More melting ice, dead salmon, ocean daze, a hero dolphin and more
March 28, 2008
By David Helvarg
AMERICA’S 5th COAST
Most people think of the United States as having three coasts, the Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf of Mexico. Midwesterners often correct their saltier neighbors by reminding them of our 4th coast along the Great Lakes. Only they’re wrong too. Travels this winter in Alaska and to the nation’s only operational icebreakers, the Coast Guard Cutters Healy and Polar Sea in Seattle, have convinced me we’re neglecting our 5th coast, the rapidly emerging ice-free waters of America’s Arctic shoreline.
Earlier predictions that the Arctic Ocean would be largely ice-free by the middle of this century failed to account for what scientists call positive-feedback loops. In this case ice reflects solar radiation back into space while open water absorbs it so as more water is exposed the warming/melting effect is accelerated. The latest climate model suggests we could be seeing regular ice-free Arctic summers around 2013, five years from now (see Blue Notes #32 for more climate impacts on the ocean).
Touring the Icebreaker Healy’s computer lab I wasn’t surprised to find a pirate flag on a bulkhead. This was the hub of activity during last summer’s sea floor mapping expedition to the Chukchi Sea supported by the State Department at the same time Russia planted a titanium flag on the seabed beneath the North Pole and Canada war-gamed armed interdictions along the once fabled but now navigable Northwest Passage.
All these activities are part of a frenzied “cold rush” for huge stores of offshore oil, minerals (the U.S. and Russian Arctic hold about 44 percent of the world’s coal reserves), fish and trade routes as the Arctic powers, Russia, Canada, Norway, Denmark and the United States, vie to seize the spoils of fossil-fuel fired climate change.
Under provisions of the UN’s Law of the Seas Treaty (that the U.S. Senate may finally get around to ratifying in coming weeks) countries can claim extensions of their 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) if they can document subsurface extensions of their continental shelves. Russia claims the Lomonosov Ridge that runs under the North Pole. The U.S. is looking to claim a submarine plateau called the Chukchi Cap that could extend the U.S. EEZ 100 nautical miles into oil-rich waters.
Environmental activists charge that a delay by the Department of Interior on ruling whether to list the Polar Bear under the Endangered Species Act is linked to the Department’s efforts to lease oil drilling rights in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, prime ice bear habitat.
Ironically, as it was steaming north on its mapping mission the Coast Guard Cutter Healy passed a skinny polar bear floating south on a small ice floe. Even with their ability to swim long distances shipboard observers didn’t think this bear had much chance.
Other changes in an ice free Arctic will include a dramatic shift in shipping routes between Asia and Europe with commercial fleets of container ships, bulk carriers and ice-hardened oil tankers using either the Northern Sea Route above Russia or moving through the Northwest Passage, saving up to 20 percent on their shipping costs. While Canada considers the Northwest Passage internal waters the United States and other countries claim it’s an international strait.
And while ownership of vast parts of the Arctic remains in dispute it’s clear our own northern coast is ill equipped to deal with expanded shipping, fishing, tourism, drilling, mining, storms, oil spills, shipwrecks, terrorists or pirates.
“I have to be prepared to do everything we do in Los Angeles and be able to do it on this new frontier — this 5th Coast,” warns Coast Guard Admiral Arthur “Gene” Brooks, the 17th District Commander of Coast Guard forces in Alaska.
“When I got here in summer 2006 I traveled around and thought by 2020, 2030 we’re gonna’ have to start working,” he tells me. “Only my first year convinced me climate change is already here.”
Hopefully it won’t take another Exxon-Valdez type spill or Titanic scale cruise ship disaster to wake us to both the adaptive and preventative measures needed today to deal with climate impacts that are already spectacular and could easily turn catastrophic.
WHO KILLED CHARLIE CHINOOK?
Or we could call him Carlos Chinook, Miwok Chinook or nameless millions of other Chinook salmon that have been migrating up California’s rivers and back out to sea for millennia before humans started to admire and eat them. But now the run has crashed from 1.5 million in 2005 to a projected 60,000 this coming fall. While ongoing damage to the fish can be linked to dams, development and pollution, the one-two punch this year may be a combination of massive Sacramento Delta water diversions to agriculture in 2005 (the year these fish would have been heading out to sea) and poor ocean conditions since 2005 linked to warming waters and reduced nutrient upwellings from deep water which may be associated with global warming. For now the Pacific Fisheries Council has indicated a likely shutdown of California and Oregon salmon fishing, both commercial and recreational, for one or two years. Calls for disaster assistance are going out as the costs to salmon fishermen, who have long worked at sustaining the resource, will top $150 million.
For those who think farmed salmon are a reasonable alternative I’d suggest looking south. According to a report in the NY Times millions of Chilean farmed salmon are dying off from salmon anemia a common problem with overcrowded and over-medicated fish (they toss antibiotics in the stock pens to try and quell these periodic outbreaks of disease). “Parasitic infections, viral infections, fungal infections are all disseminated when the fish are stressed,” Dr. Felipe C. Cabello who has studied the problem told the Times.
Unfortunately between water-diversions, warming seas, sea lions, fishermen, bears, marine stockyards and sea lice its hard for a fish to just chill these days.
TWO YEARS BEFORE THE OAR
Just finished reading “Two Years before the Mast,” Henry Dana Junior’s classic journalistic report on sailing from Boston to California and back as a common sailor in the 1830s.
Two years is about how long it’s going to take Blue Frontier’s Roz Savage to row her 23-foot boat The Brocade from SF to Australia to raise awareness of Ocean pollution and practical solutions, with seasonal stops in Hawaii and the South seas.
As readers know this will be her second attempt after running into a major storm last year (see Blue Notes #38). In the interim she’s been training with dog teams in Minnesota, giving talks in New Zealand, and is now prepping for a new launch in early summer. On Sunday March 30 I joined Roz and Documentary producer Bill Chayes at a Sausalito fundraiser sponsored by the Belladonna Sanctuary for an upcoming film about her row. Our book, “50 Ways to Save the Ocean” was given to attending donors, figuring if Roz can row oceans everyone else can at least “Dive Responsibly” or “Use Less Plastic.” For more updates go to Rozsavage.com
OCEAN THE POLITICIAN WHO FAILS TO LISTEN
Right, as in “Oh shun,” because on April 2 a lot of California’s elected reps are going to get an earful from seaweed activists coming from up and down the state for ‘Ocean Day’ a day of lobbying on behalf of our public seas, organized by a broad coalition of blue groups. They will also be premiering ‘A Sheltered Sea’, a short documentary about California’s Marine Life Protection Act designed to create a string of underwater wilderness parks along the Golden State’s 1,100 mile coastline.
So, c’mon let’s hear from you other coastal activists — and by that I mean the 49 other watershed states plus Puerto Rico, Et. Al. Send Blue Notes your action reports on what you’ve done to get your states engaged in saving our coasts and oceans.
SHARK AND AWE
For fans of Blue Frontier Board Member Jim Toomey’s cartoon strip “Sherman’s Lagoon” (see our last Blue Notes) fair warning about upcoming violence and mature content. On Earth Day week poor Sherm will lose his fin to piratical shark-fining thugs. This is being done to draw attention to the all-to-real horror of global shark fining (for Shark Fin Soup) that is leading to the collapse of these ancient keystone predators. Word I have is that Sherman will get his fin back and readers will have a chance to link up to places and organizations where they can help in the fight to stop this modern day marine life massacre.
FOR $25 A HERO DOLPHIN WILL ADOPT YOU
Recently a bottlenose dolphin named “Moko”, rescued two stranded pygmy sperm whales off the north island of New Zealand. Human rescuers tried for an hour to get the mother/calf pair to return to the sea but each time the whales re-stranded. Then Moko arrived and began whistling, leading them calmly out to sea. Moko returned to the beach where she regularly plays with human swimmers (true story).
While a number of Ocean Conservation groups are offering their supporters a chance to adopt turtles, dolphins and whales Blue Frontier has always been concerned this would lead to confusion about their real birth parents.
However in an equally exclusive deal brokered between Blue Frontier and Moko, the heroic dolphin has agreed to adopt your children (or you).
For a $25 or greater contribution to the Blue Frontier Campaign Moko promises to take care of you or your children should climate change-linked sea level rise create a Water World in which your only options are to hang out with Kevin Costner or swim with the dolphins.
For contributions to BFC go to www.bluefront.org and click on “Donate” or send a check to Blue Frontier Campaign PO Box 19367 Washington DC 20036 (seriously, do it!)
For New Zealand based ocean-heroes of the human variety, particularly sailors and divers, check out www.oceanswatch.org
And remember — Blue is the new Green!