Five years ago, I could not have predicted that Washington state
would end up in a serious conflict with the federal government over
water-quality standards to protect people’s health. But it has
happened, and there’s no clear resolution in sight.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency will hold a “virtual
hearing” on this issue in December. Read on for details, but let me
first provide some recent history.
In November 2010, I wrote about the Department of Ecology’s
newest undertaking, as the agency embarked on an effort to define
“how clean is clean” in protecting public health in state waters.
Water Ways Nov. 4, 2010, and also
Kitsap Sun Nov. 2, 2010.
It was obvious at the time that the state would need to increase
its existing fish-consumption rate of 6.5 grams per day — a key
factor in the formula used to calculate the allowable concentration
of toxic chemicals in the water. After much discussion and delay,
the state eventually proposed a rate of 175 grams per day — 27
times higher than the existing rate.
The controversy arrived when the state proposed a cancer risk
rate of one in 100,000 — a risk 10 times higher than the existing
rate of one in a million. The higher cancer risk rate would
somewhat offset the effect of the much higher fish-consumption
rate. Other factors were changed as well, as I described in the
second of a two-part series in the
Kitsap Sun, March 11, 2015.
When Gov. Jay Inslee announced the state’s newly proposed
standards, he also proposed new legislation to study and reduce the
sources of toxic chemicals of greatest concern. The Legislation
failed to gain enough support for passage during the past
The governor has since pulled back from the original proposal
and agreed to return to a cancer risk rate of one in a million. A
new proposal is expected to be announced after the first of the
year, Meanwhile, the EPA is moving forward with its own proposal,
probably more stringent than what we’ll see from the state. I
outlined the likely differences in
Water Ways on Oct. 8.
On Dec. 15 and 16, the EPA will hold what it’s calling a
“virtual hearing” on the proposed water-quality criteria that the
agency developed for Washington state. The web-based call-in format
is designed to save considerable money, according to Erica Slicy,
contact for the event. Given interest across the state, multiple
in-person hearings in numerous locations would be needed to
accomplish what two phone-in hearings can do, she said.
People will be able to watch the virtual hearing and/or testify
registering on EPA’s website. The event will be recorded and
transcribed so that people will be able to review the comments
later. Written comments will be taken until Dec. 28.
If the state comes up with proposed water-quality standards, as
expected, the EPA could put the federal proposal on hold while the
state’s proposal undergoes considerable scrutiny. Meanwhile, I’m
sure supporters of the more stringent standards — such as Indian
tribes and environmental groups — will continue to be frustrated by
Jellyfish suck, but that’s not what most people believe about
their method of locomotion.
It seems more likely that jellyfish thrust themselves through
the water by pushing the water behind them. But complex experiments
in fluid dynamics suggest that jellyfish, as well as eel-like
lampreys, actually pull themselves forward by creating a
low-pressure region ahead.
“It confounds all our assumptions,” John Dabiri, a Stanford
University engineering professor, said in a
news release. “But our experiments show that jellyfish and
lampreys actually suck water toward themselves to move forward
instead of pushing against the water behind them, as had been
Forces of thrust are commonly used to propel human vehicles
through the water. Boat propellers and water jets create high
pressure to move craft forward. Now, biometric engineers are
beginning to study new methods of propulsion.
“For nearly 100 years, it has been assumed that mimicking
natural swimming meant finding ways to generate high pressures to
push water backward for thrust,” Dabiri said. “Now we realize we’ve
had it backward, and so the search is on for ways to generate
low-pressure suction to achieve more efficient underwater
About three years ago, Dabiri began to realize lampreys
slithering along created low-pressure pockets of water where they
bent back and forth. Water rushing into the low-pressure areas move
the lamprey along.
In a jellyfish, the motion of the umbrella-shaped plume creates
a similar low-pressure region.
Stanford news release explains how mathematician Leonard Euler
in 1755 came up with an equation to describe fluid motion. To
provide the variables to solve Euler’s equation, the researchers
used a tank of water and millions of hollow glass beads to simulate
the movement of water molecules around lamprey and jellyfish. A
system involving lasers tracked and recorded the movement.
Solving thousands of simultaneous equations revealed
low-pressure pockets of water caused by the undulating motion.
Those pockets seemed to be the dominant factor in propulsion.
To support the findings, the researchers tested a group of
lampreys that had been altered so that only their tails flicked —
something like the feet of human swimmers. The altered lampreys
were far less efficient than the normal ones.
“The body undulations of the normal lampreys set them apart as
much better swimmers than you and me,” Dabiri said. “Human swimmers
generate high pressure instead of suction. That’s good enough to
get you across the pool, but requires much more energy than the
suction action of lampreys and jellyfish.”
The research suggests that some kind of flexible structure could
be used to create a future low-pressure propulsion system for
moving a boat or submarine through the water.
Co-authors of the new study include Dabiri, Brad Gemmell of the
University of South Florida, Sean Colin of Roger Williams
University and John Costello of Providence College. Dabiri is an
engineer. The others are biologists affiliated with the Marine
Biology Institute at Woods Hole, Mass.
The top video shows how the undulations of an eel-like
lamprey create low-pressure suction forces (blue) and high-pressure
pushing forces (red). Playback speed is about 1/60 of real time.
Pressure units in color bar are in Pascals. Credit: John
The second video shows how the movements of a moon jellyfish
create spinning vortices going clockwise (blue) and
counterclockwise (red). Playback speed is about 1/5 of real time.
Credit: Brad Gemmell
As the new report describes, increased flooding, more frequent
landslides and decreased salmon runs are likely, along with
declines in some native species and increases in others. We are
likely to see more successful invasions by nonnative species, while
summer drought could cause more insect damage to forests and more
“When you look at the projected changes, it’s dramatic,” said
lead author Guillaume Mauger in a
news release. “This report provides a single resource for
people to look at what’s coming and think about how to adapt.”
The report includes examples of communities taking actions to
prepare for climate change, such as merging flood-management
districts to prepare for increased flooding in King County and
designing infrastructure to contend with rising sea levels in other
“In the same way that the science is very different from the
last report in 2005, I think the capacity and willingness to work
on climate change is in a completely different place,” Mauger
Sheida Sahandy, executive director of the Puget Sound
Partnership, said the people of Puget Sound must be prepared for
changes that have already begun.
“To protect Puget Sound, we need to plan for the ever-increasing
impacts of climate change,” she said in a
news release. “This report helps us better understand the very
real pressures we will face over the coming decades. The effects of
climate change impact every part of what we consider necessary for
a healthy Puget Sound: clean water, abundant water quantity, human
wellbeing, and a Puget Sound habitat that can support our native
Work to compile the report was funded by the U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency via the Puget Sound Institute at UW Tacoma, the
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the state of
The report will become part of the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound,
where my climate-change stories will reside after publication over
the next three weeks. I’m currently working part-time for the Puget
Sound Institute, which publishes the encyclopedia and is affiliated
with the University of Washington — Tacoma.
For other news stories about the report, check out:
Atmospheric scientists with NASA and the University of
Washington chose a doozy of a week on the Olympic Peninsula to
launch their four-month effort to measure precipitation and
calibrate the super-sophisticated Global Precipitation Measurement
The heart of the GPM system is an advanced satellite called the
GPM Core Observatory, designed to measure rainfall and snowfall
from space. If the system can be perfected, meteorologists and
climatologists will have a fantastic tool for measuring
precipitation where no ground-based instruments are located.
To improve the satellite system, ground-based radar and other
equipment were moved to remote areas of the Olympic Peninsula to
take measurements (see video below). Meanwhile, aircraft flying
above, below and inside the clouds were taking their own
The program, called Olympex for Olympic Mountains Experiment, is
impressive. Researchers chose the west side of the Olympics because
that’s where storms arrive from the Pacific Ocean, laying down
between 100 and 180 inches of rainfall each year. Sure, these folks
were looking for rain, but did they really know what they were
On Friday, a Doppler-on-wheels radar system was nearly flooded
when between 4 and 14 inches of rain fell in various portions of
the Quinault Valley, raising Lake Quinault by about six inches per
hour over a period of several hours. For details, check out
science summary for the day, which describes some of the
measurements that were taken.
“We’re not just checking the satellite’s observations, the way
you might double-check a simple distance measurement,” said project
manager Lynn McMurdie in a
news release from the University of Washington.
“We’re checking the connection between what the satellite sees
from space, what’s happening in the middle of the storm system and
what reaches the ground, which is what most people ultimately want
to know,” McMurdle said. “So we’re not just improving the
satellite’s performance — we’re learning how storm systems
Education” website explains how weather systems from the
Pacific Ocean are experienced on land and how Olympex will sort
“Large weather systems arrive in the Pacific Northwest from the
ocean, and not all parts of the system are equal. The leading edge,
called the pre-frontal sector, tends to be warmer and have steady
rainfall. Next, the frontal sector marks the transition from the
warmer air to the colder air and processes that produce rainfall
are often most intense in this region. Finally the post-frontal
sector, characterized by colder temperatures, will often bring
showery rain and snow, and can produce large snowfall accumulations
at higher elevations.
“The (Olympex) field campaign will be looking inside these storm
clouds with ground radar and aircraft instruments to determine the
accuracy of the GPM satellite constellation in detecting the unique
precipitation characteristics in these different storm sectors.
“One of the aircraft will be flying through the clouds to make
detailed measurements of raindrops, ice particles, and snowflakes
as they are falling to Earth’s surface. Combined with data from the
ground radars and the total amounts caught by the rain gauges and
other instruments on the ground, scientists will be able to improve
the computer models of precipitating clouds – the same types of
computer models used to forecast the weather and project future
If you’d like to learn more about Olympex, check out these
Measuring the progress of Puget Sound restoration is a very
difficult thing to do.
Millions of dollars have been spent to restore streams,
wetlands, estuaries and shorelines. Millions more have been spent
to improve stormwater systems and to clean up contaminated
At the same time, billions of dollars have been spent by
commercial and residential developers in the Puget Sound region.
The results are ongoing changes to the landscape and unknown
alterations to ecosystems.
In the overall scheme of things, are we taking two steps forward
and one step back, or is it two steps back and one step
Puget Sound Partnership’s biennial “State of the Sound Report,”
released this week, attempts to tell us how things are going in the
effort to restore Puget Sound to a healthy condition. Progress is
being made in restoring habitat, according to a
news release about the report, but “measures for chinook
salmon, Southern Resident Killer Whales, herring and other native
species show a decline, and local improvements in water quality
still don’t add up to improvements at the regional scale.”
“These mixed results are the reality of working in a complex
ecosystem that is under tremendous pressures right now,” said
Sheida Sahandy, the partnership’s executive director. “It’s why we
need to make smart, timely investments in our partners’ hard work
to restore and protect habitat, prevent stormwater pollution and
reopen shellfish beds,”
Puget Sound Partnership has developed 37 ecosystem indicators
for tracking progress. They are organized under 21 categories
called the Puget Sound “vital signs.” If you want understand the
latest information, you must look to the new “Report on the
Puget Sound Vital Signs (PDF 9.9 mb).
Four indicators are meeting — or nearly meeting — regionally
identified targets, including those related to inventorying septic
systems, slowing forest loss, and two measurements showing
improvements in the quality of marine sediment.
All indicators for habitat restoration are making incremental
None of the indicators for species or food-web health are
While there has been local-level progress in some indicators,
the results do not add up to regional progress. For example, while
marine water quality is relatively good in some bays (making them
safe for harvesting shellfish and for swimming), other bays have
very poor water quality and are not meeting standards.
I believe these vital signs can help us understand the functions
of the Puget Sound ecosystem and give us an idea about the progress
in restoration. I even used them as a broad outline for my two-year
investigation into the health of Puget Sound and the species found
in the region. If you haven’t done so, I urge you to take a look at
the series, “Taking
the Pulse of Puget Sound.”
At the same time, these 37 indicators often fail to capture many
of the nuances of Puget Sound health, such as species distribution,
population dynamics and primary productivity — all aspects of
Southern Resident killer whales, for example, are now fewer than
when the ecosystem indicators were approved. That could be related
to the number of chinook salmon — the orca’s primary prey — which
also are in decline. But what are the problems facing the chinook?
Lack of spawning habitat? Increased predation by seals and other
marine mammals? Not enough forage fish, such as herring, surf smelt
and sand lance? In turn, what is limiting the growth of the forage
fish populations? The amount or right type of plankton to eat,
spawning habitat, predation, or something else?
It is often said that the ongoing development of Puget Sound is
damaging the ecosystem faster than it is being restored. But I have
not seen convincing evidence to show which way things are going.
The vital signs indicators are not adequate to answer this
question. Lagging indicators — especially population counts — don’t
tell the whole story. But one thing is certain: Without the
investment we have all made in Puget Sound restoration, conditions
would be far worse than they are today.
Over the past few years, the Puget Sound Partnership is getting
better at establishing priorities that will make the most
difference. But it is still mind-boggling to think of the number of
places that have been degraded over 150 years of development, all
needing work to bring things back to a functioning part of the
Puget Sound ecosystem.
Getting the priorities right and getting everyone working
together is an enormous challenge. Coordination must involve
federal, state, tribal and local governments, private businesses
and conservation groups. That was why the Legislature created the
Puget Sound Partnership and issued a special mandate. It seems to
me that the people leading the restoration effort understand their
It was nice to see a recognition of this coordination problem by
U.S. Reps. Derek Kilmer and Denny Heck, who introduced the Save Our
Sound Act, designed to coordinate federal actions with those of the
Puget Sound Partnership, which tries to involve all segments of
society. This SOS bill is now supported by all of Washington
state’s congressional delegation. Check out a
summary of the bill on Heck’s congressional website; read the
story by Tristan Baurick in the
Kitsap Sun; or review the op-ed
piece by Heck and Kilmer in The News Tribune.
The role of local governments in the restoration effort cannot
be over-stated. As restoration continues, damage from ongoing
development must be limited. Concepts of “no net loss” and
“best-management practices” are important — but the key is to
locate development where it will do the least ecosystem damage,
then use construction techniques that will cause the least
disruption of ecological functions.
Breakthroughs in scientific understanding and new solutions to
old problems can make a big difference. Jen McIntyre of Washington
State University finally published her findings about the effects
of stormwater on coho salmon. More importantly, she and her
colleagues revealed how to solve the problem by filtering the
stormwater through compost — or essentially the natural material
found on the forest floor. The study was published in the Journal
of Applied Ecology (PDF 338 kb).
Development regulations by local government have always been a
weak link in the effort to restore Puget Sound. I have been
discouraged by the lack of progress in some cities and counties. In
the face of uncertain science, it has been too easy for local
officials to do the minimum required by state government then turn
around and blame the state when local residents complain about the
higher costs of development.
On the other hand, I am encouraged that more and more local
officials are taking scientific studies to heart, learning how to
judge scientific uncertainty and taking actions to help save the
ecosystem. Stormwater regulations have been a bitter pill to
swallow for many local officials, but creative approaches, such as
I described in the
“Pulse” series could be one of the best things that local
government can do. Another major role of local government is to
protect and restore shorelines, about which I will have more to say
in the near future. (“Water
Ways, Aug. 15, 20115.)
Overall, when I see the beauty of Puget Sound and consider the
combined energy of thousands of people who really care about this
waterway, I can’t help but remain optimistic that the effort to
save Puget Sound is on the right track.
The Southern Resident killer whales appear to be making their
annual excursion into Central and South Puget Sound — up to a month
later than normal.
As I write this, a group of whales — believed to be J pod — is
heading south along the eastern shoreline of the Kitsap Peninsula.
The video was shot yesterday morning by Alisa Lemire Brooks.
So far, nobody seems to have a good idea why the whales are
late. Typically, they spend their summers in the San Juan Islands,
then begin checking out the rest of Puget Sound in September.
Presumably, they are looking for salmon to eat. We know their
preference is for chinook, but they will eat coho and chum if
that’s all they can find.
In the fall, chum salmon are abundant throughout much of Puget
Sound, and they often become the main food source for all three
pods of killer whales. J pod, however, is the one that spends the
most time in the Salish Sea (the inland waterway that includes
Puget Sound and the Strait of Georgia).
On a stormy Sunday night, the first day of November, all three
pods headed south past Port Townsend and into Puget Sound, as
reported by Orca
“All of October, we waited patiently as we followed the reports
of Js, Ks, and Ls following chum salmon runs far to the north when
typically they follow the chum into Puget Sound,” states Orca
Network’s sighting report from Sunday.
“We have been compiling these Sighting Reports since 2001, and
this was the first October to come and go without the Southern
Residents,” the report continues. “Come morning, many joyous people
will perch themselves atop favored viewpoints, on nearby bluffs,
and along the many shorelines in hopes of seeing the beloved J, K
and L pod members-including perhaps their first glimpse of any of
the new calves who might here. We do hope they find plenty of
On Monday, whale researchers — including Ken Balcomb of the
Center for Whale Research and Brad Hanson of the NOAA’s Northwest
Fisheries Science Center — met up with the whales heading north
from Seattle. Late in the afternoon, the orcas split up. K and L
pods continued north, and J pod headed south.
Brad told me that he was as surprised as anyone that the whales
did not venture south before November. “I’ve been scratching my
head over that one, too,” he said. “It was very strange.”
The whales did stay around the San Juan Islands longer this
year, he noted, which might mean they were getting enough chinook
to eat. Then they moved north into Canada, perhaps finding salmon
in other areas besides Puget Sound.
Yesterday, the first whale sightings came from Maury and Vashon
islands in South Puget Sound, where the whales — believed to be J
pod — turned around without heading up through Colvos Passage, as
they often do. By nightfall, they were between Kingston and
Edmonds, where Alisa Brooks shot the video on this page.
This morning, they were headed south again from Whidbey Island,
passing Point No Point. As I post this about 3 p.m., they are
somewhere around Kingston.
Howard Garrett of Orca Network saw the whales go past Whidbey
Island. “They were traveling fast with lots of porpoising,” he told
me, referring to the high-speed maneuver that shoots them along
above and below the surface.
We can expect the whales to stay around these waters as long as
December. But, as orca experts always tell me, if you expect killer
whales to do something, they are just as likely to do something
Here’s a population update, if you missed the recent news:
The orca baby boom continues with the birth of a sixth calf
since last December. The baby, designated J-53, was spotted off the
west side of San Juan Island on Oct. 17. The mother is J-17, a
38-year-old female named Princess Angeline. The calf has two
sisters, J-28 named Polaris, and J-35 named Tahlequah, and a
brother, J-44 named Moby. The newest whale in J pod also has a
6-year-old niece named Star (J-46), born to Polaris, and a
5-year-old nephew named Notch (J-47), born to Tahlequah.
While the birth of new orcas is encouraging, I also need to
mention that 50-year-old Ophelia (L-27) has been missing since
August and is presumed dead by most people. She outlived all four
of her offspring.
The total number of whales in the three pods now stands at 82:
28 in J pod, 19 in K pod and 35 in L pod. This count, maintained by
the Center for Whale Research, does not include Lolita, the orca
taken from Puget Sound and now living in Miami Seaquarium.
As you can see in the first video, a beautiful sea sapphire
flashes in brilliant hues of green, blue and purple before
disappearing before your eyes.
Sea sapphires are tiny copepods, and the color changes probably
relate to their process of attracting a mate. How these little
creatures change their colors was finally explained by a group of
researchers this past summer in the
Journal of the American Chemical Society.
The colors relate to an innate ability to adjust the spacing
between their tiny plates, adjusting the wavelength of light
reflected from the crystals underneath. When the reflected light is
shifted far enough into the ultraviolet, the little critters nearly
The process of discovering the mechanism was fully explained in
journal article. For a less technical discussion of these
unusual copepods, read the blog post by Jennifer Frazer, a who
“The Artful Amoeba” for the Scientific American website.
I like the narration on the first video, produced by the
American Chemical Society, but credit for the amazing pictures of
the sea sapphire goes to videographer Kaj Maney of Ambon,
Indonesia. Kaj did not reveal his video technique, but it must be
good. I looked everywhere for additional videos of sea sapphires,
but it was his
video that was copied again and again by others. For other
great videos of sea creatures, see his Liquid Guru website.
The second video relates to the amazing process called
bioluminescence, in which animals produce their own light with
biochemistry. The video was part of National Geographic’s 2013
program “Expedition Week: Hunt for the Giant Squid.”
My most impressive encounter with bioluminescence was in 1997,
when I went out at night on Dyes Inlet near Silverdale with killer
whale researcher Jodi Smith. As the whales swam near the boat, it
was easy to see the trail of glowing plankton they left behind. It
was an experience I’ll never forget.
Those interested in the creatures that inhabit our local
waterways may find themselves enthralled by two recent publications
— one describing the many species of fish found in the Salish Sea
and the other examining the lifestyles of crabs and shrimps living
along the Pacific Coast.
new fish report (PDF 9.2 mb), published by NOAA Fisheries,
documents 253 species found in the Salish Sea, including 37
additional species not listed in the previous comprehensive fish
catalog, now 35 years old.
What caught my immediate attention in the report were the
beautiful illustrations by Joe Tomelleri, who has spent the past 30
years capturing the fine features of fish from throughout the
world. Check out the ornate fins on the fourhorn poacher and the
muted colors of the spotted ratfish. I never realized that common
ratfish wwere so beautiful.
The new report offers a preview of a much-anticipated book by
Ted Pietsch, retired fish curator at the University of Washington’s
Burke Museum, and Jay Orr, a biologist at NOAA’s Alaska Fisheries
Science Center. The book, “Fishes of the Salish Sea,” will provide
extensive descriptions as well as illustrations of all known
species — including some early discoveries that came to light after
publication of the new NOAA report. The book could be 600 pages or
I interviewed author Ted Pietsch of Seattle and illustrator Joe
Tomelleri of Leawood, Kans., for a piece incorporated into the
The other book, “Crabs and
Shrimps of the Pacific Coast” by Greg Jensen of Bremerton,
pulls together information about 300 of these various crustaceans.
The book, which has been on my review list for more than year, has
won acclaim from experts in the field as well as casual observers
of nature. The book comes with an associated computer disc of the
book’s text, which allows one to link to other articles and
reports. One can also load much of the book onto a smart phone,
which can be taken to the shoreline and used as a field guide.
“My goal was to make a book that would appeal to someone who
just wants to learn about this stuff and would also be valuable to
someone, like myself, who is a specialist in the field,” Greg told
I enjoy Greg’s light writing style, as he tells little stories
in sidebars, shares brief biographies of key scientists and clears
up myths and confusion. One sidebar, for example, tells us that the
lines between shrimp and prawns have become blurred.
In Great Britain, he said, Crangonids, “with their stout,
somewhat flattened form, were called ‘shrimp,’ while palaemonids
were known as prawns.” In other places, prawns are considered
larger than shrimp. Sometimes prawns refer to freshwater versus
“Bottom line: There is no formal definition separating the two.
Like the Queen’s English, once they left home for America and
Australia, they became bastardized beyond recognition,” he
Greg, a scuba diver, shot about 90 percent of the pictures shown
in the 240-page book. If nothing else, he told me, the book
provided an excuse for him to dive in waters all along the
“It was like a big scavenger hunt,” he said. “You look through
the literature and you have this list (of crabs and shrimps). You
dig up anything and everything about where to find them.”
Like Ted Pietsch has done for fish, Greg has gone back to the
original references about crabs and shrimp, taking pains to correct
mistakes passed down through scientific literature. It has taken
years to track down the many references to ensure accuracy and give
credit to the right people, he said.
Greg, who grew up in Bremerton, was in grade school when a field
trip took him to Agate Passage on a low tide, where he became
intrigued by crabs. He soon started an extensive collection of
dried crab shells. Looking back, Greg credits marine biology
instructors Ted Berney at East High School and Don Seavy at Olympic
College for helping him pursue his interests, eventually launching
his career at the University of Washington.
Today, Greg still lives in Bremerton, researching, writing and
teaching at the UW School of Aquatic and Fishery Science.
Being able to measure a killer whale’s girth and observe its
overall condition without disturbing the animal is an important
advancement in orca research.
By running a small hexacopter, also known as a drone, at a safe
level over all 81 Southern Resident killer whales last month,
researchers came to the conclusion that most of the orcas were in a
healthy condition. Seven whales were picked out for further
observation, including a few suspected of being pregnant.
I was especially intrigued by the idea that researchers could
track the progress of a pregnancy. It has been long suspected that
the first calf born to a young female orca often dies. A possible
reason is that the calf receives a dangerous load of toxic
chemicals from its mother. With this “offloading” of toxic
chemicals from mother to first calf, later offspring receive lesser
amounts of the chemicals.
Miscarriages and even births often go unnoticed, especially in
the winter when the whales travel in the ocean far from human
observation. If the young ones do not survive until their pod
returns to Puget Sound, we may never know that a young whale was
lost. Now, this remotely operated hexacopter may provide before and
after pictures of a pregnant female, offering evidence when
something goes wrong with a calf.
Images of the whales can be combined with skin biopsies and
fecal samples collected by boat to provide a larger picture of the
health of individual whales and the overall population.
Images of the whales collected this fall can be compared to
those collected by conventional helicopter in 2008 and 2013 to
assess any changes in the animals. Because of the noise and prop
wash of a conventional helicopter, pilots must stay at a higher
elevation to keep from disturbing the whales. There seems to be
general agreement that drones are the way to go.
John Durban of NOAA Fisheries, who piloted the drone on 115
flights over the Southern Residents, said he was encouraged that
their overall condition appeared better than in the past few
“Most individuals appear to be fairly robust this year, which is
good news, but it’s also very important baseline information to
have if the next few years turn out to be difficult for salmon and
their predators,” Durban said in a
Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research has a somewhat
different take on this new tool. The high rate of miscarriages and
neonate deaths have long been known, Ken told me in an email. It is
the only way that they are able to control their population within
the carrying capacity of their food supply.
“I am more excited about five whales being born and surviving
since last December than I am about an unproven morphometric
surmise that additional whales are in some stage of a
seventeen-month pregnancy,” he said. “It is not wise to ‘count your
chickens before they hatch,’ as the saying goes.”
The goal should be to recover the population, Ken said. When it
comes to recovering salmon and killer whales, resource management
has been a dismal failure. His suggestion: Remove the Snake River
dams and allow the salmon numbers to rebuild naturally while fixing
Canada’s Fraser River.
“With climate change well underway,” Ken wrote, “we cannot
fritter away golden opportunities to restore viability in what
little is left of a natural world in the Pacific Northwest while
counting unborn whales.”
Other aspects of this new effort involving the hexacopter were
well covered by news reporters this week. Check out the list below.
The new video with John Durban and NOAA’s science writer Rich Press
can be seen above. Last month, I provided other information and
links about the new tool. See
Water Ways Sept. 9.
A new publication called “Puget Sound Fact Book” has been
released online by the
Puget Sound Institute, an affiliation of the University of
Washington, Environmental Protection Agency and Puget Sound
Like its name suggests, the fact book contains detailed
information about Puget Sound — from the geology that created the
waterway to creatures that roam through the region, including
humans. The fact book has been incorporated into the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.
Working for the Puget Sound Institute, I became part of a team
of about 25 researchers and writers who compiled the facts and
produced essays about various aspects of Puget Sound. I wrote an
introductory piece titled “Overview: Puget Sound as an Estuary” and
a conclusion called “A healthy ecosystem supports human
One can download
a copy of the fact book from the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound
Just for fun, I thought I would offer a multiple-choice quiz
from the book. Answers and scoring are at the bottom.
1. Chesapeake Bay on the East Coast covers about four
times the area of Puget Sound. The total volume of water in
Chesapeake Bay is roughly how much compared to Puget
A. Twice the volume of Puget Sound
B. Equal to the volume of Puget Sound
C. Half the volume of Puget Sound
D. One-fourth the volume of Puget Sound
2. Puget Sound was named by Capt. George Vancouver,
honoring one of his officers, Lt. Peter Puget. Where was the
northernmost boundary of the original Puget Sound?
A. The Canadian border
B. The northern edge of Admiralty Inlet near present-day Port
C. The southern edge Whidbey Island
D. The Tacoma Narrows
3. How deep is the deepest part of Puget
A. 86 meters = 282 feet
B. 186 meters = 610 feet
C. 286 meters = 938 feet
D. 386 meters – 1,266 feet
4. Washington State Department of Health has classified
190,000 acres of tidelands in Puget Sound as shellfish growing
areas. How much of that area is classified as “prohibited,” meaning
shellfish can never be harvested there without a change in
A. 36,000 acres
B. 52,000 acres
C. 84,000 acres
D. 110,0000 acres
5. In the late 1800s, experts estimate that Puget Sound
contained 166 square kilometers (64 square miles) of mud flats.
Development has reduced that total to how much today?
A. 79 square kilometers = 30 square miles
B. 95 square kilometers = 36 square miles
C. 126 square kilometers = 49 square miles
D. 151 square kilometers – 58 square miles
6. How many bird species depend on the Salish Sea,
according to a 2011 study?
7. Resident killer whales eat mainly chinook salmon.
What do transient killer whales mainly eat?
A. Pink salmon
B. Marine mammals
8. Most fish populations in Puget Sound have been on the
decline over the past 40 years. What type of marine creature has
increased its numbers 9 times since 1975?
A. Rock crabs
D. Dogfish sharks
9. Rockfish are among the longest-lived fish in Puget
Sound. How many species of rockfish can be found in Puget
10. Puget Sound’s giant Pacific octopus is the largest
octopus in the world. The record size has been reported at what
A. 200 pounds
B. 400 pounds
C. 500 pounds
D. 600 pounds
– ANSWERS 1. C. Chesapeake Bay contains about half the
volume of Puget Sound, some 18 cubic miles compared to 40 cubic
miles. 2. D. Tacoma Narrows. 3. C. The deepest spot in Puget Sound — offshore
of Point Jefferson near Kingston — is 286 m, although one spot in
the larger Salish Sea (Strait of Georgia) reaches a depth of 650 m.
or 2,132 feet. 4. A. 36,000 acres are prohibited shellfish
beds 5. C. Total mudflats today total 126 square
kilometers 6. D. 172 bird species 7. B. Transients eat marine mammals. 8. B. Jellyfish 9. C. 28 10. D. 600 pounds is said to be the record,
although more typical weights are 50 to 100 pounds.
Most of these questions are pretty tough. If you got five right, I
would say you know Puget Sound pretty well. Six or seven right
suggests you have special knowledge about the waterway. More than
seven correct answers means you could have helped compile the facts
for this new book.