Category Archives: Research

Orcas starting to follow chum salmon into Central Puget Sound

Chum salmon are beginning to make their way into Central and South Puget Sound, which means the orcas are likely to follow.

Given this year’s dismal reports of chinook salmon in the San Juan Islands, we can hope that a decent number of chum traveling to streams farther south will keep the killer whales occupied through the fall. But anything can happen.

Data from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife
Data from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

On Oct. 2, orcas from J and K pods — two of the three Southern Resident pods — passed through Admiralty Inlet and proceeded to Point No Point in North Kitsap, according to reports from Orca Network. The whales continued south the following day and made it all the way to Vashon Island, according to observers.

On Tuesday of this week, more reports of orcas came in from Saratoga Passage, the waterway between Whidbey and Camano islands. See the video by Alisa Lemire Brooks at the bottom of this page. By yesterday, some members of J pod were reported back of the west side of San Juan Island.

The movement of chum salmon into Central Puget Sound began in earnest this week, as a test fishery off Kingston caught just a few chum last week, jumping to nearly 1,000 this week. Still, the peak of the run is a few weeks away.

The predicted chum run for Central and South Puget Sound this year is about 526,000 fish, up from last year’s count of 503,000, according to Aaron Default, fish program biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. The average annual return over the past 10 years has been about 640,000 chum, boosted by a couple of exceptionally high years. (See chart.)

Orca Network's map of good whale-viewing locations.
Orca Network’s map of good whale-viewing locations.

For Puget Sound as a whole, the forecast is for 1.2 million chum, compared to a 10-year average of about 1.5 million.

It is yet to be seen how the orcas will respond to the schools of chum coming south, but their fall travels could offer the opportunity for a lot of people to watch the whales from shore without disturbing them at all.

This year, Orca Network trained 45 new volunteers as observers/naturalists. They live in Island, Snohomish, King, Kitsap, Pierce, Thurston and Whatcom counties and will be on hand at many of the observation locations, said Alisa. of Orca Network.

“Our volunteers are provided with up to date ID guides and information to share with others while viewing whales from the shoreline, to educate about the orcas, their habitat, and prey,” said Alisa, coordinator of Orca Network’s whale-sighting program, in a news release.

Last November, Alisa was watching the whales from shore with another volunteer, Sara Hysong-Shimazu, when they spotted a newborn orca off Alki Point in Seattle. They took photographs of the calf, and the Center for Whale Research later confirmed that it was the first baby born to L-103, a 13-year-old mom named Lapis. The baby was named Lazuli.

Orca Network has developed a map of some good locations for viewing whales when they come south. The best way to stay advised of whale movements is through the Orca Network Facebook page.

Observers should carry binoculars or another viewing scope to get a better view from shore. If you have a decent camera and can get a picture of one or more dorsal fins, orca researchers might be able to use your pictures. Orca Network would like to be alerted immediately to any whale sightings. Whale reports may be called in to the toll-free number, 1-866-ORCANET; emailed to, or posted on the Orca Network Facebook page.

Whale sightings reported to Orca Network will be provided to researchers studying the Southern Residents, which are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. If possible, observers are asked to note the location, time, direction of travel and approximate number of whales, as well as any specific behaviors, such as breaching, spy-hopping or feeding.

Observers who choose to go out in boats must follow federal and state regulations for whale watching as outlined on the Be Whale Wise website.

“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,” said Howard Garrett of Orca Network. “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.”

Rich Geiger held the ‘restoration vision’ for Skokomish ecosystem

It is hard to imagine the restoration of the Skokomish River ecosystem without the involvement of Rich Geiger, a longtime engineer for Mason Conservation District. Rich had a way of explaining technical aspects of environmental restoration, and he was a tremendous help to me through the years.

Rich Geiger, engineer for Mason Conservation District, explains the dynamics of the Skokomish River in this 2009 file photo. Rich died Sept. 22. Photo: Kitsap Sun
Rich Geiger, engineer for Mason Conservation District who died Sept. 22, explains the dynamics of the Skokomish River in this 2009 file photo. // Photo: Kitsap Sun

Rich, who was 59 years old, died unexpectedly two weeks ago.

I got to know Rich in 2008 and 2009 while working on a series of stories about the Skokomish River. My research involved interviews with members of the Skokomish Tribe, farmers, loggers and longtime residents of the area. For the final story, I talked to Rich about what was wrong with the river and what needed to be done to reduce the flooding and restore the ecosystem. He taught me a lot about river dynamics.

The Skokomish, if you didn’t know, is the largest river in Hood Canal, and it exerts a great influence on the long, narrow waterway with its amazing diversity of habitat.

“Something has bothered me about this river for a long time,” Rich said, as quoted in my story for the Kitsap Sun. “I have been doing a great deal of reading about river systems and sediment transport,” he continued. “To boil it down, the sediment is too heavy to be moved by the depths we think are there in the Skokomish.”

Fast and deep water contains the force to move larger rocks, he told me. Somehow the river was able to move large gravel out of the mountains, but it never made it all the way to Hood Canal. Digging into the gravel bars, Rich found layers of fine sediment wedged between layers of larger rock — evidence that the energy of the river had changed suddenly at various times.

Rich collaborated with engineers from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. Geological Survey and Army Corps of Engineers. Eventually, they came to understand the river well enough to develop a plan for restoration. Throughout the process, Rich was willing to take time to help me understand every aspect of the restoration alternatives. I will always be grateful for his expertise and patience.

in January 2014, the plan was completed and accepted by ranking officials in the Army Corps of Engineers. I called Rich for his reaction to the important milestone.

“We are very glad to be at this point, because we are talking about a physical project moving forward and not just more planning,” he told me. “We asked the Corps to produce a single integrated restoration plan, and they did.” To review a brief summary of the plan, see Water Ways Jan. 26, 2014.

The final plan by the Army Corps of Engineers became incorporated into the Water Resources Development Act, including $19 million proposed for the Skokomish project. The bill was approved, first by the U.S. Senate and then by the House. A few details still need to be worked out, but after years and years of planning, the Skokomish project became virtually assured of funding just a week after Rich died.

Mike Anderson, chairman of the Skokomish Watershed Action Team, said Rich had always been the “brains of the collaborative.”

“Rich was the holder of the technical vision of the watershed restoration,” Mike noted. “He understood how all the different parts of the watershed — from the mountains down to the estuary and beyond — work together.

“When we started out, he acknowledged that he did not know what the answers would be for the valley. One of his great achievements was getting the GI (general investigation) completed and the … support for authorization. He felt rightly proud of completing that difficult study.”

U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer introduced a statement into the Congressional Record (PDF 9.3 mb) on the last day the House was in session. It includes this observation:

“Mr. Speaker, Richard was not only an environmental advocate and steward, he was also a leader in the community. He excelled at fostering collaboration and consensus among diverse community stakeholders, including private landowners, businesses, Native American Tribes, and local, state, and federal agencies, to achieve common goals.”

Rich was born April 12, 1957, and graduated from Billings Senior High School. He attended Gonzaga University in Spokane, where he became an ROTC Cadet and earned a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering. After graduation, he served as a lieutenant in the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division and advanced to rank of major.

In 1994, he took a job with Mason County Public Works Department, where he held a variety of engineering positions. In 2001, he joined the Mason Conservation District as district engineer.

The family has suggested that memorials be made to the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation, a non-profit organization committed to alleviating the suffering caused by mental illness. The foundation awards grants aimed at making advances and breakthroughs in scientific research.

More invasive crabs found; wider search will resume next spring

Padilla Bay, an extensive inlet east of Anacortes in North Puget Sound, could become known as an early stronghold of the invasive European Green crab, a species dreaded for the economic damage it has brought to other regions of the country.

Trapping sites for crabs (gray markers) during this week’s rapid assessment in Padilla Bay. The red markers show locations where invasive European green crabs were found.
Trapping sites for crabs (gray markers) during this week’s rapid assessment in Padilla Bay. Red markers show locations where three more invasive European green crabs were found.
Map: Washington Sea Grant

After one young green crab was found in Padilla Bay on Sept. 19 (Water Ways, Sept. 24), three more crabs were found during an extensive trapping effort this past week. All four crabs were captured at different locations in the bay. These four live crabs followed the finding of a single adult green crab in the San Juan Islands — the first-ever finding of green crabs anywhere in Puget Sound. (Water Ways, Sept. 15).

With these new findings in Padilla Bay, the goal of containing the crabs to one area has become a greater challenge. Emily Grason, who coordinates a volunteer crab-surveillance program for Washington Sea Grant, discusses the difficulty of putting out enough traps to cover the entire bay. Read her report on the fist day of trapping:

“Similar to our trip to San Juan Island, we are conducting extensive trapping in an effort to learn more about whether there are more green crabs in Padilla Bay. One difference, however, is scale. Padilla Bay is massive, and it’s hard to know exactly where to start. On San Juan Island, the muddy habitats where we thought crabs would do well are well-defined, and relatively limited. Padilla Bay, on the other hand, is one giant muddy habitat — well, not all of it, but certainly a huge portion. We could trap for weeks and still not cover all of the suitable habitat!”

In all, 192 traps were set up at 31 sites, covering about 20 miles of shoreline. The crab team was fortunate to work with the expert staff at the Padilla Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, a group of folks who know the area well and had worked with shoreline owners to get approval for access.

Three of the four green crabs caught in Padilla Bay were young, probably washed into the bay during last winter’s warm currents, Emily said in her wrap-up report of the effort.

“All of the detections of European green crabs occurred on the east portion of the bay,” she wrote. “Though the sites varied somewhat in the type of habitat, all of the crabs were found relatively high on the shore, in high salt marsh pools, or within a few meters of the shore.

The first of four European green crabs found in Padilla Bay. Photo: Padilla Bay Reserve
The first of four European green crabs found in Padilla Bay.
Photo: Padilla Bay National Estuarine Reserve

“Padilla Bay has about 20 miles of shoreline, and, at last count in 2004, there were 143 acres of salt marsh habitat in the bay,” she continued.”These numbers suggest that there are a lot of places European green crabs could live in Padilla Bay, and protecting the bay from this global invader will undoubtedly require a cooperative effort.”

Yesterday, the response team held a conference call to discuss what to do next. Team members agreed that no more intensive trapping would take place this year, Sean McDonald of the University of Washington told me in an email.

Winter is a tough time to catch crabs. Low tides shift from daytime hours to nighttime hours, making trapping more difficult. Meanwhile, crabs tend to lose their appetite during winter months, so they are less likely to go into the traps to get food, experts say.

Researchers, shellfish growers and beach walkers are being asked to stay alert for the green crabs, not only in Padilla Bay but also in nearby Samish and Fidalgo bays.

The Legislature will need to provide funding to continue the citizen science volunteer monitoring program, which provided an early warning that green crabs had invaded Puget Sound. Whether the crabs will survive and in what numbers is something that demands more study and perhaps a major eradication effort.

Meanwhile, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife would like to expand its overall Aquatic Invasive Species Program with additional efforts to prevent invaders from coming into Puget Sound. For information, check out my story on invasive species in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound — specifically the section titled “Biofouling still mostly unregulated.”

Amusing Monday: Odd research is recognized with Ig Nobel Prizes

Two researchers were awarded a less-then-noble prize for discovering — and reporting — that objects look different if you turn around, bend over and look at them through your legs.

Atsuki Higashiyama demonstrates his research at the Ig Nobel Prize ceremonies at Harvard University on Thursday. Photo: Michael Dwyer, Associated Press
Atsuki Higashiyama demonstrates his research at the Ig Nobel Prize ceremonies at Harvard University last Thursday. // Photo: Michael Dwyer, Associated Press

It’s all a matter of how one perceives the world — and perception seemed to be the accidental theme during last week’s 26th annual Ig Nobel Prize awards ceremony.

While one study asked research subjects to make observations while mooning the world, a market-research project called for people to ascribe human personalities to a variety of rocks, as an exercise in branding. And then there was the man who went to great lengths to become a goat — or at least replicate the experience of a ruminant four-legged animal with a stinky beard.

Two weeks before some of the best researchers in the world are honored with Nobel Prizes, an organization called Improbable Research tries to bring a smile to people’s faces by handing out prizes meant to “honor achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think.” The ceremonies were Thursday at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.

Two Japanese researchers, Atsuki Higashiyama and Kohei Adachi, received the Ig Nobel Prize in Perception for collecting data about between-legs viewing. In accepting the prize, Higashiyama demonstrated the head-down posture for the audience, then explained, “When the viewer is inverted, the objects appear smaller than in a normal upright position.”

Before he was done with his acceptance speech, three human “alarm clocks” began singing their alarm song and escorted the researcher away for exceeding his allotted one-minute time limit.

Thomas Thwaites takes to the stage in his goat apparatus to receive the Ig Nobel Prize in biology from Nobel laureate Eric Maskin. Photo: Michael Dwyer, Associated Press
Thomas Thwaites takes to the stage in his goat apparatus to receive the Ig Nobel Prize in biology.
Photo: Michael Dwyer, Associated Press

The concept of viewing things in unusual positions has been around for a century. The best explanation is that people are so accustomed to seeing things with their heads upright that the brain cannot provide a realistic picture when the head and eyes are upside down and backwards.

Here is a description of the findings from the actual research report, titled “Perceived size and perceived distance of targets viewed from between the legs: Evidence for proprioceptive theory”:

“In between-leg observation, since the retinal image is formed on a site that differs from the usual site of stimulation and the trunk is in a position that differs from its usual upright position, it is difficult for some observers to maintain the habit of seeing the world stably.”

The two researchers and their Ig Nobel Award were featured in The Japan Times.

The Ig Nobel Prize for Economics was awarded to Mark Avis, Sarah Forbes, and Shelagh Ferguson for assessing the perceived personalities of rocks. Here is the script the researchers read to their test subjects:

“We would like you to think of each rock as if it were a person. This may sound unusual, but think of the set of human characteristics associated with each rock. If you see a descriptor and you have no sense of how it applies to the rock, look at the rock picture again and think of it as if it were a person.”

The researchers were testing the theory that people perceive objects as having personalities and that these personalities can be categorized in five different ways — the “brand personality five-factor model,” or BPFFM. I should mention that these researchers seemed skeptical at the outset, and they eventually arrived at this conclusion:

“The fact that participants were able to assign distinct personalities to each rock can therefore only be reasonably explained as an artifact of the research methodology… Rocks were found to have a personality simply because participants were asked to perceive one, and the only explanation of this finding is that the BPFFM therefore ‘creates’ personality.” See “The brand personality of rocks: A critical evaluation of a brand personality scale” (subscription).

The goat man, Thomas Thwaites, has received the majority of media attention, most coming before the recent Ig Nobel Prize ceremony. I guess you can call it scientific research, but it appears to be mainly a stunt for his latest book, “Goat Man: How I took a holiday from being human.” Still, his endeavor, which involved prosthetic goat legs and other strange elements, was so impressive that he was awarded the Ig Nobel Prize in Biology.

“Human life can just be so difficult,” Thwaites told National Public Radio’s Scott Simon. “And you look at a goat and it’s just, you know, it’s free. It doesn’t have any concerns.”

He discussed his thoughts about eating grass:

“I made this kind of bag that I had strapped to my body, and I could take a mouthful of grass and then chew it up and then spit it into this bag. And this bag … was intended to be my artificial rumen with the goat bacteria in it. But I just really didn’t fancy getting diarrhea for the rest of my life so I ended up having to pressure (cook) what I spat into this bag and made a weird delicious, disgusting grass stew.”

Thwaites shared the prize in biology with another researcher, Charles Foster, who lived in the wild at various times as a badger, an otter, a deer, a fox and a bird.

The full Ig Nobel Prize ceremony can be viewed in this video. Here are the other prizes awarded this year:

Medicine Prize: In another study of perceptions, German researchers discovered that if you have an itch on the left side of your body, you can relieve it by looking into a mirror and scratching the right side of your body (and vice versa). See “Itch Relief by Mirror Scratching: A psychophysical study” by Christoph Helmchen, Carina Palzer, Thomas F. Münte, Silke Anders and Andreas Sprenger

Psychology Prize: An international group of researchers was honored for their study about lying. As described by the Ig Nobel Committee, the researchers asked a thousand liars how often they lie and then tried to decide whether to believe those answers. The research report, “From junior to senior Pinocchio: A cross-sectional lifespan investigation of deception,” found that “lying proficiency improved during childhood, excelled in young adulthood and worsened through adulthood. Likewise, lying frequency increased in childhood, peaked in adolescence, and decreased during adulthood.”

Peace Prize: The Ig Nobel Committee cited only the title of the scholarly study by Canadian researchers: “On the Reception and Detection of Pseudo-Profound Bulls–t.” In the study, human subjects were presented with statements consisting of randomly organized buzzwords that had syntactical structure but no discernible meaning. They found that “some people are more receptive to this type of bulls–t and that detecting it is not merely a matter of indiscriminate skepticism but rather a discernment of deceptive vagueness in otherwise impressive sounding claims.” Tania Lombrozo, a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, writes a commentary on the subject for NPR, “What Makes People Susceptible To Pseudo-Profound ‘Baloney’?”

Reproduction Prize: The late Ahmed Shafik was recognized for his research involving rats wearing pants. The professor at Cairo University in Egypt, who died in 2007, crafted little trousers out of polyester, cotton and wool and studied the rats’ sex lives. He found that rats that wore polyester were less likely to be successful in their quest for sexual companions. He suggested that the effect, which could apply to humans, was caused by an electrostatic charge that developed on polyester fabric.

Chemistry Prize: Volkswagen, the German car manufacturer, was acknowledged for solving the problem of excessive automobile pollution. (Did this company really need more attention?) The invention, which was actually deployed on real cars, was innovative software that caused vehicle emissions to automatically produce fewer emissions when cars were put through testing procedures.

Literature Prize: Fredrik Sjöberg of Sweden was honored for his three-volume autobiographical work about the pleasures of collecting flies that are dead, and flies that are not yet dead. NPR interviewed this man with a most impressive collection of hoverflies in an article titled “The Uppermost Aristocracy of the Hoverfly Society.”

Physics Prize: Separate research teams investigated why white-haired horses are more horsefly-proof and why dragonflies are fatally attracted to black tombstones. Both studies demonstrated the effects of polarized and nonpolarized light. Check out “An Unexpected Advantage of Whiteness in Horses: The Most Horsefly-Proof Horse Has a Depolarizing White Coat” along with “Ecological Traps for Dragonflies in a Cemetery…”

Second invasive green crab discovered in northern Puget Sound

A second European green crab has been found in Puget Sound, this one in Padilla Bay — about 30 miles southeast of where the first one was discovered about three weeks ago.

A second European green crab has been found in Puget Sound, this one in Padilla Bay. Photo: Padilla Bay Reserve
A second European green crab has been found in Puget Sound, this one in Padilla Bay.
Photo: Padilla Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve

Green crabs are an invasive species known to devour a variety of native species and alter habitats where they have become established. Keeping green crabs out of Puget Sound has been a goal of state officials for years.

After the first green crab was caught in a volunteer trapping program three weeks ago, experts mounted an intensive trapping effort to see if other green crabs were in the area around Westcott Bay in the San Juan Islands. (Water Ways, Sept. 3). No live crabs were found, but one cast-off shell (molt) was discovered nearby (Water Ways, Sept. 15).

The second green crab was found by Glen Alexander of the Padilla Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve while overturning rocks with a group of students.

The latest find is a young female crab, 34 millimeters across, which may have grown from a larva dispersed last winter.

“We were relieved to find very little evidence of a larger population of invasive European green crab in Westcott Bay,” Emily Grason of Washington Sea Grant said in a news release (PDF 371 kb). “But finding an additional crab at a site more than 30 miles away suggests that ongoing vigilance is critical across all Puget Sound shorelines. WSG’s Crab Team is committed to continuing the efforts of volunteer monitoring as resources allow, but we also rely on beachgoers to keep a watchful eye out for this invasive species.”

A second rapid-response effort will get underway Monday with more traps being deployed over a larger area than last time. The goal is to locate any crabs that may have made a home in the area and determine where the crabs might be gaining a foothold.

The advice for beachgoers remains the same:

  1. Learn how to how to identify green crab. Check out the Crab Team webpage at or Facebook and Twitter @WAGreenCrab.
  2. Take a photo and report sightings to the WSG Crab team at
  3. Shellfish collected in one location should never be released or “wet stored” in another location unless authorized by WDFW.
  4. Clean, drain and dry recreational gear or other materials after beach visits.

If you haven’t seen it, you may want to review a series I wrote on invasive species for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, including a story about green crabs and the volunteer monitoring program.

Humpback whales intervene in orca attacks against other species

Humpback whales have been making the news for their organized “rescues” — seemingly heroic efforts in which the humpbacks have intervened in attacks by killer whales against other marine mammals.

Humpback whales come to the rescue of a Steller sea lion near Victoria, B.C. Photo: Alethea Leddy, Port Angeles Whale Watch Co.
Humpback whales come to the rescue of a Steller sea lion near Victoria, B.C. // Photo: Alethea Leddy, Port Angeles Whale Watch Co.

The humpbacks have not only protected their own calves but they have gone well out of their way to protect gray whales, minke whales, Dall’s porpoises, Steller sea lions, California sea lions, Weddell seals, crabeater seals, harbor seals, northern elephant seals and even ocean sunfish, according to researchers.

The latest incident, in which humpbacks reportedly intervened in a killer whale attack on a Steller sea lion, is said to be the first reported incident in the Salish Sea. The incident took place last week off Sooke, BC, about 20 miles west of Victoria.

“What we witnessed was pure aggression,” Capt. Russ Nicks of BC Whale Watch Tours of Victoria said in a news release from Pacific Whale Watch Association. “We had four humpbacks trumpeting, rolling on their sides, flukes up in the air multiple times.

“The killer whales split many times into two groups, with one that appeared to try to draw the humpbacks away from the sea lion. The other group would go in for the attack while the humpbacks were safely away – but then they’d get in the middle of it again, fighting the orcas off. It was amazing to watch.”

These killer whales were of the transient variety, a subspecies of killer whales that eats marine mammals, as opposed to the resident orcas that each fish.

The same attack and rescue was viewed by naturalist Alethea Leddy of Port Angeles Whale Watch Company, as reported in the news release:

“We got there in time to see some crazy surface activity, with humpback whales splashing in the distance along with orcas. Then two humpbacks surfaced next to us trumpeting, and the next thing we know there were four humpbacks, possibly six, all defending the sea lion.

“The water boiled all around as the orcas tried to separate the sea lion from the humpbacks. It was a wild scene, with the humpbacks even circling the sea lion trying to keep him safe while he frantically struggled to get his breath.

“The anxiety of the humpbacks was palpable, and they took turns diving and slashing at the orcas. This life-and-death drama went on and on until the four transient orcas, known as the T100 family, moved off in the distance. As they did, we saw the sea lion appear next to the humpbacks being guarded and escorted in the opposite direction.

“This was an unbelievable encounter. Hats off to our courageous humpbacks and best wishes to our little Steller sea lion, survivor for another day!”

In July, 14 marine mammal experts reported on 115 apparent rescue efforts by humpback whales during what appeared to be killer whale attacks on other species of marine mammals. Their report appeared in the journal Marine Mammal Science.

Reasons for these rescue efforts are open to much speculation, but the researchers noted that evidence is mounting in favor of a belief that killer whales that eat marine mammals, called MEKW, attack young humpback whales more often than commonly reported.

“Clearly, MEKW predation, even if rarely observed and targeting mainly calves and subadults, represents a threat to humpbacks that is persistent, widespread, and perhaps increasing,” the report states. “As such, humpbacks could be expected to show some specific anti-predator behaviors, and indeed some have been suggested. Ford and Reeves (2008) summarized the defensive capabilities of baleen whales faced with killer whale attack, and they identified two general categories of response.

“Balaenopterid rorquals (including fin whales and minke whales) use their high speed and hydrodynamic body shape to outrun killer whales and were classified as flight species. The generally more rotund and slower-swimming species — right whales, bowhead whales, gray whales and humpback whales — apparently rely on their bulk and powerful, oversized appendages (tail and flippers) to ward off attackers. This group was categorized as fight species.”

Of course, it is one thing for the humpbacks and other baleen whales to take a defensive posture. It is quite another thing for them to go after killer whales when another species of marine mammal is under attack.

In the report, humpbacks initiated encounters with MEKWs 58 percent of the time, while the killer whales initiated contact 42 percent of the time — at least for those cases when the killer whale ecotype could be identified as marine mammals eaters. On a few occasions when known fish-eating killer whales were involved, the encounter was relatively benign, the researchers said.

The video, shot by BBC filmmakers, show a pair of humpback whales attempting to prevent a group of orcas from killing a gray whale calf. In this case, the effort was unsuccessful.

When humpbacks went to the rescue of other marine mammals, it appears that the rescuers were generally a mixture of males and females, according to the report. Humpback postures, whether attacking or defending, involved slapping their flukes on the surface, slashing from side to side, bellowing, persuing and flipper slapping. The length of battles reported ranged from 15 minutes to seven hours. In the end, the prey that was at the center of the battles was killed 83 percent of the time — at least for those cases when the outcome was known.

“The humpback whale is, to our knowledge, the only cetacean that deliberately approaches attacking MEKWs and can drive them off, although southern right whales may also group together to fend off MEKWs attacking other right whales,” the researchers stated, adding that humpbacks’ powerful flippers covered in sharp barnacles can shred the flesh of their opponents.

When in hunting mode, transient killer whales are generally silent, not making much noise. Once an attack begins, they become more vocal, perhaps to coordinate the attack. It appears that humpbacks respond to killer whale vocalizations from distances well out of sight of the attack.

The reasons the humpbacks would get in a fight with killer whales to save another species are listed in three categories:

  • Kin selection: Protecting an offspring or closely related animal.
  • Reciprocity: Protecting unrelated animals, generally as part of a social organization.
  • Altruism: Benefitting another animal at some cost to the one taking action.

It is possible, the researchers conclude, that humpbacks could be improving their individual and group fitness to fend off attacks against their own by protecting other species. One idea is that the killer whales may think twice about attacking a humpback of any age.

“We suggest,” they write, “that humpbacks providing benefits to other potential prey species, even if unintentional, could be a focus of future research into possible genetic or cultural drivers of interspecific altruism.”

No new green crabs have been found, but the search will go on

No European green crabs were caught this week during an intensive two-day trapping program designed to see if any of the invasive crabs have gained a foothold in the San Juan Islands.

These are the locations and number of traps placed on Monday in the northern San Juan Islands. Map: Washington Sea Grant
These are the locations and number of traps placed in the northern San Juan Islands on Monday. // Map: Washington Sea Grant

If you recall, a single adult green crab was trapped Aug. 31 by a team of volunteers in the San Juan Islands. It was the first green crab ever found in Puget Sound, but experts have been worried about the crab for years. (See Water Ways, Sept. 3.) The volunteers are involved in a citizen science monitoring program to locate green crabs when they first arrive in Puget Sound and before they become a breeding population.

The response by professional leaders of the Crab Team was to place 97 traps in and around the location where the first crab was found. The effort was started on Monday and repeated on Tuesday. The maps on this page show the locations and the number of traps place at site on the two days. Hundreds of native crabs were trapped and inspected, but no green crabs were found.

These are the locations and number of traps placed in the northern San Juan Islands on Tuesday. Map: Washington Sea Grant
These are the locations and number of traps placed in the northern San Juan Islands on Tuesday. // Map: Washington Sea Grant

Although no live crabs were found, one molt (cast-off shell) from a green crab was found by Jeff Adams, a marine ecologist for Washington Sea Grant who manages the Crab Team of volunteers. The molt was close to where the live crab was found. The experts have not determined if the molt came from the first crab or if there might be other crabs in the area.

The next step is still being planned. It could involve another intensive trapping effort, perhaps in the spring, as well as increasing the number of volunteer trapping sites in the San Juan Islands. The volunteer program takes a hiatus in the winter, when the crabs are less active, but it will resume in the spring.

The next green crab training program is scheduled for March, when new and former citizen science volunteers will be taught how to identify green crabs and conduct an effective trapping effort in up to 30 locations throughout Puget Sound. To learn more about the volunteer program, check the Washington Sea Grant webpage “Get Involved” or sign up for a free email newsletter called “Crab Team News” (click “Newsletters”).

Emily Grason, Crab Team coordinator for Washington Sea Grant, was involved in the two-day intensive trapping program. Emily blogs about the effort on the Crab Team website:

You may want to review my recent writing project on invasive species for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, including a story about green crabs and the volunteer monitoring program.

Sean McDonald of Washington Sea Grant heads out to check on crab traps on Henry Island, not far from where the first green crab was found in Puget Sound. Photo: Emily Grason, WSG
Sean McDonald of Washington Sea Grant heads out to check on crab traps on Henry Island, not far from where the first green crab was found in Puget Sound. // Photo: Emily Grason, WSG

A difference between chum and coho salmon may be in their blood

On the outside, chum and coho salmon don’t seem all that different from one another, not when you consider the variety of fish in Puget Sound — from herring to halibut along with dozens of other odd-looking creatures (EoPS).

But we know that if you place coho in stormwater taken from a heavily traveled roadway, the coho are likely to die within hours. But if you do the same thing with chum, these hardy fish will barely notice the difference.

In this photo taken two years ago, Jenifer McIntyre describes her discoveries about rain gardens at the Washington Stormwater Center in Puyallup. Photo: Meegan Reid, Kitsap Sun
In this photo taken two years ago, Jenifer McIntyre describes her discoveries about rain gardens at the Washington Stormwater Center in Puyallup.
Photo: Meegan M. Reid, Kitsap Sun

Researchers began to observe the varying effects of pollution on different species of salmon years ago. In 2006, I reported on studies by researcher Nat Scholz of the National Marine Fisheries Service, who discovered that coho would swim into Seattle’s heavily polluted creeks to spawn, but they wouldn’t get very far. Within hours, they would become disoriented, then keel over and die. (Kitsap Sun, June 10, 2006)

Later, Jenifer McIntyre, a researcher with Washington State University, collaborated with Scholz to refine the studies, exposing adult coho and later young coho to stormwater under controlled conditions. Much of that work was done at the Suquamish Tribe’s Grover’s Creek Hatchery in North Kitsap. The researchers also measured the physiological effects of pollution on zebrafish embryos during their early stages of development.

Working at the Washington Stormwater Center in Puyallup, Jen made a remarkable discovery that has dramatically changed people’s thinking about stormwater treatment. She found that if you run the most heavily polluted stormwater through a soil medium containing compost, the water will no longer have a noticeable effect on the sensitive coho. Rain gardens really do work.

Jen’s findings and related stormwater issues were described in a story I wrote two years ago for the Kitsap Sun, “Stormwater solutions key in fight for Puget Sound.” The story is part of a two-year project we called “Taking the Pulse of Puget Sound.”

Now, Jen, who recently joined the faculty of WSU, is beginning a new phase of her research, probing deeper into the physiological responses of coho salmon when exposed to polluted stormwater. She told me that the varying responses of coho and chum offer clues about where to look for problems.

“It is very interesting,” she said. “As biologists, we understand that there is variability among species. But we would expect, at least among salmon, that things would be pretty much the same.”

Researchers in Japan have discovered that different kinds of fish have different subunits in their hemoglobin, which are the proteins in red blood cells that carry oxygen to the vital organs. Since coho and other salmon may have different forms of hemoglobin, oxygen transport in the blood is a good place to start this investigation, she said.

From there, the issues of blood chemistry get a little technical, but the ability of red blood cells to carry oxygen can depend not only on the form of hemoglobin but also on the pH (acidity) of the blood, she said, and that can be altered by drugs and other chemicals.

Another thing that researchers may be seeing is “disseminated intravascular coagulation,” a condition that results from clotting in the lining of the capillaries. DIC can reduce or block blood flow where it is most needed and eventually cause organ damage. That’s an area for more research, Jen said, noting that these investigations are moving forward in collaboration with researchers at NMFS and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Meanwhile, Jen is working with chemists at the University of Washington’s Center for Urban Waters in Tacoma to figure out which substances — out of hundreds of chemicals found in stormwater — could be causing these deadly effects on fish.

If isolating the dangerous compounds proves too difficult, researchers might be able to start with the original toxic sources, perhaps exposing fish to chemicals found in tires, oil, antifreeze and so on, Jen said. For those effects, it might be good to begin the investigation with the well-studied zebrafish embryos, which are transparent and can be observed closely throughout their embryonic development.

Needless to say, this is a field of intense interest. If researchers can discover what is killing coho, they might begin to understand why the recovery of chinook salmon in Puget Sound has been so slow. Chinook, which could be added to Jen’s studies, are listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act and are the preferred prey of Puget Sound’s killer whales, which are listed as endangered.

Two recent articles discussed the relative hardiness of the chum compared to coho salmon:

Close call, but Hood Canal may escape a major fish kill this fall

With some luck, southern Hood Canal may avoid a major fish kill this year, as we observe extremely low oxygen levels beginning to dissipate.


It looks like the fish around Hoodsport dodged a bullet on Friday when south winds pushed the surface layer of oxygenated water to the north, bringing hypoxic waters up from below, according to data from the Ocean Remote Chemical Analyzer (ORCA) buoy near Hoodsport.

University of Washington researchers watching the conditions issued this alert on Friday: “Hypoxic waters have been observed intermittently at the surface at our Hoodsport mooring — in addition to the Twanoh mooring —consistent with the strong southerly winds and upwelling conditions we’ve been seeing over the past few days.”

Seth Book, who monitors the water conditions for the Skokomish Tribe, said he was on vacation last week and did not make his usual rounds to observe potential fish kills. But we have not heard of any reports of dead or dying marine life along the shores of Hood Canal.

The risk of a fish kill is still present, and another strong wind out of the south has the potential to bring more low-oxygen water to the surface. The layers of water and the timing appear similar to last year, when south winds brought deep-water fish — such as ratfish — to the surface, as Seth recorded in a video. See Water Ways, Sept. 1, 2015.


Each summer, sunny weather brings a growth of phytoplankton that eventually dies, sinks to the bottom and decays, a process that consumes oxygen. The result is extremely low levels of oxygen near the bottom of Hood Canal, a situation that continues until a surge of seawater in late summer or fall pushes in from the Pacific Ocean.

Because of its higher salinity, that seawater comes in along the bottom and pushes up the low-oxygen water, which gets sandwiched between the ocean water and the more oxygenated water near the surface. If the surface layer gets displaced suddenly by the wind, the fish have no place to go to get oxygen. That appeared to be the condition on Friday, but now the middle layer is growing thinner as it mixes with the layers above and below.

Conditions are improving, Seth confirmed, “but the negative side of me still says we have low D.O.” Crabs, shrimp and deep-water fish may be out of the woods for this year, thanks to higher levels of oxygen in the incoming seawater, but mid-level fish are still at risk until the water column equalizes to a greater extent.

In July, areas farther north in Hood Canal, such as Dabob Bay, experienced low-oxygen conditions, which drove a variety of fish to the surface, Seth told me. Of particular interest were thousands of Pacific herring trying to breathe by staying in the upper foot of water along the shore.

“We have dodged something so far this year,” Seth said. “I am hopeful because we are now into September and we can see this intrusion continuing.”


A single green crab invader has been found, the first in Puget Sound

A European green crab, one of the most dreaded invasive species in the world, has finally arrived in Puget Sound.

Caught in a crab trap on San Juan Island were these animals — including the first European green crab ever found in Puget Sound. Photo: Photo Craig Staude, courtesy of Washington Sea Grant
Caught in a crab trap on San Juan Island were these fish, along with the first European green crab ever found in Puget Sound.
Photo: Craig Staude, courtesy of Washington Sea Grant

A single adult green crab was caught in a trap deployed on San Juan Island by a team of volunteers involved in a regionwide effort to locate the invasive crabs before they become an established population.

Until now, green crabs have never been found in Puget Sound, although they have managed to establish breeding populations along the West Coast — including Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor in Washington and the western side of Vancouver Island in British Columbia.

Coincidentally, I recently completed a writing project on invasive species for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, including a story about green crabs and the volunteer monitoring program.

Here’s what I wrote: “Puget Sound has so far avoided an invasion of European green crabs — at least none have been found — but the threat could be just around the corner….

“Green crabs are but one of the invasive species threatening Washington state, but they are getting special attention because of fears they could seriously affect the economy and ecosystem of Puget Sound. Besides devouring young native crabs and shellfish, they compete for food with a variety of species, including fish and birds.”

Along the beach, careful observers can often find crab molts. The green crab, upper left, can be distinguished by the points on its carapace. Photo: Jeff Adams, Washington Sea Grant
Along the beach, careful observers may find weathered crab molts of all sizes. The green crab, upper left, can be distinguished by the five points on each side of the carapace. (Click to enlarge.)
Photo: Jeff Adams, Washington Sea Grant

In Canada, one breeding population has been identified in Sooke Inlet near the southernmost tip of Vancouver Island. That’s about 40 miles away from Westcott Bay, where Puget Sound’s first green crab was found on Tuesday.

It is likely that the crab traveled to San Juan Island in its early free-swimming larval form by drifting with the currents, said Jeff Adams, a marine ecologist for Washington Sea Grant who manages the Crab Team of volunteers. This crab likely settled down in suitable habitat and located enough food to grow into an adult. Based on the crab’s size, it probably arrived last year, Jeff told me.

European green crab Photo: Gregory C. Jensen, UW
European green crab // Photo: Gregory Jensen, UW

Finding a green crab in Puget Sound is alarming, Jeff said, but it is a good sign that the first crab was found by the volunteer monitors. That suggests that the trapping program is working. If this first crab turns out to be a single individual without a mate, then the threat would die out, at least for now.

The concern is that if one crab can survive in Puget Sound, then others may also be lurking around, increasing the chance of male-female pairing. The next step is to conduct a more extensive trapping effort in the area where the first green crab was found, then branch out to other suitable habitats in the San Juan Islands, Jeff said. The expanded effort is planned for the week of Sept. 11 and will include a search for molts — the shells left behind when crabs outgrow their exoskeletons and enter a new stage of growth.

Green crab
Green crab

Researchers and others who work with invasive species quickly recovered from their initial surprise at finding a green crab in Puget Sound, then got down to business in planning how to survey for crabs and manage their potential impacts.

Allen Pleus, coordinator of the Aquatic Invasive Species Program at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, told me several weeks ago that if green crabs show up in Puget Sound, one idea would be to conduct an extensive trapping program to eradicate or at least reduce their population. First, however, the extent of the infestation must be identified. I expect that more extensive trapping will be planned next spring and summer to look for offspring from any successful mating in the San Juan Islands.

This video shows a green crab found in Willapa Bay on the Washington Coast.

Typically, green crabs are found in marshy areas, which are habitats extensively used by our native hairy shore crab. But Jeff tells me that some populations of green crabs seem to be expanding their habitat into more exposed rocky areas.

With roughly 400 suitable sites for the crabs in Puget Sound, invasive species experts are calling for everyone who visits a beach to look for green crabs and their molts. One can learn to identify green crabs from the Washington Sea Grant website. The volunteer trapping program is funded by the Environmental Protection Agency with a grant to Fish and Wildlife.

A public discussion about green crabs and how people can help protect Puget Sound from an invasion is scheduled for Sept. 13 at Friday Harbor Laboratories on San Juan Island. See Crab Team Public Presentation.