We hear about the “balance of nature,” but it’s not something
that we can truly understand until the balance is thrown out of
whack by something like climate change or invasive species.
Until I began a recent reporting project for Puget
Sound Institute, I never realized that San Francisco Bay was
such a hotbed of invasive species. Beginning with the California
Gold Rush, ships began moving in and out of the bay in unbelievable
numbers, arriving from ports all around the world. Now, more than
200 non-native species are making their permanent home in the bay —
including some species that have thoroughly altered the local
So far, we have been lucky in Puget Sound. Experts say we have
about 75 firmly established non-native species, yet none of them
have created the widespread damage caused in San Francisco Bay by
European green crabs and Asian clams or in the Great Lakes by zebra
mussels. The video on this page does a good job of telling the
Great Lakes story, which has been repeated all over the world.
Once people in Washington state realized how disruptive invasive
species can be, the struggle was on to protect Puget Sound from
alien invaders — particularly those found in San Francisco Bay,
which is just a short hop away on the world scale. My series of
stories talks about concerns for Puget Sound and the efforts to
control a possible invasion.
Invasive species range in size from microscopic viruses to
four-foot-long striped bass. In California, the striped bass became
a prized sport fish after it was intentionally introduced in 1879.
But over the past decade concerns have grown for their effects on
the salmon population. The jury is still out on whether high
numbers of stripers should be sustained for anglers or the
population should be fished down rapidly to save salmon and other
species. Check out these stories:
Meanwhile, striped bass have been moving up the West Coast,
possibly because of warmer waters due to climate change. A few
years ago, a 55-pounder was caught in the Columbia River, and I’ve
heard rumors that they have been seen in the Strait of Juan de
On the small side, I report on a tiny crustacean, an invasive
copepod that has almost entirely displaced native copepods in
Samish Bay in northern Puget Sound. Copepods are important prey for
small fish, including herring, which feed the larger salmon. The
invasive copepods are smaller and more difficult for fish to see,
which could have a cascading effect on the entire food web.
A major concern for Puget Sound biologists is the European green
crab, which could move into Puget Sound from San Francisco Bay in
ballast water or with warm ocean currents during an El Niño year,
like the one just past. As I describe in the new series, a major
program involving citizen science volunteers is ongoing in a search
to find the first green crabs before they gain a foothold.
Pacific oysters, another non-native species, were intentionally
brought to the Northwest from Japan in the early 1900s to replace
the native Olympia oyster, which had been decimated by poor water
quality. Pacific oysters soon became a mainstay of the shellfish
industry in the Puget Sound region and are now growing thick in
Similar introductions of Pacific oysters occurred in California
beginning more than 100 years ago, but for some reason the oyster
populations never took hold, according to a report in the
Fish and Game (PDF 1.7 mb). Finally, in the early 2000s, the
invasion began to take off.
“It remains unclear why there should be a successful invasion
now, given the failure of previous attempts to deliberately
introduce the species both locally and throughout California…,” the
“If populations in Southern California waters do continue to
expand and grow, as they have in other areas where they have
invaded, it will undoubtedly bring changes to the way our estuarine
intertidal habitats function as well as in the way we must manage
“Because Pacific oysters rapidly reach large sizes, they could
pose problems related to fouling of maritime equipment,
infrastructure, and vessels,” the report continues. “Pacific
oysters stand out as one of the most transformative invaders of
As Washington state takes steps to keep alien species from
invading Puget Sound from California, California officials may
adopt similar measures to block invaders from coming into that
Please take a look at this package of stories I wrote for Puget
Sound Institute, with editing by Jeff Rice and design by Kris
This is a campaign slogan going out to Puget Sound crabbers. It
is a positive message, built upon the goals of:
Helping people avoid losing their crab pots,
Reducing the number of crabs that go to waste, and
Increasing the number of crabs available for harvest.
We’ve talked about the problems of lost crab pots that keep on
catching crabs on the bottom of Puget Sound. About 12,000 crab pots
are lost each year in Puget Sound, killing an estimated 178,000
legal-sized Dungeness crabs that would otherwise be served up for
dinner. In January, I described some simple alterations to crab
pots that allow crabs to escape when a pot gets lost. See
Water Ways, Jan. 28.
Even more basic, however, are proven techniques that help people
select equipment and place their crab pots so they don’t get
damaged or lost in the first place.
The Northwest Straits Initiative, authorized by Congress in
1998, has been working on the problem of derelict gear for years,
retrieval of thousands of lost nets and crab pots from Puget
Sound. When it came to enlisting the public’s help in prevention,
campaign organizers realized that everyone was on the same side,
said Jason Morgan of the nonprofit Northwest Straits
“We previously focused on the doom and gloom of it, talking
about so many crabs killed each year,” Jason told me.
Working with sociologists, campaign organizers realized that
“the better way to reach people is not to talk about dead crabs but
to say we want you to catch more crabs and keep your crab
The Northwest Straits Foundation has developed a three-year plan
of action, including education for the public; improved
communication among crabbers, vessel operators and government
officials; and recommendations for improving regulations.
The plan was put together by a working group of 35 people
involved in various aspects of crab harvesting, boat traffic and
“It was a great collaborative process,” Jason said. “There was
no butting of heads or anything like that.”
“Crab pots are lost for a variety of reasons. Causes for loss
generally fall into three categories:
Vessel interaction (both recreational and commercial
Improperly configured gear, including improperly tied knots;
Improperly placed gear.
“All these categories usually include a degree of user error,
either on the part of the crabber, or on the part of the boater or
The plan includes at least 25 strategies for reducing conflicts
between vessel traffic and crab pots, reducing tampering and
sabotage, improving crabbing equipment and pot configuration, and
removing abandoned crab pots during non-crabbing days.
One of the interesting ideas is to require online registration
for recreational crab endorsements on fishing licenses. Applicants
would take a short quiz to make sure they know the rules.
Rich Childers, shellfish manager for Washington Department of
Fish and Wildlife, said the various regulatory proposals in the
plan are under advisement. One idea, which has proven effective, is
to reduce the size of allowable escape cord (“rot cord”) that opens
an escape hatch for the crabs to get out. Studies have shown that
approved escape cord takes between 30 and 148 days to disintegrate,
and most people use larger cord to last longer.
The time that crabs are trapped and dying on the bottom could be
reduced if the rules were changed to require smaller cord. Any rule
changes would include a grace period, Childers said, and it would
be nice if crabbers could obtain the smaller cord for free.
With crab season underway, a series of videos on the theme
“Catch more crab!” couldn’t come at a better time:
Congress is on the verge of passing a law that would open a door
for invasive species to sneak into Puget Sound from San Francisco
Bay — known as the most infested waterway in the country.
The proposed legislation, supported by the shipping industry, is
focused on reducing regulations surrounding the release of ballast
water, which large ships use to maintain stability. Environmental
groups and officials from at least nine states have voiced their
opposition to the proposal, saying it could result in long-term
damage to coastal and Great
Ballast water doesn’t get much attention in the media, but it
has been associated with the transfer of invasive species
throughout the world. Ships often take on ballast water at ports
where they unload their cargo before moving to their next
destination for a new load. As ships take on cargo, they discharge
ballast water from the previous location — along with any organisms
that hitched a ride.
Introduced species may multiply, displace native species and
disrupt the food web. Lacking natural predators, some invasive
species have been known to grow out of control, taking over beaches
or underwater areas.
Rules and more rules
To reduce the risk of invasive species, the U.S. Coast Guard
requires vessels from foreign countries to exchange their ballast
water at sea before entering U.S. waters. Studies have shown that
most organisms living out in the ocean don’t survive in coastal
waters, and vice versa. So it is less risky for Puget Sound to
receive ballast water picked up well off the coast than from
another coastal inlet.
Ships that don’t discharge ballast water don’t need to comply
with the Coast Guard’s ballast-exchange rule, nor do any ships
transiting the U.S. coast, such as those coming into Puget Sound
For years, fears have been growing that Puget Sound will become
invaded by species that could alter sea life as we know it today.
San Francisco Bay is dominated by more than 200 non-native species,
including the European
green crab and the Asian
clam — both of which have caused enormous economic losses to
the shellfish industry in various locations.
In contrast, Puget Sound has become home to an identified 74
non-native marine species, although early introductions of exotic
plankton — including some that produce toxins — could have gone
In reaction to growing concerns about invasive species, the
Washington Legislature passed a law in 2000 that requires ballast
exchange for ships arriving from anywhere outside a “common waters”
zone. That’s an area from the Columbia River to just north of
Vancouver, B.C. Consequently, ships from California that intend to
release ballast water into Puget Sound must first exchange their
ballast water at least 50 miles off the coast.
While the exchange of ballast water has been relatively
effective in controlling the release of non-native species, the
technique has always been considered an interim measure. Treating
ballast water to kill organisms has been the long-term goal — and
that’s where the confusion and frustration begins.
The International Maritime Organization has one treatment
standard nearing final adoption for ships throughout the world. The
Coast Guard says the IMO requirement to eliminate “viable”
organisms — those able to reproduce — is too risky. The Coast Guard
requires that organisms be killed. States may choose to issue their
own standards, and California has proposed the most stringent
treatment standards of all. Still, most of these standards are
essentially on hold pending testing and certification of specific
Shipping companies say all these costly and conflicting rules
are too difficult to navigate for businesses dealing in interstate
and international commerce. But that’s not all the rules they may
The Environmental Protection Agency became involved in ballast
water in 2008, after federal courts ruled that the shipping
industry is not exempt from the Clean Water Act. The EPA then came
up with a “vessel general permit” for ballast water and other
discharges from ships, a permit that was challenged twice by
environmental groups. Each time, the courts ruled against the
The latest EPA permit failed to require the “best available
technology” for ballast water treatment, failed to set numerical
standards, failed to require monitoring, and failed to meet other
provisions of the Clean Water Act, according to a ruling
handed down in October (PDF 6.4 mb) by the Second Circuit Court
of Appeals in New York. A revised permit is now in the works.
Legislation and politics
That brings us to the controversial legislation, called the
Vessel Incidental Discharge Act, or VIDA. The essence of the bill
is to eliminate state jurisdiction and any oversight by the EPA.
Upon enactment, only Coast Guard rules would apply, and ships from
San Francisco would no longer need to exchange their ballast water
before coming into Washington or Oregon. For an in-depth
understanding of the bill, read the
Congressional Research Service report (PDF 3.5 mb).
The lack of coastwise ballast exchange is the biggest concern of
officials along the West Coast, where similar state requirements
are in effect. In California, the problem is that VIDA would allow
the spread of invasive species from San Francisco Bay to more
pristine bays, such as Humboldt Bay. While the bill allows states
to petition for regulations to deal with local conditions, nobody
knows how that would work. The petition would need scientific proof
that the local regulations are needed and feasible, and the Coast
Guard would have 90 days to make a decision.
In the U.S. House of Representatives, VIDA became attached to
the National Defense Authorization Act, which was approved. NDAA is
a “must-pass” bill to authorize military funding and many other
things associated with national defense.
The Senate version of the defense bill does not contain the VIDA
provision. While the two bills are technically in a conference
committee, insiders tell me that top leaders in the House and
Senate must engage in political battles over the critical defense
bill and try to work out a compromise to gain approval in both
The shipping industry is lobbying hard for VIDA to stay in the
compromise bill, while environmentalists want to take it out. We
may not know which of the related and unrelated riders on the bill
will survive until the bill is ready for congressional action.
In the Senate, Florida’s Sen. Marco Rubio was the original
sponsor of the legislation when it was a stand-alone bill.
Republicans would like him to get a win for the folks back home,
where Rubio is engaged in a tight election race. (See Dan
Friedman’s story in Fortune.)
President Obama, threatening a veto, lists VIDA as one of many
provisions that he opposes in the House version of the National
Defense Authorization Act. See
Statement of Administration Policy (PDF 1.2 mb). Nobody thinks
he would veto the bill over ballast water alone.
Many shipping industry officials say they don’t object to
stringent treatment standards. They only wish to avoid multiple,
confusing standards. They also would like some assurance that the
standards are technically feasible and won’t require ongoing costly
changes to equipment.
Environmentalists say they don’t want to lose the authority of
the Clean Water Act, which allows average citizens to bring
lawsuits to protect the environment.
“The Clean Water Act is a tried and true approach for
controlling water pollution problems,” said Nina Bell of Northwest
Environmental Advocates in Portland. Her group was among those that
brought the lawsuit
against the EPA (PDF 6.8 mb).
“I think we are poised to make some real progress,” Nina told
me. “VIDA opts instead to take away authority from the
Environmental Protection Agency and give it to the Coast Guard,
which has no environmental expertise. The Coast Guard has a lot of
priorities, such as keeping people safe on ships and protecting our
waters, but this is not one of them.”
The EPA has clear authority to regulate ballast water and limit
the spread of invasive species, she said. If the EPA were to issue
strong requirements, the states would not need their own
At a community meeting in March, many residents of Harper in
South Kitsap expressed profound disappointment that the latest plan
to restore Harper Estuary would remove a low-key boat launch used
by many people in the area. See
Kitsap Sun story, March 31.
The makeshift boat launch, built on fill, provides the only
access to the beach in that area, community members noted. Many
expressed their belief that county and state officials had failed
in their commitment to maintain beach access.
After the meeting, five representatives of the community met
onsite with officials involved in the project. Several ideas were
discussed, and it appears that a new access to the estuary is
gaining approval, though it won’t allow vehicles with trailers to
reach the water. The new access would be an earthen ramp on the
opposite side of Olympiad Drive.
“Retaining the boat landing in its current location will:
“Block the ability to replace the undersized culvert with a
large bridge in order to restore estuary function and tidal
“Reduce sediment contaminant removal associated with the
“Retain compacted gravel substrate that does not support
aquatic plants or benthic organisms at the existing boat launch,
“Impede restoration of filled estuarine habitat and functional
The proposal now under consideration is to grade the slope
alongside Olympiad Drive at a gentle 5:1 angle. Cars and trucks
could pull off the side of the road long enough to unload their
boats, which would be carried down the slope. For people who just
want to walk down to the water, the ramp would provide the needed
access and perhaps the beginning of a proposed trail system around
A plan to build stairs down to the water from Southworth Drive
raised objections during the March meeting, because it would be
difficult and unsafe to carry boats across the busy roadway and
down concrete steps, which could become slippery. If the stairs are
built, which remains undecided, they could be designed to contain
gravel, making them less slippery.
Jim Heytvelt, a community leader in Harper, said the new access
to the beach would meet the needs of most, but not all, people in
the community. Most people in support of the restoration never
wanted a major boat launch like the one at Manchester, he said.
People are beginning to come around to the reality of the
situation, given conditions needed to restore the estuary, he
During surveys of the property, officials discovered another
problem that could have thrown a monkey wrench into the boat launch
at its current location. The county learned that it does not own
the property where the boat launch was built, as had been widely
assumed. The property is owned by the state Department of Natural
Resources — and nobody has ever been given approval to use the
Even if the restoration could be done without removing the
launch site, nobody knows if the DNR would grant a lease for the
use to continue. Someone might need to assume liability at the
site. The proposed ramp to the estuary seems to eliminate that
problem, as the property is almost entirely owned by the
Delays in preparing the plans, getting permits and putting the
project out to bid has caused the schedule to slip from early
summer into late summer and fall, said Doris Small of the
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. That assumes the
project can be advertised for bids by the end of this month —
something that is still not certain.
Any further delays could put the funding in jeopardy and might
require new approvals from the Washington Department of Ecology and
possibly the Legislature. The restoration money comes from a fund
set up to mitigate for damages from the ASARCO smelter in Tacoma,
which emitted toxic pollution for decades, some of which reached
The first phase of the project involves excavation to remove
most of the fill dumped into the estuary, allowing the shorelines
to return to a natural condition. To complete the restoration,
additional funding is being sought to build a bridge, which will
replace the culvert under Olympiad Drive. If funding is approved,
the bridge could be built as early as next summer.
Another community meeting is scheduled for Wednesday at 6:30
p.m. at Colby United Methodist Church, 2881 Harvey St. SE.
Officials will provide an update on the restoration efforts. County
Commission Charlotte Garrido said she would like to continue
discussions about what the community would like to see in the
future, hoping to build a stronger relationship between the county
and the community.
“Sonic Sea,” which will air Thursday on Discovery Channel, will
take you down beneath the ocean waves, where sounds take on new
meaning, some with dangerous implications.
Humans spend most of their time in air, a medium that transmits
light so well that we have no trouble seeing the shapes of objects
in a room or mountains many miles away. In the same way, water is
the right medium for sound, which shapes the world of marine
mammals and other species that live under water.
The hour-long documentary film reveals how humpback whales use
low-frequency sounds to communicate with other whales across an
entire ocean and how killer whales use high-frequency sound to
locate their prey in dark waters.
“The whales see the ocean through sound, so their mind’s eye is
their mind’s ear,” says Michael Jasny of the Natural Resources
Defense Council, an environment group that produced the film with
the help of the production company Imaginary Forces.
“Sonic Sea” opens with Ken Balcomb, dean of killer whale
research in Puget Sound, telling the story of how he learned about
16 beaked whales that had beached themselves in the Bahamas, where
he was doing research in 2001.
“Animals that I had grown to know over a 10-year period were now
dead,” Ken says during the movie, recalling the horrifying day when
one whale after another was discovered dead or dying. “They were
trying to get away. I was driven to find out why.”
Thanks to Ken’s presence during that stranding incident, experts
were able to prove that Navy sonar could be deadly. It took two
years for Navy officials to overcome their denial.
As I watched the film, I wondered if people would identify with
the idea that hearing to marine mammals is like sight to humans.
Would people see how much humans have invaded the underwater world
with noise from ship traffic, oil exploration, military training
and shoreline construction?
“I listen to the world, and to me song is life,” said Chris
Clark, a bioacoustics expert at Cornell Lab of Ornithology,. “It is
the essence of who we are, and it joins us all. The problem is, in
the ocean, we are injecting enormous amounts of noise, so much so
that we are acoustically bleaching the ocean. All the singing
voices of the planet are lost in that cloud of noise.”
This type of human invasion is different from wiping out habitat
as new construction changes the land, but the effect can be equally
devastating to some species.
In September of 2001, a group of researchers on the East Coast
were collecting fecal samples from right whales to check for stress
hormones. Stress levels were running high among the whales, except
for a few days when the levels dropped dramatically. That happened
right after Sept. 11, when ship traffic in the area was shut down
following the bombing of the World Trade Center. It still isn’t
clear what that constant stress is doing to the animals, but it
can’t be good. See
Duke University press release.
The good news, the film tells us, is that ships can be made
quieter, with an important side benefit: Quieter ships are more
efficient, which makes them cheaper to operate. Ships can also
reduce noise by going slower, saving on fuel. Beyond shipping,
people can find ways to operate in the ocean with less sonic harm
to sea life.
The Navy’s viewpoint, as represented in the film, appears to be
a more enlightened approach that I have seen until now. Of course,
protecting Navy ships against enemy attacks is the priority, but
the need to accommodate marine life seems to be recognized to a
“It comes down to what we value,” Clark said. “We value a living
ocean. We are putting the ocean at risk. And if you put the ocean
at risk, you are putting all of us at risk.”
The first video on this page is the trailer to “Sonic Sea” as
provided by the producers of the film. The second is the trailer
provided by Discovery Channel.
In the underwater world, where hearing can be more important
than sight, whales are being bombarded by a cacophony of sounds,
which started cluttering up their lives when the first steamships
were launched into the ocean.
Now, after 200 years, people are beginning to care about the
kinds of noise imposed upon marine mammals and other creatures. To
a limited extent, research can now answer this important question:
How are humans affecting marine life with noise coming from our
ships and boats, our ocean exploration and construction, and our
It is time to think about how we can apply new scientific
knowledge in a more meaningful way than current regulations, which
depend on putting a “safe” distance between one vessel and one
A month ago in
“Amusing Monday,” I featured the music of Dana Lyons, who wrote
a song about sound from the perspective of the whales. The song got
me to thinking about how the sailing ships of yesteryear must have
been so much more pleasant for the whales — assuming, of course,
that they weren’t whaling ships.
Scott Veirs, an oceanographer, joined forces with his dad,
physicist Val Veirs, to operate a hydrophone network based in the
San Juan Islands, where they study the sounds of whales, ships and
anything else that makes sounds in the waters of the Salish
“We are trying to get a statistically significant
characterization (of sound),” Scott told me. “For me, the question
is: Does this make a difference for certain species? To be honest,
I’m seeing lots of evidence in the emerging literature that ship
noise really does make a difference.”
Scott and Val, along with acoustics expert Jason Wood, recently
published a research paper in the journal “Peer J.,” in which they
describe their acoustic encounters with more than 3,000 ships
passing by their hydrophones. Through careful calibration of their
instruments, they were able to calculate sound levels at the source
— which can tell us which ships and boats produce the most noise
before attenuation of the sound through the water. Check out the
news release, or read the entire article.
It has long been known that cargo ships and other large vessels
produce low-frequency sounds that can travel great distances in
seawater. That adds to an overall background noise that seems to be
increasing over time. For baleen whales, who communicate with
lower-frequency sounds, this changing soundscape could be something
like the difference between a person living downtown in a busy city
and a person living in the country.
In an interesting but unplanned study after the 9/11 attacks of
2001, researchers were able to show that right whales in Canada’s
Bay of Fundy had lower stress hormone levels immediately after the
attacks. That’s when ship traffic — and noise — were significantly
lowered. The findings were limited to the short time frame that
ship traffic diminished, but the researchers were fortunate that
fecal samples from another study could be used to measure stress
hormones before and after 9/11. Review the paper:
Evidence that ship noise increases stress in right whales.
It was not a big surprise that large ships can affect baleen
whales, but Scott and his colleagues were able to show that large
ships produce not only low-frequency sounds but also high-frequency
sounds in the hearing range of killer whales.
“The noise does extend up into the range where whales hear well,”
Scott told me, “but that does not answer whether it matters to
He said the challenge for orcas is to hear the reflection of
high-frequency clicks sent out by an orca to locate chinook salmon
and other prey. The echolocation clicks are loud as they leave the
whale, but the return signal they are attempting to hear can be
faint unless the fish are very close, Scott said. If other high
frequency sounds, such as from nearby boats, interfere with their
hearing, then the whales may struggle to locate their prey, he
“My greatest concern is how much a single container ship might
decrease the range that a killer whale would be able to hear the
echo,” Scott said. “The impact in terms of decreasing their
foraging range is really kind of scary.”
Studies of various ships might identify what is causing the
high-frequency sounds and lead to a technological solution to the
problem, Scott said. Military ships are designed to be quiet, and
some of that technology could be transferred to commercial vessels.
If the noise from just 10 percent of the noisiest vessels could be
reduced, it could lead to a significant improvement in the noisy
The question of how much high-frequency noise reaches the killer
whales was the focus of a study conducted by researchers from the
University of Washington and NOAA Fisheries. Researchers used
suction cups to temporarily attach digital acoustic recording tags,
or d-tags, to killer whales to measure the level of sound. They
also used laser-positioning equipment operated from a research boat
to measure the size, speed, location and type of vessel emitting
“The goal was to understand this missing but assumed link
between what we see at the surface and what the whales experience
at depth,” said Juliana Houghton, a recent UW graduate and lead
author of the study, who was quoted in a
UW news release.
A key finding was that the number of propellers on a vessel
influenced the sound volume, but the most important factor was the
speed of the vessel — with higher speeds producing significantly
more high-frequency noise. The findings were published in the
journal PLOS ONE.
Taking these and other studies together could help chart a path
toward quieter vessels, less noise around whales and ultimately a
better outcome for marine mammals dependent on underwater
communication and echolocation.
Port Metro Vancouver in British Columbia has taken these ideas
one step further with a hydrophone listening station installed in
the inbound shipping lanes in the Strait of Georgia north of the
U.S. border. The listening station is part of a program called
Enhancing Cetacean Habitat and Observation (ECHO). The listening
station will monitor the noise of identified ships passing through.
news release from the port.
The video below shows the deployment of the listening station in
the Strait of Georgia in British Columbia.
From what I know about the system, it could potentially lead to
an individual sound profile for each ship entering Canadian waters,
and authorities could investigate whether slowing certain vessels
could reduce noise for whales in the area.
“The ECHO program’s long-term goal is to develop mitigation
measures that will lead to a quantifiable reduction in potential
threats to whales as a result of shipping activities,” Duncan
Wilson, vice president of corporate social responsibility at Port
Metro Vancouver, said in an op-ed piece in the Vancouver
“These mitigation measures may include incentives for the use of
green vessel technology, changes to operational activities of
ocean-going vessels, a certification program for quiet vessels,
and/or the development of noise criteria for vessels entering the
port,” he added.
2013 report by World Wildlife Fund–Canada (PDF 2.6 mb) makes
the case for developing tools to better manage noise. The 96-page
report, which came out of a 2012 workshop on ocean noise in Canada,
concluded that the ability to profile individual ships could lead
to these ideas for reducing noise:
“Use existing data on noise output from different sizes and
classes of vessels, and establish percentage criteria below which
ships should fall. Vessels above the criteria would face pecuniary
consequences, e.g., higher port fees…
“Shipping noise should not be allowed to reduce whale
communication space beyond a certain percentage … Masking is a
significant threat to marine animals.
“Establish a cumulative noise exposure level…, rather than only
maximum event-based exposure criteria for individual
“Develop a report card system that identifies the noisiest 10%
of vessels passing over a noise monitoring station. In the absence
of legislation, letters could be sent to vessel owners advising
them of their noisy ships, and a list of worst offenders could be
published. Letters could also be sent to the owners of quiet ships,
congratulating them on their reduced contribution to the
“Ports could adopt maintenance requirements for noisy ships, as
poor vessel maintenance is the source of extraneous noise on
approximately 10 percent of merchant ships.
“A mandatory phased-in program could be established to
incentivize quietening technologies for retrofitted vessels.
Proposed new projects could require quietened ships.”
Although the United States began regulating the effects of ocean
noise earlier than most countries — as early as the 1980s — U.S.
agencies have been slow to keep up with the best available science,
according to Michael Jasny of the Natural Resources Defense
Council, who wrote a chapter in the WWF report,
Be honest about estimating effects: U.S. sound
thresholds for marine mammals assume that 120 decibels of
“continuous” noise or 160 decibels of “intermittent” noise have an
adverse behavioral effect, while noise above 180 decibels is
considered injurious. But these numbers fail to account for
differences in species, bias in observed impacts and masking
effects. This makes the thresholds “outdated” and “insufficiently
Think cumulatively: Regulators and managers
should look beyond the effects of a single sound exposure to the
effects of noise over time on the population of animals from all
sources of noise.
Evolve beyond the near field: The traditional
approach has been a “safety zone,” in which sound sources are
powered down when marine mammals get within a specified range. The
U.S. has begun to move beyond this simple idea to habitat-based
management, including area closures for important habitats when
marine mammals are likely to be present. Also under review are
technical alternatives to reduce noise from ships, airguns (used in
seismic studies) and pile-driving equipment.
The Ballard Locks is a great place to visit, especially in the
late summer and fall when the salmon are migrating into Lake
Washington. I’ve been taking out-of-town friends and family there
for years to observe the multitude of boats using the locks and to
peer at salmon through windows of the fish ladder.
I never thought much about all the mechanical equipment that
keeps the locks functioning. But during a recent visit, I was taken
to a darker and more dangerous side of the facility. I walked down
a spiral iron staircase some 60 feet deep into an abandoned pumping
plant. Rusty iron pipes and pumps were still in place, having been
shut down three years ago out of concern that a pipe might burst
while someone was down in the well.
Growing concerns about the safety and maintenance problems
inspired me to write a story about the locks for the Encyclopedia
of Puget Sound, along with a sidebar about salmon
in the Lake Washington watershed that migrate along a treacherous
route through the locks.
The locks were completed in 1916, and much of the antique
equipment is still in operation — including gears, pulleys and
chains. The mechanical works and the big steel doors with their
neatly aligned rivets remind me of the art and aesthetic design of
(Wikipedia), a style with its own dedicated page on Pinterest.
A dam-safety study and growing awareness of the outmoded
equipment could help bring money for a major renovation, which
could cost $50 million or more. President Obama’s budget, recently
submitted to Congress, includes funding for replacing the pumping
plant I mentioned above but not much more. By the way, while I was
at the locks in early January, contractors were beginning to remove
the old pumping plant equipment — even though replacement is not
My trip to the locks and my follow-up reporting have given me a
new perspective on a place I thought I knew fairly well. In
reality, I knew very little about the inner workings of the Ballard
Locks, officially known as the Hiram S. Chittenden Locks. I hope
you can learn something about the facility by reading my story.
Meanwhile, officials at the locks are planning a major
centennial celebration. Although the first ship went through the
“Government Locks” in August of 1916, the opening celebration was
delayed until the Fourth of July in 1917. (Check out Friends
of the Ballard Locks.) At the time, it was a major event,
including fireworks and other festivities. More than 100,000 people
attended, according to reports.
I’m told that supporters will roll out various activities
throughout next year, in part because July 4 is now associated with
many other events. For information, see ballardlocks.org.
I will try to keep up with the various centennial plans and
report details of the events as information becomes available.
For the past month, K-33, a Southern Resident orca bearing a
satellite transmitter, has been moving up and down the West Coast,
presumably with the rest of his pod. I’ll tell you more about those
travels in a moment.
NOAA Fisheries today released a list of “priority actions” for
eight endangered “species in the spotlight,” including the Southern
Resident killer whales of Puget Sound. These species are highly
recognized by the public and considered among those at greatest
risk of extinction.
Protect killer whales from harmful vessel impacts
through enforcement, education and evaluation: This
includes direct interference by boats and ships as well as noise
and other problems to be identified.
Target recovery of critical prey: Because
chinook salmon are known to be the primary food supply for the
whales, efforts must be taken to restore the salmon species to
healthy populations throughout the orcas’ habitat.
Protect important habitat areas from anthropogenic
threats: Since the orcas spend more than half their time
in the ocean, it is important to identify and protect the places
that are important to them.
Improve our knowledge of Southern Resident killer whale
health to advance recovery: Identifying why some whales
are dying at a young age and why some females are unable to
reproduce are among the research efforts taking place.
And that brings us back to K-33, a 15-year-old male orca named
Tika who has been carrying a satellite transmitter on his dorsal
fin since New Year’s Eve. Researchers, including Brad Hanson of the
Northwest Fisheries Science Center, say that it is likely that all
of K pod and possibly part of L pod are traveling with him.
The tracking project is designed to see how far the whales go in
winter, where they linger and what they are eating, as well as any
behavioral observations. The satellite can tell us where they go
and how long they stay, but food and behavioral issues must be
assessed on the water.
Brad and his research team are scheduled to meet up with the
whales during a cruise that begins 10 days from now, on Feb. 20.
NOAA’s research ship, Bell M. Shimada, will leave from Newport,
Ore., and use the satellite data to locate and follow the whales,
assuming the satellite tag stays on that long. Fecal samples and
fish scales could be collected if the weather cooperates.
Brad told me he is eager to get as much information as he can,
as his agency is beginning to put together a plan to protect
coastal areas that are important to the whales. A possible
expansion of the Southern Residents’ critical habitat is scheduled
for next year.
“We’re trying to build up our sample size,” Brad said. “A big
part of critical habitat is not just range. Where are they spending
time, and why are they spending time in those areas?”
The researchers are trying to account for differences among the
pods and smaller groups of whales and how they react under various
conditions. With this being a strong El Niño year, the researchers
would like to see whether the whales are going to different places
or acting differently.
Besides the satellite tags and direct observations, the
researchers are using a network of hydrophones along the coast to
record the sounds of the whales as they swim by. Those recordings
are collected at the end of the season.
In terms of the health assessment — called out as one of the key
actions — fecal samples can be used to identify individual whales
and provide information about hormone levels and other indications
of general health.
Now, let me bring you up to date on the travels of K-33 and his
companions. In my last report on Jan. 19, the whales had reversed
their southerly course after going all the way to Cape Mendocino,
Calif., on Jan. 17. Coming back north, they reached Washington’s
Willapa Bay on Jan. 20, when they turned south again. This time,
they went as far as Alsea Bay in Central Oregon, arriving on Jan.
Continuing the north-south pattern, the whales traveled north
from Alsea Bay all the way up the Olympic Peninsula, turning into
the Strait of Juan de Fuca. On Jan. 25, they reached Point Renfrew
on the southern shore of Vancouver Island, from where they turned
back west and headed out to the open ocean. The next day, they were
Juan de Fuca Canyon, a nutrient-rich area fed by strong
currents rising up from the underwater chasm.
The whales followed the canyon awhile, then made a beeline for
the Hoh River, about halfway down the Washington Coast, reaching
Hoh Head north of the river on Jan. 27. The whales didn’t stay long
but continued south and arrived at the mouth of the Columbia River
on Jan. 29.
From the Columbia River, they turned north and went halfway up
the Long Beach Peninsula before turning south and arriving back off
the Columbia River on Jan. 30. They made another round trip, going
as far as Willapa Bay this time, returning to the Columbia on Jan.
Their back-and-forth travels continued for the next five days,
mostly between Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor, sometimes approaching
the edge of the continental shelf.
On Saturday, Feb. 6, the whales took off at a good pace, going
all the way up the coast, turning into the Strait of Juan de Fuca
and passing the town of Sekiu. They remained in that area for about
a day, before turning back toward the ocean and heading down the
coast. As of this morning, they were in the vicinity of Westport
(not yet depicted on the map).
Did you enjoy this year’s Super Bowl commercials? Maybe it is
just my personal taste, but I don’t believe they were as good,
overall, as they have been most years.
Still, these are some of the most creative commercials we will
see all year. For this blog, I found enough water-related
commercials and funny bits for me to revisit a few. Later, I will
share some opinions from actual television reviewers, who have
ranked the best and the worst of this year’s flock of Super Bowl
The most dramatic water-related commercial was a spot for Death
Wish Coffee, sponsored by Intuit. In a fierce, dark storm, Viking
rowers are battling the waves and preparing to die when the
surprise comes for the viewer.
Have you ever watched a commercial and wondered at the end,
“What the heck are they trying to sell?” That was not the case with
Death Wish Coffee.
In my advertising classes in college, I learned that you need to
make the viewer remember the product. But I don’t believe that is
the top priority for Super Bowl commercials, in which the
producers’ goal may be to get people to remember the commercial,
irrespective of the product.
I guess all the rules go out the window when advertisers are
paying close to $5 million for a 30-second spot, a price reported
“Business Insider” magazine.
The next water-related commercial wasn’t about a product at all.
It was about the use of water, yet the name Colgate nevertheless
Jay Busbee and Kevin Kaduk of Yahoo Sports rated the Colgate
commercial highly for its social marketing effort. Here’s what they
“The toothpaste titan used its 30 seconds to remind those of us
with access to clean water to turn off the faucet while we brush.
We admire their effort to spread a message of conservation and for
resisting the urge to shame us for also forgetting to floss.”
I’ve chosen to recall three non-water commercials that I
enjoyed. The first is Butterfinger’s “Bolder than Bold” that uses
camera angles to take us deep into the adventure of sky diving with
one surprise following another in short order.
The next one, an ad for Avocados from Mexico, shows space beings
from the future visiting a museum, where familiar objects from the
2000s — including Scott Baio —are seen in a whole new light.
I also laughed at the Steven Tyler commercial for Skittles,
which features a singing portrait of the musician, a portrait that
ultimately explodes all over the floor. Not everyone thinks this
commercial is funny, as you may see from at least one of the
If you’d like to see more commercials with commentary check out
the story by
Busbee and Kaduk, who offered grades for the ads, and another
Robert Chan of Yahoo TV, who listed “The good, the bad and
I don’t know if so-called experts know any more than the rest of
us when it comes to which commercials are good or bad. Even though
the writers mentioned above are all from Yahoo, their opinions on
individual commercials are quite distinct. Even more divergent is
the top 10 as offered by
Which one was your favorite? Post a comment, and I’ll track down
the video and post it, assuming it is available.
When it comes to restoring the Puget Sound ecosystem, human
beings really do matter — in some ways that are obvious and in some
ways that are fairly subtle.
The Puget Sound Leadership Council, which oversees the
restoration of Puget Sound, acknowledged this fact yesterday when
adopting a new set of ecosystem indicators to measure how Puget
Sound influences the health and well-being of humans.
It’s often said that people have damaged the Puget Sound
ecosystem through years of abuse. They say it will take years of
restoration — by people — to return things to a healthy condition.
But why do we care? Are we spending millions of dollars on
restoration just to benefit fish and wildlife, or are we doing it
The answer, which comes from studies of economics and human
behavior, appears to be that helping fish and wildlife — by putting
the ecosystem back together — also benefits humans in a variety of
When the Washington Legislature told the Puget Sound Partnership
to go forth and lead the way toward restoring Puget Sound to
health, our lawmakers understood that people would be the primary
beneficiaries. The first two goals assigned to the partnership, as
articulated by RCW
A healthy human population supported by a healthy Puget Sound
that is not threatened by changes in the ecosystem;
A quality of human life that is sustained by a functioning
Puget Sound ecosystem;
The other three goals are related to native species, habitats
and water supplies.
Sometimes goals related to human values conflict with goals to
restore ecological functions. For example, one cannot build a house
on undeveloped land without altering the ecosystem in some negative
ways. Sometimes human values are aligned with ecological values,
such when we reduce pollution to clean up streams and drinking
water. In any case, these new ecosystem indicators will help people
understand the tradeoffs and opportunities of various actions.
As I pointed out last month in
Water Ways, the Hood Canal Coordinating Council has completed a
plan and associated website
that highlights connections between human well-being and natural
resources in the Hood Canal region. Hood Canal became a pilot
project for the indicators approved yesterday for all of Puget
Sound. Some of the same folks — including social scientist Kelly
Biedenweg of the Puget Sound Institute — were involved in creating
nine new “vital signs” with indicators to track human-related
changes in the Puget Sound ecosystem.
Unlike the original human health and human well-being indicators
adopted in 2010, these new indicators have undergone an extensive
review by scientists and other experts to ensure their validity and
reliability. That is, these new indicators have real meaning in
connecting human beings to the ecological functions of Puget
In yesterday’s meeting, Martha Kongsgaard, chairwoman of the
Leadership Council, said the human dimension is often ignored in
favor of empirical science.
“This is a hard thing to do,” she said about developing the new
indicators. “This is sort of a brave new world, and I think it is
true that we live in this world whether we call it out like this or
Council member Stephanie Solien said she would like to see more
discussions about human health and well-being issues — not because
they are more important than species and habitats, but because they
make connections to average people.
“People are self-interested,” she said. “They care about their
health, their family’s health, the health of their communities. The
more we can draw those connections to Puget Sound and healthy
watersheds, I think we will be more successful in our work around
ecosystems and saving species.”
Here are the four new vital signs and associated indicators
related to human health:
1. OUTDOOR ACTIVITY: Measured by 1) Percent of
swimming beaches meeting bacterial standards (one of the existing
indicators), 2) Average hours people spend having fun outdoors, 3)
Average hours people spend working outdoors.
2. AIR QUALITY: Indicators to be determined
from existing data.
3. LOCAL FOODS: Availability of wild foods,
such the ability to catch fish, collect shellfish, harvest plants
and hunt for game.
4. DRINKING WATER: Indicators to be determined
from information about water systems.
Here are the five new vital signs and associated indicators
related to human well-being:
5. ECONOMIC VITALITY: Measured by 1) Value of
natural resources produced by industry, including commercial
fishing, shellfish harvesting, timber production, agriculture,
mining and tourism; 2) Value produced by natural-resource
industries compared to gross domestic product of all other
industries in the region; 3) Number of jobs in natural-resource
6. CULTURAL WELL-BEING: Percent of residents
who feel they are able to maintain traditions associated with the
7. GOOD GOVERNANCE: Percentage of people who
feel they have 1) the opportunity to influence decisions about
Puget Sound, 2) the rights and freedom to make decisions about
managing natural resources, 3) trust in local and regional
governments to make the right decisions about Puget Sound, 4) been
well represented by government leaders, 5) access to information
about natural-resource issues.
8. SENSE OF PLACE: Percentage of people who
feel: 1) a positive connection to the region, 2) a sense of
stewardship for the watershed, 3) a sense of pride about being from
9. PSYCHOLOGICAL WELL-BEING INDEX: Percentage
of people who experience: 1) inspiration from being in nature, 2)
reduced stress, calm or relaxation from being in nature, 3) Overall
life satisfaction based on criteria in national studies.
Leadership Council member Jay Manning, former director of the
Washington Department of Ecology, said he supports the indicators.
His only concern is that some are beyond the control of the Puget
Sound Partnership, and some may have nothing to do with people’s
connection to Puget Sound.
Jay makes a good point, but the social scientists who developed
the indicators stressed that there will be no targets or goals
associated with human values. What will be interesting to watch is
whether people feel better or worse about the restoration effort as
time goes on, and how the leaders choose to respond to any changes
in public opinion.
Much of the information that will fit into the new indicators
will be the result of phone surveys yet to be conducted. Other
information will be teased out of ongoing research studies. The
partnership has received funding from the Environmental Protection
Agency to hire a consultant to continue work on the human-related
indicators until the numbers are finalized.
None of the new information about human health and well-being
will be included in the State of Puget Sound report to be issued
later this year, according to Kari Stiles, staff scientist for the
partnership. But some information could go into the Vital Signs wheel within
the next year.