When the Top of the Food Chain is Turned into Our Food: Why Finning Isn’t Winning

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Imagine an animal you’ve established a relationship with suffering a long and slow death–all because someone decided that their commercial potential was more valuable than the animal’s right to life. Most of you have encountered the experience of fishing at least once in your lifetime, but not many have experienced the cruel practice of shark finning. Shark finning is where a live shark’s fin is sliced off. The live shark is then tossed, writhing, back into the ocean. Since sharks can’t receive oxygen from water without their fins in constant motion, sharks who are victims of finning starve to death because they cannot swim, are made a live meal by other fish, or drown.
 I can’t decide which of these fates is worse, but I do know that no living creature and certainly not one that has done nothing but support our largest and most valuable ecosystem, should have to endure any of these punishments. Shark finning has not been outlawed yet and as a result, thousands of sharks suffer from this painful treatment daily. Not only is the brutal practice of finning inhumane, but their slaughter is pushing many shark species that are valuable to our oceanic ecosystem closer to extinction.
Why is shark finning so common nowadays? Sharks are tempting targets because of their high monetary and cultural value. Although human obsession with ownership trudges along, there is another, more tangible culprit partially behind this atrocity committed so commonly: a delicacy known as shark fin soup.
Once just reserved for social elites, shark fin soup nowadays has become more and more common in restaurants. The shark population, in turn, has become less and less.
Maybe you don’t live in a part of the world where shark finning is a major social and economic aspect or maybe you haven’t ever gotten cuddly with a shark, but it is undeniable that they are essential components of our Earth. They top the food chain in several parts of the ocean, balancing food webs and marine habitats. When sharks are taken out of the equation, the marine ecosystem as we know it is gone. Because sharks are so stigmatized-think, Jaws-they’re viewed as dangerous and horrifying organisms. One of the most important steps we can take to end shark finning is spreading social awareness through education and interaction. It can be something as simple as suggesting, “hey, sharks aren’t all monsters–we actually kill them more than they do us” when watching a Jaws marathon. You can also try holding a protest outside of a restaurant serving shark. You could write to a major environmental interest group about the (frequently overlooked) topic. Also, if you happen to be going somewhere where there is a significant shark population, look into shark diving. It’s a source of income for communities who support saving sharks and it lets you interact with the natural world (win-win). If the benefits we promote in saving sharks can outweigh the few benefits in murdering them, we can stop shark finning together.
Picture credit goes to @jawsandpaws on Twitter.

Bothersome Buckthorn

A couple of weeks ago I participated in a service day that involved removing invasive species from the Kickapoo Woods Chicago Forest Preserve. Before Chicago was a city, it was nothing but wetlands and prairie.  Now it is very difficult to find a natural prairie anywhere near the city. The Kickapoo reserve is unique because it contains a big stretch of prairie that has been relatively untouched for years. Visiting this forgotten land helped me visualize what Chicago would have looked like a long time ago and it was a great experience to help restore it. I became involved in the restoration by removing invasive species and I then replaced them with native plants. I spent almost the entire day cutting down one specific kind of tree: buckthorn. It is an innocent looking tree with red berries and small thorns on its branches, but once I started noticing them, I realized they were everywhere.  Originally brought to America from Europe in the 1800s, the tree has since taken over many natural areas. Buckthorn takes over its competition of natural wetland grasses and the population is very difficult to control. The fruits that it produces ensure that new ones continue to grow each season and chopping down the tree is no way to guarantee that it will not resprout. Even on the relatively small amount of land in the Kickapoo Reserve, buckthorn has become a huge problem. The trees have grown big enough that they are extremely hard to cut down and there are so many of them that it feels impossible to make any progress. However, it was inspiring to see the committed group of volunteers that work each weekend, year round, to save the prairie from invasion. In the next month I hope to plan a trip to the preserve to help remove buckthorn and replace it with prairie. In the larger context of things it seems like a small project, but for me and my peers I know it will be a way of getting in touch with the land we’ve been living on and I know that we are making a difference.








The Truth About Almonds

A couple days ago my friend and I were chatting while waiting for class to begin when he pulled out a bag of almonds. Continuing to talk, he opened the bag and tossed a few into his mouth.

Almonds are a food that I’ve been boycotting for a few months now and though I don’t demand that others do the same, I like to make a point to inform people on the damage almonds cause. So I told him about the impact almonds have on the California water crisis and the strain it has put on cattle farmers and rangeland conservationists. After hearing this he grinned at me and walked over to the class trashcan. He looked me in the eye as he slowly threw the almonds one by one into the bin. At first I was horrified, but then I became angry.

Honestly,  I’m still very frustrated about what he did as his actions demonstrate why we need to  educate each other on environmental sustainability. So for anyone out there who is unfamilar with the problems that the almond industry is causing, especially in California, here is a mini break-down:

As arguably the best single food nutritionally that a person can eat, the almond recently overtook the peanut as the most-eaten nut in the United States. According to  The Atlantic, in the last 50 years, American almond consumption has risen to over ten times what it was, making America by far the leading almond consumer. This is likely due to trending aversions to meat protein, soy, and dairy milks.

The only state that produces almonds commercially is California, which produces 82% of the world’s almonds. California’s almonds constitute a multi-billion dollar industry in a fiscally weak and currently record-breaking dry state. The drought there is so dire that experts are considering adding a fifth level to the four-tiered drought scale, D5, in order to define the current state of California.

Regardless of California’s situation the state persists to farm almonds although each almond requires 1.1 gallons of water to produce. Also 44% more land in California is being used to farm almonds than was 10 years ago.

This causes major problems. Over-pumping of aquifers threatens California’s infrastructure, which then runs the risk of collapsing. Additionally, almond trees need steady supplies of water as opposed to vegetable fields, which farmers can fallow during droughts. Almond trees are an investment and on average take ten years to produce enough profit to pay for themselves.

Even as almond production increases in California, the demand is still driving up prices. In England, the cost of almonds has almost doubled over the past five years and sales of almond milk have increased 79% since last year. The value of each almond has, as a result, gone up dramatically. Growers are looking for the best return on their investment and they are still planting almond trees at an alarming rate.

Among many, some ecological concerns raised by the continuous growing of almonds include:

Thousands of endangered king salmon in northern California’s Klamath River are being threatened by low water levels (water is being diverted to almond farms).

Ranchers are impacted economically. (They are losing thousands of acres of grazing land to almonds and thus have to sell their cattle.) 

Grassland ecosystems are impacted because almonds convert them into monocultures.


My First Frontier to the Last Frontier

How many teenagers do you know have visited Alaska? Not many. This past month, I was blessed with the opportunity to go camping for 10 days in Alaska this upcoming June of 2016. It sounded great and all, but I realized I didn’t know much about Alaska. Yeah, I knew Alaska was the largest state in the United States and that it was pretty cold there, but I knew nothing about it’s national parks and it’s star attraction Mt. McKinley, now named Mt. Denali. As soon as I signed up for the expedition, I started my research on the Last Frontier State.

Mt. Mckinley, Denali National Park, Alaska
A photo of Mt. McKinley later renamed Mt. Denali (2015)

To begin, Alaska is considered the Last Frontier to the United States because the United States purchased Alaska in 1867. It was bought for $7.2 million from Russia by Secretary of State William Seward. This was the last mainland state to join the United States. Hawaii was soon to join the United States later that same year. Alaska was soon to be known for its gold and oil. The great gold rush of Alaska is known as the Klondike Gold Rush. Before the gold rush in Alaska in 1896, Alaska didn’t have many inhabitants. To many citizens, Alaska didn’t have much to offer. The gold rush primarily brought people to Alaska from 1896-1899. After the gold rush, people started moving back down to all of the other states. 

Many years later, several companies found oil in the North Slope of Alaska. The biggest oil drilling company today, Prudhoe Bay, owns the largest oil field in Alaska. In 1977, the 800-mile Alyeska pipeline was built to transport oil and natural gas back to the United States. Companies like Prudhoe Bay have taken a big hit from environmentalist movements. Environmentalists have worked to shut down pipelines that some companies use.

A photo of the Alyeska pipeline

Alaska may have its industries and people may come in just to take its resources, but its national parks are what catch people’s eyes nowadays. Alaska holds preserves, monuments, national historical parks, and 15 national parks. Its most famous one is the Denali National Park and Preserve This is where I will be camping. Denali National Park is home to North America’s tallest mountain, Mt. Denali. Before President Barack Obama renamed the mountain to Mt. Denali in 2015, its name was Mt. McKinley and it was named after President McKinley. President Obama decided to make this name change in order to preserve Alaska’s native culture. Denali National Park has varying terrain. It contains sections of tundra, spruce forests, and glaciers. The park is home to wildlife including grizzly bears, wolves, moose, caribou and Dall sheep.

A photo of Denali National Park

Now that I am equipped with a little background history, I am even more excited about going to Denali National Park. I am going with 7 other classmates and my history teacher. While I’m out there I will get to learn more about the park. Stay tuned to hear more from me in June! I will share plenty of pictures and I’m sure a story of a lifetime.

Paul Brown-Taylor 2017, Upper Marlboro, Maryland


“Alaska.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, n.d. Web. 21 Nov. 2015. <http://www.history.com/topics/us-states/alaska&gt;.

Davis, Julie Hirschfeld. “Mount McKinley Will Again Be Called Denali.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 30 Aug. 2015. Web. 21 Nov. 2015. <http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/31/us/mount-mckinley-will-be-renamed-denali.html?_r=0&gt;.

“Oil Drilling in Alaska | Foundation for Economic Education.” FEE Freeman Article. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Nov. 2015. <http://fee.org/freeman/oil-drilling-in-alaska/&gt;.


GSAx Event Brings Students Together to Discuss and Write a Declaration on Climate Change


NEW YORK—Students from the tristate area gathered in New York City on Saturday November 7th at the famous Albertine Bookstore bordering Central Park, to learn more about and to create a youth declaration on climate change. For some (including me) it meant taking a long train ride after a morning SAT to be there. The event was sponsored by the Green Schools Alliance, the Lycée Français and the French Embassy in the United States and featured a senior writer for TIME Magazine, a french counsellor, and three Columbia University professors as panelists. Topics ranged from international policy and climate negotiations to sustainable investing and recycling. The declaration will be presented at the COP21 climate summit in Paris which will be taking place from November 30th to December 11th. Many believe the summit will be a large step forward in climate negotiations. Many countries have already released what their contributions to curb climate change will be. To many, the event in New York represents the importance of youth involvement in the climate problem and its solutions.

Tag Quijano ’17 Princeton Day School

The Future is Here Today

23,000 deaths.

Just because of some change in the Pacific Ocean’s surface temperature?

In the super El Niño of 1997, 23,000 people died because of natural disasters due to rising ocean temperatures. This year it could be worse. Compared to long-term averages, this year’s recordings read a 5.4 degree Fahrenheit increase in water temperatures. This has never happened in our recorded history. On a positive note-this means more rain.

I live in California. During the rainy season (which is not very long here) my high school builds mini bridges as classrooms start to flood. The infrastructure is just not supportive enough where I live. After some rain fell for the first time in six months, people at my school seemed to think that it meant the end of the drought was near. Problem solved…

Drought. Flood. Drought. Flood. We have been in a serious drought for several years now. More rain does seem like a good thing, but rather than water, (which would just drain to the ocean) we need snow in the Sierra Nevadas to fill our reservoirs. We need water to supply food for our nation.

This huge increase in rain over a short period of time will most likely do more harm than good. Rather than filling our reservoirs it will cause floods. This will happen on large and small scales. My house, that is a couple of blocks from away from a creek, is in a flood zone. Our neighbor’s house flooded with half a foot of water in the El Niño of 1997. This year, a most likely stronger El Niño will come. We are not looking forward to the potential consequences. I live in a rather prosperous area so many can afford to repair damage. However, in many developing countries, destruction is dramatically worse and economies are not as strong at times.

Extreme weather is now experienced in many locations on our planet. It would be easy to blame this on El Niños and La Niñas as they ARE naturally occuring, but they create extreme weather patterns around the world. Climate change “could double the likelihood of a super El Nino” (Brian Kahn). Emissions from cars, that contribute to climate change, could cause thousands of deaths.

Climate change is affecting people today. We can no longer say it may affect us some day in the future. It is not only killing innocent animals; it is killing innocent people as well. It is here today.


Rong-Gong Lin II, and Rosanna Xia. “El Niño Could Be the Most Powerful on Record, Scientists Say.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 17 Nov. 2015. Web. 18 Nov. 2015.

Brian Kahn. “Climate Change Could Double Likelihood of Super El Ninos.”Climate Change Could Double Likelihood of Super El Ninos. N.p., 19 Jan. 2014. Web. 18 Nov. 2015.

Food for Thought

Years ago in America, one could eat a hamburger and know exactly where it was produced. They would practically have complete confidence in the farm it came from and the humane treatment of their animals. However, this is no longer the case as the modern grocery store has risen to power. Within the recent past a gap has formed between Americans and food production. People no longer know where their meat is coming from, much less that the meat industry is controlled by four major powers: Tyson Foods, JBS, Cargill, and Smithfield Foods.

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These companies, which are responsible for over 85% of American meat, impose barbaric treatment on the cows, pigs, chickens, and other animals they raise for slaughter. Animals are confined to small, overcrowded pens and receive cheap feed laced with antibiotics. Even if you cannot connect the cruel treatment of our furry friends to the food on your plate, perhaps you can connect with the fact that the chemicals fed to the animals are transferred directly into you- the consumer. This has lead to recent studies highlighting meat as a cause of cancer.

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This cruel treatment needs to be fought. You can help by discontinuing your support of factory farms by purchasing meat from family farms or becoming pescatarian, vegetarian, or vegan. As a pescataraian plus aspiring vegan, I believe that this experience is truly rewarding. It allows for a cruelty free lifestyle and promotes a healthier diet.

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