Water Year 2017, which began on Oct. 1, got off to a rip-roaring
start this month in terms of rainfall, and now records are falling
for October rainfall totals across the Kitsap Peninsula.
As shown in the three charts on this page, the graph started
climbing steeply above the lines shown — including the green lines,
which denote the highest annual precipitation recorded for the past
25 to 33 years.
So far this month, 19.5 inches of rain have fallen at Holly,
which has averaged about 7 inches in October for the past 24 years.
As you can see in the annual rainfall map at the bottom of this
page, Holly lies in the rain zone on the Kitsap Peninsula — the
area with the greatest amount of rainfall in most years. With four
days left in the month, Holly has about an inch to go to break the
record of 20.5 inches going back to 1991.
A free 2017 calendar, published by the National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration, features winning artwork in a contest
that focuses on the problem of trash in the ocean, otherwise known
as marine debris.
More than 700 students from around the country participated in
the contest, and one of the 13 winners was a seventh grader from
Washington state named Sallie S. Neither her full name nor hometown
was disclosed, and I never received a response to an email sent to
her on my behalf by NOAA officials.
Sallie’s statement on the back of the calendar: “Marine debris
impacts our oceans and Great Lakes, because the plastic and other
garbage could badly injure or kill the sea animals. What I will do
to keep our ocean debris free is to not litter. Not littering is
very important, because if you litter the debris can go into
drains, then it can go into the lake or the sea. Then once it goes
in the sea, ocean organisms could then die.”
When a 20-year-old killer whale named Nigel was found dead
floating off Vancouver Island at the end of March, experts
expressed immediate concern about the sharp barbs that remained
embedded in the whale’s dorsal fin. (See
Water Ways, April 14.)
This type of barb is commonly used to attach satellite
transmitters to all sorts of whales and dolphins, allowing the
animals to be tracked over long distances. The satellite tags are
designed to fall off completely — but that did not happen for
Nigel, designated L-95.
As the result of an investigation by the National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration, we now know that the barbs helped to
introduce a dangerous fungus into Nigel’s body. The fungus appears
to have spread to his lungs and other organs, ultimately
contributing to his death.
“After a thorough necropsy and investigation, including an
expert review of findings, there was sufficient evidence to
implicate the tag attachment site as a source of fungal infection
to the whale,” states a
report by an expert panel (PDF 209 kb). “This fungal infection
contributed to illness in the whale and played a contributory role
in its death.”
After Nigel was found dead near Nootka Island, NOAA suspended
the satellite-tracking program. As a result of these latest
findings, the agency announced today that it will continue to
prohibit satellite tagging, at least until new standards can be
developed through the International Whaling Commission.
After that, any further tagging would require a new review under
the Endangered Species Act. That’s because the Southern Residents —
the orcas that frequent Puget Sound — are listed as an endangered
The tagging program has provided much information about where
the whales go during winter months when they leave Puget Sound and
travel up and down the coast. That information is expected to help
NOAA Fisheries develop a new “critical habitat” designation for the
Southern Residents. Critical habitat in coastal areas might provide
the whales with protected areas where they could hunt for chinook
salmon, their primary prey.
For now, NOAA may need to use methods other than satellite
tagging to keep track of the whales during winter, said Richard
Merrick, chief scientist for NOAA Fisheries. Experts are reviewing
the existing data to see if they have enough information for
expanding critical habitat outside of Puget Sound.
A total of eight Southern Residents have been tagged using a
similar dart system since tagging began in 2012, according to a
report from Brad Hanson (PDF 972 kb) of NOAA’s Northwest
Fisheries Science Center. Nigel was the last, and all the other
whales are alive and have shed their darts, although one whale did
retain a dart for a while.
The fungus that contributed to Nigel’s death has been found in
the surface waters off Vancouver Island, experts say, and the
attached tag provides an entry point for infection. A couple of
factors may have made things worse for the orca. First, the tag was
dropped during handling and may have become contaminated with
seawater. Although it was sterilized with alcohol, protocols for
tag deployment call for the use of bleach as well.
It was a “human error,” said Merrick, adding that the NOAA
scientists involved are “dismayed” that any of their actions could
have contributed to the orca’s death.
The tag also went into a spot on the dorsal fin lower than
recommended. Although other whales have not had problems with this
location, the concern is the proximity to large blood vessels that
could allow the fungal organism to more easily enter the
final necropsy report (PDF 365 kb) provides evidence that Nigel
may have had some problems with his immune system, and this
particular fungus is known to attack people who are
immune-compromised. I have written about the added risks of disease
among killer whales because of their exposure to toxic chemicals.
You might want to check out my series in the Encyclopedia
of Puget Sound.
Because Nigel’s carcass was severely decomposed when it was
found, the actual cause of death may never be known. But
contributing factors are many.
Reached by phone today, Ken told me that he has given his best
information to government researchers through the years — not only
about the risks of tagging but about other issues as well.
“I get no communication back,” he said. “They just ignore
His greatest concerns today are focused on the lack of wild
salmon to feed the whales, he said. The high death rate and the low
birth rate in recent years largely results from a lack of food,
which compounds other problems that the orcas are facing. While
nine new orca calves since the end of 2014 is encouraging, he said,
the 82 Southern Residents are not in good shape as a
“They do have to eat,” Ken said. “This population requires a
certain quantity of fish, and they are not getting it. Recovery (of
the orcas) is not happening, and it won’t happen until the recovery
of natural fish populations happens.”
The removal of dams on the Snake River would help increase the
wild chinook population, Ken said, but better management of all
life stages of salmon is essential. That means better coordination
between the U.S. and Canada, he added.
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
But the blame cannot be placed entirely on the Navy, Joel says
in a blog entry he wrote for the
“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
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.
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
“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
“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
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
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
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 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
Courthouse News, which includes these further comments from
“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.”
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.
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
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
“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
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
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
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
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
“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.
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.
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
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.
canary rockfish from the Endangered Species List will have no
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.
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
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
“Bring That Fish Down” (PDF 673 kb) by California Sea Grant and
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 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 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
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
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
“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
“Other HAB toxins were also detected on the West Coast.
Shellfish closures in Puget Sound protected consumers from
paralytic shellfish poisoning and diarrhetic shellfish
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.
A major study of ocean acidification along the West Coast is
underway with the involvement of 17 institutions, including 36
scientists from five countries.
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
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
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
“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
To learn how satellites gather information about the California
Current, check out
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
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
“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.
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.
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.
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
“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
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
Expressing extreme sadness, agency officials say they are
concerned that parts of the dart were found imbedded in the
“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
“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.
“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
A new controversy is beginning to rumble over the potential
injury to marine mammals from sounds transmitted in the water.
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.
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
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
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 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
“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.
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
“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
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.