How the octopus got its smarts


Did the octopus evolve its unique intelligence by playing fast and free with the genetic code? Elizabeth Finkel investigates.


IAN CUMING / GETTY IMAGES

https://cosmosmagazine.com/biology/how-the-octopus-got-its-smarts

In 2008 the staff at Sea Star Aquarium in Coburg, Germany, had a mystery on their hands. Two mornings in a row, they had arrived at work to find the aquarium eerily silent: the entire electrical system had shorted out. Each time they would reset the system only to find the same eerie silence greeting them the next morning. So on the third night a couple of staff members kept vigil, taking turns to sleep on the floor.

Sure enough the perpetrator was apprehended: Otto, a six-month-old octopus.

He had crawled out of his tank and, using his siphon like a fire hose, aimed it at the overhead light. Apparently it annoyed him or maybe he was just bored. As director Elfriede Kummer told The Telegraph, “Otto is constantly craving for attention and always comes up with new stunts… Once we saw him juggling hermit crabs in his tank”.

Anecdotes of the mischievous intelligence of octopuses abound. Individuals have been reported to solve mazes, screw open child-proof medicine bottles and recognise individual people. Keepers are inclined to give them names because of their personalities.

Problem solving, tool use, planning, personality: these are hallmarks of the complex, flexible intelligence that we associate with back-boned animals, mostly mammals.

But a squishy octopus?

Some researchers who study the octopus and its smart cousins, the cuttlefish and squid, talk about a ‘second genesis of intelligence’ – a truly alien one that has little in common with the mammalian design.

While the octopus has a large central brain in its head, it also has a unique network of smaller ‘brains’ within each of its arms. It’s just what these creatures need to coordinate the mind-boggling complexity of eight prehensile arms and hundreds of sensitive suckers, which provide the octopus with the equivalent of opposable thumbs (roboticists have been taking note). Not to mention their ability to camouflage instantly on any of the diverse backgrounds they encounter on coral reefs or kelp forests. Using pixelated colours, texture and arm contortions, these body artists instantly melt into the seascape, only to reappear in a dazzling display to attract a mate or threaten a rival.

STEVEN TRAINOFF PHD / GETTY IMAGES

“They do things like clever animals even though they’re closely related to oysters,” says neuroscientist Clifton Ragsdale, at the University of Chicago. “What I want to know is how large brains can be organised not following the vertebrate plan.”

So how did evolution come up with this second genesis of intelligence or what film-maker Jacques Cousteau referred to as ‘soft intelligence’ back in the 1970s?

Cousteau inspired many a researcher to try and find answers. But it has been hard to advance beyond Technicolor screenshots and jaw-dropping tales – what zoologist Michael Kuba at Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology (OIST) refers to as “YouTube science”.

For decades the number of octopus researchers could be counted on one hand. They were poorly funded, and their valiant efforts were held in check by notoriously uncooperative subjects and inadequate tools. “You really had to be a fanatic,” says Kuba.

In the last few years, with more and more researchers lured to these enigmatic creatures, the field appears to have achieved critical mass. And these newcomers are the beneficiaries of some powerful new tools. In particular, since 2015 they’ve had the animals’ DNA blueprint, the genome, to pore over. It has offered some compelling clues.

Octopus are famous escape artists.

Octopus are famous escape artists.

CARLINA TETERIS / GETTY IMAGES

It turns out the octopus has a profusion of brain-forming genes previously seen only in back-boned animals. But its secret weapon may not be genes as we know them.

A complex brain needs a way to store complex information. Startlingly, the octopus may have achieved this complexity by playing fast and free with its genetic code.

To build a living organism, the decoding of the DNA blueprint normally proceeds with extreme fidelity. Indeed it’s known as ‘the central dogma’. A tiny section of the vast blueprint is copied, rather like photocopying a single page from a tome. That copy, called messenger RNA (mRNA), then instructs the production of a particular protein. The process is as precise as a three-hat chef following her prized recipe for apple pie down to the letter.

But in a spectacular example of dogma-breaking, the octopus chef takes her red pen and modifies copies of the recipe on the fly. Sometimes the result is the traditional golden crusted variety; other times it’s the deconstructed version – apple mush with crumbs on the side.

This recipe tweaking is known as ‘RNA editing’. In humans only a handful of brain protein recipes are edited. In the octopus, the majority get this treatment.

“It introduces a level of sophistication and complexity we never thought of. Perhaps it’s related to their memory,” says Eli Eisenberg, a computational biologist at the University of Tel Aviv. Though he quickly adds, “I must stress this is complete speculation”.

Jennifer Mather, who studies squid and octopus behaviour at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada, suggests it might go some way to explaining their distinct personalities.

Pigment filled sacs on octopus skin are called chromatophores.

Pigment filled sacs on octopus skin are called chromatophores.

JEAN LECOMTE / GETTY IMAGES

There’s no doubt that linking octopus intelligence to RNA editing is the realm of fringe science. The good news is it’s a testable hypothesis.

Researchers are now gearing up with state-of-the-art tools such as the gene-editing technology CRISPR, new types of brain recorders and rigorous behavioural tests to see whether RNA editing is indeed the key to octopus intelligence.

How did the octopus get so smart?

Some 400 million years ago, cephalopods – creatures named for the fact that their heads are joined to their feet – ruled the oceans. They feasted on shrimp and starfish, grew to enormous sizes like the six-metre long Nautiloid, Cameroceras, and used their spiral-shaped shells for protection and flotation.

Then the age of fishes dawned, dethroning cephalopods as the top predators. Most of the spiral-shelled species became extinct; modern nautilus was one of the few exceptions.

But one group shed or internalised their shells. Thus unencumbered, they were free to explore new ways to compete with the smarter, fleeter fish. They gave rise to the octopus, squid and cuttlefish – a group known as the coleoids.

Their innovations were dazzling. They split their molluscan foot, creating eight highly dexterous arms, each with hundreds of suckers as agile as opposable thumbs. To illustrate this dexterity, Mather relates the story of a colleague who found his octopus pulling out its stitches after surgery.

But those limber bodies were a tasty treat to fish predators, so the octopus evolved ‘thinking skin’ that could melt into the background in a fifth of a second. These quick-change artists not only use a palette of skin pigments to paint with, they also have a repertoire of smooth to spiky skin textures, as well as body and arm contortions to complete their performance – perhaps an imitation of a patch of algae, as they stealthily perambulate on two of their eight arms.

“It’s not orchestrated by simple reflexes,” says Roger Hanlon, who researches camouflage behaviour at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. “It’s a context-specific, fast computation of decisions carried out in multiple levels of the brain.” And it depends critically on a pair of camera eyes with keen capabilities.

It takes serious computing power to control eight arms, hundreds of suckers, ‘thinking skin’ and camera eyes. Hence the oversized brain of the octopus. With its 500 million neurons, that’s two and a half times that of a rat. But their brain anatomy is very different.

A mammalian brain is a centralised processor that sends and receives signals via the spinal cord. But for the octopus, only 10% of its brain is centralised in a highly folded, 30-lobed donut-shaped structure arranged around its oesophagus (really). Two optic lobes account for another 30%, and 60% lies in the arms. “It’s a weird way to construct a complex brain,” says Hanlon. “Everything about this animal is goofy and weird.”

Take the arms: they’re considered to have their own ‘mini-brain’ not just because they are so packed with neurons but because they also have independent processing power. For instance, an octopus escaping a predator can detach an arm that will happily continue crawling around for up to 10 minutes.

Indeed, until an experiment by Kuba and colleagues in 2011, some suspected the arms’ movements were independentof their central brain. They aren’t. Rather it appears that the brain gives a high-level command that a staff of eight arms execute autonomously.

“The arm has some fascinating reflexes, but it doesn’t learn,” says Kuba, who studied these reflexes between 2009 and 2013 as part of a European Union project to design bio-inspired robots.

And then there’s their ‘thinking’ skin. Again the brain, primarily the optic lobes, controls the processing power here. The evidence comes from a 1988 study by Hanlon and John Messenger from the University of Sheffield. They showed that blinded newly hatched cuttlefish could no longer match their surroundings.

KELLY MURPHY ILLUSTRATION

They were still able to change colour and body patterns but in a seemingly random fashion. Anatomical evidence also shows that nerves in the lower brain connect directly to muscles surrounding the pigment sacs or chromatophores.

Like an artist spreading pigment on a pallet, activating the muscles pulls the sacs apart spreading the chromatophore pigments into thin discs of colour. But the octopus is not composing a picture. Hanlon’s experiments with cuttlefish show they are deploying one of three pre-existing patterns – uniform, mottled or disruptive – to achieve camouflage on diverse backgrounds.

As far as detailed brain circuitry goes, researchers have made little progress since the 1970s when legendary British neuroscientist J.Z Young worked out the gross anatomy of the distributed coleoid brain. Escaping Britain’s dismal winter for the Stazione Zoologica in balmy Naples, Young’s research was part of an American Air Force funded project to search for the theoretical memory circuit, the ‘engram’.

“They were ahead of their time,” says Hanlon, who experienced a stint with Young in Naples. Nevertheless they were limited by the paucity of brain-recording techniques that were suited to the octopus.

It’s a problem that has continued to hold back the understanding of how their brain circuits work. “Is it the same as the way mammals process information? We don’t know,” says Ragsdale.

Unwilling subjects

It’s not for want of trying, as Kuba will tell you. In the 1990s, he joined the lab of neuroscientist Binyamin Hochner at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Hochner was a graduate of Eric Kandel’s lab, the Nobel laureate who pioneered studies on how the sea slug Aplysia learns.

All the action takes place in the gaps between individual neurons, the ‘synapse’. The synapse may look like an empty gap under the microscope but it’s a crowded place. It’s packed with over 1,000 proteins that assemble into a pinpoint-size microprocessor. If each neuron is like a wire, it’s up to this microprocessor to decide whether the signal crosses over from one wire to the next. When the sea slug learns a lesson, for instance withdrawing its gill in response to a tail shock, that’s because new computations at the synapse rerouted the connections.

Kuba, however, found an octopus to be far less obliging than a sea slug. Whatever electrical probe he stuck into its brain was rapidly removed thanks to all those opposable thumbs. Ragsdale also had his share of frustration. “We have a technical problem with sharp electrodes. For example, if you put an electrode into the optic lobe, the neurons will fire for about 10 to 20 minutes and then become silent.”

Kuba, who is now based at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology, hopes that a new kind of miniature brain logger that sits on the surface of the brain, hopefully out of reach of prying suckers, will kick-start the era of octopus brain-circuit mapping.

“There’s a lot of technical challenges, but they are surmountable,” agrees Ragsdale.

The irony is that the first insights into how the vertebrate brain sends signals came from a squid. In 1934 Young identified a giant squid nerve cell that controlled the massive contractions of its mantle, the bulbous muscular sac behind the eyes that both houses the organs and squeezes water through the siphon with such great effect!

Like mammalian neurons, the most distinctive feature of the squid cell was its wire-like axon, but with a diameter of around one millimetre, it was 1,000 times fatter than those of mammals. The colossal size allowed researchers to insert a metal electrode and measure the changing electrical voltage as a nerve impulse travelled along the axon.

All this foundational knowledge shed light on vertebrate brains, but the detailed circuitry of the squid brain was largely left in the dark.

Octopus are body artists that use skin colour, texture and arm contortions for their disappearing acts.

Octopus are body artists that use skin colour, texture and arm contortions for their disappearing acts.

ULLSTEIN BILD / GETTY IMAGES

Breaking the central dogma

It was another frustrated neuroscientist who opened the latest front into the understanding of soft intelligence.

In the early 1990s, Josh Rosenthal, based at William Gilly’s lab at Stanford, was making use of the time-honoured giant squid motor axon. But with a new purpose. Rather than measure its electrical properties, Rosenthal wanted to isolate one of its key components: the ‘off’ switch. It is a protein called the potassium channel.

The squid neuron made this protein according to a recipe carried by its DNA blueprint, which is cached in the cell’s nucleus. To access the recipe, the cell makes a mRNA transcript, rather like transcribing a single recipe from a recipe book. Rosenthal wanted to isolate these transcripts and read the code sequence for the protein channels.

But he had a problem. Every time he read the sequence for the potassium channel, it was slightly different. Was it just an error? If so, it was highly consistent. The changes were not random. They always occurred at one or more precise positions in the code. And, invariably, the letter A was always changed to the letter G.

For instance, imagine a recipe for apple pie was supposed to read: Place the crust around the pie. Instead it was being edited to: Place the crust ground the pie. Such a change might instruct the modern-day deconstructed apple pie rather than the traditional crusted version.

Unbeknownst to Rosenthal, Peter Seeburg at the University of Heidelberg was puzzling over a similar glitch in a recipe for a human brain protein, the glutamate receptor. When Seeburg’s paper was published in 1991, Rosenthal recalls, “everyone got excited”.

Clearly editing brain recipes was important for humans and squid. But why?

In the human (or mouse), editing the glutamate receptor changed how much calcium could flow into brain cells. In mice, failure to edit was lethal, as it allowed toxic levels of calcium to stream in. There’s also evidence that failure to edit the same receptor in humans is associated with the neurodegenerative disease Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis.

An enzyme called ADAR2 carried out these crucial edits to the RNA recipe. Just why evolution hasn’t gone ahead and ‘fixed’ the DNA source code of the glutamate receptor remains a mystery.

As for the squid potassium channel, Rosenthal had a hunch. After an electrical signal has passed through a neuron, it needs a ‘reset’ for the next signal. The potassium channel plays a crucial part. In cold temperatures, the reset might take longer, making the animal a bit sluggish. Could RNA editing be a way of fine tuning the system in response to temperature? Rosenthal tested his idea by spending several years collecting octopuses that live in either tropical, temperate or polar climates. It was indeed the polar octopuses that were the most avid editors of their potassium channels.

Potassium channels turned out to be just the tip of the iceberg. Rosenthal teamed up with computation geek Eli Eisenberg at Tel Aviv University to trawl through mRNA databases and find out just how much recipe tweaking was going on with squid genes. In humans, tweaking is rare – restricted to a handful of brain gene recipes. In the squid, the majority of brain recipes received this treatment. Many of them were related to proteins found at the synapses, the microprocessors for memory and learning.

Could this extemporising with brain protein recipes be important for soft intelligence? It’s a tantalising idea. “Coleoids show it. Nautilus – the stupid cousin – does not, it’s like any other mollusc,” says Eisenberg.

“Coleoids are editing the same proteins that we know are involved in learning and memory. By editing them or not, it’s not a stretch to hypothesise that they are adding flexibility and complexity to the system,” says Rosenthal.

Cuttlefish have an impressive capacity to learn. These Australian giants are learning about the birds and the bees at Whyalla, South Australia.

Cuttlefish have an impressive capacity to learn. These Australian giants are learning about the birds and the bees at Whyalla, South Australia.

WILDESTANIMAL / GETTY IMAGES

Clues from the blueprint

Over in Chicago, Cliff Ragsdale, another frustrated octopus neuroscientist, was also turning his interest to octopus DNA.

In 2015, working with Daniel Rokhsar and Oleg Simakov of OIST, the Ragsdale laboratory managed to read the genome of the California two-spot octopus.

It turns out that the octopus has more genes that we do: 33,000 compared to our 21,000. But gene number per se doesn’t bear much relation to brain power: water fleas also have about 31,000. In fact most of the genes in the octopus catalogue were not all that different to those of its close relative – the limpet, a type of sea snail. But there were two gene families that stood out like a sore thumb. One was a family of genes called protocadherins. This family of ‘adhesion’ proteins are known to build brain circuits. Like labels on the tips of growing neurons, they allow the correct types of neurons to wire to each other — so neuron 370 connects up to neuron 471 at the right time and the right place. Limpets and oysters have between 17-25 types of protocadherins. Vertebrates have 70 types of protocadherins plus over 100 different types of related cadherins. These circuit builders have long been thought to be the key to vertebrate braininess.

So it was stunning to find that the octopus has a superfamily of 168 protocadherins. Ragsdale says the squid genome, also now being sequenced, shows it is similarly equipped with hundreds of circuit-building genes.

The other stand-out in the octopus genome was a family of genes called ‘zinc fingers’. They get their name because the encoded proteins have a chain structure that is cinched by zinc atoms into a series of fingers. These fingers poke into the coils of DNA to regulate the transcription of genes.

Limpets have about 413 of these zinc fingers. Humans have 764. Octopuses have 1,790! Perhaps this profusion of octopus zinc fingers is involved in regulating the network of brain genes?

COSMOS MAGAZINE

So far, the octopus has revealed three big clues as to how it generates brain complexity: it has multiplied its set of circuit-building protocadherin genes and its network-regulating zinc fingers. It has also unleashed RNA editing to generate more complexity on the fly.There may also be a fourth mechanism at work.

Genes are supposed to stay put. But ‘jumping genes’, which are closely related to viruses, have a tendency to up anchor and insert themselves into different sections of the DNA code. That can scramble or otherwise change its meaning. Imagine if the words ‘jumping gene’ just started appearing randomly in this text. Fred Gage’s group at the Salk Institute in San Diego has found that during the development of the nervous system in mice and humans, jumping genes start jumping.

What this means is that each individual brain cell ends up with slightly different versions of its DNA code. Gage speculates that this may be a way to generate diversity in the way neurons wire up. Perhaps it goes some way to explaining why twins, born with the same DNA, nevertheless end up with different behaviours.

“If you believe that theory,” says Ragsdale, “you’ll be struck by the fact that we also found a high number of jumping genes active in the brain tissues of the octopus.” Testing the theory

Unravelling the details of how octopus and squid are using and abusing the genetic code is generating iconoclastic hypotheses about how they generate their complex brain circuitry.

And researchers are not blind to the problems of dogma-breaking. For one thing, playing fast and free with the genetic code creates an astronomical number of possible proteins, most of which would be toxic to the animal, says Eisenberg. “It’s very troubling; one hypothesis is that this may explain their short lifespan of one to three years.”

Troubling or not, Rosenthal and colleagues at Woods Hole are moving full speed ahead to test the role of RNA editing in the coleoids by bringing together researchers with different expertise. “There’s a lot of moving pieces,” says Rosenthal.

For starters, their Woods Hole team is cultivating four species of small squid and cuttlefish that reach sexual maturity in two to three months. The goal is to manipulate the squid’s genes using the genetic engineering tool, CRISPR. To see if they can get CRISPR working, they will try to ‘knock-out’ the pigment genes. If they’re successful they should see the result on the squid bodies. “It’s a beautiful in-built test,” says Rosenthal.

If that works, they will try the big experiment. Does impairing the ability to edit proteins at the synapse (by knocking out the ADAR2 gene responsible for RNA editing) tamper with learning and memory?

Meanwhile, collaborator Alex Schnell, a behavioural biologist based at the University of Cambridge in the UK, is developing rigorous tests for complex learning and memory in cuttlefish. In particular, she is testing their capacity for “episodic memory”, a detailed weaving together of memories once thought to be a strictly human attribute.

For instance, it’s thanks to your episodic memory that you recall exactly where you were and what you were doing on 11 September 2001. Since the late 1990s, we know that animals like great apes, crows and jays also have that capacity. Maybe cuttlefish do too. Schnell’s initial results show that cuttlefish can learn and memorise complex information about their favourite food, such as when and where it is likely to be found.

With other teams around the world pursuing similar strategies, it seems likely that after decades of awe and wonder, the mystery of soft intelligence may soon yield to hard science.

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ELIZABETH FINKEL is editor-at-large of Cosmos.

Taiwan nabs truck-load of illegal shark meat

Fisheries Agency seizes over 30 tons of illicit shark meat in southern Taiwan

Over 30 tons of contraband shark meat. (Image courtesy of Fisheries Agency)

Over 30 tons of contraband shark meat. (Image courtesy of Fisheries Agency)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) – Taiwan authorities seized over 30 tones of illegal shark meat at Kaohsiung Xiagang Fishing Harbor (高雄小港漁港) on Sept. 5, the Fisheries Agency (漁業署) said in a statement yesterday.

The seizure is the biggest haul since revised offshore fishing rules entered into force in 2006, according to the Fisheries Agency.

Fishing of silky shark is banned by the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, which led Taiwan to do the same.

30 tons of silky shark (carcharhinus falciformis) meat was seized during an inspection of a small fishing boat named “Jin-chang 6” (金昌6號). The boat came under suspicion after authorities noted the vessel made unscheduled stops in two other fishing ports.

The suspicious catch was confirmed to be that of the banned silky shark days later, after a positive DNA test, which led the contents of the boat to be seized on Sept. 13.

The Fishery Agency said that according to relevant regulation, the boat operators face of a fine of between NT$2-10 million (US$65,000-325,000), and potential revocation of fishing licenses.

The Fisheries Agency urges the public to not catch illegal aquatic animals, adding it has set up a 24-hour monitoring center to tackle illegal fishing.

Although some forms of shark are legal to eat in Taiwan, the practice has gained increasing opposition from environmental groups. According to a recent survey by the WildAid and Life Conservationist Association found 76 percent of Taiwanese people surveyed had eaten shark fin soup in the past three years, but only 32 percent within the last year.

Corporate Food Brands Drive the Massive Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico

Mighty Earth

By Reynard Loki

Whole Foods bills itself as “America’s healthiest grocery store,” but what it’s doing to the environment is anything but healthy. According to a new report, the chain is helping to drive one of the nation’s worst human-made environmental disasters: the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

By not requiring environmental safeguards from its meat suppliers, the world’s largest natural and organic foods supermarket—and most of its big-brand counterparts in the retail food industry, like McDonald’s, Subway and Target—are sourcing and selling meat from some of the worst polluters in agribusiness, including Tyson Foods and Cargill. The animal waste and fertilizer runoff from their industrial farms end up in the Gulf of Mexico, where each summer, a growing marine wasteland spreads for thousands of miles, leaving countless dead wildlife in its oxygen-depleted wake.

Community members and environmental activists demonstrate outside Whole Foods headquarters in Austin, Texas, on August 2, 2018.Mighty Earth“The major meat producers like Tyson and Cargill that have consolidated control over the market have the leverage to dramatically improve the supply chain,” according to the report, which was released by Mighty Earth, an environmental action group based in Washington, DC. “Yet to date they have done little,” the report’s authors note, “ignoring public concerns and allowing the environmentally damaging practices for feeding and raising meat to expand largely unchecked.”

How animal feed moves through the meat supply chain.Mighty EarthOn Aug. 2, the day the report was released, those public concerns found a voice as citizens, environmentalists and sustainability advocates gathered outside Whole Foods headquarters in Austin, Texas, to deliver 95,000 petition signatures demanding that the company hold its meat suppliers accountable for their role in destroying the environment.

“Grocery stores like Walmart and Whole Foods and meal outlets like McDonald’s and Burger King have the power to set and enforce standards requiring better farming practices from suppliers,” states the report, which Mighty Earth says is the “first comprehensive assessment of major US food brands on their environmental standards and performance for sourced meat.”

Feeding the Nation, Failing the Environment

Ranking the largest food companies in the U.S. based on their sustainability policies for meat production, the report found that the biggest players in the food industry—including major fast food, grocery and food service companies—are failing to protect the environment from the impact of their supply chains. Remarkably, the researchers found that not a single one of the 23 major brands surveyed have policies in place to require “even minimal environmental protections from meat suppliers.”

Even more startling is that so-called “green” brands like Whole Foods that have built their reputations on providing sustainable food options have, according to the report, “failed to commit to environmentally responsible farming practices that protect drinking water, prevent agricultural runoff and curb climate emissions.”

The 23 companies surveyed were evaluated on their requirements for meat suppliers regarding where they source their animal feed, how they process their animals’ manure and how they manage their greenhouse gas emissions.

All but one of the companies scored an “F” overall for their environmental policies (or lack thereof) for meat sourcing. The only company to score better than an “F” was Walmart, which received a “D” due to its goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions across its supply chain, as well as the launching of programs meant to improve the management of manure and increase the sustainability of corn and soy farming.

Soil erosion and agricultural runoff are the top sources of water pollution in the U.S.Mighty Earth

Dead Cows on Your Plate, Dead Fish in the Ocean

In oceans and large lakes across the globe, human activities are creating oxygen-depleted areas where marine life can no longer survive. These hypoxic areas, currently numbering more than 400 around the globe, are commonly known as “dead zones,” and are caused by an increase in certain chemical nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus that drive the massive growth of algae, causing the spread of deadly “algal blooms.” As the algae decomposes, their biomass consumes the oxygen in the water, suffocating fish and other marine life.

Algal blooms are harmful to ecosystems because the blooming organisms contain toxins, noxious chemicals or pathogens. They also suck up all the oxygen, killing fish and other marine life.National Oceanic and Atmospheric AdministrationIn the U.S. the largest recurring dead zone is located in the Gulf of Mexico, mainly off the coast of Louisiana, and extending east to the Mississippi River Delta and west to Texas. The Gulf acts as a massive drainage basin for polluted water containing manure and fertilizer runoff coming from the American heartland, from major beef-producing states like Texas, Oklahoma, Iowa, Kansas and Nebraska. During summer months, this area becomes a 7,000-mile-wide lifeless region—the only reminders of past life being the bodies of fish, crabs, shrimp and other marine animals that have suffocated due to a lack of oxygen. The Gulf of Mexico dead zone is the second-largest human-caused dead zone in the world, after the hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Oman.

The Mississippi-Atchafalaya River Basin drains approximately 41 percent of the contiguous United States that includes all or part of 31 states and two Canadian provinces. Map scale is approximately 2,000 miles across.Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality“Excess nutrients bleeding off fertilized crops constitute the overwhelming source—over 70 percent—of the nutrient pollution that causes the Gulf Dead Zone,” Donald Boesch, a professor of marine science and former president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, told the Independent Media Institute.

In August 2017, scientists measured the Gulf of Mexico dead zone and found that it was at its largest since the mapping of the zone began in 1985—more than 8,000 square miles. But recently, scientists reported that the area is only about 40 percent of its average size. That doesn’t mean that it is no longer an issue. “Although the area is small this year, we should not think that the low-oxygen problem in the Gulf of Mexico is solved,” Nancy Rabalais, a marine ecologist at Louisiana State University and the lead scientist of the study, told The Associated Press. “We are not close to the goal size for this hypoxic area.”

Nearly half (45 percent) of the Earth’s landmass is being farmed by the global industrial livestock system, which includes both the animals killed for human consumption and the crops used to feed those animals. The current human population, 7.6 billion, is expected to swell to 9.8 billion by the year 2050. And if most of them will be meat-eaters, the negative impact of the meat industry on marine ecosystems and coastal communities, if not addressed soon, will surely get worse. According to NASA, “The number and size of ocean dead zones is closely connected to human population density.” It’s basic math: More people means more meat-eaters, and more meat production means more and bigger dead zones.

Red circles show the location and size of many dead zones. Black dots show dead zones of unknown size. The size and number of marine dead zones—areas where the deep water is so low in dissolved oxygen that sea creatures can’t survive—have grown explosively in the past half-century.NASA Earth Observatory, 2008

More Pathogens, More Pollutants, Less Profit

Dead zones could also introduce a host of public and animal health issues. Boesch points out that “various pathogenic microorganisms can thrive” in hypoxic areas. A 2012 study published in FEMS Microbiology Ecology discovered “sequences affiliated with Clostridium,” a human pathogen that causes botulism and diarrhea, in the hypoxic zone of China’s Lake Taihu. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) warns that algal blooms contain cyanobacteria, “which are poisonous to humans and deadly to livestock and pets.”

Renee Dufault is a former environmental health officer for the National Institutes of Health, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration, as well as the founder of the Food Ingredient and Health Research Institute. Dufault told the Independent Media Institute that the antibiotics and hormones injected into animals raised for food “are pollutants themselves when they are released from manure via surface water runoff into streams that may be used as drinking water supplies.”

Dead zones also have economic impacts that harm local communities. The NOAA estimates that marine dead zones cost the U.S. food and tourism industries $82 million every year.

Risky Business: Eating Meat

The main source of water contamination in the U.S. is the manure and fertilizer coming from industrial farms that grow feed to raise animals to be killed for human consumption.

The production of meat isn’t just one of the most polluting of all human activities, contaminating waterways and driving the growth of dead zones across the world; it’s literally bulldozing the planet’s landscape. By converting rainforests and prairies into industrial farms, large-scale meat producers are responsible for the widespread destruction of many of the planet’s native ecosystems, which threatens wildlife by destroying native habitats and releases stored carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, further exacerbating climate change. Animals raised for food produce 42 percent of agricultural emissions in the U.S. Two-thirds of those gases are emitted directly by those animals in the form of belches and farts. And the majority of those emissions—around 44 percent—is methane, a greenhouse gas that is 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

report released in July by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy offers some perspective: The top five meat and dairy companies, including Tyson and Cargill, emit more greenhouse gases combined than ExxonMobil, Shell or BP.

This NASA satellite image shows deforestation in the state of Rondonia in western Brazil, where land has been converted for cattle farming. In 2017, Brazil exported 1.3 million metric tons of beef to the United States, worth $6.2 billion.NASA

A Few Bright Spots

The Mighty Earth report does note a few positive developments. Of the sectors studied, the food service industry that caters meals to universities and hospitals “is doing the most to promote plant-based diets, with Aramark reporting that 30 percent of its menus offer non-meat options and Sodexo reducing beef consumption through its mushroom-blended burger initiative.” And McDonald’s states that it is moving toward 100 percent sustainably certified soy by 2020 to feed the chickens it sources in Europe. (Unfortunately, that requirement isn’t in place for U.S. suppliers.)

“Bright spots were few and far between,” the report states, “but indicate that awareness is growing and improvements are possible.”

Possible, yes. But probable? The food industry has shown a reluctance to enact sustainable practices, but has sometimes responded to consumer demand for change. “Many of these companies have set requirements for meat suppliers to improve practices around animal welfare and antibiotic overuse when the public pressured them to do so,” Mighty Earth campaign director Lucia von Reusner told the Independent Media Institute. Her organization is hoping that their report will help raise public awareness, and that in turn will spur change within the industry.

“The public is now waking up to the industry’s polluting practices and demanding improvements,” she said.

Reforming the Meat Industry

One of the biggest misperceptions that the general public has about dead zones, says Boesch, is that “there is nothing we can do about them.” He points out that, “although experience in other parts of the world shows that while it may take years for the excess nutrients to wash out of the watershed and [be] purged from bottom sediments, we can eventually breathe life back into dead zones if we reduce nutrient pollution. We are now seeing the dead zone in the Chesapeake gradually becoming less severe and smaller.”

The Mighty Earth report recommends that meat producers start employing better farming practices to help curtail the destruction. One way to reduce the need of fertilizers on crops used to feed livestock, for example, is to use cover crops, which involves planting certain species on fields that can suffocate weeds, control pests and diseases, reduce soil erosion, improve soil health, boost water availability and increase biodiversity—all of which would benefit any farm. Mighty Earth also recommends that meat producers employ better fertilizer management, conserve native vegetation and centralize manure processing.

“The environmental damage caused by the meat industry is driving some of the most urgent threats to the future of our food system—from contaminated waters to depleted soils and a destabilized climate,” von Reusner said. “More sustainable farming practices are urgently needed if we are going to feed a growing population on a planet of finite resources.”

Map of nitrate levels by watersheds, 2016 overlaid with Tyson and top feed supplier facilities (View Larger Map)Unfortunately, there is little that the federal government is doing on this front. “Runoff pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from producing meat are largely unregulated in the US,” von Reusner notes. “There need to be much stronger regulations that protect our waters and climate from the meat industry’s pollution.”

Boesch notes that an action plan agreed upon in 2001 by the Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico Watershed Nutrient Task Force was meant to scale down the amount of nutrient pollution in the Gulf by 30 percent. But, he says the plan “lacks teeth.” Consequently, he said, “not only has the Gulf’s dead zone not shrunk, but the concentrations of polluting nutrients in the Mississippi River have not declined—and may have even increased.”

In the meantime, polluting the Gulf with meat production runoff continues apace. The 2001 federal and state action plan, which was reaffirmed and amended in 2008, hasn’t achieved its goal to reduce the hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico. NOAA scientists have forecasted this summer’s dead zone to be “similar to the 33-year average Gulf dead zone of 5,460 square miles,” which the agency points out is about the size of Connecticut. “This should be getting more attention by regulators, lawmakers and industry,” said Boesch. “Unfortunately, the industry has worked with politicians to prevent regulations.”

He notes that the plan to revive the Chesapeake Bay has each state “allocated a certain amount of reduction in nutrient pollution and is under a legally binding agreement under the Clean Water Act to accomplish this by 2025.” But there is no such legal force when it comes to the Mississippi Basin states that are polluting the Gulf. Those states, says Boesch, “have never even been assigned an amount of pollution reduction for which they are responsible, much less been bound to it. The states have resisted even this first step in accepting responsibility. All efforts are strictly voluntary. So, there can be little wonder why, despite the commitment to reduce the size of the dead zone by two-thirds, there has been virtually no reduction in polluting nutrients discharged by the river after 17 years.”

While reforming the meat industry’s unsustainable practices is a way to stop the spread of dead zones, change from within isn’t coming quickly enough. That’s where consumers can play a vital role, says von Reusner. “Consumers need to demand that their favorite food companies provide more sustainable options by requiring more sustainable farming practices from meat suppliers.”

Reynard Loki is a senior writing fellow and the editor and chief correspondent for Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

This article was produced by Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Rare sighting of leatherback off B.C. coast raises issue of plastic pollution

Endangered giant turtle, a ‘living dinosaur,’ often bears brunt of waste in ocean, marine biologist says

Jennifer Wilson · CBC News · Posted: Aug 25, 2018 8:00 AM PT | Last Updated: an hour ago

<https://i.cbc.ca/1.4795678.1535143174!/fileImage/httpImage/image.jpg_gen/derivatives/16x9_780/leatherback-turtle.jpg>

There have been fewer than 135 leatherback sightings in B.C. waters since the 1930s. The giant turtles swim from Indonesia to feed on jellyfish. (Willie Mitchell / Jeremy Koreski)

A rare sighting of the endangered leatherback turtle off the B.C. coast is an opportunity to celebrate — but also to reflect on the danger of plastic waste in the oceans, a marine biologist says.

Earlier this month, two Vancouver Island men captured photos of the enormous sea turtle. It was one of fewer than 135 sightings recorded in B.C. waters since the 1930s.

The leatherback is one of the largest reptiles on the planet and can grow to the size of a Smart car. Instead of a shell, the turtles have a thick, collapsible leather-like back that allows them to dive to extreme ocean depths of up to 1,270 metres.

The turtles, which travel from Indonesia to feed on jellyfish, have seen their populations decline drastically in recent years, in part due to frequent entanglement in plastic pollution, according to the the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

Turtles confuse balloons with jellyfish

In Jackie Hildering’s experience, marine species are often the first to bear the brunt of environmental problems and leatherbacks are no exception, as many are found with plastic in their stomachs.

Hildering, a researcher with the Marine Education and Research Society, said many people in B.C. may not even know the species exists in local waters, but that even small actions such as releasing a balloon into the air without thinking about where it might land can have an impact on the turtles’ survival.

“One of the powerful things to realize is that they can’t discern plastics and balloons from their jellyfish prey,” she told Jason D’Souza, host of CBC’s <https://www.cbc.ca/listen/shows/all-points-west> All Points West.

Leatherback turtles in Canada have been designated as an endangered species under the Species at Risk Act. The species has lost 70 per cent of its numbers in the past 15 years.

Tracking jellyfish

A major challenge in tracking and restoring leatherback populations in B.C. waters is first tracking their food source, the jellyfish, said Lisa Spaven, a scientist with the DFO’s Pacific Biological Station.

Marine biologists rely on fish surveys to include jellyfish population data, including density and location. Jellyfish are hard to track and scientists are still figuring out whether leatherbacks prefer areas with a high density of small jellyfish or a low density of large jellyfish, Spaven said.

<https://i.cbc.ca/1.4522193.1535071363!/fileImage/httpImage/image.jpg_gen/derivatives/original_780/jellyfish-bloom-b-c-ubc.jpg>

Hundreds of jellyfish float beneath the surface off Canada’s West Coast. They are the food source that draws the leatherback turtle across the ocean from Indonesia. (Keith Holmes/Hakai Institute)

“We’re still trying to get a handle on the currents and where the jellyfish are. There’s a lot of work yet to be done,” she said.

Funding for leatherback conservation was not approved by the DFO this year according to Spaven but her department continues to carry out habitat protection work in Indonesia, where nests are at risk from predators such as wild pigs.

‘​Smallest needle in the biggest haystack’

Former Vancouver Canucks defenceman Willie Mitchell and photographer Jeremy Koreski spotted the turtle on Aug. 6 just west of Tofino, B.C., and forwarded their photos to Hildering.

Hildering said the men recognized the turtle as a leatherback but, like many in B.C., did not know how important the sighting was.

“​I don’t think they knew that I would fall off my chair when they sent the photos, I don’t know that they knew they found the smallest needle in the biggest haystack,” she said.

Leatherbacks are “living dinosaurs” that “belong in B.C. waters,” Hildering said, and their presence is a reminder of the wide variety of species B.C. coastal waters should support under optimal conditions.

“It’s a testament to how rich our waters are supposed to be.”

http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/rare-sighting-of-leatherback-off-b-c-coast-raises-issue-of-plastic-pollution-1.4795676

Report: meat industry responsible for largest-ever ‘dead zone’ in Gulf of Mexico

VIEW SLIDESHOW

Most people know by now that a plant-based diet is better for one’s mental and physical well-being. But did you know that reducing your consumption of meat — whether from bovine, chicken or pig — can also benefit the environment? It’s an important revelation, one more people need to learn, as a new report reveals that toxins poured into waterways by major meat suppliers have resulted in the largest-ever “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico.

Gulf of Mexico, dead zone, animal agriculture, meat, pollution, toxic, waterways, ocean, algae blooms,

The report was conducted by Mighty, an environmental group chaired by former congressman Henry Waxman. It was determined that toxins from manure and fertilizer which companies are pouring into waterways are contributing to huge algae blooms. This, in turn, creates oxygen-deprived areas in the gulf, the Great Lakes, and the Chesapeake bay.

As a result of the pollution and worsening algae blooms, it is expected that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (Noaa) will confirm that the Gulf of Mexico has the largest ever recorded dead zone in history. Concerned environmental advocates predict it to be nearly 8,200 square miles or roughly the size of New Jersey.

The report blamed American citizens’ vast appetite for meat for driving much of the harmful pollution. Small businesses, as well, are “contaminating our water and destroying our landscape,” said the report. Said Lucia von Reusner, campaign director at Mighty, “This problem is worsening and worsening and regulation isn’t reducing the scope of this pollution. These companies’ practices need to be far more sustainable. And a reduction in meat consumption is absolutely necessary to reduce the environmental burden.”

Gulf of Mexico, dead zone, animal agriculture, meat, pollution, toxic, waterways, ocean, algae blooms,

To determine the findings, Mighty analyzed supply chains or agribusiness and pollution trends. It was found that a “highly industrialized and centralized factory farm system” is primarily responsible for converting “vast tracts of native grassland in the midwest” into mono-crops, such as soy and corn. When it rains, the stripped soils can easily wash away, resulting in fertilizers entering streams, rivers, and oceans.

Related: Gulf of Mexico’s “dead zone” in 2017 could be the largest on record

Tyson Foods, which is based in Arkansas, was identified as a “dominant” influence in the pollution. This is because the company is a major supplier of beef, chicken, and pork in the United States. The Guardian reports that every year, the supplier slaughters 35 million chickens and 125,000 cattle every week. Its practices require five million acres of corn a year for feed. Unfortunately, Americans’ appetite for animal products is only expected to increase in future years, which spells trouble unless the majority of the United States adopts high-quality, organic plant-based diets which require fewer resources to grow and are less detrimental to the environment.

Mighty is urging Tyson and other firms to use their influence and to ensure grain producers, such as Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland, implement practices that reduce pollution in the waterways. These changes include not leaving soil uncovered by crops and being more efficient with fertilizers so plants are not sprayed with so many chemicals. While more action needs to be taken, the report, at the very least, raises awareness about the pervasive issue which demands attention.

Via The Guardian

+ Mighty

Images via WikimediaPixabay

The latest nation to apply to the UN: An ocean garbage patch with 115,000 ‘citizens’

http://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/world/article174571916.html

SEPTEMBER 21, 2017 11:14 AM

Seismic Testing to Begin in Atlantic Ocean in Push for Offshore Drilling

Seismic Testing to Begin in Atlantic Ocean in Push for Offshore Drilling

The Interior Department announced it is moving forward with seismic surveys in the Atlantic Ocean following President Donald Trump‘s executive order last month to aggressively expand offshore drilling in protected areas off the Arctic and Atlantic oceans.

Six permit applications by energy companies—ones that were rejected by the Obama administration—are being reviewed by the department.

The oil and gas industry has long pushed for seismic surveys used to search for oil and gas deposits deep below the ocean’s surface.

However, environmental groups warn that the surveys are an extremely loud and dangerous process.

“Seismic airguns create one of the loudest manmade sounds in the ocean, firing intense blasts of compressed air every 10 seconds, 24 hours a day, for weeks to months on end,” Dustin Cranor, Oceana‘s senior director of U.S. communications, told EcoWatch. “The noise from these blasts is so loud that it can be heard up to 2,500 miles from the source, which is approximately the distance from Washington, DC to Las Vegas.”

“These blasts are of special concern to marine life, including fish, turtles and whales, which depend on sound for communication and survival,” Cranor said. He noted that the government’s own estimates show that seismic airgun blasting in the Atlantic could injure as many as 138,000 marine mammals like dolphins and whales, while disturbing the vital activities of millions more.

Furthermore, Greenpeace said “pursuing this development stands at cross-purposes with the nation’s necessary and rapidly accelerating move away from fossil fuels, and with previous commitments to address global climate change.”

Sea Shepherd Conservation Society’s Capt. Paul Watson explained, “One of the major threats to the survival of cetaceans, is noise pollution. More seismic testing and military LFS testing will result in more strandings. This decision equates to a death sentence for thousands of whales and dolphins.”

Seismic data has not been gathered in the mid- and south-Atlantic regions, from northern Florida to Delaware, for at least 30 years.

The Interior Department said that the surveys are needed to update information about the Outer Continental Shelf that was gathered more than three decades ago, “when technology was not as advanced as today.”

The Associated Press reported that any new drilling activity is expected to be limited to the coasts of Virginia, North and South Carolina and Georgia.

Interior Sec. Ryan Zinke said that the surveys will help “a variety of federal and state partners better understand our nation’s offshore areas … and evaluate resources that belong to the American people.”

Industry groups applauded the department’s decision to review the permit applications. “There has been no documented scientific evidence of noise from these surveys adversely affecting marine animal populations or coastal communities,” Randall Luthi, president of the National Ocean Industries Association, said.

Trump’s executive order was aimed at rolling back President Obama’s permanent ban on new offshore oil and gas drilling in the Arctic and Atlantic oceans.

“Renewed offshore energy production will reduce the cost of energy, create countless new jobs, and make America more secure and far more energy independent,” Trump said before signing the document last month.

But Greenpeace said that Atlantic drilling would threaten the region’s vibrant fishing and tourism industry, warning that “a spill equivalent to the BP Gulf oil disaster could coat beaches stretching from Savannah to Boston.”

Additionally, Cranor pointed out that more than 120 East Coast municipalities, 1,200 elected officials, and an alliance representing 35,000 businesses and 500,000 fishing families have publicly opposed offshore drilling and/or seismic airgun blasting.

“These individuals and groups understand that nearly 1.4 million jobs and more than $95 billion in gross domestic product are at risk if dangerous offshore drilling activities occur in the Atlantic Ocean,” Cranor explained.

Conservation groups have filed a lawsuit against President Trump, challenging his decision to reverse President Obama’s ban.

Trump expands offshore drilling with executive order

President Trump signed an order Friday to kick off the process of undoing former President Obama’s restrictions on offshore oil and natural gas drilling.

In a White House signing ceremony joined by energy industry officials and lawmakers from coastal states, Trump pitched his executive order as a massive job and economy booster.

“We’re unleashing American energy and clearing the way for thousands and thousands of high-paying American energy jobs,” Trump said at the ceremony.

He said Obama had closed off 94 percent of the country’s outer continental shelf, which “deprives our country of potentially thousands and thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in wealth.”“Renewed offshore energy production will reduce the cost of energy, create countless new jobs and make America more secure and far more energy independent,” he said, calling the order “another historic step toward … a real future with greater prosperity and security for all Americans, which is what we want.”

The order came on Trump’s 99th day in office, during a week in which he signed numerous executive orders. He has now signed more executive orders in his first 100 days than any recent president.

The offshore drilling policy goes further toward fulfilling Trump’s promise to enable the production and use of more domestic energy, with an emphasis on fossil fuels. He promised on the campaign trail repeatedly to unleash the United States’ energy potential.

The order immediately repeals most of Obama’s ban on drilling in large parts of the Arctic Ocean, north of Alaska, which Obama intended to be indefinite.

It also asks Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to revise Obama’s plan for offshore drilling rights sales between 2017 and 2022. Zinke is asked specifically to consider drilling in the Arctic and Atlantic oceans, which haven’t had new drilling rights sales in years.

Trump is also asking Zinke to consider repealing or changing “burdensome regulations that slow job creation,” including safety rules put in place after the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

“This executive order starts the process of opening offshore areas to job-creating energy exploration,” Trump said at the ceremony.

The oil industry and its allies cheered Trump’s order as a major shift in federal policy toward their priorities.

“We are pleased to see this administration prioritizing responsible U.S. energy development and recognizing the benefits it will bring to American consumers and businesses,” American Petroleum Institute President Jack Gerard said in a statement.

“Developing our abundant offshore energy resources is a critical part of a robust, forward-looking energy policy that will secure our nation’s energy future and strengthen the U.S. energy renaissance,” he said.

House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) welcomed the policy as “a thorough review of the morass of bad policies developed and imposed by the prior administration.”

Environmentalists were joined by leaders, including governors of Democratic coastal states, in blasting the order.

“No matter how much money it spends or how many lobbyists it places inside the Trump administration, Big Oil can never nor will never drown out the voices of millions of Americans across the country who speak out against dangerous offshore drilling,” said Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club.

The governors of California, Oregon and Washington called the move shortsighted. The order doesn’t specifically call for Pacific drilling — where there have been no new leases in decades — but doesn’t rule it out.

“We still remember what happened in Santa Barbara in 1969, Port Angeles in 1985, Grays Harbor in 1988 and Coos Bay in 1999. We remember the oil soaked beaches and wildlife and the devastating economic impacts to local communities and the fishing industry,” California Gov. Jerry Brown, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, all Democrats, said in a joint statement.

“Now is not the time to turn back the clock. We cannot return to the days where the federal government put the interests of big oil above our communities and treasured coastline.”

Fukushima clean-up falters six years after tsunami/Japan bans Fukushima rice after radiation breaches limits

Exploration work inside the nuclear plant’s failed reactors has barely begun, with the scale of the task described as ‘almost beyond comprehension’

This aerial photo shows Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant in Okuma, Fukushima Prefecture
Cleaning up the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant is expected to take 30 to 40 years. Photograph: AP

Barely a fifth of the way into their mission, the engineers monitoring the Scorpion’s progress conceded defeat. With a remote-controlled snip of its cable, the latest robot sent into the bowels of one of Fukushima Daiichi’s damaged reactors was cut loose, its progress stalled by lumps of fuel that overheated when the nuclear plant suffered a triple meltdown six years ago this week.

As the 60cm-long Toshiba robot, equipped with a pair of cameras and sensors to gauge radiation levels was left to its fate last month, the plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco), attempted to play down the failure of yet another reconnaissance mission to determine the exact location and condition of the melted fuel.

Even though its mission had been aborted, the utility said, “valuable information was obtained which will help us determine the methods to eventually remove fuel debris”.

The Scorpion mishap, two hours into an exploration that was supposed to last 10 hours, underlined the scale and difficulty of decommissioning Fukushima Daiichi – an unprecedented undertaking one expert has described as “almost beyond comprehension”.

Cleaning up the plant, scene of the world’s worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl after it was struck by a magnitude-9 earthquake and tsunami on the afternoon of 11 March 2011, is expected to take 30 to 40 years, at a cost Japan’s trade and industry ministry recently estimated at 21.5tr yen ($189bn).

The figure, which includes compensating tens of thousands of evacuees, is nearly double an estimate released three years ago.

The tsunami killed almost 19,000 people, most of them in areas north of Fukushima, and forced 160,000 people living near the plant to flee their homes. Six years on, only a small number have returned to areas deemed safe by the authorities.

Grieving people
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The tsunami on 11 March 2011 killed almost 19,000 people. Photograph: Kimimasa Mayama/EPA

Developing robots capable of penetrating the most dangerous parts of Fukushima Daiichi’s reactors – and spending enough time there to obtain crucial data – is proving a near-impossible challenge for Tepco. The Scorpion – so called because of its camera-mounted folding tail – “died” after stalling along a rail beneath the reactor pressure vessel, its path blocked by lumps of fuel and other debris.

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The device, along with other robots, may also have been damaged by an unseen enemy: radiation. Before it was abandoned, its dosimeter indicated that radiation levels inside the No 2 containment vessel were at 250 sieverts an hour. In an earlier probe using a remote-controlled camera, radiation at about the same spot was as high as 650 sieverts an hour – enough to kill a human within a minute.

Shunji Uchida, the Fukushima Daiichi plant manager, concedes that Tepco acquired “limited” knowledge about the state of the melted fuel. “So far we’ve only managed to take a peek, as the last experiment with the robot didn’t go well,” he tells the Guardian and other media on a recent visit to the plant. “But we’re not thinking of another approach at this moment.”

Robotic mishaps aside, exploration work in the two other reactors, where radiation levels are even higher than in reactor No 2, has barely begun. There are plans to send a tiny waterproof robot into reactor No 1 in the next few weeks, but no date has been set for the more seriously damaged reactor No 3.

Naohiro Masuda, the president of Fukushima Daiichi’s decommissioning arm, says he wants another probe sent in before deciding on how to remove the melted fuel.

A Tepco employee speaks to the media at the company’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
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A Tepco employee speaks to the media at the company’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Photograph: Reuters

Despite the setbacks, Tepco insists it will begin extracting the melted fuel in 2021 – a decade after the disaster – after consulting government officials this summer.

But Shaun Burnie, a senior nuclear specialist at Greenpeace Germany who is based in Japan, describes the challenge confronting the utility as “unprecedented and almost beyond comprehension”, adding that the decommissioning schedule was “never realistic or credible”.

The latest aborted exploration of reactor No 2 “only reinforces that reality”, Burnie says. “Without a technical solution for dealing with unit one or three, unit two was seen as less challenging. So much of what is communicated to the public and media is speculation and wishful thinking on the part of industry and government.

“The current schedule for the removal of hundreds of tons of molten nuclear fuel, the location and condition of which they still have no real understanding, was based on the timetable of prime minister [Shinzo] Abe in Tokyo and the nuclear industry – not the reality on the ground and based on sound engineering and science.”

Even Shunichi Tanaka, the chairman of Japan’s nuclear regulation authority, does not appear to share Tepco’s optimism that it will stick to its decommissioning roadmap. “It is still early to talk in such an optimistic way,” he says. “At the moment, we are still feeling around in the dark.”

‘The situation is not under control’

On the surface, much has changed since the Guardian’s first visit to Fukushima Daiichi five years ago.

Then, the site was still strewn with tsunami wreckage. Hoses, pipes and building materials covered the ground, as thousands of workers braved high radiation levels to bring a semblance of order to the scene of a nuclear disaster.

Six years later, damaged reactor buildings have been reinforced, and more than 1,300 spent fuel assemblies have been safely removed from a storage pool in reactor No 4. The ground has been covered with a special coating to prevent rainwater from adding to Tepco’s water-management woes.

Workers who once had to change into protective gear before they approached Fukushima Daiichi now wear light clothing and simple surgical masks in most areas of the plant. The 6,000 workers, including thousands of contract staff, can now eat hot meals and take breaks at a “rest house” that opened in 2015.

But further up the hill from the coastline, row upon row of steel tanks are a reminder of the decommissioning effort’s other great nemesis: contaminated water. The tanks now hold about 900,000 tons of water, with the quantity soon expected to reach 1m tons.

Tepco’s once-vaunted underground ice wall, built at a cost of 24.5bn yen, has so far failed to completely prevent groundwater from leaking into the reactor basements and mixing with radioactive coolant water.

Couple hold hands on Fukushima street
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Much has changed in Fukushima since the disaster. Photograph: Franck Robichon/EPA

The structure, which freezes the soil to a depth of 30 metres, is still allowing 150 tonnes of groundwater to seep into the reactor basements every day, said Yuichi Okamura, a Tepco spokesman. Five sections have been kept open deliberately to prevent water inside the reactor basements from rising and flowing out more rapidly. “We have to close the wall gradually,” Okamura said. “By April we want to keep the influx of groundwater to about 100 tonnes a day, and to eliminate all contaminated water on the site by 2020.”

Critics of the clean-up note that 2020 is the year Tokyo is due to host the Olympics, having been awarded the Games after Abe assured the International Olympic Committee that Fukushima was “under control”.

Mitsuhiko Tanaka, a former Babcock-Hitachi nuclear engineer, accuses Abe and other government officials of playing down the severity of the decommissioning challenge in an attempt to win public support for the restart of nuclear reactors across the country.

“Abe said Fukushima was under control when he went overseas to promote the Tokyo Olympics, but he never said anything like that in Japan,” says Tanaka. “Anyone here could see that the situation was not under control.

“If people of Abe’s stature repeat something often enough, it becomes accepted as the truth.”

 

Too much caesium found in rice grown near Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, which was hit by tsunami in March
Japan bans Fukushima rice
Japanese rice that was found contain radioactive contamination well above the legal limit is displayed in Fukushima city. Photograph: Jiji Press/AFP/Getty Images

Japan has banned shipments of rice grown near a tsunami-hit nuclear power plant, after detecting radiation exceeding the legal limit.

The cabinet secretary, Osamu Fujimura, said on Thursday that a sample of rice from a farm contained 630 becquerels of caesium a kg.

Caesium was among the radioactive materials that leaked from the FukushimaDaiichi nuclear plant after it was damaged by the earthquake and tsunami in March.

Under Japanese regulations, rice with more than 500 becquerels of caesium per kilogram must not be consumed.

Officials have tested rice at hundreds of spots in Fukushima, but none had previously exceeded the limit. Only last month Fukushima declared that rice grown in the prefecture was safe.

Captain Paul Watson’s Sunday Sermon

 By Captain Paul Watson

I have family and friends who are Christians, Muslims, Jews, Atheists, Buddhists, Wiccans and even a few Scientologists and Mormons.

I have family and friends who are Conservatives, Liberals, Republicans, Democrats, Independents, Socialist, Communists, Anarchists and even a couple of Nihilists and possibly a Fascist or two.

I have family and friends from places flying hundreds of different flags and speaking hundreds of different languages.

I have family and friends who are wealthy, middle class, poor and homeless.

I have family and friends who are vegan, vegetarian and omnivore and possibly a couple of breatharians or so they say.

Some people have faith in anthropocentric fantasies, others have faith in science.

I have no problem with what people believe in or don’t believe in.

My concern is what connects us all and that is water. All of us without exception are citizens of this water planet – the Planet Ocean.

All of us owe our existence to the Ocean and the one great truth in my life is a simple one and that is; If the Ocean dies we all die!

It does not matter what you believe, it does not matter what your politics are. We are all united by the fact that if phytoplankton is diminished, we are all diminished. If forests are diminished we are all diminished and if biodiversity is diminished, we are all diminished.

Ecology has no politics, nationality, nor religion.

Since 1950 we have seen a 40% diminishment in phytoplankton mass in the world’s seas. Phytoplankton produce most of the oxygen that we depend upon for our collective survival.

How many people are aware of this? Sadly very few.

How many people even care? Again sadly very few.

Each of us are on average 65% water. This water passes into and out of our bodies beinging nutrients and removing waste from every single cell.

So if someone is 100 kilos, 65 kilos of what we are is H2O.
Of the remaining 35%, only about half is composed of human body cells. The other half is composed of trillions of cells from up to 10,000 species of bacteria.

In other words there is no such thing as an individual human being. We are all symbionts – a large complex mobile community of species of bacteria and fungi, and these species are interdependent. Bacteria cleans our skin, manufactures vitamins in our body, digests our food and perform numerous functions required to keep us alive.

This interdependence has allowed us to survive on this planet for tens of thousands of years. If an alien life form were to arrive here without a protective suit, it would quickly die because of the bacteria that we have evolved to co-exist with.

Kill off enough microflora in the body and we die. We exist because bacteria exist.

Every living thing from bacteria to the great whales is interdependent. The first law of ecology is diversity, the second is interdependence and the third is the law of finite resources. Lack of resources caused by over population of one species diminishes diversity in other species and thus diminishes biodiversity.

I have often been criticized for saying that worms, bees, trees and plankton are more important than human beings. However the truth is that these species can live without us but we cannot live without them. We need them and they don’t need us. Some species are more important than other depending on how they contribute to the collective life support system. Phytoplankton produces oxygen, trees absorb carbon dioxide, bees pollinate plants and worms keep the soil healthy.

When people ask me what my politics are, my answer is biocentrism and the laws of ecology.

When people ask me what my religious beliefs are, my answer is biocentrism and the laws of ecology.

I am a symbiotic self-aware mobile community of human and bacterial cells living within an Oceanic eco-system on the Planet Ocean.

We tend to view the sea as the Ocean. However the sea is only a part of the Ocean. The Ocean is water and it is in the sea, in the atmosphere, under the soil, deep in the rocks , locked up in ice and it flows through every cell of every plant and animal on the planet. It is water in constant circulation, pumped by the sun, circulated in rain, rivers, streams etc, and cleansed by estuaries, condensation, marshes and wetlands.

Everything connected by the one most important element composed of two molecules of hydrogen and one molecule oxygen connected so tightly and so intimately that all water is essentially one molecule.

We humans are here for the following reason:

1. Because of the sun. The sun is energy. Plants eat sunlight and animals eat plants.
2. Because of water. Water is life.
3. Because of the evolution of bio-diversity. The machinery of life.
4. Because of phytoplankton and trees to provide oxygen.
5. Because of phytoplankton, trees and plants absorbing carbon dioxide.
6. Because life is dictated by the natural laws of ecology.
7. Because 65.2 million years ago, an asteroid slammed into our planet ending the age of dinosaurs and laying the foundation for the evolution of mammals and the evolvement of primates into hominids. Without that asteroid there would still be life on this planet, just not life as we know it.

We are part of the Continuum – the flow of life.

The energy within us is eternal. The water within us is eternal. That which we think and believe we are – our consciousness is ephemeral.

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