Dear EarthTalk: Commercial whaling was banned around the world years ago, but some nations continue to hunt whales. Why is this and what's being done about it? -- Jackie O'Neill, Hershey, Pa.
Sadly for our world and its biodiversity, whales are still being killed despite an international ban on commercial whaling. Indeed, rampant whaling over the last two centuries has decimated just about every whale population around the globe. According to Greenpeace, many whale species are down to around 1 percent of their estimated former abundance before the days of commercial whaling.
Fourteen whaling nations came together in 1946 to form the International Whaling Commission (IWC) to manage whale stocks and recommend hunting limits where appropriate. But the continuing decline of populations forced the IWC to call for an outright ban on all commercial whaling in 1986. But Japan, Norway and Iceland continue to defy the ban, each harvesting hundreds if not more whales every year.
"The Japanese invented the concept of `scientific' whaling in 1987 as a way around the moratorium on commercial whaling," reported Greenpeace. "Their research is not really research. It is an excuse for supplying whale meat on the Japanese market."
The research consists, among other things, of analysis of the contents of the digestive tract. The data on what the animals eat is then used to argue that whales eat too much commercially important fish and that the populations should be culled to save the fish, argued Greenpeace, and that the Japanese selectively release data on certain species and ignore data on others.
Norway resumed whaling in 1993 "as an attempt by the political party in power at the time to gain popularity in northern Norway," according to Greenpeace. "In order to justify its hunt, Norwegian scientists calculated a population estimate, which was later found to be much higher than the data supported."
And Iceland increased its whaling dramatically in recent years.
"In 2010 alone, Icelandic whalers killed hundreds of whales -- including endangered fin whales -- and shipped more than 750 tons of whale meat and products to Japan, whose market is already glutted with whale meat from its own `scientific research whaling' program," reported the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
Several green groups including NRDC recently petitioned the Obama administration to take action against Iceland under the Pelly Amendment to the Fisherman's Protective Act.
"The Amendment allows the President to impose trade sanctions against a country that is `diminishing the effectiveness' of a conservation agreement -- in Iceland's case the whaling moratorium and another international treaty that prohibits trade in endangered species," said NRDC. The petition names several Iceland firms -- including major seafood companies with ties to Iceland's whaling industry -- as potential targets for trade sanctions.
Greenpeace has been pressuring Japan to not only end its own whaling but also its support of whaling by other nations not abiding by the IWC moratorium.
"We are working around the world to increase the pressure put on Japan by conservation-minded governments at the IWC to close the political loopholes that allow the reckless hunt to continue," said Greenpeace, "and to highlight the vote-buying that keep these loopholes in existence."
Dear EarthTalk: I couldn't believe my ears: "genetically engineered mosquitoes?" Why on Earth would they be created? And I understand there are plans to release them into the wild? -- Marissa Abingdon, Sumter, S.C.
Yes it's true, genetically engineered mosquitoes, which were bred in the lab to transmit a gene during the reproductive process that kills their offspring, have already been used on an experimental basis in three countries -- the Cayman Islands, Malaysia and Brazil -- to counteract the quickly spreading mosquito-borne viral infection dengue fever. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that as many as 100 million cases of humans infected with dengue fever -- which causes a severe flu-like illness and can in certain instances be fatal -- occur annually in more than 100 tropical and sub-tropical countries.
The British company behind the project, Oxitec, is focusing initially on dengue fever, given that the particular virus which causes it is only carried by one sub-species of mosquito. This makes the illness easier to target than malaria, for instance, which is carried by many different types of mosquitoes.
Oxitec first released some of the genetically modified mosquitoes in the Cayman Island in the Caribbean in 2009, much to the surprise of the international community and environmental advocates, many of whom are opposed to genetic engineering in any of its forms due to the unknown and unintended side effects that unleashing transgenic organisms into the world could cause.
In Brazil, where the largest experiments have been carried out to date, the government is backing a new facility designed to breed millions of genetically engineered mosquitoes to help keep dengue fever at bay.
Dengue fever isn't considered to be a big problem in the U.S. as yet. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that most of the dengue fever cases showing up in the continental U.S. are among those who have travelled to sub-tropical and tropical areas of the world. Still, WHO reports that the incidence of dengue fever in the U.S. has increased some thirty-fold over the last half century.
A proposal by Oxitec to test its transgenic mosquitoes in the Florida Keys has some locals upset. In April 2012, the town of Key West passed an ordinance prohibiting the release of the mosquitoes pending further testing on possible implications for the environment. In the meantime, Oxitec has applied to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for a patent on their mosquito and permission to release them in the U.S.
Some 80,000 people have signed onto a campaign on the Change.org website calling on the FDA to deny Oxitec's application. Mila de Mier, the Key West mother who launched the campaign, is concerned about the potential consequences of releasing an experimental organism on a delicate ecosystem.
"Oxitec's business goal is to sell genetically modified mosquitoes in the United States," said de Mier. --¦ we've already said we don't want these mosquitoes in our backyards, but Oxitec isn't listening." More definitive scientific study is needed, she said, that looks at the potential long-term impacts.
EarthTalk is by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss of E -- The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.