Tag Archives: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

Agency lists critical habitat for endangered Puget Sound rockfish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The plan identifies these objectives to restore the population:

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

Puget Sound grants continue ecosystem restoration

About $22 million in state and federal grants were awarded last week for Puget Sound ecosystem restoration, another installment in the struggle to nurse Puget Sound back to health.

About $12 million in state and federal funds came through the Estuary and Salmon Restoration Program, or ESRP, under the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. As the name suggests, these funds are focused on improving nearshore and ecosystem processes.

Another $10 million came from the Puget Sound Acquisition and Restoration (PSAR) Fund, which is focused mainly on salmon restoration. More of those funds will be awarded before the end of the year.

Reporter Tad Sooter and I wrote about the West Sound projects in Friday’s Kitsap Sun (subscription required), focusing a good deal of our attention on a key acquisition of property on the Bainbridge Island shoreline along Agate Passage.

The property includes 4.5 acres of tidelands, including 550 feet of undeveloped beach, along with 7.5 acres of upland woods and meadows, all to be preserved by the Bainbridge Island Land Trust.

Brenda Padgham, stewardship director for land trust, told Tad that this property is one of the last intact nearshore habitats on Bainbridge Island. “The whole reach is so pristine,” she said.

Of the $1.2 million provided for the Bainbridge Island purchase, $810,000 came from the PSAR funds and $396,000 came from the ESRP.

Betsy Lions, who manages the ESRP for the Department of Fish and Wildlife, said most of that money this year will go toward removing unnecessary bulkheads, replacing culverts that block salmon passage and restoring tidal functions.

The 20 ESRP grants are described in a news release from Fish and Wildlife.

The salmon recovery money was approved Thursday by the Salmon Recovery Funding Board. In a news release yesterday, Gov. Jay Inslee stressed the economic value of preserving the state’s salmon runs:

“These projects will increase salmon populations while giving a boost to the economy. Salmon are important economically to Washington state and these projects will provide construction jobs and help countless numbers of Washington families and businesses, including tackle shops, charter operators, restaurants and hotels, that rely on the world-renowned Pacific salmon.”

David Troutt, chairman of the SRF Board and natural resources director of the Nisqually Tribe, made this comment:

“Puget Sound Chinook are about one-third as abundant as they were a century ago. As we have developed our urban and rural landscapes, we’ve damaged many of the estuaries, floodplains and rivers that salmon need to survive. These projects have been selected as ones that will make big impacts on Puget Sound and salmon recovery. Those two things go hand in hand. Puget Sound needs healthy salmon, and salmon need a healthy Puget Sound.”

The 11 PSAR projects are outlined in a document (PDF 106 kb) on the state Recreation and Conservation Office’s website. By the way, projects in Hood Canal were held up until October, as members of the Hood Canal Coordinating Council continue discussions about priorities.

Amusing Monday: See baby ospreys in the nest

UPDATE, June 17, 6 p.m.

I forgot that I had written about ospreys and their hunting techniques in this blog in August of 2011.
—–

In an osprey nest monitored with live video by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, it appears that all three eggs have hatched into baby osprey.

The video at right was recorded from the live WDFW Ospreycam and posted on YouTube Saturday by someone called AccSpec, who says the nest is located near Gig Harbor.

View the live Ospreycam here. A 10-second update of the webcam is available for slow computers and seems to work better at night. To read the story about how the webcam was installed, click here.

Opreys eat fish almost exclusively, which is why they nest near water. Adults typically hover over the water before they drop like a rock and dive feet first, grabbing fish with their sharp talons. The young will begin exercising their wings before they take their first flights and learn to fish.

OTHER LIVE OSPREYCAMS

Hog Island ospreycam is managed by Audubon on Hog Island near Bremen, Maine. These ospreys laid their eggs about the end of April.

Cape Cod ospreycam monitors a nest at the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History in Brewster, Mass.

Hellgate Canyon ospreycam is located at Riverside Health Care Center in Missoula, Mont.

OTHER WILDLIFE CAMS

Pintail duck wildlife cam in the Prairie Pothole Region near Egeland, N.D. The eggs were laid May 16 and should hatch at any time, but long-term prospects for the ducklings are not good. Previous research in the area has shown that the likelihood of surviving predators and other threats is about 5 percent.

Atlantic Puffin cam at Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge in Maine.

Elephant seal cam located between San Simeon and the Piedras Blancas Light Station on the Pacific Coast of California. The webcam is a joint project of Friends of the Elephant Seal and California State Parks.

Salmoncam shows salmon returning to Issaquah Hatchery, operated by WDFW. The camera in the holding pool shows a still photo that refreshes every 10 seconds.

New watchdog group to focus on Puget shorelines

It’s not often that we get to talk about a new environmental group in the Puget Sound region. We have a lot of existing groups, to be sure, but I can’t recall when the last one came into existence.

Whether Sound Action is actually a new group can be debated, since its core leaders come from Preserve Our Islands, the organization that battled the gravel mining operation on Maury Island. But I consider it a new group, because Sound Action has a new, clearly defined mission, not focused on a single development but on protecting shoreline habitats throughout Puget Sound.

The group will begin by keeping its eye on hydraulic project approvals issued by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. The group’s audit of 290 past HPAs (PDF 3.3 mb) purports to show that adequate restrictions were not imposed in many cases where shoreline habitats and species needed to be protected.

Randi Thurston of WDFW disputes the report’s methods and conclusions, as I mention in my story published in today’s Kitsap Sun.

Those overall findings and statistics may make little difference in the long run, however. More interesting will be the deficiencies the group discovers as it goes about reviewing every permit issued by WDFW — the express goal of Amy Carey, the group’s executive director.

“Our intent here isn’t to be adversarial,” she told me yesterday. “We want to be supportive of DFW and help them fix the problem. … Reasonably good laws have been on the books for decades, but we have agencies that just don’t say no.”

When it comes to specific permits, it will be easier to discuss what conditions exist at a specific site, what data are available about the particular shoreline, what permit conditions are mandatory and what conditions would be advisable to add some measure of protection.

I can’t see how another set of eyes or even a differing opinion can hurt if the goal is to protect the environment, and maybe this effort will make a big difference in restoring Puget Sound to health. Of course, if the goal is to approve shoreline developments as quickly as possible, then regulations and oversight just get in the way.

Here are the goals, as described by Sound Action:

  • In our new work, Sound Action will be reviewing each Puget Sound-based HPA as it comes under the consideration of WDFW to ensure that all applicable environmental regulations are applied.
  • In the event that science-based information is missing or overlooked by WDFW, we will present detailed documentation on species and habitats present as well as impacts of the proposal.
  • If a permit is approved which does not contain appropriate provisions or is approved in violation of state law, Sound Action will pursue appeal and legal action.
  • Sound Action will expand its watchdog role to other regulatory areas in Puget Sound, but its first task is to focus on the state HPA program to make sure each permit does what the law requires and that the program is functioning and providing habitat protection. Not only is this required by law, it also supports the state mandate to restore Puget Sound by 2020.

Final report issued on chinook-orca connection

The final report on how salmon fisheries may affect Puget Sound’s endangered killer whale population has been released by a seven-member independent panel of U.S. and Canadian experts.

Download “The Effects of Salmon Fisheries on Southern Resident Killer Whales” (PDF 1.8MB)

It appears that the findings of the report are substantially the same as what I reported in a Kitsap Sun story on May 6. If you haven’t read the story, I think you will find all the comments interesting.

The next step will be for NOAA officials to issue recommendations from the report. In light of the findings and the uncertainty about the effects of reduced fishing, it seems likely that more studies will be proposed rather than an immediate adjustment to harvest.

I’ll continue to follow this story through the public review process, which is planned for early next year. Updates and related documents can be found on NOAA’s website.

The management plan for Puget Sound chinook fisheries will remain in effect through next year, after which time it will need to be updated in consultation between state and federal agencies. Chinook are a “threatened” species under the Endangered Species Act. See NOAA’s webpage, “Puget Sound Chinook Resource Management Plan.”

You may be interested in older studies and policy documents by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. Go to “Comprehensive Management Plan for Puget Sound Chinook: Harvest Management Component.”

Amusing Monday: Exotic wildlife in your room

At times, it seems a little voyeuristic to watch wild creatures behaving naturally, unaware that eyes from all over the world may be watching them via the Internet.

One of the most engaging critter cams is set up at a place called Pete’s Pond, located in the Mashatu Game Reserve in eastern Botswana. The pond lies at confluence of the Limpopo and Shashe rivers in a region that combines dry savannah, riverine forests and soggy marshes.

As I write this on Monday morning, several giraffes have come to the waterhole, where it is late Monday afternoon. Last night (Monday morning at the pond), I spotted a lone jackal wandering near the water.

The viewing is enhanced significantly by volunteers from around the world who take turns aiming the cameras and zooming in on interesting activities taking place. I love the sounds of the pond almost as much as the sights, but an ongoing clicking sound on the audio this morning detracted from the natural sounds.

Late afternoon in Botswana (morning here) seems to be an active time, but apparently different animals show up at the pond at all times of the day and night, and I find it interesting to watch and listen even when things seem completely serene.

I’ve mentioned other wildlife cams on this blog (See Water Ways, March 3, 2011). Technical difficulties always seem to be a factor in keeping these remote cameras in operation.

For the WildWatch Cams managed by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, it does not help that the department has been through some massive budget cuts. Staff efforts on these live videos has been reduced, and some are not in operation. But a few seem to be working fine. Try Batcam, Heroncam, Sealcam and Swiftcam.

If you are aware of other good critter cams working at the moment, feel free to pass them along.

Salmon managers will try to eke out fishing options

Forecasts for Puget Sound salmon runs call for lower returns this year compared to last year, but officials with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife are emphasizing “promising” chinook fishing off Washington’s coast and Columbia River.

Each year, sport fishers line the banks of the Skokomish River as they try to catch the prized chinook salmon. / Kitsap Sun file photo

Preseason forecasts were released yesterday, launching the North of Falcon Process, which involves state and tribal salmon managers working together to set sport, commercial and tribal fisheries. Federal biologists and regulators keep watch over the negotiations to ensure compliance with the Endangered Species Act.

For a complete schedule of meetings leading up to final decisions the first week of April, go to the WDFW’s North of Falcon page.

With regard to fishing opportunities, Doug Milward, ocean salmon fishery manager for the agency, had this to say in yesterday’s news release:

“It’s still early in the process, but we will likely have an ocean salmon fishery similar to what we have seen the last two years, when we had an abundance of chinook in the ocean but low numbers of hatchery coho.”

Continue reading

Follow-up to suspected boat collision with orca

Given the excitement of the moment, including comments over the radio, some people still believe that L-90, a 19-year-old female orca named Ballena, was struck by a boat off the west side of San Juan Island on Friday.

An experienced driver for the Prince of Whales whale-watching company was mentioned as a likely witness.

I talked to a spokeswoman for the company who told me that nobody she knows has any pictures. The only interviews granted by staff were with enforcement officers for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Sgt. Russ Mullins, one of the WDFW officers who patrols that area, said he has investigated the incident. As best as he can tell, no collision occurred.

“Nobody witnessed an actual strike,” he told me. “It was a close call perhaps, but we do not have vessel-related injuries on this animal.”

Here are some of the details that Sgt. Mullins reported:

The boat reportedly involved in the incident was a slow-moving liveaboard passing through the area. The speed was about 7 knots. Mullins does not know why some news reports mentioned a high-speed boat, except for the possible assumption that only a fast-moving boat was likely to strike a killer whale.

A witness on the Prince of Whales boat told officers that the orca in question and possibly others surfaced some 20 feet off the bow the boat, which then stopped for a short time before leaving the area.

The whale was acting sluggish, barely moving and logging on the surface for quite some time. That behavior led people in the area to believe a collision had occurred. Comments to that effect went out over the radio.

“I heard the transmission,” Mullins said. “The close proximity, combined with the unusual behavior of the whale, led some people to think it had been struck. We assume the worst. As primary law enforcement for the area we have a responsibility to respond…”

Another patrol boat quickly tracked down the suspect vessel.

“We talked to the skipper, who was very concerned,” Mullins said. “He did not appear to be the kind of person who would strike a whale and knowingly leave.”

Mullins said he stayed with the group of whales for 10 hours, including part of Saturday. During that time, they passed the town of Friday Harbor, where they became as active as he’s ever seen them.

Experts familiar with the orcas assured him that the whale had been acting strangely even before Friday’s incident and that nothing had changed See my Water Ways entry from Friday and Erin Heydenreich’s further explanation later that day.

Technically, the driver of the boat was in violation of the protective zone around the whales, 100 yards under state law and 200 yards under federal law. That applies even when the whales catch up to a boat going the same direction, but officers have discretion to consider the conditions.

Mullins said his department plans to issue a written warning to the driver of the boat and refer all the information to officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“This guy’s biggest mistake is not being aware of his surroundings,” the sergeant said, “but when the whales were within his view, he took appropriate action.”

Salmon must survive to swim up little streams, too

For years, I’ve heard complaints about tribal fishing. Frankly, many people who complain about tribal fishing, or commercial fishing in general, have no understanding of treaty rights or how individual salmon stocks are managed.

Tarboo Bay
Washington Department of Ecology photo

Most don’t care about the work that goes into long-range management plans, preseason forecasts or computer models of harvest options, which make it possible to manage fisheries with concurrence of state, tribal and federal entities. Most folks with concerns wouldn’t think of accepting the public invitation to join the annual discussions about harvest.

Occasionally, however, someone raises a concern that resonates with managers and biologists who understand the issues. Such is the case with fishing in Tarboo Bay, a story I told in Friday’s Kitsap Sun.

It all comes down to a simple proposition: If salmon management plans are working, then why aren’t we getting more chum and coho into Tarboo Creek? Should we be content with ongoing productivity well below what the stream appears capable of supporting?

Putting politics aside, should the overall management plan for Hood Canal strive for some minimum escapement or maximum exploitation rate on individual streams? Oh, what a complex plan that would be! But if low escapement creates sustainability problems on any stream, then someone needs to take a serious look and not be hampered by plans that consider Hood Canal coho and chum as aggregate stocks for all Hood Canal.

Maybe we should elevate Tarboo Bay to a test case, first with some monitoring to determine the stock composition of the tribal beach seine in question. If it turns out that this is an all-or-nothing fishery, then one answer would be to move the closure line farther out into Dabob Bay, as managers for the state and two tribes agreed to do.

Beyond that, however, perhaps more attention should be given to individual streams, their carrying capacity and trade-offs between harvest and escapement. Interesting studies have been conducted for listed species and a few other stocks in Hood Canal. See “Mid-Hood Canal Juvenile Salmonid Evaluation…” But the need to improve escapements of all species remains a concern.

I’m tempted to say that this is an emperor-has-no-clothes moment when it comes to fisheries in Hood Canal, but I don’t believe that’s accurate. It may seem that everybody understands the problem and nobody wants to speak out. In reality, the problems are many; they vary from place to place; and lots of people are speaking out.

Maybe it is more like a house of cards that continues to grow. Many weaknesses are found in the structure, but only so many can be fixed at one time. So people just keep going, hoping for the best.

Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has developed a management framework to address these kinds of issues. See “21st Century Salmon and Steelhead Initiative.” It seems like a good start, but the agency must not forget that restoration comes together stream-by-stream for harvest as well as for habitat.

Consider these goals, among others, spelled out in the initiative:

— Expand selective fisheries to increase opportunities for recreational and commercial fishing on hatchery fish and reduce the harvest of wild salmon.
— Implement in-season DNA stock identification to direct fishing to areas with low impacts on wild salmon.
— Improve fishery monitoring to assure that impacts to wild fish are accurately assessed.
— Ensure compliance with fishing regulations.
— Monitor numbers of juvenile fish that migrate to marine areas and adult fish that return to fresh water to spawn to determine effectiveness of conservation and recovery actions.
— Work with our tribal co-managers in each watershed to develop joint state/tribal hatchery and harvest management objectives and plans.
— Coordinate law enforcement with our tribal partners.

As local groups — including the tribes — work hard to remove barriers to salmon passage and improve habitat in specific streams, there is a growing recognition that individual streams can support more salmon than has been possible in the past. Maybe it is time to test the limits of the habitat for selected streams, understanding that decreased harvest in the short term could well translate to greater terminal fisheries in the future.

The Kitsap Sun published an editorial today about the Tarboo Bay fishery.

Reports of injured killer whale are likely false

I’m happy to inform you that reports of a killer whale being struck off the west side of San Juan Island this morning apparently were false.

Erin Heydenreich, Ken Balcomb and others with the Center for Whale Research spent about two hours on the water this afternoon checking out L-90, a 19-year-old female known as “Ballena.” She was the orca reported to have been struck by a boat going too fast near the whales.

“We got a very good look at her,” Erin noted. “There were no signs of injury or indications that she had been struck.”

She noted that the orca was acting “strange,” including logging at the surface for unusually long times, moving slowly and making brief dives. That may have been one reason that observers believed she had been struck by a boat.

But another explanation for her unusual behavior is that Ballena is pregnant and about to have a calf, she said. That type of behavior has been seen in the past among expectant orca moms.

“She is at that age where she should be having a calf (her first),” she said. “She could be having a difficult pregnancy or something may be wrong with her not related to this vessel thing.”

Erin said officers with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife questioned individuals involved with the incident and reported that it was unlikely that any whale was hit.

She said the researchers also checked out J-32, a 15-year-old female that was initially reported in the area. That whale, named “Rhapsody,” also showed no signs of injury.

The Center for Whale Research plans to watch L-90 especially closely the next few days to see if she has a new calf or otherwise changes her behavior.

Craig Bartlett of WDFW confirmed that officers had talked to the occupants of a large pleasure boat that had been moving slowly through the area. They were surprised that anyone believed something was seriously wrong, he said.