West Coast “kelp highway” was the earliest route for First Peoples’ settlement of the Americas is the new scientific consensus

Most historians and archaeologists believe that the First Peoples to arrive in North America came down the West Coast on what they now call the “kelp highway.”

The review paper “The First Americans” was published this week in the prestigious journal Science.

Evidence from archaeological sites from the British Columbia coast to the southern tip of South America show that First Peoples had settled on both continents by at least 18,000 years ago, according to authors T.J. Braje at San Diego State University in San Diego, CA; T.D. Dillehay at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN; J.M. Erlandson at University of Oregon in Eugene, OR; R.G. Klein at Stanford University in Stanford, CA; T.C. Rick at National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC.

The paper also says the DNA genomic data suggests a northeast Asian origin for Native American ancestors some time in the past 20,000 years.

(Science)

One of the key sites cited in the paper is Triquet Island in the traditional territory of the Heiltsuk Nation which has been dated to at least 14,000 years ago. Heiltsuk oral history has marked the island for generations, William Housty a member of the Heiltsuk told CBC News at the time the discovery was officially announced in April 2017, “Heiltsuk oral history talks of a strip of land in that area where the excavation took place. It was a place that never froze during the ice age and it was place where our ancestors flocked to for survival.”

The authors of the review say the new consensus on the “kelp highway” is a “dramatic intellectual turnabout” from the original idea that the first indigenous settlers followed an ice free corridor from a land bridge from Siberia down the centre of North America to form the “Clovis Culture”

The land bridge between northeast Asia and North America, commonly called Beringia, came about when sea levels fell during the last ice age. Although the original Beringia hypothesis has been disputed by some First Peoples, the paper says the Beringia hypothesis is still a factor—but much farther back in time, now about 24,000 years ago.

The paper says:

most archaeologists and other scholars now believe that the earliest Americans followed Pacific Rim shorelines from northeast Asia to Beringia and the Americas.

According to the kelp highway hypothesis, deglaciation of the outer coast of North America’s Pacific Northwest about 17,000 years ago created a possible coastal corridor rich in aquatic and terrestrial resources along the Pacific Coast, with productive kelp forest and estuary  ecosystems at sea level and no major geographic barriers

The paper says that kelp resources extended as far south as Baja California, and then—after a gap in Central America, where productive mangrove and other aquatic habitats were available—picked up again in northern Peru, where the cold, nutrient-rich waters from the Humboldt Current supported kelp forests as far south as Tierra del Fuego.

The other sites cited in the paper are

  • Huca Prieta, Peru 15,000 to 14,500 years ago
  • Paisley Caves, Oregon 14,000 years ago
  • Monte Verde, Chile 14,500 years ago
  • Page-Ladson, Florida 14,500 years ago
  • Channel Islands California 13,000 years ago
  • Quebrada Santa Julia and Quebrada Huentelauquén , Chile 13,000 years ago
  • Quebrada Tacahuay Peru 13,000 years ago
  • Quebrada Jaquay, Peru 13,000 years ago

In an earlier article in Science in August, Knut Fladmark, a professor emeritus of archaeology at Simon Fraser University who was one of the first to propose a coastal migration into the Americas back in 1979, said: “The land-sea interface is one of the richest habitats anywhere in the world,” noting that early Americans knew how to take full advantage of its abundant resources.

Testing the kelp highway hypothesis is challenging, the scientists say, because much of the archaeological evidence would have been submerged by rising seas since the end of the last “glacial maximum,” about 26,500 years ago.

The earlier that the First Peoples arrived, that means the land they originally settled is now the further offshore from the current coast  (land which is now likely also at greater depth under the current ocean). So the review says that finding the evidence means that, “enlarging already vast potential search areas on the submerged continental shelf.”

The authors say:

Although direct evidence of a maritime pre-Clovis dispersal has yet to emerge, recent discoveries confirm that late Pleistocene archaeological sites can be found underwater. Recent discoveries at the Page-Ladson site, in Florida produced 14,500-year-old butchered mastodon bones and chipped stone tools in the bottom of Florida’s Aucilla River.

The report says that “Several multidisciplinary studies are currently mapping and exploring the submerged landscapes of North America’s Pacific and Gulf of Mexico coasts, searching for submerged sites. .

In British Columbia, those studies (pdf) include the discovery by Daryl Fedje, an archaeologist at the University of Victoria and the Hakai Institute of 29 footprints on Quadra Island. A piece of wood embedded in a footprint’s fill provided the radiocarbon date of 13,200 years ago and the spear points lying and a cluster of bear bones at Gaadu Din cave on the Haida Gwaii dated to 12,700 years ago.

The review says that for much of the 20th century, most archaeologists believed humans first colonized the Americas about 13,500 years ago via the overland route that crossed Beringia and followed a long and narrow, mostly ice-free corridor to the vast plains of central North America. There,  according to the earlier theories, Clovis people and their descendants hunted large game and spread rapidly through the New World.

This was initially confirmed by twentieth-century discoveries of distinctive Clovis artifacts throughout North America. Some finds associated with mammoth or mastodon kill sites, supported this “Clovis-first” model.

The early studies decided then that “North America’s coastlines and their rich marine, estuarine, riverine, and terrestrial ecosystems were peripheral to the story of how and when the Americas were first settled by humans.”

Now the recent work along the Pacific coastlines of North and South America has revealed that these environments were settled early and continuously, providing a rich diversity of subsistence options and technological resources for New World hunter-gatherers.

A detail of the map from Science shows how off from the current coast the ancient shorelines reached (Science)

At the moment,  there is little evidence on the coast so far of the kind of  stone tools and fishtail points that had previously provided a road map that archaeologists used to trace the spread of “Clovis” Paleoindians throughout the Americas. Such a roadmap is lacking for “pre-Clovis” sites on the coast.

One proposal is that distinctive stemmed (“tanged”) chipped-stone projectile points, crescents (lunate-shaped), and leaf-shaped bifaces found in Japan, northeast Asia, western North America, and South America could be potential markers of an earlier coastal migration and  ties to Ice Age peoples in East Asia.

The problem of finding final proof of the kelp highway is that the First Peoples followed a coastal route from Asia to the Americas, so that finding evidence for their earliest settlements will require careful consideration of the effects of sea level rise and coastal landscape evolution on local and regional archaeological records.

The scientists note that around the globe, evidence for coastal occupations between  about 50,000 and 15,000 years ago are rare because of postglacial sea level rise, marine erosion, and shorelines that have migrated tens or even hundreds of kilometers from their locations at the ice age glacial maximum.

They say overcoming these obstacles requires interdisciplinary research focused on coastal areas with relatively steep offshore bathymetry, formerly glaciated areas where ancient shorelines have not shifted so dramatically, or the submerged landscapes that are one of the last frontiers for archaeology in the Americas

 

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.

Study confirms salmon major part of First Nations culture during last Ice Age, 11,800 years ago

The Ice Age First Nations in the interior of Alaska relied more heavily on salmon and freshwater fish in their diets than previously thought, according to a new study from the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

First Nations of the Pacific Coast have always recognized the value of the salmon. Archaeologists have used new techniques to date the remains of salmon found in hearths back more than 11,000 years. The results now offer a more complex picture of Alaska’s ice age residents, who were previously thought to have a diet dominated by terrestrial mammals such as mammoths, bison and elk.

A team of researchers made the discovery after taking samples from 17 prehistoric hearths along the Tanana River, then analyzed stable isotopes and lipid residues to identify fish remains at multiple locations.

The project also found the earliest evidence of human use of anadromous salmon in the Americas, dating back at least 11,800 years.

Chum salmon (DFO)
Chum salmon (DFO)

The results of the study were published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

DNA analysis of chum salmon bones from the same site on the Tanana River had previously confirmed that fish were part of the local indigenous diet as far back as 11,500 years ago. But fragile fish bones rarely survive for scientists to analyze, so the team used sophisticated geochemistry analyses to estimate the amount of salmon, freshwater and terrestrial resources ancient people ate.

A team led by UAF postdoctoral researcher Kyungcheol Choy analyzed stable isotopes and lipid residues, searching for signatures specific to anadromous fish. The effort demonstrated that dietary practices of hunter-gatherers could be recorded at sites where animal remains hadn’t been preserved.

“It’s quite new in the archaeology field,” Choy said. “There’s a lot in these mixtures that’s hard to detect in other ways.”

Ben Potter, a professor of anthropology at UAF and co-author of the study, said the findings suggest a more systematic use of salmon than DNA testing alone could confirm.

“This is a different kind of strategy,” Potter said. “It fleshes out our understanding of these people in a way that we didn’t have before.”

The study required cooperation between UAF’s Department of Anthropology and the Institute of Northern Engineering’s Alaska Stable Isotope Facility to locate and interpret the presence of salmon remains at the sites. Potter said the process could be a template for how a diverse team of researchers can work together to overcome a scientific obstacle.

“It’s an awesome look at how we can merge disciplines to answer a question,” he said.

Strange ancient hippo-like Pacific coast mammal “vacuumed” shoreline plant life

Scientists have identified a new species of a strange marine mammal group that lived on the Pacific Coast between 33 million years ago and 10 million years ago. The new specimens — from at least four individuals — were recovered from Unalaska, in theAleutians.

The Desmostylians, unlike other marine mammals species alive today — such as whales, seals and sea cows –are extinct. The researchers call them “desmos” for short. Unlike whales and seals, but like manatees, desmos were vegetarians

The desmos are found from Baja, California, up along the west coast of North America, around the Alaska Peninsula, the storm-battered Aleutian Islands, to Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula and Sakhalin Island, to the Japanese islands

Their strange columnar teeth and odd style of eating don’t occur in any other mammal. They rooted around coastlines, ripping up vegetation, such as marine algae, sea grass and other near-shore plants.

The new species, 23 million years old was a big, hippo-sized animal with a long snout and tusks, It has a unique tooth and jaw structure that indicates it was not only a vegetarian, but literally sucked vegetation from shorelines like a vacuum cleaner, said vertebrate paleontologist and study co-author Louis L. Jacobs, Southern Methodist University, Dallas.

They probably swam like polar bears, using their strong front limbs to power along. On land, they would have had the lumbering gait of a sloth.

A large, stocky-limbed mammal, desmos’ modern relatives remain a mystery. Scientists have previously linked the animals perhaps to manatees, horses or elephants. Adult desmostylians were large enough to be relatively safe from predators.

The identification of a new species belonging to Desmostylia has intensified the rare animal’s brief mysterious journey through prehistoric time, according to the new study.

While alive, the newly discovered creatures lived in what is now Unalaska’s Dutch Harbor.

“The new animal — when compared to one of a different species from Japan — made us realize that desmos do not chew like any other animal,” said Jacobs, a professor of earth sciences. “They clench their teeth, root up plants and suck them in.”

To eat, the animals buttressed their lower jaw with their teeth against the upper jaw, and used the powerful muscles that attached there, along with the shape of the roof of their mouth, to suction-feed vegetation from coastal bottoms. Big muscles in the neck would help to power their tusks, and big muscles in the throat would help with suction.

Discovery of the new genus and species that resembled a hippo and swam like a bear, from Unalaska indicates the desmostylian group was a successful group that was larger and more diverse than previously known. (Artist: Ray Troll)
Discovery of the new genus and species that resembled a hippo and swam like a bear, from Unalaska indicates the desmostylian group was a successful group that was larger and more diverse than previously known. (Artist: Ray Troll)

“No other mammal eats like that,” Jacobs said. “The enamel rings on the teeth show wear and polish, but they don’t reveal consistent patterns related to habitual chewing motions.”

The new specimens also represent a new genus — meaning desmostylians in the same family diverged from one anoher in key physical characteristics, particularly the tooth and jaw structure, said Jacobs, who is one of 10 scientists collaborating on the research.

Discovery of a new genus and species indicates the desmostylian group was larger and more diverse than previously known, said paleontologist and co-author Anthony Fiorillo, vice president of research and collections and chief curator at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science, Dallas, and an adjunct research professor at SMU.

“Our new study shows that though this group of strange and extinct mammals was short-lived, it was a successful group with greater biodiversity than had been previously realized,” Fiorillo said.

Compared to other mammals, desmos were latecomers and didn’t appear on earth until fairly recently — 33 million years ago. Also unusual for mammals, they survived a mere 23 million years, dying out 10 million years ago.
The research was funded by the Perot Museum of Nature and Science, U.S. National Park Service – Alaska Region Office, and SMU’s Institute for the Study of Earth and Man.

The newest desmo made its home on Unalaska Island, the farthest north of any occurrence of the group, which only lived along the shores of the North Pacific.

“That’s the only place they’re known in the world,” Jacobs said. The Unalaska fossils represent at least four individuals, and one is a baby.

“The baby tells us they had a breeding population up there,” Jacobs said. “They must have stayed in sheltered areas to protect the young from surf and currents.”

In addition, “the baby also tells us that this area along the Alaska coast was biologically productive enough to make it a good place for raising a family,” said Fiorillo.

Just as cattle assemble in a herd, and a group of fish is a school, multiple desmostylians constitute a “troll” — a designation selected by Jacobs to honor Alaskan Ray Troll, the artist who has depicted desmos most.

The first Unalaska fossils were discovered in the 1950s in a rock quarry during U.S. Geological Survey mapping.

Others found more recently were on display at the Ounalashka Corporation headquarters. Those specimens were offered to Fiorillo and Jacobs for study after Fiorillo gave a public presentation to the community on his work in Alaska.

“The fruits of that lecture were that it started the networking with the community, which in turn led us to a small, but very important collection of fossils that had been unearthed in the town when they built a school a few years earlier,” Fiorillo said. “The fossils were shipped to the Perot Museum of Nature and Science for preparation in our lab and those fossils are the basis for our work now.”

From there, the researchers discovered that the fossils were a new genus and species.

The authors report their discoveries in a special volume of the international paleobiology journal, Historical Biology. The article published online Oct. 1 at http://bit.ly/1PQAHZJ

The researchers named the new mammal Ounalashkastylus tomidai. “Ounalashka,” means “near the peninsula” in the Aleut language of the indigenous people of the Aleutian Islands.

“Stylus” is from the Latin for “column” and refers to the shape of cusps in the teeth.

“Tomida” honors distinguished Japanese vertebrate paleontologist Yukimitsu Tomida.

The article appears in a special volume of Historical Biology to honor the career accomplishments of Tomida upon his retirement from the Department of Geology and Paleontology in Tokyo’s National Museum of Nature and Science.
In addition to Jacobs, Fiorillo and Polcyn, other authors were Yosuke Nishida, SMU; Yuri Kimura, Smithsonian Institution and the Tokyo Museum; Kentaro Chiba, University of Toronto; Yoshitsugu Kobayashi, Hokkaido University Museum, Naoki Kohno, National Museum of Nature and Science; and Kohei Tanaka, University of Calgary.

The Historical Biology article is titled “A new desmostylian mammal from Unalaska (USA) and the robust Sanjussen jaw from Hokkaido (Japan), with comments on feeding in derived desmostylids” and appears in the special issue “Contributions to vertebrate palaeontology in honour of Yukimitsu Tomida.”

“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

Canadian, US Coast Guards to exercise with Alaska emergency ship towing system

The United States Coast Guard says the US and Canadian Coast Guards will “conduct a towing evolution using a State of Alaska Emergency Towing System” on Friday afternoon off Juneau, Alaska.

The participating vessels are the Canadian Coast Guard  Marine Service Vessel and  Ice Strengthened Medium Navaids Tender CCGS Bartlett and the US Coast Guard cutter USGC Maple.  Like the Barlett, the Maple is also a buoy tender.

CCGS Barlett (Canadian Coast Guard)
CCGS Barlett (Canadian Coast Guard)

In 2014, when the Russian vessel Simushir was adrift off Haida Gwaii, the towing system on the Canadian Coast Guard’s Gordon Reid was inadequate and the line snapped.  A commercial tug was hired to take the Simushir into port at Prince Rupert.   As Northwest Coast Energy News reported in October, 2014, the US Coast Guard deployed the Alaska Towing System to Haida Gwaii but it wasn’t used at that time despite a record of success by the US Coast Guard in towing vessels off Alaska waters.

Related:

When the Simushir was adrift,  Alaska was ready, BC and Canada were not

On the Simushir, Oceans Minister Shea takes ministerial responsibility to a new low, the bottom of the sea

 

 

 

 

LNG carrier anchored in Homer, Alaska, with engine trouble: USCG

US Coast Guard leogoThe United States Coast  Guard says it is monitoring repairs aboard the liquid natural gas carrier Excel in Homer, Alaska, Friday, May 1.

According to a news release from Coast Guard Sector Anchorage,  USCG issued an order for the vessel to remain anchored in Kachemak Bay near Homer after the 908-foot, Belgium-flagged vessel experienced a loss of propulsion due to a failed engineering gasket while inbound to Cook Inlet Monday.

The Excel was bound for the existing LNG facility, the Kenai LNG Plant, located in Nikiski on the Kenai Peninsula, in Alaska. The state of Alaska is planning to expand the LNG facilities there, and that site is a potential rival for British Columbia’s LNG export plans.

The Coast Guard release says:

The Excel was examined by Coast Guard inspectors from Marine Safety Detachment Homer, Tuesday, who conducted a Port State Control annual exam and verified the engineering gasket was replaced.

While preparing to get underway Wednesday, the vessel experienced an automated engineering casualty and canceled its voyage until a Bureau Veritas (BV) classification surveyor could arrive and verify the engineering casualty was fully resolved. After arriving aboard the vessel, the class surveyor directed the vessel’s crew to test the automated engineering system and deduced that the casualty was a product of a faulty engine order telegraph; a device used on ships for the pilot on the bridge to order engineers in the engine room to power the vessel at a certain desired speed. Coast Guard Sector Anchorage issued another order for the vessel to remain in Kachemak Bay.

Friday, the vessel was allowed to continue sailing to her destination at the ConocoPhilips LNG plant in Nikiski after additional safety measures were implemented. As part of the safety measures, the tug Stellar Wind escorted the vessel from Kachemack Bay to Nikiski and a second tug, the Glacier Wind, stood by in Nikiski to assist with docking operations.

The Excel completed her voyage and safely moored at the ConocoPhilips pier in Nikiski at approximately noon Friday where it remains until permanent repairs are verified by the class surveyor and Coast Guard inspectors.

“Ensuring safe navigation in Western Alaska, particularly in Cook Inlet, is one of my highest priorities,” said Capt. Paul Mehler III. “Our crews worked closely with the Southwest Alaska Pilots Association, the class surveyor and towing vessel industry to coordinate a safe and secure transit of the Excel from Kachemak Bay to Nikiski. The weather was also in our favor with clear skies, light winds, and steady ebb tide during the transit in Cook Inlet.”

Kenai LNG
The Kenai Alaska LNG plant (ConocoPhillips)

 

The LNG export plant at Nikiski was built in 1969 by Phillips Petroleum and Marathon Oil. Phillips later merged with Conoco and subsequently purchased Marathon’s 30 per cent share. The Nikiski plant sent  LNG shipments to Japan  from 1969 to 2010 under long-term contracts with Tokyo Gas and Tokyo Electric, when the contracts expired.

In 2011 ConocoPhillips announced that it would be ceasing LNG exports from Kenai and preserving the plant for potential future use.

With the LNG rush, market conditions changed and the the plant resumed making LNG in early 2012 and exported four cargoes to Asian customers over the course of that year.

In March 2013, the export licence expired and the LNG plant was put on standby.  As interest in LNG grew, and at the urging of the state of Alaska,  in December 2013 ConocoPhillips Alaska applied to resume LNG exports and the U.S. Department of Energy  approved the resumption in April, 2014.  ConocoPhillips says it  received authorization to export a total of 40 BCF of liquefied natural gas over a two-year period from 2014 through 2016.

The Alaska LNG project is  “a proposed $45 to $65 billion liquefied natural gas export project – it would be the largest single investment in Alaska history. The project has the potential to create between 9,000 and 15,000 jobs during the design and construction phases; plus approximately 1,000 jobs for continued operations. In addition to generating billions of dollars in revenue for Alaska, the project will provide access to natural gas for Alaskans.” The project’s participants are the Alaska Gasline Development Corporation (AGDC) and affiliates of TransCanada, BP, ConocoPhillips, and ExxonMobil.

Related
First of six LNG shipments delivered at Nikiski
Alaska Journal of Commerce, May 2014

Alaska LNG fact sheet. (PDF)

Kenai LNG fact sheet (PDF)

“Devastating megathrust earthquake” a “substantial hazard” for Haida Gwaii, Canada-US study warns

A “devastating megathrust earthquake” could hit Haida Gwaii sometime in the future, according to Canadian and US studies carried out after the magnitude 7.8 earthquake off Haida Gwaii on Oct. 27, 2012 and the 7.5 magnitude quake off Craig, Alaska, a few weeks later on Jan. 5, 2013.

The 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake in Japan, both accompanied by major tsunamis are recent examples of “great” (higher than magnitude 8.0) megathrust earthquakes. Most of the concern on the west coast has been the likelihood of a megathrust earthquake on the Cascadia Fault on the Juan de Fuca plate that stretches from northern California to the middle of Vancouver Island.

New Douglas Channel geological studies near completion

Is Kitimat ready for a “big one?”

The 2012 Haida Gwaii main shock was the second largest seismic event in Canada since the establishment of a modern seismograph network. The first was the 1949 Haida Gwaii/Queen Charlotte earthquake with a magnitude of 8.1 That 1949 Haida Gwaii earthquake was a strike-slip event, where the plates move side-to-side, similar to the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and other quakes on the San Andreas Fault in California.

The 2012 Haida Gwaii earthquake is characterized in the studies as a “mini-megathrust” event, where part of the crust is pushed upward, meaning that a larger megathrust could have much more destructive consequences from both the earthquake and a possible tsunami.

A diagram of the situation  off Haida Gwaii that triggered the October 2012 "mini megathrust" earthquake seen at the lower centre, while the 1949 slip strike   earthquake is seen at the top. (Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America)
A diagram of the situation off Haida Gwaii that triggered the October 2012 “mini megathrust” earthquake seen at the lower centre, while the 1949 slip strike earthquake is seen at the top. (Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America)

Complex system of faults

The new studies show that the Pacific and North America plate boundary off the coast of British Columbia and southeastern Alaska creates a system of faults capable of producing very large earthquakes. The scientists conclude that while the two earthquakes in 2012 and 2013 released strain built up over years on the tectonic plates, those events did not release strain along the Queen Charlotte Fault off the west coast of Haida Gwaii. That means the fault remains the likely source of a future large earthquake.

Map showing the pattern of earthquakes along the Queen Charlotte Fairweather Fault system and the location of the Queen Charlotte Terrace.  (Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America)
Map showing the pattern of earthquakes along the Queen Charlotte Fairweather Fault system and the location of the Queen Charlotte Terrace. (Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America)

A special issue of the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America (BSSA), released Monday, April 6, 2015, contains 19 scientific and technical papers, outlining the results of the work carried out over the past two years.

The team estimated the rupture dimension of the 2012 Haida Gwaii earthquake to be about 120 kilometres long at a depth of about 30 kilometres.

The Craig earthquake ruptured the Queen Charlotte fault over a distance of more than 100 kilometres and at a depth of about 20 kilometres.

The two areas are joined in what is called the Queen Charlotte Fairweather Fault System. To the south the Queen Charlotte Fault also interacts with the Juan de Fuca plate that stretches from Vancouver Island to northern California.

“The study of these two quakes revealed rich details about the interaction between the Pacific and North America Plates, advancing our understanding of the seismic hazard for the region,” said Thomas James, research scientist at Geological Survey of Canada.

Two faults off Haida Gwaii

The studies conclude that the interaction between the plates off Haida Gwaii is much more complex than previously believed. Before the 2012 earthquake, the Queen Charlotte Fault, a strike-slip fault similar to the San Andreas Fault in California, was believed to be the dominating tectonic structure in the area. The 2012 tremor confirmed the existence of a previously suspected thrust fault beneath what is called the “Queen Charlotte Terrace,” to the west of the Queen Charlotte Fault, where the Pacific plate is sliding at a low angle below the North American plate.

The Queen Charlotte Terrace, which is about a kilometre below the surface of the ocean, is built up of layers of sediment, several kilometres thick, scraped off the oceanic plate as it subducts under the North American plate. It may also include some fragments of oceanic crust. For most of the terrace, it is “present as a clearly defined linear feature,” but the study adds: “north of about 53.5° N, a complex pattern of ridges and valleys appears.”

The earthquake was “essentially a mini-megathrust earthquake along the dipping plate interface of a subduction system,” one of the scientific papers says. The epicenter of the Haida Gwaii main shock was located about five kilometres landward (northeast) of the Queen Charlotte Fault. That probably means that the rupture was near the bottom of the locked plates, where the plate motion’s side to side movement is also thrusting downward. Significant aftershocks appeared to cluster on the periphery of the main rupture zone with most of the aftershocks occurring seaward to the west.

The scientists used GPS observations of crustal motion to locate the earthquake’s rupture offshore to the west of Haida Gwaii.

The situation off Haida Gwaii is complex because while the Pacific plate is converging with the North American plate at a rate of 15 to 20 millimetres a year, at the same time the two plates are slipping by each other toward the north northwest at angle of about 20 degrees at a rate of about 50 millimetres a year.

Honn Kao, a seismologist with the Geological Survey of Canada said, “This was an event the thrust interface of the plate boundary system, confirming that there is a subduction system in the Haida Gwaii area.

“The implication of a confirmed subduction zone is that in addition to the Queen Charlotte Fault, we now have another source which can produce devastating megathrust earthquakes in the area,” said Kao.

The study of the Haida Gwaii tremor looked at the causative faults, the rupture processes and depths of the main shock and sequence of strong aftershocks.

The Haida Gwaii earthquake generated a significant tsunami that left deposits indicating run-up exceeding 3 metres (maximum 13 metres) in a number of bays and inlets along about 230 kilometres along the west coast of Haida Gwaii. In Hawaii, a 0.8 metre wave was measured on a tide gauge.

In Queen Charlotte City perceptible shaking lasted for one and half to two minutes, with very strong shaking for about 30 seconds. The earthquake was felt as far away as Yukon Territory, Alberta, and Montana.

The study says “Damage was limited, in part owing to the sparse population, but also because of the seismic resistance of the generally low rise, wood-frame buildings on the islands. Felt intensities were at expected values close to the source zone, but regional intensities were smaller than predicted.”

The Haida Gwaii rupture also shook southeastern Alaska. The northwest direction of ground motion then may have influenced the timing of the Craig earthquake a few weeks later in January 2013. That earthquake occurred farther north in southeast Alaska, where relative plate motion is nearly parallel to the Queen Charlotte fault.

Aftershocks
.

Map showing the pattern of aftershocks following the October 2012 Haida Gwaii earthquake. (Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America)
Map showing the pattern of aftershocks following the October 2012 Haida Gwaii earthquake. (Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America)

The Haida Gwaii aftershocks clustered around the periphery of the rupture zone, both on the seaward and landward side of the plate boundary and reflected what the study calls “normal faulting behavior–caused by the bending, extending or stretching of rock– rather than the thrust faulting of the main shock.” The pattern of aftershocks is similar to those observed after the 2011 Japanese megathrust earthquake.

“Our observations of normal faulting imply that the main shock of the Haida Gwaii earthquake dramatically altered the stress field in the rupture zone, especially in a neighboring region,” Kao said.

The distribution of aftershocks occurred to the north of a previously identified seismic gap where large earthquakes have not occurred in historic times. The gap is located to the south of the where 1949 magnitude 8.1 Queen Charlotte earthquake ruptured.

Though the Haida Gwaii earthquake may have activated some part of the Queen Charlotte Fault, Kao said, it was limited and did not relieve stress along the seismic gap.

The study concludes:

The Haida Gwaii event confirmed substantial seismic and tsunami hazard from large thrust events on the plate margin along the southern Queen Charlotte fault. It occurred where relatively young oceanic lithosphere under thrusts North America and in some ways is an analog for the much larger megathrust earthquakes known to occur on the Cascadia subduction zone to the south, where the young Juan de Fuca plate and other small plates subduct beneath North America. The Haida Gwaii earthquake had a complex pattern of main shock rupture and aftershocks and a large tsunami.

Further study needed

The Geological Survey of Canada plans further studies to understand the formations off Haida Gwaii.
One question to ask is if there are any records of major earthquake events in the past history of Haida Gwaii. The study notes that the impact of the tsunami was relatively minor “in this region with steep rocky coastlines.” That means there are limited sources of coastal sediments that can be checked for past events. It adds: “Low-elevation lakes, ponds, and bogs may offer the best opportunities for paleotsunami studies” warning that large earthquakes in the past that produced tsunamis may have left little evidence in the “paleoseismic record of Haida Gwaii and similar settings worldwide.”

 

 


Megathrust

Megathrust earthquakes occur at subduction zones at destructive plate boundaries where one tectonic plate is subducted (forced underneath) by another. These interplate earthquakes are the planet’s most powerful, with moment magnitudes that can exceed 9.0. Since 1900, all earthquakes of magnitude 9.0 or greater have been megathrust earthquakes. During the rupture, one side of the fault is pushed upwards relative to the other, and it is this type of movement that is known as thrust. The displacement of the ocean in a thrust can trigger a tsunami.

Transform fault
A transform fault is one where the motion is predominantly horizontal. Those faults end abruptly and are connected on both ends to other faults, ridges, or subduction zones. The best-known (and most destructive) are those on land at the margins of tectonic plates. Transform faults are the only type of strike-slip faults at plate boundaries show strike-slip or side-to-side in movement.

Queen Charlotte Terrace
The Queen Charlotte Terrace is a 25 kilometre wide zone of built up marine sediment immediately west of the active Queen Charlotte fault. The crust is about 12 kilometres thick at the terrace. On Haida Gwaii, the earth’s crust is 18 kilometres thick at the eastern edge. On the BC mainland the crust is in excess of 30 kilometres thick.

Historic earthquakes.
The 1949 Haida Gwaii quake was one of the largest in the recorded history of North America.

The largest known earthquake along the coast was the megathrust event on the Cascadia fault on January 26, 1700 where the Juan de Fuca plate ruptured for about 1,000 kilometres along from what is now northern California to Vancouver Island, estimated at magnitude 9.0. The dating is based on a tsunami that hit Japan that had no associated local earthquake as well studies of tree rings from the remains of trees downed in the tsunami.


Related links
Kitimat to issue tsunami hazard and evacuation map

Afterearthquake Kitimat must immediately upgrade emergency communications

The earthshaking difference between Enbridge and LNG

DFO study on ancient Douglas Chanel tsunamis show minimal impact on Kitimat, devastation at Hartley Bay

Geological Survey of Canada identifies tsunami hazard, possible fault line on Douglas Channel

Scientists identify major Japanses style tsunami hazard for west coast

When the Simushir was adrift, Alaska was ready, BC and Canada were not. Here’s why

When the Russian container ship Simushir lost power in heavy weather west of Haida Gwaii last Thursday and driven by westerly winds came dangerously close to the rocky coast, Canada and British Columbia had to scramble to get vessels to the ship and try to tow it out of danger to Prince Rupert.

Like all other issues on the west coast, the debate is raging.

Simushir
The Simushir tied up at the Ridley Island container port. (Prince Rupert Port Authority)

“Peter Lantin, president of the Haida Nation, told the media at the time, “It was luck.” On Tuesday, Lantin issued another statement, saying. ““Unfortunately, I don’t think anyone considers 20 hours a world class response time. The fact of the matter is that the federal government has little interest in protecting the west coast. From all indications their policy is to calculate an oil spill as an acceptable loss, based on a business model, not on the reality that coastal British Columbians live every day.”

It appears that the Simushir operation was lucky. The normal westerly winds that could have driven the ship onto the rocks of Haida Gwaii changed to southeasterly, keeping the Simushir off shore.

The American heavy duty tug  Barbara Foss just happened to be available. The Barbara Foss was towing a cargo barge between Prince Rupert and Whittier, Alaska. The barge was left in Prince Rupert and the tug headed out off the coast of Haida Gwaii a trip that took about 48 hours. (There are also  heavy duty Smit tugs at Prince Rupert which joined the operation on Hecate Strait to escort the Simushir into port.  There are now reports that the Simushir‘s owners chose to hire the Barbara Foss rather than Smit)

The Canadian Coast Guard vessel Gordon Reid tows the Simushir away from the coast of Haida Gwaii.  (Maritime Forces Pacific)
The Canadian Coast Guard vessel Gordon Reid tows the Simushir away from the coast of Haida Gwaii. (Maritime Forces Pacific)

It took the first Canadian Coast Guard vessel, the Gordon Reid, about 14 hours to reach the Simushir (according to Coast Guard officials the original report of 20 hours was wrong). The Gordon Reid did manage to get lines on the Simushir and pull the ship away from the coast, only have the tow lines part (break) three times. So the three Coast Guard vessels, two from Canada, the Gordon Reid and the Sir Wilfred Laurier and the US Coast Guard cutter Spar had to wait for the Barbara Foss to arrive.

Jonathan Whitworth, CEO of Seaspan, speaking to Mark Hume of The Globe and Mail,  “it was just bad luck” that none of the tugs that regularly work up and down the west coast were  available at the time.

Whitworth told The Globe and Mail that there are about 80 boats between Alaska and Vancouver that could have towed the Simushir to safety. He said that the fact there were no tugs in the immediate vicinity as a “fluke.”

“We certainly have large tugs operating in Haida Gwaii on log barges, for example. So it will be a 6,000-horsepower tug that would [typically] be in that area. It just so happened that over the weekend our two biggest tugs which transit that area were down south,” Whitworth told The Globe and Mail.

Whitworth said that permanently stationing tugs at Haida Gwaii would be both be unnecessary and too expensive.“If there had been a tug stationed in Haida Gwaii then it could have responded possibly quicker. But who’s going to pay for that?  Surprisingly from a tug owner it’s not going to be [my view] that there should be a tug every 50 metres up the coast.”

Effective response

In a news release, Rear Admiral Dan Abel, commanding the US Coast Guard 17th District, Alaska said.

“The trusted partnership we have with our Canadian counterparts continues to be a vital component to protecting lives at sea and mitigating potential maritime emergencies. We are pleased this case ended with a positive outcome; preparing for the worst case scenario is the first step in an effective prevention and response plan.”

The question now being asked up and down the BC coast has the provincial or federal governments really have an effective prevention and response plan? If the BC coast had trouble handling a container ship in trouble, how is it ever going to handle a Very Large Crude Carrier loaded with diluted bitumen?

According to the US Coast Guard, although the Simushir was adrift off the coast of Haida Gwaii, the incident triggered Alaska’s emergency response plan. “Coast Guard Sector Juneau deployed six members, including the sector’s commander, to Ketchikan to establish the foundation for a unified command and to exercise their sub area contingency plan with state and local partners.”

Key to Alaska’s response, is a system ready to go soon after a distress call is received. The Emergency Towing System (ETS) has prepackaged equipment that can be transferred to a disabled vessel either by helicopter or tug, depending on the size and position of the vessel in distress.

US Coast Guard C-130 Hercules and Skyhawk helicopter on standby at Sandspit airport.  The Hercules carried  one of Alaska's Emergency Towing Systems in case it was needed.  (US Coast Guard)
US Coast Guard C-130 Hercules and Skyhawk helicopter on standby at Sandspit airport. The Hercules carried one of Alaska’s Emergency Towing Systems in case it was needed. (US Coast Guard)

The United States Coast Guard deployed two of its Emergency Towing Systems last week to support the Simushir operation, one on a C-130 Hercules dispatched to Sandspit, the second on board the cutter Spar.

While the Alaska ETS systems were not used in the Simushir incident, how Alaska came up with the system is a lesson for British Columbia, for that state-wide program was started by the tiny municipality of Unalaska after a ship quite similar to the Simushir lost power and came within 15 minutes of running aground in Unalaska Bay.

Now just seven years later those Emergency Towing System packages are pre-positioned up and down the Alaska coast, while although Enbridge proposed the Northern Gateway in 2005, here in Canada both the provincial and federal governments make paper promises about a “world class” response system but so far nothing has happened.

Salica Frigo

Salica Frigo
Salica Frigo photographed in 2006 (Clipper/Wikipedia Commons)

The Salica Frigo incident in March 2007 was similar to the Simushir incident and like the Simushir, there was luck involved.

According to an Associated Press report at the time, quoting 2005 figures, Dutch Harbor and Unalaska was, for the 17th straight year,  the United States leading fishing port for seafood landings in poundage. Commercial fishermen offloaded 887.6 million pounds of fish and shellfish in 2005. The value of its catch, $166.1 million, was second to New Bedford, Mass.

About three years earlier, another ship, the 225 metre (738-foot) Selandang Ayu experienced engine problems, shut off its engines, drifted and ran aground Dec. 9, 2004, in Skan Bay on Unalaska Island’s west side.

Six crewmen died when a US Coast Guard helicopter trying to rescue them crashed. The Selandang Ayu broke in two and spilled an estimated 321,000 gallons of fuel oil, contaminating 54 kilometres (34 miles) of coastline. AP reported that at the time of the Salica Frigo incident in 2007, the cleanup for the Selandang Ayu was more than $100 million.

The Salica Frigo was 135 metre (443 foot) Spanish-flagged ship, the same size as the Simushir.

On Thursday, March 8, 2007, the Salica Frigo was partially loaded with seafood and tied up at dock in Captain’s Bay in Dutch Harbor, Alaska Winds were from the north, from 30 to 40 knots gusting to 60 to 70 knots. The winds began to drive the Salica Frigo away from the dock and the local marine pilot, Capt. Stephen Moreno, consulting with the captain, ordered the ship to sea to ride out the winds. “He really didn’t have enough ground tackle to safely anchor,” Moreno told the AP.

The AP report says Moreno guided the Salica Frigo out to sea, plotted a safe course and then the pilot returned to port. At about, 3 am on March 9, the engine failed. It was not until an hour later, at 4 am, according to KIAL News the Salica Frigo’s captain called the marine pilots and the Coast Guard.  North winds were blowing the ship back toward the harbor.

“If it had been from the south, he would have blown offshore,” Moreno told the AP.

The powerless ship drifted for more than three and a half hours toward the shore. Two tugboats came to the ship’s aid but could not establish lines to the stricken vessel.

Moreno and Coast Guard officials estimate the Salica Frigo was just 15 minutes from grounding when crew members were able to restart the engine at 6:43 a.m.

Emergency Towing System

Just weeks later, the Mayor of Unalaska,  Shirley Marquardt created and convened a “Disabled Vessel Workgroup” that was tasked with developing a “an emergency towing capability for disabled vessels in the Aleutians using locally available tugboats and an emergency towing system.”

For a demonstration project from July 20 to August 1, 2007, Unalaska had put together and purchased a system suitable for vessels up to 50,000 dead weight tons (DWT) while the state, the the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation was planning to purchase a system capable of towing vessel greater than 50,000 DWT.

The two types of Emergency Towing System packages are  pictured in the operations manual. (Alaska Dept. of Environmental Conservation)
The two types of Emergency Towing System packages are pictured in the operations manual. (Alaska Dept. of Environmental Conservation)

In a news release (pdf) at the time of the exercise, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, said

In the last decade, several distressed or stricken vessels in the Aleutian Islands have adversely impacted the community of Unalaska. In a few cases, these incidents were the cause of environmental and economic repercussions.

In each situation, the vessel was a large tramper or cargo type ship, generally carrying fuel in bottom tanks, thus posing a significant pollution risk. Roughly 67% of port calls to Unalaska/Dutch Harbor in 2004 were either container ships or tramper/reefer vessels.

“These accidents can be devastating to Alaska’s environment and communities. Our goal is to enhance the ability of local assets to respond to distressed vessels in need of assistance due to engine failure,rudder failure, or any other failure which compromises the safe navigation of a vessel,” said DEC Commissioner Larry Hartig.

Tugs not always ready

ETS on tug
The Emergency Towing System deployed on a tug. (Alaska Dept. of Environmental Conservation)

The other point in the 2007 ADEC news release is a note that tugs are not always equipped for operations such the one involving the Simushir

Generally tug boats (primary responders in this area) have some capability of retrieving vessels but they are not dedicated to this service and therefore the equipment aboard is not representative of equipment needs in this highly specialized situation. The recommended emergency towing system
will enhance local assets with the ability to respond to an emergency with all the proper equipment necessary to retrieve a distressed vessel.

The Unalaska resident tugs Gyrfalcon and James Dunlap are the most consistent local assets in the Unalaska region, but there are many other tugs in the area at any one time and thus this system is intended to be universally deployable.

The demonstration project, a partnership between the town, the state, the Coast Guard and the private sector was successful.

ETS and helicopters
US Coast Guard helicopters deploy the Emergency Towing System (Alaska Dept. of Environmental Conservation)

In 2014, the Alaska Emergency Towing System project official website  says

An Emergency Towing System (ETS) is a pre-staged package of equipment that may be deployed in the event a disabled vessel requires assistance in accessing a place of refuge. A manual that instructs responders on the operations of system as well as procedures for deployment accompanies the system. The system is designed to use vessels of opportunity to assist disabled vessels that are in Alaskan waters. It consists of a lightweight high performance towline, a messenger line used in deploying the towline, a lighted buoy, and chafing gear. These components may be configured to deploy to a disabled ship from the stern of a tugboat or airdropped to the ship’s deck via helicopter.

In December 2010, Unalaska’s plan worked, the town’s ETS system was deployed to assist the disable cargo vessel Golden Seas. “This equipment, along with the availability of an appropriate sized towing vessel helped avert a possible grounding.” the ETS website says.

Since 2007, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation has purchased and stored 10 inch Emergency Towing Systems at the USCG Air Station in Kodiak and Sitka, the Navy Supervisor of Salvage warehouse at Fort Richardson, and the Emergency Response warehouse in Adak, Alaska.

Alaska map
Map shows where the Emergency Towing System is deployed across Alaska/. (Alaska Dept. of Environmental Conservation)

The Emergency Towing System can be deployed by helicopter or by tug.  A helicopter can lower the tote or cage containing the towing gear onto the deck of the distressed ship. If the tote or cage is carried to the scene by a tug the crew the usual procedure is to use a helicopter to deploy the tote/cage to the distressed vessel or the tug crew. Depending on the circumstances, and although it is not part of the regular system, the tug crew can also line-gun projectile across the deck of the distressed ship so the crew can pull a “messenger line” attached to the tow line on board.

And as for Canada, Gail Shea, Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, answering questions in the Commons Monday about the Simushir incident did nothing more than speak off a prepared script, answering two questions from Nathan Cullen, NDP MP for Skeena Bulkley Valley and from Joyce Murray, Liberal MP from Vancouver Quadra, she said future operations were the responsibility of the private sector,

The Russian ship lost power outside Canadian waters in very rough weather. The private sector provides towing service to the marine industry.
We are grateful that the Canadian Coast Guard was able to keep the situation under control in very difficult conditions until the tug arrived from Prince Rupert.

Whitworth told the Globe that with increased tanker traffic whether LNG or bitumen, the number of tugs on the coast will increase, a point also made by supporters of the various projects.

But without a real commitment from the government for marine safety on the west coast, it is clear, even with the prospect of Very Large Crude Carriers with bitumen or Liquefied Natural Gas tankers plying the coast, the Harper Government considers marine safety nothing more than a case of a paper ship upon a paper ocean.

With such indifference, it is likely that local communities up and down the British Columbia coast will have to follow the example of the small town of Unalaska, population  4,376 in 2010 and create the northwest coast’s own emergency system.

NRDC delivers “unequivocal congratulations” to Rio Tinto for Pebble Mine divestment

NRDC ad
Natural Resources Defence Counsel ad in the Financial Times thanking RIo Tinto (NRDC)

The US based Natural Resources Defence Counsel environmental group, a major opponent of both the Keystone XL and Northern Gateway pipeline projects, is praising Rio Tinto for divesting its interests in the controversial Alaska Pebble Mine project.

The NRDC is, in fact, so pleased, with Rio Tinto that they took out an expensive full page ad in London’s Financial Times to congratulate the mining and smelting giant which, of course, owns Rio Tinto Alcan and the aluminum smelter in Kitimat.
Related
Rio Tinto donates $19 million Pebble Mine stake to charity

The National Resources Defence Counsel is often a favourite target for  the Harper government and oil-patch conservatives who see it as one of the foreign environmental groups interfering in Canadian affairs.

A delegation from the NRDC and Alaska First Nations met with Rio Tinto’s top executives in London, according to a blog post on the organization’s website by Joel Reynolds, its senior lawyer and western director, Pebble Mine: Delivering Congratulations, Not Petitions, to Rio Tinto

 

In the blog Reynolds writes

We’ve gone each year [to corporate shareholder meetings or to meet corporate executives] to fight the Pebble Mine — a 21st Century example of what the mining industry will do if given free reign, based on promises of safety, sustainability, and technological innovation that can’t be kept and must not be believed….

In 2010, I also traveled to Tokyo to meet with leadership of Mitsubishi Corporation, a former significant Pebble shareholder that quietly sold all of its interest in the project eight months later.

This has become an essential aspect of our advocacy with multi-national corporations: meeting privately with company leadership and participating in the once-a-year public gathering of their shareholders, of which – in order to gain access — we are one. Attending the shareholder meetings is no fun, requiring immersion in a world where natural resources are for extraction and exploitation, where representatives from far-flung communities seeking remediation and redress from contamination recount the tragic impacts of mining on their daily lives.

But this year promised to be different for the residents of Bristol Bay – and for those of us supporting their cause.

NRDC meets with Rio Tinto
NRDC director and lawyer Joel Reynolds shows a copy of the Financial Times ad to Kim Williams, Executive Director of the Alaska Nunamta Aulukestai, Rio Tinto CEO Sam Walsh, Reynolds, Rio Tinto Chair Jan de Plessis, Rio Tinto Director of Copper Jean-Sebastien Jacques and Bobby Andrew, Yupik elder and spokesperson for Nunamta Aulukestai (NRDC)

Reynolds goes on to write that a week after Rio Tinto announced the divestment, they were meeting with RT CEO Sam Walsh and senior executives in the London headquarters:

We were there to thank them for listening to the people of Bristol Bay who, by overwhelming numbers, have consistently voiced their opposition to the mine – a project that embodies the greatest threat ever posed to the economic lifeblood of the region, the Bristol Bay wild salmon fishery.

Each of us in turn – including Bobby Andrew (Yupik elder and spokesperson for Nunamta Aulukestai, an association of Bristol Bay village corporations and tribes; Kim Williams, Executive Director of Nunamta Aulukestai; and Bonnie Gestring, Circuitrider for Earthworks) — delivered a simple message:  that Rio Tinto had fulfilled its commitment to Bristol Bay’s communities to act responsibly in a manner consistent with protection of the wild salmon fishery and the wishes of the people who depend on it.  Given the scope of the proposed Pebble Mine and the unavoidable risks of contamination associated with its location, there is only one responsible course – divestment – and that is precisely what Rio Tinto had done.  The company deserved congratulations, and we conveyed it unequivocally.

Later, meeting with Rio Tinto directors, Reynolds presented the board with a copy of the ad from the Financial Times.

In the blog, Reynolds noted that Vancouver-based Northern Dynasty Minerals is determined to proceed with the project and so the NRDC says “despite major progress against the Pebble project, our work isn’t done, and we remain committed to continuing the fight – along with our Members and activists in support of the people of Bristol Bay.”

In taking out the ad, NRDC’s Taryn Kiekow Heimer, Senior Policy Analyst, Marine Mammal Protection Project, said:

NRDC and its 1.4 million members and activists join the people from Bristol Bay, Alaska Natives, commercial fishermen, sportsmen, jewelers, chefs, restaurant and lodge owners, and conservationists in thanking Rio Tinto for showing environmental and financial leadership by divesting from Pebble Mine.

The Haisla Nation and other groups often quoted NRDC studies on pipelines in their presentations before the Northern Gateway Joint Review Panel.