Monthly Archives: January 2010

Safina on orcas in LA Times

Save the salmon — and us

Above is a link a nice Op-Ed piece by Carl Safina.  Below is my response, submitted today to the L.A. Times.

In his 1/24/10 opinion “Save the salmon — and us,” Safina points out that new research says orcas prefer salmon.  But the in-press analysis of prey scraps by NOAA’s Brad Hanson is more specific: like humans, the southern resident killer whales’ first choice for a summertime meal is the biggest, fattiest, salmon around — the Fraser River chinook.  Along the west coast, the biggest chinook are associated with the biggest river systems (the Fraser in the summer; the Columbia and Sacramento in the winter) because it takes a big, strong fish to swim thousands of kilometers inland (e.g. to Idaho).  For the orcas’ sake, we need to prioritize chinook recovery in the biggest rivers.

To keep the orcas visiting the Salish Sea during the summer, we should all be more involved in conserving the chinook (and other salmon) runs of the Fraser river, along with recovering stocks in the rivers of western Washington.  We Americans should get more involved in the battle raging in British Columbia between Norwegian salmon farms and advocates of wild Fraser sockeye like Alexandra Morton.  Her proposed actions to protect sockeye smolts from diseased farm fish will also help baby chinook on their way to the open Pacific, and thereby ensure future meals for southern residents.  Activists can also help the orcas by bolstering conservation efforts in Washington State, like the recent delta restorations in the Skagit and Nisqually rivers, or the removal of Elwha river dams (now starting in 2011 thanks to stimulus funds).

To prevent extinction of orcas we must protect their winter food sources.  We need to call our legislators, most importantly the recalcitrant Senators from Washington, to initiate a new approach to salmon management in the Pacific Northwest.  The current plan for Columbia salmon is a Bush-era cop-out that parasitized new-NOAA-head Jane Lubchenco like a B.C. sea louse jumps a Fraser sockeye smolt.  To recover, the Columbia/Snake salmon need innovative, dramatic action — including dam removal — not the business-as-usual that led to salmon ecosystem collapses first in England and then along the Atlantic seaboard (read “King of Fish” by David Montgomery for historic perspective).  The best idea I’ve heard is to place a salmon specialist on the President’s Council on Environmental Quality to mandate and facilitate a new regional collaboration already called for by Congressional leaders from Oregon and Idaho. 

One year into the Obama administration is a good time to call for such high-level solutions.  We should demand full funding of the recovery plan and research to support it — both of which have been under-funded by ~70% since the southern residents were listed as endangered.  Oh, and the word “orca” should be in the next salmon treaty, too, because it appears that they are at the table from California to Alaska — whether human fishers like it or not.

Harmful algae & Fraser sockeye – liveblog

Dr. Jack Rensel, Rensel Associates Aquatic Sciences (works with Puget Sound fish farmers on permitting/etc., but not BC farmers)

Harmful Algal Blooms and Possible Effects on Fraser River Sockeye Salmon

11:04 Intro

Much of this talk is based on co-author Nicola Haigh’s 10-year sockeye database.

Target algae of interest: Heterosigma akashiwo, HAMP database

11:06 Background

Heterosigma is a microflagellate that kills farmed fish in Puget Sound, BC, and beyond (but not Korea).   Associated with eutrophication and sometimes kills plankton.  Migrates vertically up to 15m depth, cysts in silty sediments, sometimes blooms over entire basins for long periods (>1 week).

11:12 Initiation of blooms

Initiation often in S Straits of Georgia (and sometimes Bellingham Bay, or Case Inlet).  There are U.S. fish farms nearby in the San Juan area and near Vancouver.  Association with neap tides and southward pulsing dynamics in Straits of Georgia and Haro Strait.

11:17 Wild fish exposure

Some think wild fish will escape by swimming under when cells raft on surface, but cells can be mixed down and continue to be toxic to fish.  Sockeye are surface oriented, both as adults and as juveniles (near-shore).  Since farmed fish in 15m deep pens are dying, it is likely that wild sockeye are at risk, too.

11:19 Fraser River sockeye

Most important stock on the west coast (CA-BC).  They have 4-year predominant life cycle with juveniles readring 1 winter in lake prior to out-migration followed by 2 winters at sea.  Most smolts leave Fraser in May/June; adults return July and August.  Most juveniles migrate out northward, but some go south.  All stick close to coast and many go through the Gulf Islands (Groot and Cooke, 1987; map indicates minimal use of the San Juans).

August 2009 news: deep crash of Fraser River sockeye.  Why?  Total run peaked at ~24M in 1994; ~2M in 2007.  From Pacific Salmon Commission escapement data (1952-2007).

11:25 Harmful Algae Monitoring Program (HAMP) database

Sampling areas on outer and inner Vancouver Island.  Frequent occurrence of blooms in BC, while we go years without blooms in Puget Sound.  2007 saw a huge increase in blooms relative to previous decade.

11:29 Looking for correlations

Comparing time series of marine survival fraction (e.g. from Chilco stock total run size) and bloom index (e.g. S. Georgia Strait sampling area) the smoking gun is Chilco stock inversely correlated with bloom index in S Georgia Strait, and to a lesser extnt in Queen Charlottes and Broughton Archipelago.

What about Puget Sound?  Looking at years in which we had large blooms in both PS and BC, followed two years later by low run sizes.  A mystery is that there are no PS reports of major fish kills during large bloom periods (though at least some dead wild salmonids have been reported in every major bloom reported).

Prior to 1980, most adult sockeye came in through Straits of Juan de Fuca.  Northerly diversion rate has increased since (from ~20% coming in through Johnstone Strait to ~70%).

David Welch did a nice study of tagged smolts, but had to raise to bigger size and they swam through bloom areas in just a few days.  Wild smolts likely hang out longer in shallow, near-shore areas, increasing their exposure risk.

11:42 What is changing?

Masson and Cummins, 2007 show that Strait of Georgia is warming (~2C since 1970) throughout water column.

Warmer springs => earlier blooms => into juvenile sockeye timing

Nitrogen loading from human society increasing; Newton and Van Voorhis, 2003, shows that Possession Sound and Admiralty Inlet are nutrient sensitive.  Human population around Salish Sea is near 4M now, there are many combined sewer overflows (especially around very dense Vancouver), and Victoria won’t treat fully until 2020.

11:47 Monitoring and mitigation

Need ORCA buoys around Puget Sound

Clay is effective in Korea for flocculation; maybe could help in combination with the Solarbee circulators being used in East Coast estuaries.

Chilco stock should be tagged somehow.

Make better use of satellite data, e.g. NOAA CoastWatch Aqua MODIS

11:48 GIS demo shows how satellite data can contextualize tracks of fish migration.

11:55 Alternative hypotheses

Food web problems?

Sea lice (not a problem in PS due to lower salinity).  Contested, but HABs may pre-dispose smolts to sea lice infection.

11;57 Conclusion

HABS are unlikely to be sole cause of long term decline of sockeye recruit per spawner, but may be a major component of smolt loss, especially in 2006 and 2007.

Long term R/S decline since 1989 points to ecosystem oscillation or change.

12:00 Thanks

Mike LaPointe acknowledged for data from Pacific Salmon Commission.

Orca refuge: a gift for endangered killer whales

Mother and calf seeking refuge

This Friday, January 15, 2010, is the deadline for public comment on the proposed orca conservation area along the west side of San Juan Island. All marine conservationists should consider commenting on these precedent-setting rules: comment via email | comment via web form.  (Official background and the PDF of proposed rule are on the NOAA web page.)

If you are short on time, you can simply sign the petition in support of the proposed rules.  The petition will be submitted to NOAA by the comment deadline.

Give a New Year’s gift to the southern residents  — comment on these precedent-setting rules before midnight (EST for web submittal; PST for emailed comments) this Friday, January 15, 2010: comment via email | comment via web form.

“Current regulations in the U.S. to protect marine mammals stem from the whaling era and focus on prohibiting individual acts that harm marine mammals.  If our society is to protect marine life from today’s threats, the regulatory process will need to change to protect the quality of habitats on which marine mammals depend.” — Peter Tyack, Physics Today, November, 2009.

New tools for orca sound annotation

Here’s a glimpse into the future of killer whale sound archives. Steven Ness and collaborators at the University of Victoria have created the Orchive — a suite of open-source, web-based tools for listening to and annotating the recordings of northern resident orcas made by Paul and Helena Spong at OrcaLab. Using Ruby on Rails and Flash, the Orchive enables citizen scientists to visually browse spectrograms, listen to the 1.3 years of recordings, read through scanned logbook pages, and examine existing annotations. By logging in, you can contribute to the cataloging effort by annotating the recordings, associating a recording with a logbook page, and defining the start time of a recording.

This is a giant leap forward! I can see a big niche for such tools in the analysis of data archived from the growing network of cabled ocean observing systems. An upcoming challenge will be to develop similar tools for analysis of real-time data, like those obtained from the Salish Sea Hydrophone Network.

Chinook data needed to interpret orca baby boom

Good national news is rolling in about 5 new southern resident whales and no deaths in 2009, plus one new baby thus far in 2010. Howard, Ken, and Brad allude to looking for correlations or explanations in chinook salmon abundance:

It sounds simplistic, Garrett said, but “the way that we can tag the population fluctuations is directly from the chinook runs.”

Taken as a whole, the runs in the region have held steady over at least the past two years, he said.

It’s not that simple, said Brad Hanson, a wildlife biologist with the federal Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle. He said that for much of the year, little is known about what salmon stocks the whales eat and where.

It’s frustrating to me that we don’t have a nice synopsis of west coast chinook populations for 2009, or at least 2008. The strongest correlation between killer whale mortality or birth indices is with 3-year running means of chinook abundance lagged 1 year relative to the KW index (Ford et al., 2009). So, we would need data from 2007-9 to compute a chinook abundance index value for 2008 that ought to explain the low mortality and high birth rate observed in KWs during 2009.

Does anyone have a handle on such chinook data?!

Promise of land-based salmon farms in B.C.

This is a brief letter from Alexandra Morton that cuts to the chase re B.C. salmon farming management. Maybe WA should move it’s pens on-shore, too? Note the connection she draws between Lake Washington sockeye collapse and diseases from B.C. pens.

Land-based salmon farms can work