Category Archives: Marine mammals

Finding answers for dangerous decline of Puget Sound steelhead

Harbor seals have become prime suspects in the deaths of millions of young steelhead trout that die each year in Puget Sound, but the seals may not be working alone.

Trends

Disease and/or various environmental factors could play a part, perhaps weakening the young steelhead as they begin their migratory journey from the streams of Puget Sound out to the open ocean. Something similar is happening to steelhead on the Canadian side of the border in the Salish Sea.

More than 50 research projects are underway in Puget Sound and Georgia Strait to figure out why salmon runs are declining — and steelhead are a major focus of the effort. Unlike most migratory salmon, steelhead don’t hang around long in estuaries that can complicate the mortality investigation for some species.

The steelhead initiative was launched by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and Puget Sound Partnership with funding from the Legislature. The steelhead work is part of the Salish Sea Marine Survival Project, which is halfway through its five-year term, according to Michael Schmidt of Long Live the Kings, which coordinates the effort in the U.S. The larger project involves at least 60 organizations, including state and federal agencies, Indian tribes and universities.

A new report on research findings for steelhead (PDF 9.8 mb) describes the most significant results to date for our official state fish, which was listed as “threatened” in 2007. While steelhead populations on the Washington Coast and Columbia River have rebounded somewhat since their lowest numbers in the 1980s, steelhead in the Salish Sea remain at historical lows — perhaps 10 percent of their previous average.

“Because steelhead are bigger and move fast through the system, they are easier to study (than other salmon species),” Michael told me. “It has been a lot easier to feel confident about what you are finding.”

Abundance

Steelhead can be imbedded with tiny acoustic transmitters, which allow them to be tracked by acoustic receivers along their migration routes to the ocean. It appears that the tagged fish survive their freshwater journey fairly well, but many soon disappear once they reach Puget Sound. The longer they travel, the more likely they are to perish before they leave the sound.

While steelhead are susceptible to being eaten by a few species of birds, their primary predators appear to be harbor seals. These findings are supported by a new study that placed acoustic receivers on seals and observed that some of the transmitters embedded in steelhead ended up where the seals hang out, suggesting that the fish were probably eaten.

In a different kind of tagging study, Canadian researchers placed smaller passive integrated transponder (PIT) tags in a large number of coho salmon and attached devices to read the PIT tags on coho salmon.

“What is most interesting to date,” states a new report from the Pacific Salmon Foundation,“ (PDF 4 mb), “is that we only have confirmed feeding on tagged coho salmon by four of the 20 seals equipped with receivers. This suggests that feeding on juvenile salmon may be an opportunistic behavior acquired by a limited number of seals.”

New studies are underway to confirm steelhead predation by looking at fecal samples from seals in South Puget Sound. Researchers hope to figure out what the seals are eating and estimate steelhead consumption.

As I mentioned at the outset of this blog post, it may be more than a simple case of seals eating steelhead. For one thing, seal populations may have increased while their other food choices have decreased. Would the seals be eating as many steelhead if Puget Sound herring populations were close to their historical averages?

Other factors may be making young steelhead vulnerable to predation. A leading candidate is a parasite called Nanophyetus salmincola, which can infest steelhead and perhaps increase their risk of predation. The parasite’s life cycle requires a snail and a warm-blooded animal, as I described in a story I wrote for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound — part of a larger piece about disease as a powerful ecological force. Anyway, the snail is found only in streams in South Puget Sound, which might help explain why steelhead deaths are higher among these South Sound populations.

Experiments are underway to compare the survival of two groups of identical steelhead, one group infested with Nanophyetus and one not.

Depending on funding and proper design, another experiment could test whether treating a stream to temporarily eliminate the snail — an intermediate host — could increase the survival of steelhead. If successful, treating streams to remove these snails could be one way of helping the steelhead. For these and other approved and proposed studies, check out the Marine Survival Project’s “2015-2017 Research Work Plan” (PDF 9.3 mb).

Other factors under review that could play a role in steelhead survival are warming temperatures and pollution in Puget Sound, which could help determine the amount and type of plankton available for steelhead and salmon. Could a shift in plankton result in less food for the small fish? It’s a major question to be answered.

I’ve mentioned in Water Ways (3/15/2010) that transient killer whales, which eat seals, sea lions and harbor porpoises, may be helping their distant cousins, the Southern Resident killer whales, which eat fish. Those smaller marine mammals compete for the adult salmon eaten by the Southern Residents. By clearing out some of those competitors, the transients could be leaving more salmon for the Southern Residents.

It may be too early to draw any firm conclusions, Michael Schmidt told me, but transient killer whales may be helping steelhead as well. Last year, when transients ventured into South Puget Sound and stayed longer than usual, the survival rate for steelhead from the nearby Nisqually River was the highest it has been in a long time.

Were the whales eating enough seals to make a difference for steelhead, or were the seals hiding out and not eating while the whales were around. Whether there were benefits for the steelhead, we could be seeing what happens when a major predator (orcas) encounters an abundance of prey (seals).

Hormonal studies link orca miscarriages to low chinook salmon runs

An orca mother named Calypso (L-94) nurses her young calf in this high-resolution photo
An orca mother named Calypso (L-94) nurses her young calf in this high-resolution photo taken from a drone. Lactation takes an energetic toll on orca moms. Future images may reveal whether Calypso is getting enough food to support herself and her calf.
Photo: NOAA Fisheries, Vancouver Aquarium, under NMFS permit and FAA flight authorization.

It is fairly well known that the three pods of killer whales that frequent Puget Sound are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. It is also well known that their primary prey — chinook salmon — are listed as threatened.

It can’t be good that the whales are struggling to find enough to eat, but we are just beginning to learn that the situation could be dire for orca females who become pregnant and need to support a growing fetus during times of a food shortage.

Sam Wasser, a researcher known for figuring out an animal’s condition from fecal samples, recently reported that about two-thirds of all orca pregnancies end in miscarriage. And of those miscarriages, nearly one-third take place during the last stage of pregnancy — a dangerous situation for the pregnant female.

In a story published today in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, I report on Sam’s latest studies, along with other work by a team of biologists who are using unmanned aircraft (drones) to keep track of the physical condition of the Southern Resident orcas, including pregnant moms.

Sam’s latest study involves measuring hormones in killer whales, which can tell us a lot about a whale’s condition. The story of how hormones change under varying conditions is a little complicated, but I hope I was able to explain in my article how this works. When adding the effects of toxic chemicals that mimic hormones, we begin to understand the conditions that may be critical to the whales’ long-term survival or their ultimate extinction.

One longtime assumption, which may be shot down by the hormone studies, is that the whales’ most difficult time for food comes in winter, when salmon are generally scarce. These new studies by Sam and his colleagues suggest that the greatest problem comes in the spring, when the whales return to Puget Sound to discover that spring runs of chinook salmon can no longer be found — at least not in significant numbers.

The work with a drone carrying a high-resolution camera is providing precise measurements about the length and width of each killer whale. Pregnant females are especially interesting, and it will be important to document whether physical changes observed in the drone study can be correlated with hormonal changes seen in the other study.

“We’ve moved toward some great sophisticated technology,” Lynne Barre told me. “These great technologies combined can tell us more than any one method can … such as when and where food limitations might be affecting their health and reproduction.”

Lynne heads NOAA’s Protected Resources Division in Seattle and oversees recovery efforts for the endangered Southern Residents.

By the end of this year, NOAA is expected to release its five-year status report on the Southern Resident orcas. In addition to reporting on many new findings, the document will re-examine the risk of extinction for these killer whales and consider whether actions proposed to help them have been carried out.

Last year, the Southern Residents were listed among eight endangered species across the country that are headed for extinction unless recovery actions can be successful. The eight, selected in part because of their high profiles, are known as “Species in the Spotlight.” In February, five-year action plans were released for all eight species.

The plan called “Priority Actions for Southern Resident Killer Whales” (PDF 2 mb) focuses on three primary factors affecting the whales’ survival: a shortage of food, high levels of toxic chemicals and effects of vessels and noise. The concise 15-page document describes some of the work being carried out on behalf of the whales, although new ideas are coming forth all the time.

Amusing Monday: Cats can be trained to enjoy water and other things

I grew up with cats and have lived with cats for most of my life. I can’t recall that any of my feline friends were fond of water. But then nobody I know has ever taken the time to teach them to surf on the back of a dog, ride the waves with a human or even learn the basic command to “stay.”

These things are exactly what long-time dog trainer Robert Dollwet has done after deciding he wanted to train cats. After moving from California to Australia in 2010, Robert went to a local animal shelter and adopted a lively kitten he named Didga, short for Didgeridoo. As he proceeded through the training, Robert began sharing his methods on a YouTube channel he named “CATMANTOO.” Later, he added another kitten, Boomer, to his family.

The first video on this page shows Didga performing a stunt that Robert calls “Ice surfing.” That’s because the dog (who belongs to a client involved in dog training) is named Ice. Robert says many of the feats shown in his videos take weeks or months for the animals to learn.

“Please don’t try the things you see at home,” he says in a note attached to the video. “I’d feel bad if your cat was hurt or forced into doing something they don’t want to do. Watch my tutorials to learn how to teach your cat.”

The second video, released in April, shows Boomer riding on a surfboard on a river, as Robert gently paddles around.

“We’ve been doing this since he was a kitten,” Robert writes in the notes. “I gave him lots of food while he rides on the surfboard. He’s 11 months now, and he is so comfortable, it’s about that time to take his surfboard riding skills to the next level — by actual surfing on a wave in the ocean (with life vest, of course). Stay tuned.”

The third video is an amusing story called “Didga Dreams BIG,” which actually shows off this cat’s repertoire of tricks and stunts. I like the way Robert demonstrates his cats’ abilities by telling little stories in some of the videos — such as Didga’s skateboard trip around the beach town of Coolangatta, where he lives in Australia. See “World’s Best Skateboarding Cat!”

Other water-related videos:

You can check out the helpful YouTube tutorials on CATMANTOO to learn some basic cat skills that I believe might be helpful in daily life:

By the way, you can follow Robert and his animals on his Facebook page, also called CATMANTOO.

Orca population remains uncertain on census day

The annual census of killer whales that frequent Puget Sound is supposed to be based on a population count for July 1 each year, but this year the count has barely begun as we move into July.

J-40, named Suttles, breaches in the latest encounter reported by Ken Balcomb. Photo: Ken Balcomb, taken under U.S. and Canadian permits
J-40, named Suttles, breaches in the latest encounter reported by Ken Balcomb.
Photo: Ken Balcomb, under U.S. and Canadian permits

For years, all three pods of Southern Resident orcas typically wandered into Puget Sound in late May or early June, but things have been changing. So far this year, most of the whales have remained somewhere else, probably somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. And that even goes for J pod, the most resident of the resident pods.

Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research, who is responsible for the census, said the Fraser River chinook run has been so low this year that the whales have stayed away. He may not be able to get a complete count until September, he told me.

Of course, Ken and his associates will take attendance as the whales come into the Salish Sea. Some assumptions will have to be made about the timing of any births or deaths. But whales won’t be counted as missing until they are not seen with their family groups during multiple encounters.

“We’re not going to be able to say that somebody is dead at the end of July because we have not seen them,” Ken said, “since there is a low probability of seeing them between now and September.”

As with this year, the census could not be completed at this time last year. But, unlike this year, only two small groups of whales had not been seen going up to census day on July 1 last year. See Water Ways, July 1, 2015.

As the whales have stayed out to sea longer each year, Ken has requested additional federal funding to search for them and get an early indication of their condition, but his requests have been denied. Those who wish to support his ongoing efforts may purchase a membership in the Center for Whale Research.

On Monday, Ken caught up with a small group of J pod orcas that are led by the matriarch J-2, known as Granny. It was only the second time that J pod whales have been seen in inland waters during the entire month of June. On Saturday, a large group of orcas was spotted by observers near the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. But most of them apparently stayed in the open ocean.

Ken speculates that Granny and the others were following an aggregation of salmon when he caught up with them at Turn Point near the Canadian border. He posted a report today with this information:

“J19 and J41 were the west-flanking whales, and J14, J37 and J49 were the east-flanking whales, while J2 and L87 charged in a zig-zag pattern down the middle of the tide rips that shot up vertically like haystacks of water, dousing the boat and camera. The others (J40 and J45) were here and there in the swirls, surfacing with no particular pattern. It was quite challenging to take photographs in such conditions, but it was important to get some documentation of their occurrence and activity, since they had not spent much time in the Salish Sea so far this year.”

The abundance of chinook in the Fraser River — which produces much of the fish in the San Juan Islands — is tracked by prescribed fishing in Canada’s so-called Albion Test Fishery. As you can see from the graph, the catch per unit effort is considerably lower than the long-term average, barely making a blip at the bottom of the chart.

This year's catch per unit effort in the Albion Test Fishery is much lower than the long-term average. This year's fishery did not begin until April 26. Graphic: Canadian DFO
This year’s catch per unit effort in the Albion Test Fishery is much lower than the long-term average. This year’s fishery did not begin until April 26.
Graphic: Canadian DFO

Meanwhile, the abundance of chinook off the Washington Coast is predicted in pre-season forecasts to be slightly above the 10-year average. Forecasts for this year’s chinook runs are higher than last year’s forecast but not as high as the surprisingly high numbers of chinook that ultimately came back last year. See 2016 chinook forecast (PDF 135 kb).

Considering the apparent difference between the number of chinook in the ocean and those coming to the Fraser River, it is no wonder that the whales still remain off the coast.

Given the low salmon runs, Ken says he will be surprised if the annual census does not include some mortalities. One small group of whales, known as the L-12s, have not been seen for months. Meanwhile, four births were recorded since July of last year, with the latest report coming in December. And, as far as anyone can tell, eight of the nine orcas born since December 2014 are still living. It would be remarkable if we are still able to say that when the official census for 2016 is finally reported in September.

Endangered Species Act can’t help Lolita, judge says in legal ruling

When Lolita, a female orca held captive since 1970, was listed among the endangered population of Southern Resident killer whales, advocates for Lolita’s release were given new hope. Perhaps the listing would help Lolita obtain a ticket out of Miami Seaquarium, where she has lived since the age of 5.

Lolita has lived in a tank at Miami's Seaquarium since age 5. Photo courtesy of Orca Network
Lolita has lived at Miami’s Seaquarium since age 5.
Photo courtesy of Orca Network

But a U.S. district judge ruled last week that the Endangered Species Act could not help her. While the federal law prohibits human conduct likely to “gravely threaten the life of a member of a protected species,” it cannot be used to improve her living conditions, according to the ruling (PDF 3.3 mb) by Judge Ursula Ungaro in the Southern District of Florida.

“We very much disagree with the decision, and we will be appealing it,” said attorney Jared Goodwin, who represents the plaintiffs — including the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the Animal Legal Defense Fund and Orca Network.

Over the objections of attorneys for Miami Seaquarium, the judge said the plaintiffs have a right to sue the aquarium, but Lolita’s care and well-being falls under a different law: the Animal Welfare Act.

The judge noted that the National Marine Fisheries Service, which is responsible for marine species under the ESA, had previously stated that keeping threatened or endangered species in captivity is not a violation of the ESA. NMFS also deferred enforcement activities to the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

While the ESA prohibits listed species from being “harassed,” Judge Ungaro said the term takes on a different meaning for animals held in captivity, since the law is designed to conserve species in the wild along with their ecosystems.

The judge took note of the complaints about Lolita’s living conditions, including the small size of her tank, harassment by white-sided dolphins that live with her and the lack of shade or other protection from the weather. But those aren’t conditions to be judged under the ESA, she said.

“Thus, while in a literal sense the conditions and injuries of which plaintiffs complain are within the ambit of the ordinary meaning of ‘harm’ and ‘harass,’ it cannot be said that they rise to the level of grave harm that is required to constitute a ‘take’ by a licensed exhibitor under the ESA,” she wrote.

Judge Ungaro also cited statements made by NMFS in response to comments from people who want to see Lolita released into a sea pen or possibly into open waters. Such a release, “could itself constitute a ‘take’ under Section 9(a)(1) of the act,” she said, quoting NMFS.

“The NMFS noted concerns arising from disease transmission between captive and wild stocks; the ability of released animals to adequately forage for themselves; and behavioral patterns developed in captivity impeding social integration and affecting the social behavior of wild animals,” the judge wrote.

Jared Goodman, the plaintiffs’ attorney, said the judge needlessly applied a separate definition of “harassment” to captive versus wild animals. Conditions at the aquarium are clearly harassment for Lolita, he said, and the Endangered Species Act should provide the needed protection.

The Animal Welfare Act, which should require humane treatment for captive animals, is long out of date and needs to be revised based on current knowledge about marine mammals, he said.

The same plaintiffs filed a new lawsuit in May against the Department of Agriculture for issuing a new operating license to Miami Seaquarium without adequately considering the conditions in which Lolita is being kept. Previously, a court ruled that the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service acted properly when it renewed the license for Miami Seaquarium each year, because the law does not require an inspection for an ongoing permit.

That is not the case with a new license, which was required when the Miami Seaquarium came under new ownership as the result of a stock merger in 2014, according to the lawsuit. Federal inspectors should have reviewed the legal requirements to certify that Lolita’s tank and other facilities met the standards before issuing a new license, Jared said. According to documents he obtained through public disclosure requests, it appears that the federal agency simply “rubber-stamped” its previous approvals, he said, adding that a formal review would show that the aquarium in violation of animal welfare rules.

As the legal battles go on, it is difficult to see how Lolita is any closer to being “retired” to a sea pen in Puget Sound where she was born, although Howard Garrett of Orca Network and other supporters have developed a plan for Lolita’s return and even have a specific site picked out. See “Proposal to Retire the Orca Lolita.” (PDF 3.5 mb).

Meanwhile, with SeaWorld’s announcement that it will no longer breed killer whales or force orcas to perform for an audience, a new group called The Whale Sanctuary Project is looking for sites to relocate whales and dolphins that might be released. The project has received a pledge of at least $1 million from Munchkin, Inc., a baby product company. For details, check out the group’s website and a press release announcing the effort. I should point out that SeaWorld officials say they won’t release any animals.

Previous “Water Ways” blog entries:

Orca Awareness Month includes many activities

June is Orca Awareness Month in the Salish Sea. And, as we’ve seen in recent years, the Southern Resident killer whales are not around to help kick off the month-long celebration.

Logo

J pod, one of the three Southern Resident pods, typically moves in and out of Puget Sound through the winter and into spring, but none of the whales have been seen in inland waters since May 18, according to Orca Network. On May 24, the same groups were seen off the West Coast of Vancouver Island.

Let’s hope they are finding plenty to eat, then come home to the San Juan Islands in time for Orca Sing at Lime Kiln State Park on June 25, when people will gather to serenade them. Meanwhile, plenty of other events will be held during Orca Awareness Month.

Another annual event, planned for this Saturday, is EcoFest, which has been revamped this year as a more active festival, rather than a lineup of information booths. Organizers are calling the event in Kingston “a community science and nature festival.”

EcoFest

A nature walk followed by tips on bird watching, solar power, medicinal plants and green construction techniques are part of the festivities, along with music and food. For information, download the press release (PDF 77 kb) from Stillwaters Environmental Center or visit the Stillwaters website.

The following day, this Sunday, is the kickoff celebration for Orca Awareness Month, including a Baby Orca Birthday Bash at Alki Beach Bathhouse, 2701 Alki Ave. SW in Seattle. Live music by Dana Lyons (see Water Ways, Jan. 25), face painting, orca bingo and other activities are planned.

For the remainder of the month, activities include an informational webinar June 9, a discussion about the toxic threat June 16, “Orcas in Our Midst” workshop June 18, a march for endangered orcas June 24, “Orca Sing” June 25, “Oil, Orcas and Oystercatchers” forum June 25, and “Orca and Salmon: An Evening of Storytelling” June 29. These and several events yet to be scheduled can be followed on the Orca Month website or the Facebook page.

Orca Awareness Month was started 10 years ago by Orca Network and has been adopted by Orca Salmon Alliance, made up of organizations working to expand awareness of the relation between killer whales and salmon, both considered at risk of extinction.

Orca Awareness Month is recognized in Washington state in a proclamation from Gov. Jay Inslee (PDF 474 kb). In British Columbia, a proclamation was issued for the first time by the attorney general and lieutenant governor. For BC residents, a new Facebook page, Orca Month BC, is available.

Amusing Monday: Baby river otters must be taught how to swim

Baby river otters appear to be reluctant swimmers when they enter the water for the very first time. As you can see in the first video, the mother otter pulls, pushes and practically wrestles her offspring to begin a swim lesson at Columbus Zoo in Ohio.

The second video, from Oregon Zoo in Portland, features otter keeper Becca VanBeek, who provides us some details about the life of a young otter. Shown is a baby otter named Molalla. The mom seems a bit rough with her baby, but she’s just trying to teach a diving and breathing pattern.

If we want to be formal about it, what should we call a baby otter? A baby walrus is called a calf, and a baby sea lion is called a pup. So a baby otter is called a ______? If you said pup, you are right.

Now for the parents. If a male walrus is called a bull and a male sea lion is also called a bull, what is a male otter called? The answer is boar, but please don’t ask me who comes up with this stuff. Correspondingly, female walruses and female sea lions are called cows, while female otters are called sows.

Thirteen kinds of otters exist in the world. Some, such as the sea cat of South America, are so endangered that almost nothing is known about them Read about all 13 on the h2g2 website.

In the Northwest, many people confuse the sea otter with the river otter. Both are related to the weasel, and both have webbed feet and two layers of fur to maintain their body temperature in cold water. But there are many differences:

  • River otters spend more time on land than water. Sea otters almost never climb up on land.
  • River otters live in freshwater and marine estuaries. Sea otters live in seawater, including the ocean.
  • River otters generally grow to 20-25 pounds, sea otters to 50-100 pounds.
  • River otters swim with their bellies down and expose little of their back. Sea otters generally swim belly-up and float high in the water because of air trapped in their fur.
  • River otters have rounded webbed paws, front and back. Sea otters’ rear paws are elongated like flippers with webbing going to the end of the toes.

Sources: Sea Otter Recovery and Aquarium of the Bay

Other otter videos worth watching:

Below is one of the two live cameras in the sea otter exhibit at Seattle Aquarium. The cameras are in operation from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Visit the aquarium’s Otter Cams webpage to see both cams and read about the otters.

Monterey Bay Aquarium also has a live otter cam, which is in operation from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Visit the aquarium’s Sea Otter page for feeding times, when the otters are introduced to the audience and a live discussion takes place with otter experts.

Time to rethink how contaminants get into Puget Sound food web

For years, I have been told the story of how PCBs and other toxic chemicals cling to soil particles and tiny organic debris as polluted water washes off the land.

Richard Henderson of the Skagit River System Cooperative uses a beach seine to catch juvenile chinook salmon near the Skagit River delta. Fish from this rural area were found to be less contaminated than fish taken from urban areas. Photo: WDFW
Richard Henderson of the Skagit River System Cooperative uses a beach seine to catch juvenile chinook salmon near the Skagit River delta. Fish from this rural area were found to be less contaminated than fish taken from urban bays. // Photo: WDFW

Eventually, the PCB-laden particles are carried into Puget Sound, where they settle to the bottom. From there, they begin working their way into marine animals, disrupting their normal functions — such as growth, immune response and reproduction.

The idea that contaminants settle to the bottom is the story I’ve been told for as long as I can remember, a story long accepted among the scientific community in Puget Sound and across the U.S. So I was surprised when I heard that leading scientists who study toxic chemicals in Puget Sound were questioning this long-held idea about how dangerous chemicals get into the food web.

Puget Sound may be different from other waterways, they said.

“When you look at the concentrations in herring and the concentrations in the sediments, something does not line up,” Jim West told me. “The predictions are way off. We think there is a different mechanism.”

Jim is a longtime researcher for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. I have worked with him through the years on various stories about the effects of contaminants on marine organisms. But now he was talking about changing the basic thinking about how chemicals are transferred through the food web.

Jim postulates that many of these PCB-laden particles that wash down with stormwater never sink to the bottom of Puget Sound. Instead, they are taken up by tiny organisms floating in the water. The organisms, including bacteria and phytoplankton, are eaten by larger plankton and become incorporated into fish and other free-swimming creatures — the pelagic food web.

Jim presented his findings at the Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference last month in Vancouver, B.C. Sandie O’Neill, another WDFW researcher, presented other new information about the transfer of contaminants through the food web — from plankton to herring to salmon to killer whales.

My stories about the studies conducted by Jim and Sandie (with help from a team of skilled scientists) were published today in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, where you can read them. These are the first of at least 10 story packages to be to written by a team of reporters working for the Puget Sound Institute.

The Salish Sea conference was attended by more than 1,100 people, including 450 researchers and policymakers who talked about new information related to the Salish Sea — which includes Puget Sound in Washington, the Strait of Georgia in British Columbia and the Strait of Juan de Fuca on the U.S./Canada border.

When I first heard about Jim West’s idea regarding the fate of toxic chemicals circulating in Puget Sound, I thought one result might be to shift restoration dollars away from cleaning up sediments to cleaning up stormwater. After all, if the majority of PCBs aren’t getting into the sediments, why spend millions of dollars cleaning up the stuff on the bottom? Why not devote that money to cleaning up stormwater?

In fact, the worst of the contaminated sediments in Puget Sound have been cleaned up, with some cleanups now under way. That helps to ensure that toxic chemicals won’t get re-suspended in the water and taken up into the pelagic food web all over again. A few hotspots of contaminated sediments may still need some attention.

As far as putting the focus on stormwater, that’s exactly what the Puget Sound Partnership has done with support from the Department of Ecology and other clean-water agencies. It is now well established that the key to reducing pollution in Puget Sound is to keep toxic chemicals out of stormwater or else create settling ponds, rain gardens, pervious pavement and other methods to capture the PCB-laden particles before they reach Puget Sound.

I noticed that Ecology just today announced a new round of regulations to control stormwater in King, Pierce, Snohomish and Clark counties. Proposed changes include updating stormwater programs for new construction projects and for redevelopment. An appendix will describe Seattle’s plan to reduce stormwater pollution in the Lower Duwamish River, where PCBs are a major problem. For more on stormwater regulations, go to Ecology’s website.

As Sandie told me during our discussions, all the work on fixing habitat in Puget Sound streams is not enough if we can’t control the discharge of PCB’s — which were banned in the 1970s — along with newer contaminants still working their way into our beloved waterway. Any measure of healthy habitat must include an understanding of the local chemistry.

‘Sonic Sea’ movie takes us to the underwater world of sound

“Sonic Sea,” which will air Thursday on Discovery Channel, will take you down beneath the ocean waves, where sounds take on new meaning, some with dangerous implications.

Humans spend most of their time in air, a medium that transmits light so well that we have no trouble seeing the shapes of objects in a room or mountains many miles away. In the same way, water is the right medium for sound, which shapes the world of marine mammals and other species that live under water.

The hour-long documentary film reveals how humpback whales use low-frequency sounds to communicate with other whales across an entire ocean and how killer whales use high-frequency sound to locate their prey in dark waters.

Michael Jasny
Michael Jasny

“The whales see the ocean through sound, so their mind’s eye is their mind’s ear,” says Michael Jasny of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environment group that produced the film with the help of the production company Imaginary Forces.

“Sonic Sea” opens with Ken Balcomb, dean of killer whale research in Puget Sound, telling the story of how he learned about 16 beaked whales that had beached themselves in the Bahamas, where he was doing research in 2001.

“Animals that I had grown to know over a 10-year period were now dead,” Ken says during the movie, recalling the horrifying day when one whale after another was discovered dead or dying. “They were trying to get away. I was driven to find out why.”

Ken Balcomb
Ken Balcomb

Thanks to Ken’s presence during that stranding incident, experts were able to prove that Navy sonar could be deadly. It took two years for Navy officials to overcome their denial.

As I watched the film, I wondered if people would identify with the idea that hearing to marine mammals is like sight to humans. Would people see how much humans have invaded the underwater world with noise from ship traffic, oil exploration, military training and shoreline construction?

“I listen to the world, and to me song is life,” said Chris Clark, a bioacoustics expert at Cornell Lab of Ornithology,. “It is the essence of who we are, and it joins us all. The problem is, in the ocean, we are injecting enormous amounts of noise, so much so that we are acoustically bleaching the ocean. All the singing voices of the planet are lost in that cloud of noise.”

Chris Clark
Chris Clark

This type of human invasion is different from wiping out habitat as new construction changes the land, but the effect can be equally devastating to some species.

In September of 2001, a group of researchers on the East Coast were collecting fecal samples from right whales to check for stress hormones. Stress levels were running high among the whales, except for a few days when the levels dropped dramatically. That happened right after Sept. 11, when ship traffic in the area was shut down following the bombing of the World Trade Center. It still isn’t clear what that constant stress is doing to the animals, but it can’t be good. See Duke University press release.

The good news, the film tells us, is that ships can be made quieter, with an important side benefit: Quieter ships are more efficient, which makes them cheaper to operate. Ships can also reduce noise by going slower, saving on fuel. Beyond shipping, people can find ways to operate in the ocean with less sonic harm to sea life.

The Navy’s viewpoint, as represented in the film, appears to be a more enlightened approach that I have seen until now. Of course, protecting Navy ships against enemy attacks is the priority, but the need to accommodate marine life seems to be recognized to a greater degree.

“It comes down to what we value,” Clark said. “We value a living ocean. We are putting the ocean at risk. And if you put the ocean at risk, you are putting all of us at risk.”

The first video on this page is the trailer to “Sonic Sea” as provided by the producers of the film. The second is the trailer provided by Discovery Channel.

Research cruise studies ocean acidification
along West Coast

A major study of ocean acidification along the West Coast is underway with the involvement of 17 institutions, including 36 scientists from five countries.

NOAA's Research Vessel Ronald H. Brown NOAA photo
NOAA’s Research Vessel Ronald H. Brown
NOAA photo

Based aboard the NOAA Research Vessel Ronald H. Brown, the researchers are taking physical, chemical and biological measurements as they consider a variety of ecological pressures on marine species. They will take note of changes since the last cruise in 2013. To obtain samples from shallow waters, the researchers will get help along the way from scientists going out in small vessels launched from land. Staff from Olympic National Park, Channel Islands National Park and Cabrillo National Monument will assist.

The cruise started out last Thursday from San Diego Naval Base. Researchers have been posting information about the trip and their work on a blog called “West Coast Ocean Acidification.”

The month-long working adventure is the fifth of its kind in areas along the West Coast, but this is the first time since 2007 that the cruise will cover the entire area affected by the California Current — from Baja California to British Columbia. The video shows Pacific white-sided dolphins as seen from the deck of the Ron Brown on Monday just west of Baja California.

As on cruises in 2011–2013, these efforts will include studies of algae that cause harmful blooms, as well as analyses of pteropod abundance, diversity, physiology, and calcification, said Simone Alin, chief scientist for the first leg of the cruise.

“We are pleased to welcome new partners and highlight new analyses on this cruise as well,” she continued in her blog post. “For example, some of our partners will be employing molecular methods (proteomics, genomics, transcriptomics) to study the response of marine organisms to their environments.

“We also have scientists studying bacterial diversity and metabolic activity in coastal waters participating for the first time. New assays of stress in krill and other zooplankton — important fish food sources — will also be done on this cruise. Last but not least, other new collaborators will be validating measurements of ocean surface conditions done by satellites from space.”

To learn how satellites gather information about the California Current, check out Earth Observatory.

The research crew takes water samples using the CTD rosette off the coast of Baja California. Photo: Melissa Ward
The research crew takes water samples using the CTD rosette off the coast of Baja California.
Photo: Melissa Ward

With rising levels of carbon dioxide bringing changes to waters along the West Coast, researchers are gathering information that could help predict changes in the future. Unusually warm waters in the Pacific Ocean the past two years (nicknamed “the blob”) may have compounded the effects of ocean acidification, according to Alin.

Reading the cruise blog, I enjoyed a piece by Melissa Ward, a doctoral candidate in the Joint Program in Ecology from UC Davis and San Diego State University. Her story begins:

“As I prepared to leave for the West Coast OA research cruise, many family and friends skipped right over the ‘research’ part, and jumped straight to ‘cruise’. But to their disappointment, the photos of me sitting by the pool drinking my margarita will never materialize.

“The Ron Brown, our research vessel, does have two lounge chairs on the main deck, but they are strapped down to keep them from flying off as we go tipping back and forth with the ocean swells. Immediately after boarding the ship for departure from San Diego to Mexico, you have to start adjusting to this never-ending sway. After some stumbles and falls (which I’m certain the crew found entertaining), you get used to the motion, and can at least minimize public clumsiness.”

Brandon Carter, mission scientist on the cruise, provides a delightful primer on the pros and cons of carbon dioxide in a blog entry posted Tuesday, and Katie Douglas , a doctoral student at the University of South Florida’s College of Marine Science posted a blog entry yesterday in which she discusses the CTD rosette, a basic piece of oceanographic equipment used to continuously record conductivity (salinity), temperature and depth as it is lowered down into the ocean. The remote-controlled device can take water samples at any level.