Orca Network News - December, 2006
the Southern Resident orcas,
orcas worldwide, and their habitats
December 1, 2006 through December 31, 2006.
December 29, 2006 (Seattle Times) November was a killer month for salmon. Redds, or nests, packed with eggs were destroyed by floods in Western Washington rivers. Puget Sound chinook were particularly hard hit.
Of course, heavy November rains have been around as long as the fish. But never has there been so much pavement, so many miles of dikes, so many straightened riverbanks, so much development. All of it means more devastating runoff.
A little later in the year, the baby fish would have hatched and could have sought safer water. Biologists won't know for four years what the real death toll from the flooding is. The region has put buckets of money into recovering wild Puget Sound chinook, but they remain at risk of extinction.
California adds muscle to ideas, and sets an example
December 29, 2006 (Daily Astorian) California has some of the nation's strictest environmental laws to protect air and water.
Now the state is taking the lead in reducing greenhouse gas emissions by tempting businesses to join the California Climate Action Registry.
The effort is being closely watched around the Northwest and, if successful, may become a model or guide for other states.
The state has established a Climate Action Team by executive order of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. In late September, he signed landmark legislation, Assembly Bill 32, to establish a first-in-the-world comprehensive program of regulatory and market mechanisms to achieve quantifiable, cost-effective reductions of greenhouse gases.
Scientists Work on Map of Climate Change
December 29, 2006 (Environmental Network News) Scientists in Antarctica spent Christmas Day finishing work that may show the effects of global warming -- drilling for clues about how massive ice sheets responded to past temperature changes. The project will be vital to creating a map of how the Earth may react to higher temperatures, scientists say.
Ice mass snaps free from Canada's Arctic
December 29, 2006 (Yahoo News) A giant ice shelf has snapped free from an island south of the North Pole, scientists said Thursday, citing climate change as a "major" reason for the event.
The Ayles Ice Shelf - all 41 square miles of it - broke clear 16 months ago from the coast of Ellesmere Island, about 500 miles south of the North Pole in the Canadian Arctic.
Scientists discovered the event by using satellite imagery. Within one hour of breaking free, the shelf had formed as a new ice island, leaving a trail of icy boulders floating in its wake.
Warwick Vincent of Laval University, who studies Arctic conditions, traveled to the newly formed ice island and couldn't believe what he saw.
"This is a dramatic and disturbing event. It shows that we are losing remarkable features of the Canadian North that have been in place for many thousands of years," Vincent said. "We are crossing climate thresholds, and these may signal the onset of accelerated change ahead."
More protection sought for right whales
December 29, 2006 (Seattle Times) Having scored a win in getting more protection for polar bears, a conservation group is turning up the heat on the federal government to keep the North Pacific right whale from going extinct.
North Pacific right whales were thought to be headed toward certain extinction until a surprising number turned up a couple of summers ago in the Bering Sea. Despite that, it's believed there are fewer than 100 of them off the coast of Alaska. Their future is precarious at best.
The whales are the most endangered whale in the world. A few hundred may still be left off the Russian coast.
Unlike polar bears, the plight of right whales is not surprising. They have been listed as endangered - meaning they are facing extinction - since 1973.
On the same day, the conservation group scored another success, getting the Bush administration to propose that the North Pacific right whale get its own endangered listing, apart from right whales in the North Atlantic. The proposal must be finalized in a year.
While scientists view the North Pacific and North Atlantic right whales as genetically distinct, they are listed as the same species. A 1991 recovery plan for right whales makes scant reference to whales in the North Pacific, instead focusing on the North Atlantic where there are believed to be about 350, Cummings said.
The new proposed rule for the separate listing was published Wednesday. It must be finalized in a year. The final rule would trigger a requirement that a separate recovery plan be developed specifically for North Pacific right whales.
Dam is gone, salmon are back
December 28, 2006 (Seattle Times) SHELTON, Mason County - For more than a century, salmon followed Goldsborough Creek as it passed through the grounds of a sawmill, into the middle of Shelton and toward the woods beyond - before bumping smack into a 30-foot-high wall called the Goldsborough Dam.
And for decades, the salmon runs limped along, blocked from prime spawning grounds by the manmade barrier of wood and concrete.
Then, five years ago, with the rumble of bulldozers and backhoes, the dam was taken down. Today the descendants of those earlier salmon now splash through a series of riffles and gradual stair steps where the dam once stood, free to pass on to spawn in a 25-mile network of streams.
Along the way, scientists are getting a glimpse of what can happen when a dam, albeit a small one, is demolished: As fish gradually reclaim their former habitat, Goldsborough Creek is becoming a more important source of salmon for the southern tip of Puget Sound.
Polar bear habitat may 'literally be melting'
December 28, 2006 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer) Polar bears are in jeopardy and need stronger government protection because of melting Arctic sea ice related to global warming, the Bush administration said Wednesday.
Pollution and overhunting also threaten their existence. Greenland and Norway have the most polar bears, and a quarter of them live mainly in Alaska and travel to Canada and Russia.
Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne on Wednesday proposed listing polar bears as a "threatened" species on the government list of imperiled species. The "endangered" category is reserved for species more likely to become extinct.
"But we are concerned the polar bear's habitat may literally be melting."
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., the incoming head of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said the polar bear's plight reflects the health of the planet.
"Global warming is melting polar ice at an alarming rate, and we are now beginning to realize the consequences of this," she said. "This news serves as a wake-up call to the U.S. Congress and the administration that we must quickly begin to address global warming through legislative action."
President Bush's refusal to go along with United Nations-brokered mandatory controls on carbon dioxide, the chief global warming gas, has contributed to tensions between the United States and other nations.
Farmers and Conservationists Form a Rare Alliance
December 27, 2006 (New York Times) The standoff here between farmers and environmentalists was familiar in the modern West.
With salmon and wildlife dwindling in the Skagit River Delta, some environmentalists had argued since the 1980s that local farms should be turned back into wetlands. Farmers here feared that preachy outsiders would strip them of their land and heritage.
This year, though, the standoff ended - at least for three longtime farmers in this fertile valley, who began collaborating with their former enemies to preserve wildlife and their livelihoods.
The Nature Conservancy, which usually buys land to shield it from development, is renting land from the three farmers on behalf of migrating Western sandpipers, black-bellied plovers, dunlins, marbled godwits and other shorebirds.
Gregoire 'defangs' oil panel
December 22, 2006 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer) Critics blast governor's plan to move watchdog council
When Gov. Chris Gregoire kicked off an ambitious program to heal Puget Sound last week, she failed to mention her plans for this week: what critics say amounts to "defanging" an independent citizen oversight panel meant to keep an eye on Big Oil.
A major oil spill represents the largest short-term risk of extinction for Puget Sound orcas. Yet, curiously, little was said about oil spills in Gregoire's emphatic speech and the hoopla that accompanied it last week as she unveiled a centerpiece of her legislative agenda.
This week Gregoire told the chairman of the Oil Spill Advisory Council, which is less than 1 1/2 years old, that she is proposing legislation to move the council under the Ecology Department. Environmentalists call the agency overly deferential to the oil industry.
The council, by contrast, backed stationing a rescue tug at Neah Bay year-round and better protecting sensitive spots such as the San Juan Islands. It called for doubling the state's spill-prevention efforts -- and paying for it by boosting oil and gasoline taxes by 0.000392 percent, or less than three-hundredths of a penny per gallon.
Gregoire's idea "defangs" the new council, said Rep. Dave Upthegrove, D-Des Moines, chairman of the House Select Committee on Puget Sound.
"That's taking the teeth out," Upthegrove said. "These are the citizens who had the courage to take on Big Oil."
Echo from the end of a dolphin species
December 21, 2006 (Christian Science Monitor) The baiji, a freshwater dolphin, has used sonar to find fish in China's Yangtze River for some 20 million years. Last week, scientists declared it basically extinct. Can the end of a nearly blind cetacean help humans see the need for greater species conservation?
Five events in Earth's history have caused extinction waves, including the asteroid thought to have slammed into the Yucatán and ended the dinosaur age. Whether the planet is on the verge of a sixth wave of extinctions, or already in it, is a matter of debate, but either way, the situation should be taken seriously.
The World Conservation Union's "Red List" is at an all-time high: 16,119 threatened species (out of 15 million estimated species). This century-old trend is largely human-made and ongoing, with one harbinger being the extinction of many large mammals from North America.
In 1973, the United States responded with the Endangered Species Act, the toughest such protection law in the world. Wolves, bald eagles, and grizzlies have rebounded, and about 85 percent of the 1,322 species on the US endangered list are stable or increasing, the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson, Ariz., estimates.
Other places in the world are not so conservation-minded. Hot spots include Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and Brazil, where massive logging and mining are eliminating forest habitat at alarming rates. And "China is dangerously near a crisis point" with its environment, writes Pan Yue, the vice minister of China's State Environmental Protection Administration.
What might persuade the world to make a much greater effort at species preservation?
When charismatic birds or mammals are threatened, that gets people's attention. One mammal humans warm to, the polar bear, has now been joined with another huge environmental challenge: climate change. The US Fish and Wildlife Service is to rule any day on whether to propose listing the polar bear as endangered. Environmental groups such as the Center for Biological Diversity say global warming is melting the ice on which the bears live. Climate change is likely to raise awareness about species extinction.
Judge upholds federal protection for Sound's orcas
December 21, 2006 (Seattle Times) A federal judge in Seattle has thrown out a challenge from industry groups to federal protections for Puget Sound orcas, clearing the way for recovery efforts.
U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Zilly on Wednesday dismissed a lawsuit by the Washington State Farm Bureau and the Building Industry Association of Washington, ruling the groups failed to show they have suffered any injury from protecting the orcas.
The ruling is expected to lift a legal cloud that had been hanging over a 2005 federal decision to list the orcas under the federal Endangered Species Act, said Steve Mashuda, a lawyer for Earthjustice, which represented environmentalists in the case.
"I think it's time we start rolling up our sleeves and getting serious about recovering orcas in Puget Sound," he said.
Puget Sound orcas remain an endangered species
December 21, 2006 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer) A legal challenge that sought to strip local orcas of their endangered status was tossed out Wednesday by a U.S. District Court judge in Seattle.
"It's great news," said Kathy Fletcher, executive director of People for Puget Sound, an environmental group. "We're back where we thought we were when we got the listing."
In his ruling, Judge Thomas Zilly stated that the building and farming groups that brought the suit had not proved that they would be harmed by the protection of the orcas under the Endangered Species Act.
"Remarkably, plaintiffs have totally failed to provide any evidence of standing," Zilly stated.
The case was dismissed with prejudice, meaning the groups can't bring it back to court.
Judge: Farms not hurt by whale rules
December 20, 2006 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer) AP - A federal judge on Wednesday dismissed a lawsuit filed by building and farm groups that challenged the decision to make Puget Sound's resident killer whale population an endangered species.
In the decision, U.S. District Judge Thomas S. Zilly said the Building Industry Association of Washington and the Washington Farm Bureau couldn't prove they would be harmed. The lawsuit cannot be refiled, he said.
"We're surprised," said lawyer Russell C. Brooks with the Pacific Legal Foundation, which represented the plaintiffs.
The National Marine Fisheries Service said last year that the whales deserved protection. The lawsuit claimed the move would result in needless water and land use restrictions for farms, and would open them to fines or jail time for "the most basic farm practices."
The three orca pods - or families - that live in western Washington's inland waters are a distinct population of a subspecies, the Northern Pacific resident orcas, which include orcas off Alaska and Russia. The plaintiffs had argued that the Endangered Species Act applies only to a distinct population of a species - not a subspecies.
"Just because there are orcas elsewhere in the Pacific Ocean doesn't mean we're willing to live without them in Puget Sound," said Patti Goldman, an attorney for Earthjustice, said after the lawsuit was filed. The group challenged the lawsuit.
Puget Sound's southern resident orcas are genetically and behaviorally distinct from other killer whales. The pods use their own language, mate only among themselves, eat salmon rather than marine mammals and show a unique attachment to the region.
About $220 million would pay for cleaning up pollution, restoring habitat, improving septic systems and controlling storm water
December 20, 2006 (Bellingham Herald) For the next two years, about $220 million would pay for cleaning up pollution, restoring habitat, improving septic systems and controlling storm water throughout Puget Sound, according to Gov. Chris Gregoire's proposed $29.94 billion two-year budget released Tuesday.
The money addresses recommendations by the Puget Sound Partnership, a 22-member group appointed by the governor to develop a strategy to clean up Puget Sound by 2020.
The funding package includes $14.5 million for cleanup in Bellingham Bay - about 29 percent of the money to be spent on aquatic cleanup projects throughout the Sound.
Sakhalin gas: Shell loses, whales win
December 15, 2006 (Asia Times) There are three opponents of Russia's strategy to become a global liquefied natural gas (LNG) exporter - the western gray whale, the US government and Gazprom.
Until this week, and for quite different reasons, all three, including the LNG producer itself, Gazprom, have succeeded in delaying and redirecting plans to start shipments from the first of Russia's LNG plants at Aniva Bay on Sakhalin Island, in the Far East; and to postpone indefinitely drawing-board plans and joint-venture agreements to build the second and third LNG plants on the Baltic, and to the north, on the Barents Sea.
The campaign to protect the whales by Russian environmental organizations - endorsed by regional court rulings - has been under way for several years. Royal Dutch Shell, controlling shareholder and operator of the Sakhalin-2 project, has repeatedly denied that its dredging, construction of offshore production platforms and a tanker-berthing jetty, and the laying of undersea pipelines, had upset the marine ecology in the Sea of Okhotsk. Starting in 2005, the Russian courts began to disagree.
When Russian President Vladimir Putin was last in Beijing a few weeks ago, the emphasis in the energy-sector talks was on overland pipeline transportation, not on increased shipping from Sakhalin, industry sources say.
Gregoire offers blueprint to rescue Puget Sound
December 14, 2006 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer) Capping an intense yearlong effort by a panel of prominent business and government leaders to understand and start fixing the woes of Washington's picturesque inland sea, Gregoire proposed a $220 million, two-year jump-start.
Her plan would accelerate the pace of cleaning up toxic dumps and septic tanks. It would protect wetlands and shorelines that nourish the Sound's sea life. But it left serious doubts the state is ready to deal with the fastest-growing threat to the Sound.
That threat is the pollution funneled by the drenching element of Wednesday's storm -- the rain that streams into the Sound from city streets and suburban lawns after every downpour, carrying with it oil and grease and fertilizer and dog droppings and so much more.
Overall, her blueprint was praised by environmentalists, state lawmakers and others as a strong first step -- with some shortcomings.
And while Gregoire proposed that the largest chunk of cleanup money be targeted at pollution from septic tanks, Upthegrove questioned whether enough was earmarked for septic pollution at shoreline state parks. That would build citizens' confidence in the state government, Upthegrove said.
Gregoire takes first swipe at huge Sound cleanup
December 14, 2006 (Seattle Times) Gov. Christine Gregoire is trying to light a fire under efforts to clean Puget Sound. But she's lighting a match rather than starting a bonfire.
Wednesday, in releasing a $220 million, two-year proposal for cleaning up the Sound, Gregoire made a cautious step toward what she has said is a top initiative in her administration. It's a plan calculated to build momentum for a broader cleanup in coming years while also winning over a public that appears lukewarm to ambitious and costly efforts.
The money she wants to spend would be about a 17 percent increase compared to the two previous years, for a wide range of efforts from restoring an estuary of the Snohomish River to hauling creosote-soaked logs off beaches. But it represents a fraction of the estimated $18 billion to $27 billion it could cost to achieve Gregoire's goal of completely restoring the Sound to health by 2020.
Environmentalists and tribal, business and political leaders welcomed Gregoire's attention to the Sound and many of the details in the proposals.
"The tribes want to see some daylight," said Billy Frank Jr., chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, who is on Gregoire's panel of advisers for Sound cleanup. "They want to see some commitment and some accountability, and it's all there."
Puget Sound plan: $12 billion over 13 years
December 13, 2006 (Seattle Times) A panel appointed by Gov. Christine Gregoire has finalized its plan for a 13-year across-the-board effort to clean up Puget Sound, with stronger emphasis on storm runoff - a critical issue as rainfall washes toxins off hillside roads and rooftops into the Sound.
Perhaps more than any other issue faced by the region, stormwater runoff exemplifies the clash between environment and economy.
Population growth - an additional 1.4 million people are expected to move to the region by 2020 - means more roads, parking lots and housing developments.
That means more asphalt and concrete channeling untreated stormwater into the watersheds and the Sound.
The final report of the Puget Sound Partnership is being released today by partnership officials and Gregoire, who assigned them the task last year. It coincides with Gregoire's announcement today of her proposals for finding billions of dollars to mount the campaign and carry it through 2020.
Storm runoff carries chemicals, oil, garbage and even pharmaceuticals from homes, parking lots and highways into the Sound.
"It's the issue most closely linked to land use and population growth," said Kathy Fletcher of People for Puget Sound, the lone environmental activist on the panel.
B.C. First Nations yield on whale hunt
December 12, 2006 (CBC) First Nations on Vancouver Island have agreed to forgo their traditional right to hunt grey whales for at least 25 years, in return for other benefits.
The Maa-nulth First Nations made a side agreement not to hunt the whales as part of the treaty they signed on the weekend in Victoria.
But Huu-ay-aht hereditary Chief Tom Mexsis Happynook, a long-time advocate of aboriginal whaling, said the treaty preserves the right to hunt whales in the future.
When the Makah band of Washington state shot and killed a whale in 1999, Happynook declared that First Nations on the west coast of Vancouver Island would also demand the right to resume a whale hunt as part of any treaty.
But when the Maa-nulth initialled the final agreement on the weekend, the word "whaling" did not appear in the text.
Happynook said the treaty recognizes an implicit right of the Maa-nulth to resume the whale hunt in the future, as part of the harvesting of wildlife, birds and fish for food, social or ceremonial purposes.
He said that under the side agreement the federal government will fund research on whales instead.
Region keen to help Sound, poll finds
December 11, 2006 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer) You love the region's seaside views, your summer ferry trips and an occasional glimpse of orcas. But are you ready to pony up the taxes to save Puget Sound? To accept stricter restrictions on shoreline development? To -- gasp -- admit that it's the stuff that you do -- driving your car, paving your driveway and peppering your lawn with pesticides -- that's largely to blame for the ailing marine ecosystem?
That depends on which side of the mountains you call home.
A new survey from the Elway Poll found that to restore the marine environment, more than half of the residents living around the Sound said they might be willing to:
Accept restrictions on land and water use.
Pay higher utility rates and local taxes.
Cut funding to other government programs.
It's OK if there's no overwhelming support for new taxes, because there are no plans for creating any, said Rep. Dave Upthegrove, D-Des Moines.
Back in the spring, a similar survey found that 73 percent of residents around the Sound rated the region's environmental health as "excellent" or "pretty good." That number slid to 57 percent in the November poll.
"You begin to move public opinion and awareness of the problems, and that's encouraging to us," said Dave Workman, spokesman for the state Ecology Department.
Scientists have documented declining numbers of seabirds, fluctuations in the number of endangered orcas and the destruction of shorelines that act as nurseries to small fish, including baby salmon.
Experts have said that population growth and stormwater pollution are the greatest threats.
Puget Sound cleanup relies on the basics
December 11, 2006 (Seattle Times editorial) Protecting the health of Puget Sound may have less to do with writing eye-popping checks than doing the complex, tedious work of updating water-quality standards and enforcing existing rules.
Three years ago, the federal Environmental Protection Agency, in no great odor with environmentalists, had even lost patience with the state Department of Ecology for its laggardly review of water-quality standards. The EPA refused to approve submitted standards and returned them for more work. Last week, Ecology announced it had revised and toughened a narrow range of water-quality regulations, including those related to temperature and dissolved oxygen, important to the health of salmon populations in dozens of watersheds across the state.
The good news is the state made some progress. Too bad it came at the prodding of outside regulators. As Kathy Fletcher, executive director of People for Puget Sound, notes, "It's another example of how far behind we are in doing the most basic things."
Taxpayers already pay for an administrative infrastructure to protect Puget Sound. One of the governor's obligations is to ensure that what is in place, works.
Whales in love: Like humans, their brains are wired for romance
December 10, 2006 (The Independent UK) They are the touchy-feelies of the deep, with a capacity to experience love and attachment, thanks to some tiny cells, new research shows
We know that they sing, sending musical waves through the deep as they travel in complex family units. We know that they appear stricken with grief when one of them dies. And now we know that the great whales of the world are capable of loving.
A remarkable new study will reveal that whales - hunted for centuries by man, and lauded in ancient literature for their mystical qualities - have the ability to experience love and also deep-rooted emotional suffering.
Two scientists - Patrick Hof and Estel Van Der Gucht, of the New York Consortium in Evolutionary Primatology - made the breakthrough after spending 15 years studying the brains of the biggest mammals on the planet.
They did not expect to find anything unusual when they set out to study the inner workings of the large whale brain. But the scientists were determined that humans should know more about the minds of these mysterious creatures.
"They are certainly popular animals in general, but they are all threatened and live in habitats frequently quite endangered. We just don't know enough about their biology."
The scientists' report will appear in the January edition of The Anatomical Record.
Warming ocean may dry up food Environment
December 7, 2006 (Portland Oregonian) A study predicts a plummeting of ocean life in the future if temperatures keep rising
A study clearly shows for the first time that a warming ocean could lead to a significant decline in phytoplankton, the microscopic plants that underpin the ocean's food supply.
Scientists from Oregon State University, NASA and four other institutions used 10 years of satellite data to determine that phytoplankton populations plummet as oceans warm and increase as water cools.
The findings suggest that if oceans continue to warm in the coming decades, as many climate projections indicate, the resulting decrease in phytoplankton could lead to a reduction in ocean life.
In addition, a decline in the plants -- which consume huge amounts of carbon dioxide each year -- means more of the Earth-warming greenhouse gas would be left in the atmosphere.
"The results essentially provide us with a sneak peek of how ocean biology in the coming century might change as climate continues to change and warm," said Michael Behrenfeld, an OSU professor of botany who led the study.
Phytoplankton, invisible to the naked eye, live in the ocean's upper sunlit layer. They are responsible for about the same amount of photosynthesis each year as all land plants combined. The process removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and converts it into organic carbon that fuels nearly every ocean ecosystem.
Comments sought on Elwha River dams
December 5, 2006 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer) The Army Corps of Engineers is asking members of the public to say how they feel about a plan to dismantle two dams on the Olympic Peninsula's Elwha River, where orca advocates hope strong salmon runs will be re-established.
The main issue expected immediately would be the release of millions of cubic yards of dirt and rock that have built up behind the two dams. The corps says releasing it would help replenish areas downstream starved of sediment since construction of the dams early last century.
A public notice is available at goto.seattlepi.com/r440.
Comments may be sent through Thursday to email@example.com. or to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Regulatory Branch, P.O. Box 3755, Seattle, WA 98124-3755.
Comments should include the applicant and permit number: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 200600334.
On the trail of the imperiled Yangtze dolphin
December 4, 2006 (The Age - Australia) When they write the environmental history of early 21st-century China, the freshwater dolphin expedition now plying the Yangtze river may be seen as man's farewell to an animal it once worshipped.
A team of the world's leading marine biologists is making a last-gasp search for the baiji, a dolphin that was revered as the goddess of Asia's mightiest river but is now probably the planet's most endangered mammal.
The baiji expedition started out as a typically modern-day mission: a cascade of beer from the brewery sponsoring the launch, technical support from international research institutes and a shipfull of good intentions and high hopes. But more than halfway through the six-week expedition, the mood is grimmer as the participants contemplate the possibility that man may have killed off its first species of dolphin.
On board the Kekao-1 survey boat, it is not hard to see reasons for the decline. As commerce booms, the Yangtze has grown thick with container ships, coal barges and speed boats, whose hulls and propellers can run down or tear up the dolphins. Others have been blown up by bombs, electrocuted or snarled on 1000 metre-long lines of hooks set by local fisherman who use unorthodox and illegal methods to boost catches.
Pollution is fouling their habitat. Near Huaneng, the acrid smoke billowing out of a paper factory and coal-fired power plant is so pungent that the crew grimace more than a kilometre away. The factory discharges a torrent of filthy water directly into the river.
The completion of the Three Gorges dam has not helped. Although it is far upriver, the giant barrier has worsened a decline of the smaller fish on which the baiji feed and the shrinkage of the sand bars around which they played.
Scientists warn that the river is losing its capacity to support life, which will ultimately affect humans. "The baiji is like a canary in a coalmine," says Zhang Xiangfeng, of the Institute of Hydrobiology. "Since the 1990s, the water in the lakes near the Yangtze has become so polluted that we can't drink from them. Since I entered the institute 23 years ago, there are more and more ships and less and less animals. The river looks like a highway."
However, public and state awareness about the need for conservation is growing. China has more than 2000 nature reserves. "China has made an effort to do more but certainly economic development - which leads to changing eating habits, more dams and more roads - is a threat to many species," says Xie Yan, of the Wildlife Conservation Society, which will soon assess how species numbers have changed in recent years.
Yangtze dolphin on verge of extinction
December 4, 2006 (China Daily) A team of 30 Chinese and foreign scientists have failed in a 26-day search to find the rare white-fin dolphin in the Yangtze River.
The last expedition in 1997 located 13 white-fin dolphins, the world's rarest dolphin, which lives only in China's longest river, the Yangtze.
If the white-fin dolphin disappears on earth, it will be the first whale species extinct due to human activities. More than 90 percent of deaths of the white-fin dolphins were caused by human activities, scientific data showed.
During the 1,700-kilometer expedition from Yichang to Shanghai, the scientists found the population of black finless porpoises had also fallen.
In addition to deck observers equipped with high-performance telescope to spot dolphins, the team members used hydrophone machines to detect acoustic signals from the dolphins.
They have obtained some sound records during the expedition which needs more analysis. It's the last hope of the scientists, Wang said.
A patrolman of the fishery administration was reported to see the rare dolphin for the last time in April this year. But he didn't take a photo of the dolphin, and scientists were not sure it was a real white-fin dolphin. Since then there were no such reports.
Wang said pollution, overfishing, shipping and a large number of water conservancy projects had affected the habitats of the animals.
Illegal fishing by means of electric shock, poisons and explosives will accidentally injure and kill the dolphins, said scientists.
The white-fin dolphins have bad eyesight and use their own sonar system for orientation. The noises of ships will disturb the sonar system of the dolphins which are easy to get killed in the screws of the ships.
The dolphins also require a clean water living environment. Scientists have got water samples of the Yangtze River, which will be sent to a lab in Switzerland to analysis the pollutants.
"If the situation cannot be improved, the white-fin dolphin may be extinct within ten years, and the black finless porpoise will also be endangered," Wang said.
There are an estimated 1,000 black finless porpoises in the river, dropping by half from 12 years ago, according to Wang.
If any white-fin dolphin is discovered, it will be taken to natural reserve for protection, according to the scientists.
A conservation base for white-fin dolphin has been set up in a lake in central China's Hubei Province. However, no white-fin dolphin pairs have been caught in the lake in the past ten years, increasing the difficulty of artificial propagation.
Some scientist say the only way to save the species is to improve the environment of the Yangtze River. Conservation work on the Yangtze freshwater dolphins started from 1986. The Chinese government has established six natural reserves to protect them along the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River.
Yangtze dolphin may be extinct
December 4, 2006 (Shanghai Daily) THE search for the rare Yangtze River dolphin by an international team of marine biologists is reaching the conclusion that it may no longer exist.
The white flag dolphin, long a feature of Asia's mightiest river, is probably now extinct - and died out only recently, the experts said.
"We had reports of a sighting earlier this year, but it couldn't be verified. On this expedition we have seen none so far," said Wang Ding, deputy director of the Wuhan Institute of Hydrobiology and a white flag dolphin expert. "The chances of there being any white flag dolphins left now look very slender indeed. Our only hope is that we can find a couple and keep them in a nature reserve."
The white flag dolphin, also known as the baiji, has been an endangered species for more than 10 years. Its dwindling population prompted an exhaustive search called the Yangtze Freshwater Dolphin Expedition 2006.
The effort involves two research vessels and covers the entire historic range of the white flag dolphin.
"There are four main factors that have contributed to the baiji's demise," said August Pluger, president and chief executive officer of baiji.org, a group dedicated to saving the creatures. "There's the ongoing usage of rolling hooks among fishermen, the loss of habitat due to dredging and the huge increase in shipping traffic and pollution."
The expedition boats travel one hour apart and along separate banks. Each vessel has a team of seven observers operating in rotation, four watching through daylight hours with high-performance optics. The ships anchor from dusk to dawn.
Hydrophone technology is also being used to detect the baiji's distinctive acoustic signals. So far, two-thirds of the way through the trip, none has been heard.
"Baiji are practically blind," said Tomonari Akamatsu, an underwater bio-acoustics expert from the Japanese National Fisheries Agency. "They hunt with sound, and they can communicate with each other over a large distance; however, due to the noise that the shipping on the river creates both of these functions must have been almost impossible for the baiji."
Bob Pitman, the international scientific director of the American National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has spent 30 years studying marine mammals.
"This is the first cetacean to become extinct," he said, referring to a class that includes whales and porpoises, "and the first large mammal for over 100 years.
"This isn't just a loss for China but for all mankind."
You'd be irritable, too, if you were held captive
December 3, 2006 (Everett Herald editorial) The orca, 21/2-ton Kasatka, twice held trainer Ken Peters underwater for less than a minute each time during the finale of a show at Shamu Stadium at SeaWorld. The act called for the orca to leap out of the water so Peters could dive off her nose. Instead, Kasatka grabbed Peters' foot in her mouth and dragged him toward the bottom of the tank.
Peters suffered a broken foot, but otherwise was fine.
While the SeaWorld experts discuss among themselves why a killer whale would turn on a trainer, the non-experts among us can only wonder why it doesn't happen all of the time.
"Some mornings they just wake up not as willing to do the show as others," said Ken Balcomb, director of the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor. "If the trainer doesn't recognize it's not a good day, this will happen."
It would be really refreshing to hear SeaWorld's whale researchers admit that maybe, just maybe, the majestic orcas, who are born and designed to roam the ocean with their small, tight-knit families (pods), are bored to tears living in man-made tanks, performing unnatural acts with humans for human entertainment and being fed seafood they don't have to hunt for, among other indignities.
Elephants and whales are particularly fascinating to humans because they are so intelligent, social and huge. It's long past time to admit, no anthropomorphism needed, that captivity is anathema to these animals, just as it is to humans.
Killer whale returns to show
December 3, 2006 (Canada.com) "The trainer was being pinned by the whale at the bottom of the pool," onlooker Karen Ingrande told KGTV-TV.
When they came up, Peters tried to calm the animal by rubbing and stroking its back, but it grabbed him and plunged down again for about another minute.
The crowd "began to realize there was not something right and the whale was down again under the water. Again they were splashing the water to try to get the whale to come to the surface," Ingrande said.
The whale finally released him, and Peters surfaced and swam away. Other trainers stretched a net between him and Kasatka, Koontz said.
He emerged from the tank with one leg of his wet suit torn.
"He tried to stand up on the stage, and that's when we realized there was something wrong with his leg and his foot. He was just white as a ghost," spectator Sherri Justice told KFMB-TV in San Diego.
In the 1999 incident, Peters escaped injury by jumping out of the water, park officials said at the time.
Koontz said a different whale dived with a trainer's foot in its mouth two or three weeks ago but obeyed commands to release the trainer and return to the side of the tank. The trainer was not injured.
Killer whale in attack performing again
December 1, 2006 (Denver Post) A killer whale was back performing before crowds at SeaWorld Adventure Park only a day after dragging her trainer to the bottom of the pool.
Kasatka, a 5,000-pound-plus female, grabbed Ken Peters by the foot and tugged him underwater for less than a minute, surfaced, then took him down for another minute before he managed to coax her into releasing him Wednesday.
"In captivity they're dangerous because they're big and sometimes they're not happy with their situation," Balcomb said. "In the wild they're not dangerous to humans and there's no incidences of them attacking humans unprovoked."
Kasatka and Peters were involved in a similar scrape in 1999, when the whale tried to bite the trainer during a show, Scarpuzzi said. Peters hopped out of the tank without being injured in that incident.
The whale also tried to bite a different trainer in a 1993 incident.
The Humane Society of the United States, which opposes keeping orcas in captivity, issued a statement Thursday suggesting SeaWorld may one day have to kill a whale to save a person's life.
"Simply put, keeping these powerful and intelligent marine mammals in captivity and allowing people to swim with them is utterly inappropriate," said Naomi A. Rose, marine mammal scientist for the society.
"The risk of a tragic outcome is too great--for the trainers and the whales," she said.