One Third of Freshwater Fish Face Extinction, New Report Warns
Olivia Rosane February 23, 2021
The numbers of migratory freshwater fish such as salmon have declined 76 percent since 1970. Mike Bons / 500px / Getty Images
The latest warning of the Earth’s mounting extinction crisis is coming from its lakes and rivers.
A new report from a coalition of 16 conservation groups warns that almost a third of freshwater fish species face extinction because of human activity.
“Nowhere is the world’s nature crisis more acute than in our rivers, lakes and wetlands, and the clearest indicator of the damage we are doing is the rapid decline in freshwater fish populations. They are the aquatic version of the canary in the coal mine, and we must heed the warning,” Stuart Orr, WWF global freshwater lead, said in a statement Tuesday announcing the report.
WWF is one of the many organizations behind the report, along with the Alliance for Freshwater Life, Conservation International and The Nature Conservancy, to name a few. Together, the groups emphasized the incredible diversity of the world’s freshwater fish and their importance for human wellbeing.
There are a total of 18,075 freshwater fish species in the world, accounting for 51 percent of all fish species and 25 percent of all vertebrates. They are an important food source for 200 million people and provide work for 60 million. But their numbers are in decline. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species has declared 80 to be extinct, 16 of those in 2020 alone. The numbers of migratory freshwater fish such as salmon have declined 76 percent since 1970, while mega-fish such as beluga sturgeon have fallen by 94 percent in the same time period. In fact, freshwater biodiversity is plummeting at twice the rate of biodiversity in the oceans and forests.
Despite this, freshwater fish get much less attention than their saltwater counterparts, the report authors say. Titled “The World’s Forgotten Fishes,” it argues that policy makers rarely consider river wildlife when making decisions.
The main threats to freshwater fish include building dams, syphoning river water for irrigation, releasing wastewater and draining wetlands. Other factors include overfishing, introducing invasive species and the climate crisis.
“As we look to adapt to climate change and we start to think about all the discussions that governments are going to have on biodiversity, it’s really a time for us to shine a light back on freshwater,” Orr told NBC News.
To protect these forgotten fishes, the report authors outlined a six-point plan:
1. Let rivers flow more naturally;
2. Improve water quality in freshwater ecosystems;
3. Protect and restore critical habitats;
4. End overfishing and unsustainable sand mining in rivers and lakes;
5. Prevent and control invasions by non-native species; and
6. Protect free-flowing rivers and remove obsolete dams.
They also called on world leaders to include freshwater ecosystems in an ambitious biodiversity agreement at the upcoming UN Convention on Biological Diversity conference in Kunming, China.
But the solution will require more than just government action.
“It’s now more urgent than ever that we find the collective political will and effective collaboration with private sector, governments, NGOs and communities, to implement nature-based solutions that protect freshwater species, while also ensuring human needs are met,” Carmen Revenga of The Nature Conservancy told BBC News.
Trash fills Bosnia river faster than workers can pull it out
Elmar Emric February 24, 2021
VISEGRAD, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) — Environmental activists in Bosnia are warning that tons of garbage floating down the Balkan country’s rivers are endangering the local ecosystem and people’s health.
The Drina River, located on the border between Bosnia and Serbia, has been covered for weeks with trash that has piled up faster than the authorities can clear it out.
Weeks of wet winter weather that swelled the Drina and its tributaries pulled plastic bottles, rusty barrels, used tires, old furniture and other rubbish into the water.
Near the eastern Bosnian town of Visegrad, islands of garbage can be seen floating on the emerald-colored water as they advance toward the dam of the local hydroelectric power plant.
Activists say the situation is similar for miles up and downstream from Visegrad.
“This is a problem of huge proportions,” warned Dejan Furtula of the local environmental group Eko Centar Visegrad. “I am appealing on all institutions and everyone who can help to join the (clearing) process.”
Local authorities have been working to remove the garbage, but more trash is constantly arriving from upstream, carried also by the Drina’s tributaries in Serbia and Montenegro. The waste eventually piles up by the Visegrad dam. The 346-kilometer long (215-mile-long) Drina later flows into the Sava River.
Furtula said that micro plastics and toxins from the garbage end up in the food chain, threatening both wildlife and humans.
“The entire ecosystem is in danger,” he said. “We all eat fish here.”
Waste management is a problem in many Balkans nations, where the economies are struggling and environmental issues often come last, after efforts to step up employment and industry production.
Serbia recently faced a similar garbage-clogging emergency at an accumulation lake. Unauthorized waste dumps dot hills and valleys throughout the country, while trash litters roads and plastic bags hang from the trees.
The Drina clearing effort in Bosnia received a boost this week from a startup based in Germany that brought in a garbage-picking vessel dubbed Collectix.
Everwave co-founder Clemens Feigl said “shocking” images of the trash-covered river motivated the company to come over to help.
“We will try in the next days to get as much waste as possible out of the water.,” he said. “We will be in action for the next 14 days and will give it our everything.”
In addition to river pollution, many countries in the Western Balkans have other environmental woes. One of the most pressing is the extremely high air pollution affecting a number of cities in the region.
“We just need to all to work more to boost ecological awareness,” Frutula said.
Dangerous Side Effects of Mold in Your Home, According to Science
Alek Korab December 24, 2020
With health dangers outside the home, we are being asked to stay indoors. But what if there is danger inside your house? Chances are, you’ve got mold; nearly every house or apartment does. “Molds can be found almost anywhere; they can grow on virtually any substance, providing moisture is present,” reports the Environmental Protection Agency. “There are molds that can grow on wood, paper, carpet, and foods.” “Exposure to damp and moldy environments may cause a variety of health effects, or none at all,” reports the CDC. “Some people are sensitive to molds. For these people, exposure to molds can lead to” the following symptoms.
You May Get a Stuffy Nose, Wheezing and Red or Itchy Eyes or Skin
“Molds produce allergens (substances that can cause allergic reactions) and irritants,” says the EPA. “Inhaling or touching mold or mold spores may cause allergic reactions in sensitive individuals. Allergic responses include hay fever-type symptoms, such as sneezing, runny nose, red eyes, and skin rash….In addition, mold exposure can irritate the eyes, skin, nose, throat, and lungs of both mold-allergic and non-allergic people.”
It May Cause Asthma
“Potential health effects and symptoms associated with mold exposures include allergic reactions, asthma and other respiratory complaints,” says the EPA. “Other recent studies have suggested a potential link of early mold exposure to development of asthma in some children, particularly among children who may be genetically susceptible to asthma development, and that selected interventions that improve housing conditions can reduce morbidity from asthma and respiratory allergies,” says the CDC.
You May Develop a Respiratory Tract Infection and Other Issues
“In 2004 the Institute of Medicine (IOM) found there was sufficient evidence to link indoor exposure to mold with upper respiratory tract symptoms, cough, and wheeze in otherwise healthy people; with asthma symptoms in people with asthma; and with hypersensitivity pneumonitis in individuals susceptible to that immune-mediated condition,” says the CDC.
You May Have a Severe Reaction
“Some people, such as those with allergies to molds or with asthma, may have more intense reactions,” reports the CDC. “Severe reactions may occur among workers exposed to large amounts of molds in occupational settings, such as farmers working around moldy hay. Severe reactions may include fever and shortness of breath.”
Discuss these issues with your doctor, who may refer you to a specialist. “There is no blood test for mold,” says the CDC. “Some physicians can do allergy testing for possible allergies to mold, but no clinically proven tests can pinpoint when or where a particular mold exposure took place.”
“If your seasonal symptoms are making you miserable, an allergist/immunologist, often referred to as an allergist, can help,” reports the American Academy of Allergy Asthma&Immunology. “Your allergist has the background and experience to determine which allergens, if any, are causing your symptoms. This information will form the basis of a treatment plan to help you feel better. Your personalized plan will include steps to avoid contact with allergens. Your physician may also talk to you about medications for temporary relief.”
How to Remove the Mold From Your Home
“There is no practical way to eliminate all mold and mold spores in the indoor environment; the way to control indoor mold growth is to control moisture,” says the EPA. Call a specialist to have the mold addressed and “keep your windows closed at night and if possible, use air conditioning, which cleans, cools and dries the air.”
Extinction: Freshwater fish in ‘catastrophic’ decline
Helen Briggs, BBC Environment correspondent February 22, 2021
A report has warned of a “catastrophic” decline in freshwater fish, with nearly a third threatened by extinction.
Conservation groups said 80 species were known to have gone extinct, 16 in the last year alone.
Millions of people rely on freshwater fish for food and as a source of income through angling and the pet trade.
But numbers have plummeted due to pressures including pollution, unsustainable fishing, and the damming and draining of rivers and wetlands.
The report said populations of migratory fish have fallen by three-quarters in the last 50 years.
Over the same time period, populations of larger species, known as “megafish”, have crashed by 94%.
The report, The World’s Forgotten Fishes, is by 16 conservation groups, including WWF, the London Zoological Society (ZSL), Global Wildlife Conservation and The Nature Conservancy.
In UK waters, the sturgeon and the burbot have vanished, salmon are disappearing and the European eel remains critically endangered.
According to the WWF, much of the decline is driven by the poor state of rivers, mostly as a result of pollution, dams and sewage.
It has called on the government to restore freshwater habitats to good health through proper enforcement of existing laws, strengthening protections in the Environment Bill and championing a strong set of global targets for the recovery of nature.
Dave Tickner, from WWF, said freshwater habitats are some of the most vibrant on earth, but – as this report shows – they are in catastrophic decline around the world.
“Nature is in freefall and the UK is no exception: wildlife struggles to survive, let alone thrive, in our polluted waters,” said the organization’s chief adviser on freshwater.
“If we are to take this government’s environmental promises seriously, it must get its act together, clean up our rivers and restore our freshwater habitats to good health. ”
Carmen Revenga of The Nature Conservancy said freshwater fish are a diverse and unique group of species that are not only essential for the healthy functioning of our rivers, lakes and wetlands, but millions of people, particularly the poor, also depend on them for their food and income.
“It’s now more urgent than ever that we find the collective political will and effective collaboration with private sector, governments, NGOs and communities, to implement nature-based solutions that protect freshwater species, while also ensuring human needs are met,” she said.
Commenting, Dr. Jeremy Biggs, of the Freshwater Habitats Trust, said to protect freshwater biodiversity, we need to consider both large and small waters, and to protect all our freshwaters: ponds, lakes, streams and rivers.
Scientists say removing Snake River dams ‘is necessary’ to restore salmon population
Eric Barker, Lewiston Tribune, Idaho February 23, 2021
Another set of scientists, this one more than five-dozen deep, is sounding the alarm over Snake River salmon and steelhead, saying if the imperiled fish are to be saved, the four lower Snake River dams must go.
On Monday, 68 fisheries researchers from the Pacific Northwest released a letter penned to the region’s congressional delegation, governors and fisheries policymakers methodically making the case for breaching the dams.
“This scientific recommendation wasn’t taken lightly. This is relying on a review of a large preponderance of information that a bunch of us analyzed over and over again over the years,” said Howard Schaller, a retired fisheries research biologist who worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
They compared the lifecycle survival, known as smolt-to-adult survival rates, of Snake River salmon and steelhead, and note the runs which must pass eight dams as they migrate to and from the ocean have lower survival rates than similar stocks in the Columbia Basin that only have to make it past four or fewer dams.
For example, wild steelhead from the John Day River in Oregon have an average smolt-to-adult return rate of 5 percent and wild chinook from the same river have a survival rate of 3.6 percent. The Northwest Power and Conservation Council has set a survival goal of 2 percent to 6 percent for anadromous fish runs from the Snake and Columbia rivers. At 2 percent, the runs replace themselves. At an average of 4 percent, they grow.
But the smolt-to-adult return rate for wild Snake River steelhead is 1.4 percent, below replacement level, and for wild spring and summer chinook, it is just 0.7 percent.
The difference, they say, is caused by the number of dams and reservoirs each run encounters during juvenile outmigration. For the fish from the John Day River, it’s three dams. Snake River fish must pass eight dams. At each one, they face hardships, including delays caused by slowed water velocity, predation, injury and stress. The scientists point to research that indicates many of the young fish that make it past each of the eight dams succumb from delayed mortality, the result of accumulated stress and injuries incurred along the way.
“When all of the existing credible scientific evidence is taken into account, it is clear that removing the four lower Snake River dams, with adequate spill at the remaining lower Columbia River dams, is necessary to restore Snake River salmon populations,” they write.
The work they cite was looked at during last year’s Columbia River Systems Operation Environmental Impact Statement, authored by the Army Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Reclamation and Bonneville Power Administration. The federal agencies concluded removing the four lower Snake River dams would produce the highest likelihood of saving the fish. But the agencies instead chose a plan that calls for water to be spilled at each of the dams during the juvenile outmigration period.
Lower Four Snake River Dams
“They basically came to the conclusion themselves that breaching was the action that had the highest benefit,” Schaller said.
Terry Holubutz, a retired fisheries researcher and manager who spent most of his career with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, said dam breaching would allow more wild salmon and steelhead to survive and return to Idaho’s mostly pristine spawning habitat. That is critical, he said, now that ocean conditions are poor and expected to be influenced by climate change.
“I think anyone that goes through the data that has been developed over the years would say that survival of downstream migrants is the key factor for the Snake River stocks, and if we (breach the dams) that our fish would be in a better position to handle the ocean conditions right now. So our group feels strongly this is something we have to do.”
Last week, a study by federal fisheries scientists said Snake River chinook face grim odds which will grow substantially worse with climate change. Some of those who worked on the study said dam breaching should be considered while others said measures to improve conditions in the ocean are more important.
Earlier this month, Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson released a $33 billion concept that calls for breaching the four lower Snake River dams and mitigating affected communities and industries. The plan has been endorsed by many conservation organizations but criticized by some local government officials, farmers and shippers.
Holubutz said Simpson’s blueprint is a promising development that the region should look at and help shape so that it accomplishes its goal of saving the fish and offsetting the negative impacts of breaching.
“It’s a start, and that is what we need — a start.”
Want to eat more fish? These are the healthiest picks
Bonnie Taub-Dix February 23, 2021
Fishing for better health? Look no further than the seafood counter at your local supermarket.
For years, we’ve been hearing about the benefits of eating seafood, particularly when it comes to the connection between omega-3 fatty acids and heart health. More recently, studies have shown that eating seafood may support brain health, too, including reducing incidences of depression and boosting one’s mood. In addition to being a rich source of these vital fatty acids, seafood also provides selenium, iron, B vitamins and a host of other valuable nutrients.
In terms of protein, many types of seafood have a relatively high protein-to-calorie ratio, packing in around 7 grams protein per ounce, which is similar to chicken.
Today, during the pandemic, Americans are eating more seafood than in previous decades, but a recent survey showed that only one in ten consumers meets the goal of enjoying seafood twice a week, as recommended by The Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion’s Dietary Guidelines. Although many people are aware of the health benefits of different types of seafood, not everyone knows which is best for their diet — or how to select the right piece of fish at the grocery store.
If you want to incorporate more seafood into your diet — whether it’s fresh from the seafood counter, canned or frozen — there’s a wide range of types and price points that can fit every palate, budget and lifestyle.
Here are some of my family’s favorite seafood choices, along with some easy recipes to satisfy a variety of tastebuds.
Salmon is a flavorful, fatty fish that’s rich in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Salmon is also a good source of vitamin D, which is important for healthy bones. The daily recommended value of vitamin D is 400 IU for adults and children ages 4 and older. A 3-ounce serving of salmon contains 570 IU of vitamin D. It’s not easy to find naturally-occurring vitamin D in a lot of foods (but you can also find it in fortified dairy and non-dairy milks) so salmon is a great choice for most people to enjoy.
Canned salmon with bones is also an excellent source of calcium and it helps enhance the absorption of vitamin D. Fish bones, you say?! Yes, it’s actually perfectly fine for both kids and adults to eat the soft bones in canned fish. If you’re concerned, you may further crush up the bones for kids or create salmon cakes.
Fish can be canned in water or oil; which one you choose may depend on whether you’re watching your caloric or fat intake. When it comes to canned salmon, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Canned Pacific Salmon Standard of Identity actually prohibits the addition of water. Canned salmon is actually cooked in the can, so any liquid in the final product comes from the natural juices of the flesh when the salmon is cooked.
Whether you’re looking to jazz up your salmon for summer barbecues or you’re just popping it in the oven, this fatty fish is a versatile choice that holds up well to a variety of marinades, sauces and preparations.
Tuna helps your heart in a variety of ways. Besides containing omega-3 fatty acids, tuna is also rich in niacin (vitamin B3), which helps lower cholesterol levels. Sushi lovers will be happy to know that fresh yellowfin tuna contains almost 16 milligrams of niacin per 3-ounce serving. Just go easy on the rice and mayo-based spicy sauces. The same amount of canned tuna boasts an impressive 11 milligrams of niacin.
While fresh yellowfin tuna steaks can often retail for over $20 a pound, canned tuna is an inexpensive way to stock up on lean protein all year long. Canned light tuna packed in water (drained) provides around 73 calories and 0.8 grams of fat for a 3-ounce serving, while the same amount of tuna canned in oil (drained) will give you 168 calories and 7 grams of fat. Looking to make a classic tuna salad? For a healthier alternative to mayo, try mixing water-packed tuna with mashed avocado, another heart-healthy food that adds a creamy compliment to any fish.
Cod is a mild-flavored fish with white flesh, similar to haddock and pollock. It’s a meatier type of seafood, so it can hold up well to many different types of preparations without falling apart, and it’s one of the leanest sources of protein weighing in around 15 grams for a 3-ounce serving with only 0.5 grams of fat. Cod is also an excellent source of vitamin B12, with one serving containing a little more than 30% of the recommended daily value.
If you don’t ditch the bones in sardines, your bones will thank you because you’ll be getting about 40% of your recommended daily value of calcium per serving. Since most of us don’t get enough calcium, sardines are an excellent choice for many types of diets, especially those that can’t handle dairy. Sardines are also an excellent source of vitamin B12, selenium and phosphorous.
When it comes to sardines, one 3-ounce can packed in oil clocks in at around 130 calories with about 8 grams of total fat, while water-packed sardines provide 90 calories with 3 grams of fat. Sardines are delicious right out of the can, served on top of a salad or mashed on top of a crusty piece of whole grain bread with a thick slice of tomato.
Whether they’re medium-sized or jumbo, shrimp brings in big benefits. You’ll pick up around 20 grams of protein from just 3 ounces of shrimp and this portion size goes a long way in recipes. Besides protein, a serving of shrimp provides all of your daily selenium needs, which helps support thyroid function, heart health, boost immunity and fight inflammation. Shrimp also provides vitamin B12, choline, copper, iodine and phosphorous.
Scallops are a great source of magnesium and potassium, which are both important for heart and brain health. They also promote blood vessel relaxation, help control blood pressure and enable better blood circulation. A 3-ounce portion of scallops is only 75 calories, has around 15 grams of protein and less than a gram of fat.
Like many types of seafood, scallops don’t take very long to cook and can easily be prepared in a few minutes on the stovetop. Bring out the naturally sweet, buttery taste of seared scallops with a touch of salt, pepper and avocado oil in a hot skillet. Serve over wild rice or pair them with a colorful salad. For a more decadent take, try Al Roker’s bacon-wrapped scallops.
Get shucking if you’re looking to boost your iron intake. With their briny, ocean-forward flavor, oysters aren’t necessarily for everyone but oyster devotees enjoy eating this delicious shellfish fried, baked and raw right out of the shell. Oysters are very rich in iron, providing about 60% of your daily needs in just one serving. You’ll also find vitamin C, vitamin E and plenty of zinc in oysters. Unlike salmon and tuna, oysters aren’t always in season so check with your fishmonger about the catch of the day.
As far as prep goes, you won’t need to do much cooking when it comes to eating oysters. Most people take delight in slurping them down raw (but if you’ve never shucked one before, it’s probably best to take a class or leave it to the pros), along with the addition of an array of tangy sauces like mignonette or cocktail … or just a hefty squeeze of bright lemon juice.
Just 3 ounces of clams provide a whopping 84 micrograms of vitamin B12 — more than 1,400% of your recommended daily value of the vitamin. You’ll also find copper, manganese, phosphorus, potassium, selenium and zinc in clams. Clams also provide iron and vitamin C — which all work in tandem as vitamin C helps enhance the absorption of iron.
Crispy baked clams oreganata style, topped with seasoned bread crumbs, garlic, oregano, parsley and olive oil, are always a timeless family favorite and can be served year round.
Bonnie Taub-Dix, RDN, is the founder of BetterThanDieting.com and author of “Read It Before You Eat It – Taking You from Label to Table.”
“Wisconsin’s actions offer a tragic glimpse of a future without federal wolf protections,” the Wolf Conservation Center tweeted in response.
President Donald Trump’s delisting of gray wolves under the Endangered Species Act triggered the hunt. The DNR originally set a quota of 200 wolves to be killed between Feb. 22 and Feb. 28. Of the 200, 81 were allocated to the Ojibwe Tribes in accordance with treaty rights, the Wisconsin State Journal reported. Hunters killed about half of the remaining 119 by Tuesday morning and 69 percent by Tuesday afternoon, The Associated Press reported. By Wednesday morning, hunters exceeded the quota by 16 wolves.
Hunters also exceeded the quota set for three of the state’s hunting zones, according to DNR. They killed 33 of an 18-wolf quota in zone 2, located in the northeast; 24 of a 20-wolf quota in zone 3 located in the center; and 30 of a 17-wolf quota in southern zone 6. The hunt ended Wednesday at 10 a.m. CT in the most depleted zones and will end at 3 p.m. CT for the remaining half.
The hunt is the state’s first since 2014, according to the Wisconsin State Journal. After wolves were returned to state management under Trump in January 2021, Wisconsin intended to plan a hunt for November 2021, arguing that it needed the time to study the population and consult with Native American tribes and the general public. However, pro-hunting group Hunter Nation sued the state to start the hunt earlier in the year, with a judge ruling in their favor. This past Friday, an appeals court dismissed the Wisconsin DNR’s appeal, Wisconsin Public Radio reported.
“The reckless slaughter of 135 wolves in just three days is appalling,” said Collette Adkins, carnivore conservation director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Sound science was ignored here in favor of catering to trophy hunters who were all too eager to kill wolves even at the height of breeding season. It will take years for Wisconsin’s wolf population to recover from the damage done this week. And without federal protections, this bloody spectacle could easily play out in other states.”
The hunt killed about 12 percent of Wisconsin’s wolves, which last numbered between 1,034 and 1,057 according to 2020 DNR data.
Other conservation groups also raised concerns about the rushed hunt. At the same time, Indigenous communities criticized the lack of consultation. The state is required by law to consult with tribes on resources management.
“This hunt is not well-thought-out, well-planned, totally inadequate consultation with the tribes,” Peter David, Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission wildlife biologist, told Wisconsin Public Radio. “And maybe the biggest concern of all is that this season is not so much a hunting season as it is a killing season. No justification, really, was given for what was the legitimate purpose other than killing wolves.”
But the extremists’ deadly siege of Congress didn’t happen only because individual agencies failed to defend the building, and the riot was not just born of rage or blind allegiance to a defiant candidate. It was an attack on voting—the very heart of American democracy.
Just as the pursuit of an impeachment conviction against Donald Trump required members of Congress to regard the former president as “singularly responsible” for inciting the mob, yesterday we asked which agency should be held singularly responsible for the security failures. Those are the wrong targets.
They are wrong not because the impeachment failed to produce a conviction—that result was preordained by Republican fealty— or because we should not suss out the security failures, but because the fixation on Jan. 6 in isolation has led Congress, the media, and much of the nation to lose sight of everything else that sparked the “Stop the Steal” uprising. And now, a fixation on which security oversight to blame threatens to take us further away from realizing that the problem has been decades in the making, while we are doing almost nothing to stop it from happening again.
The roots of this crisis and where it will lead next are clear to me because I’ve had a front-row seat to this drama for four years. As ProPublica’s voting reporter, I took on an unusual beat for the 2016 election, tracking not the stakes of elections but the process of voting itself: seemingly mundane proceedings like poll worker trainings, county purchasing meetings about voting machines, obscure legislative hearings on voting laws. ProPublica’s idea was to pool 1,100 local reporters to document how the vote played out in the first election after the Supreme Court’s landmark revisions to the Voting Rights Act. Then, in October, the story began to change when Trump, then the Republican nominee, alleged widespread voter fraud.
Even after his 2016 victory, Trump continued the charade — sowing the seeds of doubt that would allow him to claim victory in 2020, even if he lost. Today, we connect his motivation with whatever personal demons make Trump unable to admit defeat, but what’s just as important to understand is that Trump had picked up a playbook that was years in the making by his party’s local leaders.
The first place I saw that playbook really clearly was in Texas, where I traveled in 2017 to explain how the implementation of the state’s new voter ID law had gone so disastrously the year before. The assumed goal of voter ID was a policy move to make it more difficult to vote as the state’s rapidly changing demographics threatened power long held by white Republicans. But what really made the party embrace voter ID was its power to ignite the base.
I was especially struck by Doug Smith, the Republican chair of the Texas House elections committee when voter ID legislation passed. He described how claims of voter fraud first levied after the 2000 election by George W. Bush’s attorney general, John Aschroft, ricocheted in Texas, becoming such an obsession of Republicans that by 2009 Smith concluded no legislative activity could proceed until lawmakers tackled voter fraud fears.
After studying Ashcroft’s investigation, which found no evidence of widespread voter fraud, Smith tried to craft moderate legislation. He eventually gave up after Tea Party organizing handed Texas Republicans a supermajority in the House in 2011.
A few years removed from elected office, Smith understood why his party had gone down such a dark hole. “If you persuade people that you are the party trying to make sure elections are controlled by American citizens, and that the Democrats are doing everything they can to make sure that illegal immigrants can vote by the busload,” he said, “that’s a good position to be in.”
And it is.
Fomenting anger based on election fraud claims proved effective in states like Wisconsin, North Carolina and Indiana, where voting laws were debated with increased fury and threats were made toward election officials. And then came Trump. The claims he made in the 2016 campaign aligned him early on with this lineage. Over the course of the 2020 election, Trump took fraud fiction to a new level. I increasingly found myself fielding phone calls from terrified election officials across the country. One Republican election official called me after midnight, a week before November 3, just to talk. She wanted to know what the country would be like after this election. I couldn’t find any words of hope to offer her.
I’ve been reminded again and again over the past four years of the major structural forces that made possible what we saw in January. One is the bigger shifts in voting laws that both opened the door to more restrictive voting laws and centralized voter-roll data, which conspiracy theorists and fraud commissions alike misinterpret to spin scary stories of illegal voting that appeal to the base foundations of the country’s ugliest, most racist roots. The other is changes in my own profession, the media itself.
The local news outlets my ProPublica colleagues and I worked with during the 2016 election were already husks of their former selves, poorly equipped to debunk the claims of vote fraud by local elected officials like Texas Governor Greg Abbott and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach. By 2020, many of those journalists had lost their jobs altogether.
It is no longer acceptable to pretend that we can cover claims about our election system without resourcing local reporters to examine and explain those claims thoughtfully and with nuance to local readers who understandably do not trust national sources. It is no longer acceptable to ignore the tedious and important work of our local election administrators, who are on the front lines of democracy.
As we move forward from the lowest point in modern American democracy, we need to reclaim a common understanding of truth. To do that, we need the journalism that helps voters understand the pivotal events just around the corner, whether bloody or not — from redistricting to legislative election reforms to whether to maintain vote by mail and early voting. That’s why I left ProPublica to join Votebeat, a new pop-up newsroom designed not only to support local reporters in covering voting and elections, as Electionland did, but to create full-time jobs to ensure somebody is doing that reporting.
The local and state level, after all, is not just where voter fraud claims began. It was also the early warning system for the Jan. 6 insurrection, with many reports of harassments of poll workers and death threats against election officials. And it is the stage where state Republicans first made national news for revealing their president’s illegal scheme to overturn Joe Biden’s election victory. Notably, it wasn’t Mitt Romney or a Cabinet member or a White House staffer who recorded and released a call in which Trump abused his power, seeking to falsify an election result. It was a Republican voting official in the state of Georgia.
‘This Is Some Crazy Nightmare’: Mom Recounts Last Moments With Her 3 Kids Who Died in Texas Power Outage
Kate Briquelet February 22, 2021
Last Monday, Jackie Pham Nguyen was grateful to still have power at her Texas home.
Her kids—Colette, 5, Edison, 8, and Olivia, 11—played in the snow that morning before coming inside for hot chocolate and leftover food from Lunar New Year celebrations. For hours, they played Bananagrams and other board games.
Their grandma, Loan Le, joined them. The 75-year-old, who’d lost heat at her own residence amid the state’s power failures, braved icy roads to take shelter at their Sugar Land house.
“Honestly it was an awesome day. We had lunch at home, hung out. The kids were excited that they didn’t have school because it was Presidents’ Day, and we just kind of had the news running in the background the whole time,” Jackie said. “The whole day, I felt grateful we were among the 10 to 15 percent of Houston that had power.”
When the lights went out at 5 p.m., the family was undeterred. They huddled together for warmth, Jackie lit the fireplace, and they continued playing games. Around 9:30 or 10 p.m., Jackie tucked the kids in bed upstairs and went to sleep in her room downstairs.
Four hours later, the house was in flames. Jackie said she doesn’t remember much about that night, except that when she woke in a hospital bed, a fire official informed her that the children—and her mother—were gone.
“After that, I couldn’t breathe. Even now, I can’t believe it. This is some crazy nightmare and I’m going to wake up any minute now,” Jackie told The Daily Beast.
“How did we all have this perfectly normal day and how did it end like this?” she said.
Authorities are investigating what caused the blaze, which comes amid extreme weather and a deadly power crisis across the state. Initial reports on social media suggested the inferno may have started from the fire the family lit to keep warm.
Dozens of people in Texas—and across America—have died in last week’s winter storms. The cold snap especially wreaked havoc on the Lone Star State, where millions of people lost electricity, heat and water because of the state’s infrastructure failures.
Among the dead are 11-year-old Cristian Pineda, who died of suspected hypothermia in his freezing cold mobile home in Conroe. The sixth-grader and his family came to the U.S. from Honduras two years ago. Cristian’s mother, Maria, has filed a $100-million wrongful death lawsuit against the state’s grid operator, Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) and the utility company, Entergy Corporation.
Houston mom Etenesh Mersha and 7-year-old daughter Rakeb Shalemu died from carbon monoxide poisoning after they desperately sought warmth in their car.
Andy Anderson, a Vietnam veteran in Crosby died of hypothermia while trying to get a generator running; he relied on an oxygen machine, which doesn’t work without electricity.
There are many tragic stories of loss, and likely more to come.
Vanessa Kon, an aunt of the Nguyen children, told the Daily Beast she believed officials should have been prepared for the power grid disaster.
“We don’t know what happened,” Kon said. “We don’t know why the lights went out like that. The city should have been prepared for it. Why was the power off? If the power wasn’t off, this wouldn’t have happened.”
For her part, Jackie hasn’t even begun to consider accusations of negligence against Texas power operators. “I’m in this triage sort of crisis mode right now,” Jackie told us from an extended-stay hotel. “I’m just waiting for what people have to say.”
Jackie said she spent two days in a hospital burn unit before she left against the advice of doctors. For several days, she still smelled like the smoke from her burning house, until she finally found a hotel with running water.
“I don’t remember a whole lot from that night,” she said. “I suffered from a lot of smoke inhalation. It’s kind of impaired some of my brain cognition. I’m really just hoping a lot of it comes back. Because I want to be able to piece all that together.”
Jackie remembers letting Olivia talk over Zoom with her friends from a New York summer camp that night, despite wanting to conserve energy on their electronic devices in anticipation of outages. “I’m grateful that I did let up a bit on that, so she could have that. So her friends could have that memory,” Jackie said.
She remembers the kids trying to teach Loan to play the card game Speed, but Loan wasn’t catching on. She thinks of little Colette, nicknamed Coco, suggesting they mix chocolate syrup with milk because they ran out of cocoa mix.
Jackie said grandma Loan lived just five miles away and usually never spent the night anywhere but her own house. Even during Hurricane Harvey in 2017, Loan stubbornly chose to stay by herself. “I thought it was so weird that she didn’t even give me a hard time about coming over,” Jackie said of Monday’s sleepover. “I kind of wonder… if things happened that way so that she would be there. She would not have been able to survive knowing what happened to her grandkids.”
The grieving mom—who suffered burns and smoke inhalation from the blaze—said one blip is replaying through her mind. She recalls standing in the foyer of her two-story house and encountering walls of flames. She screamed for the children but didn’t hear them. She only heard the crackling of fire, the noise of the walls disintegrating.
She believes her female friend, a light sleeper who stayed over that night, dragged her from the home. The friend tried calling 911 but her phone wasn’t working, so she ran out and banged on neighbors’ doors.
“Obviously, as a parent, you question yourself, if you could have done something,” Jackie said. “The way it’s been explained to me is just: I’m lucky to be alive. There was nothing else for me to do.”
As Jackie tries to piece together what happened that night, she said she wants people to know who her children were—and how important their grandmother was in their lives, an unsung hero and the glue that kept the family together.
Jackie’s parents moved to the U.S. in 1981 from Vietnam, where Jackie was born. Loan and her husband, Cau Pham, were refugees in Malaysia before coming to California and later moving to Texas. Jackie’s three kids were first-generation Americans.
“If it weren’t for my kids, I don’t think she would have made it as long as she has,” Jackie said of Loan, adding that Cau died several years ago. “They gave her a sense of purpose. She scheduled everything around their 3 o’clock pickup at school. Or she did grocery shopping for us.”
“I can’t say enough about how much my mom was a rock to me and saving grace to my children,” Jackie added.
Jackie’s coworkers at the tech company Topl, and her cohort at Rice University, where she’ll earn an MBA this spring, launched a GoFundMe that has raised more than $278,000. Right now, the fundraiser is a placeholder for a future foundation to honor Colette, Edison and Olivia. (Kon also created a GoFundMe on behalf of her brother, Nathan Nguyen, the children’s father.)
All of her kids, she said, were wildly different “little humans.”
First-born Olivia was witty and sarcastic, and loved skiing and listening to Queen, Journey, and other classic rock music. “She’s very much an old soul—stuck in this middle-schooler’s body,” Jackie said. “She’ll tell me what songs are about. Anything she was curious about she would dive in. Every song, she reads the lyrics, looks up the history, the band members. She could have been on Jeopardy or some sort of trivia.”
The mother and daughter shared a special connection; both were the oldest in their families. “She was such a good big sister,” Jackie said. “It was a love-hate relationship [being the oldest child]. It’s a burden. It’s another way she and I related.”
Edison had just turned 8 in November and was a sweet, gentle boy who enjoyed art and painting and was eerily attuned to other people’s moods. Jackie said Edison was mildly autistic and has struggled with social tact, but he was also incredibly considerate. “He always could sense if I was sad or if I was stressed, or if I was worried. He would just check in on me—my 8-year-old!”
“I’d ask him, ‘Are you happy, son? Are you having a good day?’ The things we say to each other a lot were: ‘If you’re happy, I’m happy,’” Jackie said. “If you spent a minute with him, you just knew he had such a warm heart.”
Colette, at 5 years old, was a girly-girl and unapologetically herself—especially when making videos for TikTok. She even made and presented a PowerPoint show for Jackie’s birthday, with a slide that read: “Top 5 reasons i love mama.”
“She was constantly dancing and talking to herself, as if she’s on a live show,” Jackie said. “She was not going to accept her birth order. There was no way anyone was going to knock her around and bully her in anyway.”
But she was also very loving and affectionate, always hugging her mom or holding her hand. “Even when she looks at you, she looks at you longingly and deep into your eyes, it’s adorable,” Jackie said.
Jackie said she wants the GoFundMe money to go to causes related to performing and visuals arts, autism awareness, and reading and literacy—themes that speak directly to who her children were as people.
“They are amazing little humans and they would have grown up to be awesome, to really contribute and make a difference,” she said.
“This is the legacy I could do for them. This is the goodness they would have potentially done had they been able to live out their lives.”
Democrats’ Top Priority Is To Reform Elections. Will It Be The Bill To Break The Filibuster?
Paul Blumenthal, Reporter
Democrats have control of the House and Senate, and they want to use it to reform elections and make it easier to vote. But first, they’ll have to get past Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
Congressional Democrats are pushing a sweeping package of voting rights, gerrymandering, election, campaign finance and ethics reforms, called the For the People Act. It’s listed as H.R. 1 in the House and S. 1 in the Senate, signifying that it is Democrats’ top legislative priority. For the past two decades, every bill labeled both H.R. 1 and S. 1 has become law.
If the For the People Act is to pass, though, Democrats will need to surmount the one obstacle clogging up almost all legislation that doesn’t directly affect the federal budget: the filibuster. Democrats hold only 50 votes ― plus Vice President Kamala Harris’ to break ties ― and Republicans could easily use the filibuster to prevent voting reform. McConnell, who previously called the legislation “socialism” and a “power grab,” blocked it from a Senate vote in 2019.
Debate over the filibuster ― that it is an archaic tool used mostly throughout history to block civil rights laws and is now preventing the government from operating as voters want it to ― is already at a boiling point. If the filibuster winds up killing democracy reform, it may be what finally drives Democrats to turn around and kill the filibuster.
Former President Barack Obama, Democratic lawmakers and activists are already paving the way to make that argument. At the funeral for civil rights hero and Democratic Rep. John Lewis last summer, Obama called the filibuster a “Jim Crow relic” and said that if Republicans dared to filibuster legislation to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act (a bill that is now named for Lewis), Democrats should not hesitate to eliminate the filibuster to pass the bill.
The same could be argued of the For the People Act: Lewis and his staff wrote the entire first section, which greatly expands voting rights and limits voter suppression tactics.
These reforms are all the more vital now, Democrats argue, as Republicans seek to pass new voter restrictions at the state level, spurred on by former President Donald Trump’s voter fraud lies. If Democrats don’t pull off these reforms now, they could be too late.
They intend that the For the People Act become law. Whatever it takes.
“It’s all systems go to try to make that happen,” said Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.), the bill’s chief sponsor in the House.
The Fight To Fix Democracy
Democrats didn’t expect to gain unified control of Congress after the voting ended on Nov. 3. Though Joe Biden had won the White House, they were two seats short of a 50-seat majority in the Senate with two runoff races in Georgia to be decided on Jan. 5. Then they won both runoff races, putting them in control of the White House and both chambers of Congress.
Now, they’re trying to figure out how they’re going to enact their agenda. Just as when Obama came into office in 2009, the main obstacle is McConnell’s use of the filibuster to block any and all legislation that he can.
There was intense discussion around eliminating or reforming the filibuster back then, but that nascent effort could not overcome the hesitancy from old-line Democratic senators who did not understand that the Senate they had served in for decades had changed since the 1970s era of consensus.
A coalition did emerge around filibuster reform in 2010, which ultimately led then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to kill the filibuster for lower-court judicial nominees in order to overcome a Republican-led blockage in 2013. After Trump became president in 2017, McConnell ended the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees in order to fill the seat he’d held open for more than a year after Justice Antonin Scalia died.
The groundwork laid down a decade ago gives today’s filibuster reform advocates a running start. The anti-filibuster coalition Fix Our Senate launched in 2019 with backing from some groups involved in the 2010 effort, including the Communications Workers of America, Common Cause and Public Citizen, as well as many new progressive and issue-oriented partners like Sunrise Movement and Data for Progress.
Fix Our Senate and the Declaration for American Democracy, a coalition of good government and progressive groups whose membership overlaps with that of Fix Our Senate, are now pressuring Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and other key Democrats to pass the For the People Act no matter what.
Fix Our Senate has already run a full-page ad in The New York Times calling on Schumer to end the filibuster. More ads are planned in states represented by Democratic senators who are not currently on board with ending the filibuster, like Sens. Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.).
The Declaration for American Democracy intends to target its messaging in seven states: Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Maine, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia. These states fall into four different but sometimes overlapping categories. There are the states with Democratic senators who are currently opposed to ending the filibuster (Arizona and West Virginia), states with potentially swayable Republican senators (Alaska and Maine), states whose election systems were attacked by Trump as part of his campaign to overturn the election (Arizona, Georgia and Pennsylvania), and states with moderate House Democrats who backed the For the People Act (Arizona, Georgia, Maine, Pennsylvania and Virginia).
The For the People Act “is shaping up to be a big flashpoint in the fight to eliminate the filibuster because it is both critically important and also absolutely clear that it will be filibustered,” said Eli Zupnick, spokesman for Fix Our Senate. He added, “If Democrats go two years without taking any steps to fix our democracy and tackle corruption and protect voting rights, this will be a failure. This will be a failure of two years.”
The fight in Congress over the For the People Act will begin in earnest in the coming weeks. The House plans to pass the legislation the week of March 1. After that, the Senate will hold hearings on the bill and likely bring it to the floor for a vote.
And that is where the bill is expected to be blocked by a Republican filibuster and become a flashpoint in the fight to change Senate rules.
The Democrats’ Plan For Passage
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) is the lead co-sponsor of the For the People Act in the Senate, alongside Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), and also the leading proponent of eliminating the filibuster. He is insistent that the bill become law. To do so, it must either gain support from 10 Republican senators, an unlikely feat, or overcome the opposition to eliminating the filibuster expressed by Manchin and Sinema.
“It has to pass in some way,” Merkley said, “but it could pass in multiple ways.”
One way to try to gain Republican support, Merkley suggested, is to put the bill on the Senate floor open to all germane amendments. Most bills hit the floor with a rule drafted by the majority party limiting amendments and debate. Showing openness to the other party’s amendments and debate is rare these days and might earn buy-in from the other side.
If that doesn’t work, then Merkley thinks Democrats need to immediately examine any and all ways to change the filibuster rule. This could include lowering the threshold for overcoming the filibuster from 60 to 55 votes, eliminating the 60-vote threshold but providing for a talking filibuster, or entirely ending the filibuster.
A majority party changing the rules to pass its top-priority legislation wouldn’t be out of the ordinary, Merkley noted. In fact, Republicans altered the rules for budget reconciliation in 2015 after winning control of the Senate. This change allowed them to pass their own H.R. 1 and S. 1 in 2017, a package of tax reforms and upper-income and corporate tax cuts.
Failure to pass the For the People Act wouldn’t just mean that Democrats failed to enact the centerpiece of their agenda; it would also clear the way for a new wave of state voter suppression measures driven by Trump’s election fraud lies.
Right now, Republican-controlled state legislatures are pushing bills to limit early and absentee voting, purge voters from the rolls, and toughen voter ID requirements. The For the People Act would ban almost all of these schemes to make it harder for certain communities to vote.
“Here we are with a very, very slim majority, a majority that we’ll probably lose if voter suppression goes on steroids as seems to be the path that so many state legislatures are on right now,” Merkley said. “And so this is the critical moment to pass this bill.”
Furthermore, the bill would ban partisan gerrymandering by requiring states to use independent, nonpartisan redistricting panels to draw House district lines. Given the extent of current Republican control of state legislatures, which exists thanks to district lines gerrymandered back in 2011, the Democratic House majority could theoretically be gerrymandered out of existence ahead of the 2022 midterm elections. Passing the For the People Act quickly could potentially prevent this as well as blocking new voter suppression laws.
What remains to be seen is how many filibusters it will take to create the necessary pressure to tackle the filibuster. The For the People Act may be the first bill to be blocked in this Congress, but as long as there’s a filibuster, it won’t be the last.
House Democrats expect to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act this spring as well. If Republicans block that, too, they’ll be sending a clear symbolic message: that the GOP, fresh off trying to overturn an election by disenfranchising Black voters, is ready to stomp on Lewis’ legacy.
Democrats will have to decide whether to let Republicans block these bills, which will allow further disenfranchisement of Black voters, or to pass the legislation they ran on.