Tag Archives: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Drones may address mystery of early deaths in killer whale calves

Being able to measure a killer whale’s girth and observe its overall condition without disturbing the animal is an important advancement in orca research.

By running a small hexacopter, also known as a drone, at a safe level over all 81 Southern Resident killer whales last month, researchers came to the conclusion that most of the orcas were in a healthy condition. Seven whales were picked out for further observation, including a few suspected of being pregnant.

I was especially intrigued by the idea that researchers could track the progress of a pregnancy. It has been long suspected that the first calf born to a young female orca often dies. A possible reason is that the calf receives a dangerous load of toxic chemicals from its mother. With this “offloading” of toxic chemicals from mother to first calf, later offspring receive lesser amounts of the chemicals.

Miscarriages and even births often go unnoticed, especially in the winter when the whales travel in the ocean far from human observation. If the young ones do not survive until their pod returns to Puget Sound, we may never know that a young whale was lost. Now, this remotely operated hexacopter may provide before and after pictures of a pregnant female, offering evidence when something goes wrong with a calf.

Images of the whales can be combined with skin biopsies and fecal samples collected by boat to provide a larger picture of the health of individual whales and the overall population.

Images of the whales collected this fall can be compared to those collected by conventional helicopter in 2008 and 2013 to assess any changes in the animals. Because of the noise and prop wash of a conventional helicopter, pilots must stay at a higher elevation to keep from disturbing the whales. There seems to be general agreement that drones are the way to go.

John Durban of NOAA Fisheries, who piloted the drone on 115 flights over the Southern Residents, said he was encouraged that their overall condition appeared better than in the past few years.

“Most individuals appear to be fairly robust this year, which is good news, but it’s also very important baseline information to have if the next few years turn out to be difficult for salmon and their predators,” Durban said in a news release.

Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research has a somewhat different take on this new tool. The high rate of miscarriages and neonate deaths have long been known, Ken told me in an email. It is the only way that they are able to control their population within the carrying capacity of their food supply.

“I am more excited about five whales being born and surviving since last December than I am about an unproven morphometric surmise that additional whales are in some stage of a seventeen-month pregnancy,” he said. “It is not wise to ‘count your chickens before they hatch,’ as the saying goes.”

The goal should be to recover the population, Ken said. When it comes to recovering salmon and killer whales, resource management has been a dismal failure. His suggestion: Remove the Snake River dams and allow the salmon numbers to rebuild naturally while fixing Canada’s Fraser River.

“With climate change well underway,” Ken wrote, “we cannot fritter away golden opportunities to restore viability in what little is left of a natural world in the Pacific Northwest while counting unborn whales.”

Other aspects of this new effort involving the hexacopter were well covered by news reporters this week. Check out the list below. The new video with John Durban and NOAA’s science writer Rich Press can be seen above. Last month, I provided other information and links about the new tool. See Water Ways Sept. 9.

Recent news coverage:

Aerial images of baby orca and new studies with unmanned aircraft

The Center for Whale Research has posted aerial photos of the new orca calf and her mother. The pictures, taken as part of a research study, were shot from an unmanned hexacopter (drone) from an altitude of more than 100 feet, as required by permits and protocols of the research project.

Aerial photos of L-91, a 20-year-old female, and her newborn baby. Photo: NOAA, Vancouver Aquarium, under NMFS Permit 16163 and FAA Flight Authorization Class G MOU: 2015-ESA-4-NOAA.
Aerial photo of L-91, a 20-year-old female, and her newborn baby taken from unmanned hexacopter.
Photo: NOAA, Vancouver Aquarium, under NMFS Permit 16163 and FAA Flight Authorization Class G MOU: 2015-ESA-4-NOAA.

Researchers are using the unmanned aircraft to help assess the health of killer whales and other marine mammals and to keep track of their population and behaviors. The researchers are from NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center and Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Center. They are operating under permits issued by the U.S. and Canadian governments to cover both sides of the border.

I first discussed this new aerial technique in “Water Ways” nearly a year ago, when Brad Hanson of the Northwest Fisheries Science Center told me that unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, hold great promise for learning about killer whales. The small aircraft can get great shots from overhead without the cost and disturbance of large manned helicopters. Read more and watch a nice video of the project on “Water Ways,” Oct. 16, 2014.

The research so far has shown that UAVs can be used to gather valuable information about marine mammals. I found a conversation on video between researcher John Durban and NOAA science writer Rich Press to be especially informative. They talked about how to spot a fat and healthy orca versus one that was emaciated and apparently on the edge of death. Finding a pregnant orca was not as hard as I thought it might be. Check out NOAA Fisheries’ website and the video above.

Small unmanned aircraft also can be used to count and assess the condition of gray whales on their annual migration along the West Coast.

“We can’t put a gray whale on a scale, but we can use aerial images to analyze their body condition—basically, how fat or skinny they are,” John Durban said in a story about the gray whale project on the NOAA Fisheries’ website.

In other news about the newborn orca, naturalist Jeanne Hyde has posted a report of her experience, including photos. Jeanne was one of the first to spot the new calf. Read what she has to say on her blog, “Whale of a Purpose.”

Amusing Monday: Art students create unified environmental message

A selected group of art students has created a unique collection of posters, videos, illustrations and a mural to deliver a coordinated message about protecting water quality and salmon habitat.

The project, supported with a grant from NOAA Fisheries, involved students from the Pacific Northwest College of Art in Portland. The art students have been producing various elements of the projects over the past year.

Animation student Beryl Allee teamed up with illustrator Grace Murphy to produce a potential media campaign called “Citizen in the Watershed,” focusing on how human damage to the ecosystem eventually comes back to harm humans. The first video on this page is called “Littering.” Two other videos, one dealing with yard care and the other with driveway runoff, can be viewed on NOAA’s website “NOAA 2015 Science in the Studio Award” or on Beryl’s Vimeo’s website.

An illustration to accompany public-outreach information about household products has been completed, with two more to be done before the end of August. See NOAA’s website.

Read about the two artists Beryl Allee and Grace Murphy.

Mural by Esteban Camacho Steffensen Image: NOAA Fisheries
Mural by Esteban Camacho Steffensen
Image: NOAA Fisheries

A mural design produced by PNCA graduate Esteban Camacho Steffensen depicts examples of human alterations to the landscape comingled with images of the natural ecosystem. These images are all wrapped together inside an outline of a chinook salmon — a key symbol of the natural Northwest.

The mural design can be printed on posters or painted on the wall of a building with instructions provided by the artist. The idea is that human activities cannot be separated from natural systems but that people can make choices to reduce their impacts. Read about the artist and his work on NOAA’s website.

Poster by Stephanie Fogel Image: NOAA Fisheries
Poster by Stephanie Fogel
Image: NOAA Fisheries

Interdisciplinary artist Stephanie Fogel created a poster to encourage people to properly dispose of medicines. The design features a salmon surrounded by pills, and the message can be customized for Washington, Oregon or California with specific information about disposing of pharmaceuticals. Read more about Stephanie J. Fogel.

The final video, below, was completed last year by Beryl Allee, who created the interesting illustrations, and John Summerson, who helped with animation and managed the sound design. The video helps people understand just one way that fish can be affected by hard armoring, such as bulkheads, constructed to protect shorelines from erosion. How the video was produced and other information can be found on NOAA’s website, “Bridging art with science to protect salmon habitat.”

Four ‘missing’ orcas return to San Juans;
L-54, where are you?

Welcome back Racer, Ballena, Crewser and Fluke!

And would anyone like to write new words to an old song that we could use to invite the last five orcas to the party in the San Juan Islands? (Read on for details.)

A 29-year-old female named Racer (L-72) and her 11-year-old son Fluke (L-105) are among the four orcas spotted in the San Juan Islands this week. It was the first time the group was seen in inland waters this summer. One group of five still has not returned. Photo by Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research NMFS PERMIT: 15569/ DFO SARA 272
A 29-year-old female named Racer (L-72) and her 11-year-old son Fluke (L-105) are among four orcas spotted this week in inland waters.
Photo by Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research

I reported last week in Water Ways (July 1) that nine Southern Resident killer whales had not yet returned to the San Juan Islands this year. I’d like to update you with the news that four of the nine have now been seen, so we’re just waiting for the final group of five.

Dave Ellifrit, Lauren Brent and Darren Croft with the Center for Whale Research did an amazing job Sunday tracking down 65 killer whales in and around Haro Strait in the San Juan Islands. Meanwhile, Ken Balcomb photographed another 11 from the porch of the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island. Read Dave’s report of the encounters on the center’s website, listed as Encounter Number 59.

“Due to forest fires in several different places in British Columbia, there were dark clouds coming out of the northwest which made the sun red and the lighting a weird shade of brown-yellow.,” Dave reported in his notes. “A little after 0930, we left the L group and headed about a half mile north to a male who was foraging by himself. This was K21 and we saw him actively chase a salmon before he headed off to the west.”

The four “missing” whales spotted for the first time this year in inland waters are known to travel together. As I reported in last week’s blog entry, the groups of orcas have grown smaller and more spread out, apparently because their prey — chinook salmon — are not arriving together in significant numbers.

The latest four arrivals are Racer (L-72), a 29-year-old female, and her son Fluke (L-105), an 11-year-old male; Ballena (L-90), a 22-year-old female; and Crewser (L-92), a 20-year-old male. Ballena is Crewser’s aunt, and they are the last two members of what was once an extended family.

Yet to arrive to the party in the San Juans is a group known as the L-54’s. Some of you might remember a sitcom from the early 1960s about two New York cops, Toody and Muldoon. Anyway, the name of the show was “Car 54, Where Are You?” and it had a catchy theme song (See YouTube) that featured prominently the title of the show.

It just occurred to me that we could rewrite the words to the song, which would ask the question: “L-54, where are you?” If anybody wants to take this challenge, I’ll post your new words on this blog.

As for the group itself, L-54 is a 38-year-old female named “Ino.” She is closely followed by her 9-year-old son, L-108 or “Coho,” and her 5-year-old daughter, L-117 or “Keta.”

Also traveling with the L-54 family is L-84, a 25-year-old male named “Nyssa.” This orca is the last surviving member of what was once called the L-9 subpod.

Another lone male, L-88 or “Wave Walker,” is 22 years old. He is the last surviving member of what was once called the L-2 subpod, and he now travels with the L-54’s as well.

This group — presumably all five — was last seen in March in the western end of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and in February in the Pacific Ocean near Westport.

Ken tells me that NOAA Fisheries funds his census work for exactly 42 days, and the funding has now run out with more work to be done. His nonprofit organization is continuing the search for the “missing” whales mainly with contributions, including memberships. See “SupportingThe Center for Whale Research.”

With the disbursed pattern of orcas in recent years, some changes are needed, Ken said. Perhaps he can get some additional funding to search for the whales later in the year, travel to coastal waters or contract with researchers already working in the ocean.

Another option is to provide an annual list of the whales identified in inland waters when the 42 days of funding runs out, he said. That idea would not allow a complete census each year, but the whales would eventually show up and could be counted at that time. That’s the system used for counting Northern Residents in upper British Columbia, Ken said, noting that researchers up north often don’t see all the orcas in any one year.

Increased funding for research projects, including census counts, could come as a result of the new “Species in the Spotlight” campaign launched this spring by NOAA. The Southern Residents, listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act, are among eight well-known species considered at the greatest risk of extinction.

Eileen Sobeck, assistant NOAA administrator for NOAA Fisheries, made this statement when announcing the new campaign:

“Of all the species NOAA protects under the ESA, these eight species are among the most at risk of extinction in the near future. For some of these species, their numbers are so low that they need to be bred in captivity; others are facing human threats that must be addressed. If we act now with renewed commitment and intensified efforts, we can help these species survive and thrive.”

The other seven “Species in the Spotlight” are Gulf of Maine Atlantic salmon, Central California Coast coho salmon, Cook Inlet beluga whales, Hawaiian monk seals, Pacific leatherback sea turtles, Sacramento River winter-run chinook salmon and California Coast white abalone.

The campaign, which ends next May, will follow a detailed five-year plan to be unveiled in September.

Coastal researchers launch blog to share findings about ocean

It’s an interesting time for researchers to begin writing a blog about ocean conditions off Oregon and Washington, an area undergoing some fascinating changes in oceanography and sealife.

The colors reveal that sea surface temperatures are significantly higher than the long-term average. Click on the map to view a six-month animation. Graphic: NOAA OSPO
Colors indicate that sea surface temperatures (°C) are significantly higher off the West Coast than the long-term average. Click on the map to view a six-month animation.
Graphic: NOAA OSPO

Scientists from NOAA Fisheries and Oregon State University launched their new website, “Newporter Blog,” last week. It’s named after the Newport Line, an area of study off the Oregon Coast where researchers have monitored changes for the past 20 years.

“This year, the ocean has been very different,” wrote blogger Jennifer Fisher in the blog’s first post on June 23. “Anomalously warm surface water dubbed the ‘warm blog’ moved onto the continental shelf off Newport in September 2014. A very large harmful algal bloom (HAB) spanning from British Columbia to California is occurring off the coast right now. El Niño conditions are occurring at the equator, and NOAA is forecasting a 90-percent chance that an El Niño will persist through the Fall.”

The next blog post last Thursday was by researcher Cheryl Morgan from the Canadian fishing vessel FV Frosti “somewhere off the coast of the Pacific Northwest,” where researchers are looking to see how juvenile salmon are doing. They were taking note of anything picked up in their nets in the upper 60 feet of water.

“Watching the trawl come in is like the anticipation of opening a Christmas gift,” Cheryl wrote. “What could be in there? How many? How big? Have we ever caught any of them in the net?

“We always hope for some juvenile salmon, since that is the main point of the survey, but we also like to see something different, strange, or unusual to spice things up,” she continued.

Juvenile jack macherel Photo: Newporter Blog
Juvenile jack macherel
Photo: Newporter Blog

The next post on Monday revealed that fish being caught were of a kind seen in Northwest waters only when the temperatures rise. They included pompano and jack mackerel. The researchers were especially surprised to find bottom-dwelling flatfish in their net some several hundred feet off the bottom.

“What is a fish that lives on the bottom, one side down, doing in the water column?” she asked. “Perhaps they are lost, could not find the bottom or they are chasing some dinner. Most strange, however, was the catch of nearly 3,330 Pacific sanddabs … in ONE trawl. That was a first for even the fishing crew.”

The team also brought up a juvenile red octopus, a species normally found among rocks on the bottom — “another creature that is a long way from home.”

The research fishing will continue from Newport to the upper corner of Washington state. The scientists are taking note of any birds preying on fish before they begin their daily trawl. Plankton also are scooped up to see what the fish might be eating and to provide new data about the harmful algal bloom.

The work is being funded by NOAA and Bonneville Power Administration.

The researchers/bloggers said they would share their findings as they go along. I, for one, look forward to learning about ocean conditions and how the warm water is affecting all sorts of sealife along the West Coast.

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.

Orca-tracking project ends for this year when satellite tag falls off

This year’s research project tracing the movements of Southern Resident killer whales has ended after 96 days of tracking L-84, a 25-year-old male named Nyssa.

Nyssa (L-84) and his entourage traveled north into Canadian waters the first week of May. NOAA map
Nyssa (L-84) and his entourage traveled north into Canadian waters the first week of May. // NOAA map

It was the longest period of tracking among the Southern Residents since the satellite-tagging studies began in 2012. The transmitter carried by L-84 lasted three days longer than a similar deployment on K-25 in 2013. The satellite tags, which are attached to the dorsal fins of the whales with darts, often detach after about a month.

The nice thing about this year’s study is that it covered the entire month of April and much of May, according to Brad Hanson, project supervisor for NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center. That tells the researchers something about the movement of the whales later in the year than previous deployments have revealed.

A satellite tag on J-27 (Blackberry) in late December extended the total tracking period to more than four months.

Looking back through the tracking maps since February, it is clear that L-84 and his entourage have spent much of their time moving up and down the Washington and Oregon coasts. They seem to favor hanging out near the mouth of the Columbia River. On a few occasions, they have ventured into Northern California.

Nyssa (L-84) and his entourage traveled north into Canadian waters the first week of May. NOAA map
The whales quickly returned to the U.S., ending the tracking project when the satellite tag fell off near the Columbia River. // NOAA map

On May 6, they took their only jaunt north into Canadian waters, reaching Estavan Point (halfway up Vancouver Island) two days later. They continued north another day, nearly reaching Brooks Peninsula (about three-fourths up Vancouver Island) on May 9. Then they headed back south, ending this year’s tracking program near the Columbia River.

Just before the satellite tag fell off, biologists from Cascadia Research Collective caught up with the whales on May 21 south of the Columbia River. The researchers noticed that the tag was loosening, and no further satellite signals were picked up.

The tracking studies, combined with efforts to collect samples of feces and fish remains, are designed to identify where the whales are spending their time in winter months and what they are finding to eat when salmon are more scarce. All of this could lead to a major expansion of their designated “critical habitat” and increased protections in coastal waters. As of now, critical habitat for the whales does not extend into the ocean, and NOAA has concluded that more information is needed before changing the designated protection area.

Within the next month or so, all three Southern Resident pods should head into Puget Sound, congregating in the San Juan Islands, as chinook salmon return to Canada’s Fraser River and other streams in the Salish Sea.

Meanwhile, J pod seems to be hanging out in waters around the San Juans, possibly waiting for the other pods to show up. Plenty of observers have been filing some great reports and related photos with Orca Network.

That link also includes recent reports of seal-eating transient killer whales that have traveled as far south as the Bremerton-Seattle area, perhaps farther. A few humpback whales have been sighted in northern Puget Sound.

Sea-floor mining brings deep concerns about environmental effects

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about a a new deep-sea observatory being built off the West Coast. I noted that Washington and Oregon researchers are thrilled to monitor the eruption of an underwater volcano called Axial Seamount.


Soon, new equipment and a fiber optics cable will allow these researchers to widely share discoveries involving the unique geology and unusual plants and animals living at the bottom of the ocean. People will be able to watch in real time via the Internet. See Water Ways, May 6.

Now, a new lawsuit filed by the Center for Biological Diversity has me thinking about the commercial value of the deep ocean. Can society safely mine the seafloor for valuable minerals used in a wide variety of consumer products? Can huge mining equipment operate in water two or three miles deep without destroying the unique ecosystem at the bottom of the ocean?

For decades, researchers have been aware of high concentrations of minerals lying on and beneath the sea floor. But nobody was worried about the environmental damage of mining, because the costs of commercial recovery were too great.

That has been changing, however, thanks to the combination of five factors, according to a 2013 study “Towards the Development of a Regulatory Framework for Polymetallic Nodule Exploitation” (PDF 1.1 mb). They are:

  1. A dramatic increase in demand for metal;
  2. An equally dramatic rise in metal prices;
  3. The high profitability of mining sector companies;
  4. A decline in the tonnage and grade of land-based nickel, copper and cobalt sulphide deposits; and
  5. Technological advances in deep seabed mining and processing.

The new technology involves giant robotic machines that either excavate the seafloor or scoop up clumps of polymetallic nodules. Over the past few years, 26 permits have been issued to mining corporations, mostly for operations in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone of the Pacific Ocean, about halfway between Hawaii and Mexico.

“Deep-sea mining is an emerging threat to our oceans that has the potential to irreparably harm underwater ecosystems before we even have a chance to fully study its impacts,” declares the Center for Biological Diversity, adding:

“Life on the deep ocean floor is still a mysterious realm that scientists have only just begun to fully understand and inventory… What mountaintop-removal coal mining has done in Appalachia, deep-sea mining has the potential to do in the Pacific Ocean, affecting the ecosystem and food web in ways that scientists say they don’t yet fully understand.”

Last week, the environmental group filed a lawsuit (PDF 162 kb) against the U.S. government for issuing exploratory permits without the requisite environmental studies. Said Emily Jeffers, the attorney who filed the case:

“Deep-sea mining should be stopped, and this lawsuit aims to compel the government to look at the environmental risks before it leaps into this new frontier. We need to protect the ocean wildlife and habitat, and the United States should provide leadership for other nations to follow before more projects get underway.”

The lawsuit, filed in Washington, D.C., challenges two exploratory permits issued to OMCO Seabed Exploration, LLC, a subsidiary of Lockheed Martin, the defense contractor. The original permits for work in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone expired in 2004. Jeffers says the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration should have considered the environmental effects of the mining plan before renewing the permits in 2012.

Said Jeffers in a news release:

“If we aren’t careful, this new gold rush could do irreparable harm to the basic building blocks of life. The federal government has a moral duty, as well as a legal one, to understand the full environmental impacts before the mining industry scrapes away our deep-sea resources.”

Besides tearing up the sea floor, mining operations can stir up sediment, which can smother organisms living on the bottom, according to the lawsuit. Cloudy water can reduce productivity, and clouds of sediment may contain toxic metals that reduce reproductive success of sea life. Light and noise from ships and vessels can disrupt seabird behavior and affect whales and other marine mammals, the suit claims.

Other permits have been issued to various countries in Europe and Asia by the International Seabed Authority, which hopes to approve environmental standards by the end of next year. The U.S. is not subject to those rules and cannot demand compliance from other countries, because the U.S. has not ratified the United Nations’ Convention on the Law of the Sea, a treaty that establishes the International Seabed Authority.


New reports of whale territory could shape protection strategy

Researchers have listed more than 100 “biologically important areas” for whales and dolphins living in U.S. waters, all reported in a special issue of the journal Aquatic Mammals (PDF 22.9 mb).


The BIAs may provide useful information, but they are not marine protected areas, and they have no direct regulatory effect, said Sofie Van Parijs, a researcher at NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center and guest editor of the special report.

“They represent the best available information about the times and areas in which species are likely to be engaged in biologically important activities,” Van Parijs said in a news release. “We encourage anyone planning an activity in the ocean to look at this information and take it into consideration to understand and reduce adverse impacts on marine species.”

Project managers can use information in the report for offshore energy development, military testing and training, shipping, fishing, tourism, and coastal construction. Underwater noise, generated by most human activities in or on the water, can affect large areas of whale territory.

Separate articles were written about seven regions of the country, with three of them in Alaskan waters. The lead author for the West Coast regional report (PDF 4.5 mb) is John Calambokidis of Cascadia Research Collective in Olympia.

The West Coast report identified 29 BIAs covering areas important for blue whales, gray whales, humpback whales and harbor porpoises in Washington, Oregon and California. BIAs for blue whales and humpback whales are “based on high concentration areas of feeding animals observed from small boat surveys, ship surveys and opportunistic sources,” the report says.

BIAs for gray whales focus on their migratory corridor from Mexico to Alaska, along with primary feeding areas for a small resident population known as the Pacific Coast Feeding Group, or PCFG. This group, believed to be genetically distinct from the migratory whales, spend most of their time between Northern California and Canada’s Vancouver Island.

The BIAs for gray whales in Washington are around the northwest tip of Washington, including Neah Bay; in Saratoga Passage east of Whidbey Island; and around Grays Harbor on the coast.


The PCFG could be a key factor in determining whether the Makah Tribe of Neah Bay is granted a permit to hunt for gray whales in Washington state waters and limiting potential limits on any hunts approved. It was interesting that the BIA report came out at almost the same time as an environmental impact statement on the Makah whaling proposal.

The impact statement evaluates alternatives for whaling, including a tribal proposal to hunt up to five whales a year but no more than 24 whales in six years. Various alternatives include plans to limit hunting seasons to reduce the risk of killing a whale from the Pacific Coast Feeding Group and to cease hunting if a quota of these whales is reached.

“This is the first step in a public process of considering this request that could eventually lead to authorization for the tribe to hunt gray whales,” said Donna Darm, NOAA’s associate deputy regional administrator, in a press release. “This is the public’s opportunity to look at the alternatives we’ve developed, and let us know if we have fully and completely analyzed the impacts.”

For details on this issue, including the EIS and instructions for commenting on the document, check out NOAA’s website on the Makah Whale Hunt.

Returning to the study of biologically important areas, no BIAs were established for endangered fin whales, because of discrepancies between sightings and expected feeding areas and uncertainty about their population structure.

The BIA assessment did not cover minke whales, killer whales, beaked whales and sperm whales but the authors recommend that future work cover those animals as well as looking into special breeding areas for all the whales.

A future BIA for killer whales could have some connection to an ongoing analysis by NOAA, which recently announced that it needs more information about Southern Resident killer whales before expanding their critical habitat under the Endangered Species Act. See Water Ways from Feb. 24.

In the overall report, BIAs can be established if they have any of the following characteristics:

  1. Reproductive areas – Areas and times within which a particular species selectively mates, gives birth or is found with neonates or calves,
  2. Feeding areas – Areas and times within which aggregations of a particular species preferentially feed. These either may be persistent in space and time or associated with ephemeral features that are less predictable but are located within a larger area that can be delineated,
  3. Migratory corridors – Areas and times within which a substantial portion of a species is known to migrate; the corridor is spatially restricted.
  4. Small and resident population – Areas and times within which small and resident populations occupy a limited geographic extent.

Orca research continues, but will it add critical habitat along the coast?

It’s all about the data when it comes to critical habitat for the Southern Resident killer whales, or so they say.

Researchers with NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center have piled up a lot of data this year, which could be just what is needed to expand the endangered orcas’ critical habitat from Puget Sound and the inland waterways out to the open ocean along the West Coast.

Movement of K and L pods along the Oregon Coast from Friday to Monday. NOAA map
Movement of K and L pods along the Oregon Coast from Friday to Monday. // NOAA map

NOAA announced in today’s Federal Register that the agency would consider expanding critical habitat, as allowed by the Endangered Species Act, and possibly make other changes to the designation over the next two years. What is needed, the agency said, are more data.

On Dec. 28, a satellite transmitter was attached to J-27, a 24-year-old male named Blackberry, who was tracked as J pod moved about from the Strait of Juan de Fuca up into the Strait of Georgia until the tag came off on Feb. 15. The following day, a new satellite tag was attached to L-84, a 25-year-old male named Nysso. K and L pods were tracked out to the ocean and down the coast to Oregon.

A research team led by Brad Hanson aboard the vessel Bell M. Shimada has kept track of J pod, then K and L pods since leaving Newport, Ore., on Feb. 11. According to the latest report from the researchers, K and L pods traveled south last week to the Umpqua River in Central Oregon, where they abruptly turned north on Saturday.

The whales continued north on Sunday, sometimes 10 miles offshore.

“We observed a lot of surface active behavior throughout the day — lots of spy hops — and at one point we observed numerous whales repeatedly breaching over a several-minute period,” according to notes from the cruise.

The researchers observed no apparent foraging for several days and the whales remained quiet, with the exception of a several-hour period shortly after the breaching episode. As of yesterday morning, they were still off the Oregon Coast and heading north.

The tracking data and up-close observations from this year’s cruise appear to fill in some major data gaps — especially for J pod, whose winter movements were not well known, according to NOAA researchers.

In 2012, the first tag deployed on the Southern Resident allowed the researchers to track J pod, but only for three days before the tag came off. In 2013, a tag on L-87, which frequently traveled with J pod, provided 30 days of data about J pods movements in the Salish Sea, particularly in the Strait of Georgia (where they spent a lot of time this year).

Another tag in 2013 allowed K and L pods to be tracked along the West Coast all the way to California.

Sightings from land and shore, along with acoustic recordings of the whales also are included among recent findings.

We won’t know until 2017 if NOAA has amassed enough data to expand the critical habitat to coastal regions, perhaps as far as Northern California, as proposed in a petition filed in January of last year by the Center for Biological Diversity. For the decision announced today in the Federal Register, the data are not enough. This is how it is stated in the notice:

“While data from new studies are available in our files and have begun to address data gaps identified in the 2006 critical habitat designation, considerable data collection and analysis needs to be conducted to refine our understanding of the whales’ habitat use and needs. Additional time will increase sample sizes and provide the opportunity to conduct robust analyses.

“While we have been actively working on gathering and analyzing data on coastal habitat use, these data and analyses are not yet sufficiently developed to inform and propose revisions to critical habitat as requested in the petition.”

In addition to the geographic areas covered by the killer whales, the agency must identify the ‘‘physical or biological features essential to the conservation of the species.’’ Such features include food, water, air, light, minerals or other nutritional requirements; cover or shelter; sites for breeding; and habitats protected from disturbance.

Once specific areas are identified for protection, the agency must make sure that the value of protection for the killer whales outweighs the economic costs and effects on national security.