District clarifies who owns the riverbank, will debate shutting off vehicular access at Monday’s meeting

The District of Kitimat has issued a map clarifying just who owns the banks of the Kitimat River, a subject that has been debated for years, as campers have come and gone as they please.

The map issued by the District staff shows that the District of Kitimat has jurisdiction over much of the land on the east side of the river while Rio Tinto owns much of the western bank–but also does own some of the eastern bank in the lower levels.

District staff are recommending that gates be installed in three areas along the eastern bank on municipally owned land, at the Giant Spruce Road, at the Pump House and at the Sewage plant. That could cut off vehicular traffic while still allowing access for pedestrians and those who wish to fish on the river bank by getting access on foot.

The proposed locations of the gates are marked in red on the map.

 

Map showing who owns the riverbank lands with the proposed gates marked by red dots. (District of Kitimat)

You’ll find a larger version of the map, and staffs’ recommendations to District Council in the report.

DistrictofKitimatriverbankreport (pdf)

 

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.
115757_webcrab
“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.

 

BC launching major study of Kitimat River, Kitimat Arm water quality

The Environmental Protection Division of BC’s Ministry of Environment is launching a major study of the water quality in the Kitimat valley, first on the Kitimat River and some of its tributaries and later on the Kitimat Arm of Douglas Channel.

There has been no regular sampling by the province in Kitimat since 1995 (while other organizations such as the District of Kitimat have been sampling).

Jessica Penno, from the regional operations branch in Smithers, held a meeting for stakeholders at Riverlodge on Monday night. Among those attending the meeting were representatives of the District of Kitimat, the Haisla Nation Council, LNG Canada, Kitimat LNG, Rio Tinto BC Operations, Douglas Channel Watch, Kitimat Valley Naturalists and the Steelhead Society.

As the project ramps up during the spring and summer, the ministry will be looking for volunteers to take water samples to assist the study. The volunteers will be trained to take the samples and monitored to insure “sample integrity.” Penno also asked the District, the Haisla and the industries in the valley to collect extra samples for the provincial study and to  consider sharing historical data for the study.

With the growing possibility of new industrial development in the Kitimat valley, monitoring water quality is a “high priority” for the province, Penno told the meeting. However, so far, there is no money targeted specifically for the project, she said.

Fishing and camping on the Kitimat River
Camping and fishing on the Kitimat River. (Robin Rowland/Northwest Coast Energy News)

The purpose of the study is to make sure water in the Kitimat valley meet the provinces water quality objectives, which have the aim of watching for degradation of water quality, upgrade existing water quality or protect for designated uses such as drinking water, wildlife use, recreational use and industrial water supplies as well as protecting the most sensitive areas. It also provides a baseline for current and future environmental assessment. (In most cases, testing water quality for drinking water is the responsibility of the municipalities, Penno said.  The province may warn a municipality if it detects potential problems, for example if a landslide increases metal content in a stream).

Under the BC Environment system, “water quality guidelines” are generic, while “water quality objectives” are site specific.

One of the aims is to compile all the studies done of the Kitimat River estuary by the various environmental impact studies done by industrial proponents.

The ministry would then create a monitoring program that could be effectively shared with all stakeholders.

At one point one member of the audience said he was “somewhat mystified” at the role of Fisheries and Oceans in any monitoring, noting that “when you phone them, nobody answers.”

“You mean, you too?” one of the BC officials quipped as the room laughed.

Water quality objectives

The last time water quality objectives were identified for the Kitimat River and arm were in the late 1980s, Penno told the meeting. The objectives were developed by the British Columbia government because of potential conflict between fisheries and industry at that time. The objectives were developed for the last ten kilometres of the Kitimat River and the immediate area around the estuary and the Kitimat Arm. “The Kitimat is one of the most heavily sport fished rivers in Canada,” she said.

However, the work at that time was only provisional and there was not enough water quality monitoring to create objectives that could be approved by the assistant deputy minister.

There has been no monitoring of the Kitimat River by BC Environment since 1995. “We’ve had a lot of changes in the Kitimat region, with the closure of Methanex and Eurocan, the modernization of Rio Tinto and potential LNG facilities.”

The main designated uses for the Kitimat River at that time were aquatic life, wildlife with secondary use for fishing and recreation.

She said she wants the stakeholders to identify areas that should be monitored at first on the river and the tributaries. Later in the summer, Environment BC will ask for suggestions for the estuaries of the Upper Kitimat Arm.

Participants expressed concern that the water supply to Kitamaat Village and the Kitimat LNG site at Bish Cove as well as Hirsch Creek and other tributaries should be included in the study. Penno replied that the purpose of the meeting was to identify “intimate local knowledge” to help the study proceed.

After a decade so of cuts, the government has “only so much capacity,” Penno said, which is why the study needs the help of both Kitimat residents and industry to both design the study and to do some of the sampling.

The original sampling station in the 1980s was at the Haisla Boulevard Bridge in Kitimat. A new sampling station has been added at the “orange” Kitimat River bridge on Highway 37. There is also regular sampling and monitoring at Hirsch Creek. The aim is to add new sampling points at both upstream and downstream from discharge points on the river.

The people at the meeting emphasized the program should take into consideration the Kitimat River and all its tributaries—if budget permits.

Spring freshette

Last year, the team collected five samples in thirty days in during four weeks in May and the first week in June, “catching the rising river quite perfectly” at previously established locations, at the Haisla Bridge and upstream and downstream from the old Eurocan site as well as the new “orange bridge” on the Kitimat River.

The plan calls for five samples in thirty days during the spring freshette and the fall rain and monthly sampling in between.

The stakeholders in the meeting told the enviroment staff that the Kitimat Valley has two spring freshettes, the first in March during the valley melt and later in May during the high mountain melt.

The plan calls for continued discussions with the industry stakeholders, Kitimat residents and the Haisla Nation.

The staff also wants the industrial stakeholders to provide data to the province, some of it going back to the founding of Kitimat if a way can be found to make sure all the data is compatible. One of the industry representatives pointed out, however, that sometimes data is the hands of contractors and the hiring company may not have full control over that data.

There will be another public meeting in the summer, once plans for sampling in the Kitimat Arm are ready.

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.

regioncatchfn

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)

Kitimat lifts “precautionary boil water advisory”

kitimatlogoThe District of Kitimat Friday afternoon lifted the boil water advisory declared during a heavy rain storm late last Saturday. The District says system flushing may result in some discoloured water, but it is safe to drink and the water should run clear quickly.

On its website the District said:

The precautionary boil water advisory issued on Sunday, October 11 has been lifted.

This advisory was issued by the District of Kitimat, with advice from Northern Health, after the extremely high flood levels in the Kitimat River caused an increase in turbidity in the municipal water supply. It has now been lifted after two consecutive sets of samples confirmed there was no total coliform or E.coli contamination in the potable water.

Chlorination was increased and maintained over the boil water advisory period and municipal crews flushed the water system to speed up removal of the turbid (cloudy) water. The flushing itself could result in some discoloration of the water but it is safe to drink without boiling. If your water is discoloured, let your cold water run until it clears.

The District of Kitimat apologizes for any concern or inconvenience this precautionary measure may have caused.

 

 

 

“Very low levels” of Exxon Valdez oil threaten salmon and herring survival 25 years later

“Very low levels” of crude oil from the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska, are a threat to the survival of herring and pink salmon that spawn in the region, according to a study released today by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The study shows that embryonic salmon and herring exposed to very low levels of crude oil can develop hidden heart defects that compromise their later survival.

That means that the Exxon Valdez spill on March 24, 1989 may have had much greater impacts on spawning fish than previously recognized, according to the study published in  Nature’s online journal  Scientific Reports Very low embyronic crude oil exposures cause lasting defects in salmon and herring.

“These juvenile fish on the outside look completely normal, but their hearts are not functioning properly and that translates directly into reduced swimming ability and reduced survival,” said John Incardona, a research toxicologist at NOAA Fisheries’ Northwest Fisheries Science Center (NWFSC) in Seattle. “In terms of impacts to shore-spawning fish, the oil spill likely had a much bigger footprint than anyone realized.”

This is a juvenile pink salmon exposed to low levels of crude oil as an embryo. While these fish appear outwardly normal, they nevertheless developed heart defects that compromised their ability to swim. Fish that are less able to forage and avoid predators are much less likely to survive to adulthood. (NOAA)
This is a juvenile pink salmon exposed to low levels of crude oil as an embryo. While these fish appear outwardly normal, they nevertheless developed heart defects that compromised their ability to swim. Fish that are less able to forage and avoid predators are much less likely to survive to adulthood. (NOAA)

Previous research has shown that crude oil disrupts the contraction of the fish heart muscle cells. Embryonic fish exposed to trace levels of crude oil grow into juveniles with abnormal hearts and reduced cardiorespiratory function.

“With this very early impact on the heart, you end up with an animal that just can’t pump blood through its body as well, which means it can’t swim as well to capture food, form schools, or migrate,” said Mark Carls, toxicologist at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center. “Crude oil is changing basic physiology, or what makes a fish a fish.”

The research builds on earlier work by the Auke Bay Laboratories, part of NOAA Fisheries’ Alaska Fisheries Science Center, which found much reduced survival of pink salmon exposed as embryos to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) from crude oil.

“Our findings are changing the picture in terms of assessing the risk and the potential impacts of oil spills,” said Nat Scholz, leader of the NWFSC’s ecotoxicology program and a coauthor of the new study. “We now know the developing fish heart is exquisitely sensitive to crude oil toxicity, and that subtle changes in heart formation can have delayed but important consequences for first-year survival, which in turn determines the long-term abundance of wild fish populations.”

The Exxon Valdez aground on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound in May 1989. (NOAA)
The Exxon Valdez aground on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound in March 1989. (NOAA)

The Exxon Valdez spill was the largest in U.S. history, with extensive oiling of shoreline spawning habitats for Pacific herring and pink salmon, the two most important commercial fish species in Prince William Sound.

Herring larvae sampled in proximity to oil were visibly abnormal, and mortality rates were higher for pink salmon embryos at oil spill sites than unaffected regions.

The herring fishery collapsed three to four years after the spill, when the herring spawned in oiled areas reached reproductive maturity.

The paper notes that the contribution of the spill to the herring population collapse, if any, was never determined and remains controversial.

Other studies, however, tend to confirm the findings, including heart problems for fish exposed to the Gulf of Mexico Deepwater Horizon spill and even fish exposed to naturally occurring oil seeps.

Oil spill caused unexpected lethal impact on herring, study shows

Gulf oil spill caused heart defects in fish embryos new study finds

The new findings suggest that the delayed effects of the spill may have been important contributors to the declines.

 This image shows transient embryonic exposures to crude oil cause lasting reductions in the swimming speed of salmon and herring, months after additional juvenile growth in clean seawater. (NOAA)

This image shows transient embryonic exposures to crude oil cause lasting reductions in the swimming speed of salmon and herring, months after additional juvenile growth in clean seawater. (NOAA)

Scientists from the Northwest Fisheries Science Center and Alaska Fisheries Science Center temporarily exposed embryonic salmon and herring to low levels of crude oil from the North Slope of Alaska and found that both absorbed chemicals at similar concentrations in their tissues. The embryos were then transferred to clean seawater and raised as juvenile fish for seven to eight months.

Few of the exposed embryos were outwardly abnormal in any way. However, closer examination of the fish revealed subtle defects that could reduce their long-term survival.

Juvenile salmon exposed to oil grew more slowly, with those exposed to the highest concentrations growing the slowest. For salmon, early survival in the ocean is strongly influenced by juvenile growth, with smaller fish suffering higher loss to predators.

Scientists used swimming speed as a measure of cardiorespiratory performance and found that fish exposed to the highest concentrations of oil swam the slowest. Slower swimming is an indication of reduced aerobic capacity and cardiac output, and likely makes fish easier targets for predators.

Exposure to oil as embryos altered the structural development of the hearts of juvenile fish, potentially reducing their fitness and swimming ability. Poor swimming and cardiac fitness is also a factor in disease resistance.

Earlier studies on the ecosystem-scale crash of the Prince William Sound herring population  several years after the Exxon Valdez spill were based on higher levels of exposure to the oil. The new study shows that that cardiac injury occurs in normal-appearing fish that survive even lower level exposures.

The scientists reviewed data on measured oil concentrations in surface water samples collected in Prince William Sound after the oil spill and during the 1989 herring spawning season. Most of the 233 samples contained less oil than was believed to be toxic to herring at the time, based on visible gross developmental abnormalities. However, nearly all of the samples contained oil at or above concentrations shown in the new study to alter heart development.

If the Exxon Valdez spill impacted heart development among a large majority of fish that were spawned in proximity to oiled shorelines, the subsequent losses of juveniles to delayed mortality would have left fewer adults to join the population. Although not direct proof, this provides a plausible explanation for the collapse of the Prince William Sound herring stock four years later, when fish spawned during the oil spill would have matured.

The study concludes that the impacts of the Exxon Valdez spill on near shore spawning populations of fish are likely to have been considerably underestimated in terms of both the geographic extent of affected habitat and the lingering toxicity of low levels of oil. The findings will likely contribute to more accurate assessments of the impacts of future oil spills, Incardona said. “Now we have a much better idea of what we should be looking for,” he said.

That means, according to the study “that the impacts of the Exxon Valdez oil spill on populations of near shore spawning fish are likely to have been considerably underestimated, in term of both the geographic extent of affected habitats and the lingering toxicity of low levels of residual oil.”

The report calls for more studies of the sensitivity of the developing fish heart since the vulnerability “also has implications for other pollution sources in marine ecosystems, including increasing maritime vessel traffic and expanding land-based urban runoff.”

In 2013, the Northern Gateway Joint Review panel said this about the Exxon Valdez  oil spill.

Scientific studies after the Exxon Valdez spill indicated that the vast majority of species recovered following the spill and that functioning ecosystems, similar to those existing pre-spill, were established.

Species for which recovery is not fully apparent, such as Pacific herring, killer whales, and pigeon guillemots, appear to have been affected by other environmental factors or human influences not associated with the oil spill. Insufficient pre-spill baseline data on these species contributed to difficulties in determining the extent of spill effects.

Based on the evidence, the Panel finds that natural recovery of the aquatic environment after an oil spill is likely to be the primary recovery mechanism, particularly for marine spills. Both freshwater and marine ecosystem recovery is further mitigated where cleanup is possible, effective, and beneficial to the environment.

Natural processes that degrade oil would begin immediately following a spill. Although residual oil could remain buried in sediments for years, the Panel finds that toxicity associated with that oil would decline over time and would not cause widespread, long-term impacts.

Related

25th anniversary of Exxon Valdez disaster looms over Northern Gateway dispute

Photo gallery: Preparing for the Pacific Trail Pipeline

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A pile of slash at a quarry site for the Pacific Trail Pipeline near the Little Wedeene River. (Robin Rowland)

Complete photo gallery at my photography site.

Chevron applies to update permit to discharge storm water to Bish Cove and Douglas Channel

Chevron LogoChevron has applied to the BC Ministry of the Environment for a permit to discharge storm water from the liquified natural gas construction site at Bish Cove and along the shore of Douglas Channel.

The construction site is currently operating on a Waste Water Discharge Approval that expires on Oct. 31.

Map of Bish Cove
Map showing construction areas at the Kitimat LNG site at Bish Cove likely to discharge storm water into the Douglas Channel. (Chevron/ McElhanney Consulting)

 

The application sets new objectives that “will be protective of the receiving environment.” Various construction areas will discharge storm water (likely due to clearing of the bush cover) from areas at Bish Cove itself and the Bish Creek watershed “including the following watercourses and associated tributaries: Bish Creek, West Creek, Skoda Creek and Renegade Creek.”

The application says that the “maximum rate of effluent discharged from this project and support areas will vary based upon seasons and weather.” Areas and amounts of water may change as the construction proceeds. “The characteristics of the stormwater runoff will be water produced from precipitation, including snowmelt that contains suspended sediment from earthworks and construction.” The application adds, “The types of treatment to be applied to the discharges are: erosion prevention and sedimentation control management practices and devices which may include sedimentation ponds, oil water separators, pH adjustment, flocculent  addition and sand filtration.

The public and concerned individuals or groups can provide “relevant information” to the Regional Manager, Environmental Protection, #325-1011 Fourth Ave, Prince George BC V2L 3H9 until September 20, 2014 or call Marc Douglas at 844-800-0900.

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.

Pteropod
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.