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Environmental reporter Christopher Dunagan discusses the challenges of protecting Puget Sound and all things water-related.
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Tidal power supply coming to Puget Sound

Friday, March 21st, 2014

A multi-million-dollar tidal energy project in Admiralty Inlet, north of the Kitsap Peninsula, has been approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Tidal turbines for Admiralty Inlet are to be provided by OpenHydro. Graphic courtesy of OpenHydro

Tidal turbines for Admiralty Inlet are to be provided by OpenHydro.
Graphic courtesy of OpenHydro

The Snohomish County Public Utility District, which was granted a license for the double-tidal-turbine pilot project, says it will be the first “grid-connected array of large-scale tidal energy turbines in the world.” The twin turbines are designed to produce 600 kilowatts of electricity, enough to power several hundred homes.

“Anyone who has spent time on the waters of Puget Sound understands the power inherent in the tides,” PUD General Manager Steve Klein said in a news release. “In granting this license, the FERC acknowledges the vigilant efforts of the PUD and its partners to test the viability of a new reliable source of clean energy while at the same time ensuring the protection of the environment and existing uses.”

The federal commission acknowledged concerns for fish and wildlife brought forth by area tribes, whale-watch operators and environmental groups. But the pilot project has precautionary measures built in, according to the commission’s order (PDF 503 kb) issued yesterday:

“For these new technologies, where the environmental effects are not well understood, the risks of adverse environmental impacts can be minimized through monitoring and safeguard plans that ensure the protection of the public and the environment.

“The goal of the pilot project approach is to allow developers to test new hydrokinetic technologies, determine appropriate sites for these technologies, and study a technology’s environmental and other effects without compromising the commission’s oversight of a project or limiting agency and stakeholder input…

“A pilot project should be: (1) small; (2) short term; (3) located in non-sensitive areas based on the commission’s review of the record; (4) removable and able to be shut down on short notice; (5) removed, with the site restored, before the end of the license term (unless a new license is granted); and (6) initiated by a draft application in a form sufficient to support environmental analysis.”

Among tribes that fish in the area, the Suquamish Tribe raised concerns about the likelihood of underwater turbines violating tribal treaty rights to fish. The turbines have the potential for killing or injuring fish, according to the tribes, and they could become a point of entanglement for fishing nets and anchor lines.

Tidal turbine location in Admiralty Inlet

Tidal turbine location in Admiralty Inlet

“Though we respect the tribes’ perspective and concerns, we disagree that licensing this project will adversely affect their treaty rights,” the commission stated in its order. The license contains no restrictions on fishing, and it requires measures to protect the fish.

Suquamish Tribal Chairman Leonard Forsman said tribal officials have not had time to review the license conditions in detail but will do so over the coming days. He said he would consult with legal and technical advisers before laying out possible actions for consideration by the tribal council.

Michael Harris, executive director of the Pacific Whale Watch Association and a board member for Orca Conservancy, said he was disappointed that more people have not recognized the problems that can be created by these turbines — especially in Admiralty Inlet, a primary route for killer whales and many other species.

The turbines will create unusually loud and potentially painful underwater noise, Harris said. This installation is being developed at a time when researchers are coming to understand that noise can disrupt the behavior of killer whales and other marine mammals.

The turbines themselves have open blades that can injure any curious animal getting too close, he noted. And if the turbines become a serious threat, someone must swim down and mechanically stop the blades from turning, something that could take four days.

“I’m not against green energy,” Harris said when I talked to him this morning. “But let’s not put blinders on. I would like to see these turbines located in another spot. Why not Deception Pass?”

Harris said it is critical for people to pay close attention to the pilot project if it goes forward. Everyone should be prepared to stop the experiment if it proves costly to sea life.

The order by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission maintains that conditions of approval will protect killer whales and other marine mammals:

“The Near Turbine Monitoring and Mitigation Plan requires detection of fish and should provide observation of nearby killer whales. Those observations combined with the hydrophone monitoring required under the Marine Mammal Protection and Mitigation Plan will allow detection and observation of killer whales if they come near the turbines.

“The adaptive management provisions of the Marine Mammal Protection and Mitigation Plan will also allow adjustments to project operation if potential harm to killer whales is detected or, in the very unlikely event, a whale is injured….

“This license also contains noise-related requirements that will ensure the project does not have detrimental effects on killer whale behavior. The Acoustic Monitoring and Mitigation Plan of this license requires that if the sound level from turbine operation exceeds 120 dB at a distance greater than 750 meters from the turbine … the licensee shall engage the turbine brake until modifications to turbine operations or configuration can be made to reduce the sound level.”

According to several Internet sources, 120 dB is what someone might hear standing near a chainsaw or jack hammer. That level is considered close to the human threshold for pain.

In the Admiralty Inlet area, at least 13 local species are listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

  • One plant: golden paintbrush, threatened
  • One bird: marbled murrelet, threatened
  • Two marine mammals: Southern Resident killer whales, endangered, and North Pacific humpback whale, endangered
  • Nine fish: Puget Sound Chinook salmon, threatened; Hood Canal summer chum, threatened; Puget Sound steelhead, threatened; bull trout, threatened; green sturgeon, threatened; bocaccio rockfish, endangered; canary rockfish, threatened; yelloweye rockfish, threatened; and Pacific eulachon, threatened.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service have concluded that none of the species would be in jeopardy of extinction because of the pilot project.

Experts have concluded that marine mammals, including killer whales, could be subjected to Level B harassment (behavioral shifts) as a result of noise from the turbines. That would be in violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act without incidental take authorization. That means the Snohomish PUD must undergo consultations with the National Marine Fisheries Service and possibly change its plans before moving forward.

The PUD chose Admiralty Inlet for its swift currents, easy access and rocky seabed with little sediment or vegetation. A cable-control building for connecting to the power grid will be located on Whidbey Island near Fort Casey State Park. The turbines will be located in about 150 feet of water about a half-mile from shore.

The turbines are manufactured by OpenHydro of Dublin, Ireland. Each turbine measures about 18 feet in diameter, with a 414-ton total weight.

According to the PUD, these turbines have been used in ecologically sensitive areas in other parts of the world. One location is Scotland’s Orkney Islands, which features a diverse and productive ecosystem that is home to numerous species of fish, dolphins, seals, porpoises, whales and migrating turtles.

The pilot project has been supported with about $13 million in grants from the U.S. Department of Energy and Bonneville Power Administration along with federal appropriations.

Partners in various aspects of the project include the University of Washington, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Sound & Sea Technology and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.


Capt. Jim Maya’s favorite whale photos of 2013

Sunday, January 12th, 2014

I always look forward to the annual photo gallery created by Capt. Jim Maya from his favorite photos of the year. Jim owns the whale-watching company, Maya’s Westside Whale Watch Charters, which operates out of Snug Harbor on San Juan Island, so he gets to see a lot of things.

Here’s Jim’s message for the year:

“Each year about this time I go through my images from the year and try to pick out favorites. Sometimes it had to do with the emotion of day and the memory or the company on the boat. Other times, special lighting, composition, and other elements. I still haven’t gotten the shot of a breaching Orca with a salmon in its mouth, with an eagle after the salmon, in front of a lighthouse and a mountain and a rainbow. No, I don’t even own Photoshop!”

I’ve selected eight of my favorites from the 18 that Capt. Jim sent me. For a full gallery of photos, go to Maya’s Photo Gallery.

Transient killer whales travel along the north side of Stuart Island. Look for a deer in the upper right corner.

Transient orcas travel along the north side of Stuart Island. Look for a deer in the upper right corner.

A transient from the group passing by Stuart Island.

A transient from the group passing by Stuart Island.

Transients pass in front of San Juan Island and Mount Baker.

Transients pass in front of San Juan Island and Mount Baker.

Transients feed on a sea lion in Haro Strait, San Juan Islands.

Transients feed on a sea lion in Haro Strait, San Juan Islands.

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Lime Kiln Lighthouse on San Juan Island.

Lime Kiln Lighthouse on San Juan Island.

Southern Resident orcas, San Juan Islands.

Southern Resident orcas, San Juan Islands.

A humpback stayed with Maya's boat for an hour.

A humpback stayed with Maya’s boat for an hour. The group named the whale “Wendy.”

Humpback whale fluke seen in the sunset, Haro Strait.

Humpback whale fluke seen in the sunset, Haro Strait.


Orcas hunt for chum salmon in Central Puget Sound

Wednesday, October 10th, 2012

The Southern Resident killer whales have begun their annual travels into Central and South Puget Sound in search of chum salmon.

Southern Resident killer whales passed by Bainbridge Island on Monday.
Photo by Tad Sooter

The shift occurs when chinook salmon have completed their migration and chum are just beginning to come home to their natal streams, as I describe in a story in yesterday’s Kitsap Sun. It is widely assumed that the length of their stay depends on their success in finding the later salmon.

This year was predicted to be a low year for fall chum. But Jay Zischke, marine fisheries manager for the Suquamish Tribe, told me that early commercial and test fisheries suggest that the run is either earlier than usual or larger than the preseason forecast. Even so, it may still be a relatively low year for fall chum.

This is the 15th anniversary of another low chum year, 1997, when 19 members of L pod came all the way into Dyes Inlet to find adequate numbers of chum schooled up in front of Chico and Barker creeks. The whales stayed in the inlet for a month and left just before Thanksgiving. There is still debate about whether they wanted to stay that long.

On the 10th anniversary of the event, I wrote about the story of two young researchers, Kelley Balcomb-Bartok and Jodi Smith, who spent most of that month studying the whales and trying to protect them from a massive number of boaters who wanted a front-boat view of the action. Stories, maps and other information about that event can be found on a website called “The Dyes Inlet Whales — Ten Years Later.”
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Orca photos: Capt. Jim offers his favorites of 2011

Friday, January 13th, 2012

Capt. Jim Maya of Maya’s Westside Charters on San Juan Island sent me his favorite photos of 2011.

“Though perhaps not technically my best,” he wrote. “they are my personal favorites. I hope you enjoy them and have a great 2012.”

Jim sent the photos on Jan. 1, so the delay in getting them online is all mine. The captions below each picture are Jim’s comments about the events and circumstances of the moment. Click on each photo for a better view.

Nov. 19. Ts with Sucia Island and Mt. Baker. We first found them at Speiden Island thanks to Kim and Karl Bruder, who run Lonesome Cove. Evening light. / Capt. Jim Maya

Aug. 26. Spectacular speed swimming! We call it porpoising for some reason. Strait of Georgia headed toward the Frazer River. Wish the lighting had been better, but you get the idea. / Capt. Jim Maya

ADDITIONAL PHOTOS
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Keeping watch for killer whales coming south

Wednesday, November 2nd, 2011

An axiom among orca observers goes something like this: When you believe you have figured out what killer whales will do, they’ll do something else.

I’ve become accustomed to writing an annual story that lets people know when chinook salmon runs are dwindling in the northern waters of Puget Sound and the Strait of Georgia and when chum salmon runs are beginning to build up in South Puget Sound.

It happens in the fall, and it generally means that our Southern Resident orcas will begin checking out the buffet table in areas from Whidbey Island to Tacoma and occasionally as far south as Olympia. During this time, ferryboat riders aboard the Kingston, Bainbridge Island, Bremerton and Vashon Island ferries begin seeing the whales more frequently.

It appears that the table is now set and waiting for the whales, but that doesn’t mean they’ll show up for dinner on time, as I describe in a story I wrote for yesterday’s Kitsap Sun.

Lots of people reported seeing the orcas last week, when they were spotted from all the usual ferries, including some rare sightings on the Mukilteo run. The video on this page was taken at Point Robinson on Vashon Island and shows how exciting it can be to watch whales from the shore.

Although the Southern Residents showed up in South Sound only twice in October, historical records reveal that as long as chum are around, the whales — most notably J Pod — can be expected to return through December. One analysis of whale movements was conducted as part of a tidal energy project for the Snohomish County Public Utility District. See Marine Mammal Pre-Installation Study (PDF 12.9 mb). (Note the large file.)

While the Southern Residents are known to eat chum in the fall, there is no doubt that their preferred prey is chinook salmon, which are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. How to make sure the orcas are getting enough chinook to eat is part of a major study effort now under way, including a series of workshops about the effects of salmon fishing on the killer whales.

A report of the first workshop, held Sept. 21-23, contains an incredible amount of scientific information related food availability and the value of different salmon to our local orcas. Check out this page: Evaluating the Effects of Salmon Fisheries on Southern Resident Killer Whales.


Maps for salmon-viewing and whale-watching

Thursday, October 20th, 2011

I’ve been away from “Water Ways” quite a lot lately while covering a trial in Tacoma involving safety and environmental concerns at Kitsap Rifle and Revolver Club. Kitsap County is suing the club over operations at its gun range near Bremerton. (Watch for my “live blogging” or read the stories on the Kitsap Sun website.)

Meanwhile, I’d like to call your attention to a story by Kitsap Sun reporter Brynn Grimley, who took a “salmon tour” via kayak last weekend. Her close-up story and some great photos by Meeghan Reid can be seen in Sunday’s Kitsap Sun.

Whale Trail poster / Click on image to download poster (PDF 1.5 mb)

As chum salmon begin to arrive in small streams throughout the Kitsap Peninsula, you may wish to carefully observe their migration and spawning. Several years ago, a couple of us at the Sun created a map with videos depicting the best viewing spots. Check out Kitsap Sun Salmon Map. I hope to update the videos with new information when I get time.

Another map that may be of interest is the “Whale Trails” map that purports to show the best places in Puget Sound to view marine mammals. Unfortunately, there are no places shown on the Kitsap Peninsula. I might recommend Point No Point County Park in North Kitsap, locations on the Kingston waterfront, and Bachmann Park in the city of Bremerton, as well as several places on Bainbridge Island.

The Whale Trail organization sent me a poster for the Washington State Ferries that will help riders know what kinds of marine mammals they may be seeing. This is a great idea, and I hope people will take the opportunity to learn about the kinds of animals common in the waters of Puget Sound. Click on the image (PDF 2.5 mb), above right, to download the poster.

The Puget Sound killer whales are a little late this year in making excursions into South Puget Sound. They typically come south hunting for chum salmon after the runs of chinook decline up north. I’ll have more to say about this when we begin to see them more frequently, assuming they are just late this year.


Follow-up to suspected boat collision with orca

Monday, August 29th, 2011

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.”


Orca tagging raises questions about research

Wednesday, December 8th, 2010

Killer whale researchers and advocates are beginning to stir a little bit in response to a proposal by federal researchers who want to attach satellite transmitters to the dorsal fins of up to six Puget Sound killer whales. I reported on the plan in Sunday’s Kitsap Sun.

The benefits of these satellite tags would be to track the Southern Residents during winter months when they head out into the ocean and disappear for periods of time. Knowing where the whales go is important if people are going to protect their habitat, according to Brad Hanson, chief investigator with the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, a research arm of the National Marine Fisheries Service.

It is conceivable that the whales are visiting some favored spots for hunting salmon. Finding and protecting important forage areas from human intrusion could increase the whales’ chances of long-term survival, officials say.

On the other hand, some observers are raising concerns about this research project as well as the cumulative effects of all research on the endangered killer whales. To attach a satellite transmitter, a boat must get close enough to an orca for an operator to fire a dart from an air gun. The dart penetrates the skin on the dorsal fin of the animal.
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Another rare attack on gray whales, this one on video

Monday, April 12th, 2010

Transient killer whales apparently attacked a gray whale near Whidbey Island yesterday, an encounter caught briefly on video. But the orcas seemed to back off before killing the larger marine mammal.

The footage was captured by Wendy Hensel of Chilliwack, British Columbia, who was aboard the whale-watching boat Mystic Sea out of La Conner. KING 5 TV posted the video on its Web site.

The boat’s skipper, Monte Hughes, told King 5 reporter OWEN LEI that whale watchers were observing a gray whale between Whidbey and Camano islands when a group of orcas raced up from behind in a direct line headed for the gray whale.

All the animals disappeared beneath the waves. When the gray whale surfaced, it was belly up. Moments later, the large whale jerked as if being struck from below.
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Gray whales survive rare encounter with orcas

Tuesday, March 30th, 2010

Three gray whales traveling together south of Camano Island in Puget Sound must have sensed mortal danger when a group of transient killer whales approached them this afternoon.

Transient orcas are the kind that eat marine mammals. Groups of transients are known to kill gray whales in other places, including Alaska’s Aleutian Islands.

But encounters between transients and gray whales in Puget Sound are basically unknown, even though both orcas and grays are frequently spotted in these parts.

Erick Peirson, skipper aboard the 41-foot Olympus out of Port Townsend, was giving a whale-watching tour for about 30 passengers today. He had gone out to see if he could locate two adult gray whales traveling with a younger gray. Instead, the crew spotted the transients — one male, two females and a juvenile. Passengers were watching them when an observer shouted in excitement.

The male orca had completed a long dive underwater, coming up right alongside the grays, Peirson said.

“I saw a lot of splashing and churning of the water,” he said. “The male killer whale’s fin was slicing into a turn. In the middle was a gray whale fluke.”

It was clear, he said, that the two adult gray whales had quickly positioned themselves in a defensive posture, one on each side of the younger gray whale.

“The male killer whale rubbed up alongside the biggest gray whale,” Peirson said. “The gray whales were logging at the surface, just sitting right there. We thought the killer whales would go in for the kill at that point.”

Instead, the orcas broke away. “We next saw the killer whales in the distance heading to the north.”

Perhaps the gray whales heaved a sigh of relief, blowing a huge mist that only gray whales can blow. They stayed another five minutes, logging on the surface in that defense posture, Peirson said.

While he has seen transients attack seals, he has never seen an encounter like this in Puget Sound.

“It was a bit of a rush, not something you see every day,” he said. “Usually with transients, when an attack happens, it is over very quickly. We saw no blood at the surface. Given that it was a single path and circling around, I assume the killer whales were testing the waters, a show of strength.”

For a slideshow put together by Patrick Downs, go to Flickr. I guess the encounter happened so fast that he did not get the killer whale and gray whale in the same frame, but you may notice the defensive posture described by Erick Peirson.

As I mentioned, groups of transient killer whales have been observed attacking and eating gray whales in the Aleutian Islands. (See the research report by Craig Matkin, et al., PDF 1.1 mb) But neither Peirson nor Howard Garrett of Orca Network, who records thousands of observations every year, has ever heard of this kind of encounter in Puget Sound.

As unusual as this is, I would like to hear from anyone who has experienced any encounters, however brief, between killer whales and gray whales.


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"In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught."Baba Dioum, Senegalese conservationist

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