Can The Vaquita Be Saved? Probably Not But…

“What the heck did I ever do to anyone to deserve becoming the most endangered cetacean on the planet?”

Next month will see the start of a Hail Mary effort to save the rapidly dwindling population of vaquitas in the Gulf Of California. Great backstory on why the vaquita is disappearing in this Hakai article, which describes the upcoming effort thus:

This October, Mexico’s Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT) plans to launch a Hail Mary that will cost more than $5-million in 2017 alone to round up as many vaquitas as possible, and hold them in captivity for as long as it takes to make their habitat safe. Scientists, veterinarians, and experts from organizations in Mexico, the United States, and other countries hope to find them by using acoustic monitors, visual observers, and trained US Navy dolphins. Then, they’ll place nets in their path, and if they can catch them, immediately disentangle them and transport them to temporary open-water enclosures in the Upper Gulf until a more permanent sanctuary can be developed. It’s risky: not all porpoise species tolerate captivity. Even if vaquitas turn out to be among those that do, little is known about what they need to thrive and breed. “We have to be incredibly rapid students of how to deal with fully captive populations and be in there for the long term,” says Barbara Taylor, lead of the US-based Southwest Fisheries Science Center’s Marine Mammal Genetics Program and a key member of CIRVA. “It’s going to be decades.”

It’s unclear how many vaquitas will be left to catch. This past spring, Jaramillo-Legorreta quietly deployed a handful of acoustic monitors a few months earlier than usual. Then, not long before vaquitas reached peak media visibility in June—with US movie star Leonardo DiCaprio and Mexico’s richest man, Carlos Slim, throwing their weight behind vaquita conservation efforts—CIRVA revealed that the creatures had all but disappeared. The monitors detected vaquitas only twice, far fewer times than anticipated. Until results are in from this summer’s full monitoring effort, “the data are hard to interpret,” Taylor says. But they “make us very worried.”

As I say, total Hail Mary. And an opportunity for marine park trainers to put some of their experience to real conservation for once (see this urgent call for trainers to help care for any vaquitas that are captured and moved to a net pen).

Of course it would be nice if we managed our fishing industries, and poverty, well enough to avoid this sort of crisis. Not to mention putting an end to the Asia-driven poaching of all sorts of rare and fragile species around the globe. But until our species gets its act together, any and all nonhuman species-saving strategies, no matter how unlikely or hare-brained, are well worth the effort.

Devil Of A Dilemma: Nuclear Safety vs. Marine Mammal Safety

Sometimes decisions made years ago end up leading us into blind alleys that have no safe or easy way out. A perfect example is California’s Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant (whose idea was it to build a nuclear reactor in a place called Diablo Canyon?).

The nuclear power plant opened in 1985, and generates electricity for more than 2 million homes. Here’s the thing, though: it turns out that Diablo Canyon was built on not just one geological fault, but two (the second discovered in 2008). The risk of building a nuclear power plant anywhere in earthquake country has always been controversial, but in the wake of the Fukushima Disaster, fears about what might happen at Diablo Canyon are suddenly very acute. That has prompted licensing authorities to want to know a lot more about the earthquake risks attached to Diablo Canyon. Which in turn has led California’s PG&E utility, which owns and operates the plant to propose an intensive program of seismic airgun testing right off the coast of Diablo Canyon. And that, in turn, could be a disaster for the marine mammals who thrive in those waters.

Here’s what the testing could mean for marine mammal life, according to an editorial in the Los Angeles Times:

But what if the research itself causes terrible environmental harm? That’s what the staff of the California Coastal Commission says would happen if plant owner Pacific Gas & Electric Co. is allowed to proceed with its proposal to blast underwater air cannons every 15 seconds in Morro Bay, for about 12 days a year over four years, to produce three-dimensional images of geologic faults. PG&E needs the commission’s permission to carry out the sonic imaging, but the staff is recommending against it.

Thousands of marine mammals, with their sensitivity to underwater sounds, would be affected in unknown ways by the disturbance, a staff report says. Of special concern are Morro Bay’s 2,000 harbor porpoises, a distinct population that remains in that area and doesn’t interbreed with other harbor porpoises. If they were driven from the bay by the cannons, their ability to survive would be uncertain. In addition, the blasts would kill millions of fish and other forms of sea life.

The editorial hopes that PG&E will be able to do other testing and surveys that will minimize the need for seismic airgun work, but in the end argues that the risk of a nuclear disaster is so terrible that some seismic testing may have to go forward. Somehow, the question of shutting down a nuclear power plant that almost certainly should never have been built, doesn’t seem to come up. Which is odd, because the very fact that there is a felt need to survey two geological faults suggests that there is a non-trivial earthquake risk. So it is hard to imagine how anyone could ever feel reassured about the risks the plant poses, no matter what the testing shows.

Point Buchon State Marine Reserve and Marine Conservation Area

Sea Shepherd has mobilized against the testing, and has a much more dire view of what it would mean:

According to a PG&E representative at an informational meeting, “the proposal calls for a 240-foot ship to tow a quarter-mile wide array of twenty 250 decibel “air cannons,” along a 90-mile stretch of California’s Central Coast. The cannons will shoot deafening underwater explosions once every twenty seconds, day and night, for 42 days and nights.  The region where this devastating assault on wildlife is expected to take place includes the “protected” Point Buchon State Marine Reserve.

The decision occurs at a time when humpback and blue whales have appeared in shockingly large numbers off the California coast to feed on krill. The seismic testing will kill great blue whales, gray whales and others, dolphins, porpoises, seals, sea lions, otters, and fishes. PG&E has offered to buy-off commercial fishermen in the area to compensate for anticipated losses if the plan is allowed to go forth.

PG&E plans to produce a 3-D map of the shoreline fault’s deeper regions. Hydrophones in the water and geophones on the seafloor would collect data on the sound as it resonates through sea and earth, and the resulting data is expected to help geologists map the fault. Nothing of this scope and power has ever been done in California waters before and according to the Environmental Impact Report, the toll on marine life from this kind of testing is staggering. In regions where this sort of testing has been done, countless dead marine animals wash ashore for weeks during and after testing, blood dripping from areas such as their eyes, nose, ears or mouth — a sign they have suffered catastrophic internal hemorrhaging.

This seismic testing is expected to yield only moderate mapping results and, according to Fish and Game Commissioner Richard Rogers, would “cleanse the Point Buchon State Marine Reserve of all living marine organisms” including Sperm, Pygmy Sperm, Humpback, California Gray and Great Blue Whales, and many other species of fish and marine mammals, right down to the plankton.

For anyone who lives near California’s Central Coast, there will be a public hearing tonight to discuss the dilemmas over Diablo Canyon.

Here’s what I would say, if I were there:

1)  Testing will, without question, harm or kill thousands of marine mammals. The only question is how many, and how many will die or be permanently disabled.

2) In the best case scenario, the testing might reveal a reduced risk of earthquake danger. But Diablo Canyon will still be located in a zone that carries earthquake risk.

3) In the worst case, testing might reveal a serious danger from earthquake.

4) Either way, decommissioning is really the only way to eliminate the risk of a serious nuclear tragedy.

5) Seismic testing won’t really change, or shouldn’t really change, the fact that decommissioning is the only way to make Diablo Canyon safe (and in fact it might simply emphasize that point if the testing reveals serious earthquake risk), so why kill and injure thousands of marine mammals when we already know this is the reality?

6) A Meta-Point: the decision to build Diablo Canyon despite the earthquake risk was a human decision. The electricity Diablo Canyon produces is consumed by humans. Why should marine mammals pay the price of human folly and consumption? (I know, that is a question that could be applied globally to almost any number of issues, but that only makes it THE critical question). In the end, the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant is entirely a human construct. Whatever costs are attached to dealing with the risks and dangers it poses should be borne not by marine mammals that had nothing to do with it, but by humans. It’s called taking responsibility.

Picture via Lady Blue Productions

Sea Shepherd Goes To Sea

Whatever you think of Sea Shepherd’s Paul Watson, and Sea Shepherd’s confrontational anti-whaling strategy, you have to consider this: in an international whale management regime that seems custom-designed for gridlock and delay, Sea Shepherd is taking action.

Call it uncivil disobedience, and maybe that is an idea whose time has come. Increasingly, domestic politics and international diplomacy work at a pace that is insufficient to match the rapid pace of environmental change and destruction occurring around the globe. So we can rely entirely on the usual channels for resolving problems, and feel good about that, but watch whales die, seas rise, forests disappear, and extinction rates accelerate. Or we can continue with those channels but at the same time take more direct action to shock and galvanize the system to respond more quickly.

I’d argue that is what Sea Shepherd is doing with regard to whaling, and once again the Sea Shepherd fleet is headed to sea to confront the Japanese Antarctic whaling fleet:

Captain of the SSS Bob Barker, Captain Peter Hammarstedt stated, “The plan is for our fleet to meet the whaling fleet in the North Pacific off Japan. We are planning to take the battle pretty much up to Japan itself. We are keeping the location and identity of our new vessel, the SSS Sam Simon, a secret in the hope that the first time the whalers see the Sam, is when she comes into view on the slipway of the factory processing ship, the Nisshin Maru, effectively shutting down their illegal whaling operations.”

Currently docked in Marina del Rey, California on its very first trip to the mainland U.S., the fast scout vessel, the SSS Brigitte Bardot, will depart on November 11 and quickly meet up with the rest of the Sea Shepherd fleet.

Hammarstedt also went on to say “it is expected Sea Shepherd Founder and President Captain Paul Watson will appear in command of one of the vessels when the action begins.” Captain Watson has been in an undisclosed location since July 22 when he forfeited his bail and departed house arrest in Germany to avoid being extradited on bogus charges to Costa Rica and Japan.

Australian Director Jeff Hansen stated, “This is our strongest fleet to date, with four ships and more than 100 international crew representing 23 nations to defend the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary. Operation Zero Tolerance will be Sea Shepherd’s best-equipped and most effective campaign to date. This is a defining moment in Sea Shepherd’s history; we have no tolerance for whale poachers. Our objective this year is 100%. We are going to try and intercept them as quickly as possible, and try to make this the first year they get zero kills.”

I’m excited that dedicated animal rights defender Sam Simon will have a ship out there, and I’m sure it will get into some crazy trouble. But lest you are tempted to dismiss the Sea Shepherd campaign as trivial or a sideshow, please note the fact that Sea Shepherd has likely saved the lives of thousands of whales (they claim more than 3,600).

If you don’t think that really matters, then watch the death of just a single whale (dramatized as it is for Whale Wars). It will make you want to sign on as Sea Shepherd crew.

Nightly Reader: Oct. 24, 2012

Cost Of Coal: Searing look at the impact coal mining and coal power has on the environment and communities, from the Sierra Club.

California Cap & Trade
: If Washington, DC won’t act to reduce carbon emissions, California isn’t going to sit around and do nothing.

Right(s) Whales
: Why whales are like people, and why they should have rights like people.


Planet Ocean: Sea Shepherd’s Paul Watson explains what his work is all about.

A Market Solution For Saving Whales?

Greenpeace and Sea Shepherd confrontations with whaling fleets make for good television. But despite their efforts lots of whales still die every year (some 2000, in fact).

A minke whale is processed in Hvalskurður, Iceland. (Via WIRED. Photo: Dagur Brynjólfsson/Flickr

Environmental economists Christopher Costello, Steve Gaines, and Leah Berger think that market incentives might be a better way to reduce the numbers of whales killed every year. Writing in the January 11 issue of NATURE, they propose the equivalent of a cap and trade system for whales, which would allow conservationists to spend money on purchasing whale shares (and saving the lives of whales) in stead of spending money on chasing whaling fleets around the world’s oceans.

Here’s how WIRED describes the plan:

The proposed market would be patterned after a system known best known from fisheries management as catch shares: Sustainable harvest levels are quantified, a maximum quota established, and catch allotments put up for sale by the International Whaling Commission. Costello’s proposal would add the crucial wrinkle of allowing activists to buy shares, too. If they did, a corresponding number of whales would be removed from the quota. (Indigenous groups would receive a set number of shares to be owned in perpetuity, apart from the market — though those could conceivably be sold, too.)

According to Costello’s estimates, global whaling profits amount to $31 million, and likely less when government subsidies are removed. Mainstream anti-whaling groups — Greenpeace, Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, and the World Wildlife Fund — spend about $25 million to fight the hunts.

“This money could be used to purchase whales, arguably with the same or better effect,” write the researchers in Nature.

There is pushback over the idea that whales would continue to be treated as commodities to buy and sell, instead of exempted from human harvest because they are intelligent, social creatures.

But until humanity achieves a more enlightened and ethical understanding of the relationship between humankind and the other species on Earth–and can agree to leave whales alone–it makes sense to try any approach that actually reduces whale kills. Right now, money is what motivates mankind, so it’s an intriguing proposal.

Whale Wars-Again

Last year, the Japanese whaling fleet, harassed constantly by the Sea Shepherds, went home early, and without killing as many whales as they had planned. Many people took that as a good sign for the future. Apparently, not. The Japanese whaling fleet is gearing up for another Southern Ocean season, and the Japanese government is planning to spend $10 million to send an escort vessel to help fend off Paul Watson and the Steve Irwin. So the stage is set for more confrontation.

The Japanese are saying that they need to continue their “research” whaling in order to make it possible to resume commercial whaling in the future, despite widespread condemnation from countries in the region. The economics of whaling just don’t add up, so it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that cultural stubbornness, and narcissistic preoccupations with the importance of human “face,” is driving the ongoing whale slaughter, rather than any concept or morality, or even economic rationality. The result is sure to help Whale Wars score great ratings. And while I am all in favor of Watson and his team doing everything they can to stop the whale killing, and appreciate the public awareness Whale Wars delivers, I wonder how much of the profits Animal Planet puts into whale conservation.

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