Change for the new year: new home for this blog

Today is moving day for my blog.

For the past 12 years, I have been writing “Watching Our Water Ways” for the Kitsap Sun. The focus has been primarily on Puget Sound issues, with special attention paid to local matters in and around Kitsap County. My blog posts are frequently published in the newspaper’s printed edition.

As many of you know, I retired as the Sun’s full-time environmental reporter back in 2014. The following year, I started writing in-depth stories about Puget Sound for the organization Puget Sound Institute, which is affiliated with the University of Washington. They call me the “senior writer” in that half-time position.

As of today, my blog is moving to the Puget Sound Institute’s website, which also publishes my in-depth stories in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound. I encourage subscribers to “Watching Our Water Ways” to subscribe to the new blog, which will have a slightly different name, “Our Water Ways.” The signup is simple: just go to the new launch page for “Our Water Ways” and click on the subscription prompt. My first blog post there is “Welcome to ‘Our Water Ways,’ a blog about Puget Sound and all things water-related.”

One reason for the change is to bring my blog to the website where most of my work is now being published. I frequently spend several weeks on a story, interviewing top scientists and policymakers and reading their latest reports before beginning my writing. The new blog will allow more frequent coverage of what I’m learning along the way, including inside stories from researchers, political leaders, environmental advocates and so on.

One of my retirement goals was to keep working while slowing the pace over time. At first, I was writing three or four blog posts a week, in addition to my half-time job for PSI. I’ve slowed that pace already and expect to be writing one or two posts a week in the new location. I plan to retire the weekly “Amusing Monday” feature, but I will continue to report on humorous and creative issues in the Puget Sound region.

My focus will shift somewhat more to Puget Sound as a whole, meaning you may read less detailed coverage of Kitsap County per se. But Kitsap will remain in my writing, because I know this area better than most and I truly believe that the work going on in here represents some of the best efforts to protect and restore Puget Sound. Thanks to my ongoing relationship with Kitsap Sun reporters and editors, I will continue to share things that I hear about.

It would take too long for me to list the key players fighting for a healthy environment in our county, but I would like to point out that local leaders are tackling major issues of environmental protection and restoration: salmon and sea life, water quality, streams and shorelines, and forest ecology. Some folks in Kitsap are working hard to reduce the toxic chemicals and bacterial pollution going into our waterways by improving the management of stormwater, sewage and water supplies.

I’ve always said that the western side of Puget Sound, including Hood Canal, is perhaps the best place in the world to work as an environmental reporter. (Check out the profile that former Seattle Times reporters Eric Sorensen wrote about me in Washington State Magazine in 2012.) The support I have received from the Kitsap Sun — including editor David Nelson and local news editor Kim Rubenstein, as well as fellow reporters and other staffers — have made the job a pleasure, whether I was working as a full-time employee or as a blogger and part-time freelancer.

I hope current email subscribers to this blog will sign up for the new one, and maybe I can attract some new blog subscribers along the way. For those who use Twitter, I will continue to post new items under @waterwatching.

As far as I can tell, my 12 years of blogs on “Watching Our Water Ways” will remain as a resource, and I’m proud to see that the blog pops up frequently on internet searches related to environmental issues.

As always, I look forward to comments and suggestions as I move forward with the new blog (email: dunagc@uw.edu), and thank you for reading.

Shoreline habitat improves after owners remove old bulkheads

Puget Sound’s shoreline habitat is slowly being restored to a more natural state, thanks to the ongoing removal of old bulkheads from private property, one after another.

The latest “State of the Sound” report from the Puget Sound Partnership reports that the amount of bulkhead removed from important “feeder bluffs” has nearly reached the 2020 goal established by the partnership.

For shorelines in general, it appears that the tide has turned in a positive way, with removal of old bulkheads outpacing new bulkhead construction. At the same time, efforts to protect shorelines from erosion have become more focused on natural “soft shore” techniques, as opposed to concrete, wood or rock walls.

The overall effort at removing shoreline armoring from Puget Sound has fallen somewhat short of the Puget Sound Partnership’s nine-year goal to remove more miles of bulkheads than what gets constructed between 2011 and 2020. A major reason for the shortfall is the amount of bulkhead constructed during the early years of the effort — 2011 to 2013 — as shown on a graph in the State of the Sound report.

Things might be a bit better than the graph indicates, because the data do not adequately reflect improvements in shoreline habitat from replacing old-fashioned bulkheads with natural structures — such as carefully placed logs. Man-made installations, even when natural, are still counted as armoring.

The trouble with hard bulkheads below the high-tide line is that they reduce spawning habitat for forage fish, such as surf smelt. Bulkheads also increase the risk that juvenile salmon will be eaten by predators as they migrate through deeper water. And shoreline armor also can block the movement of sand needed to maintain healthy beaches, as described by coastal geologist Hugh Shipman in the video on this page.

In Kitsap and Clallam counties, nearly two miles of shoreline armor have been removed starting in 2011, according to the report. That accounts for 43 percent of the total armor removed in Puget Sound during that time.

Thanks to grants from the Environmental Protection Agency, most Puget Sound counties have joined the state’s Shore Friendly program, which provides incentives for private property owners to remove their bulkheads. Each of Puget Sound’s 12 counties have developed individual programs to suit the needs of their residents. One can locate specific county programs on the Shore Friendly page managed by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

One of the latest ideas for encouraging shoreline restoration is to create a program that can offer low-interest loans to shoreline property owners who wish to remove bulkheads, install soft-shore stabilization or move their houses back from shore as the sea level rises. The feasibility of the program is being studied by research scientist Aimee Kinney of Puget Sound Institute.

As proposed, the program would establish a revolving loan fund, which would be replenished as shoreline property owners pay back the loans, as Jeff Rice of PSI describes in a blog post. The program might operate like Washington’s low-interest loan program for septic system repairs and replacements.

Meanwhile, many of the 12 Puget Sound counties still provide assistance through the Shore Friendly program as funding becomes available. Shore Friendly Kitsap, for example, offers free site assessments to determine the risk of erosion, along with $5,000 to help with design, permitting and construction of a shoreline project.

Over the past three years, Shore Friendly Kitsap has helped with 15 shoreline projects. Bulkhead removals range from 15 feet of armoring in Liberty Bay to 222 feet in Dyes Inlet. In all, 1,177 feet of armor have been removed, according to statistics provided by Christina Kereki, environmental planner for the Kitsap County Department of Community Development.

Before and after photos are available for many of the projects.

A recent shoreline success story (1.6 mb) — including trials and tribulations along the way — is told in writing by property owners Sheri and Michael Flynn, who live on 200 feet of waterfront on Miller Bay in North Kitsap. As they say, their project was “a lesson in patience, persistence and perseverance,” but the outcome will be favorable both to them and the environment.

Mason County shoreline owners also have restoration stories, and I was pleased to help them tell their stories in a project for the Mason Conservation District. See Living Along the Waterfront.

As part of my work for Puget Sound Institute, I’ve written extensively about shoreline armoring and nearshore habitat. Please check out some of our in-depth stories in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, including a piece called “Shoreline restoration turns to private property owners” along with “Sources of sand.”

Amusing Monday: Nature photographers reach beyond ordinary

Attracting more than 48,000 photo entries from 100 countries, the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition remains one of the most prestigious photo contests in the world.

“Night Glow,” contest entry by Cruz Erdmann, named Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year/2019 Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Click on images to enlarge photos

The competition reflects a diversity of “wildlife” in its various entry categories, focusing on the “behavior” of various groups of animals while making room for stunning landscapes and photos of plants and fungi.

The first photo on this page, “Night Glow” provides a rare image of a bigfin reef squid showing off a variety of iridescent colors. Contest judges, impressed with the quality and clarity of the image, honored photographer Cruz Erdmann of New Zealand with the Young Photographer of the Year Award. The photo also was declared the best in the category for young photographers in the 11-to-14 age group.

The photo was taken during an organized night dive off North Sulawesi, Indonesia, where Cruz noticed a pair of squid engaged in a mating ritual. One of the squid jetted away, but the other — probably a male — stayed just long enough for the young photographer to capture this image of the creature in its colorful sexual display. Cruz understood the rarity of the moment as well as the technical challenge he faced.

“Land of the Eagle,” winner in the Bird Behavior category, by Audun Rikardsen/2019 Wildlife Photographer of the Year

“You have to be careful not to stir up the silt when you dive or you’ll get a lot of backscatter from the strobe light,” he told BBC News. “I wasn’t kicking with my legs so that’s why the photo seems very clear.”

Theo Bosboom, a nature photographer who served on this year’s judging panel, commented: “To dive in the pitch dark, find this beautiful squid and be able to photograph it so elegantly, to reveal its wonderful shapes and colors, takes so much skill. What a resounding achievement for such a young photographer.” (Check out the story by Josh Davis on the Natural History Museum website.)

Wildlife Photographer of the Year is developed and produced by the Natural History Museum, London. Images are selected by a panel of professionals for their originality, artistry and technical complexity.

“The Garden of Eels,” winner in the Under Water category, by David Doubilet/2019 Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Judges included chairwoman Rosamund ‘Roz’ Kidman Cox, writer and editor from Great Britain; Shekar Dattatri, wildlife and conservation filmmaker from India; Jamie Rojo, naturalist conservation photographer from Mexico; and Tim Littlewood, director of science for the Natural History Museum.

“There has never been a more crucial time to move hearts and minds with beautiful, truthful and impactful nature photography, so judging the competition is both a privilege and a huge responsibility,” Littlewood said in a news release. “We hope the images we select will inspire not only the next generation of photographers, but the next generation of scientists, conservationists and advocates for the natural world.”

“Touching Trust,” Highly Commended by judges in the Wildlife Photojournalism category. By Thomas P. Peschak/2019 Wildlife Photographer of the Year

The second photo on this page by Audun Rikardsen of Norway was the winner in the Birds Behavior category. Titled “Land of the Eagle,” the picture was the result of a three-year effort to attract eagles to a tree branch where Audun had mounted a camera. Over time, with occasional treats of road kill for the birds, this golden eagle became accustomed to the camera, allowing its picture to be taken with a flash via motion sensor. Audun watched from a blind he had built nearby on the Norwegian coast.

The third photo, by David Doubilet of the United States, shows a colony of garden eels on a steep slope off Dauin, The Philippines. The slope, at least two-thirds the size of a football field, was home to the largest such colony he had ever encountered, David said. It was the winner in the Under Water category.

“The Huddle,” part of the best “portfolio” of wildlife images by Stefan Christmann/2019 Wildlife Photographer of the Year

The fourth photo, by Thomas P Peschak of Germany and South Africa, captures a young gray whale approaching a pair of human hands that are reaching down into the water. The photo was taken in San Ignacio Lagoon, a gray whale nursery and sanctuary off the coast of Mexico’s Baja California. Since the 1970s, trust of humans has developed to the point that gray whale mothers sometimes allow their young to get close to the limited number of whale-watching boats.

The picture of the two penguins by Stefan Christmann of Germany is part of a collection of photos deemed to be the best “portfolio” of wildlife photography in the contest. Other photos show up to 5,000 emperor penguins huddling on the sea ice of Antarctica’s Atka Bay. Females entrust their eggs to their closely bonded mates, who incubate a single egg while the females head to sea to feed for up to three months before returning to take over care of the chicks. For more of his work from this portfolio, visit Stefan’s website Nature in Focus.

Not shown on this page is an image by Yongqing Bao of China, named the overall Wildlife Photographer of the Year and winner in the Mammals Behavior category. The photo is a freeze-frame image of a startled marmot in its final moments of life as a Tibetan fox prepares to pounce. This image, along with other winners and “Highly Commended” photos in 17 categories can be viewed on the following pages of the Natural History Museum website:

In addition, The Guardian newspaper and The Atlantic magazine are showing the winning photos in nice presentations on their websites.

The Wildlife Photographer of the Year contest was started in 1965 by “BBC Wildlife Magazine,” called “Animals” at the time. The Natural History Museum came on board in 1984 and later took over the full contest operations.

London’s Natural History Museum is a place to explore the natural world and confront the most important issues facing humanity and the planet, according to museum officials. The museum welcomes about 5 million visitors each year, and the website receives more than 850,000 unique visitors each month.

Hopes still rising for ecological benefits from a new Duckabush bridge

A major bridge-replacement project over Hood Canal’s Duckabush River is advancing toward a final design, and a growing number of people are thrilled with the ecological benefits expected from the estuary restoration. Construction could begin within four years.

Bridge over Duckabush River
Photo: Jayedgerton, Wikimedia Commons

The project, estimated to cost roughly $90 million, is being designed to improve the migration and survival of salmon and trout native to the Duckabush River, which flows out of the Olympic Mountains. Special attention is being given to Hood Canal summer chum, Puget Sound Chinook and Puget Sound steelhead — all listed as threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. The project also will aid coho salmon, a federal species of concern, and pink salmon.

Washington’s Salmon Recovery Funding Board last week approved $2.8 million toward design of the bridge and purchase of needed properties. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will take the lead in designing a renewed 38-acre estuary, including excavation to restore historic stream and tide channels. In all, $14 million has been approved for design, including $8 million authorized by Congress.

The funding supports completion of the preliminary design, which will be subject to public review, as well as final detailed drawings needed for construction, according to Mendy Harlow, executive director of the Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group, which applied for the state funding.

The new bridge, about 2,100 feet long, will replace two aging bridges totaling about 970 feet. Likely to be higher than the old bridges, the new one is expected to benefit wildlife, such as elk, in their approach to the estuary.

Major selling points among area residents are a decreased risk of flooding and an increased assurance of earthquake safety. Unlike the old bridges, the new bridge is likely to survive a major earthquake that would otherwise halt traffic on the most important thoroughfare on the Olympic Peninsula.

About 120 people attended a meeting on the project last July, Mendy told me. While a few expressed reservations about the cost, “a lot of people are really excited about the project.”

The restoration effort is gaining increasing support from state and federal agencies and Indian tribes who keep pushing it forward, said Theresa Mitchell, environmental planner for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

While the cost is significant and there are no guarantees of final approval, it appears that the project remains on track for both congressional and legislative appropriations in the coming years, she said.

The Duckabush restoration is one of the top projects identified through the Puget Sound Nearshore Ecosystem Restoration Project, or PSNERP, a collaboration among WDFW, the Corps and other partners to determine where restoration dollars would best be spent. I wrote about these projects in Water Ways on on Dec. 17, 2016 and again on April 24 of this year.

While the Corps will pay 65 percent of the bridge removal and estuary restoration, the state must pick up the cost for the new bridge and related roadway costs. Transportation infrastructure is not covered by the Corps’ aquatic restoration program.

Design of the Duckabush bridge is the second-largest out of 96 salmon-improvement grants approved across the state by the Salmon Recovery Funding Board. The total expenditure by the board in this round will be $26 million. After last week’s approvals, the board, now in its 20th year, has surpassed $1 billion in total investments — including matching funds from grant recipients.

“The work being done across the state on salmon recovery is critical,” Gov. Jay Inslee said in a news release. “These grants for on-the-ground projects will help us restore salmon to healthy levels that allow for both protection and a robust fishery. We must do everything we can to restore this beloved Washington icon and help orcas, which are starving due to lack of salmon, before it is too late.”

“These grants,” added Phil Rockefeller, chairman of the SRF Board, “create many other benefits for local communities, such as better water quality, less flooding, more resiliency to climate change and a boost to our statewide economy.”

Other funding approved in the Hood Canal region includes a $289,000 grant for purchase of 30 acres of historic floodplain in Moon Valley along the Big Qulicene River and $191,000 for removing invasive knotweed and restoring native vegetation along the Union, Tahuya, Dewatto, Dosewallips, and Big and Little Quilcene rivers as well as Big Anderson and Big Beef creeks. Both projects are under management of the Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group.

Another project in Hood Canal involves the purchase of two acres of land on the Big Quilcene River followed by the removal of structures and the planting of native vegetation along the river. Jefferson County government will receive the $139,000 grant and oversee the project.

And in Mason County, Great Peninsula Conservancy will receive $511,000 to purchase about 100 acres of lowland forest and shoreline near Dewatto Bay on Hood Canal. The land includes about 0.6 mile of saltwater shoreline, 1.2 miles of streams and 8.45 acres of tidelands. The land includes habitat for salmon and surf smelt, as well as eelgrass beds, feeder bluffs, streams and forest. GPC will contribute $721,000 from a federal grant and donations of cash.

Among other major projects approved in the Puget Sound region:

  • Chico Creek: Kitsap County will receive $266,000 to improve habitat along Chico Creek following culvert removal and bridge construction on Golf Club Hill Road off Chico Way.
  • Cedar River: King County will receive $817,000 to reconnect portions of the 52-acre Riverbend floodplain along the Cedar River by removing a half-mile of levee, excavating 180,000 cubic yards of fill, rebuilding side channels and planting native vegetation. The county will add more than $1 million to the project from other grants.
  • Cedar River: Seattle Public Utilities will receive $424,000 to reconnect and enhance floodplain habitat by removing a berm, fill and riprap and adding large logs along the bank of the Cedar River in Maple Valley.
  • Skagit River: Skagit Land Trust will receive $748,000 to buy at least 62 acres of high-quality salmon habitat in the upper Skagit River near Marblemount. A portion of the funding will be used for evaluating other properties for potential purchase. The grant is actually the repayment of a loan issued from a new Rapid Response Fund, which was used to set up the purchase when the property became available. It is the first loan in the new program.
  • Skagit River: Skagit River System Cooperative will receive $750,000 for final design and construction of the long-awaited first phase of the Barnaby Slough restoration project, which includes removing man-made barriers to juvenile salmon and opening up nearly a mile of off-channel rearing habitat.
  • Skagit River: Skagit Fisheries Enhancement Group will receive $286,056 to reconnect Britt Slough with 7.8 acres of forested floodplain wetlands. The project will improve rearing habitat for Chinook salmon and create an exit from the wetland to the South Fork of the Skagit River. The enhancement group will contribute $125,000 from a federal grant, and the Skagit Conservation District will provide engineering support.
  • Stillaguamish River: The Stillaguamish Tribe was granted $159,000 to help purchase 248 acres of former wetlands at the mouth of the Stillaguamish River in Snohomish County. The land had been diked and drained for farming in the late 1800s. The tribe’s goal is to move the levees back to restore wetland habitat. The tribe will contribute $1.3 million in other state and federal grants to the purchase.
  • Nooksack River: The Nooksack Tribe will receive $579,000 to build 27 log structures to restore side-channel habitat in the North Fork of the Nooksack River near Maple Falls. Native trees and shrubs will be planted on the structures. The tribe will contribute $102,000 from a federal grant.
  • Deschutes River: South Puget Sound Salmon Enhancement Group will receive $595,000 to add root wads and logs along 0.3 mile of the Deschutes River in Thurston County. Vegetation will be planted along a side channel. The group will contribute $105,000 from another grant.
  • South Prairie Creek: Forterra will receive $393,000 to buy 34 acres along South Prairie Creek in Pierce County and design a restoration project. Forterra will contribute $568,000 from a conservation futures grant.

For the complete list of projects approved last week, visit the website of the Recreation and Conservation Office (PDF 472 kb).

Amusing Monday: Expert explains climate science with a touch of humor

Climatologist Adam Levy, better known as ClimateAdam, uses humor and examples from everyday life to explain the science of climate change and to dispel mistaken beliefs and misinformation.

Take, for example, the first video on this page, which addresses a common statement I’ve heard from climate-change skeptics: If carbon dioxide is essential to life on the planet, how can it be considered dangerous?

I love Adam’s example, which shows an alternative Adam getting drenched in a shower with his clothes on. Yes, water is essential to the planet, but it’s not always beneficial, as I discuss constantly in this blog.

“The greenhouse effect from carbon dioxide is actually a good thing,” Adam acknowledges. “We should all be super-grateful for it. Without it, there would be no protective warming blanket around the Earth, and things would get way too cold for comfort.”

But he points out that too much CO2 can mean too much of a good thing — that is, too much warmth. In another video, titled “Why the Greenhouse Effect is like a Hot Sweater,” Adam says when a person gets too warm, he needs to take off a sweater — or at least stop putting on more clothing.

Adam holds a doctorate degree in atmospheric physics from the University of Oxford, where he began his YouTube channel. He later worked for Nature publications, where he co-hosted the award-winning Nature Podcast. He currently works as a freelancer, producing scientific podcasts and videos for a variety of organizations while continuing his podcast.

The second video is a new trailer for his YouTube channel, showing clips from the videos he produced over the past five years.

“While I was doing my doctorate, I was constantly having conversations about climate change,” he told Mikaela Joyce in an interview for MIT’s “Climate” publication. “I realized just how different those conversations were when I had them with my colleagues versus when they were with friends, family and strangers. But I loved these discussions, because it felt like I was able to share the knowledge I was accumulating and help other people see through some of the disinformation they had come across. So I thought, why not start talking to even more strangers?

“I was aiming to make a YouTube channel that was first and foremost entertaining and engaging,” he added. “I wanted my videos to be funny enough that you’d want to watch to the end even if you didn’t care about climate change. The hope was that if I could do this, I could trick people into learning. And maybe even trick them into caring.”

Earlier this year, Adam won second place in the Comedy & Climate Change Video Competition sponsored by Inside the Greenhouse.

While most of his videos are based on humorous situations, Adam took on a serious tone a year ago when he became frustrated with the international climate-change negotiations known as Conference of the Parties to the United Nations, or COPP 24. His video “Climate negotiations made me terrified for our future” is the third on this page, but I only feature that video as a lead-in to the latest video that Adam produced last week during COPP 25.

In the fourth video, Adam expresses a heartfelt appreciation for Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old Swedish activist who has become famous for her emotional and even taunting speeches directed to political leaders and international assemblies. Greta was named last week as Time magazine’s Person of the Year. If you want to know why some people find her so inspirational, I would urge you to watch Adam’s entire video on this page.

In a similar fashion, Adam posted a video last month that reflects the frustration that must be felt by every climate scientist in the world when they consider the climate views of our current U.S. president, Donald Trump. I must say that I did smile at times while listening to ClimateAdam’s responses to Trump’s outlandish viewpoints. See “Climate Scientist reacts to Donald Trump’s climate comments.”

Here is my list of ClimateAdam’s Best Videos:

For all of Adam’s videos, check out his YouTube channel, ClimateAdam.

News coverage: Killer whale grandmothers help their pods endure

I was surprised to see the sudden surge of news coverage explaining the important role that orca grandmothers play in our Northwest resident pods.

A new research paper adds statistical support to our understanding of why female orcas live long beyond their reproductive years. The new findings are certainly worthy of coverage — although I have never seen a news story about orca research snapped up all at once by the New York Times, Washington Post, Science magazine, National Geographic, London Daily Mail and South China Morning Post, as well as CNN, BBC and Seattle broadcasters.

Most news outlets broke the story within hours of Monday’s publication in the journal “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.” The sudden news blast resulted from a coordinated effort to keep the story under wraps until the right moment, noted Ken Balcomb, the dean of orca research in Puget Sound who provided data and observations for the analysis.

Ken told me that he has rarely seen such widespread interest in killer whale research. A news release promoting the new findings about orca grandmothers was coordinated by the universities where the leading researchers are employed, namely the universities of Exeter and York, both in the United Kingdom. A timed embargo was imposed on the release to make sure no news reporter got the jump on anyone else.

The new findings are especially interesting, as they support the idea that orca grandmothers have much in common with human grandmothers, playing a nurturing and leadership role within their family groups. Also, the endangered Southern Resident orcas have been gaining worldwide attention as they teeter on the brink of extinction. For example, many people have not forgotten the image of Tahlequah (J-35), the 20-year-old orca mom who carried her dead calf around for 17 days last year.

The pronounced role of grandmothers in caring for their grandcalves has long been understood by orca researchers, but the statistical analysis in the new study clearly shows that “the death of a grandmother reduces the survival of her male and female grandoffspring in the two years following her death,” the research paper states.

A calf whose maternal grandmother dies is 4.5 times more likely to die within the next two years when compared to an individual with a living grandmother, the report says. Furthermore, an individual who loses a post-reproductive grandmother is 1.5 times more likely to die than one who loses a grandmother who is still producing offspring.

In the vast majority of species, females lose their ability to reproduce as they approach the end of their lives. But orcas and a few other toothed whales, as with humans, go through menopause and stick around for many years after they can no longer produce offspring. Grandmothers who do not have to care for their own calves seem to provide extra benefits, including an important leadership role, the new research suggests.

“We suspect when breeding grandmothers are supporting their own calves, their movement and activity patterns are constrained and they are not able to provide support and leadership in the same way as post-menopausal females,” states the paper’s lead author, Stuart Nattrass of the University of York, in the joint news release issued by Exeter as well as from York University. “Also, grandmothers with their own calves will be busy caring for their own calves, and be able to invest less in their grand-offspring, compared to post-menopausal grandmothers.”

It has long been known that killer whales generally stay with their mothers from the time of birth until they die, so that multiple generations of related orcas travel and forage together. Mothers tend to share food with their offspring into adulthood, especially their sons who need more food to survive.

Ongoing studies with unmanned aircraft, or drones, are designed to identify patterns of food sharing and socializing that can contribute to long-term survival.

“A lot of our information is based on historical surface data,” Ken noted. “The new drone work has shown a lot more detail, including underwater contacts that we could not see before. Food is important, but so is socializing.”

Grandmothers have been seen to support their grandcalves, sometimes staying with a calf while its mother is gone for a while. Elder females, often post-menopausal, are known to be the leaders of the matriarchal groups. Their knowledge of where to find fish to eat may be the key to success for the pod — especially in this time of food shortage, as the orcas range over wider areas to find new hunting grounds.

The new study explains for the first time in quantitative terms how older grandmothers can enhance the survival of the young members in the family group, thus providing an evolutionary benefit to pods containing post-reproductive females. The data show why the pattern persists over time.

In fact, the study even looked at survival rates when food was more or less available. It turns out that the loss of a grandmother carries even more risk to a youngster when food is scarce, as we are seeing under current conditions in the Salish Sea, according to Dan Franks, of the Department of Biology at the University of York and senior author on the paper.

“The death of a post-menopausal grandmother can have important repercussions for her family group, and this could prove to be an important consideration when assessing the future of these populations,” he said in the news release. “As salmon populations continue to decline, grandmothers are likely to become even more important in these killer whale populations.”

As food grows more scarce, the pods have been splintering into smaller groups, according to Ken Balcomb. That leads to less socializing with other pods and presumably less opportunities for mating. The need for new calves to replenish the population seems paramount, but survival of the existing orcas during a food shortage is no small consideration. Some studies suggest that a high rate of miscarriage occurs among pregnant females when food is scarce, and we know that pregnancy requires increased caloric intake.

The new analysis was based on 36 years of data about the southern resident and northern resident killer whales collected by Balcomb’s Center for Whale Research along with Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

Ken’s overall message has remained the same when it comes to the future of the southern resident orcas. It all has to do with getting more salmon, especially chinook salmon, their primary prey species.

“Unless we do something about the prey resource, we will be seeing problems for the next 20 years,” he said. “There is never going to be a big population even if nobody dies. We are not solving the problem now, and we will be damned if we will be able to solve it 10 years from now.”

Headlines about grandmother orcas in stories this week:

Amusing Monday: Satellites can reveal “Earth as Art” imagery

The latest collection of “Earth as Art” satellite images shows stunning depictions of land, water and ice in both natural and unnatural colors.

Enhanced drone image of algae bloom in Milford Lake, Kansas. // Image: USGS/NASA Landsat

“Earth as Art #6,” produced by the U.S. Geological Survey, is the latest in a series of Landsat images released since 2001. This new series includes for the first time high-altitude photos taken by unmanned aircraft, or drones, as well as satellite depictions.

The satellites are designed to capture both visible and invisible light. The photos are often enhanced with color to provide extra contrast for scientists studying various aspects of the landscape. USGS officials post some of the more interesting images online, allowing the rest of us to see dynamic changes underway in river deltas, wetlands, ice fields, mountain ranges, deserts and more.

Some people choose to display these images in their homes, as they would works of art — and in some ways the true-life stories behind the pictures make them worthy of discussion beyond the beauty of the Earth itself.

Enhanced satellite image of Bangweulu Wetlands in Zambia. // Image: USGS/NASA Landsat

The first image on this page, titled “A Study in Algae,” reveals the annual algae bloom in Milford Lake, the largest man-made lake in Kansas at 15,700 acres. Because the algae can be harmful to fragile wetland ecosystems, the USGS Kansas Water Science Center uses drones with multispectral sensors to monitor changes in the blooms and report their effects on humans and animals.

In the second image, called “Wondrous Wetlands,” we are viewing the Bangweulu Wetlands in Zambia, where 17 rivers flow in but only one drains out. The entire wetlands, which are about the size of Connecticut, include areas dominated by grasslands as well as open water with shorelines featuring dense patches of aquatic vegetation.

All 20 of the newly featured images and their descriptions can be linked from the “Earth as Art #6” webpage. This series also can be downloaded in high-resolution format for framing or purchased as a print for $25 from the USGS Store.

Enhanced satellite image of Solway Firth between Scotland and England. // Image: USGS/NASA Landsat

Previous collections can be found on the “Earth as Art” webpage hosted by the USGS Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center. Near the bottom of this page, I’ve posted a new video, which adds music to a slideshow that features this latest collection.

If you don’t wish to wait for the next “Earth as Art” collection, you might like to peruse the “Image of the Week Gallery” sponsored by EROS. Beyond that is the “Landsat Image Gallery,” which includes the latest up-to-date images as well as many others posted since 1972.

The third and fourth images on this page, posted by EROS on Friday, show the Solway Firth along the coast of Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland, and Cumbria, England. The images, captured in October, provide a spectacular example of a drama that plays out in many estuaries during tidal changes.

Zooming out from above image to view surrounding landscape. // Image: USGS/NASA Landsat

“This sloshing of water into and out of basins can produce visible surges of sediment and floating debris, turbulent mixing of fresh and salty waters, and sometimes distinct lines between different water masses,” states the description on the image page. “The water changes color abruptly offshore where the shallower bay meets deeper waters of the Irish Sea.”

Blending art and science, Norman Kuring of NASA’s Ocean Biology group used software programs with color-filtering aspects to draw out the fine details in the water. The swirls and streamers are real, but the tones are enhanced to better show the sediments and dissolved organic matter. To see the natural colors, go to this lower-resolution image.

Also shown in these images captured by Landsat 8 is the Robin Rigg wind farm, located on a sandy shoal and revealed as a symmetrical pattern of white dots and shadows. Robin Rigg is Scotland’s first offshore wind farm, coming online in 2010. It can generate up to 174 megawatts of power, enough to supply 117,000 homes, according to the USGS summary.

In November, the USGS released a new report placing the economic value of the Landsat archive at about $3.45 billion in 2017, compared to $2.19 billion in 2011.

“The analysis is based on the number of scenes downloaded from the USGS and the price that users would be willing to pay per scene,” according to a summary of the report. “It does not include scenes downloaded by cloud vendors or other downstream economic benefits for things such as value-added products and environmental monitoring.”

The report also concludes that much of the value of the Landsat images comes from the open-data policy of allowing users to access as much or as little of the imagery they need. Despite the reported value to users, charging fees per image would likely result in a major decrease in their use, the report says.

Low rainfall during November contributes to smaller salmon runs

Salmon managers are reporting dismal returns of chum and coho salmon to Puget Sound streams this fall, and a sparsity of rainfall during November could result in low salmon survival during the next generation.

Low streamflows in November made it difficult for chum salmon to make it past obstacles, such as this log weir at the mouth of Chico Creek.
Photo: Meegan M. Reid, Kitsap Sun

“The run (of chum) was pretty darn small,” said Jon Oleyar, salmon biologist for the Suquamish Tribe who walks many streams on the Kitsap Peninsula. His surveys of living and dead salmon are used to estimate escapement — the number of migrating salmon that return to their home streams.

“Some of the streams had no fish at all in them,” Jon told me, “and many of the fish did not get very far up into the system.”

Low rainfall in November led to low streamflows in the upper portions of many streams, where the water levels were often too low to allow passage of chum and coho. The fish were forced to lay their eggs in the larger channels, where heavy rains this winter could wash the eggs out of the gravel before they hatch.

Low flows disrupted the normal run timing of the chum salmon, according to Aaron Default of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. The final in-season estimate of run size for Central and South Puget Sound was 240,000 chum — barely half of the preseason forecast of 444,000. The 10-year average is about 527,000, as I reported in Water Ways in October. Final estimates for the year will come later.

Chum returns to Hood Canal also were low this year, Aaron reported in an email.

For the Kitsap Peninsula, average rainfall in November is second only to December in the longterm records, but this year more rainfall was seen in October and even September. The graphs on this page include nearly flat lines (blue), representing very low rainfall through most of October and November this year. Click on the images to enlarge them.

In Hansville, at the extreme north end of the peninsula, total rainfall for November was 1.14 inches. That was the lowest precipitation recorded in 30 years of records maintained by Kitsap Public Utilities District. The median average rainfall for November is 4.37 inches in Hansville.

In Silverdale, only 1.03 inches of precipitation was recorded during November. That’s just a fraction of the median average of 9.96 inches seen over the past 29 years. It was also the lowest rainfall ever seen for November except for 1994, when 0.90 inches established the current low record.

Holly, one of the wettest parts of the Kitsap Peninsula, received 2.47 inches of rain in November, compared to a median average of 12.41 inches. This November’s rainfall in Holly, as in Hansville, is the lowest amount going back 29 years. The previous record low was 3.29 inches set in 1994.

The shifts in rainfall from one year to the next are hard to explain. Just two years ago, Holly received 22.89 inches of rain in November, followed by 12.41 last year — which just happens to match the median average.

Overall, the low rainfall was detrimental to the salmon, which ended up spawning in the lower portion of streams where flows are higher. But Jon Oleyar observed a few positive features this year, such as beaver dams on Chico Creek — the largest producer of chum salmon on the Kitsap Peninsula.

Although beaver dams can impede the movement of chum during low flows, they also can hold back water during high flows, reducing the risk of extreme currents that can scour salmon eggs out of the gravel.

“In the Chico system, we had about 10,000 fish total, and 95 percent of them spawned below river mile 1.5,” Jon said.

That means most chum and even coho spawned this year in the mainstem of Chico Creek, with very few fish getting to Lost or Wildcat creeks. Those tributaries of Chico Creek normally support large numbers of juvenile chum and coho.

“The only saving grace that I can point to is the beaver dams,” Jon said. “In bad weather, the dams can hold back the water instead of having it shoot downstream like a fire hose.”

Jon spotted only handfuls of chum in some important salmon streams, including Scandia Creek in North Kitsap, Steele Creek in Central Kitsap and Blackjack Creek in South Kitsap.

“This might be the smallest run I’ve ever seen,” said Jon, who has been surveying salmon streams for years, “and some streams didn’t get any fish at all.”

The three-month precipitation forecast calls for above-average rainfall from now into February.
Map: NOAA Climate Prediction Center

Hatcheries in the region may not have enough returning salmon for full production next year, and the coho that did make it back were much smaller than normal. Jon said. Conditions leading to fewer and smaller salmon probably relate to temperatures in the open ocean and upwelling currents off the Washington coast. I’ll have more to say about those conditions along with some observations about chinook salmon in a future blog post.

For now, we can hope for adequate rains — but not enough to cause serious flooding — over the next few months, as the baby salmon emerge from the gravel and begin their fight for survival.

Amusing Monday: Watching a key player in the Salish Sea food web

In the latest video in SeaDoc Society’s series called “Salish Sea Wild,” veterinarian and all-around marine life expert Joe Gaydos goes on a quest to observe herring during their annual spawning ritual — an event Joe calls the Salish Sea’s “most awesome spectacle.”

In this drama, there is a role for nearly all the players in the Salish Sea food web — from plankton that feed tiny fish to killer whales that eat marine mammals. As the story plays out in the Strait of Georgia, commercial fishers harvest herring at the peak of the spawn. These herring are sold overseas, often becoming sushi in Japan.

“This is the only major industrial herring fishery left in the Salish Sea,” Joe says in the video. “Our other herring populations are already too depleted.”

Canadian herring fishers are allowed to take up to 20 percent of the estimated herring run, which has triggered a debate over whether to reduce the quota, change the management system or cease fishing for herring altogether, as outlined in a story by Jolene Rudisuela of the Vancouver Island Free Daily.

A recent story by Randy Shore of the Vancouver Sun describes an ongoing effort by environmentalists to end the herring fishery. Randy raises the prospect of at least setting aside a protected herring reserve, as suggested by Andrew Trites, a marine mammal researcher at the University of British Columbia.

In another “Salish Sea Wild” video, released in October, Joe Gaydos goes out on Puget Sound with Brad Hanson, a federal marine mammal biologist with the Northwest Fisheries Science Center to collect scat and fish scales left behind by our southern resident orcas. These samples can provide clues about what the killer whales are eating at various times of the year as well other aspects of their well-being.

Puget Sound people, places featured in book ‘We Are Puget Sound’

Some of my favorite people are reflected in the new book “We Are Puget Sound,” which offers an overview of the geography, history and natural environment of our inland waterway.

Lead author David Workman does a wonderful job pulling together facts from the far-flung corners of Puget Sound, providing a realistic sense of the place where we live. But I was most captivated by the stories of the local people who have made a difference in protecting, restoring or otherwise improving our region.

The book provides only a sampling of the people doing good things, of course, but I enjoyed reading about people who I have long admired. Through the years, I’ve written about many of them, but not in such detail.

The people of Puget Sound were always a part of the writing project, said Mindy Roberts, who helped coordinate the “We are Puget Sound” project.

“We realized from the start that there are a lot of people doing inspiring things,” Mindy said. “We wanted to talk about the people who are doing things that everyone should know about.”

Mindy Roberts

Folks recognized for their work in special sections of the book include Betsy Peabody, who is leading a group that restores Olympia oysters and other native species; scuba diver Laura James, who has documented the effects of pollution on sea life; former Secretary of State Ralph Munro, who played a key role in ending the commercial capture of killer whales in the 1970s; and former U.S. Rep Norm Dicks, who secured federal funding for many Puget Sound projects, including the removal of two dams on the Elwha River.

Also featured are Native American leaders, including Joseph Pavel of the Skokomish Tribe, Sally Brownfield of the Squaxin Island Tribe, and Ron Charles and Jeromy Sullivan of the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe, all involved in protecting Puget Sound’s natural resources — including salmon and shellfish, guaranteed to the tribes by the federal government.

“My biggest takeaway (from the book project) is how much good is happening out there,” said Mindy, who leads the People for Puget Sound program for Washington Environmental Council. “There are a lot of amazing people doing a lot of amazing things.”

I’m going to keep this new book alongside my copy of “The Salish Sea: Jewel of the Pacific Northwest” by Audrey DeLella Benedict and Joseph Gaydos. Both books are filled with high-quality photographs of people, places and sea life. But where Workman profiles people, Benedict-Gaydos offers intimate portraits of sea creatures and their habitats.

David Workman

The book “We Are Puget Sound” also includes a chapter that describes more than 30 usual and unusual places around Puget Sound that are worthy of exploration. The chapter, written by former Seattle Times travel writer Brian Cantwell, has inspired me to visit several places I have never been and to take a fresh look at places that I have not seen in recent years.

Release of the book last week in Seattle marked the start of the “We are Puget Sound” campaign, which calls on people to go beyond their daily routines to think about what they can do to help recover Puget Sound. As part of the project, Mindy interviewed at least 20 people (including me) to come up with ideas for a section of the book called “Ten things you can do.”

The 10 actions form the basis of the campaign, which will include meetings starting in the Seattle area and continuing in communities throughout the Puget Sound region during 2020. One can follow upcoming meetings and other developments on the “We Are Puget Sound” website and the Facebook page “We Are Puget Sound: Discovering & Recovering the Salish Sea.”

Sea kayaks waiting to go out, Henry Island in the San Juan Islands // Photo: Brian Walsh

“The book is the foot in the door for a lot of people,” Mindy said. “We have an Instagram account called “I Am Puget Sound” in which people can take a picture of themselves maybe in their favorite place or perhaps with a ballot in hand.”

Voting in local, state and federal elections is actually the first item on the list of things that people can do to help Puget Sound. Other items include supporting businesses that protect Puget Sound, eating locally grown foods, reducing impacts in your home and sharing your delights of the outdoors with others. See the full list on the website.