Tag Archives: Salish Sea

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

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

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

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

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

The whales were out there somewhere this past week when Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research announced that three whales had been missing long enough to declare them deceased. He had been consulting with experts and observers in Canada. See my Water Ways post from Tuesday.

Food is the big issue for the southern resident killer whales. They have been judged to be in overall worse body condition than the northern residents — an entirely separate group that normally stays farther up the coast in British Columbia. Experts are reporting that the northern residents have been venturing south more often than they used to. Perhaps the cultural divide between the two resident groups has begun to weaken.

It’s all in the realm of speculation, of course. Last year, I shared some ruminations about what could have happened if the endangered southern residents had not grown up in a culture of eating chinook salmon. I mentioned some interesting research papers on the topic. See Water Ways, Aug. 30, 2018.

Food is the key. Despite other problems that humans have caused — including toxic chemicals, noise and general disruption — food is at the heart of the matter. When you are hungry and searching for food, you don’t have much time for social interaction — and making babies takes a back seat to survival.

Even when southern resident females do get pregnant, they suffer a high rate of miscarriage, often coming late in pregnancy. Food and stress are related to these problems, according to research by Sam Wasser, director of the Center for Conservation Biology whose work I reported in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound in 2016.

Although the term “starvation” is often tossed around loosely, few if any of the dead whales are actually starving to death from lack of available food. They may have stopped eating when they got sick or for some other reason. Illness can be brought on by a weakened condition in conjunction with reduced immunity caused by toxic chemicals in their food. It’s more complex than “starvation,” as writer Jeff Rice of the Puget Sound Institute points out in a new story posted in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

A low reproductive rate and unexpected deaths continue to drive the population downward. Some deaths can be predicted when the whales loose so much body fat that they reach a condition called “peanut head,” but other deaths come quickly and unexpectedly.

“We had expected two of the three deaths, having chronicled their decline during the past year,” Ken Balcomb said in an email on Friday. “But L84’s death was unexpected. He was a vibrant male who appeared healthy.”

When apparently healthy whales disappear, experts are left wondering what happened. Years ago, this kind of sudden disappearance was more typical of their final departures, because the whales were in better condition. Other factors, such as ship strikes and Navy operations were sometimes suspected, and disease is always a lurking threat.

Finding ways to improve the chinook runs should help the whales, and that effort continues despite some disagreement about how to go about it. But larger forces are also at play, such as long-term shifts in ocean conditions and changes in the climate that reverberate through the entire food web.

Laura Blackmore, executive director of Puget Sound Partnership, issued a statement Thursday that reflects what many Northwest residents may be feeling.

“We are deeply saddened to learn of the presumed deaths of three endangered southern resident orcas, L84, K25, and J17,” Laura wrote. “These new losses cut deeply, and we grieve with all those who mourn these symbols of Puget Sound.

“Our orcas are dying because the marine environment they live in is ailing and there are too few salmon for them to eat,” she continued.

“The Puget Sound Partnership stands with Governor Inslee, the governor’s Southern Resident Orca Task Force, and the many tribes, government agencies, organizations, businesses and individuals who are committed to helping recover the orca population. Together, we can help by restoring salmon runs, quieting the waters of Puget Sound, and getting toxic chemicals out of our waterways.”

New government policies and laws are being implemented, she said. Meanwhile, there are some things that we all can do. Here are her suggestions for individual action:

  • Help restore salmon runs. Volunteer on a habitat restoration project. See orca.wa.gov for links to organizations involved in habitat restoration.
  • Quiet the waters of Puget Sound. If you’re a boater, give orcas space. Follow the BeWhaleWise guidelines for whale watching.
  • Keep toxic chemicals out of our waterways. Stop using toxic chemicals in your home or on your landscape; fix vehicle leaks; and have your vehicle oil changed by a professional.
  • Learn about southern resident orcas, and pass the information on to others.
  • Speak up for orcas. Vote. Make sure your local, state, and federal representatives know how important orcas are to you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We can hope they are getting enough to eat wherever they are.

“They were finding fish up north off Tofino,” Ken said. “They were not big salmon, but there were lots of eight-pounders. They seemed to be getting those.”

Tofino is about 140 miles up the west coast of Vancouver Island from Victoria. At Swiftsure Bank, near entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the whales appeared to be going after sablefish, also known as black cod, according to reports.

“They were eating those and then chasing some salmon,” Ken reported.

It is often speculated that the reason that southern residents specialize in chinook is the amount of calories they get from the fatty fish, compared to the amount of energy they must expend to catch them. This cultural preference was adopted by the whales perhaps thousands of years before chinook populations were decimated by human development.

Ken is under contract to the federal government to deliver a count of the southern residents as of July 1 each year, based on sightings in Puget Sound. He has until October to provide a final report, but the numbers are certain enough now to end the speculation.

“We are saddened to report that three adult killer whales (orca) are missing and presumed dead as of July 1, 2019,” Ken announced this evening in a news release.

“These whales are from the extremely endangered southern resident killer whale population that historically frequents the Salish Sea almost daily in summer months. Due to the scarcity of suitable chinook prey, this population of whales now rarely visits the core waters of its critical habitat: Puget Sound, Georgia Strait and the inland reach of the Strait of Juan de Fuca.”

The three whales he has declared deceased:

  • J-17, a 42-year-old female named Princess Angeline: A matriarch in J pod, Princess Angeline was the mother of Tahlequah (J-35), who carried her dead calf on her head for an unprecedented 17 days. Princess Angeline, named after Chief Seattle’s daughter, was reported in poor health during the winter. She is survived by two daughters, Tahlequah (J-35) and Kiki (J-53); a son, Moby (J-44); a granddaughter, Star (J-46); and a grandson, Notch (J-47).
  • K-25, a 28-year-old male named Scoter: He should have been in the prime of his life, but reports of poor body condition started in the winter. Scoter is survived by two sisters, Spock (K-20) and Deadhead (K-27), and a brother, Cali (K-34).
  • L-84, a 29-year-old male named Nyssa: He was the last of a large family group known as the L9’s.

The first of the four whales to die since July 2018 was Scarlet (J-50), who was the subject of rescue actions last summer and the subject of an ongoing controversy about what should or should not have been done to save her. See Water Ways, Sept. 14, 2018. I also featured Scarlet in a story about intervention with killer whales, Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, Feb. 4, 2019.

The two calves born into the southern resident clans this year were L-124 (gender unknown), born in January to L-77 (Matia), and J-56, an unnamed female born in May to J-31 (Tsuchi).

The current population of 73 southern residents is the lowest since 1976, when Ken first began his orca population survey following capture operations that removed a significant number of orcas for the aquarium trade. His first count was 71, but the actual population may have been higher, since this was so early in the survey. The population recovered to 98 animals in 1995. Since then, the trend has been generally downward with only a few upticks.

Increasing the urgency to restore natural salmon runs is the only hope of saving the killer whales, Ken told me, adding that government officials are off track by increasing hatchery production and allowing more fishing.

“They are not looking at the death spiral,” he told me.

In July 2018, we reported that two deaths and no births had taken place in the previous year, dropping the southern resident population from 77 to 75. Now the official population has dropped again by two, with 73 animals still surviving.

Amusing Monday: SeaDoc followers go wild with new video series

“Salish Sea Wild” is a new video series by the SeaDoc Society designed to transport the viewer right up close to the living creatures that occupy the underwater and terrestrial realms of the Salish Sea.

The videos portray the beauty of our inland waterways as well as the excitement and occasional amusement of diving down into the ecologically rich waters that many people know only from the surface. The host for the series is wildlife veterinarian Joe Gaydos, science director for SeaDoc.

“Amid the wealth of biodiversity in our backyard, we’ll discover trees that eat fish, fish that mimic plants, plants that grow two feet a day, and animals that bloom like flowers,” Joe says in an introductory video (the first on this page). “We’ll focus on scientists working to preserve and restore the Salish Sea and to save its iconic species like salmon and our beloved orcas.”

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Amusing Monday: Orca researcher Jayda Guy finds success in music

Jayda Guy, aka Jayda G, a native of British Columbia, has embraced her dual passions for science and music like few other people in the world today. She has somehow been able to link her experiences as a killer whale researcher to a creative mindset as a musical DJ, singer, songwriter and producer, with a debut album coming out this month.

The new album, “Significant Changes,” was inspired in part by the orcas and the natural wonders of the Salish Sea, where she conducted her studies. The album came together last year, not long after she completed her master’s degree in resource management from Simon Fraser University. Her research focused on the effects of toxic chemicals on our southern resident killer whales.

“I’m trying to bring my two worlds together to bridge the communication gap (and) engage people in a new way,” she told Andy Malt, editor of Complete Music Update. “I don’t know if people in the electronic music world will want to talk about the environment, but I think I should try! I think it’s our duty to use a platform like this in a positive way; that’s our social responsibility.”

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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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Whale watchers update guidelines; Canada to restrict salmon fishing

Commercial operators who take visitors on whale-watching cruises in the Salish Sea have vowed to follow new, more restrictive guidelines to reduce noise and disturbance around the endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales.

The new guidelines, adopted by the Pacific Whale Watch Association, go beyond state and federal regulations and even beyond the voluntary “Be Whale Wise” guidelines promoted by state and federal agencies and many whale advocacy groups. For the first time, the commercial guidelines include time limits for watching any group of whales.

Meanwhile, the Canadian government has announced that it will restrict fishing for chinook salmon — the killer whales’ primary prey — to help save the whales from extinction. The goal is to reduce fishery removals of 25 to 35 percent, but details have yet to be released. More about that in a moment.

The new whale-watch guidelines are based largely on recent research into much how much noise reaches killer whales when multiple boats are in the vicinity, said Jeff Friedman, president of the PWWA.

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Salish Sea photo contest emphasizes local species, habitats and activities

I’m eager to see the photographs judged as the top 100 in the Salish Sea nature photography competition, called “Salish Sea in Focus.” If you have a favorite photo that tells a story or captures the essence of an animal or a place in our inland waterway, you have until June 4 to submit your image.

Kelp // Photo: Pete Naylor

I’ve featured many nature photography contests in this blog, but I don’t believe we’ve ever had one focused exclusively on the Salish Sea. I hope everyone takes a little time to consider whether a favorite photograph deserves special recognition. The competition is organized by The SeaDoc Society.

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Amazing stories of place are retold at Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference

The Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference opened in Seattle yesterday with a reflection on people’s intimate, personal relationships with nature. The mood was heightened by an elaborate welcoming ceremony from Native American leaders who live on the shores of Puget Sound.

I would like to share an idea I had, but first let me report that Gov. Jay Inslee and former Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell offered their own personal experiences at the beginning of the conference. Please check out the story I wrote for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

The conference this year has attracted more than 1,300 scientists, policymakers and other interested people. About 700 presentations are scheduled.

The welcoming ceremony yesterday began with an Indian song accompanied by drumming. Tribal leaders continued the ceremony by presenting Indian blankets to “witnesses” who have played important roles in protecting the Salish Sea.

Personal stories told by members of the local tribes have a special significance. For native people, telling stories is part of an oral tradition that goes back thousands of years. Their strong “connection to place” reaches back well beyond anyone’s own memory.

Leonard Forsman, chairman of the Suquamish Tribe, said he is pleased to work with scientists and various officials on the problems facing the Salish Sea. Chief Seattle, a member of the Suquamish Tribe, was a boy when Capt. George Vancouver first explored Puget Sound in 1792. Vancouver anchored his ship for several days near the south end of Bainbridge Island. His crew was hungry for fresh meat, having been limited to dried rations during the long journey, Leonard said.

The Suquamish people brought the English men a deer to feast on, he said. Chief Seattle carried that experience of sharing with white settlers throughout his life until he led his people to sign over their lands in exchange for a promise that hunting and fishing would go on.

“We’re still fighting to get the government to honor that promise,” Leonard said. Still, much has been accomplished the past few years as portions of the Salish Sea ecosystem have undergone restoration, he added.

The land and water have spiritual significance, Leonard said. “Our ancestors are with us here. We have a covenant with the land and water.”

At the end of his talk, Leonard noted that he had a few minutes left on the schedule, so he asked Bardow Lewis, vice chairman of his tribe, to speak three minutes — no more. Bardow asked if people would rather have a speech or a story. Many people shouted, “story.”

Bardow began a condensed version of his tale by describing Doe Kag Wats, a near-pristine estuarine marsh near Indianola in the northern part of the Kitsap Peninsula. The name means “place of deer.” To tribal members, it remains a “spiritual place,” he said, just as it has been since ancient times.

One evening as the sun was going down, Bardow said he was digging clams with his daughter, who he could observe by watching her long shadow without having to look up. He kept his head down, focusing on the clams buried in the beach at Doe Kag Wats.

Out of the corner of his eye, Bardow saw a deer approaching, but he kept his head down to keep from frightening the animal away.

The deer kept approaching until she was standing right next to him, he said. She nudged him with her head, which alarmed him, but he kept digging until she nudged him again, practically pushing him over. Bardow got up, and when the deer started walking away, he followed her. She led him to the stream that feeds the estuary. There, stuck in the mud, was a baby deer.

Bardow said he was able to free the fawn from the mud, and a wonderful feeling came over him. “I cried — in a joyful way,” he said. “I learned more that day than I did in my lifetime.”

The event has opened his eyes to the possibility of other experiences, Bardow said., But his three-minute time limit was up before he could share another story.

“I think I might have been a deer in a previous life,” he said. “We have to keep these beautiful places and spread that out to all places where you live.”

While I may never enjoy such a profound experience, I would like to think that I would be open to that. Still, I would think that everyone who has spent meaningful time on or around the Salish Sea probably has had at least one experience to share.

One of my own favorite stories was from a dark night in 1997, when I was out in a boat on Dyes Inlet with whale researcher Jodi Smith. I was watching the lights of Silverdale when we were suddenly immersed in the sound of orcas speaking to us over a hydrophone. You can read the story as I originally wrote it on the Kitsap Sun website, and you can listen to the recording that Jodi made that night (below).

      1. whale

I know that many researchers presenting their work at the Salish Sea conference have exciting findings to convey, and I listen with keen interest, even though the talks are sometimes dry. I also know that the speakers feel a bit rushed to explain everything in 12 to 15 minutes. But wouldn’t it be nice if they could find a way to reduce their discussion about scientific methods — such as how they control for variables — and tell us a brief story?

I don’t think we lose our scientific or journalistic credibility if we allow ourselves to be captivated by a special moment that we have experienced in the Salish Sea.

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.

Nitrogen and plankton: Do they hold the missing keys to the food web?

In a way, some of Puget Sound’s most serious ecological problems have been hiding in plain sight. I have been learning a lot lately about plankton, an incredibly diverse collection of microscopic organisms that drift through the water, forming the base of the food web.

Sources of nitrogen in Puget Sound (click to enlarge)
Graphic: Washington Department of Ecology

To put it simply, the right kinds of plankton help to create a healthy population of little fish that feed bigger fish that feed birds and marine mammals, including the endangered Southern Resident killer whales. On the other hand, the wrong kinds of plankton can disrupt the food web, stunt the growth of larger creatures and sometimes poison marine animals.

OK, that’s a bit of an oversimplification, but Puget Sound researchers are just beginning to understand the profound importance of a healthy planktonic community to support a large part of the food web. That’s one of the main points that I try to bring out in five stories published today in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound. I am grateful to the many researchers who have shared their knowledge with me.

Average daily nitrogen coming in from rivers and wastewater treatment plants (1 kg = 2.2 pounds)
Graphic: Washington Department of Ecology

These stories tie together several major issues all related to nutrients — mainly nitrogen — that feed the marine phytoplankton, which use their chlorophyll to take energy from the sun as they grow and multiply. In the spring and summer, too much nitrogen can mean too much plankton growth. In turn, excess plankton can lead to low-oxygen conditions, ocean acidification and other significant problems.

The complex interplay of planktonic species with larger life forms in Puget Sound is still somewhat of a mystery to researchers trying to understand the food web. As part of the effort, the Washington Department of Ecology is working on a computer model to show how excess nitrogen can trigger low-oxygen conditions in the most vulnerable parts of the Salish Sea, such as southern Hood Canal and South Puget Sound.

Areas of Puget Sound listed as “impaired” for dissolved oxygen (click to enlarge)
Graphic: Washington Department of Ecology

Stormwater is often cited as the most serious problem facing Puget Sound, and we generally think of bacteria and toxic chemicals flowing into the waterway and causing all sorts of problems for the ecosystem. But stormwater also brings in nitrogen derived from fertilizers, animal wastes and atmospheric deposits from burning fossil fuels. Stormwater flows also pick up natural sources of nitrogen from plants and animals that end up in streams.

Sewage treatment plants are another major source of human nitrogen. Except for a few exceptions, not much has been done to reduce the release of nutrients from sewage-treatment plants, which provide not only nitrogen but also micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals. Some experts suspect that nutrients other than nitrogen help to determine which types of plankton will dominate at any given time.

I plan to follow and report on new scientific developments coming out of studies focused on the base of the food web. Meanwhile, I hope you will take time to read this package of related stories: