Where are the orcas? It’s hard to say, as the latest death is confirmed

I hate to say it, but summer is beginning to wind down. Even more disturbing for killer whale observers is an awareness that Puget Sound’s iconic orcas have pretty much avoided Puget Sound altogether this year.

The patterns of travel and even the social structure of the endangered Southern Resident killer whales have been disrupted the past several years, and this year is the worst ever, according to Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research, who has been keeping track of these whales for the past 40 years.

For decades, we could expect all three pods of Southern Residents to show up in June, if not before. They would mingle and socialize and generally remain through the summer in the San Juan Islands, feasting on the chinook salmon that migrate to Canada’s Fraser River.

Skagit, K-13, who recently died, is seen in this 2011 photo swimming behind her daughter Deadhead, K-27.
Photo: Ken Balcomb, Center for Whale Research

In recent years, the large orca pods have broken into smaller groups of whales that keep coming and going, as if searching for scattered schools of salmon. This year, the Southern Residents have made few appearances in Puget Sound, barely enough for Ken to complete his annual census report to the federal government.

The latest official count is 77 orcas among the three pods. That reflects the death of K-13, a 45-year old female named Skagit. Ken did not announce her passing, mainly because it is based on limited encounters. Ken tells me that K-13 was the only whale missing during an encounter with her close relatives in February in Puget Sound and then later off the coast.

Normally, he would like to have more encounters before declaring a missing animal deceased, but Skagit has always been a central figure in her family group, which sometimes traveled separately from the rest of K pod.

Under the original protocols for counting whales, one would wait a year before listing the death, Ken told me, but now people are keeping track of the current population as orcas are born and die. His official census count is made on July 1, and he was confident that the missing Skagit would not turn up later.

K-13 was the mother of four offspring: K-20, a 31-year-old female named Spock; K-25, a 26-year-old male named Scoter; K-27, a 23-year-old female named Deadhead; and K-34, a 16-year-old male named Cali. Skagit was the grandmother to Spock’s 13-year-old calf, K-38 or Comet, and to Deadhead’s 6-year-old calf, K-44 or Ripple.

The question now is how the remaining whales in the family group will respond. In a matriarchal society, groups are led by elder females whose extended family generally stays with them for life. Will one of Skagit’s female offspring assume the leadership role? Will the family group remain as independent as it has been in the past?

“It’s a big question,” said Brad Hanson of NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center. “These animals are so long-lived. How do you sort out the loss of an animal like J-2, who has had a leadership role for so many years? Do they keep doing the same thing, or do they do something different?”

J-2, known as “Granny” was estimated to be more than 100 years old when she died last year. The oldest whale among the Southern Residents, she was known as the leader of the clans. Check out these posts in Water Ways:

The effect of losing Skagit’s leadership is hard to measure, but it comes on top of the fragmenting social structure among the Southern Residents. As the remaining orcas seem to be wandering around in search of food, we are likely to see fewer births and more deaths.

Studies have shown a strong correlation between births and prey availability, Ken told me, and the absence of the orcas alone is an indicator that fewer salmon are coming through the San Juan Islands. Whether the whales are finding adequate salmon runs somewhere else is hard to say, because nobody really knows where they are.

“I think they are out there intercepting whatever runs are coming down from the Gulf of Alaska,” Ken said. “Most of the salmon up there are destined for down here. They (the whales) are tough, and they will survive if they can.”

While the fish-eating Southern Residents have been absent from Puget Sound, the seal-eating transient killer whales are making themselves at home in local waters. It appears there is no shortage of seals, sea lions and harbor porpoises for them to eat, and transients are being spotted more often by people on shore and in boats.

Meanwhile, the Southern Residents typically head into Central and South Puget Sound to hunt for chum salmon during September, sometimes October. Although the migrating chum return to hundreds of streams all over Puget Sound, the orcas have become less predictable in their travels during the fall as well as the summer.

“I am hoping that the fall chum runs are strong and the whales will come in,” Ken said, “but I’m not holding my breath.”

The total count of 77 Southern Resident killer whales consists of 24 whales in J pod, 18 whales in K pod and 35 whales in L pod. Those numbers do not include Lolita, who was captured in Puget Sound as a calf and still lives in Miami Seaquarium in Florida.

Recalling the voice and wisdom of Billy Frank Jr. in a new animated video

It is very nice to hear once again the distinctive voice of the late Billy Frank Jr. in a new animated video called simply “sčədadxʷ” — or “Salmon.”

Billy was the voice for the Nisqually Tribe, for the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, for native people everywhere and for the human race, which he believed holds a special relationship with salmon and all of nature’s creatures.

The new video was produced by Salmon Defense, a nonprofit organization created by the 20 Western Washington treaty tribes to foster the welfare of salmon. The short animation was distributed by Northwest Treaty Tribes, the communications arm of the NWIFC.

In the video, the animated Billy is seen floating down a river in an Indian canoe. While passing historical landscapes, Billy talks about Indian culture, the coming of settlers and the relationship between the two societies.

“We don’t walk on this Earth very long,” Billy says in the video. “We got a lot of changes here that is happening in this century, and we have to work together and remind each other about what was the past and our history and be able to live together and survive together.”

Billy’s words are still inspirational, and his passion still comes through. His voice causes me to recall the many talks and speeches I heard him give through the years. His words would flow at a different pace than other speakers who appeared on stage before him. To hear Billy, you would need to slow down and listen, not necessarily to the precise words but rather to the broader, heartfelt meaning behind his words.

His grammar wasn’t perfect. He would sometimes pepper his speech with swear words, especially when expressing frustration in his fairly reserved way. And then he would catch you off guard with a humorous phrase or story of human foibles. To me, Billy’s message was always clear: No matter what our differences, we can save the salmon and make a better life for all humans by working together.

Most remarkable to me — and recognized by many others — was Billy’s warm relationship with everyone who knew him. He treated everyone like a brother or sister, greeting them with a broad smile and a hug or pat on the back. He constantly opened doors to new relationships. It didn’t matter who you were — from the president of the United States down to everyday news reporters like me.

Billy rarely talked about his own personal sacrifices and struggles, but he would remember the specific efforts of others. For example, while I was covering the federal lawsuit dealing with salmon-blocking culverts, Billy thanked me for writing about the issue and for helping people understand the science behind the needs of salmon. See Kitsap Sun, March 21, 2009.

Billy died in May of 2014 at age 83. Read his obituary in Indian Country Today. Also review two pieces I wrote shortly after Billy’s death:

I thought this might be a good time to present two other videos featuring Billy Frank and his family history. If you’ve seen these videos, they might be worthy of another look. The second video on this page is “As Long as the Rivers Run,” a 1971 documentary that chronicles the conflict and civil disobedience leading up to the landmark George Boldt decision. The third video is a special edition of Northwest Indian News called “Remembering Billy Frank Jr.”

Amusing Monday: Actor Ed Begley obsesses over food, energy and more

Ed Begley Jr., who has appeared in hundreds of films and television shows, is also widely known for his environmental activism, both in his personal life and his outreach to the public. For years, Ed insisted on riding a bicycle almost everywhere, including to film and TV locations, but that was only the beginning.

In 2007, Ed and his wife Rachelle Carson-Begley launched a reality television show called “Living with Ed,” which demonstrated how people can live more sustainably in their own lives. The show appeared first on HGTV and later on Planet Green, a Discovery channel. Check out the episode “Fruit and Veggie Standoff.”

Ed’s latest project, launched this month, uses his reputation as an extreme environmentalist in a series of amusing videos in which he promotes simple ideas to reduce the human impact on the environment.

“The truth is, you don’t have to be famous or perform eco-heroics to help save the world from often-overlooked — but serious — issues like food waste, energy waste and population growth,” says a promotional piece about the videos.

The short-video project is called “Better than Ed.” As you will see in the three videos on this page, Ed’s antics have a serious message behind them.

Another relatively new project, started earlier this year, is a podcast “Begleyesque” in which Ed and his wife Rachelle interview Hollywood celebrities and environmental experts on various topics. Just last week, the couple interviewed Ashley Ahearn, an environmental reporter for Seattle public radio station KUOW. The free-wheeling interview touched on many subjects close to the hearts of Ed, Rachelle and Ashley. In one segment, Ashley explains why environmental reporters should never hesitate to ask stupid questions. Listen to the half-hour podcast below.

By the way, I should mention that Ashley has her own personal podcast on National Public Radio called “Terrestrial,” which focuses on the choices that we humans make in our lives. Some choices, if made by enough people, can lead to profound changes for our civilization. Ashley’s storytelling and her sense of pacing make for some enjoyable and educational listening.

While talking about Ed Begley, I feel compelled to mention “On Begley Street,” which is an entertaining reality TV program that shows the inspiration and struggle of Ed and Rachelle as they plan and build a new ultra-green home. The first six episodes of the program, originally shown on evox Television, can be seen on YouTube. “It” magazine follows up with a video tour with Ed showing off his house after it is completed.

No end in sight for dispute over pesticide injury to salmon

It has been 15 years since a federal judge ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency and National Marine Fisheries Service must consider whether pesticides increase the risk of extinction for Northwest salmon populations.

Chlorpyrifos

Since 2002, NMFS (also called NOAA Fisheries) has determined that some pesticides do indeed pose a significant risk to the ongoing existence of salmon listed under the Endangered Species Act. Yet, after all these years, permanent protective measures have not been imposed by the EPA, which is responsible for regulating pesticide use.

One could argue that progress has been made in the face of litigation from environmental groups. The EPA has acknowledged its responsibility under the Endangered Species Act, and the agency has adopted a new and evolving methodology for measuring the risk to listed species.

After its initial assessments were thrown out by the courts, NMFS has agreed to complete new biological opinions for five pesticides that pose some of the highest risks. Studies for chlorpyrifos, malathion and diazinon are scheduled to be done by the end of this year, followed by carbaryl and methomyl by the end of next year.

What we don’t know is whether President Trump’s anti-regulatory efforts and pledge to dismantle the EPA will slow or stop the process of protecting salmon. When it comes to pesticides, environmental activists will tell you that the Trump administration has already taken steps to undermine not only salmon but also human health.

For example, the insecticide chlorpyrifos was scheduled to be banned by the EPA after a new analysis found that its ongoing use on food crops could pose unsafe risks for people, especially young children whose brain development could be impaired.

In March, just before the ban was to go into effect, Trump’s new EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, reversed EPA’s course, saying the U.S. Department of Agriculture disagrees with the methodology used by the EPA in developing the ban.

Environmental groups, which had already obtained a court order to force the EPA to reconsider its approval of the pesticide, were outraged. They filed yet another lawsuit, as described in a news release from Earthjustice.

“EPA’s stunning reversal on chlorpyrifos in the face of overpowering scientific evidence of harm to children signals yet another dereliction of duty under the Trump administration,” Kristin Schafer, policy director for Pesticide Action Network, said in the news release.

After the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals refused to force the EPA to take immediate action on chlorpyrifos, nine U.S. senators stepped in to draft legislation that would ban the chemical. See news release and video from Tom Udall, D-New Mexico, and a separate statement from Earthjustice.

Chlorpyrifos is among numerous pesticides that can harm salmon directly and indirectly in a variety of ways, including destroying salmon’s ability to make their way upstream to spawn and killing off the insects they eat.

In its latest biological evaluation released in January, the EPA looked at more than 1,400 toxicity studies before concluding that chlorpyrifos in all its various uses could be expected to have an adverse effect on all threatened and endangered species throughout the U.S. — including killer whales in Puget Sound. Check out the news story by Adam Wernick, Living on Earth.

Of course, chemical manufacturers and farming groups — including apparently the USDA — are not easily convinced that certain pesticides are harmful. They want to go on selling and using these chemicals, as they have for many years. Consequently, they want the EPA to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a chemical is causing damage. But federal law actually requires that all chemicals on the market be proven safe, so any doubt should trigger a reduction of pesticide use or at least greater restrictions on their application.

It is easy to complain about the adequacy of any scientific study. In fact, a disputed difference in methodology between the EPA and NMFS led to a National Academy of Sciences Review, which eventually made suggestions for unifying the agencies’ different scientific approaches.

Through the years, one thing that I have found remarkable is that chemicals rarely appear to get safer with time. For most pesticides, more study raises more concerns, and when you mix pesticides together you never know what you’ll get.

In 2008, shortly after I started writing this blog, I reported on a study by Nat Scholz, a NOAA toxicologist in Seattle who has been studying the effects of chemicals on salmon and other species. This particular study examined mixtures of chlorpyrifos and four other pesticides.

The biggest surprise, Nat told reporter Erik Stokstad of Science magazine, was the strength of the synergistic punch from the pesticides diazinon and malathion. Together, the two chemicals killed all the salmon exposed to them. Even at the lowest concentration, fish were extremely sick.

“It was eye-opening,” Nat was quoted as saying. “We’re seeing relatively dramatic departures” from what happens with each pesticide by itself. See Water Ways, Feb. 19, 2008.

Such findings raise questions about the adequacy of all studies conducted on single pesticides. Pending final reports on pesticide effects on salmon, the courts have imposed 60-foot no-spray buffers along streams (300 feet for aerial spraying) to reduce chemical exposure to salmon and other species.

Nobody can say for sure if those buffers are adequate, but biological opinions from NOAA due out at this end of this year could shed new light on the problem. Meanwhile, chemical manufacturers are hoping those court-mandated reports never see the light of day — and they are putting pressure on the Trump administration to slow down the process.

In a letter to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, a lawyer for the three companies — Dow AgroSciences, ADAMA and FMC — called on the EPA to withdraw its biological evaluation, saying the analysis is flawed in several ways. The lawyer also wrote to other federal officials, asking the National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to delay their biological opinions. According to the lawyer, the court-imposed deadlines are not legally binding.

Reporter Tiffany Stecker of Bloomberg BNA does a nice job describing various viewpoints surrounding this complicated issue. She also describes a close relationship between Dow and the Trump administration.

“The company donated $1 million to President Donald Trump’s inaugural committee,” she wrote. “Trump appointed Dow Chairman and CEO Andrew Liveris to head the White House American Manufacturing Council.”

Dow spent more than $13.6 million on lobbying efforts last year, according to Michael Biesecker, environmental reporter for the Associated Press.

“When Trump signed an executive order in February mandating the creation of task forces at federal agencies to roll back government regulations, Dow’s chief executive was at Trump’s side,” Biesecker wrote.

“’Andrew, I would like to thank you for initially getting the group together and for the fantastic job you’ve done,’ Trump said as he signed the order during an Oval Office ceremony. The president then handed his pen to Liveris to keep as a souvenir,” according to the AP report.

Patti Goldman, managing attorney for Earthjustice’s Northwest Regional Office, said Dow executives are doing everything they can to suppress the science surrounding chlorpyrifos and other pesticides — including hiring their own scientists to raise doubts and delay proposed bans for these toxic chemicals.

“We have a person (Pruitt) in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency who really doesn’t believe in the mission of the agency,” Patti told me.

Turmoil over pesticides has been heightened by the Trump administration just when the EPA and NMFS appeared to be coming together to resolve long-held conflicts over how to assess risk and reduce harm to salmon, she said.

Now, after 15 years of court battles, the end of the conflict appears far from over.

“I think we have had incremental progress, because we’ve gotten the agencies to look at this,” Patti said. “Some chemicals are no longer on the market, and some are on the market for only particular uses.”

While there is plenty of disagreement over whether controls on pesticide use are working, for now the no-spray buffers remain in place as a temporary protection.

Are we winning or losing the ongoing battle for salmon habitat?

It has been said that the Puget Sound ecosystem would be far worse off today were it not for the millions of dollars spent on restoration projects over the past 25 years.

Undoubtedly, that’s true, but I think most of us are hoping that these costly efforts will eventually restore salmon populations while improving conditions for other creatures as well. Shouldn’t we be able to measure the progress?

Juvenile chinook salmon
Photo: John McMillan, NOAA

This basic question became the essence of my latest story published in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound: “Are we making progress on salmon revovery?”

As I describe in the story, what seems like a simple question becomes tangled in the difficulties of measuring population and ecological changes. It turns out that you can’t just count the fish to see if restoration is working. That’s because natural variabilities of weather, ocean conditions and predator/prey populations cause salmon populations to swing wildly from year to year no matter what you do.

While researching this story, I learned a good deal about freshwater habitat conditions needed to help various species of salmon to thrive. Habitat improvements resulting from restoration projects are no doubt helping salmon in significant ways. On the other hand, one cannot ignore human development that continues to degrade habitat — despite improved regulations designed to reduce the damage.

I’ve heard some people say that wild salmon would come back in larger numbers if everyone would just stop fishing for them. This may be true to some extent, especially for high-quality streams that may not be getting enough salmon to spawn. But the key to the problem is understanding the “bottlenecks” that limit salmon survival through their entire lives.

A stream may have plenty of adult spawners, but that does not mean the salmon runs will increase if the eggs are buried in silt or if food supplies limit the number of fry that survive. There may be multiple limiting factors that need to be addressed to ensure healthy ongoing salmon populations.

Small improvements in habitat may actually boost the productivity of salmon in a stream, meaning that more salmon will survive. But the benefits of small projects on large streams may be difficult to distinguish from natural variation. Statistical analysis is used to determine whether increases or decreases in salmon populations are more related to habitat changes or natural variation. It takes a fairly dramatic change to link cause to effect in a statistically significant way.

One ongoing experiment is measuring changes in fry populations in several streams within the same watersheds. One stream is left alone — the “control” stream — while habitat improvements are made in others. Because the streams are closely related, biologists hope to attribute population increases to habitat improvements with a high level of certainty. See Intensively Monitored Watersheds on the website of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The same issue of statistics applies to the aquatic insects that salmon eat. It appears that food supplies are improving in many salmon streams as a result of restoration, but not all benthic invertebrates are responding in the same way. For many streams, it will take more time to get enough data to determine whether the increased bug populations are statistically significant. This happens to be one issue that I side-stepped in the latest story, but I will be returning to it in the future. For background, check out an earlier story I wrote for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, “Healthy Streams, Healthy Bugs.”

While habitat restoration is ongoing, so too is human development, which continues unabated at what appears to be an accelerating pace. New regulations are designed to result in “no net loss” of important habitats, including shorelines, streams and wetlands. But questions remain about whether local regulations themselves and/or enforcement of the regulations are adequate.

Biologists at NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center are conducting research to determine whether habitat changes are for better or worse, especially with regard to chinook. We should see some results within the next few years, as the agency prepares to draft the next five-year status report for Puget Sound’s threatened chinook population.

Amusing Monday: Taking a wild ride on (or in) a killer whale or shark

I didn’t know anyone made a high-speed watercraft that resembles a killer whale until I saw Freeze List’s new video “8 Insane Water Toys that Everyone Must Try” (second video on this page).

This killer whale is built like a small aerodynamic submarine and is about the size of a real killer whale. It can race along on the surface, dive underwater, roll to the left or right, and even breach up into the air, as the operator adjusts aircraft-style controls.

The Killer Whale Y Model is one of three models of Seabreacher watercraft manufactured by Innespace Productions, based in New Zealand. The other two models are the smaller Shark X Model and the latest Dolphin Z Model, a revision of the first design.

If the videos of a speedy killer whale machine are not amusing enough, Seabreacher has produced a few oddball videos involving the watercraft. Check out the list at the end of this post.

The killer whale model is a two-seater with 360-degree viewing from within an enclosed canopy. It runs on a Rotax 1500-cc, four-stroke 260-horsepower motor. Features include a large whale tail, pectoral fins and a functioning blowhole.

As SeaWorld and other marine parks cease their killer whale performances — in which people often ride on the backs of live orcas — this manufactured whale can be built with grab handles and foot pegs to allow trained stunt people to do acrobatic feats on the outside of the machine.

Three years ago, writer Rohit Jaggi climbed into one of the Seabreacher cockpits on Shasta Lake near Redding, Calif. His goal was to write an article for the Financial Times of London. Riding with him was Rob Innes, a New Zealand boat builder who teamed up years ago with machinist Dan Piazza to create Innespace Productions.

“Drive it like you stole it,” Innes advised the reporter. “You can’t break it.”

“Obediently, I pull very hard on one of the two vertical levers in my hands, push on the other, and we switch instantly from a … straight line to a carving, steep turn to the left,” Rohit writes. “Keeping my right index finger tight on the trigger throttle, I reverse the positions of the levers and we are thrown into a tight right curve, banked so far over that water breaks over the transparent bubble canopy above our heads….

“I take a few minutes to dial my responses in, but it is not long before I am, indeed, driving it like I stole it… Rushing forward, planing on the lateral fins, I push the two levers forward and a wall of water rises swiftly up and over the canopy until the Seabreacher is underwater. All that remains above the surface is the midship-mounted vertical fin, which contains a snorkel for the engine air intake, slicing through the water at up to 40 kph.” (That’s about 25 miles per hour under water, or about half the maximum surface speed.)

The third video, at right, shows TV news reporter Avijah Scarbrough of KHSL in Los Angeles taking a spin on Shasta Lake, where Rob Innes has opened a division of Innespace.

Innespace Productions started in 1997 with a focus on high-performance submersible watercraft. More than 10 years of engineering and testing went into the Seabreacher models, which are custom built with a variety of options. Typical costs are between $80,000 and $100,000, according to “Frequently Asked Questions” posted on the company’s website.

One promotional video shows 109 different looks created for the three models, although some may have been shown more than once. I advise you to use the pause button to take a closer look at these machines. A large collection of related videos can be found on the Innespace Seabreacher Channel on YouTube.

A few amusing (or perhaps silly?) videos featuring the Seabreacher:

FEMA offers daily email briefings on weather, emergency conditions

One of the first emails I check out each morning is the “FEMA Daily Operations Briefing” issued by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. At a glance, I get an idea of significant weather events and emergency activities across the country.

Often, I see nothing that seems significant to me, and I move on to other email. But if something stands out, I click on the link that takes me to the full briefing in PDF format.

Today’s forecast. // Map: FEMA

This morning’s report, for example, told me that flash floods had occurred in various areas of the country and that dry thunderstorms were seen in parts of Oregon, California, Nevada and Idaho. Up until then, daily briefings included warnings that such events were about to occur.

The daily reports also include significant events, such as a non-injury train derailment and evacuation in Pennsylvania; tropical weather that could be a precursor to hurricanes and cyclones; space weather that could trigger aurora borealis; earthquakes; and disaster declarations.

The full daily briefing is also my shortcut to national weather maps with one-, two- and three-day forecasts for ordinary weather, as well as potential “severe” weather outlooks. I think the page should include a link to a more complete explanation of the colors used on the maps, but that information can be found on the website of the National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center.

Daily reports from the past four years can be located in an online archive on FEMA’s website.

I thought readers of this blog might be interested in this daily briefing. Anyone can receive the briefings along with other information available by email by signing up on FEMA’s email-delivery page. Just scroll down and check “FEMA Daily Operations Briefing.”

While I’m on the subject of FEMA, I should mention the mobile app for smart phones, which includes the option to receive weather alerts for up to five counties in the U.S. along with different kinds of information. You can read about the app on the FEMA website.

You can join the search for beetles that threaten Washington trees

Washington state property owners and people with swimming pools are being urged to become part of a defensive initiative to protect trees from invasive beetles.

August is National Tree Check Month, and at least four state agencies are asking tree owners this month to take a 10-minute walk around their property to look for insects that don’t belong in our region.

Nationwide, more than a third of all insect invasions are first detected by average people, according to Justin Bush, executive coordinator of the Washington Invasive Species Council. Heading off an invasion before it gets started could save untold millions of dollars worth of trees, as well as the costs of battling a spreading insect invasion.

Citrus longhorned beetle
Photo: USDA Plant Protection Service, Bugwood.org

This is the second year that Washington state agencies are bringing the message home from other states where many longtime tree populations have been decimated by insects, including the citrus longhorned beetle and the emerald ash borer.

“While we don’t have these two invasive insects right now, we could get them at any moment,” Justin told me. “We want people to help us look for them.”

This year, state officials also are asking people who own swimming pools and ponds to join in the defensive effort, as some of invasive insects end up in the water and die. A swimming pool owner or maintenance person should take note of any unusual insects found in pool filters or among debris skimmed off the surface of the water, he said. On the East Coast, swimming pool owners are often able to spot invasive beetles even before they show up in traps designed to attract them.

It would be helpful if people would look for invasive insects all year long, Justin said, but August is a good time to place a special emphasis on the effort, because this is the time that most wood-boring insects emerge as adults.

Emerald ash borer
Photo: Debbie Miller, U.S. Forest Service, Bugwood.org

Identifying specific species of beetles is often difficult, Justin acknowledged. The best advice is to take pictures of the insect from several angles and send the photos to the Invasive Species Council, InvasiveSpecies@rco.wa.gov, which will find an expert to identify the bug.

People shouldn’t hesitate to send photos, Justin said. “If it comes to us, we can figure it out.”

Another reporting method is to download the “WA Invasives” app to send photos and location data straight from your smart phone. See WISC download page. The app also includes photos and information for identifying invasive species.

When emailing, one should include contact information, including a phone number, along with the location of the insect sighting. (An address or cross-street description would be helpful.) Details about the tree species should be included as well.

If you obtain one of the beetles, you should keep it in case an expert wants to inspect the specimen. Another option is to take the beetle to a local office of WSU Extension, which can forward it to appropriate experts.

The citrus longhorned beetle, a close relative of the disastrous Asian longhorned beetle, is a major concern on the West Coast. The beetle can feed on a variety of hardwood trees, including apple, maple, oak, willow, alder and popular. When they emerge, they leave an exit hole about 5/8-inch in diameter in the tree.

In 2001, the citrus longhorned beetle was found in Tukwila, where it arrived in a shipment of bonsai trees. Three beetles were recovered from the bonsai trees but five others were seen flying away. Nearly 1,000 trees were cut and chipped within one-eighth mile from the location site, and another 1,500 trees farther away were treated with insecticide. The last beetle was seen in the fall of 2002, and a quarantine remained in effect until 2006. See U.S. Department of Agriculture website.

Because of heavy shipping from Asian ports, concerns remain high that damaging beetles will be imported to the West Coast, Justin said. Insects could also arrive from infested areas back East, which is the primary route for European gypsy moths brought into Washington state in moving vans. This state’s gypsy moth eradication program — including nearly 100 local battles since 1979 (PDF 307 kb) — has kept the damaging moths from establishing a permanent foothold in this state.

Besides the citrus longhorned beetle, officials are concerned that the emerald ash borer could devastate ash trees in this state. The exit holes in ash trees are about a quarter-inch in diameter and have a distinctive “D” shape. Ash trees are common in urban areas, and the beetles apparently have been moving westward as campers bring firewood from eastern areas. The beetle was recently discovered in Boulder, Colo.

State agencies involved in the effort to track down the invasive beetles are the Invasive Species Council, Department of Agriculture, Department of Natural Resources and Washington State University Extension.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture offers information on these and other invasive insects:

Amusing Monday: Amazing sand sculptures are but brief creations

Creativity, humanity and whimsy seem to be abundant qualities among the sand sculptors producing unique works of art at various competitions across the United States this year.

“Dance of the Undefined,” first place in the Hampton Beach Sand Sculpting Competition. Artist: Mélineige Beauregard, Montreal, Quebec. // Photo: Hampton Beach Facebook page

In June, the Hampton Beach Sand Sculpting Competition in New Hampshire celebrated its 17th anniversary by attracting more than a dozen professional artists, including at least five from Canada.

This year’s winner at Hampton Beach was Mélineige Beauregard from Montreal, Quebec. Her work in sand, titled “Dance of the Undefined,” shows a woman from the waist up with honeycomb arms stretched above her head. Mélineige explained that the piece represents how people are constantly changing in some ways while staying the same in others.

She considers art as a kind of spiritual experience, according her to bio on the Hampton Beach website.

“When my hands touch the material, when my heart opens to give life, when my head is illuminated by light, I become the co-creator of the universe,” she was quoted as saying. “An artist is one who spiritualizes matter. For me, art is a means of communication, a way to transmit the energy of life, to affirm its vastness and its beauty.”

Mélineige has won more than 30 individual awards in sand sculpting. In 2004, she teamed up with her father, renowned sculptor Guy Beauregard, to win the World Championship doubles competition. Last year, she was the winner at the Revere Beach International Sand Sculpting Festival in Massachusetts. See the article by Liz Vanderau in Boston University Today. A slideshow of the Hampton Beach sculptures was posted on YouTube by Ammoguy5. Winners were listed on the Hampton Beach website with photos on the Hampton Beach Facebook page.

“Soul Evolution,” first place in the Revere Beach International Sand Sculpting Frestival. Artist: Pavel Mylnikov, Moscow, Russia.
Photo: Revere Beach Facebook page

This year’s winner at the Revere Beach competition, July 21-23, was Pavel Mylnikov of Moscow, Russia. His sculpture, titled “Soul Evolution,” is an intricately carved piece with two masculine angels on a rocky outcropping. Artist-reporters Dan Doubleday and Meredith Corson-Doubleday of RevereTV do a nice job of explaining their craft in a series of videos. Below, I’ve linked to two videos focused on four sculptures in this year’s competition — including entries by Pavel and Mélineige:

The festivals at Hampton Beach and Revere Beach are listed among the top 10 sand-sculpting competitions in the United States, according to Coastal Living magazine. Also making the list is the SandSations Sandcastle Competition in Long Beach, Wash. (See Facebook for some random photos and a list of winners.)

Another great sand-sculpting festival was held this year on July 14 and 15 at Imperial Beach, California. NBC 7, San Diego put together a nice video of the top winners.

“Neptune’s Organ,” first place in the 2016 Virginia Beach International Sand Sculpting Championship. Artists: Meredith Corson Doubleday and Dan Doubleday, Florida.
Photo: Virginia Beach website

Still to come this year is the International Sand Sculpting Championship, Sept. 30 to Oct. 8 in Virginia Beach, Va. The event is part of the Virginia Beach Neptune Festival. More than 30 of the world’s top sculptors are scheduled to compete along with separate competitions for amateur sculptors.

Last year’s first-place winner in Virginia Beach was Mélineige Beauregard, mentioned above. The first-place in team competition was won by Meredith Corson Doubleday and Dan Doubleday, mentioned above as artist-reporters in the Revere Beach competition. Their sculpture, Neptune’s Organ, also took the Neptune’s Choice, Sculptors’ Choice and People’s Choice awards in the team division.

Winners from 2016 contest in Virgina Beach can be seen on the festival’s winners page.

After enjoying dozens of photos showing amazing sculptures, I can’t help but think about the fragility and temporary nature of these artworks. For all their beauty and intricacy, as well as the thoughts and emotions they inspire, these sculptures soon disappear, and the artists are left to prepare for their next fleeting creation.

Winter chum salmon in South Puget Sound fail test for uniqueness

Sam Wright, who has been remarkably successful in getting various fish species protected under the Endangered Species Act, has learned that his latest ESA petition — possibly his final petition — has been rejected.

Sam, who retired from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife after years of studying salmon and other fish, would like to get special recognition for a unique population of chum salmon that return to South Puget Sound in the winter.

Nisqually River near Interstate 5 bridge
Photo: ©2006 Walter Siegmund/Wikimedia Commons

The Nisqually-Chambers Creek run of winter chum is the only population of chum salmon in the world that spawn as late as February, with some fish entirely missing the worst floods of December and January, Sam told me. His petition to the federal government was designed to get these winter chum recognized as a distinct population segment — much as the threatened summer chum population in Hood Canal has been designated as separate from the fall runs of chum throughout Puget Sound.

Being a small population, the Nisqually-Chambers Creek winter chum would probably qualify for threatened or endangered status, he said, but first it would need to be recognized as distinct. If not listed initially as threatened or endangered, those decisions could follow if the population crashes, he said.

“The petition was meant to correct what was, from my perspective, a mistake made 20 years ago when they made a coastwise series of reports assessing the chum salmon populations,” said Sam, who is now 81 years old.

“In the entire range of chum salmon — both in North America and Asia — there are 3,500 streams with chum salmon,” he continued, “but there is only one single winter-run chum salmon, and that is the Nisqually.”

Sam’s petition (PDF 4.2 mb), filed more than two years ago, was subject to a 90-day review by the National Marine Fisheries Service, also known as NOAA Fisheries. Sam was told that the petition had been misplaced all this time. Last week, he got the news that the Nisqually-Chambers Creek winter chum would not be recognized as a distinct population, nor would it be considered for further review without new information being brought forward.

In rejecting Sam’s petition, NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center reviewed available data — including a 2015 genetic study on chum populations — and concluded that the original analysis done in 1997 was still valid. That analysis concluded that the winter-run chum are closely related to the fall-run chum in Puget Sound and Hood Canal and that “there is no clear genetic evidence to support the idea that the winter-run chum salmon in Puget Sound are substantially reproductively isolated from other chum salmon populations in southern Puget Sound.” See “Listing Endangered or Threatened Species …”

Sam argues that the winter chum remain genetically isolated from fall chum populations because of their unusual spawning schedule. That is demonstrated by annual population counts, which go up and down independently of fall chum numbers in South Puget Sound.

“They are reacting to different environmental conditions,” Sam explained.

Studies are needed to show the differences, Sam said, but they may have an advantage over fall chum by avoiding most of the winter floods, which can displace salmon eggs incubating in the gravel or else smother them in silt.

Incubation time is based on temperature, so the late-arriving chum are subject to warmer water and faster incubation. The winter chum fry are only a little behind the fall chum fry, Sam said.

One of the most productive areas for winter chum is Muck Creek, a tributary of the Nisqually River that runs through Joint Base Lewis McCord, where the Army conducts military exercises, according to Sam.

“We’ve had decades of battles with Fort Lewis over whether to use Muck Creek as part of their firing range,” Sam told me, adding that he suspects that pressure from the military played a role in NOAA’s original decision to lump the winter chum together with the fall chum.

Personally, I don’t know anything about such conflicts, but Muck Creek has been the site of a major restoration effort involving JBLM, the Nisqually Tribe and other groups. In 2011, reporter Ingrid Barrentine wrote about the annual salmon homecoming for Northwest Guardian, a JBLM publication.

As for the habitat in Muck Creek, Sam told me something else that was surprising. The stream is spring-fed with freshwater bubbling up from below and providing stable flows, he said. That helps the eggs to survive. Unlike many streams in which only 10 percent of the chum eggs grow into fry headed for saltwater, Muck Creek has had a 90-percent survival rate.

One reason that Sam is so concerned about the Nisqually-Chambers Creek winter chum is the uncertainty about what is coming in the future. Climate change is likely to bring higher stream flows in winter, he said, and chum runs that come later may hold the keys to survival of the species.

“To me, the last thing we want to do is throw away that particular piece,” Sam said, paraphrasing Aldo Leopold, whose exact quote is this:

“If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.” (Round River)

Sam Wright’s persistence has paid off in the past when he has asked for reconsideration and finally received threatened or endangered status for various populations of salmon, steelhead, rockfish and other marine species. This time, he may or may not provide additional information and ask the agency to reconsider its position. In any case, Sam told me that he has no new petitions in the works, and this may be his last effort.

Whether Nisqually-Chambers Creek winter chum — or any salmon population — is considered distinct rests on NOAA’s definition of species, 16 U.S.C. 1531, which includes two criteria:

  1. The population must be substantially reproductively isolated from other nonspecific population units; and
  2. The population must represent an important component in the evolutionary legacy of the species.

In turning down Sam’s petition, reviewers pointed to genetic studies that supported the finding that summer chum in Hood Canal and the Strait of Juan de Fuca were distinct from other chum runs. A second grouping included the remaining fall, summer and winter runs in Puget Sound, with a third grouping of fall chum from the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the Washington Coast and Oregon.

The reviewers also pointed out that the Nisqually River and Chambers Creek to the north are not geographically isolated from the rest of South Puget Sound.

As for “evolutionary legacy,” Sam contends that loss of the winter chum would be forever, as with extinct summer chum in many river systems including Chambers Creek. That critical issue, he said, is the very definition of legacy.

The reviewers of his petition found, like the 1997 review team, that winter and summer runs in Puget Sound only showed “patterns of diversity within a relatively large and complex evolutionarily significant unit,” known as an ESU.

“Both the Nisqually River and Chambers Creek watersheds have supported both summer- and fall-run chum salmon in the past, along with winter-run chum salmon,” concluded the agency’s written findings, “so there is nothing unique preventing these watersheds from supporting multiple chum salmon runs.”