Ropeless fishing tech could help save rare whale, say scientists

Virtual buoys and time triggered traps reduce risk to endangered North Atlantic right whale, but reactions among fishers in US and Canada are mixed

EdgeTech Ropeless Fishing System
Ropeless tech avoids the need for vertical lines Photograph: EdgeTech

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About this contentAshifa Kassam@ashifa_kThu 8 Apr 2021 06.43 EDT


Ropes that spring to the water’s surface when summoned and virtual buoys could hold the key to saving one of the world’s most endangered whale species, scientists and conservation groups have said.

As the North Atlantic right whale nears the brink of extinction – amid reports of whales tangled in metres of thick fishing lines and findings suggesting 85% of the population have been entangled at least once – calls have grown for the adoption of ropeless fishing, using gear that does not involve any vertical lines.

“Ropeless was seen as a kind of crazy idea before,” said Mark Baumgartner of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) in Massachusetts, US. “But now it looks like the only actual solution to the problem.”

In recent years officials in the US and Canada have responded to the dwindling population of whales with a series of closures in key fishing areas, an approach that has at times prompted outcry from fishers, according to marine biologist and WHOI veterinarian Michael Moore.

“Some people say we need to make some hard decisions and let the species go or let the industry go,” said Moore, who heads the Ropeless Consortium, a group that engages researchers, conservationists and industry on ropeless technology. “I don’t believe that’s true.”

Researchers examine a dead North Atlantic right whale in the gulf of Saint Lawrence in Canada
Researchers examine a dead North Atlantic right whale in the gulf of Saint Lawrence in Canada. Collisions with ships or entanglement in fishing gear are common causes of death. Photograph: HO/AP

With half a dozen or so companies working to develop ropeless gear, the technology varies widely. At its essence the gear allows traps to be dropped along the seabed without the traditional vertical line, swapping surface buoys for GPS or other tracking technology that indicates the location of traps. When it is time to retrieve the traps, an acoustic signal or timer triggers the trap to rise to the surface.Advertisement

The technology doesn’t completely do away with fishing lines in the water. In commercial lobster fishing, for example, ropes would still be used to connect traps to each other as they sit on the seabed.

“But if there is no rope in the water column, the entanglement risk goes down very substantially,” said Moore, who cited calculations that suggest the risk could drop by as much as 90%.

The technology is not without its challenges, chief among them the high cost of swapping out the million or so vertical lines currently strewn across the whales’ migratory pathways, said Patrick Ramage of the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

“We’re not going to be able to put this financial burden on the backs of individual fishermen,” says Ramage. He hoped that governments in the US and Canada as well as philanthropic sources would step in to help cover the cost of the transition.

As companies grapple with the lingering technical challenges, such as how to ensure that the gear placed in the water by fishers is universally visible to others, the technology has also come up against regulatory barriers, said Ramage.

In the US, state and federal regulators have all but barred ropeless fishing, allowing it only for those who successfully wade through a “somewhat daunting” process of applying for an exemption, said Ramage. In Massachusetts, for example, state regulations continue to require at least one vertical buoy rope while fishing.

Lobster buoys and fishing net hanging on the wall of a weathered fishing shack in Massachusetts
State regulations in Massachusetts require at least one vertical buoy rope. Photograph: LI Cook/Alamy

Among fishers the reaction to ropeless has been divided. In a December letter to state officials, the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association dismissed the idea. “This transition would take hundreds of millions of dollars and decades to implement and outfit every commercial fishing vessel that is on the water,” wrote Beth Casoni, the association’s executive director. Casoni did not reply to a request for an interview.Advertisement

In Canadian waters, the Acadian Crabbers Association has been testing ropeless since 2018. “When we started, we were very leery as to the possibility of this being workable in a real fishery situation,” said Robert Haché, director general of the association.

But they felt they had few other options, he said. Measures enacted by the Canadian government to protect the whales saw the closure of about 75% of their fishing grounds in the southern gulf of Saint Lawrence last year. “It’s either [ropeless] or our fishery is doomed because we cannot keep on being thrown out of our fishing grounds systematically every year,” said Haché.

A limited trial – carried out by 10 fishers over two weeks last year – yielded promising results. “We’re quite enthusiastic about this because we think that this can work and this is going to work,” said Haché. Plans are in the works for an expanded trial in May, involving as many as 21 fishers who hope to use the technology to fish in closed areas for up to eight weeks.

“For us, it’s the ideal solution to fish in areas that are closed to fishing because of the presence of whales,” he said. He was hesitant, however, to endorse the use of ropeless in open waters. “We’re quite far away from looking at this as being a solution for widespread deployment of fishers and deployment of traps,” said Haché.

EdgeTech ropeless fishing
Technology for ropeless fishing varies, but at its essence swaps surface buoys for GPS or other digital tracking. Photograph: EdgeTech


This potential compromise – allowing ropeless fishing in closed-off areas – is now being considered by the US federal government, said Moore of the Ropeless Consortium. “In some ways it’s giving back to the industry what has already been taking away from them, rather than taking more away from them … It’s a question of the carrot and the stick really.”

The small incentive could help usher in a healthier coexistence between the whales and the fishing industry, said Moore. With the global population of North Atlantic right whales estimated to have dwindled to 356 in 2019, however, time is of the essence.

“The trauma these animals are going through is utterly unacceptable,” said Moore, pointing to examples of injuries ranging from fishing rope embedded inches-deep in a whale’s lip to a spinal disfigurement caused by the strain of dragging fishing gear.

He described entanglement as a “human-caused traumatic disease” that has pushed the species to the brink. “For the past 20 years I’ve been having nightmares about what these animals are going through.”

Endangered North Atlantic right whales produce most calves since 2015

  • Scientists caution high death rate is outpacing births
  • Population of whales estimated at around 360
A North Atlantic right whale mother and calf in waters near Cumberland Island, Georgia in March.
A North Atlantic right whale mother and calf in waters near Cumberland Island, Georgia in March. Photograph: AP

Associated Press in BostonSat 3 Apr 2021 12.47 EDT


North Atlantic right whales gave birth over the winter in greater numbers than scientists have seen since 2015, an encouraging sign for researchers who became alarmed three years ago when the critically endangered species produced no known offspring at all.

Survey teams spotted 17 newborn calves swimming with their mothers between Florida and North Carolina from December through March. One calf died after being hit a boat, a reminder of a death rate experts fear is outpacing births.

The calf-count equals the combined total for the previous three years. In a dismal 2018, scientists saw no births for the first time in three decades. Still, researchers say greater numbers are needed. The population of the endangered marine giants is estimated to have fallen to about 360.Advertisement

“What we are seeing is what we hope will be the beginning of an upward climb in calving that’s going to continue for the next few years,” said Clay George, who oversees right whale surveys for the Georgia state government. “They need to be producing about two dozen calves per year for the population to stabilize and continue to grow.”

Right whales migrate each winter to waters off the south-eastern US. Spotters fly over the coastline during calving season, scanning the water for mothers with newborns.

Flights over Georgia and Florida ended on Wednesday, the last day of March, typically the season’s end. Spotters will monitor waters off the Carolinas through 15 April, hoping to pick up overlooked newborns as the whales head north.

This season’s calf count matches 17 births recorded in 2015. The record is 39, confirmed in 2009. Scientists suspect a calving slump may have been caused by a shortage of zooplankton in the Gulf of Maine and the Bay of Fundy. They say the increase in births could be a result of whales being healthier after shifting to waters with more abundant food sources.

“It’s a somewhat hopeful sign that they are starting to adjust to this new regime where females are in good enough condition to give birth,” said Philip Hamilton, a researcher at the New England Aquarium in Boston.

Regardless, conservationists worry that right whales are dying, largely from manmade causes, at a faster rate than they can reproduce. Since 2017, scientists have confirmed 34 right whale deaths in US and Canadian waters, with the leading causes being entanglement in fishing gear and collisions with boats and ships.

Considering whales were documented in the same period with serious injuries, researchers fear the real death toll could be at least 49. Thirty nine births have been recorded since 2017.

“If we reduced or eliminated the human-caused death rate, their birth rate would be fine,” Hamilton said. “The onus should not be on them to reproduce at a rate that can sustain the rate at which we kill them. The onus should be in us to stop killing.”

World's most endangered right whale spotted off Spanish island – video
World’s most endangered right whale spotted off Spanish island – video


The US federal government is expected to finalize new rules aimed at decreasing the number of right whales tangled up in fishing gear used to catch lobster and crabs. Proposals to reduce vertical fishing lines and modify seasonal restricted areas have met with heated debate. Fishermen say the rules could put them out of businesses. Conservation groups insist they aren’t strict enough.

The National Marine Fisheries Service received more than 170,000 public comments on the proposed rules after a report was issued on 31 December, said agency spokeswoman Allison Garrett. She said final rules should be published this summer.

Garrett said the fisheries service is also considering adjustments to federal rules that since 2008 have imposed speed limits on larger vessels in certain Atlantic waters during periods when right whales are frequently seen. A report in January found mariners’ compliance with the speed rules had improved but still lagged below 25% for large commercial vessels at four ports in the south-east.

“We’ve long known from the survival estimates that more right whales are dying than those we see,” said George, the whale survey coordinator for Georgia. “They need to be producing a lot more calves. But the big issue is we’ve got to significantly reduce the number than are being entangled in fishing ropes and struck by boats.”

US Judge Blocks Nevada Grazing; Sage Grouse Totals Dwindling

A federal judge has blocked a project in Nevada that would expand livestock grazing across 400 square miles of some of the highest priority sage-grouse habitat in the West.

By Associated Press, Wire Service ContentMarch 31, 2021, at 8:08 p.m.More

U.S. News & World Report

US Judge Blocks Nevada Grazing; Sage Grouse Totals DwindlingMore

The Associated Press

FILE – In this April 20, 2013, file photo, male greater sage grouse perform mating rituals for a female grouse, not pictured, on a lake outside Walden, Colo. A federal judge has blocked a Nevada project that would expand livestock grazing across 400 squares miles (1,036 square kilometers), of some of the highest priority sage-grouse habitat in the West and accused the government of deliberately misleading the public by underestimating damage the cattle could do to the land. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File) THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

BY SCOTT SONNER, Associated Press

RENO, Nev. (AP) — A federal judge has blocked a Nevada project that would expand livestock grazing across 400 squares miles (1,036 square kilometers) of some of the highest priority sage-grouse habitat in the West and accused the government of deliberately misleading the public by underestimating damage the cattle could do to the land.Recommended VideosPowered by AnyClipWildlife reserve builds giant sand castle to attract sand martins32.4KPlay Video PLAYINGWildlife reserve builds giant sand castle to attract sand martinsShipping rates and oil prices jump on Suez blockFrench farmers fret over subsidies in post-Brexit EU budget talksIndian farmers dig in over agricultural reform protestsOTD in Space – Aug. 18: Total Solar Eclipse Leads to Discovery of Helium

The ruling comes as scientists continue to document dramatic declines in greater sage-grouse populations across 11 western states — down 65% since 1986 and 37% since 2002, according to a new report by the U.S. Geological Survey.

Its numbers have shrunk to less than a quarter of what they were a half century ago, the USGS said Tuesday. If current trends continue, there’s only a 50% chance most of their remaining breeding grounds known as “leks” will still be productive in 60 years, it said.

Citing concerns about grouse, U.S. administrative judge Harvey Sweitzer sided with conservationists in Nevada and suspended approval of new grazing permits for a swath of rangeland larger than Rhode Island. It stretches to Utah and includes a ranch once owned by Bing Crosby.

The senior judge at the Interior Department’s Office of Hearings and Appeals in Salt Lake City ruled March 19 the Bureau of Land Management failed to adequately examine potential harm to the grouse as required by the National Environmental Policy Act.

An administrative judge since 1970, when President Nixon signed the act into law, Sweitzer’s decision could have ramifications for several permits approved across the West in the final months of the Trump administration under a 2017 initiative dubbed “Outcome-Based Grazing.”

Then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said it loosened restrictions on ranchers to provide more flexibility to meet long-term rangeland health goals. Critics called it a “public land grab.”

“Instead of living up to its promise to conserve, enhance and restore sage-grouse habitat, BLM embraced habitat-destroying livestock grazing actions guaranteed to drive down bird numbers,” said Katie Fite, public lands director for WildLands Defense, which won the stay of the permits pending administrative appeal.

She said Sweitzer’s decision is a “well-justified rebuke to BLM’s industry-biased grazing program that goes to great lengths to circle the wagons around livestock interests at the expense of wildlife, biodiversity, watersheds and myriad public uses.”

Interior Department press secretary Tyler Cherry declined comment on the administrative ruling in an email Wednesday to The Associated Press.

But the department said in a statement Tuesday the decline of sage grouse documented by USGS reflects the overall loss of sagebrush habitat over decades from a variety of forces ranging from wildfires to energy development.

“The Interior Department is reviewing actions the Trump administration took to undermine carefully constructed land management plans to help conserve sagebrush habitat,” spokeswoman Melissa Schwartz said.

Nevada’s Winecup-Gamble ranch was among 11 designated as demonstration projects in 2018 under the “Outcome-Based” initiative along with ranches in OregonColoradoIdahoMontana and Wyoming.

Sweitzer agreed with WildLands Defense’s argument the grazing levels approved for Winecup-Gamble in December are substantially higher than the average number of cattle that actually grazed there the past decade. The stay he ordered is akin to a temporary injunction in U.S. district court.

He said the agency ignored rangeland health assessments its own experts conducted in June when they determined the allotments “are not currently meeting the seasonal habitat needs of sage-grouse.”

USGS says the latest study is the most expansive ever on the declining status of the hen-sized bird, which is considered an indicator species for the overall health of sagebrush-related ecosystems from the Rocky Mountains to the Sierra.

The Nevada project covers 1,460 square miles (3,781 square kilometers) of public and private land, including 860 square miles (2,227 square kilometers) of federal land with priority grouse habitat. More than one-third of those U.S. lands are considered sage-grouse strongholds with the highest densities of grouse and other criteria key to the species’ survival.

Sweitzer said the misrepresentations in the bureau’s environmental assessment stem from the baseline it used to calculate increases or decreases in cattle numbers permitted under various alternatives.

The agency’s comparisons are based on maximum allowable levels established in earlier allotments, sometimes decades ago, he said. Instead, the baseline should be the average actual use the previous 10 years.

As a result, he said, the 30% reduction the agency cites in what it portrayed as a grazing-reduction alternative “is illusory.”

Likewise, the bureau never addressed the effects of the real increase anticipated under the “Outcome-Based” alternative it adopted, he said. “In fact, the EA goes farther than silence on the subject and actively misleads the public.”

Environmentalists said the new USGS study highlights the urgency of addressing loss of grouse habitat regionwide.

“We cannot ignore this alarm bell,” said David Willms of the National Wildlife Federation in Denver. “This report shows that much more needs to be done to restore sagebrush habitat so that sage grouse populations recover and that all wildlife that lives in this ecosystem thrives.”

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Wind power company vows to help save critically endangered California condor

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Wind power company vows to help save critically endangered California condor (

An energy company in California is teaming up with federal wildlife officials and the Oregon Zoo in an innovative project to ease the plight of the mighty, soaring condor, a critically endangered species of vulture threatened by giant wind turbines in the Tehachapi mountains north-east of Los Angeles.a bird flying in the sky: Photograph: Marcio José Sánchez/AP© Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Marcio José Sánchez/AP

Avangrid Renewables, which operates 126 turbines as part of its Manzana wind power project, will finance the breeding of birds in captivity to replace any that might be killed by the 252ft diameter turbine blades.

The company will be “working with a captive breeding facility to fund the breeding of additional condors for release into the wild”, according to a statement by Scott Sobiech, field supervisor for the US Fish and Wildlife (FWS) service’s Carlsbad and Palm Springs office, and reported by the Los Angeles Times.a bird flying in the sky: A California condor takes flight in the Ventana Wilderness east of Big Sur, California.© Photograph: Marcio José Sánchez/AP A California condor takes flight in the Ventana Wilderness east of Big Sur, California.

The California condor, North America’s largest flying land bird with a 9.5ft wingspan, remains critically endangered, having been brought back from the edge of extinction four decades ago to a current population of about 518 birds in the wild, according to FWS.

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There is no record of any condors having been killed at the Manzana plant, which opened in 2012. But the breeding initiative reflects the increasing threat to the species.

“Our goal is to minimize the risk of mortalities. We see this as a win for condors,” Amy Parsons, Avangrid’s operations wildlife compliance manager, said.

About 100 California condors currently inhabit the region in Kern county where the turbines are located, all the product of a captive breeding program established by FWS in 1987, when barely two dozen of the birds remained.

The service began releasing birds back into the wild in 1992, and by 2008 numbers of wild condors overtook those in captivity for the first time in decades. The Times said some condors have recently been found roosting near Yosemite National Park, 300 miles north of the Manzana power plant, for the first time in half a century.

The threat to wildlife from renewable energy turbines has been a growing concern for environmentalists. In 2013, a study by the Wildlife Society into bird and bat fatalities at California’s Altamont Pass wind resource area projected 573,000 bird deaths a year nationally, including 83,000 raptors, and 888,000 bat fatalities.

The proposed Avangrid mitigation project anticipates incidental fatal injuries of up to two free-flying adult condors and the loss of their two chicks or two eggs over 30 years, the Times reported.

The company will pay $527,000 over three years to produce six condors at the Oregon Zoo’s Jonsson Center for Wildlife Conservation, one of four facilities that breeds condors. The Avangrid Foundation has previously funded the purchase of freezers and other equipment at the venue.

Endangered right whale found dead off S. Carolina beach

53 mins ago

Endangered right whale found dead off S. Carolina beach (

MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. (AP) — A critically endangered North Atlantic Right whale was found dead over the weekend off the coast of South Carolina, more than four months after it had been spotted entangled in fishing gear.

The National Marine Fisheries Service confirmed Sunday that the dead whale was discovered in waters about 15 miles (24 kilometers) offshore from Myrtle Beach. It’s the third right whale death recorded since the rare species’ calving season began in November along the southern East Coast.

Experts estimate fewer than 400 North Atlantic right whales survive. Pregnant females migrate each winter to the warmer coastal waters off Georgia and Florida to give birth to their calves.

The whale found dead off South Carolina was an 11-year-old male that had been entangled at least since October, when it was sighted off Nantucket, Massachusetts, swimming with a fishing line caught in its mouth and extending past its tail, the fisheries service said in a news release.

The same entangled whale was seen again in mid-February off Florida, where a team of experts was dispatched but was unable to free the whale.

Conservationists worry that North Atlantic right whales are slipping closer to extinction as deaths in recent years have outpaced births.

However, the 2021 calving season has proven to be the best in years. Survey teams dispatched to search by air for right whale mothers and newborn calves have so far spotted 15 calves — the most reported since 2015.

The calving season typically goes until mid-April.

Whale that stranded off Florida is completely new species (and already endangered)

By Chris Ciaccia – Live Science Contributor a day ago

This 38-foot-long (11.5 meters) baleen whale stranded off Florida in 2019. The adult male is now considered part of a completely new, and endangered, species called Rice's whale.This 38-foot-long (11.5 meters) baleen whale stranded off Florida in 2019. The adult male is now considered part of a completely new, and endangered, species called Rice’s whale.(Image: © Florida Everglades National Park)

A 38-foot-long (11.5 meters) whale that washed ashore in the Florida Everglades in January 2019 turns out to be a completely new species. And it’s already considered endangered, scientists say.

When the corpse of the behemoth washed up along Sandy Key — underweight with a hard piece of plastic in its gut — scientists thought it was a subspecies of the Bryde’s (pronounced “broodus”) whale, a baleen whale species in the same group that includes humpback and blue whales. That subspecies was named Rice’s whale. Now, after genetic analysis of other Rice’s whales along with an examination of the skull from the Everglades whale, researchers think that, rather than a subspecies, the Rice’s whale is an entirely new species that lives in the Gulf of Mexico. 

The discovery, detailed Jan. 10 in the journal Marine Mammal Science, also means that there are fewer than 100 members of this species living on the planet, making them “critically endangered,” according to a statement from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Related: Amazing new video shows baby humpback whales nursing from their moms

According to the study, the researchers looked at records of the Bryde’s whale in the Caribbean and greater Atlantic Ocean and concluded the whales they spotted were evidence “of an undescribed species of Balaenoptera from the Gulf of Mexico.” CLOSE 0% PLAY SOUND

The lead study author Patricia Rosel and her co-author, Lynsey Wilcox, both at Southeast Fisheries Science Center, completed the first genetic tests of this whale in 2008, finding that the skull of the Rice’s whale was different than that of Bryde’s whales.

In addition to having different skulls, Rice’s whales are slightly different in size than Bryde’s whales, the new analysis showed. They can weigh up to 60,000 pounds (27,215 kilograms) and grow up to 42 feet (12.8 meters) long, according to NOAA, whereas Bryde’s whales have been known to reach upwards of 50 feet (15.2 m) and weigh more than 55,000 pounds (24,947 kg).

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Rosel and her colleagues think the whales in the new species can live approximately 60 years, but given that there are so few in existence, researchers need further observation of the whales to get a better idea of their life expectancy.

Given their location in the Gulf of Mexico, Rice’s whales are particularly vulnerable to oil spills, vessel strikes and energy exploration and production, NOAA added.

Originally published on Live Science.

Elusive Catalina Island Shrew, feared extinct, spotted for 1st time in years


by: Associated PressPosted: Jan 10, 2021 / 12:03 AM PST / Updated: Jan 10, 2021 / 12:04 AM PST

A tiny mouse-like animal has been spotted on Santa Catalina Island off Southern California for the first time since 2004, showing that the species is not extinct.

A Catalina Island Shrew was spotted in a photograph taken by a remote “camera trap” during a major effort to detect the diminutive animal early last year, the Catalina Island Conservancy said Wednesday.

(Photo by Catalina Island Conservancy)

“We have been looking for the Catalina Island Shrew for years,” said conservancy wildlife biologist Emily Hamblen said in a statement. “I thought, and really hoped, that they still existed somewhere on the Island.”

The Catalina Island Shrew was listed as a species of special concern by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife in 1996.

An adult shrew is just 3.74 inches (95 millimeters) long, including tail, and they weigh about 3.96 grams (0.14 ounce). According to the conservancy, shrews have such a high metabolism they can’t survive long without eating.

To try to spy a shrew, the conservancy rotated seven camera traps among 28 locations on the island between February and May 2020.

Each trap was an upside bucket with a camera pointing down, bait in the center and four small openings.

The 12 weeks of trapping produced more than 83,000 photographs and only a few thousand have been reviewed so far.

The conservancy says the next step is to determine how to promote the survival of the species.

Trump administration delays endangered species protection for monarch butterfly “on the brink of collapse”


DECEMBER 15, 2020 / 1:45 PM / CBS NEWS

Trump administration officials announced Tuesday that the beloved monarch butterfly is a “candidate” for federal designation as a threatened species — but will not receive the designation for several years, as there are other priorities. 

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was asked to protect the butterfly in 2014, with a decision expected this week. However, officials proposed Tuesday listing the monarch under the Endangered Species Act in 2024, delaying several legal protections for the butterfly and its habitat.  

Charlie Wooley, head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Great Lakes office, said that the species’ status will be reviewed annually, “until it is no longer a candidate.”

“We conducted an intensive, thorough review using a rigorous, transparent science-based process and found that the monarch meets listing criteria under the Endangered Species Act. However, before we can propose listing, we must focus resources on our higher-priority listing actions,” said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Aurelia Skipwith. “While this work goes on, we are committed to our ongoing efforts with partners to conserve the monarch and its habitat at the local, regional and national levels.”

Officials said that there are 161 species of plants, insects, freshwater mussels, fish, birds and mammals on the waiting list that are a higher priority than the monarch.

The iconic black and orange butterflies can be found across the U.S., but the increased use of farm herbicides, destruction of milkweed plants and climate change have recently caused an exponential decline of the species. 

Climate Change 

After the species’ population began to drop off in the mid-1990s, a nationwide campaign sought to renew their presence, but those efforts have not been enough. Between 1994 and 2016, the eastern monarch population plunged more than 80% and a federal review found “a substantial probability” of collapse in the next two decades.

The western monarch population has fared no better.

On Monday, the San Diego Zoo announced that preliminary research indicates a total of less than 2,000 monarch butterflies were found this year in California, where there used to be millions — representing a stunning population drop of more than 99% since the 1980s. 

The numbers are down from the “dangerously low” levels of less than 30,000 monarchs for the past two years, the zoo said. “The incredible migration of western monarchs is a unique yet fragile piece of North America’s natural history, and it is on the brink of collapse,” said Paige Howorth, director of invertebrate care and conservation at San Diego Zoo Global. Pfizer vaccine distribution gets underway in the UnitedStatesPfizer vaccine distribution gets underway in the United StatesREAD MOREAs COVID-19 vaccinations begin, U.S. reaches grim toll of 300,000 coronavirus deathsREAD MOREEarly voting underway for Georgia's two Senate runoff electionsREAD MOREREAD MORETyler Perry gives $100K to Breonna Taylor's boyfriend's defenseREAD MOREBipartisan Senate group to unveil bills with $908 billion in coronavirus reliefREAD MORESKIP AD

Conservations say that Tuesday’s decision by the Trump administration could be the last straw for the rapidly declining species.

“Protection for Monarchs is needed—and warranted—now,” George Kimbrell, legal director at the Center for Food Safety said in a statement. “In acknowledging that listing is needed, but still avoiding that decision, the Trump administration has placed Monsanto profits above Monarchs. The Biden administration must follow the law and science and protect them.”

“Forty-seven species have gone extinct waiting for their protection to be finalized,” said Tierra Curry, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity. “This decision continues the delay in implementing a national recovery plan which monarchs desperately need.”

“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agrees that monarchs are threatened with extinction,” Sarina Jepsen, Director of Endangered Species at the Xerces Society, said in a news release. “However, this decision does not yet provide the protection that monarchs, and especially the western population, so desperately need to recover.” 

Last year, the Trump administration broadly altered the requirements for adding and removing species from the list under the Endangered Species Act. The move makes it more difficult to protect species threatened by human-caused climate change, activists say, speeding up extinction. 

First published on December 15, 2020 / 1:45 PM

Blue whales have ‘rediscovered’ South Georgia

By Jonathan Amos
BBC Science CorrespondentPublished4 hours ago

An Antarctic blue whale surfaces off South Georgia
image captionAn Antarctic blue whale surfaces off South Georgia

The resurgence of blue whales around the island of South Georgia is real and has probably been under way for a little while now, say scientists.

When a survey was conducted at the British Overseas Territory earlier this year, 58 of the animals were seen.

That was described as “astonishing” at the time because there had been so few sightings previously.

But a reassessment of 30 years of observational data suggests this bumper crowd of blues was no anomaly.

King penguins (c) George Lemann
image captionSouth Georgia is home to millions of king penguins

It most likely signals they really are making a comeback in the waters around the sub-Antarctic island.

South Georgia is infamous, of course, for being the epicentre of commercial whaling in the early 20th Century. captionJennifer Jackson: “I don’t think this is a surprise phenomenon”

Its steam boats, with their grenade-tipped harpoons, decimated all the large whale populations – and at the peak of the carnage were removing 3,000 blues a year.

And while fur and elephant seals, which were also heavily exploited, managed to bounce back to historic levels relatively quickly – the whales, and the blues in particular, did not.

Grytviken whaling station on South Georgia (c) GSGSSI
image captionGrytviken: Remnants of the old whaling stations can still be seen today

Their absence long after commercial whaling ended even led some whale experts to wonder if these majestic creatures would ever be seen again in significant numbers at South Georgia.

“It was held up as an example of how you can exploit a population beyond the point where it can recover,” Susannah Calderan, who led the reassessment, told BBC News.

Susannah Calderan
image captionSusannah Calderan uses ex-military sonobuoys to pick up the sounds of whales

It’s possible that as the population crashed, the blues simply lost the cultural memory that had drawn them to South Georgia in the first place, the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS) fellow said.

The British Overseas Territory is in the path of a food train coming up from the Antarctic on strong currents. This train carries abundant krill, the small crustaceans that whales love.

But because there were so few blues left after commercial whaling, it may be that the knowledge of the island’s productive feeding ground could not be passed on to future generations – so the theory goes.

“So, perhaps now they have re-discovered ‘the larder’,” Susannah Calderan speculated. “South Georgia remains an extremely productive feeding ground. Nothing ever happened to its productivity. It’s not as if the whales stopped coming because there was nothing left to eat.” captionMale blues communicate over vast distances with their repetitive, low-frequency calls (B.Miller/AAD)

The SAMS scientist, with colleagues, has reviewed all the observational data on blue whales at South Georgia going back three decades.

This includes the systematic surveys that have been conducted by researchers and the opportunistic reporting that’s come in from mariners and from cruise ships, whose visits to South Georgia have increased in frequency.

The study also includes data from acoustics – the use of listening devices, such as sonobuoys, which are put in the water to detect the booming, low-frequency calls that are made by blue whales. captionSo-called D-calls made by blue whales are probably associated with social behaviour and feeding (B.Miller/AAD)

All this information points to a gradual increase in the presence of blue whale numbers around the island in recent years.

Even before the remarkable observation of 58 blues in February, it’s now recognised that a total of 41 animals from the species were photo-identified off South Georgia between 2011 and 2020.

South Georgia's Rosita Harbour (c) Oliver Prince
image captionConservationists say South Georgia is an all-too-rare example of an ecosystem in recovery

“It should be said, the survey we carried out at the beginning of this year was not dedicated to blues. This was an accidental finding. We were actually looking for right whales, but the team saw blue whales when they were doing their transects,” explained co-researcher Jennifer Jackson from the British Antarctic Survey, which led the February expedition.

“I don’t think this is a surprise phenomenon. I think we’re going to continue seeing blue whales in the years to come. What we need to understand now is why they are using South Georgia waters again.”

Humpback whale (c) BAS
image captionA humpback whale in the waters around South Georgia

And it’s not just blues. Those other species that were also driven to the brink, like the humpbacks, are also on the rise.

Susannah Calderan would like to see a network of acoustic moorings placed around the island, in particular off its southwest coastline where little systematic survey work has been conducted.

This would help fill gaps in the data and smooth biases which mean the same locations tend to dominate sightings – such as the popular routes taken by cruise ships.

Blue whale
image captionAt the peak of harvesting, 3,000 blue whales were being taken each year

The whale scientists are also now watching closely what will happen with the world’s biggest iceberg – the 4,200 sq km tabular block known as A68a.

Drifting in the same currents that deliver krill to South Georgia, it risks being caught in the shallows surrounding the island. If that happens, the iceberg could disrupt the foraging behaviour of many animals that depend on the krill.

“South Georgia is a kind of home to dead icebergs. Generally, they tend to go there to die. But, yes, this one’s massive,” said Susannah Calderan.

“Will it affect productivity? Will it affect the krill? Will that affect the whales? It’s a really interesting question.”

The team’s analysis, which is published in the journal Endangered Species Research, was funded by South Georgia Heritage Trust and Friends of South Georgia Island.

Iceberg A68a
image captionThe giant iceberg A68a could become stuck in shallow water near the island

Scientists discover new endangered primate species, with only 260 left

By Jessie Yeung, CNN

Updated 1:30 AM ET, Wed November 11, 2020The Popa langur, a newly discovered primate species in Myanmar that is critically endangered.The Popa langur, a newly discovered primate species in Myanmar that is critically endangered.

(CNN)Scientists have discovered a new primate species in the jungles of Myanmar — and it’s already at risk of extinction.The Popa langur is a type of monkey with a long tail, rings around its eyes, and a crest of fur on top of its head. There are only an estimated 200 to 260 left, according to a news release by the London Natural History Museum, which collaborated on this study.The research team named the Popa langurs after the sacred extinct volcano Mount Popa and classified them as “critically endangered.””Sadly this is a bittersweet discovery due to the limited number of individuals left in the wild and fragmented populations,” said Roberto Portela Miguez, a senior curator at the Natural History Museum, in the release.A Popa langur photographed at Mount Yathe Pyan in Myanmar.A Popa langur photographed at Mount Yathe Pyan in Myanmar.”The hope is that by giving this species the scientific status and notoriety it merits, there will be even more concerted efforts in protecting this area and the few other remaining populations.”The scientists, spanning three organizations, published their findings on Wednesday in the journal Zoological Research.In the study, researchers at Fauna and Floral International (FFI) and the German Primate Center (GMC) carried out field surveys of the langurs, whose scientific name is “Trachypithecus popa.” They also gathered samples and DNA of all other Trachypithecus species — cousins of the Popa langur.They combined the data from these surveys and samples, as well as data from specimens in other museums, confirm the existence of the new species, said the news release.One of the crucial parts of the puzzle was a 100-year-old specimen that had been stored at the London Natural History Museum. In the early 20th century, British zoologist Guy C. Shortridge collected thousands of specimens, including a 1913 Trachypithecus specimen that the Popa langur team re-examined.

The sixth mass extinction is happening faster than expected. Scientists say it's our fault

The sixth mass extinction is happening faster than expected. Scientists say it’s our fault“Monkeys are one of the most iconic groups of mammals, and these specimens have been in the collections for over a hundred years,” said Miguez. “But we didn’t have the tools or the expertise to do this work before.”There were other clues that the Popa langur was an entirely new species, like differences in its tail length, fur color, and skull shape — but genetic analysis confirmed it.”This study demonstrates that natural history collections are a valuable and key resource for genetic research and in the context of the current biodiversity crisis, they are clearly even more relevant and important today than ever before,” said Miguez.The Popa langurs were likely once widespread across central Myanmar, according to the study, which analyzed historical records like museum specimens and travel notes — but only a few groups survived. Now, the remaining individuals only live in four isolated populations.Mount Popa is a sacred pilgriimage site, and home to about 100 Popa langurs.Mount Popa is a sacred pilgriimage site, and home to about 100 Popa langurs.The largest population is on Mount Popa, home to more than 100 langurs. Mount Popa, a sacred pilgrimage site, is also home to an important wildlife sanctuary — but threats remain for the endangered Popa langurs.”Although Mount Popa is a national park, meaning the species that occur there are legally protected, hunting and deforestation for the timber industry and fuelwood still occur,” said Miguez.Other threats include agricultural encroachment, environmental degradation, and other disturbances to the land like free cattle grazing, said the study.The study urged international agencies like the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) to add the Popa langur to their lists of threatened species.”Improved protected area management, in particular improved law enforcement … is essential to stabilize the two largest known populations,” said the study. “The forests in Bago Yoma are severely degraded and fragmented, but could still provide the largest, contiguous habitat if deforestation and forest degradation are reversed through improved forest protection and restoration.”