Category Archives: Research

With killer whales, expect the unexpected

I hope you have time for one more blog post about killer whales this week. I am reminded again that, while we strive to understand animal behavior, we must not judge them in human terms.

A 6-year-old killer whale from L pod, known as L-73, chases a Dall’s porpoise in this historical photo taken in 1992. Photo: Debbie Dorand, Center for Whale Research
A 6-year-old killer whale from L pod, L-73, chases a Dall’s porpoise in this historical photo taken in 1992.
Photo: Debbie Dorand, Center for Whale Research

I just returned home from the three-day Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference in Vancouver, B.C., where orca researcher Deborah Giles of the Center for Whale Research reported on some seemingly odd behavior among our Southern Resident killer whales.

The bottom line is that fish-eating orcas are occasionally attacking and sometimes killing marine mammals, specifically harbor porpoises and Dall’s porpoises. Apparently, they are not eating them.

It will take more study to learn why this is happening, and Giles is eagerly seeking new observations. One possible reason is that young killer whales are practicing their hunting skills on young porpoises. Please read my story in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

I also wrote a story on the opening remarks by keynote speaker Dr. Roberta Bondar, a Canadian astronaut, neurologist and inspired observer of nature and human behavior.

A team of reporters from Puget Sound Institute were assigned to cover the Salish Sea conference, with the goal of writing at least 10 stories about research that was revealed during more than 450 presentations. I’m working on stories that will combine observations from multiple researchers into common themes. These stories will be released over the coming days and weeks. You may wish to sign up for notifications via the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

Dead orca could reignite controversy over satellite tracking program

A federal program that uses satellite transmitters to track killer whale movements has been suspended after pieces of a metal dart associated with a transmitter were found embedded in the fin of an orca discovered dead two weeks ago in British Columbia.

L-95, named Nigel, was found dead March 31. File photo: Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Canada
L-95, named Nigel, was found dead March 31.
File photo: Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Canada

The whale, L-95, a 20-year-old male named “Nigel,” was found dead floating near Nootka Island along the west coast of Vancouver Island. He was the same whale who was tracked for three days off the Washington Coast by researchers with NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center after they attached a satellite transmitter on Feb. 23.

The attachment, which involves the use of a dart with sharp metal prongs, was routine in every way and has not been directly implicated in the death of the animal, according to a statement from NOAA officials.

Still, finding pieces of metal still embedded in the dorsal fin of the whale has already sparked a reaction from opponents of the darting procedure, including Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island. I expect further expressions of sadness and anger from others over the coming days.

“In my opinion, the tag attachment methodology was overly barbaric and defective from the get-go, and the entire tagging program should be rethought and evaluated for efficacy,” Ken said in a prepared statement.

“The NOAA/NMFS tagging program is certainly injuring and disfiguring these endangered icons of the Pacific Northwest, and it is my subjective opinion that it is adversely altering their behavior toward benign vessel interactions to approach them for photo-identification,” he said.

Ken noted that the cause of L-95’s death has not been determined, so the relationship to tagging could be coincidental, but two transient killer whales also went missing after tags were attached. Those deaths could be coincidental as well, he added, but other tagged whales are still carrying around pieces of embedded darts.

The 20-year-old male orca was found dead and in an advanced state of decay on March 30 by researchers from Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans. A necropsy revealed “fair to moderate body condition” and no clear sign of death. See the DFO news release for a few other details.

Although there was no sign of infection where the satellite tag pierced the dorsal fin, “veterinarians are investigating whether the tag attachment penetration sites may have provided a pathway for infection,” according to the NOAA statement. “Additional tests are underway to determine presence of disease agents such as viruses or bacteria that will provide further details as to the cause of death.”

When the satellite transmitter was first attached, the researchers “noted the outline of the ribs were slightly visible on several members of L pod, including L95, but observed nothing suggesting a change in health status.”

The satellite tracked L-95 for three days and then stopped. Researchers assumed the transmitter had fallen off, but they were not able to meet up with the whales before the research trip ended.

Expressing extreme sadness, agency officials say they are concerned that parts of the dart were found imbedded in the fin.

“These tag attachments are designed to fully detach and leave nothing behind,” says the NOAA statement. “Of 533 deployments, only 1 percent are known to have left part of the dart in the animal upon detachment, although several of these have been in killer whales.

“The team has halted tagging activities until a full reassessment of the tag design and deployment is completed to reduce risk of this happening again.”

Ken Balcomb recalled that he had complained about the tagging program several years ago as officials were debating whether the endangered Southern Resident population should become involved. Ken says he was assured that previous problems had been fixed and that he should simply document any problems he sees.

I remember the controversy well, as NOAA researchers were convinced that the data gathered would be worth what they considered an insignificant amount of risk. Check out “Orca tagging raises questions about research” from Dec. 8, 2010, and “Orca researchers divided over use of satellite tags” from Dec. 28, 2010.

“Clearly with L95 still retaining tag hardware in his wound site, the hardware attachment issues have not been fixed,” Ken says in his latest statement. “I suggest evaluating the cost efficiency and data already gathered from sighting reports, photo-ID, and tagging to determine whether any additional studies of SRKW distribution are justified.”

The tracking studies have been used the past few years to document not just the areas where the killer whales travel but also areas where they linger and forage for food.

NOAA’s explanation of the tagging program, its benefits and potential changes to the “critical habitat” protections for the killer whales are outlined in a question-and-answer format, including specifics about the death of Nigel, L-95.

Meanwhile, a young female orca, estimated to be two weeks old, has been identified as a Southern Resident by DFO scientists. Cause of death was not determined, but it was likely that the animal died from birth complications, officials said. The calf was found March 23 near Sooke, B.C.

Analysis of blood and tissue samples are expected in three to four weeks for both the calf and L-95, according to the DFO statement.

A tribute to Ken Balcomb and his 40 years of research on killer whales

An open letter from me to Ken Balcomb, director of the Center for Whale Research, on the 40th anniversary of the research organization:

Ken,

Congratulations on 40 years of superb research regarding the killer whales of the Salish Sea and their relationships to all living things. Your unprecedented work has helped us all understand the behavior of these orcas and how quickly their population can decline — and sometimes grow. I admire your steadfast efforts to find answers to the mysteries of these whales and to push for efforts to protect them.

On a personal note, your willingness to take time to explain your findings to me as a news reporter will always be appreciated. The same goes for Dave Ellifrit and all your associates through the years.

I was fascinated with the blog entry posted on Friday, which showed the log book you began compiling during your encounters with killer whales on April 8, 1976 — the very first time you described these animals after forming the organization. The distant words on the page demonstrate how much you — and the rest of us — have learned, and it demonstrates that good research is a matter of step-by-step observations. I hope everyone gets the chance to read these pages, and I look forward to the next installment in the blog.

Thank you for your dedication, and I look forward to many more years of reports from you and your associates at the Center for Whale Research.

With highest regards, Chris.

Balcomb

The Orca Survey Project began on April 1, 1976, under a contract with the National Marine Fisheries Service to conduct a six-month survey to figure out how many killer whales lived in Puget Sound. Ken was able to use an identification technique developed by Canadian biologist Mike Bigg. By identifying individual orcas, researchers came to understand each of their families, their lives and even their unique behaviors — which I would call “personalities” for want of a better term.

Speaking of personality, if I’m not reading too much between the lines, I see Ken’s scientific perspective mixed with his fondness for the animals in the first log entry about mooring the boat and staying the night in Port Townsend:

“In the evening, we went for a hike into town for dinner and a few beers with the local folks at the Town Tavern. We spread the word and handout of the ‘study’ to all who would receive them. Most folks were takers, but a few were concerned as to which side we were on. People imagine sides of the killer whale controversy — mostly leave them alone, or catch them to show to the folks from Missouri. Our description of a killer whale study by photo technique seemed to sit well with all ‘sides,’ though there were a few skeptics, I’m sure.”

I actually looked over many of these pages from Ken’s log a number of years ago, but for some reason they take on new meaning now as we look back over 40 years of research and realize how far we’ve come in understanding these killer whales — not forgetting how much more we have to learn.

The following log book entry appears to be a description of the first direct encounter Ken experienced from a boat at the beginning of his study on April 8, 1976, as he came upon K and L pods off Dungeness Spit near Sequim.

“We cruised toward the large group of whales, first at 2300 RPM and then reducing to about 2000 RPM as we approached to within ½ mile of the whales. It was very apparent that the whales were initially concerned with avoiding us. They dove and came up several minutes later a good long distance astern of us, toward Port Angeles. We turned and proceeded toward the large group again and, at a distance of about 400 yards, they porpoised briefly and dove again for several minutes.

“Both we and the whales did not behave calmly for the first hour of the encounter. Rain was spoiling our opportunities for photographs, getting our cameras all wet and dampening our spirits. Even at slow speed and with patience, we did not closely approach the group of 25 whales, so we started toward a smaller group a little farther offshore.

“By 10:05, things seemed to have calmed down considerably. By maintaining 1050 RPM and taking slow approaches, we were tolerated by one male in company with a female and a calf about 11 ½ feet. The main group of 25 whales calmed down immediately and resumed a leisurely dive interval of about one minute to one min. 50 seconds down, still proceeding westerly.”

Remember that this was only months after the final capture of killer whales in Puget Sound. (See account from Erich Hoyt for PBS Frontline.) What were the intentions of this boat approaching them? In time, these whales came to realize that Ken and his crew would do them no harm.

If only they could know how much human attitudes around the world have changed over the past 40+ years.

Puget Sound restoration depends on shorelines

The Encyclopedia of Puget Sound has published the final two parts of a seven-part series on shorelines, bulkheads and nearshore ecosystems.

As we researched the series, I was able to interact with a lot of interesting people — from coastal geologists to property owners. Today’s experts in shoreline ecology credit the late Wolf Bauer with many of the ideas that have become commonplace in shoreline restoration. I was pleased when Washington Sea Grant produced a video tribute to Wolf, who died in January at 103 years old.

One story I wrote, which was published today, involved a boat ride along the eastern shoreline of North Kitsap, which was the perfect setting for describing the geology and natural forces that shape the shoreline. I must thank Hugh Shipman of the Washington Department of Ecology and Paul Dorn of the Suquamish Tribe for their expertise. Check out “Sources of Sand.”

On an earlier boat ride, I joined up with a group of shoreline property owners who were learning about nearshore ecology and the benefits of bulkhead removal. The boat trip, sponsored by the Shore Friendly Kitsap program, is part of a pilot project to introduce the idea of removing bulkheads.

The tour departed from Brownsville and went up through Liberty Bay near Poulsbo, where we observed a mixed assortment of houses and associated shoreline structures. Some of these waterfront homes were protected with massive rock bulkheads; some featured stubby wooden walls; and some were surrounded by vegetation with no bulkhead at all.

“Taking this boat ride lets you see what the natural shoreline should look like,” said Lee Derror, a Tracyton resident who has been contemplating whether to remove her bulkhead, built of creosote timbers.

Cost of removal is a major obstacle for many property owners — unless their bulkhead is already failing. The other major concern is whether alternative “soft shore” protection will be enough to protect their shoreline from excessive erosion.

Leaving Liberty Bay, the boat headed to Port Madison on Bainbridge Island to examine the Powel family property, where a bulkhead was removed in 2013. The 1,500-foot bulkhead removal is believed to be the largest private removal so far in Puget Sound. (See Kitsap Sun, Aug. 29, 2013, or the Shore Friendly webpage.)

Jim Brennan, a consulting marine biologist, told the passengers that accommodations were made to protect a historic boathouse on the Powel property by placing large rocks around the foundation. Also, the beach was sloped back to absorb incoming waves. Other than that, the shoreline is expected to eventually look much the way it did in the 1800s, with a reconnected salt marsh providing food and protection for migrating salmon.

Lee Derror told me that property owners should take a look at their shoreline from the water side, especially if they plan to remove their bulkhead. The Kitsap tour was especially helpful, she said, “because you get to rub elbows with the experts.”

Kitsap’s Shore Friendly pilot project — one of five projects in the Puget Sound region — will help property owners determine if bulkhead removal is right for them. It includes with a visit from a volunteer, followed up by an assessment from an independent geotechnical engineer. The last time I checked, county officials were hoping to offer additional boat rides in the future.

Pilot projects operating in other counties have taken somewhat different approaches, as I described last week in the story “Shoreline Restoration Turns to Private Property Owners.” The second video is from efforts on San Juan Island.

The state’s Shore Friendly website includes web links for people to connect with outreach efforts in their own counties. Go to “Resources in Your Area.”

Below are the seven shoreline stories written by science writer Eric Scigliano and myself for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound and the online magazine “Salish Sea Currents.” These are published by the Puget Sound Institute, which is associated with the University of Washington. Funding came from the Environmental Protection Agency.

SeaWorld pulled into long-running battle against Japanese whaling

UPDATE: April 4, 2016

Capt. Paul Watson, founder of Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, has condemned the Humane Society of the U.S. for forming an alliance with SeaWorld, saying SeaWorld CEO Joel Manby “has found his Judas,” and HSUS CEO Wayne Pacelle “single-handedly put the brakes on the movement inspired by Blackfish.” Read the full commentary on Sea Shepherd’s website.
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SeaWorld and the Humane Society of the U.S. are urging President Obama to take a stronger stand against whaling by the Japanese harpoon fleet, which recently returned to Japan with 333 dead minke whales, all killed in the Antarctic.

Three dead minke whales were hauled up on the deck of the Japanese whale-processing ship MV Nisshin Maru in 2014. Photo: Tim Watters, Sea Shepherd Australia
Three dead minke whales were hauled up on the deck of the Japanese whale-processing ship MV Nisshin Maru in 2014 in the Antarctic.
Photo: Tim Watters, Sea Shepherd Australia

“The United States is well-positioned to lead a comprehensive effort to persuade Japan to abandon commercial whaling as an anachronism that is imprudent, unnecessary for food security, cruel and economically unsound,” states the letter to Obama (PDF 464 kb), signed by Joel Manby, president and CEO of SeaWorld, and Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of HSUS.

Combining forces to oppose commercial hunting of marine mammals throughout the world is one element of a negotiated agreement between SeaWorld and HSUS. Of course, the most notable parts of that agreement specified that SeaWorld would discontinue its breeding program for killer whales and halt all theatrical performances. See Water Ways, March 17.

This year’s whale hunt in the Antarctic was endorsed by the Japanese government, which considers dead whales to be lethal samples of tissue collected during an annual “research” trip, which ultimately puts whale meat on the commercial market.

The International Court of Justice ruled in 2014 that the whale hunt, as carried out at that time, failed to meet scientific standards. As a result, the Japanese government took a year off from whaling, altered its plan and continued the whale hunt at the end of last year going into this year. This time, Japanese officials declared that they would no longer be subject to international law on this issue, so a new lawsuit would be meaningless.

Meanwhile, an expert panel of the International Whaling Commission took a look at the new “research” plan and concluded that Japan still had not shown how killing whales conforms to the requirements of research, given options for nonlethal research. See “Report of the Expert Panel …”

Last week’s report by the Japanese Institute of Cetacean Research said the whalers were able to obtain all 333 minke whales proposed in the plan. It was the first time in seven years that the full sampling was completed, because Sea Shepherd Conservation Society was not there to interfere, according to the report on the New Scientific Whale Research Program in the Antarctic Ocean.

Of the 333 whales, males numbered 103 and females 230. Of the females, 76 percent were sexually mature, and 90 percent of the mature females were pregnant, suggesting a healthy population of minke whales, according to the report.

The letter from Manby and Pacelle acknowledged that the U.S. government had joined with 30 nations in December to write a letter voicing concerns about Japan’s decision to resume whaling. But the Manby-Pacelle letter also complains that the U.S. has given up its leadership role on the issue, ceding to New Zealand and Australia for the legal battles.

“In the United Kingdom, in Latin America, and elsewhere, whale welfare is high on the diplomatic agenda with Japan and other whaling nations,” the letter states. “We believe that it is time for the United States to re-assert itself as a champion for whales, and to take a stronger hand in pressing Japan to relinquish commercial whaling.”

Among the steps that should be considered, according to the letter:

  • The U.S. delegation to the International Whaling Commission should be empowered to threaten Japan with sanctions, though details were not specified in the letter.
  • The U.S. government should include provisions against whaling in international trade agreements.
  • Japan’s potential assets should be surveyed as a prelude to invoking the Pelly Amendment to the Fisherman’s Protective Act of 1967. The amendment allows a ban on imports of fishing products from a country that violates international fishery conservation rules — including those of the IWC.

For readers interested in the SeaWorld issue, I should note that Pacelle still vigorously defends his alliance with SeaWorld. In a blog post announcing the anti-whaling letter, he adds further explanations for his position.

Meanwhile, the successful Japanese whale hunt has motivated environmental groups throughout the world to call on their national governments to confront Japan directly, at least in diplomatic circles.

Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which has confronted the Japanese whaling ships on the high seas in years past, is rethinking its plans for the future, according to Capt. Peter Hammarstedt, chairman of Sea Shepherd Australia’s Board of Directors.

“Sea Shepherd was handicapped by the new ICR strategy of expanding their area of operations and reducing their quota, meaning that the time to locate them within the expanded zone made intervention extremely difficult with the ships that Sea Shepherd is able to deploy,” Hammarstedt said in a news release.

This past season was an opportunity for world governments to find the resolve to uphold international conservation law, he said. The Australian and New Zealand governments could have sent patrols to protect declared sanctuaries, but they failed to do so, “and this has served to illustrate that the only thing that has proven effective against the illegal Japanese whaling fleet has been the interventions by Sea Shepherd,” he added.

Jeff Hansen, Sea Shepherd Australia’s managing director, said the Australian and New Zealand governments have offered false promises.

“The majority of Australians wanted the Australian government to send a vessel to oppose the slaughter,” Hansen said. “They did not. Sea Shepherd requested that the Australian government release the location of the whalers. They refused. Instead, the governments responsible for protecting these magnificent creatures stood by, in the complete knowledge that both federal and international crimes were taking place. This empty response from authorities in the wake of the ICJ ruling is a disgrace.”

Hammarstedt hinted that Sea Shepherd might be back later this year when the Japanese ships take off for another season of whaling.

“Sea Shepherd will soon have a fast long-range ship,” he said. “More importantly, Sea Shepherd has something that the Australian and New Zealand governments lack — and that is the courage, the passion and the resolve to uphold the law.”

Shoreline owners are on the front lines of ecosystem protection

Waterfront property owners are a special class of people, and I mean that in a good way.

When it comes to sensitive shoreline habitat, they are the front lines of protection. When storms cause property damage, they see more than their share — and they pay handsomely for the privilege in both the cost of property and taxes.

Driftwood helps rebuild natural habitat after a bulkhead is removed, as in this example from Maury Island. Photo: Christopher Dunagan
Driftwood piles up and helps rebuild natural habitat after a bulkhead is removed, as in this example from Maury Island.
Photo: Christopher Dunagan

As I interviewed people and conducted research for a series of stories on shoreline armoring, I came into contact with dozens of shoreline property owners who were learning about the latest science on the nearshore environment. They wanted to know how to better manage their property. Some were contemplating removing bulkheads where the wave energy allowed, knowing that many bulkheads built years ago are not really needed.

The latest stories in our series, published in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, are:

Although I believe that most shoreline property owners are environmentally responsible, I do wonder about people who have damaged shoreline habitats to improve their view or water access without obtaining the required permits. It seems at every hearing regarding shoreline regulations, somebody will speak up and say, “It’s my property, and I can do what I want!”

One of the interviews that did not make it into the series was a discussion I had with Jay Manning, a South Kitsap native who went on to serve as an assistant attorney general, director of the Washington Department of Ecology and the governor’s chief of staff when Chris Gregoire was in office. Jay now serves as a member of the Puget Sound Leadership Council, the governing body for the Puget Sound Partnership.

Jay and I got to talking about how waterfront property owners occupy a special place — literally and legally — when it comes to protecting the public’s interest in shoreline ecosystems. A balance of public and private rights is embodied in the state’s Shoreline Management Act, which demands the highest level of protection for water bodies and adjacent lands.

The public’s ability to enjoy natural resources along the waterfront “shall be preserved to the greatest extent feasible,” the act states. “To this end, uses shall be preferred which are consistent with control of pollution and prevention of damage to the natural environment, or are unique to or dependent upon use of the state’s shoreline.”

As an assistant attorney general representing Ecology, Jay learned that shoreline ownership embodies a special public-private relationship.

“It’s much more significant, I think, than what you find with upland properties,” he said. “The full array of (private property) rights that you find in upland areas does not apply to shoreline areas.”

State law builds upon the Public Trust Doctrine, an ancient and enduring principle that retains certain rights to the public for all time, regardless of ownership.

Jay, a shoreline property owner himself, says the Puget Sound Partnership has identified the protection and restoration of shorelines as a key element in the recovery of Puget Sound.

A few years ago, many cities and counties routinely approved bulkheads without giving it a second thought. But that has been changing as local jurisdictions adopt new shoreline master programs. Now, one cannot get approval to build a bulkhead unless a house is imminently threatened by waves or erosion.

So far, about half of the 12 counties in the Puget Sound region are operating under the revised requirements, along with nearly 90 percent of the 101 cities.

Unfortunately, Jay noted, rules related to shorelines have never been as rigorously enforced as those related to water quality, for which the threats to human health are more obvious. Counties and cities vary greatly in the amount of effort they put into land-use enforcement.

For some people, it just seems easier to move ahead and get the work done, thus avoiding delays and costs of permitting, consulting work and mitigation. Some people don’t believe that shoreline regulations make much sense.

But, as many local officials told me, they would like the chance to talk with property owners about the value of shorelines, explain the regulations and discuss various alternatives that might even save money. Most regulations, after all, have a basis in science, and we can all learn from what the latest studies are telling us.

Medical records to be compiled for individual orcas in Puget Sound

When a person becomes severely ill, the doctor will usually check the person’s medical file before offering a diagnosis. In the same way, researchers are now setting up medical records for each of the 84 endangered killer whales that frequent Puget Sound.

Mist from the breath of killer whales is collected at the end of a long pole then tested for dozens of different types of bacteria. This is the kind of information that could become part of their medical records. Photo: Pete Schroeder
Mist from the breath of killer whales is collected at the end of a long pole then tested for dozens of different types of bacteria. This kind of information could become part of the orca medical records. // Photo: Pete Schroeder

Orca researchers and other wildlife experts spent the past two days discussing how to create a medical database for all the Southern Resident orcas, often described as the most studied marine mammal population in the world.

Eventually, the information could be used to put an individual orca under medical observation or even administer medications, such as antibiotics — but that is likely to be a few years off.

“As a research community, we realize that we are at critical mass and have enough data to start asking these questions to get meaningful answers,” said Brad Hanson, research biologist with NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center.

Lynne Barre, NOAA’s recovery coordinator for the Southern Resident killer whales, said researchers in both Canada and the U.S. have collected data on these animals, which travel into both countries and down the West Coast.

“Some of these data sets are really large,” she said, “and it takes technology to bring the data together. There are a lot of players with different types of data.”

Fortunately, the research community is cooperative on both sides of the border, Barre said.

Still, it will take formal cooperative agreements to share available information that will eventually be used in research reports, said Joe Gaydos, a veterinarian with SeaDoc Society, a nonprofit research organization. The person who collects the information should have the right to publish his or her findings, he said, but it would be nice if researchers could post their observations immediately for the benefit of the whales.

Over the coming year, general observations could be put into the database, but eventually individual health records for the orcas could include:

  • Fecal samples, including levels of various hormones;
  • Breath samples, including the types of bacteria harbored by individual killer whales;
  • Observations of skin conditions;
  • Photos taken from boats and from the air to show body conditions, including evidence of malnutrition or possible pregnancy; and
  • Blubber samples for some whales, including DNA fingerprints and other health conditions.

The number of Southern Resident killer whales was on the decline in recent years until nine new babies were born over the past year and a half. Individual killer whales can be identified by the shape and size of their dorsal finds as well as the “saddle patch” behind the dorsal fin. In addition, the family structures of the Southern Residents are well known.

Last month, I wrote about how a group of researchers, including Joe Gaydos, opened my eyes to how disease can be a powerful ecological force. While researching stories about disease, I learned about various ideas to monitor Puget Sound for disease organisms. The idea of creating a health assessment for each killer whale had been kicked around for awhile. Read about my newfound understanding of disease in Water Ways, and find my stories at the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

Kirsten Gilardi, co-director of the Karen C. Drayer Wildlife Health Center at the University of California-Davis, has worked with mountain gorillas in Uganda and Rowanda, where the animals are under close human observation and each has its own medical record. Each gorilla can be identified by a wrinkle pattern on its nose, besides physical size and other obvious characteristics.

The animals are checked to make sure they are eating, moving normally and show no signs of coughing or sneezing, she said. “When they do show signs of illness, the veterinary teams can go in.”

Sometimes antibiotics are delivered to the animal in the field. If necessary, such as when a gorilla is injured in a snare, the animal may be anesthetized and treated on the spot or even brought to a hospital for care.

People also collect fecal samples left by the gorillas and leaves from plants that they chewed to gain information about hormones and various bacteria and viruses they may carry.

When the Gorilla Doctors program was started in the 1980s, it was the first time that veterinarians went in to treat the animals in their habitat, Gilardi said. Since then, the population has grown nearly four-fold, and they are the only great apes whose numbers are increasing in the wild.

Information collected for individual killer whales would not be so different than what has been collected for gorillas, she said.

Cynthia Smith, a veterinarian at the National Marine Mammal Foundation, has assessed wild dolphins affected by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. In that case, individual health assessments were used to complete an assessment of the overall population. From there, management decisions were made to protect the overall health of the population.

The same kinds of results could come from pulling together information on the killer whales, she said.

“By setting up a database and using it, you can have a finger on the pulse of the health of these animals,” Smith said. “Then you can develop strategies to manage the problems.”

The health-assessment project is supported by a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, funding from NOAA Fisheries and private support from SeaDoc Society donors.

Amusing Monday: Short videos tell timely tales of scientific discovery

Our old friend the northern clingfish, whose belly can clamp onto things and hold tighter than a suction cup, is the star in an award-winning movie put together by researchers and students at the University of Washington.

It’s only a three-minute movie, but the story of this intriguing little fish captured the attention of 37,000 middle school students from 17 different countries in the Ocean 180 Video Challenge. This is a competition that encourages ocean scientists to share their discoveries through short videos. Students selected the clingfish video as the best in the amateur category after an initial screening by a panel of scientists and communication experts.

You can watch all the video finalists on the Ocean 180 YouTube channel. On this page, you can watch the clingfish video, “A Very Sticky Fish,” as well as one called “Harbor Seal Pups: Diving into Rehab,” which was judged the winner in the professional category, since it was produced with the help of a professional filmmaker.

Second place was awarded to “The Creative Dolphin: What Dolphins Do When Asked to Vary Their Behavior.” Third place went to “Marine Defaunation: Animal Loss in the Global Ocean.” An honorable mention was given to “The JetYak.”

The UW team included Adam Summers, professor of biology and of aquatic and fishery sciences at Friday Harbor Laboratories, along with Ian Stevens, a 2015 English graduate, and Zack Bivins, a current English major. I featured Adam Summers and his studies of the clingfish in an “Amusing Monday” post last May. See Water Ways, May 11, 2015, and Michelle Ma’s original story for UW News.

The UW undergraduates met in 2014 while reading “Moby Dick” in professor Richard Kenney’s English class at Friday Harbor Laboratories, where science is mixed with the humanities. Stevens and Bivens produced a 10-minute video about a sperm whale, called “The Sperm Whale and You,” and Summers encouraged them to enter the video contest. They clamped onto Summers’ research paper on the clingfish and decided that would be their topic.

The project was entirely optional, driven only by the students’ passion for art and science.

“This is the intellectual life at its magnesium heat,” Kenney told Michelle Ma in her latest news release. “They were doing it for fun. That’s how you win; it starts with excitement and passion.”

“It is pretty cool for a couple of UW English majors to waltz into a national science outreach film competition and take top honors,” Summers said. “I think it points to the excellent training these students received on campus and also their ability to exploit the intellectual hothouse of Friday Harbor Labs.”

The student winners are forming a video production company that might make more films to explain science in a visually interesting way. Next time, they could enter the Ocean 180 contest as professionals.

The competition, sponsored by the Florida Center for Ocean Sciences Education Excellence, challenges scientists to bring their research papers to life in ways that can help people find meaning to their work. Entries must be tied to a specific research paper published in the past five years.

First-place winners, amateur and professional, each received $3,000. Second- and third- place winners received $2,000 and $1,000 respectively.

Students judging the finalists in the competition came from classes in which teachers signed up specific classrooms to watch the videos. Assuming the competition continues, classroom registration will begin in the fall.

For information, go to the Ocean 180 website.

Will new guidance reduce hearing loss in whales and dolphins?

A new controversy is beginning to rumble over the potential injury to marine mammals from sounds transmitted in the water.

Transient killer whales Photo: Kitsap Sun
Transient killer whales // Photo: Kitsap Sun

The National Marine Fisheries Service, also called NOAA Fisheries, is moving closer to finalizing new “technical guidance” for assessing temporary and permanent hearing loss in whales and dolphins caused by human activities — including Navy sonar, seismic explorations and underwater explosions. The guidance will be used for approving “take” permits under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act.

Meanwhile, in another development, Navy officials have acknowledged that Navy personnel made a mistake by using sonar in Puget Sound without getting approval through the chain of command. I’ll describe the circumstances of that event in a moment.

Proposed noise guidance

The new “Draft Guidance for Assessing the Effects of Anthropogenic Sound on Marine Mammal Hearing” is a major revision from guidance in effect since the late 1990s. The document is currently going through its third public comment period since the end of 2013, having been updated and reviewed by three expert panels.

The new guidance is focused on hearing loss rather than how the behavior of marine mammals might change in the presence of loud noise. Since foraging and social activity are essential among whales and dolphins, further guidance is expected to assess how animals may be affected in other ways by noise.

The new guidance does not include mitigation measures for minimizing the effects of sound. In some cases, the new information may lead to additional protections for the animals, but in other cases protections may be reduced, according to information from NOAA Fisheries.

Currently, regulators use a single noise threshold for cetaceans (whales and dolphins) and a single threshold for pinnipeds (seals and sea lions). They do not account for the different hearing abilities within the two groups or how different types of sound may be experienced.

The new acoustic threshold levels divide sounds into two groups: 1) impulsive sounds lasting less than a second, such as from airguns and impact pile drivers, and 2) non-impulsive sounds, in which the sound pressure rises and declines more gradually, such as from sonar and vibratory pile drivers. Measures account for both peak sound pressure and cumulative sound exposure.

Marine mammals also are divided into groups based on their general range of hearing. There are the low-frequency cetaceans, including the large baleen whales; the mid-frequency cetaceans, including the dolphins; and the high-frequency cetaceans, including the porpoises.

The pinnipeds are divided into two groups. The eared seals, including sea lions, have a somewhat wider hearing range than true seals, including harbor seals.

After years of covering the effects of sonar and other noise, I’m just beginning to understand the complexity of how sound is measured and the mathematics used to calculate levels at various locations. At the same time, the guidelines are growing more complex — as they should to model the real world. New thresholds account for the duration of sound exposure as well as the intensity, and they somewhat customize the thresholds to the animals affected. For additional information, see NOAA’ Fisheries webpage on the guidance.

Despite incorporating new studies into the guidelines, some acoustics experts are finding serious problems with the methods used to arrive at the new thresholds, according to Michael Jasny of the Natural Resources Defense Council. The NRDC, an environmental group, has a long history of battling NOAA Fisheries and the Navy over sound exposures for marine mammals.

“This is an extremely technical subject,” Michael said, noting that he relies on experts who have provided comments on the methodology. “By and large, NMFS has drunk the Navy’s Kool-Aid with the exception of low-frequency effects, even though the Navy’s science has been sharply criticized.”

The statistical analyses leading to the guidelines are so flawed that they call into question how they could be used to protect marine mammals, Michael said, pointing to a paper by Andrew J. Wright of George Mason University.

“These are high stakes we are talking about,” Michael said. “We are talking about damaging the hearing of endangered species that depend on their hearing to survive.”

The effects of sound on behavior, which are not described in the new guidelines, may be just as important, he said, since too much noise can impede an animal’s ability to catch prey or undertake social behavior that contribute to the perpetuation of the species. NOAA Fisheries needs to move forward to raise the level of protection, not just for injury related to hearing but for other effects, he said. One can review a series of related studies on NOAA Fisheries’ website.

“If these guidelines are not improved, at least to address fundamental statistical errors, then it is easy to imagine that they might be legally challenged — and they would deserve to be,” Michael told me.

Sonar in Puget Sound

As for the Navy’s mistake with sonar, the story goes back to Jan. 13 of this year, when acoustics expert Scott Veirs of Beam Reach Marine Science picked up the sound of sonar on hydrophones in the San Juan Islands. About the same time, Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research was observing transient killer whales to the south in Haro Strait.

At first, Scott believed the sonar may have been coming from the Canadian Navy ship HMCS Ottawa, but Canadian officials were quick to deny it. His suspicions shifted to the U.S. Navy. He was disturbed by that prospect since the Navy stopped using sonar during training exercises in Puget Sound shortly after the USS Shoup incident in 2003. For a reminder of that incident, check my story in the Kitsap Sun, March 17, 2005.

USS Shoup, a Navy destroyer based in Everett. U.S. Navy photo
USS Shoup, a Navy destroyer based in Everett. // U.S. Navy photo

Later, the requirement for approval from the Pacific Fleet command became an enforceable regulation when it was added to the letter of authorization (PDF 3.4 mb) issued by NOAA Fisheries. The letter allows the Navy a specific “take” of marine mammals during testing and training operations.

Within days of this year’s sonar incident, Scott learned from observers that two Navy ships had traveled through Haro Strait about the time that sonar was heard on a nearby hydrophone. Navy Region Northwest confirmed the presence of Navy vessels.

Later, Scott received an email from Lt. Julianne Holland, deputy public affairs officer for the Navy’s Third Fleet. She confirmed that a Navy ship used sonar for about 10 minutes at the time of Scott’s recording. The ship was identified as a guided missile destroyer — the same type as the Shoup — but its name has never been revealed.

“The Navy vessel followed the process to check on the requirements for this type of use in this location, but a technical error occurred which resulted in the unit not being made aware of the requirement to request permission,” according to Lt. Holland’s email to Scott. “The exercise was very brief in duration, lasting less than 10 minutes, and the Navy has taken steps to correct the procedures to ensure this doesn’t occur again at this, or any other, location.”

Because no marine mammals appeared to be injured, the story kind of faded away until I recently contacted Lt. Holland to tie up some loose ends. She ignored my questions about whether disciplinary actions had been taken against any Navy personnel. “The Navy has taken appropriate action to address the issue, including reissuance of specific guidance on the use of sonar in the Pacific Northwest.” The memo was sent to “all units in the Northwest.”

After I reopened the discussion, Scott did some acoustic calculations based on figures and graphs he found in a Navy report on the Shoup incident. He located published estimates of the source levels and concluded, based on NOAA’s old thresholds, that marine mammals within 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) would experience noise levels likely to change their behavior (level B harassment).

Based on the data available, Scott could not conclude whether the transient killer whales in Haro Strait were within that range, but he said it was encouraging that Ken Balcomb did not notice any changes in their behavior. It was also helpful that the sonar was used for a relatively short time.

“It was a little nerve racking to hear the Navy was making mistakes,” Scott said, “but we can give them a pat on the back for doing the exercise during the day” when lookouts on the ship at least have a chance to spot the animals.

Amusing Monday: Climate science finds artistic expression

A graph showing the rise in global temperature or the increase in ocean acidity is really just ink on paper. Emotionally, the impact is minimal, unless a person truly understands the meaning behind the lines and numbers shown on the chart.

Clownfish

That’s why I am thrilled and amused with the work of artist Jill Pelto, who has uniquely bridged the gap between scientific charts and living creatures. Jill has incorporated real climate data — charts and graphs — into the backgrounds of her paintings, which also tell compelling stories about the changing environment.

Take the water-color painting of clownfish (first on this page), for example. The anemone in the background is outlined by pH data from 1998 to 2012, as Jill explained to me in an email.

Ocean acidification results when atmospheric carbon dioxide dissolves in the water to form carbonic acid. Higher-than-normal levels of acidity can affect the brains of some fish, leading to disorientation and a reduction in their ability to avoid predators.

“The clownfish in my watercolor are grouped in confusion, separated from the anemone in which they live,” Jill told me. “The oceans may be vast, but if the pH drops globally, there is literally nowhere marine life can go. They are confined to the water.”

The decline in pH, along with a further explanation of ocean acidification, can be found on Climate Central’s website WXshift (pronounced “weather shift”).

The greatest effects of climate change are being experienced in the polar regions. Data describing the melting of Arctic sea ice from 1980 to the present are expressed in Jill’s painting of the Arctic foxes.

Foxes

“Rapid warming in the Arctic has caused the sea ice area to decline so quickly that species cannot adjust,” Jill wrote. “The Arctic fox is small and extraordinarily resilient to the most severe cold. They can withstand the frigid north and thus have this corner of the world in which to hunt. But when the temperatures mellow, competition from larger species could overcome them, as other species move farther north to escape their own warming environment.

“I painted the Arctic foxes to look cornered and skittish. One is hunched and defensive; the other is yowling in panic. The sea ice, from which they are separated, is spaced out by large expanses of dark blue water absorbing the sun’s heat.”

Changes in sea ice are described in Climate Central’s website WXshift.

Jill has studied both art and science, graduating in December from the University of Maine with a double major in studio art and Earth science.

“I have always loved the outdoors and want to use my creative skills to communicate information about extreme environmental issues with a broad audience,” she says on her website, Glaciogenic Art. “I see nature as a work of art and the origin of my observational skills. I enjoy cross-country and downhill skiing, reading, running, camping and spending time with my friends and family. I make art inspired by all of these experiences.”

Jill’s father, Mauri Pelto, a professor in environmental science at Nichols College in Dudley, Mass., has studied glacier recession in Washington’s Cascade Mountains for decades. He founded the ongoing North Cascades Glacier Climate Project in 1983. Jill has assisted with research on that and other projects around the country since high school.

Salmon

Mauri’s 2008 research paper on the North Cascade glaciers (PDF 1.6 mb) contains these unsettling observations: “All 47 monitored glaciers are currently undergoing a significant retreat, and four of them have disappeared.” He goes on to add that this glacial retreat is “ubiquitous, rapid and increasing.”

Experiencing such environmental changes first-hand has helped shape Jill’s future.

“To me, it’s really dramatic and it means a lot because it’s something I personally experienced,” she told Brian Kahn of Climate Central. “Seeing signs of climate change that were more evident inspired me to pursue science at the same time as art.”

The decline in salmon inspired Jill to incorporate a graph of coho population data into one painting. Receding glaciers, last year’s lack of snowpack and a shortage of rainfall contributed to real problems for salmon. Streams were too low and too warm, reducing the amount of spawning.

“Seeing the rivers and reservoirs looking so barren was frightening,” Jill said. “The salmon are depicted swimming along the length of the graph, following its current. While salmon can swim upstream, it is becoming more of an uphill battle with lower streamflow and higher temperatures. This image depicts the struggle their population is facing as their spawning habitat declines.”

Suns

Read more about the decline of salmon in Mauri Pelto’s blog on the American Geophysical Union Blogosphere.

The final example on this page captures multiple measures of climate change occurring across the globe, such as glacier mass balance, sea level rise and temperature increase.

“I wanted to convey in an image how all of this data must be compared and linked together to figure out the fluctuations in Earth’s natural history,” Jill said. “One of the reasons scientists study what happened in the past is to understand what may happen now as a result of human-induced climate change.

“I represented this by illustrating that glaciers are melting and calving, sea levels are rising and temperatures are increasing. The numbers on the left y-axis depict quantities of glacial melt and sea level rise, and the suns across the horizon contain numbers that represent the global increase in temperature, coinciding with the timeline on the lower x-axis.”

Jill offers these references on sea level rise, the “disastrous year” of 2015, and the annual climate report by NOAA and NASA.

I am really looking forward to seeing more of Jill’s work in the future, as she continues her academic pursuits at the University of Maine. Prints of her paintings are available for sale, and Jill can be contacted through her website.