Category Archives: Research

Virus connected to sea star wasting syndrome, but questions remain

I’ll never forget my visit this past summer to the Lofall dock and nearby beach on Hood Canal in North Kitsap. It was a scene of devastation, in which starfish of all sizes were losing their limbs and decomposing into gooey masses.

Barb Erickson and Linda Martin examine young sea stars for signs of wasting disease at Lofall pier last summer.
Barb Erickson and Linda Martin examine young sea stars for wasting disease at Lofall pier last summer.
Kitsap Sun photo by Meegan M. Reid.

My guides on the excursion were three women who had been watching for changes in sea stars as part of a volunteer monitoring program being conducted up and down the West Coast. The three were shocked at what they saw on the trip, as I described in a story for the Kitsap Sun as well as in a blog post in Water Ways.

Now, researchers are reporting that a virus, known as densovirus, appears to be playing a central role in the devastation of millions of sea stars from Alaska to Mexico. Their findings were reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PDF 1.1 mb).

Many questions remain about the mysterious affliction known as “sea star wasting syndrome.” For one, why were the sea stars affected over such a wide area, all at about the same time?

As described in the report, the researchers went to museums with sea stars preserved in alcohol and found that the virus was present in specimens collected as long ago as 1942 at various West Coast sites. Minor outbreaks of the wasting syndrome have been reported through the years, but obviously something much bigger is taking place now.

Sea star near Lofall
Sea star near Lofall

A change in the environment, such as ocean acidification, has been suggested as one possibility. A change in the virus, such as we see for the flu virus in humans, is another idea. It could also be related to an over-population among the sea stars themselves.

Jeff Adams of Washington Sea Grant, who is leading the local monitoring program in Kitsap County, said it is good that researchers have found something to go on, but other causative factors are yet to be discovered.

“Why and where; those are two of the things still on the table,” Jeff told me. “What are the environmental factors that drove this much larger die-off? Was it something that made the virus more prevalent or something that made the sea stars weaker?”

Jeff noted that the cause of death may not be the virus itself but rather opportunistic pathogens that attack the sea stars after their immune systems are weakened by the virus.

“Density may have played a factor,” he said. “Sea star populations have been thick and strong over the past 12 years. When you get a lot of individuals in close proximity, you can get sudden changes. Marine populations fluctuate quite a bit naturally.”

Jeff hopes to maintain the volunteer monitoring program for years to come, not just to track the disease but to understand more about the cycles of marine life. Of course, he would like to be able to report on an ongoing recovery of sea star populations from their current state of devastation. Will the recovery occur in patches or uniformly at all monitored sites?

“Ideally, this will run its course, and we will start seeing juveniles showing up over the course of the summer,” he said. “How many of them will disappear?

“Ideally, we will be able to maintain some sites for much longer. For me, as a naturalist, there are lots of questions about natural historical cycles that have not been addressed. A lot of critters are facing challenges (to their survival).”

In Puget Sound, these challenges range from loss of habitat to pollution to climate change, and the predator-prey balance will determine whether any population —and ultimately entire species — can survive.

Linda Martin, one of the volunteers who gave me a tour of the Lofall beach, said she was glad that researchers have identified a viral cause of the sea-star devastation, but it remains unclear how that is going to help the population recover.

Because of the timing of low tide, the three women have not been to Lofall since early October, when the population was “completely depleted,” according to Linda. But they are planning to go back next weekend.

“We are anxious to go out and see if there is anything there,” she said. “We have not seen any juveniles for a long time. Originally, when we started out, we were seeing uncountable numbers of juveniles.”

As for the new findings, I thought it was interesting how the researchers removed tissues from diseased sea stars then filtered out everything down to the size of viruses. After that, they exposed one group of healthy sea stars to a raw sample of the fluid and another group to a heat-treated sample. The raw sample caused disease, but the heat-treated sample did not.

They then used DNA techniques to identify the virus, which was found in larger and larger concentrations as the disease progressed. Check out the research report in the Proceedings of the NAS (PDF 1.1 mb).

Jeff Barnard of the Associated Press interviewed researchers involved in the study and others familiar with the problem.

Computer model shows colorful swirls as winds blow carbon dioxide

An ultra-high-resolution computer model ties weather into greenhouse gas emissions, and the resulting animation shows whirling and shifting plumes of carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide.

Ultimately, the greenhouse gases disperse into the atmosphere, increasing concentrations across the globe and contributing to global warming. It’s almost too complex to comprehend, but it is a fascinating process.

As you can see from the video, carbon dioxide levels are more significant in the Northern Hemisphere, where the emissions are out of phase with the Southern Hemisphere. That’s because the seasons are opposite, with the maximum growth of vegetation taking place at different times.

The reds and purples are the highest concentrations of carbon dioxide. The dark grays denote the highest levels of carbon monoxide, caused mainly by large forest fires.

Bill Putman, of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, said it a prepared statement:

“While the presence of carbon dioxide has dramatic global consequences, it’s fascinating to see how local emission sources and weather systems produce gradients of its concentration on a very regional scale. Simulations like this, combined with data from observations, will help improve our understanding of both human emissions of carbon dioxide and natural fluxes across the globe.”

The animation was produced with data from measurements of atmospheric conditions plus the emission of greenhouse gases, both natural and man-made. The simulation, called “Nature Run,” covers a period May 2005 to June 2007. Engineers can use the model, called GEOS-5, to test satellite observations.

In July, NASA launched the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) satellite to make global, space-based carbon observations. The additional data will add to Earth-based measurements. See also OCO-2 Mission Overview.

According to studies, last spring was the first time in modern history that carbon dioxide levels reached 400 parts per million across most of the Northern Hemisphere. Concentrations are continuing to rise, mainly from the burning of fossil fuels. Levels were about 270 ppm before the Industrial Revolution.

The GEOS-5 computer model is being used in tests known as Observing System Simulation Experiments (OSSE), which can help satellite observations tie into weather and climate forecasts.

Said Putnam:

“While researchers working on OSSEs have had to rely on regional models to provide such high-resolution Nature Run simulations in the past, this global simulation now provides a new source of experimentation in a comprehensive global context. This will provide critical value for the design of Earth-orbiting satellite instruments.”

For more detailed views involving various parts of the world, see “A Closer Look at Carbon Dioxide” on NASA’s website for “Orbiting Carbon Observatory 2.” For information about modeling, visit the website of the Global Modeling and Assimilation Office.

Amusing Monday:
Flying fish for increased survival, savings and fun

The “salmon cannon,” a pneumatic-tube device destined to replace some fish ladders, got plenty of serious attention this fall from various news organizations.

You may have seen demonstrations by the inventor, Whoosh Innovations of Bellevue, that showed adult salmon shooting unharmed through flexible tubes. For dramatic effect, some videos showed the salmon flying out the end of the tube and splashing into water. Among those who found the device amusing were commentators for “CBS This Morning” and “Red Eye” on Fox.

For a laugh, comedian John Oliver recently took the idea in a different direction, aiming his personal salmon cannon at celebrities including Jon Stuart, Jimmy Fallon and… Well, if you haven’t seen the video (above), I won’t spoil it for you.

All this attention has been a surprise for Vince Bryan, CEO for Whooshh, who told Vancouver Columbian reporter Eric Florip that he has spoken with hundreds of news organizations and potential customers from throughout the world.

“It was a nice boost because it says one thing, that people care a lot about the fish, and two, that there really is a need,” Bryan was quoted as saying.

A good description of the potential applications for the “salmon cannon” was written by reporter Laura Geggel of Live Science. Meanwhile, Reuters produced a nice animation showing how the tube works. And a video on the Whooshh Innovations YouTube channel, shown below, provides a clear demonstration how the transport system can work for both humans and fish.

Agency lists critical habitat for endangered Puget Sound rockfish

National Marine Fisheries Service has designated more than 1,000 square miles of Puget Sound as “critical habitat” for rockfish — a colorful, long-lived fish decimated by over-fishing and environmental problems.

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

In Hood Canal, we know that thousands of rockfish have been killed by low-oxygen conditions, and their populations have been slow to recover because of low reproductive rates. Elsewhere, rockfish are coming back with mixed success, helped in some locations by marine protected areas.

The final designation of critical habitat was announced today in the Federal Register for yelloweye rockfish and canary rockfish, both listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, and bocaccio, listed as “endangered.”

The critical habitat listing includes 590 square miles of nearshore habitat for canary rockfish and bocaccio, and 414 square miles of deepwater habitat for all three species. Nearshore areas include kelp forests important for the growth and survival of juvenile rockfish. Deeper waters are used for shelter, food and reproduction by adults.

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

Potential critical habitat was reduced by 15 percent for canary rockfish and bocaccio and by 28 percent for yelloweye rockfish. Most of the excluded area was deemed already protected, either by tribes near their reservations or by the military near Navy and Army bases and their operational areas.

The designated habitat overlaps in large part with existing critical habitat for salmon, killer whales and bull trout. The only new areas added without overlap are some deep-water areas in Hood Canal.

Under the law, federal actions within designated habitat must undergo consultations with the National Marine Fisheries Service. Such actions — which include funding or issuing permits for private development — cannot be approved if they are found to be detrimental to the continuing survival of the species.

Catherine Kilduff of the Center for Biological Diversity offered this comment about the habitat designation in a news release:

“Saving rockfish from extinction requires protecting some of the most important places they live, and that’s exactly what’s happening now in the Puget Sound. These habitat protections will not only give rockfish a fighting chance at survival but will help all of the animals that live in these waters.”

Critical habitat for rockfish in Central Puget Sound NOAA map
Critical habitat for rockfish in Central Puget Sound
NOAA map from Federal Register

The three species of rockfish were placed on the Endangered Species List in 2010, following a series of petitions by biologist Sam Wright. Last year, the Center for Biological Diversity notified the National Marine Fisheries Service of its intent to file a lawsuit over the agency’s delay in designating critical habitat.

Federal and state biologists are now working on a recovery plan. I have not heard whether they still hope to get the plan completed next year.

Rockfish are unusual among bony fishes in that fertilization and embryo development are internal. Female rockfish give birth to live young. After birth, the larval rockfish may drift in shallow waters for several months, feeding on plankton. Among the listed species:

  • Canary rockfish can reach up to 2.5 feet in length. Adults have bright yellow to orange mottling over gray, three orange stripes across the head and orange fins. They can live to be 75 years old.
  • Bocaccio can reach up to 3 feet in length. They have a distinctively long jaw extending to the eye socket. Adult colors range from olive to burnt orange or brown. Their age is difficult to determine, but they may live as long as 50 years.
  • Yelloweye rockfish can reach up to 3.5 feet in length and 39 pounds in weight. They are orange-red to orange-yellow in color and may have black on their fin tips. Their eyes are bright yellow. They are among the longest lived of rockfishes, living up to 118 years.

A 2011 plan for saving the rockfish was written by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife with assistance from a group of experts. The report, “Puget Sound Rockfish Conservation Plan” (PDF 706 kb), identifies the cause for the population declines:

“These declines have largely been caused by historical fishing practices, although several other stress factors play a part in their decline. Rockfish in urban areas are exposed to high levels of chemical contamination, which may be affecting their reproductive success. Poor water quality in Hood Canal has resulted in massive periodic kills of rockfish as well as other species. Lost or abandoned fishing nets trap and kill large numbers of rockfish.”

The plan identifies these objectives to restore the population:

  • Place the highest priority on protecting and restoring the natural production of indicator rockfishes to healthy levels,
  • Promote natural production through the appropriate use of hatcheries and artificial habitats,
  • Protect and restore all marine habitat types for all rockfish species,
  • Manage all Puget Sound fisheries to ensure the health and productivity of all rockfish stocks,
  • Protect and restore existing functions of rockfish in the complex ecosystem and food web in Puget Sound,
  • Conduct monitoring of indicator stocks to evaluate stock status and management actions,
  • Implement new research to understand the diversity, biology and productivity of indicator rockfish, and
  • Conduct a strategic outreach and education program to inform Washington citizens of the value of rockfish stocks and to promote ecotourism.

Amusing Monday: Glowing fish are both beautiful and amazing

Science merges into art in new studies of biofluorescence, in which researchers identify colorful marine creatures that glow in the dark. Their ultimate goal is to figure out why.

Biofluorescence is essentially the “black light” effect, in which organisms absorb a narrow frequency range of blue light and transform it into other colors, such as green and red. In deep water, blue is the only frequency of light that makes it through.

Until recently, there was no technology to capture images of fluorescent fish in extremely low-light conditions. Artificial light ruins the effect, and older low-light cameras were too bulky to travel underwater. New cameras developed at Yale University changed the ability of research divers to capture colorful images of sea creatures and bring them back to the surface for further study. So far, more than 180 biofluorescent fish species have been identified.

David Gruber, John Sparks and others are trying to figure out if there is a reason that some fish produce a glow. They would also like to know which of the other creatures are able to see them in the darkness. Check out the article in the journal PLOS ONE published Jan. 8.

Gruber notes that camouflage fish — those able to blend in with their surroundings in regular white light — are often those that stand out brilliantly in fluorescent light. He speculates that fish of the same species are better able to see them, offering advantages in communication and mating. For the sake of these glowing fish, it would be nice to learn that their predators cannot spot them so easily.

The natural beauty of these fluorescent patterns is not overlooked by Gruber and his associates.

“I just find a real serenity and beauty being on the reef at night,” Gruber says in the first video on this page. “And now when we add on this kind of fluorescent layer, it’s like being on another planet.”

Last week, National Geographic published the latest installment in its Emerging Explorers series featuring Gruber and including a new video about his studies called “David Gruber: Seeing the Ocean in Neon.”

Unmanned aircraft provides unique views of killer whales

Unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly called drones, could play an increasing role in killer whale studies, according to Brad Hanson, a researcher with NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center who has been studying Puget Sound’s orcas for years.

Brad said a plan to use UAVs (he doesn’t like “drones”) has been on the drawing board for several years. Unmanned aircraft can fly over the whales far more cheaply than a full-size helicopter, which has been used in the past. The small aircraft also may be able to come in close for biological samples with less disturbance to the whales than when operating from a research boat.

“I’ve been looking at this for a long time,” Brad told me. “We have it in our (Endangered Species Act) permit to be able to use a UAS (unmanned aircraft system).

Remote-controlled aircraft have been used by researchers to study seals and penguins in the Arctic and to estimate their populations with less disturbance than approaching the animals on the ground. They’ve also been used to count birds in remote areas.

In August, NOAA and Vancouver Aquarium researchers teamed up to test the use of a remote-controlled hexacopter as they observed Northern Resident killer whales in British Columbia. Mounted with a high-resolution camera, the copter captured some amazing videos and still pictures, including those on this page. See also NOAA’s website.

One can learn a lot from a good aerial view of a killer whale, including general body condition, Brad told me. From a boat on the water, it is often difficult to tell if an orca is healthy, underweight or pregnant. From above, a whale’s girth is easier to assess.

Researchers involved the British Columbia study — including John Durban of NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center and Lance Barrett-Lennard of Vancouver Aquarium — identified several females who seemed to be pregnant.

They also spotted two whales that seemed emaciated. Those animals later went missing and are presumed dead, confirming that they were in poor health. What is not evident from photos, however, is the cause of the problem, Brad Hanson said. Were the whales suffering from disease, injury or another problem that caused them to lose weight, or was it simply a lack of food?

Aerial photos also can be used to measure the length of a whale and, over time, determine the growth rate at various periods in its life.

Brad said the ultimate goal is to develop health assessments for the Southern Residents, listed as “endangered” under the federal Endangered Species Act. A lot of technical details need to be worked out, he said, but the plan is to use unmanned aircraft to collect breath and fecal samples from the whales.

A breath sample is the next best thing to a blood sample, Brad told me, and fecal samples provide information about stress hormones, potential pathogens and other things.

“If you tied that in with imaging, we might be able to build individual health profiles and begin to understand when something is going wrong,” Hanson said.

Currently, breath samples are taken by driving a boat alongside the whales and holding out a pole with an apparatus on the end. Fecal samples are taken by following the whales and sifting feces from the water.

If a small helicopter flown from a boat some distance away can be used, the result would be less intrusive than a boat coming near the whales.

In the study in British Columbia, the general goal was to keep the UAV at least 100 feet above the whales. The study also included some closer movements to test the reaction of the whales. No obvious changes in behavior were noticed, Brad said.

One permit still is needed for Hanson to operate a UAV in Washington state. The Federal Aviation Administration must issue a certificate of authorization, or COA, which spells out limitations of the flight to avoid other aircraft operating in the area.

The Canadian experiment received similar permits from Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Transport Canada. The aircraft was an APH-22 marine hexacopter built for NOAA by Aerial Imaging Solutions.

Ironically, amateurs in the United States are allowed to operate unmanned aircraft in some areas without permits. But flying around wildlife could create unanticipated problems for the animals. And anyone operating around endangered whales could be in violation of other state and federal laws — such as the Endangered Species Act or Marine Mammal Protection Act — if they fly below 1,000 feet.

Orcas vary in physical condition. The female at top appears skinny and in poor health. The female in the middle appears healthy. The one at the bottom is pregnant, her body bulging at the ribcage. Photo courtesy of NOAA, Vancouver Aquarium
Orcas vary in physical condition. The female at top appears skinny and in poor health. The female in the middle appears healthy. The one at the bottom is pregnant, her body bulging at the ribcage.
Photo courtesy of NOAA, Vancouver Aquarium

Steelhead could be running into a trap at the Hood Canal Bridge

Fishermen fish for salmon north of the Hood Canal bridge, but researchers say the bridge may be an obstacle to the migration of young steelhead. Kitsap Sun photo by Larry Steagall
Fishermen fish for salmon north of the Hood Canal bridge last week, while researchers say the bridge could be an obstacle to the migration of young steelhead. // Kitsap Sun photo by Larry Steagall

I’ve often wondered if the Hood Canal bridge might be an obstruction for killer whales, which could simply choose to back away from the wall of floating pontoons, which are anchored to the seabed by a confusing array of crisscrossing cables. Old-timers have told me that orcas used to come into Hood Canal more frequently before the bridge was built.

What I never considered seriously, however, was that the bridge could be an obstacle for fish as well. In Sunday’s Kitsap Sun, I wrote about recent findings from a study tracking juvenile steelhead by means of implanted acoustic transmitters. The study was conducted by researchers at NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center.

GraphicTemp

The bottom line is that something is happening at the bridge, where many of the transmitters either disappeared or winded up staying in one place near the bridge, continuing to send out their signals for weeks. The leading hypothesis is that seals or other predators are eating the young steelhead, and some of the acoustic tags are being digested and excreted near the bridge.

Why the bridge serves as an obstacle to steelhead remains unclear. But other studies have suggested that steelhead swim near the surface. As they move out of the canal, the fish may encounter the bridge pontoons as a physical barrier, since the concrete structures go down 12 feet underwater. Also, currents around the pontoons could be a strange condition for the fish. If a young steelhead slows down in the process, a harbor seal or other predator could be waiting to take advantage of the situation.

We’ve all heard about sea lions capturing adult salmon by hanging out at fish ladders at Seattle’s Ballard Locks in Seattle or at Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River. Maybe the same thing is happening at the Hood Canal bridge with smaller prey as the target of the marine mammals.

I was also intrigued by an analysis conducted by Tarang Khangaonkar, a researcher at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Seattle. He told me that in all the models of circulation in Puget Sound and Hood Canal, the bridge tended to be ignored. Since the pontoons go down 12 feet, the bridge disrupts the relatively thin low-salinity surface layer moving out of Hood Canal.

Tarang calculates that the bridge could reduce the circulation by 10 percent or more, which has serious implications, not just for steelhead at the bridge but for the ecological health of all of Hood Canal.

“We have to examine what the bridge is doing,” Tarang told me. “It slows the entire system down. Water quality is maintained in Puget Sound by the flushing effect, which flushes the system out and maintains a balance. Our preliminary finding is that it could slow down by about 10 percent. That effect is cumulative.”

The bridge, he said, could effectively create a more stagnant body of water, where oxygen can become depleted. More study is needed, he said.

Most of the folks I interviewed for this story agreed that the first priority for further research was to see what is happening to the steelhead — and possibly chinook and chum salmon — at the bridge. Studies could focus on the fish, predators and currents at the bridge.

The project is gaining support, but it could require a special legislative appropriation of about $2 million.

Amusing Monday: Amazing drones bring us new stories to tell

Unmanned aircraft, commonly known as drones, are taking over the world. At least it seems that way. If you don’t believe me, search for “drone” on YouTube. You’ll find amateur aviation specialists — and a variety of professionals — demonstrating what drones can do. Some of the things are pretty amusing.

I’ll mention some water-related drone stories below, but the first video on this page shows a hawk attacking a drone owned and operated by Christopher Schmidt, a 30-year-old software developer. I think Chris did a nice job of protecting the bird by throttling down the props on his Phantom FC40 quadcopter. The final result is a great up-close view of an angry bird, well deserving of a place in “Amusing Monday.”

Chris was using the drone to get images of changing leaves in Magazine Beach Park in Cambridge, Mass., last Wednesday, when he saw a bird circling a good distance away. The circling continued as the bird moved closer to the drone.

“Overall,” he told me in an email, “I was surprised by how quickly he moved from 400 feet away to on top of the quad. When he was very nearby, my initial thought was, ‘Okay, stay still, so he can avoid it’ — which obviously didn’t work out for me.”

Christopher Schmidt with his Phantom drone. Photo courtesy of Christopher Schmidt.
Christopher Schmidt with his Phantom drone.
Photo courtesy of Christopher Schmidt.

He said he saw no evidence beforehand that the bird was upset or likely to attack. Over the six months he owned the drone, nothing like that had happened, except for a few crows squawking at the aircraft. After he posted the video, he learned from bird experts that immature red tail hawks have not yet learned to hunt efficiently, so they may attack anything that moves.

As the hawk attacked, Chris cut power to the props, which caused the quad to drop. The bird hit the chopper and it flipped. Chris was unable to recover the flight, still worried about the bird, though he powered back up at the end.

“If I had done nothing,” he wrote, “I expect the quadcopter would have done the flip (which it did) and immediately recover — possibly losing about
10 feet of altitude. My fear in that case was that the hawk would still
see it as a threat and come back a second time. Well, really, it was
about a half second, so I was not really thinking that much through it.

“I still would do the same thing if I had to do it all over, even if it might have put the quadcopter at less risk.”

The hawk appeared to be fine after the attack. Photo courtesy of Christopher Schmidt
The hawk appeared to be fine after the attack.
Photo courtesy of Christopher Schmidt

As it turns out, the quad sustained almost no damage from falling out of the sky and hitting the ground, except for a slightly bent landing gear. And the hawk was no worse for wear.

Lots of media have been using the footage that Chris took. Based on a suggestion from a coworker, he is donating any money raised from YouTube ads to the American Audubon Society. Thanks to Gene Bullock of Kitsap Audobon for alerting me to this video.

OK, so what are some other odd things that drones can do? How about helping out with an ALS ice bucket challenge? In the second video, Austin Hill of Spark Aerial uses a massive DJI S1000 Octocopter to lift a bucket of ice water and pour it rather slowly on his head.

I’ve shown you videos of the Flyboard®, an apparatus developed in France by Franky Zapata. See Amusing Monday, Oct. 15, 2012. Martin Schumacher goes one better by using a DJI Phantom and GoPro Hero 3 to shoot an up-close demonstration video around Saint-Tropez in Southeast France.

It was only a matter of time before someone got the idea to use a drone for fishing — no matter how inefficient that might be. Check out this 7-minute video by NightFlyer (the action starts about 5 minutes in) or this shorter 1.5-minute video by RYOT. Both these guys now have fish stories to tell. But, after all that work, even they would admit that the fish they caught are rather amusing.

On a more serious note, there are many legal issues related to drones, which are not yet approved by the Federal Aviation Administration for commercial use, and there are many concerns related to privacy. People also are raising questions about whether drones should ever be used for hunting or fishing. Michael R. Shea tackles the subject for “Field and Stream” magazine.

If sportsmen are thinking about using drones, game wardens are not far behind, as they consider how drones might be used to catch poachers. “National Geographic” looks at the use of drones in high-seas fisheries enforcement.

Meanwhile, Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington vetoed a bill that would have limited the use of drones by law enforcement. He then set up a task force to look at the entire subject. A representative of Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife said in one task force meeting that there could be applications for enforcement and research by the agency. The Unmanned Aircraft Systems Task Force is expected to make recommendations before next year’s legislative session.

Killer whales expected to head south any day now

UPDATE, Oct. 4
Orca Network reported a brief appearance of J pod this week near San Juan Island: “On Wednesday, October 1, J pod plus L87 Onyx and a few K pod members shuffled in small groups spread out up and down the west side of San Juan Island for over eight hours, then returned around midnight and continued vocalizing near the Lime Kiln hydrophones for another few hours.”
—–

As chum salmon swim back to their home streams in Puget Sound this fall, three killer whale pods — the Southern Residents — can be expected to follow, making their way south along the eastern shoreline of the Kitsap Peninsula.

Whale viewing locations by Orca Network. Click on image to view Google map.
Whale viewing locations by Orca Network. Click on image to view Google map.

These forays into Central and South Puget Sound could begin any day now and continue until the chum runs decline in November or December. The Southern Residents, which typically hang out in the San Juan Islands in summer, have not been spotted for several days, so they are likely somewhere in the ocean at the moment, according to Howard Garrett of Orca Network.

This year, Orca Network has created a map of good viewing sites to help people look for whales from shore. As the orcas move south into Puget Sound, Orca Network’s Facebook page becomes abuzz with killer whale sightings. Observers can use the information to search for the whales from shore.

From my experience, it takes a bit of luck to find the orcas, because they are constantly moving. But the search can be fun if you consider it an adventure and don’t get too disappointed if you don’t find the whales right away.

Howie said expanding the network to include more land-based observers can help researchers track whale movements and occasionally go out to pick up samples of their fecal material or food left over from their foraging, helpful in expanding our knowledge about what they are eating.

Whale reports may be called in to Orca Network’s toll-free number: (866)-ORCANET, emailed to info@orcanetwork.org, or posted on Facebook, www.facebook.com/OrcaNetwork.

The new Viewpoints Map shows locations where killer whales have been sighted in the past, or else they lie along a known route of their travels.

I told Howie about a few good viewing locations in Kitsap County, based on my experiences, and he said he would welcome ideas from others as well.

“It’s a work in progress,” Howie said. “They just need to be locations that are public and accessible.” If you know of a good whale-watching spot, you can contact Howie or his wife Susan Berta by email, info@orcanetwork.org.

If offering a location for the map, please give a clear description of the site and state whether you have seen whales from that location or just believe it would work based on the view of the water.

Some people have expressed concern that real-time reports of whale movements may encourage boaters to go out and follow the orcas in Puget Sound, disturbing their feeding behavior at a critical time of year. But Howie says Orca Network has increased its reporting through the years and has not heard of many problems.

“It seems like a potential problem that never really happens,” he said.

Winter weather and rougher seas makes it difficult to find the whales from the water, Howie noted. As in summer, boaters are required by federal regulation to avoid interfering with their travels. See the “Be Whale Wise” website.

When reporting whale sightings to Orca Network, observers are asked to list the species, location, time, direction of travel and approximate number of animals. When reporting killer whales, the number of adult males with towering dorsal fins should be noted. Also report any behaviors, such as breaching, spy-hopping or feeding. Good photographs are especially valuable.

Sighting reports can be found on the Orca Network website, Facebook page or Twitter feed. One can also sign up for email alerts from the website, which includes reports of recent sightings as well as archives going back to 2001. The site also tracks news and research developments.

As Howard stated in a news release:

“We are very fortunate to live in a place where we can look out from nearby shorelines and see those majestic black fins parting the waters. We are thankful for the hundreds of citizens who report sightings each year, providing valuable data to help in recovery efforts for the endangered Southern Resident orcas.”

Orcas Dyes

Celebrating freedom for the Elwha River

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Elwha Prigge

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I want to recognize the Kitsap Sun’s editorial cartoonist Milt Priggee for capturing the feeling of the moment last week when the final piece of a dam on the Elwha River was blown up. See Water Ways, Aug. 27, 2014.

The video below was recorded on that same day by Anne Shaffer of the Coastal Watershed Institute while snorkeling in a kelp bed in western Freshwater Bay, not far from where the Elwha River flows into the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Watching this video and the large number of herring gives me a feeling of optimism, although I recognize there is no scientific basis for this. Someone please tell me the herring are doing better.

“We couldn’t think of a better place to be the day the last dam went down,” Anne said in an email to members of her listserv.

The Coastal Watershed Institute has been monitoring the nearshore area, where the Elwha River has been dramatically transforming the delta. Sediment, unleashed by dam removal, pours out of the Elwha and builds up in the estuary.

Tom Roorda, an aerial photographer, has been documenting the transformation with thousands of pictures he has taken over the past several years.

Tom Roorda of Roorda Aerial photography captured this image showing the ongoing buildup of sediment at the mouth of the Elwha River. Photo by Tom Roorda
Tom Roorda of Roorda Aerial photography captured this image showing the ongoing buildup of sediment at the mouth of the Elwha River. // Photo by Tom Roorda