Tag Archives: Puget Sound

Lummi Nation joins effort to bring Lolita home to Puget Sound

The Lummi Nation, an Indian tribe near Bellingham, recently joined the 25-year-long struggle to bring the killer whale named Lolita back to her home waters of Puget Sound, where she was captured and removed 47 years ago.

The tribe’s involvement could change the nature of the ongoing battle entirely, according to Howard Garrett of Orca Network, who has been leading the effort.

Trailer to a movie in production about the Lummi Nation's effort to bring Lolita home.

“I feel like we are at a whole new level of synergy and mutual support as we bring out our passions and abilities and professional skills,” Howie told me during a phone call from Miami, where he and Lummi leaders were visiting the 52-year-old whale.

Lolita, also known by her Native American name Tokitae, has lived all these years in a relatively small tank at Miami Seaquarium, performing twice each day for visitors to the marine park.

Members of the Lummi Nation contend that what happened to Tokitae was a kidnapping, and her aquatic prison violates native traditions that hold orcas in high esteem. An estimated 40-50 orcas were captured or killed during roundups during the late 1960s and early ‘70s, officials say, and Tokitae is the last living orca taken from Puget Sound.

“There is no way they should be getting away with putting these mammals in captivity for a show,” Steve Solomon, Lummi Natural Resources Commissioner, said in video segment for WPLG Channel-10 News in Miami. “Those are our brothers and sisters that were taken.”

Some have compared Lolita’s capture and removal with actions surrounding Indian boarding schools, where Native American children were taken after being forced to leave their families and give up their native culture.

Orca Network and other groups have proposed bringing Lolita back to Puget Sound and caring for her in a blocked-off cove on Orcas Island until she is ready to head out into open waters, possibly joining her own family. Orca experts believe that her mother is Ocean Sun, or L-25, and that Lolita would be able to recognize the voice of her mom and other L-pod whales.

The cost of the proposed sea pen on Orcas Island and moving the whale by airplane is estimated to cost about $3 million. Howie said he has no doubt that the money can be raised, especially with the help of the Lummi Tribe. Orcas Island is just across Rosario Strait from the Lummi Reservation west of Bellingham.

There is some talk that the Lummi Nation could use its treaty rights to force action if the Miami Seaquarium continues to resist. The Lummi are signatories to the Point Elliott Treaty, which guarantees the right of native people to hunt, fish and gather shellfish. Courts have ruled that tribes also have a vested right in protecting the habitat, but their moral argument to bring Lolita home might be stronger than their legal one.

Eric Eimstad, general manager of Miami Seaquarium, said the killer whales in Puget Sound are listed as endangered, and there are clear concerns about their lack of food, boat noise and chemical runoff.

“The focus should not be on a whale that is thriving in her environment in Miami,” Eimstad said in a statement.

“After more than 47 years, moving Lolita from her pool, which she shares with Pacific white-sided dolphins, to a sea pen in Puget Sound or anywhere else would be very stressful to her and potentially fatal,” he continued. “it would be reckless and cruel to treat her life as an experiment and jeopardize her health to consider such a move.”

Experts can be found on both sides of the issue, and nobody denies that Lolita’s tank is smaller than any captive orca habitat in the U.S.

While in Miami today, Howie was able to watch Lolita in action. He told me that he wore a floppy hat and sunglasses to escape notice, since he has been kicked out of Miami Seaquarium several times for being an “activist.”

“She is looking good,” Howie said of Lolita. “It was encouraging to see that she is not weak. In fact, she is strong. She made four breaches up and out of the water.”

That’s a good indication that this whale could not only survive a flight across the country, but she could thrive, he said. Any treatments she gets, such as antibiotics, would be continued as long as necessary.

Meanwhile, the Lummi contingent is planning a 30-day journey throughout the country to raise awareness about the plight of Lolita. They will take along a large totem pole of an orca, which is now being carved.

Former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, who is hoping to be Florida’s next governor, has signed onto the campaign to bring Lolita home. He opened a press conference yesterday in which he was joined by numerous supporters, including Lummi leaders.

“The time is right to do the right thing and finally free this captured endangered whale,” Levine said. “It was my honor to host the Lummi Nation on this historic day, as we continue the fight to bring Tokitae home to her native waters.”

The first video on this page is a trailer for a movie in production. Producers Geoff Schaaf and Dennie Gordon of Los Angeles are following the Lummi involvement in the tale of Tokitae, which they say is emblematic of the larger story about saving the salmon and all the creatures that live in the Salish Sea.

The second and third videos make up an excellent two-part series by reporter Louis Aguirre of Miami’s WPLG-Channel 10 News. He digs into the controversy over Lolita, including a visit to Puget Sound and what could be Lolita’s temporary home near Orca Island.

Can carefully planned fishing seasons help the endangered orcas?

Salmon harvests in Puget Sound have been shared between Indian and non-Indian fishermen since the 1970s, when the courts ruled that treaties guarantee tribal members half the total catch.

Now a third party — Puget Sound’s endangered orcas — could take a seat at the negotiations table, at least in a figurative sense, as their shortage of food becomes a critical issue.

It isn’t at all clear how fishing seasons could be structured to help the Southern Resident killer whales, but the issue was discussed seriously at some length yesterday, when the 2018 salmon forecasts were presented to sport and commercial fishers. Thus began the annual negotiations between state and tribal salmon managers to set up this year’s fishing seasons.

General areas, in blue, where fishing closures in British Columbia are planned to provide extra salmon for Southern Resident killer whales.
Map: Department of Fisheries and Oceans

Penny Becker, a wildlife manager with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said a steady decline in the body mass of the Southern Residents has been observed, as the population fell to a 30-year low of 76 animals. People are calling for emergency measures, she said, noting that both Gov. Jay Inslee and the Legislature are working on ideas to protect the whales. See Water Ways Feb. 23 and Water Ways Feb. 17 and the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, Nov. 2, 2017.

Concerns are running equally high in British Columbia, where the orcas spend much of their time in the Strait of Georgia. The Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans has proposed an experiment with fishing closures this year in four areas frequented by the orcas:

  • Mouth of the Fraser River
  • West side of Pender Island
  • South side of Saturna Island, and
  • Strait of Juan de Fuca

“The primary objective of the proposed measures is to improve chinook salmon availability for SRKW by decreasing potential fishery competition, as well as minimizing physical and acoustic disturbance in key foraging areas to the extent possible,” states a “discussion paper” (PDF 1.9 mb) released Feb. 15.

The closures would be in place from May through September this year, with increased monitoring to measure potential benefits to the whales. Comments on the proposal are being taken until March 15.

Canadians also are working with ship owners to see if noise can be reduced significantly by slowing down large vessels moving through the Salish Sea. Previous studies have shown that noise reduces the ability of whales to communicate and to find food through echolocation. Experts are compiling the results of the “Haro Strait Vessel Slowdown Trial” conducted last year.

One bill in the Washington Legislature would require boaters to slow down to 7 knots when in the vicinity of killer whales.

Limiting fishing in specific areas of Puget Sound, such as the west side of San Juan Island, could be implemented through state-tribal negotiations, Penny said. The closures would occur during summer when chinook salmon — the orcas’ primary prey — are in the area. One option would be to implement the closures on certain days of the week.

Some people have talked about giving the orcas a clean break from whale watchers, and that could involve excluding whale-watch boats from salmon-rich areas at the same time as the fishing closures.

“We’re looking for creative solutions to make this work within our constraints,” Penny told the group.

One fisherman at the meeting said every person on the water should automatically turn off his motor and sit still when whales are approaching. It’s a courtesy to help the killer whales find fish, he said, and anyway the fish are not going to bite on one’s line while whales are around. Generally, they don’t stay long in one place.

One bill in the Legislature would help the Southern Residents by increasing hatchery production of chinook salmon in Puget Sound. Reaction to the idea has been mixed, because hatchery salmon have been known to affect the fitness and genetic makeup of wild salmon. If approved, the boost in hatchery production would likely be a temporary solution.

Sport fishermen generally like the idea of increased hatchery production, because they would be encouraged to catch all the hatchery fish not eaten by killer whales.

The hatchery bill, HB 2417, was approved unanimously by the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee. No further action has been taken so far, but its provisions could be attached to the supplementary budget with funds specified for hatchery production.

Tuesday’s meeting in Lacey launched the beginning of the negotiations between state and tribal salmon managers, a process known as North of Falcon. The name comes the fishery management area from Cape Falcon in Oregon north to the Canadian border. The full schedule of meetings and related documents can be found on the WDFW website.

Forecasts approved by WDFW and the tribes predict poor returns of several salmon stocks this year in Puget Sound, the Pacific Ocean and the Columbia River, resulting in limited fishing opportunities.

“We will definitely have to be creative in developing salmon fisheries this year,” Kyle Adicks, salmon policy lead for WDFW, said in a news release. “I encourage people to get involved and provide input on what they see as the priorities for this season’s fisheries.”

Warm ocean conditions and low streamflows in recent years affected several salmon stocks returning this year. As ocean conditions return to normal, experts hope for improved salmon runs in years to come.

A total of about 557,000 coho returning to Puget Sound is about 6 percent below the average over the past 10 years. Extremely low numbers predicted for the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Snohomish River are expected to force managers to limit fishing in those areas.

While hatchery chinook returning to Puget Sound are expected to be 38 percent higher than last year, the need to protect “threatened” wild chinook could mean ongoing fishing restrictions in many areas.

Next month, NOAA, which oversees threatened and endangered species, is expected to provide guidance for managing this year’s fisheries, including possible discussions about protecting Southern Resident killer whales.

A 10-year “Comprehensive Management Plan for Puget Sound Chinook” is scheduled to be resubmitted this summer in response to comments received from NOAA on the first draft.

Plans for protecting Puget Sound chinook and Southern Resident killer whales have begun to overlap in major ways, as saving one involves saving the other.

Learn about ecosystem indicators and the quest for Puget Sound health

More than 100 people tuned in today to an online presentation regarding the Puget Sound Partnership’s Vital Signs indicators and the quest for ecological health.

While there was not much breaking news, the session turned out to be a very nice summary of progress toward restoring ecological functions in Puget Sound — or rather, in too many cases, the ongoing declines in species and habitats.

One can review the entire two-hour webinar, in which a variety of our leading Puget Sound experts chime in on their areas of expertise. Go to Puget Sound Partnership’s webpage and click on “Vital Signs Webinar.”

Because of the linkage between Vital Signs and Implementation Strategies, many of the issues under discussion relate to stories that I have been writing for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound over the past two years. Check out 16 stories by various writers on topics of ecosystem health found on the Puget Sound Institute’s website.

Other key documents on this subject:

One emerging issue brought up during the question-and-answer portion of today’s webinar was what will happen to the Vital Signs indicators and targets as the year 2020 approaches. The targets were all established with a notion that if we could meet certain goals by 2020, Puget Sound would be in pretty good shape. As it turns out, almost none of the targets will be met by 2020, so the struggle must go on.

Sometime this year, work will begin on a possible overhaul — or at least a major update — of the Vital Signs indicators and targets, according to officials with Puget Sound Partnership. Some indicators, for example, reflect the success of restoration projects by reporting the number of acres restored with no accounting for acres lost somewhere else.

The targets were originally established with a sense of optimism but without a clear understanding of what it would take, nor was there any commitment of funds for improving a specific type of habitat. As I see it, the uncertainty of financing will remain a problem until the Legislature comes up with a dedicated funding source.

Even if the targets remain the same, the target date of 2020 will need to be changed when we get to that year, if not sooner. I discuss some of the benefits and pitfalls of changing the indicators in a Water Ways post I wrote in November while going over the 2017 State of the Sound report.

The Puget Sound Science Panel, a team of expert advisers within the Puget Sound Partnership, is expected to play a primary role in revising the indicators and targets. I’m sure the discussion will address implementation strategies, adaptive management and a process to get Puget Sound on a more certain path to recovery.

Amusing Monday: How one composer connects music to nature’s wonder

Classical composer Alex Shapiro, who lives on San Juan Island, has a nice way of connecting music with her passion for the local waters in Puget Sound.

“When I’m not crawling around the shoreline and shooting photos of wildlife, I’m working on becoming a more adept note alignment specialist,” she writes in her blog “Notes from the Kelp.” “I compose music, mostly for chamber ensembles and symphonic wind bands who kindly offer my notes to the air and anyone within earshot.”

“Notes from the Kelp” is a nice play on words, since it is both the name of a blog and an album of music, two ways of communicating with people about what Alex calls a “heartbreakingly beautiful part of the planet.”

The first video on this page is Alex’s composition “Deep” from “Notes from the Kelp.” When I close my eyes and listen to this piece, I think about scuba diving along the bottom of Puget Sound in very cold waters. In my vision, I first encounter all sorts of bottom-dwelling organisms, such as sea pens and sea urchins, but the music also inspires a feeling of doom, which I associate with low-oxygen dead zones where nothing can live.

Here’s what Alex writes about “Deep”: “Sometimes I make the mistake of believing that I’m not being unless I’m doing and moving. This piece was my challenge to myself to be still and present. And in doing so, I’ve never been as much before. Like the sea, my truth lies below, and I am happiest when I am immersed.”

The second video shows clarinetist Jeff Gallagher performing Alex’s “Water Crossing” during a concert in Santa Cruz, Calif., in 2016. Alex writes about what she was thinking during the composition process in the “Recordings” section of her website. She describes a mythical voyage in a canoe that turns into a sailboat. Dolphins dance ahead of the boat before it returns to the safety of shore.

I have spent some time lately perusing this “Recordings” page for a smorgasbord of music and observations on life. It’s here you can find a list of Alex’s musical contributions, listen to recordings and read about her music.

I first learned about Alex and her work from the third video on this page. It was created as a promotion for the University of Washington, yet Alex finds a way to talk about the importance of science and how her music is like scientific exploration. The San Juan Islands, where she lives, has always been an important place to study sea life and shoreline dynamics — and it’s not just because the islands are home to the UW’s Friday Harbor Laboratories.

Alex has been traveling a lot lately and working on various projects, as she freely describes on her Facebook page. Also, as it turns out, she is moving from the home on San Juan Island that she has written so passionately about. But she’s not going far, since her new home is another waterfront location on San Juan Island. I look forward to further notes from the kelp.

Composer and music professor Kyle Gann wrote about Alex and her life in Chamber Music magazine (PDF 108 kb) in May 2008.

Become a witness for ‘king tides’ in Puget Sound now and later

Witnessing Puget Sound’s “king tides” could return as a more popular outdoor activity this year, as Washington Sea Grant takes the lead in promoting the event.

Locations where people have posted king tide photos on the Witness King Tides website

“King tides,” which are recognized in coastal areas across the country, is the name given to the highest tides of the year. These are times when people can observe what average tides might look like in the future, as sea levels continue to rise.

The highest tide of 2018 is forecast for this Friday around 8 a.m., although the exact time depends on the location in Puget Sound.

Activities include taking pictures of shoreline structures during these high-tide events and then sharing the photos with others. One can try to imagine what the landscape would look like in a given location if the water was a foot or more higher. King tide activities can be fun while adding a dose of reality to the uncertainty of climate change.

King tides by themselves have nothing to do with climate change, but these extremes will be seen more often in the future as new extremes are reached. As things are going now, experts say there is a 50 percent chance that sea levels in Puget Sound will rise by at least 7 inches in the next 22 years and keep going from there. They say there is a 99 percent chance that sea levels will be at least 2.4 inches higher by then. Check out the story I wrote in October for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

Washington Department of Ecology, which had been promoting king tides each year, has backed away from the event in recent years. In the beginning, I thought the idea of king tides seemed kind of silly, because high tides are affected by weather conditions on a given day. But I came to embrace the idea that watching these high-tide events will help shoreline residents and others understand the challenges we are facing in the Puget Sound region.

Addressing sea level rise may not be easy, but some waterfront property owners are beginning to face the problem, as I described in another story in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

During a king tide event in December 2012, the Kitsap Sun and other newspapers covered the resulting flooding by running photographs of high water in many places throughout Puget Sound. A low-pressure weather system that year made extreme high tides even more extreme. In fact, officials reported that the high tide came within 0.01 feet of breaking the all-time tidal record set for Seattle on Jan. 27, 1983. See Water Ways, Dec. 18, 2012.

Washington Sea Grant, associated with the University of Washington, has now taken over promotion of king tides, and we should soon see an improved website, according to Bridget Trosin, coastal policy specialist for Sea Grant. Bridget told me that she hopes to promote more local events, such as getting people together to share information during extreme high tides.

Sea Grant is sponsoring a King Tide Viewing Party this Friday at Washington Park boat launch in Anacortes, where Bridget will spell out what high tides may look like in the future. Warming refreshments will be provided, according to a news release about the event.

Wherever you live around Puget Sound, you can go down to the water to document the high tide, perhaps starting a new photo gallery to show how high tides change at one location during king tides in the future, as some folks are doing in Port Townsend.

For tips on preparing and posting photos, visit the “Witness King Tides — Washington State” website, then check out the page “Share Your Photos.” To see the locations where photographs have been taken, go to the map page. One can click on locations on the map to see the photographs taken from that spot.

King tides occur when the moon and sun are on the same side of the Earth at a time when the moon comes closest to the Earth. Their combined pull of gravity raises the sea level. The presence of a low-pressure system can raise the tides even higher than predictions published by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Friday’s high tide is predicted to be 13.2 feet in Seattle at 7:55 a.m. We won’t have a tide that high again until January of 2019, according to NOAA. Still, Feb. 2 will see a 13.1-foot tide in Seattle, and tides exceeding 12 feet are predicted for June 16, Nov. 27, Dec. 1, Dec. 10, and daily high tides from Dec. 26 through the end of this year.

Carbon emissions and nitrogen releases alter Puget Sound’s chemistry

Understanding the chemistry of Puget Sound may be as important as understanding the biology. Let me put that another way: Biology as we know it in Puget Sound wouldn’t exist without the right chemistry.

Tiny krill, one of many organisms affected by ocean acidification, demonstrate how water chemistry can affect the entire Puget Sound food web. For example, krill are eaten by herring, which are eaten by Chinook salmon, which are eaten by killer whales.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Ocean acidification is altering the chemistry of the oceans on a worldwide scale, but the Pacific Northwest and Puget Sound are being hit with some of the most severe problems, as experts point out in a new report by the Washington State Marine Resources Advisory Council.

For years, I have written about the low-oxygen problems in Hood Canal and other areas of Puget Sound. Of course, oxygen is essential to life as we know it. Major fish kills, in which dead fish float to the surface, have generated a lot of attention. At the same time, it has been harder to report on the animals dying from lack of oxygen when their carcasses are at rest in deep water. And it has been nearly impossible to keep track of the “dead zones” that come and go as conditions change.

It wasn’t until more research was conducted on the effects of ocean acidification that researchers realized that low-oxygen conditions — which were bad enough — had a dangerous companion called low pH — the increased acidity that we are talking about. Low pH can affect the growth and even the survival of organisms that build shells of calcium, including a variety of tiny organisms that play key roles in the food web.

As the oceans absorb carbon dioxide from the air, we see an increase in carbonic acid in the water, which has an effect on the ability of organisms to take up calcium carbonate. For a more complete explanation, check out “What is aragonite saturation?” on page 17 of the report.

Increased acidification is a special problem for Washington and the West Coast of North America, where deep acidified water in the Pacific Ocean hits the coast and rises to the surface.

“By accident of geography, we have this upwelling that … forces us into dealing with ocean acidification before almost anywhere else on the planet,” said Jay Manning, chairman of the Puget Sound Leadership Council. “I don’t believe I’m exaggerating when I say that Washington is leading the world in terms of science and monitoring…”

Jay, who serves on the Marine Resources Advisory Council, was quoted in a story I wrote for the Puget Sound Institute, later republished by the Kitsap Sun. The story describes some of the problems resulting from ocean acidification in Puget Sound, where an entirely different mechanism connects ocean acidification closely to low-oxygen conditions.

Researchers have concluded that an excessive growth of plankton in Puget Sound can be triggered, in part, by the release of nutrients from sewage treatment plants, septic systems and the heavy use of fertilizers. When plankton die and decay, bacteria use up oxygen while releasing carbon dioxide, thus increasing acidification.

Although the details still need to be sorted out, it is clear that some creatures are more sensitive than others to low oxygen, while low pH also affects animals in different ways. This “double whammy” of low oxygen and low pH increases the risks to the entire food web, without even considering the added threats of higher temperatures and toxic pollution.

Ongoing actions emphasized in the new report fall into six categories:

  • Reduce carbon emissions
  • Cut back on nutrient releases into the water
  • Improve adaptation strategies to reduce the harmful effects of ocean acidification
  • Invest in monitoring and scientific investigations
  • Inform, educate and engage Washington residents and key decision makers
  • Maintain a coordinated focus on all aspects of ocean acidification

“The updated report reinforces our federal, state and tribal partnership to combat ocean acidification by working together, modifying and expanding on approaches we have developed through ongoing research,” said Libby Jewett, director of NOAA’s Ocean Acidification Program in a news release (PDF 166 kb).

“For instance,” she continued, “in the new plan, scientists in the state of Washington will be asked not only to test hands-on remediation options which involve cultivating kelp as a way to remove carbon dioxide from local waters but also to explore how to move this seaweed into land agriculture as a way of recycling it.”

I thought Martha Kongsgaard, chairwoman of the MRAC, said it well in an introduction to the report (PDF 39 kb):

“Global and local carbon dioxide emissions, as well as local nutrient sources beyond natural levels, are significantly altering seawater chemistry. We are the cause for the rapid accumulation of 30 to 50 percent of the enriched CO2 in surface waters in Puget Sound and 20 percent of enriched CO2 in deep waters off our shores. Washingtonians understand what is so dramatically at stake. We are not standing by waiting for someone else to inform or rescue us.”

Amusing Monday: Animations describe stormwater problems

Contaminated stormwater has been identified as the greatest threat to Puget Sound water quality, and state and federal governments are addressing the stormwater problem in numerous ways.

The animated videos on this page are part of an educational program established as part of the “Puget Sound Starts Here” outreach. This past summer, these videos were posted on YouTube as part of a school curriculum called “Drain Rangers.”

I spotted the videos this past week while working on a blog post about how well local governments in the Puget Sound region are embracing stormwater regulations mandated by state and federal permits. See “Stormwater Report …,” Water Ways, Dec. 15.

The first video on this page is a general introduction to the stormwater problem, based on the idea that it takes 15 minutes for pollution to reach a river. Two videos in the series are similar, although one includes more solutions. I’ve chosen the longer one, called “Video Two.” The third video discusses some basic solutions, while the last goes into more advanced treatments. Others can be found on the Drain Rangers Channel on YouTube.

The story of how “Drain Rangers” became a full-fledged elementary school curriculum is explained in a paper written by Pacific Education Institute (PDF 15.1 mb). Outlines of the school programs can be found on the Puget Sound Starts Here website.

“Polluted stormwater runoff is one of many environmental problems our students will face,” the paper states. “By equipping our students at a young age with the problem-solving tools of the engineer and the verbal and written skills of an effective communicator, we are preparing these students to solve the difficult and challenging environmental issues that affect our present and our future.”

The lessons are designed to meet state requirements for science, literacy and other educational standards. The curriculum addresses the problem of pollution as well as solutions.

“This curriculum introduces students to a problem-solving model where they think like an engineer and explore ways to solve the problem of polluted stormwater runoff,” according to the final report (PDF 965 kb) on the project funded by the Washington Department of Ecology.

According to the report, the grant project produced 15 teacher trainings, pilot projects in nine schools, four videos, six illustrations, 13 facts sheets and five posters. At least 34 schools signed up to implement the curriculum during the current school year, with about 70 schools expected to participate in 2018-19.

Puget Sound report tells the environmental story that took place in 2016

The year 2016 may be regarded as a transition year for Puget Sound, coming between the extreme warm-water conditions of 2014 and 2015 and the more normal conditions observed over the past year, according to the latest Puget Sound Marine Waters report.

Click on image to view report
Photo: Todd Sandell, WDFW

The report on the 2016 conditions was released this past week by the Marine Waters Workgroup, which oversees the Puget Sound Ecosystem Monitoring Program (PSEMP). The report includes data collected in 2016 and analyzed over the past year.

Some findings from the report:

  • Water temperatures were well above normal, though not as extreme as in 2015.
  • A warm spring in 2016 caused rapid melting of mountain snowpack and lower streamflows in late spring and summer.
  • Dissolved oxygen levels were lower than average in South Puget Sound, Central Puget Sound and Hood Canal, with the most intense oxygen problems in southern Hood Canal, although no fish kills were reported.
  • It was a year for the growth of Vibrio parahaemolyticus, a bacteria responsible for 46 laboratory-confirmed illnesses, including intestinal upset, among people who ate oysters in Washington during 2016.
  • Paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP), diarrhetic shellfish poisoning (DSP) and domoic acid (DA) resulted in shellfish closures in 18 commercial and 38 recreational growing areas. But no illness were reported in 2016.
  • DSP was detected at 250 micrograms per 100 grams in blue mussel tissues sampled from Budd Inlet near Olympia last year. That is the highest level of DSP ever detected in Washington state.
  • Overall, zooplankton populations were high in 2016 compared to 2014, but generally not as high as in 2015.

Conditions, known or unknown, were responsible for various effects on fish and wildlife in 2016:

  • It was the worst year on record for the Cherry Point herring stock, which has been decline for years along with more recent declines in South and Central Puget Sound. Five local stocks had no spawn that could be found in 2016. Herring were smaller than average in size.
  • The overall abundance and diversity of marine bird species in 2015-16 were similar to 2014-15.
  • Rhinoceros auklets, however, were reported to have serious problems, which experts speculated could be related to a low abundance and size of herring. On Protection Island, breeding season started out normal, but fledgling success was only 49 percent, compared to 71 percent in 2015. Auklet parents were seen to feed their chicks fewer and smaller fish than usual.
  • Including the Washington Coast, more than 1,000 carcasses of rhinocerous auklets were found by volunteers. The primary cause of death was identified as severe bacterial infections.

If you are an average person concerned about environmental conditions in and around Puget Sound, the two-page summary and four-page highlights section near the beginning of the report will leave you better informed. To dig deeper, peruse the pages that follow.

The report is designed to be easily compared with previous years:

Could we ever reverse the trend of shrinking Chinook salmon?

Much has been said about the decline of Puget Sound Chinook salmon. Often the discussion focuses on how to increase the salmon population, but I believe a good case can be made for increasing the size of these once-mighty “kings.”

Chinook salmon // Photo: NOAA Fisheries

There are plenty of reasons why we should strive for larger Chinook, not the least of which is the pure joy of seeing — and perhaps catching — a giant salmon. But I’m also thinking about our endangered Southern Resident killer whales, which don’t seem to find Puget Sound very hospitable anymore. As we know, the whales favor Chinook over any other food.

While it might take more energy for a killer whale to chase down a large Chinook versus a smaller one, the payoff in nutrition and energy far outweighs the expenditure, according to Jacques White of Long Live the Kings, who has been thinking about the size issue for some time.

In terms of competition, a giant returning Chinook might be difficult for a harbor seal to handle, and that could give the orcas a special advantage. Still, we are learning that harbor seals create problems for the Chinook population by eating millions of tiny smolts migrating to the ocean before they get a chance to grow up.

Perhaps the major reason that Chinook have declined in size is the troll fishing fleet off the coast of Alaska and Northern Canada, Jacques told me. It is almost simple math. It takes six, seven or eight years to grow the really large Chinook in the ocean. Today’s fishing fleet goes out into the middle of the Chinook-rearing areas up north. The longer the fishing boats stay there, the more likely it is that they will catch a fish that could have grown into a really big one.

Years ago, the fishing boats did not travel so far out to sea, Jacques said. There was no need to travel far when plentiful runs of salmon came right into the shore and swam up the rivers.

“In the old days,” he said, “you didn’t have people risking their necks off Alaska trying to catch fish in all kinds of weather and seas.”

In additional to the trollers, plenty of sport fishermen have taken the opportunity to catch and take home nice trophy fish, putting extra pressure on the biggest members of the fish population. Fishing derbies, past and present, challenged people to catch the biggest Chinook.

Long Live the Kings, a conservation group, once held fishing derbies, Jacques noted. But, after giving it some thought, everyone realized that the effort was counterproductive. “Long Live the Kings is now out of the derby business,” he said.

Gillnets, once common in Puget Sound, entrap fish by snagging their gills. Gillnets tend not to catch the truly giant salmon, because of the mesh size, but they do catch the larger salmon. Often only the smaller ones make it through to spawn — and that breeds another generation of small fish.

Fishing is not the only factor that tends to favor the survival of small fish, but it tends to be a big factor, according to Tom Quinn, a University of Washington professor of aquatic and fishery sciences. The issue is complicated, and every salmon run has its own characteristics, he said.

Hatcheries, dams and habitat alterations all tend to favor fish that can compete and survive under new conditions, and often those conditions work better for smaller fish. Changes in the food web may create a nutritional deficit for some salmon stocks, and competition at sea with large numbers of hatchery fish may be a factor. Check out the study in the journal Plos One by researchers for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

With the removal of two dams on the Elwha River, I’m hoping that experts can make sure that the conditions will be right for larger fish — if they can survive to make it home.

Quinn, along with doctoral student Michael Tillotson, recently published a paper showing how fishing seasons alone can alter the genetic makeup of a population along with the behavior of individual fish.

Although these characteristics are not necessarily related to the size of fish, it directly affects the fitness of the population. When people are fishing on wild stocks during open season, a fish has the best chance of survival if it shows up before the fishing season begins or after the fishing season is over. But that is not nature’s way.

Through evolution, the greatest number of fish tend to come back when environmental conditions are optimal for migration, spawning and smolt survival. If fishing seasons are timed for the peak of the run, that will reduce the percentage of fish taking advantage of the best conditions. Over time, the population gets skewed, as more fish come back during times when conditions are less than optimal.

The result is likely a lower survival rate for the overall population. The real crunch could come in the future as a result of climate change. If temperatures or streamflows become more severe, the fish may be in a no-win situation: If they show up at the most optimal time, they are more likely to get caught. if they come early or late, the environment could kill them or ruin their chances of successful spawning.

“We are reducing the ability of fish to find good environmental conditions,” said Michael Tillotson in a UW news release about the new paper. “We’re perhaps also reducing the ability of fish to adapt to climate change.”

Certain behaviors are bred into wild fish over many generations, and some traits are connected to their timing. Whether they feed aggressively or passively can affect their survival. Some salmon will wait for rain; others will wait for the right streamflow or temperature. Some smolts will stay in freshwater for extended periods; others will move quickly to saltwater. It’s not a great idea when fishing seasons, rather than environmental conditions, dictate fish behavior.

The move to mark-selective fishing — which involves removing the adipose fin of all hatchery fish before they are released — can help solve some problems for wild fish, Tom told me. Under selective fishing rules, fishers are allowed to keep the hatchery fish with a missing fin, but they must release the wild ones that still have all their fins. Some of the wild fish die from injury, but most of them survive, he said.

The key to the problem is a better understanding of the genetic makeup of the individual stocks while increasing the effort to maintain a high-level of genetic diversity. That’s an insurance policy that allows the fish to survive changing conditions.

The genes for giant Chinook have not been lost entirely, as I pointed out in Water Ways on Nov. 25. If we want to have larger Chinook, we must protect the individual Chinook that are larger. That could mean reduced ocean fishing, selective fishing for hatchery populations, and requirements to release fish larger than a certain size. Perhaps it would even be possible to selectively breed larger Chinook in a hatchery for a limited time to increase the size of the fish.

It won’t be easy, because these notions involve messing with billions of dollars in the fishing industry, not to mention complicated international relations. I will save discussions about the Pacific Salmon Treaty for another day. I will just say that this treaty is supposed to be between the U.S. and Canada. But negotiations involve tradeoffs among Washington, Canada and Alaska. Even the Endangered Species Act can’t always protect wild Puget Sound Chinook from being caught in Alaska, with the ultimate outcome that fewer fish make it home to spawn.

Orcas and seals compete for a limited number of chinook salmon

It’s always been troubling to me that the Southern Resident killer whales, which frequent Puget Sound, have struggled to maintain their population, while other fish-eating resident orcas seem to be doing much better.

Killer whale chases a chinook salmon
Photo: John Durbin, Holly Fearnbach, Lance Barrett-Lennard

Now several researchers have analyzed the energy needs of all the seals, sea lions and killer whales that eat chinook salmon along the West Coast, from California to Alaska. The study provides a possible explanation, one that is consistent with what many scientists have suspected all along. Here’s how I explained it in a story written for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound:

“Puget Sound’s endangered killer whales are waiting at the end of a long food line for a meal of chinook salmon — basically the only food they really want to eat.

“Ahead of them in the line are hundreds of salmon-craving killer whales in Alaska and British Columbia. Even farther ahead are thousands of seals and sea lions that eat young chinook before the fish have a chance to grow to a suitable size for orcas.”

My story contains plenty of numbers to explain what this is all about.

This issue of competition for food is not a simple one to discuss or resolve. But the new paper, published in the journal Scientific Reports, adds an important perspective when trying to answer the question: “Do we have too few salmon or too many marine mammals?”

From a historical viewpoint, the answer must be that we have too few salmon. But from a management perspective, we might have to conclude that the ecosystem is out of balance and that we have been restoring some marine mammal populations faster than we are restoring the salmon that they eat.

In an intriguing study published in March in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution (PDF 840 kb), a group of West Coast researchers investigated whether it is better to recover populations of prey species first, followed by predator species, or if it is better to recover predator species first, followed by prey species.

Protecting predators first — which is usually the way humans do things — may slow the growth of prey species or even trigger a population decline, the report says. That creates a problem for predators that specialize in that one kind of prey as well as for those that have no access to alternative prey.

It may seem logical to rebuild the prey species first, the authors say. But, with some exceptions, recovering prey species first causes the combined predator and prey populations to peak at high levels that are unsustainable in the overall ecosystem.

“In the real world,” the paper states, “transient dynamics like these that result from eruptions of prey populations can lead to surprising cascades of ecological interactions and complex but often mismatched management responses.”

The authors conclude that the fastest way to restore depressed populations is through synchronous recovery of predators and prey by carefully rebuilding two or more populations at the same time.

Management tactics may include culling predators even before optimal population numbers are reached. Such actions require careful study, as culling may produce unexpected consequences, according to the report.

Other options include protecting multiple species within protected geographic or marine areas or focusing on single species by protecting select habitats or reducing human exploitation.

For Southern Resident killer whales, the question will be whether populations of other marine mammals — particularly harbor seals in Puget Sound —should be controlled. If so, how would people go about doing that?

One related issue that needs more study is the effect that transient killer whales are having on the Salish Sea population of seals and sea lions. As the Southern Residents spend less time searching for chinook salmon in the inland waterway, the seal-eating transients are being spotted more and more by people along the shores of Puget Sound.

Some studies estimate that the transients need an average of one to two seals each day to maintain their energy needs, although we know these whales also eat smaller sea otters and larger California and Steller sea lions, as well as an occasional gray whale.

Are the transients culling the population of harbor seals in Puget Sound or at least limiting their growth? Even before the transients were showing up frequently, biologists were telling us that the overall harbor seal population appeared to be peaking and perhaps declining.

It would be interesting to create a future-looking computer model that could account for populations of salmon and marine mammals under various scenarios — including possible management actions by humans and the ongoing predation by transient killer whales.

If we want to keep things more natural while helping out the Southern Residents, maybe somebody could come up with a strategy to attract and maintain a healthy population of seal-eating transient orcas within the Salish Sea.