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From a vanishing porpoise to advanced organic farming, some great new reads

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The vaquita gained species recognition only in 1958.

Do you know the word “endling,” for the last survivor of a species going extinct?

I did not, until I read Ben Golfarb’s terrific saga for Pacific Standard’s June/July issue about the  doomed vaquita and the seagoing radicals who are trying to save it. It leads a selection of good recent reads I can recommend for holiday consideration:

It is entirely possible that the endling for a bashful porpoise called the vaquita is today swimming somewhere off the Mexican coast. Vaquitas dwell exclusively in Gulf of California, the tongue of the Pacific Ocean that laps the Baja Peninsula, in a tiny pocket of turbid sea that could fit three times within Los Angeles and its suburbs.

At just five feet long, vaquitas are the world's smallest cetaceans, the order that includes whales, dolphins, and porpoises. They eat fish and squid, which they locate with high-frequency clicks. They avoid the rumble of boat engines, prefer traveling in inconspicuous duos, and refrain from jumping, splashing, or slapping their tails. They are a headache to study. For all their secrecy, they are adorable — endowed with a snub snout, fetching dark eyepatches, and black lips whose coy smile, researchers have written, recalls a marine Mona Lisa. Cross Flipper with a very shy panda and you've bred a vaquita.

The vaquita gained species recognition only in 1958, and remains perhaps the least understood of the cetaceans. But one of Goldfarb’s sources is the marine ecologist Ben Pitman, “who has seen more whales, dolphins, and porpoises than perhaps any person on Earth.”

In August of 1993, Pitman sailed into the upper Gulf on a ship called the Ocean Starr to track common dolphins. When the Ocean Starr crossed paths with two vaquitas, he convinced its captain to follow. For several days, the ship motored back and forth across the Gulf, its crew scanning the surface through binoculars for the vaquitas' black, triangular dorsal fins. On August 11th, Pitman saw 25. "I think there is a good possibility," he told me, "that no one will ever see that many in a single day again."

In 1997, nearly 600 vaquitas swam the waters of the Gulf. A decade later there were 250. Then there were fewer than 100. Then 60. ... Today, fewer than 30 vaquitas remain. They are the world's most endangered marine mammal. "Every time I see one," Pitman told me, "I wonder: Is this the last one I'm going to see? Is this the last one anyone's going to see?"

What’s killing off  the vaquita? Not the usual forces of habitat loss, pollution and, more recently, shifting climate. It’s commercial fishing, pure and simple. Not that this porpoise has any market value; it is simply bycatch, hauled to the surface in gill nets meant for shrimp and a variety of fin fish, with emphasis on totoaba.

Never mind that the totoaba is itself a declining and protected species, legally off limits in Mexican waters since 1975. Its swim bladders are a culinary delicacy in China, worth $100,000 per kilogram, and this has driven a horrific poaching practice in which the fish are hauled aboard in great numbers and gutted, their bodies — and the vaquitas’ — dumped back into the sea. Even a complete ban on gill netting three years ago has had little effect.

Much of Golfarb’s piece  centers on efforts by Sea Shepherd International to harass the poachers, drag up their nets, use drones to document their crimes and guide law enforcement to their vessels.

To not so much avail, of course. But it’s a thrilling narrative of conflict at sea, and makes volunteering with Sea Shepherd sound like a good use of vacation time — the more so if the outfit would reverse its concessions to nonviolence and go back to using those scuttling blades that can rip open a poacher’s hull like a pop can.

OK, I got a little carried away there. I’ll blame it on Goldfarb’s ability to stir even a jaded reader with this appalling tale of ecological vandalism in Steinbeck’s Sea of Cortez, driven by obscene greed and enabled by systemic sloth.

***

While we’re on cetaceans in decline, let me praise Elizabeth Preston’s examination for The Atlantic of a new tool for forensic investigation of whale deaths: sampling of baleen for the chemical signatures of stress, migration patterns, nutritional status and more.

Sometimes called whalebone, this comb-like food filter is actually made of keratin, like our fingernails. It grows in large plates — downward from the upper jaw, like  teeth,  Preston explains, with new baleen emerging as older material wears away — and it grows for as long as the whale is living.

Just as arsenic and other poisons can show up in the hair of a human corpse, many of a whale’s natural and unnatural exposures are recorded in baleen.

The potential of this new tool is still being explored by researchers, including Preston’s subject, biologist Nadine Lysiak, but one key advantage is obvious even before the post-mortem begins on a hundred-ton corpse:

The most convenient place for a dead whale to wash up is somewhere that can be reached with large construction equipment. But when a 12-year-old right whale died in 2005, gruesomely tangled in fishing rope, she came ashore on a remote part of a barrier island off the Virginia coast.

The necropsy team had to take a boat out, then hike to the carcass. They couldn’t carry much back with them for analysis, so the team’s leader, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution biologist Michael Moore, used a knife to cut off the largest baleen plate he could. Then he lugged the seven-foot-long plate by hand back across the island.

Right whales have been the prey of whalers from Melville’s time to the present — although Moby Dick himself is generally taken for a sperm whale — and are still under pressure despite international treaties and protections. This makes the biography of Lysiak’s whale discoverable in part from monitoring records.

There are few enough North Atlantic right whales alive—about 450—that scientists track all of them individually. Lysiak’s whale was called 2301. She was born in 1993 and gave birth in 2002. Researchers saw her throughout 2003 swimming with her calf. In September 2004, she was spotted near Nova Scotia dragging a mass of fishing rope. Along with boat strikes, this kind of entanglement is one of the main killers of right whales. Researchers intercepted 2301 later that month and tried to cut the rope off, but failed as the whale rolled and ducked away. Six months later, she was dead.

Lysiak began using the baleen samples to add detail to 2301’s biography. First, she looked at non-decaying forms of carbon and nitrogen. Whales, humans, and all other animals get these molecules from food, so ecologists can use this literal you-are-what-you-eat rule to analyze the molecules in an animal’s body for the signature of what — and where — it’s been eating. Lysiak saw that the whale’s carbon and nitrogen values oscillated over the course of each year, reflecting her annual migration and the plankton she ate in different parts of the ocean. This pattern matched what researchers had seen in other whales. It also let Lysiak map 2301’s whole baleen plate onto a year-by-year timeline.

Later, Lysiak added to the chronology by studying a suite of hormones, including the female reproductive hormones progesterone and estradiol, as well as the stress hormones cortisol and corticosterone. The birth of the whale’s calf in 2002 corresponded to a long peak in progesterone, Lysiak and her co-authors saw. They thought they’d also find written in the whale’s stress hormones the story of her run-in with rope.

I won’t list here all the discoveries made and mysteries left unresolved. Suffice it to say that  2301’s death was gruesome — although from a scientific standpoint, I guess, not entirely in vain.

***

Ever wonder what  a coastal community might actually be able to do to fend off increasingly frequent tidal flooding, the “chronic inundation” driven by sea-level rise?

An intriguing, though not necessarily encouraging, example of proactive planning is detailed in a Miami Herald feature by Alex Harris and Joey Flechas. It focuses on a blueprint drafted for a neighborhood of three dozen homes among “some of Miami's most valuable waterfront real estate.”

On a map, the only natural water body nearby Alan and Alicia Sirkin's Coconut Grove home is Biscayne Bay. But after living there more than 25 years, they've become familiar with some other ones: the river created when rain pours down from the highest elevation point on their street and the pond that forms in front of their home nearly daily in the rainy season.

"We call it Lake Sirkin," Alicia said.

With $25,000 in funding from the city of Miami, the Sirkins and others hired an urban designer and a landscape architect to explore options for keeping seawater in its place (if possible) or eventual abandonment (if not). The results may become a harbinger of how $192 million in new bond revenue gets spent.

To understand why that might work, it helps to know the street's unique geography. Part of the road is on the region's coral ridge, more than 20 feet above sea level, but a steep drop leaves the other half nearly flush with the bay. The Sirkins’ property is a mere two and a half feet above sea level.

The low-hanging fruit here is in short-term modifications like replacing asphalt with porous pavement, which would cost a mere $264,000, and adding vegegation buffers planted in species that can absorb runoff and filter it before returning it to the aquifer, for maybe $605,000.

Then comes “tier two,” which could move the homes off their current flawed septic systems and pipe their discharges to “a tiny, silent and odorless ‘waste-to-energy’ treatment plant” that would also cut the current flow of pollution into the bay. This notion turns out to be divisive.

Some neighbors are wary of the impact on property values, and [plan author Walter] Meyer said the idea, though gaining steam as a response to sea rise, is still revolutionary in South Florida. "It goes against the grain of decades of county waste management,” he said.

From there, it only gets stranger:

If using pumps is unavoidable, Meyer proposed the water they process is treated naturally. One idea involved building an island in Biscayne Bay. The water-polishing atoll would filter the dirty stormwater through the center of the island and let it trickle out into the bay, possibly through a ring of mangroves or more oysters. Of course, that's an idea likely to create concerns about marine pollution and sea grass loss.

(It’s also illegal, Meyer acknowledged: “Not that it’s impossible — just on the books technically you can’t do that right now.”)

Tier three, things that might be a possibility five years or more down the road, also puts a concept on the table that's common conversation among scientists but taboo for politicians and residents — retreat.

Planners hoping to avoid the chaos and economic disruption that could come from mass relocation say the answer is to control the process, which Meyer refers to in his report as reorganization. He envisions the process as buying out the most vulnerable (and expensive) properties and turning the area into a conservation park — an estimated $42 million endeavor just for the dozen homes most at risk.

Because I’ve never lived in a city where people are allowed to do their own reconstruction of public roadways for personal convenience, I was impressed by Alan Sirkin’s having “paid $50,000 to have the street in front of his home elevated 10 inches, repaved and to install a new drain.”

That illustrates the neighborhood’s frustration with official inaction thus far, along with the significant financial means at residents’ disposal, and perhaps the unlikelihood of willing relocations as the high-tide line keeps rising. As a 17-year resident, Mary Crittenden, told the Herald:

I think we’re talking about people who are only going to leave this neighborhood in a box.

***

To end today’s selections on an upbeat note, I point you to a piece by Tamara Scully for Civil Eats about Klaas and Mary-Howell Martens, farmers and grain millers  in upstate New York who have demonstrated remarkable success with ultra-organic methods they call “intentional biodiversity.”

Their approach doesn’t quit at simply replacing synthentic pesticides and fertilizers with natural substitutes. Since converting their 1,600 acres at Lakeview Organic Grain from conventional methods more than 20 years ago, they have steadily minimized all outside inputs with integrated plantings, careful timing of crop rotations and other techniques of precision management.

There is nothing small-time, old-time or anti-technology about this operation, nor is there anything about the Martenses that appears doctrinaire regarding organics per se. For example, they are open to genetically modified crops, so long as they mimic natural varieties and don’t increase the corporate strangehold on farmers.

And it wasn’t ideology but an unspecified pesticide scare that motivated their switch. Still, they quickly went beyond what Mary-Howell sees as the needlessly narrow approach of too many organic farmers, who limit themselves to compliance with the “shalt nots” of cerification regimes:

No pesticides, antibiotics, synthetic fertilizers, genetically modified organisms, growth hormones, sewage sludge. But in reality, it is the ‘shalts’ that make organic farming possible. … A farm that practices intentional biodiversity develops multi-year, whole-farm crop rotations, including a variety of row crops, small grains, forages, and cover crops to deliberately nurture a healthy, diverse soil microbial population, break weed and pest cycles, build soil organic matters and enhance nutrient cycling, and prevent erosion and soil degradation.

Klaas adds:

Every agronomic problem we encounter in farming can be relieved or often eliminated by introducing the right new species into our system at the right point. Every pest, pathogen, or problem that we encounter is rooted in a chemical or biological imbalance in our farming system and is a symptom of that imbalance.

In addition to overhauling their farm, the Martenses have also  resurrected a mothballed grain mill and begun a seed-supply business, all of which has made them sought-after voices of expertise for  the Rodale Institute, Cornell University and a wide range of conferences and publications. Their successes have also been a boon to others working in the region’s expanding organic sector:

The mill sells locally adapted seed and feed crops that meet the particular needs of organic farmers in the region. It buys grains from neighboring farmers, too, providing a reliable and equitable market for local operations. And it pays farmers a fair price and does so in a timely fashion — two things often missing in commodity grain sales.

And there is nothing about their methods, Mary-Howell says, that isn’t scalable to much larger levels of production that can feed more people from less land — while perhaps adding resilience that conventional methods cannot:

As the climate changes and we experience increasingly unpredictable weather and market conditions, a diversified, flexible cropping system gives us more chance that at least some of our crops will be adapted and successful each year.

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