Sunday, November 30, 2008

A Brief Respite From The Orcas

A Belated Happy Thanksgiving to all!  The southern residents have actually been around over the holiday- they passed by the Lime Kiln Lighthouse headed south yesterday morning MILES offshore, apparently headed west towards the open ocean. We've also been hearing them at the Port Townsend hydrophones...and that's about all the whale new I can share.

Life on an Island this time of year can be inspirational in its solitude- the visitors have returned to their off island homes and the Islanders begin to prepare for winter. The fog often rolls in off the Haro Straits and blankets the town in a salty sea scented mist, the eagle cries wafting overhead and out of sight temporarily.  The Trumpeter Swans have returned for the winter- their passes overhead making a brightly outlined juxtaposition against the grey of the waters beneath their flight. Grebes and loons as well as Harlequins dot the waterfront, their calls echoing up the hillsides.  There is a certain beauty to the solitude of this season which the Islanders embrace, even if the throngs of tourists do not.

One of the wonderful aspects of life devoid of shopping malls (or even McDonalds for that matter) is avoiding the potential for isolation by huddling together with some of the closest friends I have ever had the joy of knowing.  Friendships have a new meaning here- the relationships are meaningful and enlightening- each adding a nuance of beauty into your life for whatever reason. The people here are truly genuine- no goals other than to enjoy life to the fullest and embrace the beauty offered by not only the landscape and wildlife but one another. 

I have been inspired by some of these very kind souls to look introspectively, approach the world with a different outlook and embrace the beauty of art. Yup, drawing. Oh well- it had to happen someday, right? We started out a couple of years ago making jewelry (how addictive that can become!), moved on to pencil sketches and watercolors. The girls in the studio are all accomplished artists, some nationally recognized- and yet they are unfailingly encouraging and generous with their instruction. Every Sunday and most Thursdays we gather together to collaborate and accomplish, share inspirations and dreams and most importantly, create. Honestly, I cannot have ever imagined this spirited camaraderie back in Maryland- then again, maybe I was simply not looking.

So, not to bore you with the details, thought I would post my first colored pencil sketch just for fun. I know it's not a whale photo- but artistic license is the word of the day...smiles.  I think I overcompensated the colors subconsciously because of our currently grey landscapes- but if the color fits.... Happy Sunday!

Monday, November 24, 2008


Hot off the presses!!

Katy Johansson
Puget Sound Partnership, EPA award $700,000 for salmon recovery efforts
OLYMPIA – Vital salmon recovery efforts throughout Puget Sound will receive a $700,000 boost, thanks to grants awarded by the Puget Sound Partnership.

Each of the Sound’s 14 watersheds will receive a $50,000 grant – issued as part of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) National Estuary Program – to implement salmon recovery. 

“The salmon recovery work happening in the watersheds is the cornerstone of broader Puget Sound recovery efforts,” said David Dicks, executive director of the Puget Sound Partnership, which officially became the region’s lead salmon recovery organization Jan. 1. “The Partnership is looking at the watersheds’ collaboration on salmon recovery as a model for the recovery of the entire Puget Sound ecosystem. Our success depends on this kind of approach. Everyone who has a stake in the Sound must be part of the solution.” 

The money is part of a $20 million federal appropriation for EPA’s research and remedial program, which addresses the overall health of the Puget Sound ecosystem. U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., was instrumental in obtaining that funding. 

“I am excited that we were able to secure these funds and that they are being used to continue critical local efforts to restore Puget Sound and recover salmon,” said Congressman Dicks.

The $50,000 grants will allow watershed groups the ability to perform the core functions of local salmon recovery implementation, including:
• Selection, review, prioritization and implementation of restoration and protection efforts;
• Education and outreach;
• Tracking and measuring project implementation progress;
• Adaptive management of recovery plans;
• Coordinating local citizen and technical groups; and
• Generating operating, programmatic and capital funds.

“It is encouraging that the Puget Sound Partnership and the EPA realize the strength of the partnerships built to restore Puget Sound,” said Clallam County Commissioner Steve Tharinger, chair of the Salmon Recovery Funding Board and a member of the Partnership’s Ecosystem Coordination Board. “Watershed groups contribute creativity, knowledge and motivation to implement lasting, community-supported solutions for the complex challenges facing salmon and the Sound.”

“In these tough economic times, we need to affirm our commitment to recover salmon in Puget Sound,” said state Sen.-elect and San Juan County Councilmember Kevin Ranker, former co-chair of the Puget Sound Salmon Recovery Council. “These grants are timely and critical for local communities. This support goes a long way toward protecting and restoring Puget Sound by maintaining the dedicated, trained people who work daily to recover our threatened and irreplaceable salmon.”

Only 22 of at least 37 historic Chinook populations remain in Puget Sound. Those that still exist are at only 10 percent of their historic numbers, with some down lower than 1 percent. The decline in salmon is closely associated with the decline in the health of Puget Sound.

Salmon recovery is guided by implementation of the Puget Sound Salmon Recovery Plan, adopted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association in 2007. That plan, as well as the individual watershed recovery plans within it, can be found on our Web site:


Saturday, November 22, 2008

Puget Sound In A Quagmire

Having JUST blogged about this very issue earlier this week, I thought some follow up was appropriate.

Sound cleanup criticized
Scientists say plan headed for failure


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.

The letter was the latest criticism by the scientists, who have accused the Puget Sound Partnership and its predecessor of pushing inadequate rescue plans for the Sound.

The Sound is troubled by historical overfishing and toxic waste disposal, as well as ongoing pollution, mostly from water that runs off hard surfaces like streets and parking lots after rains.

The partnership's plan is to be submitted to state officials Dec. 1. Partnership officials are putting the finishing touches on the document, which seeks to reinvigorate Sound-rescue efforts that have failed to halt the decline of the water body since they were launched in the 1980s.

The three-paragraph letter to the partnership was addressed to Executive Director David Dicks, who expressed frustration Friday, saying the scientists' previous advice had been carefully incorporated into the action blueprint.

Dicks cited parts of the plan that respond to previous criticisms, such as where it calls for developing criteria next year to determine the highest-priority locations to stop the polluted stormwater runoff.

"We literally have said in almost the same verbiage they used that, yeah, we got it," Dicks said. "What about 'yes' do (the scientists) not understand?

"We've done I think almost exactly what they said to do, and in some cases gone further. ... We agree with them. I don't know how much more we can agree."

Fourteen scientists, including engineers and biologists, signed the letter. About half have ties to UW.

P-I reporter Robert McClure can be reached at 206-448-8092 or Read his blog on the environment at

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Naturalist Gear Down Workshop Fall 2008 Overview

On November 7, I attended the Naturalist Gear Down Workshop at The Grange in Friday Harbor which was sponsored by The Whale Museum. What a great and informative session this was, covering everything from the Status of the Southern Resident Orca Whale population to Salmon Recovery Efforts underway in the San Juan Islands.  Beginning at 9:30am, this one-day workshop was held as a continuing educational training for naturalists already working in the field and graduates of the Marine Naturalist Training Program. So, what did we learn?

Update on the Southern Resident Killer Whale Population
The session was opened by Dave Ellifrit, a biologist from the Center For Whale Research. The current count for the endangered Southern Resident community of orca whales is 83- meaning that there is a loss of seven whales since last fall, with J pod appearing to be the strongest of the three in terms of overall survival these past few years. Of interest, Dave mentioned that this year was the first time scientists actually watched a whale (L106) seemingly fill back out after having been watched for what is called "peanut head." There is usually a thick layer of blubber just behind the skull, which begins to deteriorate, forming what appears to be an indentation- a dip right behind the blow-hole. Scientists believe that the "deterioration" collaborates with starvation- for whatever reason (ie: decline in fish populations, a sickness, etc)- but the whales seen losing that blubber layer are monitored closely for emaciation. This year, L 106 beat the odds and apparently restored the blubber layer! 

Overall, Dave indicated that the actual overall size of this endangered population of orcas do not seem as large as they once were- the dorsal fins are much smaller that years gone by and the overall size appears to be diminishing for reasons unknown.  The Southern Residents here average 24 feet for adult males and about 20 feet for females, a bit smaller than most orca populations around the globe. As well, there were comments about the changes in travel patterns and super pod activity this year as compared to others, wherein this year we had many frequent inter pod grouping traveling together for extended time frames - specifically a group from L Pod traveled with J Pod most of the summer, and twice J Pod has split into two completely separate groups, out of acoustic range from each other. Super pods were less frequently seen and when they were, they were usually spread out and not all whales were present? So what does that mean? Well, it could be an indication of food stress, but more time will be needed to see how this unfolds. Fingers crossed the whales have a good winter.

And next year? Well, we'll see if there are still funds for the continuation of the helicopter monitoring (aerial girth and measurement field study) and they are also looking for funding to tag some of the southern residents. Permitting is in the works, I guess we'll have to see how that pans out...

Salmon Recovery in the San Juan Islands
Next we were treated to an hour of discussion lead by Barbara Rosenkotter, the San Juan County Lead Entity Coordinator for the Salmon Recovery Program.  Because of their location, the San Juan Islands serve as a critical habitat for the young salmon heading from their fresh water birthplaces out to the open sea. It is here that the young fish live and grow strong enough to survive their lifespan at sea and it is in these waters when they will live, forage and be protected from predators. As well, many of our beaches provide critical habitat for spawning forage fishes such as sand lance and Pacific surf smelt. Forage fishes are a major food source for salmon.

At this point in time, we are looking at Chinook having been listed as endangered in 1999, the Southern Resident Orcas in 2007 and steelhead in May of 2007.  Currently, there is only 10% of the historic numbers of Chinook in the waters in and around the Islands. While studies suggest that Dams kill nearly 92% of young salmon headed downstream and 25% of spawning adults headed up, we still need to be mindful of our footprint on the delicate ecosystem in which we coexist. Research has not yet been directed towards an understanding of the most effective ways to protect and restore marine and nearshore habitats for salmon recovery. What is known is that human activities in the watershed - from the uplands to the marine waters - can significantly alter ecosystem processes and habitats needed for salmon in the region. Our local strategy is to focus first on filling gaps in knowledge about nearshore contributions to migratory salmon and other aspects of nearshore habitats and utilize this information to enhance protection measures and identify and prioritize restoration activities.

Acceptable Risk
If you were asked what level of hazardous toxins you would be willing to ingest on a daily basis, what would your answer be? Well, if we asked our southern resident community of orca whales, they'd have to tell you "you are what you eat." Kristen Burgess was our next speaker who advised  that geologists are often called to the scene of a hazardous site with the obligation to meet or exceed EPA requirements for decontamination of PCB's. They are expected to clean the area to an "allowable" threshold of 1 ppm in a single particle of soil. PPM is a term commonly used to express contamination ratios, as in establishing the maximum permissible amount of a contaminant in water, land, or air. In this instance, it means 1 person per million would die when exposed to that level of PCB in that particle of soil. Comforting? Read on...

Orcas face a daunting array of threats to survival, including ship traffic, reduced abundance of prey and environmental contamination- not the least of which are PCB's (polychlorinated biphenyls ). PCBs make whales more vulnerable to infectious disease, impair reproduction, and impede normal growth and development. Our whales don't need voices to tell us about their experience of eating the salmon in these waters and the levels of hazardous waste they hold in their blubber layers. Remember, a geologist must clean up a particle of soil so that it contains less than 1 ppm. Male orcas in our resident whales contain 150 ppm and females, 50ppm- (reduced through maternal transfer when feeding their young- so each new baby whale is fed PCB laden mother's milk.)

According to Kristen Burgess, a geologist charged with consulting with the EPA on major superfund clean ups, the Puget sound basin has 16 superfund sites containing PCBs- most of them huge military fortresses which once served as the naval military hub during between the late 1800's and mid 1900's. While clean up is progress, the PCB's continue to steep into the waters of the Puget Sound, which does not have enough tidal backwash to really ever decontaminate itself. However, the government allows sediment profiling (basically monitoring over the years- just taking down numbers) to serve as a justifiable method of adhering to clean ups- without really ever forcing the clean up to continue. Kristen was pretty clear that the EPA needs to change their model for true reduction in PCB's to take place in the area. And in the meantime, don't eat the shellfish unless you answered the first question here as "I like to glow in the dark."

Orca Acoustics: Breaking News
Scott Viers was our final speaker of the day- and his news was enthralling. It seems as though his students and he have been able to provide real data that our local Southern Residents are indeed being forced to "speak louder" due to noise impacts in the Local waters. Using methodology that is so advanced and complicated I would never try and recount it for fear of becoming lost, Scott can now prove, using multiple sub water hydrophones attached to their vessel, Gato Verde’s (who's electric motors are silent in the waters)- they were able to locate the whales who were "talking" and monitor the dB level with and without ship noise in the area. The questions this brings to mind? What exactly will the cost be to the whales for having to have to raise their voices due to increased boat traffic in the area? And do their calls have anything to do with foraging- if so, will this be impacted? Meaning, are boat noises adding to or creating problems for the whales and their efforts to find available and very limited food sources right now? Can whales lose their hearing?

Stay tuned, I am sure there is more to come. But overall, this was a sobering day- a lot of information to absorb- most of which left me feeling pretty helpless about the whales and our own habitat. I do intend to look onto the Puget Sound Partnership Efforts. Tell the Puget Sound Partnership what you think: Speak up for real actions to restore the Sound to health.  

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Bad News For Salmon And The Orcas

One of the causes for dying off of the local Orca population may well be a lack of food. One way to know -and there are many- is to count the number of salmon coming through the locks Only 38,000 sockeye are said to have been counted at one lock location, whereas an expected historical number would have been 300,000 or more.

One of the theories as to why the sockeye numbers are so low is related to warmer water. After the young fish leave fresh water for the ocean they be entering one of the so called dead zones that have been created off the coast of the western states and British Columbia.

It is believed these zones are caused by a change in water temperature, which can cause an upwelling of low oxygenated water to come to the surface. Living things in this zone can be killed due to the lack of oxygen, and the lack of food then results in the killing of the young salmon, which in return reduces the amount of food for the Orca.

It has also been noted that warmer waters can extend the range of predators into areas where they would not normally be, and they may have found the starving salmon smolts as a waiting feast.

U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez sent out a press release stating they had “determined that there has been a commercial fishery failure due to a continued fisheries resource disaster in the sockeye salmon fisheries in Puget Sound and the northern Pacific coast of Washington.” Not new really, but not too many people will argue the point.

Another theory is that because the waters are becoming warmer, more predators have moved up north to feed on salmon smolts; many of which it is believed may be starving.

“Several Northwest Indian tribes and non-tribal fishermen in the state of Washington have been hurt by drastic declines in sockeye salmon runs and harvests that are so important to these communities,” said Secretary Gutierrez. “Our fisheries scientists continue to study the possible causes of this decline in an effort to find solutions.”

This is the second time that the Department of Commerce has found a fishery resource disaster in the Fraser River sockeye salmon fishery. A similar determination was made in 2002. This commercial fishery failure is separate from the Klamath and West Coast salmon disaster determinations made in 2006 and 2008 for ocean salmon fisheries.

“NOAA’s Fisheries Service will continue to work with the tribes and the state of Washington to assess economic damage to the fishing communities and look for long-term solutions,” said Jim Balsiger, acting NOAA assistant administrator for NOAA’s Fisheries Service.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Economic collapse puts salmon revival in jeopardy

The Day After: How can one NOT be inspired following an evening where Barack Obama, standing at the podium accepting his Presidential Win, tells supporters that "change has come to America." In our new president-elect's terms, "The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even one term, but America -- I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there. I promise you -- we as a people will get there." 

I sit here awed by what has transpired for our nation, feeling as though I have been a witness to something much larger than an election year candidacy- and am very proud of where this nation has come.

We can only hope that stories such as the next will ultimately be proved incorrect and that our actions will speak for the survival of the paradise known as the Puget sound, along with its inhabitants. Read on.... and congratulations, America!!!!!!

Seattle PI: Economic Collapse Puts Salmon Recovery in Immediate Jeopardy

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

It's Really All About the Food Chain, Isn't it?

I will be attending a "gear Down" session for Marine Naturalists sponsored by the Whale Museum. The workshop is a continuing educational training for naturalists already working in the field and graduates of the Marine Naturalist Training Program. Since the news this year has been so focused on the decline of the Southern Resident Orca population, the program will include a discussion about salmon recovery efforts by Lead Entity Barbara Rosenkotter, and an update on the health of the Southern Resident orca population by David Ellifrit of the Center for Whale Research. We'll also be covering Acceptable Risk (Contaminants in the marine environment) and Threats from Underwater Sound. I really expect this to be not only an interesting day but hope to come back with thoughtful ways to address the issues affecting the orcas. I will most certainly update the blog this weekend and share the highlights.

In the interim, another opinion piece about the bottom line- food.

We have to be salmon tough | Being Frank
Journal of the San Juans Columnist
Oct 30 2008, 1:09 PM · UPDATED

We need to be as tough as the salmon themselves if we’re going to see their recovery.

South Fork Nooksack River native spring chinook are almost extinct and need our help. It wasn’t long ago when about 13,000 of these early-timed chinook came back to the river each year. They were the first salmon to arrive each spring, feeding Indian people after long winters, when no other salmon were in the river.

Spring chinook have a much tougher journey than other salmon because they spend more time in fresh water before spawning. They are especially sensitive to poor habitat conditions in the river.

Time has not been kind to salmon habitat in the South Fork Nooksack. The loss of trees and other plants along streams has removed important shade and reduced the source of wood needed for in-stream fish habitat. Spring chinook need deep, sheltered pools of cool water for their extended rest before they spawn. Water that is too warm can result in disease, reduced salmon egg survival and even death.

This summer, to give the river the building blocks it needs to restore degraded habitat, both the Lummi Nation and the Nooksack Tribe built specially engineered logjams in the South Fork. Over the next few years, these logjams will help create the deep pools that young and adult salmon prefer.

While we are fixing the habitat, we also have to make sure that we are protecting the unique genetic traits of these fish. The Lummi Nation and the Nooksack Tribe are working with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on an important program to raise juvenile South Fork Nooksack River chinook in captivity and spawn them. Their offspring will be released in the river to migrate naturally and return as adults a few years later.

Our goal for this stock is the same for all wild salmon stocks: to recover their populations to levels that can again support harvest. By taking these naturally spawned juvenile chinook into protective custody, the tribes are safeguarding their future.

The path to recovery takes a side-by-side approach of boosting numbers now while also fixing the habitat so the river can support a healthy, productive population. I’m proud that the tribes are taking a leadership role in both areas.

Salmon face great challenges during their life journey. With their numbers falling, we have to work harder to help them on their way. As long as they continue to swim upstream, so should we.

— Billy Frank Jr., Nisqually, is chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. Members with ties to the San Juan Islands include the Lummi Indian Nation, the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community and the Tulalip Tribes.