Category Archives: Research

Pesticides and salmon: Can we see a light at the end of the tunnel?

Once again, the National Marine Fisheries Service has determined in official findings that three common pesticides — chlorpyrifos, diazinon and malathion — raise the risk of extinction for threatened and endangered salmon.

A crop duster sprays pesticide on a field near an irrigation ditch.
Photo: NOAA/USFWS

By extension, for the first time, the agency also concluded that those same pesticides threaten Puget Sound’s endangered orca population by putting their prey — chinook and other salmon — at risk.

This politically and legally charged issue — which has been around for more than 15 years — has gone beyond a debate over potential harm from pesticides. It also raises uncomfortable questions about whether our society will follow science as we try to solve environmental problems.

The immediate finding of “jeopardy” — meaning that the three pesticides pose a risk of extinction — comes in a biological opinion (PDF 415.6 mb) that is more than 3,700 pages long and covers not just salmon but, for the first time, dozens of other marine species on the Endangered Species List.

The report follows a scientific methodology for assessing the effects of pesticides that arises from suggestions by the National Academy of Sciences. The NAS report (PDF 14.2 mb) attempted to reconcile differing methods of assessing risk that had been used by the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and NMFS.

EPA’s original assessment raised no concerns about the effect of these pesticides on the survival of salmon populations. The original lawsuit by environmental groups forced the EPA to “consult” with NMFS, as required by the Endangered Species Act. The result was the first jeopardy finding in 2008. For background, see Water Ways, Aug. 11, 2008, in which I reported that the long wait for regulatory action on pesticides may be about over. Little did I know.

The biological opinion, or BiOp for short, examines both the direct harms to species exposed to pesticides — such as effects on behavior, reproduction and immune function — as well as indirect effects — such as whether the pesticides wipe out insects needed for the fish to eat.

The new BiOp is considered a pilot study for future pesticide assessments.

“Notably,” states the document, “this Opinion represents the first consultation using newly developed approaches and the first to assess all listed species throughout the U.S., its territories, and protectorates. Future Opinions regarding pesticides may utilize different analyses and approaches as the interagency consultation effort proceeds.”

The next step is for the EPA to restrict the use of the pesticides to reduce the risks for salmon and other species. Among suggested measures, the BiOp says those who use pesticides must limit the total amount of chemicals applied in high-risk areas, such as streams. No-spray buffers or similar alternatives are suggested.

Interim no-spray buffers, established by the courts, will remain in effect until the EPA takes action. The interim buffers were put on, taken off, and are back on as a result of the lengthy court battle between the agencies and environmental groups. Pesticide manufacturers have weighed in, arguing about the need for pesticides without undue restrictions.

The Trump administration asked the court for a two-year delay in the release of the BiOp, but NMFS ultimately met the deadline when the judge failed to rule on the request in time to make a difference.

I discussed some of the ongoing intrigue and a bit of history in a Water Ways post last August, after EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt reversed course on an impending ban on chlorpyrifos. The proposed ban, approved during the Obama administration, came in response to studies that showed how the chemical could adversely affect children’s brains.

Although it took legal action to get to this point, agency and independent scientists have worked together to study the problem and come up with solutions. The question now is whether policymakers and politicians will take reasonable steps to reduce the risks based upon these findings, which are complex, evolving and rarely definitive for all time.

As I was going back through the blog posts I’ve written about pesticides, I recalled that President George W. Bush wanted to limit scientific consultations in an effort to streamline the regulatory process — much as President Trump’s people are doing today. Check out Water Ways from March 4, 2009, which shows a video of President Obama reversing the Bush policy and speaking out for increased input from scientists.

When it comes to human health and the environment, it is good to remember that without the work of scientists, many species throughout the world would have been wiped out long ago. Human cancer, disease and brain impairment would be far worse today without regulations based on scientific findings. Science can tell us about the risk of pesticides and other threats to salmon and orcas. But knowledge is not enough. People must take reasonable actions to protect themselves and the environment. And so the story goes on.

Last week, Earthjustice, which represents environmental groups in the legal battle, released the biological opinion, which had been sent by NOAA as part of the legal case. The group posted links to the document and related information in a news release. As far as I know, nobody in the Trump administration has spoken about the findings.

Unusual ‘high tide or low tide’ spider named for songwriter Bob Marley

A team of researchers in Australia has discovered a remarkable spider that has adapted to life at the edge of the ocean.

When the tide is out, the spider roams about the beach hunting tiny invertebrates. But when the tide is in, the spider retreats to underwater sanctuaries in barnacle shells or in tiny spaces among corals, rocks or kelp. To breathe, the spider builds air pockets out of silk.

The newly named Bob Marley’s Intertidal Spider, Desis bobmarleyi. // Photo: R. Raven

The researchers, associated with Queensland Museum and the University of Hamburg, named the newly discovered species Desis bobmarleyi for the late Jamaican singer-songwriter Bob Marley. They were inspired by the song “High Tide or Low Tide,” a lesser-known Bob Marley piece that seems to be cherished by his greatest fans. (Listen in the video below.)

“The song ‘High Tide or Low Tide’ promotes love and friendship through all struggles of life,” wrote the researchers — Barbara Baehr, Robert Raven and Danilo Harms — in an introduction to their paper published in journal Evolutionary Systematics. “It is his music that aided a field trip to Port Douglas in coastal Queensland, Australia, to collect spiders with a highly unique biology.”

It isn’t often that one sees a research paper that delays talking about the science to discuss history and inspiration. In this paper, the team honored not just one person but two. The opening paragraphs of the introduction to the paper need no explanation:

“When Amalie Dietrich travelled from Europe to Australia in 1863, she not only attempted to collect animals and plants for the museum trade, but also sought independence and liberty. A strong-headed and adventurous women by nature, she seized new opportunities and took risks on a then-unexplored continent to elevate herself from poverty and oppression.

“Her life story is that of adventure and also life’s struggles and how to overcome them. The Godeffroy Collection of arachnids, accumulated by her and other explorers over a decade in Australia and the Pacific before the turn of the 20th century, is the primary taxonomic reference for spiders of Australasia and remains highly relevant until today.

“Reggae legend Bob Marley certainly had a different background but shared with Dietrich and other explorers some character traits: adventurous and resilient at heart, he liberated himself and his peers from poverty and hopelessness. He took to music, not nature, but left traces through songs that teach optimism and independence of the mind, rather than hate and passive endurance.”

As for the newly discovered species of spider, the researchers propose the common name “Bob Marley’s Intertidal Spider.” The species belongs in the genus Desis, a group of spiders that are truly marine in nature, having broken ranks with an overwhelming number of terrestrial spiders.

The Godeffroy Collection of spiders is maintained by the Centre of Natural History in Hamburg and contains nearly all of the spiders collected by Amalie Dietrich in her early exploration of Australia. German arachnologists Ludwig Koch and Duke Eduard von Keyserling described the taxonomy of those unusual marine spiders along with other marine spiders collected from Singapore, New Guinea and Sāmoa.

This latest paper revisits intertidal species of Desis by re-examining the Godeffroy Collection, while describing the new species named after Bob Marley. The researchers found two of the newly named spiders on brain coral during an extremely low tide. The reef where they were found often lies under more than 3 feet of water.

The range and distribution of the Bob Marley’s spiders remains unknown, but they have been found in several intertidal zones along the Great Barrier Reef.

Along with the new species, two closely related species of spiders that occupy the “high-tide-or-low-tide habitat” were brought out, examined and described anew.

“Both species have been preserved for more than a century but not been studied in detail since their discovery,” the researchers wrote. “By doing so, we honour those that emancipate themselves from oppression, mental or organisational, and seek freedom and independence.”

Carbon emissions and nitrogen releases alter Puget Sound’s chemistry

Understanding the chemistry of Puget Sound may be as important as understanding the biology. Let me put that another way: Biology as we know it in Puget Sound wouldn’t exist without the right chemistry.

Tiny krill, one of many organisms affected by ocean acidification, demonstrate how water chemistry can affect the entire Puget Sound food web. For example, krill are eaten by herring, which are eaten by Chinook salmon, which are eaten by killer whales.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Ocean acidification is altering the chemistry of the oceans on a worldwide scale, but the Pacific Northwest and Puget Sound are being hit with some of the most severe problems, as experts point out in a new report by the Washington State Marine Resources Advisory Council.

For years, I have written about the low-oxygen problems in Hood Canal and other areas of Puget Sound. Of course, oxygen is essential to life as we know it. Major fish kills, in which dead fish float to the surface, have generated a lot of attention. At the same time, it has been harder to report on the animals dying from lack of oxygen when their carcasses are at rest in deep water. And it has been nearly impossible to keep track of the “dead zones” that come and go as conditions change.

It wasn’t until more research was conducted on the effects of ocean acidification that researchers realized that low-oxygen conditions — which were bad enough — had a dangerous companion called low pH — the increased acidity that we are talking about. Low pH can affect the growth and even the survival of organisms that build shells of calcium, including a variety of tiny organisms that play key roles in the food web.

As the oceans absorb carbon dioxide from the air, we see an increase in carbonic acid in the water, which has an effect on the ability of organisms to take up calcium carbonate. For a more complete explanation, check out “What is aragonite saturation?” on page 17 of the report.

Increased acidification is a special problem for Washington and the West Coast of North America, where deep acidified water in the Pacific Ocean hits the coast and rises to the surface.

“By accident of geography, we have this upwelling that … forces us into dealing with ocean acidification before almost anywhere else on the planet,” said Jay Manning, chairman of the Puget Sound Leadership Council. “I don’t believe I’m exaggerating when I say that Washington is leading the world in terms of science and monitoring…”

Jay, who serves on the Marine Resources Advisory Council, was quoted in a story I wrote for the Puget Sound Institute, later republished by the Kitsap Sun. The story describes some of the problems resulting from ocean acidification in Puget Sound, where an entirely different mechanism connects ocean acidification closely to low-oxygen conditions.

Researchers have concluded that an excessive growth of plankton in Puget Sound can be triggered, in part, by the release of nutrients from sewage treatment plants, septic systems and the heavy use of fertilizers. When plankton die and decay, bacteria use up oxygen while releasing carbon dioxide, thus increasing acidification.

Although the details still need to be sorted out, it is clear that some creatures are more sensitive than others to low oxygen, while low pH also affects animals in different ways. This “double whammy” of low oxygen and low pH increases the risks to the entire food web, without even considering the added threats of higher temperatures and toxic pollution.

Ongoing actions emphasized in the new report fall into six categories:

  • Reduce carbon emissions
  • Cut back on nutrient releases into the water
  • Improve adaptation strategies to reduce the harmful effects of ocean acidification
  • Invest in monitoring and scientific investigations
  • Inform, educate and engage Washington residents and key decision makers
  • Maintain a coordinated focus on all aspects of ocean acidification

“The updated report reinforces our federal, state and tribal partnership to combat ocean acidification by working together, modifying and expanding on approaches we have developed through ongoing research,” said Libby Jewett, director of NOAA’s Ocean Acidification Program in a news release (PDF 166 kb).

“For instance,” she continued, “in the new plan, scientists in the state of Washington will be asked not only to test hands-on remediation options which involve cultivating kelp as a way to remove carbon dioxide from local waters but also to explore how to move this seaweed into land agriculture as a way of recycling it.”

I thought Martha Kongsgaard, chairwoman of the MRAC, said it well in an introduction to the report (PDF 39 kb):

“Global and local carbon dioxide emissions, as well as local nutrient sources beyond natural levels, are significantly altering seawater chemistry. We are the cause for the rapid accumulation of 30 to 50 percent of the enriched CO2 in surface waters in Puget Sound and 20 percent of enriched CO2 in deep waters off our shores. Washingtonians understand what is so dramatically at stake. We are not standing by waiting for someone else to inform or rescue us.”

Weather extremes now surpassing the realm of natural possibilities

A new report from the American Meteorological Society makes a rather stunning statement about climate change. For the first time, researchers have concluded that specific weather-related events could not have happened without the influence of climate change caused by human activity.

Three events studied in 2016 were so extreme that they did not fit into the context of natural climate conditions, according to researchers working on separate projects. One involved the global heat record for 2016; another was focused on warmth across Asia; and the third was the “blob” of warm ocean water familiar to folks who follow weather in the Pacific Northwest.

A “blob” of warm water off the Northwest coast from 2013 to the end of 2016 could not have occurred without human-induced climate change, experts say.
Map: NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory

“This report marks a fundamental change,” said Jeff Rosenfeld, editor-in-chief of the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, in a news release. “For years scientists have known humans are changing the risk of some extremes. But finding multiple extreme events that weren’t even possible without human influence makes clear that we’re experiencing new weather, because we’ve made a new climate.”

Personally, I did not expect to see this sort of demonstrable statement about man-made climate change anytime soon. In classes and seminars on the subject of climate change, I’ve often seen lecturers present frequency curves that show the number of times that certain weather-related phenomena — such as temperatures or rainfall — are observed over a given time.

We’re told by climatologists that many of these curves are steadily shifting, so that fairly extreme conditions occur more often and truly extreme conditions emerge for the very first time in certain locations.

Researchers are loathe to say that a given storm, drought or hurricane is the result of climate change. They would rather say climate change affects the likelihood of extreme weather events, plotted at the end of the frequency curve. In the realm of statistics, there is a tendency to hold onto the idea that almost any kind of weather could occur almost anytime, provided that a perfect storm of conditions line up together.

Against that backdrop, comes the new report titled “Explaining extreme events of 2016 from a climate perspective,” which examines extreme weather events throughout the world.

“First, it is important to note that climate scientists have been predicting that … the influence of human-caused climate change would at some point become sufficiently strong and emergent to push an extreme event beyond the bounds of natural variability alone,” state the six editors in an introduction to the report.

“It was also anticipated that we would likely first see this result for heat events where the human-caused influences are most strongly observed,” they continue. “It is striking how quickly we are now starting to see such results, though their dependence on model-based estimates of natural variability … will require ongoing validation …”

In other words, the conclusion comes from computer models that can analyze the probability of an extreme event taking place when greenhouse gases are found at different concentrations. Results using today’s observed conditions are compared with results using conditions before the industrial release of greenhouse gases.

In the three highlighted papers, the researchers calculated the “fraction of attributable risk,” or FAR, for the extreme event they were studying. FAR is a statistical approach used in epidemiology to measure the likelihood of an event under various conditions. For explanations, see Boston University School of Public Health and the 2007 IPCC report.

“All three papers concluded that the FAR was 1, meaning that the event was not possible in the ‘control’ planet and only possible in a world with human-emitted greenhouse gases,” the editors say.

Although this is the first time that researchers have concluded that extreme events could not have happened without human-induced climate change, the editors are quick to point out that the same phenomenon may have occurred unnoticed in the past on a smaller geographic scale.

These findings do not mean that the climate has reached any kind of tipping point. It simply adds to the evidence that mounting weather extremes are not the result of natural processes.

Reporters Brad Plumer and Nadja Popovich of the New York Times do a nice job of delving into the concept of attribution science while mentioning five of the extreme events covered in the new report. They quoted Heidi Cullen, chief scientist at Climate Central, which produces news stories about climate issues.

“In 2011, people were still of the mind-set that you couldn’t attribute any individual event to climate change,” Cullen said. “But with each subsequent issue (of the BAMS report), people are able to say that climate change really is increasing the risk” that extremes will occur.

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Amusing Monday: Amazing images through the magic of LIDAR

Spectacular images produced with the latest LIDAR technology ought to be considered works of art, at least in my humble opinion.

LIDAR software reveals current and historical stream channels for the Sauk River, a tributary of the Skagit.
Image: Washington State Geological Survey

The images on this page, which show geologic features in Washington state, were produced as part of a large-scale project to study the state’s geology. Funded by the Legislature in 2015, the project is largely designed to identify landslide hazards, but the LIDAR data has many wide-ranging uses for scientists, educators and political leaders.

Aside from LIDAR’s practical uses, I cannot get over how beautiful the images are, a feeling enhanced by the knowledge that the fine details reflect actual structures on the ground. All these images and 14 others are available as screensavers on the state’s LIDAR website.

At the Great Bend in Hood Canal, moving glaciers once carved out small hills, known as drumlins.
Image: Washington State Geological Survey

I asked Dan Coe, a GIS cartographer responsible for many of the final images, how much of an artist’s touch he uses when producing such amazing depictions of the landscape. Dan works for the Washington Geological Survey, a division of the Department of Natural Resources.

“There is definitely an artistic touch that is added to these images when they are produced,” he wrote in an email. “While each one is a bit different, depending on the landform featured, most follow a general process.”

LIDAR reveals changing stream channels where the Black and Chehalis rivers merge in Grays Harbor County. // Image: Washington State Geological Survey

LIDAR stands for light detection and ranging. When used from an airplane, LIDAR equipment shoots a laser beam along the ground. Sophisticated equipment and a computer interpret the reflected light as precise differences in elevation.

Dan blends the elevation data with other GIS layers provided by the software, including the outlines of landforms, shaded relief and water bodies.

“I then bring these layers into graphics software (usually Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator), where they are merged together,” Dan said. “This allows me to emphasize the features that are important to the viewer, usually with colorization and blending techniques.”

LIDAR reveals details of Devil’s Slide on Lummi Island in Whatcom County that cannot be seen otherwise.
Image: Washington State Geological Survey

The primary purpose of the images is to translate the science for a nontechnical audience, he said. That’s not to say that scientists don’t appreciate the effort, but the colorful images are somewhat simplified from the more detailed LIDAR data, he added.

“If done well, they are a good example of the ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ adage,” he said, “and can go a long way to bridging the gap between science and public understanding.”

When it comes to his choice of colors, he acknowledges that he strives for a bit of a “wow!” factor, while enhancing the contrast “to draw the viewers eye and to emphasize the features more clearly.”

The video at right offers a good description of how LIDAR works. Early uses involved examining the topography and geology of an area with the trees stripped away. The surprising images revealed unknown features on the ground — including a piece of the Seattle fault at the south end of Bainbridge Island, where an earthquake raised Restoration Point about 20 feet some 1,100 years ago.

Since then, LIDAR has been refined for greater image resolution, and the improved software is providing new ways to interpret the data. For example, relative elevation models, or REMs, help to better visualize changes in river flows over time. The baseline elevation (0 feet) is defined as the surface of the river, so old river channels emerge as slight changes in elevation. Dan explains the REM process (PDF 16.5 mb) in a poster on the LIDAR website.

The mysterious Mima Mounds southwest of Olympia, as shown with LIDAR
Image: Washington State Geological Survey

The early use of LIDAR for revealing unseen geology has gradually given way to much broader applications. At first, the returning light that reflected off trees and vegetation was considered useless “noise” to be filtered out by computer. Later, scientists discovered that valuable information could be found within that noise — such as the size and type of trees and other vegetation growing in specific areas. These uses are explained in a video called “Introduction to Light Detection and Ranging.” Both videos mentioned in this blog post were produced by the National Ecological Observatory Network, or NEON, which is researching conditions and changes in ecosystems across the country.

A little-known lava flow, called West Crater, can be seen easily with LIDAR. The site is between Mount St. Helens and Mount Hood in Gifford Pinchot National Forest in Skamania County.
Image:Washington State Geological Survey

As Coe and his colleagues find new uses for LIDAR, they are also looking for new ways to encourage the public to understand the process and results. A nice two-page summary about the LIDAR program (PDF 2.6) can be found on the state’s LIDAR website. The website also includes descriptions of how LIDAR can be used in geology, forestry, graphics, navigation, meteorology and fire management, land-use planning, archeology and agriculture.

The page also includes an interactive story map called “The Bare Earth,” which takes you through various geological features. Interesting comparisons between LIDAR images and aerial photos of the same areas are shown in the story map.

Puget Sound report tells the environmental story that took place in 2016

The year 2016 may be regarded as a transition year for Puget Sound, coming between the extreme warm-water conditions of 2014 and 2015 and the more normal conditions observed over the past year, according to the latest Puget Sound Marine Waters report.

Click on image to view report
Photo: Todd Sandell, WDFW

The report on the 2016 conditions was released this past week by the Marine Waters Workgroup, which oversees the Puget Sound Ecosystem Monitoring Program (PSEMP). The report includes data collected in 2016 and analyzed over the past year.

Some findings from the report:

  • Water temperatures were well above normal, though not as extreme as in 2015.
  • A warm spring in 2016 caused rapid melting of mountain snowpack and lower streamflows in late spring and summer.
  • Dissolved oxygen levels were lower than average in South Puget Sound, Central Puget Sound and Hood Canal, with the most intense oxygen problems in southern Hood Canal, although no fish kills were reported.
  • It was a year for the growth of Vibrio parahaemolyticus, a bacteria responsible for 46 laboratory-confirmed illnesses, including intestinal upset, among people who ate oysters in Washington during 2016.
  • Paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP), diarrhetic shellfish poisoning (DSP) and domoic acid (DA) resulted in shellfish closures in 18 commercial and 38 recreational growing areas. But no illness were reported in 2016.
  • DSP was detected at 250 micrograms per 100 grams in blue mussel tissues sampled from Budd Inlet near Olympia last year. That is the highest level of DSP ever detected in Washington state.
  • Overall, zooplankton populations were high in 2016 compared to 2014, but generally not as high as in 2015.

Conditions, known or unknown, were responsible for various effects on fish and wildlife in 2016:

  • It was the worst year on record for the Cherry Point herring stock, which has been decline for years along with more recent declines in South and Central Puget Sound. Five local stocks had no spawn that could be found in 2016. Herring were smaller than average in size.
  • The overall abundance and diversity of marine bird species in 2015-16 were similar to 2014-15.
  • Rhinoceros auklets, however, were reported to have serious problems, which experts speculated could be related to a low abundance and size of herring. On Protection Island, breeding season started out normal, but fledgling success was only 49 percent, compared to 71 percent in 2015. Auklet parents were seen to feed their chicks fewer and smaller fish than usual.
  • Including the Washington Coast, more than 1,000 carcasses of rhinocerous auklets were found by volunteers. The primary cause of death was identified as severe bacterial infections.

If you are an average person concerned about environmental conditions in and around Puget Sound, the two-page summary and four-page highlights section near the beginning of the report will leave you better informed. To dig deeper, peruse the pages that follow.

The report is designed to be easily compared with previous years:

Could we ever reverse the trend of shrinking Chinook salmon?

Much has been said about the decline of Puget Sound Chinook salmon. Often the discussion focuses on how to increase the salmon population, but I believe a good case can be made for increasing the size of these once-mighty “kings.”

Chinook salmon // Photo: NOAA Fisheries

There are plenty of reasons why we should strive for larger Chinook, not the least of which is the pure joy of seeing — and perhaps catching — a giant salmon. But I’m also thinking about our endangered Southern Resident killer whales, which don’t seem to find Puget Sound very hospitable anymore. As we know, the whales favor Chinook over any other food.

While it might take more energy for a killer whale to chase down a large Chinook versus a smaller one, the payoff in nutrition and energy far outweighs the expenditure, according to Jacques White of Long Live the Kings, who has been thinking about the size issue for some time.

In terms of competition, a giant returning Chinook might be difficult for a harbor seal to handle, and that could give the orcas a special advantage. Still, we are learning that harbor seals create problems for the Chinook population by eating millions of tiny smolts migrating to the ocean before they get a chance to grow up.

Perhaps the major reason that Chinook have declined in size is the troll fishing fleet off the coast of Alaska and Northern Canada, Jacques told me. It is almost simple math. It takes six, seven or eight years to grow the really large Chinook in the ocean. Today’s fishing fleet goes out into the middle of the Chinook-rearing areas up north. The longer the fishing boats stay there, the more likely it is that they will catch a fish that could have grown into a really big one.

Years ago, the fishing boats did not travel so far out to sea, Jacques said. There was no need to travel far when plentiful runs of salmon came right into the shore and swam up the rivers.

“In the old days,” he said, “you didn’t have people risking their necks off Alaska trying to catch fish in all kinds of weather and seas.”

In additional to the trollers, plenty of sport fishermen have taken the opportunity to catch and take home nice trophy fish, putting extra pressure on the biggest members of the fish population. Fishing derbies, past and present, challenged people to catch the biggest Chinook.

Long Live the Kings, a conservation group, once held fishing derbies, Jacques noted. But, after giving it some thought, everyone realized that the effort was counterproductive. “Long Live the Kings is now out of the derby business,” he said.

Gillnets, once common in Puget Sound, entrap fish by snagging their gills. Gillnets tend not to catch the truly giant salmon, because of the mesh size, but they do catch the larger salmon. Often only the smaller ones make it through to spawn — and that breeds another generation of small fish.

Fishing is not the only factor that tends to favor the survival of small fish, but it tends to be a big factor, according to Tom Quinn, a University of Washington professor of aquatic and fishery sciences. The issue is complicated, and every salmon run has its own characteristics, he said.

Hatcheries, dams and habitat alterations all tend to favor fish that can compete and survive under new conditions, and often those conditions work better for smaller fish. Changes in the food web may create a nutritional deficit for some salmon stocks, and competition at sea with large numbers of hatchery fish may be a factor. Check out the study in the journal Plos One by researchers for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

With the removal of two dams on the Elwha River, I’m hoping that experts can make sure that the conditions will be right for larger fish — if they can survive to make it home.

Quinn, along with doctoral student Michael Tillotson, recently published a paper showing how fishing seasons alone can alter the genetic makeup of a population along with the behavior of individual fish.

Although these characteristics are not necessarily related to the size of fish, it directly affects the fitness of the population. When people are fishing on wild stocks during open season, a fish has the best chance of survival if it shows up before the fishing season begins or after the fishing season is over. But that is not nature’s way.

Through evolution, the greatest number of fish tend to come back when environmental conditions are optimal for migration, spawning and smolt survival. If fishing seasons are timed for the peak of the run, that will reduce the percentage of fish taking advantage of the best conditions. Over time, the population gets skewed, as more fish come back during times when conditions are less than optimal.

The result is likely a lower survival rate for the overall population. The real crunch could come in the future as a result of climate change. If temperatures or streamflows become more severe, the fish may be in a no-win situation: If they show up at the most optimal time, they are more likely to get caught. if they come early or late, the environment could kill them or ruin their chances of successful spawning.

“We are reducing the ability of fish to find good environmental conditions,” said Michael Tillotson in a UW news release about the new paper. “We’re perhaps also reducing the ability of fish to adapt to climate change.”

Certain behaviors are bred into wild fish over many generations, and some traits are connected to their timing. Whether they feed aggressively or passively can affect their survival. Some salmon will wait for rain; others will wait for the right streamflow or temperature. Some smolts will stay in freshwater for extended periods; others will move quickly to saltwater. It’s not a great idea when fishing seasons, rather than environmental conditions, dictate fish behavior.

The move to mark-selective fishing — which involves removing the adipose fin of all hatchery fish before they are released — can help solve some problems for wild fish, Tom told me. Under selective fishing rules, fishers are allowed to keep the hatchery fish with a missing fin, but they must release the wild ones that still have all their fins. Some of the wild fish die from injury, but most of them survive, he said.

The key to the problem is a better understanding of the genetic makeup of the individual stocks while increasing the effort to maintain a high-level of genetic diversity. That’s an insurance policy that allows the fish to survive changing conditions.

The genes for giant Chinook have not been lost entirely, as I pointed out in Water Ways on Nov. 25. If we want to have larger Chinook, we must protect the individual Chinook that are larger. That could mean reduced ocean fishing, selective fishing for hatchery populations, and requirements to release fish larger than a certain size. Perhaps it would even be possible to selectively breed larger Chinook in a hatchery for a limited time to increase the size of the fish.

It won’t be easy, because these notions involve messing with billions of dollars in the fishing industry, not to mention complicated international relations. I will save discussions about the Pacific Salmon Treaty for another day. I will just say that this treaty is supposed to be between the U.S. and Canada. But negotiations involve tradeoffs among Washington, Canada and Alaska. Even the Endangered Species Act can’t always protect wild Puget Sound Chinook from being caught in Alaska, with the ultimate outcome that fewer fish make it home to spawn.

Remembering an unusual visit from orcas some 20 years ago

It was 20 years ago that people living on Dyes Inlet and in the surrounding community enjoyed a rare visit from 19 killer whales. The 19 orcas, all members of L-pod, stayed an entire month in one place, something never seen before or since. The whales arrived on Oct. 20 and left on Nov. 19.


Orca Audio Slideshow (Needs Flash)

For me, it was a time of awakening to the amazing social structure of Southern Resident killer whales. I had been writing about orcas for years, but I never got to know the individual whales like I did in the fall of 1997.

It was inspiring to learn how their close-knit families generally stay together for life, how orca relatives often help out with caring for the young, how they work together to find and capture food.

I owe much to Kelley Balcomb-Bartok and Jodi Smith, two young researchers who observed the whales for most of the month the orcas were in Dyes Inlet. Kelley describes his observations in the slideshow on this page. He made the recording on the 10th anniversary of the Dyes Inlet visit. Just click on the whale image above.

I wrote a brief summary of the event in a Kitsap Sun story on Oct. 20, 2007.

The year 1997 was close to the high point for the Southern Resident population, which grew to 98 animals. It took about 25 years to reach that number after a large segment of the population was captured and taken away for aquariums. As the Southern Resident population declined after 1997, the Southern Residents were proposed for listing under the Endangered Species Act. In 2005, they were declared an endangered species. Today, their numbers have declined to 76, the lowest number in 30 years.

Killer whale experts talk about how orcas in the wild can live as long as humans given the right conditions. Yet things have not been going well for the Southern Residents. Of the 19 whales that visited Dyes Inlet 20 years ago, seven orcas are still alive:

  • L-47, a 43-year-old female named Marina, who has three offspring and two grand-offspring. The two oldest were with her in Dyes Inlet, and a younger calf, L-115 named Mystic, was born in 2010.
  • L-83, a 27-year-old female named Moonlight. She is the oldest daughter of L-47 (Marina) and had her first offspring, L-110 named Midnight, in 2007.
  • L-91, a 22-year-old female named Muncher. She is the second daughter of L-47 (Marina). In 2015, Muncher had an offspring of her own, L-122, a male named Magic.
  • L-90, a 24-year-old female named Ballena who was 4 years old in Dyes Inlet with her mother Baba (L-26), sister Rascal (L-60) and brother Hugo (L-71). Her mother died in 2013, her sister in 2002 and brother in 2006.
  • L-92, a 22-year-old male named Crewser who was 2 years old when he was in Dyes Inlet with his mom, L-60 named Rascal, who died in 2002. Now Crewser is often seen with his aunt, Ballena (L-90).
  • L-55, a 40-year-old female named Nugget. Her oldest offspring, L-82 named Kasatka, was with her in Dyes Inlet along with her 1-year-old calf, L-96, who died a short time after leaving Dyes Inlet. Her next calf, Lapis (L-103), was born in 2003, followed by Takoda (L-109) in 2007 and Jade (L-118) in 2011. All are females except Takoda and the baby who died at a year old. Lapis had her first calf, L-123 named Lazuli, in 2015.
  • L-82, a 27-year-old female named Kasatka who was 7 years old when she was with her mom and baby brother in Dyes Inlet. Kasatka had her first offspring, Finn (L-116), a male, in 2010, making Nugget a grandmother.

The Dyes Inlet experience is something I will never forget, and I know many other people in the Puget Sound region feel the same way. I would be happy to publish stories from those who would like to share their experiences. Feel free to write something in the comments field below.

One of my favorite memories from that time was going out at night in a boat on Dyes Inlet with researcher Jodi Smith. All the other boats had gone home. The air was cold and quiet. Jody dropped a hydrophone down into the water, and the speaker on the boat burst forth with all kinds of pops and screeches coming from the whales. You can read the story I wrote in the Kitsap Sun archives and listen to the recording we made that night (below).

      1. Whales in Dyes Inlet

During that time in 1997, I personally got to know some of the leading marine mammal experts in our region. I even developed some ever-lasting friendships. While I wish that things would go better for our beloved orcas, I am thankful, on this Thanksgiving Day, for that time 20 years ago.

Orcas and seals compete for a limited number of chinook salmon

It’s always been troubling to me that the Southern Resident killer whales, which frequent Puget Sound, have struggled to maintain their population, while other fish-eating resident orcas seem to be doing much better.

Killer whale chases a chinook salmon
Photo: John Durbin, Holly Fearnbach, Lance Barrett-Lennard

Now several researchers have analyzed the energy needs of all the seals, sea lions and killer whales that eat chinook salmon along the West Coast, from California to Alaska. The study provides a possible explanation, one that is consistent with what many scientists have suspected all along. Here’s how I explained it in a story written for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound:

“Puget Sound’s endangered killer whales are waiting at the end of a long food line for a meal of chinook salmon — basically the only food they really want to eat.

“Ahead of them in the line are hundreds of salmon-craving killer whales in Alaska and British Columbia. Even farther ahead are thousands of seals and sea lions that eat young chinook before the fish have a chance to grow to a suitable size for orcas.”

My story contains plenty of numbers to explain what this is all about.

This issue of competition for food is not a simple one to discuss or resolve. But the new paper, published in the journal Scientific Reports, adds an important perspective when trying to answer the question: “Do we have too few salmon or too many marine mammals?”

From a historical viewpoint, the answer must be that we have too few salmon. But from a management perspective, we might have to conclude that the ecosystem is out of balance and that we have been restoring some marine mammal populations faster than we are restoring the salmon that they eat.

In an intriguing study published in March in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution (PDF 840 kb), a group of West Coast researchers investigated whether it is better to recover populations of prey species first, followed by predator species, or if it is better to recover predator species first, followed by prey species.

Protecting predators first — which is usually the way humans do things — may slow the growth of prey species or even trigger a population decline, the report says. That creates a problem for predators that specialize in that one kind of prey as well as for those that have no access to alternative prey.

It may seem logical to rebuild the prey species first, the authors say. But, with some exceptions, recovering prey species first causes the combined predator and prey populations to peak at high levels that are unsustainable in the overall ecosystem.

“In the real world,” the paper states, “transient dynamics like these that result from eruptions of prey populations can lead to surprising cascades of ecological interactions and complex but often mismatched management responses.”

The authors conclude that the fastest way to restore depressed populations is through synchronous recovery of predators and prey by carefully rebuilding two or more populations at the same time.

Management tactics may include culling predators even before optimal population numbers are reached. Such actions require careful study, as culling may produce unexpected consequences, according to the report.

Other options include protecting multiple species within protected geographic or marine areas or focusing on single species by protecting select habitats or reducing human exploitation.

For Southern Resident killer whales, the question will be whether populations of other marine mammals — particularly harbor seals in Puget Sound —should be controlled. If so, how would people go about doing that?

One related issue that needs more study is the effect that transient killer whales are having on the Salish Sea population of seals and sea lions. As the Southern Residents spend less time searching for chinook salmon in the inland waterway, the seal-eating transients are being spotted more and more by people along the shores of Puget Sound.

Some studies estimate that the transients need an average of one to two seals each day to maintain their energy needs, although we know these whales also eat smaller sea otters and larger California and Steller sea lions, as well as an occasional gray whale.

Are the transients culling the population of harbor seals in Puget Sound or at least limiting their growth? Even before the transients were showing up frequently, biologists were telling us that the overall harbor seal population appeared to be peaking and perhaps declining.

It would be interesting to create a future-looking computer model that could account for populations of salmon and marine mammals under various scenarios — including possible management actions by humans and the ongoing predation by transient killer whales.

If we want to keep things more natural while helping out the Southern Residents, maybe somebody could come up with a strategy to attract and maintain a healthy population of seal-eating transient orcas within the Salish Sea.

Amusing Monday: Will new ‘Mythbusters’ be as amusing as the first?

The original “Mythbusters,” starring Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman, included plenty of amusing water-related stunts, such as seeing if a person can learn to walk on water.

That series, one of the longest running shows on the Discovery Channel, ended its 13-year run in March of 2016. It wasn’t gone for long, however, as Discovery’s sister network, the Science Channel, ran a series of programs to identify new hosts for a revived series.

On Wednesday of this week, the new version of “Mythbusters” will air for the first time with new hosts Brian Louden, 32, and Jon Lung, 28. As always, the show will use experiments to test the truth of myths, rumors and wild ideas, including fake stories that have caught people’s attention on the Internet.

Jon is the builder/designer with skills in wood, metal, foam, plastics, fabric, paper, silicone and clay. His career includes graphic design.

Brian worked as a paramedic and received a degree in biology, teaching science at schools and science fairs.

“I can build the things that need to work,” Jon said in an interview with Parade magazine. “I can test things scientifically, and there’s also the aesthetic appeal and the creative process of thinking of insane, crazy ways to build things, or how to test things. And so Mythbusters is the perfect home for me.

“I bring more of the redneck builder with a really strong science background,” Brian said in the same interview. “Together, these things create an insightful look at the myth and the process from a different direction of the old version of the show.”

The first video on this page is a preview of the new show.

I cannot say whether the new guys will provide as much material for Amusing Monday as the old guys did, but I thought this might be a good time to revisit some of the best water-related stunts from the first series.

The second video shows what it takes to get out of a sinking car. It is a tense moment, but the tension is relieved somewhat when you know that divers are standing by to provide air and even rescue, if needed. Adam performed that stunt fairly smoothly and in the controlled confines of a swimming pool.

Adam says the most terrifying moment on the show came when he did the stunt again in a lake to see if he could survive an accident in which the car flips upside down. During the filming, the car flips over again unexpectedly, changing the air pockets inside the vehicle. Watch this video: “Turn Turtle Car.”

This second car-in-the-water show is credited with helping to save the life of a mother and her young child. Their terrifying moment occurred when their car slipped on ice and crashed into a river in Minnesota. Thanks to the show, the mom realized that she would not be able to open the car doors until enough water rushed inside to nearly equalize the pressure of the water pushing from the outside. That story was retold in a Mythbusters video segment.

The difficulty of walking on water made for some amusing moments. And I would not be doing justice to the show if I didn’t offer videos of the two guys blowing stuff up.

The final video on this page features Bremerton’s own Nathan Adrian, a five-time Olympic gold medalist whose swimming skills are tested in a strange way. Nathan participates in an experiment to determine whether it is easier to swim through water than syrup.

Although Nathan’s time was very consistent in water, the syrup appeared to mess up his swimming technique — so much that the Mythbusters could not use the times of his syrup swims. Instead, they went with Adam’s less refined swimming style and concluded that syrup, if not too thick, does not slow down an average swimmer much, if at all.