Julia Whitty

Julia Whitty

Environmental Correspondent

Julia is an award-winning author of fiction and nonfiction (Deep Blue Home, The Fragile Edge, A Tortoise for the Queen of Tonga), and a former documentary filmmaker. She also blogs at Deep Blue Home.

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Julia is a writer and former documentary filmmaker and the author of The Fragile Edge: Diving & Other Adventures in the South Pacific, winner of a PEN USA Literary Award, the John Burroughs Medal, the Kiriyama Prize, the Northern California Books Awards, and finalist for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and Deep Blue Home: An Intimate Ecology of Our Wild Ocean. Her short story collection A Tortoise for the Queen of Tonga won an O. Henry and was a finalist for the PEN Hemingway Award. She also blogs at Deep Blue Home.

Deep Mud Seafloors Face Quiet Destruction

| Wed May. 2, 2007 5:56 PM PDT

The first study ever done of the effects of bottom trawling on mud seafloors off the West Coast of North America suggests alarming environmental changes. The study by Mark Hixon of Oregon State University and Brian Tissot of Washington State University found that trawling not only reduces fish numbers, but also severely alters communities of organisms inhabiting these deep-sea habitats. Their research compared trawled to untrawled areas 600 to 1,200 feet deep off the southern Oregon coast, comprising thousands of square miles. They found nearly 20 percent fewer fish in the trawled areas, and 30 percent fewer fish species. Certain seafloor dwellers, including sea pens and crabs, were six times more abundant in areas that had not been trawled. Furthermore numerous scavenging species in trawled areas largely replaced the marine life common on undisturbed seafloors. This report is the first to examine the effects of a common fishing practice on a vast ocean floor ecosystem off Washington, Oregon, and California -- the mud flats that dominate more than 75 percent of the outer continental shelf.

Imagine bulldozing entire landscapes to collect a few rabbits and gophers. That's what bottom trawlers do in pursuit of sole, lingcod, rockfish and other common seafood staples, by dragging large nets along the seafloor and scooping up everything in their path. It's estimated that trawlers drag nets across every square inch of the bottom of the continental shelves every two years, trawling some regions many times a season.

Regulations, including gear modifications and closed areas, have actually steered trawl fisheries toward the mud seafloors, keeping them out of rock or coral areas, because trawls cause less environmental damage on mud. But the long-term implications of fishing with this technology over such a broad area are a concern, say Hixon and Tissot.

Wonder what's down there? Read about some Alvin dives in the current MoJo article Gone. And you may remember Mark Hixon's fascinating work on BOFFFs (big-old-fat-female-fish) reported in The Fate of The Ocean (Mar/Apr 2006).

Feel confident about what to eat from the sea? If not, check out this click. --JULIA WHITTY

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Hopeful George: Tortoise Might Not Be Lonesome Anymore

| Wed May. 2, 2007 5:19 PM PDT

Please, John Tierney, say it isn't so. In your New York Times blog Lonesome George Isn't Looking So Lonesome you bring us the truly welcome news that Lonesome George, the Pinta Island tortoise from the Galapagos, may not be the last of his kind after all.

After analyzing the genes of 27 tortoises on another Galapagos island, Isabela, biologists discovered that one tortoise's father was a Pinta tortoise -- perhaps one who was removed from Pinta by some of the sailors who contributed to the decline of the species. Since there are between 2,000 and 7,000 tortoises on Isabela whose genes haven't yet been analyzed, it seems likely that one or more will turn out to be purebred Pinta tortoises, according to Michael Russello of the University of British Columbia.

But then you tell us you're worried about George's celebrity, his ability to raise money for efforts to slow down the sixth great extinction underway. Crikey, mate. I can't think of a better fundraiser. Let's rename him Hopeful George and watch the pesos roll in. --JULIA WHITTY

Scientists Protest Twisted Interpretation Of Endangered Species Act

| Wed May. 2, 2007 4:39 PM PDT

More than three dozen scientists have signed a letter to protest a new Bush administration interpretation of the Endangered Species Act. The Associated Press reports their concerns that the twisted read jeopardizes animals such as wolves and grizzly bears. If Interior Department Solicitor David Bernhardt has his way, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will have to protect animals and plants only where they're actually battling for survival, not where they're in good shape. That means, for instance, that Bald Eagles would never have been protected decades ago since they were doing fine in Alaska, although practically extinct in the lower 48.

The proposed changes would "have real and profoundly detrimental impacts on the conservation of many species and the habitat upon which they depend," said the letter, signed by 38 prominent wildlife biologists and environmental ethics specialists. It was being sent this week to Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne and leaders of congressional committees that oversee the department. The scientists also fear the new policy would prevent new additions to the list, increasing the likelihood of extinctions.

Maybe someone should tell David Bernhardt how his miserly existence depends on a wealth of species on this Earth--and what'll happen to him and his kin when they're GONE. . . --JULIA WHITTY

Efficiency Boost Should Make Solar Cheaper

| Wed May. 2, 2007 4:20 PM PDT

Solar energy could become more affordable following a technological breakthrough. Scientists at Australia's University of New South Wales have boosted the efficiency of solar cell technology, potentially dropping the price of an installed solar system for an average house from around $16,500 to $12,000. (Tax breaks and other incentives would reduce it further.) Currently, up to 45 percent of the cost of solar cell technology is due to the high cost of the silicon used to convert sunlight to electricity.

Now, researchers at UNSW's ARC Photovoltaics Centre of Excellence, led by PhD student Supriya Pillai report a 16-fold enhancement in light absorption in 1.25-micron thin-film cells for light with a wavelength of 1050 nm. They also report a seven-fold enhancement in light absorption in the more expensive wafer type cells light wavelengths of 1200 nm. The breakthrough is reported in the upcoming issue of the Journal of Applied Physics.

May it come to market faster than catastrophe.--JULIA WHITTY

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