Sunday, October 20, 2013

News From The Deep— Two Oarfish

Second oarfish in a week (Gary Bussey/AP)
Two oarfish have been found within a week on the Southern California coast. The first was a 18-foot long specimen and the second, a 14-footer. For lovers of the strange and wonderful sea around us, it's a rare glimpse at the world’s longest fish that lives in depths down to 3,000 feet.

For believers in omens, not so good for California: in Japanese folklore, these Ryugu-no-tsukai (Messengers from the Sea God’s Palace) are said to portend earthquakes.

According to the Wikipedia entry, much of what is known about oarfish (four species in temperate waters worldwide) comes from specimens found dead or dying on shore or on the surface of the water. The giant oarfish is the longest bony fish alive reaching 27 feet in length (not the 50+ feet sometimes reported). But big enough to be taken for a sea serpent.

Sex lives? Regalecus glesne in the Gulf of Mexico spawn in the latter part of the year, larvae hatch in three weeks, and larvae and juveniles drift below the surface before dropping down into the depths. Adults feed on zooplankton, jellyfish and squid.

Why “oar” fish? Probably because of the shape of the critter head to tail. It’s not because the fish ‘oars’ itself through the water using its fins. Watch this to see how it swims: Giant bizarre deep sea fish filmed in Gulf of Mexico

Having two oarfish show up in a week might get some folks thinking about what the ocean’s telling us. It made me think that there’s another place on this planet where life is so strange and wonderful that even a few moments thinking about it took me completely outside my everyday self.

Sort of like another ‘oar,’ the one the seafaring Odysseus was told to carry inland until he met a people who did not know what an oar was. Only when he found such a people would he find peace. It took him 10 years to find peace.

These oarfish won’t bring peace, but a sense of wonder’s pretty nice. Go ahead, try it.

--Mike Sato

Friday, October 18, 2013

GOP Should Pay Up For Its $24 Billion Joy Ride

Sure, we’re all relieved for now that the fiscal crisis manufactured by the Republican Party was averted in its final hour and the government went back to work on Thursday and the country’s full faith and credit remained intact.

That GOP joy ride wasn’t cheap:

“$24 billion in lost economic output, or 0.6 percent of projected annualized GDP growth, according to the Standard and Poor’s ratings agency. Similarly, Moody’s Analytics estimated the impact at $23 billion,” according to Josh Hicks, Washington Post (How much did the shutdown cost the economy?).

And I don’t think we’ll ever get the final tally costing out lost scientific data, delayed permits and indirect ripples through local economies.

Maybe the GOP can count on the forgiving nature of the American people to forget the shameful shenanigans by the time the next elections come around. If there were any justice in the political realm, the GOP should pay the American people back at least the $24 billion for their foolish joy ride.

That’s what we make parents of rowdy children do when their mischief gets out of hand and hurts others. Alas, in the case of rowdy extremists, the accountability is in the hands of voters.

Sadly, in this week when the GOP joy ride ends, we mourn the passing today of Tom Foley who led the state’s 5th Congressional District and was Speaker of the House until 1994. It’s a good time to remember how Congressman Foley chose to lead and how he is remembered as a leader. ( Former Speaker of the House Tom Foley dies at 84  )

It’s a good time to examine the kind of leadership shown since Tom Foley by eastern Washington Republicans Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Doc Hastings, and what kind of lack of leadership has been shown by western Washington Republicans Dave Reichert and Jamie Herrera Beutler.

Just because these joy riders got to vote ‘aye’ to keep America going Wednesday night doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be paying for their joy ride.

--Mike Sato

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Are We Capable of Protecting the Oceans? --Probably Not.

Transforming Earth (New Scientist)
BBC News asked that question to a number of experts at the beginning of the month ( Viewpoints: Are humans capable of protecting the oceans?  ) and, not being an expert, I’ve been grappling with an answer for the last couple of weeks.

According to BBC News:

The health of the world's oceans is deteriorating even faster than had previously been thought, a report says. A review from the International Programme on the State of the Ocean (IPSO) warns that the oceans are facing multiple threats.
They are being heated by climate change, turned slowly less alkaline by absorbing CO2, and suffering from overfishing and pollution. The report warns that dead zones formed by fertiliser run-off are a problem. It says conditions are ripe for the sort of mass extinction event that has afflicted the oceans in the past. Are humans capable of protecting the oceans and preventing a mass ocean extinction?

You can read the answers of some of the experts but take some time to answer the question yourself. For me, these last few weeks since the BBC News article ran was characterized by some dark assessments of our human capacity for spinning our wheels while strutting and fretting amidst looming financial disaster aka shutdown and debt ceiling Russian roulette.

When I think about the ignorance and mendacity demonstated from right-wingnut leaders and their constituents, the oceans and their inhabitants are doomed. Not all of the oceans critters— there will be blooms of jellyfish and blankets of toxic algae to take their places. Nature moves on.

As a rule, ends come with dramatic bangs; they more likely come with whimpers. And the effects of climate change, ocean acidification and marine dead zones will be felt and reported over many more lifetimes than those of us who are here today.

In better moments, I’m heartened when I read about geoengineering solutions like those highlighted in last week’s issue of New Scientist ( Terraforming Earth: Geoengineering megaplan starts now ) because engineering solutions can be pretty cool. The article talks about the well-known bromide of ‘plant a tree’ but on a massive scale. Then there are new technologies like growing crops and burning them to capture their carbon and burying it, sucking carbon out of the air and burying it, fertilizing the ocean with iron to grow plankton to capture carbon (something like what was done off the BC coast), and throwing lime into the ocean.

These are expensive engineering solutions which would change the face of the earth and would draw screams and protests from environmentalists like me. But those are the kinds of engineering solutions it would take to remove the amount of carbon dioxide we currently have in the atmosphere and reverse the climate and acidification trends.

Maybe you don’t like it but it’s at least pretty interesting— and a lot more interesting than listening to Governor Jay’s climate change initiative proposals he presented last Monday. ( Inslee Wants To Explore State-Only ‘Cap and Trade’ Scheme ) Republican legislators immediately objected to his proposals and offered their best alternative solutions, such as Sen. Doug Ericksen (R-Ferndale) wanting nuclear power, no doubt to be sited in his district for job-hungry constituents.

But geoengineering solutions to remove carbon out of the atmosphere and to save the oceans are fruitless unless we humans modify our terrestrial behavior and reduce the amount of carbon we continue to put into the atmosphere.

That’s the part where the darkness settled over me these last two weeks. We used to say that if people understood what was happening to Puget Sound, they would work to save Puget Sound. A board member once tried to slay that by saying, “What do you want? A bunch of educated people watching Puget Sound go down the toilet?”-- meaning it took action, not understanding, to save the Sound. Like in philosophy, the gap between is and ought isn’t necessarily a logical progression.

It gets dark when I think about studies showing how people collect facts to reinforce what they already believe and discount facts that contradict their beliefs. How many Americans still believe we invaded Iraq because Saddam Hussein was somehow responsible for 9/11? How come more Americans are against Obamacare than the Affordable Health Care Act?

In the dark times I fault the ignorant— but I will reserve the deeper circle of Hell for the leaders who fan the flames of ignorance to exercise their power. Extinctions happen every day; I think the demise of much of what we know as life in the oceans today will be with a whimper and other forms of life will take their place. So, are we capable of protecting the oceans? Probably not.

What do you think?

--Mike Sato

Monday, October 14, 2013

No, You Shouldn’t Eat The Fish—Not Yet

Fish-consumption rates in Washington state— which has a lot to do with how much toxic pollution in fish people can safely consume— are back in the news, thanks to conservation and commercial fishing groups.  As of today, the state estimates that people consumer on average about 7 oz. of fish a month, about two servings, and has been very slowly considering revisions. On Friday, Earthjustice sued the Environmental Protection Agency to prompt the federal government to require the state to update consumption rates and better protect human health. ( EPA sued over Washington fish-consumption estimates )

This issue applies to ‘resident’ fish that inhabit our bays and estuaries year-round living in the toxic chemicals from our modern lifestyles— not the salmon that pass through our marine waters and estuaries. Everybody has known for years the consumption levels are too low, especially for Native Americans and subsistence fishers. The problem in raising the consumption levels to protect fish eaters is that it would also require tightening pollution standards governing the disposal of toxic chemical into our Puget Sound bays and estuaries.

On one hand, people are at risk eating contaminated fish. On the other hand? According to the spokesperson for the Association of Washington Business in the news article above, it’s a competitiveness issue for industries who care about health and human safety but need to consider regulations that might not allow them to “keep their doors open and people employed.”

As for the state regulator’s point of view, I heard Ecology staff Josh Baldi tell the Puget Sound Partnership’s Leadership Council that it’s not a simple matter because saying people eat more fish than two servings a month would mean that less industrial pollutants would be allowed to be discharged— and discharges are already so tightly controlled that it might not be cost-efficient to require industry to control more.

According to Boeing in a story filed by Ashley Ahearn of EarthFix, a higher fish consumption rate would cost the company hundreds of millions of dollars in upgrades at its facilities to lower pollution discharges into Washington waterways. ( Enviros and Fish Groups File Lawsuit To Raise Fish Consumption Standards )

So, do we have to choose? The health of Indians and subsistence fishers or airplanes and jobs? Industries and corporations would like to make it a choice because I’d bet people would choose airplanes and jobs.

But should we have to choose? It’s hard to believe that smart people who run places like Boeing cannot engineer ways to reduce and eliminate pollution to the Sound. After all, they do a pretty good job with airplanes.

Would it cost “hundreds of millions”? I don’t know and I don’t think they do either, and maybe it would create, not eliminate jobs.

But the best part of reducing and eliminating toxic pollution going into our waterways isn’t for the benefit of Indians and subsistence fishers— it’s for all of us who live and work and recreate in the waterways of Puget Sound. The real choice is a cleaner Sound and ensuring healthy human lives.

Let's keep it as simple as possible by thinking about corporations the way they like to be thought of— as individuals, people like you and me. No individual, no matter how rich or powerful,  is above the law. So, if I see an individual putting toxic chemicals into the waterway, I’d say stop and expect the government to do its job to stop the pollution. If the individual didn’t stop, I guess we’d see everyone in court— which seems to be where things are heading now.

--Mike Sato

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

I’ve Been So Pissed Off These Last Few Days I Forgot to Celebrate

Today’s meeting of the Puget Sound Partnership’s Science Panel was cancelled due to federal agency folks not being able to attend because the federal government is shut down by Congressional Republicans. The Tea Bagger wing nuts and their spineless GOP colleagues are holding the budget hostage to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. It's really a small thing, the Science Panel not meeting, among more major impacts to be felt when many of the government’s environmental and public health services (deemed “unessential”) shut down.

I’ve been so pissed off about the shutdown I forgot on Tuesday to celebrate the opening of the Insurance Exchange and the first day people who are uninsured can buy medical coverage. Sure, the first day was an online fiasco but you know what?-- it’ll get straightened out and the system’s in place to serve the uninsured. For those of us who have friends and family members with preexisting conditions, employed or not, we no longer will worry whether we can get medical insurance. Sure, it will cost money— nothing’s for free — but it will be there for everyone.

That’s not a small thing that went into place on October 1. If I’d had my way, we would have in place a much simpler system of universal health coverage, we'd reign in runaway medical costs
, and we'd improve efficiency and effectiveness of medical treatment. But what we got on October 1 is a step forward, a big step forward--- especially considering where we were four years ago.

And most important, we’re not going backwards. How fast we go forward in making our medical care system work for people depends on how important it is to us and to those we elect to lead us. But after October 1 we are not going back.

Which makes the Tea Bagger cum spineless-GOP-follower shutdown of the government (and what’s next for the debt-ceiling deadline) look nakedly cynical. What is there to negotiate about the Affordable Care Act when we are not going backward?

Maybe the next hostage-taking and act of domestic terror to threaten economic chaos will be to force us to build the Keystone pipeline. Dismantle the EPA? Rescind pollution controls on fracking and burning coal? Drill in the Arctic and off our shores?

The list can be endless and will go on and on until the real Republican leadership stands up to work to govern.

In the meantime, I’ll stop being pissed off for a while and happily celebrate what was achieved October 1. Then move on.

--Mike Sato