Wednesday, October 10, 2018

A brand new method to infer stream fish abundance
Interview with Prof. Taal Levi
Prof. Taal Levi is an Assistant Professor at Oregon State University and has one of the most diverse research profiles that we’ve ever seen. His studies range from disease ecology to seed dispersal across all sorts of environments, from the Amazon Forest to Alaska. His main peculiarity is perhaps the use of empirical data to address applied issues, such as wildlife overexploitation, overfishing, climate change and anthropogenic impacts in general.
Now, one of his projects is focusing on estimating stream fish abundance using quantification of environmental DNA. Environmental DNA (or eDNA) is the technique of detecting DNA found in the environment, like water, soil or even from stomach contents, instead of trying to extract it directly from an individual.
Here he talks about this interesting and important project (we know how important it is to have reliable fish abundance measures for fishery management!):

FEME: How does this method work exactly?
Taal Levi: Detection of environmental DNA using real-time qPCR or digital PCR is already being used to identify species occurrence. But now we are testing its effectiveness to infer species abundance.
Firstly, it is necessary to design species-specific primers – so, you have to decide a species focus. We are mostly using mitochondrial markers, such as COI (cytochrome oxidase I). Then, you have to collect some water samples and amplify all the DNA of the target fish you find there. Finally, you make a relation between the concentration of DNA from your target and the species abundance.

FEME: What have you found so far?
Taal Levi: We already tested this method for two salmon species and for Eulachon (a smelt) in the state of Oregon. All of them are very economically and culturally important. Actually, the Eulachon is so important for the people in that region that the Oregon’s state name was given because of how the indigenous called that fish, Ourigan. For these three species the method seems very effective.

FEME: Is it possible to test its efficacy? How?
Taal Levi: We are testing it using different forms of counts. For the salmon species, we counted the number of individuals entering the streams every day for two years. For the Eulachon, we used a different approach, a mark-recapture abundance estimative.

FEME: What are the advantages of using this methodology?
Taal Levi: Several! One is the possibility of sampling more areas very fast, because the only thing you need to do is collect water. The other is to be able to work with endangered species - usually, doing research with endangered species is very complex, and this method is very cost-effective.

FEME: Is there any disadvantage?
Taal Levi: The eDNA is very local and time specific, so you can only infer abundance from a small area and for the last 1 or 2 days.

FEME: Do you think that this technique can be applied in Brazilian streams?
Taal Levi: Definitely yes, you will only have some more trouble to design the markers. With that being done, it is totally posible.

If you are interested in learning more about prof. Levi and/or the methods he’s been developing and applying, check his website and his last publication on eDNA.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Tax havens, illegal fishing and Amazon deforestation

Cayman Islands, Panama, Belize, Turks and Caicos and other Central American small countries may remind some of us of little pieces of paradise, but may also remind others of tax havens and corruption. However, perhaps a question that nobody had (dared to?) asked before was about a possible link between tax havens and environmental degradation. A study recently published in Nature Ecology and Evolution gives us a good sense of how these two things may be much more related than you would have ever guessed so.
Tax havens are known for providing politically neutral and reliable arenas for institutional innovation compared with settings dominated by political turbulence and institutional legal vacuum. At the same time, however, some negative effects of these jurisdictions are evident, such as their role in ‘money laundering’ and funding of illegal activities, and the risk of amplified global systemic financial risks created by the lack of financial transparency and oversight.
But how about the potential environmental impacts of tax havens? To address this issue, Victor Galaz and collaborators have examined resource extraction from two key global environmental commons - the ocean and the Amazon rainforest. Their data shows that while only 4% of all registered fishing vessels are currently flagged in a tax haven jurisdiction, 70% of the vessels that have been found to carry out or support illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing are, or have been, flagged under a tax haven jurisdiction. Fisheries sector is particularly susceptible to the use of tax havens in three important ways. First, the use of tax havens has been proved to support aggressive tax planning and tax evasion. Second, these jurisdictions also facilitate the evasion of regulation designed to address overfishing and fisheries crime because many well-known tax havens also qualify as secrecy jurisdictions in other regards, such as flags of convenience (FOC) states. FOCs are countries to which vessel owners flag vessels and from which they can expect limited or no sanctioning mechanisms if they are identified as operating in violation to international law. Third, the secrecy afforded by combined use of tax havens and FOCs also allows companies to secure the dual identity of a fishing vessel, one of which is used for legal and the other for illegal fishing activities. Therefore, the authors claim that the use of tax havens makes tracing of fisheries resource use and allocation of accountability extremely difficult and costly, representing a major threat to the sustainability of global ocean resources.
Source: Caribbean News Service (Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing in the Caribbean) 

The environmental impacts of tax havens are not that different in the Amazonian reality. Galaz and co-authors’ study shows that between October 2000 and August 2011, tax havens accounted for 68% of the total foreign capital transferred to the nine largest companies operating in the soy and beef sectors of the Brazilian Amazon. Even though it is not illegal to transfer money to Brazil using tax havens, it is worth mentioning that soy and cattle production are the two sectors representing key drivers of deforestation. For some of the companies investigated, tax havens represented as much as 90–100% of the foreign capital. Channeling capital through tax havens provides three benefits to investors: legal efficiency, tax-minimization and secrecy.
Both examples explored by Galaz and collaborators show that the use of tax havens leads to environmental concerns, and poses major challenges to transparency and tracking. Furthermore, the authors claim that the loss of tax revenue through the use of tax haven jurisdictions by companies modifying the biosphere could be conceptualized as indirect subsidies to economic activities with possibly detrimental global environmental consequences. The authors conclude by highlighting that the international community should intensify its attempts to stimulate corporate transparency and collaborate to uncover and fight tax evasion, viewing such actions as important not only from a socio-political perspective, but also for environmental reasons.

Galaz et al. 2018. Tax havens and global environmental degradation. Nature Ecology and Evolution:

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Sustainable seafood consumption in Brazil: An interview with Daniele Vila Nova

Marine fishery resources have worldwide economic, social, and ecological importance. These fisheries provide a relevant part of protein intake and income for people in the developing world, being linked directly and indirectly to the fishing sector. As the global population increases, the demand for fish increases which leads to a growing number of vessels, diversification of fishing gear, and improvements of catchability. All of these innovations are leading to crashing fish stocks and dramatically changing marine ecosystems. However, the growing number of vessels, the diversification of fishing gear and the improvements in catchability, coupled with population growth and increased demand for fish in recent decades made overfishing a global reality, not only affecting fish stocks, but entire marine ecosystems. This urgent situation should leads to the promotion of forms of sustainable resources, which should encompass fisher all the way to the final consumer.
            There are many factors that determine if fish are sustainably caught. The factors that lead to this are information about the social conditions of the fishing worker (from extraction to marketing), the ecological status of fish stocks and even the basic conditions of preparation and processing the catch. These factors should be accompanied or explicitly demanded by consumers to help with their shopping choices, although this is hardly ever the case, especially in developing countries.
            Daniele is a biologist with a master's and doctoral degree in Ecology and Conservation. She has extensive experience in coastal and marine conservation which has allowed her to work in multiple initiatives to integrate and promote stakeholder/institution engagement towards coastal and ocean sustainability in Brazil. She is currently a fishery analyst for the Seafood Watch Program (Monterey Bay Aquarium) ( and the Research Director for Paiche      ( which is a brand-new consulting firm focused in promoting seafood sustainability in Brazil. She is also part of the Brazilian Alliance for Sustainable Seafood (, and her work with this organization will be further explained in the interview

1. Can you tell to us a little about “Aliança Brasileira de Pescado Sustentável” and the work being developed?
The Brazilian Alliance for Sustainable Seafood (BASS) aims to promote collective actions searching for solutions to address the many challenges of the seafood supply chain along with promoting sustainable seafood consumption. BASS was created in 2015 during the second Seminar on Fisheries and Aquaculture: Seeking Sustainable Solutions. The meeting culminated in the joint decision to create the Alliance. Attendees represented the largest ocean conservation nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) working in Brazil and included: celebrity chefs, large retailers, food service companies, industry, government, independent scientists, aquariums and some prominent universities.

2. What are the main difficulties for the fish sustainability in Brazil?
In a nutshell, there's not enough information. In a country as big as Brazil, without providing fisheries statistics at a national level for about 10 years, it really shows how great the challenge is to promote seafood sustainability here. The lack of a continuous agenda hampers promising initiatives that are also often interrupted due to changes in the government and/or lack of consistent funding. It is also worth noting that in such a large country one single solution won't be enough. We need to identify best practices/initiatives already in place across the country and replicate the methods where the conditions are similar. This would allow us to seek solutions that would ultimately meet local problems while also addressing the local social, environmental, economic and cultural components.

3. How could we convince the big companies to practice sustainable fishing?
From a global standpoint, a positive aspect that I could mention is that changes are happening outside Brazil. There's a growing movement promoting seafood sustainability that has been ongoing for about 20 years, and this wave of changes is finally arriving here. Due to a large quantity of seafood in Brazil coming from other parts of the globe, some of this seafood is already certified or evaluated within seafood recommendation programs. Also, much of what is produced here is exported, so we've been witnessing sanctions and embargos towards Brazilian companies for not providing/performing consistent information that is legally required. What may initially be a negative condition can actually become a 'wake up call' for the big companies. Is the Brazilian government responsible for not enforcing the regulations? Yes, absolutely. However, companies are also responsible for not following them many times, despite knowing such regulations. The challenge here is to enable companies understand the benefits (both financial and environmental – the latter being usually a long term benefit) of compliance and also of proactively engaging in more sustainable practices (which in turn may also increase the value of their product in the market). Whoever leads such changes will also reap the first benefits.

4. You recently attended the “SeaWeb Seafood Summit” event in Barcelona, Spain. How was it to participate to this event and how is the Brazil's situation in relation to other countries?
It was an incredible experience! To be able to meet and network with the world's leaders involved in the sustainable seafood movement was a game changer for me. I also learned many inspiring stories from other developing countries addressing similar problems that we face here (lack of data, low investments, lack of transparency, social responsibility, etc. Unfortunately, I was the only Brazilian attending the Summit. Hopefully, this will change in the coming years.

5. What can each of us do to contribute to the fish sustainability?
Be a responsible consumer! Ask what fish is when you go to a restaurant, check labels, and see where your seafood is coming from when you go grocery shopping. Be aware of species that are endangered and that shouldn't be consumed. Don't eat sharks and rays (most of them are endangered species). Vary your seafood options by trying local species that are not widely known but will likely be more abundant than other species in high demand (think tuna!). Spread your knowledge to your friends, colleagues, and family. We need more changemakers!

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Water scarcity: an already systemic issue

Imagine yourself in a very hot day or after spending two hours working out at the gym. Would you get thirsty? It is just amazing to have an iced glass of water to refresh and hydrate our bodies or to take a long shower to relax after a working day. Water is so essential that no living being could survive without it. But have you ever thought that this resource could end or about the problems water scarcity could bring to the ecosystems and human lives as well? Could you imagine our blue planet without the blue part? Unfortunately, water shortage is a reality and we must understand what causes it and its consequences so that we could try to mitigate and avoid worse problems.

The amount of freshwater available in our planet is limited, which puts a cap at how much we can use of it. However, such threshold is likely to be close due to over-exploitation and human’s current unsustainable water use practices. Global demands for water have been increasing since the 1950s, whereas the freshwater supply has been declining. A fast-growing population, associated with ecosystems and land degradation, groundwater depletion, pollution of water courses and the use of water resources for producing more food to an increasing population (through irrigation) are some of the main reasons threatening water availability in terrestrial environments. Climate change is an additional effect that could exacerbate water scarcity in many areas of the world by increasing evapotranspiration rates and through reduced rainfall.

A group of scientists recently warned that water shortages are likely to be a major environmental challenge in this century. Indeed, even if we improved the efficiency of irrigations for agriculture, or managed water correctly, some predictions suggest that by 2050 our population will require 12,400 km3 of water, which is almost twice as much as our use today (6800 km3). Irrigation, one of the main uses of water, would probably be the first sector to be impacted by water scarcity, consequently constraining food production in the next decades. In that sense, water scarcity is projected to become one of the main drivers of food scarcity, leading to food insecurity and worsening hunger and poverty.

Water scarcity could also implicate in further ecosystem degradation, desertification, and droughts. These consequences together deprive people of means to survive and to carry on their economic activities, undermining social security and sometimes forcing local people to leave their homes to search for better life opportunities. This is what happened to the Urus-Muratos, a Bolivian population who traditionally depended on fisheries and hunting in the Poopó lake, the second largest lake of Bolivia. The saline lake dried up many times along its, but it would always recover to its original levels. However, because of its shallowness (max depth = 3m), Poopó lake is particularly vulnerable to water withdrawal for irrigation purposes, mining activities and decreased rainfall due to climate change. Since 2016, when it dried up for the last time, both locals and researchers believe the lake won’t recover. Without good perspectives, the Urus-Muratos are migrating to other Bolivian cities.

Fig. 1. Bolivia’s Lake Poopó in (a) April 12th, 2013, with water and (b) in January 15th, 2016, completely dried. From:

Such scenarios are even worse in arid and semi-arid lands where water is no longer abundant and where droughts have become more intense. Arid countries in the sub-Saharan Africa and in parts of South Asia are already subject to hunger, poverty and malnutrition, and water scarcity in such vulnerable areas tends to weight against any strategy to ameliorate social and economic security. As an attempt to better undestand these issues, in June 2018 the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) launched a report two days before the World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought, which is celebrated every June 17th since 1995.

Fig. 2. From the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) report on drought and the way its managed in the Near East and North Africa region. 

In this report FAO called for a shift in the way governments deal with drought in the Near East and North Africa region. This region is naturally affected by water scarcity and desertification due to its geographical position in the globe, though more severely during the past four decades, especially because of climate change. As a consequence, many socio-economic and environmental impacts are now more frequent. Smallholders and the poor layers of rural societies are especially vulnerable since their current economic activities, such as agriculture, forestry, livestock, and also fisheries, are particularly prone to be impacted by droughts and could severely affect food supply. FAO alerted to the need of a long-term planning and pro-active policy to reduce drought risks and build resilience amongst the 20 countries in the region. The report also states the importance of taking precautionary measures to strengthen societal resilience based on social, economic and environmental contexts of each country instead of just alleviating the consequences of drought through emergency responses.

In Brazil, since 2003, a government initiative called National Program to Support Rainwater Collection and other Social Technologies (“Cistern Program” in short) have been aiding the poor rural population to deal with water scarcity and drought, especially in the poverty plagued semi-arid Northeast region. This program aims to guarantee that people have access to water for human consumption and food production (for small-scale farming) through the use of ordinary and low cost social technologies. Although the program was successful and improved many local livelihoods, and also trained family members to apply these technologies (which enhances their capacity of learning and adapting), its budget for 2018 suffered a 95% cut, which basic kills it – a step back for a region desperately in need of affordable solutions to deal with ever repetitive and more intensive droughts.

Fig. 3. A cistern (on the left) in a rural community in the semi-arid region of the Rio Grande do Norte State, Brazil. From: Maria Clara B. T. Cavalcanti.

In an imminent possibility where freshwater scarcity will pose key challenges to humankind in all aspects of living (worsening poverty, hunger, security, and social inequity) and threats to the ecosystems as well, such as desertification, land degradation and impacts on ecosystem services, what could we do now to revert or stop such bad predictions? For a start, it would be nice if we could change our lifestyles to more sustainable food habits that require less water for irrigation, consume less animal products (as they require a lot more water per kg), invest in new technologies to generate “clean energy”, which could then reduce greenhouse gases emissions that contribute to warm up the planet, modernize irrigation infrastructure, plant more trees and reduce deforestation, preserve terrestrial ecosystems and aquifers, and be aware when using water and other natural resources…There are so many things we could do, both individually and in group!  Water is a collective good and the right to use it should be turned into the duty to save it.  We must start now.

By Maria Clara Bezerra

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Ethics issues of consuming seafood

Maybe this is something that has never crossed your mind: despite the benefits of eating seafood, what are the ethical implications of doing this? Seafood consumption impacts consumers and the marine environment in both positive and negative ways. Fish consumers may experience an increase of gray matter in the brain, as well as nutritional benefits, but those benefits may be balanced against mercury contamination. Environmental impacts include unsustainable harvesting and other alterations to the oceans’ health. Yes, you probably heard about all of these before. However, in addition to consumer-related and environmental concerns, labor trafficking (over 45 million people around the globe are trapped in some form of slavery, see the Global Slavery Index 2016) – has become an issue in the fishery industry worldwide. Do you know or do you even care if your fish was caught with forced labor?

Forced labor or labor trafficking encompasses a range of activities (e.g.: recruiting, harboring, transporting, providing, or obtaining) involved when a person uses coercive means to compel someone to work. Most enslaved workers are involved in the agriculture, fishing, construction, manufacturing, and mining industries. In fishing, this forced labor is used on illegal vessels across the world, regions such as Asia and India being especially risk-prone both to labor trafficking and illegal fishing. 

The world’s fourth-largest seafood exporter from Asia, Thailand, has been gained international attention for labor trafficking because it is estimates that up to 300,000 people work as slave in its fishing industry. Forced labor and other rights abuses are widespread in Thai fishing fleets, which carry around 60 exploited workers per boat and go out to sea for months at a time. In this way, fishers wound up working in terrible conditions for no pay at all, for years at a time, and can be sold from captain to captain for not much more than $430 each.

Figure 1: Living quarters on the boats are hot and cramped, with crew sleeping just 2 hours between shifts, in Thailand. From:

In 2014, a report revealed the strong relationship between Thailand slave labor and the global shrimp supply chain, involving supermarkets and restaurants in the United Kingdom and the United States, like Walmart, Kroger, and Red Lobster. The United Kingdom already has legislation in place covering many aspects of work-on-board fishing vessels, but much of this needs to be updated in order to comply with the International Labour Convention – ILO 188. Furthermore, since the European Union threatened to ban its fish imports in 2015, Thailand’s government has been considering fishing industry reforms. That said, little has been done; the last Human Rights Watch’s report shows rights abuses and forced labor continue in Thailand’s fishing sector.   

Figure 2: Burmese fishers raise their hands as they are asked who among them want to go home at the compound of Pusaka Benjina Resources fishing company in Benjina, Aru Islands, Indonesia. From 

However, raising awareness with the goal of preventing labor trafficking in the fishing industry has inspired widespread activism and research working both against forced labor and for sustainable fishery. Recently, the Monterey Bay Aquarium launched its first database to combat forced labor in the fishery industry. The Seafood Slavery Risk Tool is a database jointly run by the Seafood Watch program, Liberty Asia, and the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership. It is designed to help corporate seafood buyers assess the risk of forced labor in the seafood they purchase by checking a fishery risk rating varying into critical, high, moderate or low. The new tool considers reliable indicators about known abuses, illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, duration of the fishing trip, and evidence of forced labor, human trafficking and child labor in other sectors. Different from the Seafood Watch app, which advises retailers on which species into purchase, this new program seeks to change the seafood industry by working with suppliers to change their practices, talking openly about slavery and human rights. 

In 2014, nearly 3 billion people relied on fish as their main source of protein. Rather than leaving the government to address the causes of slavery labor, we, as fish consumers, can change corporate practices by speaking out against companies profiting from unsustainable fishery. Before we purchase seafood, we need to ask the following questions: How was this fish caught? Does the fishing gear result in bycatch and/or habitat destruction? Where on the food chain does the fish live? Is it wild or farmed? Did slaves catch my seafood? 

If we want fishing to remain part of our culture, we should choose seafood carefully, taking into account the social, environmental, economic, and, sure, ethical issues across the whole supply chain. With this in mind, would you think cautiously before eating or buying seafood next time? 

More interesting sources on slave labor in the fishing industry:

By Monalisa Silva