Orca Network News - July, 2007
the Southern Resident orcas,
orcas worldwide, and their habitats
July 1, 2007 through July 31, 2007.
July 31, 2007 (Oregonian) The return of oxygen-depleted water off the Oregon coast is a sign of a warming climate, which could have ill effect on populations of sea creatures, scientists said Monday.
It's the sixth year the water, known as a dead zone, has formed.
"It does, indeed, appear to be the new normal," said Jane Lubchenco, professor of marine biology at Oregon State University. "The fact that we are seeing six in a row now tells us that something pretty fundamental has changed about conditions off of our coast."
Unlike the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, which is caused by fertilizer washing down the Mississippi River, the Oregon dead zone is triggered by northerly winds, which create an ocean-mixing condition called upwelling.
This brings low-oxygen waters from deep in the ocean close to shore, and spreads nitrogen and other nutrients through the water column, kicking off a population boom of plankton, the tiny plants and animals at the foundation of the ocean food web.
Normally, this is good for salmon, giving them lots of food to eat. But when huge amounts of plankton die, they fall to the bottom of the ocean, where they decompose, depleting the water of oxygen.
Instruments towed back and forth from one mile offshore to 12 miles offshore found oxygen levels as low as one-sixth of normal, said Francis Chan, a research professor of marine ecology.
That is not as bad as last year, when scientists plotted a dead zone that stretched from southern Oregon to the tip of Olympic Peninsula in Washington, a distance of nearly 300 miles.
Idaho chinook still in trouble
July 30, 2007 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer editorial) 15 years after wild salmon were listed for federal protection, runs haven't recovered to fishable numbers.
Idaho salmon are indisputably in decline. All of Idaho's wild salmon species are either on the endangered species list or extinct. But Idaho's political leaders and the department charged with preserving, protecting and perpetuating the state's wildlife have recently been quiet about wild salmon recovery.
With a new governor, congressman, and Idaho Department of Fish and Game director taking office this year, along with an old guard of politicians and tribal leaders long involved in salmon issues, we decided to ask what they are doing to help recover Idaho's salmon.
But first, a refresher. The whole salmon debate can be confusing and seemingly contradictory. For example, wild spring/summer chinook are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, but Idaho anglers have been able to fish for their hatchery-bred cousins for the last eight years, which is the longest consecutive streak of seasons in 33 years.
Historically, the spring/summer chinook run is less than 5 percent of its level before Lewis and Clark arrived, and wild spring/summer chinook have been listed for 15 years.
Scientists estimate 1.5 million spring/summer chinook returned to the Snake River system in the late 1800s. By the late 1960s, they had dwindled to about 100,000 per year.
About 61,000 spring/summer chinook have crossed Lower Granite Dam annually in the last 10 years.
Far fewer wild salmon are produced each year when compared with their hatchery cousins, which are hand-fed in raceways until they are ready to migrate to the ocean.
For wild salmon to recover, more young salmon must survive to adulthood and return to Idaho's rivers to spawn.
When originally protected in 1992, federal agencies decided the fish would be considered restored if 31,440 wild chinook crossed Lower Granite Dam — the last Snake River dam they cross before Idaho — for eight consecutive years. That number has been reached only once since the fish were protected.
State Ecology: Creative caution
July 30, 2007 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer editorial) As science moves forward, Washington state's climate change policy must evolve. The challenge is to match the rapidly mounting scientific evidence of serious problems with fast-paced adjustments.
Gov. Chris Gregoire's Washington Climate Challenge Advisory Team will play a key role in determining whether the state moves quickly toward a new era. The temptation will be to take a cautious, politically careful tone when the team makes recommendations later this year.
State Ecology Department Director Jay Manning, a co-chairman of the action team, says climate policy will move forward each of the next few years. He's right. But, as we wait for genuine national leadership, let's move boldly enough here to begin catching up with the science.
Reef of glass sponges found off Washington's coast
July 28, 2007 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer) 'Living hotels' are rich with sea life
A reef of glass sponges, creating a deep-sea oasis 650 feet below the surface, was discovered for the first time in U.S. waters off the Washington coast.
The sponges are so rich with marine life that scientists call them "a kindergarten or living hotel." All variety of baby organisms thrive among the reef of yellow and orange sponges, which look something like hollowed-out, supersized Cheetos. These "Manhattans of the sea floor" house a diversity of starfish, crabs, shrimp, rockfish, worms and snails.
Researchers didn't even think the oxymoronic structures -- sponges made of glass that form reefs -- even existed anymore. Captured in the fossil record, they were thought until fairly recently to have gone extinct 100 million years ago. They were supposed to have been squeezed out by the arrival of microscopic marine algae that began gobbling up the glassy silica the sponges need to build their skeletons.
Instead, the crafty creatures went to depths too dark for the tiny plants -- but not so deep that they couldn't get enough oxygen.
An intriguing twist on Johnson's finding was the presence of natural gas, or methane. The methane is seeping out of the ocean floor, feeding strands of bacteria. The glass sponges suck and sweep the bacteria in through their pores and eat them, jetting the extra water back out the hole at the top of their body.
"Everybody is feeding off the methane," said Johnson, who plans to submit the findings to a scientific journal. "It's a whole ecosystem that people didn't know about."
Using echo-sounders they searched the sea bottom, with no sponge to be found. Then they noticed a cluster of long-line fishing boats.
Fishing boats meant that fish were hanging around, and that meant that the fish had a home in the otherwise barren stretch of the ocean -- the sponges.
Allowing trawling or harmful activities in the area of the reef, he said, "it's like taking a chain saw to a redwood forest."
Gray whale gets tangled in Muckleshoot fishing net, swims free with gear attached
July 26, 2007 (Seattle Times) A gray whale got tangled in a Muckleshoot Tribe's fishing net early this morning in Elliott Bay near the Edgewater Hotel.
The whale has since freed itself, said Brian Gorman, spokesman for the Northwest regional branch of the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Those on the tribe's boat originally thought the whale was dead and were trying to cut it from the net, when it sprang to life, said Gorman. They sped up their attempts to free the whale, and it eventually swam off with some fishing gear still attached.
The gear could pose a problem for the whale, depending if it managed to free itself from it or not, he said.
Coast Guard Petty Officer Shawn Eggert said he was aware of the situation, but that it did not fall on the Coast Guard's duties, although they were standing by to help if a boat was needed.
In our view: Down Goes the Dam
July 26, 2007 (Columbian) Whether you're a bean counter, a fish lover or a kayak paddler, you've got to love Tuesday's big blast on the Sandy River east of Gresham, Ore. Two tons of explosives demolished upper portions of the Marmot Dam and triggered a weeks-long removal.
From the fiscal perspective, removing the 47-foot-high dam allows Portland General Electric to rid itself of a structure where costs of mandated upgrades would have exceeded profits produced by the small power facility downstream of the diversion dam.
From the environmental perspective, removing the Marmot Dam and taking down the smaller Little Sandy Dam on a tributary, will open more than 100 miles of habitat for threatened runs of native salmon and steelhead.
From the recreational perspective, several miles of canyon will become available for kayakers and rafters, and a larger area will be designated a recreational corridor.
Another utility, PacifiCorp., plans an October 2008 removal of the 125-foot-high Condit Dam on the White Salmon River about 65 miles east of Vancouver. That will be the highest dam to be removed in the United States. Tuesday's smaller project on the Sandy River and the upcoming Condit project are different in many ways, and not just in ownership. The Condit Dam will be taken down in one fell swoop, not over weeks as with PGE's Marmot Dam. Short-term environmental harm (sediment release) will be extreme at both, but even worse at the Condit Dam where more than twice as much sediment will be released almost instantly.
Over a few years, though, long-term habitat-restoration benefits will emerge. It's naive to think Northwest dams are going away. But when a few can be removed, whether the goal is financial or environmental, we all win.
How global warming will affect our local waters
July 25, 2007 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer) Sandy beaches disappear where small fish once laid eggs.
Stretches of tidal flats -- home to spindly-legged shoreline birds and clams, snails and crabs -- vanish in some spots, appear in others.
Freshwater marshes turn salty, poisoning plants sensitive to sodium.
As the planet warms and sea levels rise, Washington can expect to see changes such as these along its miles of shoreline, according to a report by the National Wildlife Federation released Tuesday. The report provides the most comprehensive predictions to date about what could happen to these marine ecosystems, tallying how much ocean beach would be lost, for example, while salty marshes expand.
The news isn't all bad -- but it's mostly not good.
"The problem is the squeeze," said Megan Dethier, a marine biology professor at the University of Washington's Friday Harbor Labs. As water levels rise, creatures and plants are forced inland, where they run smack into people and their roads and houses and businesses.
The study didn't make specific predictions about how shellfish, seabirds, salmon and orcas would fare -- but concluded that the loss of habitat likely wouldn't help populations.
One of the hottest areas of debate in the climate change arena is exactly how fast and far sea levels are likely to rise as oceans warm and expand and polar ice caps melt. By the end of the century, the global average rise could be less than 5 inches at the low end, almost 80 inches at the high end, according to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and research published in scientific journals.
The differences depend in large part on the rate of melting for the ice fields in Greenland and Antarctica. The report focused on numbers midway -- 27.3 and 59.1 inches by 2100.
Rising sea, rising threat: What Puget Sound risks
July 25, 2007 (Seattle Times) Rising oceans over the next century can be expected to swamp half of existing Puget Sound estuary beaches, swallow tideflats and alter the spawning habitat for herring, surf smelt and other fish, and could also wreak havoc with the Sound's food web, according to a new report by the National Wildlife Federation.
Using sea-level-rise scenarios projected by an international climate-change panel that met earlier this year, the environmental group predicts that thousands of acres of what are now freshwater marshes could become salt marshes — while other marshland may simply disappear.
The group says such changes could end up affecting everything from harbor seals and seabirds to wild shellfish such as butter clams and Olympia oysters.
The report reinforces findings scientists for the state and the University of Washington issued two years ago, which determined that climate change could affect Puget Sound dramatically over time.
But they said gauging how life in the Sound will respond to sea-level changes is much trickier.
For example, salmon can adapt to new habitats and hiding places, and many waterfowl species have multiple species of prey. Shellfish larvae can travel great distances to change habitats.
Warmer temperatures can stress salmon, and changes to river flows alter water salinity and density, which can affect how and when microscopic plants bloom to feed the tiny sea creatures that ultimately nourish most life in the Sound.
Global Warming and the Pacific Northwest Coast July 25, 2007 (National Wildlife Federation)
This is the way the dam crumbles
July 23, 2007 (Oregonian) A blast on the Sandy River will clear the way for threatened fish to pass
After a ceremonial first crack, workers will blast, hammer, drill and saw until the end of September to crumble the 47-foot-high concrete wall down to the bed of the Sandy River.
A temporary dam, built to divert water during the demolition, will stay in place upstream until storms breach it this fall. Only then will threatened salmon and steelhead gain unobstructed access to the Sandy for the first time in 95 years.
"Marmot Dam will be the biggest dam removed in the Northwest in more than 40 years, and the biggest ever in Oregon," said Amy Souers Kober of American Rivers.
A number of other Northwest dams are scheduled for removal in the next five years, Kober said, including the Savage Rapids Dam on the Rogue River, the Condit Dam on the White Salmon River, and the 210-foot-high Glines Canyon Dam on the Elwha River in Washington, which will become the tallest dam ever removed in the United States, she said.
Shell ordered to suspend Arctic drilling
July 21, 2007 (Yahoo News) Alaska - A federal appeals court has ordered Shell Oil to stop its exploratory drilling program off the north coast of Alaska at least until a hearing in August.
The order, issued Thursday by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, comes after the federal Minerals Management Service in February approved Shell's offshore exploration plan for the Beaufort Sea.
"Vessels currently located in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas shall cease all operations performed in furtherance of that program, but need not depart the area," the order said.
Opponents contend that the Minerals Management Service approved Shell's plan without fully considering that a large spill would harm marine mammals, including bowhead and beluga whales. They say polar bears could also be harmed, and they question whether cleaning up a sizable spill would even be possible in the icy waters.
Huge Dust Plumes From China Cause Changes in Climate
July 20, 2007 (Wall Street Journal) An outpouring of dust layered with man-made sulfates, smog, industrial fumes, carbon grit and nitrates is crossing the Pacific Ocean on prevailing winds from booming Asian economies in plumes so vast they alter the climate. These rivers of polluted air can be wider than the Amazon and deeper than the Grand Canyon.
"There are times when it covers the entire Pacific Ocean basin like a ribbon bent back and forth," said atmospheric physicist V. Ramanathan at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif.
This transcontinental pollution is part of a growing global traffic in dust and aerosol particles made worse by drought and deforestation, said Steven Cliff, who studies the problem at the University of California at Davis.
Aerosols -- airborne microscopic particles -- are produced naturally every time a breeze catches sea salt from ocean spray, or a volcano erupts, or a forest burns, or a windstorm kicks up dust, for example. They also are released in exhaust fumes, factory vapors and coal-fired power plant emissions.
Over the Pacific itself, the plumes are seeding ocean clouds and spawning fiercer thunderstorms, researchers at Texas A&M University reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in March.
The influence of these plumes on climate is complex because they can have both a cooling and a warming effect, the scientists said. Scientists are convinced these plumes contain so many cooling sulfate particles that they may be masking half of the effect of global warming. The plumes may block more than 10% of the sunlight over the Pacific.
Once aloft, the plumes can circle the world in three weeks. "In a very real and immediate sense, you can look at a dust event you are breathing in China and look at this same dust as it tracks across the Pacific and reaches the United States," said climate analyst Jeff Stith at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado. "It is a remarkable mix of natural and man-made particles."
Sea levels may rise by 9 inches this century, scientists warn
July 20, 2007 (The Independent UK) The melting of mountain glaciers and ice caps as a result of global warming over the next century is likely to cause bigger than expected increases in sea levels.
An assessment of the volume of water running into the oceans from melting ice caps suggests that sea levels could rise by two to three times the amount previously expected from this source. The study used satellite monitoring to assess the contribution to sea levels made by all land-based ice, except for the two continental-sized ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimated that melting ice caps and glaciers will add about three inches (7.6cm) to sea levels this century. But the latest assessment, published in the journal Science, suggests they are more likely to add between four inches and 9.5 inches to global sea levels.
This does not include the rise in sea levels caused by the thermal expansion of water, which could potentially double this figure. A 12-inch rise in sea level can typically cause a shoreline to retreat by 100ft (30m) or more. About 100 million people now live in areas within three feet of sea level.
Boat runs over whale near Rye Harbor
July 19, 2007 (Boston Globe) Tourists on whale-watching boats watched in horror as a speedboat struck a 60-foot-long finback this weekend about 20 miles off Rye Harbor.
Jen Kennedy, a passenger on one boat, said the whale surfaced nine times before it was hit, each time spouting 20 feet into the air.
"The fact that he didn't see any of this blows my mind," she said of the speedboat driver. "It (the whale) was almost the size of our boat. They're lucky they didn't get hurt."
The whale -- like others in the area, known individually to experts -- suffered a deep gash in its side, but did not appear to be seriously hurt, according to an investigator from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
"Whale experts said the injuries didn't seem severe," said Michael Henry, a special agent with the agency. "They know who the whale is."
The Coast Guard and New Hampshire Marine Patrol arrived soon afterward, but could not find the whale or speedboat. Coast Guard Petty Officer Karinne Spethman said the boat driver later contacted authorities to report he had struck a whale. His name was not immediately released.
New Navy Sonar Threatens Whale Population
July 18, 2007 (Outdoor News Wire) The U.S. Navy wants to expand its use of a new low-frequency sonar, but there are indications this sonar kills whales and other marine mammals.
If the government approves the Navy's request, the decision will not be revisited for five years. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Tuesday that low-frequency sonar would have a "negligible impact" on marine mammals.
However, when the sonar was tested in U.S. waters in 2003, several porpoises washed up on the coastline soon after. According to the Center for Whale Research, low-frequency sonar can cause bleeding in the ears and brain of marine mammals.
The new sonar has a much greater range than mid-frequency sonar, which the Navy usually employs. Marine mammals hundreds of miles away can be affected by low-frequency sonar, often losing their ability to track prey or communicate with one another.
The government's proposal to allow expanded use of the sonar is open to public comments -- but only through July 24. Public comment periods usually run 60 to 90 days.
Those who wish to comment on the proposal can do so by using the identifier "062206A" when contacting PR1.062306A@noaa.gov or visiting the Federal Rulemaking Portal at http://www.regulations.gov.
Two states, divided by salmon
July 18, 2007 (Oregonian) Unlike Oregon, Washington supports federal Columbia River fish recovery
Oregon and Washington not only sit on opposite sides of the Columbia River, but they're also taking opposite sides in a landmark case on how much should be done for the river's troubled salmon runs.
The interstate feud over fish has far-reaching consequences because it will help decide the future of the river's massive hydroelectric dams. While the dams supply inexpensive energy, they also kill many young salmon migrating past.
Though fish drive the dispute, the economic stakes are high: Washington enjoys more discounted hydropower because of its higher number of public utilities and stands to reap federal money for restoring salmon habitat. Oregon, on the other hand, does not gain the same benefits from the dams and is pushing to do more for salmon.
Washington, siding with the Bonneville Power Administration, which distributes the hydropower, and many electric utilities that buy the power, likes the federal government's proposal to help salmon hurt by the dams. It does a better job focusing aid on the salmon runs that need it, Washington argues.
But Oregon, siding with conservation and fishing groups and some Native American tribes, sees the federal approach as pretty close to awful. It offers no new help for fish and may illegally ignore the federal mandate to help endangered species, Oregon says in court filings.
Others point out, however, that Washington reaps greater benefits from cheap hydroelectric power pulsing from the dams, and has the most to lose if that power is sacrificed for salmon.
Washington has become a cheerleader for federal agencies that aren't doing enough for salmon, said Todd True, an attorney with Earthjustice who is arguing the court case for conservation and fisheries groups.
"I don't know if Washington has lost its interest in salmon or what's going on," he said.
Sound Off: Orca capture victims honored
July 14, 2007 (Whidbey News Times op-ed by Susan Berta) On the 37th anniversary of the Penn Cove orca capture, Orca Network holds its annual commemoration of all the Southern Resident orcas taken during the capture era, and honors Lolita, the only survivor, who lives alone at the Miami Seaquarium where she was delivered 37 years ago.
Much has changed in the lives of the Southern Resident orcas, or J, K and L pods. "Granny," one of the elder females of J pod who is thought to be over 90 years of age, lived in a time when abundant chinook salmon runs provided plenty of food, the waters were clean, and the habitat undisturbed. But the impacts of an ever-increasing human population has taken its toll on Granny and her family.
At one time humans feared the orcas, or "killer whales," and they were commonly shot at or used for military target practice. Then in the 1960s and '70s, that fear changed to a realization that orcas were not dangerous killers, but were intelligent and trainable, and the marine park industry was born.
During this period, 45 Southern Resident orcas were captured and delivered to marine parks, and another dozen or more were killed during the captures. Finally in 1976 a count was taken of the remaining population, and it was discovered that one third to one half had been removed, all of them younger whales, the impacts of which are still felt today on this fragile, small population.
With just 71 orcas remaining, the captures were finally stopped, and the Southern Resident population slowly climbed to nearly 100 by the mid 1990s.
But now the orcas faced declining salmon runs and toxic pollution. The starving orcas relied on their stored up blubber for energy, unfortunately unleashing the toxins which had accumulated in their blubber and fat tissues over the decades. From 1995 to 2001, 20 percent of the Southern Resident population died, with the population plunging to only 78 whales.
In 2005, the Southern Resident orcas were listed as Endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Their population has crept back up to around 87, but remains very fragile. Large scale efforts are now underway to save this population that has suffered from captures, toxins, and salmon depletion, and finally there is a chance that at least some of the human impacts on the orcas can be positive impacts.
Please join us on Wednesday, Aug. 8, to learn more about Lolita and her family, to hear stories from those who were present during the Penn Cove orca captures, and to raise awareness of Lolita's lonely existence, and the struggles of her family to survive.
The event takes place at the historic Captain Whidbey Inn, on the shores of Penn Cove at the site of the 1970 orca capture, near Coupeville. The evening, from 5 to 8 p.m., will include special presentations and sharing of stories, displays, waterside ceremony, a silent auction, appetizers and wine. Cost is $20 per person, with proceeds going to Orca Network educational programs and projects.
Tickets may be purchased in advance from Orca Network at email@example.com or 360-678-3451, or at the door. Donations of auction items welcome. For more information, visit: http://www.orcanetwork.org/news/events.html.
Proceeds from this event support Orca Network Educational programs.
Springer's back so you better get this party started
July 13, 2007 (Victoria Times Colonist) Five years ago, Springer, then a sickly orphan, was rescued from Puget Sound and carried back to Johnstone Strait, where she rejoined her family.
Springer, the guest of honour at a reunion of scientists and whale lovers in Telegraph Cove this weekend, swam into the Gordon Channel area, north of Port Hardy, Wednesday afternoon with members of her family.
Yesterday, the seven-year-old orca was near Ripple Point in Johnstone Strait and hopes are growing that she could appear around Telegraph Cove, near Port McNeill, for her own party.
"Her timing is very exciting. Everyone is very happy," said Paul Spong, director of OrcaLab, a whale-research station on Hanson Island.
Five years ago, Springer, then a sickly orphan, was rescued from Puget Sound and carried back to Johnstone Strait, where she rejoined her family.
This weekend's reunion brings together many of the agencies involved in the experimental relocation, a joint U.S.-Canadian venture.
Mackay said Springer looked "ex-tremely healthy and plump."
"She's spyhopping and tail-slapping and keeping the hell away from our boat, which is a very good thing," said Mackay, who admits he was initially skeptical about the attempt to reintroduce Springer to her family. (Spyhopping is akin to humans treading water.)
Marilyn Joyce, marine-mammal co-ordinator for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, will be one of the guests at the weekend reunion.
In the end, the success was Springer's -- the operation revealed the incredible bond and cultural links between families of killer whales, Joyce said.
Ferries could be used to give Puget Sound waters a daily checkup
July 12, 2007 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer) The green-and-white vessels would be fitted with testing devices to continuously sample water quality, making the flotilla of ferries an early-warning system for everything from harmful algal blooms to oil and sewage spills.
The plan is gaining traction in Washington, D.C., and Seattle, with informal discussions earlier this week between Washington State Ferries and researchers at the University of Washington.
Maloy now runs the most extensive monitoring program for the Sound. The program relies on a seaplane hopscotching from Olympia to Bellingham, stopping between 40 different rotating locations to test the water.
Seaplane sampling has been done for the past 35 years, but the method has its limitations. The planes can't be used when it's windy, foggy or dark -- creating occasional gaps in the data. And the testing is done only once a month.
With ferries taking samples day and night, the picture would become much clearer. Problem spots would be quickly identified, toxic algal blooms could be tracked and scientists would gain an understanding of conditions they form in.
"We would move from seeing Puget Sound as this bluish-green blob to a jigsaw puzzle," said Jeffrey Richey, a UW professor who is heading a project to create the most accurate computer model of the Sound. "We would break that blob down to sharp little pieces so we can make better decisions."
Warming causing gray whales to lose weight, say scientists
July 12, 2007 (Raw Story) Scientists on the US Pacific coast are increasingly observing emaciated gray whales in what they fear is a sign that global warming is wreaking havoc in the whales' Bering Sea summer feeding grounds.
The scientists fear that the same phenomenon is cutting back reproduction in the Pacific whale population to the point it could be facing a new crisis, after recovering in the mid-1990s and graduating from the endangered species list.
"The gray whales are migrating later, not going as far north, and are producing fewer calves," Steven Swartz, head researcher with the National Marine Fisheries Service told AFP.
Swartz, who with his team meticulously photograph and identify the migrating whales, estimates that at least ten percent of the population is seriously skinny.
"Instead of looking plump coming off the summer months, they have noticeable depressions behind the head, with scapulas visible through the skin, and concave sections above the tail," he added. "This is enough to cause alarm."
The most recent gray whale survey in 2001 showed a decrease of thirty percent in five years. Researchers are now holding their breaths while final tabulations are completed on a current survey, and are bracing for another drop, said Swartz.
In the early 1980s, 350 calves were born in these waters every February. This past winter the number was closer to 100.
But warming temperatures and retreating ice in the Bering Sea has diminished the growth of algae and plankton necessary for the amphipods to thrive. The annual crop of invertebrates is no longer reliable, and the gray whales are being forced to turn elsewhere for food.
Navy wins 5-year extension for new sonar technology
July 12, 2007 (Seattle Times) Navy wins 5-year extension for new sonar technology
The federal government plans to extend by five years its rules allowing the Navy to use a new sonar technology that detects submarines at great distances.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Tuesday that research and stringent monitoring indicate that marine mammals are unlikely to be injured when the Navy uses low-frequency active sonar under normal operating conditions.
The agency added that, overall, the sonar would have a "negligible impact" on marine mammal species and stocks.
The rules require sailors to shut down their sonar when marine mammals are nearby and adopt other measures to protect the animals.
Scientists say loud sonar can damage marine mammal brains and ears. Sonar also may mask the echoes some whales and dolphins listen for when they use their own natural sonar to locate food.
Mark Matsunaga, a U.S. Pacific Fleet spokesman, said the Navy is happy with the NOAA decision. "We had requested the extension, and we're pleased. We're happy," Matsunaga said.
NOAA's proposal for the five-year rule extension must go up for public comment before it is implemented. The current rules expire Aug. 16.
Low-frequency active sonar is operationally available on only two ships the Navy uses. Those vessels are in the Western Pacific, and they haven't been allowed to use such sonar near the Hawaiian Islands.
Environmentalists say the low-frequency version poses a greater danger to marine mammals because it sends sound over longer distances.
If salmon could vote
July 11, 2007 (San Francisco Chronicle editorial) WHEN precious Klamath River water was steered to farmers in 2002, it was a convincing display of White House political muscle. Farmers in southern Oregon vote, and salmon, who died by the thousands, don't.
What's new in this tale of water manipulation is that Vice President Dick Cheney may have pulled the levers, according to a Washington Post profile of his anti-environmental record. The report has led 36 Democratic House members in Oregon and California to call for a hearing.
But demonizing Cheney for what ails the Klamath isn't enough. It's time that this powerful posse of elected leaders, whose party rules Congress, do more. The delegation should get together behind a plan that will assure steady water flows needed by salmon to survive.
One option is removing the four dams near the Oregon border. These dams produce little electricity or downstream flood protection. Their chief accomplishment is to barricade salmon from spawning beds, which now lie under tons of silt. Taking out the dams and restoring the river would be a huge task, but one answer to restoring salmon runs.
Gazprom-Shell Say Whales Safe; Environmentalists Wary
July 10, 2007 (Bloomberg) An OAO Gazprom and Royal Dutch Shell Plc joint venture said endangered whales were unaffected by loud noise from oil and gas construction work off the coast of Sakhalin Island, Russia. Environmental groups were unconvinced.
Construction activity has had ``no discernable impact'' on the Western Gray Whale population and underwater noise levels remained within agreed parameters, the venture said in a statement today.
On July 6, it handed over two weeks worth of noise- monitoring and whale-sighting data to environmental groups, including the Worldwide Fund for Nature and International Fund for Animal Welfare, who raised concern that noise had displaced some whales during their summer feeding period.
``We have some indications that the noises are higher than those allowed,'' Igor Beliatski, an IFAW spokesman, said in a telephone interview from Moscow. ``It may not be as harmless as they say. The situation may be critical for the whales.''
The $22 billion Sakhalin-2 project has been dogged by environmental controversy for its alleged impact on whales, salmon and soil erosion. Russian regulators had threatened to derail it on environmental grounds until state-run Gazprom bought a controlling stake in the project. The purchase was completed on April 18.
Friends of the Earth and WWF were among 15 environmental groups who wrote to Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corp., ABN Amro Holding NV and other lenders last month, urging them not to fund the project because its environmental record hasn't improved since Gazprom took over. The joint venture, Sakhalin Energy Investment Co., is owned by Gazprom, Shell, Mitsui & Co. and Mitsubishi Corp.
Whale scientists from the Western Gray Whale Advisory Panel said in November that the population of this kind of whale was 122 in 2006, excluding calves, and that the revised estimate for 2004 was 114.
Gray Whales have been hunted to extinction in the Atlantic Ocean and the species now exists in two groups, on the eastern and western sides of the Pacific Ocean. Shell in 2005 changed the route of an offshore pipeline to avoid the Sakhalin feeding ground after pressure from environmental groups.
Snohomish County PUD closer to tide power
July 10, 2007 (Everett Herald)
Snohomish County PUD's venture into generating electricity using underwater tidal turbines is cranking to life.
Researchers who have been sifting through dusty historical files for information on underwater currents in Puget Sound are now ready to start taking measurements of their own.
"We'll be getting into the water at the end of the month to do some acoustic Doppler current profiling," said Craig Collar, senior manager of energy resources development at the PUD. He spoke at a meeting the utility held Monday to update the public on its burgeoning tidal energy program.
Together they could generate enough electricity for 60,000 homes - about every house and apartment in Mukilteo, Everett and Marysville.
A review of available tidal current information shows the seven sites may perform better than originally thought, especially at Admiralty Inlet, Collar said.
"At this point they all look very viable," he said. "It looks very positive."
Tribal and commercial fishing operations are in decline and cannot afford to have salmon runs lose any more ground, said Rep. John McCoy, D-Tulalip. He attended the PUD's meeting on Monday.
"(Our) concerns are over fishing and shellfish," he said. "Nets and crab pots will not mix with these underwater turbines."
He said orca whales also depend on viable salmon runs.
The utility plans an extensive review of the potential environmental impacts of tidal power, said Steve Klein, the utility's general manager.
U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash., also promised to make sure the environmental impacts of tidal power are properly reviewed.
Deal reached to reduce boatyards' toxic runoff
July 10, 2007 (Seattle Times) Boatyard owners, the state and environmentalists have agreed to explore new ways to reduce toxic runoff, a compact that all sides lauded as a step toward a cleaner Puget Sound.
At issue is storm water tainted with copper and other heavy metals that rinses off of some boatyards in the state. Copper is a key component in the bottom paint that protects boats from barnacles and other marine life. But the same ingredients that make it effective make it toxic.
To protect water quality, the state Department of Ecology issues a storm water permit affecting more than 70 boatyards around the state. But new standards set in 2005 have been challenged in court by boatyard operators who said they were unattainable. Meanwhile, Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, an environmental group, also has sued, saying the standards are not stringent enough.
Looking for clues to save a species
July 9, 2007 (Vancouver Sun) There are days when Brad Hanson figures he's the guy with the shovel walking behind an elephant parade and not a federal researcher of killer whales.
As head of a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) study into the contents of killer whale feces, he confirms they come in varying shapes, consistencies and sizes.
"We're poop and scoop," Hanson jokes in an interview. "It can actually be fairly difficult to collect because it's very diffuse, a brownish cloud often. Sometimes it's stringy and sometimes it floats."
It gets worse. His study also looks for mucus and vomit, including bones and fish scales -- anything floating on the surface that can be used to extract DNA and provide insight into the diet, genetic history, and hormonal stress levels of endangered southern resident killer whales.
Knowing what the whales eat is a basic component of the recovery effort, with the research results having implications for sport, commercial, and native fisheries should they be required to limit their lucrative salmon catches to benefit the whales.
What Hanson can say is that killer whales prefer chinook -- the largest of the salmon species -- when it's available, moving to chum as the chinook runs decline in falls. When salmon is absent, the whales can also eat groundfish.
Not one of the 150 samples to date has shown evidence of sockeye, despite the millions that migrate through.
Puget Sound struggles against tide of toxins
July 9, 2007 (Olympian) Every day, industry and municipal sewage treatment plants dump 1 billion gallons of wastewater tainted with toxic chemicals and oxygen-robbing nutrients into Puget Sound and its tributaries.
And it's all perfectly legal.
The steady stream of wastewater from nearly 1,000 sources — ranging from giant oil refineries to boatyards — is allowed under a federal permitting system created with the passage of the 1972 Clean Water Act. These National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permits, as they are called, are described by many as licenses to pollute.
For 150 years, Puget Sound has been a dumping ground for the commerce and communities that have grown up on its shores. While the wastewater generated by industry and people receives far better treatment today than it did even 20 years ago, it continues as a major contributor to the pollution problems that plague Puget Sound.
"Puget Sound is our front yard and our backyard and it's being poisoned every day," said Billy Frank Jr., a tribal leader and member of the Puget Sound Leadership Council charged with crafting a new Puget Sound cleanup plan by September 2008.
Gov. Chris Gregoire pointed to improvements at wastewater treatment plants and tighter controls over industrial waste discharges to Puget Sound as the top achievements in the past 25 years.
"From the 1970s to the early 1990s, every major wastewater treatment plant in the Puget Sound area upgraded to secondary treatment standards," noted David Peeler, manager of the state Department of Ecology water quality program.
That means more suspended solids, heavy metals and oxygen-robbing organisms are removed from the wastewater than was the case with the cruder primary treatment plants.
But at the same time, millions more people live in the Puget Sound basin than before the plant improvements were made. And 1.4 million more people are headed this way by 2020.
"Population growth is outstripping those great gains we made," Peeler said.
Surge in "swim with dolphin" offers raises concerns
July 9, 2007 (Reuters) As thousands of tourists prepare to dive in and swim with dolphins this summer, animals experts are appealing to them to ask themselves one question: does the dolphin want to swim with you?
Frolicking with dolphins -- in the wild and in captivity -- has become increasingly popular, with a sharp rise in the number of tour operators cashing in on the fascination with the intelligent aquatic mammal that always seems to be smiling.
Harassing wild dolphins or other marine mammals is illegal under the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act but the wild dolphin adventure business is booming in other countries eager to lure tourist dollars in the Caribbean and Latin America.
Trevor Spradlin, a marine biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said there are no estimates for how many wild dolphin adventure operators there are in the United States or internationally.
"I totally understand why people want to be close to them, but we're basically loving them to death," said Naomi Rose, a dolphin biologist from the World Society for the Protection of Animals.
"People need to literally go beneath a dolphin's smile because dolphins will smile even if they are sick, dying, or dead," said Dr. Toni Frohoff, a marine biologist who has specialized in dolphin research and communication.
Cargo ships yield to whale traffic
July 9, 2007 (Seattle Times) Instead of frolicking and feeding in the middle of a dangerous ocean "highway" filled with massive cargo ships with sharp propellers, endangered whales now find themselves on a much safer shoulder.
In a first-of-its-kind move in the United States, ocean shipping lanes outside the port of Boston were rotated slightly to the northeast and narrowed, avoiding the highest whale concentrations — including fin, humpback and sei, but especially the endangered northern right whale. The detour, which took effect July 1, directs ships around the whales' heaviest feeding areas off the Massachusetts coast.
The new lanes are expected to lower the likelihood of ship-whale collisions by more than 80 percent, and could be a model for U.S. ports on both the East and West coasts, researchers say.
"This is one of the most significant steps taken in the U.S. to help these endangered whales, and we're very pleased with both the direct impact, as well as the precedent it will set for other U.S. ports," said David Wiley, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) researcher.
Patrolling orca waters
July 8, 2007 (Skagit Valley Herald) Of all the areas in the United States with recreational and commercial whale-watching, the San Juan islands are unique because of the number of boats and the orcas' behavior, enforcement agents say. It is the only region in the country where NOAA enforcement agents, who are typically plainclothes investigators, regularly patrol the water in hopes of preventing violations of the Endangered Species Act, said Brad Vinish, a deputy special agent in charge at the agency's Seattle office.
This summer, federal agents stepped up their actions by writing warnings, which are tracked in a national computer database. By summer's end, the federal agents say they could issue citations with monetary fines. Also, state wildlife officials may impose additional regulations on boater behavior around orcas before the summer ends.
"It's kind of like the build-up you see when they are changing the speed on the freeway," Vinish said. "I think it's going to be a surprise that we're actually doing it."
During the summer months, orcas encounter an average of 20 boats a day, according to statistics kept by The Whale Museum's Soundwatch Boater Education Program, which monitors boats near orcas in U.S. waters. At the height of whale-watch season, up to 80 commercial and private boats can follow the orcas in an afternoon, according to Soundwatch.
The killer whales, which are actually the world's largest known dolphin, can change course without warning, agents say. Other large marine mammals, such as the Northern right whales, are slow and predictable, Vinish said.
"The orcas have a mind of their own," he said. "That's what makes it a challenge to protect them."
Puget Sound Orcas Accounted for
July 6, 2007 (Kitsap Sun) All three groups of Puget Sound killer whales joined together in a high-energy "superpod" just north of the Canadian border on the Fourth of July, according to observers, who reported the whales in the San Juan Islands today.
The encounter included a "greeting ceremony" to mark the arrival of K pod, which hasn't been seen in Puget Sound since late last year.
J and L pods were traveling south toward Orcas Island about noon Wednesday when they apparently heard acoustic calls from K pod, said Brenden Oranato, who was aboard the Serengeti, a whale-watch boat operated by Seafun Safaris out of Victoria.
"Js and Ls swung around and began swimming north at high speed," he said. "All three pods met up approximately six miles north of East Point (a portion of Saturna Island, just north of the Canadian border)."
On Wednesday, those aboard the Serengeti were able to experience a "greeting ceremony," which generally occurs when the Puget Sound pods have not seen each other for a time. Each of the groups spread out in a straight line moving toward the other groups. When the lines of orcas merged, the encounter was accompanied by high-energy breaching, in which the whales throw themselves out of the water and come down with a splash, said senior skipper Jeff LaMarche, who was on board the Serengeti.
Dave Ellifrit of the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island was out on the water with the whales Wednesday and today. The animals, which had split into three groups, appear to be in good shape, he said.
All three pods are listed as "threatened" under the federal Endangered Species Act. Concerns for their survival include toxic chemicals in their systems; declines of salmon, their primary prey; and disturbance by boats and ships.
A giant of the sea finds slimmer pickings
July 6, 2007 (Los Angeles Times) Gray whales are skinnier, and scientists suspect Arctic warming is the reason why
"That female looks a little skinny," said federal biologist Wayne Perryman, peering through his binoculars. "You can see her scapula sticking out. Yeah, she's a skinny girl."
Scientists from Mexico to the Pacific Northwest are reporting an unusually high number of scrawny whales this year for the first time since malnourishment and disease claimed a third of the gray whale population in 1999 and 2000.
So far this year, scientists haven't seen a decline in numbers, and they are not sure what's causing the whales to be so thin. But they suspect it may be the same thing that triggered the die-off eight years ago: rapid warming of Arctic waters where the whales feed. Whales depend on cocktail-shrimp-size crustaceans to bulk up for their long southerly migration. As Arctic ice recedes, fat-rich crustaceans that flourished on the Bering Sea floor are becoming scarce.
Instead of making steady progress during their long migrations, the whales have been stopping often to eat along the way.
They have been seen straining mysid shrimp from kelp beds off California and British Columbia, sucking up mouthfuls of sand in Santa Barbara Harbor and skimming surface waters for krill-like crustaceans all along the West Coast.
One source is a confetti that rains down from shaggy mats of algae that grow on the underside of ice sheets at the ocean's surface. Another is brought by ocean currents, carrying a soupy mix of algae or plankton.
Both sources have diminished or been cut off as the northern Bering Sea has undergone a shift from a seasonally ice-dominated region to more of an open ocean dotted with thin ice that is quickly broken up by storms. And the basin's waters have warmed enough to allow new types of fish to migrate north, gobbling up the amphipods or competing with them for food.
The loss of Bering Sea feeding grounds is responsible for another trend: An increasing number of whales don't bother heading that far north. Some stop at Alaska's Kodiak Island. Others don't get even that far and spend summers near British Columbia's Vancouver Island or off the Oregon coast. Smaller groups remain off California, feeding on shrimp in kelp beds or anything else they can scrounge.
Japanese museum has 'world's oldest' right whale fossil
July 5, 2007 (USA Today) Researchers say a museum in central Japan has right whale fossils that are at least 5 million years old, making them the oldest fossilized remains of the animal in the world, officials said Wednesday. Researchers working in Nagano prefecture estimate the fossilized skull bones and jaw of a right whale on display at the Shinshushinmachi Fossil Museum to be 5 million to 6 million years old, said museum curator Ken Narita.
The oldest right whale fossil previously found was a skeleton that was uncovered in Italy that dates back about 4 million years, Narita said.
While of the right whale genus, the animal's species is believed to have been different from those of other right whale fossils found so far, he added.
Right whale skeletons have often been found in Europe, but the Nagano fossils and their dating "raises the possibility that right whales might have originated in the North Pacific," said Toshiyuki Kimura, curator of the Gunma Museum of Natural History. Kimura also took part in the fossil research.
Right whales are now designated an endangered species and banned for hunting by the International Whaling Commission. The entire North Atlantic right whale population is estimated at just 350, according to a U.S. federal researcher.
State committed to saving the Sound
July 3, 2007 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer op-ed by Jay Manning, director of the state Department of Ecology) Puget Sound is sick. Toxic chemicals are concentrating in the water and entering the food chain. Low oxygen levels caused by failing septic tanks, sewage treatment plants and other pollutants are killing fish in Hood Canal. Critical habitat such as salt marshes, eelgrass beds and estuaries are damaged by poor development practices and storm water runoff.
These and other environmental threats are combining to cause populations of marine birds, fishes and marine mammals to plummet. The recent Endangered Species Act listing of Puget Sound steelhead as a "threatened" species is another signal that the ecosystem is in trouble.
Gregoire and state leaders have demonstrated a serious commitment to saving Puget Sound, but they know that state government can't do the job alone: local governments, businesses and residents must join the effort. We will also need support from the federal government for this monumental effort to recover this marvelous waterway.
Residents will play the most important role. We all need to make sure we are knowledgeable about the problems and the solutions for Puget Sound, and we all need to do our part to help restore Puget Sound.