Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Fisheries Service Proposes New Rules to Safeguard Puget Sound’s Killer Whales

NOAA’s Fisheries Service is proposing new rules on vessel traffic aimed at further protecting Southern Resident killer whales in Washington’s Puget Sound. These large marine mammals, the subject of intense curiosity from kayakers to tourists crowding the decks of commercial whale-watching vessels, were added to the Endangered Species list in late 2005.

The proposed rules would prohibit vessels from approaching any killer whale closer than 200 yards and forbid vessels from intercepting or parking in the path of a whale. In addition, the proposed regulations would set up a half-mile-wide no-go zone along the west side of San Juan Island from May 1 through the end of September where generally no vessels would be allowed.

“The idea here is to give these remarkable animals even more real, meaningful protection,” said Barry Thom, acting head of the agency’s Northwest regional office. “Without it, we would undercut the hard work we are all doing to recover the species by improving the sound’s water quality and recovering salmon, the killer whale’s primary food.”

The fisheries agency said there would be exemptions to the rules for some vessels, including those actively fishing commercially, cargo vessels travelling in established shipping lanes, and government and research vessels. The no-go zone would also have limited exceptions for land owners accessing private property adjacent to it.

While Southern Resident whales are also threatened by degraded water quality in the sound and lack of prey, primarily salmon, biologists have known for years that vessel traffic may be tied to their low numbers.

The whales, which depend on their highly sophisticated sonar to navigate and find food, can be affected by underwater noise from boats and disturbed by vessels that approach too close or block their paths. The population peaked at 97 animals in the 1990s and then declined to 79 in 2001. It currently stands at 85 whales. The agency’s recovery plan, released in early
2008, calls for actions to reduce disturbance from vessels.

If adopted, the earliest the rule would take effect would be May 2010. The agency said it will hold public meetings Sept. 30 in Seattle and Oct. 5 in Friday Harbor for people to learn more about the proposed rules. The public comment period on them closes Oct. 27. You can view the proposal and make and make comments here.


Postcards From Friday Harbor: Porposed Vessel Impact Regulations: Let Your Voice Be Heard

Saturday, July 25, 2009

EPA Approves Puget Sound Action Plan with Funding to Follow

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency gave its "stamp of approval" on July 15 for the Puget Sound Action Agenda under the National Estuary Program (NEP), paving the way for the agenda to continue to receive federal funding. This move also indicates that the agency is fully committed to helping carry out an agenda to protect an restore the Puget Sound.

"I'm pleased to announce our approval of the Action Agenda," said Michelle Pirzadeh, EPA's acting regional administrator in Seattle. "This makes official what has been true all along: EPA is fully committed to bringing our resources to bear on the critically important work of protecting and restoring our treasured Puget Sound. We pledge to continue to act hand-in-hand with our partners—the state, tribes, local governments and citizens -- to ensure a healthy Sound for future generations."

Federal endorsement of the action agenda under Section 320 of the Clean Water Act means a common plan will guide restoration and protection efforts and provides access to federal funding, including $20 million in 2009.

Puget Sound is a national priority in EPA's Strategic Plan, on par with other great waterbodies and national treasures like the Chesapeake Bay and the Great Lakes and is recognized as one of 28 estuaries of national significance under the NEP. Since 1995, more than $60 million in EPA appropriations have gone to Puget Sound estuary projects. The Action Agenda was announced last December by the Puget Sound Partnership and Washington Governor Gregoire. The ambitious agenda focuses not only on Puget Sound itself but also identifies actions in upland watersheds that will improve the health of the Sound.

The Action Agenda seeks to: Improve water quality in the Sound and nearby watersheds, Aid the recovery of species affected by pollution, Restore impaired water quality at beaches and shellfish beds, and Develop strategies to control toxic and bacterial contamination.

The plan also highlights the need to carefully consider the effects of development and population growth on Puget Sound. The EPA has also made a call for citizen input and is allowing comments on their site.

Please take the time to visit and provide your thought about what you think are the highest priorities to help protect Puget Sound. Your input will help guide efforts to implement the Puget Sound Partnership Action Agenda over the next two years. You may use the provided form below, or email your suggestions to Daniel Steinborn at steinborn.daniel@epa.gov. The feedback period will end July 31, 2009 and the EPA asks you to focus on:

  • What general issues or types of projects should be given higher priority?
  • Are there subregions or specific locations within Puget Sound that need priority attention? If so, where are they and what do they need?

Sunday, July 5, 2009

California water plan aims to save Puget Sound orcas

WASHINGTON — A plan to restore salmon runs on California's Sacramento River also could help revive killer whale populations 700 miles to the north in Puget Sound , as federal scientists struggle to protect endangered species in a complex ecosystem that stretches along the Pacific coast from California to Alaska .

Without wild salmon from the Sacramento and American rivers as part of their diet, the killer whales might face extinction, scientists concluded in a biological opinion that could result in even more severe water restrictions for farmers in the drought-stricken, 400-mile-long Central Valley of California . The valley is the nation's most productive farm region.

The plan has faced heated criticism from agricultural interests and politicians in California , but environmentalists said it represented a welcome departure by the Obama administration from its predecessor in dealing with Endangered Species Act issues.

The Sacramento plan, they add, is in sharp contrast to the plan for restoring wild salmon populations on the Columbia and Snake rivers in Washington state and Idaho . That plan, written by the Bush administration, essentially concluded that the long-term decline in those federally protected runs didn't jeopardize the killer whales' existence because hatchery fish could make up the difference.

The 85 orcas of the southern resident killer whale population travel in three separate pods, spending much of their time roaming the inland waters of Washington state from the San Juan Islands to south Puget Sound . During the winter they've been found offshore, ranging as far south as Monterey Bay in California and as far north as British Columbia's Queen Charlotte Islands. Each orca has distinctive markings, which allows them to be tracked.

In the mid-1990s, there were nearly 100 orcas in the three southern resident pods. The population fell to fewer than 80 in 2001. In 2005, they were granted federal protection as an endangered species. They've been studied closely for only 30 years or so, but historically there may have been up to 200 southern resident orcas.

Researches think that the decline has resulted from pollution — which could cause immune- or reproductive-system dysfunction — and from oil spills, noise and other vessel disturbances, along with a reduced quantity and quality of prey.

With the largest 27 feet long and weighing 10,000 pounds, orcas are constantly on the prowl for food. They've been known to hunt in packs. Their meal of choice: salmon, particularly chinook salmon.

By some estimates, the orcas eat about 500,000 salmon a year.

"We are trying to figure out how killer whales fit in," said Bradley Hanson , a wildlife biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Services in Seattle who studies orcas. "We don't have a lot of information on the movement of southern resident whales down the coast. We don't have a lot of information on adult salmon movements off the coast."

Before 2000, Hanson said, no one was quite sure where the killer whales went when they went to sea. It was a surprise when they showed up near Monterey Bay , he said.

The Sacramento and American river systems combined were once among the top salmon-spawning rivers on the West Coast , trailing only the Columbia and Snake rivers.

Prompted by lawsuits, the National Marine Fisheries Service last month published its latest plan for the Sacramento and American rivers' winter and fall chinook salmon runs. Without further curtailments of water for the federal Central Valley Project — a several-hundred-mile network of dams, canals and pumping plants — and the California State Water Project — the nation's largest state-built water and power development and conveyance system, which supplies water for 23 million Californians — the two runs are in jeopardy of extinction, the plan said.

Without changes, the southern resident killer whales, a run of steelhead and a population of North American green sturgeon almost certainly would disappear, according to the plan.

The killer whale population is extremely fragile, and scientists said the loss or serious injury to just one could appreciably reduce the odds that the southern resident pods would recover or survive.

The scientists who wrote the Sacramento plan also said that hatchery-raised salmon couldn't be counted on to sustain the killer whales' survival.

"Healthy wild salmon populations are important to the long-term maintenance of prey populations available to southern residents, because it is uncertain whether a hatchery-only stock could be sustained indefinitely," the scientists said.

Not only are there concerns about long-term funding for the hatcheries, but scientists also have questions about whether hatchery fish are as genetically strong and healthy as wild ones. Though changes to the hatcheries could improve the fish they produce, there's no agreement on what needs to be done and no guarantees that the changes would work.

The latest plan for the Columbia-Snake wild salmon runs concluded that continued operation of the federalhydroelectric dams on the two rivers was "not likely to adversely affect" the killer whales. Earlier, federal scientists found that "perhaps the single greatest change in food availability for resident killer whales since the late 1800s has been the decline of salmon from the Columbia River basin."

Despite the decline in wild runs, the scientists who worked on the Columbia plan concluded that hatchery fish would be able to make up any deficit in the orcas' diet.

Though the Columbia-Snake salmon plan acknowledges the potential problems with hatchery fish, it dismisses, at least for now, their impact on killer whale food supplies.

Lynne Barre , a National Marine Fisheries Service scientist in Seattle who helped write both plans, downplays any differences.

"I think we say the same thing in both opinions," Barre said, adding that both plans recognize that hatchery fish could be a short-term substitute for wild fish but that there were concerns about whether hatchery fish could be a long-term food source for orcas. "The general principles are similar."

Environmentalists, however, say that the differences couldn't be more obvious.

"The contrasts are striking," said Todd True , a lawyer for the Seattle office of Earthjustice, which has challenged the Columbia-Snake plan in a lawsuit in federal court in Portland, Ore.

True said the Sacramento salmon plan was a "candid piece of work that had a strong independent review and the absence of political interference." As for the Columbia-Snake plan, True said that it "pretends there isn't a problem."

The judge in the Portland case has given the Obama administration until Aug. 15 to indicate whether it'll stick with the Columbia-Snake salmon plan written during the Bush administration or offer a new one. True said he'd raise the orca issue again.

Other environmentalists said that Jane Lubchenco , who heads the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration , which includes the fisheries service, must be aware of the differences in how the two salmon plans addressed killer whales. Lubchenco is a marine biologist who taught at Oregon State University .

"They need to decide which of the contradictory statements are correct," said Pat Ford of Save Our WildSalmon.