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Friday, September 26, 2003

Researchers Say Whaling Altered the Food Chain

I don't know why, I swallowed that fly...we kill the whales, that causes the killing of seals, that causes the killing of sea-lions, that causes the killing of otters, that causes the destruction of kelp forests by an outbreak of urchins. The moral of the ecological story is "tread lightly when you know not where you step," but tread especially lightly on big things always...

Via: Post-Intelligencer

Jim Estes clearly remembers the day when he peered down from a skiff in Alaska's Aleutian Islands and saw what looked like "The Invasion of the Sea Urchins."

The spiny round blobs had eaten right through the underwater kelp forest that shelters many marine creatures. Normally rare except in deeper waters, the urchins were jostling for space almost up to the beach.

"There were just urchins everywhere," said Estes, a researcher with the U.S. Geological Survey in Santa Cruz, Calif. "I was astonished. I just saw lots of urchins where I had not seen them in the past."

For years, Estes had been trying to figure out why the sea otters of western Alaska, which feed heavily on urchins, were disappearing. When he saw the urchin explosion, the researcher knew instantly the otters weren't dying from lack of food.

That realization and another five years of scientific work led to publication of a study scheduled for release today that sets forth a radical and potentially important new idea: An ecological chain reaction dating to industrial-scale hunting of whales in the North Pacific a half-century ago has driven the widespread decline of Alaskan seals, sea lions and otters that have puzzled scientists for decades.

The killing of whales caused a collapse in the food chain, the scientists believe. As a half-million whales were wiped out by Japanese and Russian whaling fleets after World War II, killer whales that once preyed on the larger "great" whales had to look for other food to eat.

So, the scientists theorize, some of the killer whales turned to seals instead. But before whaling, seals were never as numerous as whales. And it takes lots of seals to equal the calories in a single great whale.

It wasn't long before most of the seals were eaten up and the killer whales -- also known as orcas -- turned their attention to Steller's sea lions. Then, when those grew rare enough, they went after otters.

"If our hypothesis is correct, either wholly or in significant part, commercial whaling in the North Pacific Ocean set off one of the longest and most complex ecological chain reactions ever described," says the paper being published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. [...]

Posted by Richard
9/26/2003 09:08:16 AM | PermaLink

Thursday, September 25, 2003

Oceans' Acidity Worries Experts: Carbon Dioxide on Rise, Marine Life at Risk


Rising carbon dioxide levels are increasing the acidity of the world's oceans more rapidly than any time since the age of dinosaurs -- adding a worrisome new element to the debate over global environmental change.

Acid rain has long been recognized as a threat to forests, lakes and streams, but a new report, published Wednesday in the British journal Nature, is the first to raise a flag over the prospect of a more acidic ocean.

The change could threaten the health of everything from microscopic plankton to coral reefs and reach from the surface to the ocean depths.

"If we continue down the path we are going, we will produce changes greater than any experienced in the past 300 million years -- with the possible exception of rare, extreme events such as comet impacts," oceanographer Ken Caldeira, of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, warned Wednesday.

While scientists differ over the effect carbon dioxide and other "greenhouse gases" will have on future climates -- and governments argue over who is to blame -- the trend in carbon dioxide levels is unchallenged.

Continuous measurements of carbon dioxide -- an inevitable byproduct of burning coal, oil and natural gas -- have recorded steadily increasing levels of the gas in the atmosphere every year since 1958, a total rise of 17 percent during that period.

Barring major cuts in automotive and industrial emissions of carbon dioxide, scientists expect the current levels to more than double by the end of the century.

The world's population currently emits about 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the air every year, and about one-third of it eventually winds up in the ocean.

Until now, climate experts have taken some comfort in the realization that the oceans can buffer the atmospheric effects of rising carbon dioxide -- such as global warming -- by "scrubbing" carbon from the atmosphere for use by marine plants and animals.

But Caldeira and his colleague Michael Wickett say carbon dioxide removed from the atmosphere enters the oceans in the form of carbonic acid -- the same substance that imparts the fizz to seltzer water and soda pop.

The oceans are now slightly alkaline -- the opposite of acidic. Researchers are not suggesting the seas will become as acidic as soft drinks, but they say the shift toward the acid end of the scale is accelerating.

The change over the last century already matches the magnitude of the change that occurred in the entire 10,000 years preceding the industrial age.

As atmospheric carbon dioxide increases further during the next century -- and more carbonic acid enters the ocean -- Caldeira said the shift will occur more swiftly than any time in the human experience.

Increasingly acid rain from industrial emissions on land has already had devastating consequences for forests, lakes, streams and the fish and other creatures in them.

In the absence of any research on ocean life, the potential impacts are speculative.

"Most ocean life resides near the surface, where the greatest change would be expected to come, but deep ocean life may prove to be even more sensitive to changes," Caldeira said.

Marine plankton and other organisms whose skeletons or shells contain calcium carbonate, which is dissolved by acid solutions, may be particularly vulnerable. Coral reefs -- already suffering from pollution, rising ocean temperatures and other stresses -- are almost entirely calcium carbonate.

"It's difficult to predict what will happen because we haven't really studied the range of impacts," Caldeira said. "But we can say that if we continue business as usual, we are going to see some significant changes in the acidity of the world's oceans."

Posted by Richard
9/25/2003 08:42:24 AM | PermaLink

Wednesday, September 24, 2003

Live Animal Trade Sails Into Rough Waters

This story is important because it highlights the little talked about international factory farm trade in live animals -- while the vet says the sheep aboard the Cormo Express are in good condition, the fact is that 4000 have died and for over a month they have been packed aboard an ocean freighter that has sailed to the Middle East and back to Australia. The parallel with the historical African slave trade is clear and the industry is clearly inhumane and wrong. Thankfully, the suffering of these particular sheep is at least challenging the government and creating public outcry -- it is not in vain. But, despite the tenor of this article that reforms may come, don't expect much as the article prices the live animal export industry in Australia at $1 other words, there's plenty enough to go around for the temporary pay-offs and media-spin. Beyond that, very few politicians have the courage today to squash a large, money-making industry for fears of its larger economic effects generally...this we say in Israel recently when the Supreme Court found the foie-gras industry there (one of the world's largest) in direct violation of both state and religious law, but allowed it another three years of practice without reform due to the economic impact provided by the corporate interests involved.

Via: The Age

The Australian Government last night was nearing an agreement on landing a shipload of more than 50,000 sheep in the Middle East, as public outcry over the seven-week stand-off threatened the entire live export industry.

Federal cabinet this week has considered, but rejected, suspending all live exports while the crisis surrounding the Cormo Express continues.

Yesterday, as Canberra recognised that the $1 billion industry was being damaged, protesters in boats and canoes prevented another vessel, the Al Kuwait, from docking in western Victoria, where 28,000 sheep are awaiting export to the Middle East.

About 50 protesters blocked Portland's harbour mouth with dinghies and kayaks about 6am, forcing the Al Kuwait to turn back from the port. As hail fell, two of the animal liberationatists' kayaks filled with water and port staff had to rescue the protesters.

The Al Kuwait anchored about four kilometres from the dock for the rest of the day while port authorities and police waited for Melbourne Water Police to arrive, with the intention of bringing the ship into the harbour. Marine Safety Victoria placed a 200-metre exclusion zone around the ship.
Meanwhile on Arabian waters, the vet aboard the Cormo Express said the 50,000 surviving sheep were in good condition and there was about two weeks' supply of feed on board.

Vet Martin Robertson said the sheep had been helped by unusually cool weather. "August is normally the hottest month in the Middle East and we've had very mild weather, which has saved the animals," he said. "We're drifting in the Arabian Sea, waiting for instructions."

Last night sources in Canberra confirmed that a resolution was close, and those instructions might be to land the animals in Iraq.

It is believed Prime Minister John Howard gave a strong direction to Agriculture Minister Warren Truss to resolve the stand-off.

Mr Truss confirmed yesterday that the live export trade was in danger. "Look, the trade's already been damaged by the incident," he said. "The public concern about this issue inevitably draws into question how the trade can continue."

The sheep on the Cormo Express cannot be returned to Australia because there are quarantine concerns about bringing them in from the Middle East, where the ship has docked and taken on feed in countries that are a foot-and-mouth disease risk.

But Mr Truss yesterday insisted again that the animals were healthy, and criticised media reports that the animals were sick.

He said an investigation into the cargo would be triggered automatically because more than 2 per cent of the sheep had died.

Cabinet on Tuesday was presented with two options: a temporary suspension of live exports, and a proposal for the Australian Quarantine Inspection Service to assume control of export operations. While neither was adopted, it is possible that the industry may face changes in the future.

Opposition Leader Simon Crean said the situation was a "failure of leadership" by the Prime Minister.

It is estimated that more than 4000 animals have died since the Cormo Express left Fremantle on August 5.

The imbroglio started when Saudi Arabia refused to accept the sheep on health grounds and because too many had died. So far both the United Arab Emirates and Pakistan have refused to take the remaining sheep.

RSPCA president Hugh Wirth said the organisation opposed all live animal exports for slaughter because of risks to the animals throughout the export chain from farm gate to slaughter-house. "There are systemic failures in all of the stages which leads to cruelty," he said.

Kevin Shiell, head of the livestock exporters' industry body LiveCorp, said protesters should not be allowed to prevent the sheep at Portland being exported. "The sheep have been prepared for export lawfully. One would expect that people could go about their business," he said.

More protests are expected when the Al Kuwait reaches Fremantle.

In Portland, the protesters were confronted by local cattle farmer Fred Wilson, who sells some of his stock for live export. He said the protesters had no right to try to stop the trade.

"This is a billion-dollar industry and it's worth a lot to this region and this protest is just a stunt to get media attention, " Mr Wilson said.

Victorian Greens spokesman Marcus Ward, who was at the Portland protest, said he was appalled that the Federal Government would allow live exports to continue while the MV Cormo Express's cargo remained in limbo.

Posted by Richard
9/24/2003 08:50:57 AM | PermaLink

Tuesday, September 23, 2003

Toxic Ecology: Watch the PCB Disperse

This article is an excellent piece on how industrial pollutants enter a food-chain and cause widespread sickness and death. Even so, it doesn't cover the whole story; for instance, we could also learn how fishing birds like eagles and osprey are once again being delivered diets of PCB through the salmon, potentially threatening reproduction cycles and plunging them towards endangerment. Simply put: toxics are like the monetary capital that breeds them -- they flood every avenue and space available. The problem is holistic, thus, and we cannot expect that by changing one parameter (e.g. air-born pollutants), we have eradicated the problem. More so, we need to stop concentrating on the effects of pollutants on one species solely and concern ourselves, as does this article, with how pollutants will be delivered through entire habitats and micro and macro ecologies via indicator species like salmon.

Thanks to Jessica for this one!

Via: New York Times

Spawning Salmon Haul Toxins to Alaska Lakes, Experts Find

Pacific salmon contaminated by industrial pollutants in the ocean are carrying the chemicals to Alaska's lakes, where they may affect peopleand wildlife, according to a new study published in the Sept. 18 issue of Nature.

After spending most of their lives in the ocean, where they absorb widespread industrial chemicals like PCB's, sockeye salmon flock to Alaska's interior lakes in huge numbers to spawn and then die.

Each salmon accumulates just a small quantity of PCB's. But when the fish die together in the thousands, their decaying carcasses produce a sevenfold increase in the PCB concentrations of the spawning lakes, the study found.

"They die in such huge numbers that it almost looks like you can walk across the lakes," an author of the study, Dr. Jules Blais, said. "When they die, they release everything they've built up over the course of their lives. There's the possibility that the PCB's they give off are having an effect on the freshwater environment."

Dr. Blais, an assistant professor of biology at the University of Ottawa, and his team were drawn to Alaska after learning of studies that found killer whales in the Northwest to be among the most contaminated marine mammals in the world.

Other scientists had shown that salmon, a huge part of the killer whale's diet, and grayling fish could carry PCB's in their fat stores from the seas to the lakes. So Dr. Blais and his team, made up mainly of scientists from Canadian universities, decided to find out where the PCB's ended up.

Analyzing sediment and muscle tissue from sockeye salmon they collected in eight lakes throughout Alaska, the scientists found that the lakes with the highest numbers of spawning salmon had the highest concentrations of PCB's.

Crustaceans and insects that graze on the contaminated salmon carcasses become food for small fish, which are in turn eaten by salmon. Over time, PCB levels in the lakes grow.

The salmon act as biological pumps, Dr. Blais said, carrying pollutants upstream where they can reach bears, eagles and people whose diets consist mainly of fish, seals and whales.

"This speaks to scientists about how pollutants are being transported — by fish, not by air," said Dr. Derek Muir, an environmental chemist who has studied PCB's in the Arctic for 20 years but was not involved with this research.

Dr. Deborah Swackhamer, an environmental scientist at the University of Minnesota, has seen populations of eagles, otters and minks nearly wiped out after eating contaminated fish from the Great Lakes.

"In the Great Lakes," Dr. Swackhamer said, "the difference was that we knew where the contaminants were coming from, atmospheric and industrial pollution. But in Alaska you have no other source. So these fish are serving as vectors. There's just no end to the surprises of how contaminants can reach pristine places in our environments."

Dr. Blais said that the phenomenon was detrimental to the freshwater environments where the salmon spawned, but that it should not stop most people from eating fish.

"In this case, you'd have to eat about seven meals a week to reach threshold levels," he said. "It wouldn't be fair to imply that the salmon are unsafe to eat."

Industrial chemicals can find their way into the Arctic because air pollution tends to migrate toward colder areas. The airborne pollutants cool and condense, often descending in high concentrations on cold ecosystems, where they enter the food chain.

PCB's, or polychlorinated biphenyls, can cause cancer, neurological problems and reproductive defects in humans.

Industrial pollutants have been known to seep into food chains in some of the most remote parts of the world, said Dr. Muir, who works with Environment Canada.

In the mid-1990's, scientists discovered fish in a lake on Bear Island, off the coast of Norway, that had high levels of PCB's and other pollutants. A study found that contaminated droppings from seabirds flying over the lake were the source.

Polar bears in the Arctic may also be eating food tainted by PCB's, in their case, seals.

"Studies in Canada and Norway show that the immune systems of polar bears are affected by PCB's," Dr. Ross Norstrom, who studied environmental pollution with the Canadian Wildlife Service, wrote in an e-mail message. "It's not known whether this translates into a higher disease incidence or any effect at the population level. But there's a suggestion from one Canadian study that polar bear cub survival might be compromised by high PCB exposure in their mother's milk."

PCB's were among 12 highly toxic chemicals known as persistent organic pollutants that were banned by 122 countries in 2000. Dioxins and the pesticide DDT, among others, were included in the ban.

Posted by Richard
9/23/2003 07:40:58 AM | PermaLink

Chilling Effect on Ocean Life

Via: Torrance Daily Breeze

At the heart of a power plant on the edge of Santa Monica Bay, steam hissing through scores of pipes stacked like ladder rungs quickly surrenders its sizzle.

Cold ocean water sucked in from beyond the surf line quells the searing heat by filling the school bus-size condenser chamber, flowing around the small pipes and soaking up the thermal energy. Finally, pumps send the spent salt water, 20 degrees warmer, back out to sea.

While the cooling process means a brief round trip through the electricity-generating plant for the ocean water, it’s certain death for any fish, fish larvae, eggs and plankton that drift into the system.

Although the seven coastal generating stations in Los Angeles County — including four in the South Bay and Harbor Area — have been pumping in cold Pacific water for up to five decades, the take of sea life is attracting new scrutiny from regulators and environmentalists seeking to stop “once-through” ocean cooling at power plants locally and beyond.

Coastal power plants produce nearly half of the electricity used by Californians. One of the main reasons that natural gas-fired and nuclear generators are seaside is that ocean water is the cheapest, most efficient cooling agent.

But there’s a growing movement suggesting that power plants should find other ways to cool used steam from their generating turbines — a move that power companies say would dramatically drive up the cost of making power.

There’s little dispute using the ocean as a power plant-coolant each year kills trillions of larval fish and planktonic microorganisms that are at the very foundation of the marine food chain. But while utilities say the impact is insignificant, activists say that, given concerns about the depletion of fish and plankton in the ocean, it’s time to scale-back the practice of once-through cooling with the ocean, if not halt it altogether.

“There is no question that from a scientific standpoint that power plants, not only in the region but across the United States, are having a significant impact on the aquatic environment,” said Steve Fleischli, outgoing director of Santa Monica BayKeeper.

In bringing a case against once-through cooling, California Energy Commission staff members recently pointed out that in the Santa Monica Bay from the 1970s to the ?s, macrozooplankton — a tiny organism important to the food chain — declined by 80 percent and several fish species including white sea bass and corbina, also faced steep declines.

In a report published in 2001, the California Energy Commission, which licenses power plants, drew a bead on once-through cooling, calling the continued use of the process in renovated plants “a negative biological resource trend.”

The federal government, which has broad authority over the plants’ use of the ocean, is expected in February 2004 to issue new rules aimed at reducing environmental damage wrought by the cooling process, probably by requiring complicated barrier systems or investment in hatcheries to offset the loss of fish. [...]

Posted by Richard
9/23/2003 07:05:33 AM | PermaLink

Monday, September 22, 2003

One Last Chance to Save Coral: Humans Have Been Destroying Reefs for Centuries, but Time is Nearly Up,Scientists Say

Via: Science

The late 17th century sea-farers who used the mysterious sound of gigantic swimming turtles to navigate around coral reefs would find these same reef ecosystems significantly changed for the worse today. In another 30 or 40 years, the same reefs could be almost completely destroyed, unless humans act now to aggressively protect them from further human exploitation, scientists say.

The August 15 issue of the journal Science published by AAAS, the science society, features a special report on coral reefs. All sorts of records, from pirate's logs to modern day fish counts, reveal that humans have a long history of damaging reefs. Based on this history, humans have one last chance to establish a sustainable reef- protection strategy, according to the authors.

Posted by Richard
9/22/2003 07:42:53 AM | PermaLink

Sunday, September 21, 2003

Navy Shocks Blamed for Giant Squid Deaths

While Spanish naval scientists may be correct in denying that proof as to naval activities being the cause of death of these squid is inconclusive at this time -- something, note, that US scientists could not claim as regards the deaths of porpoises in the Northwest earlier this summer -- still, Spain's Navy remains a likely and prime suspect. After exercises last year, another death manifested, and we are now beginning to see that is is par for the course that naval technology -- that significantly disrupts ocean life -- will cause death and harm to the species living there as a result.

Via: Excite News

Shockwaves from scientific tests carried out by the Spanish navy have killed four giant squid -- one the length of a bus -- off Spain's coast in recent days, the head of a marine protection agency says.

"The navy ship the Hesperides is working in the area...and the shock waves (are the cause of death)," Luis Laria, president of marine protection agency CEPESMA, said Thursday.

The giant squid, mythologized as the monster that attacked Captain Nemo's Nautilus in the Jules Verne adventure "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," is the world's largest invertebrate and lives at depths of up to 6,500 feet.

Josep Gallard, a leading scientist working on the ship, denied techniques used to study the ocean floor were harmful.

"This hypothesis is far from being proven," Gallard told Reuters from on board the Hesperides. "We use this technique because of its minimal environmental impact...the changes in pressure are very slight."

In the last few days three giant squid, creatures that are still largely a mystery to scientists, have washed up on Spain's northern Asturias coast and a fourth was still floating offshore Thursday, Laria said. One was 12 yards long.

Posted by Richard
9/21/2003 07:21:56 AM | PermaLink