Category Archives: Education

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

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

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

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

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

The whales were out there somewhere this past week when Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research announced that three whales had been missing long enough to declare them deceased. He had been consulting with experts and observers in Canada. See my Water Ways post from Tuesday.

Food is the big issue for the southern resident killer whales. They have been judged to be in overall worse body condition than the northern residents — an entirely separate group that normally stays farther up the coast in British Columbia. Experts are reporting that the northern residents have been venturing south more often than they used to. Perhaps the cultural divide between the two resident groups has begun to weaken.

It’s all in the realm of speculation, of course. Last year, I shared some ruminations about what could have happened if the endangered southern residents had not grown up in a culture of eating chinook salmon. I mentioned some interesting research papers on the topic. See Water Ways, Aug. 30, 2018.

Food is the key. Despite other problems that humans have caused — including toxic chemicals, noise and general disruption — food is at the heart of the matter. When you are hungry and searching for food, you don’t have much time for social interaction — and making babies takes a back seat to survival.

Even when southern resident females do get pregnant, they suffer a high rate of miscarriage, often coming late in pregnancy. Food and stress are related to these problems, according to research by Sam Wasser, director of the Center for Conservation Biology whose work I reported in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound in 2016.

Although the term “starvation” is often tossed around loosely, few if any of the dead whales are actually starving to death from lack of available food. They may have stopped eating when they got sick or for some other reason. Illness can be brought on by a weakened condition in conjunction with reduced immunity caused by toxic chemicals in their food. It’s more complex than “starvation,” as writer Jeff Rice of the Puget Sound Institute points out in a new story posted in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

A low reproductive rate and unexpected deaths continue to drive the population downward. Some deaths can be predicted when the whales loose so much body fat that they reach a condition called “peanut head,” but other deaths come quickly and unexpectedly.

“We had expected two of the three deaths, having chronicled their decline during the past year,” Ken Balcomb said in an email on Friday. “But L84’s death was unexpected. He was a vibrant male who appeared healthy.”

When apparently healthy whales disappear, experts are left wondering what happened. Years ago, this kind of sudden disappearance was more typical of their final departures, because the whales were in better condition. Other factors, such as ship strikes and Navy operations were sometimes suspected, and disease is always a lurking threat.

Finding ways to improve the chinook runs should help the whales, and that effort continues despite some disagreement about how to go about it. But larger forces are also at play, such as long-term shifts in ocean conditions and changes in the climate that reverberate through the entire food web.

Laura Blackmore, executive director of Puget Sound Partnership, issued a statement Thursday that reflects what many Northwest residents may be feeling.

“We are deeply saddened to learn of the presumed deaths of three endangered southern resident orcas, L84, K25, and J17,” Laura wrote. “These new losses cut deeply, and we grieve with all those who mourn these symbols of Puget Sound.

“Our orcas are dying because the marine environment they live in is ailing and there are too few salmon for them to eat,” she continued.

“The Puget Sound Partnership stands with Governor Inslee, the governor’s Southern Resident Orca Task Force, and the many tribes, government agencies, organizations, businesses and individuals who are committed to helping recover the orca population. Together, we can help by restoring salmon runs, quieting the waters of Puget Sound, and getting toxic chemicals out of our waterways.”

New government policies and laws are being implemented, she said. Meanwhile, there are some things that we all can do. Here are her suggestions for individual action:

  • Help restore salmon runs. Volunteer on a habitat restoration project. See orca.wa.gov for links to organizations involved in habitat restoration.
  • Quiet the waters of Puget Sound. If you’re a boater, give orcas space. Follow the BeWhaleWise guidelines for whale watching.
  • Keep toxic chemicals out of our waterways. Stop using toxic chemicals in your home or on your landscape; fix vehicle leaks; and have your vehicle oil changed by a professional.
  • Learn about southern resident orcas, and pass the information on to others.
  • Speak up for orcas. Vote. Make sure your local, state, and federal representatives know how important orcas are to you.

Climate Sense: Arctic burns as climate issues gain political attention

It’s next to impossible to keep up with all the new information coming out about climate change, but I thought I would share some new reports that I found interesting.

For the first three months of this year, I provided a weekly report called “Climate Sense.” I am still trying to gauge how often to write these posts or drop them altogether. I am not conducting original reporting; I’m just offering some reading material. Perhaps regular readers of this blog prefer their own news sources. As always, I am open to suggestions.

Item 1: The Arctic is burning

The Arctic is hot and dry this summer. Fires are burning through longtime stores of carbon in the peat soil and emitting unprecedented levels of carbon dioxide that could contribute to climate change. That increases the risk of future fires — a dangerous feedback loop, according to Thomas Smith, an assistant professor in environmental geography at the London School of Economics.

“These are some of the biggest fires on the planet, with a few appearing to be larger than 100,000 hectares (380 square miles),” Smith told reporter Morgan Hines of USA Today. “The amount of CO2 (carbon dioxide) emitted from Arctic Circle fires in June 2019 is larger than all of the CO2 released from Arctic Circle fires in the same month from 2010 through to 2018 put together.”

The Guardian, which produced the video on this page, provides links to a number of sources in a story titled “’Unprecedented’: More than 100 Arctic wildfires burn in worst-ever season.”

Item 2: Memorial for a glacier

Glaciers — essentially the beginnings of many rivers around the world — are melting away one-by-one because of climate change, triggering various effects on the local ecosystem.

Two anthropologists from Rice University, Cymene Howe and Dominic Boyer, decided to erect a plaque to an Icelandic glacier that has met its demise.

“This little glacier on a little mountain, in a country far away on the edge of the world, is something that indexes a much larger story that affects the entire planet,” Boyer was quoted as saying in a story by Morgan Krakow in the Washington Post.

The monument reads: “Ok is the first Icelandic glacier to lose its status as a glacier. In the next 200 years all our glaciers are expected to follow the same path. This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it.”

On a related topic, scientists are learning that glaciers that come into contact with the ocean are melting faster than previously predicted — because they are melting from both the top and the bottom. Nina Pullano of Inside Climate News reports on new findings from a scientific study.

Item 3: Is climate crisis a political issue?

Andy Stone, host of the “Energy Policy Now” podcast from the University of Pennsylvania, speculates in writing about whether climate concerns among the American public has reached a point that could help determine the presidential election.

“A critical question, given the growing number of warnings from the likes of the U.S. government and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change …, is whether the country has finally reached the point where climate will in fact be a decisive issue for voters at the polls,” he writes in Forbes. “Environmental sociology (yes, there is such a field) refers to this as a question of salience. When it comes to decision time, does the voter prioritize environment?”

Andy’s final answer is not definitive, but it is hopeful.

Meanwhile, CNN has announced that it will host a “town hall” on climate change issues for Democratic candidates in the presidential race in September. Candidates who meet the criteria for the September debate organized by the Democratic National Committee will appear one at a time before an audience in New York City.

Congress is also paying more attention to the climate crisis, as both Democrats and Republicans are remarkably trying to coming to terms with a tax on greenhouse gases.

“The push to regulate greenhouse gas emissions come as both Democrats and Republicans face pressure from their constituents, and in some cases the fossil fuel industry itself, to regulate carbon emissions that lead to climate change,” writes Miranda Green for “The Hill.”

“The influx of legislation is surprising some observers who have long called for action on climate change,” Miranda noted. “They say they wouldn’t have believed a year ago that there would have been such a push.”

She quoted Carlos Curbelo, a former Republican congressman from Florida who lost his reelection bid last year after proposing a carbon-pricing bill.

“I can tell you from what I know is that we are worlds apart from the Congress that I left at the beginning of this year,” he said. “Today, not just rank and file from moderate districts, but leading Republicans, senior Republicans are stepping out on the issue, making it clear that the debate should be over solutions, not over science or anything else of that nature, and for me it’s a sign of real progress.”

Item 4: Auto emissions deal and federal intervention

California officials announced this week that they have reached agreement with four automobile manufacturers to produce cars with better fuel mileage, leading the way to a new national standard. McClatchy/Sacramento Bee, July 25.

But the Trump administration wants to role back the California standard and impose a rule that prohibits California or any state from requiring stricter emissions standards. McClatchy/Sacramento Bee update, July 25.

“The Trump administration is pursuing one national standard and certainty for the entire auto market,” Environmental Protection Agency spokesman Michael Abboud was quoted as saying. “This voluntary framework is a PR stunt that does nothing to further the one national standard that will provide certainty and relief for American consumers.”

California officials maintain that any added costs for producing more fuel-efficient cars would be offset by fuel savings.

“Climate Sense” is my attempt to share some of the important research, political developments, fascinating viewpoints or inspiring opinions that I come across during my reading. For a further explanation, read my first Water Ways post of 2019: “Climate Sense: I would like to share what I learn during this coming year.”

Amusing Monday: Watching wildlife around the world

You can learn a lot about the birds and the bees — not to mention the bears and a whole lot of other creatures — by watching a live telecast among hundreds of webcams fixed on wildlife in every corner of the globe.

Each location has its own story and its own history, but many existing webcams are coming under the support and networking of Explore.org, an educational program funded by the Annenberg Foundation, with special attention from Charles Annenberg Weingarten.

One live cam is situated near an osprey nest on Hog Island (first video), an educational nature camp in Maine that has been associated with Audubon since 1936. Today, Hog Island Audubon Camp is operated by Project Puffin, which is part of National Audubon Society’s Science Division.

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Amusing Monday: Animations find new ways to talk about climate crisis

I’m always looking for new ways to visualize the causes and effects of excessive greenhouse gases and what is happening to the Earth’s climate. A clever new animation depicts the carbon cycle as a clickety-clackety machine that moves the carbon from place to place.

The video, produced by Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, shows how carbon takes on different forms as it moves from the air into plants and animals, becomes embedded deep in the ground and then is turned into fuel at a pace that upsets the natural cycle. (Don’t forget to go full-screen.)

“Humans have thrown the carbon cycle out of adjustment, with increasingly severe consequences for climate, oceans and ecosystems,” states the description below the YouTube video.

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What do people truly believe when it comes to climate change?

Nationwide polls show that more and more people believe that humans are responsible for increasing greenhouse gases and thus altering our climate — including unusual changes in weather patterns, rising sea levels and disruptions in the oceanic food web.

I keep waiting for public opinion to reach a critical mass, so that government officials feel compelled to take serious actions to get climate change under control.

Instead, we see President Trump ordering rollbacks on regulations designed to reduce emissions from coal-fired plants and automobiles. The result will be a greater rate of climate change.

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Amusing Monday: A new hydrothermal vent field discovered off West Coast

The location of an unknown hydrothermal vent system was predicted by researchers studying maps of the seafloor along the Gorda Ridge off the West Coast. Following those leads, a group of underwater explorers looked for and found the shimmering cauldron of superheated water.

The discovery, during this year’s Nautilus Expedition, took place about a week ago in an area about 75 miles offshore of the border between California and Oregon.

As operators dimmed the lights from their remotely operated vehicles, the sounds of excited scientists filled the mother ship’s control room, where observers watched a video screen providing glorious views of the emerging flow (first video on this page).

“It’s like an artist’s rendition of another planet,” tweeted volcanologist Shannon Kobs Nawotniak of Idaho State University, where her team figured out where to look for the vents using high-resolution sonar bathymetry. Researchers named it the Apollo Vent Field in honor of the 50th anniversary of the moon landing this year.

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New facts and findings about the European green crab invasion

The ongoing story of the European green crab invasion offers us scientific, social and even psychological drama, which I would like to update by mentioning four new developments:

  1. The somewhat mysterious finding of a partially eaten green crab on the Bellingham waterfront,
  2. A “story map” that spells out much of what we know about European green crabs in Puget Sound, including maps, photos and videos.
  3. Information about Harper Estuary in South Kitsap and other areas where groups of citizen scientists are on the lookout for green crabs, and
  4. Reports of a new breed of European green crab in Maine that attacks people and may prove to be more destructive than the green crabs that have lived in the area for a very long time.

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Amusing Monday: World Reef Day calls attention to coral catastrophe

On the first day of June, ocean advocates around the world celebrated the very first World Reef Day. The event got me to thinking a little more about the role of corals in the most productive ecosystems around the world, as well as the coral reefs located in our own backyards here in the Pacific Northwest.

“Our goal was to stimulate a global conversation about reef conservation and the simple things we can do in our own lives to make huge changes,” said Theresa Van Greunen of Aqua-Aston Hospitality, one of the sponsors of World Reef Day.

The event was launched with a special focus on Hawaii, but the issue of conserving critical coral habitats has worldwide appeal, with 5.5 million people pledging to use reef-friendly sunscreen and reduce their usage of single-use plastics that can harm the marine ecosystem, according to a news release from sponsor Raw Elements and another from sponsor Hawaiian Airlines. While there were elements of fun in this new event, I guess it does not fit my normal criteria for “amusing,” so we’ll have to settle for educational.

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Amusing Monday: ‘Science Guy’ flips out during climate demo

“I think we’ve all broken Bill Nye — and I, for one, am absolutely on board with his gritty new reboot,” says comedian John Oliver after “the Science Guy” launches into a profanity-laced demonstration of climate change, in which he literally watches the globe go up in flames.

“I didn’t mind explaining photosynthesis to you when you were 12,” Nye tells Oliver’s HBO audience after firing up his blowtorch. “But you’re adults now, and this is an actual crisis! Got it?”

Nye appeared yesterday on CNN’s Reliable Sources, where moderator Brian Stelter asked him about his blowup. The CNN piece, shown in the first video, goes straight to Bill’s line, “The planet’s on f—— fire! You’re not children anymore!…”

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Amusing Monday: SeaDoc followers go wild with new video series

“Salish Sea Wild” is a new video series by the SeaDoc Society designed to transport the viewer right up close to the living creatures that occupy the underwater and terrestrial realms of the Salish Sea.

The videos portray the beauty of our inland waterways as well as the excitement and occasional amusement of diving down into the ecologically rich waters that many people know only from the surface. The host for the series is wildlife veterinarian Joe Gaydos, science director for SeaDoc.

“Amid the wealth of biodiversity in our backyard, we’ll discover trees that eat fish, fish that mimic plants, plants that grow two feet a day, and animals that bloom like flowers,” Joe says in an introductory video (the first on this page). “We’ll focus on scientists working to preserve and restore the Salish Sea and to save its iconic species like salmon and our beloved orcas.”

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