Tag Archives: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Agency failing to protect marine mammals from the Navy — Joel Reynolds

After more than a decade of losing court battles, the U.S. Navy still refuses to fully embrace the idea that whales and other sea creatures should be protected during Navy training exercises, says Joel Reynolds, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Joel Reynolds
Joel Reynolds

But the blame cannot be placed entirely on the Navy, Joel says in a blog entry he wrote for the Huffington Post.

“In fact, much of the blame lies with the government regulatory agency whose mandate it is to protect our oceans,” he writes. “It lies with the failure of the National Marine Fisheries Service to do its job.”

Joel has been at the forefront of the legal effort to get the Navy to change its ways — and the effort has been successful to a large degree. At least we now have a much greater understanding about the effects of sonar on whales and other marine animals. Legal challenges forced the Navy to acknowledge that it didn’t really know what damage its activities were doing to the oceans. The result was to develop studies, which turned out to provide some unwelcome answers.

Joel’s latest frustration comes this week in the wake of new authorizations by NMFS to sanction Navy activities found to be unacceptable by the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Joel’s life story and that of Ken Balcomb, who I call the dean of killer whales in Puget Sound, are described in intriguing detail in the book “War of the Whales” by Joshua Horwitz. The book documents their personal and legal battles to hold the Navy accountable for its impacts on whales.

In January 2015, I reviewed the book (“My take on the book…,” Water Ways, Jan. 10, 2015), and I also interviewed the author for his inside story (“A discussion with author Joshua Horwitz,” Jan. 11, 2015).

USS Shoup, a Navy destroyer based in Everett. U.S. Navy photo
USS Shoup, a Navy destroyer based in Everett.
U.S. Navy photo

The Navy would never have found itself on the losing side of these sonar lawsuits if the National Marine Fisheries Service (sometimes called NOAA Fisheries) had been doing its congressionally mandated job of protecting marine mammals, Joel says. For the agency, that would mean approving “take” permits only when the Navy has done its best to reduce the risk of injury during training exercises — which everyone agrees are important.

“Rather than exercising the oversight required by law, the Service has chosen in effect to join the Navy’s team, acquiescing in the omission of common-sense safeguards recommended even by its own scientific experts,” Joel writes in his latest blog post.

After reading his post, I asked Joel by phone yesterday what it would take to get the National Marine Fisheries Service on the right track.

“I don’t have an easy answer for that,” Joel told me, noting that he recently held a related discussion with Sylvia Earle, renowned oceanographer and formerly chief scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“She is very familiar with the problems of NMFS,” Joel said. “She said NMFS is an agency responsible for killing fish.”

That said, the agency has a lot of dedicated researchers and experts who know what needs to be done, especially at the regional level. But they are hamstrung by federal politics and by budget limitations.

“The Pentagon is essentially able to dictate every part of government,” Joel said. “The financial implications are very real, because the military is so powerful. If NMFS gives them trouble, they call their contacts on Capitol Hill, and pressure is brought to bear.”

The Navy has spent decades operating at its own discretion throughout the world’s oceans. The notion that another federal agency or some upstart environmental groups should limit its activities just doesn’t sit well among established Navy officers.

The problem is so entrenched in government that any resolution “is going to take some focused attention under the next administration,” according to Joel.

If Hillary Clinton is elected, Joel said he might look to John Podesta to untangle the mess. Podesta served as chief of staff under President Bill Clinton and was instrumental in opening up long-held but arguably unnecessary government secrets. He currently serves as chairman of Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

“John Podesta understands these things,” Joel told me. “If we can’t get him (to do something), we can’t get anyone. I think it would take a reorganization. The way NMFS is set up, they are in the business of authorizing ‘take’ instead of issuing permits based on the protections that are needed.”

Joel wasn’t clear how a regulatory agency might be organized to hold its own against the Navy, but the idea should be on the table, he said. Until then, the NRDC and other environmental groups will continue to battle in the courts, where judges are able to use some common sense.

Meanwhile, NOAA has developed an “Ocean Noise Strategy Roadmap,” which promises to find ways to control harmful man-made noise. The roadmap is based, in part, on scientific studies about the hearing capabilities of marine mammals. Review my Water Ways post on the “draft guidance” Water Ways, March 26, 2016.

These steps have been encouraging — at least until this week when NMFS issued letters of authorization for the Navy to keep operating under its 2012 plan, which the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals had declared a failure to meet requirements for the “least practicable adverse impact.” (Read the opinion.)

The agency chose to move ahead because the court had not yet issued its mandate — a formal direction to a lower court — by the time the letters of authorization were issued.

“The Navy has a robust and practicable monitoring and mitigation program that we believe is very effective in reducing the likelihood of injury,” according to an explanation from NMFS.

Check out Ramona Young-Grindle’s story about this latest finding in yesterday’s Courthouse News, which includes these further comments from Joel:

“We are astonished to see an LOA issued in the wake of the court of appeals’ decision that the LFA (low frequency active sonar) permit is illegal. NMFS is entrusted under federal law to enforce the Marine Mammal Protection Act for the benefit of marine mammals — not for the convenience of the Navy. This capitulation to the Navy’s request to continue ‘business as usual’ under a permit determined by a federal court to be illegal is outrageous.”

Demanding international changes to help protect marine mammals

After 43 years and some legal prodding, the United States is preparing to use its economic and political power to protect whales, dolphins and other marine mammals around the world.

On Monday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is scheduled to publish regulations that will set up a system to ban imports of seafood from any country that fails to control the killing of marine mammals in its fishing industry.

Photo: Daniel Schwen, Wikimedia Commons
Photo: Daniel Schwen, Wikimedia Commons

To avoid a ban, foreign controls must be as effective as standards adopted by the United States to reduce the incidental death and injury to marine mammals in the U.S. fishing industry. Harvesting nations that wish to continue selling fish and fish products to U.S. markets will have five years to implement their marine mammal protection programs, if they have not already done so.

When it was first approved by Congress in 1972, the Marine Mammal Protection Act included provisions that would ban imports of fish caught in commercial fisheries where the “bycatch” of marine mammals exceeded U.S. standards. But the law was largely ignored until environmental groups filed a lawsuit against NOAA two years ago. The lawsuit was eventually settled, with NOAA agreeing to approve new rules by August of this year.

NOAA estimates that 650,000 marine mammals are killed each year in fishing operations. Meanwhile, U.S. consumers obtain 94 percent of their seafood from a growing import market valued at $33 billion in 2013.

“The new regulations will force countries to meet U.S. conservation standards if they want access to the U.S. market, saving thousands of whales and dolphins from dying on hooks and in fishing nets around the world,” said Sarah Uhlemann, international program director for the Center for Biological Diversity. “The U.S. government has finally recognized that all seafood consumed in the United States must be ‘dolphin-safe.’”

Comments were made in a joint news release from the Center for Biological Diversity, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Turtle Island Restoration Network — the three groups that brought the lawsuit.

Graphic: NOAA
Graphic: NOAA

The new regulatory program on imports calls on NOAA Fisheries to issue a “comparability finding” after harvesting nations demonstrate that they have a regulatory program that meets U.S. standards for protecting marine mammals. Each program must prohibit the incidental killing or serious injury to marine mammals in all fisheries, estimate numbers of marine mammals on their fishing grounds and find ways to reduce harm if established limits are exceeded.

Over the next year, the regulations call for NOAA Fisheries to request information on marine mammal bycatch from countries that export to the U.S. On a list of foreign fisheries, each fishery will be classified either as “export” or “exempt.” Exempt fisheries are determined to have a remote chance of killing marine mammals, so they are not required to have a regulatory protection program. Those fisheries likely to impact marine mammals and those lacking information about impacts are placed in the export category. All fisheries must prohibit intentional killing of marine mammals to receive certification.

At the end of the five-year period, NOAA Fisheries will publish a list of fisheries that will not receive a comparability finding along with a list of fish banned from import. Those countries will receive information about why they were denied certification and are eligible to reapply at any time. Other details are outlined in a fact sheet from NOAA Fisheries.

The U.S. Marine Mammal Commission, a group appointed by the president to advise the government on the Marine Mammal Protection Act, welcomed the long-overdue regulations to protect marine mammals throughout the world, but said the five-year implementation period is too long. See comments, Nov. 9, 2015. (PDF 1.4 mb):

“Inasmuch as this is an ongoing, long-standing statutory requirement, the Commission does not see a legal basis for deferring implementation. To the extent that any delay can be countenanced, it should be kept to the absolute minimum necessary to secure the required information from exporting countries.

“The Commission is concerned that the proposed delay would result in at least another six years during which seafood could continue to be imported into and sold in the United States, despite unacceptably high levels of marine mammal bycatch, unbeknownst to U.S. consumers, and during which U.S. fleets would face unfair competition from foreign fleets with little or no accountability to follow comparable marine mammal conservation measures.”

In 1988, while the U.S. was developing new fishing standards to protect marine mammals, U.S. fishermen were required to report the type of gear they were using and any incidental catch of marine mammals, the Marine Mammal Commission noted. Fishermen also were required to allow observers on their boats while the agency developed stock assessments and new rules to protect various species of marine mammals. Those kinds of interim measures should be required of foreign fleets as well, the commission said.

Among its many comments when the rule was first proposed last year, the commission criticized the plan for placing too much burden on NOAA Fisheries to gather the information, rather than requiring the importing countries to document their protections for marine mammals.

“The Commission further recommends that the final rule clearly specify that nations be issued a CF only if they meet the U.S. standards, rather than be issued a CF unless it is shown that they do not meet the applicable requirements.”

As far as I can tell, the final rule failed to incorporate most of the commission’s suggestions. Still, using the economic and political power of the U.S. to protect marine mammals around the world is a considerable leap.

While the new regulations are expected to level the playing field for U.S. fishermen who must comply with marine mammal protections, we have yet to see the full response from other countries. At some point, a ban on U.S. imports is likely to trigger a challenge based on existing international trade agreements. I haven’t seen much written about the legal implications of the new marine-mammal-protection rules, but we have seen what can happen. Review the article by Mark J. Robertson about “dolphin-safe” tuna rules in a report for the International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development.

Canary rockfish likely
to be removed from Endangered Species List

One of the three species of rockfish listed as threatened or endangered in the Puget Sound region is about to be pulled off the Endangered Species List, following recent scientific findings.

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

Genetic studies carried out with the help of fisherfolk from Kitsap County have determined that canary rockfish are not a discrete population from those found off the Washington Coast. An official comment period on the delisting is open until Sept. 6, as described in the Federal Register.

I first discussed early evidence of this genetic finding a year ago. Kelly Andrews, a genetics expert with NOAA Fisheries, confirmed that limited genetic samples of canary rockfish from coastal areas appeared no different from samples taken from Puget Sound. Kelly wanted to review analyses from additional samples before drawing firm conclusions. See Water Ways, June 18, 2015.

Removing canary rockfish from the Endangered Species List will have no effect on yelloweye rockfish, listed as threatened, or bacaccio, listed as endangered. The change also is expected to have no immediate effects on fishing rules, which are designed to protect all rockfish in Puget Sound.

Rockfish are considered an important part of the Puget Sound ecosystem. Understanding the causes of their decline and finding ways to rebuild their populations could help with the recovery of a variety of other marine species, experts say.

A five-year review (PDF 15.1 mb) on the status of the three species of rockfish was due last year, but it was delayed until April of this year to include the new genetic information. In addition to a proposal to delist canary rockfish, the report discusses the difficulty in gathering population data. The authors were able to report:

“The data suggest that total rockfish declined at a rate of 3.1 to 3.8 percent per year from 1977 to 2014 … or a 69 to 76 percent total decline over that period. We did not find evidence for subpopulations with different population growth rates.”

Those involved in the scientific effort expressed appreciation to the anglers who went out with them to track down rockfish and take fin clips for genetic sampling. The effort also included information from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, where researchers surveyed rockfish areas with divers and remotely operated vehicles.

“Without the expertise of experienced fishing guides, anglers, and WDFW’s rockfish survey data, it would have been difficult to find the canary rockfish and yelloweye rockfish to collect the fin clips needed for the study,” according to a question-and-answer sheet from NOAA Fisheries (PDF 534 kb).

The local fishing experts were able to take the researchers to the hotspots where rockfish have always been found.

During the sampling, fishers were careful to release the rockfish with “descending devices” to get them safely back to deep water, where they reside. That is a technique recommended for all anglers who catch rockfish while fishing for other species. For details, see “Bring That Fish Down” (PDF 673 kb) by California Sea Grant and “Protecting Washington’s Rockfish” by WDFW.

Among those helping with the survey were Ray Frederick, a longtime leader in the Kitsap Poggie Club, a local fishing group, and Randy Jones, a charterboat operator from Port Orchard.

Ray recalls catching rockfish decades ago while fishing for salmon and other fish. “I considered myself lucky if I caught a rockfish and brought it home, because they’re really good eating,” Ray said in a story written by Ed Quimby, a former NOAA writer. “I prefer salmon,” Ray added, “but my wife likes rockfish better.”

Efforts to develop a recovery plan for rockfish continue for yelloweye rockfish and bocaccio as required by the Endangered Species Act. Details can be found on NOAA’s webpage “Rockfish in Puget Sound/Georgia Basin.”

Automated monitor provides early warning of harmful algae blooms

Automated equipment installed Monday off the Washington Coast will track concentrations of six species of plankton that could become harmful to humans and marine species.

The Environmental Sample Processor, or ESP, collects discrete samples of water and processes them for analysis. Imbedded modules can test for DNA and antibodies to identify the organisms picked up in the seawater. Concentrations of the plankton and their toxins are sent to shore-based researchers via satellite.

The equipment was installed by scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of Washington. The device was developed at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. Stephanie Moore of NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center explains the benefits of the device in the first video on this page. The second video provides a few more technical details with graphic depictions of the device.

The ESP was deployed in the Juan de Fuca eddy, a known pathway for toxic algae 13 miles off the Washington Coast near LaPush. The remote, self-operating laboratory will operate about 50 feet underwater.

One of the primary targets of the monitoring is Pseudo-nitzschia, a harmful algae capable of producing domoic acid. This toxin can accumulate in shellfish and can cause diarrhetic shellfish poisoning, which can progress to severe illness. Last year, a massive bloom of this toxic algae canceled scheduled razor clam seasons on Washington beaches with untold economic consequences.

The harmful algal bloom (HAB) affected the entire West Coast, from California to Alaska. It was the largest and longest-lasting bloom in at least 15 years, according to NOAA’s National Ocean Service.

“Concentrations of domoic acid in seawater, some forage fish and crab samples were among the highest ever reported in this region,” says a factsheet from the service. “By mid-May, domoic acid concentrations in Monterey Bay, California, were 10 to 30 times the level that would be considered high for a normal Pseudo-nitzschia bloom.”

“Other HAB toxins were also detected on the West Coast. Shellfish closures in Puget Sound protected consumers from paralytic shellfish poisoning and diarrhetic shellfish poisoning.”

Paralytic shellfish poisoning is associated with a group of plankton called Alexandrium, typically Alexandrium catenella in the Puget Sound region.

In addition to sampling for Alexandrium and four species of Pseudo-nitzchia, the ESP is monitoring for Heterosigma akashiwo, which is associated with massive fish kills, including farmed salmon.

Anyone can track some of the data generated by the equipment by visiting NANOOS — the Northwest Association of Networked Ocean Observing Systems.

Early warning of toxic algal blooms can assist state and local health officials in their surveillance of toxic shellfish.

“Anyone can access the data in near-real-time,” UW oceanographer and NANOOS Director Jan Newton told Hannah Hickey of UW News and Information. “It’s an early warning sentry.”

Research cruise studies ocean acidification
along West Coast

A major study of ocean acidification along the West Coast is underway with the involvement of 17 institutions, including 36 scientists from five countries.

NOAA's Research Vessel Ronald H. Brown NOAA photo
NOAA’s Research Vessel Ronald H. Brown
NOAA photo

Based aboard the NOAA Research Vessel Ronald H. Brown, the researchers are taking physical, chemical and biological measurements as they consider a variety of ecological pressures on marine species. They will take note of changes since the last cruise in 2013. To obtain samples from shallow waters, the researchers will get help along the way from scientists going out in small vessels launched from land. Staff from Olympic National Park, Channel Islands National Park and Cabrillo National Monument will assist.

The cruise started out last Thursday from San Diego Naval Base. Researchers have been posting information about the trip and their work on a blog called “West Coast Ocean Acidification.”

The month-long working adventure is the fifth of its kind in areas along the West Coast, but this is the first time since 2007 that the cruise will cover the entire area affected by the California Current — from Baja California to British Columbia. The video shows Pacific white-sided dolphins as seen from the deck of the Ron Brown on Monday just west of Baja California.

As on cruises in 2011–2013, these efforts will include studies of algae that cause harmful blooms, as well as analyses of pteropod abundance, diversity, physiology, and calcification, said Simone Alin, chief scientist for the first leg of the cruise.

“We are pleased to welcome new partners and highlight new analyses on this cruise as well,” she continued in her blog post. “For example, some of our partners will be employing molecular methods (proteomics, genomics, transcriptomics) to study the response of marine organisms to their environments.

“We also have scientists studying bacterial diversity and metabolic activity in coastal waters participating for the first time. New assays of stress in krill and other zooplankton — important fish food sources — will also be done on this cruise. Last but not least, other new collaborators will be validating measurements of ocean surface conditions done by satellites from space.”

To learn how satellites gather information about the California Current, check out Earth Observatory.

The research crew takes water samples using the CTD rosette off the coast of Baja California. Photo: Melissa Ward
The research crew takes water samples using the CTD rosette off the coast of Baja California.
Photo: Melissa Ward

With rising levels of carbon dioxide bringing changes to waters along the West Coast, researchers are gathering information that could help predict changes in the future. Unusually warm waters in the Pacific Ocean the past two years (nicknamed “the blob”) may have compounded the effects of ocean acidification, according to Alin.

Reading the cruise blog, I enjoyed a piece by Melissa Ward, a doctoral candidate in the Joint Program in Ecology from UC Davis and San Diego State University. Her story begins:

“As I prepared to leave for the West Coast OA research cruise, many family and friends skipped right over the ‘research’ part, and jumped straight to ‘cruise’. But to their disappointment, the photos of me sitting by the pool drinking my margarita will never materialize.

“The Ron Brown, our research vessel, does have two lounge chairs on the main deck, but they are strapped down to keep them from flying off as we go tipping back and forth with the ocean swells. Immediately after boarding the ship for departure from San Diego to Mexico, you have to start adjusting to this never-ending sway. After some stumbles and falls (which I’m certain the crew found entertaining), you get used to the motion, and can at least minimize public clumsiness.”

Brandon Carter, mission scientist on the cruise, provides a delightful primer on the pros and cons of carbon dioxide in a blog entry posted Tuesday, and Katie Douglas , a doctoral student at the University of South Florida’s College of Marine Science posted a blog entry yesterday in which she discusses the CTD rosette, a basic piece of oceanographic equipment used to continuously record conductivity (salinity), temperature and depth as it is lowered down into the ocean. The remote-controlled device can take water samples at any level.

Dead orca could reignite controversy over satellite tracking program

A federal program that uses satellite transmitters to track killer whale movements has been suspended after pieces of a metal dart associated with a transmitter were found embedded in the fin of an orca discovered dead two weeks ago in British Columbia.

L-95, named Nigel, was found dead March 31. File photo: Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Canada
L-95, named Nigel, was found dead March 31.
File photo: Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Canada

The whale, L-95, a 20-year-old male named “Nigel,” was found dead floating near Nootka Island along the west coast of Vancouver Island. He was the same whale who was tracked for three days off the Washington Coast by researchers with NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center after they attached a satellite transmitter on Feb. 23.

The attachment, which involves the use of a dart with sharp metal prongs, was routine in every way and has not been directly implicated in the death of the animal, according to a statement from NOAA officials.

Still, finding pieces of metal still embedded in the dorsal fin of the whale has already sparked a reaction from opponents of the darting procedure, including Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island. I expect further expressions of sadness and anger from others over the coming days.

“In my opinion, the tag attachment methodology was overly barbaric and defective from the get-go, and the entire tagging program should be rethought and evaluated for efficacy,” Ken said in a prepared statement.

“The NOAA/NMFS tagging program is certainly injuring and disfiguring these endangered icons of the Pacific Northwest, and it is my subjective opinion that it is adversely altering their behavior toward benign vessel interactions to approach them for photo-identification,” he said.

Ken noted that the cause of L-95’s death has not been determined, so the relationship to tagging could be coincidental, but two transient killer whales also went missing after tags were attached. Those deaths could be coincidental as well, he added, but other tagged whales are still carrying around pieces of embedded darts.

The 20-year-old male orca was found dead and in an advanced state of decay on March 30 by researchers from Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans. A necropsy revealed “fair to moderate body condition” and no clear sign of death. See the DFO news release for a few other details.

Although there was no sign of infection where the satellite tag pierced the dorsal fin, “veterinarians are investigating whether the tag attachment penetration sites may have provided a pathway for infection,” according to the NOAA statement. “Additional tests are underway to determine presence of disease agents such as viruses or bacteria that will provide further details as to the cause of death.”

When the satellite transmitter was first attached, the researchers “noted the outline of the ribs were slightly visible on several members of L pod, including L95, but observed nothing suggesting a change in health status.”

The satellite tracked L-95 for three days and then stopped. Researchers assumed the transmitter had fallen off, but they were not able to meet up with the whales before the research trip ended.

Expressing extreme sadness, agency officials say they are concerned that parts of the dart were found imbedded in the fin.

“These tag attachments are designed to fully detach and leave nothing behind,” says the NOAA statement. “Of 533 deployments, only 1 percent are known to have left part of the dart in the animal upon detachment, although several of these have been in killer whales.

“The team has halted tagging activities until a full reassessment of the tag design and deployment is completed to reduce risk of this happening again.”

Ken Balcomb recalled that he had complained about the tagging program several years ago as officials were debating whether the endangered Southern Resident population should become involved. Ken says he was assured that previous problems had been fixed and that he should simply document any problems he sees.

I remember the controversy well, as NOAA researchers were convinced that the data gathered would be worth what they considered an insignificant amount of risk. Check out “Orca tagging raises questions about research” from Dec. 8, 2010, and “Orca researchers divided over use of satellite tags” from Dec. 28, 2010.

“Clearly with L95 still retaining tag hardware in his wound site, the hardware attachment issues have not been fixed,” Ken says in his latest statement. “I suggest evaluating the cost efficiency and data already gathered from sighting reports, photo-ID, and tagging to determine whether any additional studies of SRKW distribution are justified.”

The tracking studies have been used the past few years to document not just the areas where the killer whales travel but also areas where they linger and forage for food.

NOAA’s explanation of the tagging program, its benefits and potential changes to the “critical habitat” protections for the killer whales are outlined in a question-and-answer format, including specifics about the death of Nigel, L-95.

Meanwhile, a young female orca, estimated to be two weeks old, has been identified as a Southern Resident by DFO scientists. Cause of death was not determined, but it was likely that the animal died from birth complications, officials said. The calf was found March 23 near Sooke, B.C.

Analysis of blood and tissue samples are expected in three to four weeks for both the calf and L-95, according to the DFO statement.

Will new guidance reduce hearing loss in whales and dolphins?

A new controversy is beginning to rumble over the potential injury to marine mammals from sounds transmitted in the water.

Transient killer whales Photo: Kitsap Sun
Transient killer whales // Photo: Kitsap Sun

The National Marine Fisheries Service, also called NOAA Fisheries, is moving closer to finalizing new “technical guidance” for assessing temporary and permanent hearing loss in whales and dolphins caused by human activities — including Navy sonar, seismic explorations and underwater explosions. The guidance will be used for approving “take” permits under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act.

Meanwhile, in another development, Navy officials have acknowledged that Navy personnel made a mistake by using sonar in Puget Sound without getting approval through the chain of command. I’ll describe the circumstances of that event in a moment.

Proposed noise guidance

The new “Draft Guidance for Assessing the Effects of Anthropogenic Sound on Marine Mammal Hearing” is a major revision from guidance in effect since the late 1990s. The document is currently going through its third public comment period since the end of 2013, having been updated and reviewed by three expert panels.

The new guidance is focused on hearing loss rather than how the behavior of marine mammals might change in the presence of loud noise. Since foraging and social activity are essential among whales and dolphins, further guidance is expected to assess how animals may be affected in other ways by noise.

The new guidance does not include mitigation measures for minimizing the effects of sound. In some cases, the new information may lead to additional protections for the animals, but in other cases protections may be reduced, according to information from NOAA Fisheries.

Currently, regulators use a single noise threshold for cetaceans (whales and dolphins) and a single threshold for pinnipeds (seals and sea lions). They do not account for the different hearing abilities within the two groups or how different types of sound may be experienced.

The new acoustic threshold levels divide sounds into two groups: 1) impulsive sounds lasting less than a second, such as from airguns and impact pile drivers, and 2) non-impulsive sounds, in which the sound pressure rises and declines more gradually, such as from sonar and vibratory pile drivers. Measures account for both peak sound pressure and cumulative sound exposure.

Marine mammals also are divided into groups based on their general range of hearing. There are the low-frequency cetaceans, including the large baleen whales; the mid-frequency cetaceans, including the dolphins; and the high-frequency cetaceans, including the porpoises.

The pinnipeds are divided into two groups. The eared seals, including sea lions, have a somewhat wider hearing range than true seals, including harbor seals.

After years of covering the effects of sonar and other noise, I’m just beginning to understand the complexity of how sound is measured and the mathematics used to calculate levels at various locations. At the same time, the guidelines are growing more complex — as they should to model the real world. New thresholds account for the duration of sound exposure as well as the intensity, and they somewhat customize the thresholds to the animals affected. For additional information, see NOAA’ Fisheries webpage on the guidance.

Despite incorporating new studies into the guidelines, some acoustics experts are finding serious problems with the methods used to arrive at the new thresholds, according to Michael Jasny of the Natural Resources Defense Council. The NRDC, an environmental group, has a long history of battling NOAA Fisheries and the Navy over sound exposures for marine mammals.

“This is an extremely technical subject,” Michael said, noting that he relies on experts who have provided comments on the methodology. “By and large, NMFS has drunk the Navy’s Kool-Aid with the exception of low-frequency effects, even though the Navy’s science has been sharply criticized.”

The statistical analyses leading to the guidelines are so flawed that they call into question how they could be used to protect marine mammals, Michael said, pointing to a paper by Andrew J. Wright of George Mason University.

“These are high stakes we are talking about,” Michael said. “We are talking about damaging the hearing of endangered species that depend on their hearing to survive.”

The effects of sound on behavior, which are not described in the new guidelines, may be just as important, he said, since too much noise can impede an animal’s ability to catch prey or undertake social behavior that contribute to the perpetuation of the species. NOAA Fisheries needs to move forward to raise the level of protection, not just for injury related to hearing but for other effects, he said. One can review a series of related studies on NOAA Fisheries’ website.

“If these guidelines are not improved, at least to address fundamental statistical errors, then it is easy to imagine that they might be legally challenged — and they would deserve to be,” Michael told me.

Sonar in Puget Sound

As for the Navy’s mistake with sonar, the story goes back to Jan. 13 of this year, when acoustics expert Scott Veirs of Beam Reach Marine Science picked up the sound of sonar on hydrophones in the San Juan Islands. About the same time, Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research was observing transient killer whales to the south in Haro Strait.

At first, Scott believed the sonar may have been coming from the Canadian Navy ship HMCS Ottawa, but Canadian officials were quick to deny it. His suspicions shifted to the U.S. Navy. He was disturbed by that prospect since the Navy stopped using sonar during training exercises in Puget Sound shortly after the USS Shoup incident in 2003. For a reminder of that incident, check my story in the Kitsap Sun, March 17, 2005.

USS Shoup, a Navy destroyer based in Everett. U.S. Navy photo
USS Shoup, a Navy destroyer based in Everett. // U.S. Navy photo

Later, the requirement for approval from the Pacific Fleet command became an enforceable regulation when it was added to the letter of authorization (PDF 3.4 mb) issued by NOAA Fisheries. The letter allows the Navy a specific “take” of marine mammals during testing and training operations.

Within days of this year’s sonar incident, Scott learned from observers that two Navy ships had traveled through Haro Strait about the time that sonar was heard on a nearby hydrophone. Navy Region Northwest confirmed the presence of Navy vessels.

Later, Scott received an email from Lt. Julianne Holland, deputy public affairs officer for the Navy’s Third Fleet. She confirmed that a Navy ship used sonar for about 10 minutes at the time of Scott’s recording. The ship was identified as a guided missile destroyer — the same type as the Shoup — but its name has never been revealed.

“The Navy vessel followed the process to check on the requirements for this type of use in this location, but a technical error occurred which resulted in the unit not being made aware of the requirement to request permission,” according to Lt. Holland’s email to Scott. “The exercise was very brief in duration, lasting less than 10 minutes, and the Navy has taken steps to correct the procedures to ensure this doesn’t occur again at this, or any other, location.”

Because no marine mammals appeared to be injured, the story kind of faded away until I recently contacted Lt. Holland to tie up some loose ends. She ignored my questions about whether disciplinary actions had been taken against any Navy personnel. “The Navy has taken appropriate action to address the issue, including reissuance of specific guidance on the use of sonar in the Pacific Northwest.” The memo was sent to “all units in the Northwest.”

After I reopened the discussion, Scott did some acoustic calculations based on figures and graphs he found in a Navy report on the Shoup incident. He located published estimates of the source levels and concluded, based on NOAA’s old thresholds, that marine mammals within 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) would experience noise levels likely to change their behavior (level B harassment).

Based on the data available, Scott could not conclude whether the transient killer whales in Haro Strait were within that range, but he said it was encouraging that Ken Balcomb did not notice any changes in their behavior. It was also helpful that the sonar was used for a relatively short time.

“It was a little nerve racking to hear the Navy was making mistakes,” Scott said, “but we can give them a pat on the back for doing the exercise during the day” when lookouts on the ship at least have a chance to spot the animals.

Stealthy steelhead still survive across parts
of the Kitsap Peninsula

More than three years after first proposed, “critical habitat” has been designated for Puget Sound steelhead, a prized fish whose population has declined drastically in the Puget Sound region.

The new designation, announced last week, is the first time that critical habitat has ever been designated on the east side of the Kitsap Peninsula.

Critical habitat for steelhead (click to enlarge)NOAA map
Critical habitat for steelhead (click to enlarge)
NOAA map

Steelhead were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 2007, and this critical habitat designation is required under federal law to protect habitats — in this case streams — that are considered essential to the recovery of the species.

Under the law, any federal actions that could affect critical habitat becomes subject to careful review to avoid degradation of the habitat. In most areas, this high-level review would apply to alteration of streams, wetlands or estuaries, or any construction covered by federal grants or permits — such as transportation projects.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has designated many Puget Sound streams as critical habitat for one or more listed species — such as Puget Sound chinook, Hood Canal summer chum or bull trout. But this is the first time the agency has provided federal protection for streams on the eastern side of the Kitsap Peninsula.

Interestingly, the marine shoreline all around the peninsula has been designated as critical habitat for chinook. Although the numerous streams are considered too small to support chinook spawning, the shorelines are critically important for juvenile chinook, which must find places to feed, grow and escape predators on their migration to the ocean.

The designation of East Kitsap as critical habitat for steelhead could bring increased scientific scrutiny to this area along with possible funding for the restoration of habitat, as I outlined in a Kitsap Sun story when the habitat was first proposed in 2013. See Kitsap Sun, Jan. 14, 2013, and Water Ways, March 15, 2013.

Even though steelhead were listed as threatened eight years ago, knowledge remains sparse about the number of steelhead coming back to the Kitsap Peninsula or the habitat needs of the fish, local biologists tell me. Steelhead are stealthy fish, not easily found in the streams, although some information is being revealed by a handful of fish traps used by researchers to measure steelhead productivity.

Acoustic tags help researchers track the movement of steelhead in Puget Sound.
Acoustic tags help researchers track the movement of steelhead in Puget Sound.
Photo: Kitsap Sun

Steelhead can still be found in Kitsap streams, but in numbers far below what old-timers talk about. Many Kitsap streams have become “flashy,” meaning that streamflows rise and fall suddenly with the rains, because so much of the landscape has been paved or otherwise hardened. Those conditions limit the habitat, especially for fish like steelhead and coho, which make their way far upstream in Kitsap’s numerous little creeks. One difference between the two species is that coho die after spawning, while steelhead often head back to the ocean to spawn again on their next journey.

As for the designation of critical habitat, the Suquamish Tribe was able to convince NOAA Fisheries to maintain closer jurisdiction over 90 miles of steelhead streams on the Kitsap Peninsula where they were originally proposed for exclusion from the designated critical habitat.

In all, more than 2,000 miles of streams throughout the Puget Sound region were finally designated as critical habitat, but more than 1,500 miles of stream escaped the formal designation. That’s because the habitat was said to be protected in other ways or because the cost of protecting the habitat outweighed the benefits.

The Lake Washington watershed was excluded under the cost-benefit rationale, but most of the excluded streams are on private and state forestlands managed under approved habitat conservation plans, which protect a variety of species. About 28 miles of streams on military bases were excluded because they fall under “integrated natural resource management plans.” About 70 miles of streams on tribal lands were excluded out of respect for tribal sovereignty and the role of the tribes in conservation.

While many of the forestlands on the Kitsap Peninsula come under existing habitat conservations plans, the Suquamish Tribe argued that even greater oversight is needed. Streams subject to the HCP are not clearly delineated, nor are areas that would not be regulated by HCPs, the tribe argued. Kitsap County is undergoing urbanization, and these forests are threatened with conversion to residential and commercial development, the tribe said. NOAA Fisheries accepted the tribe’s point of view.

In practice, the listing of Kitsap forests as critical habitat won’t have much effect, since forestland owners are already subject to state rules that are highly protective of stream habitat, said Adrian Miller, policy and environment manager for Pope Resources, the largest forestland owner in Kitsap County. Besides, Adrian told me, federal oversight only kicks in when there is a federal action — such as a new road or stream alteration, and these are rare on working forests.

For Puget Sound, most areas designated as critical habitat are considered “occupied” by fish at this time. One exception is the Elwha River, where steelhead have been moving into areas not occupied by anadromous fish since the Elwha Dam was built in 1910. Since removal of the Elwha Dam and the Glines Canyon Dam upstream, biologists have not fully documented the full extent of the habitat used by steelhead.

Since much of the upstream habitat is within Olympic National Park, I’m not sure the habitat needs special protection under the Endangered Species Act. But it is nice to know that steelhead habitat in the Elwha is protected at the highest level and just waiting for steelhead to arrive.

For information, see the formal listing of Puget Sound steelhead habitat in the Federal Register. Other documents about habitat can be found on NOAA Fisheries website.

NOAA continues to work toward a recovery plan for Puget Sound steelhead. Documents can be found on NOAA’s website about steelhead recovery. Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has issued reports on Puget Sound steelhead populations.

Two weeks ago, five conservation groups filed a lawsuit against NOAA Fisheries for not completing the recovery plan within a reasonable time. See Wild Fish Conservancy news release, which includes a link to the legal documents.

Youngest orca dies; ocean research goes on

UPDATE, Feb. 29

Dave Ellifrit and Deborah Giles provide a detailed update of their encounter with J pod on Thursday. All the whales in the pod were accounted for except for the newest calf. Encounter #14, Feb. 25.
—–

The youngest orca among the Southern Residents was missing when J pod returned to Puget Sound this week. Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research delivered the sad news of the calf’s passing.

“After an extended encounter with all members of J pod on Feb. 25, 2016, Center for Whale Research reluctantly announces that the newest member, designated J55, is missing and presumed dead,” Ken stated in a news release issued yesterday.

New calf J-55 with adult females J-14 and J-37. Photo: NOAA Fisheries
After it was born, the new calf J-55 was seen with presumed relatives J-14 and J-37. Now missing, the young orca is declared dead. // Photo: NOAA Fisheries

The calf was first reported Jan. 18 in Puget Sound by NOAA researchers, including Brad Hanson, who reported the newborn swimming with J-14, a 42-year-old female named Samish, and her daughter, J-37, a 15-year-old female named Hy’Shqa (pronounced “high-shka”).

Along with the birth, Brad announced the death of a newborn, apparently born to 20-year-old J-31, named Tsuchi, who was pushing around her deceased calf. See Water Ways, Jan. 19.

The mother of J-55 was never identified. It could have been Samish or Hy’Shqa. Ken says it is even possible that the mother was 12-year-old J-40, named “Suttles,” the youngest offspring of Samish who is just entering the reproductive age.

J-55 could have been missing as early as Jan. 19 — the day after the calf was first seen. Researcher Mark Malleson encountered some members of J pod in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, where he photographed 14 whales, including Samish’s family. He did not see J-55, but the whales were widely dispersed, he said.

J-37 seen this week with her son J-49. No sign of the calf J-55. Photo: Dave Ellifrit, CWR
J-37 seen this week with her 4-year-old son J-49. No sign of the calf J-55.
Photo: Dave Ellifrit, CWR

The Center for Whale Research operates under a policy to delay the announcement of a possible death among the Southern Residents until a thorough survey of the entire pod can be conducted, noted Deborah Giles, the center’s research director. That survey was carried out on Thursday, when J pod returned to Puget Sound.

“Although the loss of any calf is a blow to the Southern Resident killer whales and a setback to the struggling population, it is not entirely surprising that one of the ‘baby boom’ calves did not survive its first few months,” Giles said in the news release. “As many as 50 percent of newborn calves do not survive their first year.

J-40, 12 years old, seen this week with her mother J-14. No sign of the calf J-55. Photo: Dave Ellifrit, CWR
J-40, 12 years old, seen this week with her mother J-14. No sign of the calf J-55.
Photo: Dave Ellifrit, CWR

“Nevertheless,” she added, “the loss of this calf underscores the need to recover the whales’ primary prey base – Chinook salmon – if the Southern Resident population of whales is to survive and thrive.”

The “baby boom” refers to nine calves being born in just over a year, something not seen for nearly 40 years. All those births have infused new hope into the future of the orca population, which is listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

The death of J-55 brings the total number of Southern Residents to 84 — not including Lolita, who is living in Miami Seaquarium.

Meanwhile, killer whale researchers in the NOAA research vessel Bell M. Shimada continue to follow members of K and L pods off the Washington Coast. Brad Hanson, who is leading the research team, said he has not identified all the whales traveling together, but they include various family groups in both pods.

On Tuesday to Thursday, tagged orca L-95 and other members of K and L pods moved south to the Columbia River. NOAA map
From Tuesday to Thursday, tagged orca L-95 and other whales in K and L pods moved south to the Columbia River. // NOAA map

The ship located the whales on Tuesday near LaPush and followed them south to the entrance of Quinault Canyon offshore of the coast. (See Water Ways, Wednesday.)

On Monday afternoon, the day before the Shimada arrived, Mark Malleson reported an encounter with members of L pod in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. He was able to spot the whales near the town of Jordan River, across the strait from Sekiu.

“The first whales observed were L72 and L105 westbound,” Mark wrote in a report to the Center for Whale Research. “The rest were spread to the south and were doing long dives. They started to feed and group up at 1730 (5:30 p.m.). We left them at 1800 northwest of Clallam Bay, as they were still heading west towards Cape Flattery (the northwest point of the Olympic Peninsula).”

After the Shimada met them Tuesday morning near LaPush to the south, the whales continued south and spent most of the day Wednesday in the Grays Harbor area, Brad reported.

“The whales were extremely spread out such that we lost contact with them for a couple of hours due to reduced visibility and no vocalizing,” the researchers reported in a Facebook post. “By the afternoon, we relocated them and were able to stay with them all night.

“This morning (Thursday) they were off the entrance to the Columbia River and after traveling a few miles south, they turned north and were just north of the shipping channel entering the Columbia River by this evening. Weather conditions in the afternoon were spectacular and we were able to conduct small boat operations with the whales.”

In an email, Brad told me that the researchers have observed “surface activity” that would suggest foraging for salmon, and they have collected some fecal samples to identify what fish they were eating. The weather turned from “spectacular” on Thursday to “bad but not horrible” yesterday, but Brad was expecting some fierce winds and waves tomorrow.

Ocean conditions were nearly perfect for whale research on Thursday. NOAA photo
Conditions were nearly ideal for whale research on Thursday, as the vessel Bell M. Shimada follows K and L pods down the coast.
NOAA photo

Researchers locate orcas off the coast; new satellite tag attached

As luck would have it, the satellite transmitter used to track K-33, a male orca named “Tika,” fell off or stopped transmitting last Thursday — just three days before a research team set out from Newport, Ore., to find the whale and any others traveling with him. That satellite tag had been transmitting regularly since New Year’s Eve, when it was first attached.

Bell M. Shimada NOAA photo
NOAA research vessel Bell M. Shimada // NOAA photo

It might have been easier to locate the whales if the transmitter had been working, but the researchers, led by Brad Hanson of the NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center, were well aware of the whales’ recent movements, and there seemed to be at least a general pattern.

After researchers and crew aboard the NOAA vessel Bell M. Shimada left Newport on Sunday, they traveled up the coast to the area from where the last satellite signal was sent — a region between the Columbia River and Westport.

To catch up with the whale’s travels since my last report back on Feb. 10, the orcas continued south from Westport to the Columbia River, where they turned and headed north in no particular hurry. By Feb. 13, they were halfway up the Olympic Peninsula near the Quinault Canyon, a major underwater feature with deep grooves between the continental shelf and deeper waters of the Pacific Ocean.

Two days later, on Feb. 15, they were back offshore of the Longbeach Peninsula and Willapa Bay, where they stayed until the transmitter stopped sending signals on Feb. 17.

This past Sunday, Feb. 21, the research teams aboard the Shimada headed north from Newport to that area near Westport, hoping to spot them.

“After three sweeps through that area with no detections, we headed up the Washington Coast Monday night in the nearshore waters,” Brad wrote yesterday. “As we neared LaPush this morning, with 25 knots of wind howling out of the east, we saw numerous small blows close to shore heading south. About an hour later, we were able to close on the whales and confirm that we were with members of L pod.”

Brad has not yet reported which whales were together, but the research crew — which includes scientists from NOAA, Cascadia Research Collective and Bio-Waves — were able to get on the water after noon yesterday in a small research boat.

The researchers observed foraging behavior as the whales hunted for salmon, and they were able to attach a new satellite tag to L-95, a 20-year-old orca named “Nigel.” With regular transmissions, they hope to stay with the whales or find them again quickly if the animals become difficult to follow in darkness or heavy weather.

As of last night, the whales had moved back offshore near the entrance to Quinault Canyon with the Shimada staying nearby.

On the first day, the research team was unable to obtain fecal samples or scales to identify what kind of fish the animals are eating, but that will be one of the goals in the coming days. Information gathered on this cruise may be used to update critical habitat for the Southern Resident killer whales, listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Although it now seems clear that the whales are foraging in the ocean, the original critical habitat designation listed only Puget Sound.

For maps showing the tracking of L-33 and now L-95, visit the NOAA’s website “2016 Southern Resident killer whale satellite tagging.”