New research indicates that the food discarded in landfills and at sea is having a profound effect on wildlife populations and fisheries. But removing that food waste creates its own ecological challenges.
The world wastes more than $750 billion worth of food every year — 1.6 billion tons of food left in farm fields, sent to landfills, or otherwise scattered across the countryside, plus another seven million tons of fishery discards at sea. That waste has gotten a lot of attention lately, mostly in terms of human hunger.
Hardly anyone talks about what all that food waste is doing to wildlife. But a growing body of evidence suggests that our casual attitude about waste may be reshaping the way the natural world functions across much of the planet, inadvertently subsidizing some opportunistic predators and thus contributing to the decline of other species, including some that are threatened or endangered.
A new study in the journal Biological Conservation looks, for instance, at California’s Monterey Bay, where the threatened steelhead trout population has declined by 80 to 90 percent over the past century. Efforts to restore the species along the Pacific Coast have focused on major initiatives like the recent demolition of a dam that had blocked access to critical steelhead breeding grounds on the Carmel River, which empties into Monterey Bay.
But a team of co-authors led by Ann-Marie Osterback, a marine ecologist at the University of California-Santa Cruz, suspects that garbage and fishery discards might also play an underrated part in the problem. The hypothesis is that local food wastes inadvertently subsidize Western gulls in the Monterrey Bay area, and these gulls in turn prey on the juvenile steelhead trout.
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