According to experts, the reason for the starvation in the Southern Residents is most definitely a lack of salmon, which make up the largest and most nutritious part of their diet. Wasser and his fellow researchers found that levels of thyroid hormones were lowest in the Southern Resident whales following known drops in Chinook salmon from the Fraser River, while increases in salmon in the river were associated with increases in thyroid hormone levels.
In the past 10 years, salmon — particularly those spawning in the Columbia River — have decreased. While that’s certain, Wasser said what’s not well understood is why their numbers are dropping. Overfishing and habitat loss due to development could play a role in the fish’s demise. However, it appears more likely that the construction of hydroelectric dams on rivers where salmon spawn and migrate are to blame.
“Some say dams are key, including the Snake River dam, which impacts levels of early spring Chinook, some of the fattiest fish known and essential to replenish whales from the harsh winter and sustain them until the Fraser River Chinook run peaks in the summer,” said Wasser.
Giles takes a stronger personal stance when it comes to discussing the threats to survival the Southern Residents face. She said it’s clear that fishing restrictions and dam removal are necessary in order to replenish salmon and killer whale populations in the Pacific Northwest. But making her voice heard has been something she’s been criticized for doing as a scientist.
“I won’t stop telling the truth about what’s happening just because it’s politically ‘incorrect’ or unpopular,” said Giles. “We need to take action now or we’ll lose these genetically and culturally distinct whales forever.”
Whether we succeed in doing what is necessary to help this population survive, or whether we let them dwindle away, is a true test of whether anyone really cares enough about the rest of the species on this planet. Everyone says they love killer whales. But if they can’t be mobilized to help a species they love, then what hope do all the other species have?
Seventy-percent of pregnancies are resulting in miscarriage, estimates one study. And the scientists behind the report believe they know why:
Over the years, killer whales accumulate toxins from their food in their fat. Normally, these pesticides and chemicals, such as PCBs or DDT, have chronic effects on the whales. But in recent years something else has happened: chinook salmon—one of the whales’ most important food sources—have dwindled.
When the whales don’t get enough to eat, they start to burn their fat reserves, which releases the stored toxins into their bloodstreams. This hurts the health of the developing calf, and the effect is particularly pronounced late in the pregnancy when the fetus is growing rapidly.
“The cumulative effects of loss of food and release of toxins are the best predicators of whether or not a pregnant female will take a fetus to term or abort it,” Wasser says.
If that is right, then the only way to boost the chances that this endangered population will survive is to rapidly boost populations of their favorite food, Chinook salmon. That isn’t easy, but breaching dams where Pacific salmon spawn, allowing greater numbers to get upriver and reproduce, is one key step supported by researchers who study the Southern Resident killer whales.
NOAA disagrees, but at this point it seems clear that more radical and creative solutions are required if there is to be any hope of supporting the remarkable population of killer whales that reside in the Pacific Northwest–who unfortunately occupy a habitat that is deeply impacted by human activity from pollution, to shipping, to fishing (not to mention a decade of captures). We are responsible for their troubles. We should feel a moral obligation to do what is needed to reverse their decline.
Moving from marine- to land-based or closed-containment aquaculture is a decidedly uphill battle. Terrestrial systems can cost several times as much as sea pens. Even though net-pen farms are restricted to suitable coastal sites, the ocean provides space and water, and free access to water circulation. On land, a similar arrangement may work on a small scale, but be prohibitively expensive on a commercial scale.
Land operations have hidden costs, too, says Tony Farrell, an animal physiologist at the University of British Columbia. Existing terrestrial operations take a lot of energy and produce a lot of greenhouse gases, he says. “They will get better,” he says, but the development of new technologies should proceed in a “positive, but cautious, way.”
I once looked into the many impacts of fish consumption, and how to reduce the impact of eating fish if you give a damn. And while there are definitely better and worse ways to consume fish (the best I concluded is to stick to farmed mussels), I came away thinking it just seems easier to me to simply not eat fish. The impact of that choice is both positive and beneficial to the oceans in countless ways.
Is it really that hard to not eat salmon and tuna? I feel completely out of touch with consumers who feel that their desire to please their palates (yes, salmon is healthy, but there are other ways to eat healthy) outweighs all the profound impacts of fishing and aquaculture on the planet. Yes, that is a judgement. But the cold balance of logic just seems so clear to me.
Yet independent orca researchers say these arguments don’t hold water. “If SeaWorld didn’t exist, would our understanding of wild killer whales be significantly reduced? I think the answer to that is no, it would not,” says a veteran marine-mammal researcher who works at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “It’s a bit like having Walt Disney tell us about mouse biology,” says Ken Balcomb, founder of the Center for Whale Research and a pioneering orca researcher.
Despite their 24/7 access to killer whales, SeaWorld-affiliated researchers have published relatively few orca studies. Of the four dozen orca-related papers coauthored by SeaWorld-backed researchers over the past 40 years, half were published before 1990, and just seven since 2010. What’s more, at least one-third of these papers did not focus on captive whales, but wild populations ranging from Alaska to New Zealand.
Many of the papers cited on SeaWorld’s website were coauthored by researchers from the Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute, a San Diego nonprofit founded in 1963. SeaWorld provides around 10 percent of its roughly $5 million budget. In 2012 and 2013, Hubbs-SeaWorld published 26 papers on topics ranging from abalone genetics to polar bears’ hearing; none focused on orcas. SeaWorld also touts its SeaWorld & Busch Gardens Conservation Fund as evidence of its investment in killer-whale science and conservation. However, between 2004 and 2012 the fund spent no more than $550,000 on research focused on killer whales, according to an analysis by the nonprofit Whale and Dolphin Conservation.
At some point SeaWorld will realize that spin will no longer cut it. If they want credit for promoting conservation and a better understanding of threats to wild orca populations they will have to make real investments and do real research.
One of the interesting insights I came to through my involvement in Blackfish, is that in the age of infotainment and cable-news superficiality, documentaries are filling an increasingly important niche. They are increasingly the best format to learn about almost any subject you choose. Not only are documentaries proliferating as film-making technology becomes more affordable and sophisticated, and as platforms on which to stream and view documentaries proliferate (making documentaries more accessible). But other news sources are becoming increasingly trivial, celebrified, and irrelevant.
So if you want facts, engagement, and inspiration, documentaries are where you should turn.
That’s what I have been doing, and I want to flag three documentaries I have recently seen that are worth seeking out and watching.
The first is Cowspiracy. It tackles an issue that is almost inexplicable, and that is the degree to which environmental organizations and nonprofits avoid educating their communities about the single most powerful choice an individual can make to protect the planet: stop eating meat.
Cowspiracy does a really nice job both explaining why this is so and calling the environmental movement out on this failure of courage. That makes for sometimes humorous, sometimes intriguing, but always enraging and enlightening viewing.
Above All Else is ostensibly about the Keystone pipeline, and the fight put up by some east Texas families whose private property was seized under the principle of “eminent domain” so the pipeline could cross their lands. But it is not really a film about climate change (though that hovers in the background, and helps makes the fight worth fighting) so much as it is a devastating exegesis on corporate power, and all the ways in which a large, multi-billion dollar entity can marshall all the resources of the legal system, the political system, and even local law enforcement to crush the rights and privacy of the individual.
If you don’t already think we live in a corporate oligarchy then this movie will slap you awake. And even if you do, the way in which the film builds your empathy for the families and individuals who painfully and inevitably get run over by the Keystone project and the corporate power behind it will hopefully sharpen your desire to take a stand against the growing imbalance between corporate power and individual rights.
And maybe the twenty-somethings who converge on east Texas to sit in trees and try to stop the shockingly efficient industrial process which clears them will both inspire you and maybe even motivate you to go sit in a tree somewhere too.
Finally, make sure you also find time to check out Dam Nation. It’s a powerful film about how the relentless damming of America’s rivers during the growth of industrialization had devastating consequences for the fish (especially salmon) and other species that happened to, um, live in and and rely on the rivers. It’s also about the inspiring movement to undo at least some of that damage.
All three of these movies will inform you, inspire you, and (hopefully) energize you. The thing I love about the documentaries that are being made these days is that they are SUPPOSED to do all those things to you. Gone are the days of droning presentation of fact, with a tedious voice-over.
Film is such a powerful medium, it is so increasingly central to how we view our lives and the planet, and we are in such crisis that it is exciting and reassuring to see film-makers everywhere trying to shock and move audiences that are being narcotized and distracted by the pablum and consumerism being spoon-fed by the corporate media.
No one should have any qualms about film-making that aspires to motivate audiences to change how they live, and take action to try and change the world around them. That’s exactly what documentary film-making should be about in this era.
Ecologist Carl Safina, a writer and the founder of Blue Ocean Institute, developed the first sustainable seafood guide in the late 1990s. Before that, there was really no such thing as “sustainable” seafood: “If a piece of fish landed on your plate, you just ate it,” he said. “It was like bread. You didn’t talk about it.”
When we talk about sustainable seafood these days, we’re mostly concerned with whether a population is being overfished. According to the United Nations’ 2012 “State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture” report, about 85 percent of the world’s fish stocks are fully or overexploited, depleted or recovering from depletion. We no longer take it as a given that there are plenty of fish in the sea, and some go so far as to suggest that our generation may be the last to enjoy seafood.
The creators of consumer guides to sustainable seafood, of which there are now many, pay careful attention to overfishing. They also look at whether the methods used to catch fish are harming the aquatic habitat, and if they cause a lot of bycatch – the inadvertent snaring of unwanted fish, dolphins and sea turtles. Some of the guides investigate whether fisheries are well-managed. Other factors, like how suppliers deal with waste and whether they use harmful chemicals, are often taken into consideration as well.
“Consumers making the conscious choice to try and buy more sustainable seafood is an important first step,” Tim Fitzgerald, a senior policy specialist who runs the Sustainable Seafood Program at the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), told me. And these organizations do seem to be doing everything in their power to arm consumers with the tools they need to make these choices. The EDF, for example, takes the extra step of providing a version of its guide written in the language of sushi. (When you order “tako,” what you’re getting is octopus, which, by the way, is a very bad choice.)
But in many cases, providing enough information for the consumer to make a truly informed decision is next to impossible. For instance, while there’s a clear distinction between Pacific and Atlantic salmon – Atlantic is always farmed and thus, always bad – whether my Monterey Bay app categorizes my Pacific salmon as a “best choice” or a more cautious “good alternative” depends on how it was caught. There’s really no way, said Safina, for me, or even the restaurant or supermarket I’m purchasing my fish from, to know that.
I wasn’t able to get in touch with the Monterey Bay Aquarium to talk about the way in which they see their guide’s ultimate utility. However, I noticed an extra “consumer note” attached to its entries on salmon. “Buyer beware!” it reads. “Different species of salmon are sold under many market names – and several are available from farmed and wild sources.” Wild and farmed salmon, said Fitzgerald, are among the most commonly mislabeled products. Call a fillet “wild,” after all, and you can sell it at a premium.
“You can’t rely on anybody selling you fish to be truthful 100 percent of the time,” Safina said. This isn’t limited to how the fish are caught; the sustainable option you pick might not be sustainable at all, because it’s an entirely different fish.
It’s not that it isn’t possible (though I have my doubts given the overwhelming global demand for fish). It’s more that our knowledge and understanding of how fish gets to the plate is limited, or even obscured by the fishing industry. Just as more reporting and more investigation led to a better understanding of the depredations and environmental and health costs of Big Meat, the more we dig into where fish comes from and how it is fished the less appealing or sustainable it appears.
For example, take this recent report about farmed salmon and the potential impact of sea lice on wild population:
The scientific study published in Agricultural Sciences by a scientist of Ireland’s Marine Institute, which, it has been claimed, justified the salmon fishing industry’s stance that a mere 1%-2% of wild salmon deaths are due to sea lice, has been challenged in a key publication.
A recent critique by scientists from Scotland, Canada and Norway and led by Martin Krkosek of the University of Toronto’s department of ecology and evolutionary biology, published in the Journal of Fish Diseases, argues that the Marine Institute’s work has “fundamental errors”.
Hughie Campbell Adamson, chairman of the Salmon and Trout Association Scotland (S&TAS) is now demanding that the Scottish Salmon Producers’ Organisation (SSPO) retract a statement made by its chairman, Professor Phil Thomas, six months ago dismissing the impact of sea lice on wild salmon.
The new interpretation of the research claims there are “grave mistakes in measuring control and treatment groups, leading to wide inaccuracies”.
The fresh examination of the original data shows that the impact of sea lice on wild salmon causes a far higher loss (34%) of those returning to Irish rivers than the 1% loss that was calculated in the original paper.
Many scientists and environmentalists have been looking to aquaculture — fish farming — as a potential savior for today’s radically diminished wild-fish stocks. Indeed, aquaculture in the crucial Mexican states of Sinaloa and Sonora has doubled every few years over the past decade. In Harper’s, I pointed out that farmed salmon, shrimp, and tuna require massive amounts of fishmeal, which is usually harvested from wild populations. The recent news displays another problem that I didn’t mention, but that is equally problematic: cramming thirty shrimp into one square meter is a little like putting thousands of people into unsanitary prison camps. Disease runs rampant.
Traditionally, there are several ways to address this issue, none of them ideal. The first is simply to desert the ponds as soon as diseases appear, then build a new one instead. This practice is common in Southeast Asia, and it occasionally happens in the mangrove forests of Nayarit and Sinaloa, too. But La Borbolla, one of the most environmentally sensitive farms in the regions, isn’t built on destroyed mangroves, and it isn’t easily moved. Instead, Mexican farms tend to rely on antibiotics, administered via fishmeal. But disease adapts quickly to antibiotics, and it’s a constant struggle to keep producing drugs that can combat the diseases.
Ironically, Mexico’s state of emergency was announced less than three weeks after theUnited States verified that it would certify Mexican wild-caught shrimp imports as environmentally sound. Hundreds of loggerhead turtles were dying after becoming tangled in the nets of the Mexican fishing fleet. (For perspective, the entire Hawaiian fleet is allowed only seventeen accidental turtle deaths per season.)
It turns out, not surprisingly, that plates mounded with cheap shrimp float on a veritable sea of ecological and social trouble. In his excellent 2008 book Bottomfeeder: How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood, the Canadian journalist Taras Grescoe took a hard look at the Asian operations that supply our shrimp. His conclusion: “The simple fact is, if you’re eating cheap shrimp today, it almost certainly comes from a turbid, pesticide- and antibiotic-filled, virus-laden pond in the tropical climes of one of the world’s poorest nations.”
Lest anyone think otherwise, these factory farms generate poverty in the nations that house them, as Grescoe demonstrates; they privatize and cut down highly productive mangrove forests that once sustained fishing communities, leaving fetid dead zones in their wake.
And now, a new study from University of Oregon researcher J. Boone Kauffman findsthat the flattening of Southeast Asian mangrove forests is devastating in another way, too, and not just for the people who have been sustainably living in them for generations. Mangroves, it turns out, are rich stores of biodiversity and also of carbon—and when they’re cleared for farming, that carbon enters the atmosphere as climate-warming gas.
Kaufman estimates that 50 to 60 percent of shrimp farms occupy cleared mangroves, and the shrimp that emerges from them has a carbon footprint 10 times higher than the most notoriously climate-destroying foodstuff I’m aware of: beef from cows raised on cleared Amazon rainforest.
Kaufman calls the shrimp-farming style that prevails in Asia “the equivalent of slash-and-burn agriculture,” because farm operators typically “only last for 5 years or so before the buildup of sludge in the ponds and the acid sulfate soil renders them unfit for shrimp,” hetoldScience.
Cheap shrimp, like cheap oil, is looking increasingly like a dangerous delusion.
Okay, I’ll stop piling on the shrimp-eaters. But given our very imperfect understanding of how fishing is really being done on the high seas, and how farming fish instead will affect the ecosystems around it, it is misleading for anyone to try and say any fish is “sustainable.”
And until we know more, or we truly do find a sustainable fish-producing strategy, the right thing do do is simply not eat fish. Sorry, fish-lovers and pescatarians, by now we know enough to know that we need to know more.
Their argument, according to this report (and, yes, I am paraphrasing): SRKW are not that genetically distinct from other killer whales and there are lots of killer whales around the world, so who cares if they disappear from Puget Sound.
SEATTLE — The federal government is reviewing whether Puget Sound orcas should keep their endangered status.
NOAA Fisheries said Monday the review was prompted by a petition from the California-based Pacific Legal Foundation(PLF) seeking to delist the killer whales from the Endangered Species Act. The petition asserts that orcas aren’t in danger of becoming extinct because they’re part of a larger population of thriving whales.
NOAA listed southern resident killer whales as endangered in 2005. The orcas frequent Washington’s Puget Sound. They also spend time in the open ocean. There are currently 86 of these whales.
The agency has a year to decide whether it should delist the orcas. It says accepting the petition does not suggest a proposal to delist will follow.
The petition was filed in August on behalf of the Center for Environmental Science, Accuracy, and Reliability, as well as two California Central Valley farmers.
PLF says that the farmers’ water supply is threatened by the orca’s ESA listing.
I’m tempted to point out that the existence of killer whales in Puget Sound is an enormous benefit to coastal communities. So PLF is proposing to enrich one industry at the cost of another. But I don’t want to put this thing on pure economic terms. Instead I want to simply ask: is making money more important than preserving this?
Beyond the inevitable environmental impact industrial fish farming is bound to have, no matter where it exists, salmon farming is also extraordinarily inefficient. Daniel Pauly, a fisheries biologist at the University of British Columbia, laid it out for the NYT’s Green blog:
“Aquaculture of carnivores is hopeless and extremely wasteful,” said Dr. Pauly, who supports such a ban. The farmed fish are fed with species that people could consume, he said, so it ends up contributing to human demand for the wild stocks of other species.
For every pound of salmon produced, five pounds of wild fish are needed, usually in the form of anchovies, sardines, or mackerel. “It’s like feeding tigers a ton of livestock to get tiger meat,” says Alex Muñoz Wilson, the vice president in Chile for the nonprofit ocean conservation group Oceana.
Many of these feed fish are species that people could eat, Mr. Muñoz said. A decade ago in Chile, the annual mackerel catch was around four million tons, he said. Today, only about 200,000 tons are harvested annually, he said, although the salmon farms are only partly responsible.
“I think in the long run, salmon aquaculture creates more problems than benefits,” Mr. Muñoz said.
Salmon is a food fetishist’s fish (yes, it tastes great and is good for you), and humans are either depleting wild stocks, or threatening them with industrial farming practices, to gorge on it. It’s a perfect example of a cultural habit whose true costs are not paid by consumers. And an example of how human desires and industry relentlessly impact and overwhelm ecosystems around the globe. But, hey, who cares? We gotta eat salmon.