Category Archives: Salmon

Southern Resident orcas make it back to Puget Sound in good condition

Killer whale observers were gleefully surprised this week when all three pods of Southern Resident orcas came into the Salish Sea — and all were in reasonably good shape.

K-25, a 26-year-old male orca named Scoter, is seen breaching Monday when a large group of Southern Residents arrived in the Salish Sea.
Photo: Ken Balcomb, Center for Whale Research

Remember, these same whales have been missing from Puget Sound for practically the entire summer — a period when they traditionally remain in and around the San Juan Islands while feasting on salmon. This summer has generated concern among those who understand the ways of whales. Some observers have feared that the orcas, wherever they were, might not be getting enough to eat (Water Ways, Aug. 18).

That fear has largely disappeared, said Ken Balcomb, director of the Center for Whale Research who has been studying these animals for more than 40 years.

“There were no fat whales among them,” Ken told me, “but they had to be finding something (to eat) out there.”

Ken’s only concern was with a couple of young calves, 2 and 3 years old. They remain small for their age. (Ken calls them “runts.”) They probably have not received complete nutrition, given that the whales don’t seem to be finding chinook salmon in their regular feeding grounds.

“We know that there is a problem with juvenile and infant survival,” Ken said, but there is hope that these calves will make it.

Before they entered the Salish Sea this week, the three pods must have met up in the Strait of Juan de Fuca if not the Pacific Ocean, as all were together when they were spotted Monday morning near the south end of Vancouver Island by whale observer Mark Malleson.

The Center for Whale Research sent out two boats. Ken and Gail Richard boarded the Shachi and met up with the leading group of orcas just east of Secretary Island. Ahead of the pack was J-19, a female orca named Shachi, who appears to have taken over the leadership role from Granny, or J-2, the elder matriarch that led J pod for decades before her death.

Read Ken’s full report of the encounter on the Center for Whale Research website. For some observations about Granny, check out these Water Ways reports:

On Monday, J-pod whales were clustered in their family groups along the Vancouver Island shoreline, while those in K pod were farther offshore and trailing J pod, according to Ken’s report. Not all of L pod was there, but those in the area were spending time in their family groups, or matrilines, even farther behind and farther offshore.

Some of the whales were sprinting into tidal waters to catch salmon close to shore on the incoming tide of Monday afternoon, Ken said.

“The salmon tend to move into the Salish Sea with the flood tides and hang back in nearshore eddies and bays in ebb tides,” Ken wrote in his report, “so the whales foraging and traveling east suggested that there were at last sufficient numbers of salmon to bring them all of the way in.”

As the whales captured fish, their social interactions with each other increased, at least among the family groups, Ken told me.

Meanwhile, the second boat from the Center for Whale Research, Orcinus with Dave Ellifrit and Melisa Pinnow aboard, met up with the whales just west of Discovery Island east of Victoria. After a breakaway by the Shachi crew to transfer photos from Mark Mallinson, both boats continued to follow the whales until sunset. At dusk, the entourage ended up right in front of the center’s shoreline base on San Juan Island.

Spurred on by this rare (for this year) sighting of all three pods, the five photographers in the three boats shot more than 3,500 photos in one day, Ken reported. Some of the best portraits and ID photos are shown with notes of the encounter. Other photos and expressions of excitement can be seen on Orca Network’s Whale Sighting Report.

The researchers reported that all the whales in J and K pods were present — except for K-13, who had been reported missing (Water Ways, Aug. 18). Of the 35 orcas in L pod, 22 were seen on Monday. The missing whales are not a concern, Ken said, because the 13 not spotted were all members of matrilines that apparently were somewhere else.

“It is not unprecedented for L pod matrilines to be very widely separated at times — e.g., part of the pod in Puget Sound while others are off California!” Ken noted in his report. “All of the whales today appeared to be frisky and in good condition, though we clearly have a few runts in the youngest cohort of whales – probably having been in perinatal nutritional distress due to recent poor salmon years in the Salish Sea.”

The next day, Tuesday, the whales were spread out in small groups in Georgia Strait on the Canadian side of the border. Yesterday, they traveled back through Haro Strait in the San Juan Islands, then headed on west toward the Pacific Ocean. It will be interesting to see what happens next, as these fish-eating orcas continue to hunt for chinook salmon and then switch this fall to chum salmon when the chinook grow scarce.

The Center for Whale Research’s efforts to keep track of the Southern Residents is funded in part by the federal government, but the center’s other work involving orcas depends on donations and memberships. Go to “Take Action for Orcas” for information.

Collapsed fish pens could shift the debate over Atlantic salmon farms

UPDATE: Aug. 30

Democratic members of Washington state’s congressional delegation are calling on federal agencies to take immediate steps to minimize damage from the net pen collapse and release of Atlantic salmon near Cypress Island. Read the news release.

“Pacific salmon are central to our economy, our culture, and our environment in the Pacific Northwest and are a critical part of marine and estuarine ecosystems in Washington state,” the letter states. “Most concerning is the threat farmed Atlantic salmon pose to the wild Pacific salmon populations stocks in Puget Sound. Farmed salmon tend to be larger and could outcompete wild salmon for critical resources, such as prey and preferred habitat, which is important for spawning. Tribes, fishermen, and state agencies are working to respond to the escapement, but the scale of the release calls for immediate and direct federal response….”

Meanwhile, a public hearing about the expansion of the Port Angeles net pen operation has been cancelled at the request of the owner, Cooke Aquaculture. Read the letter from Steve Gray (PDF 155 kb), Clallam County’s deputy planning director.
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The recent collapse of salmon pens near the San Juan Islands could become a turning point in the war against salmon farming that is being waged by environmental groups in Puget Sound.

Yesterday, Gov. Jay Inslee and Commissioner of Public Lands Hillary Franz announced a moratorium on new state leases or permits for any fish farms using Atlantic salmon. The moratorium will remain in place until state officials can fully review the escape of more than 300,000 Atlantic salmon from net pens near Cypress Island, according to a joint announcement (PDF 107 kb).

The video, by Glenn Farley and Travis Pittman of KING 5 News, was posted Friday.

The owner of the pens, Cooke Aquaculture, has applications pending to move and expand its net pen operation near Port Angeles to an area 1.8 miles offshore in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Cooke, a family-owned company, acquired all of the salmon farms in Puget Sound from Icycle Seafoods last year. The deal was touted as a way to infuse capital and modernize operations on the West Coast.

“The deal will enhance the family’s investments in both the wild fishery and the aquaculture sectors, making them leaders in the U.S. salmon farming sector and a major player in the Alaskan salmon fishery,” said a news release about the acquisition. See the story by Cliff White in “SeafoodSource.”

Perhaps the company did not have time to upgrade its facilities to reduce the risk of the net pens collapsing at Cypress Island and other farming operations. In a news release (PDF 251 kb), Cooke said it had applied for permits to update its Cypress Island site. Still, this latest incident cannot instill confidence in the company nor the salmon farming industry as a whole.

In fact, one could argue that that the company’s extensive “Fish Escape Prevention Plan” (PDF 1.4 mb) and Operations Plan (2.4 mb) should have raised red flags for the company. Cooke cited unusual tides and currents as contributing factors in the pens’ collapse, despite the fact that these tide levels are seen several times each year and stronger currents can be anticipated at times.

Cooke proudly proclaims its commitment to the environment on the company’s home page. But shooting itself in the foot on Cypress Island will leave a bad feeling for many Puget Sound residents. For environmental groups, this event will provide ammunition in their effort to stop the expansion of net pens in Puget Sound and phase out their use entirely.

It is often pointed out that Washington is the only state on the West Coast that allows salmon farming. (See “Our Sound, Our Salmon.” Meanwhile, a serious debate over the pros and cons of industrial-scale aquaculture goes on and on in British Columbia, where more than 100 salmon farms are well established. Take a look at reporter Gordon Hoekstra’s story in the Vancouver Sun.

The war on salmon farms has been waging for years on both sides of the border. While battles ought to be won or lost based on credible information, I’ve seen facts distorted to fit political goals on both sides of the argument.

Now the Cypress Island incident will raise the profile of the debate in Washington state. Let’s hope that the investigation called for by Gov. Inslee and Commissioner Franz will lead to findings that go beyond the question of why the net pens collapsed and look at the overall risks and benefits of keeping these salmon farms around.

Kurt Beardslee, executive director of Wild Fish Conservancy, told me in an email that he is working today to sample 50,000 pounds of Atlantic salmon that escaped from the Cypress Island net pens. Experts will be looking for viruses, parasites and stomach contents.

I believe the information about stomach contents will be particularly valuable, because of concerns that the escaped fish could be consuming wild salmonids — including young chinook and steelhead, both of which are listed as threatened species. Obviously, we don’t have enough out-migrating chinook and steelhead as it is. (You may wish to review my recent story about salmon recovery in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.)

Meanwhile, Wild Fish Conservancy, a staunch opponent of salmon farming, has filed notice that it intends to sue Cooke Aquaculture for violations of the Clean Water Act.

“The Conservancy is deeply disheartened by Cooke Aquaculture’s glaring negligence, negligence which has led to an environmental disaster of epic proportion,” states a news release (PDF 115 kb) from the organization. “The needless escape of up to 305,000 Atlantic salmon into Puget Sound represents a dire threat to already imperiled wild fish populations, beloved marine mammal species, and the fragile Puget Sound ecosystem at large, and Wild Fish Conservancy fears impacts to these critical aspects of our region will be felt for years to come.”

The 60-day “letter of intent” (PDF 1.9 mb) from Wild Fish Conservancy outlines a number of alleged violations of federal law resulting from the release of Atlantic salmon and the management of debris. The group says it will seek monetary penalties of up to $52,000 a day, as provided by law, and “injunctive relief to prevent further violations.”

When I asked Kurt what he thought the lawsuit could accomplish, he wrote, “Simply speaking, I believe It’s in the best interest of our sound, our salmon and future generations to pursue all legal avenues to quickly remove Atlantic salmon net pens from Washington’s waters.”

The group — which is part of Our Sound, Our Salmon — is planning an on-the-water protest off the south end of Bainbridge Island on Sept. 16. See “Flotilla: saying no to Atlantic salmon net pens.”

In response to the Cypress Island incident, an “incident command” structure has been set up by the Washington state departments of Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife, and Ecology, along with the Office of the Governor and Emergency Management Division. The idea is to share information and make joint decisions about the cleanup operation.

“The release of net pen-raised Atlantic salmon into Washington’s waters has created an emergency situation that has state agencies working together to protect the health of our salmon…,” Gov. Inslee said in a statement. “Tribes and others who fish Washington waters deserve a comprehensive response to this incident, including answers to what happened and assurances that it won’t happen again.

“I believe the company must do everything it can to stop any additional escapes and to recover as many fish as possible, including adequate compensation for those working to remove Atlantic salmon from our waters,” he added.

A new website called “Cypress Island Atlantic Salmon Pen Break” will be the distribution point for public information — including “situation updates” from Cook Aquaculture, “Next steps” from DNR, minutes from agency conferences, news releases and other documents.

The Clallam County Hearing Examiner will hold a hearing on Sept. 7 regarding the proposed relocation and expansion of the Port Angeles net pens. Many documents related to that application and Cooke Aquaculture operations can be found on the website titled Clallam County Online Permit System. Click on the permit number for American Gold Seafoods.

Lights could be creating problems for salmon, seabirds and more

Bright lights that affect the behavior of birds, fish and other wildlife are emerging as a significant environmental concern.

Endangered Hawaiian Petrel
Photo: B. Zaun, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Yesterday, for example, two environmental groups filed a lawsuit against the Hawai’i Department of Transportation for bright lights the agency controls at piers and airports. The groups say three species of seabirds on the Endangered Species List have been circling the lights until the birds drop from exhaustion, and some birds have died.

Meanwhile, in Lake Washington and the nearby Cedar River in King County, there is evidence that threatened chinook salmon are at greater risk from predators because of lights on the two floating bridges as well as industrial facilities in Renton.

In Florida, researchers have discovered that female turtles avoid coming ashore to lay their eggs where bright lights are present, and in Virginia salamanders have delayed their feeding efforts in the glare of lights.

The lawsuit in Hawaii was filed by lawyers for Earthjustice out of concern for three species of seabirds: Newell’s shearwater, a threatened species, and Hawaiian petrels and band-rumped storm petrels, both endangered species.

The Hawai’I Department of Transportation has failed to protect the birds, as required by the Endangered Species Act, according to the lawsuit filed on behalf of the Hui Ho‘omalu i Ka ‘Āina, Conservation Council and the Center for Biodiversity. Because the lighting is injuring and killing listed species, the state agency must obtain an incidental take permit and initiate actions to minimize harm, the lawsuit says. For details, see the complaint for declaratory and injunctive relief (PDF 1.4 mb).

Lights at airports and harbor facilities have been documented as the greatest source of injury and death to the seabirds, which migrate at night and become disoriented by the artificial lights, the complaint asserts. Some birds crash into buildings, while others end up on the ground where they may be struck by vehicles or eaten by predators.

Since the 1990s, the Newell’s shearwaters have declined by 94 percent and the Hawaiian petrels on the island of Kauai have dropped by 78 percent.

“Our ancestors depended on the ‘a‘o (Newell’s shearwater), ‘ua‘u (Hawaiian petrel) and ‘akē‘akē (band-rumped storm-petrel) to help locate schools of fish, to navigate from island to island and to know when the weather is changing,” Kauai fisherman Jeff Chandler was quoted as saying in a news release from Earthjustice.

According to the news release, the Department of Transportation dropped out of talks with state and federal wildlife agencies that are developing a habitat conservation plan to protect the seabirds. After Earthjustice filed a notice of intent to sue, the agency rejoined the talks.

“That’s a good start, but talk alone will do nothing to save these rare and important animals from extinction,” said Earthjustice attorney David Henkin. “It’s long past time for the department to take action, not only on Kauai, but everywhere in the state that its operations illegally kill seabirds.”

Lake Washington chinook

As for the lights on and around Lake Washington, I have not heard of any proposed lawsuits to protect the threatened Puget Sound chinook, but concerns continue to simmer.

Lights on the Highway 520 bridge
Photo: Washington Dept. of Transportation

Jason Mulvihill-Kuntz, salmon recovery manager for the Lake Washington/Cedar/Sammamish Watershed, told me that the next regional chapter of the chinook recovery plan will call for further study into the effects of lights on juvenile chinook migrating down the Cedar River and through Lake Washington.

“The technical folks have identified light as a potential emerging issue,” Jason said. “We don’t have a good handle on what the impacts are.”

Lights on Lake Washington may be creating a double whammy for young chinook, Jason said. First, the lights attract the fish, which slow down their migration to Puget Sound. Second, the lights keep them visible to predators at night, so the fish may be eaten 24 hours a day.

“Juvenile salmon don’t have a nighttime respite,” Jason said. “At least that’s the hypothesis.”

Nonnative predatory fish include bass, walleye and northern pike. Native predators include cutthroat trout and pike minnow. Predatory birds include the western grebe and great blue heron.

An updated chinook recovery plan for the Lake Washington region is under review and could be finalized this fall. Predation is getting some additional attention this time around, Jason said, and the issue of lights is something that needs more study.

Experts at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have identified potential concerns with lighting along Lake Washington in a series of studies going back more than 10 years. It still isn’t clear, however, how much the known problems with predators are exacerbated by bright lights. That’s why more studies are needed.

Following complaints from residents of Laurelhurst near the Highway 520 bridge, the Washington Department of Transportation reduced the amount of illumination coming off that bridge, and further investigation is underway. Check out the King-5 News report below.

Other species

With regard to other species, lights are known to have a variety of effects. Reporter Sharon Guynup outlined the problems for birds, turtles, amphibians, mammals and even insects in a revealing story in National Geographic News, April 17, 2003.

A group of British researchers from the University of Exeter compiled a list of the known effects of light on various species while considering the role of artificial lighting. See “The ecological impacts of nighttime light pollution; a mechanistic appraisal” in Biological Reviews.

Where are the orcas? It’s hard to say, as the latest death is confirmed

I hate to say it, but summer is beginning to wind down. Even more disturbing for killer whale observers is an awareness that Puget Sound’s iconic orcas have pretty much avoided Puget Sound altogether this year.

The patterns of travel and even the social structure of the endangered Southern Resident killer whales have been disrupted the past several years, and this year is the worst ever, according to Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research, who has been keeping track of these whales for the past 40 years.

For decades, we could expect all three pods of Southern Residents to show up in June, if not before. They would mingle and socialize and generally remain through the summer in the San Juan Islands, feasting on the chinook salmon that migrate to Canada’s Fraser River.

Skagit, K-13, who recently died, is seen in this 2011 photo swimming behind her daughter Deadhead, K-27.
Photo: Ken Balcomb, Center for Whale Research

In recent years, the large orca pods have broken into smaller groups of whales that keep coming and going, as if searching for scattered schools of salmon. This year, the Southern Residents have made few appearances in Puget Sound, barely enough for Ken to complete his annual census report to the federal government.

The latest official count is 77 orcas among the three pods. That reflects the death of K-13, a 45-year old female named Skagit. Ken did not announce her passing, mainly because it is based on limited encounters. Ken tells me that K-13 was the only whale missing during an encounter with her close relatives in February in Puget Sound and then later off the coast.

Normally, he would like to have more encounters before declaring a missing animal deceased, but Skagit has always been a central figure in her family group, which sometimes traveled separately from the rest of K pod.

Under the original protocols for counting whales, one would wait a year before listing the death, Ken told me, but now people are keeping track of the current population as orcas are born and die. His official census count is made on July 1, and he was confident that the missing Skagit would not turn up later.

K-13 was the mother of four offspring: K-20, a 31-year-old female named Spock; K-25, a 26-year-old male named Scoter; K-27, a 23-year-old female named Deadhead; and K-34, a 16-year-old male named Cali. Skagit was the grandmother to Spock’s 13-year-old calf, K-38 or Comet, and to Deadhead’s 6-year-old calf, K-44 or Ripple.

The question now is how the remaining whales in the family group will respond. In a matriarchal society, groups are led by elder females whose extended family generally stays with them for life. Will one of Skagit’s female offspring assume the leadership role? Will the family group remain as independent as it has been in the past?

“It’s a big question,” said Brad Hanson of NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center. “These animals are so long-lived. How do you sort out the loss of an animal like J-2, who has had a leadership role for so many years? Do they keep doing the same thing, or do they do something different?”

J-2, known as “Granny” was estimated to be more than 100 years old when she died last year. The oldest whale among the Southern Residents, she was known as the leader of the clans. Check out these posts in Water Ways:

The effect of losing Skagit’s leadership is hard to measure, but it comes on top of the fragmenting social structure among the Southern Residents. As the remaining orcas seem to be wandering around in search of food, we are likely to see fewer births and more deaths.

Studies have shown a strong correlation between births and prey availability, Ken told me, and the absence of the orcas alone is an indicator that fewer salmon are coming through the San Juan Islands. Whether the whales are finding adequate salmon runs somewhere else is hard to say, because nobody really knows where they are.

“I think they are out there intercepting whatever runs are coming down from the Gulf of Alaska,” Ken said. “Most of the salmon up there are destined for down here. They (the whales) are tough, and they will survive if they can.”

While the fish-eating Southern Residents have been absent from Puget Sound, the seal-eating transient killer whales are making themselves at home in local waters. It appears there is no shortage of seals, sea lions and harbor porpoises for them to eat, and transients are being spotted more often by people on shore and in boats.

Meanwhile, the Southern Residents typically head into Central and South Puget Sound to hunt for chum salmon during September, sometimes October. Although the migrating chum return to hundreds of streams all over Puget Sound, the orcas have become less predictable in their travels during the fall as well as the summer.

“I am hoping that the fall chum runs are strong and the whales will come in,” Ken said, “but I’m not holding my breath.”

The total count of 77 Southern Resident killer whales consists of 24 whales in J pod, 18 whales in K pod and 35 whales in L pod. Those numbers do not include Lolita, who was captured in Puget Sound as a calf and still lives in Miami Seaquarium in Florida.

Recalling the voice and wisdom of Billy Frank Jr. in a new animated video

It is very nice to hear once again the distinctive voice of the late Billy Frank Jr. in a new animated video called simply “sčədadxʷ” — or “Salmon.”

Billy was the voice for the Nisqually Tribe, for the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, for native people everywhere and for the human race, which he believed holds a special relationship with salmon and all of nature’s creatures.

The new video was produced by Salmon Defense, a nonprofit organization created by the 20 Western Washington treaty tribes to foster the welfare of salmon. The short animation was distributed by Northwest Treaty Tribes, the communications arm of the NWIFC.

In the video, the animated Billy is seen floating down a river in an Indian canoe. While passing historical landscapes, Billy talks about Indian culture, the coming of settlers and the relationship between the two societies.

“We don’t walk on this Earth very long,” Billy says in the video. “We got a lot of changes here that is happening in this century, and we have to work together and remind each other about what was the past and our history and be able to live together and survive together.”

Billy’s words are still inspirational, and his passion still comes through. His voice causes me to recall the many talks and speeches I heard him give through the years. His words would flow at a different pace than other speakers who appeared on stage before him. To hear Billy, you would need to slow down and listen, not necessarily to the precise words but rather to the broader, heartfelt meaning behind his words.

His grammar wasn’t perfect. He would sometimes pepper his speech with swear words, especially when expressing frustration in his fairly reserved way. And then he would catch you off guard with a humorous phrase or story of human foibles. To me, Billy’s message was always clear: No matter what our differences, we can save the salmon and make a better life for all humans by working together.

Most remarkable to me — and recognized by many others — was Billy’s warm relationship with everyone who knew him. He treated everyone like a brother or sister, greeting them with a broad smile and a hug or pat on the back. He constantly opened doors to new relationships. It didn’t matter who you were — from the president of the United States down to everyday news reporters like me.

Billy rarely talked about his own personal sacrifices and struggles, but he would remember the specific efforts of others. For example, while I was covering the federal lawsuit dealing with salmon-blocking culverts, Billy thanked me for writing about the issue and for helping people understand the science behind the needs of salmon. See Kitsap Sun, March 21, 2009.

Billy died in May of 2014 at age 83. Read his obituary in Indian Country Today. Also review two pieces I wrote shortly after Billy’s death:

I thought this might be a good time to present two other videos featuring Billy Frank and his family history. If you’ve seen these videos, they might be worthy of another look. The second video on this page is “As Long as the Rivers Run,” a 1971 documentary that chronicles the conflict and civil disobedience leading up to the landmark George Boldt decision. The third video is a special edition of Northwest Indian News called “Remembering Billy Frank Jr.”

Are we winning or losing the ongoing battle for salmon habitat?

It has been said that the Puget Sound ecosystem would be far worse off today were it not for the millions of dollars spent on restoration projects over the past 25 years.

Undoubtedly, that’s true, but I think most of us are hoping that these costly efforts will eventually restore salmon populations while improving conditions for other creatures as well. Shouldn’t we be able to measure the progress?

Juvenile chinook salmon
Photo: John McMillan, NOAA

This basic question became the essence of my latest story published in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound: “Are we making progress on salmon revovery?”

As I describe in the story, what seems like a simple question becomes tangled in the difficulties of measuring population and ecological changes. It turns out that you can’t just count the fish to see if restoration is working. That’s because natural variabilities of weather, ocean conditions and predator/prey populations cause salmon populations to swing wildly from year to year no matter what you do.

While researching this story, I learned a good deal about freshwater habitat conditions needed to help various species of salmon to thrive. Habitat improvements resulting from restoration projects are no doubt helping salmon in significant ways. On the other hand, one cannot ignore human development that continues to degrade habitat — despite improved regulations designed to reduce the damage.

I’ve heard some people say that wild salmon would come back in larger numbers if everyone would just stop fishing for them. This may be true to some extent, especially for high-quality streams that may not be getting enough salmon to spawn. But the key to the problem is understanding the “bottlenecks” that limit salmon survival through their entire lives.

A stream may have plenty of adult spawners, but that does not mean the salmon runs will increase if the eggs are buried in silt or if food supplies limit the number of fry that survive. There may be multiple limiting factors that need to be addressed to ensure healthy ongoing salmon populations.

Small improvements in habitat may actually boost the productivity of salmon in a stream, meaning that more salmon will survive. But the benefits of small projects on large streams may be difficult to distinguish from natural variation. Statistical analysis is used to determine whether increases or decreases in salmon populations are more related to habitat changes or natural variation. It takes a fairly dramatic change to link cause to effect in a statistically significant way.

One ongoing experiment is measuring changes in fry populations in several streams within the same watersheds. One stream is left alone — the “control” stream — while habitat improvements are made in others. Because the streams are closely related, biologists hope to attribute population increases to habitat improvements with a high level of certainty. See Intensively Monitored Watersheds on the website of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The same issue of statistics applies to the aquatic insects that salmon eat. It appears that food supplies are improving in many salmon streams as a result of restoration, but not all benthic invertebrates are responding in the same way. For many streams, it will take more time to get enough data to determine whether the increased bug populations are statistically significant. This happens to be one issue that I side-stepped in the latest story, but I will be returning to it in the future. For background, check out an earlier story I wrote for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, “Healthy Streams, Healthy Bugs.”

While habitat restoration is ongoing, so too is human development, which continues unabated at what appears to be an accelerating pace. New regulations are designed to result in “no net loss” of important habitats, including shorelines, streams and wetlands. But questions remain about whether local regulations themselves and/or enforcement of the regulations are adequate.

Biologists at NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center are conducting research to determine whether habitat changes are for better or worse, especially with regard to chinook. We should see some results within the next few years, as the agency prepares to draft the next five-year status report for Puget Sound’s threatened chinook population.

Winter chum salmon in South Puget Sound fail test for uniqueness

Sam Wright, who has been remarkably successful in getting various fish species protected under the Endangered Species Act, has learned that his latest ESA petition — possibly his final petition — has been rejected.

Sam, who retired from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife after years of studying salmon and other fish, would like to get special recognition for a unique population of chum salmon that return to South Puget Sound in the winter.

Nisqually River near Interstate 5 bridge
Photo: ©2006 Walter Siegmund/Wikimedia Commons

The Nisqually-Chambers Creek run of winter chum is the only population of chum salmon in the world that spawn as late as February, with some fish entirely missing the worst floods of December and January, Sam told me. His petition to the federal government was designed to get these winter chum recognized as a distinct population segment — much as the threatened summer chum population in Hood Canal has been designated as separate from the fall runs of chum throughout Puget Sound.

Being a small population, the Nisqually-Chambers Creek winter chum would probably qualify for threatened or endangered status, he said, but first it would need to be recognized as distinct. If not listed initially as threatened or endangered, those decisions could follow if the population crashes, he said.

“The petition was meant to correct what was, from my perspective, a mistake made 20 years ago when they made a coastwise series of reports assessing the chum salmon populations,” said Sam, who is now 81 years old.

“In the entire range of chum salmon — both in North America and Asia — there are 3,500 streams with chum salmon,” he continued, “but there is only one single winter-run chum salmon, and that is the Nisqually.”

Sam’s petition (PDF 4.2 mb), filed more than two years ago, was subject to a 90-day review by the National Marine Fisheries Service, also known as NOAA Fisheries. Sam was told that the petition had been misplaced all this time. Last week, he got the news that the Nisqually-Chambers Creek winter chum would not be recognized as a distinct population, nor would it be considered for further review without new information being brought forward.

In rejecting Sam’s petition, NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center reviewed available data — including a 2015 genetic study on chum populations — and concluded that the original analysis done in 1997 was still valid. That analysis concluded that the winter-run chum are closely related to the fall-run chum in Puget Sound and Hood Canal and that “there is no clear genetic evidence to support the idea that the winter-run chum salmon in Puget Sound are substantially reproductively isolated from other chum salmon populations in southern Puget Sound.” See “Listing Endangered or Threatened Species …”

Sam argues that the winter chum remain genetically isolated from fall chum populations because of their unusual spawning schedule. That is demonstrated by annual population counts, which go up and down independently of fall chum numbers in South Puget Sound.

“They are reacting to different environmental conditions,” Sam explained.

Studies are needed to show the differences, Sam said, but they may have an advantage over fall chum by avoiding most of the winter floods, which can displace salmon eggs incubating in the gravel or else smother them in silt.

Incubation time is based on temperature, so the late-arriving chum are subject to warmer water and faster incubation. The winter chum fry are only a little behind the fall chum fry, Sam said.

One of the most productive areas for winter chum is Muck Creek, a tributary of the Nisqually River that runs through Joint Base Lewis McCord, where the Army conducts military exercises, according to Sam.

“We’ve had decades of battles with Fort Lewis over whether to use Muck Creek as part of their firing range,” Sam told me, adding that he suspects that pressure from the military played a role in NOAA’s original decision to lump the winter chum together with the fall chum.

Personally, I don’t know anything about such conflicts, but Muck Creek has been the site of a major restoration effort involving JBLM, the Nisqually Tribe and other groups. In 2011, reporter Ingrid Barrentine wrote about the annual salmon homecoming for Northwest Guardian, a JBLM publication.

As for the habitat in Muck Creek, Sam told me something else that was surprising. The stream is spring-fed with freshwater bubbling up from below and providing stable flows, he said. That helps the eggs to survive. Unlike many streams in which only 10 percent of the chum eggs grow into fry headed for saltwater, Muck Creek has had a 90-percent survival rate.

One reason that Sam is so concerned about the Nisqually-Chambers Creek winter chum is the uncertainty about what is coming in the future. Climate change is likely to bring higher stream flows in winter, he said, and chum runs that come later may hold the keys to survival of the species.

“To me, the last thing we want to do is throw away that particular piece,” Sam said, paraphrasing Aldo Leopold, whose exact quote is this:

“If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.” (Round River)

Sam Wright’s persistence has paid off in the past when he has asked for reconsideration and finally received threatened or endangered status for various populations of salmon, steelhead, rockfish and other marine species. This time, he may or may not provide additional information and ask the agency to reconsider its position. In any case, Sam told me that he has no new petitions in the works, and this may be his last effort.

Whether Nisqually-Chambers Creek winter chum — or any salmon population — is considered distinct rests on NOAA’s definition of species, 16 U.S.C. 1531, which includes two criteria:

  1. The population must be substantially reproductively isolated from other nonspecific population units; and
  2. The population must represent an important component in the evolutionary legacy of the species.

In turning down Sam’s petition, reviewers pointed to genetic studies that supported the finding that summer chum in Hood Canal and the Strait of Juan de Fuca were distinct from other chum runs. A second grouping included the remaining fall, summer and winter runs in Puget Sound, with a third grouping of fall chum from the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the Washington Coast and Oregon.

The reviewers also pointed out that the Nisqually River and Chambers Creek to the north are not geographically isolated from the rest of South Puget Sound.

As for “evolutionary legacy,” Sam contends that loss of the winter chum would be forever, as with extinct summer chum in many river systems including Chambers Creek. That critical issue, he said, is the very definition of legacy.

The reviewers of his petition found, like the 1997 review team, that winter and summer runs in Puget Sound only showed “patterns of diversity within a relatively large and complex evolutionarily significant unit,” known as an ESU.

“Both the Nisqually River and Chambers Creek watersheds have supported both summer- and fall-run chum salmon in the past, along with winter-run chum salmon,” concluded the agency’s written findings, “so there is nothing unique preventing these watersheds from supporting multiple chum salmon runs.”

Bears have gathered for their annual feast at Alaska’s Brooks Falls

In plain view of one live camera, a bear waits patiently as leaping salmon fly all around. The bear is content to wait for for a big fish to leap into his paws or his mouth.

In front of another live camera, a group of bears forage downstream in the river, going underwater to get their salmon meal. One chews vigorously while standing upright in chest-deep water.

These are a couple of the scenes I’ve been watching this morning at the Brooks Falls overlook in Katmai National Park. I have never been to the national park, but I have enjoyed these live video feeds for years. It seems incredible that we can observe brown bears doing what they do naturally while remaining out of sight and hearing of the bears.

All four bear cams can be viewed at once from the Explore website. Scroll down the page to read comments from the camera operators and other folks watching remotely.

Park officials estimate that more than 100 bears use this mile-long stretch of Brooks River to feast on what they say is the largest sockeye salmon run in the world. These bears are part of a population of 2,200 that live in the park. It is said that bears outnumber people on the Alaska Peninsula.

Another group of live webcams are poised to capture the movements of Northern Resident killer whales in Blackney Pass, one of the primary travel routes for the whales during the summer months. Again, scroll down to view comments. The cameras are coordinated by OrcaLab, Paul Spong’s research station on Hanson Island in British Columbia’s Johnstone Strait.

For other critter cams, check out what I posted in April (Water Ways, April 24, 2017).

Forest battle continues over defining the upper bounds of fish habitat

A long-running battle over how to manage potential fish habitat on commercial forestland could be coming to a head — although it isn’t clear if the solution will satisfy either forestland owners or environmentalists.

Jamie Glasgow of Wild Fish Conservancy (center) leads a crew surveying a stream for the presence of fish in 2014. // Photo: Chris Linder

To be clear, there is not much argument about streamside buffers where salmon, trout and other fish are readily found, thanks to state and federal rules stemming from the landmark Forests and Fish Report. Buffers are designed to save trees that serve the needs of fish — including insects for food, shade for cool water and eventually down trees that form pools for resting as well as hiding places and spawning areas.

Environmentalists contend that it is important to protect unoccupied fish habitat as well as areas occupied by fish at any point in time. If salmon populations are to rebound, salmon fry could need extra space to grow and develop, says Jamie Glasgow, a biologist with Wild Fish Conservancy. That means larger buffers should go where fish habitat can be found.

Of course, timberland owners don’t want to leave large buffers on small stream segments where fish would never go. For them, perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars in commercial timber could be left standing under new rules, depending on how the state’s Forest Practices Board comes down on this issue of fish habitat. The board is scheduled to take up the issue again with some kind of action planned on Aug. 9.

Fish habitat is defined in the Forest and Fish Report as areas of a stream “used by fish at any life stage at any time of the year, including potential habitat likely to be used by fish which could be recovered by restoration or management and includes off-channel habitat.” (The emphasis is mine.)

The Forest and Fish Report was incorporated into state law by the Washington Legislature, and federal agencies adopted those concepts as a statewide “habitat conservation plan” to protect species listed under the Endangered Species Act, including chinook salmon.

One of the big arguments about fish habitat revolves around how to determine just how far upstream fish would likely go and where they would be deterred under various natural conditions they encounter, such as streamflow or natural barriers such as waterfalls.

The Forest and Fish Report anticipated that a map would be developed with all stream segments designated as either fish habitat or not fish habitat. After several years, such a map was developed in 2005, based on the size and steepness of the streams, using the best information available.

It soon became apparent, however, that fish were being found in areas marked as non-habitat on the maps. Other areas designated as habitat were sometimes unable to support fish. Some fish-bearing streams were not even on the maps, and some streams were in the wrong place. I wrote about the efforts by Wild Fish Conservancy to correct some maps three years ago (Kitsap Sun, Sept. 27, 2014). Previous maps had proved to be a problem as well, even before the Forest and Fish Report (Kitsap Sun, May 28, 1996).

The maps are still used as guidance, but buffer determinations must be made for each logging or development project based on actual site conditions. If a stream is 2 feet wide and the steepness is less than a 20 percent — or 16 percent in some areas — it is assumed that fish can get there.

But — and here’s the rub — an allowable fall-back method is to identify the presence of fish, either through snorkel surveys or by “elecrtrofishing,” which involves putting a nonlethal current in the water to stun the fish. Where fish are located, the area is designated as fish habitat, along with waters that extend upstream to a natural “break,” such as a waterfall or a stream confluence that would prevent fish from going any farther.

Much history surrounds this issue, and all sides should be given credit for working through many thorny habitat problems through the years. Nobody wants to go back to a time when the spotted owl was a symbol for conflict about whether forests were mainly for jobs or fish and wildlife.

As for fish habitat, experts have renewed their attempt to come up with reliable and objective methods to identify the break points between habitat (known as “Type F waters,” which stands for fish) and non-habitat (“Type N waters”) without the costs and impacts of surveying every stream for fish.

Environmental groups became impatient with the effort — or lack of effort at times — over the past 12 years — or more if you go back to the Forest and Fish Report. The matter has gone into formal dispute resolution, as provided by the Forest and Fish Law, and it now is up to the Forest Practices Board to provide a resolution.

“For the past 12 years, we have been using the interim water-typing rule that does not protect fish habitat …,” Glasgow said. “The interim rule allows surveyors to go to a stream anytime (during a specified period) and electrofish a stream. If they do not find fish during the one-day survey, they can identify it as Type N.”

The result is that many miles of fish habitat are getting little or no buffer protection, he argues. Where mistakes are made and small buffers or no buffers are allowed, it will take decades before the trees grow back to become good habitat again.

In mediation talks, the various parties — landowners, environmental groups, tribes and governments — have come to consensus on the overall framework to identify break points where the fish habitat ends, but the details are still unresolved.

Karen Terwilliger, senior director of forest and environmental policy for the Washington Forest Protection Association, said it is important to remember that these discussions are not about streams where adult salmon will go to lay their eggs.

“It’s the tail end of where the fish might be,” said Terwilliger, whose organization represents large timberland owners. The areas in dispute are generally small streams mostly occupied today by resident fish, including various species of trout and tiny sculpins.

The break point between fish and non-fish areas should be a location where the last fish is equally likely to stop above and below that point, she said. The scientific standard is that the break point should be accurate 95 percent of the time, as required by adaptive management provisions of the Forest and Fish Law.

“We think fish presence will always be an important part of the system,” she said. “Different streams are different. A ‘one size fits all’ does not make sense.”

Environmental groups prefer to avoid methods that rely upon people finding fish, which may or may not be present at the time of a survey. It should be possible to define habitat conditions suitable for fish whether or not they are there at a given time.

Scientific information has evolved to where predictions can be made about where fish will go, Terwilliger said, but there are still questions about what conditions create a barrier to fish. A level of scientific certainty is required before changes can go forward.

“If science says a change needs to be made, then you more forward to make the change,” she said. “To date, we have not seen data that a lot of changes need to be made.”

If a rule change is proposed, it will need to undergo environmental review, a cost-benefit analysis, a small-business economic impact statement and public hearings.

Peter Goldman, director and managing attorney at Washington Forest Law Center, said the adaptive management process should be more than a system of delays. Only recently have things been moving in the right direction, he added.

“The timber industry is powerful,” said Goldman, who represents environmental groups. “They don’t want anything to change.

“We have been trying to negotiate in good faith collaboratively, because that is the Washington way,” he said. “If the Forest Practices Board doesn’t act … it is conceivable that we will have to sue the board and ask the federal government to reconsider the HCP.”

Stephen Bernath, deputy supervisor for forest practices at the Washington Department of Natural Resources and chairman of Forest Practices Board, said the board is moving forward with the help of scientists. New ideas and new technology are being brought into the discussion with the goal of seeing whether a variety of physical parameters alone can be used to identify fish habitat with high probability.

At the Aug. 9 meeting, the board is scheduled to get an update on the progress and to act on staff recommendations about the breaks between fish and non-fish waters. After that, a formal process will begin to incorporate changes into policies, rules and guidance.

Orca hormones linking pregnancies to prey will go into medical files

Hormones found in the feces of killer whales are providing unique insights about the health of Southern Resident orcas — including pregnancy status and stress levels. Fortunately, such information can be gathered with little disturbance to the animals.

Tucker, a Labrador retriever mix, has a keen ability to track down killer whale feces, which contains trace levels of hormones and toxic chemicals. // Photo: Kelley Balcomb-Bartok

The latest information about hormones will soon be incorporated into a new health-status database with individual medical reports being compiled for each whale in the Southern Resident population.

A recently published study confirms hormonally what researchers have observed for years, that when the whales’ primary food supply — chinook salmon — is plentiful, the number of newborn calves goes up. Conversely, when the food supply is low, population growth seems to stall out or go down.

Now, thanks to the new hormonal report, we are learning that nearly two-thirds of the pregnancies among Southern Resident killer whales end in miscarriages. And, of those miscarriages, about one-third take place during the last stage of pregnancy — something highly unusual for mammals.

We are also learning that nutritional stress — caused by low food supplies — can be linked to the success or failure of the pregnancies, thanks to ongoing studies by a research team led by Sam Wasser, a University of Washington professor and director of the Center for Conservation Biology. Information about nutritional stress comes from fecal samples collected with the help of Tucker, a poop-sniffing dog who follows the whales in a boat.

I reported on Sam’s findings nearly a year ago for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound after he presented the results during the Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference in Vancouver, B.C. His findings were published 10 days ago in the online journal PLOS One.

The hormonal information has been collected along with DNA samples from a growing number of Southern Residents, providing key information about the health of individuals as well as the overall status of the population.

Sam’s data will be included in a database being compiled to provide as much medical information as possible about each of the killer whales. I first reported details about the database in Water Ways on March 29, 2016. As mentioned in the blog, the medical files could be valuable in helping the whales throughout their range or even intervening when an animal goes into a health emergency.

General observations could be put into the database along with:

  • Fecal samples, including levels of various hormones;
  • Breath samples, including the types of bacteria harbored by individual killer whales;
  • Observations of skin conditions;
  • Photos taken from boats and from the air to show body conditions, including evidence of malnutrition or possible pregnancy; and
  • Blubber samples for some whales, including DNA fingerprints and other health conditions.

Joe Gaydos of SeaDoc Society, who is helping coordinate the database, told me that the project is finally getting off the ground this summer with formulation of the database structure. Commitments are coming together from those who can contribute information, including observations as soon as they are collected by researchers — including those with the Center for Whale Research and NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center.

A memorandum of understanding has been drafted to allow various researchers who submit information to have access to the data but limit access only to specified groups, Joe said. A governing body will oversee creation and use of the database. So far, information is being submitted on a “good-faith handshake.”

At least two research reports are being planned to prove the value of the database and build support for funding. One could be a paper that puts together information about skin diseases observed in the Southern Residents, mainly compiled by the Center for Whale Research.

Another report could look at the relationship between contaminants and pregnancy, including information collected by Sam Wasser.

“We are where we wanted to be a year ago, actively updating data,” Joe admitted to me, adding that things are now coming together more rapidly.

More information:

The latest report on orca pregnancy and nutritional stress is described in UW Today.

News stories were published by the Seattle Times as well as The Associated Press.

Previous work by Sam Wasser’s associate Katherine Ayres focuses on stresses caused by lack of food and boating activities. See PLOS One, June 6, 2012, or review the summary in UW Today.