Archive for the ‘Pollution’ Category

Seabed Mining is Real

Thursday, 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)

Lost Sea Stars

Saturday, August 9th, 2014

Sea stars – we used to call them starfish – are truly alien beings, at least to us.

We and all other vertebrates, arthropods, worms, most mollusks and sundry others, are all bilaterally symmetrical, with a head and a brain and a bunch of sense organs at the front end. But, except when they are minute planktonic larvae, this isn’t true for sea stars and the rest of the echinoderms.

Early bipinnaria larvae of a sea star are ciliated, drift with the plankton, and are extremely small (bio.rutgers.edu)

Early bipinnaria larvae of a sea star are ciliated, drift with the plankton, and are extremely small (bio.rutgers.edu)

They are radially symmetrical, meaning they are more or less the same on every radius from their midpoint. They don’t have a head at one end and a tail at the other. They haven’t got either. They have a mouth in the middle on their ventral side, which is the side they attach to things with.

On that same side of each radial arm they have hundreds of little extendable and sticky tube feet, supported by a hydraulic system that also keeps their bodies relatively firm but quickly leaks out if they are removed from water. A sea star feeds mostly on bivalve mollusks which it opens by pulling on the two shells with its tube feet until the exhausted bivalve can no longer stay shut, and then it pushes its stomach out through its mouth and digests the bivalve in its shell.

The northern sea star, Asterias vulgaris, feeding on a small mussel bed on the coast of Maine (visualphotos.com)

The northern sea star, Asterias vulgaris, feeding on a small mussel bed on the coast of Maine (visualphotos.com)

It has a ring of nervous tissue around its mouth, not a central brain at all. It has simple vision using a light sensitive eye spot at the end of each radial arm. If a healthy sea star loses a few arms to a predator, it just grows new ones, tube feet, eye spots and all.

Could anything be much more alien to us as bilateral vertebrates? If we ever find complex life on another planet, it could be just as alien, quite a challenge to interspecies communication.

Sea stars have yet another very dramatic feature. If a sea star is unhealthy, gets infected with a pathogen of some sort, it turns to mush, and its various legs walk off in different directions, tearing it apart. Just now we’re seeing a lot of this.

Ochre sea stars, Pisaster ochraceus, are often exposed at low tide on rocky parts of the Pacific coast (biology.fullerton.edu)

Ochre sea stars, Pisaster ochraceus, are often exposed at low tide on rocky parts of the Pacific coast (biology.fullerton.edu)

A disease, or a bunch of diseases, has hit most sea star species on the Pacific coast of North America from Southern California to British Columbia, and something similar has hit some of the sea stars on the Atlantic Coast as well – in Maine, New Jersey and Florida.

Disease has hit sea stars before, just as it has other echinoderms such as sea urchins, and their populations have recovered after a while. But nothing like what has happened on the Pacific Coast has ever been seen before. There are a lot of sea star species there. The mortality of five species is huge, resulting in local extinctions. Some mortality has been documented in seven more. And seven further species are probably infected, but we lack documentation.

Sunflower seastars, Pycnopodia helianthoides, have also beed devasted by disease (en.wikipedia.org)

Sunflower seastars, Pycnopodia helianthoides, have also beed devasted by disease (en.wikipedia.org)

Dead sea stars on the Pacific coast are hard to miss, and the press has covered this event well. A particularly useful web site keeps everyone updated and allows them to add their observation of the growing mass of mush. It’s worth visiting.

The disease has a name: Sea Star Wasting Disease. But that doesn’t mean anything. We have no idea what is killing the sea stars. It could be a virus, or it could be bacteria, or a fungus, or a ciliated parasite, or pollution, or all of these, or none of these.

We simply haven’t got a clue.

A few labs are looking, but the search is slow at best. In any case, experience tells us that if pathogens are eventually identified, it will still be uncertain, and far too late.

Have we somehow caused this? We will probably never know.

Meanwhile, we can only hope that the sea stars recover, returning to their keystone status in their communities, and reminding us again how radically different a living being can be.

An Unusual Mortality of Bottlenose Dolpnins

Friday, January 24th, 2014
Bottlenose Dolphins are intelligent, social, long-lived, and alien (earthlyissues.com)

Bottlenose Dolphins are intelligent, social, long-lived, and alien (earthlyissues.com)

A lot of Bottlenose Dolphins have washed up dead or dying on the shores of the US east coast. Starting last summer, and increasing month by month, about a thousand have been found. Many others have certainly died offshore. The deaths were first noticed on the beaches of New Jersey and New York. As the migratory populations have shifted south through the autumn and winter, dead animals have now stranded on beaches as far south as Florida.

Bottlenose dolphin strandings have been very high since July. Blue indicaes the average number stranded in each state from 2007-2012, red the number stranded since July 2013 (noaa)

Bottlenose Dolphin strandings have been very high since July. Blue indicates the average number stranded in each state from 2007-2012, red the number stranded since July 2013 (noaa)

What’s going on here?

NOAA has labelled this an Unusual Mortality Event, though such events really are not that unusual. Sixty marine mammal UMEs have occurred in US waters since 1991, and this is the 12th on the east coast since then. It may, though, be the biggest yet recorded.

Bottlenose Dolphins live in warm temperate waters around the world. Along the east coast of the the US they live in distinct migratory and resident coastal populations, a total of about 40,000 dolphins, that may or may not intermix at times. A larger offshore population, another 80,000 animals, live out along the edge of the Continental Shelf, and they may also sometimes intermix with the coastal populations. We really don’t know much about these interactions.

Distinct populations of Bottlenose Dolphins, two of them migratory and at least three of them resident, live along the US east coast. Larger offshore populations live along the edge of the Continental Shelf (noaa.gov)

Distinct populations of Bottlenose Dolphins, two of them migratory and at least three of them resident, live along the US east coast. Larger offshore populations live along the edge of the Continental Shelf (noaa.gov)

It would be good to know, for the dolphins are dying from infection by cetacean morbillivirus, which is a kind of measles virus. It is highly contagious, and though several stranded Humpback Whales carried the virus, so far it seems to be restricted to Bottlenose Dolphins. It doesn’t jump to humans, but it’s probably best not to grub around inside a dead animal without protection. And best if your dog doesn’t chew on one.

The infections and deaths will continue through the winter and should then diminish – assuming that past infections such as the the last major one 25 years ago are typical.

How many may die? If the infections are mostly occurring in just one of the migratory populations, then the impact on that population could be great. These are long lived, highly social, tightly organized and very intelligent animals, and 10 or 20% mortality would be very disruptive. And it could be more. It could spread to other populations. Or it could just peter out.

The Cetacean Morbillivirus kills Bottlenose Dolphins, but feeds vultures (sbs.com)

The Cetacean Morbillivirus kills Bottlenose Dolphins, but feeds vultures (sbs.com)

The question of course is why has this happened? Does it mean anything?

The last outbreak of the virus was in 1987-88 when 700 bottlenose dolphins died on the east coast. Perhaps they get hit by this virus the way we get hit by the flu virus. Then it is basically a common and trivial event, and we note it and move on.

Possibly instead it has been caused by human agent – perhaps some coastal pollution has reduced immune defenses to infection by the virus. But too little is known about the infection to support or reject this, let alone detect a causal polluting agent. Even if it true, the disease should disappear in the spring, we’ll remain ignorant, and then we’ll forget all about it.

The bleakest scenario is that the deaths are an indication of the decreasing long-term health of coastal waters, that the disease will spread to other populations of Bottlenose Dolphins and other species of cetaceans and seals, and that we have another growing disaster unfolding. Would we then be driven to take action, and clean things up? Not likely.

So why do we care?

Bottlenose Dolphins are the most familiar of dolphins – familiar from old TV shows and marine aquariums around the world where they jump around for the entertainment, but hardly the education, of the audiences. The species is an icon of the wild, where dolphins leap out of the water in what appears to be the sheer exuberance of living.

The reality? We know little about them, we are not their friends, and they aren’t ours. They die on our coasts, in our fishing nets, and in Taiji in Japan they are still captured for aquariums and slaughtered annually for food.

Their mouth is shaped in a way that looks to us like a smile.

It is no smile.

Iconic Bottlenose Dolphins (hdwpapers.com)

Iconic Bottlenose Dolphins (hdwpapers.com)

Salmon Trumps Gold

Friday, October 25th, 2013
The world's largest run of sockeye salmon occurs in Bristol Bay (nbcnews.com)

The world’s largest run of sockeye salmon occurs in Bristol Bay (nbcnews.com)

Each year 30-40 million sockeye salmon, along with smaller numbers of chum, silver and king salmon, return to breed in the rivers and streams that empty into Bristol Bay, Alaska after several years growing in the North Pacific.

Bristol Bay, Alaska - 400 km long, 250 km wide at its mouth (pewenvironment.org)

Bristol Bay, Alaska – 400 km long, 250 km wide at its mouth (pewenvironment.org)

Bristol Bay, the easternmost extension of the Bering Sea on the north side of the Alaska Peninsula, is relatively shallow, with shoals, sandbars and strong winds, as well as tides that are funneled up to a remarkable 10 m by the time they reach the eastern end of the bay. Shipping is a challenge.

It is a region of salmon fishing, both commercial and sport, of canneries, and of hunting and tourism. It is also a region with very large reserves of gold and other tempting minerals.

Bristol Bay has a large watershed, including the large Lake Iliamna  where Pebble Mine would be located (fishermenforbristolbay.org)

Bristol Bay has a large watershed, including the large Lake Iliamna where Pebble Mine would be located (fishermenforbristolbay.org)

The possibility of mining the minerals at what is known as Pebble Mine has been the focus of an intense fight for a couple of decades. There are reasons to be concerned.

If mining occurred, it would last several decades and would accumulate 10 billion tons of mining waste that would somehow have to be stored ‘permanently’ in an area that is considered to be an earthquake zone. And of course such mining also uses and contaminates vast amount of fresh water.

It is hard to find anyone in the region who supports Pebble Mine. Almost a million people have signed a petition that opposes it.

Last May the EPA issued a draft assessment indicating the risk of contamination from the proposed mine would be great, and that the Clean Water Act could be invoked to protect the region. Still, two companies have wanted to start the permit process – Anglo American and Canadian Northern Dynasty Minerals.

Gina McCarthy, EPA Administrator, appears to be sympathetic to protecting Bristol Bay, but says the EPA will follow the science (washingtonpost.com)

Gina McCarthy, EPA Administrator, appears to be sympathetic to protecting Bristol Bay, but says the EPA will follow the science (washingtonpost.com)

In mid September, Anglo American unexpectedly announced that the whole endeavor was too much of a risk, and pulled out. An encouraging development, but Canadian Northern Dynasty Minerals say they’ll continue on alone to seek permits.

Perhaps they won’t. A final draft of the EPA assessment is not due until the end of this year, but Congressional hearings are currently underway.

Even if the EPA succeeds in stopping the mining, other threats to Bristol Bay remain. Much of the Bay has been a target for oil and gas drilling, also for decades. Despite great opposition from local villages, Native Tribes, fishing organizations, conservation groups, and even the State of Alaska, the US Dept of Interior opened the Bay to oil and gas exploration when Reagan was president.

Areas of possible oil and gas exploration in Bristol Bay (businessinsider.com)

Areas of possible oil and gas exploration in Bristol Bay (businessinsider.com)

Congress added the Bay to the moratorium on oil exploration following the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989, and in 1998 Clinton extended the protection from exploration to 2012. Not surprisingly, George W. Bush removed Bristol Bay from the moratorium in 2003 and then in 2007 lifted the further protection that Clinton had given it. In 2010, Obama once again removed the area from any leasing programs, protecting it through 2017. The US Republican Congress tried seven times to withdraw that protection during its 2012 session, and though it failed each time, it is clear that any decisions can easily be reversed.

Part of the salmon fishing fleet in Bristol Bay (fisherynation.com)

Part of the salmon fishing fleet in Bristol Bay (fisherynation.com)

Bristol Bay is wild, remote, diverse and productive, one of the richest marine ecosystems left on Earth. It can be protected, and its fisheries can be sustained. Or it can be wrecked by the usual suspects.

These are hardly rational times, and ‘saving’ a place is a process that may never end.

Constant vigilance is our only option.

Permanent protection will take unending effort (akmarine.org)

Permanent protection will take unending effort (akmarine.org)

Failure to Protect The Great Barrier Reef

Monday, February 25th, 2013

Last summer UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee threatened to downgrade its listing of the Great Barrier Reef from World Heritage Area to Heritage Site in Danger. Downgrading the listing could repel tourists, and ought to be a blow to national pride.

The Great Barrier Reef, managed well since 1994, remains threatened by pollution, warming seas and now coal and natural gas facilities at its southern end (bayrun.com.au)

The Great Barrier Reef, managed well since 1994, remains threatened by pollution, warming seas and now coal and natural gas facilities at its southern end (bayrun.com.au)

The GBR has suffered stress from the usual suspects for decades – overfishing, mining, Crown-of-Thorns starfish plagues, run-off from adjacent mainland coastal farms. Now add to those the coral bleaching and intense cyclones of recent years associated with climate change, as well as the looming devastating impact of ocean acidification. Not surprisingly, half the coral cover has been lost or damaged since the 1980s.

Coral bleaching has killed and damaged corals on the GBR just as it has on reefs around the world (scienceonline.org)

Coral bleaching has killed and damaged corals on the GBR just as it has on reefs around the world (scienceonline.org)

The World Heritage Committee based its threat on the recent developments at Gladstone and nearby Curtis Island, at the southern end of the reef. Gladstone has become the largest center for coal export in Australia – there are huge seams of coal running north-south in the eastern part the country adjacent to the reef. The coal is sent where you would expect, to Japan, China, South Korea and India. Now the port of Gladstone is being dredged even deeper to handle ever more and larger ships.

The eastern part of Australia is rich in coal resources.

The eastern part of Australia is rich in coal resources (Haliburton.com).

That’s part of UNESCO’s concern.

The other part involves coal seam gas, gas that is or can be extracted during the coal mining process. Curtis Island, lying close to Gladstone, is actually part of the GBR World Heritage Area. However, it is now under extraordinary development to liquefy the coal seam gas to liquid natural gas (LNG), and send it off in refrigerated tankers to consuming nations where it will rendered back into natural gas. The liquid takes up 1/600th the volume of the gas, so the advantage of shipping it as liquid is obvious.

The World Heritage Committee report (p20-22) calls for these developments to cease and for a review of their impact. Since no actual sanctions by UNESCO are possible, beyond downgrading of the status of the Reef, what kind of response can we expect?

The Queensland Government has now submitted a defensive response, promising an independent review of the the Port of Gladstone, and commenting on existing water quality improvement programs, research initiatives, the GBR zoning plan, the Coral Sea reserve, and the recently implemented national carbon tax. The number of gas ports under development will be limited, but they will still be in the World Heritage Area.

However, as the Premier of Queensland said early on, ‘We are in the coal business’. That hasn’t changed.

So there will be no reconsideration, no precautionary plan, no delay in port or LNG development. The long-term threat to the reef is dismissed.

Is this anyway to treat a World Heritage Area? Liquid Natural Gas facilities under development on Curtis Island (Greenpeace.org)

Is this anyway to treat a World Heritage Area? Liquid Natural Gas facilities under development on Curtis Island (Greenpeace.org)

We shouldn’t be surprised. Extract and sell is the mantra of resource exploitation in Canada, the US, Africa, South America, Asia – and Australia. The exported coal and LNG from Gladstone and Curtis Island will no doubt support the Queensland economy, providing jobs and infrastructure. Unfortunately, given the other stresses that already exist, there isn’t any reason to think that a severely damaged GBR will be able to recover.

The tension between extracting resources and conserving natural ecosystems is familiar to us everywhere. You would think one place where conservation trumps extraction would be The Great Barrier Reef. Apparently not.

Will anyone listen to the outcry in defense of the Great Barrier Reef? If you would like to add your voice, visit: ‘Save the Reef’ It could only help.

So worth protecting

So worth protecting (ngm.nationalgeographic.com)

The Niger Delta

Monday, November 19th, 2012

There are a lot of environmentally wrecked places around the planet, sites we have known about for years. Generally they involve our efforts to extract stuff.

Of course environmentalists are frustrated that evidence – the photographs, videos and data on contamination and destruction – is largely ignored, but we shouldn’t be surprised. These are not rational times.

Another approach is through fiction, and a new and award-winning book, ‘419‘ by Will Ferguson, does it really very well.

Winner of Canada’s 2012 Giller Prize, this is an outstanding story.

The book is about Nigeria, framed by the emailed money-requesting scams we are so familiar with. (419 refers to the Nigerian law that prohibits such fraud). It is a terrific book, a tight and evocative tale of the harsh scramble that is life in Nigeria and how it can reach out to naive North Americans – well, in this case Canadians.

The oil fields along the coast of the Niger Delta are rich, exploited by many oil companies, subjected to minimal regulations (i-er.com)

A lot of the book takes place in the Niger Delta in Nigeria in west Africa, once home to many tribes living on the fishing the delta once provided. The destruction of the delta by the oil companies has involved mangrove destruction, air and water contamination, eliminated fisheries, militancy and the ‘Mosquito’ resistance and kidnappings for ransom, impressive levels of graft, and the complicity of the Nigerian government. As a result the history is one of destroyed cultures, far too familiar and horrible, and should never have occurred.

Natural gas is burned off as ‘flares’ wherever oil is drilled – but existing regulations on flaring are rarely enforced in Nigeria. The CO2 emitted by flaring in the Niger Delta is about equal to the CO2 emissions of Italy (nair aland.com)

If improvements can occur, if the destruction is to be successfully reduced and even perhaps reversed, the spotlight on the Delta needs to be a bright and strong one. ‘419’ will be read for its absorbing plot of relationships, manipulation, scams and life-and-death events. But as well it evokes an environmental hell, one for which we are all to blame.

Many very fine non-fiction books have been written by fluent and lucid environmentalists. Books that should have influenced the political leaders of the world, books that should have scared them into action. They obviously didn’t. Probably they didn’t get read by the people who most needed to read them.

So let’s see where good fiction takes us.

The Niger Delta is a reasonable target – if it can be in part recovered, probably anywhere can. Responsible drilling, gas flares eliminated, contamination cleaned up, communities made part of the solution, government laws concerning environmental and cultural protection not just passed but actually implemented: is this too much to strive for?

It can’t be – though in his book Ferguson offers only the very slimmest of hopes.

Still Eating Jellyfish

Tuesday, February 28th, 2012

I reserved Eating Jellyfish as a domain name about 6 years ago, when the prospect of eating jellyfish seemed an absurd outcome of overfishing, coastal development and pollution now clearly associated with the occurrence of schools or blooms of jellyfish. Jellyfish as the top predators in coastal ecosystems are now even more common. As we are forced to adapt, the idea of eating jellyfish is no longer as absurd as it was. And yes, of course, some cultures have a long history of eating certain species of jellyfish: it is just a very alien idea to the rest of us.

Nomura's jellyfish, Nemopilema nomurai, in the Sea of Japan. Like all jellyfish, it grows to full size in a single season. (natruresmightypics)

Recent reports of unexpected and large jellyfish blooms have come from most parts of the world – from the seas of Japan, China and Europe especially, but also from West Florida and the Gulf of Maine. What actually causes the blooms is not certain, for until recently nobody was really interested enough to try to find out.

But what we know is this: jellyfish blooms are associated with coasts of dense human populations where overfishing, eutrophication, habitat modification, invasive species, and a warming climate may all be involved. One of the most famous and clearest cases occurred in the Black Sea, where overfishing, warmer water, and nutrient enrichment from the Danube made for perfect conditions for a succession of jellyfish to explode in number.

Probably the other most famous blooms involve the giant Nomura’s Jellyfish in the Sea of Japan, each a monster, hard to harvest even if you wanted to, and immensely damaging to fisheries and fishing nets.

Nomura's Jellyfish in the Sea of Japan, is a huge challenge to harvest without sinking the boat.(naturesmightypics)

The most prolific and widespread is Aurelia aurita, the moon jellyfish, for it is globally distributed, and capable of explosive growth into very large populations. I have fond memories from when I was kid on the coast of Maine heaving dead washed up moon jellyfish at my sisters.

The moon jelly, Aurelia aurita, beautiful, graceful, and in every ocean (fins.activin.com)

Why are jellyfish so successful in degraded conditions? In a health ecosystem they compete with fish for access to food – mainly zooplankton. Where overfishing has removed the competing fish, they have few limits to growth. In eutrophic conditions, for instance around the mouths of major rivers carrying high loads of P and N, they also tolerating the lower levels of dissolved oxygen that fish avoid: where coastal nutrients increase, so to do jellyfish. The result is a trophic cascade, a regime change, an ecosystem that is free of fish predators, dominated by jellyfish, and of very little value or interest to humans.

Dan Pauly's famous illustration of the impact of fishing down the food chain, a trophic cascade that ends up with jellyfish as the top predator (ecomarres.com)

What’s ahead, then? All of the stresses – overfishing, eutrophication, warming waters, habitat modification, human population densities are all likely to keep increasing along our coastlines.

We can do a couple of things about this. Of course trying to recover such stressed ecosystems, restoring fish as top predators, is the best, but not most likely outcome. Instead, we can also learn which species of jellyfish are actually possible to harvest and eat (some taste horrible). There are also likely to be some yet-to-be discovered medical uses of some species. And perhaps jellyfish have some potential as supplements to animal feeds.

We also need biologists who can help integrate knowledge of jellyfish ecology with that of the whole ecosystem, making jellyfish part of what fisheries scientists must consider in their attempts to manage both fisheries and ecosystems.

Jellyfish as components of fisheries, and jellyfish as components of our own diets, are facts of life in this critical century.

We just have to suck it up. They’re mostly water anyway.

Pipelines to the Coasts

Thursday, February 2nd, 2012

The arguments over two new North American pipelines out of the Alberta oil sands – the Keystone XL Pipeline to the Texas coast, and Enbridge’s Northern Gateway Pipeline to Kitimat on the coast of British Columbia – get ever shriller. The Harper Government, once known as the Conservative Party of Canada, is committed to both pipelines. Now hearings have begun on the Northern Gateway Pipeline, and they should be particularly worth watching.

The proposed Northern Gateway pipeline from the Alberta oil sands to Kitimat on the Douglas Channel (investnorthwestbc.ca)

The Northern Gateway pipeline would be aimed west from the Alberta oil sands, through the mountains to the BC coast. The coast is remote, wet, indented by deep fjords, and sparsely populated by both indigenous and non-indigenous people.

Douglas Channel, near Kitimat, one of the world's most extensive and beautiful fjords (telus.net)

The Northern Gateway pipeline would end at Kitimat, 90 km from open coastal waters (bcwaters.org)

The Douglas Channel is one of the very deepest, longest and most spectacular fjords on the planet, 90 km from Kitimat to the coast.
Kitimat is a town of about 12,000 that was carefully designed and built in the 1950s to serve as an aluminum refinery by Alcan – bauxite is shipped in, and refined into aluminum. The process requires a lot of energy, and at Kitimat it comes from a huge hydro dam built especially for this purpose.

Kitimat, at the eastern end of the fjord, combines natural beauty, and golf course, with industrial development along the shore. (tourismkitimat.ca)

A little later LNG built a natural gas pipeline from the Alberta gas fields, to take advantage of the port built for the aluminum tankers, and ship liquid natural gas, at -160 degrees C, across the Pacific to Asian buyers.

Now, the same logic has brought Enbridge to Kitimat. The closest tanker port to the oil fields of Alberta, with a short route to Asia, looks irresistible, and so the Northern Gateway proposal is now before us. Actually, the proposal is for two pipelines, for a condensate is added to the oil sludge in Alberta so that the oil will actually flow, and the condensate would then be removed at Kitimat and pumped back in a smaller pipeline to Alberta.

There is no quicker way to get Alberta oil to Asia than through a BC tanker port (investnorthwestbc.ca)

This time is different though. No matter the extensive precautions that Enbridge proposes to take, spills and leaks are likely. The crude oil pipeline would pass through 800 km of land of many First Nations, and then supertankers would carry it out Douglas Channel, through the territory of the Haisla First Nation.

The Haisla do reject industrial development – they have at least tolerated and benefited from the aluminum and natural gas initiatives. Perhaps they may yet approve the Enbridge proposal. But they are smart and experienced, and the land and the fjord are theirs to protect.

Super-tankers are huge. The route down the fjord is long. High winds and extreme fogs are not uncommon. Tankers have accidents despite highly trained pilots, reinforced hulls, and escort tugs. And the impact of a spill of any magnitude would be horrendous. Yet despite the obvious risks, Transport Canada has now approved supertanker traffic to Kitimat.

A black bear fishes on the shore of Douglas channel(markhobson.ca)

An alternative exists: build the pipeline to Prince Rupert instead. Prince Rupert lies on the coast, not at the end of a long fjord. It is already an industrialized port, handling tankers. A natural gas pipeline has been in place since 1968. There are some steeper parts to traverse or tunnel through near the coast, and avalanche risk is greater there. But it avoids the greatest risk, the long tanker trip through Douglas Channel to transport the oil.

Hearings on the Northern Gateway Pipeline have only just begun, and will last a couple of years. If approved, the pipeline could be commissioned in 2017 – though legal challenges could delay it far longer. There is time, and reason, to explore the Prince Rupert option.

Until alternative energy is truly available, we are stuck with making the best of bad deals. We should not stress the Douglas Channel any more than it is at present, for it is irreplaceable.

Huge halibut are still caught in Douglas Channel (bcadventure.com)

At the same time, we can work to make the whole process of oil and gas recovery less horrible, less destructive of the only natural world we will ever have.

Update on Ocean Plastic Pollution

Wednesday, June 8th, 2011

About the best we can do as environmentalists is to look for some good news in the huge mess of bad news.

So here is some: though the production of plastics has continued to increase over the past couple of decades, the amount polluting the ocean does not appear to be increasing. This is unexpected.

Ocean currents and winds concentrate plastic and other debris in the five great subtropical gyres – the most notorious being the North Pacific Gyre.

The five subtropical gyres, regions of convergence, products of the ocean currents and winds. The North Pacific Gyre is also rudely called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (coastalcare.org)

To understand whether plastic pollution in the gyres has been increasing, we need a long-term study covering a very large area, supported by a convincingly large set of data. Such a study is extremely rare, for funding agencies don’t really want to wait 20 years to see results.

Hence the beauty of the study published in Science last September. Sea Education Association offers university credits in oceanography on sailing research vessels. For 22 years, from 1986 to 2008, over 7000 lucky undergraduates and faculty scientists conducted 6100 surface plankton tows from sailing research vessels in and around the North Atlantic Gyre, known as well as the Sargasso Sea.

The North Atlantic Gyre, also called the Sargasso Sea, is largely a product of the impact of the immense Gulf Stream (rtseablog.com).

Plastics in the ocean gradually break up into smaller and smaller bits, called microplastics. Up to a few mm in diameter, these float just below the water surface, easily sampled by the plankton nets. More than 64,000 plastic pieces were picked out of the plankton samples, most from 30-38 degrees latitude, and most concentrated at the latitude of Atlanta. Abundance of microplastics should have increased over the 22 years.

Microplastics were particularly abundant in the eastern part of the North Atlantic Gyre (science.org)

Unexpectedly, they didn’t. Despite the four to five fold increase in global plastics production and in discarded plastics in US municipal waste over that time, the amount of plastics collected each year of the study stayed about the same.

Why, you ask? Most of the plastics come from the US eastern seaboard: have the beaches of the eastern US been cleaned more successfully? Are people really discarding less, recycling more? Much in the past has also come from ships, which are now prohibited from dumping plastics at sea. As well, efforts to prevent or recover spills of resin pellets, the raw material of plastic products, have increased. But these are still not sufficient explanations.

There is a further possibility. Microbiologists have found that bacteria – of the Vibrios group of bacteria – appear to be eating away the surfaces of the microplastics. This could be very good news, provided they are actually digesting the polymer molecules and breaking down associated toxins. If they only accumulate the polymers and toxins, and in turn pass them on to whatever grazes on them, then the news is interesting, but not so good.

Electron micrograph of bacteria grazing on a microplastic fragment pulled from the Sargasso Sea (nature.com)

Plastics producers are also taking some limited action: in March, at a conference on marine debris, 47 companies signed a pledge. They agreed to try to reduce marine debris, help look for solutions to the debris problem, promote enforcement of existing laws, promote knowledge of eco-efficient waste management, enhance recovery of plastic for recycling, and prevent further loss of resin pellets. Certainly good intentions.

It all helps. Sea birds, marine mammals, sea turtles and large fish will still be entangled, strangled and suffocated by plastic garbage and fishing gear, and microplastics are hardly nourishing food for any except the bacteria.

But it isn’t getting worse.