Recording fish song to make fisheries more sustainable

What do fish sound like?

When Gulf Corvina breed, their mating calls could be likened to an immense, underwater roar. Now, a group of researchers have found a way to use the deafening din to save these fish from exploitation. Using underwater microphones, they’ve developed a method for converting sound recordings of the fish’s calls into precise population estimates. Those could inform more accurate catch limits, they say, that would ultimately make corvina fisheries—and others—more sustainable.

Fish stocks worldwide are being depleted by overfishing, which often boils down to inaccurate population surveys that can lead to overly-liberal catch quotas. For the Gulf Corvina especially, overfishing over the last 20 years has taken its toll; the fish now has a vulnerable status.

Part of the problem for this species, the researchers explain in Scientific Reports, is that every year the entire population of two million corvina migrate to one spot in the Northern Gulf of California, Mexico, to spawn. There, males attract mates by producing their spectacular cacophony—so loud that fishers can easily locate them from the surface, and haul up more than a million over the course of three weeks. The researchers realized that if they could instead use the noise to monitor the population, there might be a solution for these fish.

Over the course of eight surveys in 2014, they used underwater hydrophones to record the corvinas’ roar at the Colorado River Delta where they spawn. The louder the din, the more fish there were assumed to be. But because of the way sound travels underwater it can be misleading, meaning the recordings alone couldn’t provide a dependable estimate. So the researchers paired them with sonar. This method pings sound waves into the water that bounce off objects and create a detailed picture of how many objects—i.e. fish—there are beneath the surface.

Sonar would be too costly to use for every population estimate. But in this case, the researchers only used it to sample the population size at different points in the survey, adding a layer of detail to the sound recording. If it worked, this would prove whether there was a link between more noise and more fish. And it did: “When all the fish are packed into the spawning grounds and males are chorusing during the peak spawning activity, we find a tight correlation between sound and abundance,” says co-author Brad Erisman from the University of Texas Marine Science Institute. “Now you can imagine a situation, if it’s predictable, [where] you can just have the underwater microphones out there,” he says. “Because you know this sort of sound intensity and this loudness corresponds to about this many fish. Then you have a very powerful monitoring capability.”

The researchers were thus able to determine that at peak spawning, there were between 1.53 and 1.55 million corvina in the delta. Compared to more traditional surveying tools, the advantage of this method, they showed, is its cost-effectiveness and efficiency. Hydrophones can easily and regularly be deployed to monitor the population, which could inform more accurate catch quotas and move the fishery towards sustainability.

As a tool, it also holds promise for other species. Commercial fish like pollock, cod, haddock, and grouper all produce calls during spawning. Now the researchers say they’re looking into how their method could be used to set sustainable catch limits for those species, too.

Source: Rowell TJ et al. “Estimating fish abundance at spawning aggregations from courtship sound levels.” Scientific Reports. 2017.

We Will Soon Use More Than the Earth Can Provide

Young woman standing on the empty plowed field and looking away at the view

Forget the GDP, it’s time for our leaders to pay attention to metrics that matter.

David Korten posted Jun 14, 2017 for YES! Magazine

Four days after President Trump announced the United States would withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, the Global Footprint Network (GFN) reported that Earth Overshoot Day 2017 will fall on August 2. Most Americans likely have no idea what that means.

The basic point is quite simple: From January 1 to August 2, the world’s 7.5 billion people will have used as much of Earth’s biological resources—or biocapacity—as the planet can regenerate in a year. During the remaining five months of 2017, our human consumption will be drawing down Earth’s reserves of fresh water, fertile soils, forests, and fisheries, and depleting its ability to regenerate these resources as well as sequester excess carbon released into the atmosphere.

Stated slightly differently, humans are depleting living Earth’s capacity to support life.

The GFN methodology can also generate an ecological footprint for individual cities, states, and nations, based on the burden each generates relative to its local biocapacity. It can also compare a personal footprint generated by a distinctive lifestyle to both national and global averages.

The U.S. has a relatively abundant per capita biocapacity compared to most other nations. We are also one of the world’s highest per capita consumers. Consequently, the net outcome is a total national biocapacity deficit second only to that of China—a country with a population roughly four times ours.

Knowing that, collectively, the world is consuming far more than the planet can sustain, how do we bring ourselves into balance with Earth’s capacities? GFN outlines four critical global priorities:

  1. Decarbonization

Humanity’s carbon energy use accounts for 60 percent of the global ecological footprint. By GFN’s estimate, “Reducing the carbon component of the global Ecological Footprint by 50 percent would get us from consuming the resources of 1.7 Earths down to 1.2 Earths, or move the date of Overshoot Day forward by 89 days, or about three months.” That would place Overshoot Day on October 30.

  1. Population

“We cannot ignore population growth if we are truly committed to people having secure lives in a world of finite resources,” noted Susan Burns, GFN co-founder. She urges empowering women and assuring that every child is wanted. By GFN’s analysis, reducing the current global average family size by half a child would push back Overshoot Day by 31 days.

  1. Food production and consumption

By GFN’s calculation, sourcing food locally, avoiding highly processed foods, reducing meat consumption, and cutting food waste by half could move Overshoot Day forward by 11 days.

  1. Urban built environment

GFN estimates that increasing the energy efficiency of the urban built environment through measures such as efficient mass transit could advance Overshoot Day by 2 days.

If we achieved all four of these priorities, we would bring Overshoot Day to December 13 and almost be in balance with Earth’s capacity to sustain us.

There is considerable truth to the adage that we can manage only what we measure. Measure the wrong thing, and the consequences can be catastrophic.

Unfortunately, our governments currently invest heavily in reporting financial indicators, such as gross domestic product, that tell us little either about actual human well-being or our long-term viability on Earth. In measuring the right things, GFN shatters the illusions of such measures and analyses. Still, we need a clearer and more complete, and coherent reporting and analysis of the global footprint measurements than the GFN offers.

The responsibility for such statistical gathering and reporting should fall, not to a small non-profit, but rather to the United Nations and the statistical services of the world’s national governments. Producing detailed global footprint measurements, reporting, and analysis should be among the top priorities of such official agencies. That will be a far greater contribution to national and global well-being than the grossly misleading economic indicators to which they now devote the bulk of their resources.


David Korten wrote this article for YES! Magazine as part of his series of biweekly columns on “A Living Earth Economy.” David is co-founder and board chair of YES! Magazine, president of the Living Economies Forum, a member of the Club of Rome, and the author of influential books, including When Corporations Rule the World and Change the Story, Change the Future: A Living Economy for a Living Earth. His work builds on lessons from the 21 years he and his wife Fran lived and worked in Africa, Asia, and Latin America on a quest to end global poverty. Follow him on Twitter @dkorten and Facebook. As do all YES! columnists, he writes here in his personal voice.


Ex-FBI investigator in hot pursuit of  Washington’s abandoned apples

The hundreds of apple varieties that have been found in recent years are stunning in their diversity and the window they open into the tastes and habits of the past.

By KIRK JOHNSON, The New York Times

STEPTOE, Whitman County — David Benscoter honed his craft as an investigator for the FBI and the U.S. Treasury, cornering corrupt politicians and tax evaders. The lost apple trees that he hunts down now are really not so different. People and things, he said, tend to hide in plain sight if you know how and where to look.

David Benscoter, a former FBI investigator, prunes apple trees to stimulate new shoots at Steptoe Butte State Park in Spokane. The trees are the remnants of an apple orchard planted in the 1890s by Robert Burns. (RUTH FREMSON/NYT)

“It’s like a crime scene,” Benscoter, 62, said as he hiked down a slope toward a long-abandoned apple orchard planted in the late 1800s. “You have to establish that the trees existed and hope that there’s a paper trail to follow.”

About two-thirds of the $4 billion apple industry is now concentrated in Washington state — and 15 varieties, led by the Red Delicious, account for about 90 percent of the market. But the past looked, and tasted, much different: An estimated 17,000 varieties were grown in North America over the centuries, and about 13,000 are lost.

From New England through the Midwest and the South to Colorado and Washington, where small family farms were long anchored by an orchard, most apple trees died along with the farms around them as industrial-scale agriculture conquered American life a century ago.

But some trees persisted. They faded into woods, or were absorbed by parks or other public lands. And the hundreds of varieties that have been found in recent years are stunning in their diversity and the window they open into the tastes and habits of the past.

Mother apples, for example, were good for making dessert. If you wanted less juice, you went for a Limber Twig. Aesthetic perfection and pretty names were once unimportant. The Rambo apple was described in one old guidebook as “speckled, with large rough dots.”

Apples are where food meets history, hunters say, and a community has risen up around the pursuit of them. Benscoter fell into it after retirement here in Eastern Washington when a friend with a disability asked him to pick apples from an old orchard behind her house, and no one could identify what they were. John Bunker, an apple hunter in Maine, became entranced by the old trees he found growing in the woods. Lee Calhoun, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, started hunting in North Carolina and began to see old apples as a remnant of faded Southern life.

Now, some old varieties have become available again, through small specialty nurseries like the co-op that Bunker helped start in Maine and through university agricultural programs. Commercial growers, however, said old apples had faded for a reason and were probably not coming back.

“They’re hard to grow,” said Mac Riggan, the director of marketing at Chelan Fresh, which has 26,000 acres of fruit trees, mostly apples, in central Washington. Old varieties, Riggan said, either bruise easily, do not store well or do not produce enough apples per tree. And economic pressure is relentless. “Land costs money,” he said.

Benscoter said that because of his investigative background, and because apple growing had come much later to this corner of the West, his methods were different from those of hunters in older parts of the nation.

Often, he said, library archives or county records show what was grown and available, which helps him identify old trees. A woman recently sent him a catalog from 1912 she had found in her attic. It listed more than 140 apple varieties then available in Washington. Documents from county fairs — what apples were offered for judging — have provided more evidence.

Most apple varieties, produced by chance intermingling of pollen from neighboring trees on family farms, cannot be definitively identified by DNA, so the history is important. Plant scientists said old varieties might have something to teach as well about evolution or climate, in looking at the qualities that kept a particular tree going despite the odds.


“That’s my scientific curiosity: How did this plant do it? How did it survive when others died?” said Amit Dhingra, an associate professor of horticulture at Washington State University who works with Benscoter and the Whitman County Historical Society on the Lost and Heritage Apples of the Palouse project

The bittersweet element in apple-tree hunting is that failure often plays a big role.

Consider, for example, the story of Robert Burns. He was a young farmer who came to southeast Washington State in 1888, according to county records.

Burns was in his early 20s, and he first tried wheat, but the torrential rains of 1893 destroyed the crops. He then turned his hand to growing fruit but, in his inexperience, planted mostly apple varieties that ripen in summer and fall. It turned out to be a disastrous choice.

By the mid-1890s, the railroads were changing everything, and winter apples had seized the market because they could better withstand shipment to markets back East. The dream of a Burns orchard stumbled and fell, and by 1899 he was bankrupt.

But he planted at least one Dickinson apple tree that survived, and a Nero tree, too — both believed lost until Benscoter rediscovered them.

Debbie Druffel and her husband, Roy, wheat farmers in nearby Pullman, are now growing tiny grafted shoots of Dickinson and Nero in their garage. They became fascinated by apples when they found an abandoned orchard bordering one of their fields, and they now hope to grow an entire orchard of the lost and found behind the house.

“If Dave keeps finding stuff, we’ll keep planting it,” Debbie Druffel said.

But on bigger farms, new varieties, not old ones, have the money and momentum, like the Cosmic Crisp, developed here in Washington and recently planted on a commercial scale.

On a recent morning at Steptoe Butte State Park, where Benscoter has focused his work, he hiked toward an Arkansas Beauty apple tree, perhaps the only one on the planet now bearing fruit.

The tree was about 12 feet tall and twisted with age. Benscoter hoisted up the chain saw he had carried out from his truck and pruned off some small branches, which will stimulate the tree to grow new shoots that can be grafted next year onto other trees. And so another relic from America’s past will live on.

Originally published June 1, 2017 at 6:01 am, updated June 2, 2017 at 12:30 am

Monkey-Human Economy

The temple where monkeys trade with humans

Thirty or so years ago, a long-tailed macaque at the Uluwatu Temple in Bali, Indonesia, took something from a visitor. A pair of sunglasses, maybe, or a hat. Which wouldn’t have been so unusual—monkeys are quite the little scamps—but something unexpected happened next: the visitor, or perhaps a helpful member of the temple’s staff, offered food in return for the stolen goods. The monkey made the swap. And so began what’s become a thriving, one-of-a-kind monkey-human economy.

There are several ways to think about this interspecies marketplace, which ethologists led by Fany Brotcorne and Jean-Baptiste Leca of the University of Lethbridge describe in the journal Primates. Brotcorne and Leca’s group, which spent four months documenting interactions at Uluwatu, is especially interested in how this behavior arose and spread. They found that the exchanges—which among other objects included glasses, hats, shoes, hair clips, jewelry, cameras and phones—varied in frequency between monkey groups living near the temple. That and the fact that monkey-human trading is found nowhere else suggest it’s truly a cultural tradition, with successive generations of temple macaques learning by watching their enterprising peers.

That observation “might provide some insight into the evolution of a traditional token economy in hominins,” write the researchers. It also speaks to the considerable intelligence and behavioral adaptability of macaques. In captivity, experimental token-exchange paradigms are used to investigate a host of cognitive properties: social learning, memory, gratification delay, numerical judgement, economic behavior. There’s a lot of smarts underlying the Uluwatu monkeys’ antics. Insights into human evolution aside, they underscore the infrequently-appreciated richness of monkey minds. “Unfortunately there is still a bias in cognitive science,” says Leca, “with a stronger emphasis put on great apes than on monkeys when it comes to seemingly complex processes such as intelligence and culture.”

There’s also a broader conceptual aspect to the findings. In recent years, many anthropologists have reframed their work as anthrozoology—studying not just human societies, but our entanglement with animals in so-called multispecies communities. The terms might sound academic, but they’re made explicit at the Uluwatu Temple. Not only did the macaques have ready access to people and their food; temple staff and visitors, who follow Balinese Hindu philosophies that regard temple monkeys as sacred and deserving of tolerance, accepted them. The resulting economy “was based on coexistence between these two species,” Leca says.

That’s likely to change in the future. The temple’s monkeys sometimes keep what they take, says Leca, and complaints by upset tourists have led temple staff and local communities to discourage people from participating. Eventually the tradition will disappear. But our memories will remain as testimony to the complex relationships that human and monkey societies can build together.

Source: Brotcorne et al. “Intergroup variation in robbing and bartering by long-tailed macaques at Uluwatu Temple (Bali, Indonesia).” Primates. 2017.
Image: Brotcorne et al. / Primates

Idaho, Oregon researchers work on stevia seed line

Some of the leading research being done on stevia, a plant that is 200-300 times sweeter than sugar, is taking place in the Treasure Valley area of Idaho and Eastern Oregon.

 Sean Ellis, Capital Press

Published on May 23, 2017 10:51AM

Researchers in Oregon and Idaho are trying to develop a line of stevia seeds that would make growing the plant economically viable in the U.S.

(Wikipedia) Researchers in Oregon and Idaho are trying to develop a line of stevia seeds that would make growing the plant economically viable in the U.S.

NAMPA, Idaho — Researchers in the Treasure Valley area of Idaho and Oregon are trying to develop a reliable seed line for stevia, a plant that is 200 to 300 times sweeter than sugar.

Once that happens, the plant could be an attractive option for the region’s farmers.

But the plant likely won’t be grown commercially here until researchers learn how to reliably produce the small shrub from seed.

Stevia is used as a natural sweetener in drinks and food.

Unlike potatoes, corn and other crops that farmers have bred for hundreds of years, stevia has only been researched for about 50 years, said Cheryl Parris, research and development manager at S&W Seed Co.

Because of that, there is currently too much genetic diversity in stevia to grow it from seed, so it’s being grown from clones, or rooted cuttings, that are produced in a greenhouse and then transplanted into the field.

The labor and expense involved in growing stevia that way at 40,000 plants an acre makes it too expensive to be an attractive alternative to commercial farmers in the U.S., Parris said.

The company’s stevia research is centered in Nampa. Parris is trying to develop a reliable seed line that farmers can plant.

She said this is an ideal region for growing stevia. The company has received a lot of inquiries from farmers interested in growing stevia seed.

“There is a lot of variability in the plants because there is so much that hasn’t been bred out yet,” she said. “It will become more ideal as we develop a seed line. It’s still really an emerging market in the United States because of the cost at this point.”

The wide genetic diversity in stevia means the progeny is usually not as good as the parents, said Clint Shock, director of Oregon State University’s research station in Ontario.

“How to efficiently propagate stevia by seed hasn’t been solved,” said Shock, who has researched the plant for more than a decade. “In order for it to be competitive in the U.S., you need to be able to cross reliably and efficiently from seed. That is the Achilles heel of growing stevia in the United States.”

Most of the world’s stevia is grown in nations with much lower labor costs, Shock said.

“The competitive advantage now is for places that have super cheap labor,” he said.

Parris and Shock are also trying to breed out the sometimes bitter aftertaste associated with stevia.

“We’re trying to develop a plant that tastes better, doesn’t have a bitter aftertaste and can be used more as an additive to food products,” Parris said.