Tag Archives: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Gray whale deaths lead to declaration of ‘unusual mortality event’

As more gray whales wash up dead on beaches in Puget Sound and along the West Coast, NOAA Fisheries has declared an “unusual mortality event” to mobilize additional research into what is killing these massive marine mammals.

Aerial images, such as this one off Central California, help biologists assess the condition of gray whales as part of a declared “unusual mortality event.”
Photo: Southwest Fisheries Science Center and SR3 under federal permits NMFS 19091 and MBNMS 2017-8.

About 70 gray whales have been found dead so far this year along the shorelines of California, Oregon, Washington and Alaska, with another 73 in Mexico and five in Canada. That’s the most since the year 2000, when more than 100 gray whales were stranded along the U.S. West Coast, triggering a previous unusual mortality event, or UME.

Many of the dead whales have shown signs of emaciation, suggesting that they failed to find enough food in the Arctic last summer, a time when they need to build up enough energy reserves to make it through the winter. Each year, the Eastern North Pacific gray whales travel from their feeding grounds in Alaska to their over-wintering areas in Mexico. As they return north at this time of year, they could be exhausting the remainder of their fat reserves, experts say.

A gray whale found dead at Washington state’s Leadbetter Point State Park near Long Beach was examined and found to be unusually thin.
Photo: John Weldon, Northern Oregon/Southern Washington Marine Mammal Stranding Program.

Not all the dead animals are showing signs of malnutrition. Other possible causes of death can include contaminants, environmental conditions, disease and being struck by moving ships. At least three of the animals were killed by ships.

The 70 whales found dead in U.S. waters this year compare to an average of 15 whales found stranded during the same January-through-May time period over the past 18 years. That number is just a fraction of the whales that actually died, however, since only 4 to 13 percent of dead gray whales are ever recovered, according to a study from the last UME.

For Washington state, the migration is about halfway through, while it is just beginning in Alaska, so officials predict that more gray whales will perish before they make it back to their feeding grounds. Of the 70 dead gray whales found on U.S. beaches so far, 37 stranded in California, 25 in Washington, five in Alaska and three in Oregon.

The total population of gray whales along the West Coast is estimated at 27,000, up from about 16,000 following the UME in 2000, when the population dropped by about 5,000 whales, according to Dave Weller, research wildlife biologist with NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center.

“We know the population can recover, given that all the other parameters remain the same, that the environment remain the same and there is enough food,” Weller said during a telephone news conference this afternoon.

“I would say that the number-one priority is learning as much as we can from the stranded animals,” he added. “Our monitoring will continue, and we will do another abundance estimate … and we’ll also be following calf production. We’ve got our finger on the pulse, and we will continue to monitor it closely.”

The number of calves born this year also appears to be down from average, as it has been in previous unusual mortality events. Whether feeding conditions will be better this year has not yet been determined.

Sue Moore, a biological oceanographer at the University of Washington, said gray whales eat a variety of things, and they can go where food is available. But conditions in the Arctic are changing rapidly, and it isn’t clear yet if they are eating amphipods — tiny shrimplike creatures that normally sustain them — or if they are shifting to other kinds of prey.

The sheer number of gray whales also may be a factor, in that their feeding areas could be reaching “carrying capacity” — although the experts stress that the number of whales that can be supported in the Arctic will vary, depending on environmental conditions that can increase or decrease prey populations.

“Carrying capacity varies by year,” said John Calambokidis, research biologist with Cascadia Research Collective in Olympia. “It certainly plays a role. How I would view it, too, is when animals are closer to the limits of the food supply is when you would start to see a portion of the population that isn’t as fit become more vulnerable.”

John noted that during these high-mortality incidents, more gray whales seem to come into Puget Sound and other busy estuaries, including San Francisco Bay. As a result, they are more likely to be hit by ships or become entangled in fishing nets.

Sue Moore said reports of deaths among other marine mammals, such as sea lions and walruses, will be investigated as part of the effort to understand the gray whale deaths and the overall ecosystem.

“In our investigation, we will bring in experts on gray whales, but we will bring in experts on the larger environment, and that includes other animals,” she said. “We do have some die-offs of birds along the California Coast, so we want to know if what is affecting the birds is different or the same as what is affecting the whales.”

Unusual mortality events can be declared by NOAA Fisheries when there is a significant die-off of any marine mammal species. In this case, the agency cited two of seven possible criteria used to declare a UME:

  • 1. A marked increase in the magnitude or a marked change in the nature of morbidity, mortality or strandings when compared with prior records, and
  • 5. Affected animals exhibit similar or unusual pathologic findings, behavior patterns, clinical signs, or general physical condition (e.g., blubber thickness).

The UME declaration can be used to mobilize a special UME Contingency Fund to reimburse people who officially help with the investigation. People may contribute to the fund or to local stranding networks on the NOAA Fisheries website.

Anyone who sees a dead, injured or stranded marine mammals is asked to call the West Coast Marine Mammal Stranding Network, (866) 767-6114. Only local and state officials and those authorized by NOAA Fisheries may legally handle live or dead marine mammals.

The annual gray whale migration — some 10,000 to 12,000 miles — is said to be the longest migration of any mammal. Adult grays can reach up to 46 feet long.

Amusing Monday: Young artists describe dangers of trash in the ocean

Student artists are helping people understand how ocean creatures are affected by human trash. At least that’s the goal of the annual Marine Debris Art Contest, now in its sixth year. The contest is sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Debris Program.

Aaron K, Grade 5, Michigan

Hundreds of entries from all over the country were submitted by students, from kindergarteners to eighth graders. I’ve selected a few of my favorites for this page, but you can see all 13 winning entries on the contest website. The 13 winners will have their drawings featured in an upcoming calendar, with one picture on the cover and one for each month. After posting, the calendar can be downloaded from NOAA’s website. To enlarge the pictures on this page, click directly on the image.

Cindy P, Grade 7, Mississippi

The express goal of the art contest is for students to learn about the worldwide problem of marine debris and to use their power of artistic expression to raise awareness. Winners were chosen for their creativity, artistic presentation, relevance to theme, and how thoroughly the students explained how marine debris affects the ocean and what people can do to help.

“The resulting calendar, featuring the winning artwork, will help to remind us every day how important it is for us to be responsible stewards of the ocean,” states the homepage for the contest.

Anastasia K, Grade 4, Pennsylvania

I’ve been promoting the contest and showing off the student artwork in this blog since the beginning, when the top winner was Araminta “Minty” Little, a seventh grader at Fairview Junior High School in Central Kitsap. See Minty’s picture of an octopus clutching lost junk in Water Ways, March 18, 2013.

I do wish that contest organizers would take the time to obtain whatever permissions are necessary so that the student artists can be recognized with their full names, schools and hometowns. As it is, we get to see only their first names and last initials — unless the students or their teachers contact the local newspaper for publicity, which is how I found out about Minty six years ago.

Luke G, Grade 3, Ohio

To download calendars from previous years, use the pull-down menu on the webpage of NOAA’s Marine Debris Art Contest.

The NOAA Marine Debris Program’s mission is to investigate and prevent the adverse impacts of marine debris. The program includes regional marine debris efforts, research and outreach to local communities. The main webpage includes links to public information, scientific reports and a blog about marine debris.

Jennie C, Grade 8, Massachusetts

Amusing Monday: NOAA’s top photos, videos and stories

A photograph of a tiny orange octopus was the most popular image last year among all the photographs posted to Instagram by NOAA Fisheries, the agency formally called the National Marine Fisheries Service. More than 2,000 people “liked” the picture and many more viewed it from among more than 150 top photographs posted last year by NOAA Fisheries’ Communications shop on its Instagram page.

A baby octopus found on an autonomous reef monitoring structure. (Click to enlarge.)
Photo: James Morioka/NOAA

The octopus photo was taken during a NOAA expedition to assess the health of coral reefs in the Pacific Remote Islands, which had undergone a massive die-off in 2016 and 2017 caused by excessive warm water. The tiny octopus was discovered on an “autonomous reef monitoring structure” used to measure the recovery of ocean ecosystems. For details about the voyage, see NOAA’s story “Research Expedition to Assess Coral Reef Conditions and Recovery from Mass Bleaching.”

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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.
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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

Scarlett, the young orca, has gone missing and is presumed to be dead

A tenacious young orca named Scarlet, gravely emaciated for several weeks, has gone missing and is presumed dead.

Scarlet and her mother Slick head toward San Juan Island on Aug. 18. Scarlet is now missing.
Photo: Katy Foster, NOAA Fisheries, under federal permit

Scarlet, designated J-50, was last seen on Friday with her mother and other family members. Since then, observers have encountered her close relatives several times. Yet Scarlet, who was nearly 4 years old, has been nowhere to be found.

Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research, who maintains the official census of the Southern Resident killer whales, announced her death late yesterday.

“J-50 is missing and now presumed dead,” Ken wrote in a press release. “Her last known sighting was Friday, September 7, by our colleagues at NOAA, SeaDoc, and others. The Center for Whale Research has had a vessel on the water looking for J-50 for the past three days. We have seen all the other members of her family (i.e., J-16s) during these outings.”

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Students reflect on impact of marine debris in annual art contest

NOAA’s annual Marine Debris Art Contest continues to attract creative students able to spread the message about how loose trash can escape into the ocean and harm sea creatures.

Zilan C., a Michigan second-grader, was one of 13 winners in this year’s Marine Debris Art Contest.
Image: Courtesy of NOAA

“The ocean is the ocean animals’ home, not a trash can,” writes Zilan C., a Michigan second-grader who drew the first picture on this page. “Everyone should keep the debris out of the ocean and save the ocean animals’ home!”

“Plastics, rubber, paper and other lost or discarded items enter the ocean and lakes everyday,” said Yufei F., a Michigan fifth grader who created the second piece. “Everyone can do our part in reducing and preventing marine debris. We can also join in cleaning the beach and clean our streets. When everyone takes action, we can keep our ocean clean.”

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Winter chum salmon in South Puget Sound fail test for uniqueness

Sam Wright, who has been remarkably successful in getting various fish species protected under the Endangered Species Act, has learned that his latest ESA petition — possibly his final petition — has been rejected.

Sam, who retired from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife after years of studying salmon and other fish, would like to get special recognition for a unique population of chum salmon that return to South Puget Sound in the winter.

Nisqually River near Interstate 5 bridge
Photo: ©2006 Walter Siegmund/Wikimedia Commons

The Nisqually-Chambers Creek run of winter chum is the only population of chum salmon in the world that spawn as late as February, with some fish entirely missing the worst floods of December and January, Sam told me. His petition to the federal government was designed to get these winter chum recognized as a distinct population segment — much as the threatened summer chum population in Hood Canal has been designated as separate from the fall runs of chum throughout Puget Sound.

Being a small population, the Nisqually-Chambers Creek winter chum would probably qualify for threatened or endangered status, he said, but first it would need to be recognized as distinct. If not listed initially as threatened or endangered, those decisions could follow if the population crashes, he said.

“The petition was meant to correct what was, from my perspective, a mistake made 20 years ago when they made a coastwise series of reports assessing the chum salmon populations,” said Sam, who is now 81 years old.

“In the entire range of chum salmon — both in North America and Asia — there are 3,500 streams with chum salmon,” he continued, “but there is only one single winter-run chum salmon, and that is the Nisqually.”

Sam’s petition (PDF 4.2 mb), filed more than two years ago, was subject to a 90-day review by the National Marine Fisheries Service, also known as NOAA Fisheries. Sam was told that the petition had been misplaced all this time. Last week, he got the news that the Nisqually-Chambers Creek winter chum would not be recognized as a distinct population, nor would it be considered for further review without new information being brought forward.

In rejecting Sam’s petition, NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center reviewed available data — including a 2015 genetic study on chum populations — and concluded that the original analysis done in 1997 was still valid. That analysis concluded that the winter-run chum are closely related to the fall-run chum in Puget Sound and Hood Canal and that “there is no clear genetic evidence to support the idea that the winter-run chum salmon in Puget Sound are substantially reproductively isolated from other chum salmon populations in southern Puget Sound.” See “Listing Endangered or Threatened Species …”

Sam argues that the winter chum remain genetically isolated from fall chum populations because of their unusual spawning schedule. That is demonstrated by annual population counts, which go up and down independently of fall chum numbers in South Puget Sound.

“They are reacting to different environmental conditions,” Sam explained.

Studies are needed to show the differences, Sam said, but they may have an advantage over fall chum by avoiding most of the winter floods, which can displace salmon eggs incubating in the gravel or else smother them in silt.

Incubation time is based on temperature, so the late-arriving chum are subject to warmer water and faster incubation. The winter chum fry are only a little behind the fall chum fry, Sam said.

One of the most productive areas for winter chum is Muck Creek, a tributary of the Nisqually River that runs through Joint Base Lewis McCord, where the Army conducts military exercises, according to Sam.

“We’ve had decades of battles with Fort Lewis over whether to use Muck Creek as part of their firing range,” Sam told me, adding that he suspects that pressure from the military played a role in NOAA’s original decision to lump the winter chum together with the fall chum.

Personally, I don’t know anything about such conflicts, but Muck Creek has been the site of a major restoration effort involving JBLM, the Nisqually Tribe and other groups. In 2011, reporter Ingrid Barrentine wrote about the annual salmon homecoming for Northwest Guardian, a JBLM publication.

As for the habitat in Muck Creek, Sam told me something else that was surprising. The stream is spring-fed with freshwater bubbling up from below and providing stable flows, he said. That helps the eggs to survive. Unlike many streams in which only 10 percent of the chum eggs grow into fry headed for saltwater, Muck Creek has had a 90-percent survival rate.

One reason that Sam is so concerned about the Nisqually-Chambers Creek winter chum is the uncertainty about what is coming in the future. Climate change is likely to bring higher stream flows in winter, he said, and chum runs that come later may hold the keys to survival of the species.

“To me, the last thing we want to do is throw away that particular piece,” Sam said, paraphrasing Aldo Leopold, whose exact quote is this:

“If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.” (Round River)

Sam Wright’s persistence has paid off in the past when he has asked for reconsideration and finally received threatened or endangered status for various populations of salmon, steelhead, rockfish and other marine species. This time, he may or may not provide additional information and ask the agency to reconsider its position. In any case, Sam told me that he has no new petitions in the works, and this may be his last effort.

Whether Nisqually-Chambers Creek winter chum — or any salmon population — is considered distinct rests on NOAA’s definition of species, 16 U.S.C. 1531, which includes two criteria:

  1. The population must be substantially reproductively isolated from other nonspecific population units; and
  2. The population must represent an important component in the evolutionary legacy of the species.

In turning down Sam’s petition, reviewers pointed to genetic studies that supported the finding that summer chum in Hood Canal and the Strait of Juan de Fuca were distinct from other chum runs. A second grouping included the remaining fall, summer and winter runs in Puget Sound, with a third grouping of fall chum from the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the Washington Coast and Oregon.

The reviewers also pointed out that the Nisqually River and Chambers Creek to the north are not geographically isolated from the rest of South Puget Sound.

As for “evolutionary legacy,” Sam contends that loss of the winter chum would be forever, as with extinct summer chum in many river systems including Chambers Creek. That critical issue, he said, is the very definition of legacy.

The reviewers of his petition found, like the 1997 review team, that winter and summer runs in Puget Sound only showed “patterns of diversity within a relatively large and complex evolutionarily significant unit,” known as an ESU.

“Both the Nisqually River and Chambers Creek watersheds have supported both summer- and fall-run chum salmon in the past, along with winter-run chum salmon,” concluded the agency’s written findings, “so there is nothing unique preventing these watersheds from supporting multiple chum salmon runs.”

Washington state keeps its cool for the first five months of this year

For the first five months of this year, Washington state has stood out as the only state in the U.S. with a below-average temperature.

While most of the country was experiencing warmer-than-normal temperatures, we here in Washington were going outside to temperatures that averaged nearly 1 degree F. below normal.

In fact, the contiguous 48 states recorded the second-warmest January-through-May period on record, despite cooler conditions in Washington. Average temperatures were 1.4 degrees F. below the record set in 2012 for the same period, according to NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information (PDF 4.2 mb). Click on maps to enlarge.

The average temperature in Washington state was 38.6 degrees for the first five months of the year, compared to an average of 39.4 degrees for the 20th century. Out of 124 years on record, it was the 35th coolest for the five-month period, the coolest since 2011. The coolest on record was in 1950.

Forty states were much warmer than average during the same time period, with Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas reaching record-warm levels.

Of course, temperatures can vary greatly from year to year, but climate conditions in Washington, as in most of the world, demonstrate an increasing temperature trend since records began in 1895, as shown by the blue line in the graphic.

The country as a whole has also been much wetter than normal so far this year. Average precipitation across the lower-48 has reached 14.85 inches, which is 2.46 inches above average and the fourth wettest January-through-May period on record. It is also the wettest first five months since 1998.

Washington state was 6.78 inches above the 20th century average of 20.03 inches for the five-month time period. This year was the sixth wettest on record.

Washington and five other western states were listed as much above average for snow and rain, while Idaho reached record precipitation for the first five months of the year. Record flooding was reported in the mid-Mississippi Valley. Below average precipitation was seen in the Northern Plains states and Florida.

Meanwhile, about 5 percent of the lower-48 was listed in drought conditions on May 30, up slightly from earlier in the year. Drought improved in the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic and Southeast, but it worsened in the Northern and Southern Plains and in Florida.