Orca Network News - November, 2006
News, updates and events about
the Southern Resident orcas,
orcas worldwide, and their habitats
Show goes on for SeaWorld orca after trainer attacked
November 30, 2006 (Kitsap Sun) Officials at the SeaWorld theme park ordered a "complete" investigation Thursday into the incident in which a 5,000-pound orca injured a veteran trainer and dragged him to the bottom of a 36-foot-deep pool Wednesday at Shamu Stadium.
Held underwater, trainer Ken Peters persuaded Kasatka to free his foot from her mouth by stroking her back.
The incident Wednesday occurred at the end of the afternoon show, when Peters and Kasatka descended to the bottom of the 3.2 million-gallon pool to perform what it is usually a showstopper: the whale rocketing to the surface with the trainer diving off her nose.
Instead, the whale kept Peters at the bottom of the pool for about a minute, surfaced with Peters in tow and then descended for a second time and again held the trainer at the bottom of the pool.
Kasatka's behavior has been good, but she did attempt to bite Peters in 1999, Scarpuzzi said.
"Some mornings they just wake up not as willing to do the show as others," said Ken Balcomb, director of the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor. "If the trainer doesn't recognize it's not a good day, this will happen."
Peters has 16 years of experience as a trainer, including 12 years at Shamu Stadium.
The Humane Society of the United States, which has often criticized SeaWorld, said the incident is proof that orcas should not be kept in captivity and made to perform tricks.
"The risk of a tragic outcome is too great for the trainers and the whales," said Naomi Rose, marine-mammal scientist for the Humane Society.
Orca Critical Habitat Decision Raises Questions
November 30, 2006 (Kitsap Sun) Leaders of local environmental groups say they're disappointed that the federal government excluded Hood Canal, coastal waters and military bases from "critical habitat" for Puget Sound's endangered killer whales.
While it's too early to tell whether environmental groups will challenge habitat findings by the National Marine Fisheries Service, advocates say the agency could be vulnerable to a lawsuit.
On Wednesday, the fisheries service announced its final critical habitat designation, including 2,500 square miles of waters in the main part of Puget Sound, around the San Juan Islands and in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
Hood Canal was excluded, despite efforts by area residents to demonstrate that the canal was once visited regularly by the Puget Sound orcas, known as Southern Residents.
Killer whale expert David Bain, who helped document the whales' presence, said he thinks federal biologists made a mistake by considering only whether the canal was occupied the past few years. Other criteria involve whether certain areas are required for recovery of the orca population.
With populations of chum salmon on the mend in Hood Canal, Bain says it could be just a matter of time before the fish-eating orcas rediscover the long, narrow waterway.
"Recovery of chinook would help a lot," Bain said, "but chum are acceptable prey for killer whales."
Even more "perplexing" than the exclusion of Hood Canal, Goldman said, was the exclusion of the Pacific Ocean. When the whales leave inland waters in early winter, they spend several months in the ocean. They have been seen near the Columbia River numerous times.
Fred Felleman of Ocean Advocates said he is troubled by the exclusion of waters around 18 military bases, including those at Keyport, Manchester, Bremerton, Indian Island, Whidbey Island, Everett and Fort Lewis as well as restricted areas in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Port Orchard Passage, Sinclair Inlet and Carr Inlet.
The National Marine Fisheries Service concluded that national security issues ? including permit delays ? outweighed the conservation benefits of designating those areas as critical habitat.
Felleman said he suspects that Navy operations were the reason that Hood Canal and the ocean areas were not listed. While local Navy commanders have shown support for environmental protections, higher-level officials don't seem to understand how important the orcas are to Washington residents, he added.
Shell accused of ignoring scientists on rare whales
November 30, 2006 (Environmental Finance) Shell's troubled Sakhalin II oil and gas project has received a further blow, after it was accused of ignoring the advice of a panel of scientists on protecting the rare Western Grey Whale.
Funding from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and other international bodies is contingent on the project adhering to the recommendations of the scientists.
The project, sited off Russia's pacific coast and run by a consortium headed by Shell, involves undersea infrastructure which crosses the only known breeding ground of the Western Gray Whale. Only an estimated 122 whales are left, and the scientific panel says that the population is on track for extinction.
A report by the Western Gray Whale advisory panel says that Sakhalin Energy did not follow its recommendation to monitor the effect of construction noise on the whale population at the same time as it began construction.
In addition, although scientists employed by the consortium had apparently made significant efforts to monitor the whales, the data presented to the panel was not sufficient to work out whether the noise was affecting them.
Justices' First Brush With Global Warming
November 30, 2006 (New York Times) A Supreme Court argument Wednesday on the Bush administration's refusal to regulate carbon dioxide in automobile emissions offered three intertwined plot lines to the audience that had come to watch the court's first encounter with the issue of global climate change.
On one level, the argument was about the meaning of the Clean Air Act, which the Environmental Protection Agency maintains does not treat carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases as air pollutants and thus does not give the agency the authority to regulate them.
On another level, the argument was about whether the dozen states, three cities and many environmental groups that went to federal court to challenge the agency's position had legal standing to pursue their lawsuit.
And on still another level, the courtroom action was an episode in a policy debate that began well before this case arrived on the Supreme Court's docket and that will continue, in the political sphere, no matter what the justices decide.
By the end of the argument, that continuing debate appeared the only certain outcome.
Whale attacks trainer at SeaWorld
November 30, 2006 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer) Shamu the killer whale injured a trainer during a show at SeaWorld Adventure Park by grabbing his foot and pulling him underwater twice, authorities said.
The 39-year-old man was hospitalized in good condition after Wednesday's show, said Mike Scarpuzzi, a park official. Scarpuzzi, who oversees zoological operations, said he did not know the extent of the trainer's injuries.
The park declined to release the trainer's name, saying some members of his family have yet to be notified. Scarpuzzi said the trainer has been working with animals for 16 years, including 12 spent at Shamu Stadium.
"His skills and techniques, and close relationship with the whale played a major role in helping the animal calm down and allowed him to eventually swim out of the pool," Scarpuzzi said.
The mishap occurred around 5 p.m. when the trainer and Shamu were to go underwater as planned. They were to emerge with the trainer jumping off the whale's nose.
"While underwater, the whale opened its mouth and grabbed his foot and kept him underwater for a period of time," Scarpuzzi said, adding he didn't know how long the trainer was kept down.
U.S. offers orca rescue plan
November 29, 2006 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer) Federal fisheries officials Tuesday unveiled their plan to rescue Puget Sound's embattled orcas but said they won't protect some waters environmentalists consider important to the killer whales: the Sound's shoreline, Hood Canal and the Pacific Coast.
In its recovery plan, the National Marine Fisheries Service voiced "considerable uncertainty" about which of many threats to orcas should get the most attention. Are toxic chemicals most important? Reduced runs of the whales' favorite food, Chinook salmon? Effects such as engine noise from whale watchers and other boats?
Property rights advocates dismissed the whole exercise as unnecessary. Environmentalists said that while they're glad to see the government moving to help orcas, federal policymakers aren't going far enough. They advocate more concrete and immediate actions to save the whales.
"On toxics, they seem very reluctant to propose action because they want to study it more," said Kathy Fletcher, president of the environmental group People for Puget Sound. "It would be nice to see a lot more action-oriented commitment."
Recovery plan for orcas: $50M, 30 years
November 29, 2006 (Seattle Times) Saving Puget Sound's orcas from extinction will mean protecting 2,500 square miles of waterways, the possible regulation of whale watching, redoubling efforts to recover salmon and scrutinizing environmental hazards from flame retardants to ship noise, a new federal plan says.
And it could take nearly three decades and cost $50 million.
The proposed recovery plan released Tuesday by the National Marine Fisheries Service is a first look at how the federal government wants to save the orcas since it declared them endangered under the Endangered Species Act last year.
But environmentalists offered mixed reviews, saying that it offers a valuable framework but doesn't go far enough. On the other hand, property-rights advocates who object to the listing in the first place continue to warn that it could mean restrictions on everything from ship traffic to development.
Federal officials say a lot of questions remain about exactly why the orcas are in decline and how to best reverse it. So the recovery plan calls for doubling funding over the next five years to $15 million for research.
"We don't have a smoking gun," said Lynne Barre, a federal marine mammal scientist and an author of the plan.
There are several prime suspects.
Shrinking salmon populations, particularly of chinook, deprive the orcas of a staple diet. Toxic chemicals, including widely used flame retardants, concentrate in the whales' bodies, making them some of the most chemical-laden animals on earth. Ship propellers, underwater construction and sonar can create a cacophony around orcas, which rely on their sense of sound.
Puget Sound Designated as Critical Habitat for Orcas; Recovery Plan Presented
November 28, 2006 (Earth Justice news release) The National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) today proposed its draft recovery plan for Puget Sound and designated a critical habitat for the endangered Southern Resident orca whales that make their home in these Pacific Northwest waters. Orca advocates noted the quick turnaround by the government in addressing the urgent needs of the orca for better habitat. They encouraged the government to continue to move forward and do all it can to save the orcas.
"I'm glad the federal government has taken this first step towards ensuring a healthier Puget Sound for our much loved whales," said former five-term Washington Secretary of State, Ralph Munro. "I have spent my life appreciating these whales and have been very concerned about decline in recent years. The good news is that we can save the whales if we improve their habitat."
"The orcas' situation is truly urgent, and it is good that NOAA Fisheries is moving ahead," observed Kathy Fletcher, executive director of People for Puget Sound, a group engaging citizens in Puget Sound restoration. "But to truly save the orcas we need to save Puget Sound. We're disappointed that key areas are excluded from the critical habitat designation, and that the recovery plan does not effectively address the toxic chemicals that are poisoning the population."
The Southern Resident orca community is an extended family of whales that live in close-knit matriarchal family units for their entire lives. Since the last ice age, the Southern Residents have made their home in Puget Sound, the San Juan Islands, Haro Strait, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and the northwest coast, with the entire population reuniting here every summer. These whales are among the most intelligent animals in the world with their own language and greeting rituals.
Sound's health hangs in the balance
November 28, 2006 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer op-ed) The plight of Puget Sound is front and center, thanks to the diligent work of the media, the governor's Puget Sound Partnership and countless civic and environmental leaders. We're hearing much these days about the quality of its water, the animals that are in trouble, the shorelines that are degraded.
It is time now to act.
Consider what Puget Sound and its shorelines mean to this region. This is where we play, explore and connect. It's where children discover nature. It teems with life -- from salmon to orcas -- and nurtures life, including our region's economic life.
It is also an icon. Name another large body of water near a major U.S. city that's visited by whales and affords views of snow-capped mountains. You can't, because there are no others.
Puget Sound is a place like no other. It's a place that matters.
To save salmon, states want to kill sea lions
November 28, 2006 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer) The states of Oregon, Washington and Idaho asked the federal government Monday for permission to kill sea lions eating salmon and steelhead at Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River.
Fish and wildlife agencies from the three states joined to formally seek permission to use lethal force under terms of the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The request does not include Steller's sea lions, which are protected by the Endangered Species Act. The request will be considered by a task force of state and federal agencies, tribes, scientists, conservation and fishing groups in a review process that could take several years.
A bill is pending in Congress to quickly give permits to kill problem sea lions to the states and Indian tribes.
Humpbacks have unusual type of brain cells also found in humans
November 28, 2006 (Seattle Times) Humpback whales are unusual among cetaceans for having a type of neural cells in their brains that also are found in humans.
The structure of the neurons, researchers say, promotes the speedy transmission of information and might play a role in supporting the humpback's complex social life and sophisticated ability to communicate.
A study in the current edition of the Anatomical Record reports that the humpback brain contains "islands" of neural cells in the cerebral cortex that are generally not seen in the smaller-toothed whales and dolphins but are found in primates and other large-brained whales.
The function of these "spindle" neurons is not well understood, but they are thought to be involved in processing thoughts and information and are affected by Alzheimer's disease and other debilitating brain disorders.
Columbia River Dams: Beyond breaching
November 26, 2006 (Seattle Editorial) A new report shows big economic benefits from tearing down the four worst offenders among the Columbia River Basin's more than 200 dams. A more encouraging development is the eagerness of environmental, energy and fishing groups to talk with those who feel threatened by dam removal.
There's nothing earthshaking in the idea that removing four Lower Snake Rivers would bring greater benefits for fish, the environment and tourism than the costs. The new Revenue Stream report compiles previous estimates to conclude the benefits would nearly double the costs, at minimum.
Environmentalists can keep winning in court. But solutions will come from talking. Reaching out to inland communities with sound numbers and open minds is the key to resolving questions about irrigation, shipping and other issues.
Energy Firms Come to Terms With Climate Change
November 25, 2006 (Washington Post) While the political debate over global warming continues, top executives at many of the nation's largest energy companies have accepted the scientific consensus about climate change and see federal regulation to cut greenhouse gas emissions as inevitable.
The Democratic takeover of Congress makes it more likely that the federal government will attempt to regulate emissions. The companies have been hiring new lobbyists who they hope can help fashion a national approach that would avert a patchwork of state plans now in the works. They are also working to change some company practices in anticipation of the regulation.
"We have to deal with greenhouse gases," John Hofmeister, president of Shell Oil Co., said in a recent speech at the National Press Club. "From Shell's point of view, the debate is over. When 98 percent of scientists agree, who is Shell to say, 'Let's debate the science'?"
Hofmeister and other top energy company leaders, such as Duke Energy Corp.'s chief executive, James E. Rogers, back a proposal that would cap greenhouse gas emissions and allow firms to trade their quotas.
Paul M. Anderson, Duke Energy's chairman and a member of the president's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, favors a tax on emissions of carbon dioxide, the most prevalent greenhouse gas. His firm is the nation's third-largest burner of coal.
Exxon Mobil Corp., the highest-profile corporate skeptic about global warming, said in September that it was considering ending its funding of a think tank that has sought to cast doubts on climate change. And on Nov. 2, the company announced that it will contribute more than $1.25 million to a European Union study on how to store carbon dioxide in natural gas fields in the Norwegian North Sea, Algeria and Germany.
"We cannot deal with 50 different policies," said Shell's Hofmeister. "We need a national approach to greenhouse gases."
Next week, the Supreme Court will hear arguments on whether the federal government is obligated to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant; its decision could force the government to come up with guidelines.
Are the Flame-retardants Used in Many Products as a Fire Safety Precaution Dangerous to Our Health?
November 22, 2006 (Health News Digest) Flame-retardants are in widespread use in both the U.S. and Canada, primarily in carpet padding, foam cushions, polyester bedding and clothing, wallpaper, and the plastic housings for computers, faxes and other electronics. Most are made from variations of a chemical known as PBDE, which stands for polybrominated diphenyl ether.
According to the Washington State Department of Ecology (WSDE), in laboratory studies some PBDEs have been shown to cause problems in rodent brain development. "Most of these problems stem from pre-natal exposure and exposure soon after birth. The health effects appear to be permanent," says WSDE. They are quick to point out, though, that levels in humans have not (yet) reached the levels that cause problems in lab animals, but that scientists are concerned because the levels in humans keep rising.
PBDEs are "persistent" in that they don't break down but remain active in our air, water, soil and food. WSDE says that PDBEs are building up in animals throughout the food chain, even turning up in orca whales in Puget Sound in Washington and in the bodies of polar bears in the Arctic.
EPA Exempts Some Pesticide Use
November 22, 2006 (Environmental Network News) The Environmental Protection Agency announced Tuesday that pesticides can be applied over and near bodies of water without a permit under the federal Clean Water Act. The decision brought immediate criticism from an environmental watchdog group and from a senator involved in environmental issues. They said it would make it easier to pollute the nation's lakes and streams.
But the EPA said the two specific circumstances in which clean water permits no longer will be needed will add to public health by allowing for better eradication of pests.
"This clean water rule strengthens and streamlines efforts of public health officials and communities to control pests and invasive species while maintaining important environmental safeguards," said Benjamin Grumbles, the EPA's assistant administrator for water-related issues.
Under the rule, pesticides can be applied directly into water or sprayed nearby or onto foliage over water without a pollution permit if the application is needed to control aquatic weeds, mosquitoes or other pests.
Sen. Jim Jeffords, I-Vt., the ranking member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said the permitting exemption will lead to more toxic pollution getting into lakes and streams. He said a billion pounds of pesticides are used annually in the United States "and much of it ends up in our waterways."
"We must strengthen, not weaken, our policies and laws that prevent pesticides from polluting rivers, streams, lakes and our underground water supplies," Jeffords said in a statement.
Jay Feldman, executive director of Beyond Pesticides, a private public health and environmental advocacy group, called the ruling a weakening of federal protection because the Clean Water Act set limits on the maximum contamination levels that would be allowed to protect waterways.
"More protection is need from pesticides, not less," said Feldman.
Enviros Say Region Would Save Billions Without Lower Snake Dams
November 21, 2006 (NW Fishletter) A report released last week by environmental groups took another shot at lower Snake River dams, and concluded that the region would save a lot of fish and billions of dollars by taking them out. But the report, recycling some materials from 10-year old dam analyses, was received by a collective yawn from the popular media.
Called Revenue Stream, it was compiled by staffers of several environmental and fishing groups, and estimated that the Northwest could save between $1.6 billion and $4.6 billion over the next 20 years without the dams in place. The Washington D.C.-based Taxpayers for Common Sense, also supported the study, although most dam costs are shouldered by BPA ratepayers.
Regional NOAA Fisheries head Bob Lohn, speaking at last week's Council meeting in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, said the report was misleading, because removing the dams would only help a few of the 13 salmon and steelhead stocks listed for protection in the Columbia Basin, and would not open most of the Snake fall chinook's original habitat, now blocked by Idaho Power dams.
Scientists unite to fight Japan's dolphin hunt
November 21, 2006 (Seattle Times) A coalition of marine scientists has launched a campaign to halt Japan's annual "dolphin drive," in which thousands of bottlenose dolphins are herded into shallow coves to be slaughtered with knives and clubs.
The government-sanctioned event, which extends through the fall and winter, has been under fire for years from environmental and animal-rights activists.
But in a potentially influential escalation of that battle, mainstream scientists and administrators of zoos and aquariums have united to condemn the practice.
The campaign pits the emerging science of animal intelligence against a centuries-old human cultural tradition.
In an online statement released Monday, the protest organizers - including many of the world's leading dolphin scientists and the man who trained the television star Flipper - say the hunt is a ritual massacre of creatures that, according to a growing body of research, are not just intelligent but sophisticatedly self-aware.
The statement calls on the Japanese government to stop issuing permits allowing the hunt and for a halt to the purchase of dolphins caught in the drive. It also aims to get 1 million people to sign an online petition (www.actfordolphins.org) to the government.
Hal Whitehead, who studies whale and dolphin social systems at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, said dolphins are among the few animals known to live in multicultural communities, in which groups of individuals that have been taught to do things - such as catch prey - in different ways live together.
Because dolphins learn from one another, he said, major cullings can have a serious impact on surviving individuals' ability to persevere. "When you remove a bunch of animals, you remove not only them but the knowledge that they have."
Chalk one up for the environmentalists
November 21, 2006 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer) Two weeks ago today, the mountains beat the smog. Open space beat sprawl.
Wildlife whupped concrete. On few topics of liberal-conservative dispute was there a "thumping" of major proportions equal to the one voters visited upon anti-environmentalists in the recent election.
The new Congress will be governed so differently on environmental issues from the current Congress that it's hard to count the ways.
The election results changed the game environmentalists have played for the past 12 years from one of defense to offense. Those who seek to push back global warming instead of blithely ignoring its encroaching presence, those who favor smart growth over unlimited sprawl, those who cherish open space, no longer need to worry nonstop about losing ground. They, instead, can start finding ways to move forward on a variety of environmental issues.
Grist Magazine, which covers the environment, quotes Sierra Club Political Director Cathy Duvall as saying, "Let me be clear: The environment won. ... Voters elected a greener U.S. House, a greener U.S. Senate, greener U.S. governors, and they gave a green light to a new energy future."
Study: Warming speeds species die off
November 21, 2006 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer) Animal and plant species have begun dying off or changing sooner than predicted because of global warming, a review of hundreds of research studies contends.
These fast-moving adaptations come as a surprise even to biologists and ecologists because they are occurring so rapidly.
At least 70 species of frogs, mostly mountain-dwellers that had nowhere to go to escape the creeping heat, have gone extinct because of climate change, the analysis says. It also reports that between 100 and 200 other cold-dependent animal species, such as penguins and polar bears are in deep trouble.
Just five years ago biologists, though not complacent, figured the harmful biological effects of global warming were much farther down the road, said Douglas Futuyma, professor of ecology and evolution at the State University of New York in Stony Brook.
"I feel as though we are staring crisis in the face," Futuyma said. "It's not just down the road somewhere. It is just hurtling toward us. Anyone who is 10 years old right now is going to be facing a very different and frightening world by the time that they are 50 or 60."
Singing whales make small talk too
November 20, 2006 (ABC News Australia) New research suggests that whale communication is even more sophisticated than previously thought.
Whales have such a broad vocal repertoire that they can call to their young, woo potential mates and even express emotions, according to researchers who have identified 622 social sounds in humpback whales.
Social sounds are brief, unpatterned noises that are distinct from lengthier, complex whale songs.
The new research adds to a growing body of evidence that whales convey more meaning through vocalisations than previously thought.
They identified 622 distinct sounds, which fell into 35 basic types.
These include "wops" made by females, "thwops" made by males, "yaps" made when pods split, and high pitched cries that appeared to express anger.
In addition to vocalisations, the researchers found that whales send messages through body language, by breaching the surface, slapping water with their tails and blowing underwater bubbles.
Famous for their long, complex songs, whales also sometimes "speak" short song units individually instead of singing them.
Males especially seem to do this when trying to woo a female.
California restricts fishing along coast
November 20, 2006 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer) Despite intense opposition from many fishermen, California wildlife regulators are creating the nation's most extensive network of "marine-protected areas" -- stretches of ocean where fishing will be banned or severely restricted.
The first chain of refuges, covering about 200 square miles and stretching from Santa Barbara to Half Moon Bay, just south of San Francisco, is due to take effect early next year. The state plans similar protected zones along the more intensely fished coasts of Northern and Southern California.
Conservationists say such networks are a new approach to saving the oceans from overfishing. They believe California's plan could serve as a model for other states and countries.
"It's the beginning of a historic shift in how we restore, protect and manage our oceans," said Warner Chabot, vice president of the Ocean Conservancy. "We're doing something that's as historic for the oceans as what Teddy Roosevelt did 100 years ago when he created national parks and forests."
In north-central Washington, coho salmon are fighting the odds
November 20, 2006 (Seattle Times) After a 530-mile journey from the ocean, a salmon skitters in a stream bordered by dogwood and willows. This fish, a precious participant in a $13.5 million experiment to resurrect long-gone wild coho runs of north-central Washington, will soon lay her eggs here.
The runs were wiped out in the early 20th century by fishermen, loggers, miners and farmers. Now they are being revived with the aid of humble hatchery stock transplanted from the Lower Columbia River.
A decade of work, financed by Northwest electrical ratepayers, yields several thousand coho that each year have the fortitude to navigate past seven dams in their upstream migration to the Wenatchee, Entiat and Methow river drainages.
"Each one of these fish is like gold to us - for them to have made it all the way through the hydro system," said Tom Scribner, a biologist with the Yakama Nation, which jump-started the runs.
But the money that now supports the runs could run dry next year. The north-central Washington coho would then likely suffer the dubious distinction of a second fade into history, and their brief reappearance would rank as a costly, wasteful footnote in the broader struggle to restore salmon in the Northwest.
Scientists not done with whale carcass yet
November 18, 2006 (Seattle Times) They plan to attach 3 tons of metal railroad wheels to the corpse and sink it off the coast of San Juan Island.
But because these are scientists, that's just the beginning of the story.
The real goal is to study the whale's decomposition at a level of detail that would make most people gag.
Using an underwater drone equipped with a video camera, the researchers will document the types of fish, crabs and other creatures that feed on the carcass, and the role it plays as a food bonanza in the marine ecosystem. Divers will also visit the site for an up-close view of the putrefaction.
EPA pledges to rejoin fight to clean up Puget Sound
November 17, 2006 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer) The nation's chief environmental regulator on Thursday threw the Bush administration's weight behind a growing campaign to restore Puget Sound, promising to deliver results and for the first time committing the federal government to specific restoration targets.
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Stephen Johnson's announcement helps cement rejuvenation of the overfished and polluted Sound as a bipartisan priority in Washington, D.C., where Democratic Rep. Norm Dicks of Washington stands ready to head a subcommittee that is key to reviving the Sound.
Dicks, long a major supporter of the save-the-Sound effort, now will have a lot of say over EPA's budget.
The EPA administrator's speech to a Muckleshoot Indian Tribe "Salmon Homecoming" ceremony marked the re-emergence of the nation's most powerful environmental agency in the long-dormant effort to nurse the Sound back to health.
"President Bush and I believe that a healthy Puget Sound translates (into) and means a healthy environment in the Northwest," Johnson told dozens of tribal representatives, environmental leaders, government officials and others. "It's so important for us to invest and work ... to protect, to restore but also to defend Puget Sound."
The new promises come years after the agency's Seattle-based Region 10 shut down a unit set up as part of a Sound-revival campaign that flagged for lack of public support.
Some of the work Johnson promised already is in progress. And he did not commit the administration to seeking the billions of dollars that fixing the Sound ultimately will require. For example, about 40,000 acres of shorelines and wetlands require restoration, and an additional 45,000 acres of still-untrammeled habitat must be purchased.
Billy Frank Jr., the Indian fishing activist who now heads the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission and served with Manning as co-chairman of the Gregoire-appointed partnership, called Johnson's commitment extremely encouraging.
Later Ruckelshaus told the Homecoming group that "you can bring public awareness up relatively quickly. Keeping it there over time is the challenge."
Report: Breaching dams would save money, salmon
November 16, 2006 (Idaho Statesman) Breaching four Washington Snake River dams to save Idaho's endangered salmon would cost less than leaving the dams in place, according to a report released Wednesday by salmon advocates, taxpayer and business groups.
Dam breaching - removing the earthen section of the four lower Snake dams - would cost the region more than $6 billion over 10 years, the report said. But restoring the river flows to aid salmon migration would save taxpayers and electricity consumers nearly $5 billion, the groups said.
"We can save money, restore salmon by removing the lower Snake dams and keep people and communities who might be adversely affected by the dams whole," said Bill Sedivy, executive director for Idaho Rivers United.
The report comes as federal agencies rewrite a plan for salmon and dam operations; a federal judge had struck down two previous plans since 2000.
The 2000 biological opinion had included breaching the four dams as a last resort, but the Bush administration has ruled that option out. Salmon advocates are supporting a bill in Congress that would authorize a new federal study similar to the one they released Wednesday.
Salmon numbers declined dramatically after the final dam was built in the 1970s, and four stocks of salmon and steelhead are in danger of extinction in Idaho, Oregon and Washington rivers upstream.
State locates tug to rescue stranded ships
November 16, 2006 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer) The state Ecology Department announced it finally has been able to hire a tugboat to rescue stranded ships in danger of spilling oil on Washington's outer coast this winter.
A shortage of tugs on the West Coast, at least partly traceable to damage by Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf of Mexico, has complicated Ecology's search for a rescue tug. The tug normally is stationed in Neah Bay in the stormy fall and winter months.
Crowley Maritime Corp. submitted the winning bid to provide the service for $8,500 a day plus fuel costs beginning Jan. 1.
Crowley's competitor, Foss Maritime, which previously held the contract before opting out, has a tug stationed at Neah Bay from Nov. 1 to Dec. 31. Crowley's tug will stay until March or April.
ANIMAL RIGHTS - They think, feel pain
November 12, 2006 (Miami Herald opinion) Recent news that Happy, a 34-year-old Asian elephant, recognized herself in a giant, shatter-proof mirror at the Bronx Zoo is just the latest in a burgeoning list of eye-opening revelations into the minds and motivations of other beings.
Recent studies have shown that mice empathize with familiar mice who are suffering, that captive male monkeys will hand over a bottle of fruit juice for a chance to ogle photos of female monkeys' bottoms and that rats accustomed to being tickled will come running for more, making high-pitched chirps linked to the origins of human laughter.
Such discoveries are not confined to mammals. Pigeons navigate using human roads, ravens slide or roll down snow banks just for kicks and iguanas will shun boring food to brave the cold for a gourmet treat.
Fish, too, can no longer be dismissed as mindless, unfeeling things. Three fish biologists recently described fishes as: ``steeped in social intelligence, pursuing Machiavellian strategies of manipulation, punishment, reconciliation and cooperation.''
The once-long list of uniquely human traits is dwindling almost as fast as you can say ''human supremacy.'' Tool use, a former symbol of our unique ingenuity, is widespread in nature, and several species manufacture and modify their own tools. Animals also have their own cultures, and they may show malice, or compassion, for others. They deceive, tease, pretend and celebrate, and they exhibit a broad range of emotions including grief, gratitude, jealousy, joy and embarrassment.
Whale's death is blamed on ship
November 11, 2006 (Everett Herald) The animal also was tangled in a rope that probably prevented it from eating.
A dead fin whale found floating near Everett's Pier 1 this week probably got tangled in a rope and then was hit by a ship, a team of marine biologists said Friday.
A necropsy of the 54-foot-long juvenile male whale showed hemorrhaging underneath the blubber layer just behind its head and external marks consistent with collision injuries.
Jessie Huggins, a biologist with Cascadia Research in Olympia, said the endangered whales are not commonly seen in inland waters.
The nonprofit is among a network of researchers authorized by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service to investigate dead marine mammals.
The whale may have been dragged by a ship from outside the Strait of Juan de Fuca. It may have died as long as a week ago.
Researchers who cut into the carcass found evidence that the whale was already in poor health before it died.
The whale, which belongs to the same family as humpbacks and blue whales, was entangled in a rope, which cut deeply into the side of its jaw and likely prevented it from opening its mouth to eat.
A brief report on our examination of the fin whale near Everett and posted it on the Cascadia Research web site along with some photographs.
Stormwater cleanup goals won't be met by deadline
November 10, 2006 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer) Puget Sound Partnership asks Gregoire to create runoff-focused task force
The blue-ribbon panel crafting a strategy for saving Puget Sound by 2020 acknowledged Thursday that it wasn't going to meet the mark in the key area of stormwater.
The Puget Sound Partnership -- appointed last December by Gov. Chris Gregoire -- is closing in on its deadline for completing recommendations on recovering the health of the Sound, which has seen declining marine life, chronic pollution and seafood that is unsafe for people to eat.
At its final meeting Thursday, the group agreed to a draft amendment to its strategy for cleaning up and controlling stormwater. It stated that its plan for controlling the runoff that carries pesticides, oil and grease and other pollution to the Sound would not meet the 2020 recovery deadline. It urged Gregoire to immediately create a task force of scientists and stakeholders to investigate the issue further.
Boxer promises changes in U.S. environmental policy
November 10, 2006 (Santa Rosa Press Democrat) Californian to replace panel chairman who called global warming 'hoax'
Sen. Barbara Boxer on Thursday promised major policy shifts on global warming, air quality and toxic-waste cleanup as she prepares to head the U.S. Senate's environmental committee.
"Time is running out, and we need to move forward on this," Boxer said of global warming during a conference call with reporters. "The states are beginning to take steps, and we need to take steps as well."
Boxer's elevation to chairwoman of the Senate Environmental Public Works Committee comes as the Democrats return to power in the Senate. It also marks a dramatic shift in ideology for the panel.
The California Democrat is one of the Senate's most liberal members and replaces one of the most conservative senators, Republican James Inhofe of Oklahoma. Inhofe had blocked bills seeking to cut the greenhouse gases contributing to global warming, calling the issue "the greatest hoax perpetrated on the American people."
Environmentalists were overjoyed at the change.
Gravel-mine plan threatens Sound
November 10, 2006 (Seattle Times op-ed by J.W. Turner) In Washington, we talk about promoting environmental stewardship and responsibility. We form committees to plan environmental protections and award businesses that make an effort to reduce pollution and conserve resources. But right on the shores of Puget Sound in a marine reserve area, we're looking at the potential construction of the biggest gravel mine in the United States, based on annual extraction.
Seem ugly? It is. And the push to expand this gravel mine on the south side of Maury Island would have repercussions not just for chinook salmon and nearly 25 bird species when their habitat is destroyed, but for all undeveloped shoreline in our area.
Glacier Northwest is proposing the mining expansion and industrial barging operation. The company is trying to secure permits to extract up to 40,000 tons of gravel per day and reconstruct its barging facility to ship gravel off the island, within the Maury Island Aquatic Reserve.
A University of Washington scientist, David Bain, has noted the barge traffic from the mine could wipe out the endangered orca population in south Puget Sound, while a 2004 King County study has found it will devastate critical chinook salmon runs and eelgrass beds.
The mining operation will deposit tons of arsenic and lead-laden topsoil in a berm right above Puget Sound, destroy one of the largest stands of madrona in the West that is home to 25 species of birds, and excavate within 15 feet of Maury and Vashon islands' sole drinking-water source.
Environmental groups savor Pombo's defeat as sign of new power
November 9, 2006 (Los Angeles Times) In playing a critical role in the defeat of seven-term GOP incumbent Richard W. Pombo of Tracy, environmental groups demonstrated political muscle that has eluded them for years.
Led by Defenders of Wildlife, a group better known for its wolf preservation efforts than its campaign clout, environmentalists poured money and volunteers into a race that was at best considered a long shot. "Nobody, not the Democrats, not the political analysts, not many of our own believers felt we could actually beat him," said Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope.
But when the votes were counted, Pombo, the powerful chairman of the House Resources Committee and a longtime incumbent in a comfortably Republican district, had been unseated by Democrat Jerry McNerney, a wind power expert he trounced two years ago.
"Rep. Richard Pombo's loss represents the most significant electoral victory the environmental movement has seen in decades," said Rodger Schlickeisen, president of the Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund. "It should now be clear to all that we have the political strength to take on and defeat extreme anti-environmental politicians, even powerful chairmen of congressional committees."
Industrial salmon costly to environment
November 9, 2006 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer opinion by Alexandra Morton) Many in British Columbia, from fishermen to First Nations chiefs, are now calling for sustainable salmon-farming practices that would allow wild salmon, and all that depend on them, to survive. Yet, foreign-owned industrial salmon production companies are pushing to double the current number of cages, putting wild Pacific salmon at critical risk. Consumers, however, can make the difference. And to make our voices heard, we needn't look any further than our pocketbooks.
Wild salmon are a sacred gift. From the moment their pink translucent eggs drop into cold mountain streams, they support life around them. They act as a virtual blood stream; their movement of ocean nutrients is key to the health of the land and sea.
Industrial salmon production breaks this essential flow. Just one facility can hold more than a million fish. Perverting natural laws, pressing salmon into feedlots thick with feces, stimulates viruses, bacteria and parasites to grow unchecked. The pollutants and parasites metastasize from the pens and spread via ocean currents to contaminate wild fish with pathogens at a magnitude they were never designed to handle.
Benign to adult salmon, small parasitic sea lice graze on the exterior of fish. Nature kept these parasites away from defenseless newly hatched wild salmon, but the mega- salmon farms have brought the two together, with disastrous consequences.
Dead fish cannot return to spawn. Eagles, orca whales, grizzly bears and human communities all suffer, as a vital link in their food chain is severed. Some rivers in the Broughton Archipelago had fewer than 50 pink salmon return last year, with this fall shaping up as another disaster. There should be millions.
Worldwide project to plant 1 billion trees launches
November 9, 2006 (Seattle Times) Kenyan environmentalist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai launched a project Wednesday to plant a billion trees worldwide to help fight climate change and poverty.
Maathai, who in 2004 became the first African woman and first "green" activist to win the Nobel Peace Prize, urged people from the United States to Uganda to plant trees to combat global warming and to make a long-term commitment.
Scientists blame the past century's 1-degree rise in average global temperatures at least in part on the accumulation of carbon dioxide, methane and other heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere - byproducts of power plants, automobiles and other fossil-fuel burners.
Achim Steiner, the head of the U.N. Environment Program (UNEP), said planting a billion trees would soak up some 250 million tons of carbon dioxide warming the atmosphere.
Cultural, natural treasures imperiled by global warming
November 8, 2006 (Seattle Times) From ancient ruins in Thailand to a 12th-century settlement off Africa's eastern coast, prized sites around the world have withstood centuries of wars, looting and natural disasters. But experts say they might not survive a more recent menace: a swiftly warming planet.
"Our world is changing; there is no going back," Tom Downing of the Stockholm Environment Institute said Tuesday at the U.N. climate conference, where he released a report on threats to archaeological sites, coastal areas and other treasures.
Continued global warming will lead to shifts in climate zones, seas rising from heat expansion and runoff from melted land ice, and more extreme weather, scientists say.
The two-week climate conference, which started Monday, has drawn delegates from around the world to address climate change. The 189 parties to the 1992 U.N. climate treaty are divided into two groups: the 165 that ratified the treaty's 1997 Kyoto Protocol mandating cutbacks in greenhouse gases, and a few others, including the United States, that did not.
Scientists fear for the health of Puget Sound
November 8, 2006 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer) Experts criticize plan by governor's panel as inadequate
A group of 14 experts on controlling stormwater runoff is criticizing the Puget Sound Partnership's draft plan for returning local marine waters to health. None was part of the science team advising the partnership.
The scientists expressed "little hope" for the restoration of the Sound unless the draft recommendations on stormwater -- due for final consideration today and Thursday -- are strengthened.
"Indeed it is far more likely, with the arrival of millions more newcomers and concomitant high-impact development, that the health of Puget Sound will continue in its precipitous decline," it stated.
"All of us signed on to that letter because we do feel strongly that the traditional approaches to stormwater have not been successful in actually protecting stream ecosystems," said Derek Booth, a geologist with the consulting group Stillwater Sciences.
Stormwater -- the rainwater runoff from roads, parking lots and rooftops that carries pollution and erodes streams -- is considered one of the greatest threats to Puget Sound's salmon, orcas and other marine life.
Research has shown that low-impact development, in particular, can be cost effective.
Low-impact development "is such a small step and such an easy thing to do, why wouldn't we do it as quickly as possible?" said Tom Holz, an engineer with a consulting company and key contributor to the letter.
What's killing the killer whales?
November 7, 2006 (National Geograpnic Video)
That's a question very much on the mind of biologists plying the waters of California's Monterey Bay. Every year a pod of transient orcas visits the area-but they're arriving later, fewer, and sicker each time they return.
Join a dedicated research team as they use a specialized dart gun to literally fire away at this scientific whodunit, and learn why the failing health of the ocean's top predators might signal ecological disaster for the world's seas.
The plastic garbage pit of the Pacific
November 6, 2006 (San Francisco Chronicle) Trash particles, looking like food, imperil sea life
Plastic trash caught up in a swirling vortex in the North Pacific Ocean between California and Hawaii is killing sea life, choking birds and fish and entangling seals and sea lions, a new Greenpeace report says.
Soda six-pack rings, plastic bags, condoms, beach toys and stray nets -- much of it washed off U.S. shores and some tossed directly into the ocean -- float in a mix of plastic pollution that injures hungry animals as big as whales and as small as zooplankton, according to a report by the international environmental group.
Scientists traveling aboard the Greenpeace vessel Esperanza said Sunday they now are gathering firsthand data on threats to the world's oceans from pollution, overfishing and whaling. As part of that investigation, they released the report, a compilation of studies published since 1990 on plastics in the marine environment.
The current research examines plastic as it weathers into particles the size of sand grains, so small they become part of the tissue of ocean organisms.
"These small fragments of plastics may pose more of a threat to marine life because they resemble the prey of lots of organisms -- everything from zooplankton to whales,'' said Adam Walters, a chemist speaking by telephone aboard the vessel and an author of the report.
These bits can fill the stomachs of birds and other sea creatures that mistake them for food, causing malnutrition and eventually starvation. The researchers are measuring the distribution of the particles as they that float or fall to the ocean floor.
Pilot program aims to create series of wetland "banks"
November 4, 2006 (Seattle Times) Wildlife now are calling approximately 230 acres of former farmland adjacent to the Snoqualmie River their home, thanks to an ambitious wetlands project under review by the state Department of Ecology.
An additional 260 acres eventually will be ready for wildlife and salmon living in the Skykomish River corridor.
Since 2001, Victor Woodward and David Remlinger, as well as some other landowners, have been creating new wetlands as part of a pilot program that Ecology hopes will open up to other prospective landowners next year.
The idea is to create a series of wetland "banks," where developers who destroy wetlands for new construction can purchase credits to offset their environmental damage. The money helps pay for the creation of the wetlands. When wetland credits are completely sold out at a bank of wetland property, a permanent conservation easement, preventing any development of the property, goes into effect.
U.S. joins protest of Iceland whaling
November 3, 2006 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer) The United States and two dozen other countries are protesting Iceland's resumption of whaling, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Friday.
"We're extremely disappointed that Iceland has decided to resume commercial whaling in spite of the international ban and absent any agreed upon management system. Its actions undermine the proper functioning of the International Whaling Commission," Bill Hogarth, U.S. Commissioner to the IWC and director of the NOAA Fisheries Service, said in a statement.
NOAA, a part of the Commerce Department, is in charge of managing whales and other marine mammals in U.S. waters.
A ban on whaling was instituted in 1986 because the giant marine mammals had become depleted.
However, on Oct. 17, Iceland announced its was resuming commercial whaling. Since then Icelandic whalers have killed seven fin whales and one minke whale, NOAA said.
Your favorite seafood may be in peril, study says
November 3, 2006 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer) If overfishing and other trends harming fish stocks around the world continue on their current path, we'll be saying sayonara to the seafood we love best in coming decades, according to a new scientific study published today.
In a report that echoes some of the trends alarming scientists who study Puget Sound, researchers examined large marine ecosystems that produced more than four-fifths of the world's seafood during the past half-century.
Already nearly a third of the fish stocks are in collapse and all of them will be by midcentury, the scientists warned -- although they said changes made now could save our bacon-wrapped scallops and other such morsels.
The study's authors defined collapse as fish stocks dropping to one-tenth of their historic abundance -- approximately what's happened to many salmon runs in the Pacific Northwest. They examined catch records from the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization for 1950 to 2003.
Their conclusion was that when fishing was banned, the number of species grew and "these increases in biodiversity were associated with large increases in fisheries productivity ... in fished areas around the reserves."
Snake Fall Chinook Return Beats 10-Year Average
November 1, 2006 (Tacoma News Tribune) There has been little fanfare this year for the Snake River fall chinook run, which though down from recent years, is still coming in strong compared to returns from the 1990s.
So far, about 8,000 chinook (hatchery plus wild) have returned, according to the count at Lower Granite Dam. That's nearly one-third below the average for the last six years, but still a major improvement over the 1990s--this year's count is 16 percent above the 10-year average.
The overall numbers have been helped in recent years by significant returns of fish raised in hatcheries and out-planted in the Snake at several sites as juveniles, which has given fish managers major problems in trying to determine just how many returning chinook are truly wild. That's always been a tough question to answer, and the managers aren't ready this year either. In fact, they still haven't figured out how many wild fish made it back to Idaho in 2004 and 2005.
Wild chinook returns hadn't passed the 1,000-fish mark from 1975 until 2000, when 1,148 were estimated to have returned. Since then, the numbers have been even better, with a 5,000-fish return in 2001, 2,100 in 2002 and 3,900 in 2003.
Salt water returns to Nisqually field
November 1, 2006 (Tacoma News Tribune) Turning a cow pasture into a salt marsh might sound like a backward move, but when it comes to the Nisqually River delta, it's progress, advocates for salmon say.
Over the past 150 years, agriculture and urban development have destroyed an estimated 80 percent of Puget Sound's natural estuaries, robbing fish and other aquatic life of the foundation of their food chain. Tuesday, the Nisqually Tribe celebrated efforts to turn that destruction around.
A "Welcoming the Tides" ceremony commemorated the restoration of 140 acres of former pasture and set the stage for an even more ambitious project. That one, more than 700 acres on adjacent U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service lands, won't begin until late 2007 at the earliest.
"If you could get everyone in Puget Sound to emulate or duplicate what you've done here, we'd have no problem recovering salmon in Puget Sound," said Bill Ruckelshaus, chairman of the state Salmon Recovery Funding Board and one of several dignitaries who offered congratulations.
With traditional Nisqually Indian drumming and dancing, smoked salmon and speeches, the tribe dedicated part of the estuary to the memory of cattle rancher Ken Braget, who once owned a piece of it.
The Nisqually's native runs of chinook disappeared more than 30 years ago, but the tribe is using hatchery fish to jumpstart a rebirth. At the same time, the river continues to support other native salmon stocks expected to benefit from the improvements.
As a result of the recent restoration, the newly created marsh will produce "food for the fish" instead of "food for people," as did Braget's cattle, said David Troutt, the Nisqually Tribe's natural resources director.
"This is really the food chain engine that drives Puget Sound," he said. Besides being a nursery for insects and other organisms consumed by fish and waterfowl, the estuary is a refuge for young salmon seeking to escape larger predators.
Ever since the tribe began to tear out the dikes in 1996, biologists and others have monitored the results. Change has come quickly. Almost immediately after salt water flows in, animals begin to colonize.
For example, Daniel Hull, director of the nearby Nisqually Reach Nature Center, said he saw four species and 120 birds in 10 minutes of birding on the site last week. They included about 50 mallards and green-winged teals, waterfowl that wouldn't have been lured to the land when it was cow pasture.
"It's sort of amazing how they find it. They do find it really fast," said Jean Takekawa, Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge manager.
While birds and small fish show up in former cow pastures almost immediately, changes in vegetation take a little longer. But not much, Dorner said.
In the restored marshes, the areas dominated by native marsh grasses and other salt-tolerant plants have doubled ever year, she said. At the same time, bugs and microscopic organisms proliferate.
"It gives sort of an energy boost to the whole system," she said.
Do animals have emotions? Well, I'll be a monkey's uncle
November 1, 2006 (Seattle Times) A growing number of scientists agree that animals are conscious and capable of experiencing basic emotions, such as happiness, sadness, boredom or depression. A few scientists even see the possibility for higher animal emotions like love, jealousy and spite.
State's shrinking glaciers: Going ... going ... gone?
November 1, 2006 (Seattle Times) Like Kennard and Doyle here on Mount Rainier, scientists on mountains all over Washington, the most glacier-covered state in the Lower 48, are trying to determine how glaciers are changing. What they are finding here and elsewhere is worrisome: Many of them, such as the South Cascade Glacier in the remote North Cascades, are shrinking quickly - and some are on the verge of disappearing.
While glaciers have ebbed and flowed through the region for millennia - the land where Seattle now stands was once beneath more than half a mile of ice - scientists say global warming is at least partly to blame this time.
And it would be more than a sentimental loss. It could mean less water powering some of the region's hydroelectric dams, filling some drinking-water reservoirs, irrigating farm fields and ushering spawning salmon upstream.
"When people ask me, 'Will glaciers disappear in my lifetime?' I answer, 'Some of them will disappear; all of them are going to get a lot smaller,' " said Andrew Fountain, a glaciologist at Portland State University who is cataloging changes in U.S. glaciers.
The Nooksack River, near the Canadian border, is fed partly by the shrinking Deming Glacier on Mount Baker.
Its loss could make it harder for the city of Bellingham to store enough drinking water. The city gets some of its water from the Middle Fork of the Nooksack, which begins at the Deming Glacier, said Clare Fogelsong, city environmental resources manager. The loss of that glacier's water could mean further trouble for chinook salmon recovery on the river.
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