Category Archives: Marine mammals

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.”

Both Democrats and Republicans from coastal regions of the country are hearing from people in the fishing and shellfish industries about threats to their livelihoods from ocean acidification. For some lawmakers that is a more practical and immediate problem than just focusing on the environmental catastrophe shaping up along the coasts.

“A whole lot of people in D.C. still don’t get it; that’s just a reality,” Derek said with respect to the closely related causes of ocean acidification and climate change. President Trump, he noted, has never backed down from his assertion that the climate crisis is a hoax.

“By coming out of the House with 325 votes, we hope to provide some traction with forward motion going into the Senate,” he said of his plan to foster innovations for addressing ocean acidification.

The bill was crafted in consultation with various groups, including the XPRIZE Foundation, which has demonstrated how the power of competition can launch a $2-billion private space industry, according to Kilmer. The Ansari XPRIZE competition resulted in 26 teams competing for $10 million, yielding more than $100 million in space-research projects, he noted.

Rep. Herrera Beutler said she, too, is optimistic that the legislation will lead to innovative solutions.

“Shellfish and fishing industry jobs in Pacific County are jeopardized by the detrimental effects of ocean acidification…,” she said, “and I’m pleased that my House colleagues gave it their strong approval. The next step is approval by the U.S. Senate, and I’ll continue advocating for this legislative approach to protecting fishing businesses and jobs.”

Increasing acidity of ocean water has been shown to result from increasing carbon dioxide absorbed from the atmosphere. The effect is exacerbated by land-based sources of nitrogen, which can increase the growth of algae and other plants that eventually die and decay, thus decreasing oxygen while further increasing carbon dioxide.

Carbon dioxide readily converts to carbonic acid, which can impair the critical growth of shells in commercially valuable shellfish, such as oysters and crabs, as well as pteropods and other tiny organisms that play a key role in the food web — including herring, salmon, right up to killer whales.

The problem is even worse along the Pacific Northwest Coast, where natural upwelling brings deep, acidified and nitrogen-rich waters to the surface after circulating at depth in the oceans for decades, if not centuries.

To help people understand the economic threat, Kilmer cites studies that estimate the value of shellfish to the Northwest’s economy:

Other ocean acidification bills passed by the House and sent on to the Senate:

Puget Sound Day on the Hill

About three weeks ago, on a reporting project for Puget Sound Institute, I joined more than 70 people who traveled to Washington, D.C. to meet with congressional leaders. Climate change and ocean acidification were among the many Puget Sound concerns discussed during the series of meetings.

The annual event is called Puget Sound Day on the Hill, and it includes representatives of state and local governments, Indian tribes, environmental groups and businesses. Participants may share their own particular interests, but their primary goal is to get the federal government to invest in protecting and restoring the Puget Sound ecosystem — the same type of investment that the Washington Legislature expanded upon this year.

During those meetings, Kilmer expressed optimism that federal funding for salmon and orca recovery would match or exceed that of the past two years, when President Trump in his budget proposed major cuts or elimination of many environmental programs. Congress managed to keep the programs going.

Here are my reports from that trip:

Fix Congress Committee

During the trip to Washington, D.C., I learned that Derek Kilmer is chairing a new bipartisan committee nicknamed the “Fix Congress Committee,” formally known as the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress.

Goals include improving transparency of government operations, reducing staff turnover to heighten expertise, and implementing new technology. High on the list of challenges is improving the budget and appropriations process, which Kilmer called “completely off the rails.”

The committee recently released its first recommendations with five specific ideas to “open up” Congress. Check out the news release posted May 23 or read the news article by reporter Paul Kane in the Washington Post. One can stay up to date with the committee’s Facebook page.

Derek tells me that many more recommendations will be proposed by the end of the year. If you are interested in the workings of Congress or would like to follow bills as they work their way through the process, you might want to review the videos of committee meetings.

I found it interesting to learn about all the things that technology can do. One of my complaints is that it is difficult to compare final versions of a bill with its initial draft, not to mention all the amendments along the way. Current technology would allow two versions of a bill to be compared easily with a simple keystroke.

“Some technology issues are simple, and some will take more time,” Derek told me, adding that the committee’s staff is limited but some of the ideas are being developed by staffers who work for House members. Some of the ideas are being developed by outside groups.

Other specific issues to be addressed by the committee include scheduling issues; policies to develop the next generation of leaders; ideas for recruiting and retaining the best staffers; and efficiencies in purchasing, travel and sharing staff.

Legislative Action Award to Kilmer

Rep. Kilmer is among six members of Congress — two senators and four representatives — to be honored this year with a Legislative Action Award from the Bipartisan Policy Center, a nonprofit think tank that promotes good ideas coming from both Republicans and Democrats.

“The Legislative Action Awards recognize members with the unique capacity to identify common interests and get things done,” said BPC President Jason Grumet in a March 13 news release. “It takes real skill and commitment to govern a divided country.

“Thankfully,” he continued, “there are still true legislators in the Congress who understand how to build coalitions that deliver sound policy for the American people. It is an honor to recognize six of these leaders today and remind the public that principled collaboration is the essence of effective democracy.”

In accepting the award, Derek issued this statement: “The folks I represent want to get the economy on track — and they want Congress to get on track too. In recent years, there’s been far too much partisan bickering and far too little Congress. That’s why I’ve been so committed to finding common ground.

“Congress is at its best when people listen and learn from one another to find the policies that will move our country forward. It’s an honor to receive this award, and I thank the Bipartisan Policy Center for encouraging members of Congress to work together for the common good.”

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.”

This is the second orca to be born among the Southern Residents this year. Before 2019, no successful births had occurred since 2016. The first one this year was designated L-124 and was born in January to L-77 (named Matia). At last report, the youngster was doing well.

The new calf’s mother has not yet been identified. Jennifer said the newborn was seen with several J-pod females, the closest being J-31, known as Tsuchi. This is a 24-year-old orca known for assisting new mothers. Jennifer and John sent their photographs to the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island for official identification.

Ken Balcomb, director of the center, told me that more observations will be needed to confirm the mother. Another researcher associated with the center was able to find the calf Friday not far from the initial sighting, but the waters were rough, Ken said. I’m waiting for more information.

Jennifer reported that the young calf had the orange coloration of a newborn as well as fetal folds, which are caused by being bent over in the womb. The folds tend to disappear a few weeks after birth, and Ken’s best guess is that the calf is one to three weeks old.

John and Jennifer are owners of The Whale Centre, a whale-watching company in Tofino, B.C. When they spotted the whales Thursday, their boat was not carrying passengers. Instead, the two were working as whale researchers under a permit from Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

Jennifer wrote about the encounter in a blog entry on The Whale Center’s website, where she posted some of the photos that she and John took. After the new calf was spotted, whale-watching boats stayed away to give the whales room, she said.

The Center for Whale Research has maintained an annual census of the Southern Residents since 1976. Ken and his staff have not just kept records of the number of whales but also their close-knit family structures, including who is related to whom.

Killer whales belong to a matriarchal society in which older females lead the family groups and the whales stay with their mothers for life.

A decline in the orca population since 1997 led NOAA Fisheries to list the Southern Residents as endangered under the Endangered Species Act in 2005.

Following captures for marine parks in the 1960s and early ‘70s, the population recovered until 1997, when their numbers reached 98 whales. A general decline followed until last year when they were down to 74. The two new calves bring the current count to 76.

Gray whale deaths lead to declaration of ‘unusual mortality event’

As more gray whales wash up dead on beaches in Puget Sound and along the West Coast, NOAA Fisheries has declared an “unusual mortality event” to mobilize additional research into what is killing these massive marine mammals.

Aerial images, such as this one off Central California, help biologists assess the condition of gray whales as part of a declared “unusual mortality event.”
Photo: Southwest Fisheries Science Center and SR3 under federal permits NMFS 19091 and MBNMS 2017-8.

About 70 gray whales have been found dead so far this year along the shorelines of California, Oregon, Washington and Alaska, with another 73 in Mexico and five in Canada. That’s the most since the year 2000, when more than 100 gray whales were stranded along the U.S. West Coast, triggering a previous unusual mortality event, or UME.

Many of the dead whales have shown signs of emaciation, suggesting that they failed to find enough food in the Arctic last summer, a time when they need to build up enough energy reserves to make it through the winter. Each year, the Eastern North Pacific gray whales travel from their feeding grounds in Alaska to their over-wintering areas in Mexico. As they return north at this time of year, they could be exhausting the remainder of their fat reserves, experts say.

A gray whale found dead at Washington state’s Leadbetter Point State Park near Long Beach was examined and found to be unusually thin.
Photo: John Weldon, Northern Oregon/Southern Washington Marine Mammal Stranding Program.

Not all the dead animals are showing signs of malnutrition. Other possible causes of death can include contaminants, environmental conditions, disease and being struck by moving ships. At least three of the animals were killed by ships.

The 70 whales found dead in U.S. waters this year compare to an average of 15 whales found stranded during the same January-through-May time period over the past 18 years. That number is just a fraction of the whales that actually died, however, since only 4 to 13 percent of dead gray whales are ever recovered, according to a study from the last UME.

For Washington state, the migration is about halfway through, while it is just beginning in Alaska, so officials predict that more gray whales will perish before they make it back to their feeding grounds. Of the 70 dead gray whales found on U.S. beaches so far, 37 stranded in California, 25 in Washington, five in Alaska and three in Oregon.

The total population of gray whales along the West Coast is estimated at 27,000, up from about 16,000 following the UME in 2000, when the population dropped by about 5,000 whales, according to Dave Weller, research wildlife biologist with NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center.

“We know the population can recover, given that all the other parameters remain the same, that the environment remain the same and there is enough food,” Weller said during a telephone news conference this afternoon.

“I would say that the number-one priority is learning as much as we can from the stranded animals,” he added. “Our monitoring will continue, and we will do another abundance estimate … and we’ll also be following calf production. We’ve got our finger on the pulse, and we will continue to monitor it closely.”

The number of calves born this year also appears to be down from average, as it has been in previous unusual mortality events. Whether feeding conditions will be better this year has not yet been determined.

Sue Moore, a biological oceanographer at the University of Washington, said gray whales eat a variety of things, and they can go where food is available. But conditions in the Arctic are changing rapidly, and it isn’t clear yet if they are eating amphipods — tiny shrimplike creatures that normally sustain them — or if they are shifting to other kinds of prey.

The sheer number of gray whales also may be a factor, in that their feeding areas could be reaching “carrying capacity” — although the experts stress that the number of whales that can be supported in the Arctic will vary, depending on environmental conditions that can increase or decrease prey populations.

“Carrying capacity varies by year,” said John Calambokidis, research biologist with Cascadia Research Collective in Olympia. “It certainly plays a role. How I would view it, too, is when animals are closer to the limits of the food supply is when you would start to see a portion of the population that isn’t as fit become more vulnerable.”

John noted that during these high-mortality incidents, more gray whales seem to come into Puget Sound and other busy estuaries, including San Francisco Bay. As a result, they are more likely to be hit by ships or become entangled in fishing nets.

Sue Moore said reports of deaths among other marine mammals, such as sea lions and walruses, will be investigated as part of the effort to understand the gray whale deaths and the overall ecosystem.

“In our investigation, we will bring in experts on gray whales, but we will bring in experts on the larger environment, and that includes other animals,” she said. “We do have some die-offs of birds along the California Coast, so we want to know if what is affecting the birds is different or the same as what is affecting the whales.”

Unusual mortality events can be declared by NOAA Fisheries when there is a significant die-off of any marine mammal species. In this case, the agency cited two of seven possible criteria used to declare a UME:

  • 1. A marked increase in the magnitude or a marked change in the nature of morbidity, mortality or strandings when compared with prior records, and
  • 5. Affected animals exhibit similar or unusual pathologic findings, behavior patterns, clinical signs, or general physical condition (e.g., blubber thickness).

The UME declaration can be used to mobilize a special UME Contingency Fund to reimburse people who officially help with the investigation. People may contribute to the fund or to local stranding networks on the NOAA Fisheries website.

Anyone who sees a dead, injured or stranded marine mammals is asked to call the West Coast Marine Mammal Stranding Network, (866) 767-6114. Only local and state officials and those authorized by NOAA Fisheries may legally handle live or dead marine mammals.

The annual gray whale migration — some 10,000 to 12,000 miles — is said to be the longest migration of any mammal. Adult grays can reach up to 46 feet long.

Amusing Monday: Student artists share views of rare species

A student art contest focused on endangered species produced some impressive paintings and drawings this year for the 14th annual Endangered Species Day, which was celebrated this past Friday.

The contest, called Saving Endangered Species Youth Art Contest, is sponsored by the Endangered Species Coalition. It gives the young artists and their audience a chance to understand species at risk of extinction. Some choose plants and animal that are well known; others go for the obscure.

Texas blind salamander by ©Sam Hess
Image: Endangered Species Coalition

The grand prize this year was awarded to Sam Hess, a first grader from Portland, Ore. He depicted a Texas blind salamander, a rare cave-dwelling species native to just one place, the San Marcos Pool of the Edwards Aquifer in Hays County, Texas. The salamander, which grows to about 5 inches, features blood-red gills for breathing oxygen from the water.

The art contest, for students K-12, is sponsored by the Endangered Species Coalition, including more than 450 conservation, scientific, education, religious, recreation, business and community organizations.

“We owe it to this generation of children to pass down healthy ecosystems brimming with wildlife,” said Leda Huta, the coalition’s executive director, in a news release. “Every year, their artwork demonstrates how deeply they feel for nature and all of its wondrous creatures – large and small.”

West Indian Manatee by ©Grace Ou
Image: Endangered Species Coalition

The second-place overall winner was a picture of a West Indian manatee by Grace Ou, an eighth grader in Lexington, Mass. The West Indian manatee, also known as American manatee, lives in shallow coastal areas of the West Indies — better known as the Caribbean. It is also common in South Florida waters during the summers. The Florida manatee is considered a subspecies of the West Indian Manatee.

The 2019 Saving Endangered Species Youth Art Contest received more than 1,100 entries from students around the United States, according to organizers. Besides the overall winners, awards were also given in four grade categories. Here are the first-place winners in those categories:

  • Grades K-2: Bruce Chan a kindergartner from Whippany, N.J.,
  • Grades 3-5: Sky Hana, a fifth grader from Des Plaines, Ill.,
  • Grades 6-8: Evan Zhang, an eighth grader from Sudbury, Mass., and
  • Grades 9-12: Krista Bueno, a 12th grader from Chantilly, Va., tied with Annette Yuan.
Gila chub by ©Sky Hana
Image: Endangered Species Coalition

View six of the winning entries on the contest website, with Annette Yuan’s picture of humpback whales on a Flickr page. I’m not sure how the judges manage to pick these winners, but I believe it is worth taking a look at all 10 semi-finalists in each category by linking from the semi-finalists webpage.

The students were called on to depict a land or ocean-dwelling species that lives in or migrates through the United States and is listed as threatened or endangered or was previously on the Endangered Species List. The subjects must be vertebrates, invertebrates, flowering plants or non-flowering plants.

The contest encourages the artists to tell a story of hope, such as how people were able to rebuild an endangered population.

Spectacled eider by ©Krista Bueno
Image: Endangered Species Coalition

Judges for the contest included Andrew Zuckerman, wildlife photographer, filmmaker, and creative director; Robert Wyland, marine life artist; Jack Hanna, host of “Jack Hanna’s Into the Wild;” David Littschwager, freelance photographer and contributor to National Geographic magazine; Susan Middletown, a photographer who has collaborated with Littschwager and whose own work has been published in four books; and Alice Tangerini, botanical illustrator for the Smithsonian Institution.

Said Zuckerman, “Through the visual arts, I try to celebrate our vanishing species, and I am glad to be joined by these inspiring young artists. I hope these artists and their images will encourage action to protect rare and endangered species for future generations.”

Humpback whale by ©Annette Yuan
Image: Endangered Species Coalition

The Endangered Species Coalition likes to emphasize the successes of the Endangered Species Act, and a new blog post on Friday features a dozen success stories for species saved from extinction.

Meanwhile, the United Nations has issued a new global assessment that raises the prospect of a million species being pushed to extinction over the next few years as a result of human activities. Topping the list of threats are:

  1. Land and sea use, including development, logging and mining,
  2. Hunting and fishing that over-taxes the ability of populations to remain stable,
  3. Climate change, which is just beginning to have an ecological impact at both a large and local scale,
  4. Pollution, which includes 400 million tons of toxic chemicals and wastes being dumped in oceans and rivers every year, and
  5. Invasive species, which can drive out native species and disrupt carefully balanced food webs.

Robert Watson, chair of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, said only by acting quickly to address the problem at every level can disaster be averted.

“The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever,” he said in a blog post that spells out the problem. “We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.”

Other information:

Ghost-net busters are entering a new era of hunting and removal

My mind is unable to grasp, in any meaningful way, how much death and destruction was caused by fishing nets that were lost and abandoned through the years.

Filmed in 2007, this KCTS-9 video describes the problem of ghost nets and a project that would eventually remove nearly 6,000 nets.

Nearly 6,000 of these so-called “ghost nets” have been pulled from the waters of Puget Sound over the past 17 years. Until removed, they keep on catching fish, crabs and many more animals to one degree or another.

We can support responsible fishing, but those of us who care about Puget Sound must never again allow lost nets to be forgotten, as if “out of sight, out of mind” ever worked for anyone.

The latest concern, as I reported last month in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, is that 200 or more ghost nets are still lurking at depths below 100 feet, which is the level considered safe to operate by divers with normal scuba gear. Remotely operated vehicles (unmanned submarines) are being developed to go after nets remaining in deep water, where they are killing crabs and many other deep-water species — including rockfish, some of which are listed under the Endangered Species Act.

Another concern is that some commercial fishermen, for unknown reasons, are still failing to report the nets they are losing during the course of fishing, despite state and tribal requirements to do so. We know this because newly lost nets, with little accumulation of marine growth, are still being found.

The Northwest Straits Foundation operates an outreach program to inform fishers about the importance of reporting lost nets and the legal requirements to do so, as I describe in my story. This is a no-fault program, and if a fisher reports a lost net, it will be removed free of cost. If the net is usable, the owner will likely get it back.

Why a fisher would not report a lost net is hard to imagine, unless the person is fishing illegally. If the person losing a net cares at all about natural resources or the future of fishing, one would think that reporting would be swift — even if that person had to swallow some pride for taking inadvisable actions that lost the net.

If this matter of nonreporting does not turn around, fishers may face additional regulations — such as a requirement to place tags on the bottom of every net to identify the owner. That way, the owner could be identified and charged with a violation when an unreported net is found. Currently, identification is placed at the top of the net on floats, which often get removed when fishers pull up as much net as possible.

Maybe all commercial fishers should be required to look at pictures of dead fish, birds and porpoises entangled in lost nets and sign an agreement to report lost nets.

The numbers only begin to tell the story. In the 5,809 nets removed at last count, more than 485,000 organisms were found. That includes 1,116 birds, 5,716 fish, 81 marine mammals and 478,000 invertebrates, including crabs.

But that’s only the intact animals that were found. For every animal found during net removal, many more probably were killed and decomposed each month that the net kept on fishing — and for some nets that could be up to 30 years.

According to a study led by Kirsten Gilardi of the University of California, Davis, the 5,809 nets could have been killing nearly 12 million animals each year — including 163,000 fish, 29,000 birds and 2,000 marine mammals. Those numbers, based on a series of assumptions, are mind-boggling. But even if the numbers are not entirely accurate, they tell us clearly that every net is important.

I’ve been reporting on this issue of ghost nets since about 2000, when Ray Frederick of the Kitsap Poggie Club first alerted me to the problem and went about convincing state legislators that they ought to do something. See my story in the Kitsap Sun, May 4, 2000, which began:

“In the murky, undersea twilight of Puget Sound, scuba divers occasionally come face to face with the tangled remains of rotting fish.

“Nearly invisible in the dim light, long-lost fishing nets continue to ensnare fish, birds, seals, crabs and other creatures that happen along. Divers call these hidden traps ‘ghost nets.’

“‘It’s a little eerie, seeing fish like that,’ said Steve Fisher, an underwater photographer from Bremerton. ‘You can see that something has been eating on them, and the fish are a pretty good size — bigger than you would normally see.’”

One of the early state-funded projects was the removal of a 300-foot net near Potlatch, led by the Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group. See Kitsap Sun, June 29, 2002.

Today, most of the ongoing effort in Puget Sound is coordinated by the Northwest Straits Foundation and Natural Resources Consultants, which have gained considerable knowledge about how to find and remove ghost nets at any depth.

Female orca in declining health shows amazing signs of recovery

The killer whale J-17, known as Princess Angeline, seems to have made a remarkable recovery since December, when the 42-year-old female was diagnosed with “peanut head” — an indicator of malnutrition that almost always leads to death.

Princess Angeline, J-17, in Admiralty Inlet Sunday
Photo: Ken Balcomb, Center for Whale Research
Federal permits: NMFS 21238 / DFO SARA 388

Now Princess Angeline looks much better and shows few signs of that dire condition, said Ken Balcomb, director of the Center for Whale Research who got a good look at her Sunday when J pod came into Puget Sound.

“Since New Year’s Eve, J-17 has fared much better than we expected,” Ken told me. “They must have found some winter food up in Georgia Strait.”

At one point, Ken had said it would be a “miracle” if she were ever seen again.

Her current condition does not mean that she is no longer at risk. In March, her terribly bad breath suggested an underlying medical problem, perhaps beyond the lack of food.

J pod, one of the three southern resident killer whale pods, typically spends most of the winter in the northern part of the Salish Sea in British Columbia. The whales sometimes cross the Canadian border to check out food availability in Puget Sound.

The orcas prefer to eat chinook salmon, although they occasionally eat other fish. Younger chinook, known as blackmouth, can be found in inland waters during the winter, but they are smaller and provide less energy for the amount of effort it takes to catch them.

Ken observed that J pod seemed to be catching blackmouth in Admiralty Inlet when he watched them on Sunday. Read his full report at the Center for Whale Research website.

Anglers were reportedly catching fair numbers of blackmouth in the Kingston-Edmonds region, where the orcas were seen Sunday, according to Puget Sound creel reports. Foraging by the orcas was noticed by many whale observers, according to the latest whale-sightings report from Orca Network.

“Sunday turned out to be more wonderful than we could have hoped when Js/L87 made their way north and foraged all day in glassy calm seas in the great wide open between Edmonds, South Whidbey, and the Kitsap Peninsula,” wrote Alisa Lemire Brooks, who compiled an extensive report of minute-by-minute sightings. “Perhaps there wasn’t enough salmon to entice a longer stay, since they showed up off the west side of San Juan Island the following morning.”

If Princess Angeline has overcome her malnourished condition, it would be truly welcome news. The critically endangered southern residents, with 75 animals, are close to the lowest population observed since many were captured for the aquarium trade during the 1960s and ‘70s. “Peanut head” describes the shape of an orca’s head when a severe loss of blubber creates an indention behind the blowhole.

Princess Angeline, named after the daughter of Chief Seattle, is the mother of Tahlequah, or J-35, a 21-year-old orca mom who became heartbreakingly famous for carrying her dead calf on her head for 17 days. Tahlequah herself has remained relatively healthy.

Another whale showing peanut head last year was K-25, a 28-year-old male named Scoter. He lost his mother, K13 or Skagit, in 2017. Males who lose their mothers often struggle to survive. K pod has not been observed lately, so Scoter’s status is unknown.

L pod visits Monterey Bay on March 31.
Video: Monterey Bay Whale Watch

The importance of the orcas’ social networks, including the sharing of salmon, is described nicely in an article written by Sarah DeWeerdt and published in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound and the Kitsap Sun.

Meanwhile, L pod traveled down the coast to Monterey Bay, Calif., where the whales seemed to be catching chinook from the Sacramento River, according to reports from March 31. Alisa Schulman-Janiger, co-founder of the California Killer Whale Project, was quoted in the San Jose Mercury News:

“They go wherever they can find Chinook salmon…,” she said. “We know they aren’t getting enough food; we know that they’re struggling; and we’re seeing some whales that are skinnier …. This year is a good year for salmon in Monterey Bay…. It’s just great to know that this is a habitat that can still provide them with food.”

Fishing guides, including Monterey Bay Charters, were reporting good fishing when targeting salmon.

The newest calf in the southern resident population, designated L-124, was seen alive and apparently healthy among the whales in Monterey Bay. The calf, who was born in January and called “Lucky” by Ken Balcomb, is the third calf for L-77, a 32-year-old female named Matia. Her first calf survived only a short time, but her second calf, L-119 named Joy, seems to be doing well.

It will be interesting to see when the whales all show up together in Puget Sound this year. J pod tends to pop in and out of Puget Sound all winter, while K and L pods often travel up and down the Washington Coast, sometimes as far as northern California, as L pod did this year. Years ago, the whales all got together in late May or June, staying around the San Juan Islands most of the summer.

In recent years, their movements have become less predictable. Last year, none of the pods showed up during the entire month of May — something that has never happened before, at least not since the first observations were recorded in the early 1970s. See Water Ways, June 29, 2018.

In contrast to the fish-eating southern resident orcas, the transient orcas, which eat marine mammals, have been seen more and more in Puget Sound. An apparent abundance of harbor seals and California sea lions seem to be feeding them well, both in North and South Puget Sound.

As I’ve often reported, transients are the unknowing allies of the endangered southern residents, since they reduce the population of seals and sea lions, which prey upon the salmon that are so important to the residents.

In Canada, Gary Sutton, a captain with the whale-watching company Ocean Ecoventures, counted eight groups of transients in the same area of Georgia Strait on Sunday. If all the individuals in the groups can be confirmed with IDs, it would be a total 41 transients, a possible record aggregation, he says.

“A LOT of socializing ensued with tons of spyhops and vocals,” Gary said in a report to Orca Network. “I managed to capture the majority of them on camera and a few visual IDs.”

As for the southern residents, reporter Simone Del Rosario of Q13 Fox News comes to a provocative and unwelcome conclusion, based on her extensive research for a five-part television series.

“I’ve spent the past year analyzing this question: Is this the last generation of southern resident orcas?

“I’ve looked at the threats to their survival: the lack of prey; contaminants; and vessel disturbance. I’ve interviewed the foremost experts in this field and pressed the politicians who have the power to make a change. I’ve traveled across the state and even to Canada learning about solutions and meeting the people who are pushing them forward.

“A year later, I’ve come to a conclusion, and it’s one I don’t make lightly. There is no question: This is the last generation. Humans — who are responsible for putting these mammals in such a critical state — need to act now if there’s any chance at turning around the killer whales’ decline.”

And so, in effect, she actually leaves the door open for humans to make the changes needed to save the whales. I recommend the series, which can be viewed from five video players on the webpage “The last generation: southern resident orcas in danger of extinction.”

I first confronted the possibility of extinction two years ago in a Water Ways blog post that includes an interview with Ken Balcomb. That was before the death of Scarlet, or J-50, and before a newborn orca calf died to be carried around by its mom. It was before the formation of the governor’s Killer Whale Task Force and the resulting legislation being debated in Olympia.

My question: How long can the orcas remain on the edge of extinction? Or, if I’m feeling optimistic: How long MUST the orcas remain on the edge of extinction?

Climate Sense: Sea ice, economics, legal issues and the orca task force

The shift to “clean fuels,” such as solar and wind power, is tied up in economics, and it appears that change is coming — with or without a push from government. This week, I read three different and somewhat contradictory reports about this dynamic competition between fossil fuels and renewable energy.

I also took a look at the hard data surrounding Arctic sea ice and reviewed videos of the governor’s orca task force meeting on Monday.

Continue reading

Legislation to help endangered orcas keeps moving toward approval

Members of the governor’s orca task force this week expressed hope and a bit of surprise as they discussed their recommendations to help the orcas —recommendations that were shaped into legislation and now have a fairly good chance of passage.

Over the years, some of their ideas have been proposed and discussed — and ultimately killed — by lawmakers, but now the plight of the critically endangered southern resident killer whales has increased the urgency of these environmental measures — including bills dealing with habitat, oil-spill prevention and the orcas themselves.

Continue reading

Amusing Monday: Orca researcher Jayda Guy finds success in music

Jayda Guy, aka Jayda G, a native of British Columbia, has embraced her dual passions for science and music like few other people in the world today. She has somehow been able to link her experiences as a killer whale researcher to a creative mindset as a musical DJ, singer, songwriter and producer, with a debut album coming out this month.

The new album, “Significant Changes,” was inspired in part by the orcas and the natural wonders of the Salish Sea, where she conducted her studies. The album came together last year, not long after she completed her master’s degree in resource management from Simon Fraser University. Her research focused on the effects of toxic chemicals on our southern resident killer whales.

“I’m trying to bring my two worlds together to bridge the communication gap (and) engage people in a new way,” she told Andy Malt, editor of Complete Music Update. “I don’t know if people in the electronic music world will want to talk about the environment, but I think I should try! I think it’s our duty to use a platform like this in a positive way; that’s our social responsibility.”

Continue reading

Amusing Monday: Inspiration from underwater photos

More than 5,000 underwater photographs, taken by photographers from 65 countries, were submitted for judging in the annual Underwater Photographer of the Year competition.

“Gentle Giants” ©François Baelen/UPY2019

The contest, based in Great Britain, was started in 1965 and celebrates the art and technology of capturing images under water — from the depths of the ocean to “split shots” at the surface, from open waters to enclosed estuaries, from lakes to even swimming pools.

I first reported on this contest in Watching Our Water Ways last year and received such a positive response from readers that I decided to make it an annual feature of this blog. The 125 winning entries are shown in an online Gallery of the 2019 winners. A series of videos provides insight from the photographers telling the stories that surround their winning entries.

Continue reading