Analysis:   New scientific findings likely confirm Haisla story of first arrival in the valley

Two related scientific papers published in the past two weeks, one on the First Peoples  initial settlement of coastal  North America and the second  giving a probable new timeline of the retreat of the glaciers during the last Ice Age,  taken together  are likely confirmation of the Haisla story of how that nation first settled the Kitimat Valley.

Haisla NationAs related in Gordon Robinson’s Tales of the Kitamaat, the First Peoples living on the coast of what is now British Columbia ventured up what is now called Douglas Channel perhaps from either Bella Bella in Heiltsuk traditional territory or from Prince Rupert in Tsimshian traditional territory.

The young men on the expedition up the Kitimat Arm spotted what they thought was a huge monster kilometres ahead with a large mouth that was constantly opening and closing. The sight was so terrifying that the men fled back to their homes and dubbed the Kitimat Arm as a place of a monster.

Later a man named Hunclee-qualas accidentally killed his wife and had to flee from the vengeance of his father-in-law.   Knowing he had to find a place where no one could find him,  he ventured further up the Kitimat Arm. There he discovered that the “monster” was nothing more than seabirds, probably seagulls, perhaps feasting on a spring oolichan run.

He settled along the shore of what is now the Kitimat River and found a land of plenty, with fish, seals, game as well as berries and other natural products of the land.  Eventually he invited others to join him, which began the Haisla Nation and he became their first chief.

Let’s examine the new evidence so far.

  1. Settlement along the coastal “kelp highway” between 18,000 and 16,000 years ago, followed by a warm spell 14,500 years ago

It’s now fairly certain that the First Peoples first began to settle along the coast by following the “kelp highway” perhaps as early as 18,000 years ago and certainly by 14,000 years ago.  Haida Gwaii was ice free, except for some mountain glaciation as early as 16,500 years ago.   At about 14,500 years ago there was a warming spell which forced the glaciers to retreat, brought higher sea levels and the arctic like tundra ecosystem would have been replaced, at least for a time, by forests. There is the discovery of a Heiltsuk settlement dated to 14,000 years ago.  At that time almost all of the coast would have been free of glacial ice but there were still glaciers in the fjords, including the Kitimat Arm which would mean there could be no permanent settlement in the “inland coast” and the interior.

  1. The cooling period from 14,000 to 11,700 years ago confines settlement to the coast

The cooling periods  (with occasional warmer times) from about 14,000 years ago to about 11,700 years ago meant that settlement would largely have been confined to the coast for about two and half millennia. The culture of the coastal First Peoples would have been well established by the time the glaciers began the final retreat.

(Remember that it is just 2,000 years from our time in 2017 back to the height of the Roman Empire under Augustus Caesar).

It is likely that the cooling periods also meant that some descendants of initial settlers likely headed south for relatively warmer climates. Rising sea levels meant that the initial settlement villages would likely have been abandoned for higher ground.

  1. A second period of rapid warming 11,700 years ago which opens up the interior fjords and valleys

At the end of what geologists call the Younger Dryas period, about 11,500 years ago, the climate warmed, the glaciers retreated further, in the case of Kitimat, first to what is now called Haisla Hill, then to Onion Flats and finally to Terrace.

  1. Large glacial sediment river deltas filled with fresh melt water from retreating ice

The most important confirmation of the story of Hunclee-qualas’s exile is the account  of the monster, the birds and the oolichan run.

The new scientific evidence, combined with earlier studies, points to the fact that the glacial melt water carried with it huge amounts of glacial sediment that created vast river deltas in coastal regions of the Northern Hemisphere.

That means around 10,000 years ago,   when the Kitimat Valley was ice free and the new forest ecosystem was spreading up the valley, the Kitimat River estuary was likely to have been much larger than today.  It could have been a vast delta, which would have quickly been repopulated with fish, including salmon and oolichan. That rich delta ecosystem could have supported a much larger population of seabirds than the smaller estuary in recent recorded history.

Snow geese by the thousands in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay Delta/ CrunchySkies/Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons License

The story of the monster those first travelers saw far off is highly plausible. Even today in huge, rich deltas elsewhere in the world, seeing hundreds of thousands of birds in flight over a wetland is fairly common. (For a description of what a Kitimat River delta may have been like thousands of years ago, see KCET’s story on the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay Delta and what that delta was like 6,000 years ago)

The First Peoples had had well established communities for up to four thousand years before the Kitimat Valley’s metres of thick ice had melted away.  For the first period, while the ecosystem regenerated, for the people of the coast coming up Douglas Channel to the valley would not have been worth it, there would be little to find in terms of fish, game or forest resources.

A Snow Goose flock near the Skagit River Delta, WA./ Walter Siegmund/Wikimedia Commons
  1. The change from tundra to a rich forest environment

Eventually as the forest regenerated, the streams filled with salmon and oolichan; the bird population including gulls, geese and eagles, found a new feeding ground;  bears, deer and other animals arrived. The Kitimat region would have been an attractive place to explore and hunt. It may be the monster story did keep people away until Hunclee-qualas had to find a place to hide and discovered a new home just at a time that might be called an ecological optimum with new forests stretching back along the valley to what is now Terrace.

  1. The river delta shrinks back to the current estuary

If a vast Kitimat River delta did stretch further down the Channel than it does in 2017, it likely shrank back in the subsequent millennia.   Eventually the mass of glacial sediment that came downstream after the retreat of the ice would diminish, but not stop entirely. The estuary is still rebuilt from sediments washed downstream but that sediment doesn’t match other  rich deltas elsewhere such as the Nile in Egypt.   With that regeneration of the delta slower and smaller than in the first centuries of Haisla settlement, at the same time the land surface rebounded from the weight of the ice, perhaps creating the Kildala neighborhood.  The ocean level rose, drowning and eroding part of the old delta, creating the estuary we know today.



As the authors of the paper on the First Peoples’ settlement note, most of the archaeological evidence of early coastal settlement is now likely many metres below the surface of the ocean but deep ocean exploration may uncover  that evidence.  As the scientific team on the second paper say, they are now working on detailed studies of the glacial retreat from the coastal mountain region which may, when the studies are complete, change the timeline

While waiting for further evidence from archaeology and geology it is safe to say that the stories of the monster and later Hunclee-qualas’s discovery of the Haisla homeland are even more compelling than when Gordon Robinson wrote Tales of the Kitamaat.  We can now speculate that there was once, stretching from Haisla Hill far down the Channel, a vast, varied rich, river estuarine delta that supported hundreds of thousands of seabirds, which if they took the wing in unison, would have made those unwary travelers millennia ago, really think that there was a giant monster waiting to devour them at the head of the Kitimat Arm.












The end of the Ice Age in coastal British Columbia may indicate what will happen to shrinking ice sheets in Greenland, study indicates

If some travellers, perhaps about 12,000 years ago, had headed up what is now called Douglas Channel, around the north end of Hawkesbury Island they likely would have seen a glacial retreat driven by a warming planet, something very familiar to the television viewers of 2017, video of 21st century coastal Greenland, where massive glaciers are calving ice bergs into the ocean.

The history of rapid glacial retreat over several thousand years from the interior and coastal British Columbia at the end of the last Ice Age is now becoming a crucial indicator of what may happen to both Greenland and the Antarctica. Under the current ice sheets both Greenland and parts of Antarctica are mountain ranges similar to those here in British Columbia. According to new research published to today in Science, that may indicate what could happen as those ice sheets melt and how that will affect  volatile climate change.

The paper written by Brian Menounos of the University of Northern British Columbia and co-authors indicates that the glacial retreat  in BC was faster than previously believed, beginning about 14,000 years ago. That left some parts of  coastal and western  BC ice free, rather than beginning 12,500 years ago as previously estimated. The last Ice Age probably reached its maximum coverage about 20,000 years ago.

One of the cirque moraines at the end of a glacier studied by Brian Menounos and his team. It is in northern British Columbia just south of the Yukon border. ( Brian Menounos/Science plus Google Earth)

The decay of the ice sheet was complex, partly due to presence of mountainous terrain and also because Earth’s climate rapidly switched between cold and warm conditions during the end of the last Ice Age.
One of the factors that may have triggered a climate change back to colder conditions was a massive outflow of cold, fresh water from coastal British Columbia, which may have affected ocean currents.

What geologists call the Cordilleran ice sheet once covered all of present-day British Columbia, Alaska and the north Pacific United States. How the Cordilleran ice sheet responded to climate change was different from the Laurentide ice sheet which covered the flatter terrain (prairie and the Canadian Shield) of central North America. The Cordilleran ice sheet is about the same size as the current Greenland ice sheet.

“Our work builds upon a rich history of collaborative research that seeks to understand when and how quickly the Cordilleran ice sheet disappeared from Western Canada,” Menounos says. “Projected sea level rise in a warming climate represents one of the greatest threats to humans living in coastal regions. Our findings are consistent with previous modeling studies that show that abrupt warming can quickly melt ice sheets and cause rapid sea level rise.”

Menounos, the Canada Research Chair in Glacier Change, teamed up with 14 co-authors from Canada, the United States, Sweden, Switzerland and Norway to produce the paper titled Cordilleran Ice Sheet mass loss preceded climate reversals near the Pleistocene Termination.

One of the co-authors of the paper is John Clague, now a professor emeritus of Earth Science at Simon Fraser University who studied the glaciation patterns in the Kitimat valley and Terrace in the 1970s when he worked for the Geological Survey of Canada.

Earlier researchers, including Clague, relied on radiocarbon dating to establish when the ice sheets disappeared from the landscape. The problem is that radiocarbon dating may not work in higher alpine regions where fossil organic matter is rare (above the tree line).

Menounos and the researchers used surface exposure dating – a technique that measures the concentration of rare beryllium isotopes that accumulate in quartz-bearing rocks exposed to cosmic rays – to determine when rocks first emerged from beneath the ice. If the rocks are under an ice sheet that means they are not exposed to cosmic rays, and thus measuring the beryllium isotopes can indicate when the retreating ice exposed the rocks to the cosmic rays.

The scientists studied small “cirque moraines” found only beyond the edge of modern glaciers high in the mountains, and valley moraines.

The alpine cirque moraines could not have formed until after the Cordilleran ice sheet had retreated. Menounos and his team show that several alpine areas emerged from beneath the ice sooner than previously believed. Then once the mountain peaks emerged from the thinning ice, new, smaller glaciers grew back over the high-elevation cirques at the same time that remnants of the ice sheet “reinvigorated” in the valleys during subsequent climate reversals

Most of the work of the team was done in the interior of British Columbia, the Yukon and Northwest Territories. Menounos says that new, similar work is being done on the mountains of the coastal region which will be published when the research is complete.

At its maximum, the Cordilleran ice sheet likely extended from what is now the mainland coast across Hecate Strait to the east coast of Haida Gwaii.

Starting about 14,500 years ago, the planet entered a phase of warming, with the average temperature rising about 4 degrees Celsius over about a thousand years. The Cordilleran ice began to thin rapidly leaving what the paper calls a “labyrinth of valley glaciers,” which then allowed the alpine glaciers to re-advance.

Diagram from Science shows how the glaciers retreated at the end of the last Ice Age, with the mountainous Cordilleran ice sheet behaving differently from the central North American Laurentide ice sheet (Science)

The scientists have suggested the rapid ice loss, beginning 14,500 years ago, came relatively quickly in geological time, perhaps just 500 years. That may have then contributed to subsequent Northern Hemisphere cooling through freshwater rushing into the ocean. That melt water disrupted the overturning ocean circulation of cold and warm water. That led to a new cooling period that lasted from about 14,000 to 13,000 years ago. (Similar to the completely fictional scenario in the movie The Day After Tomorrow,  where the cooling happens in days not centuries).

That same outflow could have raised then existing sea levels by two and half to three metres, Menounos says. (The overall sea level on Earth rose about 14 metres by the end of the Ice Age)

Then the climate reversed again, first briefly warming and then in a period that saw another abrupt change back to cooler conditions which geologists call the Younger Dryas,   The Younger Dryas occurred beginning about 12, 900 years ago to about 11,700 years ago, when warming began again. The Dryas is named after a wildflower that grows in arctic tundras.

The study indicates that the First Peoples could not have settled the interior of what is now British Columbia prior to the Younger Dryas, but it is likely as was explored in a paper last week in Science that the First Peoples were able to come down the “kelp highway” on the coast by at least 14,000 years ago.

Map of British Columbia showing the extent of the glaciation during the last Ice Age and now the ice retreated. The coloured graphics are where the study was done mostly in the interior of BC and the age of the deposits. KA means kilo-years or thousand years ago. (Science)

So what happened in Douglas Channel?

So what does the new study of glacial retreat mean for the history of Douglas Channel?

John Clague studied the Douglas Channel, the Kitimat Valley and the Terrace area in the 1970s and was one of the co-authors of the current study that provides a new timeline for the retreat of the glaciers on the British Columbia coast.

He says that the timeline from his work in the 1970s with radio carbon dating of fossilized organic material is fairly consistent with the new work by Brian Menounos of the University of Northern British Columbia using the beryllium isotope technique.

The paper, Clague says, is more of a general commentary on the last stages of the decay of the Cordilleran ice sheet.

“At the time we’re taking about in the paper, there was ice in the corridor between Kitimat and Terrace.

“What we see in detail based on the work I did ages ago, is the retreat of the glacier from the Kitimat Arm back to the north towards Terrace [in the Young Dryas ]. It occasionally stabilized and the melting ice discharged a lot of sediment into that marine embayment.

Based on his original work and the new study Clague says at the time, the mountains are beginning to become ice free but there was still ice in the major valleys such as the Skeena Valley and the corridor south of Terrace towards Kitimat.

“They’re overlapping stories.” Clague says.

“The ice sheet hadn’t completely disappeared at the time Brian is focusing on,” Clague says. “His point is that a lot of the mass of the ice sheet appeared to be thinning and through marginal retreat from Haida Gwaii and some of the islands off the mainland back toward the mainland itself. So we’re trying to put a chronology on it, as to the various steps in the glacial decay.”

The work seems to indicate that the final ice sheet retreat happened in four stages around 12,000 to 11,000 years ago. “I was interested in the detailed reconstruction of the ice front tracked north from Kitimat you see a number of periods when it stabilized long enough to build up very large deltas and braided melt water plains,” Clague says.

The first moraine is Haisla Hill in Kitimat, where the glaciers discharged large amounts of sediment into what is now Douglas Channel. The second is the hill leading to what is called Onion Flats, the third is the flat area where the Terrace Kitimat Regional Airport now is and the final stage of glacial retreat created the “terraces’ around Terrace and Thornhill.

“It’s interesting that in this area there was so much sediment discharged into the sea remarkably for the time over which the ice was retreating through the area. It had to have been a major kind of discharge point of water from the ice sheet south from Terrace towards Kitimat otherwise you wouldn’t get that huge amount of sediment deposited probably over a period of a thousand years. Then it retreated again to just north of the airport and anchored there for a while and we found evidence for a final last gasp upstream around Thornhill and that kind of near Terrace.”

“At that time some of the high elevation glaciers were re-energized and readvanced, but it probably didn’t affect the overall health of the ice sheet itself It’s such a big mass of ice that it doesn’t respond quickly to such a brief cooling so what we’ve done in many places is these glaciers actually advanced up against ‘the dead ice’ an ice sheet that was lower in elevation.”

At the times the oceans rose at the end of the Ice Age, there were “sea corridors” between Kitimat and Terrace and also in the Skeena Valley. “So you can imagine there were arms of the sea extending to Terrace from two directions almost making that area which is now part of the mainland an island.” But the region likely never did become a true island, Clague says because as the ice sheets retreated,, they were also shedding large amounts of sediment that would become land area at the same time as the earth’s crust was rebounding once it was freed from the weight of the ice sheet.





Council votes to create “working group” on riverbank issues, tables plan to gate access

District of Kitimat Council voted Monday five to two to create a “working group” of “concerned citizens and community groups” to consider the future of riverbank camping along the Kitimat river. The working group will consider issues such as access to the river, pollution and how to control extended camping along the river.

That vote came after council split five to two  again to defeat a motion by Councillor Mary Murphy to stop riverside camping altogether.

A proposal from District staff to put access gates at three locations, the Giant Spruce Road, the Sewage Plant and the Pump House was tabled for the time being. However, the councilors and staff marked the pump house gate as a priority for study by the engineering staff due to concerns that “the risk of fuel, oil and other contaminants (i.e. Illegal dumping ) occurring. This is the source water area for the city’s water supply, reducing access reduces contamination risks.” Staff said that unlike other portions of the riverbank, the District does “have authority under drinking water protection act to protect this area.”

Council also voted to close Hirsh Creek park immediately because the roads at the camping area were washed out by the flood last week.

Councillors noted that many people still go to Hirsch Creek after the gates are closed at the end of the season to walk dogs or hike. This results in a parking jam at the front of the gate and on busy times, cars park on Highway 37 which could endanger pedestrians.

District staff will study moving the park gate down further to a point that the road narrows near the first campsite to allow safe access for dog walkers and hikers.

The main problem facing the District of Kitimat is that most popular sites along the riverbank for campers are on provincially owned Crown land. In 2014, the former BC Liberal government passed a regulation that says people can camp on Crown land for up to 14 days. As some councillors pointed out this restriction regularly abused by some campers who stay on the riverbank for weeks, some apparently camping from Victoria Day to Labour Day.

A detail from the DoK map of who owns the riverbank shows that many of the popular camping sports along the Kitimat River are on provincial Crown land (dark green) while the municipality controls the land away from the riverbank including the access roads (brown). (District of Kitimat)

During the debate it was pointed out that often those camp on the riverbank like to “claim” a camping/fishing spot and try to prevent others from using it. “I know of a couple of fistfights,” Murphy told Council.

As Councillor Rob Goffinet pointed out, whether or not the District could place gates on municipal land to stop access to provincial Crown land would require a legal opinion.

Murphy told Council that she had received emails, blaming Kitimat for “almost drowning” some of the campers. She said that her views may be unpopular among some residents, but added, “I don’t care if I’m unpopular, I want to keep people safe.”

Councillor Larry Walker, who pointed out that he likes of fish along the river, who supported Murphy’s motion told his colleagues to get their act together and “do something about the riverbank.” He later proposed that if council does nothing, perhaps Kitimat should hold a referendum on the future use of the river bank.

The majority on Council were more cautious, while acknowledging problems. They pointed out that the many of the campers both on the east bank and on the west bank at Radley Park patronize local businesses during the summer months.

While there was wide discussion on social media before the council meeting, only three people showed up to give their opinions, mostly concerned about permitting access to the river for people with mobility issues or small children.

There were many comments and questions about how other areas police provincial Crown Land, with some saying that some places restrict access to only a couple of days. However, no one either on Council or staff had any idea of what exactly other locations are doing, if anything.

There were no details of how the working group would operate and who would participate. During the debate it was pointed out that as well as the province, participants would have to include Rio Tinto, LNG Canada and DFO. As well, Council did not set a deadline for the working group to report back.

As Murphy pointed out back in 2014, Fisheries and Oceans refused to attend a Council meeting or make a public presentations on its views of the river bank situation. (DFO snubs District of Kitimat Council for a second time )  while offering to meet with staff “they will continue to meet at an operational level to provide information on DFO’s regulatory role.”  That, of course came during the Stephen Harper administration which severely restricted any public participation by the civil service on environmental issues. Whether the Justin Trudeau government has changed that policy remains to be seen.

The campsite road at Hirsch Creek park was washed out in the flood. (District of Kitimat)

Was the rain storm an anomoly?

During the debate, Mayor Phil Germuth, pointed to the sudden onslaught of rain during Sunday and Monday September 10 and 11 and called it “an anomaly” which means that Kitimat should not overreact to the storm.

Environment Canada chart of the spike in the Kitimat River levels, as presented to District Council. (Environment Canada)

However, as The New York Times pointed out after Hurricane Harvey hit Texas, scientists have been warning for years that

Climate science has repeatedly shown that global warming is increasing the odds of extreme precipitation and storm surge flooding. Refusing to acknowledge this impairs our ability to prepare for future extreme weather and endangers American lives and property.

And another opinion article in the Times during Hurricane Harvey noted:

Scientists can now even evaluate how much climate change has increased the odds of individual extreme events, including rainfall and flooding.

As the 2015 American Meteorological Society report quoted by The Times indicates, those  unpredictable and extreme events don’t just include floods but the widespread forest fires in Alaska in 2014 and we all know how bad the fire season has been in British Columbia this year.

Report on extreme weather events

As Noah Diffenbaugh  of Standford University pointed out in The Times

Being smart about managing exposure and vulnerability is critical to reducing risks. But doing so requires acknowledging that global warming is happening, that humans are the primary cause and that the odds of catastrophes like Hurricane Harvey are increasing.

Ocean acidification a threat to the Dungeness crab: NOAA study

With climate change, the oceans are becoming more acid and that is a threat to the dungeness crab, according to a study by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The study says ocean acidification expected to accompany climate change may slow development and reduce survival of the larval stages of Dungeness crab.

The dungeness crab is a key component of the Northwest marine ecosystem and vital to fishery revenue from Oregon to Alaska.

The research by NOAA Fisheries’ Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle indicates that the declining pH anticipated in Puget Sound could jeopardize populations of Dungeness crab and put the fishery at risk. The study was recently published in the journal Marine Biology.

Ocean acidification occurs as the ocean absorbs carbon dioxide from the combustion of fossil fuels. Average ocean surface pH is expected to drop to about 7.8 off the West Coast by 2050, and could drop further during coastal upwelling periods.

Survival of Dungeness crab larvae, called zoeae, declined at the lower pH levels expected with ocean acidification. (Jason Miller)
Survival of Dungeness crab larvae, called zoeae, declined at the lower pH levels expected with ocean acidification.
(Jason Miller)

Dungeness crab is the highest revenue fishery in Washington and Oregon, and the second most valuable in California, although the fishery was recently closed in some areas because of a harmful algal bloom. The Dungeness crab harvest in 2014 was worth more than $80 million in Washington, $48 million in Oregon and nearly $67 million in California

“I have great faith in the resiliency of nature, but I am concerned,” said Jason Miller, lead author of the research, which was part of his dissertation. “Crab larvae in our research were three times more likely to die when exposed to a pH that can already be found in Puget Sound, our own back yard, today.”

Scientists collected eggs from Dungeness crabs in Puget Sound and placed them in tanks at the NWFSC’s Montlake Research Laboratory. The tanks held seawater with a range of pH levels reflecting current conditions as well as the lower pH occasionally encountered in Puget Sound when deep water wells up near the surface. Larvae also went into tanks with the even lower-pH conditions expected with ocean acidification.
“The question was whether the lower pH we can expect to see in Puget Sound interferes with development of the next generation of Dungeness crab,” said Paul McElhany, a NOAA Fisheries research scientist and senior author of the paper. “Clearly the answer is yes. Now the question is, how does that play out in terms of affecting their life cycle and populations overall?”

Larvae hatched at the same rate regardless of pH, but those at lower pH took longer to hatch and progressed through their larval stages more slowly. Scientists suggested that the lower pH may reduce the metabolic rate of embryos. That could extend their vulnerable larval period, or could jeopardize the timing of their development in relation to key food sources, researchers suggested.

Larval survival also dropped by more than half at lower pH. At pH 8.0, roughly equivalent to seawater today, 58 percent of the crab larvae – called zoeae – survived for 45 days. At pH 7.5, which sometimes occurs in Puget Sound now, survival was 14 percent. At pH 7.1, which is expected to roughly approximate the pH of water upwelling on the West Coast with ocean acidification, zoeae survival remained low at 21 percent.

“Areas of greatest vulnerability will likely be where deep waters, naturally low in pH, meet acidified surface waters,” such as areas of coastal upwelling along the West Coast and in estuary environments such Hood Canal, the new study predicts.


Eel grass really a flower that stores more carbon than tropical forests, genome reveals

Eel grass is not a seaweed but a flowering plant that migrated to the sea, say scientists who have now mapped the eel grass genome. The study also shows that eel grass ( Zostera marina) is crucial in absorbing carbon dioxide in the soft sediments of the coasts.

Eel grasses form a carbon dioxide sink: “they store more carbon than tropical forests,” says Jeanine Olsen of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands who led the study.

Coastal sea grass ecosystems cover some 200,000 square kilometers, the study says. Those ecosystems account for an estimated 15 per cent of carbon fixed in global ocean, and also impact sulphur and nitrogen cycles.

The scientists argue that since sea grasses are the only flowering plants to have returned to the sea that is the most extreme adaptation a terrestrial (or even freshwater) species can undergo.

The science team says the Zostera marina genome is “an exceptional resource that supports a wide range of research themes, from the adaptation of marine ecosystems under climate warming and its role in carbon burial to unraveling the mechanisms of salinity tolerance that may further inform the assisted breeding of crop plants.”

A seagrass meadow. (Christoffer Boström)
A seagrass meadow.
(Christoffer Boström)

Sea grasses form the backbone of one of the most productive and biodiverse ecosystems on Earth, rivaling coral reefs and rain forests in terms of the ecosystem services they provide to humans.

Sea grass meadows are part of the soft-sediment coastal ecosystems found in all continents, with the exception of Antarctica. They not only form a nursery for young fish and other organisms, but also protect the coastline from erosion and maintain water clarity. ‘

The study, which sequenced the genome of the eel grass taken from the Archipelago Sea off Finland. published today, in the journal Nature, is the work of an international consortium of 35 labs, most of them in Europe, working with researchers from the U.S. Department of Energy Joint Genome Institute.

The study showed that eel grasses are completely submerged marine flowering plants, called by science angiosperms. It shows that eel grass is a member of the ancient monocot family.

The monocots include about 60,000 species, flowering plants that first appear above the soil as a single leaf. They include orchids, “true grasses,” as well as rice, wheat, maize and “forage grasses” such as  sugar cane, and the bamboos. According to Wikipedia, other economically important monocot crops include  palms  bananas , gingers, onions, garlic, lilies, daffodils,  irises, amaryllis,  bluebells and tulips.

Zostera marina is the first marine flowering plant have its genome fully sequenced. As well as finding the eel grass’s genetic ancestors the researchers were interested in understanding how the plant–and by extension other plants in the ecosystem–adapt to climate change.

As it adapted to  an underwater, coastal lifestyle, eel grass gained genes that allowed it to live in saltwater but lost genes involved in traits associated with land-based plants.

Olsen called this “arguably the most extreme adaptation a terrestrial (and even a freshwater) species can undergo.”

What she describes as the “use it, lose it, or change it” scenario, eelgrass modified its cell walls. The eel grass cell wall is very different from normal plant cell walls and more like that of sea algae, similar to the cell in seaweeds. The eel grass has lost genes associated with light-sensing, pollination and regulation of internal water balance.

Eel grass lost its stomata (which are used by land plants to ‘breathe’) but also all of the genes involved in stomatal differentiation. “The genes have just gone, so there’s no way back to land for sea grass,” Olsen says. Sex is entirely underwater involving long naked sperm filaments especially adapted for underwater fertilization of the tiny flowers.

The team compared the eel grass genome to duck weed, one of the simplest flowering plants and Zostera marina’s closest sequenced relative. They noted differences in genes related to cell wall structure due to adaptations to freshwater or terrestrial conditions. For example, plants such as duckweed have seemingly lost genes that help plants retain water in the cell wall, while eel grass has regained these genes to better deal with osmotic stress at low tide.

“They have re-engineered themselves,” said Olsen of the changes affecting the eelgrass cell walls. “Crop breeders may benefit from lessons on how salt tolerance has evolved in these plants.”

Eel grass distribution. (Wikipedia Commons(
Eel grass distribution. (Wikipedia Commons(

With Zostera marina meadows stretching from Alaska to Baja California, and from the White Sea to southern Portugal, Olsen noted that these ecosystems afford researchers “a natural experiment to investigate rapid adaptation to warmer or colder waters, as well as to salinity tolerance, ocean acidification and light.”

Eel grass endangered

Jeremy Schmutz, head of the US Department of Energy’s genetic plant program, emphasized that while eel grasses are key players in coastal marine ecosystem functions and considered the “lungs of the sea,” they are also endangered. “There are estimates that nearly a third of the eel grass meadows worldwide have been destroyed by runoff into the ocean,” he said, “reducing their potential capabilities as carbon sinks. Thus, studying the adaptive capacity of eel grass is urgent to assist conservation efforts.”

An overarching question for Olsen’s team is how quickly eel grass can adapt to rapid climate change. The fact that Zostera marina grows along the coastline from Portugal to Scandinavia is being used as a natural experiment to investigate adaptation to warmer or colder water, as well as to salinity, ocean acidification and light.

Prepare now for drastic climate change, UBC study warns First Nations’ fishery, other stakeholders

Fewer salmon; many more sardines.

That’s one of the predictions from a new study from the University of British Columbia, looking at the future of the fishery on the coast.

The study concentrates on the First Nations fishery and warns that aboriginal people could face a catastrophic decline in the harvest of traditional species, especially salmon and herring roe on kelp over the next thirty years, a decline that will also have an equally devastating effect on commercial and recreational fishing.

The main cause of the decline is climate change and the warming of the coastal waters. The study projected “modest to severe declines in catch potential” for all current commercial fisheries along the coast.

The study says that for the First Nations the between $28 million to $36 million in revenue they got from fishing between 2001 and 2010 could fall by up to 90 per cent depending on how the climate changes.

A chart from the UBC study shows possible decline in fish species under different climate scenarios. (PLOS1)
A chart from the UBC study shows possible decline in fish species under different climate scenarios. (PLOS1)

One scenario calls for a decline of up to 40 per cent in chinook and pink salmon.

If there is any good news, if you can call it that, the decline will be not as bad in northern coastal waters as it will be the warmer waters near the Lower Mainland and southern Vancouver Island. The range of some species, including salmon, herring, halibut and possibly oolichan will move to farther north along the BC Coast and into Alaskan waters.

That means in time the warming waters will also encourage an increase in other species, including sardines and some clams.

The changing oceans mean that “an increase in the relative abundance of warmer-water species was projected to lead to new or increased opportunities for commercial harvests by 2050.”

The study is urging the First Nations and other stakeholders in the British Columbia fishery to start long term planning immediately to  anticipate changes in the coming decades.

The team of scientists led by Lauren Weatherdon, a graduate student at UBC, noted that while previous studies have looked at the impact of climate change on large-scale commercial fisheries, “few efforts have been made to quantitatively project impacts on small-scale subsistence and commercial fisheries that are economically, socially and culturally important to many coastal communities.”

The study Projected Scenarios for Coastal First Nations’ Fisheries Catch Potential under Climate Change: Management Challenges and Opportunities is published in the online journal PLOS One

The study was conducted in cooperation with the BC First Nations Fisheries Council and looked its seven coastal administrative regions “forming a sample of groups with diverse marine resources, geographical locations, territorial sizes, and treaty statuses.”

Within those regions 16 First Nations participated in the study, some under their treaty councils, including the Council of the Haida Nation, the Tsimshian Nations Treaty Society (including the Gitga’at at Hartley Bay and the Kitselas and Kitsumkalum near Terrace) and the Maa-nulth First Nations. The Heiltsuk First Nation at Bella Bella participated as an independent group.


The FNFC’s administrative regions intersect with five distinct ecological regions: the North Coast, comprising the Hecate Strait and Dixon Entrance; Haida Gwaii, which includes the waters surrounding the islands; the Central Coast, including Queen Charlotte Sound, Queen Charlotte Strait, and the southern tip of Hecate Strait; the Strait of Georgia; and the west coast of Vancouver Island (WCVI) .

The study says First Nations are likely to be exposed to different climate-related impacts on fisheries due to the differing ecological and biogeographical characteristics of these regions and to differing traditional and commercial harvests.

The study used a “dynamic bioclimate envelope” computer model to look at the changes to the distribution and relative abundances of the BC coastal species under two climate change scenarios, a high greenhouse gas model where society can’t curb emissions and a low greenhouse gas emission scenarios, depending on how society is able to curb the increase.

The study looked at ocean properties—including sea surface temperature, sea bottom temperature, salinity, oxygen concentration, surface action, and net primary production—using data from the US National Ocean and Atmospheric Administrations’  climate-related earth system model.

Climate change will mean that current species on the BC coast will “shift polewards.”

The study showed that by 2050, there could be declines in 87 of the 98 species in the study.

Greater losses in  what the study calls “species richness” is likely to occur towards the southern coast of British Columbia, falling primarily between 48°N and 51°N. But, overall,  species richness along coastal BC will continue—only with different species.

Most significantly the study projects a decline in the overall salmon catch from 17.1 per cent to 29.2 per cent, depending on the region and climate.

All aspects of the herring fishery, including roe herring, spawn-on-kelp, and the food and bait fishery could decline between 28.1 per cent and 49.2 per cent depending on the region.

The future of the oolichan is the most uncertain. One of the models studied projected a further 37.1 per cent decline in the oolichan, while other models called for for a decline between 5 per cent and 6.8 per cent. That will depend on how well, the oolichan already threatened in most regions of British Columbia are able to adapt to warmer waters or find a way to move their range northward.

The study says white sturgeon and Pacific sardines were projected to increase in abundance under both climate change scenarios, while manila clams were projected to increase in abundance by 14.5 per cent in one of the models. The eight remaining species showed little change.

The study suggests that the southern territories (Tsawwassen, Tla’amin, and Maa-nulth First Nations) will likely see a reduction in catch potential between -15.2 per cent and -27.8 per cent depending on how the climate changes.

On the north coast. The Haida and Tsimshian First Nations and those situated along the central or north-eastern coasts of Vancouver Island (Heiltsuk and ‘Namgis First Nations)  would likely see smaller reductions in relative catch for each territory, with estimates falling between -3.2 per cent and -8.2 per cent.

The study shows that for the First Nations along the North and Central Coasts of British Columbia (Gitga’at and Haida, and Heiltsuk and ‘Namgis) there will be neutral or positive shifts in catch potential for white sturgeon, kelp greenling, and two species of perch under both scenarios.

While varying regionally, both scenarios also suggested either a slight cumulative decline or negligible change in catch potential for clams, rockfish, lingcod, and sculpins across the North and Central Coast.

One potential problem the study suggests is that fishers in southern British Columbia may, in the future, try to move north to follow the harvest, leading to potential conflicts.  The cost of travel, may, however, discourage that.

One of the recommendations from the study is that First Nations revive the traditional clam gardens.

Traditional clam beds serve as an ideal example of a method that could be applied to offset climatic impacts through internalized mechanisms, using local cultivation to generate increased productivity by enhancing native habitat rather than redirecting extraction efforts towards other regions or species. Clam gardens constructed in a manner akin to those situated near ancient settlements of the Northern Coast Salish and Laich-kwil-tach First Nations have been found to generate higher clam densities, biomass, and growth rates than non-walled beaches . These benefits were observed for Pacific littleneck clams and butter clams , two clams that are of cultural, economic, and ecological importance to the region Reinstating clam beds in First Nations’ territorial lands has been suggested as a means of simultaneously achieving local conservation and cultural objectives and may thereby provide a politically and ecologically viable option for mitigating climate-related impacts.

The most important recommendation is that the First Nations and other stakeholders start cooperating immediately to offset how the changing climate with affect the fishery:

Management of salmon and herring stocks has been highly contentious due to the myriad of stakeholders who depend upon them, which include First Nations, recreational fisheries, and commercial fisheries….

Aside from fulfilling societal needs, salmon serve as key ecological components of the Pacific Northwest Coast, functioning as the mechanisms by which nutrients are transferred from the ocean to freshwater and terrestrial ecosystems

It says the projections show that a “redistribution of fishing effort” will not “fully offset declines in salmon and herring”

attaining a state of collaboration between First Nations, DFO, and other sectors has the potential to yield beneficial ecological and political results, if implemented correctly. Parallels exist between First Nations’ traditional fisheries management approaches and “modern” approaches (e.g., spatial management, mariculture, selective fishing, fishing closures), with differences arising primarily due to diverging worldviews.

It recommends local application of First Nations’ traditional management strategies to “provide opportunities to collaboratively engage in adaptive ecosystem-based management and to coordinate efforts to attain conservation objectives.”

They give an example of how the Nisga’a Nation have ensured their equal partnership in management by employing traditional fish wheel technology to monitor and assess stocks and by leveraging traditional ecosystem-based management practices that could be applied to plan long-term objectives and management approaches.

It concludes by saying that joint-management will not only work to reduce the impact of climate change but also head off potential conflict.

Through such joint-management regimes, traditional fisheries management strategies could be applied to advance localized research directives and to reduce impacts on stocks under unprecedented environmental change. Moreover, the risk of conflict over declining resources underlines the need to establish common and equitable ground to ensure successful joint management of fisheries, and to leverage collective expertise.

Chart from the study showing which fish species will move north up the coast as the climate changes. (PLOS1)
Chart from the study showing which fish species will move north up the coast as the climate changes. (PLOS1)

Intertidal zone–and crabs– at high risk from climate change, study says

Climate change, which will raise ocean temperatures and more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere which will increase the acidification of the oceans will have the greatest affect on the intertidal zones—and a key indicator species, crabs and similar creatures.

A study by San Fransisco State University published today in the Journal of Experimental Biology used the small (usually 15 millimetre) porcelain crab  to simulate the conditions that will come to the intertidal zone and affect other species including the larger dungeness crab. ( According to Wikipedia, porcelain crabs are an example of carcinisation, whereby a non-crab-like animal,in this case a relative of a squat lobster evolves into an animal that resembles a true crab.)

A porcelain crab (Nick Hobgood via Wikipedia)
A porcelain crab (Nick Hobgood via Wikipedia)

Studies have shown that as climate changes, coastal ecosystems will be see “have increased extremes of low tide-associated thermal stress and ocean acidification-associated low pH.”

The study by co-author Jonathan Stillman and his colleagues, is the first to explore intertidal zone organisms’ response to combined variation in temperature and pH, which is expected to intensify in the future due to climate change and ocean acidification.

The current and previous studies have shown that during low tide, air temperatures in the intertidal zone can fluctuate dramatically as much as 20 degrees celcius over short periods of time up to six hours. Temperatures can reach extremes when low tides coincide with hot days. Marine intertidal organisms tolerate these natural temperature fluctuations, yet it is known that they are limited in their scope to tolerate future warming.

In the simulation porcelain crabs  were placed in a specially built aquarium designed to simulate the natural environment, including tidal changes. At low tide, with the crabs exposed to the air, the researchers varied the temperature to mirror day-to-day changes the crabs currently experience — such as cooler air on a cloudy day and warmer air on a sunny day — as well as conditions expected in the future. At high tide, with the crabs submerged, they adjusted pH levels in the same fashion.

As the temperature rose and pH levels dropped — conditions expected in the future due to climate change — the crabs’ ability to withstand heat increased. But at the same time, researchers found, the crabs’ metabolism decreased. In addition, the combined effect of higher temperatures and lower pH levels was greater than the effect of either of those two factors alone.

“When you combine these things together, they slow down metabolism, which means crabs become sluggish and have less overall energy to do things like growth or reproduction,” Stillman said. “If their whole energy budget is a pie, then in the future the size of the pie is going to be smaller, and a larger percentage of it is going to be taken up by survival and maintenance.”

The study says that although porcelain crabs are not particularly important to humans — they are not fishery crabs such as Dungeness — they are an important food source for coastal fish, birds and other crabs.

The results suggest “there is a potential for adverse long-term ecological consequences for intertidal ectotherms”– that is creatures that depend on the external temperatures to regulate body heat– “exposed to increased extremes in pH and temperature due to reduced energy for behavior and reproduction.”

The porcelain crabs can also be seen as a model for scientists to understand the impacts of climate change and ocean acidification on crustaceans in general, Stillman said. Future studies will look at the impact of varying temperature and pH changes on different species of porcelain crabs, juvenile crabs and crab embryos.

Ocean acidification growing risk to west coast fishery, including crab and salmon, US studies show

The United States says acidification of the oceans means there is an already growing risk to the northwest coast fishery, including crab and salmon, according to studies released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

As more carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere and absorbed by the oceans, the water is becoming more acidic and that affects many species, especially shellfish, dissolving the shells.

A NOAA study released today of environmental and economic risks to the Alaska fishery says:

Many of Alaska’s nutritionally and economically valuable marine fisheries are located in waters that are already experiencing ocean acidification, and will see more in the near future…. Communities in southeast and southwest Alaska face the highest risk from ocean acidification because they rely heavily on fisheries that are expected to be most affected by ocean acidification…

An earlier NOAA study, released in April, identified a long term threat to the salmon fishery as small ocean snails called pteropods which are a prime food source for pink salmon are already being affected by the acidification of the ocean.

This photograph from NOAA of a pteropod, important in the ocean diet of pink salmon, shows the first evidence of marine snails from the natural environment along the U.S. West Coast with signs that shells are dissolving. (NOAA)

NOAA says:

The term “ocean acidification” describes the process of ocean water becoming more acidic as a result of absorbing nearly a third of the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere from human sources. This change in ocean chemistry is affecting marine life, particularly the ability of shellfish, corals and small creatures in the early stages of the food chain to build skeletons or shells.

Today’s NOAA study is the first published research by the Synthesis of Arctic Research (SOAR) program, which is supported by an US inter-agency agreement between NOAA’s Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) Alaska Region.

Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans says it has ongoing studies on oceanic acidification including the role of petropods in the lifecycle of the salmon.

Des Nobles, President of Local #37 Fish [UFAWU-UNIFOR] told Northwest Coast Energy News that the fisheries union and other fisheries groups in Prince Rupert have asked both the Canadian federal and the BC provincial governments for action on ocean acidification. Nobles says so far those requests have been ignored,

Threat to crabs

The studies show that red king crab and tanner crab grow more slowly and don’t survive as well in more acidic waters. Alaska’s coastal waters are particularly vulnerable to ocean acidification because of cold water that can absorb more carbon dioxide and unique ocean circulation patterns which bring naturally acidic deep ocean waters to the surface.

“We went beyond the traditional approach of looking at dollars lost or species impacted; we know these fisheries are lifelines for native communities and what we’ve learned will help them adapt to a changing ocean environment,” said Jeremy Mathis, Ph.D., co-lead author of the study, an oceanographer at NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle, and the director of the University of Alaska Fairbanks School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences Ocean Acidification Research Center.

As for Dungeness crab, Sarah Cooley,  a  co-author of the Alaska study, who was with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution at the time, told Northwest Coast Energy News, “The studies have not been done for Dungeness crab that have been done for king and tanner crab, that’s something we’re keenly aware of. There’s a big knowledge gap at this point.” She says NOAA may soon be looking at pilot study on Dungeness crab.

Healthy pteropod
A healthy pteropod collected during the U.S. West Coast survey cruise. (NOAA)

Risk to Salmon, Mackerel and Herring

In a 2011-2013 survey, a NOAA-led research team found the first evidence: “that acidity of continental shelf waters off the West Coast is dissolving the shells of tiny free-swimming marine snails, called pteropods, which provide food for pink salmon, mackerel and herring.”

The survey estimated that the percentage of pteropods along the west coast with dissolving shells due to ocean acidification had “doubled in the near shore habitat since the pre-industrial era and is on track to triple by 2050 when coastal waters become 70 percent more corrosive than in the pre-industrial era due to human-caused ocean acidification.”

That study documented the movement of corrosive waters onto the continental shelf from April to September during the upwelling season, when winds bring water rich in carbon dioxide up from depths of about 120 to  180 metres to the surface and onto the continental shelf.

“We haven’t done the extensive amount of studies yet on the young salmon fry,” Cooley said. “I would love to see those studies done. I think there is a real need for that information. Salmon are just so so important for the entire Pacific Northwest and up to Alaska.”

In Prince Rupert, Barb Faggetter, an independent oceanographer whose company Ocean Ecology has consulted for the fisherman’s union and NGOs, who was not part of the study, spoke generally about the threat of acidification to the region.

She is currently studying the impact of the proposed Liquified Natural Gas terminals that could be built at Prince Rupert near the Skeena River estuary. Faggetter said that acidification could affect the species eaten by juvenile salmon. “As young juveniles they eat a lot of zooplankton including crustaceans and shell fish larvae.”

She added, “Any of the shell fish in the fishery,  including probably things like sea urchins are all organisms that are susceptible to ocean acidification because of the loss of their capacity to actually incorporate calcium carbonate into their shells.”

Faggetter said her  studies have concentrated on potential habitat loss near Prince Rupert as a result of dredging and other activities for liquified natural gas development,  She adds that ocean acidification “has been a consideration that climate change will further worsen any potential damage that we’re currently looking at.”

Her studies of the Skeena estuary are concentrating on “rating” areas based on the food supply available to juvenile salmon, as well as predation and what habitat is available and the quality of that habitat to identify areas that “are most important for the juvenile salmon coming out of the Skeena River estuary and which are less important.”

She said that climate change and ocean acidification could impact the Skeena estuary and “probably reduce some of the environments that are currently good because they have a good food supply. If ocean acidification reduces that food supply that will no longer be good habitat for them” [juvenile salmon].

NOAA expediton
Bongo nets are deployed up to 200 meters deep to catch marine snails (pteropods), which are indicators of the progress of ocean acidification. The pteropod samples were collected during the U.S. West Coast survey cruises in 2011 and 2013. Unlike the US, Canada’s DFO is using models to track what’s happening to pteropods. (NOAA)

The  August 2011 NOAA survey of the pteropods was done at sea using “bongo nets” to retrieve the small snails at depths up to 200 metres. The research drew upon a West Coast survey by the NOAA Ocean Acidification Program in that was conducted on board the R/V Wecoma, owned by the National Science Foundation and operated by Oregon State University.

The DFO study, according to the agency website is “being examined in the context of model predictions.

Nina Bednarsek, Ph.D., of NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle, the lead author of the  April pteropod paper said, “Our findings are the first evidence that a large fraction of the West Coast pteropod population is being affected by ocean acidification.

“Dissolving coastal pteropod shells point to the need to study how acidification may be affecting the larger marine ecosystem. These near shore waters provide essential habitat to a great diversity of marine species, including many economically important fish that support coastal economies and provide us with food.”

Ecology and economy

Today’s study on the effects of acidification on the Alaska fishery study examined the potential effects on a state where the fishing industry supports over 100,000 jobs and generates more than $5 billion in annual revenue. Fishery-related tourism also brings in $300 million annually to the state.

Map of Alaska
A map of Alaska shows the economic and ecological risks to parts of the state from ocean acidification. (NOAA)

The study also shows that approximately 120,000 people or roughly 17 percent of Alaskans rely on subsistence fisheries for most, if not all of their dietary protein. The Alaska subsistence fishery is open to all residents of the state who need it, although a majority of those who participate in the subsistence fishery are Alaska’s First Nations. In that way it is somewhat parallel to Canada’s Food, Ceremonial and Social program for First Nations.

“Ocean acidification is not just an ecological problem—it’s an economic problem,” said Steve Colt, Ph.D., co-author of the study and an economist at the University of Alaska Anchorage. “The people of coastal Alaska, who have always looked to the sea for sustenance and prosperity, will be most affected. But all Alaskans need to understand how and where ocean acidification threatens our marine resources so that we can work together to address the challenges and maintain healthy and productive coastal communities.”

The Alaska study recommends that residents and stakeholders in vulnerable regions prepare for environmental challenge and develop response strategies that incorporate community values and needs.

“This research allows planners to think creatively about ways to help coastal communities withstand environmental change,” said Cooley, who is now science outreach manager at Ocean Conservancy, in Washington, D.C.  “Adaptations can be tailored to address specific social and environmental weak points that exist in a community.

“This is really the first time that we’ve been able to go under the hood and really look at the factors that make a particular community in a borough or census are less or more vulnerable from changing conditions resulting from acidification. It gives us a lot of power so that we don’t just look at environmental issues but also look at the social story behind that risk.”

As for the southern part of the Alaska panhandle nearest British Columbia, Cooley said, “What we found is that there is a high relative risk compared to some of the other areas of Alaska and that is because the communities there undertake a lot of subsistence fishing, There tend not be a whole lot of commercial harvests in the fisheries there but they are very very important from a subsistence stand point… And they’re tied to species that we expect to be on the front line of acidification, many of the clam species that are harvested in that area and some of the crab species.”

Long term effects

Libby Jewett, Director of the NOAA Ocean Acidification Program  and author of  the pteropod study said,  “Acidification of our oceans may impact marine ecosystems in a way that threatens the sustainability of the marine resources we depend on.

“Research on the progression and impacts of ocean acidification is vital to understanding the consequences of our burning of fossil fuels.”

“Acidification is happening now,” Cooley said. “We have not yet observed major declines in Alaskan harvested species. In Washington and Oregon they have seen widespread oyster mortality from acidification.

“We don’t have the documentation for what’s happening in Alaska right now but there are a lot of studies staring up right now that will just keep an eye out for that sort of thing,  Acidification is going to be continuing progressively over the next decades into the future indefinitely until we really curb carbon dioxide emissions. There’s enough momentum in the system that is going to keep acidification advancing for quite some time.

“What we need to be doing as we cut the carbon dioxide, we need to find ways to strength communities that depend on resources and this study allows us to think differently about that and too really look at how we can strengthen those communities.

Faggetter said. “It’s one more blow to an already complex situation here, My study has been working particularly on eel grass on Flora Bank (pdf) which is a very critical habitat, which is going to be impacted by these potential industrial developments and that impact will affect our juvenile salmon and our salmon fishery very dramatically, that could be further worsened by ocean acidification.”

She said that acidification could also be a long term threat to plans in Prince Rupert to establish a geoduck fishery (pronounced gooey-duck).

The popular large 15 to 20 centimetre clam is harvested in Washington State and southern BC, but so far hasn’t been  subject to commercial fishing in the north.

NOAA said today’s study shows that by examining all the factors that contribute to risk, more opportunities can be found to prevent harm to human communities at a local level. Decision-makers can address socioeconomic factors that lower the ability of people and communities to adapt to environmental change, such as low incomes, poor nutrition, lack of educational attainment and lack of diverse employment opportunities.

NOAA’s Ocean Acidification Program and the state of Alaska are also developing tools to help industry adapt to increasing acidity.

The new NOAA study is the first published research by the Synthesis of Arctic Research (SOAR) program. which is supported by an inter-agency agreement between NOAA’s Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) Alaska Region.

The pteropod study was published in April in Proceedings of the Royal Society B. The ecological and economic study is published in Progress in Oceanography.

Kitimat air shed study raises more questions than it actually answers

The sudden release early Friday, July 18, by the British Columbia Ministry of the Environment about the Kitimat Valley air shed study brings more questions than the answers it provides; some questions are political, some technical.

The questions include

1. Why was the study suddenly released after the province said it was “privileged?”
2. Did the apparently rushed release mean that the study, as far as the public is concerned, is incomplete?
3. While most people in Kitimat believed that the study would be a wide ranging look at all parameters of industrial development in the valley, it was limited to just two factors, sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide.
4. It appears that everyone involved were consulted prior to the release with one key execption, the District of Kitimat. Why?
5. The study appears to have changed in its criterion from the time of the request for proposal and the final release one issue—an oil export terminal, which went from “crude” in the request for proposal  to refined in the final report.

Douglas Channel
Clouds over Douglas Channel. (Robin Rowland/Northwest Coast Energy News)`

While the study is spun has a showing that industrial development in the Kitimat Valley can proceed as long as the environment is properly managed, the gaps and the spin will likely bring doubt to the results. That means that a wider ranging and truly independent study of the air shed is needed so that both residents and industry can then make the proper decisions.

Ironically, a proper study may actually come from industry, rather than government since LNG Canada has said that a full air shed study will be part of its environmental assessment filing expected in the fall.

The air shed proposal

In October  2013, the Ministry of the Environment issues a “request for proposal” to “study potential cumulative effects to environment and human health from existing and proposed industrial facilities in the Kitimat airshed.” to be filed by March 31, 2014.

According to the government website,

The Province will fund a $650,000 scientific study to help inform regulatory and policy development for future industrial activity in the Kitimat area. The goal is to ensure the potential impacts from industrial air emissions are clearly understood prior to new projects being approved and in operation.
The Kitimat Airshed Impact Assessment Project will look at the cumulative effects of existing and proposed industrial air emissions in the airshed. These include emissions from: an existing aluminium smelter, three proposed LNG terminals, a proposed oil refinery, a crude-oil export facility, and gas-turbine-powered electrical generation facilities. The study will focus on sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide emissions from these facilities.
The study will assess the impact of emissions through a number of scenarios, including their potential effects on water and soil, as well as on vegetation and human health from direct exposure.

With that news release, it appears that many people assumed that “cumulative effects of existing and proposed industrial air emissions in the air shed,” would include all possible scenarios and contaminants.

The report, when it was released on Friday, covered just  the “focus” sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide and no other factors in air quality.

Crude or refined oil export?

airshedmap3As Northwest Coast Energy News noted that the report, as released, doesn’t include any references to the Enbridge Northern Gateway project, even though Northern Gateway is a source of “proposed industrial air emissions in the air shed.” The request for proposal also mentions “a crude-oil export facility” but the report as issued concerns a marine terminal for Black’s refinery

David Black’s Kitimat Clean website says 

The products will be exported via a marine terminal on the Douglas Channel. Projected volumes include 320,000 barrels per day of diesel fuel, 110,000 barrels per day of gasoline and 60,000 barrels per day of jet fuel.

The map in the main report clearly shows that the study concerned the “Kitimat Clean Refinery Port” not a crude oil export facility—in other words likely Enbridge Northern Gateway.

Kitimat excluded

On October 21, 2013,  District of Kitimat Council endorsed a motion by former Councillor Corinne Scott:

“The BC Government has recently announced a budget of $650,000 to study the cumulative effects on the air quality due to the proposed industrial development in the District of Kitimat. It would be beneficial to have a representative from the District of Kitimat as an active participant on the committee to provide input and feedback as the study progresses.”

At the time Chief Adminstrative Officer Ron Poole told council that the minister’s office had called and promised to “involve the District.”

At that meeting, Councillor Mary Murphy reported that member were “vocal” at the Union of BC Municpalities that it was essential that Kitimat be involved. Councillors suggested that the study be wide ranging and include emissions already in the area and residual emissions left over from the closed Eurocan and Methaex operations.

The provincial final air shed report makes no mention at all of the District of Kitimat, Eurocan or Methanex.

In April, 2014, after the March 31, reporting deadine, the District and Council had heard nothing from the province. So in April, District Council passed a motion asking for a report on the status of the study.

Crown Privilege

In June, the province refused to release the report to lawyers involved in a suit against the Environmental Assessment Board which is challenging Rio Tinto Alcans’ permit to increase sulphur dixoide emission in the valley. According to the Globe and Mail,  Dennis Doyle, a lawyer with the Ministry of the Attorney General, in the RTA suit, wrote to the Environmental Law Centre in Victoria

In a follow-up letter dated June 12, Mr. Doyle said, “On the matter of the Kitimat Airshed Study I am instructed that this report was prepared to guide development of government policy on industrial development in the Kitimat area and to assist the executive council in its ongoing deliberations. It is not a report that was prepared for the Respondent and played no part of the decision-making process for the permit amendment which is now under appeal.”

In mid-July, the lawyers then asked the Environment Assessment Board to either turn over the air shed report or explain why it was covered by Crown Privilege.

The EAB told the province to respond to that question by July 18. Instead there was a hastily called news conference and the report was released. However, a close look at the report shows that it was likely rushed to meet the EAB deadine and was incomplete—rather surprising for a report that was supposed to be complete by March 31.

Rushed report

airshedcoverWhat evidence is there that the report was rushed out by the Ministry of the Environment? The most compelling indication is that instead of a public-friendly Summary Report with an executive summary and clear conclusions, there was nothing more than a short Power Point presentation.

Most people in Kitimat who follow the energy debate are familiar with the approach of combining a readable summary with technical data. It is most evident in the report of the Enbridge Northern Gateway Joint Review, which issued a relative short summary, Connections along with the long technical report, Considerations.

Let’s take as a prime example, the original report on the Kitimat airshed commissioned by Rio Tinto Alcan. In that case, ESSA Technologies Ltd of Vancouver, the company hired by the RTA Kitimat Modernization Project to study the effects of increased sulphur dioxide emissions in the Kitimat Valley, issued three documents, an easy to understand 37-page summary report, a much longer 456 page Technical Assessment Report and a third  332 page volume of appendices, technical data and tables.

It was the same company, ESSA Technologies, that was retained by the province to do the much larger study of the airshed. However, the only public-friendly information was the 16 page highly simplified Power Point presentation.

The ESSA summary report for RTA shows in plain language, the reasons for its conclusions that the increased sulphur dioxide from KMP on human health “is characterized as moderate, an acceptable impact, but in need of closer scrutiny with moderate monitoring.” That report also outlines the limitations and uncertainties of the study.

There was no similar plain language summary released for the overall provincial air shed study, even though it was produced by the same company and came to similar conclusions.  To find any limitations or uncertainties in the provincial air shed study you have to do a computer search for those key words.

So it is apparent that intended audience for the report is not really  those who live in Kitimat, where over the past five years there is wide knowledge that a summary release along with a technical report is considered a standard procedure.

Kitimat not consulted

At the Friday news conference, reporters asked Environment Minister Mary Polak several times about the delay in releasing the report, and then why it was suddenly released.

In answer to the initial question, Polak said, “We had always intended to release it.” She refused to comment on the claim of cabinet privilege, saying that was the responsibility of government lawyers at the Ministry of the Attorney General. She said that the government had received the March 31 report “by the end of April and “it went through quite a rigorous and thorough review by different agencies… we are satisfied now that the findings have been given the kind of rigorous overview and we’re pleased with what has resulted from that.”

Polak said the Haisla Nation were consulted before the commissioning of the report.

Asked again about who the BC government consulted during the review period, she replied, “There were a number of other groups involved in technical review, so not just Ministry of Environment, you’ll be aware of Northern Health authority, but Ministry of Natural Gas Development, Health Canada, Environment Canada and also specialist reviewers from the Province of Quebec, the University of Helsinki, UBC, also private consultants. Then we spent some time going over and having a technical review with Gitga’at and Coastal Coastal First Nations. So it was a matter of ensuring that we had done the very best review of the work before the occasion on which we released it.”

Which leaves one big question, why was the Province of Quebec and the University of Helsinki consulted and Kitimat, despite requests, was not?

Not in the report, not my department

The provincial government called for a report on the “cumulative effects of existing and proposed industrial air emissions” and noted it would focus “ focus on sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide emissions from these facilities.” It is clear that the report did not go beyond the narrow focus on those two substances.

At the Vancouver news conference, a reporter  asked Polak why green house gases were not included.

She replied, “That’s not what this study was intended to look at. This department deals with pollutants and pollution and protecting our environment from it, whereas GHG [green house gas] emissions are dealt with in our department around climate change and climate action. These particular substances have an immediate impact on human health and vegetative health and the receiving environment generally unlike GHGs which are a more global impacted and of course have an impact on climate change. This study only looked at those pollutants sulphur doixide and nitrogen dioxide

Then a second reporter asked here about particulate matter, to which Polak replied, “Coming from the Fraser Valley I am very aware of the impact of particulate matter. Any industrial development that we permit in British Columbia or receives an environmental assessment certificate, particulate matter and the release of particulate matter is one of the things that gets evaluated as we determine whether or not to grant those permits. Or to put stipulations on those permits in order to ensure a reduction or management of particulate matter. That’s where that’s dealt with and we have some pretty good understanding of how that operates. We also have some modelling from this study.

“The reason this study didn’t report on that because we hadn’t asked them to. We specifically wanted to get at the issue of sulphur disoxide and nitrogen dioxide but please do not take frm that because it’s not in the study, it doesn’t get looked at. It simply gets looked at in a different process. In this case it was the understanding of the Kitimat air shed with respect to sulphur dixoide and nitrogen dioxide that we needed to have a better answers and better information.”

In other words, despite what the original proposal said: “The goal is to ensure the potential impacts from industrial air emissions are clearly understood prior to new projects being approved and in operation,” the provincial government is content to wait until the permit phase to consider particulate matter, rather than include particulate matter in the long term planning for the air shed.

And for green house gases, the same attitude seems to apply, either it’s not her department or it will be dealt with sometime in the future.

What’s going on in the air shed?

Although the provincial government has been able to spin that the air shed report clears the way for more industrial development in the region, the report isn’t much help for long term planning for those both for and against industrial development in the valley.

First one has to wonder just how comprehensive was the study, even when it comes to sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide?

The report for Rio Tinto Alcan for just one substance—sulphur dixoide—from one industry—aluminum smelting–led to a 456 page technical report with 332 pages of appendices.

The provincial technical report adds  one more substance, nitrogen dioxide,  and adds four LNG facilities, an oil refinery, different export terminals for those industries, and two hydro generating stations plus related shipping, including a passing mention of vehicular and train traffic. The new report  is 363 pages, including the appendices. (It should be noted that the air shed report does reference some of the information in the RTA report)

The various studies for the Enbridge Northern Gateway, which often contained material on air emissions, included a much longer list of what in industry jargon are called CPOC “chemicals of potential concern,” including chemicals that might be released in trace amounts from the Northern Gateway terminal, but may be of more concern from LNG projects. Who knows unless those substances are studied?

As was required by the Joint Review Panel, Enbridge also studied potential problems from accidental release of air-borne contaminants from the Northern Gateway project. There is no mention of accidental release in the current air shed study.

Although the increase in truck traffic in Kitimat is clearly visible to people who live in the town, the air shed report also speculates that with LNG and a possible refinery, there will also be a significant increase in rail traffic coming into Kitimat, hauled, of course, by diesel locomotives, which the report says is “expected to be conservatively captured within the background concentration adjustment.”

Can the Valley “handle industrial expansion”

Stakeholders in the region from the District of Kitimat to the Gitga’at First Nation to various environmental groups asked for a comprehensive review of what is going to happen in the Kitimat air shed with industrial expansion.

So the answer to the question can the valley “handle industrial expansion” after the flawed and limited report from the provincial government is not “yes,” but “we don’t know yet.”

It appears that the report is part of Christy Clark’s ongoing campaign that LNG will save the provincial economy.

There are two factors the report ignores.

First the energy companies are going to make their final investment decision on cold hard facts, including their own assessment of the potential problems from the air shed, not spin from the provincial government.

Second, until there is a proper air shed study, the First Nations, including the Haisla in Kitimat, the Gitga’at at Hartley Bay, the Kitselas in Terrace  will not have solid evidence to make a decision on the details of the LNG or refinery development on their traditional territory and increased ship traffic along the coast and that will come into immediate conflict with the Supreme Court ruling on the Tsilhqot’in decision and the finding that “Whether a particular use is irreconcilable with the ability of succeeding generations to benefit from the land will be a matter to be determined when the issue arises.”

There is a new Orwellian phrase used by both the federal and provincial government. Every report is “independent” and “science-based,” although all they all tend to support the policy of the commissioning agency.

What the Kitimat Valley, Douglas Channel and the Terrace region need is a truly independent and truly science based and truly comprehensive evaluation of the air shed. At the moment, that doesn’t exist. It should whether it comes from industry or if the local governments can find the budget to fund a proper study or some combination of the two.


Kitimat Airshed Assessment
RTA report Sulphur-dioxide-technical-assessment.html

(Scanned version of copy in Kitimat public library)



Business in Vancouver

Kitimat airshed modelling has narrow focus

Vancouver Observer

Province’s air pollution study green lights LNG build-up, but ignores climate change

News release: Andrew Weaver MLA
New airshed study is a “nail in the coffin” for government LNG dreams in Kitimat

Tropical fish, climate change migration growing threat to seagrass, kelp beds, study says

Tropical fish are migrating into  what were once temperate water as a result of ocean warming and that poses a serious threat to the areas they invade, because they overgraze on kelp forests and seagrass meadows, according to  a new study from the University of New South Wales in Australia

The  study says the harmful impact of tropical fish is most evident in southern Japanese waters and the eastern Mediterranean, where there have been dramatic declines in kelps.

Tropical fish
A school of tropical plant-eating fish including various species that are shifting their distribution towards temperate waters. (Adriana Verges/UNSW)

There is also emerging evidence in Australia and the US that the spread of tropical fish towards the poles is causing damage in the areas they enter.

“The tropicalisation of temperate marine areas is a new phenomenon of global significance that has arisen because of climate change,” according to the study lead author, Dr. Adriana Verges, of  the University of New South Wales.

“Increases in the number of plant-eating tropical fish can profoundly alter ecosystems and lead to barren reefs, affecting the biodiversity of these regions, with significant economic and management impacts.”

The study is published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

As the oceans have warmed and the climate has changed, hotspots are developing in regions where the currents that transport warm tropical waters towards the poles are strengthening.

Increased flow of the East Australian Current, for example, has meant waters south-east of the continent are warming at two to three times the global average.
Tropical fish are now common in Sydney Harbour during the summer months.

Japan, the east coast of the US, northern Brazil and south eastern Africa are also strongly influenced by coastal currents that transport warm tropical waters.

“In tropical regions, a wide diversity of plant-eating fish perform the vital role of keeping reefs free of large seaweeds, allowing corals to flourish. But when they intrude into temperate waters they pose a significant threat to these habitats. They can directly overgraze algal forests as well as prevent the recovery of algae that have been damaged for other reasons,”  Dr Verges said.

Tropical fish expanding their ranges into temperate areas include unicornfish, parrotfish, and rabbitfish.

The study authors include researchers from Australia, the US, Spain, Singapore, the UK and Japan.

Kelp disappears in southern Japan

The study reports that more than 40 per cent of the kelp and algal beds have disappeared since the 1990s, a phenomenon known in Japan as isoyake.

Tropical species including rabbitfish and parrotfish appear to be mainly responsible.

Although these fish have been present for a long time, their annual grazing rates have increased dramatically as ocean temperatures in winter have risen.  Corals now dominate the ecosystem in many locations. The changes have led to the collapse of the abalone fishery.

Rabbit fish expand in eastern Mediterranean

Tropical fish moved into the eastern Mediterranean from the Red Sea after the opening of the Suez Canal. In recent decades, rabbitfish numbers have increased, resulting in hundreds of kilometres of deforested areas and a 40 per cent decrease in the variety of marine species.

As the Mediterranean warms the rabbitfish are expanding their range westward, putting other shallow ecosystems at risk.

Gulf of Mexico

There has been a more than 20-fold increase in the number of parrotfish in the Gulf of Mexico – a species which consumes seagrass at five times the rate of native grazers. The number of plant-eating green turtles and manatees has also increased.


In Western Australia, emerging evidence suggests that increases in the number of tropical fish are preventing the recovery of kelp forest damaged by a heat wave in 2011.

In eastern Australia, kelp has disappeared from numerous reefs in the past five years and Dr Verges’ research suggests intense grazing by tropical fish on the kelp preceded this.