Orca Network News - April, 2006
orcas worldwide, and their habitats
April 1, 2006 through April 30, 2006.
April 29, 2006 (CBS 60 Minutes) Albert Einstein once defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Well, that's what critics accuse the U.S. Department of Energy of: making the same mistakes over and over in a project that has already squandered billions of dollars in taxpayers' money. But the risk here is far greater than financial, since it involves highly toxic nuclear waste.
At stake are millions of gallons of radioactive liquid waste left over from the making of nuclear bombs, including the one that was dropped on Nagasaki. This waste has been sitting in underground tanks in Hanford, Wash., ever since, while the government tries to figure out how to clean it up. As correspondent Lesley Stahl reports, the waste is so lethal that a small cup of it would kill everyone in a crowded restaurant, in minutes.
Anderson says that the leaking tanks have been stabilized and that there's virtually no chance of further seepage. But Christine Gregoire, the governor of Washington State, who has worked on this issue from the beginning, doesn't believe that for one minute.
"Let me tell you the story. 1989: They told me there was zero chance that there would be any leakage and ground water contamination. Sixteen years later, we have confirmed 67 leakers, groundwater contamination. I told them then, 'Gravity works like this.' And I'll tell them again today: gravity means we are very vulnerable to the groundwater contamination and a plume that we now have moving towards the Columbia River, which is the lifeline of our Pacific Northwest," Gov. Gregoire says.
Asked what she meant by a "plume," the governor said, "We've got an area that is contaminated in the groundwater and is migrating towards the Columbia River. And if it gets there, Lesley, we have an absolute disaster on our hands."
Spring run of chinook could be worst ever
April 29, 2006 (Seattle Times) At this time of year, the Columbia Basin's fabled spring chinook should be swarming past the Bonneville Dam.
As of Thursday, fewer than 2,300 had swum through fish passages compared with a late-April average of more than 80,000 fish over the past decade.
Biologists still think they will get a late surge of fish - those hopes were kindled by the passage of more than 600 fish on Thursday, compared with fewer than 50 on the same day a week ago. But for the end of April, typically near the peak, this still is a very weak run.
"We definitely have the latest run on record, and we potentially could have the worst on record," said Robert Stansell, an Army Corps of Engineer biologist who monitors fish moving over the dam 40 miles east of Portland.
The spring chinook, a mix of wild and hatchery stock, are packed with oil that gives their flesh a rich taste and fuels a remarkable freshwater migration. Some push deep into Washington, while others, listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act, spawn in Snake River drainages as far as 900 miles from ocean-feeding grounds.
"We're absolutely at our wits' end trying to figure out what's going on," said Bill Tweit, a Washington state Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist.
Sonar may be linked to stranding of whales
April 28, 2006 (San Jose Mercury News) The Navy's use of sonar during maritime exercises may have contributed to the mass stranding of more than 150 whales in Hawaii's Hanalei Bay two years ago, government scientists said.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said the finding - along with information from other studies - has led it to ask the Navy to reduce its sonar's power during exercises planned this summer in Hawaiian waters. It also asked the Navy to turn off its active sonar when the whales come within a set distance.
The Navy says it will comply with the agency's requests, but said the report released Thursday did not conclusively show sonar triggered the stranding.
Officials were unable to find other reasons that may have caused the melon-headed whales to swim into the bay on July 3, 2004. One whale beached itself and died a few days later, said Brandon Southall, director of NOAA's acoustics program.
NOAA's study concluded the whales - which usually inhabit only deep water - may have heard the signals and headed into the shallow water.
Lt. William Marks, Navy spokesman at the Pentagon, said the six-hour gap between the last use of sonar and the whales' arrival made it unlikely sonar triggered the stranding.
But environmentalists said the report clearly blamed sonar.
"It adds to a long and growing use of strandings that have been associated with the Navy's use of sonar," said Michael Jasny, senior consultant with the Natural Resources Defense Council in Los Angeles, citing other mass strandings in the Canary Islands, Alaska and Japan.
N.C. environment chief says Navy sonar range study lacking
April 28, 2006 (Charlotte Observer) The Navy should take a better look at environmental problems that may be caused by a sonar range proposed for the ocean off North Carolina's coast, the state's chief environmental official says.
The Navy's draft environmental impact statement "fails to satisfy the expectation for thorough research and analysis" that should be conducted, said William G. Ross Jr., the state secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
Ross said the Navy needs to take a "broader, harder look" at the range and its impacts, and noted that the draft study failed to analyze "impacts on marine life, seabirds and other species."
The Navy wants to build an undersea range to train ship crews in detecting submarines. The service says the range is needed to counter the growing threat of quiet subs that lurk near ports of hostile nations.
Although the Navy said the range would impact some whales and other mammals, it estimated a minimal impact.
Experts say sonar probably stranded whales
April 28, 2006 (Seattle Times) Federal marine specialists have concluded Navy sonar was the most likely cause of the unusual stranding of melon-headed whales in a Hawaiian bay in 2004.
The appearance of up to 200 of the normally deep-diving whales in Hanalei Bay in Kauai occurred while a major American-Japanese sonar-training exercise was taking place at the nearby Pacific Missile Range Facility.
The report is the latest in a series of scientific reviews linking traditional midfrequency naval sonar to whale strandings. The sonar has been used for decades, but it was only recently that an apparent connection to strandings was established.
While the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scientists said they could not definitely state that sonar caused the strandings, they said extensive study led them to the conclusion there was no other likely cause.
FINAL REPORT ON 2004 STRANDING OF MELON-HEADED WHALES IN HAWAII
April 27, 2006 (NOAA Fisheries Service) The NOAA Fisheries Service released the final report today on the mysterious stranding event of melon-headed whales off the coast of Hawaii in July 2004. Although the exact cause of the stranding is unknown, scientists concluded that navy sonar exercises may have played a role in the stranding.
444 more clues to fishy mystery arrive
April 27, 2006 (Oregonian) A late migration of spring chinook salmon in the Columbia River appears to be gaining strength, but the tardy trickle of fish through the Bonneville Dam fish ladders is the latest on record.
It has fisheries biologists stumped: Is the prized stock of the Columbia Basin fish abnormally low due to ocean or river conditions, or is the run simply loitering in the river below the dam?
On Monday, the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers removed massive steel grates in front of two fish ladders to see if the grates were deterring fish. The sea lion exclusionary devices, or SLEDs, were set in place in February to keep pinnipeds from decimating salmon when they are most vulnerable.
With the grates off on Tuesday, approximately 444 chinook swam up the fish ladders, about half through ladders that still had grates attached. Still, that number is remarkably low for late April. The 10-year average between 1994 and 2004 for April 25 is more than 3,000 fish a day.
The grates were put back into place Wednesday, as about 25 sea lions were eating salmon below the dam.
"If we put the SLEDs back in and nothing is passing again, we'll have to do something," said Robert Stansell, a fisheries biologist with the Bonneville Power Administration. "The indications are the SLEDS are not making a big difference."
By Sunday, only 61 fish had gone through the dam. That number increased to 246 on Monday. By Wednesday morning, 1,172 chinook had passed through the dam's eight fish ladders in all of April.
Fisheries manager John North called the growing run a "glimmer of hope." North is with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. Although the spring chinook run has been late before -- by three weeks last year -- the number of fish expected to return each year has fallen steeply since 2001, making the late return more worrisome. Projections call for about 88,000 spring chinook to enter the Columbia River at its mouth this spring. In 2001, there was a record run of about 438,000 fish.
"Typically you have your run half over by late April or the 1st of May," he said.
Killer whale expert presents research
April 26, 2006 (Kodiak Daily Mirror) Transient killer whales may be stealthy, silent types, but they vocalize enough for acoustic researcher Volker Deecke from the Vancouver Aquarium in British Columbia to identify who's talking and what they're likely to eat for dinner.
Deecke presented some of his research to more than 50 Kodiak residents at Kodiak College Friday evening. Deecke's talk was the last in a series of original research discussions brought to Kodiak as part of Whale Fest 2006.
Deecke stressed that the animals most people call killer whales (orcas) are two separate species: transient killer whales that eat mammals, and resident killer whales that eat only fish. The two types live side by side in the same waters but do not interbreed, although the latter point is still open to debate, he said.
While eavesdropping on underwater whale vocalizations, researchers discovered that keeping track of transient killer whales is a lot harder than monitoring residents.
Resident killer whales keep up a constant racket while they're fishing.
"You can go out for a few hours and tape enough calls to keep you busy for months," Deecke said.
"For the meat eaters it's a trade off - they either eat or talk," Deecke said, so field data is hard to come by.
"Offshore research is expensive," Deecke said.
A few researchers, including killer whale authorities Craig Matkin and John Durban, are venturing out west to False Pass and beyond. There they are beginning to collect data on the Eastern Aleutian population.
Their research indicates that 72 percent of the Eastern Aleutian transient diet comes from gray whales, mostly calves, Deecke said.
Global Warming Behind Record 2005 Storms, U.S. Expert Says
April 25, 2006 (Environmental Network News) A leading U.S. government storm researcher said Monday that the record hurricane season last year can be attributed to global warming.
"The hurricanes we are seeing are indeed a direct result of climate change and it's no longer something we'll see in the future, it's happening now," said Greg Holland, a division director at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado.
Holland told a packed hall at the American Meteorological Society's 27th Conference on Hurricanes and Tropical Meteorology in Monterey, California that the wind and warmer water conditions that fuel storms that form in the Caribbean are "increasingly due to greenhouse gases. There seems to be no other conclusion you can logically draw."
His conclusion will be debated throughout the week-long conference, as other researchers present opposing papers that say changing wind and temperature conditions in the tropics are due to natural events, not the accumulation of carbon dioxide emissions clouding the Earth.
Many of the experts gathered in the coastal city of Monterey are federal employees working under a Bush administration that contends global warming is an unproven theory.
Holland, director of the Mesoscale and Microscale Meteorology Division of the federal research center, said tropical storm anomalies in the 1940s and 1950s can be explained by natural variability.
But he said carbon dioxide started changing traceable patterns in the 1970s and by the early 1990s, the atmospheric results were affecting the storm numbers and intensities.
"What we're seeing right now in global climate temperature is a signature of climate change," said Holland, a native of Australia. "The large bulk of the scientific community say what we are seeing now is linked directly to greenhouse gases."
Scientists to count orcas in Hudson Bay
April 24, 2006 (CBC News) Are killer whales becoming more common in the icy waters of Hudson Bay? Researchers hope to find out in the summer.
Scientists with Fisheries and Oceans Canada are going to team up with fishermen in Repulse Bay, Nunavut, and Churchill, Man.
They want to confirm observations by local people that there are more of the black-and-white marine mammals, also known as orcas.
"Oh yes, yes, they are," says Michel Akkuardjuk, the chair of the hunters and trappers organization in Repulse Bay.
"We know that they eat narwhals in Repulse Bay when they come up. Some people, they spotted muqtaq [whale skin blubber] floating on the water."
Microphones to track hunting orcas
While killer whales are found in every ocean, there haven't been a lot of studies on the creatures in Hudson Bay.
At the request of the fishermen, scientists will place underwater microphones close to each of the two communities in order to catch the sound of the animals after a hunt.
"We're assuming here that the killer whales are probably trying to catch and eat beluga, narwhal and maybe bowhead whales," said Steven Ferguson, a marine mammal biologist with Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
Chinook runs are smaller than expected
April 24, 2006 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer) Spring chinook salmon runs appear to be even smaller than forecasters expected, officials with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game say.
That's bad news for anglers following last year's limited chinook season. Salmon fishing on the lower Columbia, in Oregon and Washington, has been off-limits for decades.
"We won't have a robust season, we're almost sure of that," Bill Horton, an anadromous fish manager with the department, told The Idaho Statesman.
By late last week, only 316 chinook had crossed Bonneville Dam on the Columbia, compared to the 10-year average for that period of more than 59,000. Idaho-bound fish have to cross eight dams during their upstream migration, and only a portion of the fish that cross Bonneville actually make it to the state.
So far no salmon have reached Lower Granite Dam, their last hurdle before reaching Idaho waters, according to the department.
For the second year in a row, the spring salmon return appears to be later than normal, officials said. Still, 3,000 salmon had crossed Bonneville Dam by this time last year, with a total of 32,764 spring and summer chinook returning to Idaho in 2005.
It's not clear what's causing the low return, though biologists suspect changing ocean conditions may play a role.
Last summer there were record-low plankton blooms off the Oregon Coast, said biologist Rick Williams. Because plankton is the foundation of the oceanic food chain, that could be harming the salmon.
Whales could sink Shell's EBRD loan
April 23, 2006 (Times of London) SHELL's environmental record on the Russian island of Sakhalin has come under attack ahead of a crucial decision by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) on funding for the oil company's $20 billion (£11.2 billion) project on the island.
The oil giant's subsidiary Sakhalin Energy has applied for a loan of hundreds of millions of dollars from the EBRD as part of a $6 billion package of financing for the second phase of its Sakhalin II project.
When complete, the offshore oil and gas project will deliver 9.6m tonnes of liquefied natural gas a year. It is central to Shell's plan to recover from the reserves scandal in 2004.
The EBRD's involvement would give credibility to the project, which infringes on the feeding grounds of the endangered western gray whale.
But the WWF, the former World Wildlife Fund, said Shell was starting work on new pipelines in two months' time without knowing the full effect on the whale population. The WWF's James Leaton said: "We want the suspension of the laying of the offshore pipelines this summer, otherwise it's the end of the whales."
Oceans of Waste
April 23, 2006 (Seattle Times) Waves of junk are flowing into the food chain
To fully understand the big deal over Anderson's dead bird, you need to know it was not a seagull. It was a Northern fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis), identified by a tube atop its beak that spurts out excess salt. Like albatross and other pelagic seabirds, fulmars spend their whole lives way, way out in the ocean, coming to shore only during summer breeding, when females lay a single white egg on cliffs.
The rest of the time, the fulmars skim the waves, flying thousands of miles a year, feeding on small fish and jellyfish, crustaceans and larvae. "They're out on the open ocean where there's tremendous competition for scarce food, so they don't stop to look before grabbing whatever it is on the surface," says Alan Rammer, marine-education specialist with Fish and Wildlife. "Down the craw! Eat and go. As much and as fast as they can. Gorge and get back to the nest to feed the babies."
Fulmars have been around for millennia, and live as long as 40 years. Yet in the span of a generation, their diet has drastically changed. Now they feast on plastic.
Latest Forecast: Stand By for a Warmer, But Not Scorching, World
April 21, 2006 (Science) While newly climate-conscious news reporters seek signs of apocalyptic change in hungry polar bears and pumped-up hurricanes, evidence-oriented researchers are working to nail down some numbers. They are concerned with climate sensitivity: how much a given increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide will warm the world. If it's extremely high, continued emissions of greenhouse gases could ignite a climatic firestorm. If it's very low, they might merely raise the global thermostat a notch or two.
In this week's issue of Nature, they report a 5% probability that climate sensitivity is less than 1.5°C and a 95% chance that it's less than 6.2°C. That's still pretty high, but a far cry from 9°C or 11°C.
In a similar study published on 18 March in Geophysical Research Letters, climate modelers James Annan and Julia Hargreaves of the Frontier Research Center for Global Change in Yokohama, Japan, found the same lower limit of 1.5°C and a 95% upper limit of 4.5°C. They combined published 20th century warming data with records of coolings after recent volcanic eruptions and estimates of chilling in the depths of the latest ice age.
"Combining multiple lines of evidence is certainly the way to go," says Forest. An extremely high climate sensitivity "is probably less likely than we thought a year ago," agrees climate researcher Reto Knutti of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. More importantly, "we start to see a much better agreement on the lower bound," says Knutti. "We can be pretty sure the changes will be substantial" by the end of the century, he says.
New challenge on fish protections
April 20, 2006 (The Seattle Post-Intelligencer) Quoting the government's own dire reports about how pollution of Puget Sound harms salmon, environmentalists Wednesday fired a legal salvo charging that state and federal regulators' dereliction of duty amounts to breaking the law.
Salmon are dying in Seattle creeks. Toxic copper is being dumped at Seattle boatyards. And across the region, a filthy mix of oil, heavy metals, chemicals, pet waste and street crud flows into local waterways after every big rain, as pointed out in the filing by three Seattle-area environmental groups and two national organizations.
"We've reached a place where we're stalled out on making many gains for water quality, and it's endangering salmon," said Sue Joerger, head of Puget Soundkeeper Alliance. "We need to deal with these issues now. We can't keep putting them off into the future, or we won't have anything left to protect."
Hundreds of businesses in the Puget Sound region are either discharging pollutants directly into local waters, or are allowing polluted stormwater to flow off roofs and paved areas, according to government records cited in the environmentalists' filing.
Nor is the federal EPA carrying out its responsibility to look over the state's shoulder as the state issues those pollution licenses, environmentalists charged.
More than 1,800 permits to pollute Puget Sound or other local waters have been granted by the state Ecology Department. Most are supposed to be updated every five years. Yet the EPA has reviewed just 21 of those licenses to pollute since mid-2002, the EPA told the environmental groups.
State programs to rescue Puget Sound date to the early 1980s. Most recently, Gov. Christine Gregoire has called for a massive program to rejuvenate the Sound, assembling a high-powered task force to spearhead the project.
Yet environmentalists charged that the Ecology Department is at the same time agreeing to pollution limits that are known to be harmful to salmon.
A Campaign Gore Can't Lose
April 19, 2006 (The Washington Post) Boring Al Gore has made a movie. It is on the most boring of all subjects -- global warming. It is more than 80 minutes long, and the first two or three go by slowly enough that you can notice that Gore has gained weight and that his speech still seems oddly out of sync. But a moment later, I promise, you will be captivated, and then riveted and then scared out of your wits. Our Earth is going to hell in a handbasket.
You will see the Arctic and Antarctic ice caps melting. You will see Greenland oozing into the sea. You will see the atmosphere polluted with greenhouse gases that block heat from escaping. You will see photos from space of what the ice caps looked like once and what they look like now and, in animation, you will see how high the oceans might rise. Shanghai and Calcutta swamped. Much of Florida, too. The water takes a hunk of New York. The fuss about what to do with Ground Zero will turn to naught. It will be underwater.
"An Inconvenient Truth" is a cinematic version of the lecture that Gore has given for years warning of the dangers of global warming. Davis Guggenheim, the director, opened it up a bit. For instance, he added some shots of Gore mulling the fate of the Earth as he is driven here or there in some city, sometimes talking about personal matters such as the death of his beloved older sister from lung cancer and the close call his son had after being hit by a car. These are all traumas that Gore had mentioned in his presidential campaign and that seemed cloying at the time. Here they seem appropriate.
The case Gore makes is worthy of sleepless nights: Our Earth is in extremis . It's not just that polar bears are drowning because they cannot reach receding ice flows or that "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" will exist someday only as a Hemingway short story -- we can all live with that. It's rather that Hurricane Katrina is not past but prologue. In the future, people will not yearn for the winters of yesteryear but for the summers. Katrina produced several hundred thousand evacuees. The flooding of Calcutta would produce many millions. We are in for an awful time.
You cannot see this film and not think of George W. Bush, the man who beat Gore in 2000. The contrast is stark. Gore -- more at ease in the lecture hall than he ever was on the stump -- summons science to tell a harrowing story and offers science as the antidote. No feat of imagination could have Bush do something similar -- even the sentences are beyond him.
Salmon Kills and the Politics of Mining the Fraser
April 19, 2006 (The Tyee) Early last month near Chilliwack, a construction company built a road across the main stem of the Fraser River to access a small alluvial island known as Big Bar. Jutting 90 degrees from the bank, the causeway had a damming effect upstream, killing at least two million incubating pink salmon along one of the most productive fish habitats in the world.
The company operating at Big Bar was mining for gravel, a non-renewable commodity that over the next decade, as British Columbia advances towards ambitious commitments to complete Olympic infrastructure, the Gateway Project and the Canada (RAV) Line, will become dramatically more valuable and contentious.
In the Fraser Valley, a world removed from Vancouver, local papers followed livid fishermen and environmentalists on a near daily basis. To many on the riverbank, the Big Bar incident was the latest outrage committed by an industry seemingly indifferent to the survival of salmon, sturgeon and anything else reliant on the floodplain environment for life. But most of the vitriol was reserved for the Federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), the federal body entrusted with protecting fish and fish habitat.
Thea Foss Waterway - a major achievement
April 18, 2006 (Tacoma News Tribune) The $103 million cleanup of toxics in the Thea Foss Waterway should be celebrated, even if samples suggest the 11/2-mile channel might already be recontaminated, said U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks on Monday. The Belfair Democrat saluted farsighted Tacoma officials who envisioned economic benefits.
"The cleanup is a major achievement and the city should be proud of it. And I'm proud of it," Dicks told about 100 people gathered Monday on the waterway's esplanade.
Excessive concentrations of a chemical plasticizer were detected in samples taken from the south end of the waterway last year. The suspected source is the city's storm drains. Officials plan additional testing and seek a fix, but no remedies have been identified.
US-Canadian guidelines for Northwest whale-watching
April 15, 2006 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer) Here are whale-watching guidelines provided by the U.S. and Canadian governments:
1. BE CAUTIOUS and COURTEOUS: Approach areas of known or suspected marine mammal activity with extreme caution. Look in all directions before planning your approach or departure.
2. SLOW DOWN: Reduce speed to less than 7 knots when within 400 yards of the nearest whale. Avoid abrupt course changes.
3. AVOID approaching closer than 100 yards to any whale.
4. If your vessel is unexpectedly within 100 yards of a whale, STOP IMMEDIATELY and allow the whales to pass.
5. AVOID approaching whales from the front or from behind. Always approach and depart whales from the side, moving in a direction parallel to the direction of the whales.
6. KEEP CLEAR of the whales' path. Avoid positioning your vessel within the 400-meter area in the path of the whales.
7. STAY on the OFFSHORE side of the whales when they are traveling close to shore. Remain at least 200 yards offshore at all times.
8. LIMIT your viewing time to a recommended maximum of 30 minutes. This will minimize the cumulative impact of many vessels and give consideration to other viewers.
9. DO NOT swim with or feed whales.
To report a marine mammal disturbance or harassment, call: Fisheries and Oceans Canada: 1-800-465-4336 or U.S National Marine Fisheries Service Office for Law Enforcement: 1-800-853-1964
Mass whale deaths tied to U.S. Navy sonar, report says
April 15, 2006 (Contra Costa Times) The U.S. Navy's deployment of active sonar to detect submarine activity is believed to have been responsible for at least six incidents of mass death and unusual behavior among pods of whales in the last 10 years, according to a recent U.S. Congressional Research Service report.
In one of the most serious incidents, 150 to 200 melon-headed whales were observed milling in Hanalei Bay off Hawaii's Kauai Island during a Rim of the Pacific Exercise on July 3, 2004, after midfrequency sonar was used, the CRS report said.
Known as RIMPAC, the naval exercise included the participation of Japan and other U.S. allies in Asia and the Pacific.
The CRS report also listed five other incidents in which smaller whales, such as goose-beaked whales, harbor porpoises and killer whales, were found beached and dead in groups of a few to nearly 20. Many of the dead mammals had damaged hearing organs, and all five incidents coincided with U.S. naval exercises in the areas, the report said. The CRS report comes amid a growing number of reports of whales colliding with ships. In the latest incident, more than 100 people were injured last Sunday when a hydrofoil collided with an object, possibly a whale, off Japan's Cape Sata.
Although the U.S. Navy has limited the deployment of active sonar in most oceans out of environmental concern since 2003, its use has increased in the seas surrounding Japan as U.S. forces are intensifying surveillance of China's military activities.
After decades of fear and hostility, are we loving orcas to death?
April 14, 2006 (Napa Valley Register) Fifty years ago, fishermen were still shooting at Northwest killer whales they felt were eating too many salmon.
Now, thousands of visitors pay an average of $75 a trip to see the orcas in their summer habitat around the San Juan Islands.
"No doubt the perception of these whales has changed from something to be feared and destroyed to something to be hugged," said orca expert Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research in the San Juan Islands. "And now along comes too much hugging."
The turnaround began when killer whale Namu was caught accidentally in a fishing net in 1965. He became a Seattle waterfront sensation until his death a year later, helping create a demand for orcas in the booming new marine-aquarium trade. Dozens were caught and shipped, but just two survive -- Lolita at the Miami Seaquarium and Corky at Sea World in San Diego.
As it turned out, "the capture program was part of the education process," Balcomb said.
Northwest captures were stopped, though the resident population -- which now numbers 87 -- is still struggling to recover to pre-capture levels, believed to have been about 120.
"I'd settle for 101," said Balcomb, who has been studying them for 30 years.
Salmon failing to show up
April 13, 2006 (Seattle Times) For the second straight year, the spring chinook salmon that normally leap by the thousands up the fish ladders of Bonneville Dam toward spawning grounds are virtually absent.
Fishery experts say the run has been late before, but it's off to such a weak start that a Columbia River Indian tribe had to haul some of last year's salmon out of the freezer last weekend for its traditional "First Foods" ceremony that marks the return of the fish.
As of Tuesday, 135 adult chinook had been counted at the dam. The 10-year average at this point, which includes a couple of bumper years, is about 19,000. The tribal share of this spring run has been calculated at 6,188 fish.
"There are ups and downs in the fish world," said Cindy LeFleur of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. "Last year was one of the latest runs we'd seen and this year is shaping up that way."
She said a late surge remains possible and more should be known in late April, when about half of the run normally would have passed the dam.
Preseason estimates for last year were for 254,100 salmon to make it past Bonneville Dam. Only 106,900 did so.
This year's prediction is 88,400, a fairly healthy run if the fish show up. In recent years, the run has been as low 42,000 in 1999 and as high as 438,000 in 2001.
Federally protected sea lions, which gather in increasing numbers at the base of the dam to snag salmon as they mass at the fish ladders, take an estimated 3.5 percent of the run and are blamed by many.
There is a move to seek permission to shoot the worst offenders, some of whom return year after year.
But Hudson said that has to be kept in perspective. "Spring chinook for the last 40 years have been in deep, deep distress," he said.
Migrating gray whales visiting Puget Sound
April 12, 2006 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer) A few of the gray whales making their annual migration from Mexican to Alaskan waters have stopped off in Puget Sound.
Cascadia Research in Olympia is monitoring six whales feeding off Whidbey Island and one or two whales wandering near Bremerton, including one spotted today near Poulsbo.
One researcher, John Calambokidis (cal-um-BOH'-kee-dis), says the whales off Whidbey Island return every spring to feed on ghost shrimp. Some have been stopping for the shrimp feed since the early 1990's. They appear to be healthy.
He says researchers are more concerned about the whales that appear to be wandering. He says these may be stragglers, unable to complete the migration. Some of these whales die every year. There were eleven dead gray whales last year in Washington waters -- the coast and inland waters.
Learning How to Protect 'Our' Orcas
April 9, 2006 (Kitsap Sun Editorial) It was titled the "2006 Symposium on Southern Resident Killer Whales." More simply, it could have been called "Interactions."
Held this past week in Seattle, the conference presented the results from more than 20 studies relating to killer whales and what they eat, their social structures, and how their continuing survival is impacted by toxic chemical and human actions. Collectively, it brought together some of the best researchers and most significant data ever assembled on the 89 animals in Puget Sound's three orca pods.
Puget Sound's orcas have been listed under the Endangered Species Act. Under the endangered listing, they qualify for protection, research and enforcement resources aimed at preventing their extinction. However, that listing has been challenged in court by the Washington State Farm Bureau and the Building Industry Association of Washington, who say the Puget Sound orcas are not a distinct species, subspecies or "population segment." Their concern is that the listing would bring with it environmental restrictions that could adversely development and agricultural practices.
Regardless of whether Puget Sound's resident orcas as a group are distinct, the conference spelled out how their existence is closely intertwined with those of other species including humankind.
Chinook salmon in Puget Sound resident orcas' preferred food are more contaminated with toxic chemicals than chinook from other areas. Correspondingly, Puget Sound orcas have some of the highest levels of pollutants in the world.
Marine surface traffic, from large tankers to small pleasure craft and whale-watching boats, may affect the orcas' sonar capabilities to communicate they increase the duration of some "calls" when boats are near and even to locate salmon. Boats in the vicinity also cause them to change direction, which expends more energy and increases their food needs.
Chemical contaminants are an increasingly complex issue. PCBs and DDT are still found in Puget Sound Chinook a residual impact from the long-banned chemicals. At the same time, there's a growing threat from a chemical widely used as a flame retardant. Like PCBs, the chemicals have been found in salmon, and can cause reproductive and metabolic problems with orcas.
For more information on the fascinating and alarming revelations from the conference, there's a story in Saturday's Kitsap Sun , as well as a more comprehensive look on our KitsapSun Web site [see below].
Research and findings from this conference have a significance that encompass not just the well-being of killer whales, but of a wide range of other marine life and of Puget Sound itself. Why? In large part because orcas are an indicator species whose health is a barometer of other conditions ones with potentially significant impacts on both our environment and our lifestyle.
Presuming the orcas' listing with the Endangered Species Act is upheld in court, the next challenge will be to pull together all related research, integrate the findings into a comprehensive blueprint of the whales and their environment, and develop a management program to protect them.
And that's all to the good, because helping orcas survive will involve numerous other species and environmental elements.
Put another way, what's good for orcas is good for Puget Sound - and for all who live in and around it.
Orca Conference Reveals Science Breakthroughs
April 8, 2006 (Kitsap Sun) [Note: this is a complete report on the conference] Scientific knowledge about Puget Sound's endangered orca population has leaped forward the past two years, surprising even the researchers themselves.
Results from more than 20 studies were presented at a conference this week in Seattle, where diverse experts described the social makeup of the whales and how they are affected by toxic chemicals, food supply and human disturbance.
John Ford, a researcher with Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans, said scientists are coming to realize how sensitive the whales are to particular food supplies. When chinook salmon runs are low, anything that affects the quality of salmon or the orcas' ability to catch them could have dire consequences, he said.
New information confirms that the whales are picking up man-made chemicals believed to affect their metabolism, reproduction and immunity to disease. Increasing human activities, such as noise, could be impairing the whales' echolocation - their ability to locate prey by projecting high-frequency sound.
Some key findings:
Puget Sound's orcas have a strong preference for chinook salmon, almost to the exclusion of other fish, except for in the fall when they switch to chum.
Orcas regularly share their food with other members of their group, or pod. That helps increase the survival of young and weaker animals and adds new evidence that the whales live within a close-knit community.
Puget Sound chinook are more contaminated with toxic polychlorinated biphenyls than chinook from other areas, even though all chinook spend most of their lives in the ocean. The new finding helps explain why the Puget Sound whales contain some of the highest levels of pollutants in the world.
The relationship of Puget Sound orcas to all the species around them should be considered, said John Durban of the Alaska Fisheries Science Center, a branch of the National Marine Fisheries Service. That means looking at seals that may compete with orcas for food as well as species farther down the food web within everything tied to the human influence.
"I think we need to start thinking about ecosystems," Durban told his fellow researchers.
Howard Garrett of Orca Network said it is time to call in the social scientists as well, because the whales clearly live under a social organization "without parallel except for humans."
"How do they decide where to go, who eats and who doesn't?" he asked.
"We don't want to lose these cultural differences," Durban said, noting that there's a risk that the whales will need to spend more and more time finding food and less maintaining their social relationships.
Officials back off on limits to salmon fishing
April 8, 2006 (Seattle Times) The Pacific Fishery Management Council has backed away from a total shutdown of ocean salmon fishing off the coasts of California and much of Oregon, instead approving a small harvest for recreational and commercial fleets.
Federal fishery officials initially had recommended a closure of the ocean salmon fishery south of Oregon's Cape Falcon to protect a diminished run of salmon returning to the Klamath River.
The closure would have been a huge blow to commercial trollers and recreational fleets, and their members pleaded for at least a minimal fishery this year and also submitted thousands of written comments to the federal, state and industry officials that sit on the regional council.
At their meeting Thursday in Sacramento, Calif., council members approved a harvest of more than 200,000 salmon to be divided between commercial and recreational fishermen, according to a council statement released to the media. That compares with a harvest of more than 740,000 salmon caught in ocean harvests in 2005.
A limited ocean salmon fishery will be allowed north of Cape Falcon in Oregon and also off the Washington coast. In a March meeting, the council considered options for Washington and Northern Oregon that could include a harvest of about 50,000 chinook and 80,000 marked hatchery coho divided between sport and commercial fishermen.
Scientists urge people to protect the Sound
April 8, 2006 (Seattle Times) In Puget Sound, pollution is forever. That's the message scientists hope Western Washington residents will remember the next time they flush chemicals down their toilets or curbside drains.
Because the sound is shallow at the northern end like a bathtub, ocean water does not easily come in to flush out pollutants, state scientists told about 400 people at a one-day scientific conference on toxins in the sound. The gathering was organized by People for Puget Sound.
Because of the Sound's geography, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are still being found in chinook salmon caught in its waters, at levels up to six times higher than fish from the Columbia and Sacramento rivers and along the east side of Vancouver Island. PCBs have been banned since the 1970s.
"Once it's here, it stays in the Sound," said Sandra O'Neill, a fish-contamination expert with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.
"People need to be mad as hell about this situation, but they aren't," said Brad Ack, head of the Puget Sound Action Team. "We haven't gotten the message across."
Many of the sound's pollutants are ingested by people intentionally, including antidepressants, drugs to curb nicotine addiction, caffeine and hormones. The chemicals then flow to the sea in sewer water. Research shows that some of these chemicals can skew the ratio of female to male fish, or reduce the fertility of male fish.
Orcas' habitat polluted by noise
April 6, 2006 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer) Imagine someone coming to your neighborhood and repeatedly tooting his horn -- for half an hour or more.
That's pretty much what it sounded like Wednesday when scientists meeting in Seattle to explore threats to orcas played underwater recordings of a cargo ship's passage by an orca hangout. It wasn't quite as irritating as a car alarm -- but close.
At the center of the increased noise in the orcas' neighborhood is the shipping industry, which has the most constant and noisiest presence, researchers reported. And the noise appears ready to increase, with the Puget Sound region's international cargo trade set to soar.
"All right, already! They go on for a long time," acoustic scientist Val Veirs said as he cut off the hornlike sound after less than half a minute. He said the noise is generally audible for half an hour to an hour when a cargo ship passes by the San Juan Islands, where the orcas often are found, on its way to Seattle, Tacoma or Vancouver, B.C.
In the summer, the everyday noise of commercial traffic is added to in the daytime by whale-watching boats and other craft, Veirs said. Displaying sound charts from summer days and summer nights, he told the scientists, "I think you can see a difference here, and the difference is all the ... boats zipping around, having a fine time."
Hildebrand said that when he was trying to measure sounds of whale-watching boats, "People (on motorboats) would roar up into the middle of our controlled experiment and say, 'Hey, man, where's the whales?' "
The commercial whale-watching fleet has grown exponentially in recent years, but operators say they are doing everything they can to cooperate in protecting orcas.
"We still don't know if noise has an impact (on orcas), but if it does, we want to err on the side of caution," said Shane Aggergaard, president of Whale Watch Operators Association Northwest. "Being aware of the amount of sound we're making and how we can minimize it is important to us as an industry."
"It seems to me like we're jumping to the conclusion that high noise levels are going to impact them," Terry Williams of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission told the scientists. "Being able to translate that into how it affects their performance is what is needed, and I didn't see that."
But orca activist Fred Felleman, who earned his master's degree studying killer whales, said, "The thing to acknowledge is that whales are acoustic animals. We may not know what aspect of noise is important, but we do know the acoustic environment is critical to the welfare of the whales, and we're just now starting to pay attention to this."
Puget Sound a toxic stew, scientists say
April 6, 2006 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer) Fireproof salmon, fish dosed with anti-depressants and shellfish tainted with amnesia-causing toxins can all be found in Puget Sound, researchers said Wednesday at a public forum.
"People need to be mad as hell about this situation, but they aren't," said Brad Ack, head of the Puget Sound Action Team, a government agency. "We haven't gotten the message across."
Scientists gave sweeping overviews of the countless ways residents, businesses and government entities have fouled the Sound. They explained to the hundreds of people in attendance at Seattle's Town Hall how contaminants washing off our roads, being flushed down our toilets and dumped in oil spills are harming marine life and humans.
Chinook caught in the state's inland sea are contaminated with levels of PCBs -- polychlorinated biphenyls -- up to six times higher than fish from the Columbia and Sacramento rivers and along the east side of Vancouver Island. The chinook are also packing away flame retardants added to a wide range of consumer products, state scientists reported. Both can hurt people as well as wild creatures.
Part of the challenge comes from the region's geography. The Sound is long and deep, but shallow at the northern end like a bathtub, limiting flushing with ocean water.
The suspected cause of the deaths was pollution washing off roads and landscaped properties. That could lead to speedy extinctions, Scholz said. At even lower death rates than those observed, computer models show populations vanishing in 59 years.
Puget Sound pods vacation in California
April 5, 2006 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer) Two of the three orca families that frequent Puget Sound and nearby waters have long been known to vanish in the winter, and the question long plaguing researchers has been: Where the heck do they go when it turns rainy and cold? Why, they go to California, of course!
That's part of the answer, anyway, unveiled at a Seattle science conference on orcas Tuesday sponsored by the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island, who has studied the whales since the 1970s, said the K and L pods were first spotted in Monterey Bay, Calif., in January 2000. "That just completely blew people away." The orcas were seen there again in March of 2003 -- then spotted in May 2003 clear up at the north end of Canada's Queen Charlotte Islands.
The orcas appear in many years to work back to the area around the mouth of the Columbia River in spring, then range into Canada as it warms.
Science Speaks to Orca Evolution
April 5, 2006 (Kitsap Sun) If all the killer whales in the world are not the same, then what are the key differences?
Although this might sound like a good trivia question, it's actually one of the key issues confronting scientists, lawyers and government officials as they consider protections for Puget Sound's orca population.
If all orcas are the same, then Puget Sound's little population of 89 animals certainly would not qualify for protection under the Endangered Species Act.
But if the Puget Sound group is unique, never breeding with outside groups, then a single catastrophe such as disease or an oil spill could thrust the population into a death spiral toward extinction. And no amount of regret could bring them back.
Scientists generally agree that the three Puget Sound orca pods tend to keep to themselves. That was a critical factor in listing them as an endangered species. But most would agree that their uniqueness is a matter of degree. On the legal front, the Washington State Farm Bureau and the Building Industry Association of Washington are challenging the endangered listing, saying the Puget Sound orcas are neither a species, a subspecies nor a "distinct population segment" of a species.
The legal battle has been in court once before, after the National Marine Fisheries Service determined that the Puget Sound whales were not biologically significant to the overall orca species and thus did not qualify for protection under the Endangered Species Act. Much of that decision was based on the scientific classification of killer whales throughout the world as a single species with no subspecies.
But U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik ruled in 2003 that federal biologists should not rely on the formal scientific classification, but should use their best judgment about how killer whales should be classified.
The U.S. government sponsored an international workshop, which concluded that resident killer whales could well be considered a subspecies of orca, if not a separate species. Weighing social, genetic and other factors, a team of biologists concluded that the Puget Sound whales qualify as a "distinct population segment" that must receive protection under the Endangered Species Act.
By filing the lawsuit, opponents will bring the scientific and legal arguments back into the courtroom.
Meanwhile, genetic studies continue into the evolution of local orca populations and their role in the world. One computer model, described by Hoelzel on Monday, demonstrated a distant relationship between killer whales and bottlenose dolphins, a closer relationship between resident and transient orcas and the closest relationship between Northern Residents, which frequent the north end of Vancouver Island, and the Southern Residents of Puget Sound.
Based on certain assumptions, Hoelzel has suggested that the northern and southern populations may have separated about the time that glaciers extended south out of Canada or perhaps during a subsequent melting period.
Geneticist Mike Ford said the latest scientific evidence does not contradict the federal biologists who concluded that Puget Sound's killer whales should be considered distinct and listed as endangered.
Study links orca health to chinook
April 5, 2006 (Tacoma News Tribune) Dogs sniff out poo's clues
A Canadian-led team of researchers has linked high orca death rates to recent declines in coastal chinook salmon numbers from Alaska to the Pacific Northwest. "Whatever it takes to enhance chinook abundance will help the whales," said John Ford, who is head of the cetacean research program of Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans.
Ford, who has studied killer whales for 30 years and is one of the world's foremost experts, leads a team of scientists based in Nanaimo, B.C.
The resident populations of killer whales in both British Columbia and Puget Sound dropped 20 percent between 1996 and 2001.
The two groups, called northern residents and southern residents, are vulnerable to extinction and officially protected in Canada. In February, the U.S. government listed southern residents – members of "J," "K," and "L" pods in Puget Sound – as endangered.
Working with Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island, the Canadians found that mortality rates of whales within the two groups follow a similar pattern and coincide with recent shortages of chinook salmon.
Nobody wants to hurt killer whales, least of all many scientists striving to cure the ailing Puget Sound population so many people love.
But without invasive procedures, such as blood draws and biopsies, it's hard to pin down what's killing them.
Enter Sam Wasser's poop-sniffing dogs. Trained pound puppies selected specifically for their compulsive behavior, they are sporty dogs who live to fetch. "Insatiable ball drive," Wasser calls it.
Smelly or not, excrement carries many of the same kinds of genetic, chemical and hormonal markers scientists seek when testing blood or tissue, Wasser said.
Not only that, but there's no shortage. "There's nothing more abundant in nature than feces," he said.
Luckily, in many cases, it floats.
"The wind has to be blowing the scent for the dog to be able to find it," he said. In the Bay of Fundy, his dog has smelled poop up to a mile away. Wasser presented data to scientists in Seattle on Tuesday that shows dogs track whale excrement better than trained researchers.
The trick is collecting it before it sinks. And holding on to the dog, Wasser said.
Chemicals tainting orcas' dinner
April 5, 2006 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer)) More PBDEs seen; adults often share fish with young
The mother orca snags a big chinook salmon, bolts for the surface and chomps it in two. She leaves half for her baby.
It's a newly discovered behavior of Pacific Northwest killer whales, one that may help explain how young orcas survive when salmon runs are lean, marine scientists meeting in Seattle revealed Tuesday. In effect, the parents appear to be allowing themselves to starve at about the same rate as their children -- although father orcas give up far fewer fish than do the mothers. And this sharing may explain why orcas stay with their families for life.
However, scientists said, the salmon that nurture those baby orcas increasingly appear to be delivering a dose of chemicals that skew orcas' immune and reproductive systems -- chemicals the Washington Legislature recently refused to ban.
These fire-resistant chemicals, known as PBDEs or polybrominated diphenyl ethers, are still at much lower levels in the animals than the previous generation of fire-resistant chemicals, PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls. But the concentration of the new chemicals will surpass those of the old ones in 15 to 20 years, said Peter Ross of the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans.
The two sets of long-lived chemicals in combination pack a one-two punch, Ross said in an interview Tuesday.
"If you get that in a fetus, you may not see proper brain development," he said. "You could get adults that are quite diminished in a number of ways."
The chemicals have been used in a wide array of consumer products, including carpets, computers and cars.
The industry argues that the remaining chemical is not mobile in the environment, isn't very toxic and can't be taken up well by mammals.
"We know those statements to be false," Ross told the scientists.
As the chinook go, so go the orcas
April 4, 2006 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer)) The killer whales that chase salmon in this region's inland waters feed almost exclusively on chinook, to the extent that the orca population ebbs and flows right along with that of the West Coast's largest and longest-lived salmon, researchers said Tuesday.
The whales settle for chum salmon for six to eight weeks in the fall, when most of the chinook are gone, John Ford of Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans said at the 2006 Symposium on Southern Resident Killer Whales, a joint effort of his agency and the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service.
Between 1996 and 2001, Ford said, sharp drops in the region's chinook runs correlated with declines in the northern and southern resident orca populations, as the inland killer whales of Canada and the United States are called.
Orca mortality was 300 percent higher than expected, Ford said, and difficult to link to other known stressors.
"I came in here today thinking killer whales would eat the salmon that were most abundant, but I'm finding that's not the case," said salmon researcher Jeff Haymes of the Washington state Department of Fish and Game, who also spoke about chinook populations at the second day of the three-day conference.
Longtime orca researcher Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research addressed the mystery of where the resident orcas spend the winter months. The southern residents have been seen as far south as Monterey, Calif., and as far north as Canada's Queen Charlotte Islands.
"Now I know they hang around the core area till the chum run out ... and then go work chinook out on the coast," he said, laughing.
Other researchers spoke about pollution threats from toxins such as long-lasting PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, which have been banned since the 1970s but persist in orcas and other top predators; and fire-retardant PBDEs, polybrominated diphenyl ethers, which are still produced.
Decisions give hope for river's fish, future
April 2, 2006 (Seattle Times (from Washington Post)) Big rivers in the West are reliable sources of bad news. Dammed for electricity and drained for irrigation, they have pushed salmon into extinction, fishermen into bankruptcy and Indians into despair.
This dismal pattern, though, may be ending on the Klamath, long one of the nation's most thoroughly fouled-up rivers. Its woes include massive fish kills, blooms of poisonous algae, diabetic Indians, fuming irrigators, litigious environmentalists and aging dams that produce little power while squatting stolidly in the way of reviving the river.
Two decisions last week - one by a federal court in California, the other by the Bush administration - raise the surprising possibility that the Klamath, which straddles the Oregon-California border, may overcome many of these troubles.
In Oakland, U.S. District Court Judge Saundra Armstrong ordered that the federal Bureau of Reclamation, which operates one of the nation's oldest irrigation projects on the Klamath, must strictly limit the quantity of water sucked out of the river for farmers in dry years. Scientifically set minimum flows are needed to protect migrating salmon, the judge ordered, and the federal government cannot fiddle with them.
This was a repudiation of Bush administration policy. During a severe drought in 2002, the administration - with Karl Rove, the president's senior adviser, championing the cause of farmers - gave the Klamath federal irrigation project its normal allotment of water. Salmon were left to bear the brunt of the drought.
As for the four large dams that block salmon passage, the Bush administration's fisheries experts demanded last week that the privately owned dams either be removed or rebuilt in a hugely expensive way that allows fish passage.
The decision surprised environmentalists because the Bush administration in recent years has insisted hydroelectric dams on some Western rivers are part of the "environmental baseline."
During visits to federal dams on the Snake River in Washington state, Bush has vowed they never would be removed - despite environmentalists' assertions that they are marginal power producers and responsible for salmon extinction.
But the Klamath, as of last week, seems to be different, as far as the federal government is concerned.
"Dam decommissioning and dam removal," the Interior Department and the National Marine Fisheries Service said last week, "would go a long way toward resolving decades of degradation where Klamath River salmon stocks are concerned."
The dams' owner is PacifiCorp, a Portland company recently acquired by MidAmerican Energy Holdings, owned by billionaire Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway.