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

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

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

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

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

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Three more orca deaths take census count down to 73 Southern Residents

Four orca deaths and two births over the past year brings the official population of southern resident killer whales to 73 — the lowest number since the annual census was launched in 1976.

L-84, a 29-year-old male named Nyssa, is among three southern resident orcas newly listed as deceased. Here he is seen catching a salmon. // Photo: Center for Whale Research

This evening, the keeper of the census — Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research — sadly announced the deaths of three orcas who have not been seen for several months.

In past years, Ken waited until he and his staff have several opportunities to search for any whales that appear to be missing. But this year the whales have stayed almost entirely away from their traditional hunting grounds in the San Juan Islands, where they once stayed for nearly the full summer.

In an unusual move this year, Ken relied on reliable observers from the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans as well as other biologists along the west coast of Vancouver Island. The missing whales were not seen during multiple encounters with the Canadians, Ken told me.

The reason the whales have not spent any time in Puget Sound is fairly obvious, Ken said. Their primary prey, chinook salmon, have not been around either.

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Amusing Monday: Some places on Earth are too dangerous for swimming

For people who love to swim, the allure of water can be overwhelming. Most people enjoy a sandy beach where waves lap gently on the shore. A few demand the thrill of a 50-foot breaker as they ride their surf board on the edge of tragedy.

For swimming, there is a place in Hawaii that has become known for both extremes, depending on weather and sea conditions. It’s called Queen’s Bath, and it is on the northern edge of Kaua˙i. The first video begins with the pleasant waters of this tide pool, once reserved for royalty.

At 1:49 in the video, we begin to see the dangerous side that occurs when big waves crash over the entire area. As the music on the video turns sinister, notice that people are no longer in the picture. The video was produced by HawaiiGaga.Com, which specializes in Hawaiian vacation rentals and provides useful information for visitors.

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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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Climate Sense: Arctic burns as climate issues gain political attention

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

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

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Sewage spill in Seattle triggers warnings in Kitsap County

It was a tale of two health advisories that created a bit of confusion in Kitsap County following a major sewage spill last week from King County’s West Point treatment plant.

A beach closure in Kitsap County included the eastern shoreline of Bainbridge Island north of Eagle Harbor plus North Kitsap from the Agate Pass bridge to Point Jefferson between Kingston and Indianola.

Brown color designates areas closed to shellfish harvest because of pollution. Click to see state map for details on closures.
Map: Washington State Department of Health

The closure area was determined in part by computer models, which showed that spills of sewage, oil and other substances are capable of crossing Puget Sound from Seattle and hitting the shore of Kitsap County, according to Scott Berbells, section manager for shellfish growing areas, a division of the Washington State Department of Health.

Such a scenario occurred in December 2003, when 4,800 gallons of heavy fuel oil spilled from a barge at the Chevron/Texaco Facility at Point Wells, south of Edmonds. The oil crossed Puget Sound and damaged shellfish beaches in North Kitsap. See Kitsap Sun, Dec. 31, 2003.

The latest spill, about 3 million gallons of raw sewage mixed with stormwater, occurred at West Point in Seattle’s Magnolia area — about 20 miles south of Point Wells.

The exact trajectory of a spill depends greatly on winds and tidal currents, but state and county health officials tend to be cautious, thus the closure of Kitsap County’s shoreline. Water-quality testing has not revealed the presence of bacteria from the West Point sewer spill, but the tests are limited to a few areas, according to John Kiess, environmental health director for the Kitsap Public Health District. It is best to be cautious in these situations, he said.

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Amusing Monday: Dancing in reaction to climate change

When concerns about climate change inspire dancers to burst out with highly emotional dance movements, the audience does not need to be science-minded to feel a little of the weight hanging over our world.

Diana Movius, an environmental anthropologist and climate policy analyst, has been living a second life as a choreographer and director of a dance company in Washington, D.C. She recently revived her 2015 dance production called “Glacier,” which portrays the stages of calamity as ice cracks and melts away.

“The experience will be different for everyone, but my hope is that people come out of watching ‘Glacier’ with a sense of having witnessed something that is being lost, and a sense that [climate change] is something we should try to stop,” Movius told Washington Post reporter Stephanie Williams before the dance’s revival in February.

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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: Watching wildlife around the world

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

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

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

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