THE BLOG

Die-offs: The Biggest News That Isn't News

04/15/2008 01:38 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

This week's pop news quiz: define "die-off?" Doesn't ring a bell? You're not keeping up then.

Die-offs are big in the news these days. Oops, that is not quite true. Die-offs are not big in the news these days. And that is big news. Or at least it would be if the stories that made big headlines were the ones about events that will have the biggest impact on the lives of the most people.

The week's lead die-off is among the salmon out here on the West Coast. On April 11, all commercial and recreational salmon fishing was forbidden for the year for the entire coast of California and Oregon. In the past a move like this would have triggered an angry war of words of fishermen vs. environmentalists, sportsmen vs. state agencies, indigenous peoples vs. everyone else. But now there is just an eerie silence. Why? Because there is nothing to argue over. So many salmon have "died off," it's all irrelevant. It is as if the battle between logging companies and environmentalists over old growth forests was suddenly silenced by the discovery that the forests were simply no longer there.

The closure has no precedent. It is the first total closure of a fishery since commercial fishing started in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1848.

Most unsettling of all is that no one knows exactly why the salmon have died. Over 40 possible causes, including global warming, urban run-off, and diversion of freshwater for agriculture have been suggested. Most likely, the die-off is the result of a complex interplay of many factors and that the exact role of each will never be fully identified. Maybe shutting down fishing will help and the salmon will return over a period of years. Maybe not. No one knows.

Meanwhile, Chile, the coast of which contains the major salmon fishery on the southern end of the western edge of the Pacific Ocean, has just shut down its salmon fishery due to another massive die-off there, believed to be caused by viruses spreading from farmed salmon to wild fish.

Back in the US, the northeast is meanwhile having its own die-off of bats. Estimates are that 250,000 bats could die this year, but really that is a wild guess. No one will ever know the real number. They are dying from something wildlife biologists are calling White Nose Syndrome, because all that is known is that their noses turn white before they die. Scientists still don't know whether this s the result of a virus, bacteria, toxin, environmental hazard, metabolic disorder or fungus.

The two salmon die-offs and the bat die-off join the well-publicized honeybee die-off that has been underway for over a year but is now becoming more acute. A meeting last week of farmers, food industry representatives, and scientists reviewed a year's worth of intensive research and found no answers. "We are truly facing an impending pollination crisis," said Rufus LaLone, an entomologist for Smucker's. Oregon beekeeper Eric Olson said, "There may not be any bees this time next year. I'm not kidding. It's that serious," Olson lost 4,000 of 13,000 hives over the winter.

The bee die-off is getting lots of attention because the U.S. Agriculture Department says one-third of the human diet comes from insect-pollinated plants, and the honeybee is responsible for 80 percent of that pollination. This month it was estimated that if the die-off continues at the present rate, in just two years it would take every honeybee left in America just to pollinate the almonds we now grow. Yet despite all the resources being thrown into research of what is now called Colony Collapse Disorder, no one knows what is killing the bees. Suggestions have included global warming, genetically-modified crops, the trucking of bees long distances, and many more.

Bats are less directly tied to the food chain, but the consequences of the bat die-off could be even greater.

The loss of bats may be an even worse concern than the loss of bees, which are exclusively tame and mass-raised -- over-stressed, over-bred, and grown to be over-sized. They're used to pollinate crops, especially ones that are not natural to the areas in which they're grown, such as almonds in California. Wild bees are doing just fine.

In contrast, the lost bats are all wild. They are the world's greatest insect eaters. A single nursing bat can eat half its weight in insects every day. A small brown bat can eat as many as 600 mosquitoes in an hour. The implications for agriculture are enormous. The spread of severe communicable diseases could be devastating.

though they do feed on insect pests and no one really knows what the consequences will be in the bats don't come back.

What all these die-offs have in common is that no one knows their cause. Other forms of life on our planet are being impacted by human society and its technology in so many complex and poorly understood ways that when they start dying off the knot of possible causes is such a mess we cannot even untangle it.

Take the frog die-off, which has been underway for years now across a vast geographic area. About a third of the 5,743 known species of frogs, toads and other amphibians are classified as threatened, according to the Global Amphibian Assessment survey. A year ago scientists in Costa Rica announced the disappearance of 17 amphibian species from Costa Rican jungles, warning monkey and reptile populations were also plummeting. The most likely suspect here is a fatal fungus that has spread as a result of global warming. But even in this case where the issue has been intensively researched for years, the cause is not yet proven.

So here we have a looming, imminent crisis in the food chain in America, and a full-blown catastrophe on the Pacific coast that has already shut down an entire industry and even an entire lifestyle. But the big animal news this week has been the duck Hillary Clinton allegedly shot, an event which is supposed to cement the connection between the former first lady, who made over $100 million since her husband left office, and the duck hunters of America.

And in case you are feeling chagrined at not having a definition of "die-off" ready at hand, you have good company. Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary gives us the following:

a sudden sharp decline of a population of animals or plants that is not caused directly by human activity. (emphasis added)