Category Archives: Sea life

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Orcas return to Puget Sound; critical habitat proposed for coast

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Capt. Jim Maya

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amusing Monday: ‘Serengeti’ TV series focuses on entertainment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Native Olympia oysters expected to gain a new foothold in Sinclair Inlet

A massive amount of oyster shell — some 1,500 cubic yards — will be dumped into Sinclair Inlet near Gorst next week to lay the groundwork for a healthy population of native Olympia oysters.

Native Olympia oysters are smaller and can easily fit inside the more common Pacific oyster shell. // Photo: Kitsap Sun

Limited numbers of Olympia oysters have been growing in Sinclair Inlet, hanging on since long ago, said Betsy Peabody, executive director of Puget Sound Restoration Fund, which is managing the operation. Existing oysters probably just need the right substrate for their larvae to attach, grow and ultimately expand the native oyster population.

The $300,000 project — which will deposit the equivalent of 150 dump-truck loads of Pacific oyster shells — will be the largest one-time application of shells anywhere in Puget Sound, Betsy told me. Her organization has undertaken similar projects in other areas, including Liberty Bay near Poulsbo, Dogfish Bay near Keyport, Dyes Inlet near Bremerton and Port Gamble Bay on Hood Canal.

The yellow area marks the location in Sinclair Inlet where oyster shell will be placed.
Map: Puget Sound Restoration Fund

The shells, which came from commercial oyster farms, will be washed off a 200-foot barge using a jet of water beginning Tuesday and taking up to four days, according to the current schedule. The shell will cover some 15 acres of tidelands toward the middle of the inlet where Highway 166 branches off Highway 16.

This washing process typically creates a patchwork of shell covering about 80 percent of the bottom while 20 percent remains bare, according to plans for the project. The thickness of shell on the bottom will vary, reaching up to 3 inches in some places. No eelgrass or other sensitive vegetation was found during surveys of the tidelands to be covered. The property is owned by Kitsap County.

Historic locations of major Olympia oyster beds in Puget Sound. (circa 1850)
Map: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

In the early 1900s, Sinclair Inlet was used as an 122-acre oyster reserve for protecting seed stock, which could be purchased by commercial oyster growers. Oyster reserves throughout Puget Sound were largely forgotten after Pacific oysters — a different species imported from Japan — began to dominate the oyster market.

Olympias went extinct in some areas, killed by pollution, shoreline development or other factors. In a few areas, habitat was largely undisturbed and the original oyster species persevered. But many embayments, including Sinclair Inlet, were able to support only a fraction of their historic populations.

“Olys evolved in this area and managed to maintain a foothold in the most surprising areas, despite what we’ve thrown at them over time,” Betsy said. “They are tough little critters. You can even find them in places where everything else is plastic. Building back their densities seems like a good thing to do.”

Oysters have a number of good qualities besides being a favorite food of many people. They can filter out plankton that can trigger low-oxygen conditions. Plankton also reduce sunlight needed for critical vegetation, such as eelgrass.

The 19 areas in Puget Sound declared a high priority for Olympia oyster restoration.
Map: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has designated Sinclair Inlet as one of 19 priority restoration sites for Olympia oysters in the Puget Sound region. See “Plan for Rebuilding Olympia Oyster (Ostrea lurida) Populations in Puget Sound…”(PDF 559 kb)

In natural oyster beds, young oysters are able to set and grow on the shells of their ancestors, often forming oyster beds or reefs that help perpetuate the substrate for future generations. Sedimentation and damage to the shoreline can interrupt the process and eliminate the substrate needed for the oyster to survive. Putting down a lot of shell to create new substrate has proven to be the best way to boost the population in most areas of Puget Sound.

If the Olympia oysters do well in Sinclair Inlet, eventually more shell could be brought in to expand the growing area, Betsy said. If, however, natural production of oyster larvae is not enough, PSRF could develop a broodstock program by utilizing its shellfish hatchery near Manchester, as has been done for other areas. If that were to happen, adequate numbers of Olympia oysters from Sinclair Inlet would be used to produce the oyster seed, thus maintaining the genetic diversity of the inlet.

In 2010, Puget Sound Restoration Fund established a goal of restoring 100 acres of Olympia oyster habitat with shell placed in bays where the native oysters are expected to do well. The Sinclair Inlet project will bring the total to 85 acres, with other areas in the planning stage to help the group meet its goal by the end of next year.

About half of the $300,000 being used for the Sinclair Inlet project came from the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service, with other funding from the Washington Department of Ecology, Kitsap County and PSRF. The Suquamish Tribe also participated in the project.

Other information:

Amusing Monday: ‘Shaaark!’ cartoon raises public awareness

Jacques, the main character in the cartoon “Shaaark!,” made an appearance this summer in a new video that tells the story of his creator, Australian Phil Watson. I’ve posted this video first on this page, followed by another recent video by Watson, who developed a comic strip followed by a series of cartoons featuring the foibles and fables of sharks.

“I do want to use my cartoons to entertain people and help them to see that sharks aren’t as scary as they may have thought,” Watson was quoted as saying in an interview with Oliver Feist of Stop-Finning.com.

In one cartoon, a young shark is frightened by a bolt of lightning striking the sea. He looks to his father for comfort. “Don’t worry,” says the parent. “You’ve got more chance of being taken by a human.”

In another cartoon, a shark sits and watches television from an overstuffed chair, with popcorn on one arm and a drink on the other. An announcer on the TV ponders: “But are they as terrifying as they seem? Find out on … ‘Human Week.’”

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New permit could address excess-nitrogen threat to Puget Sound

Nitrogen from sewage-treatment plants, along with other nutrient sources, are known to trigger plankton blooms that lead to dangerous low-oxygen conditions in Puget Sound — a phenomenon that has been studied for years.

Nitrogen sources used to predict future water-quality in the Salish Sea Model
Map: Washington Department of Ecology

Now state environmental officials are working on a plan that could eventually limit the amount of nitrogen released in sewage effluent.

The approach being considered by the Washington Department of Ecology is a “general permit” that could apply to any treatment plant meeting specified conditions. The alternative to a general permit would be to add operational requirements onto existing “individual permits” issued under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, or NPDES.

The general permit would involve about 70 sewage-treatment plants discharging into Puget Sound. Theoretically, an overall nitrogen limitation would be developed for a given region of the sound. Treatment plant owners could work together to meet that goal, with the owner of one plant paying another to reduce its share of the nutrient load.

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