Oil Spills Pose Dire Threats to Marine Life
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says oil pipelines have no place in BC's Great Bear Rainforest. Opponents of the approved Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion to the West Coast and the cancelled Energy East pipeline to the East Coast argue pipelines and tankers don't belong in any coastal areas. Research led by the Raincoast Conservation Foundation confirms the threat to marine mammals in BC waters from a seven-fold increase in tanker traffic is considerable.
After examining potential impacts of a 15,000-cubic-meter oil spill in BC waters on 21 marine mammals, researchers concluded most individuals would be at risk and a few local populations wouldn't survive. Baleen whales, for example, are highly susceptible to ingesting oil because they breathe through blowholes, filter and eat food from the ocean surface and rely on invertebrate prey. Oil residue can stick to the baleen, restricting the amount of food they consume.
Resident and transient killer whales, sea otters and Steller sea lions were most likely to see a drop in population levels from an oil spill. Killer whales are especially vulnerable because of their small populations, low reproductive rates, dietary specialization, long lives and complex social structure. The 76 southern resident killer whales off the BC coast, Canada's most endangered marine mammal, are particularly threatened by oil spills, as well as ship strikes and underwater noise that hinders their ability to feed and communicate.
If Trans Mountain's Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion proceeds and an oil spill occurs, the study estimates it would affect between 22 and 80 percent of these whales' critical Salish Sea habitat. They already face severe chinook salmon prey shortages and other challenges. In court, opponents argued that adding pipeline and tanker impacts to the mix could lead to their extinction.
Following the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster in Prince William Sound, a unique pod of north coast orcas vanished forever. Nine of the 22 whales died and remaining pod members didn't produce any living offspring.
All marine mammals are vulnerable to oil spills because they surface to breathe. If that happens in a spill, oil can adhere to their bodies, and they can inhale toxic vapors and ingest oil. Marine mammals exposed to oil spills may suffer damaged airways, congested lungs, stomach ulcerations, eye and skin lesions, weight loss and stunted growth. When whales and dolphins surface to breathe, oil can restrict their blowholes and airways. When seals and otters try to clean oil matted on their coats, they ingest it. They also lose heat because spilled oil ruins their natural insulation, so they can die of hypothermia.
Even indirect exposure to small amounts of oil chemicals known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons can have profound toxic effects on animals and fish, particularly the young. Two years after the Exxon Valdez spill, mortality rates in pink salmon eggs were 96 percent higher than pre-spill levels. Researchers estimated that shoreline habitats such as mussel beds could take up to 30 years to recover fully.
Chronic oil pollution from ships traveling off Canada's coasts kills hundreds of thousands of seabirds every year. In the late 1990s, an estimated 300,000 birds died annually off Newfoundland's coast alone.
No technology will adequately clean most oil spills, especially diluted bitumen. Unlike conventional crude, bitumen can sink if spilled in water, according to a 2016 study by the National Academy of Sciences. It also found that current regulations and spill-response techniques can't manage the unique behavior and higher risks of a bitumen spill. Tar balls sink to the bottom or hang in the water column, eluding conventional booms used to contain oil spills.
An Oil Tanker Moratorium Act before Parliament recognizes that BC's north coast ecosystems and local economies must be protected from oil spill risks. BC's new government will argue in its case against the Kinder Morgan pipeline that the federal government failed to evaluate the project's risks to the marine environment—a breach of its obligation to consider the national interest.
It's certainly not in the interests of any marine mammal, especially endangered ones, to add more shipping traffic or increase oil spill risks—nor is it in keeping with our Paris agreement commitments to shift away from fossil fuels. Let's hope that the Kinder Morgan project goes the way of the Energy East pipeline.
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By D. André Green II
One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
The annual Ig Nobel prizes were awarded Thursday by the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research for scientific experiments that seem somewhat absurd, but are also thought-provoking. This was the 30th year the awards have been presented, but the first time they were not presented at Harvard University. Instead, they were delivered in a 75-minute pre-recorded ceremony.