Archive for February, 2012

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.