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Florida Manatees Dying Off in Record Numbers

Wildlife officials and environmental groups in Florida are raising an alarm over the unprecedented die-off this year of manatees, the large, slow-moving sea animals that are the southeastern U.S. state’s official marine mammal. 

The latest figures from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission show that as of October 15, 974 manatees have been found dead, more than twice the number that died all of last year and more than any other year on record.

The number represents more than 10% of the total population of manatees in the state. 

Officials fear the onset of winter and colder weather could bring another wave of deaths. 

Environmental officials say there is no real mystery for the die-off. They say over the past 10 years, seagrass, the primary food for the animals, has been steadily declining. 

When wildlife officials conducted postmortem examinations on the bodies found in the first half of the year, the vast majority were found to have starved to death. 

Environmental experts say the seagrass is being killed off by declining water quality traced to man-made sources such as fertilizer runoff, wastewater discharges and other pollutants. State estimates show that since 2009, about 58% of the seagrass has been lost in the Indian River Lagoon, a prime habitat for manatees, The Associated Press reported. 

The Florida Legislature this year approved $8 million in funding for a manatee habitat restoration program run by state and federal environmental officials. 

The Associated Press reports the Fish and Wildlife Commission is calling for state lawmakers to approve another $7 million for seagrass restoration projects, manatee rehabilitation centers and other projects. 

The manatees in Florida are West Indian animals known for their round bodies, large front flippers and paddle-shaped, flat tails. The average adult is just more than 3 meters long, weighs as much as 550 kilograms and may live as long as 65 years. They are closely related to elephants. 

Some information in this report came from The Associated Press. 

 

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International Police Operation Cracks Down on Illegal Internet Drug Vendors

U.S. federal law enforcement agencies and Europol announced dozens of arrests to break up a global operation that sold illegal drugs using a shadowy realm of the internet. 

At a Department of Justice news conference Tuesday in Washington, officials said they arrested 150 people for allegedly selling illicit drugs, including fake prescription opioids and cocaine, over the so-called darknet. Those charged are alleged to have carried out tens of thousands of illegal sales using a part of the internet that is accessible only by using specialized anonymity tools. 

The 10-month dragnet called “Operation HunTor” — named after encrypted internet tools — resulted in the seizure of 234 kilograms of drugs, including amphetamines, cocaine and opioids worth more than $31 million. Officials said many of the confiscated drugs were fake prescription pills laced with the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl. The counterfeit tablets are linked to a wave of drug overdoses.

“This international law enforcement operation spanned across three continents and sends one clear message to those hiding on the darknet peddling illegal drugs: there is no dark internet,” said U.S. Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco. 

Investigators rounded up and arrested 65 people in the United States. Other arrests occurred in Australia, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. In addition to counterfeit medicine, authorities also confiscated more than 200,000 ecstasy, fentanyl, oxycodone, hydrocodone, and methamphetamine pills. 

“We face new and increasingly dangerous threats as drug traffickers expand into the digital world and use the darknet to sell dangerous drugs like fentanyl and methamphetamine,” said Anne Milgram, administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). “We cannot stress enough the danger of these substances.” 

The international police agency Europol worked alongside the U.S. Justice Department’s Joint Criminal Opioid and Darknet Enforcement team.

 

“No one is beyond the reach of the law, even on the dark web,” said Jean-Philippe Lecouffe, Europol’s deputy executive director.

 

The dark web is preferred by criminal networks who want to keep their internet activities private and anonymous. In this case, it served as a platform for illegal cyber sales of counterfeit medication and other drugs that were delivered by private shipping companies. 

Investigators said the fake drugs are primarily made in laboratories in Mexico using chemicals imported from China. Prosecutors also targeted drug dealers who operated home labs to manufacture fake prescription pain pills. 

“Those purchasing drugs through the darknet often don’t know what they’re getting,” Associate Deputy FBI Director Paul Abbate said. The joint investigation followed enforcement efforts in January in which authorities shut down “DarkMarket,” the world’s largest illegal international marketplace on the dark web. 

Last month, the DEA warned Americans that international and domestic drug dealers were flooding the country with fake pills, driving the U.S. overdose crisis. The agency confiscated more the 9.5 million potentially lethal pills in the last year.

More than 93,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2020, the highest number on record, according the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. U.S. health officials attribute the rise to the use of fentanyl, which can be 100 times more potent than morphine. 

U.S. officials said investigations are continuing and more arrests are expected.

 

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Nothing Says Halloween Like a Pumpkin Patch

Nothing says Halloween like a visit to a pumpkin patch where selections range from cute to specimens so gigantic, they arrive by truck. Titi Tran has this report from Orange County, California.

Camera:    Titi Mary Tran

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COP26 Climate Summit: What’s At Stake For Planet Earth?

Global pledges to cut greenhouse gas emissions are just a fraction of what’s needed to prevent catastrophic global warming. That’s the warning from the United Nations, ahead of the critical COP26 Climate Summit in Glasgow, Britain next week – where world leaders will try to agree on further action to combat global warming. Henry Ridgwell looks at what is at stake ahead of the meeting.

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Japanese Princess Marries Commoner, Gives Up Royal Status

The niece of Japanese Emperor Naruhito, Princess Mako, married a commoner Tuesday, relinquishing her royal status following a heavily scrutinized, controversial four-year engagement.

The Japanese Imperial Household Agency issued a statement announcing the marriage of Mako to Kei Komuro, both 30 years old.

The couple broke with tradition by foregoing the usual rituals and ceremonies of royal weddings, including a reception, while Mako also refused the one-off payment of about $1.3 million typically made to royal women who leave the imperial family to marry.

The couple had been classmates at Tokyo’s International Christian University when they announced their engagement in 2017, saying they intended to marry the next year.

But shortly after the announcement, a dispute involving money Komuro’s mother, a widow, had received from a former suiter surfaced and the wedding was postponed. Komuro wrote a lengthy statement explaining the situation, and but it is still unclear if the dispute has been fully resolved.

Komuro spent the last three years at law school in New York City, where The New York Times reports tabloid newspapers documented everything from his hairstyle to the food trucks where he bought his lunch.

At a news conference, the former princess addressed the controversies, gossip and mixed public opinion about the relationship, saying, “I am very sorry to the people who had trouble (with our marriage). Also, I feel gratitude towards people who cared and quietly worried about me, or people who were not misled by the non-factual information and still continued to support me and Kei.”

The couple expressed their love for one another, and Mako said, “As we go on with our lives, I think there will be different difficulties. But as we have in the past, we will work together and continue to move on together.”  

The couple plans to live in New York City.

Some information for this report was provided by The Associated Press, Reuters, and Agence France-Presse

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Moderna Says its COVID-19 Vaccine Safe for Children Between 6 and 11

U.S.-based pharmaceutical company Moderna says a clinical trial shows that a low dose of its COVID-19 vaccine is safe for children between 6 and 11 years old. 

The company says it inoculated more than 4,700 children with its two-dose vaccine about 28 days apart, with each shot about half the strength given to adults. Preliminary results show the antibody levels in the children were the same levels as those seen in young adults who received a full dose of the vaccine. 

Moderna says the children suffered mild side effects from the vaccine such as fatigue, headache, fever and pain at the site of the injection.  The number of test subjects was too small to detect any rare side effects such as myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart, which has been detected mostly among boys and young men who received either the Moderna or the Pfizer vaccine.  

The study has not been published by any peer-reviewed journal, but Moderna says it will soon present its findings to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and other global drug regulators. The FDA is meeting Tuesday to review an application by Pfizer and its German-based partner, BioNTech, to offer its vaccine for children between 5 and 11 years old.

In a related development, Reuters is reporting that the African Union will purchase up to 110 million doses of the Moderna vaccine.  The AU will receive 15 million doses before the end of the year, with another 35 million doses arriving in the first quarter of 2022 and up to 60 million in the second quarter. 

The purchase was facilitated by the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden, which is deferring delivery of 33 million doses it had purchased from Moderna to give the AU an opportunity to negotiate with the company.   

“This is important as it allows us to increase the number of vaccines available immediately,” AU coronavirus envoy Strive Masiyiwa said in an email, according to Reuters. “We urge other vaccine producing countries to follow the lead of the (U.S. government) and give us similar access to buy this and other vaccines.”  

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has extended the coronavirus health rules for cruise ships until January 15, 2022.  The current regulations, which were first imposed in March 2020 and include a requirement for ships to sail with at least 95 percent of passengers and crew fully vaccinated, were set to expire on November 1.   

The CDC says when the current regulations expire in January, it will shift to a voluntary program for cruise ship operators to detect and control the spread of COVID-19 on their vessels.   

In Hong Kong, chief executive Carrie Lam announced Tuesday that the city will tighten its coronavirus travel restrictions to bring it more in line with mainland China.  

Lam told reporters the government will cancel most of the quarantine exemptions granted to certain groups of visitors coming from overseas and the mainland, with the exception of cross-border truck drivers. Diplomats, airline crews, business executives and airline crews are currently exempt from the city’s mandatory 14-to-21 day hotel quarantine period, one of the tightest restrictions in the world.   

Lam defended the tightened restrictions, saying they are necessary to give authorities in Beijing the confidence to resume quarantine-free travel between the mainland and Hong Kong, 

But a leading regional financial industry group, the Asia Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, said Monday that Hong Kong’s strict zero-COVID policy and quarantine requirements for international travelers is eroding the city’s status as a global financial hub.   

Some information for this report came from the Associated Press, Reuters, and Agence France-Presse. 

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Climate Holdout Australia Sets 2050 Net Zero Emissions Target

Coal-rich Australia unveiled a much-delayed 2050 net zero emissions target Tuesday, in a plan that pointedly dodged thorny details or near-term goals ahead of a landmark UN climate summit. 

Widely seen as a climate laggard, Australia is one of the world’s largest coal and gas exporters.   

For the last eight years, its conservative government has resisted action to reduce emissions, routinely approving new coal projects and peddling skepticism about climate change. 

Under domestic and international pressure, Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Tuesday announced a shift in approach and acknowledged the “world is changing,” Australians want policy that “does the right thing on climate change”, he said, adding the phenomenon “is real, it’s happening. We understand it and we recognize it.” 

Just how Australia will get to net zero by 2050 carbon emissions remains unclear, with the government refusing to release its modeling. 

The plan would invest US$15 billion in low-emission technologies over the next decade, but it also leans heavily on unproven technologies and carbon offsets, which critics deride as an accounting gimmick.   

And Morrison was keen to stress he was not dropping long-running support for the country’s lucrative fossil fuel industry. 

“It will not shut down our coal or gas production or exports,” Morrison told a press conference. “It will not cost jobs, not in farming, mining or gas.” 

While backing away from demands for more ambitious 2030 targets, Morrison said he expects Australia to “meet and beat” the previously agreed goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 26-28 percent on 2005 levels.   

He said Australia was now projected to cut emissions 30-35 percent by 2030.   

“That is something we actually think we are going to achieve. The actions of Australia speak louder than the words about us,” he added. 

‘Sold a pup’  

The announcement comes just days before Morrison departs for next month’s United Nations COP26 climate summit in Glasgow.   

Australia’s reluctance to act had been criticized by close allies such as the United States and Britain, as well as Pacific island neighbors that are highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. 

The coalition government has also found itself increasingly out of step with Australians’ attitudes as they suffered a series of climate-worsened droughts, bushfires and floods. 

A 2021 poll by the Lowy Institute think tank found 78 percent of Australians back a 2050 net zero target, while 63 percent support a national ban on new coal mines. 

The country’s greatest natural tourist drawcard, the Great Barrier Reef, has been badly damaged by waves of mass coral bleaching as ocean temperatures rise.   

Mark Kenny, a professor at the Australian Studies Institute in Canberra, said domestic and international pressures had made it “more and more unviable for the coalition to cling to its essentially denialist position.”

But Kenny warned Australia’s announcement amounted to little more than a shift in rhetoric for the resource-reliant nation. 

“This commitment is not significant in reality. I think if the world takes this seriously, they have been sold a pup,” he told AFP.   

Tuesday’s 2050 commitment trails behind more ambitious announcements from Australian states and corporations, including mining giant Rio Tinto. 

Australia’s major coal customers such as India and China have already indicated they will phase out thermal coal, and technological advances have made the future of metallurgical coal — used to make steel — increasingly uncertain.   

Ahead of the 12-day Glasgow summit, the UN says more than 130 countries have set or are considering a target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050, a target it says is “imperative” to safeguard a livable climate. 

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