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Answering the Call to Save our Waterways

Small actions effect change in our greater world

By Rachel Kelly

There are some things that we can’t do alone. There are some things that we were made to face together, as a community, as a state, or as a people. Things like raising our families, or building safe neighborhoods, we face together. There are some problems that require a whole world to come together to ensure success. Large problems usually involve a lot of people, and it takes a lot of people to solve them. Problems like global pollution and global warming are big problems. Problems that we can’t solve on our own. But together, united by our common humanity, we can.

Here in North Idaho, we may not be able to see the ocean, but we can most certainly appreciate it, its beauty and purpose. Many of us make the time to travel west to take in the salty ocean air and sandy beaches while being reminded of how expansive, and important, our oceans are.

“It’s important to think about the way we live and its impact on the planet,” says Tara Galuska of the Washington Fish and Wildlife. And there are many such impacts. We can see those impacts on the beaches and especially in our waterways. We can see the impacts we have on rivers through the salmon and the residents they support, such as bears. Another such resident is the Southern Orca, resident of the Puget Sound and Canada, which survives off of Chinook salmon. Salmon, in turn, survives off of krill. Krill survives off phytoplankton. There is currently estimated to be only 75 Southern Orca left in the whole swath of salt water that exists from the Washington Sound up to the Strait of San Juan de Fuca. Their low numbers, coupled with their dependence on the health of the local waters, makes them an endangered species.

The declining numbers of Southern Orca illustrates the circular pattern of the effects of our actions on the world, beginning with the global rise in temperatures. Scientists believe this is due to an increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide. There is still a lot of research being done on exactly why this is happening, but it is apparent that our world is changing. This change is affecting our local residents, animals and humans alike. According to the Southern Resident Orca Task Force, the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has stayed below 300 parts per million prior to 1950. Since then, our carbon dioxide has increased to 405 parts per million. This has caused a one-degree Celsius increase in global temperatures since pre-industrial levels, suggesting that industrialization and pollution plays a part in the health of our Earth.

Twenty-five percent of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is absorbed by the ocean, causing an increase in ocean acidification. Algae, often seen in freshwater ponds, lakes and basins across Washington and Idaho, grows plentiful in order to consume the carbon dioxide and produce oxygen. The ocean’s acidification makes an inhospitable environment to most species aside from algae, which adapts to grow in the ocean. Like a fail safe for an imbalance in the atmosphere, algae grow wild, fed by an overproduction of carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is often present due to various levels of pollution, from untreated sewage to various inhospitable factories. Unfortunately, large amounts of algae are toxic to all fresh and saltwater species.

The one-degree Celsius rise in global temperatures also affects our streams and lakes, as snow melt decreases every year. The re-circulated warm water makes for warmer winter lakes and rivers, and dryer summer river beds. Occasionally, a rise in warm winter waters causes an overabundance of rain versus snow, increasing sediment flow and mudslides. The increased rain also runs into our drains, occasionally overwhelming our water treatment plants. Which means that sewage dumps into our ocean. More algae grows.

According to scientifically backed collected data of Washington Fish and Wildlife, major effects from climate change will be seen as soon as 2030. If conditions continue as they have been, 2030 through 2052 will see a 1.5-degree Celsius increase, which will result in the following conditions: a 67 percent increase in days over 90 degrees, 38 percent decrease in snowpack, 16 percent increase in winter streamflow, and a 23 percent decrease in summer streamflow. To lower these temperatures, and to decrease their overall effects, we must cut our carbon emissions by 45 percent by 2030.

Our changing rivers affect salmon, who spawn in rivers in the spring. They lay their eggs in the gravel, from which alevins emerge one to three months after spawning. Fry then grow from alevins, then develop into smolt. Smolt then migrate to the ocean, where they grow into adults and live for up to four years. All the combined effects of pollution and carbon dioxide disturb the breeding grounds of our salmon at all their various developmental levels. Increased flooding impacts the salmon eggs and alevins. Reduced spring flows affect the fry and smolt. The increased algae in our oceans kill the zooplankton on which the herring and other fish feed, in turn on which the salmon feed. Salmon is considered a keystone species, meaning that they are essential for the survival of a variety of wildlife. As their rate of survival drops, the underlying food web becomes unstable. This is why the Orca are showing up less and less in Pacific Northwest waters, and why the health of our fresh water suffers. When salmon suffer, we all suffer. And so, our actions come full circle.

Our seemingly small actions that we, as a people, do on the daily affect the greater world. Trash from our picnics on the beach, the chemicals that we use in our cleaners, the medications that we dispose of, waste water, improper drainage and everyday food waste all play a part in pollution. Individually, our actions are small. But together, they have a big impact. Everything eventually ends up in our waterways, and in turn runs into the oceans. Our Earth is a complicated web of interconnected pieces, of which we are also a part of.

“What we do as an individual and as a society to reduce global warming and to improve water quality for these majestic creatures also supports a better ecosystem for humans,” says Tara. Which means that any movement toward change is a win-win.

The Orca are especially sensitive to any environmental changes, as are all endangered species, which is why their numbers have been in steady decline in our waterways. Individuals on land and water play a large part in our Earth’s health, but so do large companies whose ships produce a lot of emissions. Noting the sensitivity that Orca and other wildlife have toward our actions in the water, TOTE Maritime Alaska is one company that has decided to do something about it.

Alaskan fishermen have long begun their spring season in the southern part of Washington’s Puget Sound, and still leave every year to fish for the summer season. As the polar ice melts, and less and less re-freezes every winter, fishermen and shipping companies are able to go further and further north. Many ships and fishermen are advised to be whale wise as they expand their reach into the northern waters. Ships are advised to keep their distance from whales, and to steer away from fishing in their feeding waters. There are even flags that local ships hoist to alert other ships and boats as to the presence of whales. In 2010, the coastal waters of North America were deemed emission control areas. Most companies simply adhere to the bare minimum, adhering to the emission controls and occasionally following Whale Wise protocol.

TOTE Maritime Alaska is one such company that moves up and down the northern seas. The leader in the industry in environmental practices, they chose to respond to the emission controls in a way that went above the bar for the safety of our coastal species. TOTE Maritime Alaska invested in liquified natural gas. In partnership with Puget Sound Energy, which is known for their groundbreaking and accessible environmental activism, TOTE Maritime Alaska outfitted its Orca class vessels to run on liquified natural gas.

Liquified natural gas decreases particulate matter by 99 percent, vessel sulfur emissions by 98 percent, and nitrogen oxides by 91 percent. These numbers are groundbreaking. Through decreasing the waste that ships normally dump into the waters, TOTE Maritime Alaska has made some of the most environmentally friendly ships in the world, showing the world once again just how unique the Pacific Northwest is.

It is actions such as these that greatly affect our waters and the sensitive wildlife that live in it. Large companies, such as shipping and fishing companies, play a direct part in keeping our waterways clean by the ways that they choose to conduct business. TOTE Maritime Alaska is especially inspirational in their refusal to go along with the status quo, and the hope is that other companies will follow suit. In the face of such incredible effort, we must do the same. We must allow ourselves the flexibility of positive change. Maybe not all at once, but perhaps little by little. Even the smallest steps can have a big impact. Especially when they inspire others to make steps as well. Little by little, greater change happens. There’s no better example of what a community can do when it comes together than what we see here, in the Pacific Northwest.

We can and do reduce the waste that goes in our waterways, by participating in the reduction of litter or washing our cars in professional car washes (that have proper disposal techniques). We can also conserve the water that we use, treating it as the precious resource that it is. We can reduce our carbon footprint by reducing our car use, from riding bikes to riding public transport. We can implement the wise use of our resources, reducing food waste by planning ahead and composting. Using products with fewer chemicals not only betters our overall health but benefits the health of our world.

Individually we are small people, with a small impact. We live as people of character by our individual everyday decisions. Together we live as part of a delicate web called “community,” where each impacts the other. As such, our daily decisions of character make small dents in what our world looks like as a whole. Perhaps in our own small way we will inspire others to go upstream against apathy. It is in these seemingly small everyday acts that we make big changes, first changing ourselves until we have all changed together.

Global impact comes full circle, into our backyards. Into the realm of personal responsibility. As much as we want to pretend that global problems are beyond our reach, it’s the quality of our local watershed and the health of our resident species that speak to just how much we are doing to preserve its health. When it comes to saving our waterways, we must answer the call to responsible living. Just like TOTE Maritime Alaska is doing. Just like the Southern Resident Orca Task Force. Just like us, who choose to not go it alone.

It is in this fearless spirit of innovation that we discover that the world is capable of change.

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