Category Archives: Boaters, shippers

Invasive species hitching a ride into Puget Sound

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 ecosystem.

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.

Three weeks ago in Water Ways, I described legislation that would reduce state and federal controls over invasive species. See “Bill could increase risks of alien species invasions in Puget Sound waters.”

On the East Coast, where they are native, striped bass are one of the most popular sport fish. Here, Angela Anning of Connecticut shows off her impressive striper. On the West Coast, striped bass could be considered an invasive species. Photo: NOAA
On the East Coast, where they are native, striped bass are one of the most popular sport fish. Here, Angela Anning of Connecticut shows off her impressive striper. On the West Coast, striped bass could be considered an invasive species.
Photo: NOAA

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 Fuca.

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.

Invasive copepod Oithona davisae under magnification Photo: Jeff Cordell, University of Washington
Invasive copepod Oithona davisae
Photo: Jeff Cordell, UW

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 numerous areas.

European green crab Photo: Washington Sea Grant
European green crab
Photo: Gregory C. Jensen, UW

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 publication California 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 report says.

“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 them.

Pacific oyster Photo: Washington Sea Grant
Pacific oyster
Photo: Washington Sea Grant

“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 marine ecosystems.”

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 state.

Please take a look at this package of stories I wrote for Puget Sound Institute, with editing by Jeff Rice and design by Kris Symer:

The proper use of crab pots means extra crabs for the dinner plate

“Catch more crab!”

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.

Crab

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, including the 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 Foundation.

Crab2

“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 pots.”

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 resource protection.

“It was a great collaborative process,” Jason said. “There was no butting of heads or anything like that.”

The “Puget Sound Lost Crab Pot Prevention Plan” (PDF 996 kb) states:

“Crab pots are lost for a variety of reasons. Causes for loss generally fall into three categories:

  • Vessel interaction (both recreational and commercial vessels);
  • Improperly configured gear, including improperly tied knots; and
  • 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 vessel operator.”

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:

A longer video shows how to modify a crab pot to make sure that crabs can escape when a crab pot is lost:

“Modify your crab pot: adding bungee cord & modifying escape ring”

The video below provides basic information for first-time crabbers. Meanwhile, outdoors writer Mark Yuasa offered a nice instructional story last week in the Seattle Times.

To check on crab seasons and legal requirements, visits the Recreational Crab Fishing webpage of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Bill could increase risks of alien species invasions in Puget Sound waters

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
Lakes ecosystems.

Ballast discharge from a ship Photo: Coast Guard
Ballast discharge from a ship
Photo: Coast Guard

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 from California.

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.

Green crab Photo: USGS
Green crab // Photo: USGS

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 unnoticed.

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 treatment systems.

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 face.

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 EPA.

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 houses.

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 regulations.

Engineers find new location for boat facility in Harper Estuary

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.

Not yet approved, this rough drawing shows how a trail alongside Olympiad Drive could be used to reach Harper Estuary. Drawing: Kitsap County Public Works
Not yet approved, this rough drawing shows a trail alongside Olympiad Drive to Harper Estuary.
Drawing: Kitsap County Public Works

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.

An addendum to the planning documents (PDF 1.1 mb) makes it clear that the old boat launch basically prevents the $4-million restoration project from being done right.

“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 exchange,
  • “Reduce sediment contaminant removal associated with the excavation project,
  • “Retain compacted gravel substrate that does not support aquatic plants or benthic organisms at the existing boat launch, and
  • “Impede restoration of filled estuarine habitat and functional channel geometry.”

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 the estuary.

Harper Estuary Contributed photo
Harper Estuary // Contributed photo

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 said.

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 site.

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 county.

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 South Kitsap.

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’ movie takes us to the underwater world of sound

“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.

Michael Jasny
Michael Jasny

“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.”

Ken Balcomb
Ken Balcomb

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.”

Chris Clark
Chris Clark

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 greater degree.

“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.

Research on ocean noise could help save whales

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.

J-1, known as “Ruffles,” uses echolocation clicks to locate chinook salmon as a tanker approaches in Haro Strait near the San Juan Islands. J-1 was the oldest male among the Southern Resident killer whales when he died in 2011. Photo: beamreach.org (CC BY SA)
J-1, known as “Ruffles,” uses echolocation clicks to locate chinook salmon as a tanker approaches in Haro Strait near the San Juan Islands. J-1 was the oldest male among the Southern Resident killer whales when he died in 2011. // Photo: beamreach.org

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 military exercises.

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 whale.

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 Sea.

“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.
—–

      1. Sounds from a passing ship

Sounds from a passing ship are picked up on a hydrophone in Haro Strait.
Sound file: beamreach.org


—–
“The noise does extend up into the range where whales hear well,” Scott told me, “but that does not answer whether it matters to killer whales.”

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 noted.

“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 ocean.

Digital acoustic recording tags are used to measure sound levels felt by killer whales. NOAA photo
Digital acoustic recording tags are used to measure sound levels felt by killer whales. // NOAA photo

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 noise.

“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. See 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 Sun.

“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.

Report

A 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 populations.
  • “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 soundscape.
  • “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,

Jasny’s recommendations:

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 conservative.”

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.

A deeper look into the Ballard Locks, where antique equipment rules

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.

Pumps are pipes at the Ballard Locks were shut down after they became too corroded to be safe. Photo: Christopher Dunagan
Pumps and pipes used to empty the Ballard Locks for maintenance were shut down after they became too corroded to be safe.
Photo: Christopher Dunagan

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 steampunk (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 yet authorized.

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.

The SS Roosevelt, owned by the Bureau of Fisheries, was the first “official” ship to pass through the Ballard Locks on July 4, 1917, leading a parade of 80 boats. Photo: Army Corps of Engineers
The SS Roosevelt, owned by the Bureau of Fisheries, was the first “official” ship to pass through the Ballard Locks on July 4, 1917, leading a parade of 80 boats.
Photo: Army Corps of Engineers

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.

Orcas travel up and down the coast; NOAA lists ‘priority actions’

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.

Report

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.

“Priority Actions: 2016-2020” (PDF 2 mb) for the Southern Residents includes these ideas:

  • 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.

Bell M. Shimada NOAA photo
Bell M. Shimada // NOAA photo

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.

Travels of orca K-33, Jan. 24-27 NOAA map
Travels of orca K-33, Jan. 24-27
NOAA map

“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.

Travels of orca K-33, Jan 27-31 NOAA map
Travels of orca K-33, Jan 27-31
NOAA map

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. 22.

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 over 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. 31.

Travels of orca K-33, Jan. 31 - Feb. 9 NOAA map
Travels of orca K-33, Jan. 31-Feb. 9
NOAA map

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).

If you’d like to follow their travels a little more closely and read the notes posted by Brad and his team, visit NOAA’s website, “2016 Southern Resident killer whale satellite tagging.”

Amusing Monday: Opinions diverge on Super Bowl commercials

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 ads.

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 by “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 was prominent.

Jay Busbee and Kevin Kaduk of Yahoo Sports rated the Colgate commercial highly for its social marketing effort. Here’s what they said:

“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 professional writers.

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 story by Robert Chan of Yahoo TV, who listed “The good, the bad and WTF?”

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 Sport Illustrated.

Which one was your favorite? Post a comment, and I’ll track down the video and post it, assuming it is available.

Vital sign indicators revised to reflect human values for Puget Sound

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 for ourselves?

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 ways.

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 90.71.300:

  • 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 Sound.

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 not.”

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.”

Hear the full discussion on TVW in the video player on this page, and download the resolution and backup documents (PDF 2.9 mb) from the Puget Sound Partnership’s website.

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 industries.

6. CULTURAL WELL-BEING: Percent of residents who feel they are able to maintain traditions associated with the natural environment.

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 Puget Sound.

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.

A new vital sign wheel will add indicators for human health and well-being. Graphic: Puget Sound Partnership
A new vital sign wheel will add nine indicators for human health and well-being. Two indicators were moved to another area.
Graphic: Puget Sound Partnership

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.