April 10, 2006
Sturgeon's General Warning
Sounds as though salmon aren't the only Columbia River fish in trouble:
A team of researchers that examined 174 sturgeon caught by commercial and tribal fishermen found male and immature females tricked by chemicals into thinking they are full of estrogen, a female hormone with feminizing effects. Male fish tainted with a cocktail of compounds including mercury and a byproduct of the banned pesticide DDT showed depressed testosterone levels, which could keep them from maturing enough to spawn.
A few sturgeon even had bizarre combinations of male and female sexual organs. [Emphasis added.]
All I have to say to that is: eewww. If that doesn't serve as a wakeup call about gender-bending pollutants, I'm not sure what will.
April 05, 2006
A Frank Look at Chinook
For those of you following the lamentable state of the Klamath River fisheries, there's a first-rate op-ed in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer by Billy Frank Jr., chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. He writes:
We expect the PFMC to take the only action it can to protect the salmon: reduce harvest. After all, cutting harvest has been the major response to declining salmon runs for the past 20 years. We accept that burden year after year with the hope that some day habitat -- the Big H -- will be addressed with the same conviction that we have shown in reducing harvests.
We are not in this mess because of harvest. Our harvest management process works.
The upshot, as you can probably guess, is that the only way to ensure the salmon will persist in the Northwest is to address the thorny and issues that degrade salmon habitat. Without suitable habitat the salmon runs dry up and fishermen bear the economic brunt of decisions that were made literally and figuratively upstream from them. A fair approach would take a hard look at irrigation, dams, development, and all the other contentious problems that affect salmon habitat--"the big H." Or as Frank puts it:
Salmon recovery begins and ends with the Big H.
April 04, 2006
Tidepool Editor's Pick: Comeback for the Klamath?
Three strong and informative pieces on Oregon’s battered
Both the Oregonian and the San Francisco Chronicle frame their stories around the economic impacts of the Klamath situation: How the depleted and polluted river -- which the Chronicle says may be the West Coast’s sickest -- has offered up a record low of chinook this year, which could lead to a ban on fishing.
Last week, hundreds of fishermen from Santa Rosa, California to
The Washington Post approaches the story from a hopeful angle. "For the first time in the nearly eight decades since the river was dammed, Indians and commercial fishermen, environmentalists and federal fish scientists agree that there are sound reasons to believe in the comeback of a river that once supported the third largest salmon runs on the West Coast."
Amidst the fishing commotion, as the Post explains, two decisions came down from the federal government last week that bode well for the future of the Klamath and all who depend on it. In crisis lies opportunity, as it’s said.
Finally, an interesting bit of trivia about the Klamath:
In 2002, the Post reports, Karl Rove was instrumental in making sure the river irrigated drought-stricken crops, which led to low flows, which led to massive fish kills, disease and low spawning, which means less chinook for everyone now.
March 16, 2006
Sometimes Extinction is Forever
Remember that thing about the ivory-billed woodpecker -- alive in the swamps of Arkansas -- not extinct after all? Well, maybe not so much.
In a new article in the journal Science, renown bird expert David Allen Sibley says that the evidence is insufficient and that the famous video of the bird is actually the rather common pileated woodpecker. Sibley joins Kenn Kaufman and a number of other bird experts in his assessment. In the surprisingly fractious world of birders, I'm sure the debate is far from over, but I'm ready to conclude that the ivory-billed has gone the way of the dodo.
When I blogged about the rediscovery last spring, I quoted a NY Times article on the importance of bread-and-butter conservation. The author argued, "The reason for the astonishing re-emergence of a mysterious bird is as mundane as can be. It is habitat preservation, achieved by hard, tedious work, like lobbying, legislating and fund-raising."
That point is worth remembering. Habitat preservation is not usually the sexiest environmental work there is. There's no technological silver bullet that promises to save the day. And it's aligned against some of the most powerful forces of our times, like road-building and suburban sprawl. But when we don't do it -- when we don't put safety first in our land-use decisions -- we rob ourselves (and our children) of the natural beauty and diversity that we inherited.
March 15, 2006
Tides of March
Puget Sound restoration efforts got a big boost yesterday. The Nature Conservancy, The Trust for Public Lands, and People for Puget Sound formed a new alliance with funding from the Russell Family Foundation. Here's how the Seattle P-I describes the coalition:
Their goal is to raise $80 million in public and private funds in the first three years of the project, during which time their focus will be on shoreline restoration work and establishing 10 new parks and protected natural areas around the Sound. They also will develop a decadelong plan expected to cost billions aimed at a recovery of the Sound on the magnitude of projects to save Chesapeake Bay and Florida's Everglades.
The ecological problems facing Puget Sound are troublesome and complex--see, for example, this, this, this, and this--but we're now seeing precisely the kind of serious-minded efforts that can turn things around. And in addition to this new coalition, Washington residents are already fortunate to have the state's Puget Sound Action Team and Shared Strategy for Puget Sound. It's encouraging to see conservation and restoration work that's broadly appealing and well-organized. With this kind of intelligent and careful stewardship, Puget Sound can be restored to a flourishing marine ecosystem--a reminder that the region's natural heritage can thrive alongside many more generations of northwesterners.
March 10, 2006
March 09, 2006
New wolf numbers released this afternoon from US Fish and Wildlife: Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming now host an estimated 1,020 wolves, a stunning 21 percent increase in just a single year. Since reintroduction in the mid-1990s, gray wolf numbers have grown at an astonishing pace, faster even than the most optimistic prognostications. Idaho continues to shelter more wolves than any other state in the West with about half the total. The rest are split almost evenly between Montana and Wyoming.
In recent months, nearly every day seems to bring new rumors of federal de-listing, an action that would leave gray wolves in a much more precarious position. Idaho officials, for example, have already stated their intent to kill wolves that are preying on elk.
The sheer absurdity of Idaho's position is almost mind-boggling. Wolves are already killed for attacking livestock--but elk, on the other hand, are the wolves' natural prey. In any case, credible biological studies actually show a negligible reduction in elk numbers that can be attributed to wolf predation. Until wolves become vegetarian, they're not likely to have many friends in state government. In the meantime, their best chance lies in establishing a large and sustainable population that can weather squalls of bad policy.
Ironically, the best ally of the wolves at the moment may be anti-wolf forces in Wyoming. State officials there have so far refused to draw up a recovery plan for wolves that doesn't allow unregulated killing outside of Yellowstone National Park (where, incidentally, the wolves draw millions of dollars in tourist revenue). Until Wyoming has a suitable recovery plan--as Idaho and Montana already do--the federal government will likely not de-list wolves. And with each year bringing double-digit population growth, gray wolves just need time to keep their numbers booming.
UPDATE 3/10/06: Article in today's New York Times that details some of the issues around de-listing, including the desire of ranchers to have unregulated wolf killing, including aerial killing.
March 06, 2006
Searching for Salmon in the Wrong Places
OK, let’s consider just how absurd this predicament is. People are terrestrial creatures. We like to eat salmon, which spend most of their lives in the ocean. Fortunately, salmon have a habit -- nay, an instinct -- of returning to fresh water to spawn. They do this every year. Used to be, people would wait for them in rivers and estuaries, and catch them there, close to home.
But then -- perhaps to jump the queue and get ahead of the crowd unfurling its nets in rivers and bays -- some fishermen started to troll for salmon in the offshore waters. The salmon still had every intention of swimming into our rivers where they are easier to catch. But instead, trollers began baiting their gear and enticing salmon to take their hooks at sea.
As long as salmon runs are abundant, this impatient practice can be written off as one of those idiosyncrasies of our species, yet another method we have devised to needlessly burn diesel fuel. "Technology is needed not to beat the fish, but to beat other fishermen," wrote Richard Manning in Salmon Nation. "The fish would still come back... if we would wait."
But when certain stocks of salmon start to weaken, this reliance on ocean trolling shows its weakness as well. This week, the Pacific Fishery Management Council is weighing its options in the face of a predicted low run of Klamath River chinook. Biologists estimate that 29,000 salmon would make it to the mouth of the Klamath in the absence of any fishing -- already well below the 35,000 minimum that fisheries managers have set as an annual goal to reach the spawning grounds.
At sea, those scarce Klamath-bound fish mingle with other chinook headed for rivers with more abundant runs -- such as the Sacramento, where runs have rebuilt over the last decade. Regulators fear that trollers would hook Klamath fish among their catch, a chinook that would be indistinguishable on deck from a fish headed for the Sacramento, Eel, or Rogue river.
So the council is entertaining a proposal to nix this year’s salmon fishing season along 700 miles of coastline, from Point Sur, near Monterey, California, north into Oregon. Their dilemma has set off a round of finger-pointing, with trollers blaming water diversions from the Klamath for the salmon’s woes on that river, and hence for the possible closure of the fishery. No doubt, in the long term, the water regime on the Klamath needs to change.
But in the meantime, maybe we should change how we fish. Ocean trolling is inherently indiscriminate. As long as some salmon populations are less robust than others, either some stocks will be overfished or many will go under-caught. Instead, if fishing boats sought salmon at the mouths of the rivers they’re returning to, there’d be a much smaller risk of catching a fish from any other run. In California, commercial fishing inside the Golden Gate, at the mouth of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River, has been illegal since 1957. The present situation might offer a reason to move forward by turning back the clock half a century.
March 03, 2006
Here's an interesting solution to a problem I blogged about a few weeks ago: states like Oregon are losing money to fund wildlife biology and habitat management. Traditionally, these activities have been funded by various hunting and fishing fees; and as the rod and gun sports have waned in popularity their revenue has dried up too. That leaves states less able to pursue wildlife and biological research--not to mention basic land and water conservation--which are hugely important for protecting natural resources.
The solution, in Oregon at least, is to allow tax payers to check a box on their state income tax forms and then make a tax-deductible contribution to non-game wildlife conservation. As far as I can tell from the Oregonian article, the contribution is above and beyond whatever taxes an individual owes. Still, it seems like a good way to encourage wildlife aficionados to make a voluntary contribution to Oregon's natural heritage. This sort of revenue-generation must certainly be more popular than access fees like parking at USFS trailheads and state parks--fees that have proved less than popular in the Northwest.
I'm intrigued by this idea, partly because the revenue is important and partly because it shifts the funding away from hunting and fishing and toward wildlife watching. I imagine the funding shift will also be reflected in the research and conservation priorities that the money pays for. Too bad it can't happen in Washington (because there's no state income tax and hence no form with a handy box to check).
Anyone else know of similar stuff happening elsewhere?
UPDATE: And by the Oregonian, of course, I meant the Salem Statesman-Journal. Of course. Here's the article. (Thanks, Grace.)
February 23, 2006
The Whales Among Us
The long term outlook for Puget Sound's resident orcas depends in part on the health of the Columbia Chinook salmon, which are themselves struggling because of the four dams on the Lower Snake River. In a word: To save the whales, we may need to first save the salmon. Saving the salmon may mean tearing out the dams. And tearing out the dams would mean bridging a nasty political divide in the Northwest.
Few issues in regional conservation raise tensions faster than talk of breaching those dams. But if we are to protect the Sound's orcas, the subject will have to be revisited. Again. And writer David Neiwert does so in an exceptionally nuanced article in the Seattle Weekly. He points out, rightly, that we simply don't know as much as we should about the resident orcas, especially about their wintertime travels and diet. We need more scientific research in a hurry. And if the best evidence is right--that Columbia Chinook are a necessary component of orca recovery--we'll also need some skillful politicking because either the whales will continue to face insufficient food or the dams will have to come down. As Neiwert casts the issue, we'll have to bridge the cultural and political divide between Puget Sound urbanites, who love the whales, and rural inland northwesterners who want the dams in place.
It's tragic, in a sense, that the fate of the orcas may rest on political machinations. The southern resident orcas, perhaps even more than the salmon, are an emblem of the ways that ecosystems and wild creatures are not just local phenomena. They rely on the integrity of whole landscapes with all their biological complexity, even though those landscapes are sometimes overlaid by a fragmented and poisonous political system.
At the very end of the article, Neiwert touches on what I think may be the key. The policies to protect orcas--cleaning up toxics, easing sprawl, restoring fisheries--have other effects too. Namely, they're pretty good for people. So in the face of staunch political opposition, maybe it's time for conservationists to try another tactic: showing that the policies in the best interest of orcas are also in the best interest of people.
If that sounds woefully anthropocentric to you, well, I agree that it is. But consider why the orcas get so much attention: it's at least in part because they exhibit signs of intelligence, even appearing to mimic certain human behaviors such as family life. The Western Grebes and geoducks of Puget Sound are struggling too, but they don't get nearly the conservation resources because they're simply not as charismatic. We're eager to protect the orcas at least in part because they remind us of ourselves.
Whether or not that's a bad thing is a subject for another (and longer) post, but it's useful to remember that, in a metaphysical sense, protecting the orcas is also partly about protecting ourselves. And in a practical sense, we inhabit the very same ecosystems as the orcas. So a Northwest with natural systems resilient enough to support a flourishing orca population is likely to be one that supports a flourishing human population too.