SeaWorld hopes to change its image by ending orca breeding

UPDATE, March 25, 2016

Statement from Paul Watson, Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, and David Phillips, International Marine Mammal Project: “Five reasons not to believe the Seaworld hype.”
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UPDATE, March 19, 2016

Naomi Rose, a marine mammal biologist who worked for the Humane Society of the U.S. for more than 20 years, posted a blog saying that it is alright for animals rights activists to celebrate a victory, even though SeaWorld remains in operation. Naomi now serves as an advocate for the Animal Welfare Institute. Her blog and Facebook page is called From a Dolphin’s Point of View:

“To anyone in an activist community with a clear adversary — a corporation, a commercial industry, a societal norm… — sometimes the battles become more important than the reason for them. It becomes less about changing how things are and more about winning. But I have to wonder sometimes: What does winning look like to these activists? Is it only a victory when the adversary is utterly crushed, with no survivors left on the battlefield? Do they win only when the war is utterly over, with no more battles, even a small skirmish, left to fight?

“For myself, as a marine mammal protection advocate who has been actively working to end the captive display of cetaceans for over 20 years, I have never been interested in vanquishing my opponent (the captive cetacean industry, of which SeaWorld is one of the major corporations)….”
Read more…

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I was still half asleep this morning when a news report about SeaWorld broke through my slumber. The voice on the radio beside my bed was saying that SeaWorld would no longer breed killer whales and that the company would follow through on its commitment to end the arena shows that have attracted audiences for decades.

It was hard to believe this news after covering many years of battle between SeaWorld and marine mammal advocates.

As I soon learned, SeaWorld and the Humane Society of the U.S. had suddenly become unlikely partners in a planned campaign to:

  • End commercial whaling and the killing of seals, sharks and other marine animals;
  • Protect coral reefs and end commercial collection of ornamental fish; and
  • Promote sustainable seafood and naturally grown foods.

SeaWorld also plans to redouble its efforts to rescue and rehabilitate marine creatures in distress, spending $50 million over the next five years.

“Times have changed,” says a statement on SeaWorld’s website, “and we are changing with them. The killer whales currently in our care will be the last generation of killer whales at SeaWorld. The company will end all orca breeding as of today.”

It was such a major move by SeaWorld that nobody could ignore it, although many animal-rights advocates could not forget that SeaWorld is still holding captive animals and has made no promises about dolphins and other marine mammals.

The SeaWorld statement includes this quote from Joel Manby, SeaWorld’s new chief executive officer:

“SeaWorld has introduced more than 400 million guests to orcas, and we are proud of our part in contributing to the human understanding of these animals. We’ve helped make orcas among the most beloved marine mammals on the planet. As society’s understanding of orcas continues to change, SeaWorld is changing with it. By making this the last generation of orcas in our care and reimagining how guests will experience these beautiful animals, we are fulfilling our mission of providing visitors to our parks with experiences that matter.”

Officials with the Humane Society of the U.S. were in a mood to celebrate. In his blog, CEO Wayne Pacelle had this to say:

“The world is waking up to the needs of all animals, and the smartest CEOs don’t resist the change. They hitch a ride on it and harness the momentum.

“Joel Manby, SeaWorld’s CEO, is banking on the premise that the American public will come to SeaWorld’s parks in larger numbers if he joins our cause instead of resisting it, and if SeaWorld is a change agent for the good of animals. He’s exactly right, and I give him tremendous credit for his foresight….

“SeaWorld and The HSUS still have some disagreements. But we’ve found an important set of issues to agree upon. The sunsetting of orcas in captivity is a game changer for our movement, one that’s been a long time coming, and one that is only possible because of your advocacy and participation. I am immensely excited about this announcement and I hope you are too.”

It may be a good step, but many advocacy groups say it is not enough.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals:

“This win is big … really big. SeaWorld has announced that it will no longer breed orcas. This means that this generation of orcas will be the last to suffer in SeaWorld’s tanks.

“PETA and caring people around the world have campaigned hard to see this day. PETA’s celebrity supporters—including Kate del Castillo, Jason Biggs, Jessica Biel, Bob Barker, Marisa Miller, and Joanna Krupa—have all worked to expose the unnatural conditions and untimely deaths of animals at SeaWorld. And actor Edie Falco voiced our cutting-edge “I, Orca” project. People everywhere were outraged after watching Blackfish, which exposed the miserable living conditions for orcas at the theme park.

“Today comes the payoff. For decades, orcas, beluga whales, seals, and many other animals have suffered in confinement at SeaWorld. And while this decision is a step in the right direction, to do right by the orcas now, SeaWorld must move these long-suffering animals to ocean sanctuaries so that they may have some semblance of a natural life outside their prison tanks. And we must remember the other animals who will remain in captivity until SeaWorld does right by all of them.”

David Phillips, Earth Island Institute:

“There has been a dramatic change in public attitudes about capturing and holding whales and dolphins for captive entertainment. Movies like Free Willy, The Cove, and Blackfish have all had a tremendous impact. They have helped educate a generation of people about how scientifically and ethically wrong it is for whales and dolphin to be confined in captivity doing circus tricks. People around the world are rightfully demanding change.

“SeaWorld’s attendance has dropped precipitously and shareholders have pounded the stock price. Legislation and lawsuits call for SeaWorld to reform. CEO Manby failed to mention two lawsuits Earth Island has been supporting against SeaWorld’s captive program. These lawsuits include our intervention to support the California Coastal Commission ban on trade and breeding of captive orcas, and a lawsuit contending that SeaWorld uses false and deceptive advertising and unfair business practices by making untrue claims about orcas in captivity.

“The company’s decision to stop orca breeding isn’t enough. More change is needed. Their announcement does not end the threat that SeaWorld and other captive facilities pose to dolphins and whales. Dolphins, belugas, and orcas continue to be captured around the world and are suffering in captivity.”

Phil Kline, Greenpeace U.S.A., in story by Michael Walsh, Yahoo News:

“It’s a long time coming but a fabulous announcement. It’s a huge step in the right direction. It’s a responsible step into the 21st century; hopefully, it’s just the beginning of the pendulum swinging that way.

“Survive and adapt to what the public wants and demands in the 21st century, or this business model no longer works and you are out of business. They did not do this because it was the altruistic thing to do. This was forced upon them by dedicated activists raising the issue to where it became a global concern [that] affected their bottom line, and they have to react.”

Howard Garrett, Orca Network, in a story by Evan Bush, the Seattle Times:

“It’s very gratifying. It’s been 20 years we’ve been asking them to do this, to phase out their captive killer-whale circus-entertainment-business model. Finally they are. It makes me feel like we’re on the right track, even when it looked hopeless.

“We would like to see them actively investigate how to return their captives on a case-by-case basis to a sea-pen rehabilitation center where they can feel the ocean and regenerate their strength.”

Stephen Wells, Animal Legal Defense Fund:

“Though it is long overdue in the face of overwhelming evidence of harm to orcas in captivity and evolving public opinion, the Animal Legal Defense Fund applauds SeaWorld for its historic decision to phase out its inhumane captive orca program.

“Thanks to our hundreds of thousands of supporters, the Animal Legal Defense Fund has been able to maintain immense legal pressure on SeaWorld and other ‘entertainment’ providers, including circuses and roadside zoos, who inhumanely confine animals and deprive them of everything that is natural and important to them.

“SeaWorld’s historic announcement comes mere weeks before Ringling’s final use of elephants in its traveling circus, and mere weeks after Animal Legal Defense Fund intervened to ensure the California Coastal Commission’s permit conditions are upheld, that allow SeaWorld San Diego to expand only if it ends its captive breeding program.”

Ric O’Barry, Dolphin Project

“In my opinion, SeaWorld is not ending their breeding program; the impending death of Tilikum is forcing them ending it. Tilikum was their main supplier of sperm stock. We’re not taking SeaWorld at face value, as historically they have proven they cannot be trusted. Dolphin Project will continue to monitor and report on the captive dolphins at their parks as we have been doing ever since the day they opened.”

Lifeforce:

“This is a step forward but the present captive orcas will continue to suffer for decades and they will continue to exploit belugas and other dolphin species. They may well obtain other cetaceans from the wild under the guise of ‘rescue’ and then claim that they are unreleasable. That is how the aquarium and zoo industry have gotten captives over the decades.
Further, there is a lot more to this cruel breeding issue. Sea World must stop breeding belugas and other dolphin species.”

Is Earth Hour losing its inspiration in the U.S.?

If you do an online search for “Earth Hour,” you’ll find lots of people, organizations and businesses around the world participating in this annual event on Saturday. But it appears that enthusiasm in the U.S. and especially Washington state may be waning.

Earth Hour involves the simple act of uniting people throughout the world by turning off the lights, television and other electrical devices for an hour — from 8:30 to 9:30 p.m. Started in 2007 by the World Wildlife Fund, Earth Hour sends the message that everyone can be involved in reducing the effects of climate change.

Through the years, I have enjoyed the quiet time, sometimes with family and friends, sometimes with just my wife. Although it seems like a good time to discuss the challenges of climate change, our conversations don’t often go in that direction. Instead, we take a moment to appreciate what we have, talk about things in general or play some sort of game. Hide and Seek in a darkened house is what the kids want to do.

I noticed in my online search that various restaurants around the globe are offering candlelight dinners during Earth Hour this year. I like that idea, although I’m not sure if it fits into the pure spirit of Earth Hour. Still, to get out and be among a larger group of people would be nice.

The Tundra Restaurant & Bar in Toronto, Canada, has created a special menu of locally grown foods for this Saturday’s Earth Hour. All 17 Brasserie Blanc restaurants in England will be celebrating the hour. The DoubleTree Inn in Victoria to the north of here will be dimming the lights throughout the hotel and encouraging people to recognize Earth Hour.

I got a kick out of the message from World Wildlife Fund chapter in Finland:

“This year, we invite Finns to participate in the biggest candle light dinner in the world to awake conversation about ecologically responsible food. We ask people to turn off lights, light up candles and spend an hour with their loved ones enjoying climate-friendly food.

“Food touches every single person, and about 20 percent of our emissions are caused by what we eat. Approximately 60 percent of the emissions are caused in the production and most of them are related to producing meat, eggs and dairy.

“One of the most important things an individual can do to protect climate is eating less meat and more vegetables and sustainable seafood. Thinking about what we eat is a small act with great impact. Organize your own candle light dinner and show your support for action on climate change!”

These are just a few examples of how people are getting into Earth Hour in other countries. However, I’m finding it harder each year to find participants in Washington state, which has always been a major part of the environmental movement. Check out the participant list.

The Space Needle and Pacific Science Center remain on the list for going dark. (I’m not sure how the Space Needle restaurant is involved.) Several other local groups on last year’s list have not signed up so far this year.

The World Wildlife Fund boasts of support from 42,000 cities and towns from 172 countries around the world. In Washington state, Snoqualmie is the only city posted on the official participants list, although Seattle is involved in the challenge to become Earth Hour Capital.

In addition to the Space Needle and Pacific Science Center, landmarks going dark Saturday include the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, the Empire State Building in New York, Big Ben and Buckingham Palace in London, the Forbidden City in Beijing, the Eiffel Towel in Paris, the Borobudur and Prambanan temples in Indonesia, and the Opera House in Sydney, where it all started.

Archbishop Luis Antonio Tagle, a Filipino Cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church, urged his followers in Manila to be one with the rest of the world, as part of Pope Francis’ call for “ecological justice,” according to a story by reporter Leslie Ann Aquino in the Manila Bulletin.

St. James Cathedral, Seattle Photo: Wikipedia
St. James Cathedral, Seattle // Photo: Wikipedia

“Let’s turn off our appliances and other things that use electricity to give our world a little rest,” Tagle was quoted as saying.

This year, for the first time, St. James Cathedral in Seattle will participate in Earth Day by darkening its exterior, thus “bringing awareness to the issue of climate change in the spirit of Laudato Si, Pope Francis’ encyclical on environment and poverty,” according to Earth Ministry’s website.

Perhaps before Saturday additional newcomers will become part of Earth Hour, as others renew their participation in the annual event.

Amusing Monday:
You can vote for year’s best Eco-Comedy film

The Eco-Comedy Film Competition was created to get people thinking about the environment by reaching them through entertainment instead of a heavy-handed message.

“Clean Water” is the theme for this year’s competition, sponsored by The Nature Conservancy and American University’s Center for Environmental Filmmaking.

More than 80 short films were entered into this year’s contest. Everyone is eligible to vote online for the People’s Choice Award by selecting from among the seven finalists. Watch those seven videos on the Eco-Comedy Film Competition website, and vote using the form beneath the video players. Make sure you click in the lower right corner to go full screen. I’ve posted a couple of my favorites on this page, but please don’t let that influence your own choice.

The winning video will be selected by a panel of judges. The Grand Prize winner will be announced March 22 and will be awarded a $2,000 prize.

Last year, Patrick Webster won both the People’s Choice Award and the Grand Prize for his video “Dude! Or the Blissful Ingorance of Progress.”

Kitsap groundwater model points to promising future

Overall, the Kitsap Peninsula is expected to have enough water for people and fish for many years into the future, as long as the water is managed well, according to a groundwater model developed by the U.S. Geological Survey.

The model offers reassuring findings for residents of the Kitsap Peninsula. It is also encouraging to see local water, sewer and public works officials working together to plan for infiltrating stormwater along with recycling wastewater for irrigation. Those efforts will not only protect the peninsula’s water resources but will save money for water customers.

Drilling for water on the Kitsap Peninsula Kitsap Sun file photo
Drilling for water on the Kitsap Peninsula
Kitsap Sun file photo

Lonna Frans of the U.S. Geological Survey met this week with members of WaterPAK — the Water Purveyors of Association of Kitsap — to discuss the conclusions of a five-year, $1.4 million study of water resources across the Kitsap Peninsula. Lonna said a final written report should be available in about a month. (See website Kitsap GW model.)

The most impressive part of the groundwater model is the mapping of geology across the entire peninsula, based on more than 2,100 well-driller logs that describe the type of soil at various depths. Putting that information together provides a three-dimensional picture of the underground structure, including sand and gravel deposits, which contain water, along with layers of clay and compressed soils, which slow down the water movement.

By monitoring water levels in 66 wells over time and accounting for rainfall and groundwater withdrawals, the computer model provides a dynamic picture of what happens under various conditions. The model can be used to predict what will happen to Kitsap’s aquifers under various rainfall scenarios, including long periods of drought.

Map

Key

The model also can predict what will happen to streamflows under various rainfall scenarios. The Kitsap Peninsula has no mountain snowpack to supply the streams with water during dry summer months, so the water must come from slow-moving underground supplies.

Now that the model is complete, it can be run for almost any pattern of rainfall or drought that one wishes to dream up. For example, running the model with average rainfall and no pumping at all (close to a predevelopment condition) would bring the average groundwater level up about 25 feet — although groundwater levels in some places would be raised more than in other places.

Streamsflows under the no-pumping scenario would be an average of about 2 percent higher — although this would be difficult to measure with current instruments. Nobody would really notice the difference.

If pumping across the peninsula were increased by 15 percent, there would not be much difference in aquifers near the surface and only a two- or three-foot drop in aquifers around sea level. Streamflows would go down by a fraction of a percent but not enough to notice.

Decreasing groundwater recharge by 15 percent, such as paving over the landscape with new roads, houses and parking lots, would have a greater effect on streamflows.

Again, not all areas on the peninsula will see the same effects. The model can be used to zero in on specific streams and their watersheds — although the smaller the area of study, the less accurate the prediction is likely to be.

Bob Hunter, manager of Kitsap Public Utility District, said the model can be used to predict the effects that new wells would have on streamflows as the population grows. The model could advise managers whether it would be advisable to pump certain wells at certain times of the year and hold back at other times.

Kathleen Cahall, water resources manager for the city of Bremerton, said the model can also be used to make sure aquifer-recharge areas are protected and that industrial facilities that store large quantities of chemicals are not located where a spill could contaminate a major underground water supply.

Morgan Johnson, general manager of Silverdale Water District, said he would like to use the model to predict what will happen when highly treated effluent from the Central Kitsap Wastewater Treatment Plant is used to irrigate ball fields and other areas in Central Kitsap. Efforts between the water districts and Kitsap County might lead to greater infiltration of water and greater groundwater supplies to be pumped from existing wells throughout Central Kitsap.

The model was built on background information, which can be found in the report “Hydrogeologic Framework, Groundwater Movement, and Water Budget of the Kitsap Peninsula” (PDF 49.8 mb).

The USGS provided half the costs for the study. The other half was shared among Kitsap PUD; Silverdale Water District; West Sound Utility District; North Perry Water District; Manchester Water District; the cities of Bremerton, Port Orchard, Poulsbo and Gig Harbor; Washington Water, a private utility; and the Suquamish and Port Gamble S’Klallam tribes.

In September of 2014, I wrote about water resources for the series we called “Taking the Pulse of Puget Sound.” The story was called “Making sure there is enough water to go around.”

A chance to talk
on televison about the wonders of Puget Sound

More than 50 people came together at the beginning of this month in Washington, D.C., to share their stories and concerns about Puget Sound. The annual event is becoming known as Puget Sound Day.

The group included leaders from local government, tribes, non-profit groups, businesses and state agencies, noted U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, who organized the get-together and discussion about federal legislation and funding.

Kitsap County Commissioner Charlotte Garrido, who is involved in these issues, asked me to share my thoughts about Puget Sound on the public access television program “Commissioner’s Corner.” If you haven’t seen the show, you can view it on BKAT the next two Mondays at 8:30 p.m. and Tuesdays at 2 p.m., or click on the video above.

I have to say that speaking off the cuff in front of a television camera is a lot different from writing a story or blog post, but I was pleased to be invited. The broadcast includes Kathy Peters of the county’s Natural Resources Division.

Charlotte wanted to give credit to Rep. Kilmer and Rep. Denny Heck for launching the Puget Sound Recovery Caucus, a group of federal legislators working on Puget Sound issues in the “other Washington.” Review a summary of the effort (PDF 1.1 mb) or other information on the Puget Sound Partnership blog.

Derek Kilmer
Derek Kilmer

Three years ago, a newly elected Rep. Kilmer picked up on Puget Sound issues where former Rep. Norm Dicks left off. Through the years, Norm was able to secure funding for many Puget Sound projects — ranging from the removal of Forest Service roads that were smothering salmon streams with sediment to extensive studies of Hood Canal’s low-oxygen problems.

Derek is now promoting a bill known as Puget SOS Act, which calls for greater federal coordination with state, local and tribal partners, as well as formal recognition of Puget Sound as a “great water body’ under the Clean Water Act. Check out the story in the Kitsap Sun by reporter Tristan Baurick.

This month, Kilmer and Heck introduced a new bill, the Green Stormwater Infrastructure Investment Act, to help communities reduce the flow of toxic stormwater into streams and ultimately Puget Sound. The basic idea is to use natural infiltration to reduce stormwater at the source, before it can pick up toxic pollution. This approach has been given the name “green stormwater infrastructure” or GSI.

Denny Heck
Denny Heck

“If our legislation passes,” Derek said in a news letter to constituents, “local communities would be able to access dedicated funding within the Environmental Protection Agency for water quality projects that utilize GSI. Our hope is that this can increase the number of breakthroughs that are happening in places like Tacoma to help protect these vital waterways.”

He offered more details in a news release:

“Stormwater runoff is the top contributor to pollution in Puget Sound, but our nation’s largest estuary isn’t the only place impacted by stormwater. Across the country, in every community, rain mixes with chemicals, oils and other harmful pollutants to flood into our waterways. A stronger federal investment in the prevention of runoff allows for the implementation of cutting-edge solutions and puts our communities on a course towards healthy waters for everyone.”

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.

Specialized bacteria can remove rogue drugs during sewage treatment

UPDATE, March 10, 2016
I’ve added links for three previous reports related to the degradation of pharmaceuticals and personal care products.
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Concerns are growing about medications and person-care products that pass through sewage-treatment plants and into Puget Sound, where the chemicals can alter the physiology and behavior of fish and other organisms.

Almost everywhere scientists have looked, they have found drugs that people have either flushed down the drain or passed through their bodies. Either way, many active pharmaceutical compounds are ending up in the sewage at low levels. Conventional sewage-treatment plants can break down up to 90 percent or more of some compounds, but others pass through unaltered.

Now, researchers are working on a process that would use specialized bacteria to break down pharmaceutical compounds at existing sewage-treatment plants. The idea, developed by researchers at the University of Washington, is ready for a limited pilot project at one of the treatment plants in the Puget Sound region.

Heidi Gough, left, and Nicolette Zhou with a table-top treatment plant in the lab. UW photo
Heidi Gough, left, and Nicolette Zhou with a table-top sewage-treatment plant in the lab.
UW photo

Studies into this issue began more than 20 years ago, when it became clear that all sorts of compounds were passing through sewage-treatment plants and getting into the environment. Among the early findings was that male fish exposed to artificial birth-control hormones were changing into female fish. Later studies showed that common antidepressant medications seemed to be changing the behavior of fish, making them easier targets for predators.

In addition to estrogens and antidepressants, researchers have found blood thinners, cholesterol-reducing drugs, various heart medications, several hormones and painkillers, along with caffeine, cocaine and various cosmetic and cleansing chemicals.

A study funded by the Environmental Protection Agency looked for 56 active pharmaceutical compounds in sewage effluent from 50 major treatment plants around the country, finding significant levels of many compounds.

A new study by NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center and the University of Washington looked at 150 compounds coming from two sewage treatment plants in Puget Sound. They were Bremerton’s plant on Sinclair Inlet and Tacoma’s plant on Commencement Bay. They also tested the local waters along with juvenile chinook salmon and Pacific staghorn sculpin to see if the fish were picking up the compounds.

According to a NOAA news release, the study “found some of the nation’s highest concentrations of these chemical compounds and detected many in fish at concentrations that may affect their growth or behavior.” For additional reporting on that study, check out the Kitsap Sun story by Tristan Baurick and the Seattle Times story by Lynda Mapes.

These chemicals could be having effects on various animals in the food web — from benthic organisms that live in the sediments to marine mammals — but more study is needed. Complicating the situation is that multiple pharmaceutical chemicals may work together to create different effects, depending on their concentrations and the affected organism.

Many people would argue that we have enough information to dramatically increase our efforts to remove these compounds from wastewater going into Puget Sound. Drug take-back programs have been started in many cities and counties throughout Puget Sound to encourage people not to flush unused pills down the toilet or drain. See the Take Back Your Meds website. Still, Washington state has yet to develop a comprehensive statewide program that would cover everyone.

Meanwhile, nobody can say what percentage of the drugs going into the treatment plants were dumped down the drain versus being excreted from the human body. But it wouldn’t matter as much if the chemicals could be eliminated at the sewage-treatment plant.

More than a decade ago, Heidi Gough of the UW’s Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering began working on the development of bacteria that could break down these chemicals of concern. She and her colleagues have isolated cultures of bacteria that can break down triclosan, an antimicrobial; bisphenol A, a plasticizer; ibuprofen, an anti-inflammatory drug; 17β-estradiol, a natural hormone; and gemifibrozil, a cholesterol-lowering drug.

The process of isolating helpful bacteria and boosting their numbers could theoretically be used to break down almost any chemical of concern. To be suitable, the bacteria must 1) break down the target chemical to a very low level, 2) grow well in common growth media without the target chemical, 3) break down the chemical even when other nutrient sources are abundant, and 4) work quickly within the normal rate of sewage treatment.

Nicolette Zhou, a former UW graduate student, worked with Heidi to successfully develop a bench-top treatment plant to test the process. Nicolette also produced a computer model of how the operation would perform at a large-scale treatment plant. She completed her analysis and received her doctorate degree last fall. Her latest findings are now awaiting publication in a scientific journal.

Previous reports:

  • Genes involved in Bisphenol A degradation, Environmental Science and Technology.
  • Degradation of triclosan and bisphenol A by five bacteria, Pub Med.
  • Cultivation and characterization of bacteria capable of degrading pharmaceutical and personal care products, Pub Med.

Other systems have been proposed for breaking down complex pharmaceuticals, such as advanced oxidation or other chemical or physical treatment. But biological breakdown offers the most hope in the short term, because it is how most sewage-treatment plants work can be implemented quickly without major modifications and appears to be economical on a large scale, Nocolette told me.

In a large-scale system, the first step would be to identify the specific contaminants to be reduced and then select the bacteria. Some bacteria will break down multiple chemicals, she said.

The bacteria would be grown in a tank and be fed into the sewage digesters reactors, preferably in a continual flow. Multiple chemicals of concern might require several tanks for growing different bactieria.

If the process is successful and adopted by many treatment plants, an alternative process could be developed. Instead of growing the bacteria onsite, where conditions could be difficult to control, all sorts of bacteria could be grown in an industrial facility. The industrial plant would isolate the actual enzymes needed to break down the chemicals and ship them to the treatment plants. The enzymes could be stored and fed into the treatment process as needed.

The research into this treatment process has progressed to where the next step is a small-scale pilot project at a sewage-treatment plant in the Puget Sound area, Nicolette said. A portion of the actual wastewater would be diverted to the pilot plant, where sewage would be subjected to the specialized bacteria and tested for the level of treatment.

Ultimately, more studies are needed to establish a safe concentration for the various chemicals that come from pharmaceuticals and personal-care products. That way, one could culture the appropriate bacteria and establish a reasonable effluent limit for chemicals going into Puget Sound.

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.

Stealthy steelhead still survive across parts
of the Kitsap Peninsula

More than three years after first proposed, “critical habitat” has been designated for Puget Sound steelhead, a prized fish whose population has declined drastically in the Puget Sound region.

The new designation, announced last week, is the first time that critical habitat has ever been designated on the east side of the Kitsap Peninsula.

Critical habitat for steelhead (click to enlarge)NOAA map
Critical habitat for steelhead (click to enlarge)
NOAA map

Steelhead were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 2007, and this critical habitat designation is required under federal law to protect habitats — in this case streams — that are considered essential to the recovery of the species.

Under the law, any federal actions that could affect critical habitat becomes subject to careful review to avoid degradation of the habitat. In most areas, this high-level review would apply to alteration of streams, wetlands or estuaries, or any construction covered by federal grants or permits — such as transportation projects.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has designated many Puget Sound streams as critical habitat for one or more listed species — such as Puget Sound chinook, Hood Canal summer chum or bull trout. But this is the first time the agency has provided federal protection for streams on the eastern side of the Kitsap Peninsula.

Interestingly, the marine shoreline all around the peninsula has been designated as critical habitat for chinook. Although the numerous streams are considered too small to support chinook spawning, the shorelines are critically important for juvenile chinook, which must find places to feed, grow and escape predators on their migration to the ocean.

The designation of East Kitsap as critical habitat for steelhead could bring increased scientific scrutiny to this area along with possible funding for the restoration of habitat, as I outlined in a Kitsap Sun story when the habitat was first proposed in 2013. See Kitsap Sun, Jan. 14, 2013, and Water Ways, March 15, 2013.

Even though steelhead were listed as threatened eight years ago, knowledge remains sparse about the number of steelhead coming back to the Kitsap Peninsula or the habitat needs of the fish, local biologists tell me. Steelhead are stealthy fish, not easily found in the streams, although some information is being revealed by a handful of fish traps used by researchers to measure steelhead productivity.

Acoustic tags help researchers track the movement of steelhead in Puget Sound.
Acoustic tags help researchers track the movement of steelhead in Puget Sound.
Photo: Kitsap Sun

Steelhead can still be found in Kitsap streams, but in numbers far below what old-timers talk about. Many Kitsap streams have become “flashy,” meaning that streamflows rise and fall suddenly with the rains, because so much of the landscape has been paved or otherwise hardened. Those conditions limit the habitat, especially for fish like steelhead and coho, which make their way far upstream in Kitsap’s numerous little creeks. One difference between the two species is that coho die after spawning, while steelhead often head back to the ocean to spawn again on their next journey.

As for the designation of critical habitat, the Suquamish Tribe was able to convince NOAA Fisheries to maintain closer jurisdiction over 90 miles of steelhead streams on the Kitsap Peninsula where they were originally proposed for exclusion from the designated critical habitat.

In all, more than 2,000 miles of streams throughout the Puget Sound region were finally designated as critical habitat, but more than 1,500 miles of stream escaped the formal designation. That’s because the habitat was said to be protected in other ways or because the cost of protecting the habitat outweighed the benefits.

The Lake Washington watershed was excluded under the cost-benefit rationale, but most of the excluded streams are on private and state forestlands managed under approved habitat conservation plans, which protect a variety of species. About 28 miles of streams on military bases were excluded because they fall under “integrated natural resource management plans.” About 70 miles of streams on tribal lands were excluded out of respect for tribal sovereignty and the role of the tribes in conservation.

While many of the forestlands on the Kitsap Peninsula come under existing habitat conservations plans, the Suquamish Tribe argued that even greater oversight is needed. Streams subject to the HCP are not clearly delineated, nor are areas that would not be regulated by HCPs, the tribe argued. Kitsap County is undergoing urbanization, and these forests are threatened with conversion to residential and commercial development, the tribe said. NOAA Fisheries accepted the tribe’s point of view.

In practice, the listing of Kitsap forests as critical habitat won’t have much effect, since forestland owners are already subject to state rules that are highly protective of stream habitat, said Adrian Miller, policy and environment manager for Pope Resources, the largest forestland owner in Kitsap County. Besides, Adrian told me, federal oversight only kicks in when there is a federal action — such as a new road or stream alteration, and these are rare on working forests.

For Puget Sound, most areas designated as critical habitat are considered “occupied” by fish at this time. One exception is the Elwha River, where steelhead have been moving into areas not occupied by anadromous fish since the Elwha Dam was built in 1910. Since removal of the Elwha Dam and the Glines Canyon Dam upstream, biologists have not fully documented the full extent of the habitat used by steelhead.

Since much of the upstream habitat is within Olympic National Park, I’m not sure the habitat needs special protection under the Endangered Species Act. But it is nice to know that steelhead habitat in the Elwha is protected at the highest level and just waiting for steelhead to arrive.

For information, see the formal listing of Puget Sound steelhead habitat in the Federal Register. Other documents about habitat can be found on NOAA Fisheries website.

NOAA continues to work toward a recovery plan for Puget Sound steelhead. Documents can be found on NOAA’s website about steelhead recovery. Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has issued reports on Puget Sound steelhead populations.

Two weeks ago, five conservation groups filed a lawsuit against NOAA Fisheries for not completing the recovery plan within a reasonable time. See Wild Fish Conservancy news release, which includes a link to the legal documents.

Amusing Monday: Alligators are uniquely odd and amazing

I don’t believe I’ve ever written about alligators, probably because they don’t live in the Northwest, and it’s not easy to find their amusing side. But American alligators are interesting, once you get to know them.

I’ve never noticed that alligators have two kinds of walks while traveling on land. Their ankles flex in a different way than most reptiles. There is a “high walk,” in which the alligator pushes itself up from the ground and moves quickly. This walk resembles that of four-legged mammals.

They also do the “low walk,” a sprawling locomotion in which their belly slides along the ground, though somewhat different from a salamander or lizard. Although they normally move slowly, some alligators can reach nearly 10 miles per hour in the high walk during short bursts.

Alligator on bicycle by American Apparel. Click for website.
Alligator on bicycle by American Apparel. Click for website.

Alligators are common in cartoons, both still and animated. Here I feature a music video with the theme song of a musical group based in Finland, Arnie Alligator and the Jungle Drum. Among the many alligator characters invented through the years is Wally Gator, a character by Hanna-Barbera that I remember from my childhood. All the Wally Gator cartoons can be seen on Kiss Cartoon.

Collectible Florida Gator mug.
Collectible Florida Gator mug.

In addition to cartoons, we find lots of alligators on T-shirts, coffee mugs and other items, especially among students at the University of Florida, where the mascot is the Gator.

A few alligator jokes:

Q: Why don’t alligators like fast food?
A: Because they can’t catch it!

Q: What do you get if you cross an alligator with a flower?
A: I don’t know, but I’m not going to smell it!

Q: What do you call an alligator in a vest?
A: An Investigator

Q: What do you call an alligator that sneaks up and bites you from behind?
A: A tail-gator.

Q: Why shouldn’t you taunt an alligator?
A: Because it might come back to bite you in the end.

Customer: “Do you have alligator shoes?”
Clerk: “Yes, sir. What size does your alligator wear?”

A man walked into a Florida bar with his alligator and asked the bartender: “Do you serve lawyers here?”
Bartender: “Sure.”
Man: “Good. One beer for me and a lawyer for my alligator.”

Q: Is it true an alligator won’t attack you if you are carrying a flashlight?
A: It depends on how fast you are carrying it.

Q: How do you tell the difference between a crocodile and an alligator?
A: You will see one later and one in a while.

Most of these jokes are from the website Jokes 4 Us, which probably picked them up from somewhere else.

More facts about alligators from Wired magazine:

  • Alligators continue to grow throughout their lifetime. Male American alligators average 8 to 10 feet long, females slightly smaller. Very old males can get up to 15 feet long.
  • Alligators are apex predators, eating fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals. But they have also been found to have a vegetarian side. The can eat fruit directly from trees, including wild grapes, elderberries and citrus fruits.
  • The temperature at which an alligator’s eggs develop will determine whether the offspring are male or female. Temperatures above 93 degrees will result in males. Temperatures below 86 degrees will result in females. Temperatures in-between produce both sexes.
  • Alligators make a variety of sounds, although they have no vocal cords. By blowing out air, they produce calls for claiming territory, signaling distress, threatening competitors and finding mates. Besides such bellowing, they can growl, hiss and make a cough-like sound called a chumpf.