Orca Network News - June, 2007
the Southern Resident orcas,
orcas worldwide, and their habitats
June 1, 2007 through June 30, 2007.
June 29, 2007 (Seattle Times) The House Natural Resources Committee announced Thursday that it will hold hearings on Vice President Dick Cheney's involvement in Klamath River water management that many think led to the die-off of more than 70,000 salmon four years ago.
Three dozen House Democrats from Oregon and California asked for the hearing in a letter to Rahall after The Washington Post reported on details of Cheney's intervention.
According to the newspaper, Cheney personally contacted Sue Ellen Wooldridge - a Northern Californian who then was Interior Secretary Gale Norton's top aide for the Klamath - about his concerns over a decision by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to stop deliveries of irrigation water. At that time, the region was emerging from a severe drought in 2001, and the BLM was enforcing a finding by scientists that water diversions to farmers would harm endangered salmon and suckerfish.
The newspaper reported that Cheney then urged the Interior Department to seek a report from the National Academy of Sciences on the biological justification for the decision, and called the academy to clear the way. When the academy found the decision was not justified, the water deliveries to farmers were restored.
Later that fall, thousands of dead chinook salmon littered the lower reaches of the river near its confluence with the Trinity River. The die-off was traced to an explosion of pathogens that attacked the fish. California and Oregon attributed the disaster to federal water policies.
The Secret Campaign of President Bush's Administration To Deny Global Warming
July, 2007 (Rolling Stone) Earlier this year, the world's top climate scientists released a definitive report on global warming. It is now "unequivocal," they concluded, that the planet is heating up. Humans are directly responsible for the planetary heat wave, and only by taking immediate action can the world avert a climate catastrophe. Megadroughts, raging wildfires, decimated forests, dengue fever, legions of Katrinas - unless humans act now to curb our climate-warming pollution, warned the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, "we are in deep trouble."
You would think, in the wake of such stark and conclusive findings, that the White House would at least offer some small gesture to signal its concern about the impending crisis. It's not every day, after all, that the leading scientists from 120 nations come together and agree that the entire planet is about to go to hell. But the Bush administration has never felt bound by the reality-based nature of science - especially when it comes from international experts. So after the report became public in February, Vice President Dick Cheney took to the airwaves to offer his own, competing assessment of global warming.
"We're going to see a big debate on it going forward," Cheney told ABC News, about "the extent to which it is part of a normal cycle versus the extent to which it's caused by man." What we know today, he added, is "not enough to just sort of run out and try to slap together some policy that's going to 'solve' the problem."
Leaving no tracks
June 27, 2007 (Washington Post) Cheney and the Klamath River salmon
First Cheney looked for a way around the law, aides said. Next he set in motion a process to challenge the science protecting the fish, according to a former Oregon congressman who lobbied for the farmers.
Because of Cheney's intervention, the government reversed itself and let the water flow in time to save the 2002 growing season, declaring that there was no threat to the fish. What followed was the largest fish kill the West had ever seen, with tens of thousands of salmon rotting on the banks of the Klamath River.
Characteristically, Cheney left no tracks.
The Klamath case is one of many in which the vice president took on a decisive role to undercut long-standing environmental regulations for the benefit of business.
B.C. killer whales under threat, report says
June 27, 2007 (Toronto Globe and Mail) Science team urges protecting habitat and food to turn population numbers around
Saving the two distinct populations that live along British Columbia's coast - known as the northern and southern residents - will be difficult and could take more than 25 years, but it can be done, a report by a federally appointed killer-whale recovery team says.
In a new assessment, the 24-member team, which includes some of the world's top killer-whale experts, examines the threats and warns that, without action, all resident killer whales could eventually vanish from the Pacific Northwest.
The report, which this week went into public circulation for a 60-day comment period, identifies critical issues, including the need to protect core habitat and to preserve adequate stocks of chinook salmon, the prime food item.
Alexandra Morton, a former killer-whale researcher who studies salmon on the B.C. coast, said Canada needs a plan to save the resident populations, or they will be lost.
"I have seen what can happen here in the Broughton Archipelago," she said. "When I came here in 1984 it was the perfect place to study killer whales. Then in 1991 the fish farming industry started using underwater acoustic devices [to scare off seals and sea lions] and the killer whales left the area. They haven't been back."
"The fish farmers didn't intend to displace killer whales, but that's what happened. You just never know what the last straw will be ...We clearly need a plan to protect habitat and food sources if we want to save resident whales."
The 93-page report says there are only 85 killer whales in the southern resident population, which declined by 17 per cent between 1995 and 2001, and 205 whales in the northern population, which dropped 7 per cent between 1997 and 2003.
U-turn by Gregoire on oil-spill panel
June 27, 2007 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer) Gov. Chris Gregoire switched direction Tuesday and gave her strong endorsement to a citizen-run council set up by the Legislature to look over the shoulder of state regulators and the shipping industry on oil-spill prevention measures.
Gregoire late last year announced moves that environmentalists said would "defang" the Oil Spill Advisory Council, patterned in part on a similar group in Alaska and headed by former state legislator Mike Cooper of Edmonds.
The Legislature headed off that move, but before Tuesday Gregoire hadn't strongly endorsed the panel. Asked about her position on the council now, Gregoire said:
"It's so important. Only if public engagement continues are we going to make sure we don't have complacency. ... The public has to be engaged and involved, and Mike and his group are making sure that happens."
Canadian government issues recovery plan for killer whales
June 26, 2007 (Bellingham Herald) British Columbian environmental groups called off plans to sue the Canadian government after it released a recovery strategy for killer whales Tuesday, about a year later than originally planned.
The Canadian plan calls for ensuring that resident killer whales in Puget Sound and off Vancouver Island have an adequate and accessible food supply, reducing chemical and biological pollution, keeping human activities from disturbing the orcas and protecting their critical habitat.
The report promises more specifics within two years of the Ministry of Fisheries and Oceans accepting the plan.
Canadian environmental groups praised the strategy for identifying specific whale habitat that needs protection.
Killer whale recovery strategy draws praise
June 26, 2007 (Toronto Globe and Mail) Several B.C. environmental groups are cautiously praising the long-awaited release of a federal recovery strategy for threatened killer whales off the West Coast.
The federal strategy covers British Columbia's endangered southern resident killer whales and threatened northern resident killer whales.
Christianne Wilhelmson, with the Georgia Strait Alliance says, despite the year-long delay in release of the initiative, the Alliance, the Western Canada Wilderness Committee and the Sierra Legal Defence Fund are pleased it identifies specific whale habitat.
Ms. Wilhelmson says there was concern the strategy would not identify habitat, even though recovery of an at-risk species depends on identification of its environment.
She says action can now be taken to address pollution, noise and human interference concerns in identified whale habitats.
Environmentalists say they hope release of this report marks a turning point for the federal government, which, until now, has refused to release recovery strategies identifying critical habitat.
Fish in Lake Washington among state's most tainted
June 22, 2007 (Seattle Times) Lake Washington is home to some of the most contaminated fish in Washington, and the culprits include toxic chemicals that society banned decades ago, new state studies report.
Those chemicals, a witch's brew of PCBs, dioxins, pesticides and flame retardants, are still contaminating the food chain and threatening people and the environment, the studies of freshwater fish and sediments by the state Department of Ecology say.
Now it's hoped the new research will guide the state and local governments to new efforts to identify and reduce sources of pollution and in some cases warn people from eating contaminated fish or to reduce their consumption.
The department deliberately chose sampling sites where data was lacking or more than 10 years old. It looked for persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic chemicals in its survey, including mercury, dioxins, and PCBs - polychlorinated biphenyls, which have been banned since 1979 but were once widely used in everything from cooling fluid to paint.
Mercury was found in all but one sample of fish examined. Puget Sound chinook salmon turned out to have mercury levels about twice as high as chinook salmon from coastal rivers sampled in 2004.
Tougher standards on smog proposed
June 22, 2007 (Seattle Times) Eight Washington state counties and many other areas of the United States that meet existing smog standards could be declared out of compliance under proposed new ozone levels announced Thursday by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Under court order to update ozone standards for the first time in a decade, EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson proposed tightening them by up to 17 percent in response to mounting evidence of health risks. Under the toughest proposed standard, hundreds of counties and municipalities, including most of the Puget Sound area and Spokane County, could be required to adopt new smog controls or face a loss of federal highway funds.
"Based on current science, our current health standard is insufficient to protect public health," Johnson said. "Based upon the outstanding input I received from our clean air science advisory committee, and our world-class environmental staff, I concluded that there was no scientific justification for retaining the current standard."
Still, his proposal fell short of what was unanimously recommended by the science advisory committee, as well as his staff. Medical groups, environmentalists and some members of Congress criticized Johnson and his senior advisers for not acting more aggressively.
Customers, 1; fish, 0
June 21, 2007 (Oregonian) Just two choices loomed: Adjust dam turbines to boost power, thrashing and possibly killing federally protected salmon; or cut off people's power just as they turned on heaters and furnaces amid a cold snap.
"Apparently, BPA's sales commitments to customers always trump its obligation to protect (Endangered Species Act)-listed species," Redden wrote in a stern order afterward. "This was a marketing error and ESA-listed fish paid the price. This, the law does not permit.
"Under the circumstances here, threatened and endangered species must come before power generation," he wrote, ordering that from now on dams be operated with full salmon safeguards and he be notified of any deviations.
The BPA did not want to cut off power to utility companies because they might then have to black out customers -- a threat to public health and safety, BPA Vice President Steve Oliver said in a court filing.
So instead, the BPA overrode fish protections for two hours at McNary Dam, four hours at The Dalles and one hour at Bonneville. The move produced about $50,000 worth of extra energy, Oliver wrote.
Feds tell judge not much will change in salmon plan
June 21, 2007 (Seattle Times) Operators of the Columbia Basin hydroelectric dams told a federal judge Wednesday they do not expect to make the kinds of major changes in their strategy to boost salmon returns that are being sought by the state of Oregon and some Indian tribes.
Robert Gulley, the U.S. Justice Department attorney representing the federal agencies that operate and sell the power produced by eight federally owned hydroelectric dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers, said in U.S. District Court they will continue to collaborate with Indian tribes and states, but characterized the changes to be made in coming months as "refinements."
U.S. District Judge James Redden has rejected the federal government's last two attempts to produce a plan for operating the dams that meets Endangered Species Act requirements for protecting 13 species of salmon and steelhead, known as a biological opinion, or bi-op for short.
The ruling left open the possibility that four dams on the lower Snake River in Washington may have to be breached to help salmon. That option has been pressed by conservation groups and some Indian tribes.
David Cummings, attorney for the Nez Perce Tribe, said the tribe was frustrated that its suggestions were not being adopted, and would like to see a backup plan that allowed for the breaching of four Snake River dams.
Turning guidelines into law is an orca of a problem
June 19, 2007 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer) The killer whales aren't waiting for the bureaucrats to draft new regulations.
For a few weeks yet, as more of the transient whales arrive to join their full-time resident cousins, the orcas' welfare will depend to a large extent on the Pacific Northwest's summer armada of floating humanity doing the right thing this whale-watching season.
The San Juan County Council, recognizing that new federal rules are at least a year away, earlier ordered Prosecutor Randy Gaylord to draft an ordinance to protect orcas. Gaylord said the ordinance, crafted to mirror many of the guidelines widely practiced by whale watchers, likely would go into effect after the Fourth of July.
"Law enforcement now has to make the subjective call that someone has harassed the whales, and then prosecutors have to prove it in court," said Ken Balcomb, director of the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor.
"That can be difficult to prove," agreed Mullins.
Guidelines for whale watching are promoted by the Soundwatch program of the Whale Museum in Friday Harbor.
Kari Koski, director of Soundwatch, said her organization has been working with San Juan County and state officials.
"It's difficult to translate the language of the guidelines -- such as 'be cautious' -- into regulations," Koski said.
Money, politics, public relations, science: the many challenges of saving Puget Sound
June 19, 2007 (Crosscut) Much has been made of the need to educate the public about how Washington's inland sea is in peril, but that's not the only challenge facing William Ruckelshaus and the Puget Sound Partnership.
Is it the bloom on a healthy cheek or rouge on a corpse? The glittering surface of Puget Sound tells you nothing about the health of the water column underneath. The water might be teeming with sea life or seething with toxic chemicals; it will look the same either way.
Public officials grasp this, but they are having a hard time convincing their constituents. Last month, when Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire stood by the shore and signed legislation that took the first small step toward restoring the Sound's biological health by 2020, she said, "We look out right now and it looks absolutely gorgeous and that, my friends, is what too many of our citizens see, is how gorgeous it looks from the surface." Beneath that glittering surface, "in some parts it is dying and in many places it's sick."
It probably isn't safe to assume that most of your neighbors read much about Puget Sound in the newspapers or watch much about it on the TV news.
Montgomery is right: We haven't described where we want to go, much less laid out a plausible map for getting there. We haven't figured out how we can sustain public interest to 2020 and beyond. We haven't raised the money.
Ruckelshaus has said that we need nothing less than a change in culture. Gregoire says that the surest way to change attitudes is to start with school children. They might be right. If they are, 2020 will be here before we know it.
Killer whales in Coos Bay? Orcas they were
June 14, 2007 (Seattle Times) Five killer whales paid Coos Bay an afternoon visit, perchance to dine, and then turned tail back to the Pacific Ocean.
"They were not lost, by any means," said Jan Hodder, associate professor at the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology. "These aren't humpbacks in the Sacramento River. They probably came into the bay following seals."
Fifteen minutes later, they were gone, headed apparently back to the ocean.
Hodder told The World newspaper of Coos Bay she suspects the animals, not true whales but the largest members of the dolphin family, were from the "transient" population, distinct from the "resident" population of orcas, which feed primarily on salmon at this time of year near Puget Sound in Washington and off the British Columbia coast.
The travelers range from Canada to Baja California, eating marine mammals such as sea lions, porpoises, dolphins, gray whales and sperm whales. When they visit Coos Bay, it's in May or June, she said.
Hodder said killer whales can be identified as to sex by their dorsal fins. The males' fins are taller and straighter. Males can weigh up to 12,000 pounds, females 8,400 pounds, she said.
Hodder said killer whales have human-like lifespans, don't travel to distinct places to breed and don't have a migration route. She called them cosmopolitan, with a worldwide distribution, equally at home in the tropics and the Arctic Ocean.
Young whale's tale is story of success
June 14, 2007 (Seattle Times) Five years after Springer's rescue, the orphaned orca's relocation to her pod in the wild appears to be an unqualified success.
The rescue, five years ago Wednesday, was launched after the female orca, 2 years old at the time, was spotted alone, far from her home waters off northern Vancouver Island in Canada.
First seen near the Vashon ferry dock in January 2002, she had bad skin, worms in her stool and bad breath. She also appeared lonely and was hanging around ferries and small boats, looking for attention.
"I could move my hand in a circle, and she would roll over; it was amazing," said Ken Balcomb, of the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor. "I am dog-sitting a dog right now that was not as good as Springer.
"It was like she was auditioning for SeaWorld. I'd splash water, and she would spit and splash back. She wanted to interact. She had nothing else to do down there, and people were her entertainment."
On June 13, 2002, the orca, by then nicknamed Springer, allowed herself to be hoisted in a sling and moved to a holding pen off Manchester, Kitsap County. Before long she was eating 60 pounds of salmon a day and gained 112 pounds.
A month later, the fisheries service coordinated her boat trip home. Springer was released from a holding pen in her home waters the next day, as her pod swam by. The young orca and her family had already recognized each other by their vocalizations.
It worked. Before long, Springer, or A73, left the area and rejoined her pod. After that, she was seen with her family regularly. Last examined by scientists in August 2005, she was acting like a normal orca in every way. She was still undersized, but no longer the smallest member of her pod. She swam fast, ate well, looked good. She has been spotted with her pod since then.
"It was a successful effort," Balcomb said. "We can save these whales; it's a matter of wanting to."
Ore. to federal dam agencies: Do better for Columbia Basin salmon
June 13, 2007 (AP) The state of Oregon has told federal agencies they will have to do better for salmon if they hope to meet a federal judge's orders to bring the Columbia Basin hydroelectric system into compliance with the Endangered Species Act and avoid breaching dams on the lower Snake River.
The filing Monday in U.S. District Court in Portland, Ore., by the Oregon attorney general's office was a formal response to the court-ordered plan for balancing endangered salmon against dam operations filed last month by the agencies that operate the dams and sell the power.
U.S. District Judge James Redden ruled two years ago that the Bush administration's 2004 plan for making the hydroelectric dams on the Snake and Columbia safe for salmon violated the Endangered Species Act. It was upheld this year by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Among the failings were that the plan considered the dams as part of the landscape and only considered changes in how the dams were operated. The judge also found the plan should take steps to make endangered salmon thrive, not just survive.
The ruling left open the possibility that four dams on the lower Snake River in Washington may have to be breached to help salmon. That option has been pressed by conservation groups and some Indian tribes.
Though an earlier federal plan for restoring Columbia Basin salmon considered breaching Snake River dams, President Bush has pledged that will not happen.
19th-Century Weapon Found in Whale
June 12, 2007 (Washington Post) A 50-ton bowhead whale caught off the Alaskan coast last month had a weapon fragment embedded in its neck that showed it survived a similar hunt _ more than a century ago. Embedded deep under its blubber was a 3 1/2-inch arrow-shaped projectile that has given researchers insight into the whale's age, estimated between 115 and 130 years old.
"No other finding has been this precise," said John Bockstoce, an adjunct curator of the New Bedford Whaling Museum.
Calculating a whale's age can be difficult, and is usually gauged by amino acids in the eye lenses. It's rare to find one that has lived more than a century, but experts say the oldest were close to 200 years old.
The bomb lance fragment, lodged a bone between the whale's neck and shoulder blade, was likely manufactured in New Bedford, on the southeast coast of Massachusetts, a major whaling center at that time, Bockstoce said.
It was probably shot at the whale from a heavy shoulder gun around 1890. The small metal cylinder was filled with explosives fitted with a time-delay fuse so it would explode seconds after it was shot into the whale. The bomb lance was meant to kill the whale immediately and prevent it from escaping.
The device exploded and probably injured the whale, Bockstoce said.
"It probably hurt the whale, or annoyed him, but it hit him in a non-lethal place," he said. "He couldn't have been that bothered if he lived for another 100 years."
Pascualita, Mexico's rescued baby whale, dies
June 12, 2007 (Reuters) A baby killer whale at the center of an international animal trafficking controversy has died at an aquarium in Mexico because it lacked its mother's milk after becoming stranded on a Pacific beach.
Owners of the aquarium had warned that the whale, who they named Pascualita, would die if she were not sent abroad because there was no tank in Mexico big enough to hold her and she could not fend for herself at sea.
But the government and environmentalists opposed a move from the aquarium in Nueva Vallarta because they feared it would set a precedent of animal trafficking from Mexico.
Mexico's environment agency said on Monday that the whale, also known as an orca, died on Sunday, two months after becoming stranded on the beach, because her immune system failed to develop due to a lack of milk and she was attacked by infection.
Orcas Are Back, Maybe
June 11, 2007 (Kitsap Sun) After roaming the ocean for months, a group of Puget Sound orcas known as L pod has returned well, sort of, in a tentative kind of way.
Several members of L pod were identified Sunday by whale watchers near Race Rocks at the south end of Vancouver Island. But the whales apparently reversed course before reaching their summer home in the San Juan Islands, said Kelley Balcomb-Bartok of the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island.
Sunday's L-pod sighting put whale researchers on alert, as they prepared to take stock of the returning whales. Orcas are identified by individual markings, making it possible to tell if any animals are missing (usually because of a death) or if any small newcomers had been born.
One bit of good news was gleaned from the brief encounter, he said. A new calf, first identified in March off the California coast, appears to have survived the trip north.
Ken Balcomb, director of the Center for Whale Research, speculated that L pod's arrival was the whales' way of testing the waters for prey. Their fish of choice, chinook salmon, usually can be found at this time. But fish numbers have dwindled in recent years, as chinook remain a "threatened" species.
"Maybe they (the whales) would have stayed if they found 100 times as many chinook salmon as there are, " Balcomb said.
The Democrats Lag on Warming
June 11, 2007 (New York Times editorial) Exhibit A is a regressive bill drafted by John Dingell, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Rick Boucher, a Virginia Democrat. For starters, the bill would override the recent Supreme Court decision giving the Environmental Protection Agency authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles, a decision that even President Bush has reluctantly embraced. It would also effectively block efforts by California and 11 other states to regulate and reduce greenhouse gases from vehicles at a time when the states are far ahead of the federal government in dealing with climate change.
The bill's fuel economy standards for cars and light trucks are weaker than the president's proposals and weaker still than standards the National Academy of Sciences says can be met using off-the-shelf technology. And the bill would open the door to a new generation of coal-to-liquid fuel plants favored by the coal lobby that could double the global warming gases of conventional gasoline.
Abalone's decline another sign of Puget Sound's failing health
June 11, 2007 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer) Yes, Washington does have abalone, a somewhat smaller cousin to the famously overfished California varieties. But populations of our so-called pinto abalone, once gathered copiously by clued-in recreational divers, are in free fall -- before most people even knew they lived here.
The state halted abalone fishing 13 years ago. But mysteriously, their decline continues. Remaining abalone are scattered so thin that when they try to make babies -- we'll get to the racy details a little later -- many just can't seem to, uh, get it together.
"We've pushed abalone populations to a point where natural recovery is probably not going to happen," said Rothaus, a state biologist. "We're reached the point where human intervention is ne
And that's why on a recent day Rothaus and his co-workers from the state Department of Fish and Wildlife were checking on little hatchery-raised abalone they released 40 feet below the surface in March. Eventually, they hope, hatchery-bred abalone can supplement wild populations.
"The loss of this species or any species in Puget Sound is like a canary in a coal mine," Rothaus said. "It's a question of the overall health of the Puget Sound ecosystem and the changes we've seen in the last 20 years."
About 300 abalone were planted in Freshwater Bay. If just 30 are still around after a year, it will be a sign that hatchery-raised abalone could do the trick, Rothaus said.
Can Washington's abalone be saved? There are those who express doubt.
As Joe Gaydos, Northwest regional director of the Seadoc Society, a research group affiliated with the University of California-Davis put it, "Look, this species is pretty far gone. Do we really want to spend time and money on it?"
Abalone are gastropod mollusks -- snails, actually. Also known as northern abalone. Microscopic at first, they grow up to about six inches. Thought to live 20 to 30 years. Active at night, they eat algae and perform an important ecological function by keeping rocky areas algae-free so the habitat is available for sea anemones, scallops and many other marine creatures.
In Washington, abalone once could be found throughout the San Juan Islands down to Whidbey Island, north into Canada and out to the mouth of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, with a few on the outer coast. Their overall range is from Southern California to Southeast Alaska.
Orca Awareness Month
June 10, 2007 (The Olympian) I'm sure Orca Awareness Month got off to a rousing start last night with Ralph and Karen Munro as keynote speakers at a kickoff event at the Flounder Bay Cafe in Anacortes.
Any time these two are asked, they add their influence to efforts to protect and preserve these magnificent creatures that call Puget Sound home, whether it's petitioning the federal government to add the whales to the federal Endangered Species Act list (the whales were listed in 2005) or protesting what turned out to be the last orca captures in Puget Sound (in Budd Inlet in 1976).
One of my favorite stories involving the Munros and orcas unfolded Aug. 23, 1999, at Whale Watch Park on the west side of San Juan Island. Munro called a news conference to draw attention to the continued population decline within the Puget Sound orca families J, K and L including the recent death of J-6, a 42-year-old male whale named "Ralph" in honor of Munro.
Just as Munro began talking about his first encounter with J-6 years earlier, members of the three orca pods swam up and began making a scene. One kept leaping out of the water right behind him. It turned out to be J-6's sister.
"I was there," Susan Berta of the Orca Network said the other day. "It was the only time I've ever seen Ralph upstaged."
"It was a pretty mystical moment, no question about that," Munro recalled. "It was more than coincidental. I've always felt the orcas can communicate better than we give them credit for."
Humpback whales' comeback could mean reduced protection
June 11, 2007 (Seattle Times) An ongoing count of endangered humpback whales - like the two that made a lengthy side trip into the Sacramento Delta recently - is revealing a comeback so convincing that marine scientists are pondering a controversial question: Is it time for the whales, hunted to near-extinction in the 20th century, to have less protection under the federal Endangered Species Act?
"The standard is whether they are out of the immediate risk of extinction. The answer to that is probably yes," said Jay Barlow, a marine biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). But he said "there likely will be resistance" if such an effort begins.
Although most experts and advocates agree that the humpback is making impressive gains, they disagree about what that should mean for protection of one of the most iconic species in the animal kingdom.
The most recent previous count, done 15 years ago and using less rigorous methodology, estimated the humpback population at 6,000 to 10,000 whales, up from fewer than 2,000 when commercial whaling was banned in 1986, said John Calambokidis, the researcher coordinating the current study. He said that judging from annual counts along the West Coast, the population may be increasing by as much as 10 percent a year. The International Whaling Commission estimates the worldwide humpback population at around 50,000.
Gray whale numbers take a dive
June 8, 2007 (Goleta Valley Voice) The gray whales have come and gone for the year and for the volunteers who have been counting from their vantage point at Coal Oil Point Reserve, the news isn't great.
"Even without (data analysis), we know the calf count was way down: 44 percent of last year for us" said Michael Smith, local coordinator for Gray Whales Count, a joint project of the Channel Islands Chapter of the American Cetacean Society, UCSB's Coal Oil Point Reserve and Cascadia Research Collective in Washington that monitors the yearly migrations of gray whales through the Santa Barbara Channel. Other observation posts at Palos Verdes to the south and Piedras Blancas to the north have reported similar statistics, said Smith.
While the data has yet to be scrutinized, Smith has a couple of ideas about why the count dropped so dramatically from last year's total of 118 calves.
"The current theory is that pregnant mothers were iced out of food for a time that caused miscarriages. When the ice opened, everyone got fed, but many calves were lost."
Gray whales migrate south to Mexican waters from the northern Pacific coasts, to give birth after a year's gestation, after which they migrate back north. New mothers and their calves tend to swim close to the shore to avoid being attacked by predators.
"Another thought is that because of global warming, gray whales have moved further north to feed. They are finding food, but they are also extending the distance they have to travel to get to Mexico" said Smith. "Unfortunately, many calves are being born before they get to the lagoons, which is much riskier. Calves are not born with blubber, and the water was cold this winter (and) spring. Perhaps some calves succumbed to hypothermia. We do not know."
US military exercise could result in mass whale strandings
June 7, 2007 (International Herald Tribune) Mass strandings of beaked whales could occur in Australia this month as a result of naval mid-frequency sonar being used in a joint U.S.-Australian military exercise, the International Whaling Commission warns in a report.
Environmentalists are calling for the U.S. Navy to stop its use of the submarine-hunting sonar, saying its effects on whales, dolphins and porpoises are devastating.
"The reality is, the strandings are only the tip of the iceberg," said Marsha Green of the Ocean Mammal Institute. "Most of the animals that are injured are going to die and sink to the bottom."
Naval sonar has been the subject of intense debate in recent years.
Environmentalists claim it can result in hearing loss and tissue damage. They say it also can alter diving habits as whales try to escape the noise. For a deep-diving species like the beaked whale, rapid surfacing can result in a fatal case of the bends, they say.
Activities planned for Orca Awareness Month
June 6, 2007 (Skagit Valley Herald) Orca month will kick off next week with two activities in Skagit County - a book reading and a benefit for Orca Network's Whale Sighting Network and education programs.
On Thursday, June 7, Howard Garrett of Orca Network will read from his book "Orcas in Our Midst: The Whales Who Share Our Inland Waters" as part of activities associated with Orca Awareness Month. The reading will be from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at Skagit Valley Foods Co-op, 202 S. First Street, Mount Vernon.
On Saturday, June 9 former Secretary of State Ralph Munro and his wife, Karen Munro, will be the keynote speakers at a fundraising kickoff dinner. Munro was instrumental in stopping the capture of orca whales in the 1970s, said Susan Berta of Orca Network. The $50 dinner will be at 5:30 p.m. in the Flounder Bay Cafe at Skyline Marina in Anacortes.
Gov. Chris Gregoire in April declared June to be Orca Awareness Month after receiving a petition from Washington businesses and residents. The governor's proclamation is to focus attention on the endangered southern resident killer whales. The subspecies three groups - known as J, K and L pods - spend late spring to fall in the Puget Sound.
The southern residents are believed to have numbered 140 early in the last century. Since 1976, the population peaked with 97 whales in the 1990s but declined to 79 in 2001, according to the research center, which conducts the annual orca census for the federal government.
Factors that scientists say may have led to the decline of the orca subspecies include capture for marine parks during the 1960s and 70s, declining salmon runs, toxins in the water and loss of habitat.
During June, several events are scheduled around Puget Sound. For information on orcas and upcoming events, visit the Orca Network Web site at www. orcanetwork.org/news/events. html, call 1-866-ORCANET or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
U.S. adopts limits on clean water law enforcement
June 6, 2007 (Reuters) The landmark U.S. law to fight water pollution will now apply only to bodies of water large enough for boats to use, and their adjacent wetlands, and will not automatically protect streams, the U.S. government said on Tuesday.
Environmental groups said they fear the new policy will muddy the purpose of the federal Clean Water Act and put many smaller bodies of water at risk. Democrats in Congress have introduced legislation mandating protection of creeks, estuaries and other watersheds.
The Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers wrote the new guidelines after the Supreme Court split a year ago in a case about which waters fall under the Clean Water Act.
Because of the split decision, lower courts must decide on a case-by-case basis if the law applies to smaller water areas.
Four justices said the law was restricted to protecting navigable waters such as lakes and rivers, and bodies connected to them, while four argued the law had a broader reach.
The new guidelines were intended to help workers in the field determine if a waterway fell under the act, using the argument of Justice Anthony Kennedy, who did not join either side in the decision.
Angered by the Supreme Court's split, Democratic lawmakers last month introduced the "Clean Water Restoration Act" that would drop the word "navigable" from the original law.
Rep. James Oberstar, a Minnesota Democrat sponsoring the legislation, said the single edit would make clear that the EPA must also protect watersheds, which are often creeks or estuaries where water has collected.
Marine area off B.C. coast to be protected
June 4 2007 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer) The Canadian government and the Haida Indian nation have signed an agreement to designate a patch of ocean off British Columbia's Queen Charlotte Islands as a protected marine area.
Randy Kamp, parliamentary secretary to Fisheries and Oceans Minister Loyola Hearn, said the agreement allows Fisheries and Oceans Canada to formally protect the Bowie Seamount under Canada's Oceans Act.
The agreement moves the process of designating the area, also known in Haida as Sgaan Kinghlas, one step closer to becoming the second federally protected marine area off Canada's Pacific coast.
Bowie Seamount is a shallow water area that has been described as an "isolated island of biodiversity" in the deep ocean.
Killer Whale Harassment Case Ends With Bail Forfeiture
June 2 2007 (San Juan Islander) Corey A. Mendoza, age 51, of Stanwood, Washington, forfeited bail for operating a 36-foot motor yacht in the path of the southern resident killer whales. Prosecutors charged Mendoza with violation of the state wildlife laws which make it unlawful to maliciously harass an endangered species, a gross misdemeanor.
On August, 27, 2006, Mendoza was the master of the Nauti-Lust as it drove at a high rate of speed directly into the path of L-pod and within 10 yards of the whales. Mendoza then chased the whales, overtook them, and leap-frogged around into the path of the whales, again and again, repeatedly obstructing their path for about 30 minutes.
Jeff Hogan and Jodi Smith, volunteers from Soundwatch, attempted to slow Mendoza and notify him of the "Be Whale Wise" guidelines for whale watching as he approached the whales at a high rate of speed. But, instead of driving cautiously, Mendoza kept his boat on plane, putting out a wake that nearly swamped the smaller Soundwatch inflatable.
Officers Todd Vandivert and Ryan Valentine of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Department were patrolling the area and were promptly notified of the incident. Mendoza was cited at the scene for failure to properly display a valid vessel registration, and the case was referred to the San Juan County Prosecuting Attorney and the National Marine Fisheries Service for violation of state and federal laws protecting the southern resident killer whale from harassment.
MudUp campaign designed to help Puget Sound
June 1 2007 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer) With a brilliant sun baking Alki Beach as in-line skaters whisked past on Thursday, there was just one thing on the minds of about 100 environmental activists: getting as muddy and dirty as they could -- and persuading as many others as possible to do it, too, to help Puget Sound.
"MudUp is about getting your hands dirty, about getting out to work with your community to help Puget Sound, but it's also about fun," master of ceremonies Jeff Compton told about 125 activists and others gathered to start a multifaceted campaign to boost public support for restoring the Sound. "Environmental groups can be kind of serious sometimes, but we're going to change that."
The MudUp campaign by The Nature Conservancy, People for Puget Sound and the Trust for Public Lands seeks to channel the efforts of people who want to directly help the Sound, perhaps by restoring shorelines, or by writing to government officials, or a number of other activities. Some participants may simply want to learn more about the Sound and what it will take to restore it, organizers said.
MudUp, they say, is more than just a feel-good PR campaign with a few restoration projects thrown in for good measure. The organizers, calling themselves the Alliance for Puget Sound Shorelines, aim to establish 10 new parks beside the Sound, restore 100 miles of its ecologically critical shoreline and protect 1,000 miles of the shore.