1) The fight for off shore wind farming in New Jersey amps up
2) New study finds that jaguar populations in Mexico increased, spurring conversation and debate over whether the U.S. should follow suit
3) Indonesia leads the way in restoring coral reefs with success of restoration project
Things are heating up in Ocean City, NJ over proposed off-shore wind farms in what is proving to be another critical battle in our pursuit of clean, renewable energy.
We are seeing this across the country as federal and state governments work to build clean energy solutions that are often getting rejected at the local level, framed as “Not in My Backyard” battles.
In the case of Ocean City, NJ, the fight is over 3 off-shore wind projects that many locals are opposing. They fear there will be negative impacts on coastal waters, marine life, tourism, and short term energy prices. Their halo argument is that nobody knows for certain what the long-term impacts of offshore wind farms will be since it’s a relatively new arena, and we should not be building until we do. Although this presents a bit of a chicken and egg issue and also fosters delaying the energy transition when we just don’t have the time to do so.
And these 3 projects are a big deal. They would provide clean electricity for up to 1.6m homes in New Jersey, or 44% of all homes in the state.
But this fight in New Jersey also highlights two other types of tribal battles:
A) Communities getting the bulk of the power vs. those getting the renewable projects & jobs
B) Renewable Energy Advocates vs. Environmental Purists
How this issue in Ocean City, NJ shakes out will likely have ramifications in many other cases of the same battle going on.
NEW JERSEY’S BIG JULY MOVE
The heart of this issue is that in order to transition off of fossil fuels, we have to build energy projects in areas that are further away from the largest energy needs – bigger cities. Unlike fossil fuel plants which can be built right outside of major markets, solar and wind farms are primarily built in rural areas or offshore where there is the needed space. We then need to move that energy to the areas it’s most needed.
However many of these smaller rural towns or ocean towns oppose having these projects built in their backyards given the primary customer is not their residents.
So back in July of this year, New Jersey governor Phil Murphy and the state legislature passed a law allowing the state to block any local opposition if the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities deems the project necessary for the state of New Jersey.
The opposition to these projects frames this as the state overriding any ability to allow local residents to protect their property. Or as an Ocean City councilman put bluntly, “Trenton passed a law that says they don’t give a crap what Ocean City has to say,” said Tomaso Rotondi, referring to the state capital.
A coalition called Protect Our Coastline has emerged to fight these projects throughout the state. You can view all of their frameworks here. They highlight the following issues as reasons to oppose the offshore wind projects:
- Claim the wind turbines will disrupt the cold pools of the Atlantic Ocean due to potential sediment and current disruption that is key for fish populations
- Claim the sound can damage the hearing of large ocean mammals such as whales, and cite the known deaths wind turbines have had on birds
- Claim wind turbines will cause thermal stress and oxygen depletion in the ocean
- Claim this will lead to an increase in local energy costs compared to current fossil fuels primarily natural gas
So how much of this is valid?
Very little. Look, we can’t dispute that nobody knows for certain the long term impacts of offshore wind farms given we haven’t had them at scale before, but that has never stopped us from innovating and building before. We also didn’t know the long term impacts of offshore oil drilling when we started that either – and they turned out to be pretty damn bad. So using that as a reason to avoid clean energy construction seems like quite the double standard.
But lets break down each of those claims from Protect Our Coastlines
- The cold pool disruption is not supported directly by any peer reviewed data or science and they stitch together examples and anecdotal cases from other geographies and from older turbines that are not as up to date as modern ones to build this narrative.
- No doubt turbines have killed bird and will continue to do so until they learn to adapt, and newer turbines are able to turn at slower speeds while producing the same energy to minimize this. Sound damage can be real for ocean mammals as well, but again there is no cited scientific data on specific damage caused by turbines vs. other industrial projects or large carrier vessels
- The speculative damage to thermal stress and oxygen depletion is kind of laughable when compared to the known, concrete damage emissions from fossil fuels are causing in our oceans such as warming, acidification, and yes, oxygen depletion.
- Onshore wind is now priced around 2.9 cents per kw/hour, far lower than the cheapest fossil fuel, natural gas, at 3.8 cent per kw/hour. However, offshore wind projects are a bit more expensive to build out due to the need to also build transmission infrastructure underground from the source up through the coast and into the grid, so in the short term, this energy source is slightly more expensive. However, it can and will be subsidized by the state of New Jersey in the early years so the customers are not bearing that increased cost.
In the years ahead, the biggest battleground in transitioning off fossil fuels will very likely be at the local level over the infrastructure – more powerful transmission lines, offshore wind projects, installing new battery centers – to get there. So what happens here in New Jersey in Ocean City really matters.
While we stand behind this project and other offshore wind efforts, we also may have to accept that there could be some adverse impacts on local environments. So long as they are short term and able to be contained – be it created a lane for a transmission line through a local forest or building transmission lines under the coastal floor – and all precautions are met and any negative impacts are carefully monitored and addressed if they happen, we absolutely need to accept some trade-offs in getting off fossil fuels, which is damaging every aspect of the environment and all the life on this planet in existential ways.
We also need to take the time to have a dialogue and work with local communities. We need to find ways to move these projects forward with advocacy and education rather than mandates and iron fists if we want to breakthrough on changes we need. This takes more effort and touch, but it will pay off in droves long term.
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MEXICO’S JAGUAR SUCCESS SPURS MORE U.S REWILDING DISCUSSIONS
A recent study found that jaguar populations in Mexico increased ~20% between 2010 and 2018, a huge success that was not anticipated.
When the very first comprehensive census of jaguar populations in Mexico was done in 2010, the hope was at best to keep the numbers stable over the next decade. However, the government’s efforts to protect this species have gone much better than anticipated, which we can attribute to the following two factors:
- A large focus was on protecting existing wildlife corridors and slowing deforestation. Jaguars require a larger range – as much as 50 square miles per male – so the only real way to protect them is to protect the large wild ranges they need to survive. Which of course in turn, protects many other species as well.
- Resolving conflict with livestock owners by fully compensating any cattle loss due to jaguar depredation and paying to install electric fences for ranchers to encourage non-lethal intervention
These two efforts led to pretty incredible results, showing a blueprint for us to follow in our own battle here in the US to protect wolves, an issue we covered in depth in our 1st ever podcast mini-series this summer, The American War on Wolves.
However, could it also be a blueprint for rewinding jaguars here in the US? Should we do this even if we could? What might the ecological and cultural benefits be of doing so?
THE AMERICAN JAGUAR
Believe it or not, Jaguars once roamed in the US. Primarily in the Southwest, at least as far north as the Grand Canyon, but quite possible California and most of Texas as well. However they were wiped out completely be Western US settlers, much like wolves, and the last known US jaguar was killed in 1964 in the mountains of Tucson.
In 1996, a jaguar was spotted in Arizona after coming over from the US-Mexico border. Ever since, debates over jaguar restoration have taken hold in Arizona and New Mexico.
Proponents of rewinding jaguars point to a region in these states known as CANRA which seems particularly conducive for jaguars to thrive. However, whether or not they would is at the crux of the issue.
Detractors say that the forest ecosystems of the US Southwest have changed and would no longer successfully support jaguars in terms of the range they need which is now divided by things like highways and ranchers, and the cover they need to hunt. So any effort to rewind them would cost us tax dollars and headaches. They also point to the threat posed to livestock, the main issue pushing against our efforts to rewind and restore wolves in the very same region.
However there are also many potential benefits:
A) Jaguars are known umbrella species. This is because since they require such a large range to thrive, this in turn creates more ecological space for thousands of other animal and plant species as well, which in turn also strengthens these ecosystems
B) Jaguars, like other apex predators, have powerful cascade effects, from mitigating disease in prey species (because they first feed on the weak or sick) to creating space for others by moving prey out of certain areas they are more vulnerable and concentrating their herds
C) They can have economic benefits both from ecotourism, something we’ve seen with wolves in Yellowstone, and by creating more opportunities for hunters via strengthening prey populations such as white-tailed deer
D) They create opportunities for Indigenous people who can and should serve as their protectors. The Bison project in the US has seen great success in returning these beasts to the Great Plains. 60 tribes now collectively manage 20,000 bison, not only providing a traditional food source for those communities, but also creating jobs and land protection in the process, while maybe most importantly, helping these communities to protect and restore their cultural heritage.
We should applaud the recovery efforts in Mexico and be reminded that accomplishing these type of recovery and rewilding goals of critical apex predators can be done successfully, can be done in a way that protects ranchers and commercial interests, and can be done in a way that fosters ecosystem strength and resiliency across the board. And this in a country that has far fewer economic resources at its disposal than the US. Good on you Mexico!
That said, we are not sure we should rush into jaguar rewinding in the Southwest US, which you might be surprised to hear from us.
The reason being is that the gray wolf recovery in the same region has been an unmitigated disaster due to inept and corrupt governance from the US Fish & Wildlife Service, an inability to properly set up non-lethal intervention with ranchers, and inability to keep ranchers from opening up grazing on public lands, and an inability to properly set up the wildlife corridor needed between northern Mexico and the Southwest US that wolves need for genetic diversity.
If we can’t get it right so far with wolves, what gives us confidence we will do so with jaguars? We need to achieve our goals with wolf recovery first, and then we absolutely can and should look towards a possible jaguar rewilding program as well.
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SUCCESS OF INDONESIA’S CORAL RECOVERY
When we think of coral, we often think of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia or the abundance of coral in Hawaii. However, 1/3 of the world’s coral can be found in what is known as the Coral Triangle with a majority of that in Indonesia, a sprawling, growing country of over 13,000 islands that now sits as the 4th largest population in the world behind China, India, and the US.
If you have been with Animalia for a while, you know we are losing our coral at historic rates, primarily due to ocean acidification due to warming and toxic runoffs which in turn is causing corals to bleach and die. Between 2009 and 2018, 14% of the coral on this planet was lost. Overfishing and other commercial activities have hurt coral as well. And considering thousands of species are dependent on coral and millions of people are dependent on coral for food, income, and storm protection, this is a big problem.
And if we hit the dreaded 2C temperature increase in terms of global warming (reminder we sit at 1.1C increase post Industrial Age with goal of maxing out at 1.5C and absolute must of staying below 2C to avoid big time negative impacts), well then we likely will lose all coral across the world.
While Indonesia has a lot of work to do when it comes to slowing down deforestation across key islands such as Borneo & Java, the country is doing really well when it comes to restoring coral. In fact, better than any country in the world. Thanks to their program to protect 30 million hectares (115,000 square miles) of Marine Protected Areas, Indonesia has more than 500 coral restoration projects in the works.
It’s doing so well that Australia is turning to Indonesia for consultation and help in protecting and restoring its own coral.
One of the recent developments in signaling this success are soundscapes….
THE SWEET SOUNDS OF SUCCESS
When thriving and healthy, the rich variety of life that coral reefs support – over 4,000 species of fish alone – produces a cacophony of sounds. This is because many marine species use sound to geolocate and map their home base, sort of like a beacon. Fish who live in coral often feed out in the open waters, and use sounds from those who stay at home to navigate back after a hard day of work, so to speak.
Scientists in Indonesia have noticed an interesting phenomenon with recovered coral and coral established in new locations….they are producing sounds that are completely unrecognized. For some reason, this recovered and newly formed coral ecosystems are creating new soundscapes, albeit from the same collection of species but exhibiting slightly different behavior. In fact, the same exact fish from historically healthy coral seems to be communicating differently when in newly recovered or newly established coral.
Why this is happening, what they are saying, and what fish are communicating what sounds specifically is still unknown. But boy is it fascinating.
To decode this, scientists are recording the sounds and then playing them back underwater via speakers, hoping the originators will be drawn to it in order to better understand what’s happening. But they are in the very early stages of this work so nothing conclusive has been produced yet.
It’s pretty cool to see Indonesia’s success here and overall investment in protecting and restoring coral. Kudos Indonesia!
The system that seems to be working is utilizing a metal structure to provide coral a base to grow from, waiting a couple years for coral foundations to take shape, then applying chicken wire between the coral frames to stabilize it, and then after another year, sponges and softer coral regenerate and the wire disintegrates. So a slow, methodical process.
Coral recovery is also producing a lot of jobs for local communities in Indonesia, and once it does recover, it can produce even more in the form of tourism and sustainable fishing.
That said, there is some work still to be done. Right now Indonesia is throwing a lot of resources at this issue in a sort of “spray and pray” model. Many scientists point out that we don’t have enough precision on exactly where to start recovery projects, and changes as little as several meters can make a huge difference because of micro differences in currents and other factors still unknown. Coral recovery is a relatively new field scientifically, so we have a lot to learn. It’s also very unique from the recovery of terrestrial plant life such as forests.
“Growing coral is not growing trees, where you plant it and it will grow,” she explained. “The science is still very fuzzy. It might be successful in one spot but two meters away, the hydro-dynamic factors or supply of larvae will be slightly different and it won’t work there.
So while Indonesia works towards a more centralized, long-term approach based on the data being gathered, there is a lot here for other countries such as the US & Australia to learn from in our own recovery efforts.
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