Oil platform could put critically endangered whales at risk

January 21, 2011 by  
Filed under Protecting Habitats

Oil platform could put critically endangered whales at risk

Sakhalin Energy Investment Company already has two platforms in the area and have previously said that their drilling technology meant that they would not need a third. An official Sakhalin Energy document also acknowledges that having two rather than three platforms “significantly reduces the potential for environmental impact”.

The company plans to conduct a seismic survey which involves shooting loud pulses of noise into the ocean floor later this year to determine where to begin platform construction.

Three seismic surveys conducted around the whale feeding habitat last summer caused severe pressure on the animals as the noise from the surveys can be devastating for species that rely on sound to navigate, communicate and find their food.

Grey whales occur on both sides of the Pacific Ocean. However IUCN classes the critically endangered Western population as separate from the Eastern population, as genetic studies indicate that the two populations probably do not mix.

Only around 130 whales of the critically endangered Western population exist today.

The construction and operation of an additional off-shore platform could have a number of negative effects on the whales, including disrupting feeding behaviours and increasing the chance of fatal ship strikes.

Aleksey Knizhnikov, Oil Gas Environmental Policy Officer for WWF-Russia says on the WWF website: “Just around 30 female western Grey whales of breeding age remain the population is already on the brink of disappearing forever. The loss of even a few breeding females could mean the end for the population.”

During the feeding season the whales must eat enough to maintain themselves for the migration to their breeding grounds. Their primary feeding area, near the proposed platform, is also one of the only places where mother whales can teach their calves to feed on the sea bed.

“We are astonished by the announcement from Sakhalin Energy that it intends to build a third platform,” said Wendy Elliott, Species Programme Manager, WWF-International.

Doug Norlen, Policy Director at Pacific Environment reiterates:”We still do not know how badly the whales were affected by major seismic activity last summer and will not know until the whales return to their feeding grounds again this year and scientists can determine if any are malnourished. It is totally inappropriate for Sakhalin Energy to plan another seismic survey in 2011 before we have the opportunity to examine the health of the animals.”

Article source: http://www.practicalfishkeeping.co.uk/content.php?sid=3561

Endangered species’ top 10 list: Save these ecosystems

January 6, 2011 by  
Filed under Protecting Habitats

Oceana, an international ocean conservation group, yesterday released a new report that identifies vital habitats in need of protection, if key endangered species are to have a chance to survive climate change. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), 20 to 30 percent of the world’s species will be at increased risk of extinction if global temperature increases exceed 1.5 to 2.5 C (3 to 5 F) above pre-industrial levels. The climate threats to species include increased disease, diminished reproduction, habitat loss, and declining food supply.

For species that are already struggling on the brink of extinction, global climate change threatens to push them over the edge, said Huta. We certainly need to reduce global warming pollution, but we also need to act now to prioritize and protect some of the most important ecosystems for imperiled wildlife. Endangered species don’t have the luxury of waiting for political leaders to act to slow the pace of climate change.

List of top 10 ecosystems to save for endangered species featured in the report:

1. Arctic sea ice, home to the polar bear, Pacific walrus and at least six species of seal

2. Shallow water coral reefs, home to the critically endangered elkhorn and staghorn corals

3. The Hawaiian Islands, home to more than a dozen imperiled birds, and 319 threatened and endangered plants

4. Southwest deserts, home to numerous imperiled plants, fish and mammals

5. The San Francisco Bay-Delta, home to the imperiled Pacific salmon, Swainsons hawk, tiger salamander and Delta smelt

6. California Sierra Mountains, home to 30 native amphibian species, including the Yellow-legged frog

7. The Snake River Basin, home to four imperiled runs of salmon and steelhead

8. Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, home to the imperiled Whitebark pine, an important food source for the threatened Grizzly bear and other animals

9. The Gulf Coasts flatlands and wetlands, home to the Piping and Snowy plovers, Mississippi sandhill crane, and numerous species of sea turtles

10. The Greater Everglades, home to 67 threatened and endangered species, including the manatee and the red cockcaded woodpecker

Climate change is no longer a distant threat on the horizon, said Leda Huta, executive director of the Endangered Species Coalition. It has arrived and is threatening ecosystems that we all depend upon, and our endangered species are particularly vulnerable.

Seven additional ecosystems were nominated but did not make the Top 10. They nonetheless contain important habitat for imperiled species. These ecosystems include Glacier National Park, the Jemez Mountains, Sagebrush Steppe, U.S. West Coast, the Maine Woods, the Grasslands of the Great Plains and the Southern Rocky Mountains.

The new report, which includes information about each ecosystem, as well as recommended conservation measures, is available online at www.StopExtinction.org.

Scientists ranked Arctic sea ice and shallow water corals as two of the highest priority ecosystems threatened by climate change in an Endangered Species Coalition report demonstrating the urgency of saving habitat for endangered species. The report, entitled Its Getting Hot Out There: Top 10 Places to Save for Endangered Species in a Warming World was released January 5th, and examines how the changing climate is increasing extinction risk for imperiled fish, plants and wildlife.

Have your say: Is the reality of climate change still in question?

Article source: http://www.examiner.com/green-living-in-national/endangered-species-top-10-list-save-these-ecosystems

Oil dispersants an environmental ‘crapshoot’

May 24, 2010 by  
Filed under Toxic Spills

by Kari Huus
msnbc.com
updated 5/24/2010 5:49:57 PM ET

The timing could not be worse for the bluefin tuna. The majestic, deepwater giant — threatened by overfishing — had just lost a bid for protection as an endangered species when oil started gushing into its spawning grounds in the Gulf of Mexico. Now, a part of the emergency response to the oil — the large-scale use of dispersants — could further imperil the species by sinking the oil beneath the Gulf’s surface and into the zone where its eggs and larvae are floating, marine biologists say.

The chemical dispersants — a standard tool in the oil cleanup business — are being used by the Deepwater Horizon response team to break up the oil offshore in hopes of preventing thick crude from wrecking delicate marshlands, mangroves and pristine beaches.

The federal government — the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Coast Guard and other agencies — has signed off on BP’s use dispersants as a necessary part of the company’s damage-control strategy in the wake of the April 20 accident aboard the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig.

But the chemicals, which are being used in unprecedented volumes and in previously untested ways, may come with a big tradeoff, scientists say. That’s because no one can accurately predict how large the impact will be on the mammals, fish and turtles that inhabit the open ocean.

“It’s a whole new ball game,” said Ted Van Vleet, a professor of chemical oceanography in the college of Marine Science at the University of South Florida. “People are totally unsure as to how it is going to affect the ecosystems.”

Dispersants themselves are toxic. But a bigger concern in the scientific community is what happens in dispersing the oil, which is far more hazardous to living creatures.

Typically, dispersant is sprayed on the surface of the water, where the oil naturally comes to rest, and works a bit like a dishwashing detergent on grease. It breaks down the slick into millions of tiny oil droplets that then become suspended below the surface, normally in the top 30 to 50 feet of the ocean. There, over the course of weeks and months, oil-eating bacteria, sunlight and wave action help break the oil downinto its chemical components, which are then diluted throughout the water.

But in the interim, the oil droplets drift in the upper layer of water, where many sea creatures live and reproduce.

“The fact that (dispersants) remove oil from the surface doesn’t mean it’s not toxic,” said Van Vleet. “It moves oil down into the water column, where other marine animals are exposed to it. … It trades one ecosystem for another.”

Unprecedented, untested
In the Deepwater Horizon accident, the response team has used more than 670,000 gallons of chemical dispersants as of Fridayfar surpassing any previous use in the United States. Most of it has been sprayed from airplanes, but the Deepwater Horizon response team also has applied at least 55,000 gallons in a completely untested way — injecting it at the well’s leaking riser, some 5,000 feet below the surface.

Image: Oiled marsh

Tag-a-Giant Foundation

Dr. Steve Wilson of Stanford University tags a 700-pound bluefin tuna off Canada with a satellite monitoring tag. The fish was tracked in 2009 as it travelled to the Gulf of Mexico, where the fish spawn, now the site of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

While the dispersant may result in fewer oily egrets in the marsh, the bluefin is one of the creatures that may suffer greatly instead. The oil spill area overlaps with only known spawning area for one of two remaining bluefin populations. This bluefin population spends about 10 months of the year in the cold waters of the north Atlantic and then swims thousands of miles to reach an area near the Deepwater Horizon well to disseminate sperm and eggs in the warm Gulf waters between April and June. The larvae float about 10 to 15 feet below the surface in early stages of growth. No one is certain whether the oil will destroy the eggs or kill the larvae, but scientists fear that could happen.

“It is a critical habitat … and this is the most delicate life stage,” said Barbara Block, a professor at Stanford University studies bluefin tagged with sophisticated tracking devices. “The biodiversity of bluefin is at stake right now. … If we lose the year (of new bluefin) it will have a very large impact on a population of bluefin that is on the edge of extinction.”

This is the spawning ground for many other species, including marlin, swordfish and yellowfin tuna, which arrive in the summer.

Some of the chemical components distributed throughout the water will remain toxic for decades, and it’s not clear what the impact could be on future generations of bluefin or other creatures — sperm whales, Bryde’s whales, offshore dolphin populations and seabirds — that fish far from shore.

Monitoring the impact of oil and dispersant chemicals on open-sea fish and other creatures is difficult, experts say, because unlike shorebirds and oysters, they are hard to count.

“It’s hard to see them,” said Lee Crockett, director of U.S. Fisheries policy at the non-profit Pew Charitable Funds environmental group. “If they die, they are on the bottom of the ocean a mile down … For bluefin and marlins, it could be several years before you see what the impact was.”

Deep sea mystery and dead zones
One of the biggest unknowns is how the dispersants might affect the environment near the well head, a mile beneath the surface. BP and the EPA have said that initial monitoring of dispersants suggests the chemicals are helping to break up the crude.

But scientists say the monitoring plan has not been made available for outside review — raising a general complaint about a lack of transparency from the oil company and the government.

And some note that little is known about the deepwater ecosystem — or how the oil and dispersants will react under extremely high water pressure, very low temperatures, limited oxygen and virtually no light. Just getting good samples at this depth is a major challenge.

“There are a bunch of things in the deep sea that we don’t know very much about,” said Ed Overton, professor in the Marine Sciences Department at Louisiana State University. “What happens if those resources are damaged? How does that affect the ecology of the Gulf? It’s a crapshoot … an educated crapshoot.”

The conditions at the bottom of the Gulf also could affect the bacteria that help break down the oil near the surface, as they are less active in cold temperatures than in the warm surface waters, and they may be less abundant in the deep.

“We know that the surface material has been degrading,” says Ralph J. Portier, professor of environmental studies at LSU. “But what about the microbial population at depth?”

Lee CelanoReuters file

Greenpeace staff member Lindsey Allen tests water in a heavily oiled marsh near South Pass, La., on May 19. Despite use of dispersants and thousands of feet of containment booms, some of the slick is beginning to wash up in the delicate coastal ecosystem.

If the oil on the ocean floor is not degraded by bacteria, the danger is that it will remain toxic for much longer than it would near the surface — potentially lingering for years instead of weeks or months — during which time it could be carried to deep coral reefs that provide shelter and nurseries to many species of fish.

There is a debate about the extent to which the Deepwater Horizon oil has entered the Loop Current, a warm flow that moves water — and any contaminants in it — southeast out of the Gulf, through the Florida Straits and into the Atlantic Ocean — potentially threatening the Florida Keys and other sensitive coral reef areas.

The massive use of dispersants in addition to oil may also be further depleting the water of oxygen contributing to “dead zones.”

“All chemicals do this,” said Portier. “If we poured in 400,000 or 500,000 gallons of buttermilk, we’d have a problem with oxygen,” he said.

The other unknown
The dispersant itself, while not the main concern, also is under scrutiny.

BP has used hundreds of thousands of gallons of Corexit, which is produced by Nalco, a Naperville, Ill.-based company.

About a third of the product, which is EPA approved, is a soap-like surfactant that breaks up the oil, according to Van Vleet, the chemical oceanographer. The surfactant is not considered toxic, though some studies suggest it may corrode fish eggs, made up largely of lipids, much as it dissolves oil.

Another third is a petroleum-based “carrier” that facilitates spraying. This component is somewhat toxic to plants and animals — though far less so than crude oil.

The final third of the ingredients are not publicly disclosed because the information is considered proprietary.

Shifting with the tides
On May 15, after some initial testing, the EPA and the Coast Guard approved BP’s use of dispersants at the well head, saying they had collected preliminary data showing it was helping keep some of the oil from reaching the surface.

The same day, however, The New York Times reported that a group of scientists aboard the research vessel Pelican had identified massive plumes of subsea oil — some as big as 10 miles long and 3 miles wide. The article said that scientists on the ship speculated that heavy use of dispersants had contributed to creation of the plumes.

NOAA challenged the report the next day, saying the release of the Pelican team’s data was premature, that the interpretation was misleading and that there was no information connecting subsurface layers of oil with the subsea dispersants.

“NOAA continues to work closely with EPA and the federal response team to monitor the presence of oil and the use of surface and sub-surface dispersants,” said NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenko. “As we have emphasized, dispersants are not a silver bullet. They are used to move us towards the lesser of two environmental outcomes.”

On Thursday, the EPA issued a statement saying it had ordered BP to begin using a “less toxic” alternative to Corexit within 24 hours, even though the latter product is on a list of EPA-approved dispersants. The directive came a month after the Deepwater accident and after some 600,000 gallons of Corexit dispersants had been applied.

BP continued to spray Corexit on Monday.

“If we can find an alternative that is less toxic and available, we will switch to that product,” said Doug Suttles, BP’s chief operating officer. “To date, we’ve struggled to find an alternative either that had less risk to the environment or that was readily available.”

In an afternoon conference call on Monday, the U.S. government said it had ordered BP to “significantly scale back” its use of chemical dispersants in the oil spill response.

“The federal government, led by the Coast Guard, is today instructing BP to take immediate steps to significantly scale back the overall use of dispersants,” EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson told reporters on a conference call.

“Because of its use in unprecedented volumes and because much is unknown about the underwater use of dispersants, EPA wants to ensure BP is using the least toxic product authorized for use,” the agency said. “We reserve the right to discontinue the use of this dispersant method if any negative impacts on the environment outweigh the benefits.”

This is just one area in which the Deepwater Horizon oil mess has taken responders into uncharted territory.

“The science hasn’t caught up with the situation,” said Overton, the marine scientist from LSU and a member of the scientific support team for NOAA.

© 2010 msnbc.com source: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/37282611/ns/gulf_oil_spill/