Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Where The Wild Things Are Harmed

[Cross-posted at Firedoglake.]

Remind me never to go on any kind of wilderness expedition with Jonah Goldberg. OK, that’s not the kind of thing I actually need to be reminded about, but still.

After reading his latest columnar epic on the non-virtues of the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, I know exactly what kind of campmate he’d be: the one who spills the washwater into everyone’s sleeping bags and burns a big hole in the tent while he’s at it. And then fires off a gun just for fun in bear country (note: gunfire attracts grizzlies, who assume a carcass or guts may be found in the vicinity thereof).

He’s the kind of doofus who thinks that you can just take a bite out of one chunk of an ecosystem and it doesn’t have ripple effects that harm many more creatures than just those found in his immediate view. Which is why he thinks drilling in ANWR — which, incidentally, would neither increase our "energy security" nor do anything about prices at the pump — is harmless, which we’ve known for some time is simply untrue. [The Natural Resources Defense Council has lots more on ANWR.]

There is an illustrative example of this closer to home here in Seattle that involves our resident population of killer whales in the Puget Sound region. An article I wrote last year for Seattle Magazine explored to what extent they’re being harmed, somewhat unthinkingly, by the thousands of people who come out annually to see them in whale-watching boats — tours that, for the most part, tend to be about enhancing the habitat of the Sound’s wildlife:
The problem is self-evident on a typical summer day off the western coast of San Juan Island. When orcas arrive on the scene, they are accompanied by a massive flotilla of boats: whale-watching tour craft intermingled with private recreational boaters, kayakers and regular users of these waters. The boats zoom in and out and around, creating a frenetic scene. At times during the summer, whale observers say the orcas are accompanied by boats from nearly sunup to sundown.

It’s even more apparent to anyone who drops a hydrophone beneath the surface of Haro Strait and listens to the whales’ conversations, which come in the form of whistles, chirps, calls and clicks. Along with those sounds is the cacophony of engine noise, ranging from the high squeals of small outboards to the overpowering thrum created by large vessels en route to Vancouver and points north through the strait. In recent years, scientists have been studying the effects of these boats and the noise they create on the whales; the data they’ve collected indicates that, at least in years when the supply of chinook salmon that comprise the bulk of their diet is low, the boats are amplifying the harm to the whales.

David Bain, a marine biologist who specializes in killer whales (who was with the University of Washington until recently), has been painstakingly collecting acoustic and behavioral data on the southern residents for over 15 years now. Tall, balding and bearded, he’s the epitome of the careful scientist as he explains in a quiet voice that he’s found two things of concern.

Whales do less foraging when the boats are around, he says. “That probably means that they’re eating less, and acquiring less energy. There is an energy balance in whales, and whale watching has an effect on that.” And the sheer number of vessels creates a critical mass of obstacles that whales then have to maneuver around, causing them to expend more energy than they would otherwise, he says.

He notes that even kayaks can be a problem, especially if they dart into the whales’ path or invade their space, and fail to warn the whales of their presence. Still, a kayak that observes the preferred whale-watching guideline of 100 yards’ distance will have almost no effect on the whales because of its silence, while any power boat within audible range is creating at least some level of disturbance.
You get a little sense of this in the video I made that is atop this post, comprised of photos I mostly took from my kayak of San Juan killer whales, and the recordings I made of them with my hydrophone. At one point, you can hear the whales peacefully communicating — and then a boat engine from a private boat that had been watching the whales kicked on and sped off, but the noise they created lingers on (I actually edited down the noise by several minutes, but you get the idea).

In any event, it all stands as a reminder of how easy it is for humans to harm entire ecosystems, and all the creatures within it, unthinkingly — even when we think that we’re appreciating them, let alone when we’re "harmlessly" building roads and pipelines and drilling operations in the midst of a wilderness.

Would that buffoons like Jonah Goldberg could figure that out. In the meantime, could someone keep him away from my tent?

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