Category Archives: Fish

Amusing Monday: Birds prepare nests, while Eastern eaglets go live

I usually wait until June to post some of the best views of wildlife you will ever see, because that is when the animal kingdom seems to really become active. But this year I thought we could show up a little sooner and see what happens on live wildlife cameras in early spring.

Especially amusing are a pair of bald eagle chicks hatched about three weeks ago in a poplar tree in the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C. Their parents, who began nesting in this location two years ago, were named “Mr. President” and “The First Lady.”

Go to WASHINGTON, D.C., LIVE EAGLE NEST CAM for the live video, since embedded videos are not allowed. The video on this page shows the hatching of the first chick at about 5 minutes in, when the adult eagle stands up and moves to the side.

Officials involved in the project are entertaining names for the two eaglets. Suggestions can be offered on the Facebook page of either the American Eagle Foundation or the U.S. Department of Energy and Environment, as described in a news release on the project.

The nesting site contains a pair of cameras that operate 24 hours a day. You can easily switch from one camera to the other for better viewing at different times.

American Eagle Foundation, which operates the camera with permission from the U.S. government, makes this statement on its Eagle Nest Cam web page:

“This is a wild eagle nest and anything can happen. While we hope that two healthy juvenile eagles will end up fledging from the nest this summer, things like sibling rivalry, predators, and natural disaster can affect this eagle family and may be difficult to watch.”

Two ospreys, known as Tom and Audrey, are back at their nesting site on Maryland’s eastern shore, where Chesapeake Conservancy does a great job with its osprey cam. I’m no expert, but it looks like a lot of nest-building activity at the moment. Make sure your sound is on, as there seems to be considerable vocalization.

We need to wait a little longer for the ospreys to arrive at two locations where the University of Montana operates live osprey cameras as part of its Montana Osprey Project. They are at the Hellgate Canyon nest site in Missoua and Dunrovin Ranch in Lolo. According to the project’s Facebook page, the ospreys are on their way and should arrive soon (based on satellite tracking).

I was disappointed to hear that an osprey cam operated by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife in Gig Harbor is offline this year. WDFW posted this note on the website: “This camera is out of alignment and now offline for 2016. Ospreys have nested and we cannot disturb them to repair or re-angle the camera.”

Alberta Conservation Association and its sponsors last year set up cameras to observe three prime nesting boxes for peregrine falcons in Edmonton, Alberta. Chicks hatched in each of the nests, where we could watch the mothers taking care of their little bundles of fluff, all in real time. The message on the website says, “It’s not long now.”

One of my favorite live cams is still Pete’s Pond (video player at right), a watering hole on Mashatu Game Reserve in Botswana, Africa. It began as a National Geographic project and is now operated by WildEarth, which features several other wildlife cams. Operators, working remotely, turn the camera to find the best action at any moment.

I’ve started watching a live camera in a cove at Anacapa Island in Channel Islands National Park in Southern California. Nearly 1,000 marine species live in the area, and often fish and tiny swimming creatures come into view of the camera.

The Vancouver Aquarium has live cams showing:

As spring moves into summer, other wildlife cams will be worth watching, including the brown bears in Katmai National Park in Alaska, where the action at Brooks River usually begins in July.

I’ve featured other wildlife cams in past years. Check out Water Ways for June 23, 2014 as well as June 17, 2013.

Amusing Monday: Short videos tell timely tales of scientific discovery

Our old friend the northern clingfish, whose belly can clamp onto things and hold tighter than a suction cup, is the star in an award-winning movie put together by researchers and students at the University of Washington.

It’s only a three-minute movie, but the story of this intriguing little fish captured the attention of 37,000 middle school students from 17 different countries in the Ocean 180 Video Challenge. This is a competition that encourages ocean scientists to share their discoveries through short videos. Students selected the clingfish video as the best in the amateur category after an initial screening by a panel of scientists and communication experts.

You can watch all the video finalists on the Ocean 180 YouTube channel. On this page, you can watch the clingfish video, “A Very Sticky Fish,” as well as one called “Harbor Seal Pups: Diving into Rehab,” which was judged the winner in the professional category, since it was produced with the help of a professional filmmaker.

Second place was awarded to “The Creative Dolphin: What Dolphins Do When Asked to Vary Their Behavior.” Third place went to “Marine Defaunation: Animal Loss in the Global Ocean.” An honorable mention was given to “The JetYak.”

The UW team included Adam Summers, professor of biology and of aquatic and fishery sciences at Friday Harbor Laboratories, along with Ian Stevens, a 2015 English graduate, and Zack Bivins, a current English major. I featured Adam Summers and his studies of the clingfish in an “Amusing Monday” post last May. See Water Ways, May 11, 2015, and Michelle Ma’s original story for UW News.

The UW undergraduates met in 2014 while reading “Moby Dick” in professor Richard Kenney’s English class at Friday Harbor Laboratories, where science is mixed with the humanities. Stevens and Bivens produced a 10-minute video about a sperm whale, called “The Sperm Whale and You,” and Summers encouraged them to enter the video contest. They clamped onto Summers’ research paper on the clingfish and decided that would be their topic.

The project was entirely optional, driven only by the students’ passion for art and science.

“This is the intellectual life at its magnesium heat,” Kenney told Michelle Ma in her latest news release. “They were doing it for fun. That’s how you win; it starts with excitement and passion.”

“It is pretty cool for a couple of UW English majors to waltz into a national science outreach film competition and take top honors,” Summers said. “I think it points to the excellent training these students received on campus and also their ability to exploit the intellectual hothouse of Friday Harbor Labs.”

The student winners are forming a video production company that might make more films to explain science in a visually interesting way. Next time, they could enter the Ocean 180 contest as professionals.

The competition, sponsored by the Florida Center for Ocean Sciences Education Excellence, challenges scientists to bring their research papers to life in ways that can help people find meaning to their work. Entries must be tied to a specific research paper published in the past five years.

First-place winners, amateur and professional, each received $3,000. Second- and third- place winners received $2,000 and $1,000 respectively.

Students judging the finalists in the competition came from classes in which teachers signed up specific classrooms to watch the videos. Assuming the competition continues, classroom registration will begin in the fall.

For information, go to the Ocean 180 website.

Shoreline bulkheads impose changes on
the natural ecosystem

It goes without saying that wood, rock or concrete bulkheads built along the shoreline are not natural. They certainly don’t look like any structure formed by nature. And when the water is pushing up against them, waves bounce around and splash back instead of rolling up on shore.

Bulkhead

I have never had any trouble understanding some of the problems caused by bulkheads. I imagine little juvenile salmon swimming along the shoreline, working their way toward the ocean. In shallow water, these little fish can stay away from the bigger fish that want to eat them. But bulkheads create a stretch of deeper water, where predatory fish can swim in close and devour the little ones.

I’ve been told that bulkheads cause other problems as well, such as blocking shoreline erosion. But isn’t that what they are designed to do? What’s the problem? As I’ve learned — especially over the past few months — natural erosion provides the sands and gravels needed for healthy beaches. Natural beaches also collect driftwood, which provides additional habitat for a variety of creatures.

As many readers know, I now work half-time for the Puget Sound Institute, a University of Washington affiliate that publishes the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound. We’ve been working on a series of articles about bulkheads — formally known as shoreline armoring — and I’m more convinced than ever that bulkheads really do cause problems.

Surf smelt Photo: Wikimedia commons
Surf smelt // Photo: Wikimedia commons

The first story in the series, released this week, describes the effects of bulkheads on spawning habitat for surf smelt and sand lance, two kinds of small fish that are an important food source for salmon, birds and marine mammals. Check out my story, “Spawning habitat for forage fish being lost to rising tides.”

As sea levels continue to rise, the high-tide and low-tide lines move to higher elevations on the beach — until the high-tide line reaches the bulkhead. For many bulkheads, the high-tide line is already there. At that point, the rising sea level continues to push the low-tide line to higher and higher elevations, reducing the spawning habitat for fish that lay their eggs in the intertidal area.

This shrinking habitat is known as “coastal squeeze” or “beach squeeze.” Recent studies suggest that where bulkheads are located, Puget Sound could lose 80 percent of this spawning habitat by the turn of the century, based on average predictions of sea-level rise.

On beaches without bulkheads, the high-tide line would move steadily inland, helping to maintain the critical habitat for forage fish, according to Timothy Quinn, chief scientist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“Everywhere in Puget Sound, there will be beach squeeze when you don’t allow things to equilibrate on the land side,” he told me. “What used to be exposed beach (during the tidal cycle) will no longer be exposed.”

It turns out that many bulkheads constructed through the years were never needed to prevent erosion, because they were built to protect homes in areas where erosion is minimal. Future stories in our series will cover this issue, including the prospect of removing existing bulkheads to improve shoreline habitats. Unfortunately, sea level rise adds a new twist to the discussion. Still, the best advice when building a new house is to keep the structure back from the water’s edge.

In addition to the general story about beach squeeze, I wrote a sidebar about a study that looked at the effects of this phenomenon on 15 different beaches in the San Juan Islands. See “Forage fish are losing places to lay their eggs.”

Meanwhile, this initial installment of the Shoreline Armoring Series includes a nice piece by science writer Eric Scigliano called “Shoreline armoring’s effect on the food web.” In this story, Eric looks at a broad spectrum of effects caused by bulkheads. He reports on an involved study that focused on a series of paired beaches — one with a bulkhead and one without — located in various parts of Puget Sound.

Most of the studies that we will report on during this series were funded by the Environmental Protection Agency through grants coordinated by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. The plan is to release about two additional stories each week over the next two weeks.

Surf smelt spawning zone below low tide mark Illustration: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife
Surf smelt spawning zone below high tide mark
Illustration: Dan Penttila, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

Kitsap groundwater model points to promising future

Overall, the Kitsap Peninsula is expected to have enough water for people and fish for many years into the future, as long as the water is managed well, according to a groundwater model developed by the U.S. Geological Survey.

The model offers reassuring findings for residents of the Kitsap Peninsula. It is also encouraging to see local water, sewer and public works officials working together to plan for infiltrating stormwater along with recycling wastewater for irrigation. Those efforts will not only protect the peninsula’s water resources but will save money for water customers.

Drilling for water on the Kitsap Peninsula Kitsap Sun file photo
Drilling for water on the Kitsap Peninsula
Kitsap Sun file photo

Lonna Frans of the U.S. Geological Survey met this week with members of WaterPAK — the Water Purveyors of Association of Kitsap — to discuss the conclusions of a five-year, $1.4 million study of water resources across the Kitsap Peninsula. Lonna said a final written report should be available in about a month. (See website Kitsap GW model.)

The most impressive part of the groundwater model is the mapping of geology across the entire peninsula, based on more than 2,100 well-driller logs that describe the type of soil at various depths. Putting that information together provides a three-dimensional picture of the underground structure, including sand and gravel deposits, which contain water, along with layers of clay and compressed soils, which slow down the water movement.

By monitoring water levels in 66 wells over time and accounting for rainfall and groundwater withdrawals, the computer model provides a dynamic picture of what happens under various conditions. The model can be used to predict what will happen to Kitsap’s aquifers under various rainfall scenarios, including long periods of drought.

Map

Key

The model also can predict what will happen to streamflows under various rainfall scenarios. The Kitsap Peninsula has no mountain snowpack to supply the streams with water during dry summer months, so the water must come from slow-moving underground supplies.

Now that the model is complete, it can be run for almost any pattern of rainfall or drought that one wishes to dream up. For example, running the model with average rainfall and no pumping at all (close to a predevelopment condition) would bring the average groundwater level up about 25 feet — although groundwater levels in some places would be raised more than in other places.

Streamsflows under the no-pumping scenario would be an average of about 2 percent higher — although this would be difficult to measure with current instruments. Nobody would really notice the difference.

If pumping across the peninsula were increased by 15 percent, there would not be much difference in aquifers near the surface and only a two- or three-foot drop in aquifers around sea level. Streamflows would go down by a fraction of a percent but not enough to notice.

Decreasing groundwater recharge by 15 percent, such as paving over the landscape with new roads, houses and parking lots, would have a greater effect on streamflows.

Again, not all areas on the peninsula will see the same effects. The model can be used to zero in on specific streams and their watersheds — although the smaller the area of study, the less accurate the prediction is likely to be.

Bob Hunter, manager of Kitsap Public Utility District, said the model can be used to predict the effects that new wells would have on streamflows as the population grows. The model could advise managers whether it would be advisable to pump certain wells at certain times of the year and hold back at other times.

Kathleen Cahall, water resources manager for the city of Bremerton, said the model can also be used to make sure aquifer-recharge areas are protected and that industrial facilities that store large quantities of chemicals are not located where a spill could contaminate a major underground water supply.

Morgan Johnson, general manager of Silverdale Water District, said he would like to use the model to predict what will happen when highly treated effluent from the Central Kitsap Wastewater Treatment Plant is used to irrigate ball fields and other areas in Central Kitsap. Efforts between the water districts and Kitsap County might lead to greater infiltration of water and greater groundwater supplies to be pumped from existing wells throughout Central Kitsap.

The model was built on background information, which can be found in the report “Hydrogeologic Framework, Groundwater Movement, and Water Budget of the Kitsap Peninsula” (PDF 49.8 mb).

The USGS provided half the costs for the study. The other half was shared among Kitsap PUD; Silverdale Water District; West Sound Utility District; North Perry Water District; Manchester Water District; the cities of Bremerton, Port Orchard, Poulsbo and Gig Harbor; Washington Water, a private utility; and the Suquamish and Port Gamble S’Klallam tribes.

In September of 2014, I wrote about water resources for the series we called “Taking the Pulse of Puget Sound.” The story was called “Making sure there is enough water to go around.”

Amusing Monday: Climate science finds artistic expression

A graph showing the rise in global temperature or the increase in ocean acidity is really just ink on paper. Emotionally, the impact is minimal, unless a person truly understands the meaning behind the lines and numbers shown on the chart.

Clownfish

That’s why I am thrilled and amused with the work of artist Jill Pelto, who has uniquely bridged the gap between scientific charts and living creatures. Jill has incorporated real climate data — charts and graphs — into the backgrounds of her paintings, which also tell compelling stories about the changing environment.

Take the water-color painting of clownfish (first on this page), for example. The anemone in the background is outlined by pH data from 1998 to 2012, as Jill explained to me in an email.

Ocean acidification results when atmospheric carbon dioxide dissolves in the water to form carbonic acid. Higher-than-normal levels of acidity can affect the brains of some fish, leading to disorientation and a reduction in their ability to avoid predators.

“The clownfish in my watercolor are grouped in confusion, separated from the anemone in which they live,” Jill told me. “The oceans may be vast, but if the pH drops globally, there is literally nowhere marine life can go. They are confined to the water.”

The decline in pH, along with a further explanation of ocean acidification, can be found on Climate Central’s website WXshift (pronounced “weather shift”).

The greatest effects of climate change are being experienced in the polar regions. Data describing the melting of Arctic sea ice from 1980 to the present are expressed in Jill’s painting of the Arctic foxes.

Foxes

“Rapid warming in the Arctic has caused the sea ice area to decline so quickly that species cannot adjust,” Jill wrote. “The Arctic fox is small and extraordinarily resilient to the most severe cold. They can withstand the frigid north and thus have this corner of the world in which to hunt. But when the temperatures mellow, competition from larger species could overcome them, as other species move farther north to escape their own warming environment.

“I painted the Arctic foxes to look cornered and skittish. One is hunched and defensive; the other is yowling in panic. The sea ice, from which they are separated, is spaced out by large expanses of dark blue water absorbing the sun’s heat.”

Changes in sea ice are described in Climate Central’s website WXshift.

Jill has studied both art and science, graduating in December from the University of Maine with a double major in studio art and Earth science.

“I have always loved the outdoors and want to use my creative skills to communicate information about extreme environmental issues with a broad audience,” she says on her website, Glaciogenic Art. “I see nature as a work of art and the origin of my observational skills. I enjoy cross-country and downhill skiing, reading, running, camping and spending time with my friends and family. I make art inspired by all of these experiences.”

Jill’s father, Mauri Pelto, a professor in environmental science at Nichols College in Dudley, Mass., has studied glacier recession in Washington’s Cascade Mountains for decades. He founded the ongoing North Cascades Glacier Climate Project in 1983. Jill has assisted with research on that and other projects around the country since high school.

Salmon

Mauri’s 2008 research paper on the North Cascade glaciers (PDF 1.6 mb) contains these unsettling observations: “All 47 monitored glaciers are currently undergoing a significant retreat, and four of them have disappeared.” He goes on to add that this glacial retreat is “ubiquitous, rapid and increasing.”

Experiencing such environmental changes first-hand has helped shape Jill’s future.

“To me, it’s really dramatic and it means a lot because it’s something I personally experienced,” she told Brian Kahn of Climate Central. “Seeing signs of climate change that were more evident inspired me to pursue science at the same time as art.”

The decline in salmon inspired Jill to incorporate a graph of coho population data into one painting. Receding glaciers, last year’s lack of snowpack and a shortage of rainfall contributed to real problems for salmon. Streams were too low and too warm, reducing the amount of spawning.

“Seeing the rivers and reservoirs looking so barren was frightening,” Jill said. “The salmon are depicted swimming along the length of the graph, following its current. While salmon can swim upstream, it is becoming more of an uphill battle with lower streamflow and higher temperatures. This image depicts the struggle their population is facing as their spawning habitat declines.”

Suns

Read more about the decline of salmon in Mauri Pelto’s blog on the American Geophysical Union Blogosphere.

The final example on this page captures multiple measures of climate change occurring across the globe, such as glacier mass balance, sea level rise and temperature increase.

“I wanted to convey in an image how all of this data must be compared and linked together to figure out the fluctuations in Earth’s natural history,” Jill said. “One of the reasons scientists study what happened in the past is to understand what may happen now as a result of human-induced climate change.

“I represented this by illustrating that glaciers are melting and calving, sea levels are rising and temperatures are increasing. The numbers on the left y-axis depict quantities of glacial melt and sea level rise, and the suns across the horizon contain numbers that represent the global increase in temperature, coinciding with the timeline on the lower x-axis.”

Jill offers these references on sea level rise, the “disastrous year” of 2015, and the annual climate report by NOAA and NASA.

I am really looking forward to seeing more of Jill’s work in the future, as she continues her academic pursuits at the University of Maine. Prints of her paintings are available for sale, and Jill can be contacted through her website.

Specialized bacteria can remove rogue drugs during sewage treatment

UPDATE, March 10, 2016
I’ve added links for three previous reports related to the degradation of pharmaceuticals and personal care products.
—–

Concerns are growing about medications and person-care products that pass through sewage-treatment plants and into Puget Sound, where the chemicals can alter the physiology and behavior of fish and other organisms.

Almost everywhere scientists have looked, they have found drugs that people have either flushed down the drain or passed through their bodies. Either way, many active pharmaceutical compounds are ending up in the sewage at low levels. Conventional sewage-treatment plants can break down up to 90 percent or more of some compounds, but others pass through unaltered.

Now, researchers are working on a process that would use specialized bacteria to break down pharmaceutical compounds at existing sewage-treatment plants. The idea, developed by researchers at the University of Washington, is ready for a limited pilot project at one of the treatment plants in the Puget Sound region.

Heidi Gough, left, and Nicolette Zhou with a table-top treatment plant in the lab. UW photo
Heidi Gough, left, and Nicolette Zhou with a table-top sewage-treatment plant in the lab.
UW photo

Studies into this issue began more than 20 years ago, when it became clear that all sorts of compounds were passing through sewage-treatment plants and getting into the environment. Among the early findings was that male fish exposed to artificial birth-control hormones were changing into female fish. Later studies showed that common antidepressant medications seemed to be changing the behavior of fish, making them easier targets for predators.

In addition to estrogens and antidepressants, researchers have found blood thinners, cholesterol-reducing drugs, various heart medications, several hormones and painkillers, along with caffeine, cocaine and various cosmetic and cleansing chemicals.

A study funded by the Environmental Protection Agency looked for 56 active pharmaceutical compounds in sewage effluent from 50 major treatment plants around the country, finding significant levels of many compounds.

A new study by NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center and the University of Washington looked at 150 compounds coming from two sewage treatment plants in Puget Sound. They were Bremerton’s plant on Sinclair Inlet and Tacoma’s plant on Commencement Bay. They also tested the local waters along with juvenile chinook salmon and Pacific staghorn sculpin to see if the fish were picking up the compounds.

According to a NOAA news release, the study “found some of the nation’s highest concentrations of these chemical compounds and detected many in fish at concentrations that may affect their growth or behavior.” For additional reporting on that study, check out the Kitsap Sun story by Tristan Baurick and the Seattle Times story by Lynda Mapes.

These chemicals could be having effects on various animals in the food web — from benthic organisms that live in the sediments to marine mammals — but more study is needed. Complicating the situation is that multiple pharmaceutical chemicals may work together to create different effects, depending on their concentrations and the affected organism.

Many people would argue that we have enough information to dramatically increase our efforts to remove these compounds from wastewater going into Puget Sound. Drug take-back programs have been started in many cities and counties throughout Puget Sound to encourage people not to flush unused pills down the toilet or drain. See the Take Back Your Meds website. Still, Washington state has yet to develop a comprehensive statewide program that would cover everyone.

Meanwhile, nobody can say what percentage of the drugs going into the treatment plants were dumped down the drain versus being excreted from the human body. But it wouldn’t matter as much if the chemicals could be eliminated at the sewage-treatment plant.

More than a decade ago, Heidi Gough of the UW’s Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering began working on the development of bacteria that could break down these chemicals of concern. She and her colleagues have isolated cultures of bacteria that can break down triclosan, an antimicrobial; bisphenol A, a plasticizer; ibuprofen, an anti-inflammatory drug; 17β-estradiol, a natural hormone; and gemifibrozil, a cholesterol-lowering drug.

The process of isolating helpful bacteria and boosting their numbers could theoretically be used to break down almost any chemical of concern. To be suitable, the bacteria must 1) break down the target chemical to a very low level, 2) grow well in common growth media without the target chemical, 3) break down the chemical even when other nutrient sources are abundant, and 4) work quickly within the normal rate of sewage treatment.

Nicolette Zhou, a former UW graduate student, worked with Heidi to successfully develop a bench-top treatment plant to test the process. Nicolette also produced a computer model of how the operation would perform at a large-scale treatment plant. She completed her analysis and received her doctorate degree last fall. Her latest findings are now awaiting publication in a scientific journal.

Previous reports:

  • Genes involved in Bisphenol A degradation, Environmental Science and Technology.
  • Degradation of triclosan and bisphenol A by five bacteria, Pub Med.
  • Cultivation and characterization of bacteria capable of degrading pharmaceutical and personal care products, Pub Med.

Other systems have been proposed for breaking down complex pharmaceuticals, such as advanced oxidation or other chemical or physical treatment. But biological breakdown offers the most hope in the short term, because it is how most sewage-treatment plants work can be implemented quickly without major modifications and appears to be economical on a large scale, Nocolette told me.

In a large-scale system, the first step would be to identify the specific contaminants to be reduced and then select the bacteria. Some bacteria will break down multiple chemicals, she said.

The bacteria would be grown in a tank and be fed into the sewage digesters reactors, preferably in a continual flow. Multiple chemicals of concern might require several tanks for growing different bactieria.

If the process is successful and adopted by many treatment plants, an alternative process could be developed. Instead of growing the bacteria onsite, where conditions could be difficult to control, all sorts of bacteria could be grown in an industrial facility. The industrial plant would isolate the actual enzymes needed to break down the chemicals and ship them to the treatment plants. The enzymes could be stored and fed into the treatment process as needed.

The research into this treatment process has progressed to where the next step is a small-scale pilot project at a sewage-treatment plant in the Puget Sound area, Nicolette said. A portion of the actual wastewater would be diverted to the pilot plant, where sewage would be subjected to the specialized bacteria and tested for the level of treatment.

Ultimately, more studies are needed to establish a safe concentration for the various chemicals that come from pharmaceuticals and personal-care products. That way, one could culture the appropriate bacteria and establish a reasonable effluent limit for chemicals going into Puget Sound.

Stealthy steelhead still survive across parts
of the Kitsap Peninsula

More than three years after first proposed, “critical habitat” has been designated for Puget Sound steelhead, a prized fish whose population has declined drastically in the Puget Sound region.

The new designation, announced last week, is the first time that critical habitat has ever been designated on the east side of the Kitsap Peninsula.

Critical habitat for steelhead (click to enlarge)NOAA map
Critical habitat for steelhead (click to enlarge)
NOAA map

Steelhead were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 2007, and this critical habitat designation is required under federal law to protect habitats — in this case streams — that are considered essential to the recovery of the species.

Under the law, any federal actions that could affect critical habitat becomes subject to careful review to avoid degradation of the habitat. In most areas, this high-level review would apply to alteration of streams, wetlands or estuaries, or any construction covered by federal grants or permits — such as transportation projects.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has designated many Puget Sound streams as critical habitat for one or more listed species — such as Puget Sound chinook, Hood Canal summer chum or bull trout. But this is the first time the agency has provided federal protection for streams on the eastern side of the Kitsap Peninsula.

Interestingly, the marine shoreline all around the peninsula has been designated as critical habitat for chinook. Although the numerous streams are considered too small to support chinook spawning, the shorelines are critically important for juvenile chinook, which must find places to feed, grow and escape predators on their migration to the ocean.

The designation of East Kitsap as critical habitat for steelhead could bring increased scientific scrutiny to this area along with possible funding for the restoration of habitat, as I outlined in a Kitsap Sun story when the habitat was first proposed in 2013. See Kitsap Sun, Jan. 14, 2013, and Water Ways, March 15, 2013.

Even though steelhead were listed as threatened eight years ago, knowledge remains sparse about the number of steelhead coming back to the Kitsap Peninsula or the habitat needs of the fish, local biologists tell me. Steelhead are stealthy fish, not easily found in the streams, although some information is being revealed by a handful of fish traps used by researchers to measure steelhead productivity.

Acoustic tags help researchers track the movement of steelhead in Puget Sound.
Acoustic tags help researchers track the movement of steelhead in Puget Sound.
Photo: Kitsap Sun

Steelhead can still be found in Kitsap streams, but in numbers far below what old-timers talk about. Many Kitsap streams have become “flashy,” meaning that streamflows rise and fall suddenly with the rains, because so much of the landscape has been paved or otherwise hardened. Those conditions limit the habitat, especially for fish like steelhead and coho, which make their way far upstream in Kitsap’s numerous little creeks. One difference between the two species is that coho die after spawning, while steelhead often head back to the ocean to spawn again on their next journey.

As for the designation of critical habitat, the Suquamish Tribe was able to convince NOAA Fisheries to maintain closer jurisdiction over 90 miles of steelhead streams on the Kitsap Peninsula where they were originally proposed for exclusion from the designated critical habitat.

In all, more than 2,000 miles of streams throughout the Puget Sound region were finally designated as critical habitat, but more than 1,500 miles of stream escaped the formal designation. That’s because the habitat was said to be protected in other ways or because the cost of protecting the habitat outweighed the benefits.

The Lake Washington watershed was excluded under the cost-benefit rationale, but most of the excluded streams are on private and state forestlands managed under approved habitat conservation plans, which protect a variety of species. About 28 miles of streams on military bases were excluded because they fall under “integrated natural resource management plans.” About 70 miles of streams on tribal lands were excluded out of respect for tribal sovereignty and the role of the tribes in conservation.

While many of the forestlands on the Kitsap Peninsula come under existing habitat conservations plans, the Suquamish Tribe argued that even greater oversight is needed. Streams subject to the HCP are not clearly delineated, nor are areas that would not be regulated by HCPs, the tribe argued. Kitsap County is undergoing urbanization, and these forests are threatened with conversion to residential and commercial development, the tribe said. NOAA Fisheries accepted the tribe’s point of view.

In practice, the listing of Kitsap forests as critical habitat won’t have much effect, since forestland owners are already subject to state rules that are highly protective of stream habitat, said Adrian Miller, policy and environment manager for Pope Resources, the largest forestland owner in Kitsap County. Besides, Adrian told me, federal oversight only kicks in when there is a federal action — such as a new road or stream alteration, and these are rare on working forests.

For Puget Sound, most areas designated as critical habitat are considered “occupied” by fish at this time. One exception is the Elwha River, where steelhead have been moving into areas not occupied by anadromous fish since the Elwha Dam was built in 1910. Since removal of the Elwha Dam and the Glines Canyon Dam upstream, biologists have not fully documented the full extent of the habitat used by steelhead.

Since much of the upstream habitat is within Olympic National Park, I’m not sure the habitat needs special protection under the Endangered Species Act. But it is nice to know that steelhead habitat in the Elwha is protected at the highest level and just waiting for steelhead to arrive.

For information, see the formal listing of Puget Sound steelhead habitat in the Federal Register. Other documents about habitat can be found on NOAA Fisheries website.

NOAA continues to work toward a recovery plan for Puget Sound steelhead. Documents can be found on NOAA’s website about steelhead recovery. Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has issued reports on Puget Sound steelhead populations.

Two weeks ago, five conservation groups filed a lawsuit against NOAA Fisheries for not completing the recovery plan within a reasonable time. See Wild Fish Conservancy news release, which includes a link to the legal documents.

Amusing Monday: Endangered species emerge as art forms

Painting large murals of endangered species on exterior walls across the U.S. is a way of “fostering connections between people and the other forms of life that surround them,” according to Roger Peet, a Portland artist who is leading the project, commissioned by the Center for Biological Diversity.

Whale mural in Los Angeles. Photo: Jess X. Chen
Whale mural in Los Angeles // Photo: Jess X. Chen

The latest mural, painted on a building in Los Angeles, shows a blue whale breaching off the coast of an urban area with an industrial skyline. The mural was painted from a massive stencil by Brooklyn street artists Icy and Sot, who are brothers, according to the website “Brooklyn Street Art.” The mural is designed to inspire protection for the whale and reduction of ocean pollution, the artists said in an interview.

Mountain caribou mural in Sandpoint, Idaho
Mountain caribou mural in Sandpoint, Idaho

The Center for Biological Diversity is perhaps best known for suing the federal government to list and protect declining species, but it has also been committed to public outreach, including the distribution of condoms featuring endangered species. The organization launched the mural project to call attention to at-risk wildlife specific to local communities where the murals are painted, according to the CBD’s website on the mural project.

The first mural in the series, featuring a mountain caribou, was painted in Sandpoint, Idaho, northeast of Spokane. This area of the Selkirk Mountains is the last remaining territory for the caribou in the lower 48 states. Mural artists Mazatl and Joy Mallari worked with Peet on the project.

Arctic grayling mural in Butte, Mont.
Arctic grayling mural in Butte, Mont.

“The city of Sandpoint unanimously approved the mural project for a prominent downtown building and passed a resolution supporting recovery of the caribou and augmentation of the southern Selkirk herd — exactly the kind of local support for endangered species our project is designed to foster,” states the CBD’s website.

The second mural, painted by Peet last summer in Butte, Mont., shows the Arctic grayling, a fish in the salmon family that was once common in Northern Montana, the headwaters of the Missouri River. Because of river diversions and pollution, the fish population has declined dramatically. In the lower 48 states, the fish survives only in a stretch of the Big Hole River near Butte. The Montana Standard has the story.

Monarch butterfly mural in Minneapolis, Minn.
Monarch butterfly mural in Minneapolis, Minn.

A monarch butterfly on a wall in South Minneapolis, Minn., is the third mural in the series. In late summer, monarchs undergo metamorphosis in Minnesota and other northern regions before migrating to Mexico for the winter and then to the southern U.S., where they lay their eggs. Pesticide and development have taken a toll on the monarch habitat and reduced their population by 80 percent over the past 20 years, according to the CBD website. Peet worked with Barry Newman on the mural.

In November, a mural featuring the watercress darter was completed in Birmingham, Ala. This small, brilliantly colored fish is found only in the Birmingham area. Peet worked with Birmingham artists Merrilee Challiss and Creighton Tynes on the mural.

Watercress darter mural in Birmingham, Ala. Photo: Kyle Crider
Watercress darter mural in Birmingham, Ala.
Photo: Kyle Crider

“Birmingham was selected as the site of darter mural because Alabama is a world hotspot for freshwater animal diversity, and the center is working to protect hundreds of Alabama species from extinction,” says a news release from the Center for Biological Diversity.

Upcoming murals include a mussel — the pink mucket — in Knoxville, Tenn., an aquatic salamander — the Ozark hellbender — in St. Louis, Mo., multiple fish of the Colorado River on the Navajo reservation in Arizona, and bull trout in Oakridge, Ore. Organizers say more murals could be painted with additional funding and support from local artists.

Painter Roger Peet, who continues to manage the mural project, says the effort is built upon the biodiversity of individual places:

“Those species embody an area’s natural history and contribute to what makes it irreplaceable. They also have something to say about the future, as many are in danger of going extinct. And when we lose species, the places and lives we live become poorer and shallower places as a result.

“To help bring these species into the light, we decided to paint them on the walls… Whether that’s a fish in a river, a butterfly flitting from plant to plant or a caribou chewing lichen off a tree trunk, we’re bringing together artists and communities to create big, bold images that will become part of the neighborhoods where they’re created, making it a little easier for people to care about the native species struggling to survive in their midst.”

All photos courtesy of the Center for Biological Diversity.

Orcas travel up and down the coast; NOAA lists ‘priority actions’

For the past month, K-33, a Southern Resident orca bearing a satellite transmitter, has been moving up and down the West Coast, presumably with the rest of his pod. I’ll tell you more about those travels in a moment.

Report

NOAA Fisheries today released a list of “priority actions” for eight endangered “species in the spotlight,” including the Southern Resident killer whales of Puget Sound. These species are highly recognized by the public and considered among those at greatest risk of extinction.

“Priority Actions: 2016-2020” (PDF 2 mb) for the Southern Residents includes these ideas:

  • Protect killer whales from harmful vessel impacts through enforcement, education and evaluation: This includes direct interference by boats and ships as well as noise and other problems to be identified.
  • Target recovery of critical prey: Because chinook salmon are known to be the primary food supply for the whales, efforts must be taken to restore the salmon species to healthy populations throughout the orcas’ habitat.
  • Protect important habitat areas from anthropogenic threats: Since the orcas spend more than half their time in the ocean, it is important to identify and protect the places that are important to them.
  • Improve our knowledge of Southern Resident killer whale health to advance recovery: Identifying why some whales are dying at a young age and why some females are unable to reproduce are among the research efforts taking place.

And that brings us back to K-33, a 15-year-old male orca named Tika who has been carrying a satellite transmitter on his dorsal fin since New Year’s Eve. Researchers, including Brad Hanson of the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, say that it is likely that all of K pod and possibly part of L pod are traveling with him.

Bell M. Shimada NOAA photo
Bell M. Shimada // NOAA photo

The tracking project is designed to see how far the whales go in winter, where they linger and what they are eating, as well as any behavioral observations. The satellite can tell us where they go and how long they stay, but food and behavioral issues must be assessed on the water.

Brad and his research team are scheduled to meet up with the whales during a cruise that begins 10 days from now, on Feb. 20. NOAA’s research ship, Bell M. Shimada, will leave from Newport, Ore., and use the satellite data to locate and follow the whales, assuming the satellite tag stays on that long. Fecal samples and fish scales could be collected if the weather cooperates.

Brad told me he is eager to get as much information as he can, as his agency is beginning to put together a plan to protect coastal areas that are important to the whales. A possible expansion of the Southern Residents’ critical habitat is scheduled for next year.

Travels of orca K-33, Jan. 24-27 NOAA map
Travels of orca K-33, Jan. 24-27
NOAA map

“We’re trying to build up our sample size,” Brad said. “A big part of critical habitat is not just range. Where are they spending time, and why are they spending time in those areas?”

The researchers are trying to account for differences among the pods and smaller groups of whales and how they react under various conditions. With this being a strong El Niño year, the researchers would like to see whether the whales are going to different places or acting differently.

Besides the satellite tags and direct observations, the researchers are using a network of hydrophones along the coast to record the sounds of the whales as they swim by. Those recordings are collected at the end of the season.

In terms of the health assessment — called out as one of the key actions — fecal samples can be used to identify individual whales and provide information about hormone levels and other indications of general health.

Travels of orca K-33, Jan 27-31 NOAA map
Travels of orca K-33, Jan 27-31
NOAA map

Now, let me bring you up to date on the travels of K-33 and his companions. In my last report on Jan. 19, the whales had reversed their southerly course after going all the way to Cape Mendocino, Calif., on Jan. 17. Coming back north, they reached Washington’s Willapa Bay on Jan. 20, when they turned south again. This time, they went as far as Alsea Bay in Central Oregon, arriving on Jan. 22.

Continuing the north-south pattern, the whales traveled north from Alsea Bay all the way up the Olympic Peninsula, turning into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. On Jan. 25, they reached Point Renfrew on the southern shore of Vancouver Island, from where they turned back west and headed out to the open ocean. The next day, they were over Juan de Fuca Canyon, a nutrient-rich area fed by strong currents rising up from the underwater chasm.

The whales followed the canyon awhile, then made a beeline for the Hoh River, about halfway down the Washington Coast, reaching Hoh Head north of the river on Jan. 27. The whales didn’t stay long but continued south and arrived at the mouth of the Columbia River on Jan. 29.

From the Columbia River, they turned north and went halfway up the Long Beach Peninsula before turning south and arriving back off the Columbia River on Jan. 30. They made another round trip, going as far as Willapa Bay this time, returning to the Columbia on Jan. 31.

Travels of orca K-33, Jan. 31 - Feb. 9 NOAA map
Travels of orca K-33, Jan. 31-Feb. 9
NOAA map

Their back-and-forth travels continued for the next five days, mostly between Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor, sometimes approaching the edge of the continental shelf.

On Saturday, Feb. 6, the whales took off at a good pace, going all the way up the coast, turning into the Strait of Juan de Fuca and passing the town of Sekiu. They remained in that area for about a day, before turning back toward the ocean and heading down the coast. As of this morning, they were in the vicinity of Westport (not yet depicted on the map).

If you’d like to follow their travels a little more closely and read the notes posted by Brad and his team, visit NOAA’s website, “2016 Southern Resident killer whale satellite tagging.”

Understanding disease as a major ecological force

Working as an environmental reporter for more than 30 years, I’ve covered hundreds of topics — from sewage-treatment plants to killer whales. I’ve learned a great deal through the years, but I’m always striving to learn more about the environment, and I enjoy sharing new information with others.

Mist from the breath of killer whales is collected at the end of a long pole then tested for dozens of different types of bacteria. Photo: Pete Schroeder
Mist from the breath of killer whales is collected at the end of a long pole then tested for dozens of different types of bacteria. // Photo: Pete Schroeder

Recently, I found myself immersed in a fascinating subject that I knew almost nothing about, at least from a scientific perspective. What I learned in my reporting was enough to alter my thinking about the ecological forces that shape our world.

I’m talking about the role of disease, a force that can decimate populations, affect predator-prey relationships and disrupt social communities. So many animal diseases overlap with human diseases that we can no longer consider ourselves separate.

As Joe Gaydos of SeaDoc Society told me, “The crazy thing about disease is that it isn’t really on people’s radar. It is a smoldering factor in our environment, but one that can break out at any time.”

My recent stories featured potential diseases in killer whales, herring and salmon, animals that are related to each other through the food web. I wrote the stories for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, which is managed by the Puget Sound Institute, where I work part-time. The stories were reprinted in the Kitsap Sun, where I spent most of my career as an environmental reporter.

I owe a debt to Joe Gaydos and the other folks mentioned in my stories for helping me grasp the significance of disease in all animals, including humans. Scientists who understand the complexities of disease are now coordinating with the Puget Sound Partnership to increase awareness among other scientists and among people who live in the region.

It was only a couple years ago that sea star wasting disease burst into the news with unappealing pictures of melting sea stars that were losing their limbs and turning to mush. Review entries in Water Ways, Jan. 20, 2015, Nov. 22, 2014, and June 17, 2014. It is amazing how quickly the disease decimated the sea star population and altered tidal and subtidal ecosystems in many areas along the West Coast.

Disease does not need to cause death directly to affect individual animals. In my stories, I showed how diseases in herring and steelhead might make them more susceptible to predation, which can have the same end result.

Pollution may be affecting the immune systems of many marine animals and making them more susceptible to disease. Changing water temperatures, influenced by climate change, can have a similar effect.

The field of disease ecology is far from new, but I believe we will be hearing more about it, as growing evidence suggests that disease could be playing a major role in shaping populations. It is a fascinating subject when you learn about how disease organisms spread from one animal to another or cross over into other species.

For example, disease pathogens can be divided into two modes of transmission. “Density-dependent” pathogens tend to spread when the host population gets too crowded. If a threshold density is not reached, the disease tends to die out. “Frequency-dependent” pathogens tend to spread when the percentage of infected animals is high, regardless of density.

When germs are spread by coughing or sneezing, disease will spread more quickly when the individuals are close together (density-dependent). Sexually transmitted diseases are more likely to spread when more individuals are infected (frequency-dependent). Many diseases are a combination of the two, depending on conditions.

Interestingly, pathogens that are the most dangerous to a population are mostly the ones with intermediate virulence. That’s because highly virulent pathogens are likely to kill the host before the disease can spread to others. Low virulence will result in almost 100 percent survival.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now recognizes that the health of humans is connected to the health of animals and the environment. The CDC program is called One Health. Research is rapidly expanding into zoonotic diseases, which are those than can pass from animals to humans.

By thinking of connections between humans and animals, new diseases can sometimes be identified before they create a major outbreak in humans. In other cases, protection of humans can involve treatment in animals.

One example is Rift Valley fever in East Africa, as reported by the CDC. The viral disease, spread by mosquitoes, can kill livestock — including sheep, goats and cattle. It can also cause serious problems in humans, including blindness and brain swelling.

While there is no vaccine against RVF for humans, researchers were able to develop a vaccine for livestock. Treating livestock prevented transmission to mosquitoes and thus reduced disease in humans.