Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Deep Sea

This weekend, in the lead-up to World Oceans Day, we will be showing "Deep Blue" at the Pioneer Theatre in Port McNeill. This movie is a compilation of the best clips from BBC's "Blue Planet" and is incredibly worth your while, if you're in the area.

I've shown this film up in Haida Gwaii, so I've had the chance to see it more than once. No matter how many times I watch it, I continue to be mesmerized from start to finish. While the killer whale seal-hunting scene tends to be the crowd favorite, I always look forward to the scenes from the deep sea. More people have walked on the moon than have seen the oceans deepest floor. Home to some of the strangest looking animals as well as some of the most beautiful, the deep sea really is a world of its own. My favorite deep sea creatures are the colorful deep sea jellies.

My fascination with the deep sea makes it even more exciting that our very own Jennifer Lash will be diving in search of deep sea corals in less than two weeks' time. Hopefully, in addition to finding coral, Jennifer (in photo, taken at sub training earlier this month) will get to see firsthand the deep sea creatures that most of us can only marvel at in a BBC documentary. Do I sound jealous? Of course I am.

Kind of.

Until I think about the feeling of utter claustrophobia that I would get, going down to a place so deep that not a speck of natural light penetrates...
Alone and confined inside a one-man submersible submarine...
Would it be worth it to see my beloved jellies? Yeah, probably.
Would it be scary as hell? Absolutely.

For now, I'll wait for Jennifer to get home and tell us all about her adventure before I decide to add deep sea diving to my bucket list. Until then, join me at the Pioneer Theatre this weekend, and we can all marvel at the wonders of the ocean together.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Kayaking Around Vancouver Island

Photo: Phil Magistro/Apryle Craig

I read in the news today that a British Columbia man is having an interesting kayak adventure this summer. Nick Castro will be attempting to break a kayaking record by circumnavigating Vancouver Island in less than 17 days. This would mean that Castro would have to cover at least 80 kilometers each day to reach his goal. Castro plans to start his trip on June 13th from Port Hardy. From Port Hardy, he'll head to the west coast before reaching Victoria and heading back North.

Good Luck!

We have our own ties to a kayaking adventure this summer: we are delighted that Phil and Apryle of the Go Wild Kayak Expedition will be stopping by Sointula to visit us on their way from Seattle to Alaska. I can't wait to see their pictures and hear their stories at our June 6th World Oceans Day Festival. What's more, Phil and Apryle are supporting our salmon farming campaign by helping to spread our message up the coast, and by designating their supporters' donations for the LOS Salmon Farm Campaign.

Photo: Phil Magistro/Apryle Craig

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Robson Bight Salvage - Mission Accomplished!

The term "Mission Accomplished" has achieved such a tawdry reputation in recent times that one has to be hesitant about using it. However, occasionally it is appropriate, and well deserved. We are happy to report that such is the case for the Robson Bight salvage operation. By 3pm today, the tanker truck laden with 10,000 litres of toxic diesel fuel had been lifted from the murky depths below Robson Bight and safely deposited on the attendant operations barge. The threat is no more. finis. mission accomplished!

The previous two days had been spent waiting, at times with great hope, and at times with frustration and real worry. Sunday morning was spent deploying and testing the great yellow metal box within which the tanker truck was to be housed during its journey to the surface. Everything went well, and both crew and officials were reportedly very pleased with the progress that had been made. The scene was set for the final lift, but the weather forecast was poor, and a decision was made to postpone it to the following day.

Almost coincidental with the decision to postpone the final lift, a maneuver to adjust the orientation of the fuel tanker and lift its wheels out of the muck was announced. Over the radio being used for communications between the operations team, the exchange went something like "we're not going to lift the truck today, but we're going to move it". To listeners worried about the possibly fragile state of the tanker after being unseen for nearly 2 years, the laconic remark came as a shock, provoking immediate recall of the "we're going to stir the tanks" comment that headed the Apollo 13 moon mission into disaster and heroism.

As things turned out, the currents 350m below Robson Bight were too strong to allow the maneuver on Sunday, so it was accomplished on Monday morning. The reports at first were that everything had gone well, and the tanker truck was now sitting in perfect position for the lift. Then, in the space of a moment, everything changed. The calm scene on the operations barge became suddenly energetic as numerous people rushed around tossing pieces and then bales of absorbent cloth into the water, and the little oil spill cleanup contingency operation swung into high gear, with booms being dragged between pairs of vessels that moved back & forth through the area around the operations barge. It was obvious that something unexpected had happened, and that an oil spill cleanup operation was underway. A couple of hours later, after an ROV inspection of the tanker truck, and no visible sign of a spreading oil spill, it was concluded that what had happened was a "burp" from the tanker as it was moved, and not a breach of its shell. As darkness fell, the prospect of disaster had diminished, and (most of) the crew slept well.

Tuesday morning dawned perfectly, with a flat ocean and a hint of sunshine to come. The crew went to work immediately, and by 9am the great yellow metal box intended to house the tanker and contain a spill of diesel if this happened on the way to the surface, was already below water. Several hours followed during which the ROV positioned the box around the tanker and secured it inside. A little before 1pm, the lift began, accompanied by radio borne expressions like "up easy", "stop" "all stop" "easy" "a little faster", until around 1:40pm the lift was stopped and divers entered the water for a close inspection of the box and tanker. The inspection completed,
apparently without any sign of trouble, the lift continued; a few minutes later the yellow roof of the box at last came into view. It took a full half hour of additional inspection and maneuvering before the decision was made to lift the box onto the deck of the attendant barge. By 3pm the great yellow box and its deadly cargo was secure on the barge. Not a drop of diesel had entered the water. danger averted, mission complete.

Everyone involved in this saga deserves sincere thanks, congratulations, and applause. It's a long list. We especially wish to acknowledge the tireless energy of the NGOs, led by Soinula's
Living Oceans Society and the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, who convinced governments to act. The Namgis First Nation, Village of Alert Bay and Mount Waddington Regional District added persuasive voices. Once the decision had been made, the practical focus of British Columbia's Ministry of Environment, led by Randy Alexander, got the salvage effort underway. The Dutch company Mammoet Salvage, along with its Seattle partner Global Diving, performed their roles splendidly.

A couple of final whale notes: On Sunday, a group of transient orcas headed west in Johnstone Strait, passing just outside the salvage scene. They turned out to be the T18s, the same group of orcas that had been sighted nearby on August 20th 2007, the exact date of the barge accident in Robson Bight. And yesterday, amidst the anxiety of the salvage operation, a report came in of an entangled humpback whale in a nearby inlet. Crews from DFO and Straitwatch immediately headed to the scene, and found a young humpback, perhaps 2 years old, seriously entangled in more than a dozen trap lines. Eventually, and very carefully, the lines were cut and the whale swam free. What a day that was, and what a week this has been!

Dr. Paul Spong is the founder of Orcalab,
a small land based whale research station nestled against the evergreen forest of Hanson Island in the waters of the "Inside Passage" of northern Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada. He was present as an observer at the Robson Bight clean up this weekend.

Photo Credit: Ministry of Environment

Genetically Modified Atlantic Salmon. Spooky.

Aqua Bounty Technologies has created an Atlantic salmon whose genetic properties have been crossed with those of an eel-like creature called ocean pout. This genetically modified fish reaches market size twice as fast as regular Atlantic salmon; and while Aqua Bounty is not currently seeking approval to sell this fish in Canada, its quest for USA FDA approval is likely to have an impact on American trading partners.*

Graph Source:

If this fish is approved for market, it would be a landmark decision, as there are currently no genetically engineered animals approved for food anywhere in the world. What do you think about this new AquAdvantage Fish? Would you eat it if it came to the market in Canada? If wild fish stocks continue to decline, are genetically engineered fish just the inevitable way of the future?

*Read more about the implications of this fish on Canadian markets in the May 20th Globe and Mail.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Ecosystem Based Management

Ecosystem-based management is an environmental management approach that recognizes the many interactions within an ecosystem, including humans, rather than considering single issues, species, or ecosystem services in isolation. (Christensen et al. 1996, McLeod et al. 2005)

EBM was initially applied to terrestrial space; but in recent years, there has been increased interest in EBM for management of marine space as well. If you are just learning about EBM, you might be able to benefit from the EBM Roadmap tool, developed by the Ecosystem Based Management Tools Network.

This Roadmap provides information that will help to answer questions about what it really means to take an ecosystem-based management (EBM) approach; how your organization can help move EBM from concept to implementation; and how you can contribute to EBM as part of your work. The website also offers opportunities for further reading, if you just can't get enough of EBM.

Christensen, N. L., A. Bartuska, J. H. Brown, S. Carpenter, C. D'Antonio, R. Francis, J. F. Franklin, J. A. MacMahon, R. F. Noss, D. J. Parsons, C. H. Peterson, M. G. Turner, and R. G. Moodmansee. 1996. The report of the Ecological Society of America Committee on the scientific basis for ecosystem management. Ecological Applications. 6:665-691

McLeod, K. L., J. Lubchenco, S. R. Palumbi, and A. A. Rosenberg. 2005. Scientific Consensus Statement on Marine Ecosystem-Based Management. Signed by 221 academic scientists and policy experts with relevant expertise and published by the Communication Partnership for Science and the Sea

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Clean Up Starts in Robson Bight

Footage of the wreckage in Robson Bight

The Robson Bight clean up effort to recover a fully laden fuel truck and a container of hydraulic oil barrels starts this month, almost two years after a barge tipped 11 pieces of equipment in this important ecological reserve. The equipment that spilled into the water contained an estimated 19,000 litres of petroleum.

It is unfortunate that only select pieces of equipment will be recovered: "the provincial and federal governments have decided, mainly because of cost, that the rest of the equipment, including vehicles, log loaders, a grappleyarder, bulldozer and ambulance, will be left on the bottom of the ocean."1

The federal and provincial government are sharing the costs of the clean up operation, which is estimated at about $2.5 million.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Giant Blue Whales are Back on the West Coast!

The first known migration of giant blue whales from the coast of California to areas off British Columbia and the Gulf of Alaska since commercial whaling ended in 1965 has been documented by marine mammal scientists.

A blue whale spouts off Moresby Island, British Columbia. Photo by: John Calambokidis, Cascadia Research Collective.

In all the years that I have been, “messing about in boats,” from the Gulf Islands to Alaska, I have seen most of the marine mammals that frequent our coast, including close encounters(not intentionally!) with grey whales, humpbacks and orcas, but I've never seen a blue whale.

Researchers from Cascadia Research Collective in Washington, NOAA's Southwest Fisheries Science Center in California, and Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans used the blue whale’s distinctive pigmentation patterns of their skin color and the shape of the dorsal fin to positively match individuals seen in the north Pacific with those off of California.

Researchers identified individual blue whales by the shapes of their small dorsal fins. (Photo by John Calambokidis courtesy Cascadia Research Collective)

Reaching lengths of nearly 100 feet, the blue whale is the largest animal on Earth today and the largest known to have ever existed.

They were nearly hunted to extinction throughout the world and are currently listed as endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, the Canadian Species at Risk Act, and on the authoritative IUCN Red List.

During the early 1900s in the North Pacific and along the West Coast as far south as Baja California, blue whales were nearly wiped out during commercial whaling activities. Because they were the largest whales, blue whales were a prime target for whalers.

John Calambokidis of the Cascadia Research Collective, who has a long history of blue whale research, said of this study, "We document 15 blue whale sightings off British Columbia and in the Gulf of Alaska made since 1997, and use identification photographs to show that whales in these areas are currently part of the California feeding population."

The scientists are still not certain why blue whales are now beginning to migrate from southern California to the North Pacific Ocean, although changing ocean conditions may have shifted their primary food source of krill further north.

Living between 70 and 80 years, blue whales reproduce every two or three years. There are an estimated 5,000 to 12,000 animals surviving today, with the largest population of approximately 2,000 off the U.S. West Coast.

Click here to view the research paper, "Insights into the population structure of blue whales in the Eastern North Pacific from recent sightings and photographic identification."

On a similar note click here to see one of the first underwater videos of a blue whale calf in the waters off Puerto Rico.

Robotic Fish to Study Pollution

Click here to watch a video of a robotic fish that has been developed to monitor water pollution. This WiFi and GPS-equipped fish can integrate and swim with schools of real fish.
Lets hope that if this fish swims in the open ocean, it will be able to avoid predators, as I am sure technology like this doesn't come cheap!

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

So, Vern, Whatever Happened to those Rivers Inlet Sockeye

I moved from Rivers Inlet to Sointula in 1993 and even today I’m often stopped on the dock or at the Co-op store where someone invariably asks me, “So what happened to the Rivers Inlet (or Smith Inlet) sockeye, Vern?” This always leads to an interesting discussion as to the cause of the collapse of one of the largest sockeye runs on the B.C. coast. The fishing heritage of Sointula has been involved with the salmon runs in Rivers Inlet for generations, just as the Wuikinuxv people have relied on the sockeye arriving literally at the door step of their longhouses for some nine thousand years.

Since 1996 there have been only thousands of sockeye returning instead of hundreds of thousands.,-127.32588&z=10&t=h&hl=en

The link above will get you to a Google image of Rivers Inlet and the foot of Owikeno Lake.

A number of causes for the decline of sockeye salmon in this seemingly pristine fjord have been put forward. Overfishing, logging around the larger spawning streams in Owikeno Lake and varying ocean conditions due to changes in climate might have all played a role in causing the stock to collapse. What is even more alarming is that after the complete closure of the sockeye commercial fishery in 1995 the stock failed to rebuild.

Most of the commercial salmon fishermen that I’ve spoken with have not been up to Rivers Inlet for over a decade now and have often asked if anything is being done to determine the cause of the collapse of a once very productive fishery.

There are people working diligently in Rivers and Smiths to try and figure out why the sockeye returns have declined so precipitously.

The Rivers and Smith Salmon Ecosystems Planning Society was formed to bring together different parties and interests to pursue the common goal of stewardship for salmon and their ecosystems.

Recent studies by Rick Routledge and his team of graduate students from SFU along with members of the Wuikinuxv and Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw Nations are trying to figure out through a combination of traditional knowledge and science why the salmon have all-but-disappeared from this region. Their studies have focused on early marine survival of sockeye. Evidence so far seems to indicate increased mortality in the early marine phase of the sockeye life cycle as one of the reasons for the decline of the Rivers Inlet sockeye population.

It’s all a matter of timing.

When Owikeno Lake sockeye smolts, which are usually about half the size/weight of other nursery lake smolts, emigrate downstream to the inlet it is critical for them to grow quickly before heading out to the open ocean. If they are lucky, when they emerge from the Wannock River they will encounter a bloom of zooplankton (in turn fed by a phytoplankton bloom) comprised of mussel and barnacle larvae and other tiny crustaceans. However, if there has been heavy fresh water discharge from the Wannock resulting in an extensive layer of nutrient-poor, sometimes glacially turbid lake water covering much of the inlet, then the smolts will be under fed and under size by the time they migrate to the open ocean.

To substantiate and extend these preliminary findings, the current ecosystem will have a focus on understanding the driving forces of spring-summer plankton productivity.

Further studies on the whole Owikeno Lake/Rivers Inlet ecosystem are planned and valuable financial assistance has been provided by the Tula Foundation.

For most people, the enduring mystery of salmon is their epic struggle upriver as they fight to spawn and continue the life cycle. But for those who study salmon in the ocean, who harvest salmon and whose ancient cultures still rely on salmon to this day the ocean biology of Pacific salmon is equally grand and considerably more mysterious. Answering some of the questions about what salmon do in the ocean and why they are motivated to do so may also be of considerable importance to maintaining the health of our fisheries, particularly given recent sharp downturns in ocean survival for most salmon stocks in southern BC.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Coral Coldwater and the Finding Coral Expedition!

I am excited to announce that on June 8, 2009, Living Oceans Society will launch the Finding Coral Expedition. On this expedition, a blue-ribbon team of scientists will dive in mini subs to explore the dark depths of Canada’s Pacific in search of some of the most important, yet poorly-understood, organisms in the ocean: deep sea corals.

When most people think of corals, they think of tropical coral reefs. Recently, however, scientists have realized that there are vast amounts of coral growing in cold, dark waters away from the tropics. The deep sea waters off of the coast of British Columbia have these deep sea corals, which are known to provide critical support for many other marine species.

You can join the expedition on Facebook by adding Coral Coldwater (our unofficial expedition mascot) as your friend. Through Coral, you can follow the expedition’s progress - plus learn more about the trials and tribulations of a single, middle-aged deep sea coral just trying to make a go of it in the increasingly difficult world of the deep sea.

You can add Coral as your friend and after becoming friends with her, please invite your other Facebook friends to join the Finding Coral Expedition by adding Coral Coldwater as their friend too. Then, together, we will set out on the sea and search the darkest depths of Canada’s Pacific until we find Coral.

Living Oceans Society is working with Fisheries and Oceans Canada to develop strategies and policies to protect critically important ecosystem features like deep sea corals. However, these strategies and policies won’t be of much use if we don’t even know where those corals are, and what roles they play in the marine ecosystem. Living Oceans Society has spent the past five years asking the government to protect deep sea corals, with little success. This is why we’ve decided to take the initiative by jump-starting deep sea coral research.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Another mathematical look at ocean life

For you math-junkies who just couldn't get enough of Margaret Wertheim's depiction of corals as a mathematical model, check out this recent article by Jorge Picado that provides a mathematical description of seashells and snails.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Tsunami? NOAA's got our back.

There were many things that struck me as odd when I moved to the North Island from Winnipeg when I was eight years old. All the kids in my grade three class called their backpacks "pack sacs", and cutting in line was "budging". But weirdest of all was when the orderly fire drill I had come to know and love morphed into a crawl-on-the-floor, hold-onto-your-desk-and-count extravaganza. Turns out, there was no fire: we were having an earthquake drill!

Earthquake drills are still practiced in schools on the North Island, because here on the Pacific North Coast we are located in a prime earthquake risk zone. Scientists believe that a large earthquake in the Cascadia subduction zone might take place in our lifetime. Along with our fear of earthquakes, comes a fear of the resulting tsunamis.

But fear not, fellow Pacific Coasters! The USA's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has got us covered. Following the disastrous tsunami in South Asia in 2004, the Bush administration authorized a $37.5 million upgrade to NOAA's international tsunami warning system. Last year, the final two buoys in the Deep-Ocean Assessment and Reporting system, or DART2 were deployed. Now there is a network of 39 tsunami-assessing buoys in portions of the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Caribbean Sea.

The idea behind the design of this system seems simple to me, and with the help of this diagram, it becomes even simpler to understand.
First, a passing tsunami creates changes in water pressure;
Next, a bottom pressure recorder monitors changes in pressure, and acoustically sends potential "events" to a surface buoy moored above.
The surface buoy relays information to a communications satellite, and this data is received in a tsunami warning center in the USA. Areas in danger can then be quickly notified.

How long does this process take? “From the time a buoy detects something to the time that information arrives at the warning center is usually less than five minutes from any ocean. Then it takes maybe 10 more minutes to process the data, come up with a determination of threat and send out a response.”1

So the idea is: if ever there is a tsunami about to crash into the Port McNeill harbor, our friends at NOAA and the tsunami warning center will inform us of this fact well in advance of any impending danger. Then, just in case I become blinded by terror and forget to run AWAY from the water, I will be reminded by my local constituency's contribution to the tsunami preparedness effort: tsunami evacuation route signs, pointing UP the hill. Genius.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Dead Cormorants in San Francisco

Lately, Californians have been finding hundreds of dead Brandt's cormorants washed up on beaches near San Francisco. Most of the dead cormorants are notably emaciated, and wildlife officials suspect that a dip in the birds' food supply could be what is killing them. Specifically, biologists point to a decrease in the availability of anchovies, a staple of the Brandt's Cormorant's diet:

Last year, some species of small fish were scarce, according to trawl information gathered by the National Marine Fisheries Service. Northern anchovies - popular food for Brandt's cormorants - hit their lowest numbers since 1990 as the bulk of the fish moved to Southern California, where they normally spawn in years of cooler waters.

Steve Ralston, research fisheries biologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Southwest Fisheries Science Center in Santa Cruz, said it took 10 trawls to catch one anchovy last year. In a typical year, more than 600 anchovies are caught in a trawl, he said.1

The fact that these seabirds are dying, likely as a result of our changing oceans, is just one example of the interconnectivity of life on our planet. Sadly, I think that we will continue to see more and more stories such as this one as our ocean ecosystem is affected by climate change and acidification, human use, and other impacts.