Archive for May, 2010

Recovery to where?

Thursday, May 27th, 2010

If you could restore a damaged ecosystem, what would it look like?

For a lot of us, we imagine restoring ecosystems to what they were like when we first became truly aware of them. We were probably about 20 years old at the time. The problem of course is that each generation accepts as ‘normal’ a state that has degraded considerably compared with what the previous generation accepted.

Redfish Point, Florida, 1949 (

Redfish Pt, 'developed', 1999 (

For me, that puts the total human population back at three billion – which seemed huge at the time, but now seems so benign. Marine ecosystems may have then been under stress, but we still considered most of them to be functioning well, and fisheries management was still a young science. How far away that now seems.

Daniel Pauly, a great fisheries scientist, called this change in perception from one generation to the next ‘The Shifting Baseline Syndrome’. It is hard to escape it. If we don’t recognize it, and find ways to deal with it, we will have little left at all in a few generations.

Do you recognize Cancun? (

In marine terms, recovery involves trying to restore fisheries that have collapsed or have been fished down to dangerous levels. It involves trying to recover the wetlands and mangroves that we have lost around the world. It involves setting up Marine Protected Areas wherever remotely possible.

And in turn, this raises the same intriguing question. If you want to restore a lost or damaged habitat or fisheries or ecosystem, what do you actually imagine restoring it to? To how it was before the human explosion began several hundred years ago? Hardly possible. To how it was perhaps fifty to a hundred years ago, before the damage started to get out of control? To how it was when you first knew it? In the northern Gulf of Mexico, to how it was just six weeks ago, before the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe?

Such questions are endless. How many great whales or harp seals should there be? How large should cod stocks become before we start to harvest them again? There were once several hundred million sea turtles in the Caribbean, and now we struggle to protect the various species from extinction. How many of them should there be? How much coastline do we need to protect in order to protect these stocks and the biodiversity associated with them?

Recovery of Green Sea Turtles requires a great deal of assistance (

Obviously we are far beyond restoring a long-lost world, even if we can imagine what it might look like. The reality is that we now have more than 6 billion humans to feed, and will soon have 9 billion before the total population ceases to grow. Our goal has become to keep the oceans alive with fish that we can eat, and this may not allow much living space for other ocean predators besides ourselves. To do even that, we need healthy and protected coasts.

Despite overfished fish stocks, increasingly ‘developed’ coastal habitats, and corporations lobbying complicit governments to exploit offshore resources, this is not an impossible dream.

Is it?

Never give up? Picasso's Don Quixote

Never give up? Picasso's Don Q.

Damage Control

Saturday, May 22nd, 2010

In the Northern Gulf of Mexico, BP tries everything its engineers can think of to reduce the extent of the damage from the Deepwater Horizon ‘spill’, a catastrophe that just keeps on growing. Oil has reached the vulnerable Gulf Coast, tar balls are turning up on the Florida keys, and who really knows what is going on under the surface of the sea.

One method to reduce the damage is to dump immense amounts of a dispersant into the water. It is intended to emulsify the oil and render it biogegradable by bacteria.

The oil spill will expand in the Gulf, and may drift around Florida, and then on north along the Atlantic coast (noaa)

The dispersant of choice until now has been Nalco’s product Corexit. How it acts in such a deep water situation is unknown – practically every effort that BP is making is experimental – but what little we do know indicates that it is relatively toxic (lethal) to anything exposed to it for very long, and that about half of it is likely to settle to the bottom substrate and accumulate there. Trawlers in the northen Gulf are understandably very worried about its impact on the bottom dwelling shrimp.

Current oil rigs along the northern Gulf coast

Because of concerns about the damage Corexit may do, on top of, or instead of, the damage caused by the oil itself, the EPA wants it replaced by another apparently less toxic dispersant. Probably this is PolyChem’s Dispersit. Much less seems to be known about Dispersit, but it identifies itself on its labels as user-friendly and environmentally safe. Since labels never lie, no doubt we would be in safer hands.

The widely admired but largely ignored Precautionary Approach is lying in shambles. The PA proposes that we do the least environemental damage possible when deciding among alternative actions, that we plan for catastrophes, and that in fact we hold off on taking very risky actions. Obviously precaution was ignored by all those companies and regulatory agencies whose comfort with taking major environmental risks resulted in the wreck of the oil rig and the awful disaster that is occurring.

The only tenet of the Precautionary Approach that will be met successfully is that the polluter pays. BP and its partners will be made to suffer financially, many lawyers will again make their fortunes, but the damage will not be lessened.

President Obama admonishes BP

Applying massive amounts of dispersants is yet another major environmental risk. Again it is hardly precautionary. Just as the oil drillers relied on hope that a spill would not occur, we can now only hope that the dispersants will somehow help. Since there is no doubt that disperants will be used, we can only hope that the new dispersant, if it is used, will be less harmful that the previous one. But hope is rarely based on reliable science – I think that’s why we call it hope.

Clearly, controlling the damage caused by the oil has become a challenge that may overwhelm the coastal region of the northern Gulf. What recovery of habitats and fisheries will occur? How long will it take? What will happen to coastal communities while they wait? I have heard no reassuring answers.

Pandora, a world we'll never see.

These are anxious times – economically, politically, and of course environmentally. Not so long ago we used to include utopian environments in our dreams. Now they exist only as nostalgic science fiction fantasies. Now instead we struggle to reduce the environmental damage that we have inflicted on the planet.

Damage control – our 21st Century Dream.

Northwest Passage

Wednesday, May 5th, 2010

The Northwest Passage, the dream of centuries, lying mostly within the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, has opened enough in recent summers for a few ships to drive through it. For a price, tourists can now even make the trip. Within a few decades, it will be open all year.

The Northwest Passage

The stakes are high – involving economic, environmental, social, and political concerns, everything is going to be in play. Once it opens year round, it will shorten the trip between Europe and Asia by 2150 nautical miles – an immense savings, and an immense opportunity for coastal development. Whether or not we want to see such development in the Arctic is no longer a relevant question: it is going to happen.

The Northwest Passage lies among the islands of the Canadian Arctic archipelago

As a start, both Canada and the US are planning deep-water ports at their respective ends of the sea route. Canada has begun to develop a deep water naval facility at Nanisivik, an abandoned lead and zinc mining town at the eastern entrance to the Passage near the northern tip of Baffin Island in Nunavut on the south side of Lancaster Sound.

Canada's Arctic deep-water water is at Nanisivik.

There is of course the small question of who owns the Northwest Passage.

Canada argues that since the Northwest Passage lies clearly within its 200 mile waters, it belongs to Canada. Everyone else, led by the US and Russia, argues that the Passage should be considered International Straits, not owned by any single country. Both sides refer to the articles of the UN Law of the Sea, even though the US, almost alone in the world, has still to ratify the Law.

Lancaster Sound: Canadian waters or International Strait?

Lancaster Sound is the actual eastern entrance to the Northwest Passage, and it is the key to the conflict. How strong is Canada’s case? Permanent human occupation is certainly necessary. To make the case even stronger, Canada may designate Lancaster Sound a National Marine Conservation Area, and is pushing as well for it to be recognized as a World Heritage Site. Considering its extraordinary beauty, the high productivity of its waters and the great numbers of marine mammals and seabirds that migrate to it each summer, it is surely worth conserving and protecting from the dangers of development and resource exploration.

Lancaster Sound, beautiful, productive - and fragile

And yet. International opposition to Canadian ownership of the Passage is great, and Canada’s case may not be strong enough. Amazingly, Canada also appears to be undermining its own case as it plans on seismic testing in Lancaster Sound later this summer in efforts to find more oil and gas resources. Contradicting itself once again, you might wonder if anyone is actually in charge.

No matter who owns it, Lancaster Sound will still be the eastern entrance to the Northwest Passage, and all the coming commercial, naval and tourist traffic will pass through it. It is going to need all the protection it can get.

Who can we trust most? Who can we trust at all?

Narwhals resolving a confict in Lancaster Sound

Oceans Movie

Monday, May 3rd, 2010

What a missed opportunity.

The movie ‘Oceans‘, a Disney Nature film, opened on April 22, Earth Day in North America. It opened in Europe back in late January. It has spectacular underwater sequences mostly of fish, seals, dolphins and whales, from all over the world. The film crews did truly amazing and creative camera work to get what they did. It cost $66 million (US) to make, and it has already earned at least that much.

Jacques Perrin's film 'Oceans' is a technological wonder

But what is the intent of the film? The sequences are all very brief, stories are left untold, themes are left undeveloped, and the narration (well read by Pierce Brosnan) is shallow and uninformative. Why?

The film seems to assume that we are ignorant that there is anything beneath the surface of the seas, and that when we are shown what beauty and grace there is among those that swim in the sea, we will realize that we need to act now in some way to help to preserve them. It is as if we are expected to inhale the remarkable sequences, think of the narration as poetry, and find new resolve to save the oceans.

but what is it really about?

But surely we are long past that. Who hasn’t by now seen fine, if not as unusual views of similar animals? After all these years, we don’t need to be told once again that living things are beautiful, complex, and possibly endangered. The film does give about five of its 90 minutes to mentioning some of the great issues – pollution, wasteful bycatch, melting Arctic ice – but they pass quickly, vaguely, barely disturbing the sheen of beauty.

This is all so aggravating because almost all coastal and oceanic marine communities are under such current stress. It seems simply irresponsible to produce a film like this in this century. Here was an opportunity to make a difference, to disturb us.

Still, see the film if you have chance, just don’t expect to be asked to think. Consider ear phones and a favorite playlist to replace the vapid narration. Perhaps enjoy a pre-film joint. Then settle back to enjoy the view.

...what a film this could have been

Meanwhile the whole world is watching the colossal catastrophic oil drilling disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. That’s the true 21st Century reality.