Category Archives: Research

One orca is missing and presumed dead; another reported as ‘super-gaunt’

I have some bleak news to share about our Southern Resident killer whales, which normally frequent Puget Sound at this time of year.

J-14 seen earlier this year in Puget Sound. Photo: Center for Whale Research
J-14 seen earlier this year in Puget Sound.
Photo: Center for Whale Research

J-14, a 42-year-old female named Samish, has gone missing and is presumed dead, while J-28, a 23-year-old orca mom named Polaris, may living out her final days.

“Things are shaping up to be pretty bad,” said Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research, who keeps tabs on the orca population. “J-28 is looking super-gaunt, and I would say she is within days of her death.”

The saddest part of my conversation with Ken this morning was to hear him say that Polaris’ 7-month-old calf would become an orphan and probably will not survive without his mother. That’s the typical outcome for an orphan of that age, Ken said, although there is a chance that the young male will be adopted by his grandmother.

The calf, J-54, is still nursing, but he is close to weaning, Ken noted. He is the newest calf born into the three Southern Resident pods and is part of the “baby boom” of nine orcas born between December 2014 and December 2015. So far, only one of those calves, J-55, has died.

After my conversation with Ken, the Center for Whale Research posted a news release about the death of Samish. Orca observers on the water have known that she was missing for some time now.

As of today, J pod was on its way out through the Strait of Juan de Fuca, no doubt searching for food. The chinook salmon run has been very low this summer.

“Historically, at this time of year, we would see nice little bunches (of orcas) swimming back and forth in front of the house,” said Ken, who lives on the west side of San Juan Island. But this year, the whales have broken up into small family groups and are traveling around in seemingly random patterns, presumably in search of whatever salmon they can find.

“Even the fishermen aren’t getting much this year,” Ken said.

To gauge a killer whale’s condition, researchers consider the overall shape of its body. Without adequate fish — primarily chinook salmon — an orca grows thinner as the body fat declines. As conditions grow worse, a depression develops behind the blow hole. This sunken condition — which Polaris has developed — is called “peanut head.” So far, none of the other animals have been observed in such a dire condition.

I’ve often been told by medical experts that when a killer whale loses weight it can be a sign of a major problem, such as a disease that makes them incapable of hunting to their normal ability. But a shortage of food can exacerbate the condition.

“We have been telling the government for years that salmon recovery is essential for whale recovery,” Ken said.

He blames the salmon decline on longtime mismanagement of wild salmon stocks — including damage to habitat, over-fishing and excess hatchery stocks in both Canada and the U.S. One of the quickest ways to increase the chinook population for these whales is to take out the Snake River dams, he said.

Rebuilding salmon runs on the Elwha River will help, Ken said, but the number of fish is small compared to the potential of the Snake River, which flows into the Columbia and produces salmon that can be caught in the ocean.

“I’m trying to get the marine mammal people to talk to the salmon people,” Ken said. “Fish have been a political problem for a long time, and we are not solving the salmon issue.”

Money spent on law enforcement to make sure whale watchers don’t get too close to the orcas would be better spent on education — specifically on educating lawmakers about the needs of salmon and killer whales, he quipped.

As of July 1 — the date of the annual orca census — the population of the three Southern Resident pods stood at 83. That’s the number that will be reported to the federal government. Since then, Samish has gone missing, so the ongoing count falls to 82, pending the status of Polaris and her son.

Samish was considered part of the J-2 (“Granny”) family group. Her living offspring are Hy’shqa (J-37), Suttles (J-40) and Se-Yi’-Chn (J-45). Samish was the grandmother to Hy-Shqa’s 4-year-old son T’ilem I’nges.

Polaris is the first offspring of Princess Angeline (J-17), who is still living. Her first offspring, a female named Star (J-46), is now 7 years old. J-54 is her second offspring.

Amusing Monday: Purple sea creature becomes an unlikely video star

Purple stubby squid is a real creature from the deep sea. Photo: EV Nautilus/YouTube
Purple stubby squid is a real creature from the deep sea.
Photo: EV Nautilus/YouTube

Wait! Don’t touch that! It’s not a toy. It’s a living thing.

Researchers aboard the Exploration Vessel Nautilus were scanning the seafloor off the coast of California using an unmanned submarine when they spotted a purple thing that caused them to laugh with amusement.

“It looks so fake,” one researcher said. “It looks like some little kid dropped their toy.” (Watch and listen in the first video player on this page.)

They maneuvered the remotely operated vehicle Hercules closer and continued to laugh at the creature with eyes that looked glued on. Later, as the video went viral, this purple cephalopod — a class that includes squid, octopus and cuttlefish — became known to many people as the “googly eyed squid.” Since Aug. 12, more than 2.5 million viewers have clicked on the video.

This species, Rossia pacifica, is known to Puget Sound divers as the stubby squid or sometimes the bobtail squid, but it is not a true squid. See The Cephalopod Page by James Wood to understand the relationship among family groups.

This particular stubby squid was seen in early August on the seafloor about 2,950 feet deep off the California Coast. They can be found from throughout the North Pacific south to Southern California. They are found at many depths from coastal waters to inland seas.

The second video shows a bobtail squid spotted from the EV Nautilus in August of 2014, and the third shows a flapjack octopus from August of 2015.

Roland Anderson of Seattle Aquarium described early surveys in Puget Sound, where stubby squids were found in muddy sand at 11 sites between Seattle and Tacoma, including Elliott and Commencement bays. Check out “Field Aspects of the Sepiolid Squid.” (PDF 3.3 mb)

In a piece on “The Cephalopod Page,” Anderson writes, “One surprising thing recently learned about stubby squid is that they are found in polluted urban bays with highly polluted bottom sediments, such as the inner harbors of Seattle and Tacoma.

“There may be several reasons they can survive there. Deposition from rivers maybe capping polluted sediments. Their short life spans (just two years from eggs) may not allow them to absorb a significant amount of pollutants from the sediments. Another survival factor may be the stubby squid’s ability to produce copious quantities of mucus, which may protect it from the sediments like a thick Jello jacket.”

Reporter Stefan Sirucek of National Geographic News interviewed Michael Vecchione, a cephalopod expert at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

“It’s not an uncommon species,” he said. “They get all the way from scuba-diving depths down into the deep sea. If that is all one species, then it’s pretty broadly distributed.”

Vecchione said large eyes are fairly common among deep-see animals.

“They are funny-looking eyes, but I’ve seen other species of this genus that had eyes that looked very similar,” he said. “People were actually asking whether those eyes were photo-shopped in to make it look more like a cartoon or something. No, those are the real eyes. That’s what they look like.”

In low light, the big eyes help them hunt for crustaceans and avoid predators. In either case, the strategy is to remain still so other animals don’t notice it there, which can make it look like a child’s toy.

“My guess is it was probably frozen because of this big machine that was brightly lit up in front of it,” Vecchione said in the interview. “So it was trying not to be seen, basically.”

Looking backward, then forward on actions in Skokomish watershed

Through the years, I’ve written a lot about the Skokomish River, which begins in the Olympic Mountains and flows into the south end of Hood Canal. The wide, productive estuary might be described as the elbow of this long, narrow waterway that bends up toward Belfair.

Cover

I’ve heard it said that Puget Sound cannot be restored to health without a healthy Hood Canal, and Hood Canal cannot be restored to health without a healthy Skokomish River. Whether that is true remains to be seen, but I have no doubt that the Skokomish River watershed is coming out of a dark period of abuse with hope of becoming one of the most productive streams in the region.

Much of the credit for the transformation goes to a group of men and women from a variety of agencies, occupations and ways of life who came together with an understanding of the historic value of the Skokomish River and a vision for what the river could become again. This was the Skokomish Watershed Action Team, or SWAT, which celebrated its 10th anniversary last year.

helicopter

To be sure, it was basically loads of money that began to transform the abused Skokomish River watershed to a much more productive system. But the people in charge of the federal, state, local and private dollars were able to see the Skokomish as a worthy cause, thanks to the groundwork laid by the SWAT. Disappointments have been few, as one project after another brings this long lost river back to life.

Yes, I have written a lot about the Skokomish River, its history and its future. That’s why I was glad to see the 10-year update to the Skokomish Watershed Action Plan (download, PDF 113 mb). The document contains an extensive account of the projects completed and the milestones passed through the years. Whether you are intimately involved in the watershed or just want to know what the heck I’m talking about, take a look at the report released this week.

Logjam soon after installation in 2010. Photo: U.S. Forest Service
Logjam soon after installation in 2010.
Photo: U.S. Forest Service

Since 2005, nearly 50 restoration projects were completed — from removal of old logging roads high in the mountains to the re-establishment of tidal channels in the lower estuary. Salmon are being reintroduced to the North Fork of the Skokomish River, including the dammed-up Lake Cushman, thanks to a legal settlement between Tacoma and the Skokomish Tribe.

After establishment, a deep pool forms behind the logjam. Photo: U.S. Forest Service
Later, a deep pool forms behind the jam.
Photo: U.S. Forest Service

About 12 miles upstream in the South Fork of the Skokomish, a series of 30 logjams were installed and almost immediately began to restore the channel to a more natural habitat for fish and other aquatic creatures. This area was part of a four-mile stretch that was heavily logged in the 1950s for a reservoir that never happened.

Once the logjams were in place, the area began to store massive loads of sediment, which always created problems as they washed downstream into the lower river. The river’s characteristic problem of spreading out and slowing down was reversed, as width-to-depth ratios decreased and the average depth in the middle of the river increased by two feet. The number of pools deeper than five feet doubled from three to six, and the piles of wood grew larger by capturing logs floating downstream.

The new report also lays out plans for the watershed in the coming years, including projects identified in a major study by the Army Corps of Engineers. A Corps proposal to fund $20 million in restoration projects is now before Congress, as I described in Water Ways in April and June. Other projects have been proposed for separate funding, as outlined in the new report.

Hood Canal changes color from growth of white plankton

Hood Canal cloaked in light green from heavy plankton growth. NASA image: Jeff Schmaltz, LANCE/EOSDIS Rapid Response
Hood Canal cloaked in light green from heavy plankton growth.
NASA image: Jeff Schmaltz, LANCE/EOSDIS Rapid Response

From space, Hood Canal is easily recognized by its new shade of bimini green, a color that stands out clearly from the rest of Puget Sound and the Pacific Ocean, as shown in the photo above.

The color is caused by a large bloom of coccolithophore, a single-celled phytoplankton bearing a shell made of white calcium carbonate.

A more detailed image of the plankton bloom. NASA image: Jesse Allen, using Landsat data from USGS
A more detailed image of the plankton bloom.
NASA image: Jesse Allen, with Landsat data from USGS

Teri King of Washington Sea Grant spotted the unusual color more than a week ago from the ground while driving along Hood Canal.

“I thought to myself, ‘Am I dreaming of the Cayman Islands?’” she reported on her Facebook page. “I pulled over to the side and took a few photos to document my observations. I then had an opportunity to grab a water sample. Yep, a Coccolithophore bloom from Quilcene to Lilliwaup.

“It is hard to miss a bloom of this color,” Teri continued on Facebook. “We don’t see them often, but when we do it is remarkable. The water takes on a tropical blue green appearance with white speckles.”

Scanning electron micrograph of plankton Emiliania huxleyi
Scanning electron micrograph of plankton Emiliania huxleyi
Image: Alison R. Taylor, U. of North Carolina Wilmington

The photo from space (top) was taken last Sunday from NASA’s Aqua satellite with equipment used to capture the natural color. On Wednesday, a more detailed image (second photo) was taken from the Landsat 8 satellite.

Reporter Tristan Baurick describes the phenomenon in yesterday’s Kitsap Sun. The single-celled plankton are not harmful to people or animals, so the bloom won’t affect shellfish harvesting. Hood Canal, as we’ve discussed many times, is prone to low-oxygen conditions, often exacerbated by massive blooms of plankton, which reduce oxygen through the process of decay.

The last major bloom of this kind in Hood Canal was noted in northern Hood Canal during the summer of 2007. Samples taken at that time showed the species of coccolithophorid to be Emiliania huxleyi, according to a report for the Hood Canal Dissolved Oxygen Program.

NASA’s photos and description of the latest bloom can be found on the Earth Observatory website, which also includes just about all you need to know about coccolithophores.

Hood Canal is green alright, up close and far away. Photo: Meegan M. Reid, Kitsap Sun
Hood Canal is green alright, up close and far away.
Photo: Meegan M. Reid, Kitsap Sun

Amusing Monday: Strange creatures and other ocean phenomena

Once in a while, a video shows up featuring some amazing phenomena not well known by most people. This is the case with a YouTube video by Mind Warehouse called “Ten Ocean Phenomena You Won’t Believe Actually Exist.”

I’ve featured several of the phenomena you’ll see in this video from my “Amusing Monday” series, but I admit that I did not know that some of these things even exist — and at least one photo appears to be a hoax that fooled the producers of the video on this page.

I’ve searched out a little more about each of the phenomena with links if you would like to learn more about any of these strange goings on.

Giant pyrosome

Thousands of self-cloned animals called tunicates occasionally come together to form a giant hollow tube that may grow to 60 feet long, according to Oceana’s Ocean Animal Encyclopedia. Giant pyrosomes are bioluminescent, producing their own light.

Because the tunicates can reproduce by cloning, the colony can regenerate its damaged parts to keep the tube intact. The tunicates that form pyrosomes are related to those found in the Salish Sea. Check out Emerald Diving’s tunicates page.

Megan Garber has written a story for The Atlantic, accompanied by a video, called “12 reasons pyrosomes are my new favorite terrifying sea creatures.”

Circles on the ocean bed

In 1995, divers discovered what looked like strange “crop circles” like those reported in farm fields, but these were on the ocean bottom near Japan. Other circles were found, but it took a decade before it was determined that male pufferfish make the circles as part of a mating ritual.

“When the circles are finished, females come to inspect them,” according to an article in LiveScience by Douglas Main. “If they like what they see, they reproduce with the males, said Hiroshi Kawase, the curator of the Coastal Branch of Natural History Museum and Institute in Chiba, Japan. But nobody knows exactly what the females are looking for in these circles or what traits they find desirable, Kawase told LiveScience.”

Striped icebergs

Most icebergs are white, but all sorts of blue-striped icebergs can be found in nature. They are the result of water filling a crevice and freezing so fast that no bubbles form. Green stripes form when algae-rich water freezes. Brown, yellow and black are the result of sediments being picked up by the water before it freezes. See undocumented photos and story by Mihai Andrei in ZME Science.

Red tide

Red tides can be found all over the world. Although “red tide” is a term often associated with poisonous plankton, many of the orange and red tides do not produce toxins harmful to people or marine life.

In Puget Sound, blooms of a dinoflagellate called Noctiluca sometimes create what appear to be works of art, as I described in Water Ways in June of 2013. Eyes Over Puget Sound, a program that monitors surface conditions, frequently presents pictures of colorful algae blooms, including a new edition published this morning.

Whirlpool

One of the strongest whirlpools in the world is at Saltstraumen, a fjord in Norway where a massive exchange of water rushes through an opening just 500 feet wide. Review the video “Deepest Hole in the Ocean.”

Brinicle

When salt-rich water streams into the sea, it can form an underwater finger of ice called a brinicle, sometimes referred to as “the ice finger of death.” The super-cooled briny water is colder than the surrounding sea, so the stream reaches out and freezes as it goes. See the article by Douglas Main in LiveScience or check out the blog post in Water Ways from November 2011.

Killer wave

When big waves come together at sea, the result is often a giant wave large enough to wreck an ocean-going ship or rush to shore with tremendous force. In January of this year, a killer wave — also known as a rogue wave — was recorded along the Pacific Coast in Grays Harbor County at a stream called Joe Creek. See Q-13 TV video “Rogue Wave …”

Frost flowers

When the air is considerably colder than a calm sea or lake, ice crystal can be extruded above the surface to form structures that resemble flowers. This occurs when water vapor sublimes from thin surface ice into the air without passing through the liquid phase. The warm moist air at the surface of the ice rises and quickly freezes in the colder air above.

Conditions leading to frost flowers often occur in the polar regions as new sea ice forms. Once the ice grows a little thicker, the surface cools down and the temperature difference between the ice and atmosphere are too close for the vapor to rise and then freeze.

Robert Krulwich, who hosted a science show for National Public Radio, discussed the phenomenon from the point of view of Jeff Bowman, a University of Washington graduate student in 2009 when he spotted frost flowers on his way back from an expedition to the Arctic.

Baltic and North sea meeting point

In the Mind Warehouse video, the narrator discusses a bunch of pictures purportedly showing the meeting point of the Baltic and North seas. I have been unable to track down all these photos or confirm that any of them were taken at the convergence zone of the Baltic and North seas.

One of the photos appears to have been taken in Alaska, showing the melt water from a glacier converging with ocean water. As in Puget Sound, the lower-density freshwater tends to form a layer over the salty seawater. See Kent Smith’s photo, taken from a cruise ship, and a story about research by the U.S. Geological Survey taken in the Gulf of Alaska.

It’s amusing to see all the myth-versus-fact posts on various Internet sites regarding the question of whether waters from the Baltic Sea actually mix with waters from the North Sea. (Search for “Baltic and North sea mixing.”) I gave up trying to find credible photos, but there exists an actual phenomenon regarding the mixing of the two seas. Wikipedia provides this explanation:

“The Baltic Sea flows out through the Danish straits; however, the flow is complex. A surface layer of brackish water discharges 940 km3 (230 cu mi) per year into the North Sea. Due to the difference in salinity, by salinity permeation principle, a sub-surface layer of more saline water moving in the opposite direction brings in 475 km3 (114 cu mi) per year. It mixes very slowly with the upper waters, resulting in a salinity gradient from top to bottom, with most of the salt water remaining below 40 to 70 m (130 to 230 ft) deep. The general circulation is anti-clockwise: northwards along its eastern boundary, and south along the western one.”

Bioluminescence

Living organisms can be seen to glow during a chemical reaction that involves a light-emitting pigment and an enzyme that serves as a catalyst for the reaction. Depending on the species, bioluminescence may be used to escape from prey, attract prey or signal for a mate. Sometimes researchers can’t tell why an animal has the ability to light up. One of the best write-ups I’ve seen is in Wikipedia.

Last fall, I featured in “Amusing Monday” a tiny creature called a sea sapphire that flashes brilliant hues of green, blue and purple then seems to disappear before your eyes. The organism is a copepod that is able to shift its plates to adjust the wavelength of light reflected from crystals underneath. When the reflected light is shifted far enough into the ultraviolet, the little animals nearly disappear.

Edith Widder, a specialist in bioluminescence, gives a fascinating TED talk on the subject in 2011. You can watch the video called “The Weird, Wonderful World of Bioluminescence,” in which she brings some glowing organisms to the stage.

Finding answers for dangerous decline of Puget Sound steelhead

Harbor seals have become prime suspects in the deaths of millions of young steelhead trout that die each year in Puget Sound, but the seals may not be working alone.

Trends

Disease and/or various environmental factors could play a part, perhaps weakening the young steelhead as they begin their migratory journey from the streams of Puget Sound out to the open ocean. Something similar is happening to steelhead on the Canadian side of the border in the Salish Sea.

More than 50 research projects are underway in Puget Sound and Georgia Strait to figure out why salmon runs are declining — and steelhead are a major focus of the effort. Unlike most migratory salmon, steelhead don’t hang around long in estuaries that can complicate the mortality investigation for some species.

The steelhead initiative was launched by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and Puget Sound Partnership with funding from the Legislature. The steelhead work is part of the Salish Sea Marine Survival Project, which is halfway through its five-year term, according to Michael Schmidt of Long Live the Kings, which coordinates the effort in the U.S. The larger project involves at least 60 organizations, including state and federal agencies, Indian tribes and universities.

A new report on research findings for steelhead (PDF 9.8 mb) describes the most significant results to date for our official state fish, which was listed as “threatened” in 2007. While steelhead populations on the Washington Coast and Columbia River have rebounded somewhat since their lowest numbers in the 1980s, steelhead in the Salish Sea remain at historical lows — perhaps 10 percent of their previous average.

“Because steelhead are bigger and move fast through the system, they are easier to study (than other salmon species),” Michael told me. “It has been a lot easier to feel confident about what you are finding.”

Abundance

Steelhead can be imbedded with tiny acoustic transmitters, which allow them to be tracked by acoustic receivers along their migration routes to the ocean. It appears that the tagged fish survive their freshwater journey fairly well, but many soon disappear once they reach Puget Sound. The longer they travel, the more likely they are to perish before they leave the sound.

While steelhead are susceptible to being eaten by a few species of birds, their primary predators appear to be harbor seals. These findings are supported by a new study that placed acoustic receivers on seals and observed that some of the transmitters embedded in steelhead ended up where the seals hang out, suggesting that the fish were probably eaten.

In a different kind of tagging study, Canadian researchers placed smaller passive integrated transponder (PIT) tags in a large number of coho salmon and attached devices to read the PIT tags on coho salmon.

“What is most interesting to date,” states a new report from the Pacific Salmon Foundation,“ (PDF 4 mb), “is that we only have confirmed feeding on tagged coho salmon by four of the 20 seals equipped with receivers. This suggests that feeding on juvenile salmon may be an opportunistic behavior acquired by a limited number of seals.”

New studies are underway to confirm steelhead predation by looking at fecal samples from seals in South Puget Sound. Researchers hope to figure out what the seals are eating and estimate steelhead consumption.

As I mentioned at the outset of this blog post, it may be more than a simple case of seals eating steelhead. For one thing, seal populations may have increased while their other food choices have decreased. Would the seals be eating as many steelhead if Puget Sound herring populations were close to their historical averages?

Other factors may be making young steelhead vulnerable to predation. A leading candidate is a parasite called Nanophyetus salmincola, which can infest steelhead and perhaps increase their risk of predation. The parasite’s life cycle requires a snail and a warm-blooded animal, as I described in a story I wrote for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound — part of a larger piece about disease as a powerful ecological force. Anyway, the snail is found only in streams in South Puget Sound, which might help explain why steelhead deaths are higher among these South Sound populations.

Experiments are underway to compare the survival of two groups of identical steelhead, one group infested with Nanophyetus and one not.

Depending on funding and proper design, another experiment could test whether treating a stream to temporarily eliminate the snail — an intermediate host — could increase the survival of steelhead. If successful, treating streams to remove these snails could be one way of helping the steelhead. For these and other approved and proposed studies, check out the Marine Survival Project’s “2015-2017 Research Work Plan” (PDF 9.3 mb).

Other factors under review that could play a role in steelhead survival are warming temperatures and pollution in Puget Sound, which could help determine the amount and type of plankton available for steelhead and salmon. Could a shift in plankton result in less food for the small fish? It’s a major question to be answered.

I’ve mentioned in Water Ways (3/15/2010) that transient killer whales, which eat seals, sea lions and harbor porpoises, may be helping their distant cousins, the Southern Resident killer whales, which eat fish. Those smaller marine mammals compete for the adult salmon eaten by the Southern Residents. By clearing out some of those competitors, the transients could be leaving more salmon for the Southern Residents.

It may be too early to draw any firm conclusions, Michael Schmidt told me, but transient killer whales may be helping steelhead as well. Last year, when transients ventured into South Puget Sound and stayed longer than usual, the survival rate for steelhead from the nearby Nisqually River was the highest it has been in a long time.

Were the whales eating enough seals to make a difference for steelhead, or were the seals hiding out and not eating while the whales were around. Whether there were benefits for the steelhead, we could be seeing what happens when a major predator (orcas) encounters an abundance of prey (seals).

Hormonal studies link orca miscarriages to low chinook salmon runs

An orca mother named Calypso (L-94) nurses her young calf in this high-resolution photo
An orca mother named Calypso (L-94) nurses her young calf in this high-resolution photo taken from a drone. Lactation takes an energetic toll on orca moms. Future images may reveal whether Calypso is getting enough food to support herself and her calf.
Photo: NOAA Fisheries, Vancouver Aquarium, under NMFS permit and FAA flight authorization.

It is fairly well known that the three pods of killer whales that frequent Puget Sound are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. It is also well known that their primary prey — chinook salmon — are listed as threatened.

It can’t be good that the whales are struggling to find enough to eat, but we are just beginning to learn that the situation could be dire for orca females who become pregnant and need to support a growing fetus during times of a food shortage.

Sam Wasser, a researcher known for figuring out an animal’s condition from fecal samples, recently reported that about two-thirds of all orca pregnancies end in miscarriage. And of those miscarriages, nearly one-third take place during the last stage of pregnancy — a dangerous situation for the pregnant female.

In a story published today in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, I report on Sam’s latest studies, along with other work by a team of biologists who are using unmanned aircraft (drones) to keep track of the physical condition of the Southern Resident orcas, including pregnant moms.

Sam’s latest study involves measuring hormones in killer whales, which can tell us a lot about a whale’s condition. The story of how hormones change under varying conditions is a little complicated, but I hope I was able to explain in my article how this works. When adding the effects of toxic chemicals that mimic hormones, we begin to understand the conditions that may be critical to the whales’ long-term survival or their ultimate extinction.

One longtime assumption, which may be shot down by the hormone studies, is that the whales’ most difficult time for food comes in winter, when salmon are generally scarce. These new studies by Sam and his colleagues suggest that the greatest problem comes in the spring, when the whales return to Puget Sound to discover that spring runs of chinook salmon can no longer be found — at least not in significant numbers.

The work with a drone carrying a high-resolution camera is providing precise measurements about the length and width of each killer whale. Pregnant females are especially interesting, and it will be important to document whether physical changes observed in the drone study can be correlated with hormonal changes seen in the other study.

“We’ve moved toward some great sophisticated technology,” Lynne Barre told me. “These great technologies combined can tell us more than any one method can … such as when and where food limitations might be affecting their health and reproduction.”

Lynne heads NOAA’s Protected Resources Division in Seattle and oversees recovery efforts for the endangered Southern Residents.

By the end of this year, NOAA is expected to release its five-year status report on the Southern Resident orcas. In addition to reporting on many new findings, the document will re-examine the risk of extinction for these killer whales and consider whether actions proposed to help them have been carried out.

Last year, the Southern Residents were listed among eight endangered species across the country that are headed for extinction unless recovery actions can be successful. The eight, selected in part because of their high profiles, are known as “Species in the Spotlight.” In February, five-year action plans were released for all eight species.

The plan called “Priority Actions for Southern Resident Killer Whales” (PDF 2 mb) focuses on three primary factors affecting the whales’ survival: a shortage of food, high levels of toxic chemicals and effects of vessels and noise. The concise 15-page document describes some of the work being carried out on behalf of the whales, although new ideas are coming forth all the time.

New Bucklin Hill Bridge helps restore habitat in Clear Creek estuary

Tidal waters in Silverdale flow smoothly in and out of Clear Creek estuary, passing under a new 240-foot-long bridge — a massive structure that has replaced a pair of six-foot culverts.

New Bucklin Hill Bridge Photo: C. Dunagan
New Bucklin Hill Bridge // Photo: C. Dunagan

I visited the site this afternoon, walking over to the bridge from Old Mill Park, and I found the changes startling. Flows of freshwater from Clear Creek joins saltwater that trickles through tidal channels from Dyes Inlet. Tidal shifts are reshaping the estuary, flushing out trapped sediment and leaving deposits of gravel of varying size. When the fall rains come, salmon will be able to linger in the estuary upstream or downstream of the bridge before moving up into the watershed.

Twin culverts before construction begins. Photo: Kitsap County
Twin culverts before construction
Photo: Kitsap County

Traffic across the estuary was shut off for construction a little more than a year ago. Now county officials are planning to celebrate the opening of the new bridge on Friday of next week (July 22). The ceremony, led by Kitsap County Commissioner Ed Wolfe, will begin at 10 a.m. on the east end of the bridge. A Marine Corps honor guard will present the colors, and the Central Kitsap High School marching band will perform.

“We encourage the community to join us in celebrating this special occasion,” Ed stated in a news release. “The new bridge not only addresses traffic needs, but provides additional non-motorized enhancements as well as restoring Clear Creek estuary with the removal of culverts.”

Parking will be available at the former Albertson’s/Haggen grocery store parking lot near the intersection of Bucklin Hill and Mickelberry roads.

The $19.4 million construction project is said to be the largest project of its kind ever undertaken by the county. The bridge allows the roadway to be widened from two to four lanes with a new left-turn lane at Levin Road and a center two-way turn lane elsewhere in the area. The project adds new bike lanes, sidewalks and pedestrian overlooks.

Looking upstream from under the new bridge. Photo: C. Dunagan
Looking upstream from under the new bridge
Photo: C. Dunagan

Kitsap County Public Works has posted a large number of photos showing the progress of construction on its Bucklin Hill Bridge project page.

After the bridge opens, the contractor, Granite Construction, will continue to finish various aspects of the project. Occasional traffic delays can be expected, according to county officials.

Chris Butler-Minor, a master’s degree candidate at Portland State University, is studying the ecological changes resulting from the project with the help of volunteers. They are collecting water samples and monitoring sediments, vegetation and invertebrates.

“It’s a yearlong inconvenience but the outcome will be improved transportation, improved bike and pedestrian access, and the salmon are going to love it,” Chris was quoted as saying in a story by Kitsap Sun reporter Ed Friedrich.

The new Bucklin Hill Bridge opens up the estuary. Photo: C. Dunagan
The new Bucklin Hill Bridge opens up the estuary. // Photo: C. Dunagan

Canary rockfish likely
to be removed from Endangered Species List

One of the three species of rockfish listed as threatened or endangered in the Puget Sound region is about to be pulled off the Endangered Species List, following recent scientific findings.

Canary rockfish Photo by Tippy Jackson, NOAA
Canary rockfish
Photo by Tippy Jackson, NOAA

Genetic studies carried out with the help of fisherfolk from Kitsap County have determined that canary rockfish are not a discrete population from those found off the Washington Coast. An official comment period on the delisting is open until Sept. 6, as described in the Federal Register.

I first discussed early evidence of this genetic finding a year ago. Kelly Andrews, a genetics expert with NOAA Fisheries, confirmed that limited genetic samples of canary rockfish from coastal areas appeared no different from samples taken from Puget Sound. Kelly wanted to review analyses from additional samples before drawing firm conclusions. See Water Ways, June 18, 2015.

Removing canary rockfish from the Endangered Species List will have no effect on yelloweye rockfish, listed as threatened, or bacaccio, listed as endangered. The change also is expected to have no immediate effects on fishing rules, which are designed to protect all rockfish in Puget Sound.

Rockfish are considered an important part of the Puget Sound ecosystem. Understanding the causes of their decline and finding ways to rebuild their populations could help with the recovery of a variety of other marine species, experts say.

A five-year review (PDF 15.1 mb) on the status of the three species of rockfish was due last year, but it was delayed until April of this year to include the new genetic information. In addition to a proposal to delist canary rockfish, the report discusses the difficulty in gathering population data. The authors were able to report:

“The data suggest that total rockfish declined at a rate of 3.1 to 3.8 percent per year from 1977 to 2014 … or a 69 to 76 percent total decline over that period. We did not find evidence for subpopulations with different population growth rates.”

Those involved in the scientific effort expressed appreciation to the anglers who went out with them to track down rockfish and take fin clips for genetic sampling. The effort also included information from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, where researchers surveyed rockfish areas with divers and remotely operated vehicles.

“Without the expertise of experienced fishing guides, anglers, and WDFW’s rockfish survey data, it would have been difficult to find the canary rockfish and yelloweye rockfish to collect the fin clips needed for the study,” according to a question-and-answer sheet from NOAA Fisheries (PDF 534 kb).

The local fishing experts were able to take the researchers to the hotspots where rockfish have always been found.

During the sampling, fishers were careful to release the rockfish with “descending devices” to get them safely back to deep water, where they reside. That is a technique recommended for all anglers who catch rockfish while fishing for other species. For details, see “Bring That Fish Down” (PDF 673 kb) by California Sea Grant and “Protecting Washington’s Rockfish” by WDFW.

Among those helping with the survey were Ray Frederick, a longtime leader in the Kitsap Poggie Club, a local fishing group, and Randy Jones, a charterboat operator from Port Orchard.

Ray recalls catching rockfish decades ago while fishing for salmon and other fish. “I considered myself lucky if I caught a rockfish and brought it home, because they’re really good eating,” Ray said in a story written by Ed Quimby, a former NOAA writer. “I prefer salmon,” Ray added, “but my wife likes rockfish better.”

Efforts to develop a recovery plan for rockfish continue for yelloweye rockfish and bocaccio as required by the Endangered Species Act. Details can be found on NOAA’s webpage “Rockfish in Puget Sound/Georgia Basin.”

Orca population remains uncertain on census day

The annual census of killer whales that frequent Puget Sound is supposed to be based on a population count for July 1 each year, but this year the count has barely begun as we move into July.

J-40, named Suttles, breaches in the latest encounter reported by Ken Balcomb. Photo: Ken Balcomb, taken under U.S. and Canadian permits
J-40, named Suttles, breaches in the latest encounter reported by Ken Balcomb.
Photo: Ken Balcomb, under U.S. and Canadian permits

For years, all three pods of Southern Resident orcas typically wandered into Puget Sound in late May or early June, but things have been changing. So far this year, most of the whales have remained somewhere else, probably somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. And that even goes for J pod, the most resident of the resident pods.

Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research, who is responsible for the census, said the Fraser River chinook run has been so low this year that the whales have stayed away. He may not be able to get a complete count until September, he told me.

Of course, Ken and his associates will take attendance as the whales come into the Salish Sea. Some assumptions will have to be made about the timing of any births or deaths. But whales won’t be counted as missing until they are not seen with their family groups during multiple encounters.

“We’re not going to be able to say that somebody is dead at the end of July because we have not seen them,” Ken said, “since there is a low probability of seeing them between now and September.”

As with this year, the census could not be completed at this time last year. But, unlike this year, only two small groups of whales had not been seen going up to census day on July 1 last year. See Water Ways, July 1, 2015.

As the whales have stayed out to sea longer each year, Ken has requested additional federal funding to search for them and get an early indication of their condition, but his requests have been denied. Those who wish to support his ongoing efforts may purchase a membership in the Center for Whale Research.

On Monday, Ken caught up with a small group of J pod orcas that are led by the matriarch J-2, known as Granny. It was only the second time that J pod whales have been seen in inland waters during the entire month of June. On Saturday, a large group of orcas was spotted by observers near the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. But most of them apparently stayed in the open ocean.

Ken speculates that Granny and the others were following an aggregation of salmon when he caught up with them at Turn Point near the Canadian border. He posted a report today with this information:

“J19 and J41 were the west-flanking whales, and J14, J37 and J49 were the east-flanking whales, while J2 and L87 charged in a zig-zag pattern down the middle of the tide rips that shot up vertically like haystacks of water, dousing the boat and camera. The others (J40 and J45) were here and there in the swirls, surfacing with no particular pattern. It was quite challenging to take photographs in such conditions, but it was important to get some documentation of their occurrence and activity, since they had not spent much time in the Salish Sea so far this year.”

The abundance of chinook in the Fraser River — which produces much of the fish in the San Juan Islands — is tracked by prescribed fishing in Canada’s so-called Albion Test Fishery. As you can see from the graph, the catch per unit effort is considerably lower than the long-term average, barely making a blip at the bottom of the chart.

This year's catch per unit effort in the Albion Test Fishery is much lower than the long-term average. This year's fishery did not begin until April 26. Graphic: Canadian DFO
This year’s catch per unit effort in the Albion Test Fishery is much lower than the long-term average. This year’s fishery did not begin until April 26.
Graphic: Canadian DFO

Meanwhile, the abundance of chinook off the Washington Coast is predicted in pre-season forecasts to be slightly above the 10-year average. Forecasts for this year’s chinook runs are higher than last year’s forecast but not as high as the surprisingly high numbers of chinook that ultimately came back last year. See 2016 chinook forecast (PDF 135 kb).

Considering the apparent difference between the number of chinook in the ocean and those coming to the Fraser River, it is no wonder that the whales still remain off the coast.

Given the low salmon runs, Ken says he will be surprised if the annual census does not include some mortalities. One small group of whales, known as the L-12s, have not been seen for months. Meanwhile, four births were recorded since July of last year, with the latest report coming in December. And, as far as anyone can tell, eight of the nine orcas born since December 2014 are still living. It would be remarkable if we are still able to say that when the official census for 2016 is finally reported in September.