On January 10, a recreational boater reported spotting the remains of an orca (killer whale) stranded on the shore. Three days later, scientists from the Canadian Ministry of Agriculture and Land and the University of Alaska-Fairbanks arrived to conduct a full necropsy to gain insight into why the creature had died.
The whale was identified as Yakat, the matriarch of the so-called A4 pod that spends most of its time in British Columbia’s Johnstone Strait. While the necropsy will not be able to provide conclusive cause of death, Yakat’s death will provide insight into what orcas choose to eat when their favorite meal—salmon—is scarce, and her very location already provides clues as to where she takes her pod in the winter months.
Yakat leaves two surviving daughters, Nahwitti (A56) and Skagit (A35), at least four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, all belonging to Skagit. She also leaves behind Springer, her grand-niece and adopted daughter who brought attention to Yakat and her family when they generously adopted the orphaned whale in 2002 after it was rescued and released from a rehabilitation facility.
On Thursday, six skate nurseries in Alaska’s Bering Sea were designated as “Habitat Areas of Particular Concern.” Skates are a member of the ray family, and live on the seafloor. The designation requires consultation with the National Marine Fisheries Service before activities such as offshore oil and gas development can take place.
The protected nurseries are six of only 13 or 14 total sites in the Bering Sea where skates lay their leathery egg cases, commonly known as mermaid’s purses, in deep submarine canyons. Skate eggs take three years hatch, making them extremely vulnerable to seafloor destruction.
With over 200 species of skate around the globe, they are part of the ancient family that includes sharks and rays. While the family has survived many mass extinctions, including those that killed the dinosaurs, they have not evolved to survive the dramatic impacts of humans on their habitat. Many species, including the common skate, have been dangerously overfished, and the nurseries in the Bering Sea are critical to the continued survival of skates in the North Pacific.
After a disastrous few weeks that saw drilling shut down in the Arctic due to unpredictable ice floes, and then the failure of its oil containment dome during testing, Shell has decided to scale back plans for drilling in the Chukchi Sea North of Alaska this season. Instead it will drill only “top holes” rather than all the way down into oil-bearing zones.
Oceana is relieved by the development which only points to the inherent difficulty, and danger, of drilling for oil in such an inhospitable environment:
“Today Shell announced yet another last minute change of plans for this summer’s drilling season due to new problems with its oil spill containment equipment,” said Oceana Senior Pacific Director Susan Murray. “Oceana is just glad this didn’t happen during a real oil spill. This series of blunders inspires anything but confidence in the oil industry’s ability to safely drill in the Arctic. Shell’s repeated backtracking, last minute requests for permit and plan changes, and their inability to successfully complete preparations has resulted in mishaps that brings to mind the keystone cops rather than a company that is prepared and ready to work safely . . . If Shell has proved one thing this summer it is that the oil industry is not ready to drill in the Arctic.”
Besides failing tests on its oil containment dome and its ability to contain an oil spill, Shell also has had trouble this summer anchoring its drillship, the Noble Discoverer, and has been unable to upgrade its oil spill recovery barge, a formerly derelict ship called the Arctic Challenger, to Coast Guard standards.
After just one day of drilling in the Arctic, ice floes forced Shell to halt its operations in the Chukchi Sea. The problems point to the inherent danger in drilling for oil in such an unforgiving landscape. While oil spills occur nearly every day in the Gulf of Mexico, high winds, waves, fog and unpredictable ice floes promise to make drilling in the Arctic even more fraught with hazard.
Following last week’s approval by the Department of the Interior, Shell began drilling its first exploration well off the coast of Northern Alaska on Sunday, but abruptly stopped on Monday as the ice closed in.
In August, Oceana CEO Andy Sharpless condemned Shell’s push into the far North.
“There is no price tag on the Arctic,” he said. “No matter how much money the company spends or how many vessels it mobilizes, Shell should not be allowed put the Arctic Ocean at risk.”
Meanwhile, Shell has been wrangling with the Coast Guard to approve an oil-spill containment barge for the site, the Arctic Challenger, a long-neglected hulk that had become Caspian Tern habitat moored off the West coast for decades.
With ice cover retreating to historic lows, Shell has been at the forefront in pushing forward with plans to exploit the Arctic. But, even in light of the BP disaster, little progress has been made in the way of offshore drilling safety, as outlined in an Oceana report issued earlier this year.
And, as that report also noted, frigid temperatures, months of continuous darkness and a lack of infrastructure in northern Alaska would make any response to an Arctic oil spill especially difficult.
This summer Shell also received a green light from the government to harass marine mammals, such as bowhead whales and walrus, as it pushed forward with the disruptive activity that inevitably accompanies oil exploration, such as noise, air and water pollution from ice-breaking and drill ships.
Think that you could survive in the icy waters of the Arctic Ocean? Probably not, but beluga whales have certainly found a way.
The beluga whale, sometimes known as the white whale, is an unusual-looking marine mammal. A typical individual can be 13-20 feet long, and with its white coloring and distinctively lumpy head, the beluga is one of a kind. You can find belugas way up north in the waters of Canada, Alaska, Greenland, and Russia.
Beluga whales have many adaptations that allow them to live in extremely cold waters. They don’t have a dorsal fin, which is believed to help them survive under ice. They have round bodies and a thick layer of blubber to keep out the cold.
So what’s with that protruding lump on the beluga’s head? It’s called a melon, and other marine mammals like dolphins and porpoises have it too. It’s an organ with lots of oils and fats that is believed to be important during echolocation. The melon of a beluga whale is unique: by blowing air around its sinuses, a beluga whale can change the shape of its melon, which may be used in specialized under-ice echolocation.
The beluga whale is referred to as a sea canary, because of its high-pitched song. Individuals use squeaks, clucks and whistles to communicate with each other. Belugas are a very social species, and live together in groups called pods. When they move into bays, estuaries, and rivers during the summer they have been known to congregate in the thousands. Pods aren’t permanent though—belugas switch social groups frequently, sometimes moving hundreds of miles to join another group.
Beluga whales are smart and playful, and like to spit water at other whales or their keepers in aquariums. They’re the only whale species that’s commonly kept in aquariums, though captive breeding programs haven’t been successful.
Worldwide, beluga whales are ranked as near threatened by the IUCN. A subpopulation in the Cook Inlet in Alaska is listed as critically endangered. They suffer from pollution, especially in the rivers and estuaries they spend their summers in—there have been incidents of cancer in beluga whales linked to pollution in the St. Lawrence River. If we want these unique whales to be around in the future, we have to keep their environment safe and clean.
Last week we had a great time at the Washington, DC premiere of “Big Miracle,” the true story of an activist who spearheads an international effort to save three gray whales trapped in the ice in northern Alaska.
The film stars Drew Barrymore and John Krasinski (“The Office”) and Oceana board member Ted Danson also makes an appearance as – get this – an an oil executive.
The movie comes out this Friday, Feb. 3, and we’re excited to be included in the film’s promotion. Starting today, for every two or more tickets you purchase on Fandango, Big Miracle and Universal Pictures will donate $1 to Oceana – up to $10,000!
Andy Sharpless is the CEO of Oceana.
Less than a year after the Deepwater Horizon gusher was finally sealed, oil companies are claiming they can drill safely in the Arctic Ocean, an even more fragile and forbidding environment than the Gulf of Mexico. Unfortunately, our government seems to be suffering from amnesia, too.
This month, Shell Oil received a conditional approval from the federal government to drill four exploratory wells next summer in Alaska’s Beaufort Sea. The company claims that it can end a gushing spill like the Deepwater Horizon in just 43 days and clean up 90 percent of oil lost.
These claims aren’t based in historic experience and have little scientific evidence to back them up. Crews were only able to recover 10 percent of the oil escaping the Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico last summer, and only 8 percent of oil from the Exxon Valdez spill.
The most recent oil spill drill in the Beaufort Sea was in 2000 and was described as a “failure.” Mechanical systems like skimmers and booms in calm but icy conditions simply didn’t work. The technology has not improved since then. Just watch this video of a failed cleanup test:
We are incredibly saddened by the passing of Caleb Pungowiyi, a longtime Alaska Native leader and Oceana’s Senior Advisor and Rural Liaison.
Originally from the St. Lawrence Island village of Savoonga, Caleb’s work was a critical part of Oceana’s accomplishments in Alaska. He was a passionate yet incredibly humble person who followed his beliefs and led by example. He cared deeply about protecting and nurturing the subsistence way of life and the environment that was his garden.
Caleb’s decision to work for Oceana was not easy, but once he learned more about Oceana’s work, he embraced us, helped guide us, opened many doors for us, and worked to break down mistrust of outside organizations.
Prior to joining Oceana, Caleb held many positions, including president of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, an international organization that advocates for indigenous people of the North. We are very lucky that Caleb brought his experience and friendships in the Arctic to Oceana.
Tomorrow Oceana board member Ted Danson will testify against offshore drilling in the Chukchi Sea in Alaska (more specifically, Lease sale 193). Danson, a long time ocean advocate, believes that the Arctic is not ready for offshore development. There is a lack of baseline science to determine if offshore drilling can be conducted safely in the region, and there is neither the infrastructure nor the response capability to respond to a large spill.
This past week Danson visited the Arctic community of Barrow, Alaska. Accompanied by Oceana’s Pacific Director Susan Murray, Mike LeVine and myself, Ted visited with Mayor Edward Itta of the North Slope Borough, Director Taqulik Hepa of the North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management, Chairman Harry Brower of the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission, and other officials. Oceana hosted a community meet-and-greet where Danson took the opportunity to meet and learn from coastal residents, while sharing his stories and connections to the ocean.
This is the first in a series of four guest posts by Paul Greenberg, author of the bestselling book, Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food.
A few times in my life I have walked into a party and found myself in a crowd where I'm about as tall as the shortest woman in the room.
As a man who is perched safely above the national average for male height, I have come to take these anomalous parties not as sleights to my standing in the world, but rather as venues where I ought to pay careful attention. For, as so many studies have found, extreme height is linked to extreme wealth, power and influence. Find yourself in a room with very, very tall people, and it's likely some very important decisions could be made.
And so it was this past Monday night, when Bob Gillam hosted an event for some of New York's tallest hoping to raise consciousness (and, yes, money) to stop "Pebble Mine" the biggest, most egregious onslaught against wild fish we have seen in the last quarter century. For those not aware of it, Pebble Mine is a proposed copper and gold mine that a group called "Anglo American" has put together at the headwaters of Bristol Bay, Alaska.