Watching Our Water Ways

Environmental reporter Christopher Dunagan discusses the challenges of protecting Puget Sound and all things water-related.
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Map points toward safe — and hazardous — shellfish

Thursday, July 31st, 2014

A highly informative map, just released by state shellfish officials, can show you at a glance where it is safe to harvest shellfish in Western Washington.

Shellfish_map

Besides pointing out the locations of public beaches where recreational harvesters may safely gather clams and oysters, the new map provides links to information about the approved seasons and limits, with photographs of each beach. One can choose “map” or “satellite” views, as well as enhanced images to simplify the search.

If you wish, you can track down locations by searching for the name of a beach, nearby landmarks or the address. You can obtain the latest information about entire shorelines as well as specific beaches.

The map was created by the Office of Shellfish and Water Protection, a division within the Washington State Department of Health.

Jim Zimny, recreational shellfish specialist at Kitsap Public Health District, said he expects the map to be updated immediately when new health advisories are issued.

“It’s a great resource, very easy to use,” Jim said.

Jim works with state shellfish officials to collect shellfish samples and report results, including findings of paralytic shellfish poison, a biotoxin. Closures are announced when high levels of PSP or dangerous bacteria are found. Hood Canal, for example, is covered with the letter “V,” meaning one should cook shellfish thoroughly to kill Vibrio bacteria, which can lead to intestinal illness.

Since I generally write the geographic descriptions of shellfish closure areas, I can assure you that looking at a map will be a better way to see what is going on.

A news release about the new map points out that the risk of eating shellfish increases in summer. That’s why it especially important in summer to follow the three C’s of shellfish safety: “check, chill and cook.”

Those three C’s refer to checking the map for health closures and looking on the beach for warning signs; chilling the shellfish to avoid a buildup of bacteria; and cooking to 145 degrees to kill pathogens. (Cooking does not destroy PSP and other biotoxins, so it’s important to avoid closed areas.)

For additional information about recreational shellfish harvesting, including a “Shellfish Harvest Checklist,” visit the Department of Health website.


Amusing Monday: Baby turtles race for the sea

Monday, July 28th, 2014

The sand was smooth and still. Waves lapped at the distant shoreline. A sign, stuck in the sand, stated, “Do not disturb. Sea turtle nest.”

That was the scene on a beach in the Florida Keys for the past few weeks, as it was in June, when I posted a blog entry listing cameras that were capturing live action in bird nests as well as other wildlife locations. A quiet patch of sand was not much to look at, so I didn’t mention it.

On Friday, that patch of sand came to life, as you can see in the first video on this page. I thought it was time to share the brief action, as about 100 loggerhead turtles emerged from the sand and headed out to sea about 9 p.m. Check out the action in full-screen.

The camera on the beach uses infrared lights to capture the images, thus avoiding visible light that could confuse the young turtles. The project is supported by Save-A-Turtle, a volunteer non-profit group dedicated to the protection of rare and endangered sea turtles and their habitats in the Florida Keys.

Meanwhile, some of the young ospreys shown in their nests back in June have fledged, but there is still plenty of action in the nest at Missoula’s Riverside Health Care Center, where the camera is operated by the University of Montana. Check out the images in full-screen, high-definition while you can, because these growing chicks will soon be gone.

Another still-active osprey nest is operated by Chesapeake Conservancy on Maryland’s eastern shoreline.

The Puffin Cam at Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge in Maine is picking up some excited feeding activity at the nesting area, where experts are establishing a new colony of puffins after hunters wiped them out in the 1800s.

Brown bears are now feeding on salmon along Alaska’s Brooks River in Katmai National Park, according to bloggers on the site. Check out the live video below to see if you can spot a bear, including a subadult mentioned by observers.

You may wish to go back to the June 23 “Amusing Monday: A visit with wildlife via webcam” to see what other cameras are picking up activity. You can generally count on Pete’s Pond on Mashatu Game Reserve in Botswana, Africa, for some exotic animals coming to the watering hole.



Broadcast live streaming video on Ustream


Stormwater: Can we stop the menace we created?

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014

I’ve completed the seventh story package in a 10-part series examining the Puget Sound ecosystem, with a special focus on indicators of ecological health. We’re calling the project “Taking the Pulse of Puget Sound.”

Jenifer McIntyre of the Washington Stormwater Center studies the effects of stormwater after it passes through filters made of compost and soil materials, such as what is used in rain gardens. The filters are working, even though the most dangerous pollutants remain unidentified. Photo by Meegan M. Reid

Jenifer McIntyre of the Washington Stormwater Center studies the effects of stormwater after it passes through filters made of compost and soil materials, such as what is used in rain gardens. The filters are working, even though the most dangerous pollutants remain unidentified. / Kitsap Sun photo by Meegan M. Reid

The latest stories, which ran Sunday and Monday, addressed freshwater quality. The opening piece looked at the huge amounts of pollution coming into our streams via stormwater — one of the highest priorities for cleanup, yet one of the most difficult to deal with.

As the Puget Sound Partnership’s executive director Sheida Sahandy told me, industrial discharges are still a concern, but they are no longer the biggest problem.

“Now we’re dealing with stormwater, which is trickling in here and trickling in there, and everybody has a finger in it,” she said.

Solutions are many, and the goal should be to shut off pollution at the source, beginning with removing dangerous chemicals from everyday products. Since the sources of pollution are numerous, everyone needs to play a part — from cleaning up pet wastes to properly using of household chemicals to reducing the use of lawn and garden pesticides. (Those who don’t subscribe to the Kitsap Sun may still find value in the graphics on the Freshwater Quality page.)

I led off the first story by showing the increased efforts by city and county governments to better manage their stormwater systems, such as pumping out their catch basins, sweeping their streets and converting outdated stormwater ponds into filtration systems, commonly known as “rain gardens.”

I also introduced readers to the Washington Stormwater Center, a research facility in Puyallup where scientists are testing the effectiveness of rain gardens and pervious pavement. Jenifer McIntyre, a Washington State University researcher, has demonstrated that stormwater from highway runoff is 100 percent effective at killing adult coho salmon. Yet that same stormwater filtered through soil — such as in a rain garden — is cleaned up enough that fish can survive, apparently unaffected.

Monday’s story addressed the increasing use of benthic invertebrates — water bugs — to measure the health of streams. The bugs are doing double duty, since they are both a measurement of stream quality and a critical part of the food web for the freshwater ecosystem.

Some 27 local governments and organizations are involved in collecting data on benthic invertebrates from about 850 stream locations throughout Puget Sound. For results, check out Puget Sound Stream Benthos.

When I began this project on freshwater quality several weeks ago, I thought it was going to be easier than some of the other story packages I have done, such as on fish, birds and marine mammals. If anything, this issue is more complex. I’ll admit that I’ve neglected this blog while pursuing these issues, and soon I will be moving into the issue of freshwater quantity.

Overall, I must say that I’ve been impressed by the many people dedicated to finding answers to the mysterious problems brought on by pollution and by those finding solutions even before the questions are fully identified.


Amusing Monday: Celebrating Alvin’s animals

Monday, July 7th, 2014

This year is the 50th anniversary of Alvin, a deep-sea vehicle that has made some incredible scientific discoveries over the past half-century.

The latest issue of Oceanus magazine is a special edition that takes us through the history of Alvin, including its part in locating a lost hydrogen bomb, investigating the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and documenting the remains of the Titanic.

Read “The Once & Future Alvin,” Oceanus Summer 2014.

What really drew my attention to this issue is a photo feature called “Alvin’s Animals.” It was posted as a slide show in the online version of Oceanus. It registered high on my amusing meter, and I encourage you to click through the buttons that take you from one odd-looking creature to the next.

One of Alvin’s most significant discoveries came in 1977, when the submersible traveled to the Galapagos Rift, a deep-water area where volcanic activity had been detected. Scientists had speculated that steaming underwater vents were releasing chemicals into the ocean water. They got to see that, but what they discovered was much more: a collection of unique clams, worms and mussels thriving without sunlight.

These were lifeforms in which bacteria played a central role at the base of a food web that derives its energy from chemicals and not photosynthesis.

Since then, other deep-sea communities have been discovered and documented throughout the world, with hundreds of new species examined and named.

The Oceanus article also describes in some detail the just-completed renovation that has given Alvin new capabilities. The people responsible for various aspects of the make-over are interviewed in this special edition.

The first video on this page is by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution celebrating Alvin’s 50th birthday. The second is a walk-around the newly renovated craft by Jim Motavalli, who usually writes about ecologically friendly automobiles.


What we know and don’t know about killer whales

Friday, June 27th, 2014

This week’s report about Puget Sound’s endangered killer whales contained little new information, but the intent was not to surprise people with important new findings. The report (PDF 14.3 mb), published by the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, was a nice summary of 10 years of research and ongoing efforts to unlock the secrets of the mysterious Southern Residents.

NOAA also released the video, at right, which sums up the report with great visuals. Make sure you go full-screen.

On Wednesday, I participated in a telephone conference call to link reporters with killer whale experts in our region. On the line were Lynne Barre, Mike Ford and Brad Hanson, all with NOAA Fisheries out of Seattle. I’ve been wrapped up with other reporting assignments, so the Kitsap Sun’s editors chose to run a solid story by Associated Press reporter Phuong Le. See Kitsap Sun, June 25.

Let me make a few quick observations:

Lynne Barre said one of the greatest mysteries, to her, is why killer whales suddenly go missing. It’s a vexing problem, and I always get a little nervous when the whales return in the spring. One year, six of the Southern Residents failed to show up. It was a real blow to the close-knit orca community and to the struggling population, and I’ve never forgotten the dismay of everyone who cared about these animals.

Healthy killer whales seem to go missing as often as elderly or sick ones. Only a few bodies ever wash up on the beach. Even when one is found, the cause of death often remains uncertain, as in the case of L-112, found to have died of “blunt-force trauma” from some unknown object.

Much more needs to be learned about disease in the animals, Lynne said. Future research could involve more tissue biopsies and breath samples in an effort to identify early signs of disease.

For Brad Hanson, another mystery is the whales’ seemingly unpredictable behavior and their “fundamental relationship with prey.” We all assume that their primary goal in life is to find fish to eat, but how good are they at this essential task? Pretty good, I would guess. Often before we learn that chinook are abundant off the Washington Coast, we find out that the killer whales are already there.

Maybe the reason the whales have been spending so much time away from Puget Sound the last couple years lies in the lower returns of Fraser River chinook, which pass through the San Juan Islands in the summer. Scale and fecal samples have shown that Fraser River chinook are the most consistent prey of the resident orcas.

In previous conversations, Brad has told me that he would love to communicate with the whales, to find out who is in charge and why a group of animals may suddenly turn around and go in the opposite direction. Howard Garrett of Orca Network recalls a time when all three Southern Resident pods were in the Strait of Juan de Fuca heading into Puget Sound. Suddenly K and L pod turned back, while J pod continued on. Howie says it was as if they knew there were not enough fish for the entire population, so J pod went on alone, saying, “See ya later.”

Mike Ford wants to know why the population has not increased more than it has. Could it be some limitation in the ecosystem, such as the fact that other marine mammals — such as seals and sea lions — have been increasing and taking a sizable bite out of the available salmon population? We know that Northern Residents, who also eat fish, don’t overlap territories much with the Southern Residents. Living up north, the Northern Residents have better access to some salmon stocks — including those that originate in Puget Sound. If the Northern Residents get to them first, the fish are not available for the Southern Residents — or so goes one hypotheses. The Northern Resident population has tripled in size, while the Southern Residents have stayed about the same.

Oddly enough, this potential competition for chinook salmon reminds me of exactly what is taking place with regard to commercial fishing enterprises. Washington fishermen complain that the Canadians are taking salmon that should get back to Washington. Canadian fishermen complain that Alaskans are taking salmon bound for Canada. Only Alaskan fishermen — and those who go to Alaska to fish — can catch a portion of the salmon going into Alaskan rivers as well as some destined to travel south.

One of the new things that did come up in Wednesday’s conference call was a renewed effort for U.S. killer whale biologists and managers to work with their counterparts in Canada. “We will be partnering with them on issues of salmon fisheries and how that may affect the whales,” Lynn said, adding that other cross-border efforts could involve vessel regulations and targeted research efforts.

During Wednesday’s conference call, nobody talked about the potential effects of military activities and the possible injury from Navy sonar until a reporter brought up the issue. The question was referred to NOAA Fisheries headquarters in Silver Spring, Md., where officials review the Navy’s operations and issue incidental take permits. That was the end of that discussion.

I know the Navy is conducting research in an effort to reduce harm to killer whales and other marine mammals. I get the sense, however, that more could be done immediately if connections were made between knowledgeable killer whale researchers in our region and those making decisions on the opposite side of the country.

SouthernResidentKillerWhalePhoto


Amusing Monday: A visit with wildlife via webcam

Monday, June 23rd, 2014

It seems kind of strange that we can spy on wildlife in a very personal way, thanks to modern technology.

The animals never notice the hundreds of humans peering over their shoulders via webcam. If they could know what is going on, I actually think they’d prefer the camera to the disturbance that even one person would create by crowding in that close.

It’s the time of year when many birds are active on their nests, so I thought I’d bring you some of the best videos on the web, weeding out those that are inactive or don’t have much going on right now.

The University of Montana operates two live osprey cams at part of its Montana Osprey Project. I believe the nest at Riverside Health Care Center in Missoula (shown in first video player) contains two chicks, while the nest at Dunrovin Ranch in Lolo contains three chicks.The high-quality video and sound make you feel you are right there with the birds.

Alberta Conservation Association and its sponsors have set up cameras to observe three prime nesting boxes for peregrine falcons in Edmonton, Alberta. Chicks have hatched in each nest, and we can watch (in real time) the mothers taking care of their little bundles of fluff. Each bird has a story listed with the video.

Chesapeake Conservancy is in charge of an osprey cam on Maryland’s eastern shore. The live video features Tom and Audrey, who have returned to the nest after spending the winter in South America. I have seen two chicks in that nest.

For a bird of a different character, check out the Puffin Cam at Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge in Maine, where Audubon’s Project Puffin operates a field station. The puffins on the island were wiped out by hunting in 1887, but they were reintroduced by bringing puffins from Newfoundland. More than 50 pairs nest there. (Three live videos are set up to show the puffins.)

If you are interested in watching brown bears feeding on salmon, stay tuned for live videos from Alaska’s Brooks River in Katmai National Park. The action should begin in July, according to information on the website. Meanwhile, you can watch recorded videos from previous times.

One of my favorite live cams is still Pete’s Pond (video player at right), a watering hole on Mashatu Game Reserve in Botswana, Africa. It began as a National Geographic project and is now operated by WildEarth, which features several other wildlife cams. Operators, working remotely, turn the camera to find the best action at any moment.

The Vancouver Aquarium has live cams showing:

If you’d like to see blacktip reef sharks and other fish, check out the video below from the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Md.


Watching the devastating decline of starfish

Tuesday, June 17th, 2014

I went to the beach last week to see some starfish with three trained volunteers. What we found was a scene of devastation on the pier and along the beach at Lofall, located on Hood Canal in North Kitsap.

Barb Erickson photographs a sea star afflicted with sea star wasting syndrome. Photo by Meegan M. Reid

Barb Erickson photographs a sea star afflicted with sea star wasting syndrome. Another infected star dangles by one arm.
Photo by Meegan M. Reid

What had been a large population of sea stars, as scientists call them, were now generally missing. Those that remained were mostly dead or dying. Healthy ones were in a minority.

Sea star wasting syndrome is now clearly present on our local beaches, just as it has affected hundreds of locations from Alaska to Mexico.

On Friday, I was fortunate to be in the company of three women who knew quite a bit about sea stars. They were careful in their observations and precise in their measurements, able to provide data to a network of observers measuring the progress of this disease along the West Coast.

But these three women — Barb Erickson, Linda Martin and Peg Tillery — also expressed their feelings of loss for the sea stars, a creature considered a key part of a healthy marine ecosystem.

As I reported in my story, published Sunday in the Kitsap Sun (subscription), Barb was the first to assess the situation as we arrived at the beach, comparing her observations to just two weeks before.

“‘Oh my!’ shouted Erickson as she reached the base of the pier and took a look at the pilings. ‘I can see right now that there are hardly any (sea stars) here. These corners were just covered the last time. Now these guys are just about wiped out.’”

“’Look at the baby,’ lamented Tillery, pointing to a tiny sea star. ‘He has only four arms, and he’s doing that curling-up thing … We had so much hope for the babies.’”

Melissa Miner, who is part of a coastwide monitoring program, told me that researchers are working hard to find a cause of the advancing affliction. But so far no consistent pattern has emerged to explain every outbreak.

starfish2

A leading hypothesis is that something is causing the sea stars to be stressed, weakening their defenses against the bacteria that eventually kill them. The stressor could be temperature, she said, or possibly other factors such as increased acidity or low-oxygen conditions. Perhaps another organism attacks the immune system, leaving the sea stars vulnerable to an opportunistic bacteria.

Researchers may find multiple pathways to the same conclusion: a dramatic decline in the sea star population, both at the local level and throughout their range along West Coast.

When I hear about a population crash, I think about the basic tenets of population dynamics. Is it possible that the sea star population has reached an unsustainable level, given the available food supply and other factors, and that widespread disease is a natural outcome? Will the decline of sea stars be followed by an overpopulation of mussels or other prey, leading to a decline in ecosystem diversity? How long will it take for the sea stars to recover? These are issues worthy of study in the coming years.

But I’m haunted by another prospect. Having seen our familiar starfish attacked by strange bacteria and turned to mush, what lies in store for other marine organisms? Could ecological stress and other mysterious pathogens lead to the devastating loss of other marine species? Who will be next?

Peg Tillery, Linda Martin and Barb Erickson take notes on the sea stars they see clinging to the Lofall pier. Photo by Meegan M. Reid

Peg Tillery, Linda Martin and Barb Erickson take notes on sea stars clinging to the Lofall pier.
Photo by Meegan M. Reid


For humpback whale, so many fish, so little luck

Wednesday, June 4th, 2014

This amazing photo of a humpback whale chasing a massive school of herring was taken in Prince William Sound by Rich Brenner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

A lone humpback whale swims into a huge school of herring, which keeps moving away. Photos by Rich Brenner, Alaska Department of Fish and Game

A lone humpback whale swims into a huge school of herring, but the fish keep moving away.
Photo by Rich Brenner, Alaska Department of Fish and Game

Rich took the picture in April during an aerial survey of herring. He says he has observed many humpbacks feeding on herring during the spring survey, but this whale was not having much luck, probably because the water was so clear. As the whale approached, the herring kept moving away, creating odd patterns in the water.

“As I was watching the scene, I couldn’t help but think that the whale was expending a lot of energy and not receiving much in return,” Rich wrote me in an email. “But the shallow depth and clear water probably did not favor it.”

In the weeks prior to the flight, a large algae bloom covered this area near the village of Tatitlek. If the bloom had continued, the whale and much of the herring might have been difficult to see, he said.

“Thus, we were very pleased to get such a clear view of the situation and observe the movement of the herring along with the whale. The herring school undulated away from the whale, and they were able to keep a gap between them. Only once did we observe the whale lunging forward and getting under the school.”

The second photo, below, shows the whale lunging upward and possibly getting a mouthful of herring. The platform in the top photo is part of a frame for a net pen used to hold hatchery salmon before their release.

The spring herring survey measures the extent of the spawn along the shoreline, which is used to estimate the overall biomass in Prince William Sound.

Rich said he estimated that herring in this massive school would amount to several hundred tons. GIS experts will map the school to help construct a formal estimate of the biomass.

The state has not approved a commercial herring fishery in Prince William Sound since 1999. During the 1980s and early 90s, large numbers of herring were caught commercially, Rich said. Sometime around 1993, the population crashed and has never fully recovered.

“The reason for the depleted biomass, relative to the years when we had a commercial fishery, is a subject that has been hotly debated by scientists and others for the past 20 years,” he said.

As stated in an announcement by ADFG:

“Preliminary spawn estimates (from 2013) are 20.7 mile-days (south of Knowles Head) and 5.5 mile-days (north of Knowles Head), and 3.2 mile-days (Montague Island) for a total of 29.3 mile-days of spawn. This is fewer mile-days of spawn in PWS than in any year in which commercial fishing occurred since 1973.”

Another good source of information on herring is the Prince William Sound Science Center.

The humpback whale may have caught up with some of the fish, as it surges to the surface.

The humpback whale may have caught up with some of the herring, as it surges to the surface.


Amusing Monday: Creative cakes take you places

Monday, June 2nd, 2014

I’m still amazed — and amused — by the idea that talented artists can create edible cake sculptures depicting just about any object or scene — including underwater realms and seaside landscapes.

osprey

The water-related themes are especially amusing, because water is one place you would never want to put a cake.

One amazing artist is Kim Simons, who got her start in cake decorating about five years ago while watching cake shows on television. As she told “Dessert Professional” magazine:

“I said to myself, ‘I can do that!’ So I taped the shows and freeze-framed the shots to learn of all the products they used. I started to play around with the materials and found my true passion in the process.”

The magazine listed Kim, a New Jersey resident, as one of the top 10 cake artists of North America last year.

Since then, she has won numerous awards for her specialty cakes, including the osprey cake, which was named best of division for show cakes at last year’s “That Takes the Cake! Sugar Art and Cake Show” in Austin, Texas. No one photo can capture the intricacy of this cake, so check out Kim’s website for a variety of shots of the osprey cake, and click each one to enlarge. The details are truly amazing.

The same goes for the painted turtle cake below. The detail shots help you take a closer look, as if you were seeing the cake in front of you. This cake won several awards at the 2011 National Capital Area Cake Show in Annadale, Va., where the theme was “Under the Sea.” I would have loved to have seen that show.

If you’re intrigued by these cakes, you must check out all of Kim’s creations under the tab “Award Winning Cakes” on her website, Cakes by Kim Simons.

See also previous “Water Ways” entries on cakes:

turtle


Amusing Monday: the many sides of dolphins

Monday, May 26th, 2014

Who doesn’t love dolphins? Something about their social, often playful, nature seems to stir the heart and bring smiles all around.

Today, I’d like to share three very different videos of dolphins. Click on full screen to get a good view. The first video shows a woman riding a wake board when a large number of dolphins swim up and surround her.

“We’re going to make a YouTube sensation with this, I’m sure,” says the boat driver. The video has generated more than 5 million views since it was posted a little more than a year ago.

The second includes footage of dolphins blowing bubble rings, then slicing and dicing them in playful ways. Seeing them do this causes me to reflect not only on their intelligence but also their cultural development.

The third video is the story of a surfer who owes his life to dolphins after he is attacked by a great white shark.

I’d also like to share the words of Daniel McCulloch, a leading dolphin photographer who created a website called “Dolphin Synergy”:

“As we aspire to being the most `civilised’ or `evolved’ species on this planet, it is quite humbling to realise that not only has it been inhabited for 30-40 million years compared to our 1 million or so, by another truly sentient species, but that that species is extremely emotionally, mentally & socially developed.

“Rather than being plagued with wars, violent aggression, homicides, rapes, boredom, lonliness, apathy, anger and perpetual survival struggles and starvation of the majority of the species, the dolphins are living a life and social structure of profound joy and harmony, so much so that the ancient Greeks modeled their very advanced democracy on the dolphins’ social structure.”

Read more at McCulloch’s page, “Synchronicity: The Dance of the Dolphins.”


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"In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught."Baba Dioum, Senegalese conservationist

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