Category Archives: Sea life

Five big projects planned for the Skokomish River

The Army Corps of Engineers is moving forward on a $40-million restoration program along the Skokomish River, as I mentioned in Water Ways last week.

According to Rachel Mesko of the Army Corps of Engineers, two major projects have been dropped from the “tentatively selected plan” for the Skokomish, which flows into the south end of Hood Canal. That leaves five major projects to advance forward for a likely recommendation to Congress.

Skok watershed

Rachel presented a status report on the program during a recent meeting of the Skokomish Watershed Action Team.

It’s hard to remember how long I’ve been writing about the Army Corps of Engineers’ involvement in the Skokomish. So I looked it up. The agency completed a flood analysis in 1988, considered dredging options in 1995 and began work on the current “general investigation” in 2000.

Before I talk about the projects being proposed, I’d like to recall what is at stake in the Skokomish, often cited as the most frequently flooded river in Washington state. Many people believe that the restoration of Hood Canal, a gem of an ecosystem, cannot be successful without first fixing the Skokomish, where individual restoration projects have been underway for years.

Here’s a brief description of the problems from the feasibility report on the Skokomish River Basin Ecosystem Restoration (PDF 5.3 mb).

“High sediment load, reduced flows and encroachment on the floodplain by man-made structures are causing continued degradation of natural ecosystem structures, functions, and processes necessary to support critical fish and wildlife habitat throughout the basin.

“The decline in populations has resulted in the listing of four anadromous fish species under the Endangered Species Act — chinook salmon, chum salmon, steelhead, and bull trout — that use the river as their primary habitat.

“The impaired ecosystem has adversely affected riverine, wetland, and estuarine habitats that are critical to these and other important fish and wildlife species such as bears, bald eagles and river otters to name a few.”

Let me list some of the specific problems:

  • Historical removal of large woody debris has simplified the stream, wiping out pools, eliminating places for young fish to hide and reducing nutrients, which feed aquatic insects and support an entire food web.
  • Logging along the river has eliminated the supply of large woody debris, the shade to cool the stream and the overhanging vegetation, a key part of the food web. Logging also has increased erosion which prevents new vegetation from taking hold, smothers salmon eggs and fills in pools, where salmon can rest.
  • Levees built to protect farmland from flooding halted the natural movement of the river, known as channel migration, and prevented the formation of new habitats.
  • Logging upstream in the South Fork of the Skokomish River and Vance Creek increased erosion and movement of sediment into the lower river, cutting off fish access to side channels, wetlands and other aquatic habitats.
  • The Cushman Dam Project blocked 25 percent of the mainstem habitat and 18 percent of tributary habitat available for salmon in the North Fork of the Skokomish River. Reduced flows below the dam increased sedimentation in the lower Skokomish. As a result, about a mile of the river dries up about two months each summer, blocking salmon migration.
  • Highways 101 and 106 disrupted natural floodplains that can be used by fish to find food and to escape high flows and then find their way back to the river.

Five projects designed to reduce these problems are being proposed by the Army Corps of Engineers:

Car body levee removal: This levee was built with old cars at the confluence where the North Fork flows into the mainstem of the Skokomish. Some 5,000 feet of the levee would be removed. A small channel would be created to allow water from the mainstem to flow into the North Fork and return at the existing confluence. Large woody debris would help direct water into the channel. Estimated cost: $7.5 million.

Large woody debris: Upstream of the confluence with the North Fork, large woody debris would be installed. Large clusters of trees with root wads, as well as some single trees, would be placed between river mile 9 and 11, as measured from the estuary in Hood Canal. Estimated cost: $3.2 million.

Setback levee at river mile 9: The existing levee would be breached in four locations, and a new levee would be built some 200 to 300 feet farther away. The levee would allow for minor over-topping but would not increase the flood risk. Estimated cost: $2.4 million.

Grange levee: Larger breeches are planned for the levee near the Grange hall at river mile 7.5 to 8, compared to the levee at river mile 9. A new levee, up to 10 feet tall and 2,900 feet long, would be constructed 1,200 feet farther back with no increase in flood risk. Locations are still under discussion. Estimate cost $3.3 million.

Side channel connection near Highway 101: An old remnant channel between river mile 4 and 5.6 would be restored to take water from the mainstem at high flows. Woody debris would help define the inlet and outlet to the channel, which would become a ponded wetland at low flows. Estimated cost: $3.1 million.

The costs above were taken from the feasibility study and do not include design, planning and related costs.

You might note that the River Mile 9 levee and the Grange levee fit the concept of “Floodplains by Design,” an idea supported by The Nature Conservancy and funded by the Washington Legislature with $44 million. Check out the Associated Press story.

After discussions with nearby property owners, two projects were removed from the preliminary list. They involve excavation work on both Hunter and Weaver creeks to restore the tributaries to more nature flows.

Rich Geiger, engineer for Mason Conservation District, said the Skokomish restoration program seems to have wide support among landowners in the Skokomish Valley as well as among interest groups, including the Skokomish Watershed Action Team. As a result, he expects that the project will maintain momentum all the way to Congress.

“It is fairly rare to have a watershed working together,” Rich said at the SWAT meeting. “The ones that are difficult are when you have two parties, one saying ‘yes’ and other saying, ‘Don’t you dare.’

“There is support (for the Skok project) through the Corps chain of command and all the way up to the national level,” he added.

If things go well, a final plan for the Skokomish could be ready by late next summer, according to Rachel Mesko.

By the way, I would like to publicly thank the SWAT for the “certificate of appreciation” I was given for my reporting on Skokomish River through the years. It’s an honor to be associated with this group of men and women who are fully committed to seeing the Skokomish River restored to a healthy ecosystem.

Skokomish River gets special attention in salmon funding

Big money is beginning to come together for planning, engineering and design of major restoration projects along the Skokomish River. If approved by Congress, the cost of construction could exceed $40 million — a lot of money to you and me, but maybe not so much for the Army Corps of Engineers.

Last week, the state’s Salmon Recovery Funding Board approved grants for more than 100 projects in 29 counties throughout the state. The total, from state and federal sources, was about $18 million for this round of funding.

Mason County was one of the big winners this time, receiving $1.25 million for seven projects, including a $360,000 contribution to planning and engineering for transformative projects on the Skokomish. The total cost for a “35-percent level of design” is expected to be $2.45 million, mostly from the Corps of Engineers. That level of design is needed to give top officials in the Corps and members of Congress a good idea of cost before they commit to the massive undertaking along the Skok.

I’ll address the specific Skokomish River projects, along with new information from the Corps, in a separate blog post to come. For now, I’d like to describe other projects approved in the latest round of SRF Board funding.

In addition to the design work on the Skokomish, the Mason Conservation District will move ahead with the construction of 21 man-made logjams in the Holman Flats area along the South Fork of the Skokomish. That is an area that was logged and cleared in preparation for a dam that was never built.

Man-made logjams were placed in the Skokomish River in 2010. More will be added thanks to a new salmon-recovery grant. Kitsap Sun photo
Man-made logjams were placed in the Skokomish River in 2010. More will be added thanks to a new salmon-recovery grant.
Kitsap Sun photo

The clearing destabilized the river and degraded salmon habitat for more than a mile downstream. The logjams will add structure to the river and create places for fish to hide and rest, ultimately improving the channel itself. The $362,000 from the SRF Board will be supplemented with another $900,000 in grants.

This will be a second phase of a project I wrote about for the Kitsap Sun in 2010, followed by another story in 2011.

Other Mason County projects:

Beards Cove, $297,000: This project, outside of Belfair on Hood Canal, will remove fill, structures and invasive plants and restore the grade to the way it was before development in 1973. The project will restore about a quarter-mile of natural shoreline and seven acres of tidal marsh. Along with a separate seven-acre land-preservation agreement and other efforts, about 1.7 miles of Hood Canal shoreline will be preserved forever. Great Peninsula Conservancy will use a separate $491,000 grant from the state’s Estuary and Salmon Restoration Program.

Allyn Shoreline, $14,000: Mason Conservation District will complete final designs to enhance 480 feet of shoreline along Case Inlet in Allyn, including removal of about 120 feet of bulkhead.

Likes Creek, $85,000: South Puget Sound Salmon Enhancement Group will remove a culvert under the Simpson railroad that blocks salmon migration on Likes Creek, a major tributary of Goldsborough Creek. Another grant will provide $43,000 for the project, and Mason County will assist with removal of another culvert upstream.

Goldsborough Creek, $111,000: Capitol Land Trust will buy 420 acres on the North Fork of Goldsborough Creek near Shelton. The property provides habitat for endangered salmon and steelhead. The land trust will contribute $20,000 in donated land.

Oakland Bay, $24,000: Capitol Land Trust will use the money to remove invasive and dead vegetation and maintain 12 acres of shoreline plantings on Deer, Cranberry and Malaney creeks. About $5,000 in donations will be added.

Three projects were funded in Kitsap County:

Springbrook Creek, $62,000: Bainbridge Island Land Trust will assess the creek’s watershed and design five salmon-habitat projects for one of the island’s most productive streams. The land trust will contribute $11,000 in donations of labor.

Curley Creek, $33,000: Great Peninsula Conservancy will assess how to protect salmon habitat in Curley Creek in South Kitsap, one of the largest salmon and steelhead streams in the area. The conservancy will contribute $6,000 in donations of labor.

Steelhead assessment, $50,000: Kitsap County will analyze existing information on steelhead habitat in the East Kitsap region, south to the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, to help with a recovery plan for the threatened fish. The county will contribute $9,000.

Other notable projects include the following in King, Snohomish, Thurston and Whatcom counties:

Mill Creek, $327,000: The city of Kent will built a floodplain wetland off Mill Creek near the confluence with the Green River, an important stream for chinook salmon and steelhead as well as coho, chum and pink salmon and cutthroat trout. The project includes the construction of 1,000 feet of new off-channel habitat, where salmon can find refuge and food during floods, and 43 log structures. Work also will restore seven acres of native vegetation. A local grant will provide $1.4 million.

Stillaguamish River floodplain, $402,000: The Stillaguamish Tribe will purchase 200 acres on the North Fork and main stem of the river, remove invasive plants and restore about 25 acres of riverbank with native vegetation.

Black River wetland, $90,000: Capitol Land Trust Grant will buy 54 acres to conserve a rare wetland unique to the Black River and protect 1.3 miles of side channel. The property is adjacent to 75 acres already protected by the land trust in the Black River Sub-basin, one of the largest remaining wetland systems in Western Washington.

Nooksack River logjams: The Nooksack Tribe will receive $320,000 for logjams in the South Fork Nooksack and $283,000 for the North Fork Nooksack. Eight logjams in each stream will slow the river and provide resting pools for salmon. Federal grants will add $56,000 in the South Fork and $60,000 in the North Fork.

In announcing the $18 million in salmon-restoration grants statewide, Gov. Jay Inslee commented:

“Salmon are important to Washington because they support thousands of jobs in Washington — fishing, seafood-processing, boat sales and repair, tourism, and more. When we restore land and water for salmon, we also are helping our communities. We get less flooding, cleaner water and better beaches. We also make sure that our grandchildren will be able to catch a fish or enjoy watching the return of wild salmon.”

Funding for the grants comes from the sale of state bonds approved by the Legislature along with the Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund, approved by Congress and administered by the National Marine Fisheries Service.

David Trout, who chairs the SRF Board, said the restoration projects are a lifeline for salmon:

“Without these grants that fund incredible projects, we wouldn’t have any salmon. That’s unacceptable. We’ve seen these grants make a difference. They create jobs, support local communities and their involvement in salmon recovery, and most importantly the projects are helping bring back the fish.

“After more than a decade of work, we’ve seen that in many areas of the state, salmon populations are increasing or staying the same. At the same time, we still have some important areas where fish populations are continuing to decline. We can’t get discouraged and must continue working at this. It’s too important to stop now.”

Ken Balcomb offers his personal observations about J-32’s death

UPDATE, DEC. 17, 2014
A news release sent out yesterday by the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans confirms what Ken Balcomb suspected when I interviewed him on the day the necropsy was performed. See also Associated Press story by reporter Phuong Le.
—–

Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research has written an excellent report about the recent death of J-32, the Southern Resident orca that died with an unborn and decomposing offspring inside her.

J-32 awaiting necropsy on Bates Beach near Courtenay, B.C. Photo courtesy of Center for Whale Research
J-32 was taken to Bates Beach near Courtenay, B.C., for the necropsy conducted Saturday.
Photo courtesy of Center for Whale Research

Ken’s report talks not only about his observations of the necropsy, which I reported in Water Ways on Saturday, but it also includes his observations as he watched the young whale grow up:

“The decade around the millennium was a difficult time for the J10 matriline – J32’s mom (J20) died at the age of seventeen in 1998 when J32 was only two years old; her grandmother (J10), who took over her care, died at the age of thirty-seven in 1999, when J32 was only three years old; and her uncle (J18) died at the age of 23 in 2000. All died young relative to the average lifespan of 50+ for females and 29 for males in this species.

“Fortunately, auntie J22 at age thirteen gave birth to a baby (J34) in 1998, and provided orphaned J32 the required nurturing of a ‘mom’. With that nurturing from grandmother and auntie, including perhaps a little milk, J32 made it through her infancy and into her teens to be a very vivacious young whale, full of energy.”

Ken writes eloquently about his concerns regarding the high levels of toxic contaminants carried in the blubber of the Southern Resident orcas. The contaminants are known to cause problems with the immune and reproductive systems. They also can cause brain deficits that can lead to behavior disorders. He writes:

“These pollutants are released to circulate in the bloodstream when the whales’ blubber fats are metabolized for energy when fresh food is scarce. It is like having a freezer full of tainted and freezer-burned food that you never have to eat unless there is nothing in the grocery store. When nothing else is available the bad stuff is taken out of storage and circulated for body needs.”

Ken also repeats his plea for people to take action in the face of ongoing disaster for the local killer whale population — including this sudden death of a young mother known as Rhapsody and her unborn offspring.

“This is a very ugly situation for the population of Southern Resident killer whales – our beloved orca. I think we must restore abundant healthy prey resources ASAP if these whales are to have any chance of avoiding extinction. The critical point for their recovery may already have passed. I hope not, but it will soon pass if we do not take immediate action.”

Ken’s full report is well worth reading. It can be found on the website of the Center for Whale Research or you can download the title, “Preliminary Necropsy Report for J32” by Kenneth Balcomb, Center for Whale Research.

Killer whale, age 18, was pregnant when she died

One of the last photos taken of J-32, Rhapsody, shown here in the lead at right. The picture was taken in Speiden Channel on Nov. 29, five days before she was found dead. Photo courtesy of Melisa Pinnow, via Orca Network
One of the last photos taken of J-32, Rhapsody, shown here in the lead at right. This picture was taken in Spieden Channel, San Juan Islands, on Nov. 29, five days before the female orca was found dead.
Photo courtesy of Melisa Pinnow, via Orca Network

Like many people, I was shocked and saddened by the death of J-32, an 18-year-old female orca who had offered an avenue of hope for the recovery of the endangered killer whale population in Puget Sound.

We now know from yesterday’s necropsy, that Rhapsody, as she is called, was pregnant at the time of her death.

“Yes, she was pregnant, near-term, 80 percent or plus,” Ken Balcomb told me last light after participating in the examination of the body near Courtenay, B.C.

The actual cause of death is not yet certain, but it is likely that the fetus died in the uterus, resulting in a necrotic condition that eventually broke down the mother’s tissues, according to Ken, founder of the Center for Whale Research. There were no signs of trauma that would suggest injury of any kind, he added.

Dr. Stephen Raverty, a veterinary pathologist in charge of the necropsy, removed J-32’s uterus with the intact fetus inside. Dr. Rafferty told me that he plans to take images of the fetus in utero tomorrow before continuing the examination. He said he would be unable to provide any information until he receives approval from his client, the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

As in other post-mortem examinations of killer whales, experts will examine tissues, blood and body fluids in multiple ways to gauge the general health of the animal as well as the cause of death. The Southern Resident pods — J, K and L — are known to carry some of the highest loads of toxic chemicals of any marine mammals in the world. The whales may also undergo nutritional stress because of a shortage of their primary prey, chinook salmon.

The last sighting of the animal was Nov. 29. Her body was found floating near Courtenay on Thursday, Dec. 4. She was a “remarkably small” killer whale, about 15 feet long, Ken said. Females normally grow to between 16 and 23 feet.

Rhapsody was born in 1996. Her mother, J-20 or Ewok, died when she was 2 years old. The young whale was then raised by her Aunt, J-22 or Oreo. Rhapsody is survived by her aunt and two cousins. (See Orca Network’s news release about the death.)

At age 18, she was at the beginning of her reproductive life, with a potential to add several babies to the dwindling population of Southern Residents, now at 77 animals. J pod is down to 24 orcas, with only a few reproductive females at this time.

Ken Balcomb said he hopes Saturday’s necropsy will reveal whether J-32 had ever been pregnant before, since killer whales typically become fertile around age 12 and often give birth by age 15. Her mother was 13 when she was born, Ken noted.

When the ovaries expel an egg, it leaves a little white scar tissue behind. If the egg is fertilized and grows, the scar tissue is notably larger, Ken explained.

An average female gives birth every five years, Ken said. That rate should be adding three or four calves to the Southern Resident population each year.

“Three years ago, I predicted that they should be having 19 babies by now,” Ken said.

Instead, the population is declining, with no surviving calves born last year or this year. A baby born to L-86 in September of this year was reporting missing a little more than a month later.

Rhapsody was the third adult to die this year. Also missing and presumed dead are L-53, a 37-year-old female known as Lulu, and L-100, a 13-year-old male known as Indigo.

Howard Garrett and Susan Berta of Orca Network may have spoken for many of us with this comment: “We cannot express how tragic this loss is for this struggling, precariously small, family of resident orcas of the Salish Sea.”

Amusing Monday: Amazing nature photos from around the world

Some of the best photographers in the world contribute to National Geographic magazine. So it’s no wonder that a photo contest sponsored each year by the publication draws in some incredible photographs.

Last year, more than 7,000 entries were submitted by amateur and professional photographers from 150 countries, and I would expect an equal number this year. The deadline has passed for submissions in 2014, and the winner of the $10,000 grand prize plus several runners-up will be announced later this month.

For now, with permission from National Geographic, I’d like to share 10 water-related images from a gallery of the judges’ favorite photographs for 2014. To see more pictures, visit National Geographic’s Photo Contest 2014 Galleries.

When Gregory Lecoeur jumped into the Salish Sea near Vancouver Island’s Race Rocks, the water was cold, visibility was poor and the current was strong. When he sensed shadows moving about him, he slowed his movements. Soon, curious Steller sea lions were trying to play with his camera and nibble his fingers.
When Gregory Lecoeur jumped into the Salish Sea near Vancouver Island’s Race Rocks, the water was cold, visibility was poor and the current was strong. When he sensed shadows moving about him, he slowed his movements. Soon, curious Steller sea lions were trying to play with his camera and nibble his fingers.
Rick Loesche caught this decisive moment in the life of a crab, which was about to be eaten on Sanibel Island, Florida.
Rick Loesche caught this decisive moment in the life of a crab, which was about to be eaten on Sanibel Island, Florida.
Dave Kan was finishing up a photo shoot in Queensland, Australia, when a kangaroo appeared out of nowhere and bounded across the edge of a lake on the Noosa River, as if the animal were walking on water.
Dave Kan was finishing up a photo shoot in Queensland, Australia, when a kangaroo appeared out of nowhere and bounded across the edge of a lake on the Noosa River, as if the animal were walking on water.

Continue reading

Coho show off their jumping skills, but they can’t swim up a pipe

Prompted by stream biologist Jon Oleyar. my grandson, Kevin Jeffries, and I visited Gorst Creek today during a break in the heavy rains.

As I reported in Water Ways yesterday, Jon, who counts salmon for the Suquamish Tribe, had observed an unusual number of coho salmon swimming upstream in Gorst Creek.

Because of heavy rains, the creek was running high and very fast this afternoon, and the waters were a muddy brown. In fact, the sediment load was so heavy that we spotted only a few fish swimming upstream. We suspected that a lot of them were hunkered down in deep pools, waiting for the flows to decline and the stream to become more passable.

Although we did not see a lot of fish, it was exciting to watch coho salmon trying to jump up into an outlet pipe that discharges water from the salmon-rearing raceways in the park. Coho, wearing their spawning colors of red, are known as jumping fish, but these guys were going nowhere fast. Check out the video on this page.

I’m looking forward to returning to the stream after the rains decline and the waters clear up a little bit. The coho may or may not be gone by then, but Jon expects that we should be able to see chum salmon in Gorst Creek at least until Christmas.

Coho salmon add to viewing experience in Gorst Creek

Gorst Creek is the place to go right now when looking for migrating salmon — not only chum but also coho, all decked out in their bright-red spawning colors, according to Jon Oleyar, who surveys East Kitsap streams for the Suquamish Tribe.

Jon called me last night with the news the coho, which adds some excitement to the salmon-watching experience.

Coho often hide along the stream edges, making them hard to spot. That’s why I generally focus the attention of salmon watchers on the more abundant chum, which race right up the middle of the streams. But it’s great when coho add themselves to the mix.

Jon reported that the coho can be seen easily in Gorst Creek at Otto Jarstad Park off Belfair Valley Road.

“There are a ton of fish in there,” he said, “and there are a lot of coho, bright red.”

He said there were also plenty of chum, some that have been in the stream awhile and others that have just arrived.

Bremerton Public Works officials, who manage the park, have not objected to people parking outside the park gate and walking into the park, where salmon-viewing platforms were built along the stream by the Kitsap Poggie Club.

One good spot, Jon said, is near a pipe where water from the nearby salmon-rearing operation pours out into the stream. Salmon seem to get confused and try to jump up into the pipe before heading on upstream.

Gorst Creek contains one of the latest chum runs on the Kitsap Peninsula, and people may be able to see salmon there until the end of the year. I often tell local residents that Jarstad Park is a good place to take out-of-town visitors during the holidays.

That’s especially the case this year, when the chum run in the Chico Creek system has basically run its course. The peak of the run typically comes at Thanksgiving, but this year it was about two weeks early, Jon tells me. While this year’s run was a decent size, he said, the stream right now is mostly a “smelly graveyard.”

“It is one of the earliest runs I’ve seen here,” he said of the Chico chum. “To have everything dead by Thanksgiving is very unusual.”

Another possibility for seeing salmon is Dogfish Creek, which runs through Poulsbo. “There might be a few stragglers in Dogfish Creek,” Jon said.

It’s not too late to take a look at any of the viewing spots listed on my salmon viewing map of the Kitsap Peninsula, but don’t go in with high hopes of seeing a lot of salmon at this time of year. Gorst, it appears, is the one sure bet at the moment. (The map also contains tips for observing salmon, which can be easily spooked.)

It’s worth noting that the rains this fall continue to be nearly ideal for the salmon, coming in with just enough intensity and frequency to keep the streams flowing at a good level without flooding. I covered this issue in Water Ways on Oct. 31.

“It has been perfect for salmon,” Jon told me yesterday. “Those early storms brought up the streams, and the fish that were coming in early had plenty of water.”

When the rains eventually dropped off, springs created by those rains kept the streams flowing until the next rains arrived. As a result, salmon were able to distribute themselves as far upstream as they could go. That does not happen every year.

A torrential downpour could still cause flooding and disrupt salmon eggs incubating in the gravel, but for now things look good on the Kitsap Peninsula.

As for total rainfall, we were on a record pace for the month of October across most of the Kitsap Peninsula, as I reported in Water Ways at the end of last month. But, as you can see from the charts below, we dropped off the record pace in early November but remain above average for the water year, which begins Oct. 1.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Hansville

Central Kitsap

Holly

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.