Amusing Monday: Young artists examine problem of trash in the ocean

A free 2017 calendar, published by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, features winning artwork in a contest that focuses on the problem of trash in the ocean, otherwise known as marine debris.

Art by Sallie S., a seventh grader from Washington state Courtesy of NOAA
By Sallie S., a seventh grader from Washington state
All pictures on this page courtesy of NOAA

More than 700 students from around the country participated in the contest, and one of the 13 winners was a seventh grader from Washington state named Sallie S. Neither her full name nor hometown was disclosed, and I never received a response to an email sent to her on my behalf by NOAA officials.

Sallie’s statement on the back of the calendar: “Marine debris impacts our oceans and Great Lakes, because the plastic and other garbage could badly injure or kill the sea animals. What I will do to keep our ocean debris free is to not litter. Not littering is very important, because if you litter the debris can go into drains, then it can go into the lake or the sea. Then once it goes in the sea, ocean organisms could then die.”

By Dayoung L., a fifth grader from Hawaii
By Dayoung L., a fifth grader from Hawaii

The contest has just reopened to take entries for the 2018 calendar, which will be published next year. The contest is open to any student from kindergarten through eighth grade. The deadline for submissions is Nov. 30. One can obtain an entry form and detailed rules from the contest website.

In 2013, I was pleased to write in Water Ways about a picture drawn by Araminta “Minty” Little, a seventh grader at Fairview Junior High School in Central Kitsap. Her picture shows an octopus grasping trash that has been thrown into the ocean, a picture now used in promotional materials for the marine debris art contest.

By James S., a sixth grader from Louisiana.
By James S., a sixth grader from Louisiana.

The 2017 calendar is available for download, and a limited number of printed calendars may be ordered. Pictures on this page are featured in that calendar. For details, visit the website “Keep the seas free of debris.”

“Our oceans are filled with items that do not belong there,” states NOAA’s “Discover the Issue” webpage. “Huge amounts of consumer plastics, metals, rubber, paper, textiles, derelict fishing gear, vessels, and other lost or discarded items enter the marine environment every day, making marine debris one of the most widespread pollution problems facing the world’s oceans and waterways.

By Emily B., an eighth grader from Pennsylvania
By Emily B., an eighth grader from Pennsylvania

“Marine debris is defined as any persistent solid material that is manufactured or processed and directly or indirectly, intentionally or unintentionally, disposed of or abandoned into the marine environment or the Great Lakes,” the website continues. “It is a global problem, and it is an everyday problem. There is no part of the world left untouched by debris and its impacts. Marine debris is a threat to our environment, navigation safety, the economy and human health.”

Foot by foot, shoreline bulkhead removal outpaces construction

It’s always nice when I can report a little good news for Puget Sound recovery. For the second year in row, we’ve seen more shoreline bulkheads ripped out than new ones put in.

Graphic: Kris Symer, Puget Sound Institute
Graphic: Kris Symer, Puget Sound Institute / Data: WDFW

After officials with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife completed their compilation of permit data for 2015, I can say that 3,097 feet of old armoring were removed, while 2,231 feet were added.

Scientific evidence is mounting that bulkheads cause considerable harm to the shoreline environment, affecting salmon and many other species integral to the Puget Sound food web.

As I pointed out in a story published this week in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, we cannot say whether the armoring removed has restored more valuable habitat than what was destroyed by new structures. But we can hope that’s the case, since state and federal governments have targeted restoration funding toward high priority habitats. They include shorelines used by forage fish, such as surf smelt and sand lance, as well as feeder bluffs, which deliver sands and gravels needed for healthy beaches.

One problem with the data, which officials hope to improve in the future, is that we don’t know whether the new bulkheads being built are the standard concrete or rock bulkheads or the less-damaging “soft-shore” projects. Unlike hard armor, soft-shore projects are designed to absorb wave energy by sloping the beach and placing large rocks and logs in strategic locations. It’s not a perfect solution, but it is a reasonable compromise where armoring is truly needed.

Graphic: WDFW
Graphic: WDFW
Note: Chart excludes adjustment of 400-foot increase in removals in Jefferson County

Dave Price, restoration division manager for WDFW, said he was encouraged by the amount of bulkhead removal versus construction, but he acknowledged that a lot more work is needed. The answer is to convince waterfront property owners that the problem is real and to enlist their help in boosting habitat over time. The Shore Friendly program is part of the effort.

“Some shorelines are armored right in front of bluffs that have no houses or the houses are set way back,” Dave told me. “I see that all over the place. A little sediment coming off these hillsides can be a very good thing for fish, and I don’t think they are a problem for landowners.”

Sheida Sahandy, executive director of the Puget Sound Partnership, said the issue is not about government requiring these changes but about people deciding that they want more natural conditions where possible.

“We should frame this so that people see the possibility of having a nice beach, a place where you can walk down and put your feet in,” she said, adding that people who have installed soft-shore protections often rave about their easier access to the shore.

As I mentioned, 2015 is the second year in a row that more armoring was removed than constructed. Last year, I reported on the historical turnaround — the first time that removal exceeded new construction. See Puget Sound Institute, Aug. 13, 2015. In my latest story, I brought out a few more nuances in the effort to restore shorelines and prevent further damage. Check out the sidebar titled “Shoreline planning calls for separate goal of ‘no net loss.’”

Graphic: WDFW
Graphic: WDFW
Graphic: WDFW
Graphic: WDFW
Note: Chart excludes adjustment of 400-foot increase in removals in Jefferson County

Hood Canal awards honor local efforts to improve ecosystem

Mike Anderson, chairman of the Skokomish Watershed Action Team, and Thom Johnson, a leading expert in the recovery of Hood Canal summer chum salmon, have been named recipients of this year’s Hood Canal Environmental Awards.

Other recipients of the awards, which are sponsored by Hood Canal Coordinating Council, are Shore Friendly Mason and Shore Friendly Kitsap, two programs that actively enlist waterfront property owners in the protection and restoration of their shorelines.

Hood Canal // Photo: Dale Ireland
Hood Canal // Photo: Dale Ireland

I learned this afternoon that the awards ceremony on Nov. 4 will be dedicated to Rich Geiger, the longtime district engineer for Mason Conservation District. Rich, who died unexpectedly on Sept. 22, held the “technical vision” for the restoration of the Skokomish River watershed, according to Mike Anderson. (See Water Ways, Oct. 8.)

Rich had already been honored with a Hood Canal Environmental Award, but a lot of people have been asking that he receive some special recognition at this year’s ceremony, said Scott Brewer, executive director of the Hood Canal Coordinating Council.

“Rich was instrumental in working in the Skokomish watershed, but he certainly left his mark on other watersheds around Hood Canal,” Scott told the coordinating council, which is made up of county commissioners in Kitsap, Mason and Jefferson counties along with tribal leaders for the Skokomish and Port Gamble S’Klallam tribes. The council endorsed the special recognition for Rich Geiger.

The awards ceremony will recognize individuals and groups whose actions have improved the Hood Canal environment and community. The event will be at Kitsap Conference Center at Bremerton Harborside on Friday, Nov. 4, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Guest speakers include Sarah Spaeth of Jefferson Land Trust, who will talk on “Fish, Farms and Forests of the Chimacum Watershed,” and Lissa James of Hama Hama Company, whose talk is titled “Natural Resources and the Sustainability of Place in the Northwest.”

Anyone may attend. Reservations should be made by Oct. 31 by contacting Robin Lawlis, or 360-394-0046. For information, check the website of the Hood Canal Coordinating Council.

Winner of the Hood Canal Environmental Awards “embody the spirit of fostering cooperation, collaboration and lasting relationships to achieve a healthy Hood Canal,” according to organizers. Winners will have time to talk about their experiences during the ceremony.

Mike Anderson, who has been with the Wilderness Society since 1985, has been coordinating the Skokomish Watershed Action Team since its inception 10 years ago. Mike’s energy and collaborative skills have kept this team of diverse interests moving forward toward the ultimate restoration of the Skokomish River watershed. A major accomplishment was the recent congressional approval of a $19-million restoration project by the Army Corps of Engineers, but that is just the latest of many projects involving the U.S. Forest Service, Skokomish Tribe, state agencies, Green Diamond Resource Company, Tacoma Public Utilities and others.

Thom Johnson, environmental program manager for the Point No Point Treaty Council, has been a longtime leader in the recovery of salmon, most notably Hood Canal summer chum. He got his start on the summer chum project in the 1990s, when he worked for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. Thom also has been a key participant in recovery efforts, including the Lead Entity Citizens Group and the Technical Advisory Group for the Hood Canal Coordinating Council. Through the years, he has been a valuable adviser to council members on many issues.

Shore Friendly Kitsap and Shore Friendly Mason each involve numerous organizations working together under an umbrella program organized by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Washington Department of Natural Resources and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Local groups include Mason Conservation District, WSU Kitsap County Extension, Washington Sea Grant, Futurewise and QWG Applied Geology.

Shore Friendly has helped people understand how they can improve their shorelines, including the removal of bulkheads and restoration of natural shoreline features, including native plants. The program also provides financial incentives and assists people with permits to restore functioning shoreline habitat. See Shore Friendly Kitsap and Shore Friendly Mason.

Honorable mentions in this year’s Hood Canal Environmental Awards program:

Jay and Susie Allen for their years of restoration efforts and stewardship on their land in the Tahuya River watershed. It has been said that whenever the Allens are approached about a project or idea, their only question is how they can help.

Roma Call ensures that cleanup, restoration and important environmental regulations and protections are established to conserve valuable resources and ecosystems for the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe. Roma’s collaborative efforts gain the support of many partners.

Clear Creek Elementary Student Garden Project sponsored by Barbara Bromley, a fourth-grade teacher. This project began with a pitch at an ECO Net meeting of environmental educators. It grew with the help of a grant from the Department of Defense Education Activity with local support from the USS Michigan crew, Spectra Laboratories and The Brothers Nursery.

Kitsap Forest & Bay Coalition for work with Kitsap County to create a stewardship plan for the new 535-acre Port Gamble Forest Heritage Park on Port Gamble Bay, which includes several projects involving hundreds of volunteers, community groups and businesses.

Michelle Myers with the Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group, who works tirelessly across multiple dimensions to develop adult outreach programs and youth educational activities. Efforts involve restoring habitat, pursuing stakeholder engagement and supporting Hood Canal Watershed Education Network projects.

Amusing Monday: The evolution and danger of packaging drinks by six

When I was a young child, we didn’t have to worry about wildlife getting strangled by six-pack rings, because these plastic binders for cans had not been invented yet. I was 9 years old in 1961 when this simple, convenient form of packaging was invented, so I clearly remember the transition. (See Hi-Cone history.)

At the time, nobody predicted the conservation consternation that would be created by such a simple piece of plastic. During the 1970s and up to present, pictures of entrapped birds and other sea creatures became common, suggesting that we at least cut the plastic to save the animals. The first video provides a story of potential revenge.

Before the invention of six-pack rings, people bought soft drinks and beer in cardboard packages, which sort of wrapped around the cans. Pabst Blue Ribbon may have been the first beer sold in cardboard cartons (second video), although Coca Cola may have started the phase. The Coke company claims to be the first to take its bottles out of wooden crates and begin offering cardboard packaging for consumers as early as 1923.

So we went from reusable wooden crates to biodegradable cardboard to ever-lasting plastic six-pack rings, officially called “yokes” in the industry. Concern about wildlife entrapment eventually forced manufacturers of the plastic rings to use a material that would degrade when exposed to light, but degradation can be slow in a marine environment.

What really prompted me to write this piece about six-pack rings was a new invention — edible six-pack rings made of wheat and barley, the byproducts of brewing. It’s a product that “feeds animals instead of killing them,” according to a promotional video (third on this page).

Saltwater Brewing, a 3-year-old microbrewery in Delray Beach, Fla., came up with the concept and is now waiting for patent approval, according to the company website. Nowhere does the company suggest throwing these things out for the birds, but the company implies that it would not be a bad thing.

I don’t know enough about marketing to know if there is any chance of this gaining widespread acceptance. Initial reports say these new rings could raise the cost of a six pack by 10 or 15 cents, but mass production could eventually bring down the costs.

I also don’t know how these edible rings taste, and I’m not sure I want to know. But, as one the commenters said on the YouTube website, “Sweet, but if I’m REALLY hammered, can I eat it? Or will my head get stuck in the plastic like what happens to sea turtles?”

A danger to Aquaman?
A danger to Aquaman?

Are people really worried about six-pack rings? My wife Sue insists that I cut up any ringlike attachment devices, including those used for all sorts of juices and other products sold at Costco. I do it, knowing full well that I am going to put this plastic thing into a kitchen trash bag, which will go into a larger trash bag, which will go into a dumpster, which will eventually go into a landfill in Oregon. Not much chance to entrap a seagull.

The story would be different if I was going to take a six pack to the beach, but we normally pull the cans apart and put them into a cooler before we leave the house.

Maybe these new grain-based rings would be worthwhile for those who throw their trash at the beach. Maybe they would save the poor animals that might get trapped or eat the plastic. I’m thinking of Peanut, the turtle that grew up with a plastic ring crimping her shell. As described by Stephen Messenger of “The Dodo,” Peanut became a poster child for Missouri’s No More Trash campaign.

As an example of problems caused by plastic trash getting into the oceans, the six-pack ring may remain Public Enemy Number 1. But I tend to agree with Cecil Adams of “The Straight Dope” that a much more productive effort would be for everyone to pick up any plastic trash they see at the beach — or anywhere else — before it gets into the water. That is the same message delivered by Seattle scuba diver Laura James following our local rain and wind storms over the past week. (See video below.)

Thanks go to Kitsap Sun reporter Tristan Baurick, who offered the idea for this blog post.

Orcas starting to follow chum salmon into Central Puget Sound

Chum salmon are beginning to make their way into Central and South Puget Sound, which means the orcas are likely to follow.

Given this year’s dismal reports of chinook salmon in the San Juan Islands, we can hope that a decent number of chum traveling to streams farther south will keep the killer whales occupied through the fall. But anything can happen.

Data from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife
Data from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

On Oct. 2, orcas from J and K pods — two of the three Southern Resident pods — passed through Admiralty Inlet and proceeded to Point No Point in North Kitsap, according to reports from Orca Network. The whales continued south the following day and made it all the way to Vashon Island, according to observers.

On Tuesday of this week, more reports of orcas came in from Saratoga Passage, the waterway between Whidbey and Camano islands. See the video by Alisa Lemire Brooks at the bottom of this page. By yesterday, some members of J pod were reported back of the west side of San Juan Island.

The movement of chum salmon into Central Puget Sound began in earnest this week, as a test fishery off Kingston caught just a few chum last week, jumping to nearly 1,000 this week. Still, the peak of the run is a few weeks away.

The predicted chum run for Central and South Puget Sound this year is about 526,000 fish, up from last year’s count of 503,000, according to Aaron Default, fish program biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. The average annual return over the past 10 years has been about 640,000 chum, boosted by a couple of exceptionally high years. (See chart.)

Orca Network's map of good whale-viewing locations.
Orca Network’s map of good whale-viewing locations.

For Puget Sound as a whole, the forecast is for 1.2 million chum, compared to a 10-year average of about 1.5 million.

It is yet to be seen how the orcas will respond to the schools of chum coming south, but their fall travels could offer the opportunity for a lot of people to watch the whales from shore without disturbing them at all.

This year, Orca Network trained 45 new volunteers as observers/naturalists. They live in Island, Snohomish, King, Kitsap, Pierce, Thurston and Whatcom counties and will be on hand at many of the observation locations, said Alisa. of Orca Network.

“Our volunteers are provided with up to date ID guides and information to share with others while viewing whales from the shoreline, to educate about the orcas, their habitat, and prey,” said Alisa, coordinator of Orca Network’s whale-sighting program, in a news release.

Last November, Alisa was watching the whales from shore with another volunteer, Sara Hysong-Shimazu, when they spotted a newborn orca off Alki Point in Seattle. They took photographs of the calf, and the Center for Whale Research later confirmed that it was the first baby born to L-103, a 13-year-old mom named Lapis. The baby was named Lazuli.

Orca Network has developed a map of some good locations for viewing whales when they come south. The best way to stay advised of whale movements is through the Orca Network Facebook page.

Observers should carry binoculars or another viewing scope to get a better view from shore. If you have a decent camera and can get a picture of one or more dorsal fins, orca researchers might be able to use your pictures. Orca Network would like to be alerted immediately to any whale sightings. Whale reports may be called in to the toll-free number, 1-866-ORCANET; emailed to, or posted on the Orca Network Facebook page.

Whale sightings reported to Orca Network will be provided to researchers studying the Southern Residents, which are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. If possible, observers are asked to note the location, time, direction of travel and approximate number of whales, as well as any specific behaviors, such as breaching, spy-hopping or feeding.

Observers who choose to go out in boats must follow federal and state regulations for whale watching as outlined on the Be Whale Wise website.

“We are very fortunate to live in a place where we can look out from nearby shorelines and see those majestic black fins parting the waters,” said Howard Garrett of Orca Network. “We are thankful for the hundreds of citizens who report sightings each year, providing valuable data to help in recovery efforts for the endangered Southern Resident orcas.”

Amusing Monday: New art exhibit shows how glass can be like water

The similar properties of water and glass are explored in more than 50 pieces of artwork in an exhibit called “Into the Deep” at Tacoma’s Museum of Glass.

Undulation, kiln-cast crystal by Taliaferro Jones. The piece is 13 by 54 by 8 inches. Photo: Taliaferro Jones
“Undulation,” kiln-cast crystal by Taliaferro Jones. This piece is 13 by 54 by 8 inches.
Photo: Taliaferro Jones

The art captures the movements, shapes and colors of creatures and objects in the beautiful underwater world. For a closer look, click on the images on this page.

“By creating artwork inspired by the ocean, each artist has captured both the fragile beauty of the marine environment and the delicate nature of glass,” Katie Buckingham, exhibit curator, said in a statement on the exhibit’s webpage.

Persian Sea Forms, blown glass by Dale Chihuly. This piece is 67 by 120 inches. Photo: Terry Rishel
“Persian Sea Forms,” blown glass by Dale Chihuly. This piece is 67 by 120 inches. // Photo: Terry Rishel

Buckingham said she hopes visitors will not only enjoy the art but also feel inspired to celebrate and protect the natural environment. The 16 national and international artists featured in the exhibit include Alfredo Barbini, Dale Chihuly, Shayna Leib, Kelly O’Dell, Kait Rhoads, Raven Skyriver, and Hiroshi Yamano.

Fifteen of the pieces were produced in the workshop at the Museum of Glass, including some produced by apprentices.

"Tyee," hand-sculpted glass by Raven Skyriver. This piece is 21 by 32 by 7 inches. Photo: Kp Studios
“Tyee,” hand-sculpted glass by Raven Skyriver. This piece is 21 by 32 by 7 inches. // Photo: Kp Studios

The exhibit opened on Sept. 24 and will remain through September 2017. Visitors will be able to access information linked to each piece of art by using a cell phone and scanning the STQRY QR codes. Three virtual tours are available, one with scientific information, one about the creation of the sculptures and one on the artists. Bonnie Becker, a biologist at the University of Washington-Tacoma, wrote the scientific narrative.

"Red Polyp" blown glass with mixed hollow murrine woven with copper wire by Kait Rhoads. This piece is 45 by 49 by 19 inches. Photo: Kait Rhoads
“Red Polyp,” blown glass with mixed hollow murrine woven with copper wire by Kait Rhoads. This piece is 45 by 49 by 19 inches. // Photo: Kait Rhoads

A list of other exhibits can be found on the Museum of Glass webpage. Activities, including hands-on workshops and lectures, can be found on the Museum of Glass calendar. A separate webpage lists admission fees and hours.

Speaking of glass artwork, I am impressed with the intricate salmon sculpture with the glass salmon eggs used to create a kiosk at the east end of the new Bucklin Hill Bridge over the Clear Creek estuary in Silverdale.

Salmon and more than 200 glass eggs are part of a sculpture that makes up a new kiosk at the east end of the Bucklin Hill Bridge. Photo:
Salmon and more than 200 glass eggs are part of a sculpture that makes up a new kiosk at the end of the Bucklin Hill Bridge. // Photo: Larry Steagall, Kitsap Sun

Driving across the bridge, one can see the bright orange salmon eggs, more than 200 in all. A closer look reveals three salmon figurines in a swimming posture above the eggs.

“I do believe that when you drive along and you have artwork alongside the road, I think it lifts your spirits,” said Lisa Stirrett, the designer of the kiosk, in a story written by Christian Vosler for the Kitsap Sun.

Rich Geiger held the ‘restoration vision’ for Skokomish ecosystem

It is hard to imagine the restoration of the Skokomish River ecosystem without the involvement of Rich Geiger, a longtime engineer for Mason Conservation District. Rich had a way of explaining technical aspects of environmental restoration, and he was a tremendous help to me through the years.

Rich Geiger, engineer for Mason Conservation District, explains the dynamics of the Skokomish River in this 2009 file photo. Rich died Sept. 22. Photo: Kitsap Sun
Rich Geiger, engineer for Mason Conservation District who died Sept. 22, explains the dynamics of the Skokomish River in this 2009 file photo. // Photo: Kitsap Sun

Rich, who was 59 years old, died unexpectedly two weeks ago.

I got to know Rich in 2008 and 2009 while working on a series of stories about the Skokomish River. My research involved interviews with members of the Skokomish Tribe, farmers, loggers and longtime residents of the area. For the final story, I talked to Rich about what was wrong with the river and what needed to be done to reduce the flooding and restore the ecosystem. He taught me a lot about river dynamics.

The Skokomish, if you didn’t know, is the largest river in Hood Canal, and it exerts a great influence on the long, narrow waterway with its amazing diversity of habitat.

“Something has bothered me about this river for a long time,” Rich said, as quoted in my story for the Kitsap Sun. “I have been doing a great deal of reading about river systems and sediment transport,” he continued. “To boil it down, the sediment is too heavy to be moved by the depths we think are there in the Skokomish.”

Fast and deep water contains the force to move larger rocks, he told me. Somehow the river was able to move large gravel out of the mountains, but it never made it all the way to Hood Canal. Digging into the gravel bars, Rich found layers of fine sediment wedged between layers of larger rock — evidence that the energy of the river had changed suddenly at various times.

Rich collaborated with engineers from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. Geological Survey and Army Corps of Engineers. Eventually, they came to understand the river well enough to develop a plan for restoration. Throughout the process, Rich was willing to take time to help me understand every aspect of the restoration alternatives. I will always be grateful for his expertise and patience.

in January 2014, the plan was completed and accepted by ranking officials in the Army Corps of Engineers. I called Rich for his reaction to the important milestone.

“We are very glad to be at this point, because we are talking about a physical project moving forward and not just more planning,” he told me. “We asked the Corps to produce a single integrated restoration plan, and they did.” To review a brief summary of the plan, see Water Ways Jan. 26, 2014.

The final plan by the Army Corps of Engineers became incorporated into the Water Resources Development Act, including $19 million proposed for the Skokomish project. The bill was approved, first by the U.S. Senate and then by the House. A few details still need to be worked out, but after years and years of planning, the Skokomish project became virtually assured of funding just a week after Rich died.

Mike Anderson, chairman of the Skokomish Watershed Action Team, said Rich had always been the “brains of the collaborative.”

“Rich was the holder of the technical vision of the watershed restoration,” Mike noted. “He understood how all the different parts of the watershed — from the mountains down to the estuary and beyond — work together.

“When we started out, he acknowledged that he did not know what the answers would be for the valley. One of his great achievements was getting the GI (general investigation) completed and the … support for authorization. He felt rightly proud of completing that difficult study.”

U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer introduced a statement into the Congressional Record (PDF 9.3 mb) on the last day the House was in session. It includes this observation:

“Mr. Speaker, Richard was not only an environmental advocate and steward, he was also a leader in the community. He excelled at fostering collaboration and consensus among diverse community stakeholders, including private landowners, businesses, Native American Tribes, and local, state, and federal agencies, to achieve common goals.”

Rich was born April 12, 1957, and graduated from Billings Senior High School. He attended Gonzaga University in Spokane, where he became an ROTC Cadet and earned a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering. After graduation, he served as a lieutenant in the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division and advanced to rank of major.

In 1994, he took a job with Mason County Public Works Department, where he held a variety of engineering positions. In 2001, he joined the Mason Conservation District as district engineer.

The family has suggested that memorials be made to the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation, a non-profit organization committed to alleviating the suffering caused by mental illness. The foundation awards grants aimed at making advances and breakthroughs in scientific research.

Satellite tag contributed to the death of a 20-year-old orca, experts say

When a 20-year-old killer whale named Nigel was found dead floating off Vancouver Island at the end of March, experts expressed immediate concern about the sharp barbs that remained embedded in the whale’s dorsal fin. (See Water Ways, April 14.)

Nigel, L-95, on the day he was darted with a satellite tag. Photo: Northwest Fisheries Science Center
Nigel, L-95, on the day he was darted with a satellite tag. He was later found dead.
Photo: Northwest Fisheries Science Center

This type of barb is commonly used to attach satellite transmitters to all sorts of whales and dolphins, allowing the animals to be tracked over long distances. The satellite tags are designed to fall off completely — but that did not happen for Nigel, designated L-95.

As the result of an investigation by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, we now know that the barbs helped to introduce a dangerous fungus into Nigel’s body. The fungus appears to have spread to his lungs and other organs, ultimately contributing to his death.

“After a thorough necropsy and investigation, including an expert review of findings, there was sufficient evidence to implicate the tag attachment site as a source of fungal infection to the whale,” states a report by an expert panel (PDF 209 kb). “This fungal infection contributed to illness in the whale and played a contributory role in its death.”

After Nigel was found dead near Nootka Island, NOAA suspended the satellite-tracking program. As a result of these latest findings, the agency announced today that it will continue to prohibit satellite tagging, at least until new standards can be developed through the International Whaling Commission.

After that, any further tagging would require a new review under the Endangered Species Act. That’s because the Southern Residents — the orcas that frequent Puget Sound — are listed as an endangered species.

The tagging program has provided much information about where the whales go during winter months when they leave Puget Sound and travel up and down the coast. That information is expected to help NOAA Fisheries develop a new “critical habitat” designation for the Southern Residents. Critical habitat in coastal areas might provide the whales with protected areas where they could hunt for chinook salmon, their primary prey.

For now, NOAA may need to use methods other than satellite tagging to keep track of the whales during winter, said Richard Merrick, chief scientist for NOAA Fisheries. Experts are reviewing the existing data to see if they have enough information for expanding critical habitat outside of Puget Sound.

A total of eight Southern Residents have been tagged using a similar dart system since tagging began in 2012, according to a report from Brad Hanson (PDF 972 kb) of NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center. Nigel was the last, and all the other whales are alive and have shed their darts, although one whale did retain a dart for a while.

The fungus that contributed to Nigel’s death has been found in the surface waters off Vancouver Island, experts say, and the attached tag provides an entry point for infection. A couple of factors may have made things worse for the orca. First, the tag was dropped during handling and may have become contaminated with seawater. Although it was sterilized with alcohol, protocols for tag deployment call for the use of bleach as well.

It was a “human error,” said Merrick, adding that the NOAA scientists involved are “dismayed” that any of their actions could have contributed to the orca’s death.

The tag also went into a spot on the dorsal fin lower than recommended. Although other whales have not had problems with this location, the concern is the proximity to large blood vessels that could allow the fungal organism to more easily enter the bloodstream.

The final necropsy report (PDF 365 kb) provides evidence that Nigel may have had some problems with his immune system, and this particular fungus is known to attack people who are immune-compromised. I have written about the added risks of disease among killer whales because of their exposure to toxic chemicals. You might want to check out my series in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

Because Nigel’s carcass was severely decomposed when it was found, the actual cause of death may never be known. But contributing factors are many.

Ken Balcomb, longtime orca researcher for the Center for Whale Research, had warned about the risks involved with using sharp prongs that penetrate the skin. See “Orca tagging raises questions about research” from Dec. 8, 2010, and “Orca researchers divided over use of satellite tags” from Dec. 28, 2010.

Reached by phone today, Ken told me that he has given his best information to government researchers through the years — not only about the risks of tagging but about other issues as well.

“I get no communication back,” he said. “They just ignore it.”

His greatest concerns today are focused on the lack of wild salmon to feed the whales, he said. The high death rate and the low birth rate in recent years largely results from a lack of food, which compounds other problems that the orcas are facing. While nine new orca calves since the end of 2014 is encouraging, he said, the 82 Southern Residents are not in good shape as a population.

“They do have to eat,” Ken said. “This population requires a certain quantity of fish, and they are not getting it. Recovery (of the orcas) is not happening, and it won’t happen until the recovery of natural fish populations happens.”

The removal of dams on the Snake River would help increase the wild chinook population, Ken said, but better management of all life stages of salmon is essential. That means better coordination between the U.S. and Canada, he added.

Amusing Monday: Surf dogs flip over wild waves in Southern California

The surf was running wild at this year’s Surf City Surf Dog competition at Huntington Beach, Calif., where the boards were flipping and the dogs were flying.

The dogs and their owners were more nervous than normal this year during the three-day event that raises money for nonprofit rescue groups. Crowds turned out in large numbers for the finals, which took place a week ago yesterday.

“It’s a crackup watching the dogs,” spectator Tom Baker told Laylan Connelly, a reporter for the Orange County Register. “The people think the dogs are enjoying it, but I’m not so sure the dogs are enjoying it today. The surf was heavy.”

Lifeguards were on hand to help with any problems, and they advised dog owners when it was safe to go out. The contest had 68 dog entries, and many of them were longtime competitors in the sport. As I watched the first video on this page, I was hoping that the owners knew their dogs and their abilities, along with their own abilities. No injuries were reported, and the images came out more spectacular than ever.

In some ways, the still images are more thrilling than the videos. See this great collection of photos posted by the London Daily Mail.

Here is a highlights video by Mike Lukas and Jerome Mel on the Surf City Surf Dog YouTube channel.

The waves were calmer in July at the annual Unleashed by Petco Surf Dog Competition at Imperial Beach, Calif. The second video on this page is a personal video posted by a couple on Tower magazine.

Another take on the Imperial Beach event is offered on YouTube by Richard Mellinger.

More invasive crabs found; wider search will resume next spring

Padilla Bay, an extensive inlet east of Anacortes in North Puget Sound, could become known as an early stronghold of the invasive European Green crab, a species dreaded for the economic damage it has brought to other regions of the country.

Trapping sites for crabs (gray markers) during this week’s rapid assessment in Padilla Bay. The red markers show locations where invasive European green crabs were found.
Trapping sites for crabs (gray markers) during this week’s rapid assessment in Padilla Bay. Red markers show locations where three more invasive European green crabs were found.
Map: Washington Sea Grant

After one young green crab was found in Padilla Bay on Sept. 19 (Water Ways, Sept. 24), three more crabs were found during an extensive trapping effort this past week. All four crabs were captured at different locations in the bay. These four live crabs followed the finding of a single adult green crab in the San Juan Islands — the first-ever finding of green crabs anywhere in Puget Sound. (Water Ways, Sept. 15).

With these new findings in Padilla Bay, the goal of containing the crabs to one area has become a greater challenge. Emily Grason, who coordinates a volunteer crab-surveillance program for Washington Sea Grant, discusses the difficulty of putting out enough traps to cover the entire bay. Read her report on the fist day of trapping:

“Similar to our trip to San Juan Island, we are conducting extensive trapping in an effort to learn more about whether there are more green crabs in Padilla Bay. One difference, however, is scale. Padilla Bay is massive, and it’s hard to know exactly where to start. On San Juan Island, the muddy habitats where we thought crabs would do well are well-defined, and relatively limited. Padilla Bay, on the other hand, is one giant muddy habitat — well, not all of it, but certainly a huge portion. We could trap for weeks and still not cover all of the suitable habitat!”

In all, 192 traps were set up at 31 sites, covering about 20 miles of shoreline. The crab team was fortunate to work with the expert staff at the Padilla Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, a group of folks who know the area well and had worked with shoreline owners to get approval for access.

Three of the four green crabs caught in Padilla Bay were young, probably washed into the bay during last winter’s warm currents, Emily said in her wrap-up report of the effort.

“All of the detections of European green crabs occurred on the east portion of the bay,” she wrote. “Though the sites varied somewhat in the type of habitat, all of the crabs were found relatively high on the shore, in high salt marsh pools, or within a few meters of the shore.

The first of four European green crabs found in Padilla Bay. Photo: Padilla Bay Reserve
The first of four European green crabs found in Padilla Bay.
Photo: Padilla Bay National Estuarine Reserve

“Padilla Bay has about 20 miles of shoreline, and, at last count in 2004, there were 143 acres of salt marsh habitat in the bay,” she continued.”These numbers suggest that there are a lot of places European green crabs could live in Padilla Bay, and protecting the bay from this global invader will undoubtedly require a cooperative effort.”

Yesterday, the response team held a conference call to discuss what to do next. Team members agreed that no more intensive trapping would take place this year, Sean McDonald of the University of Washington told me in an email.

Winter is a tough time to catch crabs. Low tides shift from daytime hours to nighttime hours, making trapping more difficult. Meanwhile, crabs tend to lose their appetite during winter months, so they are less likely to go into the traps to get food, experts say.

Researchers, shellfish growers and beach walkers are being asked to stay alert for the green crabs, not only in Padilla Bay but also in nearby Samish and Fidalgo bays.

The Legislature will need to provide funding to continue the citizen science volunteer monitoring program, which provided an early warning that green crabs had invaded Puget Sound. Whether the crabs will survive and in what numbers is something that demands more study and perhaps a major eradication effort.

Meanwhile, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife would like to expand its overall Aquatic Invasive Species Program with additional efforts to prevent invaders from coming into Puget Sound. For information, check out my story on invasive species in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound — specifically the section titled “Biofouling still mostly unregulated.”