Archive for the ‘NOAA’ Category

New England Fisheries to Reopen, and the Missing Identity of Most Seafood

Photo by Jim Maragos, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Some rights reserved.

Photo by Jim Maragos, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Some rights reserved.

The New England Fishery Management Council opened 5,000 square miles of protected waters off the coast of New England Thursday to new applications from commercial fishermen. These areas were closed in the 1990s to preserve habitat on the seafloor and give cod, haddock, and other species a safe place to spawn.

Fishermen have cheered the move, saying the 2010 adoption of a quota-based protection system made the geographic conservation areas an unnecessary restriction. Worried that 2013 will bring drastic cuts to the quotas for cod, haddock, and yellowtail flounder, industry groups will have to wait until January for the Council to review further fish stock data.

Environmentalists and scientists are concerned in particular because the protected areas provide a haven for older female fish that help increase stocks – but hope that the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration, which has to approve the vote and is expected to act by May, will be more cautious.

Fish are also noteworthy this week with the news – or reminder – that seafood fraud is widespread. That means seafood is often labeled as something it is not, usually a cheaper look-alike. A new report by Oceana, an international organization dedicated to ocean conservation, finds that 39% of seafood from 81 grocery stores in New York City was not what appeared on the label, and that 100% of the 16 sushi restaurants investigated sold mislabeled fish. Last year, a Boston Globe investigation found a problem of similar scope.

The problem goes beyond economic duping. Consumers and diners are buying fish whose incorrect labeling might mean it was caught illegally or contains unlisted and illegal chemical additives. Enforcement, however, has focused on health claims, and individual restaurants know that they are at little or no risk of being caught.

Personally, I was glad to read the tuna steak I bought last week had been injected with carbon monoxide to keep its bright red hue. Many of us in Seattle enjoy our inexpensive Japanese cuisine, but the New York wholesaler quoted in the Times is right: “People want cheap sushi, and this is what happens.”

That Was the Hottest Summer Ever!

Photo by Wavy1. Some rights reserved.

This past April, we reported on NOAA climate data that showed that the winter we had just experienced was the warmest winter on record in the continental United States, and that the twelve months prior to the data being released (April 2011 – March 2012) had been the warmest on record as well. In what is perhaps an unlikely progression of this same story, the newest climate data just released features confirmation of even more record-breaking heat.
Specifically, the new data shows that we’ve just experienced the hottest American summer on the books in the 117 year history of U.S. climate data, and also (building on the previous twelve month record) that the past fifteen months have seen above-average temperatures for each month. Jake Crouch of the US National Climatic Data Center, speaking to Reuters, said that “We’re now, in terms of statistics, in unprecedented territory for how long this warm spell has continued in the contiguous U.S.”

Los Angeles in the Process of Saving Itself

Photo by steven.buss. Some rights reserved.

Despite everything that movies (Blade Runner, Terminator, They Live!, Repo Man, etc.) have taught us about the congested, polluted, dystopic Los Angeles of the then-distant future, the L.A. of today appears to be improving rather than going the other way. A new study released by the NOAA this week shows a whopping 98% decrease in vehicle-related air pollutants ( volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, that are most often emitted from tailpipes) in the Los Angeles Basin since the 1960’s, an encouraging plummet despite the fact that L.A. drivers now burn three times the amount of gas and diesel. Carsten Warneke, co-author of the study, attributes this paradox to the fact that “cars are getting cleaner,” specifically regarding more efficient engines, catalytic converters, and the dawn of low emissions vehicles (LEVs). Between 2002 and 2010 alone (when, one might argue, car companies found a vested interest in pushing “greener, cleaner” as a selling point) VOC concentration in the region dropped by half, even as the number of cars on the road increased.

This is good news for Americans living in big cities hoping to turn pollution around, and great news for Los Angeles residents who have been able to see more and more of blue skies and the surrounding mountains thanks to cleaner air (especially since earlier this year it was reported in a study published by the Archives of Internal Medicine that L.A. residents are at an increased risk of stroke just from living there). Yet, this steep drop in VOCs does not correlate directly with a drop in Ozone pollution, which has decreased in the L.A. area since the 1960’s, but at a much gentler rate: levels in the area still do not meet the ozone standards set by the EPA, and in an American Lung Association report on air quality released earlier this year, nine out of the top ten highest ranked cities for ozone pollution fall within the boundaries of greater Los Angeles. According to Warneke, the number of days that had unhealthy ozone levels has dropped from 200 to 100 annually, as of this year, which is encouraging. As long as trends continue in these directions, we just may be able to put a more positive spin on the future in the City of Angels.

You can monitor current air quality conditions in Los Angeles through the AQMD here, updated hourly.

That Was the Warmest Winter Ever!

Photo by Richard Slessor. Some rights reserved.

If you felt like you did less ice scraping, cocoa brewing, teeth chattering, or parka donning over the past few months, new data from the NOAA suggests that you are not alone. In fact, this winter set numerous records for warm temperatures, including the warmest winter months (January – February) on record in the contiguous United States! The average temperature during these months is listed as 42 degrees F, a full six degrees above the national average based on data dating back to 1895. As many east coasters will attest, this March was an especially unseasonably warm month, with 25 middle and eastern states posting record high temperatures for the month (although us PNWesters couldn’t have told you, as evidenced by this, I think, very humorous color-coated graph), and with every US state experiencing at least a single day of record warm temperatures.

Other related facts and figures from the NOAA report: This past “cold season” (defined as the months ranging from October to March), was the second warmest on record (after 1999 – 2000), and the 12 month period ranging from April 2011 – March 2012 was the warmest period of its ilk on record (and as alluded to earlier in this piece, Oregon and KM’s home state of Washington were the only US states to post temperatures that were colder than average).

Loch NPOESS Monster: The Environmental Satellite Rarely Spotted

Image from unukorno. Some rights reserved.

On Friday, the GAO released written testimony before the Subcommittees on Oversight and Investigations and Energy and Environment, Committee on Science, Space, and Technology on the topic of polar satellites. The testimony reviewed and summarized work that National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Department of Defense (DOD) have been doing to develop individual environmental satellite programs that are replacing the recently disbanded joint-agency National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS). The main area of concern? Whether agency slowness could lead to gaps in weather and climate data coverage.

But first, let’s step back a few years.

NPOESS was planned to be a “next generation” environment-monitoring satellite system – circling the earth once every 100 minutes – that would have replaced some clunkier existing satellite systems. The data it would have collected was considered critical for long-term weather and climate forecasting. A contract for the project was awarded in 2002.

In February of 2010, however, the President cut the plug – before the first demonstration satellite was even launched. The program had been plagued with problems. The cost estimates for NPOESSie, our proverbial beast, grew more than 100% (from $6.5B in 2002 to $13.9B at the time of its demise). The program had also suffered significant delays (the planned launch date for a the test satellite was pushed back by over 5 years), as well as technical and management “challenges,” as a White House Fact Sheet put it bluntly.

More accurately, the program was “restructured.” The joint agency project was re-worked as separate satellite programs to be established by NOAA and DOD. A few months after the restructuring was announced, GAO published an initial report assessing the agencies’ efforts, and – surprise, surprise! – found a few areas of concern relating to delays (“the two agencies are scrambling to develop plans for their respective programs”), loss of staff, and insufficient oversight of new program management. The report included recommendations for both agencies to address the key risks.

Last week’s testimony checked back in on NOAA and DOD. According to the GAO, in the year since their first report on the satellite systems, both agencies have made progress in developing their programs and implementing GAO’s recommendations, though not everything has been addressed. The key concern here is that failure to get things up and running quickly – in other words, launching new satellites before the old ones fail – could lead to gaps in satellite data. (There are several figures in both the GAO testimony and report that detail potential gaps.)

And what exactly is the problem with gaps in satellite data? The GAO testimony says it best:

 “According to NOAA, a data gap would lead to less accurate and timely weather prediction models used to support weather forecasting, and advanced warning of extreme events—such as hurricanes, storm surges, and floods—would be diminished. The agency reported that this could place lives, property, and critical infrastructure in danger. In addition, NOAA estimated that the time it takes to respond to emergency search and rescue beacons could double.”

Let’s hope we get a glimpse of NPOESSie (or her spawn) soon.

NOAA Releases First National Aquaculture Policy Draft

Photo by Loozrboy. Some rights reserved.

Though it originally slipped past me, I was recently made aware (by way of a blog post on the Atlantic) of the release of NOAA’s Draft National Aquaculture Policy, which is intended to guide NOAA’s “actions and decisions on aquaculture and to provide a national approach for supporting sustainable commercial production, expanding restoration aquaculture, and researching and developing new technologies.”

More than half of the fish consumed globally is “produced by aquaculture,” yet domestic aquaculture supplies only 5 percent of the seafood Americans eat (and we do love our seafood, stresses Commerce Secretary Locke: we consume 5 billion pounds of it each year!). The NOAA policy – which was released jointly with a complementary draft policy from the Department of Commerce – aims to fix this imbalance by funding innovative in-house aquaculture technologies and creating job initiatives that encourage industry growth in the U.S.

The policy stresses a sustainable approach to aquaculture that includes a tip of the hat to habitat restoration and the rebuilding of wild fish stocks, but it’s the impact from fish farming on these same wild stocks that is often the concern of aquaculture opponents. Indeed, many of the comments already submitted on the policy voice this concern:


“I am one of the millions of citizens who do not approve of developing and selling genetically engineered salmon. You must be aware of the environmental harm that was done when 600,000 nonnative fish escaped in 4 years in the Northwest so the claim to sustainability cannot be true.”

“But wait you say…everyone knows that farmed fish are bad.., bad for the ecology, bad for the wild species in the area, bad for the farmed fish themselves and bad for the consumer. Ah-ha, never fear, NOAA is here. NOAA will make sure that everything is done sustainably. Not only that but (and this is the best part of all), NOAA and the United States Department of Commerce will make sure to tell everyone how safe and environmentally sound our new grand Aquaculture Industry really is. They’ll probably have posters with rainbows and kittens and happy cartoon salmon.”

Agree? Disagree? Click here to submit a comment on the draft policy before April 11, 2011.

Will Controversial Expansion of Naval Activities Harm NW Whales?

Last week the Navy cleared one of several final hurdles facing their proposed operations expansion at the Northwest Training Range Complex (NWTRC) when NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) granted them permission to “take” marine animals incidental to their training activities. An article published in the Bellingham Herald last weekend explains why the plan for expanded operations has animal lovers up in arms.

Photo by Franco Folini. Some rights reserved.

The NWTRC is a stretch of ocean and airspace used for routine naval training that extends to 250 nautical miles west of the coast of Washington, Oregon, and northern California. The Navy is proposing to expand its operations to support future training activities and provide for range enhancements. Critics are quick to point out that these “activities” may include disruptive practices such as the dumping of hazardous materials and chronic noise from sonar testing.

In accordance with NEPA, the Navy has prepared an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) reviewing and evaluating the potential environmental effects of these proposed actions and activities. The Navy finished the EIS (which included formal consultations with NMFS) and then the Navy reviewed the EIS (a process which smacks of conflict of interest), and decided to move forward to “continue to support and conduct current, emerging, and future training and research, development, test, and evaluation […] activities in the Northwest Training Range Complex.”

As part of the approval process, the Navy also had to apply to NMFS for authorization to “take” marine mammals incidental to these training activities. (In the context of marine mammals, the term “take” is a nice-sounding word that means to harass, hunt, capture, or kill. 16 USC 1362.) According to the aforementioned federal register notice in which NMFS issued their authorization, the Navy does expect some incidental harm to marine mammals from the sonars and underwater denotations that are part of the Navy’s routine training activities. Specifically, the Navy requested “authorization to take individuals of 26 species of marine mammals by Level B Harassment and 13 individuals of 9 species by Level A Harassment. […] No mortality of marine mammals is authorized incidental to naval exercises in the NWTRC.”

The authorization was based on findings that the takings will have a “negligible impact on marine mammal stocks and will not have an unmitigable adverse impact on the availability of the affected marine mammal stock for subsistence uses,” and was issued pursuant to NMFS’ recent final rule, which set forth general regulations governing the taking of marine mammals incidental to Navy activities in the NWTRC from October 2010 through October 2015.

However, such findings have not assuaged environmentalists’ concerns. Before the comment period expired, the Orca Network was urging fellow pro-Orca enthusiasts to give NMFS a piece of their mind. The National Resources Defense Council submitted a comment letter directly to the Navy, asking them, on behalf of twenty other environmental groups, to revise their EIS, “improving its impacts and alternatives analysis and establishing temporal and geographic protection zones to mitigate the harmful impacts of its training.” The comment letter was rich with evidence suggesting that the proposed expansion posed significant risk to whales, fish, and other wildlife.

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