Category Archives: Ocean Health

Orcas face triple threat - Vessel noise, pollution, lack of food

Orcas face triple threat: Vessel noise, pollution, lack of food

Orcas face triple threat - Vessel noise, pollution, lack of food
Photo: NOAA

By Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press

VICTORIA – Triple threats of pollution, vessel noise and the availability of food are making it hard for a group of orcas that live along the continent’s West Coast to increase beyond an estimated population of 80, says a decade-long U.S. study.

Southern resident Orcas can be found in the Salish Sea off Vancouver Island and Washington State, and have been seen as far south as Monterey Bay, Calif., and as far north as Chatham Strait, Alaska.

Lynne Barre, a spokeswoman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said Monday from Seattle, Wash., that experts don’t consider the southern residents in recovery, so the animals will remain an endangered species. Barre noted:

[quote]Right now, they’re not growing as fast as our recovery criteria would require for them to be taken off the Endangered Species List. They’ve been hovering around the 80s for quite some time.[/quote]

Theme parks contributed to population’s decline

There are estimates the southern resident population once numbered at least 140 animals, and was perhaps as high as 200, but that was before nearly 50 were removed from the population in the 1960s and ’70s and placed into theme parks, Barre said.

She said since 2003 NOAA scientists have collected data, ranging from fecal and biopsy samples to satellite-location data and behavioural observations, in order to provide a comprehensive look into the health of the population, and to inform recovery efforts.

Food, noise, pollution are top threats

The study found after 10 years of research that pollution, vessel noise and the availability of food are the three major barriers to recovery for the southern residents, said Barre.

“It’s most likely a combination of the threats that’s resulting in the lack of recovery for the whales,” Barre said.

[quote]If they don’t have enough food to eat, that’s when they’ll use their blubber where those (pollution) contaminants are stored. Also, vessels and sound make it difficult to find prey that is in the environment. All three of those threats work together to cause problems for the whales.[/quote]

The study found southern residents are among the most contaminated marine mammals in the world. They favour endangered Chinook salmon as prey, and when vessels are present they hunt less and travel more.

Disappearing Chinook, contaminants affect food supply

Barre said pollution causes disease and reproduction problems in the southern residents. She said endangered Chinook runs limit their primary food source, and when vessels are nearby, the orcas call louder, hunt less and spend more time and energy trying to get away from the traffic.

Chinook salmon are a key part of orcas' diet
Chinook salmon are a key part of orcas’ diet

Chinook salmon make up a majority of the whales’ diet, particularly in the summer, but many runs of Chinook are endangered or threatened, potentially limiting the food source, she said.

Pollutants like PCBs, DDT and now flame retardants were found in high concentrations in the southern residents, she said.

Vessel noise affects feeding patterns

The study also found southern residents spent less time hunting for food when vessels were in their area. Instead, they swam in less predictable patterns, including breaching and slapping their tail fins.

Barre said they were also observed to communicate in louder tones when vessels were nearby.

Whale watchers must maintain a safe distance and turn off motors
All boats must now maintain a safe distance from whales

She said changes in 2011 to increase the distance from which whale-watching vessels can view whales appear to have been adopted by the industry, but the message to stay away from the Orcas still hasn’t resonated with recreational boaters and anglers.

“They either don’t know about the rules or aren’t paying attention to what’s going on around them, or they just want to drive right up to the whales to get a close look,” said Barre.

Kristin Hobbis of Victoria’s Eagle Wing Tours said the southern residents are curious animals and often come up to the boats to take a look, but the tour operators are vigilant about keeping their distance.

“We just have to shut off our engines,” she said. “It’s super, super important to them for sure that we are not crossing any lines.”


Rafe Mair: Howe Sound under siege

Rafe Mair: Howe Sound under siege

Rafe Mair: Howe Sound under siege
Boaters raise the alarm over plans to re-industrialize Howe Sound (Future of Howe Sound Society)

Howe Sound is Canada’s southernmost fjord. It is a natural beauty which should be declared a world-class heritage site.

I grew up as a child on Howe Sound and well remember the men with the herring rakes, raking out the herring for salmon bait. Speaking of the salmon, if you went fishing and didn’t catch one, you must’ve forgotten to put a spoon on your line.

Over the years, Howe Sound went downhill. Industry polluted and people became careless about the environment. The fish disappeared; the whales disappeared; the Orcas disappeared; the herring and salmon seriously diminished.

Howe Sound on rebound…

A revitalization program – partly official, mostly just people taking care – has brought Howe Sound back, not quite to where it was when I was a boy, but considerably back to where it  should be. Herring came back, salmon increased, Orcas abound and humpback whales have appeared for the first time in years. The fishing industry has restarted.

…But not for long

This, unfortunately, was not to last. Industry has reappeared, big-time.

Just let me give you an example of what we now see on the horizon for Howe Sound:

1.     $60 million proposed McNab Greek creek gravel mine

2.     $1.7  billion Woodfibre liquefied natural gas (LNG) project

3.     $350 million Eagle Mountain Woodfibre gas pipeline expansion project

4.     $500 million Metro Vancouver waste incineration facility at Port Mellon

5.     We already have three private, ‘run-of-river’ projects, one approved and two in the process of approval – under the radar somehow.

6.     A multimillion dollar real estate development at Brittania Beach involving 4000 homes. God knows how many cars and of course all of the impact such large, new community will bring.

There are a number of citizen groups opposed to this development, both in Squamish and other parts of the Sea to Sky Highway and Howe Sound communities.

Map of Howe Sound with proposed industrial projects (with help of Future of Howe Sound Society)

Gravel pit threatens salmon, recreation

McNab Creek gravel pit is the center of attention. A gravel pit, for God’s sake! McNab Creek, apart from the Squamish River, is the only salmon-bearing river in Howe Sound. The gravel pit will, of course, have all of the usual effects on salmon rivers that gravel pits do. Erosion, siltation, and habitat loss will threaten multiple species of spawning wild salmon.

McNabb Creek-gravel pit location
McNab Creek – location of proposed gravel mine

The company, Burnco, out of Calgary, wishes to use McNab Creek because it is closer to its customers and cheaper to deliver gravel by boat. This will be a catastrophe and it’s safe to say that the people of the Howe Sound area are almost entirely opposed to it.

This massive assault cannot be under played. We will have lost a world class beauty spot. I haven’t even mentioned the impact of tankers out of Vancouver.

The difficulty comes in the opposition. People are law-and-order by nature and tradition. They don’t like to offend the law but obey it. John Weston, a conservative MP for the area, is fond of talking about how there is “process” in place.

Environmental review process deeply flawed

Well, folks, this “process” is about as fair as the Soviet show trials were in the 1930s. The fix is in. The process doesn’t involve the people expressing their opinion as to whether not they want the project – all they can do is offer suggestions as to how the environmental process might proceed.

The meetings are stacked – the proceedings biased and there’s always somebody from the company on the stage to “explain things”.

Companies are ordered to perform routine processes such as have public houses and opportunities where they try to explain themselves to the public. The difficulty here is the companies are not noted for telling the truth anymore than governments are. There’s no frank discussion of the downside of the project – simply a propaganda exercise complete with pretty pictures and models showing what a marvellous thing this is going to be for the people. In the case of Burnco, they fail to mention that it will entail just 16 low paid jobs.

Time for civil disobedience

There is nothing harmless about a gravel pit on a fish bearing river indeed on any river.

Unfortunately the answer to the question – if indeed there is an answer – involves civil disobedience.

One is always reluctant to suggest this for fear of being seen as promoting violence, which I’m not. I am not fomenting revolution; I am simply saying that unless the citizens of the Howe Sound area – indeed all of British Columbia – stand up to the government and refuse to accept these projects, they will go ahead.

Refusal to accept means, frankly, getting in the way of the production. Lying down in front of bulldozers and that sort of thing.

The pattern that follows is all-too familiar. The company takes the civil law and turns it into criminal law by getting  injunctions against a few of the people who protest – and when those people refuse to obey the injunctions, they are sent to jail for contempt of court and that takes the steam out of the movement.

It’s that latter phrase we must watch – taking the steam out of the movement. We must have enough people prepared to go to jail that it is the government and companies who tire of the exercise, not the public.

This takes organization and it takes people willing to make sacrifices. This means that more and more people go to jail so that the authorities tire and, in fact, perhaps even run out of jail space.

Democracy in name only

In a democracy these are strange words. The problem is is we should know we live in a democracy in name only. The public does not get the right to decide what’s going to happen to them – that’s  decided by line corporations with their handmaidens in government.

Am I being too hard on governments and corporations?

I don’t think so – all you have to do is look at the amount of money spent by the public relations people in industry has been almost duplicated by governments using public funds – so a docile public  hasn’t got a chance.

When you add to that a media that is beholden to government and industry, the public has almost no chance of being informed, except by volunteer efforts without the backup of expert opinion.

It is gone on long enough.

Time to get together

Pipelines will abound in British Columbia to make money for somebody else and destroy our heritage. We, the people, are offered nothing else but go through the process and then sit back and take it.

Surely that’s not good enough.

Surely we must finally get together and fight back.

We have valuable allies in first Nations. Unfortunately they have the right to think that they’re standing alone on this fight and everybody else is waiting for them to win it. This is simply not fair nor is a practical. We have to get behind that leadership and support it every way we can, personally and monetarily.

If we do not rise up as one and fight back against the power of hugely-funded industry and client governments, we will lose our province.

The solution is strong medicine. It will be difficult to organize. But we’ve got to do it.


P.S. Rafe’s back

I have been away – I hope you noticed. It started in the middle of December when I took a bad fall and went to hospital this was aggravated by another fall after I got home in January. To make a long story short, I spent 4 ½ months in the hospital and nearly bought it three times. Presently I am home and still quite weak. It will take some time for me to get better, I am told.

In the meantime I hope to get back to doing more writing. This is my first story for The Common Sense Canadian in nearly 6 months. I hope to vastly improve upon that record.

In the meantime I thank you very much for your patience and I am delighted to see that my friend and colleague Damien Gillis has kept things running and the magazine has grown and prospered.


Rafe Mair

Cut adrift by Harper govt, Ocean pollution expert joins aquarium

Cut adrift by Harper govt, ocean pollution expert joins aquarium

Tossed overboard by Harper cuts, Ocean pollution expert joins aquarium
Dr. Peter Ross (photo: Tanya Brown/

World-renowned ocean pollution scientist Dr. Peter Ross will continue his work through the Vancouver Aquarium, after the federal program he oversaw was shut down by the Harper Government.

The Common Sense Canadian published this farewell letter by Ross in 2012, after he learned that Canada’s only ocean pollution monitoring program was being tossed overboard, another casualty of the Harper Government’s widespread science cuts.

“It is with deep regret that I relay news of my termination of employment at Fisheries and Oceans Canada and the loss of my dream job,” Ross wrote.

[quote]It is with even greater sadness that I learn of the demise of DFO’s entire contaminants research program – regionally and nationally. It is with apprehension that I ponder a Canada without any research or monitoring capacity for pollution in our three oceans, or any ability to manage its impacts on commercial fish stocks, traditional foods for over 300,000 aboriginal people and marine wildlife.[/quote]

A year and a half later, the Vancouver Aquarium is offering a new lease on life to Dr. Ross’ work on BC’s coast, with the announcement yesterday of its new Ocean Pollution Science Program.

Ross wastes no time – new study raises alarm on microplastics

Microplastics are contaminating our oceans (Oberbeckmann/University of Hull)

Accompanying the announcement was the release of a new paper by co-authored by Ross which offers a telling reminder of the need for his research. Published in the journal Marine Pollution Bulletin, the study raises the issue of tiny plastic particles permeating the water column on BC’s coast.

Ross and lead author Jean-Pierre Desforges of the University of Victoria took 34 water samples, which revealed high concentrations of “microplastics” in different pockets along the coast.

“There is extensive contamination of sea water by microplastics,” said Ross Tuesday.

[quote]It raises the questions: where are they coming from and do they pose a threat to the food web? This will remain a priority for the aquarium.[/quote]

The greatest contamination levels were found in Queen Charlotte Sound, off the north end of Vancouver Island, with a mean of 7,630 particles per cubic metre

Due to geography and currents, Queen Charlotte Sound off northeastern Vancouver Island recorded the highest levels of microplastics at a mean 7,630 particles per cubic metre — with an overall study high of 9,180 particles. Other readings included:

  • 3,210 particles per cubic metre in the Strait of Georgia
  • 1,710 on the west coast of Vancouver Island
  • 279 in offshore waters of the open Northeast Pacific

Aquarium “stepping up to the plate”

Ross’ work through the Aquarium’s new research program will continue to focus on marine plastics, along with a range of other issues, including marine mammal health, hydrocarbons contamination, seafood health, and other emerging pollution concerns.

“The Ocean Pollution Science Program is part of Vancouver Aquarium’s commitment to understanding and managing our coastal environments, and adds depth to the Aquarium’s current slate of research programs,” says Dr. John Nightingale, Vancouver Aquarium president and CEO.

The program will bring to bear state-of-the-art pollution monitoring equipment that will enable research both on the water and in the lab.

“By launching this program, we’re meeting immediate scientific, conservation and education needs,” says Ross, winner of the Aquarium’s prestigious Murray A. Newman Award for Significant Achievement in Aquatic Research in 2012.

“The Aquarium is stepping up to the plate on an issue that is often vexing and complex but also worthy of dedicated research.”
Ocean acidification accelerates in Arctic, threatening food web - study

Ocean acidification accelerates in Arctic, threatening food web: study

Ocean acidification accelerates in Arctic, threatening food web - study
Ocean acidification affects shell growth for marine life (Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme)

Research conducted at an ice camp high in the frozen North – part of the Catlin Arctic Survey – suggests climate change is threatening the Arctic Ocean’s food web by making those waters more acidic.

The scientists, who camped for months at a time on the sea ice near the magnetic North Pole, tested the effect of various acid levels on tiny, shrimp-like creatures called copepods (KOH-peh-pods) that almost all fish and whales depend on for food.

They found that some copepods do better than others in more acidic waters.

But their recently published research concludes that all the species they looked at suffered at some point in water with lower pH.

Carbon dioxide, the main gas responsible for climate change, increases the acidity of the oceans as it dissolves in seawater.

The Arctic Ocean is becoming more acidic at a faster pace than any other on Earth.

The paper was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) and was carried out by the University of Exeter and the Plymouth Marine Laboratory.

Despite Fukushima radiation, scientists say eating West Coast fish is safe

Despite Fukushima radiation, scientists say West Coast fish is safe


Despite Fukushima radiation, scientists say eating West Coast fish is safe

Following Japan’s devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami, fear spread about risks of leaked radiation from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant – for the health of those living in or near Fukushima or involved in cleanup efforts, and for the planet and the potential impacts on our complex marine food web.

Shunichi Tanaka, head of Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority, told reporters radioactive water has likely been leaking into the Pacific Ocean since the disaster hit. It’s the largest single contribution of radionuclides to the marine environment ever observed, according to one report. With 300 tonnes of contaminated water pouring into the sea every day, Japan’s government finally acknowledged the urgency of the situation in September.

[quote]I’m taking a precautionary approach: fish will stay part of my diet, as long as they’re caught locally and sustainably, and will remain so until new research gives me pause to reconsider.[/quote]

Social media is now abuzz with people swearing off fish from the Pacific Ocean. Given the lack of information around containment efforts, some may find this reasonable. But preliminary research shows fish caught off Canada’s Pacific Coast are safe to eat.

Fish testing shows low radiation levels so far

It will take about three years from the time of the incident for Fukushima’s radiation plume to reach the West Coast, which would be early next year. Recent testing of migratory fish, including tissue samples collected from Pacific bluefin tuna caught off the California coast, assessed radiation levels and potential effects on marine food webs far away from Japan. Trace amounts of radioisotopes from the Fukushima plant were found, although the best available science puts them at levels below those naturally occurring in the environment around us. Natural, or background radiation, is found in many sources, including food items, medical treatments and air travel.

The most comprehensive health assessment, by the World Health Organization, concludes radioactive particles that make their way to North America’s waters will have a limited effect on human health, with concentrations predicted to be below WHO safety levels.

More reports are in the works. The UN agency charged with assessing global levels and consequences of ionizing radiation will present its findings to the UN General Assembly this month. This is where we may find answers about the amount of radioactive material released, how it was dispersed and any repercussions for the environment and food sources.

Fukushima radiation diluted by currents

The ocean is vast and dynamic with many complexities we don’t fully understand. It appears two currents off Japan’s coast — the Kuroshio Current and Kurushio Extension — diluted radioactive material to below WHO safety levels within the first four months of the disaster. Eddies and giant whirlpools, some tens of kilometres wide, continue the dilution and will direct radioactive particles to coastal areas for at least two decades.

Fish from the water near the crippled plant are not faring so well. High levels of cesium-134, a radioactive isotope that decays rapidly, were found in fish samples there. Radiation levels in the sea around Japan have been holding steady and not falling as expected, further demonstrating that radiation leakage is not under control. At least 42 fish species from the immediate area are considered unsafe for consumption, and fisheries there remain closed.

New concerns from continued leaks

New concerns continue to arise. While the initial leak contained cesium isotopes, water flowing into the ocean from the plant now appears to be higher in strontium-90, a radioactive substance that is absorbed differently. While cesium tends to go in and out of the body quickly, strontium heads for the bones.

A huge accumulation of radioactive water at the plant must be dealt with immediately. Determining the full effects of years of exposure to lower levels of radioactive contamination leaking into the ocean will take time and require continued monitoring and assessment. While Health Canada monitors radionuclide levels in food sold in Canada, and one of its studies incorporates samples from Vancouver, we need to remain vigilant and demand timely monitoring results.

Any amount of leaked radiation is harmful to the planet and the health of all species, including humans. A major release of radioactivity, such as that from Fukushima, is a huge concern, with unknowns remaining around long-term health risks such as cancers.

That doesn’t mean it’s unsafe to eat all fish caught on the Pacific West Coast. I’m taking a precautionary approach: fish will stay part of my diet, as long as they’re caught locally and sustainably, and will remain so until new research gives me pause to reconsider.

With contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Communications Specialist Theresa Beer.


'Alarming' sea star die-off on West Coast

‘Alarming’ sea star die-off on West Coast

'Alarming' sea star die-off on West Coast
A dead morning sun star (photo courtesy of Jonathan Martin)

VANCOUVER – Last month, a diver alerted Vancouver Aquarium staff that he had found a number of dead and decaying sunflower sea stars in the cold Pacific waters of a popular dive spot just off the shore of West Vancouver.

Within weeks, the tentacled orange sea stars had all but disappeared in Howe Sound and Vancouver Harbour, disintegrating where they sat on the ocean floor.

And aquarium staff don’t know just how far-reaching the “alarming” epidemic has been, and whether this and other sea star species will recover.

“They’re gone. It’s amazing,” said Donna Gibbs, a research diver and taxonomist on the aquarium’s Howe Sound Research and Conservation group.

“Whatever hit them, it was like wildfire and just wiped them out.”

Population explosion preceded sea star die-off

The sunflower sea star population had inexplicably exploded in recent years. In some areas they were stacked several stars deep, and those conditions may have been ripe for disease, she said.

“We are seeing some babies, so we’re wondering if they will survive,” Gibbs said. “We’re hoping we get the natural abundance back without this overabundance.”

Other species of sea star — commonly called starfish — are also affected.

Jeff Marliave, the aquarium’s vice-president of marine science, said the collapse has been confirmed around the Defence Islands, north of Vancouver, and off the south shore of Bowen Island, where there is no longer any evidence of what was a huge overpopulation of the voracious cousins of the sea urchin.

“Where the population density had been highest in summer of 2012, on the western shore of Hutt Island, all the sunflower sea stars are gone from that area, with rivers of ossicles (a hard body part) filling ledges and crevices,” Marliave wrote in his blog.

Sea Star Wasting Syndrome

The aquarium has dubbed the epidemic Sea Star Wasting Syndrome.

Aquarium staff don’t know the cause because they have had trouble gathering specimens for testing, as starfish that looked healthy in the ocean turned up as goo at the lab.

The sea star die-off has killed thousands of the marine invertebrates, which can weigh up to five kilograms and live from three to five years.

The Howe Sound research team has heard from veterinarians and other marine experts that similar die-offs have taken place in Florida and California.

“We’re just not sure yet if it’s all the same thing,” Gibbs said. “They’re dying so fast.”

In July, researchers at the University of Rhode Island reported that sea stars were dying in a similar way from New Jersey to Maine, and the university was working with colleagues at Brown and Roger Williams universities to figure out the cause.

The collaboration came about after a graduate student collected starfish for a research project and then watched as they “appeared to melt” in her tank.

Like Howe Sound, the Narragansett Bay area where those starfish were collected had seen an explosion in the population in the previous few years.

“Often when you have a population explosion of any species you end up with a disease outbreak,” Rhode Island Prof. Marta Gomez-Chiarri said in a statement at the time.

“When there’s not enough food for them all it causes stress, and the density of the animals leads to increase disease transmission.

Unfortunately, once that disease is in the environment, it can be difficult to get the population back, she said.”

[quote]Diseases don’t just completely disappear after a massive die-off.[/quote]

Vancouver Aquarium staff are asking divers and other members of the public to help monitor the spread of the disease, and report any similar sun star deaths to


Fukushima Crisis: At least the world is finally paying attention

Japan’s Fukushima radiation crisis: a Good News/Bad News story

Fukushima Crisis: At least the world is finally paying attention
Fukushima’s crippled Reactor 4, which contains 1,500 precariously-perched, radioactive fuel rods

Addiction experts say the first step toward recovery is recognizing you have a problem.

In that sense, perhaps we’re finally making some progress on what may be the greatest single threat humanity has ever faced: the nuclear catastrophe at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi power plant.

In recent months – partly driven by fresh concerns about radioactive water leaking into the Pacific Ocean and drifting toward North America’s shores – the media and governments beyond Japan have started to pay attention.

Worst-case scenario concerns surrounding Fukushima have moved from the realm of tin foil hats to accepted reality. The trouble is the science is scarce and much of what little information we do have comes via TEPCO – the private company at the root of the disaster – whose data has been openly questioned by Japan’s nuclear regulator.

As a result of this increased scrutiny, I expect we’ll soon see a crisis management overhaul, with international agencies becoming more involved, while TEPCO receives greater oversight or cedes operational control to the Japanese Government (though there’s a running debate as to who has screwed up worse, TEPCO or the government).

Under the glare of the TV lights, we’re now seeing a heightened urgency in developing and implementing the long-term fixes needed to stem a potential nuclear armageddon.

All this is relatively good news.

The bad news: it’s still the greatest single threat humanity has ever faced. And we’re a long, long way from being out of the woods.

Chernobyl x 10

I first wrote about the crux of the problem 2 years ago in a story titled, “Fukushima Reactor 4: The most important story nobody’s talking about”.

Yet, as was the point of my piece, the mainstream media and political establishment simply weren’t talking about it, leaving TEPCO – the inept, fraudulent private company that created this debacle – to manage and botch the emergency response. (These are the geniuses who put the back-up generators needed for cooling radioactive fuel on the ground floor of nuclear reactors in Tsunami Alley).

At the time, US Senator Ron Wyden and a pair of former Japanese diplomats were about the only political figures raising the spectre of Fukushima.

In a nutshell, they warned there are some 1,500 highly radioactive, spent fuel rods being stored atop the badly damaged Reactor 4 in cooling tanks that could easily crack, should another sizeable earthquake hit. The rods would quickly overheat, exploding gazillions of radioactive particles into the atmosphere, eventually coating the globe with more radiation than we could ever fathom.

A former top advisor at the US Department of Energy, Dr. Robert Alvarez, explained the nature of the threat after conducting his own review of the Fukushima situation: “If an earthquake or other event were to cause this [No. 4] pool to drain this could result in a catastrophic radiological fire involving nearly 10 times the amount of Cesium-137 released by the Chernobyl accident.” (emphasis added)

Former Japanese Ambassador to Switzerland and Senegal, Mitsuhei Murata, wrote to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon:

[quote]It is no exaggeration to say that the fate of Japan and the whole world depends on No. 4 reactor.[/quote]

So all that stands between us and an unimaginable cataclysm is an earthquake. In one of the world’s most seismically active regions.

Polluting the Pacific

Another, more immediate problem would emerge – radioactive water seeping (gushing of late) from the plant into the Pacific Ocean.

Fukushima radioactive water crisis returns
Radioactive water is leaking from these containment tanks at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant (Kyodo/Reuters)

This issue is related with the seismic one in several ways. First, this radioactive water is likely flowing from one or a number of steel tanks holding water used to cool melted nuclear fuel. Another earthquake, should it cause any of the 1,060 metal tanks to burst, would lead to a significant infusion of contamination into the Pacific.

Of more immediate concern is the liquefaction occurring beneath the plant as a result of TEPCO’s crude efforts to bar the radioactive water from entering the ocean. The company has built a subsurface barrier – using chemicals to solidify the ground  and block the flow of groundwater – with the unintended consequence of saturating and destabilizing the ground upon which the hobbled Reactor 4 and others teeter.

It is largely this issue that has woken up the world’s media and political leaders in recent months. Suddenly, we’ve seen a torrent of investigative journalism on the subject – from National Geographic  to Japan’s national papers, The Washington PostGuardian, CNN and wire services like Bloomberg and Reuters. The Chinese Government has been weighing in, expressing shock at the inadequate response by its neighbour’s leaders.

Suddenly, everyone is paying attention.

The International Olympic Committee is rather an anomaly in not being phased by the the increasingly alarming situation at Fukushima – having just awarded 2020 Games to Tokyo.

Radioactive fish

Questions about the health of fish caught in the Pacific Ocean have begun to surface – while South Korea recently took the significant step of banning the import of fish from the Fukushima region of Japan.

These are hardly idle concerns. Last year, Stanford University researchers found 15 out of 15 bluefin tuna they caught off the coast of California tested positive for elevated levels of cesium-134 and cesium-137.


Both Tepco and Japan’s political leaders face intensifying scrutiny for their respective roles in the initial disaster and its aftermath.

Just last week, in response to heightened pressure around this issue, the Japanese Government stepped up, pledging to invest close to half a billion dollars to build a 27 meter-deep frozen wall to hold back contaminated water ,while maintaining (we hope) some structural integrity to the soil below the plant.

It may prove a harebrained scheme, reminiscent of BP’s increasingly comical tactics in an attempt to stem the flow of its Deepwater Horizon well blow-out (remember the golf balls?). But I’ll take the Japanese Government getting off its ass as a generally positive sign.

Heads rolling, things changing

Fukushima has already brought down one government and countless officials in Japan. The prime minister who presided over the initial disaster and recovery efforts, Naoto Kan, recently dodged criminal charges stemming from Fukushima, as did other senior politicians and TEPCO officials. That doesn’t mean they’ll evade the raft of civil suits headed their way.

Shinzo Abe
PM Shizo Abe is talking tough on Fukushima – will it translate into action? (photo: Tokyo Times)

It’s an ongoing debate as to which entity is more to blame for the disaster – TEPCO or the Japanese Government. Of late, the scales of public disapproval are tipping in the direction of the Abe administration. A recent poll by Asahi News found that 72% of Japanese people believe the government’s response to recent concerns of leaking water was “late”.

But, again, thanks to this heightened pressure, things seem to be changing – and quickly.

As of now, Tepco is still in charge of the clean-up and decomissioning operation (if you can call it that in their hands) – but just this week, the Japanese Government announced it is striking a special team to oversee these efforts going forward, a welcome development so long as it follows through in a meaningful way.

Prime Minster Abe is certainly signing a different tune from his predecessor, calling into question TEPCO’S future management of the situation:

[quote]Instead of the ad hoc approaches that have been taken in the past, we put together a basic policy today that will offer a fundamental solution to the problem of contaminated water. The world is closely watching to see whether the decommissioning of the Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant, including the contaminated water problem, can be achieved.[/quote]

In June, the Abe government announced it was speeding up efforts to remove those scary spent fuel rods atop Reactor 4 – perhaps the best news yet on the Fukushima file.

Light at the end of a very long tunnel…if we’re lucky

Part of the problem underlying the slow response to this enormous threat may be that it’s just too awful to contemplate. Makes for bad cocktail conversation. Really, who wants to discuss the nut-and-bolts of a situation that could be 10 times worse than Chernobyl? And even if we do talk about it, what can we do?

On the other hand, perhaps talking about it is the most valuable thing us regular folks can do. It’s through this pressure – much of which has built through independent media, grassroots groups, and concerned citizens – that Japan is starting to look alive in their response.

Yet, despite Prime Minister Abe’s assurances that the crisis will be resolved by the 2020 Olympics, experts warn that a successful decomissioning of the site will likely take decadesif we can get over the intial danger posed by the water leaks and unstable fuel rods.

Complicating decommissioning efforts  is the high level of radiation around the plant (which recently spiked) – making it dangerous for workers to spend much time on site, even with state-of-the-art safety gear.

If we’re lucky, this will evolve into a long emergency that takes 40 years or more to resolve.

At Chernbobyl, they burried the problem – literally – in a massive concrete sarcophagus (which is now due for a rebuild, as it turns out). With Fukushima’s proximity to the ocean and strong movement of groundwater beneath, it’s like having a trap-door under the tomb – so Fukushima will be far more complicated.

But that doesn’t mean it can’t be done – to some extent at least – with enough political will, technical and financial dedication.

Time for other leaders to step up

Given the global consequences if Fukushima continues to spin out of control – and the magnitude of the engineering feat required to prevent that from happening – we need proactive leadership from beyond Japan. What role did Fukushima play in the recent G20 talks compared to, say, Syria?

In Canada, we need to see some serious action from Prime Minister Stephen Harper – in terms of joining the chorus of international leaders pressuring Japan, but also offering support wherever possible.

On the homefront, it’s time to get serious about the possible health impacts for Canadians. Instead, we’re headed in the opposite direction, scaling back ocean pollution monitoring – one piece of a larger war on science being waged by Canada’s Conservative Government.

Even the BC public health officer overseeing concerns about Fukushima – who has warned that fears about fish contaminated by Fukushima are overblown – is now asking the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans to conduct another round of testing.

The public needs to know that our governments are taking this issue seriously – and their “see no evil, hear no evil” approach to date is insufficient.

It’s a start

Even if Canada isn’t taking Fukushima seriously, others are starting to. The Olympics may be a positive motivator too, as they raise the stakes and international pressure on Japan to get the situation under control.

And compared to two years ago, the amount of media attention – from the world’s top outlets – is a welcome change.

In the end, our fate depends at least partly on luck. Can we move quickly enough to address the biggest single challenge in our history, before what would be the most devastating earthquake of all-time? (I say “we” because we all need to start thinking that way, as a global community facing a common threat).

At least, with this heightened sense of awareness, urgency and action, we can say our odds are improving.

The Salmon Recipes

The Salmon Recipes


The Salmon Recipes: Stories of Our Endangered North Coast Cuisine is not only visually exciting but it exudes an intense and compelling power that is conveyed in an instant, before one word is read. A quick glance through the book reveals brilliant images of salmon steaks, boiled crabs and steamy chowders interspersed with breaching whales, solemn totems, spirit bears and fishing boats. The cascade of vivid colours tumbling from page to page are symbolic of the living vitality that blesses this bountiful coast with an endless feast of seafood, an awesome variety of wildlife and dramatic scenery becoming an Eden on Earth.

The 120-page book is gloriously colourful, the oranges and siennas of salmon flesh and sunsets juxtaposing with the silvers and blues of salmon sides and sea. Many of the pages look delicious enough to eat. Published by the Prince Rupert Environmental Society, The Salmon Recipes is a rare combination of assertion and celebration, of resistance and affirmation.

The entire book is so masterfully designed it feels like a work of art. The first page is a stately and solid green, suggestive of deep oceans and bounty — except for a small salmon image in the upper corner, floating as if on cedar. This is followed by a double-page image of a spawning salmon, perhaps the most hauntingly beautiful ever published in a book. The pinks and purples of the dying fish are ghostly and magical, the eternal cycle of life and death revealed in one arresting image. The open mouth of the fish drinks in the inviting current of river where it will perish and regenerate. Beneath its crooked and gasping jaw is a hard patch of gravel — warmed and softened by a beam of sunlight, it patiently beckoning with release and peace. The constant gaze of the fish’s large eye glows with the same unwavering urge that has lured it seaward and now compels it to return to its impending death. This is the unblinking and unfailing spirit that energizes the living North Coast and must also be the fire that inspires the makers of this book.


Indeed, something primal powers this book because it instantly conveys a sincerity, a weight, a presence and an authority that can only arise from deep conviction, brave honesty, and the direct experience of living and flourishing within this timeless coastal Eden.

This captivating seafood cookbook gets its power from juxtaposing its vivid recipes with stories, observations, aphorisms and testimonials from the people who live along the North Coast, the very place where massive foreign oil tankers may come to collect Alberta bitumen pumped to Kitimat by Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline. The thought that the sticky curse of black crude could darken all this life and colour with its toxic stench reveals the outrageous folly of even considering such a proposal. As the book attests, this is a sacred place, a holy garden that still remembers the very beginning of Creation.

This, of course, is the purpose of the book. The Salmon Recipes is not so much an argument in opposition to oil tankers as a statement of defiance, a vivid illustration of the incalculable loss that would result from an inevitable oil spill. If the book were merely about cooking, it would be sensational. But it’s also a testimonial from the heart, an assertion that the very soul of the North Coast is an ancient and inseparable bond so intense it unites the people and their environment into one indivisible whole. Thus, they can legitimately say, “Our land tastes like salmon.”

The first official words of the book are a prayer by Rev. Ha’eis Clare Hill from the Hartley Bay Gitga’at Nation. “Holy and Mighty God, all the earth is your creation. Before us lies the great and wide open sea with its living things too many to number, creatures and plants both great and small. We all look to you to give food in due season. You give it; we gather it. You open your hand and we are fed. For that we are truly thankful. Send forth your spirit upon us today so we may feel renewed and refreshed as we continue in this process of sharing our stories.”

This book, then, is as much a sharing of stories as it is a sharing of recipes. If the people who drill for oil, build pipelines and operate tankers could experience the North Coast as deeply and profoundly as the people who live there, perhaps they would understand the folly of subjecting it to risk. In one anecdote, a young Gitga’at man takes his twin sister on her first visit to the spirit bears. She weeps at the experience. “Now you see,” he says to her, “the beauty in what we see.” In another anecdote, a Gitga’at man tries to understand how two days of hearings at Hartley Bay can be informative to the Joint Commission that is weighing the wisdom of pipelines and tankers for the North Coast. “Never, ever in my life,” he says, “did I think I’d be standing and explaining who I was in my own home. I listen and I look and that’s how I learn.” If the operators of pipelines and tankers want to understand the trespass they are plotting, he suggests they should “come fish with me; then you’ll really learn who I am.” Better still, they should take the advice of his elders. “Come back. You come back,” they say.

Herein lies the power of The Salmon Recipes. This book is an invitation into the lives of the people whose existence is inseparable from health and vitality of the North Coast. Read their words. Try their recipes. See the images of their food. Remember the animals. Imagine the place they love and cherish until it “tastes like salmon”. Weigh their warnings of horrendous weather events. Their “drift bottle project” revealed that an oil spill in Grenville Channel would travel 94 kilometres in as little as 10 days. But this was just a study, just another piece of the damning evidence that should stop a mad and venal scheme from becoming anything more than a passing nightmare.

Mark Hume: Businessman Russ George Defends Haida Ocean Fertilization Project

Mark Hume: Businessman Russ George defends Haida Ocean Fertilization Project

Mark Hume: Businessman Russ George Defends Haida Ocean Fertilization Project
Russ George, head of a controversial geoengineering project, in a 2007 photo (Thor Swift/The New York Times)

Read this column from Mark Hume in the Globe and Mail on the ocean fertilization project that caught the world by surprise last week, provoking criticism over fears of geoengineering and unintended ecological consequences. (Oct. 19, 2012)

Russ George, who designed a controversial ocean fertilization experiment now under investigation by Environment Canada, says he is being vilified for daring to go where none have gone before.

But he is not backing away from his research project or apologizing for the way the project was conducted, off the coast of British Columbia, saying that he is out to save the world’s oceans and demonstrate how to halt global warming.

While the damage from climate change mounts, he said, others are only talking – while he is acting.

“I am the champion of this on the planet,” he said in an interview on Thursday.

“If the world does nothing but look into the future about CO2 and says we have to reduce our emissions and we do nothing about the lethal dose we’ve already administered, then it doesn’t matter,” he said.

“If somebody doesn’t step forward to save the oceans, it’s too late.”

Mr. George, a California businessman, worked with the Old Massett Village Council, on Haida Gwaii, to dump 100 tonnes of an iron sulphate mix into the Pacific. The goal of the project was to trigger a plankton bloom in the hope of reviving salmon runs – and to demonstrate a theory that global warming can be blunted by using massive amounts of ocean plankton to suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

The experiment took place this summer, apparently without sanction from any official body. There have been widespread expressions of concern from scientists, who fear the experiment could backfire, and political leaders, who are concerned international agreements banning ocean fertilization have been violated.

“Environment Canada did not approve this non-scientific event. Enforcement officers are now investigating,” Environment Minister Peter Kent said in Parliament on Thursday. “This government takes very seriously our commitment to protect the environment and anyone who contravenes environmental law should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”

Elizabeth May, Leader of the Green Party of Canada, said the project is alarming.

“This kind of experiment is very, very risky business. Scientists have warned us it can destroy oceanic ecosystems, create toxic tides, and aggravate ocean acidification and global warming,” she said. “The bottom line is that ocean fertilization has a high potential of catastrophic effects and a low potential of success.”

Mr. George said his group advised the government all along of its plans and got legal opinions that they are not violating any international accords.

He said since news of the project broke earlier this week, he has been “under this dark cloud of vilification,” with some suggesting his motive is to profit through a carbon-trading scheme.

“I’m not a rich, scheming businessman, right. That’s not who I am. … This is my heart’s work, not my hip pocket work, right?” he said.

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