Seabed Mining is Real

February 26th, 2015

Seabed mining is a new frontier and the payoff for the miners is going to be huge. This is mining beyond the continental shelves, beyond 200m depth, on the continental slopes and beyond, down to the deep hydrothermal vents that occur around the widening rifts where tectonic plates slowly separate. The mining will be industrial scale, and it will be out of sight.

The mineral deposits, particularly around deep sea vents, are extraordinarily rich in copper, gold, iron, cobalt, and invaluable rare earth metals. They are irresistible.

This is a 300 ton machine, now built, ready to be sunk onto the deep seabed near Papua New Guinea where it will break up the mineral rich vent smokers and render the rubble ready for transport to the surface.   (nautilus.com)

This is a 300 ton machine, now built, ready to be sunk onto the deep seabed near Papua New Guinea where it will break up the mineral rich vent smokers and render the rubble ready for transport to the surface. (nautilus.com)

Seabed mining has been a dream of the rich nations and corporations for decades. Figuring out how to govern it in international waters almost scuttled the Law of the Sea in the early 1990s, but the community of nations eventually agreed to postpone those decisions until seabed mining became a reality, and most of the remaining reluctant nations ratified the Law (pretty well all did except for the US).

Well, now instead of being decades off in the future, seabed mining is real, imminent, and the governance by the UN International Seabed Authority is weak. We are not prepared.

Though a number of countries or companies are licensed to explore sites in the Pacific to begin mining, the first to hit the seabed will be Nautilus Minerals, whose regular press releases provide a drumbeat for its accumulating progress. It’s worth checking out the company, for it provides a sense of the scale of interest and the inevitable exploitation that lies ahead. Though it is exploring opportunities in international waters, this first actual mining will be at a depth of 1600 m in EEZ of Papua New Guinea – a rare site where hydrothermal vents occur in national waters.

Site of the first seabed mining in the national waters of Papua New Guinea (gcaptain.com)

Site of the first seabed mining in the national waters of Papua New Guinea (gcaptain.com)

Nautilus Minerals is registered in Canada, its main office is in Brisbane, the surface ship is being built and will be outfitted in Fujian Province on the coast of China, the three huge mining machines/vehicles are being built in Newcastle-on-Tyne in the UK, the motors for the ship are under construction in Norway, and the major investor is Oman. PNG is of course well paid for the license. The ore will be stock-piled in PNG and then sent to refineries around the world. A cyber attack from an unknown source very recently cost the company $10 million. This is as global as it gets.

The surface ship, 247mx40m, with a crew of 180, will first drop the cutter the to prepare the bottom, then the crusher to break the rock up, and finally the collector to pump the slurry to the surface ship. (cares.nautilus.com)

The surface ship, 247mx40m, with a crew of 180, will first drop the cutter to prepare the bottom, then the crusher to break the rock up, and finally the collector to pump the slurry to the surface ship. (cares.nautilus.com)

The Nautilus video tells us that the payoff of mining the 11 hectares under license will be a billion dollars, that there really are no fish there to worry about, and the environmental damage will be negligible. Believe what you like.

The destruction of the bottom vents and their associated biological communities will be total wherever vent mining occurs. Recovery is not possible unless you think in terms of millions of years. (fakrockefeller.org)

The destruction of the bottom vents and their associated biological communities will be total wherever vent mining occurs. Recovery is not possible unless you think in terms of millions of years. (fakrockefeller.org)

The questions are now urgent.
– How much of the seabed should we protect from mining?
– How do we fairly govern mining in international waters?
– Can we give the International Seabed Authority the vision and power it needs, or do we need new organization?
– How do we enforce any agreements that are made?
– How do we monitor what we can’t see except through very expensive remote sensing?

And there’s more. Will the profits be shared only by the nations and investors who can afford to mount the efforts? Surely that is not fair. But then how will the profits be shared by the world’s less affluent nations?

The existing UN Law of the Sea, ratified by almost all the countries of the world except for the US, is by far the best tool available to address these questions. It can be modified, expanded, used to prevent the potential huge abuse of the seabed mining initiative that is now upon us.

This time it should be guided by the Precautionary Approach, by agreement that the seabed, at least in international waters, is a world resource, and the US should finally ratify the Law of the Sea so that it can play a real part in the emerging agreements.

Meanwhile we can all watch what Nautilus Minerals does. With everyone watching, they may truly try to do it right.

The famous, giant and unique tube worms of a hydrothermal vent community, with smokers in the background (imgarcade.com)

The famous giant and unique tube worms of a hydrothermal vent community, with smokers in the background (imgarcade.com)

Eating Dead Jellyfish

February 13th, 2015

Eating living jellyfish is hard enough to imagine – they are mostly water, they usually have piles of sting cells, and seem neither nourishing or appetizing. Unusually, Loggerhead Sea Turtles and Ocean Sunfish eat them out of choice. Even some people claim to: there are quite a few recipes for things like jellyfish crisps to go with your beer. But really, who really would eat them if there were decent alternatives around?

Jeelyfish blooms appear to be occurring more frequently. Ocean Sunfish and Loggerhead Sea turtles are among their predators (fao.un.org)

Jeelyfish blooms appear to be occurring more frequently. Ocean Sunfish and Loggerhead Sea turtles are among their predators (fao.un.org)

Jellyfish usually come in blooms, a nice name for the immense aggregations that frequently occur in coastal waters around the world. So what happens when a bloom of jellyfish matures, sheds its eggs and sperm, and dies? The dead mass of jellyfish sinks to the bottom of the sea and we have assumed it decays there, slowly consumed by bacteria, smothering the sea bottom, rendering it unfit for most other organisms.

Periphylla, the jellyfish used in the bottom feeding experiment, is a deeper water species that occurs in large blooms world wide p(planktonportal.com)

Periphylla, the jellyfish used in the bottom feeding experiment, is a deeper water species that occurs in large blooms world wide (planktonportal.com)

We’re wrong. An elegant study published several months ago has surprised everyone. Dead jellyfish were fastened to 50x50cm ‘landers’ and sunk, along with similar landers laden with yummy bits of mackerel, to the bottom of Sognefjord in southern Norway, 4000 feet below the surface. The results were filmed.

Surely the community of bottom scavengers would selectively eat the mackerel, and pay little attention to the jellyfish carcasses.

Atlantic Hagfish scavenging on the dead jellyfish (natureworldnews.com)

Atlantic Hagfish scavenging on the dead jellyfish (natureworldnews.com)

Instead, dense aggregations of scavengers moved in on the jellyfish just as quickly as they did on the mackerel. First came Atlantic Hagfish, attractively know as slime eels, which burrowed into the mass of dead jellyfish and selectively ate the spent gonads.

Atlantic Hagfish, also called slime eels (seasky.org)

Atlantic Hagfish, also called slime eels (seasky.org)

Then came the crustaceans – particularly a long-clawed crab called a galatheid which in the video look to be aggressive, each protecting its piece of jellyfish from others, spaced out over the lander. Then came a decapod shrimp and lyssianasid amphipods. The scavengers eliminated the jellyfish in 2 1/2 hours, which is extraordinarily fast.

When the hagfsih leave the jellyfish carcasses, galatheid crabs move in (natureworldnews.com)

When the hagfsih leave the jellyfish carcasses, galatheid crabs move in (natureworldnews.com)

Galatheid crabs are common members of the deep water scavenging community (marlin.ao.uk)

Galatheid crabs are common members of the deep water scavenging community (marlin.ao.uk)

In fact the whole event is quite extraordinary.

When a whale dies and sinks the bottom – we call it a whale fall – it becomes a major source of nourishment for the bottom scavenging community. Now it seems that when a jellyfish fall occurs, the same thing happens. The dead jellyfish contribute to the food web in ways we did not expect – and carbon is transported from pelagic organisms near the sea surface to the scavengers foraging on the sea bottom.

This is all good to learn. In recent years jellyfish blooms appear to be larger and more frequent, often in places already stressed by low oxygen or overfishing. But they remain part of the food web instead of smothering part of it when they die, and we did not know this. It makes them less of a threat to marine ecosystem stability than we thought.

By why any crab – or hagfish for that matter – would pass up mackerel flesh for dead jellyfish jelly remains a mystery.

Caring for Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle

January 28th, 2015

Sea turtles are endangered for all the reasons you might imagine, including pollution, plastics, propellers, nest destruction, egg poaching, disease, global warming, and bycatch from trawls, seines and long-lines. Through a lot of effort over the past 3-4 decades, their crash toward extinction has been slowed, and in some places some recovery has occurred – of course not to past population sizes, but at least away from the brink.

Kemp's Ridley Sea Turtle, the smallest of sea turtles,  lives mostly in the Gulf of Mexico, reaches sexually maturity at 10-15 years old (marinelife.about.com)

Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle, the smallest of sea turtles, lives mostly in the Gulf of Mexico, reaches sexually maturity at 10-15 years old (marinelife.about.com)

Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtles may have come the closest to extinction. They mostly live in inshore waters in the Gulf of Mexico where they forage for crabs. For a long time no one seemed to know where they nested, but in the mid 1940s a single nesting beach on the Mexican coast, Playa de Rancho Nuevo, was discovered. There possibly 120,000 females hauled themselves up the beach over a period of several days, dug their nests and laid their eggs, an extraordinary and tumultuous event we call an ‘arribada’. Several arribadas appear to have occurred on that one beach each summer, the same females returning to lay more eggs.

Females come ashore in large numbers over a few days, an arribada. Arribadas occur several times during the summer, involving the same renesting females (noaa.com)

Females come ashore in large numbers over a few days, an arribada. Arribadas occur several times during the summer, involving the same renesting females (noaa.com)

We know now that females nest every second year, so the total adult population at that time must have been about half a million. The beach was so crowded that females arriving on the second or third day often inadvertently dug up and destroyed the eggs of their predecessors as they scooped out holes to lay their own eggs.

Though the arribadas were unknown to biologists until then, they were certainly well known to people living along that coast who quickly dug up most of the nests and distributed the eggs among the coastal communities. Those were not the days of regulations.

Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle numbers plunged. Though protected by the US Endangered Species Act in 1970, only 700 females arrived to nest in the summer of 1985. But the arribada beach became tightly protected and monitored; many nests were moved to concentrated sites where they could be watched more easily; other nests were dug up, their eggs transplanted to other beaches along the Texas coast, hatchlings allowed to crawl to the surf, then recaptured and raised in captivity for 9-11 months to plate-sized juveniles, and then released in the Gulf of Mexico.

By 2010 about 7000 females once again nested, not just on the arribada beach, but also in small numbers where the eggs had been translocated. Not the numbers of the 1940s, but enough to think recovery was underway. A rare success, it was the result of huge coordinated effort by untold numbers of volunteers as well as biologists, communities, and government agencies from two countries.

Numbers of nests on the arribada beach in Mexico increased remarkably after prolonged efforts to protect the beach (esasuccess.net)

Numbers of nests on the arribada beach in Mexico increased remarkably after prolonged efforts to protect the beach (esasuccess.net)

Transplants of eggs to Texas beaches began in 1978. Now there are about 200 nests scattered among a number of protected beaches (esasuccess.org)

Transplants of eggs to Texas beaches began in 1978. Now there are about 200 nests scattered among a number of protected beaches (esasuccess.org)

Since 2010, things have not been so good. The BP oil spill damaged the main foraging region along the north shore of the Gulf, oiling and killing around 5000 of the foraging turtles. Causal or not, nesting numbers flatlined and now have declined despite all the efforts to protect them: in 2014 only 11500 nests were counted, indicating a drop to around 3-4000 nesting females and so an adult population of about 12,000.

Number of nests increased impressively until 2010, but not since (seaturtles.org)

Number of nests increased impressively until 2010, but not since (seaturtles.org)

To complicate the picture, many juveniles drift and swim out of the Gulf and head north with the Gulf Stream along the East Coast. Some of them reach Cape Cod Bay and even further into the Gulf of Maine, a risky venture since at sea temperatures less than 17-18 degrees C (65 degrees F), they are stunned and tend to die if they are not somehow soon rescued and warmed up again.

Until recently, each autumn only a few washed up stunned on the beaches of Cape Cod Bay where searching volunteers found them, warmed them up, and sent survivors back to Florida often through informal connections with air pilots. But this past autumn more than 1200 stunned juveniles washed up on those beaches, swamping local abilities to recover and transport them back south. Many more volunteers became involved, searching the beaches through the autumn months; stunned turtles were sent to a wide assortment of aquariums to recover them; transporting them back to the Gulf of Mexico was much more challenging.

Two no longer stunned  juveniles getting ready to travel back to the Gulf of Mexico

Two no longer stunned juveniles getting ready to travel back to the Gulf of Mexico

Once again, this has involved a huge labor-intensive and expensive effort by volunteers, biologists, and government agencies.

Now with declining numbers of nesting females and increasing numbers of stunned juveniles, we are nagged by the question of whether all the effort is making a difference. Comparable efforts of course struggle to protect and conserve the other species of sea turtles as well. They all remain endangered.

The case of Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtles though is not reassuring. It has involved such huge effort to protect one species, with every conservation ingredient one could hope for. People truly care, and still recovery may fail, and fail because we cannot protect the animals from catastrophic oil spills or from the increasing and unpredictable stresses of climate change.

Hatchlings rush to water's edge. Much effort has been invested to help Kemps Ridley Sea Turtles recover, but has it been effective? (seathos.org)

Hatchlings rush to the water’s edge. Much effort has been invested to help Kemps Ridley Sea Turtles recover, but has it been effective? (seathos.org)

Though few marine species, including seabirds, marine mammals, fish, shellfish and other invertebrates have actually been reduced to extinction, population sizes of so many of them have declined precipitously, and local extinctions are common.

As a recent major review of marine ‘defaunation’ establishes, we are on the cusp of developing inshore waters in the ways we have developed terrestrial ecosystems over the past few millennia, development that has resulted in the extinction of so many terrestrial species. The review concludes that although much damage has already occurred, it is not too late to prevent marine extinctions on a similar scale – through protected areas, enlightened management and careful development.

But there is so much that is threatened, even in the rosiest of scenarios. We have hard choices ahead. How do we decide how much effort to invest in trying to recover one species, like Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle, when whole communities and ecosystems are at risk? Can somehow we protect both?

Either way, our energetic and global effort is essential.
And a world without sea turtles is a world immeasurably reduced.

The Shift North in the Gulf of Maine

January 14th, 2015

The Big Shift North continues unabated in the Gulf of Maine.

In November 2014, cod fishing in the Gulf was banned. Some cod are still there but they are concentrating in colder, deeper water. Fishermen think this is just another conspiracy among scientists and regulators to keep their jobs, and think there are plenty of fish out there. There aren’t. Whatever cod are left from hundreds of years of overfishing and mismanagement, most have left, moving north.

A 3D view of the Gulf of Maine mostly enclosed by the fishing banks, dropping beyond them into very deep water (gomcensus.org)

A 3D view of the Gulf of Maine mostly enclosed by the fishing banks, dropping beyond them into very deep water (gomcensus.org)

That wonderfully sweet Northern Shrimp, Pandalus borealis, has also again failed to show up in the Gulf this winter in any numbers, cancelling the winter fishing season for them. They too have shifted north to colder waters.

Then there are the lobsters, living in unprecedented numbers in the Gulf of Maine – partly because their predators like cod have mostly vanished, partly because of the warmer coastal waters. Their region of greatest abundance on the Maine coast has also shifted north from the central coast to close to the Canadian border.

And Green Crabs, still considered invasive and inedible, have exploded in numbers on the shores of the Gulf which just a few decades ago was its northernmost range. They eat soft-shelled clams, decimate eel grass beds, and really need now to be harvested for something.

Meanwhile species from the warmer waters south of Cape Cod are extending north at least seasonally into the Gulf.

Juvenile Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtles drifted north of Cape Cod in the autumn in far larger numbers than ever before – where they then still got stunned by the cooler waters of the Gulf, making the rescue effort by beach walking volunteers a far greater challenge.

Black Sea Bass, easy to fish for, excellent to eat, are increasingly common in the Gulf of Maine each summer (hookedup.net)

Black Sea Bass, easy to fish for, excellent to eat, are increasingly common in the Gulf of Maine each summer (hookedup.net)

More dramatic is the seasonal arrival of Black Sea Bass that live along the coast from the Gulf of Mexico to Cape Cod, separated into northern and southern stocks by Cape Hatteras. The fish forage along rock piles and ledges, pilings and jetties, quite easily caught by pots and by hook and line. They mature first as females, and then as they grow larger some shift to become males – they are protogynous hermaphrodites. They supported thriving commercial and recreational fisheries until they were almost fished out. Then amazingly serious regulations limiting quota, season, and sizes were enforced and the stock, especially north of Hatteras, has recovered reasonably well.

Black Sea Bass were overfished but have now recovered enough to support a sustainable commercial fishery. Recreational fishing rates are at about the same level as commercial (nefsc.noaa.gov)

Black Sea Bass were overfished but have now recovered enough to support a sustainable commercial fishery. Recreational fishing rates are at about the same level as commercial (nefsc.noaa.gov)

Now Black Sea Bass have become common enough in summer in the Gulf of Maine as far as mid-coast Maine for fishing to be regulated there as well. They eat anything they can from the seafloor, including small juvenile lobsters, but enthused recreational fishing will probably prevent them from becoming a major lobster predator.

And of course the list goes on – starfish, Blue Crabs, algae, puffins – species shift north within and out of the Gulf, following the colder water, and they shift north into the Gulf, following the warmer water. A major reorganization of the entire ecosystem is well underway.

Where is all this heading? The community may not stabilize until sometime after ocean temperatures stabilize, if that ever happens.

Sea surface temperature of the gulf of Maine has been warming gradually over the past decades, but has warmed even faster since 2004 (seascapemodeling.org)

Sea surface temperature of the gulf of Maine has been warming gradually over the past decades, but has warmed even faster since 2004 (seascapemodeling.org)

We know the Gulf of Maine is warming faster, now at about 2 degrees per decade, than almost anyplace else besides the polar regions, so the rate of change in the community is unusually rapid. But it does let us think about the kinds of global changes we will expect to face everywhere else.

At the least we can recognize that complex, unpredictable community shifts are occurring and will continue to occur, and that we need now to plan for the changes. We will have to adapt our regulatory practices for managing species of both commercial and recreational interest, finding ways to respond rapidly.

For what the Gulf of Maine is telling us is that we must expect everything to change. Soon.

The MPA Solution

December 18th, 2014

More and more Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are being created around the world, but do they make a difference? Do they actually help depressed fisheries and their communities recover?

Sometimes yes, often no: it depends on a suite of features. So the question becomes not just how much coastline should we protect, but also how do we do it right.

Early in 2014 an extraordinary study published in Nature compared 87 MPAs from the shallow water coasts of 40 nations and showed us just how hard it is to create an effective MPA.

MPAs fail to be effective for a few reasons. The greatest problem of course is illegal harvesting, but inadequate regulations that allow harvesting also occur in far too many MPAs. And if the MPA is too small or it isn’t isolated, mobile species simply emigrate to quick capture elsewhere.

Five different features critical to the success of an MPA emerged from the study. Their acronym is NEOLI.

Coastal shallow-water MPAs included in the study. On the upper map, the 4 black spots are the sites of the most successful MPAs that are pictured below. (nature.com)

Coastal shallow-water MPAs included in the study. On the upper map, the 4 black spots are the sites of the most successful successful MPAs that are pictured below (nature.com)

– The MPA must be No-Take: no harvesting at all can occur. (N)
– Protection must be well-enforced. Otherwise illegal harvesting wrecks everything. (E)
– It must be at least 10 years old. Obviously that isn’t actually old, but this is a young business, and things take time. (O)
– It must be large, at least 100 km2. (L)
– And it must be isolated – surrounded by sand or deep water. (I)

No-Take, Enforced, Old, Large and Isolated: NEOLI.

MPas with 4-5 of the NEOLI features have dramatically greater fish biomass (nature.com)

MPas with 4-5 of the NEOLI features have dramatically greater fish biomass (nature.com)

The kicker is that an MPA must have 4 or 5 of these features, or it is ineffective, no different than adjacent unprotected fished areas. Of the 87 MPAs assessed, only 4 had all 5 features, and only 5 others had 4. So 90% had three or less.

These 9 sites, though, point the way. They had considerably more fish, larger fish, larger fish biomass, and included top predators like sharks, groupers and jacks.

Cocos Island, Costa Rica, uninhabited, tropical (underseahunter.com)

Cocos Island, Costa Rica, uninhabited, tropical (underseahunter.com)

Malpeco Island, 500 km west of Columbia uninhabited except for military site (seaseek.com)

Malpeco Island, 500 km west of Columbia uninhabited except for military site (seaseek.com)

Kermadec Island, 1000 km north of North Island, NZ. Uninhabited, subtropical (teara.govt.nz.com)

Kermadec Island, 1000 km north of North Island, NZ. Uninhabited, subtropical (teara.govt.nz.com)

Middleton Reef, Tasman Sea, 550 km east of NSW, Australia. Uninhabited, southern most oceanic platform coral reef. (hellomagazine.com)

Middleton Reef, Tasman Sea, 550 km east of NSW, Australia. Uninhabited, southern most oceanic platform coral reef. (hellomagazine.com)

The good news here is that recovery is possible, that restoring fish communities to levels of biodiversity and biomass perhaps not that different from past historical levels is not just another impossible dream.

Less encouraging is just how difficult reaching the NEOLI standard can be. The four MPAs with full NEOLI status are pictured above. All four are extremely isolated and almost completely uninhabited. They hardly represent our real and over-crowded world.

Still, knowing what is needed we may be able to rehabilitate many currently ineffective MPAs. Perhaps small ones can be made larger and more isolated. Certainly they can be made No-Take, enforcement can be ensured, and they will of course get older.

Other studies point out more that should be obvious. For instance, coastal fishing communities need to be included in the decisions to create No-Take MPAs, for they know where the MPAs should be placed, and enforcement is more successful if it comes from the community. Comanagement is critical to MPA success along inhabited coasts, and it works a lot better than any alternative.

School of hammerhead sharks, Isla del Coco, CR. Top predators modify their food webs. (superslice.com)

School of hammerhead sharks, Isla del Coco, CR. Top predators modify their food webs. (superslice.com)

Also, rehabilitation of existing failing MPAs is only part of the solution. Currently there are about 6500 MPAs around the world, which sounds like a lot, but in fact they barely cover 2% of the world’s oceans, far from the 20-30% that is probably necessary.

Of course creating new protected No-Take space is difficult, humans will still fish illegally, bottom trawlers still unfortunately exist, and enforcement is always a challenge. But knowing how successful a well designed and truly protected MPA can be makes a huge difference.

We can do this.

The New Seawall of China

December 7th, 2014

By now probably everyone who lives near a coast knows that coastal wetlands can protect us from some of the devastating impact of the wave surge and flooding associated with this new generation of super-storms – like Katrina, Xythia, Sandy, and Haiyan of the last few years.

Typhoon Hagupit blew across the Philippines in early December 2014. Because Typhoon Haiyan did such immense damage in the Philippines in 2013, everyone was much more prepared for Hagupit (nytimes.com)

Typhoon Hagupit blew across the Philippines in early December 2014. Because Typhoon Haiyan did such immense damage in 2013, everyone was much more prepared for Hagupit (nytimes.com)

Three kinds of responses to the threats of super-storms seem to exist. One is to retreat from the edge of the sea, and let the coastal wetlands (or barrier islands) absorb the wave surge and flooding – the wisest response but still the least likely since moving people, let alone communities or cities, can be close to impossible.

A much more common response is to adapt and prepare. Bangladesh is a famous example, for most of the country’s habitable region is the flat coastal delta of the Ganges River and there is no space for the dense coastal population to retreat to. So not only is mangrove reforestation well underway but many farmers are also planting rice that is more tolerant of higher salinity and temperature, others are growing hydroponic floating crops, and many cyclone shelters have been built. The hope is to absorb the wave surge, adapt to the flooding, and keep people alive. Some also propose migration to Canada, a more long-term solution.

The Ganges floodplain of Bangladesh is subsiding as sea level rises, and the only option available is to prepare and adapt (nature.com)

The Ganges floodplain of Bangladesh is subsiding as sea level rises, and the only option available is to prepare and adapt (nature.com)

In fact 50 of the least developed countries, including Bangladesh, now receive assistance in making similar preparations from the Global Environmental Facility’s (GEF’s) Adaptation Program, an apparently independent organization that still somehow retains association with the UN and the World Bank.

The third response is to do nothing. This is certainly the response most of us are most familiar with. Lack of funds, lack of political will or leadership, lack of community action, unfounded optimism, denial that anything serious has happened or might happen – all play their part. But such delusions are diminishing as more and more communities are directly affected by the powerful storms.

And then there’s China.

China has taken a fourth route: it has built and continues to build the longest seawall in the world, about the length of of its other more famous Great Wall.

The wall encloses coastal wetlands, making it possible to replace them with industrial, agricultural and urban development. With each passing decade the rate of wetland loss has increased, and there is no end in sight.

China's seawall extends along much of the mainland coast (red on map in upper right; The Great Wall is in yellow for comparison). The amount of wetland lost has increased in each of the past three decades (red on the graph at the center bottom) and is projected to be greater than ever in the next decade (white on the graph) (nytimes.com)

China’s seawall extends along much of the mainland coast (red on map in upper right; The Great Wall is in yellow for comparison). The amount of wetland lost has increased in each of the past three decades (red on the graph at the center bottom) and is projected to be greater than ever in the next decade (white on the graph) (nytimes.com)

This is astonishing. Wetlands not only provide a protective buffer against the damaging effects of storm surge and flooding. They also are a sink for pollutants and CO2, a nursery for fish of commercial interest, and habitats for a remarkable biodiversity, including large numbers of waterfowl.

China’s reasons for eliminating wetlands are obvious enough. The huge coastal population continues to grow, new coastal land available for development is extremely valuable, the government is obsessed by GDP growth, the conservation ethic is still embryonic, and wetlands have long been considered wasted space.

And it also isn’t as if China lacks some reasonable laws protecting vulnerable wetlands – it just doesn’t enforce them. Economic growth trumps everything. Limiting growth may be the hardest adaptation we need to make on our warming planet.

In any case, against all reason China continues to radically reduced protection for people, property and habitats in its coastal wetlands.

In our new and scary 21st Century world, this is more than odd. It is a disaster.

Living with Sea Otters

November 26th, 2014

A rare and famous success in conservation is the recovery of sea otters in the North Pacific. Of course it is also complicated.

Sea otter raft, floating among the fronds of kelp in a coastal kelp forest (otterproject.org)

Sea otter raft, floating among the fronds of kelp in a coastal kelp forest (otterproject.org)

Sea otters once lived along the kelp coasts from Hokkaido to Baja. Solid colors indicate where some recovery has occurred.(otterproject.org)

Sea otters once lived along the kelp coasts from Hokkaido to Baja. Solid colors indicate where some recovery has occurred.(otterproject.org)

Their story is familiar. Once two to three hundred thousand sea otters lived in inshore kelp beds around the North Pacific from Baja California to Hokkaido in Northern Japan. A market in China for their pelts opened in the early 1700s nourished by Russian hunters, and it later expanded to Europe. By the early 1800s, few sea otters remained on the Alaskan coast, so the hunt continued down the British Columbia coast to Washington, Oregon and finally California until few if any remained there as well. A belated international treaty in 1911 stopped all hunting leaving perhaps 2000 left alive in scattered colonies. Extinction seemed the likely outcome.

The sale of sea otter pelts (here measured in thousands) in London peaked in the 1880s, then crashed rapidly as the supply dwindled from  over-hunting. (en.wikipedia.com)

The sale of sea otter pelts (here measured in thousands) in London peaked in the 1880s, then crashed rapidly as the supply dwindled from over-hunting. (en.wikipedia.com)

It didn’t happen. Instead, natural recovery, a few re-introductions, and a hundred years later sea otters have re-established colonies throughout most of their range, in some places even to pre-hunt numbers.

Hunted almost to extinction along the coast of BC, sea otters were reintroduced on the coast of Vancouver Island in 1989, and new colonies have re-established on the central BC coast (theglobeandmail.com)

Hunted almost to extinction along the coast of BC, sea otters were reintroduced on the coast of Vancouver Island in 1989, and new colonies have re-established on the central BC coast (theglobeandmail.com)

Sea otters are keystone predators. If they are not present, sea urchins thrive, eat all the young kelp shoots, destroy the kelp forests, and create urchin barrens – virtually nothing there but sea urchins. If they are present, they eat the urchins, the kelp forests regrow and biodiversity increases: more fish, more sea birds, more marine mammals, and on the BC and Alaskan coasts, more eagles.

A mature kelp forest results in far greater biodiversity than an 'urchin barrens' (aquariumofpacific.org)

A mature kelp forest results in far greater biodiversity than an ‘urchin barrens’ (aquariumofpacific.org)

But much of the world that the sea otters have recovered into is radically different from the one from which they were almost completely eliminated. In Alaska, after recovering to pre-hunt levels, they crashed once again to about 30,000 animals – probably due to Orca shifting their predatory focus to them from seals which had greatly declined in numbers. Where the Exxon Valdez foundered near Prince William Sound in 1989, about half the newly re-established sea otter population there of 5000 died from the oiling. On the central coast of California, diseases from coastal pollution appear to have kept the recovering population from growing very large.

As well, conflicts with humans increasingly occur, for both species hunt the inshore rocky subtidal for the same shellfish. In California they compete for abalones. There the sea otters have refused to remain in selected regions set aside for them along the coast, and now they roam freely – and are certainly not appreciated by abalone fishermen. In Alaska they are resented, if not hated, by inshore crab fishermen.

A sea otter rests on its back while ripping the legs off the crab it just caught.(seaotters.org)

A sea otter rests on its back while ripping the legs off the crab it just caught.(seaotters.org)

Yet on the west coast of Vancouver Island their reception is different. Along 300km of this coast live the Indigenous peoples of the Nuu-chuh-nulth First Nations. They speak of having shared the sea’s resources with other species, including sea otters, for thousands of years, and they are intent on continuing to live in harmony with them now. They need recognition of their rights as First Nation’s and despite resistance from the Harper Government they are slowly winning them through the courts, including the Supreme Court of Canada. They present a model for successful conservation, as they act to ensure the well-being of this and future generations.

Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations, traditionally  whale oriented cultures, live on the west coast of Vancouver Island (stoningtongallery.com)

Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations, traditionally whale oriented cultures, live on the west coast of Vancouver Island (stoningtongallery.com)

Logo for Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations (blogs.ubc.ca)

Logo for Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations (blogs.ubc.ca)

The Nuu-chah-nulth fishermen also ask how many sea otters are enough. Enough to keep the ecosystem a kelp forest rather than an urchin barrens, certainly. But then? Not so many that few shellfish are left for them to gather. They know they will need to be able to shoot sea otters when they become too numerous.

Not surprisingly, this raises strong reactions from non-fishing humans, for sea otters are considered cute. Cuteness of course is a purely human construct. Though sea otters do look harmless living in the coastal kelp, cracking shellfish on their bellies as they float on their backs, sometimes playing together, they can also be hostile and aggressive. Our coexistence is essential with communities of species whether we like them or not. We just can’t let them deplete the resources we have agreed to share with them.

So the questions remain everywhere along the kelp coasts: How many sea otters are enough? How will we control their numbers? And do the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations provide a model that will work elsewhere?

Conserving Emperor Penguins

November 14th, 2014

A remote-controlled rover that looks like a pile of chick feathers with a chick’s head on top has successfully penetrated the defenses of a colony of Emperor Penguins on Antarctica, getting close to the penguins without stressing them.

A remote controlled chick-on-wheels meets the real thing, and provokes interest

A remote controlled chick-on-wheels meets the real thing, and provokes interest

We know a lot about Emperor Penguin breeding behavior from 5 decades of observations on the colony at Terre Adelie, one of the 45 breeding colonies that ring the continent. There adults have been electronically tagged for id and heart rate and other measurements. That colony gave us the movie March of the Penguins

Alone of all the penguins, the Emperor breeds on the sea ice during the Antarctic winter. As winter descends, each female lays her single egg, gives it to her mate, and leaves for a very long walk out to the edge of the sea ice, as much as 100 km away by then, where she forages for krill before walking back again, arriving two months later just in time for her egg to hatch. During those two months, each male brooded the egg his mate laid, stuffed into a feathery pouch just above his feet. When the female arrives she finds her now starving and very stiff mate in the huddle of males, and he transfers the egg to her and then in turn walks away to the distant ice edge to forage for krill, to return two months later.

It takes full time effort for a monogamous pair of Emperor Penguins to raise a single chick (guardian.com)

It takes full time effort for a monogamous pair of Emperor Penguins to raise a single chick (guardian.com)

Of course this has all occurred in weather as extreme as this planet offers – extreme cold, high winds, totally dark almost all the time. A single mistake – an egg unprotected for a minute, a parent lost or delayed, unexpected climate stress – and the breeding effort fails.

As the ice recedes with the spring melt, adults don’t have to walk so far to obtain krill, the chicks grow large enough to be left in huddling creches, and both parents forage for food for their growing chick. By the time fall arrives, the chick is large and agile enough to begin to forage on its own. If by chance it survives its first winter feeding at sea, it has a reasonable chance of making it to adulthood, breeding for the first time when it is about 15 years old.

Meanwhile, environmental stress plays its increasing role. In years with very cold conditions, the extent of the sea ice forces the adults to walk much further, and chick mortality is greater. In years with warmer winters the sea ice is less extensive, the krill feeding on the under-ice algae have less to feed on and the foraging penguins find less food, and again chick mortality is greater. In warm years, sea ice can also break up under the feet of the colony, and then most chicks are lost. Successful breeding is a delicate balance of sea-ice extent, size of krill schools, and parental condition.

So we know that Emperor Penguins grow large, live long, and breed late, with the lowest possible clutch size. Chick mortality is usually very high, around 50%, and the mortality of surviving fledged chicks through their first winter is often just as high.

Altogether a harsh and extraordinary existence.

The mean decrease in sea ice concentration around Antarctica by 2100 is expected to be as high as 20% in some areas. Of the 45 identified colonies, those depicted by red are expected to be 'quasi-extinct', by orange as  'endangered', by yellow as 'threatened', and by green as 'no threatened' (natture.com/natureclimatechange)

The mean decrease in sea ice concentration around Antarctica by 2100 is expected to be as high as 20% in some areas. Of the 45 identified colonies, those depicted by red are expected to be ‘quasi-extinct’, by orange as ‘endangered’, by yellow as ‘threatened’, and by green as ‘no threatened’ (natture.com/natureclimatechange)

What’s ahead? Winter sea ice will, over the next century, continue to recede around much of the Antarctic coast, in some places much more rapidly than others. Of the 45 colonies, probably ten will go extinct, seven on the ice of the Ross Sea will probably persist, and the rest will decline enough to be endangered, vulnerable to extinction. The models indicate 2/3 of the colonies will be less than 1/2 their current size.

Look ahead longer than a century, and few colonies remain. A bleak prospect. Clearly now is the time for enlightened conservation efforts.

Knowing how many birds there are is an essential first step. Colonies were photographed by satellite in 2009 using a variety of filters, identifying 45 – some never visited and others rarely seen. The current total population estimate is around 600,000 birds. Changes that occur in colony size and location will show up clearly in similar future surveys.

Satellite image of an Emperor Penguin colony, remarkable information to have for every colony (plosone.org)

Satellite image of an Emperor Penguin colony, remarkable information to have for every colony (plosone.org)

A penguin reserve – no fishing, no tourists – is the essential next step. The Ross Sea, where sea ice loss is expected to be least, is the obvious choice. It would provide a refuge, though even there colonies are expected to shrink. And of course there is resistance to protecting the Ross Sea from fishing, particularly from the Russians.

The third step? We’re back to the need to reduce global emissions of greenhouse gases, and this week the US and China have given us cause for at least some slim hope.

Now, adding even more detailed and reliable information to support effective conservation, the rover-chick has arrived. It has its own camera peeking out in the middle of its chest, and it can get close enough to adults to read their electronic ids and download physiological data. It creates little stress among the adults, unlike a human creeping into the colony to gather the data, and it can roll right into creches where it appears to be accepted. We’ll know more about the state of the penguins as global warming stresses increase.

The rover-chick has joined a creche, apparently successfully (ibtimes.co.uk)

The rover-chick has joined a creche, apparently successfully (ibtimes.co.uk)

Perhaps some of the colonies of Emperor Penguins will adapt to the loss of sea ice. Four colonies have apparently moved back onto the glacier ice shelf, well above sea level, as sea ice has receded. But they may not be able to adapt to diminishing schools of krill.

The other too-famous movie ostensibly about Emperor Penguins, ‘Happy Feet‘, includes concerns about the effects of global warming. Its solution? Humans and penguins dancing enthusiastically together as a call for action. Absurd and mindless fantasies are not helpful.

Emperor Penguins are a worthy icon for illustrating the stresses and effects of climate change and global warming. Their long-term survival is anything but certain, probably even unlikely, but they seem to intrigue us enough to care about them. Successfully conserving them conserves so much more of what we could lose.

The one colony we know most about is close to a research station. Most colonies remain remote. (whoi.edu/oceanus)

The one colony we know most about is close to a research station. Most colonies remain remote. (whoi.edu/oceanus)

Ocean Heat

October 30th, 2014
Deploying an Argo Floater (NOAA.png)

Deploying an Argo Floater (NOAA.png)

Argo Floaters are technological wonders.

Each one, when set, sinks to 1000 meters below the ocean surface where it drifts with the current for 9 days. On day 10 it sinks to 2000 meters, then over a 6 hour period it rises to the surface, recording temperature and salinity. When it reaches the surface, it signals its position to a GPS satellite, and it transmits its data to a data bank. Then it sinks again to 1000 meters to start the cycle over again.

An Argo floater (there are actually a few different models) measures salinity and temperature, adjusts its buoyancy to rise and fall in the water column, signals its position at the surface, when it also transmits its most recent data.  (argo.ucsd.edu)

An Argo floater (there are actually a few different models) measures salinity and temperature, adjusts its buoyancy to rise and fall in the water column, signals its position at the surface, when it also transmits its most recent data. (argo.ucsd.edu)

Since the Argo project started, funded by NOAA, in 2000, more than 3500 floaters have now been set, about 300 km apart, with 30 countries participating. The US has set about half of them, but Canada has set almost 400, and China nearly 200. They now produce about 120,000 temperature and salinity profiles from all parts of the ice-free oceans each year.

Argo floaters have now been set in all ice free oceans, one every 3oo km (argo.ucsd.edu)

Argo floaters have now been set in all ice free oceans, one every 3oo km (argo.ucsd.edu)

An Argo floater sinks, drifts, sinks further, rises rapidly gathering data, transmits the data, then sinks to start the cycle over again (argo.ucsd.edu)

An Argo floater sinks, drifts, sinks further, rises rapidly gathering data, transmits the data, then sinks to start the cycle over again (argo.ucsd.edu)

It gets better. That transmitted data uploaded to a data bank is made available to internet users around the world within the next 24 hours, providing an almost real-time view of ocean temperatures and salinity down to 2000 meters.

We have been measuring ocean temperature and salinity at many depths and many places for decades, but never like this. With so much data, uncertainty decreases, and a detailed picture of the climate of the oceans emerges. We are documenting in remarkable detail the heat accumulating in the ocean and how it is transferred within the ocean on local, seasonal, annual and now decade scales.

The graphs are unequivocal, updated almost daily, there for all to see.

The heat content of the ocean continues to rise correlated with the increase in emissions of greenhouse gases (NOAA.png)

The heat content of the ocean continues to rise correlated with the increase in emissions of greenhouse gases (NOAA.png)

A recent commentary in Nature emphasizes that no one indicator of global climate change is sufficient. Just as the measurement of multiple vital signs give a clearer sense of a human’s health, so multiple indicators give us an increasingly clear image of the planet’s climate change. We have relied a lot on the calculation of the global average surface temperature of our atmosphere, which is variable in every way imaginable. Other indicators are greenhouse gas emissions and concentrations, high-latitude temperatures, and sea level rise.

And now we also have the finest data we could hope for, measuring the relentless increase in the heat of the oceans. Oceans absorb 93% of the extra energy being added to the climate system, in turn heating the atmosphere. The rising levels of ocean heat is our best indication – and warning – of the long-term global warming that has just begun.

We may be documenting global warming with increasing accuracy and confidence, but denial by powerful politicians remains an immense obstacle to action. For instance if the Republican Party wins the US Senate in next week’s election, Senator Inhofe is in line to Chair the Committee on Environment. He’s the one who wrote the book about global warming called The Greatest Hoax

Meanwhile, school programs scattered around the US are following the Argo project, learning about the rising heat content of the oceans, even adopting Argo Floaters.

Hope lives.

Talking About Climate Change.

October 15th, 2014

In his new book ‘Don’t Even think About It’ George Marshall raises a lot of very uncomfortable questions.

Marshall is an environmentalist, certainly is convinced of the seriousness of the impact of climate change, and considers himself a communicator.

His book, however, is not what you might expect. Instead of a defense of the science, he presents a strong case that climate change scientists and environmentalists have failed in their job of communicating.

George Marshall's book (climateconviction.org)

George Marshall’s book
(climateconviction.org)

It is a discouraging list. We have failed to explain ‘uncertainty’, we use language that turns off listeners, we lack engrossing narratives, we pile on more and more evidence that further turns people away, we buy into the confrontational approach of the extremists at both ends, and we do not honestly face up to our own energy-consuming habits that others find hypocritical.

And there’s a lot more. Marshall explores why it is that most of us avoid talking about climate change, or even thinking about it – hence the title of his book. He suggests that we find the topic too complex, with too many aspects, what he calls ‘multivalent’. It seems to be an issue of the future, not the immediate present. No single solution can possibly solve it. Thinking about it only provokes anxiety. We avoid thinking and talking about it the way we do about death, for some of the same reasons.

This isn’t a book that attacks the climate change deniers – in fact Marshall seeks to understand them and to find some common ground with them. This is an attack on the rest of us for our poor communications skills and for our silence and unwillingness to truly confront the issue.

Marhall has talked with a large number of people, and quotes a lot of them – this is book of many voices. Through it all is a sense that we as humans are deeply imperfect, filled with contradictions, our opinions a product of our biases and the views of our peers and society, struggling still to do the right thing. And that we need to acknowledge our imperfections.

marshall is also the founder of Climate Outreach and Information Network (COIN) (climateoutreach.org.uk)

marshall is also the founder of Climate Outreach and Information Network (COIN) (climateoutreach.org.uk)

So Marshall calls on us to talk about climate change with each other – not expecting everyone to agree since that will never happen, but to seek ways to cooperate, ways to deal with the issue together.

This is a scary book. It is scary because the problem ultimately is us. We are all responsible, and yet we are silent. Our limitations are too clearly on display. You may not read this book, but if you get a chance, at least visit his websites: www.climateconviction.org and www.climatedenial.org .

Let’s talk, not fight, about climate change.
Let’s talk about global warming.