Category Archives: Salmon

Understanding disease as a major ecological force

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amusing Monday: Music in tune with salmon and orcas of the Salish Sea

Dana Lyons, known for his songs of humor and environmental inspiration, performed his tune “The Great Salish Sea” during Saturday’s Ways of Whales Workshop on Whidbey Island.

The lyrics are told from the perspective of “Granny,” an orca estimated to be 104 years old and the oldest whale among the Southern Residents. The song tells about how underwater sounds, as heard by the whales, have changed over time — from the Native American canoes and the sailing ships of yesteryear to the noisy tankers of today.

Dana performed the song solo, with only his guitar, on Saturday at the Ways of Whales Workshop, sponsored by Orca Network. The sound was wonderful, and Dana’s voice rang out clear, but the recorded version sounds richer with additional instrumentation, as you can hear in the first video on this page.

“The Great Salish Sea” is the title song is from Dana’s latest album, which includes the popular “Salmon Come Home.” I’ve posted the music video of the salmon song in the second video player on this page. Other songs on the album include “I Need the Water,” which speaks of the competition for this limited resource. To hear the songs on the album, go to “The Great Salish Sea” on Dana’s website., which also includes his full list of albums.

Dana has toured throughout North America and in many countries during his 30-year career. His current schedule includes upcoming appearances in Langley, Vancouver, B.C., and Port Townsend.

Dana was born in Kingston, New York, and graduated from Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. He now lives in Bellingham.

Humor has long been a key part of Dana’s music, so I think we should revisit one of his most popular songs, “Cows with Guns,” viewed in the third video player (below).

Healthy dippers follow salmon return to the upper Elwha River

The American dipper, a chunky songbird able to walk on the bottom of swift-moving streams, is one of the many species benefitting from removal of the Elwha dams, according to a new study.

You might see this bird bobbing up and down at the edge of a stream or pecking away at bugs in shallow water. They are memorable for repetitive diving or simply walking along as water rushes over and around them. Their transparent second eyelid allows them to search for tiny invertebrates and small fish, including juvenile salmon. They can close their nostrils under water, and their feathers produce extra oil to protect them from the cold water. (The video from YouTube does not say where it was filmed.)

As for dippers in the Olympic Mountains, the arrival of salmon far upstream from the Elwha dams could boost the population of these marvelous birds, said to be America’s only true aquatic songbird.

Since salmon put on most of their body mass in the ocean, the nutrients they bring back to their natal streams help feed an entire upstream ecosystem. Two new studies led by Christopher Tonra of Ohio State University demonstrate the rapid recovery of the American dipper in the Elwha — a faster recovery than anyone expected. It also offers hope for a quick turnaround from dam removal in other areas.

“It’s exciting to be able to show a real positive outcome in conservation,” Tonra said in a story by Misti Crane of OSU. “That these rivers can come back within our own generation is a really exciting thing.”

Christopher Tonra of Ohio State University bands an American dipper for future identification.
Christopher Tonra of Ohio State University bands an American dipper in the field.

Salmon seem to be the key, Tonra said. After spawning, their carcasses are consumed by many animals, while their nutrients feed a vast assemblage of freshwater insects, such as mayflies and caddisflies. To read more about freshwater benthic invertebrates, check out my series “Taking the Pulse of Puget Sound.”

The studies by Tonra and his colleagues showed that American dippers with access to salmon contained more marine-derived nutrients. They were 20 times more likely to attempt multiple broods and were 13 times more likely to stay in one area year-round. Their adult survival rate was 11 percent higher than in areas without salmon.

Females with access to salmon had larger body mass, suggesting a healthier condition, and their female offspring also were larger.

The American dipper is considered an indicator species for freshwater quality, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (PDF 4 mb). Where dippers are plentiful, the streams tend to be healthy.

The biggest surprise to the researchers was how quickly the salmon returned, providing a growth opportunity for many wildlife populations.

“It was pretty much as soon as the first dam came out and fish were beating up against the second, wanting to go,” Tonra said.

Tonra was previously associated with the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center. Others involved in the project were Kimberly Sager-Fradkin of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, Peter Marra of the Smithsonian, Sara Morley of Northwest Fisheries Science Center and Jeffrey Duda of the Western Fisheries Research Center.

I found the following video on YouTube and had to share it. The video, taken at Vancouver Aquarium, shows an unusual interaction between a dipper and a baby beluga whale.

Skokomish watershed continues on road
to restoration

It’s turning out to be a good Christmas for the Skokomish watershed in southern Hood Canal, where numerous restoration projects recently received a green light.

Skok watershed

Restoring the Skokomish River ecosystem is often regarded as essential to restoring Hood Canal to a healthy condition. Work over the past 10 years has reduced sediment coming from the Olympic Mountains, improved flow conditions in the river and restored tidal mixing and native vegetation in the vast Skokomish estuary.

Continuing efforts — including a new fish-passage facility in the North Fork of the Skokomish — are contributing to an increase in species diversity and improved salmon habitat.

The latest news involves future restoration efforts, including an award of five grants totaling $1.4 million from the state’s Salmon Recovery Funding Board. In addition, top officials in the Army Corps of Engineers have endorsed the long-awaited Skokomish River Basin Ecosystem Restoration Plan, expected to cost about $20 million.

“We are making solid progress on all fronts,” said Mike Anderson of The Wilderness Society who serves as coordinator of the Skokomish Watershed Action Team. The action team, which celebrated its 10th anniversary this year, includes representatives of federal, state and local agencies, the Skokomish Tribe, environmental groups, business interests and area residents.

It has been rewarding for me to watch the coordinated efforts — from the U.S. Forest Service working high up in the Olympic Mountains to the Skokomish Tribe and Mason Conservation District working on the tidelands of Hood Canal. For a history of the struggle, please read my 2009 series “Taming the Skokomish.” Part 1, the people; Part 2, farming; Part 3, logging; Part 4, the restoration.

When culverts fail, streams can become inundated with sediment. The Forest Service has been engaged for 20 years in removing unneeded roads. Photo: Kitsap Sun
When culverts fail, streams can become inundated with sediment. The Forest Service has been removing unneeded roads in the Skokomish watershed for 20 years.
Photo: Kitsap Sun

On a related note, the Forest Service recently announced that it has completed its effort to remove unneeded logging roads and make sure they no longer contribute sediment to nearby streams and the Skokomish River. In all, more than 200 miles of roads have been decommissioned over the past 20 years.

The Forest Service is now moving ahead with “vegetation management” on some 4,500 acres of timberland in the Lower North Fork and Lower South Fork of the Skokomish River. The project involves commercial timber harvest and restoration treatments in an effort to accelerate the return to old-growth conditions. See Vegetation Management Project.

A Dec. 14 letter (PDF 818 kb) from the Army’s chief of engineers moves the Skokomish restoration project one step closer to congressional approval.

“The recommended plan provides restoration on a total of 277 acres in the study area and provides substantial benefits to nationally significant resources,” states the letter from Lt. Gen. Thomas Bostick. “In addition, the removal of the levee at the confluence of the North and South Forks of the Skokomish River provides significant benefits for upstream fish passage to an approximate additional 40 miles of habitat in the South Fork Skokomish River that is periodically inaccessible due to the lack of water in the river channel adjacent to the confluence.”

Although the project names have been modified to stress ecosystem functions, I reported on all five in Water Ways a year ago:

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

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

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

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

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

If approved by Congress, the federal government would pay 65 percent of the cost, with 35 percent coming from state and local governments.

The ecosystem investigation by the Army Corps of Engineers also identified other worthy projects that did not qualify for funding through the Corps. Some of those projects are being funneled through other state and federal programs. Projects recently approved by the Salmon Recovery Funding Board:

Weaver Creek
Weaver Creek

Reconnecting Weaver Creek, $200,000: A new 750-foot channel will connect a stagnant portion of Weaver Creek to the free-flowing Purdy Creek, and about 25 logs will be installed. In addition to improved flows, the project will boost oxygen levels in the stream. The sponsor, Mason Conservation District, will contribute $153,000 from a separate federal grant.

South Fork Logjams, $225,000: Twenty-two man-made logjams will be added to the Holman Flats area in the South Fork of the Skokomish River to create salmon habitat, reduce sediment flows and stabilize the stream channel. This area was once cleared for a reservoir that was never built, resulting in excess sediment that destroys salmon spawning beds. The sponsor, Mason Conservation District, will contribute $469,000 from a separate state grant.

Logjam priorities in Upper South Fork, $305,000: Mason Conservation District will study a 12-mile stretch of the Upper South Fork of the Skokomish to develop a prioritized list of the best places to install future logjams. Logjams are designed to improve fish habitat, reduce sediment movement and stabilize stream banks. The conservation district will contribute $54,000 and labor.

Logjam designs for Skokomish, $265,000: Mason Conservation District will work with landowners to select a design for logjams on a 1.6-mile stretch of the Skokomish River that lacks shoreline structure. The conservation district will contribute $47,000 in donations of equipment.

Concepts for moving Skokomish Valley Road, $363,000: Moving the road away from the South Fork of the Skokomish River would allow for the removal of levees, restoration of the river banks and reconnection of the river to about 60 acres of floodplain. This project would investigate possible locations for a new road as well as the possible addition of a meander to the river channel and the removal or relocation of a bridge over Vance Creek. The sponsor, Mason Conservation District, will contribute $64,000 from a separate federal grant.

The goals of the Skokomish restoration and progress in the watershed are reported in an “effectiveness monitoring” document by the Puget Sound Partnership. Progress on other watersheds and strategic initiatives are reported on the “Effectiveness Monitoring” webpage.

Could this really be another newborn orca
in Puget Sound?

The newborn calf J-54 swims near its mother J-22 today near San Juan Island. Photo: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research
Newborn calf J-54 swims near its mother J-28 today near San Juan Island. The baby appears to be about three weeks old.
Photo: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research

Break out the champagne! Amazingly, another new baby has been born to the Southern Resident killer whales that frequent Puget Sound. This makes eight newborns arriving since December of last year.

In the 40 years that the Center for Whale Research has maintained a census of these killer whales, only once before have more orcas calves been born, according to Ken Balcomb, who directs the studies for the CWR. The year was 1977, when nine babies were born.

The new calf has been designated J-54, the next available number for the J pod whales. The mom is J-28, a 22-year-old female named Polaris who has one other offspring, a 6-year-old female named Star.

The new baby was first seen on Dec. 1 by whale watchers near San Juan Island and photographed by Ivan Reiff, a member of the Pacific Whale Watch Association. But the photos did not reveal any distinct features — such as the shape of the white eye patch or saddle patch — to help experts determine if this was a new baby or one of the other recent additions to J pod.

Pictures taken today confirm that this is a new calf, estimated to be about three weeks old. The mother and calf continued swimming north through Haro Strait, accompanied by the calf’s sister, grandmother, aunt, uncles, cousin and other members of J pod.

This eighth birth within a year’s time is certainly cause for celebration, Ken told me, but the health of the population is highly dependent on the availability of food, primarily chinook salmon.

“I want to count back 17 months (gestation period) for each of them to see what was going on with those whales at that time,” Ken said, noting that fisheries managers have been reporting pretty good runs of hatchery chinook in the Columbia River the past couple years.

With 27 females in the breeding population and roughly three years between births, one might anticipate about nine pregnancies per year, he said. But recent history shows that an average of about three births per year are counted. That suggests that many of these potential babies never make it to full term, possibly because of the toxic chemicals the mothers have accumulated in their blubber.

When food is scarce, the mothers rely on their stores of fat for energy, which could release their toxic chemicals to their fetuses and to their newborns during nursing, Ken said. Fetal or newborn deaths may simply go unreported. When food is adequate, the babies get better nutrition — both in the womb and in their mothers’ milk.

“The biggest clue is the fact that they do well when they have sufficient food available and not so well when there is not sufficient food,” he said. “It should be a no brainer to feed them.”

By feeding them he means managing the fisheries and the ecosystem to make more fish available to the orcas. Removing dams where possible could boost the natural production of salmon, he said. Climate change, which tends to increase water temperatures and reduce streamflows, could be working against the effort to restore salmon runs.

The population of the Southern Residents now stands at 84 — or 85 if you count Lolita, who remains in captivity in Miami Seaquarium. That total consists of 29 whales in J pod, 19 in K pod and 36 in L pod, according to statistics reported by Orca Network from census data collected by the Center for Whale Research.

Ken said he is thankful for grants from the Milgard Family Foundation and the Annenberg Foundation, which have kept his operation going this winter, and to the Pacific Whale Watch Association, which provides additional eyes on the water. Years ago, without observers around, the news of new births usually waited until spring.

Michael Harris, executive director of Pacific Whale Watch Association, said celebration of the new birth should be accompanied by determination to keep salmon available for the whales.

“Just as we settled our brains for a long winter’s nap, we get another gift for whale watchers, just in time for the holidays,” Michael said in an email. “We thought seven was pretty lucky, but having eight calves in this population is exciting.

“None of us expected a year like the one we just had,” he added, “but we can expect tough times ahead for these whales. We had a good year last year for salmon and we had a good year for orcas. Now we’re coming off drought conditions and all sorts of problems, and we’re looking at lean times the next few years. Let’s celebrate this baby right now and this resilient village of orcas, but let’s keep working to make sure we get fish in the water and whales forever.”

It’s time to visit local streams to view chum salmon on the move

Killer whales were back in Puget Sound today, spotted early this morning near Vashon Island, in the afternoon near Seattle and after dark near Point No Point in North Kitsap. Reports can be seen on Orca Network’s Facebook page.

Chum salmon swimming up Chico Creek at Chico Salmon Park. Photo: Larry Steagall, Kitsap Sun
Chum salmon swim up Chico Creek at Chico Salmon Park. // Photo: Larry Steagall, Kitsap Sun

It’s a reminder that chum salmon are now running in Puget Sound, and the whales are close behind. The chum also are entering our local streams. So this is the time to visit your nearest salmon stream to see if the fish have arrived. Tristan Baurick wrote about recent conditions for the Kitsap Sun.

As always, if you wish to see chum swimming upstream and possibly spawning, one of the best places to go is Chico Salmon Park next to Kitsap Golf and Country Club. For the latest information about the park, read the story in the Kitsap Sun by Terri Gleich.

9 Salmon map

With a couple of updates, my Salmon Viewing Map and videos still offer a guide to the best public spots to watch salmon on the Kitsap Peninsula. Click on the map at right to access the videos and other information, including viewing tips.

If you would like to learn about salmon from the experts, make a note of these events:

  • Saturday, Nov. 7, Poulsbo Fish Park, 288 Lindvig Way. Children’s activities included, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. No charge. Salmon Viewing Saturday
  • Saturday, Nov. 14, Chico Salmon Park, Chico Way at Golf Club Road, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. No charge. Kitsap Salmon Tours.
  • Saturday, Nov. 14, Mountaineers Rhododendron Preserve, 3153 Seabeck Highway. Tours, involving a hike of about 1.5 miles, begin at 10 a.m., 11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. Nov. 14. Kitsap Salmon Tours.

Killer whales begin their annual excursion into Central Puget Sound

A pod of Southern Resident orcas travels south past Point No Point this afternoon. Typically, the three Southern Resident pods move into Central and South Puget Sound to hunt for chum salmon in October, but this year they have stayed away until now. Photo: Meegan Reid, Kitsap Sun
A pod of Southern Resident orcas travels south past Point No Point early this afternoon. // Photo: Meegan Reid, Kitsap Sun

The Southern Resident killer whales appear to be making their annual excursion into Central and South Puget Sound — up to a month later than normal.

As I write this, a group of whales — believed to be J pod — is heading south along the eastern shoreline of the Kitsap Peninsula. The video was shot yesterday morning by Alisa Lemire Brooks.

So far, nobody seems to have a good idea why the whales are late. Typically, they spend their summers in the San Juan Islands, then begin checking out the rest of Puget Sound in September. Presumably, they are looking for salmon to eat. We know their preference is for chinook, but they will eat coho and chum if that’s all they can find.

In the fall, chum salmon are abundant throughout much of Puget Sound, and they often become the main food source for all three pods of killer whales. J pod, however, is the one that spends the most time in the Salish Sea (the inland waterway that includes Puget Sound and the Strait of Georgia).

On a stormy Sunday night, the first day of November, all three pods headed south past Port Townsend and into Puget Sound, as reported by Orca Network.

“All of October, we waited patiently as we followed the reports of Js, Ks, and Ls following chum salmon runs far to the north when typically they follow the chum into Puget Sound,” states Orca Network’s sighting report from Sunday.

“We have been compiling these Sighting Reports since 2001, and this was the first October to come and go without the Southern Residents,” the report continues. “Come morning, many joyous people will perch themselves atop favored viewpoints, on nearby bluffs, and along the many shorelines in hopes of seeing the beloved J, K and L pod members-including perhaps their first glimpse of any of the new calves who might here. We do hope they find plenty of chum!”

On Monday, whale researchers — including Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research and Brad Hanson of the NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center — met up with the whales heading north from Seattle. Late in the afternoon, the orcas split up. K and L pods continued north, and J pod headed south.

Brad told me that he was as surprised as anyone that the whales did not venture south before November. “I’ve been scratching my head over that one, too,” he said. “It was very strange.”

The whales did stay around the San Juan Islands longer this year, he noted, which might mean they were getting enough chinook to eat. Then they moved north into Canada, perhaps finding salmon in other areas besides Puget Sound.

Yesterday, the first whale sightings came from Maury and Vashon islands in South Puget Sound, where the whales — believed to be J pod — turned around without heading up through Colvos Passage, as they often do. By nightfall, they were between Kingston and Edmonds, where Alisa Brooks shot the video on this page.

This morning, they were headed south again from Whidbey Island, passing Point No Point. As I post this about 3 p.m., they are somewhere around Kingston.

Howard Garrett of Orca Network saw the whales go past Whidbey Island. “They were traveling fast with lots of porpoising,” he told me, referring to the high-speed maneuver that shoots them along above and below the surface.

We can expect the whales to stay around these waters as long as December. But, as orca experts always tell me, if you expect killer whales to do something, they are just as likely to do something else.

Here’s a population update, if you missed the recent news:

The orca baby boom continues with the birth of a sixth calf since last December. The baby, designated J-53, was spotted off the west side of San Juan Island on Oct. 17. The mother is J-17, a 38-year-old female named Princess Angeline. The calf has two sisters, J-28 named Polaris, and J-35 named Tahlequah, and a brother, J-44 named Moby. The newest whale in J pod also has a 6-year-old niece named Star (J-46), born to Polaris, and a 5-year-old nephew named Notch (J-47), born to Tahlequah.

While the birth of new orcas is encouraging, I also need to mention that 50-year-old Ophelia (L-27) has been missing since August and is presumed dead by most people. She outlived all four of her offspring.

The total number of whales in the three pods now stands at 82: 28 in J pod, 19 in K pod and 35 in L pod. This count, maintained by the Center for Whale Research, does not include Lolita, the orca taken from Puget Sound and now living in Miami Seaquarium.

J53
The newest calf, J-53, with its mother, J-17 or Princess Angeline.
Photo: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research, NMFS Permit #15569

Hood Canal council names winners of environmental awards

Beards Cove Community Organization and Newberry Hill Heritage Park Stewards are this year’s winners of the Hood Canal Environmental Achievement Awards.

The awards, sponsored by the Hood Canal Coordinating Council, recognize people and groups that have taken actions and fostered relationships to improve the health of the Hood Canal environment.

The 500 property owners in the Beards Cove community were credited with developing relationships with Great Peninsula Conservancy and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to restore an estuary near the Union River on the North Shore of Hood Canal.

The Beards Cove Restoration Project completes the final segment of 1.7 miles of unbroken saltmarsh along the shoreline. The project removed 45,000 cubic yards of fill, derelict structures and a septic system. The work included reconfiguring the shoreline and planting the area with native vegetation, all to enhance salmon habitat.

The Beards Cove project was described in a Kitsap Sun story by Arla Shepherd Bull and in a Water Ways blog entry I wrote about the history of the Beards Cove development leading to the need for restoration.

Stewards working to improve Newberry Hill Heritage Park are protecting fish and wildlife in the area, which includes the Anderson Creek watershed, which drains to Hood Canal. The group built a fence to protect a beaver dam, which provides habitat for coho and other fish, along with a foot bridge that maintains access to a flooded trail. The group helped develop a forest-management plan to restore ecological health to the park. Members are known for expanding their knowledge about forests, streams and wetlands.

When writing the 10-part series “Taking the Pulse of Puget Sound,” I talked to steward Frank Stricklin, who probably knows the park land better than anyone else. The specific story, titled “Health of forests plays key role in health of Puget Sound,” focused on forests and other upland areas.

The awards will be presented Friday at a conference that will celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Hood Canal Coordinating Council. Speakers will include Donna Simmons, one of the council’s founders who will describe the history of the organization. U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer will discuss his Save Our Sound legislation and how to move forward with ecosystem restoration. I will contribute to the discussion by talking about my reporting career as it relates to Hood Canal.

The event will be held at Lucky Dog Casino Event Center. Those who would like to attend should contact Robin Lawlis at the coordinating council, (360) 394-0046 or rlawlis@hccc.wa.gov. For information, check the fact sheet on the HCCC’s website.

The Hood Canal Coordinating Council was established in 1985 to improve the water quality of Hood Canal. It has expanded its mission to include improving the ecological health of the canal. The group is made up of the county commissioners in Kitsap, Mason and Jefferson counties along with the Port Gamble S’Klallam and Skokomish tribes.

Drones may address mystery of early deaths in killer whale calves

Being able to measure a killer whale’s girth and observe its overall condition without disturbing the animal is an important advancement in orca research.

By running a small hexacopter, also known as a drone, at a safe level over all 81 Southern Resident killer whales last month, researchers came to the conclusion that most of the orcas were in a healthy condition. Seven whales were picked out for further observation, including a few suspected of being pregnant.

I was especially intrigued by the idea that researchers could track the progress of a pregnancy. It has been long suspected that the first calf born to a young female orca often dies. A possible reason is that the calf receives a dangerous load of toxic chemicals from its mother. With this “offloading” of toxic chemicals from mother to first calf, later offspring receive lesser amounts of the chemicals.

Miscarriages and even births often go unnoticed, especially in the winter when the whales travel in the ocean far from human observation. If the young ones do not survive until their pod returns to Puget Sound, we may never know that a young whale was lost. Now, this remotely operated hexacopter may provide before and after pictures of a pregnant female, offering evidence when something goes wrong with a calf.

Images of the whales can be combined with skin biopsies and fecal samples collected by boat to provide a larger picture of the health of individual whales and the overall population.

Images of the whales collected this fall can be compared to those collected by conventional helicopter in 2008 and 2013 to assess any changes in the animals. Because of the noise and prop wash of a conventional helicopter, pilots must stay at a higher elevation to keep from disturbing the whales. There seems to be general agreement that drones are the way to go.

John Durban of NOAA Fisheries, who piloted the drone on 115 flights over the Southern Residents, said he was encouraged that their overall condition appeared better than in the past few years.

“Most individuals appear to be fairly robust this year, which is good news, but it’s also very important baseline information to have if the next few years turn out to be difficult for salmon and their predators,” Durban said in a news release.

Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research has a somewhat different take on this new tool. The high rate of miscarriages and neonate deaths have long been known, Ken told me in an email. It is the only way that they are able to control their population within the carrying capacity of their food supply.

“I am more excited about five whales being born and surviving since last December than I am about an unproven morphometric surmise that additional whales are in some stage of a seventeen-month pregnancy,” he said. “It is not wise to ‘count your chickens before they hatch,’ as the saying goes.”

The goal should be to recover the population, Ken said. When it comes to recovering salmon and killer whales, resource management has been a dismal failure. His suggestion: Remove the Snake River dams and allow the salmon numbers to rebuild naturally while fixing Canada’s Fraser River.

“With climate change well underway,” Ken wrote, “we cannot fritter away golden opportunities to restore viability in what little is left of a natural world in the Pacific Northwest while counting unborn whales.”

Other aspects of this new effort involving the hexacopter were well covered by news reporters this week. Check out the list below. The new video with John Durban and NOAA’s science writer Rich Press can be seen above. Last month, I provided other information and links about the new tool. See Water Ways Sept. 9.

Recent news coverage:

A quiz, based on the new ‘Puget Sound Fact Book’

A new publication called “Puget Sound Fact Book” has been released online by the Puget Sound Institute, an affiliation of the University of Washington, Environmental Protection Agency and Puget Sound Partnership.

Fact book

Like its name suggests, the fact book contains detailed information about Puget Sound — from the geology that created the waterway to creatures that roam through the region, including humans. The fact book has been incorporated into the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

Working for the Puget Sound Institute, I became part of a team of about 25 researchers and writers who compiled the facts and produced essays about various aspects of Puget Sound. I wrote an introductory piece titled “Overview: Puget Sound as an Estuary” and a conclusion called “A healthy ecosystem supports human values.”

One can download a copy of the fact book from the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound webpage.

Just for fun, I thought I would offer a multiple-choice quiz from the book. Answers and scoring are at the bottom.

1. Chesapeake Bay on the East Coast covers about four times the area of Puget Sound. The total volume of water in Chesapeake Bay is roughly how much compared to Puget Sound?
A. Twice the volume of Puget Sound
B. Equal to the volume of Puget Sound
C. Half the volume of Puget Sound
D. One-fourth the volume of Puget Sound

2. Puget Sound was named by Capt. George Vancouver, honoring one of his officers, Lt. Peter Puget. Where was the northernmost boundary of the original Puget Sound?
A. The Canadian border
B. The northern edge of Admiralty Inlet near present-day Port Townsend
C. The southern edge Whidbey Island
D. The Tacoma Narrows

3. How deep is the deepest part of Puget Sound?
A. 86 meters = 282 feet
B. 186 meters = 610 feet
C. 286 meters = 938 feet
D. 386 meters – 1,266 feet

4. Washington State Department of Health has classified 190,000 acres of tidelands in Puget Sound as shellfish growing areas. How much of that area is classified as “prohibited,” meaning shellfish can never be harvested there without a change in classification.
A. 36,000 acres
B. 52,000 acres
C. 84,000 acres
D. 110,0000 acres

5. In the late 1800s, experts estimate that Puget Sound contained 166 square kilometers (64 square miles) of mud flats. Development has reduced that total to how much today?
A. 79 square kilometers = 30 square miles
B. 95 square kilometers = 36 square miles
C. 126 square kilometers = 49 square miles
D. 151 square kilometers – 58 square miles

6. How many bird species depend on the Salish Sea, according to a 2011 study?
A. 45
B. 102
C. 157
D. 172

7. Resident killer whales eat mainly chinook salmon. What do transient killer whales mainly eat?
A. Pink salmon
B. Marine mammals
C. Birds
D. Sharks

8. Most fish populations in Puget Sound have been on the decline over the past 40 years. What type of marine creature has increased its numbers 9 times since 1975?
A. Rock crabs
B. Jellyfish
C. Herring
D. Dogfish sharks

9. Rockfish are among the longest-lived fish in Puget Sound. How many species of rockfish can be found in Puget Sound?
A. 8
B. 18
C. 28
D. 38

10. Puget Sound’s giant Pacific octopus is the largest octopus in the world. The record size has been reported at what weight?
A. 200 pounds
B. 400 pounds
C. 500 pounds
D. 600 pounds





ANSWERS
1. C. Chesapeake Bay contains about half the volume of Puget Sound, some 18 cubic miles compared to 40 cubic miles.
2. D. Tacoma Narrows.
3. C. The deepest spot in Puget Sound — offshore of Point Jefferson near Kingston — is 286 m, although one spot in the larger Salish Sea (Strait of Georgia) reaches a depth of 650 m. or 2,132 feet.
4. A. 36,000 acres are prohibited shellfish beds
5. C. Total mudflats today total 126 square kilometers
6. D. 172 bird species
7. B. Transients eat marine mammals.
8. B. Jellyfish
9. C. 28
10. D. 600 pounds is said to be the record, although more typical weights are 50 to 100 pounds.

SCORING
Most of these questions are pretty tough. If you got five right, I would say you know Puget Sound pretty well. Six or seven right suggests you have special knowledge about the waterway. More than seven correct answers means you could have helped compile the facts for this new book.