Over the past week, the young male orca K-33 and presumably most
of K pod has traveled out to the Pacific Ocean and down the
Washington Coast into Oregon.
The 15-year-old named Tika has been carrying a satellite
transmitter since New Year’s Eve. A week ago, Tika and the other K
pod whales were in the northern portion of the Strait of Georgia in
Water Ways, Jan. 7, and NOAA’s
Satellite Tagging page, Jan. 7.
On Thursday, Jan. 7, the whales turned to the south and by the
next evening they were headed through the San Juan Islands,
reaching the ocean late Saturday. On Sunday, the whales spent most
of the day near Swiftsure Bank, a well-known ocean fishing area on
the U.S.-Canada border, then headed south along the coast.
After pausing briefly near the Hoh River and again near Grays
Harbor, the whales reached the mouth of the Columbia River on
Tuesday. They didn’t stop there but continued south into Oregon.
Midday on Wednesday, they were off Depoe Bay. They reached the
Umpqua River yesterday and by this morning were rounding Cape
Blanco in Southern Oregon.
“This southerly excursion in January is similar to what we
observed in 2013 when we had K-25 tagged,” noted Brad Hanson, who
is heading up the study for NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science
Center. See his
2013 blog and
notes from this year’s tagging program.
On a related topic, Ken Balcomb and other researchers for the
Center for Whale Research have been getting out on the water more
this winter to observe both resident (fish-eaters) and transient
(seal-eaters) killer whales. I enjoyed listening to his description
of the latest encounter with the two groups of transients on
Wednesday. Ken offers a voice-over while shooting video on the
water as well as later at the center while identifying the whales.
As he describes, the encounter took place near Kelp Reefs in the
northern portion of Haro Strait (west of San Juan Island). Watch
the video on the website of the Center for Whale
Last year was the warmest year on record for Washington state,
as well as Oregon, Montana and Florida, according to climatologists
with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
For the entire contiguous United States, 2015 was the
second-warmest in 121 years of temperature records going back to
1895. The average temperature last year was 54.4 degrees, some 2.4
degrees above the long-term average, according to NOAA. Only the
year 2012 was hotter.
Those extreme U.S. temperatures will contribute to what is
expected to be the highest worldwide temperature average on record.
Findings are to be completed later this month.
If 2.4 degrees above average does not seem like much, think
about raising your home’s thermostat by 2.4 degrees and leaving it
there for the entire year, said Deke Arndt, chief of the NOAA’s
Climate Monitoring Branch.
“You would feel the difference,” Arndt said during a telephone
briefing this morning, when scientists reported an increasing
number of extreme weather events across the United States — from
severe winter storms on the East Coast last February to wildfires
in the West during the summer to tornadoes across Texas and the
Midwest in December.
Changes in temperatures and precipitation are changing
ecosystems for plants and animals across the United States and
throughout the world.
For the year 2015, every state in the nation was warmer than the
long-term average, although various regions of the country acted
quite differently. In the West, the year started out warm but ended
up cool. In the East, residents began the year with record cold
temperatures but ended with unseasonable warm conditions.
In terms of precipitation, 2015 was the third-wettest year on
record in the contiguous United States, with a total average of
34.47 inches. That’s 4.5 inches above the long-term average. It was
the wettest year on record for Texas and Oklahoma, but Washington
was close to average for annual rainfall.
Washington state and the entire West returned to normal
temperatures for the month of December, but 29 states across the
East, Midwest and South recorded all-time-record highs for the
Twenty-three states — including Washington, Oregon and Idaho —
were much wetter than average in December, which ranked as not only
the warmest December on record across the U.S. but also the
Record flooding was reported along the Mississippi River and its
tributaries, with floods coming several months earlier than
“Record crests and overtopped levees were observed along parts
of the Mississippi River and its tributaries; deadly tornadoes
ripped through the Southern Plains and Mid-South; and heavy
snow/ice was observed from the Southern Rockies to Midwest and New
England,” state’s a summary report
released by NOAA. “This storm system resulted in at least 50
fatalities across the country — the deadliest weather event of 2015
— and caused over $1 billion in losses, according to preliminary
Across the country last year, 10 separate weather-related events
caused more than $1 billion each in damages — specifically, a major
drought, two major floods, five severe storms, a series of
wildfires and a major winter storm, each defined by NOAA based on
their timing and location.
Across the West, more than 10 million acres of forestland
burned, the greatest extent of fire since record keeping began in
“We live in a warming world, bringing more big heat events and
more big rain events,” Arndt said, adding that the pattern is
expected to continue in the coming years.
The extremes seen in the U.S. are being experienced across the
globe, he added. The U.S., which takes up 2 percent of the Earth’s
surface, experienced its second-warmest year on record. Worldwide,
however, it appears that 2015 will go down as the warmest year so
far. Global findings are due out in about two weeks.
Being able to measure a killer whale’s girth and observe its
overall condition without disturbing the animal is an important
advancement in orca research.
By running a small hexacopter, also known as a drone, at a safe
level over all 81 Southern Resident killer whales last month,
researchers came to the conclusion that most of the orcas were in a
healthy condition. Seven whales were picked out for further
observation, including a few suspected of being pregnant.
I was especially intrigued by the idea that researchers could
track the progress of a pregnancy. It has been long suspected that
the first calf born to a young female orca often dies. A possible
reason is that the calf receives a dangerous load of toxic
chemicals from its mother. With this “offloading” of toxic
chemicals from mother to first calf, later offspring receive lesser
amounts of the chemicals.
Miscarriages and even births often go unnoticed, especially in
the winter when the whales travel in the ocean far from human
observation. If the young ones do not survive until their pod
returns to Puget Sound, we may never know that a young whale was
lost. Now, this remotely operated hexacopter may provide before and
after pictures of a pregnant female, offering evidence when
something goes wrong with a calf.
Images of the whales can be combined with skin biopsies and
fecal samples collected by boat to provide a larger picture of the
health of individual whales and the overall population.
Images of the whales collected this fall can be compared to
those collected by conventional helicopter in 2008 and 2013 to
assess any changes in the animals. Because of the noise and prop
wash of a conventional helicopter, pilots must stay at a higher
elevation to keep from disturbing the whales. There seems to be
general agreement that drones are the way to go.
John Durban of NOAA Fisheries, who piloted the drone on 115
flights over the Southern Residents, said he was encouraged that
their overall condition appeared better than in the past few
“Most individuals appear to be fairly robust this year, which is
good news, but it’s also very important baseline information to
have if the next few years turn out to be difficult for salmon and
their predators,” Durban said in a
Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research has a somewhat
different take on this new tool. The high rate of miscarriages and
neonate deaths have long been known, Ken told me in an email. It is
the only way that they are able to control their population within
the carrying capacity of their food supply.
“I am more excited about five whales being born and surviving
since last December than I am about an unproven morphometric
surmise that additional whales are in some stage of a
seventeen-month pregnancy,” he said. “It is not wise to ‘count your
chickens before they hatch,’ as the saying goes.”
The goal should be to recover the population, Ken said. When it
comes to recovering salmon and killer whales, resource management
has been a dismal failure. His suggestion: Remove the Snake River
dams and allow the salmon numbers to rebuild naturally while fixing
Canada’s Fraser River.
“With climate change well underway,” Ken wrote, “we cannot
fritter away golden opportunities to restore viability in what
little is left of a natural world in the Pacific Northwest while
counting unborn whales.”
Other aspects of this new effort involving the hexacopter were
well covered by news reporters this week. Check out the list below.
The new video with John Durban and NOAA’s science writer Rich Press
can be seen above. Last month, I provided other information and
links about the new tool. See
Water Ways Sept. 9.
The Center for Whale
Research has posted aerial photos of the new orca calf and her
mother. The pictures, taken as part of a research study, were shot
from an unmanned hexacopter (drone) from an altitude of more than
100 feet, as required by permits and protocols of the research
Researchers are using the unmanned aircraft to help assess the
health of killer whales and other marine mammals and to keep track
of their population and behaviors. The researchers are from NOAA’s
Southwest Fisheries Science Center and Vancouver Aquarium Marine
Science Center. They are operating under permits issued by the U.S.
and Canadian governments to cover both sides of the border.
I first discussed this new aerial technique in “Water Ways”
nearly a year ago, when Brad Hanson of the Northwest Fisheries
Science Center told me that unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, hold
great promise for learning about killer whales. The small aircraft
can get great shots from overhead without the cost and disturbance
of large manned helicopters. Read more and watch a nice video of
the project on
“Water Ways,” Oct. 16, 2014.
The research so far has shown that UAVs can be used to gather
valuable information about marine mammals. I found a conversation
on video between researcher John Durban and NOAA science writer
Rich Press to be especially informative. They talked about how to
spot a fat and healthy orca versus one that was emaciated and
apparently on the edge of death. Finding a pregnant orca was not as
hard as I thought it might be. Check out
NOAA Fisheries’ website and the video above.
Small unmanned aircraft also can be used to count and assess the
condition of gray whales on their annual migration along the West
“We can’t put a gray whale on a scale, but we can use aerial
images to analyze their body condition—basically, how fat or skinny
they are,” John Durban said in a story about the gray whale project
NOAA Fisheries’ website.
In other news about the newborn orca, naturalist Jeanne Hyde has
posted a report of her experience, including photos. Jeanne was one
of the first to spot the new calf. Read what she has to say on her
“Whale of a Purpose.”
A selected group of art students has created a unique collection
of posters, videos, illustrations and a mural to deliver a
coordinated message about protecting water quality and salmon
The project, supported with a grant from NOAA Fisheries,
involved students from the Pacific Northwest College of Art in
Portland. The art students have been producing various elements of
the projects over the past year.
Animation student Beryl Allee teamed up with illustrator Grace
Murphy to produce a potential media campaign called “Citizen in the
Watershed,” focusing on how human damage to the ecosystem
eventually comes back to harm humans. The first video on this page
is called “Littering.” Two other videos, one dealing with yard care
and the other with driveway runoff, can be viewed on NOAA’s website
“NOAA 2015 Science in the Studio Award” or on Beryl’s Vimeo’s website.
An illustration to accompany public-outreach information about
household products has been completed, with two more to be done
before the end of August. See
A mural design produced by PNCA graduate Esteban Camacho
Steffensen depicts examples of human alterations to the landscape
comingled with images of the natural ecosystem. These images are
all wrapped together inside an outline of a chinook salmon — a key
symbol of the natural Northwest.
The mural design can be printed on posters or painted on the
wall of a building with instructions provided by the artist. The
idea is that human activities cannot be separated from natural
systems but that people can make choices to reduce their impacts.
Read about the artist and his work on
Interdisciplinary artist Stephanie Fogel created a poster to
encourage people to properly dispose of medicines. The design
features a salmon surrounded by pills, and the message can be
customized for Washington, Oregon or California with specific
information about disposing of pharmaceuticals. Read more about
Stephanie J. Fogel.
The final video, below, was completed last year by Beryl Allee,
who created the interesting illustrations, and John Summerson, who
helped with animation and managed the sound design. The video helps
people understand just one way that fish can be affected by hard
armoring, such as bulkheads, constructed to protect shorelines from
erosion. How the video was produced and other information can be
found on NOAA’s website,
“Bridging art with science to protect salmon habitat.”
And would anyone like to write new words to an old song that we
could use to invite the last five orcas to the party in the San
Juan Islands? (Read on for details.)
I reported last week in
Water Ways (July 1) that nine Southern Resident killer whales
had not yet returned to the San Juan Islands this year. I’d like to
update you with the news that four of the nine have now been seen,
so we’re just waiting for the final group of five.
Dave Ellifrit, Lauren Brent and Darren Croft with the Center for
Whale Research did an amazing job Sunday tracking down 65 killer
whales in and around Haro Strait in the San Juan Islands.
Meanwhile, Ken Balcomb photographed another 11 from the porch of
the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island. Read Dave’s
report of the encounters on the center’s website, listed as
Encounter Number 59.
“Due to forest fires in several different places in British
Columbia, there were dark clouds coming out of the northwest which
made the sun red and the lighting a weird shade of brown-yellow.,”
Dave reported in his notes. “A little after 0930, we left the L
group and headed about a half mile north to a male who was foraging
by himself. This was K21 and we saw him actively chase a salmon
before he headed off to the west.”
The four “missing” whales spotted for the first time this year
in inland waters are known to travel together. As I reported in
last week’s blog entry, the groups of orcas have grown smaller and
more spread out, apparently because their prey — chinook salmon —
are not arriving together in significant numbers.
The latest four arrivals are Racer (L-72), a 29-year-old female,
and her son Fluke (L-105), an 11-year-old male; Ballena (L-90), a
22-year-old female; and Crewser (L-92), a 20-year-old male. Ballena
is Crewser’s aunt, and they are the last two members of what was
once an extended family.
Yet to arrive to the party in the San Juans is a group known as
the L-54’s. Some of you might remember a sitcom from the early
1960s about two New York cops, Toody and Muldoon. Anyway, the name
of the show was “Car 54, Where Are You?” and it had a catchy
(See YouTube) that featured prominently the title of the
It just occurred to me that we could rewrite the words to the
song, which would ask the question: “L-54, where are you?” If
anybody wants to take this challenge, I’ll post your new words on
As for the group itself, L-54 is a 38-year-old female named
“Ino.” She is closely followed by her 9-year-old son, L-108 or
“Coho,” and her 5-year-old daughter, L-117 or “Keta.”
Also traveling with the L-54 family is L-84, a 25-year-old male
named “Nyssa.” This orca is the last surviving member of what was
once called the L-9 subpod.
Another lone male, L-88 or “Wave Walker,” is 22 years old. He is
the last surviving member of what was once called the L-2 subpod,
and he now travels with the L-54’s as well.
This group — presumably all five — was last seen in March in the
western end of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and in February in the
Pacific Ocean near Westport.
Ken tells me that NOAA Fisheries funds his census work for
exactly 42 days, and the funding has now run out with more work to
be done. His nonprofit organization is continuing the search for
the “missing” whales mainly with contributions, including
memberships. See “SupportingThe
Center for Whale Research.”
With the disbursed pattern of orcas in recent years, some
changes are needed, Ken said. Perhaps he can get some additional
funding to search for the whales later in the year, travel to
coastal waters or contract with researchers already working in the
Another option is to provide an annual list of the whales
identified in inland waters when the 42 days of funding runs out,
he said. That idea would not allow a complete census each year, but
the whales would eventually show up and could be counted at that
time. That’s the system used for counting Northern Residents in
upper British Columbia, Ken said, noting that researchers up north
often don’t see all the orcas in any one year.
Increased funding for research projects, including census
counts, could come as a result of the new
“Species in the Spotlight” campaign launched this spring by
NOAA. The Southern Residents, listed as endangered under the
Endangered Species Act, are among eight well-known species
considered at the greatest risk of extinction.
Eileen Sobeck, assistant NOAA administrator for NOAA Fisheries,
statement when announcing the new campaign:
“Of all the species NOAA protects under the ESA, these eight
species are among the most at risk of extinction in the near
future. For some of these species, their numbers are so low that
they need to be bred in captivity; others are facing human threats
that must be addressed. If we act now with renewed commitment and
intensified efforts, we can help these species survive and
The other seven “Species in the Spotlight” are Gulf of Maine
Atlantic salmon, Central California Coast coho salmon, Cook Inlet
beluga whales, Hawaiian monk seals, Pacific leatherback sea
turtles, Sacramento River winter-run chinook salmon and California
Coast white abalone.
The campaign, which ends next May, will follow a detailed
five-year plan to be unveiled in September.
It’s an interesting time for researchers to begin writing a blog
about ocean conditions off Oregon and Washington, an area
undergoing some fascinating changes in oceanography and
Scientists from NOAA Fisheries and Oregon State University
launched their new website,
“Newporter Blog,” last week. It’s named after the Newport Line,
an area of study off the Oregon Coast where researchers have
monitored changes for the past 20 years.
“This year, the ocean has been very different,” wrote blogger
Jennifer Fisher in the blog’s first post on June 23. “Anomalously
warm surface water dubbed the ‘warm blog’ moved onto the
continental shelf off Newport in September 2014. A very large
harmful algal bloom (HAB) spanning from British Columbia to
California is occurring off the coast right now. El Niño conditions
are occurring at the equator, and NOAA is forecasting a 90-percent
chance that an El Niño will persist through the Fall.”
The next blog post last Thursday was by researcher Cheryl Morgan
from the Canadian fishing vessel FV Frosti “somewhere off the coast
of the Pacific Northwest,” where researchers are looking to see how
juvenile salmon are doing. They were taking note of anything picked
up in their nets in the upper 60 feet of water.
“Watching the trawl come in is like the anticipation of opening
a Christmas gift,” Cheryl wrote. “What could be in there? How many?
How big? Have we ever caught any of them in the net?
“We always hope for some juvenile salmon, since that is the main
point of the survey, but we also like to see something different,
strange, or unusual to spice things up,” she continued.
The next post on Monday revealed that fish being caught were of
a kind seen in Northwest waters only when the temperatures rise.
They included pompano and jack mackerel. The researchers were
especially surprised to find bottom-dwelling flatfish in their net
some several hundred feet off the bottom.
“What is a fish that lives on the bottom, one side down, doing
in the water column?” she asked. “Perhaps they are lost, could not
find the bottom or they are chasing some dinner. Most strange,
however, was the catch of nearly 3,330 Pacific sanddabs … in ONE
trawl. That was a first for even the fishing crew.”
The team also brought up a juvenile red octopus, a species
normally found among rocks on the bottom — “another creature that
is a long way from home.”
The research fishing will continue from Newport to the upper
corner of Washington state. The scientists are taking note of any
birds preying on fish before they begin their daily trawl. Plankton
also are scooped up to see what the fish might be eating and to
provide new data about the harmful algal bloom.
The work is being funded by NOAA and Bonneville Power
The researchers/bloggers said they would share their findings as
they go along. I, for one, look forward to learning about ocean
conditions and how the warm water is affecting all sorts of sealife
along the West Coast.
This week’s announcement that the coastal population of canary
rockfish had dramatically rebounded got me to wondering what new
information might be coming from research on the threatened and
endangered rockfish of Puget Sound.
Dayv Lowry, research scientist at the Washington Department of
Fish and Wildlife, shared some intriguing new information about
Puget Sound rockfish that could link into the coastal population.
In fact, if limited genetic findings hold up, a delisting of one
type of Puget Sound rockfish could be in order.
On Monday, the Pacific
Fishery Management Council reported that West Coast populations
of two groundfish species — canary rockfish and petrale sole — have
been “rebuilt” some 42 years earlier than expected. Canary rockfish
were declared “overfished” in 2000, and a rebuilding plan was put
in place a year later. Strict fishing restrictions were imposed,
and experts expected the stock to rebound successfully by 2057.
“This is a big deal,” former council chairman Dan Wolford said
news release. “We now have six times more canary rockfish than
when we scaled back so many fisheries. This shows the Pacific
council’s conservation policies work.”
Meanwhile, WDFW and NOAA Fisheries are researching the three
species of Puget Sound rockfish listed under the Endangered Species
Act. They are canary
rockfish and yelloweye
rockfish, both listed as threatened, and bacaccio,
listed as endangered.
Underwater surveys with a remotely operated vehicle in 2012 and
2013 looked for all sorts of bottomfish across a grid laid down on
Puget Sound. Researchers found a greater abundance of quillback and
copper rockfish (not ESA listed) than in the past, and young
juvenile quillbacks were seen on muddy substrate — not the place
you would normally look for rockfish.
While that was encouraging, nearly 200 hours of video at 197
grid points revealed just two canary and five yelloweye
“That was quite distressing to us,” Dayv said.
This year and next, surveys are more focused on rocky habitat,
including locations where fishing guides say they have had success
catching rockfish in the past. The results are more encouraging,
locating somewhere around 40 canary and 40 yelloweye and two
bacaccio, Dayv said.
“We’ve caught some big fish and some little fish, so the
population demographics have not entirely collapsed,” Dayv told me,
and that means there is still hope for recovery.
Rockfish don’t typically reproduce until somewhere between 5 and
20 years old, so over-fishing places the future of the entire
population at risk. Some rockfish are known to live as long as 100
Finding juvenile yelloweyes — “bright red with ‘racing stripes’”
— is especially encouraging Dayv said.
Genetic work so far is offering some intriguing new findings, he
noted. While yelloweye rockfish from Puget Sound and the Strait of
Georgia seem to be distinct from those on the coast, the same
cannot be said for canary rockfish.
In fact, the limited samples taken so far suggest that the
coastal population of canary rockfish — those found by the PFMC to
be “rebuilt” — may not be genetically distinct from canary rockfish
living in Puget Sound.
If that proves to be the case, it could have a profound effect
on what we understand about canary rockfish and could even lead to
a de-listing of the Puget Sound population.
Kelly Andrews, a genetics expert with NOAA Fisheries, cautioned
that the sample size is small and more results are needed before
anyone can draw conclusions. New samples are soon to be examined to
see if there are any differences between canary rockfish on the
coast and those in Puget Sound.
“What initially may seem to be the same could change
dramatically with all these new samples we just got,” he told me.
“Still just finding them is good news.”
When the Puget Sound rockfish were listed in 2010, researchers
did not have the genetic data to define the populations in that
way, so they used reasonable assumptions about geographic
isolation. Now, the genetics can be factored in.
A five-year review is due to be completed this year for the
listed rockfish in Puget Sound. If the new genetics information
holds up, then the technical review team could propose a delisting
of the canary rockfish.
For that reason, a long-awaited recovery plan for rockfish is
being completed for the most part, but its release will be delayed
until the genetic information is conclusive and the five-year
review is completed. It would not make sense to come out with a
recovery plan for canary rockfish, if the plan is to delist the
Meanwhile, small areas of Quilcene and Dabob bays have been
reopened to fishing for some flatfish. (See earlier news release.)
Bottom fishing is generally closed in Hood Canal because of the
ongoing low-oxygen problems and its effects of bottom fish.
As in other areas of Puget Sound, targeted bottom fishing must
take place in less than 120 feet of water, and all rockfish caught
must be released. Experts strongly advise using a “descending
device” (see video) to get rockfish safely back to deep water, no
matter where they are caught. Without that, many of the fish die
from barotrauma caused by the ballooning of their swim bladder as
they are brought to the surface. See
“Bring That Fish Down” by California Sea Grant and “Protecting
Washington’s Rockfish” by WDFW.
This year’s research project tracing the movements of Southern
Resident killer whales has ended after 96 days of tracking L-84, a
25-year-old male named Nyssa.
It was the longest period of tracking among the Southern
Residents since the satellite-tagging studies began in 2012. The
transmitter carried by L-84 lasted three days longer than a similar
deployment on K-25 in 2013. The satellite tags, which are attached
to the dorsal fins of the whales with darts, often detach after
about a month.
The nice thing about this year’s study is that it covered the
entire month of April and much of May, according to Brad Hanson,
project supervisor for NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center.
That tells the researchers something about the movement of the
whales later in the year than previous deployments have
A satellite tag on J-27 (Blackberry) in late December extended
the total tracking period to more than four months.
Looking back through the
tracking maps since February, it is clear that L-84 and his
entourage have spent much of their time moving up and down the
Washington and Oregon coasts. They seem to favor hanging out near
the mouth of the Columbia River. On a few occasions, they have
ventured into Northern California.
On May 6, they took their only jaunt north into Canadian waters,
reaching Estavan Point (halfway up Vancouver Island) two days
later. They continued north another day, nearly reaching Brooks
Peninsula (about three-fourths up Vancouver Island) on May 9. Then
they headed back south, ending this year’s tracking program near
the Columbia River.
Just before the satellite tag fell off, biologists from Cascadia
Research Collective caught up with the whales on May 21 south of
the Columbia River. The researchers noticed that the tag was
loosening, and no further satellite signals were picked up.
The tracking studies, combined with efforts to collect samples
of feces and fish remains, are designed to identify where the
whales are spending their time in winter months and what they are
finding to eat when salmon are more scarce. All of this could lead
to a major expansion of their designated “critical habitat” and
increased protections in coastal waters. As of now, critical
habitat for the whales does not extend into the ocean, and NOAA has
concluded that more information is needed before changing the
designated protection area.
Within the next month or so, all three Southern Resident pods
should head into Puget Sound, congregating in the San Juan Islands,
as chinook salmon return to Canada’s Fraser River and other streams
in the Salish Sea.
Meanwhile, J pod seems to be hanging out in waters around the
San Juans, possibly waiting for the other pods to show up. Plenty
of observers have been filing some great reports and related photos
That link also includes recent reports of seal-eating transient
killer whales that have traveled as far south as the
Bremerton-Seattle area, perhaps farther. A few humpback whales have
been sighted in northern Puget Sound.
A couple weeks ago, I wrote about a a new deep-sea observatory
being built off the West Coast. I noted that Washington and Oregon
researchers are thrilled to monitor the eruption of an underwater
volcano called Axial Seamount.
Soon, new equipment and a fiber optics cable will allow these
researchers to widely share discoveries involving the unique
geology and unusual plants and animals living at the bottom of the
ocean. People will be able to watch in real time via the Internet.
Water Ways, May 6.
Now, a new lawsuit filed by the Center for Biological Diversity
has me thinking about the commercial value of the deep ocean. Can
society safely mine the seafloor for valuable minerals used in a
wide variety of consumer products? Can huge mining equipment
operate in water two or three miles deep without destroying the
unique ecosystem at the bottom of the ocean?
For decades, researchers have been aware of high concentrations
of minerals lying on and beneath the sea floor. But nobody was
worried about the environmental damage of mining, because the costs
of commercial recovery were too great.
The high profitability of mining sector companies;
A decline in the tonnage and grade of land-based nickel, copper
and cobalt sulphide deposits; and
Technological advances in deep seabed mining and
The new technology involves giant robotic machines that either
excavate the seafloor or scoop up clumps of polymetallic nodules.
Over the past few years, 26 permits have been issued to mining
corporations, mostly for operations in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone
of the Pacific Ocean, about halfway between Hawaii and Mexico.
“Deep-sea mining is an emerging threat to our oceans that has
the potential to irreparably harm underwater ecosystems before we
even have a chance to fully study its impacts,” declares the
Center for Biological Diversity, adding:
“Life on the deep ocean floor is still a mysterious realm that
scientists have only just begun to fully understand and inventory…
What mountaintop-removal coal mining has done in Appalachia,
deep-sea mining has the potential to do in the Pacific Ocean,
affecting the ecosystem and food web in ways that scientists say
they don’t yet fully understand.”
Last week, the environmental group filed a
lawsuit (PDF 162 kb) against the U.S. government for issuing
exploratory permits without the requisite environmental studies.
Said Emily Jeffers, the attorney who filed the case:
“Deep-sea mining should be stopped, and this lawsuit aims to
compel the government to look at the environmental risks before it
leaps into this new frontier. We need to protect the ocean wildlife
and habitat, and the United States should provide leadership for
other nations to follow before more projects get underway.”
The lawsuit, filed in Washington, D.C., challenges two
exploratory permits issued to OMCO Seabed Exploration, LLC, a
subsidiary of Lockheed Martin, the defense contractor. The original
permits for work in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone expired in 2004.
Jeffers says the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
should have considered the environmental effects of the mining plan
before renewing the permits in 2012.
“If we aren’t careful, this new gold rush could do irreparable
harm to the basic building blocks of life. The federal government
has a moral duty, as well as a legal one, to understand the full
environmental impacts before the mining industry scrapes away our
Besides tearing up the sea floor, mining operations can stir up
sediment, which can smother organisms living on the bottom,
according to the lawsuit. Cloudy water can reduce productivity, and
clouds of sediment may contain toxic metals that reduce
reproductive success of sea life. Light and noise from ships and
vessels can disrupt seabird behavior and affect whales and other
marine mammals, the suit claims.
Other permits have been issued to various countries in Europe
and Asia by the International
Seabed Authority, which hopes to approve environmental
standards by the end of next year. The U.S. is not subject to those
rules and cannot demand compliance from other countries, because
the U.S. has not ratified the United Nations’ Convention on the Law
of the Sea, a treaty that establishes the International Seabed