Orca Network News - November, 2008
the Southern Resident orcas,
orcas worldwide, and their habitats
November 1, 2008 through November 30, 2008.
November 30, 2008 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer)
A group of 150 whales that became stranded on a remote coastline in southern Australia were battered to death on rocks before rescuers could save them.
Officials from Tasmania state's Parks and Wildlife Service rushed Sunday in four-wheel-drive vehicles to the remote site at Sandy Cape after the long-finned pilot whales were spotted by air a day earlier.
Officials in small boats steered about 30 whales that were part of the same pod as those stranded away from the bay where they went ashore. They were apparently responding to cries of distress from an injured whale and were in danger of becoming stuck too, Brennan said.
The operation comes one week after rescuers saved 11 pilot whales among more than 60 stranded on a beach in northwestern Tasmania, which is an island.
Strandings are not uncommon in Tasmania, where the whales pass by on their migration to and from Antarctic waters. It is not known why whales get stranded.
The end of the beginning for Puget Sound cleanup
November 28, 2008 (Seattle Times editorial)
The Dow Jones index was nearly 5,000 points higher when Puget Sound Partnership began work on a detailed plan to restore the Sound to robust health by 2020.
Eighteen months later, investors and marine biologists both require oxygen and depth sounders to fathom how far down they must go to reach bottom. Such is the economic environment that awaits an action agenda that will be approved Monday and forwarded to the 2009 Legislature.
Getting fully launched will require more money, political courage, bureaucratic cooperation, public support — and more money. The partnership's leadership council is respected and purposeful, with Bill Ruckelshaus as chair and David Dicks as executive director.
Restoring and maintaining a healthy Puget Sound is about managing growth and housing density to promote more efficient transportation. Our leaking, drippy cars, with degrading brake pads and tires, are major factors in pollution. Runoff from paved roadways and parking lots is tougher to corral than untreated municipal sewage or a polluting factory.
Surface-water management — runoff from here and there — and all manner of land-use imperatives come into play. They are as central to success as motivating armies of citizens to volunteer their time on restoration projects and environmental vigilance, a la the exemplary WSU Island County Beach Watchers at Coupeville, on Whidbey Island.
Budget woes may slow Puget Sound cleanup
November 28, 2008 (Olympian)
The looming state budget deficit may slow work to clean up Puget Sound.
The director of the Puget Sound Partnership, David Dicks, told The Olympian it would be asking the Legislature for a smaller increase in funding.
The agency presents a plan Monday to the Legislature for fighting pollution and protecting habitat in Puget Sound.
The plan may seek more federal money or perhaps create local improvement districts where voters could approve taxes.
SkyKING: Orcas in Puget Sound
November 26, 2008 (KING5 TV Video)
A pod of Orcas was spotted swimming near Point No Point in Puget Sound Wednesday afternoon (Incredible video).
Loss of seven salmon-dependent whales a 'wake-up call'
November 25, 2008 (Vancouver Sun)
Only days before the cinematic release of a documentary about Luna - the killer whale that captivated the public before its death in Nootka Sound in 2006 - biologists are coming to terms with the loss of seven whales from the salmon-dependent southern resident population, including Luna's mother and younger brother.
"It's significant, a serious situation," Lance Barrett-Lennard, a killer whale scientist at the Vancouver Aquarium, said in an interview Tuesday. "But I don't think it's the death knell. It's a wake-up call to think about the fate of salmon stocks and the way we run our fisheries."
Most troubling for scientists is the loss of the remaining three, especially two breeding females - Luna's mother, L67, known as Splash, age 33, and J11, Blossom, about 36.
"This is of concern," said John Ford, a whale researcher with the federal fisheries department in Nanaimo. "Those two females were in the prime of their reproductive years. They normally have high survival."
As the southern residents decline, they are also at increased risk from inbreeding, oil spills and contaminants such as PCBs, ship noise and collisions, and whale watchers.
Ford noted that not all the news is bad: the latest census suggests the population of threatened northern resident killer whales has increased to about 250 animals from 120 in the early 1970s.
Saving Luna is an award-winning documentary directed by Suzanne Chisholm and Michael Parfit that is scheduled to open in Vancouver Dec. 5 at the Ridge Theatre, in Victoria on Jan. 16 and Toronto on Jan. 23.
Mussels Lose Out As Carbon Dioxide Changes Ocean
November 25, 2008 (NPR)
All the carbon dioxide pouring into the atmosphere is making the oceans more acidic - and those effects appear to be striking very close to home.
Scientists have been fretting about what ocean acid will do to coral reefs and certain species of plankton. And a new study now documents a startling and rapid change in ocean acid on an island just off the coast of Washington state.
Ocean chemistry measured from Tatoosh Island found that the ocean there is becoming acidic 10 times faster than expected, according to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. And the study's author J. Timothy Wootton says the island's ecosystem is changing rapidly as a result.
Wootton isn't sure why the acidity changed so rapidly on this island. One lesson, though, is that ocean chemistry doesn't change uniformly over the entire planet - there are hot spots. No other studies along the Pacific coast have been monitoring acidity regularly, as this study did, so it's not clear how widespread the phenomenon is.
It's also not clear what we can do about it. Marine scientist Jane Lubchenco at Oregon State University says that even if the world abruptly shifts away from fossil fuels - and stops emitting billions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year - the oceans will continue to soak up carbon dioxide from the air and become more acidic.
Lubchenco says that means other ways must be found to help marine organisms survive this global threat. She recommends protecting marine life by reducing overfishing, cutting back on nutrient runoff, and creating marine reserves to protect the most valuable and vulnerable marine ecosystems.
Salmon, owls might have ally in White House
November 24, 2008 (Tacoma News Tribune)
Here's the question: What does a community organizer from Chicago who spent four years in the Senate before being elected president know about spotted owls, endangered salmon, mountain bark beetles, Western water rights, old-growth forests and the maintenance backlog in the national parks?
The answer: Probably not much.
President-elect Barack Obama has offered only scattered clues as to where he stands on the most pressing public lands and endangered species issues.
In reading the tea leaves, however, environmental groups are optimistic, timber industry and land-rights groups are wary, and an influential lawmaker is excited about having an ally in the White House.
"This guy is a quick study and I'm sure he will find competent people," said U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Belfair, who as chairman of the House Appropriations interior subcommittee oversees nearly $28 billion in annual funding for the Interior Department, the U.S. Forest Service and the Environmental Protection Agency. "We will be able to work with him. Anything will be better than (President George W.) Bush."
Australian Volunteers Rescue 11 Beached Whales, But Many More Die
November 24, 2008 (Voice of America)
Australian scientists are using satellite technology to track 11 whales that survived a mass stranding in the southern state of Tasmania over the weekend. The long-finned pilot whales were the only survivors of a pod of 64 found beached near the small town of Stanley. From Sydney, Phil Mercer reports.
Volunteers spent the weekend tending to the stranded whales, which had beached themselves near Stanley on Tasmania's north-west coast. Fifty-three of the large marine mammals died but rescuers did manage to save 11 others.
They were taken back into deeper water. Tracking devices the size of a matchbox were attached to the dorsal fin of five long-finned pilot whales.
The devices show the whales have been swimming freely in open seas in Bass Strait, the large body of water that separates Tasmania from the Australian mainland.
Hormones Levels Reveal Clues to Orcas' Health
November 22, 2008 (Kitsap Sun)
Levels of two metabolic hormones in Puget Sound killer whales tend to confirm that the orcas were under "nutritional stress" this year, as observers have indicated following seven recent orca deaths.
The preliminary findings are from a University of Washington study that measures hormones in fecal samples collected after the whales leave an area.
It is one of the most direct, but noninvasive, methods of checking on a whale's metabolism, said Sam Wasser, director of the UW's Center for Conservation Biology. Wasser has used similar methods to study stresses in animals ranging from elephants to spotted owls.
Graduate student Katherine Ayres, who is leading the orca study under Wasser's direction, said levels of thyroid hormone appeared to be low this year when compared with last year — a year when killer whale deaths were low.
Thyroid hormones control a mammal's metabolism, causing less energy to be expended when food supplies are low, Ayres said. These natural chemicals increase or decrease over time, which is why so-called yo-yo dieting in humans can be a problem. Consuming less food causes the thyroid to slow the metabolism and conserve fat reserves, which leads to rapid weight gain when food is restored.
It appears the Puget Sound orcas went on an unintended diet this past summer, Ayres said.
Ayres also is working on a test to measure the levels of toxic chemicals in feces. Because a shortage of food tends to metabolize fat stores in whales, it is likely that toxic chemicals stored in fat would be released when thyroid levels are low.
Toxic chemicals are believed to affect the whales' immune systems and increase their risk of disease.
Shell loses Alaskan battle as court supports whales
November 22, 2008 (Financial Times)
Royal Dutch Shell has lost yet another battle to drill the deepest offshore Alaskan well after a federal appeals court ruled government approval of the plan violated environmental laws, writes Sheila McNulty.
The US Court of Appeals said the Interior Department had not taken a "hard look'' at how the drilling would affect endangered bowhead whales and the whaling activities of native Alaskans.
The ruling supports a court order last year that stopped drilling - in essence throwing out government approval for the plan.
Shell already has invested about $200m (£135m) in the project and had voluntarily put together a "conflict-avoidance agreement" with the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission, which bars Shell from waters during periods of heavy migration, which is when the hunters go out in small boats, armed with harpoons, to seek 50ft whales. The agreement also calls on Shell to shut down when a whale comes close to its operations.
But the environmentalists have persisted with fears that whales could be disturbed by drilling and the ongoing court battle has put such activity on hold.
Sound cleanup criticized
November 22, 2008 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer)
The state's emerging plan to rescue Washington's ecologically troubled inland sea seems headed for failure, a group of leading Puget Sound scientists said Friday.
"Our prediction is that the proposed action agenda, if adopted as is, will not halt nor even slow the decline in the health of the Puget Sound ecosystem by 2020," Gov. Chris Gregoire's stated goal, said a letter written by the scientists.
The agency putting the finishing touches on the "action agenda" to save the Sound disagreed, saying it has heard the scientists' previous criticisms and adjusted the plan accordingly.
Dog's nose for whale poop big help to B.C. orca researchers
November 21, 2008 (Canwest News Service)
Killer whale poop, sniffed out by a specially trained, excitable Labrador-cross, is showing that endangered southern resident orcas may not be finding enough to eat.
Researchers from the University of Washington's Center for Conservation Biology have just completed their third season testing whale scat around Juan de Fuca Strait and Puget Sound, looking for clues to why the population is shrinking.
"What pops out right away is that there are lower thyroid hormone levels in the years when there are higher rates of mortality," said Katherine Ayres, a graduate student who is working on the whale project with Sam Wasser, director of the centre.
"This suggests they are experiencing nutritional deficits. We can tell, according to the thyroid hormone, they are not doing as well this year as the year before," Ayres said.
This year seven members of the three southern resident pods have died, including two breeding age females, bringing the population to 83. The recent population high was 97 in 1996.
"Alarm bells are going off. It is pretty devastating for such a small population," Ayres said.
Lack of chinook salmon - the food favoured by resident killer whales - noise from marine traffic and toxins have been identified in previous studies as probable causes of the decline.
The slimy, green excrement is found by Tucker, a four-year-old Lab who stands on the bow of the center's research boat and goes into paroxysms of excitement when he smells whale poop, which means it can be scooped by researchers.
Navy agrees to curtail underwater explosions
November 21, 2008 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer)
It took seven years, but the Navy finally worked out agreements with the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service. All three agencies had been sued by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a national group, and the Duvall-based Wild Fish Conservancy.
"Suddenly, after dancing around the mulberry bush for years and years, faced with a lawsuit, they agreed to something that looks halfway reasonable," said Jeff Ruch, executive director of PEER.
Navy divers use C4 explosives to blow up dummy mines, training to be able to clear shipping lanes or other waters. Navy spokeswoman Sheila Murray said the green groups' lawsuit did cause the reductions in the training exercises.
One reason the talks dragged on, she said, is that scientists had to evaluate how underwater explosions affect the marbled murrelet, a robin-sized seabird that feeds in the area of Crescent Harbor.
"We are definitely treading new water doing these (studies) for a diving seabird," Lynch said.
Also at issue are small fish -- sand land, surf smelt and herring -- that occupy a key niche in the food chain, providing sustenance to orcas as well as salmon and other larger fish.
Under its agreements with the wildlife services, the Navy has discontinued training at the Hood Canal and Port Townsend Bay sites. And it plans only eight training exercises per year at Crescent Harbor, using only 2.5-pound charges of C4.
To help balance out the harm still being done, the Navy has agreed to restore some wetlands that will serve as a fish nursery, said Brian Gorman, a Fisheries Service spokesman.
Scientists Discuss Salmon Runs in Wake of Orca Deaths
November 20, 2008 (Kitsap Sun)
Acting on behalf of killer whales and salmon could be the key to saving the Puget Sound ecosystem, according to several dozen scientists who gathered together Tuesday in Friday Harbor.
The meeting grew out of a recent announcement that seven of Puget Sound's orcas had died this year, dropping the population to 83 animals. Meanwhile, the Puget Sound Partnership is moving on a fast track to complete an Action Agenda of strategies to restore Puget Sound to health.
"When you have a flagship conservation species like the killer whale in trouble... we thought it would not be right to let the partnership pass that by and not address it in some way," said Joe Gaydos, a veterinarian with SeaDoc Society who moderated the meeting.
Participants included a large number of fisheries and marine mammal biologists, with a smattering of other disciplines represented, including oceanographers, toxicologists and behavioral biologists.
"I think what surprised me the most," said Gaydos, "is that there are so many good things going on in the realm of salmon recovery."
David Bain, a marine mammal expert who attended the meeting, said restoring salmon runs in Hood Canal would give the orcas a kind of sanctuary in the fall, as opposed to their wide-ranging, energy-consuming search for food after the chinook runs are over. Hood Canal salmon stocks remain in serious trouble.
Another idea would be to talk with Asian governments about their toxic air pollution, which drifts across the ocean and is deposited across the landscape of the Northwest, where it eventually washes down into Puget Sound.
Bush attacked over wildlife plan
November 20, 2008 (BBC)
The Bush administration wants to make it easier for drilling, mining and major construction projects to go ahead without a full scientific assessment.
Under current rules, the impact of such projects must be assessed by experts.
The changes proposed by the Bush administration would let federal agencies make the decisions without a full scientific assessment as to the likely impact on the environment.
To protect salmon, restrictions placed on three pesticides
November 19, 2008 (Seattle Times)
Farmers in Washington and along the entire West Coast face extensive new restrictions on three popular pesticides in the name of protecting salmon.
The pesticides are common in the state's apple and cherry orchards, potato fields and berry farms. Restrictions could cover big swaths of Washington farmland where streams carry a variety of federally protected salmon and steelhead, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.
That includes orchards around Wenatchee and Yakima and Western Washington agricultural centers in Skagit and Whatcom counties. One of the pesticides, chlorpyrifos, also is used on golf courses. Another, malathion, is used by some public-health agencies to kill mosquitoes.
Under the rules, the pesticides couldn't be used within 500 feet of streams that carry salmon. Crop dusters would have to stay even farther away, and farmers using the pesticides would have to leave 20-foot strips of land uncultivated along drainage ditches and streams that are home to the fish.
With dog's help, clues to orcas' decline found in whale scat
November 19, 2008 (Seattle Times)
Researchers trying to learn whether orcas are starving have turned — with the help of a dog — to a new source of information: orca scat.
Tucker, a black Lab trained in tracking animal scat, has been deployed two of the past three summers to track down orca scat between the San Juan Islands and Vancouver Island in Haro Strait, sniffing his quarry from the bow of a research boat for a University of Washington research team.
When Tucker finds what researchers are looking for, he gets to play with his ball. So he is a highly motivated tracker — and in the summers of 2006 and 2008, he helped track down some of 130 samples of scat from orca whales in Puget Sound's J, K and L pods.
Sam Wasser, director of the UW's Center for Conservation Biology, led the research team, which analyzed hormone levels in the scat. What they found surprised them. The orca mortality rate was the highest when thyroid hormone levels were lowest, indicating the animals may be nutritionally deprived.
Another regional icon, Puget Sound chinook salmon, were listed as a threatened species nearly 10 years ago. Both species are plagued by a range of ills, and no one solution will help bring them back. Addressing the food web that orcas depend on will involve not only rebuilding salmon populations, but also the species that salmon depend on, such as herring.
Experts Fear Puget Sound Orcas' Extinction
November 18, 2008 (KIRO TV)
Some experts fear that because of declining salmon population, pollution and global warming, our orcas could be extinct within 100 years.
Tuesday afternoon, the Puget Sound Partnership called a special meeting to discuss the recent loss of seven orcas.
In his series of Puget Sound in Peril reports, KIRO 7's Chris Egert travels to the San Juan Islands, the battleground in the fight to save our treasured whales.
"All the products of humans, for our benefit, that are long-lived and that don't break down in biological systems, are accumulating in the whales," said Ken Balcomb, Director of the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor.
Balcomb says each of these whales is now carrying toxins in its blubber. When salmon stocks are thin, the whales' bodies use their chemical-laced fat reserves -- a process which is hurting the whales abilities to breed.
Egert: "At what point does this wipe them out?" Balcomb: "I think the reproductive capacity of this population will be lost within about 20 years at this rate."
He predicts our resident orca pods will be killed off in 50 to 60 years unless drastic action is taken to bring back the salmon population.
See an extended interview with Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research, along with slideshows of Orcas and other wildlife.
Salmon, orca experts to discuss whale decline
November 18, 2008 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer)
Salmon and orca experts plan to discuss the recent apparent deaths of seven Puget Sound killer whales.
Scientists with the Puget Sound Partnership have scheduled a special meeting Tuesday in Friday Harbor to discuss whether a decline in Chinook salmon is playing a role in the plight of the whales, and what the state agency can do about it.
Seven of the endangered animals are missing and presumed dead. While an official census won't be completed until December, the total number of live "southern resident" orcas now stands at 83.
Frontier dreams of gold clash with fish habitat
November 18, 2008 (Seattle Times)
To protect fish and fish eggs during critical spawning periods, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is limiting the time when miners can dig or dredge for gold in certain creeks, streams and rivers using motorized equipment, including suction dredges that resemble shop vacs.
Fish and wildlife officials say dredging in spawning areas can disrupt stream bottoms, disturb sediment and harm habitat for fish already on the brink of extinction, such as bull trout and Chinook salmon.
But many of the state's 2,000 small-scale prospectors view the new rules as another assault on their rights under the General Mining Law of 1872 to explore public lands for minerals.
At the heart of the debate is suction dredging. Prospectors essentially use an underwater vacuum cleaner to suck up stream bed material like rocks, sand, gravel. Heavy gold pieces are sorted out, and material is returned to the river.
B.C. killer whales sing for their supper?
November 16, 2008 (Vancouver Sun)
Resident killer whales know the precise sound of their favourite dinner, according to a new study by a team of Canadian and U.S. researchers.
Orcas like their fish dinners fat and greasy, which means their prey of choice is chinook salmon, and scientists have discovered the whales can identify a juicy chinook at up to 100 metres.
John Ford, marine mammal scientist at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans' Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo said it is well known that killer whales have a sophisticated echolocation system for finding prey, but scientists have been mystified as to how they can identify a chinook surrounded by sockeye.
"We know they like the larger chinook, but they also take the two- and three-year-olds, which are the same size as the sockeye," he said.
Now it appears the secret is in the swim bladder, an organ that controls the buoyancy of the fish, said marine ecologist John Horne of the School of Aquatic and Fisheries Science at the University of Washington, Seattle.
Horne is an author of the study presented at a recent meeting of the Acoustical Society of America in Florida. He said his team bounced recorded replicas of whale echolocation clicks off tethered sockeye, coho and chinook salmon to see what patterns emerged.
"We were looking at how killer whales perceive the fish," he said.
The sonar echoes differ because the swim bladder on a chinook salmon is half the size of other species, and the swim bladder is responsible for most of the reflected sound energy, the study found.
This year, chinook are in short supply, some whales are showing signs of malnourishment and there have been two unexpected deaths of breeding females in the southern resident pods. Therefore there is a push to find out why the whales are not switching their menu.
Historically, chinook would have been available year round, whereas pinks and sockeye come into the range for only a couple of months, Ford said.
"They are very much creatures of tradition. They do eat halibut and ling cod, but chinook is their preferred prey. We don't know what constraints there are on their ability to switch prey," he said.
Tell it to the whales
November 15, 2008 (Los Angeles Times editorial)
The Supreme Court was wrong to eliminate some of the Navy's precautions that help protect marine life.
At issue were 14 training exercises off the Southern California coast being conducted by the Navy, which was sued after it refused to prepare an environmental impact study. The reason isn't hard to guess: Evidence is accumulating that the high-powered sonar used in these exercises causes hearing loss, panic and death among whales and other marine mammals, and the Navy didn't want to have to take steps to minimize the damage. After a few legal twists, a U.S. district judge issued an injunction ordering the Navy to take six precautions anyway.
Even though the Navy has already performed 13 of the 14 exercises using the precautions, with no apparent effect on sailors' readiness and few disruptions, a 5-4 majority of the Supreme Court bought the Navy's argument that the restrictions pose a threat to national security. So the two strongest precautions -- ordering the Navy to turn off the sonar when a marine mammal is spotted within 1.25 miles of a ship, and during certain atmospheric conditions that allow the sound to carry farther -- were eliminated. The Navy still has to abide by the other four when it conducts its final exercise in December.
Tentative deal will clear Klamath River for salmon
November 13, 2008 (Oregonian)
Resurrection of one of the West Coast's great salmon rivers leapt ahead this week with a tentative deal to remove four Klamath River dams blocking fish from their richest habitat in southern Oregon.
Gov. Ted Kulongoski was the first to sign the agreement. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, the governor of California and the president of PacifiCorp's corporate parent are expected to sign the agreement this week.
It signals a potential resolution of the Klamath Basin's water struggles, which erupted in 2001 with a federal shutoff of water to farms to help imperiled salmon and other fish. The following year, with irrigation water restored, tens of thousands of salmon died in a warm, shrunken Klamath River downstream of the dams.
Several hurdles remain: Studies must show the benefits outweigh costs, and significant federal and state legislation are required.
If the effort goes forward, it would mark the largest dam removal and salmon restoration effort ever undertaken, said Michael Carrier, natural resources adviser to Gov. Ted Kulongoski. He said it's a final piece of the solution to struggles over water, farms and wildlife in southern Oregon's Klamath Basin.
Under the new agreement, studies and analysis would run until 2020, when disassembly of the dams would begin.
Tumbling from Oregon's high desert to coastal redwoods, the Klamath is the third most important salmon river south of Canada, after the Columbia and Sacramento. But hydroelectric dams cut salmon off from vital habitat around Upper Klamath Lake in Oregon, and water behind the dams turned uncomfortably warm for fish.
Justices rule for Navy's use of sonar
November 13, 2008 (Wired)
The nation's need for Navy sailors to practice using sonar to guard against enemy submarines "plainly outweighs" any legal requirement to protect orcas and other marine mammals, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Wednesday, turning back environmentalists' efforts to restrict sonar use during naval training exercises.
But the justices in the majority stopped short of endorsing a Bush administration attempt to justify using a controversial White House waiver to justify the exercises.
Environmentalists said they would continue to sue to protect whales, orcas and other marine mammals from naval sonar.
The Supreme Court ruling comes as the Navy is proposing to greatly expand its training exercises in the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary off Washington's coast. And it follows the recent announcement that the population of orcas that frequent Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands dropped by one-tenth in a year, to 83.
"The record contains declarations from some of the Navy's most senior officers, all of whom underscored the threat posed by enemy submarines and the need for exhaustive sonar training to counter this threat," said the majority opinion, written by Chief Justice John Roberts. "Even if plaintiffs have shown irreparable injury from the Navy's training exercises, any such injury is outweighed by the public interest and the Navy's interest in effective, realistic training."
About 300 subs held by unfriendly nations are capable of traveling quietly enough that they can't be picked up by traditional "passive" sonar that simply listens for underwater sounds. Instead, the Navy uses "active" sonar. It sends out pulses of sound under water and listens to how they bounce back. The active sonar detects subs at a greater range and picks them out from other sounds.
Ginsburg also noted: "Sonar is linked to mass strandings of marine mammals, hemorrhaging around the brain and ears, acute spongiotic changes in the central nervous system and lesions in vital organs."
The Navy itself estimated more than 500 marine mammals would be harmed.
Ken Balcomb, director of the Center for Whale Research on Orcas Island and a Navy veteran, said that he expected the decision.
"This is just an example of the (Bush) administration trying to bash environmental law," he said. The Navy is "not against the environment. I know that. But they had some hard-core representation that also fit the administration's agenda.
"We'll see how environmental our new government is going to be."
Supreme Court: National Security Trumps Whales, Environmental Law
November 12, 2008 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer)
It's a loud, sad day off the coast of California: the Supreme Court today ruled in favor of the Navy and against environmentalists who argued that military sonar frequencies kill whales.
"The balance of equities and the public interest ... tip strongly in favor of the Navy," wrote Chief Justice John Roberts in the majority opinion. "The Navy’s need to conduct realistic training with active sonar to respond to the threat posed by enemy submarines plainly outweighs the interests advanced by the plaintiffs."
On it went to the Supreme Court, where the Navy won by a 5-to-4 margin. Critically, the court didn't address environmental concerns: It ruled that federal courts had abused their discretion in ordering the Navy to stop sonar training, or at least finding a better place to do it. Formally dissenting from the ruling were Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and David Souter.
All the Navy had to do, they argued, is draft an environmental impact statement, as required by the National Environmental Policy Act — but the Navy didn't bother, and then called in the President to exempt them from the law, even though he had no legal standing to do so.
Even if the Navy wouldn't admit in court to hurting whales, wrote Ginsburg and Souter, their own Environmental Assessment — a less-formal version of an environmental impact statement — predicted that sonar training exercises would drive entire whale populations mad.
US Supreme Court allows sonar use
November 12, 2008 (BBC)
The US Supreme Court has removed restrictions on the navy's use of sonar in training exercises near California.
The ruling is a defeat for environmental groups who say the sonar can kill whales and other mammals.
President George W Bush intervened in the long-running dispute, citing national security interests.
In its 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court said the navy needed to conduct realistic training exercises to respond to potential threats.
The court did not deal with the merits of the claims put forward by the environmental groups.
The Bush administration argued that there is little evidence of harm to marine life in more than 40 years of exercises off the California coast.
Should Navy train in Olympic Marine Sanctuary?
November 12, 2008 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer Dateline Earth blog)
Should the Navy greatly expand its use of the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary as a training ground? In a Northwest take on what's becoming an international debate, citizens concerned about the sanctuary off Washington's coast are fighting the Navy's plans to boost its Quinault Underwater Training Range from 48 square miles to 1,854 square miles.
The Natural Resources Defense Council and other enviro groups weighed in recently, noting that the Navy allowed just 45 days to comment on a draft environmental impact statement (at the same time the same enviros were supposed to be reviewing another massive DEIS for naval operations off North Carolina).
The NRDC letter has apparently slipped off the group's Web site, but here is how it was summarized, according to the Google cache:
This letter summarizes NRDC's response to a massive naval extension proposed of the Keyport Range Complex in Washington state. The proposed expansion would extend the Quinault Underwater Tracking Range site over 1700 square nautical miles in the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, a region of extraordinary biological diversity that provides habitat or migratory area for 29 species of marine mammals including eight threatened or endangered species of whales such as the highly endangered Southern Resident killer whales, otters and pinnipeds. NRDC believes the Navy fails to consider a variety of other options, alternatives, and common sense mitigation measures -- some employed by other navies -- that would reduce the impacts.Modernized irrigation system aims to help fish and farmers
November 11, 2008 (Seattle Times)
As far south as one can get in the Yakima Irrigation Project lies the little Benton Irrigation District.
Serving 4,600 acres in the Benton City area for nearly a century in relative obscurity, Benton is about to become one focus of salmon recovery.
A three-year, $16 million improvement project that starts next year to modernize a dilapidated and inefficient irrigation system will help farmers and yield benefits throughout the three-county irrigation project.
Coupled with a more ambitious improvement — and more expensive at $67 million — plan by the Sunnyside Division, the result will mean a substantial increase in the amount of water left in the lower Yakima River during the summer.
There, the river is a toxic brew for fish with high water temperatures and low flows that cause stress, disease and exposure to predators.
Beyond the lower river, the additional water will help with winter egg incubation high in the Cascade Mountains and improve conditions for juveniles and adults moving throughout the river system.
The two projects together will boost stream flows below Sunnyside Dam by as much as 50 percent. Benton's share of the increase will be at least 15 percent.
"When you start talking about a 15 percent to 20 percent increase in the flow, that is significant," said John Easterbrooks, fishery program manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
The timing is key also because of efforts by the Yakama Nation to reintroduce summer chinook, which went extinct in 1970, and sockeye salmon, a species that died out after the dams went in.
The two projects together will boost stream flows below Sunnyside Dam by as much as 50 percent. Benton's share of the increase will be at least 15 percent.
"When you start talking about a 15 percent to 20 percent increase in the flow, that is significant," said John Easterbrooks, fishery program manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
The timing is key also because of efforts by the Yakama Nation to reintroduce summer chinook, which went extinct in 1970, and sockeye salmon, a species that died out after the dams went in.
Gigantic Salmon Found in California River (with photo)
November 11, 2008 (Fox News)
Wildlife officials in northern California last week came across one of the biggest Chinook salmon ever found in the state — a monster more than 4 feet long and weighing 85 pounds.
"We see lots of big ones," Doug Killam, a biologist in the California Department of Fish and Game's Red Bluff office, told the Redding Record Searchlight, "but this one was just bigger than most big ones — it was just spectacular."
The big fish had recently spawned and died, Killam said, and probably weighed about 90 pounds when it began its 100-mile swim upstream from the Pacific to the spot where it died on Battle Creek, a tributary of the Sacramento River near the town of Anderson.
The California sport-fishing record for a Chinook salmon is 88 pounds. In Alaska, where they're called king salmon, they get even bigger — the record sport catch is 97 pounds, while the largest commercial catch was a truly phenomenal 126 pounds.
Council Questions Navy's Use of Sanctuary for Training
November 9, 2008 (Kitsap Sun)
An advisory group for Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary says the Navy should not be allowed to expand its training range within the sanctuary off the Washington coast.
The Navy's plan to expand the offshore Quinault Underwater Training Range from 48 square miles to 1,854 square miles has drawn fire from numerous environmental groups. Some are hoping that a new administration headed by President-elect Barack Obama could change the Navy's stance, which they say has become fairly dismissive of environmental concerns.
The Navy's expanded training range and activities would likely damage habitats for all kinds of marine life while creating conflicts with ongoing activities within the sanctuary, according to the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council.
"The advisory council believes that the needs of the Navy and the interests of the public could have been better served if there had been an alternative that included a much smaller ... operating area," the council said in a letter. The council also calls for locating a proposed beach-landing site outside the sanctuary.
Meanwhile, nine environmental groups have joined the Natural Resources Defense Council in objecting to findings in the Navy's environmental analysis. The Navy failed to consider all the harms that could come to marine mammals, including Puget Sound's endangered killer whales, the groups said in a 40-page letter.
Fred Felleman, Northwest consultant for Friends of the Earth, contends the Navy's analysis is flawed in many ways. He said he hopes a new Obama administration will address the problem by revising the environmental impact statement and allowing further comments.
"I think that any administration would be more responsive than the current one," Felleman said, noting that the Navy simultaneously released environmental impact statements for operations in numerous locations on both coasts and required comments within 45 days. The environmental document for Washington alone is more than 700 pages, he noted.
Felleman said he understands the need for Navy training but not to the extent that the survival of endangered orcas would be put at risk. Nothing in the Navy's documents suggest the Navy will forego training in the spring, when the Puget Sound whales are likely to be present in coastal areas, he said.
Panel will assess vanishing West Coast whales
November 8, 2008 (CTV)
An independent Canadian advisory panel will meet later this month to assess the status of one of the ocean's top predators: the killer whale.
But whale experts suggest the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, known as COSEWIC, is unlikely to recommend sweeping changes to the species-at-risk designations of five distinct orca populations.
The designation of so-called "southern residents," a population of 83 whales found in Puget Sound and the southern end of the Straight of Georgia, is unlikely to change, said Lance Barrett-Lennard, an adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia and co-chair of a federally-appointed orca recovery team.
The southern residents are currently designated as "endangered," the most serious risk assessment.
"They're in pretty rough shape. At the time of the last COSEWIC assessment, they were given an endangered listing. Their situation hasn't really improved since then," Barrett-Lennard said.
"That population, at 83 animals, is just hanging on by the skin of its teeth. If it was any other species, we'd think that they were very likely to be goners."
"Pretty soon you're getting to the point where there aren't enough to significantly add to the population, or have any potential for adding (to the population). It would eventually die out, just natural mortality," said Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor, Wash.
"It's quite critical. We have about a dozen females now, and we had just lost two, so we're down to a dozen. If we lost two a year for the next five years, we're basically out of reproductive whales."
"We kind of expect to see a lot of mortalities this winter, just because the animals really tank up in the late summer and early fall on salmon and build up fat to make it through the winter there.
Orca whale sighting reports requested
November 7, 2008 (Navigator - US Navy NW Region)
Killer whales are found throughout the world’s oceans in distinct populations, each specializing in certain prey. Around Puget Sound the population is fortunate to find a resident population foraging, traveling and sometimes frolicking at least a few months of every year.
From late October through early January the endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales (known as “orcas”) often travel through Admiralty Inlet deep into southern Puget Sound in search of chum salmon, which are a mainstay of their diet at this time of year.
Beginning in April until early October they are often seen in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, around the San Juan Islands and in Georgia Strait, searching for Chinook salmon, which comprise 80 percent of their diet at that time of year. In mid-winter, many Southern resident orcas have been seen as far south as Monterey, Calif., and as far north as the Queen Charlotte Islands searching for food in historic Chinook salmon areas.
Orca Network works closely with NOAA Fisheries and the Center for Whale Research to publicize our toll-free hotline number for whale sightings reports. NOAA and its contractors are conducting research projects to study the travels, prey species, and health of the Southern residents both in Puget Sound and in Pacific coastal waters.
Sighting reports provide important data toward assessing habitat used by Southern Resident orcas pursuant to fulfilling the Orca Recovery Plan mandates of the Endangered Species Act.
Whale reports collected by Orca Network are posted on our website and sent to our Whale Sighting email list.
According to Susan Berta, Orca Network co-founder, “Sightings data have also been used by the U.S. Navy to create maps of where the orcas are most likely to be on a seasonal basis, and by the Department of Fish and Wildlife in the event of an oil or fuel spill.”
“We appreciate the working relationship that is developing with the Navy and Coast Guard to protect these beautiful animals” said former Washington Secretary of State Ralph Munro.
Orcas Gone Missing
November 7, 2008 (ABC News)
Seven Killer Whales Presumed Dead, Scientists Search for Explanation
There is no place in America where killer whales are more plentiful than the San Juan Islands of Washington State, home to the world's most powerful undersea predators.
Ken Balcomb has been studying killer whales, also known as orcas, for decades. But he has never come across a finding like this: Seven orcas have gone missing and are believed to be dead.
"I'm pretty devastated," Balcomb said. "I would like to get our whole society aware of the issue here and do something about it 'cause we're going to lose them."
The missing orcas are a severe loss to the entire species; the population is vulnerable, down recently to 83 whales, from 100.
It's "almost 10 percent of the population," Balcomb said. "To lose it is like losing 10 percent of the stock market in a month."
"It's the ecosystem stupid; that's clearly the problem," said Fred Felleman, a marine consultant from Friends of the Earth. "We have economic crises nationally, we have an environmental crisis globally."
To restore balance to the ecosystem, not only do salmon need to be protected for the whales, but herring must be plentiful for the salmons' feed, highlighting the links in the environment.
On a recent evening overlooking the ocean, a Native American tribe came out to mourn the missing seven orcas and pray for the continued health of the rest.
"Our elders, our forefathers used to tell stories that certain individuals were rescued by the whales," one of the tribe's members said. "Our culture, we respect all of life and we are saddened when life is taken away."
The tribe believes that whales are guardians of the sea and are in need of help. Scientists agree and many, like Balcomb, are calling on the community to protect these majestic creatures.
Killer whales are discriminating diners
November 7, 2008 (MSNBC)
Sophisticated predators scan wide ocean regions listening for favorite fish
A killer whale's favorite meal is king salmon, according to a new study that found these sophisticated predators scan wide ocean regions listening for their favorite fish.
Echolocation, which involves creating a sound in order to produce an echo, allows the whales to zone in on king salmon, also known as Chinook salmon, at distances up to half a mile.
But why do killer whales go to so much trouble to hunt down king salmon, picking them out like sushi chefs even when they represent just 5 to 10 percent of the available salmon population?
Although these fish look similar to human eyes, the study showed the echo structure created by each type of salmon was unique and could be used by killer whales to discriminate among the various species.
Draft plan to help rescue Puget Sound unveiled
November 7, 2008 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer)
Topping the list of actions needed are buying ecologically critical lands and beefing up efforts to rein in pollution flowing off hard surfaces such as streets and parking lots after heavy rains. The list of steps proposed by the Puget Sound Partnership looks far beyond the shores of the Sound itself and spans the spectrum -- from actions as simple as scooping dogs' poop to undertakings as complicated as overhauling state water law.
The nearly 500 individual actions recommended in the 96-page report came without price tags or deadlines. The goal is to restore the Sound by 2020.
The idea was that this partnership, even though it can't issue fines or put anyone in jail, would do a better job shining a light on laggards and hold them accountable. But environmentalists said the document issued Thursday is a far cry from that vision.
"They're largely in the ballpark on the things that need doing," said Kathy Fletcher, executive director of the environmental group People for Puget Sound. "The part that is probably most crucial and still needs to be fleshed out is the funding, and the who's-going-to-do-what part, and how will they be held accountable.
Asked Seattle environmental activist Fred Felleman, "We're going to study how to restore herring, instead of restoring them?"
Tom Holz, a planner who has joined scientists in criticizing the partnership's early efforts as too lackluster, said he lost count of the number of times the draft plan spoke of convening a new process or study of some kind.
"The (partnership) must build a fire. They haven't even got the kindling lit," Holz said in an e-mail.
Agency releases Puget Sound cleanup proposal
November 6, 2008 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer)
The Washington state agency charged with cleaning up Puget Sound released an ambitious list of fix-its Thursday that includes buying up critical land, requiring conditional use permits for bulkheads and docks and setting up no-discharge zones for vessel sewage.
The Puget Sound Partnership's draft action agenda outlines steps the state should take to meet the goal of restoring and protecting the sound by 2020.
David Dicks, the agency's executive director, said the total bill for improvements won't be known until the draft is adopted later this month and presented to lawmakers by Dec. 1.
But it's estimated to be a multibillion-dollar effort.
How to pay for the improvements will be the most challenging task, given the state's projected $3.2 billion budget deficit.
Dicks said the agency recognizes the current tough economic climate and isn't proposing new taxes and fees. It plans to ask for $200 million to $300 million in the state's 2009-11 biennium budget.
The reports blame people's everyday activities - not industrial pollution or municipal wastewater discharges - as the main source of the 52 million pounds of toxic chemicals, such oil, PCBs and heavy metals, that end up in the sound each year.
Among the more immediate fixes, the agency plans use one-fourth of its $12 million in federal money it already has secured to finish removing dikes and restoring 762 acres of the Nisqually River Estuary, between Tacoma and Olympia. It also wants to find state money to speed up the removal of two dams on the Elwha River on the Olympic Peninsula to allow fish passage.
Orcas are a call to action on Puget Sound cleanup
November 5, 2008 (Seattle Time op-ed by David Dicks)
THE recent alarming news that Puget Sound's orca population may be starving to death is more than just sad news about an endangered species, it's a clarion call for action to clean up Puget Sound.
If orcas, which are at the top of the food chain, are dying from hunger, it doesn't take a marine biologist to figure out what is happening further down the food chain.
While Puget Sound remains a beautiful sight, just below the surface the evidence is clear that Puget Sound is sick and dying: 52 million pounds of untreated toxic chemicals including oil and petroleum products, PCBs and phthalates flow into the rivers, streams, lakes and bays that make up Puget Sound every year, according to a new report being issued today.
Because of these toxic chemicals, the Puget Sound ecosystem is nearing collapse. Forty species in the Sound — including orcas, otters, steelhead and salmon — are listed as threatened, at risk or endangered. Beaches are closed because of pollution. Some portions of Hood Canal are so oxygen-starved they contain large areas known as dead zones.
And our orcas are the most contaminated whales in the world. Dead orcas that wash ashore here are so laden with toxins that they must be disposed of via hazardous-waste sites.
While we work on these big-picture strategies, we will also do what we can to provide immediate support for endangered species, including orcas. We are looking at initiatives, for example, to accelerate recovery of chinook salmon runs — salmon being a staple of the orca diet. And we are looking at the largest estuary-restoration project in the Pacific Northwest, currently under way at the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, as a model for other regional projects that will help recover salmon.
Economic collapse puts salmon revival in jeopardy
November 4, 2008 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer)
Now the subprime mortgage mess is even affecting salmon.
The financial maelstrom touched off by the collapse of the housing sector and the mortgage industry that sustained it is about to translate into a significant hit for government budgets aimed at reviving battered salmon runs.
A recent meeting of the King County Council highlighted the shortfalls coming in money that helps pay for salmon-rescue efforts across three major watersheds in the county.
The cuts come just as the county, local governments, Indian tribes and others are launching an ambitious campaign to bring back the threatened Puget Sound chinook salmon -- a campaign they promised to the federal government to meet the requirements of the Endangered Species Act.
"We have a plan to stop the extinction of the salmon. But having a plan is not enough," King County Councilman Dow Constantine told fellow council members. "Even before our current budget crisis, too few resources were available. ... Years of study, planning and preparation will be lost if we fail. ... Our salmon and our orcas will be lost."
Constantine's warning came just after scientists reported that the three families of orcas that frequent the Sound and the San Juan Islands -- and depend heavily on salmon for food -- had seen their biggest population decrease in a decade, dropping by seven to just 83.
Orcas deserve a fighting chance
November 3, 2008 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer op-ed by Kathy Fletcher and Howard Garrett)
Puget Sound's orcas are dying. Seven whales, nearly 10 percent of the population, disappeared this summer and are presumed dead. There were reports of "skinny" whales spread out for miles, foraging intensely, suggesting a lack of food. If the seven missing whales did not actually starve to death, malnutrition likely made them more vulnerable to disease. So to determine why the orcas are dying, we must ask, "What happened to their food?"
Puget Sound orcas eat almost nothing but salmon, mostly large Chinook. But today the Sound's Chinook are listed as endangered; 15 of the historic Chinook runs are now extinct and other populations are just 10 percent of what they were.
Let's to move swiftly to fund and carry out a strong plan to restore the health of Puget Sound and its salmon. And let's do what it takes to bring salmon back to the Columbia/Snake.
The federal government isn't doing what's needed to restore endangered salmon and orcas in the Pacific Northwest. The status quo is not working and our rich ecosystem is in serious trouble.
If we lose the salmon, we definitely lose the orcas. Salmon need clean habitat to spawn in and food to grow. Given a fighting chance, they can recover. If we give that chance to our salmon, we will have a hope of saving our orcas.
Salmon and whales
November 3, 2008 (Toronto Globe and Mail)
The killer-whale population has become a compelling example of the impact of the West Coast salmon industry. Nine [actually 7] killer whales recently disappeared from their pods off the south end of Vancouver Island, having probably died of starvation. Steps should be taken to make sure that fisheries allocations take into account the needs of species that cannot survive without Pacific salmon.
All along the West Coast, Pacific salmon – from pinks to Chinook – are under severe pressure.
The diet of resident killer whales consists mainly of salmon, especially Chinook salmon. Earlier this year, some of the 83 killer whales off the north coast of Washington and southern British Columbia, known as the “southern residents,” showed signs of weight loss. Marine biologists believe the missing adult whales (including two reproductive females) starved to death. Meanwhile, the “northern residents,” a comparatively stable group of about 200 killer whales that range around the northern end of Vancouver Island were hard to spot this summer in the Broughton Archipelago – an area where they used to hold large social gatherings.
Saving Wild Salmon, in Hopes of Saving the Orca
November 3, 2008 (New York Times)
Growing up in Connecticut, Alexandra Hubbard did not want to be Joan of Arc. She wanted to be Jane Goodall. But instead of chimpanzees, her animals would turn out to be killer whales.
That may be because she takes the issue personally. The disappearance of the orcas in the Broughton “ruined my life, absolutely,” Ms. Morton said one day recently as she headed off to net baby salmon and check them for sea lice. “A lot of people have lost stuff they set out to do but, yeah, it ruined my whole plan.”
According to the British Columbia Salmon Farmers Association, salmon farms produce $450 million worth of Atlantic salmon a year in British Columbia. At any given time, 70 to 80 farm sites operate in provincial waters, perhaps 15 or so in the Broughton, a hardly inhabited area across Queen Charlotte Strait from the north end of Vancouver Island. Typically, each installation has a collection of net pens, usually crossed by metal walkways, floating in a cove or bay. Individual sites typically contain 500,000 to 750,000 penned fish.
As tiny young wild salmon, smolts, pass by these pens on their way to sea, they can pick up so many lice they die, Ms. Morton and other researchers have reported.
Action needed to save orcas
November 1, 2008 (Victoria Times Colonist editorial)
But we wonder if, three decades from now, another generation will be just as baffled by our failure to do everything possible to save the threatened resident orca population.
Researchers have just completed their latest count of the three resident pods of orcas that spend time around southern Vancouver Island and Puget Sound. Seven appear to have died in the last 12 months, reducing the population to 83. The losses include breeding age females that should be in the prime of life.
It's not just the deaths. The whales that survive are showing signs of starvation and behaving in ways that suggest an increasingly desperate search for food.
There is legitimate scientific debate about the relative significance of the various threats to the whales and the most appropriate responses. But the Canadian response to the declining populations has been remarkably sluggish, especially in comparison to the U.S. action to save the threatened orcas.
A principal problem is food. Orcas rely heavily on chinook salmon and stocks have plunged. Ocean warming might be a factor, but loss of habitat and overfishing have been more significant. Researchers are also concerned about threats to the killer whales' habitat and the effects of military sonar on the mammals.
But the listings have not translated into action. The federal government missed the deadline for preparing a recovery plan by a full year. Five environmental groups filed a lawsuit last month charging that the government had failed to live up to the law's requirement that habitat be protected as part of the recovery plan.
In contrast, the U.S. designated the southern resident whales, which also spend time in Puget Sound, as endangered in 2005. The recovery plan includes sweeping measures to protect and enhance salmon populations and requires all actions -- from farming to logging to power production -- be assessed to determine if they are putting the whales at risk.
There is no guarantee that the resident killer whale populations can be saved. The southern pods are already small enough that populations will be slow in regenerating. It would take only a few more deaths to tip the balance. And the challenges are vast and complex.
But it would be shameful, and a betrayal of future generations, if we failed to take every possible step to protect these creatures and the ecosystems on which they depend.