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California Coastal Commission Fires Executive Director Charles Lester

Decision made despite huge public support for his work

On Wednesday, February 10, in Morro Bay, CA, seven members of the California Coastal Commission ignored a huge showing of public support for Executive Director Charles Lester, and voted in private to fire him.

At no point was it ever clear what problems these Commissioners had, if any, with Dr. Lester. Five members of the 12-member Commission voted in support of Lester.

Photo of California coastPhoto by Howard Ignatius The California Coastal Commission fired Exectuive Director Charles Lester in a 7-5 votes.

More than 150 environmental organizations, including Earth Island’s International Marine Mammal Project, supported Lester. The Commission received more than 20,000 emails and letters prior to the vote; only 4 expressed opposition to Lester. Numerous public and elected officials also expressed support for Lester, as did major newspapers in editorials. One hundred and fifty Coastal Commission staff members signed a letter of support for him, as did 35 former Commission members. Around 600 people showed up to testify at the all-day hearing on the matter in Morro Bay. All for naught.

Repeatedly, the public speakers at the hearing asked the Commission members to explain why they wanted to fire Lester. At the end of the hearing, several Commission members who voted for Lester’s ouster did not say anything, several praised Lester, and several made remarks that were vague, off the subject, critical of environmental organizations and the media, and in some cases just plain inane.

California state Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, who appointed four members of the 12-member Commission, tweeted to the public: “Let me apologize to the public.  I truly thought my appointees would be better stewards of the coast.”

Lester told the Los Angeles Times the day after his firing: “This commission seems to be more interested in and receptive to the concerns of the development community as a general rule. There is less focus on how we can make decisions to implement the Coastal Act.”

The Los Angeles Times editorialized after Lester’s removal: “It’s too soon to say whether Lester’s dismissal will be a tragedy for the coast, but if commission critics are right and pro-development forces seeking to erode coastal protections orchestrated Lester’s ouster, then Californians have good reason to worry. And to be angry.”

It is not yet clear how Lester’s ouster …more

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GE Salmon Imports Blocked Until Labeling Requirements Are Established

FDA approved the genetically engineered fish for human consumption last year without mandatory labeling

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced earlier this month it would block all imports of AquaBounty’s recently approved genetically engineered (GE) salmon until the agency had determined how to label the novel product. The agency approved the salmon in October without any mandatory labeling indicating that the product is engineered with DNA from another species.

Photo of Packaged FishPhoto by Quazie The FDA approved Aquabounty’s GE salmon in October without mandatory labeling requirements.

In December’s congressional spending bill, Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski succeeded in including a provision directing the agency to develop a label for the GE salmon. Now the agency must act on that directive in order to better inform consumers about the product they are buying.

“This GE salmon should not have been approved in the first place. But thanks to the efforts of Senator Murkowski, along with millions of Americans who have voiced their opposition, the FDA is finally addressing at least one of the primary concerns with this product,” Jaydee Hanson, senior policy analyst at Center for Food Safety, said.

“In addition to fixing the labeling issue, FDA should use this time to re-evaluate its entire approval, which failed to fully assess the potential for environmental and economic damage to native salmon stocks and the communities who rely on them.”

AquaBounty plans to produce the GE salmon eggs on Prince Edward Island, Canada and then grow them to market-size in a facility in Panama, where they would be processed into fillets, and then shipped to the U.S. for sale. Consumers concerned about their personal health or environmental impacts may not be able to avoid the fish. While 9,000 grocery stores and numerous restaurants have vowed not to sell the GE fish, lack of labeling laws mean that average consumers will not have a choice.

“In addition to imports in the U.S., FDA should also be sure to block shipments of eggs from the Prince Edward Island facility to Panama,” Hanson added.

In approving the AquaBounty transgenic salmon, the FDA ignored millions of Americans and more than 40 members of Congress who have expressed vocal opposition. FDA also neglects the concerns of more than 300 environmental, consumer, health and animal welfare organizations, salmon and fishing groups and associations, food companies, chefs and restaurants.

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US Clean Power Plan Setback ‘Will Not Affect Paris Climate Change Deal’

Politicians, campaigners from other countries rally to support President Obama after Supreme Court puts landmark climate plan on hold

The US commitment to cutting carbon emissions under the landmark Paris agreement remains unaffected by the setback delivered to President Obama’s climate plans by the country’s supreme court, the White House has said.

Photo of Coal-Fired Power PlantPhoto by Robert S. Donovan The Supreme Court put a temporary freeze on new rules to clean up coal-fired power plants.

Politicians, businesses and green campaigners from other countries rallied to the support of the president after the US supreme court put a temporary freeze on new rules to clean up coal-fired power plants, the centerpiece of Obama’s climate plan. They insisted that the Paris commitments on tackling emissions would be enforced.

Miguel Arias Canete, the EU’s climate change commissioner, said: “We have confidence in all countries to deliver on what they promised. The EU will continue to lead by example and enshrine its targets into law. I will meet the US climate envoy Todd Stern next week in Brussels and hope to better understand the potential implications of the court decision.”

Lord Stern, one of the world’s foremost economists on climate change, said: “It is perhaps no surprise that vested interests have united against the Clean Power Plan.”

He warned: “We have to recognize that delay is dangerous and faltering by the US risks being amplified elsewhere. While this is a setback, it does not change the profound attractiveness to the United States of the transition to low-carbon economic growth, and a world that is cleaner, safer and more prosperous.” 

Bas Eickhout, spokesman for the European Green MEPs, said: “This is unexpected but does not change the growing global momentum to shift away from fossil fuels. The US administration played an important role in the Paris deal and it is clear they will want to continue with their implementation of the clean energy plan.”

President Obama’s strong stance on climate change had “rightly won support internationally,” added Lisa Nandy, the UK’s shadow energy and climate secretary. “There is such strong public support within the US for Obama’s efforts on climate change that I think this ruling will prove to be only a very temporary issue. The Supreme Court has already upheld the authority of America’s Environmental Protection Agency to limit carbon from power stations.”

Under the proposed “Clean Power Plan” rules, the …more

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Preserving the Night

Across the world, Dark Sky reserves help ensure a bright future for astronomical research

At night, the forest whispered its secrets. An elaborate outdoor holographic production billed as “Foresta Lumina” (lighted forest) brought dead trees back to life and played tricks on the humans passing by. In Quebec Province’s Eastern Townships, I hiked on the night-illuminated forest pathway past massive rock walls through clusters of glowing, Stonehenge-like cairns. All the while, the tree canopy lit from the underside in a red and green pinpoint pattern directed my gaze upward. Although I was perfectly safe, I realized that ancient peoples feared and respected the night. Attributing events in their lives to occult forces beyond their control, they spent centuries trying to light the dark.

Photo of Sowdonia Dark Sky ReservePhoto by Kris WilliamsSnowdonia National Park in Wales became the tenth Dark Sky Reserve in December 2015.

But now there is too much of a good thing.

At the eastern end of the province’s border with New Hampshire and Maine, I drove the winding, steep road of Mont Megantic National Park to the top. The summit is the site of two celestial observatories. The Astronomical Observatory is the larger of the two facilities and is reserved for scientific research. On the building’s facade, I paused at a photographic display of the astounding changes that the night sky had undergone from artificial light in relatively few years. A short distance down a wooded trail, the Popular Observatory is open to the public and used for park service interpretive programs. Here I met science communicator Remi Boucher a few hours later for the evening program.

As the thin clouds dissipated and a nearly full moon rose above the trees, the domed top of the observatory whirred and spun around like a giant cousin of R2D2 in Star Wars. Other than the twinkling stars slowly appearing in the sky, there wasn’t a single light visible on the expansive horizon. It was obvious why this mountaintop location was chosen for building an observatory. But it hadn’t always been so dark — just two decades earlier, there had been trouble brewing in galactic paradise as stars appeared to be dimming. 

“Toward the end of the 90s, scientific observations began to show a measurable increase in light interference,” Boucher said. “We wanted to make sure Mont Megantic remained a good observatory.”

Boucher and his colleagues …more

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Catch of the Week

Community-supported fisheries bring the benefits of community-supported agriculture to the seas

Mark Tognazzini has been fishing his whole life. On California’s Central Coast, fishing is a tradition. He got involved with Central Coast Catch, the first community-supported fishery (CSF) on the entire US West Coast, five years ago. It’s not making him any money, but he’s committed to the principle of connecting consumers with the fish they eat.

fishermen chatting on a docked boatPhoto by Real Good FishFisherman Stan Bruno, founder and CEO of Real Good Fish Alan Lovewell, and fisherman Jerry Foster in the foreground.

Community-supported fisheries are based on the same idea as community-supported agriculture (CSA). Instead of buying as a typical consumer, CSA customers sign up as shareholders in the farm, paying a lump sum in advance and receiving a box of produce weekly over the course of the farm season. Similarly, a community-supported fishery pays the fishermen, and customers get a share of the catch each week.

The advantages to the fisherman or farmer include having a reliable income in an unpredictable business and being closer to customers, which helps them understand their customers’ interests and preferences. The advantages to the consumer include getting fresher food, being part of the local economy, getting to know local producers, and learning about different kinds of seafood.

Pioneer Believers

“You have to believe in the principle,” Mark Tognazzini said in a recent interview at one of his three restaurants in Morro Bay, California. Most of Morro Bay’s fishermen are one- or two-person operations. Mark fishes alone on his 38-foot fishing vessel, the Bonnie Marietta, and buys and brokers fish for other fishermen. These days, he confines his fishing to albacore and salmon, chartering the boat out to other marine projects. In September, he brought scientists out past Piedras Blancas, north of Morro Bay, to place a buoy in the water to track great white sharks.

When Margie Hurd started Central Coast Catch in 2010, Mark was the only fisherman who signed on to supply fish. No one else was interested. Most thought the idea wouldn’t even work. Hurd set prices low, $12 a week for a one-pound full share or $6.25 a week for a half-pound half-share, and signed up the first members. Five years later, membership has risen to about 100, while Mark is still the CSF’s only fisherman.

Know your fisherman, value …more

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The Risks of Digital Delusion

Despite the online world, civilization is still subject to physical laws

A friend of mine recently related an amusing story: he was walking down a city street one day when a young man accosted him, in obvious distress. The youth thrust forward his face, pried open his bloody mouth with his fingers and asked my friend to look at his teeth. My friend, somewhat taken aback but unable to refuse, took a look and replied, “your left front tooth is badly chipped. You need to see a dentist immediately.” The youth sheepishly explained that he had had an accident. He had been looking at his smartphone while walking down the sidewalk, and had walked directly into a metal pole.

Connected and Alone, Plate IIphoto by Almond Butterscotch, on FlickrOur digital preoccupations do not operate outside of or transcend the physical world.

The story brought to mind an advertisement I had seen on a city bus. The ad was for a digital marketing agency, and read, in large, bold letters “Because we live in an online world.” It is a common slogan, and not just in advertising. Our lives these days are increasingly conducted online – from entertainment to business, education, and political activism. We are compelled to keep up with the newest apps, get on the hottest new social media platform, and adopt the latest software upgrades for our families, our work and our schools, because, we are told repeatedly, “we live in an online world.”

But is this actually true? The answer, of course, depends on what we mean by “world.” It can mean the physical world as described by the physical sciences and includes things like gravity, mitosis, photosynthesis, and plate tectonics. But it can also refer to the human cultural constructions that constitute our social institutions and practices. The “world of the ancient Greeks” in the second sense was radically different from ours – so much so that we could say they lived in a “different world”– but not in the first sense. The ancient Greeks inhabited the same physical world we do; the same physical laws applied then as they do now. The ancient Greek philosopher Thales reportedly fell down a well while contemplating the night sky. He was in his own “world,” so to speak, but gravity asserted itself and interrupted. Similarly, the limit of the socially constructed “world” …more

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Grain by Grain, Truck by Truck: How Myanmar Is Losing its Beaches

Booming construction fuels sand mining, threatens coastal environment and tourism

Around every corner waits a new truck. Workers dig their shovels into the powdery white sand of Myanmar’s Ngapali beach, the country’s top seaside destination, and lift it onto the truck beds. Vast craters dot the coastline. Many are bigger than the swimming pools of the nearby luxury hotels.

Photo of Ngapali sand miningPhoto by Denise Hruby A booming construction industry is fueling illegal sand mining in Ngapali, Myanmar.

As a main ingredient of cement, sand is a vital component in almost any construction, whether that of a skyscraper or a middle-class home, a countryside road or a vast bridge. But the resource is finite, and as construction booms in Myanmar and across Asia, the industry has fuelled the illegal mining of sand — with harsh implications for Myanmar’s environment and burgeoning tourism industry.

Myanmar was ruled by a brutal military junta for decades. Few tourists ventured to Southeast Asia's most impoverished nation, and even fewer made it to Ngapali, nestled in the remote Rakhine state in western Myanmar. Up until 2011, fewer than 1 million international visitors (including business travelers and tourists) arrived in Myanmar each year. Then, the junta opened up the country and began to make way for a civilian government. International arrivals are now estimated around 5 million annually.

Ngapali is still the secluded, pristine paradise for which Western tourists yearn. The beaches are white, the seafood fresh, and the coconuts meaty. Clamoring beach vendors are as hard to come by as a cell phone signal. But with the arrival of international tourism, hotel numbers have more than doubled since 2012. Construction is booming, and sand, mostly taken straight from the local beaches, is urgently needed. The sand on Ngapali's beach has become a free-for-all.

Few have thought about the implications of mining beach sand. But Oliver E. Soe Thet, a rotund German who's adopted a Burmese name and who used to serve as an environmental advisor to the junta government, is fully aware of the environmental toll. He now documents the depletion of the beach in Ngapali.

The waterline has already started to recede due to the disappearing sand, says Thet. In the evenings, the high tide comes in closer than before, causing erosion and decreasing protection from the storm surges common to this area. Moreover, …more

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