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Monday, June 3, 2019

Year 2 of Orca Task Force: June 3 Meeting

Today I attended the second meeting of year two for Governor Inslee's Orca Task Force. The first meeting of 2019, which occurred in March and which I was unable to attend, happened when most of the Year 1 recommendations were still in limbo during the legislative process. The topic of that meeting was primarily climate change and how it impacts regional orca and salmon recovery. Specifically, for each of the working groups:
Prey - Impacts of climate change will determine which habitats are most effective to restore
Vessels - Emissions, and carbon neutrality issues
Toxins - Which impacts will be amplified, such as new toxin sources being submerged
There will be a report from each of the working groups on these topics at the September meeting.

The meeting started off with a quick recap from a subcommittee considering ways to carry the work of the task force beyond the end of this year. They have several options on the table that the task force will be taking a survey about in the coming months, and which will be discussed in more detail at the next meeting in September.

Next, JT Austin of the governor's office gave a recap of tribal involvement, and defined how true consultation and government to government relations work. With many tribes represented at the table, this seemed like something that definitely should have happened at the beginning of Year 1. The Orca Task Force does not represent official consultation, and the tribes have different rights, authorities, and interests than other groups at the table. I recall many of the tribal representatives abstained from voting on the year one recommendations, deferring to their direct government to government conversations with Inslee and the state. It will be interesting to see how that plays out over the rest of the task force process.

GI James of the Lummi tribe spoke next, and set the tone for the whole day - truly, for the whole cause. Here are some excerpts and summaries of what he said: "We are in a crisis....we cannot be planning for 50 years out." He pointed out that legislators need to be clear that the consequences of saying "no" to recovery actions are extinction. This is not a matter of picking and choosing items off a list based on what's politically expedient. "I'm glad this process is happening," he said, "but it needs a much, much greater emphasis on crisis."

He proposed that a crisis management team be formed to propose a measurable, needed, and funded crisis management plan. "It's a tough, hard set of decisions that need to be made....around this table are inherent conflicts of interest that make it tough to make those decisions. We still think we can have it all.....There's a really tough road ahead, and as much as I appreciate the 36 recommendations [from Year One], most of them are not meaningful actions." He got a loud round of applause after his comments.

Next was a recap of the legislative process and where all the 36 recommendations are currently, with a scorecard based on input from the working groups. Green = on track, yellow = in progress/more work needed, red = no action taken. You can read the scorecard from Team BOLD (Whitney Neugebauer of Whale Scout, Cindy Hansen from Orca Network, myself from the Orca Behavior Institute, and Susan Marie Andersson of Salish Sea Ecosystem Advocates) here; needless to say our rankings were a little different from theirs! One difference was they had 5 actions ranked red; we had 9. We gave status updates on our scorecard of where each action stood, but below are a few additional things I learned today:

Less than 10% of identified salmon habitat restoration projects in the state were funded. While it's great some projects are moving forward, there are A LOT of shovel ready projects that are awaiting money. In the presentation given today, they claimed Recommendation 1 as a "green/yellow" score. Jacques White of Long Live the Kings chimed in to say, given the huge shortfall from the goal of "fully funding" salmon habitat restoration projects, "I would say Recommendation 1 is a red."

Recommendation 6, regarding increased hatchery production, needs to have appropriate monitoring in place in 3-5 years to assess the impacts of this increased production. It was emphasized that wild fish are the long term goal, and we don't want to undermine the efforts to restore wild fish by flooding the system with hatchery fish.

There was a brief update on Recommendation 9 regarding the formation of the Lower Snake River dam stakeholder panel. The executive team is having a meeting later this week regarding finding a neutral third party to facilitate this process, and to discuss options of how the process will work. Rather than being an extended series of meetings, one option is for part of the process to have a neutral third party gather the existing information from all stakeholders, and summarize that information. It was made clear that the panel itself is not a study, nor is it a decision making process. It's goal is to discuss what the impacts would be if the current ongoing federal process does recommend dam breaching.

Recommendations 12 and 13, regarding pinniped control in Puget Sound and on the outer coast, did not get funded in the legislative process, which means that some of the ongoing studies in this area have lost funding. Someone pointed out that not having funding doesn't mean this issue goes away, and numerous task force members expressed an interest in continuing to explore the impact of pinnipeds on salmon, pointing out that it didn't necessarily mean the conclusion was going to be culling.

On Recommendation 22, relating to coordinating with Canada and/or coming up with a similar program to the ECHO ship slowdown efforts, there is in fact a meeting scheduled for the fall to come up with a plan for Washington State to do something similar in its waters, slowing down shipping traffic, cruise ships, and/or ferries in certain areas. (We also learned later the Canadian Haro Strait trial slow down area will extend into Boundary Pass this year.) Yay!

Regarding Recommendation 31 related to stormwater prevention and cleanup, a lot of funding was passed for this action, which is great. But it was pointed out this is only half the battle; we can't just throw money at the issue, but it needs to be targeted to hotspots where cleanups will have the biggest impacts. Luckily it sounds like the toxins working group is motivated to engage on this.

In the "fishbowl" discussion that followed, where the task force members could discuss the update on where the year one recommendations stood and identify gaps or make suggestions, Jacques White of Long Live the Kings took the mic first, and made good use of his time. "What is the relationship between the year one action items and killer whale recovery?" he asked. "If all the dots were green, would that get us 100% of the way to recovery?....All the yellow dots indicate we are not responding to a crisis." This is SUCH a key point. All of these actions are getting debated but there has been no attempt to quantify what their impact might be and how that relates to stated recovery goals. 

He continued to point out that we did great on policy issues in the last legislative session, passing perhaps the best suite of environmental laws in the state since the 1970s. But "we have chronically underfunded salmon recovery for ten years", and he feels relying on a biennial budget from the legislature that competes with other societal needs is not going to generate the needed funds. This underscored a common theme that a steady source of dedicated funding for salmon recovery is needed.

A few moments later Joe Gaydos of the SeaDoc Society took the mic, again echoing many of our sentiments: "If we don't put fish into the mouths of these whales, we will not succeed....are these actions enough to bring back enough salmon?" He seconded Jacques' request for some modeling efforts to look at the impact of the ongoing actions because, "I don't want to wait 10 years to realize we've failed."

The meeting was briefly interrupted by three minutes of sirens relating to some drill for the city of Puyallup, but it seemed someone appropriate given all the talk in the morning of "crisis". Before the lunch break, Joe finished his statement with a "mic drop" worthy comment: "A scientist saying we need more science is like a barber saying you need a haircut, but if we don't take a look and analyze this, next time we will hear a lot more than 3 minutes of sirens."

After lunch, the task force co-chairs allowed me (and some friends, pictured above!) to distribute copies of my book, "Endangered Orcas", to every member of the task force, the staff, and some of the guest representatives from other agencies. THANK YOU to the 20 people who donated enough funds to cover the 54 copies we put directly into the hands of people directly involved in orca and salmon recovery. I do feel compelled to say that every person but one graciously accepted the gift with an interest in learning more; the one exception was task force member Donna Sandstrom of The Whale Trail, who declined the book and said she was not interested. As someone who routinely asks people to reconsider their opinions, my interpretation was this was an unwillingness to be open to even considering material that *might* differ from her own.

Three members of Transport Canada and DFO gave a summary of the recently announced action items in Canada. Some of the immediate/temporary measures include area fisheries closures, expanded shipping traffic slowdowns, the production of an extra 1 million smolts at the Chilliwack hatchery for Fraser River fall run Chinook, and a move to keep small vessels 400m from killer whales within Southern Resident critical habitat. You can read more details here. Other longer term action items are expected within the next year. Again, the question of benchmarks was raised, with regards to how you measure success. Their response was it's something still in discussion. "We're addressing the threats; we don't have the resources to measure impact on recovery." Basically, while they may be able to measure things like reduction in noise related to vessel slowdown trials, there is again the gap of not knowing what that impact might actually be on Southern Resident killer whale recovery.

The main topic of discussion for the rest of the afternoon was population growth. It was pointed out that, like climate change, if the impacts of population growth on the region are not addressed, the rest of the work being discussed may all be for naught. There was a series of four short presentations on the topic of population growth in Washington State. A few notes I took on those:
  • We need to look at previous population growth-related targets, how we fared on those, and if we failed, why we failed. For example, a target was set to reduce loss of riparian areas between 2001 and 2011: a target that was not met. If all we do is set a new goal, we may just fail again.
  • We need to consider how and where we grow: are critical areas protected, are our footprints small, are we increasing urban population or converting more rural land into urban areas? 
  • There are currently 4 million people in the Puget Sound region, and this is projected to grow to 5.8 million by 2050. Models show we will add 33-150 square miles of impervious area (eg buildings, roads) to the region by 2055. The direct connection may not be obvious, but more impervious areas -> more runoff -> more toxins in the Salish Sea -> bad for orcas and salmon
  • There are some indicators we are moving in the right direction. One of the fastest growing residential neighborhoods is downtown Seattle, indicating we are growing "up" and not "out". 96% of housing permits are currently going to urban areas - a few decades ago this was more like 70%, with many rural areas being converted into additional housing.
  • Vision 2050 and the Regional Open Space Network are two projects working to guide growth and preserve/restore open space and rural areas.
  • We need to focus on system (aka ecosystem) level management; we can't leave each city, county, state, etc. to fend for itself when those are artificial barriers (Open Space Network a good example of not looking at political boundaries)
The task force then had time to discuss these presentations in another fishbowl conversation. One interesting topic was the idea of "no net loss" which is often stated as a habitat recovery/preservation goal, but this is a constantly shifting baseline unless more clearly defined, because "no net loss relative to what?" Some advocated for drawing a line in the sand, and saying "no net loss from X year", but Mindy from WEC pointed out that we are beyond "no net loss" scenarios, and we need to talk about goals of "net gain" on habitat. This means we would need to restore more habitat than we are destroying, so there's a net gain on serviceable habitat. I wholeheartedly agree this needs to be the target!

The task force will likely move towards making some high level recommendations regarding climate change and population growth. As Will Hall, the mayor of Shoreline, pointed out: the task force would be better served helping to set performance standards, accountability mechanisms, and a funding source, rather than dictating to jurisdictions exactly what they need to do. Not only is this a more attainable goal for the task force, it allows different solutions to be developed in different areas, which makes sense, because not all areas are facing the same problems. It's obviously a huge topic and it sounds like an additional subgroup will be formed to discuss some of these questions further before the September meeting.

Whew! Are you exhausted just reading all that? It was, as all task force meetings are, a long and tiring day, but I do still take heart in the fact that most if not all the people in the room truly want to do right by the whales and the salmon, even if they have other horses in the race as well. If it was easy to save these whales we would have done it by now. While the process and results may not be as fast or as ideal as many of us would hope, having all these people in the room talking about paths forward to real solutions is leaps and bounds ahead of where we were when the Southern Residents were listed as endangered. More has been done on behalf of the Southern Residents in the last year in both the US and Canada than in the preceding 13 years since their endangered listing. If that's not a sign of moving in the right direction, I don't know what is. This is a marathon, not a sprint, and I appreciate each and every one of you for staying engaged in whatever way you can.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

May Bigg's Killer Whale Encounters

2018 was the first year on record with no Southern Residents in the inland waters in the month of May. This year, J-Pod was seen a few days early in the month, but there has been no sign of them since May 6th. While their absence in the spring months is continuing, the presence of Bigg's/transient killer whales is still on the rise, with more reports this year than last year, continuing the incredible upward trend of the West Coast Transient population increasing their usage of the Salish Sea. Many of those sightings have been too far away for us, such as up in Howe Sound or down in Puget Sound, but we have had several great encounters so far this month. Here are highlights from a few of them:

May 3 with the T49As, T65Bs, T75Bs, T75Cs, and T123s in San Juan Channel

On this incredible day when we encountered these 17 whales heading north up San Juan Channel, there were more than 50 Bigg's killer whales total in the Salish Sea. This group was in steady travel mode when we saw them, and despite the more frequent occurrence of larger groups in the area, it's always impressive to see so many whales surfacing side by side.
Incredibly, every one of the 5 matrilines present had a calf under the age of 2. We are so incredibly lucky not only to have these mammal-eating orcas around, but to have them as a comparative population for the struggling Southern Residents. There were more thriving little ones in this group of Bigg's killer whales than the entire Southern Resident population has had in the last four years.

We also got to see the largest whale (T49A) and smallest whale (T123D) present surfacing side by side, highlighting the major size difference!

T123D (~8 months old) and 18 year-old male T49A1
May 19th with the T65Bs, T75Bs, T75Cs, and T124C in Moresby Passage

With wind and rain in the forecast, and sandwiched by days with no nearby orcas, we were incredibly lucky on this day to encounter these 9 whales when we headed out for our Orca Behavior Institute fundraising whale-watch with Maya's Legacy out of Snug Harbor. Earlier in the day they had killed a Steller sea lion, and when we arrived they were in full-out play mode, literally flinging around the pelt that remained from the sea lion. It was not for the faint of heart, but it was incredible to watch.
T65B flinging the Steller sea lion pelt
Sea lion pelt being launched into the air by an inverted tail slap

Of course I happened to have my camera down when the most epic photo opportunity of the day happened, but luckily my husband Jason caught it!

Side view of T65B flinging the Steller sea lion pelt....again!
In general there were just a lot of shenanigans going on, including two whales playing with the lines on a couple of crab pots, and a lot of spyhopping, tail slapping, and rolling a the surface in general.

May 24 with the T65As in San Juan Channel

After spending the better part of 2 weeks in Puget Sound, the T65As were picked up heading north towards the San Juan Islands. Luckily for us, they chose to come up San Juan Channel, and we hopped in our boat to watch them as they passed Friday Harbor.

They were in what I would call social travel mode as they passed Turn Island, rolling at the surface while in contact with one another and tail slapping as they meandered north. They made a sharp turn towards San Juan as they rounded Turn Island.

This family group is made up of six whales, the youngest of which (T65A6) was seen for the first time just over a year ago.

From left to right, T65A3, T65A6, and T65A4
The second youngest, T65A5, is five years old this year.

T65A5 next to mom T65A
Just south of Brown Island, they stopped to take out a couple of harbor seals.

T65A2 surfacing after a long dive. It looked like they were tag teaming pinning a harbor seal to the bottom.
Afterwards, they started quickly moving north past Friday Harbor and continuing up San Juan Channel.

A moment these sailors will be unlikely to forget!
When we got our last look, they were in perfect flanking formation: successful mom surrounded by all her offspring.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

May 11-12 ~ Spring Shorebird Migration near Grays Harbor

For years I've been wanting to head to the outer coast of Washington to catch the spring shorebird migration in and around Grays Harbor. This year, we finally made it happen! While we missed the peak numbers by a week or two, we still saw an incredible variety of species - about 15 different types of shorebirds in two days!

On May 10th, the day we traveled there, the weather was both sunny and unseasonably warm. Of course, the next day saw a 30 degree drop in temperature and was very gray! It made photography a little more difficult, but still could have been much worse had it been windy or rainy instead of just gray and cool.

High tide is the best time to view shorebirds on the mudflats, and unfortunately the high tides while we were there were either very early or very late. Our first stop for the day was at Bottle Beach State Park, where we arrived as the tide was very quickly going out in the morning, but we still got to see a lot of shorebirds, even if mostly from a distance.

I also got what was a bit of a surprise life bird in the red knot, as I really thought I had seen them once before! But nope, they were a lifer! Cool!

Red knots in flight
Next we went to Grayland Beach State Park, a known snowy plover nesting colony complete with a blocked off nesting protection zone. We walked along the perimeter of the nesting zone and were lucky enough to see one snowy plover - the first time I've seen this species north of California!

Snowy plover! New Washington bird for me

We were looking at some gulls on the beach when a sudden a bald eagle came swooping by - in pursuit of a greater white-fronted goose!

Bald eagle in pursuit of a greater white-fronted goose

The goose ended up landing in the ocean and dove underwater three times as the eagle was dive bombing it.

An odd sight: a greater white-fronted goose in the ocean
It was one of those same gulls that then came to the "rescue", chasing the eagle away, and allowing the goose to survive.

At Westport Light State Park the best bird wasn't a shorebird at all, but a very cooperative male common yellowthroat, another new one for the photo year list:

In the late afternoon, we made our way back around Grays Harbor towards Ocean Shores, where we were staying. Near the jetty at Point Brown, it was interesting to see fishermen right in the breakers, successfully hauling in fish. I wonder what they were catching?

We were soon distracted, though, but the hundreds of sandpipers just down the beach! They were mostly sanderling, but there were also a fair number of semipalmated plovers mixed in.

This crab also made for a cool photo op. He/she was alive, though apparently missing an eye and probably not doing so well.

The next morning we came back to the jetty at Point Brown, spending most of our time scanning through the scopes. The bird highlight was a parasitic jaeger, unfortunately much too far away to photography, but rarely enough seen by any of us that it was pretty exciting. We did, however, see 4-5 gray whales fairly close to shore, including this one that spyhopped twice.

Next we headed north up Highway 109 towards Point Grenville, a stretch of coastline none of us had never seen before. Unfortunately the dramatic beaches at Point Grenville were closed to the public, but we were able to see part of the view from up on the bluff, though the birding was a bit disappointing.

View from Point Grenville
After a late lunch we headed to an exciting spot for birders in any town: the sewage ponds! The Hoquiam Sewage Treatment Plant was bustling with bird life, and we successfully located the single blue-winged teal that had been reported earlier:

As we continued to zig zag all over the place, the next walk we took was at the Oyhut Wildlife Recreation Area, which provided yet another different habitat with a marshy lagoon. The low-flying swallows (some of whom were perching on the sand) provided an opportunity for me to finally get a nice photo of a tree swallow for the year:

In the evening we made another high tide attempt just before sunset by visiting Bill's Spit in Ocean Shores. The light was fading and the water was coming in fast, nearly cutting off access to the beach, but the quick visit was worth it, not only for the tranquil scenery but for the shorebirds that were coming in to roost for the night.

Looking out over Grays Harbor
Dunlin in flight
I even snagged one last photo year bird, bringing the trip total to a whopping 18 new species added, nearly doubling my goal of adding 10 species.

The unmistakable silhouette (when viewed larger, at least) of marbled godwits
All in all it was a great trip and I was glad to have finally made it out there, but now of course I definitely want to go back again when both the weather and the tides are more cooperative!

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

April 14 ~ Birding Trip with Maya's Legacy

Sunday, April 14th dawned a somewhat blustery and gray day, but that didn't stop a group of intrepid bird-watchers for heading out on a excursion with Maya's Legacy Whale Watching out of Snug Harbor. The birding started before we even left the docks with singing white-crowned sparrows, a pair of black oystercatchers on the rock in the harbor, and mew gulls foraging along the shoreline. As we slowly made our way out of the bay, we also spotted a great blue heron along the shoreline.

We didn't have to go far for our first "stop" in Mosquito Pass, where as usual in the fall, winter, and spring, there was a lot of bird activity, including bufflehead, red-breasted mergansers, red-necked grebes, and pigeon guillemots. We got a nice side-by-side comparison of double-crested and pelagic cormorants and also spotted what we may often think of as more freshwater species, Canada geese and mallards. Before continuing on into Spieden Channel we spotted a group of 7 of one of the most hoped-for species of the trip: long-tailed ducks!

Long-tailed ducks in Mosquito Pass

While our main focus was on birds, when you're cruising slowly through the islands you're of course going to see all kinds of things, and no trip along Spieden Island is complete without some of the exotic mammals that live there. I have made a lot of on-the-water trips to Spieden over the years, but I don't think I have ever seen as many sheep on it as I did on this day! Hundreds of them.

Mouflon sheep on Spieden Island
We counted more than a dozen bald eagles on or above Spieden, and they weren't just idly hanging around, either. This immature was nonchalantly dive-bombing lambs, making for some very distraught mothers. The eagle didn't seem very serious about the pursuit - perhaps just looking for any sick or injured, or just playing around - but the sheep were taking the threat seriously!

Bald eagle spooks some Mouflon sheep

A little further down the shoreline, four more eagles were huddled around a carcass of some sort (perhaps seal?), along with some northwestern crows.

Eagles and crows scavenging a carcass
When one of the immature eagles took flight, it was amazing to see how much white was on it!

Next we headed over to White Rock, where as hoped for we turned up our first shorebirds: a couple of black turnstones and about a dozen dunlin. There was also another eagle perched on top of the rock, making for a striking image with the harbor seals hauled out below.

Bald eagle and harbor seals at White Rock
Let's take a closer look at one of those seals....awwwwww:

Young harbor seal at White Rock

Next we continued north towards Monarch Head. The way there was a bit choppy, but we started seeing some new species for the day, including rhinoceros auklets and our only western grebes for the trip. At Monarch Head itself the only addition oddly enough was a pair of turkey vultures, but the stunning geology still made the trip worth it:

Cool rock formations at Monarch Head
Next it was over to East Point on Saturna Island where the first sight (and smell) we noticed was all the Steller sea lions:

Steller sea lions at East Point
A closer look at the birds on and near the same rocks, however, turned up four gull species (glaucous-winged, mew, California, and Bonaparte's), harlequin ducks, a couple of black oystercatchers, and another male long-tailed duck. A little south of us we spotted an active bait ball, so we started to head over that way. They mostly settled down by the time we got there, but there were still several dozen common murres, rhinoceros auklets, red-breasted mergansers, and, best of all, Bonaparte's gulls. The few sitting on the rocks at East Point were cool, but the reason they're one of my favorite marine birds is because of how awesome they look in flight. It's late enough in the season now that they also all have black heads, our only black-headed gull in the region.

Bonaparte's gulls in flight near Patos Island
As we cruises from Patos to Sucia, another small rocky reef had an unlikely pair sitting together: a harbor seal and a bald eagle.

It's rare enough that I get over to this part of the San Juan Islands that I didn't even know there was an impressive sea lion haul out on Ewing Island near Sucia. It was incredible to see how high up on the rocks these guys go!

Sea lions on Ewing Island
 Even the harbor seals seemed to want to show off their (admittedly less impressive) climbing skills:

Harbor seals at Ewing Island
Bird-wise there were many more pigeon guillemots, some harlequin ducks, a few surf scoters, and surprisingly our only loon of the day (a Pacific loon), but the best look was of a pair of black oystercatchers that came by to scold us for being in the area:

Black oystercatcher in flight near Ewing Island, with Steller sea lions in the background
We continued cruising south towards Peapod Rocks, where we found more black turnstones but none of the hoped-for surfbirds or plovers. There was plenty of bird activity though with a nice variety of the usual suspects all in one place, including glaucous-winged gulls, pelagic cormorants, harlequin ducks, and several more pairs of oystercatchers.

Peapod rocks
It was time to start making our way back to the home port so we picked up speed for really the first time of the day and wound our way west through the San Juans. We were still just short of 30 sepcies on the day, however, so instead of cutting back through Mosquito Pass, with the seas a little calmer we went on the outside of Henry Island in hopes of finding a peregrine falcon. Success!

Below the peregrine (who was high up but on such a photogenic perch) was a red-flowering currant clinging to the rocks, and amusingly there was a female rufous hummingbird feeding at it! While this is not my first time seeing hummingbirds from a boat, they're certainly not one of the species that comes to mind when you're thinking about marine birds. We were only a few minutes from the dock at this point, but the day list wasn't done yet: as we pulled back into Snug Harbor we also added hooded mergansers and rock pigeons.

Despite the less than ideal conditions it was still a beautiful day on the water. It was a nice change of pace, too, to slowly meander through the islands and enjoy many of the smaller sights that make this place so special. There is definitely so much to see here beyond just all the whales!