Wednesday, April 30, 2014

#SSEC14 Day 1: Will Science Inform Policy and Politics?

#SSEC14 is the Twitter hashtag for the Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference that kicked off on Wednesday in Seattle at the Washington State Convention Center. The three-day conference brings together scientists, academics, tribes, NGOs, and government from both sides of the WA/BC border this year around the theme of how the Salish Sea is “Our Shared Responsibility.”

It’s good to see the prominence given to the Salish Sea Tribes and First Nations. Attendees were welcome by Suquamish Chief Leonard Forsman and the plenary keynote address was given by Grand Chief Ed Day of the Ti’azt’en Nation. It takes a chief of a natives people to give the gravitas of what these lands and waters once were, have now become, and will become for generations to come. Respect and responsibility, according to Chief Day, come in addition to rights.

It’s been a number of years since I’d attended this conference which was once known as the Puget Sound/Georgia Basin Research Conference. It’s heartening that many of the attendees are young folks, the future of the Salish Sea. I think they’ll be able to sustain their interest and enthusiasm for the three-day stretch.

The theme of science informing policy and politics has always been a theme of this conference. David Marshall of the Georgia Basin Council spoke of how science informed the restoration of the Brittania Mine area. Along those lines, he asked attendees to answer three questions by the time the conference was over:

  • -Give another example of how science and policy successfully went together.
  • -Identify a specific project that could influence policy.
  • -Predict what the Salish Sea will be like in 10 years.
If science could inform policy and politics, I think the Salish Sea might have a chance to be restored to health and protected.

I ended the day sitting in on a session about fish consumption rates and the associated issue of more stringent pollution standards to protect public health. That issue has the science clearly on one side with tribes and public health officials and industry on the other side— and the governor sitting somewhere in the middle.

We want a victory thereto be one as the example of both what Chief Day says about respect and responsibility and what David Marshall wants as an example of how science and policy successfully went together.

--Mike Sato

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

On The Subject of Frogs

From the film: "Kung Fu Hustle"
I’m still sad thinking about the frog populations crashing, as described by Elizabeth Kobert in the opening chapter of The Sixth Extinction. But on spring nights that have finally arrived, it’s heartening to hear the frogs croaking away in the retention pond across the way.

Laurie MacBride in her Eye on Environment blog treats us to a photo and some observations about the Pacific Chorus frogs (aka Pacific Tree frogs) that serenade her at her British Columbia home. She provides a link for those who might live in and amongst concrete to experience what the frogs sound like.

On the Big Island of Hawaii, friends asked me to wait until dark to get the full experience of hearing the cacophony of the coqui frogs which have invaded the islands of Hawaii and Maui and now are considered invasive pests. Here’s how one looks and sounds like which seems innocuous enough but can achieve a din when magnified by the tens of hundreds. The irritation comes from the randomness of the calls, the arhythmic din which never approaches soothing chirps but have been known to drive calm people to conduct nighttime extermination hunts and to sell houses and return to where concrete prevails.

These last few weeks have put frogs for various reasons in the pages of the local news.

As described in an article in The Herald, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is working with organizations to restore native Oregon spotted frogs, listed as an endangered species in this state since 1997. The agency collects egg masses, and the partners raise the tadpoles to adult frogs in a safe environment before they are released. (A helping hand for endangered frogs)

Meanwhile, the Globe and Mail reports that municipal officials in and around Victoria are warned to be ready for American bullfrogs, “dinner-plate-sized” invaders with mouths nearly as wide as their bodies who will gobble down anything they can, including bugs, birds and fish. (Brace for amphibian predator invasion, B.C. warned)

That last item brought a comment from Helen Engle who recalls:

... during the ’great depression’ people hunted down bullfrogs and cooked and ate their muscular parts as quite a delicacy. Is my memory correct on that? Are they still being eaten by humans? That animal is a menace in most wetland places (including gardens) — he eats everything that moves with an appetite that would scare one.”

And a comment by Tony Angell who wrote:

“Bull Frogs? With all the focus on celebrity chefs (Tom Douglas ad nausea) and our indulgent duty to eat while "Rome Burns" why not send out a recipe for frog legs? I was whoppin them (you had to knock them out rather than spear them) in the lakes of Michigan in the late l940s and they have a season on them there. We ate frog legs for dinner night after night and they were delicious. Who knows, with the revenue from bull frog harvesting licenses we might restore a wetland for waterfowl and perch.”

And now we sing: “Frog went a-courtin' and he did ride, uh-huh...”

--Mike Sato

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Watching Starfish Waste Away

Wasted starfish (PHOTO: Nate Fletcher)
(Bellingham) Those of us who might have wanted Dr. Ben Miner of Western Washington University to identify the mysterious disease that is killing starfish along the Pacific West Coast would have left his talk last Tuesday sadly unsatisfied after an hour or so. Real life and death isn’t like an hour’s episode of CSI. As with all good, rigorous science, establishing what isn’t the cause is as important as hypothesizing what might be the cause.

The mass die-off has received ample media coverage from last fall through this winter. [See: Mysterious epidemic devastates starfish population off the Pacific Coast  and Northwest Starfish Experiments Give Scientists Clues To Mysterious Mass Die-offs]

The mass die-offs of certain species like sunflower, mottled and ocher starfish which develop lesions and rapidly disintegrate had been first reported last summer on the Olympic coast, followed by reports from hardest hit areas like Seattle, Vancouver BC, Monterey, Santa Barbara and Long Beach CA. As observed, adult starfish, according to Ben Miner, prove much more susceptible than juveniles. The rate of die-offs slowed from the fall into the winter. In Puget Sound, the disease has moved through starfish populations from Seattle north to Mukilteo and to Langley and Keystone on Whidbey Island.

What is and isn’t known at this time:

Experiments demonstrate that the cause is a pathogen transmitted from infected starfish to healthy ones and not an environmental toxin or parasite which would affect other starfish species and other marine life. The pathogen is water borne and affects starfish in aquariums and marine laboratories; starfish in filtered aquarium water show no signs of infection.

The pathogen may be bacterial or viral, like the parvo virus which causes tissue degeneration but experiments have not proven definitive. Shooting up an infected starfish with antibiotic stops the infection but the starfish dies when the treatment stops. All starfish don’t get infected and die, which may mean that some starfish have an immune capability or a combination of environmental factors are at play that result in infection and death. (Shooting up a Crown of Thorns starfish with bacteria in an unrelated experiment showed a fatal effect resembling wasting disease.)

“If it were straightforward, you’d have got it already,” Miner said. Like bee disease and colony collapse, there may be multiple factors that increase organism stress and suppress immune systems. What makes the starfish sick may be gone by the time it dies. If there remains uninfected areas where healthy and unhealthy starfish can be studied, there’s a chance the mystery might be solved. If wasting disease spreads everywhere, there won’t be anything left to study.
Looking ahead:

 One consequence of the mass die-off is changes in ecological balance in certain areas. The starfish around marine reserves have traditionally feasted on lingcod eggs. With the absence of starfish predators, lingcod are expected to thrive. The effect of increased predation by lingcod on other species will be interesting to see.

The environmental factors associated with wasting disease may be related to conditions found in populated and protected areas where die-offs have been highest. The die-offs have slowed during the winter, indicating a possible correlation with climate and water temperature. Likewise, the reports from past die-off episodes in California and Baja waters have been associated with El Nino years and warmer waters in the late ‘70s, early and late ‘80s, and the ‘90s. Alas, NOAA predicts an El Nino year for 2014-15 and, as Eric Holthaus in Slate sees it, “Seattle: A warm winter, and especially warm waters offshore, could be tough for the Pacific Northwest salmon.” [What Does El NiƱo Mean for Me?]

Might be worse for our starfish. As the spring and summer arrive, watch carefully.

[Oh, regarding radioactivity from Fukushima to blame, not. The timing is wrong, only some species of starfish are wasting, and there are no other marine critters showing radioactivity effects.]

For complete up-to-date reports and maps and images of the disease, go to the UC Santa Cruz wasting site.

--Mike Sato

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Puzzling Over Saving the Earth

Help me puzzle out where we are heading on this annual celebration of Earth Day.

It hasn’t helped to have read Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction earlier this month. From a scientific point of view, it looks pretty clear that continuing as we are on our highway of carbon emissions, we are driving to an end much of life as we know it.

I try not to despair since much of my job is to inform people about saving the land, waters and critters. I’d like to get up and believe every day is Earth Day or at least to believe, as reporter Gary Chittim at KING5 tweeted this morning, “On Earth Day; the movement toward a healthier earth keeps rolling along through the mud of skepticism by finding traction in common sense.”

That’s good, if it were true and helps you get up in the morning. But for many people common sense would say the earth is still the center of the universe and, if asked to choose between the accounts of the beginning of the universe given by Carl Sagan and Neal DeGrasse Tyson and Genesis, would say they didn’t know or opt for the Good Book’s version. [Poll: Big Bang a big question for most American]

Common sense, based on keen observation and experience, is smart. Common sense, based on custom and prejudice, is ignorant.

If global warming and ocean acidification aren’t real to you this Earth Day, how can you take seriously the 101 ways to save our planet?

Two-and-a-half years ago I lost my job and our household’s monthly gasoline bills dropped since I was not driving up and down the freeways. The car we drive now is almost twice as fuel efficient as the one before and, I am fascinated by the dashboard feature that measures my fuel efficiency in real time while driving. That’s the same fascination I have when I encounter those radar-activated traffic displays on city streets telling you how fast you are going. Drive steady; whoa, slow down...

I’m also hooked on taking my daily blood pressure, imagining the the fragrances on the tropical breeze, the rustling of the coconut fronds while the cuff constricts and slowly releases. What have I been eating, I wonder, when the reading is higher; what are you upset about? Whoa, slow down, take some deep breaths; try the reading again...

My ongoing skepticism on Earth Day and every day is that we are told to do things to reverse the bad things with no appreciable result we can see. Picking up litter or dog doo isn’t going to save the planet. The only results we learn about are the negative effects of increased carbon in the atmosphere and in our waters.

Gasoline prices in Puget Sound are now hitting the oil companies’ springtime bargain of $4 a gallon. [Whatcom County gas prices closing in on $4 a gallon] However, for many there is no connection between the miles driven and the boom in Salish Sea oil and fuel transport by tanker, train and pipeline— and the steady increase of carbon in our air and waters. [Surging oil traffic puts region at risk]

What’s the feedback mechanism in real time that will allow us to see how modifying our everyday actions will affect the health of the planet? What will shows us in real time how our everyday actions relate to larger issues and actions, the same way driving for fuel efficiency and speed limits can tell us about oil exports, climate change and public safety, the way taking one’s blood pressure and weight can tell us about medication, diet and exercise?

Unless we get to that point on Earth Day and every day, science will always lose to custom and prejudice. Unless we can show that we and our world are irrevocably connected, we and the world lose.

But sometimes the feedback mechanism is as simple as hearing once what you will always recall: Bill Frank, Jr. is said to have pointed to the overhead lights in a meeting room and said, “You know what I see in those lights? Dead salmon.” Since I heard that, I always think about salmon when turning off lights not in use.

And, as a palliative to The Sixth Extinction, I read the last chapter of Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table where he describes several incarnations of a carbon atom through the webs of space, time and life. The elements, thank goodness, are eternal.

--Mike Sato

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Early April 2014: 3 Down, 9 To Go

(PHOTO: Scott Terrell/Skagit Valley Herald)
We’re a fourth of the way through the year and the short list of things I said I’d be looking for in 2014 has gotten shorter, while the verdict’s still out on a few:

I think it’s pretty clear that nobody rose to govern in the Legislature or in the Governor’s office this past session but maybe that’s the strategy of divided government: make sure nothing happens so you can say the fault is divided government then go raise money for another election— so we don’t have divided government. The best we can say about this legislative session is that nothing bad happened to the environment. We’ll still have to wait to see who will rise to govern next year.

It’s a shame the session wrapped up before the 25th memorial anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill on March 24 and the Galveston oil spill coming at the same time. It may have prompted more serious consideration of the oil spill prevention measures and fees proposed. There’s always the opportunity to remember the BP Gulf disaster this month, saying so inspiring words around Earth Day and hope there is no major spill here.

Still haven’t heard whether anyone’s figured out what caused our starfish to die. Haven’t heard much about whether they’re still dying. Still worrisome.

As we wrote earlier, the Puget Sound Partnership’s new executive director is fully on board and the Leadership Council has the blood of new members. We may not know for awhile whether it’s a new game or game over but an early measure would whether the draft 2014 Action Agenda creates some excitement. I’ve been told discussions have been scheduled for April 8 in Edmonds and April 15 in Tacoma. As always, we stay tuned. [4/10 edit: The Partnership cancelled the 4/8 Edmonds meeting and announced in a 4/9 news release
 the Edmonds meeting would be on 4/16. The 4/15 Tacoma date remains unchanged. Go here to read about the updates.

No Seahawks for a few more months but there’s Mariner baseball to strut and fret over. 10th Man, anyone?

--Mike Sato