Category Archives: Sea life

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.

Purchase of Big Beef Creek property preserves habitat, research projects

Nearly 300 acres along Big Beef Creek near Seabeck will be protected from development and could maintain its research facilities, thanks to a $3.5-million land purchase arranged by the Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group.

Sky view of Big Beef Creek Research Station, showing the Big Beef estuary and Hood Canal at the top.
Photo: Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group

The property, owned by the University of Washington, contains the Big Beef Creek Research Station, known for its studies of salmon and steelhead. The UW purchased the land, including most of the estuary, in 1965. Various research projects have continued there, despite the university’s decision to sell the property.

Mendy Harlow, executive director of the Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group, said she has been working with multiple funding agencies and nonprofit groups for two years to finalize the acquisition.

“Some funding sources only want to pay for estuary habitat,” she said. “Some don’t want to have any buildings on the site. Others have other priorities. But everybody had a great can-do attitude, and they all wanted to make this work.”

The future of the research station will depend on a feasibility study, which will assess who wants to use the facilities and how proposed operations can be accommodated along with plans to restore the ecosystem.

Land purchased from the University of Washington involves 13 parcels along Big Beef Creek, with Hood Canal at top.
Map: Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group

“We realize that we can’t have full restoration with buildings located in the flood plain,” Harlow said, “but people are already calling me to see if they can work with us. I feel the possibilities are very broad.”

The research station has multiple buildings, including some being used as office space. One building houses incubators designed to hatch salmon eggs. Nine large tanks are available for rearing fish of all sizes.

The facility also has an artificial spawning channel, used during the 1990s to observe salmon behavior. Freshwater ponds, once built for rearing chinook salmon, will undergo scrutiny for potential uses versus restoration back to a more natural condition, Harlow said.

The property is closed to the public, but planning efforts will consider public uses, including trails and recreational activities such as bird watching and fishing.

Big Beef Creek is also under consideration for an effort to restore a natural run of summer chum, a population that disappeared from Big Beef Creek in 1984. A decade later, the entire population of Hood Canal summer chum was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

In the late 1990s and into the 2000s, biologists attempted to restore the salmon run by using summer chum from the Quilcene River on the other side of Hood Canal. That experiment failed, despite successful restoration in other Hood Canal streams. Experts are still assessing the cause of the Big Beef Creek failure and may try again, perhaps with a different stock under different conditions — including better habitat, thanks to stream restoration in 2016 and 2017.

Although the Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group now owns the Big Beef property, a fish trap operated by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife will continue to be used by the agency to count salmon coming and going from Big Beef Creek. Those counts are used to predict salmon runs and set harvest levels in Hood Canal.

The property acquisition involved grants totaling $1.9 million from grant programs administered by the Recreation and Conservation Funding Board, the Salmon Recovery Funding Board and the Office of Estuary and Salmon Restoration. Another $980,000 came from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Fortera, a nonprofit organization, provided $152,000 for the initial purchase and used a loan guarantee from the Russell Family Foundation to buy two remaining parcels. Those properties will be transferred to HCSEG after about $400,000 is raised for the final purchase.

With the acquisition of the research station property, 90 percent of the land along Big Beef Creek below the Lake Symington dam is in public ownership or conservation status, Harlow said. The goal is to acquire more property to continue streamside restoration from the dam to Hood Canal while continuing to improve salmon habitat above the dam.

Without the purchase of the research station property, an important part of Hood Canal could have been lost to development, Harlow said.

“We have been involved with Big Beef Creek for a couple of decades now,” she said. “It is really wonderful to see things working out this way.”

Audubon warns that bird species are threatened by changing climate

Birds in Kitsap County and across the globe are telling us that the world is changing — and rarely in ways that benefit our avian friends.

Loss of habitat is affecting even our most common birds, according to a study published this month in the journal Science. Bird populations across North America have dropped by nearly 3 billion since 1970, a decline of 29 percent, the study says. Writer Rachael Lallensack of Smithsonian magazine does a good job putting the issue into perspective.

Coming on the heels of that abundance study is a forward-looking report by the National Audubon Society that focuses on the future of bird species, particularly with respect to climate change.

“Two-thirds of America’s birds are threatened with extinction from climate change,” said National Audubon President David Yarnold in a news release, “but keeping global temperatures down will help up to 76 percent of them.”

The Audubon report, called “Survival by Degrees: 389 Bird Species on the Brink” (PDF 3.9 mb), holds out hope, Yarnold said, “but first it’ll break your heart if you care about birds and what they tell us about the ecosystems we share with them. It’s a bird emergency.”

Being relatively mobile creatures, birds are good indicators of habitat changes, as they generally move north to seek temperatures suitable for their kind. They may find their new habitats already occupied, squeezed by space or not quite as conducive to reproductive success, given the stresses they face. The result is often a shrinking of their overall range.

“We never saw California scrub jays this far north,” said Gene Bullock, president of Kitsap Audubon Society. “Now they are nesting all along our coasts.

“We never saw Anna’s hummingbirds in the winter,” he added. “Now they are coming to winter feeders as far north as Cordova, Alaska.”

On the other hand, Gene told me, birds such as common nighthawks — identified by their nightly calls of “peent … peent … peent” as they move about — are largely gone from the Kitsap Peninsula.

The new report shows photographs of 22 “highly vulnerable species” for most of Kitsap County, 50 “moderate vulnerable speces,” 29 “low vulnerable species” and 37 “stable species.” The Rufus hummingbird, for example, is expected to disappear from the lowlands of Puget Sound as it loses 39 percent of its range in Western Washington and Western Oregon while increasing its range by 26 percent in Northern British Columbia, Canada. That’s under the best climate scenario that we can hope for at this point.

Adding to the climate-change problems for birds is the loss of forests to development throughout the Puget Sound region, Gene said. A decline in insect populations — in part because of pesticides — constrains the populations of some birds, while a dwindling number of forage fish constrains others.

“Audubon scientists are showing us pretty clearly that habitat loss is huge,” Gene said, “but in the long run climate change will be the number-one culprit as the ranges of birds continue to shrink. It’s affecting all of our species across the board.”

Brooke Bateman, senior climate scientist for National Audubon, led the study of climate-related effects, including sea level rise, urbanization, cropland expansion, drought, extreme spring heat, fire weather and heavy rain. The scientists examined 140 million bird records, including observational data from amateur bird watchers as well as professional field biologists.

“Birds are important indicator species, because if an ecosystem is broken for birds, it is or soon will be for people too,” she said. “When I was a child, my grandmother introduced me to the common loons that lived on the lake at my grandparent’s home in Northern Wisconsin. Those loons are what drive my work today, and I can’t imagine them leaving the U.S. entirely in summer — but that’s what we’re facing if trends continue.”

To help people understand the potential effects on birds where they live, Audubon experts created a zip-code-based tool call “Birds and Climate Visualizer.” The result is a listing of vulnerable species based on location and whether the temperature rises by 1.5, 2 or 3 degrees Celsius. Without major change, the temperature is certain to rise by 1.5 degrees by 2050, expert say.

The Audubon website also includes a report for each state. The Brief for Washington (PDF 4.2 mb), for example, predicts a major shakeup in the state’s biological communities. Changing the plants that will grow in a particular place changes the diversity of wildlife, including birds.

“By the end of the century under a 3-degree C (5.4-degree F) global warming scenario, approximately 30 percent of the state of Washington will transition to a different biome,” the brief states. “At present, the largest biome in the state is conifer forest, covering 59 percent of the state. By the end of the century, conifer forest will cover approximately 46 percent of the state.”

The report ends on a note of optimism: “We have the ability to reverse the direction of this massive threat. We can adapt, improve, and innovate; we can protect birds, the planet, and ourselves. We can power our cars, homes, cities, factories, farms, communities and economy with clean energy —without contributing to climate change.”

While striving to reduce climate change, people can take steps to improve the resilience of habitats, so that changes occur more slowly and birds have a chance to survive. Restoring coastal wetlands, for example, can provide refuge for birds as sea-level rise wipes out nesting areas. Cleaning up pollution and protecting floodplains can help birds adapt to increasing drought and extreme rain events, according to the report.

Gene Bullock, who has been involved in Kitsap Audubon for more than 15 years, says he has never seen stronger support for the organization, which is growing in membership and financial strength. Thanks to generous donations, Kitsap Audubon is playing an important role in preserving habitats throughout Kitsap County, including the Kitsap Forest and Bay Project (PDF 1.5 mb).

I expected Gene to tell me that concerns about climate change have become a central part of everything that Kitsap Audubon does — but that’s not the case. Aside from specific presentations and discussions about the threats to birds, the organization remains focused on learning about birds, watching them in the wild and having fun with fellow bird-watchers.

Monthly educational programs and field trips near and far are mainstays of the organization. Check out the Kitsap Audubon Society website and “The Kingfisher,” the monthly newsletter of Kitsap Audubon.

Gene says his organization is environmentally oriented, but members also realize that there is a risk from the “Chicken Little syndrome.”

“People are tired of hearing about apocalyptic gloom and doom,” he said. “You have to offer them hope and point the way to things they can do to help — and there are a lot of things you can do in your own backyard.”

To help birds in your neighborhood, he suggests that people stop using toxic chemicals, keep bird feeders clean, use decals to reduce window strikes and keep cats indoors.

In terms of climate change, the National Audubon Society makes these suggestions:

  • Reduce your use of energy, and ask elected officials to support energy-saving policies.
  • Ask elected officials to expand clean energy development, such as solar and wind power.
  • Encourage innovative and economic solutions to reduce carbon pollution, such as a fee on carbon in fuels and specific clean-energy standards for appliances and other devices.
  • Advocate for natural solutions, such as increasing wetlands and protecting forests and grasslands, which provide homes for birds. Grow native plants on your own property.

Amusing Monday: Pacific Research Expedition shown live on video

Deep-sea corals and sponges are the focus of an intense research program now exploring the seabed along the West Coast. Live video from the bottom of the ocean can be viewed via the research ship Reuben Lasker, owned by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

I’ve posted the two primary video feeds on this page, or you can link to the video pages associated with the 29-day expedition, which began a week ago and will continue until Nov. 7. Previous video recordings are often shown when live video is not available.

The research cruise is exploring the seabed off the Washington, Oregon and California coasts, as shown in the map below. Researchers are using Yogi, a tethered remotely operated vehicle (ROV), as well as SeaBED, an untethered autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV), to collect samples of corals and sponges and observe changes in previously surveyed sites.

“Recent advances in deep-ocean exploration have revealed spectacular coral gardens in the dark ocean depths, far from the sunny, shallow reefs most of us associate with corals,” states a description of the mission. “Similar explorations have revealed new and familiar species thriving where we once expected little activity.”

Proceeding from north to south, the sites to be surveyed (green dots) are Willapa Canyon head, North Daisy Bank, Sponge bycatch Oregon shell, Brush Patch, Humboldt and Mad River, and Mendocino Ridge before a layover Oct. 19-22, followed by Cordell Bank/Farallones, Cabrillo Canyon, West of Carmel Canyon, Monterey Bay, wind site, Santa Lucia Bank, Channel Islands and Catalina Basin.

One goal is to characterize habitats at 12 specific sites along the West Coast. That information could help the Pacific Fishery Management Council modify fishing regulations while protecting essential fish habitat. Survey data may also suggest feasible locations — and locations to avoid — when developing offshore wind power and other energy projects.

The expedition is a collaboration of NOAA, the Global Foundation for Ocean Exploration, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM). The expedition consists of two legs: from the Washington Coast to San Francisco, where a public event will be held at the Exploratorium Museum, followed by the second leg from San Francisco to San Diego.

“With every survey I’ve been a part of there’s a frantic flurry of last-minute logistics getting the expedition together and loading the ship,” Elizabeth Clarke, co-leader of the voyage, said in a news release. “Once we start the expedition, however, things settle down and we start each day excited, wondering what new discoveries we will find.”

As of today (Monday, Oct. 14), poor weather conditions had delayed activities on the bottom since last night. “We are looking to get back in the water tomorrow (10/14) evening, weather permitting,” states last night’s Twitter feed, @Discover_GFOE, which is the best way of keeping track of the voyage. You can also use Twitter #expresscruise.

Additional information:

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.