Category Archives: Oceans

Bill could increase risks of alien species invasions in Puget Sound waters

Congress is on the verge of passing a law that would open a door for invasive species to sneak into Puget Sound from San Francisco Bay — known as the most infested waterway in the country.

The proposed legislation, supported by the shipping industry, is focused on reducing regulations surrounding the release of ballast water, which large ships use to maintain stability. Environmental groups and officials from at least nine states have voiced their opposition to the proposal, saying it could result in long-term damage to coastal and Great
Lakes ecosystems.

Ballast discharge from a ship Photo: Coast Guard
Ballast discharge from a ship
Photo: Coast Guard

Ballast water doesn’t get much attention in the media, but it has been associated with the transfer of invasive species throughout the world. Ships often take on ballast water at ports where they unload their cargo before moving to their next destination for a new load. As ships take on cargo, they discharge ballast water from the previous location — along with any organisms that hitched a ride.

Introduced species may multiply, displace native species and disrupt the food web. Lacking natural predators, some invasive species have been known to grow out of control, taking over beaches or underwater areas.

Rules and more rules

To reduce the risk of invasive species, the U.S. Coast Guard requires vessels from foreign countries to exchange their ballast water at sea before entering U.S. waters. Studies have shown that most organisms living out in the ocean don’t survive in coastal waters, and vice versa. So it is less risky for Puget Sound to receive ballast water picked up well off the coast than from another coastal inlet.

Ships that don’t discharge ballast water don’t need to comply with the Coast Guard’s ballast-exchange rule, nor do any ships transiting the U.S. coast, such as those coming into Puget Sound from California.

For years, fears have been growing that Puget Sound will become invaded by species that could alter sea life as we know it today. San Francisco Bay is dominated by more than 200 non-native species, including the European green crab and the Asian clam — both of which have caused enormous economic losses to the shellfish industry in various locations.

Green crab Photo: USGS
Green crab // Photo: USGS

In contrast, Puget Sound has become home to an identified 74 non-native marine species, although early introductions of exotic plankton — including some that produce toxins — could have gone unnoticed.

In reaction to growing concerns about invasive species, the Washington Legislature passed a law in 2000 that requires ballast exchange for ships arriving from anywhere outside a “common waters” zone. That’s an area from the Columbia River to just north of Vancouver, B.C. Consequently, ships from California that intend to release ballast water into Puget Sound must first exchange their ballast water at least 50 miles off the coast.

While the exchange of ballast water has been relatively effective in controlling the release of non-native species, the technique has always been considered an interim measure. Treating ballast water to kill organisms has been the long-term goal — and that’s where the confusion and frustration begins.

The International Maritime Organization has one treatment standard nearing final adoption for ships throughout the world. The Coast Guard says the IMO requirement to eliminate “viable” organisms — those able to reproduce — is too risky. The Coast Guard requires that organisms be killed. States may choose to issue their own standards, and California has proposed the most stringent treatment standards of all. Still, most of these standards are essentially on hold pending testing and certification of specific treatment systems.

Shipping companies say all these costly and conflicting rules are too difficult to navigate for businesses dealing in interstate and international commerce. But that’s not all the rules they may face.

The Environmental Protection Agency became involved in ballast water in 2008, after federal courts ruled that the shipping industry is not exempt from the Clean Water Act. The EPA then came up with a “vessel general permit” for ballast water and other discharges from ships, a permit that was challenged twice by environmental groups. Each time, the courts ruled against the EPA.

The latest EPA permit failed to require the “best available technology” for ballast water treatment, failed to set numerical standards, failed to require monitoring, and failed to meet other provisions of the Clean Water Act, according to a ruling handed down in October (PDF 6.4 mb) by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York. A revised permit is now in the works.

Legislation and politics

That brings us to the controversial legislation, called the Vessel Incidental Discharge Act, or VIDA. The essence of the bill is to eliminate state jurisdiction and any oversight by the EPA. Upon enactment, only Coast Guard rules would apply, and ships from San Francisco would no longer need to exchange their ballast water before coming into Washington or Oregon. For an in-depth understanding of the bill, read the Congressional Research Service report (PDF 3.5 mb).

The lack of coastwise ballast exchange is the biggest concern of officials along the West Coast, where similar state requirements are in effect. In California, the problem is that VIDA would allow the spread of invasive species from San Francisco Bay to more pristine bays, such as Humboldt Bay. While the bill allows states to petition for regulations to deal with local conditions, nobody knows how that would work. The petition would need scientific proof that the local regulations are needed and feasible, and the Coast Guard would have 90 days to make a decision.

In the U.S. House of Representatives, VIDA became attached to the National Defense Authorization Act, which was approved. NDAA is a “must-pass” bill to authorize military funding and many other things associated with national defense.

The Senate version of the defense bill does not contain the VIDA provision. While the two bills are technically in a conference committee, insiders tell me that top leaders in the House and Senate must engage in political battles over the critical defense bill and try to work out a compromise to gain approval in both houses.

The shipping industry is lobbying hard for VIDA to stay in the compromise bill, while environmentalists want to take it out. We may not know which of the related and unrelated riders on the bill will survive until the bill is ready for congressional action.

In the Senate, Florida’s Sen. Marco Rubio was the original sponsor of the legislation when it was a stand-alone bill. Republicans would like him to get a win for the folks back home, where Rubio is engaged in a tight election race. (See Dan Friedman’s story in Fortune.)

President Obama, threatening a veto, lists VIDA as one of many provisions that he opposes in the House version of the National Defense Authorization Act. See Statement of Administration Policy (PDF 1.2 mb). Nobody thinks he would veto the bill over ballast water alone.

Many shipping industry officials say they don’t object to stringent treatment standards. They only wish to avoid multiple, confusing standards. They also would like some assurance that the standards are technically feasible and won’t require ongoing costly changes to equipment.

Environmentalists say they don’t want to lose the authority of the Clean Water Act, which allows average citizens to bring lawsuits to protect the environment.

“The Clean Water Act is a tried and true approach for controlling water pollution problems,” said Nina Bell of Northwest Environmental Advocates in Portland. Her group was among those that brought the lawsuit against the EPA (PDF 6.8 mb).

“I think we are poised to make some real progress,” Nina told me. “VIDA opts instead to take away authority from the Environmental Protection Agency and give it to the Coast Guard, which has no environmental expertise. The Coast Guard has a lot of priorities, such as keeping people safe on ships and protecting our waters, but this is not one of them.”

The EPA has clear authority to regulate ballast water and limit the spread of invasive species, she said. If the EPA were to issue strong requirements, the states would not need their own regulations.

Big sea stars, but no babies, observed
in Lofall this week

“Still no babies,” commented Peg Tillery, as we arrived at the Lofall dock in North Kitsap in search of sea stars clinging to pilings under the dock.

Barb Erickson examines sea stars at the base of a pier in Lofall. Photo: Christopher Dunagan
Barb Erickson examines sea stars at the base of a pier in Lofall on Hood Canal.
Photo: Christopher Dunagan

“They say there’s a comeback of the little ones,” noted Barb Erickson, “but I’m not seeing any of them.”

Peg and Barb are two of three retired volunteers who first brought me to this site two years ago to explain their ongoing investigation into the mysterious “sea star wasting disease.” Since our first trip, researchers have identified the virus that attacks sea stars, causes their arms to fall off and turns their bodies to a gooey mush.

I first witnessed the devastation in June of 2014, when starfish were dying by the millions up and down the West Coast (Water Ways, June 17, 2014). Lofall, a community on Hood Canal, was just one location where the stars seemed to be barely clinging to life. Now, just a fraction of the population still survives in many locations.

Bruce Menge of Oregon State University recently reported an upsurge in the number of baby starfish on the Oregon Coast, something not seen since the beginning of the epidemic.

“When we looked at the settlement of the larval sea stars on rocks in 2014 during the epidemic, it was the same or maybe even a bit lower than previous years,” said Menge in a news release from OSU. “But a few months later, the number of juveniles was off the charts — higher than we’d ever seen — as much as 300 times normal.”

As Peg and Barb pointed out, the recovery at Lofall has been hit or miss during more than two years of monitoring the site. I became hopeful on my return trip to the dock in January of 2015, when I noticed a mix of healthy adult and juvenile sea stars (Water Ways, Jan. 20,2015).

This week, the young ones were nowhere in sight. Clusters of healthy adult ochre stars were piled on top of each other at the bottom of the piers, waiting for the tide to come back in. I was not sure what to make of it.

Sea stars clusters on two adjacent piers at Lofall dock. Photo: Christopher Dunagan
Sea stars clusters on two adjacent piers at Lofall dock.
Photo: Christopher Dunagan

“it could be worse,” Barb said. “I think it is neutral news.” Peg agreed, saying, “It could be totally worse.”

Summer has been the period of reckoning in past years, and we should soon know if we are in for another round of disease, which could kill off more of the surviving sea stars, or if the disease is finally on the wane.

Linda Martin, who normally compiles the data, was not along on this week’s trip to Lofall, but other volunteers filled in for her.

“It is an interesting ride,” Barb told me, referring to her experience as a so-called citizen scientist. “It connects you to the larger picture, and you realize that everything is connected.”

It is nice for people in the community to know that this volunteer work is taking place, Barb said, and that someone is watching for changes in the environment.

“People will come up and ask me if there is anything new, people who couldn’t have cared less before,” she said.

For those interested in this kind of volunteer work, a good place to start is Kitsap Beach Naturalists. One can contact Renee Johnson, program coordinator, at rkjohnson@co.kitsap.wa.us.

Meanwhile, the cause of sea star wasting disease remains somewhat of a mystery even after its connection to the densovirus, which is associated with dead sea stars but also has been found in some that are free of disease.

A laboratory study led by Morgan Eisenlord of Cornell University found that the disease progressed faster when adult sea stars were exposed to higher temperatures and that adult mortality was 18 percent higher when water temperatures reached 66 degrees F. Temperature was documented as a likely factor in the spread of disease through the San Juan Islands.

But temperatures are not the sole controlling factor, because the spread of the disease has been out of sync with temperature change in numerous locations.

“The sea temperatures were warmer when the outbreak first began,” Menge said, “but Oregon wasn’t affected as early as other parts of the West Coast, and the outbreak reached its peak here when the sea temperature plummeted and was actually cooler than normal.”

Could there be another trigger that increases the virulence of the densovirus?

“Ocean acidification is one possibility, and we’re looking at that now,” Menge said. “Ultimately, the cause seems likely to be multi-faceted.”

Automated monitor provides early warning of harmful algae blooms

Automated equipment installed Monday off the Washington Coast will track concentrations of six species of plankton that could become harmful to humans and marine species.

The Environmental Sample Processor, or ESP, collects discrete samples of water and processes them for analysis. Imbedded modules can test for DNA and antibodies to identify the organisms picked up in the seawater. Concentrations of the plankton and their toxins are sent to shore-based researchers via satellite.

The equipment was installed by scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of Washington. The device was developed at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. Stephanie Moore of NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center explains the benefits of the device in the first video on this page. The second video provides a few more technical details with graphic depictions of the device.

The ESP was deployed in the Juan de Fuca eddy, a known pathway for toxic algae 13 miles off the Washington Coast near LaPush. The remote, self-operating laboratory will operate about 50 feet underwater.

One of the primary targets of the monitoring is Pseudo-nitzschia, a harmful algae capable of producing domoic acid. This toxin can accumulate in shellfish and can cause diarrhetic shellfish poisoning, which can progress to severe illness. Last year, a massive bloom of this toxic algae canceled scheduled razor clam seasons on Washington beaches with untold economic consequences.

The harmful algal bloom (HAB) affected the entire West Coast, from California to Alaska. It was the largest and longest-lasting bloom in at least 15 years, according to NOAA’s National Ocean Service.

“Concentrations of domoic acid in seawater, some forage fish and crab samples were among the highest ever reported in this region,” says a factsheet from the service. “By mid-May, domoic acid concentrations in Monterey Bay, California, were 10 to 30 times the level that would be considered high for a normal Pseudo-nitzschia bloom.”

“Other HAB toxins were also detected on the West Coast. Shellfish closures in Puget Sound protected consumers from paralytic shellfish poisoning and diarrhetic shellfish poisoning.”

Paralytic shellfish poisoning is associated with a group of plankton called Alexandrium, typically Alexandrium catenella in the Puget Sound region.

In addition to sampling for Alexandrium and four species of Pseudo-nitzchia, the ESP is monitoring for Heterosigma akashiwo, which is associated with massive fish kills, including farmed salmon.

Anyone can track some of the data generated by the equipment by visiting NANOOS — the Northwest Association of Networked Ocean Observing Systems.

Early warning of toxic algal blooms can assist state and local health officials in their surveillance of toxic shellfish.

“Anyone can access the data in near-real-time,” UW oceanographer and NANOOS Director Jan Newton told Hannah Hickey of UW News and Information. “It’s an early warning sentry.”

‘Sonic Sea’ movie takes us to the underwater world of sound

“Sonic Sea,” which will air Thursday on Discovery Channel, will take you down beneath the ocean waves, where sounds take on new meaning, some with dangerous implications.

Humans spend most of their time in air, a medium that transmits light so well that we have no trouble seeing the shapes of objects in a room or mountains many miles away. In the same way, water is the right medium for sound, which shapes the world of marine mammals and other species that live under water.

The hour-long documentary film reveals how humpback whales use low-frequency sounds to communicate with other whales across an entire ocean and how killer whales use high-frequency sound to locate their prey in dark waters.

Michael Jasny
Michael Jasny

“The whales see the ocean through sound, so their mind’s eye is their mind’s ear,” says Michael Jasny of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environment group that produced the film with the help of the production company Imaginary Forces.

“Sonic Sea” opens with Ken Balcomb, dean of killer whale research in Puget Sound, telling the story of how he learned about 16 beaked whales that had beached themselves in the Bahamas, where he was doing research in 2001.

“Animals that I had grown to know over a 10-year period were now dead,” Ken says during the movie, recalling the horrifying day when one whale after another was discovered dead or dying. “They were trying to get away. I was driven to find out why.”

Ken Balcomb
Ken Balcomb

Thanks to Ken’s presence during that stranding incident, experts were able to prove that Navy sonar could be deadly. It took two years for Navy officials to overcome their denial.

As I watched the film, I wondered if people would identify with the idea that hearing to marine mammals is like sight to humans. Would people see how much humans have invaded the underwater world with noise from ship traffic, oil exploration, military training and shoreline construction?

“I listen to the world, and to me song is life,” said Chris Clark, a bioacoustics expert at Cornell Lab of Ornithology,. “It is the essence of who we are, and it joins us all. The problem is, in the ocean, we are injecting enormous amounts of noise, so much so that we are acoustically bleaching the ocean. All the singing voices of the planet are lost in that cloud of noise.”

Chris Clark
Chris Clark

This type of human invasion is different from wiping out habitat as new construction changes the land, but the effect can be equally devastating to some species.

In September of 2001, a group of researchers on the East Coast were collecting fecal samples from right whales to check for stress hormones. Stress levels were running high among the whales, except for a few days when the levels dropped dramatically. That happened right after Sept. 11, when ship traffic in the area was shut down following the bombing of the World Trade Center. It still isn’t clear what that constant stress is doing to the animals, but it can’t be good. See Duke University press release.

The good news, the film tells us, is that ships can be made quieter, with an important side benefit: Quieter ships are more efficient, which makes them cheaper to operate. Ships can also reduce noise by going slower, saving on fuel. Beyond shipping, people can find ways to operate in the ocean with less sonic harm to sea life.

The Navy’s viewpoint, as represented in the film, appears to be a more enlightened approach that I have seen until now. Of course, protecting Navy ships against enemy attacks is the priority, but the need to accommodate marine life seems to be recognized to a greater degree.

“It comes down to what we value,” Clark said. “We value a living ocean. We are putting the ocean at risk. And if you put the ocean at risk, you are putting all of us at risk.”

The first video on this page is the trailer to “Sonic Sea” as provided by the producers of the film. The second is the trailer provided by Discovery Channel.

Research cruise studies ocean acidification
along West Coast

A major study of ocean acidification along the West Coast is underway with the involvement of 17 institutions, including 36 scientists from five countries.

NOAA's Research Vessel Ronald H. Brown NOAA photo
NOAA’s Research Vessel Ronald H. Brown
NOAA photo

Based aboard the NOAA Research Vessel Ronald H. Brown, the researchers are taking physical, chemical and biological measurements as they consider a variety of ecological pressures on marine species. They will take note of changes since the last cruise in 2013. To obtain samples from shallow waters, the researchers will get help along the way from scientists going out in small vessels launched from land. Staff from Olympic National Park, Channel Islands National Park and Cabrillo National Monument will assist.

The cruise started out last Thursday from San Diego Naval Base. Researchers have been posting information about the trip and their work on a blog called “West Coast Ocean Acidification.”

The month-long working adventure is the fifth of its kind in areas along the West Coast, but this is the first time since 2007 that the cruise will cover the entire area affected by the California Current — from Baja California to British Columbia. The video shows Pacific white-sided dolphins as seen from the deck of the Ron Brown on Monday just west of Baja California.

As on cruises in 2011–2013, these efforts will include studies of algae that cause harmful blooms, as well as analyses of pteropod abundance, diversity, physiology, and calcification, said Simone Alin, chief scientist for the first leg of the cruise.

“We are pleased to welcome new partners and highlight new analyses on this cruise as well,” she continued in her blog post. “For example, some of our partners will be employing molecular methods (proteomics, genomics, transcriptomics) to study the response of marine organisms to their environments.

“We also have scientists studying bacterial diversity and metabolic activity in coastal waters participating for the first time. New assays of stress in krill and other zooplankton — important fish food sources — will also be done on this cruise. Last but not least, other new collaborators will be validating measurements of ocean surface conditions done by satellites from space.”

To learn how satellites gather information about the California Current, check out Earth Observatory.

The research crew takes water samples using the CTD rosette off the coast of Baja California. Photo: Melissa Ward
The research crew takes water samples using the CTD rosette off the coast of Baja California.
Photo: Melissa Ward

With rising levels of carbon dioxide bringing changes to waters along the West Coast, researchers are gathering information that could help predict changes in the future. Unusually warm waters in the Pacific Ocean the past two years (nicknamed “the blob”) may have compounded the effects of ocean acidification, according to Alin.

Reading the cruise blog, I enjoyed a piece by Melissa Ward, a doctoral candidate in the Joint Program in Ecology from UC Davis and San Diego State University. Her story begins:

“As I prepared to leave for the West Coast OA research cruise, many family and friends skipped right over the ‘research’ part, and jumped straight to ‘cruise’. But to their disappointment, the photos of me sitting by the pool drinking my margarita will never materialize.

“The Ron Brown, our research vessel, does have two lounge chairs on the main deck, but they are strapped down to keep them from flying off as we go tipping back and forth with the ocean swells. Immediately after boarding the ship for departure from San Diego to Mexico, you have to start adjusting to this never-ending sway. After some stumbles and falls (which I’m certain the crew found entertaining), you get used to the motion, and can at least minimize public clumsiness.”

Brandon Carter, mission scientist on the cruise, provides a delightful primer on the pros and cons of carbon dioxide in a blog entry posted Tuesday, and Katie Douglas , a doctoral student at the University of South Florida’s College of Marine Science posted a blog entry yesterday in which she discusses the CTD rosette, a basic piece of oceanographic equipment used to continuously record conductivity (salinity), temperature and depth as it is lowered down into the ocean. The remote-controlled device can take water samples at any level.

Amusing Monday: Entering the world of
a top ocean predator

I was quite impressed when I watched this video of a diver cutting away a thick rope that had been slicing into the flesh of a massive whale shark. The animal, spotted 300 miles southwest of Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, remained calm throughout the operation.

Daniel Zapata, dive team leader aboard the Solmar V cruise ship, said the divers knew it might be dangerous to cut the whale shark free, but it was heartbreaking for them to watch while the animal was suffering.

“We talked about it for some time between dives,” Zapata said in a question-and-answer interview with Joanna McNamara of Project Aware. “When we saw the whale shark again, I knew I had to help. It felt so good to cut this whale shark free. I found a thinner section of the rope and cut through it. I unwrapped the rope from each side of the whale shark and finally she was free.”

The action may have saved the life of the pregnant female and her unborn offspring, according to observers.

This video was featured on the Smithsonian Channel as part of the latest series “Secrets of Shark Island.” The “secret,” according to promotional material, is that the Revillagigedo Islands, some 200 miles from the Mexican coast, is home to one of the greatest concentrations of fish in the world.

“This is the only natural juncture for miles in an otherwise empty Pacific Ocean and a crucial area for migrating sharks and other apex predators,” states the Smithsonian Channel website. “Enter a world where whitetip sharks, giant lobsters and moray eels share living quarters, humpback whales breed, and mantas and tuna feast on bait in this land of plenty.”

The Smithsonian Channel has been going a little crazy over sharks the past few years. But it isn’t just about sharks. It’s about the people who love them. Two years ago, we were introduced to “Shark Girl” aka Madison Steward, who grew up around sharks on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and is as fearless as they come around the sharp-toothed creatures. See second video on this page.

“Sharks are misunderstood like no other creature, to the point where it is actually contributing to their slaughter,” Madison told Gerri Miller of Mother Nature Network. “I think it has a lot to do with media, but also that people cannot go and see them for themselves and learn the truth.

“Sharks are NOT what you think,” she continued, “and myself and many other people spend hours in the water with large sharks and feed them at ease on regular occasions. They are the apex predators, and nature doesn’t make animals like this for no reason. They are essential in our oceans. In previous years, the decimation of the shark population has caused the surrounding ecosystem to collapse. They are truly the ‘boss’ of our oceans.”

The third video is something of a personal manifesto from Madison Stewart, spoken in a voice-over as she swims in an awe-inspiring underwater world with ethereal music playing in the background.

If you think you know sharks, take a quiz from MNN.

Want to see more amazing sharks and stories from people involved with them? Check out these videos from Smithsonian Channel:

“Secrets of Shark Island” series

“Shark Girl” series

“Death Beach” series

“Great White: Code Red” series

“Hunt for the Super Predator” series

Also, “Shark Girl” Madison Stewart has produced some fine videos since she was 14 years old. Watch them on the Madison Stewart website, “Good Youth in a Bad Sea.”

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.
—–

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.”

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.

Experts agree: Coho fishing must be reduced this year to save species

Fishing seasons for coho salmon in Puget Sound are expected to be cut back severely this year, as the latest forecasts of salmon returns predict that coho runs will be less than a third of what was forecast for 2015.

Salmon managers faced some tough facts recently when they read over results from a computer model used to predict the effects of various fishing scenarios. After they plugged in last year’s fishing seasons and this year’s coho forecast, the computer told them that essentially no fish were left to spawn in Stillaguamish River in northern Puget Sound. Things were hardly better for the Skagit or Snohomish rivers or for streams in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Hood Canal.

Coho forecast

“With last year’s fisheries, you will catch every fish out there,” said Doug Milward, who manages salmon data for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. “All the fisheries will have to change to protect the Stillaguamish (coho) — from the ocean fisheries to inside (Puget Sound).”

Last year’s fishing seasons are not even a good starting point, as negotiations begin between salmon managers for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and Western Washington tribes. Under federal court rulings, the two sides must agree on fishing seasons, and the goal remains a 50-50 split of the various stocks that can be safely harvested. NOAA Fisheries plays a role in setting seasons for chinook, which are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Coho are not listed, although some people argue that they should be.

2015 coho returns

By April 14, if things go as planned, the two parties will reach agreement on when and where salmon fishing will take place — for tribal and nontribal, sport and commercial fishers.

“Unfavorable ocean conditions led to fewer coho salmon returning last year than we anticipated,” John Long, salmon fisheries policy lead for WDFW, said in a news release. “We expect to see another down year for coho in 2016 and will likely have to restrict fishing for salmon in a variety of locations to protect wild coho stocks.”

It seems the tribes have a slightly different take on the situation.

2016 coho forecasts

“There likely will be no coho fisheries in Western Washington this year, as returns are expected to plummet even further than last year because of poor ocean survival,” Lorraine Loomis, chairwoman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, stated in a column published online.

She said that when last year’s coho returns are finally tallied, they may be as much as 80 percent below preseason forecasts. The Nisqually Tribe last year canceled its coho fishery when less than 4,000 of the anticipated 23,000 fish returned to the area, she said.

Tribes fish at the end of the line, after all the other fisheries — from up the West Coast to the inside of Puget Sound. Because the treaties require tribes to fish within their “usual and accustomed areas,” agreements on fishing seasons must allow for salmon to return to their natal streams with numbers large enough for tribes to take their share, Lorraine said.

“Every year we must wait and hope that enough fish return to feed our families and culture,” she said. “Faced with low catch rates last year, however, most tribal coho fisheries were sharply reduced or closed early to protect the resource. The state, however, expanded sport harvest in mixed stock areas last year to attempt to catch fish that weren’t there. That’s not right. The last fisheries in line should not be forced to shoulder most of the responsibility for conserving the resource.”

Chinook forecast

The annual negotiations between the state and the tribes were kicked off Tuesday at a public meeting where the salmon forecasts were discussed with sport and commercial fishers.

In addition to a poor return of coho to Puget Sound, the forecast for Puget Sound chinook also shows somewhat lower numbers than last year.

One bright spot is for people who like to fish in the ocean. About 951,000 fall chinook are expected to return to the Columbia River. That’s higher than the 10-year average but lower than last year’s modern record of 1.3 million. About 223,000 hatchery chinook are expected to return to the lower Columbia River. These fish, known as “tules,” make up the bulk of the recreational harvest.

2015 chinook returns

Another bright spot is the prediction of a fair number of sockeye returning to Baker Lake on the Skagit River, possibly allowing a fishing season in the lake and river.

Norm Reinhardt, who heads up the Kitsap Poggie Club, has been involved in advisory groups on salmon fishing and participates in discussions about the seasons.

“This year, we have a significant challenge in the coho fishery, and we will have to base decisions on conservation needs,” Norm told me following Tuesday’s meeting.

Despite lower chinook numbers, there could be ways to work out some opportunities to fish for hatchery chinook, he said. Catch-and-release is one option on the table, but it is not popular among sport fishers.

2016 chinook forecast

Anglers are still smarting from last year’s sport-fishing closure in Area 10, a designated fishing area between Bremerton and Seattle. Fishing for chinook was prohibited in that area at the insistence of the Muckleshoot Tribe to protect hatchery chinook returning to the Issaquah Creek hatchery.

Fishing should have been allowed at some level — with the release of wild chinook — under an agreed management plan, Norm says, but state managers yielded to the tribe at the last minute in order to hasten a final agreement. On Tuesday, Norm told state salmon managers that he doesn’t want to see that happen again.

“In area 10, our argument is going to be that if we have adequate chinook, we should be allowed to fish on our fish — unlike last year,” he said.

sockeye forecasts

The reduced number of coho returning to Puget Sound has been blamed on ocean conditions, including higher water temperatures off the coast and a mass of warm water called “the blob,” which stayed around for two years. Studies have shown that warmer water alters the species of plankton available for fish to eat. The result is that the fish are consuming a plankton lower in fat content, causing coho to be thinner and fewer.

The 2016 forecast of about 256,000 Puget Sound coho is about 40 percent of the average return over the past 10 years and 29 percent of the number predicted for 2015 — a prediction that turned out to be too optimistic. Because of the failed coho forecast last year, everyone is expected to be more cautious about aspects of the computer modeling this year.

Charts on this page were presented during Tuesday’s meeting. The new charts make the presentation easier to understand, compared to the tables of data discussed at previous meetings. The data tables are still available when one needs to dig into the finer details. The new maps use colors to describe how streams are doing. Poor (red) is if the run or forecast for a stream is less than 75 percent of the 10-year average. Good (green) is if the run or forecast for a stream is more than 125 percent of the 10-year-average. Neutral (blue) is if the run or forecast falls between 75 percent and 125 percent.

Anyone may attend the meetings where the ongoing negotiations and possible tradeoffs are discussed. Allowing more fishing in one place often results in less fishing somewhere else, and there’s always the question about whether enough salmon are being left for spawning in the streams.

“We’re going to have to be creative in order to provide fisheries in some areas this year,” John Long said. “We would appreciate input from the public to help us establish priorities.”

Information about the salmon forecasts, the meeting schedule and methods of commenting are available on WDFW’s North of Falcon website.

On March 14, various parameters for ocean fishing will be set by the Pacific Fishery Management Council, a group empowered by the federal government to manage fish in the ocean. The PFMC will adopt ocean fishing schedules and harvest levels during its April 8-14 meeting, at which time state and tribal salmon managers are expected to approve fishing seasons for the inland waters.

Youngest orca dies; ocean research goes on

UPDATE, Feb. 29

Dave Ellifrit and Deborah Giles provide a detailed update of their encounter with J pod on Thursday. All the whales in the pod were accounted for except for the newest calf. Encounter #14, Feb. 25.
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The youngest orca among the Southern Residents was missing when J pod returned to Puget Sound this week. Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research delivered the sad news of the calf’s passing.

“After an extended encounter with all members of J pod on Feb. 25, 2016, Center for Whale Research reluctantly announces that the newest member, designated J55, is missing and presumed dead,” Ken stated in a news release issued yesterday.

New calf J-55 with adult females J-14 and J-37. Photo: NOAA Fisheries
After it was born, the new calf J-55 was seen with presumed relatives J-14 and J-37. Now missing, the young orca is declared dead. // Photo: NOAA Fisheries

The calf was first reported Jan. 18 in Puget Sound by NOAA researchers, including Brad Hanson, who reported the newborn swimming with J-14, a 42-year-old female named Samish, and her daughter, J-37, a 15-year-old female named Hy’Shqa (pronounced “high-shka”).

Along with the birth, Brad announced the death of a newborn, apparently born to 20-year-old J-31, named Tsuchi, who was pushing around her deceased calf. See Water Ways, Jan. 19.

The mother of J-55 was never identified. It could have been Samish or Hy’Shqa. Ken says it is even possible that the mother was 12-year-old J-40, named “Suttles,” the youngest offspring of Samish who is just entering the reproductive age.

J-55 could have been missing as early as Jan. 19 — the day after the calf was first seen. Researcher Mark Malleson encountered some members of J pod in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, where he photographed 14 whales, including Samish’s family. He did not see J-55, but the whales were widely dispersed, he said.

J-37 seen this week with her son J-49. No sign of the calf J-55. Photo: Dave Ellifrit, CWR
J-37 seen this week with her 4-year-old son J-49. No sign of the calf J-55.
Photo: Dave Ellifrit, CWR

The Center for Whale Research operates under a policy to delay the announcement of a possible death among the Southern Residents until a thorough survey of the entire pod can be conducted, noted Deborah Giles, the center’s research director. That survey was carried out on Thursday, when J pod returned to Puget Sound.

“Although the loss of any calf is a blow to the Southern Resident killer whales and a setback to the struggling population, it is not entirely surprising that one of the ‘baby boom’ calves did not survive its first few months,” Giles said in the news release. “As many as 50 percent of newborn calves do not survive their first year.

J-40, 12 years old, seen this week with her mother J-14. No sign of the calf J-55. Photo: Dave Ellifrit, CWR
J-40, 12 years old, seen this week with her mother J-14. No sign of the calf J-55.
Photo: Dave Ellifrit, CWR

“Nevertheless,” she added, “the loss of this calf underscores the need to recover the whales’ primary prey base – Chinook salmon – if the Southern Resident population of whales is to survive and thrive.”

The “baby boom” refers to nine calves being born in just over a year, something not seen for nearly 40 years. All those births have infused new hope into the future of the orca population, which is listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

The death of J-55 brings the total number of Southern Residents to 84 — not including Lolita, who is living in Miami Seaquarium.

Meanwhile, killer whale researchers in the NOAA research vessel Bell M. Shimada continue to follow members of K and L pods off the Washington Coast. Brad Hanson, who is leading the research team, said he has not identified all the whales traveling together, but they include various family groups in both pods.

On Tuesday to Thursday, tagged orca L-95 and other members of K and L pods moved south to the Columbia River. NOAA map
From Tuesday to Thursday, tagged orca L-95 and other whales in K and L pods moved south to the Columbia River. // NOAA map

The ship located the whales on Tuesday near LaPush and followed them south to the entrance of Quinault Canyon offshore of the coast. (See Water Ways, Wednesday.)

On Monday afternoon, the day before the Shimada arrived, Mark Malleson reported an encounter with members of L pod in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. He was able to spot the whales near the town of Jordan River, across the strait from Sekiu.

“The first whales observed were L72 and L105 westbound,” Mark wrote in a report to the Center for Whale Research. “The rest were spread to the south and were doing long dives. They started to feed and group up at 1730 (5:30 p.m.). We left them at 1800 northwest of Clallam Bay, as they were still heading west towards Cape Flattery (the northwest point of the Olympic Peninsula).”

After the Shimada met them Tuesday morning near LaPush to the south, the whales continued south and spent most of the day Wednesday in the Grays Harbor area, Brad reported.

“The whales were extremely spread out such that we lost contact with them for a couple of hours due to reduced visibility and no vocalizing,” the researchers reported in a Facebook post. “By the afternoon, we relocated them and were able to stay with them all night.

“This morning (Thursday) they were off the entrance to the Columbia River and after traveling a few miles south, they turned north and were just north of the shipping channel entering the Columbia River by this evening. Weather conditions in the afternoon were spectacular and we were able to conduct small boat operations with the whales.”

In an email, Brad told me that the researchers have observed “surface activity” that would suggest foraging for salmon, and they have collected some fecal samples to identify what fish they were eating. The weather turned from “spectacular” on Thursday to “bad but not horrible” yesterday, but Brad was expecting some fierce winds and waves tomorrow.

Ocean conditions were nearly perfect for whale research on Thursday. NOAA photo
Conditions were nearly ideal for whale research on Thursday, as the vessel Bell M. Shimada follows K and L pods down the coast.
NOAA photo