How Ocean Health is Improving During the Pandemic

Posted Posted in Wildlife

By Maya Chastang, an eighth grade student at Summit Middle School in Boulder, Colorado

In the midst of a global pandemic, it’s hard to see how any good can come from this tragedy. However, because people are traveling and polluting less, the environment is getting a well-deserved break. 

I’ve been seeing a lot of posts on social media lately, reporting wild goats wandering down from the hills in Wales and into people’s yards, and drastically clearer skies in Los Angeles. I wanted to look deeper into how the ocean is reacting to this slowing of human activity, and see if this gives us insight as to how we can restore our ocean to health. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has put life as we know it on hold. Flights have been canceled and many people are working from home instead of driving their cars to work. The result is that a lot less carbon dioxide (CO2 ) is being put into the atmosphere. According to the airline company Blue Sky, the average plane produces more than 53 pounds of carbon dioxide per mile. Now that very few people are traveling in planes, think of how much less CO2 is being emitted.

You may be wondering, how does a decreased amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere affect the ocean? Well, due to the ocean carbon cycle, when there is less CO2 in the atmosphere, less CO2 is sucked into the ocean. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the ocean holds fifty times more carbon than the atmosphere. When fossil fuels are burned, carbon is released, and much of those fossil fuels end up in the ocean. This makes the ocean’s pH (how acidic the water is) and temperature rise, and causes a process called ocean acidification. Ocean acidification makes it more difficult for certain animals such as corals and mollusks to build their shells, and is a threat to most marine species. 

The first photograph was taken in November last year. The second was taken on March 30, 2020. Credit: CNN

Because less fossil fuels are being burned right now, air pollution is going down. For example, according to Lauri Myllyvirta, a scientist at the Helsinki-based Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, in India, one of the countries with the most polluted air on earth, people who have never been able to see the Himalayas from their houses can see them clearly. According to National Geographic, the amount of nitrogen dioxide (a harmful gas produced by burning fossil fuels) in the air in India has been reduced by over seventy percent.

This phenomenon is not only happening in India. In Los Angeles, nitrogen dioxide levels have decreased by 33 percent. In New York, they have fallen by 22 percent. In the Northeast U.S., NASA estimated that the nitrogen dioxide levels in the air have dropped by thirty percent. The speed at which air pollution is plummeting during the pandemic may give us insight into how dramatic reductions in pollution are possible in the future. 

Leatherbacks crawling to the sea. Photo credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southeast Region

In Thailand, International flights have been canceled and citizens are being encouraged to stay home. Beaches that were once crowded with tourists are deserted. Since November, scientists in Thailand have found eleven leatherback turtle clutches. According to Kongkiat Kittiwatanawong, the director of the Phuket Marine Biological Center, this is the most clutches reported in twenty years. Leatherbacks are the largest species of turtle and can sometimes grow to seven feet long. They live up to 45 years in the wild, and though they are thought to occupy the widest range of habitat of any reptile (they live in every ocean except the Arctic and the Antarctic), the leatherback population has been decreasing in recent years, especially in the Pacific where Thailand is located. The main threats to leatherback turtles include bycatch (the accidental fishing of marine wildlife not intended to be caught), disruption of clutches, and unintentional consumption of plastic. The leatherback turtles’ main food source is jellyfish, which can appear a lot like plastic bags floating in the ocean. When sea animals eat plastic, it harms their digestive systems, and over time, if they consume enough, it eventually kills them. 

Beaches in Thailand aren’t the only ones seeing a sudden increase in leatherback turtle clutches. In Florida on Juno Beach, scientists have already counted 76 clutches of eggs since the start of the nesting season, a drastic increase from last year. 

Clearly, the sudden increase of leatherback turtle clutches is very welcome news. Though one larger generation of leatherbacks won’t necessarily make much of a difference in the long run, this shows us that closing certain beaches, even for a short amount of time, may help restore the leatherback population.

Although the viral pictures of dolphins swimming in Venice canals have been debunked, the absence of boats in the canals has been leading to clearer water, revealing schools of fish and other marine life. According to Matteo Bisol, a Venice restaurant owner and environmental activist, “[I]t is not surprising there are fish in the canals of Venice. If there were not, then we should all be worried, as the lagoon here is a fragile ecosystem. People need to realise that if we control and cut down boat traffic in Venice and its lagoon then we could all discover a unique biosphere.”

Fewer boats in the water benefit more than fish in the Venice canals. Though scientists don’t have conclusive results yet, it is thought that the decrease in underwater noise pollution may benefit whale populations. Researchers do know that when there is more noise from sea vessels, whales off the coast of Alaska tend to call and communicate less. Michelle Fournet, a marine acoustician, told the Guardian, “[W]hat we might see is an opportunity for whales to have more conversation and to have more complex conversation.”

Photo credit: Whit Welles

Humpback whales and their calves in Hawaii are also enjoying the absence of boats. On March 20, the state Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation banned all boats from sailing around the island. This includes whale watching cruises and fishermen, the main disturbances to the whales. According to Marc Lammers, a research coordinator for the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, “Not having humans either trying to view them or, in some cases, interact with them will be a huge benefit for the mother, whose priority is to protect and nurse her calf so it can be strong enough to make the trip to Alaska. It allows her to conserve her energy and transfer that energy to her calf in peace, without having to respond to stand-up paddlers and five or six boats approaching at a time.”

On April second, a humpback whale and her calf were spotted close to the beach in Lahaina Small Boat Harbor. It is uncommon behavior for humpbacks to venture so close to shore, and scientists wonder what other changes in whale behaviors we might see if boating bans remain in place. 

Of course I don’t mean to make light of the awful situation the pandemic has put us in, but these temporary positive improvements among marine life are giving us insight about how to heal our polluted Earth. I expect the pollution levels to rise and leatherback turtle populations to fall again after quarantines are lifted if we don’t make changes from how we were living before. If we were able to create and enforce bans on boating in certain parts of the ocean, we may see whale and other marine populations thriving once more. If we limited the burning of fossil fuels, ocean acidification would decrease. These changes wouldn’t solve all the problems our ocean faces, but they would help a great deal. It took a global pandemic to slow our consumption of fossil fuels and to clear up the water in the Venice canals. If only we could institute some of these changes for a long period of time, our Earth might one day become as clean as it once was. 

Maya Chastang is an eighth grade student at Summit Middle School in Boulder, Colorado. She is passionate about marine biology and ocean conservation. She enjoys writing, reading, playing volleyball, basketball, and the piano.

The Meaning of Salmon

Posted 2 CommentsPosted in Advocacy, Clean Water, Watersheds, Wildlife

By Stephen C. Curro, Inland Ocean Coalition Volunteer

Say the word “salmon” and different people think of different things. To foodies, salmon is a tasty meal rich in omega-3s. To anglers, it’s a gorgeous fish to fool on a line. To Native Americans and First Nations Peoples, it’s an important part of their culture and the web of life itself. To naturalists and adventure seekers, it’s a symbol of the wild.

Salmon are remarkable creatures. Depending on the species, they can be over three feet in length and weigh around thirty pounds. They feed on zooplankton when they’re young and seek out smaller fish as they grow. They live most of their lives in cold Atlantic and Pacific waters and swim upstream into rivers to spawn. During these salmon runs they leap up waterfalls and brave hazards like grizzly bears just so they can give the next generation a chance to taste the open ocean.

In the spawning season, and indeed other seasons, salmon are a critical food source for bears, eagles and a number of other terrestrial and marine animals. Salmon are even responsible for contributing nutrients to riparian ecosystems when they travel upstream. When predators eat salmon, they disperse nitrogen and phosphorus into surrounding lakes and foliage, increasing plant growth by up to three times the normal rate! By nourishing predatory animals, salmon help to nourish the entire riparian ecosystem.

But it’s not just the animals that benefit from the salmon. During these salmon runs, billions of dollars are generated and thousands of jobs are supported through fishing, angling and ecotourism. Commercial fishing greatly benefits from the bounty of salmon stocks, supplying the filets to your own supermarket. Many indigenous tribes have depended on salmon as a primary source of food for thousands of years.   When one considers these facts, it should be apparent why salmon are considered a keystone species; a linchpin that holds an entire ecosystem together.

Companies and politicians that want to exploit mineral resources in the far north—namely Northern Dynasty’s proposed Pebble Mine in Bristol Bay, Alaska—seem to fail to understand why people are resistant to their plans. It’s true; such a mine would yield billions of dollars and provide jobs. But such development is only skin-deep. In time the coveted gold and copper will run out and the jobs they supported will end. What will be left is a scar in the land and a torrent of toxic runoff dumped into the surrounding waters.

If allowed, Northern Dynasties will dig a hole 4,000 feet deep. To contain toxic runoff, the company will construct a tailings dam three miles long and 740 feet high. That’s larger than the Hoover Dam! All of this will happen in the heart of salmon country. The size and scope of this operation will place the surrounding waters at risk of contamination from 10 billion tons of toxic waste rock. Once dug and abandoned, the gold and copper mines will need constant maintenance just to keep the runoff in check, and not all of it will be caught. The contamination will be even worse if an earthquake strikes the region or the tailings dam breaches.

All five species of salmon, including the coveted sockeye salmon, are found in abundance in the Bristol Bay area. These are not just blip populations; we are talking over 50% of the known fishery. Unnecessary mining in the area will devastate this concentration of salmon, and as a result cripple the global population. That would be a severe blow to ecotourism, angling and commercial fishing. Worse yet, it would disrespect and damage the cultures of native peoples who revere salmon, who depend on salmon for physical and spiritual sustenance. It would strain animal populations that all depend on salmon for food, on the land and in the sea, and fracture the web of life in ways we cannot yet predict. Such a breakdown would further impact food stocks, further impact culture and tourism, and so on. These are consequences that will outlive any mine by far, consequences that cannot be easily reversed, if at all.

So what is the lesser of two evils? Choosing to not exploit viable mining, or sacrificing a critical natural resource that in all likelihood cannot be replenished?

How should America regard salmon? A food source? A draw for tourism? A facet of indigenous culture?

The answer is all of the above, and that’s a treasure worth more than precious metals.

The Army Corps of Engineers plans to release the draft Environmental Impact Statement on or before the 22nd of February and there will be a 90 day public comment period. Stay tuned for how to make your voice heard on this critical issue. 

What’s the Fishue with Orca Whales?

Posted Leave a commentPosted in Advocacy, Clean Water, Policy, Wildlife

By Taylor Shedd, Inland Ocean Coalition Policy Manager

Some of you may know that June is orca awareness month. Few of you may know that there is a unique population of orca whales that live in the Pacific Northwest called the Southern Residents that are critically endangered. Even fewer of you may know that I, Taylor, am the Inland Ocean Coalition’s newest staff member serving as our Ocean Policy Manager. I am also an orca whale researcher in Washington state and am the Program Coordinator for the Soundwatch Program at The Whale Museum in Friday Harbor. Soundwatch is on-the-water education and research that mitigates risk and disturbance away from the Southern Residents in the heavily trafficked Salish Sea. If some of this is starting to sound familiar to you, it may be due to this whale, and this photo.

This is a photo of J-35 ‘Tahlequah’ who carried her deceased calf for 17 days last summer. I actually took this photo and monitored J-35 for 12 days over 1,000 nautical miles (5 days the whales were out in open ocean). This photo made it around the world and back again, and brought attention to the plight of the Southern Resident orca whales. However, this is not a new story.

The Southern Residents are estimated to have numbered around 200 individuals pre-exploitation. In the 1960s, the possibility of holding orca whales in captivity to make a profit was realized with the successful capture and care of Namu in Biritish Columbia, then housed on the Seattle waterfront. Namu did not survive for long, and the search for a replacement quickly lead us to the Southern Residents. Around this time researchers had just figured out how to identify individual orca whales, and realized that pods are made up of strong family and social bonds. In 1972, the last live capture of orca whales in the United States took place in Penn Cove in Washington where 47 Southern Residents were removed from the populations. Five did not survive the capture, and the rest were sent around the world to theme parks. The whales returned to the wild were mostly older individuals and males, since young females were targeted by theme parks for their reproduction potential. In 1975, there were only 71 Southern Residents left in the wild. Today there are 76.

In the late 90s there was an increase to 98 individuals in the population, but since then there has been a steady decline in the Southern Resident population. This decline lead to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration listing the Southern Residents as a distinct endangered population under the Endangered Species Act. In this listing, three main threats to the populations where listed as vessel disturbance, prey availability, and contamination. 

Great efforts have gone into reducing these risks to the whales with the most recent rendition being taken by Washington state Governor Jay Inslee. In March 2018, Inslee signed an executive order creating an Orca Recovery Task Force that would produce legislation to further aid in the recovery of the Southern Residents in a years time. Last summer was a difficult time for the whales and we had three high profile losses in the population: J-35’s calf (unnamed), J-50 ‘Scarlet’, and L-92 ‘Crewser’. A year has passed, so what’s changed? Four bills passed through the state legislature that came from the Task Force. Most of these changes focus on vessel disturbance, increasing approach distance by vessels from 200 to 300 yards, introducing a speed limit of 7 knots within a half mile of whales, and including Be Whale Wise information into state boater testing. 

Other bills targeted habitat restoration for salmon and forage fish, and increasing hatchery production in an effort to provide more prey for the Southern Residents. The Task Force is set to meet again in 2019 to establish longer term recovery efforts for the Southern Residents.

If you’d like to learn more about the Southern Residents, or be a part of the naming process for the two new calves, visit The Whale Museum’s website. If you are in the area and would like to volunteer for Soundwatch you can find information there as well. For those who would just like to help the whales there are many things you can do. Being informed and educated is a great first step, and even if you do not live in the Pacific Northwest there are things you can do everyday to help these whales. Being eco-friendly and using less single-use plastic benefits that environment as a whole. Purchasing truly sustainable seafood is a great way to reduce bycatch and impacts to the ecosystem. Being a part of the Inland Ocean Coalition, helping to educate your community and representatives, and sharing your voice can make the biggest difference. We’re excited to share our passion with you, and hope you share yours with us, so we can best protect all that we love.