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.  

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