A major “modernization” of the North Pacific fishing fleet has
begun, bringing new jobs to the Puget Sound region and a potential
boost of $1.3 billion in total economic activity over the next 10
years, according to a
If economic and environmental conditions allow, 37 new fishing
boats and fish-processing vessels over 58 feet long will be built,
bringing new efficiencies to fishing and increased safety to those
working in the North Pacific — an area off the Alaskan coast. Most
North Pacific vessels over 58 feet are home-ported in Puget
Ship-building companies in the Puget Sound region are expected
to be the primary beneficiaries of this modernization, as half of
all the new vessels will come out of Washington state, according to
predictions in the report. The study was conducted by the McDowell
Group, an Alaska-based consulting company hired by the Port of
Seattle and Washington Maritime Federation.
Although many factors are in play, a key impetus for this
modernization is the development of catch shares — a type of
management system that divides the allowable harvest into
individual fishing quotas, or IFCs. This management regime,
sometimes called fisheries “rationalization,” avoids the wasteful
and sometimes dangerous race once seen among fishing vessels, as
each crew tries to catch the most fish within a specified time
period or before a total quota is reached.
Some underwater ocean sounds remain a mystery, while other
sounds are well understood by NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental
PMEL’s acoustic division continues to find unusual sounds within
its long-term mission of recording and measuring ocean noise and
assessing potential problems created by noisy humans.
I remain intrigued by ocean sounds, and I can’t help but worry
about sensitive marine creatures, such as whales, that must live in
our modern world of noisy ships and machinery.
One mysterious sound nicknamed “Upsweep” was present when PMEL
began recording on the Navy’s SOSUS (Sound Surveillance System)
array in August 1991. The sound, which consists of a series of
upsweeping sounds, is loud enough to be heard throughout the
Pacific Ocean, according to PMEL’s
website. This sound was speeded up 20 times to be more easily
Humpback whales have been making the news for their organized
“rescues” — seemingly heroic efforts in which the humpbacks have
intervened in attacks by killer whales against other marine
The humpbacks have not only protected their own calves but they
have gone well out of their way to protect gray whales, minke
whales, Dall’s porpoises, Steller sea lions, California sea lions,
Weddell seals, crabeater seals, harbor seals, northern elephant
seals and even ocean sunfish, according to researchers.
The latest incident, in which humpbacks reportedly intervened in
a killer whale attack on a Steller sea lion, is said to be the
first reported incident in the Salish Sea. The incident took place
last week off Sooke, BC, about 20 miles west of Victoria.
“What we witnessed was pure aggression,” Capt. Russ Nicks of BC
Whale Watch Tours of Victoria said in a
news release from Pacific Whale Watch Association. “We had four
humpbacks trumpeting, rolling on their sides, flukes up in the air
“The killer whales split many times into two groups, with one
that appeared to try to draw the humpbacks away from the sea lion.
The other group would go in for the attack while the humpbacks were
safely away – but then they’d get in the middle of it again,
fighting the orcas off. It was amazing to watch.”
These killer whales were of the transient variety, a subspecies
of killer whales that eats marine mammals, as opposed to the
resident orcas that each fish.
The same attack and rescue was viewed by naturalist Alethea
Leddy of Port Angeles Whale Watch Company, as reported in the news
“We got there in time to see some crazy surface activity, with
humpback whales splashing in the distance along with orcas. Then
two humpbacks surfaced next to us trumpeting, and the next thing we
know there were four humpbacks, possibly six, all defending the sea
“The water boiled all around as the orcas tried to separate the
sea lion from the humpbacks. It was a wild scene, with the
humpbacks even circling the sea lion trying to keep him safe while
he frantically struggled to get his breath.
“The anxiety of the humpbacks was palpable, and they took turns
diving and slashing at the orcas. This life-and-death drama went on
and on until the four transient orcas, known as the T100 family,
moved off in the distance. As they did, we saw the sea lion appear
next to the humpbacks being guarded and escorted in the opposite
“This was an unbelievable encounter. Hats off to our courageous
humpbacks and best wishes to our little Steller sea lion, survivor
for another day!”
In July, 14 marine mammal experts reported on 115 apparent
rescue efforts by humpback whales during what appeared to be killer
whale attacks on other species of marine mammals. Their report
appeared in the journal Marine
Reasons for these rescue efforts are open to much speculation,
but the researchers noted that evidence is mounting in favor of a
belief that killer whales that eat marine mammals, called MEKW,
attack young humpback whales more often than commonly reported.
“Clearly, MEKW predation, even if rarely observed and targeting
mainly calves and subadults, represents a threat to humpbacks that
is persistent, widespread, and perhaps increasing,” the report
states. “As such, humpbacks could be expected to show some specific
anti-predator behaviors, and indeed some have been suggested. Ford
and Reeves (2008) summarized the defensive capabilities of baleen
whales faced with killer whale attack, and they identified two
general categories of response.
“Balaenopterid rorquals (including fin whales and minke whales)
use their high speed and hydrodynamic body shape to outrun killer
whales and were classified as flight species. The
generally more rotund and slower-swimming species — right whales,
bowhead whales, gray whales and humpback whales — apparently rely
on their bulk and powerful, oversized appendages (tail and
flippers) to ward off attackers. This group was categorized as
Of course, it is one thing for the humpbacks and other baleen
whales to take a defensive posture. It is quite another thing for
them to go after killer whales when another species of marine
mammal is under attack.
In the report, humpbacks initiated encounters with MEKWs 58
percent of the time, while the killer whales initiated contact 42
percent of the time — at least for those cases when the killer
whale ecotype could be identified as marine mammals eaters. On a
few occasions when known fish-eating killer whales were involved,
the encounter was relatively benign, the researchers said.
The video, shot by BBC filmmakers, show a pair of humpback
whales attempting to prevent a group of orcas from killing a gray
whale calf. In this case, the effort was unsuccessful.
When humpbacks went to the rescue of other marine mammals, it
appears that the rescuers were generally a mixture of males and
females, according to the report. Humpback postures, whether
attacking or defending, involved slapping their flukes on the
surface, slashing from side to side, bellowing, persuing and
flipper slapping. The length of battles reported ranged from 15
minutes to seven hours. In the end, the prey that was at the center
of the battles was killed 83 percent of the time — at least for
those cases when the outcome was known.
“The humpback whale is, to our knowledge, the only cetacean that
deliberately approaches attacking MEKWs and can drive them off,
although southern right whales may also group together to fend off
MEKWs attacking other right whales,” the researchers stated, adding
that humpbacks’ powerful flippers covered in sharp barnacles can
shred the flesh of their opponents.
When in hunting mode, transient killer whales are generally
silent, not making much noise. Once an attack begins, they become
more vocal, perhaps to coordinate the attack. It appears that
humpbacks respond to killer whale vocalizations from distances well
out of sight of the attack.
The reasons the humpbacks would get in a fight with killer
whales to save another species are listed in three categories:
Kin selection: Protecting an offspring or
closely related animal.
Reciprocity: Protecting unrelated animals,
generally as part of a social organization.
Altruism: Benefitting another animal at some
cost to the one taking action.
It is possible, the researchers conclude, that humpbacks could
be improving their individual and group fitness to fend off attacks
against their own by protecting other species. One idea is that the
killer whales may think twice about attacking a humpback of any
“We suggest,” they write, “that humpbacks providing benefits to
other potential prey species, even if unintentional, could be a
focus of future research into possible genetic or cultural drivers
of interspecific altruism.”
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.