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Environment

Alberta energy war room must avoid online morass, preaching to choir: experts

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CALGARY — Tzeporah Berman only learned of her cameo appearance at an Alberta government news conference about its so-called energy war room after a flood of nasty messages.

Industry advocate Robbie Picard held a poster calling the prominent environmentalist an “enemy of the oilsands” as he introduced Premier Jason Kenney at the Calgary event.

Berman says dozens of violent, sexist social media messages and a few frightening voicemails followed.

“The idea of putting someone’s face on a poster and holding it up at a government press conference — I’ve never seen that before,” says the longtime opponent of oilsands expansion and international program director at Stand.Earth, a grassroots environmental group.

The Kenney government aims to get its $30-million Calgary-based war room running this summer. The goal, Kenney has said, is to fight against what he calls a foreign-funded “campaign of lies and defamation” that he says has caused economic hardship by landlocking Alberta crude.

Kenney has said one measure of the war room’s success would be improved public opinion about pipelines and resource development. Political observers say that requires crafting messages that resonate outside Alberta while avoiding social media mudslinging or preaching to the choir.

Kenney spokeswoman Christine Myatt says personal threats and abuse are never acceptable and urges those who disagree with Berman to do so respectfully.

Picard, who runs the Oilsands Strong Facebook page, says unleashing abuse was not the intention of singling out Berman, but he added “professional protesters” like her should be held to account at a time when Alberta is struggling.

“There’s people in Alberta who are losing everything.”

Aside from the potential for online vitriol, the war room is problematic because the focus should be on tackling climate change, Berman says. 

“He’s wasting precious time,” she says of Kenney.

Many details, including who will lead the war room, remain to be fleshed out. Kenney has said it’s to use a mixture of advertising, publicity and social media and that staff will be able to fire volleys without having to wait hours or days for approval.

The premier feels the soft-power approach of the past has not worked.

“There’s been this notion, amongst many in the Canadian energy industry, that if we just keep our heads down and try not to be noticed and be low-profile and defensive, that somehow those organizations will walk away and focus maybe on Saudi Arabia or Russia or Venezuela,” Kenney said at the news conference.

“The weakness has been an invitation for an increasingly aggressive and increasingly dishonest campaign.”

Mount Royal University political scientist David Taras says the war room, by its very nature, is set up for conflict and that creates pitfalls.

“Give someone a hammer and they’re going to find something to hammer. Sometimes the best policy is not to respond. Sometimes the best policy is to allow someone else to respond. Sometimes the best policy is just to listen to others and watch the debate unfold,” he says.

“You can’t be drawn into the morass of the internet. You have to be able to speak on behalf of Albertans in a way that Albertans can be proud of.”

Pollster Janet Brown says she hopes the war room will do some public opinion research early and tailor its message accordingly.

The focus should be on those not firmly entrenched in either the pro- or anti-oil camps, she says.

“If they take messages that make perfect sense to Albertans and just assume they’re going to make sense to other Canadians … that could be problematic.”

Brown says the war room would be wise to avoid Twitter, where few minds can be changed, and focus its social media resources elsewhere — such as paid YouTube ads.

“If the war room is just spending their time on Twitter being outrageous, it will probably work in the favour of Greenpeace,” Brown says.

Berman says her group has seen more people wanting to donate in recent days, and she and her colleagues are looking to incorporate more compassion into their climate change messaging.

“We have, to a certain extent, been too simplistic or careless about the changes that need to happen. They are going to be hard and it’s not easy,” she says. 

“I understand when Albertans don’t want outsiders telling them what to do.”

Lauren Krugel, The Canadian Press


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Environment

Off Canada’s East Coast, a hunt to detect ‘beautiful’ great white sharks

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great white shark

HALIFAX — The great white sharks move torpedo-like through East Coast waters, cruelly efficient hunters with multiple rows of serrated teeth devouring seals and other prey.

But the “fascinating” creatures are themselves being closely watched by international teams of scientists who are attempting to document their apparent renaissance in the northwest Atlantic.

“We are seeing signs the conservation measures we’re taking are giving the animals a chance and enabling a comeback,” says Frederick Whoriskey, a marine biologist and ecologist at Dalhousie University.

“But we don’t have the numbers (of their abundance) yet.”

At her lab in Halifax’s Bedford Institute of Oceanography, Heather Bowlby, research lead at the federal Canadian Atlantic Shark Research Laboratory, is attempting to remedy that.

She’s preparing an expedition for early August to build on the scant knowledge of these elusive creatures’ lives in Atlantic Canadian waters.

Her three-person team will pull alongside the animals and rapidly attach a tag that records information, a potentially dangerous task given their immense power.

The work is worth the effort, she says.

“As a top predator, if the population can increase it suggests the ecosystem is healthy enough to support them, which is very important.”

The biologist says there’s been “a definite increase in sightings” since fishing rules of the past decade protected animals caught on long lines and in weirs.

Records go back over a century — complete with annotations such as an 1873 entry from a St. Pierre Bank, N.L., fisherman remarking, “teeth in dory.”

However, the federal Fisheries Department’s partnership with American researcher Gregory Skomal, of the Massachusetts division of marine fisheries, and the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, will provide more reliable information.

Skomal’s group is preparing a population estimate in his area, where there’s evidence of what scientists refer to as a “hot spot” of sharks at various stages of life feasting on abundant seals off Cape Cod.

“It seems to be their first stop on the highway on the drive from Florida to Canada, where you can find a pretty good meal,” Skomal explains in a telephone interview from his office.

His team’s survey tags an animal and then returns to that area to see how many others are spotted or captured, before recapturing one of the original sharks from the prior visits.

“We have to come up with that number for Cape Cod and then we can take a hard look at what proportion of our animals move into Canadian waters,” the American researcher explains.

Skomal says so far his team has identified and tagged roughly 20 great whites — out of about 170 tagged in the area — that are prone to northward journeys over the five year study in his zone.

In anticipation of their arrival off Nova Scotia, Bowlby’s team has access to arrays of acoustic stations listening for their “ping” over this summer and fall.

She tagged one great white herself last year off the Nova Scotia coast, nicknamed “North.”

The data gathered on the sharks’ trips, the depths they went to and surrounding water temperatures may give Bowlby data on their preferred habitat.

So far, she’s noting the sharks are appearing to search along the coasts for prey and are in both deep and shallow water, and often near the surface.

Still, one of the questions bothering some experts is why great whites are seldom detected by acoustic arrays near Sable Island, where thousands of seals make their home.

Whoriskey’s “speculation” is the grey seals are forming social units that can fight off one of their deadliest enemies.

Meanwhile, a non-profit group that’s made some great white sharks into household names in Nova Scotia has applied for a permit to conduct a return visit off Cape Breton from Sept. 13 to Oct. 4.

Last fall, teams from the Ocearch research vessel MV Ocearch caught and tagged satellite transmitters of seven great whites off Lunenburg and Halifax.

The animals are given Twitter names such as “Hal” and thousands of people follow them on the organization’s online global shark tracker, effectively becoming cheerleaders for great whites’ apparent comeback.

Bob Hueter, Ocearch’s chief science adviser and a shark biologist at Florida’s Mote Marine Laboratory, says his group’s research is showing the wide range of the great white sharks from southern Florida to the Cabot Strait.

“A good proportion we’ve tagged since 2012 have gone to Atlantic Canada waters and have spent time in Nova Scotia,” he said in a telephone interview.

He says his group’s goal is to have fully tagged 60 sharks of various sizes and ages from Florida to Nova Scotia and to track their movements and habitats.

For Bowlby, the end game is greater knowledge on habitat, feeding habits and even shark nursing grounds — though so far none have been found — leading to better informed policy decisions.

For example, if the sharks are once again consuming seals in large numbers, this data can affect policy decisions on permitting a cull of the massive herds.

In addition, there is the curiosity — even awe — over how one of the ocean’s great animals behave in their lifetimes.

“They’re beautiful, they’re fascinating, they’re graceful, they’re powerful. They’re amazing animals,” the scientist says.

— Follow (at)mtuttoncporg on Twitter.

Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press


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Environment

Lyme-spreading ticks so common thanks to mild winters, some places stop testing

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Lyme infected ticks becoming common in Canada

OTTAWA — Lyme disease has settled so deeply into parts of Canada many public health units now just assume if you get bitten by a tick, you should be treated for Lyme disease.

In Ottawa, where more than two-thirds of the ticks tested in some neighbourhoods carry the bacteria that causes Lyme disease, the public-health unit no longer bothers to test ticks at all.

Dr. Vera Etches, the unit’s top doctor, said that in 2016 and 2017 more than one-fifth of black-legged ticks tested in Ottawa came back positive for Lyme.

“That’s a threshold,” she said. “Once you know that more than 20 per cent of the ticks in your area carry Lyme disease bacteria then we don’t need to check in on that. That is what we now call an ‘at-risk area.’ “

That means if a tick is found on a person, and is believed to have been there for more than 24 hours, then the patient should get antibiotics to prevent Lyme infection, even without any testing of the tick. It takes 24 hours before bacteria in the tick’s gut move to its salivary glands and are transferred to a person.

After three days, the preventive treatment won’t work so patients then wait for symptoms or enough time for antibodies to evolve to show up on a test. It can take more than a month before symptoms appear. They’re mostly similar to the effects of influenza, including fever and aches, as well as — usually but not always — a rash. It typically takes just about as long for the immune system’s antibodies to show up on a lab test.

If left untreated, Lyme disease can cause serious illnesses such as meningitis, but Etches is quick to point out that because it is caused by a bacteria, it’s treatable with drugs.

“It’s a good-news story, actually, that there is antibiotics that work to treat Lyme disease,” she said.

Most public-health offices in Canada used to test ticks submitted by the public, as well as conducting their own surveillance by actively seeking out tick populations and testing them. Some, including Ottawa’s, have decided now that Lyme is endemic, they should shift to public education and prevention as well as treatment.

Lyme disease was named after the town of Lyme, Conn., where the first case was diagnosed in 1975. It is caused by bacteria that are traded back and forth among black-legged ticks and migratory birds and small mammals like mice and chipmunks. Ticks bite birds and small mammals infected with the bacteria and get infected and then spread the disease when they bite their next victims.

Before 10 years ago, most of the cases diagnosed in Canada were in people bitten by ticks while travelling in the United States. But climate change has led to southern Canada seeing milder winters, which means the ticks that migrate to Canada on the backs of migratory birds are now surviving the winter in larger numbers, spreading the Lyme-causing bacteria more rapidly.

Canada started keeping track of Lyme disease cases in 2009, when 144 cases were confirmed or considered probable. Only 79 of those cases were believed to have been contracted in Canada.

In 2017, more than 1,400 cases were confirmed or probable across the country, more than two-thirds of them in Ontario and most of them believed to have been contracted locally.

National statistics for 2018 are not yet available but in Ontario, the number actually fell significantly, from 967 in 2017 to 612 in 2018. Etches said that was because 2018 was hotter and drier than 2017, and ticks thrive in wet, cool weather.

A 2014 study by the National Collaborating Centre for Infectious Diseases at the University of Manitoba suggested the Lyme-carrying ticks are expanding their territory by about 46 km a year, an expectation being borne out in health units’ mapping

In 2017 and 2018, Point Pelee National Park near Windsor, Ont., was considered to be an at-risk region but the rest of Windsor-Essex County in Ontario’s southernmost tip was not. In 2019, almost all of the county has been added as an at-risk area.

In 2017 all of Nova Scotia was declared to be at risk for Lyme Disease.

In New Brunswick, six of 15 counties were declared at-risk as of 2018.

There are also at-risk areas for Lyme in southern Manitoba, northwestern Ontario, British Columbia and Quebec. While some cases of Lyme have been found in the other four provinces, the numbers are very low and mostly contracted elsewhere.

Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press

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