Join me in the cold, dark, life-sustaining NE Pacific Ocean to discover the great beauty, mystery and fragility hidden there.

Posts from the ‘Environmental Issues’ category

Tug Nathan E. Stewart ran aground on October 13th. Owned by U.S. company Kirby Offshore Marine. Photo ©April Bencze

Mr. Prime Minister . . . . (after the Bella Bella spill)

Thank you dear reader, thank you for caring enough to come to this page.

You are among those who are gutted by what is being learned from the sinking of the tug, the Nathan E. Stewart, near Bella Bella on BC’s North Coast. You have not somehow rationalized it away, but see the spill fully for what it is – a disaster – a cultural, environmental, and economic disaster. This was “only” the diesel from a tug – a dire indicator of what insane risks are being flirted with regarding tanker traffic on our coast.

You want the lessons to be fully learned and acted on. You want the voices of those most directly impacted to be heard. You don’t want it to happen again.

You want to know what to do.

You are my motivation for this page. For you, I want to bundle what I believe are the most useful actions we can undertake with the resources that support them.

Mammal-hunting Orca T057A traveling through the area of the spill. Photo: ©April Bencze.

Mammal-hunting Orca T057A traveling through the area of the spill. Photo: ©April Bencze.

Please see the four “What You Can Do” points below and, as if you needed further motivation, read the words below. They are from April Bencze. She and Tavish Campbell are on site striving to be of use to the Heiltsuk First Nation in witnessing and documenting the extent of the the impact of the spill with their considerable skills as video/photographers and divers. They are dear friends of mine. I will update this blog with their insights and images and those of the Heiltsuk. April’s powerful words from this morning  . . . .

“Every tide pool has a layer of diesel coating it. The sea breeze, my favourite smell in the world, now reeks of diesel, burns my eyes and gives me a headache as I walk the beach looking into each devastated tide pool and seeing the intertidal life being irreversibly poisoned. Spill response can’t fix this. No one can fix this, no matter how much money or how many resources are thrown at it. Canada should not pretend it has the ability to undo this damage. Justin Trudeau should be mourning the loss of a large expanse of wilderness that has been poisoned, and then do everything in his power to ensure this never happens again. That means no tankers on this coast. But it’s hard. It is hard because Prime Minister Justin Trudeau cannot see the marine life dying. He cannot feel the sting of diesel in his eyes. He cannot taste oil on the breeze where there should only be salty fresh air. He cannot see the deer and wolves feeding on the diesel-soaked intertidal life. He cannot see the orcas inhaling diesel and diving with it permeating their lungs. He cannot see the grief of the people who live here. He cannot see the thick diesel covering the ocean, and the tides that carry it to all stretches of the land. He cannot see the spill response team being dismissive about reports of diesel sheen near sensitive salmon creeks. He cannot see that the people here mourn the loss of their food source from the very beaches now made toxic. This is a disaster. Please start a conversation about what you are willing to risk to transport oil/fuel on this coast. I did not accept this risk. The Heiltsuk Nation did not accept this risk. Did you?”

What You Can Do:

  1. Write Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, referencing the election promise made to “Formalize a moratorium on crude oil tanker traffic on British Columbia’s North Coast.” This can easily be done by using the David Suzuki Foundation’s resource at this link and adapting the text as you see fit to reference the Bella Bella spill. Let him know that you too do not accept the risk.

    Click to enlarge. Content from PM Trudeau’s November 2015 mandate letter to the Minister of Transport confirming the priority of the moratorium. The mandate letter can be found here.

  2. Reduce the use of fossil fuels and support initiatives to transition to non-carbon energy sources. Enjoy the savings as well as the knowledge that you are not fuelling the demand that threatens our coast with tanker traffic.
  3. Support the Heiltsuk First Nation. If you can, provide financial support so that the impacts can be independently investigated, documented and made public. See this link to make donations.
  4. Help amplify the knowledge of this spill. This happened on a pristine, remote part of BC’s coast.  Imagine the attention and action there would be had it happened near an urban centre. Imagine the number of outraged voters wanting risks reduced. Imagine the resulting political will to follow through on campaign promises. There are those in powerful positions who hope that the remoteness of the disaster means that the concern will go away – unlike the impacts of the spill. Please let’s not let that happen.

Coming: Slide show of April and Tavish’s photos.

Resources: 

How to Kill a Living Dinosaur. The Epitome of Disconnect?

I saw a Leatherback Sea Turtle. I did! And I don’t know if I can ever be the same again.

It happened on July 25th, while I was a member of Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s (DFO) Marine Mammal Research Section aboard the Canadian Coast Guard Vessel J.P. Tully. We surveyed up to 138 nautical miles (256 km) west of Vancouver Island. The purpose of the DFO survey was to increase knowledge about at-risk marine mammal and turtle species’ distribution and abundance.

Can you imagine the wonder, the euphoria, the astonishment, the sense of privilege at seeing this endangered giant that is a living dinosaur?

Here’s how it unfolded. It was at the end of the survey day around 8:02 PM on July 25th. I had finished my shift but was still having a discussion on the port side of the bridge. Suddenly, the Third Officer Brent Seamone said, from the other side of the bridge, “Hey, it’s a turtle!”

With all I had, I rushed to the other side of ship (apologies to any fellow crew members who may have been bruised as a result). And there it was . . . a shadow just under the surface, gliding away from the ship. I stared down its ridged back. Time seemed frozen, suspended for a turtle heartbeat or two. My synapses firing, my adrenaline surging, my brain questioned – could it really be true? And it was. In the vastness of the NE Pacific Ocean we had chanced upon a male Leatherback Turtle. This was the first known sighting of this endangered species in BC waters in two years* (and also reported to I-866-I-SAW-ONE).

Leatherbacks belong in the rich waters off BC’s coast, coming all the way from Indonesia to feed on jellyfish. I knew this well having only just launched the resource “Leatherbacks in BC” to raise awareness about these giants and the risks they face.

I marvelled at the incredible good luck of it – finding a proverbial needle in such a very large and deep haystack – but of course also that I happened to be on the bridge when I was. My dear friend who works so hard for Leatherback conservation and with whom I wrote the resource, had left the bridge mere minutes before the sighting. How wonderful it would have been for the Chief Scientist to see the turtle too.

I don’t have a photo. I wish I did to make the next part of what I have to share more impactful. Yes, now comes the “How to kill a living dinosaur” part.

Only a few days earlier, we retrieved these from the ocean – Canada Day balloons drifting out at sea in Leatherback habitat 20 days after Canada Day.

Canada Day balloons drifting in Leatherback habitat on July 21st. Photo: Hildering.

Canada Day balloons drifting in Leatherback habitat on July 21st. Photo: Hildering.

It was already our intent to have these images go widely into the world in the hope that it might make more realize that plastics (especially plastic bags) and balloons can kill endangered Leatherback Turtles (and other marine species). Sea turtles cannot discern these from their jellyfish prey. In fact, in a global study of 408 dead Leatherback Turtles, more than 30% had plastics in their intestines (Mrosovsky et al, 2009).

You can certainly see how the balloons could be mistaken for jellies.<br> Lisa Spaven of DFO in photo.

You can certainly see how the deflated balloons could be mistaken for jellies. Lisa Spaven of DFO in photo.

You can imagine my increased motivation for awareness now.

Of course we don’t know the backstory on these balloons – where they came from or if there was any attempt to retrieve them.

Tully crew removing the balloons from the ocean.

Tully crew removing the balloons from the ocean for the sake of Leatherbacks and other species.
Photo: Hildering. 

We do know that it is a far too common a practice to “celebrate” by releasing balloons into the air e.g. as symbolization when someone dies and even to mark an environmental event (yikes!!!)

But of course, unless items are biodegradable, there is no “away”. There is no throwing “away”, flushing “away” or  . . .  drifting “away”.  There is a cost to other species, and ultimately, to ourselves.

What I hope these images and words do, is increase this knowledge. Please could you help?

The solutions are simple, please help increase awareness that #balloonsblow and #plasticspollute.

For more on the wonder that is Leatherback Turtles in BC, please see www.LeatherbacksInBC.org.

TMD Memes.001

 

* Last reported sighting of a Leatherback Turtle in BC waters prior to this was August 20, 2014 off SW Vancouver Island.

Lost Teddy! Fluffy piece?

Here’s an item that is shared for the purposes of lightness and connection. Because, let’s face it, there’s enough dark and heavy out there. Also, maybe, just maybe it will create an opportunity for awareness about marine debris?

See the image below. Could this be the world’s saddest Teddy?

Lost Teddy! Wouldn't it be remarkable to find out how, where and when s/he ended up in the Ocean?

Lost Teddy! Wouldn’t it be remarkable to find out how, where and when s/he ended up in the Ocean?

My dive buddy, Natasha Dickinson, found him/her at bottom of the Ocean in Port Hardy on January 1st. Unlike so much of the debris near the dock, it is unlikely this little guy was mindlessly tossed away (see photos below).

Wouldn’t it be something to find its home and know its story? Would it enhance a sense of connection? Would the story be a catalyst to discussion, engagement and action about the insult to our Oceans that is marine debris?

Via Facebook and Twitter this information is being shared with “#‎LostTeddy”‬.

S/he has also been posted on the international Lost Teddy site (yes, there is such a thing).

Teddy is now being cleaned up for potential reuniting with humans.

XXX

Update: January 3, 2016 – It’s not a Teddy. I got this clue from that Teddy locating site”That’s Ginger Bell, originally sold by Sears in 2004! Brenda.” Sure enough – looked up a photo and, it’s Ginger Bell.


Photos below show some of the beauty striving to survive among the debris under the Seagate Dock in Port Hardy (the dive where Teddy was found). This “scene” is representative of most docks on our Coast and I am striving to raise awareness about marine debris and how, to me, this is the most stark indicator of the disconnect about the importance of the Ocean to human health. We are all vastly empowered to create positive change, not only by ensuring there is less physical pollution (litter) but by reducing use of carbon and chemicals such as pesticides (thereby reducing temperature change, acidification, toxins); and increasing knowledge and engagement about the importance, beauty and fragility of our Ocean. Reality is, what we do to the Ocean we ultimately  . . . do to ourselves.

Shopping carts and plastic . . and anemones. Photo by dive buddy ©Alexandra Spicer.

Shopping carts and plastic . . and anemones. Photo by dive buddy Alexandra Spicer.

Northern Kelp Crabs and Rose Anemone atop a big chunk of plastic. ©Jackie Hildering; themarinedetective.ca.

Northern Kelp Crabs and Rose Anemone atop a big chunk of plastic. ©Jackie Hildering

Plumose Anemones just under the surface. ©Jackie Hildering; themarinedetective.ca.

Plumose Anemones just under the surface, just above the debris. ©Jackie Hildering; themarinedetective.ca.

 

Hooded Nudibranch on Eelgrass just under the surface near the Seagate Dock, Port Hardy. @Jackie Hildering.

Hooded Nudibranch on Eelgrass just under the surface near to mounds of debris. @Jackie Hildering.

An example of the beauty among the debris - species trying to survive amongst what most often purposely/ carelessly ends up in the Ocean. Here - egg mass laid by a Pacific Sea Lemon (nudibranch) where each dot can hatch into a larval nudibranch. Next photo, the nudibranch that likely laid the egg mass beside a beer can. ©Jackie Hildering.

A striking example of the beauty among the debris – species trying to survive amongst what most often purposely/ carelessly ends up in the Ocean – an egg mass laid by a Pacific Sea Lemon (nudibranch) where each dot can hatch into a larval nudibranch. Next photo, the nudibranch that likely laid the egg mass beside . . . a beer can. ©Jackie Hildering.

@2016 Jackie Hildering one time use -13324

 

Dive buddies near Giant Pink Star. Left, Natasha Dickinson. Right, Alexandra Spicer. ©Jackie Hildering; themarinedetective.ca.

Dive buddies and Giant Pink Star. Left, Natasha Dickinson. Right, Alexandra Spicer. ©Jackie Hildering.

Surely Not Again?! Tidal Turbines in Whale Epicentre? Still Hell No!

Here we go again. 

It has just come to my attention that there are two applications for tenure for tidal turbines in killer whale critical habitat. This last arose in November in 2012 with my posting the blog “Tidal Turbines in Whale Epicentre? Hell No!”. The resulting media coverage, your action and the ethics of the applicant resulted in that application being withdrawn.

With these two new applications, your action is again very much needed.

The comment deadline is April 9th, 2015. 

Below, I have edited my November 2012 blog to be applicable to these applications and hopefully I have succeeded in making commenting very expeditious for you. 

Here goes . . . .

There are times when expletives like “Hell No!” are justified and I am sure you will agree this is one of those very unfortunate times and – your action is needed.

There are two applications for “OCEAN ENERGY / INVESTIGATIVE AND MONITORING PHASE” by Weyl Power Ltd. If accepted by the BC Ministry of Forest, Lands and Natural Resource Operations (MFLNRO), this would allow the instalment of technical and investigative monitoring equipment in killer whale critical habitat which could then lead to turbines also being located there.  I believe the applications are still referenced as licenses of occupation“.

See the map for the location of the proposed Weyl Power sites relative to resident killer whale critical habitat as per the Recovery Strategy for Northern and Southern Resident Killer Whales in Canada.

Proposed sites relative to acknowledged northern resident killer whale critical habitat.

Proposed sites relative to acknowledged northern resident killer whale critical habitat. Source of base map: BC Cetacean Sightings Network. Click to enlarge. For more on the determination of this critical habitat see Ford, J.K.B. An Assessment of critical habitats of resident killer whales in waters off the Pacific Coast of Canada. Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat, Research Document 2006/072.

(1) Johnstone Strait between Hanson Island and Telegraph Cove (File: #1414321)

(2)  Broughton Strait, western end of Malcolm Island  (File: #1414325)

While I of course support initiatives to reduce the use of climate-changing fossil fuels, to have turbines in critical whale habitat would be pure, simple, total, utter insanity. No matter how advanced the turbine technology, no amount of mitigation could compensate for the noise, prey reduction, and other disturbance to the whales.

One would hope that government agencies would surely deny the applications, especially after the public outcry after the similar 2012 application in this same area.  However, we have many examples of this being tragically misplaced faith and cannot count on there being any legislation in place for sound environmental assessment that would confirm environmental impacts. Note that the federal government had to be taken to court TWICE to be ordered to acknowledge and protect killer whale critical habitat – first ruling December 7, 2010; appeal ruling February 9th, 2011.

Weyl Power Application -  Johnstone Strait between Hanson Island and Telegraph Cove. File: #1414321

Weyl Power Application – Johnstone Strait between Hanson Island and Telegraph Cove. File: #1414321. Click to enlarge.

The very ocean current that makes this area of interest for staking a claim for ocean energy is what makes this such a rich area for marine life. The importance of this area for killer whales can be supported by almost 4 decades of data collected by Department of Fisheries and Oceans and the OrcaLab.

To allow these applications to proceed would therefore be ludicrous and in direct conflict of Objective 4 of the Northern and Southern Resident Killer Whale Action Plan for Species at Risk which is to “Protect critical habitat for Resident Killer Whales and identify additional areas for critical habitat designation and protection.”

Weyl Power Application -  Broughton Strait, western end of Malcolm Island. File: #1414321. Click to enlarge. Weyl Power Application -  Johnstone Strait between Hanson Island and Telegraph Cove

Weyl Power Application – Broughton Strait, western end of Malcolm Island. File: #1414321. Click to enlarge.

Therefore, we collectively need (again) to make our “Hell No!” heard.

Please comment by the April 9th deadline by going to these two links and scrolling down till you see “To comment on this application please click here”.

  • Weyl Power application for Johnstone Strait between Hanson Island and Telegraph Cove (File: #1414321) – click here.
  • Weyl Power application for Broughton Strait, western end of Malcolm Island (File: #1414325) – click here.

Sample text: With regard to Land File Numbers 1414321 and 1414325, the applications for Weyl Power Ltd’s “OCEAN ENERGY / INVESTIGATIVE AND MONITORING PHASE” in the Broughton Strait to Johnstone Strait area, I write you to express that these applications for tenure must not be granted. The applications are in scientifically confirmed critical habitat for northern resident killer whales and it has been legally ruled that this must be protected as per Canada’s Species at Risk Act. In addition, the area is of great importance to humpback whales and many other marine species.  No matter how advanced the turbine technology, no amount of mitigation could compensate for the noise, prey reduction, and other disturbance to the whales and to approve these applications would be in direct conflict of Objective 4 of the Northern and Southern Resident Killer Whale Action Plan for Species at Risk which is to “Protect critical habitat for Resident Killer Whales and identify additional areas for critical habitat designation and protection”. It is also unacceptable that the public is not provided with information on these applications other than the applicant name and the maps i.e. no information about design or environmental assessment process.”
You may even want to reference this blog and provide the link e.g. “For further details of the reasons for my great objection to this application see the rationale and resources provided at http://wp.me/pPW6V-1cJ.

Please also help spread the word?

So much insanity  . . . so little time.  

References:

Media Coverage:

Take Part; March 22, 2015; “The Clean-Energy Project That Could Harm Endangered Killer Whales – A mystery firm wants to build underwater power turbines in critical orca habitat off Canada’s Pacific coast

Sea Star Wasting Syndrome Now Documented on NE Vancouver Island

Giant pink sea star in final stages of sea star wasting syndrome. Bear Cove, Port Hardy; December 21, 2013. © 2013 Jackie Hildering

Giant pink sea star in final stages of sea star wasting syndrome. Bear Cove, Port Hardy; December 21, 2013. © 2013 Jackie Hildering

[Update: November 18, 2014 Study published today – cause of Sea Star Wasting Syndrome a densovirus that has been present for at least 72 years? Why has it led to mass mortality now? What makes sense is that, like any virus, the incidents of “pathogenicity” depends on stressors (e.g. temperature change) and proximity of individuals. The virus has also been found in other echinoderms like urchins and sand dollars and it persists in sediment = can be transmitted by those vectors and there is the potential that the other echinoderms are/will be affected. See the study by Cornell University at the link below (lead author Ian Hewson). Includes “If SSaDV is the cause of the current SSWD event, it is unclear why the virus did not elicit wide disease outbreaks in the past during periods in which it was detected; however, there are several possible reasons why the current SSWD event is broader and more intense than previous occurrences. SSaDV may have been present at lower prevalence for decades and only became an epidemic recently due to unmeasured environmental factors not present in previous years that affect animal susceptibility or enhance transmission.”
http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2014/11/12/1416625111.abstract

Good coverage in a 7-minute radio interview
Science Friday; December 5, 2014: “What’s Killing West Coast Starfish?”  http://www.sciencefriday.com/segment/12/05/2014/what-s-killing-west-coast-starfish.html#path/segment/12/05/2014/what-s-killing-west-coast-starfish.html


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Deepest of sighs.

I am very sad to report that Sea Star Wasting Syndrome is now on NE Vancouver Island.

I first detected symptoms of the Syndrome at Bear Cove in Port Hardy on December 13th. Please see table at the end of this blog for how the species affected appears to be quite different from further to the south. Leather stars seem particularly affected and the Syndrome appears to advance much more slowly.

Leather star with sea star wasting syndrome. (Click to enlarge). Bear Cove, Port Hardy; December 21, 2013. © 2013 Jackie Hildering

Leather star with sea star wasting syndrome. (Click to enlarge). Bear Cove, Port Hardy; December 21, 2013. © 2013 Jackie Hildering

I have tried to think up a terrestrial analogy for what is happening to the sea stars so that non-divers might better get a sense of the weight and ecosystem importance of it. However, I can’t come up with a good terrestrial equivalent of an abundant group of highly visible, apex predators. My best attempt is to suggest you think of sea stars like birds of prey. Imagine what you would feel like if you were to notice they were dying, bodies deflating . . . then melting away and that this would progress very quickly and spread like wildfire.

Mottled star with sea star wasting syndrome. (Click to enlarge). Bear Cove, Port Hardy; December 21, 2013. © 2013 Jackie Hildering

Mottled star with sea star wasting syndrome. (Click to enlarge). Bear Cove, Port Hardy; December 21, 2013. © 2013 Jackie Hildering

Please see my previous blog item, “Wasted, What is Happening to the Sea Stars of the NE Pacific Ocean?”, for great detail on the symptoms, species impacted further to the south, spread of the Syndrome, and how to help understand what is happening by relaying data to the Vancouver Aquarium. 

The short of it is:

  • The meltdown of sea stars was first detected in June 2013 in Washington State in ochre stars and in sunflower stars in Howe Sound (BC) in late August 2013 but has now been reported at sites from Alaska to the Mexican border.
  • Sunflower star in distress - potentially wasting syndrome. (Click to enlarge.) Photo from a week ago. Bear Cove, Port Hardy; December 13, 2013. © 2013 Jackie Hildering

    Sunflower star in distress – potentially wasting syndrome. (Click to enlarge.) Photo from a week ago. Bear Cove, Port Hardy; December 13, 2013.
    © 2013 Jackie Hildering

    The number of sea stars impacted is orders of magnitude greater than any previous known outbreak.

  • Most likely due to a pathogen (virus and or/bacteria). Cornell University is doing the genomic work. Toxins and environmental conditions have not been ruled out as the cause (or compounding factors).
  • If it is a pathogen, how quickly it spreads is influenced by the number of animals and if they are stressed. There are likely to be layers of stressors.
  • It has put forward by the scientific community that this could be a normal mechanism for overpopulation in sea stars.

The 1-minute time-lapse video below shows the progression of the Syndrome in a sunflower star over 7 hours.

Yep, it’s terrible.

However, I believe very strongly that, in attempting to raise awareness about marine environmental issues, I must always reflect on “what you can do”. If I do not, I contribute to the spread of a devastating human syndrome: Eco-paralysis. Symptoms include people becoming despondent, overwhelmed, and underactive in undertaking positive socio-environmental change, and often saying “It’s all hopeless”. The cause? This I do know. Eco-paralysis is the result of not seeing the common solutions between environmental problems.

Sea Star Wasting Syndrome is a solid indicator of how little we know about our life-sustaining oceans. It emphasizes the importance of humility and precaution in decision-making around the environment and how we are all empowered to reduce environmental stressors (with emphasis on reducing fossil fuel consumption and chemical use).

Having witnessed what I have over the last many weeks, I am all the more driven to assist others in (1) falling deeper in love with the NE Pacific Ocean by revealing the beauty below her surface and (2) feeling the joy that comes from creating change that is better for the environment and, therefore, ourselves.

What was once a sunflower star. (Click to enlarge). Bear Cove, Port Hardy; December 23, 2013. © 2013 Jackie Hildering

What was once a sunflower star. (Click to enlarge). Bear Cove, Port Hardy; December 23, 2013.
© 2013 Jackie Hildering

The progression of the Syndrome in 2 days in a giant pink star. (Click to enlarge.)© 2013 Jackie Hildering

The progression of the Syndrome in 2 days in a giant pink star. (Click to enlarge.)© 2013 Jackie Hildering

Table showing progression of SSWS at Bear Cove

Table showing a summary of my data re. progression of species impacted at Bear Cove, Port Hardy. Progression of symptoms in a leather star over 16 days at Bear Cove, Port Hardy. (Click to enlarge.) © 2014 Jackie Hildering

Progression of symptoms in a leather star over 16 days at Bear Cove, Port Hardy. (Click to enlarge.)© 2014 Jackie Hildering

Progression of symptoms in a leather star over 16 days at Bear Cove, Port Hardy. (Click to enlarge.)© 2014 Jackie Hildering

Wasted. What is happening to the sea stars of the NE Pacific Ocean?

Last update: October 2016
Sea Star Wasting Syndrome summary: 

  • Has been raging since June 2013.
  • Unprecedented in both range, duration and number of species impacted – 20 species of sea star species since 2013 from Alaska to Mexico (local variation in intensity of the Syndrome and which species are impacted the worst)
  • A virus has been found in the sick sea stars but this virus has been around for at least 72 years (was isolated in preserved sea stars). Thereby, there is a stressor that is likely reducing the resistance of the sea stars to the virus. Increased temperature may be that stressor i.e. climate change could have an impact.
  • From my own observations at the site I am monitoring on NE Vancouver Island: Sunflower Stars are impacted the worst. Leather Stars may be more impacted than in other areas. Ochre Stars appear less impacted than in other areas.  I have seen less than 10 adult Sunflower Stars in my 30+ dives from January to September 2016. I have seen “waves” of Sunflower Star babies and juveniles but I have not seen them survive to adulthood. The hypothesis that I find most plausible is that the babies are the result of adults spawning at depth, where it is colder (no stressor). Warmer water reduces the resistance of the babies and juveniles in shallower water whereby they may succumb to the Syndrome.
  • My album of photos of sea stars with symptoms can be found at this Facebook link.

Where to relay sea star data  (of great value in understanding the range, extent and potentially, contributing factors):

Update October 2016:  New paper – Montecino-Latorre D, Eisenlord ME, Turner M, Yoshioka R, Harvell CD, Pattengill-Semmens CV, et al. (2016) Devastating Transboundary Impacts of Sea Star Wasting Disease on Subtidal Asteroids. PLoS ONE 11(10): e0163190. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0163190 

Update April 2016: Concern about decrease in sea stars leading to more urchins and, thereby, less kelp. CBC News; April 25, 2016 Scientists study ecological fallout of sea star die-off – Marine scientists are studying kelp to see how starfish wasting disease is changing the ecosystem. Study upon which this article is based: Schultz JA, Cloutier RN, Côté IM. (2016) Evidence for a trophic cascade on rocky reefs following sea star mass mortality in British Columbia. PeerJ 4:e1980; https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.1980

Update February 2016:  Cornell University study showing link between temperature and incidence of the Syndrome: Ochre star mortality during the 2014 wasting disease epizootic: role of population size structure and temperature, Reporting on the study includes this item on the front page of the Seattle times on February 21st:Scientists now link massive starfish die-off, warming ocean.”

Update January 21, 2016: Province: “Sea star wasting disease among worst wildlife die-offs say scientists. Includes: “”This is, if not the, certainly one of the biggest wildlife die-offs that have ever been recorded, and we’re not just talking marine die-offs.”

Update May 3 , 2015: Seattle Times; “Starfish babies offer glimmer of hope amid mass die-off”. Includes: ” . . . a few baby starfish offered a glimmer of hope for the creature’s recovery . . . .“the question is when these babies get big, will you expect them to die like the adults? . . . . Not all the sites have seen juveniles and it hasn’t been broad . . .One theory for why there are so many juveniles [at this site in Washington] is that when adult starfish were stressed from the wasting disease, they released millions of eggs and sperm, increasing the chances for fertilization. Ideal conditions in recent months have helped push those larvae to the shore, where they’re able to cling to hard surfaces such as rocks and pilings to grow . . . And the worst of the wasting disease might still be ahead in some places, including along Washington’s Olympic Coast, where it was first reported in June 2013.”

Update April 9, 2015: California – wasting symptoms being seen in urchins. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2015/03/150401-urchins-sea-stars-monterey-bay-california-animals/

Sunflower star with sea star wasting syndrome. Photo - Neil McDaniel; www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info

Sunflower star with sea star wasting syndrome. Tissue wastes away. Legs often break off and crawl away briefly before rotting away. Photo – Neil McDaniel; http://www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info

Update March 1, 2015: While symptoms of Sea Star Wasting Syndrome are still being seen in BC and I have seen no adult Sunflower Stars in the sites I have been monitoring on NE Vancouver Island, in several areas in BC, we are beginning to see juvenile Sunflower Stars. Sunflower Stars are the species that appeared to be most impacted in many areas of BC. Where are the young Sunflower Stars coming from? It may be, and this is my speculation, that there are Sunflower Stars at depth that survived the Syndrome possibly because they were not exposed to the same stressors e.g. the water at depth may be colder. 

Update November 18, 2014:  Study published today – cause of Sea Star Wasting Syndrome a densovirus that has been present for at least 72 years? Why has it led to mass mortality now? What makes sense is that, like any virus, the incidents of “pathogenicity” depends on stressors (e.g. temperature change) and proximity of individuals. The virus has also been found in other echinoderms like urchins and sand dollars and it persists in sediment = can be transmitted by those vectors and there is the potential that the other echinoderms are/will be affected. See the study by Cornell University at the link below (lead author Ian Hewson). Includes “If SSaDV is the cause of the current SSWD event, it is unclear why the virus did not elicit wide disease outbreaks in the past during periods in which it was detected; however, there are several possible reasons why the current SSWD event is broader and more intense than previous occurrences. SSaDV may have been present at lower prevalence for decades and only became an epidemic recently due to unmeasured environmental factors not present in previous years that affect animal susceptibility or enhance transmission.”
http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2014/11/12/1416625111.abstract

Update December 2014: Seeing juvenile Sunflower Stars around Northern Vancouver Island. The hope is that there might be a deep, cold water reservoir of animals.  I suggest that this offers further support that increased temperature may be the stressor that has increased the pathogenicity of the virus.

Good coverage in a 7-minute radio interview
Science Friday; December 5, 2014: “What’s Killing West Coast Starfish?”  http://www.sciencefriday.com/segment/12/05/2014/what-s-killing-west-coast-starfish.html#path/segment/12/05/2014/what-s-killing-west-coast-starfish.html ] 

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Original blog:

There has already been much reporting on the gruesome epidemic spreading like wildfire through several species of sea star in the NE Pacific Ocean.

“Sea star wasting syndrome” is incredibly virulent and is causing the mass mortality of some sea star species in British Columbia and beyond. “Sea stars go from “appearing normal” to becoming a pile of white bacteria and scattered skeletal bits is only a matter of a couple of weeks, possibly less than that” (Source #1).

Rotting pile of sunflower stars. Photo and descriptor - Neil McDaniel; www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info

Rotting pile of sunflower stars. Photo and descriptor – Neil McDaniel; http://www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info

What I have strived to do below is bundle the state of knowledge so far, relying heavily on the expertise of two extraordinary divers and marine naturalists: (1) Neil McDaniel, marine zoologist and underwater photographer / videographer who maintains a website on local sea stars and has put together A Field Guide to Sea Stars of the Pacific Northwestand (2) Andy Lamb, whose books include Marine Life of the Pacific Northwest.

I am hoping that kayakers, beach-walkers and fellow divers will help monitor and report on the spread of the disease via this link on the Vancouver Aquarium webpage but I am also hoping that all of us may learn from this tragedy that has impacted “one of the most iconic animals on the coast of British Columbia . . . more abundant and diverse in our waters than anywhere else in the world” (Source #3).

Sea star wasting syndrome reminds us of the fragility of ocean ecosystems; how very quickly disease could spread in the ocean; and how we are all empowered to reduce stressors that increase the likelihood of pathogens manifesting as disease or even that pathogens enter the environment (e.g. sewage).

Update January 18, 2014 – Video by Neil McDaniel showing the extent of the mortality in some parts of southern British Columbia.  Click here. 

Species impacted? (Update November 30th – Source #14)

High mortalities (note that the first 4 are members of the same family – the Asteriidae):

  1. Sunflower star (Pycnopodia helianthoideshardest hit in southern British Columbia. From communication with Neil McDaniel ” . . .so far I estimate it has killed tens, possibly hundreds of thousands of Pycnopodia in British Columbia waters.”
  2. Mottled star (Evasterias troschelii
  3. Giant pink star (Pisaster brevispinus)
  4. Ochre star aka purple star (Pisaster ochraceus)
  5. Morning sun star (Solaster dawsoni)

More limited mortalities:

  1. Vermillion star (Mediaster aequalis); video of an afflicted star here.
  2. Rainbow star (Orthasterias koehleri)
  3. Leather star (Dermasterias imbricata)
  4. Striped sun star (Solaster stimpsoni)
  5. Six-rayed stars (Leptasterias sp.)

Update January 21st, 2014: Possibly: Rose star (Crossaster papposus) – I have noted symptoms in this species on NE Vancouver Island as has Neil McDaniel in S. British Columbia).

Update November 20th: The Vancouver Aquarium reports on which sea stars are and are not affected in S. British Columbia: “The majority of those species affected by the sunflower star epidemic are members of the same sea star family” and that the closely related morning sun star and giant pink star appear to get infected after feeding these “meals”.  (Source #10, includes video).

Symptoms and progression of the syndrome:

Neil McDaniel shared the following 7 images for the progression of the disease in sunflower stars [Source #2 and #14]. See the end of this blog item for images showing symptoms in other sea star species as well as a 1 minute time-lapse clip showing the progression of the syndrome in a sunflower star over 7 hours. [Note that the progression of the Syndrome on NE Vancouver Island appears that it may be different from what has been observed further to the south.]

1. In this image most of the sunflower stars appear healthy “other than one just right of center frame is exhibiting the syndrome, looking “thinned-out” and emaciated.”

Click to enlarge. Photo and descriptor - Neil McDaniel; www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info

Click to enlarge. Photo and descriptor – Neil McDaniel; http://www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info

2. This images “shows this thinning in close-up. Note how distinct the edges of the rays look and how flat the star is.”

Photo and descriptor - Neil McDaniel; www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info

Click to enlarge. Photo and descriptor – Neil McDaniel; http://www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info

3. This image “shows how the body wall begins to rupture, allowing the gonads and pyloric caeca to spill out.” 

As the animals become more stressed, they often drop several rays (which wander off on their own for a while). At this point the body wall becomes compromised and the pyloric caeca and/or gonads may protrude through lesions. As things progress, the animals lose the ability to crawl and may even tumble down steep slopes and end up in pile at the bottom. Soon after they die and begin to rot

Photo and descriptor - Neil McDaniel; www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info

Photo and descriptor – Neil McDaniel; http://www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info

4. This image “shows the gonads breaking through holes in the body wall. At this point rays often break off and crawl away briefly.”

Photo and descriptor - Neil McDaniel; www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info

Photo and descriptor – Neil McDaniel; http://www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info

5. As things progress, the animals lose the ability to crawl [and hold grip surfaces] and may even tumble down steep slopes and end up in pile at the bottom. Soon after they die and begin to rot.

Photo and descriptor - Neil McDaniel; www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info

Photo and descriptor – Neil McDaniel; http://www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info

6. The bacteria Beggiatoa then takes over and consumes all of the organic matter, leaving a scattering of skeletal plates on the bottom. The syndrome develops quickly and in only one to two weeks animals can go from appearing healthy to a white mat of bacteria and skeletal plates

Photo and descriptor - Neil McDaniel; www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info

Photo and descriptor – Neil McDaniel; http://www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info

7. This image “shows an individual star that is being consumed by mat bacteria.”

Photo and descriptor - Neil McDaniel; www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info

Photo and descriptor – Neil McDaniel; http://www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info

The 1-minute time-lapse video below shows the progression of the Syndrome in a sunflower star over 7 hours.

Cause(s)?
To date (January 2014), the cause (s) have not yet been identified. Scientific opinion appears to be that most likely the cause is one or more viruses or bacteria that have not yet been identified (more advanced investigations like DNA sequencing and metagenomics are now underway at Cornell University – Source #18 and #19) but toxins and environmental factors have not been ruled out as the primary cause or confounding causes (Source #18). As with any pathogen (like the flu virus), the expression of a pathogen as disease is influenced by number and proximity of individuals and could be exacerbated by environmental stressors. It is NOT radiation [Source #18, #19 and others].

Using cutting-edge DNA sequencing and metagenomics, Hewson is analyzing the samples for viruses as well as bacteria and other protozoa in order to pinpoint the infectious agent among countless possibilities.

“It’s like the matrix,” Hewson said. “We have to be very careful that we’re not identifying something that’s associated with the disease but not the cause.”

    • ”In previous outbreaks the “proximal cause” was found to a vibrio bacterium but “a recent wasting event on the east coast of the United States has been attributed to a virus  . . . such events are often associated with warmer than typical water temperatures . . . Please note that we do not know what is causing Sea Star Wasting Syndrome, and the cause may be different in different regions  . . .  the period prior to Wasting was characterized by warm water temperatures” (University of California Santa Cruz, Source #4).
    • Bates et al reported on an outbreak of wasting syndrome in ochre stars in Barkley sound in 2008. This included conducting lab experiments finding that the “prevalence and infection intensity were always higher in warm temperature treatments” and that “small increases in temperature could drive mass mortalities of Pisaster [ochre stars] due to wasting disease.” [Source #13 and #14]
    • “Do not believe this is related to a warming trend” (Source #18).
    • “Overpopulation” of sunflower stars appears to be a factor with outbreaks occurring where there is a high abundance of sea stars. “Often when you have a population explosion of any species you end up with a disease outbreak” (Source #5). “This could be perfectly normal as a way to control overpopulation” (Source #18).
    • “Some initial samples sent to DFO [Department of Fisheries and Oceans] and UBC [University of British Columbia] have not isolated a specific causative agent for this sea star die off. More samples are being collected and additional tests will be conducted” (Source #2 and #7). Viruses are notoriously difficult to detect. Cornell University (New York) has begun viral and bacterial culturing (Source #8). Updates will be provided here as they become available. See Source #14 for the results of pathology reports from October 4, November 12 and November 13.
    • Quote from Drew Harvell, a Cornell University professor of ecology and evolutionary biology who studies marine diseases: “these kinds of events are sentinels of change. When you get an event like this, I think everybody will say it’s an extreme event and it’s pretty important to figure out what’s going on . . . Not knowing is scary . . . If a similar thing were happening to humans, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would commit an army of doctors and scientists to unraveling the mystery.” (Source #12)
    • Fukushima is a contributing factor?! There is no data to date to support this and, while of course radiation benefits nothing, I worry that pointing the finger away from ourselves takes away from the opportunity to recognize and act on how we all contribute to ocean stressors such as increasing temperature. From Source #19 – “scientists see Fukushima as an unlikely culprit because the die-offs are patchy, popping up in certain places like Seattle and Santa Barbara and not in others, such as coastal Oregon, where wasting has only been reported at one location.”
    • Ballast water? “From Source #19- “Others have wondered if a pathogen from the other side of the world may have hitched a ride in the ballast water of ocean-going ships. Scientists say this fits with the fact that many of the hot spots have appeared along major shipping routes. However, the starfish in quiet Monterey Bay, Calif. have been hit hard, whereas San Francisco’s starfish are holding strong.”

Range and timeline?

  • [Update December 21, 2013 – The Syndrome has been documented in sites from Alaska to the Mexican border – with gaps in knowledge especially off central and northern BC. See data acquired through the University of California, Santa Cruz on this map (Source #4) and the data acquired through the Vancouver Aquarium on this map (Source #3).]
  • June 2013 – First noted in the intertidal zone in ochre stars along the Washington Coast. “As of  December, signs of wasting had been observed at 45 of 84 MARINe sites [USA – Multi-Agency Rocky Intertidal Network] sampled since summer 2013, spanning the entire coast from Alaska to San Diego but varying in intensity from low levels of infection to mass mortality” [and with large gaps in data especially in northern British Columbia]. (Source #17). See map (Source #4) documenting the Syndrome in ochre stars in some locations from Alaska to the Mexican Border.
  • Late August 2013 – first reported in the sub-tidal in Howe Sound (Whytecliff and Kelvin Grove) by recreational diver Jonathan Martin (his photos here; video here). Sunflower stars were the main species impacted.
  • Mass mortality noted in Indian Arm in early October. “By late October the syndrome had been reported from the Gulf Islands, around Nanaimo and into Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands. It appears to be spreading throughout the entire Strait of Georgia and Puget Sound.” [Source #14].
  • First detected in the sub-tidal in sunflower stars in Washington State as of late October (Source #11 and #17). See a video here of a site in West Seattle before and after the outbreak. Update December 22nd: First reported off Whidbey Island, Washington.
  • Update December 21st: I am very sad to report that I have now found afflicted animals on NE Vancouver Island (Bear Cove, Port Hardy). Please see my blog at this link for photos, details and updates on the progression of the Syndrome on NE Vancouver Island].
  • Update January 19th, 2014: Morning sunstar with symptoms found in Campbell River [Reported by Dylan Smith].
  • No outbreaks on the west coast of Vancouver Island [Source #14].
  • “A smaller and isolated Atlantic outbreak, at points off Rhode Island and Maine, has also been noted.” (Source #12).
  • With regard to finding sunflower stars with the syndrome in Sechelt Inlet “This sighting is both disturbing and perplexing for a couple of reasons. First, Sechelt Inlet is hydrographically quite isolated from the rest of the Strait of Georgia, being a nearly land-locked fjord with minimal water exchange through Sechelt Rapids. Secondly [in Sechelt Inlet] Pycnopodia is a common sea star, but by no means abundant and certainly not found in anything near the incredible densities (up to 11/square metre) that we have encountered at the Defence Islands in Howe Sound” (Source #1). Jeff Marliave (VP of Marine Sciences at the Vancouver Aquarium) relates that the epicentre of the outbreak in Sechelt Inlet appears to be Egmont and that this correlates with a high abundance of sunflower stars there (Source #8).
  • Baby sea stars now seem to be coming back to areas where adult sunflower stars have been wiped out (Source #18).
  • You can aid understanding of the range and spread by inputting your data at this link on the Vancouver Aquarium webpage.

Has this happened before?
Never to this large a scale. “Although similar sea star wasting events have occurred previously, a mortality event of this magnitude, with such broad geographic reach has never before been documented.” (Source #17).

  • “Southern California in 1983-1984 and again (on a lesser scale) in 1997-98” (Source #4 and #13)
  • Florida (Source #5).
  • Update November 30: Sunflower die offs [on much smaller scale] have been noted in the past in Barkley Sound. In 2008 ochre star die offs were documented in Barkley Sound. In 2009 Bates et. al. reported on this and observed that the prevalence of disease “was highly temperature sensitive and that populations in sheltered bays appeared to sustain chronic, low levels of infection.” (Source #14 and #15).
  • “Similar events have occurred elsewhere over the last 30 years. Sea stars have perished in alarming numbers in Mexico, California and other localities” (Source #2).
  • “In July, researchers at the University of Rhode Island reported that sea stars were dying in a similar way from New Jersey to Maine .  . a graduate student collected starfish for a research project and then watched as they “appeared to melt” in her tank” (Source #5).

Ecosystem impact?

The impacted sea star species are carnivores, feeding high up in the food chain. This massive die off may lead to shifts / changes in marine ecosystems since there will be less predation by the affected sea star species (Source #9 and #12). Their prey includes: bivalves like mussels, marine snails, urchins and sea cucumbers.

    • “Once that disease is in the environment, it can be difficult to get the population [of the affected sea stars] back” (Source #5).
    • Ecologists consider sunflower and ochre stars to be keystone speices because they have a disproportionately large influence on the distribution and abundance of many other species. Scientists anticipate that such a large mortality event in keystone species could change the intertidal and sub tidal seascapes . . . Previous examples of large-scale, mass mortality of individual marine species have resulted in dramatic ecosystem-wide changes” (Source #17).
    • “Sea stars are voracious predators, like lions on the seafloor. They gobble up mussels, clams, sea cucumbers, crab and even other starfish. That’s why they’re called a keystone species, meaning they have a disproportionate impact on an ecosystem, shaping the biodiversity of the seascape. “These are ecologically important species,”  . . . “To remove them changes the entire dynamics of the marine ecosystem. When you lose this many sea stars it will certainly change the seascape underneath our waters.” (Source #19)
    • Seeing baby sunflower stars back where adults have been wiped out in Howe Sound. Getting species like agarum kelp back (good habitat that was suppressed due to previous abundance of sea stars) but also seeing green urchins come back (will graze on kelp like sea stars do). (Source #18).

Video (7 min) on the state of knowledge on the Syndrome (January 2014) and showing the progression of the Syndrome in sunflower stars around Washington / Southern BC.

Sources:

  1. Email communication with Neil McDaniel.
  2. Email communication with Andy Lamb.
  3. http://www.vanaqua.org/act/research/sea-stars
  4. http://www.eeb.ucsc.edu/pacificrockyintertidal/data-products/sea-star-wasting/
  5. http://commonsensecanadian.ca/alarming-sea-star-die-off-west-coast/
  6. http://www.businessinsider.com/disease-ravaging-west-coast-starfish-2013-11
  7. Shellfish Health Report from the Pacific Biological Station (DFO) conducted on 1 morning sun star and 7 sunflower stars collected on October 9, 2013 at Croker Island, Indian Arm; case number 8361.
  8. Email communication with Jeff Marliave.
  9. http://www.reef2rainforest.com/2013/11/09/disaster-deja-vu-all-over-again/
  10. http://www.aquablog.ca/2013/11/family-relations-in-starfish-wasting-syndrome/ 
  11. http://www.komonews.com/news/eco/Whats-causing-our-sea-stars-to-waste-away–231982671.html
  12. http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/sea-stars-are-wasting-away-in-larger-numbers-on-a-wider-scale-in-two-oceans/2013/11/22/05652194-4be1-11e3-be6b-d3d28122e6d4_story.html
  13. https://science.nature.nps.gov/im/units/medn/symposia/5th%20California%20Islands%20Symposium%20(1999)/Marine%20Ecology/Eckert_Sea_Star_Disease_Population_Decline.pdf
  14. Sea star wasting syndrome, Nov 30-13https://jackiehildering.files.wordpress.com/2013/11/sea-star-wasting-syndrome-nov-30-13.pdf 
  15. Bates AE, Hilton BJ, Harley, CDG 2009. Effects of temperature, season and locality on wasting disease in the keystone predatory sea star Pisaster ochraceus. Diseases of Aquatic Organisms Vol. 86:245-251 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20066959
  16. Video showing impacts in Elliott Bay, Seattle http://earthfix.info/flora-and-fauna/article/sea-stars-dying-off-west-seattle/
  17. University of California, Santa Cruz Press Release; December 22, 2013; Unprecedented Sea Star Mass Mortality Along the West Coast of North America due to Wasting Syndrome
  18. Vancouver Aquarium; January 21, 2014; Presentation – Mass Dying of Seastars in Howe Sound and Vancouver Harbour (Dr. Jeff Marliave and Dr. Marty Haulena).
  19. Earth Fix; January 30, 2014; Northwests starfish experiment gives scientists clues to mysterious mass die-offs 

Images showing symptoms in other sea star species:

Ochre star (aka purple star) with sea star wasting syndrome. Photo and descriptor - Neil McDaniel; www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info Click to enlarge.

Ochre star (aka purple star) with sea star wasting syndrome. Photo and descriptor – Neil McDaniel; http://www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info
Click to enlarge.

Mottled star with sea star wasting syndrome. Photo and descriptor - Neil McDaniel; www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info Click to enlarge.

Mottled star with sea star wasting syndrome. Photo and descriptor – Neil McDaniel; http://www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info
Click to enlarge.

Mottled star with sea star wasting syndrome. Photo and descriptor - Neil McDaniel; www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info Click to enlarge.

Mottled star with sea star wasting syndrome. Photo and descriptor – Neil McDaniel; http://www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info
Click to enlarge.

Mottled star with sea star wasting syndrome. Photo and descriptor - Neil McDaniel; www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info Click to enlarge.

Mottled star with sea star wasting syndrome. Photo and descriptor – Neil McDaniel; http://www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info
Click to enlarge.

Morning sun star with lesions indicating the onset of sea star wasting syndrome. Photo and descriptor - Neil McDaniel; www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info Click to enlarge.

Morning sun star with lesions indicating the onset of sea star wasting syndrome. Photo and descriptor – Neil McDaniel; http://www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info
Click to enlarge.

Giant pink star with sea star wasting syndrome. Photo and descriptor - Neil McDaniel; www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info Click to enlarge.

Giant pink star with sea star wasting syndrome. Photo and descriptor – Neil McDaniel; http://www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info
Click to enlarge.

What was once a giant pink star. Photo and descriptor - Neil McDaniel; www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info Click to enlarge.

What was once a giant pink star. Photo and descriptor – Neil McDaniel; http://www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info
Click to enlarge.

What’s At Stake – Images Speaking Louder Than Words

Three minutes of images speaking louder than words . . .

This short slide show of my images testifies to the astonishing marine biodiversity of Northern Vancouver Island and what is put at risk with projects like the Enbridge Northern Gateway Project which would bring super-tanker traffic of toxic bitumen and condensate to B.C.’s fragile coast, and to the waters on which we depend for oxygen, food, buffering of climate change gases, aesthetics and so much more.

I have submitted this slide show for inclusion on “Hope, the Whale”, a 25′ whale sculpture being brought to the Vancouver Enbridge public hearings (January 14 to 18, 2013) “to symbolize the expansive and growing community of people with a vision of an oil-free coast in BC. The sculpture is designed to be a welcoming, collaborative, visual, interactive and peaceful approach to supporting a healthy environment. The whale will amplify our a collective messages of hope and a vision for a healthy ocean, water, land, communities, green economy, cultures and people.” See this link to contribute your message.

For more information, see my testimony to the Joint Review Panel included in my blog item “Super Natural or Super Tanker?” at this link.

Success! No Tidal Turbines in Whale Epicentre

“KC” breaches in Blackney Pass. Photo: Hildering

As follow-up to last week’s call to action, “Tidal Turbines in Whale Epicentre? Hell No!” , I am so pleased to relay the following media release from myself, the OrcaLab and the proponent, SRM Projects Ltd

The short of it is, due to the efforts of many (including you) and the integrity and ethics of the proponent – the application for an investigative license for ocean power in whale critical habitat has been withdrawn. 

Please read further below.

 Media Coverage:

For details of how this resolve was achieved see this OrcaLab blog item. 

Humpback whale “KC” (BCY0291, born in 2002) breaching in Blackney Pass.
The investigative license application for ocean power has now been withdrawn for this area.
© 2012 Jackie Hildering; http://www.themarinedetective.ca

Tidal Turbines in Whale Epicentre? Hell No!

[Updates: November 18, 2012 – the application for an investigative license for ocean power in whale critical habitat has been withdrawn. Please see the media release at this link.
November 14, 2012 – To our surprise, the deadline to provide comment regarding the land tenure has been extended, it is now also December 2nd.
November 13, 2012 – As testimony to how serious this is – international Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) has picked this up and put out an action alert.]


For a bundling of media items on this see the end of the blog.] 

There are times when expletives like “Hell No!” are justified and I am sure you will agree this is one of those very unfortunate times and – your action is needed.

Blackney Pass off Johnstone Strait is an epicentre of whale activity and there is an application for an “Investigative License of Occupation – Ocean Power ” for this very area. Yep, that’s right . . . an application for “actual installment of technical investigative and monitoring equipment” that could lead to turbines being in critical whale habitat. The proponent is SRM Projects Ltd of Nanaimo, B.C.

While I of course support initiatives to reduce the use of climate-changing fossil fuels, to have turbines in critical whale habitat would be pure, simple, total, utter insanity. No matter how advanced the turbine technology, no amount of mitigation could compensate for the noise, prey reduction, and other disturbance to the whales.

The deadline for your two quick submissions is December 2nd. Below, I have strived to make commenting very expeditious for you, but first, a bit more on how preposterous the application is, just to fuel you up for those comments. 

Here is the map showing the area for the “license of occupation“.

Source: Application for OCEAN ENERGY/INVESTIGATIVE AND MONITORING by SRM Projects Ltd of Nanaimo, B.C.  Click image to enlarge.

Here is the map showing the application site relative to the critical habitat map for northern resident killer whales from the Final Amended Recovery Strategy for Northern and Southern Resident Killer Whales in Canada. [Why was it amended you might ask? Because the federal government had to be taken to court TWICE to enforce their legal obligation to protect killer whale habitat – first ruling December 7, 2010; appeal ruling February 9th, 2011.]

Proposed site (red) relative to acknowledged northern resident killer whale critical habitat (cross hatched area). Source Amended Recovery Strategy for Northern and Southern Resident Killer Whales in Canada. Click image to enlarge.

The very ocean current that makes this area of interest for staking a claim for ocean energy is what makes this such a rich area for marine life. Multiple currents collide causing a merry-go-round in which plankton and fish are concentrated. The threatened northern resident killer whales feed here with great regularity, as do members of the threatened population of humpback whales, Steller sea lions, Dall’s porpoise, etc.

The importance of this area for killer whales can be supported by almost 4 decades of data collected by Department of Fisheries and Oceans and the OrcaLab. More recently, with regard to the humpbacks, I and my fellow researchers from the Marine Education and Research Society, can testify to how often these giants are in this area.

But it is the whales that speak with the most convincing voices of all. Here is the OrcaLab’s September 16th, 2012 visual and acoustic recording of the I15 and A30 matrilines of northern resident killer whales in the very area “in question”.

For researchers, whale watchers and on-line followers of the OrcaLab’s monitoring of whales, we all know that this kind of activity is not exceptional in this area and we know what is at stake.

As final stark evidence of how often there are whales in this area, note where, of all the places the OrcaLab could have put their whale-monitoring cameras and hydrophones, they are positioned. Then again, note the location of the proposed ocean power project.

Proposed site (red) relative to positions of the OrcaLab, and their hydrophones and cameras. Testimony to just how often there are whales here. Click image to enlarge.


One would hope that government agencies would surely deny this application but  . . . we have so many recent examples of this being tragically misplaced faith and we cannot count on there being any legislation in place for sound environmental assessment that would confirm environmental impacts. May I point out again that the government had to be taken to court TWICE to be order to acknowledge and protect killer whale critical habitat?!

Therefore, we collectively need to make our “Hell No!” heard now.

Essential action needed by December 2nd – submission to two government agencies. 

  1. By December 2nd, regarding the land tenure,  click this link, go to the bottom of this Integrated Land Management Bureau page, and comment on the project. Sample text below in green. [Note that, to our surprise, this deadline changed on November 14th, the date that was the initial deadline for comment to this agency.]
  2. By December 2nd, regarding the license of occupation, click this link and email your comment to Forests, Lands and Natural Resources Operations. You could use the same text as you did for the above.

If you can, come to the Port McNeill “community information session” given by the proponent, SRM Projects Ltd of Nanaimo, on November 20th in Room 4 of the Old School from 6:30 to 7:45 PM. There will also be an information session in Campbell River on November 22nd but this will focus on SRM’s proposals for the Discovery Passage and Seymour Narrows. It will be in the Rivercorp Boardroom, 900 Alder Street from 7:00 to 8:30 PM.

  • Sample text for both of the above. “With regard to Land File Number 1412946, the application for SRM Project Ltd’s “Investigative License of Occupation – Ocean Power” in the Blackney Passage / Johnstone Strait area, I write you to express that this application must not be granted. This is scientifically confirmed critical habitat for northern resident killer whales and it has been legally ruled that this must be protected as per Canada’s Species at Risk Act. In addition, the area is of great importance to humpback whales and many other marine species. No matter how advanced the turbine technology, no amount of mitigation could compensate for the noise, prey reduction, and other disturbance to the whales.”  You may even want to reference this blog and provide the link e.g. “For further details of the reasons for my great objection to this application see the rationale and resources provided at http://wp.me/pPW6V-LE.&#8221;

With this application being so ludicrous, I can’t help but wonder if I am missing something. Is this just part of a staking frenzy or is it some sort of distractor so that attention is taken away from something else?

SRM LTD’s projects are listed here. Again, reductions to our voracious fossil fuel consumption are very much needed but, at the cost of having turbines in whale critical habitat? Unequivocally – no. 

So much insanity  . . . so little time.  Sigh.

Huge gratitude and respect to Angela Smith for being the one to take note of the notification of this application and to Leah Robinson for ensuring I had many of the details I needed for this blog.

Media items:

References:

This posting on my FaceBook page has had success in creating further awareness. Feel free to share! Whale on right is Tsitika (A30). She is 65 years old. She loves Chinook salmon and is always within calling range of her sons, daughters and grand-calves. Most often, as is the case here, she is right beside her eldest surviving son, Blackney (A38) who is 42. Tsitka has lived through the human impacts of being shot at when that was our way; our use of toxins that bioaccumulate in the flesh of her kind reducing their immunity and ability to reproduce; our practices that have reduced the availability of salmon and . . . the noise! The next assault – turbines in the very area where her family most often fishes? The same area that is the namesake of her son i.e. “Blackney Pass” and where this photo was taken? The area that is designated as critical habitat for her population?

Super Natural or Super Tanker?

Northern Resident Killer Whale R12 (male born in 1967) in Caamano Sound – part of the proposed tanker route that would carry bitumen crude along B.C.’s fragile coast. Photo by James Pilkington taken during the time he spent 3 seasons at a remote outpost documenting the biodiversity of the area for the North Coast Cetacean Society. http://www.cetacealab.org/

August 8, 2012: Last night and this afternoon concerned Northern Vancouver Islanders resolutely, passionately, creatively, eloquently and unequivocally said “NO” to the Enbridge Northern Gateway Project. Below, is the text that I used to guide my testimony to the Joint Review Panel:  

My name is Jackie Hildering and I speak from the perspective of a marine educator who has lived in this area for 13.5 years. I moved here after a 14-year international teaching career choosing B.C.’s Coast specifically because of its extraordinary marine biodiversity and what I perceived to be the potential to leverage this biodiversity to motivate people to undertake positive environmental change.    In my years here:

  • I have worked as a whale watching naturalist for a company serving some 10,000 guests a year of which a conservative estimate is that 65% come from outside British Columbia;
  • For 8 years, I was DFO’s Education Coordinator for this area;
  • I am a humpback whale researcher; and
  • I am a very avid cold-water scuba diver using my underwater experiences and photographs, in addition to the marine mammal engagers, in my education and conservation efforts.

I am the 2010 recipient of the Vancouver Aquarium’s Murray A. Newman Award for Excellence in Aquatic Conservation and have received written commendation for my work from DFO’s Director of Oceans, Habitat and Enhancement. I share this depth of personal background with you to fortify my testimony:

  • On how extraordinary the marine biodiversity of this area is;  
  • The value of the resources being put at risk; and
  • That this risk is simply too great to allow the marine transport of bitumen in the proposed area.

It is an inescapable conclusion that the transport of bitumen crude along our Coast constitutes a massive gamble where human ingenuity is being pitted against the resilience of Nature and our dependence on it. I can testify that this marine ecosystem is extraordinary on a global scale. I have photographed invertebrates that were previously unknown to science, and have participated in documenting rare organisms such a corals and glass sponge reefs at depths much shallower than what had been previously documented.   I acknowledge however, that when there is such absence of knowledge, it is more difficult to make the case for how the life hidden below the surface may be impacted by this Project. Therefore, I will use the marine mammals and what we do know about them as ambassadors for the fragility of the other life below the surface. The marine mammals that have been acknowledged to be at risk in the area are the:

  • Species of Special Concern – the harbour porpoise, gray whale, Steller sea lion, and sea otter;
  • Species recognized as being Threatened – humpback whale, fin whale, northern resident, and transient killer whales; and
  • The Endangered southern resident killer whales and potentially, blue whales and sei whales.

In fact, bitumen transport would take place through what has been acknowledged by government to be critical habitat for humpback whales, and what is candidate critical habitat for northern resident killer whales and fin whales. The marine mammals, to varying degrees, have survived culling and whaling but continue to experience the treats of reduced prey availability, bioaccumulation of toxins, ocean acidification and further impacts of climate change, noise, vessel strike, entanglement, and more. The anthropogenic impacts on these species’ survival would indisputably be amplified further by this Project due to chronic noise and increased risk of ship strike. As a humpback researcher, I can attest to how oblivious this species can be to boats. I have watched them surface directly in front of motorized vessels after previously having been 400 plus meters away. When one considers the size of the tankers, how narrow the inlets are, the difficulty in adjusting the course of these large vessels, the density of humpback whales, and the potential weather conditions – vessel strike of humpbacks is a very real risk and one that cannot be mitigated by the presence of marine mammal observers. The humpbacks are going to be there.  Then what? Outside of concerns about the noise and further traffic impacts to the marine life, and what this means to their survival, the potential losses that would result from a spill are simply the stuff of nightmares.  When something goes wrong – then what?  It is my understanding that, at best, when there is a spill there would be 15% recovery. And we can’t hope for “at best” – seen Enbridge’s performance record; the likely wind and wave action that would be associated with a spill; that the federal government is closing B.C.’s command centre for emergency oil spills and centralizing operations in . . . Quebec; and that the closure of a Coast Guard base and three marine communication centres in B.C. will leave only two marine communication centres to monitor B.C.’s 27,000 kilometres of coastline.  And after the spill, with irreversible and catastrophic loses, what mechanism is there to hold industry accountable? What is there when, concurrent with the review of a Project such as this with the potential for devastating impacts, the government is atrophying or removing the checks and balances the would allow appropriate assessment of risk? The latest Harper statement is that science, not politics, will drive decision making around such projects. How?

  • The ocean contaminants program will be all but be shut down;
  • Government researchers, whose work has been paid for by the taxpayer, are stifled in their communications;
  • Bill C-38 has gutted Canada’s Fisheries Act, undermined the Species at Risk Act and repealed the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and it was done in such a way that even the Conservatives could not vote against it since, to defeat an omnibus budget bill is to defeat one’s own government;
  • Testimony at the Cohen Inquiry into the Decline of Fraser River Sockeye has made clear how government bodies are made to work with industry rather than safeguard our natural resources – even a keystone species; and
  • Environmental governmental organizations are more overwhelmed than ever as a result of these many attacks against science and the environment in addition to now struggling under the needless scrutiny and vilification by our federal government.

This current government climate is the epitome of decision-making based on short-term economic gain over long-term environmental health. I solidly believe there is another economic path that does not put our resources at risk in the way that marine bitumen transport would and where there is so much to lose economically, socially, and culturally. As a result of my work, I believe we have not come close appreciating nor maximizing the economics of the international attraction of British Columbia for its natural splendor. Outside of the First Nations, our culture has largely been one of being gold-rushers, and I think we, the keepers of paradise, often don’t know that we are in it. We don’t fully recognize how extraordinary B.C.’s Coast is and therefore don’t understand adequately what is being put at risk.   There is certainly an element of taking our resources for granted, and increasingly, that society does not appreciate our connection and dependency on them. Therefore, we fall short in our ability to attract and capitalize on B.C.’s international wild appeal and we are not inclined to move toward a greener economy nor to adequately protect our environment. I can testify to the potency of our Coast to attract those looking to connect to the wild, to view giants, and breath in the sense of space and raw beauty of this area and how I believe this can be capitalized upon economically, while creating societal good. It is of course so difficult to measure, but I will also dare state, based on my experience in the trenches of conservation, that the connection to the wild positively impacts, inspires, fortifies and empowers humanity in a way that cannot be achieved in an urbanized setting. [And this is where I virtually lost it and needed to choke out the remaining words.] We simply need places like this and can’t expose them to this kind of risk. My position on the decisions Panel should make is:

  • The potential of environmental impact is too great and cannot be mitigated for;
  • There is too much at risk – environmentally, economically, culturally and socially; and
  • That therefore, transport of bitumen crude cannot take place along B.C.’s fragile and extraordinary coast and the Enbridge Project must not be approved.   

Simply, we should be capitalizing on this being Super Natural British Columbia, not Super Tanker British Columbia.