The similar properties of water and glass are explored in more
than 50 pieces of artwork in an exhibit called “Into the Deep” at
Tacoma’s Museum of Glass.
The art captures the movements, shapes and colors of creatures
and objects in the beautiful underwater world. For a closer look,
click on the images on this page.
“By creating artwork inspired by the ocean, each artist has
captured both the fragile beauty of the marine environment and the
delicate nature of glass,” Katie Buckingham, exhibit curator, said
in a statement
on the exhibit’s webpage.
Buckingham said she hopes visitors will not only enjoy the art
but also feel inspired to celebrate and protect the natural
environment. The 16 national and international artists featured in
the exhibit include Alfredo Barbini, Dale Chihuly, Shayna Leib,
Kelly O’Dell, Kait Rhoads, Raven Skyriver, and Hiroshi Yamano.
Fifteen of the pieces were produced in the workshop at the
Museum of Glass, including some produced by apprentices.
The exhibit opened on Sept. 24 and will remain through September
2017. Visitors will be able to access information linked to each
piece of art by using a cell phone and scanning the STQRY QR codes.
Three virtual tours are available, one with scientific information,
one about the creation of the sculptures and one on the artists.
Bonnie Becker, a biologist at the University of Washington-Tacoma,
wrote the scientific narrative.
Speaking of glass artwork, I am impressed with the intricate
salmon sculpture with the glass salmon eggs used to create a kiosk
at the east end of the new Bucklin Hill Bridge over the Clear Creek
estuary in Silverdale.
Driving across the bridge, one can see the bright orange salmon
eggs, more than 200 in all. A closer look reveals three salmon
figurines in a swimming posture above the eggs.
“I do believe that when you drive along and you have artwork
alongside the road, I think it lifts your spirits,” said Lisa
Stirrett, the designer of the kiosk, in a story written by
Christian Vosler for the
A giant piece of a cedar log stands erect in a barren landscape
north of Silverdale, where a new channel for Clear Creek stands
ready to receive water.
Well, maybe this channel won’t be entirely new. Designers
working to restore this portion of Clear Creek studied old maps.
They tried to align the new man-made channel to the meandering
stream that existed 150 years ago, before farmers diverted the
creek around their fields.
During excavation, workers uncovered buried gravel — remnants of
the old streambed — along with chunks of cedar that had lain along
the edge of the stream. Buried and cut off from oxygen, these
pieces of wood survived for decades underground, while cattle
grazed in the fields above.
Workers excavating for the new channel used their heavy
equipment to pull out what remained of a great cedar log. They
stood the log vertical and buried one end in the ground — a
monument to the past and future of Clear Creek.
Chris May, manager of Kitsap County’s stormwater program, showed
me the new channel this week. He said it was rewarding to uncover
some buried history and realize that the stream would be restored
in roughly the same place.
“We found the old channel,” Chris told me, pointing to a deposit
of gravel. “We are pretty confident that we got it right.”
This $3-million project has been conceived and designed as much
more than a stream-restoration project. The elevations of the land
around the stream have been carefully planned so that high flows
will spill into side channels and backwater pools. That should
reduce flooding in Silverdale and help stabilize the high and low
flows seen in Clear Creek.
The engineers did not calculate the reduced frequency of
flooding, but floodwater storage is calculated to be 18.4
acre-feet, the equivalent of a foot of water spread over 18.4 acres
or 29,700 cubic yards or 6 million gallons.
In all, about 30,000 cubic yards of material have been removed
across 21 acres, including the former Schold Farm on the west side
of Silverdale Way and the Markwick property on the east side.
Native wetland vegetation will be planted along the stream and in
low areas throughout the property. Upland areas will be planted
with natural forest vegetation.
The topsoil, which contained invasive plants such as reed
canarygrass, was hauled away and buried beneath other excavated
soils to form a big mound between the new floodplain and Highway 3.
That area will be planted with a mixture of native trees.
Plans call for removal of 1,500 feet of an existing road with
upgrades to two aging culverts. Adding meanders to the straightened
channel will create 500 feet of new streambed that should be
suitable for salmon spawning.
Plans call for adding 334 pieces large woody debris, such as
logs and root wads to the stream. Some of that wood will be formed
into structures and engineered logjams to help form pools and
“This will be one of the first streams to meet the Fox and
Bolton numbers,” Chris told me, referring to studies by Martin Fox
and Susan Bolton of the University of Washington. The two
researchers studied natural streams and calculated the amount of
woody debris of various kinds needed to simulate natural
conditions, all based on the size of a stream. (Review
North American Journal of Fisheries Management.)
The elevations on the property were also designed so that high
areas on opposite sides of the stream would be in close proximity
in several locations.
“Beaver will pick that spot,” Chris said, pointing to one
location where the stream channel was squeezed by elevated banks on
each side. “We want to encourage beaver to come in here.”
Beaver ponds will increase the floodwater storage capacity of
the new floodplain and provide important habitat for coho salmon,
which spend a year in freshwater and need places to withstand both
high and low flows. Because the county owns the flooded property,
there won’t be any complaints about damage from beavers, Chris
Clear Creek Trail (PDF 390 kb), which begins on the shore of
Dyes Inlet, will be routed along the higher elevations as the trail
winds through the property. Three new bridges will provide vantage
points to watch salmon after vegetation obscures other viewing
areas from the trail. Viewing platforms, as seen along other parts
of Clear Creek Trail, were not included in this project but could
be subject to further discussions.
Count me among the many people — experts, volunteers and users
of Clear Creek Trail — who are eager to see how nature responds
when water (now diverted) returns to the new stream channel. For
decades, the lack of good habitat has constrained the salmon
population in Clear Creek. The stream still has problems related to
its highly developed watershed. But now a series of restoration
projects is providing hope for increased coho and chum salmon and
possibly steelhead trout as well as numerous other aquatic
In a story in the
Kitsap Sun, Reporter Tristan Baurick described work this week
on the Markwick property, where fish were removed in preparation
for final channel excavation.
Here are some details (including photos) of various Clear Creek
projects, as described in the state’s Habitat Work Schedule for
On the outside, chum and coho salmon don’t seem all that
different from one another, not when you consider the variety of
fish in Puget Sound — from herring to halibut along with dozens of
odd-looking creatures (EoPS).
But we know that if you place coho in stormwater taken from a
heavily traveled roadway, the coho are likely to die within hours.
But if you do the same thing with chum, these hardy fish will
barely notice the difference.
Researchers began to observe the varying effects of pollution on
different species of salmon years ago. In 2006, I reported on
studies by researcher Nat Scholz of the National Marine Fisheries
Service, who discovered that coho would swim into Seattle’s heavily
polluted creeks to spawn, but they wouldn’t get very far. Within
hours, they would become disoriented, then keel over and die.
Sun, June 10, 2006)
Later, Jenifer McIntyre, a researcher with Washington State
University, collaborated with Scholz to refine the studies,
exposing adult coho and later young coho to stormwater under
controlled conditions. Much of that work was done at the Suquamish
Tribe’s Grover’s Creek Hatchery in North Kitsap. The researchers
also measured the physiological effects of pollution on zebrafish
embryos during their early stages of development.
Working at the Washington Stormwater Center in Puyallup, Jen
made a remarkable discovery that has dramatically changed people’s
thinking about stormwater treatment. She found that if you run the
most heavily polluted stormwater through a soil medium containing
compost, the water will no longer have a noticeable effect on the
sensitive coho. Rain gardens really do work.
Now, Jen, who recently joined the faculty of WSU, is beginning a
new phase of her research, probing deeper into the physiological
responses of coho salmon when exposed to polluted stormwater. She
told me that the varying responses of coho and chum offer clues
about where to look for problems.
“It is very interesting,” she said. “As biologists, we
understand that there is variability among species. But we would
expect, at least among salmon, that things would be pretty much the
Researchers in Japan have discovered that different kinds of
fish have different subunits in their hemoglobin, which are the
proteins in red blood cells that carry oxygen to the vital organs.
Since coho and other salmon may have different forms of hemoglobin,
oxygen transport in the blood is a good place to start this
investigation, she said.
From there, the issues of blood chemistry get a little
technical, but the ability of red blood cells to carry oxygen can
depend not only on the form of hemoglobin but also on the pH
(acidity) of the blood, she said, and that can be altered by drugs
and other chemicals.
Another thing that researchers may be seeing is “disseminated
intravascular coagulation,” a condition that results from clotting
in the lining of the capillaries. DIC can reduce or block blood
flow where it is most needed and eventually cause organ damage.
That’s an area for more research, Jen said, noting that these
investigations are moving forward in collaboration with researchers
at NMFS and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Meanwhile, Jen is working with chemists at the University of
Washington’s Center for Urban Waters in Tacoma to figure out which
substances — out of hundreds of chemicals found in stormwater —
could be causing these deadly effects on fish.
If isolating the dangerous compounds proves too difficult,
researchers might be able to start with the original toxic sources,
perhaps exposing fish to chemicals found in tires, oil, antifreeze
and so on, Jen said. For those effects, it might be good to begin
the investigation with the well-studied zebrafish embryos, which
are transparent and can be observed closely throughout their
Needless to say, this is a field of intense interest. If
researchers can discover what is killing coho, they might begin to
understand why the recovery of chinook salmon in Puget Sound has
been so slow. Chinook, which could be added to Jen’s studies, are
listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act and
are the preferred prey of Puget Sound’s killer whales, which are
listed as endangered.
Two recent articles discussed the relative hardiness of the chum
compared to coho salmon:
I have some bleak news to share about our Southern Resident
killer whales, which normally frequent Puget Sound at this time of
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
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
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
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.
Through the years, I’ve written a lot about the Skokomish River,
which begins in the Olympic Mountains and flows into the south end
of Hood Canal. The wide, productive estuary might be described as
the elbow of this long, narrow waterway that bends up toward
I’ve heard it said that Puget Sound cannot be restored to health
without a healthy Hood Canal, and Hood Canal cannot be restored to
health without a healthy Skokomish River. Whether that is true
remains to be seen, but I have no doubt that the Skokomish River
watershed is coming out of a dark period of abuse with hope of
becoming one of the most productive streams in the region.
Much of the credit for the transformation goes to a group of men
and women from a variety of agencies, occupations and ways of life
who came together with an understanding of the historic value of
the Skokomish River and a vision for what the river could become
again. This was the Skokomish Watershed Action Team, or SWAT, which
celebrated its 10th anniversary last year.
To be sure, it was basically loads of money that began to
transform the abused Skokomish River watershed to a much more
productive system. But the people in charge of the federal, state,
local and private dollars were able to see the Skokomish as a
worthy cause, thanks to the groundwork laid by the SWAT.
Disappointments have been few, as one project after another brings
this long lost river back to life.
Yes, I have written a lot about the Skokomish River, its history
and its future. That’s why I was glad to see the 10-year update to
the Skokomish Watershed
Action Plan (download, PDF 113 mb). The document contains an
extensive account of the projects completed and the milestones
passed through the years. Whether you are intimately involved in
the watershed or just want to know what the heck I’m talking about,
take a look at the report released this week.
Since 2005, nearly 50 restoration projects were completed — from
removal of old logging roads high in the mountains to the
re-establishment of tidal channels in the lower estuary. Salmon are
being reintroduced to the North Fork of the Skokomish River,
including the dammed-up Lake Cushman, thanks to a legal settlement
between Tacoma and the Skokomish Tribe.
About 12 miles upstream in the South Fork of the Skokomish, a
series of 30 logjams were installed and almost immediately began to
restore the channel to a more natural habitat for fish and other
aquatic creatures. This area was part of a four-mile stretch that
was heavily logged in the 1950s for a reservoir that never
Once the logjams were in place, the area began to store massive
loads of sediment, which always created problems as they washed
downstream into the lower river. The river’s characteristic problem
of spreading out and slowing down was reversed, as width-to-depth
ratios decreased and the average depth in the middle of the river
increased by two feet. The number of pools deeper than five feet
doubled from three to six, and the piles of wood grew larger by
capturing logs floating downstream.
The new report also lays out plans for the watershed in the
coming years, including projects identified in a major study by the
Army Corps of Engineers. A Corps proposal to fund $20 million in
restoration projects is now before Congress, as I described in
Water Ways in April and June. Other projects have been proposed
for separate funding, as outlined in the new report.
Big Beef Creek, which flows into Hood Canal near Seabeck, will
soon undergo a major wetland renovation that should improve the
survival of coho salmon and steelhead trout.
Other work, which started last year, involves placing large
woody debris in the stream to create deep pools for salmon to cool
off and rest before continuing their migration. The wood also will
help to form new spawning areas for coho, fall chum and the
threatened summer chum of Hood Canal.
Big Beef Creek is an unusual stream, one with a personal
connection for me. In the late 1970s, I lived at Lake Symington, a
man-made lake built years before by impounding Big Beef Creek. A
few years ago, my wife and I bought a home with a tiny tributary of
Big Beef Creek running through the property.
To get a lay of the land, I ventured along the stream and
through the watershed in 1999, meeting many people along the way
and gaining a new respect for Big Beef Creek — known as the longest
stream contained entirely within Kitsap County. Check out my story
for the Kitsap Sun called
“The Watershed.” Much later, I wrote a
Water Ways blog post about the creek beginning with, “It is the
best of streams; it is the worst of streams,” with apologies to
Today, the $1.2 million habitat transformation is taking place
in the lower portion of the stream, just upstream from the estuary
where people go to watch bald eagles soar. (Check out this week’s
“Amusing Monday.”) The project is on property owned by the
University of Washington’s Big Beef Creek Research Station. Work is
under the direction of Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group, a
division of Pacific Northwest Salmon Center.
Site work will expand an 11-acre wetlands by five acres and
reconnect the wetland complex to the stream channel. Coho, which
remain in freshwater for the first year of life, will find a safe
place to stay during the low flows of summer and the fierce floods
“Coho rely on streams with complex habitat, including pools and
shade with good water quality,” said Mendy Harlow, executive
director of the salmon center. “In this project, we are focusing on
the lower one mile of stream.”
Removing an access road along with 1,600 cubic yards of fill
will restore two of the five acres of wetlands and open up the
floodplain. The other two acres come from excavating some 4,500
cubic yards of fill from an elevated area where old storage
buildings were removed last year.
In last year’s work, 10 man-made logjams were created where
excavators could reach the creek. At the end of this month,
helicopters will be used to place another 13 logjams in sections of
the stream that could not be reached by land.
In a coordinated fashion, the helicopters also will be used to
place logjams in Little Anderson Creek, which drains into Hood
Canal just north of Big Beef. Little Anderson Creek, which
Newberry Hill Heritage Park, previously received several loads
of wood in 2006 and again in 2009.
Both Big Beef and Little Anderson are part of an
“intensively monitored watershed” program, in which experts are
attempting to measure the extent to which habitat improvements
increase salmon populations. It is not an easy thing to figure out,
since salmon runs vary naturally from year to year. Still, over
time, the improved spawning and rearing conditions should be
Other restoration work is planned on Seabeck Creek, while Stavis
Creek will remain unchanged as the “control stream” for the Hood
Canal complex of intensively monitored streams.
Fish traps placed in the streams monitor the out-migration of
young salmon smolts, while a permanent fish trap at Big Beef Creek
is used to count both smolts and returning adults. For each stream,
biologists also count the number of redds — mounds of gravel where
salmon have laid their eggs — to determine if conditions are
The improved wetlands and floodplain on Big Beef Creek will
allow the stream to move among several historical stream channels
as sediment loads build and decline over time. Strategically placed
wood will provide complexity wherever the stream chooses to go,
according to Mendy, who has been working toward this project since
“I’m really excited about it and look forward to the changes,”
she said. “The phase of work going forward this summer is the
Sarah Heerhartz, habitat program manager for Hood Canal Salmon
Enhancement Group, said improving the wetlands will not only help
fish but also birds that favor wetlands. The stream will have room
to move and spread out, she said, and some of the sediment from
upstream sources will drop out before reaching the estuary.
“The floodplain is going to be a big boost for coho fry to smolt
survival, because that will open up a lot of rearing habitat for
juvenile coho,” Sarah told reporter Ed Friedrich in a story written
The stream restoration is not expected to affect work at the UW
research station, which continues to play a role in salmon studies,
including efforts to improve hatchery conditions. In 1999, I wrote
about the efforts to restore a run of summer chum on Big Beef
Creek. Take a look at
“Reviving a salmon run.” Unfortunately, the resuscitation
effort has not been entirely successful, but there are new hopes
that this summer’s stream repairs will give a boost to the summer
chum as well as the coho.
We hear about the “balance of nature,” but it’s not something
that we can truly understand until the balance is thrown out of
whack by something like climate change or invasive species.
Until I began a recent reporting project for Puget
Sound Institute, I never realized that San Francisco Bay was
such a hotbed of invasive species. Beginning with the California
Gold Rush, ships began moving in and out of the bay in unbelievable
numbers, arriving from ports all around the world. Now, more than
200 non-native species are making their permanent home in the bay —
including some species that have thoroughly altered the local
So far, we have been lucky in Puget Sound. Experts say we have
about 75 firmly established non-native species, yet none of them
have created the widespread damage caused in San Francisco Bay by
European green crabs and Asian clams or in the Great Lakes by zebra
mussels. The video on this page does a good job of telling the
Great Lakes story, which has been repeated all over the world.
Once people in Washington state realized how disruptive invasive
species can be, the struggle was on to protect Puget Sound from
alien invaders — particularly those found in San Francisco Bay,
which is just a short hop away on the world scale. My series of
stories talks about concerns for Puget Sound and the efforts to
control a possible invasion.
Invasive species range in size from microscopic viruses to
four-foot-long striped bass. In California, the striped bass became
a prized sport fish after it was intentionally introduced in 1879.
But over the past decade concerns have grown for their effects on
the salmon population. The jury is still out on whether high
numbers of stripers should be sustained for anglers or the
population should be fished down rapidly to save salmon and other
species. Check out these stories:
Meanwhile, striped bass have been moving up the West Coast,
possibly because of warmer waters due to climate change. A few
years ago, a 55-pounder was caught in the Columbia River, and I’ve
heard rumors that they have been seen in the Strait of Juan de
On the small side, I report on a tiny crustacean, an invasive
copepod that has almost entirely displaced native copepods in
Samish Bay in northern Puget Sound. Copepods are important prey for
small fish, including herring, which feed the larger salmon. The
invasive copepods are smaller and more difficult for fish to see,
which could have a cascading effect on the entire food web.
A major concern for Puget Sound biologists is the European green
crab, which could move into Puget Sound from San Francisco Bay in
ballast water or with warm ocean currents during an El Niño year,
like the one just past. As I describe in the new series, a major
program involving citizen science volunteers is ongoing in a search
to find the first green crabs before they gain a foothold.
Pacific oysters, another non-native species, were intentionally
brought to the Northwest from Japan in the early 1900s to replace
the native Olympia oyster, which had been decimated by poor water
quality. Pacific oysters soon became a mainstay of the shellfish
industry in the Puget Sound region and are now growing thick in
Similar introductions of Pacific oysters occurred in California
beginning more than 100 years ago, but for some reason the oyster
populations never took hold, according to a report in the
Fish and Game (PDF 1.7 mb). Finally, in the early 2000s, the
invasion began to take off.
“It remains unclear why there should be a successful invasion
now, given the failure of previous attempts to deliberately
introduce the species both locally and throughout California…,” the
“If populations in Southern California waters do continue to
expand and grow, as they have in other areas where they have
invaded, it will undoubtedly bring changes to the way our estuarine
intertidal habitats function as well as in the way we must manage
“Because Pacific oysters rapidly reach large sizes, they could
pose problems related to fouling of maritime equipment,
infrastructure, and vessels,” the report continues. “Pacific
oysters stand out as one of the most transformative invaders of
As Washington state takes steps to keep alien species from
invading Puget Sound from California, California officials may
adopt similar measures to block invaders from coming into that
Please take a look at this package of stories I wrote for Puget
Sound Institute, with editing by Jeff Rice and design by Kris
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
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.
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
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
“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
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
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
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
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
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).
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
“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
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.
The annual census of killer whales that frequent Puget Sound is
supposed to be based on a population count for July 1 each year,
but this year the count has barely begun as we move into July.
For years, all three pods of Southern Resident orcas typically
wandered into Puget Sound in late May or early June, but things
have been changing. So far this year, most of the whales have
remained somewhere else, probably somewhere in the Pacific Ocean.
And that even goes for J pod, the most resident of the resident
Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research, who is responsible
for the census, said the Fraser River chinook run has been so low
this year that the whales have stayed away. He may not be able to
get a complete count until September, he told me.
Of course, Ken and his associates will take attendance as the
whales come into the Salish Sea. Some assumptions will have to be
made about the timing of any births or deaths. But whales won’t be
counted as missing until they are not seen with their family groups
during multiple encounters.
“We’re not going to be able to say that somebody is dead at the
end of July because we have not seen them,” Ken said, “since there
is a low probability of seeing them between now and September.”
As with this year, the census could not be completed at this
time last year. But, unlike this year, only two small groups of
whales had not been seen going up to census day on July 1 last
Water Ways, July 1, 2015.
As the whales have stayed out to sea longer each year, Ken has
requested additional federal funding to search for them and get an
early indication of their condition, but his requests have been
denied. Those who wish to support his ongoing efforts may purchase
a membership in
the Center for Whale Research.
On Monday, Ken caught up with a small group of J pod orcas that
are led by the matriarch J-2, known as Granny. It was only the
second time that J pod whales have been seen in inland waters
during the entire month of June. On Saturday, a large group of
orcas was spotted by observers near the entrance to the Strait of
Juan de Fuca. But most of them apparently stayed in the open
Ken speculates that Granny and the others were following an
aggregation of salmon when he caught up with them at Turn Point
near the Canadian border. He posted a report today with this
“J19 and J41 were the west-flanking whales, and J14, J37 and J49
were the east-flanking whales, while J2 and L87 charged in a
zig-zag pattern down the middle of the tide rips that shot up
vertically like haystacks of water, dousing the boat and camera.
The others (J40 and J45) were here and there in the swirls,
surfacing with no particular pattern. It was quite challenging to
take photographs in such conditions, but it was important to get
some documentation of their occurrence and activity, since they had
not spent much time in the Salish Sea so far this year.”
The abundance of chinook in the Fraser River — which produces
much of the fish in the San Juan Islands — is tracked by prescribed
fishing in Canada’s so-called Albion Test Fishery. As you can see
from the graph, the catch per unit effort is considerably lower
than the long-term average, barely making a blip at the bottom of
Meanwhile, the abundance of chinook off the Washington Coast is
predicted in pre-season forecasts to be slightly above the 10-year
average. Forecasts for this year’s chinook runs are higher than
last year’s forecast but not as high as the surprisingly high
numbers of chinook that ultimately came back last year. See
2016 chinook forecast (PDF 135 kb).
Considering the apparent difference between the number of
chinook in the ocean and those coming to the Fraser River, it is no
wonder that the whales still remain off the coast.
Given the low salmon runs, Ken says he will be surprised if the
annual census does not include some mortalities. One small group of
whales, known as the L-12s, have not been seen for months.
Meanwhile, four births were recorded since July of last year, with
the latest report coming in December. And, as far as anyone can
tell, eight of the nine orcas born since December 2014 are still
living. It would be remarkable if we are still able to say that
when the official census for 2016 is finally reported in