Dear EarthTalk: Why did 34 million wild sockeye salmon return to the Fraser River in British Columbia this year? The run had been declining for 20 years before now. -- David B., Seattle, WA
|"Some 34 million sockeye salmon returned
to Canada's Fraser River this past summer
and fall, following years of decline that had
many scientists worried about the future of
the fish and the industry built around it.
There is now great optimism for better
times ahead." Credit this image to "John
Warrenchuk, courtesy Wikipedia."
The miraculous sockeye salmon run in western Canada’s Fraser River watershed in the summer and fall of 2010—indeed the biggest run in 97 years—still has fishers, researchers and fishery managers baffled. Just a year earlier only one million fish returned to spawn. No one seems to be able to say for sure what caused the massive 2010 run, but most agree that it probably had to do with the very favorable water conditions that were present in 2008 when the sockeyes were juveniles. “They’re very vulnerable at that stage of their life,” reports John Reynolds, a salmon conservation expert at Canada’s Simon Fraser University.
Roberta Hamme, a researcher with Canada’s University of Victoria, suggests in a recent study published in Geophysical Research Letters that the ash fall from the eruption of Alaska’s Kasatochi volcano in 2008 may be one reason for the huge 2010 run. Iron in the ash, which was spewed far and wide by the erupting volcano and then dispersed further by turbulent weather, served as a fertilizer throughout the North Pacific. The result was huge algae blooms that dramatically improved the fish’s food supply. A similar large Fraser River salmon run in 1958 was likewise preceded by a huge volcanic eruption in Alaska.
What was particularly striking about 2010’s mammoth run was the contrast against 2009, when the Fraser River sockeye run was a disaster by all accounts. It capped 20 years of decline and was so much worse than anyone had expected that the Canadian government formed a commission to investigate possible causes, reported Daniel Jack Chasan on the Pacific Northwest news website, Crosscut.
The situation was terrible in 2008, as well, so much so that on the U.S. side of the border, then-Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez declared the Fraser salmon fishery a disaster and allocated $2 million to U.S. tribes and commercial fishermen to make up for their loss of income. But strangely enough, just as the Canadian commission began investigating the paltry 2009 run, said Chasan, commercial fishermen “started hauling in more Fraser River sockeye than any of them had ever seen.”
Generally speaking, scientists and environmentalists are well aware of why wild West Coast salmon runs have been declining over the past century: namely pollution at almost every inch along the thousand mile river-to-sea-and-back underwater journey, overfishing in both rivers and the ocean, and man-made obstructions to fish passage. But environmentalists are now optimistic that the huge 2010 sockeye run is a sign of better times ahead. Perhaps improved logging practices, a resurgence in organic farming, new protections for upstream habitat or restrained commercial fishing catch limits—or some combination thereof—has begun to make a difference in salmon survival.
In any event, the salmon runs typically peak every fourth year—2010 was supposed to be a peak year but substantially exceeded expectations. Only time will tell if the masses of sockeyes in the Fraser in 2010 were a fluke or foreshadow better days ahead for the environment—and for the fish and people in it.
CONTACTS: John Reynolds, www.sfu.ca/biology/faculty/reynolds/The_Reynolds_Lab; Geophysical Research Letters, www.agu.org/journals/gl; Crosscut, www.crosscut.com.
Dear EarthTalk: Can you explain what “fracking” is with regard to natural gas exploration and why it is controversial? -- Jonas Kern, Bellevue, WA
Fracking is shorthand within the oil and gas industry for “hydraulic fracturing,” a process in which drillers blast millions of gallons of water, sand and hazardous chemicals at high-pressure into sub-surface rock formations to create fractures that facilitate the flow of recoverable oil or gas. According to the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission, 90 percent of all oil and gas wells in the U.S. are “fracked” to boost production. Fracking usually occurs just after a new well is drilled, but many wells are fractured numerous times to get as much production out of a profitable site as possible.
|"Fracking, shorthand for “hydraulic
fracturing,” involves blasting
millions of gallons of water, sand
and hazardous chemicals at high-
pressure into sub-surface rock
formations to create fractures that
facilitate the flow of recoverable oil
or gas. It has come under serious
attack of late due to fears about
contaminated drinking water and
other threats to public health.
Pictured: A hydraulic fracturing site,
one of several concentrated in a
small area in and around Troy,
Pennsylvania." Credit this image to
But after a series of accidents in Pennsylvania and elsewhere over the last few years, fracking has come under attack as dangerous to both human health and the environment. The most common problem involves the disposal of the toxic sludge that results from fracking. Texas-based XTO Energy, for instance, racked up 31 fracking-related pollution violations at 20 wells in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale in 2010 alone. But the fact that between 20 and 40 percent of the chemicals remain stranded underground—where they can contaminate drinking water, soils and other features of the environment that plants, animals and humans rely on—is perhaps even more troubling. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a least nine different chemicals commonly used in fracking are injected into oil and gas wells at concentrations that pose a threat to human health.
With Americans getting half of their drinking water from underground sources, it’s no wonder that people are concerned about the risks of fracking—especially since 2005 when George W. Bush exempted oil and gas companies from federal regulations designed to protect our drinking water. Meanwhile, most state oil and gas regulatory agencies don’t require companies to report the volumes or names of chemicals being used in extraction (benzene, chloride, toluene and sulfates are among them). The result, according to the non-profit Oil and Gas Accountability Project, is that one of the country’s dirtiest industries enjoys an exclusive right to “inject toxic fluids directly into good quality groundwater without oversight.”
There are other potential issues with fracking as well. The non-profit Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) warns that beyond contaminating drinking water with toxic and in some cases carcinogenic chemicals, fracking could trigger earthquakes, poison grazing livestock, and overburden our wastewater systems—especially since drilling expanded during Bush’s tenure in the White House.
In response to public concern about the potential risks associated from fracking, the EPA recently commenced a comprehensive study on the topic. Oil companies and environmentalists alike hope that the study puts to rest any debate over the environmental impacts of the process. In the meantime, the city council in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania recently voted to outlaw fracking there, while New York governor David Paterson extended a moratorium on fracking in his state through July of 2011, citing concerns about whether the technique is safe enough to allow it at all moving forward. Other municipalities and states are waiting to see what the EPA finds before making their own decisions on fracking.