Tag Archives: Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force

Climate Sense: Sea ice, economics, legal issues and the orca task force

The shift to “clean fuels,” such as solar and wind power, is tied up in economics, and it appears that change is coming — with or without a push from government. This week, I read three different and somewhat contradictory reports about this dynamic competition between fossil fuels and renewable energy.

I also took a look at the hard data surrounding Arctic sea ice and reviewed videos of the governor’s orca task force meeting on Monday.

Item 1: Sea ice has stopped growing for the year

Spring has come to the Arctic, as the extent of the sea ice appears to have stopped growing this year and has begun its annual decline.

Arctic sea ice extent for March 13. The orange line shows the average extent for that day from 1981 to 2010. Click twice to enlarge.
Graphic: National Snow and Ice Data Center

The maximum extent of sea ice was probably reached on March 13, when it reached 5.71 million square miles, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center. That would tie it with the year 2007 for the seventh lowest extent in the 40-year record of satellite data. It is also the highest extent of ice since 2014, as one can see in the chart on the NSIDC News and Analysis page.

“While this is not a record-low year for the Arctic sea ice maximum extent, the last four years have been the lowest in our record, reflecting a downward trend in winter sea ice extent,” said NSIDC senior research scientist Walt Meier. “This is just another indicator of the rapid changes that are occurring in the Arctic due to climate change.”

NSIDC, supported by government agencies, says the analysis is preliminary, since it is possible that more ice could accumulate with shifts in the weather.

Item 2: Court blocks oil drilling for climate considerations

Oil-drilling projects in Wyoming have been blocked by a federal judge, who says the Bureau of Land Management needs to first consider the cumulative effects of climate change from those projects.

Map of recent oil and gas leases in three Western states. Click on map for zoom-in video.
Map: Western Environmental Law Center

“BLM summarized the potential on-the-ground impacts of climate change in the state, the region, and across the country,” said U.S. District Judge Rudolph Contreras in a written opinion (PDF 448 kb). “It failed, however, to provide the information necessary for the public and agency decision makers to understand the degree to which the leasing decisions at issue would contribute to those impacts. In short, BLM did not adequately quantify the climate change impacts of oil and gas leasing.”

The lawsuit, brought by WildEarth Guardians and Physicians for Social Responsibility, alleges that 473 oil and gas leases covering 460,000 acres in Wyoming, Utah and Colorado were in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act for failing to discuss the full impacts on climate change. The judge agreed, applying his specific ruling to 282 leases.

Samantha Ruscavage-Barz, managing attorney for WildEarth Guardians, said in a news release: “It’s high time the federal government was held accountable for the costs of sacrificing our public lands for dirty oil and gas. This win demonstrates the Trump administration can’t legally turn its back on climate change.”

Leasing of federal lands for oil development is the “irreversible and irretrievable commitments of resources” that triggers a review of the overall environmental impacts, the judge said. While the BLM could not predict the specific impacts of each drilling project at the leasing stage, “it could reasonably foresee and forecast the impacts of oil and gas drilling across the leased parcels as a whole.”

Reporter Nichola Groom covered the story for Reuters.

Item 3: Climate change at orca task force

Monday’s meeting of the Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force included an afternoon session with presentations on the effects of climate change, with a special focus on the effects of salmon and orcas. It also includes a talk by Bill Dewey of Taylor Shellfish, who describes how shellfish growers are working to overcome the damaging effects of ocean acidification on their industry.

The presentations on climate change were followed by discussions by task force members about how they should address the issue of climate change. The climate change discussion can be heard in the video below.

For those interested, I blogged about the morning sessions yesterday in Water Ways, which involved legislative progress, also recorded by TVW.

Item 4: Economics to end fossil fuels, but when?

Author Bill McKibbon in The New York Review of Books uses two economic reports about fossil fuels and geopolitics as a springboard for writing an engaging piece that describes the dynamic competition between fossil fuels and clean energy.

“(Author Kingsmill) Bond writes that in the 2020s — probably the early 2020s — the demand for fossil fuels will stop growing,” says McKibbon. “The turning point in such transitions ‘is typically the moment when the impact is felt in financial markets’ — when stock prices tumble and never recover … Precisely how long it will take is impossible to predict, but the outcome seems clear….

“A far more important question, of course, is whether the changes now underway will happen fast enough to alter our grim climatic future,” he continues. “Here, the answers are less positive.

“Scientists, conservative by nature, have routinely underestimated the pace of planetary disruption: The enormous melt now observed at the poles was not supposed to happen until late in the century, for instance, and the galloping pace of ocean acidification wasn’t even recognized as a threat two decades ago.”

Item 5: Financial returns on fracking in doubt

While the federal government moves ahead with plans for extensive oil and gas leasing, a new analysis by Sightline Institute raises questions about whether the process of fracking is really paying off.

“By some measures,” the authors wrote, “America’s fracking industry had a banner year in 2018. Shale companies produced more oil and gas than ever, lifting total U.S. output to all-time highs … (But) a cross section of 29 publicly traded, fracking-focused oil and gas companies spent $6.7 billion more on drilling than they realized from selling oil and gas….

“These disappointing results come on the heels of a decade of bleak financial performance. Since its inception, the fracking sector has consistently failed to produce enough cash to satisfy its voracious appetite for capital. From 2010 through 2018, the companies in our sample had an aggregate negative cash flow of $181 billion.”

Authors of the report are Sightline’s Clark Williams-Derry, Kathy Hipple and Tom Sanzillo.

Item 6: U.S. banks pour money into fossil fuels

A new report funded by a coalition of environmental groups has found that 33 global banks have provided $1.9 trillion to companies expanding their development of oil, natural gas and coal since adoption of the 2015 Paris climate accord. Such financing has risen in each of the past two years, the report says.

The report, “Banking on Climate Change 2019” says the four largest bankers of fossil fuels are all U.S. banks — JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Citi and Bank of America.

“At a time when science tells us we need to rapidly transition to clean energy, major American banks are placing themselves on the wrong side of history by continuing to offer a blank check to the fossil fuel industry,” Ben Cushing of the Sierra Club said in a press release. “The global outcry for financial institutions to stop financing climate destruction will only grow louder and more powerful until these banks get the message and pull their support for dirty fossil fuels once and for all.”

Legislation to help endangered orcas keeps moving toward approval

Members of the governor’s orca task force this week expressed hope and a bit of surprise as they discussed their recommendations to help the orcas —recommendations that were shaped into legislation and now have a fairly good chance of passage.

Over the years, some of their ideas have been proposed and discussed — and ultimately killed — by lawmakers, but now the plight of the critically endangered southern resident killer whales has increased the urgency of these environmental measures — including bills dealing with habitat, oil-spill prevention and the orcas themselves.

No doubt success this time can be credited in part to the Democrats taking over the majority in the Senate last year, giving their party control of both houses. But many Republicans are on board with the orca bills.

The Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force met Monday, the first time the group met since November, when members voted to propose 36 recommendations to help save the whales from extinction. After that, the recommendations were crafted into bills by Gov. Jay Inslee’s staff.

It wasn’t as easy as one might think to find legislative sponsors for the bills, since many environmentally minded legislators were occupied with their own bills as well as leadership duties, said JT Austin, Inslee’s policy adviser on natural resources. But things fell into place before the gavel fell on the legislative session in January.

Task force members were quick to credit Austin with finding the right sponsors and shepherding the orca legislation through give-and-take negotiations and committee hearings.

“I want to remind people how far this particular task force has come in 10 months, said Mindy Roberts of Washington Environmental Council, a member of the task force, noting that the group quickly came together last summer to start their work.

“At the end of the year, we came up with 36 different actions,” she continued. “But remember, along the way, people told us, ‘Don’t ask for too much, because you’re not going to get anything,’”

But the task force “held strong” and finalized its 36 recommendations, some requiring policy changes and some needing legislation. Of the legislative actions, at least nine of them are contained in four bills still alive and moving through the Legislature, Mindy noted. “Keep in mind how incredibly far we have come.”

Not everyone is thrilled with the legislative proposals, however, especially when it comes to the millions of dollars that the actions would cost, said Brad Smith, a member of the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission who serves on the task force.

In meeting with people throughout the state, Brad said, “I’m hearing an increased volume of people coming to me and saying, ‘Extinction IS an option,’ and it’s rather scary.”

Over dinner, one man in Bellingham told him, “We’re spending all that money to save 75 fish?”

Nobody was sure how to take Brad’s news, but some said there is a need for people to talk about why orcas and other endangered species should be allowed to survive.

Here’s a quick rundown on the three primary bills representing the task force recommendations:

Habitat protection

House Bill 1579 authorizes Department of Fish and Wildlife authorities to issue stop-work orders for violations of permits required for shoreline construction. The bill allows the agency to seek voluntary compliance, as opposed to a fine; to issue civil penalties, instead of criminal citations; and to deny bulkhead applications when warranted, instead of being limited to conditions of approval.

The bill, which I wrote about in Water Ways on Feb. 21, passed the full House on a 59-39 vote and is waiting for action in the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Water, Natural Resources and Parks.

Oil spill prevention

House Bill 1578 would require a tug escort for oil tankers and barges transporting oil through Rosario Strait, a potentially hazardous passage near the San Juan Islands. The bill requires further studies and discussions about tug escorts and rescue tugs elsewhere along with other ideas.

It seems odd to summarize this bill and all the work that went into it in a single paragraph, considering that I have recently spent considerable time looking into the issue of vessel traffic and the risks of potential oil spills. Please check out my story published today in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound. You’ll find the specifics of the legislation at the end of that story.

Anyway, that bill passed the House on a 70-28 vote with action pending in the Senate Committee on Environment, Energy and Technology.

Vessel noise and interference

Senate Bill 5577 increases the distance that any boat may approach an orca from the previous 200 yards to 300 yards and establishes a new speed limit of 7 knots within half a mile. The intent is to reduce noise and interference around the whales. The bill also includes new provisions for licensing commercial whale-watching boats.

The orca task force had proposed a moratorium on any commercial whale watching around the southern resident orcas, but that provision was dropped to increase support for the rest of the bill. Some members — including Donna Sandstrom of The Whale Trail — were dismayed, saying the whales would benefit little from the new distances in the legislation.

In explaining why the moratorium was dropped, JT Austin said she could not find a legislator who would champion a temporary ban on commercial whale watching, and a failure to compromise would have risked sinking the bill entirely.

“That risk was very high,” she said, “and I was not willing to take that risk. The governor was not willing to take that risk.”

With the moratorium out of the bill, it passed the Senate on a 46-3 vote and is pending action in the House Committee on Rural Development, Agriculture, and Natural Resources.

Orcas gain increasing clout during fishing season discussions

Puget Sound’s endangered killer whales are becoming fully integrated into annual planning efforts that divide up the available salmon harvest among user groups — including sport, commercial and tribal fishers.

An orca mother named Calypso (L-94) nurses her young calf Windsong (L-121) in 2015.
Photo: NOAA Fisheries, Vancouver Aquarium under NMFS and FAA permits.

The southern resident killer whales should be given priority for salmon over human fishers, according to a fishing policy adopted for 2019-2023 by the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission. The new policy calls for “proper protection to SRKW from reduction to prey availability or from fishery vessel traffic …”

The problem with allocating a specific number of salmon to the orcas is that the whales cannot tell us when or where they would like to take salmon for their own consumption. The result, now in the planning stages, is to limit or close fishing in areas where the orcas are most likely to forage during the fishing seasons.

As revealed yesterday during the annual “North of Falcon” forecast meeting, fewer chinook salmon — the orcas’ primary food — are expected to return to Puget Sound this year compared to last year, but more coho salmon should be available for sport and tribal fishermen. The challenge, according to harvest managers, is to set fishing seasons to take harvestable coho without unduly affecting the wild chinook — a threatened species in Puget Sound.

Yesterday’s meeting marked the kickoff of negotiations between state and tribal co-managers, who are charged with developing a fishing plan by April 15. See the full meeting schedule and other info.

A paper released last month by Fish and Wildlife experts noted that there are “significantly more chinook salmon available in Puget Sound than what is needed to sustain the SRKW population now.” Eliminating Puget Sound fisheries would likely provide less than 1 percent more chinook available for the killer whales, the report says.

Plans this year will include limits on fishing to maintain chinook abundance where the whales are likely to forage, according to planning documents. “This approach ensures that fisheries are responsive to SRKW needs and managed in a way that provides adequate prey for SRKWs.”

A similar approach was started last year, but it was not fully integrated into the planning effort. After the negotiations were complete and the fishing seasons were set, the National Marine Fisheries Service called for additional steps to protect the whales. Fish and Wildlife officials then asked fishermen to honor a voluntary “no-go zone” along the western shoreline of San Juan Island. In September, they followed up by closing fishing throughout the San Juan Islands. Check out Water Ways, Feb. 28, 2018, for pre-planning discussions and May 9, 2018, for later adjustments.

Thanks to a new Pacific Salmon Treaty with Canada, reductions in chinook fishing in Alaska and Canada are expected to return more Puget Sound chinook to their home waters (Water Ways, Jan. 12). But the goal is to increase the number of wild spawners returning to the streams, as well as feeding the orcas, so it isn’t clear yet how those additional chinook will be handled in computer models that help managers decide when and where fishing takes place.

Overall for Puget Sound, the number of hatchery chinook is expected to be down 6 percent from last year’s forecast, but the actual returns appear to be somewhat higher than forecast. Wild chinook are up slightly from 2018, but they make up just 12 percent of the total chinook run. The wild fish are the ones protected under federal law, because they maintain the gene pool for survival under natural conditions.

Anticipated low returns of chinook to the Stillaguamish River in North Puget Sound and to mid-Hood Canal could constrain fishing opportunities throughout Puget Sound, as salmon managers try to protect enough of those fish for spawning. We often see one constraining stock, but having two this year increases the challenge of protecting both of those wild stocks from fishing impacts, managers say.

In yesterday’s meeting, some anglers raised questions about last year’s decision to limit fishing in Central and South Puget Sound to protect those Hood Canal chinook. Would Hood Canal fish that make their way to the east side of the Kitsap Peninsula really find their way back to the west side? For now, federal authorities responsible for the threatened chinook will continue with that assumption, according to Ron Warren, WDFW’s assistant director in charge of the agency’s Fish Program.

With hatchery coho up 35 percent over last year, sport fishermen might see greater fishing opportunities, although catching those extra coho without further reducing the number of wild chinook spawners will be a challenge, managers say.

Consistent with the governor’s Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force, the Fish and Wildlife Commission is reviewing a plan to increase the number of hatchery chinook to feed the killer whales. About 30 million young chinook would be released into Puget Sound, with another 20 million in the Columbia River, according to a white paper on the proposal. Release areas were chosen so that migration routes of the salmon would correspond with likely foraging areas for the orcas while avoiding areas where the increased hatchery fish would conflict with wild chinook.

Whether those increased hatchery fish would provide increased fishing opportunities for anglers is yet to be determined, officials said, because of the need to protect wild chinook populations.

The picture of salmon returns to streams on the Washington Coast is somewhat similar to Puget Sound. Chinook fisheries are likely to be about the same as last year, while increased coho runs could allow for more fishing, particularly in Grays Harbor. But returns to the Quinault and Quillayute rivers are expected to be down, thus complicating the picture.

The total forecast for Columbia River chinook this year is slightly lower than last year’s forecast of 365,000 fish, but only about 290,900 actually returned — so there are questions about what went wrong with the forecast. Expected returns are only about half of the 10-year average, so fishing on the Columbia could be reduced in several areas to protect fall chinook as well as an anticipated low run of steelhead.

New ‘civil enforcement’ proposed for violations of hydraulic permits

Concerns about the endangered southern resident killer whales seems to be spurring legislative support for new enforcement tools that could be used to protect shoreline habitat.

Bills in both the state House and Senate would allow stop-work orders to be issued by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife when shoreline construction is done without permits or exceeds permit conditions. If passed, the law would require that Fish and Wildlife officials first work with contractors and property owners to achieve “voluntary compliance.”

Working with property owners is the key, stressed Jeff Davis, deputy director of Fish and Wildlife in charge of habitat protection. Under current law, property owners who commit serious permit violations are charged with criminal misdemeanors. That’s neither good for the agency nor for the property owner, who may end up battling each other in court, said Davis, who once worked as a Fish and Wildlife habitat biologist in Kitsap County.

The criminal approach may work well with “egregious violations of the law,” Davis told the House Committee on Rural Development, Agriculture and Natural Resources, “but it’s not an appropriate tool for the vast majority of noncompliance we see out there. We would rather work with people so they are in compliance and there aren’t impacts to fish.”

Fish and Wildlife officials have been seeking this type of “civil authority” for years, but groups representing counties, businesses, farms and property-rights advocates have opposed granting the agency any further authority, and previous bills have been stripped down or otherwise killed in the Legislature.

This time, advocates have invoked concerns about orcas, carefully laying out a case that connects the protection of shorelines to tiny forage fish, which spawn in sand or on vegetation along the shoreline. Forage fish are eaten by salmon, which are essential food for the orcas.

Improving permitting and enforcement through the state’s Hydraulic Project Approval (HPA) system was a recommendation from the governor’s Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force and became a governor-request bill in the Legislature. The proposed HPA procedures are reflected in House Bill 1579 and Senate Bill 5580.

Orcas are in serious danger of extinction, said Jay Manning, chairman of the Puget Sound Partnership’s Leadership Council, which oversees recovery of the Puget Sound ecosystem.

“Without good habitat, we cannot restore salmon,” Manning testified, “and without salmon recovery, orca recovery is highly unlikely. This bill does something really simple and really important to protect habitat. It makes the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Hydraulic Project Approval program enforceable.”

The HPA system was first approved in 1941 to protect streams from damage, and it was later extended to marine shorelines. Unlike later habitat-protection laws, violations of the state’s Hydraulics Code have been treated as crimes, involving uniformed officers, prosecutors and judges.

I recall sitting in court in 1992 when a major landowner was accused of clearing trees from a wetland in Central Kitsap without a permit. He contended that the Department of Fish and Wildlife had no jurisdiction over his property, because the wetland was isolated and not connected to a salmon stream. State authorities contended otherwise.

The deputy prosecutor laid out the facts of the case before a judge, spelling out the nature of the stream running through the property, and witnesses described damage to the wetland and the species living there.

When the prosecution rested, I expected to hear arguments from the defense attorney. Instead, the attorney moved for dismissal, and the judge threw the case out of court. The reason was simple: The prosecutor never established that the defendant was the person who caused the damage, even though his identity was never in question. None of the witnesses had been asked to point to the defendant sitting in the courtroom, as required by court procedures.

Later, the 80-acre property was acquired by Kitsap County, which undertook extensive wetland- and stream-restoration projects.

I’m aware of other criminal cases involving allegedly illegal shoreline development. In the best cases, the property owner agrees to repair any damage in return for a deferred prosecution, in which event the charges are dropped after restoration is complete. Sometimes, additional fines are levied. But it often becomes a contentious battle involving lawyers. It seems that more could be accomplished through cooperation — which is the goal of the legislation.

Tom Davis of the Washington Farm Bureau advised legislators to be cautious when expanding the authority of Fish and Wildlife.

“The stop-work order could be especially harmful to farmers who have a very short time to do work on their land,” he said, adding that the bill might be acceptable with some changes, including limits for when stop-work orders could be issued.

Other opponents include the Washington Association of Counties, which has had a contentious relationship with Fish and Wildlife over jurisdiction. Counties have generally opposed state requirements to obtain HPAs for work on roads and bridges that may be some distance from the water. In December, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled that HPAs can be required for any project that can affect the waters.

HB 1579 allows for property owners to file a “pre-application” when there is a question about whether Fish and Wildlife will require a permit. The bill eliminates a requirement that the agency approve all bulkheads or shoreline armoring, with or without mitigation measures. That change would make the law more consistent with the Shoreline Management Act, which requires shoreline property owners to prove a need for a bulkhead.

Pacific sand lance at rest on sand.
Photo: Collin Smith, USGS

The concern about bulkheads is that they can cover up spawning habitat for surf smelt and sand lance, eliminate sandy substrate needed for eelgrass, and increase predation of small fish, including baby salmon, swimming along the shoreline.

The bill would raise fines for violations from $100 per day to $10,000 per violation. It includes provisions for appealing any enforcement action, including the stop-work order.

Another provision of the bill adds a licensing requirement for saltwater smelt fishing, which is currently exempt in areas where fishing is allowed.

Leonard Forsman, chairman of the Suquamish Tribe, spoke in favor of the bill, saying orcas have been “sacred” to generations of Suquamish people who helped preserve the landscape they inherited.

“The orca are going to need us to do a lot of little things and a lot of bold things for us to preserve their habitat,” Forsman said. “We need to push the balance away from so much development back to what is needed for the southern resident killer whales.”

An amendment that would have limited the changes to counties in the Puget Sound region was rejected by Democrats on the House Rural Development, Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee. Opponents argued that the civil procedure would be more effective enforcement for development on salmon streams in all portions of the state.

HB 1579 was passed out of the committee on an 8-6 vote, with all Democrats voting in favor and all Republicans present voting against the measure. A second hearing on the bill was held yesterday in the House Appropriations Committee. The Senate bill received testimony Feb. 5 but no action has been taken.

With regard to the need to protect shoreline habitat, I would like to refer you to a series of articles I helped produce for the Encyclopedia of 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.

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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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