Category Archives: Waterways

Orcas return to Puget Sound; critical habitat proposed for coast

It appears that the southern resident killer whales have begun to travel into Central and South Puget Sound for their annual fall feast of chum salmon, according to past experience and dozens of reports from shoreside observers.

The northern section of the proposed critical habitat for southern resident killer whales.(click to enlarge)
Map: National Marine Fisheries Service

Meanwhile, the federal government has proposed extending their designated “critical habitat” beyond Puget Sound to the outer coast of Washington, Oregon and Northern California.

The critically endangered orcas have mostly been away from Puget Sound this summer, as their frequency of visits has declined in recent years. During the spring and summer, their primary prey is chinook salmon. But they tend to follow schools of chum salmon in the fall, and it is possible that recent rains got the chum moving a little faster toward their many home streams.

It appears the whales came in and traveled as far south as Seattle and the southern end of Bainbridge Island Thursday and were headed back north today. They could make another loop of Puget Sound, or they could head out to sea and return later. Check out Orca Network’s Facebook page for ongoing sighting reports. Kitsap Sun reporter Jessie Darland describes their arrival.

The expanded critical habitat, proposed by the National Marine Fisheries Service, totals 15,627 square miles along the continental shelf of the Pacific Ocean. When finalized, federal agencies will be required to protect the orcas’ habitat as well as the orcas themselves.

Photo: Capt. Jim Maya

By 2014, scientists at NMFS had been gathering data for several years in support of such an expansion when the Center for Biological Diversity filed a petition (Water Ways, Jan. 19, 2014) urging the government to finally take action. The agency agreed to move forward but continued to delay until after the group filed a lawsuit, which led to this week’s proposal.

Notably, the proposal does not include the Center for Biological Diversity’s idea to include safe sound levels as an important quality of the killer whale habitat. The group wanted to make sure the whales could hear well enough to use their echolocation to hunt fish, and they wanted to keep the animals from experiencing sounds that could cause partial or total deafness.

The agency looked at the issue but concluded that it does not have a way to establish a threshold sound level that could be considered harmful, although non-quantitative noise levels have been used to protect Cook Inlet beluga whales and Main Hawaiian Island false killer whales. For now, NFMS kept the essential habitat features for killer whale habitat to three things:

  1. Water quality to support growth and development,
  2. Prey species of sufficient quantity, quality and availability to support individual growth, reproduction, and development — as well as overall population growth, and
  3. Passage conditions to allow for migration, resting, and foraging.

Based on experience, NMFS said its biologists could already address adverse effects of man-made noise under the habitat categories of prey and passage. If noise were to affect the whales’ ability to hunt, for example, the problem could come under “prey species.” If noise were to discourage them from traveling to or resting in a specific area, it could come under “passage conditions.”

The Navy’s Quinault Range Site, where sonar and explosives are used in testing and training operations off the Washington coast, was excluded from the critical habitat designation following an evaluation by NMFS. Also excluded was a 10-kilometer (6.2-mile) buffer around the range.

“The Navy argued that there would be national security impacts if NMFS required additional mitigation that resulted in the Navy having to halt, reduce in scope, or geographically/seasonally constrain testing activities to prevent adverse effects or adverse modification of critical habitat,” NMFS noted in its findings.

The Navy has developed operational procedures to limit the harm to killer whales and other marine life, as required by the Endangered Species Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act and court rulings. While NMFS agreed to exclude the Quinault Range Site, it did not extend the exclusion to other Navy operational areas on the Washington coast.

Julie Teel Simmonds, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, told me that officials in her group will carefully scrutinize that proposed exclusion area.

“Their decision to exclude is discretionary,” she wrote in an email, “but we will be evaluating their analysis during the public comment period, particularly given the plight of the orca and the concerns we have with some of the Navy’s activities, particularly certain harmful sonars.”

Brad Hanson and other marine mammal biologists at the NMFS’ Northwest Fisheries Science Center spent years evaluating where the orcas traveled in the ocean and what they were eating. They tracked the whales by attaching satellite transmitters, recorded their sounds on hydrophones along the coast, and collected sighting reports from a variety of people.

Duration of visitation to various areas by K and L southern resident pods. Darker coloration represents longer durations.
Model output: National Marine Fisheries Service

They learned that when the three pods of southern resident orcas were on the coast they spent more than half their time off Washington state, often between Grays Harbor and the Columbia River. Their travels often corresponded with an abundance of salmon.

While K and L pods have been observed in coastal waters every month of the year, J pod ventured to the coast infrequently and only in northern waters. All three pods spent nearly all their time within about 20 miles of shore and in waters less than 650 feet deep.

Through the years, I have written extensively about these studies. Here are a few blog posts:

Although the southern residents frequent the waters of British Columbia, the proposed critical habitat was limited to U.S. waters, because of the extent of U.S. jurisdiction. A single confirmed sighting of southern residents in Southeast Alaska in 2007 was not considered adequate to add any area to the north.

As a result of the expanded critical habitat, a number of activities will come under federal review with respect to protecting habitat as well as animals. They include salmon fishing, salmon hatcheries, offshore aquaculture, alternative energy development, oil exploration and drilling, military activities, and onshore activities that could create pollution.

NMFS was unable to identify any specific construction projects or maritime activities that would be affected significantly beyond the existing reviews required by the Endangered Species Act. The total additional cost of reviewing permits and analyzing potential impacts of projects was estimated at $68,000 a year.

Comments on the proposal may be submitted until Dec. 18. For information, check out the various documents on NMFS’ Southern Residents Critical Habitat website.

Native Olympia oysters expected to gain a new foothold in Sinclair Inlet

A massive amount of oyster shell — some 1,500 cubic yards — will be dumped into Sinclair Inlet near Gorst next week to lay the groundwork for a healthy population of native Olympia oysters.

Native Olympia oysters are smaller and can easily fit inside the more common Pacific oyster shell. // Photo: Kitsap Sun

Limited numbers of Olympia oysters have been growing in Sinclair Inlet, hanging on since long ago, said Betsy Peabody, executive director of Puget Sound Restoration Fund, which is managing the operation. Existing oysters probably just need the right substrate for their larvae to attach, grow and ultimately expand the native oyster population.

The $300,000 project — which will deposit the equivalent of 150 dump-truck loads of Pacific oyster shells — will be the largest one-time application of shells anywhere in Puget Sound, Betsy told me. Her organization has undertaken similar projects in other areas, including Liberty Bay near Poulsbo, Dogfish Bay near Keyport, Dyes Inlet near Bremerton and Port Gamble Bay on Hood Canal.

The yellow area marks the location in Sinclair Inlet where oyster shell will be placed.
Map: Puget Sound Restoration Fund

The shells, which came from commercial oyster farms, will be washed off a 200-foot barge using a jet of water beginning Tuesday and taking up to four days, according to the current schedule. The shell will cover some 15 acres of tidelands toward the middle of the inlet where Highway 166 branches off Highway 16.

This washing process typically creates a patchwork of shell covering about 80 percent of the bottom while 20 percent remains bare, according to plans for the project. The thickness of shell on the bottom will vary, reaching up to 3 inches in some places. No eelgrass or other sensitive vegetation was found during surveys of the tidelands to be covered. The property is owned by Kitsap County.

Historic locations of major Olympia oyster beds in Puget Sound. (circa 1850)
Map: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

In the early 1900s, Sinclair Inlet was used as an 122-acre oyster reserve for protecting seed stock, which could be purchased by commercial oyster growers. Oyster reserves throughout Puget Sound were largely forgotten after Pacific oysters — a different species imported from Japan — began to dominate the oyster market.

Olympias went extinct in some areas, killed by pollution, shoreline development or other factors. In a few areas, habitat was largely undisturbed and the original oyster species persevered. But many embayments, including Sinclair Inlet, were able to support only a fraction of their historic populations.

“Olys evolved in this area and managed to maintain a foothold in the most surprising areas, despite what we’ve thrown at them over time,” Betsy said. “They are tough little critters. You can even find them in places where everything else is plastic. Building back their densities seems like a good thing to do.”

Oysters have a number of good qualities besides being a favorite food of many people. They can filter out plankton that can trigger low-oxygen conditions. Plankton also reduce sunlight needed for critical vegetation, such as eelgrass.

The 19 areas in Puget Sound declared a high priority for Olympia oyster restoration.
Map: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has designated Sinclair Inlet as one of 19 priority restoration sites for Olympia oysters in the Puget Sound region. See “Plan for Rebuilding Olympia Oyster (Ostrea lurida) Populations in Puget Sound…”(PDF 559 kb)

In natural oyster beds, young oysters are able to set and grow on the shells of their ancestors, often forming oyster beds or reefs that help perpetuate the substrate for future generations. Sedimentation and damage to the shoreline can interrupt the process and eliminate the substrate needed for the oyster to survive. Putting down a lot of shell to create new substrate has proven to be the best way to boost the population in most areas of Puget Sound.

If the Olympia oysters do well in Sinclair Inlet, eventually more shell could be brought in to expand the growing area, Betsy said. If, however, natural production of oyster larvae is not enough, PSRF could develop a broodstock program by utilizing its shellfish hatchery near Manchester, as has been done for other areas. If that were to happen, adequate numbers of Olympia oysters from Sinclair Inlet would be used to produce the oyster seed, thus maintaining the genetic diversity of the inlet.

In 2010, Puget Sound Restoration Fund established a goal of restoring 100 acres of Olympia oyster habitat with shell placed in bays where the native oysters are expected to do well. The Sinclair Inlet project will bring the total to 85 acres, with other areas in the planning stage to help the group meet its goal by the end of next year.

About half of the $300,000 being used for the Sinclair Inlet project came from the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service, with other funding from the Washington Department of Ecology, Kitsap County and PSRF. The Suquamish Tribe also participated in the project.

Other information:

New site to be added for fall salmon-viewing on Kitsap’s Chico Creek

The most popular spot on the Kitsap Peninsula to watch salmon swimming upstream to spawn will be off-limits to the public this fall — but Kitsap County officials have a backup plan.

Erlands Point Preserve, as seen from Erlands Point Road // Photo: Christopher Dunagan

Chico Salmon Park, located off Chico Way next to Kitsap Golf and Country Club, will remain closed until the fall of 2020 while a new bridge is built across Chico Creek on Golf Club Hill Road.

The park, which includes trails to Chico Creek, is the best place I know for people to observe this natural phenomenon during the fall migration of chum salmon, which are still abundant in the Chico Creek and its various tributaries.

The plan this year is to allow people to reach Chico Creek at the 30-acre Erlands Point Preserve, a county-owned property less than half a mile away, off Erlands Point Road. Volunteer stewards will clear an overgrown trail and build a new gravel viewing pad near the stream, according to Jackson Lee, volunteer coordinator with Kitsap County Parks.

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Amusing Monday: ‘Plein air’ art captures beauty of Columbia Gorge

More than 40 artists traveled to the Columbia River Gorge in late July to participate in what was essentially a four-day paint-off — a competition to see who could best capture the heart and soul connected to this rare and magnificent landscape.

“Bingen Skyline” by Lilli-anne Price, winner of the Friends of the Columbia Gorge Award in the Pacific Northwest Plein Air competition. (Click to enlarge.)
Photo courtesy of Friends of the Columbia Gorge

While I often feature artwork that receives recognition in children’s art contests, I was impressed by the professional paintings in the 14th annual Pacific Northwest Plein Air competition that was completed a little over a week ago, and I wanted to share them with you. The competition, sponsored by Maryhill Museum of Art, features artists from throughout the Northwest and a few from more distant locales.

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Old bulkhead to be removed on Ross Point, a major surf smelt beach

Ross Point, the most popular fishing spot for surf smelt in Kitsap County, will become a little more friendly to the little fish following the removal of a concrete bulkhead along the shore of Sinclair Inlet.

Brittany Gordon, habitat biologist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, examines an old bulkhead about to be removed from Sinclair Inlet.
Photo: Christopher Dunagan

The bulkhead removal, scheduled to begin Aug. 12, will create more spawning area for surf smelt, an important food source for salmon and other fish. Smelt also are favored eating by some people, who typically catch them with dip nets.

In addition to increasing smelt habitat, the project will enhance the migration of young salmon along the southern shore of Sinclair Inlet. Like most bulkheads built in the tidal zone, this 84-foot-long structure forces juvenile salmon to swim into deeper water out from shore, making them more vulnerable to predators.

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Amusing Monday: Sand sculptors worldwide continue to amaze

While I have never been to Revere Beach, I look forward each year to photos of the amazing sand sculptures from a competition that brings people from throughout the world to this location just north of Boston.

The winning entry in the Revere Beach sand sculpting contest was “Nest” by Mélineige Beauregard of Montreal, Canada. // Photo: Revere Beach Partnership

Adding to the enjoyment of the Revere Beach International Sand-Sculpting Festival are longtime sand-sculptors Dan Doubleday and Meredith Corson-Doubleday, who bring the event to life, especially for distant viewers, with their expert commentary on all the pieces. I also appreciated the slide show created by professional photographer Greg Cook on his Wonderland website.

The sand sculptures are evaluated using four categories: (1) degree of difficulty, (2) originality and creativity, (3) quality of sculpting, and (4) overall visual impact.

In the two videos on this page, Dan and Meredith conduct their fourth-day “walkthrough” together, as the sand sculptures take on their final forms. At the time that Dan and Meredith recorded their commentary, they did not know who the winners would be, so I would like to add some help with that:

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Fisheries innovations credited with West Coast groundfish recovery

The dramatic recovery of many groundfish species along the West Coast is a testament to the innovation, cooperation and persistence by fisheries managers and fishermen alike under the landmark Magnuson-Stevens Act of 1976.

Pacific whiting, sorted by size
Photo: National Marine Fisheries Service

One of the latest innovations, formally approved last month by the National Marine Fisheries Service, is “electronic monitoring,” which allows the use of video and other equipment in place of the human observers needed to ensure the accuracy of harvest reports.

The faster-then-expected recovery of depleted populations — including canary rockfish, bocaccio, darkblotched rockfish, and Pacific Ocean perch — has led to dramatically increased harvest limits this year. NMFS estimates that increased fishing will add 900 jobs and $60 million in income this year alone. Recreational anglers are expected to go fishing an additional 219,000 times, mostly in California with some of those outings in Oregon and Washington, according to a news release.

Going from a federally declared disaster in 2000 to today’s recovery of most stocks was the result of a monumental change in fisheries management and fishing culture. One of the biggest changes was a shift to “catch shares,” in which each commercial fisherman receives a percentage of the allowable harvest each year, an issue I first wrote about a decade ago (Water Ways, Dec. 11, 2009).

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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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