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Changes at InvestigateWest

We’re bidding a grateful farewell this week to our executive editor and one of InvestigateWest’s co-founders, Carol Smith, who is leaving to become an editor at KUOW.

Carol has been instrumental in the success we’ve achieved over the last four years. She helped us to pioneer the concept of a journalism studio here in Seattle, and wrote or edited some of our most memorable stories, including an award-winning investigation into the workplace dangers of chemotherapy drugs. That one led to two new state laws in Washington – one the first of its kind in the nation.

Carol will be missed, but she won’t be far. She plans to stay involved with InvestigateWest as a contributing editor and an advisor. And we will continue to collaborate with Carol, Jim Gates, and the rest of the news desk at KUOW as we have regularly since our inception.

So what comes next at InvestigateWest?

It would be impossible to replace Carol. But we will be hiring a new investigative reporter. If you have proven investigative skills and excel at generating story ideas and executing them, get in touch.  Data skills are a big plus. Enthusiasm for our mission to sustain and modernize public interest reporting in the Northwest is required.

Please join us in giving Carol a hearty thank-you and wishing her the best at KUOW.

Byline: 

Who gets rich when halibut goes from $3.99 to $28 a pound in two decades?

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Two decades ago a pound of halibut sold in frozen bricks for less than $4. Then the government privatized the industry, putting in place a first-in-the-nation system called catch shares that stabilized the fishery and sent prices soaring. But it was a move that created basic inequities in a system that has yet to right itself. 

This week in Seattle Weekly, Lee van der Voo has the story for InvestigateWest.

Guys like Jared Bright vie for control of the industry's lower rungs, the only rungs that seem to be left. Simply put, they're renters. They don't own the halibut, not even when it lands in their boats. The fish are instead the property of a generation of wealthy owners, most of whom did nothing more than fish in the right place at the right time to get a stake.

Their ownership rights came courtesy of the federal government. At the time, it was a good idea. In ways, it still is. But it's created what amounts to a feudal system over a natural resource.

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As Alaska's deadliest catches become more regulated, "Slipper Skippers" exploit those who actually fish

Halibut fishing is cold, hard work, but lacks the TV-ready sex appeal of Alaskan crab.
Courtesy of Lee van der Voo.

Before you feel sorry for anybody in this story, meet Jared Bright. And remember your first impression, because he's eventully going to call himself a serf. For the moment, he's just a guy you're about to get jealous of. That's because he's 38 years old, and industry sources say he's worth about $2 million.

Between his ordinary upbringing in Ketchikan, Alaska, and the day Bright invested in his fishing boat, there was no winning lottery ticket, no trust fund. He's just a fisherman; been one for 21 years. And lucky for him, he happens to be good at it. If he can keep the bearded men in the embroidered shirts out of his game, he's going to be even better.

But before we get into the bearded men, get rid of the image of the Gorton's fisherman. Forget the fish sticks, the wooden captain's wheel, and that wholesome picture of the guy on the yellow box. Instead, put yourself on one side of the Whole Foods fish counter, a chunk of halibut in the middle—price tag: $28 a pound—and think of Bright as the guy on the other side, the guy who's going to get it to you. Think six feet two inches of lean muscle, pierced ears, and an auburn mug and sideburns, dressed in black North Face and talking like 10 cups of coffee while texting on a smartphone.

This is your fisherman. You are as likely to see him driving around West Seattle in his Smart Car as out on the open ocean. And if you thought The Deadliest Catch was wild, the game he plays to bring you this latest item in white-tablecloth seafood is even weirder.

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The fight for floodplains

Before Hurricane Sandy struck this fall, the National Flood Insurance Program was already about $17.8 billion in debt — an amount that will surely grow as Sandy-related claims are settled.

But floodplain development has ecological consequences, too, which are the crux of lawsuits that have been filed against the EPA up and down the West Coast.

Lisa Stiffler reports for InvestigateWest in the current issue of High Country News:

“Every time it rains,” she says, “you’re stressing.” At least five times since she and her husband, Brian, moved here, heavy rains have sent the river raging over its banks. After a 1995 flood, they raised the house on a 9-foot-tall concrete foundation. Then a 2003 flood dumped enough mud in their basement to fill 60 wheelbarrows. “Goopy, gloppy, sticky stuff,” she says. “It’s horrible.”

Many of her neighbors’ houses are also perched on stacked foundations, and attempts have been made to barricade the river with levees. But the most effective flood-protection measures have proven to be strict rules on reconstruction and a ban on new building enacted by the state decades ago, restrictions that apply only to a handful of the state’s most flood-prone areas.

Now the National Wildlife Federation and other environmental groups want to see stronger development controls for more Western floodplains. It’s increasingly clear that construction in floodplains is not only dangerous for people, it also harms habitat for salmon and other animals protected by the Endangered Species Act, including orca, Mexican spotted owls, jaguar and two species of springsnails. And the anxiety over floodplain construction is likely to rise as climate change raises flood risks.

Read Lisa's full story at High Country News.

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Multiple sclerosis research in the Northwest could lead to new treatments

The mystery of why the Pacific Northwest has one of the highest rates of multiple sclerosis in the world is as enduring as the mystery of the D.B. Cooper hijacking. And has proven about as difficult to crack.

Recently, however, scientists have been closing in on some likely triggers that may be causing the body to hijack its own immune system and turn on itself. Those new findings could lead to new treatment strategies in the future.

MS is a sneaky, unpredictable autoimmune disease that damages nerves and can impair vision and mobility as well as thinking and memory. The prevalence of MS here is about triple the level in the lower part of the United States, and many more times higher than elsewhere in the world. In King County, there are 9,000 known patients, and a growing number of them are children.

The prevalence is so high here that the Northwest chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society has posted giant billboards around the city for the past several years asking questions like these:  Is it the trees? Is it the rain?

The questions may have been rhetorical, but the billboards were a reminder of the need to keep digging for answers about what causes MS.

On a macro scale, scientists actually do know why the rate appears elevated here.

Byline: 

Pediatric MS cases rise in the Northwest

The Pacific Northwest has one of the highest rates of multiple sclerosis in the world, yet the reasons why remain elusive. It’s an old mystery, but one that now has a new face. Today, doctors are seeing a growing number of cases in kids. They hope these young patients will yield more clues to what causes the disease.

MS is an autoimmune disease that causes nerve damage over time. It’s more common at higher latitudes, and tends to affect more women than men. Eventually, it can impair someone’s mobility, their vision – even their thinking and memory. It’s always been known as a “prime-of-life” disease, one that typically strikes in young adulthood.

For Allexis, now a senior at Central Kitsap High School in Silverdale, that wasn’t the case. She was diagnosed when she was 14 years old.

It started one Friday during the summer two years ago.

“I couldn’t sleep because I had the worst headache,” she said. “Out of a scale of one to 10, it was a 15.” She tried to go for her regular morning run the next day, and things got worse.

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A map of multiple sclerosis by latitude

Multiple Sclerosis has long been known as an autoimmune disorder that affects more people living in the Pacific Northwest than in most other parts of the country, and the world. Scientists still don't have a firm answer why that is.

But researchers have begun unraveling some new theories about the disease from a set of intriguing clues. They know, for example, that the farther you live from the equator, the higher your risk. The map below is based on data collected by the National MS Society.

Click here for the full-size image.

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How Reporters Can Cover the Clean Water Act

After a summer working on Clean Water: The Next Act -- and the better part of a career reporting on water issues -- our executive director Robert McClure went down to the annual conference of the Society of Environmental Journalists in Lubbock, Tex., to talk to other reporters about how to find stories in their own communities. Robert serves on the SEJ board of directors.

He put together this tip sheet as a handout (PDF), and we want to publish it here, too. Without further ado...

The Clean Water Act: How to cover it back home

2012 marks the 40th anniversary of the passage of the Clean Water Act, a bedrock environmental statute that resulted in dramatic increases in the health of America’s waterways. But the law has not accomplished its goals of making America’s waterways uniformly fishable and swimmable.

Some ways you can cover this story in your community or state:

  • A great way to get your feet wet with the Clean Water Act is to simply document the locations and discharges of all the sewage treatment plants, factories and other facilities that dump waste into waterways under the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES, pronouced NIP-deez). Usually this can be obtained as a data file from the state agency delegated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to enforce the Clean Water Act. (Idaho, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and New Mexico do not have this delegation; in those states the EPA enforces the law and will have the data.) Who’s dumping the most? What’s in there? Map ‘em, know ‘em, love ‘em.  You can use this as a reporting tool. Or you could publish to put yourself on the map as a reporter who’s looking into the story.
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