Category Archives: Sea life

Impassioned task force faces the challenge of saving endangered orcas

Passion for saving Puget Sound’s killer whales is driving an exhaustive search for ways to restore the whales to health and rebuild their population, but hard science must contribute to the search for workable answers.

I recently updated readers on the efforts of the Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force, appointed by the governor to change the course of a population headed toward extinction. Read the story I wrote for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound or the version reprinted in the Kitsap Sun.

I began the story by mentioning the term “no silver bullet,” a term I have heard numerous times from folks involved in the task force. They are emphasizing how difficult it is to restore a damaged ecosystem, while orcas wait for food at the top of a complex food web. All sorts of people are looking for a quick fix, something that will increase the number of Chinook salmon — the orcas’ primary prey — within their range, which includes the Salish Sea and Pacific Ocean from Vancouver Island to Northern California.

The quickest and simplest answers:

  • Increase the number of fish produced in hatcheries,
  • Kill large numbers of seals and sea lions that eat Chinook,
  • Tear down four Snake River dams, or
  • Strategically reduce fishing that catches Chinook before the whales have a chance to eat them.

If any of these ideas seems like a quick-and-easy solution to you, then read my story for an overview of the problem and then go deeper by reading up on the subject. Each of these issues is subject to extensive scientific and political debate.

While my story touched on these issues, I will try to cover them more thoroughly as the task force goes about its deliberations and develops an emergency plan scheduled for completion this fall. The task force is also asked to develop a long-term strategy for the whales, which probably involves restoring a healthy food web — an effort coordinated by the Puget Sound Partnership.

I have to admit that I was amused by an online comment in the Kitsap Sun: “It is an easy fix,” the commenter asserted. “Stop all salmon fishing for several years; yes, including the Indians.”

I’m not sure the writer even read my story, but I have heard this simple proposal before. It definitely sounds easy, and eliminating all salmon fishing would be an interesting experiment. But the tremendous economic, political and cultural consequences makes the idea a nonstarter. Besides, the whales wouldn’t even touch the large numbers of chum, pink, sockeye and coho salmon produced naturally and in fish hatcheries throughout the Northwest.

Some experts do believe that fishing should be curtailed further to protect wild Chinook and other “weak stocks.” Certainly the benefits and problems of hatcheries remain a subject of ongoing scientific and social debate. The killer whales bring a new urgency to the discussion of salmon management — but humans remain part of the equation.

I can see how the killer whale task force is trying to maneuver through a minefield of political, economic and social issues to solve an environmental problem. Solutions must be logical and convincing to build enough support for action — even when the goal is to save something universally cherished, such as the killer whales. And so passion and hope continue to be blended with science, and we will see what comes out in the end.

At the last task force meeting, the death of a newborn orca was on the minds of many members, as national and international news reports described the mother, named Tahlequah, carrying her dead calf for days on end. The members also were thinking about a 3-year-old calf that was near death from malnutrition as experts prepared to take steps to bring her food and medication (NOAA Fisheries website).

While the task force’s efforts are focused on what the science tells us, Stephanie Solien, co-chair of the group, started off the meeting with a heartfelt discussion about how people are feeling a desperate need to help the orcas.

“What the J-pod orcas have clearly shown in their actions speak more profoundly than any human words,” she said. “This is what they have told the world: It is human actions that are responsible for the dead and stillborn calves, the sick and starving adults and the declining condition of the environment in which they live.

“As the grieving mother orca labored through the Salish Sea carrying her dead calf without rest, she brought us all to attention, demonstrating that her future and the future of her species is in our hands right now…,” she said. “We are together in what we feel, and we must be together in our actions. The only option for her survival and for ours is to act collectively with one strong determined will.”

You can listen to Stephanie reading her entire statement at 6:23 in the first video on this page.

Maia Bellon, director of the Washington Department of Ecology, was among others who reflected personally on Tahlequah’s loss and the human connection.

“There is nothing worse than a parent who has to let their child go, and many of us have had those experiences within our lives,” Maia said, adding that emotion can be a force to bring people together with a common goal.

“I am feeling strength from this room and know that we have a chance here and now to seize the opportunity to make a difference for the future of the killer whale,” she continued. “I close by giving a scientific fact: Killer whales need to eat to survive. That’s science. We have an obligation from the bottom of our food web all the way to the top to make this happen. And that includes restoring and sustaining a healthy ecosystem.”

Maia’s statement begins at 35:28 in the first video, and there are other heartfelt thoughts offered as each task force member has a chance to speak during the introductions. The remainder of the first video covers initial options presented by the leaders of the task force’s working groups.

The second video includes reports that followed a break-out session in which members gave their opinions about the various options. A public comment period begins at 40:35 in that video.

An orca mom’s mourning adds new clue to another mysterious death

UPDATE: Aug. 11, 9 p.m.

After I posted this blog entry this evening, I received this note from Ken Balcomb:

Hello all,
J35 frolicked past my window today with other J pod whales, and she looks vigorous and healthy. The ordeal of her carrying a dead calf for at least seventeen days and 1,000 miles is now over, thank goodness. She probably has lost two others since her son was born in 2010, and the loss of her most recent may have been emotionally hard on her.

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It has been heart-breaking to follow the story of the 20-year-old orca mom named Tahlequah (J-35), who has been carrying her dead newborn calf for nearly three weeks. But Tahlequah’s travails might add new insight into the mysterious death of a 3-year-old orca, who washed up on the Long Beach Peninsula in 2012.

Ken Balcomb, the dean of killer whale research in Puget Sound, has always maintained that the young whale, designated L-112, was killed by a concussive blast of some sort that caused massive trauma inside her skull. He suspects that military operations were to blame.

A 3-year-old orca known as L-112 shown here before her death in 2012.
Photo: Center for Whale Research

The Canadian Navy acknowledges that it was conducting exercises near the U.S.-Canada border up to seven days before the dead whale was found. The activities, which included the use of sonar and detonations, started 85 miles northwest of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and ended up inside the Strait. The detonations were said to be too small to kill a whale except at a very close range.

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Spring Chinook return to the Skokomish River to start a new salmon run

Spring Chinook salmon are being reared at a new hatchery on the North Fork of the Skokomish River. The hatchery is owned and operated by Tacoma Public Utilities. // Photo: Tacoma Public Utilities

For the first time in decades, an early run of Chinook salmon has returned to the Skokomish River in southern Hood Canal.

These bright, torpedo-shaped hatchery fish are the first of what is expected to become an ongoing run of spring Chinook as part of a major salmon-restoration effort related to the Cushman Hydro Project. Eventually, the salmon run could provide fishing opportunities for humans and orcas.

“it is pretty exciting,” said Dave Herrera, fish and wildlife policy adviser for the Skokomish Tribe. “Our objective has always been to restore the salmon populations that were once here.”

Andrew Ollenburg, Cushman fish facilities manager for Tacoma Public Utilities, reported that 19 spring Chinook — 15 females and four males — have been captured at the base of the lower Cushman Dam on the North Fork of the Skokomish River. As of this week, biologists estimated that 50 or 60 spring Chinook were in the river farther below the dam — and more are coming.

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Starfish continue to baffle researchers with mysterious disease

Five years after a mysterious disease began killing millions of starfish and turning their tissues to mush, the decimated population has yet to recover. Meanwhile, researchers continue to struggle to identify a cause for the disease, which appears to have uncertain ties to viruses and possibly environmental conditions.

In Puget Sound, it’s not as easy as it once was to find a diseased sea star, which seems to be a promising sign until you consider how many have died. As I learned last week during an outing to Lofall in North Kitsap, the total number of starfish remains low compared to four years ago, and recovery has been minimal, if at all.

Under the Lofall dock, volunteers have observed that the number of sea stars is still low, but sick ones are no longer common.
Photo: Christopher Dunagan

Local volunteers have been observing sea stars at Lofall since the beginning of 2014. I first visited the site the following summer with three retired women who lead the monitoring effort there. (See Water Ways , June 17, 2014.) They are still making regular trips at low tide, counting and measuring the starfish and looking for signs of disease.

“The numbers are way down,” noted volunteer Barb Erickson as we stood beneath the Lofall dock last Friday, “but we haven’t seen many sick ones. We also aren’t seeing the little ones.”

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Getting lost in the tangle of connections called the Puget Sound food web

I’m increasingly amazed at the interwoven nature of the Puget Sound food web. Whenever I become focused on a specific species — Chinook salmon, for example — one of the first questions I ask is: What is this species eating?

I soon learn that the answer depends on the size of the individual doing the eating. Prey for a baby salmon is much different from prey for an adult.

If you really want to learn about why a species is doing well or poorly, you need to look beyond prey availability for your species of interest and find out what the prey are eating as well. Healthy prey must be abundant for any species to do well, so the prey of the prey must also do well.

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Amusing Monday: Salish Sea photo contest shows diversity of local species

Nearly 900 photographs highlighting the diversity and biodiversity of our inland waterways were submitted to the “Salish Sea in Focus” photo contest, which just announced the winners yesterday.

“One Fish, Two Fish” by Nirupam Nigam of Hoquiam
First place in Fish category, “Salish Sea in Focus” photo contest

“We’re thrilled with the quality and diversity of the photos — not only the winners but throughout the whole contest,” said Justin Cox, communications director for The SeaDoc Society, which sponsored the contest. “They capture the Salish Sea beautifully, which is everything we hoped for when we envisioned ‘Salish Sea In Focus.’”

The Grand Prize in the contest was awarded to Bruce Kerwin of Bainbridge Island, whose photo shows the furled tentacles of a giant Pacific octopus at Sund Rock on Hood Canal. Other winners were named in five categories plus an additional award for photographers under age 18.

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Amusing Monday: Vancouver, B.C., youth takes three photo awards

Liron Gertsman, 17, of Vancouver, British Columbia, surprised even the judges in Audubon’s annual photo contest. Liron submitted the best photo among youth entries, according to the judges. But beyond that, he was awarded the only two honorable mentions given in his division. The judges themselves were unaware of the trifecta until the winners were tallied.

Grand prize winner: Great gray owl by Steve Mattheis, 2018 Audubon Photography Awards

“Judging is anonymous, so we had no idea that Liron swept the entire youth category, not only the winning image but also two honorable mentions,” Sabine Meyer, one of six judges in the contest, said in an email. “His photos exhibit quite a sophisticated and mature eye, and he is very deliberate in his image making – blurs, extreme close up, monochromatic palette with a backlit bird.

“He is not afraid to push the conventions of classical bird photography aside and invent his own visual vocabulary,” she said. “It’s rare, at any age! I look forward to seeing what he produces in the years to come and hope that other young photographers get inspired and pick up an interest in birds and bird conservation.”

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The lives of salmon are complex, leading to threats but also hope

Salmon have a tough life. Not only must they escape predators and find enough food to eat — as do all wild animals — but they must also make the physiologically taxing transition from freshwater to saltwater and then back again to start a new generation.

In a four-part series being published in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, I explain some of the latest research findings about how chinook, coho and steelhead are struggling to survive in the waters of Puget Sound.

Chinook salmon // Photo: Zureks, Wikimedia commons

The first part is called “Opening the black box: What’s killing Puget Sound’s salmon and steelhead?” It describes the Salish Sea Marine Survival Project, a major research effort involving more than 200 scientists in the U.S. and Canada. The effort is coordinated by Long Live the Kings in the U.S. and by the Pacific Salmon Foundation in Canada.

The second part, titled “Size means survival for salmon,” takes a look at salmon and steelhead’s place in the food web from the “bottom up,” as they say. Specifically, what are the fish eating and what is limiting their access to a healthy food supply?

Still to come are discussions about predation (“top down”) in Part 3, and other factors that affect survival, such as disease and chemical exposure, in Part 4.

Our goal for this project has been to describe the important research findings in careful detail without getting lost in complex scientific analysis. I also describe, at the end of Part 1, some new findings regarding potential competition among salmon for food in the Pacific Ocean.

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Dry weather started early this year amid cloudy conditions

UPDATE:
July 5. Greg Johnson, who lives in Hansville and manages the Skunk Bay Weather station there, said the unusually high rainfall in June for Hansville, compared to the rest of the peninsula, was the result of the Puget Sound convergence zone settling over the area on several occasions. Weather conditions brought localized squalls during the month, he said, adding, “This is very unusual for us.”

The reading at Greg’s weather station, 1.98 inches for the month of June, was somewhat lower than the 2.26 inches recorded at Kitsap PUD’s weather station in Hansville.
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Cool, often cloudy conditions have helped obscure the fact that very little rain has fallen on the Kitsap Peninsula over the past two months.

Precipitation in Holly (click to enlarge)

Now that we are in the fourth quarter of the water year, we can see that rainfall levels for this year will be close to average for most areas on the peninsula. What might not be recognized, however, is that April was well above average, while May and June were well below average.

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Two deaths, no births for Southern Resident orcas over the past year

Two deaths — no births. The annual census of Puget Sound’s resident orcas shows a continuing decline in their population, as the normally social killer whales focus their attention on finding enough food to survive.

Crewser, or L-92, a 23-year-old male orca who died in recent months. // Photo: Dave Ellifrit, CWR

The latest whale to go missing and presumed dead is 23-year-old Crewser, or L-92, according to Ken Balcomb, director of the Center for Whale Research. Crewser was last seen alive by CWR staff in November. That was before coastal observers reported that he appeared to be missing from L pod earlier this year. On June 11, Ken and his fellow researchers got a good look at both J and L pods in the San Juan Islands and concluded that L-92 was indeed gone. (Check out the CWR report on L-92.)

Crewser was one of the so-called Dyes Inlet whales, a group of 19 orcas that spent a month in the waters between Bremerton and Silverdale in 1997. (I described that event for the Kitsap Sun in 2007.) Crewser was only 2 years old when he was with his mom, Rascal or L-60, during the Dyes Inlet visit.

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