Tag Archives: alaska

Eroding Alaska village to seek disaster declaration

A western Alaska village is eroding due to climate change and officials plan to ask President Barack Obama for a disaster declaration so that federal funds can be pursued to relocate residents.

Engineers predict as many as six Newtok homes will be lost by fall followed by the village school in 2018, reported Alaska’s Energy Desk.

The Denali Commission works to coordinate the relocation of Alaska villages.

“I’ve worked all across rural Alaska for 31 years, been to over 100 communities. I’ve never seen anything like this,” said commission co-chair Joel Neimeyer.

The village has about 350 residents. A new village site is located upriver.

Newtok Village Council attorney Mike Walleri said slower federal funding options would come through after the village needs it.

“We just simply don’t have time,” Walleri said, noting that message is what he stressed during a trip to Washington, D.C.

“Most people had not been aware that Newtok could not take advantage of what they call the catalog of federal assistance, simply because the village will be destroyed before the normal federal assistance can be applied for and implemented into the field,” he said.

He said the tribe plans to request the disaster declaration this month.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is designed to address disasters like hurricanes rather than the slow-moving danger of erosion.

Obama would need to decide whether to grant the declaration before Congress can consider appropriating funds.

Walleri said costs are estimated at $80 million.

Arctic cruise goes from Bering Strait to New York for first time

The giant luxury liner was anchored just off Nome, too hulking to use the Bering Sea community’s docks on its inaugural Arctic cruise.

Instead, its more than 900 Arctic cruise passengers piled into small transport boats and motored to shore, where they snapped photos of wild musk oxen, lifted glasses in the town’s colorful bars and nibbled blueberry pie while admiring Alaska Native dancers at Nome’s summer celebration.

The Crystal Serenity’s visit to Alaska’s western coast is historic. At nearly three football fields long and 13 stories tall, the cruise ship is the largest ever to traverse the Northwest Passage, where its well-heeled guests glimpsed polar bears, kayaked along Canada’s north shore, landed on pristine beaches and hiked where few have stepped.

Some remote villages along the way are seeing dollar signs, while environmentalists are seeing doom. They say the voyage represents global warming and man’s destruction of the Earth.

The terrible irony with the Crystal Serenity’s voyage is that it’s taking place only because of climate change and the melting Arctic, said Michael Byers, a professor in the political science department at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. The Northwest Passage, which connects the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, has long been choked off by ice. But melting brought on by climate change is allowing passengers to cruise up the Bering Strait and then head east toward Greenland over the Arctic Ocean before docking next week in New York City.

“And yet, by actually taking advantage of climate change, it’s contributing to the problem because the ship has a very large carbon footprint of its own,”Byers said.

The Arctic cruise ship left Seward, on the Kenai Peninsula, Aug. 16 with about 900 guests and 600 crew members on board. During its monthlong journey to New York, it will visit towns and villages in western and northern Alaska, Canada, Greenland and the eastern seaboard.

Smaller cruise ships, those that hold about 200 people, routinely make a port call in Nome and continue through the passage, but this ship is different.

“This is the game changer,”Nome Mayor Richard Beneville said. “This is the one that’s on everyone’s lips.’’

Nome spared nothing to make sure tourists off the high-end Arctic cruise liner — tickets cost more than $20,000 per person, with a penthouse starting at about six times that — felt at home.

The guests came to town in waves so they didn’t overwhelm the available services in Nome, population about 3,800.

They arrived at the small harbor dock and loaded into vans or school buses for their adventures, which included getting a gander at a herd of wild musk oxen that had taken up residence just outside town.

Other activities arranged for the Arctic cruise ship passengers were hiking and birding tours and helicopter or fixed-wing aircraft flights. Organizers even rescheduled the annual Blueberry Festival so visitors could enjoy a $5 piece of pie while watching traditional Eskimo dancers or browsing tables of seal skin gloves and wallets made by Alaska Native artists. The event took place a block from where the world’s most famous sled-dog race, the Iditarod, ends every March.

“Being at this festival here, the indigenous families that are here, I mean they are so proud of what they have, their handcrafts, their dancing, their music. They just love it, even with the hardships they have to endure, the prices they have to endure,”said Floridian Bob Lentz, who was traveling with his wife, Linda.

Charlie and Joan Davis of San Francisco signed up for the cruise within the first hour it was offered three years ago.

“We’ve been around the world many times, and this is someplace we’ve never been to, that’s somewhat unknown,”Charlie Davis said. “You know, just an adventure.’’

They weren’t alone in wanting to be part of the historic cruise.

“This is the longest single cruise we have ever made, and it is the most expensive cruise we’ve ever made because it’s many days, and it’s very expensive to operate up here,”said the ship’s captain, Birger Vorland. “And it’s the one that sold out the fastest; 48 hours, it was basically gone.’’

This cruise was three years in the making, and just about everything is unique to the trip, said John Stoll, a Crystal vice president who organized it.

The Serenity was fitted with special equipment to operate in the Arctic, including an ice navigation satellite system. Its operators even chartered cargo flights to northern communities to gather fresh perishables for the vessel’s five-star restaurants.

“The planning and the logistics that has gone into this ship has been nothing short of amazing,”Stoll said.

The cruise company is planning another Alaska-to-New York City voyage next August, catering to travelers like the Lentzes.

“We’re going off on a wildlife adventure right now, and that, to me, is what it’s all about in our twilight years — kind of experiencing things before crazy humans destroy it,”Bob Lentz said.

 

Feds set rules for future Arctic drilling

With no new drilling planned in the Arctic waters off Alaska, the Obama administration is setting rules to ensure any future energy exploration in the area meets safety and environmental standards.

The Interior Department said new rules do not authorize any Arctic offshore drilling either now or in the future, but they set minimum standards for operations if and when leasing is approved.

A five-year offshoring leasing plan that includes the Arctic is expected later this year.

Assistant Interior Secretary Janice Schneider said the rules support a “thoughtful and balanced approach” to any oil and gas exploration in the Arctic region.

“The rules help ensure that any exploratory drilling operations in this highly challenging environment will be conducted in a safe and environmentally responsible manner, while protecting the marine, coastal and human environments, and Alaska Natives’ cultural traditions,” Schneider said.

Royal Dutch Shell announced last year it is ending exploration in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas after spending nearly $7 billion on Arctic exploration. The company cited disappointing results from a well drilled in the Chukchi and the unpredictable federal regulatory environment.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell later canceled federal petroleum lease sales in U.S. Arctic waters that were scheduled for 2016 and 2017. Current market conditions and low industry interest made the leasing decision easier, Jewell said.

Environmental groups hailed the new safety rules, but said Arctic drilling would harm marine mammals already hurt by a loss of sea ice and exacerbate global warming.

“No amount of safeguards or standards can ever make drilling safe,” said Athan Manuel of the Sierra Club.

The National Ocean Industries Association, an industry group, said that despite taking years to write, the new rules do not accurately reflect current industry capabilities and include unnecessary requirements, such as same-season relief wells, that may not be needed.

Requirements imposed by the rule “could thwart industry innovation and development of new technology, and may not actually increase operational safety,” NOIA president Randall Luthi said in a statement.

Starvation suspected in massive die-off of seabirds in Alaska

Seabird biologist David Irons drove recently to the Prince William Sound community of Whittier to check on a friend’s boat and spotted white blobs along the tide line of the rocky Alaska beach. He thought they were patches of snow.

A closer look revealed that the white patches were emaciated common murres, one of North America’s most abundant seabirds, washed ashore after apparently starving to death.

“It was pretty horrifying,” Irons said. “The live ones standing along the dead ones were even worse.”

Murre die-offs have occurred in previous winters but not in the numbers Alaska is seeing. Federal researchers won’t estimate the number, and are trying to gauge the scope and cause of the die-off while acknowledging there’s little they can do.

Scientists say the die-offs could be a sign of ecosystem changes that have reduced the numbers of the forage fish that murres depend upon. Warmer water surface temperatures, possibly due to global warming or the El Nino weather pattern, may have affected murre prey, including herring, capelin and juvenile pollock.

There are about 2.8 million breeding common murres in 230 Alaska colonies, part of a worldwide population of 13 to 20.7 million birds. Awkward on land, their short, powerful wings make them extraordinary swimmers, “flying” beneath the surface as deep as 600 feet to hunt for fish.

An estimated 8,000 of the black and white birds were found dead on the Whittier beach, said John Piatt, research wildlife biologist at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Alaska Science Center.

“That’s unprecedented, that sheer number in one location is off the charts,” he said.

Researchers late last week planned to survey more remote beaches.

Winter storms can affect murres’ ability to hunt. An estimated 185,000 common murres died in the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989. Researchers estimate that 120,000 died in a 1993 winter event. But this year is different.

“The length of time we’ve been seeing dead birds, and the geographic scope, is much greater than before in other die-off events,” said Kathy Kuletz, a biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “We’re looking at many times that. So possibly a good chunk of the population.”

In 2008, Irons was lead author on a research paper that correlated natural die-offs to climate change and rising ocean temperatures. Using data from murre colonies around the circumpolar north, researchers found murres died in years when ocean surface temperature water increased by just a few degrees.

Murre prey such as capelin, a forage fish in the smelt family, live in a narrow band of cool water, said Irons, who retired last year after 36 years with the Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska and California.

“If the water (temperature) goes above that threshold, they’re out of there,” Irons said. “They either die or they move.”

No one monitors forage fish off Alaska, Irons said. “So when they’re gone, no one has any information on them to show that they’re gone, except birds are showing us they’re gone,” he said.

Murres high energy requirement means they have to eat prey matching 10 to 30 percent of their body mass daily. They look for fish in dense schools. “If you don’t have these dense schools of prey, they don’t seem to do very well,” Irons said.

Water temperatures in 2015 were above average and biologists detected signs of trouble. Murres usually found on the outer continental shelf began to show up near shore, including a Juneau boat harbor where they competed with sea lions for herring.

Each spring, murres nest shoulder to shoulder on cliffs or slopes. Females synchronize laying single light bulb-shaped eggs especially suited for a ledge: if they roll, they roll in a circle instead of off the precipice.

Many females in 2015, however, were too weak to breed, Kuletz said.

Finding murre carcasses in summer is unusual but small numbers of birds were reported in Kodiak, the Alaska Peninsula and other locations. Deaths were reported along the Pacific coast as far south as California.

When autumn arrived, inland Alaskans spotted what looked like skinny penguins walking on roadways. By December, murres had been spotted in near Fairbanks, roughly 360 miles from the ocean. Some were turned over to bird rehabilitation facilities.

Strong North Pacific winter storms in December that prevented weakened birds from foraging may have been the final blow.

A trickle of rescued birds turned into a flood. Anchorage’s Bird Learning and Treatment Center received 160 stranded murres in the last three months of 2015. Another 230 murres arrived in the first five days of 2016.

The USGS National Wildlife Health Laboratory in Madison, Wisconsin, has examined about 100 carcasses and detected no parasites or disease that may have contributed to murres not eating, said wildlife disease specialist Barbara Bodenstein.

If the die-off is tied to low numbers of forage fish brought on by a warming ocean, the rest of 2016 does not bode well for murres, Piatt said.

The phenomenon known as the Pacific Blob, a mass of warm water in the North Pacific, has cooled but is still around. Oceanographers predict for 2016 an extreme El Nino, the natural warming of the central Pacific that changes weather worldwide.

“What’s that going to do on top of the warming effect we’ve had in the last six months to a year?” Piatt said. “I’m asking because I don’t know.” 

Animal Planet introduces world to ‘Dr. Dee, Alaska Vet’

Dr. Dee Thornell bought the first heated surgery table in the state of Alaska — for animals. But as a veterinarian with an animal hospital in Fairbanks, she doesn’t always get to use that table. She’s just as likely to be flying to some remote location, performing surgery using a church pew, pool table or truck bed.

Thornell also is the first veterinarian from Alaska with a reality television show. Animal Planet’s Dr. Dee, Alaska Vet, debuted on Nov. 7 at 7 p.m. CST.

Some of the show is filmed in the wild. The rest comes from her practice — which she calls Animal House. It includes a large, modern animal hospital, a Montessori dog training school, a laundry, groomer, retail store and the latest addition, a crematorium. 

She likes her job, from the dogs, cats, moose, beavers, woodchucks and other animals she cares for, to the people. 

“The people are helpful, friendly and outgoing. There is not a single soul who would not stop to help you. It’s a big little city,” she said. 

It’s also a cold place in winter, with an average low in January of minus 17 degrees. Throw a cup of coffee in the air and it might freeze, she says. She wants her 15 employees to be happy at work, so she makes sure there is warmth and laughter on the job. 

In the first episode, viewers traveled with Thornell as she did welfare checks on a black bear and a team of sled dogs, castrated a group of piglets and untangled a reindeer’s antler growth. Trying to save a horse injured in an expedition was her biggest challenge, partly because of the weather and partly because it is a good friend’s beloved pet.

Thornell set up the Golden Heart Pet Assistance League so remote villagers can get help paying for treatment for domestic and farm animals. She also uses the charity to do as much spay and neuter work in outlying areas as possible. And she conducts a two-week class every year to introduce 10 high school juniors and seniors to the world of veterinary medicine. 

As a grade-schooler in Michigan, Thornell wrote a report on Alaska and fell in love with the state. She and her husband, Ken Rodriguez, met in 2005. “His dream was to fly and I was building a house. He helped me build the house and I helped him learn to fly,” she said. Now he works for the state of Alaska as a pilot and they share a house and barn with three dogs, three cats, two Friesian horses, one donkey named Gus and several pet chickens.

“I’ve been going to her for 35 years. She’s a wonderful lady, a good vet and she cares deeply for you and your animals,” said Cindy Reason, who has two blue heelers (Australian cattle dogs), Dottie and Missy. Reason invited all her friends and relatives to a viewing party the night the first episode aired.

Reason said Thornell has been by her side during her toughest moments over the last three decades — including helping her through the loss of several dogs.

“When you have to make the hard decision to put your babies down, that’s extreme. Dr. Dee has the compassion that helps you through that. She’s just fantastic support for you during that time,” she said.

Thornell says she’s been told: “You are not Dr. Doo-little, you are Dr. Do-a-lot.” 

But she says life only makes sense if “you close your eyes for the last time, and there are no ‘what ifs.’” 

Some say ‘McKinley,’ we say ‘Denali’ | Questions and answers about naming the Alaskan peak

North America’s tallest mountain is returning to its previous name, Mount Denali, more than a century after the Alaskan peak was named to honor President William McKinley, who never set foot in Alaska.

The White House announced the change earlier this week in a symbolic gesture to Alaska Natives. But some politicians in McKinley’s native Ohio are looking for ways to block the move. Some answers to common questions about Mount Denali and its name:

Q: WHAT’S THE HISTORY OF THE MOUNTAIN?

A: Various tribes of Alaska Natives known as Athabascans have lived in the shadow of the 20,320-foot Denali for thousands of years. The National Park Service says the first recorded reference to the mountain was made in 1794 by British explorer George Vancouver. Forty years later, Russian Creole explorer Andrew Glazunov noted in a journal that he saw a “great mountain called Tenada.”

In 1839, a map was published with an approximate location of the mountain with the name Tenada. But the park service says the name later got dropped from Russian maps and slowly disappeared.

Q: HOW DID IT GET THE NAME MOUNT MCKINLEY?

A: A prospector known as William A. Dickey named the mountain in 1896. The park service website notes Dickey’s account that he named the peak “after William McKinley of Ohio, who had been nominated for the Presidency, and that fact was the first news we received on our way out of that wonderful wilderness.” His account was published a year later in the New York Sun.

Q: WAS THERE A CHALLENGE TO THE MOUNT MCKINLEY NAME?

A: Yes, and fairly quickly. The U.S. Geological Survey disputed Dickey’s name in 1899, but the New York Sun stepped in and pointed out Dickey’s accounts and maps were widely circulated in 1897.

Q: WHY IS THE MOUNTAIN SACRED TO ALASKA NATIVES?

A: There is no one common story among Athabascans as to why the mountain is sacred, but they all agree it is, said Will Mayo, a former president of the Tanana Chiefs Conference, a consortium of 42 Athabascan tribes in Interior Alaska.

One story, he said, describes Mount Denali and neighboring Mount Foraker as husband and wife with eight sons — which are prominent and sacred hills located on Athabascan lands, places like Mooseheart Mountain and Mission Hill.

“It’s not one homogenous belief structure around the mountain, but we all agree that we’re all deeply gratified by the acknowledgment of the importance of Denali to Alaska’s people,” he said.

Q: DID ALASKANS CALL IT MOUNT MCKINLEY?

A: Some did, but others invoked the state’s longtime attitude of, “We don’t care how they do it outside” and called it Denali. Alaskans consider every place that isn’t Alaska “outside.”

Q: WILL OHIO WILLINGLY GIVE UP THE NAME OF ITS NATIVE SON?

A: Far from it, but it wasn’t immediately clear what elected officials could do to stop it. Ohio Republican Rep. Bob Gibbs said McKinley deserved to be honored and invited his colleagues to join him to try to block what he called Obama’s “constitutional overreach.”

Other Ohio political leaders were not as adamant but expressed their disappointment in the change.

Q: HOW LONG HAVE ALASKA AND OHIO BEEN AT ODDS OVER THE NAME OF THE MOUNTAIN?

A: Since at least 1975, when the Alaska Geographic Board changed the mountain’s name to Denali and the state Legislature, governor and congressional delegation began to push for the name change at the federal level, said Jo Antonson, the state historian. The same year, Ohio Rep. Ralph Regula began the tradition of filing legislation to keep the name as Mount McKinley. The federal board that oversees place names would never take up the issue since there always was active legislation, Antonson said.

“It was just irritating,” she said.

Q:  HOW DID PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA CHANGE THE NAME?

A: On the eve of a three-day trip to Alaska, the White House announced that Interior Secretary Sally Jewell changed the name by secretarial order, citing a 1947 law that allows the standardization of geographic names unilaterally when the U.S. Board on Geographic Names fails to act “within a reasonable time.” The board shares responsibility with the Interior Department for naming such landmarks.

Q: ARE THERE ANY POSITIVES IN THIS FOR MCKINLEY?

A: McKinley Presidential Library and Museum curator Kimberly Kenney said she’s happy for the Alaskans who have sought the name change for 40 years. She said she’s also glad that the 25th president is getting some attention.

“We’re glad people are talking about President McKinley,” Kenney said. “People don’t talk about him often.”

McKinley, a Republican, won the general election in both 1896 and 1900, twice defeating William Jennings Bryan. McKinley was killed by an assassin in 1901 in Buffalo, New York. He has no living heirs, Kenney said.

Warm ‘blob’ off northwest coast wreaks havoc with marine life

Weird things are happening off the Pacific Coast.

And at the center of the action is a warm-water mass that scientists call “the blob.”

It’s turning the coastal ecosystem on its head. Species are dying along Washington, Oregon and northern California: sea stars, marine birds and sardines, among them.

It started in the fall of 2013 when the Gulf of Alaska’s usual winter storms didn’t show up to cool down the Pacific.

That gave rise to an expanse of warmer water, according to Bill Peterson of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

And it has spread. By last summer the blob had consumed the entire North Pacific from California to Canada. A few months later it had touched the West Coast shore. Now it spans 2,000 miles from Baja, Mexico to Alaska, stretching 500 miles wide.

It’s hard to get away from something that big, and while some species are dying, others are behaving strangely.

Tropical plankton are showing up for the first time. Native plankton are breeding much later. Brown pelicans are refusing to mate at all. And toxic algal blooms are spreading rapidly, at times shutting down commercial and recreational fishing.

The blob isn’t responsible for all of the strange happenings, though. The cyclical warm-water weather event El Niño is back on the California coast, and it looks as strong as its last severe episode in 1997. That makes this a double whammy for experts trying to get to the bottom of these habitat changes. And that’s leaving out the climate change variable, which may or may not be related to both events.

Basically, it’s not just a bunch of anomalies anymore. Scientists say these occurrences are part of a rapidly changing ecosystem. In other words, it’s the new normal. And rather than try to prevent something that’s already here, ocean and fishery management has to evolve with it.

Steve Marx, a Pacific Ocean conservationist at Pew Charitable Trusts, put it this way: Scientists typically look at things like commercial fishing pressure and ocean conditions to predict population cycles. Those models aren’t working anymore.

“Everything we know about (forecasting) is getting thrown out the window,” he said. “So, yes. Crazy things.”

What happened after the blob arrived and started to spread had never been seen before. It brought new visitors to the Northwest: tropical copepods.

Peterson, who teaches oceanography at Oregon State University, said they’re beautiful but they’re causing problems for predators. The tropical plankton are not as fatty as the native plankton, and predators are passing on them. Meanwhile, the native, cold-water plankton started breeding late this year and their population has dropped below normal.

Scientists also are noticing that krill, another bottom-of-the-chain prey, have been largely absent this year.

Jaime Jahncke, a biologist at Point Blue Conservation Science, said during a research cruise off San Francisco a few weeks ago his team found few adult krill, mostly just juveniles. Data isn’t out yet for Alaskan krill, but scientists say it’s likely the same situation.

There’s speculation that the blob is sending them away, but no one knows enough to confirm it.

Meanwhile, Jahncke and his team are seeing more tropical species, such as sunfish.

He called it a perpetuation of the warm water conditions.

In a separate development, humpback whales reportedly have been spotted this week hanging out in the mouth of the Columbia River near Astoria, presumably for the anchovies. That’s odd because humpbacks, unlike gray whales, are not known for swimming near shore.

The blob might also be to blame for a major die-off of Cassin’s auklets this past winter.

From California to Canada — but mostly in Oregon — beachgoers have reported hundreds of the small seabirds had washed ashore. By January, that number reached tens of thousands. That’s 100 times more than their average mortality rate.

Julia Parrish, a professor of aquatic and fishery sciences at the University of Washington, tracked the die-off and said one theory is that the birds had a particularly good breeding season, which made it harder for juveniles competing for food.

But it also might be the blob. Parrish said it’s possible the auklets didn’t want to eat the tropical plankton.

“There’s reason to believe that basically what was happening was suddenly the grocery store was full of all sorts of different food, and maybe the food wasn’t so good,” she said.

Peterson, on the other hand, theorized that because the seabirds can’t dive deeper than 40 meters, perhaps they couldn’t reach their prey, which would seek cooler water below the blob at 80 meters.

Then you’ve got the massive sea star die-off. Thousands of sea stars are turning to goo from a virus. Not that warm water is the cause, but it’s certainly known for spreading the rate of infection.

Not everything can be attributed to the blob, however. Sometimes it’s people.

U.S. officials say the nation accounts for 87 percent of all sardine fishing in North America. Supposedly Mexico catches 13 percent and Canada catches none. But Canadians disagree with that assessment, insisting they net a significant share.

The fact the countries disagree points to part of the problem. No one group is accurately tracking the catches. Which helps explain the fact that there’s also no standard for how many sardines trawlers can catch.

Though these forage fish normally do well in warm water, cooler water conditions before the blob arrived had brought their population down.

Combine that with overfishing, and the Pacific sardine population collapsed. According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, the West Coast Pacific sardine population has decreased 90 percent since 2007. That’s the lowest it’s been in decades.

That has spelled disaster for species dependent on sardines. Sea lion pups are starving and brown pelicans are refusing to mate.

And what about the salmon? They feed on sardines, too.

Salmon are a whole topic unto themselves. Populations have been suffering die-offs almost all summer in Oregon, mostly because of warm water in the Columbia River and its tributaries. The biggest mystery has been the disappearance of at least 250,000 sockeye traveling up the river out of an expected return of 500,000.

Ben Enticknap, a senior scientist at the international research group Oceana, said much of this problem is manmade because dams have hampered migration and, in some cases, blocked access to historical spawning grounds.

All this presents a conundrum for scientists.

“What do you do?” Enticknap said. “Do you ignore it and do nothing and just wait to respond to endangered species listings and extinction events? Or do you become more proactive?”

Marx, the Pew Charitable Trusts conservationist, said scientists generally focus on species as separate problems. But if you focus on one, you need to look at how it affects its relationship with other species. For example, if a conservationist is studying a struggling salmon species, Marx said, it’s important to also look at the fish the salmon is eating and the bird that’s eating the salmon.

“The one takeaway message we would have is … the need to manage and think of things in a bigger, multi-species ecosystem approach,” he said.

The Pacific Fishery Management Council, he said, is doing just that. With representatives from Washington, Oregon, California and Idaho, the largely government-appointed council is responsible for regional fishery management.

In 2013, the council adopted its Fishery Ecosystem Plan to incorporate more ecosystem science and management policies. It doesn’t necessarily wait for “perfect” science to consider action.

One of the first steps the council took was to address the sardine issue. All fishing is halted for the rest of this season and the next. New fisheries can’t be developed, either, until there is more science on how to sustain it.

Enticknap, a conservation adviser on the ecosystem advisory panel, called it a progressive move.

“For the longest time, fisheries would just start up and then people would be reacting to a collapse to overfishing, and this is reversing that whole concept.”

Other organizations have launched related efforts.

Oceana is working to protect seafloor habitats from trawling. Enticknap said when large fishing nets are dragged across the ocean floor, coral and sponges are knocked over or caught by accident.

At OSU, researchers are asking volunteers to run climate models on their computers to understand the blob’s origin and whether it’s a symptom of climate change.

And the state Legislature approved protected marine areas in Oregon, such as Cascade Head, Cape Perpetua and Redfish Rocks. These areas are open to recreational use, but not commercial fishing.

One thing to keep in mind, though, is that not all species are struggling. Sometimes when one suffers, another prospers.

Marx said hake, or Pacific whiting, is relatively abundant at the moment.

The oceanographic climate shift, he said, “is good for some things. It’s bad for a lot of other things.”

Information from: The Oregonian, http://www.oregonlive.com

How do you find a mountain that disappears? | Tracking the elusive Denali

A mountain shouldn’t be able to disappear. Yet the Alaskan peak Denali, the highest mountain in North America, does so quite often, blinking into existence only for a lucky few visitors. You can’t plan for it. It’s simply an atmospheric game of chance.

Denali doesn’t go anywhere, of course, but a mountain that rises 20,320 feet comes with complications. Because of its massive height and size, Denali creates its own climatic conditions. That usually means clouds, ranging from a light cumulus crown on the mountain’s highest peak to a complete shroud covering the entire formation.

For many visitors — including my wife and I — that creates a case of vacationus interruptus. Denali, once known as Mount McKinley for the former president but now referred to by its original name meaning “The High One,” is the crown jewel of a trip to Alaska, the resounding crescendo to days and weeks viewing the magnificent sights of the 49th state. Alaska is almost unparalleled in its rugged beauty, but after days of massive mountain ranges and deep and wide valleys, luminescent blue glaciers and frequent wildlife sightings, something needs to bring every trip to its climax.

For all its presumed majesty and grandeur, when our busload of fellow travelers climbed the road through the national park of the same name, Denali was nowhere to be found. We saw black and brown grizzly bears, herds of elk, a random moose here, bighorn sheep there and even a gaggle of ptarmigan chicks, Alaska’s state bird. 

But the closer we got to the mountain, the less visible it became. We were forced to take candid self-portraits in front of where Denali should have been, many miles in the distance, and had to content ourselves with the fact that we knew where we were despite lacking photographic proof.

Not that there is nothing to be seen at Denali National Park when its mountain is missing.

Denali is not the most remote national park in Alaska. That honor is reserved for Gates of the Arctic, its northernmost cousin, a park roughly the size of Belgium that has no roads, trails or visitor amenities. But Denali’s only road is 92 miles long, of which only the first 15 miles are paved. After that, visitors are on their own.

Outside the park entrance is a thriving little visitor community of hotels, restaurants, shops, outfitters, a gas station and other enterprises that add hustle and bustle to the pristine outdoor surroundings, from the time they open in May until the season ends around Sept. 23.

Alaska has become big business for many cruise lines, as the most popular way to arrive and depart is by water. Both Holland America and Princess Cruises operate hotels in this commercial enclave, blending comfort and amenities with the appropriate rusticity. It’s from here that various tours and concessions depart.

There are river-rafting trips, with passenger wetsuits provided for those seeking a little wild Alaskan flavor. You can hike with or without a ranger, on or off trail, and even cycle the paved part of Denali Park Road. There are also wilderness hiking, camping and mountain climbing options, but those things rarely fall under the purview of cruise passengers.

We opted for a chance to visit with Denali’s sled-dog huskies, which are well-trained, relatively friendly and hard workers, since dogsleds are still the primary way that rangers patrol 2 million of the park’s 6 million acres during most months of the year. The free kennel visit is one of the most popular of the park’s attractions.

The kennels are home to roughly 30 sled dogs, with at least one new litter of puppies born each spring. During the kennel visit, travelers will learn about the daily life of a sled dog as well as witness sled-pulling demonstrations. 

The other popular attraction is the wildlife tour, where we spent the better part of a day in a former school bus “tracking” wildlife that were visible from the road. Our guide, a knowledgeable Alaskan who had lived there most of her adult life, knew where to look and what to look for. We weren’t disappointed, even if we didn’t see the mountain our guide said hadn’t made an appearance in almost three weeks. 

Whether you see the mountain is just the luck of the draw, she said, and we were fairly certain we had been dealt a bad hand as we climbed aboard a train observation car the next day for the 8-hour trip from Denali National Park to Anchorage and our flight home. But the game wasn’t over yet.

Because an hour later, there it was, the fabled mountain revealing itself as we rode alongside in the train, much closer than we got on the tour. Throughout the ride we saw the mountain from the north, the east and the south, almost up to the time that we entered the Anchorage city limits. Denali had become our constant traveling companion, reminding us at every turn why we had come to Alaska in the first place.

In a state known for its rugged magnificence, Denali may be its most spectacular asset of all. A challenge for even the most proficient climbers, Denali exists as a dream for the many and a goal for but a few.

“By bringing myself over the edge and back, I discovered a passion to live my days fully, a conviction that will sustain me like sweet water on the periodically barren plain of our short lives,” wrote Jonathan Waterman, author of In the Shadow of Denali: Life and Death on Alaska’s Mount McKinley.

Waterman scaled the mountain; I didn’t. But I know exactly what he meant when he talked of passion and conviction. Watching Denali from the train, in my heart I was right there beside him.

Ho, ho, health: North Pole won’t block pot sales

North Pole residents can put marijuana on their Christmas list next year.

The city council in North Pole, Alaska, rejected a measure this week that would have banned marijuana dispensaries. Marijuana became legal in Alaska in February, and sales begin next year.

The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported even Santa Claus — yes, that’s his real name — testified in favor of selling pot in this Christmas-themed town, where light poles resemble candy canes.

Claus said he is medical marijuana patient, and he’d like to buy pot in North Pole instead of making the short drive to Fairbanks.

Some worried how others might perceive North Pole if marijuana dispensaries are allowed. But one council member noted North Pole already allows the sale of alcohol, cigarettes and guns.

Shell eager to drill off Alaska’s northwest coast

Royal Dutch Shell PLC will move forward with drilling off Alaska’s northwest coast if it can obtain permits it needs and drill safely, its chief executive officer said this week.

Speaking in London on the company’s fourth-quarter earnings, Ben van Beurden said Shell will move forward with its plan to use two drill vessels in the Chukchi Sea, subject to getting permits and legal clearance.

“There’s a few other challenges that are being worked, that can – again – hold us up this year,” he said in response to questions. “But, provided that doesn’t happen, we have the permits in place and we are operational ready, yes, we are minded to drill this year, in the Chukchi.”

The announcement was consistent with what Shell officials have been saying about the upcoming summer open-water season in Alaska.

Drilling off Alaska’s shore is strongly opposed by environmental groups and some Alaska Native groups, which contend the industry has not demonstrated it can clean up a spill in ice-choked, cold waters far from infrastructure such as major ports and airports.

“No oil company should be drilling in the Arctic Ocean when there are no proven ways to do it safely and no viable means for cleaning up potential spills,” said Margaret Williams, director of U.S. Arctic programs for the World Wildlife Fund, in a statement.

Shell’s drill ships would be accompanied by a flotilla of support vessels that the company says could quickly stop a blowout and contain a spill.

Shell last drilled in Arctic waters off Alaska in 2012. One drill vessel afterward, the Kulluk, broke free from tow lines while attempting to cross the Gulf of Alaska and ran aground off an island near Kodiak. The contracting company on a second vessel, the Noble Discoverer, was convicted of eight environmental and maritime crimes and fined $12.2 million.

The company paused a year ago, van Beurden said, because of a legal challenge it could not overcome. Drilling in 2015 will depend on a number of things.

“First of all, will we be technically, logistically ready to go ahead? I’d be so disappointed if we wouldn’t,” he said.

Shell has kept all its capability in place, tuned it, and upgraded it to be ready for the upcoming summer open-water season, he said. However, the company lacks key permits, van Beurden said.

“So, if we don’t get the permits, or if the permits are not acceptable and not compliable, we will have no option but to `not’ go ahead,” he said.

He expects a timely resolution to a lawsuit that challenged the federal government’s environmental assessment of the effects of drilling before it sold Chukchi leases to Shell and other companies in 2008. The Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management in October released a revised environmental report that must pass judicial review.

Shell’s 2015 overall spending on conventional exploration outside of Alaska will be less than $3 billion, said Chief Financial Officer Simon Henry. In Alaska, exploration costs will exceed $1 billion.

“Even if we don’t drill, it will be approaching a billion dollars, because of the commitment to keep the fleet of ships that we need,” he said. “Remember, this is a logistics operation as much as drilling. Ensuring that the logistics are in place to support the drilling means that quite a lot of spend is already committed.”