Category Archives: Fish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Birds and marine mammal cams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amusing Monday: Puppet, music help people save rockfish

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

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

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

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

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

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

Research on rockfish
in Puget Sound reveals intriguing findings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EPA clarifies federal jurisdiction over streams and wetlands of the U.S.

The Environmental Protection Agency has finally completed a new rule that defines which waterways across the country fall under federal jurisdiction for clean-water permits.

The new Clean Water Rule is designed to protect important tributaries. Kitsap Sun photo
The new Clean Water Rule is designed to protect important tributaries. // Kitsap Sun photo

Enforcement of the federal Clean Water Act has been stuck in a state of confusion since 2006, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Army Corps of Engineers was overreaching by requiring permits for all sorts of waterways beyond the agency’s jurisdiction. For background, check out my Water Ways post from March 25, 2014, in which I describe the court’s interpretation of “waters of the U.S.” — the key phrase in the law.

The EPA requisitioned a scientific report about hydraulic connectivity, concluding that even small streams can affect downstream waters. The final language in the rule, designed to reduce judgment calls by federal regulators, says tributaries would come under federal jurisdiction only if capable of delivering significant pollution downstream. Such tributaries would need to have flowing water or related features — such as a streambed, bank or high-water mark.

The rule has worried farmers, who want to make sure the federal government does not try to regulate ditches designed for irrigation and drainage. Language in the final rule says ditches will not be regulated unless they are shown to be a remnant of a natural stream that has been diverted or altered.

Jo-Ellen Darcy, assistant secretary for the Army, said the rule represents a “new era” for the Clean Water Act. As she stated in a news release:

“This rule responds to the public’s demand for greater clarity, consistency, and predictability when making jurisdictional determinations. The result will be better public service nationwide.”

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said the rule is grounded in science and law. For downstream waters to be clean, upstream waters also must be clean, she said.

McCarthy said the language was revised significantly since the first proposal, taking into account more than a million public comments and discussions in 400 meetings across the country. As she told reporters in a telephone conference call:

“I think you will see that we have made substantial changes that basically made this rule clearer, crisper and did the job we were supposed to do. And I’m very proud of the work we have done here.”

McCarthy also told the reporters that climate change increases the importance of protecting water resources:

“Impacts from climate change — like more intense droughts, storms, fires and floods, not to mention sea-level rise — affect our water supplies. But healthy streams and wetlands can help protect communities by trapping flood waters, retaining moisture during drought, recharging groundwater supplies, filtering pollution and providing habitat for fish and wildlife.”

The new rule was applauded by many environmental groups, including the Sierra Club. Michael Brune, executive director, issued a statement:

“No longer will the Supreme Court’s confusing decisions on the issue allow dirty fossil fuel companies to threaten people’s health by dumping toxins into our lakes, rivers, and streams.”

Still, plenty of people contend that the EPA and Army Corps have contrived this new rule to continue their over-reach into streams that should be beyond federal jurisdiction. House Speaker John Boehner, R- Ohio, issued this statement in response to the EPA’s release of the new rule, sometimes called “WOTUS” for “waters of the U.S.”

“The administration’s decree to unilaterally expand federal authority is a raw and tyrannical power grab that will crush jobs. House members of both parties have joined more than 30 governors and government leaders to reject EPA’s disastrous WOTUS rule. These leaders know firsthand that the rule is being shoved down the throats of hardworking people with no input and places landowners, small businesses, farmers and manufacturers on the road to a regulatory and economic hell.”

The House has already passed a bill, HB 1732, that would put the brakes on implementation of the new rule and send the EPA back to the drawing board for new language. As you could expect, the vote was mostly along party lines. If the Senate approves the bill, it is likely to be vetoed by the president.

The new rule is scheduled to go into effect 60 days from its publication in the Federal Register. For more details, visit the EPA’s website “Clean Water Rule.”

Sea-floor mining brings deep concerns about environmental effects

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about a a new deep-sea observatory being built off the West Coast. I noted that Washington and Oregon researchers are thrilled to monitor the eruption of an underwater volcano called Axial Seamount.

Smoker

Soon, new equipment and a fiber optics cable will allow these researchers to widely share discoveries involving the unique geology and unusual plants and animals living at the bottom of the ocean. People will be able to watch in real time via the Internet. See Water Ways, May 6.

Now, a new lawsuit filed by the Center for Biological Diversity has me thinking about the commercial value of the deep ocean. Can society safely mine the seafloor for valuable minerals used in a wide variety of consumer products? Can huge mining equipment operate in water two or three miles deep without destroying the unique ecosystem at the bottom of the ocean?

For decades, researchers have been aware of high concentrations of minerals lying on and beneath the sea floor. But nobody was worried about the environmental damage of mining, because the costs of commercial recovery were too great.

That has been changing, however, thanks to the combination of five factors, according to a 2013 study “Towards the Development of a Regulatory Framework for Polymetallic Nodule Exploitation” (PDF 1.1 mb). They are:

  1. A dramatic increase in demand for metal;
  2. An equally dramatic rise in metal prices;
  3. The high profitability of mining sector companies;
  4. A decline in the tonnage and grade of land-based nickel, copper and cobalt sulphide deposits; and
  5. Technological advances in deep seabed mining and processing.

The new technology involves giant robotic machines that either excavate the seafloor or scoop up clumps of polymetallic nodules. Over the past few years, 26 permits have been issued to mining corporations, mostly for operations in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone of the Pacific Ocean, about halfway between Hawaii and Mexico.

“Deep-sea mining is an emerging threat to our oceans that has the potential to irreparably harm underwater ecosystems before we even have a chance to fully study its impacts,” declares the Center for Biological Diversity, adding:

“Life on the deep ocean floor is still a mysterious realm that scientists have only just begun to fully understand and inventory… What mountaintop-removal coal mining has done in Appalachia, deep-sea mining has the potential to do in the Pacific Ocean, affecting the ecosystem and food web in ways that scientists say they don’t yet fully understand.”

Last week, the environmental group filed a lawsuit (PDF 162 kb) against the U.S. government for issuing exploratory permits without the requisite environmental studies. Said Emily Jeffers, the attorney who filed the case:

“Deep-sea mining should be stopped, and this lawsuit aims to compel the government to look at the environmental risks before it leaps into this new frontier. We need to protect the ocean wildlife and habitat, and the United States should provide leadership for other nations to follow before more projects get underway.”

The lawsuit, filed in Washington, D.C., challenges two exploratory permits issued to OMCO Seabed Exploration, LLC, a subsidiary of Lockheed Martin, the defense contractor. The original permits for work in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone expired in 2004. Jeffers says the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration should have considered the environmental effects of the mining plan before renewing the permits in 2012.

Said Jeffers in a news release:

“If we aren’t careful, this new gold rush could do irreparable harm to the basic building blocks of life. The federal government has a moral duty, as well as a legal one, to understand the full environmental impacts before the mining industry scrapes away our deep-sea resources.”

Besides tearing up the sea floor, mining operations can stir up sediment, which can smother organisms living on the bottom, according to the lawsuit. Cloudy water can reduce productivity, and clouds of sediment may contain toxic metals that reduce reproductive success of sea life. Light and noise from ships and vessels can disrupt seabird behavior and affect whales and other marine mammals, the suit claims.

Other permits have been issued to various countries in Europe and Asia by the International Seabed Authority, which hopes to approve environmental standards by the end of next year. The U.S. is not subject to those rules and cannot demand compliance from other countries, because the U.S. has not ratified the United Nations’ Convention on the Law of the Sea, a treaty that establishes the International Seabed Authority.

Map

Amusing Monday: Videos capture beauty, allure
of national parks

I recently discovered a series of 58 fascinating videos that capture the highlights of the diverse national parks in the United States.

The five-minute videos, by photographer Dennis Burkhardt of Oregon, take us on trips into some of the most amazing wilderness areas in the world. The scenic photography and accompanying narration make me yearn to visit every park to see them for myself.

I’ve posted on this page three of the videos, including the one that describes our familiar Olympic National Park. The complete set of can be viewed on the YouTube channel “America’s 58 National Parks.” Be sure to go full-screen.

I’m sure every park has a story to tell, and these videos briefly tantalize us with the possibilities of exploration. I recall stumbling upon a rich history and some amazing tales while researching a Kitsap Sun story for the 75th anniversary of Olympic National Park. It is called “At 75, Olympic National Park has grown amid push-pull of forces.”

In 1872, our first national park was born when President Ulysses S. Grant signed a law creating Yellowstone National Park. Yellowstone was followed by Mackinac in 1875, then Sequoia and Yosemite in 1890. Mackinac was converted to a state park in 1895 — one of seven national parks to go out of existence in the national park system.

National parks are selected for their natural beauty, unique geological formations, rare ecosystems and recreational opportunities. In contrast, national monuments, also administered by the National Park Service, are selected mainly for their historical significance.

California has nine parks, the most of any state, followed by Alaska with eight, Utah with five and Colorado with four. Washington has three — with North Cascades National Park created in 1968.

New parks are still being created, with Pinnacles National Monument in Central California becoming a national park in 2013. (Pinnacles is the 59th national park and is not included in the list of videos.) The largest national park, Wrangell-St. Elias in Alaska, is larger then nine entire states. The smallest is Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas.

A handy list of all the parks with links to more information can be found on Wikipedia.

Reducing toxics in fish involves politics, maybe more than science

When it comes to eliminating toxic pollution from our waterways and the foods we eat, almost everyone agrees that the best idea is to track down the chemicals, find out how they are getting into the environment and then make decisions about how to handle the situation.

Fish

It’s all common sense until politics comes into play.

If the chemicals are really hazardous and if substitutes for the chemicals are available, then a ban on their use may be the right decision. That has happened with pesticides, such as DDT, and solvents, such as PCBs.

In the case of PCBs, banning these chemicals is not enough, because they were used so widely and continue to hang around, both in old products still in use and in the open environment. Waiting for them to break down and disappear is not a practical approach.

The solution involves conducting chemical detective work to find out how the chemicals are traveling through the environment and ultimately getting into people and animals. Some toxic sinks for PCBs, such as old electrical equipment, can be identified and destroyed before the chemicals begin leaking out. Others, such as contaminated sediments at the bottom of Puget Sound, pose a more difficult problem.

Even when chemicals are banned, the ban is enforced with limits on concentration, below which the chemical can still be used. That’s the case with very low levels of PCBs found in some types of inks and dyes. So when paper is recycled, the PCBs may escape into the environment. We know that PCBs, which mimic hormones and can wreak havoc on the body, can build up in fish, killer whales and humans over time. The question for regulators becomes which sources are the most important to eliminate.

In Washington state, chemical detectives tackle the toxic compounds one at a time, compiling their findings into a chemical action plan. The chemical action plan for PCBs was completed earlier this year. Others have been done for mercury, lead, toxic flame retardants and polyaromatic hydrocarbons.

I bring all this up because Gov. Jay Inslee and Department of Ecology would like to increase the pace of studying potentially toxic chemicals, including finding out what harm they are doing, how they get into the food web and whether alternative chemicals are available.

New chemicals are finding their way into household products, cosmetics and other materials all the time, and studies continue to raise concerns about old chemicals that we have lived with for a long time. Some chemicals are the subject of vigorous and ongoing scientific debate.

The Washington Legislature has been asked by the governor to fund Ecology for up to two chemical action plans per year. The other question before lawmakers is how much authority to give Ecology for banning chemicals and considering whether alternatives are available. These are issues I covered in a story last week for InvestigateWest, a nonprofit journalism group. The story was carried by the Kitsap Sun on Sunday.

This issue of chemical action plans has gotten tangled up with the need for Washington state to update its water-quality standards, required under the federal Clean Water Act. These standards, now under review by Ecology, determine which water bodies in the state are considered clean of toxic substances and which should be labeled “impaired.”

The standards also are used to develop discharge permits for industrial facilities, sewage-treatment plants and occasionally stormwater outfalls. The general implication is that if a discharge from a pipe meets the state’s water quality standards, then it won’t pollute the receiving waters.

Years ago, when most water pollution came from industrial and sewage discharges, the program was successful in making the waters substantially cleaner. More than 100 chemicals remain on the Environmental Protection Agency’s priority pollutants list. All these chemicals are still tested by dischargers, although the vast majority are not detectible in fish caught in Puget Sound. Meanwhile, other chemicals of growing concern are not on the list — so they are not subject to testing, let alone regulatory control.

We now know from various studies that most of the toxic pollution entering Puget Sound comes from stormwater, not discharges from pipes, while other toxics are still sitting on the bottom of Puget Sound. It will take a lot of money and a lot of time to address these sources. The effort is moving in that direction, but funding continues to be debated, including the current session of the Legislature.

Efforts to update the antiquated rules in the Clean Water Act to provide for a more rationale approach have been started and stopped many times. I suspect that environmental advocates fear that with the anti-government mood in Congress the result could be even less-effective controls on pollution — so we live with regulations structured more than 30 years ago.

Gov. Inslee tried to shift the focus of toxic cleanup from the federal approach to the state’s new approach with chemical action plans. While newly proposed water-quality standards are more stringent for 70 percent of the chemicals (PDF 392 kb) on EPA’s list, they would have been 10 times more stringent if his proposal had not changed a key factor in the equation that determines the standards. Going up against environmental advocates, Inslee proposed increasing the cancer-risk rate in the equation from one in a million to one in 100,000.

In other words, if a body of water barely meets the pollution standard for a given chemical, 10 in a million people — rather than 1 in a million — could develop cancer from eating a maximum assumed level of fish from the water. This is the increased lifetime risk from that one chemical.

Everyone agrees that we should do what we can to reduce our risk of getting cancer, and cutting down toxics in fish is an important step. In a two-part series I wrote for the Kitsap Sun in March, I began by describing the risks and benefits of eating fish from Puget Sound and other areas, then I proceeded to talk about the alternative approaches to cleaning up the water.

Increasing the excess cancer risk from one in a million to 10 in a million is worth discussing. That change is not insignificant. But getting to some kind of bottom line is not easy. Keep in mind that the overall risk of getting cancer from all causes is about 433,000 in a million (43.3 percent) for men and 228,000 in a million (22.8 percent) for women, according to the American Cancer Society.

Environmental and tribal officials would like the risk of eating fish to be as low as possible. Many are angered by 15 years of delay by state officials in updating the standards, which were based on poor estimates of how much fish people eat. The newly proposed change assumes a daily consumption of 175 grams (about 6 ounces) of fish, compared to the previous 6.5 grams (about a quarter of an ounce.) Tribal officials say many people in their communities eat more than 175 grams.

On the other hand, businesses operating industrial plants and local governments running sewage-treatment plants are worried about what it will take to comply with new standards if the cancer risk remains at 1 in a million. Increased costs for their treatment systems, ultimately passed along to their customers, are a primary concern.

So far, the regional office of the EPA has made it clear that it does not like the idea of increasing the cancer-risk rate from the level currently used by Washington state and most other states. See the agency’s comments dated March 23 (PDF 6.4 mb). The EPA seems to be taking the approach that if the technology does not exist or is too expensive to reduce chemical concentrations to levels demanded by the new standards, then dischargers should be given a variance or allowed additional time to come into compliance.

It isn’t clear how these issues will be resolved, and there are many technical and legal aspects to be considered. Washington state is on a course to complete its update to the standards by August, when the EPA could release its own plan for bringing the state into compliance.

Offshore killer whales gain attention from Canadian government

The Canadian government is calling attention to the special needs of offshore killer whales in a new document, “Recovery Strategy for the Offshore Killer Whale in Canada (PDF 3.8 mb).”

Report

Offshores are a mysterious, little-understood group of orcas that roam the West Coast. They are related to the more familiar resident and transient killer whales, but they are genetically, physically and socially distinct. The name “offshore” sort of tells the story; they often remain miles off the coast, out of sight and out of mind for most researchers as well as the public.

Scientists cannot tell us if their population is increasing or decreasing, though it appears to be generally stable. It is not clear whether human activities are disrupting their behaviors. And without good data, these animals remain in a kind of limbo status, while the highly studied Southern Residents of Puget Sound remain solidly on the Endangered Species List with widespread concerns about their welfare.

While it is true that regulations protecting Southern Residents also protect offshores to a degree, more studies are needed to ensure the future of these unique orcas. As the new recovery strategy points out:

“Offshore killer whales face both anthropogenic and natural threats, limitations or vulnerabilities, including reductions in prey availability; contaminant exposure from prey; spills of substances harmful to the marine environment; acute and chronic acoustic disturbance; physical disturbance; interactions with commercial fisheries and aquaculture; direct killing; climate change; disease agents; fixed dietary preferences and natural decreases in prey supply; inbreeding depression; tooth wear; and mass stranding or natural entrapment.

“The small population size and typically large groupings of offshores makes the population particularly vulnerable to stochastic events.”

Whale watchers aboard the Manute’a in Southern California experienced an amazing encounter with offshore killer whales in 2012. Some have questioned whether the boat's skipper was too close.

Offshores were first identified in Canadian waters in 1988. Since then, they have been confirmed in about 240 sightings in the U.S. and Canada, and their population has been estimated at roughly 300 animals. Although the full extent of their range remains a mystery, they seem to have moved to inland waters more frequently in recent years. The report notes:

“Although it is thought that their seemingly recent presence in inshore waters may reflect a shift associated with oceanographic conditions and/or distribution of prey, the data are also confounded by gradually increasing survey effort and public interest.”

Like the resident killer whales (Southern and Northern Residents), the offshores appear to be primarily fish eaters, with a specialization in eating sharks. They are known to prey on Pacific sleeper sharks, blue sharks, North Pacific spiny dogfish, chinook salmon and Pacific halibut — with sharks making up a significant portion of their diet.

Sharks are a good source of the fats needed for the high metabolism of orcas, but sharks live longer and tend to contain more contaminants. Consequently, offshores tend to have higher levels of PCBs and other contaminants than salmon-eating residents. Studies have revealed that PCB levels appear to be closer to those of transient orcas, which eat marine mammals. Offshores have significantly higher concentrations of DDT and PBDEs (toxic flame retardants) than either residents or transients. From the report:

“A high DDT to PCB ratio is found in offshores, characteristic of waters and sediments off the California Coast, where DDT comprises a more significant portion of contaminants and where prey may be exposed to elevated concentrations of contaminants relative to higher latitude waters; this shared characteristic ratio is thought to be an indication of offshore killer whales’ frequent occurrence off California.

“There are many sources of these persistent substances, often from urban and agriculture runoff, along the West Coast of North America. Runoff
from urban areas is especially troubling in California, where offshores are regularly sighted in the winter, often near large urban centers…”

“Of particular concern is offshore killer whales’ apparent targeting of the liver of at least one of their preferred prey, the Pacific sleeper shark. The liver is a lipid-rich meal, but is also a reservoir of heavy metals. All three shark species known to be consumed by offshores have a high mercury content, likely increasing the severity of heavy metal consumption and accumulation in offshore killer whales.

“Killer whales are thought to have evolved the ability to detoxify heavy metals such as mercury; however, it is unknown whether detoxification in offshore killer whales functions effectively enough to deal with their apparent diet preference for livers from intermediate-to-high trophic level prey, and exposure to an elevated contaminant environment.”

While shark populations along the West Coast appear to be stable at the moment, the number of sharks may have been greater historically, according to the report. In addition, basking sharks may have been an important prey source historically, and a steep decline in basking sharks may have affected the offshore orca population.

One of the greatest risks to the offshores is a spill of oil or other harmful substances. Killer whales have no sense of smell and make no apparent effort to avoid spills. The report notes:

“As described previously, the threat of oil spills and discharges holds risk for offshore killer whales, due to their grouping behavior. With multiple current proposals involving increased marine transport of petroleum products and other hazardous substances to and from British Columbia, an increase in large vessel traffic (e.g. tankers) in these waters heightens the risk of potential spills of substances harmful to the marine environment, and to offshores and their prey.”

Another significant risk is disease among offshore killer whales. Their high toxic loads can reduce their immune response, and their highly social nature increases the risk of disease exposure. According to the report:

“This highly social nature heightens the risk of rapid, pervasive infection and pathogen dispersal throughout the entire population… With an extensive geographic range adjacent to many large urban centers and intensive agricultural activity, offshore killer whales are exposed to numerous sources of emerging pathogens particularly near river and runoff outlets, where concentrations of infectious agents may be introduced into the marine environment.”

Offshore killer whales also are known to have extreme tooth wear, probably caused by their preference for eating sharks with their sandpaper-like skins. In some cases, teeth are worn to the gum line, which could open a route of exposure for infection.

Other risks include noise generated from human operations, including military sonar and seismic surveys, as well as chronic noise from shipping operations. Because of the close grouping among offshores, noise is likely to disrupt their feeding and social behavior.

The Canadian report articulates recovery strategies, primarily focused on learning more about the needs and threats to offshores — including studies on their population and cultural attributes, prey availability and toxic exposure, and response to various types of noise.

Comments will be taken on the new report until April 27. For information, go to Offshore Killer Whale Recovery Strategy.

In the U.S., offshore killer whales are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, but they have not been provided any special stock status (PDF 493 kb) for additional protection or focused study.

Harper Estuary moving toward restoration, including a new bridge

At Harper Estuary in South Kitsap, the question of “bridge or no bridge?” has become, “How long should the bridge be to protect the ecosystem?”

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 neighborhood.

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 system.

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 estuary.

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.

Eating fish from Puget Sound may be safe — within prescribed limits

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.

Fish

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 days.

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 2.

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 high.

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 effect for 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, I’m told.

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 billion.

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 fish.

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 effects.

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 release:

“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 Thompson of HealthDay magazine.

“More study needs to be done before you can convince me that the fish is actually protective,” she said. “I want to see the data.”

Legislative coverage

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.