Category Archives: Sea life

Orcas hunting for salmon: Not worth the effort in Puget Sound?

Trying to understand what motivates Puget Sound’s killer whales is difficult enough when the orcas are nearby. But now that they have abandoned their summer home — at least for this year — researchers are not able to easily study their behaviors, their food supply or their individual body conditions.

L-84, a 29-year-old male named Nyssa, was thought to be in good health when he went missing.
Photo: Center for Whale Research

Not so many years ago, we could expect the orcas to show up in the San Juan Islands in May, presumably to feast on spring chinook returning to the Fraser River in British Columbia and to streams in northern Puget Sound. Those chinook have dwindled in number, along with other populations of chinook in the Salish Sea, so it appears that the orcas may not come back at all.

Apparently, they have decided that it isn’t worth their time and effort to set up a summer home in the inland waterway. They have gone to look for food elsewhere, such as off the west coast of Vancouver Island, where it is harder for researchers to tell what they are eating and exactly where they are going.

The whales were out there somewhere this past week when Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research announced that three whales had been missing long enough to declare them deceased. He had been consulting with experts and observers in Canada. See my Water Ways post from Tuesday.

Food is the big issue for the southern resident killer whales. They have been judged to be in overall worse body condition than the northern residents — an entirely separate group that normally stays farther up the coast in British Columbia. Experts are reporting that the northern residents have been venturing south more often than they used to. Perhaps the cultural divide between the two resident groups has begun to weaken.

It’s all in the realm of speculation, of course. Last year, I shared some ruminations about what could have happened if the endangered southern residents had not grown up in a culture of eating chinook salmon. I mentioned some interesting research papers on the topic. See Water Ways, Aug. 30, 2018.

Food is the key. Despite other problems that humans have caused — including toxic chemicals, noise and general disruption — food is at the heart of the matter. When you are hungry and searching for food, you don’t have much time for social interaction — and making babies takes a back seat to survival.

Even when southern resident females do get pregnant, they suffer a high rate of miscarriage, often coming late in pregnancy. Food and stress are related to these problems, according to research by Sam Wasser, director of the Center for Conservation Biology whose work I reported in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound in 2016.

Although the term “starvation” is often tossed around loosely, few if any of the dead whales are actually starving to death from lack of available food. They may have stopped eating when they got sick or for some other reason. Illness can be brought on by a weakened condition in conjunction with reduced immunity caused by toxic chemicals in their food. It’s more complex than “starvation,” as writer Jeff Rice of the Puget Sound Institute points out in a new story posted in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

A low reproductive rate and unexpected deaths continue to drive the population downward. Some deaths can be predicted when the whales loose so much body fat that they reach a condition called “peanut head,” but other deaths come quickly and unexpectedly.

“We had expected two of the three deaths, having chronicled their decline during the past year,” Ken Balcomb said in an email on Friday. “But L84’s death was unexpected. He was a vibrant male who appeared healthy.”

When apparently healthy whales disappear, experts are left wondering what happened. Years ago, this kind of sudden disappearance was more typical of their final departures, because the whales were in better condition. Other factors, such as ship strikes and Navy operations were sometimes suspected, and disease is always a lurking threat.

Finding ways to improve the chinook runs should help the whales, and that effort continues despite some disagreement about how to go about it. But larger forces are also at play, such as long-term shifts in ocean conditions and changes in the climate that reverberate through the entire food web.

Laura Blackmore, executive director of Puget Sound Partnership, issued a statement Thursday that reflects what many Northwest residents may be feeling.

“We are deeply saddened to learn of the presumed deaths of three endangered southern resident orcas, L84, K25, and J17,” Laura wrote. “These new losses cut deeply, and we grieve with all those who mourn these symbols of Puget Sound.

“Our orcas are dying because the marine environment they live in is ailing and there are too few salmon for them to eat,” she continued.

“The Puget Sound Partnership stands with Governor Inslee, the governor’s Southern Resident Orca Task Force, and the many tribes, government agencies, organizations, businesses and individuals who are committed to helping recover the orca population. Together, we can help by restoring salmon runs, quieting the waters of Puget Sound, and getting toxic chemicals out of our waterways.”

New government policies and laws are being implemented, she said. Meanwhile, there are some things that we all can do. Here are her suggestions for individual action:

  • Help restore salmon runs. Volunteer on a habitat restoration project. See orca.wa.gov for links to organizations involved in habitat restoration.
  • Quiet the waters of Puget Sound. If you’re a boater, give orcas space. Follow the BeWhaleWise guidelines for whale watching.
  • Keep toxic chemicals out of our waterways. Stop using toxic chemicals in your home or on your landscape; fix vehicle leaks; and have your vehicle oil changed by a professional.
  • Learn about southern resident orcas, and pass the information on to others.
  • Speak up for orcas. Vote. Make sure your local, state, and federal representatives know how important orcas are to you.

Three more orca deaths take census count down to 73 Southern Residents

Four orca deaths and two births over the past year brings the official population of southern resident killer whales to 73 — the lowest number since the annual census was launched in 1976.

L-84, a 29-year-old male named Nyssa, is among three southern resident orcas newly listed as deceased. Here he is seen catching a salmon. // Photo: Center for Whale Research

This evening, the keeper of the census — Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research — sadly announced the deaths of three orcas who have not been seen for several months.

In past years, Ken waited until he and his staff have several opportunities to search for any whales that appear to be missing. But this year the whales have stayed almost entirely away from their traditional hunting grounds in the San Juan Islands, where they once stayed for nearly the full summer.

In an unusual move this year, Ken relied on reliable observers from the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans as well as other biologists along the west coast of Vancouver Island. The missing whales were not seen during multiple encounters with the Canadians, Ken told me.

The reason the whales have not spent any time in Puget Sound is fairly obvious, Ken said. Their primary prey, chinook salmon, have not been around either.

We can hope they are getting enough to eat wherever they are.

“They were finding fish up north off Tofino,” Ken said. “They were not big salmon, but there were lots of eight-pounders. They seemed to be getting those.”

Tofino is about 140 miles up the west coast of Vancouver Island from Victoria. At Swiftsure Bank, near entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the whales appeared to be going after sablefish, also known as black cod, according to reports.

“They were eating those and then chasing some salmon,” Ken reported.

It is often speculated that the reason that southern residents specialize in chinook is the amount of calories they get from the fatty fish, compared to the amount of energy they must expend to catch them. This cultural preference was adopted by the whales perhaps thousands of years before chinook populations were decimated by human development.

Ken is under contract to the federal government to deliver a count of the southern residents as of July 1 each year, based on sightings in Puget Sound. He has until October to provide a final report, but the numbers are certain enough now to end the speculation.

“We are saddened to report that three adult killer whales (orca) are missing and presumed dead as of July 1, 2019,” Ken announced this evening in a news release.

“These whales are from the extremely endangered southern resident killer whale population that historically frequents the Salish Sea almost daily in summer months. Due to the scarcity of suitable chinook prey, this population of whales now rarely visits the core waters of its critical habitat: Puget Sound, Georgia Strait and the inland reach of the Strait of Juan de Fuca.”

The three whales he has declared deceased:

  • J-17, a 42-year-old female named Princess Angeline: A matriarch in J pod, Princess Angeline was the mother of Tahlequah (J-35), who carried her dead calf on her head for an unprecedented 17 days. Princess Angeline, named after Chief Seattle’s daughter, was reported in poor health during the winter. She is survived by two daughters, Tahlequah (J-35) and Kiki (J-53); a son, Moby (J-44); a granddaughter, Star (J-46); and a grandson, Notch (J-47).
  • K-25, a 28-year-old male named Scoter: He should have been in the prime of his life, but reports of poor body condition started in the winter. Scoter is survived by two sisters, Spock (K-20) and Deadhead (K-27), and a brother, Cali (K-34).
  • L-84, a 29-year-old male named Nyssa: He was the last of a large family group known as the L9’s.

The first of the four whales to die since July 2018 was Scarlet (J-50), who was the subject of rescue actions last summer and the subject of an ongoing controversy about what should or should not have been done to save her. See Water Ways, Sept. 14, 2018. I also featured Scarlet in a story about intervention with killer whales, Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, Feb. 4, 2019.

The two calves born into the southern resident clans this year were L-124 (gender unknown), born in January to L-77 (Matia), and J-56, an unnamed female born in May to J-31 (Tsuchi).

The current population of 73 southern residents is the lowest since 1976, when Ken first began his orca population survey following capture operations that removed a significant number of orcas for the aquarium trade. His first count was 71, but the actual population may have been higher, since this was so early in the survey. The population recovered to 98 animals in 1995. Since then, the trend has been generally downward with only a few upticks.

Increasing the urgency to restore natural salmon runs is the only hope of saving the killer whales, Ken told me, adding that government officials are off track by increasing hatchery production and allowing more fishing.

“They are not looking at the death spiral,” he told me.

In July 2018, we reported that two deaths and no births had taken place in the previous year, dropping the southern resident population from 77 to 75. Now the official population has dropped again by two, with 73 animals still surviving.

Old bulkhead to be removed on Ross Point, a major surf smelt beach

Ross Point, the most popular fishing spot for surf smelt in Kitsap County, will become a little more friendly to the little fish following the removal of a concrete bulkhead along the shore of Sinclair Inlet.

Brittany Gordon, habitat biologist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, examines an old bulkhead about to be removed from Sinclair Inlet.
Photo: Christopher Dunagan

The bulkhead removal, scheduled to begin Aug. 12, will create more spawning area for surf smelt, an important food source for salmon and other fish. Smelt also are favored eating by some people, who typically catch them with dip nets.

In addition to increasing smelt habitat, the project will enhance the migration of young salmon along the southern shore of Sinclair Inlet. Like most bulkheads built in the tidal zone, this 84-foot-long structure forces juvenile salmon to swim into deeper water out from shore, making them more vulnerable to predators.

Getting rid of this bulkhead can’t be considered a major restoration project, yet it is one more step in improving the critical shoreline habitat for marine species, according to Brittany Gordon, habitat biologist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

As we walked along the shore near the bulkhead, Brittany told me that it isn’t clear why the bulkhead was built in the first place. It appears there might have been a house on the site at one time, given the ornamental and fruit trees nearby. The property is now owned by the Department of Fish and Wildlife, which maintains a pullout for cars plus a primitive trail from Highway 166 (Bay Street).

Ross Point, Sinclair Inlet

Ross Point and nearby Ross Creek, as well as most of the Sinclair Inlet shoreline, were important to Native Americans before the arrival of settlers, according to Leonard Forsman, chairman of the Suquamish Tribe.

“I’m not sure if there was a winter village there,” he told me, “but it is one of the many places that people camped for a few days to a week at a time.”

The area was called Scusad, meaning “Star” in the Lushootseed language, he said, adding that the tribe supports the bulkhead removal.

Beginning in October, one can usually see cars parked along the roadway as fishers go down to catch their share of the smelt spawning on Ross Point, which is about 1.3 miles west of Port Orchard City Hall and about 2 miles east of Gorst. WDFW provides a fact sheet on smelt and smelt fishing (PDF 1.6 mb). A new regulation requires a license (saltwater or combination) when fishing for smelt in saltwater.

Access to the Ross Point beach will be closed from Aug. 12 to 19, provided the removal project goes according to schedule.

Surf smelt are an important food for salmon as well as being prized by some humans.
Photo: WDFW

Heavy equipment will be operated from the uphill side of the bulkhead without going down on the beach, Brittany said. Once the concrete structure is removed, experts will assess how the fill material behind it should be managed. If it is naturally clean dirt, it could be allowed to erode freely with the tides. Other options including removing some of the fill and overtopping with clean sediment.

The bulkhead removal is estimated to cost $40,000, including studies and design. The money comes from the ASARCO settlement fund — the result of compensation for natural resource damages from the Tacoma smelter. The money, managed by the Department of Ecology, was originally allocated to the Harper Estuary restoration in South Kitsap, but funding fell short for construction of a bridge that is still needed to complete that project.

The length of the concrete bulkhead is 60 feet parallel to the shore. At each end, the wall extends 12 feet back perpendicular to the shore, for a total of 84 feet. Around the ends, the dirt has been scoured away at high tide, creating a further threat to small salmon following the shoreline.

The location of the bulkhead along the high-tide line places it within the prime spawning area for surf smelt, which lay their eggs in gravel. See the WDFW document “Forage fishes and their critical habitat” (PDF 415 kb).

Like all bulkheads, the one at Ross Point also blocks natural shoreline erosion, which is how the beach obtains a continuing supply of sand and gravel. Those materials are essential for spawning by forage fish, including surf smelt and sand lance. The lack of sand and gravel results in a hardened substrate overlain by nothing but rocks that don’t wash away.

The bulkhead to be removed from Ross Point is 60 feet across the front with a 12-foot perpendicular section on each end. // Photo: Christopher Dunagan

The Ross Point project provides a chance for the Department of Fish and Wildlife to practice what it preaches.

“We try to be good stewards of the lands we own,” Brittany said. “It is a challenge because of our limited resources.”

Environmental agencies encourage shoreline property owners to remove bulkheads wherever feasible. For many properties in Puget Sound, bulkheads are not needed, because the rate of erosion is so slow. In some cases, spawning habitat can be restored to a more natural condition while limiting erosion by replacing a bulkhead with “soft shore” techniques, such as logs and large rocks along the upper edge of the beach.

I’ve talked to many shoreline property owners who, following restoration, are thrilled to have a naturally sloping beach where they previously confronted a sudden dropoff.

A program called Shore Friendly Kitsap can provide experts for free to help property owners assess the benefits and risks of bulkhead removal and offer grants up to $5,000 for design, permitting and construction. “Shore Friendly” services may be different in other counties, so check out “Resources in your area.”

For information about the Ross Point bulkhead removal, contact Fish and Wildlife officials:

  • Brittany Gordon, 360-620-3601, Brittany.Gordon@dfw.wa.gov, or
  • Doris Small, 360-902-2258, Doris.Small@dfw.wa.gov

Sewage spill in Seattle triggers warnings in Kitsap County

It was a tale of two health advisories that created a bit of confusion in Kitsap County following a major sewage spill last week from King County’s West Point treatment plant.

A beach closure in Kitsap County included the eastern shoreline of Bainbridge Island north of Eagle Harbor plus North Kitsap from the Agate Pass bridge to Point Jefferson between Kingston and Indianola.

Brown color designates areas closed to shellfish harvest because of pollution. Click to see state map for details on closures.
Map: Washington State Department of Health

The closure area was determined in part by computer models, which showed that spills of sewage, oil and other substances are capable of crossing Puget Sound from Seattle and hitting the shore of Kitsap County, according to Scott Berbells, section manager for shellfish growing areas, a division of the Washington State Department of Health.

Such a scenario occurred in December 2003, when 4,800 gallons of heavy fuel oil spilled from a barge at the Chevron/Texaco Facility at Point Wells, south of Edmonds. The oil crossed Puget Sound and damaged shellfish beaches in North Kitsap. See Kitsap Sun, Dec. 31, 2003.

The latest spill, about 3 million gallons of raw sewage mixed with stormwater, occurred at West Point in Seattle’s Magnolia area — about 20 miles south of Point Wells.

The exact trajectory of a spill depends greatly on winds and tidal currents, but state and county health officials tend to be cautious, thus the closure of Kitsap County’s shoreline. Water-quality testing has not revealed the presence of bacteria from the West Point sewer spill, but the tests are limited to a few areas, according to John Kiess, environmental health director for the Kitsap Public Health District. It is best to be cautious in these situations, he said.

The two health advisories that led to some confusion are a no-contact advisory, which advises people to stay out of the water, and a shellfish-closure advisory, which strongly suggests that nobody take shellfish from affected beaches. Commercial shellfish growers must comply with mandated closures.

The no-contact advisory was in place from July 19 to July 22, when it was lifted. John Kiess told me that the public should have been notified of a 21-day shellfish closure, which will remain in effect until Aug. 9. The notice of the shellfish closure went out today.

Any confusion among health officials was because the 21-day shellfish closure is a fairly new way of addressing closures for recreational shellfish harvesting, John said, noting that the county works with the state for consistent policies.

The 21-day closure was actually designed for commercial shellfish growers, according to Scott Berbells. It was adopted from federal Food and Drug Administration rules imposed within the last couple years, he said. The state policy — followed by Kitsap County — has been to announce recreational shellfish closures consistent with commercial closures.

Scott explained that shellfish closures last a lot longer than no-contact advisories. If shellfish pick up the pollution in their tissues, it generally takes a lot longer for the shellfish to become clean again, whereas contaminants in the water will become diluted in a short time, making it safe to swim in a few days.

As for the models that predict pollution plumes, several are available, including at least one in King County being used to determine where shellfish beds can be safely opened to commercial harvest.

Click on the map to go to an animated simulation of the plume created by an oil spill in Seattle.
Graphic: University of Washington Coastal Modeling Group

One model, which recently became available for public use, provides a three-day forecast of water temperature and chemistry, based on tides, water circulation and other factors. Developed by the University of Washington Coastal Modeling Group, the model is called LiveOcean. You can view a simulation of an oil spill on a page titled “Forecast of surface salinity and simulated oil spills.” Click on the start button and notice how an oil spill in Seattle creates a plume that can reach Bainbridge Island and even points north.

“LiveOcean works a lot like the weather forecast models that we all rely on every day,” states the opening to a description of how the model works. “It takes in information about the state of the ocean, atmosphere and rivers on a given day, and then uses the laws of physics (and a large computer) to predict how the state of the ocean in our region will change over the next few days.

“The things that the model predicts are currents, salinity, temperature, chemical concentrations of nitrate, oxygen, carbon, and biological fields like phytoplankton, zooplankton, and organic particles. It does this in three dimensions, and allowing continuous variation over the full 72 hour forecast it makes every day.”

One reason for creating LiveOcean was to help shellfish growers decide when to plant oyster seed and conduct other activities during a time of ocean acidification. Oyster growers in particular want to avoid certain cultivation practices when water conditions become deadly to oyster larvae.

The primary driver of ocean acidification is growing amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, but acidification is also influenced by excess nitrogen, such as from sewage-treatment plants.

Washington Department of Ecology is investigating the latest sewage spill from the West Point plant after a much larger spill in 2017. For details, read the news release from Ecology and check the related links.

Fisheries innovations credited with West Coast groundfish recovery

The dramatic recovery of many groundfish species along the West Coast is a testament to the innovation, cooperation and persistence by fisheries managers and fishermen alike under the landmark Magnuson-Stevens Act of 1976.

Pacific whiting, sorted by size
Photo: National Marine Fisheries Service

One of the latest innovations, formally approved last month by the National Marine Fisheries Service, is “electronic monitoring,” which allows the use of video and other equipment in place of the human observers needed to ensure the accuracy of harvest reports.

The faster-then-expected recovery of depleted populations — including canary rockfish, bocaccio, darkblotched rockfish, and Pacific Ocean perch — has led to dramatically increased harvest limits this year. NMFS estimates that increased fishing will add 900 jobs and $60 million in income this year alone. Recreational anglers are expected to go fishing an additional 219,000 times, mostly in California with some of those outings in Oregon and Washington, according to a news release.

Going from a federally declared disaster in 2000 to today’s recovery of most stocks was the result of a monumental change in fisheries management and fishing culture. One of the biggest changes was a shift to “catch shares,” in which each commercial fisherman receives a percentage of the allowable harvest each year, an issue I first wrote about a decade ago (Water Ways, Dec. 11, 2009).

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Amusing Monday: Watching wildlife around the world

You can learn a lot about the birds and the bees — not to mention the bears and a whole lot of other creatures — by watching a live telecast among hundreds of webcams fixed on wildlife in every corner of the globe.

Each location has its own story and its own history, but many existing webcams are coming under the support and networking of Explore.org, an educational program funded by the Annenberg Foundation, with special attention from Charles Annenberg Weingarten.

One live cam is situated near an osprey nest on Hog Island (first video), an educational nature camp in Maine that has been associated with Audubon since 1936. Today, Hog Island Audubon Camp is operated by Project Puffin, which is part of National Audubon Society’s Science Division.

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Hood Canal blooms again, as biologists assess role of armored plankton

In what is becoming an annual event, portions of Hood Canal have changed colors in recent days, the result of a large bloom of armored plankton called coccolithophores.

Coccolithophore from Hood Canal’s Dabob Bay viewed with scanning electron microscope.
Image: Brian Bill, Northwest Fisheries Science Center

Teri King, a plankton expert with Washington Sea Grant, has been among the first to take notice of the turquoise blooms each year they occur.

“Guess who is back?” Teri wrote in the blog Bivalves for Clean Water. “She showed up June 24 in Dabob Bay and has been shining her Caribbean blueness throughout the bay and spreading south toward Quilcene Bay.”

Yesterday, I noticed a turquoise tinge in Southern Hood Canal from Union up to Belfair, although the color was not as intense as I’ve seen in past years.

The color is the result of light reflecting off elaborate platelets of calcium carbonate, called coccoliths, which form around the single-celled coccolithophores. The species in Hood Canal is typically Emiliania huxleyi.

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Amusing Monday: Mysterious shipworms brought back for study

The vessel, though her masts be firm,
Beneath her copper bears a worm….

Far from New England’s blustering shore,
New England’s worm her hulk shall bore,
And sink her in the Indian seas,
Twine, wine, and hides, and China teas.

Selected lines from “Though All the Fates,” Henry David Thoreau

Tall-masted wooden ships of a bygone era were often plagued by shipworms, which could turn a ship’s hull into something resembling swiss cheese. Many shipwrecks were blamed on structural weakness caused by shipworms, of which there are an amazing variety of species.

Shipworms are not actually worms but long, skinny clams. It turns out that the slimy mollusks are well known among residents of the Philippines, where the elongated clams are hunted in unusual places and eaten with delight. Stories of strange freshwater shipworms in the Philippines have been tracked down by researchers, who are making new discoveries about these ancient creatures.

In a research paper published last month, an international team of scientists reported on a shipworm that eats rocks. Like the shipworms that eat wood, this newly described species uses the shell at the end of its body for burrowing. The difference is that the rock-boring clam seems to grind up and digest rocks while excreting sandy fragments.

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Orca researchers spot newest member of J pod and find that she’s a girl!

UPDATE, JULY 8, 2019

The Center for Whale Research today released notes of Friday’s encounter with J pod, including the newest one, J-56.
——

The baby killer whale first seen at the end of May (Water Ways, June 1) has been identified as a female by the Center for Whale Research, after members of J and K pods were observed in the San Juan Islands on Friday.

The newest Puget Sound orca, J-56, with her mother, J-31, a 24-year-old female named Tsuchi.
Photo: Center for Whale Research

It was the first time that any of the orcas have been seen in Puget Sound waters in more than two months, the center noted in a written statement. Years ago, all three pods of southern residents would typically return to the inland waters in late May or early June. Their absence in recent years has been blamed on a shortage of chinook salmon — their primary prey.

On Friday, the arrival of J and K pods was welcomed by a crowd of people at Lime Kiln State Park on the west side of San Juan Island, where observers are able to watch the whales from shore.

“Near Pile Point, San Juan Island, the new mother J-31 swam around in circles with her new calf and three other young females,” the center reported. “It looked very much like they were showing off this new addition to the population. In a very brief moment, the baby popped to the surface with its underside exposed, revealing it was a female!

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Drought continues with fear of fire throughout Western Washington

Severe drought is settling in across most of Western Washington — including Kitsap County — where dry conditions raise the risks of wildfire, and low streamflows could impair salmon spawning this fall.

Western Washington is one of the few places in the country with “severe” drought.
Map: U.S. Drought Monitor, Richard Tinker, U.S. agencies.

Scattered showers and drizzle the past few days have done little to reverse a drying trend as we go into what is normally the driest period of the year, from now through August. As of today, the fire danger is moderate, but warmer weather could increase the risk substantially within a day or two.

The topsy-turvy weather that I observed across the Kitsap Peninsula last quarter (Water Ways, April 2) continued through June. Normally, the southwest corner of the peninsula near Holly receives twice the precipitation as the north end near Hansville. But that didn’t happen last month, when the monthly rainfall total was 0.61 inches in Holly and 0.83 inches in Hansville. Silverdale, about halfway between, received 1.11 inches in June.

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