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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Manchester plant continues to excel in sewage treatment

The Manchester Wastewater Treatment Plant has done it again, earning a perfect performance award for compliance with its state water-quality permit.

The Manchester plant, operated by Kitsap County, remains ahead of the pack, being the only sewage-treatment plant in Washington state with a perfect score since the Department of Ecology launched its Outstanding Performance Awards program in 1995. That’s 23 years.

Port Townsend Wastewater Treatment Plant has maintained perfect performance for 20 years, and six plants have reached that level for 10 consecutive years. For this year alone, 111 treatment plants achieved perfect scores — about a third of all the plants in the state.

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Amusing Monday: Wearing data to show changes in climate

Ed Hawkins, a professor of climate science who brought us climate spirals (see Water Ways, May 28, 2016) has inspired a line of products with his “warming stripes” that connect global temperature to a straight-line visual pattern.

Climate change tie and related items: Zazzle

Neckties, pendants, coffee mugs and more are based on Hawkins’ striped design that helps people visualize how the Earth has warmed since the late 1800s. Each stripe represents a range of temperatures, from shades of blue in cooler years to shades of red in warmer years.

The tie on the model (shown here on Zazzle) presents the average temperatures for the entire globe, while the second image is Hawkins’ graphic for the contiguous United States. Hawkins, a professor at the University of Reading in England, is always looking for new ways to convey climate change to average people.

On the first day of summer in June, many television meteorologists across the country wore neckties bearing the warming stripes, according to a story by Jason Samenow in the Washington Post’s blog Capital Weather Gang.

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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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Amusing Monday: Words cannot dampen the essence of rain and snow

After I woke up one morning last week, I noticed that there was a thin layer of water coating the outdoor furniture and concrete around our house. I stepped outside and felt a fine mist in the air. I wondered, could this be the “scattered showers” that weather forecasters had talked about?

Surely, a “mist” is different from “showers,” which is also different from “rain.” But where does one end and another begin according to the experts? A little help from the glossary of the American Meteorological Society revealed that the proper term for a very light precipitation is “drizzle.”

My curiosity got the better of me, and I found myself going deeper and deeper into the terminology for precipitation, both official and unofficial, first in English and then in other languages.

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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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Amusing Monday: Get out and enjoy the cool rivers in our region

Given the heat wave of the past few days, I realize that I should have been floating down a river. I’m envisioning cool water splashing people on a boat as the sun beats down from above. I recall feelings of calm while traveling across flat water, followed by the invigoration of roiling rapids.

To get you started, Seattle Magazine offers a few suggestions, and there are numerous rafting companies advertising online to help you tackle more challenging waters.

This year happens to be the 50th anniversary of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, and I’ve been watching some videos that I would like to share. The law was designed to preserve the free-flowing nature of rivers that contain outstanding natural, cultural and recreational values.

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Spring Chinook return to the Skokomish River to start a new salmon run

Spring Chinook salmon are being reared at a new hatchery on the North Fork of the Skokomish River. The hatchery is owned and operated by Tacoma Public Utilities. // Photo: Tacoma Public Utilities

For the first time in decades, an early run of Chinook salmon has returned to the Skokomish River in southern Hood Canal.

These bright, torpedo-shaped hatchery fish are the first of what is expected to become an ongoing run of spring Chinook as part of a major salmon-restoration effort related to the Cushman Hydro Project. Eventually, the salmon run could provide fishing opportunities for humans and orcas.

“it is pretty exciting,” said Dave Herrera, fish and wildlife policy adviser for the Skokomish Tribe. “Our objective has always been to restore the salmon populations that were once here.”

Andrew Ollenburg, Cushman fish facilities manager for Tacoma Public Utilities, reported that 19 spring Chinook — 15 females and four males — have been captured at the base of the lower Cushman Dam on the North Fork of the Skokomish River. As of this week, biologists estimated that 50 or 60 spring Chinook were in the river farther below the dam — and more are coming.

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Amusing Monday: Sand sculptors continue to shape offbeat creations

We’re near the peak of sand sculpture season, and the works being created this year by artistic sand masters seems to be as good or better than ever.

“Muse” by Pavel Mylnikov, first place at the Revere Beach International Sand Sculpting Festival.
Photo: Revere Beach Partnership

The latest event this past weekend was the Revere Beach International Sand Sculpting Festival in Revere, Mass., billed as America’s first public beach.

The first photo on this page shows the top prize winner in the contest titled “Vanishing Muse,” and the artist is Pavel Mylnikov. The second photo shows the People’s Choice Award, titled “A Nouveau Love” by Rachel Stubbs.

See all the winning photos on the Facebook page of the Revere Beach Partnership. Photographer Joe Siciliano of RevereBeach.com posted some nice photos on the website massive.com. Meanwhile, WBZ-TV in Boston produced a video of the event.

Another recent event, held in June, was the Hampton Beach Master Sand Sculpting Classic in New Hampshire. Photographer Matt Parker of Seacoast Online put together a nice photo gallery of the sculptures along with the artists at work. (If necessary, scroll down to June 18.)

In Cannon Beach, Ore., the annual Cannon Beach Sandcastle Contest attracted large teams of sculptors at various skill levels. The NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt visited the festival and produced a national story, shown in the video on this page. Results of the contest along with pictures can be seen on the festival’s website.

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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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