Environmental News Archive

An almost weekly update of environmental news, particularly marine updates, with occasional splatters of transportation, indigenous, ideas of sustainability and sustainable development from around the world.


News Review for Week July 4, 2005

“To me a lush carpet of pine needles or spongy grass is more welcome than the most luxurious Persian rug.”
- Helen Keller

Pack ice melting earlier, imperiling polar bear, panel says

Population expected to drop 30 percent in 35 to 50 years
July 8, 2005 (Washington Post – by Blaine Harden)
Seattle -- As the pack ice that is the bedrock of their existence melts because of global warming, polar bears are facing unprecedented environmental stress that will cause their numbers to plummet, according to a report by a panel of the world's leading experts on the species.
In a closed meeting here late last month, 40 members of the polar bear specialist group of the World Conservation Union concluded that the imposing white carnivores -- the world's largest bear -- should now be classified as a "vulnerable" species based on a likely 30 percent decline in their worldwide population over the next 35 to 50 years. There are now 20,000 to 25, 000 polar bears across the Arctic.
"The principal cause of this decline is climatic warming and its consequent negative effects on the sea ice habitat of polar bears," according to a statement released after the meeting. Scientists from five countries, including the United States, attended the meeting.
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North Atlantic Ocean Temps Hit Record High
July 8, 2005 (AP)
ST. JOHN'S, Newfoundland -- Ocean temperatures in the North Atlantic hit an all-time high last year, raising concerns about the effects of global warming on one of the most sensitive and productive ecosystems in the world.
Sea ice off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador was below normal for the tenth consecutive year and the water temperature outside St. John's Harbor was the highest on record in 2004, according to a report released Wednesday by the federal Fisheries Department.
The ocean surface off St. John's averaged almost two degrees Fahrenheit above normal, the highest in the 59 years the department has been compiling records.
And bottom temperatures were also one degree higher than normal, according the report.
"A two-degree temperature anomaly on the Grand Banks is pretty significant in the bottom areas, where temperatures only range a couple of degrees throughout the year," said Eugene Colbourne, an oceanographer with the Fisheries Department.
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Lake Washington Sockeye Salmon Go MIA
July 8, 2005 (AP)
SEATTLE -- Last year, about 200,000 thousand Lake Washington sockeye salmon, about half the run, vanished between the Ballard Locks and their spawning grounds.
This year it's even worse. Scientists say they'll be lucky if 100,000 sockeye make it to the locks from a run previously estimated at 398,000 fish.
"We should be getting 10,000, 20,000 fish a day, and we're getting 1,000 to 2,000," said Mike Mahovlich, a fish biologist with the Muckleshoot Tribe. "We've lost 90 percent of our fish in the marine area."
A return of 100,000 fish would be the lowest ocean survival rate ever recorded for Lake Washington sockeye, said Jim Ames, sockeye program manager for the state Fish and Wildlife Department.
The poor return means no sockeye season on the lake this year. The Muckleshoots, one of three tribes with rights to the fish, are even forgoing their usual catch of about a thousand sockeye for ceremonial events and needy tribal members, "a huge sacrifice for the tribe," Mahovlich said.
Scientists believe unusually warm water in the Lake Washington Ship Canal above the locks contributed to last year's decline.
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Bright lights lure prey in deep sea
Newfound species flashes red, then kills fish with tentacles

July 8, 2005 (SF Chronicle – by David Perlman)
MONTEREY - Marine biologists exploring the deep sea off the coast of Monterey Bay have discovered a curious species of invertebrates that lures its prey by flashing brilliant red lights at the ends of its twitching tentacles.
The wormlike members of a marine tribe known as siphonophores are a striking example of evolution having endowed an organism with a feature even its closest relatives don't possess: a set of genes for "bioluminescent" light, which in an immature animal flashes blue but switches to deep red as it matures.
Distantly related to jellyfish and corals, the animals are a newfound species of an obscure genus called Erenna -- whose other luminous members use their light only to defend themselves against larger predators, not to hunt and kill prey on their own, according to Steven D. Haddock of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute.
"They're pretty amazing animals," Haddock said in an interview. "They may look like simple creatures, but they show an incredible level of detail in their development and their bioluminescence."
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Red Light-Flashing Jellyfish Lures Prey
July 8, 2005 (AP - By Randolph E. Schmid)
WASHINGTON — The first deep sea red-light district -- glowing appendages on a newly discovered jellyfish relative -- appear to flash their come-hither message to lure prey.
Jellyfish and other types of sea creatures are known to produce light, but this is the first deep ocean invertebrate known to use red fluorescent light, said Steven H. D. Haddock of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in Moss Landing, Calif.
Three of the animals were found by scientists using a remote controlled research vehicle at depths of between 5,200 feet and 7,500 feet off the coast of California. The discovery is reported in Friday's issue of the journal Science.
The new find is a previously unreported species in the genus Erenna, which is a member of the group that includes coral and jellyfish.
The animal, which has not yet been named, has tentacles with side branches that consist of stinging cells attached to a central stalk.
The researchers said that inside the stalk are spots that produce blue-green light when immature and red light when mature.
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Jellyfish capture prey with crimson bait
Unusual haul casts doubt on theory that fish can't see red.

July 7, 2005 (Nature - Tom Simonite)
Deep-sea fish are suckers for lures lit up in red, say California researchers, challenging a long-held belief of marine biologists. They claim that a deep-sea relative of jellyfish uses glowing tentacles to catch its supper.
Using a remotely operated submersible, up to 2,300 metres beneath the waves off the coast of California, Steven Haddock and colleagues collected three specimens of a new species of siphonophore, a group closely related to jellyfish and corals. Two of the three had the remains of fish in their guts. As fish are rare at those depths, this indicates that the species (which has not yet been named but is part of the genus Erenna) has a knack for angling.
In the 8 July issue of the journal Science1, Haddock, a bioluminescence expert from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, Moss Landing, and his team suggest the siphonophore uses red light as bait to capture its prey. The newly described species has glowing red spots inside its stinging tentacles, which it flicks rhythmically.
"The motion and shape of the lures is quite distinct and nearly identical to that of a copepod," says Haddock, suggesting that the siphonophore mimics the movements of plankton to catch the attention of fish. "To us, the accumulated evidence is hard to explain any other way," he adds.
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Corps Cites Seattle for Filling Wetlands
July 7, 2005 (The Seattle Times — By Jim Brunner)
Federal regulators have cited the city of Seattle for illegally filling wetlands and a portion of Hamm Creek in Southwest Seattle during a major construction project.
Responding to a complaint lodged on Earth Day, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers notified the city May 12 that its $26 million Joint Training Facility project had filled a half acre of wetlands without obtaining a Corps permit -- a violation of federal law, according to a letter signed by Col. Debra Lewis, head of the agency's Seattle district.
City officials said they are cooperating with the Corps and may suggest wetlands restoration at other sites to make up for the error.
"We are very concerned about the environmental issues, and we will appropriately address them," said Brenda Bauer, director of the city's Fleets and Facilities Department. However, she also said the city was researching whether the Corps had jurisdiction over the site and whether wetlands and a creek really exist there at all.
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Lawmakers push larger ocean sanctuaries
Bills would expand permanent ban on oil and gas drilling to waters off Sonoma Coast

July 6, 2005 (SF Chronicle – by Jim Doyle)
SAN FRANCISCO - Fearing the prospect of oil and gas drilling off the Northern California coast, U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer and Rep. Lynn Woolsey appeared Tuesday in San Francisco with marine scientists and conservationists to promote legislation that would expand the boundaries of two national marine sanctuaries.
The legislation -- authored by Woolsey, with a parallel measure that Boxer introduced in the Senate -- would increase the jurisdiction of the Gulf of the Farallones and Cordell Bank national marine sanctuaries to include all of the Sonoma Coast, thus extending the sanctuaries' permanent ban on oil and gas drilling to those areas.
"Our state is very clear: We don't want any more drilling," Boxer, a Greenbrae Democrat, said at a news conference at Crissy Field. "The Sonoma Coast is one of the world's most biologically diverse marine environments."
The legislation, which has not yet gone to committee hearings, was introduced at a time when other politicians and oil and gas lobbyists have taken steps to weaken or dismantle the long-standing federal moratorium on new offshore oil and gas leases in California and other coastal states.
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Indonesia to Charge One of Six Newmont Executives Accused of Polluting Bay
July 6, 2005 (AP — By Michael Casey)
JAKARTA, Indonesia — Indonesia will charge only one of six Newmont Mining Corp. executives accused of dumping toxic waste into a bay, prosecutors said Tuesday, in a legal victory for the U.S. gold mining giant.
Robert Ilat, the chief prosecutor in the case, said his office plans to pursue charges against Newmont's top official in Indonesia, American Richard Ness, and the Denver-based company itself.
A trial could start within weeks, he said.
It was not immediately clear what charges Ness faces. But Indonesian officials said in the past he could be charged with corporate crimes that carry a jail sentence of up to 15 years.
The company's Indonesian subsidiary, Newmont Minahasa Raya, has been accused of causing dozens of residents on the island of Sulawesi to develop skin diseases and tumors.
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Annual count of otters shows slight decrease
July 6, 2005 (SF Chronicle – by David Perlman)
CALIFORNIA - California's endangered population of southern sea otters declined slightly during the past year, but on average their numbers have been increasing for more than 20 years, observer teams conducting the annual otter census reported Tuesday.
The observers counted 2,735 otters along the coast between Half Moon Bay and Santa Barbara, a 3.2 percent decrease from the year before, according to Brian Hatfield, a biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey at San Simeon in San Luis Obispo County.
To monitor the population trend more realistically, however, observers maintain three-year averages of their count, and the running average for the past three years shows an 8 percent increase. Last year's count reached a record high of 2,825 animals. In 1983, when the annual spring census began, only 1,277 animals were counted.
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Pollution Experts Head to Grounded Ship
July 5, 2005 (AP - By AUDREY McAVOY)
Honolulu -- The U.S. Coast Guard said it was sending experts to assess and cope with any environmental damage to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands marine reserve after a ship ran aground on a remote atoll there over the weekend.
A Coast Guard C-130 plane hovering above the Casitas ship spotted a light sheen extending about a half-mile from the vessel, but authorities haven't been able to determine whether the discolored area was an oil spill or something else.
The ship ran aground at the Pearl and Hermes Atoll near the western end of a coral reef reserve stretching 1,200 nautical miles from the main Hawaiian islands to Midway. The reserve is home to endangered monk seals and sea turtles.
The Coast Guard said National Strike Force experts scheduled to leave Oahu Tuesday morning will supply an assessment of the accident when they reach the scene.
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Officials Investigate Deaths of Sea Birds
July 5, 2005 (AP)
VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — Wildlife officials are trying to determine what is killing hundreds of sea birds that have washed ashore in Virginia Beach and other locations along the Atlantic coast in the past several weeks.
Most of the birds are greater shearwaters, which are now migrating north from their breeding grounds in the South Atlantic.
Since June 12, more than 500 dead sea birds have been reported from Maryland to Florida, said Emi Saito, a wildlife disease specialist with the U.S. Geological Survey's National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wis.
"It's unusual to see so many," Saito said.
Wildlife pathologists are examining the birds for exposure to toxins, pollutants and infections, she said.
Staffers at Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia Beach recently found about a dozen dead greater shearwaters on the beach, said Dorie Stolley, a federal wildlife biologist at the refuge.
Similar reports have come from the Outer Banks of North Carolina, as well as Myrtle Beach and Hilton Head in South Carolina.
Almost 200 birds have washed up in South Carolina, said Diane Duncan, an ecologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Charleston, S.C. "In 20 years here, I have never seen this kind of mortality event," Duncan said. "It certainly is a concern to us, and we'd like to know the cause."
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Boxer, Woolsey call for expanding protected Sonoma waters
July 5, 2005 (AP - By JUSTIN M. NORTON)
San Francisco -- Hoping to protect more of the California coast from oil drilling, two California legislators on Tuesday proposed expanding national marine sanctuaries in Sonoma County.
The legislation, by Sen. Barbara Boxer and Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Petaluma, would expand the boundaries of the Gulf of the Farallones and Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuaries.
Both legislators said it is crucial to increase the amount of protected waters because the region is home to numerous endangered species and rich in biodiversity. The region is also important to the state's fishing industry, in particular salmon fishers.
"All of California's waters must be protected but we must protect the best of the best permanently," Woolsey said at a news conference at a site overlooking the San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge.
The proposed bill would add 1,163 square miles to the Gulf of the Farallones and 314 square miles to the Cordell Bank sanctuary.
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New Dolphin Species Found in Australia
July 5, 2005 (AP)
SYDNEY, Australia -- Australian researchers said Tuesday they have identified a new species of dolphin living in the coastal waters of northern Australia.
The Australian Snubfin Dolphin, which is related to Irrawaddy dolphins found along the coasts and major rivers of Asia and northern Australia, was formally identified as a new species thanks to genetic research carried out in California, Queensland state researchers said in a statement.
"There are clear differences between the two populations that had not been previously recognized and these were confirmed by the studies on DNA," said Isabel Beasley, a doctoral student at James Cook University's School of Tropical Environmental Studies and Geography.
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Australia Scientists Find New Dolphin, the Snubfin
July 5, 2005 (Reuters — By Paul Tait)
SYDNEY — Australian researchers have identified a new species of dolphin which was once thought to have been the same as an extremely rare mammal predominantly found in Asian coastal waters and rivers.
The Australian Snubfin Dolphin has been declared a separate species to the Irrawaddy dolphins of Southeast Asia, one of the rarest sea mammals on the planet, researchers at James Cook University and the Museum of Tropical Queensland said on Tuesday.
Researcher Isabel Beasley said the newly identified Australian Snubfin Dolphins, or Orcaella heinsohni, live in shallow waters off northern Australia and possibly in neighbouring Papua New Guinea.
Beasley said it was impossible to estimate the population of these dolphins because not enough was known about them, but thought one group of about 200 of the dolphins lived off Townsville in the far north of Australia's Queensland state.
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The science of shark attacks
What provokes them, and what you can do to avoid them

July 5, 2005 (MSNBC - By Bjorn Carey)
Despite two highly publicized shark attacks last month along the U.S. coast, at least one scientist says it's safe to go back in the water.
In fact, he points out that you're actually in more danger on the way to the beach.
"There are millions of people in the water at any given moment of the day," said John McEachran of Texas A&M University. "When you consider all of the people in the water at the same time, the number of shark attacks is very, very remote."
Every year across the globe, nearly one million people die in automobile accidents. More than 42,000 of those deaths occur in the United States.
Shark attacks resulting in deaths occur much less frequently than car wrecks, but they get much more publicity.
"Shark attacks are like airplane crashes," said McEachran. "The vast majority of airplane trips are safe, but when a crash occurs, it gets big headlines."
According to the International Shark Attack File, in 2004 there were only seven shark related deaths worldwide. That number was even smaller in 2003 and 2002, when four and three deaths were recorded respectively.
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California sea otter population down after record-high count
July 5, 2005 (AP)
Los Angeles -- The number of California sea otters dropped 3.2 percent from last year's record high, officials said Tuesday.
Scientists counted 2,735 sea otters from May 6 to June 16, down from 2,825 in 2004, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
"Despite the dip in this year's tally, the latest three-year running average of the three most recent spring counts is up 8 percent over the previous average," said Brian Hatfield, a USGS biologist.
The information gathered from the surveys is used by federal and state wildlife agencies in making decisions about the management of otters, which are listed as a threatened species under federal law. The three-year average must reach 3,090 for three straight years for the California sea otter to no longer be considered "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act.
Environmental groups were disappointed about the survey results.
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Menacing the Land, but Promising to Rescue the Earth
July 4, 2005 (NYT - By ALAN COWELL)
SHAP, England - In his time, Sir Chris Bonington, one of Britain's best-known mountaineers, has scaled the icy walls and ridges of the Alps and conquered Mount Everest, among other great peaks in the Himalayas and elsewhere. Now, he has turned his attention to a hill just 1,545 feet high, a spongy, rounded, gusty lump of land that might otherwise have achieved little renown, except for a plan to crown it with windmills.
Lots of windmills. In fact, a chain of enormous, power-generating wind turbines across a bald ridgeline stretching southwest of here from a summit called Whinash.
Like other notable people here on the fringes of England's Lake District - titled people, writers and broadcasters, along with many influential rural advocacy groups - Mr. Bonington is trying to prevent a private company from creating a wind farm on Whinash comprising 27 turbines, each one of them more than 370 feet tall. That is roughly 70 feet higher from ground to the tip of a blade than the Statue of Liberty from a toe to the tip of the torch.
In the process he has joined a bigger battle that some see as decisive in balancing Britain's wilderness heritage against a self-imposed target in the struggle against global warming to derive 10 percent of its electrical power from renewable sources by 2010.
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Ship aground off Northwestern Hawaiian Islands
July 4, 2005 (AP)
HONOLULU, Hawaii -- A ship on a mission to clean out fishing nets and other debris from the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands ran aground in a marine reserve that is home to endangered monk seals, the U.S. Coast Guard said.
The Casitas deployed an oil containment boom Sunday after a 500-yard rainbow-colored sheen was spotted near the vessel, the U.S. Coast Guard said. Later reports indicated the sheen may have stopped after the crew transferred fuel to a different tank before evacuating the ship.
The vessel is loaded with an estimated 30,000 gallons of diesel fuel, 3,000 gallons of gasoline and 200 gallons of lubricating oil. There were seven crew members and 16 scientists aboard the 145-foot ship under contract to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The Casitas sustained severe damage early Saturday from the accident at Pearl and Hermes Atoll in a marine reserve that is home to endangered monk seals, sea turtles and delicate coral reefs. The site is about 1,000 miles northwest of Honolulu.
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Carbon emissions threaten sea life
July 4, 2005 (CNN)
Excessive carbon in the atmosphere is already causing irreparable environmental damage to the Earth's oceans and drastic cuts in emissions are necessary to prevent further devastation, a panel of leading scientists has warned.
A report by the Royal Society, the UK's leading scientific academy, said that rising carbon levels caused by the burning of fossil fuels had dramatically increased the acidity of seawater, threatening the oceans' ecosystems.
Sea creatures such as coral, shell fish and star fish are likely to suffer because higher levels of acidity will make it harder for them to form shells and skeletons.
The report predicts that some types of plankton, a major food source for marine life, may be unable to make their calcium carbonate shells by the end of the 21st century.
Larger marine animals such as squid could face extinction as they find it harder to extract oxygen from sea water and their food supplies dwindle.
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