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Eye of
the Whale
The Man Who
Knew Too Much


Dick Russell's blog
at the NRDC Action Fund
July 5 - 15, 2005

Introducing Dick Russell's blog July 1, 2005
One Fisherman's Lament July 5, 2005
Whale Killers July 6, 2005
Protecting the Gray Whale Nursery July 7, 2005
Save the Menhaden July 8, 2005
Mercury and Autism July 11, 2005
Fighting for the Last Western Gray Whales July 12, 2005
Death of the California Delta? July 13, 2005
Fish Fry July 14, 2005
Pumping Up the Volume July 15, 2005

July 1, 2005

Introducing Dick Russell's blog
at the NRDC Action Fund
from Tuesday, July 5, for two weeks

Next up, right after the holiday weekend, we've got a very special guest blogger: Dick Russell. For decades, Dick has been writing about environmental issues in magazines and books. He helped lead a successful campaign to save the Atlantic striped bass, which is the subject of his new book, Striper Wars. Dick has also worked to help save the gray whale, the subject of his previous book, Eye of the Whale.
Dick told me recently that he plans to cover a wide range of topics over his two-week blogging stint, including the following, among others:
— the attempt by Japan to get commercial whaling going again
— the renewed effort to protect the gray whale nursery at Laguna San Ignacio
— the fight to protect the last of the western gray whales off Sakhalin Island
— the continued problem of whale strandings likely due to military sonar
— overfishing by a single company of an inedible fish that's critically important to the Atlantic coast food chain
Join us starting Tuesday for two weeks of excitement on the high seas!
Jordan Kessler

July 5, 2005

One Fisherman's Lament

by Dick Russell, July 5, 2005

It's a privilege to be the Action Fund's "guest blogger" over these next 10 days. While a contributing editor for NRDC's Amicus Journal (now OnEarth) for 18 years, I wrote about everything from toxic waste dumping on Native American lands to the devastating impact of high-tech fishing gear on our oceans. My first article in 1982 was about the Atlantic striped bass and, in fact, as a sports fisherman, it was the then-endangered stripers that woke me up to our larger environmental crisis.

Yes, a fish changed my life. For several years I helped lead a coastwide fight against government bureaucrats and commercial interests. We prevailed with a fishing moratorium that resulted in the greatest comeback of any fish species. Striped bass, as I write in my new book Striper Wars, “are the aquatic equivalent of the American bald eagle.”

Later, I became involved in successful battles against ocean dumping and to keep marlin out of the marketplace. Yet today, those majestic marlin are on the edge of oblivion. They're being caught – and thrown back dead as "bycatch" – by longline vessels pursuing other species. At any given moment, up to 100,000 longlines carrying nearly 5 million hooks are sweeping across the high seas capturing whatever strikes the bait.

Among the "highly migratory species," as they're called, the vaunted bluefin tuna and many types of sharks are in terrible trouble, too. Only the swordfish, after fishermen bit the bullet on tough regulations, have begun to show signs of a comeback. Meantime, factory trawlers bulldoze the seafloors, snaring as much as 120,000 pounds of fish with a single scoop of the net. Little wonder that the United Nations tells us fully 75 percent of the world's fish populations are being overfished.

How long can this go on? A generation ago, our oceans yet teemed with fish and were thought inexhaustible. Now entire webs of life – from sharks at the top of the food chain to plankton at the bottom – are being shattered. When will we come together to fight the ocean revolution?

Posted by Dick Russell at July 5, 2005 10:05 AM

July 6, 2005

Whale Killers

by Dick Russell, July 6, 2005

I've about had it with Japan. Ever since a hard-fought moratorium on commercial whaling worldwide went into effect back in 1987, Japan (and Norway) have contined to hunt whales - and sell whale meat - under the guise of "scientific research." Japan has since killed approximately 7,900 minke whales, 243 Bryde's whales, 140 sei whales, and 38 sperm whales. This June, at the yearly meeting of the International Whaling Commission, the Japanese delegation thumbed their noses at the U.S. and other nations, announcing plans to double their annual catch of Antarctic minkes (to just under a thousand) and to start taking 50 humpback and 50 fin whales every year as well.

At the same time, as they continued to buy the votes of new IWC members from small nations, Japan came closer than ever this year to its goal of overturning the commercial whaling ban. "Foreigners need to understand this is part of our culture," as one spokesperson put it.

Well, my cultural understanding hits a cul-de-sac when I think of these most majestic of oceanic creatures again falling victim to the harpoons that nearly wiped them off the face of the earth. I'm equally sickened at the attitude of some of the big wildlife "protection" groups, which see Japan's crusade as inevitably succeeding and thus are ready to compromise by suporting a Revised Management Scheme. (For the latest scientists' assessment of what Japan is up to, click here. My previous coverage of this issue appears here.)

To me, whale hunting is unconscionable at any juncture - but even more so today, when our marine mammals are facing so many other threats: Navy sonar so loud it drives many species to strand themselves, ship strikes killing the already-endangered right whales, oil drilling that may wipe out the Western Pacific gray whales, and global warming imperiling the lower food chain upon which they all depend.

This is not a time to "play ball" with those who, for cultural or corporate reasons, put in jeopardy these beautiful, sentient, intelligent animals.

Posted by Dick Russell at July 6, 2005 10:50 AM

July 7, 2005

Protecting the Gray Whale Nursery

by Dick Russell, July 7, 2005

“Yes, abruptly, magically, there they are, only a few feet away from the starboard side....The mother dwarfs our boat....The calf is nearly one-third her size....The mother uses her body as a natural breakwater for her calf, seeming to coax it toward the boat. Slowly, the baby makes the rounds of each person’s outstretched hands....It’s a primordial feeling, ancient beyond words. A fusion of two worlds, capsizing time and space.”

Since I wrote those words in my 2001 book Eye of the Whale, the gray whale nursery at Laguna San Ignacio in Baja California, Mexico, has come under threat once more. Despite Mitsubishi and the Mexican government having apparently given up on plans to build a massive industrial saltworks at the lagoon, negotiations for development deals with local land-owners resumed over the past year.

At the same time, U.S. companies are seeking to build liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals along Baja’s Pacific coat ᾢ right in the path of the gray whales’ annual migration. Baja’s ecology is also threatened by the “Nautical Steps,” plans to build a series of resort marinas with massive high-rises on the Sea of Cortez ᾢ where the endangered vaquita porpoise is hanging on by a thread and overfishing has already devastated this once-prolific region.

The NRDC’s BioGems campaign, Wildcoast, Pronatura, and others are working to defend both sides of the Baja peninsula. At Laguna San Ignacio, the goal is to purchase development rights and permanently protect this pristine location. “Las Amistosas” ᾢ the friendly whales ᾢ deserve no less.

"...for there is no splendor greater than the gray
when the light turns it to silver.
Its bottomless breath is an exhalation."

-Homero Aridjis, El Ojo de La Ballena

Posted by Dick Russell at July 7, 2005 10:45 AM

July 8, 2005

Save the Menhaden

by Dick Russell, July 8, 2005

In my new book Striper Wars: An American Fish Story, I wrote: “If we want to preserve species, we can’t do so one by one; rather, we must look at the entire ecosystem of which they ᾢ and we ᾢ are a part.” The fight going on right now over a small, bony, inedible fish called the menhaden is a prime example of this necessity.

A member of the herring family, menhaden not only serve as a vital food source for larger fish, seabirds and marine mammals, they’re a “filter feeder” that cleans up the pollution-caused algae choking the Chesapeake Bay.

But menhaden also comprise one of America’s biggest fisheries. A single corporation, Omega Protein, landed an astounding 375 million pounds in 2003. The menhaden are ground up into fish meal for chickens, hogs, and aquaculture operations. And their “heart-healthy” fish oil is increasingly used as a human diet supplement.

Overfishing of menhaden is taking its toll in the Chesapeake region. Striped bass can’t find enough to eat, and are falling victim to a chronic bacterial infection. More “dead zones,” devoid of life, are occurring in the bay because of all the algae.

For the first time, fishery managers will vote in mid-August on whether to impose regulations on the menhaden industry. Many fishermen and conservationists would like to see a moratorium. Omega Protein, of course, is threatening lawsuits. Its parent company, Zapata Corporation, was founded by George H.W. Bush; today, Omega is owned by billionaire Malcolm Glazer.

Can ecosystem management prevail over greed? That’s the question of the hour.

Posted by Dick Russell at July 8, 2005 11:08 AM

July 11, 2005

Mercury and Autism

by Dick Russell, July 11, 2005

A couple of weeks ago, I came across probably the most horrifying article I've ever read - an investigative piece by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., about a mercury-based preservative (thimerosal) in kids' vaccines that may well be linked to the autism epidemic that's sweeping our country. Whether or not Kennedy ever decides to run for public office, he's become a great muckracking journalist in the tradition of Upton Sinclair. What he's exposed here is a goverment and corporate coverup of staggering and tragic proportions.

It was almost as appalling to read the New York Times' long front-page article on this same subject shortly thereafter. While ignoring the persuasive studies cited by Kennedy, as well as the efforts of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist to protect thimerosal's developer Eli Lilly from liability, the Times dismissed parental fears (and lawsuits) as conspiracy theories and hysteria. Yet, just after comparing the mercury levels in each childhood vaccine to those in a tuna sandwich, the next paragraphs recount how in 1999 "the American Academy of Pediatrics and Public Health Service released a joint statement urging vaccine makers to remove thimerosal as quickly as possible." Which, we are told, they largely did.

What I'm left wondering is, who was leaning on the Times? Though I generally think America's "paper of record" does a decent job of covering the environment (though not enough of it) - and I applaud its solid global warming reportage by Andrew Revkin - its autism article bespeaks the kind of snide, onesided coverage that leaves readers not knowing what to believe, thus contributing to the apathy that puts a stranglehold on any movement toward real change. And the major media's abdication of its time-honored watchdog role is precisely what Kennedy has been hammering away about in his recent speeches and the new paperback edition of his best-selling book, Crimes Against Nature.

Posted by Dick Russell at July 11, 2005 11:37 AM

July 12, 2005

Fighting for the Last Western Gray Whales

by Dick Russell, July 12, 2005

When I was researching my book, Eye of the Whale in 1999, I traveled to one of the most remote places on earth: Piltun Lagoon, off Sakhalin Island in the Russian Far East. This is the feeding ground for the Western gray whale, a critically endangered species with a population now under 100. It's also the site of the largest oil and gas project ever undertaken.

These whales are in such jeopardy that the loss of a single breeding-age female could drive them to extinction. Yet Sakhalin Energy, a consortium led by Shell, plans $12 bilion worth of offshore drilling platforms and a nearly 500-mile long pipeline snaking across a highly earthquake-prone land - threatening not only the whales, but more than 1,000 rivers and streams with subsistence fisheries.

Protests began on a small-scale, through a devoted band of young people calling themselves Sakhalin Environment Watch. Now, finally, big environmental groups worldwide are taking notice. In late June, while Sakhalin's indigenous people conducted a peaceful road blockade to temporarily halt development, simultaneous protest rallies were held in Moscow, London, and New York. Letters from 3,000 kids called upon Credit Suisse First Boston to withdraw its financial support from Sakhalin-II, whose partners include Japan's Mitsubishi and Mitsui corporations.

So far, Shell has refused to move its offshore platform further away from the gray whale habitat. An oil spill, of course, would be disastrous. Concerns about noise, and the platform's installation burying the whales' food under sedimentation, are apparently of no concern to the company.

To learn more about what's happening, check out these websites:

-- DirtyMoney.org: Sakhalin Oil

-- Pacific Environment: Shell Oil on Sakhalin

-- Rainforest Action Network: Tell Credit Suisse to Dump Shell's Sakhalin Oil Project!

-- Greenpeace Russia: Credit Suisse Bank ᾢ Swiss Guarantee of Destruction of Sakhalin’s Ecosystem?

-- Sakhalin Environment Watch

-- World Wildlife Fund: Shell Must Heed Scientific Findings

Posted by Dick Russell at July 12, 2005 10:07 AM

July 13, 2005

Death of the California Delta?

by Dick Russell, July 13, 2005

Let's start by contemplating a few figures: In California, agribusiness is estimated to consume more than 80 percent of the surface water. The biggest users are the cotton barons of the Central Valley, like the Boswell corporation, who employ Hispanic laborers to drench a desert landscape with more pesticides than anywhere else in the world. (The Central Valley now has the worst air quality in America).

Where is all the water coming from? The San Francisco Bay-Delta estuary to the north, through a couple of massive pumping stations that not only suck in millions of fish eggs and larvae but also drain the freshwater needed to support aquatic life. Once the most ecologically rich estuary in North America, it's now probably the most endangered.

Striped bass were brought out here on the early transcontinental railroad in 1879 and flourished for more than a hundred years. Today, populations of newborn stripers are at their all-time lowest (see my Los Angeles Times article and new book Striper Wars for more on this). Delta smelt and Chinook salmon are already on the federal endangered species list. Even the base of the food chain, the plankton, has crashed.

So how can the California Department of Water Resources possibly justify its proposal to dramatically INCREASE the water exports? This new plan was developed, as NRDC recently reported, "in closed door negotiations with a few powerful water users that excluded the environmental and fishing communities."

On June 29, a diverse collection of fishing groups came together to oppose the water diversion increase. As Whitey Rasmussen of the California Striped Bass Association put it, "If I had just one gift to leave my grandchildren, it would be a healthy Bay and Delta, with its once-great runs of salmon, sturgeon, American shad and striped bass, along with its vast expanse of fertile wetlands restored." (See also the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance Web site.)

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who touts the environment as one of his major concerns, needs to know that we won't stand for the collapse of the Bay-Delta.

Posted by Dick Russell at July 13, 2005 11:02 AM

July 14, 2005

Fish Fry

by Dick Russell, July 14, 2005

Amid all the talk about what rising temperatures and sea levels will mean for human habitation, not as much attention has been paid to what's going to happen to our oceans and estuaries. We live on a water planet, and we're killing it on many levels.

Studies cited in my book Striper Wars indicate that the warming Chesapeake Bay is soon to become an undesirable habitat for cool-water species like the striped bass. Rising waters are likely to drown marshlands essential to the development of young menhaden, a forage fish that also filters pollutants out of the bay. And that's just one place, a microcosm of a looming global disaster. Britain's Royal Society warned recently that carbon dioxide is turning our oceans acidic, likely to further harm deteriorating coral reefs and reduce populations of plankton, the base of the food chain.

Already, high river temperatures are killing off millions of spawning salmon in British Columbia. In the Southern Ocean, vanishing sea ice has brought about an 80 percent drop in numbers of Antarctic krill, the major source of food for whales and other animals there. In the Arctic, where amphipods need cold, nutrient-rich waters to thrive, gray whales are no longer finding enough to eat. In the warming North Sea, cod stocks have plummeted faster than overfishing can account for. Mediterranean species like red mullet are migrating north.

Ocean temperatures in the North Atlantic hit an all-time high in 2004. And what happens if, as some research predicts, that ocean's circulation system shuts down? In addition to plunging much of Europe into a deep freeze, this would shrink the North Atlantic's plankton stocks by half!

While the Bush Administration fudges the figures on behalf of its corporate suitors like ExxonMobil, refusing even to be part of the Kyoto Protocol, "the rate of change we are seeing to the ocean's chemistry is a hundred times faster than has happened for millions of years," according to the Royal Society's John Raven. The world's worst terrorists, in my view, are those who continue to ignore the scientific evidence and turn a blind eye. What conceivable future is being bequeathed to our children and grandchildren?

(For links to many recent articles about climate change and the oceans, visit Ross Gelbspan's site.)

Posted by Dick Russell at July 14, 2005 10:31 AM

July 15, 2005

Pumping Up the Volume

by Dick Russell, July 15, 2005

It's been great being the NRDC's guest blogger these past couple of weeks, and I've really appreciated all the responses. It's time for outrage at what's happening to our oceans and their magnificent inhabitants, and I'm glad to have helped fuel the fire. It seems a day can't go by without something new that gets my blood boiling. This morning, it's learning that the U.S. Coast Guard is using unspecified "national security" concerns as an excuse for not asking ship captains to slow down and be careful in areas where North Atlantic right whales have been sighted.

These are one of the planet's most endangered species, with less than 300 remaining, and ship strikes - led by the Coast Guard and Navy - are the leading cause of death among right whales. Despite a plea for help from NOAA Fisheries, Admiral Thomas Collins (the Commandant) has responded that anything "regarding vessel speed or routing regulations" raises "national security" and other "policy interests" that "must be considered along with recovery of right whales."

Besides ship collisions, whales, dolphins and fish already must run a gauntlet of military sonar and seismic air guns used in oil and gas explorations. Noise pollution in their invisible domain can be deafening. In recent months, marine mammal strandings have increased dramatically despite a growing outcry from scientists and environmental groups.

As Thoreau once wrote, "Who heeds the fishes when they cry?" Certainly not the current Bush administration. Indeed, a recent survey sent to more than 460 NOAA Fisheries scientists across the country revealed that 58 percent know of instances where high-level Commerce Department appointees "have inappropriately altered NOAA Fisheries determinations." Unless the scientific findings suit the administration's predetermined policies, they're out the window.

And new federal guideines supposedly aimed at speeding up restoration of depleted fish stocks may have just the opposite effect. The way things stand now, fishery managers need to try to do this within a 10-year period. The new rules will stretch that time-frame for certain species, and likely result in still more overfishing. (The public may comment until August 22 on the proposed rule changes, click here for more information).

Meantime, a story this week out of Tokyo finds Iceland telling its pro-whaling ally Japan that maybe they could find a way to cooperate on resuming commercial whaling.

The beast seems to devour the beauty of this planet more voraciously every day. Should we call the situation hopeless? A good friend of mine has a phrase for how to live with the onslaught and keep fighting for what we love. She calls it "ambulatory hopelessness." I'll make that my rallying cry for the end of my first try at blogging. And thanks again for listening.

[Dick Russell will soon take part in a Writers-at-Large panel dicussion in Los Angeles: Writers of the Storm: Fake News, and Public Decency, in the Age of Terror. For a schedule of all his appearances around his new book Striper Wars, see www.dickrussell.org.]

Posted by Dick Russell at July 15, 2005 10:14 AM

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