Category Archives: Boaters, shippers

Amusing Monday: Time-lapse captures beauty in normal ship movements

When Bremerton-based aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis left Sinclair Inlet two weeks ago, a Navy sailor captured the movement with a series of photos turned into a video. See first video.

The Stennis, a nuclear-powered supercarrier in the Nimitz Class, remains at sea, where the crew is undergoing training in flight operations, damage control, firefighting, seamanship, medicine and other crucial functions.

The carrier is part of Carrier Strike Group 3, which is scheduled for deployment later this year. Details have not yet been released. See Navy news release by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Charles D. Gaddis IV and Kitsap Sun story by reporter Julianne Stanford.

The time-lapse video was posted on the Stennis Facebook page, where it attracted about 120 comments from friends, relatives and community members. The Facebook page also includes photos taken during the training. Here are a few of the comments written to the sailors from folks back home:

  • “Thanks for the time-lapse photos, and thank each and everyone for your service.”
  • “My heart is soaring with pride…God speed sailors….and my special sailor love you with all my life.”
  • “A lot of love for our children on this and all deployments….”
  • “Fair winds to my son and all those aboard this mighty ship! May you return safely soon. You are loved and missed!”
  • “Be safe and lots of love to my nephew on CVN 74!!! I have great respect for all the men and women in our armed services past and present.”
  • “Fair winds and following seas. Bless all of you on journey. Thank you all for your service!”

The Stennis time-lapse reminded me of another stunningly beautiful video covering 30 days on a mega-container ship. Jeff HK, who describes himself on YouTube as “a sailor with a passion for photo/videography and drones,” mounted a camera on the ship and created the video from 80,000 still photos.

The ship and its crew went through all sorts of weather, experiencing rain and sunshine, sunrises and sunsets and lots of stars on clear nights. At other times, the clouds created a show of their own. The route included the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden, Indian Ocean, Colombo, Malacca Strait, Singapore, South China Sea and Hong Kong.

Captions on the video help tell the story. One commenter who enjoyed the video said when it was over he felt like he had been on a trip.

The video, which also captured loading and off-loading activities, has been viewed 5.6 million times since its release in September.

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.”

Washington officials build state’s case against offshore oil drilling

If oil companies were secretly interested in drilling off the Washington coast — which is doubtful — then I suspect that state and tribal officials scared them off yesterday.

It’s one thing for an oil company to sign a lease with the federal government. It’s quite another thing to go up against other sovereign governments determined to use every means to make the venture unprofitable.

Participants in press conference, left to right: Attorney General Bob Ferguson; Gus Gates, Surfrider Foundation; Gina James, Quinault Nation; Larry Thevik, Dungeness Crab Fisherman’s Association; Gov. Jay Inslee; Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz; Ocean Shores Mayor Crystal Dingler; and Chad Bowechop, Makah Tribe. (Click to enlarge)
Photo: Governor’s Office

In a press conference yesterday, Gov. Jay Inslee said the Legislature could pass laws that establish new taxes or limit the use of port facilities needed to service oil rigs.

“We could set up our own safety standards, for instance, that frankly the industry may not be able to meet,” Inslee said. “So, yes, we have multiple ways. Counties and cities would also have jurisdiction.

“What I’m saying is that when you have a policy from a president that is uniformly reviled in the state of Washington both by Republicans and Democrats, there are so many ways that we have to stop this — and we’re going to use all of them.”

The entire press conference is shown in the first video below.

In a two-page letter to Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke, Inslee wrote, “I urge you in no uncertain terms to respect our local voices, our state’s laws, and our hard-working families by removing Washington’s coasts from any subsequent plan your department may propose to expand oil and gas leasing in this country.”

As Inslee prepared to take another question at the press conference, Public Lands Commissioner Hillary Franz, who oversees the state’s forests and aquatic lands, quickly wedged up to the microphone. She pointed out that Washington state has the authority to lease — or not — much of the deep-water areas in Puget Sound and along the coast, including areas used by local ports. The state would have a say over almost any infrastructure the industry might need to develop along the shore, she said.

In addition, the state has ownership over vast shellfish resources, Franz noted, and so state officials would have a clear interest to protect against any damage that might result.

Attorney General Bob Ferguson said if the leasing plan goes through, it would be challenged in court on many grounds. Just one example of a legal violation, he said, is the off-handed way that the Trump administration exempted the state of Florida from the leasing plan.

“It was completely arbitrary,” Ferguson said at the press conference. “It’s a classic example of how this administration rolls something out; they haven’t thought it through; and they take an action that we think will help make our case against it.”

Ferguson laid out his legal, moral and practical arguments against offshore drilling in a long five-page letter, which included this comment: “The proposal to open the Pacific Region Outer Continental Shelf to oil and gas leasing is unlawful, unsafe and harmful to the economy and natural beauty of Washington’s coastline. As Attorney General, my job is to enforce the law and protect the people, natural resources and environment of my state, and I will use every tool at my disposal to do so.”

Chad Bowechop, policy adviser and member of the Makah Tribe, explained that tribes have legal rights under the treaties to protect the environment in their native lands. He noted that the press conference was being held in the very room where legislation was signed to dispatch a rescue tug at Neah Bay. The bill was the result of oil spills that had damaged the natural and cultural resources of the area.

“We’re very proud of our working relationship with the state of Washington Department of Ecology Spills Program and with the United States Coast Guard,” he said. “Our basis of objection to this issue is based on our cultural and spiritual values. Our spiritual values hold the environment and the ocean resources in spiritual reverence.”

Drilling, he continued, would be in conflict with the tribe’s cultural and spiritual values. As a legal trustee of the ocean’s natural resources, the tribe “will pledge to work closely with the other resource trustees,” meaning the state and federal governments to prevent offshore oil drilling.

Early today, Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell appeared on the Senate floor to protest the oil-drilling proposal. She talked about the natural resource jobs that would be threatened by drilling activities. Check out the second video.

Now that Alaska Gov. Bill Walker has asked the Trump administration to dial back the offshore drilling proposal in his state, all the West Coast governors stand in opposition to the drilling plan. In a press release, Walker said he supports offshore drilling, but he wants Zinke to focus on the Chukchi and Beaufort seas along with Cook Inlet.

“I support removal of potential sales in all other Alaska waters for the 2019 to 2024 program,” he said, “and I will encourage the Interior Department to include the longstanding exclusions for the Kaktovik Whaling Area, Barrow Whaling Area, and the 25-mile coastal buffer in upcoming official state comments on the program.”

Alaska’s congressional delegation, all Republicans, previously made the same request in a letter to Zinke. The members are Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan and Rep. Don Young.

Except for three U.S. representatives, Washington’s and Oregon’s entire congressional delegations — four senators and 12 representatives — signed a joint letter to Zinke asking that both states be excluded from further leasing plans.

“The states of Washington and Oregon have made clear through local, state, and federal action, as well as extensive public comment, that oil and gas lease sales off the Pacific Coast are not in the best interest of our economies or environment,” the letter says. “The Department of the Interior’s proposal to consider drilling off the states we represent, absent stakeholder support and directly contradicting economic and environmental factors of the region, is a waste of time, government resources, and taxpayer dollars.”

The only Washington-Oregon lawmakers not signing the letter are Reps. Dan Newhouse and Cathy McMorris Rodgers, both Republicans representing nearly all of Eastern Washington, and Rep. Greg Walden, a Republican representing Eastern Oregon.

Amusing Monday: Octopuses, the aliens we can encounter on Earth

Octopuses are among the coolest creatures on Earth. Not only are they dexterous, with an amazing ability to grasp and manipulate objects, they also seem to know what they are doing.

In tests, octopuses have proven that they can solve puzzles, and they certainly have some sort of memory. They can tell people apart, even if dressed in the same uniform. This may be surprising, especially since octopuses don’t really have a brain like that of humans and other vertebrates (animals with a backbone).

Not having a backbone — or any bones for that matter — allows octopuses to escape from places where much smaller invertebrates would get stuck. Check out the first video on this page, a popular clip taken by Chance Miller, an Alaskan fishing and tour guide for Miller’s Landing near Seward.

Chance tells his skeptical passengers that the large octopus slithering around his deck would escape out a tiny drain hole, that is if and when the creature decides to go.

No way, says one man heard on the video. “That’s like trying to get my wife in her wedding dress; it ain’t gonna happen.” But, of course, it did.

As for intelligence, philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith says it is not so much a question of which animals among all the species are smarter in an formalistic sense. It’s about which animal best uses its intelligence to solve problems that relate to survival and success in other ways. The octopus is thus worthy of attention.

In his new and highly acclaimed book “Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness,” Godfrey-Smith talks about how octopuses and other cephalopods have a disbursed nervous system with neurons throughout their bodies. In some ways, a single tentacle may think for itself.

Mammals and birds have long been regarded as the smartest animals on Earth, but that may reveal a bias based on our similar patterns of thinking. After all, mammals and birds are closely related to us in an evolutionary sense, compared to all the invertebrates in the world.

Looking back in time, it is difficult to come up with a common ancestor to both humans and octopuses, Godfrey-Smith said. “It was probably an animal about the size of a leach or flatworm with neurons numbering perhaps in the thousands, but not more than that.” Check out the fascinating article in Quartz magazine by Olivia Goldhill.

This line of reasoning suggests that intelligence evolved on Earth in two very different ways. Studying the octopus could be the closest encounter that humans have with an alien creature, according to Godfrey-Smith. I may never think of an octopus quite the same way again.

Other interesting findings about octopuses are revealed in a 2009 Scientific American article, in which writer Brendan Borrell interviews Jennifer Mather, a comparative psychologist at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada.

The second video on this page shows an octopus solving a real-world problem of grabbing a meal by taking advantage of a human, while the third video is a 43-minute Planet Earth documentary released last summer about the intelligence and alien nature of the octopus.

I leave you at the end with a brief clip from the Cirque du Soleil performance of “Octopus’ Garden” by the Beatles.

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.

Amusing Monday: Posters promote values of maritime industry

Camille Quindica, an eighth-grader from Kapolei Middle School in Hawaii, captured the spirit of the maritime industry in a poster that received top honors in an art contest with the theme “Connecting Ships, Ports and People.”

Artwork by Camille Quindica, eighth grade, grand prize winner, “Connecting Ships, Ports & People” Maritime Art Contest

The annual art contest is sponsored by North American Marine Environment Protection Association along with the U.S. Coast Guard and the Inter-American Committee on Ports of the Organization of the American States.

Camille’s drawing took the grand prize in the category for grades 6-12. She was presented with a certificate, $100 and other items by Coast Guard officials who visited her school two weeks ago.

“We have winners from overseas and all over, and we’ve been quite fortunate here in Hawaii,” said Cmdr. Ulysses Mullins, deputy sector commander for Coast Guard Sector Honolulu. “We’ve had two back-to-back winners and we’ve had the opportunity to present the winners in person.” (See story and photo in “Coast Guard News.”)

Artwork by Nelson Valencia, third grade, Grand Prize Winner, “Connecting Ships, Ports & People” Maritime Art Contest

Nelson Valencia, a third-grader at Atahualpa school in Ibarra, Imbabura, Ecuador, was the winner of the grand prize in the K-5 age group. Five other finalists were named for each of the two categories. To view all the winning posters, visit the NAMEPA website.

The winning posters have been compiled into a 2018 calendar.

Students were asked to submit an original poster that creatively depicts the connections among ships, ports and people and how these connections affect everyday lives. The contest was open to students in grades K-12 throughout North America, Central America, South America, and the Caribbean.

More than 500 entries were received, according to a news release about the contest that lists all the winners.

Artwork by Wilson Cajas, second grade, finalist, “Connecting Ships, Ports & People” Maritime Art Contest

The theme for this year’s contest is “Better Shipping for a Better Future.” Submissions will be accepted between Jan. 22 and March 30. Details will soon be available on the NAMEPA website.

NAMEPA, led by the maritime industry, promotes the preservation of the marine environment through best operating practices and by educating seafarers, students and the public about the need to protect natural resources. A webpage, NAMEPA Junior, provides a variety of activities for children.

The U.S. Coast Guard is dedicated to protecting U.S. coastal areas along with maritime and environmental interests throughout the world.

The Inter-American Committee on Ports (CIP) of the Organization of American States (OAS) brings together the National Port Authorities of all 35 sovereign nations of the Americas. The organization promotes sound and sustainable policies for the maritime industry.

Facing the possibility of extinction for the killer whales of Puget Sound

Southern Resident killer whales, cherished by many Puget Sound residents, are on a course headed for extinction, and they could enter a death spiral in the not-so-distant future.

It is time that people face this harsh reality, Ken Balcomb told me, as we discussed the latest death among the three pods of orcas. A 2-year-old male orca designated J-52 and known as Sonic died tragically about two weeks ago.

Two-year-old J-52, known as Sonic, swims with his mother J-36, or Alki, on Sept. 15. This may have been the last day Sonic was seen alive.
Photo: Ken Balcomb, Center for Whale Research

The young orca was last seen in emaciated condition, barely surfacing and hanging onto life near the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca on Sept. 15. Ken, director of the Center for Whale Research, said the young whale was attended to by his mother Alki, or J-36, along with a male orca, L-85, known as Mystery — who may have been Sonic’s father, but more about that later.

Extinction, Ken told me, is “very real” — not some ploy to obtain research dollars. The population of endangered Southern Residents has now dropped to 76 — the lowest level since 1984. Most experts agree that a shortage of chinook salmon — the primary prey of the orcas — is the greatest problem facing the whales.

Last week, the Leadership Council — the governing body of the Puget Sound Partnership — discussed what role the partnership should play to “accelerate and amplify efforts” to restore chinook salmon runs and save the orcas. Chinook themselves are listed as a threatened species.

Graph: Center for Biological Diversity

Puget Sound Partnership is charged by the Legislature with coordinating the restoration of Puget Sound, including the recovery of fish and wildlife populations.

The Leadership Council delayed action on a formal resolution (PDF 149 kb) in order to allow its staff time to identify specific actions that could be taken. Although the resolution contains the right language, it is not enough for the council to merely show support for an idea, said Council Chairman Jay Manning.

Sonic was one of the whales born during the much-acclaimed “baby boom” from late 2014 through 2015. With his death, three of the six whales born in J pod during that period have now died. No new calves have been born in any of the Southern Resident pods in nearly a year.

Meanwhile, two orca moms — 23-year-old Polaris (J-28) and 42-year-old Samish (J-14) — died near the end of 2016. Those deaths were followed by the loss of Granny (J-2), the J-pod matriarch said to have lived more than a century. Another death was that of Doublestuf, an 18-year-old male who died last December.

Three orcas were born in L pod during the baby boom, and none of those whales has been reported missing so far.

Ken believes he witnessed the final hours of life for young Sonic, who was lethargic and barely surfacing as the sun set on the evening of Sept. 15. Two adults — Sonic’s mother and Mystery — were the only orcas present, while the rest of J pod foraged about five miles away.

Sonic seen with his mother in June.
Photo: Ken Balcomb, Center for Whale Research

That was the last time anyone saw Sonic, although his mother Alki as well as Mystery were back with J pod during the next observation four days later. Ken reported that Alki seemed distressed, as often happens when a mother loses an offspring.

Ken admits that he is speculating when he says that Mystery may have been Sonic’s father. It makes for a good story, but there could be other reasons why the older male stayed with the mother and calf. Still, researchers are engaged in studies that point to the idea that mature killer whales may actually choose a mate rather than engaging in random encounters. I’m looking forward to the upcoming report.

I must admit that this issue of extinction has been creeping up on me, and it’s not something that anyone wants to face. Food is the big issue, and chinook salmon have been in short supply of late. It will be worth watching as the whales forage on chum salmon, as they are known to do in the fall months.

“This population cannot survive without food year-round,” Ken wrote in a news release. “Individuals metabolize their toxic blubber and body fats when they do not get enough to eat to sustain their bodies and their babies. Your diet doctor can advise you about that.

“All indications (population number, foraging spread, days of occurrence in the Salish Sea, body condition, and live birth rate/neonate survival) are pointing toward a predator population that is prey-limited and nonviable,” he added.

The Center for Biological Diversity, which was involved in the initial lawsuit that led to the endangered listing for the whales, is calling upon the NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service to move quickly to protect orca habitat along the coasts of Washington, Oregon and California. Currently designated critical habitat is limited to Puget Sound, even though the whales are known to roam widely along the coast.

“The death of another killer whale puts this iconic population on a dangerous path toward extinction,” Catherine Kilduff of CBD said in a news release. “If these whales are going to survive, we need to move quickly. Five years from now, it may be too late.”

How fast the whales will go extinct is hard to determine, experts say, but the current population is headed downward at an alarming rate, no matter how one analyzes the problem.

“I would say we are already in a very dangerous situation,” said Lance Barrett-Lennard, senior marine mammal researcher at the Vancouver Aquarium. “If this trajectory continues and we lose two or three more from deaths or unsuccessful birth, we will be in a real spiral,” he told reporter Richard Watts of the Times Colonist in Victoria, B.C.

A five-year status review (PDF 4.3 mb), completed last December by NMFS, takes into account the number of reproductive males and females among the Southern Residents, the reproductive rates, and the ratio of female to male births (more males are being born). As the population declines, the risk of inbreeding — and even more reproductive problems — can result.

Eric Ward of NOAA, who helped write the status report, said the agency often estimates an extinction risk for endangered populations, but the actual number of Southern Residents is too small to produce a reliable number. Too many things can happen to speed up the race toward extinction, but it is clear that the population will continue to decline unless something changes.

As Ken describes it in simple terms, Southern Resident females should be capable of producing an offspring every three years. With 27 reproductive females, we should be seeing nine new babies each year. In reality, the average female produces one offspring every nine years, which is just three per year for all three pods. That is not enough to keep up with the death rate in recent years. To make things worse, reproductive females have been dying long before their time — and before they can help boost the population.

Experts talk about “quasi-extinction,” a future time when the number of Southern Residents reaches perhaps 30 animals, at which point the population is too small to recover no matter what happens. Some say the population is now on the edge of a death spiral, which may require heroic actions to push the population back onto a recovery course.

As described in the five-year status review, prey shortage is not the only problem confronting the Southern Residents. The animals are known to contain high levels of toxic chemicals, which can affect their immune systems and overall health as well as their reproductive rates. Vessel noise can make it harder for them to find fish to eat. On top of those problems is the constant threat of a major oil spill, which could kill enough orcas to take the population down to a nonviable number.

The graph shows the probability that the Southern Resident population will fall below a given number (N) after 100 years. Falling below 30 animals is considered quasi-extinction. The blue line shows recent conditions. Lines to the left show low chinook abundance, and lines to the right show higher abundance.
Graphic: Lacy report, Raincoast Conservation Foundation

Despite the uncertainties, Robert Lacey of Chicago Zoological Society and his associates calculated in 2015 that under recent conditions the Southern Resident population faces a 9 percent chance of falling to the quasi-extinction level within 100 years. Worsening conditions could send that rate into a tailspin. See report for Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

What I found most informative was how the probability of extinction changes dramatically with food supply. (See the second graph on this page.) A 10 percent decline in chinook salmon raises the quasi-extinction risk from 9 percent to 73 percent, and a 20 percent decline raises the risk to more than 99 percent.

On the other hand, if chinook numbers can be increased by 20 percent, the whales would increase their population at a rate that would ensure the population’s survival, all other things being equal. Two additional lines on the graph represent a gradual decline of chinook as a result of climate change over the next 100 years — a condition that also poses dangerous risks to the orca population.

The close links between food supply and reproductive success are explored in a story I wrote last year for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

At last Wednesday’s Puget Sound Leadership Council meeting, members discussed a letter from the Strait (of Juan de Fuca) Ecosystem Recovery Network (PDF 146 kb) that called on the Puget Sound Partnership to become engaged in salmon recovery efforts outside of Puget Sound — namely the Klamath, Fraser and Columbia/Snake river basins.

“Such collaborative efforts must be done for the benefit of both the SRKW and chinook fish populations, without losing sight of the continuing need to maintain and improve the genetic diversity of these fish populations …” states the letter.

A separate letter from the Puget Sound Salmon Recovery Council (PDF 395 kb) also asks the Puget Sound Partnership to become more engaged in orca recovery. The group is calling on the partnership to support salmon recovery statewide, “relying on each region to identify strategies to restore robust salmon runs.”

Rein Attemann of Washington Environmental Council said salmon on the Columbia and Snake rivers, as well as he Fraser River in British Columbia, are “vitally important” to the recovery of the Southern Resident killer whales, and Puget Sound efforts should be coordinated with other programs.

Jim Waddell, a retired civil engineer with the Army Corps of Engineers, spoke forcefully about the need to save chinook salmon and the Southern Residents, starting by tearing down dams on the Snake River.

“We are out of time,” Waddell said. “The Corps of Engineers have it within their power to begin breaching the dams within months…. The orcas cannot survive without those chinook.”

An environmental impact statement on chinook recovery includes the option of breaching the dams, something that could be pushed forward quickly, he said.

“Breaching the Snake River dams is the only possibility of recovery,” Waddell said. “There is nothing left.”

Stephanie Solien, a member of the Leadership Council, said speaking up for orcas in the fashion proposed is not something the council has done before, but “we do have a responsibility to these amazing animals and to the chinook and to the tribes.”

The council should work out a strategy of action before moving forward, she added, but “we better get to moving on it.”

Amusing Monday: Taking a wild ride on (or in) a killer whale or shark

I didn’t know anyone made a high-speed watercraft that resembles a killer whale until I saw Freeze List’s new video “8 Insane Water Toys that Everyone Must Try” (second video on this page).

This killer whale is built like a small aerodynamic submarine and is about the size of a real killer whale. It can race along on the surface, dive underwater, roll to the left or right, and even breach up into the air, as the operator adjusts aircraft-style controls.

The Killer Whale Y Model is one of three models of Seabreacher watercraft manufactured by Innespace Productions, based in New Zealand. The other two models are the smaller Shark X Model and the latest Dolphin Z Model, a revision of the first design.

If the videos of a speedy killer whale machine are not amusing enough, Seabreacher has produced a few oddball videos involving the watercraft. Check out the list at the end of this post.

The killer whale model is a two-seater with 360-degree viewing from within an enclosed canopy. It runs on a Rotax 1500-cc, four-stroke 260-horsepower motor. Features include a large whale tail, pectoral fins and a functioning blowhole.

As SeaWorld and other marine parks cease their killer whale performances — in which people often ride on the backs of live orcas — this manufactured whale can be built with grab handles and foot pegs to allow trained stunt people to do acrobatic feats on the outside of the machine.

Three years ago, writer Rohit Jaggi climbed into one of the Seabreacher cockpits on Shasta Lake near Redding, Calif. His goal was to write an article for the Financial Times of London. Riding with him was Rob Innes, a New Zealand boat builder who teamed up years ago with machinist Dan Piazza to create Innespace Productions.

“Drive it like you stole it,” Innes advised the reporter. “You can’t break it.”

“Obediently, I pull very hard on one of the two vertical levers in my hands, push on the other, and we switch instantly from a … straight line to a carving, steep turn to the left,” Rohit writes. “Keeping my right index finger tight on the trigger throttle, I reverse the positions of the levers and we are thrown into a tight right curve, banked so far over that water breaks over the transparent bubble canopy above our heads….

“I take a few minutes to dial my responses in, but it is not long before I am, indeed, driving it like I stole it… Rushing forward, planing on the lateral fins, I push the two levers forward and a wall of water rises swiftly up and over the canopy until the Seabreacher is underwater. All that remains above the surface is the midship-mounted vertical fin, which contains a snorkel for the engine air intake, slicing through the water at up to 40 kph.” (That’s about 25 miles per hour under water, or about half the maximum surface speed.)

The third video, at right, shows TV news reporter Avijah Scarbrough of KHSL in Los Angeles taking a spin on Shasta Lake, where Rob Innes has opened a division of Innespace.

Innespace Productions started in 1997 with a focus on high-performance submersible watercraft. More than 10 years of engineering and testing went into the Seabreacher models, which are custom built with a variety of options. Typical costs are between $80,000 and $100,000, according to “Frequently Asked Questions” posted on the company’s website.

One promotional video shows 109 different looks created for the three models, although some may have been shown more than once. I advise you to use the pause button to take a closer look at these machines. A large collection of related videos can be found on the Innespace Seabreacher Channel on YouTube.

A few amusing (or perhaps silly?) videos featuring the Seabreacher:

FEMA offers daily email briefings on weather, emergency conditions

One of the first emails I check out each morning is the “FEMA Daily Operations Briefing” issued by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. At a glance, I get an idea of significant weather events and emergency activities across the country.

Often, I see nothing that seems significant to me, and I move on to other email. But if something stands out, I click on the link that takes me to the full briefing in PDF format.

Today’s forecast. // Map: FEMA

This morning’s report, for example, told me that flash floods had occurred in various areas of the country and that dry thunderstorms were seen in parts of Oregon, California, Nevada and Idaho. Up until then, daily briefings included warnings that such events were about to occur.

The daily reports also include significant events, such as a non-injury train derailment and evacuation in Pennsylvania; tropical weather that could be a precursor to hurricanes and cyclones; space weather that could trigger aurora borealis; earthquakes; and disaster declarations.

The full daily briefing is also my shortcut to national weather maps with one-, two- and three-day forecasts for ordinary weather, as well as potential “severe” weather outlooks. I think the page should include a link to a more complete explanation of the colors used on the maps, but that information can be found on the website of the National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center.

Daily reports from the past four years can be located in an online archive on FEMA’s website.

I thought readers of this blog might be interested in this daily briefing. Anyone can receive the briefings along with other information available by email by signing up on FEMA’s email-delivery page. Just scroll down and check “FEMA Daily Operations Briefing.”

While I’m on the subject of FEMA, I should mention the mobile app for smart phones, which includes the option to receive weather alerts for up to five counties in the U.S. along with different kinds of information. You can read about the app on the FEMA website.