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Tuesday, October 14, 2014

October Whales: Always a Surprise

We always say the peak whale-watching season in the San Juan Islands lasts through September. Once October hits, it seems we never really know what to expect. Sometimes the residents stay around still on almost a daily basis, and other times they become scarce almost as soon as the calendar changes. This year, in early October, we had J-Pod and part of K-Pod hanging around. On October 4th, I got to Lime Kiln just in time to see the second half of the group go north.

From left to right: J47 Notch, J22 Oreo, and J38 Cookie

J34 Doublestuf

As the whales continued north, I was surprised by not one, but two, small groups of Pacific white-sided dolphins, or Lags. We've had small numbers of these guys around for much of the summer, and occasionally large groups of up to a hundred or more. They tend to be more common a bit further north in the Strait of Georgia and Johnstone Strait, but if they start hanging around here more often I don't think anyone will complain! These guys are awesome.

Pacific white-sided dolphins - photo taken from shore at Lime Kiln!

The next day, October 5th, I was hoping to catch the Js and Ks again as they made their way back south from the Fraser River. Unfortunately, I *just* missed them, and only got to see K21 Cappuccino head by as the last whale way offshore. Lucky for me, a few hours later, a neighbor gave me a head's up about a pair of humpback whales that might be visible from a park near my home on the other side of the island.

The humpbacks were doing very long dives, at least 10-12 minutes, and after seeing them once in the distance, I thought they had disappeared out of sight. While waiting, I saw a minke whale:

Then, the pair of humpbacks came up and started breaching and tail-lobbing! They were far away, but it's always an impressive sight to see an animal like that launch itself out of the water:

Add to the list the harbor porpoises I saw, and that's a 5 cetacean species weekend - not too shabby!

As you can see from the above photos, the weather has also turned. It's still pretty pleasantly warm, but we've definitely switched to mostly gray skies with some bouts of rain. While I'll still of course be keeping an eye out for whales, it's been more than a week since I've seen them, so it's time to start switching over to doing a bit more bird-watching as well. A couple of off-island trips before the end of the year will hopefully help me close in on my year list goal of 200 species - right now I'm sitting at 185! I've also got to make sure I stay ahead of Dave in our year list challenge as he's inched his way up to 173 species! :)

Oh yes, one more photo to share, this one from October 1st while watching orcas milling offshore - this little curious harbor seal, I'm assuming a pup from this year due to his small size, definitely stole the show. It spent the better part of an hour watching us on the rocks from all angles!

Friday, October 3, 2014

Southern Residents and Chinook Salmon: An Undeniable Link

As another summer whale-watching season winds down here in the San Juan Islands, it's an appropriate time to reflect on how these whales are doing. Last year, we had an all-time low in both salmon numbers and whale visits to inland waters, that left many of us wondering what this year would bring. There was an undeniable sense of relief that we had the Southern Residents around a lot this year- no more stretches of days and weeks without whales as we experienced in 2013. Still, despite some proclaiming that this summer was "just like the good ol' days", it really wasn't. While the number of whale days spent in inland waters was certainly up, the amount of pod-fractioning hit an all-time high. We had different groups of partial pods around on almost a daily basis for a while. Yes, there were whales around to watch on most days this summer - but often it was a group of a dozen or twenty whales, rather than 40 or 50 whales or all 79 together in a superpod (by my unofficial count, we only had all matrilines of all three pods in inland waters at the same time on three days this summer). Additionally, while we celebrated the birth of L120 this summer, we also experienced yet another year where deaths outnumbered births, and L120's arrival ended the longest drought in births ever documented, with 25 months having passed since J49 was born.

So, to put it simply: this year was better, but all is not well.

Average Albion catch per unit effort (CPUE) on the Fraser River for Chinook salmon for June 1 through August 31 from 1980 to 2014. Here I'm using the average CPUE as a metric for how many salmon are returning to the Fraser River during the summer months, when Fraser Chinook are the predominant prey item for Southern Residents. From this graph you can see that 2014 was the best year of the last four (fish hatched in 2010 returned this year), but that numbers are still severely depressed from historic counts.

Not surprisingly, the number of whales we see in inland waters is directly (and significantly) correlated to how the Fraser River Chinook salmon are doing.
Number of whales in inland waters (considered east of Sooke, BC) from June 1 - August 31 of this year compared to same-day Albion catch per unit effort (CPUE) numbers for Chinook salmon on the Fraser River. There is a statistically significant correlation between these two variables (ANOVA, p = .01)

Finally it seems that, at least among the general public, salmon is the hot topic issue surrounding these whales. In the past, attention has focused on proposed vessel regulations or controversial research techniques, but now more than ever it seems like people are being educated about, and are talking about, the fact that the age-old adage is true: no fish, no blackfish. With this increased attention on the issue that really matters, NOAA has been under further scrutiny as the agency that is tasked with developing and implementing a recovery plan for the Southern Residents as part of their listing under the Endangered Species Act.

This spring there was an orca and salmon recovery workshop in Seattle, which I attended. Perhaps the most astonishing thing to me was the apparent lack of communication between the so-called "whale people" and "salmon people". Several of the salmon specialists who spoke mentioned how exciting it was to be talking to someone different - namely all the people present who were there from the "whale side". I had heard about the phenomenon of scientists working within the "silos" of their particular disciplines or sub-disciplines, but never was it more apparent to me than at that workshop. Here we have two species whose recovery plans are undeniably interlinked, yet it seemed like the two groups responsible for those species weren't working together. I'm certainly paraphrasing here, but the message I heard from the orca management side is that when it comes to the prey recovery portion of the killer whale recovery plan, they defer to the salmon recovery plan. And the folks representing the salmon recovery plan basically said, "We do nothing to take killer whales into account."

But maybe I should back up a little bit. Is the link between Southern Residents and Chinook salmon as obvious as I think it is? It is now common knowledge that Chinook are the predominant prey item for the resident orcas, making up more than 90% of their diet during the summer months. Evidence from a small number of prey samples in the winter also indicate that Chinook remain an important food source year-round. But when I attended a lecture this fall given by NOAA management, they made a statement that floored me: there is no evidence that survival or recovery of the Southern Residents is more strongly linked to any particular Chinook salmon stock than to a coast-wide Chinook abundance index. They recognize a correlation that has been published by John Ford linking Southern Resident population numbers to a coast-wide Chinook abundance index, but again haven't found links between Southern Resident life statistics and any particular salmon runs.

I should take a moment to say that I do not have anything against NOAA. I believe the people there are passionate about these whales and their recovery, and they have done a lot to add to our knowledge of these whales - for instance, the information on year-round Southern Resident diet comes from work done by NOAA scientists. But their hands are also tied, to some extent. They have to try to balance pressures from multiple interest groups when working on recovery plans, and they only back up any recovery measures with scientific data. Just like how we all "knew" Southern Residents were spending the winter months on the outer coast, we couldn't prove it until they were satellite tagged - and that hard data proves instrumental for things such as keeping these whales protected when NOAA is petitioned for their de-listing, as happened in 2013 by a group of California farmers. So it was shocking to me that what I assumed was an undeniable link between Southern Residents and Fraser River Chinook apparently has not been demonstrated scientifically, which is what I heard from the NOAA management.

I took this as a bit of a personal challenge. Working with a friend of mine, Reed College student Michael Weiss, we created some spreadsheets of data to test out my assumptions about the relationship of Southern Resident survival and Fraser River Chinook. Here's what we found:

NOTE: These are not complete or perfect statistical analyses and should not be taken as such. These are first-stab attempts at looking at these numbers by biologists who are not mathematicians. These results have not been reviewed or endorsed by anyone.

1. The Fraser River follows different trends than coast-wide salmon numbers.
Coastwide Chinook salmon abundance (including California, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, and Alaska) is indicated in blue and referencing the left Y-axis. This data was compiled by Jane Cogan from Pacific Salmon Commission and Pacific Fishery Management Council reports. The orange line indicates Fraser River terminal run size (including spring, summer, and fall Chinook runs) and references the right Y-axis. This data was also compiled by Jane Cogan using NOAA Technical Memorandum NMFS-NWFSC-123 for 1980-2010 and Pacific Salmon Commission data for 2011-2013. There is not a statistically significant correlation between coast-wide Chinook abundance and Fraser River terminal run size (ANOVA, p > .05).

2. Southern Resident Killer Whale birth rates are significantly correlated with summer Fraser River Chinook numbers; birth rates are not significantly correlated with coast-wide Chinook abundance.

Southern Resident Killer Whale birth rate compared to average Albion CPUE for June-August from 1980-2014. Birth rate was calculated from Center for Whale Research data as number of births per number of reproductive females per year, where a reproductive female was defined as any female between the ages of 11 (youngest documented mother) and 42 (oldest documented mother) who did not have a calf the previous year. There is a statistically significant relationship between birth rate and June-August average Albion CPUE (ANOVA, p = .026).

3. Southern Resident Killer Whale death rates are significantly correlated with coast-wide Chinook abundance; death rates are not significantly correlated with Fraser River summer Chinook numbers.

Southern Resident Killer Whale death rates compared to coast-wide Chinook abundance from 1980-2013. Death rates were calculated from Center for Whale Research data as number of deaths per total number of whales alive at any time during a given calendar year. Coast-wide Chinook numbers were compiled by Jane Cogan from the sources mentioned above and cover California, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, and Alaska Chinook stocks.. There is a statistically significant correlation between coast-wide Chinook numbers and SRKW death rate (ANOVA, p = .020)

Additionally, it is important to mention the recent publication (August 2014) of a peer-reviewed paper by L. Antonio Velez-Espino et al. in the journal Aquatic Conservation entitled "Relative importance of chinook salmon abundance on resident killer whale population growth and viability". You can read the abstract here, where with proper permissions you can also download the complete paper. This study compares resident killer whale survival probability and fecundity rates to Chinook salmon abundance partitioned by geographic region and found some similar results: significant relationships between Southern Resident killer whale fecundity and Puget Sound and Fraser River salmon abundances, and significant relationships between more coast-wide metrics and survivability. I should point out that this paper conducts more robust statistical analyses than are undertaken in this blog post, including taking population age-structure into account when measuring fecundity and survivability. (This is important, because 40 year old whales aren't as likely to give birth as 20 year old whales, and 70 year old whales are more likely to die than 10 year old whales. What is key to note is that with these more accurate tests, they come up with the same general conclusions.)

Velez-Espino et al. went on to conduct population viability analyses for the Southern Residents under different management scenarios, manipulating potential restrictions or allowances of fishery harvests to determine if fishery management could potentially have large enough impacts on salmon abundance to influence Southern Resident survivability and fecundity. They conclude that the interaction effects of fisheries management on Southern Resident vital rates are small and that restricting fisheries may not be an effective management action.

At first glance, I could see this seeming to some like an outrageous statement. Certainly managing fishing to allow there to be more fish for the whales should result in the whales being more likely to survive. But this may in fact not be the case - recall that the scientific panel convened by NOAA and DFO several years ago came to the same conclusion, that regulating fisheries wouldn't help Southern Residents. Here's why: 

There aren't nearly as many fish as there used to be.

Historic Chinoook salmon numbers (as presented by Jim Myers of NWFSC from sourced dated between 1880-1920) compared to present (2012 data from Pacific Salmon Commission and Pacific Fishery Management Council reports compiled by the author) Chinook salmon numbers for several major west coast rivers and regions. Klamath River historic data averages two different conflicting reports.

For the most part, Chinook salmon numbers are a small fraction of what they used to be. And fisheries only harvest a small percentage of current salmon returns. This means that when we're talking about the number of fish being taken by fisheries, we're talking about a pretty small number of fish, especially relative to historic salmon levels. Taking this into consideration, I don't think it's surprising that fisheries aren't projected to have a large enough impact on the number of fish available to the whales to impact their viability at a population level. While restricting or closing fisheries would result in more fish for the whales, I think what these analyses really tell us is that it still wouldn't yield enough fish. We need to do something more, something bigger, to recover salmon numbers.

So, where do we go from here?

I wish I had all the answers, but I don't. As I've learned more about regional salmon issues, I've learned how amazingly complex the issue is, transcending international and state boundaries, multiple special interest groups, public and private land management, etc., etc. However, I hope that going forward we can acknowledge:
  • The viability of the Southern Residents is linked to particular salmon stocks
  • Salmon numbers are too low, even when the phenomenon of "shifting baselines" leads to the heralding of "record" salmon runs
  • Managing fisheries alone isn't enough to yield enough fish for the Southern Residents
  • Something big needs to happen to help boost salmon numbers
The need for action can't all be laid on NOAA's shoulders. The Fraser River is admittedly out of their jurisdiction. While there is a petition pending to extend Southern Resident critical habitat to include the outer coast, the fact of the matter is the designation of critical habitat doesn't do anything to support recovery or replenishing of resources within that habitat - it only instigates that future permitting within the critical habitat must consult the endangered species recovery plan. I've come to believe that they simply don't have the tools on their own to instigate the kind of efforts we need to see happen. While I hope they do play a major role in regional salmon recovery efforts on behalf of the whales, we, as concerned citizens, can't just sit around and wait for that to happen. This article is meant to help ignite the conversation of what we can do to help make sure that it happens.

One perfect opportunity to be a part of the ongoing discussion comes later this month. On Saturday, October 25th at Friday Harbor High School, The Whale Museum and the Salish Sea Association of Marine Naturalists are hosting a workshop on this exact issue. What can we do to make sure real action gets taken to help boost Chinook salmon numbers for the particular stocks that are vital to the Southern Residents? I hope to see you there.

[Disclaimer: I was not asked by any group or person to compile this information, do these analyses, or write this article, nor did I receive any compensation of any sort for doing so. I am simply a concerned citizen trying to do my part to discover why these whales are declining, figure out what I can do to help, and inspire others to do the same. Additionally, the statistical tests here have not been peer-reviewed and should not be considered perfect analyses by any means. They should be taken as best efforts by two non-mathematicians and hopefully a starting point for future discussion.]

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Sept 28: Spectacular Sunday

On Sunday, September 28th I had the chance to go out with Legacy Charters, and the weather couldn't have been better. It was sunny, fairly warm, calm - and days like that are at a premium this time of year! And best of all, we left the dock with multiple whale reports.

First we headed up to Spieden Channel where a humpback whale has been hanging out for several days. This is BCY0409, also known as Yogi.

At first it seemed to be doing the "regular" humpback thing, of surfacing several times, then fluking and going down for a longer dive.

I knew this whale was known for being pretty active, but I still wasn't prepared when about two minutes into one of its dives it instead did a full body breach out of the water! My camera wasn't ready, and nor was anyone else's, but I have a perfect image in my mind of turning my head and seeing the whale completely airborn with the sun hitting it perfectly. I'm just sorry I can't share it with you! But he/she remained more active after that, doing a little bit of a surface lunge....

...and then tail-thrashing like crazy!

Here was one huge headstand/tail wave:

We got to see Yogi do one more nice set of surfacings and a dive in front of Spieden Island before moving on....because, after all, this was just the opening act!

Next we cruised down the west side of San Juan Island to where J-Pod (and three K-Pod whales) were hanging out. They had been doing the "west side shuffle" throughout the day, and we ended up meeting up with them off the south end near Salmon Bank. While the morning fog had thankfully mostly burned off by this point, we found ourselves in a thick patch of it as we came upon the whales!

When we arrived on scene, the whales seemed a little undecided as to which direction they were going to go. It was pretty cool to just sit there in such an ephemeral setting with whales basically in all directions, going all different directions! The lighting was spectacular because it was both sunny and foggy at the same time. J22 Oreo and her oldest son J34 Doublestuf came across our bow:

J22 Oreo and J34 Doublestuf

J22 Oreo and J34 Doublestuf
It was also my first good look at K21 Cappuccino in a while!

K21 Cappuccino
Right before we had gotten on scene, the two separate J-Pod groups had met up with each other. After the milling about we saw, it seemed like they finally decided to group up and head north. As always, it was so cool to see so many whales all together!

That's J28 Polaris front and center

J26 Mike

While they were clearly traveling, they were a bit active, too!

J46 Star (left) and J47 Notch (right)

We were so close to Whale Rocks, Captain Spencer just had to take us over to see these charismatic "Grizzlies of the sea" - Steller Sea Lions. I love these guys!

Then as we cruised back north to Snug Harbor, we went right by the orcas again and got one more look.

From left to right J16 Slick, J42 Echo, and J28 Polaris

From left to right J14 Samish, J28 Polaris, and J42 Echo

This time of year, when we don't know how much longer the whales will stick around, every encounter takes on a little extra meaning. These moments will have to tide us "orcaholics" over a mostly whale-less winter. This special afternoon was certainly a memorable one, and will be a fitting grand finale if that's what it ends up being (though I hope I've got another month of whales, of course)!

One more shot from the trip home, showing where I do most of my whale-watching - Lime Kiln Lighthouse. It's always fun to see it from the water-side!

Monday, September 29, 2014

Sept 24: Split Fin the Humpback

While the resident killer whales have been spending less time here recently compared to a decade or more ago, one species showing the opposite trend is the humpback whale. Ten years ago, humpbacks were a rare sight here, but now it seems like we're seeing more of them every year and for longer of the year each season. We've had some regulars hanging out a lot this summer, and one of them spent 3-4 days doing the "westside shuffle" last week: Split Fin.

Split Fin

The story I've pieced together is that Split Fin was born to one of our other local humpbacks in 2006. In 2007, he/she was seen with a freshly split dorsal fin, possibly from a vessel strike. Despite the injury (which has made it a very distinct whale), this animal continues to frequent our local waters every summer, and is now a full grown adult!

I went out to the west side to look for this humpback on September 24th, and was totally surprised when I got to Lime Kiln and the first whale I saw was an orca! Where did you guys come from?

The orcas were heading north as the humpback went south, and I captures this distant shot of both species on the surface at the same time. They're undoubtedly aware of one another's presence; I wonder what interaction if any they have?

My first-ever photo of a humpback AND an orca!
As the spread out orcas meandered their way north, Split Fin came all the way along the length of the shoreline at Lime Kiln about 100 yards offshore - my best shore-based viewing of a humpback to date! The whale was moving slow enough I could walk down to the next rocky outcropping in between surfacings.

Humpback whale blows are much bigger and louder than orca blows!

Split Fin arches for a dive
Split Fin is unusual for a humpback in that he/she has a unique dorsal fin - most humpbacks are identified by their tail flukes. I got one nice shot showing Split Fin's flukes:

In addition to this afternoon, I've of course been spending some other days on the west side, trying to fully enjoy the great weather while it lasts. When you sit and wait for whales, you also see lots of other amazing things. I love these quiet moments out in nature:

Male harlequin duck

Female harlequin duck

Great blue heron
I've also added a few birds to the year list: black turnstone (183), American pipit (184), and pine siskin (185). Oh yeah, I've had a few more glimpses of the orcas, too :)

All of J-Pod and three K-Pod whales (K16, K35, and K21) have been around. Often this time of year, all three pods are traveling together. I can only assume we're seeing just a third of the population because there's not enough salmon here to feed everybody, like in years past.

Still, even if there are fewer whales here, and even if they're further away than other times (like that last amazing encounter with J34 - see my previous post), every time seeing them is magical in its own way.

Offshore orcas the evening of September 26

Offshore orcas the morning of September 27

As beautiful as this week's worth of sightings were, the weekend would hold another day to remember, full of unbelievable wildlife sightings....stay tuned!

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

September 20 ~ Whale Watch with J34

On Saturday, September 20th, with some friends and family in town, we decided to head out on a morning whale watch trip with Western Prince. With all three pods hanging out on the banks the previous evening, I was worried they might all head out west and leave, but was thrilled instead to hear the news that whales were spread from Eagle Point to Hannah Heights as we left the harbor.

It was a beautiful day to be on the water, and fun to see some of my favorite spots from the water after spending so much more time on shore these days. Here's Cattle Point with harbor seals and cormorants on Goose Island in the foreground and the Olympic Mountains in the background:

As we pulled out into Haro Strait, the whales were suuuuuper spread out - one here, one there - and seemingly all foraging. With about three whales in front of and in shore of us, we stopped the boat to just watch and see what they would do. After a long dive, all of a sudden J34 Doublestuf popped up off our bow cruising towards the island.

J34 Doublestuf
J34 Doublestuf with San Juan Island in the background

He cruised in towards shore, and we floated along watching a couple other whales, presumably the rest of his family, the J22s. After a while, I was starting to wonder where he had gotten to, because it had been several minutes since he had been up. That's when I noticed a fluke print (a calm looking area on the surface of the water created by the kick of the flukes creating an upwelling) about 50 yards off our bow. A second later, a huge black and white shape came into view heading straight for us!

I have to preface this with a major disclaimer that moments like this do not happen often. I've been watching whales up here for over a decade, and I can count on one hand the number of moments I've had like this from a boat. Whale watch captains do their best to follow the distance regulations to give the whales their space, but the fact of the matter is the whales don't know or follow any such rules, and when they choose to break them, we get to enjoy a rare close encounter.

Doublestuf proceeded to swim all along the starboard side of the boat, just beneath the surface, turned on his side so his dorsal fin didn't even break through the surface. I was shooting the camera without looking through the viewfinder, taking in this rare encounter firsthand, and I could tell he was actively turning his head - look at us, or perhaps looking for a salmon trying to take refuge under the boat? It was all over so fast, but moments like this are pure magic, and I'm grateful I captured as much of it as I did on film. I should probably mention these shots were taken with my lens zoomed all the way out - to 18mm!!

J34 Doublestuf: RIGHT. THERE.

You can tell here he's turning his head to look under the boat

Another perspective, showing just how close to the boat he was!
As he got further away again, we all suddenly had a much better appreciation for just how big he is - sometimes it's hard to tell without something to scale them by!

J34 continues to forage
After a while it was time to leave the orcas, but our wildlife watching was far from done! Just a bit south of the whales we saw a nice group of Dall's porpoise. As has been the case in recent years, these guys have been scarce during the summer months, only to return in full force in September. I wonder where they go?

Dall's porpoise!!
Then we went by Whale Rocks, where the Steller sea lion action is always fantastic this time of year. I just don't get tired of watching these guys!

Stellers and the Cattle Point Lighthouse

Thinking about entering the water.... (he did)

Steller and Mt. Baker!

It's always a multi-sensory experience watching Stellers. You see them, smell them, and hear them as they dispute whose rock is whose. 

Sea lions make easy work navigating the complicated currents of Cattle Pass, though this guy came up coughing. Wouldn't want to meet those teeth much closer, that's for sure!

Needless to say, we had a fantastic trip, and it was phenomenal introduction the local wildlife for our guests!