Tag Archives: endangered species

Research on rockfish
in Puget Sound reveals intriguing findings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amusing Monday: Blobfish earns uncommon respect

We know about beauty contests and cute baby contests, but the competition really worth celebrating is the Ugliest Animal Contest, sponsored by the British-based Ugly Animal Preservation Society.

Blobfish / Kerryn Parkinson, NORFANZ Founding Parties
Blobfish / Kerryn Parkinson, NORFANZ Founding Parties

There were plenty of candidates, from the proboscis monkey, with its large nose, to the Dromedary jumping slug, a slug with a hump on its back known for jumping to escape from predators.

But when more than 3,000 votes were counted last month, the winner, with 795 votes, was the blobfish, a gelatinous fish that lives at great depths off the coast of Australia.

As far as I can tell, nobody asked the blobfish what he thought of this honor. But there was an important theme to the contest. With an estimated 200 species going extinct each day, the ugly animals need special attention, according to Simon Watt, president of the Ugly Animal Preservation Society, who told The Guardian newspaper:

“We’ve needed an ugly face for endangered animals for a long time, and I’ve been amazed by the public’s reaction. For too long the cute and fluffy animals have taken the limelight, but now the blobfish will be a voice for the mingers who always get forgotten.”

I love that British term “minger,” defined by the Urban Dictionary as “a male or female who fell out of the ugly tree at birth and hit every branch on the way down.”

Simon Watt explains the origins of the Ugly Animal Preservation Society and how the contest came about on a video posted on YouTube.

Adam Gabriel of “Epic Wildlife” took note of the contest and posted his own video on YouTube, which helps us understand the blobfish and his motivations.

When you have time, listen to the comedians who nominated other species for the Ugly Animal Contest. I think you’ll find the following videos educational as well as amusing:

Finally, I have to reflect on the photo of the blobfish, a face that launched a thousand YouTube video players. There are pictures of blobfish and then there is THE PICTURE of a blobfish. This picture has been repeated again and again, apparently without permission, and many of the photo credits are simply wrong.

How THE PICTURE came to be taken during a research expedition is described by Mark McGrouther, collection manager for ichthyology at the Australian Museum. By the time of the Ugliest Animal Contest, the blobfish, known as Mr. Blobby, was already quite famous and beloved in Australia, where he had his own Facebook page and Twitter account. For more about Mr. Blobby, check out this blog on the website of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation.

If you haven’t gotten your fill of blobfish by now, check out “The Blobfish Song” by Friday Morning Freak House.

Orcas still ‘endangered’ as next steps contemplated

Federal biologists have decided, following a yearlong review, that the Southern Resident killer whales should remain listed as “endangered.”

A lot of folks were surprised when the National Marine Fisheries Service agreed to undertake the review, based on a delisting petition from some farmers in California’s Central Valley. As I outlined in a Water Ways post last November, the agency acknowledged that there was new scientific information about the extent to which the Puget Sound whales breed outside their group. Such information could potentially undermine the finding that the Southern Residents are a distinct population segment, a prerequisite for the endangered listing.

After the review, the federal biologists found that most of the new evidence strengthens the position that the Southern Residents — those that frequent Puget Sound — are distinct and unique in other ways essential to the listing. Here’s how I wrote about it in yesterday’s Kitsap Sun (subscription required):

“The endangered listing for the Southern Residents hinges on the legal question of whether the three pods constitute a distinct population segment of an identified species or subspecies. Agency scientists maintain that the Puget Sound whales have their own language and preferred food sources, and they don’t breed to a significant degree with other killer whales. They also meet other requirements for listing, such as having their own range of travel and not interacting with other groups of the same species.

“New evidence, however, shows that their range overlaps that of other orcas to varying degrees and that occasional external breeding takes place. Still, agency scientists conclude, new information about genetics, behavior and cultural diversity demonstrates more convincingly than ever that Southern Residents are unique and irreplaceable.”

To read the official findings, check out the Federal Register notice (PDF 270 kb) and the Status Review Update (1.1 mb).

I would speculate that taking on the yearlong review was one way for agency officials to put the new information into official context, as they see it, before a near-certain court battle ensues.

By the way, the attorney for the farmers, Damien Schiff of Pacific Legal Foundation, told me that he feels the agency sidestepped the very information that compelled it to conduct the status review:

“The decision is disappointing because of the result, but it also seems to contradict the service’s own finding … that it had substantial information that delisting may be warranted.

“They cleverly avoided that by mislabeling our information as consistent with the action they took in 2005. They never really engaged with the new evidence they were presented.”

Myoko Sakashita of the Center for Biological Diversity said her organization will defend the National Marine Fisheries Service’s findings if the case goes to court. The group led the court battle that resulted in the orcas being listed as endangered in the first place.

I asked Myoko if her group intends to push for further protections for the Southern Residents, such as expanding critical habitat into the Pacific Ocean. She confirmed that such action was a strong possibility and may not wait for the agency’s regular five-year review.

Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research said he has presented research findings about the travels of the whales up and down the West Coast, including forays into Northern California. Recent satellite-tracking of the orcas by agency biologists confirms that their habitat should be protected along the coast to give them a better chance of survival, he said. See Water Ways, April 5, 2013.

So far, critical habitat has been designated for most of Puget Sound, but this year provides evidence that they rely on a much greater area. So far this summer, the Southern Residents have been mostly missing from the San Juan Islands, probably because of a serious decline in the chinook salmon runs returning to the Fraser River in British Columbia. This kind of extended summer absence from inland waters has never been witnessed over the past 30 years — and nobody seems to know where the orcas are now.

I asked Ken what he thought about the petition to list Lolita, also known as Tokitae, as “endangered” along with the rest of the Southern Residents, of which she is a member. Ken said he supports the idea, even if it means nothing regarding Lolita’s welfare or future. Having her included in the federally protected population may be the only way to guarantee that researchers can examine her body after she dies, he said. If nothing else, the orca’s tissues could contain information to help future generations of killer whales.

Back to the decision to keep the Southern Residents on the Endangered Species List, here are a few press releases from involved organizations:

National Marine Fisheries Service (PDF 15.1 kb)

Puget Sound Partnership

Center for Biological Diversity

Orca Conservancy (PDF 1.3 mb)

Pacific Whale Watch Association (PDF 565 kb)

Should captive orcas be listed as ‘endangered’?

The legal battle to determine whether captive killer whales — specifically Lolita — should be considered part of the endangered orca population has been taken out of the courtroom by parties in the case.

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

A settlement agreement (PDF 284 kb) was signed two weeks ago between the National Marine Fisheries Service — which enforces the Endangered Species Act for marine mammals — and animal rights advocates who would like something better for this isolated animal.

Lolita is a female killer whale from Puget Sound who has been kept in a tank in Miami for 42 years.

The agreement essentially puts the lawsuit on hold pending a formal petition process under the ESA. Otherwise, the Animal Legal Defense Fund, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and others in the case would be left to argue about missed deadlines and proper legal notice to the federal government. See U.S. District Judge Benjamin Settle’s ruling (PDF 48 kb).

Reading between the lines, I can imagine a conversation between lawyers for the two sides:
Continue reading

Geoduck harvests are debatable, but lucrative

Geoduck harvesting remains controversial. Some people are convinced that it creates long-lasting damage to the seabed and to the creatures that dwell on the bottom. Others are equally convinced that damage is minimal and does not last very long.

I have never determined for myself if one side or the other is absolutely right, or if it depends largely on bottom conditions at a specific site. As a reporter, I continue to listen to both sides and try to give them each fair treatment.

One thing is for sure, however: The money that goes into state coffers from the sale of geoducks is quite remarkable. In a story published in today’s Kitsap Sun, I quote state officials who say the market has remained strong, despite the downturn in the economy.

In a single area north of Blake Island in Kitsap County, the state will receive $1.4 million for geoducks harvested this year alone. Similar amounts can be expected from that area for the next few years.

I will entertain comments and links to documents from anyone who wants to discuss the damage issue. I must give some weight, however, to the National Marine Fisheries Service, which has approved a Geoduck Habitat Conservation Plan and incidental take permit under the Endangered Species Act. (See the NMFS Web site on geoducks.)

The reports, which are based largely on research by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, give the geoduck fishery a “low-effect” rating when it comes to threatened and endangered species.

“A low effect HCP is one that NOAA’s Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determine to have minor or negligible effects on federally listed, proposed, or candidate species and their habitats covered under the HCP,” according to the NMFS Web site.

Canadians challenge their government on orca protections

Six Canadian environmental groups have filed a lawsuit against their federal government to protect the habitat of killer whales, including the Southern Resident animals that frequent Puget Sound in the summer and fall.

“This is the first lawsuit ever of its kind in Canada,” said Lara Tessaro, staff lawyer at Ecojustice. “We hope to force the federal government to legally protect the critical habitat of endangered species — like the Southern Resident killer whales.”

Tessaro was quoted in a news release on the Ecojustice Web site and in a story by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

The lawsuit covers the Southern Residents, listed as “endangered” under Canadian law, and the Northern Residents, listed as “threatened.” The listing criteria are somewhat different in the two countries. Canadian authorities, like their U.S. counterparts, have officially recognized the whales at risk of extinction.

“DFO’s decision not to protect critical habitat of resident killer whales is symptomatic of the federal government’s widespread failure to implement the Species at Risk Act,” Gwen Barlee, policy director of the Wilderness Committee, said in the news release.

Also mentioned in both the news story and release was Lance Barrett-Lennard, recognized as an expert on killer whales throughout the Northwest and co-chairman of Resident Killer Whale Recovery Team in Canada. Barrett-Lennard said the team has resisted efforts by government officials to remove scientific information from the team’s list of recommendations.

“If the response by the [fisheries] minister stands, it effectively means that nothing has to be done under the Species at Risk Act to protect killer whales, so it’s a hard pill to swallow,” he said in the CBC story.

I placed a call this morning to DFO to see if anybody wishes to discuss this lawsuit. Officials responded this afternoon that they can’t comment because the issue is before the courts.

Backgrounders on killer whales in Canada and in the United States.