Friday, December 28, 2012

Pups on the beach

Lots of newborn pups are on the beach now. The birth season is well under way. This mother looks sweet as she appears to cuddle this baby, but actually, she was restless and may have been in pain after his birth. She eventually calmed down and stopped mouthing him.

The live webcam makes it possible to watch from home. I haven't heard whether it has streamed any actual births yet.

Joan Crowder reports that the high king tides disrupted the season by making it difficult for pregnant females to find  the locations they like on the beach. High water forced the seals to crowd up along the edge of the cliffs, rather than find protection of an alpha male on the sand. I observed subadult males harassing that first mother and pup on the beach. Their attention was focused on the unique pair, who were not joined by additional newborns for several days. She certainly could have used some protection.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Noisy ocean

Great report from the NY Times on ocean noise:

When a hurricane forced the Nautilus to dive in Jules Verne’s “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea,” Captain Nemo took the submarine down to a depth of 25 fathoms, or 150 feet. There, to the amazement of the novel’s protagonist, Prof. Pierre Aronnax, no whisper of the howling turmoil could be heard.

Cacophony in the Deep

This week, we look at an increasingly noisy ocean with examples from the "Discovery of Sound in the Sea" project.
  • How loud is it in the ocean?
  • 0:13
    Humpback Whale
  • 0:10
    Beluga Whale
  • 0:16
  • 0:10
    Surveillance Towed Array Sensor System Low Frequency Active Sonar
  • 0:10
    Large Commercial Ship

Like the science desk on Facebook.
“What quiet, what silence, what peace!” he exclaimed.
That was 1870.
Today — to the dismay of whale lovers and friends of marine mammals, if not divers and submarine captains — the ocean depths have become a noisy place.
The causes are human: the sonar blasts of military exercises, the booms from air guns used in oil and gas exploration, and the whine from fleets of commercial ships that relentlessly crisscross the global seas. Nature has its own undersea noises. But the new ones are loud and ubiquitous.
Marine experts say the rising clamor is particularly dangerous to whales, which depend on their acute hearing to locate food and one another.
To fight the din, the federal government is completing the first phase of what could become one of the world’s largest efforts to curb the noise pollution and return the sprawling ecosystem to a quieter state.
The project, by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, seeks to document human-made noises in the ocean and transform the results into the world’s first large sound maps. The ocean visualizations use bright colors to symbolize the sounds radiating out through the oceanic depths, frequently over distances of hundreds of miles.
It is no small ambition: the sea covers more than 70 percent of the planet’s surface. But scores of the ocean visualizations have now been made public.
Several of the larger maps present the sound data in annual averages — demonstrating how ages in which humans made virtually no contribution to ocean noise are giving way to civilization’s roar.
The project’s goal is to better understand the cacophony’s nature and its impact on sea mammals as a way to build the case for reductions.
“It’s a first step,” Leila T. Hatch, a marine biologist and one of the project’s two directors, said of the sound maps. “No one’s ever done it on this scale.”
The began the effort in 2010 at the behest of Jane Lubchenco, a prominent marine biologist who is the first woman to head the agency. Dr. Hatch and her colleagues assembled a team of sound experts, including HLS Research, a consulting firm in La Jolla, Calif. This summer, they unveiled their results on the Web, as did a separate team of specialists that sought to map the whereabouts of populations of whales, dolphins and porpoises.
Michael Jasny, a senior policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council, a private group in New York that has sued the Navy to reduce sounds that can harm marine mammals, praised the maps as “magnificent” and their depictions of sound pollution as “incredibly disturbing.”
“We’ve been blind to it,” Mr. Jasny said in an interview. “The maps are enabling scientists, regulators and the public to visualize the problem. Once you see the pictures, the serious risk that ocean noise poses to the very fabric of marine life becomes impossible to ignore.”
Legal experts say the new findings are likely to accelerate efforts both domestically and internationally to deal with the complicated problem through laws, regulations, treaties and voluntary noise reductions.
The government already has some authority to regulate oceanic sound in United States waters through the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act, though exemptions to these laws exist for the military.
The International Maritime Organization, a United Nations body responsible for improving marine safety and reducing ship pollution, also has the authority to set acoustic standards. In the past few years, encouraged by the United States, it began discussing how to achieve voluntary noise reductions.
Since many commercial vessels are registered abroad, and most shipping noises arise in international waters, the organization’s backing is seen as crucial for reductions to be substantial enough to have global repercussions. “Right now we’re talking about nonbinding guidelines,” said Michael Bahtiarian, an adviser to the United States delegation to the maritime organization and a senior official at Noise Control Engineering, a company outside Boston that specializes in reducing ship noise and vibrations. “At a minimum, the goal is to stop the increases.”

Cacophony in the Deep

This week, we look at an increasingly noisy ocean with examples from the "Discovery of Sound in the Sea" project.
  • How loud is it in the ocean?
  • 0:13
    Humpback Whale
  • 0:10
    Beluga Whale
  • 0:16
  • 0:10
    Surveillance Towed Array Sensor System Low Frequency Active Sonar
  • 0:10
    Large Commercial Ship
The oceanic roar originates because of the remarkable — and highly selective — way in which different kinds of waves propagate through seawater. While sunlight can penetrate no more than a few hundred feet, sound waves can travel for hundreds of miles before diminishing to nothingness.
Sea mammals evolved sharp hearing to take advantage of sound’s reach and to compensate for poor visibility. The heads of whales and dolphins are mazes of resonant chambers and acoustic lenses that give the animals not only extraordinary hearing but complex voices they use to communicate.
In recent decades, humans have added raucous clatter to the primal chorus. Mr. Bahtiarian noted that the noise of a typical cargo vessel could rival that of a jet. Even louder, he added, are air guns fired near the surface from ships used in oil and gas exploration. Their waves radiate downward and penetrate deep into the seabed, helping oil companies locate hidden pockets of hydrocarbons.
Marine biologists have linked the human noises to reductions in mammalian vocalization, which suggests declines in foraging and breeding.
Worse, the Navy estimates that blasts from its sonars — used in training and to hunt enemy submarines — result in permanent hearing losses for hundreds of sea mammals every year and temporary losses for thousands. All told, annually the injured animals number more than a quarter million.
The federal sound study examined all these noises but zeroed in on commercial shipping because it represented a continuous threat, in contrast to sporadic booms. For North Atlantic shipping, the project drew up more than two dozen maps. All their scales went from red (115 decibels at the top) to orange and yellow, and then to green and blue (40 decibels at the bottom). The maps presented the results in terms of annual averages rather than peaks.
A decibel is a measure of noise, and peak levels underwater can be incredibly loud. When monitored by a hydrophone at a distance of one meter (about three feet), a seismic gun produces 250 decibels, an oil tanker 200 decibels and a tugboat 170 decibels, according to Mr. Bahtiarian.
To draw up its annual maps, the sound project used computers to average out such peaks over time, as well as to slowly diminish the noises as they traveled over the ocean’s vast reaches. The study also chose to model the low frequencies used by sea mammals for hearing and vocalization, and tracked how far the sounds penetrated.
Maps of the North Atlantic show mostly oranges in the upper waters, but many blues appear as the readings go downward as deep as one kilometer, or six-tenths of a mile. At that depth, the sound maps clearly show the ability of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge — a mountain chain that runs down the ocean’s middle — to diminish the radiating noises by breaking up patterns of sound waves.
Dr. Hatch, of the sound study, said too many areas of the ocean surface (where sea mammals and whales spend most of their time) are orange in coloration, denoting high average levels.
“It’s like downtown Manhattan during the day, only not taking into account the ambulances and the sirens,” she said. “I’d be happier saying it was like a national park.”
Vessels for fishing and research, including new ships being built for N.O.A.A., are already being quieted around the world. The trend derives not so much out of concern for sea mammals but from the realization by oceanographers that quiet ships let them do better science.
Marine engineers say the mechanics of ship quieting are relatively straightforward if applied in the design stage. The biggest factor is the ship’s propeller, which has to be shaped exactly right to lessen cavitation.
The noise arises when the force of a propeller cutting through seawater results in millions of voids and bubbles, which then collapse violently. Experts say quiet propellers have a benefit beyond helping sea mammals in that some kinds can reduce fuel consumption.
Other measures for quieting include adding layers of sound-absorbing tiles to the walls of noisy rooms as well as mounting engines, pumps, air compressors, and other types of reciprocating machinery on vibration isolators. Mr. Bahtiarian of Noise Control Engineering, who has written extensively on the topic in professional journals and for expert committees, noted that a parallel to ship quieting had been under way in the airline industry for decades. City officials and airport neighbors, as well as federal officials, have prodded the manufacturers of jet engines to find ways of reducing noise.
Experts note that the magnitude of the problem on land and sea is similar, in that the global fleets of commercial jets and ships both number in the tens of thousands. But designing better ships to quiet the ocean, Mr. Bahtiarian said, will take longer.
“A ship’s lifetime is 30 or even 50 years,” he noted, “so it could be a lot longer” before improved designs start transforming the fleet.
Still, Mr. Bahtiarian added, the quieting trend seems inevitable given the new reports about sound pollution and rising awareness about the dangers to whales, dolphins and other sea mammals.
“The technology is there,” he said. “It seems like it’s just a matter of time.”

Thursday, December 13, 2012

First birth and High Tide

The first pup was born December 11! He's looking good and has an experienced and attentive mother. Young adolescent males were harassing her but she chased them away. I hoped one of the three adult males in her vicinity would impose some order on those obstreperous bullies, and finally one of them made some threatening gestures, raising his head  and bellowing, that scattered the youngsters.

When the other seals weren't sniffing her and the baby, the high King tide was splashing waves near, and occasionally, around the pup. The pup can't be seen in the photo above, but he's between the adult male at center front and the light brown mother with her mouth open, barking at him to keep his distance. This morning was the peak, so I hope the beach will not be as threatened as it was today for the rest of the season.

Nearly the entire north beach, shown above, was engulfed in waves. Most of the south beach was, too. I've never seen it this high, even in storms. And today the weather was mild.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Bulls on the beach

Adult males are surfing onto the beach, ready to intimidate their fellows and make way among the youngsters.
There are still quite a few adolescents on the beach, as well as juveniles. Yesterday's storm tore up the kelp forest and tossed it onto the beach. Apparently, it makes a comfortable bed.
Some really small ones that may be young of the year, pups born last season, are on the beach, too.

A docent reported that a subadult male had landed on the beach at San Simeon, but I couldn't find him there this morning. Maybe he just stopped for a rest and then moved on.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Surrogate otter mother dies

From Monterey Bay Aquarium:
Mae, First Otter to Raise a Pup on Exhibit, Dies
We’re sad to report that Mae, an 11-year-old female sea otter who had been part of our sea otter exhibit since she was eight months old, died over the weekend from a seizure disorder whose cause is still unknown. Her seizures began suddenly just a few days before her death on Saturday afternoon, November 17.
Mae was rescued as a two-day-old pup near Santa Cruz in April 2001, and raised by our Sea Otter Research and Conservation (SORAC) program team. She joined the sea otter exhibit in December 2001 when  it became clear that she was not acquiring the skills she needed to be returned to the wild. She was the first animal we’d added to the exhibit since 1986 – starting a new generation of exhibit animals as our original sea otters reached the end of their lives.
That wasn’t Mae’s only “first” with us. In 2010, she became the first surrogate mother otter to raise an orphaned pup on exhibit at the aquarium. Her pup, Kit, is now living at SeaWorld San Diego. Mae served as a companion animal to several otters as part of the SORAC program.
Her name – that of a truck-stop waitress with a screeching voice in John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath – was chosen in another first-ever process. It was selected for her by the public in an online poll.
Mae, nicknamed “Mayhem” by her caretakers, was a vocal and feisty sea otter who would make direct eye contact with and stick her tongue out at trainers when displeased, according to staff who worked with her.  She was also an enthusiastic partner in training sessions, said Chris DeAngelo, associate curator of marine mammals.
“Mae definitely knew the most behaviors of any of our otters and was wonderful to teach new behaviors,” Chris said. “She was one of the first animals that new trainers learned to work with because she was very consistent and good with dealing with ‘trainer errors.’ We’ll all miss her terribly.”
Chris and the sea otter staff also called Mae “the monkey” because she would hold objects like ice molds and toys with her tail, leaving her paws open to accept whatever came next. While none of the other adult otters displayed this behavior, it was picked up by some of the pups Mae raised.
Senior Sea Otter Aquarist Cecelia Azhderian appreciated Mae’s playfulness.
“She loved big buckets,” Cecelia said “She could hardly wait for them to be filled with water before she’d get inside, even though she didn’t like the water hose, which she’d attack it if it came too close.”
Our sea otter exhibit is currently closed for renovations and will reopen in mid-March. Exhibit otters Rosa and Abby and are being housed behind the scenes.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Coastal Commission turns PG&E down flat

David Sneed reports for the Tribune:

SANTA MONICA — No high energy seismic surveys will be conducted off the coast of San Luis Obispo County this year, if ever.
In a resounding success for tens of thousands of activists from across the state, the California Coastal Commission on Wednesday unanimously voted to deny Pacific Gas and Electric Co.’s request to use extremely loud blasts of sound to study a network of earthquake faults surrounding Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant.
Some 200 environmentalists, fishermen, animal rights activists and Native Americans from across the state packed a wing of the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium on Wednesday. All of them were opposed to the seismic testing, and many wore T-shirts emblazoned with statements such as “Stop Ocean Blasting” and “Seismic Matters.”
It is now up to PG&E to decide how to proceed. PG&E spokesman Blair Jones said the utility will study the commission’s decision and the reasons behind the denial to decide what to do next. PG&E asked the commission to make an up-or-down decision and not spend the matter back for more study.
The commissioners repeatedly said PG&E failed to show sufficient evidence that the benefit of the studies would outweigh the harm they would do to the environment. The utility is spending $64 million on various types of onshore and offshore seismic studies.
Several commissioners said the studies will not do anything to make the plant safer or provide an ability to predict earthquakes. They also said it is unlikely that PG&E could ever be successful in getting a permit, and encouraged PG&E to use the information already available to evaluate the seismic safety of the plant.
“Approving the studies would open the door to this type of activity all along the West Coast,” said Commissioner Steven Kinsey. “It’s not a difficult decision to make today that we do not want to be opening the coast to this kind of activity.”
Commissioner Martha McClure said Diablo Canyon cannot be fixed in terms of the danger it faces from earthquakes and should not be studied to death. She said she wants the plant to be shut down.
“The studies were an attempt to push the can down the road,” she said. “I don’t buy the public safety issue at all. I want to see PG&E turn the corner and spend the $64 million on solar power.”

Read more here:

Thursday, November 8, 2012

East Coast contemplates seismic testing

Emma Bryce writes about seismic testing on the East Coast in the NY Times:

Areas that would be opened to seismic testing for oil and gas deposits off the Atlantic coast.Bureau of Ocean Energy ManagementAreas that would be opened to seismic testing for oil and gas deposits off the Atlantic coast.
Green: Science
As a federal decision draws near, environmental and commercial fishing groups are marshaling their forces to protest a plan by the Obama administration to allow seismic airgun testing for oil and gas exploration off the Atlantic coast.
The Interior Department has signaled that it would reach a final decision early next year on whether to approve a draft environmental assessment that would help lay the groundwork for such testing along the coasts of seven states, from the northern tip of Delaware to central Florida.
The environmental and fishing groups argue that noise from the seismic blasts could disrupt the lives of marine animals that rely on sound to travel, feed, mate, and communicate and could lead to the beachings and deaths of whales.
So far the department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management has received more than 29,000 public comments related to  petitions opposing the seismic tests. “If they receive an environmental impact statement that says ‘go for it,’ they could start in 2013,” warned Matthew Huelsenbeck, a marine scientist for the environmental organization Oceana. “This is coming down to the wire.”

In its draft environmental assessment, the federal bureau predicts that seismic testing would result in some “harassments” of marine animals that could result in injuries or in a few cases, deaths. Still, in accordance with the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act, the  government’s plan calls for mitigation efforts like barring testing in certain areas during critical feeding and breeding periods of the endangered north Atlantic right whale.
Over all, the bureau’s assessment projects that impacts on marine life from the testing would be moderate.
Still, the agency has said that if it determines that the risks to wildlife are too great, the testing will not be carried out. “Protecting the environment is also what we do here, while safeguarding the development of America’s offshore energy,” said John Filostrat, a bureau spokesman.
The testing by geophysical companies would end a moratorium of more than two decades on oil exploration along the Eastern seaboard that President Obama decided to lift in 2010.
The  tests are to be performed by a vessel that trails evenly spaced hydrophones in its wake as compressed air is blasted downward by the vessel’s airgun. The resulting sound waves, as high as 250 decibels, are far greater than the sound emitted by a jet engine upon takeoff, Oceana notes.
Once the sound waves hit the ocean floor, the hydrophones register echoes that reflect the densities of materials like gas and oil within the seabed.
In an e-mail, a representative of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management said that  surveying techniques had improved considerably in recent decades. The technology will allow the agency to  update and refine its body of scientific information on the geology of the mid-and South Atlantic regions, informing its decision-making on oil and gas leasing, the agency spokesman said.
Environmentalists and commercial and recreational fishermen are nonetheless concerned about the intensity and frequency of the airgun blasts: they will be fired every few seconds around the clock and can continue for several weeks. The waves “reverberate around the ocean, and they create this massive acoustic footprint”  – loud enough to travel thousands of square miles, said Mr. Huelsenbeck of Oceana.
The intensity and reach of the noise will not only  drive some marine animals away and  disrupt their feeding patterns, Oceana  argues, but could damage or destroy their hearing. This is particularly worrisome for whales, which do not have sharp eyesight and
depend heavily on their hearing. Without it, “they can’t navigate, they can’t function,” Mr. Huelsenbeck said. “They keep contact with others based on their calls.”
Animals like whales decline slowly once their hearing is gone, making it difficult to link a death  directly with the seismic tests, he added.
Oceana also points to seismic testing conducted in 2001 off Sakhalin Island in Russia that was associated with the departure of endangered gray whales from a primary feeding area.
In other cases, the connection between seismic testing and effects on animals is less certain, as with the mass beaching of 900 long-beaked common dolphins and porpoises in Peru this year. The government ruled out the sound waves as a cause, but a marine veterinarian and conservationist who examined many of the corpses found bleeding and fractures in the middle ear — the type of trauma that could result from intense noise.
Beyond environmental concerns, the ocean expanse  also supports an annual $11.8 billion dollar fishing industry. Oceana has helped to mobilize opposition from fishing associations that worry that the sonic blasts could displace commercially valuable fish stocks or damage eggs and larvae.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Coastal Commission staff recommens denial

The Coastal Commission staff report was released Friday, recommending that the commission deny PG&E's permit application. Part of the summary gives the following reasoning:

"The key Coastal Act issue of concern is this project’s significant and unavoidable impacts to marine resources. Seismic surveys are among the very loudest anthropogenic underwater sound sources and can cause disturbance, injury, and loss of a large number of marine species due to air gun noise. Of particular concern are impacts to the harbor porpoise (Morro Bay stock), whose range is limited to the general project area, and the entire population of which is likely to be subject to behavioral harassment. The project would also adversely affect Marine Protected Areas, fish and other invertebrates, involving both physiological impacts as well as economic impacts to commercial and recreational fishing by precluding fishing and potentially affecting fish behavior and biology. While PG&E proposes to fund a monitoring program and implement measures to minimize effects, including cessation of air gun use if marine mammals are near enough to the sound source to be subject to greater than behavioral effects, a number of limitations (including the proposed use of air guns at night time and in potentially high seas and windy conditions that would make it difficult to detect marine mammals) would cause these measures to be ineffective much of the time.
Thus, even with extensive monitoring, and implementation of measures to minimize impacts, the Commission staff believes this project would still result in significant disturbance, injury and loss of marine biological resources and is therefore inconsistent with the Coastal Act’s marine resource protection policies (Sections 30230 and 30231)."

The report continues that the project falls into the category of a "coastal-dependent industrial facility," qualifying it for an "override." On consideration of a number of factors, the staff concludes that PG&E has not presented sufficient evidence for that, either.

This is certainly encouraging. The best part for me was that they give the environment higher consideration than PG&E or political influences. This report is science- and law-based, protecting the coast rather than using it as a bargaining point in negotiating how to exploit it.

None of the county supervisors stood up for the environment or the local fishing and tourism economy, retreating behind a cover story of "public safety" and PG&E's economic power and political influence. If the public isn't safe from Diablo Canyon, provide some leadership that will fortify it so that it is safe or the political will to shut it down.

We are entrusted with a valuable coastline which we hold in trust for the world. It deserves to have the legal protection which has already been enacted to be honored and enforced.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Cousteau on seismic testing

I had the privilege of reading this statement at the October 30 meeting of the San Luis Obispo County Supervisors' meeting:
Statement from Jean-Michel Cousteau, President of Ocean Futures Society on the Diablo Canyon Seismic Testing: Too Much Risk
October 29, 2012
            Gray whales are whales that have changed little over the past 600,000 years yet one of the first of the great whales to face extinction.  It is a marine mammal with the longest single migration and the most urban whale, passing some of the world’s biggest cities, along some of the most polluted coastlines.  In the Pacific, the eastern population of Gray Whales represents a conservation success story; their population is back to its pre-hunting numbers of over 22,000 after almost being on the brink of extinction just 75 years ago.  Unfortunately the Atlantic population was not so lucky, and has been extinct for over 200 years.  But despite its protection under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Pacific Gray whale and twenty-four other whale and dolphin species who are found off the coast of California, face many human impacts, including on-going noise pollution.  These marine mammals depend on an acoustic environment, we cannot add deafening noise to their aquatic environment; it is unacceptable.

Located along California’s central coast lies the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant, an electricity-generating nuclear power plant that sits along Avila Beach in San Luis Obispo county and provides energy to nearly 3 million California residents.  Built in the early 1970s along a geological fault line, the power plant has had a long history of controversy with respect to both environmental impacts and residential safety.  As recently as 2008, numerous new fault lines running both onshore and offshore to the Diablo Canyon power plant have been found.  Combined with news of the devastating 2011 Fukushima earthquake and subsequent power plant failure, concerns have increased over the safety and necessity of the Diablo Canyon power plant.

            In an attempt to mitigate concerns, owners of the Diablo Canyon power plant, the Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E), have chosen to mount an extensive seismic testing survey in the hopes of obtaining detailed 3D images of the fault zones near the plant.  PG&E plans to submerge underwater air cannons that will detonate blasts of 250 decibels every 15 seconds for several consecutive days.  These blasts are equivalent to the detonation of an atomic bomb and will kill or otherwise impact tens of thousands of marine animals including Pacific Gray Whales.  Considering the extent to which the marine world uses sound, particularly the twenty-five species of marine mammals that reside within California’s coastal waters, the air cannon blasts will have detrimental effects to animals within 250 square nautical miles of each of the 18 air cannon sites. Whales, dolphins and porpoises that are not killed by the immediate blast will likely suffer slow deaths, as impairment to their extremely sensitive hearing will result in an inability to find food or navigate underwater.  I have spent a great deal of time studying and learning about the lives of gray whales with my Ocean Futures Society team.   Once hunted to the brink of extinction, these amazing animals have been able to recover and now thrive within California’s waters.  Ocean Futures Society in co-production with KQED spent a year filming gray whales for the PBS Special, Gray Whale Obstacle Course. This special offers insight into the lives of these beautiful animals.  However, high energy seismic testing poses a huge risk to these whales, and all others that inhabit our coastal waters. Furthermore, the proposed seismic testing risks enormous damage to marine reserves and fisheries along the California coast, which are of economic and conservation importance.

            PG&E plans to spend $64 million dollars on seismic testing as part of a plan to investigate the risks of the current fault lines located near the Diablo Canyon power plant.  However, the testing will not make the plant any safer. It will only offer more information on the fault lines. Many environmental agencies argue that adequate testing has already been done. The measurements proposed are similar to those used to search for offshore oil reserves, and there is likely pressure from big oil companies to continue onward with these plans. Yet it is time we stop looking at the ocean as an endless supply of nonrenewable resources.  Our knowledge of the long-term ecological impacts is poorly understood, and we risk losing valuable components of the ocean ecosystem.  Our oceans are our life-support system. When we protect the ocean, we protect ourselves.

The California Coastal Commission is set to vote on PG&E’s request for a permit to begin the seismic testing on Nov. 10th.  Please join in our fight to stop this dangerous plan from moving forward. 

Oceans of appreciation,

Jean-Michel Cousteau

Friday, October 12, 2012

Plastic entanglement

It's one of the bad things we see at the bluff, a seal with unbreakable plastic around its neck. This seal clearly has had plastic around his neck, but it appears to me that it is now gone. It left behind a severe scar, but he looks like he's doing well.

Another example of why we must reduce plastic use and clean up the oceans. Jean-Michel Cousteau will be speaking on the subject in Colorado next week.

PJ Webb reports that another observer who witnessed the disentanglement of Green Tie last November thinks this seal might be him. Michelle Barbieri of the Marine Mammal Center sedated him and removed a green plastic strap from around his neck last November 11. He was seen on the beach recovering well November 18. Judging from the photos taken at that time and the double scar, it may well be him. Welcome back, Green Tie!

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Send NMFS comments on seismic testing

Comments need to be submitted by October 15. Below is what I sent. Feel free to excerpt from my letter in writing your own.

P. Michael Payne
Chief, Permits and Conservation Division
Office of Protected Resources
National Marine Fisheries Service
1315 East-West Highway
Silver Spring, MD 20910

To the National Marine Fisheries Service:

I ask that you deny the Incidental Harassment Authorization for which Pacific Gas & Electric has applied in connection with its seismic testing project.

The National Science Foundation’s draft Environmental Assessment differs substantially in its estimates of marine mammal take from the Final Environmental Impact Report adopted by the State Lands Commission in granting the permit for this project. The EA states:

It is unlikely that the proposed action would result in any cases of temporary or especially permanent hearing impairment, or any significant non-auditory physical or physiological effects. Some behavioral disturbance is expected, if animals are in the general area during seismic operations, but this would be localized, short-term, and involve limited numbers of animals.”

The SLC FEIR specifically notes Significant impacts on Harbor porpoises, Fin whales, Humpback whales, Blue whales, Bottlenose dolphins and Southern sea otters. This discrepancy needs to be addressed before an IHA is considered.

The wide range of marine mammals being affected is unacceptable and far outside the concept of ‘incidental harassment’ as defined: small numbers that will have a negligible impact on the species or stocks. The impact on the food species for these large marine mammals should also not be overlooked. If their food is destroyed by the seismic blasts, which may well happen, the area will become useless to them and they will be forced to find other feeding areas.

The report identifies substantial ‘impacts’ to marine mammals and commercial fishing, as well as air pollution. The table on page 4.4-79 of the EIR specifies Level A Take of marine mammals, all of which are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Many are also protected under the Endangered Species Act. The fish, fish eggs and fish larvae that will be destroyed are the food these animals require. When that is gone, the mammals will leave.

Northern elephant seals are dismissed in a couple of paragraphs. "The northern elephant seal is present year-round off of central California; however, because they spend very little time at the surface and forage mostly offshore, at-sea sightings are rare." (p. 87) No further concern is expressed. In fact, elephant seals spend most of their time deep in the ocean, where the killing blasts will be directed. The time period, from November 15 through December 31, when PG&E has been approved to blast, adult males are returning to the Central Coast from Alaska for the breeding season.

The level of sound blasts from the air guns isn’t just loud, it’s deafening, 250 decibels. David Sneed, environment reporter for the San Luis Obispo Tribune, described it as "There is no everyday equivalent for that level of sound. Most decibel charts list the loudest sound as a military jet aircraft taking off at 140 decibels."

The suggestion is often made that the animals can simply be chased out of the area. Blair Jones of PG&E claims that "As they (the boats) come into an area, they'll start emitting low-pulse sounds to warn marine life in the area. Those sounds will slowly ramp up until we get to the level that's needed to perform the survey."

The notion that marine mammals can be harmlessly chased out of the immediate area is misleading. It’s a direct violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, for good reason, Level B harassment. An IHA cannot change that. This is these animals’ habitat. They live there because their food is there and they navigate to their breeding grounds via these areas. Where are they supposed to go? Someplace where there is no food, or be sent off their migration routes to find other ways to their homes?

Northern Elephant Seals will be actively migrating through the area during November and December. Juveniles will be making their way to the beaches for a needed rest. Blasted away from their rookeries, will they find other beaches? Or will they swim off and die? Adult males will be returning in late November and December. They swim deep and are seldom seen at the surface. That doesn’t mean they aren’t there. It means they are right in the air gun target zone. They need to get on the beach to prepare for the mating season. What happens when they can’t get to the beach, or their internal organs are liquefied? Will they cancel breeding season? Not knowing the answers to these questions makes issuing an IHA impossible.

PG&E spokesmen stated at the State Lands Commission hearing that operations would be shut down if any marine mammal was within 1.1 miles. With hundreds of thousands of marine mammals living off our coast, that boat will always be within that radius of whales, seals, sea lions and otters. They cannot possibly assure that the blasting will not be within that range, considering the deep-diving mammals that live and migrate through the area, even in the daytime. At night, it’s even less possible to see them and stop operations.

Pacific Gas & Electric has been given permission to blast the coast with 250-decibel air guns, 24/7, for 33 days and nights. The justification for this elaborate, expensive and destructive project is: “PG&E’s Geosciences staff believes that data gathered from the additional studies that comprise the Project would improve characterizations of these fault zones and allow PG&E to refine estimates of the frequency and intensity of ground motion that is likely to occur in the area surrounding and including the Diablo Canyon Power Plant. This information may also improve assessments of the potential seismic hazard at the DCPP.”

The original proposal was for a longer period of blasting but was not assured of providing data that would provide significant information. The reduced time period and area covered is even less likely to produce useful information.

The data PG&E hopes (but can’t be certain) this project will produce will not make Diablo Canyon Nuclear Plant any safer. No modifications are contemplated, no changes will be made. The data will be used to create an improved, 3-D computer model. PG&E reps are enthusiastic over how they would be able to rotate and slice this CAT-scan-like image, so superior to the conventional 2-D X-ray images they find so limiting. I don’t underestimate the value of computer modeling in predicting future catastrophe, but weighing the certain damage against the dubious advantages of this technology makes Incidental Take unacceptable and unjustified in connection with this project.

Thank you.

Supervisors schedule seismic testing meeting

Bob Cuddy reports in the Tribune:

Yielding to growing public pressure, the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors has scheduled a public hearing Oct. 30 to discuss PG&E’s proposal to conduct seismic tests off the coast near the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant.
“I want to make sure this is aired out pretty well,” Supervisor Frank Mecham said of the utility’s plan to conduct the high-energy surveys.
The tests are part of a $64 million study that PG&E is conducting to better understand earthquake faults around the nuclear plant.
Extremely loud blasts of sound will be emitted into the ocean every 15 seconds in three areas of the Pacific, from near Cambria to Guadalupe.
Nine to 12 days of testing will be done this year and the remainder performed next year.
Seismologists will be able to use the echoes of the sound blasts from Earth’s crust to develop three-dimensional images of earthquake faults at the depths the quakes occur.
However, almost from their inception, the tests have drawn strong opposition because many people fear they will harm marine life, the local fishing industry and the economies of Avila Beach and Morro Bay.
That opposition has been building all summer, and again on Tuesday a dozen people spoke in opposition.
Supervisor Bruce Gibson, a geologist who has been closely tracking the movement of the proposal through various regulatory agencies, noted that supervisors have no authority over the testing, which is in the jurisdiction of state agencies.
However, like Mecham, he said he wants the public’s questions answered thoroughly — “a complete discussion of all points of view.”
While the board cannot make decisions on the plan, it can make recommendations, letting the responsible agencies know how local residents feel.
Gibson said the testing is a highly complicated proposal that raises economic, environmental, safety and moral issues. He wants all of that explored in a public forum.
There has been considerable misunderstanding of what is involved, and some false information is making the rounds, Gibson said.
The hearing isn't on the agenda yet, but the board's regular meetings start at 9 a.m. at the County Government Center, 1055 Monterey St. in San Luis Obispo.

Read more here:

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Seismic testing

Public concern is mounting over PG&E's seismic testing.

The Coastal Commission has posted background information on its site:

Comments can be sent to the next agency to act on the project, National Marine Fisheries Service, before October 15.
Comments on the application should be addressed to P. Michael Payne, Chief, Permits and Conservation Division, Office of Protected Resources, National Marine Fisheries Service, 1315 East-West Highway, Silver Spring, MD 20910. The mailbox address for providing email comments is NMFS is not responsible for email comments sent to addresses other than the one provided here. Comments sent via email, including all attachments, must not exceed a 10-megabyte file size.
All comments received are a part of the public record and will generally be posted to without change. All Personal Identifying Information (for example, name, address, etc.) voluntarily submitted by the commenter may be publicly accessible. Do not submit confidential business information or otherwise sensitive or protected information.
A copy of the application containing a list of the references used in this document may be obtained by writing to the above address, telephoning the contact listed here (see FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT) or visiting the internet at:
The National Science Foundation (NSF), which owns the R/V Marcus G. Langseth, has prepared a draft “Environmental Assessment Pursuant to the National Environmental Policy Act, 42 U.S.C. 4321 et seq. Marine Seismic Survey in the Pacific Ocean off Central California, 2012” (EA). NSF's EA incorporates a draft “Environmental Assessment of Marine Geophysical Surveys by the R/V Marcus G. Langseth for the Central California Seismic Imaging Project,” prepared by Padre Associates, Inc., on behalf of NSF, PG&E, and L-DEO, which is also available at the same internet address. Documents cited in this notice may be viewed, by appointment, during regular business hours, at the aforementioned address.

Points you can make in your comments:

The NMFS Environmental Assessment is inconsistent with the CA State Lands Commission EIR--- takes will be significant and unavoidable. The full report is here.

They claim they will halt blasting if marine mammals are sighted within 1.1 miles of the ship, but it's impossible for monitors to see marine mammals at night. PG&E proposes to blast every 15 seconds, 24/7.

Harbor porpoises cannot tolerate over 120 decibels; therefore unless the air gun decibel intensity is reduced, porpoises will receive Level A Harassment.
Harassment: Under the 1994 Amendments to the MMPA, harassment is statutorily defined as, any act of pursuit, torment, or annoyance which--
  • (Level A Harassment) has the potential to injure a marine mammal or marine mammal stock in the wild; or,
  • (Level B Harassment) has the potential to disturb a marine mammal or marine mammal stock in the wild by causing disruption of behavioral patterns, including, but not limited to, migration, breathing, nursing, breeding, feeding, or sheltering but which does not have the potential to injure a marine mammal or marine mammal stock in the wild.