Category Archives: Sea life

EPA clarifies federal jurisdiction over streams and wetlands of the U.S.

The Environmental Protection Agency has finally completed a new rule that defines which waterways across the country fall under federal jurisdiction for clean-water permits.

The new Clean Water Rule is designed to protect important tributaries. Kitsap Sun photo
The new Clean Water Rule is designed to protect important tributaries. // Kitsap Sun photo

Enforcement of the federal Clean Water Act has been stuck in a state of confusion since 2006, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Army Corps of Engineers was overreaching by requiring permits for all sorts of waterways beyond the agency’s jurisdiction. For background, check out my Water Ways post from March 25, 2014, in which I describe the court’s interpretation of “waters of the U.S.” — the key phrase in the law.

The EPA requisitioned a scientific report about hydraulic connectivity, concluding that even small streams can affect downstream waters. The final language in the rule, designed to reduce judgment calls by federal regulators, says tributaries would come under federal jurisdiction only if capable of delivering significant pollution downstream. Such tributaries would need to have flowing water or related features — such as a streambed, bank or high-water mark.

The rule has worried farmers, who want to make sure the federal government does not try to regulate ditches designed for irrigation and drainage. Language in the final rule says ditches will not be regulated unless they are shown to be a remnant of a natural stream that has been diverted or altered.

Jo-Ellen Darcy, assistant secretary for the Army, said the rule represents a “new era” for the Clean Water Act. As she stated in a news release:

“This rule responds to the public’s demand for greater clarity, consistency, and predictability when making jurisdictional determinations. The result will be better public service nationwide.”

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said the rule is grounded in science and law. For downstream waters to be clean, upstream waters also must be clean, she said.

McCarthy said the language was revised significantly since the first proposal, taking into account more than a million public comments and discussions in 400 meetings across the country. As she told reporters in a telephone conference call:

“I think you will see that we have made substantial changes that basically made this rule clearer, crisper and did the job we were supposed to do. And I’m very proud of the work we have done here.”

McCarthy also told the reporters that climate change increases the importance of protecting water resources:

“Impacts from climate change — like more intense droughts, storms, fires and floods, not to mention sea-level rise — affect our water supplies. But healthy streams and wetlands can help protect communities by trapping flood waters, retaining moisture during drought, recharging groundwater supplies, filtering pollution and providing habitat for fish and wildlife.”

The new rule was applauded by many environmental groups, including the Sierra Club. Michael Brune, executive director, issued a statement:

“No longer will the Supreme Court’s confusing decisions on the issue allow dirty fossil fuel companies to threaten people’s health by dumping toxins into our lakes, rivers, and streams.”

Still, plenty of people contend that the EPA and Army Corps have contrived this new rule to continue their over-reach into streams that should be beyond federal jurisdiction. House Speaker John Boehner, R- Ohio, issued this statement in response to the EPA’s release of the new rule, sometimes called “WOTUS” for “waters of the U.S.”

“The administration’s decree to unilaterally expand federal authority is a raw and tyrannical power grab that will crush jobs. House members of both parties have joined more than 30 governors and government leaders to reject EPA’s disastrous WOTUS rule. These leaders know firsthand that the rule is being shoved down the throats of hardworking people with no input and places landowners, small businesses, farmers and manufacturers on the road to a regulatory and economic hell.”

The House has already passed a bill, HB 1732, that would put the brakes on implementation of the new rule and send the EPA back to the drawing board for new language. As you could expect, the vote was mostly along party lines. If the Senate approves the bill, it is likely to be vetoed by the president.

The new rule is scheduled to go into effect 60 days from its publication in the Federal Register. For more details, visit the EPA’s website “Clean Water Rule.”

Orca-tracking project ends for this year when satellite tag falls off

This year’s research project tracing the movements of Southern Resident killer whales has ended after 96 days of tracking L-84, a 25-year-old male named Nyssa.

Nyssa (L-84) and his entourage traveled north into Canadian waters the first week of May. NOAA map
Nyssa (L-84) and his entourage traveled north into Canadian waters the first week of May. // NOAA map

It was the longest period of tracking among the Southern Residents since the satellite-tagging studies began in 2012. The transmitter carried by L-84 lasted three days longer than a similar deployment on K-25 in 2013. The satellite tags, which are attached to the dorsal fins of the whales with darts, often detach after about a month.

The nice thing about this year’s study is that it covered the entire month of April and much of May, according to Brad Hanson, project supervisor for NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center. That tells the researchers something about the movement of the whales later in the year than previous deployments have revealed.

A satellite tag on J-27 (Blackberry) in late December extended the total tracking period to more than four months.

Looking back through the tracking maps since February, it is clear that L-84 and his entourage have spent much of their time moving up and down the Washington and Oregon coasts. They seem to favor hanging out near the mouth of the Columbia River. On a few occasions, they have ventured into Northern California.

Nyssa (L-84) and his entourage traveled north into Canadian waters the first week of May. NOAA map
The whales quickly returned to the U.S., ending the tracking project when the satellite tag fell off near the Columbia River. // NOAA map

On May 6, they took their only jaunt north into Canadian waters, reaching Estavan Point (halfway up Vancouver Island) two days later. They continued north another day, nearly reaching Brooks Peninsula (about three-fourths up Vancouver Island) on May 9. Then they headed back south, ending this year’s tracking program near the Columbia River.

Just before the satellite tag fell off, biologists from Cascadia Research Collective caught up with the whales on May 21 south of the Columbia River. The researchers noticed that the tag was loosening, and no further satellite signals were picked up.

The tracking studies, combined with efforts to collect samples of feces and fish remains, are designed to identify where the whales are spending their time in winter months and what they are finding to eat when salmon are more scarce. All of this could lead to a major expansion of their designated “critical habitat” and increased protections in coastal waters. As of now, critical habitat for the whales does not extend into the ocean, and NOAA has concluded that more information is needed before changing the designated protection area.

Within the next month or so, all three Southern Resident pods should head into Puget Sound, congregating in the San Juan Islands, as chinook salmon return to Canada’s Fraser River and other streams in the Salish Sea.

Meanwhile, J pod seems to be hanging out in waters around the San Juans, possibly waiting for the other pods to show up. Plenty of observers have been filing some great reports and related photos with Orca Network.

That link also includes recent reports of seal-eating transient killer whales that have traveled as far south as the Bremerton-Seattle area, perhaps farther. A few humpback whales have been sighted in northern Puget Sound.

Sea-floor mining brings deep concerns about environmental effects

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about a a new deep-sea observatory being built off the West Coast. I noted that Washington and Oregon researchers are thrilled to monitor the eruption of an underwater volcano called Axial Seamount.

Smoker

Soon, new equipment and a fiber optics cable will allow these researchers to widely share discoveries involving the unique geology and unusual plants and animals living at the bottom of the ocean. People will be able to watch in real time via the Internet. See Water Ways, May 6.

Now, a new lawsuit filed by the Center for Biological Diversity has me thinking about the commercial value of the deep ocean. Can society safely mine the seafloor for valuable minerals used in a wide variety of consumer products? Can huge mining equipment operate in water two or three miles deep without destroying the unique ecosystem at the bottom of the ocean?

For decades, researchers have been aware of high concentrations of minerals lying on and beneath the sea floor. But nobody was worried about the environmental damage of mining, because the costs of commercial recovery were too great.

That has been changing, however, thanks to the combination of five factors, according to a 2013 study “Towards the Development of a Regulatory Framework for Polymetallic Nodule Exploitation” (PDF 1.1 mb). They are:

  1. A dramatic increase in demand for metal;
  2. An equally dramatic rise in metal prices;
  3. The high profitability of mining sector companies;
  4. A decline in the tonnage and grade of land-based nickel, copper and cobalt sulphide deposits; and
  5. Technological advances in deep seabed mining and processing.

The new technology involves giant robotic machines that either excavate the seafloor or scoop up clumps of polymetallic nodules. Over the past few years, 26 permits have been issued to mining corporations, mostly for operations in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone of the Pacific Ocean, about halfway between Hawaii and Mexico.

“Deep-sea mining is an emerging threat to our oceans that has the potential to irreparably harm underwater ecosystems before we even have a chance to fully study its impacts,” declares the Center for Biological Diversity, adding:

“Life on the deep ocean floor is still a mysterious realm that scientists have only just begun to fully understand and inventory… What mountaintop-removal coal mining has done in Appalachia, deep-sea mining has the potential to do in the Pacific Ocean, affecting the ecosystem and food web in ways that scientists say they don’t yet fully understand.”

Last week, the environmental group filed a lawsuit (PDF 162 kb) against the U.S. government for issuing exploratory permits without the requisite environmental studies. Said Emily Jeffers, the attorney who filed the case:

“Deep-sea mining should be stopped, and this lawsuit aims to compel the government to look at the environmental risks before it leaps into this new frontier. We need to protect the ocean wildlife and habitat, and the United States should provide leadership for other nations to follow before more projects get underway.”

The lawsuit, filed in Washington, D.C., challenges two exploratory permits issued to OMCO Seabed Exploration, LLC, a subsidiary of Lockheed Martin, the defense contractor. The original permits for work in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone expired in 2004. Jeffers says the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration should have considered the environmental effects of the mining plan before renewing the permits in 2012.

Said Jeffers in a news release:

“If we aren’t careful, this new gold rush could do irreparable harm to the basic building blocks of life. The federal government has a moral duty, as well as a legal one, to understand the full environmental impacts before the mining industry scrapes away our deep-sea resources.”

Besides tearing up the sea floor, mining operations can stir up sediment, which can smother organisms living on the bottom, according to the lawsuit. Cloudy water can reduce productivity, and clouds of sediment may contain toxic metals that reduce reproductive success of sea life. Light and noise from ships and vessels can disrupt seabird behavior and affect whales and other marine mammals, the suit claims.

Other permits have been issued to various countries in Europe and Asia by the International Seabed Authority, which hopes to approve environmental standards by the end of next year. The U.S. is not subject to those rules and cannot demand compliance from other countries, because the U.S. has not ratified the United Nations’ Convention on the Law of the Sea, a treaty that establishes the International Seabed Authority.

Map

Amusing Monday: Winning photo to grace national parks pass

Cameron Teller's winning photograph in the "Share the Experience" contest shows a young polar bear reaching up to its mother. National Park Foundation
Cameron Teller’s winning photograph in the “Share the Experience” contest shows a young polar bear reaching up to its mother.
National Park Foundation

Cameron Teller of Seattle, a former Kitsap County resident, is the Grand Prize winner in the “Share the Experience” photo contest — which means his touching photo of a polar bear and her cub will receive prominent display on next year’s annual pass for entrance into national parks and other federal lands.

Cameron’s photo was among 22,000 images submitted last year in the annual contest, which provides a $10,000 prize to the winner.

Cameron snapped the shot from a boat a good distance away, just as the cub reached its mother. The amateur photographer had gone out on the boat as part of a six-person tour to Alaska’s remote Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, where the group was focused on seeing polar bears and Northern Lights.

“I love going on trips to faraway places and taking photographs,” Cameron told me.

The group had flown from Fairbanks to Deadhorse, Alaska, then onto Kaktovik, the only village inside the wildlife refuge. A guide took them out on a fishing boat, where they spent the day photographing wildlife and scenery.

“The captain was a local resident,” Cameron said. “We went out early in the morning. It was awfully foggy that morning, then it started clearing up. The sun came out and it was a great day for scenery.”

Eric DaBreo of Chico, Calif., received a second-place award in the Share the Experience photo contest with his photo of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. National Park Foundation
Eric DaBreo of Chico, Calif., received a second-place award with his photo of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. // National Park Foundation

The trip occurred at the beginning of winter last year, just as the sea ice was freezing up. In fact, he said, the ice had grown so thick around the dock where the group departed that the captain had to choose a different landing site to get the group back to shore.

Cameron said there is nothing like seeing mothers and their babies, and it was a special moment when the polar bear cub walked over and reached up to its mother.

“I still can’t quite believe I won,” Cameron told me. “There were some amazing photos that were entered. I think one of the reasons this appealed to the judges is the whole topic of global warming and protection of the National Arctic Wildlife Refuge.”

Of course, polar bears have become a symbol of the melting ice caps in the polar regions, where the bears are threatened with extinction because of declining habitat.

Cameron moved to Bremerton from Kansas City about 13 years ago to work for Parametrix, an engineering firm with an office on Kitsap Way. He lived in Manette a short time before moving to Bainbridge Island, where he resided for 11 years. For the past two years, he has lived in Seattle’s Queen Anne neighborhood.

Jordan Moore of San Marcos, Texas, captured third place with his photo of a bison at the edge of Yellowstone Lake in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. National Park Foundation
Jordan Moore of San Marcos, Texas, captured third place with his photo of a bison at the edge of Yellowstone Lake in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. // National Park Foundation

Cameron said the $10,000 prize will help fund his ongoing adventures. He visited Kenya about two years ago and plans to travel to Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido next January.

It has been a good year for Cameron, who also won “Outdoor Photographer” magazine’s “American Landscape Contest” with a photo of El Capitan, a vertical rock formation in Yosemite National Park.

The polar bear photo will be featured on next year’s America the Beautiful pass, an annual pass that gets visitors into more than 2,000 public recreation sites on federal land. About 300,000 people purchase the pass each year.

The annual “Share the Experience” contest is sponsored by the National Park Foundation, Active Network, and Celestron in partnership with the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Reclamation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Forest Service.

Photographs are now being accepted for next year’s contest, which requires pictures to be taken during 2015 and submitted by the end of the year. Winners will be announced by May 1, 2016. Weekly winners are recognized.

Other winners announced last week in the “Share the Experience” contest include Eric DaBreo of Chico, Calif., second place for his photo of the Golden Gate Bridge taken at sunset from Marshall Beach, and Jordan Moore of San Marcos, Texas, for his photo of a bison at the edge of Yellowstone Lake.

Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell said she hopes the contest helps inspire people to enjoy the country’s “unrivaled public lands and waters” and share the feeling with others.

“Taking pictures is one of the many ways to enjoy the splendor of our nation’s stunning landscapes and share those treasured moments with friends and family, as well as inspire others who may have never visited to get out and explore their public lands,” she said in a news release.

Killer whale tagging and acoustic studies provide increasing details

L-84, a 25-year-old male orca named Nyssa, has been carrying a satellite transmitter for more than two months now, allowing researchers to track the movements of Nyssa and any whales traveling with him.

Typical of recent travels by the L- and his entourage, the whales traveled north and south of the Columbia River from April 14 to 20.
Typical of recent travels by L-84 and his entourage, the whales traveled north and south of the Columbia River from April 14 to 20. // NOAA map

Nyssa, the last survivor of his immediate family, tends to stay around L-54, a 38-year-old female named Ino, and Ino’s two offspring, L-108 (Coho) and L-117 (Keta). Often, other members of L pod are with him, and sometimes K pod has been around as well, according to observers.

The satellite tracking is part of an effort to learn more about the three pods of Southern Resident killer whales, which are listed as “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act. That means they are headed for extinction without changes that increase their rate of survival.

The Navy, which has long been training off the West Coast, has been supporting some of the research in hopes of finding ways to reduce inadvertent harm from its active training in that area, officials say.

Over the past week, the whales moved well offshore near Grays Harbor, then returned to the entrance of the Columbia River. NOAA map
Over the past week, the whales moved well offshore near Grays Harbor, then returned to waters at the entrance of the Columbia River. // NOAA map

Since L-84 was tagged on Feb. 17, the whales have been generally traveling up and down the Washington and Oregon coasts. At various times, researchers — including biologists from Cascadia Research — have been able to get close enough to collect fecal samples from the whales and scales from fish they are eating. The goal is to determine their prey selection at this time of year. Chinook salmon are their fish of choice, but they will eat other species as well.

Winter storms and waves create challenging conditions to study the whales, but the satellite-tagging program has helped researchers find them, said Brad Hanson, who is leading the study for NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center.

Brad told me that he is thrilled that the satellite tag on L-84 has remained in operation so long, allowing more and more data to be collected. Satellite tags are designed to fall off after a time, and the compact batteries will eventually run out of juice.

“This is the latest (in the season) that we have had a tag on a Southern Resident,” Brad said. “Who knows how long it will last? The battery will probably make it until the end of May, and the attachment looked good the last anyone saw the tag.”

The research is not just about figuring out where the whales travel, Brad said. It is about finding out which areas are important to them.

While tracking the whales by satellite, the research is being expanded with the use of acoustic recording devices deployed in key locations along the coast. The goal is to find ways to track the whales with less intrusion. But how does one know where they are located during periods when the whales go silent — sometimes for days at a time? Those are the kind of questions that researchers hope to answer by correlating the acoustic and satellite data together, Brad said.

With Navy funding, 17 recorders are now deployed along the coast, including one recorder many miles offshore to pick up whales that get out into the deep ocean.

“We have certainly reduced a lot of the mystery,” Brad said. “The main issue — and what the Navy is interested in — is how they mitigate for marine mammal presence.”

Knowing that killer whales can be silent, the Navy has largely relied on visual sightings to determine the presence of the animals. During high waves, that may not be a reliable method of detection. The answer, based on tracking the whales, could be to move the training operations farther offshore — beyond the continental shelf, since the Southern Residents appear to rarely go out that far.

The Southern Residents are among the most studied marine mammals in the world, yet it is not entirely clear why their population is not recovering. An upcoming effort will begin to look at whether new information about the health condition of the whales can be teased out of existing fecal and biopsy samples or if new methods of study are needed to assess their health.

Meanwhile, raw data from various studies continue to pour in, challenging NOAA researchers to focus on specific questions, complete their analyses and share the findings in scientific reports. According to Brad, ongoing staff cutbacks makes that final step even harder than it has been in the past.

Salmon managers reduce Puget Sound fishing
to protect chinook

I missed the annual trek to Olympia this year to meet with state and tribal salmon managers, recreational and commercial fishermen and others involved in setting fishing seasons. The event, held in March, is both a reunion and the official start of some serious talks about salmon.

Each year, fishermen head to the Skokomish River to catch chinook that have made it all the way through Hood Canal. This year, more restrictions are in store. Kitsap Sun file photo
Each year, fishermen head to the Skokomish River to catch chinook that have made it all the way through Hood Canal. This year, more restrictions are in store.
Kitsap Sun file photo

I’ve always enjoyed the discussions about the number of various salmon stocks expected to return to diverse areas of Puget Sound, the Washington Coast and the Columbia River. Years ago, I observed much more horse-trading — or rather salmon-trading — as experts made decisions about how far inland the fish should be allowed to swim before being caught.

Saving enough fish to make it back to the streams to spawn has always been the goal of the negotiating process, known as “North of Falcon” — so named because the discussions are focused on an area north of Cape Falcon in Oregon. I have to say, however, that the discussions began to change after Puget Sound chinook were declared “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act and conservation measures became even more important.

Chinook recovery has not been going well, even after major reforms in harvest management, hatchery operations and habitat restoration. So the need to protect the salmon from fishing pressures grows ever greater and the opportunities to catch fish in particular areas continue to decline.

Such was the case this year, when salmon managers decided to forego fishing for chinook in the popular fishing area known as Area 10 between Bremerton and Seattle. Other salmon can still be caught there, but all chinook — even those reared in a hatchery — must be released.

I was not around to observe how the negotiations went this year, having retired from the staff of the Kitsap Sun in October. (I’m now doing some in-depth reporting for the Sun and currently covering the Legislature for InvestigateWest.) It appears that recreational and commercial fishers believe that the salmon managers could have carved out some fishing seasons in the area without risking survival of the species.

“We fought hard just to keep what we had last year, and then to get the rug pulled out from under us is totally incomprehensible,” said Tony Floor of the Northwest Marine Trade Association, quoted in a story by Seattle Times reporter Mark Yuasa.

“With increasing (licensing) fees and the declining fishing opportunities, it makes it really difficult,” said Karl Brackmann, a Puget Sound Anglers board member, quoted in a story by Kitsap Sun reporter Tristan Baurick.

Even though sophisticated computer models try to determine how many salmon will be coming back to a given area, it’s still a guess. Deciding how many fish can be safely caught is always a judgment call. I guess this year managers have concerns not only for the wild chinook but also the marked hatchery chinook. The hatchery chinook, marked by removing the adipose fin, are normally considered free for the taking as long as unmarked wild chinook are released.

Lorraine Loomis, chairwoman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, said fishing reductions were especially painful for tribal and state managers this year, but the cutbacks were necessary. Salmon returns were poor last year, she said, and managers were concerned about ocean conditions and a low snowpack that could lead to increased stream temperatures.

“Because of these conditions we may see an increase in pre-spawning mortality of salmon this year, which required the tribal and state co-managers to be extra cautious in setting seasons,” Loomis said in a news release.

Anglers will still have good opportunities to catch coho, pink and Skagit River sockeye, according to Ryan Lothrop, Puget Sound recreational fishery manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“Fishing for pink salmon should be excellent in Puget Sound, including in Hood Canal and Dungeness Bay,” Lothrop said in a news release.

For details on the fishing seasons, check out the North of Falcon webpage, which will be updated as new information becomes available.

Amusing Monday: Videos capture beauty, allure
of national parks

I recently discovered a series of 58 fascinating videos that capture the highlights of the diverse national parks in the United States.

The five-minute videos, by photographer Dennis Burkhardt of Oregon, take us on trips into some of the most amazing wilderness areas in the world. The scenic photography and accompanying narration make me yearn to visit every park to see them for myself.

I’ve posted on this page three of the videos, including the one that describes our familiar Olympic National Park. The complete set of can be viewed on the YouTube channel “America’s 58 National Parks.” Be sure to go full-screen.

I’m sure every park has a story to tell, and these videos briefly tantalize us with the possibilities of exploration. I recall stumbling upon a rich history and some amazing tales while researching a Kitsap Sun story for the 75th anniversary of Olympic National Park. It is called “At 75, Olympic National Park has grown amid push-pull of forces.”

In 1872, our first national park was born when President Ulysses S. Grant signed a law creating Yellowstone National Park. Yellowstone was followed by Mackinac in 1875, then Sequoia and Yosemite in 1890. Mackinac was converted to a state park in 1895 — one of seven national parks to go out of existence in the national park system.

National parks are selected for their natural beauty, unique geological formations, rare ecosystems and recreational opportunities. In contrast, national monuments, also administered by the National Park Service, are selected mainly for their historical significance.

California has nine parks, the most of any state, followed by Alaska with eight, Utah with five and Colorado with four. Washington has three — with North Cascades National Park created in 1968.

New parks are still being created, with Pinnacles National Monument in Central California becoming a national park in 2013. (Pinnacles is the 59th national park and is not included in the list of videos.) The largest national park, Wrangell-St. Elias in Alaska, is larger then nine entire states. The smallest is Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas.

A handy list of all the parks with links to more information can be found on Wikipedia.

Reducing toxics in fish involves politics, maybe more than science

When it comes to eliminating toxic pollution from our waterways and the foods we eat, almost everyone agrees that the best idea is to track down the chemicals, find out how they are getting into the environment and then make decisions about how to handle the situation.

Fish

It’s all common sense until politics comes into play.

If the chemicals are really hazardous and if substitutes for the chemicals are available, then a ban on their use may be the right decision. That has happened with pesticides, such as DDT, and solvents, such as PCBs.

In the case of PCBs, banning these chemicals is not enough, because they were used so widely and continue to hang around, both in old products still in use and in the open environment. Waiting for them to break down and disappear is not a practical approach.

The solution involves conducting chemical detective work to find out how the chemicals are traveling through the environment and ultimately getting into people and animals. Some toxic sinks for PCBs, such as old electrical equipment, can be identified and destroyed before the chemicals begin leaking out. Others, such as contaminated sediments at the bottom of Puget Sound, pose a more difficult problem.

Even when chemicals are banned, the ban is enforced with limits on concentration, below which the chemical can still be used. That’s the case with very low levels of PCBs found in some types of inks and dyes. So when paper is recycled, the PCBs may escape into the environment. We know that PCBs, which mimic hormones and can wreak havoc on the body, can build up in fish, killer whales and humans over time. The question for regulators becomes which sources are the most important to eliminate.

In Washington state, chemical detectives tackle the toxic compounds one at a time, compiling their findings into a chemical action plan. The chemical action plan for PCBs was completed earlier this year. Others have been done for mercury, lead, toxic flame retardants and polyaromatic hydrocarbons.

I bring all this up because Gov. Jay Inslee and Department of Ecology would like to increase the pace of studying potentially toxic chemicals, including finding out what harm they are doing, how they get into the food web and whether alternative chemicals are available.

New chemicals are finding their way into household products, cosmetics and other materials all the time, and studies continue to raise concerns about old chemicals that we have lived with for a long time. Some chemicals are the subject of vigorous and ongoing scientific debate.

The Washington Legislature has been asked by the governor to fund Ecology for up to two chemical action plans per year. The other question before lawmakers is how much authority to give Ecology for banning chemicals and considering whether alternatives are available. These are issues I covered in a story last week for InvestigateWest, a nonprofit journalism group. The story was carried by the Kitsap Sun on Sunday.

This issue of chemical action plans has gotten tangled up with the need for Washington state to update its water-quality standards, required under the federal Clean Water Act. These standards, now under review by Ecology, determine which water bodies in the state are considered clean of toxic substances and which should be labeled “impaired.”

The standards also are used to develop discharge permits for industrial facilities, sewage-treatment plants and occasionally stormwater outfalls. The general implication is that if a discharge from a pipe meets the state’s water quality standards, then it won’t pollute the receiving waters.

Years ago, when most water pollution came from industrial and sewage discharges, the program was successful in making the waters substantially cleaner. More than 100 chemicals remain on the Environmental Protection Agency’s priority pollutants list. All these chemicals are still tested by dischargers, although the vast majority are not detectible in fish caught in Puget Sound. Meanwhile, other chemicals of growing concern are not on the list — so they are not subject to testing, let alone regulatory control.

We now know from various studies that most of the toxic pollution entering Puget Sound comes from stormwater, not discharges from pipes, while other toxics are still sitting on the bottom of Puget Sound. It will take a lot of money and a lot of time to address these sources. The effort is moving in that direction, but funding continues to be debated, including the current session of the Legislature.

Efforts to update the antiquated rules in the Clean Water Act to provide for a more rationale approach have been started and stopped many times. I suspect that environmental advocates fear that with the anti-government mood in Congress the result could be even less-effective controls on pollution — so we live with regulations structured more than 30 years ago.

Gov. Inslee tried to shift the focus of toxic cleanup from the federal approach to the state’s new approach with chemical action plans. While newly proposed water-quality standards are more stringent for 70 percent of the chemicals (PDF 392 kb) on EPA’s list, they would have been 10 times more stringent if his proposal had not changed a key factor in the equation that determines the standards. Going up against environmental advocates, Inslee proposed increasing the cancer-risk rate in the equation from one in a million to one in 100,000.

In other words, if a body of water barely meets the pollution standard for a given chemical, 10 in a million people — rather than 1 in a million — could develop cancer from eating a maximum assumed level of fish from the water. This is the increased lifetime risk from that one chemical.

Everyone agrees that we should do what we can to reduce our risk of getting cancer, and cutting down toxics in fish is an important step. In a two-part series I wrote for the Kitsap Sun in March, I began by describing the risks and benefits of eating fish from Puget Sound and other areas, then I proceeded to talk about the alternative approaches to cleaning up the water.

Increasing the excess cancer risk from one in a million to 10 in a million is worth discussing. That change is not insignificant. But getting to some kind of bottom line is not easy. Keep in mind that the overall risk of getting cancer from all causes is about 433,000 in a million (43.3 percent) for men and 228,000 in a million (22.8 percent) for women, according to the American Cancer Society.

Environmental and tribal officials would like the risk of eating fish to be as low as possible. Many are angered by 15 years of delay by state officials in updating the standards, which were based on poor estimates of how much fish people eat. The newly proposed change assumes a daily consumption of 175 grams (about 6 ounces) of fish, compared to the previous 6.5 grams (about a quarter of an ounce.) Tribal officials say many people in their communities eat more than 175 grams.

On the other hand, businesses operating industrial plants and local governments running sewage-treatment plants are worried about what it will take to comply with new standards if the cancer risk remains at 1 in a million. Increased costs for their treatment systems, ultimately passed along to their customers, are a primary concern.

So far, the regional office of the EPA has made it clear that it does not like the idea of increasing the cancer-risk rate from the level currently used by Washington state and most other states. See the agency’s comments dated March 23 (PDF 6.4 mb). The EPA seems to be taking the approach that if the technology does not exist or is too expensive to reduce chemical concentrations to levels demanded by the new standards, then dischargers should be given a variance or allowed additional time to come into compliance.

It isn’t clear how these issues will be resolved, and there are many technical and legal aspects to be considered. Washington state is on a course to complete its update to the standards by August, when the EPA could release its own plan for bringing the state into compliance.

Mystery of the orca moms rekindled by birth of another J-pod whale

A newborn orca calf in J pod extends the ongoing baby boom for the three Southern Resident pods, but it also rekindles a debate about motherhood — namely who is the mom of J-50 and now J-52.

A newborn calf (on the near side) is seen swimming with J-16, while a 3-month-old calf swims on the other side, adding to the mystery of the orca moms.
A newborn calf (on the near side) is seen swimming with J-16, while a 3-month-old calf swims on the other side, adding to the mystery of the orca moms.
Photo by Jeanne Hyde, printed with permission.

The new calf is the fourth to be born since just before the new year. Three of the young ones are in J pod and one is in L pod, bringing the total population of the three pods to 81 — or 82 if you count Lolita in Miami Seaquarium.

Orca observers and researchers are rejoicing about the new calf, which was spotted yesterday by whale watchers near Galiano Island in British Columbia. Jeanne Hyde, a naturalist with Maya’s Legacy Whale Watching, had been observing what she thought was a 3-month-old orca designated J-50. The young whale was traveling with J-16, a female named Slick.

“I thought to myself, ‘There’s mom and the baby,’” Jeanne reported in her blog, Whale of a Purpose. “But then right in front of us and about 25 yards behind mom and the baby, another baby surfaces! That’s when I told Capt. Spencer (Domico), ‘I think there are two babies here!’”

The one alongside J-16 turned out to be a newborn, no more than a few days old, as indicated by fetal folds still evident on its skin. Now J-16 appears to have two calves about three months apart. Of course, that is not possible, given their normal gestation period of 15 to 18 months.

If you recall, there was considerable discussion about whether J-16 was the mother of J-50 after the calf was born in late December. Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research surmised that J-16 was actually the grandmother who was babysitting the new calf. Ken suggested that the December baby might actually be the offspring of J-36, the 16-year-old daughter of J-16. See Water Ways, Jan. 22.

At age 43, J-16 would be the oldest whale known to give birth, since this age is normally associated with menopause.

After several weeks, it appeared that J-36 was never really involved with the baby. Dave Ellifrit, Ken’s close associate, wrote this in his notes following one encounter:

“While all the J16’s traveled together, J36 was consistently the farthest of the group from J50, so whatever doubts remained about J16 being the mother are about gone.”

That sealed the deal for many folks, but Ken was not convinced. While the evidence pointed to J-16 being the mom, there still was the matter of the “rake marks” on the back of the baby — most likely caused when an adult whale used its teeth to pull the newborn from the birth canal, Ken said. If the 16-year-old needed help in giving birth, her own mom was the likely one to do it.

Now, the observations of J-16 with two calves leads Ken to return to his earlier speculation, though he admits that the truth may not be known without genetic evidence. But if the new baby, designated J-52, remains with J-16, then J-52 (not J-50) would be her likely offspring.

Here’s a possible explanation: After J-36 gave birth in December, it became clear that she could not care for the baby, so J-16 took over. If J-16 was pregnant at the time, she could have been lactating and the baby could thrive on her milk. J-36 would fade into the background. If the new calf spotted yesterday came from J-16, then she could be nursing both babies, and we’ll have to see how that works out.

Ken recalls that in 1999, L-51, a female named Nootka, had a baby that died of starvation as an infant. Nootka died shortly before her calf, and a necropsy showed that the mom had a prolapsed uterus and was unable to nurse. Perhaps the calf could have survived if a nursemaid had been available.

I asked Ken if the two new calves might actually be twins, and he noted that some deceased females have been found with two fetuses inside them, but he has never seen what might be considered twins.

Ken told me of a story from his first year of identifying individual killer whales and starting his annual census of their population. It was 1976, and both Ken and Mike Bigg, a Canadian researcher, counted a total of 70 whales. (This followed the capture period when many orcas were taken to aquariums.)

“We had seen one female who was sometimes with one calf and sometimes with another,” Ken told me. “We assumed it was the same calf. It wasn’t until late in the winter of that first year or the following spring that we realized three were two calves — so there were really 71 whales.”

Is it possible that this week’s brief sighting of a newborn with J-16 was nothing more than her being attentive to the needs of another female whale or its baby?

“We know they are extremely care-giving,” Ken said, adding that orcas, like humans, tend to pay a lot of attention to the new ones. Over the next days and weeks, the pattern of care-giving could indicate who belongs to whom — or maybe the mystery of the moms will continue.

Amusing Monday: Wolves found to catch and eat wild salmon

I’m amused by this looping video, which shows a bear waiting for a fish to appear. In the background, a wolf reaches down nonchalantly, bites into a large salmon and carries it away.

Not long ago, it was widely believed that bears love salmon but that wolves prefer deer, elk, moose and related animals whenever they can find them. Now we know, from careful observations in Alaska, that wolves will go after salmon when they get the opportunity.

Researcher Dave Person of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game says wolves will seek out tidally affected streams where they can find salmon passing through shallow water and trapped in pools.

“They’re not as skillful as bears at fishing,” Person told Riley Woodford, reporting for Alaska Fish and Wildlife News. “Each year, they spend over a month in estuary areas, with the pups. It’s right in middle of pink and chum runs, and we watch them eat salmon all the time. There are lots of places they could go; I think they go there for the fish.”

Based on the video, I would have to say that wolves are pretty good at catching fish upstream as well.

Salmon may have gone unnoticed as a staple in the wolves’ diet, because the entire salmon, bones and all, are digested by wolves, leaving no signs of fish in their scat — unlike the bones and fur discovered after they eat a deer or other mammal.

Another Alaskan biologist, Shelly Szepanski, has been studying the stable isotopes of carbon and nitrogen in wolf bones to see whether the bones are made of elements that come from the land or the sea. She found that salmon appeared to make up as much as 20 percent of the diet of wolves living in coastal areas of Southeast Alaska, compared to 10 percent of those living farther inland.

As I continued to look at the video of the bear and wolf fishing for salmon, I wondered if they ever interacted and how things might turn out in a head-to-head fight. I was able to find a video that demonstrates that a bear might get the best of a wolf in a one-on-one battle, but we can never forget that wolves often travel in packs. If you watch to the end, you will see who takes charge of the meal in question.

For another video showing wolves eating salmon, in which a bear plays a minor role, check out this video posted by Tinekemike.

Speaking of fights, I am still amazed at the video below, which shows a leopard swimming across a stretch of water, grabbing onto a crocodile and dragging it back into the water. I never would have guessed that a croc could be defeated in or around water like that — but it looks like he never saw the cat coming until it was too late.