The Blog Aquatic » alaska News, opinions, photos and facts from Ocean Conservancy Fri, 19 Sep 2014 14:44:10 +0000 en-US hourly 1 New Report Will Promote Integrated Arctic Management Wed, 30 Jul 2014 15:03:53 +0000 Andrew Hartsig

Photo: Jay DeFehr

With a new University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) report, we finally have a comprehensive view of oil, gas, and commercial transportation development in Arctic Alaska.

In a report to the President issued last year, a federal interagency working group called for a new, integrated approach to stewardship and development decisions in the U.S. Arctic. This new approach—called “Integrated Arctic Management”—is intended to integrate and balance “environmental, economic, and cultural needs and objectives” in the region.

Effective application of Integrated Arctic Management demands not only an understanding of Arctic ecosystems, but an understanding of the impacts of industrial development in the region. Until now, information on industrial development in the U.S. Arctic has been available only in piecemeal fashion, scattered throughout a range of documents and publications. This has made it difficult to understand how planned and proposed development activities will intersect with existing industrial operations to affect the region as a whole.

Fortunately, the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) recently released a report that addresses this information gap. The new report, entitled “A Synthesis of Existing, Planned, and Proposed Infrastructure and Operations Supporting Oil and Gas Activities and Commercial Transportation in Arctic Alaska,” takes a holistic view of industrial infrastructure and operations on Alaska’s North Slope. While the report is an independent publication of UAF, Ocean Conservancy provided support for the project and the underlying research and analysis.

The report compiles information about oil and gas activities and commercial transportation in the U.S. Arctic from a range of sources, including environmental analyses, planning documents, and industry materials. The report considers wells, roads, pipelines, and facilities that already exist in Arctic Alaska. It also looks at planned and proposed industrial infrastructure that may be built and operated in coming years, such as offshore energy development that could result from Shell’s oil and gas leases in the Chukchi Sea. To help readers visualize the scope and scale of development operations, the report includes a variety of maps depicting different portions of the Arctic and the region as a whole. By assembling this information in one place, the synthesis gives stakeholders and decision-makers a valuable reference for the region that has been previously unavailable.

There is a great deal of uncertainty surrounding increased energy development in Arctic Alaska, but the report makes clear that if planned and proposed projects go forward, they could result in a significant expansion of industrial infrastructure and operations in the region, both onshore and offshore. This could include the construction of hundreds of new structures, thousands of new wells, and thousands of miles of new pipelines and roads. The new industrial development would greatly expand the industrial “footprint” in Arctic Alaska.

The report does not take a position on this potential expansion of industrial development in the U.S. Arctic. It does, however, give decision-makers and stakeholders ready access to information that can help them better understand how proposed industrial development activities may combine in ways that could have profound impacts on Arctic ecosystems and people. In doing so, it can facilitate integrated, long-term decision-making that will minimize and mitigate negative impacts associated with development. This will provide a strong foundation from which to explore alternative visions for Arctic conservation and development—something that Ocean Conservancy plans to pursue in the coming year.

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Alaska in the Spotlight: Supporting Communities Facing the Big Risks From Ocean Acidification Tue, 29 Jul 2014 15:15:31 +0000 Sarah Cooley

The total risk of Alaska’s boroughs and census areas from ocean acidification. Red areas are at highest risk, while blue areas are at lowest risk. Population size (circles), commercial harvest value (dollar sign size), and subsistence fishing significance (fish icon size) contribute to the total risk. Reprinted from Progress in Oceanography.

We know that some people will be more at risk than others as a result of ocean acidification. We have seen this with oyster growers in the Pacific Northwest.  Scientists are now trying to determine what puts certain regions at greater risk than others from ocean acidification. Before I came to Ocean Conservancy, I helped lead a study on this question for Alaska, and it’s just been published in Progress in Oceanography this week.

My coauthors and I found that many of southwest and southeast Alaska’s boroughs and census areas (similar to counties or parishes in other states) face social and economic risk from ocean acidification – namely, many of the foods they eat and sell for income, all coming from the sea, are threatened by changes in the ocean’s chemistry.

A number of factors combine to elevate risk in certain regions of Alaska. The unique oceanography that makes Alaska’s coastal oceans productive also makes them more susceptible to acidification. Commercial and recreational fisheries that rely heavily on crabs and clams—species that are more likely to be hurt by acidification—pose serious economic risk to both individuals and industry. Many of Alaska’s coastal residents feed themselves by harvesting crabs and clams, which means that they may face food security risks as their private harvests decline. And some risk doesn’t even come from the ocean at all. It comes from factors like low incomes, few industries, scarce jobs, limited education, and the high cost of imported foods that are common throughout many parts of Alaska.

By adding all of these factors together, our study showed that southeastern and southwestern Alaska face the greatest overall risk (see figure). At the same time, other factors like nutrient pollution from land, overfishing, and ice melting add stress to marine ecosystems and worsen the effects of ocean acidification.

Now that we know which areas could be hit hardest in Alaska and why, we can start to prevent future losses from ocean acidification. Since the main cause of ocean acidification is atmospheric carbon dioxide, we all need to work towards cutting emissions. But that will take time and many partnerships across the nation. While we work towards that, we can also defend Alaska’s coastal communities against ocean acidification by making them stronger from within.

Programs that help educate Alaska’s residents, attract a greater array of job opportunities, and improve access to affordable, nutritious food will help these communities avoid depending too heavily on natural resources that could disappear. We can also defend Alaska’s coastal communities with environmental stewardship efforts that decrease nutrient pollution, overfishing, and ice melting. Even though ocean acidification seems like an insurmountable problem that lies beyond individual actions, studies like this show that small actions, added up, can decrease the overall risk of communities from global changes like ocean acidification.

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My Labor of Love Wed, 21 May 2014 13:30:41 +0000 Guest Blogger

Colleen Rankin is a debris cleanup veteran. She lives in Blue Fox Bay, Alaska. Colleen regularly hauls debris from miles away back to her home, where she re-uses whatever she can and stores the rest for eventual disposal.

I am fortunate to live in one of the most remote locations on Earth. I have one seasonal neighbor 5 miles away and another family 25 miles from there. The closest town is 40 miles from us. All of us live on different islands separated by the powerful waters of the Gulf of Alaska. To live here is to witness the rhythm of the interdependent cycles of life on these beaches  ̶  the sea depositing kelp and seashells on the shorelines, creating what I call the line of life. We see bears, birds and other animals foraging in them. We call it the ocean’s gift of nutrition.  I have felt a part of an ancient world. But that is changing. And even here on the coast of Alaska, I’m surrounded every day by reminders of people from far away places.

That’s because the beaches near my home are literally covered in plastic, trash and netting. I take my skiff out and fill it with debris, stopping only because the boat is full to capacity. The beaches are accumulating trash at an alarming rate, and I am giving back to this beautiful place that has enriched my life so much in the most obvious way I can. And that is cleaning the beaches, sometimes the same beach over and over.

I separate the debris so that records can be kept to find out what the trash consists of. The largest growing category is plastic. Almost every piece of plastic debris I find that can fit in a bear’s mouth has bite marks on it – the bears and other animals are fascinated with plastic, and they chew it.

Every time I see a plastic bottle lying on the beautiful beach, I wonder how many of these one-use items do we use in a year? It’s a real chance for us to look at our lives as a species and ask, “What are we gaining by their use? Is it to save time? And are we actually improving our lives with that time we think we are saving?”

That’s why I think it’s so important that you and I pledge to reduce our use of plastic every day.

I used to feel like it was impossible to conquer all of this plastic and trash in the ocean, but now I’m amazed by what I’ve seen happen in the last year with the increase in awareness and the motivation of people like you to reduce the amount of plastic you use every day.

I know now that I’m not alone. Last year, 648,015 people like you volunteered at International Coastal Clean-up events across the country, and cleaned 12,329,332 pounds off of 12,910 miles of coast.

Ocean Conservancy has just released its latest Data Report, and you’d be surprised by what they’ve found! Items like straws, bottle caps and plastic bags are among the items you’ll find in the Top 10 List, and they’re all things that you and I can reduce.

I hope you’ll join me in the fight to prevent plastic pollution in our ocean. I know firsthand that every one of us can make a difference – from my home in Alaska to your town.

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Increased Shipping Could Cause Serious Impacts in the Bering Strait Tue, 20 May 2014 12:30:41 +0000 Andrew Hartsig The Bering Strait—the only marine gateway between Pacific and Arctic oceans—is a key biological hotspot. As this recent blog post explained, the strait hosts an extraordinary abundance of wildlife. Every spring, huge numbers of marine mammals and birds migrate north through the strait on their way to Arctic waters.

In recent years, the Bering Strait has also turned into a hotspot for shipping. As sea ice in the Arctic retreats, vessel traffic is growing steadily. A recent analysis by the U.S. Coast Guard notes that “commercial ventures in the Arctic have increased maritime traffic in the Bering Strait. From 2008 to 2012, traffic through the Bering Strait increased by 118 percent.” Many types of vessels contribute to the growth in maritime traffic. Some of these ships provide supplies to coastal communities, some support oil and gas activities, and some travel between Europe and Asia across the Arctic Ocean on the Northern Sea Route along the Russian Arctic coast.

To be clear, the current level of vessel traffic in the Bering Strait is modest compared to other major shipping corridors, such as the Panama Canal, the Suez Canal, or even the Great Circle Route through the Aleutian Islands. At the same time, however, the Bering Strait poses distinct challenges that increase objective risks. These include a remote operating environment, the presence of seasonal sea ice and the relative absence of basic maritime infrastructure and information. A 2012 report by the State of Alaska’s Northern Waters Task Force cited a shortage “of detailed navigational charts, reliable weather forecasting, vessel traffic separation protocols, search and rescue infrastructure, and overall maritime domain awareness.”

There’s no doubt that growth in vessel traffic through the Bering Strait will result in increased impacts. These include higher levels of noise pollution and air emissions, more discharge of pollutants into the water, and increased potential for the introduction of invasive species. These impacts pose threats to the Bering Strait’s fish, birds, marine mammals and human communities. In addition, as the ice-free season lengthens and vessel traffic grows, there is greater potential for ships to strike bowhead whales and other marine mammals as they migrate through the Bering Strait, injuring or killing individual animals.

And then there’s the risk of a major accident resulting in a large spill, such as we have seen in Alaska’s heavily trafficked  Aleutian Islands. As the Coast Guard concluded in its 2013 Arctic Strategy, multiple factors combine to “make the Bering Strait region increasingly vulnerable to maritime casualties,” such as vessel groundings, spills, and collisions. If a marine disaster took place in the Bering Strait during a critical migration period, it could have catastrophic consequences for a large number of individual animals, and it could affect a number of species important to the region’s ecology.

These impacts could also spill over to harm the people who live in Bering Strait communities and depend on the region’s biological resources to support their way of life. The threat of a major oil spill is of particular concern in potentially icy waters, like those of the Bering Strait, because sea ice can significantly reduce the effectiveness of mechanical oil containment and removal technologies.

Given the rapid increase in vessel traffic, the remoteness and lack of infrastructure, the ecological importance of the area and the potential for truly significant impacts to wildlife and people, there is an urgent need to improve maritime safety and environmental protection in the Bering Strait region. Fortunately, a variety of tools are available to help achieve that objective. Stay tuned for an upcoming blog post that will identify some of the most promising options.

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Coast Guard Report Shows Shell Failed to Recognize Risk in the Arctic Fri, 04 Apr 2014 19:46:47 +0000 Andrew Hartsig

Photo: Coast Guard

This past Thursday, the U.S. Coast Guard released a report on its investigation into the grounding of Shell’s Arctic drilling rig Kulluk near Kodiak, Alaska on December 31, 2012. A tug lost control of the Kulluk in heavy weather on the way to Seattle after Shell’s failed attempt to drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean in 2012.

The Coast Guard report provides a detailed account of the events before the Kulluk ran aground and identifies a number of causal factors, including lack of experience in Alaska waters, failure to recognize risks, use of inadequate equipment, insufficient planning and preparedness and major problems with the primary towing vessel.

Were there other factors at play? Shell was in a hurry to get its oil rig out of Alaska waters before the end of the year to avoid the possibility a paying taxes to the State of Alaska if the rig remained in Alaska on January 1. The Coast Guard report also found evidence to suggest that Shell’s contractors may have failed to comply with certain legal or regulatory standards and may have committed acts of negligence.

According to the Coast Guard report, Shell’s contractors knew that conditions would be challenging. In an email, the tug’s master wrote: “To be blunt I believe that this length of tow, at this time of year, in this location, with our current routing guarantees an ass kicking.”

Despite these concerns, the towing operation continued. Trouble started when the Kulluk’s towline gave way on December 27. As the situation grew more dangerous, the Coast Guard rescued the 18-member crew of the Kulluk. Although Shell and the Coast Guard made multiple attempts to regain control of the Kulluk, they were ultimately unsuccessful. Late in the day on December 31, the drilling rig ran aground on Sitkalidak Island near Kodiak, Alaska. Fortunately, salvage crews were able to pluck the Kulluk off the shore on January 6 and tow it to a safe harbor. Thankfully, there was no loss of life or major injuries, and the environmental damage was relatively minimal.

How did this happen? Why was one of the world’s biggest oil and gas companies unable to carry out a routine towing operation safely? The Coast Guard’s investigation cites a number of causal factors, including:

Lack of experience in Alaska waters: Shell’s contractors lacked experience in the Gulf of Alaska waters, especially in the wintertime. This inexperience manifested as an inability to reduce stress on the towline in an effective manner.

Failure to recognize risk: Shell and its contractors “did not recognize the overall risks involved prior to commencement of the tow,” and did not conduct a formal risk assessment.

Inadequate equipment: Shell and its contractors selected and used towing equipment that was not sufficient for the rough conditions that they encountered.

Insufficient planning and preparedness: Shell’s towing plans “were not adequate for the winter towing operation across the Gulf of Alaska,” and were “not adequately reviewed,” and “lacked proper contingency planning.”

Problems with the primary towing vessel: Shell relied on the Aiviq—a purpose-built tug—as its primary towing vessel. But, according to the Coast Guard report, the Aiviq was plagued by design flaws and suffered from preexisting engine problems.

As I’ve written before, we need to make meaningful changes in the way that government agencies plan for and manage oil and gas operations in the Arctic. Fortunately, we’re starting to see some progress on that front.

Unfortunately, there’s bad news, too: the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is considering selling another round of oil and gas leases in the Chukchi Sea—a move in exactly the wrong direction, especially after a court recently found fault with the agency’s analysis of its last lease sale. Join me in telling the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to call a halt to this potential Chukchi Sea lease sale. Please sign our petition today

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Exxon Valdez Oil Disaster 25 Years Later Sun, 23 Mar 2014 14:00:16 +0000 Denny Takahashi Kelso

Photo: Valdez-Cordova Census Area County, Alaska/Creative Commons

On March 24, 1989, a few hours after the Exxon Valdez spill began, Alaska Gov. Steve Cowper and I boarded the tanker. At the time I was serving as Alaska’s commissioner of environmental conservation. We flew on a single-engine floatplane from the town of Valdez to a cove near the tanker, hitched a ride on a Coast Guard boat, climbed a long rope ladder dangling from the deck, and found our way up to the bridge. From there, we could see that there was hardly any response activity underway.

After several hours, we flew back to Valdez, where we went directly into a community meeting—still wearing our oily boots—to report on what we had seen on the water. Already on the stage of the community hall were Exxon officials, who had arrived from Houston. The auditorium crackled with tension; the audience, including many fishermen—who for years had opposed the shipping of oil by tanker and who felt that their livelihoods were at stake—were angry and frightened. It reminded me that a big oil spill is always a human crisis, not just an environmental disaster.

Although much has been written about the Exxon Valdez oil spill disaster, here are some surprising facts.

Emergency decisions and orders. Prior to the spill, response requirements were weak. The governor had to declare a state of emergency before I could issue an emergency order substantially increasing the spill preparedness requirements for tankers operating from the oil terminal at Valdez—the terminus of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline Spill experts from Norway arrived unexpectedly, and they worked with the state’s experts to hammer out details. We wrote the orders by hand in a makeshift office using a cardboard box as a table; and despite these primitive beginnings, many of the orders’ terms later were adopted as part of Alaska law.

Oil spill response plan abandoned. Exxon was legally in charge of the spill response, limiting other authorities’ ability to act. But Exxon didn’t carry out its preapproved oil spill response plan because the response barge was “out of service and unavailable for use.” As others have pointed out, even if it had responded, there were not enough skimmers and boom available to do an effective job. Exxon’s failed response made it clear that we needed a backup plan. The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 for the first time enabled federal officials to direct the response in a major spill.

Volunteers and state agency staff put together their own cleanup: “The Mosquito Fleet.” Frustrated at the slow response, local residents joined with state agency employees to organize their own response using low-tech equipment, local knowledge and plenty of hard work. They based the operation on a borrowed ferry and secured a vacuum truck—dubbed “Miss Piggy.” Miss Piggy sucked up oil corralled by containment booms deployed from skiffs. The Mosquito Fleet successfully protected Sawmill Bay, 15 miles from the town of Valdez, and it stimulated changes in Exxon’s management of the response.

A small percentage of the oil was actually contained and removed. No more than 14 percent of the spilled oil was actually removed. According to the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, “[N]early 11 million gallons of oil spread slowly over open water during three days of flat calm seas. Despite the opportunity to skim the oil before it hit the shorelines, almost none was scooped up. … Dispersants were applied, but were determined to be ineffective because of prevailing conditions.”

Even with 22 years of response preparedness improvements, the U.S. Geological Survey estimated that only 19 percent of the spilled oil following the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster was removed or was dispersed by chemicals.

Spilled oil has lingered for decades: According to the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, “oil persists in the environment and in places, is nearly as toxic as it was the first few weeks after the spill.”

This persistence was unexpected. Only through research conducted on the ground, long after the cleanup had ended, were scientists able to detect tens of thousands of gallons of persistent, toxic oil. “Beaches in the area are unique because of their composition and structure, and the lack of waves and winter storm action. This, along with the colder temperatures, is partly why oil has persisted and remained toxic here.”

Among the lessons is that the potential for long-term damage remains wherever oil persists after an oil spill, whether it is on the ocean bottom or in marshes, mangroves or other habitats that are not dynamic.

Effective restoration requires science-based planning and long-term science. Twenty-five years after the Exxon Valdez oil disaster, resources and ecosystems continue to recover; and we have a better understanding of spill response needs and challenges. Restoration following the spill demonstrated the importance of three key factors: comprehensive restoration planning, projects based on clear criteria and tested by independent review, and long-term, scientific monitoring to evaluate the effectiveness of restoration. Most of the affected organisms have recovered, some after a long struggle. Today, populations of only two species, pigeon guillemot and Pacific herring, are still listed as “not recovering.” Through scientific monitoring of their status and understanding the factors that may affect their recovery, changes in restoration methods or management tools may be implemented.

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When It Comes to Arctic Drilling, Cumulative Effects Add Up Fri, 22 Nov 2013 17:02:42 +0000 Carmen Yeung Workers in the ArcticPicture five oil rigs in your nearby ocean. These oil rigs are different sizes and operate in different locations and at different times. Each of these rigs has an impact on marine life and water quality, but each to a different degree.

When the individual impacts of each of these rigs accumulate over time and space, it is known as “cumulative effects.” Think of this like a snowball fight. It’s easy to dodge snowballs when you’re up against one other person.  But when five people are throwing snowballs at you, it’s much harder to avoid getting hit. And the more hits you take, the more bruises you’re bound to get.

Cumulative effects recognizes that the impact of an individual action may be relatively minor on its own, but could be much more significant when considered in combination with the effects of other past, present and future actions. Effective assessment of cumulative effects is one of the most challenging issues in resource management.

Arctic food web and oil impactsAs the pace and scope of industrial activity in Arctic Alaska grows, the need to predict and account for the cumulative effects of oil exploration and development and increasing vessel traffic—including infrastructure and operations—becomes more critical. To avoid or minimize environmental degradation caused by industrial activities or accidents such as oil spills, federal agencies need a reliable way to assess the cumulative effects of proposed actions on the surrounding environment.

This is not an easy task, especially when dealing with multiple decisions that affect large areas over long time periods. The rewards, however, are significant: by understanding and considering the long-range impact of multiple activities over a large spatial area, industry, government regulators, communities and stakeholders may be able to better manage oil exploration and development in Alaska’s Arctic Ocean to avoid or minimize environmental harm.

Unfortunately, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), the agency that manages offshore conventional and renewable energy resources (think offshore oil rigs and wind turbines), has not done a good job of analyzing potential cumulative effects in the Arctic in past environmental reviews.

For example, when assessing the cumulative impacts from an Arctic lease sale, BOEM reasoned that because there were 11 existing offshore projects, the proposed project would contribute approximately one-tenth the cumulative effects of waste water, construction, transportation and oil spills influencing water quality. Here, BOEM divided the number of proposed offshore projects (one) by the total number of offshore projects (11) to assess cumulative impact of oil development activities to water quality (=1/11).

This is a deeply flawed approach. Under this logic, each successive project would be responsible for incrementally less impact. With 100 projects, the new proposed project would only be responsible for 1/100 of the impact—but the cumulative effect of 100 projects would likely be far greater than the impacts of 10 projects. Also, this approach doesn’t account for the scale and location of each offshore facility, which are important factors to assessing harm. Combining all of the offshore projects together into a percentage masks the damages to the surrounding environment from a single offshore facility.

One major stumbling block for BOEM is the lack of a standardized approach and methodology for conducting cumulative effects analysis. BOEM can significantly improve its analysis of cumulative effects by developing and adhering to a standardized approach and methodology to cumulative effects analysis. Development of a transparent, broadly accepted approach and methodology for cumulative effects analysis, with common language and accounting for regional factors, will allow the agency to compare results across different planning areas.

A standardized approach and methodology that considers both positive and negative tradeoffs will provide BOEM with structure and guidance in analyzing cumulative effects. Recognizing the importance of cumulative effects, a governmental working group recommended improved understanding and consideration of the cumulative impacts of human activities in the Arctic.

The future health of sensitive Arctic ecosystem depends upon the use of sound analysis to determine the true impact of industrial activities. And good policies should be grounded in good science and analysis.

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