Amusing Monday: Taking on plastic pollution with a lighthearted approach

Last June, 10 days after the European Union announced major legislation to ban or otherwise control single-use plastic products, the European Commission launched a public-relations campaign to raise awareness and promote individual actions to reduce the problem of plastics.

The campaign, which asks “Are you ready to change?,” includes a lighthearted video designed to encourage people to question their choices of single-use plastics, such as cutlery, water bottles, plates and straws. Check out the first video on this page.

“The campaign is aimed at young, dynamic adults who are always on-the-go,” according to a statement by the European Commission. “The vast majority of this group is well aware of, and concerned by, the environmental impact of single-use plastics and the health-related risks caused by plastic waste and marine litter. But despite the level of awareness among the target audience, this does not translate into their daily choices: They continue to enjoy their take-away coffees and use straws in their drinks.”

A series of short videos cleverly emphasizes “the seductive power of single-use items,” such as the plastic bag. The script for the plastic-bag video, the second one on this page, goes like this:

“Its seduction technique is hard to resist. Always there when you need it, it waits for you at the end of shop counters, ready to help out and leave with you, hand in hand. But the morality of this fake friend is disturbingly flimsy. It will leave you in the first gust of wind, preferring to hang out with its friends on the beach, pollute the ocean and threaten marine life.

“Help protect our beaches and oceans. Don’t fall for the single-use plastic bag. Start a long-term relationship with a smarter alternative. Why not use reusable carry bags, totes or baskets? A solid alternative!”

Click on the following to see other videos featuring “seductive” plastics:

The United Nations has its own public-relations effort to battle single-use plastics. Called the Clean Seas Campaign, the project has enlisted the support of more than 50 countries throughout the world, many with specific commitments to reduce plastic pollution, according to a news release and webpage called “Tide-turners” about nations and private companies tackling the plastic problem. The United States is not listed among them.

In a UN video, a woman declares, “This relationship isn’t working; I’m breaking up with you.” But there’s a psychological problem looming over her conviction. In a new video, released last week in time for the holidays, the same woman confronts the problem of running into her “ex.” She learns that even with the best intentions it is not easy to get away from plastics in our modern world.

For more information about the European Union’s efforts to confront plastic pollution, take a look at my Water Ways post from yesterday.

European Union charges forward to reduce dangerous plastic litter

By 2021, the 28 countries in the European Union are expected to ban single-use plastics — including straws, plates, cutlery and drink stirrers, as well as plastic sticks for cotton swabs, balloons and candy.

The latest development, announced this past week, involves the approval of a provisional agreement by the European Parliament and Council of the European Union. Formal approval is expected next. The ban carries through on an initiative launched in May that also seeks to limit the use of plastic drink cups, food containers, grocery bags and candy wrappers. Review Water Ways, May 31,2018, or take a look at this EU brochure.

World production of plastic materials by region (2013). Click to enlarge // Source: European Union

Most plastic in Europe is landfilled or incinerated, rather than being recycled, which is a loss to the economy, according to EU documents contained in the European Strategy for Plastics. In the environment, many plastics take hundreds of years to break down, and the amount of plastic getting into the ocean has raised alarm bells throughout the world.

“When we have a situation where one year you can bring your fish home in a plastic bag, and the next year you are bringing that bag home in a fish, we have to work hard and work fast,” Karmenu Vella, EU commissioner for environment, maritime affairs and fisheries, said in a statement released Wednesday. “So I am happy that with the agreement of today between Parliament and Council. We have taken a big stride towards reducing the amount of single-use plastic items in our economy, our ocean and ultimately our bodies.”

“This agreement truly helps protect our people and our planet,” said First Vice-President Frans Timmermans, responsible for sustainable development. “Europeans are conscious that plastic waste is an enormous problem and the EU as a whole has shown true courage in addressing it, making us the global leader in tackling plastic marine litter.”

The measures are expected to reduce litter by more than half for the top-10 plastic litter items, saving 22 billion Euros (about $25 billion) by 2030 and avoiding 3.4 million metric tons (3.75 million U.S. tons) of carbon dioxide emissions by 2030, according to a fact sheet.

The United Nations has launched a campaign to reduce plastic pollution.
Source: UN

Peter Harris, a graduate of North Kitsap High School who is working on an environmental assessment for the United Nations, told me in June that plastics pollution is one of the three greatest problems facing the world’s oceans. The others are the bleaching of coral reefs caused by global warming and overfishing, which is driving some species to extinction. See Water Ways, June 6, 2018.

The European Union has carefully examined how plastics affect the ocean. EU countries should be recognized for their courage in tackling the problem in Europe, not waiting for a worldwide agreement before taking action. Non-European countries would be wise to consider their own plastic impacts on the environment.

So far, actions in the United States have been limited to a relatively small number of cities and counties, along with a few states. Because plastics wash downstream in stormwater and into rivers before reaching the ocean, every American has a role to play in the problem. Whether we address the challenges internationally, nationally or locally, everyone should take time to understand this serious issue, consider practical solutions and support actions that can save marine life before it’s too late.

New online magazine describes life in and around Puget Sound

John F. Williams, a Suquamish resident who has been creating dramatic underwater videos for years, recently launched a new online publication called Salish Magazine. Its goal is to help people to better understand the ecosystem in the Puget Sound region.

For those of us who live in the region, John and his Still Hope Productions have helped us visualize and understand what lies beneath the waves and up the streams of Puget Sound. The video “Is this where Puget Sound starts?” (shown below) is a good example of the video production. Other videos can be found on Still Hope’s website.

The new online publication shifts to the use of more words, along with photos and videos, to explain the connections among living things. The first issue includes extensive articles on sea anemones, barnacles, sea stars, mussels and glaciation, spiced up with art, poetry and personal stories. Download the magazine as a huge PDF (56.6 mb) file or open it in iBooks.

The second issue of Salish Magazine is about the importance of forests, with articles on forest character, forest restoration, barred owls and more, as well as poetry, essays and lots of photos, all combined in a web design that combines variable scrolling with pull-down menus.

As John describes it, “A key focus of the magazine is to illustrate the interconnectedness woven through our ecosystems, using lenses of history, science, and culture.”

The first two issues are free, although a subscription is expected to be announced next year. Meanwhile, one can sign up for newsletters on the Subscribe webpage. Salish Magazine is published by the nonprofit firm SEA-Media.

Speaking of environment news, I hope everyone is familiar with Puget Sound Institute and its online newsletters. The December issue includes a quiz on Pacific herring and articles on rockfish, Puget Sound vital signs, the Clean Water Act and recent research papers.

Puget Sound Institute, an independent organization affiliated with the University of Washington, strives to advance an understanding of Puget Sound through scientific synthesis, original research and communication. PSI receives major funding from the Environmental Protection Agency.

One can subscribe to the PSI newsletter, blog and alerts to articles in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound on the Subscribe webpage.

Full disclosure: I am employed half-time by Puget Sound Institute to write in-depth articles about scientific discoveries and ecological challenges in the Puget Sound region.

Further note: A previous version of this post stated incorrectly that Still Hope Productions is a nonprofit company.

King Tides don’t always follow the tide tables

UPDATE: Dec. 19

An app used for reporting King Tides can also be used to report marine debris along the shoreline. Check out the news release issued today by the Washington Department of Natural Resources.
—–

Higher-than-predicted marine waters, brought about in part by recent weather conditions, have given us unexpected “King Tides” in many areas of Puget Sound.

I noticed that the waters of Hood Canal seemed exceedingly high this afternoon, as I drove along Seabeck Highway where the road hugs the shoreline. The waters were not supposed to be this high, according to tide tables developed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, so I checked some actual levels recorded at nearby locations.

High-water levels measured on the waterfronts in Seattle, Tacoma and Port Townsend were nearly 1½ feet higher than what had been predicted by NOAA for those areas. For example, in Seattle the preliminary high-water level was listed at a tidal elevation of 12.98 feet at 12:54 p.m. today, compared to a predicted high tide of 11.56 feet.

This is the season for King Tides, a name given to the highest tides of the year. High tides, mostly generated by the alignment of the sun and the moon, are predicted for Christmas Eve, rising higher to the day after Christmas and then declining. But, as we’ve seen this week, as well as on Thanksgiving Day, predicted high tides can be dramatically boosted by heavy rains, low atmospheric pressure and onshore winds.

As one can see by looking at observed and predicted tidal levels in Seattle, the actual tidal level has exceeded the predicted level more often than not over the past 30 days — and lately it has been higher by quite a lot (shown in chart at bottom of this page). Actual levels are measured in real time in only 14 places in Washington state. One can access the charts from NOAA’s Water Levels — Stations Selections page.

King Tides are promoted as an event by Washington Sea Grant and the Washington Department of Ecology, because today’s extreme tides provide a reference point for sea-level rise caused by climate change. The highest tides of today will be seen more often in the future, and even higher tides are coming. Check out the blog post on Water Ways from Jan. 3 of this year. See also the website “Washington King Tides Program.”

Washington Sea Grant has posted a list of dates when high tides are expected in various areas, called King Tides Calendar. Sharing photos of high tides hitting the shoreline is part of the adventure, so sign up for MyCoast to share your pictures or view images posted by others, or download the cellphone app to make the connection even easier.

The chart shows the actual tidal water levels in Seattle (red) compared to the predicted levels (blue). Click to go to NOAA’s website.
Chart: NOAA

Amusing Monday: TED Ed video features Southern Resident orcas

Last week, a new animation was posted online describing the matriarchal social structure of our beloved killer whales, in which elder females serve as guides for generations of their living descendants. (See first video.)

The new video, part of the TED Ed collection of animations, focuses on the 74 Southern Resident orcas and how they stay with their mothers for life. The video’s creator, animal behaviorist Darren Croft, credits the Center for Whale Research with studies that have successfully identified every filial relationship among the Puget Sound orcas for more than 40 years.

The TED Ed collection includes hundreds of animations created by TED Conferences LLC, the media organization responsible for nearly 3,000 online TED Talks. TED combines the concepts Technology, Entertainment and Design (TED) and operates under the slogan “ideas worth spreading.” An annual conference is held in Vancouver, B.C., with smaller events held throughout North America, Europe and Asia.

The Ted Ed series was started six years ago to inspire students to discuss creative ideas, develop innovative concepts and become young leaders. TED Ed has developed a flexible curriculum that can be used by teachers or students themselves. Each video has a “create a lesson” button for teachers or students to adapt the video to their own situation and branch out into other ideas.

Students can organize themselves as a club in an after-school setting, work with a teacher in a classroom, become part of a larger ongoing program. or develop an idea alone or with a partner. The program is designed to teach students from ages 8 to 18 and welcomes participants over age 13. See “Get involved” or review the “frequently asked questions.”

The TED Ed videos cover a multitude of topics, including science, technology, health, history, art, literature, health and even riddles. Some are better than others, but the best ones provide tidbits of information that can actually cause one to change his or her way of thinking. YouTube has a large collection of TED Ed videos.

The new video about orca matrilines offers possible explanations for why female whales have been known to live well beyond their reproductive lifespan. Males and females tend to stay with their mothers for life, although males will interact with other pods for mating. As older females die off, their daughters become the new leaders of the matrilines, which together make up larger pods.

The video, called “The Amazing Grandmothers of the Killer Whale Pod,” has more than 142,000 views so far and more than 300 comments.

Other TED Ed videos I found worth watching include the second video on this page, “When will the next ice age happen?” and the third, “Jellyfish predate dinosaurs. How have they survived so long?” Also check out the following or search for subjects from the full list:

Major funding advances for restoration projects in Hood Canal region

More than $20 million in ecosystem-restoration projects along the Skokomish River in Southern Hood Canal could be under construction within two years, thanks to special funding approved by the Army Corps of Engineers.

Meanwhile, Washington state’s Salmon Recovery Funding Board announced this morning that it would provide $18 million for salmon restoration projects statewide — including a portion of the funding needed to purchase nearly 300 acres near the mouth of Big Beef Creek in Kitsap County.

Skokomish watershed (click to enlarge)
Map: Army Corps of Engineers

The Army Corps of Engineers has secured $13.6 million in federal funds for restoration on 277 acres in the Skokomish River watershed. Included in the work are levee removals, wetland restoration and installation of large-woody debris, said Mike Anderson, chairman of the Skokomish Watershed Action Team, known as SWAT. About $7 million in state matching funds is moving toward approval in the next Legislative session.

“We’re really happy and a little surprised,” Mike said. “We’d just gotten the design funding through the Corps earlier this year, and we were sort of expecting that we would get into the Corps’ 2020 budget for construction.”

The Corps chose Skokomish for some nationwide nondiscretionary funding to move the entire project to construction, he added, attributing the extra funding to ongoing cooperation among the various parties involved.

Projects approved for funding (click to enlarge)
Graphic: Army Corps of Engineers

Approval of the federal funds marks the culmination of many years of planning by members of the SWAT — including the Corps, Mason County, the Skokomish Tribe, state and federal agencies, nongovernment organizations and area residents, said Joseph Pavel, natural resources director for the Skokomish Tribe.

“The water and salmon are central to the life, culture, and well-being of the Skokomish community, and we are pleased and encouraged to be taking this next great step in the restoration, recovery, protection and management of the salmon resources we depend upon,” Pavel said in a prepared statement.

Specific projects to be funded by the Army Corps of Engineers with distances measured upstream from the estuary on Hood Canal:

Confluence levee removal: This levee was built with old cars at the confluence where the North Fork flows into the mainstem of the Skokomish. Some 5,000 feet of the levee would be removed. A small channel would be created to allow water from the mainstem to flow into the North Fork and return at the existing confluence. Large woody debris would help direct water into the channel. Estimated cost: $7.5 million.

Wetland restoration at river mile 9: The existing levee would be breached in four locations, and a new levee would be built some 200 to 300 feet farther away. The levee would allow for minor over-topping but would not increase the flood risk. Estimated cost: $2.4 million.

Wetland restoration near Grange: Larger breeches are planned for the levee near the Grange hall at river mile 7.5 to 8 . A new levee, up to 10 feet tall and 2,900 feet long, would be constructed 1,200 feet farther back with no increase in flood risk. Estimated cost $3.3 million.

Side channel connection near Highway 101: An old remnant channel between river mile 4 and 5.6 would be restored to take water from the mainstem at high flows. Woody debris would help define the inlet and outlet to the channel, which would become a ponded wetland at low flows. Estimated cost: $3.1 million.

Large woody debris: Upstream of the confluence with the North Fork, large woody debris would be installed. Large clusters of trees with root wads, as well as some single trees, would be placed between river mile 9 and 11. Estimated cost: $3.2 million.

State matching funds would be provided through grants, including the Puget Sound Acquisition and Restoration Fund and Floodplains by Design Fund, which depend on legislative appropriations, along with the Salmon Recovery Fund.

Another major project in the Skokomish Valley is a bridge and culverts where floodwaters often cover the West Skokomish Valley Road. The $1.2 million project is designed to reconnect wetlands on opposite sides of the road. Much of that needed funding has been secured through the Federal Lands Access Program. The project will be in an area where salmon can be seen swimming across the road during high flows.

See also Skokomish River Basin Ecosystem Restoration (PDF 7.5 mb) by the Army Corps of Engineers.

As announced by the Salmon Recovery Funding Board, the purchase of 297 acres on Big Beef Creek near Seabeck — including the University of Washington’s Big Beef Creek Research Station — will protect the important salmon stream and could provide public recreation in the future, according to Mendy Harlow, executive director of the Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group, which will take ownership of the property owned by the UW.

Big Beef Creek Research Station is part of 297 acres to be purchased from the University of Washington by Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group.
Photo: Brandon Palmer

The site includes a fish trap operated by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife as well as research facilities used for salmon spawning and rearing studies.

“We would like to continue the research there,” Mendy told me. “We’re going to be pulling together multiple agencies and other fish organizations to see if we have the capacity to keep a facility like that.”

The goal will be to balance ecosystem restoration with the potential of future research and salmon-enhancement efforts, she said. It is possible that trails or other recreation facilities could become part of a long-term plan.

The $430,000 provided by the Salmon Recovery Funding Board is a relatively small, yet important, part of the $4.3 million needed to acquire the property, she said. That total amount includes surveys, studies and appraisals as well as the cost of the property.

The project was awarded $980,000 from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Coastal Wetlands Program. Other funding could come from the state’s Puget Sound Acquisition and Restoration Fund and Washington Wildlife and Recreation Fund.

The $18 million in statewide salmon funding will go to 95 projects in 30 of the state’s 39 counties. Money will be used for improving salmon migration in streams, restoring stream channels and vegetation, improving estuaries and preserving intact habitat. About 75 percent of the projects will benefit Chinook salmon, the primary prey for the endangered Southern Resident killer whales. For details, download the document (PDF 393 kb) that lists the projects by county.

“This funding helps protect one of our most beloved legacies,” Gov. Jay Inslee said in a news release. “Together we’re taking a step forward for salmon, and in turn dwindling Southern Resident orca whales, while also looking back to ensure we’re preserving historic tribal cultural traditions and upholding promises made more than a century ago.”

Amusing Monday: Bill Gates talks toilets again

Microsoft founder Bill Gates remains obsessed with human waste — in a good way, of course. His goal is to improve sanitation throughout the world and thereby reduce suffering from disease.

Poop is a subject that never goes out of style with comedians, and Ronny Chieng of “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah” is right on top of the subject. In a conversation with Bill Gates, shown in the first video, Chieng demands to know why Gates has been carrying around a jar of human feces.

“Toilets are something that we take for granted,” Gates responds, “but billions of people don’t have them.”

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is funding a major campaign to get engineers and other smart people to design a small-scale treatment device that generates energy while producing useable water. It’s called the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge.

Ronnie Chieng is asking some good questions, but I’m not sure why he needs to blurt out a bunch of four-letter words, when five-letter words like “waste” and “feces” work quite well.

“We’ve put several hundred million into this to show it can be done,” Bill says.

“Several hundred million dollars?” Ronnie responds. “Oh my god, is Bill Gates literally flushing his fortune down the toilet?”

Those who have been following Bill Gates’ efforts for a few years won’t be surprised at his desire to improve sanitation in places around the world where flush toilets are just a pipe dream.

Last month, Gates carried a jar of human feces onto the stage with him in Beijing where he addressed an audience at the Reinvented Toilet Expo.

“This small amount of feces could contain as many as 200 trillion rotavirus cells, 20 billion shigella bacteria and 100,000 parasitic worm eggs,” Gates said, as quoted by National Public Radio. His prepared speech can be found on the website of the Gates Foundation, along with a press release.

About 20 exhibitors were able to show off their inventions, including household toilets capable of internally processing small amounts of waste as well as commercial-sized treatment plants that turn waste into drinking water, electricity and ash.

Sedron Technologies, based in Sedro Woolley, is working at both ends of the spectrum. On the larger scale, its Janicki Omni Processor dries out solid waste and uses it as fuel. On the smaller scale, its new Firelight Toilet was just unveiled at the recent expo and explained in a news story by reporter Julia-Grace Sanders of the Skagit Valley Herald.

Gates discusses what he calls “clever toilet” technologies in the second and third videos on this page. In addition to NPR, the Expo was covered by Popular Science and The Hindu, which localizes the story for its audience in India where sanitation is a monstrous issue.

As I said, Bill Gates has been obsessed with this issue for quite awhile. In 2015, I featured a video about the “ultimate taste test” using sewage effluent. The tasters were Gates and Jimmy Fallon of “The Tonight Show.” See Water Ways, Feb. 9, 2015.

McNeil Island becoming known for fish and wildlife, not just prison

If you’ve heard of McNeil Island, you are probably thinking of a former federal or state prison in South Puget Sound — not the rare and exclusive habitat that has won high praise from fish and wildlife biologists.

A derelict boat, estimated at 100 years old, is removed from the McNeil Island shoreline.
Photo: Monica Shoemaker, DNR

I never realized that McNeil Island was such a gem until I learned about state restoration plans that could lead to near-pristine conditions for the island, located about seven miles southwest of Tacoma.

To be sure, more than 90 percent of the island’s 12-mile-long shoreline remains in a natural state, including large trees bending over the water . The restoration — the result of a longtime planning effort — will focus on discrete areas that have been highly degraded by human activities, some for more than a century.

The first project, completed this week, was the removal of shoreline armoring, creosote pilings and debris in six locations. Close to 1,000 tons of concrete was hauled away by barge along with 55 tons of scrap metal and more than 51 tons of pilings. A 557-foot bulkhead was pulled out along with a derelict boat.

“You can already see how much better the habitat appears with all that armoring and debris gone,” said Monica Shoemaker, restoration manager for the Department of Natural Resources’ Aquatic Restoration Program.

“I’m super excited about it,” she added, as she wrapped up the site work. “It takes a lot of planning and permitting, and when you work on something awhile, it is great to see it completed.”

Metal anti-submarine nets, added years ago to McNeil Island’s shoreline, were hauled away during the removal project.
Photo: Monica Shoemaker, DNR

The concrete debris included what looked like an old building, demolished and tossed down the bank, Monica told me. What appeared to be ceramic tiles from a bathroom were scattered among the pieces of concrete. Metal debris included multiple layers of twisted and tangled anti-submarine netting, apparently brought to the site following World War II.

The accomplishment goes well beyond appearances. The shoreline is important rearing habitat for juvenile salmon, including threatened Chinook. Portions of the beach will provide excellent spawning habitat for forage fish, such as surf smelt and sand lance, according to Doris Small of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Much of the island contains moderate to low-bank waterfront, with about 25 percent identified as “feeder bluffs,” which provide sand and gravel to keep the beaches suitable for forage-fish spawning. Wetlands across the island provide habitat for a multitude of species.

Doris said the ongoing restoration effort has been the result of exceptional collaboration between DNR, WDFW and the state Department of Corrections.

McNeil Island served as the site a federal penitentiary from 1875 to 1979. It was the first federal prison in Washington Territory. In 1981, after the federal government decided it was too expensive to operate, the facility was leased by the state of Washington.

In 1984, the state Department of Corrections took ownership of the prison site with 1,324 acres used for buildings and infrastructure. The remainder of the island’s 4,413 acres was dedicated as a permanent wildlife sanctuary under control of WDFW. The deed also transferred ownership of Gertrude and Pitt islands to the state for conservation purposes.

The prison was upgraded during the 1990s with new buildings to serve up to 1,300 inmates. But in 2011 the prison was closed as a cost-cutting measure. Today, the facility houses about 300 inmates in a Special Commitment Center for sexually violent offenders who have been civilly committed.

McNeil, Gertrude and Pitt Islands remain closed to public access to protect breeding populations of wildlife. A 100-yard safety zone goes out into the water with warning signs for boaters.

In 2011, DNR established the Nisqually Reach Aquatic Reserve, which edges up against Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge and includes Anderson Island, McNeil Island and surrounding waters. The idea is to protect shoreline ecosystems in the reserve.

A feasibility report (PDF, 6.3 mb), developed by WDFW and DNR, includes a shoreline survey that identified 10 sites where debris removal would improve the nearshore habitat. Although contractors removed more material than originally estimated for the first six sites, bidding was favorable and costs were held to about $450,000, Monica said. Funding is from DNR’s aquatic restoration account.

The next project, to get underway in January, involves removal of a concrete boat launch, concrete debris and log pilings from the so-called Barge Landing Site at the southern tip of McNeil Island. Funding will come from an account that provides money from a pollution settlement with Asarco, a company that operated a Tacoma smelter that released toxic chemicals over a wide area.

Other projects on McNeil Island involve removing road embankments constructed across three estuaries along with work to restore natural functions. Estuaries provide rearing habitat for salmon and other aquatic species. State or federal restoration grants are needed to proceed with those projects. For ongoing information, check out DNR’s website about McNeil Island.

Amusing Monday: Wild and Scenic Rivers to be featured on U.S. stamps

In the coming year, you could choose to use postage stamps depicting the Skagit River in Washington, the Deschutes River in Oregon, the Tlikakila River in Alaska, and the Snake River, which runs through portions of Wyoming, Idaho, Washington and Oregon.

Skagit River: Wild and Scenic Rivers stamp
Photo: Tim Palmer

These rivers are among 12 Wild and Scenic Rivers to be featured in a pane of stamps scheduled to be released as Forever stamps in the coming year.

The year 2018 has been celebrated as the 50th anniversary of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, with a special celebration in October, so I didn’t think I’d be writing about this topic again so soon. But I couldn’t pass up a mention of these stamps that show off some beautiful photographs by Michael Melford, Tim Palmer and Bob Wick. The pane of stamps was designed by art director Derry Nores for the U.S. Postal Service’s stamp program.

Deschutes River: Wild and Scenic Rivers stamp
Photo: Bob Wick

The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act was created by Congress in 1968 to preserve sections of rivers with outstanding natural, cultural and recreational values. Although the Snake River runs through portions of four states, the designated section is actually just a 67-mile segment downstream of Hells Canyon Dam along the Idaho-Oregon border.

Reporter Kimberly Cauvel of the Skagit Valley Herald wrote about the Skagit River stamp, quoting photographer Tim Palmer and salmon biologist Richard Brocksmith, executive director of the Skagit Watershed Council.

Snake River: Wild and Scenic Rivers stamp
Photo: Tim Palmer

“Clearly Skagit belongs in that group of rivers to celebrate around the country,” Richard told her. “There’s no other single river anywhere in Washington, maybe even the country, that exceeds all superlatives for its unique beauty, fisheries resources, recreational values, natural free-flowing condition and local contributions to our economy such as Skagit’s agriculture.”

With the largest runs of Chinook salmon among Puget Sound streams, one could also argue that the Skagit plays a key role in the effort to save the Southern Resident killer whales from extinction.

Other Wild and Scenic Rivers featured as stamps in the upcoming release (with photographer) are:

  • Merced River in California (Melford),
  • Owyhee River, a tributary of the Snake River in Oregon (Melford),
  • Koyukuk River, Alaska (Melford),
  • Niobrara River, a tributary of the Missouri River in Nebraska (Melford)
  • Flathead River, Montana (Palmer)
  • Missouri River, Montana (Wick)
  • Ontonagon River, Michigan (Palmer),
  • Clarion River, Pennsylvania (Wick)

Since 1847, official U.S. postage stamps have been used to promote the people, places and events that represent the history of the United States.

Tlikakila River: Wild and Scenic Rivers stamp
Photo: Michael Melford

“The miniature works of art illustrated in the 2019 stamp program offer something for everyone’s interest about American history and culture,” Mary-Anne Penner, executive director of the USPS Stamp Services Program, said in a news release Nov. 20.

The Postal Service previewed 20 upcoming stamps or sets of stamps for 2019 in the news release. The stamps honor people including Marvin Gaye and Walt Whitman and range in subject from the USS Missouri battleship to four species of frogs. So far, I’ve been unable to obtain release dates for these stamps, but some info should be posted soon in the USPS Newsroom. Also, if you haven’t heard, the price of a Forever stamp will rise from 50 cents to 55 cents on Jan. 27, as approved by the Postal Regulatory Commission.

If you’d like to see the state-by-state list of Wild and Scenic Rivers, go to the map on the Wild and Scenic Rivers anniversary website and click on any state.

Previous Water Ways blog posts about this year’s anniversary:

Twelve Wild and Scenic Rivers stamps are scheduled for release in 2019. // Source: U.S. Postal Service

Hydrophones open a world of underwater sound to people at home

Listening to the sound of whales in Puget Sound from your computer at home is becoming easier than ever, thanks to a new hydrophone on Whidbey Island and its connection to a more sophisticated computer network.

Organizers anticipate that thousands of human listeners could add a new dimension to scientific studies, raise awareness about the noise that orcas endure and perhaps alert authorities when sounds are loud enough to harm marine mammals in the vicinity.

The new hydrophone (underwater microphone) at Whidbey’s Bush Point was installed last summer, but it stopped working soon after it was announced to the world in early November, when news stories appeared in print and on radio and television. The timing couldn’t have been worse, said Howard Garrett of Orca Network, a partner in the venture.

“We finally got the word out just as it crashed and just as J pod came into Puget Sound,” Howie told me. “We got it working after J pod had left.”

It appears that there was a problem with both the hydrophone itself and the power supply that runs a critical computer, experts say. I decided to wait and write about the new hydrophone when readers could go right to the Orcasound webpage and listen to the live sounds of underwater activity. With Whidbey’s hydrophone back in operation, one can now listen to sounds from two hydrophone locations using a web browser:

  • Orcasound Lab: This location on the west side of San Juan Island is a major thoroughfare for the endangered Southern Resident killer whales as they come east through the Strait of Juan de Fuca or south from the Strait of Georgia.
  • Bush Point: This location on the west side of Whidbey Island picks up the orcas as the enter or leave Puget Sound through Admiralty Inlet, their primary route to and from Central and South Puget Sound.

Sounds from hydrophones in several areas of Puget Sound have been available for years, thanks to the efforts of Val Veirs and his son Scott, affiliated with Beam Reach Marine Science, along with a host of other volunteers and organizations who have helped maintain the hydrophones. In the past, network users would need to launch a media player, such as iTunes, on their computer to receive the live audio stream. The new browser-based system requires no additional software.

Photo courtesy of Beamreach.org

One can also listen to a hydrophone at Lime Kiln Lighthouse, a favorite spot of the orcas on the west side of San Juan Island. The Lime Kiln live stream, a project of SMRU Consulting and The Whale Museum, can be heard on SMRU’s website. I’m hoping that Scott can add the hydrophone to his list. Orcasound, which is managed by Scott, still has a link to Lime Kiln that requires iTunes or another player.

At the moment, hydrophones that had been in operation at Port Townsend Marine Science Center, Seattle Aquarium and Neah Bay are out of operation for various reasons, Scott said, but he is working with folks at each location to see if the hydrophones could be brought back online using his new browser-based software. He would also like to expand the network with more hydrophones to pick up whale movements.

Scott’s vision of this hydrophone network involves using the technology to organize people to improve our understanding of orcas and other marine mammals while building a community concerned about the effects of underwater noise.

Scott said he has been surprised at the number of average people who have caught on to specific calls made by the whales. By identifying the calls, one can learn to tell the difference between fish-eating residents and marine-mammal-eating transients. More advanced listeners can distinguish between J, K and L pods. Check out Orcasound’s “Listen” page for information about sharing observations, learning about orca calls, and listening to archived recordings of calls.

One story I’ve never told goes back to 1997, when 19 orcas from L pod were in Dyes Inlet. It involves a phone call I received from my wife Sue. I was working at the Kitsap Sun office and away from my desk when the call came in. When I checked my voicemail, I heard what I thought was the mewing of tiny kittens. That made sense, I thought, because we had recently adopted two one-day-old kittens whose mother had abandoned them at birth. But the sound on my phone was not kittens after all but killer whales. My wife was in a boat on Dyes Inlet helping researchers who had lowered a hydrophone to listen to the orcas. Sue was holding up her cellphone and leaving me a voicemail from the whales.

The sound I heard on my phone was something like the following call, although multiplied by many voices:

      1. K-pod-S16-stereo

Scott told me that he would like to come up with names instead of numbers for the various calls. The one above is already being called “kitten’s mew,” although it is better known as “S16” among the scientific community. See the website “Listening for orcas” or the longer “Southern Resident Call Vocabulary.”

Orca Network is well known for collecting information about whale sightings, but now people are also reporting in when they hear the sounds of whales. That is especially helpful when visibility is poor. Both the sighting and sounding information can at times be useful to researchers who follow the whales at a distance and collect fecal samples to check out their health conditions. Observers can send notes via Orca Network’s Facebook page or via email.

Photo courtesy of Beamreach.org

Howard Garrett of Orca Network mentioned that many people are tuning in to the underwater sounds even when whales are not around. They may listen for hours with an expectation of hearing something interesting, but listeners also come to understand the world occupied by the whales.

“You get to experience what the orcas’ lives are like,” Howie told me. “It’s a noisy world for the killer whales.”

Scott agreed. “The most powerful thing that these live streams do is inspire people to listen. What they come to understand is what quiet is and that ships are the dominant source of noise out there.”

Knowing where a hydrophone is located, one can go to MarineTraffic.com and identify one or more ships that may be making the noise. “I do want people to call out outlier noise polluters,” Scott said.

Because federal funds for running the hydrophones has mostly dried up, Scott launched a Kickstarter campaign to design and get the new system up and running. It was great to learn who the supporters are, he said, noting that he knew only about a third of the people who are regular listeners. One woman in Romania became an expert in listening to the whales and wrote a paper about how to improve the hydrophone network.

“We are poised to become a much better organizer of people,” Scott said. “One option is for notifications. We can send out notifications using a new app that allows people to tune in when the whales can be heard.”

Notifications are not yet an option, but I told Scott that I would let people know when this option becomes available.

Computer programs have been developed to recognize the sounds of orcas, record various data and send out an alert, but the human brain has unique capabilities for understanding sound. Together, computers and human listeners can capture more information than either one alone. Scott said.

“I think we might have a friendly competition between humans and machines,” he noted.

Most hydrophones are designed for listening in the human range of hearing, but Scott would like to install more advanced devices capable of capturing the full vocal range of an orca. Such sounds could then be more completely analyzed. Perhaps someone will discover the still-hidden meanings of the orca vocalizations.