In a marine protected area off of Vancouver Island, Canada, a rich ecosystem supports breeding and migrating seals and sea lions – and at least one adorable sea otter, Ollie. Southern resident killer whales pursue the adult salmon that hide among the kelp fronds, and the mammal eating transient orcas hunt the seals and sea lions.
Luckily, nothing seems interested in eating Ollie, to the relief of his fans who follow his Facebook page.
Admittedly, not everyone loves these furry machines that need a quarter of their body per day to keep warm, even with their luxurious coats. They consume over a hundred different species of primarily bottom dwelling invertebrates, but come into conflict with fishermen over the sea cucumbers, urchins, clams, abalone etc that have a fairly high market value.
When the otters move into a region they do have an impact on those fisheries, but what they give back to the environment makes them worth their weight in gold – their foraging habits quickly restore kelp beds where juvenile salmon hide on the journey to the open ocean. Each female Chinook salmon that successfully returns to spawn carries as many as 17,000 eggs, so each fish saved by adequate kelp beds can have a significant impact.
Juvenile salmon prefer to use kelp bed prefer to use kelp bed habitat over bare areas, where they swim in the middle of the canopy as they migrate. The kelp forests also provide cover for the forage fish that fuel the salmon’s journey.
In the Puget Sound and greater Salish Sea there are few otters, and the kelp forests are in trouble:
Dr. Tom Mumford, Washington Department of Natural Resources, reports that floating kelp beds have all but disappeared from southern Puget Sound. Declines are also reported generally from the Salish Sea, including British Columbia, Canada.
Because of the ecosystem functions provided by kelps, the consequences of declines to kelp beds in Puget Sound are not limited to the direct effects on kelp populations, but influence indirectly the many species that depend on the presence of these forests. (Puget Sound Restoration Fund).
Wouldn’t it be great to have the fluffy otters helping in the effort to restore kelp forests?
Where you may be able to see otters in Puget Sound:
In 2006, the distribution of the majority of the Washington sea otter stock ranged from
Pillar Point in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, west to Cape Flattery and as far south as Cape Elizabeth
on the outer Olympic Peninsula coast. However, scattered individuals (usually one or
two individuals at a time) have been seen outside of this range.
… Sightings around the San Juan Islands, near Deception Pass, off Dumas Bay, off the Nisqually River, and in southern Puget Sound near Squaxin and Hartstene Islands have also been reported.
Not that long ago, fishermen killed Southern Resident killer whales because the whales were eating Chinook salmon…let that sink in while we explore whether killing marine mammals has ever worked in the long haul to save salmon populations.
In a few days the annual slaughter of dolphins in Taiji, Japan, will begin its six-month bloodbath. Among the reasons that fishermen hunt down and kill dolphins is the industry’s deeply held belief that marine mammals compete for fish.
Can that happen in the Salish Sea? As disturbing as it is to think about, the answer is yes – dolphins and porpoises have no substantial protections and their “takes” are managed by NOAA.
After countless decades of the slaughter and subsequent reduced dolphin populations, Japan’s fisheries catch has spiraled down to an all-time low. Japan’s solution? They’ve added even more dolphin species to the kill list this year.
By the 1970s Japan had already driven the indigenous Japanese sea lion to extinction and to this day they continue to cull Steller sea lions annually.
Western Steller Sea Lions are listed as vulnerable in the Threatened Wildlife of Japan Red Data Book. Hattori and Yamamura (2014) reported that over 200 Steller Sea Lions were culled annually between 1960-1993 to reduce predation on commercial fish stocks.
Recent work indicates that the annual culling was then reduced to a limit of 116/year until 2010 at which time a new 5 year quota of 1,030 culled Sea Lions was imposed. This resulted in an increased annual average take (Matsuda et al. 2015).
Despite the culling, the Japanese fishing industry is on a steep decline – their catch of 12.8 million tons of fish in 1984 was down to 4.3 million tons in 2017, an all time low.
Killing seals to save a few fish
If the concept of killing off marine mammals to leave more salmon for fisheries has failed in Japan (where salmon catch declined by 27% last year), why would we assume that culling marine mammals would succeed in restoring Chinook salmon for the endangered Southern Resident orcas?
With proposals on the table to extend the killing to all pinnipeds (seals and sea lions) in Puget Sound and other areas of the Salish Sea, how long will it be until demands are made to cull dolphins and porpoises as well?
Does the idea of killing one kind of marine mammal to save another make any sense whatsoever when there is no evidence that it will succeed longterm?
It may seem unthinkable, but if we allow the government to permit the killing of one marine mammal species to save another by attempting to control fish predation, it is a slippery slope to go from seals and sea lions to dolphins.
Harbor seal Photo Credit: Kachemak Bay Wilderness Lodge
Yet that is a solution being bandied about by special interest groups concerned with the Chinook salmon population – they want to take out sea lions and harbor seals as a quick solution to what is really a complex problem.
There may be some logic to culling if the seals and sea lions were directly eating the orcas, though even if that were the case and we decided to cull orca predators we would have to start with the most effective and damaging predator.
And that would be us.
Southern Resident orcas were once killed by fishery interests
There are living members of the Southern Resident orcas who were once shot at, harpooned, and subjected to the noise of seal bombs by fishers who resented the competition for salmon. The US Navy gunned down an entire population of fish-eating orcas in Iceland to “help” the fishing industry there.
As the Southern Resident orca population decreased in the Salish Sea due to culling (either by being killed or captured for display, similar to what goes on in Taiji), Chinook salmon still continued to dwindle. Killing the orcas didn’t bring back salmon. Nor will killing pinnipeds.
But fishing is not the only way that humans are driving the abundance and evolutionary biology of salmon – we have added evolutionary pressures by altering the environment as well.
Dams not only impede the salmon’s journey, but dramatically alter stream and river ecology. Salmon must navigate challenging hatching conditions, endure siltification of their natal streams and rivers, and withstand marginal water temperatures – then survive being flung through the dam turbines on their seaward journey.
They must escape predators that gather at the dams, and the young salmon must cope with the lake conditions present in the manmade reservoirs created by the dams (which gives a huge advantage to some of the predatory fish species and is not natural to the salmon). Finally, the young fish encounter estuaries that are often inadequate in both food and places to hide.
Research shows that the battering the young salmon take on their way to sea increases their mortality while at sea – this means that the debate over how accurate the statistics are on how many smolts initially survive the dams is a small part of the equation since they are more likely to die at sea.
Abstract.—The numbers of Snake River salmon and steelhead Oncorhynchus spp. have substantially declined since the completion of the Columbia River hydrosystem. We used analytical approaches to identify management options for halting the decline of these stocks, such as removal of Snake River dams and improvements to the existing hydrosystem. The benefits these actions are predicted to have in terms of salmon recovery hinge on whether the mortality that takes place in the estuary and early in their ocean residence is related to earlier hydrosystem experience during downstream migration. Evidence from the literature demonstrates numerous mechanisms that would explain this delayed mortality in relation to a fish’s experience passing through the hydrosystem. Spatial and temporal comparisons of stock performance provide indirect evidence of delayed mortality and evidence that delayed mortality is linked to hydrosystem experience. Recent mark— recapture data also provide evidence of differences in delayed mortality by route of passage through the hydrosystem. The different types of evidence discussed here suggest that the delayed mortality of Snake River fish is related to the hydrosystem.
On their return trip, the salmon must battle the same conditions, and again must make it past those dams, increasing the time they must spend in getting to their natal streams.
And then there are the bears…do we kill them too?
The Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force
Government tends to balk when the cost of acting is high – whether that cost is in dollars, jobs, energy, or security – because it is also our government’s job to protect us and to oversee the growth of our nation in the long term. Our government tends to favor a cost/benefit analysis, and this can be detrimental when swift action is called for with respect to environmental issues, such as in taking decisive action to restore our salmon fishery.
For years Washington State has performed controlled culling of the sea lions that congregate at certain dams but only after other methods were exhausted. Now Congress has bills in the works which will allow loose control over whether the killing is humane and reduces oversight as it increases the number of animals that can be culled.
Governor Jay Inslee’s establishment of the Southern Resident Killer Whale Recovery and Task Force is an inspiring and bold move to come to terms with conflicting beliefs, and it’s possibly our last opportunity to step back, look at the big picture, and think about future generations.
The process has underscored to me how open and willing those of us who live in this region are to pitch in and look for resolution when it comes to salmon and orcas, a subject where the potential for conflict is high. Our personal lifestyles and regional self-interests are deeply challenged as we weigh the needs of the whales against our own – yet what has become clear is that we are unified in a desire to “get ‘er done”.
We seem to be on the road to solutions, the quickest of which would be to increase salmon passage on the lower Snake River dams.
But let’s leave the seals and sea lions alone.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
President Trump issued an executive order Friday calling for the Department of the Interior to review its 2017-2022 offshore oil and gas leasing plan and all restrictions on offshore energy production, possibly opening up the Atlantic, Arctic and Pacific oceans to dangerous offshore drilling projects. Administration officials also said seismic testing in the Atlantic, which was removed from the final five-year plan, could proceed during that review.
WASHINGTON— Conservation groups have moved to intervene in an administrative appeal by the oil industry challenging a federal decision to reject six oil and gas exploration permits for the Atlantic Ocean. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management denied the seismic airgun survey applications in part because the loud blasts would hurt endangered North Atlantic right whales and other sensitive wildlife.
In denying the permits, the Bureau found that the “small, critically endangered, and declining population of” North Atlantic right whales, which recent surveys say include an estimated 476 whales, “would doubtless be disturbed by seismic activity.”
“Seismic blasts are so loud they can injure endangered right whales and other marine mammals. We’ve been working to save right whales from extinction, and we’re intervening in this appeal to ensure the safety of these rare whales from oil and gas exploration,” said Kristen Monsell, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity.
Seismic exploration surveys use high-powered airguns to search for deposits of oil and gas. They generate the loudest human sounds in the ocean, short of explosives. The blasts, which can reach more than 250 decibels, can cause hearing loss in marine mammals, disturb essential behaviors such as feeding and breeding over vast distances, mask communications between individual whales and dolphins, and reduce catch rates of commercial fish.
In addition to the Center for Biological Diversity, today’s motion was filed by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), North Carolina Coastal Federation, South Carolina Coastal Conservation League, One Hundred Miles and Defenders of Wildlife. The groups are represented by attorneys from NRDC, the Center and the Southern Environmental Law Center.
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.3 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.
Orca Network relayed that NOAA/NMFS has posted a notice calling for public comment on much of the verbiage and some of the rules governing their role concerning captive marine mammals. I read the 86 page document, and if you are feeling equally masochistic you can find it here, but be forewarned: it is a formal document full of cross-references and inferences.
Their official announcement is below, but even that doesn’t quite get to the heart of the matter – which is that NMFS has very little control over what happens once the marine mammals are in captivity; that responsibility rests with the Department of Agriculture (!). What they do have control over, and what is important here, is the permitting process and how thoroughly the animals are tracked once they are in captivity. If those of us who are concerned about the welfare of the orcas don’t send in comments, then the “captive display community” (theme parks such as Seaworld) will encourage NMFS to loosen the regulations because theirs will be the strongest voices.
Lolita performs for sparse audiences in a sad theme park.
Please write, call or email NMFS and ask for changes you would like to see, even though your concerns may not address the specific items being considered at this time. The window of opportunity may be open just enough to make more changes to the rules while they are undergoing modification, and it may be more difficult to get the government to go through this process again soon.
Send comments to:
P. Michael Payne
Chief, Permits, Conservation and Education Division
Office of Protected Resources
National Marine Fisheries Service
1315 East-West Highway
Silver Spring, MD 20910-3226
The official announcement:
NMFS is considering changes to the regulations implementing the Section 104 permit provisions of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) to clarify existing permitting procedures and to codify procedures being implemented through agency policy.
These regulations govern issuance of scientific research and enhancement permits for marine mammals, including threatened and endangered species. These regulations also cover the General Authorization for Scientific Research, photography permits, and public display permits.
Public Participation Opportunities
As part of the process, NMFS is preparing an environmental assessment (EA) to evaluate the potential environmental impacts of promulgating revised regulations governing permit procedures and conditions. NMFS requests public participation in the scoping process that will help identify alternatives and determine the scope of environmental issues to be addressed in the EA.
NMFS has developed a Scoping Document [pdf] with proposed revisions, additions, and restructuring of the marine mammal permit regulations. This Scoping Document contains proposed regulatory language but does not necessarily represent a preferred alternative.
More information about opportunities to comment on this phase of the process can be found in the Notice of Intent [pdf] published in the Federal Register (75 FR 11130).
Comments about the EA or on the Scoping Document must be received by May 10, 2010 and should be directed to:
Mail: P. Michael Payne
Chief, Permits, Conservation and Education Division
Office of Protected Resources
National Marine Fisheries Service
1315 East-West Highway
Silver Spring, MD 20910-3226
Background On May 10, 1996, a final rule was published establishing requirements for issuing permits and authorizations to take, import, or export marine mammals (including endangered and threatened marine mammals) and marine mammal parts under NMFS jurisdiction for purposes of scientific research and enhancement, photography, and public display.
NMFS published an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPR) in the Federal Register (72 FR 52339, September 13, 2007) proposing changes to implementing regulations (50 CFR 216, Subpart D) governing the issuance of permits under Section 104 of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) and solicited public input on the proposed changes or any other changes commenters deemed appropriate.
The ANPR solicited input from the public on specific recommended changes to the regulations (as listed below) and how NMFS can streamline, clarify, or change sections of these regulations to improve the process for obtaining a permit (see 50 CFR Subpart D-Special Exceptions, sections 216.30-216.45). We also considered recommendations regarding changes to any of the sections of 50 CFR part 216 prior to proposed rulemaking.
Specific recommended changes proposed in the ANPR include the following:
* Changing requirements regarding National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) determinations such that NEPA documentation is not required at the time an application is made available for public review and comment.
* Allowing only minor amendments to original permits, not major vs. minor as currently exists; any proposed change such as an increased level of take would require a new permit since the regulatory process for issuing a major amendment is currently consistent with processing a new application.
* Applying the General Authorization (GA) to research activities involving Level A harassment of non-ESA listed marine mammals; currently the GA only applies to research activities that result in Level B harassment.
* Implementing a “permit application cycle” for application submission and processing of all marine mammal permits;
* Consolidating sections of the regulations that pertain to the transfer of marine mammal parts (including those taken from non-listed stranded animals and those taken under permit from both listed and non-listed marine mammals) to provide consistency and eliminate confusion in interpretation.
* Adding provisions for long-term captive maintenance of non-releasable ESA-listed marine mammals.
* Writing regulations for photography permits such that it would be similar to the GA process.
* Permit Regulations ANPR [pdf]
(72 FR 52339, September 13, 2007)
o Text Version of Permit Regulations ANPR [txt]
* MMPA Regulations: 50 CFR 216 [pdf]
o Text Version of MMPA Regulations: 50 CFR 216 [txt]
o 50 CFR 216 by Section (with Text and PDF options)
* Summary of Public Comments [pdf] [284 KB]
* Public Comments Received [pdf] [3.8 MB]