Category Archives: Pollution and spills

Ken Balcomb offers his personal observations about J-32’s death

UPDATE, DEC. 17, 2014
A news release sent out yesterday by the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans confirms what Ken Balcomb suspected when I interviewed him on the day the necropsy was performed. See also Associated Press story by reporter Phuong Le.
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Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research has written an excellent report about the recent death of J-32, the Southern Resident orca that died with an unborn and decomposing offspring inside her.

J-32 awaiting necropsy on Bates Beach near Courtenay, B.C. Photo courtesy of Center for Whale Research
J-32 was taken to Bates Beach near Courtenay, B.C., for the necropsy conducted Saturday.
Photo courtesy of Center for Whale Research

Ken’s report talks not only about his observations of the necropsy, which I reported in Water Ways on Saturday, but it also includes his observations as he watched the young whale grow up:

“The decade around the millennium was a difficult time for the J10 matriline – J32’s mom (J20) died at the age of seventeen in 1998 when J32 was only two years old; her grandmother (J10), who took over her care, died at the age of thirty-seven in 1999, when J32 was only three years old; and her uncle (J18) died at the age of 23 in 2000. All died young relative to the average lifespan of 50+ for females and 29 for males in this species.

“Fortunately, auntie J22 at age thirteen gave birth to a baby (J34) in 1998, and provided orphaned J32 the required nurturing of a ‘mom’. With that nurturing from grandmother and auntie, including perhaps a little milk, J32 made it through her infancy and into her teens to be a very vivacious young whale, full of energy.”

Ken writes eloquently about his concerns regarding the high levels of toxic contaminants carried in the blubber of the Southern Resident orcas. The contaminants are known to cause problems with the immune and reproductive systems. They also can cause brain deficits that can lead to behavior disorders. He writes:

“These pollutants are released to circulate in the bloodstream when the whales’ blubber fats are metabolized for energy when fresh food is scarce. It is like having a freezer full of tainted and freezer-burned food that you never have to eat unless there is nothing in the grocery store. When nothing else is available the bad stuff is taken out of storage and circulated for body needs.”

Ken also repeats his plea for people to take action in the face of ongoing disaster for the local killer whale population — including this sudden death of a young mother known as Rhapsody and her unborn offspring.

“This is a very ugly situation for the population of Southern Resident killer whales – our beloved orca. I think we must restore abundant healthy prey resources ASAP if these whales are to have any chance of avoiding extinction. The critical point for their recovery may already have passed. I hope not, but it will soon pass if we do not take immediate action.”

Ken’s full report is well worth reading. It can be found on the website of the Center for Whale Research or you can download the title, “Preliminary Necropsy Report for J32” by Kenneth Balcomb, Center for Whale Research.

Kitsap gun club withdraws from toxic cleanup program

Kitsap Rifle and Revolver Club has decided against undertaking a formal environmental cleanup of its property on Seabeck Highway — at least not any time soon, according to club officials.

The property is listed as a “hazardous site” by the Washington Department of Ecology, mostly because of lead and metals associated with shooting activities. The club had entered into the state’s Voluntary Cleanup Program — which puts a property owner in charge of the cleanup — but then withdrew from the program in late October.

Marcus Carter, executive officer for KRRC, told me that the club had been assured by state officials that if it entered the Volunteer Cleanup Program, it would not be placed on the state’s Hazardous Sites List.

“But they went ahead and ranked us anyway,” he said.

Map

I wrote about that ranking in the Kitsap Sun in January of 2013. The gun range was rated a “2” on a scale from 1 to 5, with “1” being the worst. I noted in the story that many sites ranked a “2” go without action for years. KRRC later disputed the ranking, saying available evidence should place it no higher than a “3.”

A letter written in October by Bruce Danielson (PDF 889 kb), attorney for the club, explained why KRRC was withdrawing from the program. He also noted, “Our voluntary participation has been an unacceptable drain on valuable resources that KRRC can no long afford to expend for no purpose.”

As an example of wasteful spending, Danielson cited a charge for a “fraudulent” phone call from the state Attorney General’s Office related to the site. The unwarranted billing was dropped, he noted, but only after significant effort by club officials.

Marcus Carter said he realizes that the shooting range could get stuck on the “Hazardous Sites List” for many years, similar to the situation with the Navy’s Camp Wesley Harris. The abandoned shooting range on Navy property also was ranked a “2.” Other than an initial cleanup, the Navy has taken no steps to get the property removed from the list. For a full list of hazardous sites, download the latest Hazardous Sites List (PDF 535 kb).

Marcus said the club initiated an extensive recycling program years ago to regularly remove lead and other contaminants from earthen berms that stop the bullets. The only contamination outside the range itself are small amounts of materials where shooting took place years ago, he said.

“Nothing is leaving our property,” Marcus insisted. “There have been no suggestions from DOE to make our operations more efficient or to do anything differently.”

As described in a Kitsap Sun story in April of 2012, the gun club has been following an approach generally accepted by the federal Environmental Protection Agency:

“The club has relied on using EPA’s ‘best management practices’ to avoid being deemed a hazardous waste site subject to cleanup. State law does not include such provisions, but Ecology endorses EPA’s suggested practices, which are outlined in a 1997 letter written by Jeff Hannapel in EPA’s Office of Solid Waste.”

I then quoted from the Hannapel’s letter:

“The agency has taken the position that the discharge of ammunition or lead shot does not constitute hazardous waste disposal, because the agency does not consider the rounds from the weapons to be ‘discarded.’ Furthermore, the lead shot has not been ‘discarded’ by virtue of its discharge at the shooting range, because the discharge is within the normal and expected use pattern of the manufactured product. Accordingly, lead shot would be considered scrap metal for regulatory purposes.”

Ecology officials admit that they don’t have enough money to force property owners to clean up the most-contaminated sites, let alone those lower on list.

For several years, the group CK Safe and Quiet, which includes residents living near the shooting range, has been urging Ecology to get the site cleaned up. The group has expressed concerns about contamination leaving the site and getting into nearby waterways.

In 2011, the organization filed a notice saying it would sue for cleanup under the federal Clean Water Act, which allows citizen-initiated lawsuits. I mentioned the claims in a Kitsap Sun article at the time.

The group never filed the federal case, pending legal action against the club by Kitsap County, which focused on land-use and noise issues. A ruling in the county’s case was recently handed down by the Washington State Court of Appeals. See Kitsap Sun story by reporter Josh Farley.

Some members of CK Safe and Quiet say they are now considering a renewal of their Clean Water Act claims. Ryan Vancil, an attorney who wrote the 2011 letter (PDF 134 kb), no longer represents the group, but members are consulting with a new lawyer.

Virus connected to sea star wasting syndrome, but questions remain

I’ll never forget my visit this past summer to the Lofall dock and nearby beach on Hood Canal in North Kitsap. It was a scene of devastation, in which starfish of all sizes were losing their limbs and decomposing into gooey masses.

Barb Erickson and Linda Martin examine young sea stars for signs of wasting disease at Lofall pier last summer.
Barb Erickson and Linda Martin examine young sea stars for wasting disease at Lofall pier last summer.
Kitsap Sun photo by Meegan M. Reid.

My guides on the excursion were three women who had been watching for changes in sea stars as part of a volunteer monitoring program being conducted up and down the West Coast. The three were shocked at what they saw on the trip, as I described in a story for the Kitsap Sun as well as in a blog post in Water Ways.

Now, researchers are reporting that a virus, known as densovirus, appears to be playing a central role in the devastation of millions of sea stars from Alaska to Mexico. Their findings were reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PDF 1.1 mb).

Many questions remain about the mysterious affliction known as “sea star wasting syndrome.” For one, why were the sea stars affected over such a wide area, all at about the same time?

As described in the report, the researchers went to museums with sea stars preserved in alcohol and found that the virus was present in specimens collected as long ago as 1942 at various West Coast sites. Minor outbreaks of the wasting syndrome have been reported through the years, but obviously something much bigger is taking place now.

Sea star near Lofall
Sea star near Lofall

A change in the environment, such as ocean acidification, has been suggested as one possibility. A change in the virus, such as we see for the flu virus in humans, is another idea. It could also be related to an over-population among the sea stars themselves.

Jeff Adams of Washington Sea Grant, who is leading the local monitoring program in Kitsap County, said it is good that researchers have found something to go on, but other causative factors are yet to be discovered.

“Why and where; those are two of the things still on the table,” Jeff told me. “What are the environmental factors that drove this much larger die-off? Was it something that made the virus more prevalent or something that made the sea stars weaker?”

Jeff noted that the cause of death may not be the virus itself but rather opportunistic pathogens that attack the sea stars after their immune systems are weakened by the virus.

“Density may have played a factor,” he said. “Sea star populations have been thick and strong over the past 12 years. When you get a lot of individuals in close proximity, you can get sudden changes. Marine populations fluctuate quite a bit naturally.”

Jeff hopes to maintain the volunteer monitoring program for years to come, not just to track the disease but to understand more about the cycles of marine life. Of course, he would like to be able to report on an ongoing recovery of sea star populations from their current state of devastation. Will the recovery occur in patches or uniformly at all monitored sites?

“Ideally, this will run its course, and we will start seeing juveniles showing up over the course of the summer,” he said. “How many of them will disappear?

“Ideally, we will be able to maintain some sites for much longer. For me, as a naturalist, there are lots of questions about natural historical cycles that have not been addressed. A lot of critters are facing challenges (to their survival).”

In Puget Sound, these challenges range from loss of habitat to pollution to climate change, and the predator-prey balance will determine whether any population —and ultimately entire species — can survive.

Linda Martin, one of the volunteers who gave me a tour of the Lofall beach, said she was glad that researchers have identified a viral cause of the sea-star devastation, but it remains unclear how that is going to help the population recover.

Because of the timing of low tide, the three women have not been to Lofall since early October, when the population was “completely depleted,” according to Linda. But they are planning to go back next weekend.

“We are anxious to go out and see if there is anything there,” she said. “We have not seen any juveniles for a long time. Originally, when we started out, we were seeing uncountable numbers of juveniles.”

As for the new findings, I thought it was interesting how the researchers removed tissues from diseased sea stars then filtered out everything down to the size of viruses. After that, they exposed one group of healthy sea stars to a raw sample of the fluid and another group to a heat-treated sample. The raw sample caused disease, but the heat-treated sample did not.

They then used DNA techniques to identify the virus, which was found in larger and larger concentrations as the disease progressed. Check out the research report in the Proceedings of the NAS (PDF 1.1 mb).

Jeff Barnard of the Associated Press interviewed researchers involved in the study and others familiar with the problem.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amusing Monday: Fascinating videos score high in E360 contest

Last month, “Yale Environment 360” announced the winners of a video contest with a focus on environmental themes. I found the videos fascinating and very well done, although they may not fit my normal definition of “amusing.” I think you’ll enjoy them.

Click on image to view “A Red Dirt Town," the second-place winner in the Yale Environment 360 contest.
Click on image to view “A Red Dirt Town,” second-place winner in the Yale Environment 360 contest.

“Yale Environment 360,” or “E360” for short, is a thoughtful online publication published by the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental studies. It is filled with reports and opinions on many environmental issues.

Clicking the image on this page will take you to the second-place winner in the contest, titled “A Red Dirt Town: An Enduring Legacy Of Toxic Pollution in Southern Waters.” Producer Spenser Gabin tells how the community of Anniston, Alabama, has been forced to cope with a legacy of PCB pollution from a Monsanto plant located upstream.

Gabin focuses on two main characters, Frank Chitwood, the Coosa Riverkeeper, who is attempting to get the rivers and lakes posted with warnings, and David Baker, a community activist who was one of the first to begin cleanup at the Monsanto site. Baker’s brother, who played in a PCB-contaminated area as a child, died at age 16 from cancer of the brain and lungs.

“A Red Dirt Town” was actually my favorite of the three.

The winning video in the contest is “Badru’s Story: Inside Africa’s Impenetrable Forest,” an account of Badru Mugerwa, who manages a network of cameras to document the loss of biodiversity and effects of climate change on Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. The film was produced by Benjamin Drummond and Sara Joy Steele.

The third-place winner is “Peak to Peak: An Intimate Look at
The Bighorn Sheep of the Rockies.”
Produced by Jeremy Roberts, the video captures images of Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep and their playful lambs, while biologist Jack Hogg talks about their behavior and describes how climate change may affect their future.

The contest rules prevent the entrants from showing their videos anywhere but on “E360” for at least 60 days, So I’m not able to embed the videos at this time.

Contest judges included “E360″ editor Roger Cohn, “New Yorker” writer and “E360″ contributor Elizabeth Kolbert, and documentary filmmaker Thomas Lennon.

Another fascinating video produced for “E360″ is “The Colorado River: Running Near Empty,” which takes award-winning photographer Pete McBride back to his home area in Colorado. From there, he follows the Colorado River until it runs dry short of its historic delta in the Sea of Cortez.

Remember the “Raise the River or Move the Ocean” blog from earlier this year? It featured Robert Redford and Will Ferrell feigning a debate about the future of the Colorado River. I still get a laugh from those videos, which manage to help educate us about the issue.

Related websites:

Raise the River Facebook page

Save the Colorado

Three videos take us upstream, where it all begins

John F. Williams of Suquamish, known for his brilliant underwater videos, has worked his way upstream from Puget Sound and into the freshwater streams of the Kitsap Peninsula.

His latest video project began somewhat haphazardly, John told me. But the end result is nothing less than an entertaining and educational series that anyone can enjoy. It helps that each video is just a little over four minutes. In such a short time, John was able to tell a story while packing in a lot of information.

“It all started,” John said, “when Ron (Hirschi) invited me to come film him taking some preschool kids down to the South Fork of Dogfish Creek. He thought that would be fun.”

Ron Hirschi, who grew up around Port Gamble, worked as a biologist for years before becoming a successful children’s author. He tells stories of nature in simple and endearing ways. In the first video on this page, you’ll see Ron reading from one of his books.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Ron and I have known each other for more than 30 years. He was an early mentor for me as I was learning about streams and shorelines in Western Washington, and I still rely on him for advice from time to time. He was an important voice in the book “Hood Canal: Splendor At Risk.”

Anyway, it was nice to see the two storytellers — John and Ron — link up on a project together.

“At the time, we had no idea where this was going,” John said.

A member of the Kitsap Environmental Education Program, John learned that some money was available for education projects through the “Puget Sound Starts Here” campaign.

“It occurred to me that what I was doing with the streams fit into what they wanted,” he said, “so I pitched the idea of doing several movies about streams and people’s interactions with them. I wanted people to understand that these streams, which are hidden behind the trees, are part of their lives.”

John completed the video with Ron Hirschi, showing a visit to a forgotten stream, Poulsbo Creek, as well as the well-known Dogfish Creek, both in North Kitsap. John also obtained leads for stories about Olalla Creek in South Kitsap and Chico Creek in Central Kitsap.

His contact in South Kitsap was teacher Lisa Wickens at Ollalla Elementary School. It so happens that I had worked with Lisa on a story about elementary school children building a rain garden to prevent dirty water from getting into Olalla Creek. Check out “Olalla students learn science with a rain garden,” Kitsap Sun, Dec. 13, 2013 (subscription).

John was blown away by the intellectual and scientific skills of this younger generation.

“I was sitting in Lisa’s classroom one day, and she was giving her second-graders an assignment to write a persuasion piece,” John noted. “She wanted them to persuade someone to take care of the Earth. I said I would love to come and film the kids reading their papers… It was so amazing.”

You’ll get a feeling for their abilities in the second video.

For the third video, John connected with Maureen McNulty, a teacher at Klahowya Secondary School who was organizing the students to build a rain garden. It turned out that older students were teamed up with younger ones on the project, so that everyone learned something.

John also traced the path of a stream from the school wetlands into the adjoining forest and encountered Frank Sticklin, the chief guru for Newberry Hill Heritage Park. Frank educated John about beaver dams.

“I had never seen beaver ponds, and he showed me these incredible things,” John said.

In reality, John probably had seen beaver ponds and beaver dams without knowing that beavers were responsible. After Frank’s tour, he went for a walk south of Port Gamble and encountered something that he immediately recognized as a beaver dam. Once you’ve seen one, you know what to look for.

“I think of this as a metaphor of what I do with my movies,” John told me. “I help people see things that they haven’t seen before and to look at the world in a new way.”

John’s videos have been recorded onto DVDs and distributed to nearly 200 schools and environmental organizations throughout the area.

He’s now working on some projects involving the Puget Sound shoreline. I’ll let you when they are done. Meanwhile, you may wish to check out his websites, Still Hope Productions and Sea-Media.org.

Map points toward safe — and hazardous — shellfish

A highly informative map, just released by state shellfish officials, can show you at a glance where it is safe to harvest shellfish in Western Washington.

Shellfish_map

Besides pointing out the locations of public beaches where recreational harvesters may safely gather clams and oysters, the new map provides links to information about the approved seasons and limits, with photographs of each beach. One can choose “map” or “satellite” views, as well as enhanced images to simplify the search.

If you wish, you can track down locations by searching for the name of a beach, nearby landmarks or the address. You can obtain the latest information about entire shorelines as well as specific beaches.

The map was created by the Office of Shellfish and Water Protection, a division within the Washington State Department of Health.

Jim Zimny, recreational shellfish specialist at Kitsap Public Health District, said he expects the map to be updated immediately when new health advisories are issued.

“It’s a great resource, very easy to use,” Jim said.

Jim works with state shellfish officials to collect shellfish samples and report results, including findings of paralytic shellfish poison, a biotoxin. Closures are announced when high levels of PSP or dangerous bacteria are found. Hood Canal, for example, is covered with the letter “V,” meaning one should cook shellfish thoroughly to kill Vibrio bacteria, which can lead to intestinal illness.

Since I generally write the geographic descriptions of shellfish closure areas, I can assure you that looking at a map will be a better way to see what is going on.

A news release about the new map points out that the risk of eating shellfish increases in summer. That’s why it especially important in summer to follow the three C’s of shellfish safety: “check, chill and cook.”

Those three C’s refer to checking the map for health closures and looking on the beach for warning signs; chilling the shellfish to avoid a buildup of bacteria; and cooking to 145 degrees to kill pathogens. (Cooking does not destroy PSP and other biotoxins, so it’s important to avoid closed areas.)

For additional information about recreational shellfish harvesting, including a “Shellfish Harvest Checklist,” visit the Department of Health website.

Stormwater: Can we stop the menace we created?

I’ve completed the seventh story package in a 10-part series examining the Puget Sound ecosystem, with a special focus on indicators of ecological health. We’re calling the project “Taking the Pulse of Puget Sound.”

Jenifer McIntyre of the Washington Stormwater Center studies the effects of stormwater after it passes through filters made of compost and soil materials, such as what is used in rain gardens. The filters are working, even though the most dangerous pollutants remain unidentified. Photo by Meegan M. Reid
Jenifer McIntyre of the Washington Stormwater Center studies the effects of stormwater after it passes through filters made of compost and soil materials, such as what is used in rain gardens. The filters are working, even though the most dangerous pollutants remain unidentified. / Kitsap Sun photo by Meegan M. Reid

The latest stories, which ran Sunday and Monday, addressed freshwater quality. The opening piece looked at the huge amounts of pollution coming into our streams via stormwater — one of the highest priorities for cleanup, yet one of the most difficult to deal with.

As the Puget Sound Partnership’s executive director Sheida Sahandy told me, industrial discharges are still a concern, but they are no longer the biggest problem.

“Now we’re dealing with stormwater, which is trickling in here and trickling in there, and everybody has a finger in it,” she said.

Solutions are many, and the goal should be to shut off pollution at the source, beginning with removing dangerous chemicals from everyday products. Since the sources of pollution are numerous, everyone needs to play a part — from cleaning up pet wastes to properly using of household chemicals to reducing the use of lawn and garden pesticides. (Those who don’t subscribe to the Kitsap Sun may still find value in the graphics on the Freshwater Quality page.)

I led off the first story by showing the increased efforts by city and county governments to better manage their stormwater systems, such as pumping out their catch basins, sweeping their streets and converting outdated stormwater ponds into filtration systems, commonly known as “rain gardens.”

I also introduced readers to the Washington Stormwater Center, a research facility in Puyallup where scientists are testing the effectiveness of rain gardens and pervious pavement. Jenifer McIntyre, a Washington State University researcher, has demonstrated that stormwater from highway runoff is 100 percent effective at killing adult coho salmon. Yet that same stormwater filtered through soil — such as in a rain garden — is cleaned up enough that fish can survive, apparently unaffected.

Monday’s story addressed the increasing use of benthic invertebrates — water bugs — to measure the health of streams. The bugs are doing double duty, since they are both a measurement of stream quality and a critical part of the food web for the freshwater ecosystem.

Some 27 local governments and organizations are involved in collecting data on benthic invertebrates from about 850 stream locations throughout Puget Sound. For results, check out Puget Sound Stream Benthos.

When I began this project on freshwater quality several weeks ago, I thought it was going to be easier than some of the other story packages I have done, such as on fish, birds and marine mammals. If anything, this issue is more complex. I’ll admit that I’ve neglected this blog while pursuing these issues, and soon I will be moving into the issue of freshwater quantity.

Overall, I must say that I’ve been impressed by the many people dedicated to finding answers to the mysterious problems brought on by pollution and by those finding solutions even before the questions are fully identified.

Amusing Monday: Flushing out a Macklemore tune

It’s a serious message, but now King County’s Wastewater Treatment Division hopes their humorous approach will get people thinking about the “F word.”

The word, of course, is “flushing,” and the county was given permission to borrow Macklemore’s catchy tune from “Thrift Shop” (warning: language) to bring the message home to people: Don’t flush anything down the toilet except human waste and toilet paper. Check out the first video player to see what the creative folks came up with.

The campaign, called “Flushing Awesome,” uses music and simple cartoon videos. King County officials hope it will get the message across better than previous warnings, which seem to have had little effect.

Another video, also shown on this page, is built around the song “One (Singular Sensation)” from the long-running Broadway play “Chorus Line.”

I understand the urge to flush things and get them out of sight, but I was not fully aware of this enormous problem until 1998. That’s when Bremerton City Councilman Carlos Montgomery talked about a giant “rag ball,” 2 to 3 feet wide and 30 feet long caught in Bremerton’s sewer system. Read the full story in the Kitsap Sun, April 1, 1998.

For other great toilet tunes, including “Don’t Flush the Baby (Wipes)” and “Dope in the Water,” check out the music of Steve Anderson of Portland’s Clean Water Services. You can listen to five of his sewer songs on my “Water Ways” entry from Dec. 19, 2011, which also features the holiday favorite, “O Christmas Grease.”

I’m pleased that King County is taking a light-hearted approach to the subject of flushing, but I have to hand it to Heather Graf of King 5 News, who went behind the scenes at the county’s West Point Treatment Plant to show us some stark video of why this is so important.

Says Graf: “The sign out front says nothing about this place being a landfill, but one look inside King County’s wastewater treatment plant and you’ll see most people act like it is… It’s not just gross, it’s expensive — $120,000 a year in ratepayer money just to haul all this trash to the landfill.”

Only time will tell if Macklemore and his music will help in a roundabout way to solve a messy problem for King County and other sewer operators in the region.

What we know and don’t know about killer whales

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

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

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

Let me make a few quick observations:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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