Own the conversation this weekend with The WTF, a top-5 collection of the current and topical environmental news briefs, delivered with a side of humour.

The WTF: The Week This Friday Vol. 54

This is the Week This Friday! 5 quick-and-smart briefs about happenings in the environmental space.

Hooray for the ‘Humpback Comeback’

Source: CTV News

In the species conservation community, the ‘bad news’ tends to outweigh the ‘good news, and seemingly by a large margin. But, as team A\J works on an issue dedicated to exploring the work of species conservation, we keep bumping into ‘good news stories. Stories that engender hope that perhaps we’re not too late and our right-now efforts (let alone our historic efforts) have not been in vain. 

So you can imagine our delight in reading a recent news report about the ‘humpback comeback’ to the BC waters that researchers have recently discovered. Researchers from the Pacific Whale Watch Association explain that the number of humpback whales in the Salish Sea has “increased exponentially since a single whale was spotted in the region over 20 years ago.” In a statement released Tuesday of this week, the Association noted that the number of humpback whales migrating each summer to feed in the nutrient-rich Salish Sea now number in the hundreds.

While no conclusions were drawn as to the cause of the humpback whales’ resurgence in these particular waters, the researchers will now continue to be able to conduct studies that will continue to inform the broader community’s work in facilitating better management solutions for preserving at-risk aquatic populations.

Cambodia Charges Environmental Activists for Recording Pollution

Source: Mother Nature Cambodia

A court in Cambodia is charging three environmental activists for treason and insulting the king after they reported on a waste run-off system that was polluting a local river. It is important to note that the documentation of this pollution was not explicitly placing blame on the Cambodian monarchy, but rather disparaging the country’s management of its natural systems.

The three that have been charged are from an environmental activist group known as Mother Nature Cambodia. This group has decided to report on all environmental issues in the country, even though many activist reporters are often silenced by the government for doing so. They hope that garnering attention to these issues causes an action to be taken to protect the Cambodian environment. It seems that this group is used to such backlash from their government, as they have stated,

“Our brave campaign activist reporters refuse to be silenced. They have endured harassment, oppression, and even imprisonment.”

The activists that have been charged for this event are facing a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison, however, the court has not justified the arrest other than stating that “evidence” points to their reporting being an “insult to the king”. This action by law is unethical, as it limits freedom of speech and criminalizes those fighting (peacefully) for nature.

Embassies in Cambodia, such as the United States and Sweden, have been critical of these charges and have condemned such actions. It now lies with the defendants seeking proper counsel and hopefully changes within the Cambodian legal system to release the unguilty defenders. 

Examining the Ecological Consequences of Sunscreens

Source: Vancouver is Awesome

A recent CBC News article highlights the work being done to better understand the true impacts of the chemicals in our sunscreen products on the aquatic ecosystem. While it is generally understood by most of us that the chemicals on our bodies that get exposed to our lakes, rivers, and oceans do ‘wash off’, there’s been a lack of in-depth research that aims to quantify the danger.

“The sunscreens that you put on, the pharmaceuticals that you take, you know a portion of these are getting back into the environment,” said Brett Sallach, an assistant professor in environmental chemistry at the University of York in the U.K, one of the participating academic institutions involved in the study. “And that’s really where our research focuses to try to understand how much is being released and then what effects that might have.”

For sunscreen products, the main concern relates to two UV-filtering chemicals, oxybenzone, and octinoxate. Both of these chemicals have been identified as possibly causing harm to both coral reefs and freshwater fish. And while researchers would obviously like to eliminate any possibility of harm to the broader aquatic ecosystem, they are also fully aware that these chemicals also currently play a vital role in human health protection vis-a-vis the harmful effects of UVA and UVB rays. 

“This isn’t a vanity issue. These are compounds that are really important for human health protection. So we want to make sure we have a really good environmental risk assessment before we make draconian changes to the products that are available,” said Sallach.

Much of the freshwater fish research is being conducted by environmental toxicology professor Kyungho Choi at Seoul National University in South Korea. After eight years of study, Dr. Choi advises that “(w)e have found that these compounds damage reproduction in fish and also hormonal balances,” he said. “In addition, we found these compounds could damage kidney function and neurological behavioral function.”

Dr. Choi reminds us that the more we know – and the sooner – the better we will be able to make the appropriate decisions. “(W)e cannot simply ignore the possibility of ecological consequences based on this experimental data,” said Choi.

Helium Balloons Killing the Great Lakes Ecosystem

Source: The Weather Network

A recent news article suggests that a few hundred thousand helium balloons are washing up on the shores of Great Lakes all across Canada. In one beach near Lake Eerie alone, which spanned only 7km in length, 380 helium balloons were found. This number is likely incredibly higher in other shorelines with larger lengths.

The sheer amount of these balloons ending up in our lakes likely has to do with the release of these items in events or holidays in Canada. This accumulation is to do with current celebrations and has been a gradual debris increase throughout decades of traditional North American events.

The environmental problem lies in the life-cycle of these balloons. Even if a balloon were to degrade over time, it leaves behind small plastic litter that is spread over multiple natural ecosystems. Animals that ingest these particles can die from having them block their intestinal tracks or even starve to death, as it provides no nutritional value but can mimic a full stomach. Moreover, animals can die from being strangled by the strings of the balloons or can drown from the weight of the item pulling them down into the water.

An alternative to celebratory balloons is having events with recyclable scrap confetti, planting a tree for someone, or simply having a balloon-less party. After all, one less balloon means one better lake and many saved animals. 

Ancient Soils are The Saving Grace in Conservation Work

Source: MBS International

The world’s richest ecosystem is currently located in the ancient soils across the world. This was discovered by researchers at the University of Western Australia, who have concluded that the most diverse ecosystems grow in ancient infertile soils.

They conducted their study in over 100 international sites, such as Australia, Brazil, California, and many more. In doing so, they concluded that soils across the globe had a pattern in being rich and ecologically important, based on their maturity. For example, on the southern coast of Western Australia, the landscape contains many rare and endangered fauna and flora due to its soil composition.

These “hotspots” in biodiversity have many characteristics in common. The soil contents of these areas are old, have little to no disturbance, have very low fertility, and therefore only usable by certain flora. However, not much is known about the evolution of these landscapes and how this similar property could be replicated in other conservation work.

It is surely important that the soil is undisturbed and, even if it has low fertility, its lack of alternation by human development has likely contributed to its overall biological and ecological success. Moreover, this will shift the focus of soil research to upland places (such as outcrops or plains) rather than wetlands or coastal communities, in the hope to conserve biodiversity. 

Ishani Dasgupta is majoring in Environment, Resources, and Sustainability (ERS), while also pursuing a minor in English & Literature Studies, at the University of Waterloo. She is a dedicated environmental writer and has worked throughout the course of her career to write about the challenges faced by communities, natural spaces, and activists alike regarding the destruction of the natural environment–she is interested in exploring global inequities created by the current Anthropocene. In her free time, Ishani likes to make music, read, and go on nature walks. Ishani is taking on the role of an editorial intern for Alternatives Journal (A/J).

David McConnachie is A\J’s publisher.