Archives for February 2009

Beyond the Flagship Species Orca

Above: Orcas (Orcinus orca) is a flagship species that might push up increased efforts for the conservation of the ocean, salmon, and the Delta Smelt.

When it comes down to the environment you can’t just isolate one aspect of an issue…because you are dealing with an entire ecosystem that has many layers that most people don’t get.

As an alumna of a progressive conservation program I was amazed at the complexities of the relationships with the governmental agencies (and NGOs) and other groups when I graduated back in the mid-1980s.

Conservation issues are complex not only on those levels but also on the front lines where resources and many different species are involved.

Today conservation issues remain complex but have escalated–and California has problems–some having to do with budget cuts.

I came across a rant by Tom Stienstra on SF Gate and this popped out at me because somehow I missed it in the volumes of topics I peruse almost on a daily basis;

Salmon, orcas face collapse: The story this past week that reported the lowest number of salmon in history to swim from the ocean, through the bay and to the Sacramento River has several shocking sub plots.

It’s now likely that all salmon fishing will be shut down again this year off the Bay Area coast. Killer whales, or orcas, could face a population crash because their primary diet is salmon and they could have difficulty finding other food.

Now get this, from the fine print inside a report by the National Marine Fisheries Service: Of the salmon that spawn or are released from hatcheries in the Sacramento River downstream of Redding, only 20 percent make it to the Delta because of water projects. Of that 20 percent that make it to the Delta, 60 percent die because of more water projects. So for the juvenile salmon that start their journey in Northern California, only 8 percent make it to the Bay to head out to the ocean.

The best suggestion is tell L.A. and other water grabbers to shut off their California Aqueduct faucet and build several desalination plants.

Now many people are anti-hunting and anti-fishing groups but what they don’t realize is that the real sportsman (versus the weekend warriors) put a lot of money into efforts related to the species they are interested in.

Now I could rant on some other related issues but I’ll go too far off this topic…

On this issue you can check out what the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance had to say:

“Although ocean conditions play a role in the salmon collapse,” said Bill Jennings, executive director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, “the biggest factor is the operation of the state and federal government’s Delta pumps and the lack of water going though the California Delta. If you want to protect the salmon and other fish, you need to shut down the pumps and maintain Delta outflows. Read the whole article here.

Now if you want to stay on top of a few things going on with the ocean you can always visit the National Marine Fisheries Service.

However the special interest groups really keep an eye out on a specific species and the issues surrounding those animals (or plants).

Usually we call those a “flagship” species (or a “keystone” species) because they attract widespread interest based on their appeal.

In that capacity the flagship species catalyze people’s interest in the conservation of a entire ecosystem or habitat.

Their role in doing so ensures that a large variety of other species (that the public doesn’t get warm and fuzzy over) also benefit from the conservation interest.

These other species are often little known, or not as appealing, but they play a vital role in the scheme of things.

The flagship species in this case is the orca, or killer whale.

The Orca Network has this to say:

Our neighbors, the Southern resident orcas, are getting hammered by a double-whammy assault on their very survival: Overall salmon runs are in deep and historic decline, and persistent contamination by polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) and other organic chemicals, like DDT, and persistent aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), in addition to heavy metals like mercury, continue to leach into the marine ecosystem and move through the food web. Over decades these contaminants have gradually become lodged in the whales’ blubber layers in massive quantities, sometimes with lethal results. The only potential saving grace is that if the orcas have enough to eat year around, the high levels of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) and trace residues of heavy metals such as mercury concentrated in their bodies remain embedded in their blubber and don’t seem to do nearly as much damage.

But at this point they don’t seem to have enough to eat year around…

Read the whole article.

(You might also find the Fireproof Orcas paper (PDF) by Peter S Ross of the Institute of Ocean Sciences, Fisheries and Oceans in Canada interesting.)

Anyway, what sparked news articles and commentary this week was the California budget signed by our Governator.

Now one of the other species involved in this whole thing, that people don’t know about or perhaps don’t even care about, is the Delta Smelt (Hypomesus transpacificus).

In case  you have not seen or heard about it, the water rationing plans should alarm you.

To the public, the delta smelt are not as popular as the salmon or the orcas–but their lives affect them.

The science world has been looking at them closely for a while.

From Science Direct:

The poor state of California’s fish fauna is a strong indication that many other endemic aquatic organisms, much more poorly known than the fishes, are in trouble as well. Protecting fishes will thus help to protect aquatic biodiversity in California. With this in mind, a general plan for protecting California’s aquatic biota is presented. The plan has two main components: (1) legal protection for species in immediate danger of extinction and (2) development of a statewide system of protected waters called Aquatic Diversity Management Areas (ADMAs). For the latter component, a framework is presented that consists of (1) criteria for the design of ADMAs; (2) a system for ranking the suitability of aquatic habitats for protection of the native biota; (3) a classification system for California’s waters; and (4) a long-term scheme for protecting aquatic biodiversity statewide.

Check out the IUCN Delta Smelt status, and believe it or not ITIS lists a Delta Smelt expert, and of course the USFWS offers up an entire species profile.

So, go ahead and support the causes for the salmon and orcas but remember you need to conserve water, and know what fertilizers and other chemicals you use do when they land up in water sources.

And maybe, just maybe, you are the right person to spearhead the Delta Smelt conservation network…what do you think?

Going Ape: Orangutan Escape

Elok, an eight-year-old orangutan escaped from his enclosure at the Oklahoma City zoo earlier this week. Orangutans are great escape artists and zoo staff members witnessed him crawl into the moat and then out over the moat wall.

Fortunately he was captured within about 15 minutes.

“We do have some electrical hotwire in the exhibit and he went underneath that hotwire so we’re going to have to modify strands of hotwire for sure,” was the quote I saw from Dwight Scott, Executive Director of the Oklahoma City Zoo.

I hope they plan to do more than that!

Elok is currently housed in the indoor portion of the exhibit where he will remain until the modifications are made.

Read more about Elok’s great escape.

This week has been filled with ape news and if you have not seen my commentary on Travis the Chimp read it at