One orca is missing and presumed dead; another reported as ‘super-gaunt’

I have some bleak news to share about our Southern Resident killer whales, which normally frequent Puget Sound at this time of year.

J-14 seen earlier this year in Puget Sound. Photo: Center for Whale Research
J-14 seen earlier this year in Puget Sound.
Photo: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research,
taken under federal permits NMFS 15569/ DFO SARA 388

J-14, a 42-year-old female named Samish, has gone missing and is presumed dead, while J-28, a 23-year-old orca mom named Polaris, may be living out her final days.

“Things are shaping up to be pretty bad,” said Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research, who keeps tabs on the orca population. “J-28 is looking super-gaunt, and I would say she is within days of her death.”

The saddest part of my conversation with Ken this morning was to hear him say that Polaris’ 7-month-old calf would become an orphan and probably will not survive without his mother. That’s the typical outcome for an orphan of that age, Ken said, although there is a chance that the young male will be adopted by his grandmother.

The calf, J-54, is still nursing, but he is close to weaning, Ken noted. He is the newest calf born into the three Southern Resident pods and is part of the “baby boom” of nine orcas born between December 2014 and December 2015. So far, only one of those calves, J-55, has died.

After my conversation with Ken, the Center for Whale Research posted a news release about the death of Samish. Orca observers on the water have known that she was missing for some time now.

As of today, J pod was on its way out through the Strait of Juan de Fuca, no doubt searching for food. The chinook salmon run has been very low this summer.

“Historically, at this time of year, we would see nice little bunches (of orcas) swimming back and forth in front of the house,” said Ken, who lives on the west side of San Juan Island. But this year, the whales have broken up into small family groups and are traveling around in seemingly random patterns, presumably in search of whatever salmon they can find.

“Even the fishermen aren’t getting much this year,” Ken said.

To gauge a killer whale’s condition, researchers consider the overall shape of its body. Without adequate fish — primarily chinook salmon — an orca grows thinner as the body fat declines. As conditions grow worse, a depression develops behind the blow hole. This sunken condition — which Polaris has developed — is called “peanut head.” So far, none of the other animals have been observed in such a dire condition.

I’ve often been told by medical experts that when a killer whale loses weight it can be a sign of a major problem, such as a disease that makes them incapable of hunting to their normal ability. But a shortage of food can exacerbate the condition.

“We have been telling the government for years that salmon recovery is essential for whale recovery,” Ken said.

He blames the salmon decline on longtime mismanagement of wild salmon stocks — including damage to habitat, over-fishing and excess hatchery stocks in both Canada and the U.S. One of the quickest ways to increase the chinook population for these whales is to take out the Snake River dams, he said.

Rebuilding salmon runs on the Elwha River will help, Ken said, but the number of fish is small compared to the potential of the Snake River, which flows into the Columbia and produces salmon that can be caught in the ocean.

“I’m trying to get the marine mammal people to talk to the salmon people,” Ken said. “Fish have been a political problem for a long time, and we are not solving the salmon issue.”

Money spent on law enforcement to make sure whale watchers don’t get too close to the orcas would be better spent on education — specifically on educating lawmakers about the needs of salmon and killer whales, he quipped.

As of July 1 — the date of the annual orca census — the population of the three Southern Resident pods stood at 83. That’s the number that will be reported to the federal government. Since then, Samish has gone missing, so the ongoing count falls to 82, pending the status of Polaris and her son.

Samish was considered part of the J-2 (“Granny”) family group. Her living offspring are Hy’shqa (J-37), Suttles (J-40) and Se-Yi’-Chn (J-45). Samish was the grandmother to Hy-Shqa’s 4-year-old son T’ilem I’nges.

Polaris is the first offspring of Princess Angeline (J-17), who is still living. Her first offspring, a female named Star (J-46), is now 7 years old. J-54 is her second offspring.

Amusing Monday: Purple sea creature becomes an unlikely video star

Purple stubby squid is a real creature from the deep sea. Photo: EV Nautilus/YouTube
Purple stubby squid is a real creature from the deep sea.
Photo: EV Nautilus/YouTube

Wait! Don’t touch that! It’s not a toy. It’s a living thing.

Researchers aboard the Exploration Vessel Nautilus were scanning the seafloor off the coast of California using an unmanned submarine when they spotted a purple thing that caused them to laugh with amusement.

“It looks so fake,” one researcher said. “It looks like some little kid dropped their toy.” (Watch and listen in the first video player on this page.)

They maneuvered the remotely operated vehicle Hercules closer and continued to laugh at the creature with eyes that looked glued on. Later, as the video went viral, this purple cephalopod — a class that includes squid, octopus and cuttlefish — became known to many people as the “googly eyed squid.” Since Aug. 12, more than 2.5 million viewers have clicked on the video.

This species, Rossia pacifica, is known to Puget Sound divers as the stubby squid or sometimes the bobtail squid, but it is not a true squid. See The Cephalopod Page by James Wood to understand the relationship among family groups.

This particular stubby squid was seen in early August on the seafloor about 2,950 feet deep off the California Coast. They can be found from throughout the North Pacific south to Southern California. They are found at many depths from coastal waters to inland seas.

The second video shows a bobtail squid spotted from the EV Nautilus in August of 2014, and the third shows a flapjack octopus from August of 2015.

Roland Anderson of Seattle Aquarium described early surveys in Puget Sound, where stubby squids were found in muddy sand at 11 sites between Seattle and Tacoma, including Elliott and Commencement bays. Check out “Field Aspects of the Sepiolid Squid.” (PDF 3.3 mb)

In a piece on “The Cephalopod Page,” Anderson writes, “One surprising thing recently learned about stubby squid is that they are found in polluted urban bays with highly polluted bottom sediments, such as the inner harbors of Seattle and Tacoma.

“There may be several reasons they can survive there. Deposition from rivers maybe capping polluted sediments. Their short life spans (just two years from eggs) may not allow them to absorb a significant amount of pollutants from the sediments. Another survival factor may be the stubby squid’s ability to produce copious quantities of mucus, which may protect it from the sediments like a thick Jello jacket.”

Reporter Stefan Sirucek of National Geographic News interviewed Michael Vecchione, a cephalopod expert at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

“It’s not an uncommon species,” he said. “They get all the way from scuba-diving depths down into the deep sea. If that is all one species, then it’s pretty broadly distributed.”

Vecchione said large eyes are fairly common among deep-see animals.

“They are funny-looking eyes, but I’ve seen other species of this genus that had eyes that looked very similar,” he said. “People were actually asking whether those eyes were photo-shopped in to make it look more like a cartoon or something. No, those are the real eyes. That’s what they look like.”

In low light, the big eyes help them hunt for crustaceans and avoid predators. In either case, the strategy is to remain still so other animals don’t notice it there, which can make it look like a child’s toy.

“My guess is it was probably frozen because of this big machine that was brightly lit up in front of it,” Vecchione said in the interview. “So it was trying not to be seen, basically.”

Agency failing to protect marine mammals from the Navy — Joel Reynolds

After more than a decade of losing court battles, the U.S. Navy still refuses to fully embrace the idea that whales and other sea creatures should be protected during Navy training exercises, says Joel Reynolds, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Joel Reynolds
Joel Reynolds

But the blame cannot be placed entirely on the Navy, Joel says in a blog entry he wrote for the Huffington Post.

“In fact, much of the blame lies with the government regulatory agency whose mandate it is to protect our oceans,” he writes. “It lies with the failure of the National Marine Fisheries Service to do its job.”

Joel has been at the forefront of the legal effort to get the Navy to change its ways — and the effort has been successful to a large degree. At least we now have a much greater understanding about the effects of sonar on whales and other marine animals. Legal challenges forced the Navy to acknowledge that it didn’t really know what damage its activities were doing to the oceans. The result was to develop studies, which turned out to provide some unwelcome answers.

Joel’s latest frustration comes this week in the wake of new authorizations by NMFS to sanction Navy activities found to be unacceptable by the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Joel’s life story and that of Ken Balcomb, who I call the dean of killer whales in Puget Sound, are described in intriguing detail in the book “War of the Whales” by Joshua Horwitz. The book documents their personal and legal battles to hold the Navy accountable for its impacts on whales.

In January 2015, I reviewed the book (“My take on the book…,” Water Ways, Jan. 10, 2015), and I also interviewed the author for his inside story (“A discussion with author Joshua Horwitz,” Jan. 11, 2015).

USS Shoup, a Navy destroyer based in Everett. U.S. Navy photo
USS Shoup, a Navy destroyer based in Everett.
U.S. Navy photo

The Navy would never have found itself on the losing side of these sonar lawsuits if the National Marine Fisheries Service (sometimes called NOAA Fisheries) had been doing its congressionally mandated job of protecting marine mammals, Joel says. For the agency, that would mean approving “take” permits only when the Navy has done its best to reduce the risk of injury during training exercises — which everyone agrees are important.

“Rather than exercising the oversight required by law, the Service has chosen in effect to join the Navy’s team, acquiescing in the omission of common-sense safeguards recommended even by its own scientific experts,” Joel writes in his latest blog post.

After reading his post, I asked Joel by phone yesterday what it would take to get the National Marine Fisheries Service on the right track.

“I don’t have an easy answer for that,” Joel told me, noting that he recently held a related discussion with Sylvia Earle, renowned oceanographer and formerly chief scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“She is very familiar with the problems of NMFS,” Joel said. “She said NMFS is an agency responsible for killing fish.”

That said, the agency has a lot of dedicated researchers and experts who know what needs to be done, especially at the regional level. But they are hamstrung by federal politics and by budget limitations.

“The Pentagon is essentially able to dictate every part of government,” Joel said. “The financial implications are very real, because the military is so powerful. If NMFS gives them trouble, they call their contacts on Capitol Hill, and pressure is brought to bear.”

The Navy has spent decades operating at its own discretion throughout the world’s oceans. The notion that another federal agency or some upstart environmental groups should limit its activities just doesn’t sit well among established Navy officers.

The problem is so entrenched in government that any resolution “is going to take some focused attention under the next administration,” according to Joel.

If Hillary Clinton is elected, Joel said he might look to John Podesta to untangle the mess. Podesta served as chief of staff under President Bill Clinton and was instrumental in opening up long-held but arguably unnecessary government secrets. He currently serves as chairman of Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

“John Podesta understands these things,” Joel told me. “If we can’t get him (to do something), we can’t get anyone. I think it would take a reorganization. The way NMFS is set up, they are in the business of authorizing ‘take’ instead of issuing permits based on the protections that are needed.”

Joel wasn’t clear how a regulatory agency might be organized to hold its own against the Navy, but the idea should be on the table, he said. Until then, the NRDC and other environmental groups will continue to battle in the courts, where judges are able to use some common sense.

Meanwhile, NOAA has developed an “Ocean Noise Strategy Roadmap,” which promises to find ways to control harmful man-made noise. The roadmap is based, in part, on scientific studies about the hearing capabilities of marine mammals. Review my Water Ways post on the “draft guidance” Water Ways, March 26, 2016.

These steps have been encouraging — at least until this week when NMFS issued letters of authorization for the Navy to keep operating under its 2012 plan, which the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals had declared a failure to meet requirements for the “least practicable adverse impact.” (Read the opinion.)

The agency chose to move ahead because the court had not yet issued its mandate — a formal direction to a lower court — by the time the letters of authorization were issued.

“The Navy has a robust and practicable monitoring and mitigation program that we believe is very effective in reducing the likelihood of injury,” according to an explanation from NMFS.

Check out Ramona Young-Grindle’s story about this latest finding in yesterday’s Courthouse News, which includes these further comments from Joel:

“We are astonished to see an LOA issued in the wake of the court of appeals’ decision that the LFA (low frequency active sonar) permit is illegal. NMFS is entrusted under federal law to enforce the Marine Mammal Protection Act for the benefit of marine mammals — not for the convenience of the Navy. This capitulation to the Navy’s request to continue ‘business as usual’ under a permit determined by a federal court to be illegal is outrageous.”

Looking backward, then forward on actions in Skokomish watershed

Through the years, I’ve written a lot about the Skokomish River, which begins in the Olympic Mountains and flows into the south end of Hood Canal. The wide, productive estuary might be described as the elbow of this long, narrow waterway that bends up toward Belfair.

Cover

I’ve heard it said that Puget Sound cannot be restored to health without a healthy Hood Canal, and Hood Canal cannot be restored to health without a healthy Skokomish River. Whether that is true remains to be seen, but I have no doubt that the Skokomish River watershed is coming out of a dark period of abuse with hope of becoming one of the most productive streams in the region.

Much of the credit for the transformation goes to a group of men and women from a variety of agencies, occupations and ways of life who came together with an understanding of the historic value of the Skokomish River and a vision for what the river could become again. This was the Skokomish Watershed Action Team, or SWAT, which celebrated its 10th anniversary last year.

helicopter

To be sure, it was basically loads of money that began to transform the abused Skokomish River watershed to a much more productive system. But the people in charge of the federal, state, local and private dollars were able to see the Skokomish as a worthy cause, thanks to the groundwork laid by the SWAT. Disappointments have been few, as one project after another brings this long lost river back to life.

Yes, I have written a lot about the Skokomish River, its history and its future. That’s why I was glad to see the 10-year update to the Skokomish Watershed Action Plan (download, PDF 113 mb). The document contains an extensive account of the projects completed and the milestones passed through the years. Whether you are intimately involved in the watershed or just want to know what the heck I’m talking about, take a look at the report released this week.

Logjam soon after installation in 2010. Photo: U.S. Forest Service
Logjam soon after installation in 2010.
Photo: U.S. Forest Service

Since 2005, nearly 50 restoration projects were completed — from removal of old logging roads high in the mountains to the re-establishment of tidal channels in the lower estuary. Salmon are being reintroduced to the North Fork of the Skokomish River, including the dammed-up Lake Cushman, thanks to a legal settlement between Tacoma and the Skokomish Tribe.

After establishment, a deep pool forms behind the logjam. Photo: U.S. Forest Service
Later, a deep pool forms behind the jam.
Photo: U.S. Forest Service

About 12 miles upstream in the South Fork of the Skokomish, a series of 30 logjams were installed and almost immediately began to restore the channel to a more natural habitat for fish and other aquatic creatures. This area was part of a four-mile stretch that was heavily logged in the 1950s for a reservoir that never happened.

Once the logjams were in place, the area began to store massive loads of sediment, which always created problems as they washed downstream into the lower river. The river’s characteristic problem of spreading out and slowing down was reversed, as width-to-depth ratios decreased and the average depth in the middle of the river increased by two feet. The number of pools deeper than five feet doubled from three to six, and the piles of wood grew larger by capturing logs floating downstream.

The new report also lays out plans for the watershed in the coming years, including projects identified in a major study by the Army Corps of Engineers. A Corps proposal to fund $20 million in restoration projects is now before Congress, as I described in Water Ways in April and June. Other projects have been proposed for separate funding, as outlined in the new report.

Amusing Monday: Rollin’ on a river, or any water that will float your log

I have trouble balancing on a log that is lying flat on the ground, so standing on a floating log seems like an impossible feat. I guess that’s why I’m impressed with the old-fashioned sport of log rolling, an activity that is catching on across the country.

I have always been amused by log rolling, but I realize that this is very serious activity, comparable to Olympic sports for many people. The first video on this page shows the skill of professionals, while the last one offers a bit of silliness in the world of commercial television.

Log rolling was once a sport of lumberjacks, since walking on floating logs was part of the job for many. But now the activity seems to be attracting all ages of boys and girls, who enjoy the challenge of balancing as well as getting soaked in the process — a nice hot-weather sport. Some folks really are pushing to get log rolling approved for an upcoming summer Olympics.

One of the sport’s many supporters is Pat Foster, director of Camp Corey on Keuka Lake near Rochester, NY. For three years, the summer camp has been offering classes in log rolling using a special training log created by Key Log Rolling, a family-owned business in Golden Valley, Minn. In the second video on this page, Jennifer Johnson, a reporter for WUHF-TV in Rochester interviews Foster then goes for a spin on the log herself.

As for the future of log rolling, ESPN sport writer Jim Caple raises the question, “Could log rolling become an Olympic Sport?”

“Tug of War was in the Olympics until 1920,” Caple writes. “There are movements to get squash, ballroom dance and chess in the Olympics, as well as log-rolling. Yes, log-rolling. While I would much rather see baseball back in the Olympics, I definitely would choose log-rolling over ballroom dance or chess.”

For information about the sport, Caple calls on Abby Hoeschler, a champion log-roller and instructor who plays a leading role in the family business.

“It’s such an intense sport; it’s a sparring sport,” Hoeschler said. “You’re on this log in the water with an opponent, and you can’t touch them. There’s a center line you can’t cross. It’s sort of like boxing with your feet.

“You’re doing maneuvers to dislodge your opponent. As a female, there aren’t many opportunities where you can compete in sports that are intense like that. You step on the log, and if you make one wrong move, you’ve lost.”

Jeff Ozimek, outdoor program manager for Bainbridge Island Metro Park and Recreation District, got involved in log rolling while he attended college at the University of Montana in Missoula.

The competition, loosely associated with the College of Forestry, involved all the lumberjack sports — from pole-climbing to crosscut sawing to axe-throwing. Jeff says these logging-type sports help people to celebrate the history of the Northwest. Check out the video of the 2015 Montana log rolling competition, also called Birling.

When I told Jeff about how kids could learn to do log rolling by using the training fins on the Key Log, he was impressed, recalling how difficult it is to stay on a log the first few times. He said he would look into the Key Log and would like to know if local residents would be interesting in classes or activities around log rolling. Email him with your interest and ideas,
jeff@biparks.org.

I was reading about all the logging-related events at Crosby Days this past weekend and wanted to know if anyone had ever considered holding a log-rolling competition. (See Tristan Baurick’s story in the Kitsap Sun.)

“Actually, my husband was talking about that this year, but we didn’t have time to get it going,” said Jessica Dukes, secretary of the Crosby Community Club and an organizer of Crosby Days. “It is something we want to consider for next year.”

Competitions in log rolling are held throughout the country by the U.S. Log Rolling Association, but the only event I could find in Washington state was this past weekend in Morton. I think an event that brings in skilled log-rollers would be popular, all the more so if kids could get involved.

Although adults should have an advantage in log rolling because of their weight, it appears that many kids can hold their own against their parents, especially in the beginning when both are learning.

According to the Key Log Rolling Instruction Manual (PDF 3.2 MB), the cardinal rule for log rolling is “DO NOT LOOK AT YOUR OWN FEET.” One must focus on the foot movements of the opponent. An 18-minute video lesson is offered by Abby Hoeschler, president of Key Log Rolling.

With practice, maybe we can all become as skilled as the log-rollers in the video below. Not likely.

Hospitality for salmon coming with restoration of Big Beef Creek

Big Beef Creek, which flows into Hood Canal near Seabeck, will soon undergo a major wetland renovation that should improve the survival of coho salmon and steelhead trout.

Other work, which started last year, involves placing large woody debris in the stream to create deep pools for salmon to cool off and rest before continuing their migration. The wood also will help to form new spawning areas for coho, fall chum and the threatened summer chum of Hood Canal.

Large woody debris placed in Big Beef Creek last summer has begun to form pools where salmon can escape the strong current. Photo: Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group
Large woody debris placed in Big Beef Creek last summer has begun to form pools where salmon can escape the strong current.
Photo: Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group

Big Beef Creek is an unusual stream, one with a personal connection for me. In the late 1970s, I lived at Lake Symington, a man-made lake built years before by impounding Big Beef Creek. A few years ago, my wife and I bought a home with a tiny tributary of Big Beef Creek running through the property.

To get a lay of the land, I ventured along the stream and through the watershed in 1999, meeting many people along the way and gaining a new respect for Big Beef Creek — known as the longest stream contained entirely within Kitsap County. Check out my story for the Kitsap Sun called “The Watershed.” Much later, I wrote a Water Ways blog post about the creek beginning with, “It is the best of streams; it is the worst of streams,” with apologies to Charles Dickens.

Today, the $1.2 million habitat transformation is taking place in the lower portion of the stream, just upstream from the estuary where people go to watch bald eagles soar. (Check out this week’s “Amusing Monday.”) The project is on property owned by the University of Washington’s Big Beef Creek Research Station. Work is under the direction of Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group, a division of Pacific Northwest Salmon Center.

Site work will expand an 11-acre wetlands by five acres and reconnect the wetland complex to the stream channel. Coho, which remain in freshwater for the first year of life, will find a safe place to stay during the low flows of summer and the fierce floods of winter.

Officials agreed to close the well, so a relocated road will not be needed. Note the off-stream channels and the ability for the stream to change course. Map: Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group
Officials have agreed to close the well, so a relocated road will not be needed. Note the off-stream channels and ability of the stream to change course within the floodplain.
Map: Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group

“Coho rely on streams with complex habitat, including pools and shade with good water quality,” said Mendy Harlow, executive director of the salmon center. “In this project, we are focusing on the lower one mile of stream.”

Removing an access road along with 1,600 cubic yards of fill will restore two of the five acres of wetlands and open up the floodplain. The other two acres come from excavating some 4,500 cubic yards of fill from an elevated area where old storage buildings were removed last year.

In last year’s work, 10 man-made logjams were created where excavators could reach the creek. At the end of this month, helicopters will be used to place another 13 logjams in sections of the stream that could not be reached by land.

In a coordinated fashion, the helicopters also will be used to place logjams in Little Anderson Creek, which drains into Hood Canal just north of Big Beef. Little Anderson Creek, which originates near Newberry Hill Heritage Park, previously received several loads of wood in 2006 and again in 2009.

Both Big Beef and Little Anderson are part of an “intensively monitored watershed” program, in which experts are attempting to measure the extent to which habitat improvements increase salmon populations. It is not an easy thing to figure out, since salmon runs vary naturally from year to year. Still, over time, the improved spawning and rearing conditions should be measurable.

Other restoration work is planned on Seabeck Creek, while Stavis Creek will remain unchanged as the “control stream” for the Hood Canal complex of intensively monitored streams.

Fish traps placed in the streams monitor the out-migration of young salmon smolts, while a permanent fish trap at Big Beef Creek is used to count both smolts and returning adults. For each stream, biologists also count the number of redds — mounds of gravel where salmon have laid their eggs — to determine if conditions are improving.

Big Beef Creek logjams
Adding wood to Big Beef Creek results in greater stream complexity, offering salmon options for food, spawning and other needs.
Photo: Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group

The improved wetlands and floodplain on Big Beef Creek will allow the stream to move among several historical stream channels as sediment loads build and decline over time. Strategically placed wood will provide complexity wherever the stream chooses to go, according to Mendy, who has been working toward this project since 2007.

“I’m really excited about it and look forward to the changes,” she said. “The phase of work going forward this summer is the important phase.”

Sarah Heerhartz, habitat program manager for Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group, said improving the wetlands will not only help fish but also birds that favor wetlands. The stream will have room to move and spread out, she said, and some of the sediment from upstream sources will drop out before reaching the estuary.

“The floodplain is going to be a big boost for coho fry to smolt survival, because that will open up a lot of rearing habitat for juvenile coho,” Sarah told reporter Ed Friedrich in a story written for the Kitsap Sun.

The stream restoration is not expected to affect work at the UW research station, which continues to play a role in salmon studies, including efforts to improve hatchery conditions. In 1999, I wrote about the efforts to restore a run of summer chum on Big Beef Creek. Take a look at “Reviving a salmon run.” Unfortunately, the resuscitation effort has not been entirely successful, but there are new hopes that this summer’s stream repairs will give a boost to the summer chum as well as the coho.

Demanding international changes to help protect marine mammals

After 43 years and some legal prodding, the United States is preparing to use its economic and political power to protect whales, dolphins and other marine mammals around the world.

On Monday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is scheduled to publish regulations that will set up a system to ban imports of seafood from any country that fails to control the killing of marine mammals in its fishing industry.

Photo: Daniel Schwen, Wikimedia Commons
Photo: Daniel Schwen, Wikimedia Commons

To avoid a ban, foreign controls must be as effective as standards adopted by the United States to reduce the incidental death and injury to marine mammals in the U.S. fishing industry. Harvesting nations that wish to continue selling fish and fish products to U.S. markets will have five years to implement their marine mammal protection programs, if they have not already done so.

When it was first approved by Congress in 1972, the Marine Mammal Protection Act included provisions that would ban imports of fish caught in commercial fisheries where the “bycatch” of marine mammals exceeded U.S. standards. But the law was largely ignored until environmental groups filed a lawsuit against NOAA two years ago. The lawsuit was eventually settled, with NOAA agreeing to approve new rules by August of this year.

NOAA estimates that 650,000 marine mammals are killed each year in fishing operations. Meanwhile, U.S. consumers obtain 94 percent of their seafood from a growing import market valued at $33 billion in 2013.

“The new regulations will force countries to meet U.S. conservation standards if they want access to the U.S. market, saving thousands of whales and dolphins from dying on hooks and in fishing nets around the world,” said Sarah Uhlemann, international program director for the Center for Biological Diversity. “The U.S. government has finally recognized that all seafood consumed in the United States must be ‘dolphin-safe.’”

Comments were made in a joint news release from the Center for Biological Diversity, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Turtle Island Restoration Network — the three groups that brought the lawsuit.

Graphic: NOAA
Graphic: NOAA

The new regulatory program on imports calls on NOAA Fisheries to issue a “comparability finding” after harvesting nations demonstrate that they have a regulatory program that meets U.S. standards for protecting marine mammals. Each program must prohibit the incidental killing or serious injury to marine mammals in all fisheries, estimate numbers of marine mammals on their fishing grounds and find ways to reduce harm if established limits are exceeded.

Over the next year, the regulations call for NOAA Fisheries to request information on marine mammal bycatch from countries that export to the U.S. On a list of foreign fisheries, each fishery will be classified either as “export” or “exempt.” Exempt fisheries are determined to have a remote chance of killing marine mammals, so they are not required to have a regulatory protection program. Those fisheries likely to impact marine mammals and those lacking information about impacts are placed in the export category. All fisheries must prohibit intentional killing of marine mammals to receive certification.

At the end of the five-year period, NOAA Fisheries will publish a list of fisheries that will not receive a comparability finding along with a list of fish banned from import. Those countries will receive information about why they were denied certification and are eligible to reapply at any time. Other details are outlined in a fact sheet from NOAA Fisheries.

The U.S. Marine Mammal Commission, a group appointed by the president to advise the government on the Marine Mammal Protection Act, welcomed the long-overdue regulations to protect marine mammals throughout the world, but said the five-year implementation period is too long. See comments, Nov. 9, 2015. (PDF 1.4 mb):

“Inasmuch as this is an ongoing, long-standing statutory requirement, the Commission does not see a legal basis for deferring implementation. To the extent that any delay can be countenanced, it should be kept to the absolute minimum necessary to secure the required information from exporting countries.

“The Commission is concerned that the proposed delay would result in at least another six years during which seafood could continue to be imported into and sold in the United States, despite unacceptably high levels of marine mammal bycatch, unbeknownst to U.S. consumers, and during which U.S. fleets would face unfair competition from foreign fleets with little or no accountability to follow comparable marine mammal conservation measures.”

In 1988, while the U.S. was developing new fishing standards to protect marine mammals, U.S. fishermen were required to report the type of gear they were using and any incidental catch of marine mammals, the Marine Mammal Commission noted. Fishermen also were required to allow observers on their boats while the agency developed stock assessments and new rules to protect various species of marine mammals. Those kinds of interim measures should be required of foreign fleets as well, the commission said.

Among its many comments when the rule was first proposed last year, the commission criticized the plan for placing too much burden on NOAA Fisheries to gather the information, rather than requiring the importing countries to document their protections for marine mammals.

“The Commission further recommends that the final rule clearly specify that nations be issued a CF only if they meet the U.S. standards, rather than be issued a CF unless it is shown that they do not meet the applicable requirements.”

As far as I can tell, the final rule failed to incorporate most of the commission’s suggestions. Still, using the economic and political power of the U.S. to protect marine mammals around the world is a considerable leap.

While the new regulations are expected to level the playing field for U.S. fishermen who must comply with marine mammal protections, we have yet to see the full response from other countries. At some point, a ban on U.S. imports is likely to trigger a challenge based on existing international trade agreements. I haven’t seen much written about the legal implications of the new marine-mammal-protection rules, but we have seen what can happen. Review the article by Mark J. Robertson about “dolphin-safe” tuna rules in a report for the International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development.

Amusing Monday: Local photographer captures a moment with an eagle

A Kitsap County photographer, Bonnie Block, has been named the grand prize winner in the 2016 National Audubon Photography Contest.

Bonnie Block's winning photograph in the 2016 National Audubon Photography Contest
Bonnie Block’s winning photograph in the 2016 National Audubon Photography Contest
Audubon Photography Awards

The winning photo shows a bald eagle swooping down on a great blue heron at the mouth of Big Beef Creek near Seabeck. Bonnie, a resident of Kingston, learned that her dramatic photo had been chosen from among 7,000 entries from all 50 states and numerous countries.

Big Beef Creek, not far from my home, is a favorite place for nature photographers and bird watchers, who visit in spring and early summer to observe eagles in action. That’s when the birds come to hunt for fish called midshipman before heading out to find migrating salmon. My wife Sue once counted 58 eagles at one time in that location. See Water Ways, June 18, 2010.

Bonnie describes how she prepared to shoot the critical moment in a story by reporter Christian Vosler published in the Kitsap Sun July 30.

Professional Division winner: Dick Dickinson, osprey, Siesta Key, Sarasota, Fla.
Professional Division winner: Dick Dickinson, osprey, Siesta Key, Sarasota, Fla. // Audubon Photography Awards

Bonnie’s photo was mentioned during a CBS News interview with Melissa Groo, last year’s winner and a judge in this year’s contest. Melissa said a good photograph “freezes that instant that you can’t even see through the naked eye sometimes. Sometimes this behavior happens in a split second, but a photograph captures that unique moment for all of us to see.”

“Which is exactly what this year’s Grand Prize winner is,” commented reporter Brian Mastroianni. “I mean, the shot of the eagle and the heron is pretty incredible.”

“Exactly,” Melissa continued. “It’s that kind of confrontation, that pivotal moment where the eagle is landing and its wings are completely spread out, and you are seeing, obviously, some kind of confrontation. It’s just beautifully captured, technically and artistically speaking.”

A selection of Bonnie’s best photographs are on display this month at Liberty Bay Gallery in Poulsbo. You can also see some photos she has posted on her Facebook page.

Other winners in the Audubon Photography Contest are shown below. Comments from the photographers themselves about their work as well as other photos can be found on Audubon’s webpage.

Amateur Division winner: Steve Torna, eared grebes, Yellowstone Lake, Yellowstone National Park, Wyo.
Amateur Division winner: Steve Torna, eared grebes, Yellowstone Lake, Yellowstone National Park, Wyo. // Audubon Photography Awards
Youth Division winner: Carolina Anne Fraser, great frigatebird, near Española, Galapagos Islands, Equador.
Youth Division winner: Carolina Anne Fraser, great frigatebird, near Española, Galapagos Islands, Equador // Audubon Photography Awards
Fine Arts Division winner: Barbara Driscoll, green violetear, Savegre Hotel, San Gerardo de Dota, Costa Rica.
Fine Arts Division winner: Barbara Driscoll, green violetear, Savegre Hotel, San Gerardo de Dota, Costa Rica // Audubon Photography Awards

Struggle for clean water criteria coming to a close

The long-running controversy over Washington state’s water quality standards for toxic chemicals is nearly over. We will soon know just how pure the water must be to get a clean bill of health.

chinook

We still don’t know whether the Environmental Protection Agency will approve the new state standards adopted this week or impose more stringent standards that EPA developed for several key pollutants. The EPA has already taken public comments on its proposed standards.

“We believe our new rule is strong, yet reasonable,” said Maia Bellon, director of the Washington Department of Ecology, in a news release. “It sets standards that are protective and achievable. With this rule now complete, we will continue to press forward to reduce and eliminate toxics from every-day sources.”

For more than two years, much of the controversy focused on the fish-consumption rate — an assumption about how much fish that people eat. The FCR is a major factor in the equation used to set the concentration of chemicals allowed in water before the waterway is declared impaired. (See early discussions in Water Ways, Nov. 11, 2010.)

Initially, after plenty of debate, the state proposed increasing the FCR from 6.5 grams per day to 175 grams per day — a 27-fold increase. The initial proposal counter-balanced the effect somewhat by increasing the cancer-risk rate from one in a million to one in 100,000 — a 10-fold shift. Eventually, the state agreed to retain the one-in-a-million rate.

As I described in Water Ways last October, some key differences remain between the state and EPA proposals. Factors used by the EPA result in more stringent standards. The state also proposes a different approach for PCBs, mercury and arsenic, which are not easily controlled by regulating industrial facilities and sewage-treatment plants — the primary point sources of pollution.

PCB standards proposed by the EPA make representatives of industry and sewage-treatment systems very nervous. Water-quality standards are the starting points for placing legal limits on discharges, and EPA’s standard of 7.6 picograms per liter cannot be attained in many cases without much higher levels of treatment, experts say.

“Available data indicate that most state waters would not meet the EPA proposed criteria and that most (federally permitted) wastewater treatment plants will have to apply membrane filtration treatment and additional treatment technologies to address PCBs,” according to a letter from five industrial organizations and a dozen major businesses (PDF 3 mb).

Entities in Eastern Washington are in the midst of planning efforts to control pollution in the Spokane River, and major sewer upgrades are under consideration, the letter says.

“If Ecology were to follow the same approach on Puget Sound that it has on the Spokane River, this would amount to a range of compliance costs from nearly $6 billion to over $11 billion for just the major permits identified by EPA,” the letter continues. “A more stringent PCB criterion is also likely to impact how stormwater is managed, as PCB concentrations have been detected in stormwater throughout the state.”

For pulp and paper mills using recycled paper, the primary source of PCBs is the ink containing the toxic compounds at EPA-allowed concentrations, the letter says. Other major sources are neighborhoods, where PCBs are used in construction materials, and fish hatcheries, where PCBs come from fishmeal.

sailing

The letter points out similar problems for EPA’s proposed mercury standard, calling the level “overly conservative and unattainable in Washington (and the rest of the United States), as the levels of mercury in fish are consistently higher than the proposed criterion.”

When water-quality criteria cannot be attained for certain chemicals using existing water-treatment technology, facilities may be granted a variance or placed under a compliance schedule. Both environmentalists and facility owners have expressed concern over uncertainties about how the agencies might use these approaches.

Despite the uncertainties, environmentalists and Indian tribes in Washington state generally support the more stringent standards proposed by the EPA.

“Tribes concur that water quality discharge standards are only a part of the toxic chemical problem in the state of Washington and that more efforts toward source control and toxic cleanup are needed,” writes Lorraine Loomis of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. “However, the standards are an essential anchor for determining where and how to deploy toxic reduction efforts and monitor enforcement.”

When I said this controversy is nearly over, I was referring to a time schedule imposed this week by U.S. District Judge Barbara Rothstein, who ruled that the EPA missed its own deadlines for updating water quality criteria.

Rothstein, responding to claims from five environmental groups, imposed a new deadline based on EPA’s own suggested dates. Because the state has finalized its rule, the EPA now has until Nov. 15 to either approve the state’s criteria or sign a notice imposing its own standards. Checkout the judge’s ruling (PDF 494 kb).

The new criteria won’t have any practical effect until applied to federal discharge permits for specific facilities or in developing cleanup plans for specific bodies of water — although state inspectors could use the new state criteria for enforcing state laws if they discover illegal discharges.

If you want to dig a little deeper, view the full list of comments about Ecology’s proposal, many of which refer to the alternate EPA proposal as well. Ecology posts its information on its “Water Quality Rulemaking” page. EPA posts its information on the “Washington Water Quality Standards” page.

Invasive species hitching a ride into Puget Sound

We hear about the “balance of nature,” but it’s not something that we can truly understand until the balance is thrown out of whack by something like climate change or invasive species.

Until I began a recent reporting project for Puget Sound Institute, I never realized that San Francisco Bay was such a hotbed of invasive species. Beginning with the California Gold Rush, ships began moving in and out of the bay in unbelievable numbers, arriving from ports all around the world. Now, more than 200 non-native species are making their permanent home in the bay — including some species that have thoroughly altered the local ecosystem.

So far, we have been lucky in Puget Sound. Experts say we have about 75 firmly established non-native species, yet none of them have created the widespread damage caused in San Francisco Bay by European green crabs and Asian clams or in the Great Lakes by zebra mussels. The video on this page does a good job of telling the Great Lakes story, which has been repeated all over the world.

Once people in Washington state realized how disruptive invasive species can be, the struggle was on to protect Puget Sound from alien invaders — particularly those found in San Francisco Bay, which is just a short hop away on the world scale. My series of stories talks about concerns for Puget Sound and the efforts to control a possible invasion.

Three weeks ago in Water Ways, I described legislation that would reduce state and federal controls over invasive species. See “Bill could increase risks of alien species invasions in Puget Sound waters.”

On the East Coast, where they are native, striped bass are one of the most popular sport fish. Here, Angela Anning of Connecticut shows off her impressive striper. On the West Coast, striped bass could be considered an invasive species. Photo: NOAA
On the East Coast, where they are native, striped bass are one of the most popular sport fish. Here, Angela Anning of Connecticut shows off her impressive striper. On the West Coast, striped bass could be considered an invasive species.
Photo: NOAA

Invasive species range in size from microscopic viruses to four-foot-long striped bass. In California, the striped bass became a prized sport fish after it was intentionally introduced in 1879. But over the past decade concerns have grown for their effects on the salmon population. The jury is still out on whether high numbers of stripers should be sustained for anglers or the population should be fished down rapidly to save salmon and other species. Check out these stories:

Meanwhile, striped bass have been moving up the West Coast, possibly because of warmer waters due to climate change. A few years ago, a 55-pounder was caught in the Columbia River, and I’ve heard rumors that they have been seen in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

On the small side, I report on a tiny crustacean, an invasive copepod that has almost entirely displaced native copepods in Samish Bay in northern Puget Sound. Copepods are important prey for small fish, including herring, which feed the larger salmon. The invasive copepods are smaller and more difficult for fish to see, which could have a cascading effect on the entire food web.

Invasive copepod Oithona davisae under magnification Photo: Jeff Cordell, University of Washington
Invasive copepod Oithona davisae
Photo: Jeff Cordell, UW

A major concern for Puget Sound biologists is the European green crab, which could move into Puget Sound from San Francisco Bay in ballast water or with warm ocean currents during an El Niño year, like the one just past. As I describe in the new series, a major program involving citizen science volunteers is ongoing in a search to find the first green crabs before they gain a foothold.

Pacific oysters, another non-native species, were intentionally brought to the Northwest from Japan in the early 1900s to replace the native Olympia oyster, which had been decimated by poor water quality. Pacific oysters soon became a mainstay of the shellfish industry in the Puget Sound region and are now growing thick in numerous areas.

European green crab Photo: Washington Sea Grant
European green crab
Photo: Gregory C. Jensen, UW

Similar introductions of Pacific oysters occurred in California beginning more than 100 years ago, but for some reason the oyster populations never took hold, according to a report in the publication California Fish and Game (PDF 1.7 mb). Finally, in the early 2000s, the invasion began to take off.

“It remains unclear why there should be a successful invasion now, given the failure of previous attempts to deliberately introduce the species both locally and throughout California…,” the report says.

“If populations in Southern California waters do continue to expand and grow, as they have in other areas where they have invaded, it will undoubtedly bring changes to the way our estuarine intertidal habitats function as well as in the way we must manage them.

Pacific oyster Photo: Washington Sea Grant
Pacific oyster
Photo: Washington Sea Grant

“Because Pacific oysters rapidly reach large sizes, they could pose problems related to fouling of maritime equipment, infrastructure, and vessels,” the report continues. “Pacific oysters stand out as one of the most transformative invaders of marine ecosystems.”

As Washington state takes steps to keep alien species from invading Puget Sound from California, California officials may adopt similar measures to block invaders from coming into that state.

Please take a look at this package of stories I wrote for Puget Sound Institute, with editing by Jeff Rice and design by Kris Symer: