‘The smell will knock you off your feet’: mass mussel die-offs baffle scientists | Environment | The Guardian

The Chehalis River is one of the locations mentioned in this article.

Mussels, the backbone of the river ecosystem because they control silt levels and filter water, are facing a mysterious affliction
— Read on www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/oct/14/the-smell-will-knock-you-off-your-feet-mass-mussel-die-offs-baffle-scientists

Federal judge rules Army Corps aquaculture permit is unlawful in Washington State.

In a surprise ruling with wide ranging consequences, a federal judge has ruled that the Army Corp of Engineers issuance of Nationwide Permits in the lower 48 (NWP48) authorizing commercial shellfish aquaculture is illegal. The suit, brought by The Coalition to Protect Puget Sound Habitat, a group that has been fighting large-scale shellfish aquaculture for years, and joined by the Swinomish Tribe, was focused against the Army Corp and Taylor Shellfish, along with the industry group, The Pacific Coast Shellfish Growers Association.

The plaintiffs argued that the Corps failed to comply with the Clean Water Act (“CWA”), the National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”), and the Endangered Species Act (“ESA”) when it reissued NWP 48 in 2017. They requested that the decision to adopt NWP 48 in Washington be overturned and that the Corps be required to comply with the environmental statutes before issuing any new permits  for commercial shellfish aquaculture in this State.

The court found in it’s blistering conclusions, “…that the Corps has failed to adequately consider the impacts of commercial shellfish aquaculture activities authorized by NWP 48, that its conclusory findings of minimal individual and cumulative impacts are not supported by substantial evidence in the record, and that its EA does not satisfy the requirements of NEPA and the governing regulations…the Court holds unlawful and sets aside NWP 48 insofar as it authorizes activities in Washington.” (emphasis mine)

Going beyond just the issue of the environmental consequences the judge stated that “The federal defendants state that additional …remedy should be permitted once the seriousness of the agency’s error is determined. The intervenors (the Corps and Taylor Shellfish) assert that (throwing out the permits and the Corps previous rulings) would cause disruption in the Washington shellfish farms and industry, including significant impacts to employees and the communities in which they live.Neither tact is compelling. The substantive defects in the agency’s analysis when adopting the 2017 NWP are significant.” (emphasis mine)

The case centers around whether or not the large scale conversion of natural shorelines to commercial aquaculture, happening now all around lower Puget Sound and in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, is more than “minimal” damage to the environment. Siting case law in relevant lawsuits in the Yellowstone Park area, the environmental group managed to persuade the judge that the Army was allowing something much more than minimal damage.

As stated by the plaintiffs, “Federal agencies are required to do an environmental assessment (“EA”) of their proposed action, providing a brief discussion of the
anticipated environmental impacts and enough evidence and analysis to justify a no-significant impact determination.  If the agency, after conducting an EA, is unable to
state that the proposed action “will not have a significant effect on the human environment,” a more detailed and comprehensive environmental impact statement (“EIS”) must be prepared. They also argued that the case law stated that if the Corps’ ruling was found to be “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion” and lacking in a scientific basis, that it must be thrown out.

The court found that , “… there is insufficient evidence in the record to
support the agency’s conclusion that the re-issuance of NWP 48 in 2017 would have minimal individual and cumulative adverse impacts on the aquatic environment for purposes of the CWA and that the Corps’ environmental assessment does not satisfy NEPA’s requirements.”

They judge then went on to point out that “the Corps acknowledges that commercial shellfish aquaculture activities can have adverse environmental impacts…marine debris is a serious impact on the marine environment…and that commercial shellfish aquaculture activities can result in conversion of substrates (e.g. mudflats to gravel bars), impacts to submerged aquatic vegetation, alteration in aquatic communities from native to non-native shellfish species, and water quality impacts from harvest activities.”

Given those findings, the judge went on to say, “Ignoring or diluting site specific,
individual impacts by focusing solely on a cumulative, landscape-scale analysis is not
consistent with the governing regulations.”

The scientific documents that the Corps presented as justification for it’s actions came under blistering criticism from the judge. “According to the Corps’ own summary of the paper, the authors evaluated only the effects of oyster aquaculture activities on submerged aquatic vegetation. The paper itself shows that Dumbauld and McCoy (a supposed scientific study that the Corps and Taylor were using) were studying the effects of intertidal oyster aquaculture on the seagrass Zostera marina. There is no discussion of the impacts on other types of aquatic vegetation, on the benthic community, on fish, on birds, on water quality/chemistry/structures, or on substrate characteristics. There is no discussion of the subtidal zone. There is no discussion regarding the impacts of plastic use in shellfish aquaculture and only a passing reference to a possible side effect of pesticide use. The Corps itself does not remedy these deficiencies: although it identifies various resources that will be adversely impacted by issuance of the national permit (along with resources that may benefit from shellfish production), it makes virtually no effort to characterize the nature or degree of those impacts. The Decision Document’s “Impact Analysis” consists of little more than an assurance that district engineers will consider the direct and indirect effects caused by the permitted activity on a regional or case-by-case basis.”

The judge went on to say, “In this case, the Corps acknowledged that reissuance of NWP 48 would have foreseeable environmental impacts on the biotic and abiotic components of coastal waters, the intertidal and subtidal habitats of fish, eelgass, and birds, the marine substrate, the balance between native and non-native species, pollution, and water quality, chemistry, and structure, but failed to describe, much less quantify, these.  The Corps cites the two Dumbauld papers for general statements regarding the positive or negative effects of shellfish aquaculture on certain aquatic resources or characteristics (focusing on seagrass), but it makes no attempt to quantify the effects or to support its conclusion that the effects are no more than minimal.”(emphasis mine).

As reported on some months ago in this blog, a draft cumulative impact statement, which only surfaced due to a discovery in this case,  “…generated in February 2017 dedicated twenty-five pages to discussing the wide range of work and activities covered by NWP 48 and noting the species dependent variability in cultivation techniques, gear, and timing. These variations gave rise to a wide array of effects on the aquatic habitat, none of which is acknowledged or evaluated in the national Decision Document.” (emphasis is mine).

The judge goes on, in plain language, “A reasonable mind reviewing the record as a whole would not accept Dumbauld and McCoy’s limited findings regarding the
landscape-level impact of oyster cultivation on a species of seagrass in the intertidal zone as support for the conclusion that entire ecosystems are resilient to the disturbances caused by shellfish aquaculture or that the impacts of those operations were either individually or cumulatively minimal.” The judge sites decisions back in coal country where the cumulative impacts of mountain top removal are similar and long lasting. “The governing regulations expressly impose upon the Corps the obligation to consider the ongoing effects of past actions when conducting a cumulative impacts analysis.”

The “NEPA and the CWA were enacted because humans were adversely affecting the environment to a noticeable and detrimental extent…Noting that a particular environmental resource is degraded is not an excuse or justification for further degradation. The Corps must analyze the individual and cumulative impacts of the proposed activity against the environmental baseline, not as a percentage of the decades or centuries of degrading activities that came before.

As to the use of pesticides by the industry, the judge has additional harsh criticism,”The Corps makes a similarly untenable argument whenever the use of pesticides in a
shellfish operation permitted under NWP 48 is discussed. While acknowledging that these substances are used and released into the environment during permitted activities, the Corps declines to consider the environmental impacts of pesticides because they are regulated by some other entity… Even if the Corps does not have jurisdiction to permit or prohibit the use of pesticides, it is obligated to consider “other past, present, and reasonably foreseeable future actions regardless of what agency (Federal or non-Federal) or person undertakes such other actions.” The Corps’ decision to ignore the
foreseeable uses and impacts of pesticides in the activities it permitted on a nationwide basis does not comport with the mandate of NEPA or with its obligations under the CWA. Having eschewed any attempt to describe the uses of pesticides in commercial shellfish aquaculture or to analyze their likely environmental impacts, the decision to permit such activities through NWP 48 cannot stand.” (emphasis mine)

“The record is devoid of any indication that the Corps considered regional data,
catalogued the species in and characteristics of the aquatic environments in which commercial shellfish aquaculture activities occur, considered the myriad techniques, equipment, and materials used in shellfish aquaculture, attempted to quantify the impacts the permitted activity would likely have on the identified species and characteristics, or evaluated the impacts of the as-yet-unknown regional conditions…Faced with incredible diversity in both the environment and the activities permitted under NWP 48, the Corps effectively threw up its hands and turned the impact analyses over to the district engineers.”

In looking at the problem of plastic pollution in aquaculture the judge was additionally critical.”The Corps’ analysis with regards to plastic debris discharged into the marine environment is even more problematic. The Corps acknowledges the many public comments raising concerns about the introduction of plastics into the marine food web, but relies on the fact that “[d]ivision engineers can impose regional conditions to address the use of plastics” in response to these concerns. The Seattle District, for its part, declined to quantify the impact of plastics, instead noting that “it would not be a practicable solution to regionally condition NWP 48 to not allow the use of PVC and HDPE gear as there are no current practicable alternatives to use of the materials…The CWA requires the Corps to make minimal adverse effect findings before issuing a general permit. If, as appears to be the case with regards to the discharge of plastics from the permitted operations, the Corps is unable to make such a finding, a general permit cannot (be) issue(d). The Corps has essentially acknowledged that it needs to individually evaluate the impacts of a particular operation, including the species grown,
the cultivation techniques/gear used, and the specific location, before it can determine the extent of the impacts the operation will have.”

The decision is not trivial. It rips apart industry arguments made over the last decade that eelgrass recovery in aquaculture farms is a minor issue. The aquaculture industry and Taylor Shellfish in particular has put itself at the head of county agencies supposedly in the business to protect the nearshore from harm and then used these faulty scientific studies to promote their position.  The Jefferson County Marine Resources Committee, which claims on it’s web page to have the mission, “to protect and restore the marine environments of East Jefferson County by raising community awareness of issues…” has been chaired by an aquaculture industry spokesperson who routinely has used these same discredited arguments to suppress any discussion of negative impacts on the nearshore the MRC claims to protect.  The Committee has meekly gone along with the bullying tactics of the Taylor representative at public meetings, unwilling to push back on what the spokesperson has claimed to be ‘scientific  studies’.  The Committee in fact sponsored a ‘aquaculture educational day” to promote these same, now discredited scientific studies, offering no substantial criticism to the statements of the industry. The lack of any counter balance to the industry’s PR blitz angered many in the environmental community on the Olympic Peninsula toward this committee that had a long history of standing to protect the nearshore. The decision to not include substantial criticism of the industry led the long time environmental representative on the committee to resign.

The outcome of this case is unclear at the time of this writing. However, it will likely have a substantial effect on future shellfish farm permits, and may force the closure of some larger farms that were recently permitted, until such time as adequate scientific study on their effects is done. The ruling ends with the judge throwing out the Army’s ability to issue permits in Washington. However, the judge does say to Taylor and others that they can apply for individual permits. The Court has the ability to allow a “period of time in which growers can avail themselves of the process before the existing permits would be invalidated or to fashion some other equitable remedy to minimize both the risks of environmental harm  and any disruptive consequences.” So there is some wiggle room for the growers to get some activities going to mitigate the effects of this ruling.

This case also fully vindicates the environmentalists’ concerns over the ever expanding industry, it’s conversion of pristine shorelines to monoculture farming and the allies of this industry in city, county and state government. The industry is not down and out yet. It’s worth noting that Taylor has apparently spent tens of thousands of dollars lobbying back in Washington D.C. and is likely to support Republican efforts to roll back the Clean Water Act to eliminate the local nature of permitting to favor national ones. Given this ruling, that likely is a losing tactic.

This blog will continue to follow this breaking story with further updates as we receive them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Researchers seek answers to gray whale deaths after 57 are stranded this year – Seattle Times

A huge number of grey whales have been washing up dead on west coast beaches this year. No one is sure why yet. Here’s a good wrap up of thinking about the situation from the Seattle Times.

Gray whales are dying at twice the usual rate as a brutal migration unfolds, with whales washing up on Washington state beaches, apparently starved to death.

https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/environment/researchers-seek-answers-to-gray-whale-deaths-after-57-are-stranded-this-year/?utm_source=email&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=article_inset_1.1

If you don’t already subscribe to The Seattle Times, consider supporting independent journalism today. I subscribe to the Times, PT Leader and others that put full time reporters to work on stories important to us in the Pacific NW. You should too!

 

 

Governor Inslee Signs Slew of Orca Protection Bills – Seattle Times and others

This week saw the signing of a variety of bills that came out of the Orca Task Force, put together by Governor Inslee to identify issues that could theoretically help save the resident Orca pod from extinction. While these bills are not the radical (yet realistic) idea of breaching the Snake River dams as many (including this blog) would like to see, they do address a group of problems that are facing recovery and protection of the Salish Sea.

Senate Bill 5135 was written to allow Department of Ecology to ban certain PCBs and PFAs which cause cancer and are found in high amounts in Orca bodies. They may be hampering the ability for them to have healthy  offspring and also may impact their health. Toxic-Free Future was a champion of this bill. Congratulations to them and their supporters. This has been a long hard fight for many years.

Senate Bill 5577 pushes boats farther away from whales, mandating 300 yard exclusion zones. This is not as far as many in the Orca task force wanted, but is at least better than it is currently. There is huge pressure from whale scientists to push back even further, but the whale watch industry is too powerful for Inslee to override.

The bills digest is as follows:

Finds a person guilty of a natural resource infraction if the person causes a vessel or other object to: (1) Approach within four hundred yards of a southern resident orca whale; or(2) Exceed a speed greater than seven knots over ground at any point located within one-half nautical mile of the whales.

Prohibits commercial whale watching operators from approaching or intercepting within six hundred fifty yards in the direction of the whales.

Requires a commercial whale watching license for businesses engaged in commercial whale watching activities.Requires the department of fish and wildlife to implement a limited-entry whale watching license program for the inland waters of the state for all whale species.

What you don’t see is an implementation of even greater enforcement in this bill. It is understood though that Fish and Wildlife may be getting a bigger budget do that.

House Bill 1578 – This bill strengthens our oil-spill prevention portfolio. As some may remember, this author and many dozens of other environmentalists helped push through the rescue tug at Neah Bay in the last decade, with the help of then Representative Van de Wege. This time, Representative Tharinger was part of the sponsors of the new bill. It’s digest reads:

Creates new requirements designed to reduce the current, acute risk from existing infrastructure and activities of an oil spill that could: (1) Eradicate our southern resident killer whales;(2) Violate the treaty fishing rights of federally recognized Indian tribes;(3) Damage commercial fishing prospects;(4) Undercut many aspects of the economy that depend on the Salish Sea; and(5) Harm the health and well-being of residents.

Declares an intent to spur international discussions among federal, state, provincial, and industry leaders in the United States and Canada to develop an agreement for the shared funding of an emergency rescue tug available to vessels in distress in the narrow Straits of the San Juan Islands and other boundary waters.

Currently tankers bigger than 125k dead weight tons are forbidden inside the Strait, past Dungeness Lighthouse. Tankers from 40 to125K tons dead weight are allowed to operate with tug escort. Currently a huge threat is to tugs towing bunker and other fuels. Some have sunk, such as the barge that spilled out on the coast near Neah Bay some years back.

The new law forces these tankers and tug towing barges to have escort tugs starting in 2020. If the tug or tanker is empty,  they do not need an escort tug.

The bill also strengthens the existing work being done on oil spill preparedness and establishes a new oil spill emergency response system with coordination between the State, U.S. Federal, Tribal and Canadian agencies. While there has been coordination before, this system is new.

There is a new reporting regime for oil processing facilities receiving crude oil shipments by rail, which will require them to report to the state these shipments and their routes. This may end up getting taken into court by the oil industry, as it’s unclear to this author whether the State has authority to require this under current Federal law.

Bill 1579 – While part of this bill allows greater catch limits on predator fish:

The commission shall adopt rules to liberalize bag limits for bass, walleye, and channel catfish in all anadromous waters of the14state in order to reduce the predation risk to salmon smolts.

The real teeth in this bill is the work done by Sound Action and other environmental and tribal lobbyists, along with the Department of Natural Resources to implement much stronger rules and penalties for implementing bulk heads along the nearshore of the Sound.  (full disclosure: this author is Board President of Sound Action as of this writing).

The conversion of shoreline to bulkheads  has been going on with little scientific understanding of the scope of damage to the spawning habitat of forage fish. Forage fish are food for salmon and other larger fish. Sound Action has existed specifically to challenge improper or incomplete Hydraulic Permit Applications (HPAs) from DNR that affect this habitat.

UPDATE BASED ON GOVERNOR’S VETO OF ONE SECTION: While The bill was also helped through by a section on a series of three ‘demonstration’ projects inserted by Senator Van de Wege on behalf of farmers coping with flood plain issues in Watcom, Snohomish and Gray’s Harbor County. Governor Inslee decided that these projects did not come out of the Orca Task force recommendations and were not in alignment with the needs of protecting fish habitat, but rather protecting farm land and exploiting river gravel. His veto of that section was in alignment with the opposition  by environmentalists and Tribes because of the stated intention of the backers of the language to ‘extract gravel’ from these rivers. What is needed in the future to address these problems should involve something similar to  a version of the highly successful Dungeness River Management Team, which brought together all the stakeholders on that river for the last 20 years to identify and then come up with appropriate solutions rather than leap to conclusions not based on science.

Anyone wanting to understand the work that the Dungeness River Management Team has done can view the short video I did for them a few years ago, on their 20th Anniversary.

 

The language that the proponents of Senator Van de Wege’s bill wanted, was to simply move to solution, based on assumptions and not science. They need, as the governor pointed out in his veto to at least have to go through the process to create a team of stakeholders, not just from the farm community, but from individuals and state scientists to come up with appropriate solutions.

So all in all, congratulations to the organizations that spent hundreds of hours in the Orca Task Force, and thanks to Governor Inslee for getting this done and helping drive these key bills into law! We still have a long way to go to save the resident pod, and there is no guarantee any of these bills will actually turn the tide to restore them to health.

https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/environment/gov-inslee-signs-range-of-bills-aimed-at-helping-endangered-orcas/

Bigg’s orcas in the Salish Sea point to shifting habitat of resident killer whales – Oak Bay News

Nature abhors a vacuum. And species go, if they are able, to where the food is.


To the untrained eye, the orcas socializing in the Salish Sea on Friday could have been the resident whales that many Islanders know and love. But those who know, like Stephen Pincock, owner of Ocean EcoVenture in the Cowichan Valley, recognize the significance of seeing Bigg’s orcas – slightly larger, mammal-eating killer whales – in the endangered Southern residents’ long-time habitat. “We’ve seen [resident orcas] shift to the outer coast more…because there’s more salmon out there for them than in the inner waterways,” Pincock said. “It’s kind of opened the door for the mammal-eaters to come in and take their place.” Nina Grossman reports. (Oak Bay News)

Bigg’s orcas in the Salish Sea point to shifting habitat of resident killer whales

Legislature won’t ban orca-watching boats in Puget Sound – Investigate West

The power of business over science. Not even a moratorium to see if it helps for a year or two. Will the last whale watch boat turn out the lights when you leave the San Juans when the resident orca pod are extinct? Thanks.

Washington legislators came into their 2019 session brimming with proposals to help rescue Puget Sound’s imperiled orcas. But now they have dropped one of the most important – and controversial – ideas: A three-year moratorium on commercial whale watching. Lawmakers denied Gov. Jay Inslee’s attempt to force commercial whale-watching boats to keep extra distance from three groups of orcas that summer in the waters of Puget Sound and the Salish Sea between Washington and Canada. In doing so, they turned down a key recommendation from an overwhelming majority of a group of nearly 50 researchers, state and tribal officials and others who served on the Southern Resident Orca Task Force. Rachel Nielsen reports. (InvestigateWest)

Legislature won’t ban orca-watching boats in Puget Sound

Groups sue to restrict salmon fishing, help Northwest orcas -AP

This is huge news. It has been questioned that while we are doing everything under the sun inside Puget Sound and the Straits to foster more fish, that huge numbers of chinook are harvested just off the coast. I understand that the Chinook are essentially by catch to these fishing fleets, but it seems that the numbers matter. This goes to the heart of the matter in the previous post, in that the four bills being sheparded through the State Legislature are all good works, they don’t get to the immediate need for more fish tomorrow for the Orca.

Federal officials said they may restrict salmon fishing off the West Coast to help the Pacific Northwest’s critically endangered orcas, but two environmental groups are suing anyway to ensure it happens. The Center for Biological Diversity, which filed a lawsuit nearly two decades ago to force the U.S. government to list the orcas as endangered, and the Wild Fish Conservancy asked the U.S. District Court in Seattle on Wednesday to order officials to reconsider a 2009 finding that commercial and recreational fisheries did not jeopardize the orcas’ survival. The National Marine Fisheries Service issued a letter early last month indicating that it intends to do so. Julie Teel Simmonds, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, said the point of the lawsuit is to ensure they finish the job with urgency, given the plight of the orcas, and to take short-term steps in the meantime to help provide more of the orcas’ favored prey, Chinook salmon. Gene Johnson reports. (Associated Press)

Groups sue to restrict salmon fishing, help Northwest orcas

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