Tag Archives: Puget Sound Partnership

Facing the possibility of extinction for the killer whales of Puget Sound

Southern Resident killer whales, cherished by many Puget Sound residents, are on a course headed for extinction, and they could enter a death spiral in the not-so-distant future.

It is time that people face this harsh reality, Ken Balcomb told me, as we discussed the latest death among the three pods of orcas. A 2-year-old male orca designated J-52 and known as Sonic died tragically about two weeks ago.

Two-year-old J-52, known as Sonic, swims with his mother J-36, or Alki, on Sept. 15. This may have been the last day Sonic was seen alive.
Photo: Ken Balcomb, Center for Whale Research

The young orca was last seen in emaciated condition, barely surfacing and hanging onto life near the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca on Sept. 15. Ken, director of the Center for Whale Research, said the young whale was attended to by his mother Alki, or J-36, along with a male orca, L-85, known as Mystery — who may have been Sonic’s father, but more about that later.

Extinction, Ken told me, is “very real” — not some ploy to obtain research dollars. The population of endangered Southern Residents has now dropped to 76 — the lowest level since 1984. Most experts agree that a shortage of chinook salmon — the primary prey of the orcas — is the greatest problem facing the whales.

Last week, the Leadership Council — the governing body of the Puget Sound Partnership — discussed what role the partnership should play to “accelerate and amplify efforts” to restore chinook salmon runs and save the orcas. Chinook themselves are listed as a threatened species.

Graph: Center for Biological Diversity

Puget Sound Partnership is charged by the Legislature with coordinating the restoration of Puget Sound, including the recovery of fish and wildlife populations.

The Leadership Council delayed action on a formal resolution (PDF 149 kb) in order to allow its staff time to identify specific actions that could be taken. Although the resolution contains the right language, it is not enough for the council to merely show support for an idea, said Council Chairman Jay Manning.

Sonic was one of the whales born during the much-acclaimed “baby boom” from late 2014 through 2015. With his death, three of the six whales born in J pod during that period have now died. No new calves have been born in any of the Southern Resident pods in nearly a year.

Meanwhile, two orca moms — 23-year-old Polaris (J-28) and 42-year-old Samish (J-14) — died near the end of 2016. Those deaths were followed by the loss of Granny (J-2), the J-pod matriarch said to have lived more than a century. Another death was that of Doublestuf, an 18-year-old male who died last December.

Three orcas were born in L pod during the baby boom, and none of those whales has been reported missing so far.

Ken believes he witnessed the final hours of life for young Sonic, who was lethargic and barely surfacing as the sun set on the evening of Sept. 15. Two adults — Sonic’s mother and Mystery — were the only orcas present, while the rest of J pod foraged about five miles away.

Sonic seen with his mother in June.
Photo: Ken Balcomb, Center for Whale Research

That was the last time anyone saw Sonic, although his mother Alki as well as Mystery were back with J pod during the next observation four days later. Ken reported that Alki seemed distressed, as often happens when a mother loses an offspring.

Ken admits that he is speculating when he says that Mystery may have been Sonic’s father. It makes for a good story, but there could be other reasons why the older male stayed with the mother and calf. Still, researchers are engaged in studies that point to the idea that mature killer whales may actually choose a mate rather than engaging in random encounters. I’m looking forward to the upcoming report.

I must admit that this issue of extinction has been creeping up on me, and it’s not something that anyone wants to face. Food is the big issue, and chinook salmon have been in short supply of late. It will be worth watching as the whales forage on chum salmon, as they are known to do in the fall months.

“This population cannot survive without food year-round,” Ken wrote in a news release. “Individuals metabolize their toxic blubber and body fats when they do not get enough to eat to sustain their bodies and their babies. Your diet doctor can advise you about that.

“All indications (population number, foraging spread, days of occurrence in the Salish Sea, body condition, and live birth rate/neonate survival) are pointing toward a predator population that is prey-limited and nonviable,” he added.

The Center for Biological Diversity, which was involved in the initial lawsuit that led to the endangered listing for the whales, is calling upon the NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service to move quickly to protect orca habitat along the coasts of Washington, Oregon and California. Currently designated critical habitat is limited to Puget Sound, even though the whales are known to roam widely along the coast.

“The death of another killer whale puts this iconic population on a dangerous path toward extinction,” Catherine Kilduff of CBD said in a news release. “If these whales are going to survive, we need to move quickly. Five years from now, it may be too late.”

How fast the whales will go extinct is hard to determine, experts say, but the current population is headed downward at an alarming rate, no matter how one analyzes the problem.

“I would say we are already in a very dangerous situation,” said Lance Barrett-Lennard, senior marine mammal researcher at the Vancouver Aquarium. “If this trajectory continues and we lose two or three more from deaths or unsuccessful birth, we will be in a real spiral,” he told reporter Richard Watts of the Times Colonist in Victoria, B.C.

A five-year status review (PDF 4.3 mb), completed last December by NMFS, takes into account the number of reproductive males and females among the Southern Residents, the reproductive rates, and the ratio of female to male births (more males are being born). As the population declines, the risk of inbreeding — and even more reproductive problems — can result.

Eric Ward of NOAA, who helped write the status report, said the agency often estimates an extinction risk for endangered populations, but the actual number of Southern Residents is too small to produce a reliable number. Too many things can happen to speed up the race toward extinction, but it is clear that the population will continue to decline unless something changes.

As Ken describes it in simple terms, Southern Resident females should be capable of producing an offspring every three years. With 27 reproductive females, we should be seeing nine new babies each year. In reality, the average female produces one offspring every nine years, which is just three per year for all three pods. That is not enough to keep up with the death rate in recent years. To make things worse, reproductive females have been dying long before their time — and before they can help boost the population.

Experts talk about “quasi-extinction,” a future time when the number of Southern Residents reaches perhaps 30 animals, at which point the population is too small to recover no matter what happens. Some say the population is now on the edge of a death spiral, which may require heroic actions to push the population back onto a recovery course.

As described in the five-year status review, prey shortage is not the only problem confronting the Southern Residents. The animals are known to contain high levels of toxic chemicals, which can affect their immune systems and overall health as well as their reproductive rates. Vessel noise can make it harder for them to find fish to eat. On top of those problems is the constant threat of a major oil spill, which could kill enough orcas to take the population down to a nonviable number.

The graph shows the probability that the Southern Resident population will fall below a given number (N) after 100 years. Falling below 30 animals is considered quasi-extinction. The blue line shows recent conditions. Lines to the left show low chinook abundance, and lines to the right show higher abundance.
Graphic: Lacy report, Raincoast Conservation Foundation

Despite the uncertainties, Robert Lacey of Chicago Zoological Society and his associates calculated in 2015 that under recent conditions the Southern Resident population faces a 9 percent chance of falling to the quasi-extinction level within 100 years. Worsening conditions could send that rate into a tailspin. See report for Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

What I found most informative was how the probability of extinction changes dramatically with food supply. (See the second graph on this page.) A 10 percent decline in chinook salmon raises the quasi-extinction risk from 9 percent to 73 percent, and a 20 percent decline raises the risk to more than 99 percent.

On the other hand, if chinook numbers can be increased by 20 percent, the whales would increase their population at a rate that would ensure the population’s survival, all other things being equal. Two additional lines on the graph represent a gradual decline of chinook as a result of climate change over the next 100 years — a condition that also poses dangerous risks to the orca population.

The close links between food supply and reproductive success are explored in a story I wrote last year for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

At last Wednesday’s Puget Sound Leadership Council meeting, members discussed a letter from the Strait (of Juan de Fuca) Ecosystem Recovery Network (PDF 146 kb) that called on the Puget Sound Partnership to become engaged in salmon recovery efforts outside of Puget Sound — namely the Klamath, Fraser and Columbia/Snake river basins.

“Such collaborative efforts must be done for the benefit of both the SRKW and chinook fish populations, without losing sight of the continuing need to maintain and improve the genetic diversity of these fish populations …” states the letter.

A separate letter from the Puget Sound Salmon Recovery Council (PDF 395 kb) also asks the Puget Sound Partnership to become more engaged in orca recovery. The group is calling on the partnership to support salmon recovery statewide, “relying on each region to identify strategies to restore robust salmon runs.”

Rein Attemann of Washington Environmental Council said salmon on the Columbia and Snake rivers, as well as he Fraser River in British Columbia, are “vitally important” to the recovery of the Southern Resident killer whales, and Puget Sound efforts should be coordinated with other programs.

Jim Waddell, a retired civil engineer with the Army Corps of Engineers, spoke forcefully about the need to save chinook salmon and the Southern Residents, starting by tearing down dams on the Snake River.

“We are out of time,” Waddell said. “The Corps of Engineers have it within their power to begin breaching the dams within months…. The orcas cannot survive without those chinook.”

An environmental impact statement on chinook recovery includes the option of breaching the dams, something that could be pushed forward quickly, he said.

“Breaching the Snake River dams is the only possibility of recovery,” Waddell said. “There is nothing left.”

Stephanie Solien, a member of the Leadership Council, said speaking up for orcas in the fashion proposed is not something the council has done before, but “we do have a responsibility to these amazing animals and to the chinook and to the tribes.”

The council should work out a strategy of action before moving forward, she added, but “we better get to moving on it.”

Puget Sound Partnership may confront net pen controversy

Puget Sound Partnership may take a stand on whether fish farms should be allowed to remain in Puget Sound waters.

The partnership is charged by the Legislature to oversee the restoration of the Puget Sound ecosystem. On Wednesday, the partnership’s governing body, the Puget Sound Leadership Council, received an update on last month’s collapse of a net pen containing 305,000 Atlantic salmon near Cypress Island in northern Puget Sound.

About two-thirds of the escaped fish have been accounted for so far, with about 146,000 found dead or alive in the damaged net pen and about 55,000 caught by fishermen. (All but about 5,000 of those were caught by tribal fishers in Puget Sound.)

This video, taken by a private party and released by state agencies, shows the collapse of the Cypress Island net pens on Aug. 19

About 100,000 Atlantic salmon apparently escaped and have not been caught by people, although most of those probably were eaten by predators, experts say. Officials continue their efforts to figure out where any remaining fish have gone, specifically any that swam up into the streams, according to Amy Windrope of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The Atlantic salmon, an exotic species in Puget Sound, don’t appear to be eating anything, let alone young native salmon, Windrope said, and there is not much concern that they will breed with native fish. The greatest concern is that they might somehow disrupt the spawning behavior of native salmon, whose populations are already stressed by adverse conditions in both marine and fresh water.

The Atlantic salmon appeared to be healthy and free of parasites at the time of the release, she said, but they became less and less healthy as starvation set in.

In addition to Windrope, the presentation to the Leadership Council included reports from representatives of the state Department of Natural Resources, which leases the seabed where the pens are located, and the Department of Ecology, which issues permits under water-quality laws.

Puget Sound tribes are about to release a position statement opposing salmon farms in Puget Sound, said Russell Hepfer, a member of the Leadership Council and vice chairman of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribal Council. He did not elaborate, except to say that the non-native fish don’t belong here.

According to Windrope, the tribes see Atlantic salmon as weeds in the garden of Puget Sound. Such cultural viewpoints should be taken into account in the overall discussion, she added.

Soon after the Cypress Island net pen collapse, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz issued a moratorium blocking further net pen approvals until an investigation is complete.

Maradel Gale, a resident of Bainbridge Island, addressed the Leadership Council at Wednesday’s meeting near Port Gamble, saying the Bainbridge Island City Council has effectively limited the expansion of net pens at the south end of the island and would like to get rid of net pens altogether.

She said Cooke Aquaculture, which owns all the net pens at four locations in Puget Sound, receives the benefits of using the public waterways and placing the ecosystem in peril while taking very little risk upon itself.

Dennis McLerran, a member of the Leadership Council who has worked for various environmental agencies, said Washington state law has long provided a preference for aquaculture over many other shoreline uses. Like it or not, he said, those preference are “baked into state policies” that direct state agencies to support aquaculture, including salmon farms.

“That is where the Leadership Council should have some discussion,” McLerran said. “Are those preferences in state law appropriate?”

The state of Alaska prohibits salmon farms, while California’s complex regulations allow them only under specific conditions related to water supplies, said Kessina Lee of Ecology.

Jay Manning, chairman of the Leadership Council and former director of the Washington Department of Ecology, said the Legislature will no doubt want to hear a complete report on the Cypress Island net-pen collapse, and he urged the agency officials to be fully prepared to answer questions from lawmakers.

“You will be asked, when the Legislature comes back, ‘How big a deal is this?’” Manning said, noting that he has heard from some people that it is a very big deal, while others say it is nothing at all.

Windrope noted that native salmon populations are already struggling, “and this is one more injury to the salmon.” But since the escaped Atlantic salmon don’t appear to be competing for food, the question comes down to whether they are affecting native fish in other ways. That question is not fully answered, she said.

“For DNR, this is a very big concern,” said Dennis Clark, who helps manage aquatic leases for the agency. “We have a contract with a multinational company, and they failed to adhere to it.”

DNR serves as the landlord for the Puget Sound net pen operations, he said. The aquatic leases run out at various times, from 2022 to 2025, and the agency is taking a closer look at the net pen structures to see what should be done from both a scientific and landlord perspective. Commissioner Franz is taking a special interest, he added.

“We are trying very hard to learn from this (incident),” Clark said, “and we understand that we may need to devote more resources.”

Rich Doenges of Ecology said the Atlantic salmon that got away are considered a “pollutant” under Washington state law. While no long-term effects have been seen following previous escapes of Atlantic salmon, there is some risk to native salmon. The key is to quantify that risk and determine if it is low enough to make the operations worthwhile. If necessary, he said, compliance orders can be issued and state water-quality permits can be amended to require additional safety measures.

Seattle attorney Doug Steding, representing Cooke Aquaculture, said he wanted to convey “sorrow and regret” from the company over the potential impacts of the escape.

“We want to make right with respect to this terrible accident,” he said, adding that the company is committed to working with investigators into the cause of the escape and finding ways to make sure that it never happens again.

Steding noted that Cooke recently acquired the Puget Sound facilities and did not own the Cypress Island net pens when the fish were placed in them. The company should have shared more information with the public about plans to upgrade the facilities, he said.

“You have an important task sorting through the difficult science and integrating with the values of the people of Washington,” Steding told the Leadership Council, adding that Cooke hopes to remain a part of the discussion.

Environmental efforts, including Puget Sound, hanging in the balance

I must admit that I have an uneasy curiosity to see how Congress will manage programs that protect human health and the environment now that Republican legislators are in control of both the House and Senate with no concerns about a budget veto.

Photo: Matt H. Wade via Wikimedia

Most environmental laws and programs are the result of hard-fought compromise between Democrats and Republicans who somehow agreed on ideas to make the world a safer place for people and wildlife. Do Republican members of Congress really want to back away from those advances? Do they want to explain to their constituents why clean air, clean water and safe food are not as important as they once were?

I was fascinated to read that Republican senators and representatives in the Great Lakes states could be a key to saving federal funding for Chesapeake Bay — and, by the same token, Puget Sound, the Gulf of Mexico and other major restoration projects.

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Puget Sound Partnership improves, but some changes still needed

Puget Sound Partnership, created by the Legislature to coordinate protection and restoration of Puget Sound, has improved its operations over the past four years, according to a state audit report, which also makes recommendations for further improvements.

One area where the Partnership is not meeting its legal mandate is to identify partner organizations — including state agencies and county governments — that are not living up to their responsibilities under the Puget Sound Action Agenda, which guides the overall restoration effort.

Likewise, the Partnership has not been calling out partners that have made outstanding progress in their efforts to protect and restore Puget Sound, according to the audit, which was approved last week by state legislators who make up the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee, or JLARC.

The video below shows the portion of the JLARC meeting addressing the audit report on the Puget Sound Partnership.

The one legal deficiency involves the old carrot-and-stick approach, shaming those who are failing to protect Puget Sound while praising those doing a bang-up job. One concern I’ve heard is that shaming may be counter-productive, since the Partnership has no legal authority to force anybody to do anything. Nevertheless, the approach is required by state law.

The three primary recommendations coming out of the audit:

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Hope is alive for restoration of Puget Sound shellfish beds

Officials in Washington state’s Shellfish Program have identified a clear pathway to meet a state goal of restoring 10,800 net acres of shellfish beds to a harvestable condition by 2020.

The 10,800-acre target, established by the Puget Sound Partnership, was considered overly ambitious by many people when the goal was approved in 2011. Many still believe that the shellfish restoration effort will go down in flames, along with other goals, such as increasing chinook salmon and killer whale populations by 2020.

In reporting on the Shellfish Implementation Strategy, a document still under development, I’ve learned that the goal is within reach if enough of the ongoing recovery efforts around Puget Sound continue to make progress. Please check out my latest stories “Bringing the shellfish back” and “Closing in on the magic number in Samish Bay,” both published in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

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Federal Action Plan for Puget Sound released as Trump enters office

Two days before Donald Trump became president, the Puget Sound Federal Task Force released a draft of the federal action plan for the recovery of Puget Sound.

Puget Sound from space // Image: NASA

The Trump transition raises uncertainty about the future of this plan, but at least the incoming administration has a document to work with, as described by Steve Kopecky of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. (See Water Ways, Dec. 22.)

Speaking last month before the Puget Sound Partnership’s Leadership Council, Kopecky acknowledged that the plan would go through many changes over time, with or without a new president.

“That being said, the first one is probably the most powerful,” he said. “It is the model that new folks are going to use, so we’re trying to make sure that we have a good solid foundation model before we all collectively go out the door.”

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Stream ‘bugs’ will help guide funding for future stream restoration

One of the goals established by the Puget Sound Partnership is to improve freshwater quality in 30 streams throughout the region, as measured by the Benthic Index of Biotic Integrity, or B-IBI.

Benthic invertebrates range in size from those easily seen with the naked eye to those that cannot be spotted without the use of a microscope. Photo: C. Dunagan
Benthic invertebrates range in size from those easily seen with the naked eye to those that cannot be spotted without the use of a microscope. // Photo: C. Dunagan

Simply described, B-IBI is a numerical measure of stream health as determined by the number and type of bottom-dwelling creatures that live in a stream. My latest article published in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound describes in some detail how this index works. Here’s the basic idea:

“High-scoring streams tend to have a large variety of ‘bugs,’ as researchers often call them, lumping together the benthic species. Extra points are given for species that cannot survive without clean, cool water. On the other hand, low-scoring streams are generally dominated by a few species able to survive under the worst conditions.”

Because benthic invertebrates have evolved over time with salmon and other fish, many of these important “bugs” are primary prey for the fish that we value highly. Said another way, “healthy” streams — as measured by B-IBI — tend to be those that are not only cool and clean but also very good habitats for salmon.

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Report: It’s time to shift the deadlines for Puget Sound restoration

Restoring Puget Sound to a healthy condition by the year 2020 is an unrealistic goal that needs to be addressed by the Puget Sound Partnership, according to the latest performance audit by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee.

Structure

It’s a issue I’ve often asked about when talking to people both inside and outside the Puget Sound Partnership. What’s the plan? Are we just going to wait until the year 2020 and say, “Ah shucks; I guess we couldn’t reach the goal.”?

Puget Sound Partnership, the organization created by the Legislature to coordinate the restoration of Puget Sound, is on the right track in many ways, according to the preliminary audit report. But the Partnership needs to address several “structural issues” — including coming up with realistic goals for restoration.

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Federal Action Plan coming together
for Puget Sound

A draft of a Federal Action Plan to protect and restore Puget Sound is scheduled for completion before Donald Trump takes office on Jan. 20, according to officials involved in developing the plan.

Colvos Passage from Anderson Point on the Kitsap Peninsula Photo: Lumpytrout, Wikimedia Commons
Colvos Passage from Anderson Point on the Kitsap Peninsula // Photo: Lumpytrout, Wikimedia Commons

The plan will help demonstrate that Washington state and nine federal agencies are aligned in their efforts to recover one of the most important waterways in the nation, according to leaders involved in a new Federal Puget Sound Task Force.

The task force was created in October by President Obama, who essentially elevated Puget Sound to a high-priority ecosystem, on par with Chesapeake Bay, the Florida Everglades and the Great Lakes, according to a news release from the White House.

A memorandum of understanding (MOU) signed among federal agencies replaces a less structured MOU that was scheduled to expire next year. The new agreement calls for a five-year action plan to be completed by June 1, but a draft should be ready by Jan. 18, according to Peter Murchie, who manages Puget Sound issues for the Environmental Protection Agency and chairs the task force.

“Part of the goal is to have something in front of the transition folks … that they can then shepherd through individual budget and prioritization processes that they’ll be doing with new leadership,” Murchie told the Puget Sound Partnership’s Leadership Council two weeks ago.

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Kongsgaard departs Puget Sound Partnership; Manning assumes chair

Martha Kongsgaard, chairwoman of the Puget Sound Leadership Council, has always spoken with a voice of both reason and passion while guiding the Puget Sound Partnership in its efforts to restore Puget Sound to health.

Martha Kongsgaard
Martha Kongsgaard

Yesterday and today, Martha attended her final meeting as a member of the Leadership Council, the governing body of the Partnership charged with coordinating Puget Sound ecosystem recovery.

While listening to presentations on technical and financial issues, Martha always seems to quickly focus discussions on the key issues of recovery while asking how to help average people understand the complex problems.

As a reporter, I’ve enjoyed speaking with Martha, who not only answers my questions in a direct and revealing way but also indulges my curiosity. Our discussions often take tangents onto other interesting subjects, sometimes leading to new stories or old stories told in a new way.

Nobody doubts Martha’s love of Puget Sound, expressed by her willingness to spend countless unpaid hours working for a better future.

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