Watching Our Water Ways

Environmental reporter Christopher Dunagan discusses the challenges of protecting Puget Sound and all things water-related.
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What we know and don’t know about killer whales

June 27th, 2014 by cdunagan

This week’s report about Puget Sound’s endangered killer whales contained little new information, but the intent was not to surprise people with important new findings. The report (PDF 14.3 mb), published by the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, was a nice summary of 10 years of research and ongoing efforts to unlock the secrets of the mysterious Southern Residents.

NOAA also released the video, at right, which sums up the report with great visuals. Make sure you go full-screen.

On Wednesday, I participated in a telephone conference call to link reporters with killer whale experts in our region. On the line were Lynne Barre, Mike Ford and Brad Hanson, all with NOAA Fisheries out of Seattle. I’ve been wrapped up with other reporting assignments, so the Kitsap Sun’s editors chose to run a solid story by Associated Press reporter Phuong Le. See Kitsap Sun, June 25.

Let me make a few quick observations:

Lynne Barre said one of the greatest mysteries, to her, is why killer whales suddenly go missing. It’s a vexing problem, and I always get a little nervous when the whales return in the spring. One year, six of the Southern Residents failed to show up. It was a real blow to the close-knit orca community and to the struggling population, and I’ve never forgotten the dismay of everyone who cared about these animals.

Healthy killer whales seem to go missing as often as elderly or sick ones. Only a few bodies ever wash up on the beach. Even when one is found, the cause of death often remains uncertain, as in the case of L-112, found to have died of “blunt-force trauma” from some unknown object.

Much more needs to be learned about disease in the animals, Lynne said. Future research could involve more tissue biopsies and breath samples in an effort to identify early signs of disease.

For Brad Hanson, another mystery is the whales’ seemingly unpredictable behavior and their “fundamental relationship with prey.” We all assume that their primary goal in life is to find fish to eat, but how good are they at this essential task? Pretty good, I would guess. Often before we learn that chinook are abundant off the Washington Coast, we find out that the killer whales are already there.

Maybe the reason the whales have been spending so much time away from Puget Sound the last couple years lies in the lower returns of Fraser River chinook, which pass through the San Juan Islands in the summer. Scale and fecal samples have shown that Fraser River chinook are the most consistent prey of the resident orcas.

In previous conversations, Brad has told me that he would love to communicate with the whales, to find out who is in charge and why a group of animals may suddenly turn around and go in the opposite direction. Howard Garrett of Orca Network recalls a time when all three Southern Resident pods were in the Strait of Juan de Fuca heading into Puget Sound. Suddenly K and L pod turned back, while J pod continued on. Howie says it was as if they knew there were not enough fish for the entire population, so J pod went on alone, saying, “See ya later.”

Mike Ford wants to know why the population has not increased more than it has. Could it be some limitation in the ecosystem, such as the fact that other marine mammals — such as seals and sea lions — have been increasing and taking a sizable bite out of the available salmon population? We know that Northern Residents, who also eat fish, don’t overlap territories much with the Southern Residents. Living up north, the Northern Residents have better access to some salmon stocks — including those that originate in Puget Sound. If the Northern Residents get to them first, the fish are not available for the Southern Residents — or so goes one hypotheses. The Northern Resident population has tripled in size, while the Southern Residents have stayed about the same.

Oddly enough, this potential competition for chinook salmon reminds me of exactly what is taking place with regard to commercial fishing enterprises. Washington fishermen complain that the Canadians are taking salmon that should get back to Washington. Canadian fishermen complain that Alaskans are taking salmon bound for Canada. Only Alaskan fishermen — and those who go to Alaska to fish — can catch a portion of the salmon going into Alaskan rivers as well as some destined to travel south.

One of the new things that did come up in Wednesday’s conference call was a renewed effort for U.S. killer whale biologists and managers to work with their counterparts in Canada. “We will be partnering with them on issues of salmon fisheries and how that may affect the whales,” Lynn said, adding that other cross-border efforts could involve vessel regulations and targeted research efforts.

During Wednesday’s conference call, nobody talked about the potential effects of military activities and the possible injury from Navy sonar until a reporter brought up the issue. The question was referred to NOAA Fisheries headquarters in Silver Spring, Md., where officials review the Navy’s operations and issue incidental take permits. That was the end of that discussion.

I know the Navy is conducting research in an effort to reduce harm to killer whales and other marine mammals. I get the sense, however, that more could be done immediately if connections were made between knowledgeable killer whale researchers in our region and those making decisions on the opposite side of the country.

SouthernResidentKillerWhalePhoto


Amusing Monday: A visit with wildlife via webcam

June 23rd, 2014 by cdunagan

It seems kind of strange that we can spy on wildlife in a very personal way, thanks to modern technology.

The animals never notice the hundreds of humans peering over their shoulders via webcam. If they could know what is going on, I actually think they’d prefer the camera to the disturbance that even one person would create by crowding in that close.

It’s the time of year when many birds are active on their nests, so I thought I’d bring you some of the best videos on the web, weeding out those that are inactive or don’t have much going on right now.

The University of Montana operates two live osprey cams at part of its Montana Osprey Project. I believe the nest at Riverside Health Care Center in Missoula (shown in first video player) contains two chicks, while the nest at Dunrovin Ranch in Lolo contains three chicks.The high-quality video and sound make you feel you are right there with the birds.

Alberta Conservation Association and its sponsors have set up cameras to observe three prime nesting boxes for peregrine falcons in Edmonton, Alberta. Chicks have hatched in each nest, and we can watch (in real time) the mothers taking care of their little bundles of fluff. Each bird has a story listed with the video.

Chesapeake Conservancy is in charge of an osprey cam on Maryland’s eastern shore. The live video features Tom and Audrey, who have returned to the nest after spending the winter in South America. I have seen two chicks in that nest.

For a bird of a different character, check out the Puffin Cam at Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge in Maine, where Audubon’s Project Puffin operates a field station. The puffins on the island were wiped out by hunting in 1887, but they were reintroduced by bringing puffins from Newfoundland. More than 50 pairs nest there. (Three live videos are set up to show the puffins.)

If you are interested in watching brown bears feeding on salmon, stay tuned for live videos from Alaska’s Brooks River in Katmai National Park. The action should begin in July, according to information on the website. Meanwhile, you can watch recorded videos from previous times.

One of my favorite live cams is still Pete’s Pond (video player at right), a watering hole on Mashatu Game Reserve in Botswana, Africa. It began as a National Geographic project and is now operated by WildEarth, which features several other wildlife cams. Operators, working remotely, turn the camera to find the best action at any moment.

The Vancouver Aquarium has live cams showing:

If you’d like to see blacktip reef sharks and other fish, check out the video below from the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Md.


Become a raindrop and learn how water travels

June 19th, 2014 by cdunagan

I’ve been meaning to visit and tell you about an interesting exhibit at the Harbor History Museum in Gig Harbor, but I haven’t gotten there yet.

The exhibit, called Water’s Extreme Journey, involves visitors in a walk through a maze. People become a raindrop and travel through time and space, changing forms and becoming parts of streams, lakes and wetlands.

The traveling exhibit, created by marine-life artist Robert Wyland, will be at the museum until July 20. The video on this page was created three years ago when the exhibit was in Edmonton, Alberta. I’m not sure how well the video represents the experience of the exhibit, since I haven’t been there, but it looks like a great educational event for kids and their parents.

In a description on the Harbor History Museum website, Casey Demory, program and exhibit manager, said “Water’s Extreme Journey” conforms to the museum’s goal of making education relevant to local conditions:

“The Harbor History Museum is always striving to develop ways to connect people with their community and to help educate them on the significance of living on the peninsula. The maze structure that ‘Water’s Extreme Journey’ utilizes is a fun and powerful learning opportunity that encourages guests of every age to think outside the box and interact with their environment in a new way.”

If you’ve seen this exhibit, please provide a few comments. Did you find it fun and educational? Should I take the time to visit before it’s too late?


Coast Guard seeks help in finding radio hoaxer

June 18th, 2014 by cdunagan

The Coast Guard is asking for help in tracking down one or more people who placed three emergency radio calls about two weeks ago. The calls turned out to be a hoax, but they resulted in emergency responses that cost more than $200,000.

Lilliwaup

The first call was placed on VHF-FM radio channel 14 about 11 p.m. on May 31, according to Coast Guard reports. The caller told the Coast Guard’s Vessel Traffic Service that five people were donning life jackets and abandoning the fishing vessel Bristol Maid, said to be on fire in Lilliwaup Bay in Hood Canal. You can hear a portion of the call:

 

The Coast Guard deployed two MH-65 Dolphin helicopter crews from Port Angeles and sent a 45-foot response boat from Seattle. A boat crew from the Mason County Sheriff’s Office also searched the area. The search, suspended after five hours, cost an estimated at $138,000.

A similar call came in the following day about 9 p.m., reporting that two adults and a child were donning life jackets and abandoning a vessel between Hoodsport and Lilliwaup. The caller first said the vessel was Bristol Maid but later changed the name to Aleutian Beauty.

 

Again, a Coast Guard helicopter, rescue boat and a sheriff’s office boat responded, along with a tribal fisheries boat. The search was called off after more than three hours, costing about $71,000.

Coast Guard officials believe the same caller placed a third false call a day later around 10 p.m., saying a body had been found.

 

These kinds of calls must be extremely frustrating for emergency crews, who are on call around the clock to help people in distress. Personally, I would like to see this caller or callers caught and forced to explain themselves in court.

Coast Guard Capt. Michael W. Raymond, commander of Sector Puget Sound, said hoaxes are a major problem.

“The Coast Guard takes every distress call seriously,” he said. “False distress calls tie up valuable search assets and put our crews at risk. They impede our ability to respond to real cases of distress where lives may be in genuine peril.”

The Coast Guard would like to locate those responsible for the hoax, which is considered a federal criminal offense with penalties up to 10 years in jail and fines up to $250,000, along with possible reimbursement for the cost of the response. Boaters are reminded that they are responsible for radio use by their passengers.

Anyone with information about the caller or callers heard on the radio recording is asked to call the Coast Guard 13th District Command Center, (206) 220-7003. Here’s the original Coast Guard news release.


Watching the devastating decline of starfish

June 17th, 2014 by cdunagan

I went to the beach last week to see some starfish with three trained volunteers. What we found was a scene of devastation on the pier and along the beach at Lofall, located on Hood Canal in North Kitsap.

Barb Erickson photographs a sea star afflicted with sea star wasting syndrome. Photo by Meegan M. Reid

Barb Erickson photographs a sea star afflicted with sea star wasting syndrome. Another infected star dangles by one arm.
Photo by Meegan M. Reid

What had been a large population of sea stars, as scientists call them, were now generally missing. Those that remained were mostly dead or dying. Healthy ones were in a minority.

Sea star wasting syndrome is now clearly present on our local beaches, just as it has affected hundreds of locations from Alaska to Mexico.

On Friday, I was fortunate to be in the company of three women who knew quite a bit about sea stars. They were careful in their observations and precise in their measurements, able to provide data to a network of observers measuring the progress of this disease along the West Coast.

But these three women — Barb Erickson, Linda Martin and Peg Tillery — also expressed their feelings of loss for the sea stars, a creature considered a key part of a healthy marine ecosystem.

As I reported in my story, published Sunday in the Kitsap Sun (subscription), Barb was the first to assess the situation as we arrived at the beach, comparing her observations to just two weeks before.

“‘Oh my!’ shouted Erickson as she reached the base of the pier and took a look at the pilings. ‘I can see right now that there are hardly any (sea stars) here. These corners were just covered the last time. Now these guys are just about wiped out.’”

“’Look at the baby,’ lamented Tillery, pointing to a tiny sea star. ‘He has only four arms, and he’s doing that curling-up thing … We had so much hope for the babies.’”

Melissa Miner, who is part of a coastwide monitoring program, told me that researchers are working hard to find a cause of the advancing affliction. But so far no consistent pattern has emerged to explain every outbreak.

starfish2

A leading hypothesis is that something is causing the sea stars to be stressed, weakening their defenses against the bacteria that eventually kill them. The stressor could be temperature, she said, or possibly other factors such as increased acidity or low-oxygen conditions. Perhaps another organism attacks the immune system, leaving the sea stars vulnerable to an opportunistic bacteria.

Researchers may find multiple pathways to the same conclusion: a dramatic decline in the sea star population, both at the local level and throughout their range along West Coast.

When I hear about a population crash, I think about the basic tenets of population dynamics. Is it possible that the sea star population has reached an unsustainable level, given the available food supply and other factors, and that widespread disease is a natural outcome? Will the decline of sea stars be followed by an overpopulation of mussels or other prey, leading to a decline in ecosystem diversity? How long will it take for the sea stars to recover? These are issues worthy of study in the coming years.

But I’m haunted by another prospect. Having seen our familiar starfish attacked by strange bacteria and turned to mush, what lies in store for other marine organisms? Could ecological stress and other mysterious pathogens lead to the devastating loss of other marine species? Who will be next?

Peg Tillery, Linda Martin and Barb Erickson take notes on the sea stars they see clinging to the Lofall pier. Photo by Meegan M. Reid

Peg Tillery, Linda Martin and Barb Erickson take notes on sea stars clinging to the Lofall pier.
Photo by Meegan M. Reid


Amusing Monday: time to water The Onion

June 16th, 2014 by cdunagan

We can always depend on The Onion, the fake news center, to come up with odd ways of looking at the world. Sometimes I laugh out loud; other times I just scratch my head.

I’ve been sharing watery slices of The Onion since I first started the “Amusing Monday” feature in 2008. The video at right is about how scientists react when they find water on the planet Mercury.

The following are some of The Onion’s newer stories, along with some old ones that never wear out.

Nation Back On Board With SeaWorld Following Awesome Orca Trick

Ending their intensifying tide of criticism over the marine park’s unethical treatment of animals … Americans across the nation announced this week that they were “totally back on board” with SeaWorld after seeing an awesome and absolutely can’t-miss orca trick…

“What can I say? I had SeaWorld all wrong—I had myself convinced they were some sort of exploitative company that abused animals in the pursuit of cheap thrills for tourists, but then I saw that orca make a big wave by slapping the water with his fin and I was like, ‘Hold the phone, I need to see that again,’” environmental reporter Craig Edmonds said while imitating the whale’s motion with his arms.

Fitting last week’s theme of climate change, The Onion reports this story:

Scientists Recommend Having Earth Put Down

Claiming that it is the humane thing to do, and that the planet is “just going to suffer” if kept alive any longer, members of the world’s scientific community recommended today that Earth be put down.

Radio News:

Scientific Journal Releases List Of Year’s Top 100 Compounds

Obese Salmon Unable To Swim Upstream To Spawn

After repeatedly gorging itself on marine sea life for more than seven years, a severely obese chinook salmon told reporters Wednesday he had grown too overweight to swim upstream and reproduce.

Drought Bad; Water Good

Sources nationwide are confirming this week that the current drought is bad and that water is very good …

Pool-Safety Tips

Here’s a sampling:
— Your body is 70 percent water, so don’t worry: Even if you were to drown, only 30 percent of you would die.
— Remember, you can’t leave young children unsupervised around the pool, the way you do in the house.
— Don’t swim in the end of the pool where unscrupulous Japanese commercial whalers are using gill nets and explosive harpoons.

NHL Finishes Freezing Water For 2011 Season

… A shortage of frozen water on hockey rinks in the beginnings of previous seasons meant that players were forced to adapt to less than ideal conditions, skating on whatever frozen water was available and then trudging clumsily over the exposed dirt or wooden floors….

“We also now completely understand—and agree—that all parts of the rink have to be covered with ice,” Bettman added. “Even the parts behind the nets.”

Old-Fashioned No-Water Practice Gets High School Diving Coach Fired

Perkins County High School diving coach Tony Spencer was fired Friday for what he called an “old-fashioned no-water practice,” a drill that left three swimmers dead and several others in intensive care.

“If you can dive into a pool with no water, imagine what you can do with a pool that has water,” the 72-year-old Spencer said as he was led to a police car…

Rain Told To Go Away In 1986 Returns

A rainstorm that in August 1986 was told to “go away” and advised to come again another day returned Monday, soaking the downtown Adair area for much of the afternoon.

A non-water video you may find amusing:


More Office Workers Switching To Fetal Position Desks


Amusing Monday: To laugh about climate change

June 9th, 2014 by cdunagan

I just realized the other day that I’ve never offered any jokes about climate change in my weekly “Amusing Monday” feature — although I did present a video clip from Stephen Colbert’s “The Colbert Report” a little more than a year ago. See Amusing Monday, Feb. 4, 2013.

Please don’t tell me it is inappropriate to laugh about tragedy. I mean, don’t even suggest that we can’t find humor in something that does not exist.

So I’ll raise the stakes this week by offering TWO Stephen Colbert videos plus a smattering of jokes from across the comedic landscape — which, by the way, is growing warmer by the year.

David Letterman: “Experts say this global warming is serious, and they are predicting now that by the year 2050, we will be out of party ice.”

Jay Leno: “They say if the warming trend continues, by 2015 Hillary Clinton might actually thaw out.”

Jimmy Fallon: “The White House released this massive report on the effects of climate change called the ‘National Climate Assessment,’ which beats the original title, ‘It’s Getting Hot in Here. (Fallon)

Jimmy Kimmel: “President Bush has a plan. He says that if we need to, we can lower the temperature dramatically just by switching from Fahrenheit to Celsius.”

Conan O’Brien:
“Yesterday, a group of scientists warned that because of global warming, sea levels will rise so much that parts of New Jersey will be under water. The bad news? Parts of New Jersey won’t be under water.”

The jokes above, except for Jimmy Fallon’s, were from “Late night jokes about global warming.”

Do you like cartoons? Take a look at this “Cartoon Gallery” from various artists compiled by Daniel Kurtzman. I’ve linked to the first; click the right arrow to see the full series.

Here are more jokes from lesser-known comedians:

“John Boehner says he’s not qualified to debate the science of climate change. And don’t even get him started on that wacky evolution thing.” — Warren Holstein

“Pat Sajak is correct when he says global warming alarmists are racists. They never talk about the plight of brown or black bears.” — Adam Wolf

“Al Gore has warned that cigarette smoking is a, ‘significant contributor to global warming.’ Making even more of an impact was the hot-air released by this comment.” — Chris Mata

“’I’m not paying to heat the outdoors.’ — some old guy who’s never heard of global warming” — Dan Dodge

“What if global warming IS a hoax and we make this world a better place … for nothing.” — Cold Lord Quietus


For humpback whale, so many fish, so little luck

June 4th, 2014 by cdunagan

This amazing photo of a humpback whale chasing a massive school of herring was taken in Prince William Sound by Rich Brenner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

A lone humpback whale swims into a huge school of herring, which keeps moving away. Photos by Rich Brenner, Alaska Department of Fish and Game

A lone humpback whale swims into a huge school of herring, but the fish keep moving away.
Photo by Rich Brenner, Alaska Department of Fish and Game

Rich took the picture in April during an aerial survey of herring. He says he has observed many humpbacks feeding on herring during the spring survey, but this whale was not having much luck, probably because the water was so clear. As the whale approached, the herring kept moving away, creating odd patterns in the water.

“As I was watching the scene, I couldn’t help but think that the whale was expending a lot of energy and not receiving much in return,” Rich wrote me in an email. “But the shallow depth and clear water probably did not favor it.”

In the weeks prior to the flight, a large algae bloom covered this area near the village of Tatitlek. If the bloom had continued, the whale and much of the herring might have been difficult to see, he said.

“Thus, we were very pleased to get such a clear view of the situation and observe the movement of the herring along with the whale. The herring school undulated away from the whale, and they were able to keep a gap between them. Only once did we observe the whale lunging forward and getting under the school.”

The second photo, below, shows the whale lunging upward and possibly getting a mouthful of herring. The platform in the top photo is part of a frame for a net pen used to hold hatchery salmon before their release.

The spring herring survey measures the extent of the spawn along the shoreline, which is used to estimate the overall biomass in Prince William Sound.

Rich said he estimated that herring in this massive school would amount to several hundred tons. GIS experts will map the school to help construct a formal estimate of the biomass.

The state has not approved a commercial herring fishery in Prince William Sound since 1999. During the 1980s and early 90s, large numbers of herring were caught commercially, Rich said. Sometime around 1993, the population crashed and has never fully recovered.

“The reason for the depleted biomass, relative to the years when we had a commercial fishery, is a subject that has been hotly debated by scientists and others for the past 20 years,” he said.

As stated in an announcement by ADFG:

“Preliminary spawn estimates (from 2013) are 20.7 mile-days (south of Knowles Head) and 5.5 mile-days (north of Knowles Head), and 3.2 mile-days (Montague Island) for a total of 29.3 mile-days of spawn. This is fewer mile-days of spawn in PWS than in any year in which commercial fishing occurred since 1973.”

Another good source of information on herring is the Prince William Sound Science Center.

The humpback whale may have caught up with some of the fish, as it surges to the surface.

The humpback whale may have caught up with some of the herring, as it surges to the surface.


Amusing Monday: Creative cakes take you places

June 2nd, 2014 by cdunagan

I’m still amazed — and amused — by the idea that talented artists can create edible cake sculptures depicting just about any object or scene — including underwater realms and seaside landscapes.

osprey

The water-related themes are especially amusing, because water is one place you would never want to put a cake.

One amazing artist is Kim Simons, who got her start in cake decorating about five years ago while watching cake shows on television. As she told “Dessert Professional” magazine:

“I said to myself, ‘I can do that!’ So I taped the shows and freeze-framed the shots to learn of all the products they used. I started to play around with the materials and found my true passion in the process.”

The magazine listed Kim, a New Jersey resident, as one of the top 10 cake artists of North America last year.

Since then, she has won numerous awards for her specialty cakes, including the osprey cake, which was named best of division for show cakes at last year’s “That Takes the Cake! Sugar Art and Cake Show” in Austin, Texas. No one photo can capture the intricacy of this cake, so check out Kim’s website for a variety of shots of the osprey cake, and click each one to enlarge. The details are truly amazing.

The same goes for the painted turtle cake below. The detail shots help you take a closer look, as if you were seeing the cake in front of you. This cake won several awards at the 2011 National Capital Area Cake Show in Annadale, Va., where the theme was “Under the Sea.” I would have loved to have seen that show.

If you’re intrigued by these cakes, you must check out all of Kim’s creations under the tab “Award Winning Cakes” on her website, Cakes by Kim Simons.

See also previous “Water Ways” entries on cakes:

turtle


Rolfes named ‘Legislator of Year’ by enviro group

May 28th, 2014 by cdunagan

Washington Conservation Voters has named state Sen. Christine Rolfes as its 2014 “Legislator of the Year.”

Rolfes was praised for her deft legislative work in this year’s session and “for being one of the state’s strongest environmental leaders,” according to a statement from the political organization.

Christine Rolfes

Christine Rolfes

“In the Senate, Sen. Rolfes fought for real action to protect Puget Sound and the public from the threat of dangerous and increasing oil traffic in our state,” said Joan Crooks, CEO of Washington Conservation Voters, in the news release. “She proved time and again that she is an effective champion who isn’t afraid to take on industry and the Big Oil lobby to protect our environment and communities.”

Rolfes was recognized for submitting and promoting legislation designed to improve the safety of oil transport in and around Puget Sound. See Senate Bill 6262, the “Oil Transportation Safety Act” — one of only two priorities put forth this year from the Environmental Priorities Coalition.

The bill was blocked by legislative leaders in the Senate in favor of a bill proposed by the oil industry, Crooks said.

“In the 2014 Senate’s most dramatic moment on the floor, Sen. Rolfes skillfully used a rare procedural motion to set the industry bill aside,” stated the news release. “Her leadership resulted in the bill’s eventual demise; it was a deft and dramatic maneuver for this environmental champion.”

Rolfes’ predecessor in the Senate from the 23th District, Phil Rockefeller, also from Bainbridge Island, was named Legislator of the Year by WCV in 2007. That’s the year he served as chief architect of the bill to create the Puget Sound Partnership and pushed through the legislation. The partnership has since taken on the role of coordinating the restoration of Puget Sound. Rockefeller left the Senate when he was appointed to the Northwest Power & Conservation Council in July 2011.


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"In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught."Baba Dioum, Senegalese conservationist

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