Four ‘missing’ orcas return to San Juans;
L-54, where are you?

Welcome back Racer, Ballena, Crewser and Fluke!

And would anyone like to write new words to an old song that we could use to invite the last five orcas to the party in the San Juan Islands? (Read on for details.)

A 29-year-old female named Racer (L-72) and her 11-year-old son Fluke (L-105) are among the four orcas spotted in the San Juan Islands this week. It was the first time the group was seen in inland waters this summer. One group of five still has not returned. Photo by Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research NMFS PERMIT: 15569/ DFO SARA 272
A 29-year-old female named Racer (L-72) and her 11-year-old son Fluke (L-105) are among four orcas spotted this week in inland waters.
Photo by Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research
NMFS PERMIT: 15569/ DFO SARA 272

I reported last week in Water Ways (July 1) that nine Southern Resident killer whales had not yet returned to the San Juan Islands this year. I’d like to update you with the news that four of the nine have now been seen, so we’re just waiting for the final group of five.

Dave Ellifrit, Lauren Brent and Darren Croft with the Center for Whale Research did an amazing job Sunday tracking down 65 killer whales in and around Haro Strait in the San Juan Islands. Meanwhile, Ken Balcomb photographed another 11 from the porch of the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island. Read Dave’s report of the encounters on the center’s website, listed as Encounter Number 59.

“Due to forest fires in several different places in British Columbia, there were dark clouds coming out of the northwest which made the sun red and the lighting a weird shade of brown-yellow.,” Dave reported in his notes. “A little after 0930, we left the L group and headed about a half mile north to a male who was foraging by himself. This was K21 and we saw him actively chase a salmon before he headed off to the west.”

The four “missing” whales spotted for the first time this year in inland waters are known to travel together. As I reported in last week’s blog entry, the groups of orcas have grown smaller and more spread out, apparently because their prey — chinook salmon — are not arriving together in significant numbers.

The latest four arrivals are Racer (L-72), a 29-year-old female, and her son Fluke (L-105), an 11-year-old male; Ballena (L-90), a 22-year-old female; and Crewser (L-92), a 20-year-old male. Ballena is Crewser’s aunt, and they are the last two members of what was once an extended family.

Yet to arrive to the party in the San Juans is a group known as the L-54’s. Some of you might remember a sitcom from the early 1960s about two New York cops, Toody and Muldoon. Anyway, the name of the show was “Car 54, Where Are You?” and it had a catchy theme song (See YouTube) that featured prominently the title of the show.

It just occurred to me that we could rewrite the words to the song, which would ask the question: “L-54, where are you?” If anybody wants to take this challenge, I’ll post your new words on this blog.

As for the group itself, L-54 is a 38-year-old female named “Ino.” She is closely followed by her 9-year-old son, L-108 or “Coho,” and her 5-year-old daughter, L-117 or “Keta.”

Also traveling with the L-54 family is L-84, a 25-year-old male named “Nyssa.” This orca is the last surviving member of what was once called the L-9 subpod.

Another lone male, L-88 or “Wave Walker,” is 22 years old. He is the last surviving member of what was once called the L-2 subpod, and he now travels with the L-54’s as well.

This group — presumably all five — was last seen in March in the western end of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and in February in the Pacific Ocean near Westport.

Ken tells me that NOAA Fisheries funds his census work for exactly 42 days, and the funding has now run out with more work to be done. His nonprofit organization is continuing the search for the “missing” whales mainly with contributions, including memberships. See “SupportingThe Center for Whale Research.”

With the disbursed pattern of orcas in recent years, some changes are needed, Ken said. Perhaps he can get some additional funding to search for the whales later in the year, travel to coastal waters or contract with researchers already working in the ocean.

Another option is to provide an annual list of the whales identified in inland waters when the 42 days of funding runs out, he said. That idea would not allow a complete census each year, but the whales would eventually show up and could be counted at that time. That’s the system used for counting Northern Residents in upper British Columbia, Ken said, noting that researchers up north often don’t see all the orcas in any one year.

Increased funding for research projects, including census counts, could come as a result of the new “Species in the Spotlight” campaign launched this spring by NOAA. The Southern Residents, listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act, are among eight well-known species considered at the greatest risk of extinction.

Eileen Sobeck, assistant NOAA administrator for NOAA Fisheries, made this statement when announcing the new campaign:

“Of all the species NOAA protects under the ESA, these eight species are among the most at risk of extinction in the near future. For some of these species, their numbers are so low that they need to be bred in captivity; others are facing human threats that must be addressed. If we act now with renewed commitment and intensified efforts, we can help these species survive and thrive.”

The other seven “Species in the Spotlight” are Gulf of Maine Atlantic salmon, Central California Coast coho salmon, Cook Inlet beluga whales, Hawaiian monk seals, Pacific leatherback sea turtles, Sacramento River winter-run chinook salmon and California Coast white abalone.

The campaign, which ends next May, will follow a detailed five-year plan to be unveiled in September.

Amusing Monday: Comedians share their thoughts about water

Actors and comedians are talking about water in a new video campaign to raise awareness about the value of clean water and the importance of keeping pollution out of waterways.

Waterkeeper Alliance brought together celebrities to share their feelings and memories about water uses. They include Neil Patrick Harris, Susan Sarandon, Bobby Moynihan, Taran Killam, Ray Romano and Brad Garrett.

Locally, Puget Soundkeeper Alliance is affiliated with the national Waterkeeper Alliance. Puget Soundkeeper Chris Wilke, based in Seattle, is featured in an earlier video that explains the goals of Waterkeeper Alliance and the actions of the various affiliates across the United States and throughout the world.

The new campaign, called “Keep it Clean” is directed by Rachael Harris and produced by Kids at Play.

“We want to get people thinking about what water pollution means to them — to their drinking water, their surf break, their favorite fishing spot,” Harris said in a prepared statement. “But it’s a dirty and heavy topic! So we brought together some of the most brilliant and passionate voices in entertainment to put their own spin on it, to get a little silly, to make people think about why this issue is important, and what they can do to help.”

The videos presented here were announced as the “first round” of the campaign, which I presume means that more will be coming later. The three videos shown in players are compilations of comments on three themes:

  • What’s your favorite use of water? (top video)
  • Heartfelt memories (middle)
  • What does Waterkeeper Alliance do? (bottom)

The other videos show either celebrities speaking alone or with a partner:

Rainfall drops below average, but deep wells should be fine this year

Rainfall in most of Kitsap County was fairly normal or slightly above average until April, when the spring rains basically stopped. The lack of rain has led to extreme conditions, as anyone can see by looking at the dry vegetation across Western Washington.

Silverdale

The total rainfall has now fallen below normal in most areas of Kitsap County, as shown by the maps on this page. That below-average condition is unlikely to change without some uncharacteristic rainstorms between now and the end of the “water year” on Oct. 1.

The Kitsap Peninsula, like islands throughout Puget Sound, does not rely on snowpack for its water supplies, so a shortage of drinking water is unlikely. The one exception might be residents who rely on private shallow wells, some of which could start to dry up by the end of summer, according to Bob Hunter, manager of Kitsap Public Utility District.

Deeper aquifers used by most major water systems on the peninsula are not affected by a single year’s weather. It takes time for the water to trickle down to the deeper layers, where groundwater levels reflect the pattern of rainfall occurring over several years.

Holly

The soils and topography vary so greatly from one place to another that nobody can say how soon shallow wells will be affected. Some wells depend on springs or surface infiltration, while others tap into aquifers with adequate supply. The rate of withdrawal, including the number of homes in a given area, can have an effect on water supply.

Although the deeper aquifers are not likely to be affected this year, what if we are at the beginning of a dry period that lasts three years or more? I would hate to look back on my current water usage and regret not saving water when I had the chance. To a varying extent, conserving water can protect our water supplies and help the overall ecosystem.

In addition to affecting aquifers, the lack of rain has reduced streamflows in creeks and rivers to below-normal rates throughout the county. The resulting low flows could affect coho salmon, which spend a year in freshwater. The fall salmon migration will be mostly affected by whether rains show up to saturate the soils and raise stream levels in September and October.

Hansville

Bob Hunter says the per-capita use of water has been dropping, but he’s not sure how much of the change is a result of personal choices and how much is a result of new kitchen and bathroom fixtures required by plumbing codes. Low-flush toilets and low-flow faucets can really make a difference, he said.

People use large amounts of water on their lawns, so one long-term effort is to reduce the amount of grass and thirsty vegetation that homeowners maintain while improving the soil to increasing its water-holding capacity.

“This year, people are irrigating a lot earlier than they were in the past,” Bob told me. “That has to have an impact, especially if the summer stays dry the whole way.”

The key to protecting future water supplies on the Kitsap Peninsula is for everyone to change their habitats over time by finding ways to use less water. If people understand the trickle-down theory of aquifers, they might be less inclined to take our water for granted.

For more information, see the Kitsap PUD’s webpage on “Groundwater and Aquifers,” including an informative piece from the Environmental Protection Agency called “Build Your Own Aquifer.” The PUD also offers a list of “Frequently Asked Questions.” For details about lawns, see King County’s “Natural Lawn Care.”

Streams in Kitsap County have dropped significantly in their flows (cubic feet per second). ALL GRAPHICS FROM KITSAP PUBLIC UTILITY DISTRICT
Streams in Kitsap County have dropped significantly in their flows (cubic feet per second).
ALL GRAPHICS FROM KITSAP PUBLIC UTILITY DISTRICT

Coastal researchers launch blog to share findings about ocean

It’s an interesting time for researchers to begin writing a blog about ocean conditions off Oregon and Washington, an area undergoing some fascinating changes in oceanography and sealife.

The colors reveal that sea surface temperatures are significantly higher than the long-term average. Click on the map to view a six-month animation. Graphic: NOAA OSPO
Colors indicate that sea surface temperatures (°C) are significantly higher off the West Coast than the long-term average. Click on the map to view a six-month animation.
Graphic: NOAA OSPO

Scientists from NOAA Fisheries and Oregon State University launched their new website, “Newporter Blog,” last week. It’s named after the Newport Line, an area of study off the Oregon Coast where researchers have monitored changes for the past 20 years.

“This year, the ocean has been very different,” wrote blogger Jennifer Fisher in the blog’s first post on June 23. “Anomalously warm surface water dubbed the ‘warm blog’ moved onto the continental shelf off Newport in September 2014. A very large harmful algal bloom (HAB) spanning from British Columbia to California is occurring off the coast right now. El Niño conditions are occurring at the equator, and NOAA is forecasting a 90-percent chance that an El Niño will persist through the Fall.”

The next blog post last Thursday was by researcher Cheryl Morgan from the Canadian fishing vessel FV Frosti “somewhere off the coast of the Pacific Northwest,” where researchers are looking to see how juvenile salmon are doing. They were taking note of anything picked up in their nets in the upper 60 feet of water.

“Watching the trawl come in is like the anticipation of opening a Christmas gift,” Cheryl wrote. “What could be in there? How many? How big? Have we ever caught any of them in the net?

“We always hope for some juvenile salmon, since that is the main point of the survey, but we also like to see something different, strange, or unusual to spice things up,” she continued.

Juvenile jack macherel Photo: Newporter Blog
Juvenile jack macherel
Photo: Newporter Blog

The next post on Monday revealed that fish being caught were of a kind seen in Northwest waters only when the temperatures rise. They included pompano and jack mackerel. The researchers were especially surprised to find bottom-dwelling flatfish in their net some several hundred feet off the bottom.

“What is a fish that lives on the bottom, one side down, doing in the water column?” she asked. “Perhaps they are lost, could not find the bottom or they are chasing some dinner. Most strange, however, was the catch of nearly 3,330 Pacific sanddabs … in ONE trawl. That was a first for even the fishing crew.”

The team also brought up a juvenile red octopus, a species normally found among rocks on the bottom — “another creature that is a long way from home.”

The research fishing will continue from Newport to the upper corner of Washington state. The scientists are taking note of any birds preying on fish before they begin their daily trawl. Plankton also are scooped up to see what the fish might be eating and to provide new data about the harmful algal bloom.

The work is being funded by NOAA and Bonneville Power Administration.

The researchers/bloggers said they would share their findings as they go along. I, for one, look forward to learning about ocean conditions and how the warm water is affecting all sorts of sealife along the West Coast.

Orca census shows increase in Southern Resident population

A census of the killer whales that frequent Puget Sound is due today, and it appears that the total population of the three Southern Resident pods is 82, up from 79 last year at this time.

But that’s not the end of the story, because two small groups of orcas have not been seen recently — so a final count must wait, according to Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research, which conducts the annual census.

J-36, a 16-year-old female named Alki, swims with her young calf J-52 (middle) and her sister, J-50 (far side). Both of the young orcas were born within the past year. Photo: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research, NMFS permit 15569/ DFO SARA 272
J-36, a 16-year-old female named Alki, swims with her young offspring J-52 and her sister, J-50. Both of the young orcas were born within the past year.
Photo: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research
NMFS permit 15569/ DFO SARA 272

The three Southern Resident pods, well defined years ago, are no longer the same, Ken told me. The tendency the past few years is for the whales to split up into smaller groups of one or more families, known as matrilines. Immediate families tend to stay together, but larger groupings such as pods and subpods are becoming less certain.

“They’ve decided to mix it up,” Ken said. “This is definitely different. If we were trying to determine pod structures right now, we couldn’t do it. It’s all mix and match.”

The Center for Whale Research records the annual census on July 1 each year and reports it to the federal government by October.

Four orca births can be reported since the last census was taken:

  • J-50 a female calf born to J-16, named Slick, last December
  • J-51 a male* calf born to J-41, named Eclipse, in February
  • L-121 a male* calf born to L-94, named Calypso, in February
  • J-52 a female male calf born to J-36, named Alki, in March

*Update: Sexes not confirmed by Center for Whale Research, and J-51 likely a male. (See comments.) I’ll update later.

These were the first births among Southern Residents to be reported since August of 2012. Some people see these newborns as a hopeful sign for the future of the population, which is listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

So far, one death has been confirmed over the past year. That was J-32, an 18-year-old female named Rhapsody, who was found dead on Dec. 4 floating near Courtenay, B.C. The young whale was pregnant, and experts believe that the death of the fetus inside her body could have led to her death as well. For more details , see Water Ways from Dec. 7 and from Dec. 12.

While there is no reason to believe that any other deaths have occurred over the past year, nobody can be sure, at least not until the last two groups of whales can be observed. If any animals are truly missing after their family groups are carefully observed, we could see one or more whales added to the death list.

In all, nine whales have not been seen this spring or summer since returning to the San Juan Islands. One of the two groups of whales was spotted off the Washington Coast in February, when all the whales were present. One of the uncertain groups was reported yesterday near San Juan Island, but I have not heard whether any “missing” whales were identified.

Since the census report is not due until October, there is time to see whether any more whales have died this past year. If any more deaths are identified, the researchers will need to make a judgment about whether the death occurred before or after the July 1 census cutoff. We can certainly hope that all the whales will be accounted for.

Ken suspects that the pod groupings are becoming less distinct because of the changing pattern of available prey, primarily chinook salmon. When large schools of wild chinook head back to the rivers, killer whales can work together to herd the fish and gain an advantage.

Ken says hatchery chinook may not school together as much as wild chinook, so the advantage goes to smaller groups of orcas if the majority of salmon are from hatcheries.

“The prey field has changed for them,” he said. “Back when we named the pods, the bulk of the fish were wild, and they were coming through in pulses. All these fish were related and from the same river system. Now with the hatchery program, there are less pulses and the fish are more spread out.”

The chinook also are much smaller than they used to be, he said, so it takes more effort to get the same nutritional benefit.

The Center for Whale Research, now in its 40th year, conducts its census work in Puget Sound under a grant from the National Marine Fisheries Service. The grant is fairly limited, so the center began offering memberships a few years ago to raise money for additional research.

This year’s membership drive is nearly halfway toward its goal of 750 members, with 329 members signed on as of yesterday. An individual membership costs $30 a year. For details and special member benefits, go to “Supporting the Center for Whale Research.”

In a related development, Ken recently took a trip into Snake River country in Eastern Washington, the source of upstream habitat for many of the salmon that come down the Columbia River. His experience and what he has learned about the Snake River dams has placed him among advocates for dam removal in this hotly contested debate.

After returning from his trip, Ken wrote an essay posted on the National Geographic blog “Voices: Ideas and Insights from Explorers.” Here are some excerpts from the blog post:

“Until recently, dam removal was against my conservative nature…

“In truth, already well known to others but not to me, these four Snake River dams are obsolete for their intended purposes and are being maintained at huge taxpayer expense for the benefit of a very few users. Plus, they are salmon-killers in a former river (now a series of lakes) that historically provided spawning and rearing habitat for millions of chinook salmon…”

“The technological fixes for the dams have not improved wild salmon runs, and there is nothing left to try. As a nation, we are dangerously close to managing the beloved Southern Resident killer whale population to quasi-extinction (less than 30 breeding animals) as a result of diminishing populations of chinook salmon upon which they depend…

“Returning the Snake River to natural condition will help salmon and whales, and save money. Please do not wait until all are gone. Call or write your representatives today!”

Amusing Monday: Bears, birds and more can be viewed live online

The beautiful and powerful brown bears have arrived at Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park and Preserve in Alaska, and everyone in the world can enjoy the convenience of watching these giant bears and other amazing wildlife live from the comfort and safety of their home.

Lots of people have been going out to falls this year to watch the bears from nearby viewing platforms, but I get the feeling that far more people have been watching them from home via the live webcams. I say that because of the number of comments generated on the website. More than a few commenters seem to know the area well and even call the bears by their nicknames. (Park biologists use a numbering system, identifying each bear by coat and claw colors, scars, body size and shape, ear size and shape, sex, facial features and disposition.)

Brooks Falls is one of the first streams in the region where the bears have easy access to bright salmon soon after they leave the saltwater and before spawning. The falls provide a partial barrier to their travels, making fishing easier for the bears. By sometime in August, the fish runs will dwindle and the bears will be gone.

Operators of the multiple live webcams do a good job of zooming in when something interesting happens. Occasionally, so much is going on that they don’t know what to show. Other times, we wait and watch the beautiful scenery, which is especially dramatic at sunrise and sunset.

When the bears are actively fishing for salmon, I find it hard to break away and get back to daily life. One video trick I’ve learned: If you don’t see anything interesting in the live view, you can use your cursor to scan across the timeline to see what has happened for the past few hours and watch that instead.

Park officials have identified the various fishing methods used by the bears in an interesting Q&A section on the national park’s website.

Birds and marine mammal cams

Besides watching bears, it’s a good time of year to watch other wildlife as well via live webcam. Birds are typically active on their nests, raising their young.

Chesapeake Conservancy is featuring the osprey couple, Tom and Audrey, who perennially nest on Kent Island in Maryland. Audrey has taken up with a new “Tom” this year and produced three babies. They also received two foster chicks from nearby Poplar Island, according to information on the website.

Another good osprey cam was installed this year in Belwood Lake Conservation Area near the Great Lakes in Ontario, Canada. Three eggs reportedly hatched, but I see only two chicks in the nest.

Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife also has an osprey cam that updates still photos every 12 seconds.

A puffin cam at Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge in Maine shows a fuzzy chick tucked into a burrow where its mother comes and goes to feed her baby. Other views shows puffins on a ledge where they often hang out. Wildlife biologists are trying to establish a new colony at this location after hunters wiped out the puffins in the 1800s.

Another live camera on Seal Island shows a guillemot in a burrow.

If you would like to see a colony of walruses, (also in video player below) check out the live camera installed on Round Island, Alaska. Sometimes only a few of the large mammals can be seen. Other times, like this morning, large numbers were pushing and shoving each other for space. The comments are often entertaining.

If you are interested in more live cams of wildlife, check out last year’s Water Ways entry from June 23, 2014.

Meanwhile, the Seattle Aquarium is featuring live cams from its displays of harbor seals and sea lions.

Federal Land and Water Conservation Fund gets tangled in politics

Two members of the Washington’s congressional delegation — Reps. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, and Dave Reichert, R-Auburn — are expressing confidence that the Land and Water Conservation Fund will be reauthorized.

But with so many dollars on the line for conservation purposes, many supporters are growing nervous about when it will happen and what the final bill will look like. After all, what could possibly go wrong in a Congress famous for getting nothing done, with less than 100 days left to go before the law expires?

The Land and Water Conservation Fund is a major source of money for recreation and habitat-protection projects across the country, ranging from building local swimming pools to buying land for national parks. Since 1965, more than 41,000 grants have provided a total of about $4 billion, divided among every state and five U.S. territories. For a list of completed projects in Washington state, check out “50 Years of Success” by the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund receives $900 million a year, about halfway up the lowest line. The short bars show spending, compared to revenues from drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf.
The Land and Water Conservation Fund receives $900 million a year, about halfway up the lowest line. The short bars show spending, compared to revenues from drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf. (Click to enlarge)
Graph:LWCF Coalition

The current law places $900 million a year into the fund, but in recent years only a fraction of that ever gets appropriated — roughly between one-fourth and one-half. If not appropriated, the money disappears into the general Treasury for other spending.

Revenues put into the fund come from royalties paid by energy companies for drilling for oil on the outer continental shelf, so no tax dollars are involved. As President Obama and others have stated, the program allows money coming from the extraction of natural resources to go into protecting natural resources.

In a conference call yesterday, Kilmer recounted how the fund has helped bring businesses to Washington state, as employers look for places with natural beauty and recreational opportunities. He noted that in his previous life he worked for the Pierce County Economic Development Board helping employers site their businesses.

“Just like in real estate, location matters,” Kilmer said. “Access to natural beauty matters. Something our region has is a natural environment that you won’t find anywhere else, and innovators and employers are attracted to the Pacific Northwest.”

Kilmer said it is “hard to overstate the importance” of the Land and Water Conservation Fund. He promised to work hard to have it permanently authorized.

Reichert delivered a similar message, saying he helped gather signatures in support from more than 200 representatives from both parties.

“I want to reassure everyone… we are going to continue to fight this fight back here,” he said. “We think it is absolutely critical to invest in the LWCF … and support public land conservation efforts.”

I did not get a clear picture of how the political battles are shaping up, nor whether reauthorization is likely before the fund expires at the end of September. But we can get some clues from remarks by key leaders in the House and Senate, as well as testimony in public hearings.

At one end of the spectrum, Washington’s Sen. Maria Cantwell has proposed legislation, S. 890, that would not only reauthorize the law but require permanent and dedicated funding at the full amount of authorization. If Congress fails to appropriate the funds, presumably the money would stay in the fund unless redirected to another program.

Separate bills in the Senate and House (S. 338 and H.R. 1814) would not go as far. They would make the fund permanent but would not change the appropriation process. A provision would be added to the law to require that 1.5 percent of the appropriation, up to $10 million, would be set aside for opening up public access to recreation.

In the Senate, an amendment to the Keystone XL pipeline bill, which would do what S. 338 proposes, nearly passed with 59 votes, one vote shy of the required 60 votes to pass in today’s Senate. That is seen as decent support in the Senate, but nobody is predicting what will happen in the House.

Republicans, who are in control of the committees, could shape any bills that they decide to bring to a vote and move to floor.

Rep. Tom McClintock, a Republican from California, chairs the Subcommittee on Federal Lands Oversight of the House Natural Resources Committee.

“This 50-year old act expires in September, offering the 114th Congress an opportunity to thoroughly examine its mission and impacts and to make adjustments accordingly,” McClintock said in a hearing in April on the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

McClintock raised objections about buying more federal land when there is a serious backlog of maintenance projects needed to meet standards for fire prevention, fire suppression, wildlife management and facilities maintenance. Money that goes to states, on the other hand, comes under greater accountability because of the funding match provided at the local level, he said.

The funding is entirely discretionary, he noted, so it is “incumbent upon Congress” to decide whether to support additional funding for the purchase of federal lands.

Similar views were expressed by Alaskan Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Republican chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

“I fully support reauthorizing this act, this year, in a way that reflects changing needs and evolving viewpoints about conservation in the 21st century,” Murkowski said during a hearing in April.

“As we look to reauthorize LWCF, I believe that it makes sense to shift the federal focus away from land acquisition, particularly in Western states, toward maintaining and enhancing the accessibility and quality of the resources that we have,” she said. “This is the best way to put our nation’s recreation system on the path of long-term viability.”

She stressed her support for state programs and for increasing public access to federal lands.

In that same hearing, Washington’s Sen. Maria Cantwell, the Democrats’ ranking minority member on the committee, said it is not necessary to choose between maintenance and purchase. Maintenance is already authorized, she said, and Congress decides how much to spend on maintenance.

“Nearly half of the National Park Service’s estimated backlog is attributed to needed repairs for roads and highways within the national parks,” she said. “The single biggest improvement we could make in reducing the maintenance backlog would be to increase the funding level in the transportation bill for park roads.”

The Land and Water Conservation Fund is flexible, she argued. It provides money for states to buy and develop local recreation projects and to protect habitat for endangered species.

The fund also provides money for the Forest Legacy Program to purchase development rights from private timberland owners to keep the property in a forest condition.

On that point, more than 2,100 acres of forestland adjacent to both Green Mountain and Tahuya state forests in Kitsap and Mason counties were protected from development in 2009 with a $3.3 million purchase of development rights from Pope Resources. See Kitsap Sun, Aug. 12, 2009.

In the latest round of funding, an effort is moving forward to protect 20,000 acres of forestland between Shelton and Allyn in Mason County. The plan is to take up to 10 years to buy the development rights from Green Diamond Resource Company, which will continue to manage the land under a federally approved habitat conservation plan.

As for extra money for state projects, Cantwell pointed out that a relatively new program, the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act, provides a dedicated source of funding for state grants. Money from drilling in the Gulf of Mexico places up to $125 million a year in the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

In a column published by the Kitsap Sun, Washington State Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, said the Land and Water Conservation Fund is important for protecting public property in every corner of the state, including a land purchase to improve degraded water quality in Lake Quinault near the coast.

Rolfes said she worries that in this “highly charged political climate,” opponents of public lands could block spending from the fund by failing to authorize its renewal.

“If they succeed,” she said, “the loss won’t be abstract — it will be real and immediate.”

The video below, produced by The Nature Conservancy, makes an argument for continuing the purchase and protection of public lands.

Amusing Monday: Puppet, music help people save rockfish

Last week, while looking into some early research findings about Puget Sound rockfish (Water Ways, June 18), I found an amusing video, one created to encourage anglers to save the lives of rockfish when releasing the fish.

The video begins with a talking rockfish (puppet) sitting at a desk and watching a music video. That leads into a conversation about barotrauma, a type of injury to rockfish that results when the fish are caught and brought to the surface from deep water. Barotrauma can be reversed — and the lives of fish saved — by using a device to get the fish back down deep.

If you fish in deep water, you probably already know about this device, but I think everyone can be amused by this video and appreciate how humor can help introduce people to a serious topic.

The first couple minutes of the video introduces the viewer to the problem of barotrauma in simple terms, followed by about five minutes of product reviews showing various devices to reduce the effects on fish. If you are not interested in the technical side of things, you can skip over this part and go to 6:55 in the video. There you will hear the funny rap song about fishing for rockfish, including a line about “sending them back to where you got ‘em.”

The music video, “Rockfish Recompression,” was written and sung by Ray Troll and Russell Wodehouse. Wodehouse is the musician appearing in the video. Those two and others have long performed as the group Ratfish Wranglers, creating funny tunes about fish and related issues.

If you’d like to hear more from this group, check out these YouTube performances:

Clouds at edge of space have been showing up more frequently

These noctilucent, or “night shining,” clouds over the Arctic June 10 are shown as a composite image taken by the Aeronomy of Ice in the Mesosphere (AIM) spacecraft. The mysterious clouds have been showing up with more frequency in recent years, and some scientists speculate that they may be connected to climate change. NASA Earth Observatory map by Joshua Stevens
These noctilucent clouds over the Arctic are a composite image from the AIM spacecraft on June 10. The clouds’ more frequent appearance could relate to climate change. (Click to enlarge)
NASA Earth Observatory map by Joshua Stevens

Unique clouds at the edge of space appear to be showing up in spring and summer more often than ever before, according to NASA scientists, who speculate that climate change could be playing a role in cloud formation.

I like the term “noctilucent clouds” for these night-shining clouds glowing with a tint of blue — although NASA researchers formally call them “polar mesospheric clouds.” That’s because they show up at the poles in the mesosphere at about 50 miles up — the outer edge of Earth’s atmosphere. If you are a scientist with a perspective from satellites, you don’t really think about day or night.

Researchers have learned a great deal about these clouds since the 2007 launch of the Aeronomy of Ice in the Mesosphere (AIM) spacecraft, but they still seem distant and mysterious.

A notilucent cloud photographed on July 2, 2011, near Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Photo: NASA/Dave Hughes
A notilucent cloud photographed after midnight on July 2, 2011, near Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
Photo: NASA/Dave Hughes

The clouds are actually ice crystals about the size of particles in cigarette smoke, according to an interesting article by NASA’s Tony Phillips, who interviewed cloud-researcher and astronaut Don Pettit in 2003. Because the clouds are so high up, they are seen shortly after the sky turns dark at sunset, a time when sunlight can still bounce off the crystals. Years ago, they were seen only in the far-north latitudes in our part of the world, but more recently they have been seen as far south as Colorado and Utah.

The temperature in the mesosphere is about -125 degrees Celsius, or nearly 200 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. Conditions up there are extremely dry — far dryer than any place on Earth.

Like common clouds in the lower atmosphere, noctilucent clouds need water vapor and a “nucleus” upon which the water can attach. In the lower atmosphere, called the troposphere, ordinary dust and many other particles are common enough as a result of winds. Cirrus clouds can form in the highest layers of the troposphere, about 12 miles up. But until data came back from the AIM project, nobody was sure what was happening at 50 miles up. Now, researchers believe the nuclei are mostly space dust pulled in by Earth’s gravity.

The first reports of noctilucent clouds came in 1885 after the eruption of the volcano Krakatoa. Researchers aren’t sure if volcanic dust made it high enough into the atmosphere to form the clouds, but that potential source disappeared long ago.

Noctilucent clouds are observed in late spring and summer when upwelling winds carry water vapor up into the atmosphere. The increasing frequency of cloud formation may be the result of climate change. It turns out that when greenhouse gases warm the Earth’s surface, the upper atmosphere actually gets colder as heat escapes, helping the tiny crystals to form.

Another factor in climate change could be the increasing amount of methane gas in the atmosphere. A complex series of reactions can oxidize the methane to form water vapor, which can then form ice crystals.

One of the unexpected results of the AIM mission has been unusual “teleconnections” between the north and south poles via the mesosphere. It turns out that a slowing of stratospheric winds over the Arctic affects circulation in the mesosphere, causing a ripple effect around the globe. The southern mesosphere becomes warmer and drier, leading to fewer noctilucent clouds.

These high-level connections were not even suspected when the AIM spacecraft was launched, but they are revealing how weather on one part of the globe may be connected to relatively rapid changes in other far-flung regions. (Check out last year’s video below.) Further studies of the upper atmosphere can be expected to bring more surprises.

Research on rockfish
in Puget Sound reveals intriguing findings

This week’s announcement that the coastal population of canary rockfish had dramatically rebounded got me to wondering what new information might be coming from research on the threatened and endangered rockfish of Puget Sound.

Canary rockfish Photo by Tippy Jackson, NOAA
Canary rockfish // Photo by Tippy Jackson, NOAA

Dayv Lowry, research scientist at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, shared some intriguing new information about Puget Sound rockfish that could link into the coastal population. In fact, if limited genetic findings hold up, a delisting of one type of Puget Sound rockfish could be in order.

On Monday, the Pacific Fishery Management Council reported that West Coast populations of two groundfish species — canary rockfish and petrale sole — have been “rebuilt” some 42 years earlier than expected. Canary rockfish were declared “overfished” in 2000, and a rebuilding plan was put in place a year later. Strict fishing restrictions were imposed, and experts expected the stock to rebound successfully by 2057.

“This is a big deal,” former council chairman Dan Wolford said in a news release. “We now have six times more canary rockfish than when we scaled back so many fisheries. This shows the Pacific council’s conservation policies work.”

Meanwhile, WDFW and NOAA Fisheries are researching the three species of Puget Sound rockfish listed under the Endangered Species Act. They are canary rockfish and yelloweye rockfish, both listed as threatened, and bacaccio, listed as endangered.

Yelloweye rockfish Photo by Kip Evans, NOAA
Yelloweye rockfish
Photo by Kip Evans, NOAA

Underwater surveys with a remotely operated vehicle in 2012 and 2013 looked for all sorts of bottomfish across a grid laid down on Puget Sound. Researchers found a greater abundance of quillback and copper rockfish (not ESA listed) than in the past, and young juvenile quillbacks were seen on muddy substrate — not the place you would normally look for rockfish.

While that was encouraging, nearly 200 hours of video at 197 grid points revealed just two canary and five yelloweye rockfish.

“That was quite distressing to us,” Dayv said.

This year and next, surveys are more focused on rocky habitat, including locations where fishing guides say they have had success catching rockfish in the past. The results are more encouraging, locating somewhere around 40 canary and 40 yelloweye and two bacaccio, Dayv said.

“We’ve caught some big fish and some little fish, so the population demographics have not entirely collapsed,” Dayv told me, and that means there is still hope for recovery.

Rockfish don’t typically reproduce until somewhere between 5 and 20 years old, so over-fishing places the future of the entire population at risk. Some rockfish are known to live as long as 100 years.

Finding juvenile yelloweyes — “bright red with ‘racing stripes’” — is especially encouraging Dayv said.

Genetic work so far is offering some intriguing new findings, he noted. While yelloweye rockfish from Puget Sound and the Strait of Georgia seem to be distinct from those on the coast, the same cannot be said for canary rockfish.

In fact, the limited samples taken so far suggest that the coastal population of canary rockfish — those found by the PFMC to be “rebuilt” — may not be genetically distinct from canary rockfish living in Puget Sound.

If that proves to be the case, it could have a profound effect on what we understand about canary rockfish and could even lead to a de-listing of the Puget Sound population.

Kelly Andrews, a genetics expert with NOAA Fisheries, cautioned that the sample size is small and more results are needed before anyone can draw conclusions. New samples are soon to be examined to see if there are any differences between canary rockfish on the coast and those in Puget Sound.

“What initially may seem to be the same could change dramatically with all these new samples we just got,” he told me. “Still just finding them is good news.”

When the Puget Sound rockfish were listed in 2010, researchers did not have the genetic data to define the populations in that way, so they used reasonable assumptions about geographic isolation. Now, the genetics can be factored in.

A five-year review is due to be completed this year for the listed rockfish in Puget Sound. If the new genetics information holds up, then the technical review team could propose a delisting of the canary rockfish.

For that reason, a long-awaited recovery plan for rockfish is being completed for the most part, but its release will be delayed until the genetic information is conclusive and the five-year review is completed. It would not make sense to come out with a recovery plan for canary rockfish, if the plan is to delist the population.

Meanwhile, small areas of Quilcene and Dabob bays have been reopened to fishing for some flatfish. (See earlier news release.) Bottom fishing is generally closed in Hood Canal because of the ongoing low-oxygen problems and its effects of bottom fish.

As in other areas of Puget Sound, targeted bottom fishing must take place in less than 120 feet of water, and all rockfish caught must be released. Experts strongly advise using a “descending device” (see video) to get rockfish safely back to deep water, no matter where they are caught. Without that, many of the fish die from barotrauma caused by the ballooning of their swim bladder as they are brought to the surface. See “Bring That Fish Down” by California Sea Grant and “Protecting Washington’s Rockfish” by WDFW.