Tag Archives: vancouver

Shark fin.

Most shark fins and ray gills sold in Vancouver come from threatened, trade-banned species

DNA sequencing of over 100 shark fins and manta ray gills in Vancouver has revealed that over half come from threatened species who are banned for trade under international law.

Shark fin.

Image via Pixabay.

As far as traditional Chinese delicacies go, shark fins are more on the expensive side. They’re used to make soups that can sell for over US$100 per bowl and are generally served during special occasions. Manta ray gill rakers, tiny filaments which these species use to filter nutrients out of water are used in traditional Chinese medicine, advertised as effective against all sorts of conditions from smallpox to cancer according to the conservation group Manta Ray of Hope.

The problem with them is two-fold. First, about a quarter of shark and ray species around the world are threatened due to overfishing, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Secondly, they’re sourced very inhumanely — shark fins, for example, are cut off from live animals which are then thrown back into the ocean where they die a slow, agonizing death. So the commercial use of these commodities sourced from several species of both shark and ray are banned for international trade in an effort to give the animals respite from commercial fishing, and allow them an opportunity to recover.

But that doesn’t mean people don’t still buy and sell them, according to a research team led by Dirk Steinke from the University of Guelph. They’ve tested over 100 samples of the items available for purchase in Vancouver, Canada, and report that over 71% belong to species that are considered endangered.

Fin-ding soup

Yokohama shark fin.

Dried shark fins on display in a traditional Chinese medicine shop in Yohokama.
Image credits Chris 73 / Wikimedia.

According to Steinke, Canada is the largest importer of shark fins outside of Asia. The Senate of Canada’s website reports that in 2015, the country imported some 114,540 kilograms (252,517 pounds) of fins, and the CBC cites Statistics Canada as saying this increased to 140,750 kilograms (310,300 pounds) of shark fins worth $3.08 million (of the total $11,3 million estimated global trade) in 2016.

Steinke’s research was in part prompted by the Vancouver Animal Defence League, which was concerned that fins from protected species were being sold locally. Because these fins are very expensive, the team used 71 dried fin samples collected in 2011 and 2012 by volunteers and University of Guelph researchers, and 54 ray gill plates obtained by scientists working with the Save Our Seas Shark Research Centre at the Nova Southeastern University from Hong Kong and mainland China.

“It took them awhile to get the money together because they’re not cheap,” Steinke said.

The samples were analyzed using DNA barcoding, a technique developed at the University of Guelph which allows for species to be pinpointed using relatively short bits of DNA. The drying process actually helped speed this along, Steinke said, as it helps preserve DNA in a usable form.

Overall, the team traced the samples back to 20 species of sharks and some 5 species of rays. Roughly 56% of them are on the IUCN Red List as endangered or vulnerable, and some 24% are close to threatened status. Seven of the shark species and all five ray species are also banned from international trade under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species treaty. It must be pointed out that the ban for most of these species went into effect between 2014 and 2017, which is after the samples were collected. However, the team did trace some samples back to species which did have protected status and was banned from trade at the time the samples were collected, such as the whale shark.

Banned but not gone

Chinese shark fin soup.

Chinese shark fin soup in Austin, Texas.
Image credits harmon / Wikimedia.

That last tidbit, coupled with the fact that there are “confirmed occurrence of these species’ body parts in recent trade suggests ongoing market demands,” the researchers wrote. Although almost three-quarters of shark and ray species are not considered threatened, are not banned from trade in Canada, and are not at risk of extinction, it’s “very frustrating, although not unexpected” that we see such a large percentage of banned species still up for trade — rarer types of fins will, after all, demand a higher market price, offering an incentive in their continued trade.

Compounding the problem is that authorities simply lack the means to meaningfully impose the ban. It’s virtually impossible to tell what species a dried fin belongs to simply by looking at it. Retailers can reliably expect to get off without being caught and fined, and along with the high price fetched by the fins selling illegal species “might still pay off,” Steinke says. DNA testing can reliably trace the source species, and is quite cheap at US$10 a pop — but it can take up to several weeks for a result.

Steinke hopes that raising awareness and lowering demand will wither the market and at least help some sharks make it out alive — and eventually stop it altogether. He also hopes the results (and ideally, public support for such measures) will goad politicians into banning shark fin sales on a larger scale. Similar bans are already in effect at a local level in over a dozen municipalities in Canada, but bills for a federal ban have already failed to pass in 2013 and 2016.

These animals have been around for longer than trees, and we’re killing them over what’s widely agreed to be a pretty tasteless soup. Traditions do have a very important role to play in human life, granted. But there’s a point where we have to take the reigns, a point beyond which getting bogged down in the past will make tomorrow less — and in this case, we’re literally eating the viability of tomorrow’s oceans. Although, that seems to be a very human-like take on a lot of very serious issues.

Third time’s the charm as far as bans go, hopefully.

The paper “DNA analysis of traded shark fins and mobulid gill plates reveals a high proportion of species of conservation concern” has been published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Vancouver's palms at English Bay during the winter. Credit: Flickr, Wendy Cutler.

How palm trees thrive in Vancouver despite the freezing Canadian weather

Vancouver's palms at English Bay during the winter. Credit: Flickr, Wendy Cutler.

Vancouver’s palms at English Bay during the winter. Credit: Flickr, Wendy Cutler.

Did you know you can find palm trees in Canada’s Lower Mainland? If you’re in Vancouver during the summer, you might forget where you are for a second as the warm weather and palm trees transport you to a Mediterranean paradise. But wasn’t Canada supposed to be freezing?

Vancouver is, in fact, the warmest of Canada’s major metropolitan cities in winter — by far. Like the rest of the British Columbia Coast, the city is tempered by the North Pacific Current, and the cold Arctic air which usually pounds the rest of Canada with heavy snow and freezing temperatures spares Vancouver. The city has the Rocky Mountains to thank for blocking the cold Arctic air.

As a result, winters are quite mild in Vancouver. Snows with depths greater than 1cm only occur 10 days a year compared to 65 days in Toronto. Instead, the city’s western maritime climate fosters wet and foggy weather. The weather can also be capricious. In a matter of days, the weather can move from warm and sunny to cold and frigid.

That’s not to say it doesn’t get freezing cold in Vancouver. The truth is, most palm tree species can’t survive outside all year round in Vancouver. However, according to Brian Quinn, the Vancouver manager of park operations, three or four species can. Most palms in the city are Trachycarpus fortunei, also known as windmill palms. These are native to China, Burma, North India where they grow in cold weather for a palm. Once established “they can withstand some pretty chilly weather,” said  David Tracey, an arborist and author of the Vancouver Tree Book.

English Bay during the summer. Credit: Flickr, Kyle Pearce.

English Bay during the summer. Credit: Flickr, Kyle Pearce.

The most outdoor palms you’ll find in the city is around English Bay, which is about two or three degrees F warmer than the rest of the city. You can spot around 60 palms here, all suited to below-freezing temperatures.

The palms are quite sturdy and can survive freezing temperatures provided ice does not form at the tops of the trees. If ice gets in the crown of the palm, it will kill it. It’s the only place where new growth occurs in this palm. This is how Vancouver lost two of its palms at English Bay in the last 20 years.

“We find that as long as the temperature doesn’t go below -12 C…at -12 C you start to see maybe a little damage. But those trees won’t be killed unless the temperatures go much below that,” said Douglas Justice, associate director of horticulture at UBC Botanical Garden.

Palms have become so popular in Vancouver that you can see them in people’s private backyards. Yet palms in the rest of the Lower Mainland don’t seem to be fairing nearly as well as in Vancouver. Higher elevation and areas further inland are not suitable for palms because of the cold wind during the winter.

Fukushima meltdown isotopes found on U.S. coasts.

The full extent of Japan’s 2011 Fukushima meltdown is still being uncovered, with measured levels of contamination increasing in previously identified sites throughout the North American coast. While it’s still too low to threaten human or ocean life, this confirms that the power plant continues to leak radioactive isotopes researchers report.

Image via deviantart

The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant saw wide-scale equipment failure following the 11 March 2011 earthquake and tsunami. The ensuing triple reactor meltdowns and escape of radioactive material on the 12th were so severe that the accident is considered as being second only to the one at Chernobyl.

Researchers at the non-profit Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution have been taking samples of Pacific Ocean water and analyzing them in an effort to monitor and document the aftermath of the accident. The results show that the Fukushima reactors still leaks radioactive isotopes (especially cesium-134) four years after the meltdowns, reports marine radiochemist Ken Buesseler. Trace amounts of these atoms have been found in several hundreds of miles-wide areas of the Oregon, Washington and California coasts as well as offshore of Vancouver Island.

Another isotope, cesium-137, a radioactive reminder of the nuclear weapons tests conducted between 1950 and 1970, was found at low levels in nearly every seawater sample tested.

“Despite the fact that the levels of contamination off our shores remain well below government-established safety limits for human health or to marine life, the changing values underscore the need to more closely monitor contamination levels across the Pacific,” Buesseler said.

In 2014 the Institute reported detecting isotope contamination about 100 miles (160 km) off the norther coast of California as well as off Canada’s shorelines. The latest readings measured the highest radiation levels outside Japanese waters to date some 1,600 miles (2,574 km) west of San Francisco.

The figures also confirm that the spread of radiation to North American waters is not isolated to a handful of locations, but rather a along a stretch of more than 1,000 miles (1,600 km) of shoreline. Currently, reported levels in these areas shouldn’t be dangerous to organisms, but this may change in the future.

Vancouver 2010: probably the greenest Olympics ever

Well I have to say, I’m really thrilled about the Winter Olympics that have just started, and even though they don’t get as much hype as the Summer Olympics, they still attract tens of millions viewers (or even more). It’s also really great to see they’re being held in a city like Vancouver. Why am I saying this ? Because Vancouver is one of the greenest cities in the world.

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It doesn’t fall into the major North American city cliche; the city development was thoroughly planned in the 1950s, and the results were definitely worth it. Perhaps the thing that hits you first is the lack of highways all around the city; instead, you find green spaces and parks, most of the time. However, despite this, there’s almost never a traffic jam and it’s quite easy to drive your way around every part of the city. The city is quite compact with tall buildings, but the really admirable thing is that they managed to mix urban skyscraper kind of architecture with lots and lots of green spaces.

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Travel green

Several years ago, when the location for the Olympics was announced, the city officials started a program whose purpose was to “green” the air transportation. The goal was to purchase carbon credits and neutralize the emissions caused, especially by tourists that will come to the sports event. I pretty much doubt they will be able to fully neutralize all the emissions, the project is definitely something worth applauding, and I can see this being applied to other major sport events too (and not only).

Once people get to Vancouver, they will find a cheap efficient transportation system that discourages buying cars (for locals) or renting them (tourists). They also boast an impressive bicycle renting program, though it may not be the best thing to do, especially during the winter.

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Also, there’s a number of hotels that follow eco-friendly principles, low-flow toilets and faucets, energy-efficient lightbulbs, recycling and composting. Basically, all the hotels are in a process of improving their efficiency in energy and water disposal matters.

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Eco friendly buildings and medals

Another fine initiative the Canadians took was to rather renovate and improve than start wrecking and building big. All the Olympic complexes have LEED certification and the transportation for the sportsmen will be provided with alternative fuel vehicles.

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Probably the most interesting complex is the Richmond Olympic Oval, which is where all the speed skating events will take place. Aside from the LEED standards, it also has a remarkable unique roof, with quite a story. The local pine forests were devastated by the Mountain Pine Beetle, so in order to prevent further devastation, a large number of pines were cut down. However, instead of just putting the trees to waste, they created a 6 acre large roof, and parts of the outside finishing too.

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The environmentally friendly design will be completed by the medals, which are all made from recycled materials. Instead of using freshly mined metals, they will be made from recycled scrap electronics. They’ll also have a unique wavy shape meant to represent Vancouver’s landscape.

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They also created an interesting energy centre that will heat the almost 3000 sportsmen and officials (and a number of locals, after that), using sewage water. Waste water heat recovery out of this plant will account for about 70 per cent of the neighbourhood’s annual energy requirements.

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These are however, not the only green accomplishments of the Vancouver officials, and they’ve been adopting eco friendly policies for quite some time now; if you know of something else that’s worth mentioning and I missed, don’t hesitate in sharing with the rest of us. All in all, this promises to be quite an event worth remembering !