Category Archives: Sea life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A danger to Aquaman?
A danger to Aquaman?

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

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

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

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

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

Orcas starting to follow chum salmon into Central Puget Sound

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More invasive crabs found; wider search will resume next spring

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Second invasive green crab discovered in northern Puget Sound

A second European green crab has been found in Puget Sound, this one in Padilla Bay — about 30 miles southeast of where the first one was discovered about three weeks ago.

A second European green crab has been found in Puget Sound, this one in Padilla Bay. Photo: Padilla Bay Reserve
A second European green crab has been found in Puget Sound, this one in Padilla Bay.
Photo: Padilla Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve

Green crabs are an invasive species known to devour a variety of native species and alter habitats where they have become established. Keeping green crabs out of Puget Sound has been a goal of state officials for years.

After the first green crab was caught in a volunteer trapping program three weeks ago, experts mounted an intensive trapping effort to see if other green crabs were in the area around Westcott Bay in the San Juan Islands. (Water Ways, Sept. 3). No live crabs were found, but one cast-off shell (molt) was discovered nearby (Water Ways, Sept. 15).

The second green crab was found by Glen Alexander of the Padilla Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve while overturning rocks with a group of students.

The latest find is a young female crab, 34 millimeters across, which may have grown from a larva dispersed last winter.

“We were relieved to find very little evidence of a larger population of invasive European green crab in Westcott Bay,” Emily Grason of Washington Sea Grant said in a news release (PDF 371 kb). “But finding an additional crab at a site more than 30 miles away suggests that ongoing vigilance is critical across all Puget Sound shorelines. WSG’s Crab Team is committed to continuing the efforts of volunteer monitoring as resources allow, but we also rely on beachgoers to keep a watchful eye out for this invasive species.”

A second rapid-response effort will get underway Monday with more traps being deployed over a larger area than last time. The goal is to locate any crabs that may have made a home in the area and determine where the crabs might be gaining a foothold.

The advice for beachgoers remains the same:

  1. Learn how to how to identify green crab. Check out the Crab Team webpage at or Facebook and Twitter @WAGreenCrab.
  2. Take a photo and report sightings to the WSG Crab team at
  3. Shellfish collected in one location should never be released or “wet stored” in another location unless authorized by WDFW.
  4. Clean, drain and dry recreational gear or other materials after beach visits.

If you haven’t seen it, you may want to review a series I wrote on invasive species for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, including a story about green crabs and the volunteer monitoring program.

Humpback whales intervene in orca attacks against other species

Humpback whales have been making the news for their organized “rescues” — seemingly heroic efforts in which the humpbacks have intervened in attacks by killer whales against other marine mammals.

Humpback whales come to the rescue of a Steller sea lion near Victoria, B.C. Photo: Alethea Leddy, Port Angeles Whale Watch Co.
Humpback whales come to the rescue of a Steller sea lion near Victoria, B.C. // Photo: Alethea Leddy, Port Angeles Whale Watch Co.

The humpbacks have not only protected their own calves but they have gone well out of their way to protect gray whales, minke whales, Dall’s porpoises, Steller sea lions, California sea lions, Weddell seals, crabeater seals, harbor seals, northern elephant seals and even ocean sunfish, according to researchers.

The latest incident, in which humpbacks reportedly intervened in a killer whale attack on a Steller sea lion, is said to be the first reported incident in the Salish Sea. The incident took place last week off Sooke, BC, about 20 miles west of Victoria.

“What we witnessed was pure aggression,” Capt. Russ Nicks of BC Whale Watch Tours of Victoria said in a news release from Pacific Whale Watch Association. “We had four humpbacks trumpeting, rolling on their sides, flukes up in the air multiple times.

“The killer whales split many times into two groups, with one that appeared to try to draw the humpbacks away from the sea lion. The other group would go in for the attack while the humpbacks were safely away – but then they’d get in the middle of it again, fighting the orcas off. It was amazing to watch.”

These killer whales were of the transient variety, a subspecies of killer whales that eats marine mammals, as opposed to the resident orcas that each fish.

The same attack and rescue was viewed by naturalist Alethea Leddy of Port Angeles Whale Watch Company, as reported in the news release:

“We got there in time to see some crazy surface activity, with humpback whales splashing in the distance along with orcas. Then two humpbacks surfaced next to us trumpeting, and the next thing we know there were four humpbacks, possibly six, all defending the sea lion.

“The water boiled all around as the orcas tried to separate the sea lion from the humpbacks. It was a wild scene, with the humpbacks even circling the sea lion trying to keep him safe while he frantically struggled to get his breath.

“The anxiety of the humpbacks was palpable, and they took turns diving and slashing at the orcas. This life-and-death drama went on and on until the four transient orcas, known as the T100 family, moved off in the distance. As they did, we saw the sea lion appear next to the humpbacks being guarded and escorted in the opposite direction.

“This was an unbelievable encounter. Hats off to our courageous humpbacks and best wishes to our little Steller sea lion, survivor for another day!”

In July, 14 marine mammal experts reported on 115 apparent rescue efforts by humpback whales during what appeared to be killer whale attacks on other species of marine mammals. Their report appeared in the journal Marine Mammal Science.

Reasons for these rescue efforts are open to much speculation, but the researchers noted that evidence is mounting in favor of a belief that killer whales that eat marine mammals, called MEKW, attack young humpback whales more often than commonly reported.

“Clearly, MEKW predation, even if rarely observed and targeting mainly calves and subadults, represents a threat to humpbacks that is persistent, widespread, and perhaps increasing,” the report states. “As such, humpbacks could be expected to show some specific anti-predator behaviors, and indeed some have been suggested. Ford and Reeves (2008) summarized the defensive capabilities of baleen whales faced with killer whale attack, and they identified two general categories of response.

“Balaenopterid rorquals (including fin whales and minke whales) use their high speed and hydrodynamic body shape to outrun killer whales and were classified as flight species. The generally more rotund and slower-swimming species — right whales, bowhead whales, gray whales and humpback whales — apparently rely on their bulk and powerful, oversized appendages (tail and flippers) to ward off attackers. This group was categorized as fight species.”

Of course, it is one thing for the humpbacks and other baleen whales to take a defensive posture. It is quite another thing for them to go after killer whales when another species of marine mammal is under attack.

In the report, humpbacks initiated encounters with MEKWs 58 percent of the time, while the killer whales initiated contact 42 percent of the time — at least for those cases when the killer whale ecotype could be identified as marine mammals eaters. On a few occasions when known fish-eating killer whales were involved, the encounter was relatively benign, the researchers said.

The video, shot by BBC filmmakers, show a pair of humpback whales attempting to prevent a group of orcas from killing a gray whale calf. In this case, the effort was unsuccessful.

When humpbacks went to the rescue of other marine mammals, it appears that the rescuers were generally a mixture of males and females, according to the report. Humpback postures, whether attacking or defending, involved slapping their flukes on the surface, slashing from side to side, bellowing, persuing and flipper slapping. The length of battles reported ranged from 15 minutes to seven hours. In the end, the prey that was at the center of the battles was killed 83 percent of the time — at least for those cases when the outcome was known.

“The humpback whale is, to our knowledge, the only cetacean that deliberately approaches attacking MEKWs and can drive them off, although southern right whales may also group together to fend off MEKWs attacking other right whales,” the researchers stated, adding that humpbacks’ powerful flippers covered in sharp barnacles can shred the flesh of their opponents.

When in hunting mode, transient killer whales are generally silent, not making much noise. Once an attack begins, they become more vocal, perhaps to coordinate the attack. It appears that humpbacks respond to killer whale vocalizations from distances well out of sight of the attack.

The reasons the humpbacks would get in a fight with killer whales to save another species are listed in three categories:

  • Kin selection: Protecting an offspring or closely related animal.
  • Reciprocity: Protecting unrelated animals, generally as part of a social organization.
  • Altruism: Benefitting another animal at some cost to the one taking action.

It is possible, the researchers conclude, that humpbacks could be improving their individual and group fitness to fend off attacks against their own by protecting other species. One idea is that the killer whales may think twice about attacking a humpback of any age.

“We suggest,” they write, “that humpbacks providing benefits to other potential prey species, even if unintentional, could be a focus of future research into possible genetic or cultural drivers of interspecific altruism.”

Extensive floodplain restoration brings new hope to Clear Creek

A giant piece of a cedar log stands erect in a barren landscape north of Silverdale, where a new channel for Clear Creek stands ready to receive water.

An old cedar log was recovered during excavation for a new channel for Clear Creek. Photo: Dunagan
An old cedar log was recovered during excavation for a new channel for Clear Creek.
Photo: Christopher Dunagan

Well, maybe this channel won’t be entirely new. Designers working to restore this portion of Clear Creek studied old maps. They tried to align the new man-made channel to the meandering stream that existed 150 years ago, before farmers diverted the creek around their fields.

During excavation, workers uncovered buried gravel — remnants of the old streambed — along with chunks of cedar that had lain along the edge of the stream. Buried and cut off from oxygen, these pieces of wood survived for decades underground, while cattle grazed in the fields above.

Workers excavating for the new channel used their heavy equipment to pull out what remained of a great cedar log. They stood the log vertical and buried one end in the ground — a monument to the past and future of Clear Creek.

A restored Clear Creek floodplain (before plantings) north of Waaga Way in Central Kitsap. Photo: Kitsap County Public Works
A restored Clear Creek floodplain (before plantings) north of Waaga Way in Central Kitsap.
Photo: Kitsap County Public Works

Chris May, manager of Kitsap County’s stormwater program, showed me the new channel this week. He said it was rewarding to uncover some buried history and realize that the stream would be restored in roughly the same place.

“We found the old channel,” Chris told me, pointing to a deposit of gravel. “We are pretty confident that we got it right.”

This $3-million project has been conceived and designed as much more than a stream-restoration project. The elevations of the land around the stream have been carefully planned so that high flows will spill into side channels and backwater pools. That should reduce flooding in Silverdale and help stabilize the high and low flows seen in Clear Creek.

Before photo: This was the farmers field as it appeared before restoration. Photo: Kitsap County Public Works
Before photo: This was the farm field as it appeared before restoration. // Photo: Kitsap County Public Works

The engineers did not calculate the reduced frequency of flooding, but floodwater storage is calculated to be 18.4 acre-feet, the equivalent of a foot of water spread over 18.4 acres or 29,700 cubic yards or 6 million gallons.

In all, about 30,000 cubic yards of material have been removed across 21 acres, including the former Schold Farm on the west side of Silverdale Way and the Markwick property on the east side. Native wetland vegetation will be planted along the stream and in low areas throughout the property. Upland areas will be planted with natural forest vegetation.

The topsoil, which contained invasive plants such as reed canarygrass, was hauled away and buried beneath other excavated soils to form a big mound between the new floodplain and Highway 3. That area will be planted with a mixture of native trees.

Graphic showing area before restoration. Graphic: Kitsap County Public Works
Graphic showing area before restoration.
Graphic: Kitsap County Public Works

Plans call for removal of 1,500 feet of an existing road with upgrades to two aging culverts. Adding meanders to the straightened channel will create 500 feet of new streambed that should be suitable for salmon spawning.

Plans call for adding 334 pieces large woody debris, such as logs and root wads to the stream. Some of that wood will be formed into structures and engineered logjams to help form pools and gravel bars.

Graphic showing area after restoration. Graphic: Kitsap County Public Works
Graphic showing area after restoration. Notice stream meanders near beaver pond habitat
Graphic: Kitsap County Public Works

“This will be one of the first streams to meet the Fox and Bolton numbers,” Chris told me, referring to studies by Martin Fox and Susan Bolton of the University of Washington. The two researchers studied natural streams and calculated the amount of woody debris of various kinds needed to simulate natural conditions, all based on the size of a stream. (Review North American Journal of Fisheries Management.)

The elevations on the property were also designed so that high areas on opposite sides of the stream would be in close proximity in several locations.

“Beaver will pick that spot,” Chris said, pointing to one location where the stream channel was squeezed by elevated banks on each side. “We want to encourage beaver to come in here.”

Beaver ponds will increase the floodwater storage capacity of the new floodplain and provide important habitat for coho salmon, which spend a year in freshwater and need places to withstand both high and low flows. Because the county owns the flooded property, there won’t be any complaints about damage from beavers, Chris noted.

Aerial photo showing project area with Silverdale in the background, Silverdale Way to the left and Highway 3 to the right. Photo: Kitsap County Public Works
Aerial photo showing project area with Silverdale in the background, Silverdale Way to the left and Highway 3 to the right. // Photo: Kitsap County Public Works

Clear Creek Trail (PDF 390 kb), which begins on the shore of Dyes Inlet, will be routed along the higher elevations as the trail winds through the property. Three new bridges will provide vantage points to watch salmon after vegetation obscures other viewing areas from the trail. Viewing platforms, as seen along other parts of Clear Creek Trail, were not included in this project but could be subject to further discussions.

Count me among the many people — experts, volunteers and users of Clear Creek Trail — who are eager to see how nature responds when water (now diverted) returns to the new stream channel. For decades, the lack of good habitat has constrained the salmon population in Clear Creek. The stream still has problems related to its highly developed watershed. But now a series of restoration projects is providing hope for increased coho and chum salmon and possibly steelhead trout as well as numerous other aquatic species.

In a story in the Kitsap Sun, Reporter Tristan Baurick described work this week on the Markwick property, where fish were removed in preparation for final channel excavation.

Here are some details (including photos) of various Clear Creek projects, as described in the state’s Habitat Work Schedule for restoration projects:

Washington Department of Ecology provided $2 million for the project. Kitsap County’s stormwater and roads programs each provided $500,000.

No new green crabs have been found, but the search will go on

No European green crabs were caught this week during an intensive two-day trapping program designed to see if any of the invasive crabs have gained a foothold in the San Juan Islands.

These are the locations and number of traps placed on Monday in the northern San Juan Islands. Map: Washington Sea Grant
These are the locations and number of traps placed in the northern San Juan Islands on Monday. // Map: Washington Sea Grant

If you recall, a single adult green crab was trapped Aug. 31 by a team of volunteers in the San Juan Islands. It was the first green crab ever found in Puget Sound, but experts have been worried about the crab for years. (See Water Ways, Sept. 3.) The volunteers are involved in a citizen science monitoring program to locate green crabs when they first arrive in Puget Sound and before they become a breeding population.

The response by professional leaders of the Crab Team was to place 97 traps in and around the location where the first crab was found. The effort was started on Monday and repeated on Tuesday. The maps on this page show the locations and the number of traps place at site on the two days. Hundreds of native crabs were trapped and inspected, but no green crabs were found.

These are the locations and number of traps placed in the northern San Juan Islands on Tuesday. Map: Washington Sea Grant
These are the locations and number of traps placed in the northern San Juan Islands on Tuesday. // Map: Washington Sea Grant

Although no live crabs were found, one molt (cast-off shell) from a green crab was found by Jeff Adams, a marine ecologist for Washington Sea Grant who manages the Crab Team of volunteers. The molt was close to where the live crab was found. The experts have not determined if the molt came from the first crab or if there might be other crabs in the area.

The next step is still being planned. It could involve another intensive trapping effort, perhaps in the spring, as well as increasing the number of volunteer trapping sites in the San Juan Islands. The volunteer program takes a hiatus in the winter, when the crabs are less active, but it will resume in the spring.

The next green crab training program is scheduled for March, when new and former citizen science volunteers will be taught how to identify green crabs and conduct an effective trapping effort in up to 30 locations throughout Puget Sound. To learn more about the volunteer program, check the Washington Sea Grant webpage “Get Involved” or sign up for a free email newsletter called “Crab Team News” (click “Newsletters”).

Emily Grason, Crab Team coordinator for Washington Sea Grant, was involved in the two-day intensive trapping program. Emily blogs about the effort on the Crab Team website:

You may want to review my recent writing project on invasive species for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, including a story about green crabs and the volunteer monitoring program.

Sean McDonald of Washington Sea Grant heads out to check on crab traps on Henry Island, not far from where the first green crab was found in Puget Sound. Photo: Emily Grason, WSG
Sean McDonald of Washington Sea Grant heads out to check on crab traps on Henry Island, not far from where the first green crab was found in Puget Sound. // Photo: Emily Grason, WSG

A difference between chum and coho salmon may be in their blood

On the outside, chum and coho salmon don’t seem all that different from one another, not when you consider the variety of fish in Puget Sound — from herring to halibut along with dozens of other odd-looking creatures (EoPS).

But we know that if you place coho in stormwater taken from a heavily traveled roadway, the coho are likely to die within hours. But if you do the same thing with chum, these hardy fish will barely notice the difference.

In this photo taken two years ago, Jenifer McIntyre describes her discoveries about rain gardens at the Washington Stormwater Center in Puyallup. Photo: Meegan Reid, Kitsap Sun
In this photo taken two years ago, Jenifer McIntyre describes her discoveries about rain gardens at the Washington Stormwater Center in Puyallup.
Photo: Meegan M. Reid, Kitsap Sun

Researchers began to observe the varying effects of pollution on different species of salmon years ago. In 2006, I reported on studies by researcher Nat Scholz of the National Marine Fisheries Service, who discovered that coho would swim into Seattle’s heavily polluted creeks to spawn, but they wouldn’t get very far. Within hours, they would become disoriented, then keel over and die. (Kitsap Sun, June 10, 2006)

Later, Jenifer McIntyre, a researcher with Washington State University, collaborated with Scholz to refine the studies, exposing adult coho and later young coho to stormwater under controlled conditions. Much of that work was done at the Suquamish Tribe’s Grover’s Creek Hatchery in North Kitsap. The researchers also measured the physiological effects of pollution on zebrafish embryos during their early stages of development.

Working at the Washington Stormwater Center in Puyallup, Jen made a remarkable discovery that has dramatically changed people’s thinking about stormwater treatment. She found that if you run the most heavily polluted stormwater through a soil medium containing compost, the water will no longer have a noticeable effect on the sensitive coho. Rain gardens really do work.

Jen’s findings and related stormwater issues were described in a story I wrote two years ago for the Kitsap Sun, “Stormwater solutions key in fight for Puget Sound.” The story is part of a two-year project we called “Taking the Pulse of Puget Sound.”

Now, Jen, who recently joined the faculty of WSU, is beginning a new phase of her research, probing deeper into the physiological responses of coho salmon when exposed to polluted stormwater. She told me that the varying responses of coho and chum offer clues about where to look for problems.

“It is very interesting,” she said. “As biologists, we understand that there is variability among species. But we would expect, at least among salmon, that things would be pretty much the same.”

Researchers in Japan have discovered that different kinds of fish have different subunits in their hemoglobin, which are the proteins in red blood cells that carry oxygen to the vital organs. Since coho and other salmon may have different forms of hemoglobin, oxygen transport in the blood is a good place to start this investigation, she said.

From there, the issues of blood chemistry get a little technical, but the ability of red blood cells to carry oxygen can depend not only on the form of hemoglobin but also on the pH (acidity) of the blood, she said, and that can be altered by drugs and other chemicals.

Another thing that researchers may be seeing is “disseminated intravascular coagulation,” a condition that results from clotting in the lining of the capillaries. DIC can reduce or block blood flow where it is most needed and eventually cause organ damage. That’s an area for more research, Jen said, noting that these investigations are moving forward in collaboration with researchers at NMFS and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Meanwhile, Jen is working with chemists at the University of Washington’s Center for Urban Waters in Tacoma to figure out which substances — out of hundreds of chemicals found in stormwater — could be causing these deadly effects on fish.

If isolating the dangerous compounds proves too difficult, researchers might be able to start with the original toxic sources, perhaps exposing fish to chemicals found in tires, oil, antifreeze and so on, Jen said. For those effects, it might be good to begin the investigation with the well-studied zebrafish embryos, which are transparent and can be observed closely throughout their embryonic development.

Needless to say, this is a field of intense interest. If researchers can discover what is killing coho, they might begin to understand why the recovery of chinook salmon in Puget Sound has been so slow. Chinook, which could be added to Jen’s studies, are listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act and are the preferred prey of Puget Sound’s killer whales, which are listed as endangered.

Two recent articles discussed the relative hardiness of the chum compared to coho salmon: