Monday, March 28, 2011

Sharks, wolves and uninspected assumptions

Anecdotal assumptions are so often wrong.

In the Islands, do sharks attack surfers because the surfers look like turtles or seals? Are big sharks attracted to shore because the small sharks have been fished out? Is that always the same shark cruising the surf zone, or are they constantly moving around?

The answers to some of these questions are known, partially known, or unknown, and occasionally they are correctly known for the wrong reasons.

We were struck by an article this month on sharks' culture cousins, wolves. The piece was in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.

This goes to the question of whether wolves are major predators on cattle. Ranchers have long said so, and have launched wolf kills to respond.

The conservation community has argued that wolves, if they come near cattle, are doing ranchers a favor, culling the weak. And that since they perform the same service for wild herds of elk and deer, they ought not be slaughtered.

The new study confirms that cattle are indeed a big piece of wolf diet, seasonally. The study was done by Canadian researchers from the University of Alberta, who used GPS tracking equipment to follow wolf travels in 2008 and 2009, during grazing seasons near the Rocky Mountains.

But the wolves, for the most part, weren't preying on the herds. They were feeding on dead cattle at “boneyards,” places where ranchers dumped cattle carcasses. The four wolves researchers tracked switched from wild prey to eating cattle during the grazing season, but in 85 percent of the cases, they were scavenging on already-dead cattle.

Ranchers were dumping the carcasses near their grazing cattle. The boneyards also attracted grizzly bears and cougars. For the wolves, the cattle made up almost half of their summer diet.

The message from the researchers was that ranchers' management practices are actually attracting predators to their herds. Thus, changes in management practices could reduce wolves' opportunities to feed on the herds.

The message for the rest of us is to be real careful about uninspected assumptions.

© 2011 Jan TenBruggencate

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Tsunami death toll at Midway alone: more than 110,000 albatrosses

Federal wildlife officials are now estimating that more than 110,000 albatrosses were killed at Midway Atoll alone, from the tsunami waves that swept across nesting areas March 11.

“Surveys of the Refuge reveal that more than 110,000 Laysan and black-footed albatross chicks – about 22 percent of this year’s albatross production – were lost as a result of the tsunami and two severe winter storms preceding it in January and February. At least 2000 adults were also killed,” said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in an emailed statement.

(Image: Total losses at Laysan Island are not known. This image, taken before the Laysan federal wildlife crew was evacuated, displays some of the impact. The team reported that the entire coast was inundated by the tsunami, in many cases well into the vegetated areas. The debris includes remains of a research station that was overwashed. Credit: USFWS Pacific.)

Four major waves crashed through Midway Atoll, entirely overwashing small Spit Island, and partially overwashing Sand and Eastern Islands. The albatross are ground-nesting birds. Only four chicks remain on Spit, which once held nearly 1,500.

Immediately following the tsunami, Refuge staff estimated tens of thousands of albatross chicks had been lost, along with about 1000 adults. After initially concentrating on freeing approximately 300 entrapped or waterlogged birds with assistance from a small group of visitors there participating in a natural history tour, and waiting for danger from the tsunami to pass, biologists turned their attention to surveying the damage. “The results were both startling and disheartening,” Stieglitz said.

For example, in early January, Spit Island held 1498 Laysan and 22 black-footed albatross nests. After losses from the January 14 and February 11 storms and the March 10-11 tsunami, only 4 chicks remain on Spit.

“We are very fortunate not to have suffered any loss of human life or other tragedy, as have the people in Japan, and for that we are very grateful,” said Barry Stieglitz, Project Leader for the Hawaiian and Pacific Islands National Wildlife Refuge Complex.

“This tsunami was indeed a disaster at many levels, including for wildlife.”

A star of the atoll is the endangered short-tailed albatross chick, the first born in the Hawaiian Islands in recorded history. It was washed off its nest, but survived. However, its parents have not returned to feed it.

“Since the chick is incapable of fending for itself, the Service will carefully consider whether hand-rearing this bird is appropriate if it is determined that it is not being fed by its parents,” the statement said.

Biologists do not know how many burrow-nesting Bonin petrels were lost, drowned or trapped underground. Their nesting holes in many cases were covered over with coral rubble and sand. Small numbers of red-tailed tropicbirds, red-footed boobies and great frigatebirds were reported lost. There were no recorded deaths of green sea turtles or monk seals.

Federal officials still do not have a clear understanding of the impact on wildlife at other remote islands. Many threatened or endangered animals were potentially impacted. One fear is for the Laysan finch population that was translocated to the low island of Pearl and Hermes Atoll could have been wiped out.

“It is possible the entire translocated population of endangered Laysan finches on Pearl and Hermes Reef were roosting on the ground when the tsunami likely overwashed the low-lying islands there,” the statement said.

But at this point, no one knows for certain.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2010

For more information on the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, see here.

Monday, March 14, 2011

'Ghost crabs cleaning up the dead" in Northwestern Hawaiian Islands

Thousands, and maybe tens of thousands of seabirds were killed or injured in last week's tsunami in the Hawaiian Islands.

“Thousands of ghost crabs are cleaning up the dead,” wrote researcher Cynthia Vanderlip, from Kure Atoll.

The humans in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, as far as we know, had plenty of notice and are all safe. Some were being evacuated today.

(Image: Short-tailed albatross chick survived the tsunami, but was washed far from its nest. Tens of thousands of birds were killed. Credit: Pete Leary, Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge biologist.)

Millions of seabirds nest each year on the sand spits and low sandy islands of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

The tsunami completely washed over some of those islands, washing away or burying every bird. In many cases both the flightless nestlings and a roosting parent were swept off nests or buried in their burrows. Other islands had only partial wash-overs.

Many of the uninhabited islands have still not been surveyed, but if the experience at Midway Atoll is a guide, the loss is near incalculable. There were reports of severe bird fatality counts at Kure and Laysan as well.

Here is the initial report, via Twitter, from the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge: “People are OK. No damage to infrastructure. The Short-tailed albatross nest was washed over again and the chick was found unharmed about 35 m away and carried back to its nest cup. Minimum of 1000 adult/subadult and tens of thousands of Laysan Albatross chicks lost. Spit Island completely washed over. Eastern and Sand Island 60% and 20% washed over, respectively.”

The reference to the short-tailed albatross chick is notable. It is the first chick of its critically endangered species known to have been hatched outside a couple of remote Japanese islands. More on that here.

The chick was washed about 100 feet from its nest, but apparently was unhurt. It was moved back to its original nesting location in hopes the parents would continue to feed it. We have no word on whether or how much the main short-tailed albatross colonies off Japan suffered from the tsunami.

Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge biologist Pete Leary posted that crews were conducting a salvage operation, going through debris piles in hopes of finding trapped live birds. Firm numbers are not yet available, but he estimated tens of thousands of dead albatrosses.

“There's no way to know how many Bonin petrels were trapped in their burrows,” Leary wrote.

He wrote of boating between islands and finding waterlogged birds, drifting, exhausted and half-sunken.

Beyond Midway is Kure Atoll, where the impact was also severe. Veteran researcher Cynthia Vanderlip, the field camp manager of Kure Atoll Conservancy, sent out this report on the Facebook page for the Kure Atoll Conservancy.

Her team climbed for safety onto to the roof of the old concrete Coast Guard station building, having heard the reports of devastation in Japan on shortwave radio.

“The first wave arrived at around 12:50. We heard cracking branches, but could see nothing, not even with the strong searchlight. Then another one arrived at 1:10, and another at 1:18 and finally, the last one at 1:30 am.”

They stayed on the roof for some time longer, waiting to be sure it was safe. Finally, “everyone climbed down off the roof went straight to bed, except me. I took a quick walk to see the damage at the beach and it is extensive. The wave washed about 400 feet inland. The Black-foot colony at the pier is gone, chicks are everywhere. Thousand of ghost crabs are cleaning up the dead. The wave washed over the top of the pier and tore the window frames out. The ocean is chocolate brown.”

Vanderlip added: “I am thankful that our building is 700′ inland and 20′ above sea level. We were spared, but I fear for all the other folks in the Pacific. The loss of wildlife breaks my heart. Thanks for your thoughts and prayers.”

At Laysan Island, five people—two from the Fish and Wildlife Service and three from the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center—were to be evacuated this morning (Monday March 14, 2011) by the research vessel Hi`ialakai. The ship was diverted from a mission to Wake Island.

(Update 12:10 p.m. HST 3-14-2011: Hi`ialakai Facebook site reports that seven people were successfully evacuated from Laysan, having suffered only minor injuries: "only a couple cases of scrapes and bruises."")

The NOAA Coral Reef Ecosystem Division blog had some details. The report indicated that the tsunami had climbed the sand dunes of Laysan Island and inundated both bird habitat and human field researcher camp.

“The field team... reported extensive damage to the island, with the wave line extending well into the vegetation. In places, reef fish were found in the short trees that ring the island. Most of their food buckets and water jugs were washed away, and they were still seeing buckets and jugs being washed back to shore. The kitchen tent was destroyed and they are cooking and eating at the USFWS camp. The USFWS camp has 32 six gallon jugs of water, which should be enough to sustain the Laysan personnel for the remainder of their time on island. Fortunately no injuries have been reported and their office tent was spared and most of their electronics and communication equipment were not damaged.”

Details of the impacts on birdlife at Laysan were not immediately available.

Apparently the waves were comparatively small at Tern Island, the Fish and Wildlife Service headquarters island at French Frigate Shoals, but it was not known at this writing whether waves caused issues with the many small sand spits that create homes for wildlife within the vast reef structure there. Nor have there been reports from Pearl and Hernes Atoll, Lisianski Island, and Nihoa Island.

A tragic loss, but this is a healthy ecosystem, and Vanderlip at Kure notes that the ghost crabs were feeding on the dead birds, and shorebirds were feeding on the dead sea cucumbers and other marine llife washed ashore. Nature was doing what it does.

“This is an ecosystem that is pretty well intact. There were a lot of changes created by the tsunami, but there is abundant life on Kure, ready to pounce on every opportunity that is presented,” she wrote.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2011

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Humpback whale range extends into Papahānaumokuākea

It never made any sense that humpback whales would confine themselves by human political boundaries, and now research proves that indeed, they don't.

Humpbacks winter not only in the Main Hawaiian Islands, but their range extends right up the archipelago into the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. And there are lots of whales up there.

For this bit of information, we can thank an electronic listening post called EAR, for ecological acousting recorder, about which, more here.

(Image: What an EAR looks like. Credit: NOAA.)

When these buoys were deployed to listen to marine life in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, researchers heard the haunting calls of humpback whales.

More of them in the middle waters of the region, and fewer in the colder waters of the northernmost atolls.

Not that they weren't there all along, but research cruises into those islands in winter are limited, because of the risk to vessels of being caught without shelter during storms. The islands and reefs beyond Kaua`i are either small or treacherous and offer little protection from powerful seas and winds. The only safe harbor in the region is the old Navy base at Midway Atoll.

Scientists with NOAA and the University of Hawai`i's Hawai`i Institute for Marine Biology conducted the research within the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.

In a press release, the team said there seem to be plenty of whales up there: “Humpback whale song was found to be prevalent throughout the NWHI and demonstrated trends very similar to those observed in the MHI.”

The research has just been published in Marine Ecology Progress series (Vol. 423: 261–268, 2011 doi: 10.3354/meps08959.)

Authors are University of Hawai`i researchers Marc O. Lammers, Pollyanna I. Fisher-Pool, Whitlow W. L. Au and Carl G. Meyer, and Kevin B. Wong and Russell E. Brainard of NOAA Fisheries' Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center. You can find the paper online here.

They deployed nine of the EAR devices throughout the archipelago to see if they would detect whale singing, and they did.

“Song was found to be prevalent at Maro Reef, Lisianski Island, and French Frigate Shoals but was also recorded at Kure Atoll, Midway Atoll, and Pearl and Hermes Atoll,” they wrote.

Notably missing from the list are the islands nearest the main Hawaiian group, Nihoa and Necker/Mokumanamana. But the message, perhaps, is that they heard whale song wherever they put an EAR, and they just didn't put the devices at Nihoa and Mokumanamana, nor at Laysan and Gardner Pinnacles. No reason to think the whales are not there, too.

The research results add up to “strong evidence that humpback whales are common in the NWHI from late December to mid-May. Moreover, a comparison of the incidence of song on Oahu with the NWHI reveals that many locations show equivalence in song prevalence, suggesting whales use at least parts of the NWHI as a wintering ground much like the MHI.”

What isn't yet clear is whether the whales of Papahānaumokuākea are a distinct breeding group, or simply an extension of the main islands population.

And it's also not (yet) clear how many whales use the northern islands, which appear to have as much as twice as much shallow warm water habitat as the main islands.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2011

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Are nukes our energy answer? Are they any answer at all?

Nuclear energy, to some observers, is the obvious answer to the high cost of electricity and our community's vulnerability to oil supply disruptions.

(Image: The hull of the Russian floating nuclear plant, now under construction, the Akademik Lomonosov. Credit: Rosenergoatom)

Some have argued that nuclear energy is appropriate, that it's readily available, and that it's cheap.

For anyone who does a minimal amount of research, it seems clear that for small communities like Kauai, nuclear energy is none of those things, even ignoring the elephant in the room: the debate over safety and radioactive waste disposal.

First, it remains unconstitutional in Hawai'i to build a nuclear plant. (Here's the actual language from the state Constitution: “No nuclear fission power plant shall be constructed or radioactive material disposed of in the State without the prior approval by a two-thirds vote in each house of the legislature.”)

Second, there is not available for purchase today a small (less than 100 megawatts) utility-configured nuclear plant. It's the Holy Grail of energy, and lots of companies are planning or designing them, but right now, you can't buy one, anywhere. (See this article in The Economist, and this article in the Wall Street Journal: )

Third, if there were one for purchase, it wouldn't be cheap. At a minimum, a plant twice the size of Kaua'i's entire grid is estimated to cost $5,000 per kilowatt to build, and that plant has not yet been built anywhere in the world, or even gone through permitting. (See the WSJ article above.) Other estimates have suggested a price that is multiples of that number.

There is a new international initiative to simply move nuclear power offshore. Russia is building a barge-mounted floating nuclear plant of 75 megawatts, the Akademik Lomonosov, which uses Russian maritime nuclear reactors. And we have previously written about the French proposal to put a nuclear plant on the ocean floor.

At a recent utility conference I attended, supporters of nuclear energy estimated permitting alone for a new nuclear plant in the United States could take 15 years. That's 2026 if we started right now.

Our energy needs are more pressing than that. Talking about nuclear in Hawai`i at this time is little more than a distraction.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2010