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.

Canadian Baby Seal Hunt Likely Scrapped as Ice Melts, Pups Drown

| Mon Apr. 2, 2007 1:04 PM EDT

CNN running a story this morning from Reuters that Canada may be forced to halt the first stage of its annual hunt of baby fur seals. Because the Canadians' have seen reason? Frack no. They still want to kill at least the 325,000 they got last year. Because the ice has melted and it's likely all the baby seals have drowned. How's that for global warming for you? The melt took place in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Stage two is set for the waters off Newfoundland later this month.

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Cobell, Native Leaders Reject Bush Proposal, Seek Resolution From Congress

| Fri Mar. 30, 2007 1:54 AM EDT

Elouise Cobell and two other Native American leaders today urged the Senate Indian Affairs Committee to reject a Bush administration proposal to resolve a number of Indian disputes. Some of these disputes have little to do with the long-running lawsuit over the government's admitted mismanagement of the Individual Indian Trust, according to IndianTrust.com. The story was covered in Mother Jones' "Accounting Coup."

Calling the administration's proposal "a slap in the face of every Indian Trust beneficiary," Cobell outline an alternative course that could lead to settlement of the class-action lawsuit she and other Native Americans filed 11 years ago. She also produced a real-life example of the harm the trust problems continue to create for Native Americans--James Kennerly Jr., a member of the Blackfeet Nation in Montana, should be a millionaire. But because the government lost records of the oil leases on his father's lands, Kennerly has been forced into a life of poverty, receiving only $70 a month from lands that continue to pump oil, and that once paid more than $1,000 a month, according an Interior report. What happened? Interior officials can't say. Lease records for the lands have disappeared.

Cobell was joined in her testimony by John Echohawk, Executive Director of the Native American Rights Fund of Boulder, Colo., and William Martin, vice chairman of the InterTribal Monitoring Association of Albuquerque, N.M. Both denounced the government's efforts to lump settlement of the Cobell case with the settlement of more than 100 separate lawsuits that tribes have filed over the government's mismanagement of their tribal trust accounts.

Committee Chairman Bryon Dorgan, D-N.D, agreed that the government was reaching too far with that proposal. He promised to continue to press efforts for a resolution of the Cobell lawsuit, which affects about 500,000 Indian Trust beneficiaries. Cobell called the $7 billion the administration proposed to settle her lawsuit along with those of the tribes and other issues "an insult, plain and simple." Just last year the Indian Affairs Committee released a proposal that would have called for an $8 billion settlement of the Cobell case alone.--Julia Whitty

Overfishing Large Sharks Impacts Entire Marine Ecosystem

| Fri Mar. 30, 2007 12:59 AM EDT

Ransom's Myers last paper before his death this week reports that fewer big sharks in the oceans also means bay scallops are harder to find at market. Ecologists and scientists have thought for a long time that the effects of removing the ocean's top predators, big sharks, would cascade through the food web. This is the first study to demonstrate that cause and effect—a holy grail of conservation biology.

A team of Canadian and American ecologists, led by Myers and Julia Baum, found that overfishing the largest predatory sharks (such as bull, hammerhead, dusky, and great white sharks) along the Atlantic Coast led to an explosion of ray, skate, and small shark prey species, according to a Dalhousie University press release. Myers held the Killam Chair in Ocean Studies at Dalhousie. The paper appears in this week's Science.

"With fewer sharks around, the species they prey upon – like cownose rays – have increased in numbers and in turn, hordes of cownose rays dining on bay scallops have wiped the scallops out," says Julia Baum, a co-author of the article. "Large sharks have been functionally eliminated from the east coast of the U.S., meaning that they can no longer perform their ecosystem role as top predators. The extent of the declines shouldn't be a surprise, considering how heavily large sharks have been fished in recent decades to meet the growing worldwide demand for shark fins and meat.

"Our study provides evidence that the loss of great sharks triggers changes that cascade throughout coastal food webs," says Baum. "Solutions include enhancing protection of great sharks by substantially reducing fishing pressure on all of these species and enforcing bans on shark finning both in national waters and on the high seas."

Loss of a Great Scientist, Ransom Myers Dies of Brain Cancer

| Thu Mar. 29, 2007 11:28 PM EDT

The science world lost a great this week. Ransom Myers of Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia warned at length, using solid science and brilliant analysis, of the dangers of overfishing. He didn't mince words and he wasn't afraid to report bad news. As the Guelph Mercury reports, the 54-year-old biologist, originally from Mississippi, was known for his groundbreaking research and blunt warnings about the extinction of marine life around the world, and for his irrepressible passion for conservation that not even cancer could quell.

Despite his illness, another groundbreaking scientific paper on shark population declines that Myers co-wrote was published this week in Science, a testament to his boundless energy and ability to carry on in the face of grave adversity. "He was just so extraordinarily driven to try to provide the science and to address the scientific questions so we can start seeing more effective shark conservation," Julia Baum, co-author on his last paper, told the Guelph Mercury.

That passion for marine conservation stemmed from his days in St. John's, Newfoundland, Canada, where he worked for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans at a time when the industry was watching the collapse of the cod fishery. He became, says the Guelph Mercury, a lone, unpopular voice in the emotional discussion about the cause of the collapse, insisting overfishing was the main factor in the decimation of a fishery central to island life. The world was in "massive denial," he said, and spending its energy fighting over the few fish left instead of cutting catch limits before it was too late.

A Washington Post obituary reports that Myers analyzed vast amounts of data from government and industry reports around the globe, establishing that the size of large fish declined dramatically in recent decades. Tuna used to be twice as big, and marlins were once as large as killer whales. He warned governments, the fishing industry and consumers that unless commercial fishing is sharply curtailed many large marine species will become extinct, leading to economic disruptions, food shortages, and lasting damage to marine ecosystems. He said his conclusions were shocking because people had lost sight of the true magnitude of the declines because they did not look back far enough in history. In other words, we've forgotten how big fish used to be and how many of them once lived in the sea.

His seminal paper on fisheries declines was reported in Mother Jones' "The Fate of the Ocean."

The world will sorely miss his voice, commitment, intelligence, and common sense. Let's hope more scientists emulate his fearless lead.

Common Fungicide Causes Changes in Mating Behavior Generations After Exposure

| Tue Mar. 27, 2007 11:43 PM EDT

Female rats avoid males whose great-grandfathers were exposed to a common fruit crop fungicide. Researchers from the University of Texas at Austin examined rats whose great-grandparents were exposed to the fungicide vinclozolin, which causes early onset of cancer and kidney disease in males.

Female rats can tell the difference between male descendants of rats that have or have not been exposed to vinclozolin, and strongly prefer males descended from unexposed rats. Proving for the first time that environmental contamination affects evolution through changes in mating behavior.

Vinclozolin causes changes in the male rats' germline cells, like sperm. It doesn't directly alter DNA, instead causing changes in elements that regulate DNA. This is known as an epigenetic change.

Early onset of disease caused by initial exposure to vinclozolin is passed down generation to generation through the germline of the males. The female rats can sense something is wrong, even though they can't see it. Since males move beyond their birth territory when they mature, they carry their unlovable and fatal defects with them.

Hmm. Is the biosphere cannily healing itself, one little rat at a time? Or are rats truly destined to inherit the Earth? --Julia Whitty

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