All posts by Christopher Dunagan

Chum fishing closed in San Juans but opens soon elsewhere in P. Sound

Commercial fishing for chum salmon has been called off this year in the San Juan Islands, but that does not necessarily mean low numbers of chum will be returning to Puget Sound, experts say.

It will be interesting this year to see how the southern resident orcas respond to the movements of chum — the whales’ second choice after Chinook salmon. And, as always, chum salmon provide Puget Sound residents the best chance of observing salmon in the wild.

The San Juan closure is mandated under the Pacific Salmon Treaty with Canada whenever the number of chum coming through Johnstone Strait is estimated to be less than 1 million fish. This year marks the first closure since this particular treaty provision was put in place a decade ago.

The estimate of chum abundance, based on test fishing along Vancouver Island’s inside passage, is not a direct indicator of how many chum will make it back to streams in Puget Sound, said Aaron Default, salmon policy analyst with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. Many of the fish in the Johnstone Strait test fishery are headed for Canada’s Fraser River, he noted.

Chum salmon are important to commercial fishers, and this year’s closure in the San Juans could affect the bank accounts of those who had planned to get an early start on the chum fishery, Aaron told me.

“I would say this is a real concern,” Aaron said. “Reef net fishermen, for example, actively fish for chum as well as sockeye and pinks.”

Gillnet and purse seine boats that don’t make the trip to Alaska often get in on the fishing in Areas 7 and 7A of the San Juans, especially in years when the chum runs are strong.

To the south, in Puget Sound and Hood Canal, commercial fishing is scheduled to begin next week — and it won’t be long before the rest of us can visit our local streams to marvel at the annual migration and maybe catch a glimpse of spawning activities.

The year’s first test fishery for chum runs to Central and South Puget Sound was held this week near Kingston. The operation caught 169 chum, compared to a recent 10-year average of 760 chum for the first week, Aaron reported. While that number is low, it won’t be used as an indicator of abundance for at least a couple more weeks, because it could just mean that the run is later than usual, he said.

State and tribal salmon managers predicted a chum run of 444,000 fish this year in Central and South Puget Sound, compared to a 10-year average of about 527,000. Fishing schedules were based on the forecast of 444,000, but fishing times could be adjusted if chum numbers are lower or higher than that.

In Hood Canal, the run size of 518,000 chum is well below the 10-year average of about 750,000. But that 10-year average is a little misleading, because it contains two extraordinary years: 2013 with a return of 1.4 million chum, and 2017 with just over 1 million, Aaron explained. If we exclude those two years, Hood Canal’s fall return this year should be fairly typical.

Nest week’s opening of commercial fishing in Puget Sound and Hood Canal allows nontribal purse seiners to fish on Wednesday and gillnetters to follow on Thursday. Typically, we see a lot of purse seiners lining up south of the Hood Canal bridge for the first day of fishing, and this year should be no exception. For commercial fishing openings, one can check the WDFW Fishing Hotline online, or call (360) 902-2500.

The fishing closure in the San Juan Islands is likely to remain, although salmon managers will reassess conditions on or before Oct. 22, using information from the Albion test fishery near the Fraser River. By then, many of the chum will have already moved through the San Juan Islands on their way to their home streams.

As the chum runs arrive in Central and South Puget Sound, our southern resident orcas are likely to make more treks into these regions, intercepting chum salmon returning to streams along the east side of the Kitsap Peninsula and inside Sinclair and Dyes inlets. The orcas spent about two weeks in Central and North Puget Sound during September, but then headed back to sea. In good years, the whales will venture past the Tacoma Narrows Bridge to hunt chum that are headed to streams as far south as Olympia.

The endangered southern residents now number 73 and their population has reached a critical stage. The Southern Resident Orca Task Force has made recommendations for restoring the orca population, with a primary goal of increasing their food supply.

For humans, we are now approaching prime salmon-viewing season. For years, I have encouraged people to visit our local streams to observe the end of a journey that has taken these fish thousands of miles as they prepare to produce a new generation of chum. Please approach the stream slowly and avoid disturbing the water out of respect for the salmon and to give yourself a chance to observe spawning behavior.

The Kitsap Sun still maintains a map with videos showing some of the best places on the Kitsap Peninsula to view salmon. Some of the videos are out of date, and this year Kitsap County’s Salmon Park near Chico is closed for construction of a new bridge across Chico Creek. Still, the map shows many places to view salmon — including places on this year’s Kitsap Salmon Tours.

Eight places will be featured on this year’s Kitsap Salmon Tours on Saturday, Nov. 9. This annual event, sponsored by WSU Kitsap Extension, is fun and informative for the entire family.

Erlands Point Preserve won’t have a salmon-viewing platform, as I reported in Water Ways Aug. 23, because beavers built a dam that flooded the proposed viewing site. Nevertheless, the preserve will be the place to visit informational booths, learn about salmon and enjoy some refreshments.

Details on each of the sites on the tour can be found on the Kitsap Salmon Tours website, including these additional outings with knowledgeable guides:

  • Nov. 13, 10 a.m. to noon, at Jarstad Park on Gorst Creek,
  • Nov. 13, 11 a.m. to noon, at Poulsbo’s Fish Park on Dogfish Creek,
  • Nov. 14, noon to 1 p.m., at Poulsbo’s Fish Park on Dogfish Creek and
  • Nov. 17, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., at Salmon Haven on Dickerson Creek.

Amusing Monday: Costumes for people who wish to be sea creatures

I’m not sure if costume parties are as popular today as they once were, but costume makers have never been more creative. Given the theme of this blog, I decided to see what kind of costumes are available for people who wish to be a creature from the sea.

With concerns running high for our southern resident killer whales, I wondered if anyone might have an orca costume for sale. An Internet search turned up an amazing variety of costumes to fit people of any size.

 


 

 

In the picture above, we have a lightweight mascot costume from Amazon Fashion, a sleeveless adult costume from Walmart, a “sexy” orca costume from Sale Lolita, and an infant costume from Amazon Fashion.

 


 
 
There are many, many more orca costumes, as you can find with an image search for “killer whale costume” or “orca costume.” One costume, from Wonder Child, gives the appearance of a child riding on an orca. Others allow you to dress up in just a hat, as in the middle photo and the right photo above, both from Amazon.

When I think of a sea creature costume for Halloween, my first thought is the Creature from the Black Lagoon from the 1954 movie starring Richard Carlson and Julia Adams with the creature played by Ben Chapman on land and Ricou Browning underwater, according to Wikipedia. The movie was filmed in 3-D, but I remember watching the film — or at least clips — on a home movie projector without sound. I can’t tell you what the story is about, but I guess that doesn’t matter. The costume has been worn for years, and it makes for a good conversation piece. The costume at right is from Wholesale Halloween Costumes.

Other adult costumes include a seahorse, a penguin and a hammerhead shark, all from Spirit Halloween.

For babies, the list of manufactured costumes goes on and on, adding up to endless cuteness, even if we are talking about sea creatures. How about this octopus costume from Oriental Trading Co. The jumpsuit with extra tentacles attached and a matching headpiece “is sure to make your child’s Halloween one unforgettable night,” states the website.

One can also dress up the youngster to pay tribute to the late Dr. Seuss, author of “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish.” Check out the “baby blue fish bunting” and the “baby red fish bunting” and other fish costumes on the Spirit Halloween website.

Dr. Seuss, whose real name was Theodor Seuss Geisel, wrote numerous whimsical books for children. “One Fish, Two Fish …” has been described in many ways — including a lovely children’s classic, a deeply confusing fantasy, an instructive story about human differences and a twisted satire about World War II and the Holocaust. Check out several essays about the book on an instructive website for teachers by Corbett Harrison.

 

 
 

I never would have guessed that there are so many costumes related to sea creatures, and I didn’t even consider all the mermaids, pirates and divers that can add to a night of fantasy for young and old alike.

In Hansville, September rainfall was highest in 30 years of records

September was a record-setting month for rainfall in Hansville in North Kitsap, but not for the rest of the Kitsap Peninsula, which overall still received lots of rain. This demonstrates again how different one part of our region is from another — and how Kitsap County is a world apart from the rest of the Puget Sound region.

As we close out Water Year 2019, we can see from the charts that that the annual rainfall (blue line) was below average (pink line), but September rains nearly pushed Hansville up to the average mark.

Hansville had a total of 3.56 inches of rainfall in September, according to data maintained by the Kitsap Public Utility District. That’s more rain than any other September going back to 1990, when the KPUD records begin. The second-highest September rainfall was in 2013, with 2.88 inches.

In Silverdale, the monthly total was 2.71 inches of precipitation. Typically, Silverdale gets more rain than Hansville. In fact, the median average for Silverdale in September is 25 percent higher — 1.0 inch, compared to Hansville’s 0.8 inch.

But if you’re talking about records for Silverdale, you need to go back to 2013, when 6.8 inches of rain fell in September. That’s far more than any other year going back to 1991. In 1997, 5.4 inches fell on Silverdale in September, but no other year had even 3 inches.

In fact, the month of September 2013 was reported as “one for the record books” in a Kitsap Sun story at the time. Reporter Brynn Grimley said rainfall Sept. 28-29, 2013, was 2.2 inches in one day — the most since 1899. The storm also brought winds that knocked down trees and power lines, Brynn reported.

The year 2013 set rainfall records throughout most of Kitsap County.

Holly, which typically gets some of the heaviest rainfalls on the peninsula, received 5.4 inches this past September. That is a lot, considering that September is typically fairly dry, but it is nowhere near the record of 9.6 inches set for Holly in 2013. The median average there is 1.5 inches in September.

We have to recognize that we are limited to a 30-year period when talking about records in the KPUD database, but it’s still worth discussing. Bellingham, where the records go back to 1949, set a new rainfall high last month with 4.73 inches of precipitation, just above the old record of 4.71 inches for September 1969, according to the National Weather Service’s Twitter feed.

In September, Western Washington and much of the Northwest experienced at least twice the normal rainfall, while dry weather was seen over much of the East.

So September was indeed a wet month on the Kitsap Peninsula and other places in the Puget Sound region. For Water Year 2019 as a whole, however, we did not reach the annual average. Hansville received a total of 29.4 inches, compared to a median average of 30.7 inches. Silverdale received 37.2 inches, compared to a median average of 42.8. And Holly received 68.5 inches, compared to a median average of 79.2.

While Western Washington and much of the Northwest experienced at least twice the normal rainfall in September, much of the country was fairly dry. By next week, most of the eastern portion of the country will get some rain, predicts Brad Rippey, meteorologist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Heavy rain may occur across the upper Midwest, where some rivers are already running high, he said.

Cooler-than-normal conditions with above-normal precipitation are expected to continue from the Northwest into Montana during the Oct. 8-12 time period, while large sections of the Plains, Southwest, Midwest and mid-South undergo drier-then-normal conditions, according to the forecast (PDF 5.7 mb) in the “USDA Water and Climate Update.”

Amusing Monday: Wildlife caught in the act of being humorous

Forty finalists have been named in the Comedy Wildlife Photography Awards, which features a variety of animals looking and acting funny — or at least it seems that way from a human perspective.

“He’s right behind me… isn’t he?” Tiger shark, Tiger Beach, Bahamas
© Anthony N Petrovich / Comedy Wildlife Photo Awards 2019

Take a look at the 40 finalists and vote on your favorite if you are inclined. The picture getting the most votes will receive the People’s Choice Award. I thought readers might like to participate in the voting, which is why I’m letting you know of these awards at the finalist stage and not after the winners are announced. Deadline for voting is Oct. 20.

Now in its fifth year, the Comedy Wildlife Photography Awards is the inspiration of professional photographers Paul Joynson-Hicks and Tom Sullam, originally from Great Britain, now living in Tanzania. For previous finalists and winners, visit the Gallery page.

“Family disagreement,” Croatia
© Viado-Pirsa / Comedy Wildlife Photo Awards 2019

“Every year we do this competition, it gets more and more exciting seeing how people visualize the funny sides of wildlife in the wild,” said Joynson-Hicks in a news release. “And each year we see a wider variety of species doing funny things — whether it’s a very naughty penguin (which had my kids rolling around the floor in hysterics) or dancing lions, a chillin’ chimp or even bee-eaters having a shouting match. (They’re hysterical!)

“To be or not to be…” Snow monkey, Japan
© Txema Garcia / Comedy Wildlife Photo Awards 2019

“Of course, the other aspect of our funny competition is letting people know what they can do at home to be conservationists,” he added. “Our planet is in distress; we all know that. Now we just need to know what to do. Hopefully, we can provide a few small tips to get people started.”

The conservation message, featured on the competition’s website, focuses on these three ideas:

  1. Shop responsibly
  2. Use water carefully
  3. Become a “wildlife influencer”
“Chest Bump,” King penguin amd Antarctic fur seal, South Georgia Island
© Tom Mangelsen / Comedy Wildlife Photo Awards 2019

In addition to Paul and Tom, the judges for the contest are Kate Humble, wildlife TV presenter and writer; Hugh Dennis, actor and comedian; Will Burrard-Lucas, wildlife photographer; Andrew Skirrow, co-counder of Amazing Internet; Simon Pollock, photographer; Will Travers, wildlife expert and co-founder of the Born Free Foundation; Ashley Hewson, managing director of Affinity photography and graphic design; Oliver Smith, online travel editor for “The Telegraph;” Bella Lack, a “next generation” conservationist; Celina Dunlop, lead photo editor for “The Economist;” and Henrik Tanabe, marketing manager for Olympus Nordic optical company.

“Rhino Warning! Territory marking, follow at your own risk.” White rhino and egret, Nairobi NP, Kenya
© Tilakra Nagaraj / Comedy Wildlife Photo Awards 2019

Although the competition has a British orientation, these are photos that can make anyone smile.

Winners will be announced on Nov. 13, so return to the contest page at that time if you are interested in seeing how your favorite photos fared. Books of photos from the completion are available on the website as well as on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other booksellers.

Sponsors and partners include the Born Free Foundation, Affinity photo, Amazing Internet, Think Tank, Alex Walker’s Serian, Spectrum Photo and Olympus Nordic.

Spring Chinook take on high flows because of ‘early-migration gene’

It’s a bit mind-boggling to think that a single, tiny fragment of genetic material determines whether a Chinook salmon chooses to return to its home stream in the spring or the fall.

Photo: Ingrid Taylar (CC BY-NC 2.0) https://flic.kr/p/dmbyre

I’ve been following the scientific discoveries about spring chinook since 2017, when Mike Miller’s lab at the University of California, Davis, published research findings showing the location of this “early-migration gene” on chromosome 28.

In a story published this week in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, I wrote about some of the latest discoveries surrounding spring Chinook. I also thought it worthwhile to describe the importance of these fish to the ecosystem and to the native people of the Puget Sound region.

Up until the past two years, I never gave much thought to spring Chinook, nor apparently have most people, including many biologists. These are the salmon that often struggle to reach the upper reaches of the rivers when the streams are swollen with spring snowmelt. Much of these upper spawning grounds have been destroyed by human activity, and more than half the spring chinook runs in Puget Sound have gone extinct.

The more I learned about spring Chinook the more fascinated I became. The southern resident killer whales used to arrive in Puget Sound in April or May to feast on spring Chinook from Canada’s Fraser River, but those salmon runs have declined along with many fall runs of chinook. The result is a major change in behavior and migration patterns by the whales.

Spring Chinook were at one time an important food for bears coming out of hibernation, for eagles who had scavenged for food through the winter, and for native people who looked forward to fresh fish after a season of dried foods.

As I researched this story, I learned about the history of spring Chinook in the Skokomish River of southern Hood Canal and how a once-plentiful fish became extinct. I was pleased to describe the success of current efforts to create a new run of spring Chinook with the help of a hatchery in the North Fork of the Skokomish, where adult spawners are showing up nearly a century after the fish disappeared.

Spring Chinook in Salmon River, California
Photo: Peter Bohler, via UC Davis

Genetics is a fascinating field, and advances are coming rapidly in the studies of many species, including humans. The idea that a single gene can completely change the migration timing of a Chinook by four months raises many scientific and legal questions — including whether spring Chinook should get their own protection under the Endangered Species Act. As things stand now, Chinook salmon in Puget Sound — both spring and fall together — are listed as threatened under the ESA. But that could change as things shake out with the ESA in Oregon and California.

Ongoing genetic studies — including those involving various salmon species — are causing biologists and legal experts to re-examine the criteria for listing populations as threatened or endangered, as they teeter on the edge of extinction. No matter what the extinction risk is judged to be, spring Chinook are now recognized as something very special.

New app allows people to report problems to local Kitsap agencies

Over the past few months, I’ve called 911 to report dead animals on the roadway, a downed road sign that warns drivers of a curve, and an old car that had been abandoned.

I’m not sure I should be calling an emergency line for non-emergency issues, but the dispatchers never complain. They take the needed information and tell me they will report the problem. Most of the time they ask if I would like to receive a phone call when the problem gets fixed. That would be nice, I say, but I can’t remember ever getting a call back.

Recently, Kitsap County launched a new mobile phone app called “SeeClickFix,” which allows GPS to report the location, and you can take a picture of the problem and include whatever information you think is needed. The information is sent rapidly to Kitsap1, the county’s customer-service system, which then forwards it to the right people.

In the app, you click a box to identify the problems, which can include potholes, flooding and drainage issues, graffiti, overgrowth onto roadways or view issues, illegal dumping, noxious weeds, burned-out street lights and illegal burning, among many others.

The app with its backend operating system is used by dozens of cities and counties around the country, including SeaTac in Washington state. You can download the app from the App Store and other sites. A browser version for a laptop or desktop computer is also available.

“This really helps residents process requests,” said Jamie Linville, supervisor for Kitsap1. “They get real time updates on the app, engage in their community and can report problems anywhere in the County.

“This helps ensure we get accurate data in the initial request, which helps us get the request routed to the correct agency,” she said, adding that people can create a “watch area” to receive notice of all issues reported in their area.

The app tells the status of the problem, including when it was reported and when it gets fixed.

Having the app does not mean you shouldn’t call Kitsap1, 360.337.5777, or email the center, help@kitsap1.com, which is open from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, but the SeeClickFix app might be easier at times, and it never closes. Of course, you should call 911 if an issue needs immediate attention.

I asked Doug Bear, the county’s communications manager, if the app is designed to take environmental problems. His answer is that some problems are listed as options and others are not — and that is the key.

“We continually evaluate which options to present and can change them as demand increases,” Doug told me in an email. “The app is better suited to concerns that have a clear consistent path to who responds.”

When you click an option, you get a list of questions specific to that type of problem.

“We did consider an option for ‘other’ that could capture what isn’t specifically listed, but that didn’t work out well,” he added. “It’s hard to collect the proper information for processing if we don’t know what the problem is.”

Using the app or another approach can take some strategic thought. The app has an option for “illegal dumping,” “spill or illicit discharge” and “stormwater maintenance.” But if you see an oil spill that could get into a waterway, I wouldn’t hesitate to call 911 along with the state oil-spill hotline, (800) OILS-911.

Amusing Monday: Ig Nobel prizes make us laugh, then think

True-life research catching the attention of humorists this year includes studies on the health benefits of pizza — but only in Italy, the psychological needs of scratching an itch, and figuring out which countries have money that is more likely to carry dangerous bacteria.

Of course, I’m talking about the Ig Nobel Prize, which holds an annual ceremony to celebrate seemingly off-the-wall research published in actual scientific journals. Judges reward researchers whose studies first make them laugh and then make them think.

Marc Abrams, who founded the event, served as master of ceremonies for the “29th First Annual Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony” Sept. 12 at Harvard’s Sanders Theatre. Abrams is editor of the “Annals of Improbable Research,” a publication that seeks out oddball investigations in science and other fields.

Researchers really do have a sense of humor, as you can see in the amusing video on this page. Winners show up at the ceremony, smiling as others subject their work to good-natured ridicule. Acceptance speeches are sometimes funny, sometimes serious, but always short — thanks to antics of a little girl who keeps track of the time.

This year’s theme was “Habits,” which led to a variety of stunts, demonstrations and musical numbers, all shown in the video.

I’m listing the winning research projects as they were described in announcing the winners. Links to the actual research papers along with the names of the authors can be found on the website “Ig Nobel Prize Winners for 2019,” which also includes winners from previous years.

The 2019 Ig Nobel Prize Winners
  • Medicine Prize: Researchers in Italy and the Netherlands awarded for collecting evidence that pizza might protect against illness and death, if the pizza is made and eaten in Italy.
  • Medical Education Prize: U.S. researchers awarded for using a simple animal-training technique — called “clicker training” — to train surgeons to perform orthopedic surgery.
  • Biology Prize: Researchers from various countries awarded for discovering that dead magnetized cockroaches behave differently than living magnetized cockroaches.
  • Anatomy Prize: French researchers awarded for measuring scrotal temperature asymmetry in naked and clothed postmen in France.
  • Chemistry Prize: Researchers from Japan awarded for estimating the total saliva volume produced per day by a typical five-year-old child.
  • Engineering Prize: An Iranian researcher awarded for inventing a diaper-changing machine for use on human infants (patent application).
  • Economic Prize: Researchers from Turkey, the Netherlands and Germany awarded for testing which country’s paper money is best able to transmit dangerous bacteria.
  • Peace Prize: Researchers from various countries awarded for trying to measure the pleasurability of scratching an itch.
  • Psychology Prize: A German researcher awarded for discovering that holding a pen in one’s mouth makes one smile, which makes one happier — and for then discovering that it does not.
  • Physics Prize: Researchers from various countries awarded for studying how, and why, wombats make cube-shaped poo.

Orcas return to Puget Sound; critical habitat proposed for coast

It appears that the southern resident killer whales have begun to travel into Central and South Puget Sound for their annual fall feast of chum salmon, according to past experience and dozens of reports from shoreside observers.

The northern section of the proposed critical habitat for southern resident killer whales.(click to enlarge)
Map: National Marine Fisheries Service

Meanwhile, the federal government has proposed extending their designated “critical habitat” beyond Puget Sound to the outer coast of Washington, Oregon and Northern California.

The critically endangered orcas have mostly been away from Puget Sound this summer, as their frequency of visits has declined in recent years. During the spring and summer, their primary prey is chinook salmon. But they tend to follow schools of chum salmon in the fall, and it is possible that recent rains got the chum moving a little faster toward their many home streams.

It appears the whales came in and traveled as far south as Seattle and the southern end of Bainbridge Island Thursday and were headed back north today. They could make another loop of Puget Sound, or they could head out to sea and return later. Check out Orca Network’s Facebook page for ongoing sighting reports. Kitsap Sun reporter Jessie Darland describes their arrival.

The expanded critical habitat, proposed by the National Marine Fisheries Service, totals 15,627 square miles along the continental shelf of the Pacific Ocean. When finalized, federal agencies will be required to protect the orcas’ habitat as well as the orcas themselves.

Photo: Capt. Jim Maya

By 2014, scientists at NMFS had been gathering data for several years in support of such an expansion when the Center for Biological Diversity filed a petition (Water Ways, Jan. 19, 2014) urging the government to finally take action. The agency agreed to move forward but continued to delay until after the group filed a lawsuit, which led to this week’s proposal.

Notably, the proposal does not include the Center for Biological Diversity’s idea to include safe sound levels as an important quality of the killer whale habitat. The group wanted to make sure the whales could hear well enough to use their echolocation to hunt fish, and they wanted to keep the animals from experiencing sounds that could cause partial or total deafness.

The agency looked at the issue but concluded that it does not have a way to establish a threshold sound level that could be considered harmful, although non-quantitative noise levels have been used to protect Cook Inlet beluga whales and Main Hawaiian Island false killer whales. For now, NFMS kept the essential habitat features for killer whale habitat to three things:

  1. Water quality to support growth and development,
  2. Prey species of sufficient quantity, quality and availability to support individual growth, reproduction, and development — as well as overall population growth, and
  3. Passage conditions to allow for migration, resting, and foraging.

Based on experience, NMFS said its biologists could already address adverse effects of man-made noise under the habitat categories of prey and passage. If noise were to affect the whales’ ability to hunt, for example, the problem could come under “prey species.” If noise were to discourage them from traveling to or resting in a specific area, it could come under “passage conditions.”

The Navy’s Quinault Range Site, where sonar and explosives are used in testing and training operations off the Washington coast, was excluded from the critical habitat designation following an evaluation by NMFS. Also excluded was a 10-kilometer (6.2-mile) buffer around the range.

“The Navy argued that there would be national security impacts if NMFS required additional mitigation that resulted in the Navy having to halt, reduce in scope, or geographically/seasonally constrain testing activities to prevent adverse effects or adverse modification of critical habitat,” NMFS noted in its findings.

The Navy has developed operational procedures to limit the harm to killer whales and other marine life, as required by the Endangered Species Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act and court rulings. While NMFS agreed to exclude the Quinault Range Site, it did not extend the exclusion to other Navy operational areas on the Washington coast.

Julie Teel Simmonds, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, told me that officials in her group will carefully scrutinize that proposed exclusion area.

“Their decision to exclude is discretionary,” she wrote in an email, “but we will be evaluating their analysis during the public comment period, particularly given the plight of the orca and the concerns we have with some of the Navy’s activities, particularly certain harmful sonars.”

Brad Hanson and other marine mammal biologists at the NMFS’ Northwest Fisheries Science Center spent years evaluating where the orcas traveled in the ocean and what they were eating. They tracked the whales by attaching satellite transmitters, recorded their sounds on hydrophones along the coast, and collected sighting reports from a variety of people.

Duration of visitation to various areas by K and L southern resident pods. Darker coloration represents longer durations.
Model output: National Marine Fisheries Service

They learned that when the three pods of southern resident orcas were on the coast they spent more than half their time off Washington state, often between Grays Harbor and the Columbia River. Their travels often corresponded with an abundance of salmon.

While K and L pods have been observed in coastal waters every month of the year, J pod ventured to the coast infrequently and only in northern waters. All three pods spent nearly all their time within about 20 miles of shore and in waters less than 650 feet deep.

Through the years, I have written extensively about these studies. Here are a few blog posts:

Although the southern residents frequent the waters of British Columbia, the proposed critical habitat was limited to U.S. waters, because of the extent of U.S. jurisdiction. A single confirmed sighting of southern residents in Southeast Alaska in 2007 was not considered adequate to add any area to the north.

As a result of the expanded critical habitat, a number of activities will come under federal review with respect to protecting habitat as well as animals. They include salmon fishing, salmon hatcheries, offshore aquaculture, alternative energy development, oil exploration and drilling, military activities, and onshore activities that could create pollution.

NMFS was unable to identify any specific construction projects or maritime activities that would be affected significantly beyond the existing reviews required by the Endangered Species Act. The total additional cost of reviewing permits and analyzing potential impacts of projects was estimated at $68,000 a year.

Comments on the proposal may be submitted until Dec. 18. For information, check out the various documents on NMFS’ Southern Residents Critical Habitat website.

Amusing Monday: ‘Serengeti’ TV series focuses on entertainment

“Serengeti,” Discovery Channel’s recent groundbreaking series about African wildlife, has come under fire from some experts for the show’s over-dramatizing animal emotions and motivations. But if we can view these personal animal stories with a bit of skepticism, I think we should feel free to immerse ourselves in the magnificent landscape and life-and-death struggles of the animals. Stunning photography, captivating music and intriguing narration of the various stories provide high entertainment value plus a greater appreciation of nature.

The six-part series, produced by “American Idol” creator Simon Fuller, has made its mark as one of the highest-rated nature documentaries ever seen on television. The show recently wrapped up its first season, but you may find all parts available “on demand” from TV providers, or you can watch online with access to the Discovery Channel webpage. If you’ve seen the show, you might be interested in several behind-the-scenes videos. A second season of “Serengeti” may be coming, but I don’t think it has been announced yet.

“We’re not used to telling or hearing the stories of animals,” says Fuller in an explanatory video about the project. “I see pain. I see love. I see joy. I see suffering. I see anger. And I see happiness in animals, and it’s powerful.”

Director John Downer, an-award winning nature filmmaker, said three film crews worked in the field for well over a year, using all sorts of specialized equipment to capture intimate and intense moments on the plains of Tanzania. Hidden cameras, aerial drones and camera-stabilization platforms made the live action possible, according to an interview with Andy Dehnart of “Reality Blurred” magazine.

“In ‘Serengeti,’ there are endless moments of intimacy that you don’t normally see in a natural history film because we’re telling that emotional story,” said Downer in the explanatory video. “And there’s also things, really unbelievable dramatic moments, that I could never script, never write, because you never know they would happen.

“The reality of when you’re there, spending that long in the field with them, the stories come just when you’re least expecting them. And they’re always the ones that just blow you away,” he said.

Narrator Lupita Nyong’o, who won an Oscar for her acting performance in the movie “12 Years a Slave,” grew up in Kenya and seems to share an intimate connection to the African landscape. She introduces the audience to both predator and prey and finds it worthwhile to root for both.

“There are no bad guys,” she says in the video. “There’s just guys trying to survive. And I think that’s really a beautiful dynamic to watch.”

We meet baboons, zebras, elephants, antelopes, gazelles and giraffes, along with hippos, wildebeests and buffaloes. We also meet some powerful characters among the predators: crocodiles, lions, leopards, cheetahs, wild dogs, hyenas and jackals.

One thing became clear to me: Water is an important aspect of the drama. Both predator and prey, as well as rivals in family groups, must find water. That brings ongoing conflict at the river and watering holes that can dry up or turn to mud-laden traps.

Cinematographer Matthew Goldman said one of the biggest challenges was filming in the rain, even though a special housing was built for the cameras that ride along on stabilizing platforms on the sides of the film trucks. The rains provide for interesting footage, he said, but the crew was unable to shield the camera lenses from scattered water droplets. Keeping a lens clear was a task not without risks.

“My job is to jump out and clean the lens,” Goldman said. “When it does start raining, lions especially get very excited, so it can be quite nerve-racking when you are focusing on what you are doing … and the lions are playing and starting to get into this hunt mode.”

The emotional connection with the animals is enriched with an orchestral musical score. Vocal credits go to Lola Lennox, daughter of Scottish singer-songwriter Annie Lennox. The song “Wild Hearts” (above) is written and performed by singer-songwriter Cathy Dennis, who has written many pop hits including Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl.”

As I said at the outset, some wildlife experts are apoplectic about the manipulation that takes place to produce a compelling narrative story. The animals might be viewed as actors playing a role, and discerning eyes have noticed that sometimes a single character is augmented with multiple animals playing the role.

Sometimes the narration presumes the feelings of animals, which just might go beyond human understanding. Do animals really love their babies the way humans do? It is hard to say, but it is nice to think so.

“This is documentary as theatre,” writes Rebecca Nicholson of The Guardian newspaper. “I’m not saying gritty realism is always a more appealing approach, but this all-out anthropomorphism sometimes reaches beyond what it can deliver, which is a shame because, visually at least, it’s a stunner.

“It’s all very well to smother animals in human emotions, but the animal world is brutal and cruel, and cozy reconciliations are few and far between,” she continues. “I could feel the manipulation happening as if a puppet master were making me dance, but the death scenes … had an impact. At last, ‘Serengeti’ began to carry me along with it. If this is entertainment, then at least it entertains.”

I confess: When it comes to toxic chemicals, I trusted the FDA too long

Bisphenol A has been creating a dilemma for me since I first heard that it could disrupt normal hormone function in people and animals.

BPA chemical structure

BPA, as the chemical is known, is produced in large quantities, sold around the world, and used in many products — including food cans, plastic bottles, toys and even sales receipts you might be handed at a retail store. Exposure is widespread, with detectable levels of BPA found in at least 93 percent of Americans who are 6 years old or older.

As part of my daily routine, I check out research reports on a variety of environmental and water-related subjects. It seems like there is a never-ending stream of reports, numbering in the thousands, that continue to find problems with even low exposures to BPA.

And there’s the root of my dilemma. The federal Food and Drug Administration, which is responsible for protecting us from tainted food and drink, keeps telling us that BPA is safe at current levels of exposure. Check out the statement from the FDA’s Deputy Commissioner Stephen Ostroff.

In 2008, I informed readers (Water Ways, April 11, 2008) that I was searching for and throwing out my drinking-water bottles likely to contain BPA. My actions were based on alarms raised by researchers, including those at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. For years, I’ve wanted to provide firm, up-to-date advice about BPA, but I guess I’ve been unduly stymied by my faith in the FDA.

With those thoughts in mind, I called Patricia Hunt, a researcher at Washington State University’s Center for Reproductive Biology. Pat has studied the science of BPA for many years. One of the problems leading to the FDA’s position, she told me, is that government officials don’t want to give up the long-held toxicological approach to regulating chemicals.

Under the old-fashioned system, the more exposure one receives to a harmful chemical, the worse the health problems are likely to be. So the FDA determines a safe level and expects everyone to comply. But that system does not always work for hormones or for chemicals that act like hormones — such as BPA.

When would a higher dose of a chemical produce a lesser effect? Hormones often work in partnership with a receptor — like a key in a lock — to produce a biological response. A chemical that mimics a hormone may produce an inappropriate and even harmful biological response. Starting at extremely low doses, things may get worse as the dose is increased. But at some level the hormone receptors may become saturated, causing the biological effect to diminish as doses continue to increase.

This is just an example, but hormones and related synthetic chemicals may not react in the same way. Their dose-response curve may even be different for different organs of the body.

That is one problem with the toxicological system under which the government operates, according to Pat Hunt and two other researchers who wrote an opinion piece in the journal “Nature Reviews: Endocrinology.” In the article, she and the other authors praise an extensive — and expensive — research project launched by the federal government to identify the harmful effects of BPA. The project goes by the hopeful name CLARITY, which stands for Consortium Linking Academic and Regulatory Insights on Toxicity of Bisphenol A.

The project was insightful, they argue, but only if FDA officials are willing to look at the limitations of the study’s design and avoid rejecting findings from academic researchers that might not fit an expected pattern.

“Although, ideally, a consensus between the approaches should be possible,” their article states, “differences in research culture made the CLARITY effort akin to expecting a group of folk and punk rock musicians to pick
up their instruments and play together 
in harmony.”

Low-dose effects were found in the data of many studies and should have set off alarm bells, they say. Exposure for animals in the developmental stages are particularly concerning, and the effects may not show up until the animal becomes a sexually mature adult.

“Taken together, these data suggest that low-dose BPA exposure induces subtle developmental changes that act to impair the endocrine, reproductive, neurobiological and immune system of adult rats,” states the article, which goes into far more detail than I can cover here.

BPA has gotten a lot of public attention, which has encouraged manufacturers to replace BPA with other chemicals and advertise their products as “BPA free.” The problem is that the substitutes may be just as bad or worse, according to researchers. In fact, some of the substitutes have been banned in Washington state, so companies are off to the next replacement chemicals.

The problem is that the modern world is filled with chemicals that have not been adequately tested for safety, Pat told me. Ideally, the chemicals would have been tested before they went on the market, but that’s not how things were done in the past. Now the government is challenged to identify chemicals on the market that cause health problems even while people are being continually exposed.

The current Trump administration seems to have little interest in this topic, even though a new federal law signed in 2016 by former President Barack Obama was designed to address the problem. I wrote about this for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound in 2016, along with a story about “rogue chemicals” in the environment.

“A lot of us feel that, to come up with a safe level of exposure, some of these chemicals should not even be in the products they are in,” Pat said.

In explaining this difficult problem to the parents of young children, she sometimes holds up a package of birth-control pills and asks, “How much of this should I be allowed to give your child?” Parents don’t want their child to have any, she said, yet we live in a world in which children are ingesting such chemicals, like it or not.

I had thought that the FDA had at least banned BPA in baby bottles, sippy cups and other products that could increase exposure to children at a critical time of their development. But that was not the case. The agency had simply “abandoned” its approval of such uses, because companies had changed their products voluntarily.

“An amendment of the food additive regulations based on abandonment is not based on safety but is based on the fact that the regulatory authorization is no longer necessary,” the FDA emphasized in a fact sheet.

In other words, the FDA has never changed its stance on BPA. Meanwhile, a number of states have taken steps to protect children. Some — like Washington — have gone further to protect more of the population. But others have done nothing.

So what can people do about BPA and other chemical concerns?

“You can ask for what you want,” Pat said. “I always tell consumers that they can vote with their pocketbooks.”

Personally, I have cut back on canned foods, because BPA is used to reduce metal corrosion, although it can leach into foods — especially acidic foods. I no longer heat food or drinks in plastic containers, and I’m slowly converting to glass for storing food on the shelf and in my refrigerator.

For more information and tips about what you can do, check out these sources: