Category Archives: Fishing interests

Sponsor of state oil-spill-prevention bill recalls Exxon Valdez disaster

State Rep. Debra Lekanoff, D-Bow, grew up in the small town of Yakutat, Alaska, where her entire family and most of her friends hunted and fished, following Native American traditions passed down from their ancestors.

Rep. Lekanoff carries with her that indelible perspective, as she goes about the business of law-making. Like all of us, her personal history has shaped the forces that drive her today. Now, as sponsor of House Bill 1578, she is pushing hard for a law to help protect Puget Sound from a catastrophic oil spill.

KTVA, the CBS affiliate in Anchorage, presented a program Sunday on the 30th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. // Video: KTVA-TV

In 1989, Debra, a member of the Tlinget Tribe, was about to graduate from high school when the Exxon Valdez ran aground in Prince William Sound, some 220 miles northwest of her hometown. The spill of 11 million gallons of crude oil ultimately killed an estimated 250,000 seabirds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, 250 bald eagles and up to 22 killer whales, along with untold numbers of fish and crabs, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (PDF 11.5 mb). That was 30 years ago this past Sunday.

After graduation, many of Debra’s classmates went to the disaster area and took jobs picking up dead and dying animals covered in oil. While Debra did not visit the devastation, she listened to the terrible stories and read letters written by her friends.

“These were boys who grew up hunting and fishing,” she said. “They knew the importance of natural resources. I can only imagine how they felt picking up the dead animals. We lost a whole pod of orcas from that spill, and today you can still turn over the rocks and find oil underneath.”

The Exxon Valdez oil spill “woke up the state of Alaska” to the devastating threats posed by oil transport, she said, and it triggered an ongoing investment in oil-spill prevention.

Lekanoff moved to Washington state, where she graduated from Central Washington University and eventually went to work for the Swinomish Tribe in North Puget Sound, where she works as government affairs director.

Last year, she was selected by Gov. Jay Inslee to serve on the Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force, trying to find ways to save the critically endangered orcas from extinction. One measure promoted by the task force — and supported by outside studies — was to take additional steps to reduce the risks of an accident involving a tanker or barge.

Debra tells me she has one word that guides her views on the subject of oil transportation: “prevention-prevention-prevention,” which reinforces the idea of redundancy. Tug escorts and “rescue tugs” for oil tankers and barges are part of the redundancy called for in HB 1578. Other recommendations from the Department of Ecology include extra personnel aboard the vessels to watch out for developing conditions.

Computer models can be used to calculate the risks of a catastrophic oil spill in Puget Sound, something I recently wrote about for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound. But the real world does not run on computer models. So it becomes difficult to decide how much risk is acceptable when considering the potential loss of incalculable values, such as fish, wildlife and the Northwest lifestyle.

Rep. Lekanoff, 48, who was first elected to the Legislature last year, said Washington state needs to move away from a pollution-based economy, which has already decimated a vast abundance of salmon while pushing our cherished orcas to the brink of extinction.

The Skagit River in North Puget Sound is the only river left in the Lower 48 states able to sustain all five species of salmon, she said, and now even that river is threatened by proposed mining operations and changing streamflows caused by climate change.

Lekanoff said she sees her role as a person who can build strong relationships between the state, federal and tribal governments to protect and restore natural resources in our region.

“We need to build a better future for the generations to come,” she told me, and that requires looking past short-term gains to consider the long-term results of legislative actions.

As sponsor of HB 1578, a bill drafted and heavily promoted by the Governor’s Office, Lekanoff said the challenge has been to engage with various interest groups, share scientific information and seek out common interests.

“This bill,” she said, “is a clear example of what we can do together. We needed everyone at the table.”

For tanker traffic traveling through Rosario Strait near the San Juan Islands, Lekanoff’s bill would require tug escorts for vessels over 5,000 deadweight tons along with studies to determine what other measures are needed. Currently, tug escorts come into play only for tanker ships over 40,000 deadweight tons, and there are no escort requirements for barges of any size.

The next step will be to get everyone at the table again to discuss the risks of tanker traffic traveling through Haro Straight, a prime feeding ground for orcas in the San Juan Islands, Lekanoff said. Prevention-prevention-prevention — including the potential of tug escorts — will again be a primary topic of discussion.

Lekanoff’s bill passed the House March 7 on a 70-28 vote and moved out of the Senate Committee on Environment, Energy and Technology on Tuesday. The bill will make a stop at the Senate Ways and Means Committee before going to the floor for a vote by all senators.

Amusing Monday: Evolution of sea snakes takes twists and turns

I’ve always felt fortunate that residents of Western Washington need not worry about encountering a deadly snake while hiking in our home territory. The same goes for divers and sea snakes — which are even more venomous than terrestrial snakes. The cold waters of Washington and Oregon tend to keep the sea snakes away.

The same used to be said for California, where sea snake sightings were once extremely rare. That has been changing, however, the past few years — especially during years when higher ocean temperatures encourage tropical creatures to make their way north. Is it just a matter of time before Washington scuba divers begin to report the presence of sea snakes?

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A new federal law recognizes Washington’s maritime heritage

The Maritime Washington National Heritage Area — which now encompasses about 3,000 miles of saltwater shoreline in Western Washington — was created yesterday within a wide-ranging lands bill signed into law by President Trump.

Maritime Washington National Heritage Area encompasses most of the saltwater shoreline throughout Western Washington.
Map: Maritime Washington NHA feasibility study

Created to celebrate the maritime history and culture of Puget Sound and Coastal Washington, the Maritime Washington NHA is the first designated area of its kind in the United States to focus entirely on maritime matters.

The designation is expected to provide funding to promote and coordinate maritime museums, historic ships, boatbuilding, and education, including discussions of early marine transportation and commerce in Washington state.

“We are thrilled about this,” said Chris Moore, executive director of the nonprofit Washington Trust for Historic Preservation. “The stories we want to convey are important to so many people.

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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.

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Orcas gain increasing clout during fishing season discussions

Puget Sound’s endangered killer whales are becoming fully integrated into annual planning efforts that divide up the available salmon harvest among user groups — including sport, commercial and tribal fishers.

An orca mother named Calypso (L-94) nurses her young calf Windsong (L-121) in 2015.
Photo: NOAA Fisheries, Vancouver Aquarium under NMFS and FAA permits.

The southern resident killer whales should be given priority for salmon over human fishers, according to a fishing policy adopted for 2019-2023 by the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission. The new policy calls for “proper protection to SRKW from reduction to prey availability or from fishery vessel traffic …”

The problem with allocating a specific number of salmon to the orcas is that the whales cannot tell us when or where they would like to take salmon for their own consumption. The result, now in the planning stages, is to limit or close fishing in areas where the orcas are most likely to forage during the fishing seasons.

As revealed yesterday during the annual “North of Falcon” forecast meeting, fewer chinook salmon — the orcas’ primary food — are expected to return to Puget Sound this year compared to last year, but more coho salmon should be available for sport and tribal fishermen. The challenge, according to harvest managers, is to set fishing seasons to take harvestable coho without unduly affecting the wild chinook — a threatened species in Puget Sound.

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Sharing info and solving mysteries: International Year of the Salmon

Nearly a decade in the planning phase, it appears that the International Year of the Salmon couldn’t come at a better time for Northwest residents.

More and more people are beginning to recognize the importance of chinook salmon to the long-term survival of our Southern Resident killer whales. Legislation designed to improve the populations of salmon and orcas has gained increased urgency as these iconic creatures continue to decline.

Many countries throughout the Northern Hemisphere have joined together in a campaign to raise public awareness about salmon this year and to increase the support for scientific research and restoration projects that might save endangered salmon from extinction.

One exciting aspect of the International Year of the Salmon, or IYS, is a scientific expedition involving 21 researchers from five countries. This international dream team will depart Sunday from Vancouver, British Columbia, to engage in a month of research into the secrets of salmon survival. I described this long-anticipated endeavor in an article published today in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

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Amusing Monday: Researchers untangle the mystery of hagfish slime

“Hundreds of meters deep in the dark of the ocean, a shark glides toward what seems like a meal. It’s kind of ugly, eel-like and not particularly meaty, but still probably food. So the shark strikes.

“This is where the interaction of biology and physics gets mysterious, as the shark finds its dinner interrupted by a cloud of protective slime that appears out of nowhere around an otherwise placid hagfish.”

I don’t usually begin my “Amusing Monday” blog posts with a quote from a news release, but writer Chris Barncard has described precisely what leads up to an encounter between a fish predator and the mysterious hagfish. Biting a hagfish sends a shudder of revulsion through an enemy trying to eat it. The news release, found on the website of the University of Wisconsin – Madison, describes the research that has led to a mathematical description of an attack by hagfish slime.

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Salmon report mixes good and bad news, with a touch of hope

The story of salmon recovery in Washington state is a mixture of good and bad news, according to the latest “State of the Salmon” report issued by the Governor’s Salmon Recovery Office.

It’s the usual story of congratulations for 20 years of salmon restoration and protection, along with a sobering reminder about how the growing human population in our region has systematically dismantled natural functions for nearly 150 years.

“We must all do our part to protect our state’s wild salmon,” Gov. Jay Inslee said in a news release. “As we face a changing climate, growing population and other challenges, now is the time to double down on our efforts to restore salmon to levels that sustain them, our fishing industry and the communities that rely on them. Salmon are crucial to our future and to the survival of beloved orca whales.”

The report reminds us that salmon are important to the culture of our region and to the ecosystem, which includes our cherished killer whales. It is, however, frustrating for everyone to see so little progress in the number of salmon returning to the streams, as reflected in this summary found in the report:

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Salmon treaty designed to boost spawning count and feed the orcas

Allowable fishing for chinook salmon in the waters of Canada and Southeast Alaska will be cut back significantly this year as a result of a revised 10-year Pacific Salmon Treaty between the United States and Canada.

Chinook salmon // Photo: NOAA Fisheries

The goal of the updated treaty is to increase the number of adult chinook returning to Washington and Oregon waters, where they will be available to feed a declining population of endangered orcas while increasing the number of fish spawning in the streams, according to Phil Anderson, a U.S. negotiator on the Pacific Salmon Commission.

Most chinook hatched in Washington and Oregon travel north through Canada and into Alaska, making them vulnerable to fishing when they return. Changes to the treaty should reduce Canadian harvests on those stocks by about 12.5 percent and Alaskan harvests by about 7.5 percent, Phil told me. Those numbers are cutbacks from actual harvests in recent years, he said, so they don’t tell the complete story.

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Japan allows commercial whaling, withdraws from international pact

Frustrated by international condemnation over its whaling activities, the Japanese government has decided to allow commercial whaling outright within its territorial waters and exclusive economic zone.

Japanese officials announced this week that the country would withdraw from the International Whaling Commission, which oversees international agreements for managing whales — including a worldwide ban against killing nearly all whales.

As a result, the Japanese whaling fleet will no longer travel to the Antarctic to kill whales, which the government justified for years under an exemption for “scientific” whaling. That whaling program, which killed 333 minke whales last year, failed to meet the requirements of scientific studies, according to a ruling by the International Court of Justice and findings by a scientific panel for the International Whaling Commission. See Water Ways, March 31, 2014.

Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the move was a necessary consequence of the IWC’s failure to recognize its dual mandate of protecting whales and allowing an “orderly development of the whaling industry.” For 30 years, the Japanese government has been collecting information to show that whales can be sustainably harvested, Suga said in a statement, but it has become clear that the IWC is now focused only on conservation.

Most environmental groups condemned Japan’s pullout from the IWC.

“By leaving the IWC but continuing to kill whales in the North Pacific, Japan now becomes a pirate whaling nation, killing these ocean leviathans completely outside the bounds of international law,” said Kitty Block, president of Humane Society International and acting president of the Humane Society of the U.S.

“For decades Japan has aggressively pursued a well-funded whaling campaign to upend the global ban on commercial whaling,” she said in a news release. “It has consistently failed, but instead of accepting that most nations no longer want to hunt whales, it has now simply walked out.”

In Australia, Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Environment Minister Melissa Price said the government was “extremely disappointed” with Japan’s action.

“Their decision to withdraw is regrettable, and Australia urges Japan to return to the Convention and Commission as a matter of priority,” they said in a joint statement. “Australia remains resolutely opposed to all forms of commercial and so-called ‘scientific’ whaling. We will continue to work within the Commission to uphold the global moratorium on commercial whaling.”

Concerns with Japan’s withdrawal include the possibility that Japan will no longer report the number of whales killed and the potential of other countries following suit and starting whale hunting without consultation with the IWC.

“We are very worried that it might set a precedent and that other countries might follow Japan’s lead and leave the commission … especially South Korea where there is an interest in consuming whale meat in South Korea,” Astrid Fuchs of Whale and Dolphin Conservation told BBC News and reported in The Guardian.

“The oversight that the IWC was having over Japan’s whaling will now be lost,” she added. “We won’t know how many whales they are catching, we won’t know how they will report it. It might spell doom for some populations. There is an endangered population of Minke whales off Japan, which is already under threat.”

Most groups acknowledged that ending whaling in the Antarctic would be a good thing, and Capt. Paul Watson of Sea Shepherd took a celebratory posture about the prospect.

“I’m not quite sure why so many whale conservationists are upset by today’s announcement by Japan that they will be leaving the IWC,” Paul said in a Facebook post Wednesday. “After 16 years of intervening against Japan in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary, I see this as a very positive development. It means that the whale war in the Southern Ocean is over and we and the whales have won. What we have fought for has been achieved — an end to whaling in the Southern Ocean.

“Japan leaving the IWC will allow the IWC to vote and pass the establishment of the South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary,” he added. “This means that the entire Southern Hemisphere will be free of whalers for the first time in history.”

Whaling remains illegal, Paul said, and Sea Shepherd will continue to oppose whaling with a variety of tactics. Now, it will be easier to build opposition, because Japan can no longer pretend that it is advancing scientific knowledge with its whaling operations. The only whaling nations left on Earth, he said, are Japan, Norway, Denmark and Iceland, and “they have been driven back to their own shores; the whalers of the world are in retreat.”

Sea Shepherd has not engaged the whaling fleet in “whale wars” — direct ship-to-ship confrontations — for the past two years, but the group claims to have driven up costs for the whalers, who have relied on government security boats and high-tech equipment to elude the anti-whaling activists. Those extra costs may have contributed to Japan’s decision to withdraw from the IWC. Also on the line was a discussion about whether the Japanese government should build a massive new ship for processing whale meat, a ship that won’t be needed in Japanese waters.

I’ve been reading about this situation in all kinds of publications, including English-language newspapers based in Japan. I would like to know if Japan intends to allow whalers to take the full self-imposed allotment of 333 minke whales during the current whaling season. The whaling fleet reportedly left for the Antarctic in early November and may be hunting for whales now. I have not yet learned whether the whaling fleet will come back early or take 333 whales before Japan pulls out of the IWC on July 1.

“With the Japanese whaling fleet hunting whales in our Southern Ocean, the Australian Government must demand they bring their fleet home immediately and take legal action if they don’t,” said Darren Kindleysides, CEO of the Australian Marine Conservation Society. In a written statement, he called it a “bittersweet victory” to get whaling out of the Southern Ocean but with “unchecked” commercial whaling to take place in Japan’s waters.

The IWC called a halt to commercial whaling in 1982. Japan complied with the moratorium at first but then developed scientific criteria to promote whaling under a special exemption. Scientists associated with the IWC, as well as the International Court of Justice, found that the criteria failed to meet true scientific standards and should not be allowed.

In September, Japan tried to persuade the IWC to relax its voting rules to allow changes to international rules on a simple majority vote, rather than three-fourths. That would have allowed Japan to rally a lot of non-whaling countries to support a resumption of commercial whaling, but the proposal was rejected along with a direct plan to allow commercial whaling.

In October, Japan agreed to stop the hunting of endangered sei whales in the North Pacific until its research program could be revised to comply with CITES — the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. A standing committee of CITES found that Japanese “research” whaling on sei whales actually contributed to an illegal sale of endangered species, according to a news release and report on the findings (PDF 1.2 mb). Sei whales are killed outside of Japan’s home waters, so the market is considered international.

The Japanese government contended that the sales were not a violation of CITES’ conventions, because all the proceeds were put back into research. Still, those officials said a new plan will be submitted for approval.

The issue is scheduled for review at the committee’s next meeting in May to determine if Japan has carried through on its commitment to stop commercial trade in sei whale meat. Japan had been planning to allow a harvest quota of 134 sei whales per year.

As for whaling off the coast of Japan, an offshore operation will be based at Shimonoseki in Yamaguchi Prefecture, while coastal operations will be based at Abashiri and Kushiro on the island of Hokkaido and four other seaports.

Although whale meat was an important staple for Japan following World War II, few Japanese people eat whale meat today. In some ways, however, whaling is still a matter of tradition for many Japanese people. Some have speculated that Japan’s withdrawal from the IWC is a face-saving way for the government to reduce its expenses for whale hunting while asserting its traditional right to take whales in its own waters.

A 2014 survey by the national Asahi Shimbun newspaper found that 60 percent of those questioned supported the “scientific” whaling program, yet only 10 percent eat whale meat “fairly frequently.” Another 4 percent said they eat whale meat “sometimes.” Nearly half (48 percent) said they have not eaten whale meat for “a long time,” while 37 percent said they never eat it. The survey was reported by the news portal Phys Org.

In a recent article, Asahi Shimbun reported that companies involved in the fishing industry are not eager to resume whaling.

“We have no plans to resume the whaling business,” a public relations official of Maruha Nichiro Corp. told the newspaper. The company, previously named Taiyo Gyogyo K.K., had been engaged in commercial whaling in the Antarctic Ocean. Retailers also expressed apprehension about selling more whale meat.

In 1962, about 233,000 tons of whale meat were consumed in Japan, according to the article. Today, annual consumption ranges between 3,000 tons and 5,000 tons.

BBC reporter Rupert Wingfield-Hayes tackled the issue two years ago and found that many Japanese were smoothly transitioning to beef. His story and video report show him sampling a chunk of whale meat, which he finds chewy with a gamey flavor. For older folks in Japan, Rupert discovers that whale meat is simply a taste of nostalia.