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Marine acoustics talks in Victoria (live blog)

This week the Canadian Acoustical Association is running a conference on marine and environmental sound (abstracts).  Below are notes from talks that relate to the southern resident killer whales, presented in near-real-time.

9:00 Keynote: The Marine Soundscape and the Effects of Noise on Aquatic Animals

Christine Erbe

Marine soundscapes include natural sounds (e.g. from rain), marine organisms, and human sources.  Christine played a wide variety of sounds from many of these sources, highlighting along the way the opportunity to listen live for southern residents in Washington State and British Columbia.  Most amazing were recordings of belugas, aptly known as “sea canaries,” and humpbacks singing over mid-frequency sonar.

Odontocetes generate sound within their nasal system, not the larynx.  Echolocation clicks include energy at frequencies as high as 180 kHz for some porpoises. Pile driving recorded near Australia has a power spectrum with a very broad peak centered near 200 Hz.

The effects of noise on aquatic animals can be graded from most severe to weak: damage, temporary threshold shifts, out to behavioral response.

Graded effects of noise on aquatic animals

There is little data on chronic effects of noise. We can model cumulative sound exposure, but measuring the exposure directly will be challenging. [Perhaps Marla’s recent DTAG deployments on southern residents will help calibrate models made with regional ambient noise and ship traffic data?]

10:20 How deep do you call? Depth localization in Southern Resident killer whales using passive acoustics.

Jason Wood

We recorded 189 minutes of southern resident calls and clicks as they transited Admiralty Inlet where Snohomish Public Utility District is prospecting for tidal power.  We used a 4-element vertical array and localized the sound source by measuring the time of arrival differences (TOADs) between the different elements.  TOADs were computed using cross-correlation for calls and hand-picking of first arrivals for clicks.  The technique was validated using light bulbs as a synthetic source at known depths.

Of 510 calls and 145 independent clicks, about 80% of calls and clicks were made shallower than 30m, but some sounds (about 5%) were emitted at 60 m or deeper.  So killer whales are using the full depth of the prospective tidal turbine location.  Adjusting the source depths using the light bulb calibration (mean error of localization is 13 m deeper than actual bulb), our depth distribution compares well to the time-depth-recorder data from southern residents throughout their critical habitat (kindly shared with us by Robin Baird).

We also grouped our data by behavioral state of the pod during acoustic observations.  One surprise was that the depth of sounds made during social behavior were significantly deeper than other behavioral states.  Also, the mean depth of calls during foraging was the same as the mean depth of the clicks.

11:00 Assessing the effects of mid-frequency sonar on cetaceans in Southern California

Mariana Melcon

Looked for echolocation clicks of beaked whales (power at 30-60 kHz, depending on species) and periods of mid-frequency active sonar (MFA, 1-8 kHz) in HARP data (sampling at 200kHz).  Beaked whales click 30-50% less often during MFA exposures.  [Did southern residents click less during the Shoup incident?]

Transients harrassed near Shelton, WA

Interesting Kiro 7 video report regarding harassment of killer whales in Puget Sound during 2010.

And here’s a sighting report from Orca Network that is probably related:

Sighted 2 Orca for sure, when they came back east I thought at one point there were 3. They were in Hammersley Inlet at approximately N 047 12.360 – W 123 1.66, traveling west at 9 AM. East at 11AM. On the way west they were surfacing a lot. On the way east, they sounded right about the listed location and did not surface again in sight (I can see east to about 47 11.943). There was some construction noises going on at Skookum point – loud miter saw. The inlet is only 1/4 mile wide, and they were on the side opposite of me – much deeper water. I have noticed several harbor seals around in the morning lately – there must be food in the area. — Willard.

L pod was sighted that day in Haro Strait, so there are some indications these were transients who are listed as threatened under the ESA and also protected by the MMPA.  Fines could go even higher than $10k if the harassment was criminal, as opposed to civil.

King5 TV shows infrared video of orcas

Tonight reporter Gary Chitten and cameraman Pete Cassam from King 5 Television broadcast a nice story about the successful first test of a FLIR camera for detecting killer whales at night.  The pilot study was designed by Jim Thomson of the UW Applied Physics Lab, his Master’s student Joe Graber, and his other staff.  In collaboration with Jason Wood, Research Curator for The Whale Museum, and with the cooperation of Whale Watch State Park, the camera was deployed atop the Lime Kiln lighthouse where orcas commonly pass by close to shore during the summer months.

Two orcas surface in an infrared image

In just a week of effort, a suite of useful data were collected that are allowing Joe to assess to what extent automated signal processing algorithms can reliably detect orcas at night when they are up to 300 yards from the camera.  Preliminary results suggest that a human can identify whales among the noise generated by waves at 300 yards, but the computer isn’t very reliable much further out than 100 yards.  Perhaps a higher-resolution, top-of-the-line camera could improve the detection range?

The King 5 piece did an admirable job of conveying the importance of passive acoustic monitoring when attempting to detect approaching orcas.  While infrared cameras may ultimately be able to detect killer whales up to a kilometer away, the loud calls and clicks made by the whales can be detected at 10 times that range when background noise levels are low.  Together, infrared video cameras and real-time hydrophone networks constitute our best nighttime chance of knowing whether and when to shut down a turbine to mitigate it’s potential impacts on the fragile southern resident killer whale population.  Sighting networks like Orca Network and human eyes at tidal turbine sites will be critical supplemental techniques for tracking whales during the day.

Shall orca fans boycott CA tomatoes?

This well-written story about the CA salmon fishery in the High Country News connects the fate of southern residents with the agricultural industry of the Central Valley.

The past five years have already been harrowing, with a round of fishing bans to protect declining salmon runs in the Klamath River near the California-Oregon border. While those stocks are now in better shape, the main population of local salmon — the celebrated Sacramento River fall run of chinooks — is in steep decline. For the past two years, the federal government has banned commercial salmon fishing in California and most of Oregon.

Then, in April, Collins and other fishermen received what seemed like good news. The Pacific Fishery Management Council, a 14-member assembly that makes fishing recommendations to the federal government, voted to open salmon season in California and Oregon. But, particularly in California, the season will be just a fraction of what it once was: Beginning July 1, some 400 commercial fishing boats could be chasing roughly 33,500 salmon.

“It works out to about 90 fish a boat. Eight years ago, you’d catch that in a morning,” Collins says, and then pauses. “I’m hoping a lot of guys aren’t going to bother.”

In comparison, the southern resident orca population needs about 1000 good-sized chinook per day.  So, the limited opening that the Pacific Fishery Management Council has allowed could potentially reduce Southern Resident food supply by about one month.  We’ll have to delve into the PFMC analysis to understand what led them to decide that allowing OR and CA fishers to harvest 93,000 salmon from all runs would be “safe.”  Is that “safe” for the salmon populations, the orca populations, the human fishers’ livelihood, or some subset of influential politicians?

This spring, Democratic Congressmen Jim Costa and Dennis Cardoza and Republican George Radanovich, who represent the valley, wrote to Gary Locke, the Cabinet secretary who oversees the federal salmon-protection program, to decry a “double standard” of allowing salmon fishing while farmers still face water cutbacks. Then in April, Dianne Feinstein, the Democratic senator and former mayor of San Francisco, joined Costa and Cardoza in again complaining that “tens of thousands of acre-feet (of water) are now flowing unchecked past the pumps and into the ocean.”

Despite those water cutbacks, California still managed to grow its largest tomato crop in history last year. The 13.3-million-ton harvest was so big, in fact, that some farmers tilled a portion of their crop back into the ground. “It’s the greediest bunch of creeps I’ve ever seen in my life,” says fisherman Collins. “We haven’t worked in two years, and they’re crying like little girls.”

Perhaps it’s time to ascertain which crops are most water-intensive and to a coast-wide or even Inter/national boycott of them.  The article suggests cotton and tomatoes.  What other crops would be a worthy target?  Would progressive stores like Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods participate?  Or would this need to be a grassroots effort activated by orca enthusiasts around the country and globe?

Salmon & orcas in Patagonia catalog

The new Patagonia catalog (out yesterday) has a full page spread by Steven Hawley entitled “The Idaho Tide.”  It eloquently connects the wolves of Idaho’s Frank Church Wilderness with Snake River salmon and the southern residents, and it includes a great paragraph (below) with a quote-worthy line by Ken Balcomb:

“I think any reasonable biologist will tell you the only way to take advantage of [the intact salmon habitat left on the Snake River] is to tear out the dams.” — Ken Balcomb, Center for Whale Research

The full text of the piece is appended (and archived as a PDF). Inspired readers can take action here (too bad such a link wasn’t provided in the catalog!)…

Thanks to Dan Drais of Save Our Wild Salmon for the heads up on this one.  Watch for Hawley’s new book next year, “Recovering the Lost River” (the Columbia).

Orcas and salmon in new Cascadia Scorecard

The Sightline Institute has just released a new Cascadia Scorecard that attempts to track progress towards sustainability in Cascadia, the ecoregion encompassing much of western Washington and southern British Columbia. Southern resident killer whales and chinook salmon are featured within the scorecard’s wildlife indicator along with wolves, sage grouse, and caribou. While the wolf population has grown recently, most trends are uncertain or variable, and on average the five wildlife species are at only 16% of their historic abundance.

Below are two graphs from the scorecard, one showing southern resident pod population trends, the other total chinook returns to the Bonneville Dam on the lower Columbia River. 

In an associated “Orca Update” released today, Lisa Stiffler analyzes some of the details in these trends.  She makes some interesting connections between SRKWs, west coast chinook stocks, and Pacific climate conditions.  It remains clear to me that we need to delve deeper into the salmon and orca population dynamics (beyond Ford et al., 2005 and Hanson et al., 2010), as well the potential influence of El Nino vs La Nina conditions on the Northeast Pacific.  Lisa also included a nice rendering of the most-recent official population time series:

Data Sources for the Wildlife Indicator

Orcas. Refers to “southern resident” population, unless otherwise noted. Population data from Ken Balcomb, senior scientist, The Center for Whale Research, Historical abundance derived from Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Washington State Status Report for the Killer Whale, Appendix A, March 2004, page 41,

Salmon. Refers to spring and summer chinook salmon at the Bonneville Dam, unless otherwise noted. Population data from University of Washington, School of Aquatic and Fisheries Science, Columbia River DART database, “Adult Passage Annual Summary,” Historical abundance from US National Marine Fisheries Service, Northwest Fisheries Science Center, “Final Report of Updated Status of Listed ESUs of Salmon and Steelhead,”

Fulbright talk on marine conservation in the Pacific Northwest

Dr. Rob Williams

Dr. Rob Williams

Notes from an annual lecture at the University of Washington, March 3, 2010, at 7pm:

“Marine conservation in the Pacific Northwest: Whales, Salmon, and Sound” by

Rob Williams, 2009-2010 Canada-US Fulbright Visiting Chair

“A scientist is someone who asks ‘what if’ questions.” — Margaret Atwood

“If you want to study whales, you should put yourself in path of the whales.” — Alexandra Morton  (Her advice inspired Rob to settle on Pearse Island in Johnstone Strait.)

When I was a kid in the 1970s growing up on Vancouver Island, a great success was the ‘save the whales’ movement.  It was successful in that we gave it a name and a voice (Roger Payne), e.g. the Sound of the Earth LP vinyl record.  Such recordings helped us understand that sound and hearing is as important to whales as light and vision are to us.  Acoustic space is as important for our local whales as the coastal rainforest habitat is to B.C. bears.

Abundance estimates of local whales were rare historically in western Canada.  It is a complex region, there was no whaling, and Canada had left the IWC in the 1980s.  More recently, the Species at Risk Act made abundance estimates more important.

In the U.S., the Marine Mammal Protection Act outlines management objectives.  A key element of the Act is that Potential Biological Removal (PBR) limits annual anthropogenic mortality while meeting the management objectives.   Thus, it demands abundance estimates, e.g. PBR = Nmin * 0.5 (Rmax) * Fr

In Canada, the Species at Risk Act dictates that best available information must be used (whether from science, first nations, etc).  No quantitative abundance estimate is required, but filling in such data gaps was likely to be helpful.

So, I went off to Britain to get a PhD in abundance estimation.  Once back in Canada, I worked with a non-profit using line transects to estimate average number of cetaceans (6 species) on the B.C. coast within the gap between U.S. survey areas. We estimated populations of: 15,000 (?) harbor porpoises; 26,000 Pacific white-side dolphins (possibly moving into inshore waters of WA); 496 fin whales (all inside Queen Charlotte Island, ship strike risk), 1,300 humpback whales (density highest at S end of Queen Charlottes where shipping density is at a minimum);

Juxtaposing species density surfaces and shipping density creates a map of ship strike “risk” for that species.  Similar maps could be made for oilspill likelihood.  At the least, such maps can help us know where to pay attention and maybe where to focus conservation actions.

Acoustic habitat quality: does anthropogenic noise mask cetacean signals? Working with Chris Clark we tried to use noise to quantify acoustic habitat quality (masking metric).  The lowest 5% of sound levels characterizes the “ancient ambient” conditions.  Pop-ups were deployed in Prince Rupert, Caamano Sound, Johnstone Strait, Vancouver and Haro Strait.  Johnstone Strait had highest sound pressure levels, possibly due to a local bottleneck of shipping.

Williams talks in Kane Hall

Williams talks in Kane Hall

Chronic ocean noise is an insidious problem that’s received less attention than military sonar.  Amazingly, the International Maritime Organization and IWC have resolved to reduce shipping noise 50% in this decade.  Technological solutions exist; we just need an incentive.  It seems there is an opportunity to lead on this issue.

There are many short-term effects of ship noise decreasing the active space of cetaceans that may be biologically meaningful: masking of communication, prey sounds, predator sounds, etc.  When Erin recently began her PhD, we observed a few hundred Pacific white-sided dolphins in Knight Inlet, we noticed many of them breaching and then porpoising away.  Transients chased them into a bay and attacked.  Acoustic detection of the incoming transients had life or death consequences for some of those dolphins!

How many salmon do killer whales need?  I participated in a UW workshop to analyse data from SeaWorld, IWC, and wild KWs.  Main result was that nursing costs mums ~40% extra energy.  It’s clear that SRKWS need hundreds of thousands of salmon.  Whose salmon?  Whales don’t see or hear the boundary, so there is a profound need for transboundary research.

Next: 2 year Marie Curie Fellowship starting this fall at St. Andrew to study masking effects of shipping with mathematics collaborators.

Scott’s favorite quote from Rob’s talk: “Whales need a quiet ocean with fish in it.”

Good news for wild orcas, captive orca in distress

The tragedy of the trainer killed at Florida’s sea world was all over the news yesterday. 40 year old Dawn Brancheau was an experienced trainer who had worked with Tilikum, an orca captured from Icelandic waters when he was just two years old. The trainer’s death is a tragedy to her family and coworkers, but it also sheds light on the tragedy of orcas in captivity. This particular orca has been involved in two previous violent incidents with trainers, one in 1991 and another in 1999. All accounts of killer whale violence involving humans have occurred while the animals are in captivity. In their own natural environment orcas maintain a remarkably peaceful culture. The SRKWs have never been known to kill humans, kill each other, shun or make outcasts of their members. Their society seems to have achieved a peacefulness which we humans only dream of.

Like humans, they are sophisticated social creatures who need freedom, wide open space to move and the lifelong companionship of their family and community. This event serves as a reminder of just how important it is to preserve the orcas’ natural environment. If their natural world is depleted to a point that we feel we are saving them by keeping them in marine parks and they end up in captivity, they end up incarcerated in a way that is dangerous to the humans that dedicate their lives to them as well as to themselves.

In Listening to Whales, Alexandra Morton contemplates marine mammals in captivity and whether the ‘education for children’ argument holds up. In regards to children learning respect for and the desire to protect orcas, she says,
“More often, though I’d see a different kind of interaction. Some kids taunted the whales and pitched popcorn at their blow-holes…They argued over whether the whales were real. ‘They’re like rubber man. Look at ‘em: just like the dinosaurs at Disneyland. They’re stupid, fat, dead, fake…’
What exactly were these children learning? Before the advent of marine parks, killer whales had all too often been considered the wolves of the ocean, nomadic man-eaters, good for nothing…But thanks to parks like Marineland…public opinion had swung to the opposite extreme. They were considered obedient, cute, tongue-wagging performers, tame enough for petting, and the children I observed were learning that it was a human right to enslave, harm and ridicule another creature just for fun. In a single generation the human memory of orcas as dangerous predators had faded away-and with it the respect that predators command” (Morton 56).

It’s interesting to consider the difference between people’s desire to protect orcas they see in their natural world, where they are witness to their intelligence, resourcefulness and the complex and social way they live their lives compared to the anecdotal apathy for preservation when they think orcas are docile, cute and stupid.

This news comes just days after the first spotting of new calf L-114. L-114 is the first known calf born to 22 year old Matia (L-77) and the seventh orca born within the past year. This brings the population up to 89 orcas and marks the largest number of births since the 1980s. But of course, more orcas, means more mouths to feed, and even greater need for salmon.

Humans and salmon compete for CA water

Feinstein’s Water Bomb (Feb 12 article in the High Country News) indicates that things are really starting to heat up in California.  Water stress is manifesting in political lobbying and reversals that may jeopardize the Sacramento River salmon that K and L pod presumably pursue each winter.  Up here in the Northwest the water competition is due to human thirst for electricity.  In the Southwest, the driver is farmers’ increasingly strident demand for water.

Stormwater, salmon, and the health of Puget Sound

Keynote speaker at Sound Waters 2010

Dr. Nathaniel ‘Nat’ Scholtz, NOAA/NWFSC

Coho salmon are our first choice for a ‘sentinel species’ because they:

  • are widely distributed
  • inhabit lowland steams that are important and familiar to humans and areas impacted directly by stormwater runoff (if we can reduce toxics in lowland streams, then we’ll likely keep them out of the marine environment, so may solve problems for rockfish, lingcod, and other marine species).
  • live >1 yr in freshwater, so are exposed to stormwater at multiple life stages (adults, eggs, juveniles)
  • are supported by a diverse food web
  • are sensitive to water quality and quantity
  • are a species of concern under the ESA (only listed local species are chinook and southern resident killer whales)
  • provide an accessible narrative to the public, exemplify an ecosystem-based approach to stormwater management

Research results

  • Longfellow Creek (urban W Seattle) experimental facility
  • Urban runoff is toxic to coho embryos (in streams and in lab)
  • For juveniles, the problems are in the foodweb (macroinvertebrates from Cedar River are happy in Longfellow until a storm because they are very sensitive to toxic runoff).  The bugs leave or die, reducing food for juveniles and impacting salmon mortality.
  • Copper (common in brake pads) is specifically toxic to the salmon nose (Science News “descent of smell; pollution imparis olfaction”).  This impairs their ability to imprint on their home stream and avoid predators (attacked fish release a pheremone upon mechanical damage that causes downstream juveniles to freeze).  Predator-prey studies on the Olympic Peninsula shows juvenile coho suffer greater mortality from cutthroat trout when exposed to copper.
  • Over last 9 years, we’ve observed very high (40-90%) pre-spawn mortality of adult coho (full of eggs) in urban streams throughout Seattle.  Extinction projections don’t look good and they don’t yet include possible future pressures: further human population growth (with pursuant urban development) and climate change (drier summers with more intense rains, implying more toxic stormwater events).

Solutions to the stormwater challenge:

  • Pervious pavement in Pringle Creek Community
  • NOAA Bay-Watershed Education and Training funding (translating research to education and service-learning)
  • Local example: Service, Education, and Adventure (SEA) and Edmonds Community College Learn and Serve Environmental Anthropology Field (LEAF) School
  • Salmon-Safe Certification (Nike Ad and PCC labels) — developing local incentives for pollution reduction using NOAA research findings
  • Evaluating effectiveness of low impact development (LID) — partnership with Washington State University Puyallup Extension Campus at its new research facility (experimental plots)
  • About 8% of Seattle is re-developed every year!  Seattle street vacuums are being tested.  SEA street retention of stormwater is ~98%!
  • HB 3018/SB 6557: Limiting the use of copper and other substances in brake pads
  • Personal actions: support outdoor education, Puget Sound farms, and look to Puget Sound for optimism (Southern CA is much worse!) — see Florian Graner’s high-definition video on underwater Puget Sound.


  • Why can’t we just filter all the streams?  We could (it works on Longfellow Creek), but it’s one step from a dialysis machine — it’s prohibitively expensive.
  • There is also legislation under assessment re: mercury in lighting, and other marine issues.  How does the public know about activism opportunities?
  • What should we do about pollution from a local golf course and farms?  That’s the purview of the Department of Ecology.  Unfortunately, State standards and rules lag our research on many contaminants.  Thank goodness we have the Federal precedent of the Clean Water Act.
  • How does the 34M gallons/year of raw sewage from Victoria affect Puget Sound water quality?  I’m not sure, but would be concerned about new contaminants of concerns and pharmaceuticals.  We’re seeking funding to use mussels around Puget Sound as indicator species.
  • Why is it better to have runoff going into ground?  How long before the ground becomes contaminated?  Using copper as an example, many contaminants bind to clay and are pulled out of harms way.
  • Are those movies you were going to show available on line.  Yes on our web site.
  • Are the street vacuums effective?  Though Seattle didn’t put metals on the streets, they’re responsible to Dept. of Ecology. They can tell us how much they take off the streets; we’re working with them to determine what is left on the street.
  • Is there any way to make impermeable surfaces permeable, like with a street drill?  I’m not sure, but would worry about the ability of the roads to take their engineered loads.