Category Archives: Research

No end in sight for dispute over pesticide injury to salmon

It has been 15 years since a federal judge ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency and National Marine Fisheries Service must consider whether pesticides increase the risk of extinction for Northwest salmon populations.

Chlorpyrifos

Since 2002, NMFS (also called NOAA Fisheries) has determined that some pesticides do indeed pose a significant risk to the ongoing existence of salmon listed under the Endangered Species Act. Yet, after all these years, permanent protective measures have not been imposed by the EPA, which is responsible for regulating pesticide use.

One could argue that progress has been made in the face of litigation from environmental groups. The EPA has acknowledged its responsibility under the Endangered Species Act, and the agency has adopted a new and evolving methodology for measuring the risk to listed species.

After its initial assessments were thrown out by the courts, NMFS has agreed to complete new biological opinions for five pesticides that pose some of the highest risks. Studies for chlorpyrifos, malathion and diazinon are scheduled to be done by the end of this year, followed by carbaryl and methomyl by the end of next year.

What we don’t know is whether President Trump’s anti-regulatory efforts and pledge to dismantle the EPA will slow or stop the process of protecting salmon. When it comes to pesticides, environmental activists will tell you that the Trump administration has already taken steps to undermine not only salmon but also human health.

For example, the insecticide chlorpyrifos was scheduled to be banned by the EPA after a new analysis found that its ongoing use on food crops could pose unsafe risks for people, especially young children whose brain development could be impaired.

In March, just before the ban was to go into effect, Trump’s new EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, reversed EPA’s course, saying the U.S. Department of Agriculture disagrees with the methodology used by the EPA in developing the ban.

Environmental groups, which had already obtained a court order to force the EPA to reconsider its approval of the pesticide, were outraged. They filed yet another lawsuit, as described in a news release from Earthjustice.

“EPA’s stunning reversal on chlorpyrifos in the face of overpowering scientific evidence of harm to children signals yet another dereliction of duty under the Trump administration,” Kristin Schafer, policy director for Pesticide Action Network, said in the news release.

After the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals refused to force the EPA to take immediate action on chlorpyrifos, nine U.S. senators stepped in to draft legislation that would ban the chemical. See news release and video from Tom Udall, D-New Mexico, and a separate statement from Earthjustice.

Chlorpyrifos is among numerous pesticides that can harm salmon directly and indirectly in a variety of ways, including destroying salmon’s ability to make their way upstream to spawn and killing off the insects they eat.

In its latest biological evaluation released in January, the EPA looked at more than 1,400 toxicity studies before concluding that chlorpyrifos in all its various uses could be expected to have an adverse effect on all threatened and endangered species throughout the U.S. — including killer whales in Puget Sound. Check out the news story by Adam Wernick, Living on Earth.

Of course, chemical manufacturers and farming groups — including apparently the USDA — are not easily convinced that certain pesticides are harmful. They want to go on selling and using these chemicals, as they have for many years. Consequently, they want the EPA to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a chemical is causing damage. But federal law actually requires that all chemicals on the market be proven safe, so any doubt should trigger a reduction of pesticide use or at least greater restrictions on their application.

It is easy to complain about the adequacy of any scientific study. In fact, a disputed difference in methodology between the EPA and NMFS led to a National Academy of Sciences Review, which eventually made suggestions for unifying the agencies’ different scientific approaches.

Through the years, one thing that I have found remarkable is that chemicals rarely appear to get safer with time. For most pesticides, more study raises more concerns, and when you mix pesticides together you never know what you’ll get.

In 2008, shortly after I started writing this blog, I reported on a study by Nat Scholz, a NOAA toxicologist in Seattle who has been studying the effects of chemicals on salmon and other species. This particular study examined mixtures of chlorpyrifos and four other pesticides.

The biggest surprise, Nat told reporter Erik Stokstad of Science magazine, was the strength of the synergistic punch from the pesticides diazinon and malathion. Together, the two chemicals killed all the salmon exposed to them. Even at the lowest concentration, fish were extremely sick.

“It was eye-opening,” Nat was quoted as saying. “We’re seeing relatively dramatic departures” from what happens with each pesticide by itself. See Water Ways, Feb. 19, 2008.

Such findings raise questions about the adequacy of all studies conducted on single pesticides. Pending final reports on pesticide effects on salmon, the courts have imposed 60-foot no-spray buffers along streams (300 feet for aerial spraying) to reduce chemical exposure to salmon and other species.

Nobody can say for sure if those buffers are adequate, but biological opinions from NOAA due out at this end of this year could shed new light on the problem. Meanwhile, chemical manufacturers are hoping those court-mandated reports never see the light of day — and they are putting pressure on the Trump administration to slow down the process.

In a letter to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, a lawyer for the three companies — Dow AgroSciences, ADAMA and FMC — called on the EPA to withdraw its biological evaluation, saying the analysis is flawed in several ways. The lawyer also wrote to other federal officials, asking the National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to delay their biological opinions. According to the lawyer, the court-imposed deadlines are not legally binding.

Reporter Tiffany Stecker of Bloomberg BNA does a nice job describing various viewpoints surrounding this complicated issue. She also describes a close relationship between Dow and the Trump administration.

“The company donated $1 million to President Donald Trump’s inaugural committee,” she wrote. “Trump appointed Dow Chairman and CEO Andrew Liveris to head the White House American Manufacturing Council.”

Dow spent more than $13.6 million on lobbying efforts last year, according to Michael Biesecker, environmental reporter for the Associated Press.

“When Trump signed an executive order in February mandating the creation of task forces at federal agencies to roll back government regulations, Dow’s chief executive was at Trump’s side,” Biesecker wrote.

“’Andrew, I would like to thank you for initially getting the group together and for the fantastic job you’ve done,’ Trump said as he signed the order during an Oval Office ceremony. The president then handed his pen to Liveris to keep as a souvenir,” according to the AP report.

Patti Goldman, managing attorney for Earthjustice’s Northwest Regional Office, said Dow executives are doing everything they can to suppress the science surrounding chlorpyrifos and other pesticides — including hiring their own scientists to raise doubts and delay proposed bans for these toxic chemicals.

“We have a person (Pruitt) in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency who really doesn’t believe in the mission of the agency,” Patti told me.

Turmoil over pesticides has been heightened by the Trump administration just when the EPA and NMFS appeared to be coming together to resolve long-held conflicts over how to assess risk and reduce harm to salmon, she said.

Now, after 15 years of court battles, the end of the conflict appears far from over.

“I think we have had incremental progress, because we’ve gotten the agencies to look at this,” Patti said. “Some chemicals are no longer on the market, and some are on the market for only particular uses.”

While there is plenty of disagreement over whether controls on pesticide use are working, for now the no-spray buffers remain in place as a temporary protection.

Are we winning or losing the ongoing battle for salmon habitat?

It has been said that the Puget Sound ecosystem would be far worse off today were it not for the millions of dollars spent on restoration projects over the past 25 years.

Undoubtedly, that’s true, but I think most of us are hoping that these costly efforts will eventually restore salmon populations while improving conditions for other creatures as well. Shouldn’t we be able to measure the progress?

Juvenile chinook salmon
Photo: John McMillan, NOAA

This basic question became the essence of my latest story published in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound: “Are we making progress on salmon revovery?”

As I describe in the story, what seems like a simple question becomes tangled in the difficulties of measuring population and ecological changes. It turns out that you can’t just count the fish to see if restoration is working. That’s because natural variabilities of weather, ocean conditions and predator/prey populations cause salmon populations to swing wildly from year to year no matter what you do.

While researching this story, I learned a good deal about freshwater habitat conditions needed to help various species of salmon to thrive. Habitat improvements resulting from restoration projects are no doubt helping salmon in significant ways. On the other hand, one cannot ignore human development that continues to degrade habitat — despite improved regulations designed to reduce the damage.

I’ve heard some people say that wild salmon would come back in larger numbers if everyone would just stop fishing for them. This may be true to some extent, especially for high-quality streams that may not be getting enough salmon to spawn. But the key to the problem is understanding the “bottlenecks” that limit salmon survival through their entire lives.

A stream may have plenty of adult spawners, but that does not mean the salmon runs will increase if the eggs are buried in silt or if food supplies limit the number of fry that survive. There may be multiple limiting factors that need to be addressed to ensure healthy ongoing salmon populations.

Small improvements in habitat may actually boost the productivity of salmon in a stream, meaning that more salmon will survive. But the benefits of small projects on large streams may be difficult to distinguish from natural variation. Statistical analysis is used to determine whether increases or decreases in salmon populations are more related to habitat changes or natural variation. It takes a fairly dramatic change to link cause to effect in a statistically significant way.

One ongoing experiment is measuring changes in fry populations in several streams within the same watersheds. One stream is left alone — the “control” stream — while habitat improvements are made in others. Because the streams are closely related, biologists hope to attribute population increases to habitat improvements with a high level of certainty. See Intensively Monitored Watersheds on the website of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The same issue of statistics applies to the aquatic insects that salmon eat. It appears that food supplies are improving in many salmon streams as a result of restoration, but not all benthic invertebrates are responding in the same way. For many streams, it will take more time to get enough data to determine whether the increased bug populations are statistically significant. This happens to be one issue that I side-stepped in the latest story, but I will be returning to it in the future. For background, check out an earlier story I wrote for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, “Healthy Streams, Healthy Bugs.”

While habitat restoration is ongoing, so too is human development, which continues unabated at what appears to be an accelerating pace. New regulations are designed to result in “no net loss” of important habitats, including shorelines, streams and wetlands. But questions remain about whether local regulations themselves and/or enforcement of the regulations are adequate.

Biologists at NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center are conducting research to determine whether habitat changes are for better or worse, especially with regard to chinook. We should see some results within the next few years, as the agency prepares to draft the next five-year status report for Puget Sound’s threatened chinook population.

Winter chum salmon in South Puget Sound fail test for uniqueness

Sam Wright, who has been remarkably successful in getting various fish species protected under the Endangered Species Act, has learned that his latest ESA petition — possibly his final petition — has been rejected.

Sam, who retired from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife after years of studying salmon and other fish, would like to get special recognition for a unique population of chum salmon that return to South Puget Sound in the winter.

Nisqually River near Interstate 5 bridge
Photo: ©2006 Walter Siegmund/Wikimedia Commons

The Nisqually-Chambers Creek run of winter chum is the only population of chum salmon in the world that spawn as late as February, with some fish entirely missing the worst floods of December and January, Sam told me. His petition to the federal government was designed to get these winter chum recognized as a distinct population segment — much as the threatened summer chum population in Hood Canal has been designated as separate from the fall runs of chum throughout Puget Sound.

Being a small population, the Nisqually-Chambers Creek winter chum would probably qualify for threatened or endangered status, he said, but first it would need to be recognized as distinct. If not listed initially as threatened or endangered, those decisions could follow if the population crashes, he said.

“The petition was meant to correct what was, from my perspective, a mistake made 20 years ago when they made a coastwise series of reports assessing the chum salmon populations,” said Sam, who is now 81 years old.

“In the entire range of chum salmon — both in North America and Asia — there are 3,500 streams with chum salmon,” he continued, “but there is only one single winter-run chum salmon, and that is the Nisqually.”

Sam’s petition (PDF 4.2 mb), filed more than two years ago, was subject to a 90-day review by the National Marine Fisheries Service, also known as NOAA Fisheries. Sam was told that the petition had been misplaced all this time. Last week, he got the news that the Nisqually-Chambers Creek winter chum would not be recognized as a distinct population, nor would it be considered for further review without new information being brought forward.

In rejecting Sam’s petition, NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center reviewed available data — including a 2015 genetic study on chum populations — and concluded that the original analysis done in 1997 was still valid. That analysis concluded that the winter-run chum are closely related to the fall-run chum in Puget Sound and Hood Canal and that “there is no clear genetic evidence to support the idea that the winter-run chum salmon in Puget Sound are substantially reproductively isolated from other chum salmon populations in southern Puget Sound.” See “Listing Endangered or Threatened Species …”

Sam argues that the winter chum remain genetically isolated from fall chum populations because of their unusual spawning schedule. That is demonstrated by annual population counts, which go up and down independently of fall chum numbers in South Puget Sound.

“They are reacting to different environmental conditions,” Sam explained.

Studies are needed to show the differences, Sam said, but they may have an advantage over fall chum by avoiding most of the winter floods, which can displace salmon eggs incubating in the gravel or else smother them in silt.

Incubation time is based on temperature, so the late-arriving chum are subject to warmer water and faster incubation. The winter chum fry are only a little behind the fall chum fry, Sam said.

One of the most productive areas for winter chum is Muck Creek, a tributary of the Nisqually River that runs through Joint Base Lewis McCord, where the Army conducts military exercises, according to Sam.

“We’ve had decades of battles with Fort Lewis over whether to use Muck Creek as part of their firing range,” Sam told me, adding that he suspects that pressure from the military played a role in NOAA’s original decision to lump the winter chum together with the fall chum.

Personally, I don’t know anything about such conflicts, but Muck Creek has been the site of a major restoration effort involving JBLM, the Nisqually Tribe and other groups. In 2011, reporter Ingrid Barrentine wrote about the annual salmon homecoming for Northwest Guardian, a JBLM publication.

As for the habitat in Muck Creek, Sam told me something else that was surprising. The stream is spring-fed with freshwater bubbling up from below and providing stable flows, he said. That helps the eggs to survive. Unlike many streams in which only 10 percent of the chum eggs grow into fry headed for saltwater, Muck Creek has had a 90-percent survival rate.

One reason that Sam is so concerned about the Nisqually-Chambers Creek winter chum is the uncertainty about what is coming in the future. Climate change is likely to bring higher stream flows in winter, he said, and chum runs that come later may hold the keys to survival of the species.

“To me, the last thing we want to do is throw away that particular piece,” Sam said, paraphrasing Aldo Leopold, whose exact quote is this:

“If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.” (Round River)

Sam Wright’s persistence has paid off in the past when he has asked for reconsideration and finally received threatened or endangered status for various populations of salmon, steelhead, rockfish and other marine species. This time, he may or may not provide additional information and ask the agency to reconsider its position. In any case, Sam told me that he has no new petitions in the works, and this may be his last effort.

Whether Nisqually-Chambers Creek winter chum — or any salmon population — is considered distinct rests on NOAA’s definition of species, 16 U.S.C. 1531, which includes two criteria:

  1. The population must be substantially reproductively isolated from other nonspecific population units; and
  2. The population must represent an important component in the evolutionary legacy of the species.

In turning down Sam’s petition, reviewers pointed to genetic studies that supported the finding that summer chum in Hood Canal and the Strait of Juan de Fuca were distinct from other chum runs. A second grouping included the remaining fall, summer and winter runs in Puget Sound, with a third grouping of fall chum from the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the Washington Coast and Oregon.

The reviewers also pointed out that the Nisqually River and Chambers Creek to the north are not geographically isolated from the rest of South Puget Sound.

As for “evolutionary legacy,” Sam contends that loss of the winter chum would be forever, as with extinct summer chum in many river systems including Chambers Creek. That critical issue, he said, is the very definition of legacy.

The reviewers of his petition found, like the 1997 review team, that winter and summer runs in Puget Sound only showed “patterns of diversity within a relatively large and complex evolutionarily significant unit,” known as an ESU.

“Both the Nisqually River and Chambers Creek watersheds have supported both summer- and fall-run chum salmon in the past, along with winter-run chum salmon,” concluded the agency’s written findings, “so there is nothing unique preventing these watersheds from supporting multiple chum salmon runs.”

Bears have gathered for their annual feast at Alaska’s Brooks Falls

In plain view of one live camera, a bear waits patiently as leaping salmon fly all around. The bear is content to wait for for a big fish to leap into his paws or his mouth.

In front of another live camera, a group of bears forage downstream in the river, going underwater to get their salmon meal. One chews vigorously while standing upright in chest-deep water.

These are a couple of the scenes I’ve been watching this morning at the Brooks Falls overlook in Katmai National Park. I have never been to the national park, but I have enjoyed these live video feeds for years. It seems incredible that we can observe brown bears doing what they do naturally while remaining out of sight and hearing of the bears.

All four bear cams can be viewed at once from the Explore website. Scroll down the page to read comments from the camera operators and other folks watching remotely.

Park officials estimate that more than 100 bears use this mile-long stretch of Brooks River to feast on what they say is the largest sockeye salmon run in the world. These bears are part of a population of 2,200 that live in the park. It is said that bears outnumber people on the Alaska Peninsula.

Another group of live webcams are poised to capture the movements of Northern Resident killer whales in Blackney Pass, one of the primary travel routes for the whales during the summer months. Again, scroll down to view comments. The cameras are coordinated by OrcaLab, Paul Spong’s research station on Hanson Island in British Columbia’s Johnstone Strait.

For other critter cams, check out what I posted in April (Water Ways, April 24, 2017).

Forest battle continues over defining the upper bounds of fish habitat

A long-running battle over how to manage potential fish habitat on commercial forestland could be coming to a head — although it isn’t clear if the solution will satisfy either forestland owners or environmentalists.

Jamie Glasgow of Wild Fish Conservancy (center) leads a crew surveying a stream for the presence of fish in 2014. // Photo: Chris Linder

To be clear, there is not much argument about streamside buffers where salmon, trout and other fish are readily found, thanks to state and federal rules stemming from the landmark Forests and Fish Report. Buffers are designed to save trees that serve the needs of fish — including insects for food, shade for cool water and eventually down trees that form pools for resting as well as hiding places and spawning areas.

Environmentalists contend that it is important to protect unoccupied fish habitat as well as areas occupied by fish at any point in time. If salmon populations are to rebound, salmon fry could need extra space to grow and develop, says Jamie Glasgow, a biologist with Wild Fish Conservancy. That means larger buffers should go where fish habitat can be found.

Of course, timberland owners don’t want to leave large buffers on small stream segments where fish would never go. For them, perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars in commercial timber could be left standing under new rules, depending on how the state’s Forest Practices Board comes down on this issue of fish habitat. The board is scheduled to take up the issue again with some kind of action planned on Aug. 9.

Fish habitat is defined in the Forest and Fish Report as areas of a stream “used by fish at any life stage at any time of the year, including potential habitat likely to be used by fish which could be recovered by restoration or management and includes off-channel habitat.” (The emphasis is mine.)

The Forest and Fish Report was incorporated into state law by the Washington Legislature, and federal agencies adopted those concepts as a statewide “habitat conservation plan” to protect species listed under the Endangered Species Act, including chinook salmon.

One of the big arguments about fish habitat revolves around how to determine just how far upstream fish would likely go and where they would be deterred under various natural conditions they encounter, such as streamflow or natural barriers such as waterfalls.

The Forest and Fish Report anticipated that a map would be developed with all stream segments designated as either fish habitat or not fish habitat. After several years, such a map was developed in 2005, based on the size and steepness of the streams, using the best information available.

It soon became apparent, however, that fish were being found in areas marked as non-habitat on the maps. Other areas designated as habitat were sometimes unable to support fish. Some fish-bearing streams were not even on the maps, and some streams were in the wrong place. I wrote about the efforts by Wild Fish Conservancy to correct some maps three years ago (Kitsap Sun, Sept. 27, 2014). Previous maps had proved to be a problem as well, even before the Forest and Fish Report (Kitsap Sun, May 28, 1996).

The maps are still used as guidance, but buffer determinations must be made for each logging or development project based on actual site conditions. If a stream is 2 feet wide and the steepness is less than a 20 percent — or 16 percent in some areas — it is assumed that fish can get there.

But — and here’s the rub — an allowable fall-back method is to identify the presence of fish, either through snorkel surveys or by “elecrtrofishing,” which involves putting a nonlethal current in the water to stun the fish. Where fish are located, the area is designated as fish habitat, along with waters that extend upstream to a natural “break,” such as a waterfall or a stream confluence that would prevent fish from going any farther.

Much history surrounds this issue, and all sides should be given credit for working through many thorny habitat problems through the years. Nobody wants to go back to a time when the spotted owl was a symbol for conflict about whether forests were mainly for jobs or fish and wildlife.

As for fish habitat, experts have renewed their attempt to come up with reliable and objective methods to identify the break points between habitat (known as “Type F waters,” which stands for fish) and non-habitat (“Type N waters”) without the costs and impacts of surveying every stream for fish.

Environmental groups became impatient with the effort — or lack of effort at times — over the past 12 years — or more if you go back to the Forest and Fish Report. The matter has gone into formal dispute resolution, as provided by the Forest and Fish Law, and it now is up to the Forest Practices Board to provide a resolution.

“For the past 12 years, we have been using the interim water-typing rule that does not protect fish habitat …,” Glasgow said. “The interim rule allows surveyors to go to a stream anytime (during a specified period) and electrofish a stream. If they do not find fish during the one-day survey, they can identify it as Type N.”

The result is that many miles of fish habitat are getting little or no buffer protection, he argues. Where mistakes are made and small buffers or no buffers are allowed, it will take decades before the trees grow back to become good habitat again.

In mediation talks, the various parties — landowners, environmental groups, tribes and governments — have come to consensus on the overall framework to identify break points where the fish habitat ends, but the details are still unresolved.

Karen Terwilliger, senior director of forest and environmental policy for the Washington Forest Protection Association, said it is important to remember that these discussions are not about streams where adult salmon will go to lay their eggs.

“It’s the tail end of where the fish might be,” said Terwilliger, whose organization represents large timberland owners. The areas in dispute are generally small streams mostly occupied today by resident fish, including various species of trout and tiny sculpins.

The break point between fish and non-fish areas should be a location where the last fish is equally likely to stop above and below that point, she said. The scientific standard is that the break point should be accurate 95 percent of the time, as required by adaptive management provisions of the Forest and Fish Law.

“We think fish presence will always be an important part of the system,” she said. “Different streams are different. A ‘one size fits all’ does not make sense.”

Environmental groups prefer to avoid methods that rely upon people finding fish, which may or may not be present at the time of a survey. It should be possible to define habitat conditions suitable for fish whether or not they are there at a given time.

Scientific information has evolved to where predictions can be made about where fish will go, Terwilliger said, but there are still questions about what conditions create a barrier to fish. A level of scientific certainty is required before changes can go forward.

“If science says a change needs to be made, then you more forward to make the change,” she said. “To date, we have not seen data that a lot of changes need to be made.”

If a rule change is proposed, it will need to undergo environmental review, a cost-benefit analysis, a small-business economic impact statement and public hearings.

Peter Goldman, director and managing attorney at Washington Forest Law Center, said the adaptive management process should be more than a system of delays. Only recently have things been moving in the right direction, he added.

“The timber industry is powerful,” said Goldman, who represents environmental groups. “They don’t want anything to change.

“We have been trying to negotiate in good faith collaboratively, because that is the Washington way,” he said. “If the Forest Practices Board doesn’t act … it is conceivable that we will have to sue the board and ask the federal government to reconsider the HCP.”

Stephen Bernath, deputy supervisor for forest practices at the Washington Department of Natural Resources and chairman of Forest Practices Board, said the board is moving forward with the help of scientists. New ideas and new technology are being brought into the discussion with the goal of seeing whether a variety of physical parameters alone can be used to identify fish habitat with high probability.

At the Aug. 9 meeting, the board is scheduled to get an update on the progress and to act on staff recommendations about the breaks between fish and non-fish waters. After that, a formal process will begin to incorporate changes into policies, rules and guidance.

Can you identify these marine mammals seen in South Puget Sound?

Who the heck are these guys featured in this video posted on Facebook by meteorologist Nick Allard of KIRO-7 TV?

Pacific white-sided dolphins? Common dolphins? Dall’s porpoises? Harbor porpoises?

Based on the conflicting comments on Nick’s Facebook page, as well comments on reposts, a lot of people are insisting that they know what these animals are. But even some longtime Puget Sound residents got it wrong.

Annie Douglas of Cascadia Research took a look at the video, posted here with Nick’s permission. These creatures, she said, are long-beaked common dolphins.

Last summer, after these common dolphins first showed up, Annie wrote a blog post about their usual travels, noting that they are normally seen in Southern California and Mexico. It appears that they survived the winter a long way from home and have stayed in South Puget Sound, where Cascadia researchers are keeping track of their movements.

Rare long-beaked common dolphins have been spending time in South Puget Sound.
Photo courtesy of Nick Allard

They appear to be generally healthy, Annie said. She has heard reports of their feeding on small fish, and their energy level remains high as they “porpoise” out of the water and do other acrobatic feats.

Before this group showed up last year, the only previous confirmed sighting of long-beaked common dolphins was during the summer of 2003, when several individuals were seen in various locations, including the Boston Harbor area near Olympia, Dalco Passage near Tacoma and Whidbey Island.

Here’s how Annie describes the species:

“In appearance, they have a distinct black cape that extends into a saddle below their dorsal fin, a light underbelly, and a distinct dark eye to pectoral fin stripe. Their average length is 6-8.5 feet and they can weigh up to 500 lbs.

“They can be distinguished from harbor porpoise and Dall’s porpoise — the two species of porpoise commonly encountered in Puget Sound — by morphology, pigmentation, shape and behavior. Both porpoise species have fairly triangular dorsal fins, whereas the long-beaked common dolphin has a more ‘traditional’ falcate-shaped (curved) dorsal fin. Dall’s porpoise are all black with a white patch on their sides, and harbor porpoise are all gray-brown.

“Neither of the porpoise species expose much more than their back and dorsal fin when they surface, although Dall’s porpoise will often create a noticeable ‘rooster tail’ splash when swimming at top speed.

“Long-beaked common dolphins often leap out of the water so that much of their bodies are exposed, and they are also more likely to play in the wake of a boat than either of the local porpoise species. Pacific white-sided dolphins commonly found along Washington outer coast are occasionally found in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. They behave similar to the long-beaked common dolphin; however, they have a larger dorsal fin and more complicated black, gray and white pigmentation.”

Annie asks that people report sightings to Cascadia and send along any photos and videos to ABDouglas(at)cascadiaresearch.org. Sightings also can be reported by phone, (360) 943-7325.

Annie reminds boaters to stay at least 100 yards from marine mammals (200 yards for killer whales). It is illegal to harass, chase, feed or otherwise interfere with them, as provided by the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Springer, once a lonely orphan, gives birth to her second baby orca

Springer, the killer whale, has borne a second calf some 15 years after she was rescued as a young orphan swimming alone near Vashon Island in Puget Sound.

Springer with her new calf in Canadian waters.
Photo: Lisa Spaven, DFO, Canada

Springer’s rescue and return to her family in British Columbia is one of the all-time-great orca stories. It was a privilege to be a news reporter in 2001 when I was able to break the news of the lonely orca and follow the rescue effort in Puget Sound.

After Springer was found swimming dangerously close to the Vashon-Fauntleroy ferry lanes, officials with NOAA Fisheries and other organizations put together a rescue plan. The young animal was identified as a member of the Northern Resident killer whales, a group that never comes as far south as Puget Sound. Experts believe that Springer’s mother had died and the young animal wandered all the way to Puget Sound.

Springer was captured and placed under medical care at NOAA’s Manchester Lab in South Kitsap. She gained weight and became healthier before she was moved by jet catamaran some 300 miles north to Telegraph Cove near the northern end of Vancouver Island, B.C. After her release, she was soon reunited with other members of her family, as later described in a NOAA video (posted on this page).

Orphan Orca, Saving Springer from NOAA Fisheries on Vimeo.

“Springer’s story is an inspiration on many levels,” said Paul Spong of OrcaLab in a news release. “It proved that an orphan orca, alone and separated from her family, can be rehabilitated and returned to a normal productive life with her family and community; and it showed that disparate parties with diverse interests can come together and work together for the common goal of helping one little whale.”

Springer’s newest calf was spotted June 5 by folks at CetaceaLab on B.C.’s north central coast. The birth was confirmed by Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans. Springer and her first calf Spirit, born in 2013, remain healthy, observers say. They are most often seen in northern British Columbia, visiting Johnstone Strait at times during in the summer.

News of the new birth comes just in time for the 15th anniversary celebration of Springer’s rescue. The event, called “Celebrate Springer,” will be held next weekend in Telegraph Cove. The public is invited to the festivities, including a slide show, “Springer’s Story,” Saturday at 11 a.m. featuring members of Springer’s rescue team. A panel discussion will follow. A new Telegraph Cove Whale Trail sign will be dedicated at 4 p.m., followed by a salmon dinner on the boardwalk at 5:30 p.m.

“We can hardly believe it has been 15 years since Springer was reunited with her family,” said Mary Borrowman, director of the Whale Interpretive Centre in Telegraph Cove. “The most exciting news is the confirmation that Springer has had another calf, and we hope we will be fortunate enough to see this famous mother with her family this summer.”

Lynne Barre of NOAA’s regional office in Seattle said partnerships developed during Springer’s rescue are enduring and demonstrate how federal agencies can work with state, tribal and nonprofit groups to help both Northern and Southern Resident killer whales.

“The Springer success story continues to be an inspiration for all of us working on conservation in the Salish Sea,” Barre said.

“Springer’s reunion is an unqualified success — the only project of its kind in history,” said Donna Sandstrom, director of The Whale Trail and co-organizer of the “Celebrate Springer” event. “To get the little whale home, we had to learn how to work together, as organizations, agencies and nations…. We hope her story inspires people to join us in working on issues facing our endangered Southern Resident orcas today, with the same urgency, commitment, and resolve.”

For additional information, check out the Springer Facebook page.

As much as Springer’s story is one of cooperation and success, her rescue will always be linked in my mind to the tragic death of Luna, another young orca who was orphaned at the same time.

Springer, as we’ve said, was born among the Northern Resident killer whales, which stay mostly in northern British Columbia. At the same time that Springer was lost and alone in Puget Sound, Luna, a Southern Resident, was lost and alone in Nootka Sound on the West Coast of Vancouver Island. In fact, my initial report on the situation featured both young orcas in a front-page story in the Kitsap Sun. The coincidence of two orphans at once is next to unbelievable, considering that orphan killer whales are practically unheard of.

Much has been written about the failed rescue of Luna, which I covered at the time. A full-length documentary was later released by filmmakers Michael Parfit and Suzanne Chisholm. See my review of “The Whale,” originally called “Saving Luna.”

Luna never made it back to his family. He eventually died after being sucked into the propeller of a powerful tugboat.

Before Luna’s death, Parfit wrote about Lunda for Smithsonian magazine. It was a story that I had pieced together over several weeks as a series of newspaper stories. Mike and Suzanne stayed around Nootka Sound to obtain a fuller story for their film.

The greatest lesson from the Luna story may be similar to the one we learned from Springer, that cooperation is the key and that every detail must be considered before the rescue begins.

Orca hormones linking pregnancies to prey will go into medical files

Hormones found in the feces of killer whales are providing unique insights about the health of Southern Resident orcas — including pregnancy status and stress levels. Fortunately, such information can be gathered with little disturbance to the animals.

Tucker, a Labrador retriever mix, has a keen ability to track down killer whale feces, which contains trace levels of hormones and toxic chemicals. // Photo: Kelley Balcomb-Bartok

The latest information about hormones will soon be incorporated into a new health-status database with individual medical reports being compiled for each whale in the Southern Resident population.

A recently published study confirms hormonally what researchers have observed for years, that when the whales’ primary food supply — chinook salmon — is plentiful, the number of newborn calves goes up. Conversely, when the food supply is low, population growth seems to stall out or go down.

Now, thanks to the new hormonal report, we are learning that nearly two-thirds of the pregnancies among Southern Resident killer whales end in miscarriages. And, of those miscarriages, about one-third take place during the last stage of pregnancy — something highly unusual for mammals.

We are also learning that nutritional stress — caused by low food supplies — can be linked to the success or failure of the pregnancies, thanks to ongoing studies by a research team led by Sam Wasser, a University of Washington professor and director of the Center for Conservation Biology. Information about nutritional stress comes from fecal samples collected with the help of Tucker, a poop-sniffing dog who follows the whales in a boat.

I reported on Sam’s findings nearly a year ago for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound after he presented the results during the Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference in Vancouver, B.C. His findings were published 10 days ago in the online journal PLOS One.

The hormonal information has been collected along with DNA samples from a growing number of Southern Residents, providing key information about the health of individuals as well as the overall status of the population.

Sam’s data will be included in a database being compiled to provide as much medical information as possible about each of the killer whales. I first reported details about the database in Water Ways on March 29, 2016. As mentioned in the blog, the medical files could be valuable in helping the whales throughout their range or even intervening when an animal goes into a health emergency.

General observations could be put into the database along with:

  • Fecal samples, including levels of various hormones;
  • Breath samples, including the types of bacteria harbored by individual killer whales;
  • Observations of skin conditions;
  • Photos taken from boats and from the air to show body conditions, including evidence of malnutrition or possible pregnancy; and
  • Blubber samples for some whales, including DNA fingerprints and other health conditions.

Joe Gaydos of SeaDoc Society, who is helping coordinate the database, told me that the project is finally getting off the ground this summer with formulation of the database structure. Commitments are coming together from those who can contribute information, including observations as soon as they are collected by researchers — including those with the Center for Whale Research and NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center.

A memorandum of understanding has been drafted to allow various researchers who submit information to have access to the data but limit access only to specified groups, Joe said. A governing body will oversee creation and use of the database. So far, information is being submitted on a “good-faith handshake.”

At least two research reports are being planned to prove the value of the database and build support for funding. One could be a paper that puts together information about skin diseases observed in the Southern Residents, mainly compiled by the Center for Whale Research.

Another report could look at the relationship between contaminants and pregnancy, including information collected by Sam Wasser.

“We are where we wanted to be a year ago, actively updating data,” Joe admitted to me, adding that things are now coming together more rapidly.

More information:

The latest report on orca pregnancy and nutritional stress is described in UW Today.

News stories were published by the Seattle Times as well as The Associated Press.

Previous work by Sam Wasser’s associate Katherine Ayres focuses on stresses caused by lack of food and boating activities. See PLOS One, June 6, 2012, or review the summary in UW Today.

Hood Canal summer chum could be removed from Endangered List

Because no population of salmon has ever been taken off the Endangered Species List, nobody knows exactly how to go about it. Still, Hood Canal summer chum, a threatened species, could be proposed for delisting within about five years.

“I think we are in the home stretch for recovery,” declared Scott Brewer, executive director of the Hood Canal Coordinating Council, opening a day-long symposium about the future of Hood Canal summer chum.

“I’m not going to declare victory,” Scott cautioned. “You are not going to see a sign behind me saying ‘mission accomplished.’”

Total run size of Hood Canal summer chum in Hood Canal, not including extinct subpopulations // Graphic: Hood Canal Coordinating Council

And yet, after discussing the remarkable gains in summer chum populations in many local streams, experts at yesterday’s symposium in Bremerton became focused almost exclusively on what it would take to delist this unique population of chum salmon, which lives in Hood Canal and the eastern Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Hood Canal summer chum were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1999. By then, state and tribal officials had already taken actions to reduce commercial harvests of these fish and to boost production with temporary hatcheries. A federal recovery plan formalized actions and goals to restore the overall population. The plan also spelled out criteria for eventually removing summer chum from the Endangered Species List.

Total run size of Hood Canal summer chum in Strait of Juan de Fuca
Graphic: Hood Canal Coordinating Council

The main goal for recovery has been to restore at least one viable run of summer chum in each geographic area where the fish were known to exist. The criteria require an abundance of fish returning and successfully spawning in key areas each year. To ensure that the overall population survives at least 100 years, the various subpopulations need to be diverse — both in their stream location and in their genetic makeup.

Thanks to restoration efforts, the geographical diversity of summer chum appears to meet the delisting goals for the west side of Hood Canal on the Olympic Peninsula — including strong runs in the Quilcene, Dosewallips, Duckabush and Hamma Hamma rivers. But on the opposite side of the canal, on the Kitsap Peninsula, only the Union River stock near Belfair has done well. Efforts to restore summer chum with hatchery projects on Big Beef Creek and the Tahuya River were declared unsuccessful. Meanwhile, summer chum on their own have failed to recolonize the Dewatto River and Big Anderson Creek, where the populations went extinct in the 1980s.

While current conditions might meet the recovery goal for geographical diversity, many summer chum biologists would like to see at least one more success story on the east side of Hood Canal, according to Larry Lestelle, a consultant with Biostream Environmental who is assisting the Hood Canal Coordinating Council with its plans to restore summer chum.

Big Beef Creek might be a candidate for another hatchery project, Larry said, noting that recent restoration projects have restored habitat in the stream. Better habitat would likely increase survival for summer chum in Big Beef.

In addition, transplanting Union River stock to Big Beef Creek the next time around could improve survival over the Quilcene River stock that was used last time, he said. Studies suggest that the extinct Big Beef summer chum were more closely related to those in the Union River than to those in the Quilcene, he added.

Another option would be to launch a small-scale hatchery project on the Dewatto River south of Holly. Conditions in the stream and estuary are still relatively natural, compared to other streams in the region.

When to formally propose delisting to the federal government remains a major question to be answered. Following years of study, salmon biologists have concluded that Hood Canal summer chum generally survive in greater numbers during so-called “cool phases” in the Pacific Ocean. The shift from warm to cool and back again over 20 to 30 years is known as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation.

Recent recovery of Hood Canal summer chum has corresponded with the more productive cool phase, Larry noted. In January 2014, ocean conditions abruptly shifted into a warm phase. Effects — such as reduced survival in and near the streams — are fairly quickly observed in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, but the same effects in Hood Canal are typically delayed by about two years.

“This provides a test,” Larry told an audience of experts and other interested folks at Kitsap Conference Center. “We are staring it in the face. It is time to sit on the edge of our seats and anxiously await… Are the spawners going to come in?”

The answers should become clear during migrations of adult summer chum to Hood Canal from 2018 to 2022, Larry said. The end of that period could be a good time to decide whether to move forward with a delisting proposal — especially if summer chum runs remain strong during the current warm phase in the PDO cycle.

Meanwhile, the effects of long-term climate change also must be considered in the effort to save the summer chum from extinction. Over the coming years, climatologists predict more extreme conditions, including higher winter streamflows that can wash salmon eggs out of the gravel and possibly smother them with silt.

The answer to climate change is to give the salmon a better chance of survival by protecting and restoring floodplains and increasing stream channel complexity. These actions can reduce the rushing waters and help salmon find refuge against the flows.

“The year 2022 could be a decision year, but not necessarily THE decision year,” Larry said. “It is all about letting the fish tell us what is going on.”

Jennifer Quan of NOAA said she is eager to work with local experts to keep restoring the Hood Canal summer chum and eventually assist in legally removing the fish from the Endangered Species List.

“We spent a lot of time over the last decade getting good at listing species,” she said. “Now we are starting to see that turn around. We are starting to develop new skills for delisting.”

Last year, NOAA denied a request to delist the Snake River fall chinook, one of 13 populations of Columbia Basin salmon and steelhead protected under the Endangered Species Act. The request came from a group of commercial fishers in Alaska — the Chinook Future Coalition — which said protecting the Snake River fish throughout their range could limit chinook harvests off the coast of Alaska. Even though good numbers of chinook were returning, NOAA biologists were concerned that only one subpopulation was viable because of Hell’s Canyon Dam on the Snake River. Potential delisting scenarios were described in a question-and-answer format (PDF 531 kb).

In 2015, the Oregon chub, a small minnow found only in the Willamette River Basin, became the first fish in the nation to be delisted under the Endangered Species Act. See the news release from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. That delisting process could provide some guidance for Hood Canal summer chum, Jennifer said.

Hood Canal Coordinating Council, which oversees summer chum recovery, is made up of county commissioners in Kitsap, Mason and Jefferson counties, along with the leaders of the Skokomish and Port Gamble S’Klallam tribes. As HCCC director, Scott Brewer said he is prepared to continue discussions right away with experts and others interesting in developing a step-by-step plan for delisting Hood Canal summer chum.

Are we at a crossroads in the green crab invasion on Dungeness Spit?

State biologists are holding out hope that the European green crab invasion at Dungeness Spit can be contained. We may now be going through a critical period, which could result in a permanent infestation or possibly the final throes of the invasion.

Green crabs, an invasive species known to displace native species and cause economic devastation to shellfish growers, were first discovered on April 12 in a marshy area on Graveyard Spit, which juts off from the larger Dungeness Spit in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

The total number of green crabs caught in an ongoing intensive trapping program has reached 76. The weekly numbers have been declining, as shown in a chart on this page. That could be a good sign, but biologists are quite reserved in their predictions.

“The numbers are tapering off,” said Allen Pleus, coordinator of the state’s Aquatic Invasive Species Program, “but in my view the numbers are still too high. Eradication would take several weeks of zero. At this point, our main objective is to bring down the population to a point where spawning would not be successful.”

So far, all of the crabs caught are young and small — about 1 to 2.5 inches across their backs. This means that they have not been in the area for long, probably arriving on last year’s currents in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Another good sign is that no other crabs have been caught elsewhere along the Strait, although officials acknowledge that they would like to deploy more traps to capture any early invaders. Also, I am happy to report that no new crabs have been captured this year in Padilla Bay or on San Juan Island, where the state’s first confirmed green crab invasion took place last year. See Water Ways, Sept. 24, 2016.

Update: I’ve been informed that one green crab was caught in April in Padilla Bay where others were caught last year.

The decline in captures at Dungeness Spit may be a sign that some of the crabs have entered their reproductive phase, a period when they don’t eat and so are not attracted to the baited traps. Males and females get together to mate after molting, a phase of development in which they shed their exoskeletons. The trapping effort has reduced the crab numbers and made it more difficult for reproductive males and females to find each other, but each female can produce hundreds of thousands of eggs — so even one successful mating could expand the invasion.

This small male crab is one of the 76 European green crabs caught in traps at Dungeness Spit. // Photo: Allen Pleus

Because the baited traps may not work at this time, officials are experimenting with substrate traps, which are pieces of plastic pipe ranging in size from a half-inch to 2 inches, Allen told me. Young crabs may seek shelter in the tubes. So far, no crabs have been captured that way.

Another idea yet to be tried is baiting traps with pheromones, which are sexual attractants that lure crabs looking for a mate. Allen said he also would like to experiment with electrical stimulation, in which an electrical current is discharged in the muddy substrate to drive crabs out of their burrows. With proper control, no permanent harm comes to them or other creatures in the vicinity, Allen said.

When it comes to controlling future crab invasions in Puget Sound, experts would like to know where the crab larvae are coming from. The leading suspect is a population of green crabs that appear to have settled into Sooke Inlet, just west of Victoria on Vancouver Island in Canada. It is also possible that the larvae drifted in from coastal waters in British Columbia, Washington or even Oregon or California. Experts hope that genetic tests of green crabs from the various locations can be used to identify where the crabs on Dungeness Spit originated.

Emily Grason of Washington Sea Grant coordinates a group of volunteers who monitor traps placed throughout Puget Sound with a goal of stopping the next invasion.

“The presence of green crab in Dungeness Bay, though unfortunate, offers a unique opportunity to test how effective the EDRR (Early Detection-Rapid Response) model is for intervening in a potential green crab invasion,” Emily wrote yesterday in a blog post on the Crab Team website.

“Generally speaking, invasive species are rarely noticed in a new spot until they have already become too abundant to eradicate,” she said. “Though 76 crabs at Dungeness Spit is more than we would ever like to see, the population hasn’t yet reached the numbers that are seen in areas of greatest infestation. And they are, as far as we know, still confined to a relatively small location….

“Preventing and managing biological invasions is similar to planning for a wild fire season: The best thing to do is prevent either invasions or wildfires from taking hold in the first place, but we know that some will occur despite our best efforts. It’s difficult to forecast exactly where, when or how severe they will be when they do pop up, and yet it’s imperative to respond quickly and aggressively as soon as they are detected.”

Emily added that we are fortunate in this area to have the tremendous support of volunteers, partners and beachgoers, all involved in the effort to prevent a permanent invasion of green crabs. Staff and volunteers at the Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge have been instrumental in placing and tending the traps placed in that area.