Category Archives: Marine mammals

Amusing Monday: The evolution and danger of packaging drinks by six

When I was a young child, we didn’t have to worry about wildlife getting strangled by six-pack rings, because these plastic binders for cans had not been invented yet. I was 9 years old in 1961 when this simple, convenient form of packaging was invented, so I clearly remember the transition. (See Hi-Cone history.)

At the time, nobody predicted the conservation consternation that would be created by such a simple piece of plastic. During the 1970s and up to present, pictures of entrapped birds and other sea creatures became common, suggesting that we at least cut the plastic to save the animals. The first video provides a story of potential revenge.

Before the invention of six-pack rings, people bought soft drinks and beer in cardboard packages, which sort of wrapped around the cans. Pabst Blue Ribbon may have been the first beer sold in cardboard cartons (second video), although Coca Cola may have started the phase. The Coke company claims to be the first to take its bottles out of wooden crates and begin offering cardboard packaging for consumers as early as 1923.

So we went from reusable wooden crates to biodegradable cardboard to ever-lasting plastic six-pack rings, officially called “yokes” in the industry. Concern about wildlife entrapment eventually forced manufacturers of the plastic rings to use a material that would degrade when exposed to light, but degradation can be slow in a marine environment.

What really prompted me to write this piece about six-pack rings was a new invention — edible six-pack rings made of wheat and barley, the byproducts of brewing. It’s a product that “feeds animals instead of killing them,” according to a promotional video (third on this page).

Saltwater Brewing, a 3-year-old microbrewery in Delray Beach, Fla., came up with the concept and is now waiting for patent approval, according to the company website. Nowhere does the company suggest throwing these things out for the birds, but the company implies that it would not be a bad thing.

I don’t know enough about marketing to know if there is any chance of this gaining widespread acceptance. Initial reports say these new rings could raise the cost of a six pack by 10 or 15 cents, but mass production could eventually bring down the costs.

I also don’t know how these edible rings taste, and I’m not sure I want to know. But, as one the commenters said on the YouTube website, “Sweet, but if I’m REALLY hammered, can I eat it? Or will my head get stuck in the plastic like what happens to sea turtles?”

A danger to Aquaman?
A danger to Aquaman?

Are people really worried about six-pack rings? My wife Sue insists that I cut up any ringlike attachment devices, including those used for all sorts of juices and other products sold at Costco. I do it, knowing full well that I am going to put this plastic thing into a kitchen trash bag, which will go into a larger trash bag, which will go into a dumpster, which will eventually go into a landfill in Oregon. Not much chance to entrap a seagull.

The story would be different if I was going to take a six pack to the beach, but we normally pull the cans apart and put them into a cooler before we leave the house.

Maybe these new grain-based rings would be worthwhile for those who throw their trash at the beach. Maybe they would save the poor animals that might get trapped or eat the plastic. I’m thinking of Peanut, the turtle that grew up with a plastic ring crimping her shell. As described by Stephen Messenger of “The Dodo,” Peanut became a poster child for Missouri’s No More Trash campaign.

As an example of problems caused by plastic trash getting into the oceans, the six-pack ring may remain Public Enemy Number 1. But I tend to agree with Cecil Adams of “The Straight Dope” that a much more productive effort would be for everyone to pick up any plastic trash they see at the beach — or anywhere else — before it gets into the water. That is the same message delivered by Seattle scuba diver Laura James following our local rain and wind storms over the past week. (See video below.)

Thanks go to Kitsap Sun reporter Tristan Baurick, who offered the idea for this blog post.

Orcas starting to follow chum salmon into Central Puget Sound

Chum salmon are beginning to make their way into Central and South Puget Sound, which means the orcas are likely to follow.

Given this year’s dismal reports of chinook salmon in the San Juan Islands, we can hope that a decent number of chum traveling to streams farther south will keep the killer whales occupied through the fall. But anything can happen.

Data from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife
Data from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

On Oct. 2, orcas from J and K pods — two of the three Southern Resident pods — passed through Admiralty Inlet and proceeded to Point No Point in North Kitsap, according to reports from Orca Network. The whales continued south the following day and made it all the way to Vashon Island, according to observers.

On Tuesday of this week, more reports of orcas came in from Saratoga Passage, the waterway between Whidbey and Camano islands. See the video by Alisa Lemire Brooks at the bottom of this page. By yesterday, some members of J pod were reported back of the west side of San Juan Island.

The movement of chum salmon into Central Puget Sound began in earnest this week, as a test fishery off Kingston caught just a few chum last week, jumping to nearly 1,000 this week. Still, the peak of the run is a few weeks away.

The predicted chum run for Central and South Puget Sound this year is about 526,000 fish, up from last year’s count of 503,000, according to Aaron Default, fish program biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. The average annual return over the past 10 years has been about 640,000 chum, boosted by a couple of exceptionally high years. (See chart.)

Orca Network's map of good whale-viewing locations.
Orca Network’s map of good whale-viewing locations.

For Puget Sound as a whole, the forecast is for 1.2 million chum, compared to a 10-year average of about 1.5 million.

It is yet to be seen how the orcas will respond to the schools of chum coming south, but their fall travels could offer the opportunity for a lot of people to watch the whales from shore without disturbing them at all.

This year, Orca Network trained 45 new volunteers as observers/naturalists. They live in Island, Snohomish, King, Kitsap, Pierce, Thurston and Whatcom counties and will be on hand at many of the observation locations, said Alisa. of Orca Network.

“Our volunteers are provided with up to date ID guides and information to share with others while viewing whales from the shoreline, to educate about the orcas, their habitat, and prey,” said Alisa, coordinator of Orca Network’s whale-sighting program, in a news release.

Last November, Alisa was watching the whales from shore with another volunteer, Sara Hysong-Shimazu, when they spotted a newborn orca off Alki Point in Seattle. They took photographs of the calf, and the Center for Whale Research later confirmed that it was the first baby born to L-103, a 13-year-old mom named Lapis. The baby was named Lazuli.

Orca Network has developed a map of some good locations for viewing whales when they come south. The best way to stay advised of whale movements is through the Orca Network Facebook page.

Observers should carry binoculars or another viewing scope to get a better view from shore. If you have a decent camera and can get a picture of one or more dorsal fins, orca researchers might be able to use your pictures. Orca Network would like to be alerted immediately to any whale sightings. Whale reports may be called in to the toll-free number, 1-866-ORCANET; emailed to, or posted on the Orca Network Facebook page.

Whale sightings reported to Orca Network will be provided to researchers studying the Southern Residents, which are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. If possible, observers are asked to note the location, time, direction of travel and approximate number of whales, as well as any specific behaviors, such as breaching, spy-hopping or feeding.

Observers who choose to go out in boats must follow federal and state regulations for whale watching as outlined on the Be Whale Wise website.

“We are very fortunate to live in a place where we can look out from nearby shorelines and see those majestic black fins parting the waters,” said Howard Garrett of Orca Network. “We are thankful for the hundreds of citizens who report sightings each year, providing valuable data to help in recovery efforts for the endangered Southern Resident orcas.”

Satellite tag contributed to the death of a 20-year-old orca, experts say

When a 20-year-old killer whale named Nigel was found dead floating off Vancouver Island at the end of March, experts expressed immediate concern about the sharp barbs that remained embedded in the whale’s dorsal fin. (See Water Ways, April 14.)

Nigel, L-95, on the day he was darted with a satellite tag. Photo: Northwest Fisheries Science Center
Nigel, L-95, on the day he was darted with a satellite tag. He was later found dead.
Photo: Northwest Fisheries Science Center

This type of barb is commonly used to attach satellite transmitters to all sorts of whales and dolphins, allowing the animals to be tracked over long distances. The satellite tags are designed to fall off completely — but that did not happen for Nigel, designated L-95.

As the result of an investigation by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, we now know that the barbs helped to introduce a dangerous fungus into Nigel’s body. The fungus appears to have spread to his lungs and other organs, ultimately contributing to his death.

“After a thorough necropsy and investigation, including an expert review of findings, there was sufficient evidence to implicate the tag attachment site as a source of fungal infection to the whale,” states a report by an expert panel (PDF 209 kb). “This fungal infection contributed to illness in the whale and played a contributory role in its death.”

After Nigel was found dead near Nootka Island, NOAA suspended the satellite-tracking program. As a result of these latest findings, the agency announced today that it will continue to prohibit satellite tagging, at least until new standards can be developed through the International Whaling Commission.

After that, any further tagging would require a new review under the Endangered Species Act. That’s because the Southern Residents — the orcas that frequent Puget Sound — are listed as an endangered species.

The tagging program has provided much information about where the whales go during winter months when they leave Puget Sound and travel up and down the coast. That information is expected to help NOAA Fisheries develop a new “critical habitat” designation for the Southern Residents. Critical habitat in coastal areas might provide the whales with protected areas where they could hunt for chinook salmon, their primary prey.

For now, NOAA may need to use methods other than satellite tagging to keep track of the whales during winter, said Richard Merrick, chief scientist for NOAA Fisheries. Experts are reviewing the existing data to see if they have enough information for expanding critical habitat outside of Puget Sound.

A total of eight Southern Residents have been tagged using a similar dart system since tagging began in 2012, according to a report from Brad Hanson (PDF 972 kb) of NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center. Nigel was the last, and all the other whales are alive and have shed their darts, although one whale did retain a dart for a while.

The fungus that contributed to Nigel’s death has been found in the surface waters off Vancouver Island, experts say, and the attached tag provides an entry point for infection. A couple of factors may have made things worse for the orca. First, the tag was dropped during handling and may have become contaminated with seawater. Although it was sterilized with alcohol, protocols for tag deployment call for the use of bleach as well.

It was a “human error,” said Merrick, adding that the NOAA scientists involved are “dismayed” that any of their actions could have contributed to the orca’s death.

The tag also went into a spot on the dorsal fin lower than recommended. Although other whales have not had problems with this location, the concern is the proximity to large blood vessels that could allow the fungal organism to more easily enter the bloodstream.

The final necropsy report (PDF 365 kb) provides evidence that Nigel may have had some problems with his immune system, and this particular fungus is known to attack people who are immune-compromised. I have written about the added risks of disease among killer whales because of their exposure to toxic chemicals. You might want to check out my series in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

Because Nigel’s carcass was severely decomposed when it was found, the actual cause of death may never be known. But contributing factors are many.

Ken Balcomb, longtime orca researcher for the Center for Whale Research, had warned about the risks involved with using sharp prongs that penetrate the skin. See “Orca tagging raises questions about research” from Dec. 8, 2010, and “Orca researchers divided over use of satellite tags” from Dec. 28, 2010.

Reached by phone today, Ken told me that he has given his best information to government researchers through the years — not only about the risks of tagging but about other issues as well.

“I get no communication back,” he said. “They just ignore it.”

His greatest concerns today are focused on the lack of wild salmon to feed the whales, he said. The high death rate and the low birth rate in recent years largely results from a lack of food, which compounds other problems that the orcas are facing. While nine new orca calves since the end of 2014 is encouraging, he said, the 82 Southern Residents are not in good shape as a population.

“They do have to eat,” Ken said. “This population requires a certain quantity of fish, and they are not getting it. Recovery (of the orcas) is not happening, and it won’t happen until the recovery of natural fish populations happens.”

The removal of dams on the Snake River would help increase the wild chinook population, Ken said, but better management of all life stages of salmon is essential. That means better coordination between the U.S. and Canada, he added.

Humpback whales intervene in orca attacks against other species

Humpback whales have been making the news for their organized “rescues” — seemingly heroic efforts in which the humpbacks have intervened in attacks by killer whales against other marine mammals.

Humpback whales come to the rescue of a Steller sea lion near Victoria, B.C. Photo: Alethea Leddy, Port Angeles Whale Watch Co.
Humpback whales come to the rescue of a Steller sea lion near Victoria, B.C. // Photo: Alethea Leddy, Port Angeles Whale Watch Co.

The humpbacks have not only protected their own calves but they have gone well out of their way to protect gray whales, minke whales, Dall’s porpoises, Steller sea lions, California sea lions, Weddell seals, crabeater seals, harbor seals, northern elephant seals and even ocean sunfish, according to researchers.

The latest incident, in which humpbacks reportedly intervened in a killer whale attack on a Steller sea lion, is said to be the first reported incident in the Salish Sea. The incident took place last week off Sooke, BC, about 20 miles west of Victoria.

“What we witnessed was pure aggression,” Capt. Russ Nicks of BC Whale Watch Tours of Victoria said in a news release from Pacific Whale Watch Association. “We had four humpbacks trumpeting, rolling on their sides, flukes up in the air multiple times.

“The killer whales split many times into two groups, with one that appeared to try to draw the humpbacks away from the sea lion. The other group would go in for the attack while the humpbacks were safely away – but then they’d get in the middle of it again, fighting the orcas off. It was amazing to watch.”

These killer whales were of the transient variety, a subspecies of killer whales that eats marine mammals, as opposed to the resident orcas that each fish.

The same attack and rescue was viewed by naturalist Alethea Leddy of Port Angeles Whale Watch Company, as reported in the news release:

“We got there in time to see some crazy surface activity, with humpback whales splashing in the distance along with orcas. Then two humpbacks surfaced next to us trumpeting, and the next thing we know there were four humpbacks, possibly six, all defending the sea lion.

“The water boiled all around as the orcas tried to separate the sea lion from the humpbacks. It was a wild scene, with the humpbacks even circling the sea lion trying to keep him safe while he frantically struggled to get his breath.

“The anxiety of the humpbacks was palpable, and they took turns diving and slashing at the orcas. This life-and-death drama went on and on until the four transient orcas, known as the T100 family, moved off in the distance. As they did, we saw the sea lion appear next to the humpbacks being guarded and escorted in the opposite direction.

“This was an unbelievable encounter. Hats off to our courageous humpbacks and best wishes to our little Steller sea lion, survivor for another day!”

In July, 14 marine mammal experts reported on 115 apparent rescue efforts by humpback whales during what appeared to be killer whale attacks on other species of marine mammals. Their report appeared in the journal Marine Mammal Science.

Reasons for these rescue efforts are open to much speculation, but the researchers noted that evidence is mounting in favor of a belief that killer whales that eat marine mammals, called MEKW, attack young humpback whales more often than commonly reported.

“Clearly, MEKW predation, even if rarely observed and targeting mainly calves and subadults, represents a threat to humpbacks that is persistent, widespread, and perhaps increasing,” the report states. “As such, humpbacks could be expected to show some specific anti-predator behaviors, and indeed some have been suggested. Ford and Reeves (2008) summarized the defensive capabilities of baleen whales faced with killer whale attack, and they identified two general categories of response.

“Balaenopterid rorquals (including fin whales and minke whales) use their high speed and hydrodynamic body shape to outrun killer whales and were classified as flight species. The generally more rotund and slower-swimming species — right whales, bowhead whales, gray whales and humpback whales — apparently rely on their bulk and powerful, oversized appendages (tail and flippers) to ward off attackers. This group was categorized as fight species.”

Of course, it is one thing for the humpbacks and other baleen whales to take a defensive posture. It is quite another thing for them to go after killer whales when another species of marine mammal is under attack.

In the report, humpbacks initiated encounters with MEKWs 58 percent of the time, while the killer whales initiated contact 42 percent of the time — at least for those cases when the killer whale ecotype could be identified as marine mammals eaters. On a few occasions when known fish-eating killer whales were involved, the encounter was relatively benign, the researchers said.

The video, shot by BBC filmmakers, show a pair of humpback whales attempting to prevent a group of orcas from killing a gray whale calf. In this case, the effort was unsuccessful.

When humpbacks went to the rescue of other marine mammals, it appears that the rescuers were generally a mixture of males and females, according to the report. Humpback postures, whether attacking or defending, involved slapping their flukes on the surface, slashing from side to side, bellowing, persuing and flipper slapping. The length of battles reported ranged from 15 minutes to seven hours. In the end, the prey that was at the center of the battles was killed 83 percent of the time — at least for those cases when the outcome was known.

“The humpback whale is, to our knowledge, the only cetacean that deliberately approaches attacking MEKWs and can drive them off, although southern right whales may also group together to fend off MEKWs attacking other right whales,” the researchers stated, adding that humpbacks’ powerful flippers covered in sharp barnacles can shred the flesh of their opponents.

When in hunting mode, transient killer whales are generally silent, not making much noise. Once an attack begins, they become more vocal, perhaps to coordinate the attack. It appears that humpbacks respond to killer whale vocalizations from distances well out of sight of the attack.

The reasons the humpbacks would get in a fight with killer whales to save another species are listed in three categories:

  • Kin selection: Protecting an offspring or closely related animal.
  • Reciprocity: Protecting unrelated animals, generally as part of a social organization.
  • Altruism: Benefitting another animal at some cost to the one taking action.

It is possible, the researchers conclude, that humpbacks could be improving their individual and group fitness to fend off attacks against their own by protecting other species. One idea is that the killer whales may think twice about attacking a humpback of any age.

“We suggest,” they write, “that humpbacks providing benefits to other potential prey species, even if unintentional, could be a focus of future research into possible genetic or cultural drivers of interspecific altruism.”

Sea Shepherd regroups, plans new battles with Japanese whalers

An organization called Sea Shepherd Global announced yesterday that it will take up the cause of battling Japanese whaling ships in the Southern Ocean of Antarctica later this year.

The announcement comes just days after court approval of a legal settlement, a deal that will forever block Sea Shepherd Conservation Society from confronting Japanese whalers on the high seas.

Sea Shepherd Global, based in The Netherlands, apparently is out of reach of the U.S. courts, which sanctioned the original Sea Shepherd group for its sometimes violent actions against the whalers. Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, the U.S. group, is led by its founder, Capt. Paul Watson, who had stepped down for a time.

The Ocean Warrior is a new ship added to Sea Shepherd Global's fleet. Photo: Gerard Wagemakers, courtesy of Sea Shepherd Global
The Ocean Warrior is a new ship added to Sea Shepherd Global’s fleet.
Photo: Gerard Wagemakers, courtesy of SSG

Sea Shepherd Global has mobilized its forces for what it calls the “11th direct-action whale defense campaign.” The group has built a new ship it claims can keep up with and surpass the Japanese harpoon ships. Anyone who has watched “Whales Wars,” the reality television series, probably knows that Sea Shepherd’s ships have suffered from a lack of speed and were often left in wake of the whaling vessels.

Sea Shepherd, with its fierce opposition to killing marine mammals, has always claimed to be on the right side of international law when it comes to whaling. Now its members are inspired by a 2014 ruling in the International Court of Justice, which found that whaling — at least as practiced by Japanese whalers — is not a scientific endeavor. The Japanese government has lost its only justification for whaling until it develops new scientific protocols acceptable to the International Whaling Commission. Review a discussion of these issues in Water Ways, March 31, 2014, with an update on Dec. 14, 2015.

Sea Shepherd Global also justifies its plans with a contempt-of-court citation filed by the Australian Federal Court against the Japanese whalers for killing protected whales within the Australia Whale Sanctuary. Japan, however, does not recognize the sanctuary nor the Australian jurisdiction.

“If we cannot stop whaling in an established whale sanctuary, in breach of both Australian Federal and international laws, then what hope do we have for the protection of the world’s oceans?” asked Jeff Hansen, managing director of Sea Shepherd Australia in a news release. “We must make a stand and defend whales with everything we’ve got.”

After the International Court of Justice ruling, the Japanese took a year off from whaling before submitting a new whaling plan, which was questioned by a scientific committee at the International Whaling Commission. Without waiting for approval, the whalers returned to the Southern Ocean last December. A limited Sea Shepherd fleet followed, but the whalers killed 333 minke whales — a quota approved by the Japanese government but nobody else.

Meanwhile, Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (SSCS) has been engaged in a legal battle with the Japanese-sponsored Institute of Cetacean Research in the U.S. courts. Initially, a U.S. district judge dismissed the Japanese claims. On appeal, however, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals called Sea Shepherd a “pirate” organization, ordered the group to stay away from the Japanese ships and eventually found Sea Shepherd in contempt of court for a peripheral involvement in the anti-whaling effort. Initial appeals court ruling: Water Ways, Feb. 26, 2013.

SSCS agreed to pay $2.55 million to settle a damage claim from Japan in light of the contempt ruling. The group had been hoping that Japan’s lawsuit in the U.S. courts would open the door for a countersuit, in which the illegality of Japanese whaling would spelled out and confirmed.

All legal claims and counterclaims were dropped in the settlement agreement (PDF 410 kb) between SSCS and the Institute of Cetacean Research. The agreement, approved last week by U.S. District Judge James Robart, says SSCS cannot approach Japanese whaling ships closer than 500 yards. SSCS cannot provide financial support to anyone else who would approach the Japanese ships in an aggressive way, including “any entity that is part of the worldwide ‘Sea Shepherd’ movement and/or uses or has used some version of the ‘Sea Shepherd’ name.”

The agreement mentions a “settlement consideration to be paid to Sea Shepherd Conservation Society,” although the amount has not been disclosed.

The Institute of Cetacean Research immediately issued a news release about the settlement. Paul Watson offered a three-pronged post on his Facebook page. One part was his own message, saying Sea Shepherd would remain opposed to whaling but would comply with the settlement provisions.

Another part was a statement from Capt. Alex Cornelissen, director of Sea Shepherd Global:

“The ruling in the US courts affects ONLY the US entity. All the other Sea Shepherd entities in the Global movement are not bound by the US legal system, the mere assumption that it does clearly demonstrates a lack of understanding of Sea Shepherd Global’s structure. Sea Shepherd Global and all other entities around the world, other than the USA, will continue to oppose the illegal Japanese whaling in the Antarctic.”

The third part was a quote from a BBC story:

“Jeff Hansen, managing director of Sea Shepherd Australia, told the BBC the U.S. ruling would ‘absolutely not’ affect its own operations. He said if the ICC (sic, ICR?) were to pursue Sea Shepherd in Australia ‘they would be entering into a court system they’re in contempt of, and we would welcome that.’”

In its statement yesterday, Sea Shepherd Global said it was disappointed that the international community has not taken more steps to protect whales in the Southern Ocean. Still, Sea Shepherd Global will be there with a new fast ship, the Ocean Warrior, built with the financial support of the Dutch Postcode Lottery, the British People’s Postcode Lottery and the Svenska PostkodLotteriet.

“For the first time, we will have the speed to catch and outrun the Japanese harpoon ships, knowing speed can be the deciding factor when saving the lives of whales in the Southern Ocean,” said Cornelissen.

The Ocean Warrior will undergo final preparations in Australia at the end of the year, about the time that Japanese whaling ships arrive for their anticipated harvest of marine mammals. And so the whale wars will go on but without any involvement from Paul Watson and his U.S. contingent.

By the way, Paul, who had been living in exile in France, has returned to the U.S., according to a news release from Sea Shepherd that recounts Paul’s history of fleeing from prosecutors in Japan and Costa Rica. Paul, 65, and his wife, Yanina Rusinovich, a Russian-born opera singer, are now living in Woodstock, Vermont, and expecting a baby in October.

One orca is missing and presumed dead; another reported as ‘super-gaunt’

I have some bleak news to share about our Southern Resident killer whales, which normally frequent Puget Sound at this time of year.

J-14 seen earlier this year in Puget Sound. Photo: Center for Whale Research
J-14 seen earlier this year in Puget Sound.
Photo: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research,
taken under federal permits NMFS 15569/ DFO SARA 388

J-14, a 42-year-old female named Samish, has gone missing and is presumed dead, while J-28, a 23-year-old orca mom named Polaris, may be living out her final days.

“Things are shaping up to be pretty bad,” said Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research, who keeps tabs on the orca population. “J-28 is looking super-gaunt, and I would say she is within days of her death.”

The saddest part of my conversation with Ken this morning was to hear him say that Polaris’ 7-month-old calf would become an orphan and probably will not survive without his mother. That’s the typical outcome for an orphan of that age, Ken said, although there is a chance that the young male will be adopted by his grandmother.

The calf, J-54, is still nursing, but he is close to weaning, Ken noted. He is the newest calf born into the three Southern Resident pods and is part of the “baby boom” of nine orcas born between December 2014 and December 2015. So far, only one of those calves, J-55, has died.

After my conversation with Ken, the Center for Whale Research posted a news release about the death of Samish. Orca observers on the water have known that she was missing for some time now.

As of today, J pod was on its way out through the Strait of Juan de Fuca, no doubt searching for food. The chinook salmon run has been very low this summer.

“Historically, at this time of year, we would see nice little bunches (of orcas) swimming back and forth in front of the house,” said Ken, who lives on the west side of San Juan Island. But this year, the whales have broken up into small family groups and are traveling around in seemingly random patterns, presumably in search of whatever salmon they can find.

“Even the fishermen aren’t getting much this year,” Ken said.

To gauge a killer whale’s condition, researchers consider the overall shape of its body. Without adequate fish — primarily chinook salmon — an orca grows thinner as the body fat declines. As conditions grow worse, a depression develops behind the blow hole. This sunken condition — which Polaris has developed — is called “peanut head.” So far, none of the other animals have been observed in such a dire condition.

I’ve often been told by medical experts that when a killer whale loses weight it can be a sign of a major problem, such as a disease that makes them incapable of hunting to their normal ability. But a shortage of food can exacerbate the condition.

“We have been telling the government for years that salmon recovery is essential for whale recovery,” Ken said.

He blames the salmon decline on longtime mismanagement of wild salmon stocks — including damage to habitat, over-fishing and excess hatchery stocks in both Canada and the U.S. One of the quickest ways to increase the chinook population for these whales is to take out the Snake River dams, he said.

Rebuilding salmon runs on the Elwha River will help, Ken said, but the number of fish is small compared to the potential of the Snake River, which flows into the Columbia and produces salmon that can be caught in the ocean.

“I’m trying to get the marine mammal people to talk to the salmon people,” Ken said. “Fish have been a political problem for a long time, and we are not solving the salmon issue.”

Money spent on law enforcement to make sure whale watchers don’t get too close to the orcas would be better spent on education — specifically on educating lawmakers about the needs of salmon and killer whales, he quipped.

As of July 1 — the date of the annual orca census — the population of the three Southern Resident pods stood at 83. That’s the number that will be reported to the federal government. Since then, Samish has gone missing, so the ongoing count falls to 82, pending the status of Polaris and her son.

Samish was considered part of the J-2 (“Granny”) family group. Her living offspring are Hy’shqa (J-37), Suttles (J-40) and Se-Yi’-Chn (J-45). Samish was the grandmother to Hy-Shqa’s 4-year-old son T’ilem I’nges.

Polaris is the first offspring of Princess Angeline (J-17), who is still living. Her first offspring, a female named Star (J-46), is now 7 years old. J-54 is her second offspring.

Agency failing to protect marine mammals from the Navy — Joel Reynolds

After more than a decade of losing court battles, the U.S. Navy still refuses to fully embrace the idea that whales and other sea creatures should be protected during Navy training exercises, says Joel Reynolds, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Joel Reynolds
Joel Reynolds

But the blame cannot be placed entirely on the Navy, Joel says in a blog entry he wrote for the Huffington Post.

“In fact, much of the blame lies with the government regulatory agency whose mandate it is to protect our oceans,” he writes. “It lies with the failure of the National Marine Fisheries Service to do its job.”

Joel has been at the forefront of the legal effort to get the Navy to change its ways — and the effort has been successful to a large degree. At least we now have a much greater understanding about the effects of sonar on whales and other marine animals. Legal challenges forced the Navy to acknowledge that it didn’t really know what damage its activities were doing to the oceans. The result was to develop studies, which turned out to provide some unwelcome answers.

Joel’s latest frustration comes this week in the wake of new authorizations by NMFS to sanction Navy activities found to be unacceptable by the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Joel’s life story and that of Ken Balcomb, who I call the dean of killer whales in Puget Sound, are described in intriguing detail in the book “War of the Whales” by Joshua Horwitz. The book documents their personal and legal battles to hold the Navy accountable for its impacts on whales.

In January 2015, I reviewed the book (“My take on the book…,” Water Ways, Jan. 10, 2015), and I also interviewed the author for his inside story (“A discussion with author Joshua Horwitz,” Jan. 11, 2015).

USS Shoup, a Navy destroyer based in Everett. U.S. Navy photo
USS Shoup, a Navy destroyer based in Everett.
U.S. Navy photo

The Navy would never have found itself on the losing side of these sonar lawsuits if the National Marine Fisheries Service (sometimes called NOAA Fisheries) had been doing its congressionally mandated job of protecting marine mammals, Joel says. For the agency, that would mean approving “take” permits only when the Navy has done its best to reduce the risk of injury during training exercises — which everyone agrees are important.

“Rather than exercising the oversight required by law, the Service has chosen in effect to join the Navy’s team, acquiescing in the omission of common-sense safeguards recommended even by its own scientific experts,” Joel writes in his latest blog post.

After reading his post, I asked Joel by phone yesterday what it would take to get the National Marine Fisheries Service on the right track.

“I don’t have an easy answer for that,” Joel told me, noting that he recently held a related discussion with Sylvia Earle, renowned oceanographer and formerly chief scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“She is very familiar with the problems of NMFS,” Joel said. “She said NMFS is an agency responsible for killing fish.”

That said, the agency has a lot of dedicated researchers and experts who know what needs to be done, especially at the regional level. But they are hamstrung by federal politics and by budget limitations.

“The Pentagon is essentially able to dictate every part of government,” Joel said. “The financial implications are very real, because the military is so powerful. If NMFS gives them trouble, they call their contacts on Capitol Hill, and pressure is brought to bear.”

The Navy has spent decades operating at its own discretion throughout the world’s oceans. The notion that another federal agency or some upstart environmental groups should limit its activities just doesn’t sit well among established Navy officers.

The problem is so entrenched in government that any resolution “is going to take some focused attention under the next administration,” according to Joel.

If Hillary Clinton is elected, Joel said he might look to John Podesta to untangle the mess. Podesta served as chief of staff under President Bill Clinton and was instrumental in opening up long-held but arguably unnecessary government secrets. He currently serves as chairman of Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

“John Podesta understands these things,” Joel told me. “If we can’t get him (to do something), we can’t get anyone. I think it would take a reorganization. The way NMFS is set up, they are in the business of authorizing ‘take’ instead of issuing permits based on the protections that are needed.”

Joel wasn’t clear how a regulatory agency might be organized to hold its own against the Navy, but the idea should be on the table, he said. Until then, the NRDC and other environmental groups will continue to battle in the courts, where judges are able to use some common sense.

Meanwhile, NOAA has developed an “Ocean Noise Strategy Roadmap,” which promises to find ways to control harmful man-made noise. The roadmap is based, in part, on scientific studies about the hearing capabilities of marine mammals. Review my Water Ways post on the “draft guidance” Water Ways, March 26, 2016.

These steps have been encouraging — at least until this week when NMFS issued letters of authorization for the Navy to keep operating under its 2012 plan, which the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals had declared a failure to meet requirements for the “least practicable adverse impact.” (Read the opinion.)

The agency chose to move ahead because the court had not yet issued its mandate — a formal direction to a lower court — by the time the letters of authorization were issued.

“The Navy has a robust and practicable monitoring and mitigation program that we believe is very effective in reducing the likelihood of injury,” according to an explanation from NMFS.

Check out Ramona Young-Grindle’s story about this latest finding in yesterday’s Courthouse News, which includes these further comments from Joel:

“We are astonished to see an LOA issued in the wake of the court of appeals’ decision that the LFA (low frequency active sonar) permit is illegal. NMFS is entrusted under federal law to enforce the Marine Mammal Protection Act for the benefit of marine mammals — not for the convenience of the Navy. This capitulation to the Navy’s request to continue ‘business as usual’ under a permit determined by a federal court to be illegal is outrageous.”

Demanding international changes to help protect marine mammals

After 43 years and some legal prodding, the United States is preparing to use its economic and political power to protect whales, dolphins and other marine mammals around the world.

On Monday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is scheduled to publish regulations that will set up a system to ban imports of seafood from any country that fails to control the killing of marine mammals in its fishing industry.

Photo: Daniel Schwen, Wikimedia Commons
Photo: Daniel Schwen, Wikimedia Commons

To avoid a ban, foreign controls must be as effective as standards adopted by the United States to reduce the incidental death and injury to marine mammals in the U.S. fishing industry. Harvesting nations that wish to continue selling fish and fish products to U.S. markets will have five years to implement their marine mammal protection programs, if they have not already done so.

When it was first approved by Congress in 1972, the Marine Mammal Protection Act included provisions that would ban imports of fish caught in commercial fisheries where the “bycatch” of marine mammals exceeded U.S. standards. But the law was largely ignored until environmental groups filed a lawsuit against NOAA two years ago. The lawsuit was eventually settled, with NOAA agreeing to approve new rules by August of this year.

NOAA estimates that 650,000 marine mammals are killed each year in fishing operations. Meanwhile, U.S. consumers obtain 94 percent of their seafood from a growing import market valued at $33 billion in 2013.

“The new regulations will force countries to meet U.S. conservation standards if they want access to the U.S. market, saving thousands of whales and dolphins from dying on hooks and in fishing nets around the world,” said Sarah Uhlemann, international program director for the Center for Biological Diversity. “The U.S. government has finally recognized that all seafood consumed in the United States must be ‘dolphin-safe.’”

Comments were made in a joint news release from the Center for Biological Diversity, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Turtle Island Restoration Network — the three groups that brought the lawsuit.

Graphic: NOAA
Graphic: NOAA

The new regulatory program on imports calls on NOAA Fisheries to issue a “comparability finding” after harvesting nations demonstrate that they have a regulatory program that meets U.S. standards for protecting marine mammals. Each program must prohibit the incidental killing or serious injury to marine mammals in all fisheries, estimate numbers of marine mammals on their fishing grounds and find ways to reduce harm if established limits are exceeded.

Over the next year, the regulations call for NOAA Fisheries to request information on marine mammal bycatch from countries that export to the U.S. On a list of foreign fisheries, each fishery will be classified either as “export” or “exempt.” Exempt fisheries are determined to have a remote chance of killing marine mammals, so they are not required to have a regulatory protection program. Those fisheries likely to impact marine mammals and those lacking information about impacts are placed in the export category. All fisheries must prohibit intentional killing of marine mammals to receive certification.

At the end of the five-year period, NOAA Fisheries will publish a list of fisheries that will not receive a comparability finding along with a list of fish banned from import. Those countries will receive information about why they were denied certification and are eligible to reapply at any time. Other details are outlined in a fact sheet from NOAA Fisheries.

The U.S. Marine Mammal Commission, a group appointed by the president to advise the government on the Marine Mammal Protection Act, welcomed the long-overdue regulations to protect marine mammals throughout the world, but said the five-year implementation period is too long. See comments, Nov. 9, 2015. (PDF 1.4 mb):

“Inasmuch as this is an ongoing, long-standing statutory requirement, the Commission does not see a legal basis for deferring implementation. To the extent that any delay can be countenanced, it should be kept to the absolute minimum necessary to secure the required information from exporting countries.

“The Commission is concerned that the proposed delay would result in at least another six years during which seafood could continue to be imported into and sold in the United States, despite unacceptably high levels of marine mammal bycatch, unbeknownst to U.S. consumers, and during which U.S. fleets would face unfair competition from foreign fleets with little or no accountability to follow comparable marine mammal conservation measures.”

In 1988, while the U.S. was developing new fishing standards to protect marine mammals, U.S. fishermen were required to report the type of gear they were using and any incidental catch of marine mammals, the Marine Mammal Commission noted. Fishermen also were required to allow observers on their boats while the agency developed stock assessments and new rules to protect various species of marine mammals. Those kinds of interim measures should be required of foreign fleets as well, the commission said.

Among its many comments when the rule was first proposed last year, the commission criticized the plan for placing too much burden on NOAA Fisheries to gather the information, rather than requiring the importing countries to document their protections for marine mammals.

“The Commission further recommends that the final rule clearly specify that nations be issued a CF only if they meet the U.S. standards, rather than be issued a CF unless it is shown that they do not meet the applicable requirements.”

As far as I can tell, the final rule failed to incorporate most of the commission’s suggestions. Still, using the economic and political power of the U.S. to protect marine mammals around the world is a considerable leap.

While the new regulations are expected to level the playing field for U.S. fishermen who must comply with marine mammal protections, we have yet to see the full response from other countries. At some point, a ban on U.S. imports is likely to trigger a challenge based on existing international trade agreements. I haven’t seen much written about the legal implications of the new marine-mammal-protection rules, but we have seen what can happen. Review the article by Mark J. Robertson about “dolphin-safe” tuna rules in a report for the International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development.

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.


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.”


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.