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by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss

Dear EarthTalk: How are Florida’s manatees faring lately and what has the government and/or conservationists been doing to protect them? -- JoAnne B., Sumter, SC

Indeed, Florida’s manatees have come back from where they stood on the brink of extinction in the late 1960s, when only a few hundred individuals remained in the wild. Today over 6,000 of the herbivorous “sea cows” swim the Indian River Lagoon and Florida’s other near-shore waterways. But newer threats including the die-off of their preferred browse (seagrass), habitat destruction due to shoreline development and runoff, an uptick in commercial and recreational activities and global warming have put Florida’s manatees back on the ropes, and conservationists are again ramping up efforts to protect them.

Given all we know about being respectful to wildlife and giving them space, it’s hard to believe that 2021 has been the worst year in recorded history for manatees, with Florida wildlife officials reporting a whopping 1003 manatee deaths in state waters so far this year. That’s a 37 percent increase in manatee deaths over 2020, when biologists recorded 637 kills.

More than half of 2021’s deaths have been in the Indian River Lagoon, a 156-mile east central Florida coastal estuary that stretches across six counties. Manatees have long thrived in the Lagoon’s warm, brackish waters and consumed its abundant seagrass. Over the past 20 years, however, tens of thousands of acres of seagrass have vanished; the University of Florida estimates that up to 95 percent of seagrass is gone from some areas of the Lagoon. The main culprit is runoff from fertilizer and septic systems, which has polluted the water and promoted toxic algae blooms. These blooms deplete the water’s oxygen levels and cloud its surface, decreasing the amount of light available to seagrasses for photosynthesis.

While it is currently illegal in Florida to feed manatees in the wild, conservation groups like Save the Manatee Club are now considering taking matters into their own hands by providing “supplemental feedings” to halt the unprecedented starvations. Meanwhile, rescuing injured or starving manatees remains a top priority of the group, which has helped rescue upwards of 130 manatees in 2021 alone while also funding facilities to rehab injured manatees so they can return to the wild.

Meanwhile, biologists from the University of Florida, University of Central Florida and elsewhere are working to restore water-filtering oyster populations along the Lagoon. These bivalves consume and remove harmful contaminants from the water, nurturing otherwise dwindling seagrass communities that serve as the lifeblood and main nutrient of manatees.

Just four years ago, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) down-listed the manatee from endangered to threatened. In light of this year’s population plight, Florida Congressmen Vern Buchanan and Darren Soto are currently backing the Manatee Protection Act, which would place the manatee back into endangered status under the Endangered Species Act. An upgraded endangered status would require the FWS to accelerate action on manatee repopulation efforts.

CONTACTS: Save the Manatee Club, savethemanatee.org; Indian Riverkeeper: Our Waters, theindianriverkeeper.org/our-waters/; Manatee Mortality Event Along The East Coast: 2020-2021, myfwc.com/research/manatee/rescue-mortality-response/ume/.

Dear EarthTalk: How are bird populations faring in the U.S. and around the world? What are some ways to help them? -- Mark Johnson, Butte, MT

Not surprisingly, given the myriad environmental threats they are facing, bird numbers continue to decline rapidly today across North America and beyond. Researchers at Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology and Canada’s National Wildlife Research Centre found in a 2019 analysis that wild bird populations in the continental U.S. and Canada have declined by 29 percent—or a total net loss of around three billion birds—since 1970. Their landmark study is the first ever to perform a comprehensive assessment of wild bird net population changes across the continent.

The study found that population decline was not limited to a few species but a wide range of species across every biome (a large naturally occurring community of flora and fauna occupying a major habitat). Population loss in each biome ranged from Grassland bird populations suffering the greatest loss at 53 percent to eastern forest birds with the lowest loss at 17 percent. Researchers also found that common birds from just 12 families, such as blackbirds, sparrows and finches, account for over 90 percent—or over 2.5 billion birds—of total population decline. Experts believe that habitat loss due to agricultural development and intensification is most likely the driving factor.

Amid this concerning data, hope remains for the birds of our world. Over the past few years, organizations such as Ducks Unlimited, Pheasants Forever, the National Audubon Society, and the California Waterfowl Association have collaborated to conserve waterfowl habitat (though critics point out that in some cases it is motivated by the self-fulfilling desire to provide more targets for their hunter members). Under the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, these organizations have raised billions of dollars in funds to restore and preserve waterfowl habitat, especially wetlands.

Readers can also help protect birds by taking a few simple actions. An easy one is to install window screens or eliminate window reflections with film or paint. (A 2014 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Smithsonian study found that between 365 million and one billion birds die each year across the U.S. as a result of window strikes.) If you’re a cat owner, another way to cut down on bird kills is to keep Fluffy from roaming freely outside. The U.S North American Bird Conservation Initiative estimates that our pet felines kill some 2.6 billion birds annually in the U.S. alone.

Yet another way to help our avian friends is to provide shelter and nesting areas in your backyard. Planting native plants (instead of grass) will give both local and migratory birds a reason to hang out. Likewise, avoid synthetic pesticides and fertilizers on your land: They not only indirectly harm birds and the insects they like to eat, but can also poison wildlife directly. Shopping organic at the grocery store is another way to reduce the overall load of pesticides and synthetic fertilizer that birds encounter.

One additional way to be part of the solution is to join the Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count, whether you’re a beginner birder or expert. From December 14 through January 5, the initiative promotes counting instead of hunting birds, a fun and simple way to get outdoors while also helping to protect your favorite backyard birds. Audubon has been running the count for 122 years, and collates the data collected by its “citizen scientists” into an annual report on the state of the birds across the U.S.

CONTACTS: Decline of the North American avifauna,
science.org/doi/10.1126/science.aaw1313; Join The Christmas Bird Count, audubon.org/conservation/join-christmas-bird-count.


Dear EarthTalk: Has anyone calculated the positive health and/or economic impacts of international efforts to protect the stratospheric ozone layer beginning in the late 1980s?

-- C. Marin, St. Louis, MO

1987’s Montreal Protocol, a landmark international agreement calling on the nations of the world to ban the production and distribution of man-made chemicals that deplete the stratospheric ozone layer, has been billed as one of the greatest examples of international cooperation to date. And while everyone party to the Montreal agreement agreed that the substance of the treaty—banning so-called chlorofluorocarbons and related ozone-stripping chemicals—was a big win for the environment and human health, we have had no idea how to quantify just how many lives have been saved or improved as a result.

Until now, that is. Researchers from the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), ICF Consulting, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that the Montreal Protocol and its subsequent amendments will have prevented some 443 million cases of skin cancer and 63 million cases of cataracts in the U.S. alone by the end of the 21st century. They used computer models to plot how much ultraviolet (UV) radiation would have reached the Earth’s surface through holes in the ozone layer without the ban on CFCs and other fluorocarbons, extrapolating from there.

"We peeled away from disaster," NCAR scientist Julia Lee-Taylor, a co-author of the study, told ScienceDaily. "What is eye popping is what would have happened by the end of this century if not for the Montreal Protocol.” According to projections from the researchers’ modeling, without the agreement, UV radiation would triple by 2080. “After that, our calculations for the health impacts start to break down because we're getting so far into conditions that have never been seen before."

"It's very encouraging.” she added. "It shows that, given the will, the nations of the world can come together to solve global environmental problems."

Indeed, recent attempts to forge a global carbon drawdown have the potential for perhaps even bigger health impacts for the human race (and others) moving forward. The World Health Organization (WHO) considers global warming the greatest health threat ever facing humanity. This United Nations-backed international body charged with directing and monitoring global public health initiatives expects climate change to cause 250,000 additional deaths per year from a combination of factors including malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea and heat stress. Additionally, global warming will end up tacking some $2-$4 billion per year onto our global health care bill. And sadly, but not surprisingly, lesser developed countries and regions will fare worse given their weaker health infrastructures.

Indeed, the success of the Montreal Protocol and the urgency of the climate crisis provide all the reasons we need to encourage the leaders of the United States and other nations around the world to forge ahead with the strongest possible international climate agreement with binding and meaningful emissions reduction targets. Our future may very well depend upon it.

CONTACTS: Protecting the ozone layer is delivering vast health benefits,
sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/10/211006134930.htm; WHO Climate Change & Health, who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/climate-change-and-health.

EarthTalk® is produced by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss for the 501(c)3 nonprofit EarthTalk. See more at https://emagazine.com. To donate, visit https//earthtalk.org. Send questions to: question@earthtalk.org.


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