Category Archives: Sea life

Legal settlement could help protect salmon eggs incubating in gravel

Washington Department of Ecology has agreed to take steps to protect wild salmon eggs incubating in gravel by developing entirely new water-quality standards to control fine sediment going into streams.

The new standards, yet to be developed, could ultimately limit silty runoff coming from logging operations, housing construction and other operations that can affect water quality. The idea is maintain adequate oxygen to salmon eggs, thus increasing the rate of survival as well as the health of the young fish.

The legal agreement with Ecology grew out of a lawsuit brought by Northwest Environmental Advocates against the federal Environmental Protection Agency. NWEA claimed that the EPA had failed to consult with natural resource agencies while reviewing changes in state water-quality standards, as required by the Endangered Species Act.

The consultation process — which typically involves the National Marine Fisheries Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, or both — is designed to make sure that endangered species are not put at risk of extinction by any actions involving the federal government.

The lawsuit covered a host of water-quality standards developed under the federal Clean Water Act and approved by Washington state since 2003. The U.S. District Court in Seattle ruled that water-quality standards adopted more than six years earlier were beyond the statute of limitations, but some standards will now be reviewed through consultation procedures.

The settlement process itself has become a political issue, according to environmental groups, as I will describe in a moment.

The levels of ammonia allowed by Ecology in both freshwater and seawater must go through a formal review under ESA within three years, as spelled out in the settlement agreement. Ammonia is a constituent of sewage effluent, livestock operations and some industrial processes. In high enough levels, it can be toxic to fish.

Melissa Gildersleeve, a manager in Ecology’s Water Quality Program, said she believes the state’s current standards for ammonia are adequate to protect salmon and should be confirmed through the upcoming review process — although NWEA contends that the standards are out of date and should be revised.

Gildersleeve said water-quality criteria for fine-sediment is something that Ecology has wanted to adopt, but experts are finding it difficult to develop a measurable standard that ensures that salmon eggs are getting adequate oxygen.

“We have spent a number of years working on this issue, and we realize that there are challenges to monitor it,” she said. “It was on our to-do list. Now we are trying to figure out how to do that and then go through a formal rule-making process and get comments.”

Under the settlement, Ecology has three years to announce a formal proposal and another year to adopt the new standard for fine sediments. The state’s turbidity standards for streams, which touches on the issue of sediment, will remain in place after adoption of new standards addressing adequate oxygen for salmon eggs.

Another issue in the settlement is how the EPA should deal with “natural conditions” — such as stream temperature — that do not allow salmon or other species to thrive. For example, studies may reveal that a portion of a stream can never meet the approved temperature criteria — even if the stream were to be restored to a pristine condition. A judge in Oregon has ruled that any exemption from the normal criteria because of “natural conditions” is effectively a new water-quality standard.

The EPA agreed to review the process in both Washington and Oregon to determine what steps should be taken when states propose an exemption based on natural conditions. One option would cause an exemption to trigger a biological review and public comments to make sure that the exemption is justified.

The settlement, approved yesterday by U.S. District Judge Ricardo Martinez in Seattle, could have been completed much sooner were it not for a constraining policy issued by former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, according to Allison LaPlante, attorney for NWEA. She noted that this was the first settlement in the country to make it through the EPA’S cumbersome review process.

The new policy was issued about a year ago, when Pruitt said it would ensure due process as opposed to a “sue-and-settle” approach. Among other things, it requires publication of any proposed legal settlement along with an extended public comment period.

“The Pruitt policy added more than a year to this settlement process and only resulted in six public comments, all of which supported protecting salmon,” LaPlante said in a news release. “It’s proven to be yet another excuse for agency delays in complying with the Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act at a time when we can ill afford it, given the dwindling populations of wild salmon and of the orca whales that depend upon salmon.”

Editorial writer Carl Segerstrom discusses the ongoing Pruitt Policy in High Country News.

Nina Bell, executive director of NWEA, has been outspoken about what she considers a failure of environmental agencies to aggressively protect the environment.

“The result of our lawsuit forces EPA and Ecology to take actions to protect threatened and endangered salmon that these agencies should have taken many years ago,” she said in a news release. “For all of the lip service paid by the agencies to saving salmon, they are consistently short on taking any real actions.

“When species are struggling to survive,” she added, “agencies should not be dragging their feet to do what the law requires.”

Amusing Monday: To survive, penguins have adopted odd behaviors

One of the strangest animals on Earth is the emperor penguin, a bird that exhibits some remarkable behaviors to help it survive under the harshest conditions.

One might wish that the penguins would fly away to a warmer area when the frigid cold of winter strikes the Antarctic each year, but this bird doesn’t fly at all. Instead, groups of penguins huddle together on open ice during the long winters. They take turns moving into the middle of the group to escape the worst of the chill winds and to warm up just a little.

Females lay a single egg and quickly abandon it, leaving the males to care for the egg while the females go hunting. For up to two months, the males will balance the egg on their feet, keeping the egg warm in a feathery “brood pouch.” During this time, the males will eat nothing while the females travel many miles to the sea to gorge themselves on fish, squid and krill. When the females return, they are ready to feed their newborn chicks some of this partially digested food, while the males are free to go and find food for themselves.

While these unusual birds can’t fly, their skills under water are quite amazing — and amusing. Their unique physiology allows them to dive much deeper than any other water bird, stay under water for more than 20 minutes, and eventually zoom back to the surface at an incredible rate, as shown in the first video on this page.

BirdNote, a regular program on many public radio stations, recently focused on penguins and the research of Jessica Meir, who wanted to know how penguins were able to swim so deep. Here’s the audio:

      1. 181010-Deep-diving-Emperor-Penguins

In an article in U.S. News and World Report, Jessica wrote, “One study revealed that diving emperor penguins have heart rates significantly lower than that of their heart rates at rest, During one emperor penguin’s impressive 18-minute dive, its heart rate decreased to as low as three beats per minute, with a rate of six beats per minute lasting for over five minutes during the dive. As heart rate is a very good indicator of how much oxygen is utilized, decreased heart rates during dives correspond to conservation of oxygen, enabling the animals to dive for a longer time.”

By the way, Jessica built upon her interest in science and expertise in physiology to become an astronaut in NASA’s space program. She tells her story in the video posted at the bottom of this page.

For other interesting tidbits about the life of emperor penguins, check out the website “Just Fun Facts.”

In a previous discussion about penguins, I talked about the large number of cartoon artists who decided that penguins should be friends with polar bears. This became an interesting and off-the-wall partnership, considering that polar bears and penguins never get together in the wild. These cartoonists have simply ignored the fact that polar bears live in the Arctic on the top side of the world, while penguins live in the Antarctic on the bottom. See Water Ways, Aug. 1, 2011. (Some of the attached videos have been removed from YouTube since that original post.)

On another occasion, I wrote about an orphan penguin found alone on a beach in New Zealand, more than 2,500 miles north of its home in Antarctica. I recounted the story of this penguin, dubbed Happy Feet, while following its rehabilitation and return to the wild via the Internet. See Water Ways, June 26, 2011.

The second video is a compilation of humorous situations involving penguins. Again, the video below shows Jessica Meir explaining at the USA Science and Engineering Festival how she made her life transition from science kid to professional biologist to future space explorer.

Efforts continue to retrieve orca Lolita, despite legal setback

Although the Endangered Species Act may encourage extraordinary efforts to save Puget Sound’s killer whales from extinction, it cannot be used to bring home the last Puget Sound orca still in captivity, a court has ruled.

A 51-year-old killer whale named Lolita, otherwise called Tokitae, has been living in Miami Seaquarium since shortly after her capture in 1970. Her clan — the Southern Resident killer whales — were listed as endangered in 2005, but the federal listing specifically excluded captive killer whales.

In 2013, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) successfully petitioned the National Marine Fisheries Service to have Lolita included among the endangered whales. But the endangered listing has done nothing to help those who hoped Lolita’s owners would be forced to allow a transition of the whale back into Puget Sound.

This week, the U.S. Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta reiterated its earlier finding that Lolita has not been injured or harassed to the point that her captivity at the Miami Seaquarium violates the federal Endangered Species Act, or ESA.

Howard Garrett of Orca Network, who has been trying for years to offer Lolita a “retirement home” in Puget Sound (where her family still roams), said it appears that proponents of Lolita’s return have exhausted their options under the ESA.

Howie told me that the court system may be caught in a quandary, because if the ruling went another way, someone would need to be in charge of returning Lolita to the wild. Howie actually has a plan to do just that, first by bringing her to an enclosed cove in Puget Sound. But the 22-foot-long whale’s situation is like no other — which is something that the appeals court acknowledges in its latest ruling denying reconsideration (PDF 46 kb):

“As an initial matter, Lolita presents a unique case, because she:

  • “(1) is of advanced age at 51, having surpassed the median life expectancy for wild, female Southern Resident Killer Whales;
  • “(2) has received medical care for approximately 48 years and continues to receive medical care;
  • “(3) has already been subject to an unsuccessful federal challenge to the conditions of her captivity; and
  • “(4) has no realistic means for returning to the wild without being harmed.”

As in the appeals court’s first ruling (PDF 81 kb), the finding was that the Endangered Species Act has to do with protecting species from extinction, and a lawsuit could be successful only if plaintiffs can show that an individual whale is at risk of serious harm — or “take” as the law calls it. “The term ‘take’ means to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, kill, trap, capture or collect,” the law states.

PETA’s lawsuit lists 13 injuries — including physiological and psychological issues related to living in a small tank with Pacific white-sided dolphins and blisters caused by excessive sun exposure — but none of them rise to the level of “take” defined in the law, the court states. See also the blog post in Water Ways from June 8, 2016, regarding the original judge’s ruling in the matter.

The welfare of animals in captivity is actually governed by the Animal Welfare Act, the court said. In a second series of legal actions, PETA has been trying to convince the courts that Miami Seaquarium is violating the AWA with an undersized tank for a killer whale, a lack of suitable companionship for Lolita and the excessive sun exposure on her skin.

PETA has appealed a district court ruling that went against the organization.

Meanwhile, supporters of Lolita’s return are putting some hope in efforts by the Lummi Nation, an Indian tribe near Bellingham, which claims that Lolita’s capture was essentially a kidnapping. Some say the tribe may assert legal rights established by Indian treaties in the 1850s. See Water Ways, March 14.

“We have a lot of faith in the Lummis,” Howie said, declining to discuss a specific course of action. “There is a lot of planning and fact-finding and strategizing, and it’s in midstream right now.”

I tried unsuccessfully today to reach the project manager who represents the Lummi Tribe in the matter of Lolita.

Hood Canal avoids a major fish kill following unwelcome conditions

Southern Hood Canal avoided a major fish kill this year, but for a few days in September it looked like conditions were set for low-oxygen waters to rise to the surface, leaving fish in a critical state with no place to go, experts say.

Data from the Hoodsport buoy show the rise of low-oxygen waters to the surface over time (purple color in top two graphs). // Graphic: NANOOS

Seth Book, a biologist with the Skokomish Tribe, has been keeping a close watch on a monitoring buoy at Hoodsport. Dissolved oxygen in deep waters reached a very low concentration near the end of September, raising concerns that if these waters were to rise to the surface they could suddenly lead to a deadly low-oxygen condition. This typically happens when south winds blow the surface waters to the north.

“I started asking around the community to see if anyone had seen evidence of low DO (fish at surface; dead fish; deep fish being observed or found in fishing nets at surface; diver observations) and luckily I had no reports,” Seth wrote to me in an email.

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Ongoing lack of rainfall raises concerns for chum, coho salmon

We’ve just gone through one of the driest five-month periods on record in Kitsap County, yet the total precipitation for entire water year was fairly close to average.

Water year 2018, which ended Sunday, offers a superb example of the extreme differences in precipitation from one part of the Kitsap Peninsula to another:

  • In Hansville — at the north end of the peninsula — the total rainfall for the year reached 35.2 inches, about 3.5 inches above average.
  • In Silverdale — about midway from north to south — the total rainfall was recorded as 43.1 inches, about 5 inches below average.
  • In Holly — near the south end — the total rainfall came in at 82 inches, about 3.3 inches above average.

The graphs of precipitation for the three areas show how this year’s rainfall tracked with the average rainfall through the entire year. The orange line depicts accumulated rainfall for water year 2018, while the pink line represents the average. Click on the images to enlarge and get a better view.

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New film celebrates the history of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, and I was pleased to see that producer/director Shane Anderson and Pacific Rivers are allowing the documentary “Run Wild Run Free” to be shown online for three days before the film goes back into limited showings.

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Amusing Monday: Sea otters often play a key role in kelp forests

Last week was National Sea Otter Awareness Week, recognized by many aquariums, marine educators and environmental groups across the country. Although I was on vacation last week, I thought I could still bring up some interesting facts about these amusing and ecologically important creatures.

I guess I should mention first that sea otters are rarely spotted in Puget Sound. If you do see an otter — whether in saltwater or freshwater — it is most likely a river otter. I’ll outline some differences between the two further on in this blog post.

Occasionally, sea otters have been sighted in Puget Sound as far south as Olympia, but their historical range is described as the outer coast from Alaska to California — including the Strait of Juan de Fuca west of Port Angeles, according to a new report (PDF 1.4 mb) by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

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Scarlett, the young orca, has gone missing and is presumed to be dead

A tenacious young orca named Scarlet, gravely emaciated for several weeks, has gone missing and is presumed dead.

Scarlet and her mother Slick head toward San Juan Island on Aug. 18. Scarlet is now missing.
Photo: Katy Foster, NOAA Fisheries, under federal permit

Scarlet, designated J-50, was last seen on Friday with her mother and other family members. Since then, observers have encountered her close relatives several times. Yet Scarlet, who was nearly 4 years old, has been nowhere to be found.

Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research, who maintains the official census of the Southern Resident killer whales, announced her death late yesterday.

“J-50 is missing and now presumed dead,” Ken wrote in a press release. “Her last known sighting was Friday, September 7, by our colleagues at NOAA, SeaDoc, and others. The Center for Whale Research has had a vessel on the water looking for J-50 for the past three days. We have seen all the other members of her family (i.e., J-16s) during these outings.”

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Capture and treatment being considered for young emaciated orca

A young orca, said to be on the threshold of death, could be captured for examination and possible medical treatment under a plan devised by federal biologists and other experts.

Scarlet, or J-50, follows close behind her mother Slick, or J-16, in this photo taken Aug. 18.
Photo: Katy Foster, NOAA Fisheries, under federal permit

The capture would be carried out when the 3-year-old female whale, known as J-50 or Scarlet, is found alone at some distance from her pod, according to officials with NOAA Fisheries. One option would be a quick examination and immediate treatment, but preparations also are being made for a possible relocation to an open-water netpen near Manchester in South Kitsap, where she would receive more extensive rehabilitation.

The idea of removing Scarlet from her close-knit family and orca community has received mixed reactions from a team of marine mammal experts, who were called together Monday to advise the federal agency. Meanwhile, some whale-advocacy groups have expressed strong opposition to the plan.

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Puget Sound Action Agenda makes a shift in restoration strategy

Puget Sound Partnership has honed its high-level game plan for restoring the Puget Sound ecosystem, including a sharp focus on 10 “vital signs” of ecological health.

The newly released draft of the Puget Sound Action Agenda has endorsed more than 600 specific “near-term actions” designed to benefit the ecosystem in various ways. Comments on the plan will be accepted until Oct. 15. Visit the Partnership’s webpage to view the Draft Action Agenda and access the comments page.

The latest Action Agenda for 2018-2022 includes a revised format with a “comprehensive plan” separate from an “implementation plan.” The comprehensive plan outlines the ecological problems, overall goals and administrative framework. The implementation plan describes how priorities are established and spells out what could be accomplished through each proposed action.

Nearly 300 near-term actions are listed at Tier 4, the highest level of priority, giving them a leg up when it comes to state and federal support, according to Heather Saunders Benson, Action Agenda manager. Funding organizations use the Action Agenda to help them determine where to spend their money.

The greatest change in the latest Action Agenda may be its focus on projects that specifically carry out “Implementation Strategies,” which I’ve been writing about on and off for nearly two years. Check out “Implementation Strategies will target Puget Sound ‘Vital Signs’” in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

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