Watching Our Water Ways

Environmental reporter Christopher Dunagan discusses the challenges of protecting Puget Sound and all things water-related.
Subscribe to RSS
Back to Watching Our Water Ways

Archive for the ‘Boaters, shippers’ Category

What we know and don’t know about killer whales

Friday, June 27th, 2014

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

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

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

Let me make a few quick observations:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SouthernResidentKillerWhalePhoto


Coast Guard seeks help in finding radio hoaxer

Wednesday, June 18th, 2014

The Coast Guard is asking for help in tracking down one or more people who placed three emergency radio calls about two weeks ago. The calls turned out to be a hoax, but they resulted in emergency responses that cost more than $200,000.

Lilliwaup

The first call was placed on VHF-FM radio channel 14 about 11 p.m. on May 31, according to Coast Guard reports. The caller told the Coast Guard’s Vessel Traffic Service that five people were donning life jackets and abandoning the fishing vessel Bristol Maid, said to be on fire in Lilliwaup Bay in Hood Canal. You can hear a portion of the call:

 

The Coast Guard deployed two MH-65 Dolphin helicopter crews from Port Angeles and sent a 45-foot response boat from Seattle. A boat crew from the Mason County Sheriff’s Office also searched the area. The search, suspended after five hours, cost an estimated at $138,000.

A similar call came in the following day about 9 p.m., reporting that two adults and a child were donning life jackets and abandoning a vessel between Hoodsport and Lilliwaup. The caller first said the vessel was Bristol Maid but later changed the name to Aleutian Beauty.

 

Again, a Coast Guard helicopter, rescue boat and a sheriff’s office boat responded, along with a tribal fisheries boat. The search was called off after more than three hours, costing about $71,000.

Coast Guard officials believe the same caller placed a third false call a day later around 10 p.m., saying a body had been found.

 

These kinds of calls must be extremely frustrating for emergency crews, who are on call around the clock to help people in distress. Personally, I would like to see this caller or callers caught and forced to explain themselves in court.

Coast Guard Capt. Michael W. Raymond, commander of Sector Puget Sound, said hoaxes are a major problem.

“The Coast Guard takes every distress call seriously,” he said. “False distress calls tie up valuable search assets and put our crews at risk. They impede our ability to respond to real cases of distress where lives may be in genuine peril.”

The Coast Guard would like to locate those responsible for the hoax, which is considered a federal criminal offense with penalties up to 10 years in jail and fines up to $250,000, along with possible reimbursement for the cost of the response. Boaters are reminded that they are responsible for radio use by their passengers.

Anyone with information about the caller or callers heard on the radio recording is asked to call the Coast Guard 13th District Command Center, (206) 220-7003. Here’s the original Coast Guard news release.


Unprecedented sighting of newborn minke whale

Thursday, May 8th, 2014

UPDATE, MAY 12, 2014

In talking to Jon Stern of the Northeast Pacific Minke Whale project, I learned that the pictured minke calf does not appear to be a newborn after all. The young animal probably was born in January, the normal birthing time for minkes, and it is likely to be weened and learning from its mother how to hunt for food.

As far as I can tell, the other information below is accurate.

“The larger whale is a whale we’ve seen since 2005,” Jon told me. “We named the whale ‘Joan’ for Joni Mitchell.”

The first time the research team spotted this whale, it was swimming in circles, Jon explained. Jon started singing Mitchell’s “The Circle Game” (“And the seasons they go round and round …”). And the name “Joan” stuck.

The female has been seen with other calves, which are normally about 9 feet long when born and about 14 feet when weened at four or five months.

Seeing the whale with another young calf is a good sign that new individuals are being added to the Puget Sound population, which may now total more than 20 animals, Jon said.

Minke whales are faster than other whales and still the most mysterious whales seen in Puget Sound, he confirmed, adding, “The coolest whales are the minke whales.”
—–

A once-in-a-lifetime sighting of a newborn minke whale, accompanied by its mother, was reported last weekend near San Juan Island.

Shane Aggergaard of Island Adventures Whale Watching had this to say about it:

Photo: Brooke McKinley, Island Adventures

A newborn minke whale swims with its mother near Heins Bank in the San Juan Islands on Saturday. (Click to enlarge.)
Photo courtesy of Brooke McKinley, Island Adventures Whale Watching

“I’ve been working these waters for over three decades now, and I talked to Ron Bates of Five Star Whale Watching and other researchers and skippers who have been here just as long or longer, and we’ve never seen anything like this. We do see minkes a lot, especially this time of year, and we’ve seen juveniles traveling with their mothers, but never a newborn.”

Shane made his comments in a news release issued by Michael Harris of Pacific Whale Watch Association, who noted that minkes are common residents of Puget Sound — but the sighting a newborn in local waters may be unprecedented.

“We’ve been keeping tabs on whales for almost 40 years and we’ve never seen a minke this young out there,” Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research was quoted as saying. “It’s an extremely interesting sighting. Let’s hope it means that the population is growing.”

Island Adventures Captain and Naturalist Brooke McKinley captured the photos on this page and others from the boat Island Adventurer 4. She has shared the pictures with whale researchers in our region. The mom and calf were spotted Saturday afternoon near Hein Bank, about five miles southwest of San Juan Island.

A newborn minke whale swims with its mother near San Juan Island Saturday. Photo courtesy of Brooke McKinley, Island Adventures Whale Watching

Photo: Brooke McKinley, Island Adventures

Michael added his own perspective:

“Thanks to people like Ken Balcomb we know more about our resident killer whales here than any marine mammal population in the world. And yet we know very little about a species that also makes its home out here, the minke.

“It’s probably our most mysterious whale, and now we’ve just been given a rare glimpse of a newborn. The scientists we gave these photos to are kids in a candy store. This is a very special occurrence, and having these amazing images to review may provide a lot of clues to researchers.

“The more we learn about these minke whales, the better equipped we are to protect every creature out there.”

Here’s a description of the minke provided by Harris:

“The minke is a member of the rorqual family of whales (whales with baleen, a dorsal fin, and throat pleats) and spends very little time at the surface. It’s one of the fastest whales in the ocean, capable of speeds up to about 25 miles per hour. its blows are rarely visible and it disappears quickly after exhaling, making it difficult to spot – and to study.

“The minke is one of the smallest of baleen whales, with adults reaching a maximum of just about 33 feet and 10 tons. However, a good look at the minke underwater shows it to be one of the most beautiful of all cetacea, with a slender and streamlined body, dark on top and light-colored at the bottom, with two areas of lighter gray on each side, some with a light-colored chevron mark on their back and a white band on each flipper.

“They are often solitary animals, particularly in the Salish Sea, feeding primarily on krill and small schooling fish like herring.”

Minke whales are among the marine mammals I featured in the ongoing series “Taking the pulse of Puget Sound,” where I reported that at least a half-dozen minkes are believed to inhabit Puget Sound. The number is now believed to be more than 20. For management purposes the local minkes are grouped with a California/Oregon/Washington stock numbering between 500 and 1,000 animals. Nobody knows if the population is growing or declining.

Photo: Brooke McKinley, Island Adventures

Photo: Brooke McKinley, Island Adventures


Ken Balcomb calls for further review of orca’s death

Thursday, March 6th, 2014

Ken Balcomb, the dean of killer whale research in Puget Sound, is asking federal authorities to reopen the investigation into the death of L-112, a young female orca who died two years ago of mysterious causes.

Ken Balcomb

Ken Balcomb

Ken maintains that an underwater “blast” remains the mostly likely cause of death for the whale, who was known as Sooke — or Victoria, as Ken originally named her.

A draft final report (PDF 2.3 mb) by the National Marine Fisheries Service, dated Feb. 24, states that “blunt trauma to the head and neck is the prime consideration for the cause of mortality. Despite extensive diagnostic evaluation, the cause of the head and neck injuries could not be determined.”

See Water Ways, Feb. 25, for a discussion of the final report and links to other stories.

The official investigation could find no military operations in the area off the Washington/Oregon coast, where the young whale was found dead on Feb. 11, 2012. In looking for a cause of the trauma, the report essentially rules out several underwater explosions set off by the Canadian Navy a week before, on Feb. 4, 5 and 6 off Vancouver Island. These activities occurred too far north — and prevailing winds and currents were in the opposite direction, according to the report.

But Ken Balcomb argues that the report fails to fully consider how L-112 could have ended up south of these military exercises. Currents are not certain, he said. They can change, and eddies can even flow in the opposite direction from prevailing currents. Ken also raises the prospect that a dead or dying orca calf could be carried a great distance by other members of the pod.

“I consider the evidence presented in the NMFS report to be selected and filtered to depict a preferred hypothetical scenario, rather than one that may be more realistic,” he wrote to NMFS, the federal agency in charge of protecting marine mammals.

Ken’s 12 pages of comments (PDF 1.1 mb) address numerous statements in the report, and here are a few:

On the brain:

Report: “The absence of right cerebral hemisphere and right cerebellum of the brain was secondary to loss of tissue during disarticulation of the head. Significance is uncertain based on imaging alone, but unilateral loss of brain tissue is unusual.”

Ken’s comment: “UNUSUAL! The right cerebral hemisphere and cerebellum were completely mushed and there was evidence of hemorrhage in the calvarium, both significant findings of brain damage from a blast impact. The observation is consistent with blast trauma.”

On the ear bones:

Report: “The CT results showed no evidence of bone fractures or damage to the middle or inner ear bones. These results do not conflict with gross observations and the proposed cause of acute or peracute death by blunt force trauma; however, blast- or seismic-related injuries cannot be
entirely discounted.”

Ken’s comment: ”Upon gross dissection both tympanic bullae were found to be dislocated from their fragile bony pedestals anchoring them to the cranium. While it may be accurate to say that no evidence of fractures or damage to the middle or inner ear bones on the CT scans, it is misleading to infer that no damage was evident to the ears (see page 11 of Necropsy report).”

On possible attack by another marine animal:

Report: “The primary signs of injury reported from aggressive attacks are rake marks, musculoskeletal and/or intra tissue trauma (bruising, tearing) attributed to ramming and sometimes death. Contrary to the cases reported in the literature, L-112 was a juvenile animal (older and larger than a calf or neonate), and the examiners did not document tooth rake marks associated with the signs of hemorrhage they observed during the gross examination. Nevertheless, we cannot rule out the possibility that L-112 suffered injuries from an aggressive attack, such as ramming, by a larger animal.”

Ken’s comment: “The presumed hypothesis suggested by the last sentence is absolutely preposterous, given the evidence of a massive single traumatic event causing the mortal injury. To not rule out the attack hypothesis while ruling out blast trauma is ludicrous.”

On currents:

Report: “Because of prevailing currents and eddies it is unlikely that L-112 died in Canadian waters or the Strait of Juan de Fuca and drifted south, but instead likely died in the Columbia River plume or farther to the south along the coast of Oregon. Given the state of decomposition at the time of stranding the body was either carried by eddies for several days or may have drifted a substantial distance from the south before being trapped by the eddies and cast ashore on the Long Beach Peninsula.”

Ken’s comment:
“The drift patterns can be quite different from year to year, as well as from season to season, or even week to week. It is regrettable that drifters were not deployed near the west entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca in February 2012. There was a NOAA cruise in these waters at that time, and I asked the chief scientist to deploy drifters or some identifiable devices to ascertain the real time drift pattern at that time. One can surmise from the temperature regimes that were documented real-time that there was an anomalous cold water regime moving in a southerly direction in February 2012, but there were no current measurements.”

On the possibility of transport by another orca

Ken’s comment:
“I further request that the investigation team thoughtfully consider the relevant cetacean epimeletic behavior … (He mentions two studies.) Hoyt (1981) in ‘Orca, the Whale Called killer” on page 92 states: ‘Among cetaceans, and especially the dolphin family (including orca), care-giving behavior to sick or wounded family members seems exemplary. Moby Doll was supported by members of his family after he was harpooned in 1964. On another occasion off the B.C. coast, a young killer whale was hit by a government ferry boat, the propeller accidentally slashing its back. The ferry captain stopped the boat and watched a male and a female supporting the bleeding calf. Fifteen days later, two whales supporting a third – presumably the same group — were observed at the same place.’”

Ken concludes his remarks with this: “These comments are dedicated to L86 and L112, the most overtly affectionate mother/offspring pair of whales I have ever seen. Rest in peace, L112. We miss you.”


Amusing Monday: Students create environmental art

Monday, March 3rd, 2014

This week, I’d like to share some student artwork from two contests.

One is a local event in which 10 Kitsap County students are honored in the Kitsap Recycles Day contest, sponsored by Kitsap County Public Works. The other contest is for students anywhere in the country. Called the Keep the Sea Free of Debris contest, it is sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Li-Nelshin Co, a fifth grader at Esquire Hills Elementary School, created one of the winning posters for Kitsap Recycles Day.

Li-Nelshin Co, a fifth grader at Esquire Hills Elementary School, created one of the winning posters for Kitsap Recycles Day.

The first poster featured on this page is by Li-Nelshin Co, a fifth grader at Esquire Hills Elementary School, located in East Bremerton and part of the Central Kitsap School District.

Li-Neishin wrote this about the poster:

“Recycling is important because we are saving the world for future generations. My favorite thing to recycle is PAPER because this way we are not only recycling, we are also saving the trees that gives us fresh air, shade, preventing soil erosion.”

Other winning posters can be viewed on Kitsap Recycles Day webpage.

A couple years ago, the Kitsap Recycles Day poster contest was moved from November to February and expanded into a broader educational program. The delayed contest allowed teachers and/or parents to provide more information than could have been completed by America Recycles Day, celebrated in November. A new activity book, “Close the Loop” (PDF 16.7 mb), is part of Kitsap’s expanded program.

“It’s incredibly encouraging to see the influx of posters we see on Kitsap Recycles Day,” said Kitsap County Recycling Coordinator Christopher Piercy in a news release. “You can tell each student has a passion for recycling, reducing waste, and the environment. It is especially fascinating to see the grasp they all have on the value of ‘closing the loop’ — not just recycling, but buying recycled content products.”

The other winners are Libby Parker, kindergartener at Gateway Christian Schools, Poulsbo; Natalie Oathout, first grader at Emerald Heights Elementary School; Jeddison Miller, second grader at Crosspoint Academy; Kelsey Derr, third grader at Hilder Pearson Elementary School; Saige Herwig, third grader at South Colby Elementary School; Charlotte Halbert, fourth grader at Gateway Christian Schools, Poulsbo; Blake Warner, fifth grader at Crosspoint Academy; Drew Moar, sixth grader at Manchester Elementary School; and Gia Acosta, eighth grader at Our Lady Star of the Sea Catholic School.

The second poster on this page, a winner in the 2014 Keep the Sea Free of Debris contest, was drawn by Jessica D., a fourth grader in New York.

Jessica commented:

“Keep the sea free of debris. Debris is garbage, marine debris is garbage in the sea. Marine debris is very bad. Marine debris is mostly plastics, fishing gear and litter. Marine debris is very harmful and dangerous to undersea creatures. This pollution can ruin habitats. Marine wildlife can get hurt by marine debris. It also can cost a lot of money to fix. But you can help fix it by just cleaning beaches and not littering.”

The contest is sponsored by NOAA’s Marine Debris Program, which asked contest entrants to create their “vision” of marine debris. All 13 winners and their comments can be seen on a Gallery Page on the Marine Debris Blog.


NOAA opens its catalog of nautical charts

Friday, February 28th, 2014

Chart

More than 1,000 U.S. Coast Guard nautical charts have been released for public use at no charge.

What started out as a three-month pilot program by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has become a permanent service. The free charts, which are offered in PDF format, are especially valued by recreational boaters.

During the trial period, nearly 2.3 million charts were downloaded, according to Rear Admiral Gerd Giang, director of NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey.

“To us, that represents more than two million opportunities to avoid an accident at sea,” Giang said. “Up-to-date charts help boaters avoid groundings and other dangers to navigation, so our aim is to get charts into the hands of as many boaters as we can.”

If you know the name of the waterway you wish to explore, the fastest way to get a chart is to search the list of available PDFs.

To help users zero in on the charts they need, NOAA has created a website called the Interactive Chart Locator. From there, one can view an image of the chart; download a PDF version of the entire map; or choose a blown-up version with numerous maps of the same area, known as a “booklet.”

NOAA also has begun offering its Raster Navigational Charts, a composite of all the charts formatted for zooming in on a specific location. That is especially useful for viewing on a computer screen or mobile device. Free software and viewers from third-party sources also are listed on the RNC webpage.

NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey is the nation’s nautical chartmaker, according to information provided by the agency. Created by President Thomas Jefferson in 1807, the office updates charts, surveys the coastal seafloor, responds to maritime emergencies and searches for underwater obstructions that pose a danger to navigation.

The Coast Survey’s Twitter handle is @NOAAcharts. A blog — noaacoastsurvey.wordpress.com — provides information about the agency’s ongoing activities.


Mystery of L-112′s death may never be solved

Tuesday, February 25th, 2014

It appears we’ll never know what killed L-112, known as Victoria or Sooke, found dead at 3 years old, after she washed up on an ocean beach in Southwest Washington.

L-112 in happier times. The 3-year-old orca died in February 2012, and the cause of her death remains a mystery.
Photo by Jeanne Hyde, Whale of a Porpoise
(Click on image to see Jeanne's tribute page)

If you recall from two years ago, much speculation swirled around the notion that the female orca was killed by military operations, such as sonar or an explosion. The Royal Canadian Navy confirmed the use of sonar and small underwater detonations west of Vancouver Island. But that was far from Long Beach, where the orca washed up, and ocean currents suggest she was killed even farther south. For a quick history, see Water Ways from Feb. 18, 2012, followed by an entry on May 16, 2012.

The latest report concludes, as early ones did, that L-112 died from “blunt force trauma.” But the cause of the trauma could not be determined. No sonar activity or explosions were identified in the area where her death probably occurred, although a physical examination was not able to totally rule out those causes.

A new bit of information emerges from the long-term acoustic recorders that listen for sounds off the coast. Calls identified as coming from L pod were reported near Point Reyes in California on Jan. 30, off Westport in Washington on Feb. 5, and near Newport in Oregon on Feb. 20. L-112 was found dead on Feb. 11 after floating for several days. It appears likely that the young whale was with her pod at the time of her death.

As the report states:

“This multi-disciplinary investigation could not determine the source of the blunt trauma despite gathering and evaluating all available information on the whales, the environment, and human activities. We evaluated the sighting history of the whales to provide insight into the circumstances of the stranding.

“Autonomous passive acoustic recorders off the coasts of Washington, Oregon, and California indicated that the main group of L Pod, possibly including L-112, was off California in late January, heading north, and possibly off Westport, Washington in the first week of February and detected near Newport, Oregon after the stranding…

“A major source of trauma from sonar, explosives, or a seismic event would likely have affected multiple individuals traveling together as killer whales are known to do. All other members of L-112’s family group were sighted following L-112’s stranding. No other members of the L4 sub-group were reported missing, injured, or stranded between the time of the L-112 stranding and the summer of 2012.

“This observation leads us to believe that the trauma suffered by L-112 was likely borne individually and was not an event that covered a large area or that directly impacted the young whale’s most likely traveling companions in the L4 sub-group. For these reasons, we do not believe that L-112 succumbed to blast injuries or exposure to other high intensity sound.”

So was L-112 struck by a ship? Did she encounter another aggressive whale or large shark? Or was she hit by another unknown force or object? We’ll probably never know, as the mystery goes on and on and people continue to ask, “Who killed L-112?”

To review a copy of the report, go to the website “Wild Animal Mortality Investigation: Southern Resident Killer Whale L112 Final Report.”

Reporter Phuong Le covered the story today for The Associated Press.


Any ideas for a no-discharge zone in Puget Sound?

Tuesday, February 25th, 2014

Washington Department of Ecology is pushing ahead with its plan to create a “no-discharge zone” for Puget Sound, which would prohibit the discharge of sewage from boats, even those with a Type II marine sanitation device. Check out my story last week in the Kitsap Sun, Feb. 19 (subscription).

Proposed no-discharge zone for Puget Sound // Washington Department of Ecology

Proposed no-discharge zone for Puget Sound
Washington Department of Ecology

For many people, it is disconcerting to think about mobile toilets traveling everywhere in Puget Sound and discharging their waste anywhere and at any time.

Kitsap Public Health District has gained a reputation for tracking down sources of pollution and getting them cleaned up. If you have a failing septic system, for example, you are expected to get it fixed. Many of the Dyes Inlet beaches between Bremerton and Silverdale were reopened to commercial shellfish harvesting, thanks in no small part to these persistent efforts to clean up bacterial pollution.

Sewage-treatment plants still discharge some bacteria, despite advanced treatment processes. Consequently, shellfish beds are permanently closed around treatment plant outfalls, with the closure zone dependent on the level of sewage treatment. And when there are sewage spills, long stretches of beach may be closed to shellfish harvesting for 10 days or longer.

When they are working properly, Type II marine sanitation devices aboard boats are fairly good at killing bacteria, although levels are still above state water-quality standards. Less certain is what happens to human viruses, including hepatitis, that may not be killed. In addition, marine toilets release chemicals — such as chlorine, quaternary ammonia and formaldehyde — into the water.

To delve further, check out:

It’s not hard to see why the goal would be to eliminate discharges of boater waste into Puget Sound, assuming that sufficient pumpout stations exist for people to offload their waste. Pumpout stations are connected to sewage-treatment systems, which do a better job of disinfection and remove most solids that can contribute to algae blooms and low-oxygen conditions.

Creating a no-discharge zone is one goal of the Puget Sound Action Agenda (PDF 16.4 mb) developed by the Puget Sound Partnership.

Ecology Director Maia Bellon seemed to strike the right tone when she announced the petition for a no-discharge zone (PDF 8.1 mb) in Puget Sound:

“We want to reach out and invite comments, questions and suggestions over this draft proposal. We’re working with boating, shipping and fishing leaders, and now is the time for broader perspective and feedback. Everyone who lives here has a vested interest in a healthy Puget Sound.”

Her approach leaves the door open to some creative solutions for getting everyone in compliance with the no-discharge zone. As I showed in last week’s story, the no-discharge zone could be a hardship for some tugboat and fishing boat operators. One estimate for converting a tugboat is $125,000.

Ecology’s solution so far has been simple: Give those without holding tanks three years to install the tanks and plug up theirs discharge pipes.

Other solutions may be possible, although they could create administrative burdens for Ecology. What about the idea of creating an exemption for boats that have no holding tanks? Boat owners could pay an annual fee for the exemption, and the money could go into a fund to assist owners with the cost of conversion. Maybe a conversion should be required, if necessary, at the time a boat is sold. It’s just an idea.

When applying for an exemption from the no-discharge zone, boat owners should agree to discharge treated wastes at a safe distance from the beach. Maybe they should be required to know where certified shellfish beds are located and stay even farther away.

I realize these ideas would complicate a simple plan, and maybe there are better ideas. In general, I believe that a reasonable solution should be proportional to the problem. We should not kill a rat with heavy explosives, while ignoring the cost of repairs.

To see how more than 20 other states are addressing no-discharge zones, visit the Environmental Protection Agency’s website on vessel sewage discharges and a state-by-state breakdown of no-discharge zones.

When I broke this story in September, I interviewed others who had thoughts on the issue. See Kitsap Sun, Sept. 25 (subscription).

For recreational boaters, check out “Beating the Pumpout Station Blues” by Capt. Mike Brough of the Coast Guard.


Geoduck market expands to Chinese neighbors

Sunday, February 9th, 2014

The market for geoducks harvested in Washington state has shifted from China to other Asian countries, primarily Hong Kong and Vietnam, according to certificates issued by the Washington State Department of Health.

Kitsap Sun photo

Kitsap Sun photo

We learned a week ago that the Chinese ban on imports from the U.S. West Coast will continue until Chinese health authorities better understand the U.S. system of protecting public health. See Water Ways, Feb. 4, with links to other sources of information.

The ban caused exporters to find new markets. I reported these numbers in a story published in yesterday’s Kitsap Sun (subscription):

“Health certificates issued by the Washington State Department of Health totaled 757 in January — more than double the 373 certificates issued in January 2013, when shipments were still going into China. These certificates are required to identify the shellfish-growing area and ensure that a given shipment of seafood is safe to eat.

“Of the 757 certificates issued in January, 409 designated shipments into Hong Kong, while 243 designated shipments into Vietnam. Other shipments were to Malaysia, 38; Thailand, 24; Indonesia, 8; and a number of countries with smaller shipments. Because shipments were closed off to China in January, no certificates were issued for that country.”

Wild geoduck harvesting is a multi-million industry, bringing significant revenues to businesses, tribes and state government.

Yesterday’s story, which was picked up by the Associated Press, describes how state and tribal geoduck divers appear to be on track to take their allocations of deep-water geoducks.

How many of these giant clams are getting into China illicitly and by what routes has been hard to track down. I have collected many rumors and comments on background, but I’ve been unable to verify the most provocative stories.

A new harvest year begins in April with new allocations of geoducks for the state and tribes. Meanwhile, the Department of Natural Resources has scheduled a bid opening for state geoduck tracts later this month.

It will be interesting to see how the Chinese ban on imports from the U.S. West Coast affects the price of geoducks over the coming year. So far, after a short closure when the ban was imposed, prices for wild geoducks have been holding fairly stable, according to officials involved in the market.


China maintains ban on shellfish imports

Tuesday, February 4th, 2014

Business and government officials involved in the lucrative geoduck export market got some bad news on Friday, when federal authorities released a letter they had received from the Chinese government.

Kitsap Sun photo

Kitsap Sun photo

The letter raises many questions — at least from a Chinese perspective — about how the U.S. regulatory system protects public health. The message from Chinese health authorities dashes the hopes of industry officials for a quick lifting of the Chinese ban on shellfish imports from the U.S. West Coast.

I wrote about this issue for Saturday’s Kitsap Sun (subscription). My story was picked up by the Associated Press and distributed widely. (If you don’t subscribe to the Sun, see The Columbian, Vancouver, for the AP version.)

Washington state has a proud reputation for protecting public health when it comes to shellfish, and the letter from China does little to dispel suspicions among those who think that China may have ulterior motives. After all, Chinese authorities have done nothing to limit the geographic scope of the import ban or even limit the ban to geoducks only.

A statement (PDF 114 kb) from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration concludes that the letter contains about 20 separate requests for information about testing and safety.

You may wish to read the the letter from China’s General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (PDF 150 kb). As translated, the letter includes this statement:

“We don’t not have a full understanding of the US regulatory system including the definition of sea region and management, the official monitoring on PSP and heavy metals and the responsibility among the relevant government agencies, and we have not conducted an on-site evaluation neither.”

The letter says the suspension of imports may be reduced to a specific area after certain questions are answered. It calls on the U.S. to develop an action plan for evaluation and outlines a review process, including a visit by an “expert team” from China to evaluate the geoduck inspection programs.

Officials at all levels in the U.S. say they are evaluating the questions posed in the letter and preparing a coordinated response.

Previous entries in Water Ways:

Jan. 9, 2014: Geoducks test OK, but what’s behind Chinese ban?

Dec. 24, 2013: Health officials to quickly test geoducks for arsenic


Available on Kindle

Subscribe2

Follow WaterWatching on Twitter

Food for thought

"In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught."Baba Dioum, Senegalese conservationist

Archives

Categories