Orca Network News - January, 2006
orcas worldwide, and their habitats
January 1, 2006 through January 31, 2006.
Janaury 30, 2006 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer) The murres' unusual mass starvation became a clue in a mystery unfolding along the West Coast.
Weather, scientists know, is the key to the puzzle. For some reason, winds and currents crucial to the marine food web just didn't happen on schedule last year.
Seabird breeding failures in the summer were preceded by tens of thousands of birds washing up dead on beaches in Washington, Oregon and California.
And Washington's largest colony of glaucous-winged gulls also sputtered: Where 8,000 chicks normally fledge, 88 did last year.
"The whole process broke down," Parrish said. "We don't know what happened."
Earlier this month, 45 researchers met in Seattle to hash out the cause.
Though they couldn't trace the source of the weird weather, many are warily eyeing the coming spring, wondering: Was that just a blip, an anomaly -- or is this what global warming looks like?
Advocates float radical ideas to save salmon
Janaury 27, 2006 (Eugene Register-Guard) Give up on streams that no longer can sustain wild salmon. Throw open the fish hatchery gates. Create a Wild Salmon National Park. Build new waterways instead of tearing down dams.
These are just a few of the conflicting, provocative and radical suggestions from a group of 33 scientists, salmon policy analysts and advocates who have been studying the future of wild salmon in the Pacific Northwest since 2002.
The volunteer participants of a project called Salmon 2100 unveiled two dozen recommendations Wednesday that they said offer groundbreaking but pragmatic ideas for keeping salmon at sustainable levels through the year 2100. The fish have been reduced to one-tenth of historic levels, despite recent gains.
The ideas are bold because the threats to wild salmon are so profound that none of the current efforts will sustain the fish for another century, the group concluded.
"I'm not saying give up on the watershed," said Jim Martin, former salmon adviser to Gov. John Kitzhaber and chief of fisheries with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. "I'm saying don't invest in places in direct trajectory of the growth juggernaut, and are going to get nailed by a changing climate. Invest in the areas where we still have some snowpack. ... We're going to lose salmon in these low-elevation streams; they won't be able to withstand the water temp- eratures."
Martin also suggested offering incentives to local governments to control growth.
The way to alter lifestyles is to change our ethical relationship with the land," said Jack Williams, chief scientist with Trout Unlimited and an adjunct professor at Southern Oregon University. "Live in a place that reduces our need to drive; think twice about purchasing a second vehicle; buy a low-emissions, low-polluting model; reduce travel; walk; eat less meat; buy organic foods from local growers; when you move, move to a smaller house or apartment; use energy-efficient appliances."
Keynote speaker William Ruckelshaus, who served as EPA chief under Presidents Nixon and Reagan, encouraged participants to believe that they can make a difference.
"Salmon recovery is right in the middle of an American paradox," said Ruckelshaus, speaking of the clash between values of people who want to protect fish and behaviors that harm them.
Building group objects to orca's protected status
Janaury 27, 2006 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer) Local orcas don't qualify for federal protection, and the recent decision to deem them endangered was illegal, building industry interests said Thursday.
In November, the NOAA Fisheries Service announced that killer whales that frequent Puget Sound were at risk of extinction and merited protection. The news delighted environmental groups that had fought for years to have the animals designated as an endangered species.
But this month, the Building Industry Association of Washington filed a 60-day notice declaring their intent to sue to the government for that decision.
The association, which works to limit taxes and regulations, is concerned that making the orcas endangered will result in severe restrictions on the development and use of property on or near the Sound.
The notice states that because there are other orcas in the region -- including Alaska, the Bering Sea and Russia -- the local killer whales don't merit special protection.
"You can almost say any individual school of fish can be listed," Harris said.
NOAA originally agreed that the orcas did not merit Endangered Species Act protection, but after court challenges and its most recent review of scientific information, it determined local orcas were unique.
"There is no question that it is a distinct population," said Brian Gorman, the Seattle-based spokesman for the agency.
The orcas breed among only the local population, have unique behavioral traits and are genetically distinct. The local population currently numbers 89, researchers say. Their decline is blamed on a shortage of salmon, contamination by industrial chemicals, noise disturbance and their now-banned capture for aquariums.
"Any natural or man-made disaster ... could really wipe out many of these animals," Gorman said.
Bush plan: Cut harvests to increase wild stocks of salmon
Janaury 26, 2006 (Seattle Times) The Bush administration wants to reduce the numbers of threatened and endangered wild salmon caught by U.S. and Canadian fishermen and close some hatcheries that may be harming wild stocks.
"We cannot improperly hatch, and we cannot carelessly catch our way back to salmon recovery," said James Connaughton, chairman of the White Council on Environmental Quality, who announced the new policy Wednesday at a salmon conference.
In the Northwest, there is considerable support for redesigning - or closing - hatcheries that may weaken wild stocks. But plenty of opposition is likely to new catch restrictions that could affect sport, commercial and tribal fishermen.
The new policy comes at a time when the Bush administration is under court order to make the federal hydropower system less lethal to salmon. Connaughton said extensive work has been done to make dams safer for salmon and restore habitat.
Now, he said, it is time to focus on reducing harm to wild fish caused by salmon harvests and hatcheries.
Federal officials are hopeful that the take of protected fish can be trimmed without reducing the harvest of healthier runs. This would be accomplished through the increased use of selective fishing gear, changes in harvest timing and other measures.
Salmon runs are 5 percent of historical levels, said Robert Lackey, a fisheries scientist for the Environmental Protection Agency and chairman of the conference. Wild runs disappeared from Europe, most of Asia and the Northeast as populations grew. Human population in the Northwest and British Columbia is likely to increase from 15 million to 65 million over the next century.
But Glen Spain of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, which represents California commercial fishermen, said fishing accounts for only 5 percent of human-caused salmon deaths in the Columbia Basin, while hydroelectric dams account for 80 percent.
Whale died from 'multiple causes'
Janaury 25, 2006 (BBC) A post-mortem examination on the whale which became stranded in the River Thames showed it died from dehydration, muscle damage and failing kidneys.
The preliminary findings showed it had been unable to feed for three days.
The 19.2ft (5.85m) female northern bottle-nosed whale died on Saturday as rescuers tried to take it back out to the open sea.
It first surfaced on Friday after mistakenly swimming into the North Sea and up the Thames, experts said.
They said it may have been trying to head west to the Atlantic Ocean where it could feed on deep sea squid, but made a wrong turning, ending up near Chelsea Bridge in the heart of London.
Without its normal squid diet, it was unable to rehydrate herself, they said.
A boatload of reasons to keep biodiesel afloat
Janaury 25, 2006 (Seattle Times op-ed) When I first heard about biodiesel about a decade ago, it was from a hippie type who was making it in his backyard from recycled vegetable oil. From his description, I almost pictured having to filter guacamole from the fuel going into my truck and I thought: "How nice, but it sure isn't for me."
I've changed my mind. Whether biodiesel has matured as a fuel, or perhaps because I'm now more open-minded, I've come to see biodiesel very differently.
As a marine biologist by training and profession, as the operator of a twin-engine diesel powerboat, and as a military veteran, I'm concerned about my use of petroleum.
Consequently, I am preparing our boat to use biodiesel, and so from personal experience I know the very first thing a boater or other user will ask is: "Will this stuff hurt my engine?"
I've found that biodiesel is a much purer and homogeneous fuel than petrodiesel - which is a complex soup of many hydrocarbons - so biodiesel doesn't include the useless, unburnable hydrocarbons that cause rough operation, smoke and the all-too-familiar diesel odor. Many boat operators have commented on the smoother idling of their engines after switching. Also, biodiesel's flash point is higher than petrodiesel, so it's safer during fires or when those occasional pesky electrical problems develop.
I'm purchasing my fuel from a Mount Vernon fuel company that already is producing reasonably priced, high-quality biodiesel. I suspect warranty coverage will improve as the industry accumulates experience and trust.
The second thing to ask is whether we are only kidding ourselves that biodiesel will help the environment. In repeated studies, biodiesel exhaust has been found to have fewer of the gases and particulates that cause cancer and other health problems, and that contribute to global warming. A slight increase in nitrous oxide has been reported, but it's negligible compared with the decrease in other gases. Also, the nitrous oxide varies greatly based on the raw material used for the biodiesel.
Biodiesel also has good lubrication properties, so the sulfur that is added to petrodiesel isn't needed. Additionally, if biodiesel is spilled in marine and freshwater environments, it is far less toxic than petrodiesel.
UK Government blamed for Thames whale death
Janaury 23, 2006 (Fish Update) A EURO MP has blamed the UK Government for the death of the bottlenose whale in the Thames at the weekend. Conservative MEP and fisheries spokesman Struan Stevenson says that if Britain adhered to the requirements of the EU's Habitats Directive, the doomed whale may not have swum for miles upriver to its death. Under the directive, member states are required to grant strict protection to whales, dolphins and porpoises, to designate special areas of conservation and to undertake comprehensive surveillance to ensure that cetaceans are not at risk.
Speaking in Brussels, Struan Stevenson, a former President of the Parliament's Fisheries Committee, said:
"The European Commission has already launched infringement proceedings against the UK for not adequately monitoring how effectively our cetacean population is being protected. A first written warning was sent to the Government at the end of last year. However, the tragic death of this bottlenose whale, together with the on-going massacre of dolphins in the English Channel and off the coast of South West England, will almost certainly lead to a referral to the European Court of Justice.
"In the past month alone 20 dolphin carcasses have been washed up on beaches from Falmouth to Whitsand Bay. Eleven were discovered on a single day. Most of them bear scars consistent with having been caught in pair-trawling nets used primarily by vessels targeting sea bass outside the UK's 12-mile limit, or in gillnets set by inshore fishermen within the 12-mile limit. Either way, the UK government has a duty to provide adequate protection to these animals and it is clearly failing in that duty.
"There is also increasing evidence that Low Frequency Active Sonar (LFAS) used by the US and British Navy can cause injury and death to fish, whales, dolphins and porpoises over vast areas of the marine environment. LFAS is used to detect quiet submarines in shallow, confined waters. Scientific analysis has shown that injuries caused by these sonars have led to whales and dolphins becoming disorientated, stranding and dying. Even fish exposed to LFAS signals have suffered internal injuries, eye hemorrhaging, auditory damage and subsequent death. I understand that a post mortem examination of the dead bottlenose whale is being conducted to see if this may have been the cause of its losing its way and swimming so far up the Thames.
Oceans in Peril
Janaury 23, 2006 (Washington Post) THE BUSH administration remains in denial about climate change and sometimes treats environmental protection as an inconvenience. Yet there was reason to hope, when the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy issued its report more than a year ago, that President Bush would seize the issue of the dire threat to this country's coastal waters. The commission was the second major task force in recent years to detail the rapidly deteriorating ecology of America's oceans. All serious looks at the issue have reached similar conclusions: that current human use of oceans is unsustainable and that without dramatic changes in the ways the waters are exploited and enjoyed, the seas will die out. The magnitude of the crisis offers an opportunity for the president to lead on a preeminent environmental issue.
Still, there is little sense of urgency about a problem the oceans commission described in stark terms: Americans, the report warns, are "starting to love our oceans to death." If that is to be averted, "reform needs to start now, while it is still possible to reverse distressing declines." Mr. Connaughton says Mr. Bush is deeply committed to the problem. Yet the president himself does not talk about it.
Tackling this meaningfully is going to require regulatory initiatives across a range of areas: pollution, runoff, development, environmentally harmful farming practices and others, requiring substantial sums. None of this is possible without sustained and vocal presidential leadership. Ecosystems are at a tipping point, verging on a collapse from which they won't recover. The stakes are as immense as the oceans, which will not wait for the White House to gear up to save them.
Navy denies killing Thames whale
Janaury 23, 2006 (The Times of London) NAVY sonar and military explosions have been blamed for disorientating the bottlenose whale that died on Saturday after two days in the Thames.
Even as scientists began the post-mortem examination on the 18ft adolescent - now believed to have been a female - on a quayside in Gravesend, Kent, yesterday, the blame game over the cause of death had begun.
Marine scientists and animal welfare groups believe that navy sonar may have disorientated the whale. Marine acoustics experts supported local residents on the north coast of Kent in blaming huge explosions from a site operated by the defence contractor QinetiQ.
The Royal Navy was the first to respond to the claim. "HMS Grafton was involved in a show last Friday on the coast," a spokesman said. "The only other ship in the North Sea is HMS Severn, and she was halfway to Belgium. Our sonar is good but not that good."
In north Kent, residents reported blasts from Shoeburyness Range, a Ministry of Defence site where QinetiQ was carrying out controlled detonations last week.
"On Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday last week, it was like being in the middle of a war zone," Tony Wilkinson, 65, a resident of Herne Bay, said.
"People suffered cracked floors, windows and ceilings." Professor Rodney Coates, who specialises in marine acoustics, confirmed that such blasts could disorientate whales.
Roger Gale, MP for Thanet North, said: "We understand that one or more whales were seen off Southend on Tuesday. I hope that this factor may be taken into account during the post-mortem."
The five experts on the quayside in Gravesend, led by Dr Paul Jepson of the Zoological Society of London, will examine the animal's auditory organs. They will also look for evidence of a brain parasite that has been known to render whales disorientated. Sick whales head for shallower waters to die.
The whale died after a desperate rescue effort on Saturday evening. Nikki Kelly, 32, a marine mammal expert, said: "It had no food to eat. A healthy bottlenose can survive for several days without food, but it had used all its strength fighting the tide. Its underbelly was scarred. It had deep head wounds. Its dorsal fin had a large gash and its fluke was cut up."
FAR FROM ITS NORTH ATLANTIC HOME
They normally inhabit the northern reaches of the North Atlantic Ocean, off the coasts of Norway, Iceland, Greenland and northern Labrador, in northeastern Canada
They can dive up to 1,000m (3,300ft) in search of their main food, Arctic squid.
Sonar threat to world's whales
Janaury 22, 2006 (The Independent) Secret naval exercises lead to deaths of thousands of giant mammals worldwide. Stricken whale in Thames dies after dramatic attempt to return it to the ocean
Secret sonar from naval ships is killing thousands of whales around the world and could have disoriented the two-ton mammal that died last night after becoming stranded in the Thames, an investigation by The Independent on Sunday has established.
The northern bottlenose whale died despite dramatic attempts at a rescue witnessed by thousands of people on the banks of the river, and millions on television. The whale was lifted on to a barge and carried down the river, in the hope that it could be taken to the open sea. But its condition deteriorated, it began to suffer muscle spasms, and it died before anything further could be done.
Experts believe that the whale's senses could have been damaged by military sonar. Some 30 strandings and deaths of whales around the world - from Tasmania to North America - have been linked to its use. The United Nations and other international bodies have warned that it is a major threat to the animals.
The investigation has also revealed that - in a separate, but deeply embarrassing development - the Government faces being hauled before the European Court for failing to take enough care of the whales and dolphins around Britain's shores.
Professor Hal Whitehead of Dalhousie University in Canada - acknowledged to be the world's leading expert on northern bottlenose whales - said yesterday that he had never known the deep-ocean species to wander so far from its habitat.
"It would be unusual, and cause concern, for one to be found in the North Sea or English Channel, let alone a long way up a pretty shallow river," he said. "Its nearest habitat would be south-west of Cornwall. We know that beaked whales - the group of species to which the northern bottlenose whale belongs - are particularly sensitive to underwater noise. There has been a lot of seismic activity off northern Scotland and in the North Sea, and I understand that the Royal Navy exercises frequently."
Many strandings and deaths of whales and dolphins have been linked to sonar surveys in recent years (see table). In March 2000, for example, whales of four species beached themselves in the Bahamas after a battle group from the US navy used sonar nearby. A US government investigation established that they had been affected by the sonar. Since then, the area's population of Cuvier's beaked whales has virtually disappeared; investigators conclude that they have either abandoned the area or died at sea.
The Washington-based National Resources Defence Council says that more than 30 such incidents have been linked to sonar use around the world.
Last week, a US court discovered that the US government had cut references to the effects of naval sonar from a report on the stranding of 37 whales in North Carolina a year ago, shortly after military manoeuvres. (Reference to Sonar Deleted in Whale-Beaching Report)
Strandings in Britain have more than doubled in the past decade, from 360 in 1994 to 782 in 2004, and vets believe that the number of whales that wash up on shore are only one-tenth of those that die, suggesting that there are thousands of casualties.
We're off to save the Sound again
Janaury 21, 2006 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer op-ed) Gov. Christine Gregoire has come out with a $42 million proposal that includes ripping out old pilings that leach creosote into the Sound; improving waste disposal at boat-oriented state parks; providing loans to replace failing septic systems; and, of course, assembling a blue-ribbon group -- including former EPA director Bill Ruckleshaus, King County Executive Ron Sims and Gregoire herself -- to look at what has been done elsewhere and think about what should be done here.
People with long memories -- those who can recall the days when Starbucks sold only bags of coffee beans, not lattes, and Microsoft sold computer operating systems without icons -- may remember that we set out to "save" the Sound 20-odd years ago. They may also remember that our regional attention span turned out to be limited, and that when push came to shove, we somehow couldn't find our wallets.
As Robert McClure observed in a 2002 P-I series on "Our Troubled Sound," "Many of the items on the latest to-do list (for cleaning up the Sound) were part of the state's plan when the effort to rejuvenate the Sound was announced amid fanfare in the '80s."
Even today, it's hard to believe that the Legislature will approve significant funding for the Sound -- which is still perceived as a Westside problem -- without some quid pro quo to benefit Eastern Washington. Perhaps a real first step toward creating new water storage in the Yakima basin -- which Gregoire would like to do anyway -- will become linked to funding for the Sound.
We have no obvious goal. Do we intend to rip out the streets, the stadiums, the container piers and restore the old Duwamish estuary from the heights of West Seattle to Beacon Hill? Do we intend to stop flushing, stop driving, move back to wherever we or our forebears came from? Probably not. Even if we choose more realistic goals, how can we get there from here?
Gregoire environmental adviser Elliott Marks says that making any significant improvement in the Sound will require coordination among the 150-odd jurisdictions with authority over the Sound and its watershed -- which he concedes isn't sexy -- and something that will grab people's attention -- something like the dead whales that did the trick 20-odd years ago.
Gregoire did not call for new regulation. And that's probably OK. Arguably, we already have all the laws we need. That draconian 1945 law still has a lot of untapped potential. William H. Rodgers Jr., the UW Law School's Stimson Bullitt Professor of Environmental Law, has argued, for example, that we don't need new laws to protect salmon and salmon habitat. All we have to do is enforce that very same 1945 hydraulics code.
We've never had the will to do so. Will the current burst of enthusiasm for "saving" Puget Sound stiffen our collective spines? Stay tuned.
B.C. residents want to ban tanker traffic, poll finds
Janaury 21, 2006 (Toronto Globe and Mail) British Columbians are strongly opposed to tanker traffic on the West Coast and don't want to see oil and gas development take place offshore, a new opinion poll released yesterday shows.
A survey of 500 B.C. residents by the Mustel Group found that 75 per cent of respondents favoured a ban on oil-tanker traffic in inside waters, while only 16 per cent said it should be allowed.
Opposition to oil and gas development offshore was less pronounced, but still showed a majority were against it, with 53 per cent saying they oppose opening up the B.C. coast to development and 35 per cent expressing support.
"It's significant and it cuts across party lines," said Will Horter, executive director of the Dogwood Initiative, a social-activist group that commissioned the poll with funding support from several environmental organizations.
2 agencies want ban on some flame retardants
Janaury 21, 2006 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer) Two state agencies are calling for a ban of fireproofing chemicals suspected of potentially harming both the environment and human health.
The joint recommendation by the Ecology and Health departments -- the result of a two-year review process -- drew praise from environmental and medical groups and stinging criticism from an international organization representing chemical manufacturers.
The flame retardants in question are "bad actors," said Rob Duff, the Health Department's director of environmental health assessments.
Millions of people are exposed to the manufactured chemicals, which are added to a long list of common products, from foam seat cushions, mattresses and fabrics to computers and televisions.
The family of long-lived compounds. known as polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, are turning up all over, research shows. They've been found in Columbia River fish, seal blubber, grizzly bears -- even Seattle women's breast milk.
The health effects of the chemicals at the levels measured are unknown. But tests on laboratory animals with higher concentrations point to potentially harmful effects on brain and reproductive organ development, and disruption of thyroid and estrogen function.
The 307-page state plan recommends that the Legislature ban the sale of new products containing two forms of the flame retardants: penta- and octa-BDEs, which are considered the most dangerous. It advises expanding the ban to a third compound, deca-BDE, if a safe substitute is identified.
Reference to Sonar Deleted in Whale-Beaching Report
Janaury 20, 2006 (Washington Post) Documents released under a court order show that a government investigator studying the stranding of 37 whales on the North Carolina coast last year changed her draft report to eliminate all references to the possibility that naval sonar may have played a role in driving the whales ashore.
The issue of sonar's effects on whales is a sensitive topic for the U.S. Navy. It has clashed with environmentalists in several court suits seeking to limit use of the technology because of its possible effects on marine mammals and other sea creatures.
The January 2005 stranding occurred shortly after naval maneuvers in the area -- which is off North Carolina and in the region where the Pentagon wants to build a controversial underwater sonar training range.
In her initial April 2005 preliminary report on the deaths, Teri Rowles, coordinator of the National Marine Fisheries Service's stranding response program, described injuries to seven of the whales that "may be indicative" of damage related to the loud blasts of sound from active sonar.
She also noted that one of the injuries -- air bubbles in the liver of a pilot whale -- had been reported in mass strandings in the Bahamas and Canary Islands associated with sonar activity.
That report was made public this week after a federal judge in New York ordered its release to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), an environmental group, which had sued the agency over its refusal to release information on the whales' stranding on North Carolina's Outer Banks.
But before it was released by NRDC, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released an updated report -- by Rowles and others -- that did not mention sonar. In a cover letter to that report, NOAA officials said the initial draft that mentioned sonar "contains early information that was later found to be inaccurate."
A fresh flow for the fishes
Janaury 19, 2006 (Tacoma News Tribune) It's back to nature for Ohop Creek near Eatonville, where what advocates call the state's most ambitious salmon habitat recovery effort is in the works. A recent grant of more than $1.1 million from the state Salmon Recovery Fund board will become seed money for the planned restoration of the six-mile Nisqually River tributary, home to salmon and steelhead trout.
"It looks like it's got enough momentum to actually happen," said Marcia Berger, 58, who has lived in the Ohop Valley for 30 years. She values her pastoral surroundings, the elk, the crawdads, the freshwater clams and the trout. "The wildlife here is just incredible."
Still, Ohop Creek is not as pristine as it would appear. A previous flood-control project turned much of the creek into a deep, sediment-choked channel, limiting its value as fish habitat. The grant money could help change that.
The grant, the largest in Pierce County, is part of $26.6 million in state and federal money the salmon board doled out Jan. 6.
The dream of revitalizing Ohop Creek originated with the tribe, which is the driving force behind salmon recovery in the Nisqually watershed.
Ohop Creek is the Nisqually's second-largest tributary, after the Mashel River, based on water flow.
6 ex-chiefs at EPA say Bush failing on global warming
Janaury 19, 2006 (Seattle Times) Six former heads of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) - five Republicans and one Democrat - accused the Bush administration Wednesday of neglecting global warming and other environmental problems.
"I don't think there's a commitment in this administration," said William Ruckelshaus, who was the EPA's first administrator when the agency opened in 1970 under President Nixon and who headed it again under President Reagan in the 1980s.
Russell Train, who succeeded Ruckelshaus in the Nixon and Ford administrations, said slowing the growth of greenhouse gases isn't enough.
"We need leadership, and I don't think we're getting it," he said at an EPA-sponsored symposium. "To sit back and just push it away and say we'll deal with it sometime down the road is dishonest to the people and self-destructive."
All the former administrators and the EPA's current chief, Stephen Johnson, raised their hands when asked whether they believe global warming is a real problem and again when asked if humans bear significant blame.
Is It Warm in Here?
Janaury 18, 2006 (Washington Post) One of the puzzles if you're in the news business is figuring out what's "news." The fate of your local football team certainly fits the definition. So does a plane crash or a brutal murder. But how about changes in the migratory patterns of butterflies?
Scientists believe that new habitats for butterflies are early effects of global climate change -- but that isn't news, by most people's measure. Neither is declining rainfall in the Amazon, or thinner ice in the Arctic.
We can't see these changes in our personal lives, and in that sense, they are abstractions. So they don't grab us the way a plane crash would -- even though they may be harbingers of a catastrophe that could, quite literally, alter the fundamentals of life on the planet.
Feds Call For Public Comment On Puget Sound Recovery Plan
Janaury 18, 2006 (NW Fishletter) The National Marine Fisheries Service is calling for public comment on the huge, habitat-based plan for recovering Puget Sound chinook stocks developed by regional stakeholders over the past six years. The federal agency's comments, suggesting ways to make the plan more compliant with ESA requirements, were tacked on in a 42-page supplement.
The Sound's chinook recovery plan was developed by the Shared Strategy process, spearheaded since 1999 by ex-EPA head Bill Ruckelshaus. It has coordinated efforts of state, tribal and local government agencies, along with conservation and business groups, to create the giant plan for 14 watersheds in the region to deal with 22 chinook groups that are at "high" risk of extinction.
A technical recovery team (TRT), which includes NOAA Fisheries scientists, helped develop the plan. The team defined five geographical regions in Puget Sound and created criteria to gauge the "biological viability" of the stocks, which includes looking at abundance, productivity, spatial structure and genetic diversity.
The TRT is calling for at least two, and up to four chinook populations, in each of the five regions to achieve viability, with at least one population to be viable from each major genetic life history group historically present.
Dying fish had twice the sea lice
Janaury 17, 2006 (Vancouver Sun) Researchers say the discovery that listless, dying young salmon had more than twice the sea lice of healthy ones provides more direct evidence than ever before that sea lice from fish farms are killing salmon.
"What it really represents in my mind is one more solid piece of evidence pointing to the fact that sea lice from fish farms kill young wild fish," Rick Routledge, Simon Fraser University researcher and member of the university's Centre for Coastal Studies, said on Sunday.
"To date, all we have had in terms of the ability of the lice to kill fish are data coming back from adult [salmon] returns that show in the years where there were a lot of sea lice on the fish, the returns were very small," he said.
Routledge and fish biologist Alexandra Morton, who co-authored a research paper on the issue, made their discovery about the number of sea lice on dying young fish when they looked at juvenile pink and chum in the Broughton Archipelago.
Restore natural flood protections
Janaury 17, 2006 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer op-ed) Mudslides. Road washouts. That constant drip, drip, drip. After 27 consecutive days of rain in western Washington, we are all feeling the effects. Land is saturated and local rivers like the Green and Nisqually are rising, and still the forecast calls for more rain.
Officials have issued flood warnings for some low-lying communities. While we work as a region to ensure the safety of these communities, we also need to assess what we can do to prevent dangerous and damaging floods in the future.
Floods are a natural part of a healthy river ecosystem. In the past, many communities reacted to floods by building levees and floodwalls, channelizing rivers in concrete straitjackets. We've learned that approach actually increases flood damage downstream. We now know the best way to reduce flood damage, and to safeguard people and property, is by re-connecting rivers with their floodplains and by protecting and restoring wetlands.
Abundant and healthy wetlands should be the first line of defense against floods. They act like natural sponges, soaking up floodwaters and releasing them gradually after a storm has passed. A single wetland acre, saturated to a depth of one foot, retains 330,000 gallons of water -- enough to flood 13 average-sized homes thigh deep. Wetlands that are drained, filled or isolated behind levees provide little or no flood protection for the surrounding community.
Scientists predict melting of ice cap at North Pole
Janaury 13, 2006 (Contra Costa Times) Alarmed by an accelerating loss of ice in the Arctic Ocean, scientists are striving to understand why the speedup is happening and what it means for humankind.
If present trends continue, as seems likely, the sea surrounding the North Pole will be completely free of ice in the summertime within the lifetime of a child born today.
The loss could point the way to radical changes in the Earth's climate and weather systems.
Some researchers, such as Ron Lindsay, an Arctic scientist at the University of Washington in Seattle, fear that the polar region already may have passed a "tipping point" from which it can't recover in the foreseeable future. Others, such as Jonathan Overpeck, the director of the Institute for the Study of Planet Earth at the University of Arizona in Tucson, think the Arctic ice pack is nearing a point of no return but hasn't reached it yet.
The National Science Foundation, a congressionally chartered agency, last month announced an urgent research program to determine what "these changes mean for both the Arctic and the Earth."
"The pace of Arctic change has accelerated," the foundation declared. "Because of the Arctic's pivotal role in the Earth's climate, it is critical -- perhaps urgent -- that we understand this system in light of abundant evidence that a set of linked and pervasive changes are under way."
Study: Global warming killing frog species
Janaury 12, 2006 (Seattle Times) Rising temperatures are responsible for pushing dozens of frog species to extinction in the past three decades, according to new findings being reported today by a team of Latin American and U.S. scientists.
The study, published in the journal Nature, provides concrete evidence that climate change has already contributed to wiping out species and could spur more extinctions and the spread of disease worldwide. It also helps solve the mystery of why amphibians across the globe have been vanishing from their usual habitats over the past quarter-century: As many as 112 species have disappeared since 1980.
City asked to protect creeks in culverts
Janaury 12, 2006 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer) Water flowing through underground pipes in Seattle has the potential to be reborn as streams, and construction that interferes with that goal should be banned, a coalition of environmentalists says.
The two sides are sparring over an update of land-use regulations that protect a wide range of environmentally sensitive areas, including streams in culverts and pipes that could be "daylighted," or uncovered and restored to more natural conditions.
"We want to preserve the option to daylight in the future by ensuring that a developer cannot place a building on top of a creek, whether that creek is temporarily in a culvert or not," said Knoll Lowney, an attorney and community activist who has worked on urban stream issues.
A half-dozen environmental groups, including People for Puget Sound, Futurewise and the Thornton Creek Alliance, are asking the council to consider stronger protections for the city's designated environmentally critical areas.
They want to see 50-foot undeveloped buffer zones on each side of any culvert that was once an open stream and that also flows into or out of a stream.
The buffers provide room for restoration that would actually return some of the creek's benefits, such as filtering pollution and allowing for plants and trees hospitable to wild creatures.
The environmentalists also want the city to adopt development-permit provisions that encourage or require daylighting of pipes connected with waterways used by salmon.
Salmon projects get new funding
Janaury 12, 2006 (Seattle Times) King County's four major watersheds, stretching from the Cascade crest west to Puget Sound, will receive $3.4 million from the state Salmon Recovery Funding Board for eight projects to protect and restore salmon habitat.
Two projects in the Lake Washington/Cedar/Sammamish Watershed will get $1.5 million from the board, and four projects in the Green/Duwamish and Central Puget Sound Watershed will receive $1 million.
The Snoqualmie Watershed will get $320,000, and White River Watershed in southern King County will get $535,000. The grant money will be combined with funds from local governments, agencies and other groups to complete the projects.
The areas are home to Chinook salmon, which are listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act. These watersheds also are home to sockeye and coho salmon, cutthroat trout and steelhead.
The money will be used to protect up to 47 acres of mature forest, wetlands and streamside corridor along Issaquah Creek and to restore about seven acres of floodplain in the Snoqualmie Watershed along the Raging River.
For more information on salmon-habitat conservation in the watersheds, go to www.govlink.org/watersheds.
Climate Woes: Prepare for worst
Janaury 11, 2006 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer Editorial) Climatologists say global warming will bring much more severe weather. Patterns are far too cyclical and variable, they say, to pin any one weather event on climate change. But the kind of heavy rainfall patterns we have seen lately certainly could become more common.
On one day last week, Sea-Tac Airport saw both a record rainfall and a record high temperature for the day. Sound Transit has stopped rail service between Seattle and Everett twice because of landslides. Rural areas see flood watches come and go.
There are some who argue that climate change is all theory. Time will tell, even if the evidence so far seems overwhelmingly on the side of the scientific consensus that warming is a real phenomenon with human factors as part of the cause.
Judge stops timber sales
Janaury 10, 2006 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer) A federal judge in Seattle has halted more than 140 Northwest timber sales -- about half of them slated for increasingly rare mature or old-growth forests.
Over the next two years, the order Monday by U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman could stop the cutting of up to 289 million board feet of timber. That represents more than half the annual cut coming out of the region's national forests, according to a lawyer for environmentalists.
Pechman had previously rejected the Bush administration's policy that made it no longer necessary to look for rare plants and animals before letting loose the chain saws.
"What the court did was restore an important system of checks and balances that protects the few remaining old-growth forests," said Dave Werntz, conservation and science director of Bellingham-based Conservation Northwest, the lead plaintiff in the case.
The surveys in contention were first agreed on as part of the Northwest Forest Plan of 1994, which was negotiated by the Clinton administration in hopes of ending arguments over logging old-growth forests, where threatened creatures such as spotted owls live.
"I think it's a small investment to make to preserve old-growth forests and the species that live in them," said Pete Frost of the Western Environmental Law Center, the Eugene, Ore., law firm arguing the case for environmentalists.
Pesticide buffer to stay in effect
Janaury 10, 2006 (Seattle Times) The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday refused to hear an appeal of a ruling that banned the use of pesticides around Western salmon streams.
"We're very happy," said Patti Goldman, an attorney with the environmental law firm Earthjustice. "There have been many attempts by the chemical industry and the growers to get rid of the buffers; we now know they will remain in place."
In January 2004, two years after finding that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had failed to consider the effect of pesticides on protected salmon, U.S. District Judge John C. Coughenour in Seattle imposed a 100-yard buffer for aerial spraying and a 20-yard buffer for ground application of three dozen pesticides, from agricultural sprays to household weed killers.
His injunction also required that stores selling pesticides in 500 communities in the West post warnings about the potential effect on salmon and steelhead.
The judge's conditions will remain in effect until the EPA comes up with rules governing the use of pesticides around the streams in question.
One pesticide, carbaryl, used in flea treatments and lawn care, was cleared for use within the buffer zones even though harmful levels of it have been found in Puget Sound and some waterways such as Seattle's Thornton Creek, Code said.
She noted that the Supreme Court's decision could help species beyond salmon. For example, pesticides have been found to accumulate in endangered orcas, probably leading to their decline.
Overpopulation 'is main threat to planet'
Janaury 8, 2006 (The Independent) Climate change and global pollution cannot be adequately tackled without addressing the neglected issue of the world's booming population, according to two leading scientists.
Professor Chris Rapley, director of the British Antarctic Survey, and Professor John Guillebaud, vented their frustration yesterday at the fact that overpopulation had fallen off the agenda of the many organisations dedicated to saving the planet.
The scientists said dealing with the burgeoning human population of the planet was vital if real progress was to be made on the other enormous problems facing the world.
Professor Guillebaud, who co-chairs the Optimum Population Trust, said it became politically incorrect about 25 years ago to bring up family planning in discussing the environmental problems of the developing world. The world population needed to be reduced by nearly two-thirds if climate change was to be prevented and everyone on the planet was to enjoy a lifestyle similar to that of Europeans, Professor Guillebaud said.
Can sonar, sea life mix?
Janaury 8, 2006 (Raleigh News & Observer) Just as the U.S. Navy is gearing up to install a 660-square-mile sonar training range off the coast of North Carolina, evidence is mounting that sonar harms some whales.
Scientists link sonar to some fatal whale beachings, though they aren't certain how the underwater sound causes trouble. Some suspect it can startle animals, making them surface so fast that they get the decompression illness known as the bends.
Environmentalists suspect that Navy sonar caused the rare beaching of three whale species in January 2005 on the Outer Banks. A federal National Marine Fisheries Service report expected as early as this month may or may not clear that up.
"There are so many hurdles to understanding the effects of sonar," said Andy Read, a Duke University marine mammal biologist based in Beaufort. "There are many questions we can't answer yet. The Navy can't answer them yet either."
The Navy acknowledges that some whales, very rarely, can be harmed by sonar. But on the basis of research and computer models, it concludes that a proposed sonar off North Carolina would bother, but not injure, a fraction of the marine mammals out there.
Protective steps would reduce that risk to almost nothing, the Navy says. The plan calls for posting trained scouts on ship decks to watch for animals and listening underwater for the animals. The Navy would decrease the strength of sonar signals when creatures get too close.
The Navy says it needs an Atlantic Ocean sonar range as a realistic training ground for sailors and pilots to detect a new generation of submarines. Powered by batteries and air-propulsion systems, the quiet vessels can sneak into coastal waters, unlike the deep-water subs the Navy chased during the Cold War.
With a federal court suit, environmentalists in 2003 forced the Navy to limit use of its most powerful (low-frequency) sonar to a portion of the Pacific Ocean. This fall, environmentalists filed a second lawsuit, asking a federal court to also restrict the Navy's use of mid-frequency sonar, the kind envisioned for the training range off the North Carolina coast.
The Navy evaluated potential sonar range sites off North Carolina, Virginia and Florida. But it has long favored a patch of ocean 47 miles offshore of the Marines' Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville. It's at the edge of the continental shelf and in the path of the warm-water Gulf Stream. Waters there teem with many types of fishes, sea turtles, dolphins and whales.
GOP tackles environmental laws
Janaury 7, 2006 (Seattle Times) House Republicans are hoping to rewrite one of the nation's most sweeping environmental laws - in a way that could change how the government gauges the impact of its actions on the land, sea and air.
For 36 years the government has relied on the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to serve as a check on federal activities that have a "significant impact" on the environment. The law requires federal officials to determine whether such things as highway construction and flood-control projects will alter the surrounding landscape. And it allows citizens to challenge the government's conclusions. Its scope is so broad, the government conducts 50,000 "environmental assessments" a year.
But Republicans such as Rep. Cathy McMorris, R-Spokane, who chaired a 20-member House task force, said the law had led to "delays, excessive paperwork and lawsuits" even as it helped guide the government. Late last month her staff released a 30-page report, which is subject to public comment for 45 days, suggesting possible fixes.
Deborah Sease, legislative director for the Sierra Club, said the language in the report was so "vague, you open the door to undermining the principles of NEPA."
Two Orca Pods on the Move
Janaury 6, 2006 (Kitsap Sun) K and L pods, the two groups of orcas that leave Puget Sound each winter, may be timing their travels in a more traditional way this year.
That is, they may have departed from inland waters in December rather than waiting for the new year, as they have for the past five years. Prior to 1999, they were almost always gone before January.
"At this point, it does look like their normal travels into South Sound are over (for the winter)," said Rich Osborne of the Whale Museum in Friday Harbor. "We might get one or two visits more."
After that, K and L pods probably will be gone somewhere in the Pacific Ocean until late May or early June. That's when they typically get together in the San Juan Islands for a grand, boisterous reunion known as a "superpod." J Pod is likely to be spotted in Puget Sound occasionally throughout the winter.
The travels of all three Puget Sound pods, totaling 89 animals, have grown in importance since 2001, when the whales were proposed for listing under the Endangered Species Act. Where they go in winter has been a mystery for years. Winter sightings off the West Coast as far away as San Francisco increased after scientists called on coastal residents and fishermen to watch for the sleek black and white animals.
It is generally believed that the Puget Sound pods also known as Southern Residents based their travels on the availability of fish, particularly salmon. Resident killer whales eat nothing but fish, as opposed to the wide-ranging "transient" orcas, which eat marine mammals.
For several years up until 2005, fall chum returned in large numbers to Puget Sound, which may explain why the orcas stayed around into January, if not February. But this past fall, the total number of chum was less than the years before, according to Jay Zischke, a salmon biologist with the Suquamish Tribe.
And so researchers are left to ponder the orcas' travel patterns, reinforcing an old saying among whale observers: When you think you've figured them out, they will do something different.
Sprechen sie Whale?
Janaury 3, 2006 (CNET News) Endangered whales sing in distinct "dialects" in different parts of the world, a discovery made possible by advanced sound-detection technology.
Over the last five years, marine scientists developed and deployed a tool called autonomous hydrophones, a device that can record sound vibrations of whales underwater. The hydrophones can note the unique clicks, pulses and calls of various whale species, including blue, right and sperm whales.
Data collected from the devices in a recent survey, as well as others over the last five years, have shown a surprising difference among whale sounds. For example, blue whales living off the coast of the Pacific Northwest sound different from those in the western Pacific Ocean. Yet both of those are different from species living off Antarctica; and all vary from blue whales off the coast of Chile.
"The whales in the eastern Pacific have a very low-pitched pulsed sound, followed by a tone. Other populations use different combinations of pulses, tones and pitches. The difference is really striking, but we don't know if it is tied to genetics, or some other reason," David Mellinger, an assistant professor at Oregon State University's Hatfield Marine Science Center, said in a statement.
Sweeping change reshapes Arctic
Janaury 1, 2006 (Seattle Times) Ecological change is so scrambling Alaska's Arctic that the government has hired gunslingers to recapture some balance.
But with national debate so focused on the future of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which some in Congress last month again tried and failed to open to oil drilling, a reality is only now being noticed in the Lower 48: Arctic Alaska is already undergoing a sprawling transformation, and life is fundamentally shifting in almost every way.
The hunt for oil is moving to the ocean and across once-barren lands the size of Midwestern states, including some as ecologically valuable as ANWR.
Birds are disappearing. Pollution is arriving.
And nothing is having as much impact as climate change.
Migrating whales, the backbone of Alaska's Inupiat culture, now arrive up to 45 days early, completely altering seasonal rhythms for Inupiat who harpoon them. Winter ice roads are collapsing months sooner than they did 35 years ago, prompting oil companies to ask the government to build highways across easily scarred tundra.
Minute changes to plants and animals are unraveling intricate biological webs.
And no one really knows how much stranger it's going to get.