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Taking a moment for reflection, but I’m not saying good-bye

After 37 years at the Kitsap Sun, I’m writing one last salmon story today as a member of the newsroom staff. I was offered an early-retirement package, and I decided to take it. But that does not mean I’ll soon be shopping for a rocking chair.

For one thing, I plan to continue writing this blog, and I intend to beef it up with even more original reporting. I’m also committed to completing the Kitsap Sun’s 10-part series called “Taking the Pulse of Puget Sound.” The series has examined every corner of our troubled waterway, taking clues from the Puget Sound Partnership’s “vital signs indicators.”

Beyond those projects, I will continue to work for the Sun in a freelance capacity. Editor David Nelson has asked me to do some in-depth writing about environmental issues that have not been fully examined. I’ll also be looking for some interesting projects outside the Kitsap Sun. If you have some suggestions, send them my way.

Although I’ll still be working, it might be a good time to pay tribute to those who have helped me along the way.

I have thoroughly enjoyed the relationships I’ve developed with many of you through my years of reporting, and I don’t intend to stop. I’m indebted to the thousands of dedicated people in our community and across the state who have taken time to help me understand complicated stories. They have taught me everything I know about the environment and allowed me to tell their stories.

I’m also grateful to those who thought to contact the paper after identifying a problem that needs public exposure. Sometimes, greedy or stupid people are to blame. More often, I think people just don’t understand the consequences of their actions. That probably applies to all of us to some degree.

For whatever success I’ve had, I could not have done it without the support of my editors and fellow reporters, photographers, graphic artists and others at the Sun. David Nelson, for one, saw the importance of local environmental reporting when other newspapers were severely cutting back their coverage.

Most of all, I’d like to thank the readers who have supported the Kitsap Sun, which continues to write important news stories while struggling through tough economic times. It is always a thrill when someone comes up to me and says, “I always look for your byline,” and then explains that he or she finds my stories interesting or worthwhile.

Anyway, I look forward to more flexible hours and working from home as long as I can. As always, I will continue to read my email and answer my phone, so please stay in touch:

Christopher Dunagan
Environmental Reporter
(360) 373-0276
ChrisBDunagangmail.com

Amusing Monday: Do lawyers multiply in the rain?

I find it amusing that the average daily precipitation in Kitsap County from 2006 through 2009 correlates well with the number of lawyers in the Northern Mariana Islands.

There is also a strong correlation between the per capita consumption of cheese in the United States and the number of people who died by becoming tangled in their bedsheets — at least for the years 1999 to 2009.

As a science writer, I’m constantly reading reports that mention correlations, such as the correlation between smoking and lung cancer or the correlation between global warming and atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration. Finding such correlations is often a key step to explaining important observations, whether close to home or across the universe.

Now Tyler Vigen has flipped the idea of correlations around, looking for correlations between anything and everything, all for the sake of amusement. He calls his new website “Spurious Correlations.”

The examples above are taken from Tyler’s website, which includes a “discover” page that allows you to search out and graph your own correlations from a long list of independent variables. Try it; it’s fun. You can also sign up for an RSS feed to check out a new spurious correlation each day.

Vigen, a geospatial intelligence analyst for the Army National Guard and a graduate student at Harvard Law School, is not a mathematician.

As he tells NPR’s Scott Simon, it is easy to find correlations when the number of data points are quite small. The question becomes whether the correlations are statistically significant — and that’s where Vigen’s spurious correlations become nothing more than a chuckle.

In a YouTube video, Vigen states:

“The purpose of the Spurious Correlations I show is not to say the data is ambiguous and you can interpret it however you want. No! Statistical data can show correlations, and then it’s up to us rational thinkers to establish whether there is actually a connection between the variables or if it’s merely a coincidence.”

Since he is not a statistician, Tyler says he will leave it to others to produce a video to help people understand how to measure statistical significance. One book he recommends is Nate Silver’s “The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail — but Some Don’t.” Silver, of course, is the guy who earned a reputation for baseball predictions using statistics before he moved into the political world, where he predicted the 2008 presidential election results for 49 of the 50 states.

Skokomish files lawsuit over tribal hunting rights

The Skokomish Tribe has filed a lawsuit against Washington state over hunting rights protected by the 1855 Treaty of Point No Point. This lawsuit launches what could be years of litigation dealing with Native American access to natural commodities other than fish and shellfish.

Read my story in today’s Kitsap Sun or download the complaint, Skokomish Indian Tribe versus Peter Goldmark (PDF 414 kb).

The Skokomish Tribe filed this lawsuit by itself without the involvement of other tribes. I’ve been told by several people that a more coordinated effort was being planned by a large number of tribes for some time in the future, but the Skokomish moved out front without consulting other tribes.

This could be an important case for Indian and non-Indian hunters across the state as well as for advocates of protecting the natural environment. Needless to say, I’ll be watching this case closely.

K pod reverses course at Point Reyes, heads north

UPDATE, Jan. 17, 2013

It looks like K-25 and his companions did a little zig-zagging yesterday, also turning south and then north again. The latest report from this morning shows them near Coos Bay.
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UPDATE, Jan. 16, 2013

K pod crossed the Oregon border yesterday on their way back north. The latest satellite data from this morning places the orcas near Port Orford, Ore., according to an update from Robin Baird of Cascadia Research, who is helping with the tracking effort.
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UPDATE, Jan. 15, 2013

After turning around at Point Reyes Friday night, K pod has proceeded north. The latest satellite data from this morning showed the whales at Crescent City, Calif., about 20 miles from the Oregon border. The orcas are still traveling north, but will they come back to Puget Sound?
—–

Killer whale experts were anticipating yesterday that K pod might make it to Monterey Bay and perhaps a little farther south, as I described in a story in this morning’s Kitsap Sun.

K-25 1-12

Everyone was wondering exactly where these whales would linger and where they would eventually turn around and return north.

Robin Baird of Cascadia Research Collective reported this morning that satellite data showed that the whales had turned around last night after reaching Point Reyes, which is north of San Francisco Bay. They continued rapidly north, reaching Bodega Bay this morning.

Where K pod will travel next is anyone’s guess. But, if we’ve learned anything through the years about Southern Residents, we know that they will remain unpredictable. I’ll keep reporting their travels as long as they seem interesting.

Hood Canal group seeks Atlantic salmon moratorium

Hood Canal Coordinating Council has voted to support Jefferson County — one of its three member counties — in calling for a moratorium on the deployment of new net pens for raising Atlantic salmon.

Manchester Research Station in Kitsap County conducts studies involving fish diseases. / NOAA photo

A resolution presented to the council yesterday asks Gov. Chris Gregoire to impose and maintain the moratorium “until there is a plan in place to ensure that there is no risk to native salmon runs.”

I’m not sure how much direct authority the governor has over siting net pens, but she appoints the director of the Department of Ecology — one of the agencies that permits aquaculture projects.

Kitsap County Commissioner Josh Brown, chairman of the coordinating council, said he supported the resolution as a way to encourage the governor to increase research into the environmental impacts of salmon farming. Brown said he does not intend for his support to influence Kitsap County’s shoreline planning process.

The latest draft of the Kitsap County Shoreline Master Program includes language that would allow net pens and other aquaculture (PDG 60 kb) with limitations:

  • “Aquaculture activities should be located, designed and operated in a manner that supports long term beneficial use of the shoreline and protects and maintains shoreline ecological functions and processes and should not be permitted where it would result in a net loss of shoreline ecological functions and processes…
  • “Aquaculture facilities should be designed and located with the capacity to prevent: a) the spread of aquatic pathogens, b) the establishment new non native species in the natural environment, and c) significant impact to the aesthetic qualities of the shoreline.”

In contrast, Jefferson County’s proposed Shoreline Master Program (PDF 2.7 mb) has proposed banning all commercial net pen operations as well as “finfish aquaculture that releases herbicides, pesticides, antibiotics, fertilizers, pharmaceuticals, non-indigenous species, parasites, genetically modified organisms, or feed into surrounding waters.”

The proposed ban has not been accepted by the Washington Department of Ecology, which must sign off on the document before it goes into effect. The standoff has kept Jefferson’s otherwise-approved shorelines plan in limbo for the past year.

In its findings and conclusions (PDF 488 kb), Ecology wrote:

“Ecology considered whether there was enough discussion and evidence of a science basis in the record to support a ban. We concluded there was not a conclusive science basis on the record to support such a ban.”

Ecology proposed changing the outright ban to a requirement that “all significant impacts have been mitigated” before approval of any aquaculture project.

The resolution approved yesterday was brought to the Hood Canal Coordinating Council by Jefferson County Commissioner Phil Johnson, who cited concerns about the highly contagious virus that causes Infectious Salmon Anemia (ISA) in wild fish. The ISA virus, he said, has been found in juvenile sockeye in British Columbia, where there are more than 100 salmon farms.

“The virus discovered tested positive to the European strain of ISA and therefore almost certain to have originated from Atlantic salmon farms,” according to Johnson’s resolution, which adds, “No country has gotten rid of the ISA virus once the virus arrives.”

A letter supporting the resolution was approved unanimously by the coordinating council, which includes the county commissioners from Kitsap, Mason and Jefferson counties along with tribal chairmen from the Port Gamble S’Klallam and Skokomish tribes.

Meanwhile, a coalition of environmental and native groups last week petitioned an international tribunal to investigate Canada’s salmon-farming industry and its effects on wild salmon.

Jeff Miller of the Center for Biological Diversity stated in a news release:

“Industrial salmon feedlots function as disease-breeding factories, allowing parasites and diseases to reproduce at unnaturally high rates. Marine feedlot waste flows directly, untreated, into contact with wild salmon. Putting feedlots hosting a toxic soup of bacteria, parasites, viruses and sea lice on wild fish migration routes is the height of biological insanity.”

Biologist Alexandra Morton of the Pacific Coast Wild Salmon Society added:

“The Canadian inquiry into the collapse of Fraser River sockeye, the largest salmon-producing river in the world, suggests the primarily Norwegian-owned British Columbia salmon-farming industry exerts trade pressures that exceed Canada’s political will to protect wild salmon

“Releasing viruses into native ecosystems is an irrevocable threat to biodiversity, yet Canada seems to have no mechanism to prevent salmon-farm diseases from afflicting wild salmon throughout the entire North Pacific.”

The 53-page petition (PDF 1.8 mb) was submitted to the Commission for Environmental Cooperation, a group working under the North American Free Trade Agreement. The petition describes sea lice and four specific bacterial and viral diseases alleged to be related to salmon pens. It also describes problems related to toxic chemicals and concentrated waste.

Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans maintains that it is conducting research and acting on problems as they are identified. The agency proclaims on its website:

“Environmental effects of aquaculture operations can be controlled to meet rigorous domestic and international environmental standards.”

So-called “State-of-Knowledge” review papers summarize current thinking on aquaculture, according to the agency.

Newborn orca spotted off Kingston on Saturday

I wanted to share this great photo by Candice Emmons of the new baby orca in J pod. She and Brad Hanson spotted the new calf between Kingston and Edmonds on Saturday. Thanks to Candi for the shot and to Brad for the nice description of the encounter, which I reported in a story to be published in tomorrow’s Kitsap Sun.

The new calf in J pod, designated J-48, is seen here in this photo taken by Candice Emmons between Kingston and Edmonds
Northwest Fisheries Science Center (NMFS Permit 781-1824)

By Christopher Dunagan
cdunagan@kitsapsun.com

KINGSTON — A newborn killer whale has been spotted and confirmed in J pod, one of the three pods of orcas that frequent Puget Sound.

The new calf, designated J-48, was observed Saturday between Kingston and Edmonds by Brad Hanson and Candice Emmons of the Northwest Fisheries Science Center. J and K pods arrived in Admiralty Inlet west of Whidbey Island on Friday and stayed off the northeast corner of the Kitsap Peninsula for most of Saturday.

“Normally when they are traveling, they are spread out,” Hanson said, “but this time they were fairly grouped up. Our first thought was that they couldn’t make up their minds where they wanted to go.”

As Hanson and Emmons identified one whale after another from their markings, they noted one group of orcas off by itself. Among the group was a 39-year-old female, J-16 or “Slick,” along with several of the offspring she has had since 1991. And right in the middle of the group was what appeared to be a newborn orca.

“The calf was pretty young and still had its fetal folds,” Hanson said. “I would say it had been born in the last 24 hours or so.”

The whales kept milling about and swimming in circles just north of the Kingston-Edmonds ferry lanes.

“They were probably waiting around for the calf to figure things out and get with the program,” Hanson said. “It takes a little time for the mom and her calf to get their footing. The young calves sort of throw themselves up in the air. They are learning to breath and to clear the water.”

Hanson said he noticed that kind of milling behavior when another killer whale was born several years ago.

This was the fifth calf for Slick, named after rock singer Grace Slick, according to Howard Garrett of Orca Network, an organization that keeps track of whale sightings throughout the region.

Every whale counts, he said, because the three Southern Resident pods are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act and considered at risk of extinction. J-48 brings the number of orcas in J pod to 27 and the total for all three pods to 89. Researchers believe the pods may have totaled about 200 whales in the past.

The new baby is only the second orca born to the three pods in 2011, compared to six for 2010. Of those born last year, four were in L pod, with one each in J and K pods.

Orca Network’s Susan Berta said Saturday’s encounter was the result of shore observers in the area reporting their sightings.

“This is one of the times when the public information really helped us,” Berta said. “People told us the whales were coming in, and we were able to get the call to NOAA Fisheries, and Brad and Candi were able to get with them right away.”

The whales have not stayed in Puget Sound much this year compared to previous years, Hanson said.

“Every time the whales do come in, we try to get out,” he said. “We are still monitoring their foraging activity in the sound. We hadn’t been out with them in quite a while.”

Hanson and other researchers have shown that the orcas eat mainly chinook salmon in the summer and chum salmon in early fall. But what they eat the rest of the year — especially from January through May — remains largely a mystery.

Besides identifying the animals on Saturday, Hanson and Emmons were able to collect fish scales and samples of fecal material to help identify what they are eating.

Shortly after the two researchers visited the whales Saturday, the animals headed back out of Puget Sound, and no further reports have come in, Berta said.

“Some years we have a lot of whales coming in and other years we don’t,” she noted. “It brings up many questions about what makes a good year for whales. I’m hoping they come back for Christmas.”

Amusing Monday: Artists tell their stories with sand

This year’s Windemere Sand Sculpture Contest, held a couple weeks ago in Port Angeles, featured the theme “Wonderful World of Sports.”

"Evolution of Sport" by Sue McGrew of Tacoma took second place in this year’s Windemere Sand Sculpture Contest in Port Angeles. (Click to enlarge)
Photo courtesy of Kristy Martin

I especially liked a piece called “Evolution of Sport” (right), which features a man throwing a discus while a boy maneuvers a game controller. The sculpture, by Sue McGrew of Tacoma, took second place in the contest and tied for the “Sculptor’s Choice” award.

By the way, I just noticed that today’s News Tribune in Tacoma included a story about McGrew and her travels around the country pursuing this unique art form.

First place in the Port Angeles contest went to Sandis Kondrats of Latvia, who shaped a sand sculpture he called “Ice Hockey: Energy on Ice” (bottom of page).

The list of winners is available from a story July 24 in the Peninsula Daily News, which also produced a nice video showing the artists at work and featuring brief interviews with some of them.

I want to thank Kristy Martin for providing these photos, some of which are posted on her thoughtful and amusing blog, “Port Angeles Daily Photo.”

The ninth annual sand sculpture contest in Port Angeles has become part of a new qualifying process for the World Championship of Sand Sculpting to be held in Federal Way Aug. 18 to Sept. 5. Five contests in North America and four in Europe have been chosen as qualifying contests for the World Championship. Organizers hope to eventually have about 15 qualifying contests around the world.

"Ice Hockey: Energy on Ice" by Sandis Kondrats of Latvia took first place in the Port Angeles sand sculpture contest.
Photo courtesy of Kristy Martin

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A few ramblings about killer whale activities

I have a few random observations and tidbits of news to share since I last wrote about the Southern Resident killer whales, who recently arrived in the San Juan Islands — a little behind schedule but showing off a newborn calf. See the July 7 story in the Kitsap Sun and related entry in Water Ways.

Orca travels

The Southern Residents have settled down somewhat in their summer waters in and around the San Juans. One can follow their travels by joining Orca Network’s Sightings List or by checking the website for reports by observers.

K-27, who is the mom of the new calf, and K-13, his grandmother.
Photo by Ken Balcomb, Center for Whale Research

I was interested in a comment made a week ago by Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research following his observations of the new calf and his mother, along with the mom’s brother, who were all joined later by the calf’s grandmother. Here’s Ken’s comment:

“It would be fascinating to eavesdrop on the whale communications at this time, especially those of matriarchs J2 and K13. There is a mixing of incomplete subgroups and matrilines this year, and much less of a pattern to their distributional movements. But they all appear to be in good body condition. We are getting good documentation of the condition of the new calf frequently for assessment.”

“Orcas in Our Midst”

Howard Garrett of Orca Network has updated his 33-page book “Orcas in Our Midst.” Volume 3 is dedicated to J-1, known as Ruffles, by far the oldest male among the Salish Sea killer whales when he went missing last fall.

Howie explains the natural history of killer whales in the Pacific Northwest and their evolution from land-dwelling creatures, as he delves into the cultural aspects of killer whale society. A special focus in this edition are the differences between resident and transient killer whales.

Howie and I recently discussed our mutual curiosity about killer whale culture and what researchers are discovering. As he noted:

“We’re seeing a new global awareness, an understanding that there is not just one orca. There are many, many forms around the world. How did that come about? How do they get their own identity, and how do they maintain that?”

At just 33 pages, one might consider this a basic book about killer whales — and it is — but Garrett has a knack for taking side trips that give you a sense of the complexity of this topic while hinting at the questions yet to be answered. To order the book, go to Orca Network’s Web Shop.

Who’s the daddy?

You may have read one of the recent news stories about how Southern Resident killer whales occasionally mate within their own pods, unlike Northern Residents of Upper British Columbia, which almost always breed outside their own pods.

We’ve always known the moms, because their offspring stay with them for life. But the dads are another matter.

J-47, the newest calf in J pod, was born last year.
Photo by Ken Balcomb, Center for Whale Research

It was previously believed, for example, that males in J pod would mate with females in K and L pods, but not those in J pod. The latest findings conflict with that view and bring up many questions.

Because of the small population size of the Southern Residents, the new study raises concerns about inbreeding and the extent of the genetic bottleneck. At least, the researchers found, Southern Residents do not mate with close relatives, as might be the case with a few bottlenose dolphin groups.

Michael Ford, who led the study for the National Marine Fisheries Service, told reporter Craig Welch of the Seattle Times that since the whales occasionally breed outside their pods, the population does take advantage of the larger gene pool:

“In terms of how bad it is … that depends on how long the population size stays small. Brief bottlenecks don’t necessarily have to have a long-term impact. But as a general rule, we should be concerned about small population sizes because genetic diversity is the raw material for adaptation and evolution.”

Of the 12 identified paternities, five involve mating between J-1 and a female in J pod. J-1, who disappeared last fall, was the oldest male around. The evidence suggests that older males are more successful reproductively, and J-1 may have been the most successful of all. The researchers could not conclude whether the apparent success of older males is the result of dominance over younger males, a selection by their female partners or a combination of factors.

With J-1 out of the picture, it will be interesting to see whether the frequency of intrapod mating declines.

Other info: News release (PDF 72 kb) from National Marine Fisheries Service.

Amusing Monday: Riding the waves again

I’m on vacation this week, so I thought I might re-run an “Amusing Monday” entry you may have seen before. I couldn’t remember the first entries I submitted for Amusing Monday, so I went back and looked.

I actually offered what I hoped were several funny entries before July 14, 2008, but this was the date I officially launched the weekly feature. The item below was the first “Amusing Monday” entry ever posted.

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Oxygen in Hood Canal bounces back overnight

UPDATE: Sept. 24, 2010

Conditions have remained pretty much the same the last couple of days, although the intrusion of dense higher-oxygen water from the ocean is beginning to create a thicker layer at the bottom of Hood Canal. The middle layer of low-oxygen water remains fairly thick, but the upper layer with higher oxygen concentrations is still providing fish some relief. South winds remain a threat, as I’ve explained for the last few weeks.

One can observe the three layers in the upper graph. The lower graph shows changes over the past week or so. Notice how oxygen concentrations are rising in the deep layer.
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