Category Archives: Sea life

Virus connected to sea star wasting syndrome, but questions remain

I’ll never forget my visit this past summer to the Lofall dock and nearby beach on Hood Canal in North Kitsap. It was a scene of devastation, in which starfish of all sizes were losing their limbs and decomposing into gooey masses.

Barb Erickson and Linda Martin examine young sea stars for signs of wasting disease at Lofall pier last summer.
Barb Erickson and Linda Martin examine young sea stars for wasting disease at Lofall pier last summer.
Kitsap Sun photo by Meegan M. Reid.

My guides on the excursion were three women who had been watching for changes in sea stars as part of a volunteer monitoring program being conducted up and down the West Coast. The three were shocked at what they saw on the trip, as I described in a story for the Kitsap Sun as well as in a blog post in Water Ways.

Now, researchers are reporting that a virus, known as densovirus, appears to be playing a central role in the devastation of millions of sea stars from Alaska to Mexico. Their findings were reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PDF 1.1 mb).

Many questions remain about the mysterious affliction known as “sea star wasting syndrome.” For one, why were the sea stars affected over such a wide area, all at about the same time?

As described in the report, the researchers went to museums with sea stars preserved in alcohol and found that the virus was present in specimens collected as long ago as 1942 at various West Coast sites. Minor outbreaks of the wasting syndrome have been reported through the years, but obviously something much bigger is taking place now.

Sea star near Lofall
Sea star near Lofall

A change in the environment, such as ocean acidification, has been suggested as one possibility. A change in the virus, such as we see for the flu virus in humans, is another idea. It could also be related to an over-population among the sea stars themselves.

Jeff Adams of Washington Sea Grant, who is leading the local monitoring program in Kitsap County, said it is good that researchers have found something to go on, but other causative factors are yet to be discovered.

“Why and where; those are two of the things still on the table,” Jeff told me. “What are the environmental factors that drove this much larger die-off? Was it something that made the virus more prevalent or something that made the sea stars weaker?”

Jeff noted that the cause of death may not be the virus itself but rather opportunistic pathogens that attack the sea stars after their immune systems are weakened by the virus.

“Density may have played a factor,” he said. “Sea star populations have been thick and strong over the past 12 years. When you get a lot of individuals in close proximity, you can get sudden changes. Marine populations fluctuate quite a bit naturally.”

Jeff hopes to maintain the volunteer monitoring program for years to come, not just to track the disease but to understand more about the cycles of marine life. Of course, he would like to be able to report on an ongoing recovery of sea star populations from their current state of devastation. Will the recovery occur in patches or uniformly at all monitored sites?

“Ideally, this will run its course, and we will start seeing juveniles showing up over the course of the summer,” he said. “How many of them will disappear?

“Ideally, we will be able to maintain some sites for much longer. For me, as a naturalist, there are lots of questions about natural historical cycles that have not been addressed. A lot of critters are facing challenges (to their survival).”

In Puget Sound, these challenges range from loss of habitat to pollution to climate change, and the predator-prey balance will determine whether any population —and ultimately entire species — can survive.

Linda Martin, one of the volunteers who gave me a tour of the Lofall beach, said she was glad that researchers have identified a viral cause of the sea-star devastation, but it remains unclear how that is going to help the population recover.

Because of the timing of low tide, the three women have not been to Lofall since early October, when the population was “completely depleted,” according to Linda. But they are planning to go back next weekend.

“We are anxious to go out and see if there is anything there,” she said. “We have not seen any juveniles for a long time. Originally, when we started out, we were seeing uncountable numbers of juveniles.”

As for the new findings, I thought it was interesting how the researchers removed tissues from diseased sea stars then filtered out everything down to the size of viruses. After that, they exposed one group of healthy sea stars to a raw sample of the fluid and another group to a heat-treated sample. The raw sample caused disease, but the heat-treated sample did not.

They then used DNA techniques to identify the virus, which was found in larger and larger concentrations as the disease progressed. Check out the research report in the Proceedings of the NAS (PDF 1.1 mb).

Jeff Barnard of the Associated Press interviewed researchers involved in the study and others familiar with the problem.

Amusing Monday:
Flying fish for increased survival, savings and fun

The “salmon cannon,” a pneumatic-tube device destined to replace some fish ladders, got plenty of serious attention this fall from various news organizations.

You may have seen demonstrations by the inventor, Whoosh Innovations of Bellevue, that showed adult salmon shooting unharmed through flexible tubes. For dramatic effect, some videos showed the salmon flying out the end of the tube and splashing into water. Among those who found the device amusing were commentators for “CBS This Morning” and “Red Eye” on Fox.

For a laugh, comedian John Oliver recently took the idea in a different direction, aiming his personal salmon cannon at celebrities including Jon Stuart, Jimmy Fallon and… Well, if you haven’t seen the video (above), I won’t spoil it for you.

All this attention has been a surprise for Vince Bryan, CEO for Whooshh, who told Vancouver Columbian reporter Eric Florip that he has spoken with hundreds of news organizations and potential customers from throughout the world.

“It was a nice boost because it says one thing, that people care a lot about the fish, and two, that there really is a need,” Bryan was quoted as saying.

A good description of the potential applications for the “salmon cannon” was written by reporter Laura Geggel of Live Science. Meanwhile, Reuters produced a nice animation showing how the tube works. And a video on the Whooshh Innovations YouTube channel, shown below, provides a clear demonstration how the transport system can work for both humans and fish.

Agency lists critical habitat for endangered Puget Sound rockfish

National Marine Fisheries Service has designated more than 1,000 square miles of Puget Sound as “critical habitat” for rockfish — a colorful, long-lived fish decimated by over-fishing and environmental problems.

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

In Hood Canal, we know that thousands of rockfish have been killed by low-oxygen conditions, and their populations have been slow to recover because of low reproductive rates. Elsewhere, rockfish are coming back with mixed success, helped in some locations by marine protected areas.

The final designation of critical habitat was announced today in the Federal Register for yelloweye rockfish and canary rockfish, both listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, and bocaccio, listed as “endangered.”

The critical habitat listing includes 590 square miles of nearshore habitat for canary rockfish and bocaccio, and 414 square miles of deepwater habitat for all three species. Nearshore areas include kelp forests important for the growth and survival of juvenile rockfish. Deeper waters are used for shelter, food and reproduction by adults.

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

Potential critical habitat was reduced by 15 percent for canary rockfish and bocaccio and by 28 percent for yelloweye rockfish. Most of the excluded area was deemed already protected, either by tribes near their reservations or by the military near Navy and Army bases and their operational areas.

The designated habitat overlaps in large part with existing critical habitat for salmon, killer whales and bull trout. The only new areas added without overlap are some deep-water areas in Hood Canal.

Under the law, federal actions within designated habitat must undergo consultations with the National Marine Fisheries Service. Such actions — which include funding or issuing permits for private development — cannot be approved if they are found to be detrimental to the continuing survival of the species.

Catherine Kilduff of the Center for Biological Diversity offered this comment about the habitat designation in a news release:

“Saving rockfish from extinction requires protecting some of the most important places they live, and that’s exactly what’s happening now in the Puget Sound. These habitat protections will not only give rockfish a fighting chance at survival but will help all of the animals that live in these waters.”

Critical habitat for rockfish in Central Puget Sound NOAA map
Critical habitat for rockfish in Central Puget Sound
NOAA map from Federal Register

The three species of rockfish were placed on the Endangered Species List in 2010, following a series of petitions by biologist Sam Wright. Last year, the Center for Biological Diversity notified the National Marine Fisheries Service of its intent to file a lawsuit over the agency’s delay in designating critical habitat.

Federal and state biologists are now working on a recovery plan. I have not heard whether they still hope to get the plan completed next year.

Rockfish are unusual among bony fishes in that fertilization and embryo development are internal. Female rockfish give birth to live young. After birth, the larval rockfish may drift in shallow waters for several months, feeding on plankton. Among the listed species:

  • Canary rockfish can reach up to 2.5 feet in length. Adults have bright yellow to orange mottling over gray, three orange stripes across the head and orange fins. They can live to be 75 years old.
  • Bocaccio can reach up to 3 feet in length. They have a distinctively long jaw extending to the eye socket. Adult colors range from olive to burnt orange or brown. Their age is difficult to determine, but they may live as long as 50 years.
  • Yelloweye rockfish can reach up to 3.5 feet in length and 39 pounds in weight. They are orange-red to orange-yellow in color and may have black on their fin tips. Their eyes are bright yellow. They are among the longest lived of rockfishes, living up to 118 years.

A 2011 plan for saving the rockfish was written by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife with assistance from a group of experts. The report, “Puget Sound Rockfish Conservation Plan” (PDF 706 kb), identifies the cause for the population declines:

“These declines have largely been caused by historical fishing practices, although several other stress factors play a part in their decline. Rockfish in urban areas are exposed to high levels of chemical contamination, which may be affecting their reproductive success. Poor water quality in Hood Canal has resulted in massive periodic kills of rockfish as well as other species. Lost or abandoned fishing nets trap and kill large numbers of rockfish.”

The plan identifies these objectives to restore the population:

  • Place the highest priority on protecting and restoring the natural production of indicator rockfishes to healthy levels,
  • Promote natural production through the appropriate use of hatcheries and artificial habitats,
  • Protect and restore all marine habitat types for all rockfish species,
  • Manage all Puget Sound fisheries to ensure the health and productivity of all rockfish stocks,
  • Protect and restore existing functions of rockfish in the complex ecosystem and food web in Puget Sound,
  • Conduct monitoring of indicator stocks to evaluate stock status and management actions,
  • Implement new research to understand the diversity, biology and productivity of indicator rockfish, and
  • Conduct a strategic outreach and education program to inform Washington citizens of the value of rockfish stocks and to promote ecotourism.

Kitsap rains: not too much, not too little for salmon and aquifers

The on-and-off rains over the past two weeks are nearly perfect for both spawning salmon and for recharging shallow groundwater supplies, experts say.

Chum salmon in Chico Creek. Kitsap Sun photo
Chum salmon in Chico Creek.
Kitsap Sun photo

For October, total rainfall ranges from about 5 inches at Hansville to 12 inches at Holly, according to rain gauges managed by the Kitsap Public Utility District. Fortunately, those rains have not been delivered to us in only a few days.

The intermittent nature of October rains has allowed the streams to maintain their flows without flooding. They’ve also allowed infiltration into the ground without excessive runoff.

“It is the good kind of rain,” said Bob Hunter, interim manager of Kitsap PUD. “We’ve had a couple of days when we’ve had 2-plus inches, but we haven’t seen the streams flash.”

In other words, the streams have not risen excessively fast. Bob attributes that to how dry the ground was before the rains began. Soils were able to absorb much of the early rainfall before stormwater runoff began to increase. Pauses between the rainstorms allowed more of the water to soak into the ground.

“It just goes to show you the variability that we have around here,” Bob told me.

October marks the beginning of the 2015 “water year.” Although we are just a month into the start of the year, the rainfall has been closely tracking all-time highs at some rain gauges — including Holly, which has been monitored since 1999. (See charts below.)

Meanwhile, the rain pattern in October was nearly perfect for salmon, said Jon Oleyar of the Suquamish Tribe, who walks the East Kitsap streams to count migrating salmon as they arrive.

“It seems like we’ve had storms coming in every couple of days, so they are not right on top of each other,” Jon said. “That gives the streams some time to recede.”

When there is not adequate flow, the salmon often wait for the streams to rise. On the other hand, too much flow can wash salmon eggs out of the streambed.

Last week’s rains got the chum salmon moving into most of the East Kitsap streams, Jon told me.

“I checked Chico Creek on Wednesday, and there were almost 11,000 fish in there and going up about as far as they can get,” he said.

A good escapement for the Chico Creek system is between 12,000 and 15,000 chum, and there is still more than a month left — assuming a typical timing of the run, he said. But things are looking a little different this year, he noted, and the bulk of the run may have arrived already.

One indication that timing could be different this year is that Gorst Creek already has a fair number of chum salmon — perhaps 500 — yet the Gorst Creek run usually comes in later and continues well into December.

Is it possible that all or most of the salmon runs are coming in early? It’s a question that only time will answer.

Jon told me that he’s a bit water-logged at the moment, trying to count fish in the rain with the streams running high.

“I’m pretty happy about it,” Jon said. “I have my fish up where they need to be, but it’s just hard to count them right now. If you’re a fish, this is really working for you.”

In the charts below, found on the Kitsap PUD’s website, you can see that October’s rainfall has been tracking the record high rainfall at these stations. Of course, the “water year” has barely begun, so anything can happen. (Click on images to enlarge.)

Rain-Holly

Rain-CK

Rain-Hansville

Experts to talk salmon and habitat at Poulsbo Fish Park on Saturday

Poulsbo’s Fish Park will have a variety of experts on hand Saturday to talk about the salmon run in Dogfish Creek and other North Kitsap streams, as well as restoration efforts taking place throughout the region.

salmon viewing

Fun and educational activities for kids are part of the event, which will go from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. My description of salmon-viewing events on Saturday had the wrong date for the event. Check out the flyer posted by Poulsbo Parks and Recreation.

Paul Dorn, a biologist with the Suquamish Tribe, said the best bet to see salmon in the creek will be earlier in the day, as the tide will be incoming. Natural organic compounds called tannins tend to color the water brown, so it is not always easy to spot migrating salmon in the lower part of Dogfish Creek. If you miss them at Fish Park, it may be worth a trip to Valley Nursery off Bond Road, where I’ve often had luck seeing salmon.

“We just finished a wonderful restoration project,” Paul told me, describing the installation of woody debris and gravel on a tributary of Dogfish Creek at Fish Park. It’s a small stream, he said, but it’s good rearing habitat for juvenile coho salmon and cutthroat trout, and adult salmon can go up the stream when the flows are high.

Salmon events are scheduled the following Saturday, Nov. 8:

  • Cowling Creek Center, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., 20345 Miller Bay Road.
  • Chico Salmon Viewing Park, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., adjacent to Kitsap Golf and Country Club, www.ext100.wsu.edu/kitsap.
  • Mountaineers Rhododendron Preserve, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., with walking tours at 10 a.m., 11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m., www.ext100.wsu.edu/kitsap.

For a map of accessible salmon-viewing locations with videos that describe each spot, go to Kitsap Peninsula Salmon Watching. While there, check out the tips for successful salmon-viewing.

Amusing Monday: Glowing fish are both beautiful and amazing

Science merges into art in new studies of biofluorescence, in which researchers identify colorful marine creatures that glow in the dark. Their ultimate goal is to figure out why.

Biofluorescence is essentially the “black light” effect, in which organisms absorb a narrow frequency range of blue light and transform it into other colors, such as green and red. In deep water, blue is the only frequency of light that makes it through.

Until recently, there was no technology to capture images of fluorescent fish in extremely low-light conditions. Artificial light ruins the effect, and older low-light cameras were too bulky to travel underwater. New cameras developed at Yale University changed the ability of research divers to capture colorful images of sea creatures and bring them back to the surface for further study. So far, more than 180 biofluorescent fish species have been identified.

David Gruber, John Sparks and others are trying to figure out if there is a reason that some fish produce a glow. They would also like to know which of the other creatures are able to see them in the darkness. Check out the article in the journal PLOS ONE published Jan. 8.

Gruber notes that camouflage fish — those able to blend in with their surroundings in regular white light — are often those that stand out brilliantly in fluorescent light. He speculates that fish of the same species are better able to see them, offering advantages in communication and mating. For the sake of these glowing fish, it would be nice to learn that their predators cannot spot them so easily.

The natural beauty of these fluorescent patterns is not overlooked by Gruber and his associates.

“I just find a real serenity and beauty being on the reef at night,” Gruber says in the first video on this page. “And now when we add on this kind of fluorescent layer, it’s like being on another planet.”

Last week, National Geographic published the latest installment in its Emerging Explorers series featuring Gruber and including a new video about his studies called “David Gruber: Seeing the Ocean in Neon.”

It’s salmon-watching time on Kitsap Peninsula

The salmon are coming! The salmon are coming!

The recent rains have done the job; the streams have risen; and chum salmon are moving swiftly into Chico Creek — and probably other streams on the Kitsap Peninsula.

Click on image to open interactive map.
Click to open interactive map.

I stopped by Chico Salmon Viewing Park today and observed chum in all portions of the stream and moving upstream at the bridge on Chico Way. The park, where volunteers have made significant improvements, is adjacent to Kitsap Golf and Country Club. Park officials say it is OK to walk around the chain-link fence and enter the park, but please stay on the trails once you are inside.

I also noticed a large number of salmon at the mouth of Chico Creek, milling around the culvert under Highway 3. The old culvert on Kittyhawk Drive has been torn out, so it is no longer an obstacle. The stream channel has been reconfigured to look and function like a natural stream. See Kitsap Sun, Aug. 26.

At least a dozen anglers were fishing out beyond the mouth of the stream, where they should be. Fishers and other observers are asked to stay on the trail, be careful not to trample recent plantings, and stay out of the stream channel. No fishing is allowed upstream of the high-tide mark down on the beach.

I recently wrote about how killer whales of the Salish Sea have begun to follow the chum salmon into Central and South Puget Sound. Chum are a primary prey species for the orcas, after chinook runs decline. See Kitsap Sun, Oct. 20.

I have to admit that I still get excited when I see energetic salmon finding their way upstream, swimming around rocks and logs, rushing through shallow riffles and hanging out in deep pools. If you visit the major salmon streams, such as Chico Creek, over the next week or two, you’ll avoid the smell of rotting salmon that generally comes later. As for me, I like to watch the salmon during all portions of the run.

For a map of accessible salmon-viewing locations with videos that describe each spot, go to Kitsap Peninsula Salmon Watching. While there, check out the tips for successful salmon-viewing.

If anyone gets a decent photo of salmon in the streams, please send it to my email address and I’ll post it on this blog. I tried to get photos today, but I didn’t have enough light.

If you’d like to learn about salmon from fisheries biologists, consider attending this year’s Kitsap Salmon Tours on Saturday, Nov. 8, at four locations:

  • Cowling Creek Center, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., 20345 Miller Bay Road.
  • Poulsbo Fish Park, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., on Lindvig Way in Poulsbo, www.city of poulsbo.com/parks/parks_events.htm.
  • Chico Salmon Viewing Park, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., adjacent to Kitsap Golf and Country Club, www.ext100.wsu.edu/kitsap.
  • Mountaineers Rhododendron Preserve, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., with walking tours at 10 a.m., 11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m., www.ext100.wsu.edu/kitsap.I

Hope of seeing larger orca population dashed by calf’s death

A seven-week-old baby orca born to our Southern Resident pods was reported missing and presumed dead today. This was the newborn orca who brought so much hope and excitement to our area, being the first reported birth in more than two years.

The baby orca, L-120, with its mother a few weeks ago while still alive. The calf is reported missing and presumed dead. Photo courtesy of Carrie Sapp.
The baby orca, L-120, with its mother a few weeks ago while still alive. // Photo courtesy of Carrie Sapp.

When I called Ken Balcomb this morning, he was in a “subjective” state of mind, as he put it. Ken, of the Center for Whale Research, has been keeping track of the three Southern Resident pods since 1976, and he’s clearly worried that these whales may be headed for extinction.

As we talked on the phone, Ken was peering through the large windows of his home on San Juan Island and watching a large purse seine vessel scooping up chum salmon and possibly other species as bycatch.

“I look at this every day, and I’ve seen this for almost 40 years,” Ken said. “There is no letup on the human part. Virtually no fish are getting past the outlet. We know the Fraser River runs are in poor shape, and our management doesn’t seem to take any kind of ecosystem approach.”

Salmon biologists set the sport and commercial fishing seasons based on an estimate of the number of fish returning. They update that estimate during the season based on harvest numbers caught in the nets.

“Whatever they are doing, it obviously has not worked, since we’ve seen run after run not doing well,” Ken said. “I get subjective about it and wonder when our society is going to do something to get more prey (for the whales).”

Ken said there was much hope for the seven-week-old orca, designated L-120, the third known offspring of the 23-year-old mother designated L-86.

“I was optimistic,” he told me. “When we first saw the baby, it had a squished-looking head, but even human babies can be born with a flattened head.

“Within a week, it was filling out well and was energetic,” he continued, and there was no reason to believe the calf would die.

The Southern Residents are known to bear a heavy burden of toxic chemicals, but transient killer whales are even more contaminated. The difference may be that transients, which eat marine mammals, may be getting enough food. Was the orca mom unable to nurse her baby? Did the toxic chemicals cause an immune deficiency? Or was there another problem? We’ll probably never know.

All three orca pods were probably out in the ocean when the youngster disappeared. The mom was seen with other whales on Friday, Saturday and Sunday without the calf — something that would not happen if the baby were alive.

L-120 was the third calf born to L-86. Her second calf, L-112, washed up dead at Long Beach in February 2010. After much investigation, researchers concluded that L-112 had died of blunt force trauma, but what caused the injury was never determined. Ken suspects some kind of explosive detonation, although that cause was discounted by investigators.

Howard Garrett of Orca Network said the orcas have faced a shortage of food, toxic chemicals, routine shooting with guns and a series of captures that depleted the population.

“We haven’t treated these magnificent orcas well at all,” Howie said in a news release. “As a society we are not successfully restoring this orca community, despite the many warnings and legal declarations.

“Our challenge is clear: Bountiful salmon runs must be restored and protected or we won’t see resident orcas in the Salish Sea in coming years,” he added.

The latest population count places the total number at 78, the lowest number since 1986, according to records by the Center of Whale Research.

Unmanned aircraft provides unique views of killer whales

Unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly called drones, could play an increasing role in killer whale studies, according to Brad Hanson, a researcher with NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center who has been studying Puget Sound’s orcas for years.

Brad said a plan to use UAVs (he doesn’t like “drones”) has been on the drawing board for several years. Unmanned aircraft can fly over the whales far more cheaply than a full-size helicopter, which has been used in the past. The small aircraft also may be able to come in close for biological samples with less disturbance to the whales than when operating from a research boat.

“I’ve been looking at this for a long time,” Brad told me. “We have it in our (Endangered Species Act) permit to be able to use a UAS (unmanned aircraft system).

Remote-controlled aircraft have been used by researchers to study seals and penguins in the Arctic and to estimate their populations with less disturbance than approaching the animals on the ground. They’ve also been used to count birds in remote areas.

In August, NOAA and Vancouver Aquarium researchers teamed up to test the use of a remote-controlled hexacopter as they observed Northern Resident killer whales in British Columbia. Mounted with a high-resolution camera, the copter captured some amazing videos and still pictures, including those on this page. See also NOAA’s website.

One can learn a lot from a good aerial view of a killer whale, including general body condition, Brad told me. From a boat on the water, it is often difficult to tell if an orca is healthy, underweight or pregnant. From above, a whale’s girth is easier to assess.

Researchers involved the British Columbia study — including John Durban of NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center and Lance Barrett-Lennard of Vancouver Aquarium — identified several females who seemed to be pregnant.

They also spotted two whales that seemed emaciated. Those animals later went missing and are presumed dead, confirming that they were in poor health. What is not evident from photos, however, is the cause of the problem, Brad Hanson said. Were the whales suffering from disease, injury or another problem that caused them to lose weight, or was it simply a lack of food?

Aerial photos also can be used to measure the length of a whale and, over time, determine the growth rate at various periods in its life.

Brad said the ultimate goal is to develop health assessments for the Southern Residents, listed as “endangered” under the federal Endangered Species Act. A lot of technical details need to be worked out, he said, but the plan is to use unmanned aircraft to collect breath and fecal samples from the whales.

A breath sample is the next best thing to a blood sample, Brad told me, and fecal samples provide information about stress hormones, potential pathogens and other things.

“If you tied that in with imaging, we might be able to build individual health profiles and begin to understand when something is going wrong,” Hanson said.

Currently, breath samples are taken by driving a boat alongside the whales and holding out a pole with an apparatus on the end. Fecal samples are taken by following the whales and sifting feces from the water.

If a small helicopter flown from a boat some distance away can be used, the result would be less intrusive than a boat coming near the whales.

In the study in British Columbia, the general goal was to keep the UAV at least 100 feet above the whales. The study also included some closer movements to test the reaction of the whales. No obvious changes in behavior were noticed, Brad said.

One permit still is needed for Hanson to operate a UAV in Washington state. The Federal Aviation Administration must issue a certificate of authorization, or COA, which spells out limitations of the flight to avoid other aircraft operating in the area.

The Canadian experiment received similar permits from Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Transport Canada. The aircraft was an APH-22 marine hexacopter built for NOAA by Aerial Imaging Solutions.

Ironically, amateurs in the United States are allowed to operate unmanned aircraft in some areas without permits. But flying around wildlife could create unanticipated problems for the animals. And anyone operating around endangered whales could be in violation of other state and federal laws — such as the Endangered Species Act or Marine Mammal Protection Act — if they fly below 1,000 feet.

Orcas vary in physical condition. The female at top appears skinny and in poor health. The female in the middle appears healthy. The one at the bottom is pregnant, her body bulging at the ribcage. Photo courtesy of NOAA, Vancouver Aquarium
Orcas vary in physical condition. The female at top appears skinny and in poor health. The female in the middle appears healthy. The one at the bottom is pregnant, her body bulging at the ribcage.
Photo courtesy of NOAA, Vancouver Aquarium

Steelhead could be running into a trap at the Hood Canal Bridge

Fishermen fish for salmon north of the Hood Canal bridge, but researchers say the bridge may be an obstacle to the migration of young steelhead. Kitsap Sun photo by Larry Steagall
Fishermen fish for salmon north of the Hood Canal bridge last week, while researchers say the bridge could be an obstacle to the migration of young steelhead. // Kitsap Sun photo by Larry Steagall

I’ve often wondered if the Hood Canal bridge might be an obstruction for killer whales, which could simply choose to back away from the wall of floating pontoons, which are anchored to the seabed by a confusing array of crisscrossing cables. Old-timers have told me that orcas used to come into Hood Canal more frequently before the bridge was built.

What I never considered seriously, however, was that the bridge could be an obstacle for fish as well. In Sunday’s Kitsap Sun, I wrote about recent findings from a study tracking juvenile steelhead by means of implanted acoustic transmitters. The study was conducted by researchers at NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center.

GraphicTemp

The bottom line is that something is happening at the bridge, where many of the transmitters either disappeared or winded up staying in one place near the bridge, continuing to send out their signals for weeks. The leading hypothesis is that seals or other predators are eating the young steelhead, and some of the acoustic tags are being digested and excreted near the bridge.

Why the bridge serves as an obstacle to steelhead remains unclear. But other studies have suggested that steelhead swim near the surface. As they move out of the canal, the fish may encounter the bridge pontoons as a physical barrier, since the concrete structures go down 12 feet underwater. Also, currents around the pontoons could be a strange condition for the fish. If a young steelhead slows down in the process, a harbor seal or other predator could be waiting to take advantage of the situation.

We’ve all heard about sea lions capturing adult salmon by hanging out at fish ladders at Seattle’s Ballard Locks in Seattle or at Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River. Maybe the same thing is happening at the Hood Canal bridge with smaller prey as the target of the marine mammals.

I was also intrigued by an analysis conducted by Tarang Khangaonkar, a researcher at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Seattle. He told me that in all the models of circulation in Puget Sound and Hood Canal, the bridge tended to be ignored. Since the pontoons go down 12 feet, the bridge disrupts the relatively thin low-salinity surface layer moving out of Hood Canal.

Tarang calculates that the bridge could reduce the circulation by 10 percent or more, which has serious implications, not just for steelhead at the bridge but for the ecological health of all of Hood Canal.

“We have to examine what the bridge is doing,” Tarang told me. “It slows the entire system down. Water quality is maintained in Puget Sound by the flushing effect, which flushes the system out and maintains a balance. Our preliminary finding is that it could slow down by about 10 percent. That effect is cumulative.”

The bridge, he said, could effectively create a more stagnant body of water, where oxygen can become depleted. More study is needed, he said.

Most of the folks I interviewed for this story agreed that the first priority for further research was to see what is happening to the steelhead — and possibly chinook and chum salmon — at the bridge. Studies could focus on the fish, predators and currents at the bridge.

The project is gaining support, but it could require a special legislative appropriation of about $2 million.