Monday, December 30, 2013

December Coastal Creek Steelhead

A few days ago, I caught these two hatchery steelhead chromers on a coastal creek. Today, I saw elk, eagles, spawning coho salmon (third photo), and cantaloupe-sized agates.  I hiked 6 miles along the water in old growth forest without seeing one other human.  There was no cell reception so it was easier to think.  I honestly don't know how I survived away from here.

At the fish processing market, I overheard this: "See the straight cut on this fish? That's how you can tell my girlfriend got it, and not a seal."

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

John Muir, Melting Sea Stars, Fukushima, and William Stafford

                                           Here is a summer steelhead I caught on one of my days off when 
                                           I ran The Starfisher in Depoe Bay, Oregon.

One close friend recently asked why I dig “into this Fukushima stuff” when it is in a word, “depressing.” For this I have two answers: 1) In mainstream media, reality hasn’t had much traction in recent years and 2) Ray Bradbury wrote, “You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.”  To that I would add, yes, writing and fishing. 

Furthermore, John Muir wrote in My First Summer in the Sierra, "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe. One fancies a heart like our own must be beating in every crystal and cell, and we feel like stopping to speak to the plants and animals as friendly fellow-mountaineers. Nature as a poet, an enthusiastic workingman, becomes more and more visible the farther and higher we go; for the mountains are fountains--beginning places, however related to sources beyond mortal ken.” 

That’s what makes millions of sea stars unexplainably dying from Canada to Southern California so troubling.  In relation to Muir’s words above, while casting for steelhead into the clear waters off Whidbey Island’s west shore, I wondered, what else should we worry about?  Danielle Venton reported on December 13, 2013, in nature, the International weekly journal of science, “Among the possible causes scientists have suggested for the wasting syndrome are low oxygen levels in coastal waters, localized areas of warm water and environmental toxins.”  Okay, I would translate that to dead zones, underwater climate change, and threshold-level industrial pollutants as suspects.  The article added, “‘I’m pretty confident we’ll soon figure out what this is,’ says [ biologist Hannah] Perlkin.”

The next day a news story titled, “China bans shellfish imports from US West Coast,” noted that for the first time, China has suspended imports of shellfish from the [entire] U.S. West Coast” due to “high levels of arsenic and a toxin that causes paralytic shellfish poisoning.”  It’s quite possible, maybe even likely, the sea star die-offs and Chinese shellfish ban have nothing to do with Fukushima.  Still, while not as Godzilla-sensational as Fukushima, incidents such as the underwater climate change, increasing levels of arsenic, aforementioned bleeding herring schools off British Columbia, and polar bear lesions I noted in a previous blog entry make me wonder, like Linda Perry screams in the 1992 song by 4 Non Blondes called “What’s Up?,”: “Hey, What’s Going On?”

When I had The Starfisher, before the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill, my biggest concern was whether I wanted to use red hoochies or green hoochies to catch salmon.  Now, with an unprecedented scale of sea stars melting, unprecedented banning of shellfish exports from the U. S. West Coast, an unprecedented Pacific Ocean radiation disaster from Fukushima, and unprecedented information access via the Internet, I long for those simpler Starfisher days. 

Arnie Gundersen, in this Dec. 3, 2013, Real News Network video titled “TEPCO Downplays Fuel Rod Removal Risks” explains “The work needs to be done.  There is no doubt the fuel has to come out of there, but I just have no faith that Tokyo Electric has the competence and capacity to do it right. [. . . .] I built these racks when I was a senior vice president in the industry and the [temperature] tolerances are very, very high tolerance so they have to pull these things out now, and with the roof ruble in it, the friction to try to pull these out is going to be hard and I’m afraid they might snap one.”

According to the video, “Gundersen has over 40 years of experience working in nuclear power engineering, and he was a licensed reactor operator  . . .”  His bio at Fairewinds Energy Education notes, “During his nuclear power industry career, Arnie also managed and coordinated projects at 70-nuclear power plants in the US.”  Listening to him reminds me of the Russell Crowe character Jeffrey Wigand in the film, The Insider.

It must be added that Gundersen has predictable critics.  “Former Senior Vice President Nuclear Licensee” is "literally true" but Adams has concerns about the veracity of how Gundersen presents himself.   I don't know enough about the inner workings of the nuclear power industry to know the extent of danger from the rods in reactor 4.  I do know that Adams, being a self-identified "Pro-nuclear advocate," could be read beside Helen Caldicott's Nuclear Madness so readers could see both sides of fence.

To Gundersen’s credit,  international diplomat Akio Matsumura, former special advisor to the United Nations Development Program, and the Secretary General of the 1992 Parliamentary Earth Summit Conference in Rio de Janeiro, said in a Fairewinds Energy Education video “40 Good Years and One Bad Day,” “And I mentioned to former [Japanese] Prime Minister Hatoyama, I only believe in what Arnie [Gundersen] says [about the The Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Disaster.], [and] what Helen Caldicott says.”

Okay, so I’m convinced TEPCO has been incompetent in managing risk, and in releasing reliable information after the incident.  The more important issue is what may happen if a fuel rod snaps.  I hope we never find out.

Some nuclear scientists are unconcerned such as those in David P. Ball’s November 11, 2013, article “These Nuclear Physicists Think David Suzuki Is Exaggerating about Fukushima” which noted that University of British Columbia physicist Marcello Pavan said, “As scientists talking around the lunchroom, we are more or less of a unanimous opinion that the hysteria around Fukushima is grossly overblown [. . . .] “[Dr. Suzuki’s statement “It's bye-bye Japan—and everybody on the west coast of North America should evacuate.” if reactor 4 burns into the air] doesn't in any remote sense seem plausible. It's contaminated material, yes, but certainly not on a scale that would devastate Japan, nor travel all way across the Pacific and cause an evacuation."

However, Washington’s Blog noted that aforementioned “Gundersen (who used to build spent fuel pools) [ . . . . ] warns that – if the fuel pools at reactor 4 collapse due to an earthquake – people should get out of Japan, and residents of the West Coast of America and Canada should shut all of their windows and stay inside for a while. [. . . .] It is no exaggeration to say that the fate of Japan and the whole world depends on NO.4 reactor.” 

Back to the Pacific Ocean issue, notes from the David Suzuki Foundation included: “The most comprehensive health assessment, by the World Health Organization, says radioactive particles that make their way to North America’s waters will have a limited effect on human health, with concentrations predicted to be below WHO safety levels.” and  “It should also be noted that more reports are in the works. The UN agency charged with assessing global levels and consequences of ionizing radiation (UNSCEAR) has not yet released its full report. This is where we may find answers about the amount of radioactive material released, how it was dispersed and any repercussions for the environment and food sources."

Last week, I spoke with Mike Priddy, an Environmental Sciences Section Manager at the Washington State Department of Health, about my desire to learn about the true dangers of the Fukushima incident, or the lack thereof.  Since his team has been testing salmon and steelhead as well as razor clams and other species, I was eager to hear his report.  After our conversation, Priddy wrote me an email noting, “Because the levels are so low by the time they get here we have trouble identifying them as originating from Fukushima and not part of the global background from other sources, with the exception of the short lived isotopes." He added, "We have sampled steelhead and salmon in the fall and spring runs since the Fukushima event first occurred and plan on continuing for some time. We have seen no evidence of Fukushima contaminates in them.  We also sampled tuna caught on the west coast of the US. In one sample we saw a VERY small amount of Cs-134, similar to what has been seen in California.  It in no way poses a health risk, but does prove our detection capability.  As you know we have looked at razor clams a few times, mussels, sea water, fin fish (not tuna or salmonids) as well as water, sediment, and debris. [ . .  .] To date nothing has indicated a health risk, and since the airborne releases of 2011 [we] have had only one minor detection in a single tuna.  I should be clear that we are not doing a study of contaminants in the marine environment, but rather confirming predictive models.”

Priddy said he will get back to me with specifics about radiation tests on razor clams.

I will keep checking on Fukushima radiation but for now it seems the big issue for salmon and steelhead is global warming since these fish are so temperature-sensitive.  For humans, the safe removal of fuel from reactor 4 is either dire or inconsequential to the United States depending on whom one believes.  The sea star issue concerns me.  At the time of this writing, millions of sea stars are dying without any marine biologist reporting why anywhere I could find.  I hope, as biologist Hannah Perlkin said above, “we’ll soon figure [this] out.”  The answer may allow us to explore how sea stars are “hitched to everything else in the universe.” as John Muir wrote about what happens when “we try to pick out anything by itself.”

You know I like to end on a positive note.  This time it’s from the last stanza of William Stafford’s poem “Maybe” on page 47 of his book A Glass Face in the Rain, and it also fits the Linda Perry song above:

“The explorer turns over a stone.
Maybe those who sang
were the lucky ones.”

Sunday, December 8, 2013

The Good News, the Bad News, and the Mystery

The Good News

On May 30, 2012, Freelance Health Journalist Harriet Sugar-Miller reported in her article, "Salmon Says: Should you Worry about Radiation in your Wild Pacific Fish?" in Huffpost Living Canada, "With wild Pacific salmon caught off the U.S. and Canadian coasts, you have nothing to worry about, says Dr. David Welch, a world expert on salmon migratory patterns. Salmon from Japan do not migrate as far as the North American coast, he says, and likewise, our North American species do not migrate as far west as Japan's coastal waters." See   

I wrote to Dr. Welch, asking for his sources, and he generously answered all of my questions.  In addition, he sent charts on salmon and steelhead ocean migration patterns, and additional information, I will include below.  I was greatly impressed with his honesty, openness, and thorough answers which, I am sorry to report, has not always been the case with other scientific researchers and governmental bodies whom have been more guarded, funding and stakeholder-sensitive, and agenda-driven.  We all know true science is, and always has been, blind to those political considerations.  Maybe this is why Socrates knew he could never be a politician.  

Dr. Welch’s research complements University of Washington Professor Trevor Branch's information I added in my previous blog post, but contrasts what Canada Research Chair in Preventive Medicine and Population Health Dr. Erica Frank said in this CBC Radio-Canada video .  I don’t fault her for this because in the video she sounds like a very sincere and honest person.  I emailed her on November 30, 2013, asking for her sources, but she never responded.   I am not surprised my email subject “Question about your CBC Radio-Canada comment on Pacific salmon” went unanswered because in my teaching job I sometimes get about 80 emails a day, and I have to prioritize which leaves me unable to answer all of them promptly.  If she responds, I can include her rebuttal in a later post.

Similar to Dr. Frank, on August 17, 2012, Eugene H. Buck, Specialist in Natural Resources Policy, and Harold F. Upton, Analyst in Natural Resources Policy, had concerns I noted on this blog.  I emailed them as well on November 30, 2013, but unfortunately, they have not responded either.  My motive in noting this is not to criticize them, but instead to let you, the reader, know, I gave them a chance for rebuttal.  My inner voice says, “Face it Starbuck, your blog is not the New York Times.”

On a more serious note, this is not a mere intellectual puzzle for me. Salmon and steelhead fishing is almost my religion, and I eat fish I catch three or four times a week throughout the year. These fish provide my food, the ten poems that landed me a teaching assistantship at Eastern Washington University which led to my current job, my fiancee who was a passenger on my charterboat/troller  The Starfisher in Depoe Bay, the best friends and days of my life, my clay art which has appeared at Athabasca University and the Spirit of the Salmon Fund of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission (CRITFC), my last book of poems River Walker, my former position as a charterboat representative and adipose fin-clipping advocate for the Oregon Coastal Zone Management Association, and healing experiences in remote river canyons when faced with recent deaths of my father, my mother, and my life partner, the artist ShuraYoung. This morning I ate Columbia River spring chinook for breakfast. This afternoon I will fish Whidbey beaches for winter steelhead. Tomorrow my finacee Suz and I will fish either the Olympic Peninsula or northern Washington rivers for winter steelhead. If I had a totem animal, it would be a salmon.  Therefore, I have to know as much as I can about this.

Along with the maps below, Dr. Welch wrote me:  Here are the ocean distribution maps of North American salmon; they are based on drawing a line around those parts of the ocean delimited by (for N American salmon) the farthest west a known-origin salmon was caught by high-seas research vessels..  These maps are a number of years out of date because I left the Cdn. Federal government in 2003 and had already stopped updating these maps a few years earlier, but they will give you a generally reasonable idea of where our salmon feed. [paragraph break] I need to make two comments about them: [paragraph break] First, the western extent of the North American origin salmon are typically based on the occurrence of one salmon.  So, amongst the thousands caught in the western N Pacific that might be of Asian origin, one  North American salmon was caught.  There might be other uncaught North American salmon in that general region, but there numbers will be “thin on the ground” (or water, as the case may be).  The far western edge of the distribution of N American salmon will therefore be typically a much lower concentration of N American salmon than on offshore regions of the Eastern North Pacific.  Exposure to radionuclides from Fukushima for the average salmon you would catch and eat will therefore be pretty low. [paragraph break]  Second, the distribution does not represent the maximum westward extent of N American salmon, only as far west as we know a few to go.  I have personally caught N American origin steelhead due southeast of Kamchatka peninsula in the 1980s when I was a scientific observer on a Japanese research ship.  The steelhead were lacking an adipose fin, which meant it was of N American origin, but unfortunately did not have coded wire tags in then to definitively prove North American origin.  (If they did, we would have been able to draw the “limit of the distribution” farther west). [paragraph break] So N American origin salmon, particularly steelhead go farther west than we can prove… the only way to definitively prove how far west they go would literally be to catch every salmon in the sea, use DNA to establish origin, and then draw the distribution maps on that basis.  I think you agree that that approach fortunately isn’t within our power. [paragraph break] So, from the distribution maps, if you are REALLY concerned about radionuclides, eat pinks or coho, because they don’t range as far west as the other species (steelhead being the biggest potential problem).  But even for those species that range far west, remember that salmon are a subarctic species and inhabit cold water.  Fukushima is a region of sub-tropical water and has a fish fauna to match… the maximum southern extent of salmon spawning in Japan does not even reach Fukushima (or if it does, just barely, and is entirely composed of chum salmon… I would have to go to some lengths to verify exactly where the coastal distribution stops, but I believe it is north of the Sendai (Fukushima) region)). [paragraph break]  Obviously, if you want to cut the risk to zero, the way to do so is to stop eating salmon.  But you sound like a pretty reasonable individual, and even if you were to consume solely steelhead I would suggest that the fish would have little contamination from Fukushima.”  
To complement the idea that eating salmon and steelhead may be a reasonable risk, Glenn Farley reported for King 5 News in Seattle in a story updated January 4, 2013, titled "Washington fish tested for tsunami-related radiation," "While Iodine-131 can lead to thyroid cancer, its short half life of only eight days means it has already reached extremely low levels after 80 days. The [Cesium-137] has a half life of 30 years, but is water soluble and heavy. State health officials say that means it's unlikely to have made it into migratory fish like salmon and steelhead."  The story and video of Columbia River-caught steelhead in a blender are at

The Bad News 

1) Global Warming
I am not a scientist, but based on everything I have read so far, global warming is an overall bigger threat to salmon and steelhead than Fukushima-released radioactive substances.   Dr. Welch advised me to contact the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences for permission to use a study he authored with Y. Ishida, and K. Nagasawa's titled "Thermal limits and ocean migrations of sockeye salmon (Oncorhynchus nerka): long-term consequences of global warming."  I emailed a permissions request, and will post updates later.

2) In the Air, Low-level Radiation May be Bigger Problem Than What Has Been Widely-reported
In an msn news story titled "Fukushima fallout: Should you eat Pacific fish?" posted September 6, 2013 by An intensive study done by the University of South Carolina and University of Paris-Sud and published in Biological Reviews in 2012 concluded that even low levels of radioactivity are damaging to human and animal health. [paragraph break] 'With the levels of contamination that we have seen as a result of nuclear power plants, especially in the past, and even as a result of Chernobyl and Fukushima and related accidents, there's an attempt in the industry to downplay the doses that the populations are getting, because maybe it's only one or two times beyond what is thought to be the natural background level,' said one of the study's authors, University of South Carolina co-author Timothy Mousseau. 'But they're assuming the natural background levels are fine.' The study showed emphatically that they are not." See

3) There is an Alleged Fukushima Information Lockdown in Japan, and a new EPA "(interim-use) Guidline" Regarding Acceptable Radiation Levels in the United States
Justin McCurry in Tokyo reported for, December 5,  2013, in the story "Japan whistleblowers face crackdown under proposed state secrets law" that "Whistleblowers and journalists in Japan could soon find themselves facing long spells in prison for divulging and reporting state secrets, possibly including sensitive information about the Fukushima nuclear disaster and the country's souring relations with China.  [paragraph break] Under a special state secrets bill expected to pass on Friday, public officials and private citizens who leak 'special state secrets' face prison terms of up to 10 years, while journalists who seek to obtain the classified information could get up to five years.' [paragraph break] Masako Mori, the state minister in charge of the bill, said the law could be applied to Japan's nuclear power industry, because it is a potential target for terrorists. But she denied the legislation would affect the release of information about radiation leaks at Fukushima Daiichi." See  In Sophocles' Greek tragedy Oedipus, the character Creon says "Time is the one incorruptible judge." Time will tell if the nuclear protestors or State Minister Mori will be correct.

In a related item, I was surprised to see a Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility ( PEER) document regarding a proposed new EPA rule to increase allowable radiation in the United States. After the Fukushima incident, it was so improbable I thought it may be a fake document.  However, I saw Forbes magazine also noted the concern, though with an expected different slant.

The PEER document notes, "At the same time, EPA continues to review a plan to dramatically increase permissible radioactive levels in drinking water and soil following 'radiological incidents,' such as nuclear power-plant accidents. The proposed radiation guides (called Protective Action Guides or PAGs) allow long-term cleanup standards thousands of times more lax than anything EPA has ever before accepted, permitting doses to the public that EPA itself estimates would cause a cancer in as much as every fourth person exposed.[paragraph break]

'This is the worst possible time for EPA to roll back radiological protections for Americans,' added  [PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch], pointing out that the EPA PAGs are favored by the nuclear industry but are vigorously opposed by public health professionals inside EPA.  'The lesson from Fukushima should not be that we just have to learn to live with high levels of industrial radioactive pollution.'"

The PEER document specifically notes, "Radioactive iodine levels in rainwater have been found, and continue to be found, significantly exceeding the EPA’s own Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) of 3piC/L for drinking water.  EPA downplays the public health risk by noting that the 'MCL for iodine-131 was calculated based on long-term chronic exposures over the course of a lifetime 70 years. The levels seen in rainwater are expected to be relatively short in duration.'"

The PEER document posted on May 09, 2011 titled "EPA HALTS HEIGHTENED MONITORING OF FUKUSHIMA FALLOUT [,] No New Milk, Rain or Drinking Water Sampling for another Three Months" is at

The aforementioned Forbes article posted by contributor Jeff McMahon on April 10, 2013,  “EPA Draft Stirs Fears of Radically Relaxed Radiation Guidelines,” acknowledged PEER advocacy director Kirsten Stade's press release which noted “This would, in effect, increase a longstanding 1 in 10,000 person cancer rate to a rate of 1 in 23 persons exposed over a 30-year period." However, McMahon's Forbes article also responded by arguing "The non-binding document does not relax EPA’s standards, the agency has said in response to the criticism. But it directs agencies responding to radiation releases to standards at other agencies that are less stringent than EPA."  Now, I may be a fisherman, but that EPA statement has Vogon written all over it.  For non-literary readers, Wikipedia notes, "The Vogons are a fictional alien race from the planet Vogsphere in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series by Douglas Adams, who are responsible for the destruction of the Earth, in order to facilitate an intergalactic highway construction project. Vogons are described as mindlessly bureaucratic, [and] are employed as the galactic government's bureaucrats." McMahon's Forbes article is at

The Mystery

Orwell's novel 1984, notes,
"As short a time ago as February, the Ministry of Plenty had issued a promise (a 'categorical pledge' were the official words) that there would be no reduction of the chocolate ration during 1984. Actually, as Winston was aware, the chocolate ration was to be reduced from thirty grammes to twenty at the end of the present week. All that was needed was to substitute for the original promise a warning that it would probably be necessary to reduce the ration at some time in April [...]"  The main character, Winston, works for the Ministry of Truth where he rewrites history to make it consistent with his current government's policies.  

Now, in December of 2013, at a time with the public concerned about the ocean and air contamination from Fukushima, how does it make any logical sense for EPA "to [direct] agencies responding to radiation releases to standards at other agencies that are less stringent than EPA"? The obvious answer is it doesn't.  Not any more than a major slogan Orwell rightfully criticizes in his book: "IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH."

Put simply, people in the United States will appear safer, but only because the officially-sanctioned measuring chart has been altered. 

I'm writing this part on the ferry Elwha between Sidney, British Columbia, and Anacortes, Washington. At the ferry dock, the water is gin-clear with kelp, and the bottom looks healthy.  Of course, the widely-reported "melting starfish" phenomenon from here to southern California shows it's not healthy for starfish.  Later, I will learn that a November 30, 2013, story said “an epidemic [is] killing millions of starfish,”  an essential marine predator.  There have been starfish die-offs before but nothing of this magnitude has ever been reported.  Currently, it remains a mystery to marine biologists.  Maybe the "sea star wasting syndrome" is caused by a virus or bacterium; maybe toxins; maybe ocean-acidification resulting from China's new coal-fired plants and many other sources; maybe oxygen-depleted dead zones; maybe compromised immune systems from environmental, chemical, or temperature stresses that allow naturally-occurring viruses, bacterium, or toxins to destroy them; or maybe something else or a combination of factors.  
This post began by exploring my interest in Pacific Northwest fish and shellfish.  Reading has reinforced my understanding of how interconnected all countries and environmental issues may be.  I was captain of The Starfisher in Depoe Bay, Oregon, when the Chernobyl disaster happened on April 26, 1986, and there was a concern about radiation getting into the grass then Oregon cows then milk, and Oregon children were advised by the media not to drink the milk for two weeks.

Joe Rojas-Burke reported in The Oregonian story “Questions & answers about radioactivity in milk” updated March 09, 2012, “The recent [Fukushima-based] levels are 5,000 times lower than the amounts considered problematic by the Food and Drug Administration.”  but “if the dose is high enough, it could increase your risk of getting cancer. Within five years after the Chernobyl disaster, researchers saw a sharp increase in the incidence of thyroid cancer in young people in Belarus. Rates of thyroid cancer rose to five to eight times the expected level in the most highly exposed children.”

Recall that above I noted Jeff McMahon’s Forbes article posted on April 10, 2013,“EPA Draft Stirs Fears of Radically Relaxed Radiation Guidelines.”  In McMahon’s Forbes article, the new EPA “interim-use guideline” radically changed how public exposure to radiation will be evaluated.  I revisited the article McMahon wrote and saw, “The document was signed Friday by acting EPA Administrator Bob Perciasepe, but it developed under the Bush Administration and was revised under the supervision of Obama’s nominee for the top EPA post, Gina McCarthy, who has headed EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation since 2009.” 

This makes me wonder how and if Joe Rojas-Burke's March 09, 2012, story in The Oregonian would change under the EPA's new “interim-use guideline” which, you will also recall, according to EPA, is not directly from EPA but is only sanctioned by EPA, as if that makes a difference to Oregon parents.

All of this reminds me of Carl Sagan's three minute and thirty second video The Pale Blue Dot which is a good note to end on.