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Overfishing Drives West Bengal’s Hilsa Fishers Up the Creek

On the eve of Maghi Purnima, while marine fishers were preparing for Ganga puja at West Bengal’s Sagar Island, everyone was talking with a sense of foreboding. Abdar Mallik, secretary of Sagar Marine Matsya Khuti Cooperative Society, said, “Bajar bhalo na, Goto teen bochor ilish aschhena,” (Translated: The market is not in a good state. As a result, we haven’t been receiving any hilsa here for the last three years).

The decline in the production of hilsa on the Indian side (West Bengal) of Bay of Bengal has been a rising concern in the recent past. Researchers claim hilsa is destroyed by over-exploitation in northern Bay of Bengal, which has threatened the livelihoods of over 26,000 fishers in West Bengal.

Unsustainable Fishing Practices
In a recent study, scientists questioning the sustainability of hilsa fishing practices in the northern Bay of Bengal region. They suggested that excess of licensed fishing trawlers are responsible for declining hilsa stock. From the estuary of the Ganga to deep in the Bay of Bengal, about 15,000 trawlers are hovering in the migratory path of the hilsa as the fish approaches the river to spawn, and on its way out.

The study revealed that between 2002 and 2015, even though the number of boats engaged in fishing increased by 25%, the hilsa catch dipped by 13%. “In spite of the ban on nets with mesh holes less than 90 mm, such nets are used most of the time. A very large number of juvenile hilsa are caught regularly. Apart from this hundreds of nets, each around 1-2km long, block the mouth of the estuary. How will the fish enter the river?” asked Debasish Shyamal, district president of Dakhhinbongo Matsajibi Forum.

The damage is twofold – the possibility of getting mature hilsa in the future is reduced, and it also hampers the reproduction of the fish. Shyamal further explained, “West Bengal has 158km coast line, comparatively smaller coast line than others but production rate is higher than other coastal states. Government is always pushing to increase production numbers without thinking the environmental consequences. In 2012 hilsa production in the state was 8510 tonnes. According to fisheries department data 14203 tonnes hilsa caught in 2016. As result trawlers involved in destructive fishing practices to increase production numbers.”

Bottom trawling is prohibited up to 12 nautical miles from the coastline but small fishers alleged that trawlers start trawling just 1km from the coastline that threatened life of traditional small fishers. Moreover, trawler owners claim they do mid-level water trawling but in reality it is similar to bottom trawling.

Professor Sugata Hazra, director of School of Oceanographic Studies, Jadavpur University further elaborated:

“In case of Tamil Nadu, after 12 nautical miles from coastline you will get deep sea but in northern Bay of Bengal after 12 nautical miles water level is shallow as this area fall under delta region. So, trawler shouldn’t do fishing within 30 nautical miles from Bengal coastline to stop habitat destruction of marine biodiversity.”

Ban Without Surveillance
In order to increase production of hilsa and other fishes, every year Fisheries Department of Government of West Bengal issues notifications to control fishing. According to circular, from 15 April to 31 May, fishing is prohibited in the sea and adjoining areas.

Moreover, a special ban is imposed specifically for the conservation of the hilsa during 15 September to 24 October. This system was initiated for the undisturbed breeding of hilsa. Besides fishing, selling, transporting and hoarding of hilsa, less than 23 cm long hilsa is prohibited.

However, Debasish Shyamal of Dakhhinbongo Matsajibi Forum said, “This is just an eyewash from state fisheries department.”

Accepting that the ban is not obeyed by some fishers, a fisher working in trawler at Diamond Harbour in South 24 Parganas district, who wished to maintain anonymity, claimed, “A mature hilsa weighing between 700 grams and a kg but we don’t obey any rule once we get large number of fish in sea. If 500 kg of hilsa is caught, large portion of that weighing below 200 grams, all juvenile fish, even we catch 50 gm hilsa which also has a good market.”

In the absence of government surveillance, juvenile hilsa fishing goes on. Shyamsundar Das, Secretary of the trawler owners’ association – United Fishermen’s Association denied all allegations against trawlers and dismissed the claim of overfishing. He told, “How do you define overfishing while government has not yet put any limitation per trawler. We catch fish according to act and beyond 12 nautical miles which is not state subject.” Das further questioned the act regarding mesh size, “The act says 90mm mesh for hilsa and 40mm for other fishes, then how could one use 90mm while others are using 40mm mesh to catch fish.”

They claimed that they are trying to observe the fishing ban and prohibition on mesh size and urged government to exempt taxes from diesel.

Chandranath Sinha, Minister of Fisheries, Government of West Bengal, claimed, “Overall fisheries department has successfully implemented the fishing ban during the spawning period across the coast. Few fishers from Odisha used to catch juvenile fishes and then export it to West Bengal market.” He further explained that state government continuously conducting awareness campaign among fishers about ill impact of overfishing.

“State has notified the ban but there’s no surveillance on ground. Bangladesh has a strict winter ban during September-October. There’re many instances that they (Bangladesh) burnt nets and all fishing equipment those ventured into fishing during this period. Our government must take such steps to minimise the destruction,” said Professor Hazra.

Traditional fishers alleged fishing space is gradually occupied by those from other livelihood background. Nowadays most labours working in trawlers came from Jhargram, West Medinipur district.
Traditional fishers alleged fishing space is gradually occupied by those from other livelihood background. Nowadays most labours working in trawlers came from Jhargram, West Medinipur district.

With the fishing space so crowded and the catch uncertain, respecting restrictions on the size of the fishing net or the ban on catching small-sized hilsa becomes a real challenge. State fisheries department has started a livelihood scheme in 2013-14, there are several difficulties in implementation. Abdar Mallik, member of small fishers’ union of Sagar Island alleged, “Department has started data collection about the number of fishers who depend on hilsa for a livelihood but the data is not yet available. Even vending units given to the panchayats were distributed to those who are not engaged in hilsa fishing at all. ”

Earlier, there was a savings cum relief schemes for fishers where a fisher contributes Rs 900 and state fisheries department and National Fisheries Development Board (NFDB) also contribute same amount.

“This scheme is not active anymore. State says central government isn’t giving their share,” said Debasish Shyamal of small fishers’ union – Dakhhinbongo Matsajibi Forum. Moreover, there is no subsidy available for small fishers in the state. “Trawlers get modernised jetty, toilets and free ice inside harbour but there’s nothing for Khuti (fish landing centres) fishers. How we’ll (small fishers) survive during ban period?” asked Shyamal.

Huge quantities of hilsa fish have reached Kolkata market. Demand for hilsa in Bengali cuisine is always high.
Huge quantities of hilsa fish have reached Kolkata market. Demand for hilsa in Bengali cuisine is always high.
(Photo: Tanmoy Bhaduri/ The Quint)
State fisheries minister claimed, “All fishers in the state get Rs 2 per kg rice throughout the year. If anyone left out of the list we will definitely include them.” Many fishers in South 24 Parganas alleged that benefits announced by the government does not reach all sections. “The trend that we are seeing is most fishermen migrate out of Bengal to Andhra Pradesh and Kerala for better livelihood,” Abdar Mallik claimed.

Moreover, researchers claim there has been an overall decline in natural fish stock in all of the major river transboundary river systems across India and Bangladesh that impacted traditional small fishers. The Bangladesh government has introduced an extensive hilsa management action plan to increase hilsa production not only by conserving the juveniles but also by protecting the brood fish during breeding seasons by imposing a ban on fishing and restricting the mesh size. The Bangladesh Government also offers vulnerable group feeding programmes for underprivileged fishers during the ban period. “If state government support fishers with alternative scheme during ban period like Bangladesh do, we can successfully conserve hilsa as well as livelihoods of fishers,” said Professor Hazra.

(Tanmoy Bhaduri is Kolkata-based independent journalist who focuses on social, cultural and environmental issues. This story was produced with the support of Internews’ Earth Journalism Network.)

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Nagaland: Drive against single-use plastic in Kohima


Kohima District Task Force carried out its fourth checking and confiscation exercise to enforce the total ban on all single-use plastics in Nagaland’s capital city Kohima on Friday.

The task force on total ban of all single use plastics has been conducting checking and confiscation exercise at regular intervals to ensure that the ban on the sale and use of single-use plastic is properly enforced.

It aims to create awareness and ensure that the dream of a plastic pollution free Nagaland stays alive.

The team,  divided into two groups and aided by various NGOs and government departments, conducted the exercise, visited all the shops in and around the Kohima main town to check the use and sale of all single-use plastics, including poly-propylene bags.

A number of shops were caught using the banned plastic bags and selling minerals water bottles below one litre.

The erring shopkeepers were fined and the banned products were all confiscated.

The seized items will later be disposed off by the Kohima Municipal Council.

The Kohima district administration thanked the various public organistions, Kohima Municipal Council, various government departments for their c-operation and participation in the exercise. (Source: NE NOW)


The largest cave fish on earth discovered in Meghalaya

  • New cave fish dwarfs all other known kinds
  • Puts paid to assumptions about body size
  • Not yet clear if it’s a new species

Proving a long-held notion “spectacularly wrong” is a scientist’s wet dream. To do it shining a torchlight in a dingy Indian cave, as whiskered fish acquaint themselves with the sole of your boot, is something else entirely.

Yet that is what experts from the UK, Switzerland and India say they did by discovering a new kind of cave fish, similar in anatomy to an endangered mahseer species, in Meghalaya last February. It is “by far the largest known subterreanean fish in the world”, they write in a recent paper.

The biggest specimen they found was longer than 40 cm — way too long to fit in your geometry box. That may still seem small, but the scientists explain that it dwarfs the vast majority of cave fish. (Imagine encountering a human close to 30 feet tall.)

The discovery of the Meghalayan fish, they say, puts paid to the long-held assumption that the paucity of food in caves limits body length to 35 cm or less.

“All previous discoveries of cave fish from India have been of small fish, and this is the largest of the cave fish discovered in the country, and probably from anywhere in the world,” said Rajeev Raghavan, an aquatic conservation biologist and one of the paper’s co-authors.

The other Indian on the team is Neelesh Dahanukar from the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research in Pune.


Widely consumed in India, mahseer live mostly in “fast-flowing streams and rivers and also large reservoirs”, Raghavan told The new species is similar to the golden mahseer, Tor putitora, except for its blander look, lack of eyes and — of course — its unusual underground home in Meghalaya’s Jaintia Hills. It is not clear yet if a new species has been found.ADVERTISEMENT

“A locked cave population of mahseer is a very interesting find that shows how little we know about these groups of fish, though the first mahseer in the world was described in 1822,” said Raghavan, who works at the Kerala University of Fisheries and Ocean Studies in Kochi.

But how did it go undetected for so long?

“Caves are one of the least-explored of all habitats,” Rajeev Raghavan said. “We know absolutely nothing about the cave fauna of India — especially in the streams and lakes that are found inside the caves.”

What about conservation? Are there any known threats to the fish’s survival?

Raghavan says no.

“It is difficult terrain to get to, and so I think no short-term threats would impact the populations,” he said.

There’s much left to discover about the Meghalayan cave fish, but one thing’s for sure. We know they don’t mind biscuits.

by Ganesh Radha-Udayakumar

Environment, Nature

Wetlands of Assam need urgent conservation measures

Chandan Kumar Duarah : Wetlands in Assam have been carrying out a great role minimising intensity of flood in Brahmaputra valley. Better conservation of wetlands in the state may be the most effective way to control flood and erosion problems. Because wetlands store a large amount of excess water during flood.

Most of wetlands in the state have become shallow due to turbidity, silt and sediment deposition. As they are becoming shallow the capacity of flood water storage also decreasing. So if these wetlands can be dredged and make deeper these will have more capacity to store more amount of flood water. Continue Reading


Black necked cranes face plastic threat in Bhutan

Bhutan reinforced its 20-year old ban on plastics in April this year. First introduced on the 25th year of the reign of the fourth King of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the ban has been only partially successful. Part of the reason is that it was never comprehensive, and did not apply to goods packaged in Bhutan, only for single use plastic bags. Even this was poorly implemented.

The new phase of implementation will penalise shopkeepers for offering plastic bags, but still allow plastic packaging for goods produced by small farmers and businesses. This may not be enough as plastic has penetrated deep into Bhutan’s ecosystem. A team of researchers, in an ongoing study, have found plastic for the first time in the faeces of the endangered black-necked cranes.

Black-necked cranes are classified as vulnerable and globally threatened, and they are also considered sacred in many communities along the Western Himalayan region, from China to India. This new discovery has raised new concerns on the health, safety and long-term survival of the endangered species.

The new discovery

The team that made the discovery comprised researchers from the Ugyen Wangchuck Institute of Conservation and Environmental Research (UWICER), the Royal Society for Protection of Nature (RSPN) and the Bumdeling Wildlife Sanctuary (BWS). They collected more than 1,000 samples of faeces in Bumdeling, one of the major wintering grounds for black-necked cranes in Bhutan.

The study is part of the Black-necked crane conservation project where RSPN, UWICER and BWS has tied up with the US-based International Crane Foundation (ICF).

Of the 95% of the samples that were analysed so far, researchers confirmed 5% had plastics in them. The analysis was carried out at Sherubtse College, Bhutan’s oldest and largest college located in eastern Bhutan, as well as at UWICER’s own laboratory in Bumthang.

The faeces are soaked in distilled water overnight and then placed on a petri dish where the samples are examined and segregated. A microscope is then used to examine the segregated contents and to take pictures.

The team came across 6.6 grams of plastics in one of the samples on 16 May and is finding more plastics as the study progresses.

“We found some more plastics today morning,” said Sherub from UWICER, one of Bhutan’s top ornithologist who is leading the team of researchers, on Tuesday.

He said that although Bhutan has strong environmental regulations, it has not taken the responsibility of disposing plastics properly and they have found their way into the black-necked cranes’ habitat.

While already facing several other challenges in terms of habitat degradation, plastics, which has been found for the first time in the crane’s faeces is expected to push the government to step up its conservation policies.

“They are not natural food, so it will definitely affect the health and long term survival of the endangered bird,” Sherub said.

Jigme Tshering, Deputy Chief of RSPN said the study was carried out to gain better understanding on the feeding habits of the cranes and to influence decisionmakers to come up with effective habitat management and conservation plans.

The team is also carrying out video recording of the cranes’ feeding habits to complement the faecal analysis study.

Changing ecosystem, changing diet

The primary diet of black-necked cranes consists of insects, plant fibres, tubers, weeds and domestic food crop grains. With more farmers giving up farming due to human wildlife conflict, and flashfloods washing away paddy fields Jigme Tshering said the availability of food for the cranes has been affected.

Karma Tempa, Chief of Bumdelling Wildlife Sanctuary said the birds roost in Bumdeling but they feed most of the time near the town, where there is a bigger waste problem.

Located in northeastern Bhutan, Bumdeling is a tiny town, one of eight village blocks in the district of Trashiyangtse. The last census, conducted in 2005, revealed that it had a population of only 2,695. It is an unlikely area to have much waste, plastic or otherwise, although eastern Bhutan has, historically, had less infrastructural development than western Bhutan.

Black-necked cranes winter in Bhutan after the harvest season and forage on paddy fields and potato farms. The study is also expected to influence policy makers to incentivise farming.

“We want to look into whether food grains constitute a major source of diet for the cranes and then suggest policy changes to encourage farming and harmonious living between the cranes and human beings,” said Sherub.

Black-necked cranes in Bhutan are admired and respected and throughout ages, they have inspired traditional music, songs, poems, and literature.

Last winter, Bhutan received more than 600 cranes. The cranes arrive around the third week of October and return to the Tibetan plateaus by the third week of December

(first published in the Thirdpole)


Nidup Gyeltshen is a journalist based in Thimphu, Bhutan


Asia’s Great Rivers: Climate Crisis, Pollution Put Billions of Lives at Risk

Some of the world’s largest rivers, such as Brahmaputra, Yangtze, Mekong and Indus, begin in Asia, and their health is inextricably linked to that of the continent.

Hong Kong: The year is 2100. The glaciers of the Hindu Kush-Himalayan region — the world’s “Third Pole” — are vanishing as the planet warms, the ice that once fed the great rivers of Asia is all but lost, and with it much of the water needed to nurture and grow a continent.

Further stressed by extreme heatwaves, erratic monsoons, and pollution, the waterways are in crisis and the lives of hundreds of millions hang in the balance. Access to clean water, now more precious than oil, is a preserve of the rich and has become a resource so valuable that people — and nations — are willing to fight for it.

This apocalyptic vision is the continent’s future if nothing is done to limit global warming, scientists and environmentalists warn.

“If urgent climate action is not taken rapidly, starting today, and current emission trends continue unabated, it is starting to look conceivable that this will entail grave threats to all of humanity as we know it,” says David Molden, director general of the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD).

The 2015 Paris agreement saw nations commit to limiting global warming to two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels as a way of curbing the worst impacts of global warming.

A lower cap of 1.5C was set, only as a goal for nations to work towards. But this year’s Hindu Kush-Himalaya (HKH) Assessment Report says unless it is met — two-thirds of the region’s glaciers will be lost by the end of the century.

Running from Afghanistan to Myanmar, the HKH region takes in the Tibetan Plateau, and the Himalaya, Hindu Kush, and Karakoram mountain ranges.

Functioning as a vast water tower, some of the world’s largest and most important rivers, including the Brahmaputra, Yangtze, Mekong and Indus, begin here.

Its health is inextricably linked to that of the continent: Some 1.65 billion people directly rely on these waters — for their lives and livelihoods.

But tens of millions more rely on the agriculture, hydropower, and industries the rivers fuel.

“This is the climate crisis you haven’t heard of,” ICIMOD’s Philippus Wester explains, adding that alongside glacier melt, there will be increased risk of floods, droughts, landslides and avalanches.

But many in Asia are already living this dystopian future.

In the southern Indian city of Chennai, 2019 brought a drought so severe reservoirs ran dry. Residents were forced to queue for water from government tanks or pay black-market prices. In some cases, desperation led to violence.

Northern India was lashed by flooding as the Brahmaputra and Ganges rivers burst their banks, with more than 100 reported dead and many more displaced. In Pakistan, thousands of glacial lakes have formed, with its mountain people facing the threat of at least 30 bursting.

In parts of China, villagers must choose between paying a premium for bottles or risking their health with the potentially contaminated stream or river water.

More than half the world’s population lives in Asia, but there is less fresh water available per person there than on any continent, according to the UN, often leaving the most vulnerable at risk.

“Climate change is rapidly diminishing our access to clean water, which will have a devastating impact on human health, access to food, and sanitation, radically reshaping communities and cities,” Philip Alston, UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, tells AFP.

“As always, the poorest people are and will be the most affected.”

Asia’s rivers feed the continent’s breadbaskets and rice bowls — the Indus, Yangtze, and Yellow basins rely heavily on meltwater to irrigate agriculture that helps sustain not only those that live there, but national economies too.

Any change — either the initial surge of meltwater — or the later drastic decline in river flow could cause catastrophic food shortages, with Molden warning the worst-case scenario, if nothing is done to combat global warming, would be “starvation and conflict”.

Despite proclamations that we are in “the Asian Century”, there are fears lack of proper planning for the coming water crisis may stifle the economic dreams of a rapidly growing region.

Debra Tan, director of the NGO China Water Risk, adds: “Asia faces a triple threat in terms of water because 1) some parts — including China and India — have very limited water resources to develop, 2)climate change exacerbates scarcity, and 3) our cities and populations are clustered along vulnerable rivers.” Every key industry on the continent — from electronics and automobiles to clothing and agriculture — requires water but few use the resource judiciously.

Irrigation methods are often inefficient and crops grown can be water-intensive, while many industries still discharge untreated water in the rivers with few facilities for recycling.

Tan insists: “If the risks are not managed well, they will not only have detrimental consequences to billions of livelihoods but also to trillions of dollars of economic growth.”

Mass migration away from most affected areas will put intense pressure on other towns and cities.

This may exacerbate tensions in a conflict-prone area — both within and between countries, Wester says.

In a 2008 report, Goldman Sachs hailed water as the “the petroleum for the next century”, underlining fears its scarcity will lead to unrest.


Bhutan: Development threatens takin habitats

Bhutan takin is found between 1,200 meters and 5,374 meters in northern Bhutan. Human-induced changes are threatening the habitats of Bhutan takin (Budorcas taxicolor whitei).

By Choki Wangmo / Kuensel via Asia News Network: 

Linear infrastructure such as expansion of road and transmission lines and improper land-use planning were found to hinder wildlife movement and disturb prime habitats of the species, according to the first national report on takin by the forest department.

The infrastructure developments, if unchecked, could cause unforeseeable risks due to penetration into the takin habitats.

The Bhutan takin is one of four subspecies of takin and is endemic to Bhutan. It is a large bovid ungulate found along the warm broadleaved forest through the alpine region between the altitudinal range of 1,200 meters in warm broadleaved forest to 5,374 meters in northern Bhutan.

The animals mostly inhabit Jigme Dorji National Park and Wangchuck Centennial National Park although they are found also in Paro, Thimphu, and Wangdue forest divisions.

The report stated that winter habitats of takin were highly vulnerable to anthropogenic pressure due to its closer proximity to human settlements. “Building roads closer to or within the takin habitats will not only alter the animal behaviour but will also fragment the habitats.”

To deter negative impact within the habitats, the study recommended the government focus on maintaining the existing farm roads rather than building new roads. “If new construction is required, it should be cost-effective and environmentally less damaging.”

The current method of “cut-fill” construction involves high cost and is not environmentally friendly. Experts documented the indirect impact of such developments on wildlife — physical barriers for movement and dispersal, displacement and change in habits, among others.

Takin prefer continuous gentle terrain and an undisturbed habitat for foraging, finding mates and long-term sustenance. For that, low-altitude forested habitat outside protected areas should be incorporated into takin management plans and should be protected as takin habitats, according to the report.

Further to that, takin inhabit remote areas away from high-density human settlements, which increases the poaching risk. It was observed that Bhutan takin were susceptible to snaring, illegal trapping and disturbance from feral dogs.

Bhutan takin migrate from alpine valleys to lower forests in autumn and return to the summer habitats in early spring. The species has been reported from Xizang in China and Sikkim, and Arunachal Pradesh in India. Its population is estimated between 500-700 individuals.

The Takin is found in steep forests extending to the timberline and mountain valleys in the Eastern Himalayas and adjoining mountain ranges of Bhutan, India, Myanmar and China.

The Bhutan takin was declared the national animal of Bhutan in 1985 and is strictly protected under the Schedule I of the Forests and Nature Conservation Act of Bhutan 1995. The takin is categorised as vulnerable in the IUCN Red List


‘It’s an Atomic Bomb’: Australia Deploys Military as Fires Spread

HASTINGS, Australia — The evacuees walked down the gangway of the giant naval vessel to the dock, each carrying just a few items of luggage. Some held infants and others their dogs, whose legs were still shaky from the 20-hour voyage down the coast of Australia. They were weary, and their clothes smelled of smoke, but the terrible infernos were finally behind them.

Four days after a bush fire ravaged the remote coastal town of Mallacoota, forcing people to shelter on the beach under blood-red skies, more than 1,000 stranded residents and vacationers arrived on Saturday in Hastings, a town near Melbourne.

The authorities said it was most likely the largest peacetime maritime rescue operation in Australia’s history. It was also a symbol of a country in perpetual flight from danger during a catastrophic fire season — and the challenge the government faces in getting the blazes under control.

Searing heat and afternoon winds propelled fires over large swaths of Australia on Saturday, adding to the devastation of a deadly fire season that has now claimed 23 lives. Thousands of people have been evacuated, while many towns and cities under threat were still smoldering from ferocious blazes that ripped through the countryside earlier in the week.

More than 12 million acres have burned so far, an area larger than Switzerland, and the damage is expected to only get worse in the extremely arid conditions that are allowing the fires to spread. The fires are also so hot and so large that they are creating their own weather patterns, which can worsen the conditions.

Jill Rose cooled off her alpacas in Tomerong, in the Australian state of New South Wales, as fire approached on Saturday.
Credit…Matthew Abbott for The New York Times

With more than a month still to go in the fire season, the government announced on Saturday a large-scale use of military assets, a deployment not seen since World War II, experts say. About 3,000 army reservists, along with aircraft and naval ships, are being made available to help with the evacuation and firefighting efforts.

“The government has not taken this decision lightly,” said Defense Minister Linda Reynolds. “It is the first time that reserves have been called out in this way in living memory.”

In anticipation of the bad conditions on Saturday, thousands of people were evacuated, largely from communities along the southeastern coast, where the towns swell with tourists during the summer. Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced that a third Australian Navy ship, the Adelaide, would be used to evacuate people.

Mr. Morrison, who has been widely criticized for his response to the fires, had resisted a major intervention by the national government, saying firefighting has traditionally been the domain of the individual states. He has also minimized the link between global warming and the extreme conditions that have fueled the fires.

The states and their overwhelmingly volunteer force of fire fighters in rural areas have been stretched and depleted by a season that started earlier and has been especially ferocious. While Australia has long dealt with bushfires, a yearslong drought and record-breaking temperatures have made for a more volatile and unpredictable season.

The Bureau of Meteorology reported that the western Sydney suburb of Penrith, which reached a high of 48.9 degrees Celsius, or 120 degrees Fahrenheit, was the hottest place in the country on Saturday. Last month Australia recorded its warmest day across the continent.

Credit…Australian Maritime Safety Authority, via Reuters

As climate change worsens, scientists are predicting that the fires will become more frequent and more intense.

John Blaxland, a professor at the Strategic and Defense Studies Centre at the Australian National University, said the country had not seen a seen a catastrophe on this scale, affecting so many people in so many different locations since Australia became independent in 1901.

With other obligations in the Pacific and South East Asia, the military was not necessarily staffed to handle a looming climate crisis, he said. “If this is the new normal, then that model is broken,” he said.

Officials on Saturday said one major fire had crossed from the state of Victoria north into New South Wales and was spreading quickly. Fire-generated thunderstorms have appeared over blazes in two different places. Emergency workers were using cranes and air tankers to fight the fires, as winds moving up the coast were causing some of the blazes to merge.

The fires are blazing ferociously along Australia’s eastern coast, as well as South Australia, Tasmania and parts of Western Australia.

In southern Australia, fire tore through a popular nature reserve known for its koala bears, sea lions and other wildlife, killing a man and his grown son.

In towns along the southwest coast between Melbourne and Sydney shops closed, power was cut and the authorities went door to door ordering evacuations.

Credit…Matthew Abbott for The New York Times

In Nowra, a coastal town two hours south of Sydney, the sky went dark, the air filled with choking smoke.

At a lawn-bowling club transformed into an evacuation center, people strapped on gas masks, while dogs barked frantically. A chaplain ministered to the anxious.

“There’s nowhere safe,” said Liddy Lant, a hospital cleaner still in her uniform who had fled from her home on Saturday. “I could seriously just sit down and cry.”

The Fire Commissioner of the Rural Fire Service in New South Wales, Shane Fitzsimmons, told reporters on Saturday that more than 148 active fires were burning in his state alone, with 12 at an emergency level. Further south, in Victoria, the authorities counted more than 50 active fires.

“This is not a bushfire,” Andrew Constance, the transport minister in New South Wales, told ABC radio. “It’s an atomic bomb.”

For Australia’s wildlife, the toll has been incalculable. About 87 percent of Australia’s wildlife is endemic to the country, which means it can only be found on this island continent.

Credit…Matthew Abbott for The New York Times

And a great many of those species, like the koala, the southern brown bandicoot and the long-footed potoroo, have populations living in the regions now being obliterated by the fires. Because the fires this season have been so intense and consumed wetlands as well as dry eucalyptus forests, there are few places many of these animals can seek refuge.

“We’ve never seen fires like this, not to this extent, not all at once, and the reservoir of animals that could come and repopulate the areas, they may not be there,” said Jim Radford, a research fellow at La Trobe University in Melbourne.

At the evacuation center in Nowra, about a hundred people sought cover throughout the day. Children chased each other around as paramedics strapped oxygen masks onto elderly residents.

Ms. Lant, 71, said she received an emergency alert on Saturday afternoon telling her to evacuate immediately from North Nowra. She ran home to fetch her dog Kaiser and her bird. Her cat had fled. Firefighters were knocking on doors telling her neighbors to leave. Her brother is in Mallacoota, the town where residents are being evacuated by the navy.

“I’ve just had it,” she said.

At the next table, the Barwick family and their two dogs were waiting as they had for days. Although their home in Worrigee was not in the direct line of fire, they had arrived here on Tuesday night, having lived through a bushfire in 2017.

Their two children had been traumatized by that experience. Back then, they had to flee the approaching flames, spending hours on the beach.

“I don’t need them seeing the plumes again,” said Daniel Barwick. “I’m just trying to protect them as much as possible.”

People evacuated from the coastal town of Mallacoota by the Australian Navy arrived in the port of Hastings on Saturday morning.
Credit…Pool photo by Ian Currie

As people disembarked the naval ships in Hastings on Saturday, emergency service workers offered emotional support and premade sandwiches. Buses then took them either to Melbourne or a relief center in the nearby town of Somerville, where many would be picked up by friends and relatives.


Australia fires: Military to be deployed to help rescue effort

Australian military aircraft and vessels will be deployed to help emergency services in the fire-ravaged states of New South Wales (NSW) and Victoria.

Thousands of people fled to beaches in the south-eastern states on Tuesday as emergency-level fires spread.

In Mallacoota, Victoria, about 4,000 people sought shelter on the coast.

Two more people have been confirmed dead in NSW, bringing the fire-linked death toll to 12.

Authorities say four people are missing in Victoria and another in NSW.

“We’ve got literally hundreds, thousands of people up and down the coast, taking refuge on the beaches,” said Shane Fitzsimmons, commissioner of the NSW Rural Fire Service.

Mr Fitzsimmons said it was “the worst fire season we have experienced here in NSW”.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Defence Minister Linda Reynolds have agreed to send military aircraft and vessels at the request of the Victorian government.

Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison, pictured here on 23 December, flying over bushfires in an Australian Defence Force helicopter in NSWImage copyrightGETTY IMAGES
Image captionPM Scott Morrison flies over bushfires in NSW on 23 December

The Australian Defence Force will send Black Hawk and Chinook helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft and navy vessels to Victoria and NSW, the two worst-affected regions.

The military is expected to provide humanitarian assistance and carry out evacuations if needed in the coming days.

The US and Canada have also been asked to provide “specialist aviation resources” to help the emergency effort.

In his New Year message, Mr Morrison hailed the “amazing spirit of Australians” but warned that the weeks and months ahead would “continue to be difficult”.

The bodies of the latest victims – a 63-year-old man and his 29-year-old son – were found near the town of Corbargo in NSW.

Police said the men, named as Robert Salway and his son Patrick by Australian media, had stayed behind to protect their family home, where their bodies were found on Tuesday.

In Mallacoota, the local fire service said a change in wind direction had taken the worst of the fires away from the town.

“I understand there was a public cheer down at the jetty when that was announced,” said chief officer Steve Warrington.

People in Mallacoota evacuated to the beaches under a deep-red skyImage copyrightPETER HOSKIN
Image captionLocals were left sheltering on the beach at Mallacoota on Tuesday morning

About a dozen “emergency-level” blazes stretch across NSW and Victoria.

Several holiday spots along the coast have been cut off and the main road in the region – the Princes Highway – has been closed.

At midnight on Tuesday, Sydney’s A$6m (£3.1m; $4.2m) fireworks display, renowned worldwide, went ahead despite calls for it to be cancelled given the scale of the bushfire crisis.

Temperatures exceeded 40C (104F) in every state and territory at the start of the week, with strong winds and lightning strikes bolstering the flames.

Meteorologists say a climate system in the Indian Ocean, known as the dipole, is the main driver behind the extreme heat in Australia.

What has happened in Mallacoota?

Residents fled to the beach or took up shelter in fortified homes when they heard the warning siren go off at 08:00 local time on Tuesday.

A primary-school aged Australian boy wears a mask and life vest in a in a boat on Mallacoota lake after his family fled into the water to escape the bushfire threatening the town on 31 December 2019Image copyrightABC NEWS
 One woman shared this picture of her young son wearing a mask and life jacket as the family fled on to a boat to escape the blaze at Mallacoota

“It should have been daylight but it was black like midnight and we could hear the fire roaring,” said David Jeffrey, a local business owner. “We were all terrified for our lives.”

The fire was kept back from the shore, where firefighters had gathered for a last line of defence, by the change in wind.

Victoria’s state emergency commissioner Andrew Crisp told reporters there were “4,000 people on the beach”.

Many of those trapped on the beach could be forced to spend the night there.

Fire chief Warrington said there had been “significant property losses” across the entire East Gippsland region in the past days.

Authorities said bushfire had destroyed 43 properties in Gippsland, where more than 400,000 hectares have been burned.

Hundreds of massive blazes have destroyed millions of hectares in the eastern states of Australia since September.

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Residents in the NSW holiday towns of Bermagui and Batemans Bay also fled on Tuesday morning to the waterfront or makeshift evacuation sites near the shore.

Locals evacuated to the beach at Bateman's Bay in New South WalesImage copyrightALASTAIR PRIOR
Image captionResidents of Batemans Bay in NSW also headed to the water for safety

Locals told the BBC they had “bunkered in” as the front approached, raining ash on the beaches.

“It was bloody scary. The sky went red, and ash was flying everywhere,” said Zoe Simmons in Batemans Bay.

Media captionResidents have taken shelter on beaches to escape the flames

A “freakish weather event” killed a volunteer firefighter on Sunday, according to the NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS). He was the third volunteer firefighter to have died.

Samuel McPaul, 28, was a newlywed who was expecting his first child. Powerful winds near the NSW-Victoria border – generated by the fires – lifted his 10-tonne truck off the ground and flipped it over, the service said.


Orange sky over Merimbula, NSW, Australia

For many Australians, the final days of 2019 have been a tense and worrying time. The smoke hanging in the sky day after day is a constant reminder of communities on fire.

Some are staying inside to avoid the thick, acrid smoke, while others are cancelling holidays or taking long detours to avoid roadblocks.

Here in Merimbula, on the New South Wales coast, the sun has been blotted out, casting a deep orange haze in the sky. People on the street are describing it as apocalyptic.

The smoke is now so thick it’s almost impossible to drive. The ground is blanketed in ash and supermarkets are packed with people stocking up with supplies.

Holidaymakers should be swimming and hiking today, but they’re checking into evacuation centres or planning escape routes.

Media captionFirefighter in New South Wales sheltered in their truck as it was overrun by flames

Biodiversity Task Force of South East Europe’s role

Biodiversity Task Force of South East Europe’s role amid changing context of nature conservation
Alongside many activities within the regional projects in the field of environment, biodiversity and climate change Germany’s development cooperation fosters the collaboration  in a new format in the Western Balkan. Under the auspices of the Regional Cooperation Council’s (RCC) Working Group on Environment, the Biodiversity Task Force of South East Europe (BDTF SEE) was established end of 2017 for technical and advisory support in the territory at the gates of the European Union.

The BDTF SEE works on integration of biodiversity concerns into developmental goals. The interdependence of actors from different levels will be inevitable for achieving the 2050 vision of living in harmony with nature. The anniversary and the reflection on the changes so far come ahead of significant milestones in the timeline for the environment sector, particularly for combating biodiversity loss and its conservation.

The year 2020 marks a milestone in terms of biodiversity and development globally, thus also in South East Europe. The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) with its 20 Aichi targets covers the period until 2020, the six targets of the European Union’s Biodiversity Strategy are set until 2020 and the RCC also adopted the South East Europe Strategy with its Dimension J on Environment until 2020.

Cooperation among stakeholders remains the central point for steering biodiversity conservation and nature protection.

What led to the creation of the Biodiversity Task Force?

In response to the global loss of biodiversity and the agreement of the international community to increase efforts in achieving targets of the strategic plan for biodiversity until 2020, Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) commissioned the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit GmbH (GIZ) to support SEE in its effort to fulfil international obligations for the preservation of biodiversity. The GIZ/Open Regional Fund for South-East Europe, ORF in short, begun a three-year regional project on biodiversity – ORF BD in 2015. In 2018, it was followed by the new ORF – Implementation of Biodiversity Agreements (ORF BDU) to last until 2021.

Chair of BDTF Shpresa Harasani

BDTF biodiversity GIZ ORF BDUWe all live on Earth and share it. By looking in detail at all of its constituent elements, we will better understand its great values. Due to the wide range and unique integration between plant communities and habitat types, the Western Balkans have an extraordinary wealth of diversity.

Biodiversity is the foundation of ecosystem services closely related to human well-being. Regional cooperation priorities and biodiversity protection initiatives can only be addressed through a comprehensive approach that extends far beyond the borders of the region. It is the primary target for the BDTF SEE. Respect for the boundaries of nature should be the basic principle for economic progress.

The Regional Cooperation Council organized the 9th Meeting of the Regional Working Group on Environment in Tirana on July 2. Chairing the BDTF SEE, Albania took part in the meeting with a presentation on the activities and regional priorities for 2020. The main purpose was the contribution of the regional dimension coordinators.

The agenda faces numerous challenges toward 2030. BDTF will have an ambitious task to address the alarming rate of biodiversity loss, the increasing impact of climate change and the overconsumption of natural resources.

The previous ORF BD, as well as the current ORF BDU, seek to establish strategic partnerships with regional stakeholders and create alliances with structures and initiatives working in the field in order to build on existing national, regional and international commitments of parties and expedite progress with joint efforts. The Regional Office for Eastern Europe and Central Asia of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN ECARO) and the World Wide Fund for Nature’s Adria complement the projects in the region along with other sectoral biodiversity-benefiting and biodiversity-impacting projects of GIZ portfolio in South East Europe. They provided a solid foundation and allowed fast-forward movement on the establishment of the BDTF SEE. In particular, the IUCN ECARO project Towards Strengthened Conservation Planning in South-Eastern Europe, funded by MAVA Foundation, aims to lift standards by supporting institutional development and creating a policy-oriented regional platform.

Members nominate BD TF’s focal points and deputy focal points with expertise in biodiversity and related intervention fields

The RCC Secretariat proposed the establishment of a biodiversity task force in December 2016. Another meeting was held next June in Belgrade and the BDTF terms of reference were endorsed two months after that. The constitutional event was organised on November 14, 2017, also in Serbia’s capital city.

The BDTF SEE was acknowledged three days later by the Ministerial Declaration on the occasion of the Second High-Level Panel on the Environment and Climate Action during the Bonn Conference of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

The BDTF SEE is composed of focal points and deputy focal points with expertise in biodiversity and related intervention fields, nominated by governments of Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo*, Montenegro, Serbia and North Macedonia. IUCN ECARO acts as the BDTF SEE Secretariat.

Regional initiatives 2017-2019 supported by BDTF

Although the SEE governments have developed policy and legal frameworks for the conservation of biodiversity, the operational implementation is lagging behind. The BDTF SEE is centered on themes of integrating ecosystem services assessment and valuation (ESAV) into development planning, enhancement of biodiversity information management and reporting (BIMR) systems, dialogue with parliamentary groups and committees in the region on biodiversity-relevant topics and, last but not least, strengthening of the regional network of 14 biodiversity-related civil society organizations – BioNET.

Capacity-building modules, case studies, formulated regional policy documents and recommendations demonstrate how biodiversity contributes to the political economy and inclusive governance in the region. Major focus of the ESAV was to strengthen capacities of institutions, organizations and individuals in the region for emerging the concept of ESAV, to enable them to apply the region-relevant tools and methodologies in their daily work. A stepwise approach, including training of trainers, is implemented to guide participants from various institutions, using best practices worldwide.

Followup actions cover the development of further guidelines on the application of ESAV into decision making and region-tailored ESAV curricula.

The list of endemic taxa and the regional recommendation paper were endorsed by the BDTF SEE to further enhance BIMR

Two innovative pilot case studies have been conducted – Streams of Income and Jobs: The Economic Significance of the Neretva and Trebišnjica River Basins, and Integrating Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services Assessment and Valuation in Bosut Forests area. The cross-cutting approach enabled the BDTF SEE to summarize the current state of knowledge on ESAV in SEE and bring in new case studies and regional recommendations for the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) regional assessment and presentation at 7th IPBES Plenary.

Limits in technical capacities including data standards and systems resulted in vertical and horizontal information loss and high inefficiency. The work was carried by the complementary BIMR regional scientific platform. BIMR brings the evidence-based approach forward and finds common ground for improved data management and reporting. The detailed participatory baseline assessments were undertaken to analyse the current stakeholders’ situation, policy, legal and institutional framework as well as information system set-up in the region. They were followed by the development and adoption of BIMR regional guidelines, aiming to improve existing systems in managing data and reporting on species diversity, ecosystems and genetic diversity. They were piloted via information systems for nature conservation in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and North Macedonia.

The list of endemic taxa and the regional recommendation paper were endorsed by the BD TF to further enhance BIMR. A focused partnership with the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) and later with the Distributed System of Scientific Collections (DiSSCo) provide mutual benefits and certainly add value to the emerging BD TF and BIMR science-policy interface.

A position paper with a primary focus on the EU Biodiversity Strategy 2020 was produced by BioNET to assist in biodiversity conservation as part of the EU accession process. In coordination with the BDTF SEE, the gender-based review of key national biodiversity-related strategies and reports was carried out by the group.

The BDTF SEE is initiating the discussion with other relevant regional platforms globally on a strategy to integrate the regional perspective and cooperation mechanisms in the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework

Initiating transformative changes and reforms

The regional findings, case studies, recommendations along with region-specific know-how were summarized by the BDTF SEE and contributed to the Post-2020 process, started within the regional position paper to the High-Level Segment and side-event at the CBD Fourteen Conference of Parties (CoP 14), and followed by regional contribution to First Open-ended Working Group meeting, side-event at Twenty Third Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice (SBSTTA 23) and set of relevant processes on finances for biodiversity.

Furthermore, the BDTF SEE is initiating the discussion with other relevant regional platforms globally on a strategy to integrate the regional perspective and cooperation mechanisms in the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework.

From regional cooperation to regional policies

The overarching strategy to catalyse cooperation for biodiversity is following a multi-actor approach involving political decision makers, scientific experts and social opinion leaders. Ultimately, coherence is created among the peers enabling debate among the different stakeholders.

Cooperation is based on different principles, like sharing experiences or achieving a common goal, meeting accession criteria for joining the EU.

Director of IUCN’s Regional Office for Eastern Europe and Central Asia Boris Erg


With all the benefits and opportunities triggered by regional cooperation, it comes as no surprise the traction the SEE Biodiversity Task Force has gained in the first few years of its existence. There is a strong sense of ownership with participating economies about this regional process and readiness to operationalize it to its full capacity, including positioning it at the centre of regional discussions on the post-2020 framework and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Therefore, at the policy level, the BDTF SEE agreed a set of common regional priorities and to enhance capacities for mainstreaming biodiversity concerns into the development planning. This includes moving from the uni-sectoral to the multi-sectoral cooperation, cost-effective budgeting and finances of biodiversity, as well as communication and outreach.

The call for new associated members is open-ended. Agencies, organizations, bodies and individuals are encouraged to apply.

The assistance in meeting the criteria of chapter 27 – environment of the EU acquis is contributing to the common effort in fulfilling relevant criteria for joining

Inherent is the idea of creating an overarching responsibility by expanding regional cooperation. Especially in the context of biodiversity, joint efforts are needed to curb environmental changes which negatively impact our and future generations’ opportunities for economic, social and cultural development.

Changing context of nature conservation

Consequently, the ORF BDU serves the six economies’ needs regarding the fulfilment of the international and EU-relevant obligations towards preservation of biodiversity. Thereby, the promotion of peer-to-peer learning and the creation of exchange platforms support knowledge sharing. The assistance in meeting the criteria of chapter 27 – environment of the EU acquis is contributing to the common effort in fulfilling relevant criteria for joining EU.

Therefore, an approach allowing learning from experiences from within the region, promoting a strong partner dialog, as well as strengthening individual and institutional capacities is needed. It facilitates not only the regional cooperation for its own sake, but it supports the whole Western Balkan region in fulfilling obligations for the EU accession as well.

Regional cooperation might be a transformative change, but it is essential for curbing  biodiversity collapse and halt loss. And in any case, an understanding and practice of cooperative collaboration are beneficial for being part of a community of states on a European level.

Ex-chair of BDTF Vlatko Trpeski

biodiversity ORF BDUNature doesn’t recognise borders. Rivers flow from country to country and migratory birds are here today but hundreds of kilometers away tomorrow. Only through coordinated efforts and pooling of resources we can help to protect our natural heritage. This is precisely the aim of the BDTF SEE.

While I chaired BDTF, one of the biggest achievements was at a side event on the frame of COP 14 of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity held in Egypt in November 2018, with the title Capitalizing on Regional Cooperation for Post-2020 Dialogue. Catalysing ideas on the role of regional cooperation in the implementation of the Aichi Biodiversity Targets and in shaping the agenda helped mobilize resources towards the Post-2020 Biodiversity Framework.

BDTF will continue to work on implementation of actions from the EU Green Deal, which aims to transform it into a fair and prosperous society, with a modern, resource-efficient and competitive economy where there are no net emissions of greenhouse gases in 2050 and where economic growth is decoupled from resource use. It aims to protect, conserve and enhance the natural capital and protect citizens from environment-related risks and impacts.


Photo: BDTF
( * This designation is without prejudice to positions on status and is in line with UNSCR 1244/99 and the ICJ Opinion on the Kosovo declaration of independence.)