Orca Network News - November, 2003

News, updates and events about
the Southern Resident orcas,
orcas worldwide, and their habitats
November 1, 2003 through November 31, 2003.

Navy's neighbors voice concerns over torpedo testing
November 28, 2003 (Seattle Post-Inteligencer) A preliminary Navy proposal to dramatically expand weapons testing in Hood Canal and off the coast is raising concern among everyone from business owners to whale researchers.
The Keyport Naval Undersea Warfare Center already operates three ranges in the area: one focused on torpedo testing in Dabob Bay in Hood Canal; another aimed at submarine research and underwater mapping off the coast of the Quinault Indian Reservation; and a third next to the warfare center itself.
Under the proposal, the total testing area would expand from 89 to 2,672 square miles, the bulk of that in Quinault waters. The Navy has offered few specifics on what it would be doing.
Kenneth Balcomb, senior scientist at the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor, said he worries about both the size of the proposed expansion and the lack of detail about what would be happening there.
"My first thought was, 'Oh, well, George Bush wants to throw this out and get everything he can,' " Balcomb said. "I mean, it's a national marine sanctuary, and they want to convert it to a complete naval-operations area. I haven't heard them say anything about the impact on marine mammals; they just haven't mentioned it at all."

Military gets break from environmental rules
November 24, 2003 (Christian Science Monitor) President Bush is expected to sign a bill Monday easing restrictions on DOD that deal with whales and rare species.
The bill allows the Navy to redefine "harassment" under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, making it easier to use low- frequency sonar suspected of harming whales and dolphins. The Pentagon's $401 billion authorization bill for the 2004 fiscal year also exempts military bases from stringent habitat-protection requirements under the federal Endangered Species Act.
In addition, the Pentagon, as it has in the past, is seeking exemptions to the Clean Air Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (which governs hazardous waste), and the Superfund Act responsible for cleaning up toxic-waste sites around the country. Last year, an exemption to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act was granted the military as well.
The scope of the issue is enormous. The Defense Department oversees some 25 million acres of military bases and other training facilities. The military's pollution problems - including corroding bombs and rockets, and old chemical munitions now outlawed - date back over a century.
Making a case for giving the Navy a break under the Marine Mammal Protection Act may be harder. Many marine biologists believe that the Navy's powerful sonar systems seriously affect and in some cases permanently damage the animals' means of communication and navigation, sometimes driving them into a frenzy in which they beach themselves and die.
Three years ago, 16 beached whales were found in the Bahamas after the Navy conducted sonar exercises in the vicinity. Seven died - apparently the victims of severe sound pressure that caused cranial hemorrhaging. Whales also beached themselves shortly after exercises in Greece, California, and the Canary Islands.

Like density? Imagine our home with 50 million people
November 23, 2003 (Seattle Times Editorial) At "Salmon Crossroads," a daylong examination of the mystery of the huge runs of salmon returning to our creeks and rivers, the region came into view like parting clouds.
I've lately expanded the region in my own, internal map to stretch across several boundaries. I'd say the greater region now reaches from Eugene, Ore., north to Whistler, B.C., and is edging east of the Cascades to Kittitas County and the pleasant town of Ellensburg, a pivot point that soon will be linked by jobs closer to Puget Sound than to Eastern Washington.
The phenomenon of the returning salmon is indeed a mystery because a roomful of biologists, policymakers and avid fish counters simply could not come up with one, solid reason why wild and hatchery salmon are returning in record numbers.
Is it the shift in climate, the oscillation of the ocean? Beats me. It beats the scientists, too, who cautioned that no single thing can account for the enormous population of salmon this year.
But while we can't know exactly what caused an explosion of salmon after a decade of steady decline, we probably do know what will cause a fundamental, long-term decline in salmon stocks: intense commercial and subsistence fishing; modifying rivers and streams; more use of available water and a long list of the after-effects of human enterprise.

Puget Sound cleanup effort cash-starved
November 20, 2003 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer) U.S. slashes money for the massive restoration project.
The most ambitious effort yet to save Puget Sound is threatened by a budget that is less than one-quarter of what project leaders say is needed to get the job done as planned.
Launched two years ago, the Puget Sound Nearshore Ecosystem Restoration Project set out to put the brakes on the damage and rehabilitate the shoreline. The project is unique in its holistic approach and broad partnership among local, state and federal agencies and environmental groups.
The goal is to undertake a project on the scale of the Everglades restoration, to save the Sound's ecosystem -- not just finite chunks of beach or a single organism.
The project is funded primarily by federal dollars paid to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Leaders had hoped to get $2 million in next year's budget. The final budget is yet to be passed, but it is almost certain they will receive only $350,000 -- half what they got last year.
"It was kind of the pivotal year," said Bernie Hargrave, who is managing the project for the Corps. "And we're getting a severe funding shortfall."
The lack of funds is being blamed on a tight national budget, with large sums earmarked for national security and peacekeeping efforts in Iraq. The Corps is among many agencies with shrinking budgets struggling to keep up with their programs.

Judge's heart is with orcas, but is the law?
November 18, 2003 (Bremerton Sun) A lawsuit seeks to require the feds to declare Puget Sound killer whales endangered.
A federal judge Monday said his heart is on the side of people who want to save Puget Sound's killer whales -- but the law requires him to give deference to a federal government that has refused to list the orcas as endangered. Other than that, District Judge Robert Lasnik offered no hint of how he might rule after listening to legal arguments about whether Puget Sound's orcas should be listed under the Endangered Species Act.
Lasnik said his decision could come in about a month.
A coalition of environmental groups sued the National Marine Fisheries Service last year after the agency acknowledged that the whales were at risk of extinction but failed to list them as endangered.
Puget Sound's orca population has declined rapidly the past few years, raising concerns about the effects of toxic chemicals, food supply and close contact with boats.
The endangered species case hinges on technical arguments about whether Puget Sound's 83 killer whales are a "distinct population segment" that deserves protection under the law.
To warrant listing, federal policy requires an at-risk population to pass two tests: "discreteness" and "significance."
The government agreed that the whales were socially and genetically "discrete."
But it lumped all killer whales in the region together in its test for "significance."
Goldman contended that a scientific review team agreed that seal-eating "transient" orcas ought to be a different species from the fish-eating "resident" orcas, such as the Puget Sound's whales. If the populations were considered separate, the local whales would have qualified for a listing, she said.
Department of Justice lawyer Adam Issenberg countered that the federal government had no obligation to overturn the existing scientific classification system, which lumps the two kinds of whales together.
Judge hears arguments on orca protection November 18, 2003 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer)

After two decades, Washington still a Superfund state
November 17, 2003 (Seattle Times) Two decades ago, when scientists were trying to figure out which of Washington's toxic-waste sites should be cleaned up under the new federal Superfund program, there were no studies showing where the worst health hazards lurked.
Twenty years after the EPA listed the state's first Superfund sites, all but one of the original 10 remain works in progress.
But those sites and more than three dozen others listed in later years are so heavily contaminated it could be a long time before there's any hope they can be taken off the Superfund list for good.
The story's the same at many of more than 1,200 Superfund sites scattered across the country.
The EPA has listed 63 sites in Washington since 1983. Of those, 16 were delisted after tests showed the sites met government cleanup standards. That leaves 47 active Superfund sites in Washington, more than twice those in Oregon, Idaho and Alaska combined. Nationally, Washington ranks seventh in the number of active sites. New Jersey has the most: 113. Since 1983, polluters have agreed to pay more than $910 million on Superfund cleanups in Washington, according to EPA settlement documents.

Activists Plan Fight for Marine Mammals
November 16, 2003 (Washington Post) Exempt From Some Rules to Protect Animals, Navy Might Seek to Alter Sonar Limits
The Navy won a backroom congressional victory last week that allows it to get out from under laws that protect whales, dolphins and other marine mammals, but in the process it touched off what could be a bruising battle over the future of one of the nation's most popular environmental measures.
Environmental advocates and their congressional allies, including a handful of Republicans, are promising to mount a concerted effort next year to overturn the Navy provisions and to turn protection of the appealing and often endangered marine creatures into an election-year issue. Advocates for the oceans say there is a great deal at stake: They call the changes the biggest "rollback" of the Marine Mammal Protection Act since it was passed 30 years ago, and predict they will result in the death of many more whales, dolphins and porpoises.
The use of the defense authorization bill as the vehicle for the Navy amendments invaded jealously guarded turf lines in Congress, raising the hackles of Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine) in particular. She chairs the subcommittee that has jurisdiction over the marine mammal act, which is up for renewal next year.

Sediments in Sound among least toxic
November 14, 2003 (Seattle Times) Puget Sound ranks among the least toxic of all the estuaries and bays in the United States where contamination has been measured, according to the first comprehensive study of chemical and toxic pollutants that have settled on the Sound's floor.
The three-year study, part of a nationwide review of America's coastline, found only 1 percent of 300 sediment samples taken from the Sound were highly polluted with toxic materials or chemicals. Sixty-eight percent of the samples, meanwhile, had clean sediments.
Although 53 percent of the total survey area had concentrations of chemicals that exceeded a state or NOAA guideline, that dropped when four nontoxic and ubiquitous chemicals were discounted: nickel, benzoic acid, phenol and 4-methyl phenol. Then contamination tapered off, suggesting it was highly concentrated in a few areas that could be cleaned up.
Unlike New York and Boston harbors or the bays of Southern California, the Sound was relatively free of dangerous toxins, Long said. He compared it to Florida's Tampa Bay, a large central waterway that's clean but has nasty spots in harbors and near the city.
Key indicators of the Sound's health are mixed. Chinook salmon and many groundfish stocks are in decline, as are orca numbers and, in many areas, eelgrass beds. Shoreline pollution in mussels and other species may be on the rise, including contamination from PCBs and PAHs. Meanwhile, bulkheads and seawall barriers that starve beaches of new sand and gravel are increasing by up to two miles a year, with 70 percent of the shoreline already behind some sort of barrier.
Still, there are more shellfish beds being reopened than closed due to bacterial contamination, water quality is high at 73 percent of fresh-water monitoring stations, fecal coliform is in decline in a few of the polluted river mouths and harbor seals appear to be rebounding.

Our Warming World: Effects of climate change bode ill for Northwest
November 13, 2003 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer) Juniper and honeysuckle are blooming earlier in the spring. Butterflies that can't stand a too-cold winter have taken up residence in the Tri-Cities. Snow levels are creeping higher up the sides of the Cascades. Glaciers are melting.
"The time for plain speaking is long overdue," said Edward Miles, director of the University of Washington-based Climate Impacts Group. "We have never faced a problem like this."
From the crest of the Cascades to the bottom of Puget Sound, this region stands in coming decades to be transformed: shorter ski seasons. More winter flooding. Reduced summer water supplies. Increasingly destructive wildfires. Further-stressed salmon runs.
Scientists aren't sure how hot it will get.
Globally, sea level has risen as much as 10 inches over the past century and is expected to rise an additional 20 inches over the next 100 years, according to scientists.
The precise effect on the local marine environment and the animals living there is unclear. Ocean conditions are influenced by a complicated interplay between currents and climate, so scientists are unsure where and how warm temperatures will be.
Pollutants -- pesticides, heavy metals and long-lived poisons like PCBs -- circulate in the atmosphere.
They get trapped in falling snow and locked up in glaciers. As climate change increases the melting of glaciers, these toxins are released -- flowing into rivers, lakes and the Sound.
"We very likely will see an increase in contaminants that wind up in the food chain," said Jeffries, of Fish and Wildlife.

Wider use of Navy sonar approved by House
November 8, 2003 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer) Vote upsets activists, who say marine life is more at risk now
Weeks after a groundbreaking scientific study said naval sonar appears to be killing marine mammals, the Bush administration yesterday won House approval to use sonar wherever Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld sees fit.
Passage next week by the Senate is virtually assured.
Like their colleagues elsewhere, environmentalists in the Pacific Northwest were angry. They pointed to an incident earlier this year in which Navy sonar near the San Juan Islands panicked orcas and other marine mammals and may have killed harbor porpoises later found dead in the area.
The legislation, part of a $401 billion defense bill, gives the secretary of defense the right to exempt from the provisions of the Marine Mammal Protection Act "any action or category of actions" undertaken by the armed forces. Currently, that requires the approval of the National Marine Fisheries Service or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The new law requires only that the defense secretary notify environmental regulators of his intentions.

Murray lands federal grant to study death of fish
November 6, 2003 (Tacoma News-Tribune) Alarmed about the death of thousands of fish in Hood Canal the past two years, the federal government has approved about $350,000 to study the waterway's low-oxygen problem.
U.S. Sen. Patty Murray (D-Shoreline) secured the money in the Interior Department appropriations bill, which passed both the House and Senate. President Bush is expected to sign it.
The money has been directed to the U.S. Geological Survey.

House panel joins fight over whales, sonar
November 6, 2003 (San Francisco Chronicle) Bill would make it harder to show harassment of marine mammals
By adding just two words to a bill reauthorizing the 31-year-old Marine Mammal Protection Act, the House Resources Committee waded into a bitter battle Wednesday between the Navy and environmentalists and perhaps gave several industries the ability to operate more freely in the oceans.
The committee, chaired by Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Tracy, inserted "biologically significant'' into the definition of behavior disruptions of such mammals as dolphins, whale and seals that are classified as illegal harassment. Supporters of the change, which passed on a voice vote, said it was necessary to help the Navy experiment with long-range, low-frequency sonar used to detect new quiet diesel-powered submarines.
But detractors say the wording will make it harder for prosecutors to prove cases of harassment under the act because they'll find it difficult to show any specific action is "biologically significant'' to a single animal or a group of mammals.
"It's extremely hard for us to say what's significant or insignificant,'' Jasny said. "We believe the current standard has worked sufficiently well.''
The current law concerns "disruption of behaviors'' without trying to define whether those disruptions are "biologically significant.''
The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee has yet to come up with its version of a new marine mammal act. That means congressional action this year isn't likely.

Streams catch the health bug
November 4, 2003 (Bremerton Sun) Worms and black-fly larvae are bad, but a large variety of invertebrates are good.
If you want to know how healthy a stream is, sneak a peek at the bugs hiding under rocks in the riffles. If you see only worms and black-fly larvae, the stream must be pretty sick.
But if you see a large variety of invertebrates -- including the mayflies and stoneflies that fly fishermen emulate -- then the stream is in good condition.
A three-year project using volunteers to study stream bugs in Kitsap County is coming to a close this fall -- although participants, led by Val Koehler of Kitsap County's Stream Team, hope to keep it going.
Biologist Chris May, who heads that study, says he has found that a low score for stream bugs relates to high bacterial pollution, as measured monthly by the Kitsap County Health District. Both conditions are exacerbated by development.

Old-growth battle blooms in Alaska's coral gardens
November 3, 2003 (Seattle Times) "We'd never seen anything like what we found there," said Stone, a researcher at Alaska's Auke Bay Laboratory, run by the National Marine Fisheries Service. "There were these gardens, like coral reefs, but you'd see acres and acres of ground 100 percent covered. We were finding species the Smithsonian had never seen before."
The discovery of Alaska's extensive cold-water coral gardens little more than a year ago has since garnered attention from scientists and environmentalists worldwide.
At the same time, the amazing find has quickly worked its way to the center of a fight over commercial-fishing practices and the use of nets weighted with chains that drag the bottom, scraping up everything from rockfish to cod to starfish, crabs, clams and, sometimes, tons of coral.

Orcas might land on state's endangered list
November 1, 2003 (The Olympian) Orcas that prowl the waters of Puget Sound could be headed onto the state's endangered species list. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has proposed the listing, pointing to an 18 percent decline in killer whale numbers from 1996 to 2001.
While a state listing doesn't carry the weight of a federal listing, it's seen by many as a way to increase public awareness of the orcas' plight and afford some additional protection.
"Certainly, it's a move I support," said Olympia-based marine mammal researcher John Calambokidis. "This is a small population that has clearly declined and clearly faces three distinct threats."
The three pods that make up the so-called southern residents typically are found in Puget Sound and Canada's Georgia Basin from spring through fall. They have been spotted as far north as the Queen Charlotte Islands in British Columbia and as far south as Monterey Bay in California. Occasionally they venture into South Sound.
The most southern sightings so far this fall have been around Seattle and Vashon Island, according to Susan Berta of Orca Network, a Whidbey Island nonprofit group that keeps tabs on the whales' movements.
However, a state listing would require state agencies to consider potential harm to the killer whales when they issue project permits, said Harriet Allen, endangered species manager for Fish and Wildlife.
"The main thing a listing does is raise public awareness and acknowledge the status of the species," Allen said.
"Any opportunity to look into the causes of their decline is important," Berta said. "It helps the public understand there is a problem."

Back to Orca News Archives