L-84, a 25-year-old male killer whale named Nyssa, continues to
transmit his location and that of his traveling companions who keep
moving north and south along the West Coast, going as far south as
Here’s a quick update, going back to when the orca was first
A satellite transmitter was attached to L-84 on Feb. 17 by
researchers from NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center during a
research cruise focused on the Southern Resident whales. Since
then, the orca — often see with whales from K and L pods — moved
south past the Columbia River into Central Oregon before turning
back north on Feb. 21.
On Feb. 25, the researchers were following the whales in the
research vessel Bell M. Shimada off Westport in Washington when
another group of L pod whales showed up. It was at that time that a
new calf was spotted with L-94, a 20-year-old female named
The whales headed south and reached Tillamook Head in Northern
Oregon on Feb. 27, then they turned north and reached La Push in
Washington on March 1. For the next eight days, the whales moved
back and forth in the north-central areas of the Washington Coast
before moving south to Grays Harbor on March 12.
On March 13, they began an excursion to the south, reaching the
Columbia River on March 14, Cape Falcon on March 15, Depoe Bay on
March 16, Coos Bay on March 18, and the California border on March
At that time, marine mammal researcher Jeff Jacobson, based in
Northern California, caught up with the whales and confirmed that K
pod and a portion of L pod remained with the tagged whale L-84. The
whales kept moving south to Cape Mendocino (south of Eureka,
Calif.) on March 22 (Sunday), before turning back north, reaching
the Rogue River (just north of the Oregon state line) on
The tracking effort provides information about the whale’s
travels and where they may be catching fish. Work from research
vessels often involves collecting fecal samples and pieces of dead
fish to identify what the whales are eating during the winter and
At Harper Estuary in South Kitsap, the question of “bridge or no
bridge?” has become, “How long should the bridge be to protect the
It’s a story I’ve been covering since 2001, when Harper resident
Chuck Hower first told me about an old brick factory that operated
in Harper during the early 1900s. He was dismayed by the massive
amount of fill dirt later brought in to build roads across what had
been a beautiful salt marsh. See
Kitsap Sun, Feb. 12, 2001.
Although state and federal agencies were convinced that
restoration of the estuary would be a wonderful thing for fish and
wildlife, funding proposals came and went until two years ago.
That’s when the Legislature decided that the Harper project should
receive $4.1 million. The money was from a $142-million settlement
with ASARCO related to pollution from company-owned smelters in
Tacoma and Everett. More than $8 million was earmarked for
environmental restoration. Check out this story,
Kitsap Sun, Jan. 14, 2014.
Once the money was approved, the project got rolling. Planners
had to decide how much of the fill material could be removed with
the available money and what to do with Olympiad Drive, built on an
earthen causeway across the upper portion of the estuary.
Biologists generally agreed that the best thing for the
ecosystem was to take out Olympiad Drive entirely, although that
would force area residents to take an alternate route on Nokomis
Road to Southworth Drive. The result would be only one road in and
out of the community east of the estuary, and that did not sit well
with folks in the area.
Local fire officials were not happy with that arrangement
either, according to Kathy Peters, salmon recovery coordinator for
Kitsap County. They said it would cut down response time to the
In addition, she said, county engineers determined that the
width of Nokomis Road would not meet design standards if the
majority of area traffic began using the road. Widening the road
would create other complications, such as buying right of way and
tearing down some buildings.
“For all these reasons, everyone agreed that we can’t abandon
the road,” Kathy told me.
What then resulted was a question of how long to make the
bridge. Often, a longer bridge means greater ecosystem integrity.
But there’s always the matter of cost.
What then ensued behind the scenes was a lot of haggling among
biologists, engineers and other county officials, as well
representatives of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife
and the Suquamish Tribe. I’ve been hearing about these difficult
discussions for months.
Finally, a resolution came when Kitsap County’s new public works
director, Andy Nelson, suggested that the county proceed with
preliminary design studies, as it would for any bridge, but include
ecosystem restoration as a primary design criteria. Nobody could
find any reason not to go that way, Kathy said.
The county is now contracting for a consultant to do preliminary
design, which will include various options, how much they will cost
and how close they can come to a fully functioning natural
Meanwhile, WDFW is moving forward with its plans to restore the
estuary and get that project under construction. Much of the work
will involve removal of fill on both sides of Olympiad Drive and
along the shoreline to bring the estuary back to a semblance of
what it once was. A boat launch will be relocated.
A few other details, including the biological value of
estuaries, can be found in a fact sheet on the county’s
Harper Estuary website. Officials are pulling together
additional information in preparation for a public meeting April 6
from 5 to 6:30 p.m. at Colby United Methodist Church.
Community involvement in the project is important, according to
Kathy Peters, who wants people to enjoy the waterway and be able to
observe as a variety of plants and animals recolonize the
Removing the fill is expected to unearth a huge number of old
bricks, which were dumped into the estuary after the Harper Brick
and Tile Factory went out of business in the 1930s.
Jim Heytvelt, who lives near the estuary, said neighbors have
been discussing gathering up the bricks and forming them into some
kind of monument.
“We have a pretty tight community,” Jim said. “We have
neighborhoods on both the east and west sides of the estuary who
want to get involved.”
He said most everyone is excited about the restoration, which
has been a long time coming.
Starfish that live symbiotically inside a tube sponge were long
believed to assist the sponge with its cleaning activities, while
the starfish received a protective home for being such a helpful
companion. This type of mutually beneficial symbiosis is called
But this long-held assumption — that both the brittlestar and
gray tube sponge were benefitting from the deal — turned out to be
wrong when researchers took a close look at the relationship.
The video describing this whole affair and the research behind
it became a finalist in the Ocean 180 Video Challenge, judged by
37,795 students in 1,600 classrooms in 21 countries. Ocean 180 is
all about connecting science to people, and the video challenge is
designed to help scientists turn their discoveries into
I really like the concept of this contest. Joseph Pawlik, one of
the researchers involved, did a good job telling the story of the
starfish and the sponge in the video production, assisted by Jack
Koch of the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. They called
the video “The maid did it! The surprising case of the
I won’t give away who killed whom, but answers to the murder
mystery are revealed toward the end of the 3-minute video.
A much more extensive research project involves monitoring the
largest active volcano off the coast of Oregon, a location called
Axial Seamount. University of Washington researchers and students
conducted the research and produced the video about the equipment
used in an extreme environment and how the data are transmitted
back to land via a fiber optic cable.
While the videos of the starfish-and-sponge and offshore volcano
were among the top 10 finalists, neither were among the top award
First-place winner Kelly Jaakkola of the Dolphin Research Center
said Ocean 180 is a way to make a connection with the next
generation of ocean scientists:
“For a lot of students, science can have a negative, scary
image. They picture people in white lab coats talking about topics
that nobody understands in the most boring, unimaginative way
possible. If we want to get kids excited about science, we need to
change that image.”
Third-place winner Charles Waters said some of the most
inspiring science writing uses analogies, metaphors and similes to
describe the scientific process and research findings:
“Video helps lift images from print, and the message comes
closer to being an experience for the audience in contrast to a
mere information stream.”
The Ocean 180 Video Challenge is sponsored by Florida Center for
Ocean Sciences Education Excellence.
For the past few years, I’ve been hearing that Washington’s
water-quality standards are grossly out of date, especially when it
comes to assumptions about how much fish people eat. Water-quality
standards are a set of criteria used to determine when a body of
water is “impaired” and to establish limits for discharges from
industrial facilities and sewage-treatment plants.
It was hard to understand how the Department of Ecology could
assume that an average person was eating just 6.5 grams of fish a
day. That’s less than a quarter-ounce. A typical meal of fish is
commonly considered to be eight ounces (226.8 grams). So the
assumption was that people were eating one meal of fish every 35
The water quality standards come from an equation established to
ensure that if you consumed a certain amount of fish, then your
health would be protected. So it would seem logical that if you ate
more than that amount, your health might be at risk.
That’s what got me started looking into the nuances of this
discussion about water-quality standards and eating fish,
especially fish from Puget Sound. The result was a two-part series
published Sunday and Monday in the Kitsap Sun (subscription) —
Part 1 and
Part 2 — and reprinted with permission on the website of
Investigate West — Part
1 and Part
I’ll talk about my new relationship with InvestigateWest at the
bottom of this page, where I’ll also report on a new study about
the protective effects of eating fish even when mercury levels are
The first thing to understand about water-quality standards is
that the state has been relying on an equation created by the
Environmental Protection Agency. That equation resulted in water
quality standards used since 1992 across the nation and still in
some states (PDF 429 kb). The problem was that the EPA has not
updated the nationwide standards, known as the National Toxics
Rule, even while the federal agency has been pushing for states to
come up with their own standards.
Obviously, the fish consumption rate was no longer valid, if it
ever was. State and federal guidelines call for people to eat at
least two or three meals of fish each week for health reasons. It
is not uncommon for Native Americans to eat a meal of fish or more
each day. Protecting the treaty rights of tribal members, which
includes safely eating fish from their “usual and accustomed
areas,” is a responsibility of the state and federal governments,
Fish consumption is not the only issue, however. Other factors
in the equation are also out of date. The EPA has updated estimates
of toxicity for many of the 100 or so chemicals for which
water-quality standards are listed. The weight of a person’s body
in the equation also was changed.
Perhaps the most controversial change in the formula, as
proposed by Gov. Jay Inslee, is to increase the cancer risk rate
for human health from 1 in a million to 1 in 100,000.
I won’t go deeper into the calculation here, since you can read
my story for more details, or look into the state’s
“Overview of key decisions in rule amendment” (PDF 6.4 mb). But
understand that all the assumptions taken together changed the
final number for each of the 96 chemicals under review for
Washington state. Also note that the vast majority of these
chemicals are not even detectible in fish down to parts per
Under Inslee’s proposal, the final number generated by the
equation would be the new water-quality standard for a chemical if
the number were lower (more protective) than the existing standard.
For chemicals in which the number was higher (less protective), the
old standard would remain.
The result was that 70 percent of the standards would become
more stringent under Inslee’s proposal and 30 percent would stay
the same, according to Ecology officials. To see the proposed
changes between the old and new standards and whether the change in
cancer risk would make a significant difference, check out “Human
Health Criteria Review Documents” (PDF 2.9 mb).
Out of the 96 chemicals on the list, two create the greatest
concerns for human health in Puget Sound waters. They are
polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and mercury. For these chemicals,
Inslee’s proposal would keep the water-quality standards the same.
This is controversial, but his thinking is that these chemicals are
widespread in the environment, and reducing their concentrations in
effluent would have little effect on improving the safety of
The governor has proposed a separate planning process with
funding from the Legislature to track down and reduce the sources
of pollution that cause the greatest health concerns — including
some chemicals not on the EPA’s list.
Eating fish is especially important for pregnant mothers and
young children, as I described in the first part of the series.
Omega-3 fatty acids found in fish tissue are considered essential
for the proper development of the brain and neurological system,
including memory and performance, as well as other health
Health advisories tend to balance the beneficial effects of
eating fish with the risks of getting too much PCBs, mercury and
other harmful chemicals. The goal is to choose fish that are
relatively low in toxic chemicals, knowing that practically all
fish, meats and dairy products contain some contaminants.
New study on protective effects of fish
A new study in the Seychelles, an island country where people eat a
lot of fish, suggests that polyunsaturated fatty acids in fish may
provide some protection against the health risks of mercury,
including neurological problems.
The study was published in the “American Journal of Clinical
Nutrition.” The report’s co-author, Edwin van Wijngaarden,
associate professor at the University of Rochester’s Department of
Public Health Sciences, had this to say in a news
“These findings show no overall association between prenatal
exposure to mercury through fish consumption and neurodevelopmental
outcomes. It is also becoming increasingly clear that the benefits
of fish consumption may outweigh, or even mask, any potentially
adverse effects of mercury.”
Because the findings are so new, I chose to stick to the
standard health advisories in my Sunday story.
Laura Riley, medical director of labor and delivery at
Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, said the advice to limit
fish intake may not be warranted after all. But she is not ready to
drop the cautionary approach, according to a story by Dennis
“More study needs to be done before you can convince me that the
fish is actually protective,” she said. “I want to see the
As most of you know, I have retired from the staff of the Kitsap
Sun, but I’m still writing this blog and occasional stories for the
newspaper, including the two-part series this week.
I was recently asked by InvestigateWest, a nonprofit
journalism group, to cover some environmental issues being debated
in the Washington Legislature. I started this new assignment this
week and expect to continue coverage to the end of the legislative
session. My work is being funded through a crowd-sourcing
website called Beacon. All contributions are appreciated.
Wyland Foundation’s annual “Water is Life” mural and art
challenge always seems to attract a sizable number of entries —
some 3,500 last year, according to organizers.
I’m always impressed with many of the winners in the individual
competition for grades 1-12 along with collaborative work on a
variety of murals.
Last year’s theme for the contest was “Our Ocean.” The
foundation provided 100 packages of art supplies, including a large
canvass. Also included were educational materials for students and
teachers to study ocean issues and work together to paint a
Theme for the 2015 contest will be “Our Coast and Climate.” For
details about entering individual entries and qualifying for free
art supplies, visit Wyland’s
website. The deadline for this year’s contest is Nov. 25.
Below are more of the individual winners along with the winning
Researchers have listed more than 100 “biologically important
areas” for whales and dolphins living in U.S. waters, all reported
in a special issue of the journal
Aquatic Mammals (PDF 22.9 mb).
The BIAs may provide useful information, but they are not marine
protected areas, and they have no direct regulatory effect, said
Sofie Van Parijs, a researcher at NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries
Science Center and guest editor of the special report.
“They represent the best available information about the times
and areas in which species are likely to be engaged in biologically
important activities,” Van Parijs said in a news
release. “We encourage anyone planning an activity in the ocean
to look at this information and take it into consideration to
understand and reduce adverse impacts on marine species.”
Project managers can use information in the report for offshore
energy development, military testing and training, shipping,
fishing, tourism, and coastal construction. Underwater noise,
generated by most human activities in or on the water, can affect
large areas of whale territory.
Separate articles were written about seven regions of the
country, with three of them in Alaskan waters. The lead author for
West Coast regional report (PDF 4.5 mb) is John Calambokidis of
Cascadia Research Collective in Olympia.
The West Coast report identified 29 BIAs covering areas
important for blue whales, gray whales, humpback whales and harbor
porpoises in Washington, Oregon and California. BIAs for blue
whales and humpback whales are “based on high concentration areas
of feeding animals observed from small boat surveys, ship surveys
and opportunistic sources,” the report says.
BIAs for gray whales focus on their migratory corridor from
Mexico to Alaska, along with primary feeding areas for a small
resident population known as the Pacific Coast Feeding Group, or
PCFG. This group, believed to be genetically distinct from the
migratory whales, spend most of their time between Northern
California and Canada’s Vancouver Island.
The BIAs for gray whales in Washington are around the northwest
tip of Washington, including Neah Bay; in Saratoga Passage east of
Whidbey Island; and around Grays Harbor on the coast.
The PCFG could be a key factor in determining whether the Makah
Tribe of Neah Bay is granted a permit to hunt for gray whales in
Washington state waters and limiting potential limits on any hunts
approved. It was interesting that the BIA report came out at almost
the same time as an environmental impact statement on the Makah
The impact statement evaluates alternatives for whaling,
including a tribal proposal to hunt up to five whales a year but no
more than 24 whales in six years. Various alternatives include
plans to limit hunting seasons to reduce the risk of killing a
whale from the Pacific Coast Feeding Group and to cease hunting if
a quota of these whales is reached.
“This is the first step in a public process of considering this
request that could eventually lead to authorization for the tribe
to hunt gray whales,” said Donna Darm, NOAA’s associate deputy
regional administrator, in a
press release. “This is the public’s opportunity to look at the
alternatives we’ve developed, and let us know if we have fully and
completely analyzed the impacts.”
For details on this issue, including the EIS and instructions
for commenting on the document, check out NOAA’s website on the
Makah Whale Hunt.
Returning to the study of biologically important areas, no BIAs
were established for endangered fin whales, because of
discrepancies between sightings and expected feeding areas and
uncertainty about their population structure.
The BIA assessment did not cover minke whales, killer whales,
beaked whales and sperm whales but the authors recommend that
future work cover those animals as well as looking into special
breeding areas for all the whales.
A future BIA for killer whales could have some connection to an
ongoing analysis by NOAA, which recently announced that it needs
more information about Southern Resident killer whales before
expanding their critical habitat under the Endangered Species Act.
Water Ways from Feb. 24.
In the overall report, BIAs can be established if they have any
of the following characteristics:
Reproductive areas – Areas and times within
which a particular species selectively mates, gives birth or is
found with neonates or calves,
Feeding areas – Areas and times within which
aggregations of a particular species preferentially feed. These
either may be persistent in space and time or associated with
ephemeral features that are less predictable but are located within
a larger area that can be delineated,
Migratory corridors – Areas and times within
which a substantial portion of a species is known to migrate; the
corridor is spatially restricted.
Small and resident population – Areas and
times within which small and resident populations occupy a limited
I admit I’m little late to the party, since this video was
posted on NOAA’s
Facebook page three days ago., Still, I wanted to show it to
those of you who may not be closely following the killer whale
research. At the end of this video, researchers Brad Hanson and
Candice Emmons talk a little bit about their work.
For the past 22 years, students from across the country have
been painting and drawing some amazing pictures of ducks, swans,
geese and related water birds.
Each year, the best pictures are printed up as Federal Junior
Duck Stamps, which can be purchased from participating post offices
and sporting good stores. With the deadline for the 2015 art
contest approaching, I thought it would be a good time to share
some of these great artworks.
The Junior Duck Stamp Conservation and Design Program is
sponsored by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The $5 junior duck
stamps are modeled on the $15 Federal Duck Stamps, purchased by
hunters and used by others as a pass for national wildlife
Proceeds from the junior duck stamps are used for conservation
education, including a national curriculum for students from
kindergarten through 12th grade. The national program involves
elements of science, art, math and technology.
The deadline for the art competition is March 15. At the state
level, students are judged in four groups by grade: K-3, 4-6, 7-9
and 10-12. Numerous awards are given in each group, and one “best
of show” from each state are entered into the national competition
in April. Participants are encouraged to include a conservation
message with their entries.
With less than a week remaining on the 21-day research cruise,
Brad Hanson and company sighted a newborn orca in L pod swimming in
coastal waters off Westport on Wednesday. The mother appears to be
L-94, a 20-year-old female named Calypso.
The new calf is the third to be born to Southern Residents since
Christmas. That’s a nice turnaround, considering that no babies
were born in 2013 and 2014, except for the one born right at the
end of last year. Still, at least one more calf is needed to
surpass even the annual average over the past 10 years. To keep
this in perspective, six calves were born in 2010, though not all
“It is encouraging to see this (new calf), particularly in L
pod,” Brad told me in a phone call yesterday afternoon. Hanson is a
senior researcher for NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science
The current research cruise also has been among the most
exciting and productive since the effort began in 2004, he said.
The research vessel Bell M. Shimada was able to follow J pod up
into Canada’s Strait of Georgia before switching attention to K and
a portion of L pod, which then traveled down the coast of
Washington past the Columbia River into Central Oregon. Satellite
tags attached to males in the two groups helped the research team
stay with the animals. In past years, the whales have not always
been easy to find for observation and tracking.
So far, more fecal and scale samples were collected in 2013 than
this year, but that could still be surpassed. This was the first
time that all three pods have been observed in one year, and it was
the first time that researchers saw two groups of L pod whales
coming together in the open ocean.
“Both 2013 and this cruise were extremely productive,” Brad told
me. “We have been able to observe variability between pods as well
as variability between years.”
As I mentioned in
Water Ways on Tuesday, learning where the whales travel in
winter and what they are eating are essential elements for
extending legal protections to the coast as part of a new critical
habitat designation for the Southern Residents.
With unusually good weather and sea conditions for February, the
researchers have learned a great deal about the whales as well as
the conditions in which they live — including the presence of sea
birds and other marine life, the abundance of plankton and the
general oceanographic conditions, Brad noted.
“I would rather be lucky than good any day,” he said of the
fortuitous conditions that have made the trip so successful. See
Facebook page for his latest written notes.
The two groups of L-pod whales apparently came together early
Wednesday about 15 miles off the coast near Westport. The whales
were tightly grouped together when Hanson and his crew approached
in a small Zodiac work boat.
“It looked like a bunch of females were all gathered up when we
saw this calf pop up,” Brad said. “It is really exciting. The calf
The young animal had the familiar orange tint of a newborn with
apparent fetal folds, which are folds of skin left from being in
the womb. It was probably no more than two days old and very
energetic, Brad said.
Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research said the baby in L
pod might not have been spotted so early in the year were it not of
the research cruise. L pod usually returns to Puget Sound in April
“Seeing these calves is great, but the question is: Will they
make it into summer,” Ken said in an interview with Tristan
Baurick, a reporter with the
Kitsap Sun (subscription).
Without winter observations, many orcas born during those months
— especially whales in K or L pods — might never be known, since
the mortality of young orcas is believed to be high.
As of this afternoon, the research vessel Shimada was off the
Long Beach Peninsula north of the Columbia River (presumably with
the whales). This is the general area where the orcas and their
observers have been moving about for the past day or so.
It’s all about the data when it comes to critical habitat for
the Southern Resident killer whales, or so they say.
Researchers with NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center have
piled up a lot of data this year, which could be just what is
needed to expand the endangered orcas’ critical habitat from Puget
Sound and the inland waterways out to the open ocean along the West
NOAA announced in
today’s Federal Register that the agency would consider
expanding critical habitat, as allowed by the Endangered Species
Act, and possibly make other changes to the designation over the
next two years. What is needed, the agency said, are more data.
On Dec. 28, a satellite transmitter was attached to J-27, a
24-year-old male named Blackberry, who was tracked as J pod moved
about from the Strait of Juan de Fuca up into the Strait of Georgia
until the tag came off on Feb. 15. The following day, a new
satellite tag was attached to L-84, a 25-year-old male named Nysso.
K and L pods were tracked out to the ocean and down the coast to
A research team led by Brad Hanson aboard the vessel Bell M.
Shimada has kept track of J pod, then K and L pods since leaving
Newport, Ore., on Feb. 11. According to the latest report from the
researchers, K and L pods traveled south last week to the Umpqua
River in Central Oregon, where they abruptly turned north on
The whales continued north on Sunday, sometimes 10 miles
“We observed a lot of surface active behavior throughout the day
— lots of spy hops — and at one point we observed numerous whales
repeatedly breaching over a several-minute period,” according to
notes from the cruise.
The researchers observed no apparent foraging for several days
and the whales remained quiet, with the exception of a several-hour
period shortly after the breaching episode. As of yesterday
morning, they were still off the Oregon Coast and heading
The tracking data and up-close observations from this year’s
cruise appear to fill in some major data gaps — especially for J
pod, whose winter movements were not well known, according to NOAA
In 2012, the first tag deployed on the Southern Resident allowed
the researchers to track J pod, but only for three days before the
tag came off. In 2013, a tag on L-87, which frequently traveled
with J pod, provided 30 days of data about J pods movements in the
Salish Sea, particularly in the Strait of Georgia (where they spent
a lot of time this year).
Another tag in 2013 allowed K and L pods to be tracked along the
West Coast all the way to California.
Sightings from land and shore, along with acoustic recordings of
the whales also are included among recent findings.
We won’t know until 2017 if NOAA has amassed enough data to
expand the critical habitat to coastal regions, perhaps as far as
Northern California, as proposed in a petition filed in January of
last year by the Center for Biological Diversity. For the decision
announced today in the Federal Register, the data are not enough.
This is how it is stated in the notice:
“While data from new studies are available in our files and have
begun to address data gaps identified in the 2006 critical habitat
designation, considerable data collection and analysis needs to be
conducted to refine our understanding of the whales’ habitat use
and needs. Additional time will increase sample sizes and provide
the opportunity to conduct robust analyses.
“While we have been actively working on gathering and analyzing
data on coastal habitat use, these data and analyses are not yet
sufficiently developed to inform and propose revisions to critical
habitat as requested in the petition.”
In addition to the geographic areas covered by the killer
whales, the agency must identify the ‘‘physical or biological
features essential to the conservation of the species.’’ Such
features include food, water, air, light, minerals or other
nutritional requirements; cover or shelter; sites for breeding; and
habitats protected from disturbance.
Once specific areas are identified for protection, the agency
must make sure that the value of protection for the killer whales
outweighs the economic costs and effects on national security.