Category Archives: Salmon

Skokomish River gets special attention in salmon funding

Big money is beginning to come together for planning, engineering and design of major restoration projects along the Skokomish River. If approved by Congress, the cost of construction could exceed $40 million — a lot of money to you and me, but maybe not so much for the Army Corps of Engineers.

Last week, the state’s Salmon Recovery Funding Board approved grants for more than 100 projects in 29 counties throughout the state. The total, from state and federal sources, was about $18 million for this round of funding.

Mason County was one of the big winners this time, receiving $1.25 million for seven projects, including a $360,000 contribution to planning and engineering for transformative projects on the Skokomish. The total cost for a “35-percent level of design” is expected to be $2.45 million, mostly from the Corps of Engineers. That level of design is needed to give top officials in the Corps and members of Congress a good idea of cost before they commit to the massive undertaking along the Skok.

I’ll address the specific Skokomish River projects, along with new information from the Corps, in a separate blog post to come. For now, I’d like to describe other projects approved in the latest round of SRF Board funding.

In addition to the design work on the Skokomish, the Mason Conservation District will move ahead with the construction of 21 man-made logjams in the Holman Flats area along the South Fork of the Skokomish. That is an area that was logged and cleared in preparation for a dam that was never built.

Man-made logjams were placed in the Skokomish River in 2010. More will be added thanks to a new salmon-recovery grant. Kitsap Sun photo
Man-made logjams were placed in the Skokomish River in 2010. More will be added thanks to a new salmon-recovery grant.
Kitsap Sun photo

The clearing destabilized the river and degraded salmon habitat for more than a mile downstream. The logjams will add structure to the river and create places for fish to hide and rest, ultimately improving the channel itself. The $362,000 from the SRF Board will be supplemented with another $900,000 in grants.

This will be a second phase of a project I wrote about for the Kitsap Sun in 2010, followed by another story in 2011.

Other Mason County projects:

Beards Cove, $297,000: This project, outside of Belfair on Hood Canal, will remove fill, structures and invasive plants and restore the grade to the way it was before development in 1973. The project will restore about a quarter-mile of natural shoreline and seven acres of tidal marsh. Along with a separate seven-acre land-preservation agreement and other efforts, about 1.7 miles of Hood Canal shoreline will be preserved forever. Great Peninsula Conservancy will use a separate $491,000 grant from the state’s Estuary and Salmon Restoration Program.

Allyn Shoreline, $14,000: Mason Conservation District will complete final designs to enhance 480 feet of shoreline along Case Inlet in Allyn, including removal of about 120 feet of bulkhead.

Likes Creek, $85,000: South Puget Sound Salmon Enhancement Group will remove a culvert under the Simpson railroad that blocks salmon migration on Likes Creek, a major tributary of Goldsborough Creek. Another grant will provide $43,000 for the project, and Mason County will assist with removal of another culvert upstream.

Goldsborough Creek, $111,000: Capitol Land Trust will buy 420 acres on the North Fork of Goldsborough Creek near Shelton. The property provides habitat for endangered salmon and steelhead. The land trust will contribute $20,000 in donated land.

Oakland Bay, $24,000: Capitol Land Trust will use the money to remove invasive and dead vegetation and maintain 12 acres of shoreline plantings on Deer, Cranberry and Malaney creeks. About $5,000 in donations will be added.

Three projects were funded in Kitsap County:

Springbrook Creek, $62,000: Bainbridge Island Land Trust will assess the creek’s watershed and design five salmon-habitat projects for one of the island’s most productive streams. The land trust will contribute $11,000 in donations of labor.

Curley Creek, $33,000: Great Peninsula Conservancy will assess how to protect salmon habitat in Curley Creek in South Kitsap, one of the largest salmon and steelhead streams in the area. The conservancy will contribute $6,000 in donations of labor.

Steelhead assessment, $50,000: Kitsap County will analyze existing information on steelhead habitat in the East Kitsap region, south to the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, to help with a recovery plan for the threatened fish. The county will contribute $9,000.

Other notable projects include the following in King, Snohomish, Thurston and Whatcom counties:

Mill Creek, $327,000: The city of Kent will built a floodplain wetland off Mill Creek near the confluence with the Green River, an important stream for chinook salmon and steelhead as well as coho, chum and pink salmon and cutthroat trout. The project includes the construction of 1,000 feet of new off-channel habitat, where salmon can find refuge and food during floods, and 43 log structures. Work also will restore seven acres of native vegetation. A local grant will provide $1.4 million.

Stillaguamish River floodplain, $402,000: The Stillaguamish Tribe will purchase 200 acres on the North Fork and main stem of the river, remove invasive plants and restore about 25 acres of riverbank with native vegetation.

Black River wetland, $90,000: Capitol Land Trust Grant will buy 54 acres to conserve a rare wetland unique to the Black River and protect 1.3 miles of side channel. The property is adjacent to 75 acres already protected by the land trust in the Black River Sub-basin, one of the largest remaining wetland systems in Western Washington.

Nooksack River logjams: The Nooksack Tribe will receive $320,000 for logjams in the South Fork Nooksack and $283,000 for the North Fork Nooksack. Eight logjams in each stream will slow the river and provide resting pools for salmon. Federal grants will add $56,000 in the South Fork and $60,000 in the North Fork.

In announcing the $18 million in salmon-restoration grants statewide, Gov. Jay Inslee commented:

“Salmon are important to Washington because they support thousands of jobs in Washington — fishing, seafood-processing, boat sales and repair, tourism, and more. When we restore land and water for salmon, we also are helping our communities. We get less flooding, cleaner water and better beaches. We also make sure that our grandchildren will be able to catch a fish or enjoy watching the return of wild salmon.”

Funding for the grants comes from the sale of state bonds approved by the Legislature along with the Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund, approved by Congress and administered by the National Marine Fisheries Service.

David Trout, who chairs the SRF Board, said the restoration projects are a lifeline for salmon:

“Without these grants that fund incredible projects, we wouldn’t have any salmon. That’s unacceptable. We’ve seen these grants make a difference. They create jobs, support local communities and their involvement in salmon recovery, and most importantly the projects are helping bring back the fish.

“After more than a decade of work, we’ve seen that in many areas of the state, salmon populations are increasing or staying the same. At the same time, we still have some important areas where fish populations are continuing to decline. We can’t get discouraged and must continue working at this. It’s too important to stop now.”

Coho show off their jumping skills, but they can’t swim up a pipe

Prompted by stream biologist Jon Oleyar. my grandson, Kevin Jeffries, and I visited Gorst Creek today during a break in the heavy rains.

As I reported in Water Ways yesterday, Jon, who counts salmon for the Suquamish Tribe, had observed an unusual number of coho salmon swimming upstream in Gorst Creek.

Because of heavy rains, the creek was running high and very fast this afternoon, and the waters were a muddy brown. In fact, the sediment load was so heavy that we spotted only a few fish swimming upstream. We suspected that a lot of them were hunkered down in deep pools, waiting for the flows to decline and the stream to become more passable.

Although we did not see a lot of fish, it was exciting to watch coho salmon trying to jump up into an outlet pipe that discharges water from the salmon-rearing raceways in the park. Coho, wearing their spawning colors of red, are known as jumping fish, but these guys were going nowhere fast. Check out the video on this page.

I’m looking forward to returning to the stream after the rains decline and the waters clear up a little bit. The coho may or may not be gone by then, but Jon expects that we should be able to see chum salmon in Gorst Creek at least until Christmas.

Coho salmon add to viewing experience in Gorst Creek

Gorst Creek is the place to go right now when looking for migrating salmon — not only chum but also coho, all decked out in their bright-red spawning colors, according to Jon Oleyar, who surveys East Kitsap streams for the Suquamish Tribe.

Jon called me last night with the news the coho, which adds some excitement to the salmon-watching experience.

Coho often hide along the stream edges, making them hard to spot. That’s why I generally focus the attention of salmon watchers on the more abundant chum, which race right up the middle of the streams. But it’s great when coho add themselves to the mix.

Jon reported that the coho can be seen easily in Gorst Creek at Otto Jarstad Park off Belfair Valley Road.

“There are a ton of fish in there,” he said, “and there are a lot of coho, bright red.”

He said there were also plenty of chum, some that have been in the stream awhile and others that have just arrived.

Bremerton Public Works officials, who manage the park, have not objected to people parking outside the park gate and walking into the park, where salmon-viewing platforms were built along the stream by the Kitsap Poggie Club.

One good spot, Jon said, is near a pipe where water from the nearby salmon-rearing operation pours out into the stream. Salmon seem to get confused and try to jump up into the pipe before heading on upstream.

Gorst Creek contains one of the latest chum runs on the Kitsap Peninsula, and people may be able to see salmon there until the end of the year. I often tell local residents that Jarstad Park is a good place to take out-of-town visitors during the holidays.

That’s especially the case this year, when the chum run in the Chico Creek system has basically run its course. The peak of the run typically comes at Thanksgiving, but this year it was about two weeks early, Jon tells me. While this year’s run was a decent size, he said, the stream right now is mostly a “smelly graveyard.”

“It is one of the earliest runs I’ve seen here,” he said of the Chico chum. “To have everything dead by Thanksgiving is very unusual.”

Another possibility for seeing salmon is Dogfish Creek, which runs through Poulsbo. “There might be a few stragglers in Dogfish Creek,” Jon said.

It’s not too late to take a look at any of the viewing spots listed on my salmon viewing map of the Kitsap Peninsula, but don’t go in with high hopes of seeing a lot of salmon at this time of year. Gorst, it appears, is the one sure bet at the moment. (The map also contains tips for observing salmon, which can be easily spooked.)

It’s worth noting that the rains this fall continue to be nearly ideal for the salmon, coming in with just enough intensity and frequency to keep the streams flowing at a good level without flooding. I covered this issue in Water Ways on Oct. 31.

“It has been perfect for salmon,” Jon told me yesterday. “Those early storms brought up the streams, and the fish that were coming in early had plenty of water.”

When the rains eventually dropped off, springs created by those rains kept the streams flowing until the next rains arrived. As a result, salmon were able to distribute themselves as far upstream as they could go. That does not happen every year.

A torrential downpour could still cause flooding and disrupt salmon eggs incubating in the gravel, but for now things look good on the Kitsap Peninsula.

As for total rainfall, we were on a record pace for the month of October across most of the Kitsap Peninsula, as I reported in Water Ways at the end of last month. But, as you can see from the charts below, we dropped off the record pace in early November but remain above average for the water year, which begins Oct. 1.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Hansville

Central Kitsap

Holly

Amusing Monday:
Flying fish for increased survival, savings and fun

The “salmon cannon,” a pneumatic-tube device destined to replace some fish ladders, got plenty of serious attention this fall from various news organizations.

You may have seen demonstrations by the inventor, Whoosh Innovations of Bellevue, that showed adult salmon shooting unharmed through flexible tubes. For dramatic effect, some videos showed the salmon flying out the end of the tube and splashing into water. Among those who found the device amusing were commentators for “CBS This Morning” and “Red Eye” on Fox.

For a laugh, comedian John Oliver recently took the idea in a different direction, aiming his personal salmon cannon at celebrities including Jon Stuart, Jimmy Fallon and… Well, if you haven’t seen the video (above), I won’t spoil it for you.

All this attention has been a surprise for Vince Bryan, CEO for Whooshh, who told Vancouver Columbian reporter Eric Florip that he has spoken with hundreds of news organizations and potential customers from throughout the world.

“It was a nice boost because it says one thing, that people care a lot about the fish, and two, that there really is a need,” Bryan was quoted as saying.

A good description of the potential applications for the “salmon cannon” was written by reporter Laura Geggel of Live Science. Meanwhile, Reuters produced a nice animation showing how the tube works. And a video on the Whooshh Innovations YouTube channel, shown below, provides a clear demonstration how the transport system can work for both humans and fish.

Kitsap rains: not too much, not too little for salmon and aquifers

The on-and-off rains over the past two weeks are nearly perfect for both spawning salmon and for recharging shallow groundwater supplies, experts say.

Chum salmon in Chico Creek. Kitsap Sun photo
Chum salmon in Chico Creek.
Kitsap Sun photo

For October, total rainfall ranges from about 5 inches at Hansville to 12 inches at Holly, according to rain gauges managed by the Kitsap Public Utility District. Fortunately, those rains have not been delivered to us in only a few days.

The intermittent nature of October rains has allowed the streams to maintain their flows without flooding. They’ve also allowed infiltration into the ground without excessive runoff.

“It is the good kind of rain,” said Bob Hunter, interim manager of Kitsap PUD. “We’ve had a couple of days when we’ve had 2-plus inches, but we haven’t seen the streams flash.”

In other words, the streams have not risen excessively fast. Bob attributes that to how dry the ground was before the rains began. Soils were able to absorb much of the early rainfall before stormwater runoff began to increase. Pauses between the rainstorms allowed more of the water to soak into the ground.

“It just goes to show you the variability that we have around here,” Bob told me.

October marks the beginning of the 2015 “water year.” Although we are just a month into the start of the year, the rainfall has been closely tracking all-time highs at some rain gauges — including Holly, which has been monitored since 1999. (See charts below.)

Meanwhile, the rain pattern in October was nearly perfect for salmon, said Jon Oleyar of the Suquamish Tribe, who walks the East Kitsap streams to count migrating salmon as they arrive.

“It seems like we’ve had storms coming in every couple of days, so they are not right on top of each other,” Jon said. “That gives the streams some time to recede.”

When there is not adequate flow, the salmon often wait for the streams to rise. On the other hand, too much flow can wash salmon eggs out of the streambed.

Last week’s rains got the chum salmon moving into most of the East Kitsap streams, Jon told me.

“I checked Chico Creek on Wednesday, and there were almost 11,000 fish in there and going up about as far as they can get,” he said.

A good escapement for the Chico Creek system is between 12,000 and 15,000 chum, and there is still more than a month left — assuming a typical timing of the run, he said. But things are looking a little different this year, he noted, and the bulk of the run may have arrived already.

One indication that timing could be different this year is that Gorst Creek already has a fair number of chum salmon — perhaps 500 — yet the Gorst Creek run usually comes in later and continues well into December.

Is it possible that all or most of the salmon runs are coming in early? It’s a question that only time will answer.

Jon told me that he’s a bit water-logged at the moment, trying to count fish in the rain with the streams running high.

“I’m pretty happy about it,” Jon said. “I have my fish up where they need to be, but it’s just hard to count them right now. If you’re a fish, this is really working for you.”

In the charts below, found on the Kitsap PUD’s website, you can see that October’s rainfall has been tracking the record high rainfall at these stations. Of course, the “water year” has barely begun, so anything can happen. (Click on images to enlarge.)

Rain-Holly

Rain-CK

Rain-Hansville

Experts to talk salmon and habitat at Poulsbo Fish Park on Saturday

Poulsbo’s Fish Park will have a variety of experts on hand Saturday to talk about the salmon run in Dogfish Creek and other North Kitsap streams, as well as restoration efforts taking place throughout the region.

salmon viewing

Fun and educational activities for kids are part of the event, which will go from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. My description of salmon-viewing events on Saturday had the wrong date for the event. Check out the flyer posted by Poulsbo Parks and Recreation.

Paul Dorn, a biologist with the Suquamish Tribe, said the best bet to see salmon in the creek will be earlier in the day, as the tide will be incoming. Natural organic compounds called tannins tend to color the water brown, so it is not always easy to spot migrating salmon in the lower part of Dogfish Creek. If you miss them at Fish Park, it may be worth a trip to Valley Nursery off Bond Road, where I’ve often had luck seeing salmon.

“We just finished a wonderful restoration project,” Paul told me, describing the installation of woody debris and gravel on a tributary of Dogfish Creek at Fish Park. It’s a small stream, he said, but it’s good rearing habitat for juvenile coho salmon and cutthroat trout, and adult salmon can go up the stream when the flows are high.

Salmon events are scheduled the following Saturday, Nov. 8:

  • Cowling Creek Center, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., 20345 Miller Bay Road.
  • Chico Salmon Viewing Park, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., adjacent to Kitsap Golf and Country Club, www.ext100.wsu.edu/kitsap.
  • Mountaineers Rhododendron Preserve, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., with walking tours at 10 a.m., 11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m., www.ext100.wsu.edu/kitsap.

For a map of accessible salmon-viewing locations with videos that describe each spot, go to Kitsap Peninsula Salmon Watching. While there, check out the tips for successful salmon-viewing.

It’s salmon-watching time on Kitsap Peninsula

The salmon are coming! The salmon are coming!

The recent rains have done the job; the streams have risen; and chum salmon are moving swiftly into Chico Creek — and probably other streams on the Kitsap Peninsula.

Click on image to open interactive map.
Click to open interactive map.

I stopped by Chico Salmon Viewing Park today and observed chum in all portions of the stream and moving upstream at the bridge on Chico Way. The park, where volunteers have made significant improvements, is adjacent to Kitsap Golf and Country Club. Park officials say it is OK to walk around the chain-link fence and enter the park, but please stay on the trails once you are inside.

I also noticed a large number of salmon at the mouth of Chico Creek, milling around the culvert under Highway 3. The old culvert on Kittyhawk Drive has been torn out, so it is no longer an obstacle. The stream channel has been reconfigured to look and function like a natural stream. See Kitsap Sun, Aug. 26.

At least a dozen anglers were fishing out beyond the mouth of the stream, where they should be. Fishers and other observers are asked to stay on the trail, be careful not to trample recent plantings, and stay out of the stream channel. No fishing is allowed upstream of the high-tide mark down on the beach.

I recently wrote about how killer whales of the Salish Sea have begun to follow the chum salmon into Central and South Puget Sound. Chum are a primary prey species for the orcas, after chinook runs decline. See Kitsap Sun, Oct. 20.

I have to admit that I still get excited when I see energetic salmon finding their way upstream, swimming around rocks and logs, rushing through shallow riffles and hanging out in deep pools. If you visit the major salmon streams, such as Chico Creek, over the next week or two, you’ll avoid the smell of rotting salmon that generally comes later. As for me, I like to watch the salmon during all portions of the run.

For a map of accessible salmon-viewing locations with videos that describe each spot, go to Kitsap Peninsula Salmon Watching. While there, check out the tips for successful salmon-viewing.

If anyone gets a decent photo of salmon in the streams, please send it to my email address and I’ll post it on this blog. I tried to get photos today, but I didn’t have enough light.

If you’d like to learn about salmon from fisheries biologists, consider attending this year’s Kitsap Salmon Tours on Saturday, Nov. 8, at four locations:

  • Cowling Creek Center, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., 20345 Miller Bay Road.
  • Poulsbo Fish Park, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., on Lindvig Way in Poulsbo, www.city of poulsbo.com/parks/parks_events.htm.
  • Chico Salmon Viewing Park, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., adjacent to Kitsap Golf and Country Club, www.ext100.wsu.edu/kitsap.
  • Mountaineers Rhododendron Preserve, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., with walking tours at 10 a.m., 11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m., www.ext100.wsu.edu/kitsap.I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final explosion frees Elwha River at Glines Canyon

I believe it is important to commemorate the final day of the Glines Canyon Dam — even though only a relatively small chunk of the structure had been left in place since February, when flows in the Elwha River covered over the last 30 feet.

In a massive explosion on Tuesday, that last 30 feet of concrete was blasted away. Almost immediately, the river began to flow freely, at basically the same elevation it was before the dam was built in the 1920s.

The video above was shot by John Gussman, who has done an amazing job documenting the restoration of the natural river. See John’s Facebook page and check out a preview of the film “Return of the River.”

Olympic National Park officials say it will take several weeks to clear away the rubble dislodged by the final blast, but dramatic changes have been taking place downstream of the former Glines Canyon Dam — the second dam on the river, built eight miles upstream of the Elwha Dam.

Researchers are carefully monitoring sediment distribution and salmon migration, officials say. During the past three years, the Elwha River has experienced unusually low flows, so experts are waiting for more typical winter flows to move around some of the larger boulders in the stream.

Since last fall, salmon have been swimming upstream of the Elwha Dam site. The dam, built without a fish ladder, blocked salmon migration into some 70 miles of near-pristine habitat. Now, biologists expect all five species of Northwest salmon to recolonize the river.

In a story in today’s Peninsula Daily News, reporter Arwyn Rice quoted Robert Ellefson, restoration manager for the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe: “It’s a good day… It has been the dream of tribal members for a hundred years.”

The tribe will have something special to celebrate come next July, when members hold their annual welcoming ceremony, acknowledging the return of chinook salmon to the Elwha River.

What we know and don’t know about killer whales

This week’s report about Puget Sound’s endangered killer whales contained little new information, but the intent was not to surprise people with important new findings. The report (PDF 14.3 mb), published by the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, was a nice summary of 10 years of research and ongoing efforts to unlock the secrets of the mysterious Southern Residents.

NOAA also released the video, at right, which sums up the report with great visuals. Make sure you go full-screen.

On Wednesday, I participated in a telephone conference call to link reporters with killer whale experts in our region. On the line were Lynne Barre, Mike Ford and Brad Hanson, all with NOAA Fisheries out of Seattle. I’ve been wrapped up with other reporting assignments, so the Kitsap Sun’s editors chose to run a solid story by Associated Press reporter Phuong Le. See Kitsap Sun, June 25.

Let me make a few quick observations:

Lynne Barre said one of the greatest mysteries, to her, is why killer whales suddenly go missing. It’s a vexing problem, and I always get a little nervous when the whales return in the spring. One year, six of the Southern Residents failed to show up. It was a real blow to the close-knit orca community and to the struggling population, and I’ve never forgotten the dismay of everyone who cared about these animals.

Healthy killer whales seem to go missing as often as elderly or sick ones. Only a few bodies ever wash up on the beach. Even when one is found, the cause of death often remains uncertain, as in the case of L-112, found to have died of “blunt-force trauma” from some unknown object.

Much more needs to be learned about disease in the animals, Lynne said. Future research could involve more tissue biopsies and breath samples in an effort to identify early signs of disease.

For Brad Hanson, another mystery is the whales’ seemingly unpredictable behavior and their “fundamental relationship with prey.” We all assume that their primary goal in life is to find fish to eat, but how good are they at this essential task? Pretty good, I would guess. Often before we learn that chinook are abundant off the Washington Coast, we find out that the killer whales are already there.

Maybe the reason the whales have been spending so much time away from Puget Sound the last couple years lies in the lower returns of Fraser River chinook, which pass through the San Juan Islands in the summer. Scale and fecal samples have shown that Fraser River chinook are the most consistent prey of the resident orcas.

In previous conversations, Brad has told me that he would love to communicate with the whales, to find out who is in charge and why a group of animals may suddenly turn around and go in the opposite direction. Howard Garrett of Orca Network recalls a time when all three Southern Resident pods were in the Strait of Juan de Fuca heading into Puget Sound. Suddenly K and L pod turned back, while J pod continued on. Howie says it was as if they knew there were not enough fish for the entire population, so J pod went on alone, saying, “See ya later.”

Mike Ford wants to know why the population has not increased more than it has. Could it be some limitation in the ecosystem, such as the fact that other marine mammals — such as seals and sea lions — have been increasing and taking a sizable bite out of the available salmon population? We know that Northern Residents, who also eat fish, don’t overlap territories much with the Southern Residents. Living up north, the Northern Residents have better access to some salmon stocks — including those that originate in Puget Sound. If the Northern Residents get to them first, the fish are not available for the Southern Residents — or so goes one hypotheses. The Northern Resident population has tripled in size, while the Southern Residents have stayed about the same.

Oddly enough, this potential competition for chinook salmon reminds me of exactly what is taking place with regard to commercial fishing enterprises. Washington fishermen complain that the Canadians are taking salmon that should get back to Washington. Canadian fishermen complain that Alaskans are taking salmon bound for Canada. Only Alaskan fishermen — and those who go to Alaska to fish — can catch a portion of the salmon going into Alaskan rivers as well as some destined to travel south.

One of the new things that did come up in Wednesday’s conference call was a renewed effort for U.S. killer whale biologists and managers to work with their counterparts in Canada. “We will be partnering with them on issues of salmon fisheries and how that may affect the whales,” Lynn said, adding that other cross-border efforts could involve vessel regulations and targeted research efforts.

During Wednesday’s conference call, nobody talked about the potential effects of military activities and the possible injury from Navy sonar until a reporter brought up the issue. The question was referred to NOAA Fisheries headquarters in Silver Spring, Md., where officials review the Navy’s operations and issue incidental take permits. That was the end of that discussion.

I know the Navy is conducting research in an effort to reduce harm to killer whales and other marine mammals. I get the sense, however, that more could be done immediately if connections were made between knowledgeable killer whale researchers in our region and those making decisions on the opposite side of the country.

SouthernResidentKillerWhalePhoto