Hey Ho, Coho! A prodigal fish returns

The California coho salmon, a magnificent fish that was all but wiped out during the 1990s, have begun to trickle back to the rain-swollen Russian River and its tributaries.

It feels like a miracle.

“When it starts to rain, it somehow clicks in them that it’s time — that they can get through to their spawning waters,” says Harry Morse, communications official of the California Department of Fish and Game.

The Russian River coho salmon population faced near-extinction in 2000, he said, for reasons that are still debated. In their heyday, the size of the coho fishery off the Sonoma Coast was 200,000 to 500,000 fish in the 1940s. By 2000 the number of salmon shrank to one percent of that, and the fish was listed as a threatened species.

“Why they disappeared is the $64,000 question,” Morse said in a telephone interview.

He acknowledged that in some coastal fisheries, habitat damage caused by logging operations may have affected the fish, which depend on cool, clear, sustained flows and stable, structural elements of streams in old-growth forests.

But there are a host of other factors that may have contributed to the near-total wipeout along the Northern California coast, Morse says.

A Bridge over Troubled (and Scarce) Water

“Bridging Divides for Water” is the motto of the Fifth World Water Forum, currently taking place in Istanbul, and the biggest divide of all seems to be between those who see water as business and those for whom it is a human right. This conflict was highlighted by protesters who clashed with Turkish police, activists demanding an end to water privatization, and advocacy groups that staged their own sidebar conferences. These include the Istanbul Water Tribunal and the Alternative Water Forum, Al Jazeera reports. According to the United Nations, more than half of the planet’s six billion people don’t have adequate access to water, with climate change and population growth cited as two leading reasons why demand is outstripping water supplies. Then there is the issue of war and water.

Kentucky Questions Psychiatric Drugs for Children

Kentucky is the most recent state with plans to curb anti-psychotic drug prescriptions for children. The educational program should save state Medicaid millions of dollars and is already established in 19 other states. The Lexington Herald-Leader reports that although “atypical anti-psychotic” drugs can be used to successfully treat schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and autism in children, they can be inappropriately or over-prescribed. Healthcare providers fear that substantial weight gain from the drugs, a common side effect, could lead to higher rates of Type II diabetes for young patients. The plan will launch in early 2009 with letters to prescribers detailing the latest guidelines for appropriate use, prescription and risk.

Ozone Link to Appendicitis?

Canadian researchers say they’ve found a connection between high levels of air pollution, particularly ozone, and appendicitis, reports the BBC. Appendicitis is a common but potentially fatal ailment in which the appendix — a small structure with no clear function, although it may play some role in digestion and fighting off infection — becomes inflamed, and can burst, unless surgically removed. The new research suggests a reduction of smog could be a preventative factor. The Calgary-based research team presented their findings at the annual meeting of the American College of Gastroenterology in Florida. According to principal researcher Dr. Gilaad Kaplan, “If the relationship between air pollution and appendicitis is confirmed, then improving air quality may prevent the occurrence of appendicitis in some individuals.”

Bottled Water May Be Tapped out in Toronto

Toronto, Canada, is considering a ban on the sale of bottled water in city-run buildings, community centers and arenas in order to reduce the amount of garbage in local landfills. According to the Canadian Broadcasting Company, Toronto Mayor David Miller said the city’s water is just as safe as bottled water, and tap water is far more economical. At the center of the issue are environmental concerns about the fossil fuels used to produce and transport plastic bottles, and the overall impact on local landfills. But many companies in the refreshment industry argue that such a ban could be a step backwards in terms of recycling, and would lead consumers to buy other beverages other than water. “So they’ll have the same amount of plastic to recycle,” Elizabeth Griswold, spokeswoman for the Canadian Bottled Water Association, told the news service.

The Perils of Pyrethrins, and Other Pesticide Problems

A new class of pesticides is making a growing number of people sick — leading to death in some cases — according to a recent report by the Center for Public Integrity. Pyrethrins, derived from chrysanthemums, and their synthetic equivalents, pyrethroids, first started showing up on the market in large quantities a little more than a decade ago, but they’re now in mosquito nets, flea collars, gardening products, lice shampoo and countless other products. In some cases, they are sprayed by misters directly over fast-food restaurants. The Center’s report found a 300 percent rise over the past decade in the number of reported cases of severe reactions to pyrethrins and pyrethroids. Together, they accounted for 26 percent of all fatal and serious pesticide reactions in the United States in 2007.

Dark Side of the Green Revolution

It was the chemically supplemented Green Revolution of the 1960s that helped India end its cycles of famine. Yet a series of new reports reveal a dark side to dependence of pesticides, fertilizers and irrigation, including disease, environmental decline and social decay, the latter often driven by bad government planning. The San Francisco Chronicle reports that health problems previously unheard of are proliferating in the northwestern Punjab state — ground zero for the Green Revolution in India, and known as the nation’s breadbasket. Local medical clinics and health officials speak of a surge in cancer, muscular disorders in teens, early menstruation in young girls, lower sperm counts and more frequent stillbirths. According to the BBC, new questions have also emerged about the Green Revolution’s long-term ability to support ever-growing human populations.

30 Floors of Farmland, Coming to New York City?

A plan to build a skyscraper in New York City — one that contains 30 stories of farmland — might have a chance of being realized. The Telegraph reports that city officials are considering a proposal to build a high-rise that could produce food for 50,000 city residents. The proposed building, designed by Dr. Dickson Despommier of Columbia University’s public health school, is the latest “vertical farm” to be suggested. Urban farming is undergoing something of a renaissance; Newsdesk has previously reported on programs taking root in South America, Europe and the United States. However, “vertical farms” remain unrealized, and a report on the NextEnergyNews Web site about a 30-floor agricultural skyscraper planned for Las Vegas turned out to be a hoax.

Bioplastics: Friend or Foe?

Biodegradable plastics are raising hopes for a potential solution to overstuffed landfills, climate change and diminished fossil fuel resources. Yet they may not be as quick a fix as people would like, and researchers face an uphill climb towards finding a truly sustainable, renewable and biodegradable plastic. Bioplastics are sourced from plant-based materials rather than petroleum, and The Guardian reports that several universities in the United States are working to develop plastics that degrade in a matter of months. Yet conventional plastics — which linger for hundreds of years and occupy up to a quarter of available landfill space in the United States — are currently cheaper to make. This might change with rising oil prices worldwide, but meanwhile, petroleum-based plastic waste has spread from landfills to the ocean.

Food Crisis Renews Biotech Farming Debate

As global food prices climb, the debate over genetically modified agriculture is once again heating up. The Christian Science Monitor reports that resistance to the use of modified crops is declining in some regions, as farmers contemplate increased profits, and governments feel the economic pressure. After the cost of non-genetically modified corn more than doubled, for example, Japan and Korea have “quietly” begun allowing modified corn in snacks and drinks. In France, following a contentious debate, a bill to allow gene-altered crops passed in parliament by one vote — but can’t be enacted until the European Union lifts its ban. The Monitor reports that Europe’s farmers and agribusiness — such as Germany’s BASF corporation, which is pushing a genetically modified potato to market — are even pondering legal action to open up continental markets to their biotech food products.