Category Archives: Sea life

Coastal researchers launch blog to share findings about ocean

It’s an interesting time for researchers to begin writing a blog about ocean conditions off Oregon and Washington, an area undergoing some fascinating changes in oceanography and sealife.

The colors reveal that sea surface temperatures are significantly higher than the long-term average. Click on the map to view a six-month animation. Graphic: NOAA OSPO
Colors indicate that sea surface temperatures (°C) are significantly higher off the West Coast than the long-term average. Click on the map to view a six-month animation.
Graphic: NOAA OSPO

Scientists from NOAA Fisheries and Oregon State University launched their new website, “Newporter Blog,” last week. It’s named after the Newport Line, an area of study off the Oregon Coast where researchers have monitored changes for the past 20 years.

“This year, the ocean has been very different,” wrote blogger Jennifer Fisher in the blog’s first post on June 23. “Anomalously warm surface water dubbed the ‘warm blog’ moved onto the continental shelf off Newport in September 2014. A very large harmful algal bloom (HAB) spanning from British Columbia to California is occurring off the coast right now. El Niño conditions are occurring at the equator, and NOAA is forecasting a 90-percent chance that an El Niño will persist through the Fall.”

The next blog post last Thursday was by researcher Cheryl Morgan from the Canadian fishing vessel FV Frosti “somewhere off the coast of the Pacific Northwest,” where researchers are looking to see how juvenile salmon are doing. They were taking note of anything picked up in their nets in the upper 60 feet of water.

“Watching the trawl come in is like the anticipation of opening a Christmas gift,” Cheryl wrote. “What could be in there? How many? How big? Have we ever caught any of them in the net?

“We always hope for some juvenile salmon, since that is the main point of the survey, but we also like to see something different, strange, or unusual to spice things up,” she continued.

The next post on Monday revealed that fish being caught were of a kind seen in Northwest waters only when the temperatures rise. They included pompano and jack mackerel. The researchers were especially surprised to find bottom-dwelling flatfish in their net some several hundred feet off the bottom.

“What is a fish that lives on the bottom, one side down, doing in the water column?” she asked. “Perhaps they are lost, could not find the bottom or they are chasing some dinner. Most strange, however, was the catch of nearly 3,330 Pacific sanddabs … in ONE trawl. That was a first for even the fishing crew.”

The team also brought up a juvenile red octopus, a species normally found among rocks on the bottom — “another creature that is a long way from home.”

The research fishing will continue from Newport to the upper corner of Washington state. The scientists are taking note of any birds preying on fish before they begin their daily trawl. Plankton also are scooped up to see what the fish might be eating and to provide new data about the harmful algal bloom.

The work is being funded by NOAA and Bonneville Power Administration.

The researchers/bloggers said they would share their findings as they go along. I, for one, look forward to learning about ocean conditions and how the warm water is affecting all sorts of sealife along the West Coast.

Orca census shows increase in Southern Resident population

A census of the killer whales that frequent Puget Sound is due today, and it appears that the total population of the three Southern Resident pods is 82, up from 79 last year at this time.

But that’s not the end of the story, because two small groups of orcas have not been seen recently — so a final count must wait, according to Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research, which conducts the annual census.

J-36, a 16-year-old female named Alki, swims with her young calf J-52 (middle) and her sister, J-50 (far side). Both of the young orcas were born within the past year. Photo: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research, NMFS permit 15569/ DFO SARA 272
J-36, a 16-year-old female named Alki, swims with her young offspring J-52 and her sister, J-50. Both of the young orcas were born within the past year.
Photo: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research
NMFS permit 15569/ DFO SARA 272

The three Southern Resident pods, well defined years ago, are no longer the same, Ken told me. The tendency the past few years is for the whales to split up into smaller groups of one or more families, known as matrilines. Immediate families tend to stay together, but larger groupings such as pods and subpods are becoming less certain.

“They’ve decided to mix it up,” Ken said. “This is definitely different. If we were trying to determine pod structures right now, we couldn’t do it. It’s all mix and match.”

The Center for Whale Research records the annual census on July 1 each year and reports it to the federal government by October.

Four orca births can be reported since the last census was taken:

  • J-50 a female calf born to J-16, named Slick, last December
  • J-51 a male* calf born to J-41, named Eclipse, in February
  • L-121 a male* calf born to L-94, named Calypso, in February
  • J-52 a female male calf born to J-36, named Alki, in March

*Update: Sexes not confirmed by Center for Whale Research, and J-51 likely a male. (See comments.) I’ll update later.

These were the first births among Southern Residents to be reported since August of 2012. Some people see these newborns as a hopeful sign for the future of the population, which is listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

So far, one death has been confirmed over the past year. That was J-32, an 18-year-old female named Rhapsody, who was found dead on Dec. 4 floating near Courtenay, B.C. The young whale was pregnant, and experts believe that the death of the fetus inside her body could have led to her death as well. For more details , see Water Ways from Dec. 7 and from Dec. 12.

While there is no reason to believe that any other deaths have occurred over the past year, nobody can be sure, at least not until the last two groups of whales can be observed. If any animals are truly missing after their family groups are carefully observed, we could see one or more whales added to the death list.

In all, nine whales have not been seen this spring or summer since returning to the San Juan Islands. One of the two groups of whales was spotted off the Washington Coast in February, when all the whales were present. One of the uncertain groups was reported yesterday near San Juan Island, but I have not heard whether any “missing” whales were identified.

Since the census report is not due until October, there is time to see whether any more whales have died this past year. If any more deaths are identified, the researchers will need to make a judgment about whether the death occurred before or after the July 1 census cutoff. We can certainly hope that all the whales will be accounted for.

Ken suspects that the pod groupings are becoming less distinct because of the changing pattern of available prey, primarily chinook salmon. When large schools of wild chinook head back to the rivers, killer whales can work together to herd the fish and gain an advantage.

Ken says hatchery chinook may not school together as much as wild chinook, so the advantage goes to smaller groups of orcas if the majority of salmon are from hatcheries.

“The prey field has changed for them,” he said. “Back when we named the pods, the bulk of the fish were wild, and they were coming through in pulses. All these fish were related and from the same river system. Now with the hatchery program, there are less pulses and the fish are more spread out.”

The chinook also are much smaller than they used to be, he said, so it takes more effort to get the same nutritional benefit.

The Center for Whale Research, now in its 40th year, conducts its census work in Puget Sound under a grant from the National Marine Fisheries Service. The grant is fairly limited, so the center began offering memberships a few years ago to raise money for additional research.

This year’s membership drive is nearly halfway toward its goal of 750 members, with 329 members signed on as of yesterday. An individual membership costs $30 a year. For details and special member benefits, go to “Supporting the Center for Whale Research.”

In a related development, Ken recently took a trip into Snake River country in Eastern Washington, the source of upstream habitat for many of the salmon that come down the Columbia River. His experience and what he has learned about the Snake River dams has placed him among advocates for dam removal in this hotly contested debate.

After returning from his trip, Ken wrote an essay posted on the National Geographic blog “Voices: Ideas and Insights from Explorers.” Here are some excerpts from the blog post:

“Until recently, dam removal was against my conservative nature…

“In truth, already well known to others but not to me, these four Snake River dams are obsolete for their intended purposes and are being maintained at huge taxpayer expense for the benefit of a very few users. Plus, they are salmon-killers in a former river (now a series of lakes) that historically provided spawning and rearing habitat for millions of chinook salmon…”

“The technological fixes for the dams have not improved wild salmon runs, and there is nothing left to try. As a nation, we are dangerously close to managing the beloved Southern Resident killer whale population to quasi-extinction (less than 30 breeding animals) as a result of diminishing populations of chinook salmon upon which they depend…

“Returning the Snake River to natural condition will help salmon and whales, and save money. Please do not wait until all are gone. Call or write your representatives today!”

Amusing Monday: Bears, birds and more can be viewed live online

The beautiful and powerful brown bears have arrived at Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park and Preserve in Alaska, and everyone in the world can enjoy the convenience of watching these giant bears and other amazing wildlife live from the comfort and safety of their home.

Lots of people have been going out to falls this year to watch the bears from nearby viewing platforms, but I get the feeling that far more people have been watching them from home via the live webcams. I say that because of the number of comments generated on the website. More than a few commenters seem to know the area well and even call the bears by their nicknames. (Park biologists use a numbering system, identifying each bear by coat and claw colors, scars, body size and shape, ear size and shape, sex, facial features and disposition.)

Brooks Falls is one of the first streams in the region where the bears have easy access to bright salmon soon after they leave the saltwater and before spawning. The falls provide a partial barrier to their travels, making fishing easier for the bears. By sometime in August, the fish runs will dwindle and the bears will be gone.

Operators of the multiple live webcams do a good job of zooming in when something interesting happens. Occasionally, so much is going on that they don’t know what to show. Other times, we wait and watch the beautiful scenery, which is especially dramatic at sunrise and sunset.

When the bears are actively fishing for salmon, I find it hard to break away and get back to daily life. One video trick I’ve learned: If you don’t see anything interesting in the live view, you can use your cursor to scan across the timeline to see what has happened for the past few hours and watch that instead.

Park officials have identified the various fishing methods used by the bears in an interesting Q&A section on the national park’s website.

Birds and marine mammal cams

Besides watching bears, it’s a good time of year to watch other wildlife as well via live webcam. Birds are typically active on their nests, raising their young.

Chesapeake Conservancy is featuring the osprey couple, Tom and Audrey, who perennially nest on Kent Island in Maryland. Audrey has taken up with a new “Tom” this year and produced three babies. They also received two foster chicks from nearby Poplar Island, according to information on the website.

Another good osprey cam was installed this year in Belwood Lake Conservation Area near the Great Lakes in Ontario, Canada. Three eggs reportedly hatched, but I see only two chicks in the nest.

Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife also has an osprey cam that updates still photos every 12 seconds.

A puffin cam at Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge in Maine shows a fuzzy chick tucked into a burrow where its mother comes and goes to feed her baby. Other views shows puffins on a ledge where they often hang out. Wildlife biologists are trying to establish a new colony at this location after hunters wiped out the puffins in the 1800s.

Another live camera on Seal Island shows a guillemot in a burrow.

If you would like to see a colony of walruses, (also in video player below) check out the live camera installed on Round Island, Alaska. Sometimes only a few of the large mammals can be seen. Other times, like this morning, large numbers were pushing and shoving each other for space. The comments are often entertaining.

If you are interested in more live cams of wildlife, check out last year’s Water Ways entry from June 23, 2014.

Meanwhile, the Seattle Aquarium is featuring live cams from its displays of harbor seals and sea lions.

Amusing Monday: Puppet, music help people save rockfish

Last week, while looking into some early research findings about Puget Sound rockfish (Water Ways, June 18), I found an amusing video, one created to encourage anglers to save the lives of rockfish when releasing the fish.

The video begins with a talking rockfish (puppet) sitting at a desk and watching a music video. That leads into a conversation about barotrauma, a type of injury to rockfish that results when the fish are caught and brought to the surface from deep water. Barotrauma can be reversed — and the lives of fish saved — by using a device to get the fish back down deep.

If you fish in deep water, you probably already know about this device, but I think everyone can be amused by this video and appreciate how humor can help introduce people to a serious topic.

The first couple minutes of the video introduces the viewer to the problem of barotrauma in simple terms, followed by about five minutes of product reviews showing various devices to reduce the effects on fish. If you are not interested in the technical side of things, you can skip over this part and go to 6:55 in the video. There you will hear the funny rap song about fishing for rockfish, including a line about “sending them back to where you got ‘em.”

The music video, “Rockfish Recompression,” was written and sung by Ray Troll and Russell Wodehouse. Wodehouse is the musician appearing in the video. Those two and others have long performed as the group Ratfish Wranglers, creating funny tunes about fish and related issues.

If you’d like to hear more from this group, check out these YouTube performances:

Research on rockfish
in Puget Sound reveals intriguing findings

This week’s announcement that the coastal population of canary rockfish had dramatically rebounded got me to wondering what new information might be coming from research on the threatened and endangered rockfish of Puget Sound.

Canary rockfish Photo by Tippy Jackson, NOAA
Canary rockfish // Photo by Tippy Jackson, NOAA

Dayv Lowry, research scientist at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, shared some intriguing new information about Puget Sound rockfish that could link into the coastal population. In fact, if limited genetic findings hold up, a delisting of one type of Puget Sound rockfish could be in order.

On Monday, the Pacific Fishery Management Council reported that West Coast populations of two groundfish species — canary rockfish and petrale sole — have been “rebuilt” some 42 years earlier than expected. Canary rockfish were declared “overfished” in 2000, and a rebuilding plan was put in place a year later. Strict fishing restrictions were imposed, and experts expected the stock to rebound successfully by 2057.

“This is a big deal,” former council chairman Dan Wolford said in a news release. “We now have six times more canary rockfish than when we scaled back so many fisheries. This shows the Pacific council’s conservation policies work.”

Meanwhile, WDFW and NOAA Fisheries are researching the three species of Puget Sound rockfish listed under the Endangered Species Act. They are canary rockfish and yelloweye rockfish, both listed as threatened, and bacaccio, listed as endangered.

Yelloweye rockfish Photo by Kip Evans, NOAA
Yelloweye rockfish
Photo by Kip Evans, NOAA

Underwater surveys with a remotely operated vehicle in 2012 and 2013 looked for all sorts of bottomfish across a grid laid down on Puget Sound. Researchers found a greater abundance of quillback and copper rockfish (not ESA listed) than in the past, and young juvenile quillbacks were seen on muddy substrate — not the place you would normally look for rockfish.

While that was encouraging, nearly 200 hours of video at 197 grid points revealed just two canary and five yelloweye rockfish.

“That was quite distressing to us,” Dayv said.

This year and next, surveys are more focused on rocky habitat, including locations where fishing guides say they have had success catching rockfish in the past. The results are more encouraging, locating somewhere around 40 canary and 40 yelloweye and two bacaccio, Dayv said.

“We’ve caught some big fish and some little fish, so the population demographics have not entirely collapsed,” Dayv told me, and that means there is still hope for recovery.

Rockfish don’t typically reproduce until somewhere between 5 and 20 years old, so over-fishing places the future of the entire population at risk. Some rockfish are known to live as long as 100 years.

Finding juvenile yelloweyes — “bright red with ‘racing stripes’” — is especially encouraging Dayv said.

Genetic work so far is offering some intriguing new findings, he noted. While yelloweye rockfish from Puget Sound and the Strait of Georgia seem to be distinct from those on the coast, the same cannot be said for canary rockfish.

In fact, the limited samples taken so far suggest that the coastal population of canary rockfish — those found by the PFMC to be “rebuilt” — may not be genetically distinct from canary rockfish living in Puget Sound.

If that proves to be the case, it could have a profound effect on what we understand about canary rockfish and could even lead to a de-listing of the Puget Sound population.

Kelly Andrews, a genetics expert with NOAA Fisheries, cautioned that the sample size is small and more results are needed before anyone can draw conclusions. New samples are soon to be examined to see if there are any differences between canary rockfish on the coast and those in Puget Sound.

“What initially may seem to be the same could change dramatically with all these new samples we just got,” he told me. “Still just finding them is good news.”

When the Puget Sound rockfish were listed in 2010, researchers did not have the genetic data to define the populations in that way, so they used reasonable assumptions about geographic isolation. Now, the genetics can be factored in.

A five-year review is due to be completed this year for the listed rockfish in Puget Sound. If the new genetics information holds up, then the technical review team could propose a delisting of the canary rockfish.

For that reason, a long-awaited recovery plan for rockfish is being completed for the most part, but its release will be delayed until the genetic information is conclusive and the five-year review is completed. It would not make sense to come out with a recovery plan for canary rockfish, if the plan is to delist the population.

Meanwhile, small areas of Quilcene and Dabob bays have been reopened to fishing for some flatfish. (See earlier news release.) Bottom fishing is generally closed in Hood Canal because of the ongoing low-oxygen problems and its effects of bottom fish.

As in other areas of Puget Sound, targeted bottom fishing must take place in less than 120 feet of water, and all rockfish caught must be released. Experts strongly advise using a “descending device” (see video) to get rockfish safely back to deep water, no matter where they are caught. Without that, many of the fish die from barotrauma caused by the ballooning of their swim bladder as they are brought to the surface. See “Bring That Fish Down” by California Sea Grant and “Protecting Washington’s Rockfish” by WDFW.

New website reveals strategies for improving Hood Canal ecosystem

If you want to know how the Hood Canal Coordinating Council is working to protect and restore Hood Canal, take a look at a new website created by the council. It is called OurHoodCanal.org.

Hood

The website is an attractive and functional companion to the “Hood Canal Integrated Watershed Plan” (PDF 325 kb), a five-year strategic plan focused on programs that can be accomplished by the coordinating council and its members.

Hood Canal Coordinating Council is made up of county commissioners from Kitsap, Mason and Jefferson counties, along with leaders from the Skokomish and Port Gamble S’Klallam tribes.

When planning efforts began five years ago, the idea was to create an “integrated” plan that would recognize all the ecological functions taking place in the Hood Canal watershed and create a set of strategies for addressing all the various problems.

The effort got off to a good start by identifying many of the problems, ranging from declining fish populations to fragmented upland habitats. But the complexity of those problems, the variability of conditions and the numerous agencies responsible for data and decisions eventually overwhelmed the planners. It was as if they were trying to complete a jigsaw puzzle containing a million pieces.

The coordinating council decided to refocus the effort on issues that are under its purview while maintaining the long-term vision of a sustainable Hood Canal ecosystem that benefits humans in a variety of ways.

“Ideally, we will eventually get to all the issues,” said Scott Brewer, the council’s executive director. “The board decided it wanted to focus on something that would be the first strategic priorities and then pick up the other things over time.”

In this context, the plan identifies five focal components:

  • Shellfish,
  • Commercial shellfish harvesting,
  • Forests,
  • Forestry, and
  • Salmon.

Also, four major “pressures” are called out for special attention:

  • Commercial and residential development,
  • Transportation and service corridors,
  • Climate change and ocean acidification, and
  • Wastewater discharges and stormwater runoff.

These are issues that the county and tribal leaders were already addressing in one way or another, either through local actions or through the Hood Canal Coordinating Council, which is recognized under state law.

The new website OurHoodCanal.org highlights the connections between human well-being and natural resources. The first findings focus on three natural resource indicators — one each for shellfish, forests and salmon — plus five indicators for human well being — positive emotions, communication, traditional resource practices, communities, natural resource industries and access to local food.

A survey last year, for example, showed that Hood Canal generates positive emotions (at least most of the time) for the vast majority of respondents, yet most Hood Canal residents say they don’t often work together to manage resources, prepare cultural events or solve community challenges.

The website also includes a section about what people can do to help Hood Canal.

“This is a work in progress,” Scott said about the planning effort and related website. “We can start by telling a really good story about what is happening in Hood Canal, then going on to make connections and asking whether we are doing the right things.”

The first strategies identified in the plan involve:

  • Working together on local land-use planning,
  • Identifying failing septic systems and other sources of bacterial pollution,
  • Continuing projects to restore healthy runs of salmon,
  • Furthering a mitigation program to fully compensate for the effects of development,
  • Finding ways to adapt to climate change, and
  • Developing a regional plan to reduce stormwater problems.

Meanwhile, the coordinating council has developed a new ranking system for setting priorities for salmon restoration. Refinements will come later, Scott said, but the system is currently being used to identify restoration projects to be proposed for funding later this year.

Under the Salmon Recovery Prioritization (see “guidance” document) projects will be given more consideration if they help highly rated salmon stocks, such as fall chinook in the Skokomish River, summer chum in the Big Quilcene and so on. Projects are given points for addressing specific habitat types and restoration actions deemed to be the most important.

If successful, this approach will result in funding the most important restoration projects, as determined through a more precise ranking process than ever used before, although it does leave room for judgment calls.

While the Hood Canal Coordinating Council works on projects in Hood Canal, other groups continue with similar efforts in other watersheds.

“Everyone is prioritizing one way or another,” Scott told me, “but they haven’t looked at it like we have.”

Scott said agencies and organizations that grant money for salmon recovery or ecosystem restoration could call for an improved ranking process throughout Puget Sound.

“A lot of money gets spread everywhere,” he noted, “but there are some key spots throughout Puget Sound that need it more than others.”

Will fake killer whale fool sea lions in Astoria — and what if it does?

I was eager to find out if a 32-foot fiberglass replica of a killer whale could scare off a huge number of sea lions crowded together on the docks in Astoria, Ore.

I kept telling my wife Sue, “It’s not going to work” — and I had not the slightest idea that the motorized orca might capsize during its attempt to frighten the persistent sea lions.

About 1,000 people were on hand last night when a human operator drove the orca toward the sea lions, according to Associated Press reporter Terrence Petty. A passing cargo ship created a wake that rushed toward the shore and capsized the fake killer whale. And that was that for now. You can read the story in the Kitsap Sun.

I understand that the fake killer whale might be deployed again against the sea lions in August, when their numbers are expected to be high again. I still doubt that it will work — unless the operators can find a way to aggressively approach the sea lions and stay with the effort for an extended time. It might help to play recordings of transient killer whales — the kind that eat marine mammals. But my understanding is that transients don’t make many sounds when they are in their hunting mode.

I readily admit that I’m not a killer whale expert, but let me tell you why I believe that any sort of limited effort with fake orcas will fail. It’s not that sea lions don’t fear transients. In fact, if sea lions can be convinced that they are being approached by a real killer whale, their fear level could be quite high.

I’ve heard from homeowners who live on Hood Canal, Dyes Inlet and other shorelines that when transient killer whales are around, seals and sea lions head for shore, climb up on docks and even attempt to board boats to get away from them.

So I don’t know if the fiberglass orca will fool the sea lions in Astoria, but does anyone think that these marine mammals are crazy enough to jump into the water if they believe a killer is there waiting for them?

Search intensifies
for remaining
spartina invaders

Rain and shine. Rain and shine. Rain and shine.

These are the days of near-perfect growing conditions for plants in Western Washington. If you are battling noxious weeds, it might seem as if the weather is working against you, favoring these destructive invaders along with other plants.

Crews removing spartina from Tulalip Bay. Dept. of Agriculture photo
Crews remove spartina from Tulalip Bay.
Washington Department of Agriculture photo

But one team of weed warriors, hoping to eradicate an invasive plant called spartina, sees this growing season another way. Instead of hindering the eradication effort, this rapid growth of spartina — also known as cordgrass — makes it easier to locate and eliminate the last of the invaders.

“The bad thing is you get a lot more plants than you expect,” said Chad Phillips, spartina coordinator for the Washington State Department of Agriculture. “The good thing is that a lot of the plants you might not have seen (in a normal year) have germinated, so you can get rid of them.”

Over the past 12 years, the total estimated acreage occupied by spartina in Washington state has been reduced from 9,000 acres to just eight acres. It has been a coordinated effort involving local, state and federal agencies; tribal governments; universities; private landowners; and many volunteers.

The search-and-destroy mission will continue, because the plants have a way of coming back, sometimes showing up in new locations.

Left unchecked, spartina spreads rapidly, crowding out native vegetation while converting ecologically important mudflats into meadows choked with a hardy marsh grass. Besides wrecking shellfish beds, spartina wipes out shoreline habitat for shorebirds and waterfowl while increasing the risk of flooding, experts say.

Those involved in the spartina effort this year are expected to look for spartina plants — and eliminate any they find — over more than 80,000 acres of saltwater estuaries and 1,000 miles of shoreline in 12 counties.

Spartina_map

After working for years in Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor, spartina crews turned their focus last year to Puget Sound, where about 90 percent of the remaining spartina-infested acreage can be found. The map on this page uses black triangles to depict areas where spartina has been eradicated.

When crews go into an area, they remove all the plants they can find. Individual plants or clusters of plants can be dug by hand, whereas larger infestations may be treated with herbicide.

Crews typically return to a given site twice in a year. A site is considered eradicated if no plants are seen for at least three years with a minimum of six surveys. After that, they will typically return once a year to make sure the plants don’t come back.

The crews are scheduled to visit every shoreline at least once every five years to look for any new infestations of spartina.

The workers obtain permission from property owners before removing or killing plants. But often the neighbors are unaware of what they are doing. Chad said it is not unusual for neighbors to approach crew members to ask why they are there. Sometimes, the crews are suspected of being shellfish poachers.

“If you see us working, feel free to come over and say ‘hi,’” Chad said. “We’ll be on a beach in knee boots with a shovel.”

In Kitsap County, the largest infestation has been at Doe-Kag-Wats, an estuary on the Port Madison Indian Reservation north of Indianola in North Kitsap. After years of removing truckloads of vegetation, the total infestation there was down to 61 square feet last year.

Another infested area has been Foulweather Bluff near Hansville, where 24 square feet of spartina were removed.

Areas considered active because of recent infestations but where no plants were found last year are Manzanita Bay on Bainbridge Island and Coon Bay near Manchester.

Mason and Thurston are the only counties that have never had an infestation, but beaches in those counties remain part of the ongoing five-year survey cycle.

In Puget Sound, most of the spartina found has been identified as the species Spartina anglica, or common cordgrass. This species was introduced to Snohomish County in 1961. The largest infestation in the state today is an area in South Skagit Bay and Port Susan near Stanwood.

Bays on the Pacific Ocean contain primarily Spartina alterniflora, known as smooth cordgrass or saltmarsh cordgrass. It was introduced to Willapa Bay in the late 1800s, eventually spreading to 8,500 acres. Since 2003, about 99.9 percent of that spartina acreage has been killed or removed, making it one of the largest eradications of an invasive species anywhere in the country.

Spartina patens, known as saltmeadow cordgrass or salt marsh hay, is a native of the Atlantic Coast. It was discovered in the 1990s at Dosewallips State Park on Hood Canal. Dosewallips held the only known infestation of S. patens in Washington state until 2013, when a survey crew found the plant on Navy property on the Toandos Peninsula across from the Bangor submarine base. After receiving permission, the site was treated in 2014. Ongoing efforts will be necessary, as the invasive plant blends in well with native marsh plants.

For a description of the spartina infestations and treatments in each county, check out the “2014 Progress Report” (PDF 41 mb) for the Spartina Eradication Program.

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.