Tag Archives: National Marine Fisheries Service

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:
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Mystery of orca’s death only deepens with new info

The unusual death of L-112, a young female orca apparently killed by “blunt force trauma,” continues to fuel discussions about what may have killed her and what should be done about it.

Kenneth Hess, a Navy public affairs officer, posted a comment today on the recent blog entry “Balcomb wants to know if young orca was bombed.” In his comment, Hess repeats that the Navy did not conduct any training with sonar, bombs or explosives in the days preceding L-112’s death. He called it “irresponsible and inaccurate” to blame the Navy for “blowing up” the whale.

Another new development today is an e-mail I received from Lt. Diane Larose of the Canadian Navy, responding to my inquiry about any explosive devices used in the days before L-112 was found dead on Feb. 11. Read the e-mail (PDF 16 kb) I received:

“On February 6, 2012 HMCS Ottawa was operating in the Straits of Juan de Fuca, specifically in Constance Bank, conducting Work Ups Training including a period of sonar use and two small under water charges as part of an anti-submarine warfare exercise. These small charges were used to get the ships’ company to react to a potential threat or damage to meet the necessary training requirement.”

In talking to experts involved in the investigation, it seems unlikely that L-112 could have been injured or killed in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and then wash up dead on Long Beach five days later. So the mystery continues.

In tomorrow’s Kitsap Sun, I’m reporting that environmental groups on both sides of the Canadian border are calling on their respective navies to disclose all the specific activities during the 10 days leading up to the discovery of L-112’s carcass at Long Beach on Feb. 11. The groups also are calling for a complete cessation of sonar use for training and testing in the Salish Sea.

Check out three letters submitted to the navies involved, including one from U.S. and Canadian scientists:
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Balcomb wants to know if young orca was bombed

Ken Balcomb, the dean of killer whale research in the Northwest, has looked at the evidence and believes he knows what killed L-112, a 3-year-old female orca found along the Washington Coast in February.

L-112 in happier times. The 3-year-old orca died in February, and her death is the subject of an intense investigation.
Photo by Jeanne Hyde, Whale of a Porpoise
(Click on image to see Jeanne's tribute page)

“Clearly the animal was blown up,” he told Scott Rasmussen, a reporter for the Journal of the San Juan Islands.

When I asked Ken to explain, he provided a lot more detail and informed me that he was calling for a law-enforcement investigation into the whale’s death by the National Marine Fisheries Service. Why he is seeking more than a biological analysis of the death will become clear in a moment.

What Ken is suggesting is that L-112 was killed by a bomb, possibly dropped from an aircraft during a training event in the Navy’s Northwest Training Range off the West Coast. His evidence is circumstantial, but he wants some answers.

What we know for sure is that this young female orca washed up dead at Long Beach on Feb. 11 in relatively fresh condition, allowing a complete necropsy, including CT scans of the head and dissections of the internal organs and head.

Joe Gaydos, a veterinarian with The SeaDoc Society who participated in the necropsy, said the whale showed signs of “blunt force trauma” with injury to the right and left sides of the head and right side of the body. Blunt force trauma might be what a human would experience if dropped from a helicopter onto soft ground, he explained.
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Environmental groups will boycott Navy meetings

A dozen environmental groups say they will boycott the nine “scoping meetings” the Navy is holding to kick off a new round of studies regarding testing and training activities in the Northwest.

In a letter dated March 13 (PDF 16 kb), the groups said the format of the meetings is not designed to encourage public discussion or even allow public comment. In addition, the Navy and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have ignored ongoing calls for the Navy to better protect marine wildlife and the environment along the Washington Coast and other biologically important areas, they say.

Navy's Northwest testing and training ranges. Click to enlarge.
Map by U.S. Navy

The Navy will seek a new permit from NOAA for the incidental harassment of marine mammals during testing and training activities. Most of the activities are identical to what is taking place now, but some new activities are added — including the testing of sonar from ships docked at piers.

Between now and 2015, Navy officials will describe and study the effects of various activities on marine life and update existing mitigation with new research findings. See my initial story in the Kitsap Sun, Feb. 27, and a related post in Water Ways, March 6. Also, you may review the official notice in the Federal Register.

Back to the letter, which states in part:

“As you know, the scoping process is the best time to identify issues and provide recommendations to agencies on what should be analyzed in the EIS. However, a process developed for activities with controversial impacts, like those at issue here, that does not provide opportunity for the public to testify or speak to a broader audience, or to hear answers to questions raised by others, and that fails to engage major population centers is not designed to help citizens and organizations effectively participate in agencies’ environmental reviews.”

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Pierside sonar in Everett raises new concerns

Last Monday, Feb. 27, the Navy announced that it was beginning an environmental review that will lead up to a new federal permit involving Navy testing and training efforts in the Northwest, including the use of sonar at pierside in Puget Sound. See Kitsap Sun, Feb. 27.

Two days later, workers and passengers on the Clinton-Mukilteo ferry heard sonar pings apparently vibrating through the hull loud enough to be heard above the water. Scott Veirs was the first to report this issue in his blog Orcasphere that same day.

Jason Wood, a bioacoustician and research associate at The Whale Museum in Friday Harbor, made some phone calls and issued this report:

“The crew in the engine room, the captain, and passengers could hear the sonar, at times so loudly that the ferry agent on land could hear the sonar coming up through the ferry while it was at the dock…. The operations center called the Everett Naval base, but got no answers. They also called the Coast Guard. No (Navy) or Coast Guard vessels were reported seen during the sonar incident, other than a naval vessel at the dock in the Everett Navy yard.”

I phoned Sheila Murray, spokeswoman for Navy Region Northwest, who confirmed that the sonar was coming from the USS Shoup, docked at Naval Station Everett. She issued this statement:

“In response to your query, the Navy was conducting pierside testing of mid-frequency active sonar at Naval Station Everett yesterday. This is routine testing that is a longstanding and ongoing requirement, and is an essential process in preparing a Navy ship to get underway.

“Pierside testing is not continuous, but consists of very brief transmissions of acoustic energy interspersed with longer silent periods.”

The Shoup gained a notorious reputation among some killer whale researchers in 2003, when the intense sound of sonar pings was reported to have caused J pod to flee in a confused pattern. See Water Ways, Feb. 11, for links to videos of that incident.

Sheila also confirmed that this is the kind of “pierside testing” contemplated for the new permit being sought from the National Marine Fisheries Service, a permit that will allow incidental harassment of marine mammals under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Such activities will be analyzed in an upcoming environmental impact statement, as I described last week.
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Researchers launch winter tracking of killer whales

UPDATE: Tracking J pod from 6 p.m. Monday to 9 a.m. Thursday, using a satellite tag attached to J-26. This is the northwest corner of Washington state, with Vancouver Island to the north.
Map: National Marine Fisheries Service

A team of killer whale researchers is tracking J pod by satellite, after attaching a special radio tag to J-26, a 21-year-old male named “Mike.”

Brad Hanson, who is leading the research team from the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, said the tagging occurred Monday without incident as darkness fell over the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

“This is really exciting,” Brad told me today by cell phone from the NOAA research ship Bell M. Shimada. “This is something we have been planning on doing for quite a few years now. Everything worked out to encounter the animals in decent weather condition.”

The map above shows where the whales have traveled since Monday afternoon. A website showing the tracks, including an explanation of the project, will be updated roughly once a day.

The goal is to learn where the Southern Resident killer whales go in winter, what they’re eating and why they choose certain areas to hang out. Until now, these questions could not be answered well, because winter sightings were fairly limited.

When I talked to Brad about 4 p.m. Wednesday, the Shimada was towing an acoustic array near Port Angeles, as the researchers listened for the sounds of killer whales that might venture into the strait.

J pod was fairly spread out Monday during the tagging operation, and visibility was low Tuesday during heavy rains. As the whales headed out into the ocean, the crew decided to stay in the strait to avoid 20-foot seas and heavy winds off the coast. They could have followed the whales out, Brad said, but the satellite tag allows the crew to keep track of their location. In rough seas, there’s a risk that the research equipment will be damaged.

“Everything is weather-dependent,” Brad said. “Our plan is to try to catch up with them as soon as we can.”

The goal is to collect fecal samples and fish scales — as the researchers do in summer when the whales are in the San Juan Islands.

“That data is extremely valuable in determining the species of fish,” he said, “and if it’s chinook, what stocks are important.”

The satellite tagging has been controversial among some researchers and killer whale advocates, but it was approved following a study of the potential risks and benefits. See Water Ways entries from 2010:

Orca tagging raises questions about research, Dec. 8, 2010

Orca researchers divided over use of satellite tags, Dec. 28, 2010

The researchers are scheduled to be out with the whales until March 7.

“We’re keeping our options open,” Brad said. “We will spend as much time with Js as we can. It looks like we could get one low-pressure system after another, as is typical for February, but we might get a break on Friday. Sometimes we’ll get these holes in the weather system.

“Right now, we’re basically hanging out in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. If other animals come in, we hope to detect that.”

The tagging permit allows for up to six orcas to be tracked each year, but nobody expects the number of tagged animals to be close to that.

Data from the satellite transmitter is relayed to a weather satellite as it passes over. The information is then transferred to a processing center that determines the location of the transmitter. Through the process, the information gets delayed a few hours.

Also on board the research vessel are seabird biologists and other experts taking samples of seawater and zooplankton and collecting basic oceanographic data.

So far, sonar has not been linked to orca death

When one of our resident killer whales, L-112, was found dead north of Long Beach on Feb. 11, people wondered immediately if the death might be related to a sonar incident reported a few days before.

Could the two events be linked or could the timing be just a coincidence?

The two-year-old killer whale, L-112, was laid out after death and prepared for a necropsy.
Photo by Cascadia Research

So far, I have been unable to find a ship that was deploying sonar off the coast. At the same time, it appears highly unlikely that L-112 could have been injured by sonar in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and then somehow swam out of the strait and down the full length of the Washington coast, succumb to death and then wash up on the beach, all in less than five days.

New evidence may come to light, but for now I would caution that we need to wait for an investigation by the National Marine Fisheries Service and not jump to conclusions over our concerns about sonar.

I discussed the investigation with marine mammal expert Lynne Barre of NMFS. She said the endangered listing of Southern Residents has heightened interest in all killer whale strandings, particularly unusual deaths like that of this 2-year-old female orca.

Lynne seems to confirm the idea that the investigation will proceed along three tracks. First, there’s the physical condition of L-112, as will be determined through careful examinations. Second, there’s the question of where L-112 and her family group were located during the time of injury. And, third, investigators need to locate ships with sonar capabilities and determine whether any of them had been using them in the time period in question.

Jessie Huggins of Cascadia Research and Dyanna Lambourn of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife provided an initial report from the necropsy:

“The whale was moderately decomposed and in good overall body condition. Internal exam revealed significant trauma around the head, chest and right side; at this point the cause of these injuries is unknown.”

Jessie told me that the whale was probably dead two to four days before it washed up on the beach. Trauma to the head was consistent with a blunt force, such as a boat collision or an attack by another large animal. The report mentions the prospects for what researchers may learn from various tissue samples taken from the whale.

Of particular interest to the sonar question is the skull, which has been frozen for the time being. Lynne Barre said it will undergo a CT scan with the hope of obtaining information about the condition of the inner ear and the delicate tissues involved in echolocation. Damage to those tissues could be an indication of trauma from a sound source, but experts will need to account for any decomposition after death. These issues are more complicated than they might seem.

As for the location of L-112 and her family, that probably will never be known unless one of the hydrophones picked up and recorded calls from L pod. Scott Veirs, associated with OrcaSound, has been working tirelessly the past few days to locate any orca sounds that may have been picked up throughout the area.

Scott has noted that killer whale calls consistent with K and L pods were picked up on two hydrophones in the San Juan Islands on Monday, Feb. 6, just 18 hours after a Canadian frigate, the HMCS Ottawa, transmitted loud pings throughout the area (Water Ways, Feb. 11). The two hydrophones picked up the sounds one after the other, suggesting that those whales were heading south toward the Strait of Juan de Fuca (OrcaSound, Feb. 8).

The next day, Tuesday, Feb. 7, some members of K and L pod were spotted in Discovery Bay between Sequim and Port Townsend, according to reports to Orca Network. Nobody can remember seeing Southern Resident killer whales there before. Could they have gone into the bay one day earlier, seeking refuge from the sonar? We may never know.

But if we’re talking about the death of L-112, subsequent IDs of the whales in Discovery Bay suggest that the group probably did not include L-112 or her family. I’m still trying to learn which whales likely would have been with L-112 around the time of her death. But chances are she and her family were out in the ocean when all this excitement was taking place in Puget Sound.

So that leaves the question of whether a ship could have been using sonar off the coast when L-112 was within range. I have been in touch with both U.S. and Canadian Navy public affairs officials, and both have denied that their ships were using sonar in the ocean during this time.

Lt. Diane Larose of the Canadian Navy confirms that two sonar-equipped Canadian Navy ships, the HMSC Ottawa and the HMCS Algonquin, were out at sea before entering the Salish Sea at the time of Exercise Pacific Guardian. But neither ship deployed their sonar before reaching the Salish Sea on Feb. 6, when Ottawa’s pinging was picked up on local hydrophones, she said. Navy officials say they followed procedures to avoid harm to marine mammals and have seen no evidence that marine mammals were in the area at the time.

A lot of gaps remain to be filled in, including the source of an unusual explosive-type sound at the beginning of the hydrophone recording that includes the Ottawa sonar, which Scott Veirs discovered (OrcaSound, Feb. 6).

Lynne Barre of NMFS agreed that the best thing for now is to wait until the investigation begins to answer some of the lingering questions. Sometimes the cause of death may include contributing factors, such as weakened immune systems that lead to disease that ultimately lead to a physical injury of some kind.

This is the third dead killer whale to be found in the vicinity since November. The others were a newborn calf from an offshore group of orcas and a very decomposed adult orca from the offshore population.

In all the discussions about sonar, we should not forget that the loss of this young female killer whale is significant for a variety of reasons. I remember the optimism that came with her birth back in the spring of 2009. See Kitsap Sun, March 5, 2009. L-112 also was one of the orcas who received two names, in this case Sooke and Victoria, because Ken Balcomb also named some whales at the time. (See Water Ways, Aug. 25, 2010.)

Columbia River salmon still wrapped in legal battles

When I heard that U.S. District Judge James Redden had, for the third time, rejected a biological opinion designed to protect Columbia River salmon from extinction, my mind leaped to this ongoing question: Will this decision move us closer or further away from removing dams from the Snake River?

After reading Redden’s opinion (PDF, 1.1 mb), I’m not sure. But I can understand why various sides of the debate must be feeling a mixture of hope and frustration from a legal battle that has continued for more than 10 years.

Redden was clear that NOAA Fisheries (National Marine Fisheries Service) could not conclude that salmon are on their way to recovery by relying on undetermined and unplanned habitat improvements proposed from 2013 to 2018 — not so very far in the future.

Quoting from his own opinions upheld by higher courts, Redden wrote in a fairly straight-forward way:

“The ESA (Endangered Species Act) prohibits NOAA Fisheries from relying on uncertain and speculative actions that are not ‘reasonably certain to occur.’ Mitigation measures may be relied upon only where they involve ‘specific and binding plans’ and ‘a clear, definite commitment of resources to implement those measures …’

“Mitigation measures supporting a biological opinion’s no-jeopardy conclusion must be ‘reasonably specific, certain to occur, and capable of implementation; they must be subject to deadlines or otherwise-enforceable obligations; and, most important, they must be address the threats to the species in a way that satisfies the jeopardy and adverse-modification standards.

“Here, NOAA Fisheries improperly relies on habitat mitigation measures that are neither reasonably specific nor reasonably certain to occur, and in some cases not even identified….

“It is one thing to identify a list of actions, or combination of actions through adaptive management to reflect changed circumstances. It is another to simply promise to figure it all out in the future….

“Coupled with the significant uncertainty surrounding the reliability of NOAA Fisheries habitat methodologies, the evidence that habitat actions are falling behind schedule, and that benefits are not accruing as promised, NOAA Fisheries’ approach to these issues is neither cautious nor rational.”

In a footnote, Redden said he is troubled that the agencies have been unable to come up with numerical predictions for salmon survival based on the habitat improvements proposed.

Redden said he would keep the biological opinion in place, flawed as it is, to ensure that NOAA Fisheries will “get out of the courtroom and get to work for the next two and a half years.”

By 2014, Redden wants a new biological opinion that thoroughly discusses the mitigation efforts but also addresses “more aggressive action, such as dam removal and/or additional flow augmentation and reservoir modifications….

“As a practical matter,” he notes, “it may be difficult for federal defendants to develop a long-term biological opinion that relies only on mitigation measures that are reasonably certain to occur.”

That last sentence about the difficulty of relying on mitigation measures keeps the door open to a future court order involving dam removal — but Redden clearly understands that he cannot replace a biological opinion with a legal ruling.

Will Stelle, regional director of NOAA Fisheries put a positive spin on the ruling. He told Scott Learn of The Oregonian that adding more detail to the biological opinion should be enough satisfy the judge.

“He ordered us to tighten up on the habitat program after 2013, and that’s fine,” Stelle was quoted as saying. “We were intending to do it anyway.”

Environmental and fishing groups celebrated the judge’s ruling, as they explained in a joint news release (Scribd). The following comment is from Zeke Grader, executive director of Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations:

“Now is the time for the Obama Administration to walk the talk on real salmon solutions. As this ruling highlights, the federal government has spent nearly 20 years spending enormous sums of money foolishly by doing all the wrong stuff.

“Facing the problem squarely, including potential removal of the four fish-killing dams on the lower Snake River, will create many thousands more jobs, revive the fishing industry, save billions of dollars for taxpayers, and lead in the development of clean, renewable, more efficient energy.

“What we need most now is for this administration to lead us to those solutions, not just bury its head in the sand in denial as has so often happened in the past.”

Other news stories:

The News Tribune

Seattle Times

Talks begin on salmon seasons, with orcas nearby

The annual North of Falcon process is about to get under way again, beginning with a public meeting in Olympia on Tuesday. During Tuesday’s meeting, state, federal and tribal managers are expected to outline their preseason forecasts of abundance for each salmon species. See meeting announcement in the Kitsap Sun and on the North of Falcon website.

Chinook salmon are the primary prey for Puget Sound's killer whales. Here, J-40 grabs a fish off False Bay, San Juan Island
Photo by Astrid Van Ginneken, Center for Whale Research.

This year, there will be a new elephant in the room … actually, something as large as an elephant — a killer whale. But more about that in a moment.

The process of determining how many salmon of each species are available for harvest and how to divide up the catch has become a complex project involving commuter simulations, policy discussions and demands from fishing constituents. The goal is to make abundant stocks of salmon available for harvest while protecting “weak runs” — particularly those listed under the Endangered Species Act.

Sure, the process has its flaws, but I have not heard of any better ideas for protecting weak runs outside of stopping all fishing for a period of time. So far this year, I haven’t had time to get a head start on what salmon managers are thinking, but I’ll be following the discussions as they move along.

I’ve been thinking about the comments people sometimes post on this blog, blaming all the salmon problems on commercial fishing, tribal fishing or the locations of fishing nets. Because such comments are often based on a lack of knowledge, I was wondering if such folks ever consider attending these meetings to find out how fishing decisions are made. The meetings, which are open to the public, begin with general discussions and get more technically oriented right up to the point when final decisions are made in mid-April.

While the fishing issues are complex by themselves, it is becoming clear that anglers and tribal fishermen may soon need to share their chinook salmon — a highly prized sport and table fish — with another species, the Southern Resident killer whale, an endangered species.

In a letter to salmon managers (PDF 1.5 mb), Will Stelle, regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service, announced that he would convene a series of workshops to study the relationship between chinook fishing and the survival of the Puget Sound orcas:

“The basic question NMFS must answer is whether Chinook salmon fisheries that affect the abundance of prey available to the killer whales are significantly and negatively affecting the well-being of the Southern Resident population and, if so, how those negative effects might be reduced.

“At the conclusion of the scientific workshop process, NMFS and others will be better able to determine what recovery actions are appropriate and, more specifically, whether and under what conditions additional constraints on salmon fishing may be necessary.”

As recently as 2008, the federal agency concluded that fishing at the levels allowed through the North of Falcon process had no serious effects on the whales. But, according to Stelle, more recent analyses may show otherwise:

“Our conclusions, which are preliminary at this point, strongly suggest that the amount of Chinook available to the whales in comparison to their metabolic requirements is less than what we estimated in the 2008 consultation, particularly during those summer months when the whales spend considerable time foraging in the Salish Sea.

“This change results from several factors, including but not limited to revised estimates of the metabolic requirements of the whales, their selective preference for larger Chinook salmon, and inclusion of a broader range of years to represent expected variations in the abundance of Chinook salmon available to the whales.”

While allocations for killer whales may not be explicit this year, the workshops could result in reduced harvest under the next Puget Sound Chinook Management Plan. For a more detailed discussion of the early analysis, download “Effects of Fisheries on Killer Whales” (PDF 345 kb).

For an outline of the proposed discussions, go to “A Scientific Workshop Process to Evaluate Effects of Salmon Fisheries on Southern Resident Killer Whales (PDF 21 kb).

To read a news story on the topic, reporter Craig Welch touched on the issue in the Feb. 11 edition of the Seattle Times.

President’s salmon joke fails to connect with reality

UPDATE, Jan. 27:
Since I first posted this item, Scott Veirs pointed out that the recovery of Atlantic salmon is under the joint jurisdiction of the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. I was not aware of this, and it could help explain the president’s statement. Thanks, Scott. See below for Scott’s comment and my response.
——

President Obama made a joke about salmon in his “State of the Union” speech last night, but his statement didn’t ring true to me, so I did some checking.

President Obama delivers State of the Union.White House photo

Obama used salmon as an example of redundancy in government and the need for reorganization. His point was valid about how a confusing number of agencies are involved in salmon and their habitat, But I’m afraid he’s mistaken about who’s in charge when it comes to these migrating fish. Here’s his statement:

“… Then there’s my favorite example: The Interior Department is in charge of salmon while they’re in freshwater, but the Commerce Department handles them when they’re in salt water (laughter). I hear it gets even more complicated once they’re smoked (laughter and applause).“

The truth is the National Marine Fisheries Service is in charge of most salmon listed under the Endangered Species Act, no matter where they are. NMFS, of course, is an agency under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is under the Department of Commerce.
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