Lolita joins endangered orcas; her supporters
push on for her return

Lolita, the Puget Sound orca kept for 44 years at Miami Seaquarium, has been declared a member of the endangered population of Southern Resident killer whales.

Lolita lives alone in a tank at Miami's Seaquarium. Photo courtesy of Orca Network
Lolita lives alone in a tank at Miami’s Seaquarium.
Photo courtesy of Orca Network

Advocates for Lolita’s “retirement” and possible release back to her family say the action by NOAA Fisheries is a key step in the effort to free the 48-year-old whale. The next step would be a lawsuit filed under the Endangered Species Act, and advocates say they are prepared for that eventuality.

A news release issued today by NOAA Fisheries plays down the effect of listing Lolita among the endangered orcas:

“While Lolita will now share the endangered listing status of the population she came from, the decision does not impact her residence at the Miami Seaquarium. Lolita is a killer whale that has resided at the Miami Seaquarium since 1970.”

The original listing created an exemption for captive killer whales, an exemption that was challenged in a petition filed in 2013 by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).

“NOAA Fisheries considered the petition and concluded that captive animals such as Lolita cannot be assigned separate legal status from their wild counterparts.”

NOAA received nearly 20,000 comments on the proposal to list Lolita as endangered, and many expressed hope that Lolita would be returned to her home. But that would go against the wishes of Miami Seaquarium, which does not plan to give her up.

Andrew Hertz, general manager at Miami Seaquarium, said in a statement issued today:

“Lolita has been part of the Miami Seaquarium family for 44 years. Just because she was listed as part of the Endangered Species Act does not mean that she is going anywhere. Lolita is healthy and thriving in her home where she shares her habitat with Pacific white-sided dolphins. There is no scientific evidence that the 49-year-old post-reproductive Lolita could survive in a sea pen or the open waters of the Pacific Northwest and we are not willing to treat her life as an experiment.”

As stated by NOAA Fisheries in the news release:

“While issues concerning release into the wild are not related to this Endangered Species Act listing decision, any future plan to move or release Lolita would require a permit from NOAA Fisheries and would undergo rigorous scientific review.

“Releasing a whale which has spent most of its life in captivity raises many concerns that would need to be carefully addressed. These concerns include disease transmission, the ability of released animals to adequately find food, difficulty in social integration, and that behavioral patterns developed in captivity could impact wild animals.

“Previous attempts to release captive killer whales and dolphins have often been unsuccessful, and some have ended tragically with the death of the released animal.”

Howard Garrett of Orca Network, a longtime advocate for returning Lolita to Puget Sound, said he expects that concerns raised by the agency can be overcome, as they were with Keiko (“Free Willy”). Following Keiko’s movie career and a fund-raising campaign, the killer whale was returned to his home in Iceland and learned to feed himself. Still, it seemed he never fully integrated with wild whales that he encountered, and nobody knows if he ever found his family. Keiko died of apparent pneumonia about two years after his release.

Howie insists that the situation with Lolita is entirely different, since we can identify her family, including her mother, L-25, named Ocean Sun. The mom is estimated to be 87 years old and still doing fine.

Plans have been developed to bring Lolita to a sea pen in Puget Sound, providing care and companionship, such as she gets now. Then, if she could integrate with L pod, release would be a likely option. In any case, Lolita would have much more room to move about, Howie says.

Getting Lolita listed as endangered is important, he said, because she will be covered by the Endangered Species Act, which makes it illegal to harm or harass a listed species. A court would need to decide whether confinement in a small tank constitutes harm or harassment, he said, but some evidence is provided by the 40 or so orcas taken from Puget Sound that died well before their time.

The decision is certain to spur on the debate about whether the killer whale would be better off living out her life in now-familiar surroundings or giving her a taste of freedom with the risks that come with moving her to open waters.

Howie has been working with PETA attorney Jared Goodman on a potential lawsuit against Miami Seaquarium to improve conditions for Lolita.

“We are prepared to do whatever is necessary to ensure that her newly granted protections are enforced,” Jared told me. “I cannot speak specifically about what PETA will do next.”

Jared said he needs to know whether NOAA Fisheries will take any enforcement action before he proceeds with a “citizens lawsuit” under the ESA.

Talk of Lolita’s release into the wild is premature, he said. The goal is to transfer her back to her original home in the San Juan Islands and place her in a large protected pen. Only after determining that release is in her best interest would that idea be furthered and developed into an action plan.

Meanwhile, PETA is preparing for oral arguments in March before the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals on another case involving Lolita. The organization, along with the Animal Legal Defense Fund, contends that conditions in the Miami Seaquarium constitute abuse under the federal Animal Welfare Act. The specific conditions at issue are the size of her tank, her ongoing exposure to sun and her lack of animal companionship.

A lower court ruled that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has discretion to determine what constitutes acceptable conditions, despite written guidelines, when granting permits to zoos and aquariums.

Howard Garrett addressed the issue of abuse in a news release from Orca Network:

“Our society doesn’t like animal abuse, and the more we learn about orcas the less we can tolerate seeing them locked up as circus acts. The legal initiatives that led to this ruling have been brilliant and effective, as the mood of the country shifts from acceptance to rejection of captive orca entertainment enterprises. Things that seemed impossible a year ago seem doable today.”

For additional information from NOAA Fisheries, visit the website: “Southern Resident Killer Whale — Lolita.”

PETA and ALDF issued a joint news release today.

Today’s determination was not a surprise, as I addressed the logic of the federal listing when it was proposed a year ago. My post in Water Ways on Jan. 28 includes links to previous discussions about Lolita.

Climate change disrupts steady streamflows, adds problems for chinook

Climate change appears to be altering the flow characteristics of Puget Sound salmon streams, and the outcome could be an increased risk of extinction for chinook salmon, according to a new study.

I’ve long been interested in how new housing and commercial development brings more impervious surfaces, such as roads, driveways and roofs. The effect is to decrease the amount of water that infiltrates into the ground and to increase surface flows into streams.

Chinook salmon Photo: Bureau of Land Management
Chinook salmon
Photo: Bureau of Land Management

Stormwater experts talk about how streams become “flashy,” as flows rise quickly when it rains then drop back to low levels, because less groundwater is available to filter into the streams.

The new study, reported in the journal “Global Change Biology,” suggests that something similar may be happening with climate change but for somewhat different reasons.

Climate models predict that rains in the Puget Sound region will become more intense, thus causing streams to rise rapidly even in areas where stormwater is not an issue. That seems to be among the recent findings by researchers with NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife:

“Over the last half century, river flows included in our analysis have become more variable — particularly in winter — and these changes are a stronger predictor of chinook population growth than changes in average winter flows or climate signals in the marine environment.

“While other impacts to this ecosystem, such as habitat degradation, may be hypothesized as responsible for these trends in flow variation, we found support for increasing flow variation in high-altitude rivers with relatively low human impacts.”

Joseph Anderson of WDFW, an author of the report, told me that chinook salmon, listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, may be particularly vulnerable to dramatic changes in streamflows. That’s because spawning chinook tend to show up before winter storms arrive — when the rivers at their lowest levels. The fish are forced to lay their eggs in a portion of the river that will undergo the most forceful flows once the rains begin to fall.

High flows can scour eggs out of the gravel and create serious problems for emerging fry, Joe said. Other factors may come into play, but the researchers found a strong correlation between the sudden variation in streamflows and salmon survival.

In the lower elevations, where development is focused, flow variability could result from both impervious surfaces on the land and more intense rainstorms. Efforts to infiltrate stormwater into the ground will become even more important as changes in climate bring more intense storms.

Stormwater management is an issue I’ve written about for years, including parts of last year’s series called “Taking the Pulse of Puget Sound.” See Kitsap Sun, July 16, 2014. Rain gardens, pervious pavement and infiltration ponds are all part of a growing strategy to increase groundwater while reducing the “flashiness” of streams.

Other strategies involve restoring rivers to a more natural condition by rebuilding side channels and flood plains to divert excess water when streams are running high.

According to the report’s findings, the variability of winter flows has increased for 16 of the 20 rivers studied, using data from the U.S. Geological Survey. The only rivers showing less variability were the Cedar, Duwamish, Upper Skagit and Nisqually.

The effect of this streamflow variability was shown to be a more critical factor for chinook survival and growth than peak, total or average streamflow. Also less of a factor were ocean conditions, such as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation and related ocean temperature.

Eric Ward, of Northwest Fisheries Science Center and lead author on the study, said many researchers have focused attention on how higher water temperatures will affect salmon as climate change progresses. High-temperature and drought conditions in California, for example, could damage the organs of salmon, such as their hearts.

Salmon swimming up the Columbia River and its tributaries could encounter dangerously warm waters as they move east into areas growing more arid. Some salmon species are more vulnerable to temperature, while streamflow may be more important for others. Coho salmon, for example, spend their first summer in freshwater, which makes extreme low levels a critical factor.

Eric told me that further studies are looking into how various conditions can affect each stage of a salmon’s life, conditions that vary by species. One goal is to build complex life-cycle models for threatened species, such as chinook and steelhead, to determine their needs under the more extreme conditions we can expect in the future.

Amusing Monday: Super Bowl commercials offer voices from the past

Suzanne Vranica of the Wall Street Journal thought she noticed a trend in this year’s Super Bowl TV commercials. More of them, she said, seemed to be “sobering and heartfelt” rather than funny.

Maybe so, but some of the ads were funny. At our house, we got the biggest kick out of Liam Neeson playing Clash of Clans, an ad for the mobile video game by Supercell.

But I noticed another minor trend among the commercials: the use of historical voice-overs connected to meaningful images. It began with the first commercial after the game started. That ad, for Carnival Corporation’s cruise lines, seems especially appropriate for this blog, because it deals with the human connection to the ocean.

We hear President John F. Kennedy’s voice as he talks about our connection to the sea:

“We have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears. We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea — whether it is to sail or to watch —we are going back from whence we came.”

The commercial contains wonderful images, as you can see in the first video on this page. The second video shows Kennedy giving that speech at a 1962 dinner in Newport, R.I, where the president spoke about the America’s Cup Challenge. It was the year Sir Frank Packer became the first Australian challenger for the cup, with his crew aboard the 12-meter yacht Gretel. The dinner was given by the Australian ambassador. A transcript of the speech is available from the website of the Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.

Fitting with Kennedy’s tone, I found “41 quotes about the ocean that will make you want to live on the beach forever.” The inspiring quotes were pulled together by writer Catie Pendergast for the blog “Thought Catalog.”

The commercial for Carnival apparently was selected from among five contenders in an online contest to determine which video would be played during the Super Bowl. The runners-up were also pretty good:

The voice-over approach was continued in the first quarter in a Toyota commercial featuring Amy Purdy, the celebrity who lost her legs to meningitis when she was 19. Amy’s father donated a kidney so she could survive. She then went on to compete in snowboarding in the Paralympics, perform in movies and on television, and take second place in Season 18 of “Dancing with the Stars.”

The commercial shows Amy running, snowboarding and dancing, but especially driving a Toyota. The company claims on its website that “our story is about much more than our vehicles.”

The voice you hear on the video is Muhammad Ali, talking about his upcoming boxing match with George Foreman in 1974. You can see him talking in the fourth video on this page, which offers a dark shot of the speech that some call his greatest ever.

There was another voice-over in a commercial for NO MORE, a campaign against domestic violence by the Joyful Heart Foundation. The audio comes from an actual 911 call, which speaks for itself. The version played during the Super Bowl was 30 seconds long, but I’ve posted the longer 60-second version, because it contains a more accurate editing of the call.

If you’d like to view any or all the Super Bowl commercials, arranged in order, go to iSpot’s “Super Bowl Ad Center.”

J pod killer whales still making the rounds, mostly up to the north

UPDATE, Jan. 30, 2 p.m.
K pod was in Rich Passage and heading toward Bremerton when I talked to Brad Hanson of the Northwest Fisheries Science Center. He did not know the location of J pod at that time.
—–

Over the past week, J pod continued to hang out in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and general San Juan Islands area, as revealed by a satellite transmitter attached to J-27, a 24-year-old male named Blackberry.

For the past month, J pod has remained in the inland waterways, traveling from the mouth of the Strait up into the Canadian Strait of Georgia, approaching Campbell River. J pod is one of the three orca pods that frequent Puget Sound. The location of K and L pods remains largely unknown among whale researchers.

J pod travels, Jan. 21-25 Map: Northwest Fisheries Science Center
J pod travels, Jan. 21-25
Map: Northwest Fisheries Science Center

Since my last report in Water Ways on Thursday, Jan. 22, the Northwest Fisheries Science Center has posted two maps showing the travels of J pod. See “2015 Southern Resident Killer Whale Satellite Tagging.”

From Wednesday, Jan. 21, to Friday, Jan. 23, the pod stayed mainly in the outer portion of the Strait of Juan de Fuca west of Sekiu, venturing a short way into the open ocean, before turning back and shooting up past Saturna Island, north of the San Juans, by the next afternoon.

J pod travels, Jan. 24-27 Map: Northwest Fisheries Science Center
J pod travels, Jan. 24-27
Map: Northwest Fisheries Science Center

The whales traveled south through the San Juans Saturday night and were back in the Strait on Sunday. At that point, the satellite tag was automatically switched off to conserve its batteries. When it came back on Tuesday, the whales were at the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, where they meandered about for nearly for a day.

As of this afternoon, there were indications that J pod and possibly K pod were coming past Port Townsend on their way into Puget Sound. Some people are reporting visual sightings of unidentified orcas, while others are reporting orca calls on the Salish Sea Hydrophone Network. I’ll update this as new information comes in. Orca Network’s Facebook page is usually the place to go for the latest.

County officials identify 18 problem boats; three considered ‘derelict’

A two-day survey of Kitsap County’s shoreline identified 90 boats moored on buoys, at anchor or aground — and 18 of them were found to have some kind of problem, according to Richard Bazzell of the Kitsap Public Health District.

Contractors demolish an old boat turned in as part of a new state program. Photo: Department of Natural Resources
Contractors demolish an old boat turned in as part of a new state program.
Photo: Department of Natural Resources

The survey, conducted Monday and Tuesday, is considered a key step in Kitsap County’s new Derelict Vessel Prevention Program, which I described in a Kitsap Sun story (subscription) last May. The idea is to identify neglected vessels that could pose a risk of sinking if not given some attention.

Of the 18 vessels with problems, three were declared “derelict” boats with a high risk of sinking or polluting the water, based on criteria developed by the state’s Derelict Vessel Removal Program. Owners of those boats will get an official warning, and the state could take control of the boats if the owners fail to make them seaworthy.

Richard told me that he has the greatest concern for a 30-foot power boat moored in Port Gamble Bay. The other two boats are sailboats. Because of their condition, they could be considered illegal dumping and managed under the county’s solid-waste regulations, as well as under the state’s derelict vessels laws, he said.

For the other boats needing attention, the approach will be a friendly reminder, Richard told me. Ten of the 18 boats were unregistered, which is an early sign of neglect for boats in the water. Other problems range from deteriorating hulls to weak lines to excessive algae growth. The greatest concerns are that the boats will spill toxic chemicals, such as fuel, or create a navigational hazard for other boats.

It was encouraging to find a relatively small number of boats with problems, Richard said.

“We were expecting to run into a lot more problems,” he noted. “Surprisingly, we didn’t, and that is a good thing.”

The county will offer technical assistance to help boat owners figure out what to do, and educational workshops could provide general maintenance information.

Boats with the most significant problems were found in these Kitsap County embayments: Yukon Harbor in South Kitsap; Dyes and Sinclair inlets in Central Kitsap; and Liberty Bay, Appletree Cove and Port Gamble Bay in North Kitsap.

This week’s survey covered about 250 miles of county shoreline, where the health district’s efforts are funded with a state grant. Excluded are military bases, where private mooring is not allowed, and Bainbridge Island, where the city’s harbormaster is conducting similar work under the state grant.

The overall $250,000 grant for the prevention program is being coordinated by Marc Forlenza, who developed a procedure proven to be successful in San Juan County. Marc credits Joanruth Bauman, who operated the derelict vessel program in San Juan County, as being the brainchild of the prevention program.

Money for the prevention program came from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Puget Sound Restoration Fund. The grant is managed by the Puget Sound Partnership.

Seven counties, including San Juan and Kitsap, are involved in the regional effort. The other counties are King, Pierce, Snohomish, Mason and Jefferson. Thurston County is covered by the Pierce County grant.

Some counties have been up and running for months. Others, including Kitsap, are a little slow because of contract complications. San Juan County contracted with Kitsap County, which then contracted with the health district and Bainbridge Island. Those last contracts were approved earlier this month.

The whole idea, Marc said, is to work with boat owners to keep the vessels from becoming derelict in the first place. If boat owners can take care of the problems, it costs the county and state almost nothing. Once declared derelict, government officials are forced to spend money in an effort to keep boats from sinking.

When a boat sinks, Marc said, the cost of dealing with the problem rises 10-fold, and the resulting pollution can destroy marine life.

In San Juan County, early action on problem boats has reduced the cost of dealing with derelict vessels from $76,000 in 2012 to $23,000 in 2013 to zero in 2014, he said. That doesn’t include vessels taken by the Washington Department of Natural Resources under the new Voluntary Turn-In Program, which I’ll discuss in a moment.

Marc has a good way of dealing with people. He seems to understand the needs and challenges of boat ownership, and he tries to nudge people in the right direction.

“You have to take time to talk to boat owners,” he explained. “I call it ‘boat psychology.’ Some of these people have held onto their boats for 20, 30 or 40 years. They have loved their boat. When I talk to them, some will say, ‘I guess it’s time to let ol’ Betsy go,’ while others will say, ‘Over my dead body.’”

For the latter group, Marc drives home the fact that a boat owner may be held criminally liable for maintaining a derelict boat — and the Attorney General’s Office is now prosecuting such cases. Beyond that, an owner may be held financially responsible if a boat sinks — including the cost of raising the boat along with any natural resource damages caused by pollution.

“That can cost tens of thousands of dollars, or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in some cases,” he said. “You try to appeal to people’s better sense.”

In Kitsap County, people who see a boat listing or potentially sinking should call 911. For nonemergency conditions, one can call Kitsap One, 360-337-5777, except for Bainbridge Island where people should call Harbormaster Tami Allen at 206-786-7627. Additional information and phone numbers for other counties can be found on a Puget Sound Partnership webpage.

The DNR’s Vessel Turn-In Program gives some people a way to take action with little cost. To qualify, boats must be less than 45 feet long and have practically no value. The owner must lack the means to repair or dispose of the boat. If approved by DNR, the owner must drive or tow the vessel to a disposal location and turn over ownership to the state. For details, check out the DNR’s website on the Vessel Turn-In Program.

Since the turn-in program started last May, DNR has disposed 19 boats, with another five lined up for disposal, according to Joe Smillie of the agency. The Legislature provided $400,000 for the new turn-in program, which is separate from the larger Derelict Vessel Removal Program.

The removal program targets vessels at risk of sinking. In emergencies, DNR or local agencies can take immediate action, but normally the owner is given at least 30 days to move or repair the vessel.

Since 2002, DNR has removed about 550 abandoned vessels throughout the state. About 150 others have been tagged as “vessels of concern.”

In 2014 alone, 40 vessels were removed, including the sunken Helena Star. The Helena Star was raised from Tacoma’s Hylebos Waterway and salvaged at a cost of $1.16 million, requiring special funding from the Legislature. The owner of the vessel was later charged with a crime.

See the Washington Department of Ecology’s Helena Star website and other information from the Washington State Office of the Attorney General.

Amusing Monday: You can lead a horse to water, but watch out

Horses can be fairly unpredictable around water, as I learned while scanning through videos of horses splashing in streams, falling into icy lakes and serving as unwilling participants in the “ice bucket challenge.”

I got started looking at horses and water after viewing the first video on this page, which shows rider Anna Paterek patiently coaxing her horse Magic into the water. As you can see, when Magic would not carry his rider into the stream, Anna dismounted and demonstrated that her horse had nothing to fear — and Magic responded in kind.

From this first video, I found some others that I thought you might be interested in seeing. While I don’t have much information about the next video, I love how the rider manages a broad smile as she goes to retrieve her horse.

The third video shows what could have been a tragedy in Reykjavik, Iceland, where a group of horses and their riders fell through the ice on a shallow pond during a horse show in 2009. Fortunately, all the horses and riders were able to get out without serious injury, although some horses needed to be warmed to avoid hypothermia. Horse Talk magazine had a written account of the incident.

Here are three more videos for your amusement:

  • “Total Recall Videos” compiled a collection of steeplechase clips, in which you’ll see horses and their riders having trouble getting through the water jumps.
  • In a comedy video, bystanders are caught off guard in a gag that involves a police officer, a horse and a river.
  • Last but not least is a woman who decides to do the popular “ice bucket challenge” astride her horse. While the woman only flinched when hit with the icy water, her horse was roused into motion.

New orca baby doing well, closely linked
to 43-year-old female

The young killer whale born into J pod three weeks ago still appears to be doing well, according to Dave Ellifrit of the Center for Whale Research, who observed the calf when her pod came through the San Juan Islands on Monday.

The new calf, J-50, has been sticking close to J-16, a 43-year-old female. Photo by Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research
The new calf, J-50, has been sticking close to J-16, a 43-year-old female and her likely mom.
Photo by Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research

In his written notes, Dave said the calf, designated J-50, was staying close to J-16, a 43-year-old female named “Slick.” Meanwhile, Slick’s daughter, 16-year-old J-36 or Alki, remained some distance away.

Uncertainty has surrounded the question of whether J-16 is the mother or the grandmother of the new calf. If she’s the mother, it will be the first time that an orca over 40 has been known to give birth, at least among the three pods that frequent Puget Sound.

As Dave noted in his observations:

“While all the J16’s traveled together, J36 was consistently the farthest of the group from J50, so whatever doubts remained about J16 being the mother are about gone.”

Ken Balcomb, who founded the Center for Whale Research, was not with Dave during the encounter. Ken agrees that current evidence points to J-16 being the mom, but he is still not totally convinced.

“I’m staying open,” he told me. “J-16 is certainly the primary caregiver.”

There remains a little matter of the “rake marks” on the back of the baby orca — most likely caused when an adult whale used its teeth to pull the newborn from the birth canal. A 16-year-old female might need some help during delivery, Ken explained, and the grandmother was the likely one to assist. Such help probably would not be needed for an older mom, he said.

Jan. 12-15. Satellite tracking shows that J pod came back from the ocean on Monday, Jan. 12, and traveled through the Strait of Juan de Fuca, reaching Victoria the evening of Tuesday, Jan. 13. The orcas passed through the San Juan Islands overnight and reached the northeast side of Texada Island the morning of Thursday, Jan. 15. Map courtesy of NOAA
Jan. 12-15.Satellite tracking reveals that J pod came back from the ocean on Monday, Jan. 12, and traveled through the Strait of Juan de Fuca, reaching Victoria the evening of Tuesday, Jan. 13. The orcas passed the San Juan Islands overnight and reached the northeast side of Texada Island the morning of Thursday, Jan. 15. // Map courtesy of NOAA

I thought that the proof of motherhood would come when we knew who was nursing the baby. While nobody has directly observed any nursing behavior over the past three weeks, the baby is fattening up and staying near enough to J-16 to allow such things to happen.

But Ken says it is possible that J-16 could be lactating — even if she is the grandmother. It’s happened in older pilot whales, he noted.

“It is not beyond the realm of possibility that a grandmother could play the nurse-maid role,” he said.

Jan. 15-17. The whales continued north of Texada Island, then turned around and passed the island going south. Map courtesy of NOAA
Jan. 15-17. The whales continued north of Texada Island, then turned around and passed the island going south. // Map courtesy of NOAA

There will be no certainty about the lineage, he said, until genetic testing is performed, and that could take years — assuming the calf survives. Such tests could come as the result of fecal sampling or a skin biopsy performed by approved researchers following the whales, he said.

Meanwhile, since the calf was born, J pod has been moving around the inland waterways and well up into the Strait of Georgia in Canada, as revealed by a satellite transmitter carried by J-27, a 24-year-old named Blackberry.

Jan. 17-21. To save battery power, the satellite transmitter began sending signals every other day. Still, it was clear that the J pod whales traveled south from Texada Island and passed through the San Juan Islands by Monday afternoon of this week. From there, they made a straight run to the ocean, then turned around on Tuesday and headed back into the Strait of Juan de Fuca by yesterday afternoon. This time, they were accompanied by K pod, according to observers. Map courtesy of NOAA
Jan. 17-21. The J pod whales traveled south from Texada Island and passed through the San Juan Islands by Monday afternoon of this week. From there, they made a straight run to the ocean, then turned around on Tuesday and headed back by yesterday afternoon — this time accompanied by K pod, according to observers. // Map courtesy of NOAA

A couple times in the past two weeks, the whales went through the Strait of Juan de Fuca and into the Pacific Ocean. But each time they quickly turned around and came back,

Last night, Mark Malleson of Prince of Whales, a whale-watching company, observed J pod along with K pod spread out in the Strait of Juan de Fuca near Sheringham Point near the south tip of Vancouver Island, according to his report posted on Orca Network’s Facebook page.

So far today, I have not heard any more reports, and the next satellite data won’t be available until later.

The succession of maps on this page shows the travels of J pod since they touched the outer coast 10 days ago. (Click on the images to enlarge.)

Culvert replacement costs loom as a budget problem for lawmakers

While funding for Washington’s “basic education” remains a potential budget-buster, some legislators are beginning to worry about a $2.4-billion financial pitfall involving culverts and salmon streams.

Culverts that block significant habitat are represented by dots on the map. Washington State Department of Transportation
Culverts blocking significant habitat are represented by dots on the map of Western Washington.
Washington State Department of Transportation

In 2013, a federal judge ordered Washington state to replace nearly 1,000 culverts that block or impede fish passage along Western Washington streams. The $2.4-billion cost, as estimated by the Washington State Department of Transportation, amounts to about $310 million per biennium until the deadline of 2030.

Nobody has even begun to figure out how to come up with that much money, although the WSDOT has pretty well spelled out the problem for lawmakers.

In the current two-year budget, the state is spending about $36 million to replace fish-passage barriers, according to Paul Wagner, manager of the department’s Biology Branch. That’s not including work on major highway projects.

WSDOT is asking to shift priorities around in its budget to provide $80 million per biennium for fixing culverts.

Meanwhile, Gov. Jay Inslee’s 12-year transportation plan calls for increasing revenues to provide money for various improvements throughout the state, including $360 million for culverts spread over the 12-year period.

BEFORE, where a 5-foot round culvert carried Twanoh Falls Creek under Highway 106. Washington Department of Transportation
BEFORE, a 5-foot round culvert carried Twanoh Falls Creek under Highway 106 into Hood Canal.
Photo: Washington State Department of Transportation

Even if all that funding comes to pass, the state would only make it about halfway to the goal set by the court when the 2030 deadline passes.

Although funding is a serious matter, the effect of fixing the culverts sooner rather than later could boost salmon habitat and help with salmon recovery, transportation officials acknowledge.

Out of 1,982 fish barriers identified in the state highway system, more than three-quarters are blocking “significant” habitat — defined as more than 200 meters (656 feet). That’s from a fact sheet called “Accelerating Fish Barrier Correction: New Requirements for WSDOT culverts” (PDF 4.6 mb).

AFTER, a 20-foot bottomless culvert allows stream to flow more naturally Washington State Department of Transportation
AFTER, a 20-foot bottomless culvert allows the stream to flow more naturally.
Photo: Washington State Department of Transportation

As of 2013, the agency had completed 282 fish-passage projects, improving access to nearly 1,000 miles of upstream habitat. Another 10 projects were added in 2014.

Because the lawsuit was brought by 21 Western Washington tribes, the court order applies to 989 Western Washington culverts, of which 825 involve significant habitat. The case is related to the Boldt decision (U.S. v Washington), which determined that tribes have a right to take fish, as defined by the treaties, and that the state must not undermine the resource.

The court adopted a design standard for culverts known as the “stream simulation” model, which requires that the culvert or bridge be wider than the stream under most conditions and be sloped like the natural channel.

In an effort to gear up for culvert work, the Department of Transportation established four design teams to prepare plans for 34 fish-passage projects for the next biennium and scope out another 75 projects. State officials hope that by having teams to focus on culverts and bridges, design work will become more efficient. Agencies also are working together to streamline the permitting process.

In Kitsap County, the Highway 3 culvert over Chico Creek presents a real challenge for the department, Paul Wagner told me. Everyone recognizes the importance of Chico Creek, the most productive salmon stream on the Kitsap Peninsula. But replacing the undersized culvert with a new bridge would cost more than $40 million — more than the entire budget for culverts in the current biennium.

A culvert under Kittyhawk Drive was removed last summer next to the Highway 3 culvert. Kitsap Sun photo by Larry Steagall
A culvert on Kittyhawk Drive was removed last summer next to the Highway 3 culvert, which continues to affect the flow of Chico Creek.
Kitsap Sun photo by Larry Steagall

“There are a lot of culverts,” Wagner said, “and our challenge is that those on the state highway system are more complicated and involved.”

Not only are the state highways the largest, he said, but they usually cannot be shut down during construction. State highways typically have more complicated utilities and drainage systems, and work may require buying new right of way.

Those are all issues for Chico Creek, which was rerouted when the highway was built in the 1960s. The stream was directed into a new channel parallel to the highway, crossing under the roadway at a 90-degree angle.

The new design would restore the original channel, crossing under the road at a steep angle that makes for a longer bridge. The new route also could involve changing the interchange at Chico Way.

“That project is definitely one we need to get at,” Wagner said, “but it eats up a lot of the money we need for other projects.”

Removal of a county culvert under Kittyhawk Drive has increased interest in removal of the state highway culvert, which lies immediately upstream of the newly opened channel where the county culvert was removed. See Kitsap Sun (subscription), Aug. 26, 2014.

The Legislature will determine how much money will be allocated to culverts and to some extent which ones get replaced first. New taxes could be part of the equation for the entire transportation budget, a major subject of debate this session.

Sea stars may be on path to recovery; summer could provide answers

It was a dark and stormy night — but that didn’t deter the Three Starfish Musketeers from going out at low tide on Saturday to check on the condition of sea stars clinging to the Lofall pier.

Researcher Melissa Miner examines sea stars on the Lofall pier while volunteer Peg Tillery watches.Photo by Christopher Dunagan
Researcher Melissa Miner examines sea stars on the Lofall pier while volunteer Peg Tillery watches. // Photo by Christopher Dunagan

If you recall, I introduced these three retired-age ladies in a story last summer, when they first reported a scene of devastation on the North Kitsap pier and nearby beach, where a multitude of sea stars lay sick and dying. Many sea stars were afflicted with a mysterious disease called sea star wasting disease, which had already affected hundreds of locations from Alaska to Mexico.

Check out my story in the Kitsap Sun (subscription) or my blog post in Water Ways.

The three women — Barb Erickson, Linda Martin and Peg Tillery — have been serving as amateur researchers, monitoring the Lofall beach, like hundreds of other volunteers at various locations along the West Coast. When they started monitoring the beach in February 2014, they observed dozens of healthy sea stars — but conditions changed dramatically by June.

Barb tells the story with photographs in her blog, Ladybug’s Lair, and I’ve included a summary of her observations at the bottom of this page.

I was not sure what to expect when I accompanied the three women to the Lofall pier on Saturday, the night before the Seahawks NFC championship game. Joining us on this dark, rainy night were researcher Melissa Miner of the University of California at Santa Cruz, who has been working with volunteers up and down the coast. Also with us was Jeff Adams of Washington Sea Grant, who has been coordinating local efforts.

What we saw Saturday was a great many more young sea stars than last year, along with adults that seemed to be healthy. None of the starfish showed signs of disease.

“That’s good news, and there are some big ones in here,” Melissa commented, as she examined the pilings where the monitoring is taking place.

“It feels better this time when we’re out here,” Jeff said, adding that last fall he saw far more sea stars turning to mush and disintegrating. “All we saw were body parts strewn all over.”

Melissa said researchers are seeing much greater numbers of juveniles at many of the sites along the coast and inner waterways. That could mean that the population is rebounding, but there is still great uncertainty, she said. Some evidence points to temperature as playing a role in the disease.

“It seems like around here temperature is a pretty big factor,” she said. “When summer comes around, we’ll be able to see how things change.”

In November, a group of scientists identified a virus, known as densovirus,
that is clearly associated with diseased sea stars. Further work is needed to determine how the virus affects the animals and what other factors are in play. See Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and my Nov. 22 blog post in Water Ways.

If we are indeed in a period of recovery at Lofall — and hopefully many other sites — it will be interesting to see how the ecosystem rebounds and how long it takes for the sea star population to return.

Jeff Adams told me in November that he hopes to maintain the volunteer monitoring program for years to come — not just to track the sea star disease but to understand more about the cycles of marine life.

Barb Erickson summarized the findings of the group before Saturday’s outing:

“For our data collection, all of our observations take place in a specific area centered on three concrete piers under a dock at Lofall. In the beginning, a great number of ochre/purple sea stars and a few mottled stars congregated on each of the piers. That number has steadily declined over the past year and, although we are aware that these animals come and go with the tides, we feel their decline is directly related to the disease.

“We began our observations in February 2014, when we counted 56 sea stars, adults and juveniles. Many small juveniles were tucked away in corners and under cables on the piers. Of those 56, only 4 appeared to be in the early stages of disease. In April we counted 100, all of which appeared healthy. In May, of the 53 we found, 33 were in various stages of illness. By June, the majority of the sea stars were dead or dying. Of the 12 living stars we found, 11 were in the early stages of disease.

“Throughout the rest of the summer and early Fall, the area was littered with dead stars and the number of living ones, including juveniles, continued to decrease. By October, we found a total of only 7 living adult stars and no juveniles; 5 were diseased. In January 2015, we found 56 (20 adults and 36 juveniles); all appeared healthy.”

The count from Saturday’s outing was 48 sea stars (21 adults and 27 juveniles), and all appeared healthy.

Amazing image of gray herons comes after
much experimentation

I can always count on the annual National Wildlife Photo Contest to provide some amazing water-related photos — and the 2014 contest was no exception.

This is the 44th year for the contest, sponsored by National Wildlife magazine and the National Wildlife Federation. This year’s contest attracted more than 29,000 entries, according to a statement accompanying the winning photographs.

herons

The winner of the Grand Prize, Hungarian photographer Bence Mate, spent 74 nights in a blind over a period of several years to figure out how to capture this remarkable image of gray herons in Hungary’s Kiskunsag National Park.

By experimenting with his camera gear, he was able to capture a clear image of the birds and water in dim light, while also showing us the stars, which were not in the same depth of field. His home-made equipment was able to achieve good exposure throughout the scene.

“I made the photo with a fish-eye lens that was less than a meter away from the closest bird and had to be careful not to scare the herons with noise or light,” he was quoted as saying.

The birds kept moving during the 32 seconds that the shutter was open, “and they created interesting forms in front of the starry sky,” he noted.

frog

I like the whimsical appearance of this bullfrog, captured by Cheryl Rose of Hopkinton, Mass., as she explored Waseeka Wildlife Sanctuary in Central Massachusetts. The water seems to wrap around the log, becoming part of the sky with clouds in the distance.

“There were so many frogs in this pond,” she said, “but this one gave me the perfect pose.”

The photo won second place in the Other Wildlife category — a category for something other than birds, mammals, baby animals and backyard wildlife.

First place in the Baby Animals category went to Nathan Goshgarian of Woburn, Mass., who watching as this mallard duckling leaped at flies swarming over Horn Pond in his city.

ducks

“It had the incredible ability to select a single fly from the seemingly random movements of the swarm and launch itself out of the water,” he said.

Check out 17 stunning photographs, with comments from the photographers, on the National Wildlife website.