BLUE NOTES #108: Hot News for the Ocean, BVS4 to Hit the Hill, Salmon say Dam!
February 19, 2012
By David Helvarg
Thunder snow, super-storms, dust storms, arctic melting and coral bleaching have existed but not as a regular part of our language ‘til fossil fuel fired climate change kicked in. You know you’re in the greenhouse century when the 13 hottest years on record have all occurred since 1998 and last year, 2012, was the hottest in U.S. history, with a major drought, record fire season, sweltering summer and Hurricane Sandy. Of course no single event can be linked to human-enhanced climate disruption just like no single Tour de France victory by Lance Armstrong can be attributed to his doping, but the trend line is there.
I’ve reported on oil and climate impacts from Antarctica to the Persian Gulf, the Gulf of Mexico, Fiji, Australia, Florida, lower Manhattan and offshore California. And in speaking with scientists in all those places I’ve found two common themes: One, the role of the ocean in climate change is not well enough understood but the impacts, like altered ecosystems and the shifting pH called ocean acidification, are already occurring. Two, this is the first environmental story where the scientists are more alarmed than the public.
I first learned about global warming interviewing Roger Revelle, the father of modern U.S. oceanography, back in the 1980s. In the 1950s he and Dr. Charles Keeling, measuring atmospheric CO2 from an observatory in Hawaii, discovered industrial carbon dioxide was increasing in the atmosphere and warned of a warming “greenhouse effect.” That became established science at the time and still is.
Yet it was only in the 1990s that climate scientists were able to resolve one of their vexing issues, why the atmosphere wasn’t heating even more rapidly given this build up. The answer was the ocean was absorbing a lot of human-generated CO2, converting it to carbonic acid. The carbonic acid has shifted the pH of the ocean causing surface waters to be 30 percent more acidic than in the early 19th century and possibly up to 150 percent more acidic by the end of this century. That will change the chemical makeup of the ocean to what it was 20 million years ago when it was a less friendly place for shell forming critters like oysters, corals and certain plankton but a fine soup for bacterial mats and jellyfish (both of which are booming today). Warmer, more acidic waters also hold less dissolved oxygen and that is bad news for the entire foodweb.
Still, there are a couple of ocean conservation groups who talk about ocean acidification (OA) without mentioning climate change because they fear it is too much of a “hot button,” issue. This, to me, is like trying to have a discussion about damaged battleships at Pearl Harbor in 1941 without mentioning the Japanese.
Author and activist Bill McKibben and his climate group 350.org take a different approach. They’re mobilizing armies of people, most recently in Washington, D.C. on February 17, to demand an end to the political stranglehold the fossil fuel industry has over much of our government and a rapid transition to clean energy. Unfortunately the marine conservation community is not bringing a lot of added value to this new populist upsurge.
Yet we are slowly beginning to see some good responses to, for example, climate-linked coastal disasters like Katrina and Sandy, from government, the private sector and the seaweed groups that influence them. One positive sign is New York Governor Cuomo’s call to use $400 million of federal disaster relief to buy back destroyed homes and structures in coastal flood zones from wiling sellers, a strategy known as, ‘planned retreat.’ The Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance has developed a waterfront action agenda for adapting New York City’s shores to the rising seas around it. In Louisiana, the state is committing its federal Restore Act funds from the BP blowout to actually restoring the coastal wetlands that protect New Orleans and other population centers, while the Gulf Restoration Network continues working to promote region-wide restoration of the coastal ecosystems that protect us all. In Washington state, long-time Surfrider member and state senator Kevin Ranker has introduced legislation to address the threat of OA that is already impacting the larval oysters at Taylor Shellfish and other aquaculture companies operating in state waters.
And, as I report in my new book The Golden Shore, California is now emerging as the nation’s leader in planning and adapting for coastal climate impacts (see Blue Notes #105). Moreover it’s established its own climate plan including a cap and trade emissions reduction program in response to the federal government’s failure to act. It’s no coincidence that if you go to our Blue Movement Directory you’ll find California has more seaweed groups fighting to protect and restore our public seas than any other state. Ocean action comes in response to citizen engagement. It is a huge challenge for the marine conservation community to understand how these local and state initiatives can be scaled up and made part of a common national and global strategy for our emerging blue movement.
We will try and address this question during Blue Vision Summit 4 in Washington, D.C. this coming May 13-16. We’ll have a plenary on May 14th focused specifically on making climate change a blue issue. Among its participants will be a leading climate scientist, the head of America’s largest port of Los Angeles who is also leading a climate action plan for 50 of the world’s major ports and a representative from Taylor Shellfish, a company already having to deal with the ways in which climate change is having a growing impact on our economy.
It’s increasingly clear that if we’re to succeed as an ocean and coastal movement than climate will have to become one of our core issues. Even if we address the other cascading marine disasters of industrial overfishing, oil, plastic, chemical and nutrient pollution and loss of habitat, we could still have dying and disrupted seas just from the impacts of climate change alone. The challenge is to respond in time. I look forward to lively, impassioned discussion and real progress at the Blue Vision Summit.
March on Washington – And into your Senator’s office
Registration is now open for Blue Vision Summit 4, May 13-16. Reasons to come include helping develop workable plans for dealing with climate impacts, coastal disaster response and to meet the next generation of young ocean leadership. Then there’s the opportunity to network and celebrate our seas and honor this year’s outstanding Peter Benchley Ocean Award recipients who are providing solutions for our blue planet. What will also be hugely rewarding is joining with hundreds of other people on May 15 in the largest ever gathering for oceans on Capitol Hill, a chance to meet in small groups with our elected representatives, members of Congress and their staffs and let them know what specific actions to protect, explore and restore our public seas we expect them to take while valuing the blue in our red, white and blue.
A regular feature of Blue Notes where we shine the light on a group from the Blue Movement Directory in order to create a more self-aware and collaborative movement. This month we feature Save Our Wild Salmon.
“What does a salmon say when it hits its head?”
Founded just over 20 years ago, Save Our Wild Salmon (SOS) is a national coalition of conservationists, recreational and commercial fishing groups, businesses and others dedicated to restoring depleted stocks of the iconic, heroic and Homeric wild salmon and steelhead trout of the Pacific Northwest. SOS, with a staff of four spread across Washington, Oregon and Idaho, focuses its efforts on the Columbia and Snake River basin where up to 16 million salmon once filled the waters every year and where only 125,000 wild fish are expected to return this year, only 25,000 up the Snake River with its eight dams blocking their migration. As a result many of these salmon stocks are now listed under the Endangered Species Act.
As anadromous fish that are born in rivers but spend most of their lives at sea before returning to spawn and die, salmon are both a living link between land and sea – nitrogen from salmon remains help fertilize Idaho’s mountain forests – and also indicators of natural systems disrupted by a range of human impacts including dams and development, logging (that silts up rivers) and climate change that is warming rivers and seas.
The removal of four marginally productive dams on the lower Snake River is a long time goal of SOS and other salmon advocates who want to reopen hundreds of miles of blocked habitat for the fish. Similar dam removals have proved successful in restoring wild rivers in North Carolina and Maine and are also being carried out in California and on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula.
SOS Executive Director Pat Ford, who’s based out of Idaho, is proud of his coalition’s work to date. “In the 1990s scientists thought the fish would be gone in 20 years, but we’ve done a lot of good for salmon since then and gotten the federal government to place an emphasis on restoring damaged estuarine and river habitats. That helps resident fish and wildlife but we don’t think that’s enough for the dam affected fish.”
After years of litigation and wrangling over dam removal and salmon protection SOS has become a major advocate for stakeholder talks by all the parties involved in the region. While NOAA has begun this process Representative Doc Hastings (R WA) chair of the House Resources Committee claims salmon populations are already increasing (they’re not) and existing federal salmon rules are adequate to restore the species (federal judges have ruled four times that they’re not). Representative Hastings is also an outspoken opponent of President Obama’s National Ocean Policy (see Blue Notes #92) and proof of Upton Sinclair’s axiom that, “It’s hard to understand something when your salary depends on your not understanding it.”
Along with fighting the utilities and Bonneville Power Administration to try and remove dams, SOS has also begun to address climate impacts on salmon. “Last year there were (record high river water) readings of seventy degrees and above at the dams and this is a real problem, particularly for summer migrating salmon,” Pat Ford notes. “This is a very daunting issue, how to ameliorate the harmful impacts of hot water on salmon and steelhead. A hot river is a sick river for fish and for people.
There’s no doubt that the better, free flowing natural conditions we’re working for will help them (the fish) adapt but there may be times (in the future) when we may have to look at human interventions that we’d otherwise prefer not to carry out like hauling fish around hot spots or low spots in the rivers.”
In the interim SOS will continue its work building a broad consensus to protect the wild salmon and steelhead that are both powerful symbols and tasty staples of the Pacific Northwest.
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