Category Archives: Research

Coastal researchers launch blog to share findings about ocean

It’s an interesting time for researchers to begin writing a blog about ocean conditions off Oregon and Washington, an area undergoing some fascinating changes in oceanography and sealife.

The colors reveal that sea surface temperatures are significantly higher than the long-term average. Click on the map to view a six-month animation. Graphic: NOAA OSPO
Colors indicate that sea surface temperatures (°C) are significantly higher off the West Coast than the long-term average. Click on the map to view a six-month animation.
Graphic: NOAA OSPO

Scientists from NOAA Fisheries and Oregon State University launched their new website, “Newporter Blog,” last week. It’s named after the Newport Line, an area of study off the Oregon Coast where researchers have monitored changes for the past 20 years.

“This year, the ocean has been very different,” wrote blogger Jennifer Fisher in the blog’s first post on June 23. “Anomalously warm surface water dubbed the ‘warm blog’ moved onto the continental shelf off Newport in September 2014. A very large harmful algal bloom (HAB) spanning from British Columbia to California is occurring off the coast right now. El Niño conditions are occurring at the equator, and NOAA is forecasting a 90-percent chance that an El Niño will persist through the Fall.”

The next blog post last Thursday was by researcher Cheryl Morgan from the Canadian fishing vessel FV Frosti “somewhere off the coast of the Pacific Northwest,” where researchers are looking to see how juvenile salmon are doing. They were taking note of anything picked up in their nets in the upper 60 feet of water.

“Watching the trawl come in is like the anticipation of opening a Christmas gift,” Cheryl wrote. “What could be in there? How many? How big? Have we ever caught any of them in the net?

“We always hope for some juvenile salmon, since that is the main point of the survey, but we also like to see something different, strange, or unusual to spice things up,” she continued.

Juvenile jack macherel Photo: Newporter Blog
Juvenile jack macherel
Photo: Newporter Blog

The next post on Monday revealed that fish being caught were of a kind seen in Northwest waters only when the temperatures rise. They included pompano and jack mackerel. The researchers were especially surprised to find bottom-dwelling flatfish in their net some several hundred feet off the bottom.

“What is a fish that lives on the bottom, one side down, doing in the water column?” she asked. “Perhaps they are lost, could not find the bottom or they are chasing some dinner. Most strange, however, was the catch of nearly 3,330 Pacific sanddabs … in ONE trawl. That was a first for even the fishing crew.”

The team also brought up a juvenile red octopus, a species normally found among rocks on the bottom — “another creature that is a long way from home.”

The research fishing will continue from Newport to the upper corner of Washington state. The scientists are taking note of any birds preying on fish before they begin their daily trawl. Plankton also are scooped up to see what the fish might be eating and to provide new data about the harmful algal bloom.

The work is being funded by NOAA and Bonneville Power Administration.

The researchers/bloggers said they would share their findings as they go along. I, for one, look forward to learning about ocean conditions and how the warm water is affecting all sorts of sealife along the West Coast.

Orca census shows increase in Southern Resident population

A census of the killer whales that frequent Puget Sound is due today, and it appears that the total population of the three Southern Resident pods is 82, up from 79 last year at this time.

But that’s not the end of the story, because two small groups of orcas have not been seen recently — so a final count must wait, according to Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research, which conducts the annual census.

J-36, a 16-year-old female named Alki, swims with her young calf J-52 (middle) and her sister, J-50 (far side). Both of the young orcas were born within the past year. Photo: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research, NMFS permit 15569/ DFO SARA 272
J-36, a 16-year-old female named Alki, swims with her young offspring J-52 and her sister, J-50. Both of the young orcas were born within the past year.
Photo: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research
NMFS permit 15569/ DFO SARA 272

The three Southern Resident pods, well defined years ago, are no longer the same, Ken told me. The tendency the past few years is for the whales to split up into smaller groups of one or more families, known as matrilines. Immediate families tend to stay together, but larger groupings such as pods and subpods are becoming less certain.

“They’ve decided to mix it up,” Ken said. “This is definitely different. If we were trying to determine pod structures right now, we couldn’t do it. It’s all mix and match.”

The Center for Whale Research records the annual census on July 1 each year and reports it to the federal government by October.

Four orca births can be reported since the last census was taken:

  • J-50 a female calf born to J-16, named Slick, last December
  • J-51 a male* calf born to J-41, named Eclipse, in February
  • L-121 a male* calf born to L-94, named Calypso, in February
  • J-52 a female male calf born to J-36, named Alki, in March

*Update: Sexes not confirmed by Center for Whale Research, and J-51 likely a male. (See comments.) I’ll update later.

These were the first births among Southern Residents to be reported since August of 2012. Some people see these newborns as a hopeful sign for the future of the population, which is listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

So far, one death has been confirmed over the past year. That was J-32, an 18-year-old female named Rhapsody, who was found dead on Dec. 4 floating near Courtenay, B.C. The young whale was pregnant, and experts believe that the death of the fetus inside her body could have led to her death as well. For more details , see Water Ways from Dec. 7 and from Dec. 12.

While there is no reason to believe that any other deaths have occurred over the past year, nobody can be sure, at least not until the last two groups of whales can be observed. If any animals are truly missing after their family groups are carefully observed, we could see one or more whales added to the death list.

In all, nine whales have not been seen this spring or summer since returning to the San Juan Islands. One of the two groups of whales was spotted off the Washington Coast in February, when all the whales were present. One of the uncertain groups was reported yesterday near San Juan Island, but I have not heard whether any “missing” whales were identified.

Since the census report is not due until October, there is time to see whether any more whales have died this past year. If any more deaths are identified, the researchers will need to make a judgment about whether the death occurred before or after the July 1 census cutoff. We can certainly hope that all the whales will be accounted for.

Ken suspects that the pod groupings are becoming less distinct because of the changing pattern of available prey, primarily chinook salmon. When large schools of wild chinook head back to the rivers, killer whales can work together to herd the fish and gain an advantage.

Ken says hatchery chinook may not school together as much as wild chinook, so the advantage goes to smaller groups of orcas if the majority of salmon are from hatcheries.

“The prey field has changed for them,” he said. “Back when we named the pods, the bulk of the fish were wild, and they were coming through in pulses. All these fish were related and from the same river system. Now with the hatchery program, there are less pulses and the fish are more spread out.”

The chinook also are much smaller than they used to be, he said, so it takes more effort to get the same nutritional benefit.

The Center for Whale Research, now in its 40th year, conducts its census work in Puget Sound under a grant from the National Marine Fisheries Service. The grant is fairly limited, so the center began offering memberships a few years ago to raise money for additional research.

This year’s membership drive is nearly halfway toward its goal of 750 members, with 329 members signed on as of yesterday. An individual membership costs $30 a year. For details and special member benefits, go to “Supporting the Center for Whale Research.”

In a related development, Ken recently took a trip into Snake River country in Eastern Washington, the source of upstream habitat for many of the salmon that come down the Columbia River. His experience and what he has learned about the Snake River dams has placed him among advocates for dam removal in this hotly contested debate.

After returning from his trip, Ken wrote an essay posted on the National Geographic blog “Voices: Ideas and Insights from Explorers.” Here are some excerpts from the blog post:

“Until recently, dam removal was against my conservative nature…

“In truth, already well known to others but not to me, these four Snake River dams are obsolete for their intended purposes and are being maintained at huge taxpayer expense for the benefit of a very few users. Plus, they are salmon-killers in a former river (now a series of lakes) that historically provided spawning and rearing habitat for millions of chinook salmon…”

“The technological fixes for the dams have not improved wild salmon runs, and there is nothing left to try. As a nation, we are dangerously close to managing the beloved Southern Resident killer whale population to quasi-extinction (less than 30 breeding animals) as a result of diminishing populations of chinook salmon upon which they depend…

“Returning the Snake River to natural condition will help salmon and whales, and save money. Please do not wait until all are gone. Call or write your representatives today!”

Amusing Monday: Bears, birds and more can be viewed live online

The beautiful and powerful brown bears have arrived at Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park and Preserve in Alaska, and everyone in the world can enjoy the convenience of watching these giant bears and other amazing wildlife live from the comfort and safety of their home.

Lots of people have been going out to falls this year to watch the bears from nearby viewing platforms, but I get the feeling that far more people have been watching them from home via the live webcams. I say that because of the number of comments generated on the website. More than a few commenters seem to know the area well and even call the bears by their nicknames. (Park biologists use a numbering system, identifying each bear by coat and claw colors, scars, body size and shape, ear size and shape, sex, facial features and disposition.)

Brooks Falls is one of the first streams in the region where the bears have easy access to bright salmon soon after they leave the saltwater and before spawning. The falls provide a partial barrier to their travels, making fishing easier for the bears. By sometime in August, the fish runs will dwindle and the bears will be gone.

Operators of the multiple live webcams do a good job of zooming in when something interesting happens. Occasionally, so much is going on that they don’t know what to show. Other times, we wait and watch the beautiful scenery, which is especially dramatic at sunrise and sunset.

When the bears are actively fishing for salmon, I find it hard to break away and get back to daily life. One video trick I’ve learned: If you don’t see anything interesting in the live view, you can use your cursor to scan across the timeline to see what has happened for the past few hours and watch that instead.

Park officials have identified the various fishing methods used by the bears in an interesting Q&A section on the national park’s website.

Birds and marine mammal cams

Besides watching bears, it’s a good time of year to watch other wildlife as well via live webcam. Birds are typically active on their nests, raising their young.

Chesapeake Conservancy is featuring the osprey couple, Tom and Audrey, who perennially nest on Kent Island in Maryland. Audrey has taken up with a new “Tom” this year and produced three babies. They also received two foster chicks from nearby Poplar Island, according to information on the website.

Another good osprey cam was installed this year in Belwood Lake Conservation Area near the Great Lakes in Ontario, Canada. Three eggs reportedly hatched, but I see only two chicks in the nest.

Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife also has an osprey cam that updates still photos every 12 seconds.

A puffin cam at Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge in Maine shows a fuzzy chick tucked into a burrow where its mother comes and goes to feed her baby. Other views shows puffins on a ledge where they often hang out. Wildlife biologists are trying to establish a new colony at this location after hunters wiped out the puffins in the 1800s.

Another live camera on Seal Island shows a guillemot in a burrow.

If you would like to see a colony of walruses, (also in video player below) check out the live camera installed on Round Island, Alaska. Sometimes only a few of the large mammals can be seen. Other times, like this morning, large numbers were pushing and shoving each other for space. The comments are often entertaining.

If you are interested in more live cams of wildlife, check out last year’s Water Ways entry from June 23, 2014.

Meanwhile, the Seattle Aquarium is featuring live cams from its displays of harbor seals and sea lions.

Clouds at edge of space have been showing up more frequently

These noctilucent, or “night shining,” clouds over the Arctic June 10 are shown as a composite image taken by the Aeronomy of Ice in the Mesosphere (AIM) spacecraft. The mysterious clouds have been showing up with more frequency in recent years, and some scientists speculate that they may be connected to climate change. NASA Earth Observatory map by Joshua Stevens
These noctilucent clouds over the Arctic are a composite image from the AIM spacecraft on June 10. The clouds’ more frequent appearance could relate to climate change. (Click to enlarge)
NASA Earth Observatory map by Joshua Stevens

Unique clouds at the edge of space appear to be showing up in spring and summer more often than ever before, according to NASA scientists, who speculate that climate change could be playing a role in cloud formation.

I like the term “noctilucent clouds” for these night-shining clouds glowing with a tint of blue — although NASA researchers formally call them “polar mesospheric clouds.” That’s because they show up at the poles in the mesosphere at about 50 miles up — the outer edge of Earth’s atmosphere. If you are a scientist with a perspective from satellites, you don’t really think about day or night.

Researchers have learned a great deal about these clouds since the 2007 launch of the Aeronomy of Ice in the Mesosphere (AIM) spacecraft, but they still seem distant and mysterious.

A notilucent cloud photographed on July 2, 2011, near Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Photo: NASA/Dave Hughes
A notilucent cloud photographed after midnight on July 2, 2011, near Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
Photo: NASA/Dave Hughes

The clouds are actually ice crystals about the size of particles in cigarette smoke, according to an interesting article by NASA’s Tony Phillips, who interviewed cloud-researcher and astronaut Don Pettit in 2003. Because the clouds are so high up, they are seen shortly after the sky turns dark at sunset, a time when sunlight can still bounce off the crystals. Years ago, they were seen only in the far-north latitudes in our part of the world, but more recently they have been seen as far south as Colorado and Utah.

The temperature in the mesosphere is about -125 degrees Celsius, or nearly 200 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. Conditions up there are extremely dry — far dryer than any place on Earth.

Like common clouds in the lower atmosphere, noctilucent clouds need water vapor and a “nucleus” upon which the water can attach. In the lower atmosphere, called the troposphere, ordinary dust and many other particles are common enough as a result of winds. Cirrus clouds can form in the highest layers of the troposphere, about 12 miles up. But until data came back from the AIM project, nobody was sure what was happening at 50 miles up. Now, researchers believe the nuclei are mostly space dust pulled in by Earth’s gravity.

The first reports of noctilucent clouds came in 1885 after the eruption of the volcano Krakatoa. Researchers aren’t sure if volcanic dust made it high enough into the atmosphere to form the clouds, but that potential source disappeared long ago.

Noctilucent clouds are observed in late spring and summer when upwelling winds carry water vapor up into the atmosphere. The increasing frequency of cloud formation may be the result of climate change. It turns out that when greenhouse gases warm the Earth’s surface, the upper atmosphere actually gets colder as heat escapes, helping the tiny crystals to form.

Another factor in climate change could be the increasing amount of methane gas in the atmosphere. A complex series of reactions can oxidize the methane to form water vapor, which can then form ice crystals.

One of the unexpected results of the AIM mission has been unusual “teleconnections” between the north and south poles via the mesosphere. It turns out that a slowing of stratospheric winds over the Arctic affects circulation in the mesosphere, causing a ripple effect around the globe. The southern mesosphere becomes warmer and drier, leading to fewer noctilucent clouds.

These high-level connections were not even suspected when the AIM spacecraft was launched, but they are revealing how weather on one part of the globe may be connected to relatively rapid changes in other far-flung regions. (Check out last year’s video below.) Further studies of the upper atmosphere can be expected to bring more surprises.

Research on rockfish
in Puget Sound reveals intriguing findings

This week’s announcement that the coastal population of canary rockfish had dramatically rebounded got me to wondering what new information might be coming from research on the threatened and endangered rockfish of Puget Sound.

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

Dayv Lowry, research scientist at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, shared some intriguing new information about Puget Sound rockfish that could link into the coastal population. In fact, if limited genetic findings hold up, a delisting of one type of Puget Sound rockfish could be in order.

On Monday, the Pacific Fishery Management Council reported that West Coast populations of two groundfish species — canary rockfish and petrale sole — have been “rebuilt” some 42 years earlier than expected. Canary rockfish were declared “overfished” in 2000, and a rebuilding plan was put in place a year later. Strict fishing restrictions were imposed, and experts expected the stock to rebound successfully by 2057.

“This is a big deal,” former council chairman Dan Wolford said in a news release. “We now have six times more canary rockfish than when we scaled back so many fisheries. This shows the Pacific council’s conservation policies work.”

Meanwhile, WDFW and NOAA Fisheries are researching the three species of Puget Sound rockfish listed under the Endangered Species Act. They are canary rockfish and yelloweye rockfish, both listed as threatened, and bacaccio, listed as endangered.

Yelloweye rockfish Photo by Kip Evans, NOAA
Yelloweye rockfish
Photo by Kip Evans, NOAA

Underwater surveys with a remotely operated vehicle in 2012 and 2013 looked for all sorts of bottomfish across a grid laid down on Puget Sound. Researchers found a greater abundance of quillback and copper rockfish (not ESA listed) than in the past, and young juvenile quillbacks were seen on muddy substrate — not the place you would normally look for rockfish.

While that was encouraging, nearly 200 hours of video at 197 grid points revealed just two canary and five yelloweye rockfish.

“That was quite distressing to us,” Dayv said.

This year and next, surveys are more focused on rocky habitat, including locations where fishing guides say they have had success catching rockfish in the past. The results are more encouraging, locating somewhere around 40 canary and 40 yelloweye and two bacaccio, Dayv said.

“We’ve caught some big fish and some little fish, so the population demographics have not entirely collapsed,” Dayv told me, and that means there is still hope for recovery.

Rockfish don’t typically reproduce until somewhere between 5 and 20 years old, so over-fishing places the future of the entire population at risk. Some rockfish are known to live as long as 100 years.

Finding juvenile yelloweyes — “bright red with ‘racing stripes’” — is especially encouraging Dayv said.

Genetic work so far is offering some intriguing new findings, he noted. While yelloweye rockfish from Puget Sound and the Strait of Georgia seem to be distinct from those on the coast, the same cannot be said for canary rockfish.

In fact, the limited samples taken so far suggest that the coastal population of canary rockfish — those found by the PFMC to be “rebuilt” — may not be genetically distinct from canary rockfish living in Puget Sound.

If that proves to be the case, it could have a profound effect on what we understand about canary rockfish and could even lead to a de-listing of the Puget Sound population.

Kelly Andrews, a genetics expert with NOAA Fisheries, cautioned that the sample size is small and more results are needed before anyone can draw conclusions. New samples are soon to be examined to see if there are any differences between canary rockfish on the coast and those in Puget Sound.

“What initially may seem to be the same could change dramatically with all these new samples we just got,” he told me. “Still just finding them is good news.”

When the Puget Sound rockfish were listed in 2010, researchers did not have the genetic data to define the populations in that way, so they used reasonable assumptions about geographic isolation. Now, the genetics can be factored in.

A five-year review is due to be completed this year for the listed rockfish in Puget Sound. If the new genetics information holds up, then the technical review team could propose a delisting of the canary rockfish.

For that reason, a long-awaited recovery plan for rockfish is being completed for the most part, but its release will be delayed until the genetic information is conclusive and the five-year review is completed. It would not make sense to come out with a recovery plan for canary rockfish, if the plan is to delist the population.

Meanwhile, small areas of Quilcene and Dabob bays have been reopened to fishing for some flatfish. (See earlier news release.) Bottom fishing is generally closed in Hood Canal because of the ongoing low-oxygen problems and its effects of bottom fish.

As in other areas of Puget Sound, targeted bottom fishing must take place in less than 120 feet of water, and all rockfish caught must be released. Experts strongly advise using a “descending device” (see video) to get rockfish safely back to deep water, no matter where they are caught. Without that, many of the fish die from barotrauma caused by the ballooning of their swim bladder as they are brought to the surface. See “Bring That Fish Down” by California Sea Grant and “Protecting Washington’s Rockfish” by WDFW.

Water cleanup program will forego grants, reorganize for efficiency

After much success in cleaning up streams in Kitsap County, pollution investigators for the Kitsap Public Health District plan to turn their backs on most state and federal grants and reorganize their approach to local waterways.

I’m talking about the folks who literally wrote the book on pollution identification and correction, or PIC, a strategic approach to tracking down bacterial contamination and eliminating the sources. A 2012 “Protocol Manual” (PDF 10.6 mb) and a 2014 “guidance document” (PDF 4.3 mb) — both developed by Kitsap’s pollution investigators — are now being used by local health departments throughout the state.

Category 1 = meets water-quality standard; Cat. 2 =
Category 1 = meets water-quality standard;
Cat. 2 = reasons for concern; Cat. 3 = lacking data;
Cat. 4A = TMDL plan; Cat. 4B = local plan;
Cat. 5 = “impaired.”

That’s why I was surprised to hear that the health district plans to change course for its pollution-cleanup program this fall — especially the part about reducing reliance on state and federal grants. For many Puget Sound jurisdictions, these grants provide the major sources of funding, if not the only funding for their PIC projects.

Kitsap County is fortunate to have a stormwater fee collected from rural property owners. For single-family homeowners, the fee will be $82 this year. The money goes into the Clean Water Kitsap program, which funds a multitude of clean-water projects — including street-sweeping, improving stormwater systems and restoring natural drainage.

The fee also supports the health district’s ongoing monitoring program, a monthly sampling of more than 50 Kitsap County streams, along with lakes and marine waters. The program has successfully reported improvements in various streams while providing early-warning signs for water-quality problems. The program was started in 1996.

None of that will change, according to Stuart Whitford, supervisor for the health district’s PIC Program. While state and federal grants have been helpful in tracking down pollution problems, most of the major problems have been identified, he said.

“We know what we have, and the patient has been stabilized,” he noted.

The problem with grants is that they require specific performance measures, which must be carefully documented and reported quarterly and in final reports.

“The administrative burden is heavy, and the state grants don’t fully pay for the overhead,” Stuart said. “Looking out into the future, we think state and federal grants will be reduced. We are already seeing that in the Legislature. So we are going to wean ourselves off the grants.”

Future efforts need to focus on identifying failing septic systems and sources of animal waste before they become a serious problem, Stuart told me. The process of doing that is firmly established in local plans. Work will continue, however, on nagging pollution problems that have not been resolved in some streams. And he’s not ruling out applying for grants for specific projects, if the need returns.

To increase efficiency in the ongoing program, health district staff will be reorganized so that each investigator will focus on one or more of the 10 watersheds in the county. In the process, the staff has been cut by one person. The assignments are being made now and will be fully implemented in the fall.

Kitsap's watersheds: 2) Burley-Minter; 3) Colvos Passage/Yukon Harbor; 4) Coulter/Rock creeks; 5) Dyes Inlet; 6) Foulweather Bluff/Appletree Cove; 7) Liberty/Miller bays; 8) Port Orchard/Burke Bay; 9) Sinclair Inlet; 10) Tahuya/Union rivers; 11) Upper Hood Canal.
Kitsap’s watersheds: 2) Burley-Minter; 3) Colvos Passage/Yukon Harbor; 4) Coulter/Rock creeks; 5) Dyes Inlet; 6) Foulweather Bluff/Appletree Cove; 7) Liberty/Miller bays; 8) Port Orchard/Burke Bay; 9) Sinclair Inlet; 10) Tahuya/Union rivers; 11) Upper Hood Canal.

“The stream monitoring will remain the same,” Stuart said. “But each person will be able to do more intensive monitoring in their home watershed.”

Having one investigator responsible for each watershed will allow that person to become even more intimately acquainted with the landscape and the water-quality issues unique to that area. Because of the extensive problems in Sinclair Inlet, two people will be assigned to that drainage area, which includes a good portion of South Kitsap and West Bremerton.

Dave Garland, regional water-quality supervisor for the Department of Ecology, said he, too, was surprised that the Kitsap Public Health District wishes to avoid grants, but he is confident that Stuart Whitford knows what he is doing.

“They are definitely leaders in the state and have been very successful in their approach,” he said. “We wish more health districts and surface water departments would be more like Kitsap. They are improving as they go.”

Garland said Kitsap County officials have done more than anyone to remove streams and waterways from the “impaired waters” list that Ecology compiles. The list — also known as 303(d) under the federal Clean Water Act — is part of Ecology’s “Water Quality Assessment,” now being finalized for submission to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

In 2008, Kitsap County had 69 stream segments listed as “impaired.” As a result of work over six years, now only 7 are proposed for the upcoming list. Many streams were removed when they came under state cleanup plans for Dyes and Sinclair inlets, between Port Orchard and Silverdale, or in Liberty Bay near Poulsbo. Those state plans identify cleanup efforts to reduce pollution loading and bring the waters into conformance with state water-quality standards. They are called TMDLs, short for total maximum daily loads.

Because the Kitsap County PIC Program has been so successful, Ecology has allowed the local program to substitute for TMDL studies for many streams where stormwater outfalls are not an issue. Under the Clean Water Act, the local program comes under Category 4B (for local planning), as opposed to 4A (the state’s TMDL approach).

“No one has done a more thorough job,” Dave said of Kitsap’s effort. “It is very impressive to see that they have gone to TMDLs or to 4B. That does not mean the waters are clean, but it means they are under a plan.”

Of the remaining seven “impaired” water bodies, some should be removed because of Kitsap’s cleanup plans, Stuart said. They include Anderson Creek and Boyce Creek, which flow into Hood Canal, and Murden Creek on Bainbridge Island, which is undergoing a special study. Phinney Creek in Dyes Inlet is already part of a TMDL, and an area in southern Hood Canal should not be on the list because it meets water-quality standards, he said. Stuart hopes to get those changes made before the list is submitted to EPA this summer.

Currently, nothing is being done with regard to Eagle Harbor or Ravine Creek, two “impaired” water bodies on Bainbridge Island. The health district’s program does not extend to cities, although Bainbridge could contract with the health district for monitoring and cleanup.

Eagle Harbor could become subject to a TMDL study by the Department of Ecology, but it is not currently on the state’s priority list. As a result, work is not likely to begin for at least two years.

EPA clarifies federal jurisdiction over streams and wetlands of the U.S.

The Environmental Protection Agency has finally completed a new rule that defines which waterways across the country fall under federal jurisdiction for clean-water permits.

The new Clean Water Rule is designed to protect important tributaries. Kitsap Sun photo
The new Clean Water Rule is designed to protect important tributaries. // Kitsap Sun photo

Enforcement of the federal Clean Water Act has been stuck in a state of confusion since 2006, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Army Corps of Engineers was overreaching by requiring permits for all sorts of waterways beyond the agency’s jurisdiction. For background, check out my Water Ways post from March 25, 2014, in which I describe the court’s interpretation of “waters of the U.S.” — the key phrase in the law.

The EPA requisitioned a scientific report about hydraulic connectivity, concluding that even small streams can affect downstream waters. The final language in the rule, designed to reduce judgment calls by federal regulators, says tributaries would come under federal jurisdiction only if capable of delivering significant pollution downstream. Such tributaries would need to have flowing water or related features — such as a streambed, bank or high-water mark.

The rule has worried farmers, who want to make sure the federal government does not try to regulate ditches designed for irrigation and drainage. Language in the final rule says ditches will not be regulated unless they are shown to be a remnant of a natural stream that has been diverted or altered.

Jo-Ellen Darcy, assistant secretary for the Army, said the rule represents a “new era” for the Clean Water Act. As she stated in a news release:

“This rule responds to the public’s demand for greater clarity, consistency, and predictability when making jurisdictional determinations. The result will be better public service nationwide.”

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said the rule is grounded in science and law. For downstream waters to be clean, upstream waters also must be clean, she said.

McCarthy said the language was revised significantly since the first proposal, taking into account more than a million public comments and discussions in 400 meetings across the country. As she told reporters in a telephone conference call:

“I think you will see that we have made substantial changes that basically made this rule clearer, crisper and did the job we were supposed to do. And I’m very proud of the work we have done here.”

McCarthy also told the reporters that climate change increases the importance of protecting water resources:

“Impacts from climate change — like more intense droughts, storms, fires and floods, not to mention sea-level rise — affect our water supplies. But healthy streams and wetlands can help protect communities by trapping flood waters, retaining moisture during drought, recharging groundwater supplies, filtering pollution and providing habitat for fish and wildlife.”

The new rule was applauded by many environmental groups, including the Sierra Club. Michael Brune, executive director, issued a statement:

“No longer will the Supreme Court’s confusing decisions on the issue allow dirty fossil fuel companies to threaten people’s health by dumping toxins into our lakes, rivers, and streams.”

Still, plenty of people contend that the EPA and Army Corps have contrived this new rule to continue their over-reach into streams that should be beyond federal jurisdiction. House Speaker John Boehner, R- Ohio, issued this statement in response to the EPA’s release of the new rule, sometimes called “WOTUS” for “waters of the U.S.”

“The administration’s decree to unilaterally expand federal authority is a raw and tyrannical power grab that will crush jobs. House members of both parties have joined more than 30 governors and government leaders to reject EPA’s disastrous WOTUS rule. These leaders know firsthand that the rule is being shoved down the throats of hardworking people with no input and places landowners, small businesses, farmers and manufacturers on the road to a regulatory and economic hell.”

The House has already passed a bill, HB 1732, that would put the brakes on implementation of the new rule and send the EPA back to the drawing board for new language. As you could expect, the vote was mostly along party lines. If the Senate approves the bill, it is likely to be vetoed by the president.

The new rule is scheduled to go into effect 60 days from its publication in the Federal Register. For more details, visit the EPA’s website “Clean Water Rule.”

Orca-tracking project ends for this year when satellite tag falls off

This year’s research project tracing the movements of Southern Resident killer whales has ended after 96 days of tracking L-84, a 25-year-old male named Nyssa.

Nyssa (L-84) and his entourage traveled north into Canadian waters the first week of May. NOAA map
Nyssa (L-84) and his entourage traveled north into Canadian waters the first week of May. // NOAA map

It was the longest period of tracking among the Southern Residents since the satellite-tagging studies began in 2012. The transmitter carried by L-84 lasted three days longer than a similar deployment on K-25 in 2013. The satellite tags, which are attached to the dorsal fins of the whales with darts, often detach after about a month.

The nice thing about this year’s study is that it covered the entire month of April and much of May, according to Brad Hanson, project supervisor for NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center. That tells the researchers something about the movement of the whales later in the year than previous deployments have revealed.

A satellite tag on J-27 (Blackberry) in late December extended the total tracking period to more than four months.

Looking back through the tracking maps since February, it is clear that L-84 and his entourage have spent much of their time moving up and down the Washington and Oregon coasts. They seem to favor hanging out near the mouth of the Columbia River. On a few occasions, they have ventured into Northern California.

Nyssa (L-84) and his entourage traveled north into Canadian waters the first week of May. NOAA map
The whales quickly returned to the U.S., ending the tracking project when the satellite tag fell off near the Columbia River. // NOAA map

On May 6, they took their only jaunt north into Canadian waters, reaching Estavan Point (halfway up Vancouver Island) two days later. They continued north another day, nearly reaching Brooks Peninsula (about three-fourths up Vancouver Island) on May 9. Then they headed back south, ending this year’s tracking program near the Columbia River.

Just before the satellite tag fell off, biologists from Cascadia Research Collective caught up with the whales on May 21 south of the Columbia River. The researchers noticed that the tag was loosening, and no further satellite signals were picked up.

The tracking studies, combined with efforts to collect samples of feces and fish remains, are designed to identify where the whales are spending their time in winter months and what they are finding to eat when salmon are more scarce. All of this could lead to a major expansion of their designated “critical habitat” and increased protections in coastal waters. As of now, critical habitat for the whales does not extend into the ocean, and NOAA has concluded that more information is needed before changing the designated protection area.

Within the next month or so, all three Southern Resident pods should head into Puget Sound, congregating in the San Juan Islands, as chinook salmon return to Canada’s Fraser River and other streams in the Salish Sea.

Meanwhile, J pod seems to be hanging out in waters around the San Juans, possibly waiting for the other pods to show up. Plenty of observers have been filing some great reports and related photos with Orca Network.

That link also includes recent reports of seal-eating transient killer whales that have traveled as far south as the Bremerton-Seattle area, perhaps farther. A few humpback whales have been sighted in northern Puget Sound.

Sea-floor mining brings deep concerns about environmental effects

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about a a new deep-sea observatory being built off the West Coast. I noted that Washington and Oregon researchers are thrilled to monitor the eruption of an underwater volcano called Axial Seamount.

Smoker

Soon, new equipment and a fiber optics cable will allow these researchers to widely share discoveries involving the unique geology and unusual plants and animals living at the bottom of the ocean. People will be able to watch in real time via the Internet. See Water Ways, May 6.

Now, a new lawsuit filed by the Center for Biological Diversity has me thinking about the commercial value of the deep ocean. Can society safely mine the seafloor for valuable minerals used in a wide variety of consumer products? Can huge mining equipment operate in water two or three miles deep without destroying the unique ecosystem at the bottom of the ocean?

For decades, researchers have been aware of high concentrations of minerals lying on and beneath the sea floor. But nobody was worried about the environmental damage of mining, because the costs of commercial recovery were too great.

That has been changing, however, thanks to the combination of five factors, according to a 2013 study “Towards the Development of a Regulatory Framework for Polymetallic Nodule Exploitation” (PDF 1.1 mb). They are:

  1. A dramatic increase in demand for metal;
  2. An equally dramatic rise in metal prices;
  3. The high profitability of mining sector companies;
  4. A decline in the tonnage and grade of land-based nickel, copper and cobalt sulphide deposits; and
  5. Technological advances in deep seabed mining and processing.

The new technology involves giant robotic machines that either excavate the seafloor or scoop up clumps of polymetallic nodules. Over the past few years, 26 permits have been issued to mining corporations, mostly for operations in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone of the Pacific Ocean, about halfway between Hawaii and Mexico.

“Deep-sea mining is an emerging threat to our oceans that has the potential to irreparably harm underwater ecosystems before we even have a chance to fully study its impacts,” declares the Center for Biological Diversity, adding:

“Life on the deep ocean floor is still a mysterious realm that scientists have only just begun to fully understand and inventory… What mountaintop-removal coal mining has done in Appalachia, deep-sea mining has the potential to do in the Pacific Ocean, affecting the ecosystem and food web in ways that scientists say they don’t yet fully understand.”

Last week, the environmental group filed a lawsuit (PDF 162 kb) against the U.S. government for issuing exploratory permits without the requisite environmental studies. Said Emily Jeffers, the attorney who filed the case:

“Deep-sea mining should be stopped, and this lawsuit aims to compel the government to look at the environmental risks before it leaps into this new frontier. We need to protect the ocean wildlife and habitat, and the United States should provide leadership for other nations to follow before more projects get underway.”

The lawsuit, filed in Washington, D.C., challenges two exploratory permits issued to OMCO Seabed Exploration, LLC, a subsidiary of Lockheed Martin, the defense contractor. The original permits for work in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone expired in 2004. Jeffers says the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration should have considered the environmental effects of the mining plan before renewing the permits in 2012.

Said Jeffers in a news release:

“If we aren’t careful, this new gold rush could do irreparable harm to the basic building blocks of life. The federal government has a moral duty, as well as a legal one, to understand the full environmental impacts before the mining industry scrapes away our deep-sea resources.”

Besides tearing up the sea floor, mining operations can stir up sediment, which can smother organisms living on the bottom, according to the lawsuit. Cloudy water can reduce productivity, and clouds of sediment may contain toxic metals that reduce reproductive success of sea life. Light and noise from ships and vessels can disrupt seabird behavior and affect whales and other marine mammals, the suit claims.

Other permits have been issued to various countries in Europe and Asia by the International Seabed Authority, which hopes to approve environmental standards by the end of next year. The U.S. is not subject to those rules and cannot demand compliance from other countries, because the U.S. has not ratified the United Nations’ Convention on the Law of the Sea, a treaty that establishes the International Seabed Authority.

Map

We know pollen helps seed the trees — but what about clouds?

It was the clever headline that caught my attention: “April flowers bring May showers?”

But it was the latest research about pollen from the University of Michigan and Texas A&M that got me digging a little deeper and eventually arriving at the subject of clouds and climate change.

The bottom line is a possibility that pollen from trees and flowers can break apart during a rainstorm. The broken pieces can then float up into the air and seed the clouds for the next rainstorm.

Allison Steiner, associate professor of atmospheric, oceanic and space sciences at U-M, began exploring how pollen might seed the clouds after sweeping a layer of pollen off her front porch one morning and wondering what happens after the pollen drifts into the air.

Atmospheric scientists have never paid much attention to pollen. It is generally believed that pollen grains are too large to seed the clouds. Instead, most attention has been focused on man-made aerosols, such as particles from a coal-fired power plant. High in the atmosphere, the particles can encourage moisture in the air to condense, the initial step in the formation of rain.

But people with allergies may recognize that their symptoms grow worse after a rainstorm when the air begins to dry out. As Steiner explains in an M-I news release:

“When we were looking in the allergy literature we discovered that it’s pretty well known that pollen can break up into these tiny pieces and trigger an allergic response. What we found is when pollen gets wet, it can rupture very easily in seconds or minutes and make lots of smaller particles that can act as cloud condensation nuclei, or collectors for water.”

In a laboratory at Texas A&M, Sarah Brooks, a professor in atmospheric sciences, soaked six different kinds of pollen in water, then sprayed the moist fragments into a cloud-making chamber. Brooks and her colleagues found that three fragment sizes — 50, 100 and 200 nanometers — quickly collected water vapor to form cloud droplets, which are 10 times bigger than the particles. (It takes about 6 million nanometers to equal a quarter of an inch, so we’re talking about very small particles.) Brooks noted in a Texas A&M news release:

“Scientists are just beginning to identify the types of biological aerosols which are important for cloud formation. Our results identify pollen as a major contributor to cloud formation. Specifically, our results suggest that increased pollen could lead to the formation of thicker clouds and longer cloud lifetimes.”

The effect of cloud formation on global warming may be the most important mystery in climate science today, according to Jasper Kirby, a particle physicist who is leading a team of atmospheric scientists from 15 European and U.S. institutions. Consequently, the effect of aerosols on cloud formation must be equally important.

Clouds are known to cool the planet by reflecting sunlight back out to space, but they can also contain heat at night, so cloud formation plays a critical role in determining the rate of global warming. To better predict global warming, one has to better understand when and how clouds are formed at a “very fundamental level,” Kirby told reporter Rae Ellen Bichell in “Yale Environment 360.” Kirby added:

“By fundamental, I mean we have to understand what the gases are, the vapors, that are responsible for forming these little particles. And secondly, we have to understand exactly how quickly they react with each other and how they form the aerosol particles which … constitute the seeds for cloud droplets. And this process is responsible for half the cloud droplets in the atmosphere. It’s a very, very important process, but it’s very poorly understood.”

In the upper atmosphere, aerosols can directly reflect sunlight back into space. These include man-made aerosols from industrial pollution as well as natural aerosols, such as volcanic eruptions and desert dust and now possibly pollen. Check out NASA’s webpage on “Atmospheric Aerosols.”

Steiner, who is doing the pollen experiments, said understanding natural aerosols is critical to understanding climate change:

“What happens in clouds is one of the big uncertainties in climate models right now. One of the things we’re trying to understand is how do natural aerosols influence cloud cover and precipitation under present day and future climate.

“It’s possible that when trees emit pollen, that makes clouds, which in turn makes rain and that feeds back into the trees and can influence the whole growth cycle of the plant.”

For people more interested in the allergy aspects of this story, I found a website called pollen.com, which identifies a variety of ways that weather can affect pollen and thus allergies:

  1. A mild winter can lead to early plant growth and an early allergy season,
  2. A late freeze can delay pollen production in trees, reducing the risk of an allergic reaction,
  3. Dry, windy weather increases the spread of pollen and worsens allergy symptoms,
  4. Rain can wash pollen out of the air, reducing the risk of exposure to pollen, but
  5. Rain can also increase the growth of plants, especially grasses, increasing the pollen levels.

For a research report about how rain can break up pollen into smaller particles to trigger allergies, check out “Thunderstorm-associated asthma in Atlanta, Georgia” by Andrew Grundstein et al.