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How will treaty rights influence environmental restoration?

Treaties signed 160 years ago guarantee Native Americans the right to take fish from Puget Sound for all time. A case now before the courts will help determine whether those same treaty rights place limits on how property is developed in the state of Washington.

Specifically, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals last week heard arguments about whether the state of Washington violated the treaties by building culverts that block or restrict the passage of salmon. (Check out the video for the oral arguments.) If the appeals court upholds a ruling by U.S. District Judge Ricardo Martinez, the state could be obligated to fix about 1,000 culverts within 17 years at an estimated cost of $1.9 billion, according to state officials. That’s 1.9 billion with a “b.”

In landmark rulings in 1975 and 1976, U.S. District Judge George Boldt focused on treaty language that called for Indians and non-Indians to fish “in common” with each other. Boldt determined those words to mean that the two groups must share the “harvestable” amount of fish equally. He recognized that a portion of the fish must survive the gauntlet of fisheries to spawn and produce more fish.

Boldt also acknowledged that this perpetual fishing right would have no meaning for the tribes if state actions, such as ongoing development activities, caused the salmon to go extinct. The question that must be determined for now and into the future is what specific “duty” the treaty has imposed on federal, state and local governments to protect the environment in their ongoing settlement of the Northwest.

As the tribes argue in their brief before the appeals court:

“The parties intended the treaties to secure the tribes’ ability to forever sustain themselves by fishing…. Today, empty streams and empty nets belie that promise. Salmon runs have plummeted; many are locally extirpated or completely extinct. Tribes cannot meet their needs for fish.

“Despite ancient tribal and Anglo-American traditions barring obstructions to fish passage, more than 1,100 state culverts block salmon from 1,000 miles of case-area streams. Above those culverts lie almost 5 million square meters of salmon habitat, capable of producing hundreds of thousands more harvestable adult fish each year….

“The (district) court could only decide as it did: State culverts that seal salmon out of the streams they need to survive and multiply are inconsistent with the purpose and promise of the treaties. This decision is but one small step further on a century-long path of Supreme Court and Ninth Circuit cases holding that the ‘right of taking fish’ prohibits all manner of obstacles to the exercise of that right, without requiring that each obstacle be enumerated in treaty text.”

In Friday’s hearing, state Solicitor General Noah Purcell argued strongly on behalf of the state that the lower court ruling, if upheld, essentially creates a new treaty right to control development on nontribal land. If the appeals court fails to overturn the district court’s findings, he said, there would be no limit to future litigation. The tribes could assert a treaty right to remove any obstruction that hinders salmon migration — including dams — and to block any future development that could impede salmon runs.

“On its face,” Purcell argues in his brief, “the right of taking fish in common with all citizens does not include a right to prevent the state from making land-use decisions that could incidentally impact fish. Rather, such an interpretation is contrary to the treaties’ principal purpose of opening up the region to settlement.”

The state does not deny that culverts have affected salmon runs, Purcell said. In fact, the state has spent millions of dollars on salmon restoration, with special consideration for culverts. But allowing a judge to require the state to spend money on culvert removal has powerful legal implications.

The state currently is involved in a major restoration of the Puget Sound ecosystem, including an enormous effort to restore salmon streams. Directing money toward culvert removal could displace projects with greater promise for salmon restoration, he said.

Martinez was not ignorant of the salmon-restoration efforts but said the current pace of culvert-removal was too slow. Experts in his courtroom convinced the judge that it would take more than 100 years to solve the problem at the state’s pace of culvert replacement. After his ruling, the state picked up the pace of culvert replacement, and the Department of Transportation has dedicated special funding to get the work done. But meeting the court’s deadline remains a big challenge.

It seems a little ironic that the U.S. government, which signed the treaties with the tribes, has built many dams and roads of its own that block salmon passage. Yet the U.S. government is a party, alongside the tribes, in the case against Washington state. The U.S. role in this case is simply as a trustee for the tribes, attorneys say, and the tribes still have the right to sue the federal government as well.

Purcell argued that if the court does decide that the tribes have a treaty right that forces the state to remove the culverts, then the federal government should be required to help pay those costs. After all, most of the culverts were installed according to designs approved by the Federal Highway Administration, he noted.

The three-judge panel did not appear receptive to the state’s counter-suit against the U.S. government in this case. That issue might be more suitable for the Court of Federal Claims, one judge said.

John Sledd, attorney for the tribes, pointed out that state and federal laws have long prohibited anyone from blocking streams. One can build the road system as needed for development without blocking the passage of fish, he said.

One member of the three-judge panel was Judge David Ezra, who has presided over lawsuits involving federal dams on the Snake River. Ezra asked pointed questions about how far the legal principles might go in correcting environmental mistakes of the past.

According to Sledd, the notion that Martinez’ decision could lead to all sorts of mandated restoration efforts or restrictions on future development has been overstated.

“This is the first injunction that has come up through this theory in 45 years that it has been pending in U.S. v. Washington,” he said. “I don’t think the tribes are jumping to leap on every little problem out there. This is a major problem. It’s described by the biologists as the number-one priority after protecting adequate habitat.”

Still, the case is raising concerns from the state of Oregon as well as the Washington State Association of Counties. In a friend-of-the-court brief, WSAC said the litigation may not only be costly to the state, “but, if upheld, the tribes could next sue the counties, which could result in Washington taxpayers having to provide another billion dollars or more to fix county culverts.”

Other publications:

Associated Press story by reporter Gene Johnson

Clear Passage: The Culvert Case Decision as a Foundation for Habitat Protection and Preservation by Mason D. Morisset and Carly A. Summers, Seattle Journal of Environmental Law and Policy (PDF 3.2 mb).

Amusing Monday: Tiny cameras let us fly with eagles, swim with turtles

Specialized cameras, growing ever smaller as the technology advances, allows people to see the world as animals do, swimming to unique underwater environments, flying over craggy mountains or traipsing across ice-covered landscapes.

Small unmanned vehicles make it easy go many places, but they cannot replicate the behaviors and activities of wild animals.

The first video on this page shows a turtle swimming through the Great Barrier Reef. The video, posted in June, supports a project monitoring pollution across the reef. World Wildlife Fund is working with several groups and individuals on the project.

Another amusing turtle video, titled simply TORTUCAM GOPRO HD HERO, shows a turtle walking across someone’s yard and jumping into a swimming pool. The turtle has her own pond with plants and other turtles, and the pool is chlorine free, advises the poster, Silvestre81Fly.

Far from the calm environment of the Great Barrier Reef or a family’s backyard is what we can see from a camera-equipped radio collar mounted on a polar bear in Alaska’s Beaufort Sea. Check out the second video on this page.

This research project took place in April of last year by researchers with the U.S. Geological Survey. The video uses technology developed by videographer Adam Ravetch with support from the World Wildlife Fund.

Said to be the first camera ever mounted on a free-ranging polar bear on Arctic sea ice, the video shows the female bear swimming, trying to eat a frozen seal carcass and interacting with a potential mate. The research could help scientists understand how polar bears respond to declining sea ice.

One can find many videos resulting from cameras mounted on birds. One of my favorites involves an eagle flying through the French Alps, shown in the third video player on this page. For more of this kind, including a record-breaking flight in Dubai, visit the YouTube channel for Freedom, a conservation group.

Other worthwhile videos involving birds:

Back to the sea, take a look at these videos:

  • Hammerhead shark: GoPro: Hammerhead Fin Cam in 4K
  • Halibut: Amazing under water footage from a camera mounted on a monster fish

Another dramatic video involves an octopus, although the camera was never actually mounted on the animal. See “Octopus steals my video camera and swims off with it (while it’s Recording).”

And this series of animal cams would not be complete without at least one domestic creature. “The Eye of the Riley” shows Zachary Johnson’s Corgi hiking through Los Angeles’ Runyon Canyon. And here’s a GoPro video called “Beautiful Day at the Dog Park.”

Amusing Monday: Tiny fish teaches researchers about attachment

An odd little fish that attaches tightly to rocks could play a role in developing underwater suction cups that won’t let go even under the harshest conditions. I found the video amusing, but there is a serious side to this discussion as well.

University of Washington scientists studying biological attachment say the northern clingfish can hold up to 150 times its own weight, thanks to a growth on its underside that works like a suction cup. Unlike a standard suction cup, however, the clingfish’s sucker works even better on rough surfaces. The researchers are just beginning to imagine the possible applications for humans.

One idea is to develop a super suction cup that could attach a satellite transmitter to a killer whale or other marine mammal. The current method for long-term attachment is to use a sharp barb to penetrate the skin. Standard suction cups are commonly used for short-term monitoring with small instruments, but they tend to fall off quickly.

Suction-cup attachments could be developed for laparoscopic surgery, allowing doctors to move organs around without risk of puncture. Other applications could be anywhere a temporary tight bond is needed under wet conditions, such as the wall of a shower or swimming pool.

“Northern clingfish’s attachment abilities are very desirable for technical applications, and this fish can provide an excellent model for strongly and reversibly attaching to rough, fouled surfaces in wet environments,” said Petra Ditsche, a postdoctoral researcher working with Adam Summers and his team at Friday Harbor Labs in the San Juan Islands. (See UW news release.)

In April, Ditsche found an interested audience at a meeting of the Adhesive and Sealant Council, which studies, promotes and markets various forms of attachment.

So how are clingfish able to hold on so tightly? The secret lies in the tiny hairlike structures called microvilli formed in layers around the suction-cup growth on their bellies. The microvilli help form a tight seal on rough surfaces, and they flex to maintain the seal even when wiggled back and forth. A standard rubber or plastic suction cup can rapidly lose its seal from distortion or movement, which allows air or water to seep underneath.

For a detailed discussion about biological attachment of all sorts, check out a paper by Ditsche and Summers called “Aquatic versus terrestrial attachment: Water makes a difference” in the Beilstein Journal of Nanotechnology.

About 110 species of clingfish have been identified, and the northern clingfish is found from Mexico to Alaska.

Hood Canal council questions hatchery cuts

Hood Canal Coordinating Council is calling on Gov. Jay Inslee to drop a proposal for major budget cuts to the George Adams and Hoodsport hatcheries in southern Hood Canal.

“The economic loss to our HCCC member counties and tribes does not justify the small savings that would be afforded to the state budget,” wrote Council Chairman Jeromy Sullivan in a letter to the governor.

2014 WDFW Supplemental Budget
2014 WDFW Supplemental Operating Budget

The governor’s budget (PDF 134 kb) includes hatchery reductions proposed by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, which was trying to meet the governor’s call for a 15-percent reduction in General Fund expenditures.

Hatcheries proposed for outright closure include Minter Creek Hatchery near Gig Harbor, 6.5 million chum, coho and fall chinook; Naselle Hatchery on Willapa Bay, 2.5 million coho, chum and fall chinook plus 19,000 trout and 75,000 steelhead; Nemah Hatchery near Willapa Bay, 3.3 million fall chinook and chum; and Samish Hatchery near Bellingham, 4 million fall chinook. For details, check out WDFW’s budget page.

Under the plan, the Hoodsport Hatchery would save $132,000 by reducing production of fall chinook salmon by 800,000 fry and eliminating production of 12 million chum and 500,000 pink salmon. George Adams Hatchery would save $87,000 by eliminating production of 2.1 million chum.

Kelly Cunningham, deputy assistant director of WDFW in charge of the Fish Program, forwarded me the department’s economic analysis of the hatchery reduction.

For the Hoodsport Hatchery, the estimated loss in personal income by businesses associated with commercial and sport fishing would be about $4.15 million, according to state estimates. For the George Adams Hatchery, the loss would be more than $900,000.

In other words, for a savings of $219,000 in the state budget, workers in the fishing industry would lose more than $5 million. And that does not include the economic value related to harvests outside of Washington state, Kelly Cunningham told me.

Decisions about which hatcheries to cut included considerations of court orders, tribal agreements and hatchery-reform recommendations, as well as economic benefit, Kelly explained. But he wasn’t specific about whether the hatchery cuts aligned with any identified ecological benefits.

The state and tribes have been under pressure from the National Marine Fisheries Service to reduce the unintended harvest of wild chinook, a threatened species, caused by large numbers of hatchery chinook coming into the Skokomish River at the same time. Another concern has been stray chinook bypassing Purdy Creek (where the George Adams Hatchery is located) and interacting with wild stocks in the Skokomish River. See my story in the Kitsap Sun, Oct. 26, 2013.

The long-term plan is to develop a late-timed chinook stock that returns to the Skokomish at a different time than the wild stock, allowing more targeted harvesting of the hatchery fish. See “Hatchery and Genetic Management Plan” (PDF 725 kb)

Sullivan’s letter to the governor continues:

“HCCC members appreciate the difficult budget climate that you and the state Legislature are facing. We urge you, however, to be forward-looking and recognize that stronger local economies will, in the long term, contribute significantly to a strong state budget and financial situation.”

Sullivan was authorized to send the letter during a recent meeting of the Hood Canal Coordinating Council, whose members are county commissioners from Kitsap, Mason and Jefferson counties along with leaders from the Skokomish and Port Gamble S’Klallam tribes. Sullivan is chairman of the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribal Council.

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

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.

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.

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

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.”