Category Archives: Marine mammals

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UPDATE, JULY 8, 2019

The Center for Whale Research today released notes of Friday’s encounter with J pod, including the newest one, J-56.
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The baby killer whale first seen at the end of May (Water Ways, June 1) has been identified as a female by the Center for Whale Research, after members of J and K pods were observed in the San Juan Islands on Friday.

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

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

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

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

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Transient orcas visit Dyes Inlet, thrilling many shoreside observers

UPDATE: Friday, June 28

To put the finishing touches on this story, the orcas headed out of Dyes Inlet late yesterday afternoon and entered Rich Passage by about 4:30 p.m., according to multiple Facebook accounts. The whales apparently turned south, then headed across Puget Sound, where there were spotted by passengers on the Bainbridge Island ferry about 6:15 p.m. They spent a short time in Seattle’s Elliott Bay before heading north in the main channel of Puget Sound, reaching somewhere between Kingston and Edmonds as darkness fell.
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UPDATE: Thursday, June 27

Mark Sears reported this morning that he had identified the two groups of transient killer whales, which are reportedly still in Dyes Inlet today. One group is known as the T36 group, led by a 49-year-old female (T36), who is accompanied by her 21-year-old daughter (T36B) along with other family members. The other family group is known as the T99s, including a 35-year-old female and her family. In all, Mark said, there were 10 or 11 orcas sighted yesterday.
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A group of about eight transient killer whales came to visit the Bremerton-Silverdale area today (Wednesday), exciting lots of people who watched from shore.

An orca calf was among the transient killer whales visiting Dyes Inlet today (Wednesday).
Photo: Meegan M. Reid, Kitsap Sun

Mark Sears and his grown daughter Maya, both federally permitted orca researchers, caught up with the whales in Sinclair Inlet and began taking photos to identify the individual animals.

Mark, who lives in West Seattle, got word of the whales coming south while they were still off Bainbridge Island.

“They must have been flying through Rich Passage,” he said, noting that the whales passed in front of Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, then abruptly turned back and headed into Port Washington Narrows. They swam under the Manette Bridge at 2:01 p.m., then under the Warren Avenue Bridge nine minutes later, he said.

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Ocean acidification gets attention in four bills passed by the U.S. House

The issue of ocean acidification gained some traction this week in the U.S. House of Representatives, where bipartisan support led to the approval of four bills designed to bring new ideas into the battle to save sea life from corrosive waters.

If passed by the Senate, the legislation would allow federal agencies to set up competitions and offer prize money for the best ideas for reducing ocean acidification, adapting to ongoing changes or solving difficult research problems. The bills also foster discussions about climate change by bringing more people to the table while providing increased attention to the deadly conditions that are developing along the coasts and in estuaries, such as Puget Sound.

U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer

“We know that changing ocean chemistry threatens entire livelihoods and industries in our state, said U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, in a press release. “There are generations of folks in our coastal communities who have worked in fishing and shellfish growing — but that’s endangered if we don’t maintain a healthy Pacific Ocean.”

Later in this blog post, I will reflect on other Kilmer-related issues, including the so-called Puget Sound Day on the Hill.

In a phone conversation, Rep. Kilmer told me that he was encouraged with the widespread support for a bill that he sponsored called the Ocean Acidification Innovation Act of 2019 (HR 1921), which passed the House on a 395-22 vote. The bill would allow federal agencies to sponsor competitions and offer prize money for the best ideas. Money would come out of existing funds that agencies use for related purposes. The bill was co-sponsored by Northwest Reps. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, along with Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, an Oregon Democrat, and Rep. Don Young, an Alaskan Republican. Five representatives from coastal areas in other parts of the country added their names to the bill.

“There is a legitimate problem, and people are beginning to see the impacts of the changing ocean chemistry,” Derek said. “This should a bipartisan issue.”

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A second orca calf has been born among the Southern Residents

A new orca calf in J pod is seen swimming with several females.
Photo: John Forde and Jennifer Steven, The Whale Centre

A new baby orca has been born in J pod — one of the three critically endangered Southern Resident pods — and a new wave of hope is rippling through the community of whale supporters.

The calf was spotted and photographed Thursday off the West Coast of Vancouver Island in British Columbia by John Forde and Jennifer Steven. The encounter was just south of Gowland Rocks in the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve.

“That was really exciting,” Jennifer told me about the encounter. “We are super hopeful that this calf will make it and add to the population.”

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