Category Archives: Salmon

Saving orcas with a salmon cannon – can it even be done? (video)

Human ingenuity brought us the ‘salmon cannon’, designed to propel salmon over dams – but is it efficient enough to bring Chinook populations back to the levels needed for the Southern Resident orcas?


Over-fishing and management mistakes have caused biological mayhem for salmon, and if we want robust wild fish in the future we need to restore the environmental blocks to their survival. These include habitat restoration, contaminant abatement, and dams.
Salmon cannons may be a genius – if hilarious – solution for moving salmon and a good tool to help the remaining wild salmon navigate the dams, but one of the most urgent things the wild Chinook salmon – and the Southern Resident orcas that rely upon them – need is unfettered access to the native spawning grounds.
For more information please go to Damsense.org.

 

Congress plans to kill male California sea lions and undermine NOAA Fisheries management

Killing the animals that co-evolved with salmon won’t help restore fish populations – we need to remove just a few of the 15 dams on one of the rivers that flow into the Columbia River.

Female California sea lions remain in southern California and points south, all year. Photo credit: NOAA

Male California sea lions migrate south in the breeding season, and some stop in the Columbia River to eat salmon on the way down to California.     Photo credit: Bridget Samuels via Flickr

A branded male sea lion. Photo credit: Pillip Colla

Following the breeding season, male California sea lions leave the Channel Islands and other rookeries and migrate north, eventually seeking out protected inland waterways in the winter. The females remain in the general region of the rookeries, and so aren’t among the sea lions that Congress aims to wipe out.
The crime? Eating salmon that congregate at dams – specifically those on the Columbia and Willamette river systems. Two bills – one that passed in the House of Representatives, and another working its way through the Senate – remove any semblance of management and open the door to wholesale slaughter of pinnepeds.
Presently the fisheries services must prove that a sea lion is actually eating salmon before he is euthanized. This involves branding the animal if he lacks identifying marks, then keeping track of him.
To get around that, the new bills define ‘identifying marks’ as being in the river past more than 112 miles from the ocean. In other words, he just has to be a sea lion. For the Senate bill, it just has to be a pinneped, meaning harbor seals. Neither bill specifically excludes the endangered Steller sea lions.
The bills increase the number of animals that can be killed, who can kill them, and where.
The senate bill expands the prey issue from salmon to any species of fish.
The sea lions will still catch salmon entering the rivers, though they may need to work a little harder. It is pointless to try and wipe them all out, even if it made any kind of logical sense. From TDN.com:

[Dr. Naomi Rose], a biologist with the Animal Welfare Institute said Tuesday that killing more sea lions will not reverse the decline of wild salmon runs.

“The main problem is that this is not going to solve the problem,” Naomi Rose, the institute’s marine mammal biologist, said in an interview. “This is an example of lawmakers scapegoating these natural predators to satisfy the anger that constituent groups feel toward salmon decline.”
Rose said wild salmon numbers have fallen mostly due to a loss of habitat and the construction of dams on the Columbia River.

Killing more sea lions could even make the problem worse, she said, because sea lions consume other species of fish that eat young salmon.
The decline of salmon, one of the region’s iconic species, has been attributed to a host of factors: overfishing, habitat destruction, construction of the hydroelectric dams and predation by Caspian terns and cormorants.
Sea lions historically have shared the salmon’s ecosystem, but their numbers have rebounded while the fish runs are still far below their historic, pre-dam levels.
So the mammals’ impact on salmon runs is more pronounced, especially because manmade structures like fish ladders have made it easier for the sea lions to catch them. TDN.com

 
The Senate bill:   https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/senate-bill/1702/text
The House bill:   https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/house-bill/2083
Information on California sea lion migration:  Migration Patterns of Adult Male
California Sea Lions (Zalophus californianus)
Removing the four lower dams on the Snake River:  DamSense.org

Grieving mother whale is now on her third day of carrying her dead calf – the face of extinction

Now on her third day of carrying her dead calf, the mourning of the Southern Resident killer whale, Tahlequah (J35) has reached hearts the world over. Her palpable grief over the loss of her newborn baby is something we all relate to, even though humanity is just beginning to acknowledge that animals suffer and grieve as we do.
This orca family is showing us what it really means for a species to go extinct – we tend to think of the path to extinction in clinical terms that we show graphs…but the real process is painful, and for these whales it is the mothers that die giving birth and the babies that fail to thrive that are racking up the biggest losses.
Photo credit:  Center for Whale Research
They have been hit hard over the last few years.

In the fall of 2016, Tahlequah’s sister (Polaris J28) succumbed to complications thought to be related to the birth of her last calf, Dipper (J54). Her death left her calves, six year old Star (J46) and ten month old Dipper, orphaned but not alone. Tahlequah helped them find food – she had brought salmon to Polaris, and now she helped Star care for Dipper. 

Dipper was still milk-dependent and continued to lose weight even though they brought him pieces of salmon. As he neared death, Tahlequah and other family members helped Star keep Dipper afloat until inevitably he took a final breath, lost consciousness, and disappeared below the surface, joining Polaris in an untimely death.

Photo credit: Mark Malleson               Star cradled her dying brother, helped in these photos by her cousin Notch (J 47) on the other side.

                           As Dipper’s energy faded, Star and their cousin Notch had held him afloat on the surface, easing his struggle to breathe.
The tragic losses that have devastated this orca family parallel what scientists have discovered about the severe consequences of food shortage, consequences that interact with contaminants and anthropogenic noise to blossom in a deadly suite that even survivors like Tahlequah and Star may not be able to withstand.

The family bonds are strong – Star is now reported to be helping the grieving Tahlequah keep the dead neonate at the surface – and the Southern Resident orcas may still recover if Chinook salmon populations are allowed to rebound.

But the incomprehensible lack of action by our government is confining them to a long, drawn out, painful path to extinction. Without more salmon they will suffer hunger, but that pain is eclipsed by the suffering when family members die.
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Regrettably, approximately 75% of newborns in the recent two decades following designation of the Southern Resident killer whale (orca) population as “Endangered” have not survived, and 100% of the pregnancies in the past three years have failed to produce viable offspring.

We are saddened to report that a baby Southern Resident killer whale (SRKW) died a short time after it was born near Victoria, British Columbia on July 24, 2018. The newborn whale was reported alive and swimming with its mother, J35, and other members of J pod near Clover Point on the Victoria shoreline in mid-morning.

A Center for Whale Research team was on the water in Haro Strait at the time and immediately responded to photo-document the newborn calf for the long-term census study we maintain for the US and Canadian governments. Unfortunately, by the time the CWR crew arrived on scene, the newborn calf was deceased, and the pod had traveled several miles eastward of the reported sighting location.

The baby’s carcass was sinking and being repeatedly retrieved by the mother who was supporting it on her forehead and pushing it in choppy seas toward San Juan Island, USA. The mother continued supporting and pushing the dead baby whale throughout the day until at least sunset.

A resident of San Juan Island near Eagle Cove reported: “At sunset, a group of 5-6 females gathered at the mouth of the cove in a close, tight-knit circle, staying at the surface in a harmonious circular motion for nearly 2 hours. As the light dimmed, I was able to watch them continue what seemed to be a ritual or ceremony. They stayed directly centered in the moonbeam, even as it moved. The lighting was too dim to see if the baby was still being kept afloat. It was both sad and special to witness this behavior. My heart goes out to J35 and her beautiful baby; bless it’s soul.”

Killer whales and dolphins have been known to support and transport their dead calves for as long as a week – a testament to the amazingly strong mother/offspring bond and caring.

 

The orcas we know and love are finally back – will they stay all summer?

Southern Resident killer whales in search of Chinook salmon might give up and go somewhere else if they don’t find enough to eat.

Star (J46) in 2016 with her mother Polaris (J28) and brother Dipper (J54). Photo credit: Center for Whale Research

In 47 years of observation by the Center for Whale Research (CWR), this is the first year that there were no sightings of any of the Southern Resident orcas in May. Last summer they were barely in the inland waterways around the San Juan Islands in Washington State or the neighboring Gulf Islands in British Columbia, Canada.
The dismal and depressing realization that what CWR senior scientist Ken Balcomb has been warning everyone who would listen has come to pass;  the lack of a dependable source of Chinook salmon means that these whales will starve to extinction or just change their summer feeding strategy entirely and go elsewhere.
But there is hope, and not just for the whales – people are empowering themselves to help fix the salmon crisis. There’s been a shift in the public psyche as people give up on governments that have dragged their feet for decades, and instead ask themselves what they can do to help…then do it.
Case in point – what is missing from this video?

Where are the hordes of boats? Even when more boats accompanied these whales later there was little to no detectable underwater engine noise reported on hydrophones. The Pacific Whale Watch Association has self-imposed voluntary reductions in speed and distance from the whales and spend more time with the other local orcas – the Transients, which are dynamic and interesting orcas in their own light.
While the boats are dedicated to making it easier for the orcas to capture salmon by reducing engine noise, that is only part of the problem. Salmon have been scarce, and lack of food is affecting both birth rates and maternal deaths.
Two thirds of the pregnancies fail, often in the last months of the 17 month gestation.
From the Center for Whale Research:

The females are getting pregnant; however, two thirds to three quarters of the conceptions apparently result in miscarriage, although this statistic may in part be due to a natural predator response to a limiting carrying capacity of prey.
It is the late-term miscarriages that are most risky to the mother’s survival, and we have seen an increase of these mortalities in recent years with necropsies evidencing birth complications and prolapsed uterus as contributing to death.
This grisly observation argues for a year-round versus episodic sufficient supply of suitable prey to feed these large iconic mammals through a pregnancy cycle – an eight thousand pound pregnant female whale requires about 4-5% of her body weight per day (320-400 pounds!) of suitable prey.


In the summer and fall of 2016 researchers and naturalists saw this happen as a dedicated orca mother and her dependent calf slowly died, leaving only her older calf, Star (J46) alive.
When her mother and last brother (a previous brother had been found dead, having barely survived birth) were losing their struggle against hunger and disease, Star did her best. She brought them whatever salmon she could find and supported them until they took their last breaths.
Read this compelling story on the Stranding Network.

Graphic by Haze Summer

It’s clear – if we don’t restore the salmon we’ll lose the whales along with the dependable spring salmon that characterizes life in the Pacific Northwest.

How to help (more suggestions can be found following at the bottom of the page here):

 
Sign the petition to remove obsolete dams

If the lower Snake River dams were breached, it would double or triple survival rates, restoring many millions of fish to the Columbia Basin.
• Give the orcas a fighting chance to recover by increasing their food supply.
• Breaching costs the state nothing. The first two dams can be breached for the cost of another EIS estimated at $80 million; 5 years to completion

Save Our Wild Salmon

With its historic productivity, low human population, and remaining pockets of large, high, pristine and well protected habitat, the Columbia and Snake River Basin represents our nation’s best opportunity to restore the large numbers of Chinook salmon that endangered, hungry orcas need to survive and recover.

David Suzuki Foundation

The fate of the Salish Sea orcas hangs in the balance.
These 76 orcas — also known as the southern resident killer whales — are Canada’s most endangered marine mammal. Immediate actions are needed to set up refuges, reduce acoustic noise, address pollution and protect chinook salmon, the whales’ primary prey. Climate change and a projected seven-fold increase in tanker traffic from the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion make immediate action more urgent than ever.

The Pacific Salmon Foundation

The Pacific Salmon Foundation was established in 1987 as an independent, nongovernmental, charitable organization to protect, conserve and restore wild Pacific salmon populations in British Columbia and the Yukon. Today, the Foundation galvanizes the breadth of vested stakeholders to support Pacific salmon from stream to estuary to ocean.
The Foundation: 
Raises money and makes grants to volunteer community groups that conserve and restore streams across the province.Manages watershed initiatives in British Columbia that catalyze industry, First Nations, provincial and federal governments, and other non-profits.
Advances science to improve the understanding of factors that limit the abundance of Pacific salmon.
Works with government to prioritize and facilitate strategic salmon conservation in the province.

Killer whales need protected space – lawsuit looms against the current administration’s failure to act

Trump Administration Stalls Protections as Southern Resident Killer Whale Population Drops to 76

Photo credit – Dale Mitchell, Eagle Wind Tours

SEATTLE— “The Center for Biological Diversity filed a legal notice today pressing the Trump administration to protect ocean habitat off California, Oregon and Washington to save the last remaining Southern Resident killer whales.
Today’s notice points out that the administration has unlawfully delayed critical habitat designations sought by the Center in a 2014 petition under the Endangered Species Act.
Endangered Southern Residents live along the Pacific Coast and are starving for lack of their preferred prey, spring chinook salmon. Other threats to these orcas’ survival include oil spills, water pollution and vessel noise.
“These iconic orcas are going extinct, but the Trump administration has proposed oil leases rather than protections for their habitat,” said Catherine Kilduff, an attorney and marine scientist at the Center. “The Southern Residents desperately need protected foraging areas full of salmon to feed them through the winter. Without swift federal action, these whales will continue their steep slide to extinction.”
Courtesy of the Center for Whale Conservation

The threat of legal action comes just a week after the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission met in Seattle. Experts there warned of the crisis facing Southern Residents with a steep population decline to only 76 whales and few calves born. There were calls for urgent action, including habitat protections, to prevent their extinction.
Responding to the Center’s petition in 2015, the National Marine Fisheries Service said it would expand habitat protections in 2017 to safeguard key foraging and migration areas off the West Coast. Yet the Trump administration has failed to act, despite broad public support.
“These incredible orcas should not become victims of the Trump administration’s policy of blocking science-based protections for the environment,” said Kilduff. “With extinction right around the corner, Southern Residents can’t afford to wait for help.”
Photo credit: Center for Whale Research

Photo credit: Center for Whale Research
While spending their summers in Puget Sound and the Salish Sea, areas protected as critical habitat in 2006, these killer whales travel extensively along the West Coast during the winter and early spring, congregating near coastal rivers to feed on migrating salmon. The Center petitioned in 2014 to protect areas off the coasts of Washington, Oregon and California as critical habitat (see map).
The death of the two-year-old male orca known as “J52” in 2017 came as the population dipped from 83 in 2016 to only 76 individuals today, the biggest year-to-year decline ever recorded. The death was confirmed by the Center for Whale Research, which reported malnutrition was likely the cause.
Today’s notice, which typically precedes the filing of a lawsuit, outlines how the Fisheries Service’s failure to act on the Center’s 2014 petition violates federal law. The letter asks the agency to propose habitat protections by August 6.”  Media Release.

Breach the dams or we’ll lose these whales, say the experts

The critically endangered population of Southern Resident orcas lost eight members this year.

“The Columbia River Basin once produced more salmon than any other river system in the world. It remains the gateway to millions of acres of pristine, high-elevation spawning habitat. But today, wild Columbia Basin spring chinook are returning to their natal streams at roughly 1 percent of their historic numbers.
There are those who say it’s too late to turn this march toward extinction around. If you know these fish and these whales, like we do, then you understand that they are two of nature’s savviest and most resourceful species. We must not give up on them now.”  

The Center for Whale Research and DamSense have created an advertising campaign to urge action before it is too late to save both the salmon and the whales that depend upon them. The ads are scheduled to begin on Sunday, January 7th, and they want you to spread the word:

Port Angeles, Wa. —
We, the undersigned, have prepared an ad campaign due to begin running in the
Jan. 7, 2018 Seattle Times Sunday edition. We are informing our elected officials of the crisis situation surrounding the critically endangered Southern Resident orcas. More than 50% of this species’ diet comes from salmon produced in the Columbia Basin, half of which are produced in the Snake River system. These beloved orcas are starving and malnourished because their primary prey, Chinook, areendangered. The solution is in plain sight. The facts are not being discussed.
For more than forty years, the dams in the Snake River have been destroying salmon runs that are a critical food source for the Southern Resident orcas. We are concerned that said elected officials do not possess the vital information they need in order to take immediate action to recover endangered species in our home State of Washington.
More than 50% of this whale species’ diet comes from salmon produced in the Columbia Basin, half of which are produced in the Snake River system. These beloved orcas are starving and malnourished because their primary prey, Chinook, are endangered.
Breaching the four lower Snake River dams can move forward immediately utilizing the 2002 Lower Snake River EIS [Environmental Impact Statement]. This can be accomplished without the need for Congressional authority or new appropriations.
We, the 23,000+ signees of the petition found here hope that our advertising campaign will generate more urgency and honesty among our elected officials.
We hope that more of the public will join in with tens of thousands of others whom have contacted offices of Washington State’s Governor Jay Inslee and Senator Patty Murray.
The character of the Pacific Northwest is at stake in this issue.
http://blog.seattlepi.com/candacewhiting
 
 

 

Killer whale recovery projects to get $2.18 million from partners including SeaWorld, Shell Oil, and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation

Media release:  SEATTLE, WA (November 16, 2017) –The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) today announced the awarding of $888,265 in grants to increase the recovery potential of the endangered Southern Resident killer whale. The grants will generate $1.3 million in matching contributions for a total conservation impact of more than $2 million. [Please note, NFWF is not a government agency].

The Center for Whale Research has studied the Southern Resident orcas for almost forty years.

The grants were awarded through the Killer Whale Research and Conservation Program (KWRCP), a partnership that began in 2015 with support from SeaWorld Entertainment, Inc. and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This year, Shell added its support to the effort. The company has been a part of the Anacortes community since 1955, and has identified the KWRCP as a key local conservation effort for the region.

The projects supported by the nine grants announced today will help to restore and enhance populations of Chinook salmon, a key prey item for the whales. These projects will focus on scientific research, habitat restoration and bolstering of forage fish levels. Specifically, grantees will work with recreational fishermen to understand the potential significance of the resident Chinook population to killer whales. Additionally, grantees will work with the seven Northwest Straits Marine Resource Committees to protect and restore important forage fish habitat, and support the restoration of 8 acres of juvenile salmon habitat in the Skagit River.

“We are excited to welcome Shell, a long-standing partner of NFWF in several regions of the country, to the Killer Whale Research and Conservation Program,” said Jeff Trandahl, executive director and CEO of NFWF. “Saving this apex species is an ‘all hands on deck’ situation. It is only through partnerships supporting a comprehensive approach to conservation that we will be able to reverse the decline of this iconic species of the Pacific Northwest.”

A wild, vibrant, male orca. Photo by Simon Piddock

The program also supports cutting-edge science, including genetic research, acoustic monitoring and aerial surveys using helicopter drones. This research will provide managers with the tools they need to help killer whales overcome the threats they face from poor water quality, noise pollution, vessel traffic, malnutrition and disease.

“Protecting this species has been at the core of SeaWorld’s purpose and mission for decades,” said Dr. Chris Dold, chief zoological officer for SeaWorld. “It’s more important now than ever to support efforts like the Killer Whale Research and Conservation Program, and SeaWorld remains committed to giving these animals a chance at survival.”

Less than 90 Southern Resident killer whales remain. While the species has been protected since the 1970s, its numbers have failed to rebuild the way neighboring populations to the north have. The Killer Whale Research and Conservation Program works to understand why the population has failed to recover and takes steps identified in the recovery plan to bring this population back from the brink.

“Working with this diverse group of partners to aid in the recovery of this incredible species is an honor, and we are proud to have this opportunity to help affect change,” said Shirley Yap, Shell Puget Sound Refinery General Manager. “Our refinery has a long history of collaborating with numerous environmental organizations to protect and preserve the communities we live in. By investing in projects that address salmon research and the monitoring of killer whale health and habitat restoration, we hope to help increase the killer whale population off the coast of  Washington state.”

A complete list of the 2017 grants made through the Killer Whale Research and Conservation Program is available here.

About the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation
Chartered by Congress in 1984, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) protects and restores the nation’s fish, wildlife, plants and habitats. Working with federal, corporate and individual partners, NFWF has funded more than 4,500 organizations and committed more than $3.8 billion to conservation projects. Learn more at www.nfwf.org.

About SeaWorld Entertainment, Inc. 
SeaWorld Entertainment, Inc., supports two initiatives at the Foundation that focus on coastal and marine resources, the Killer Whale Research and Conservation Program and the Ocean Health Initiative. The Killer Whale Research and Conservation Program funds efforts to advance the knowledge and conservation of killer whales with a primary focus on activities that aid in the recovery of the Southern Resident killer whale Distinct Population Segment (DPS) and the Northern Pacific Resident population. The Ocean Health Initiative works through other Foundation programs to support a portfolio of projects that bolster the health of threatened marine and coastal species and habitats while engaging communities in these conservation efforts. For more information, visit SeaWorldCares.com

About Shell Oil Company
Shell Oil Company is an affiliate of the Royal Dutch Shell plc, a global group of energy and petrochemical companies with operations in more than 70 countries. In the U.S., Shell operates in 50 states and employs more than 20,000 people working to help tackle the challenges of the new energy future. 

Environmental stewardship is one-way Shell has continued to share benefits with communities over the past 100 years. Since 1999, Shell has focused our partnerships with many organizations in the U.S. to protect more than 13 million acres of wetlands, clean and remove 600,000 pounds of debris from shoreline, and conserve more than 1.8 million acres of critical habitat.

Another orca calf is dead – these killer whales are in the sunset of their existence

Photo credit – Dale Mitchell, Eagle Wind Tours

By Kenneth C. Balcomb, Founder /Principal Investigator – Center for Whale Research

No southern resident killer whales from any of the pods have been born alive and survived thus far in 2017 – the baby boom is over…and the adults are alarmingly thin.

As of 19 September, another Southern Resident Killer Whale, J52 – a two and a half year old male born during the so-called Baby Boom of 2015/2016 – is deceased, presumably from malnutrition.

His obligatory nursing ended more than a year ago, and his life was dependent upon salmon that have become in short supply this summer.

He was last seen alive near the west entrance of the Strait of Juan de Fuca on 15 September 2017, and photographs taken at the time reveal severe “peanut-head” syndrome associated with impending death.

J52 Sonic by Gary Sutton

This population cannot survive without food year-round – individuals metabolize their toxic blubber and body fats when they do not get enough to eat to sustain their bodies and their babies.

All indications (population number, foraging spread, days of occurrence in the Salish Sea, body condition, and live birth rate/neonate survival) are pointing toward a predator population that is prey limited and non-viable.

We know that the SRKW population-sustaining prey species is Chinook salmon, but resource managers hope that they find something else to eat for survival.

Our government systems, steeped in short-term competing financial motives, are processing these whales and the salmon on which they depend to extinction.

If something isn’t done to enhance the SRKW prey availability almost immediately (it takes a few years for a Chinook salmon to mature and reproduce, and it takes about twelve years for a female SRKW to mature and reproduce), extinction of this charismatic resident population of killer whales is inevitable in the calculable future.

Most PVA’s (population viability analyses) with current predator/prey trajectories show functional extinction as a result of no viable reproduction within decades to a century.

Young J52 was accompanied by his mother (seventeen and a half year old, J36) and an adult male (twenty-six year old L85, potentially his father) at least five miles away from the other members of J and L pods that were foraging within a mile or two of the coastline from Camper Creek to Bonilla Point west of Port Renfrew, British Columbia.

Photo credit – Zuma Press

The observation of this sad event was at sunset, and the young whale appeared very lethargic while barely surfacing as the two adults were swimming around in circles and not feeding while attentive to the young whale.

We estimated J52 was within hours, if not minutes, of death at the time, and he was not present during the J pod foray into Puget Sound on 19 September, though his mother and L85 were.

The mother did not appear overly emaciated on either occasion, but she is lean and seems distressed.

Yes, these animals do exhibit emotion, and death of an offspring brings it on.

It is worthy of note that all of the SRKW observed this summer appear skinny and small compared to Bigg’s Transient killer whales in the Salish Sea that have abundant prey resources (seals and other marine mammals).

Timing of food availability is everything, especially in critical phases of growth or gestation.

 Three of the six whales born in J pod during the so-called Baby Boom, which began in December 2014 with the birth of J50, have now died; and, two mothers (J14, J28) and a great-grandmother (J2) in the pod have also died.

No fish, no blackfish.

By Ken Balcomb, Center for Whale Research.

How a few minutes of your time can save a lot of whales [and keep seafood on your table]

Pilot whale stranding in New Zealand Credit: Reuters

The Problem

It’s game-on for offshore drilling in the Atlantic, and it will wreak havoc

Once big oil gets its hooks into the Atlantic seabed there will be no turning back, no way to unwind that clock. Even if they never cause a spill or erect a rig, untold damage will happen to marine life, from the tiniest organisms (see Seismic surveys now proven to kill zooplankton…there goes your crab dinner) to the great whales. And they can’t wait to get started.
The following stranding event caused by ExxonMobil in 2008 is a prime example of the deadly impact of oil exploration.
The story started on a typically breezy and hot day near the mouth of a lagoon on the island nation of Madagascar. Two small whales had beached and died, their gleaming bodies still fresh enough to be eaten by the astonished villagers who carried them off.
But that was just the beginning – the brackish and turbid water of the the Loza Lagoon began to fill with panicked whales swimming desperately away from the ocean world they knew. By the afternoon the deep ocean dwelling melon-headed whales had traveled 65 kilometers (40 miles) inland.

Slowly the lost and confused whales began to die. Amid the tangled mangroves, mudflats and on narrow beaches their skin blistered and their body temperature rose until death came as a reprieve. Impoverished villagers caught and ate an unknown number. Of the estimated 100 -200 melon-headed whales that entered the lagoon only a handful were known to survive, despite a dedicated rescue attempt.
Finally, after nearly a month, four whales were seen leaving the lagoon and heading out to sea.
What had caused the mayhem? After years of meticulous study scientists concluded that the culprit could be summed up in one word: Sonar.
Earsplitting, terrifyingly loud and relentless, the sound had bounced off the underwater cliffs and canyons in the deep ocean. It drove the whales out of their familiar habitat with nowhere to escape until they sought refuge in the lagoon death trap.
It turned out that ExxonMobil and partners were mapping the ocean floor along the coast prior to doing seismic surveys for oil when the stranding occurred, using the type of sonar employed by the navy that had caused the deaths of whales in the Bahamas in 2000. In War of the Whales, author Joshua Horwitz carefully documents the Bahamas strandings but until the sad event in Madagascar no one had be able to document that the private sector – big oil – similarly destroyed marine life.

There is no way to know how many other species were affected and/or died in the ocean or at other remote locations during this one sonar mapping fiasco. And it was expensive – the investments by the scientific community, local officials, and rescue organizations were deep, and because the local population of Madagascar feasted on the toxic meat of the freakishly out of place whales they may experience health consequences.
In the end the whale deaths were for nothing: ExxonMobil and its partners just didn’t find a significant enough puddle of oil hidden under the seafloor to be worthwhile.
And now big oil is poised to repeat their activities off the Atlantic coast of the US. Marine life will have to endure various seismic challenges, from the sonar that drove the melon-headed whales to seek safety where the noise couldn’t penetrate (but for which they were not adapted to survive), to the repeated nearly year long pounding of seismic noise.

WHAT YOU CAN DO

These steps will guide you through the commenting process

NOAA Fisheries wants the public to weigh in on this – the oil companies can’t operate seismic surveys unless they get permits from the energy bureau, and the energy bureau won’t issue permits unless NOAA is satisfied that existing restrictions are met.

  1. Go to the Federal Register website and familiarize yourself with the process.
  2. Choose current research to support your comments.  (The links below are studies published in 2017 and either were done in the region specified or include species known in the specified area.)
  3. Email your comments to:  ITP.Laws@noaa.gov by July 6th.

But remember, NOAA will NOT consider comments other than as specified. “We will only consider comments that are relevant to marine mammal species that occur in U.S. waters of the Mid- and South Atlantic and the potential effects of geophysical survey activities on those species and their habitat.”
Suggested links:
Natural and anthropogenic ocean noise recorded at long-term and temporary observatories
High suckling rates and acoustic crypsis of humpback whale neonates maximise potential for mother–calf energy transfer
Cetacean sightings and acoustic detections during a seismic survey off Nicaragua and Costa Rica, November-December 2004
Nowhere to go: noise impact assessments for marine mammal populations with high site fidelity
 

Background information:

Having removed the protections against drilling along the Atlantic Coast put in place by then President Obama, the Trump administration is trying to push NOAA Fisheries to use the old, lower standards for sound levels rather than the new standards that were set to start this year. And they want the permits to be expedited so that the oil companies can start the seismic surveys as soon as possible.
From Trump’s executive orderImplementing an America-First Offshore Energy Strategy

Sec. 9. Expedited Consideration of Incidental Harassment Authorizations, Incidental-Take, and Seismic Survey Permits. The Secretary of the Interior and the Secretary of Commerce shall, to the maximum extent permitted by law, expedite all stages of consideration of Incidental Take Authorization requests, including Incidental Harassment Authorizations and Letters of Authorization, and Seismic Survey permit applications under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, 43 U.S.C. 1331 et seq., and the Marine Mammal Protection Act, 16 U.S.C. 1361 et seq.
Sec. 10Review of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Technical Memorandum NMFS-OPR-55. The Secretary of Commerce shall review NOAA’s Technical Memorandum NMFS-OPR-55 of July 2016 (Technical Guidance for Assessing the Effects of Anthropogenic Sound on Marine Mammal Hearing)… take all steps permitted by law to rescind or revise that guidance, if appropriate.

 

References and further reading:

Seismic surveys now proven to kill zooplankton…there goes your crab dinner

Like many marine fishes, this baby puffer fish drifts with the ocean currents during its larval stage

Love lobster? Crab? Swordfish? The larvae (just hatched) stages of these tasty marine species spend their early development floating as part of zooplankton community. Their limited ability to move means that they drift wherever the currents take them, leaving them uniquely vulnerable and unable to escape devastating events such as oil spills or even just the noise associated with searching for new offshore oil reserves.
Baby sailfish

Published today in Nature, the science is in – the noise from the airguns used in seismic exploration for offshore oil has been shown to have devastating effects on zooplankton. The team of researchers found significant damage to zooplankton up to 3/4 mile away from the source:

Experimental air gun signal exposure decreased zooplankton abundance when compared with controls, as measured by sonar (~3–4 dB drop within 15–30 min) and net tows (median 64% decrease within 1 h), and caused a two- to threefold increase in dead adult and larval zooplankton.

Lobster larvae

Impacts were observed out to the maximum 1.2 km range sampled, which was more than two orders of magnitude greater than the previously assumed impact range of 10 m. Although no adult krill were present, all larval krill were killed after air gun passage.
There is a significant and unacknowledged potential for ocean ecosystem function and productivity to be negatively impacted by present seismic technology.

Octopus larva

The significance and implications of potential large-scale modification of plankton community structure and abundance due to seismic survey operations has enormous ramifications for larval recruitment processes, all higher order predators and ocean health in general.
There is an urgent need to conduct further study to mitigate, model and understand potential impacts on plankton and the marine environment, and to prioritize development and testing of alternative seismic sources.

Swordfish larva

Plankton also supply half of the oxygen we breathe and are the base of the ocean food web – with less plankton there is less for fish to eat at a time when the world is increasingly looking to the ocean to provide food.
The planned seismic surveys off the Atlantic Coast of the US will have negative effects on the marine life, and eventually will impact the distribution and abundance of seafood. And if you like to fish, you may find it even harder to hook a big one.
NOAA is taking comments until July 6th on the proposed seismic surveys in the Atlantic.
Blue marlin larva