Category Archives: Marine mammals

Amazing stories of place are retold at Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference

The Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference opened in Seattle yesterday with a reflection on people’s intimate, personal relationships with nature. The mood was heightened by an elaborate welcoming ceremony from Native American leaders who live on the shores of Puget Sound.

I would like to share an idea I had, but first let me report that Gov. Jay Inslee and former Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell offered their own personal experiences at the beginning of the conference. Please check out the story I wrote for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

The conference this year has attracted more than 1,300 scientists, policymakers and other interested people. About 700 presentations are scheduled.

The welcoming ceremony yesterday began with an Indian song accompanied by drumming. Tribal leaders continued the ceremony by presenting Indian blankets to “witnesses” who have played important roles in protecting the Salish Sea.

Personal stories told by members of the local tribes have a special significance. For native people, telling stories is part of an oral tradition that goes back thousands of years. Their strong “connection to place” reaches back well beyond anyone’s own memory.

Leonard Forsman, chairman of the Suquamish Tribe, said he is pleased to work with scientists and various officials on the problems facing the Salish Sea. Chief Seattle, a member of the Suquamish Tribe, was a boy when Capt. George Vancouver first explored Puget Sound in 1792. Vancouver anchored his ship for several days near the south end of Bainbridge Island. His crew was hungry for fresh meat, having been limited to dried rations during the long journey, Leonard said.

The Suquamish people brought the English men a deer to feast on, he said. Chief Seattle carried that experience of sharing with white settlers throughout his life until he led his people to sign over their lands in exchange for a promise that hunting and fishing would go on.

“We’re still fighting to get the government to honor that promise,” Leonard said. Still, much has been accomplished the past few years as portions of the Salish Sea ecosystem have undergone restoration, he added.

The land and water have spiritual significance, Leonard said. “Our ancestors are with us here. We have a covenant with the land and water.”

At the end of his talk, Leonard noted that he had a few minutes left on the schedule, so he asked Bardow Lewis, vice chairman of his tribe, to speak three minutes — no more. Bardow asked if people would rather have a speech or a story. Many people shouted, “story.”

Bardow began a condensed version of his tale by describing Doe Kag Wats, a near-pristine estuarine marsh near Indianola in the northern part of the Kitsap Peninsula. The name means “place of deer.” To tribal members, it remains a “spiritual place,” he said, just as it has been since ancient times.

One evening as the sun was going down, Bardow said he was digging clams with his daughter, who he could observe by watching her long shadow without having to look up. He kept his head down, focusing on the clams buried in the beach at Doe Kag Wats.

Out of the corner of his eye, Bardow saw a deer approaching, but he kept his head down to keep from frightening the animal away.

The deer kept approaching until she was standing right next to him, he said. She nudged him with her head, which alarmed him, but he kept digging until she nudged him again, practically pushing him over. Bardow got up, and when the deer started walking away, he followed her. She led him to the stream that feeds the estuary. There, stuck in the mud, was a baby deer.

Bardow said he was able to free the fawn from the mud, and a wonderful feeling came over him. “I cried — in a joyful way,” he said. “I learned more that day than I did in my lifetime.”

The event has opened his eyes to the possibility of other experiences, Bardow said., But his three-minute time limit was up before he could share another story.

“I think I might have been a deer in a previous life,” he said. “We have to keep these beautiful places and spread that out to all places where you live.”

While I may never enjoy such a profound experience, I would like to think that I would be open to that. Still, I would think that everyone who has spent meaningful time on or around the Salish Sea probably has had at least one experience to share.

One of my own favorite stories was from a dark night in 1997, when I was out in a boat on Dyes Inlet with whale researcher Jodi Smith. I was watching the lights of Silverdale when we were suddenly immersed in the sound of orcas speaking to us over a hydrophone. You can read the story as I originally wrote it on the Kitsap Sun website, and you can listen to the recording that Jodi made that night (below).

      1. whale

I know that many researchers presenting their work at the Salish Sea conference have exciting findings to convey, and I listen with keen interest, even though the talks are sometimes dry. I also know that the speakers feel a bit rushed to explain everything in 12 to 15 minutes. But wouldn’t it be nice if they could find a way to reduce their discussion about scientific methods — such as how they control for variables — and tell us a brief story?

I don’t think we lose our scientific or journalistic credibility if we allow ourselves to be captivated by a special moment that we have experienced in the Salish Sea.

Killing of baby orca raises questions about whales’ social structure

By now, you may have heard about the male transient killer whale who attacked and killed a newborn orca while the baby was swimming next to its mother.

A newborn transient orca swims next to its mother shortly before being attacked by an unrelated adult male orca. // Photo: Jared Towers

Jared Towers, a researcher with Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans, witnessed the killing. He said he was both “horrified and fascinated” by the event, which he described as the first case of infanticide ever reported among killer whales. The incident took place in Canadian waters near the north end of Vancouver Island.

Jared told reporter Bethany Lindsey of CBC News that the distressing scene is something that he will never be able to unsee, but he did his best to observe and record the rare incident.

This killing of a tiny calf by an unrelated male orca has been troubling me since I first heard about it more than a week ago — and that’s what I told longtime orca researcher Ken Balcomb when I called him on the phone.

“I was shocked, as was Jared,” Ken told me. “It is very unusual. The interesting thing is that we know the individual who killed the baby. We don’t know why it happened. It could have been just a squabble of some sort.”

It wasn’t just the male orca involved. The attacker’s mother also played a role in keeping the mother of the calf at bay and ultimately dragging the dead baby away.

In the animal world, infanticide occurs in a myriad of situations among terrestrial species, including lions, rodents and even primates, Jared recounted in a paper published in the journal Scientific Reports. The practice of killing infants of the same species has also been observed in three types of dolphins.

The situations are too rare to identify specific causes, Jared noted, but several hypotheses have been put forth. The leading suggestion is that the death of the infant causes the mother to stop lactating and makes her fertile again. That means the attacking male may have a chance to integrate his genes into the population, as opposed to a competing male.

Less likely reasons, at least in this situation, involves the goal of reducing the number of mouths to feed when food is scarce for a given population. In some species, an infant may be cannibalized for food. But in this case food is not especially scarce for transients, which eat seals and sea lions. Also, there was no evidence of feeding, such as oil on the water or birds in the air, Jared reported.

“Lastly,” Jared writes, “non-adaptive explanations for infanticide purport that it is a socially pathological behavior that may be conducted accidentally or as a result of environmental stressors.”

Killer whales as pathological killers? That’s something to ponder. But, again, there is no evidence to point to a particular cause in this case.

I can’t help but wonder if transient killer whales, which eat marine mammals, may be more prone to committing infanticide than resident killer whales, which eat only fish. No doubt the male transient would know the technique for killing an orca calf, which is about the size of a sea lion.

Ken Balcomb has observed teeth marks on some of the Southern Resident killer whales, sometimes the result of juveniles playing too rough.

“Usually it’s a young whale biting a big whale,” he said. “They don’t have any hands, so they just bite. We’ve seen young whales tussling around together.”

On rare occasions, Ken has also observed serious wounds on some whales, including one adult male whose dorsal fin was bent over during an apparent attack by another orca. The size and shape of the teeth marks, known as rakes, provide clues to the size of the attacker. But since nobody sees most of the serious attacks, the cause or behavior leading up to the incidents will never be known.

In the recent case, which occurred in December 2016, Jared and his fellow researchers went out to observe a group of transients, whose calls had been picked up on hydrophones. When the researchers got to the area just north of Johnstone Strait, they saw an older female, known as T068, swimming with her 32-year-old son, T068A. The two were following a group of three orcas swimming unusually fast.

In that second group was a 13-year-old mother with a 2-year-old calf along with her 3-year-old sister, who exhibited bleeding wounds on her sides and loose flesh on her dorsal fin. About a mile ahead was the 28-year-old mother of the two sisters, T046B, who was accompanied by three young whales, an 8-year-old, a 5-year-old and a newborn.

The entire group of related whales came together just before noon near Haddington Island, while the two unrelated whales were about 200 yards behind and still following.

The attack apparently began about 20 minutes later with observations of splashing and erratic movements, then the male attacker was seen to move away from the group. The other whales followed. When they all came together, they began circling vigorously. That’s when the researchers caught up with the whales and noticed that the baby was no longer with its mother.

The male attacker “swam close past the research boat, and the fluke of the neonate could be seen in his mouth with the body intact trailing underneath his lower jaw,” states the report.

The baby’s mother seemed to chase the male attacker, while the attacker’s mother attempted to block her way.

“Intense vocal activity could be heard through the hull of the boat, so the hydrophone was deployed,” the report says. “A wide variety of excited discrete and aberrant pulsed calls, whistles, and percussive sounds were recorded….

“At 12:35, (the baby’s mother) rammed (the male) near the surface with sufficient force to cause a noticeable undulation through his body, sending blood and water into the air,” the report says.

The event was over about as quickly as it began, with the male carrying away the dead baby. Later the male’s mother was seen carrying the lifeless calf. The larger family group followed the two, staying about 200 yards behind and off to one side.

The researchers followed for another hour and a half, when underwater video showed that neither the male nor his mother had the baby. A short time before, they were seen circling as if paying attention to something below them. As darkness fell, the researchers broke off the observations and headed home, but not before noticing that the male had the intact baby in his mouth again, as he and his mother continued on.

Jared said it is not surprising that the attacker’s mother assisted her son, “because bonds between maternally related killer whales can be particularly strong.” After all, orca moms are known to help their sons find food and even share food with them. The mother’s bloodline would be continued through her son by the killing, provided that the dead infant was not his offspring and that he could later mate with the baby’s mother.

Killer whales are top predators and complex creatures. Their actions cannot always be explained. I remember being surprised to learn that resident orcas occasionally kill harbor porpoises, but they never eat them. See my story in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

My discussion with Ken brought me back to the harsh reality of our world. Maybe we can’t fully explain why a male killer whale would attack a newborn of his own kind. But who can explain why a human being would abuse and sometimes kill his own child or take a gun and kill a large number of strangers?

Lummi Nation joins effort to bring Lolita home to Puget Sound

The Lummi Nation, an Indian tribe near Bellingham, recently joined the 25-year-long struggle to bring the killer whale named Lolita back to her home waters of Puget Sound, where she was captured and removed 47 years ago.

The tribe’s involvement could change the nature of the ongoing battle entirely, according to Howard Garrett of Orca Network, who has been leading the effort.

Trailer to a movie in production about the Lummi Nation's effort to bring Lolita home.

“I feel like we are at a whole new level of synergy and mutual support as we bring out our passions and abilities and professional skills,” Howie told me during a phone call from Miami, where he and Lummi leaders were visiting the 52-year-old whale.

Lolita, also known by her Native American name Tokitae, has lived all these years in a relatively small tank at Miami Seaquarium, performing twice each day for visitors to the marine park.

Members of the Lummi Nation contend that what happened to Tokitae was a kidnapping, and her aquatic prison violates native traditions that hold orcas in high esteem. An estimated 40-50 orcas were captured or killed during roundups during the late 1960s and early ‘70s, officials say, and Tokitae is the last living orca taken from Puget Sound.

“There is no way they should be getting away with putting these mammals in captivity for a show,” Steve Solomon, Lummi Natural Resources Commissioner, said in video segment for WPLG Channel-10 News in Miami. “Those are our brothers and sisters that were taken.”

Some have compared Lolita’s capture and removal with actions surrounding Indian boarding schools, where Native American children were taken after being forced to leave their families and give up their native culture.

Orca Network and other groups have proposed bringing Lolita back to Puget Sound and caring for her in a blocked-off cove on Orcas Island until she is ready to head out into open waters, possibly joining her own family. Orca experts believe that her mother is Ocean Sun, or L-25, and that Lolita would be able to recognize the voice of her mom and other L-pod whales.

The cost of the proposed sea pen on Orcas Island and moving the whale by airplane is estimated to cost about $3 million. Howie said he has no doubt that the money can be raised, especially with the help of the Lummi Tribe. Orcas Island is just across Rosario Strait from the Lummi Reservation west of Bellingham.

There is some talk that the Lummi Nation could use its treaty rights to force action if the Miami Seaquarium continues to resist. The Lummi are signatories to the Point Elliott Treaty, which guarantees the right of native people to hunt, fish and gather shellfish. Courts have ruled that tribes also have a vested right in protecting the habitat, but their moral argument to bring Lolita home might be stronger than their legal one.

Eric Eimstad, general manager of Miami Seaquarium, said the killer whales in Puget Sound are listed as endangered, and there are clear concerns about their lack of food, boat noise and chemical runoff.

“The focus should not be on a whale that is thriving in her environment in Miami,” Eimstad said in a statement.

“After more than 47 years, moving Lolita from her pool, which she shares with Pacific white-sided dolphins, to a sea pen in Puget Sound or anywhere else would be very stressful to her and potentially fatal,” he continued. “it would be reckless and cruel to treat her life as an experiment and jeopardize her health to consider such a move.”

Experts can be found on both sides of the issue, and nobody denies that Lolita’s tank is smaller than any captive orca habitat in the U.S.

While in Miami today, Howie was able to watch Lolita in action. He told me that he wore a floppy hat and sunglasses to escape notice, since he has been kicked out of Miami Seaquarium several times for being an “activist.”

“She is looking good,” Howie said of Lolita. “It was encouraging to see that she is not weak. In fact, she is strong. She made four breaches up and out of the water.”

That’s a good indication that this whale could not only survive a flight across the country, but she could thrive, he said. Any treatments she gets, such as antibiotics, would be continued as long as necessary.

Meanwhile, the Lummi contingent is planning a 30-day journey throughout the country to raise awareness about the plight of Lolita. They will take along a large totem pole of an orca, which is now being carved.

Former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, who is hoping to be Florida’s next governor, has signed onto the campaign to bring Lolita home. He opened a press conference yesterday in which he was joined by numerous supporters, including Lummi leaders.

“The time is right to do the right thing and finally free this captured endangered whale,” Levine said. “It was my honor to host the Lummi Nation on this historic day, as we continue the fight to bring Tokitae home to her native waters.”

The first video on this page is a trailer for a movie in production. Producers Geoff Schaaf and Dennie Gordon of Los Angeles are following the Lummi involvement in the tale of Tokitae, which they say is emblematic of the larger story about saving the salmon and all the creatures that live in the Salish Sea.

The second and third videos make up an excellent two-part series by reporter Louis Aguirre of Miami’s WPLG-Channel 10 News. He digs into the controversy over Lolita, including a visit to Puget Sound and what could be Lolita’s temporary home near Orca Island.

Amusing Monday: Watching green waters for St. Patrick’s Day

In Chicago, it has become a tradition to dye the Chicago River bright green to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, as shown in a timelapse video featured by ABC News. But some waterways are naturally green, so I have posted eight videos from throughout the world to show these natural wonders.

Huge crowds of people visit the Chicago River each year to see the color change, which lasts about five hours, according to a report by Jennifer Wood in Mental Floss.

At one time, a green dye was used as needed to identify sources of sewage flowing into the river, Jennifer reports. The result was an occasional green splotch seen in the river. In 1962, a member of the local plumbers union thought it would be a good idea to dye the entire river green for St. Patrick’s Day. It has since become an annual tradition — although in 1966 the dye was changed to a nontoxic vegetable-based coloring at the insistence of environmentalists.

Today, environmentalists are still grumbling about artificially turning the river green, not so much because of damage to the ecosystem — which is really unknown — but because the river is much healthier than it has been in 150 years, according to a report by Steven Dahlman in Loop North News.

“I think [it] sends a message to people that the river is not alive,” said Margaret Frisbie, executive director of Friends of the Chicago River. “Dyeing the river green does not respect that resource.”

In a story written for Smithsonian magazine, Jennifer Billock reports that no dye is needed if you really want to enjoy St. Patrick’s Day in or around a green waterway. The source of the green color varies from one place to another and may include natural minerals, algae growth or even optical illusions based on reflections or depth.

Jennifer talked to Rick Stumpf, an oceanographer who said one of his favorite places is Florida Bay in the Keys, where the green color is a reflection of seagrass just a few feet underwater.

Our tour of green waterways begins with Lake Carezza, in South Tyrol, Italy. The lake is fed from underground springs, and the level of the lake changes with the seasons.

According to a local fairy tale, a wizard fell in love with a beautiful water nymph while watching her braid her hair at the edge of the lake. To get her attention, a witch advised him to dress up as a jewel merchant and cast a rainbow across the lake. He followed her instructions except that he forgot to change his clothes. The water nymph realized his true identity and disappeared into the lake. In frustration, the wizard destroyed the rainbow, which fell into the lake, and then he tossed all of his jewels into the water, leaving the lake with its unusual colors.

Wai-O-Tapu is a lake in an 18-square-mile geothermal area in New Zealand’s Taupo Volcanic Zone. The green color of the water, which is somewhat milky and yellowish, is due to particles of sulfur floating in the water.

The area has been protected as a scenic reserve since 1931 and includes a tourism attraction known as Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland. Marked hiking trails provide visitors access to natural hot springs and mud pools.

The Verzasca River in Switzerland is a 19-mile river known for its turquoise-colored water and colorful rocks. The swift river, which flows into Lake Maggiore, is popular with scuba divers.

The green colors are provided by natural algae growing in the water as well as the reflection of vegetation along the shoreline.

Ambergris Caye, the largest island in Belize, offers the sea-green colors of a tropical paradise. It is mainstay for tourists who wish to swim or dive in the Caribbean Sea. Visitors can enjoy the marine life of Belize Barrier Reef, the longest reef system in North America, second in the world after the Great Barrier Reef of Australia.

Blue Spring State Park features the largest spring on Florida’s St. Johns River, a critical winter refuge for manatees. To protect the manatees, the spring pool is closed from Nov. 15 to March 15.

From the pool, a vertical cave plunges down to a room about 90 feet deep. At about 120 feet down, the cave constricts and water pours swiftly out of the spring, which produces about 165 million gallons of water per day.

In addition to the pool, the park includes a historic home and offers boat tours, hiking trails and camping sites.

Lake Quilotoa in Ecuador is a deep crater lake in the Andes formed by the collapse of a volcano following an eruption about 600 years ago. The green color is caused by dissolved minerals.

In five hours, visitors can hike around the volcano’s caldera, which is about two miles across. Pack mules and guides are available in and around the village of Quilotoa.

Sproat Lake is located in the center of Vancouver Island in British Columbia. In addition to lakeside homes, three provincial parks are located along the shore.

Sproat Lake Provincial Park features a variety of trails, including one trail that reaches the eastern side of the lake. A wall of rock carvings, named K’ak’awin, depict mythological creatures. The age of the petroglyphs is unknown.

Abyss Pool is the name of a hot spring in the West Thumb Geyser Basin of Yellowstone National Park. In 1883, a visitor to the park called the pool “a great, pure, sparkling sapphire rippling with heat.”

The pool is about 50 feet deep. A geyser in the pool had no record of eruption until 1987, when the first eruption was followed by several others until June 1992. The eruptions were up to 100 feet high.

Can carefully planned fishing seasons help the endangered orcas?

Salmon harvests in Puget Sound have been shared between Indian and non-Indian fishermen since the 1970s, when the courts ruled that treaties guarantee tribal members half the total catch.

Now a third party — Puget Sound’s endangered orcas — could take a seat at the negotiations table, at least in a figurative sense, as their shortage of food becomes a critical issue.

It isn’t at all clear how fishing seasons could be structured to help the Southern Resident killer whales, but the issue was discussed seriously at some length yesterday, when the 2018 salmon forecasts were presented to sport and commercial fishers. Thus began the annual negotiations between state and tribal salmon managers to set up this year’s fishing seasons.

General areas, in blue, where fishing closures in British Columbia are planned to provide extra salmon for Southern Resident killer whales.
Map: Department of Fisheries and Oceans

Penny Becker, a wildlife manager with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said a steady decline in the body mass of the Southern Residents has been observed, as the population fell to a 30-year low of 76 animals. People are calling for emergency measures, she said, noting that both Gov. Jay Inslee and the Legislature are working on ideas to protect the whales. See Water Ways Feb. 23 and Water Ways Feb. 17 and the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, Nov. 2, 2017.

Concerns are running equally high in British Columbia, where the orcas spend much of their time in the Strait of Georgia. The Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans has proposed an experiment with fishing closures this year in four areas frequented by the orcas:

  • Mouth of the Fraser River
  • West side of Pender Island
  • South side of Saturna Island, and
  • Strait of Juan de Fuca

“The primary objective of the proposed measures is to improve chinook salmon availability for SRKW by decreasing potential fishery competition, as well as minimizing physical and acoustic disturbance in key foraging areas to the extent possible,” states a “discussion paper” (PDF 1.9 mb) released Feb. 15.

The closures would be in place from May through September this year, with increased monitoring to measure potential benefits to the whales. Comments on the proposal are being taken until March 15.

Canadians also are working with ship owners to see if noise can be reduced significantly by slowing down large vessels moving through the Salish Sea. Previous studies have shown that noise reduces the ability of whales to communicate and to find food through echolocation. Experts are compiling the results of the “Haro Strait Vessel Slowdown Trial” conducted last year.

One bill in the Washington Legislature would require boaters to slow down to 7 knots when in the vicinity of killer whales.

Limiting fishing in specific areas of Puget Sound, such as the west side of San Juan Island, could be implemented through state-tribal negotiations, Penny said. The closures would occur during summer when chinook salmon — the orcas’ primary prey — are in the area. One option would be to implement the closures on certain days of the week.

Some people have talked about giving the orcas a clean break from whale watchers, and that could involve excluding whale-watch boats from salmon-rich areas at the same time as the fishing closures.

“We’re looking for creative solutions to make this work within our constraints,” Penny told the group.

One fisherman at the meeting said every person on the water should automatically turn off his motor and sit still when whales are approaching. It’s a courtesy to help the killer whales find fish, he said, and anyway the fish are not going to bite on one’s line while whales are around. Generally, they don’t stay long in one place.

One bill in the Legislature would help the Southern Residents by increasing hatchery production of chinook salmon in Puget Sound. Reaction to the idea has been mixed, because hatchery salmon have been known to affect the fitness and genetic makeup of wild salmon. If approved, the boost in hatchery production would likely be a temporary solution.

Sport fishermen generally like the idea of increased hatchery production, because they would be encouraged to catch all the hatchery fish not eaten by killer whales.

The hatchery bill, HB 2417, was approved unanimously by the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee. No further action has been taken so far, but its provisions could be attached to the supplementary budget with funds specified for hatchery production.

Tuesday’s meeting in Lacey launched the beginning of the negotiations between state and tribal salmon managers, a process known as North of Falcon. The name comes the fishery management area from Cape Falcon in Oregon north to the Canadian border. The full schedule of meetings and related documents can be found on the WDFW website.

Forecasts approved by WDFW and the tribes predict poor returns of several salmon stocks this year in Puget Sound, the Pacific Ocean and the Columbia River, resulting in limited fishing opportunities.

“We will definitely have to be creative in developing salmon fisheries this year,” Kyle Adicks, salmon policy lead for WDFW, said in a news release. “I encourage people to get involved and provide input on what they see as the priorities for this season’s fisheries.”

Warm ocean conditions and low streamflows in recent years affected several salmon stocks returning this year. As ocean conditions return to normal, experts hope for improved salmon runs in years to come.

A total of about 557,000 coho returning to Puget Sound is about 6 percent below the average over the past 10 years. Extremely low numbers predicted for the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Snohomish River are expected to force managers to limit fishing in those areas.

While hatchery chinook returning to Puget Sound are expected to be 38 percent higher than last year, the need to protect “threatened” wild chinook could mean ongoing fishing restrictions in many areas.

Next month, NOAA, which oversees threatened and endangered species, is expected to provide guidance for managing this year’s fisheries, including possible discussions about protecting Southern Resident killer whales.

A 10-year “Comprehensive Management Plan for Puget Sound Chinook” is scheduled to be resubmitted this summer in response to comments received from NOAA on the first draft.

Plans for protecting Puget Sound chinook and Southern Resident killer whales have begun to overlap in major ways, as saving one involves saving the other.

Sen. Kevin Ranker breathes new life into Orca Protection Act

The proposed Orca Protection Act, which was declared dead last week in the Washington State Senate, has sprung back to life with the addition of a budget provision that offers a new chance of passage.

Photo: Capt. Jim Maya, 2013

The newly resuscitated bill, approved by the Senate Ways and Means Committee, is nearly identical to the original bill, which includes special protections for the endangered Southern Resident killer whales. If approved by both houses, the legislation would impose new restrictions on boaters and drone pilots, increase on-water patrols by state law-enforcement officers and support studies regarding what people can do to save the whales.

The original legislation died on Feb. 14 when the Senate failed to approve it before a deadline passed for bills that had no budget impact, as I described in Water Ways last Saturday. The bill was revived this week when its sponsor, Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, used a procedural maneuver to add a new budget provision.

Specifically, Ranker proposed a $5 increase in the cost of special vehicle license plates that depict endangered species, including orcas. The extra money would be used by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife for marine patrols and other orca-related activities.

As a result of Ranker’s maneuver, the original bill, SB 6268, will get a new bill number, SB 5886, which is a bill originally submitted by Ranker in March 2017 with no text. A wholesale amendment on Thursday planted the text of the Orca Protection Act into SB 5886, which still carries the title “Relating to natural resources.”

Dave Pringle, Democratic policy analyst who works closely with Ranker, told me that the senator heard support for the maneuver from fellow legislators who wanted a chance to vote on the bill. Ranker expects it to pass the Senate with strong support from fellow Democrats as well as a number of Republicans. Action on the Senate floor could come next week, when the bill would move on to the House.

The bill describes the 76 Southern Resident orcas as “critically endangered” with a population falling to a 36-year low. The whales are important to the ecosystem and to the culture of Washington tribes. The Southern Residents also provide the foundation of a $60-million tourist industry, according to the bill.

The legislation calls for at least 100 law-enforcement patrols during whale-watching season. Remotely controlled aircraft, known as drones, would not be allowed to come within 200 yards of any Southern Resident orca — which is the same limitation for vessels under existing law. The bill also would require vessels to slow to 7 knots within 400 yards of a whale. Current law has no speed limit.

The revised bill adds an exception from the requirements for distance and speed when vessel operators cannot tell that they are too close to the whales because of fog, rain or other weather conditions.

The bill also would require the Department of Fish and Wildlife to make recommendations about what further actions could be taken by the Legislature and state agencies to help restore the orca population. It also calls for meetings and collaborations with wildlife officials in British Columbia to discuss protecting and restoring the orcas.

Orca protection bill stumbles and dies on state Senate floor

State legislation that would increase protection for Puget Sound’s killer whales died this week amidst confusing action on the Senate floor.

Now, orca advocates are pushing a narrower bill approved by the House to limit remote-controlled aircraft around whales, while they also hope for a $3-million budget appropriation to support other orca protection measures.

J pod, one of the three Southern Resident killer whale groups, has recently spent time in the San Juan Islands.
Photo: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research, taken under federal permits: NMFS:15569-01, DFO SARA: 388.

Whether people should be allowed to fly a drone around the endangered Southern Resident orcas seems to be the issue stirring up the most attention in the Legislature — although it is a small part of the overall effort.

Current law prohibits a “vessel or other object” from approaching the Southern Residents closer than 200 yards. Using that language, state fisheries enforcement officers have issued at least two citations to people flying their drones over orcas in the San Juan Islands, according to Sgt. Russ Mullins of Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

In one case filed in 2015, a Mercer Island photographer appealed the citation, saying the law does not apply to drones. The prosecutor in San Juan County eventually dropped the case while requesting a legal clarification from the state Attorney General’s Office.

The opinion from the AG’s Office says the 200-yard limitation for “other objects” should apply to drones flying over the killer whales. The final word, however, would need to come from a judge in a state court.

To eliminate any confusion, Rep. Kristine Lytton, D-Anacortes, last year introduced a bill that would prohibit “unmanned aerial systems” from approaching orcas closer than 200 yards in any direction. The one exception would be if the drone inadvertently flies over the whales while traveling to an unrelated destination. See info for HB 1031.

“My intention is to keep drones away from an icon of our state and to prevent the almost harassment, as some people in my district feel, of our orca whales,” Rep. Lytton testified after submitting her bill.

The concern is not so much about one or two drones, although any could crash and harm a whale, Sgt. Mullins told me. But if the rules do not keep drones away from the whales, it will be only a matter of time before lots and lots of whale watchers bring their drones out to photograph the orcas up close while watching from a boat.

“There is already enough drama and confusion out there,” he said. “We don’t need someone driving his boat as well as his drone around these whales.”

Some lawmakers, including Rep. Jeff Morris, D-Mount Vernon, said they would prefer to broaden the legislation to keep drones from operating around any threatened and endangered species. But no changes have been made so far, perhaps because the specific law being revised is focused entirely on the protection of killer whales.

The bill to protect orcas from drones passed the House last week on a vote of 67 to 31, with all Democrats in support of the legislation along with about a third of the House Republicans.

In the Senate, Democrats decided to take a broader approach to the issue of orca protection. Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, introduced a bill to complement Gov. Jay Inslee’s proposed orca protection and restoration initiative.

The legislation, SB 6268, would more than double the number of marine patrols around the orcas, essentially protecting the animals from aggressive boaters and drone operators anytime the whales are in Puget Sound. Studies have shown that the mere presence of patrol boats leads to greater compliance with the rules, which are designed to allow the whales to find food more easily and to engage in more normal social interactions. The patrols also serve to educate boaters about how to act around the whales.

The cost for the nearly full-time patrols is estimated at about $475,000 per year. If the patrols help save the whales from extinction, it would allow a continuation of the multi-million-dollar tourism industry, not to mention the ecological importance of orcas and the joy that people experience when seeing whales.

Other provisions of the bill would require boaters to slow down to 7 knots anytime they come within 400 yards of a Southern Resident orca. Also included are proposed studies to see how human-generated noise affects the orcas, along with at least one meeting to better coordinate protection and recovery strategies between Washington state and British Columbia in Canada.

The Senate bill appeared to be sailing through the Legislature until Wednesday — the last day to approve bills that originated in the Senate. Democrats were anxious about approving two bills before the end of the day — one dealing with student debt and the other with basic education funding. They thought the so-called Orca Protection Act would be approved with barely a bump in the road.

The first amendment offered to the orca bill was the “ominously numbered amendment 666,” as Lt. Gov. Cyrus Habib dubbed it while calling on the amendment’s author, Sen. Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside. The hostile amendment would remove any prohibition against using drones around killer whales.

“The orcas are a really a big tourism attraction in the Puget Sound,” Honeyford told the chamber. “This would allow those tourists who have unmanned aircraft or drones or whatever you want to call them to be able to fly them. They are electric, and they are quiet, and they can take pictures. I believe it would be a great increase in tourism.”

With an eye toward the clock, the Democrats decided not to fight the amendment. They knew that the House bill was coming later to deal with drones, and they apparently hoped to get quick approval of the Orca Protection Act. After all, everyone was still speaking in favor of it.

As you can see in the video above, the Democrats were talking fast. But Republicans along with Sen. Tim Sheldon, a right-leaning Democrat from Hoodsport, appeared to be taking their time. Democrats finally gave up and pulled the bill, essentially killing it for this year.

The original bill to limit drones around the orcas, which originated in the House, is still alive after House passage. It is scheduled to be heard on Feb. 20 by the Senate Committee on Energy, Environment & Technology.

Some aspects of the Senate bill, such as the extra patrols around the orcas, could be implemented through the budget, according to Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, who chairs the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

The House bill is titled, “Concerning the use of unmanned aerial systems near certain protected marine species.” That title does not leave much leeway to resuscitate the Senate bill by heavily amending the House bill, Sen. Rolfes told me.

Still, other efforts to protect the orcas could be accomplished with legislative funding of Gov. Inslee’s Southern Resident killer whale recovery program. He is seeking $3 million from the general fund for the next two years.

The governor’s proposal goes well beyond the idea of extra patrols around the whales. Included is increased hatchery production of chinook salmon, the orcas’ primary food; restoration of chinook salmon habitat in streams and estuaries; and steps to reduce seal and sea lion predation on chinook, which are also on the Endangered Species List.

Inslee’s budget proposal also calls for developing oil spill plans to help the orcas in an emergency, since many experts believe that an oil spill could drive the whales to extinction faster than any other problem they face.

“Funding orca recovery is an urgent issue that cannot wait another legislative session,” said Mindy Roberts, director of People for Puget Sound, a division of Washington Environmental Council. “Our region knows all too well the pressures the orcas face. They are starving because they don’t have enough salmon to feed on; toxics in their bodies are released when they go hungry; and vessels are interfering with their abilities to feed and communicate.”

As she told me in an email, “We will be looking for ways to provide emergency funding for short-term solutions identified in the bills that died and in the governor’s budget proposal.”

Does new ‘mother ship’ portend increased whaling by Japan?

The Japanese government is considering the replacement of the “mother ship” in its fleet of whaling vessels, as part of a potential expansion of whaling in the Antarctic.

Nisshin Maru, Japan’s whaling factory ship
Photo: Sea Shepherd Conservation Society

The newspaper Japan Times today received confirmation that the Japanese Fishing Agency has requested the equivalent of $910,000 to study the future of commercial whaling. If approved, the study would consider ideas for replacing the 30-year-old Nisshin Maru, best known as the factory ship used for processing whale meat. Japanese officials collect certain information about the whales and call it scientific research.

Anti-whaling activists, including Paul Watson of Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, reacted harshly to the news, saying the study is a sign that the Japanese government not only intends to keep slaughtering whales but may be on the verge of expanding commercial operations.

“I will say, that if this replacement floating slaughter house — this Cetacean Death Star — is built and if it returns to the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary with an increased quota, it will be strongly, passionately and aggressively opposed,” Watson wrote in a Facebook post. “The Whale Wars is not over.”

After problems with finding and pursuing the Japanese whalers last year, Sea Shepherd did not send any ships into battle this year. It was the first time in 12 years that Sea Shepherd has failed to confront the whalers in the Southern Ocean — except for 2014 when the Japanese whalers called off the hunt.

“What we discovered,” Watson said in a news release last August, “is that Japan is now employing military surveillance to watch Sea Shepherd ship movements in real time by satellite, and if they know where our ships are at any given moment, they can easily avoid us…. We cannot compete with their military-grade technology.”

Watson said he has also heard that the Japanese military may be sent to protect the whalers if Sea Shepherd tries to stop them.

Sea Shepherd is not giving up its efforts to protect the whales in the Southern Ocean, Watson stressed. Instead, the organization will develop new tactics while calling on the Australian government to do more to protect the whales.

In December, countries in the European Union and 12 other nations expressed their opposition to the whaling taking place in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary, a protected area established by the International Whaling Commission. Australia and New Zealand, but not the United States, are among the signatories.

The “Joint statement against whaling” points out that the International Court of Justice ruled in 2014 that the Japanese whaling did not meet the basic requirements for scientific studies. Legitimate research is one of the few exemptions that allow the killing of whales under the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling.

The Japanese called off the whaling the following summer in Antarctica but started it up again the next year under a new whaling plan submitted to the International Whaling Commission. The Japanese government said it would never again place itself under the jurisdiction of the international court.

The IWC has since questioned the new whaling plans and has adopted two resolutions calling on the Japanese to halt whaling until the new scientific plan can be reviewed by the Scientific Committee of the IWC. Japan objected to the process on procedural grounds in a position statement and ignored the international posture, including the latest IWC resolution (16-2) in 2016.

Plans to replace or overhaul the Nisshin Maru were first floated in 2005, according to sources quoted in Japan News. Nothing happened, however, until this year when the idea was resurrected by pro-whaling lawmakers in Japan.

The ship was built in 1987 as a trawler and converted to a whale processor in 1991. Whales harpooned by smaller vessels can be pulled up a gangway to the deck for slaughter. Up to 1,200 tons of meat can be stored in a freezer below decks, according to the newspaper.

“Even though the ship has been painted over, rust that can’t be hidden stands out,” said an observer quoted in Japan News. “It is old, aged nearly 100 in human years.”

Some reports said Japanese officials want a ship that could operate quicker on the high seas to evade Sea Shepherd’s aggressive actions, which they consider to be terrorism.

About 100 people were said to be on board the Nisshin Maru in November when the ship departed from Japan’s Innoshima island, Hiroshima Prefecture, heading for the Southern Ocean. The goal is to hunt up to 333 minke whales, a quota established by the Japanese government with no outside approval.

Pesticides and salmon: Can we see a light at the end of the tunnel?

Once again, the National Marine Fisheries Service has determined in official findings that three common pesticides — chlorpyrifos, diazinon and malathion — raise the risk of extinction for threatened and endangered salmon.

A crop duster sprays pesticide on a field near an irrigation ditch.
Photo: NOAA/USFWS

By extension, for the first time, the agency also concluded that those same pesticides threaten Puget Sound’s endangered orca population by putting their prey — chinook and other salmon — at risk.

This politically and legally charged issue — which has been around for more than 15 years — has gone beyond a debate over potential harm from pesticides. It also raises uncomfortable questions about whether our society will follow science as we try to solve environmental problems.

The immediate finding of “jeopardy” — meaning that the three pesticides pose a risk of extinction — comes in a biological opinion (PDF 415.6 mb) that is more than 3,700 pages long and covers not just salmon but, for the first time, dozens of other marine species on the Endangered Species List.

The report follows a scientific methodology for assessing the effects of pesticides that arises from suggestions by the National Academy of Sciences. The NAS report (PDF 14.2 mb) attempted to reconcile differing methods of assessing risk that had been used by the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and NMFS.

EPA’s original assessment raised no concerns about the effect of these pesticides on the survival of salmon populations. The original lawsuit by environmental groups forced the EPA to “consult” with NMFS, as required by the Endangered Species Act. The result was the first jeopardy finding in 2008. For background, see Water Ways, Aug. 11, 2008, in which I reported that the long wait for regulatory action on pesticides may be about over. Little did I know.

The biological opinion, or BiOp for short, examines both the direct harms to species exposed to pesticides — such as effects on behavior, reproduction and immune function — as well as indirect effects — such as whether the pesticides wipe out insects needed for the fish to eat.

The new BiOp is considered a pilot study for future pesticide assessments.

“Notably,” states the document, “this Opinion represents the first consultation using newly developed approaches and the first to assess all listed species throughout the U.S., its territories, and protectorates. Future Opinions regarding pesticides may utilize different analyses and approaches as the interagency consultation effort proceeds.”

The next step is for the EPA to restrict the use of the pesticides to reduce the risks for salmon and other species. Among suggested measures, the BiOp says those who use pesticides must limit the total amount of chemicals applied in high-risk areas, such as streams. No-spray buffers or similar alternatives are suggested.

Interim no-spray buffers, established by the courts, will remain in effect until the EPA takes action. The interim buffers were put on, taken off, and are back on as a result of the lengthy court battle between the agencies and environmental groups. Pesticide manufacturers have weighed in, arguing about the need for pesticides without undue restrictions.

The Trump administration asked the court for a two-year delay in the release of the BiOp, but NMFS ultimately met the deadline when the judge failed to rule on the request in time to make a difference.

I discussed some of the ongoing intrigue and a bit of history in a Water Ways post last August, after EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt reversed course on an impending ban on chlorpyrifos. The proposed ban, approved during the Obama administration, came in response to studies that showed how the chemical could adversely affect children’s brains.

Although it took legal action to get to this point, agency and independent scientists have worked together to study the problem and come up with solutions. The question now is whether policymakers and politicians will take reasonable steps to reduce the risks based upon these findings, which are complex, evolving and rarely definitive for all time.

As I was going back through the blog posts I’ve written about pesticides, I recalled that President George W. Bush wanted to limit scientific consultations in an effort to streamline the regulatory process — much as President Trump’s people are doing today. Check out Water Ways from March 4, 2009, which shows a video of President Obama reversing the Bush policy and speaking out for increased input from scientists.

When it comes to human health and the environment, it is good to remember that without the work of scientists, many species throughout the world would have been wiped out long ago. Human cancer, disease and brain impairment would be far worse today without regulations based on scientific findings. Science can tell us about the risk of pesticides and other threats to salmon and orcas. But knowledge is not enough. People must take reasonable actions to protect themselves and the environment. And so the story goes on.

Last week, Earthjustice, which represents environmental groups in the legal battle, released the biological opinion, which had been sent by NOAA as part of the legal case. The group posted links to the document and related information in a news release. As far as I know, nobody in the Trump administration has spoken about the findings.

Amusing Monday: Bainbridge baker designs cakes with imagination

Baker Christine Chapman of Bainbridge Island creates fanciful as well as fancy cakes in her home kitchen, the headquarters for a one-person business known as Crumbs Cakery.

“Becoming Aquatic” // Source: Christine Chapman

A few photos of her sculptured cakes designed on water themes are shown on this page.

A native of Austria, Christine was trained as a construction engineer and spent the early part of her career working for architectural firms in Austria and Germany. She jokes that some of her more elaborate cakes, such as a 2.5-foot Lego Batman cake, require a bit of structural design.

Christine’s life changed course when she met her future husband, an investor, at a wedding in Austria. They eventually moved to California for a short time before deciding to raise their family on Bainbridge Island, moving there in 2001.

“Swim Olivia” // Source: Christine Chapman

Her early cake-baking projects were done for her children, who loved cakes that looked like real objects, sometimes telling a story.

“The first cake I ever made was an airplane cake,” Christine told me. “It was very simple.”

For the most part, she is a self-taught baker. In 2012, Washington’s new Cottage Foods Law went into effect, allowing people to sell products made in home kitchens — provided the sales were direct to consumers.

“I thought this would work, so in 2014 I started my official business with a website, and I started to get some cakes out there,” she said.

Since then, she has made about 200 cakes — from collections of cupcakes to large wedding cakes to a variety of sculpted cakes. Through the years, she has studied cookbooks and taken a few classes, some online and some in person.

“Otter” // Source: Christine Chapman

“I’m still learning with every single cake,” she said, adding that she loves working with customers and leaning on her creativity to turn their ideas and color schemes into works of art. One or more sketches usually precedes the baking itself.

The first cake shown on this page combines a book with a variety of sea creatures. The cake was created for a young woman graduating from a creative-writing school, according to Christine. For her final thesis, the woman wrote about her relationship to marine life and tide pools. She titled the paper “Becoming Aquatic,” and that became the title for the cake.

“Great Blue Heron” // Source: Christine Chapman

The second cake, “Swim Olivia,” was a birthday cake for a swimmer name Olivia who was involved in a swim team. Christine started with a photo of the person diving into the water.

The otter cake is one of many similar cakes that Christine made through the years for fundraisers at Ordway Elementary School, which her children attended. The great blue heron cake was made for a fundraiser for West Sound Wildlife Center.

Christine says she is still having a lot of fun baking the cakes and intends to stay busy with the work. Other cakes she has made can be seen on her Gallery webpage, and she can be reached through her contact page.

Previous blog posts on Water Ways about water-related cakes: