Slimed Eagles, Sea Stars come out, lice & sushi, swamp rats and more
Jan. 25, 2008
By David Helvarg
The Last Frontier
I was flying on a C-130 Hercules out of Cold Bay Alaska last week, working on my Coast Guard book and yes, it was cold. The loadmaster had just winched a white Durango SUV onto the plane. It had been driven by Coast Guard helicopter crews during the Red King Crab season and was now being redeployed to St. Paul Island in the middle of the Bering Sea for the Opilio or Snow Crab season. Like Orcas and eagles Coast Guard cutters and helicopters follow the fisheries, acting as 911 for the deadliest catch while also protecting the resource.
Cold Bay itself is a collection of half a dozen metal airplane hangers and scattered wooden houses on a low rise with a dark gravel road leading to an open bay facing snow shrouded volcanic peaks that mark the end of the 500-mile Alaska peninsula and the beginning of the Aleutian chain.
While there we dropped off a few Coasties who will help repack the deployment gear and also offloaded a pallet of supplies including cases of Budweiser for the sixty local residents who maintain the 10,000-foot runway that functions as an alternative landing strip for the Space Shuttle.
After a stop on St. Paul, visiting a LORAN Long Range radio navigation station and having to fly out into the white teeth of a snow squall, we returned to Kodiak.
Kodiak is the second largest island in the United States after Hawaii’s big island but unlike the big island it’s still 98 percent wilderness. It has about 14,000 people including some 1,000 active duty Coast Guard personnel and their 2,000 dependents. 3,000 is also the number of Kodiak brown bears (grizzlies) on the island which, along with the fishing town of Kodiak has a scattering of half a dozen villages whose populations range between 50 and 200. It’s a ruggedly stunning landscape of snow, ice, Sitka spruce forest, white capped mountain ridges full of wild goats, ocean cliffs striated with frozen waterfalls, dark sand driftwood beaches (some with good surfing breaks), a winter camp for Navy SEALS, a rocket launch site for testing ways of shooting down incoming tax dollars, and cold north Pacific waters brimming with life.
But even abundance can have its price. A few days before I arrived a driver backed a big truckload of fish guts out of the Ocean Beauty Seafood’s processing plant without covering it up. 50 bald eagles swarmed the truck and 20 died, the remaining heavily slimed birds were flown to anchorage for cleaning, where most are now recovering. The local Tanner Crab Season was also delayed by heavy winds and weather.
Still it’s hard not to love a frontier. It’s also hard to appreciate that even a vast and seemingly pristine frontier like Alaska with over 1/3 of the U.S. coastline, 4 times the size of California but with less than 1/50th the population, is still vulnerable to human disruption. Today, along with plans for new copper, gold and coal mining and oil and gas drilling, Alaska is facing accelerating threats to terrestrial and marine habitat, coastal regions and native cultures from fossil-fuel fired climate change. This August the Coast Guard will be opening an arctic base in Barrow to deal with increased marine traffic resulting from melting polar ice.
At the same time the Department of Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service has failed to meet a legal deadline on deciding whether the Polar Bear is to be listed as an endangered species, the Department’s Minerals Management Service has announced plans to hold an oil and gas sale on Alaska’s Chukchi Sea, prime bear habitat. Personally I believe in biological adaptation. If the Polar Bears can no longer hunt ringed seals on the ice let’s release them in the hallways of the Department of Interior and see if they can find alternative prey items.
The Reel Ocean
Heading out through Anchorage I had a lovely dinner (blackened halibut taco) with several good folks including Butch Allen whose Alaska Ocean Film Festival is now touring 20 towns including Nome and Barrow and will be seen by some 3,000 Alaskans.
Butch works closely with and gets support from the folks at the San Francisco Ocean Film Festival that bills itself as North America’s “premier cinemaquatic event.” For its 5th Anniversary February 1-3 it will be screening over 40 films including local videos taken during November’s Container ship fuel oil spill in the Bay.
With Support from the Ocean Foundation Blue Frontier will be donating hundreds of copies of our book, ’50 Ways to Save the Ocean’ to high school students, teachers and others attending the SF Ocean Film Festival this year.
Other Ocean Film Festivals have now begun spreading the blue carpet across America from Santa Barbara to Savannah to Monmouth New Jersey (props to Tony McDonald and Monmouth U’s Urban Coast Institute for getting that launched).
The Homer Simpson Spill
Even before a major report’s release on what caused the giant container ship Cosco Busan to run into the SF Bay Bridge on Nov. 7, releasing 58,000 gallons of sludgy bunker fuel (see Blue Notes #40) we’ve learned that the ship’s pilot had a sleep disorder and was on drugs to avoid sleepiness. He was also having problems communicating with the Chinese Captain and claimed the radar was malfunctioning in the fog. This has inspired long-time anti-oil activist Richard Charter to suggest, “It was Capt. Hazelwood (of Exxon-Valdez infamy) meets Homer Simpson.”
Blue Frontier is working on an upcoming meeting of some 25 seaweed (marine grassroots) groups that were involved in the spill response including conservationists, fishermen, dockworkers, wildlife rescuers, state agencies, and others to review lessons learned, discuss proposed regulatory and legislative changes and decide how we can all better coordinate to prevent or respond to the next inevitable marine disaster. We’ll let you know how it went in a future Blue Notes.
New Schooling behavior worth noting
Of course finding solutions to our public seas’ cascading disasters isn’t limited to the unmatriculated. Stanford University, the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), with a $25 million grant from the Packard Foundation have just established the Center for Ocean Solutions to find innovative ways to protect and restore our living seas. Threats to the ocean they’ll be addressing include overfishing, climate change and invasive species like Golden Bears…No wait, the Bears are just a threat to Stanford.
With a side of Sea Lice?
Yet another study by Canadian scientists, this one published in the journal Science has found that juvenile salmon heading out to sea pick up fatal loads of sea lice swimming past commercial salmon farms in British Columbia. The rate of mortality could drive local runs of wild pink salmon to extinction within eight years.
Meanwhile the same folks at the New York Times who had to do lab tests to discover that most of the pricey wild salmon sold in city delis was actually farmed fish (I’ve always found the taste test pretty definitive), now report new lab findings that tuna sushi from 20 Manhattan stores and restaurants contained high levels of mercury (from coal fired power plants raining out into the oceans). Given what’s happening on Wall Street it might be time to switch to Tilapia anyway.
Doomed if you do…
The Associated Press’s Cain Burdeau reports that scientists are pretty well convinced that the 10,000 miles of oil and gas service canals dug across the marshes of Louisiana have been a major contributor to land loss that, among other things, intensified the impact of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. An oil lobbyist told AP much of the blame should be put on nutria, an invasive grass-eating rodent from South America. While I agree large rats are behind the problem…Meanwhile AP reporter Henry Jackson confirms a story you first saw here (Blue Notes #37) that nitrogen runoff from expanded corn production in the Midwest for Ethanol fuel is expanding the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Of course corn ethanol can be expected to do about as much to reduce global warming impacts as low-tar cigarettes do to reduce cancer rates.
More than just fish wrap
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