Category Archives: Research

EPA’s ‘virtual hearing’ will address proposed water quality standards

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. See 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 legislative session.

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 by 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 more delays.

Pull, not push, propels jellyfish and lampreys, according to new study

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 previously supposed.”

The new findings were published this month in Nature Communications.

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 propulsion.”

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.

The 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 Dabiri

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

Climate report describes changes coming to the Puget Sound region

How climate change could alter life in the Puget Sound region is the focus of a new report from the University of Washington’s Climate Impacts Group.

A 1997 landslide on Bainbridge Island killed a family of four and resulted in five homes being condemned for safety reasons. Landslides can be expected to increase in the future because of changes in precipitation patterns. Kitsap Sun file photo
A 1997 landslide on Bainbridge Island killed a family of four and resulted in five homes being condemned. Landslides can be expected to increase in the future because of changes in precipitation patterns.
Kitsap Sun file photo

In concert with the report’s release, I’m writing three stories for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, all focusing on specific aspects of the report, beginning with landslide risks. See “Shifting ground: climate change may increase the risk of landslides” on the Puget Sound Institute’s blog.

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 forest fires.

The report, “State of the Knowledge: Climate Change in Puget Sound,” pulls together the best predictions from existing studies, while updating and expanding the range of topics last reported for Puget Sound in 2005.

“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 areas.

“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 said.

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 species.”

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 Washington.

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:

Olympic Mountains deliver huge rainstorm on cue for researchers

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 (GPM) system.

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.

When the Doppler-on-wheels radar system arrived at Lake Quinault, skies were clear and the ground was dry.
When the Doppler-on-wheels radar system arrived at Lake Quinault, skies were clear and the ground was dry. // Photo: UW Atmospheric Sciences

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 readings.

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 getting into?

Heavy rains arrived, raising the waters of Lake Quinault and nearly flooding the equipment.
Heavy rains arrived, raising the waters of Lake Quinault and nearly flooding the equipment on Friday. // Photo: UW Atmospheric Sciences

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 work.”

NASA’s “Precipitation Education” website explains how weather systems from the Pacific Ocean are experienced on land and how Olympex will sort things out:

“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 climate.”

If you’d like to learn more about Olympex, check out these sources:

Global Precipitation Measurement Core Observatory NASA graphic
Global Precipitation Measurement Core Observatory // NASA graphic

Puget Sound restoration: two steps forward, one back — or vice versa?

Measuring the progress of Puget Sound restoration is a very difficult thing to do.

Vital signs

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 sediments.

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 forward?

Gov and Leg

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).

Key findings, as reported in the news release:

  • 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 progress.
  • None of the indicators for species or food-web health are making progress.
  • 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.

Pulse logo

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 ecosystem health.

A pod of Southern Resident orcas travels south past Point No Point in North Kitsap early this afternoon. Typically, the three Southern Resident pods move into Central and South Puget Sound to hunt for chum salmon in October, but this year they have stayed away until now. Photo: Meegan Reid, Kitsap Sun
Southern Residents in Puget Sound
Photo: Meegan Reid, Kitsap Sun

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 responsibility.

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.

Jenifer McIntyre studies the effects of stormwater at the Washington State University Puyallup Research & Extension Center. Photo: Meegan Reid, Kitsap Sun
Jenifer McIntyre studies the effects of stormwater at the Washington State University Puyallup Research & Extension Center. // Photo: Meegan Reid, Kitsap Sun

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).

I’ve talked about these findings several times in the past, including an expanded story about stormwater in the “Pulse” series in July of last year. For stories written since the report was published, see Tristan Baurick’s piece in the Kitsap Sun or Sandi Doughton’s story in the Seattle Times or the news release by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

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.

Killer whales begin their annual excursion into Central Puget Sound

A pod of Southern Resident orcas travels south past Point No Point this afternoon. Typically, the three Southern Resident pods move into Central and South Puget Sound to hunt for chum salmon in October, but this year they have stayed away until now. Photo: Meegan Reid, Kitsap Sun
A pod of Southern Resident orcas travels south past Point No Point early this afternoon. // Photo: Meegan Reid, Kitsap Sun

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 Network.

“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 chum!”

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 else.

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.

The newest calf, J-53, with its mother, J-17 or Princess Angeline.
Photo: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research, NMFS Permit #15569

Amusing Monday: Tiny creature manipulates light waves to disappear

Now you see it; now you don’t.

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 disappear.

The process of discovering the mechanism was fully explained in the journal article. For a less technical discussion of these unusual copepods, read the blog post by Jennifer Frazer, a who writes “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.”

Again, I will turn to Jennifer Frazer for her interesting story about turning out her dive light in the depths of the ocean. The post is titled, “The starry night beneath the Caribeean Sea.”

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.

New publications provide fascinating info about local sea life

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.

The 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.

Fourhorn poacher Illustration: Joe Tomelleri
Fourhorn poacher // Illustration: Joe Tomelleri

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 more.

Spotted ratfish Illustration: Joe Tomelleri
Spotted ratfish // Illustration: Joe Tomelleri

I interviewed author Ted Pietsch of Seattle and illustrator Joe Tomelleri of Leawood, Kans., for a piece incorporated into the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

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.

Book cover

“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 me.

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 saltwater species.

Spot shrimp Photo: Greg Jensen
Spot shrimp // Photo: Greg Jensen

“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 wrote.

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 coast.

“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.”

Pacific rock crab Photo: Greg Jensen
Pacific rock crab // Photo: Greg Jensen

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.

The book can be purchased directly from Greg Jensen, from Amazon and from Reef Environmental Education Foundation.

Drones may address mystery of early deaths in killer whale calves

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 years.

“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 news release.

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.

Recent news coverage:

A quiz, based on the new ‘Puget Sound Fact Book’

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 Partnership.

Fact book

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 values.”

One can download a copy of the fact book from the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound webpage.

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 Sound?
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 Townsend
C. The southern edge Whidbey Island
D. The Tacoma Narrows

3. How deep is the deepest part of Puget Sound?
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 classification.
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?
A. 45
B. 102
C. 157
D. 172

7. Resident killer whales eat mainly chinook salmon. What do transient killer whales mainly eat?
A. Pink salmon
B. Marine mammals
C. Birds
D. Sharks

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
B. Jellyfish
C. Herring
D. Dogfish sharks

9. Rockfish are among the longest-lived fish in Puget Sound. How many species of rockfish can be found in Puget Sound?
A. 8
B. 18
C. 28
D. 38

10. Puget Sound’s giant Pacific octopus is the largest octopus in the world. The record size has been reported at what weight?
A. 200 pounds
B. 400 pounds
C. 500 pounds
D. 600 pounds

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.