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House approves measures that would block offshore drilling on all but Arctic coast

Guy Kovner, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

The House of Representatives passed three amendments on Thursday imposing one-year bans on offshore oil drilling on the Pacific, Atlantic and eastern Gulf of Mexico coasts, potentially restoring the safeguard that protected California’s coast for more than a quarter century.

The three bipartisan votes came on amendments to the funding bill for the Department of Interior and other agencies and are protected from a line-item veto by President Donald Trump, who has proposed an aggressive expansion of oil and gas development in the nation’s offshore waters.

It also may not need approval in the Republican-controlled Senate, which will produce its own Interior Department appropriations bill.

“This is the congressional moratorium coming back,” said Richard Charter of Bodega Bay, a veteran anti-oil drilling activist. “Today’s been a miracle, big time.”

The House amendments would prevent the Secretary of Interior from spending any money on pre-leasing or leasing activities related to selling offshore drilling rights to energy developers.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/9724004-181/house-approves-measures-that-would

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Dozens of West Coast gray whale deaths prompt federal investigation

Guy Kovner, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Prompted by the fatal stranding of 70 gray whales on the U.S. West Coast this year, federal scientists have launched a major scientific investigation aimed at identifying the cause or causes of the die-off among the migrating mammals that number about 27,000 and are a popular North Coast attraction in places like Bodega Bay.

A young gray whale that washed up last week on Limantour Beach at Point Reyes National Seashore was the 15th recorded stranding in the greater Bay Area.

An additional 78 strandings have occurred in Mexico and Canada, bringing the five-month total to 148 deaths of Eastern North Pacific gray whales.

NOAA Fisheries, the federal agency charged with protection and conservation of marine mammals, said the trend warranted declaration of an “unusual mortality event,” unleashing funding and resources for an investigation that could take months or years to find answers.

Deborah Fauquier, a NOAA veterinary medical officer, said Friday the declaration was justified by an unexpected and significant die-off that “demands an immediate response.”

An investigative team of experts from the United States, Canada, Mexico and possibly worldwide will be formed to “determine what might be causing the die-off, such as environmental conditions, disease or human activities” and “make informed decisions to protect this important marine species,” she said in a teleconference with reporters.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/9655458-181/dozens-of-west-coast-gray

Posted on Categories Habitats, Sonoma CoastTags , ,

Ocean heat wave brought 67 rare, warm-water species to North Coast

Mary Callahan, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

An extended ocean heat wave that spurred a series of ecological anomalies off the Northern California coast — including toxic algae, mass sea lion strandings and the collapse of the bull kelp forest — also promoted the northward migration of an unprecedented number of southern, warm-water species.

Sixty-seven rare, warm-water creatures, including 37 whose presence has never been documented so far north, were found in the region and points poleward, according to a UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory study published Tuesday in “Scientific Reports.” Everything from bottlenose dolphins to two kinds of sea turtles to barnacles and small sea snails were present during the study period between 2014 and early 2017.

One colorless, tiny snail cousin, the striated sea butterfly, hadn’t previously been seen north of the tip of Baja California. It turned up in sampling nets collecting whatever critters might be floating past the Bodega Bay lab, said lead author Eric Sanford, a UC Davis professor of ecology and evolution.

Similarly, pelagic red crabs — four still alive at the lab — that came ashore at Salmon Creek Beach in January 2017 normally would have been closer to Baja, he said. Also found in the bay was the molted shell of a spiny lobster more commonplace in Baja.

With the planet and the ocean warming, the recent, extended marine heat wave “provides a glimpse of what the Northern California coast might look like in the future,” as species move toward cooler environments to survive, Sanford said.

“We’re basically seeing these communities change before our eyes as more southern species become part of these communities,” he said. “That’s pretty dramatic.”

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/9376990-181/ocean-heat-wave-brought-67

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Heatwaves sweeping oceans ‘like wildfires’, scientists reveal

Damian Carrington, THE GUARDIAN

Extreme temperatures destroy kelp, seagrass and corals – with alarming impacts for humanity

The number of heatwaves affecting the planet’s oceans has increased sharply, scientists have revealed, killing swathes of sea-life like “wildfires that take out huge areas of forest”.

The damage caused in these hotspots is also harmful for humanity, which relies on the oceans for oxygen, food, storm protection and the removal of climate-warming carbon dioxide the atmosphere, they say.

Global warming is gradually increasing the average temperature of the oceans, but the new research is the first systematic global analysis of ocean heatwaves, when temperatures reach extremes for five days or more.

The research found heatwaves are becoming more frequent, prolonged and severe, with the number of heatwave days tripling in the last couple of years studied. In the longer term, the number of heatwave days jumped by more than 50% in the 30 years to 2016, compared with the period of 1925 to 1954.

As heatwaves have increased, kelp forests, seagrass meadows and coral reefs have been lost. These foundation species are critical to life in the ocean. They provide shelter and food to many others, but have been hit on coasts from California to Australia to Spain.

Read more at https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/mar/04/heatwaves-sweeping-oceans-like-wildfires-scientists-reveal

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Colorful sea star stricken by disease vanishes from most of the West Coast

Darryl Fears, WASHINGTON POST

Six years after it was stricken by a wasting disease off the northern California coast, the sunflower sea star – one of the most colorful starfish in the ocean – has all but vanished, and the domino effect threatens to unravel an entire marine ecosystem.

The cause of the sea star’s demise is a mystery, but it coincided with a warming event in the Pacific Ocean, possibly tied to the climate, that lasted for two years ending in 2015. It heated vast stretches of water in patches, and likely exacerbated the disease, according to a new study released Wednesday.

“I’ve never seen a decline of this magnitude of a species so important,” Drew Harvell, the lead author of the study, published in the journal Science Advances, that documented the sunflower sea star’s retreat into possible extinction off California and Oregon.

If the study had a purpose, she said, it was to call attention to the sea star’s demise so that federal officials would take action to list it as endangered and work to save it, possibly with a breeding program using sunflower stars that are surviving in parts of Washington, Alaska and Canada.

“It’s big news and cause for major management action,” Harvell said. “We felt there wasn’t enough attention.”

Read more at https://www.adn.com/nation-world/2019/02/01/colorful-sea-star-stricken-by-disease-vanishes-from-most-of-the-west-coast/

Posted on Categories Habitats, Sonoma Coast, WildlifeTags , ,

Drakes Beach in Point Reyes to reopen for up-close elephant seal viewing

Mary Callahan, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

In a first-time experiment for a new colony of elephant seals at Drakes Beach, Point Reyes National Seashore administrators will reopen the site to visitors this weekend for an up-close view of intriguing creatures hunted to near extinction a century ago.

A phalanx of park rangers and volunteer docents will be on hand to move small groups of visitors along the edge of a parking lot near the beach to ensure the elephant seals and their newborn pups are not disturbed and that no humans end up in harm’s way.

It’s an exciting and unexpected opportunity for visitors to witness the recovery of a once-threatened species and to observe the females with their babies just yards away, park personnel said.

But it’s going to be a balancing act, with rainy weather expected to dampen crowds enough to make the task possible, park personnel said.

“We’re just going to manage the heck out of it,” Point Reyes Superintendent Cicely Muldoon said. “Our winter wildlife program is very rigorous. We have a lot of people eager to get back to work after the shutdown and volunteer docents eager to get back to what they do. We’re going to have a lot of staff on duty.”

Visitors have been able for decades to see elephant seals at the seashore, where they began appearing in the 1970s after an absence of more than 150 years. Though the marine mammals spend most of their lives out in the ocean, they return to shore each winter to birth pups and breed and, later, in spring or summer, to molt.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/9232226-181/drakes-beach-in-point-reyes?ref=related

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Elephant seals take over beach as Point Reyes reopens after shutdown

Mary Callahan, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

In the absence of heavy visitor traffic and regular staff wildlife management, the burgeoning elephant seal colony that has been drifting along the shoreline from Chimney Rock for several years appears to have gotten a foot-hold at Drakes Beach, though it’s not entirely clear where the elephant seals there came from.

What’s clear is they find it a safe and protected place to bear offspring. By Monday, there were about 50 females with 40 pups and more on the way, as well as a dominant bull and several subordinates.

The listless malaise common to many workplaces on Monday mornings was nowhere apparent among national park staffers, as workers returned from a 35-day layoff imposed on them by a political showdown 3,000 miles away.

Their email in-boxes were brimming and the awaiting work load unmeasured, given 150 miles of back-country trails still to patrol for downed trees and other damage from recent winter storms.

But everywhere, people were clearly glad to be in uniform and back on the job after a long, uncertain and stressful wait.

A Monday morning meeting of about 80 personnel just to check in and mark the occasion was more like a high school reunion than anything else, Point Reyes National Seashore spokesman John Dell’Osso said.

Wildlife ecologist Dave Press said everyone was glad to see one another and find out how they had passed the month away from work.

“It was very uplifting,” said Dell’Osso, a 36-year employee of the seashore. “It was great to see everybody.”

The public was allowed during the federal shutdown to use trails and roads on the 71,000-acre seashore, a year-round attraction to locals and tourists alike.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/9221142-181/point-reyes-national-seashore-reopens

Posted on Categories Climate Change & Energy, Habitats, WildlifeTags , , ,

From Sonoma County to Antarctica, Point Blue studies climate change through birds

Jeanne Wirka, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Tucked behind a Petaluma office park overlooking Shollenberger wetlands, the headquarters of Point Blue Conservation Science can be difficult to find without a map.

Yet this 53-year-old, Petaluma-based organization is doing globally significant work from Alaska to Antarctica, and from the Sierra Nevada to the California coastline. Point Blue’s 160 scientists form a kind of “geek squad” for nature — unapologetically generating, interpreting and leading with data that document impacts of a changing climate and other threats to wildlife and ecosystems.

“We are driven by data,” said Point Blue’s chief scientist, Grant Ballard. “If the data don’t say anything, we don’t say anything.”

Since its 1965 origins as the Point Reyes Bird Observatory, the organization’s scientists and their collaborators have recorded more than a billion observations of birds and other wildlife from field stations throughout California and in Antarctica. According to Ballard, it is precisely these long-term data sets, some of which dates 50 years, that set Point Blue apart.

“By taking the long view, we can speak with credibility about whether changes are happening or not.”

It comes as no surprise then that climate change has become the central focus of Point Blue’s research and that “climate-smart conservation” is now the cornerstone of its strategy.

The complexity of how and whether animals respond to changes in their environment is perhaps best illustrated by one of Point Blue’s most charismatic long-term research subjects, the Adélie (pronounced “uh-DELL-ee”) penguin, a tough little bird whose population in Antarctica’s Ross Sea has actually been increasing during the time Point Blue has been studying them.

Posted on Categories Climate Change & Energy, Sonoma Coast, WildlifeTags , , ,

Oceans are warming even faster than previously thought

Kendra Pierre-Louis, THE NEW YORK TIMES

Scientists say the world’s oceans are warming far more quickly than previously thought, a finding with dire implications for climate change because almost all the excess heat absorbed by the planet ends up stored in their waters.

A new analysis, published Thursday in the journal Science, found that the oceans are heating up 40 percent faster on average than a United Nations panel estimated five years ago. The researchers also concluded that ocean temperatures have broken records for several straight years.

“2018 is going to be the warmest year on record for the Earth’s oceans,” said Zeke Hausfather, an energy systems analyst at the independent climate research group Berkeley Earth and an author of the study. “As 2017 was the warmest year, and 2016 was the warmest year.”

As the planet has warmed, the oceans have provided a critical buffer. They have slowed the effects of climate change by absorbing 93 percent of the heat trapped by the greenhouse gases humans pump into the atmosphere.

“If the ocean wasn’t absorbing as much heat, the surface of the land would heat up much faster than it is right now,” said Malin L. Pinsky, an associate professor in the department of ecology, evolution and natural resources at Rutgers University. “In fact, the ocean is saving us from massive warming right now.”

But the surging water temperatures are already killing off marine ecosystems, raising sea levels and making hurricanes more destructive.

Read more at https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/10/climate/ocean-warming-climate-change.html

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Environmental group sues California over whale-killing gear 

Olga R. Rodriguez, ASSOCIATED PRESS
An environmental group sued the state of California on Tuesday for allegedly not doing enough to keep Dungeness crab fishery gear from killing protected whales.
The Center for Biological Diversity filed its lawsuit in federal court in San Francisco, saying the California Department of Fish and Wildlife is liable for a surge in entanglements of endangered whales and sea turtles because it authorizes and manages operation of the fishery.
California should put in place more mandatory protection measures, such as blocking fishing operations from especially important waters for whales, restricting the amount of gear in whale hotspots and reducing the amount of rope running through the water, the center said.
Read more at: Environmental group sues California over whale-killing gear | The Tribune