Orca Network News - February, 2006
orcas worldwide, and their habitats
February 1, 2006 through February 28, 2006.
February 28, 2006 (Seattle Times) The white whales of Cook Inlet that have delighted locals and tourists for decades are slowly disappearing and perhaps headed toward extinction.
With fewer than 300 beluga whales swimming in the silty waters of Cook Inlet near Anchorage, one cataclysmic event - a large stranding in the inlet's 20-foot tides, perhaps, or an oil spill or tsunami - could push them over the edge, said Lloyd Lowry, a professor of marine mammals with the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
"Having a small population for a long time is very risky," said Lowry, a former marine-mammal coordinator with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. "If the decline continues, we are going to get to very critically low numbers soon."
There were about 1,300 belugas in Cook Inlet in the 1970s. Last year the number was estimated at 278.
Capitol Watch: Toxic politics
February 27, 2006 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer editorial) Tests show toxic materials find their way into the human body in shocking amounts. Worse, women's breast milk can pass toxics to vulnerable infants, giving kids early exposure to products that may cause cancer, nerve damage and other serious health problems.
The state House of Representatives earlier this month passed a much-needed bill to ban a group of worrisome flame retardants in some consumer products. The much-studied E2SHB1488 passed 97-0.
Opponents are left with scare tactics, suggesting the measure would undo important fire-safety steps. Hardly, as shown by the unanimous vote and support from the acting state fire marshal, the state Fire Fighters Association and the state Council of Fire Fighters. The bill has reasonable deadlines and steps to allow exceptions. The Senate should join the House to reduce the risk of harm to the public.
Millions spent to protect Northwest salmon
February 26, 2006 (Seattle Times) Northwest populations of Pacific salmon accounted for one of every four state and federal dollars spent on saving endangered or threatened species during 2004, according to a new report by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Government agencies spent $393 million on helping the five Pacific salmon species protected by the Endangered Species Act (ESA): chinook, steelhead, coho, sockeye and chum. Total government spending for 1,838 listed species was $1.4 billion, the report said.
And the cost promises to rise. The Bush administration says it will spend $6 billion over the next 10 years to modify eight federally owned hydroelectric dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers to make them less lethal to salmon.
Cost is increasingly becoming a factor in the debate over how best to restore struggling salmon runs.
"Virtually everyone in the region supports recovery," said Bob Lohn, Northwest regional director of NOAA Fisheries, the federal agency responsible for restoring salmon. "The debate is about the most effective way to get there and whether it can be done as effectively at a lower cost.
"The ESA plainly makes the value decision that not only is it worth it, but we've got to do it," he added. "That decision is made for us."
Noting that dams are responsible for killing as much as 80 percent of the young fish migrating to the ocean, salmon advocates argue that efforts to reduce harvests are intended to divert attention from the dams - particularly their proposal to remove four dams on the lower Snake River in Eastern Washington.
They note that NOAA Fisheries said in a 2000 plan that cutting out all fishing would have little effect on listed runs.
American Rivers, a conservation group, estimates that breaching the four dams on the Snake would cost up to $4 billion over the next 10 years, compared with the $6 billion the Bush administration is spending on modifications to help juvenile fish get around the dams.
UW charts impact of local climate change
February 25, 2006 (Seattle Times editorial) As the effects of global warming are increasingly dire, the initial defense has to be providing an assessment of just how serious the problem is.
University of Washington scientists helped do just that for Puget Sound in a recent study that is described as the first serious attempt to quantify climate change's effects so far. The state Puget Sound Action Team commissioned the study to the Climate Impacts Group, part of the Center for Science in the Earth System at the UW's Joint Institute for the Study of Atmosphere and Ocean.
Though the state has done reports every two years, this report presents the most comprehensive picture of the effects so far - 13 percent less freshwater is flowing into the Sound, compared with flows more than 50 years ago - and what's projected in the future. Expect less snowpack feeding warmer rivers, rising sea levels and more pressure on salmon and other species.
Soon after the report was released, Gov. Chris Gregoire appointed the Puget Sound Partnership to devise a 15-year plan for what can be done to improve prospects for the Sound and all who depend on it. A preliminary report is due in June.
Scientists study sound, marine creatures
February 24, 2006 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer) Rain falling on the surface of the ocean can be heard more than a mile deep, and at some frequencies it's louder than passing ships, according to oceanographer Jeff Nystuen.
The Natural Resources Defense Council and other plaintiffs alleged in a federal lawsuit last fall that the Navy's mid-frequency sonar used for detecting enemy submarines disturbs and sometimes kills whales and dolphins.
To find out what sounds sea creatures are exposed to, Nystuen moored microphones at spots around the world, from the Mediterranean to the South China Sea, to collect a year's worth of sound. He spoke Thursday during the biannual ocean sciences meeting of the American Geophysical Union.
His findings show that among higher pitched sounds, rain is the loudest, far louder than passing ships. Among lower-pitched sounds, shipping is the loudest sound, followed by rain.
"If you came to see me in Seattle and said, 'I want to see some killer whales,' I would take you to Haro Strait, which is the noisiest environment that I've ever made measurements in," he said. Haro Strait lies between the U.S. and Canada near Victoria.
Nystuen said his listening devices could be used to make sure animals aren't nearby before setting off a blast or testing sonar.
Thousands of seabirds dying along the coast of B.C.
February 24, 2006 (Vancouver Sun) Countless thousands of seabirds are mysteriously washing ashore dead along the B.C. coast this winter from the west coast of Vancouver Island to the Queen Charlotte Islands.
"It's spooky to see them coming in like that," Pete Clarkson, assistant chief warden at Pacific Rim National Park Reserve at Long Beach, said Thursday in an interview.
The massive die-off of seabirds this winter follows the near-complete failure of at least two seabird nesting colonies last spring.
About 1,000 glaucous-winged gulls failed to successfully breed at Cleland Island, a provincial ecological reserve northwest of Tofino, while about 400 glaucous-winged gulls and 300 rhinoceros auklets failed to breed at Seabird Rocks, south of Barkley Sound.
U.S. scientists speculate the deaths may be associated with warmer weather and changes in winds and currents that might have reduced the availability of the birds' marine food.
Transient killer whales return to Kodiak
February 23, 2006 (Juneau Empire) A pod of transient orcas that visits Kodiak annually made its reappearance last week, searching for Steller sea lions to eat.
"It's the same pod that comes in all the time," said Kate Wynne, marine mammal specialist for the University of Alaska Fairbanks marine advisory program.
The presence of the orcas can send sea lions huddling into shallow water to escape the killer whales.
The pod of six orcas can be identified in part because of the presence of a large bull whale. The male whale now has a peculiar bent-over dorsal fin. The fin is made out of connective tissue, not bone.
"His dorsal fin is flopped over," Wynne said. "That happened sometime between April and December. We don't know why."
The Kodiak Killers have a new calf, born sometime last fall. The pod now consists of two 3-year-olds, the two mothers of the three calves - one the matriarch and one her daughter - and a bull that's the matriarch's son.
"These 3-year-olds they have now are the longest-lived ones we've seen for a while. The fact that they had another calf this year is good news," she said.
The orcas usually stay in the harbor until April.
Tons of Trouble
February 21, 2006 (Seattle Weekly) Evidence is starting to mount that those Columbia River salmon-especially the spring chinook runs that have been most harmed by the Snake River dams-could play a critical role in the survival of the killer-whale population that resides primarily in Puget Sound. And that means that recovery programs for the orcas will, at the very least, increase scrutiny of the role of the dams in the whales' survival, and could decide their fate.
It hasn't hurt that, from outward appearances at least, the orca listing doesn't change things a lot as far as recovery programs go. This is largely because the cornerstone of any orca-recovery program is going to focus on restoring salmon runs-and the work for doing that is, in many regards, already well under way.
Scientists grew concerned that if the declines continued, the whales would no longer have a viable gene pool and would soon tumble into an inevitable downward population spiral. The southern residents are genetically isolated; even though other killer whales (called "transients") visit their waters to feed on large sea mammals like seals and sea lions, there is no social interaction or apparent communication between them. Their respective languages are completely different, and genetic samples indicate there has been no intermingling for thousands of years. So the presence of a substantial coastal population of orcas means little to the killer whales who reside in Puget Sound for much of the year.
Dams themselves are obstacles enough for migrating fish, but the flatwater they create behind them is even more problematic, especially for smolt, which require fast-moving water to migrate effectively.
His core finding, though, was linking the whales with a particular kind of salmon: chinook. Orcas focus on them almost exclusively in the summer months, Ford found: "Chinook salmon appears to be preferred over other salmonid and nonsalmonid species due to its large body size, high lipid content, and year-round availability in the whales' coastal habitat. Sockeye and pink salmon, which are abundant during migrations to spawning rivers in July– August, are not a significant prey species." Some runs of chum salmon appear to be preferred in the fall.
Moreover, Ford notes, "The distribution and movement patterns of resident killer whales are consistent with what might be expected of an animal having a year-round focus on chinook salmon as preferred prey." That is, during those winter months, they are haunting waters that are historically known to contain large runs of chinook, gathering along the coastlines on their way home to their respective rivers to spawn.
Historically, the largest single source of chinook in the Northwest's Pacific coastal waters during the winter and spring has been the Columbia River. The role that they could play in the orcas' health was underscored two years ago by a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife report on killer whales that observed, "Perhaps the single greatest change in food availability for resident killer whales since the late 1800s has been the decline of salmon in the Columbia River basin."
Whale advocates say they've been aware of the potential connection of the orcas to the Columbia River runs for a while. "This is something I've been talking about for a long time," says Howard Garrett of the Whidbey Island–based Orca Network. "We've known it almost intuitively. It's been part of my regular slide show. So it's gratifying to see the scientific data supporting it."
"To me it's just a no-brainer," says Darcie Larson, a board member of the Seattle chapter of the American Cetacean Society and the associate director of Save Our Wild Salmon. "It couldn't be more plain that these killer whales have relied on salmon from the Columbia River historically, and the lack of those salmon is hurting them now.
Combating global warming makes economic sense
February 21, 2006 (San Francisco Chronicle) When it comes to tackling global warming, the Bush administration is right about one thing: There are economic consequences. The problem is they've been too quick to assume that such consequences will be bad for the economy. It turns out that reducing greenhouse gases doesn't have to be expensive. In fact, it can be a serious moneymaker.
Consider California, home to the world's sixth largest economy. For 25 years, the Golden State has led the nation in programs to save energy; these, in turn, reduce the greenhouse-gas emissions that contribute to global warming. According to the California Energy Commission, the state's energy-efficient appliance standards, among the toughest in the country, have led to a 75 percent reduction in the energy required to power refrigerators, much to the delight of consumers. Similarly, new homes built in California use only a quarter of the energy of older homes, thanks to smarter building codes. Renewable energy technologies such as solar and wind have prospered in California, where state tax credits helped drive the price of wind energy down almost 90 percent, which now makes it cheaper, in windy areas, than any alternative. As a consequence, in Colorado, for example, customers who agreed to pay a bit extra for wind-only electricity are instead are now getting rebates.
The Hewlett Foundation recently sponsored a study of the economic consequences of these policies over the past three decades. It tells an amazing story. California now uses half as much energy per capita as the nation as a whole, saving the average household $1,000 each year, with total savings now more than $56 billion. New York households have similarly benefited. Whereas per-capita electricity use across the nation has increased 50 percent in the last 30 years, in New York it has risen only 15 percent, due to the state's focus on energy conservation, saving billions of dollars. The bottom line here is that saving energy is not only good for the environment, it also saves people money.
Declining salmon stocks raise alarm
February 21, 2006 (Toronto Globe and Mail) Sockeye salmon stocks on British Columbia's northern and central coast are in widespread decline, according to a new report by the Sierra Club of Canada.
The report adds to the woes facing fisheries managers on the West Coast who just last week received preliminary data indicating last year's sockeye salmon spawning run on the Fraser River was far below target. Millions fewer fish returned from the ocean than expected, and of those that made it into the lower river, some 300,000 vanished on the way upstream to the spawning grounds.
On the two lower Fraser River runs, known as the Cultus Lake and Sakinaw Lake runs, the salmon are in such a state of decline they have been listed as endangered by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, or COSEWIC.
The Sierra Club report suggests the situation extends beyond Cultus and Sakinaw Lakes.
"We're looking at headlines about missing salmon in the Fraser River, but this research shows it's a much bigger problem," Vicky Husband of the Sierra Club said yesterday.
"We've got missing salmon all up and down the coast . . . This is a large warning bell . . . We have stocks on the verge of extinction."
Judge in salmon case does not dine on the fish, but believes in the law
February 21, 2006 (Seattle Times) The man pressing the Bush administration on restoring Columbia Basin salmon - even if doing so means breaching some of the region's hydroelectric dams - doesn't like to eat the Northwest's signature fish.
U.S. District Judge James Redden finds it too oily, unless it has been barbecued in the Indian fashion on planks around an open fire.
Politics is the core of the battle over dams and salmon.
Bush promised that none of the four lower Snake River dams would be breached, but conservation groups, Indian tribes and fishermen argue that is the only way to save imperiled Snake River runs.
Federal fisheries authorities conceded in 2000 that may be necessary, but in 2004 came up with a plan eliminating any prospects for their removal. The plan, known as a biological opinion, is required under the Endangered Species Act to ensure federally owned dams don't jeopardize the survival of the 12 threatened and endangered groups of salmon in the Columbia Basin.
It argued that because the dams came before the Endangered Species Act, only their operation, not their existence, was open to modification.
Last May, Redden rejected the plan, the third one he's found wanting.
"You've got to realize and do realize," Redden said, "that the dams are the most harmful" of all the factors affecting salmon - the so-called Four H's of hydro, harvest, hatcheries and habitat. "Everything else is secondary," he said.
Measure targets failing septic tanks
February 21, 2006 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer) Environmentalists, industry back bill to protect Puget Sound
One of Puget Sound's oldest and most widespread pollution sources is the target of legislation scheduled for a key hearing today in Olympia. There, environmentalists and business interests are expected to be on the same side for once.
The legislation is designed to rein in broken septic systems that foul shellfish beds and create "dead zones" in marine waters. The bill was turned back last year in the face of criticism by septic-tank installers and business and construction interests.
But this year those groups are in support, and the bill comes as money has been put in the state budget to provide low-cost loans and grants to low-income homeowners who can't afford expensive septic-tank repairs.
Lobbyist Bruce Wishart of the environmental group People for Puget Sound said most objections were allayed by assurances that the program will be strictly targeted at malfunctioning septic tanks in areas that affect Puget Sound and nearby marine waters.
"In some cases, it's just raw sewage going straight into the Sound," said Wishart, who has worked on the issue since 1987. "Those are the systems we think need to be addressed in the first go-round."
Show us the water
February 20, 2006 (Seattle Times editorial) For all of the giddy optimism of the Columbia River plan that sailed through the Legislature and across the governor's desk, success will be determined by results that do no harm.
Longstanding tensions over providing adequate water for agriculture and leaving enough water in streams for fish, especially in low-water years, were settled with a two-thirds, one-third split - a division that formally recognizes the needs of salmon and steelhead.
Central to the new thinking is a $200 million commitment by the state to improve existing reservoirs and invest in new conservation projects. Gov. Christine Gregoire's infusion of cash is credited with bringing intense discussions to a swift, workable close.
Longer term, there are great expectations for new, massive reservoirs in Eastern Washington. A study released in December listed 11 potential sites, many with price tags that topped $1 billion. Washington could do none of this alone.
This is when regional salesmanship of a larger Columbia Basin view - getting other states to see the value and share the costs - and the reality of federal budget deficits begin to cramp the dream.
Water storage is a topic that only gets hotter as the combination of climate change, declining snowpacks, conservation demands, population growth and agricultural needs all compete for a scarce resource.
This legislation has all the appearances of a historic breakthrough, but the final deal came together quickly. Cool-headed critics, such as The Center for Environmental Law & Policy, said a close reading of the bill does not match the hype about what will actually be accomplished for fish and in-stream resources.
Informed skeptics ought to be embraced so that a good idea can be made to work. Central to the bill is a requirement for analysis of alternatives to big investments. Unanswered questions only invite legal challenges.
Navy's Plans for Sonar Facility Challenged
February 18, 2006 (Washington Post) Danger Posed to Whales Is Cited
The civilian agency in charge of marine issues has sharply challenged the Navy's plans to build an underwater sonar training range in the Atlantic Ocean, saying that the military significantly underestimated the danger posed to whales and other marine mammals and that the science the Navy used to reach its conclusions is flawed.
In a technical letter to the Navy, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said the Navy had neglected to address the likelihood that its mid-frequency sonar would kill some whales and that the highly endangered right whale makes its annual migrations near the proposed site off North Carolina and could be threatened. But most telling, the NOAA letter said that the Navy had used a measure for allowable noise 100 times as high as the level recommended by the agency.
The sonar testing range is a high priority for the Navy, which says that it needs an Atlantic Ocean site to train sailors to detect foreign submarines that come near American shores. But it is trying to get the project approved at a time when scientists have become increasingly convinced that the loud blasts of active sonar have caused whales to strand themselves and die.
The NOAA letter, which is a formal comment on the Navy's environmental impact statement regarding the sonar range, is the most public indication so far of what agency insiders have described as friction between NOAA and Navy officials regarding the sonar issue. In the past, NOAA has generally supported the Navy's plans with reservations, but the most recent letter makes little effort to hide significant disagreements.
NOAA, for instance, wrote that the Navy predicted only lower-level "harassment" of whales by the sonar, despite recent fatal and near-fatal mass strandings in Hawaii and elsewhere that many scientists think were caused by Navy sonar.
"NOAA believes the Navy should seriously reconsider the potential for mortality of [whales] due to strandings related to activities" in the proposed sonar testing range, the letter said.
NOAA officials did not respond yesterday to requests for comment about the specific issues raised in the letter, which was sent on Jan. 30. A Navy official said the service would like to respond, but that it could not until the letter was reviewed and a formal response prepared.
A representative of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group which has sued the Navy over its sonar programs, said that the NOAA letter was remarkable, given the pressure the civilian agency was known to be under.
"What the NOAA letter does is confirm that the Navy analysis is fundamentally flawed," said NRDC lawyer Michael Jasny. In the past, his organization has accused NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service of minimizing the effects of sonar on whales, but he said that this time, the agency stood by the evolving science.
Researchers began focusing on the potential effects of active sonar on marine mammals after 17 beaked whales stranded in the Bahamas immediately following a Navy exercise in 2000. The Navy later concluded that its mid-frequency, active sonar was the likely cause of the stranding.
So few salmon?
February 17, 2006 (Eureka Times Standard) This year's salmon fishing season seems certain to be somber, as estimates of Klamath River fish runs paint a picture that may be darker than any in 15 years.
What that may mean for tribal, commercial and recreational fishermen on the North Coast will begin to be hashed out next week, but very limited or no fishing is a possibility. Only 111,000 Klamath fish are projected to be swimming in the Pacific Ocean -- 74,000 fewer than last year and only 16,000 more than were estimated for 1992, the lowest on record.
"This year's abundance looks very low," said California Department of Fish and Game biologist Neil Manji.
The report by the Pacific Fishery Management Council released Thursday reads that even with no fishing, the number of wild chinook salmon anticipated to spawn in the river would be 29,200. That's far fewer than the 35,000 benchmark fishery managers must meet through regulation.
If last year's regulations were applied, the report reads, only 18,700 wild fish would make it to spawn a new generation.
In 2004, commercial fishermen caught four times as many Klamath fish as expected. Last year ocean anglers got to keep two fish per day, but had a much-shortened season. River fishermen had low quotas and the Yurok and Hoopa Valley tribes -- which are allotted half the available fish -- brought in less than their subsistence needs.
The Klamath River has its share of problems. Dams block salmon from reaching spawning grounds in the upper river, water diversions can draw down the river, crowding fish into warm, shallow water in dry years, and fish diseases appear to have become more rampant. Last year, ocean conditions for young fish that made it to sea were poor, without the strong ocean upwelling generated by spring winds jump-starting the food chain.
Washington state's killer whale officially listed as endangered today
February 16, 2006 (Seattle Times) The listing of Washington state's killer whale population as an endangered species - long awaited by the environmental community - takes effect today.
The southern resident orca population numbers 89 animals, down from an estimated high of about 125 in the 1960s, when now-banned captures for marine aquariums began. The killer whales have been protected since 2002 as a depleted species under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which requires a conservation plan.
The Endangered Species Act listing, announced late last year, requires a more demanding recovery plan, so the National Marine Fisheries Service is upgrading the conservation plan it prepared earlier.
"We intend to issue that shortly," probably this spring, said Bob Lohn, the agency's Northwest regional director.
"We hope the recovery plan will be much more action-oriented than research-oriented," said Kathy Fletcher of the People for Puget Sound. "Research is fine but we think they've mistaken research for action."
"Critical habitat would provide an additional layer of protection to ensure that we actually see recovery of the southern residents" - not merely maintenance of the status quo, said Brent Plater with the Center for Biological Diversity, lead author of the petition to list the orcas as an endangered species.
Food availability and toxic contamination are two critical issues for orcas, he said, adding that critical habitat could include areas the whales' prey need for spawning.
He's wary of the Bush administration, saying political expedience often is a factor in critical habitat designations. "The ESA itself is in danger in Congress," Plater added, "If the Endangered Species Act is rolled back ... you can rest assured that the legal protections that the southern residents need and deserve to survive and recover will be lost."
Susan Berta of Orca Network said she's optimistic.
"People are beginning to understand just how unique and amazing they are and how lucky we are to have the southern resident population in this urban fishbowl," she said, noting that "our burgeoning population is having an impact on the salmon and the orcas."
"Our enforcement strategy is to try to make sure people are aware of these animals and treat them with great respect," he said. "We've found it's more important to have people conscious of these animals and really trying to stay out of their way ... than to be out there with a measuring tape arresting everyone who crosses a hypothetical line.
"We're much more interested in getting people to understand and behave themselves."
Columbia River plan may end heated disputes
February 15, 2006 (Seattle Times) The deep, slow-moving pools of the Columbia River mask a fact that has given farmers and environmentalists fits for decades: There's not always enough water in the Northwest's signature waterway to go around.
But this week, Washington state lawmakers brokered a bipartisan deal that could reshape the future of the Columbia and lower Snake rivers - and transform how the state handles disputes over water.
Tuesday, the Senate unanimously approved a measure that sets a framework for providing more water to both fish and agriculture in the Columbia Basin. The House approved the same bill 94-4 late Monday. Gov. Christine Gregoire is expected to sign it.
The proposal is deceptively simple-seeming, but it could end some of the political and legal wrangling that has raged for years between Western Washington conservation groups and Eastern Washington farmers.
In essence, the package allows the state to provide more water to farmers - as long as it is not taken during months the fish need it most, and provided farmers agree to offset new water withdrawals with projects that conserve water.
But the real key to winning support from many Republicans was money. Gregoire agreed the state would set aside $200 million. Two-thirds of it would be to find or create new water supplies for farmers, perhaps by building reservoirs. A third of it would go toward increasing flows in the river.
‘Slippery Six' Orcas Arrive
February 14, 2006 (Kitsap Sun) The so-called "Slippery Six" - transient killer whales that spent nearly six months in Hood Canal last year - have been spotted in Puget Sound, where they were accompanied by a large group of transients on Monday.
The group of six, which showed up in Hood Canal in January 2005, was made up of two mothers, each with two calves. Now, it appears that one of the moms has a new calf, according to Dave Ellifrit of the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island.
The orcas were first spotted Saturday near Victoria, British Columbia, in a group of about 30 transients. On Monday, Jeff Hogan, an orca educator, saw a group of up to 20 swim past his Vashon Island home. The group was last sighted about noon Monday heading for the Tacoma Narrows Bridge.
Sightings may be reported to Orca Network, (866) ORCANET or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Scientists criticize salmon plan
February 14, 2006 (Tacoma News Tribune) Federal proposal won't save crucial White River chinook run, critics say
The federal agency that's supposed to protect endangered salmon endorsed an effort to bring back Puget Sound kings even though the plan fails to meet the agency's own recovery criteria.
Despite shortcomings cited by its scientific team, the National Marine Fisheries Service embraced the so-called "Shared Strategy" proposal in December as the core of its plan to revive salmon runs listed as threatened with extinction.
Politicians have praised Shared Strategy for bringing various interest groups together.
But the team of seven scientists who reviewed the Shared Strategy plan on behalf of NMFS found a number of faults, some of which are at the heart of conservation efforts.
In a document that supplements the Shared Strategy plan, the scientists noted numerous "gaps in local watershed plans." A key deficiency in the South Sound is the lack of a plan to save the wild spring run of chinook salmon in the White River. It's the only surviving spring run in the South Sound, so scientists say it must be saved.
Mary Ruckelshaus, a NMFS fish biologist who leads the agency's technical recovery team, said the overall plan is acceptable but the White River gap is "one of the more glaring ones" that must be addressed. Her father, William Ruckelshaus, a former Environmental Protection Agency administrator, is one of the driving forces behind Shared Strategy.
"If we don't recover White River spring chinook, we don't meet the goals of spring chinook in general," she said. "It's the only remaining early run in the South Sound region. That's why it's so critical."
Similarly absent from the recovery plan – although deemed less significant by NMFS scientists – is a game plan for Puyallup River chinook. A strategy for fall chinook on the Skokomish River also is not included.
Shared Strategy is a nonprofit group that spearheaded a local, regional, tribal and state effort to restore Puget Sound king – also called chinook – salmon.
The deadline for public responses is Feb. 27.
• Write: Elizabeth Babcock, National Marine Fisheries Service, Salmon Recovery Division, 7600 Sandpoint Way N.E., Seattle, WA 98115
• E-mail: PugetSalmonPlan.nwr@ noaa.gov, with "Comments on Puget Sound Salmon Plan" in the subject line
Capitol Watch: Sound cleanup
February 14, 2006 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer editorial) Failing septic systems are obvious culprits in diminished water quality and habitat for fish, marine mammals and shellfish in Puget Sound, especially along Hood Canal. As obvious as the problem may be, its solutions are complicated by the fact that the troubled systems are scattered and the best remedy is disruptive and expensive for individual homeowners.
The ultimate solution includes stepped-up detection and enforcement and funding to help homeowners comply.
House Bill 1458 offers a step in the journey toward a cleaner Puget Sound. The bill, which passed the House over the weekend, would require local health officials in a dozen Puget Sound counties to develop programs for managing onsite sewage systems by July of next year. They would also need to identify areas where they find existing sewage systems are a significant factor in water quality or downgraded shellfish beds, designate them "marine recovery areas" and develop strategies to locate problem systems and make sure that their owners repair them by July 2012.
Gov. Christine Gregoire's proposed 2007-2009 budget includes $6.5 million to help homeowners pay the costs of repairing or replacing failing systems in those marine recovery areas.
The Senate would do well to pass HB 1458. It's time to get serious about cleaning up the Sound. Lawmakers must be sensible as well, by assuring adequate appropriations for grants and low-income loans to encourage homeowners to do the right thing for Puget Sound.
Tiny zooplankton may be key to juvenile salmon survival
February 13, 2006 (Eugene Register-Guard) Tiny sea creatures known as zooplankton may be the key to fattening up juvenile salmon enough to survive in the ocean, a new study says.
A species of zooplankton called copepods that thrive in cold water in the northeast Pacific Ocean have a high level of lipids - or fats - possibly boosting the food chain and allowing salmon to grow fast enough to survive their first year at sea.
The copepods store high amounts of the fats in order to hibernate during the winter, much like bears, according to Oregon State University researchers.
The copepods, in turn, are eaten by juvenile anchovies, herring, smelt and krill, boosting the fat content of those species and making them highly nutritious for young coho and chinook salmon, as well as other predators.
"A fat salmon is a happy salmon," said William Peterson, an oceanographer at the university's Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport.
For years, scientists and the fishing industry have known that "good ocean conditions" are critical to salmon survival and are linked with strong upwelling that brings nutrient-rich deeper waters to the surface. But studies by Peterson and his colleagues shed new light on what makes those conditions favorable for juvenile salmon.
World at its warmest of past 1,200 years, researchers show
February 10, 2006 (Toronto Globe and Mail) The last part of the 20th century is considered by many scientists to be the warmest period since modern record-keeping began around the 1850s, but new research indicates the era is even more remarkable.
The warmth in which the Northern Hemisphere has basked since the middle of the 20th century has been the most widespread and longest period of unusual climate experienced at any time during at least the past 1,200 years, according to a research paper in the journal Science.
The finding, by a pair of climate researchers from the University of East Anglia in Norwich, U.K., was based on comparisons of the current warm period to other hot and cold intervals since the year 800.
Among these long periods of alternating temperatures were the "Little Ice Age" that sent Northern Europe into a deep freeze, and the Medieval Warm Period around 1000, when an interval of more benign climate coincided with the rise of the sea-faring Vikings.
The researchers think their work bolsters the case that global warming due to human activity has created a change in climate unlike anything seen in more than a millennium.
The findings "provide additional support for the case that recent warmth is unusual in the context of natural changes in the last 1,200 years," said Timothy Osborn, one of the researchers, who added that the results are "probably related" to greenhouse gas emissions from human activity.
Boat engines like 'dinner bells' for sperm whales
February 10, 2006 (Juneau Empire) Sperm whales in the Gulf of Alaska are likely using the sounds of fishing boat engines as underwater dinner bells to hone in on longlines hung with valuable sablefish, scientists said.
The engines make loud, erratic bubbling noises as fishermen maneuver their boats while winching up hundreds of bottom-dwelling sablefish.
"That's the whales' cue," said Jan Straley, an assistant professor at the University of Alaska Southeast who since 2002 has helped lead an ongoing study of the whales' behavior.
The study has helped researchers devise low-cost ways for fishermen to hoodwink the highly intelligent cetaceans.
It estimates there are 90 male sperm whales feeding from longlines in the eastern Gulf of Alaska, part of the world's largest sablefish fishery.
Scientists found the sperm whales tend to feed on longlines in the late spring through summer, during the height of the sablefish season. The season starts in March and ends in November.
Sound receivers attached to the longlines recorded the loud clicks of chattering whales. Scientists used the recordings to gauge how deep the whales were diving and their proximity to the boats.
They found that whales dive shallower than normal when near fishing boats.
"The whale doesn't have to dive as deep to get its food," said Aaron Thode, an associate researcher at the University of California, San Diego, who is also leading the study.
Thode and Straley's suggestions for fishermen include fishing earlier or later in the season, hauling in the line without shutting down the engine, or making decoy noises with the engine to draw whales to a different area.
Fishermen said they will try the methods this season but many believe the large-brained whales are just too smart.
"We try to get creative, but there's only so much you can do," said Steve Fish of Sitka, who has fished for sablefish in the gulf for 27 years.
Salmon solution: $1 billion plan
February 10, 2006 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer) The most expensive, far-reaching strategy for saving Puget Sound salmon ever devised is out for public scrutiny. [Salmon Recovery map]
The voluminous Puget Sound Salmon Recovery Plan proposes doubling spending on salmon recovery -- a commitment of more than $1.1 billion in federal, state and local funds over the plan's first 10 years. The anticipated payoff: big jumps in chinook populations throughout the region.
"It's the first time I've been given reason to hope we can reverse the losses," said Curt Hoetling, a Whidbey Island resident and former Alaskan commercial fisherman.
"The work is ahead, but just getting to this point ... is to me inspiring and extraordinarily encouraging," Hoetling said in remarks at a Seattle public meeting Wednesday night.
The plan is the culmination of years of work spent developing strategies for rebuilding the Sound's chinook, bull trout and Hood Canal chum populations. In 1999, the fish were declared "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act.
As the plan goes forward, people in the Seattle area can expect to see:
Removal of riprap, sea walls and other shoreline-hardening features in favor of more natural beaches.
Protection of remaining natural shorelines, with trees planted to improve shade.
Placement of log piles in rivers and streams to create pools harboring young salmon.
Replacement of pipes that carry streams under roads so salmon can reach better spawning grounds.
Work to make docks and the Ballard Locks more salmon-friendly.
Support for the effort comes from diverse interests, including dozens of cities, counties, business interests and conservation groups. But not everyone is onboard -- and even supporters aren't sure that there is enough money and momentum to get the job done.
And no one is sure how climate change could disrupt the effort. A failure to adequately plan for a warmer world was one of the key criticisms raised at Wednesday's meeting.
In recent years, warmer temperatures have already harmed Seattle-area salmon populations passing through the Ballard Locks and into Lake Washington.
To read the draft Puget Sound Salmon Recovery Plan visit: www.sharedsalmonstrategy.org Comments are due by Feb. 27. Details for submitting comments are in the Federal Register at www.sharedsalmonstrategy.org/plan/docs/FRN.pdf
For more information, call the National Marine Fisheries Service's Elizabeth Babcock, 206-526-4505, or Elizabeth Gaar, 503-230-5434.
Situation calls for integrated strategies
February 9, 2006 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer op-ed) Connaughton's speech could be paraphrased: "Fixing dams is very expensive. We have spent and spent, and it has worked, if not completely. But before we spend a lot more, let's make changes in harvest and hatcheries instead."
Taken altogether, that's a bad idea. We have not done nearly enough to reform the dam system or protect and recover habitat. We must do more on those fronts, not less. But the big problem is not that the administration is saying anything about harvest and hatcheries; it's that it isn't saying enough.
Connaughton rather overstated the improvements in Columbia Basin dam management. That's just one reason to suspect he may have overstated what the administration intends to do about harvest and hatcheries. A close reading of the speech reveals plenty of qualification and hedging. His model hatchery-reform process has been ongoing in Puget Sound since 1999, and has so far brought very little actual change.
The responsible agencies have dropped that ball. But a vague pledge to do an inadequate job addressing harvest and hatcheries while cutting back on an already inadequate job on habitat and hydro is not the answer.
On the other hand, an either-or choice between dams or harvest is just as inadequate. Why should reforming fisheries management come at the expense of protecting and recovering habitat function? Let's push for much more on dams and habitat, and much more on harvest and hatcheries. The plain and powerful truth is that regarding salmon recovery, the Bush administration isn't doing enough anywhere, about anything.
Canada to Shield 5 Million Forest Acres
February 7, 2006 (New York Times) In this sodden land of glacier-cut fjords and giant moss-draped cedars, a myth is told by the Gitga'at people to explain the presence of black bears with a rare recessive gene that makes them white as snow.
The Raven deity swooped down on the land at the end of an ice age and decided that one out of every 10 black bears born from that moment on would be bleached as "spirit bears." It was to be a reminder to future generations that the world must be kept pristine.
On Tuesday, an improbable assemblage of officials from the provincial government, coastal Native Canadian nations, logging companies and environmental groups will announce an agreement that they say will accomplish that mission in the home of the spirit bear, an area that is also the world's largest remaining intact temperate coastal rain forest.
A wilderness of close to five million acres, almost the size of New Jersey, in what is commonly called the Great Bear Rain Forest or the Amazon of the North will be kept off limits to loggers in an agreement that the disparate parties describe as a crossroads in their relations.
The agreement comes after more than a decade of talks, international boycott campaigns against Great Bear wood products and sit-ins in the forests by Native Canadians and environmentalists, who chained themselves to logging equipment.
The process has already inspired similar efforts to save the Canadian boreal forest, to the north, and suggestions that the agreement could be a model for preservation in the Amazon and other threatened forests.
Scientists say the agreement should preserve not only the few hundred spirit bears and other black bears, but also one of the highest concentrations of grizzly bears in North America as well as unique subspecies of goshawks, coastal wolves, Sitka blacktail deer and mountain goats.
Focus on making waters whale-safe
February 7, 2006 (Everett Herald letter to the editor) More people need to know what is going on. I just moved here to the great state of Washington a few months back. I had always heard about the orca whales out here and of course thought of them as a wonderful gift you have here. Now that I'm here, I attended a "Workshop for Whales" at random. I had no idea the immediate danger that these resident pods are in. Why isn't this being reported? Everybody knows that unless it's in the papers and on the news the issues will struggle to stay afloat.
These intelligent, graceful creatures here in our backyards need our help to survive. They face so many dangers - the depletion of salmon, the toxins in the water and the risks of an oil spill that could decimate the resident orcas in a matter of days. I am hoping that you will put these orcas in the spotlight and give them the help and attention that they need. I am certainly not an expert on the subject but there seem to be plenty of folks around here who are. Please contact The Orca Network at 1-866-672-2638. Please consider doing a story on the challenges to save our 87 whales that are left.
Warming streams endanger salmon
February 6, 2006 (Anchorage Daily News) A long-term study of salmon streams on the lower Kenai Peninsula has found a steady six-year warming trend, with more days counted every year in which water temperatures exceed limits considered healthy for salmon.
The latest report found that the water last summer was not quite as warm as in the June-July peak of 2004. But 2005 wound up with the most days exceeding state standards, because researchers started counting earlier. By May 23, as king salmon were first nosing into the Anchor River, the water was already exceeding healthy temperatures.
The study also found that vital insect larvae on two of the rivers -- Deep Creek and the Anchor River -- are failing to recover as expected from major flooding in 2002. Other streams examined were the Ninilchik River and Stariski Creek, where invertebrates appear to be recovering.
The report suggests new ways in which climate change may be coming to roost in Southcentral Alaska. While much attention has gone to the effects of warming in Arctic Alaska, the southern coast has seen spruce bark beetle epidemics and drying wetlands attributed by scientists to higher temperatures.
The administration's no-plan salmon plan
February 5, 2006 (Seattle Times editorial) THE Bush administration desperately wants to change the subject as a tenacious federal judge in Oregon snaps at its backside over the operation of the Columbia River hydro system and its effect on salmon.
Late last month, James Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, announced in Portland the administration wants to cut salmon harvests and close some hatcheries that are harming wild stocks. Throughout the Northwest, and especially in Washington, the news was greeted with a collective "Huh?" State and tribal fishing managers have been working on those two issues for years, with solid progress.
Harvests have been steadily reduced and subject to continuing oversight. Almost two years ago, the Hatchery Reform Project released a four-year study that included a thousand recommendations for improving hatchery operations. Hundreds of the ideas have been embraced, and the work continues.
The Washington Legislature has been paying for and promoting efforts to restore salmon runs since 1998. Work around Puget Sound and on the coast is proceeding through a variety of initiatives, strategies and councils that carry salmon restoration in individual watersheds and tailor solutions to local conditions.
At best, the White House proposal is ill-informed and out of date. At worst, the plan is an attempt to distract attention from the problems of reconciling salmon survival with dam operations and the continuing need to focus on habitat restoration.
Salmon must have healthy streams to return to, and managing the balance between a growing population and a healthy environment is an endless challenge, but it is work in progress.
U.S. given failing grade on improving oceans
February 4, 2006 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer) Two years after a blue-ribbon panel's recommendations for reversing the ocean's decline earned wide praise, the chairman of the panel Friday said the nation has made little progress and the effort suffers from a lack of urgency and money.
In the first report card since the recommendations were finalized, retired Adm. James Watkins, chairman of a commission created by President Bush, said progress has been painfully slow. Overall, he gave the efforts a grade of "D+" and contrasted the positive reaction when the report was issued to the meager steps taken so far.
"The oceans are in serious trouble, our governance system can't handle it, and we are underinvesting in science and technology," Watkins said.
"This report card is based on product delivery, not on intentions," said Watkins. "The plans are good. ... These grades are based on what are we doing now."
The Joint Ocean Commission is a collaboration of two panels that offered strikingly similar recommendations for saving oceans. It is co-chaired by Leon Panetta, a former congressman and chief of staff to former President Clinton who heads a panel of ocean experts underwritten by the Pew Charitable Trust. Watkins and Panetta said they joined forces to keep attention on the crisis oceans face and force Congress and policy-makers to act.
"Ocean issues are viewed by committees in the House as areas that can be cut to pay for earmarks," Panetta said, referring to special interest projects that lawmakers insert into the budget.
One bright spot, both men said, is the work occurring in some states, including Washington. Those efforts are rooted in a broad, ecosystem approach that draws in governments at all levels.
Among the most notable are those in California, the Puget Sound area and the Great Lakes region, the report said. "This is a promising start, but more is needed, particularly with regard to a purposeful and coordinated federal role in facilitating and supporting such activities," the report said.
Whale damages boat, injures passenger off Santa Barbara
February 3, 2006 (San Jose Mercury News) A gray whale smashed into a 27-foot boat on an evening cruise, damaging the vessel and injuring one person, the boat's owner said.
The Bayliner was cruising off Leadbetter Beach shortly before 6 p.m. Wednesday when the whale came up from under its right bow, belly-flopped onto the boat and crushed its cabin, said boat owner Jerry Gormley.
"It pushed the boat down kind of sideways, then it came down on top," said Gormley, 55, who had taken his friends Bob and Vicki Thornburgh onto the water to watch the sunset. The whale emerged from the water again and ran it's tail along the boat's flank, knocking over Bob Thornburgh, 50, and tearing down the vessel's railing, Gormley said. The whale approached the boat a third time, settled beside it, and stared at Gormley, he said.
"You can look into most animals' eyes and see nothing," said Gormley, who estimated the whale was 30 feet long. "But not this one."
Gormley said his steering equipment and radar apparatus were destroyed, so he radioed for help. Larry Nufer, the Santa Barbara Harbor Patrol officer who responded, said he found a badly damaged vessel.
"The cabin top had broken totally off, and was floating away to the side," said Nufer. "There was whale skin and blubber embedded in the sides."
Bob Thornburgh was treated for cracked ribs at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital, said his wife, Vicki, 45. She said it seemed like the whale had consciously collided with the boat.
"It wasn't like the whale didn't know we were there," she said.
Tanker grounds in Alaska
February 3, 2006 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer) An oil tanker being loaded with fuel at a refinery broke free of its moorings in the Cook Inlet port of Nikiski and drifted until it went aground about a half mile away, the oil company said Thursday.
About five 42-gallon barrels of product were spilled, Coast Guard Petty Officer Eric Chandler said, but three of those barrels were confined to the ship. Only two barrels -- less than 100 gallons -- ended up in Cook Inlet.
The 575-foot Seabulk Pride was moored overnight in Nikiski on the Kenai Peninsula when it was struck by an ice floe and broke free at 5:25 a.m., said Sarah Simpson, a spokeswoman for Tesoro Corp. in San Antonio.
"A large piece of ice floating in the channel -- from what they tell me it was traveling pretty fast -- struck the vessel," Simpson said.
Tesoro has a refinery in Nikiski, which is about 80 miles south of Anchorage. The double-hulled tanker was being loaded when it drifted away, she said.
The Coast Guard said the tanker was carrying four kinds of fuel, including 94,951 barrels of a thick residual oil product similar in consistency to asphalt that was not processed at the Tesoro refinery.
In total, the Seabulk Pride was carrying about 116,225 barrels of product, or 4.9 million gallons, when it broke free.
Chandler said there was some damage to the tanker's fuel arm, but otherwise the tanker appeared to be OK. There were 34 people on board the tanker at the time of the accident, two of them pilots. There were no reported injuries.
Petty Officer Steve Harrison of the Coast Guard command center in Juneau said the tanker made a soft landing on silt, adding that that was "a good thing."
Global Warming Demands Urgent Solutions, Scientists Say
January 31, 2006 (Environmental Network News) The world must halt greenhouse gas emissions and reverse them within two decades or watch the planet spiralling towards destruction, scientists said on Monday.
Saying that evidence of catastrophic global warming from burning fossil fuels was now incontrovertible, the experts from oceanographers to economists, climatologists and politicians stressed that inaction was unacceptable.
"Climate change is worse than was previously thought and we need to act now," Henry Derwent, special climate change adviser to British Prime Minister Tony Blair, said at the launch of a book of scientific papers on the global climate crisis.
Researcher Rachel Warren from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, who contributed to the book "Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change", said carbon dioxide emissions had to peak no later than 2025, and painted a picture of rapidly approaching catastrophe.