Category Archives: Research

Scarlett, the young orca, has gone missing and is presumed to be dead

A tenacious young orca named Scarlet, gravely emaciated for several weeks, has gone missing and is presumed dead.

Scarlet and her mother Slick head toward San Juan Island on Aug. 18. Scarlet is now missing.
Photo: Katy Foster, NOAA Fisheries, under federal permit

Scarlet, designated J-50, was last seen on Friday with her mother and other family members. Since then, observers have encountered her close relatives several times. Yet Scarlet, who was nearly 4 years old, has been nowhere to be found.

Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research, who maintains the official census of the Southern Resident killer whales, announced her death late yesterday.

“J-50 is missing and now presumed dead,” Ken wrote in a press release. “Her last known sighting was Friday, September 7, by our colleagues at NOAA, SeaDoc, and others. The Center for Whale Research has had a vessel on the water looking for J-50 for the past three days. We have seen all the other members of her family (i.e., J-16s) during these outings.”

The search for Scarlet continues on both sides of the Canadian border under the guidance of NOAA Fisheries. It includes a Coast Guard helicopter, NOAA researchers in various vessels, numerous whale-watching boats, the Soundwatch boater-education program and participants in the West Coast Marine Mammal Stranding Network, according to Michael Milstein, public affairs officer for NOAA. Similar operations also are taking place on the Canadian side of the border.

“The Coast Guard dedicated a helicopter again today,” Michael told me this morning, adding that modeling of the tides and currents have focused the search along the Strait of Juan de Fuca near the Olympic Peninsula.

Even if Scarlet is dead, much could be learned if her body were recovered. The history of Southern Resident orca deaths, however, suggests that it is not likely that she will be found, dead or alive.

“Watching J-50 during the past three months is what extinction looks like,” Ken said in the press release, “when survival is threatened for all by food deprivation and lack of reproduction. Not only are the Southern Resident killer whales dying and unable to reproduce sufficiently, but also their scarce presence in the Salish Sea is an indication that adequate food is no longer available for them here, or along the coast.”

He goes on to lament the lack of action to increase the number of Chinook salmon — the whales’ primary food — in the Salish Sea and coastal waters.

Meetings planned for Saturday and Sunday will go on as planned, Michael Milstein said. People should be given a chance to say whether they think the rescue operation, as carried out and as planned, was too much or not enough. Scarlet was treated with medication delivered by dart, and officials were planning to capture her and treat her medically if and when she became isolated from her pod. (Review yesterday’s post in Water Ways.)

Even expert opinions are all over the board when it comes to what actions should have been taken — from those who believe Scarlet should have been captured and treated much earlier to those who contend that nature should be allowed to run its course with no human intervention.

People are also welcome to talk about what actions should be taken to save the entire Southern Resident populations, Michael said.

The meetings will be at 7 p.m. Saturday at Friday Harbor High School on San Juan Island and at 1 p.m. Sunday at Haggett Hall Cascade Room at the University of Washington in Seattle .

Scarlet was born into a bit of controversy in December 2014, as researchers were not certain at first who her mother might be. Her sister — old enough to give birth — was nearby when she was first spotted, and observers debated who the mom might be, as I reported in Water Ways in January 2015, when Scarlet was three weeks old.

There was also an issue of the clear “rake marks” on Scarlet’s back, most likely caused when an adult whale used its teeth to pull the baby from the birth canal. The name “Scarlet” refers to the scars from the rake marks, as I described in Water Ways Sept. 20, 2015.

Scarlet was the first calf born into what became known as the “baby boom” from December 2014 to January 2016. Of nine calves born during that period, only four are still alive. (See Orca Network, births and deaths.)

Scarlet’s death reduces the number of Southern Resident killer whales to 74, with 22 in J pod, 18 in K pod and 34 in L pod, the latter having dropped from nearly 60 whales in the early 1990s.

While the search for Scarlet continued yesterday, naturalist Bart Rulon of Puget Sound Express was observing a rare “superpod,” in which all three pods intermingle amidst high-energy activities — including breaching, cartwheels, splashing, spy hops (in which a whale sticks its head out of water) and tail-lobbing (in which a whale slaps the water with its fluke).

The event occurred near Race Rocks, south of Vancouver Island, where Bart was aboard the whale-watching boat MV Saratoga. Scarlet’s mother, Slick or J-16, was among the group, Bart said.

“August and September used to be the best time of the year to see J, K and L pods all traveling together in superpods,” he wrote on the Puget Sound Express website. “It was a common occurrence when I first started watching orcas 18 years ago.

“Now that the Chinook salmon numbers are down, our resident orcas tend to separate into their individual pods more than they used to in order to spread out the resources so that each animal can catch enough salmon. Some pods are even splitting up into subpods much more than they used to.”

The video on this page shows the superpod, as filmed by Ben Tomson from the Saratoga. Whether yesterday’s superpod has anything to do with Scarlet’s death, we may never know. But Bart says the “celebration” reminds him of the way things used to be for the Southern Resident orcas.

Puget Sound Action Agenda makes a shift in restoration strategy

Puget Sound Partnership has honed its high-level game plan for restoring the Puget Sound ecosystem, including a sharp focus on 10 “vital signs” of ecological health.

The newly released draft of the Puget Sound Action Agenda has endorsed more than 600 specific “near-term actions” designed to benefit the ecosystem in various ways. Comments on the plan will be accepted until Oct. 15. Visit the Partnership’s webpage to view the Draft Action Agenda and access the comments page.

The latest Action Agenda for 2018-2022 includes a revised format with a “comprehensive plan” separate from an “implementation plan.” The comprehensive plan outlines the ecological problems, overall goals and administrative framework. The implementation plan describes how priorities are established and spells out what could be accomplished through each proposed action.

Nearly 300 near-term actions are listed at Tier 4, the highest level of priority, giving them a leg up when it comes to state and federal support, according to Heather Saunders Benson, Action Agenda manager. Funding organizations use the Action Agenda to help them determine where to spend their money.

The greatest change in the latest Action Agenda may be its focus on projects that specifically carry out “Implementation Strategies,” which I’ve been writing about on and off for nearly two years. Check out “Implementation Strategies will target Puget Sound ‘Vital Signs’” in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

Jeff Rice, managing editor at Puget Sound Institute, suggested that we compare Puget Sound to a sick patient. It is not enough for a physician to diagnose a patient’s illness; the doctor must prescribe a treatment and make sure that the patient gets better. Like a prescription, Implementation Strategies are designed to improve Puget Sound’s Vital Signs through coordinated actions directed at what is causing the problems.

Regional and local actions include restoration, protection, research, education and community engagement. Vital signs that will get the most attention over the next four years are:

  • Estuaries
  • Shorelines with armoring
  • Floodplains
  • Land development and cover
  • Freshwater quality
  • Marine water quality
  • Toxics in fish
  • Chinook salmon
  • Shellfish beds
  • Summer streamflows

Many of the proposed actions benefit multiple vital signs. For example, improving floodplains, estuaries and freshwater quality can all benefit Chinook salmon populations in a given location.

Puget Sound’s killer whales have has been receiving a lot of attention lately, since a newborn calf died and was carried by its mother for 17 days. Meanwhile, another young whale struggles with malnutrition as experts intervene with antibiotics. Today, people seem more aware than ever that these Southern Resident orcas are at a high risk of extinction. Two Implementation Strategies — increasing the Chinook salmon population and reducing toxic chemicals in fish (under development) — are expected to benefit the orcas and many other creatures.

Southern Resident orcas // Photo: Jim Maya

Sheida Sahandy, executive director of the Puget Sound Partnership, writes about the orcas in her introduction to the draft Action Agenda.

“This document explains the plight of our orca in greater detail,” Sheida says. “It is important to remember that even the great orca is but one indicator of the broader health of Puget Sound. The orcas are a top predator and, like humans, their survival depends on our ability to maintain a functioning ecosystem.

“Those graced with the experience of seeing a breaching orca know that it is a glimpse into eternity, producing a sense of awe and wonder that at times is in short supply in our modern lives,” she continues. “Whether you are 6, 16, or 60, if you share a moment with an orca, you will be reminded in the depths of your soul that we are all playing but a small role in a much larger picture.”

Everyone should insist on a future with clean water, fishing, recreation, edible shellfish and sustainable commerce on the water, Sheida says. But it will take a major investment to heal the ecosystem and make sure that population growth does not overwhelm the natural systems.

“Will we realize — before it is too late — that in saving the orca and the salmon and Puget Sound, we are really saving ourselves?” she asks.

When the Legislature created the Puget Sound Partnership, it set a goal of restoring Puget Sound to a healthy condition by the year 2020. It was an aspirational goal but not very realistic. Some people have regretted setting a time frame for success. Still, the date cannot be easily erased.

Key steps in adaptive management to advance Puget Sound recovery actions
Graphic: Puget Sound Partnership

As 2020 approaches, the Leadership Council, which oversees the partnership, has approved a vision statement for moving beyond 2020, including a call to act with urgency.

Over the next four years, a Vital Signs Revision Team will review the existing Vital Signs indicators to see if there are better ways to measure ecological conditions, said Scott Redman, director of science and evaluation for the partnership. New targets and dates for reaching the targets may be proposed, he said, and 2020 will come and go before the next Action Agenda comes up for review.

Recommendations for revised indicators have been made by:

Finding ways to improve long-term “resilience” of critical habitats could help more species survive through adverse conditions brought about by climate change and other human influences, Scott said. It could be a challenge to come up with general prescriptions for resiliency, because conditions vary from place to place. Still much has been learned about habitat restoration through the years, with successes from completed projects incorporated into the designs for upcoming projects.

Meanwhile, the Leadership Council’s “Vision and Commitment for a Resilient Puget Sound” renews a commitment to unite people in a singular cause:

“For decades, many partners have worked to rescue this estuary of national significance. We have made progress, but our efforts have not been at a scale or pace sufficient to restore Puget Sound to health by 2020. We face a pivotal point in time. We know that saving Puget Sound will never be as achievable or affordable as it is today. With each passing day, the road to recovery becomes harder. We have the power to prevent Puget’s Sound decline. This is our moment to define what our future can look like, and to fight to make it a reality.”

Less boater pollution allows more shellfish harvesting near marinas

State health officials have reduced shellfish-closure areas around 20 marinas in Puget Sound, allowing more commercial shellfish harvesting while inching toward a goal of upgrading 10,800 acres of shellfish beds by 2020.

In all, 661 acres of shellfish beds were removed from a long-standing “prohibited” classification that has been applied around marinas, based on assumptions about the dumping of sewage from boats confined to small areas.

Poulsbo Marina // Photo: Nick Hoke via Wikimedia

“We have seen pretty significant changes in boat-waste management,” said Scott Berbells, shellfish growing area manager for the Washington Department of Health, explaining how the upgrades came about.

New calculations of discharges from boats in marinas and the resulting risks of eating nearby shellfish have allowed health authorities to reduce, but not eliminate, the closure zones around the marinas.

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Focus on chinook salmon creates troubles for Southern Resident orcas

I’ve often wondered how well Puget Sound’s endangered orcas would be doing today if these whales had not grown up within a culture of eating chinook salmon.

Photo: NOAA Fisheries

In Iceland, some killer whales apparently feed on both fish and seals, depending on the time of year, according to researcher Sara Tavares of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. The same animals have been seen among large groups of orcas as they pursue schools of herring in the North Atlantic, she writes in her blog, Icelandic Orcas.

The Icelandic whales have a different social structure than the fish-eating Southern Resident killer whales that frequent the Salish Sea. Both groups are also quite different from the marine-mammal-eating transient killer whales that have been visiting Puget Sound more frequently in recent years.

It is now widely accepted that groups of killer whales each have their own culture, passed down from mothers to offspring, with older relatives playing an integral role in the lessons. Culture is simply learned behavior, and the message delivered from the elders to the young is: “This is the way we do it.”

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Amusing Monday: Spell-checking offers new names for sea creatures

Harbor seals might be called “pooch vitamin” and gray whales “scratchiest robot” — or at least those are a couple of the wacky names I derived with the help of spell-checking software.

“Pooch vitamin” for harbor seal
Photo: Meegan Reid, Kitsap Sun

Scientific names don’t normally give me much of a problem — primarily because I don’t use them all that much. If I’m writing an article about an animal or plant, I sometimes include the scientific name for the sake of precision, since some species are called by different things in other parts of the world.

I don’t know how to pronounce most scientific names, and I almost always need to double-check the spellings. As Sloan Tomlinson of Entomology Uncensored points out, auto-correct is no friend of scientists stuck with using proper taxonomic names.

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Stories told of unusual marine mammal visitors to Puget Sound waters

People in the Puget Sound area have been reporting some rare visitors to our waterway in recent years — including bottlenose dolphins, common dolphins, a sperm whale and even a ringed seal from the Arctic.

Bottlenose dolphins, such as these seen from a NOAA vessel on the East Coast, are being spotted more often in Puget Sound
Photo: Allison Henry, Northeast Fisheries Science Center

Sudden appearances of these marine mammals have come as a surprise, because the animals are outside their normal habitat. Puget Sound may be too cold or too warm or not deep enough for these animals to flourish, or so experts have thought.

I am always interested when I hear about strange visitors, and I was pleased to tell the stories of seven marine mammal species that are not supposed to be in Puget Sound. They include Miss and Stump, a pair of bottlenose dolphins that worked their way up the West Coast from Southern California and now seem to be making their home in the cooler clime of Puget Sound. Check out my story in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

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Impassioned task force faces the challenge of saving endangered orcas

Passion for saving Puget Sound’s killer whales is driving an exhaustive search for ways to restore the whales to health and rebuild their population, but hard science must contribute to the search for workable answers.

I recently updated readers on the efforts of the Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force, appointed by the governor to change the course of a population headed toward extinction. Read the story I wrote for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound or the version reprinted in the Kitsap Sun.

I began the story by mentioning the term “no silver bullet,” a term I have heard numerous times from folks involved in the task force. They are emphasizing how difficult it is to restore a damaged ecosystem, while orcas wait for food at the top of a complex food web. All sorts of people are looking for a quick fix, something that will increase the number of Chinook salmon — the orcas’ primary prey — within their range, which includes the Salish Sea and Pacific Ocean from Vancouver Island to Northern California.

The quickest and simplest answers:

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An orca mom’s mourning adds new clue to another mysterious death

UPDATE: Aug. 11, 9 p.m.

After I posted this blog entry this evening, I received this note from Ken Balcomb:

Hello all,
J35 frolicked past my window today with other J pod whales, and she looks vigorous and healthy. The ordeal of her carrying a dead calf for at least seventeen days and 1,000 miles is now over, thank goodness. She probably has lost two others since her son was born in 2010, and the loss of her most recent may have been emotionally hard on her.


It has been heart-breaking to follow the story of the 20-year-old orca mom named Tahlequah (J-35), who has been carrying her dead newborn calf for nearly three weeks. But Tahlequah’s travails might add new insight into the mysterious death of a 3-year-old orca, who washed up on the Long Beach Peninsula in 2012.

Ken Balcomb, the dean of killer whale research in Puget Sound, has always maintained that the young whale, designated L-112, was killed by a concussive blast of some sort that caused massive trauma inside her skull. He suspects that military operations were to blame.

A 3-year-old orca known as L-112 shown here before her death in 2012.
Photo: Center for Whale Research

The Canadian Navy acknowledges that it was conducting exercises near the U.S.-Canada border up to seven days before the dead whale was found. The activities, which included the use of sonar and detonations, started 85 miles northwest of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and ended up inside the Strait. The detonations were said to be too small to kill a whale except at a very close range.

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Map of sea level predictions can assist waterfront owners

A sophisticated analysis of sea-level rise in Puget Sound and along the Washington Coast offers shoreline residents and land-use planners a new map-based tool to assess potential flood hazards for the coming years.

Click on map to access online interactive map
Map: Washington Coastal Hazards Resilience Network

Sea-level rise depends on two factors: how fast the oceans rise and the rate of vertical land shifts. Uplift, such as what occurs along the Washington Coast, slows the rate of sea-level rise relative to waterfront property. Subsidence, which occurs in Central Puget Sound, results in elevated tides sooner than in stable or uplifting areas. One map on this page shows the measured uplift and subsidence and another shows the uncertainty in that measurement.

Ian Miller, a coastal hazards specialist at Washington Sea Grant, has worked on studies that describe sea-level rise in Island County and on the Olympic Peninsula. The new report, titled “Projected Sea Level Rise for Washington State” (PDF 10.4 mb) goes well beyond what he and his colleagues have done before. It takes a more detailed look at where the land is uplifting and subsiding, according to Miller, the lead author on the new report that involves work by scientists at Sea Grant and the University of Washington’s Climate Impacts Group.

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Starfish continue to baffle researchers with mysterious disease

Five years after a mysterious disease began killing millions of starfish and turning their tissues to mush, the decimated population has yet to recover. Meanwhile, researchers continue to struggle to identify a cause for the disease, which appears to have uncertain ties to viruses and possibly environmental conditions.

In Puget Sound, it’s not as easy as it once was to find a diseased sea star, which seems to be a promising sign until you consider how many have died. As I learned last week during an outing to Lofall in North Kitsap, the total number of starfish remains low compared to four years ago, and recovery has been minimal, if at all.

Under the Lofall dock, volunteers have observed that the number of sea stars is still low, but sick ones are no longer common.
Photo: Christopher Dunagan

Local volunteers have been observing sea stars at Lofall since the beginning of 2014. I first visited the site the following summer with three retired women who lead the monitoring effort there. (See Water Ways , June 17, 2014.) They are still making regular trips at low tide, counting and measuring the starfish and looking for signs of disease.

“The numbers are way down,” noted volunteer Barb Erickson as we stood beneath the Lofall dock last Friday, “but we haven’t seen many sick ones. We also aren’t seeing the little ones.”

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