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The Hole Truth
Is the ozone layer on the mend? Perhaps.

Photo of this year's ozone hole On September 24, 2003, a news bulletin arrived from outer space. From the vantage of its 460-mile-high orbit, the satellite Earth Probe Total Ozone Mapping Spectrometer (TOMS) transmitted to the Goddard Space Flight Center a deceptively beautiful mosaic image that revealed the latest dimensions of the ozone hole over Antarctica. On that day, it measured 11.1 million square miles, the second-largest such hole ever recorded.

That sounds like bad news, but around the same time that the TOMS satellite beamed home its brilliant snapshots, a group of scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found reason for cautious optimism. Air samples from Barrow, Alaska, and Cape Grim, Tasmania, as well as other distant locales showed that levels of bromine, a compound that depletes ozone 45 times more efficiently than the chlorine in chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), have declined 5 percent over the last five years. The less bromine in the earth's lower atmosphere, the less damage done to the ozone layer in the stratosphere. "Based on our current knowledge, we are on course for recovery of ozone to pre-1980 levels sometime between 2040 and 2050," says Stephen Montzka, the study's lead researcher.

The reason for Montzka's upbeat forecast is simple: International efforts to control compounds that destroy ozone are working. The Montreal Protocol, adopted in 1987 and now ratified by 184 countries, regulates the release into the atmosphere of ozone-eating pollutants, including methyl bromide, a fumigant used to kill everything from fungi to furniture beetles. Since 1998, industrialized nations have cut the production of methyl bromide, a major source of the bromine, by more than 25 percent. A full phase-out is scheduled for January 1, 2005.

These signs are positive, but the ozone layer's future remains murky. It's hard to know, for instance, what effect greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide may have on ozone levels. By the year 2050, these pollutants may alter temperatures in the stratosphere in ways not yet understood. U. S. policy poses another problem: While the nation has cut methyl bromide consumption in half since 1991, it still uses about 11,000 tons annually -- more than any other country. Claiming there is no cost-effective substitute for the fumigant, the United States now wants to increase usage and has requested big exemptions from the Montreal Protocol's regulations.
-- Jill Davis

Fishy Business
Where $25,000 Can't Buy Free Speech

Coastal Alliance for Aquaculture Reform ad

Care for some poached pesticides and PCBs? According to the Coastal Alliance for Aquaculture Reform (CAAR), these are the secret, none-too-savory ingredients in British Columbia's farmed salmon, more than 75 percent of which is sold to seafood lovers in the United States. Recently, the group launched an ad campaign calling on Americans to stop buying farmed salmon and asking major U.S. grocery chains -- including Safeway, Kroger, and Whole Foods -- to stop selling it.

In October, the Los Angeles Times, citing "business concerns," refused to print the ad -- even for the agreed-upon $25,042 payment. "They told us they would run it if we took the names of the stores out," says Jennifer Lash, a project leader for CAAR. "But we don't believe this is how a newspaper should be run."

The New York Times had no such had no such qualms, however. It published the ad on page A20 on October 31. For more information on the aquaculture campaign, see
-- Molly M. Ginty

Photo of a shark fin

A new genetic test helps wildlife agents track down the real killers.

Mahmood Shivji, a geneticist and the director of a marine conservation research institute in Dania Beach, Florida, peered down at a container full of shark fins as wildlife agents from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration stood by expectantly. The fins had been confiscated from a North Carolina fishing vessel, but Shivji couldn't be sure, just by eyeballing them, which species they came from. "If it's just a piece of meat, it's almost impossible to tell," he explains. So Shivji clipped a fingernail-sized bit of the fins and took them back to his lab. Two days later, Shivji's DNA testing revealed that the bin contained the fins of both dusky and night sharks, two species off-limits to fishing under federal law. Forensic evidence in hand, the officers tracked down the boat owner and its operator and slapped the pair with a $27,000 fine.

This kind of genetic sleuthing wasn't possible until very recently. Shivji and his team developed the first easy-to-use genetic test just two years ago specifically to help wildlife officers crack down on the illegal trade in shark parts. A smidgen of shark meat (even dried flesh will do) and $75 to cover the cost of the test are all that's needed. "We tried hard to make this a test that could be used by any lab with even modest genetic technology," says Shivji, whose work was published in the journal Conservation Biology. More recently, his team developed a DNA test that can identify the flesh of great white sharks, which are protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endandered Species.

The demand for shark fin soup, which still drives much of the shark trade, should keep Shivji's test in high demand; a single basking shark fin, for example, can fetch $6,000 or more.
-- John C. Ryan

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Photos: top, courtesy of NASA; right, Mark Bowler

OnEarth. Winter 2004
Copyright 2003 by the Natural Resources Defense Council