Tag Archives: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

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).

Journal

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.

Map

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.

K and L pods under observation as they travel south in ocean

While J pod continues to hang out in the Salish Sea, NOAA’s research cruise has shifted its focus to K and L pods, which have worked their way south along the Washington Coast to beyond the Columbia River.

The newest calf in J pod, J-51, swims with its mother J-19, a 36-year-old female named Shachi. NOAA photo
The newest calf in J pod, J-51, swims with its mother J-19, a 36-year-old female named Shachi. // NOAA photo

If you recall, a research team led by Brad Hanson of NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center left Newport, Ore., on Feb. 11 aboard the vessel Bell M. Shimada. Homing in on a satellite tag attached to J-27 (named Blackberry), the ship met up with J pod two days later near Canada’s Texada Island in the Strait of Georgia.

The researchers were able to collect scales from fish killed by the whales to determine what kind of fish they were eating. It was the first time that a sample of this kind has been collected outside of Puget Sound during the month of February, Brad reported.

The ship stayed with J pod and its two new babies as they moved around in the general area of Texada Island. Then last Sunday the satellite tag came off J-27, as it was designed to do after a period of time. Hanson was pleased that the tag had stayed on so long, allowing researchers to track six weeks of travels by J pod, which had never been tracked that extensively before.

Together with tracking data from 2012 and 2014, this year’s work helps to characterize the movements of J pod, according to notes from the cruise:

“Collectively, these data indicate only limited use of the outer coastal waters by J pod. In 2014 NMFS was petitioned to designate Critical Habitat on the outer coastal waters of Washington, Oregon, and California. The data used for this petition was derived from only one sample — the range of K25 during the January to March 2013 satellite tag deployment. Consequently, potential variability between pods and between years has led to making tagging a whale from L pod a high priority.”

Prompted by a sighting of K and L pods off Sooke, B.C., at the south end of Vancouver Island, the research ship headed into the Strait of Juan de Fuca and intercepted the two pods Monday afternoon near the entrance to the Strait. The ship tracked the whales acoustically through the night with its hydrophone array.

The next day, the crew took to the water in its small boat and attached a satellite tag to L-84, a 25-year-old male named Nyssa. The researchers also were able to collect some scales from fish that the whales had eaten. Leaving the Strait of Juan de Fuca, K and L pods turned south after entering the Pacific Ocean. Again, from the cruise notes:

“By being able to deploy a tag on L pod while on our cruise on the Bell M. Shimada, we have the unique opportunity to now be able to follow the whales each day (and potentially at night) and collect prey and fecal samples as well as other data about their environment this time of the year.

“While we know that K and L pods sometimes co-occur in the winter, this will potentially be an opportunity to see the degree to which they remain together. We are off to an exciting start — four prey samples yesterday (Tuesday) and four fecal samples today (Wednesday) while the whales transited from near Cape Ozette … to near Willipa Bay.”

Those are the last notes available, either on NOAA’s tagging webpage or on NOAA’s Facebook page. I’ve been in touch by email with Brad, but his latest message had nothing new since Wednesday.

By tracking the Shimada on the Marine Traffic website, I understand that the whales paused outside of Grays Harbor and again near the mouth of the Columbia River. As if this afternoon, they had moved south of Tillamook Bay and Cape Meares in Oregon and were continuing on south.

Meanwhile, J pod apparently remains in the Salish Sea, which includes inland waterways on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border. As of yesterday, the pod was seen in Active Pass in the Gulf Islands of British Columbia, north of Washington’s San Juan Islands.

Both of the new calves in J pod — J-50 and J-51 — seem to be doing fine, according to naturalist Heather MacIntyre, quoted in the San Juan Islander. J-50, a female, was born just days before the end of the year, while J-51, gender unknown, was born about two weeks ago.

For previous reports on the whales, see Water Ways for Feb. 12 as well as a previous post on Jan. 22. A report on the research cruise can be found in Water Ways on Feb. 10.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As stated by NOAA Fisheries in the news release:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PETA and ALDF issued a joint news release today.

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

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

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

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

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

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

As Dave noted in his observations:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Earth gets hot in 2014, breaks record for average temperature

UPDATE, Jan. 20, 2015
Some people apparently are skeptical about whether 2014 was actually the warmest on record. They cite probabilities provided by government researchers to support their skepticism. But at least some skeptics seem confused about the meaning of this statistical uncertainty.

Andrew Freedman of Mashable tackles the subject in a straightforward way. But the best point in his piece comes in the final paragraph:

At the end of the day, the discussion about a single calendar year obscures the more important long-term trend of warming air temperatures, warming and acidifying oceans along with melting ice sheets, all of which are hallmarks of manmade global warming. Including 2014, 13 of the top 15 warmest years have all occurred since 2000.

—–

Last year turns out to be the hottest year on record for the Earth’s surface, according to climate researchers who analyzed average temperatures across the globe.

The year 2014 adds yet another dramatic page to the record book, which now shows that the 10 warmest years since 1880 have occurred since the year 2000 — with the exception of the record year of 1998, which now stands as the fourth warmest on record.

The data were released this morning, with additional information provided in a telephone conference call with scientists from NOAA — the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — and NASA — the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The two agencies conducted independent analyses of their data, coming to the same conclusion about the record year of 2014.

Across the Earth, the average temperature in 2014 was 1.24 degrees Fahrenheit above the annual average of 57.0 degrees F, with records going back to 1880. That breaks the previous records of 2005 and 2010 by 0.07 degrees F. It’s also the 38th consecutive year that the annual global temperature was above average.

Since 1880, the Earth’s average surface temperature has warmed by about 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit, mostly driven by an increase in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere, the researchers said. Most of the warming has come since the 1980s.

Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies, made this comment in a prepared statement:

“This is the latest in a series of warm years, in a series of warm decades. While the ranking of individual years can be affected by chaotic weather patterns, the long-term trends are attributable to drivers of climate change that right now are dominated by human emissions of greenhouse gases.”

Although some skeptics have raised questions about whether global warming has been occurring in recent years, Schmidt said any short-term pause does not change the overall trend. In fact, the temperature rise seen for the past year fits perfectly onto a graph of the decades-long trend line for temperature rise.

temp graph

Ocean conditions such as El Nino or La Nina can affect temperatures year-to-year, Schmidt said. Since these phenomena can cool or warm the tropical Pacific, they probably played a role in temporarily “flattening” the long-term warming trend over the past 15 years, he added, but last year’s record-breaking temperatures occurred during a “neutral” El Nino year.

This past year was the first time since 1990 that the global heat record was broken in the absence of El Nino conditions during the year. If El Nino conditions are present at the end of 2015, the researchers said the chances are high that the record will be broken again this year.

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post in Water Ways, strong regional differences were seen last year in the contiguous United States, with several western states experiencing record highs while the Midwest suffered through an abnormally cold winter. Other cold spots can be seen on the global map, but the hot spots more than balanced them out to break the heat record.

global temps

Much of the record warmth of the Earth can be attributed to record heat accumulated across the oceans. The average ocean temperature in 2014 was 1.03 degrees higher than the longterm average of 60.9 degrees, breaking previous records set in 1998 and 2003.

Record months for ocean temperatures were seen from May through November, with January through April each among the all-time top seven, while December was the third warmest December on record. The all-time monthly record was broken in June of last year, then broken again in August and again in September. Such sustained warmth in the ocean has not been seen since 1997-98 — during a strong El Nino.

On the land surface, the average temperature was 1.8 degrees higher than the long-term average of 47.3 degrees F, or the fourth highest average land temperature on record.

Europe is expected to report that 2014 was the warmest year in at least 500 years, according to information from the World Meteorological Organization. Last year surpasses the previous record set in 2007. Much of that warmth can be attributed to the second-warmest winter on record, followed by a record-warm spring.

According to the WMO report, 19 European countries have reported or are expected to report that last year was their hottest year on record. They Austria, Belgium, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Germany, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.

Around the world, precipitation was near average for 2014, the third year that near-average precipitation was measured for land-based stations.

The 10 warmest years on record, in order:

1. 2014, 1.24 degrees above average
2 (tie). 2010, 1.17 degrees above average
2 (tie). 2005, 1.17 degrees above average
4. 1998, 1.13 degrees above average
5 (tie). 2013, 1.12 degrees above average
5 (tie). 2003, 1.12 degrees above average
7. 2002, 1.10 degrees above average
8. 2006, 1.08 degrees above average
9 (tie). 2009, 1.06 degrees above average
9 (tie). 2007, 1.06 degrees above average

For further information, check out:

Global Analysis — Annual 2014 from NOAA, and

GISS Surface Temperature Analysis from NASA.

Overall, last year was very warm in Washington state

Last year, Washington state experienced its fifth-hottest year in 120 years of records maintained by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Meanwhile, records for average temperatures were broken in California, Arizona and Nevada, which lived through the highest averages in 120 years. Oregon had just one hotter year on record, while Idaho had three years with higher averages.

Temps

In Washington, the average temperature for the year was 48.4 degrees Fahrenheit, or 2.3 degrees above the long-term average. Hotter years were 1934 with 49.1 degrees; 1958, 49.0 degrees; 1992, 48.7 degrees; and 1998, 48.6 degrees. In 2004, the average temperature was 48.4, the same as this year.

California’s record high was based on an average temperature of 61.5 degrees, with Arizona at 62.3 and Nevada at 53.1. Oregon’s average of 49.5 degrees was exceeded only in 1934, when the annual average was 49.9 degrees.

For the nation as a whole, the average temperature in 2014 was tempered by some fairly extreme low temperatures in the Midwest, stretching into the Mississippi Valley. For the contiguous United States, the average temperature was 52.6 degrees — 0.5 degrees higher than the long-term average and tied with 1977 as the 34th warmest year on record, according to information from NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center.

Despite several months of record and near-record lows across the middle of the country, no state had an annual average that set a record for cold or even ranked among their five coolest years.

For the contiguous U.S. as a whole, last year was the 18th year in a row with an average temperature above the 120-year average. The last year with a below-average temperature was 1996. Since 1895, the temperature has risen an average of 0.13 degrees F per decade.

Precipitation across the contiguous U.S. was 30.76 inches last year, or 0.82 inch above the 120-year average. That makes it the 40th wettest year on record. On average, precipitation has increased by 0.14 inch per decade.

Precip

For Washington state, 2014 was the 16th wettest year on record. The average across the state was 48.73 inches, some 6.7 inches above the 120-year average.

Above-average precipitation occurred across the northern states last year, while the Southern Plains and Central Appalachians experienced below-average conditions.

Drought conditions continue in California, despite near-average annual precipitation. Exacerbating the problem is a three-year rainfall deficit combined with record-high temperatures this past year.

Meanwhile, drought conditions improved across the Midwest and Central Plains, though both improvements and declines were observed in various parts of the Southern Plains, Southwest and Southeast.

Washington state had its fourth-wettest spring on record, while Kansas had its third-driest spring. Other seasonal conditions can be found on the NCDC’s “National Overview” for 2014. The “Climate at a Glance” page can help you break down the data by state and time period.

Global data and analyses from NCDC are scheduled to be released tomorrow.

Agency lists critical habitat for endangered Puget Sound rockfish

National Marine Fisheries Service has designated more than 1,000 square miles of Puget Sound as “critical habitat” for rockfish — a colorful, long-lived fish decimated by over-fishing and environmental problems.

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

In Hood Canal, we know that thousands of rockfish have been killed by low-oxygen conditions, and their populations have been slow to recover because of low reproductive rates. Elsewhere, rockfish are coming back with mixed success, helped in some locations by marine protected areas.

The final designation of critical habitat was announced today in the Federal Register for yelloweye rockfish and canary rockfish, both listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, and bocaccio, listed as “endangered.”

The critical habitat listing includes 590 square miles of nearshore habitat for canary rockfish and bocaccio, and 414 square miles of deepwater habitat for all three species. Nearshore areas include kelp forests important for the growth and survival of juvenile rockfish. Deeper waters are used for shelter, food and reproduction by adults.

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

Potential critical habitat was reduced by 15 percent for canary rockfish and bocaccio and by 28 percent for yelloweye rockfish. Most of the excluded area was deemed already protected, either by tribes near their reservations or by the military near Navy and Army bases and their operational areas.

The designated habitat overlaps in large part with existing critical habitat for salmon, killer whales and bull trout. The only new areas added without overlap are some deep-water areas in Hood Canal.

Under the law, federal actions within designated habitat must undergo consultations with the National Marine Fisheries Service. Such actions — which include funding or issuing permits for private development — cannot be approved if they are found to be detrimental to the continuing survival of the species.

Catherine Kilduff of the Center for Biological Diversity offered this comment about the habitat designation in a news release:

“Saving rockfish from extinction requires protecting some of the most important places they live, and that’s exactly what’s happening now in the Puget Sound. These habitat protections will not only give rockfish a fighting chance at survival but will help all of the animals that live in these waters.”

Critical habitat for rockfish in Central Puget Sound NOAA map
Critical habitat for rockfish in Central Puget Sound
NOAA map from Federal Register

The three species of rockfish were placed on the Endangered Species List in 2010, following a series of petitions by biologist Sam Wright. Last year, the Center for Biological Diversity notified the National Marine Fisheries Service of its intent to file a lawsuit over the agency’s delay in designating critical habitat.

Federal and state biologists are now working on a recovery plan. I have not heard whether they still hope to get the plan completed next year.

Rockfish are unusual among bony fishes in that fertilization and embryo development are internal. Female rockfish give birth to live young. After birth, the larval rockfish may drift in shallow waters for several months, feeding on plankton. Among the listed species:

  • Canary rockfish can reach up to 2.5 feet in length. Adults have bright yellow to orange mottling over gray, three orange stripes across the head and orange fins. They can live to be 75 years old.
  • Bocaccio can reach up to 3 feet in length. They have a distinctively long jaw extending to the eye socket. Adult colors range from olive to burnt orange or brown. Their age is difficult to determine, but they may live as long as 50 years.
  • Yelloweye rockfish can reach up to 3.5 feet in length and 39 pounds in weight. They are orange-red to orange-yellow in color and may have black on their fin tips. Their eyes are bright yellow. They are among the longest lived of rockfishes, living up to 118 years.

A 2011 plan for saving the rockfish was written by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife with assistance from a group of experts. The report, “Puget Sound Rockfish Conservation Plan” (PDF 706 kb), identifies the cause for the population declines:

“These declines have largely been caused by historical fishing practices, although several other stress factors play a part in their decline. Rockfish in urban areas are exposed to high levels of chemical contamination, which may be affecting their reproductive success. Poor water quality in Hood Canal has resulted in massive periodic kills of rockfish as well as other species. Lost or abandoned fishing nets trap and kill large numbers of rockfish.”

The plan identifies these objectives to restore the population:

  • Place the highest priority on protecting and restoring the natural production of indicator rockfishes to healthy levels,
  • Promote natural production through the appropriate use of hatcheries and artificial habitats,
  • Protect and restore all marine habitat types for all rockfish species,
  • Manage all Puget Sound fisheries to ensure the health and productivity of all rockfish stocks,
  • Protect and restore existing functions of rockfish in the complex ecosystem and food web in Puget Sound,
  • Conduct monitoring of indicator stocks to evaluate stock status and management actions,
  • Implement new research to understand the diversity, biology and productivity of indicator rockfish, and
  • Conduct a strategic outreach and education program to inform Washington citizens of the value of rockfish stocks and to promote ecotourism.

Unmanned aircraft provides unique views of killer whales

Unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly called drones, could play an increasing role in killer whale studies, according to Brad Hanson, a researcher with NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center who has been studying Puget Sound’s orcas for years.

Brad said a plan to use UAVs (he doesn’t like “drones”) has been on the drawing board for several years. Unmanned aircraft can fly over the whales far more cheaply than a full-size helicopter, which has been used in the past. The small aircraft also may be able to come in close for biological samples with less disturbance to the whales than when operating from a research boat.

“I’ve been looking at this for a long time,” Brad told me. “We have it in our (Endangered Species Act) permit to be able to use a UAS (unmanned aircraft system).

Remote-controlled aircraft have been used by researchers to study seals and penguins in the Arctic and to estimate their populations with less disturbance than approaching the animals on the ground. They’ve also been used to count birds in remote areas.

In August, NOAA and Vancouver Aquarium researchers teamed up to test the use of a remote-controlled hexacopter as they observed Northern Resident killer whales in British Columbia. Mounted with a high-resolution camera, the copter captured some amazing videos and still pictures, including those on this page. See also NOAA’s website.

One can learn a lot from a good aerial view of a killer whale, including general body condition, Brad told me. From a boat on the water, it is often difficult to tell if an orca is healthy, underweight or pregnant. From above, a whale’s girth is easier to assess.

Researchers involved the British Columbia study — including John Durban of NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center and Lance Barrett-Lennard of Vancouver Aquarium — identified several females who seemed to be pregnant.

They also spotted two whales that seemed emaciated. Those animals later went missing and are presumed dead, confirming that they were in poor health. What is not evident from photos, however, is the cause of the problem, Brad Hanson said. Were the whales suffering from disease, injury or another problem that caused them to lose weight, or was it simply a lack of food?

Aerial photos also can be used to measure the length of a whale and, over time, determine the growth rate at various periods in its life.

Brad said the ultimate goal is to develop health assessments for the Southern Residents, listed as “endangered” under the federal Endangered Species Act. A lot of technical details need to be worked out, he said, but the plan is to use unmanned aircraft to collect breath and fecal samples from the whales.

A breath sample is the next best thing to a blood sample, Brad told me, and fecal samples provide information about stress hormones, potential pathogens and other things.

“If you tied that in with imaging, we might be able to build individual health profiles and begin to understand when something is going wrong,” Hanson said.

Currently, breath samples are taken by driving a boat alongside the whales and holding out a pole with an apparatus on the end. Fecal samples are taken by following the whales and sifting feces from the water.

If a small helicopter flown from a boat some distance away can be used, the result would be less intrusive than a boat coming near the whales.

In the study in British Columbia, the general goal was to keep the UAV at least 100 feet above the whales. The study also included some closer movements to test the reaction of the whales. No obvious changes in behavior were noticed, Brad said.

One permit still is needed for Hanson to operate a UAV in Washington state. The Federal Aviation Administration must issue a certificate of authorization, or COA, which spells out limitations of the flight to avoid other aircraft operating in the area.

The Canadian experiment received similar permits from Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Transport Canada. The aircraft was an APH-22 marine hexacopter built for NOAA by Aerial Imaging Solutions.

Ironically, amateurs in the United States are allowed to operate unmanned aircraft in some areas without permits. But flying around wildlife could create unanticipated problems for the animals. And anyone operating around endangered whales could be in violation of other state and federal laws — such as the Endangered Species Act or Marine Mammal Protection Act — if they fly below 1,000 feet.

Orcas vary in physical condition. The female at top appears skinny and in poor health. The female in the middle appears healthy. The one at the bottom is pregnant, her body bulging at the ribcage. Photo courtesy of NOAA, Vancouver Aquarium
Orcas vary in physical condition. The female at top appears skinny and in poor health. The female in the middle appears healthy. The one at the bottom is pregnant, her body bulging at the ribcage.
Photo courtesy of NOAA, Vancouver Aquarium

Amusing Monday: Students create environmental art

This week, I’d like to share some student artwork from two contests.

One is a local event in which 10 Kitsap County students are honored in the Kitsap Recycles Day contest, sponsored by Kitsap County Public Works. The other contest is for students anywhere in the country. Called the Keep the Sea Free of Debris contest, it is sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Li-Nelshin Co, a fifth grader at Esquire Hills Elementary School, created one of the winning posters for Kitsap Recycles Day.
Li-Nelshin Co, a fifth grader at Esquire Hills Elementary School, created one of the winning posters for Kitsap Recycles Day.

The first poster featured on this page is by Li-Nelshin Co, a fifth grader at Esquire Hills Elementary School, located in East Bremerton and part of the Central Kitsap School District.

Li-Neishin wrote this about the poster:

“Recycling is important because we are saving the world for future generations. My favorite thing to recycle is PAPER because this way we are not only recycling, we are also saving the trees that gives us fresh air, shade, preventing soil erosion.”

Other winning posters can be viewed on Kitsap Recycles Day webpage.

A couple years ago, the Kitsap Recycles Day poster contest was moved from November to February and expanded into a broader educational program. The delayed contest allowed teachers and/or parents to provide more information than could have been completed by America Recycles Day, celebrated in November. A new activity book, “Close the Loop” (PDF 16.7 mb), is part of Kitsap’s expanded program.

“It’s incredibly encouraging to see the influx of posters we see on Kitsap Recycles Day,” said Kitsap County Recycling Coordinator Christopher Piercy in a news release. “You can tell each student has a passion for recycling, reducing waste, and the environment. It is especially fascinating to see the grasp they all have on the value of ‘closing the loop’ — not just recycling, but buying recycled content products.”

The other winners are Libby Parker, kindergartener at Gateway Christian Schools, Poulsbo; Natalie Oathout, first grader at Emerald Heights Elementary School; Jeddison Miller, second grader at Crosspoint Academy; Kelsey Derr, third grader at Hilder Pearson Elementary School; Saige Herwig, third grader at South Colby Elementary School; Charlotte Halbert, fourth grader at Gateway Christian Schools, Poulsbo; Blake Warner, fifth grader at Crosspoint Academy; Drew Moar, sixth grader at Manchester Elementary School; and Gia Acosta, eighth grader at Our Lady Star of the Sea Catholic School.

The second poster on this page, a winner in the 2014 Keep the Sea Free of Debris contest, was drawn by Jessica D., a fourth grader in New York.

Jessica commented:

“Keep the sea free of debris. Debris is garbage, marine debris is garbage in the sea. Marine debris is very bad. Marine debris is mostly plastics, fishing gear and litter. Marine debris is very harmful and dangerous to undersea creatures. This pollution can ruin habitats. Marine wildlife can get hurt by marine debris. It also can cost a lot of money to fix. But you can help fix it by just cleaning beaches and not littering.”

The contest is sponsored by NOAA’s Marine Debris Program, which asked contest entrants to create their “vision” of marine debris. All 13 winners and their comments can be seen on a Gallery Page on the Marine Debris Blog.