Friday, May 30, 2014

Going Green: Is Your Seafood Sustainable?

Summertime is nearly here; we can sense its approach in the lengthening daylight hours, warming temperatures, longer spells of dry weather, and in the mouthwatering scent of barbeque wafting through the neighborhood. In addition to the typical burgers and hot dogs, many a backyard barbeque will feature seafood... salmon, halibut, shrimp... you name it. Those of us in the Pacific Northwest especially love our seafood. But beware before loading up on supplies for your next grilling event - if you plan to consume seafood, make sure you're doing so sustainably.

A lovely, sustainably caught Columbia River King Salmon, which is currently filling up my freezer, courtesy of my husband.

Why the concern? 

According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program, 85 percent of the world's fisheries have been fully exploited, over-exploited, or have collapsed.  What does this mean?  In many cases, fish are being harvested faster than they can reproduce, and their populations are declining rapidly.  Not only does this lead to fewer fish available for human consumption and those ubiquitous summertime barbeques, but more importantly, declining fish stocks also threaten the stability of the marine ecosystems and food webs of which they are a part.

In addition to overfishing, here are a few other issues at stake with the harvesting of wild fish:

Habitat damage: fishing methods such as bottom trawling and dredging cause often irreparable damage to seafloor habitats. Seafood Watch states that in waters off Alaska, more than one million pounds of corals, sponges, and other deep water species are removed from the seafloor every year using these fishing methods. Corals can take hundreds, if not thousands, of years to grow, so it's easy to see that those which are dredged won't be replaced anytime soon, and the other marine species which called that community home will need to pack up and search for new territory.

Bycatch: as fishermen drag their nets or lines along, they often catch species such as turtles, whales dolphins, sharks, and even sea birds in addition to the fish species they were actually targeting.  These "unwanted" species that are inadvertently caught up in the nets or lines are known as bycatch, and they do not survive the experience. Seafood Watch notes that shrimp fisheries are the worst offenders: for every pound of shrimp caught, another 6 pounds of bycatch is discarded. This adds up to a tremendous amount of marine life unnecessarily killed and discarded every year, and further diminishes populations of marine species.

Clearly, there are concerns with harvesting wild species.  But what about farmed fish? Well, there are some issues there, too...

Threats to wild populations: oftentimes, fish are farmed in pens that consist of little more than a net to separate them from the rest of the ocean.  These net pens unfortunately allow viruses, parasites, infections--and the resulting antibiotics and pesticides administered--to enter the environment and be transferred to any wild populations nearby. Some fish farms have "closed" pens that isolate the farmed fish from the environment, thereby eliminating this concern.

Pollution: again, when raised in open net pens, farmed fish can significantly pollute the surrounding environment with their waste and uneaten food. If the fish have been treated with antibiotics or pesticides for various infections, those compounds will pollute the ecosystem as well.

Habitat destruction: open net pens can pollute the local environment, as described above, and may even make it inhabitable for some wild species that live there.  The largest concern is with shrimp farming, which has destroyed 70% of the world's mangrove forests in the past 40 years, according to this Grist article. Mangroves provide crucial habitat for many species, act as "nurseries" for juvenile fish, and also provide important protection against storm surges and coastal erosion.  Tearing out these forests to install shrimp ponds is a devastating ecological blow.

Okay, so now we're thoroughly depressed.  Are we allowed to eat seafood? What can we do?


The number-one thing you can do is to be conscious of what you're eating and to make sustainable choices.  The Seafood Watch program offers super-helpful guides in both printable and app versions, tailored to the specific region of the U.S. in which you live. You can simply look up the type of seafood you're planning to eat, and the guide will let you know if it's a good choice (green), if it's an okay choice (yellow), or if it's something from which you should run away screaming as if your hair was on fire (red). Note that these ratings refer to the sustainability of the different fish types, not how safe/nutritious/etc. they are to eat.

If you take a look at the guides, you'll notice that some species are listed in all three categories, with the only difference being where they were caught.  Not only do you need to know what kind of fish you're eating, but also where and how it was caught.  When purchasing fish in a store or ordering it from a restaurant, the grocer/waiter should be able to provide you with this information.  If they don't know where the fish came from, your best bet is to skip it and go with something else. Do you really want to eat it anyway, if even the establishment that is selling it can't tell you where it came from?

Whew.  This sounds like a lot of work.  Lots of questions to ask.  A lot to be aware of.  Unfortunately, our global society has created a situation where all of this effort is necessary in order to protect many of our marine species from disappearing altogether in the coming decades.  Just as everyone in the sixties was alarmed at the thought of Rachel Carson's "silent spring" with no bird songs, so too should we be alarmed today at the prospect of polluted and degraded ocean ecosystems devoid of familiar and once-common fish species... or a future filled with summer barbeques wherein that cedar-plank grilled salmon is only a distant memory.

The Pacific Ocean... seemingly empty on the surface, but teeming with life below.  Let's keep it that way! Lainey Piland photo

Friday, May 23, 2014

Musings: The Nature of Distractions

Lainey Piland photo

You're cruising down the highway at a comfortable sixty miles per hour.  The sun is shining, skies are blue--it's a beautiful day. Glancing out the window of your vehicle to take in the scenery, you instead find yourself staring at a technicolor blur of unending billboards and advertisements; a confining corridor of consumerism doing its best to convince you that whatever products they're hawking are more deserving of your attention than the natural scenery concealed at their backs.

Thankfully, in real life, these grotesque scenes do not exist along our highways.  We aren't facing "a wall of civilization between us  and between the beauty of our land and our countryside," in the form of advertisements, as President Johnson remarked in his speech at the signing of the Highway Beautification Act of 1965.  I recently read this speech in an anthology of nature writing, and found it to be rather thought-provoking.  Further along, the President commented that the bill was designed to "control advertising and junkyards along the billions of dollars of highways" in our country. 

How awful would it be to drive along the highway with the view of our beautiful Pacific Northwest nature completely blotted out by advertisements?  To drive along the coast and not see the ocean?  To drive over the passes and not see the snowy mountain slopes? To drive along I-5 without views of Mount Baker, Rainier, or St. Helens? To drive to a State or National Park in the area without experiencing that gradual melting away of civilization as buildings become forests the closer you get to your destination. What if you only knew you had arrived by the sudden absence of billboards?  I'm not sure that the situation ever would have come to this had the Highway Beautification Act never been put in place... but regardless, I'm thankful that someone had the foresight to ensure the preservation of our connection with nature as we travel the highways.  We do not have to contend with intrusive and uninterrupted advertisements.  Or do we?

As I read the speech, I couldn't help but think... what about the radio? What about commercials?  The majority of the population--myself included-- listens to the radio, or an iPod, or maybe even CD's when we're driving. The Highway Beautification Act only takes into consideration visual distractions from nature... what about auditory ones? Do these have the same effect, form the same distraction, the same disconnection from our natural scenery as would a sign or billboard? As you drive down the highway, would you be focused more on the incessant babble of obnoxious radio commercials, or on the blurred trees flashing by your window?

I did a little experiment.  On a recent drive, I turned off the radio. There was silence inside my vehicle, with the exception of the rushing sound of tires on pavement, and the occasional blinking of the turn signal. Was it an earth-shattering experience to silence the ever-present radio chatter? Not really.  I'll admit, I was actually bored.  I did find myself looking out the windshield, trying to find something interesting in the scenery around me, so I suppose in that way I was more connected with the natural landscape through which I was driving at perhaps just a bit over the speed limit...

Perhaps auditory distractions do not interfere much with our connection to nature as we drive.  If we can see the trees, mountains, and hills, and maybe roll down a window to catch a whiff of fresh air, that may be as connected as we can get from inside a vehicle. However, the situation changes immensely when you have your boots on the ground and are walking or hiking in the great outdoors. I find it maddening to pass people on the trail with headphones stuffed into their ears and music blaring so loudly that I can clearly identify from several paces away the song which is assaulting their ears... and at that point, mine as well. 

If you're going to make the effort to be in nature, then you should be fully in nature. No headphones.  No electronic devices. No distractions.  When you're blazing along, conquering the trail while listening yet again to the same song you've probably heard a million times before on your radio/iPod/ etc. etc., you are missing out on the unique sounds of the natural world all around you. You cannot hear the trilling of birdsong, the whisper of a breeze through leafy branches above, the rustling of a squirrel in the dry leaf litter, the rushing of water through a rocky streambed. Or a branch snapping underfoot of that cougar quietly stalking you in the shadows. Just as a highway cluttered with billboards can disconnect us from nature, so can the noise blaring through your headphones.

The Highway Beautification Act of 1965 placed limits on advertisements along our highways which detract from, or blot out, the visual beauty of the natural scenery.  Almost exactly one century prior to President Johnson's 1965 speech, P.T. Barnum wrote a piece on the same topic of nature being despoiled by advertisements. In the space of just five paragraphs in which he uses every conceivable iteration of the word "vulgar," Barnum argues of nature that "The pleasure of such places depends upon their freedom from the associations of every day concerns and troubles and weaknesses". Most of us step outdoors to be inspired, refreshed, relieve stress, and find peace, so why not implement that same ethic of connecting with the beauty of nature when it comes to the auditory experience as well?  There are peaceful and beautiful sounds to experience out there, if we only allow ourselves to be free of distractions and listen.

...if you need proof, take a listen to this.

This already comes with a built-in soundtrack! Lainey Piland photo

Thursday, May 8, 2014

In the News: National Climate Assessment 2014

Earlier this week, the U.S. government released the National Climate Assessment (NCA), a hefty tome compiled by 300 experts in the field. This report presents a synthesis of the latest and greatest science on the issue of climate change in the United States, and was eagerly anticipated by those of us who fall into the green/ nature nerd/ environmentalist category. After admiring the report's slick website and appealing graphics, I scrolled through and excitedly began to read the report highlights... and then my eyes glazed over.

But wait... isn't this your "thing"? Don't you care about climate change?  Absolutely.  But truthfully, this report seems to be the same iteration of every other climate change report that I've seen in the past few years: climate change will affect our water supply and agriculture, threaten human health, lead to increased conflicts, cause species extinctions and range shifts, melt the Arctic, lead to increased extreme weather events, cause sea levels to rise and oceans to acidify, and hit hard economically.  These facts do not change from one climate report to another, and neither does the chilling conclusion: climate change is happening here and now, and we need to act immediately (actually, we needed to act yesterday, but better late than never...right...?).

One feature of the NCA that I was pleased to see is the option to click through region-by-region to learn how climate change is already affecting certain areas of the country, and what effects are predicted in the coming decades. I can't speak for everyone of course, but I've found that when someone communicates to me how a certain issue will impact me directly, I tend to start caring a little more about said issue.  Probably not the best attitude to have, but that's just human nature.  Perhaps if folks take the time to review the section of the NCA that is applicable to their own region, the urgency and grim effects of climate change will hit home, and action on climate change will ensue.  Or at least I can hope that it will.

Naturally, I scoured the section of the NCA focusing on the Northwest to find out what it had to say about the way climate change is affecting my home state of Washington. A local news station's erroneous conclusion that our region is not affected by climate change couldn't be further from the truth. The NCA report makes it clear that climate change is already taking hold of our region.

I found that the "Highlights" section of the report was just that - quick and to the point, with few statistics.  However, most people are unlikely to read through the detailed full report, so below I've attempted to expand on the "highlights" and include some of the statistics from the full version of the report. The report's four "key messages" and my thoughts thereon are as follows, for those of my fellow Northwesterners who may be interested:

Key Message #1: Water-Related Challenges

Climate change is expected to bring about changes in the timing and availability of water, especially in regard to water sources dependent on snowmelt. And these are not good changes.

Figure 21.2 NCA 2014 (Graph on the right is difficult to see, but the darker brown = decreased streamflow)

Already, snowpack in the Cascades has decreased 20% since 1950; spring snowmelt is occurring up to 30 days earlier; and summer streamflow has dropped as much as 15%.  What does this add up to? Less water available during the drier months (summer/fall) for the competing needs of drinking water, crop irrigation, migrating salmon, and production of hydroelectric power, among others. And these effects are only predicted to worsen as climate change progresses.  The report states that there is a "near 100% likelihood" that summer streamflow will be further reduced by the year 2050. When was the last time I read a scientific paper that said there was 100% chance of anything? Never. The authors aren't holding back when it comes to communicating the seriousness of this issue.

Also, if you think that the Pacific Northwest is rainy enough as it is, you aren't going to like this: by 2050, extreme daily precipitation is projected to increase up to 20%, and the number of days with greater than one inch of precipitation could increase 13% by 2070, leading to increased flooding and stormwater management concerns.

Key Message #2: Coastal Vulnerabilities

Rising sea levels and the increasingly acidic water of the Pacific Ocean pose a threat to coastal communities, infrastructure, and habitat.

Figure 21.3 NCA 2014
 Sea levels off the Northwest coast have risen eight inches since 1880, and are projected to rise an additional one to four feet by the year 2100. This increases erosion and potential flooding of coastal areas and beaches, and will also result in salty ocean water infiltrating fresh groundwater supplies.

Waters off the Northwest coast are among the most acidified in the world.  Ocean acidification has already hit oyster farmers hard, and threatens the survival countless other marine species. Increasing water temperatures have also altered the ranges, types, and abundance of marine species in coastal waters.

Key Message #3: Impacts on Forests

Warming temperatures threaten our forests with increased wildfires and outbreaks of tree diseases and harmful insects. Widespread tree die-offs are already documented and expected to increase.

Figure 21.7 NCA 2014
This section really hit me in the gut. If you have followed this blog for any length of time, you already know how precious our Pacific Northwest forests are to me.  Sadly, water deficits driven by climate change are anticipated to cause the annual area burned by wildfires to quadruple (to 2 million acres) versus the 1916-2007 period. 

Outbreaks of harmful insects such as the mountain pine beetle will also rise right along with the temperatures. These pesky insects have the capability to wipe out entire stands of pine trees.  The report does offer this consolation though... eventually, temperatures will warm up to the point where they "exceed the beetle's optimal limits," at which point the beetles should no longer threaten the forests. See... good news... it's going to feel like a furnace around here, and the trees will probably burn down anyway, but at least we'll reach a point where the beetles aren't a concern!

The Northwest climate is expected to reach such unfavorable conditions by late century that an estimated 21-38 current NW plant species will no longer be able to find habitat here. Subalpine forests and alpine ecosystems are projected to undergo complete conversion to other vegetation types by the 2080's.  The "evergreen" part of Washington is sure going to look different in the coming decades...

Key Message #4: Adapting Agriculture

Agricultural productivity in the Northwest will be threatened by soil erosion and water supply uncertainty.

We all love our Washington apples and wine, Idaho potatoes, and whatever produce Oregon is known for, but these, among hundreds of other crops, will be threatened by the changes in water supply brought on by climate change.  According to the report, the risk of water-short years for agriculture is expected to increase to 32% by 2020 and 77% by 2080.  Needless to say, this will have a tremendous impact on the region's economy and livelihood of the farmers.

The report does note that warmer temperatures, longer growing seasons, and increased atmospheric CO2 may produce an increase in crop yields, for a time.  However, these same conditions are also ripe for outbreaks of plant diseases, pests and insects, which could wipe out any possibility of greater crop yields.

Snoqualmie Valley - Lainey Piland photo

The NCA also includes sections on response strategies to deal with climate change.  The two main strategies are mitigation (taking steps to reduce or eliminate the carbon dioxide emissions that are causing climate change in the first place), and adaptation (planning for, and adapting to, climate change consequences that are already happening and/or are unavoidable).  I won't go into detail here on the response strategies, but they can be reviewed by clicking the link above.

So there we have it.  The National Climate Assessment 2014.  Really, the overall message isn't a new one, but the way in which it is presented appears to be effective. There is still much work to be done by our government--which is known for dragging its feet on the issue of climate change-- but at least, I am thankful that the current administration is making a statement and putting this information out there and making it available to everyone. 

Friday, May 2, 2014

Oil spills and exploding trains: is this Washington's future?

View of Haro Strait from San Juan Island.  Lainey Piland photo

There is an ominous rainbow sheen on the calm surface of the water.  Thick globs of coagulated brown liquid ride the waves onto the beach, forming a layer of suffocating clots on the rocky shoreline.  Fish float belly-up in the water.  Shorebirds attempt to flap their heavy, sodden wings to escape from the deadly oil that coats their feathers.  Where is this nightmarish scene?  The Gulf of Mexico? Prince William Sound? Some far-flung country on another continent?  What if someone told you that this could be our own Puget Sound?

While our attention has been diverted by news stories of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, bursting tar sands pipelines in Mayflower, Arkansas, and exploding crude oil tanker trains and spills in Lynchburg, Virginia, North Dakota, and Quebec (to name a few), the insidious threat of fossil fuel transport has quietly been ramping up right here in Washington.

The Seattle Times recently published a front-page article exposing the threat of growing oil traffic in the Puget Sound area. The article, written by Craig Welch, is entitled "Surging oil traffic puts region at risk," and begins with an ominous warning:
"Efforts to transform the Northwest into a fossil-fuel hub for North Dakota’s crude, Alberta’s oil sands and coal from the Rocky Mountains mean the risks of major spills and explosions in and around Washington state are rising and poised to skyrocket."
Well, isn't that nice.

The article notes that oil tanker ship traffic through the northern part of Puget Sound would increase significantly if a tar sands pipeline expansion through Vancouver B.C. is approved.  This leads to rising potential for catastrophic spills of heavy tar sands oil, the cleanup requirements of which are not completely understood at this time. (If you've been following the movement fighting against expansion of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline in the midwest, take note - that could very soon be our own fight here in the Pacific Northwest). Tanker traffic, and the risk of subsequent collisions and spills, would also increase with the approval of several currently pending coal plant export terminals in the northern Sound. Our precious salmon and already-endangered orca whale populations would be further threatened if any of these projects go through. 

Oil tanker on the horizon on Haro Strait.  Lainey Piland photo

The article also explains that oil train traffic through our region has already risen tremendously in recent years, and stands to expand even more with several oil train permits currently pending.  Working their way from North Dakota to refineries in northern Puget Sound and along the Columbia River, these trains pose a significant risk to human life and our environment.  Just take a look at the news story regarding the oil train derailment and explosion in Lynchburg that happened just days ago.  Do we want that to happen in one of our towns?  Do we want that oil to be spilled into Puget Sound or the Columbia River?  The consequences and potential loss of life would be devastating.

Take a look at this informative graphic from the article, depicting the growing oil traffic threat in graphs, maps, and numbers.

So what can we do? Oil spills and tanker explosions are unacceptable anywhere, but many of us in the Pacific Northwest (myself included) never realized that our region was so at risk of experiencing these disasters. This danger underscores the need for our society to get off fossil fuels like coal and oil and transition to clean renewable energy such as wind and solar as soon as possible. Fossil fuels are not safe to extract or transport, and they are not safe to burn and release into our atmosphere, either. 

Sadly, although the transition away from fossil fuels is indeed in progress, it certainly will not happen overnight, and not soon enough to protect our beautiful Washington or the rest of the country from potential spills. For the time being, it is important to stay on top of this issue, and take every opportunity to speak out against expansion of tar sands pipelines, coal export terminals, and oil train traffic.

Let's just put things in perspective for a moment and take a look at our two potential futures: one based on fossil fuels, and one based on clean renewable energy...

Here is an oil spill:

By US Gov NOAA (US Gov NOAA) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Now, I'm going to show you what a solar spill looks like... take a deep breath and prepare yourself...

Lainey Piland photo
Oh, the horror!!!

An oil spill is called a disaster.  A solar spill is called a nice day.  Fossil fuels or safe, clean, renewable energy: which would we rather have? It's up to all of us to keep on top of the issue of increasing fossil fuel transport in our region, and to stand up and protect our neighbors - human and wildlife - as well as this beautiful place that inspires and sustains us. The place we call home. Let's do our best to make sure that Puget Sound does not become the next disaster.  The next Prince William Sound or Gulf of Mexico.