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Environment

Nov 15, 2018

The Three to Five Year Whale Watching Ban: For Conservation, or the Economy?

A significant move that will impact 32 operators, in 19 different ports in Washington State and British Columbia, is this really the answer to the dwindling Orca population?

WRITTEN BY

Sean Verity

With just 74 Orcas remaining in the waters off the coast of the State of Washington and neighbouring British Columbia, there is clearly a problem. As the Center for Whale research explains, “The Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKW), or Orcas, are actually a large extended family, or clan, comprised of three pods: J, K, and L pods.

As of July 2018, the SRKW population totals 75 (editors note: this has since dropped to 74) whales: J Pod=23, K Pod=18, L Pod=34.”

Photo by Frank Busch

WHAT IS EXECUTIVE ORDER 18-02?

We need to do everything we can to help ensure the future of these great animals and the State of Washington, appeared to take a great stride in March 2018. 

The Executive Order, signed by The State of Washington Governor Jay Inslee, detailed that “The Task Force was charged with preparing a comprehensive report and recommendations for recovering Southern Residents, with a full draft due by September 24, 2018, and a final report by November 16, 2018”. The “Executive Order 18-02: Southern Resident Killer Whale and Recovery Task Force” can be found in full here.  

The task force met that deadline, and just a couple of days ago, Governor Jay Inslee’s team voted to recommend a three to five-year moratorium on commercial whale watching for Southern Resident killer whales.

The knee jerk reaction is that this appears to be great news. If whale watching boats are causing a problem, then this is an important move to ensure their survival. However, there is more to this story and we start with the FAQ section of the Pacific Whale Watching Association’s website, where a simple questions is asked, but there is far from a straightforward answer.

ISN’T WHALE WATCHING ONE REASON THE SOUTHERN RESIDENT KILLER WHALES ARE ENDANGERED?

“There’s no evidence that whale watching is a significant factor in their decline. If that were the case, transient killer whales and humpback whales wouldn’t be doing so well in the same environment. Scientific studies on stress hormones in the southern residents show that when there’s sufficient food, boat noise and disturbance have a low effect. But when chinook salmon are scarce, as they are now year after year, and the whales have to work longer and harder to find what little food there is, any noise disturbance undoubtedly has a greater effect.”

This passage alludes to the depth that we will need to go into to establish whether this recommendation really makes that much sense. 

Contrary to the Pacific Whale Watching Association’s answer, Donna Sandstrom, Director of The Whale Trail, but poignantly also a member of the Orca Task Force that has made the recommendation which led to the executive order, offered another perspective entitled “Cut the toxins and boat noise, and boost salmon, so orcas can survive“. Within this article, published in The Seattle Times, Donna agrees that the “best available science shows that to recover the orcas we must both increase the amount of salmon” but that a decrease in the amount of noise is necessary too. Within the same article a study is referenced, “that shows that the southern residents lose 5.5 hours of foraging time each day due to noise and disturbance from commercial vessels and whale-watching boats specifically”.

Elsewhere, Elizabeth May, the leader of the Green Party of Canada tweeted.


HOW DOES U.S. LEGISLATION EFFECT CANADIAN COMPANIES?

With this Executive Order being passed in the State of Washington, you might be asking yourself why this might influence Canadian ports and Whale watching companies? As far as we’re aware at The Outdoor Journal, there are not any planned Canadian recommendations, legislation or any kind of moratorium.

Brett Soberg, who runs Eagle Wing tours but also speaks on behalf of British Columbia’s whale watching industry told Global News that “The whale-watching industry is a trans-national. Canadian companies are regularly in American waters tracking animals. If Washington state bans viewing it will have an impact on how Canadian tour operators conduct their business, but there are very few details about what could happen. This really surprised us.

THE DAMS AND LACK OF SALMON, THE BOATS, OR BOTH?

“Honesty was crushed by politics and vested interests, even within agencies whose responsibility it is to manage natural resources sustainably.”

These are the words of Ken Balcomb, executive director of the Center for Whale Research. These feelings are echoed elsewhere by many activists who feel that this decision to target commercial whale watchers is skirting the key issue of dams cutting off the Orca’s food supply. Put simply, Salmon cannot make their way down the rivers due to huge dams that “produce an average of 1,000 megawatts of power a year, or about 5 percent of electricity generated in the Pacific Northwest, and account for about 12 percent of BPA’s power“, according to K5 news. A huge amount of power, that has a huge amount of commercial and therefore political value too.

they overwhelmingly rely on Chinook salmon”

National Geographic published an article that spells out the importance of Salmon to the SRKW’s in their article “How Killer Whales Went from Hated, to Adored, to Endangered”. Nat Geo explain that “What’s hurting them is, above all, the lack of available prey” and that “Southern Residents don’t just rely primarily on Chinook salmon; they overwhelmingly rely on Chinook salmon“.

Elsewhere, Mark Sawyer, a Whale watching guide for Jamie’s Whale Watching Tours posted the below on Instagram.

 

View this post on Instagram

 

I’ve woken up disheartened and frustrated with the politics involved with the Southern Resident Killer Whale recovery. This week, a moratorium on whale watching has been proposed, and not simply because I am a whale watching guide, I find it beyond ill-advised. Rather than get into every little detail about the threats and recovery strategy for the SRKWs,that you can find elsewhere, I’ll cover why I feel the decision is a poor one. The issue is, and has been for a while, salmon restoration. Not sport fishing, not whale watching, not “too many seals”. I’m not saying boat noise is not an issue, but there is a huge difference between the noise generated by a small vessel and the noise generated by a tanker. Here’s where it becomes, as wildlife issues tend to become, economy vs. environment. Are the politicians willing to hinder short-term economic gain for long-term environmental benefit? It would seem that the cost of removing the dams is too much. It would seem the reduction in tanker traffic is too politically costly. There are other far more beneficial options that would impact the SRKWs greater, but elected officials are reluctant to choose these options. I believe that the whale watching industry has, in the eyes of the politicians, helped create this problem. We inform. We highlight issues. We educate. We have had meaningful conversations with guests about the issues that have arisen. We’ve shared pictures captured on these tours. We’ve explained what steps they can take if they feel motivated to do so. The removal of whale watching will reduce some boat noise. It will also reduce the messaging that is bringing these issues to the fore. It will reduce the ability for the general public to feel as engaged in the issues. It will reduce the amount of coverage that the SRKWs recieve. All that doesn’t have a net benefit for the SRKWs, it allows them to continue to slip away. Only they’ll slip away more quietly. . . Photo is of a Bigg’s killer whale. This population is growing at 5% per year, and is now the killer whale population of focus for the whale watching industry in Victoria. SRKWs are being targeted on ~10% of tours.

A post shared by Mark Sawyer (@mark_sawyer) on

Brett Soberg, told Global News that “It’s pretty clear food scarcity, not noise from boats that is the biggest concern to the southern residents”. The situation does appear bizarre, that a few whale watching boats are being deemed an issue, whilst huge tankers and all the pleasure boats are not considered to be a more significant concern. 

Are the politicians willing to hinder short-term economic gain for long-term environmental benefit?

Andrew Trites, of the University of British Columbia, where he is the Director of UBC’s Marine Mammal Research Unit, supported this observation, when he told CTV news that “Nothing’s being talked about for all the small pleasure boaters that are roaring around“. Andrew continues to explain that “We don’t ever talk about what’s happened to the food supply… The irony is that the whale-watching industry that takes out many, many people in each boat, they know the whales better than anybody else“. Elsewhere, Mark Malleson, the Prince of Whales, also told CTV that “Many of us are taking photographs, collecting data, so a huge attribute for the scientific community“.

The Orca Behaviour Institute has also argued that commercial whale watching should not be be considered a huge problem in comparison barge traffic and commercial fishing boats.

FURTHER DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE

There are further explanations as to why the population of Southern Resident Killer Whales is dwindling. For many years, they were taken out of their natural habitats to be kept in captivity. It all started in the 60’s with Ted Griffin, a well known personality in Seattle as the founder of the Seattle Marine Aquarium. Ted brought the SRKW’s to his park, and as far as we know, became the first person to swim with one. Ted’s impact on the SRKW’s really solidified over coming years, as he went on to repeat this again and again, capturing dozens in order to satisfy the demand from aquariums around the world.

Jenny Atkinson of the Whale Museum told Advocacy for Animals, that “Originally, the main threat that everybody believes is what really caused this population decline was that capture era, where more than 50 individuals were taken out of this population for the captive industry.” Due to ease of transportation, it was often the smaller Whales that were taken, this meant that two generations of Southern Resident’s were removed from the oceans. Not only did this leave the pods with the obvious problem, but also a reduction in diversity within the gene pool. Ted’s legacy is that of a lasting threat to the existence of Southern Resident Killer Whales.

There are also curious examples from other geographic regions, that it’s important to take note of. The Government of Canada note that the “Northern Resident population has grown since the 1970s.  Since 2002, the population has experienced an average annual growth rate of 2.9%.  In 2017, the population numbered 309 individuals.  However, conservation concerns exist for this population, given its small size and slow growth rate.” In the 1970’s, the population stood at 120, so there has clearly been a huge improvement in an area so close to the waters frequented by the Southern Residents.


Why is this? How can the difference be so big between the Northern and Southern Residents? Lance Barrett-Lennard, director of the marine mammal program at the Vancouver Aquarium told the Haida Gwaii Observer that whilst the growth has been encouraging “They took a bit of a downturn in the late 1990s, during a time when chinook salmon were particularly scarce in some poor salmon years”. It’s a very interesting observation, and links can surely be drawn with the issues that the SRKW’s face. In times where the Salmon is plentiful the Northern Resident population has grown substantially.

AN ATTEMPT TO DRAW CONCLUSIONS

This is clearly a complex issue, and it’s very difficult to draw clear conclusions. However, it’s obvious that most people who understand the situation and Orca’s better than anybody agree that food scarcity is the main issue. This is backed up by the success of the Northern Residents, who have had a sufficient source of food for a sustained period.

The resolution to conserving the Southern Residents means increasing salmon populations, but to do so would require drastic measures. A good example would be the removal of dams on the Snake River, which would ensure that greater numbers would be within range of the Orca’s. However, the removal of dams on the Snake River could mean a detrimental effect on the economy, a move that appears unlikely, even if it is in the face of huge environmental importance. Instead, recommendations to skirt this issue, and target whale watching tours is likely to continue, so that politicians can be seen to be doing something whilst protecting the economy over the conservation.

As Mark Sawyer of Jamie’s Whale Watching asks, the important question appears to be whether “the politicians willing to hinder short-term economic gain for long-term environmental benefit?

Cover Photo by Robert Pittman

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Environment

Feb 14, 2019

Meet RJ Scaringe. The Founder of Rivian, Changing the Way We View Transportation

RJ’s goal? To change the way our society views transportation. To change the way we buy and own vehicles. To change the way we treat our environment.

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WRITTEN BY

Brooke Hess

Founder of Rivian, the company building the world’s first electric adventure vehicles, RJ Scaringe isn’t one to set simple goals. He thinks big.

RJ’s goals go beyond simply building electric cars. They go beyond 4×4 vehicles. They go beyond self-driving vehicles. RJ’s ultimate goal is this – to change the way our society views transportation. To change the way we buy and own vehicles. To change the way we treat our environment.

RJ founded a car company, and yet he does not want people buying his cars in the future. This may seem like a strange business plan, but to RJ, it is the only way forward.

RJ envisions a world where you don’t own a car. Your family doesn’t own a car. Your neighbors don’t own cars. Sounds like a hassle to get around, right? How will you go skiing this weekend? How will you take your family to the beach in the spring? How will you move your oldest child into her dorm room?

RJ, with Rivian ambassador Alex Honnold.

With Rivian, you won’t own a car. But you will have 24/7 access to a vehicle that drives itself to you with a simple press of a button. No, it’s not Uber. No, it’s not a car share. It is a self-driving, electric vehicle that will drive itself to you, whenever you need it, so you have access to it whenever you need it. People no longer have the need to own vehicles. They just call a Rivian!

RJ’s Beginnings

It was this truly deep internal conflict

RJ’s lofty goals didn’t just spring out of the blue. He began his career working at a Porsche restoration shop in Florida, which is what sparked his deep love for cars and the car industry. “I’m a lifelong car enthusiast and grew up restoring classic cars, like the Porsche 356. Along the way, I decided that I wanted to get into cars, I wanted it to be the focus of my life. So I went to school to achieve it.” But no matter how much he loved cars, something about it always bothered RJ. “As I got more involved with it, it started to bother me how these things that I loved were simultaneously the cause of our changing climate, smog, and a whole host of environmental and social problems on the planet. It was this truly deep internal conflict.”

So, he set out to change things…


The First Few Miles

It’s like I’m naked at the base of a super steep mountain, and have to figure out how to get to the top

RJ went on to get his master’s and PhD from MIT with the goal of learning how to increase driving efficiency in vehicles. He went on from there to work for multiple large organizations, where he felt that efficiency could be improved, but they often lacked the ability to adapt to change given their structure. “I realized that I could have more impact by actually starting something on my own.” So he built his own company – from the ground up. “I saw how difficult it was to do big systems-level innovation even when you have really smart people. Just because of the scale of these organizations, the complexity of the organizations. So I said, ‘If you could redesign the organization to think of the systems-level, to not have the traditional boundaries between silos, and rethink from a clean sheet what the vehicle is, what the architecture is, what the company is…’”

So he did it. He started from a clean slate. No money, no team, no supply chain, no plant, no technology.

When asked if he has encountered any big challenges along the way, RJ responded, “It’s like I’m naked at the base of a super steep mountain, and have to figure out how to get to the top.”

Founding, and rethinking, Rivian

Starting with less than 20 people, the company took some time to get off the ground. But after securing good relationships with investors and shareholders, the team began to grow. Now, with five plants around the world, and mass production set for 2020, RJ’s hard work and aspirations are all starting to pay off. Naturally, in the beginning, given RJ’s background working with Porsche sports cars, Rivian was focused on building an electric sports car. However, as the company grew, and as RJ’s love for the outdoors grew, so their focus began to shift.

this whole world of conditioned air, of electronics and watching TV, of your vehicles that can take you places, is powered by fossil fuel

“In college, I was heavy into mountain biking. I would be biking every weekend, and it always bothered me that going on those adventures, I would have to use a car. It was this weird juxtaposition of wanting to enjoy the outdoors and go into the outdoors, but on your way there, making the outdoors worse. So, to be honest, I thought about all kinds of crazy things I could build to fix this… Could I build a bike that could peddle power a car to take me to these adventures? I would bike really long distances to get to a hike, and then I would be exhausted and hike for only half an hour. And I’d be like, ‘okay, now I have to bike all the way back.’ So, we pivoted off of the idea of the sports car, and we decided to really focus that passion around adventure and outdoor lifestyle.”

And with that outdoor adventure lifestyle in tow, Rivian decided to completely rethink the way an outdoor adventure vehicle is designed. “The key for building a new company, and for that matter, establishing your brand, is that you have to have something that gets people excited. It has to foundationally reset expectations… So, it’s quicker than it needs to be. It’s better off-road than it needs to be. It’s more efficient than it needs to be. It’s sort of unreasonably good. But it’s there to make a statement, and that statement is the foundation framework we are building. And when I started on that journey, it wasn’t as unreasonably good as it needed to be across all the different areas of the vehicle. So we’ve kept on going back and saying, ‘Let’s make it better. Make it better, make it better.’ It’s three seconds, zero to 60. It’s better off-road than any vehicle on the market, and it’s wrapped in something that’s really compelling. It’s got great storage. It’s a unique vehicle.”

And with this unique vehicle, RJ hopes to help enable people to access the outdoors. “We often think that a vehicle can’t make you active, but it can enable that, and make it easier for you to generate memories. And from a societal point of view – right now, we collect our memories with pictures. So, we need to be designing a product that helps you to do the things you want to take pictures of. Like, you don’t take a picture of yourself sitting on the couch watching TV. But you take a picture of yourself on an awesome hike, or with the kids at the beach. And we want to enable those things that you’re going to take pictures of.”

Rivian vehicles aren’t even in production yet, and they are already a hot topic of conversation among outdoor adventure enthusiasts. They even gained attention from the outdoor industry’s biggest star, Alex Honnold, when he decided to leave his #VanLife behind and partner with Rivian as an ambassador. Honnold described his partnership as an easy choice, “Even if I wasn’t working with Rivian, if I wasn’t an ambassador or anything, I would still be supporting the brand. We need more companies like this in the world. The world has to go 100% electric at some point, and the sooner the better!”

What are we doing wrong?’ I think every business should be able to answer that question – why the world needs them to exist.

RJ hopes that by founding Rivian, this will help push other car companies to make the move toward electricity as well. “We as a society today live in a world where we have conditioned air in our homes. We travel 30 miles to get to the office on a daily basis. We don’t really think anything of it, but this whole world of conditioned air, of electronics and watching TV, of your vehicles that can take you places, is powered by fossil fuel. And what’s amazing is that in 100 years of this level of this style of lifestyle, we’ve used about half of what took 300 million years to accumulate. All the fossil fuels on our planet are 300 million years’ worth of plant and animal life that died and went into the earth’s surface. It then comes out in the form of coal and liquid fuel, and we literally used almost half of that in 100 years. It’s just staggering to think about how fast we are consuming that energy resource. It’s not a choice if we want to continue to travel and we want to continue to live the way we live today – we have to transition to something that’s sustainable beyond the next 100 years. And our argument is that the sooner we do that, the better, because simultaneously while using up all those carbon fuels, we are significantly changing the makeup of the atmosphere. We essentially took what happened in 300 million years where carbon was extracted from the atmosphere and put into the core of the earth, and we reversed that in 100 years. Of course it is going to lead to dramatic changes in our climate books. So, let’s make this change as fast as possible. We’re going to have to make it anyways. It’s not a debate, it’s a fact. We have to change. We can’t continue moving around like this on the planet. Everything we do at Rivian is to try to get that to be faster.”

All in all, we are excited to see what Rivian has to offer in the future. RJ’s business tactics may differ slightly from the way his competitors do things, but that may be just what the world needs right now. Who knows – maybe other businesses will be able to learn from RJ, and from the question he asks himself every day. “Does the world need us as a company to exist? Because if the answer to is no, then you need to take a step back and say, ‘What are we doing wrong?’ I think every business should be able to answer that question – why the world needs them to exist.”

Find out more about the Rivian vehicles here.

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