Orca Network News - December, 2008
the Southern Resident orcas,
orcas worldwide, and their habitats
December 1, 2008 through December 31, 2008.
December 31, 2008 (The Age - Australia)
Thousands of dolphins and whales have been sighted in the deep waters off East Timor, with scientists hoping the migratory corridor will jump-start the tiny country's tourism sector.
The Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) has conducted the country's first major boat-based survey of cetaceans in a joint project with the Timor-Leste government.
"The dolphins and small whales were literally jumping out of the water all around us, it was hard to know which animal to photograph," said Timorese researcher Jose Monteiro.
Working on board a traditional 20-metre wooden Indonesian vessel, the scientists were surprised to uncover a global hot spot of whale and dolphin activity.
They identified about 10 species of cetaceans, including blue whales, beaked whales, short-finned pilot whales, melon headed whales and six species of dolphins.
Calif. sues to block Bush endangered species rules
December 30, 2008 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer)
California is suing the Bush administration to block last-minute endangered species regulations that are intended to reduce input from federal scientists, state Attorney General Jerry Brown announced Tuesday.
Brown said the president is trying to gut the Endangered Species Act before he leaves office next month.
"Unfortunately, the Bush administration has had an antipathy to using sound science," Brown said in a phone interview with The Associated Press. "This is the latest assault as Bush goes out the door. It's intolerable."
The lawsuit was filed late Monday in U.S. District Court in San Francisco.
The Interior Department issued the revised rules this month. They allow federal agencies to issue permits for mining, logging and similar activities without getting a review from federal wildlife biologists if their own research shows the project will not affect plants and animals.
Barker: Dam critics press transition team to replace BPA's administrator
December 29, 2008 (Idaho Statesman)
Steve Wright leads one of the largest, most carbon-free power providers in the United States.
The administrator of the Bonneville Power Administration is a Democrat. He just signed contracts with 135 public power customers that are designed to stabilize regional power rates which are among the lowest in the nation.
Wright got the job during the Clinton administration and kept it during the Bush administration because he's an able leader, a smart money-cruncher and because he could deliver, for President George W. Bush, a salmon plan that didn't breach dams.
The plan never has been ruled legal. But over the last eight years, with strong support of Democratic Washington Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, Wright has spread his plan's political support to include all players but the Nez Perce Tribe, Oregon, fishermen and environmentalists.
He did it by passing out hundreds of millions of dollars for habitat and hatchery projects paid for with electricity receipts from the hydroelectric dams that most scientists say are the main barrier to salmon recovery. He also had critical Republican support from Idaho Sen. Larry Craig.
So now that the environmentalists, the Nez Perce Tribe and sportsmen - who have pushed for more than a decade to remove four dams on the lower Snake River in Washington - have friends on the transition team, they are pushing to get Wright replaced. Oregon Democratic Rep. Earl Blumenauer has joined the cause, calling for Wright's replacement.
Sara Patton, executive director of the Northwest Energy Coalition, is from Seattle, but her strong support for dam breaching probably gets her a veto from Murray.
Wright has proved to be a survivor so far. And whatever happens, it won't be among the first things on President-elect Barack Obama's agenda.
The EPA warns that climate change threatens Oregon's cold-water fish populations
December 29, 2008 (Daily Astorian)
Released July 17, the report warns that the time may come when salmon- and trout-fishing trips are no longer much of an option for residents or visitors. EPA scientists further caution that warming temperatures could lead to a 50- to 100-percent decline in Chinook salmon returns in some areas, since salmon require cool water and are extremely sensitive to increasing temperatures.
"Reductions of such magnitude will have a substantial adverse effect on recreational salmon catch rates, and possibly whether recreational fishing would even be allowed to continue in some areas of the Pacific Northwest," the EPA report concludes.
Navy, environmentalists settle sonar lawsuit
December 27, 2008 (AP)
The Navy has settled a lawsuit filed by environmentalists challenging its use of sonar in hundreds of submarine-hunting exercises around the world.
The Navy said Saturday the deal reached with the Natural Resources Defense Council and other groups requires it to continue to research how sonar affects whales and other marine mammals.
It doesn't require sailors to adopt additional measures to protect the animals when they use sonar.
The agreement comes one month after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Navy in another sonar lawsuit the NRDC filed.
Environmentalists argue that mid-frequency active sonar can disrupt whale feeding patterns, and in the most extreme cases can kill whales by causing them to beach themselves.
But scientists aren't sure why sonar affects some species more than others. They also don't fully know how it hurts whales.
The Navy acknowledges sonar may harm marine mammals but says it takes steps to protect whales. It says more research needs to be done to better understand how sonar affects whales before it adopts additional protective measures.
The Pacific Fleet has made anti-submarine warfare a top priority as more countries, including North Korea, Iran, and China, have been acquiring quiet diesel-electric submarines that are increasingly difficult to track.
The Navy said the settlement, which was reached Friday, calls on it to spend $14.75 million over three years on marine mammal research topics of interest to both the Navy and the plaintiffs.
Governor wants to boost spending on Puget Sound
December 26, 2008 (Seattle Times)
Despite the dour economy and state government's budget woes, Gov. Christine Gregoire wants to boost spending on Puget Sound, her signature environmental issue.
The governor's proposed budget, released last week, would increase spending on Puget Sound-related projects by roughly $51 million, for a total of $283 million in the next two years, according to the Puget Sound Partnership.
That's still short of the $422 million the partnership says it needs to start implementing it's plan to revive Puget Sound by 2020, a goal Gregoire has set.
But officials at the partnership, the state agency created to lead the recovery, say any gains are a victory in the face of cuts faced by other areas, such as education and social services.
"I know the governor tried to protect Puget Sound programs the best she could," said Kathy Fletcher, executive director of the environmental group People for Puget Sound. But overall "there are some significant reductions of important little pieces."
Fletcher was pleased to see a year's worth of funding for a tug boat at Neah Bay, to prevent oil spills from broken-down ships.
But she noted there's still a one-year gap in the two-year budget. She also worried that draining money dedicated to environmental cleanup to help plug budgets holes will hurt environmental cleanups in the future.
"Whale-hugging paddlers" bringing back San Juan kayak race
December 25, 2008 (Anacortes American)
The San Juan ORCA Challenge will be just that - kayakers challenging the sea, winds and their fellow paddlers, and organizers challenging everyone to take better care of the orcas' environment.
Nadja Baker and fiancÚ Jim Zimmerman, both of Anacortes, are working with the Anacortes Chamber of Commerce to add the race to the 2009 Waterfront Festival, putting more "water" back into the annual event.
The open water sea kayak competition will be divided into two races. The first is a 3-mile "fun" race for all ages and experience levels. The second is a 20-plus-mile "endurance tester" for experienced kayakers only.
Both races will be on Saturday, May 16 during the first day of the two-day festival. Participants will start at Seafarers’ Memorial Park and finish at the Cap Sante Boat Haven.
“With thousands of festival-goers as your personal cheering squad at the finish and all proceeds going to a great cause, how could you not join us?!” states the event’s promotional material.
The great cause is the Orca Network, a nonprofit that raises awareness of Pacific Northwest whales and the importance of providing healthy and safe habitats for them.
“That’s the twist,” Baker said. “Now it’s a fundraiser for the Orca Network.”
The Orca Network was founded in 2001 by Howard Garrett, director and board president, and Susan Berta, volunteer/event coordinator and board treasurer.
“Habitat degradation, industrial poisons such as PCBs, and other impacts of human activities are taking their toll on the orcas we have come to know and love,” according to its Web site. “It is time to reflect, to reconnect, and to respond as better caretakers of our planet.”
Oregon ocean conditions best for fish in 50 years
December 22, 2008 (Oregonian)
After several years of poor ocean conditions that left birds starving and fish dwindling, this year brought a healthy influx of cold, nutrient-rich water along the Oregon Coast that likely represent the best year for fish in decades, scientists say.
Surveys along the coast from Newport north to LaPush, Wash., found more juvenile chinook salmon than they've seen in the 11 years the surveys have been done, researchers said.
That suggests that the Northwest could see a salmon boom once those fish mature and migrate back to their home rivers in the next few years.
Scientists believe that the return to positive conditions may be connected with the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, a climate pattern that shifts between warm and cool cycles in periods of 20 to 30 years. This year, the pattern was cooler than it has been since 1955, said Bill Peterson, a NOAA-Fisheries biologist based in Newport who is also affiliated with Oregon State University's College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences.
Scientists try to uncover the dangers to orcas
December 21, 2008 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer)
When seven resident killer whales that frequent inland waters of Washington went missing this year, there was no shortage of suspects.
Are the orcas starving because of dwindling salmon runs? Is a toxic brew of oil, sewage and pollutants putting them at risk? Or is vessel noise disrupting their ability to find food?
"We've got to think bigger about the whole food issue," said Joe Gaydos, a wildlife veterinarian and regional director of the SeaDoc Society.
What the orcas eat when they leave Puget Sound has implications for salmon harvest in other areas such as California and Alaska, he said.
University of Washington researchers analyzing orca scat have found signs that the mammals were "nutritionally stressed" this year.
When orcas don't eat much, they draw down their fat reserves, where toxic substances are stored, said Katherine Ayres, a graduate student doing work under Wasser. When that happens, the substances enter the circulation system and could cause health problems, she said.
It's unclear whether the orcas are strictly starving or whether they're becoming more susceptible to disease, but it all goes back to food, she said.
Studies show that orcas prefer chinook salmon, a species listed as threatened or endangered in several waterways in the Northwest, including Puget Sound and the Columbia River.
Lack of food leads to other problems, including increased susceptibility to disease, said J. Pete Schroeder, a marine mammal veterinarian and director of research with Global Research and Rescue.
Advocates argue that the orcas' problems should be seen as a call to action to clean up Puget Sound because their decline means something greater than losing the species itself.
"It means that the whole habitat is losing its ability to sustain life," said Howard Garrett, director of the Orca Network.
Area projects get salmon grants
December 20, 2008 (Wenatchee World)
Efforts to protect salmon habitat in Chelan and Okanogan counties will receive more than $2 million from state Salmon Recovery Funding Board.
The grants were announced Friday by Gov. Chris Gregoire. This is the ninth year that the state board has handed out the grant money to help restore federally-protected salmon runs.
The Upper Columbia region annually receives 11 percent of the grant funds based on a formula for how the money should be distributed, said Mike Kaputa, natural resources director for Chelan County.
Kaputa said the amount of money the Upper Columbia has received from the funding board has remained the same the last few year.
But he said the salmon restoration projects are becoming larger and more complicated, so the grants are now covering less of the total cost than they did in the past.
Local conservation are turning to other funding sources - primarily the Bonneville Power Administration - to help pay for projects, he said.
Kaputa explained that many of the easy salmon restoration projects, such as replacing culverts or reconnecting old oxbows, have been done or are being done.
King Electrical fined for dumping into storm drains
December 20, 2008 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer)
King Electrical Manufacturing Co. has been fined $20,000 by the Washington Ecology Department for dumping industrial wastewater into Seattle's storm drains that empty into Hamm Creek, officials said Thursday.
Inspectors from the Ecology Department, and Seattle and King County, working together under the Duwamish Urban Waters Initiative established by the Legislature in 2007 to prevent pollution in the Duwamish industrial area, noticed the problem last summer, the first of a series of visits between July and October.
The wastewater came from a part-washing tank and a paint-rinse booth.
"The company discharged caustic rinse water from a tank used to wash metal parts and water from a spray-painting booth air pollution control device. The parts washing tank drained through a hose to a parking lot, leading to a storm drain. Drain lines from the paint booth were connected directly to the storm drain," an Ecology Department news release said.
King Electric, located on 9131 10th Ave. S., plugged the paint booth drain with cement after Ecology inspectors proved with a dye that it was connected to the storm drain.
Researchers probe scat for clues to orca decline
December 19, 2008 (Associated Press)
Using a trained dog to sniff for poop and petri dishes attached to long poles, scientists are analyzing killer whales' scat and breath samples in the hopes of solving the mystery of Puget Sound's dwindling orca population.
Seven resident killer whales that frequent the inland waters of Washington went missing this year and are presumed dead, and researchers want an explanation.
The Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island plans to tag the southern resident population of killer whales next year to track their winter migration. While the region's signature whales have been studied for more than three decades, it's a mystery where they go and what they eat when they leave the Puget Sound.
Starting next year, researchers will attach two-inch satellite tags on the dorsal fins of six of the orcas. For the past seven years, two of the pods have been showing up in central California, an indication they may be foraging farther for salmon.
"We've got to think bigger about the whole food issue," said Joe Gaydos, a wildlife veterinarian and regional director of the SeaDoc Society.
What the whales eat when they leave Puget Sound has implications for salmon harvest in other areas like California and Alaska, he said.
When whales don't eat much, they draw down their fat reserves, where toxins are stored, said Katherine Ayres, a graduate student doing work under Wasser. When that happens, toxins enter the circulation system and could cause health problems, she said.
It's unclear whether the whales are strictly starving or whether they're becoming more susceptible to disease, but it all goes back to food, she said.
"The future for the fisheries is grim, and it's going to get worse," Balcomb said. "I expect that we'll have a worsening of the whale situation."
Studies show orcas prefer Chinook salmon, a species listed as threatened or endangered in several waterways in the northwest, including Puget Sound and the Columbia River.
Lack of food leads to other problems, including increased susceptibility to disease, said J.Pete Schroeder, a marine mammal veterinarian and director of research with Global Research and Rescue.
Advocates argue that the orcas' problems should be seen as a call to action to clean up Puget Sound because the whales' decline means something far greater that losing the species itself.
"It means that the whole habitat is losing its ability to sustain life," said Howard Garrett, director of the Orca Network.
Sound's future still murky
December 18, 2008 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer)
Development, growth, runoff threaten gains
Scientists at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, after digging up and studying some well-preserved muck tracking Puget Sound's water quality changes going back to the 19th century, report both good and bad news for the ongoing effort to clean up the region's ecologically wounded waterway.
The good news is that repeat sediment analyses performed by the researchers over the past quarter-century show that when major pollution regulations were passed decades ago, there were marked declines in contaminants such as arsenic, lead and copper from "point sources," such as the old Asarco Smelter in the Tacoma area.
"It demonstrates the positive impact these environmental regulations had on the overall water quality of Puget Sound," said Jill Brandenberger, a marine chemist at the national lab's marine sciences branch in Sequim who, with national lab colleague Eric Crecelius, conducted the study.
The bad news, Brandenberger said, is that the sediments indicate that these dramatic gains started to slow down in the late 1980s -- and, in some cases, appear to have even started to worsen -- the result of "nonpoint" pollution from the region's population growth, development and consequent increases in contaminated stormwater runoff.
The scientists say their findings strongly suggest that "new approaches to regulating nonpoint sources are necessary" if the Puget Sound cleanup is to have any hope of success.
Sutherland's sweetheart deal hurts us all
December 17, 2008 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer op-ed by Sharon Nelson)
If we're going to save Puget Sound, we have to stop doing things like building new strip mines where killer whales feed.
For 12 years, residents have fought a strip mine on Maury Island because it required a massive dock right at the very site where pods of endangered orcas feed and calve during the winter.
So why is mining company Glacier Northwest now working in the waters off Maury Island just as the orcas have returned to the island's waters?
State Lands Commissioner Doug Sutherland's campaign was supported by tens of thousands of dollars from Glacier Northwest, a multinational company. Glacier contributed $2,800 to Sutherland's campaign for a third term in October 2007. Then in September 2008, it contributed $50,000 to the Committee for Responsible Stewardship, a political action committee formed by timber and mining interests to support Sutherland's re-election.
Then he lost the election.
Whale watchers should be on the lookout for Chopfin, the transient orca
December 16, 2008 (Los Angeles Times)
When the storms clear out and the ocean is again calm and navigable, marine mammal enthusiasts will venture out in search of Pacific gray whales migrating south to Mexico.
What they might encounter, though, are killer whales that have been seen sporadically in recent weeks off Orange County and Los Angeles. These "transient" orcas prey almost exclusively on marine mammals and perhaps are taking advantage of an abundant California sea lion population in the San Pedro Channel.
The most prominent member of this small sub-pod of transients is "Chopfin," who has a severely damaged dorsal fin.
In all, 150 transient killer whales have been photo-cataloged by researchers Alisa Schulman-Janiger and Nancy Black. None is as easily identifiable or as mobile as Chopfin, who is catalogued as CA217.
Is the Exxon Valdez spill site finally clean?
December 16, 2008 (New Scientist)
Next year will mark the 20th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill - perhaps the most notorious human-caused environmental disaster in history.
But, according to the latest survey of Prince William Sound in Alaska - where the oil tanker foundered in 1989 - very little oil remains and most of what does is not in a form or location that can harm animals, plants or humans.
Although scientists funded by Exxon and others working for Greenpeace agree on these facts, they are still at odds over whether the area can be given a clean bill of health.
Paul Boehm of Exponent International, a scientific consultancy that specialises in chemical contamination, led the survey together with colleagues from two other private companies and two US research universities. The study received funding from the Exxon Mobil Corporation.
However, David Santillo of the Greenpeace Research Laboratories at the University of Exeter in the UK is reluctant to give the area a clean bill of health.
"The jury is still out over whether the levels of exposure are harmful to fish and mammals," he says. "In the long term, we don't know what the effects will be on the species' reproduction."
The debate is not whether the spill has any lasting consequences - some groups say local killer whale populations have still not recovered from losing pod members to the spill. Rather, it is whether the oil residues that remain are still causing harm.
Saving Luna: Moving Story of a Curious Orca
December 15, 2008 (Epoch Times)
Saving Luna is a heart-warming and tragic story of a wild baby killer whale whose creative ways of trying to make a social life for himself by relating with people drew worldwide attention.
The documentary, which opened recently in theatres across Canada, was filmed by Michael Parfit and his wife, Suzanne Chisholm. The couple first encountered Luna in 2004 while on assignment to feature the Orca in a magazine story.
Officials, scientists, natives, and boaters all had different takes on Luna's social activities.
The government viewed him as a potential danger, scientists discouraged any human contact with him, and fishermen considered him a pest. But others, including Parfit and Chisolm, saw Luna as a unique miraculous individual, while the local natives treasured him as the spirit of their ancestral chief.
Man recalls orca's capture
December 15, 2008 (Vancouver Province)
Spong burns a candle every Dec. 11 at his whale research station on Hanson Island to show he is thinking about the day in 1969 when six killer whales from northern resident pods were captured and sold to aquariums.
Five died within the first few years of captivity. But Corky -- five years old when she was caught -- survived these 39 years, and has been known since her capture as Shamu to SeaWorld San Diego visitors.
"Her story is a sad tale and sorry commentary on how our relationship with nature can be bent and distorted for self-gain," said Spong, who has led an unsuccessful campaign to have Corky freed.
Even though Corky continues to circle endlessly around her concrete tank, the efforts have not been in vain, Spong said.
"Thousands have acted on her behalf during protests," he said. "It has been an amazing effort in the face of her captors' continued intransigence." Although Corky is old for a captive orca, she is not old for an orca in the wild. "If she was put in the ocean, where she could hear the sounds of her family, it might give her a new lease on life," he said.
First Person: Mother Nature feels our pain
December 13, 2008 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer op-ed)
The Puget Sound Partnership faces enormous technical challenges in its mission to preserve and restore Puget Sound. But by far PSP's biggest challenge is to persuade us to change our habits and our ways of thinking about our place in the Sound ecosystem. It is hoped that poking a little fun at our foibles will underscore the ways in which we must change if the Sound is to survive:
Mother Nature wishes to convey a deep and heartfelt apology. She is very sorry that her science is so unrelenting and thus so inconvenient for humans. She has mandated that clearing forests will cause damage to stream channels. We have noted that clearing even as little as one-third of a watershed causes her to retaliate by destabilizing and eroding stream beds regardless of how grumpy that makes us.
She has ordained that even minute amounts of impervious area in a watershed will seriously harm aquatic life. If only 5 percent of a watershed is paved and the pavement is connected to the stream, half the health of the stream is lost regardless of our screams about how unfair it all is.
She has declared that removing the forested fringes from streamsides will cause her fish to starve and die. Is she not aware that this counters the will of our Founding Fathers who foresaw the need for us to put our croquet sets there? Does not the Constitution give us inalienable property rights in order to make streamsides safe for lawn chairs? Mother Nature is grieved to disclose to her suffering progeny that even our most sacred prejudices do not trump her rules.
Mother wishes us to know that she feels our pain. However, she wishes to point out that the rules were established well before we were born, and we were warned about them many times. She points out that children are eventually supposed to grow up and stop rebelling against their parents' rules.
And Mother reiterates her standing admonishment that if you continue to whine over things you cannot change, she will give you something truly worth whining about.
Killer whale superpod spotted in the Gulf
December 13, 2008 (Gulf Restoration Network)
A quick reminder that the Gulf is an amazing natural treasure: an Alabama fisherman videotaped more than 200 killer whales (orcas) feeding on tuna just 60 miles off of the coast of Orange Beach, AL, on Friday. Before this sighting, the orca population in the Gulf of Mexico was estimated to be around 150. According to biologist Keith Mullin, these numbers are unprecedented: "Ten to 15 in a pod--that's the most we've ever seen or really even gotten reports of." Watch the video and read the story here.
First Federal gives grant to marine science center
December 13, 2008 (Peninsula Daily News)
First Federal has contributed $3,500 to the Port Townsend Marine Science Center to help elementary school students in Jefferson, Clallam and Kitsap counties learn about Puget Sound orcas and underwater sounds in early 2009.
Students will learn about orca communication, food chains and the challenges they face now.
In a second class, which will focus on sound under water, students will experiment with methods to make, manipulate and measure sound.
Next year, the center plans to begin a two-year project on the science of orca whales.
The Orca Project will culminate in a permanent exhibit of an orca skeleton in their Marine Exhibit.
To register for a class or request busing scholarships, which are available on a first-come, first-served basis for public schools, phone Lucy Carpenter at the center at 360-385-5582, ext. 113, or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Governor favors mostly free permits for polluters
December 13, 2008 (Seattle Times)
Gov. Christine Gregoire is moving ahead with plans to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions, but wants to dampen the effect on businesses and the economy by providing most of the pollution permits for free.
The question of issuing free permits for emitting greenhouse gases versus charging for them is one of the biggest confronting states trying to address global warming.
The permits, which would set the amount of greenhouse gases a company could release, are key to a so-called cap-and-trade system that state lawmakers are expected to consider next year as a way to reduce the emissions.
Gregoire's office currently is drafting preliminary legislation that would established the program.
Environmentalists generally want industries to buy the pollution permits. They argue it will help ensure the true cost of greenhouse gases is felt by the biggest polluters, and will keep companies from profiting by selling permits they got for free.
Industry groups, meanwhile, say providing the permits for free would soften the financial blow as the economy tries to shift away from dependence on fossil fuels, the major source of man-made greenhouse gases.
Gregoire appears to be siding more with business on this point.
Bush revises endangered species laws, reduces federal oversight
December 13, 2008 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer)
Just six weeks before President-elect Barack Obama takes office, the Bush administration issued revised endangered species regulations Thursday to reduce the input of federal scientists and to block the law from being used to fight global warming.
The changes, which will go into effect in about 30 days, were completed in just four months. But they could take Obama much longer to reverse.
They will eliminate some of the mandatory independent reviews that government scientists have performed for 35 years on dams, power plants, timber sales and other projects, a step that developers and other federal agencies have blamed for delays and cost increases.
The rules also prohibit federal agencies from evaluating the effect on endangered species and the places they live from a project's contribution to increased global warming.
Obama has said he would work to reverse the changes. But because the rule takes effect before he is sworn in, he would have to restart the lengthy rulemaking process. House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., said he would seek to overturn the regulations using the Congressional Review Act after consulting with other Democratic leaders. The rarely used law allows Congress to review new federal regulations.
Elephants live longer in wild, study finds
December 13, 2008 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer)
Zoo elephants don't live as long as those in the wild, according to a study sure to stir debate about keeping the giant animals on display.
Researchers compared the life spans of elephants in European zoos with those living in Amboseli National Park in Kenya and others working on a timber enterprise in Myanmar. Animals in the wild or in natural working conditions had life spans twice that or more of their relatives in zoos.
Animal care activists have campaigned in recent years to discourage keeping elephants in zoos, largely because of the lack of space.
"This study validates what we've been saying," said Nancy Pennington, a co-founder of Friends of Woodland Park Zoo Elephants. Pennington said the three elephants currently kept by Seattle's Woodland Park should be transferred to The Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tenn., which is on 2,700 acres of land, while Woodland Park has one acre set aside for its elephants.
The researchers found that the median life span for African elephants in European zoos was 16.9 years, compared with 56 years for elephants who died of natural causes in Amboseli park. Median means half died younger than that age and half lived longer.
Administration Loosens Species Protections
December 12, 2008 (Washington Post)
The Interior Department yesterday finalized rules changing the way it administers the Endangered Species Act, enabling other government agencies to decide on their own whether a project would harm an imperiled species without an independent scientific review.
Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne called the move "a clarification" he considered essential in order to narrow the law's reach.
"The rule strengthens the regulations so the government can focus on protecting endangered species as it strives to rebuild the American economy," Kempthorne said, adding that agencies can bypass a review by either the Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration only "in specific and limited instances where an action is not anticipated to harass, harm or kill a protected species."
Congressional Democrats and environmentalists sharply criticized the administration for the Interior Department action.
"As the Bush administration fades off into the sunset, it continues to take brazen pot shots at everything in sight, including America's landmark conservation law, the Endangered Species Act," said House Resources Committee Chairman Nick J. Rahall II (D-W.Va.), who said he would introduce legislation seeking to overturn the rule next year.
Separately yesterday, Interior issued a finding limiting the protections that could be invoked to protect polar bears, which were listed as a threatened species this year, on the grounds that the bears are already protected under the Marine Mammals Protection Act. The finding means that the bears' protected status could not be used to block activities such as oil and gas development outside their Alaska habitat.
Endangered Species Act: Endangered
December 12, 2008 (Alaska Public Radio)
The Bush administration has changed the Endangered Species Act, a move environmentalists say cuts at the very mission of the law designed to protect America's wildlife. Today's changes will eliminate some of the review steps federal agencies take when working on new projects and will also prevent the Endangered Species Act from being used to fight global warming. In a related move, the Administration also finalized a rule allowing oil and gas exploration in polar bear habitat.
Study Finds Beaked Whales' Tusks Evolved Through Sexual Selection Process
December 12, 2008 (PhysOrg.com)
For years, scientists have wondered why only males of the rarely seen family of beaked whales have "tusks," since they are squid-eaters and in many of the species, these elaborately modified teeth seem to actually interfere with feeding.
A newly published study help explain the evolutionary origin of these distinctive "tusks" in beaked whales, a rather mysterious family of whales that live in the deep oceans. Although the tusks are known to be used in competition between males, another purpose seems to be to attract female beaked whales – and to avoid mistakes in choosing a mate.
"Beaked whales are among the least known, least understood and, frankly, most bizarre whales in the ocean," said Scott Baker, associate director of the Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State University and a co-author of the article. "Because they live in the deep, they are rarely seen alive and many are described only from specimens found stranded dead on the beach. They are the only cetacean species with tusks and scientists have long wondered why, since their diet primarily is squid and the females are essentially toothless.
"It turns out that tusks are largely an ornamental trait that became a driver in species separation," Baker added. "The tusks help females identify males within their species, which could otherwise be difficult as these species are quite similar to each other in shape and coloration."
The beaked whale is unusual in that its tusks have no obvious functional purpose other than to distinguish it from similar looking species of beaked whales.
Baker says speciation occurs in many terrestrial species through geographic isolation, such as separation by canyons, major river systems, or islands. In the ocean, however, these geographical barriers are largely absent. Different species of beaked whales occupy the same trophic level and can look remarkably similar – to the point where scientists can only differentiate them through DNA testing.
"Interestingly," he said, "the species of beaked whales that are in the same ocean regions – even ‘sister' species – are the most different in the shape of the tusks. Those that are closely related genetically but live in different oceans are the most alike."
Rules should help, but costs expected to rise
December 12, 2008 (San Diego Union-Tribune)
In a unanimous decision watched closely worldwide, California's air-quality regulators yesterday adopted the nation's first comprehensive plan of attack to curb global warming. As a result, Californians eventually could be further pinched every time they shop for groceries, write a check to the power company or make a down payment on a new car.
But they also are likely to be rewarded in the long run with cleaner air, improved gas mileage and a potential escape from the stranglehold fossil fuels have on the state.
Moreover, the state Air Resources Board contends that acting now to stall global warming will help prevent climatic catastrophes, from droughts to forest fires, as well as protect endangered wildlife from habitat loss.
Gray whales are coming amid uncertainty, minus the harpoons
December 11, 2008 (Los Angeles Times)
The whales are coming. Spotters on the Palos Verdes Peninsula have already documented the passing of several Pacific gray whales en route from the Bering Sea to Baja California.
About 20,000 more will follow and it may be a painful journey for those passing through Southern California waters when the Navy begins a new round of training with submarine-detecting sonar early next year.
Whales and other marine mammals are experiencing hard enough times due to climactic changes that have altered their habitat and allowed noises -- including sonar -- to travel farther underwater, messing with their ability to communicate with song.
Environmental fugitives get own most-wanted list
December 10, 2008 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer)
The government is starting a different kind of most-wanted list - for environmental fugitives accused of assaulting nature.
These fugitives allegedly smuggled chemicals that eat away the Earth's protective ozone layer, dumped hazardous waste into oceans and rivers and trafficked in polluting cars.
And now the government wants help in tracking them down.
In its own version of the FBI most-wanted list, and the first to focus on environmental crimes, the Environmental Protection Agency is unveiling a roster of 23 fugitives, complete with mug shots and descriptions of the charges on its Web site at http://www.epa.gov/fugitives.
Skagit County farmers, tribe near deal on salmon
December 10, 2008 (Seattle Times)
The conflict between salmon and farms around the Skagit River took a more cooperative turn today, when farmers and an Indian tribe announced they both would lobby for nearly 200 acres of state land to be converted back to tidal estuary.
The proposed deal is meant to end a lawsuit between the Swinomish Tribe and a Skagit County district that maintains dikes and tidegates that keep Puget Sound and the Skagit River from flooding farmland.
The Skagit River is the biggest producer of salmon in Puget Sound, and tidal estuaries are considered critical to young salmon that feed and grow there before heading to the open ocean.
Glacier begins work on controversial Maury Island pier
December 8, 2008 (Vashon Beachcomber)
After one of the longest environmental battles in Vashon's history, Glacier Northwest on Friday afternoon began laying booms in the waters surrounding its aging dock off the eastern rim of Maury Island - the first step in the construction of its controversial, 305-foot pier.
The corporation began its work moments after King County gave it a "notice to proceed" on the corporation's long-sought building permit. King County Executive Ron Sims, noting that the county had exhausted all of "its reasonable legal options," said he had no choice but to give Glacier the go-ahead.
Glacier's foes worked quickly Wednesday to try to forestall the start of the mammoth pier. Amy Carey, the director of Preserve Our Islands, a Vashon group fighting the Glacier expansion, said the organization filed an appeal of the state's decision in King County Superior Court Wednesday morning.
On Friday, after Glacier started to work at the site, the organization filed a request for an injunction to temporarily halt the work.
She and others said they're troubled by how quickly Glacier moved into the site with a barge, trucks and bulldozers. A large construction barge was in place Wednesday afternoon, less than 24 hours after news of the lease was released to the public. Glacier's fast turn-around, Carey said, was "more evidence of their long-standing cohoots with Doug Sutherland."
In October, a small group of Islanders filed a complaint with the state ethics board saying Sutherland should recuse himself from the decision because of a $50,000 donation Glacier made to an independent political action committee working to see Sutherland re-elected.
The debate has garnered considerable attention. Last month, 25 fellows in the Pew Institute for Ocean Science - marine scientists from Stanford University, the University of British Columbia, the University of Washington and several other leading colleges and institutes -signed a declaration expressing concern over the proposed "industrial barging facility" and asked Sutherland to give the Maury reserve "the highest level of protection in order to ensure that the significant environmental values of the area are preserved."
Sutherland, however, said the fact that Maury is an aquatic reserve doesn't mean "it's a preserve" and that under state statute he's obligated "to look at ways to help and develop commerce." In Glacier's case, he added, he felt an obligation to award the corporation a lease, since Glacier had obtained all the county, state and even federal permits required for the project; in at least one instance, Glacier foes fought the permit all the way to the state Supreme Court, he noted.
"Quite frankly, the construction window closes in mid-January. And it didn't seem to me to be fair to the company to make an arbitrary decision to delay. I had all of the information I needed to have," he said.
Maury Island Mine Protest
December 8, 2008 (KPLU)
A small flotilla of kayaks and rowboats joined a group of land-based demonstrators this morning on Maury Island, south of Seattle. The group was protesting a recently-approved gravel mine project. The plans include a large new dock in an area of the Puget Sound designated an aquatic reserve. KPLU environment reporter Liam Moriarty has more.
Maury mine opening hit with protesters
December 8, 2008 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer Dateline Earth)
As operations to massively expand a sand and gravel mine at the edge of the Maury Island Aquatic Reserve get underway, dozens of protesters let the world know what they thought -- by land and by sea -- this morning.
We caught up with Kathy Fletcher, executive director of People for Puget Sound, who reports a "spirited group" showed up about 7 a.m.: "The message was basically, 'This isn't over yet.' There was a lot of anti-Sutherland hostility, not only that he did it, but how he did it."
As we reported last week, Washington Public Lands Commissioner Doug Sutherland OK'd the mine after less than a full day's consideration. Signs in the photo above refer to the $50,000 Glacier Northwest donated to an elect-Sutherland political action committee. Because the PAC was not officially Sutherland's campaign, the normal campaign-finance limits don't apply.
Glacier Northwest says it's passed all the government's hoops and deserves to be allowed to mine the gravel and especially the sand at the site.
Fletcher says the sand and gravel mine's approval is one of those thousand cuts killing the Sound:
Killer Whales in the Gulf of Mexico
December 5, 2008 (WKRG Orlando FL)
About 60 miles south of Orange Beach, a fishing trip for tuna caught the unexpected instead. "I was like a five year old with the best present in the world on Christmas day when I saw the whales, it was like wow!"
Veteran charter boat captain Eddie Hall thought he'd seen just about everything. "Lot's of cool stuff everything from submarines to ships to every kind of shark you can think of, never a killer whale. Never ever thought about seeing a killer whale in my lifetime in the Gulf."
It has happened before. Biologist Keith Mullin says there have been 17 sightings of Orca's in the Gulf, but not like this. "Ten to 15 in a pod that's the most we've ever seen or really even gotten reports of."
According to the National Marine Fishery Service there are at least 20 species of whales and dolphins in the Gulf of Mexico. Before this sighting the population of killer whales in the Gulf was thought to be around 150.
Whale songs drowned out by human noise pollution
December 4, 2008 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer)
The songs that whales and dolphins use to communicate, orient themselves and find mates are being drowned out by human-made noises in the world's oceans, U.N. officials and environmental groups said Wednesday.
That sound pollution -- everything from increasing commercial shipping and seismic surveys to a new generation of military sonar -- is not only confounding the mammals, it also is further threatening the survival of these endangered animals.
Studies show that these cetaceans, which once communicated over thousands of miles to forage and mate, are losing touch with each other, the experts said at a U.N. wildlife conference in Rome.
Overfishing pushing salmon stocks near collapse, study warns
December 3, 2008 (Toronto Globe and Mail)
Salmon stocks in British Columbia are on the brink of collapse largely because the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans has consistently allowed too many fish to be killed in commercial and recreational fisheries, according to a new research paper.
The high exploitation of stocks - which draws parallels with the destruction of Atlantic cod by overfishing - may be more to blame for the decline of Pacific salmon than global warming or poor ocean conditions, says the study assessing salmon management practices, published today by the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences.
The researchers, from the Raincoast Conservation Foundation and the University of California, also conclude that DFO has been managing on the basis of biased data because it has stopped monitoring hundreds of streams with weak runs, choosing to focus on stronger runs only. As a result, managers have a flawed picture that suggests salmon stocks are much healthier than they really are.
The researchers said that based on the monitoring of 137 streams between 2000 and 2005, DFO found 35 per cent of salmon runs in northern B.C. were classified as depressed. But an assessment based on 215 streams that included weak stocks rated 75 per cent of runs as depressed.
"Data ... which span nearly six decades, show that management has repeatedly not met DFO's own target levels. This resulted in diminished runs for all species in nearly every decade," the researchers state.
"Although climate and ocean survival likely play substantial roles, multiple lines of evidence suggest that over exploitation may be the greatest cause of salmon declines across the Northeast Pacific," they say.
Coastal salmon at center of forest debate
December 3, 2008 (Oregonian)
Five rivers pour into Tillamook Bay, and together they are among Oregon's most important coastal rivers for salmon and steelhead. This is one of a few places where six different fish stocks return each year from the sea.
But the same rivers pour off state forestland that may soon face accelerated logging to provide struggling coastal counties with more timber revenue.
But biologists say experience has proved that logging affects fish. Studies tie clear-cutting of more than 25 percent of drainages to declines in diversity of young salmon in the streams below, said Gordon Reeves, a research fish biologist at the U.S. Forest Service's Pacific Northwest Research Station, who works with the Wild Salmon Center.
The way that logging affects salmon streams is complex. For example, it may leave fewer logs and other woody debris to wash into the streams and provide refuge for young fish. Without wood to slow them down, landslides can dump more mud into rivers, choking salmon eggs, Reeves said. Also, the gravel that fish need to spawn may get quickly flushed out.
Trees also slow rainfall runoff, so it doesn't rush from the landscape as quickly, he said, moderating floodwaters that could otherwise sweep vulnerable young fish away.
While plenty of effort goes into restoring degraded salmon streams, the Wild Salmon Center argues that keeping intact streams healthy is just as important.
Selling Puget Sound cleanup to lawmakers
December 3, 2008 (Seattle Times editorial)
Lawmakers and the public are essentially in the same place. No one opposes the restoration and maintenance of a healthy Puget Sound. The next assignment for the Puget Sound Partnership is sharing how it will happen and what needs to be done.
In a season of record financial deficits, a primary objective ought to be ensuring the plan is understood by lawmakers in its breadth and detail. The role of a healthy, robust Sound in the region's environmental landscape, economy and Northwest soul is well understood.
The nature of the ailments and the remedies are less well known, and constituencies for long-term work and long-term commitments need be established. Expectations of lots of new money are unrealistic. Keeping the effort whole financially is not an unreasonable expectation. Snatching money back would only compound costs in future years.
Sound recovery good for economy
December 3, 2008 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer op-ed by David Dicks)
With the Puget Sound Partnership's adoption of the Action Agenda, the region, for the first time, has a science-based, results-oriented road map in place to clean up Puget Sound. The strategy includes spending money more efficiently and holding everyone charged with the cleanup work accountable for getting it done.
The Action Agenda charts not only a clear path for ecosystem recovery. It also offers an opportunity for economic recovery -- at a time our region needs it most.
The stimulus provided by restoring Puget Sound and similar large and threatened natural areas has several major advantages over many of the other infrastructure proposals that have been brought to the national debate so far.
For one, restoration is much faster than most infrastructure investments to provide stimulus. Watershed planning in the Puget Sound region has created a large backlog of ready-to-go restoration projects and the simplicity in design, permitting and construction allows most restoration projects to go from concept to completion in less than three years. Highways and utility projects easily can take 10 years to accomplish.
We know that Puget Sound is nearing collapse. Forty species in the Sound -- including orcas, otters, steelhead and salmon -- are listed as threatened, at risk or endangered. Beaches and shellfish beds are closed because of pollution. Some portions of Hood Canal are so oxygen-starved they contain large areas known as dead zones.
Recent headlines -- about disappearing orcas and the 150,000 pounds of untreated toxic chemicals inundating the Sound every day -- underscore the urgency of this restoration effort.
Maury Island mine expansion OK'd
December 2, 2008 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer)
Lame-duck Public Lands Commissioner Doug Sutherland issued late Tuesday his most controversial decision in eight years as guardian of Washington's public lands -- approving a 200-fold expansion of a sand and gravel mine that will bring barges the size of a football field to the Maury Island Aquatic Reserve.
Over the vehement objections of environmentalists -- some of whom already are suing in federal court -- Sutherland approved a 30-year lease with Glacier Northwest, the local arm of a Japanese conglomerate. The state will initially collect $1,500 a year in lease fees.
The lease represents the last major government approval required for Glacier to start mining gravel and especially sand underneath towering hills covered by madrone trees.
"We hope to start with the project sometime soon," said Pete Stoltz, the permitting coordinator for Glacier.
Opponents announced plans to file a lawsuit Wednesday and ask a judge to bar any construction pending its outcome.
Their numerous objections also include pile driving and other construction, which they say will affect Puget Sound chinook salmon and the supersensitive sonarlike hearing of orcas.
Both creatures are protected under the Endangered Species Act.
Amy Carey, president of Preserve Our Islands, the group spearheading the opposition, noted that Sutherland's decision was handed down the day after state officials launched a sweeping plan to restore ecologically ailing Puget Sound. The mine is at the edge of the Sound.
Opponents said they have filed a state ethics complaint against Sutherland because he refused to recuse himself from the decision after Glacier made a $50,000 contribution to an independent political action committee that advocated on his behalf in his losing election race against Democrat Peter Goldmark.
Puget Sound 'action agenda' unveiled
December 1, 2008 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer)
Backers hope cleanup can be part of federal economic stimulus package.
Recession or no recession, the government must immediately redouble efforts to restore ecologically battered Puget Sound -- and that campaign should be part of the economic stimulus package promised by the Obama administration, state and federal officials said Monday.
The most ambitious effort to date to rescue the Sound, the long-awaited "action agenda," was released Monday to great fanfare. But it didn't include something everyone involved said is important: promised "benchmarks" that will allow scientists and others to measure the success of the restoration effort. Those will take six more months to develop.
The rescue campaign is supposed to deliver a Sound that is mostly clean enough for swimming, fishing and shellfish harvesting by 2020.
"I'm sure that as we speak, the governor is telling the president-elect how essential the cleanup of Puget Sound is to his stimulus package," Bill Ruckelshaus, chairman of the Puget Sound Partnership's Leadership Council, told about 300 government officials, environmental activists and others gathered at the aquarium. "The governor is as committed as ever."
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., emphasized that the Sound is inextricably linked to the health of the region's economy, through tourism, fishing and other connections.
Even the cost estimates in the plan, the partnership admits, are incomplete. But it notes that current shortfalls are large. For example, only 50 percent to 60 percent of the $120 million a year needed to restore salmon runs is currently being spent.
Canada's Pacific coast killer whales still at risk
December 1, 2008 (Reuters)
Canada's killer whale population on the Pacific Coast remains at risk of extinction as its main food source continues to decline, a government panel said on Monday.
The resident killer whales living along the U.S. border south of Vancouver Island are considered endangered and the population that has dropped to 48 adult animals is expected to decline further, the panel said.
A separate group of resident killer whales found on the northern end of Vancouver Island is doing slightly better, but they are also considered threatened, according the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife.
Global warming: Too close to home
December 1, 2008 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer editorial)
Which is scarier -- the economy or global warming? Climate change gets our vote, in part because it will be with us for decades to come.
That's even more our thought in the wake of the findings of scientists studying the Pacific Ocean waters off Washington's Tatoosh Island. They found that global warming is apparently causing the water to become acidic 10 to 20 times faster than the rate predicted by climate-change models.
The scientists, led by the University of Chicago's Timothy Wootton, fear the changes will have a dramatic impact on ocean life. Already, they report the island's mussels, which dominated the water's edge, have declined rapidly. Acid in the water can weaken their shells.
The study would seem to add one more reason to hasten to control greenhouse gas emissions much more rapidly than politicians are inclined to do. But there are indications (hailed with bizarre glee in the sparsely populated corridors of global warming skeptics) that the troubled economy will cause politicians in many countries to pull back from job-creating investments in alternative energy, smarter transportation and carbon sequestration. There's a real nightmare: letting the economy lead us into operating as if business as usual will solve climate change.