Jonathan Schell’s book The Fate of the Earth paints a picture of how all Earth’s creatures are interconnected, and the fate of one, for example, humans, is connected with the fate of smaller, even microscopic, creatures. Likewise, if people are harmed by toxic chemicals in the environment, we can be sure that many other creatures are also harmed. We will consider the plight of salmon and honey bees, but first begin with documented cases of devastating effects on various animals.
A man observing bald eagles in Florida for several decades in the early 1950s noticed that two thirds of the birds were indifferent to nesting rituals and the number of new hatchlings was dropping. Mink ranchers in Michigan in the mid 1960s were observing that the females weren’t producing pups. On Near Island in Lake Ontario in the 1970s, a Canadian wildlife biologist noticed that at a time when the herring gulls should be busily feeding their chicks, there were unhatched eggs, abandoned nests and dead chicks everywhere. The biologist estimated that eighty percent of the chicks had died before they hatched, and many of the dead chicks had grotesque deformities. During the 1970s there was the startling discovery that among gulls on San Nicolas Island off the Southern California coast females were sharing nests with females, rather than males. In the 1980s along the shore of Lake Apopka in Florida it was observed that less than twenty percent of alligator eggs were hatching, although over ninety percent were hatching elsewhere in Florida. In Northern Europe in the late 1980s an epidemic among the seal population became the largest die-off in history: more than forty percent of the entire North Sea population of seals died. A marine scientist suspected that a viral plague resulted from suppressed immune systems. Similarly, during the same period there was a large die-off of striped dolphins in the Mediterranean Sea, from a virus plague. When a marine biologist collected fat samples he found that the victims of the die-off carried PCB levels two to three times higher than in healthy dolphins.
Those unconcerned about the natural world will do well to consider the consequences for humanity of the decline of pollinators. Eighty percent of the species of our food plants worldwide depend on pollination by insects. One of every three mouthfuls of food we eat, and of the beverages we drink, are delivered to us roundabout by pollinators. Of about fifty major food crops, all except the grains (wheat, rice, corn, sorghum, millet, rye, barley, and oats) are pollinated by insects (grains are pollinated by the wind). Imagine no more honey, no tomatoes, or no crunchy apples! The most common pollinators for agricultural crops are honey bees. Farmers hire bee keepers to bring their hives of bees to their fields to assure pollination.
Honey bees serve as sentinels for the health of the environment. During the past few years, the honey bee population has been decimated, and it has taken considerable effort by wildlife biologists to determine the causes of the die off. The immediate cause appeared to be virus infections. Later studies confirmed this, but also showed that another cause, and perhaps the predominant one, is one class of agricultural pesticides, neonicitinoids. Two British studies (published in Science journal) discovered that colonies exposed to neonicitinoids suffered an 85% reduction in the number of new queen bees, and that the colonies experienced problems in navigation, foraging behavior, learning, and overall hive activity.
It should be no surprise that the health of fish exposed to several pesticides from agricultural run off can be seriously degraded. A 2012 report by the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) discovered that three commonly used herbicides are increasing the chance of extinction for Pacific salmon and steelhead. The MNFS notified EPA that present uses of the three herbicides are likely to jeopardize half of the 26 salmon populations on the West Coast – that are supposed to be protected by the Endangered Species Act. Wild salmon now costs more that prime steak – imagine no more wild salmon at all!
We’re all in this together. Anything you or I can do to support restrictions on the profligate use of pesticides will help all of Earth’s creatures.