A species dubbed "the most important fish in the ocean" is quickly vanishing from the Atlantic, the Washington Post reports, even though people don't eat it. The menhaden (pictured) is too bony and oily for human tastes, but that doesn't stop us from catching it by the metric ton, grinding it into mush and feeding it to farm fish and livestock. Amid this mad dash for menhaden, the species' numbers have fallen by 80 percent in the last half century, and by 74 percent in the last 25 years.

That's not just a problem for fishing fleets or farm animals — menhaden plays a key role in Atlantic ecosystems, providing food for a variety of animals including tuna, king mackerel, swordfish, striped bass, bluefish, loons and eagles. "Menhaden is ecologically critical to the marine ecosystem along the East Coast," Bill Goldsborough, fisheries director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, tells the Post. "It's not much of an exaggeration to call it the most important fish in the sea. It's an essential link in the food chain." On top of feeding beloved saltwater fish and birds of prey, menhaden also eat phytoplankton that contribute to algae blooms and low-oxygen "dead zones," including the near-record dead zone that's choking the Chesapeake Bay this summer. Without menhaden, such dead zones could potentially grow even more disastrous. 

There were nearly 90 billion young menhaden in the Atlantic in the 1960s, a number that was down to 70 billion by the mid-'80s. Only 18 billion remain today, a decline widely blamed on a loosely regulated fishing industry — an industry led by Omega Protein, which made about 80 percent of the entire U.S. menhaden catch last year. Omega Protein will thus be watching closely Tuesday, when the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission will consider major cuts to the menhaden harvest for the first time in years. "It's impossible to imagine that reducing the menhaden stock so much has not had some negative impact," says Jay Odell of the Nature Conservancy. "Fisheries scholars differ on exactly what the cause and effect of the different changes are. But menhaden sit at the very base of the food chain, and scientists around the world are saying they need to be managed more conservatively."

(Sources: Washington Post, Baltimore Sun)


Rhinoceros horns are just keratin, the same material in fingernails and hair, but a mistaken belief that they have medicinal value has made them more valuable than gold in China and Vietnam. And as the AFP reports, that fallacy is now fueling a bloody battle in South Africa, where soldiers are mobilizing in Kruger National Park to fight armed poachers crossing the border from Mozambique. The military buildup began in April, and has already escalated into an elaborate war over wildlife.

"It's not just a poacher coming in and he's hunting for meat, or he comes in with his snares or he comes in with his darts to hunt with a hunting rifle," says Ken Maggs, a top investigator of environmental crimes in the park. "He's coming prepared to fight. Hence the tactics that we deploy on the ground are military, paramilitary." The poachers regularly sneak into Kruger at night with AK-47s and night-vision goggles, the AFP reports, and sometimes even write warnings to park rangers in the sand. The rangers are thus now backed up by South African soldiers, who conduct early-morning patrols through the bush. At least 15 poachers have already been killed in shootouts this year, while nine have been wounded and 64 arrested. 

Although the military presence has boosted violence in the park, it also seems to be working: After poachers killed a record 40 rhinos in Kruger in March, that number dropped to 30 in April as soldiers arrived, then continued falling to 15 in May and just two in June. That's welcome progress after 333 rhinos were poached in the park last year, and a big step toward protecting the last 4,838 black rhinos left on Earth. But it has also increased the pressure on white rhinos, which are more numerous and can be hunted legally with a permit. One recently arrested poacher was accused of smuggling 40 white rhino horns from South Africa, after he allegedly paid friends and even prostitutes to pose as hunters and obtain hunting licenses.

(Sources: Agence France-Presse, BusinessWeek)


Computer chips have been growing smaller and faster for decades, with designers roughly doubling the number of transistors per chip every two years. That has fueled a parade of constantly upgraded computers, smartphones and other electronic devices, but as the New York Times reports, reality may soon rain on that parade. It's not that more transistors can't be crammed into chips — it's just that doing so could yield chips that need too much power to operate economically, and have an increased risk of overheating.

"I don't think the chip would literally melt and run off of your circuit board as a liquid, though that would be dramatic," says Doug Burger, a Microsoft Research scientist and author of a study that details the problem. "But you'd start getting incorrect results and eventually components of the circuitry would fuse, rendering the chip inoperable." Presented recently at the International Symposium on Computer Architecture, Burger's study explains that even current microprocessor chips have so many transistors that some must be left unpowered so others can work — a tradeoff known as "dark silicon" in industry jargon. These chips will soon need 21 percent of their transistors to be dark at any given time, the study warns, and within a decade they could require up to half their transistors to switch off or risk overheating.

Does this mean the breakneck pace of computer-chip improvements is finally grinding to a halt? Could it be that computers and smartphones will no longer be rendered ancient by newer, faster versions every couple years? Possibly, although some experts suggest the improvements will only become more difficult, not impossible. According to William Dally, chief scientist at Nvidia and a computer scientist at Stanford University, "It is true that simply taking old processor architectures and scaling them won’t work anymore." Instead, he adds, "Real innovation is required to make progress today."

(Source: New York Times)


A lost penguin that nearly died after wandering 1,800 miles from home has been given the "all clear" by vets, the Melbourne Herald Sun reports, and may soon be on his way home after a historic ordeal that garnered global attention. Nicknamed "Happy Feet" after the Oscar-winning animated film about penguins, the bird could be returned to Antarctica by the end of August, according to officials at the Wellington Zoo.

Happy Feet was first discovered in June, when a woman walking her dog spotted him on a remote beach on New Zealand's North Island (pictured above) — only the second time an emperor penguin had ever been reported in the country. He was seen eating sand while wandering around the beach, presumably mistaking it for the snow that penguins normally eat in Antarctica as a way to get water. While wildlife officials were at first reluctant to intervene, they finally rescued Happy Feet when it became clear he would die without food. He was taken to the Wellington Zoo in critical condition, and vets had to repeatedly flush his stomach and perform an endoscopy to remove all the sand and sticks. He has since been recovering in a small, ice-filled room at the zoo, which is kept dark to mimic the limited winter sunshine he'll eventually experience when he returns home.

The operation to return Happy Feet to the wild will cost an estimated $30,000, the New Zealand Herald reports. He must first be transported from Wellington to Bluff either by air or refrigerated truck, and then moved beyond Stewart Island via fishing boat. From there, he'll be released to start his 1,800-mile swim home. It has also cost some $10,000 to keep him at the zoo, but officials have raised $18,000 in donations to cover those costs, and hope to raise another $22,000. Meanwhile, attendance at the zoo has increased by 50 percent since Happy Feet arrived, the Herald Sun reports.

(Sources: Melbourne Herald Sun, New Zealand Herald, Associated Press, Reuters)


Record flooding hits war-torn Vietnam, McDonald's ditches Styrofoam packaging, and more.

Russell McLendon

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Photo (menhaden): U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Photo (rhinoceros silhouettes at sunset): Miriam Poling/Flickr

Photo (closeup of computer chip): William Neuheisel/Flickr

Photo ("Happy Feet" in New Zealand in June): ZUMA Press

Russell McLendon ( @russmclendon ) writes about humans and other wildlife.

Daily Briefing: Mon. 8/1/2011
Key fish in crisis, rhino wars escalate, rescued penguin to be released, and more.