Esther Peñarrubia (Barcelona, December 10, 1980), known for being the translator of the book Zero Waste Home into Catalan and Spanish, by Bea Johnson, and ambassador of the Zero Waste philosophy in Catalonia and Spain, is a PhD in Agronomy Engineering from the University of Lleida (Catalonia) and the University of Thessaly (Greece), besides being fond of historic gardens and bicycle touring.
ZERO WASTE: LIVING WITHOUT PRODUCING WASTE – INTERVIEW TO ESTHER PEÑARRUBIA
Esther, thank you very much for accepting this interview to share with us and our readers your experience with the non-generation of waste. Being an agronomist, why did you translate the book Zero Waste Home?
Looking for a recipe in Google to make homemade toothpaste, I saw a video of Bea Johnson, the author of the book. Many of the examples she mentioned to reduce waste were already made at home, but we didn’t call it Zero Waste, but there were still some tips that we weren’t applying. I saw the book was not available neither in Catalan nor in Spanish, so I was encouraged to contact her to translate it.
I see you were practising the zero waste without knowing the concept itself. What did it lead you to live without generating waste?
It has been a passion since adolescence and now it has become a philosophy of life.
What changes did you make in your life?
We learned to reduce many things, we lost the shame at the time of asking for objects or tools that we need punctually to friends, we adopted the bicycle as a daily means of family transport, we try to share a vehicle on long trips…
The Zero Waste is a current issue. Is it really possible to live without generating any waste?
Of course not, we do not live isolated inside a cave! Absolute zero is almost impossible, we will always need a drug, for example, that goes in a container. But it is very easy to live without generating too much waste… For years we have tried and it is not difficult, you just have to want to change habits.
I imagine that at the beginning it is a bit complicated and that you have to be always alert and vigilant. Is it like that?
A little yes, above all you have to learn to reject, like the small objects that you want to filter in your life and that should not go beyond the threshold of the entrance: advertising gifts or samples of new products…
A few weeks ago, the European Union approved the banning of several single-use plastic items in 2020. What do you think of this measure?
It’s perfect, I would like they had set it up from tomorrow! If people need to be prohibited from certain aspects of their lives to have to change their habits when these are not beneficial for them or for the environment, such as smoking in public places a few years ago or the current indiscriminate use of disposable plastics, law must be those that mark the guidelines.
Imagine for a moment that you have the power to make decisions of a political nature. What measures would you promote to avoid the generation of garbage?
I would encourage companies to invest in R & D, taking into account aspects of sustainability and the circular economy. I would also try to promote responsible and second-hand trade in various fields and the exchange of goods between people and groups, such as repair shops, tool libraries, free books…
Surely when you explain that you live without generating waste, people give you all kinds of excuses to not start. It has happened to me.
One of the most recurrent is the lack of time and another the lack of legislation to prevent the generation of waste. They often tell me: “Until governments and big companies don’t act I cannot do anything”. It’s not true! It is clear that as consumers we have a power that we sometimes forget, and buying equals voting, so individually we can do a lot! We all have the same time, what is needed is to learn to prioritise, although it is not an easy task and, above all, to value if our free time can be dedicated to interesting things that fill us and make us happy or we simply dedicate it to non-meaningful actions.
One of the excuses that I have found is that this way of living is more expensive. What does your own experience say?
It is true that there are products related to the Zero Waste that compared with the conventional ones of a common supermarket are more expensive, such as some that may come from Fair Trade, organic farming or available in bulk. But, on the whole, if we consume less, we share more, we buy in bulk, second hand and local and seasonal products we can save money, without taking into account other collateral benefits.
Now let’s go to the practical part. Someone who might consider living according to Zero Waste in a big city will find it easier to buy in stores that sell all kinds of bulk products. However, in smaller populations, how can it be carried out?
Searching and buying local producers, sure there are. Buying in a cooperative way, together with other families (forming part or not of a consumer cooperative) and taking advantage of trips for different reasons to other populations where they do have these products that you don’t find near your home. There are no excuses! Now we are in the information era and luckily webs and apps start coming out that can help us a lot to make our lives easier and more sustainable.
Buying food in bulk is easy if we think about it. Now, how do we do it with personal and household cleaning products?
To clean our house, we only need sodium bicarbonate, bought in bulk, and concentrated white vinegar, which can sometimes be found in bulk. In the book there is a chapter that talks about “The magic of vinegar”, with basic recipes to perform various cleaning tasks and other personal hygiene. At home we prefer to buy personal care products in bulk from local producers, such as deodorant, tonic, shampoo, toothpaste and body cream.
I try myself to reduce the waste that I generate by carrying out small actions, but this summer I went to Indonesia on holidays and it was really complicated for me. What can we do when we are travelling?
We can do many things! For example, in terms of personal hygiene, we can take our soaps, toothpastes, shampoos, etc. in small glass or metal jars, thus avoiding having to take the ones available in the hotels, which often are in a plastic container. You can also carry cloth bags, which weigh almost nothing, to buy everything we can in bulk and even carry bottles that can be refilled. On the other hand, we can use the glass jars that we have bought, like a jam, as a container to carry food, so that we don’t need to carry a lunch box from home.
Any other advice for our readers?
They shouldn’t be afraid to reject what they don’t need, as long as they do it in an educated way, and that they always carry a cloth bag with them.
Perhaps at a domestic level it is relatively easier to achieve the Zero Waste. But, at the level of companies, public administrations… what would you advise them to do?
Well, I would advise them to follow the same steps that we have taken at home: analyse what waste is generated and look for alternatives that generate less.
In the case of private companies, I would advise them to appoint a Zero Residue delegate, that is essential to be motivated, to manage any doubts that may arise in this regard and, above all, to encourage people to change their waste generating habits. As for public administrations, an entire department could be created in this respect, it is a sufficiently important subject to invest part of the budgets.
And with all this effort that you and your family do, have you found an improvement in your life?
On a personal level we are very satisfied with the alternatives that we have been finding to the products or ways of doing, although sometimes they have required some time. Another improvement is it allows us to enjoy more time to practise to our passions.
As a physical gift, a good bottle of water made of stainless steel or glass. Other gifts are the experiences, like a movie or theatre ticket, without printing it.
Any other advice for these Christmas days?
Think a little before consuming or buying. Giving local products and staples (a batch of local foods and bought in bulk is just as acceptable as the best jewel); give experiences; buy second-hand (without fear of saying it); wrap the gifts with a piece of cloth, following the steps of the Furoshiki technique, and without using paper or tape …
Esther, thank you very much for sharing your experience with us. I am sure that you have give more light on this path to the Zero Waste to many people who haven’t dared to take the first step so far.
We want to share with you the efforts a young wildlife conservationist, Pungky Nanda, is doing in Sumatra, Indonesia, to raise awareness of the importance of protecting the natural heritage. His work is based on environmental education to children, under the name The Jungle Library Project.
THE JUNGLE LIBRARY PROJECT – INTERVIEW TO PUNGKY NANDA
Pungky Nanda (Tegal, Java; 1992) studied Aquaculture at the University of Diponegoro. After his studies, he has worked in conservation projects, such as on mangrove and sea turtle’s projects in East Java. He has also been working for the NGO Animals Indonesia until the past November as an Environmental Educator. Now, he is doing his best in his own project, The Jungle Library Project, in collaboration with the Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Agency of South Sumatra. You can follow him on Facebook and Instagram!
The task Pungky is doing in South Sumatra is so big that we want to spread his work to the world and help him in the Jungle Library Project fundraising.
Hi Pungky, nice to meet you! The Jungle Library project is about environmental education and conservation. Can you tell us more about it?
The Jungle Library Project promotes environmental education to children living in highly deforested areas with human-wildlife conflict. With this project, we try our best to raise awareness through our story and photography in South Sumatra.
The project started on 2017. Why did you create The Jungle Library?
The first time I met the indigenous children in a local village, I got my heart stolen. Their spirit and eagerness to learn about nature and the flora and fauna amazed me and inspired me to continue working with them independently. This is the reason why I decided to create The Jungle Library Project.
I have the feeling that you try to change mind’s people. Is it like that? Which is your task, your main goal?
Through an environmental education syllabus, we teach primary school students about Sumatran native species, ecosystem function and environmental destruction. The aim is that the future generations take sustainable actions that don’t endanger their life. In other words, we try to change the mind and heart of village children so as to they don’t do illegal land clearing and illicit wildlife trade, activities to which they are exposed every day.
During this period of time, which are the most funny situation you have faced?
It’s not funny, but heart taking. During the first month, I taught in a class of kids who made me tearing up. They said “Thank you so much, kakak”. Kakak in Indonesin means brother. After that, they also thanked me for helping them to learn writing and reading. I can’t hold tears back when I think about it. They thought I was crying because of a mistake of them… When I leave a school, students always want to hold my hands and I may spend more than 30 minutes until teachers advise them to stop.
And the worst one?
It was after teaching a group of kids. I suffered an accident with my motorbike and I really taught I couldn’t teach again because I couldn’t walk. I was unable to walk for two months, my face was swollen and my body was full of wounds. The children who saw me were crying. I never told this to my family until I was completely recovered.
Since you started, have you seen some positive result?
The kids’ mindset is changing… They understand what kind of Sumatran native animals that live around them are endangered and protected under the law. They understand 5 basic ideas about protected animals:
We can’t shoot them.
We can’t kill them.
We can’t sell them.
We can’t eat them.
We can’t keep them as a pet.
They know and understand the ecosystem function and the relationship between humans and nature.
They are home-made nature guardians that will spread clear information to their parents, friends and people in the village. The result seems small, but I hope they will make other people think twice before taking illegal activities like logging or poaching.
I don’t think the results are small. They are so big, indeed. Are you alone in this project or do you have help?
Apart from me, my good friend Joshua Parffit, who is also a freelance environmental journalist in Holland, helps me in the project. We collaborate to create this project together. I work on the project site and he manages everything online. Some of my friends around the world sometimes help me out too, like you. This project isn’t created only from both of us; it is created from support of so many people who is concerned and love nature.
You have started a fundraising on GoFundMe last December. How many money do you need and what will be for?
With this fundraising, we will be able to continue the programme for six month. We need 5,500 Euros to buy a motorbike and fuel, food and accommodation, a laptop and teaching material, a camera and flights and trips to participate in meetings, workshops and events. If we get extra funds, we will support other conservation programs, such as the Flora Conservation Act.
After knowing more about the project, I want to donate money. What do I have to do?
I wish you all the luck in the world. Tell me about The Jungle Library’s future plans…
We will establish an ecotourism project at the end of this year. I will work together with the government to start a scientific and eco-tourism plan in one of the natural reserves in South Sumatra. Doing so, villagers will have greater incomes with tourism than doing illegal activities and it will encourage them to stop doing that. We will also establish a Research Station and eco-lodge inside the protected area. This year we will also start a restoration project.
Now that we better understand your project and your task; I would like to ask you about biodiversity in Indonesia. Indonesia is hotspot for biodiversity, isn’t it?
Indonesia is the third richest country in megabiodiversity in the world. It’s a hotspot with more than 17.300 islands with different geographical features and ecosystems. That’s a perfect place for millions of species. Indonesia is a country with a plenty of endemic species of flora and fauna that you will never find on other parts of the world. We have three types of flora and fauna: Asiatic species (Western part), Wallecea species (Central part) and Australis species (Eastern part).
On the Western part, we can find big mammals, like big apes, elephants, rhinos, tigers and orangutans, and many Asiatic species. The Wallacea part is a mix of Asiatic and Australis flora and fauna and it has most of the endemic species, such as the Komodo lizards, Tarsius and opossum. Finally, in the Eastern part we can find species like the ground or tree kangaroo and birds of paradise.
I’m afraid all this astounding biodiversity is threatened by human activities. Which are the major problems the biodiversity have to face?
Logging, poaching and plantations are killing the green heart of my tropical archipelago. Even inside the National Park, where virgin rainforests should flourish, wild animals are under the pressure of the illegal pet trade. Faced with higher living costs, indigenous people who live on the border of some of Indonesia’s last green wildernesses are increasingly forced to sell their natural wealth. If the children grow up with this, it will become the norm.
What do you think is the solution to these threats?
Modernisation has pushed people to find increased sources of income, sometimes illegally. The problem with that is that children grow up watching their parents and they begin to take nature for granted. One of the solutions is Education! Education is a key to counteract some of the destructive practices threatening the health of environment.
I’m sure that after reading your interview, there would be many people desiring to travel to Indonesia. What advices would you give them to be more sustainable and responsible during their stay?
Choose eco-friendly activities and sustainable eco-tourism during your trip in Indonesia that involves local villagers.
Be part of volunteering to help conservation activities.
Never feed wild animals.
Never take selfies with captive or endangered animals at public areas or zoos cause it will drive so many endangered animals captured from its habitat just for pleasure.
Never ride elephants or other animals. This is animal abuse.
Buy a stuff made by indigenous people to support their economy.
Thank you very much, Pungky! I think there should be more people like you that feel a huge love for their land and eager to protect it.
I had long wanted to do an interview with Associació Cetàcea, an association of Catalonia (Spain) dedicated to the study of the dolphins and whales that inhabit the Catalan sea. This association, founded in August 2012, has recently published the results of its photo-identification study.
RESEARCH ON CETACEANS IN CATALONIA: INTERVIEW TO CETACEA ASSOCIATION
Hello, how are you? Before beginning to talk about the results of your study on cetaceans, explain to us what Associació Cetàcea is. For what purpose did it come?
Associació Cetàcea is a non-profit organization whose main objectives are to increase the knowledge we have about the cetacean communities that frequent the central Catalan coast and to promote their conservation and the habitats in which they live. Another goal of the association is to bring this knowledge to any interested person, with the ultimate intention of raising awareness about the importance of protecting marine ecosystems.
Now, let’s start talking about your study, which focuses on the Garraf coast. Why this area and not another?
When we started the project in 2013 we knew that on the coast of Garraf, it can be seen cetaceans, especially whales during the spring. Looking for bibliographic information, we realised that there was not much. It was then that we decided to start the current study, focusing first on the fin whale, and extending it to other species later.
Our initial intention was to know which cetacean communities frequent this area, what distribution they present and whether they can be considered resident or not. In addition, we were also concerned about the proximity of the harbour of Barcelona, with an intense commercial maritime traffic, and what effect it could have on the different species.
There are many different ways to study cetaceans, but you have been studying them since 2014 by photo-identification. Can you explain what this method of study consists of?
Photo-identification is a non-invasive research technique that consists of photographing the individual identification characteristics of each of the animals in order to be able to recognise them throughout their life. These features of individual identification must meet three requirements to be used for the recognition of individuals. First, they must be permanent, that is, they do not disappear with the passage of time; must be unique, that is, not repeated in more than one individual; and, finally, must have the same likelihood of re-viewing.
And in cetaceans, which are almost always under the water, how does it apply?
Because of cetaceans are marine species and spend most of their time underwater, individual identification marks must be located on parts of the body that can be observed from outside the water. In fact, these features vary from one species to another, and are located in areas as varied as the head, dorsal fin or caudal fin of the individuals. In our case, we used this technique to study the bottlenose dolphin, the Risso’s dolphin and the fin whale. In all three species, we use the dorsal fin and the wounds of its posterior margin as main characteristics of identification, since they are maintained in the time. In addition, we also use wounds on the sides of the dorsal fin and other parts of the body as a secondary mechanism of identification, which is very useful especially when comparing photographs of the same sighting or the same year.
The use of this technique has allowed us to create two catalogues of photo-identification, one focused on the bottlenose dolphin and the other on the Risso’s dolphin. We are currently working on the creation of a third catalogue for the finwhale.
I imagine you take hundreds of pictures in just one trip. What is required for a photograph to be included in the catalogues of the species?
You’re right, at each trip we can get hundreds of pictures. The arrival of digital cameras and, above all, the progressive increase of their storage capacity offers us the possibility of making as many photographs as we want in each one of the sightings. We have come to realise between one and two thousand photographs only of a single trip.
To the fact that we study highly mobile species, we must add the movement of the boat from which we conduct the study and also that cetaceans only spend a short time outside the water. This means that many of the photographs are not of sufficient quality to be included in the catalogue or that the individual identification features are not seen in their entirety. To choose which ones have the sufficient quality, we use seven technical criteria that value, among others, the focus, the light, the position of the animal with respect to the camera, and that allow us to select only those fins with the highest quality, to include them in the Photo-identification catalogues.
And with the chosen photos, what do you do?
The first thing we do with the selected photographs from each of the seasons is to compare them to each other to determine if there are any individuals who have been seen on more than one occasion. Later, we compared the photographs with those that are already included in the catalogue, to see if the individuals sighted had been previously observed or not.
This process would not be possible without the dedication of the volunteers, who help us in each of its stages.
Since 2014, I imagine that you have had the opportunity to see many different species of cetaceans. However, which are the main ones you have observed?
Since we started the project, there have been four species we have observed most frequently. The most common are the striped dolphin and then the fin whale.
Less commonly, we have seen bottlenose dolphins and Risso’s dolphins. Both the bottlenose dolphins and the striped dolphins have been observed at different times of the year. On the other hand, the fin whale has been usually seen between the months of March and June, which coincides with their annual migration to the feeding areas and the Risso’s dolphins have only been observed in spring. In addition, we also had a sighting of short-beaked common dolphins, an unusual occurrence in the north-western Mediterranean, and we also recorded a possible rough-toothed dolphin (Steno bredanensis), a highly unusual fact since it is a restricted species in the Eastern Mediterranean, in waters near the Suez Canal.
And apart from cetaceans, during your adventures at sea, I imagine you have spotted seabirds and turtles. Is it so?
Apart from cetaceans, there are other species that we can observe relatively often. Before the taking our trips, we do not assure that we will see cetaceans, but we always say that we will be able to watch seabirds. In fact, it is quite common to observe different species of seagulls, terns, shearwaters, storm birds and parasites, and in the winter season gannets and Atlantic puffins. In addition, at certain times sunfishes, turtles, tunas, swordfishes and some invertebrates like the hydrozoa Velella velella. Each trip is a different experience and the sea is often surprising!
Reading the results of the study, I have seen that you have come to catalogue 90 different individuals. However, there are not many individuals who have seen again in different years. Can it mean that individuals no longer return in the area again?
There are different factors that could explain the low number of re-viewings in this phase of the study. A first factor would be that we are in a very early phase of the study, during which the number of re-viewings are usually quite low. Examining the evolution of the number of individuals catalogued in photo-identification studies, this usually follows an exponential pattern. This distribution is due to the fact that in the initial stages it is easier to photograph new individuals and, as the study progresses and the catalogue grows, the likelihood of re-viewing increases.
Secondly, it must be distinguished, however, that these 90 individuals belong to two different species and the results must be assessed separately. In the case of the Risso’s dolphin, for example, the photos come from a total of 5 sightings, and although there has only been a yearly survey, it is noteworthy that there are up to 6 individuals that have been observed in more than one occasion in the same year. Thus, in this case, the low number of re-watchings could be due to the low number of sightings.
In the case of the bottlenose dolphin, there are up to 6 individuals that have been sighted in different years, which could indicate some residence or some frequency of use of this habitat.
Finally, I would like to point out that in both cases they are cetacean species that may have a fairly large distribution range. An example is the case of Dofina, a bottlenose dolphin that we have photographed twice, but which has also been seen previously in areas near the Strait of Gibraltar. This species, precisely, forms very stable populations in specific areas, and photo-identification studies carried out over many years have been able to determine its composition. We hope that in the near future, thanks to the work carried out in the framework of our study, we will be able to define more exactly the different communities of cetaceans that frequent the area of study and to establish their degree of residence.
The results show that the striped dolphin and the Risso’s dolphin have a distribution farther from the coast, while the bottlenose dolphin is rather coastal. In contrast, the fin whale would be situated in an intermediate position. What factors do you think explains this distribution in space?
As you say, the four species we have sighted most often have a different distribution in space. In this sense, the bottlenose dolphin is usually find in shallow waters, close to the coast and linked to the continental shelf. On the other hand, the striped dolphin and the Risso’s dolphin usually frequent deeper waters, linked to the continental slope and its submarine canyons, although the striped dolphin can also be seen in shallower waters. Finally, the fin whale has a wider distribution, as we have seen in shallow water and in waters with depths greater than one thousand meters.
With the exception of the fin whale, which is found in areas of much deeper waters in other areas of the Mediterranean, the distribution of the different species follows the same pattern as in other areas of the Mediterranean.
In general, one of the facts that has a great influence on the distribution of animals like cetaceans is their diet. Thus, species such as the Risso’s dolphin, that base their feeding in different types of squid, are distributed mainly in areas where its prey is abundant. On the other hand, species with a more general diet, such as the striped dolphin, have a wider distribution. In the case of the fin whale, it could be that it approached more superficial waters to feed by taking advantage of the primary spring production peaks.
After all this time of study, what are the main conclusions you have drawn?
These first years of study have helped us to develop a working methodology that suits our needs and to have a first idea of the species of cetaceans that frequent the area.
In this sense, we highly appreciate the work done, as it has allowed us to develop a very satisfactory work methodology that ensures meticulous data collection. In addition, we have also been able to understand the distribution of the different species, which allows us to manage with certain reliability the trips of sighting depending on the species that we want to study. Finally, we highly value the creation of the two photo-identification catalogues, since they allow us to have a better knowledge about the residence of the individuals of these two species.
However, it should be noted that much work remains to be done in order to have a better knowledge about the different communities of cetaceans, their distribution and their degree of residence.
The study area of the photo-identification project is the Garraf coast. But, have you crossed your data with other databases from the same area or other areas of the Catalan sea to have a wider view of the entire Catalan coast?
At the moment, we have not yet compared our photographs with other databases of the Catalan coast, since we do not know if there is any database of these characteristics that is in the public domain. We believe that this would be a very important task in order to know the situation of the communities of cetaceans that frequent our coast. In this sense, we have given access to any person who wishes to consult our catalogues and our results through the website.
We would like to point out that, although we have not done any comparison with other databases of the Catalan coast, we have compared, and are comparing, all the photos of individuals catalogued with photo-identification catalogus made by other associations in The Alboran Sea, the Gulf of Vera, the Strait of Gibraltar and the Gulf of Cadiz (Spain), which are included in a set of public domain catalogus called CetIDMed.
What factors may negatively affect cetacean species in the study?
The factors affecting the cetaceans we studied could be extrapolated to cetacean populations in general. Thus, we could say that the factors that affect them most are those of anthropic origin. There are several studies that show that depending on the species they can be more or less affected, in general, by: the contamination, both visible and micro particles that enter the trophic network, as well as the noise pollution caused by the increase of sea traffic, overfishing, bycatch and direct catches (in other countries).
One of the most important threats facing many species of cetaceans is coastal development, the construction of offshore wind farms or oil prospecting. In addition, the last two examples are associated with a number of previous activities with high levels of underwater acoustic pollution, which can negatively affect cetacean species such as sperm whales, beaked whales and some dolphin species that base their feeding on echolocation, in other words, the detection of preys and objects by means of the production of sounds. Thus, initiatives such as that presented by Alianza Mar Azul on the creation of the Cetacean Migration Corridor, a particularly protected area in the Levantine-Balearic marine demarcation of the Mediterranean, are very positive in order to preserve areas of importance for these species.
I see that since 2014 you have done a lot of work in the study. Now, I would like to ask you a more general question, leaving aside the study a bit. The observation of cetaceans from boats, an increasing activity, can affect the behaviour of these individuals?
Cetacean observation has increased, especially since the 1980s, and in some places is a very important revenue industry. The presence of vessels can have adverse effects on cetaceans and, as you say, alter their behaviour, with even long-term implications such as the reduction of pregnancies as a result of reducing the time spent on socialising, or also, affecting their energy balance, either by reducing energy (less food), or by increasing energy expenditure.
The reasons mentioned above should be sufficient for all those who are involved in the observation, research of cetaceans, or simply to encounter this group of animals on a random basis, to comply with the established measures of the cetacean protection space, establishing three surface areas around cetaceans (the exclusion zone, restricted area and approach zone), an aerial zone and an underwater area, depending on the distance of the boat with respect to the group.
Associació Cetàcea considers it fundamental to comply with the rules of respectful navigation with cetaceans, in order to minimise the interaction with this group of animals to avoid any negative effects that may occur. What’s more, we offer to make informative talks on this subject to encourage respect in the observation of these animals.
Now I would like to ask some more questions so that people can get to know you a little more. Your main activity is the study of cetaceans. While you cannot be sure that cetaceans will be seen on all trips, how often have you seen them?
This is a very important question. The first thing we do before leaving harbour is to remind all the attendees that we cannot assure the sighting of cetaceans. It is important to remember that these are very mobile animals, which are in their natural habitat and therefore, may not be close to the boat during the course of the adventure. That said, we must admit that the percentage of trips in which we have seen cetaceans is quite high, being very close to 80%.
And, apart from sighting trips, what other activities do you do?
The sighting trips are the main activity the association carries out, since they are part of the Photo-Identification project. Apart from that, the association carries out other training and outreach activities such as training talks, informal talks or round tables. We sporadically carry out educational activities for children and families with the intention of showing that our coast is a treasure of biodiversity and that we can collaborate in protecting it. We can all contribute to take care of our sea with small daily gestures (recycle, reuse and reduce waste).
What future plans has Associació Cetàcea?
The activity of the association is based on the work we do every day. Anyway, the near future is to continue carrying out the photo-identification study and the other activities that we have carried out.
Surely now that people know better, there will be some of our readers who will be interested in collaborating with you. In what way can they do it?
We currently have a team of volunteers who collaborate with us in the photo-identification project and help us with the tasks of valuing and cataloguing photographs. In fact, it should be taken into account that the members of Cetàcea perform their work without receiving any kind of economic compensation and during their free time and, although we would like to be able to devote much more time to our study of cetaceans, this is not possible. Hence, volunteers play a key role in this study because, without their selfless collaboration, the valuation and comparison of photographs would advance much more slowly.
Another way to collaborate with us and enjoy a day of sailing is to accompany us in one of the trips of the study. All the people who sail with us is helping us finance the rental of the boat and also have the possibility to see how the data and photographs are taken and can observe several marine species .
A third way of collaborating with us is by sponsoring a dolphin from our catalogus or being a member of our teaming team.
For more information on any of the types of collaboration, we encourage everyone to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you very much for agreeing to do this interview, the truth is that I am really exited. It was with you that I made my first sighting trip in Mediterranean waters. If you want to know them better, you can access the web, Facebook and Twitter.
In this blog we have talked about sharks on several occasions, but now we interview Mónica Alonso, a member of Alianza Tiburones Canarias (Canarias Shark Alliance). Although she is an engineer, she has been taking courses on marine biology and elasmobranchs for over 15 years; which have motivated her to create the blog Protejamos las maravillas del mar.
Mónica, thank you very much for the interview and for sharing your knowledge and experience about sharks. Being engineer, how did your interest on sharks arise?
More than 15 years ago, I started to dive, and immediately, I was interested in marine environment, of which I unknown almost everything. I did some courses on marine biology and I was passionate for it.
Studding sharks, I realised that they are fascinating, and above all when I started to be conscious about the precarious conservation state of most of the species due to finning and abusive fishing.
Advancing in my interest in elasmobranchs (sharks and rays), I was learning more about them, more I realized that in the Canary Islands there is a treasure: the angelshark (Squatina squatina), a shark belonging to one of the most threatened families from all sharks, whose species is declared by the IUCN as critically endangered, one step away from extinction.
The Alliance for the sharks of Canary Islands is an association of people concerned about the Canary marine environment, and especially elasmobranchs that live there, and in particular the state of conservation of angelshark.
At present, we have not yet managed to stop the fishing of angelshark, despite being prohibited and the level of critical threat to the species, but at least we got from the Canary Government an “educational” measure. We believe that tourists who hire the services of these companies do not know that capturing an angelshark contributes to their extinction (although freeing it after suffering serious damage), or that is forbidden. Therefore, it is mandatory that these companies clearly exhibit a sign with elasmobranchs which can not be fished.
Our association is not interested in confronting these companies, but to collaborate with them in educational tasks.
Which is the mission of the Alliance?
The “vision”, as a long-term goal, of our association is to make the Canary Islands a dive’s paradise with elasmobranchs. Over the short term, our “mission” is the promotion, dissemination and the environmental education and conservation of the Canary marine biodiversity, with special emphasis on elasmobranchs.
Therefore, my colleagues in the Canaries and the team of Madrid are dedicated to change the bad image of sharks, and to participate in everything related to their protection.
Which activities do you do for shark conservation?
Canary Islands is precisely where we do most of the activities. My companions who live there are constantly moving throughout the islands, giving educational talks in schools, universities, fishermen’s associations, diver forums participating in fairs biodiversity, solidarity markets … A massive outreach and education focused particularly in younger people, which we believe is slowly paying off.
Through social networks, we receive a lot of information about shark sightings by divers. Our Facebook page shows every week pictures of angelsharks and other elasmobranchs, done by divers, who give us details of the spotted animal: its size, sex, depth of sighting, place (not published to avoid poachers), and other data relevant to the statistical study we are doing.
Now that we know a little more about the Alliance, I would like to know if there are so many species of sharks and rays in Spanish waters, since most people think we do not have these animals on our shores.
Spain has many kilometers of coastline, both Mediterranean and Atlantic. Both the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic are home to many species of sharks. So, we must eradicate that idea. About the number of species, some reports expose that in the Mediterranean Sea there are 90 species of sharks. And the Atlantic Ocean is home to many more.
I think divers know that there are sharks in all seas and oceans, but it is very rare to meet anyone, especially because they detect us before we do. And because each time there are fewer, due to overfishing and finning.
Ninety species in the Mediterranean are a lot … What role do sharks play in marine ecosystems?
There are over 500 species of sharks worldwide, with varied shapes, sizes, lifestyles …, so in general it cannot be generalized for the whole group what we are goint to say. We have the largest of all fishes, the whale shark, which feeds on plankton, and conversely, small sharks as predators that work at its level.
Overall, sharks are apex predators that are at the top of the food chain. Therefore, they play an important role in the ocean ecosystem, maintaining ecological balance. In general, they act as scavengers helping to eliminate dead animals, thus preventing the spreading of disease and strengthening the genetic makeup of prey populations. As predators, they help to maintain the levels of individuals in the lower level of the marine food chain.
Despite their importance, I am sure that they are threatened. Which are their main threats?
The biggest threats, according to FAO, are overfishing and finning.
For those who do not know the term finning, I must say that shark fins are very valuable (about 20 €/kg), much more than meat (between 1 and 2 € per kg). The reason is that shark fins are an ingredient in a traditional dish, the shark fin soup, a deli, which can cost almost 100€ each soup. The rapid growth of the middle class in China has caused the price of kilo to increase in the international market. So, ships prefer to store more fins than meat. Therefore, shark fins are cut and the dying animal is returned to the water; as shown in this video:
This macabre activity is prohibited in many parts of the world, but not in all places. In the European Union, it has been banned since 2003, but the regulation was adopted allowing certain unloading of fins with a permit. The fleets of Spain and Portugal, European fishing powers, used this exception in the law, supported by the Spanish and Portuguese governments.
Is this exception still being used to unload fins without their body?
A few years ago, there was an European movement to eliminate the exception of this law, and numerous conservation organizations and governments in many European countries banded together to approve the measure of “fins attached”, ie, when fishing a shark, fishermen cannot disembark body and fins separately. This is a measure that has been very successful in order to eradicate finning in many areas of the world. The new European antifinning law was passed in 2012 and came into force in 2013, with the measure of “fins attached” applicable to international EU waters and all European vessels worldwide.
This does not mean that catch sharks is illegal, and even sell their fins in a global market that is very opaque and generates many benefits to many countries, among which is ours.
Which role does Spain play?
In Spain, many sharks are caught, and the most fished species is undoubtedly the blue shark. The Port of Vigo, the largest fishing harbour in Europe, is the only one in which fishing statistics are published each year, detailing the species. By 2014, nearly 10,000 tons of sharks of all kinds were unloaded. The shark meat in Galicia, called Quenlla or Caella, is being increased its consumption, mainly by the campaign that the big fishing companies are doing. And it is very easy to see that the blue shark is sold fresh or frozen in the main Spanish supermarkets.
Seeing everything, I image that sharks are not very protected. Is that right?
Unfortunately, in Spain and in the rest of the world, the level of protection of sharks is very low.
The oceans are unfortunately an area very unprotected. Maybe it is because much of its surface has no owner, so-called international waters.
In Spain, and in Europe, there are a number of species for which it is forbidden, not only its fishing, but even upload them to the ship to remove the hooks and return them to the sea. That is the case of angelshark, the bigeye thresher, the hammerhead, the basking shark, the white, the porbeagle and some rays.
Since last year, there have been protected new shark species in Spain, but only in the area of the Mediterranean: the school shark, the shortfin mako shark and the porbeagle, and several species of rays, such as the guitar fish. This means that if we find school shark in a menu from a bar, it is only illegal if it has been caught in the Mediterranean, but we will never know, as consumers, if the animal comes from the Atlantic or the Mediterranean. The best thing in this case is not to eat.
So, is there some illegal product?
Shark fins are not illegal in our country if they come from unprotected species, such as blue shark.
At the international level, it is only prohibited trade with hammers’ fins, whale shark‘s fins, white’s fins, porbeagle’s fins, basking shark’s fins and longimanus’s fins (and some rays). This is the real drama: the fin market is not illegal, but for many of us is immoral.
There is an international movement called Fin Free, in which some cities have added, and in them the sale and consumption of fins is not allowed.
I do understand; is really complicated everything. Moving on… We have all seen plenty of movies in which the shark is bad, the murderer. Is it reality or fiction?
It is quite true that cinema has done much harm to the conservation of sharks since all, until you begin to learn things, have experienced fear even in the same word shark.
However, more and more divers dive with them and have no problems. There are many ways to dive with sharks and only a group of more aggressive by nature species are subject to special precautions, such as the white, the tiger or the bull sharks. What is clear is that we are not on their menu.
Accidents with these animals, although of great importance on media are very few compared to those who die, for example, against attacks of hippos and crocodiles.
Given its importance and degree of threat, what can society do to save these species?
The truth is that a lot. The simple fact of knowing the situation helps a lot, because what happens is that the general population, and even governments, are unaware of many of the things we have talked today. Certainly, greater awareness and public pressure are the best weapons to get governments to act.
Moreover, do not buy the products we have mentioned and be part of all the opportunities for citizen participation in law-making as possible. Antifinning current law is the result of pressure from many European conservation groups, which could be heard and through which regulatory initiatives were established.
Thank you very much for your time. I’m sure our readers will appreciate all this knowledge that you have given us.
If you are studying biology maybe you are thinking to continue working in a doctor’s degree. Is it worth it? How much time and effort will you have to dedicate? Know firsthand the experience of writing a thesis and getting a doctor’s degree with this interview with primatologist Mireia Olivé.
THE INTEREST IN PRIMATOLOGY
Mireia, thanks to dedicate your time to All You Need Is Biology to share your experience. Let’s start from the beginning: when did you know you wanted to study biology? Why did you choose this degree and not another?
The thing is that the choice was not easy because I have always liked a lot of things and it was difficult to decide. To choose the degree, one of the criteria I took into account was that the field should open doors for a future projects (in a professional way), enabling me to be more interdisciplinary. What finally did tip the scales was the emotional part: it was really motivating to know that, someday, I might know things that I always wondered (in the field of primates, especially).
Why did you do a PhD? Did you have a professional future in mind, the opportunity arose without thinking about it..?
It’s funny that I really undertook a doctoral thesis because I had never thought about it. While some friends of mine had no doubts about conducting research, I was involved in other projects that weren’t related to research and I didn’t have in mind taking a PhD. Actually, it was a proposal of my academic mentor from the Master’s degree in Cognition and Evolution of Primates I had already done. After considering it (and knowing that I could continue working in my other projects), I accepted.
On what topic was your thesis? What research did you carry out?
My thesis studied the relationship between hierarchy and groomingin a group of Barbary macaques (Macaca sylvanus). To integrate these two concepts and see how interrelated, the research was focused on several aspects:
First; bibliographic, regarding the hierarchy and grooming.
Third; empirical, observing individuals in a group of macaques.
WORKING IN THE FIELD
Let’s talk about the empirical aspects: in what area did you take out your observations?
The empirical part was a bit difficult to start because we struggled to find a group that was representative enough, since it had to have a minimum of individuals of each gender and age class, and from a particular family of primates. Finally, after several failed attempts (we had already begun observing a group but we had to stop because there were problems with the animals), we chose a group of a French park near Poitiers called La Vallée des Singes, where the Barbary macaques group met all the requirements we had set. In addition, it was a semi-captivity group, which provided many advantages over other options we had already considered.
So you had to do some research abroad. How do you evaluate the experience?
It was a very interesting experience that allowed me to meet students, technicians and professionals of the “animalier” sector and in the primatology field, to expand the circle of friends and to improve my level of foreign languages
Working in the field was very hard?
The fieldwork was very intense, because I wanted to take advantage of my time collecting as much data as I could (even considering further research to develop at the end of the PhD). Going out to observe animals is a task that requires a lot of perseverance and dedication: once the dynamics is established, observations must be maintained in all conditions. This means it had to be done even if it rains; the temperature is below 4° C; on weekdays and on weekends, and at any time of day. The empirical part, however, was the best of the PhD.
Did you experienced fear at some time?
Usually the sessions were quiet, but twice went pretty scary. The place where the observations were made was directly on the territory of macaques, an extension of 3.3 hectares of forest where the animals were circulating freely. At peak times park staff checked that everything was in order, but I could be on the other side of the territory and I often did not see anyone all day. In the group there were several juvenile females, eager to play and challenging me.
Once, I was surrounded by the group of the four youngest females. They approached me and stretched my clothes. I was a bit scared (it was an aggressive way to play). The situation was complex, because at that time I had already been more or less accepted by the group as an observer and I could be quite close to animal. I frightened them to let me go, not only I risked to lose that confidence, and consequently the ability to observe their behavior closely, but at the same time, the group would have attacked me to help the youngest without hesitating (adults are very strong and have very long fangs).
TIPS ON PhD
Dedication is very big, is it possible to combine the PhD with a job? Can you give an idea to future students how much is the workload?
The workload is heavy, either combining the PhD with a job (which was my case) or doing the thesis exclusively, and perseverance to move forward is necessary. For me it was important not to stop working and continue participating in other projects that were not related to research, so I assumed it would take longer to finish my PhD. Being focused was important to continue working on all fronts
In that time I got home from work between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m., and then I began to work (either reading articles, studying, writing or doing calculations) until 9-10 p.m. and at weekends I spent between 4 and 6 hours a day. Friends, who worked doing exclusively the thesis at the University, spent about 8 hours every day, Monday through Friday, but this schedules also depended on the stage where they were (the final stage of drafting is far more intense).
But it also has its positive side, right?
Of course you have good times! First, you research a topic you are passionate about and you do some discoveries. In addition, you learn, firsthand, what it means to do research, what involves (organization, hypotheses, results).
You also know a lot of people who share the same interests and motivation, and you’re aware of everything happening in your field. You are so up to date and discovering so much about the subject that it ends up being you the one who knows the most: it’s your topic!
Did you ever think about quitting? Why?
Yes. As I said before, it is a long and intense process. In addition, research often do not turn out the results you expect, and you have to go redirecting the situation, raising new hypotheses or approaching it from different points of view. At that moment you have to be able to look a little further: either to the beginning and see where you were and where you are at the time, or trying to see where you go, what you want to end up discovering.
So this is why it is important that you like what you investigate, because it is easy not to get involved and giving up.
What encouraged you to go on?
I want to add that beyond this personal motivation, support from family and friends is very important: they are who cheer you up, who encourage you again and again and will continue to encourage you, and when you have hard times, they convince you that your work worths it, and that you must continue working to go on.
Would you repeat the experience?
Yes, I think I would do a PhD again. However, thanks to the experience, I would look at the issue differently, both the thesis content and the personal approach.
Finally, can you give some tips to people who want to do a PhD?
I would suggest them to change to another University (different from the one where they have studied the Bachelor’s or Master’s Degree) because it is very interesting to know other ways to work and focus research.
In addition, it is important to choose a topic that really motivates you. During the thesis there are moments of discouragement, when you want to throw it all away (it is inevitable, because it is a task of continuous effort and quite long) but if the subject excites you, it is easier to find energy to continue.
Your thesis seems very interesting, can you give us a link to the publication?
One of the conclusions of my thesis has been the development of indicators that provide insight into the status of a group of Barbary macaques, which may facilitate possible interventions (reintroduction in the natural habitat, migration of individuals).
In this link you can read the summary of the thesis and download it.
Mireia, thank you very much for your time and experience, which will be for sure a good guidance for future researchers.
Thanks to you for giving me the opportunity to publicize the importance of scientific research.
In October 2015 the world knew, late and wrong, about what would be later classified as the s. XXI biggest ecological crisis. Tropical rainforests and peatland forests of Southeast Asia in Indonesia burned for five long months causing the burn of two million hectares increasing the level of pollutant particles in the air up to 2,000 PSI (levels of more than 300 PSI are considered toxic). Forty-three million people were affected, 500,000 of them suffering respiratory diseases. The biodiversity of this region has been seriously compromised, affecting many endemic and endangered species, including one of the most emblematic and vulnerable primates in the world: orangutans; which only live on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo (Indonesia) of the most affected by the fires.
Because of this environmental crisis, we wanted to talk to Joana Aragay Soler, a biologist currently working in Kalimantan (the Indonesian part of Borneo) with the British NGO OuTrop (The Orangutan Tropical Peatland Project) to explain us what does she do in the association and also concerned by the terrible experience she lives in the summer of 2015. Through some questions we want to understand how did she lived that crisis in first person and get deeper into the reasons that provoked the fires and their ecological and social consequences.
Hi Joana! How are you? From AYNIB (All You Need Is Biology), we think that your experience as a biologist at OuTrop can be of great interest to our readers. What is your job in the NGO?
Hello, thank you very much for giving me the opportunity to share with you my experience in Borneo.I have two very different roles in OuTrop, but complementary at the same time. That makes my job very diverse and enriching. On the one hand, I am Head of the Biodiversity program (Biodiversity Scientist) and on the other I coordinate the Education program (Education Manager). As a Biodiversity scientist, I coordinate the fieldwork of all biodiversity research projects (other than primates). Outrop research began in 1999 monitoring only the orangutan populations and studying their behavior. A few years later, we began to establish the gibbons and red langurs project. Finally, the arrival of new researchers promoted the development of other projects, such as butterflies, ants, birds, frogs or spiders sampling in order to monitor the status of the forest through quality indicators species. Also we have a project with trap cameras with a motion sensor that allows monitoring elusive spices such as bears or clouded leopards.As the Education manager, I am developing the education project that has just started this year as we believe that a very important part to make conservation is education. For now, we have started to conduct environmental education in schools, but we also have an education project for non-solarized children, which consists on teaching them to read, write, etc., through of nature-related activities.
Finally, we also invite local and international schools to spend a few days in the jungle to experience firsthand how scientists work.
How is your routine work in Borneo ?
My daily routine is very different depending on the project. When I am coordinating the biodiversity projects, I live in the camp OuTrop has in the jungle. Every day in the jungle is different, even when walking through the same transects, you never know what you’ll find: termites eating orangutans, bears perched on trees, oddly shaped insects or acrobats like gibbons swinging above your head.
When working at the education project I am in the city office in Palangkaraya. There I meet Riethma, an Indonesian girl also part of the education team. With this program the activities, visit schools and conduct workshops for children out of school. When I’m in town I also took time to catch up with the email because we don’t have internet access in the jungle.
What experience from your work as a biologist would you highlight?
There are many exciting aspects of my job and even more when you work immersed in a culture different from yours. Living surrounded by jungle and being constant contact with nature is a privilege, especially in the area of Borneo where we work. Sabangau, is the largest south of Borneo rainforest and contains the largest orangutan population in the world (about 7,000 individuals). Investigating the biodiversity of these forests and working with local people to protect these habitats is very professionally satisfying.
Now that we can imagine your routine, we would love you to share with us your vision of the fire of 2015. How you lived on a professional and personal level?
First of all let’s get in situation. From June to October 2015, more than 125,000 fires broke out in Indonesia burning more than two million hectares (which would represent 2/3 of the Catalonia surface or three million football fields). Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo suffered the worst effects, at all levels: ecological, economic and social. There was so much smoke that some days he saw nothing more than 20 meters away. Fires and the effects of the smoke affected everything: the airport, shops and schools closed during several weeks; agriculture losses were enormous; thousands of people have had or will have health problems in the medium or long term; ecological damage is of unimaginable dimensions and still needs to be evaluated. The fires emitted 1.6 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere (equivalent to the Spain, Germany, United Kingdom and France together annual carbon emissions sum), substantially contributing to climate change.
Those were difficult and emotionally intense months. Many research projects of the NGO were reduced to a minimum in order to devote every effort to firefighting.Personally, I decided to leave Kalimantan during a few days because I felt that my health was compromised. I spent the days conducting divulgation, awareness and seeking fundraising to subsidize equipment for firefighting. Thanks to the collaboration of many people and organizations we were able to buy a lot of stuff: water pumps, hoses, masks, etc. that we deliver to different firefighting teams and communities. We also try to visualize the problem, contacting media to give impact to the problem.
Were those arson or natural fires? Which were the causes?
The fires were arson. Most started to thin out land and associated with the economic development of the region for requalify land to plant monocultures (mainly palm oil). During the dry season there are usually many fires but this year, due to El Niño, they were intensified. It’s a combination of factors, there’s not a single reason that explains the problem. We have to look back to understand the complexity of the problem and the vulnerability of ecosystems. Over the past 20 years, in the lowlands of Borneo thousands of channels were built, both for timber production and the agriculture development. Normally, tropical peatlands do not burn because they are like sponges that hold moisture but the channels disturbed the natural hydrology of tropical peatlands, draining the water into the rivers and disturbing the natural water levels on the ground; which caused the augmentation of fire risk.
Another structural problem is the lack of resources to fight the fires, there were so many that fire men were overwhelmed, and didn’t have the necessary resources to put them off.
What were the ecological consequences?
The ecological consequences were terrible and will take years to quantify: it was estimated that nearly a million hectares of forest were lost and consequently the species that inhabit it. The fire increased pressure on primary forests and endangered species such as orangutans. The fire also burned forest areas where the greatest orangutan populations remain, and these are expected to experience a substantial decrease in the coming years.
The peatland forests, though little known, are one of the most important ecosystems in the planet. They represent only 3% of the world forest area, acting as carbon reservoirs as they contain a third of the world carbon, and playing an important role in preventing global warming. Its biodiversity is huge and contains several iconic and endangered species such as the Southern Borneo gibbon, orangutans, clouded leopards or Storm’s storks.
What about the social consequences? How did the fires affected the Borneo people?
One of the most immediate effects suffered was due to smoke. During September and October it was recommended to wear charcoal filtered masks 24 hours a day, but these masks were only found in some local within big cities and were very expensive. Most people wore only paper masks that were not able to filter smoke particles, they only minimized the risk perception. Many people got sick and the health consequences in the long term are unpredictable. Indonesia will have to face economic losses of about 30 billion dollars.
The loss of environmental resources is implicitly linked to the local economy. Many communities depend on the services that ecosystems provide. If the forest disappears resources that keep many families are also put at risk.
Why do you think foreign media reacted so late?
The international media reacted slowly and the truth is that the Spanish and Catalan hardly mentioned the problem. From OuTrop, we send press releases and some were published, but the media exceptionally reports environmental issues and when they do it is always secondarily. Day after day we read irrelevant news published in national newspapers, while in Indonesia we were living one of the most important ecological and social crisis of recent decades. We cannot ignore that the media reports on what “sells” and not on what is really happening.
How could we prevent this disaster never happen again?
Legislation and land management are key elements to prevent that forest areas are easily converted into farmland items. The hydrology of disturbed areas should also have to be restored. Population awareness, sustainable development and especially informing and educating people are basic to understand that the use of the slash and burn method is very dangerous and harmful to everybody.
Now that you have returned a few months ago the rains, do you think that the environment can recover? Were you able to go to the countryside to meet the affected area?
Now that the fires are extinguished we have begun monitoring the primates populations and mapping the burned area. We don’t know how the fire consequences as it will take years to manifest. In OuTrop we are developing research projects associated with burned areas, that will provide answers in the future; patience is the mother of science, they say.
We have also stepped up efforts in reforestation programs, starting to replant trees in burned areas. We are doing various experiments to discover the best way to accelerate forest regeneration in these areas.
But most of all we hope that this experience has make people react and disasters like this won’t be repeated. Prevention is the best answer, but … we must be prepared!
Well Joana, thank you very much for sharing this experience and helping us to understand the origins of the Southeast Asia fires phenomenon. Hopefully your work, along with others foundations working there, will prevent the reoccurrence of disasters like this and that the population is increasingly aware of the effects of burning forest.
Joana leaves us some links with photos and a documentary for those who want to go in depth into the subject:
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