Author Archives: scottveirs

Ruckelshaus suggests whale watchers be more precautious

Today Tacoma’s News Tribune offers a story about the imminent issuing of new rules for watching southern resident killer whales.  This story confirms Donna Darm’s recent mention of the regulations being currently under review at OMB.  It remains to be seen whether the rules will be issued in time for the whale watching industry and killer whale researchers to plan accordingly for the upcoming season.

While the story isn’t quite accurate about the state of bioacoustic science, it does contain a fascinating juxtaposition of quotes — from former EPA administrator and Puget Sound Partnership Leadership Council Chair Bill Ruckelshaus, and former President of the Pacific Whale Watch Association Shane Aggergaard.  (Why wasn’t current President Bill Wright quoted?)  This exchange of perspectives reminded me that someone needs to create a synopsis and analysis of the diverse public comments on the proposed vessel regulations, particularly those (30 Mb of) comments from the whale watch industry.

Underwater noise pollution affects calls but not clicks (yet)

The article states that “Research shows engine noise can interfere with the whales’ ability to find food.”  That’s a little unclear.  What has been shown for southern residents (Holt, et al., 2009) is that underwater noise from nearby boats makes killer whales call louder.  If those calls are important for foraging, then the boat noise could affect the whales’ ability to find food.  The greater potential impact of vessel noise on their ability to forage is masking of the echolocation clicks they use to target salmon.  That is a focus of on-going observational and modeling efforts.

Ruckelshaus pwns Aggergaard

My favorite quote is from Bill because it suggests that the whale watching industry should take a broader, longer view of conservation science and policies:

Anytime you have an endangered species you always have somebody who is adversely impacted by the efforts to save the species, and they are very skeptical about the science that shows what they’re doing is causing any harm. The whale watch boats are equally dependent on the health of the orcas as are people who are concerned about them as a species.

He didn’t quite deliver the punch line for which I was hoping: a sustainable whale watching industry would lead in the reduction of all risks identified in the recovery plan — not just donating time and money to save Pacific salmon or working to clean up persistent pollutants, but proactively reducing potential vessel effects in accordance with all available science and the precautionary principle.  Why not support the proposed vessel regulations — even propose to strengthen them (e.g. by adding a 7 knot speed limit within 400 yards throughout their critical habitat despite enforcement logistics), enjoy the short-term PR benefits of setting a stellar example, invest in binoculars and range finders, and then work with NOAA to abate the economic impacts (relax the rules, re-hire workers, grow the fleet) later if recovery occurs and new research justifies being less conservative?

Instead the Association has been vociferous about weakening the rules, questioning or cherry-picking the science, and down-playing vessel impacts. Their public comments include:

“the equation seems simple as too few fish, likely means too few whales” [pg. 3 of 250 pg PDF]

“So let’s get effective Killer Whale Viewing Regulations in place and let’s put all of our collective energies
into the really important steps of Salmon Stock Restoration and Pollution Clean-up and Prevention. All the
houses around us are burning and we are keeping our house safe by spraying the roof and walls with a
garden hose.” [pg. 6]

L pod in SF Bay

I love this quote from a spokeswoman from the Marine Sanctuary outside of San Francisco Bay where L pod was observed foraging last week:

“It’s nice they’re showing up, but it’s too bad there’s not enough food for them up north,” Schramm said.

That’s pretty funny since L pod is almost surely pursuing salmon of the Sacramento and San Joaquin River Basin — populations which have been plagued by dismal returns in recent years, despite seeing the best returns last fall since 2006.  So, what struggling northern river systems and salmon populations is she pondering?  (The Columbia I hope!)

It goes to show you that we Washingtonians have a lot of communicating about orcas and their prey to do with the keepers of other river systems that feed the southern residents, particularly during the winter.

> Read the whole story

> Take action for CA fish

> Tell Representatives to save CA fish

CA chinook on upward trend

During the last few weeks as portions of J and K pod (strangely split up into unusual associations) have traveled around Puget Sound, I’ve been wondering where L pod (not the L12s) has been since they were last sighted with a newborn on December 6.  An article on Sacramento chinook salmon returns offers a hopeful hint that L pod may be foraging along the west coast and encountering a few more CA chinook than last year.  The article also suggests that next fall may bring even better returns (possibly as much as 3x this year’s return of 163,000 (which would be about half of the 2002 peak of 770,000).

It’s interesting to think about what portion of the fish the SRKWs catch along the west coast during the winter months are from CA, versus Oregon rivers, the Columbia, WA rivers, or BC rivers.  Could it be that the CA salmon are important to SRKWs in proportion to their role in local fisheries: making up 90% of salmon catch in CA and 60% in OR?

A few excerpts:

The California Department of Fish and Game recorded 163,181 chinook in the river system during the annual count this past fall. That’s the best return in the once-thriving Central Valley system since 2006, but it is still below federal predictions and well below the historic average.

In 2009, only 39,500 fall-run chinook returned to spawn, the worst showing on record.

“Yes, 163,000 is better than 39,000, but that’s all that returned after an extremely limited fishing season,” said Larry Collins, president of the newly formed San Francisco Community Fishing Association and a longtime fisheries advocate. The salmon run “is a shadow of its former self.”

The Central Valley run in September and October has for decades been the backbone of the West Coast fishing industry. The local salmon, also known as king salmon, have traditionally made up 90 percent of the salmon caught in California and 60 percent of the chinook harvested in Oregon.

At its peak in 2002, 769,868 fish spawned in the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers and their tributaries. The Central Valley chinook pass through San Francisco Bay and roam the Pacific Ocean as far away as Alaska before returning three years later to spawn where they were hatched.


The yearly forecasts are based mostly on the percentage of 2-year-old salmon that return early to the river system. About 9,000 of these so-called jacks were counted in 2009 compared with about 4,000 in 2008.

Some 30,000 jacks were counted during the latest run, an indication that more fish than last year will return next fall.

Read more:

Cousteau talks of killer whales on KUOW

On January 31, 2011, Michel Cousteau was a guest on Steve Scher’s Weekday show on KUOW. Though he was talking generally about how our actions (even far inland) affect the oceans, he ended up talking extensively about killer whales. He proved himself quite knowledgeable about resident killer whales (especially 5:00-8:00 and 25:30- 27:30).

As an acoustician, my favorite quote was:

“It’s all sound, all communication. See, our primary sense is vision. Their primary sense is acoustic because sound travels very well underwater, unlike in the air. And you know, for dogs it’s smell. For us it’s vision. For them it’s sound. That’s how they find each other. That’s how they find food. That’s how they find their way…”

Near 26:00 he talks about the potential extinction of southern residents, but failed to articulate how we might save them. Instead of talking about amending NW and Canadian salmon populations (as NOAA suddenly is doing), banning and cleaning up PBDEs, PCBs, and DDTs, and mitigating vessel interactions, he took off on a discussion of sewage and plastic bags.

Another highlight (at ~36:00) was the comment from Libby Palmer of the Port Townsend Marine Science Center about the transient killer whale skeleton they are preparing for exhibition. That led Cousteau to discuss fire retardants and make the good suggestion that orca contamination should be associated with human contamination to enhance public awareness of the problems and solutions.

Fishing closures on Elwha?

Yesterday’s news release from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has at least four items of interest to SRKW conservation scheduled for discussion in their Feb 4-5 meeting.  A moratorium on fishing in the Elwha River system to facilitate recovery of its salmon populations, especially the historically large chinook, could mean more food faster for SRKWs.  Better management of summer chinook on the Columbia could affect the food sources SRKWs encounter, though those populations may be less important than fall-spring runs.  Any alteration of the North of Falcon process could influence salmon abundance in WA marine waters, as could changes to how bottomfish are caught by recreational and commercial fishers.

It might be worth a trek south to sit in on this one…

Here is an excerpt of the relevant sections:

Meanwhile, with two major dams on the Elwha River scheduled for removal starting later this year, the commission will consider adopting a moratorium on fishing designed to support restoration of native salmon and trout populations in that watershed. One proposal calls for closing all waters to fishing in the Elwha River Basin, while another alternative would maintain some fishing opportunity in Lake Sutherland.

State, federal and tribal fishery managers have proposed fishing closures in the watershed to protect fish during the dam-removal process and encourage their expansion into 70 miles of new spawning and rearing habitat.

In other action, the commission is scheduled to consider management alternatives for bottomfish in Catch Area 4B (western Strait of Juan de Fuca), which are available on the department’s website at .

The commission also is scheduled to consider updating its management policy for Columbia River summer chinook salmon to reflect new broodstock needs for the Chief Joseph Hatchery and conservation standards for naturally spawning fish, while providing guidance in allocating the catch between recreational and commercial fisheries.

The commission also is scheduled to consider:

* Changes in state fishing rules on a variety of issues, including closing fishing for Columbia River smelt (eulachon) statewide. The proposals are available on WDFW’s website at .
* Amendments to commercial bottomfish, forage fish and shellfish fisheries in Puget Sound designed to protect rockfish populations.
* Updates to the North of Falcon policy, which provides direction to fishery managers in defining annual salmon fishing seasons in Washington’s waters.

First spring chinook caught on Columbia

Mark Yuasa’s NW Fishing blog in the Seattle Times is a great way to keep tabs on where salmon are being caught in Washington.  Yesterday he pointed out that 2011 returns are expected to be moderate and that the spring chinook runs peak in March/April for the Lower Columbia.  Is L pod working these schools on the continental shelf?


The Upper Columbia spring chinook return forecast of 198,400 fish is the sixth largest since 1979. It is well under last year’s forecast of 470,000 (315,345 was actual return). The largest return was 437,900 in 2001, and the 10-year average is 219,000.

The good news for the 2011 return is quite a few larger-sized 5-year-old fish, about 40,000 of them, are expected. The bulk of the annual returns are comprised of 4-year-old fish.

Another popular spring chinook fishery on the Oregon side of the Columbia is the Willamette River, where a forecast of about 104,000 (62,400 are expected to be brawny five-year-olds) is expected, compared to a forecast last year of 63,000 (110,000 was the actual return).


The height of the spring chinook return is March and April. Sport angler trips in the Lower Columbia have averaged 129,000 since 2002.

Obama on salmon management

What great news for southern residents that President Obama clarifies in his 2011 State of the Union Address (at 43:59) that he understands that there is a deep flaw in how salmon are managed in the United States:

The Interior Department is in charge of salmon while they’re in fresh water, but the Commerce Department handles them when they’re in salt water… I hear it gets even more complicated once they’re smoked!

Can we do big things for Pacific salmon? Let’s hope Obama’s realization manifests as a concerted effort in the next two years by his administration to manage salmon of the Columbia, Snake, Sacramento, and other western rivers in an innovative manner that benefits both fish and killer whales. If we can’t do it with Jane Lubchenko (a marine biologist) heading NOAA and Gary Locke as Secretary of Commerce, then it’s unlikely we’ll pull it off in the first quarter of the 21st century. How can we work together to get more Chinook to the southern residents?

New whale watching rules due this spring

This Jan 16 story from Q13 Fox News has some valuable quotes, including this one from Brian Gorman of NOAA/NMFS:

“I expect it’s something that will have to go through a lot of hoops.  It could take as long as 90 days but by this spring we should have regulations in place,” says Gorman.
Gorman says the Department of Commerce is now reviewing the plan.  Then it goes to the Office of Management and Budget for approval before local fisheries officials get final word.
We’ve requested an interview with Senator Maria Cantwell, chair of the committee which oversees this issue, to discuss her commitment to protecting the orcas.  We hope to have that for you when she returns to Washington later this month.

Orcas, Elliott Bay, and the Duwamish

A January 3 Seattle Times story entitled “EPA unveils options for Duwamish cleanup” makes me wonder whether southern residents would enter Elliott Bay more often if the salmon runs were restored to the Duwamish and Green Rivers.  In a few years of listening, we’ve not yet detected Southern Residents Killer Whales entering Elliott Bay enough to be heard at the Seattle Aquarium hydrophone.  They always seem to stay outside the Bay, beyond a line connecting West and Alki Points…

Is anyone aware of past times when orcas have spent time in Elliott Bay?

Flushed chemicals reach orca habitat in less than 4 days

Live-blogged notes from a UW Water Seminar talk by Rick Keil’s student Brittany Kimball

Spicing Up the Sound: Cooking Spices and Aberrant Chemicals in Puget Sound and How They Get There
Sound Citizen collects water samples from around the region to understand the transport of common household chemicals from human sources into the marine environment.  An added benefit is that the educational message is positive (e.g. associated with holiday cooking), in contrast to typical discouraging environmental news.  With funding primarily from Washington Sea Grant, the undergraduate-driven project provides citizen scientists with kits for collecting water samples (about 40-75 kits returned per month since December 2008).

Analysis measures concentrations of: spices (27), solvents, perfumes, endocrine disruptors, and (soon) soaps and more.

Oregano — spikes in early May due to spring growth

Linalool — a scent from flowers (also common in household products) peaks naturally in June/July

Cinammon — can differentiate between cooked and metabolized (trans-cinnamic acid); based on 2007 data from treated sewage effluent peaks ~4 days after Thanksgiving (thyme also peaks 4 days after)

Vanillin — both natural and synthetic (ethyl vanillin, 4x more flavorful, so common in candy); peaks on memorial day, Christmas, Thanksgiving, Valentines day, 4th of July, Labor day; natural vanillin peaks during winter holidays (when real vanilla extract is used) while synthtic peaks during summer (possibly due to mass consumption of ice cream).

Chemicals in personal care products (e.g. musks, other fragrances…) and industrial products (e.g. insecticides, fertilizers) are detected about as commonly as spices in the samples.  Lawn care chemicals peak in summer, while ibuprofen and estrogens peak in winter (a function of runoff and overflow from sewage treatment plants?).

With the new mass spectrometer, we can measure oleic acids (olive oil soaps), steric acids, and more…

Don’t miss our high school action projects on Feb 3-4.  Student posters will be presented then at Mary Gates Hall.