Friday, August 31, 2012

Seismic testing and whales

The whales raised awareness of PG&E's seismic testing project, getting coverage in Forbes and Daily Kos. 

The California Fish & Game Commission will hold an informational meeting on Monday, September 24, to discuss this project. They will invite other agencies to report as to what they are doing. They won't have a remote location like State Lands did, but the meeting will stream live and be archived. Comments are welcome in person, by email and regular mail. Send them to: Email:, mailing address:

California Fish and Game Commission
P.O. Box 944209
Sacramento, CA 94244-2090 

They will discuss what State Lands has granted a permit to do, what mitigation measures are being required and how projects like this can be handled in the future.


Thursday, August 30, 2012

Cambria 2030

From the Cambrian:
 Editor’s note: Cambria author, journalist and wild-life enthusiast Christine Heinrichs uses a hybrid crystal ball and news wire to bring back a retrospective news story from a couple decades into the future.
July 2030: Last week, Cambria, California, welcomed an international committee to learn how the community of 6,000 people became a model of sustainability. “Cambria is exceptional in its natural resources, but the way they have used them without using them up is what makes it an example to the world,” said United Nations Secretary General Moise Ndube. “They’ve eliminated the water shortage that divided the community in 2012 and now sell power back to the grid.” The community’s energy innovations are credited with helping the region wean itself from nuclear power. California’s last nuclear power plant, Diablo Canyon, closed in 2024 when its license expired.
Cambria came to the United Nations’ notice when its marine environment was threatened by the utility’s seafloor earthquake fault mapping project in 2012. Since local officials were unwilling to enforce local, state and federal laws, international law was marshaled to protect the area’s unique and precious ecosystem. Piedras Blancas, one of only three mainland elephant seal rookeries in the world and the only one easily accessible to the public, was protected as a World Heritage site.
“The international community stepped in where local officials were unable or unwilling to act,” said Ndube.
The events galvanized Cambria’s citizenry. The 250-decibel air guns, blasting away every 15-20 seconds nonstop, 24 hours a day, seven days a week for 42 days, would have effectively sterilized the coastal community’s marine life. Animals that didn’t die outright would have been chased from the area by the blasts. Since prey species would have also been wiped out, whales, dolphins, porpoises and seals would have had to leave the area for other feeding areas. Despite the area’s status as a Marine Protected Area, local and some state officials approved the company’s plan.
Cambria sits right on the California coast, including the beaches and a marine park within its boundaries. More than 50 marine mammal species are known to live in the area, 23 of them abundant. The marine mammals sit at the top of a complex ocean ecology, a food web that includes fish, sea turtles, birds and inverte-
brates, from abalone to jellyfish. One state public official at the time described the seismic testing project as “The end of life as we know it.” County commissioners blandly approved the project, even requesting more testing in their quest to make the nuclear plant and its stored spent waste, perched at the edge of the ocean, palatable to the community.
Harbor seals give birth to their pups in a rookery overseen from a boardwalk in Cambria’s State Marine Park, also a Coastal National Monument. The seals, sea lions and otters live close to the surface. The elephant seals that visitors watch on the Piedras Blancas beach spend most of their lives at 1,000 feet and deeper in the ocean, surfacing for only minutes to breathe.
Gray whales, pregnant and swimming to Mexico’s warm lagoons to give birth, would have been chased from their routes, if they survived. Blue whales, the largest animal ever to live on earth, would have been no match for the non-stop explosive blasts. The iconic sea otter and the Morro Bay harbor porpoise, because of limited ability to escape, would either be killed outright or disabled by partial or complete deafness. Many endangered species, and all marine mammals under legal protection, would have been affected.
When the project’s nature became clear to the community, residents banded together to fund the first community windmill. The abandoned Air Force station south of town had a hill that proved an excellent site. Generating local power reduced the need for nuclear power. That proved helpful when electromagnetic techniques launched on Remotely Operated Vehicles became available for geologic fault mapping without damage to the marine environment in 2014. Those studies revealed unstable fault lines beneath the plant that could have been shifted by the air-gun method.
Community leaders directed tax revenues to renewable energy, identifying programs to support both the community and Individual homeowners in reducing dependence on nuclear and fossil fuels. Community buildings added solar panels to their roofs, leading the way for businesses to go solar. Residents eagerly embraced solar power on private homes.
Cambria now funds its park programs with revenues from the sale of power back to the grid. All utility lines were placed underground last year. Cambria looks perfect, but the residents remain grateful for the income, sharing maintenance with State Parks.
“It required political vision to change the dialogue,” said Cambria environmentalist Mary Webb. “We’re grateful to all those who shared in bringing Cambria to a better future.”

Read more here:

More seismic testing resources

Local news outlets are giving the PG&E seismic testing project. Television station KSBY has a page devoted to seismic testing. Their coverage relies heavily on PG&E spokesmen, but that's a limitation of television news. They get a lot of credit for announcing the NSF public hearing, which the newspapers missed.

New Times, the alternative weekly, has another good story this week, as well as an opinion piece by Cambria resident Roger Cleary. Matt Fountain covered the Morro Bay City Council meeting where the five members unanimously adopted a resolution opposing the project. Morro Bay doesn't have any legal say in the process, but being on the record about it will help the Coastal Commission understand what the issues are and how the local community feels.

A "Thank the Whales" demonstration is planned for 10 am - 2 pm Saturday, September 1 at Port San Luis, where lots of local humpback whales have been surfacing, feeding. I'm not sure who is organizing it, but the message I got said there would be prizes for the best signs and help in writing letters opposing the testing.

Another NSF report from 2011 blandly certifies that marine seismic research won't have any effect whatsoever on marine life along the California coast. This astonishing conclusion is difficult to credit, but there you are. No gray or humpback whales along the California coast in summer, so no problem! The blasts simply won't bother otters or seals. QED. NSF and its partners, USGS and NOAA, should be ashamed. I invite them out here to witness the whales and dolphins feeding.

The Office of National Marine Sanctuaries has a statement of Policy Guidance regarding human-induced noise that includes "Under the National Marine Sanctuaries Act, the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries has the authority to regulate certain sound-producing activities within sanctuaries, on a sanctuary-by-sanctuary basis, based on the list of activities that are subject to regulation in the designation documents of individual sites." PG&E has eliminated the route that would have included part of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, but it's still very close. 

Laws were enacted to protect the ocean in this area and all its inhabitants, the entire ecosystem. If the laws don't protect it from 250-decibel blasting for more than a month, what does legal protection mean?

Friday, August 24, 2012

Seismic blasting update

Her's some more references about seismic testing and this PG&E project inparticular:

The local daily has supported the project editorially They did, however, put the permit story right above a picture of whales feeding locally on the front page.

Local opposition has been unanimous, a fact not reflected in the Tribune's coverage but included in the alternative weekly, New Times.  

NOAA cautioned the public not to get too close to Humpback whales, one of the many species abundant in the area. “ 'In addition, whales may also suffer because disturbance and stress caused by boaters can affect their energy reserves and overall health,' the (NOAA) statement said." Apparently they are more concerned about a surfer on a paddleboard than more than a month of 24/7 250 decibel blasts every 15 seconds. NOAA and other agencies have submitted thoughtful comments on the EIR, which were ignored. A paper published this month documents the impact of much lower levels of noise on whales on the East Coast.

NOAA is proposing to expand the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.. The entire coastline is now protected under the Marine Life Protection Act, one of the several laws the testing will violate. This project raises questions as to what 'protection' means. If marine life isn't protected from such an extreme onslaught, what is it protected from? Paddleboarders?

Politicians are running for cover. Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom avoided the State Lands Commission hearing but The Snitch took him out on it.

Another good resource, Greenpeace's study of seismic surveys.

Another news report out of Peru, with a photo of dolphin carcasses along the beach.

Contact for comment to the California Coastal Commission is
Cassidy Teufel,,
California Coastal Commission
Energy, Ocean Resources and
Federal Consistency Division
45 Fremont St., Suite 2000
San Francisco, Ca 94105

Comments should be received prior to the October 10-12 meeting in Oceanside, when the issue is on the agenda. Focus should be on policies relating to the California Coastal Act. Chapter 3 lays out the policies.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Otter surrogate mothers

Audubon published my story about how sea otter pups can be rescued:

Otter 540 washed up on California’s central coast in April 2011, a day-old, sand-covered furball weighing just over two pounds. Otter 545 was found three weeks later. At about four and a half pounds, it was significantly more mature than 540, having benefited from additional time spent with its mother. The otters, both of them discovered by beachgoers, were eventually taken to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, to be cared for by its Sea Otter Research and Conservation program (SORAC). While one orphan showed promise of returning to the wild, the other seemed destined for an aquarium exhibit. This Monterey Bay Aquarium photo shows Otter 540 and her surrogate mother, Joy.

Despite their dramatically different fates, both pups represent the challenges facing their species. With about 2,700 individuals living along the California coast, southern sea otters are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Through a multifaceted approach that includes otter research, rescue, and rehabilitation as well as public education through exhibits, SORAC is helping to bolster the population and raise awareness about the otters’ important role in their Pacific Ocean ecosystem. “SORAC makes it possible for each rescued stranded animal to go into one of these research streams, as well as rehabilitation and recovery,” says Karl Mayer, the program’s animal care coordinator. A crucial component of SORAC’s success is a surrogate mother program, which pairs orphaned pups with adult female otters, with the goal of ultimately releasing them back into the wild.

SORAC has been studying otters since 1984. When it first started its rehabilitation program, human staffers raised each individual. Those otters became so acclimated to humans, however, that after they were released, they approached people freely, venturing onto beaches and even climbing onto kayaks. As adorable as they look, sea otters have sharp teeth and may bite humans who come too close. The rehabbed otters that had been released had to be recaptured and kept in captivity as exhibit otters.
In 2001, SORAC started its surrogate mother program when researchers paired an orphaned otter with a mother that had lost its own pup. The two bonded. After that initial success, the aquarium began matching rescued pups with female otters that hadn’t recently given birth. In most cases, they willingly adopted the orphans.

In the wild, premature separation from their mothers is a death sentence for young otters—they’re dependent on their mothers for roughly six months. Rescued pups transitioning through SORAC need about 20 weeks with their adoptive parents to prepare for life in the ocean. “When they are raised by surrogate mothers, their development is more normal,” says Mayer. “They retain their wildness. Their survival rate is equal to wild-raised pups.”

The program currently has two female surrogates. In addition to 22 rescued orphans that have been returned to the wild. Four released female pups have reached adulthood and have produced 15 pups of their own. “The criterion for success is that they must be reproductively contributing to the population,” says Mayer.

California’s southern sea otters need all the wild members they can get. Though scientists aren’t sure why their populations are low, infectious diseases, including sarcocystis and toxoplasmosis, may play a role. Shark attacks on otters have also risen in recent years as more and more elephant seals—typical shark prey—are migrating to California’s central coast, with their predators in pursuit.

As otter populations decline, the kelp forests where they live also suffer. Otters are a keystone species, eating sea urchins that, in turn, feed on kelp forests that provide habitat for many other species. “It’s top-down control,” says Tim Tinker, a research wildlife biologist with the Western Ecological Research Center of the U.S. Geological Survey. Without otters, the sea urchins proliferate and devastate the kelp, causing barren areas where few organisms can thrive.

This past April Otter 545 was released into Elkhorn Slough, a local estuary and saltmarsh with plenty of food to support its resident otters. Sporting purple and blue tags and a radio transmitter implanted in its abdomen, it could be tracked and observed to gauge its progress.
Otters have a high metabolism, and they must eat the equivalent of about 25 percent of their body weight every day. In fact, going even three or four days without enough food can lead them to starvation. If a released otters isn’t eating enough, the SORAC team recaptures it and returns it to its tank for an additional week or two before it’s again released. “The transition from captivity to [the] wild is so difficult,” Mayer says. “They have no experience foraging, finding food, avoiding predators [in the ocean]. It’s a release to an unfamiliar environment.”

Although Otter 545 swam around during the six days it spent in the slough, it wasn’t catching nutritious crabs or abalone. Mayer decided to recapture it and give it more time in SORAC’s tank. In May researchers released it a second time, but it again had to be recaptured. This time it had been exposed to an algae toxin and parasites. Mayer treated it and scheduled a third release for this summer.

Only 30 percent of otters succeed on the first release. The good news is that even individuals like 545 that struggle to adapt apparently learn from their experiences. Nearly all succeed by the third release.

Update: Otter 545 didn't make it on her third try, so she was recaptured. On her fourth try, in July, she died. Her body was found July 19. Test results may indicate what actually caused her death. Her surrogate mother, Joy, was euthanized August 1 as her health and condition declined.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Seismic blasting

Pacific Gas & Electric has applied to blast the coast with 250-decibel air guns, 24/7, for 42 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.” Note that the project won't make the nuclear plant any safer. No modifications are planned to the plant. What they will get out of it is better, 3-D computer models of the plant and the faults that it was built on. In the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, this extreme project has been an easy sell to politicians. The public is less enthusiastic.

The report identifies substantial ‘impacts’ to marine mammals and commercial fishing, as well as air pollution.That includes elephant seals, which 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." 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 1 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 National Science Foundation‘s draft Environmental Assessment finds no impact from the 42 days of 24-7 air gun blasts, to be done from its research vessel for seismic testing to support relicensing of Diablo Canyon Nuclear Plant.  The state Fish & Game Commission held its own hearing August 9, video posted here. The public hearing on the Final State Lands Commission EIR was held today in Sacramento. It was televised in Morro Bay so that local people could comment without having to travel to the capital, with written comments also accepted. The 250-decibel level has no comparison on land. Standing beneath a jet engine taking off is estimated at 160 decibels. This is far louder than the Garage Pro Paralyzing Air Siren at 140 db.

PG&E requires approvals from other agencies, and they have weighed in with critical comments. Non-governmental organizations have also been thoughtful in their comments. 

This project in no way makes Diablo Canyon safer. Nuclear waste will still be stored there, and the company makes no mention of what measures would be taken based on further data to be gathered from seismic testing. The final EIR considers the alternative of No Project — requiring PG&E to rely on other data. Many of the local people who commented preferred that, but the commission members were confident that "everyone agrees this has to be done."

At the end of the hearing, the commission was reluctant to grant the permit without taking more time to discuss the conditions that will be placed on the permit. They certified the final EIR but continued the meeting to Monday 20 August for further discussion.

At the August 20 meeting, public comment was united against the project.

“I have not witnessed [a mobilized citizenry] to this degree in my time in city government—people who are typically not likely to sit on the same side,” Morro Bay Councilman Noah Smukler testified. “We’re all dependent on the health of our ocean.”
 The commission nevertheless approved a modified plan, allowing blasting November 1- December 31, and providing that they can test the following year if they don't get the data they want. They agreed to hire another consultant to review the design and data as requested by Supervisor Bruce Gibson, but since there won't be time for that to happen before the testing period, he'll review the data after they collect it.

There were only two votes out of three commission members because all sent their alternates. The Snitch called Gavin Newsom out on ducking out of the meeting.The reason all three didn’t vote is because both the Controller and the Lt. Governor had their alternates there. In this situation, only one of them is allowed to vote. Mr. Gordon, the Controller alternate, voted aye; Mr. Garland, the Lt. Governor alternate, abstained, but stated on the record verbally he would have voted to approve. The Dept. of Finance alternate was the other vote.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Adults on the beach

 Adult males are starting have arrived on the beach and in the water. Some early juvenile arrivals have joined them on the beach. This large male has an impressive pink chest shield.

When its warm, the line up along the water's edge on the cool, wet sand.

Sometimes a seal just needs to give a shout!