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Shark populations collapse, with ‘very small window’ to avert disaster

In the past half-century, humans have caused a staggering global drop in the number of sharks and rays swimming in open oceans, scientists found in the first such global assessment, published in the journal Nature on Wednesday. .

Sharks and ocean rays have declined 71 percent since 1970, mainly due to overfishing. The collapse is likely even more abrupt, the authors point out, due to incomplete data from some of the worst-affected regions and because fishing fleets were already expanding in the decades before their analysis began.

“There is a very small window to saving these iconic creatures,” said Nathan Pacoureau, marine biologist at Simon Fraser University in Canada and lead author of the study. More than three quarters of shark and ocean ray species are now threatened with extinction, endangering marine ecosystems and the food security of populations in many countries.

The research offers the latest data point on what is a dismal trajectory for terrestrial biodiversity. From butterflies to elephants, populations of wildlife have collapsed in recent decades and as many as one million species of animals and plants are threatened with extinction.

But scientists stress that conservation works when done properly, and the study calls on governments to adopt measures such as setting scientific limits on the number of sharks and rays that fishermen can catch and keep.

“Action is needed immediately,” the authors wrote.

Sharks and rays are mistaken for their meat, fins, gill plates, and liver oil. They are also frequently caught accidentally by fishermen using nets or longlines with thousands of baited hooks to attract tuna or swordfish. Such accidental capture is not the primary focus, but it is often welcome when it does occur.

This is one of the reasons sharks are particularly vulnerable, scientists say. Even if the commercial shark fishery ceases to be viable due to declining numbers, bycatch could continue to depress numbers.

But high levels of bycatch aren’t inevitable, said Sonja Fordham, study author and chair of Shark Advocates International, a nonprofit group dedicated to shark conservation.

“We now have volumes of scientific studies on how you might avoid catching sharks to begin with, and certainly a lot on best practices for releasing sharks safely and ensuring they survive,” he said. Mrs. Fordham said. For example, it is important to know how long a shark wrestles on the line, so anglers should monitor their lines regularly. They must avoid shark hotspots and use shark-friendly gear that allows the creatures to break free while keeping the tuna and swordfish on the line.

Many fishermen do not take these measures because they often have financial incentives to keep sharks, she said. Governments often allow fishermen to keep them, even as populations collapse. For example, while the shortfin mako shark is listed as an endangered species globally, the United States, the European Union, and many other governments still allow fishing for the species.

For the study, scientists scoured the world looking for all available data on each species, combining figures from fisheries and scientific surveys with information on reproductive rates, which tend to be slow. Scientists already knew the sharks were in trouble, but there was no comparable overall analysis. At a workshop in 2018, as the authors gathered to examine the data for each species, they saw one catastrophic decline after another appear on one screen. A dark silence fills the room, remembers Dr Pacoureau. He himself has felt shocked by the extent of the declines and hopes their work will help save the sharks.

“The advancement here is the very elegant statistical analysis that brings it all together and puts a very firm and very well-justified figure,” said Demian Chapman, a marine biologist and professor at Florida International University who studies sharks and does not been involved. in the study. “It really helps communicate the scale of the problem to decision makers. This is a number that they can pick up very easily and realize how bad it is.

As these sharks and rays cross the open ocean, oblivious to national borders, reversing these declines will require international cooperation. A global movement to conserve 30% of the world’s land and oceans by 2030 is gaining momentum, but Ms Fordham said for such commitments to help sharks, conservationists and scientists should participate better in fisheries meetings.

“We have this problematic disconnect between fisheries and environment agencies, I would say in almost every country in the world,” Ms. Fordham said. “They make promises in one arena that aren’t kept in another.”

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Officials say Sudan-Israel peace deal is already at risk of collapse

WASHINGTON – Landmark Sudan-Israel deal to start normalizing relations risks crumbling just over a month after President Trump’s announcement, revealing a crack in Middle East peace deals he and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have sought to cement as a legacy of foreign policy.

Sudan was the third Arab state to accept the Abraham’s accords brokered by Trump that opened up new economic and diplomatic partnerships with Israel. The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain signed the agreements in September, and just last week Secretary of State Mike Pompeo predicted that other Sunni Muslim countries in the Middle East would soon follow suit.

Sudan has reluctantly agreed to open relations with Israel – but only as part of a deal to be removed from a State Department’s list of states sponsoring terrorism – and wants Congress to approve by the next. end of the year legislation that would protect it from terrorism-related prosecutions.

The new deadline and recent negotiations between lawmakers and representatives of Sudan were described to the New York Times by five officials and others familiar with the talks on the condition that they were not identified.

That it could jeopardize the rapprochement with Israel is a by-product of what Ilan Goldenberg, director of the Middle East security program at the Center for a New American Security, has described as rushed efforts by the administration. Trump to win a foreign policy victory ahead of the November 3 presidential election.

“All of this felt forced from the start by an administration that wanted to use a terrorism designation as a political tool to try to achieve normalization with Israel,” Goldenberg said. “When you prepare these kinds of very transactional deals with unrelated elements that don’t make a lot of sense, sometimes it happens.”

Without Congress-approved immunity, foreign investors may be reluctant to do business with Sudan for fear of potentially ending up funding billions of dollars in compensation for victims of terrorism.

Without foreign investment, Sudan’s transitional government has little hope of lifting its country out of widespread poverty and instability – a crisis that has been exacerbated by the influx of around 43,000 Ethiopian refugees fleeing a civil war in the other side of the border.

Mr Pompeo spoke to Sudan’s de facto leader, Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan on Monday, who made it clear that the East African nation will not go ahead with the warming relations with Israel before Congress passes the so-called legal peace law.

A person familiar with the conversation said Mr. Pompeo assured General al-Burhan that the immunity plan would be approved in the coming weeks. Trump administration officials are already planning a signing ceremony with Sudanese officials at the White House in late December.

State Department spokespersons declined to comment and the Israeli embassy in Washington, which closely follows the negotiations, did not respond to a request for comment.

But Congress is deadlocked on legal peace legislation, which would essentially prevent victims of past terrorist attacks from seeking further compensation in Sudan. If a compromise can be reached quickly, it could be included in a major military spending bill that Congress is expected to approve within the next two weeks, according to a Senate official who is working to break the deadlock.

As part of the State Department’s delist of terrorism agreement, Sudan agreed to pay $ 335 million to settle the legal claims of victims of the 1998 attacks against the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania . The double explosions, carried out by Al Qaeda militants with assistance from Sudan, killed 224 people, including 12 US citizens; thousands more were injured.

Most of the money, as negotiated between Sudan and the State Department, will go to victims who were US citizens at the time of the explosion. But other victims – nearly all of whom are black and including those who have since become U.S. citizens – will receive much less compensation.

Some lawmakers, including Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, have opposed the disparity in payment for victims who were naturalized citizens after the attacks. None of the victims will receive compensation until the immunity legislation has been approved; if this does not happen by November 2021, the funds will be released to an escrow account and returned to the government of Sudan.

Lawmakers are also divided over protecting Sudan from future court rulings that could compel Khartoum to compensate the families of the victims of the September 11, 2001 attacks. These families work with lawmakers in the New York area, including the Senator Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leader, to preserve their demands to hold Sudan partly responsible for the five years he harbored Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the Al Qaeda attacks, between 1991 and 1996.

Officials close to the negotiations said the two senators acknowledged Sudan’s fragile economic situation and described them as keen to resolve the dispute.

But, officials said, any compromise should allow families of 9/11 victims to seek compensation from Sudan – even if that means the United States must help Khartoum figure out how to pay those claims years from now. Additionally, officials said, the State Department should not have promised Congress would do otherwise in diplomatic negotiations to remove Sudan from the terrorism list.

A person familiar with Sudan’s negotiating position found this unacceptable.

It’s unclear what will happen if the dispute is not resolved by the end of the year. But all parties agreed it could get worse indefinitely as Congress turns to more immediate priorities with the new administration of President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.

“I hope it doesn’t collapse,” Goldenberg said of Sudan’s detente with Israel, “but I’m not necessarily surprised at all.”

Eric Schmitt contributed reporting.

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Air transport collapse hampered weather forecast, study finds

Government researchers have confirmed that the sharp drop in air traffic during the coronavirus pandemic has affected the quality of weather forecast models by sharply reducing the amount of atmospheric data regularly collected by commercial airliners.

In one study, researchers showed that when a short-term forecasting model received less data on temperature, wind and humidity from aircraft, forecasting skill (the difference between forecasted weather conditions and what had actually happened) was worse.

The researchers and others had suspected this would be the case because atmospheric observations from passenger and cargo flights are among the most important data used in forecast models. Observations are made by instruments aboard thousands of airliners, mostly based in North America and Europe, as part of a program that has been in place for decades. They are transmitted in real time to forecasting organizations around the world, including the National Weather Service.

In the first few months of the pandemic, when air traffic globally declined by 75% or more, the number of sightings dropped by roughly the same percentage.

“With every type of observation that goes into weather models, we know they have an impact on improving overall accuracy,” said one of the researchers, Stan Benjamin, principal investigator at the Global Systems Laboratory, which is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric. Administration, in Boulder, Colorado. “If you’ve really lost a lot of sightings, there might be a skill downturn in general.”

While researchers have shown that the loss of data helps make the model less accurate, NOAA said so far it has not seen an impact on the kind of short-term forecasts that companies use. to make business decisions or that a person could use to decide if they should take an umbrella when they go out.

“We are not directly seeing an obvious reduction in forecast accuracy as we continue to receive valuable data from passenger and freight aircraft as well as many other data sources,” said a statement from the agency. These other sources include satellites, ocean buoys, and instruments carried aloft by weather balloons.

The amount of data coming from planes has also increased in recent months with the resumption of air travel, the agency said. The daily number of passenger plane flights in the United States is now at about 50 percent of pre-pandemic levels. Cargo plane flights were not as affected.

Dr. Benjamin, along with two colleagues working in the lab, Eric P. James from the University of Colorado and Brian D. Jamison from Colorado State University, simulated conditions during the pandemic in April by taking data from 2018 and 2019 and by eliminating 80%. before feeding it into a forecast model developed by NOAA called Rapid Refresh.

They compared the resulting errors to those if the model did not contain any aircraft data.

“We had to look to see if 80% is 80% impact,” said Dr. Benjamin. “But it’s not that much. They found that removing 80 percent of the data produced errors that accounted for 30 to 60 percent of the errors that would have resulted from no data at all. The study was published in the Journal of Applied Meteorology and Climatology.

In addition, the World Meteorological Organization, which in the spring was concerned about the loss of on-board observation data, announced this week that it had signed an agreement with a group in the aviation industry to expand the program of ‘observation. to cover regions of the world where little data is currently collected.

The agreement with the International Air Transport Association calls for adding more airlines and aircraft to the program, including those with routes in Africa and other less guarded areas.

Currently, about 40 airlines are participating in the program and, in total, about 3,500 aircraft are equipped with the necessary equipment to make and transmit observations. In the United States, Delta, United, American and Southwest and United Parcel Service and FedEx freight carriers are involved.