Week of 7/17/2005

Dear EarthTalk: What has led to the decimation of the world"s seahorse populations, and is there any hope for saving them?

—Stefanie Young, Chappaqua, NY

Seahorse populations around the world have been in decline for decades due to habitat loss, the home aquarium trade, and unintentional capture by fishermen seeking shrimp and other seafood. More recently, though, their popularity as an ingredient in non-synthetic impotence formulas has pushed these tiny creatures with the spinning tales to the brink of extinction.

For centuries, practitioners of traditional medicine in Asia have recommended combining seahorse powder with herbs to treat impotence as well as respiratory ailments such as bronchitis and asthma. But during the late 1990s—perhaps not coincidentally following Pfizer"s introduction of Viagra—the international trade in seahorses jumped more than 75 percent. Indeed, millions of people throughout Asia and elsewhere are turning to compounds incorporating seahorse powder as a natural and inexpensive alternative to Viagra for curing impotence, despite mixed reports about its effectiveness.

Project Seahorse, which maintains offices in Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, Hong Kong and the Philippines, reports that more than 24 million seahorses are sold each year around the world for traditional medicinal purposes. The principal importers are China and Singapore. Meanwhile, millions of other seahorses continue to be bought and sold each year to stock aquariums around the world, further jeopardizing wild populations.

Currently all 34 known species of seahorses are listed as threatened under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), a global treaty signed by 166 countries. Under the treaty, businesses that engage in the seahorse trade are required to show that their actions do not jeopardize wild populations at risk. International seahorse traders now need permits, and a minimum size limit has been imposed to guarantee that juvenile members of populations can reproduce.

Nonetheless, keeping tabs on the international seahorse trade and prosecuting violators is a major undertaking. Project Seahorse coordinates a network of marine conservation organizations—including Chicago"s Shedd Aquarium, the Zoological Society of London, the World Wildlife Fund"s TRAFFIC program, the University of British Columbia, and the University of Tasmania—to share findings and help police the trade. But researchers admit that only a reduction in demand through increased public awareness will save this unique and peculiar creature from extinction.

CONTACTS: Project Seahorse, www.projectseahorse.org ; Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES), www.cites.org .

Dear EarthTalk: I’ve heard that some European countries require cars to be recycled. Is this true?

—Glen Palmer, West Palm Beach, FL

Back in February 2000, in response to the realization that discarded autos accounted for a tenth of the hazardous waste spilling out of Europe"s landfills, the European Union (EU) decided to shift the burden of environmental responsibility squarely onto the carmakers themselves. Now until 2007, in all 25 EU member countries, carmakers must recycle 80 percent of the vehicles they manufacture; in 2015, the percent increases to 85. In addition, the law requires all automakers selling their products in Europe to stop using toxic heavy metals, such as the mercury sometimes found in auto trunk light switches.

The recycling law also applies retroactively; forcing carmakers to pick up the full tab for disposing of every auto they ever produced. The European Automobile Manufacturers Association, a trade group, believes the measure will cost industry around $23 billion, based on a recycling cost of around $155 a car and an estimated 150 million cars currently on the European roads.

In response, automakers across Europe are redesigning their new models with recycling in mind. Germany"s Volkswagen, for example, conducted extensive research on how to maximize efficiency in recycling its fleet. The company concluded that extensive dismantling of vehicles before crushing significantly cut down on waste, and then designed its most recent Golf with a dashboard built for easy and complete removal by a dismantler. And to facilitate ease in recycling auto plastic, VW replaced potentially contaminating adhesives with clips and now uses a standardized plastic wherever possible. In another example, BMW now makes instrument panels out of a standardized plastic that can be broken down and re-molded back into the same instrument panels with 99.5 percent purity.

The world"s major non-European automakers, including Ford, General Motors and Toyota, sell many vehicles throughout Europe and have begun building networks of recycling facilities tailored to their respective vehicle lines. Toyota, for instance, has set up almost 600 recycling sites in four European countries.

Although American automakers are not subject to such strict regulations at home, they have been recycling cars since the first Model T rolled off Henry Ford"s production line. Today, American-made cars are among the most recycled consumer items. According to the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a U.S. trade group, approximately 82 percent of an average vehicle"s weight gets recycled. Ford and General Motors are pioneering the use of recycling-friendly design on their new lines of automobiles, going so far as implementing environmentally-friendly "closed loop" manufacturing systems and distributing End-of-Life-Vehicle (ELV) dismantling manuals listing parts and their material content.

CONTACTS: European Automobile Manufacturers Association, www.acea.be ; Volkswagen, www.volkswagen.co.uk/company/environment/recycling ; Ford Motor Company Vehicle Recycling, www.ford.com/en/goodWorks/environment/recycling/vehicleRecycling.htm .