Category Archives: Fish

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.

Kingston wastewater could be valuable for watering golf course

Kingston’s sewage treatment plant could provide irrigation water for the nearby White Horse Golf Course and possibly other uses under a plan now in development.

Kingston Sewage Treatment Plant Photo courtesy of Golder Associates
Kingston Sewage Treatment Plant
Photo courtesy of Golder and Associates via ©Sky-Pix Aerial Photography, www.sky-pix.com/

Kitsap County commissioners recently signed a $325,000 “predesign” contract with Brown and Caldwell engineers. The firm was hired to answer a host of questions about the feasibility of producing high-quality effluent at the plant and then putting the clean water to good use.

“We’re just starting to look at the whole project,” said Barbara Zaroff of Kitsap County’s Wastewater Division. “We just had our kickoff meeting two weeks ago, and now Brown and Caldwell will be going out to collect data.”

I peppered Barbara with questions that she could not answer at this point, because the detail work is yet to be done. But we know from a previous study by Golder Associates (PDF 18.2 mb) that producing high-quality effluent in Kingston is more than a random thought.

Golder found benefits from using the water for supplementing flows in nearby Grover’s Creek while recharging much-needed groundwater in that area of the county. The Suquamish Tribe, which owns White Horse Golf Course, has expressed interest in acquiring the water if various issues can be resolved.

The Kingston treatment plant, completed in 2005, produces an average of 150,000 gallons of effluent per day, currently discharged into Appletree Cove. As population grows, the plant can be expanded to about 300,000 gallons per day.

It appears it would be cost-effective to treat the water to tertiary standards with sand filters, although other technologies will be explored. A pond could be built on or near the golf course, which would store the water for irrigation and allow infiltration into the ground. The available water should provide the needs of the course with plenty of water left over.

Discharging into a wetland that feeds into Grover’s Creek is another idea, along with providing irrigation at the county’s North Kitsap Heritage Park. Unused water might still be discharged into Puget Sound, particularly in winter months when irrigation water is not needed.

One question that always arises with reclaimed water is what happens to trace amounts of chemicals that pass through the treatment process, such as pharmaceutical drugs that mimic hormones. We know from studies that some of these chemicals can affect the growth, development and metabolism of fish in some situations.

An analysis by Golder Associates (PDF 18.2 mb) concluded that future treatment processes in the Kingston plant would remove between 80 and 97 percent of endocrine disrupting compounds coming into the plant. Environmental conditions where reclaimed water is discharged would degrade the chemicals further, so the overall risk would be low for salmon and other fish, according to the report.

The new study is expected to look further into the risks. Meanwhile, the state Department of Ecology is continuing to work on a new reclaimed-water rule that could improve permitting and monitoring by producers of reclaimed water.

The Kingston project would be similar to what is happening at the Central Kitsap Wastewater Treatment Plant near Brownsville, where construction is adding sand filters as part of an overall upgrade to the plant.

Work continues at the Central Kitsap Wastewater Treatment Plant File photo: Kitsap Sun, Feb. 4, 2014
Work continues at the Central Kitsap Wastewater Treatment Plant // File photo: Kitsap Sun, Feb. 4, 2014

The nearby Silverdale Water District has installed about 15,000 feet of “purple pipe” for reclaimed water on the major arterials of Silverdale, including Silverdale Way. The project is part of the water district’s major pipe-replacement project. Another 2,000 feet will be added as part of the Bucklin Hill Bridge project, General Manager Morgan Johnson told me.

Much of the new commercial construction in Silverdale is being designed to use reclaimed water for irrigation, and some buildings are being plumbed to use reclaimed water for flushing toilets and other secondary uses. Ballfields in the area could get some of the water.

A public-outreach program is being planned to educate the public about reclaimed water and to answer questions that people may have. Under the current schedule, the reclaimed-water valve would be turned on in 2020, but that date may be pushed back, Morgan said.

In Kingston, it will take about a year to put the information together and identify a preferred alternative, Barbara told me. Final engineering and design will follow under a new contract if things go as expected.

The current contract will examine pipeline routes to convey the water to the potential users. Costs for building and operating the system will be explored.

Yet to be determined is how costs and benefits of the reclaimed water will be shared between the county, which owns the treatment facilities, and those who will use the water. That goes for both Kingston and Central Kitsap.

Many golf courses across the country — especially in the arid Southwest — are using reclaimed water for irrigation. In a few places where water is in extremely short supply, water systems have begun adding the clean effluent straight into their drinking water. Check out reporter Emily Schmall’s story for the Associated Press.

While water is still somewhat plentiful in the Puget Sound area, it only makes sense to find uses for freshwater that would otherwise be dumped into salty Puget Sound.

Washington Fish and Wildlife officers featured on Animal Planet

Animal Planet, the cable network, will follow enforcement officers for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife in a new six-part series beginning tomorrow.

“Rugged Justice,” which will premier at 5 p.m., will feature patrols by officers to protect natural resources in the mountains, along the coasts and on city streets, according to a news release by WDFW.

Deputy Chief Mike Hobbs said WDFW’s participation will help promote the department and its dedicated professionals.

“Policing the outdoors presents unique challenges, and this show helps to inform the public about our critical role in preserving, protecting and perpetuating fish, wildlife and ecosystems in Washington,” he said in the news release.

Added Chief Steve Crown, “’Rugged Justice’ provides a window into the vital, varied and sometimes harrowing work of officers as they protect nature and people in Washington.”

The series, filmed from September to November, used three film crews, each with five members, according to a story written by Rob Owen for the Seattle Times.

The WDFW enforcement program includes 144 officers deployed across the state. None of the officers nor the department received any compensation from Animal Planet, according to the news release.

If you miss the 5 p.m. showing tomorrow, Episode 1 will be repeated at 10 p.m. and midnight. It will also be shown at 6 and 9 p.m. Tuesday and 1 a.m. Wednesday.

Five big projects planned for the Skokomish River

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

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

Skok watershed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let me list some of the specific problems:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amusing Monday: Amazing nature photos from around the world

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

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

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

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

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Agency lists critical habitat for endangered Puget Sound rockfish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The plan identifies these objectives to restore the population:

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

Amusing Monday: Glowing fish are both beautiful and amazing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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