Category Archives: Oceans

Amusing Monday: Evolution of sea snakes takes twists and turns

I’ve always felt fortunate that residents of Western Washington need not worry about encountering a deadly snake while hiking in our home territory. The same goes for divers and sea snakes — which are even more venomous than terrestrial snakes. The cold waters of Washington and Oregon tend to keep the sea snakes away.

The same used to be said for California, where sea snake sightings were once extremely rare. That has been changing, however, the past few years — especially during years when higher ocean temperatures encourage tropical creatures to make their way north. Is it just a matter of time before Washington scuba divers begin to report the presence of sea snakes?

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Amusing Monday: NOAA’s top photos, videos and stories

A photograph of a tiny orange octopus was the most popular image last year among all the photographs posted to Instagram by NOAA Fisheries, the agency formally called the National Marine Fisheries Service. More than 2,000 people “liked” the picture and many more viewed it from among more than 150 top photographs posted last year by NOAA Fisheries’ Communications shop on its Instagram page.

A baby octopus found on an autonomous reef monitoring structure. (Click to enlarge.)
Photo: James Morioka/NOAA

The octopus photo was taken during a NOAA expedition to assess the health of coral reefs in the Pacific Remote Islands, which had undergone a massive die-off in 2016 and 2017 caused by excessive warm water. The tiny octopus was discovered on an “autonomous reef monitoring structure” used to measure the recovery of ocean ecosystems. For details about the voyage, see NOAA’s story “Research Expedition to Assess Coral Reef Conditions and Recovery from Mass Bleaching.”

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Sharing info and solving mysteries: International Year of the Salmon

Nearly a decade in the planning phase, it appears that the International Year of the Salmon couldn’t come at a better time for Northwest residents.

More and more people are beginning to recognize the importance of chinook salmon to the long-term survival of our Southern Resident killer whales. Legislation designed to improve the populations of salmon and orcas has gained increased urgency as these iconic creatures continue to decline.

Many countries throughout the Northern Hemisphere have joined together in a campaign to raise public awareness about salmon this year and to increase the support for scientific research and restoration projects that might save endangered salmon from extinction.

One exciting aspect of the International Year of the Salmon, or IYS, is a scientific expedition involving 21 researchers from five countries. This international dream team will depart Sunday from Vancouver, British Columbia, to engage in a month of research into the secrets of salmon survival. I described this long-anticipated endeavor in an article published today in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

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Climate Sense: Ice at both poles keeps melting at a faster and faster rate

I would like to share five items about climate change:

Item 1

Antarctica is losing six times more ice per year than it did 40 years ago, according to a new study by glaciologists at the University of California, Irvine; NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory; and the Netherlands’ Utrecht University.

Antarctic ice // Photo: Joe MacGregor, NASA

“That’s just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak,” said lead author Eric Rignot, quoted in a news release. “As the Antarctic ice sheet continues to melt away, we expect multi-meter sea level rise from Antarctica in the coming centuries.”

The study, “Four decades of Antarctic Ice Sheet mass balance from 1979–2017,” was published yesterday ahead of print in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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Salmon treaty designed to boost spawning count and feed the orcas

Allowable fishing for chinook salmon in the waters of Canada and Southeast Alaska will be cut back significantly this year as a result of a revised 10-year Pacific Salmon Treaty between the United States and Canada.

Chinook salmon // Photo: NOAA Fisheries

The goal of the updated treaty is to increase the number of adult chinook returning to Washington and Oregon waters, where they will be available to feed a declining population of endangered orcas while increasing the number of fish spawning in the streams, according to Phil Anderson, a U.S. negotiator on the Pacific Salmon Commission.

Most chinook hatched in Washington and Oregon travel north through Canada and into Alaska, making them vulnerable to fishing when they return. Changes to the treaty should reduce Canadian harvests on those stocks by about 12.5 percent and Alaskan harvests by about 7.5 percent, Phil told me. Those numbers are cutbacks from actual harvests in recent years, he said, so they don’t tell the complete story.

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Japan allows commercial whaling, withdraws from international pact

Frustrated by international condemnation over its whaling activities, the Japanese government has decided to allow commercial whaling outright within its territorial waters and exclusive economic zone.

Japanese officials announced this week that the country would withdraw from the International Whaling Commission, which oversees international agreements for managing whales — including a worldwide ban against killing nearly all whales.

As a result, the Japanese whaling fleet will no longer travel to the Antarctic to kill whales, which the government justified for years under an exemption for “scientific” whaling. That whaling program, which killed 333 minke whales last year, failed to meet the requirements of scientific studies, according to a ruling by the International Court of Justice and findings by a scientific panel for the International Whaling Commission. See Water Ways, March 31, 2014.

Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the move was a necessary consequence of the IWC’s failure to recognize its dual mandate of protecting whales and allowing an “orderly development of the whaling industry.” For 30 years, the Japanese government has been collecting information to show that whales can be sustainably harvested, Suga said in a statement, but it has become clear that the IWC is now focused only on conservation.

Most environmental groups condemned Japan’s pullout from the IWC.

“By leaving the IWC but continuing to kill whales in the North Pacific, Japan now becomes a pirate whaling nation, killing these ocean leviathans completely outside the bounds of international law,” said Kitty Block, president of Humane Society International and acting president of the Humane Society of the U.S.

“For decades Japan has aggressively pursued a well-funded whaling campaign to upend the global ban on commercial whaling,” she said in a news release. “It has consistently failed, but instead of accepting that most nations no longer want to hunt whales, it has now simply walked out.”

In Australia, Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Environment Minister Melissa Price said the government was “extremely disappointed” with Japan’s action.

“Their decision to withdraw is regrettable, and Australia urges Japan to return to the Convention and Commission as a matter of priority,” they said in a joint statement. “Australia remains resolutely opposed to all forms of commercial and so-called ‘scientific’ whaling. We will continue to work within the Commission to uphold the global moratorium on commercial whaling.”

Concerns with Japan’s withdrawal include the possibility that Japan will no longer report the number of whales killed and the potential of other countries following suit and starting whale hunting without consultation with the IWC.

“We are very worried that it might set a precedent and that other countries might follow Japan’s lead and leave the commission … especially South Korea where there is an interest in consuming whale meat in South Korea,” Astrid Fuchs of Whale and Dolphin Conservation told BBC News and reported in The Guardian.

“The oversight that the IWC was having over Japan’s whaling will now be lost,” she added. “We won’t know how many whales they are catching, we won’t know how they will report it. It might spell doom for some populations. There is an endangered population of Minke whales off Japan, which is already under threat.”

Most groups acknowledged that ending whaling in the Antarctic would be a good thing, and Capt. Paul Watson of Sea Shepherd took a celebratory posture about the prospect.

“I’m not quite sure why so many whale conservationists are upset by today’s announcement by Japan that they will be leaving the IWC,” Paul said in a Facebook post Wednesday. “After 16 years of intervening against Japan in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary, I see this as a very positive development. It means that the whale war in the Southern Ocean is over and we and the whales have won. What we have fought for has been achieved — an end to whaling in the Southern Ocean.

“Japan leaving the IWC will allow the IWC to vote and pass the establishment of the South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary,” he added. “This means that the entire Southern Hemisphere will be free of whalers for the first time in history.”

Whaling remains illegal, Paul said, and Sea Shepherd will continue to oppose whaling with a variety of tactics. Now, it will be easier to build opposition, because Japan can no longer pretend that it is advancing scientific knowledge with its whaling operations. The only whaling nations left on Earth, he said, are Japan, Norway, Denmark and Iceland, and “they have been driven back to their own shores; the whalers of the world are in retreat.”

Sea Shepherd has not engaged the whaling fleet in “whale wars” — direct ship-to-ship confrontations — for the past two years, but the group claims to have driven up costs for the whalers, who have relied on government security boats and high-tech equipment to elude the anti-whaling activists. Those extra costs may have contributed to Japan’s decision to withdraw from the IWC. Also on the line was a discussion about whether the Japanese government should build a massive new ship for processing whale meat, a ship that won’t be needed in Japanese waters.

I’ve been reading about this situation in all kinds of publications, including English-language newspapers based in Japan. I would like to know if Japan intends to allow whalers to take the full self-imposed allotment of 333 minke whales during the current whaling season. The whaling fleet reportedly left for the Antarctic in early November and may be hunting for whales now. I have not yet learned whether the whaling fleet will come back early or take 333 whales before Japan pulls out of the IWC on July 1.

“With the Japanese whaling fleet hunting whales in our Southern Ocean, the Australian Government must demand they bring their fleet home immediately and take legal action if they don’t,” said Darren Kindleysides, CEO of the Australian Marine Conservation Society. In a written statement, he called it a “bittersweet victory” to get whaling out of the Southern Ocean but with “unchecked” commercial whaling to take place in Japan’s waters.

The IWC called a halt to commercial whaling in 1982. Japan complied with the moratorium at first but then developed scientific criteria to promote whaling under a special exemption. Scientists associated with the IWC, as well as the International Court of Justice, found that the criteria failed to meet true scientific standards and should not be allowed.

In September, Japan tried to persuade the IWC to relax its voting rules to allow changes to international rules on a simple majority vote, rather than three-fourths. That would have allowed Japan to rally a lot of non-whaling countries to support a resumption of commercial whaling, but the proposal was rejected along with a direct plan to allow commercial whaling.

In October, Japan agreed to stop the hunting of endangered sei whales in the North Pacific until its research program could be revised to comply with CITES — the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. A standing committee of CITES found that Japanese “research” whaling on sei whales actually contributed to an illegal sale of endangered species, according to a news release and report on the findings (PDF 1.2 mb). Sei whales are killed outside of Japan’s home waters, so the market is considered international.

The Japanese government contended that the sales were not a violation of CITES’ conventions, because all the proceeds were put back into research. Still, those officials said a new plan will be submitted for approval.

The issue is scheduled for review at the committee’s next meeting in May to determine if Japan has carried through on its commitment to stop commercial trade in sei whale meat. Japan had been planning to allow a harvest quota of 134 sei whales per year.

As for whaling off the coast of Japan, an offshore operation will be based at Shimonoseki in Yamaguchi Prefecture, while coastal operations will be based at Abashiri and Kushiro on the island of Hokkaido and four other seaports.

Although whale meat was an important staple for Japan following World War II, few Japanese people eat whale meat today. In some ways, however, whaling is still a matter of tradition for many Japanese people. Some have speculated that Japan’s withdrawal from the IWC is a face-saving way for the government to reduce its expenses for whale hunting while asserting its traditional right to take whales in its own waters.

A 2014 survey by the national Asahi Shimbun newspaper found that 60 percent of those questioned supported the “scientific” whaling program, yet only 10 percent eat whale meat “fairly frequently.” Another 4 percent said they eat whale meat “sometimes.” Nearly half (48 percent) said they have not eaten whale meat for “a long time,” while 37 percent said they never eat it. The survey was reported by the news portal Phys Org.

In a recent article, Asahi Shimbun reported that companies involved in the fishing industry are not eager to resume whaling.

“We have no plans to resume the whaling business,” a public relations official of Maruha Nichiro Corp. told the newspaper. The company, previously named Taiyo Gyogyo K.K., had been engaged in commercial whaling in the Antarctic Ocean. Retailers also expressed apprehension about selling more whale meat.

In 1962, about 233,000 tons of whale meat were consumed in Japan, according to the article. Today, annual consumption ranges between 3,000 tons and 5,000 tons.

BBC reporter Rupert Wingfield-Hayes tackled the issue two years ago and found that many Japanese were smoothly transitioning to beef. His story and video report show him sampling a chunk of whale meat, which he finds chewy with a gamey flavor. For older folks in Japan, Rupert discovers that whale meat is simply a taste of nostalia.

Amusing Monday: Taking on plastic pollution with a lighthearted approach

Last June, 10 days after the European Union announced major legislation to ban or otherwise control single-use plastic products, the European Commission launched a public-relations campaign to raise awareness and promote individual actions to reduce the problem of plastics.

The campaign, which asks “Are you ready to change?,” includes a lighthearted video designed to encourage people to question their choices of single-use plastics, such as cutlery, water bottles, plates and straws. Check out the first video on this page.

“The campaign is aimed at young, dynamic adults who are always on-the-go,” according to a statement by the European Commission. “The vast majority of this group is well aware of, and concerned by, the environmental impact of single-use plastics and the health-related risks caused by plastic waste and marine litter. But despite the level of awareness among the target audience, this does not translate into their daily choices: They continue to enjoy their take-away coffees and use straws in their drinks.”

A series of short videos cleverly emphasizes “the seductive power of single-use items,” such as the plastic bag. The script for the plastic-bag video, the second one on this page, goes like this:

“Its seduction technique is hard to resist. Always there when you need it, it waits for you at the end of shop counters, ready to help out and leave with you, hand in hand. But the morality of this fake friend is disturbingly flimsy. It will leave you in the first gust of wind, preferring to hang out with its friends on the beach, pollute the ocean and threaten marine life.

“Help protect our beaches and oceans. Don’t fall for the single-use plastic bag. Start a long-term relationship with a smarter alternative. Why not use reusable carry bags, totes or baskets? A solid alternative!”

Click on the following to see other videos featuring “seductive” plastics:

The United Nations has its own public-relations effort to battle single-use plastics. Called the Clean Seas Campaign, the project has enlisted the support of more than 50 countries throughout the world, many with specific commitments to reduce plastic pollution, according to a news release and webpage called “Tide-turners” about nations and private companies tackling the plastic problem. The United States is not listed among them.

In a UN video, a woman declares, “This relationship isn’t working; I’m breaking up with you.” But there’s a psychological problem looming over her conviction. In a new video, released last week in time for the holidays, the same woman confronts the problem of running into her “ex.” She learns that even with the best intentions it is not easy to get away from plastics in our modern world.

For more information about the European Union’s efforts to confront plastic pollution, take a look at my Water Ways post from yesterday.

European Union charges forward to reduce dangerous plastic litter

By 2021, the 28 countries in the European Union are expected to ban single-use plastics — including straws, plates, cutlery and drink stirrers, as well as plastic sticks for cotton swabs, balloons and candy.

The latest development, announced this past week, involves the approval of a provisional agreement by the European Parliament and Council of the European Union. Formal approval is expected next. The ban carries through on an initiative launched in May that also seeks to limit the use of plastic drink cups, food containers, grocery bags and candy wrappers. Review Water Ways, May 31,2018, or take a look at this EU brochure.

World production of plastic materials by region (2013). Click to enlarge // Source: European Union

Most plastic in Europe is landfilled or incinerated, rather than being recycled, which is a loss to the economy, according to EU documents contained in the European Strategy for Plastics. In the environment, many plastics take hundreds of years to break down, and the amount of plastic getting into the ocean has raised alarm bells throughout the world.

“When we have a situation where one year you can bring your fish home in a plastic bag, and the next year you are bringing that bag home in a fish, we have to work hard and work fast,” Karmenu Vella, EU commissioner for environment, maritime affairs and fisheries, said in a statement released Wednesday. “So I am happy that with the agreement of today between Parliament and Council. We have taken a big stride towards reducing the amount of single-use plastic items in our economy, our ocean and ultimately our bodies.”

“This agreement truly helps protect our people and our planet,” said First Vice-President Frans Timmermans, responsible for sustainable development. “Europeans are conscious that plastic waste is an enormous problem and the EU as a whole has shown true courage in addressing it, making us the global leader in tackling plastic marine litter.”

The measures are expected to reduce litter by more than half for the top-10 plastic litter items, saving 22 billion Euros (about $25 billion) by 2030 and avoiding 3.4 million metric tons (3.75 million U.S. tons) of carbon dioxide emissions by 2030, according to a fact sheet.

The United Nations has launched a campaign to reduce plastic pollution.
Source: UN

Peter Harris, a graduate of North Kitsap High School who is working on an environmental assessment for the United Nations, told me in June that plastics pollution is one of the three greatest problems facing the world’s oceans. The others are the bleaching of coral reefs caused by global warming and overfishing, which is driving some species to extinction. See Water Ways, June 6, 2018.

The European Union has carefully examined how plastics affect the ocean. EU countries should be recognized for their courage in tackling the problem in Europe, not waiting for a worldwide agreement before taking action. Non-European countries would be wise to consider their own plastic impacts on the environment.

So far, actions in the United States have been limited to a relatively small number of cities and counties, along with a few states. Because plastics wash downstream in stormwater and into rivers before reaching the ocean, every American has a role to play in the problem. Whether we address the challenges internationally, nationally or locally, everyone should take time to understand this serious issue, consider practical solutions and support actions that can save marine life before it’s too late.

Amusing Monday: Earth becomes art when viewed from satellites

Scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey have created an “Earth-as-Art” collection of brilliant images from space, as seen from Landsat satellites.

Icy Vortex // Image: USGS, Landsat program

Some pictures of Earth formations are reminiscent of actual paintings; some include familiar objects; and some are like abstract creations. Some show the actual colors of earth, sea and sky, while some of the colors are created with filters to highlight natural colors or even to capture light beyond the visible spectrum.

These images remind me of the LIDAR images created by the Washington Department of Natural Resources, which I called works of art in a blog post nearly a year ago. See Water Ways, Dec. 11, 2017. I included images of Puget Sound among some satellite photos posted previously. See Water Ways, Sept.11, 2017.

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Amusing Monday: To survive, penguins have adopted odd behaviors

One of the strangest animals on Earth is the emperor penguin, a bird that exhibits some remarkable behaviors to help it survive under the harshest conditions.

One might wish that the penguins would fly away to a warmer area when the frigid cold of winter strikes the Antarctic each year, but this bird doesn’t fly at all. Instead, groups of penguins huddle together on open ice during the long winters. They take turns moving into the middle of the group to escape the worst of the chill winds and to warm up just a little.

Females lay a single egg and quickly abandon it, leaving the males to care for the egg while the females go hunting. For up to two months, the males will balance the egg on their feet, keeping the egg warm in a feathery “brood pouch.” During this time, the males will eat nothing while the females travel many miles to the sea to gorge themselves on fish, squid and krill. When the females return, they are ready to feed their newborn chicks some of this partially digested food, while the males are free to go and find food for themselves.

While these unusual birds can’t fly, their skills under water are quite amazing — and amusing. Their unique physiology allows them to dive much deeper than any other water bird, stay under water for more than 20 minutes, and eventually zoom back to the surface at an incredible rate, as shown in the first video on this page.

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