Tag Archives: Puget Sound

Increase in harbor porpoises shifts Puget Sound’s food web

Most of us have heard that harbor seals eat Chinook salmon, which are the preferred food for our beloved Southern Resident killer whales, an endangered species whose long-term survival could hinge on getting enough Chinook.

The number of harbor seals in the inland waters of Washington state now totals somewhere around 10,000 or slightly higher, according to the latest estimates by Steve Jeffries, a marine mammal biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Harbor porpoise surfing in a boat wake in Burrows Pass, off Fidalgo Island.
Photo: ©Cindy R. Elliser, Pacific Mammal Research

But did you know that harbor porpoises, which eat many of the same things as harbor seals, now number around 11,000 in the same general area? That’s according to a recent study for the Navy led by research consultant Tom Jefferson.

I have to say that those numbers came as a major surprise to me, and I began to ask questions about what all these porpoises in Puget Sound might be doing to the food web, which involves complex interactions between salmon, seals, porpoises, orcas and many other species.

The result of my inquiry is a story published this week in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

I won’t repeat all that I learned here, since the story lays out the facts as told to me by top experts in the field. But one of the key points is that harbor porpoises have flown largely under the radar, as their population has grown by up to 10 percent per year. One major reason seems to be that harbor porpoises don’t appear to eat many salmon — although more work needs to be done to understand their actual diets.

Even if harbor porpoises don’t eat salmon, however, they must be taking a major chunk out of the food web by eating fish that might be preferred by harbor seals and even consumed by Chinook salmon themselves.

More than a few people have proposed reducing the harbor seal population in the Salish Sea by one means or another. Among them are members of the Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force, appointed by the governor to save the orcas from extinction. But task force members appear to have ignored the impact of harbor porpoises.

Draft recommendations (PDF 342 kb) from the task force call for determining how much effect seals and sea lions are having on the population of Chinook salmon available to the killer whales. The task force is likely to call for a scientific panel to be convened for evaluating predation and considering possible management actions, such as eliminating haul-out areas used by seals or directly removing animals that eat too many salmon.

Experts say the number of seals appears to be declining in our inland waterways, likely the result of various factors — including the increasing presence of marine-mammal-eating transient killer whales. The transients are known to eat seals, sea lions, porpoises and other marine mammals.

Since forage fish consumed by salmon are also taken by harbor seals and harbor porpoises, understanding the entire food web seems like a critical step in determining where human intervention would be most successful — whether that means decreasing the number of harbor seals, increasing the number of forage fish, or even boosting the right kind of plankton that feed the forage fish.

Scott Pearson of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has proposed a project that would map the locations where major predators — such as harbor seals and harbor porpoises — tend to hang out. That’s likely to be locations where large numbers of schooling fish congregate, he told me. Tidal currents and channel bathymetry may concentrate food and create hot spots of predation, where people could potentially influence which species gets eaten by which predators. Given existing conditions, saving salmon and their prey at the expense of seals and porpoises could be the preferred choice.

One interesting aspect about the recent rise in the number of harbor porpoises is an associated decrease in the number of Dall’s porpoises — the reverse of what happened from World War II up into the 1990s, when Dall’s porpoises seemed to increase as harbor porpoises declined.

Dall’s porpoises tend to prefer open-water habitats, including the ocean, whereas harbor porpoises are likely to be found closer to shore, as their name implies. Dall’s and harbor porpoises tend to avoid each other, according to observers, and some speculate that female Dall’s porpoises don’t like being around male harbor porpoises, which are known for their sexual aggression among females of their own kind.

Hybrid Dall’s/harbor porpoises — the result of male harbor porpoises impregnating female Dall’s porpoises — have been observed in the Puget Sound region. Check out “Harbor Porpoise in the Salish Sea” (PDF 4.4 mb) by Jacqlynn Zier and Joe Gaydos. See also “Disappearance and Return of Harbor Porpoise to Puget Sound” by Joe Evenson and associates.

As harbor porpoises increased (blue lines), Dall’s porpoises decreased (red lines) in the inland waters of Washington state.
Graphic: “Disappearance and return of harbor porpoise…,” Evenson, et al.

Efforts continue to retrieve orca Lolita, despite legal setback

Although the Endangered Species Act may encourage extraordinary efforts to save Puget Sound’s killer whales from extinction, it cannot be used to bring home the last Puget Sound orca still in captivity, a court has ruled.

A 51-year-old killer whale named Lolita, otherwise called Tokitae, has been living in Miami Seaquarium since shortly after her capture in 1970. Her clan — the Southern Resident killer whales — were listed as endangered in 2005, but the federal listing specifically excluded captive killer whales.

In 2013, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) successfully petitioned the National Marine Fisheries Service to have Lolita included among the endangered whales. But the endangered listing has done nothing to help those who hoped Lolita’s owners would be forced to allow a transition of the whale back into Puget Sound.

This week, the U.S. Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta reiterated its earlier finding that Lolita has not been injured or harassed to the point that her captivity at the Miami Seaquarium violates the federal Endangered Species Act, or ESA.

Howard Garrett of Orca Network, who has been trying for years to offer Lolita a “retirement home” in Puget Sound (where her family still roams), said it appears that proponents of Lolita’s return have exhausted their options under the ESA.

Howie told me that the court system may be caught in a quandary, because if the ruling went another way, someone would need to be in charge of returning Lolita to the wild. Howie actually has a plan to do just that, first by bringing her to an enclosed cove in Puget Sound. But the 22-foot-long whale’s situation is like no other — which is something that the appeals court acknowledges in its latest ruling denying reconsideration (PDF 46 kb):

“As an initial matter, Lolita presents a unique case, because she:

  • “(1) is of advanced age at 51, having surpassed the median life expectancy for wild, female Southern Resident Killer Whales;
  • “(2) has received medical care for approximately 48 years and continues to receive medical care;
  • “(3) has already been subject to an unsuccessful federal challenge to the conditions of her captivity; and
  • “(4) has no realistic means for returning to the wild without being harmed.”

As in the appeals court’s first ruling (PDF 81 kb), the finding was that the Endangered Species Act has to do with protecting species from extinction, and a lawsuit could be successful only if plaintiffs can show that an individual whale is at risk of serious harm — or “take” as the law calls it. “The term ‘take’ means to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, kill, trap, capture or collect,” the law states.

PETA’s lawsuit lists 13 injuries — including physiological and psychological issues related to living in a small tank with Pacific white-sided dolphins and blisters caused by excessive sun exposure — but none of them rise to the level of “take” defined in the law, the court states. See also the blog post in Water Ways from June 8, 2016, regarding the original judge’s ruling in the matter.

The welfare of animals in captivity is actually governed by the Animal Welfare Act, the court said. In a second series of legal actions, PETA has been trying to convince the courts that Miami Seaquarium is violating the AWA with an undersized tank for a killer whale, a lack of suitable companionship for Lolita and the excessive sun exposure on her skin.

PETA has appealed a district court ruling that went against the organization.

Meanwhile, supporters of Lolita’s return are putting some hope in efforts by the Lummi Nation, an Indian tribe near Bellingham, which claims that Lolita’s capture was essentially a kidnapping. Some say the tribe may assert legal rights established by Indian treaties in the 1850s. See Water Ways, March 14.

“We have a lot of faith in the Lummis,” Howie said, declining to discuss a specific course of action. “There is a lot of planning and fact-finding and strategizing, and it’s in midstream right now.”

I tried unsuccessfully today to reach the project manager who represents the Lummi Tribe in the matter of Lolita.

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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Puget Sound Action Agenda makes a shift in restoration strategy

Puget Sound Partnership has honed its high-level game plan for restoring the Puget Sound ecosystem, including a sharp focus on 10 “vital signs” of ecological health.

The newly released draft of the Puget Sound Action Agenda has endorsed more than 600 specific “near-term actions” designed to benefit the ecosystem in various ways. Comments on the plan will be accepted until Oct. 15. Visit the Partnership’s webpage to view the Draft Action Agenda and access the comments page.

The latest Action Agenda for 2018-2022 includes a revised format with a “comprehensive plan” separate from an “implementation plan.” The comprehensive plan outlines the ecological problems, overall goals and administrative framework. The implementation plan describes how priorities are established and spells out what could be accomplished through each proposed action.

Nearly 300 near-term actions are listed at Tier 4, the highest level of priority, giving them a leg up when it comes to state and federal support, according to Heather Saunders Benson, Action Agenda manager. Funding organizations use the Action Agenda to help them determine where to spend their money.

The greatest change in the latest Action Agenda may be its focus on projects that specifically carry out “Implementation Strategies,” which I’ve been writing about on and off for nearly two years. Check out “Implementation Strategies will target Puget Sound ‘Vital Signs’” in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

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Focus on chinook salmon creates troubles for Southern Resident orcas

I’ve often wondered how well Puget Sound’s endangered orcas would be doing today if these whales had not grown up within a culture of eating chinook salmon.

Photo: NOAA Fisheries

In Iceland, some killer whales apparently feed on both fish and seals, depending on the time of year, according to researcher Sara Tavares of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. The same animals have been seen among large groups of orcas as they pursue schools of herring in the North Atlantic, she writes in her blog, Icelandic Orcas.

The Icelandic whales have a different social structure than the fish-eating Southern Resident killer whales that frequent the Salish Sea. Both groups are also quite different from the marine-mammal-eating transient killer whales that have been visiting Puget Sound more frequently in recent years.

It is now widely accepted that groups of killer whales each have their own culture, passed down from mothers to offspring, with older relatives playing an integral role in the lessons. Culture is simply learned behavior, and the message delivered from the elders to the young is: “This is the way we do it.”

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Stories told of unusual marine mammal visitors to Puget Sound waters

People in the Puget Sound area have been reporting some rare visitors to our waterway in recent years — including bottlenose dolphins, common dolphins, a sperm whale and even a ringed seal from the Arctic.

Bottlenose dolphins, such as these seen from a NOAA vessel on the East Coast, are being spotted more often in Puget Sound
Photo: Allison Henry, Northeast Fisheries Science Center

Sudden appearances of these marine mammals have come as a surprise, because the animals are outside their normal habitat. Puget Sound may be too cold or too warm or not deep enough for these animals to flourish, or so experts have thought.

I am always interested when I hear about strange visitors, and I was pleased to tell the stories of seven marine mammal species that are not supposed to be in Puget Sound. They include Miss and Stump, a pair of bottlenose dolphins that worked their way up the West Coast from Southern California and now seem to be making their home in the cooler clime of Puget Sound. Check out my story in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

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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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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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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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Amusing Monday: Salish Sea photo contest shows diversity of local species

Nearly 900 photographs highlighting the diversity and biodiversity of our inland waterways were submitted to the “Salish Sea in Focus” photo contest, which just announced the winners yesterday.

“One Fish, Two Fish” by Nirupam Nigam of Hoquiam
First place in Fish category, “Salish Sea in Focus” photo contest

“We’re thrilled with the quality and diversity of the photos — not only the winners but throughout the whole contest,” said Justin Cox, communications director for The SeaDoc Society, which sponsored the contest. “They capture the Salish Sea beautifully, which is everything we hoped for when we envisioned ‘Salish Sea In Focus.’”

The Grand Prize in the contest was awarded to Bruce Kerwin of Bainbridge Island, whose photo shows the furled tentacles of a giant Pacific octopus at Sund Rock on Hood Canal. Other winners were named in five categories plus an additional award for photographers under age 18.

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