In the Wake of A Mother’s Tragedy, Another Mother Grieves

I do not normally blog directly from my heart, nor do I usually fill any of my social media profiles with my beliefs about politics, religion, or race … Honestly, I don’t feel I’m informed enough about any of those areas to put myself out there in a way that invites attack. However, the shooting yesterday of yet another innocent black man by an out of control police officer has hit home in a strange way.

Yesterday was my son’s 14th birthday, and as many young teens are wont to do, he is pushing every day for more freedom, fewer restrictions, more ability to stray from home without me. Like many parents, I worry incessantly over whether or not I should allow him to wander without me.

For his birthday, I posted a bunch of photos – wonderful, amusing snapshots of the creative, sometimes silly and often introspective child he was (amusing to me, anyway; for him some of them I’m certain are a horrible embarrassment). One of them, my favorite, I used as my “profile picture” on my personal Facebook page. It is the photo of the face of a handsome child intently studying a butterfly that is balanced on a leaf the child is pinching between his fingers. My son is a budding entomologist (though he prefers to be called an “insectologist”), with a special interest in ants.

My son also speaks, reads, and writes in Russian, and when he puts his mind to it can write a decent argumentative essay. He plays soccer, basketball, and this last season enjoyed being a member of the track team. He’s also a member of the science club, and part of his school’s self-described “nerd herd.” He’s an excellent artist with a mind bent towards architectural design (as I write this I can hear the Legos being shuffled around in his room). In addition, my son is polite (he opens doors for people, says “please” and “thank you,” and has passable table manners), is generally respectful of his elders, and is growing more and more thoughtful and helpful.

Yes, I am very, very proud of my son. He is growing to be a fine young man, and I have every reason to believe he will continue on this path, except for one thing …

My son is black.

Well, in reality, my son is mixed, because I am white and his father is black. But most of the time, I don’t think of him as anything except my son, Amadi. My son is a gorgeous caramel-colored boy with big, dark eyes, and soft, curly hair. This last year he’s grown taller than either of his parents by several inches, his voice has changed, and his little mustache is getting thicker. In other words, he’s just another kid, pretty typical for his age.

20100823 Amadi w: Butterfly

The photo I posted of him as my Facebook picture has been directly in front of me as I’ve read the accounts of Philando Castile’s death, watched the video of Ms. Reynold’s four-year-old child process the unimaginable, and read quotes from Philando’s mother. My heart hurts for all of the mothers out there, but especially for all of the mothers of black sons. Flashes of my beautiful little boy keep running through my mind, as I’m certain happens to every mother with every child.

Yes, I am afraid to let my son leave the house alone. I am afraid to let him ride the transit alone. I am afraid of the day he starts driving on his own. Because he is growing to be a black man in America, and if some police officer decides he looks suspicious, there is a very real chance that whether or not my son is innocent he will get hurt, or worse.

My son noted recently that one of our neighbors has a “Police Lives Matter” bumper sticker on his truck. While this is certainly a true statement, just as the statement “all lives matter” is also true, not only is it fantastically dismissive of the point of the “Black Lives Matter” movement, it also misses a very crucial fact. Police officers have chosen a career that by its very nature puts them in harms way, that sometimes involves being shot at. Black people, on the other hand, have not chosen to be black, any more than white people have chosen to be white.

I am white, and I understand very well that because of that I enjoy some privileges, that I will never fully understand what it is to be part of the non-white races in America. I also happen to have been born predominantly straight and with genitalia that match my sense of self, was raised in the Christian faith (though I don’t follow it anymore), don’t have any real handicaps that make me stand out, and am in all other ways a pretty run-of-the-mill individual, non-threatening to the “powers that be.” So, I will never be able to fully understand what it’s like to be persecuted because of the way you were born.

I have seen and felt first-hand, however, the ugliness of racism directed at me and my loved ones (I won’t go into the many accounts of racism I’ve witnessed and felt here; perhaps another time). As a mother, I sympathize strongly with all the mothers who have lost their children for whatever reason … police brutality, violence, drugs, mental illness … How ever the loss occurs, it is an emptiness that will never be filled.

post-script addition: The day after I posted this, I was horrified to learn of the Dallas, Texas shooting of police officers who were doing exactly what they should have been doing. My heart goes out to them and their families. I hope we can learn from this tragedy and move forward together.

The Yamhill Rivers Nature Reserve: a Proposal

By Neyssa Hays


     The South Yamhill and Yamhill Rivers combined run through 71 miles of Northwest Oregon farmland and small towns, including Sheridan, McMinnville, Dundee, and Dayton (from west to east). A tributary of the Willamette River, the bi-river system has become an important spawning ground for the threatened and evolutionarily significant unit (ESU) of Oregon Coastal Coho Salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch) as well as a winter refuge for Chinook Salmon (O. tshawytscha) smolts and juveniles, and the historic grassland prairies surrounding the lower sections were home to the endangered Fender’s Blue Butterfly (Icaricia icarioides fenderi) as well as other enlisted species (Good et al. 2005, McIntire et al. 2007, Togstad 2011).

     Creating the Yamhill Rivers Reserve, a nature reserve that stretches the length of the South Yamhill and Yamhill River system at a width of at least 300 feet on each side of the river, would form a riparian zone of 5370 acres of contiguously protected habitat with minimal loss of agricultural land for any one farmer or business. In addition, adding a parcel of roughly 700 acres along the river that includes a small wetland area would provide land that could be restored to oak savannah and grassland prairie habitat.

     The source of the South Yamhill River is located at coordinates 45.110556, -123.727778, in the foothills on the east side of the Coast Range, at an elevation of roughly 551 feet (Google maps 2012). The river then flows east. By the time it joins with the North Yamhill River to become the Yamhill River, it has dropped to an elevation of 75 feet; the Yamhill River continues the descent to 59 feet at its confluence with the Willamette River. The Yamhill Basin watershed varies in elevation from a high of over 3400 feet at the peak of Trask Mountain to a low of roughly 59 feet at the confluence of the Yamhill River and the Willamette River (Bash & Ishii, eds. 2002). The watershed, including the Yamhill River system, was carved into rolling hills and an expansive flatland by the Missoula Floods, which also deposited granite, quartzite, and slate. The river floodplains are composed predominantly of deep alluvial deposits of sand, gravel and silt over sedimentary rock. Average annual rainfall is 50 inches or less, most of which falls between November and March; temperatures are mild with mean winter temperatures in the low 40’s (F) and high summer temperatures averaging in the low 80’s (F).

Conservation Aims

     Over the last twenty years, the population of Yamhill County has experienced a higher growth rate compared to the rest of the state and is predicted to grow from 101,000 to nearly 156,000 people over the next thirty years, with the highest concentrations in the towns near the South Yamhill River (Bash & Ishii, eds. 2002). As populations grow, pressure to subdivide and build on the land along the river will increase. Most of the land surrounding the Yamhill River system is currently farmed, and while some farmers allow a wide margin between plowed land and the river, many farmers work the land within a few feet of the embankment, a practice that leads to high soil erosion, muddied rivers, warm water temperatures, and higher run-off of farm chemicals (fertilizer, pesticides, and herbicides). Creating a wide, protected riparian zone would buffer the rivers from these effects and will ensure a healthier ecosystem for future generations.

     In addition to safeguarding habitat for Coho Salmon and Fender’s Blue Butterflies, the Yamhill Rivers Reserve would protect several other species, including plants, insects, birds,amphibians, mammals, and other fish (some threatened or endangered, others of concern; USFWS 2012). Threatened and endangered plant species that would potentially benefit from this reserve are Water Howelia (Howelia aquatilis), Willamette Daisy (Erigeron decumbens var. decumbens), Kincaid’s Lupine (Lupinus sulphureus ssp. kincaidii), and Nelson’s checkermallow (Sidalcea nelsoniana; CPC 2010). The last two plants are important food sources for the Fender’s Blue Butterfly. Other species of concern that may benefit from the reserve include the Streaked Horned Lark (Eremophila alpestris strigata), the Southern Torrent Salamander (Rhyacotriton variegates), the Long-eared Myotis Bat (Myotis evotis), Coastal Cutthroat Trout (Oncorhynchus clarki ssp) to name a few.

     The most obvious landscape features of interest for the Yamhill Rivers Reserve are the rivers themselves. Historically, the rivers wound through habitats such as mixed conifer-deciduous foothills and oak savanna (Bash and Ishii, eds. 2002). The latter of the two is perhaps the least obvious landscape feature of interest considered in this plan, though of high significance. Oak savanna and associated grassland prairie were once abundant habitats throughout much of North America and provide important food sources and refuge for a variety of organisms, including Fender’s Blue Butterfly, Streaked Horned Lark, Pygmy Rabbits, game birds, deer, and many others. Because the land on which they grow is prized for agriculture, today less than 0.5% of natural prairies and oak savanna remain and much of that has been severely affected by invasive species (McIntire et al. 2007).


     In 1996, the Oregon State University Extension Service surveyed Yamhill County residents and found that over 90% of respondents supported continuing strategic planning for water quality and watershed management (Bash and Ishii, eds. 2002). The South Yamhill River is listed under section 303 of the Federal Clean Water Act with concern over water quality issues including “[high] temperature, flow modification, and bacteria,” all having harmful effects to many stream organisms, including salmon. Riparian zones counter all of these negative effects, and the longer and wider the continuous zone is the more effective it becomes. Cool water temperatures are of utmost importance throughout the salmon life history and deep riparian zones with tall trees are ideal for shading and cooling rivers and streams. Recent studies in Ireland have shown that a mix of dense canopy and sporadically open areas create conditions beneficial to macroinvertebrates that are important food sources for salmon (McCormick and Harrison 2011); this condition can be created in the initial stages of the reserve through the planting of fast-growing, large native riparian species such as alder, willow, and cottonwood as well as smaller shrubs such as elderberry and spirea. As riparian zones age, debris from falling trees and other plants serve to modify the water flow and offer refuge to fish and other animals. The root systems of the plants and soil of riparian zones act as natural filter systems against bacteria and chemical pollutants.

     In addition to maximizing the filtering system described above, the 300-foot width of the Yamhill Rivers Reserve is necessary to encourage species diversity. It is currently standard practice (and law in many countries and states in the US) in the timber industry to leave a riparian buffer when cutting timber; such buffer strips vary in width from an average of 50 feet to a high of 165 feet (Whitaker and Montevecchi 1999 and Lee et al. 2003). While studies have shown that these widths are ample to moderate edge effects on trees along riverbanks, response of bird  populations varies with width of riparian zones (Whitaker and Montevecchi 1999 and Harper et al. 2007). Whitaker and Montevecchi (1999) found that in riparian buffer zones of any width populations of birds generally associated with river habitats resembled those of uncut river areas. Interior forest bird populations, however, increased somewhat with increasing width, and the scientists postulated that it was likely that wider riparian buffer zones would have a positive influence on these populations.

     Similarly, studies of Fender’s Blue Butterflies have shown that populations respond positively to larger patches of habitat (McIntire et al. 2007). Studies over a ten-year period followed by model simulations indicate that increasing butterfly refuges to at least 340 acres of connected patches have the potential to increase populations from the current 5,000 individuals to upwards of 65,000. Prairie acreage of this size would also be beneficial to the Streaked Horned Lark, which has been shown to require open areas of over 300 acres to support a healthy nesting population (FWS 2011). The remaining ~350 acres of the 700 acres planned would be restored to oak savanna, which would serve a variety of native animals that have lost most of their habitat to farming during the last two centuries.

Trophic Level Considerations

     Players in the trophic levels will depend to some respect on whether they are aquatic or terrestrial species, although there are certainly crosses as well. In the river, the top trophic level is most likely to be the salmon; with smaller fish and macroinvertebrates at the second level; and in the first level a combination of detritus (including salmon carcasses), higher level plants, and algae.

     The Yamhill River system was previously “cleaned” of woody debris used by all trophic levels as habitat, food, or substrate; subsequent winter flooding washed away gravel imperative to spawning (Bash and Ishii, eds. 2002). Management actions will include planting of fast growing, tall species of trees as well as slower growing trees to provide shade and eventual deadwood for all trophic levels. It may be necessary to include woody debris in the initial restoration projects as well as laying down appropriate gravel.

     Terrestrial primary producers along the riparian corridor will include black cottonwood, alder, willow, and understory plants such as elderberry and spirea in the initial stages, followed by such slow-growing species as big-leaf maple, bitter cherry, Douglas fir, and western red cedar. Some early producers and saplings of slow-growing species will require being planted while others will likely self-propagate once the land is no longer being cleared for farming. The oak savanna and grassland prairie will need to be extensively planted with native species and monitored for control of invasive species. Herbivores, the second trophic level, will include Pygmy Rabbits, Pocket Gophers, several species of birds, deer, and Fender’s Blue Butterflies; some of these species, such as deer, will arrive autonomously while the populations of others, such as Pygmy Rabbits and Fender’s Blues, will need to be transplanted after the plants are well established. Likely the top trophic level will be dominated by coyotes and foxes, but will also include birds such as osprey, hawks, eagles, and owls as well as minute predators such as Myotis Bats. It is not out of the question, however, that cougars would also use the riparian corridor, though this is likely to take several years.

Stakeholder concern

     Of greatest concern to stakeholders would be the loss of land used for farming, timber, or development. A square acre is 208 feet per side, and one mile is 5280 feet long; so for every mile of riparian zoning, a landowner would stand to lose roughly 38 acres on each side of the river. Additionally, much of the upper end of the river runs through land owned by the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde or its members. While they may be supportive of this  plan, many of their tribal members are farmers and would be hard-pressed to give up their farmland for a nature reserve. In the bottomland of the river about five miles west of McMinnville, Riverbend Landfill operates right up to the edge of the river and in the last few years management expanded their operation, putting in a state-of-the-art waste disposal system.

     Further down river, the South Yamhill flows directly through McMinnville and in several places the highway and other roads cross over. These areas cannot be protected or restored at present and it is not likely that they will be in the future either. However, local planners are already establishing urban growth boundaries (UGB’s), which could include riparian zoning (Bash and Ishii, eds. 2002). Throughout the watershed, water quality would benefit by replacing culverts with bridges.


     The first management actions would be to make the proposal to the community and listen to the concerns of the primary stakeholders. Management would need to educate the stakeholders on the benefits of riparian buffering and healthy water systems, such as reduced flooding and bank erosion, and decreased need for fertilizing because the riparian zone would support more native pollinators. Perhaps there could be incentives for stakeholders to support the plan as well. Likely, the 700-acre parcel for oak savanna and grassland prairie would need to be purchased. All involved parties then would try to come to an agreement.

     Once the area is established, subsequent management actions should be first to design and carry out initial water quality and wildlife studies. Once a baseline is established, management will engage in removal of invasive species, planting native species, and continued monitoring of the ecological health of the area. Additionally, stakeholders will be invited to regular informational meetings to discuss progress and concerns.

Future Predictions

     The 100-year predictions for Pacific salmon are dire, with most populations in the lower latitudes going extinct due to climate change. However, if river systems such as the Yamhill can be set-aside as salmon sanctuaries and the waters cooled enough, the salmon stand an increased chance of survival. Many of the tree species of older riparian corridors are long-lived species with varying growth rates. In 100 years a Douglas fir may have reached nearly its full 230 feet and stand another 800 years growing slowly in diameter, while the oaks in the savanna will have only reached half of their full 85 feet and may persist another 250 years. Several of the oaks in the savanna will have lost limbs and become hosts for cavity dwellers, including Wood Ducks, Acorn Woodpeckers, and bats. Along the river, Black Cottonwoods would likely out-compete the Red Alder and dominate the embankment. Logs and debris from fallen trees as well as water-loving willows will have created a complex river scene. McIntire et al. (2007) predicted populations of Fender’s Blues in a 300-acre system would stabilize after 25 years to between 50,000 and 65,000 individuals. Other populations of short-lived species such as songbirds, bats, and rodents will likely have reached their carrying capacity as well and will have settled into relatively stable populations. Longer-lived species such as deer and coyotes will likely still be increasing in population.

     In 1000 years the area will have experienced some climax communities and some of the Douglas firs would be nurse logs for species such as Western Hemlock as well as under-story plants such as huckleberry, salal, and snowberry. Pileated woodpeckers will likely be heard searching for food and making homes in snags and diseased trees. The oak savanna as well will have seen replacements and successional changes. Historically oak savanna and grassland prairies were maintained through fire, both controlled and natural. It is conceivable that future management practices would also include controlled fire; this would have the desirable effects of removing many invasive species and ridding the area of tree-damaging fungus and disease.

Potential Impacts

     Because Coho Salmon are not native to the Yamhill River system, it is possible that  their increased presence would have a negative effect on other species in the river system. The Coho currently spawning in the Yamhill Rivers are naturally returning descendents of released fish from a far-off hatchery, a practice that was discontinued in 1997 after nearly fifty years (Togstad 2011). However, on a whole, wild Pacific salmon numbers are dwindling for many reasons, including climate change, over-fishing, and competition with hatchery-reared salmon; supporting populations that are now naturally spawning has the potential for preserving a species that is struggling in its historic rivers. Other impacts of the riparian zone include higher biodiversity, decreased run-off, and cleaner, cooler waters.

     The Yamhill Rivers Reserve would improve water quality in the South Yamhill and Yamhill Rivers, and increase Coho salmon and Fender’s Blue butterfly populations for many future generations. Moreover, it could become a model for riparian management systems throughout the Pacific Northwest and beyond.



Bash, J. and J. Ishii, eds. 2002. Upper South Yamhill River watershed assessment. Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board 1-115. Accessed 4/25/2012 at:

CPC. 2010. Center for Plant Conservation Website. Accessed 4/20/2012 at:

FWS. 2011. Species Fact Sheet Streaked Horned Lark Eremophila alpestris strigata. Fish and Wildlife Services. Accessed 5/30/2012 at:

Good, T.P., R.S. Waples, and P. Adams, eds. 2005. Updated status of federally listed ESUs of West Coast salmon and steelhead. U.S. Dept. Commer., NOAA Tech. Memo. NMFSNWFSC-66, 598 p.

Lee, P., C. Smyth, and S. Boutin. 2004. Quantitative review of riparian buffer width guidelines from Canada and the United States. Journal of Environmental Management 70:165-180.

McCormick, D. P. and S. S. C. Harrison, 2011. Direct and indirect effects of riparian canopy on juvenile Atlantic salmon, Salmo salar, and brown trout, Salmo trutta, in south-west Ireland. Fisheries Management and Ecology 18:444-455.

McIntire, E. J. B., C. B. Shultz, and E. E. Crone. 2007. Designing a network for butterfly habitat restoration: where individuals, populations and landscapes interact. Journal of Applied Ecology 44:725-736.

Togsad, J. 2011. Simple way to save salmon: Conservation District helps landowners improve conditions for fish in local streams. The News Register May 21, 2011. Accessed 5/30/2012 at:

USFWS. 2012. Federally listed, proposed, candidate species and species of concern under the jurisdiction of the Fish and Wildlife Service which may occur within Yamhill County, Oregon. Accessed 4/18/2012 at:

Wondzell, S. M., M. A. Hemstrom, and P. A. Bisson. 2007. Simulating riparian vegetation and aquatic habitat dynamics in response to natural and anthropogenic disturbance regimes in the Upper Grande Ronde River, Oregon, USA. Landscape and Urban Planning 80:249-267.

Whitaker, D. M. and W. A. Montevecchi. 1999. Breeding bird assemblages inhabiting riparian buffer strips in Newfoundland, Canada. Journal of Wildlife Management 63:167-179.

Why Should We Care What Happens to a Small Mammal in the North Pacific?

By Neyssa Hays

As scientists learn more and more about certain species, it is becoming clearer that some are important for ecological structure and some species are good indicators of the health or illness of the area in which they live.  Sea otters are both and taking steps to protect them may be taking steps to protect us all.

Sea Otter with Urchin

Sea Otter with Urchin (France 2007)

Sea Otters as Keystone Species

The largest member of the family Mustelidae (minks, weasels, badgers, etc.), the charismatic sea otter (Enhydra lutris) is a well-documented keystone species because of their preferred food source: the spiny, purple sea urchin (Estes et al. 1982) A keystone species is a species that has a disproportionately large effect on its environment in comparison to its abundance.  Left unchecked, herbivorous urchins decimate kelp forests, leaving vast areas of ocean desert where once stood lush forests teeming with life (Estes et al. 1982 and 2010).  “Without any [other] natural predators,” wrote sea otter biologist James Estes, “urchins can become so numerous that they overgraze the lush kelp forests that otherwise abound along the West Coast. When this happens, the lost ecological benefits — both to society and the environment — are dramatic” (Estes 2012). Used by a plethora of ocean dwellers (including economically important species) for food, shelter, and rearing ground, the kelp forests are also critically central in maintaining coastline integrity and mitigating erosion (Estes et al. 2010).

Sea otter in the sun (France 2007)

Sea otter in the sun (France 2007)


Sea otters as Sentinel Species        

In addition to being a keystone species, sea otters have proven themselves to be a sentinel species, organisms whose welfare is indicative of the state of the environment in which they live.  As such, sea otter illnesses alert human welfare officials to potentially dangerous conditions along the coastline (Jessup et al. 2004).  If the waters in which they live are healthy, sea otters are as well, but with rising pollutants in coastal waters, protecting otter health has become increasingly difficult.  Fertilizer and pesticide runoff from lawns and farms; petroleum slicks from driveways, parking lots, gas stations, and tanker accidents; and diseases from domesticated animals are all taking their toll on the health of our oceans, and sea otter populations are showing the effects.  While birth rates have remained normal, mortality of adults is high and much of that has been from disease caused by contact with anthropogenic (of human origin) waste (Miller 2012), especially along coastlines with high human populations. This is particularly problematic for females who remain close to the waters in which they were born and are therefore exposed to the same contaminants through their entire lives (Jessup et al. 2004).

“All the research we have done to date suggests that there’s no one single mortality factor but that the deaths are caused by a suite of interacting stressors,” states Tim Tinker of the U.S. Geological Survey’s otter research program (Kettmann 2010).

Water pollution is hazardous to sea otters because of their life history patterns and habits, and each pollutant poses a distinct problem.  Because sea otters dive to hunt for and eat predominantly bottom-feeders (such as clams, crabs, sea urchin, and abalone) but spend most of their time floating on the surface, they come in direct contact with anything that is washed out to sea, including toxins and parasites from anthropogenic sources (Miller 2012). On the surface of the water where they spend most of their time, sea otters are exposed to oil slicks and toxic algal blooms, problems that have increased dramatically in recent years, while diving for their food requires swimming through other suspended pollutants.

Sea otters are born in and spend nearly their entire lives in the water, and though they are considered semi-aquatic by biologists because they are lacking features of fully aquatic mammals such as cetaceans (whales and dolphins) (Yeates 2007), their hind limbs are so well adapted for swimming, they are nearly useless on land (Kenyon 1969). Unlike other sea mammals, sea otters do not have insulative blubber but instead maintain thick pelage (fur) and a very high metabolism to ward off hypothermia (Yeates 2007).  If covered in petroleum, the otters’ thick fur loses its insulating properties and the animal soon freezes to death (Love 1992, Jessup et al. 2004, and Miller 2012).  Their high metabolism requires that sea otters consume prey at a rate of 25-35% of their own body weight each day; when the food the sea otters eat is contaminated, the contaminants become concentrated within the sea otters’ bodies, often to deadly levels (Jessup et al. 2004).  Because sea otters eat many of the same shellfish that humans do, their illnesses are potential indicators of problems in one of our own food sources.

In recent years, deceased and ill otters have shown high levels of the parasites Toxoplasma gondii, found in the feces of cats (Felis catus), and Sarcocystis neurona,  from opossum (Didelphis virginiana) feces (The Otter Project 2011, Righthand 2011, and Miller 2012).  Both cats and opossums were introduced to the Pacific coastal area by humans who brought them here as pets in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, and have since become invasive (Maser 1998).  Scientists suspect that the fecal parasites, both related to malaria (Miller 2012), are washed out to the oceans through storm drains and, in the case of cats, through the sewage system when people dispose of cat litter in the toilet.

Sea Otters and Human History

Sustainably hunted for millennia by indigenous people of the Pacific Crest, when in 1741 Russia’s Vitus Bering and his crew first saw sea otters, the marine mammal’s populations were such that German naturalist Georg Wilhelm Steller stated, “They covered the shore in great droves” (Love 1992).  Like many other animals on the Endangered Species List, sea otters were then driven to near extinction in California as early as 1841 and elsewhere in their range by 1911 because of their economic importance to humans (Love 1992). Early explorers from Russia, Spain, England, France and the newly formed U.S. found great wealth to be made from the sales of the thickly furred hides that act as sea otters’ only insulation against the frigid waters of their natural habitat. Though sea otters are now legally protected from hunting and human encroachment in many areas, the protection of sea otters is still a contentious issue (Barlow 2012 and Estes 2012).

Map of the Pacific Crest Showing Sea Otter Historical and Current Ranges (USGS)

Map of the Pacific Crest Showing Sea Otter Historical and Current Ranges (USGS)

After they were listed as “threatened” in 1977, Southern sea otters (those living in the waters off the coast of California) were afforded protections.  U.S. Fish and Wildlife established sea otter reserves on San Nicolas Island, which they share with the U.S. Navy, and “no otter zones,” shellfish harvest areas from which “stray” otters can be captured and returned to their reserves (Kettmann 2010).  This theoretically keeps them from competing with human shellfish harvesters.  Recently the San Nicolas Island reserve area was challenged when Rep. Elton Gallegly introduced a bill to protect the Navy’s shooting rights on the island (Barlow 2012).  Neither environmental groups nor fishermen have ever been pleased with the “no otter zones;” environmental groups say the protections don’t go far enough while the fishermen rightly point out that the sea otters ignore the zoning laws (Kettmann 2010).  Similarly, in Puget Sound and the waters off Alaska, British Columbia, and Washington, where sea otter populations are generally healthy, state, province, and tribal fisheries managers struggle with balancing the welfare of the semi-aquatic mammals against that of the human fishing communities (Laidre and Jameson 2006).

Why We Should Care

Planetary ecology is like a lace cloth, delicate, intricate, and complex. Neither scientists nor politicians, nor the public, nor corporate leaders can completely predict what will happen if one or another species is protected or not.  But often times, as is the case with sea otters, protecting them starts a chain reaction of protection for other creatures, including ourselves.  As a sentinel species, sea otters’ well being is indicative of the health of the water in which they live, the same waters in which we play and fish. If not out of compassion for the wellbeing of other creatures, that healthier otters = healthier water = healthier humans should be enough of a reason to care about this small mammal of the North Pacific.

What We Can All Do to Help

Here’s the great news: there are many very easy things each of us can do to help improve the health of the oceans’ creatures, which in turn will help the health of every living thing on the planet, including our own.

1) Limit the amount of petroleum-based products you use by

a)         Walking or riding your bike to run errands; when commuting, take mass transit or ride your bike

b)         Use plant-based detergents, soaps, lotions and personal grooming products

c)         Reduce plastic in your life by using reusable grocery bags and glass food storage containers (such as peanut butter or jam jars)

d)        Purchase local, sustainably produced food

2) Keep chemicals out of storm drains by practicing organic gardening techniques and making sure your car or other gas-powered machines don’t leak oil or other fluids.

3) Bag your cat’s waste and used cat litter and send it out with your garbage; do not flush cat feces down the toilet.

4) Cut up the rings from beverage six-packs before throwing them away.

For more ideas on what you can do to help, visit The Otter Project at


Barlow, Z.  (2012, February 16).  Proposed bill addresses sea otter controversy.  Ventura county star.  Retrieved from

Estes, J. A., M. T. Tinker, J. L. Bodkin. 2010. Using Ecological Function to Develop Recovery Criteria for Depleted Species: Sea Otters and Kelp Forests in the Aleutian Archipelago.  Conservation Biology 24:852-861.

Estes, J. A., R. J. Jameson, E. B. Rhode. 1982. Activity and Prey Election in the Sea Otter: Influence of Population Status on Community Structure.  The American Naturalist 120: 242-258.

Estes, J.A. (2012, February 21). On Sea Otters, we need to see the big picture.  LA Times. Retrieved from

Jessup, D., M. Miller, J. Ames, M. Harris, C.. Kreuder, P. Conrad, J. Mazetz. 2004. Southern sea otter as a sentinel of marine ecosystem health.  EcoHealth 1:239-2004.

Kenyon, K. W. 1969.  The sea otter in the eastern Pacific Ocean.  Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife. Washington, D.C.

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Laidre, K. L. and Jameson, R. J. 2006. Foraging patterns and prey selection in an increasing and expanding sea otter population.  Journal of Mammalogy 87:799-807.

Love, J. A.  1992.  Sea otters. Golden, Colorado: Fulcrum Publishers.

Maser, C. 1998.  Mammals of the Pacific Northwest: from the coast to the high Cascades.  Corvallis, Oregon: Oregon State University Press.

Miller, M. 2012. Sick Sea Otters and Potential Health Risks for Humans at the Land-Sea Interface.  Abstract from presentation at the AAAS Annual Meeting, Feb. 18, 2012 in Vancouver, B.C.

Righthand, J. (2011, September). Otters: The Picky Eaters of the Pacific. Smithsonian magazine. Retrieved from:

The Otter Project 2010. “Sea otters where are you?” Sea Otter Scoop: The Official Blog of the Otter Project.  Accessed 2/18/2012 at:

Yeates, L. C., T. M. Williams, T. L. Fink. 2007. Diving and foraging energetics of the smallest marine mammal, the sea otter (Enhydra lutris). Journal of Experimental Biology 210:1960-1970.

Image References

Armstrong, M. (2004, December 30). High tide strands sick sea otter.  Homer News.  Retrieved from:

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Considerations for international limits on salmon hatchery production

By Neyssa Hays


Salmon conservation and management are complicated issues, in which the international hatchery system plays a significant, if not always beneficial, role. This paper is a brief examination of salmon hatcheries, especially those of the Northern Pacific in general and the Pacific Northwest more specifically; their effects on wild salmon populations; attempts to mitigate those effects; and potential guiding principals, public policy, or international agreements that could be used to guide interstate and international discussions on collaborative efforts.


The management of salmon (Oncorynchus spp. and Salmo salar) as both free organisms and a natural resource is a complex and often contentious issue with no clear answers. No one questions the value of salmon, per se; around the world salmon are prized for many tangible and intangible reasons including, but certainly not limited to, their importance as a keystone species, jobs, nourishment, beauty, and symbolism. However, as Lackey (2013) documents, though public polls show people value and support “saving the salmon,” there are so many other issues with which we must contend that conservation measures are often set aside for a later time.

However, in combination with their anthropologic significance and as a result of their life history pattern, salmon are at the center of a great debate that has been raging for nearly 150 years: how can we have both healthy nature and mass industry? Salmon move through and live in or near environments most heavily used by humans throughout their lives, and as the forests, rivers, estuaries, and oceans on which the salmon depend degrade, pressures on salmon populations are steadily increasing, placing many salmon species on the Endangered and Threatened Species List. There are many reasons for the salmon’s initial decline and subsequently depressed populations and there have been many attempts at reparation. The salmon hatchery system (from here out called “hatcheries”) has been both an attempt to repair the populations and an exacerbating part of the decline.

Because of the deleterious effects in some areas hatchery managers and conservation non-government organizations (NGOs) are working on various management strategies to reduce the negative impacts hatcheries have on wild salmon (Holt et al. 2008; Kaeriyama et al. 2011; Kostow 2012). Additionally, due to the international nature of ocean-going organisms, including salmon, there exists a need for cooperation and collaboration between international governing bodies to reduce the impacts in the ocean of hatchery salmon (Zaporozhets and Zaporozhets 2004; Holt et al. 2008; Kaeriyama et al. 2011; Kostow 2012; Rand et al. 2012). Unfortunately, there currently exists no multi-national organization, governing body, or clear doctrine encouraging such collaboration (Holt et al. 2008; Rand et al. 2012). However, there are several domestic and international agreements that when put together could be used for the creation of guiding principles and governing bodies.

Definition of Terms

The terms “wild,” “hatchery,” and “natural,” can mean different things depending on the context of their use. For instance, in the grocery stores, the term “wild salmon” indicates the fish was caught in a net in the “wild” (usually open ocean), as opposed to having been raised completely in captivity, regardless of where or in what conditions it was born. For the purposes of this paper, however, the terms are defined thus: a “wild fish” is one that was spawned in a natural stream or river from lineage of fish also spawned in a natural stream or river; unless otherwise noted, a “hatchery fish” is a fish that was spawned using artificial methods in a hatchery setting; “natural spawning” is spawning in a stream or riverbed without the aid of humans, regardless of whether the fish is of wild or hatchery heritage; finally, “artificial spawning” is a human-dominated process in which female salmon are stripped of their eggs, males are “milked” for their milt, the eggs and milt are mixed together, and placed in special incubators.

Effects of Hatchery Salmon on Wild Salmon

With the vast and growing scientific evidence about hatchery effects on wild salmon, there is very little argument that hatchery fish have an overall detrimental impact on wild fish (Lichatowitch 1999; Zaporozhets and Zaporozhets 2004; Holt et al. 2008; Kaeriyama et al. 2011; Grant 2012; Kostow 2012; Katz et al. 2013; Lackey 2013). Among these effects, Kostow (2012) lists the most commonly documented as hatchery fish predation of wild fish; competition for resources; predator attraction; disease transmission; and “density dependent effects triggered by large numbers of hatchery fish in freshwater and marine environments.”

At the extreme end, in both Russia and the United States, researchers have documented entire wild populations of a river system going extinct within twenty years of a large hatchery being opened (Zaporozhets and Zaporozhets 2004; Kostow 2012). Clearly this goes against conservation of the species. Highlighting five different management plans currently in effect in various places in Oregon to reduce these impacts and hopefully increase wild salmon populations, Kostow (2012) notes that the different strategies are having mixed results, but are generally positive.

Recently, researchers and conservation NGOs have become increasingly concerned about the effects hatchery salmon are having on wild salmon and the rest of the ecology in the open oceans. Preliminary studies indicate that there is strong resource and spatial competition in the oceans, which is expected to worsen as the effects of ocean acidification, pollution, and resource extraction take their course and resources diminish (Zaporozhets and Zaporozhets 2004; Sabine 2011; Daly 2012; Kostow 2012). Though studies show that one-on-one, wild salmon dominate hatchery salmon when competing for resources, hatchery salmon in the open ocean can easily overwhelm wild salmon simply by outnumbering them (Zaporozhets and Zaporozhets 2004; Daly et al. 2012; Metcalf et al. 2013). During poor ocean-condition years, this effect is magnified, especially when hatcheries release smolts based on factors other than available resources (Daly et al. 2012).

Global Considerations for Hatchery Management

Because of the international nature of managing the open oceans combined with the salmon’s anadromous life history, the question of hatchery management is evolving from a domestic discussion to one of international concern (Zaporozhets and Zaporozhets 2004; Holt et al. 2008; Kaeriyama et al. 2011; Rand et al. 2012). Every U.S. state and nation state of the Northern Pacific and Northern Atlantic has an extensive salmon hatchery system (SOS 2013). In the open ocean salmon do not differentiate based on nation of origin; they compete with each other indiscriminately. Therefore, there is a growing interest in balancing releases from hatcheries of the entire Northern hemisphere. However, as Holt et al. (2008) discuss, due to issues related to food security, domestic and international economics, and sovereignty, there is great potential for political tension to thwart international efforts at restructuring the hatchery system. Recent court actions regarding catch support their analysis.

In Salmon Spawning & Recovery Alliance v. Gutierrez (2008), for example, plaintiffs claimed that the 1999 Amendment to the Pacific Salmon Treaty Act of 1985 (PST 1985) allowed Canadian fisheries to harvest unreasonable rates of Environmental Species Act (ESA) protected salmonids and the U.S. government should not, therefore, renew the treaty. The court disagreed, noting that the PST 1985 was executed by an international organization, the Pacific Salmon Commission (PSC), consisting of sixteen delegates from both Canada and the U.S. (PSC 2006), who set the catch limits for both countries annually “based on pre- and in-season estimates of abundance” (Salmon Spawning & Recovery Alliance v. Gutierrez (NOAA) 2008). While this case is about creating international catch agreements, not restricting hatcheries, it underlines the difficulties of managing straddling fish populations.

Furthermore, as discussed by Rand et al. (2012), while there is an abundance of information about wild-hatchery interactions for the Columbia River, there is very little information about the issue in other regions, especially in the Western Pacific. Until it is remedied, this lack of information described will only serve to exacerbate political tensions surrounding any attempts at international policy towards restricting hatchery output. Additionally, in the U.S. there is still a pressing question that needs to be settled before serious hatchery reform can take place: are hatchery- and wild-spawned salmon significantly different fish?

Classification Issues

Historically, both the courts and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) have wavered back and forth on the question of including hatchery salmon in total salmon counts when making management decisions such as whether or not a species is to be afforded protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) (Kostow 2012). As an example, in Oregon Natural Resources Council v. Daley (NMFS) (1998), Magistrate Judge Janice M. Stewart determined that NMFS was erroneous in including hatchery counts to determine that the Evolutionarily Significant Unit (ESU) of Oregon Coast coho salmon was not threatened per the Endangered Species Act. Judge Stewart concluded that NMFS’s decision to not list the Oregon Coast coho salmon ESU was unlawful, went against its own code, and “placed the risk of failure squarely on the species.”

Three years later, in Alsea Valley Alliance v. Evans (NMFS) (2001), U.S. District Court Judge Michael Hogan reversed the court’s position regarding this ESU of coho salmon. Judge Hogan stated that by not including hatchery salmon in the counts when listing the coho ESU, NMFS was going against Congress’ limitation on “the Secretary’s ability to make listing distinctions among species below that of subspecies or a DPS [distinct population segment] of a species.”  Then in Alsea Valley Alliance v. Lautenbacher (2007) U.S. District Court Judge Michael Hogan ruled that the NMFS are within their rights to list hatchery- and wild-spawned fish separately. Finally, in Trout Unlimited v. Lohn (2009) the 9th Circuit Court decided that for ESA listing purposes, hatchery- and wild-spawned fish are not necessarily different. However, the court also noted that NMFS has legal authority when it comes to separating them out as necessary.

Currently for Oregon waters, Federal district courts hold that wild and hatchery salmon are not to be counted together (National Wildlife Federation v. National Marine Fisheries Service 2011). In his opinion on the case, U.S. District Court Judge James Redden cited his previous finding that NOAA Fisheries’ decision to count hatchery-spawned salmon with naturally spawning fish when deciding whether or not to afford ESA protection a “biological opinion [that was] arbitrary and capricious.” He also wrote that since the “Federal Defendant’s [have a] history of abruptly changing course, abandoning previous BiOps, and failing to follow through with their commitments,” the courts would keep control themselves.  However, Judge Redden has since stepped down (Learn 2011).  Additionally, in making ESA listing decisions, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) counts hatchery salmon with wild salmon for some ESUs throughout their range (USFWS 2013).

Because of the government and court’s tendency to waiver on the issue of classification, there will need to be a definitive answer from the scientific arena if we are to make clear strides in protecting wild salmon. To do this, the wild-spawned and hatchery-spawned salmon will likely have to be deemed separate subspecies or at least distinct population segments of the species (Alsea Valley Alliance v. Evans (NMFS) 2001). This would be difficult, since the definition of a species includes lack of naturally occurring crossbreeding and stray hatchery fish do breed naturally with wild fish (Bowlby & Gibson 2011; Christie et al. 2012; Kostow 2012; Rand et al. 2012). However, studies have shown quantifiable genetic differences between wild- and hatchery-spawned salmon (Fritts et al. 2007; Christie et al. 2011). Additionally, there is much evidence showing that stray hatchery-salmon who mate with wild-spawned salmon produce young that are less fit than naturally-spawned young of wild- to wild-lineage (Fritts et al. 2007; Theriault et al. 2011; Zhivotovsky et al. 2011). Perhaps this is evidence that they are not successfully crossbreeding and are, therefore, separate subspecies.

Policy Support for Limiting Hatcheries

If the U.S. government decides in favor of wild salmon, defining them as their own subspecies, then they will clearly receive the protections of the ESA in nearly every river of the Pacific Northwest and California as well as in the oceans. Additionally, there is potential for supportive litigation for limiting hatcheries in the numbers of smolt they release and where the hatcheries can be located. Limiting smolt releases could be supported both domestically and internationally based on such agreements as the “Clean Water Act,” UNCLOS, and court cases that have blocked hatchery construction. Existing international committees could either grow to include management and regulation of hatcheries or be used as a template for creating new international committees.

In the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (2002) (commonly known as the “Clean Water Act”), Article 502(6) includes “biological materials” in the definition of “pollutant.” If hatchery salmon are a distinct population segment from wild salmon, it could be argued that hatchery salmon are “biological materials” that are doing harm to endangered species. Additionally, it is not unheard of to treat living organisms as pollution; Congress set the precedent in creating the National Invasive Species Act of 1996 (Invasive Species Act; Courtney et al. 2008). Applied hand-in-hand with the Clean Water Act, the Invasive Species Act is implemented by the Coast Guard to control marine organisms in ballast water of ocean-going vessels.  These acts are limited in use in that they are domestic acts only and are not binding on any state other than the United States.

Similarly, the OSPAR Convention, which is signed by fifteen countries of Western Europe, is applicable only to the Northeast Atlantic, making it useful in Atlantic salmon conservation but less so in the Pacific region (OSPAR 2013). However, the second agreement of the OSPAR Convention, the Paris Convention for the Prevention of Marine Pollution from Land-based Sources of 1974 defines water pollution as anything introduced to the water by people that is harmful “to living resources and to marine ecosystems” (Raval 2013). Updates to the convention agreed upon in 1992 include the mandate that each governing state “strictly subject to … regulation … discharges to the maritime area, and releases into water or air which reach and may affect the maritime area” (OSPAR 2013). Clearly, hatchery salmon are released into the water by humans, reach and affect the oceans, and have been shown to be harmful to living resources.

Between the United States and Canada, Section 9 of the Pacific Salmon Treaty Act of 1985 states that in making salmon management decisions, the Pacific Salmon Commission shall “take into account the best scientific information available [that] result in measures necessary and appropriate for the conservation, management, utilization and development of the Pacific salmon resource” (PST 1985). While this treaty is concerned with harvest, it sets a precedent for making collaborative international management decisions with regards to salmon.

The United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) allows the broadest application of international law. While the United States has not yet ratified the treaty, U.S. courts acknowledge that it is customary international law and utilize it when making case decisions (Van Dyke 2008). The Precautionary Principle (1995) places conservation as the foundation of fisheries management and requires states to “avoid activities that present uncertain risks to the marine ecosystem” (Van Dyke 2008). In addition, it calls for considering an ecosystem’s carrying capacity in management decisions. Further, Principle 15 of the Rio Declaration, which is held as the defining document of precautionary management states:

“In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation” (Schiffman 2008).

In the United States, previous court cases set precedent for limiting installation of hatcheries. For example, in Wilderness Society v. US Fish & Wildlife Service (2003) the 9th Circuit Court ruled that USFWS could not put in a hatchery in a wildlife refuge because of potential harmful effects on wildlife, including wild salmon.

As stated by Holt et al. (2008), “there is currently no international governance structure with authority to unilaterally impose” international restrictions on hatchery production. However, there are international bodies that could expand their scope and jurisdiction or could be used as a template. In addition to North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission (NPAFC) touted by Holt et al. (2008) as a potential organization whose mandates could be reconfigured, the Pacific Salmon Commission (PSC) could be refitted, expanded, or used as a template. The PSC is currently a governing body between the United States and Canada charged with overseeing the Pacific Salmon Treaty of 1985 (PSC 2013). While the PSC is currently only concerned with setting catch limits, it could be expanded to agreements on setting hatchery limits as well. Potentially, it could also grow to include commissioners from Russia and Japan. Alternatively and additionally, it could be used as a template for creating a new international commission for the Northern Pacific as well as an international commission for the Northern Atlantic.


If it is decided that there is no significant difference between hatchery and wild salmon, then the outlook for wild salmon is grim. We have put ourselves in a circular situation: the more hatcheries we build and smolts are released, the more they compete with wild-spawned fish, compounding the other stressors that are resulting in ever-lower counts of wild salmon, and the more we feel we need to build hatcheries and release more smolts to keep the total salmon numbers up. Perhaps it seems counterintuitive that in order to reap more benefits from the hatchery system we should limit what is sewn, but studies have shown that decreasing hatchery output has the potential for healthier smolts, juveniles with greater dominance and survival rates, and increased body size in returning adults (Brockman & Johnson 2010; Daly et al. 2010; Kostow 2012).


There is very little argument that hatchery salmon have a detrimental impact on wild salmon. However, the question of what is to be done about it raises a plethora of more complicated questions. How do we place limits on hatcheries when ostensibly they are breeding a failing natural resource? And, how do we accomplish this limit on an international level? With consideration for the previous questions the author makes the following recommendations: 1) Continue research on the question of wild and hatchery salmon as distinct population segments; 2) Keep wild and hatchery salmon populations separate to protect wild salmon genetics; 3) Continue with research to improve hatchery management practices; 4) Reduce hatchery output over time; 5) Train new fisheries biologists and managers to focus on holistic ecosystem management; 6) Recognize limits and changes in ocean and river carrying capacity; 7) Increase international discussion and information exchange on wild and hatchery salmon management practices and findings; 8) Utilize existing international commissions and treaties to impose restrictions on hatchery output; and 9) Increase public awareness and understanding of the issues facing wild salmon and the importance of salmon to the ecosystem.

The Precautionary Principle mandates that in the face of looming extinction, governing bodies not wait for scientific answers or consider economic outcomes before taking action to prevent the extinction. In many rivers, wild salmon are facing looming extinction. It is time to take action.


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Demystifying Ocean Acidification: a Human Interest Story

By Neyssa Hays

When fifteen-year-old Christopher Sabine’s parents sold the family home in Mobile, Alabama, bought a sailboat, and set out for a year of sailing the oceans, they were setting their young son on his life’s path (Sabine 2012).  On the beautiful waters of the Bahamas, he met a girl and developed enough of a crush to determine the only university to which he would apply: Texas A & M.  The fates were smiling on him and, fortunately, he was accepted.  He found the girl again, too, but on their first date, they discovered they weren’t compatible (he did, however, eventually find his future wife there).  More importantly, during the year of sailing with his parents, he fell in love with the ocean, determined then that he would be an oceanographer, and hasn’t wavered since.

Dr. Christopher Sabine at work on a NOAA science vessel (NOAA 2010)

Dr. Christopher Sabine at work on a NOAA science vessel (NOAA 2010)

The only change of plan was the direction of his oceanography career; originally, he planned to study physical oceanography but about the same time he was realizing physics involves more math than he was comfortable with, he won an award for his academic work in chemical oceanography.  Further solidifying this choice was a summer he spent in a course at the Bermuda Biological Station with geochemist Dr. Fred Mackenzie from the University of Hawaii (UH).  Again applying for only one graduate school, Sabine was accepted to UH and Dr. Mackenzie became his advisor.  Sabine said he “had a vision in mind” (Sabine 2012): to achieve a PhD in oceanography by the time he was 25.  Ultimately, he missed his deadline, but only by a few months.

A slender man with a welcoming smile, warm demeanor, and cheery chuckle, as an oceanographer for NOAA (and as of last November, the most recent director of NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory (PMEL) in Seattle, Washington) Dr. Christopher Sabine studies some of the most depressing statistics of our times: CO2 emissions and their effects on our oceans.  Surprisingly, he is also one of the most jovial people I’ve ever met.

Sabine (background) and longtime research partner, Richard Feely (Levin 2007)

Sabine (background) and longtime research partner, Richard Feely (Levin 2007)

Apparently he’s too cheerful for some people.  According to Sabine, a few years ago his long-time research partner, Dr. Richard Feely (also of NOAA’s PMEL in Seattle), and he were filmed for a documentary called “A Sea Change” (Huseby 2009).  When the film was screened for a test audience the feedback was that, “I smile too much,” said Sabine.  The audience didn’t approve of someone smiling as he reported statistics of doom and gloom.  But, Sabine says it’s just in his personality to be an optimist.

“I’m amazed by human ingenuity and our ability to respond to what seem to be hopeless causes, and I’m convinced that we’ll figure a way out of this. And I hope that in some way, I’ll be a part of it,” he told me (Sabine 2012).


The “this” he’s speaking of is the ever-rising acidity levels of our ocean waters, ocean acidification, to use a term coined by the Royal Society shortly after Sabine and Feely published two breakthrough papers about it in the July, 2004 issue of Science (Sabine 2012). Working in a very similar field from different angles, Sabine and Feely complement each other in figuring out what’s going on with the oceans.  Said Sabine, “I focused on how it was happening while Dick focused on the effects of it on marine organisms” (Sabine 2012).

The cover of Science, July, 2004 showing the pteropod Clio pyramidata (Gilmer and Harbison 2004)

The cover of Science, July, 2004 showing the pteropod Clio pyramidata (Gilmer and Harbison 2004)

The titles of their articles clearly illustrate this division; Sabine’s article is entitled “The Oceanic Sink for Anthropogenic CO2” where Feely’s is “Impact of Anthropogenic CO2 on the CaCO3 System in the Oceans.”    Sabine analyzed results of tests showing rising acidity levels in the oceans while Feely theorized that with the rising acidity levels, animals such as the thinly shelled pteropods Clio pyramidata (shown left) and Limacina Helicina (shown below), as well as corals, clams, mussels and other creatures that make their shells from calcium carbonate will find it more difficult to survive (Feely et al. 2004).

The    Pteropod Limacina Helicina (NOAA 2010)

The Pteropod Limacina Helicina
(NOAA 2010)

Pteropods are commonly called sea butterflies, and at roughly the size of a small pea are some of the most important food resources for a variety of ocean dwellers including the economically important salmon and several species of whale (NOAA 2010).

Nature generally insists on balance.  Land, air, and water have always exchanged gases in a carefully balanced cycle regulated by seasonal changes, geomorphic pressures, and biological systems that scientists are still working to fully understand (Sabine and Feely 2007).  As a natural part of that cycle, carbon dioxide is taken up and released by a host of sources, including animals, living and decaying plants, the oceans, and even the breakdown of certain rocks.  Whether one is taking it up or releasing it depends in part on where the concentrations are.  If the concentrations are higher in one part of the triad, pressure is placed on the other two to take up the excess and bring everything back in balance.  As humans have dramatically increased the concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuels, the pressure on the oceans and land to take up that CO2 has increased, and through a process similar to osmosis combined with its churning and seasonal mixing, the oceans have responded.  Initially, scientists heralded this response as our saving grace, but as atmospheric CO2 continued to rise, scientists like Sabine, Feely, and others around the world began to wonder how it was affecting the oceans themselves.

According to Sabine, atmospheric levels of CO2 are over thirty percent higher than they were 200 years ago, and half of that has appeared in the last 30 years (Sabine, 2011).   However, it doesn’t stay in the atmosphere; the oceans currently take up between one-third and one-fourth of the anthropogenic (human created) CO2 in a reversal of their pre-industrial roles.  Before the industrial revolution, the oceans were an atmospheric source of CO2 as biophysical processes such as decay of organic materials released the gas into the water, which then released it in the atmosphere (Sabine and Feely 2007).  But, as carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have increased exponentially, the exchange has reversed. And as they buffer us from some of the effects of our modern lifestyles, they are becoming more and more acidified.

(NOAA 2010)

(NOAA 2010)

The oceans are a complex mixture of water and dissolved ions, each playing a unique and important role.  Some of those ions include calcium (Ca) and carbonate (CO3), the basic building blocks used by sea creatures such as clams, corals, snails, and pteropods to form calcium carbonate into unique, elaborate, and beautiful armored homes.  According to Sabine, “In shallow waters you typically get the reaction CO2 + H2O + CO3 = 2 HCO3” (bicarbonate ions), a weak acid (Sabine email 2012).  “The more CO2 you add, the more you use up CO3 so the more difficult it is for organisms to find a dissolved CO3 and a Ca to form their shell. Eventually, if you continue to add CO2, you will begin to dissolve the shells or at least make the depth that shells naturally dissolve shallower.” While currently there is enough CO3 in the shallow waters to keep this from happening, tests have shown (see image below) that at current rates of acidification some ocean waters will grow corrosive enough by the end of this century to do just that (NOAA 2010).

Pteropod shell left in sea water of pH and carbon balances equal to projections for the year 2100 (NOAA 2010).

Pteropod shell left in sea water of pH and carbon balances equal to projections for the year 2100 (NOAA 2010).

Scientists estimate that the oceans have the capacity to take up 70 to 85 percent of the anthropogenic carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere, but because of the slow process of mixing it could take thousands of years to do so (Sabine and Feely 2007).   Thus far, the vast majority of that carbon dioxide is staying in fairly shallow waters (less than a quarter mile in depth); most deep ocean waters have not experienced elevated levels of CO2.  Absorbing carbon at a rate of roughly two and a half petagrams per year, the oceans are not able to remove the carbon as quickly as it is accumulating in the atmosphere (Sabine et al. 2004).


One petagram is one billion metric tons.  That’s a ridiculously large number to try to grasp, so Sabine has done some searching to find the right analogy to draw a picture.

“At first,” he said, “I tried a VW bug analogy …” because a VW bug weighs about one metric ton.  So, we’re putting three billion VW bugs in the ocean per year?  But that wasn’t working for people either; they couldn’t equate the form of a car with carbon.  Then one day, Sabine was talking about it with a NOAA project manager who said, “Coal is mostly carbon, isn’t it?  How many coal cars would it fill?”  So Sabine crunched the numbers and had his analogy.

Coal train in Wyoming. (Goebel 2006)

Coal train in Wyoming. (Goebel 2006)

Coupler to coupler, a U.S. hopper car is sixty feet long and carries 100 U.S. tons of coal; a train carrying one petagram of coal would need to be about 156,500 miles long.  At the equator, the earth is approximately 24,902 miles around.  That equates to a train full of coal wrapping around the equator over six times for one petagram of carbon, and we’re pumping about  nine petagrams of carbon a year into our atmosphere.  That’s the equivalent of 54 trainloads of coal around the earth every year, a third of which is going into the ocean.


Of course, ocean acidification is not something that humans can detect with a trip to the beach.  It’s taken teams of researchers years to develop the technology necessary to let them analyze the subtle changes in the oceans, and countless hours of running what Sabine described as a grid pattern of ship cruises wherein they stop every 30 miles to take water samples from the surface to the bottom.  As they travel, the scientists analyze the samples they’ve taken.

In his new position as director of NOAA’s PMEL in Seattle, Sabine said he won’t get as much time on the water, so he’s “keeping some of the [other] fun parts” to himself, his favorite being technology development. The technology he’s very excited about is something called a Liquid Robotics “Wave Glider,” an ocean going vessel fitted with CO2 sensors he developed with Chris Meinig, PMEL’s lead engineer  (Ahearn, 2011).

Wave Glider (Feely 2011)

Wave Glider (Feely 2011)

Once it’s deployed from a small fishing boat anywhere in the world, Sabine and his team control the wave-propelled craft via satellite communication from their laboratory in Seattle.  “If I see an interesting feature I can say, ‘Turn around, go back and look at that again.’ Or if I want to go to a particular spot I just point it in that direction and off it goes,” Sabine said.

A bit smaller than seven feet long, the glider’s dimensions were set by the need to ship it anywhere in the world as most commercial carriers can only accept shipments no larger than seven feet (Sabine 2012). The rest of the design,including the PMEL-designed CO2 sensors, Liquid Robotics-designed wave-riding fins, and solar-energy panels were from imagination and engineering know-how.


Sabine’s cruises have not always gone as planned.  In 2008 Sabine was the chief scientist on a 274-foot NOAA “top of the world class ocean vessel” near South Georgia Island (east of Patagonia in the Atlantic sector of the Southern Ocean).  As the chief scientist, he was responsible for all of the other scientists and equipment on board.  Their mission for that cruise: analyze how “CO2 moves between air and water during high wind and rough sea conditions” (Sabine 2012). In other words, their plan was to face a major storm head-on and measure the chemical changes it caused in the water as it was raging.  Laboratory studies had shown that gas exchange between air and water is very high during high-wind conditions but this had never been tested in the “natural environment.”

NOAA Research Ship Oscar Dyson (NOAA)

NOAA Research Ship Oscar Dyson (NOAA)

“We could see [the storm] coming on the weather radar,” Sabine told me.  “Yes, alright!  Perfect conditions!” they thought. But as the storm moved closer and the waves rose higher, the ship’s engines started having problems.  With “an array of measuring equipment” trailing in the water behind them and an Antarctic sea storm nearly on top of them, the ship “suddenly went dead in the water.”  They couldn’t go anywhere, and they certainly couldn’t take the measurements they’d gone out to retrieve.  Fortunately, the ship’s crewmembers were able to get enough power going to “run away” from the storm and hide behind the island until it had passed and they were able to go back and collect some data in somewhat calmer conditions.


Sabine’s “Employee of the Month” Photo (NOAA 2007)

Sabine’s “Employee of the Month” Photo (NOAA 2007)


Though Sabine has won many awards for his work, including NOAA’s Outstanding Scientific Paper Award multiple times and Seattle’s Federal Executive Board’s Public Service Award (Goldman 2011), he is most proud of the recognition he’s received as part of a team.  In 2006 he and his team were awarded the Department of Commerce Gold Medal for their work on ocean acidification, and when in 2007 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, they recognized Sabine as a major contributor.  He said there are no Nobel prizes in his future, but as director he will take pride in watching other members of his team win awards.

Sabine said he hopes his work will make a difference.  His primary focus is on “educating people and trying to impress upon them the importance of changes in our global oceans, knowing that if we really set our mind to it we can get ourselves out of this downward spiral that we’re in when it comes to the oceans, CO2 emissions, and climate change.”

In a time when nearly every environmental prediction we hear is that we’ve doomed ourselves to an inevitable, accelerated demise, forecasts like Sabine’s give hope that if we choose to make the simple, necessary changes, we can regain control of our train, our environmental destiny, and avoid a disastrous derailment.


Ahearn, Ashley. 2011. The Five Coolest Things About Ocean-Exploring Robots.  Earthfix.  Accessed 1/31/2012 at:

Feely, R.A. et al. 2004. Impact of Anthropogenic CO2 on the CaCO3 System in the Oceans. Science 305: 362. Accessed 1/31/2012 at:

Goldman, J. 2011. Oceanographer named to head NOAA’s Seattle research laboratory. Noaa News.

Huseby, S. and Ettinger, B. 2009. A Sea Change.  Niijii Films.  Available at:

NOAA. 2010.  What is Ocean Acidification? PMEL Carbon Program.  Accessed 2/4/2012 at:

Sabine, C.L., et al. 2004. The Oceanic Sink for Anthropogenic CO2. Science 305:367-371.  Accessed 1/31/2012 at:

Sabine, C.L. 2011.  Ocean Uptake of Atmospheric CO2 and its Impact on Marine Ecosystems. Presentation Introduction. Aquatic Sciences Meeting, San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Sabine, C.L. 2012.  Interview, recorded with permission.

Sabine, C.L. 2012.  Email response to my chemistry questions.  Available upon request.

Sabine, C.L. and Feely, R.A. 2007. The Oceanic Sink for Carbon Dioxide. Pp 31-50 in Greenhouse Gas Sinks (eds D.S. Reay, N. Hewitt, J. Grace and K.A. Smith) CAB International.

Photo references

Feely.  2011. feelygliderphoto.  NOAA. Accessed 2/1/2012 at:

Gilmer, R.W. and Harbison, G.R. 2004. The pteropod Clio pyramidata.  Science 305:Cover.  Accessed 2/1/2012 at:

Goebel, Greg. 2006.  coal car, eastern Wyoming.  Accessed 1/31/2012 at:

Levin, M. 2007. Sabine and Feely photo. Ocean Blues. Columns: The University of Washington Alumni Magazine.  Accessed 2/4/2012 at:

NOAA. Research ship Oscar Dyson. Accessed 2/10/2012 at:

NOAA. 2007.  Sabine’s “Employee of the Month” Photo. Accessed 2/10/2012 at:

NOAA. 2010.  Sabine at sea. A Sea of Change: Ocean Acidification Threatening Coastal Waters. Accessed 2/4/2012 at:

NOAA. 2010.  What is Ocean Acidification? PMEL Carbon Program.  Accessed 2/4/2012 at:

NOAA. 2011.  National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.  Accessed 1/31/2012 at: