception in 2008.

Details of revenue are kept confidential due to the keen competition in the industry, especially in the sustainably-sourced sector, which has about five players, some with lots of muscle.

Most of Global Oceanlink's supply of live, chilled and frozen seafood is from fish farms, not caught in the wild and not endangered species. Only a small minority is sea-caught fish.

Despite conscious efforts to use sustainably-sourced seafood, just 10 per cent of the 100 tonnes of seafood that it supplies every month is certified as such by the official green authorities like the Marine Stewardship Council. The council says on its website that it is the world's leading certification and eco-labelling programme for sustainable seafood.

More consumers are demanding that their fish come from sustainable sources and, while the number is still not high, Global Oceanlink is making such seafood one of its corporate social responsibility (CSR) projects.

It aims to raise public awareness and has also donated money to help educate fishermen in the region on sustainable fishing. But Mr Ng stresses that it has never been the company's policy to use its CSR efforts as a marketing tool, preferring to give to causes without much fanfare.

"It's a two-way traffic situation: There must be parties willing to take up new items that are labelled sustainable but may not be popular.

"We do our part by bringing in the product and try to promote it to the best of our ability, but the result may not be the best for our business."

One reason is that sustainably- sourced seafood is 10 to 20 per cent more expensive.

But Mr Ng says that can be countered by choosing the cheaper types of fish, such as sea bass instead of red garoupa.

Global Oceanlink's staff strength has grown from 10 in 2008 to 40, with about half the employees Singaporean, a fact that Mr Ng is proud of.

"We do not rely heavily on foreign workers because we do not see the need to do that, unless it is a job... no Singaporean would take up, like butchery service."

Having trawled the local market, Global Oceanlink is now looking at casting its nets further afield.

It is thinking of taking its supply model to Malaysia, where it already has close business links.

Mr Ng points out: "We're always expanding, we've never stopped. Every day is a race."

- See more at:

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China ‘for the first time admits' trading in tiger skin

Navin Singh Khadka BBC World Service 11 Jul 14;

China has for the first time admitted that it permits trade in skins from captive tigers, participants and officials at a meeting of an international convention to protect endangered species have said.

They say Chinese authorities had never before reported this.

"We don't not ban trade in tiger skins but we do ban trade in tiger bones," a participant at the meeting said.

Between 5,000 and 6,000 tigers are believed to be in captivity in China.

The admission was made by a member of the Chinese delegation at a Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) meeting in Geneva.

Chinese officials have not responded to a BBC request as to the details of the statement.

Officials say a major report - with graphic details on how the Chinese government allows commercial trade in skins from captive tigers - was presented during the meeting.

Wildlife experts believe "tiger farming" in China has hugely fuelled demand for poaching and trafficking of the endangered species from elsewhere.

They say that the Chinese admission about the tiger skin trade will help pile pressure on the government to eradicate the practice.

Reports also say that facilities where captive tigers are held are "leaking tiger parts and live animals" for illegal international trade.

"The report presented in the meeting created a situation that required China to respond," said one participant, who did not want to be named.

"Basically when the meeting focused on the findings of this report, the Chinese delegate intervened and it was then when this admission came.

"It was the first time they admitted officially that this trade exists in China."

It is estimated that about 1,600 tigers - in captivity and in the wild - have been traded globally since 2000.

Reports say that in the past two years, there have been seizures of nearly 90 tigers likely to have been sourced from, or trafficked though, captive facilities across South East Asia and China.

While China has been a major market for tiger parts, wildlife experts say that Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia and Indonesia are also emerging as "tiger farming" countries.

Skins of tigers, leopards and snow leopards are valued among the political, military and business elite as luxury home decor in China.

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Leading scientists express rising concern about 'microplastics' in the ocean

Science Daily 10 Jul 14;

Microplastics -- microscopic particles of plastic debris -- are of increasing concern because of their widespread presence in the oceans and the potential physical and toxicological risks they pose to organisms.

This is the view of two of the world's most eminent authorities on the subject, Professor Kara Lavender Law, of Sea Education Association (Woods Hole, MA), and Professor Richard Thompson of Plymouth University (UK).

In an article published today in the journal Science, the two scientists have called for urgent action to "turn off the tap" and divert plastic waste away from the marine environment.

Microplastics have now been documented in all five of the ocean's subtropical gyres -- and have even been detected in Arctic sea ice -- with some of the highest accumulations occurring thousands of miles from land. These plastic bits have been found in organisms ranging in size from small invertebrates to large mammals, and are known to concentrate toxic chemicals already present in seawater. This raises concern about the potential consequences to marine organisms.

"Our scientific understanding of this environmental problem is accelerating rapidly, with many new research efforts that go well beyond simply documenting the presence of plastic in the ocean," said Professor Law, who led a 2008 paper in Science describing widespread plastic contamination in the North Atlantic Ocean from more than 25 years of data collected by Sea Education Association faculty and undergraduate students during SEA Semester study abroad voyages.

Most studies of ocean microplastic focus on the debris that floats at the sea surface, but this leaves other potential collections of plastic unaccounted for.

"Major unanswered questions remain about the amounts of microplastic debris that might be accumulating on the seafloor," said Professor Thompson, whose 2004 paper in Science first coined the term 'microplastics'. "We also know very little about where, geographically, are the largest inputs of plastic to the marine environment."

Despite open questions such as these, the authors say that microplastics are already something to worry about, and that efforts are needed to divert the source of this debris away from the ocean, or to "turn off the tap." This was the message that Professor Thompson delivered to Senator John Kerry last month at the US State Department's Our Oceans Conference: Marine Pollution. Both say that plastic waste should be viewed as a valuable resource to be captured and re-used, which would simultaneously reduce the amount entering the environment.

Policy initiatives have been gaining momentum at municipal, state, and national levels in the U.S. In June this year Illinois passed legislation banning microbeads (microplastics used in cosmetic products that enter the environment through wastewater), with similar legislation pending in New York and California, and recently introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives. In April this year the European Parliament voted to reduce the consumption of single use plastic carrier bags and phase out bags that fragment rather than degrade.

"We have been conducting an unintended experiment with the addition of large amounts of this human-made material into the environment," said Law. "But this is a solvable problem. By each of us making small changes in our daily habits -- by carrying reusable water bottles and coffee mugs, for example -- we can collectively reduce our dependence on 'disposable' items that might ultimately be lost to the environment."

Journal Reference: Kara Lavender Law, Richard C. Thompson. Microplastics in the seas. Science, 2014 DOI: 10.1126/science.1254065

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'Bee-harming' pesticides also hit bird populations

AFP Yahoo News 9 Jul 14;

Paris (AFP) - Already suspected of killing bees, so-called "neonic" pesticides also affect bird populations, possibly by eliminating the insects they feed upon, a Dutch study said on Wednesday.

The new paper comes weeks after an international panel of 29 experts found that birds, butterflies, worms and fish were being harmed by neonicotinoid insecticides, although details of this impact were sketchy.

Studying areas of the Netherlands where surface water had high concentrations of one such chemical, imidacloprid, it found that the population of 15 bird species tumbled by 3.5 percent annually compared to places where the pesticide's level was far lower.

The fall, monitored from 2003 to 2010, coincided with rising use of imidacloprid, noted the study led by Caspar Hallmann of Radboud University in Nijmegen.

Authorised in the Netherlands in 1994, annual use of this neonicotinoid increased more than ninefold by 2004, according to official figures. Much of the chemical was found to have been sprayed at excessive concentrations.

By wiping out insects -- a crucial source of food at breeding times -- it affected the birds' ability to reproduce, the authors suggested, cautioning that other causes could not be ruled out.

Nine of the 15 bird species monitored are exclusively insectivore.

"Our results suggest that the impact of neonicotinoids on the natural environment is even more substantial than has been reported in the past," declared the probe, published in the journal Nature.

"Future legislation should take into account the potential cascading effects of neonicotinoids on ecosystems."

Neonics are widely-used as a seed treatment for arable crops. They are designed to be absorbed by the growing seedling and be toxic for the nervous system of crop-munching pests.

In a commentary carried by Nature, Dave Goulson, a biologist at Britain's Sussex University, said neonicotinoids may well have a long-term impact on insect populations.

Only about five percent of the pesticide's active ingredient is actually absorbed by the crop, he said.

Most of the rest enters the soil and soil water, where it can persist for months and even years -- it can take more than 1,000 days for concentrations to fall by half.

- Accumulative -

As a result, the chemicals build up over time if fields are sprayed seasonally or annually, he said.

The chemical may also be taken up by the roots of hedgerows and follow-on crops, and be washed from soils into lakes, canals and rivers, where it could affect aquatic insects, a food for birds and fish, Goulson said.

He saw a similar knock-on process to that of DDT, a notorious pesticide whose environmental damage came to the fore in 1962 thanks to Rachel Carson's investigation "Silent Spring."

The debate over neonics has raged since the late 1990s, when French beekeepers blamed them for the collapse of honeybee colonies.

In 2013, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) declared that neonic pesticides posed an "unacceptable risk" to bees.

This was followed by a vote by the European Union in favour of a two-year moratorium on the use of three widely used neonic chemicals on flowering crops, which are visited by bees.

But the measure does not affect barley and wheat, nor does it cover pesticides used in gardens or public areas.

Last month, the White House ordered the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to carry out its own review of the effect of neonicotinoids on bees.

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Coastal flooding has surged in U.S., Reuters finds

Ryan McNeill and Deborah J. Nelson Reuters Yahoo News 11 Jul 14;

(Reuters) - Coastal flooding along the densely populated Eastern Seaboard of the United States has surged in recent years, a Reuters analysis has found.

During the past four decades, the number of days a year that tidal waters reached or exceeded National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration flood thresholds more than tripled in many places, the analysis found. At flood threshold, water can begin to pool on streets. As it rises farther, it can close roads, damage property and overwhelm drainage systems.

Since 2001, water has reached flood levels an average of 20 days or more a year in Annapolis, Maryland; Wilmington, North Carolina; Washington, D.C.; Atlantic City, New Jersey; Sandy Hook, New Jersey; and Charleston, South Carolina. Before 1971, none of those locations averaged more than five days a year. Annapolis had the highest average number of days a year above flood thresholds since 2001, at 34.

The analysis was undertaken as part of a broader examination of rising sea levels Reuters plans to publish later this year.

As many Americans question the causes and even the reality of climate change, increased flooding is already posing a major challenge for local governments in much of the United States.

“Chronic flooding is a problem our coastal managers are dealing with every day,” said Mary Munson, executive director of the Coastal States Organization, a Washington nonprofit representing 35 states and territories. “Flooding causes the quality of life in these communities to decrease along with the property values, while the flood insurance rates go up.”

In Charleston, for example, a six-lane thoroughfare regularly becomes impassable when high tides block rainwater from emptying into the Atlantic Ocean, restricting access for half of the city to three hospitals, four schools and police headquarters. The city, which has more than 120,000 residents, has $200 million in flood-control projects underway.

Laura Cabiness, director of public service for Charleston, said street flooding has always been a problem in the low-lying city. But more recently, she said, “it’s deeper than usual and higher than usual, and the tide has remained higher longer.”

For its analysis, Reuters collected more than 25 million hourly tide-gauge readings from nearly 70 sites on the Atlantic, Gulf and Pacific coasts and compared them to NOAA flood thresholds.

Reuters then narrowed the analysis to include only the 25 gauges with data spanning at least 50 years. Nineteen gauges were on the Eastern Seaboard, three on the West Coast, and three on the Gulf Coast. Comparing the years prior to 1971 to the years since 2001, the average number of days a year that readings exceeded flood thresholds had increased at all gauges except two: those in St. Petersburg, Florida, and Woods Hole, Massachusetts.

The trend roughly tracks the global rise in sea levels. The oceans have risen an average of 8 inches in the past century, according to the 2014 National Climate Assessment. Levels have increased as much as twice that in areas of the Atlantic and Gulf coasts where the ground is sinking because of subsidence – a process whereby natural geological forces or the extraction of underground water, oil or gas cause the ground to sink.

The most dramatic increases in annual flood-level days occurred at 10 gauges from New York City to the Georgia-South Carolina border, a stretch of coast where subsidence accounts for as much as half the rise in sea level in some locations, according to U.S. Geological Survey studies.

Charles Chesnutt, a coastal engineer with the Institute for Water Resources, a policy and planning arm of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said the evidence “is very compelling and suggests we ought to be looking more seriously at the problems that are coming at us now.” The Corps of Engineers is the lead federal agency on coastal flood control projects.

The Reuters findings are supported by a pair of soon-to-be-published studies from scientists at NOAA and Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. Reuters adapted its methodologies from those scientists and sought their input.

Old Dominion University researchers Tal Ezer and Larry Atkinson found in their study that the U.S. East Coast is “a hotspot of accelerated flooding,” and that flooding outside of storm events has increased in frequency and duration.

They found that changes in the Gulf Stream may be contributing to increased flooding from rising sea levels. The current off the Atlantic Coast pulls water away from the shore as it flows northeastward from Cape Hatteras. The researchers said that as the climate has warmed, the current has weakened, so it’s not pulling as much water away.

The NOAA study examines flooding at 45 tide stations around the United States. It is expected to be released this summer.

Flood thresholds are indicators, not confirmation, of flooding, but scientists say the tide gauge readings are a reliable measure of increased flooding.

When seas hit the flood threshold in Annapolis, the 306-year-old city that is home to the U.S. Naval Academy, forecasters expect water to start ponding in the historic city dock area. A few inches more, and water begins reaching backyards and the tops of storm drains in some areas.

During high tides on April 30 and May 1, and again on May 16, more than six inches of water swamped restaurants and shops in historic buildings along the city dock. Makeshift flood walls of boards and garbage cans blocked doorways. People removed their shoes and rolled up their pants to wade to work.

(Edited by John Blanton)

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Natural disaster costs down so far in 2014: Munich Re

Maria Sheahan PlanetArk 10 Jul 14;

Floods, storms and other natural disasters claimed more than 2,700 lives and caused around $42 billion in damage worldwide in the first half of 2014, but this was well below the first half of last year and a 10-year average, reinsurer Munich Re said on Wednesday.

The world's biggest reinsurer said landslides and flash floods in Afghanistan were the deadliest disasters, claiming more than 650 lives, while snow storms in Japan were the costliest, with insured losses of more than $2.5 billion.

Storm "Ela", which hit parts of western Europe in early June, is expected to cost insurers about 1.8 billion euros ($2.5 billion), Munich Re said. In Germany alone, insured losses from the storm came to 650 million euros.

But the $42 billion bill in the first half and the $17 billion in claims paid by insurers were below the average of the last 10 years of $95 billion and $25 billion, respectively, Munich Re said in its six-monthly review of natural disasters.

The number of deaths worldwide fell to a fraction of the 53,000 seen on average over the last 10 years and the 9,100 recorded in the first half of 2013.

"Of course, it is good news that natural catastrophes have been relatively mild so far," Torsten Jeworrek, Munich Re's board member responsible for the global reinsurance business, said in a statement.

"But we should not forget that there has been no change in the overall risk situation."

Munich Re's assessment echoed other warnings that it currently looked as though El Nino - a warming of sea temperatures in the Pacific Ocean - would develop in the autumn.

El Nino affects wind patterns and can trigger both floods and drought in different parts of the globe, hitting crops and food supply. Munich Re said a strong El Nino would make it more likely that there will be La Nina system in the following year, which tends to cause an increase in hurricane activity.

Reinsurers such as Munich Re and rival Swiss Re help insurance companies to cover the cost of heavy damage claims from disasters such as floods, hurricanes or earthquakes in exchange for part of the premiums the insurers charge their customers.

Munich Re is expected to say what its own share of losses was in the first half when it publishes financial results on Aug. 7.

(Reporting by Maria Sheahan; Editing by Kirsti Knolle and Jane Merriman)

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Global warming requires more frequent rethink of 'normal' weather: U.N.

Alister Doyle PlanetArk 10 Jul 14;

The baseline for "normal" weather used by everyone from farmers to governments to plan ahead needs to be updated more frequently to account for the big shifts caused by global warming, the U.N.'s World Meteorological Organization said on Wednesday.

The WMO's Commission for Climatology believes rising temperatures and more heatwaves and heavy rains mean the existing baseline, based on the climate averages of 1961-90, is out of date as a guide, the WMO said in a statement.

"For water resources, agriculture and energy, the old averages no longer reflect the current realities," Omar Baddour, head of the data management applications at the WMO, told Reuters.

A government trying to decide where to build river flood defenses or a hydroelectric dam based on average rainfall could be misled by the 1961-90 data, for example, while a farmer studying average temperatures might plant crops that wilt in warmer conditions, he said.

Under current rules, the 1961-90 baseline is due to be updated in 2021, with the data from 1991-2020. The Commission for Climatology wants to see rolling updates every decade, making the current baseline 1981-2010 and the next period 1991-2020.

Some weather services have already adopted new baselines, which just causes confusion, the WMO said.

"Different researchers and weather services are using different baselines, which results in inconsistent comparisons," it said.

Baddour said the WMO also wants to retain the 1961-90 benchmark to judge long-term trends in climate change.

Last year, the U.N.'s panel of climate scientists raised the probability that human activities, led by the use of fossil fuels, are the main cause of global warming to at least 95 percent from 90 in a previous assessment in 2007.

(Reporting by Alister Doyle; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)

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