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Monday, September 3, 2018

An update on J35, J50, and the rest of J-Pod

This has been a crazy summer with all that is happening to and about the Southern Residents, and here we are, already in September. It's been an emotional roller coaster to follow the stories of J35 Tahlequah and her deceased calf that and emaciated young female J50 Scarlet. I thought I would post a bit of an update about both of them as well as some of my encounters with J-Pod over the last few weeks.

August 11 - J35 confirmed to no longer be carrying her deceased daughter

After an incredible 17-day vigil, J35 Tahlequah let go of her calf, which she had carried with her for hundreds of miles through both the US and Canada, including out to the open Pacific. The body was reportedly beginning to decay, and I'm glad she found the right time and place to let it go, and that despite all the media attention she drew to the Southern Residents from around the world, that it happened sometime away from human eyes. I saw her on August 11th, the day it was confirmed she no longer had the calf, during a rare summer rain shower at Land Bank, where she was heading north in a tight, mixed social group of whales. She undoubtedly was eating less during her vigil (perhaps not even at all, we will never know) - but it was great to see her still in good body condition, being active, and socializing.

This same group of whales, as they headed north, gave this paddle boarder the memory of a lifetime! Through the wonders of the internet he was actually able to track me down and I was able to give him the photo!

The trailing group of whales on this day was the J16s, whose youngest member J50 Scarlet is a 3.5 year old female who at that point had looked emaciated for two months. It's been very hard to watch her condition deteriorate, but it's a testament to her strength that she has made it months when most only gave her weeks or days. At times it has been heart-breaking to watch her trail a mile or more behind the rest of her pod, all by herself, but on this day, in addition to feeling some relief for Tahlequah, it was comforting to see Scarlet in with her family, too.

The J16s, with J50 Scarlet on the left next to mom J16 Slick

August 12 - Attempted feeding of J50

As Scarlet's condition worsened and Tahlequah's story drew global attention to the plight of the Southern Residents, an unprecedented decision was made by NOAA and DFO to intervene and try to medicate a wild whale. They collected breath samples from her (though the results were never made clear), and also a fecal sample from someone in her family group. On July 21st, I was at Land Bank where J16 Slick, J42 Echo, and J50 Scarlet had been spread out and foraging for over half an hour when the Conservation Canine boat, with NOAA researchers on board, approached to assess J50 and take a breath sample. 

The research boat Moja approaches J50 on July 21st

This whole situation has raised a lot of questions, for me and many in the whale community. Of course we want J50 to live, but in my mind, the path of intervention is a slippery slope. For one, it's a band-aid solution that doesn't address the root of the problem - we can try to treat every whale as they become sick or malnourished, but we are going to continue to have sick and malnourished whales and no healthy calves if we don't get the entire population more salmon. Second, are you hindering more than you are helping? It was very disturbing to watch the dramatic behavior change in the J16s when the boat approached. They stopped foraging and J16 and J42 immediately flanked J50 and they started traveling quickly south, with the boat in pursuit. I heard from a friend who watched off the south end of the island that after the whales got as far as Eagle Point, it took them another 2 hours to get the breath sample, a process which she was disturbed by as well. I had also talked to another researcher who said these whales had clearly not wanted to be approached all summer. Is the stress on the sick whale and her family worth it? We heard a lot of "we need more samples" and "we need more observations" but in the meantime there was a lot of arguably undo stress put on the whales. Thirdly, I acknowledge the argument from many that we are at the point where we need to do whatever it takes to save these whales. We've intervened by depleting their food source and polluting their habitat, so why not intervene to try and help them live? Personally, I'm not sure further intervention is the solution. Scarlet likely had a difficult birth and has always been small for her age; she may have never been a fully healthy, viable whale. Are we going to intervene if she does recover and has birthing difficulties down the line because she's so small? Are we going to intervene and capture her to treat her, or bring her into a net pen, separating her from her family, if more remote treatment doesn't work? It's not a path that I personally feel good about. But, it isn't up to me, so my role has been to observe what's happening and share the news as much as possible.

The decision was made to administer an antibiotic, but it's a difficult process - just half a dose was administered via a dart on August 9th. A second thrust of the plan was to try to feed her, by partnering with the Lummi tribe and delivering live Chinook salmon off the back of a boat through a chute. On August 12th, I happened to be in the right place at the right time to witness the feeding attempt. For starters, the whale watch community was extremely respectful during both J35 and J50's ordeals. They voluntarily stayed away from them to give them extra space. It was a bit crazy, then, on the afternoon of the 12th, to see no fewer than six research and enforcement boats surrounding J50. 

A tough sight to see: a slow-moving J50, far away from any other whales, followed closely by the NOAA research vessel. The blue fishing pool net was presumably to collect any samples (prey or fecal?)

When four of the research/enforcement vessels came together to converse, I realized a feeding attempt was probably imminent.
From left to right, the Lummi Nation police boat, King County's research vessel SoundGuardian, NOAA, and WDFW Police converge to discuss the plan

The actual feeding attempt occurred off Hannah Heights, and I was viewing from shore some distance away. We heard after the fact that they released 8 fish, and while they had a drone in the air, they had no way to determine if it was successful or not. This was considered a pilot attempt, including being part of a plan to potentially administer medicine via a fish, but we haven't heard much more about it since this day.

Lummi fishing boat, on the right, released fish via the blue chute off the back of the boat while in front of the J16s

After the feeding attempt, the whales flipped again and headed back north. J50 had been on her own for a while, but was now surrounded by other J-Pod whales as they milled off Land Bank.

The Lummi police boat observes J-Pod after the feeding attempt

We really have no understanding about how sometimes the whales care for sick whales until the bitter end, holding them aloft, and other times they seem to almost abandon them, with the ailing whale trailing miles behind the rest of them before dying. J50's story has been even more bizarre in that she's been both trailing and right in with her family from day to day. It was at least a happier way to end this encounter, with her surrounded by family again.

After August 12th, J-Pod left the next day and made only one more quick visit to inland waters before returning again on the night of August 31st. They headed north early the next day, so it wasn't until September 2 that I got the chance to catch up with them.

September 2 - All of J-Pod while out with Maya's Legacy

Jason and I got the chance to go out with Maya's Legacy Whale Watching on the morning of the 2nd, and while there were no whale reports early in the morning, I felt good about our chances of encountering J-Pod heading down from the Fraser River. Sure enough, after getting a quick look at some nearby transient killer whales on the west side of Haro, word came in of whales southbound near Turn Point, and we headed over there to be the first boat on scene with J-Pod.
J27 Blackberry and J38 Cookie (bigger every time I see him) off Lover's Leap of Stuart Island
The first whales we met up with were the J11s, J22s, and J37s.

J31 Tsuchi
As they picked up speed heading south down Haro, a large group behind them came into view, made up of whales from the J14s, J16s, J17s, and J19s.

Cruising down Haro Strait!
J36 Alki porpoising
After a while they slowed down a bit, but stayed in a tight group, which is so beautiful to see. We've had some cool transient killer whale encounters lately, and it's awesome that they've been around so much, but there is no substitute for hanging out with J-Pod.

As we neared Kellett Bluff, some of the whales stalled out to forage, so we enjoyed our last looks there before heading back to port.

J38 Cookie lunging after a salmon
J27 Blackberry peeks above the surface while hunting

Later in the day, the L12 sub-group was found heading in from the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and by the evening, they "hit" the west side of San Juan Island and met up with J-Pod. As a stunning sunset took shape to the west, the whales also veered west and offshore, but I was still hopeful they wouldn't leave and more encounters would await us the following morning.
A memorable sunset off the west side of San Juan Island on September 2, as the whales disappeared into the darkening waters offshore
September 3 - J50 is gone....or is she?

The joy of such a beautiful encounter on the morning of September 2nd was punctuated with the sad news that the Center for Whale Research had failed to track down the ailing J50, either on this morning in Haro Strait or the day before up in the Strait of Georgia. With the way she had been trailing and the whales being spread much of the time, it wasn't impossible she was missed, but after two days of intensive searching it was looking grim enough that on the morning of September 3rd both the Center for Whale Research and NOAA announced that she was missing and likely deceased. Then, unpredictable as ever, mere hours later word came in off the water that she had been found with J-Pod off the south end of San Juan Island. I sat for a few moments in total shock trying to process all the emotions that occurred in a short period of time, and struggling to find words to describe it all. This is finally what came to me, and what I posted on Facebook:

This summer has been unlike any other. These whales are storytellers of the sort I have never been in the presence of before, and it is a continuing emotional roller coaster to follow along. I have trouble finding words at the moment about this little whale, J50 Scarlet, seen here in healthier times in March of this year. She has been on death's doorstep since J-Pod returned in June. After not being seen despite intensive searching for the last two days, it was announced this morning she was likely gone. Mere hours later, she's found again, right back alongside her family. If we have learned one lesson from her and J35 Tahlequah this summer, it is that these whales are fighters. And so must we all be.

J50 Scarlet, still looking healthy, next to mom J16 Slick in March 2018

By early afternoon, J-Pod, along with the L12s and even more L-Pod whales that came into inland waters overnight, were aiming back towards San Juan Island from the offshore banks. Jason and I got to Land Bank right as the whales did, anxious to see J50 from shore for ourselves. Despite everything else going on, it was still nice to see some of the whales we haven't seen much of this summer, like the L12s.

Some of the L12s (the L22s, shown here) were in with the lead group
The rest of the L12s, including L41 Mega and L119 Joy (seen here), were with the trailers
We did indeed get a look at J50, who was moving along pretty quickly right in tight next to mom J16 Slick and in with a group of whales including some of the J16s, the J35s, and J22s.

J50 Scarlet surfacing behind mom, with  Ken Balcomb with the Center for Whale Research in the background, moments away here from intercepting a private boat that was heading right for these whales
It's so bizarre that she was not close enough to J-Pod to be seen by anyone for over two days, then was here swimming pretty quickly back at mom's side. Where was she? Was she trailing miles behind everyone else for days? Did she stay south alone while the rest of her pod, including her mom, went north without her? We will never know.

I didn't get the closest look at her, but as I saw photos from friends, the happy news she was still with us was again counterbalanced by the fact that she was looking even skinnier than before. It's amazing to me that she had as much strength as she did, looking as depleted as she does. When J52 Sonic and J54 Dipper looked like this, they were hours away from dying. (How sad is it that we have other recent emaciated calves, also from the "baby boom" year, to compare to?)

In the late afternoon it was announced that the collaborative research team of NOAA and others had successfully administered another dose of an antibiotic to J50. This sounds like good news, but word was it was quite distressing for those watching. J50, flanked by her family members, all of them swimming erratically; I would not be at all surprised if they recognized the boat, or the gun (used to shoot the dart with antibiotics), and wanted to evade it. I've seen the whales do the same thing myself when I've been a guest on a research boat with whales that do not want to be approached.

So here we find ourselves in this moral gray area. What is the right thing to do to help these whales, and what crosses a line? The line is clearly different for each of us, and I guess we each have to figure out where that is for ourselves.

I would not be at all surprised if J50 is not with us tomorrow. Then again, I said the same thing yesterday, and this tenacious little whale showed up out of no where, seemingly back from the dead. It's hard to know how to process these emotions and these stories told by these whales. All I know is that their messages - whether meant for us or not, sent so clearly by both J35 and J50 - cannot fall on deaf ears, and cannot be in vain. We are all struggling right now with what we are witnessing, and how much to criticize or stand up for what we think is wrong and how much to step aside because we all have different ideas of what "help" means. All I can do is report what I see and how I feel about it, with full acknowledgment that others feel differently. For me, attempting to sample and medicate a dying whale is not going to save this population, as sad as J50's story is. I do not want to see us try to use synthetic drugs to save these whales as we watch them deteriorate and die one by one. While it is not so simple to say that J35's calf died because she was malnourished or J50 is dying because she is starving, the truth is simple: more salmon will help all of the problems they are facing. With more fish, they will carry more healthy calves to term and be able to raise them. With more fish, they will metabolize fewer of the toxins they carry in their blubber. With more fish, they will have stronger immune systems, and be less susceptible to disease. We cannot continue to attempt sensational band-aid solutions that make us sound like heroes but do nothing of substance for the whales. Today, we are three weeks away from the governor's task force issuing their draft recommendations, and perhaps then we will see if there are people who have the courage enough to make the tough, difficult decisions that will result in the type of bold action these whales really need to survive.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

July 29th with J-Pod

This has been such a crazy summer and I'm afraid I've been neglecting my blog a bit as a result! I want to catch up on some whale sightings posts, starting way back on the memorable day of July 29th. I've had these photos ready to go for a while but forgot I hadn't posted them!

Months in advance, we had scheduled an evening whale watch charter with good friends for July 29th. Shortly before it was time to the leave for the trip, J-Pod was heading north towards Lime Kiln, so I sprinted out them to catch them from shore before heading to the boat. Good decision! It was one of those special close passes. A few photos are below, but I also shared a short video of the pass here.

J16 Slick and J50 Scarlet give some kayakers the memory of a lifetime

It turned out to be the picture perfect night we had hoped for: flat calm waters, beautiful lighting, and J-Pod heading north near Stuart Island. 

J38 Cookie off the Turn Point Lighthouse
Most of J-Pod was hanging out in one of several tight, social groups, and we spent most of our time with the rambunctious boys J38 Cookie, J47 Notch, and J49 T'ilem I'nges.

From left to right J49 T'ilem I'nges, J47 Notch, and J38 Cookie
 Cookie has been in a very social/sexual mood lately, as evidenced by the following:

J38 Cookie

He's been doing a LOT of this lately >.<

"Sword fighting"
We also saw lots of surface activity from J47 Notch:

J47 Notch tail slap

Breach from J47 Notch

Another breach from J47 Notch

The only whale who was off on his own was J27 Blackberry, who seemed to be foraging off on the other side of us away from all the social action:

J27 Blackberry

And a beautiful ride home to top it off!

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Summary of Task Force Meeting #3 in Wenatchee

Today we attended the third meeting of the governor's Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force in Wenatchee. It was a jam-packed day, with constant activity from 9 AM to 5 PM, where members of the public were allowed to observe and then give brief 2-minute comments if desired at the end. In addition to the task force there have been three working groups, one for each of the three risk factors: prey, toxins, and vessel effects. These working groups have been charged with coming up with potential actions for the task force to recommend and today was the day they reported back to get feedback from the larger task force. (For clarity, some members of the task force are on some of the working groups, but not all task force members are on a working group. There are also additional experts and interest groups on the working groups who are not on the task force.)

These ribbons were handed out by members of the Orca-Salmon Alliance to members of the public; they succinctly summarize what most of us where there to advocate for

I have to say, my initial reaction to the task force process was not a positive one. Here were my concerns that I jotted down while observing the process:
  • There are too many people at the table. While it's noble to want to include all interested parties, there are 40 people on the task force. You are never going to reach a consensus, or if you do, it's going to be a very watered down version of what probably needs to be done. While there are some great voices at the table, a task force half that size would, I think, be a lot more effective.
  • The lack of awareness of the facts by some people on the task force was both shocking and unsettling. At the beginning of the process, there was someone on the prey working group that didn't know there were killer whales that only ate fish. There was someone who walked in the room today thinking they only relied on Fraser River salmon. That's just the tip of the iceberg. Was there some general education from the experts done at the beginning of the task force? I suspect not.
  • While not pervasive, some people seemed very intent on focusing on short-term actions only. The governor even called in to the meeting today and stressed the importance of needing both the short-term actions and somehow addressing the long-term challenges. We can't do just one or the other.
  • I was really disturbed early in the day when one of the speakers said a goal from the day was deciding which action items "the task force is comfortable moving forward with". We are WAY past the point of having the luxury of comfort - this is not about doing what's easy so we feel like we tried. I did hear at least one task force member say their job is to tackle the controversial issues - I hope that voice is heard.
  • There was a strong theme of wanting to base recommendations on science, which is good. But I also heard a lot of recommendations for further study. By all means we should keep studying some of these things to understand them better, but we know what the core issues are. A lot of really great science on all fronts has been done in the last few decades: use it!
Here in brief summary form are the main actions that were brought to the table in the morning, which were discussed in the break out groups. Everyone self-selected which break out group to go to first, where they had an hour of discussion. Then the other three topics (prey was split into two, with vessels and toxins being the other groups) rotated through in 30 minute sessions. It ended with 30 minutes back to review your initial topic with everyone else's feedbacks. The detailed matrices created by the working groups that were handed out today are available on the governor's website here; just scroll down to the August 7 meeting to find the links. I encourage you to read the ones of interest as the documents go into much greater detail, including ranking the projected effectiveness, affordability, and ease of implementation of each action. I've used the notations from the handouts so you can cross-reference my notes to theirs if you want. If something about the action item was notable to me during the discussion or reporting back at the end of the break out sessions, I've added that in italics. Please note this is my take on what I heard - please refer to the documents at the link above for specifics. Bear with me, this is long; if you don't want to read a summary of all the action items, skip down to below the solid line for my thoughts on the ends of the day and what actions we need to take next.

Prey #1: Hatchery, Harvest, and Predation 

Action A: Increase hatchery production for the Southern Residents using "best practices" to minimize impacts on wild salmon. Hatchery production of coho and Chinook in the state of Washington has declined from 335 million fish in 1992 to 175 million fish in 2016. Moving forward on this action was basically unanimously supported

Action B: Try new strategies at hatcheries/use broader approaches for raising fish with goals of providing more fish to whales rather than just fish for harvest (eg, possibly holding fish until they are larger before release). Unanimous support to proceed with this one.

Action A: Further limit Chinook harvest in specific areas of importance for Southern Resident foraging. Need to specify if harvest means commercial, recreational, tribal, or all; right now it means all. Does it make sense to limit harvest in one area if those fish might just be caught elsewhere? Update to Pacific Salmon Commission for Chinook is including reduced harvest overall for US/Canada. Mixed support for this one.

Action B: Subsidize or compensate fishers not to fish. Low support overall due to difficulty to implement; you can't pay tribes not to fish.

Action C: Reduce unintended bycatch. Outside the state's ability to directly influence, but Pacific Salmon Commission just completed a two year process addressing this. The main issue is with coastal trawlers.

Action D: Negotiate fishing reductions in Alaska and Canada to allow more fish to reach Washington waters. Support for this in conjunction with the Pacific Salmon Commission recommendations that are currently pending.

Action E: Reduce marine harvest and transfer opportunity to terminal fisheries. Basically no support for this as it won't work to implement due to existing fishing agreements.

Action F: Implement size limits on Chinook caught, in part to allow the largest fish to reach the whales or spawn. Low support for this; catch and release works on some species but mortality is high for salmon.

Action A: Remove/alter artificial habitats and breeding structures for pinniped and bird predators. Neutral response - does it really work?Maybe in certain locatiosns, but it might just move the problem.

Action B: Lethal removal of fish, birds, and/or pinnipeds. More support for fish (mostly non-native salmon eaters, but at least one native species as well) than for birds and pinnipeds. Not surprisingly some strongly in support, but many skeptical of effectiveness.

Action C: Lethal removal of fish, birds, and/or pinnipeds to establish new baseline populations in the state. This literally meant trying to make these recovered populations return to some level between historic lows and present populations. This got low support overall.

Action D: Employ non-lethal hazing or exclusion techniques. Everyone loved this idea but no one knows of a way where it works effectively and long-term.

Overall, some people wanted predator killing off the table while some thought we had enough information to recommend proceeding with lethal predator control. The general sense was to move ahead carefully with synthesizing existing data and possibly trying a pilot program to assess effectiveness.

Prey #2: Hydro, Habitat, and Forage Fish

Action A: Recommend that Department of Ecology adjust gas caps (dissolved oxygen levels) on Snake and Columbia Rivers to allow adjustable spill regimes as needed to benefit Chinook. They thought more info was needed here. Washington has lower caps than Oregon. Need to raise gas caps to increase spill.

Action B: Review/revise standard for juvenile salmon survival in rivers at dams

Action C: Increase survival at predation hot spots near dams. Essentially culling predators at dams specifically.

Action D: Improve fish screens to provide safer fish passage.
Action E: Prioritize and fund the re-establishment of runs into currently blocked areas

Action F: Remove dams in locations that most benefit Chinook. There aren't many comments on the others ones because most of the discussion was one this one, which was very vague at the beginning of the day! The recognized most of the passion was here. They plan to make one action item specifically for the Lower Snake River dams and one for all other dams. They want a list of prioritized dams sorted into categories (based on size, etc.), as some smaller dams are shovel-ready to be removed with little or no opposition, while others are more controversial.

Action A: Increase implementation/enforcement of existing habitat regulations

Action B:  Enhance habitat protection regulations
Action C: Acquire important Chinook habitat

Action D: Accelerate habitat restoration by increasing funding to address current priorities

Action E: Create/bolster habitat preservation and restoration incentives for land owners

All actions had broad support, but with acknowledgement that with continued population growth and development we are going backwards (destroying more than we are restoring). We all want this, but the "how" is hard; removing blockages like culverts provide the most bang for our buck.

Forage Fish
Action A:  Increase forage fish populations through habitat restoration and protection. Broad support, but which fish (sandlance, herring, surf smelt, anchovies, sardines), and how are they prioritized?

Action B: Increase forage fish populations through habitat reductions. There is a directed herring fishery in Puget Sound but biggest contributor to forage fish declines is nearshore habitat loss. 

 This group really had their efforts dialed in, in part because they had already formed and were having these discussions before the task force was formed. There was broad support for every one of these actions.

Action 1: Reform federal Toxic Substances Control Act to prevent new chemical threats. The "reaching for the moon" ask; would likely take 15-20 years but worth getting ahead of the game.

Action 2: Ban all PCBs in consumer products through existing state policy tools. While PCBs are banned in the state, they are still allowed through "inadvertant production", particularly in pigments and dyes.

Action 3: Prioritize chemicals for their likely impact on Southern Residents, then develop and implement action plans to reduce those impacts. This is under state control so is more doable, but is more a matter of resources.
Action 4: Provide incentives and swap-outs to reduce existing (legacy) toxic sources. There are still sources out there of chemicals that have been banned - let's remove them. Some will be easier than others, such as creosote pilings on used/unused structures.

Action 5: Improve NPDES permit process. This would basically set new water quality standards for run-off, including stormwater.

Action 6: Reduce stormwater threats at existing hotspots. Two known hotspots are the Snohomish and Duwamish River basins.

Action 7: Prioritize and accelerate nearshore habitat restoration/clean-up efforts that will benefit Southern Residents.
Action 8: Support monitoring and new science. There are many chemicals we still don't know much about; let's not replace problem chemicals with something just as bad or worse.


Small vessels (<65 b="" feet="">
1. Establish no-wake or slow-go zone within a certain distance of killer whales to reduce noise. Broad support; reflects what Pacific Whale Watch Association is already doing.

2. Encourage and move towards requiring small vessels to avoid using echo sounders and other underwater transcdcued at the 50-kHz setting when near Southern Residents.
Whale-watch vessels
3. Establish a limited entry permit system for commercial whale-watching in the state
4. Require commercial whale watchers to shut down instead of idle near Southern Residents. Put on hold because no science to show being at idle is better or worse than starting and stopping.

5. Establish a permit system for recreational whale watching. Low support - what would this even look like? Hard to establish, enforce - most recreational boaters watch whales opportunistically. 

Large vessels (>65 feet)
6. Expand Washington State collaboration in the Port of Vancouver's ECHO program; many options including trying to give professional mariners a head's up when whales are likely in the area so they can slow down. This is the major action item related to shipping traffic and it got broad support overall.  

7. Request action is taken to assess potential impacts of any increased vessel traffic due to any Puget Sound pipeline expansion. Needs to be better defined.

8. Request action is taken to reduce impacts of any potential increased vessel traffic due to the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion, including dedicated regional tug for emergency oil spill response.

No-Go Zones
9. Expedite a no-go zone process. Some felt that enough talking had been done about this and it should be implemented. Others felt it was a lot of work for not a lot of benefit, or, "A static solution to a dynamic problem". A moving slow-go zone was identified by some (correctly, in my not so humble opinion) as a bigger priority.

10. Create a 400 yard "bubble" around the Southern Residents (ie double 200 yard rule). This found broad support from the task force, but even members of the working group have acknowledged there is no science to show moving from 200 to 400 yards has any benefit on killer whales. They want to apply this to all orcas. To me, this is a "feel good" solution to those not involved that would have no real benefit to the whales and would dramatically reduce the whale-watching experience.

11. Establish a voluntary regular engine shut down for all small vessels in the vicinity of the Southern Residents for 20 minutes every hour. Not much support for this at all.

Permit Applications
12. Require all permits for any of a variety of activities that would increase vessel traffic to address potential impacts to Southern Residents.

13. Support/accelerate moving of Washington State Ferry (WSF) fleet to quieter designs

14. Encourage WSF fleet in Puget Sound to slow down in fall months when Southern Residents are present

15. Encourage private and county ferries to slow down in the presence of Southern Residents

16. Fund a WSF noise assessment project

All the ferry recommended actions had broad support

Whew, did you get all that? If you've been advocating for dam breaching and you just see it vaguely mentioned on the very last action item under hydropower and you are frustrated by that, you are not alone. The best part of the day, in my opinion, was the public comment session, where more than 30 people used their 2-minutes to give the task force their thoughts. 
By the way, the first and last parts of the day were live streamed and can be watched at the links below; the break out sessions were not streamed.

Introductions, call from the governor, and intro presentations from the three working groups can be seen here.

Summary of break out discussions and public comments can be seen here

If you watch the public comments, you will see that the public very much wanted breaching the four Lower Snake River dams to be immediately addressed. During the lunch break, the Orca-Salmon Alliance presented the task force co-chairs with a petition signed by 43,000 people asking for bold actions, including addressing the Lower Snake River dams. Ocean was also present and shared another petition with 19,000 signatures asking for Lower Snake River dam breaching. Governor Inslee said it was on the table, and we have to make sure it stays there and gets more attention than possibly being associated with "Action F" buried on a working group matrix. 

The public - that means you! - came across as educated and with their priorities straight, which was the one part of the day that gave me hope. All of our calls, e-mails, and comments ARE changing the conversation, and we have to keep it up. I told the task force in my public comments that we the public will not let them off the hook on the controversial action items. So keep the pressure on!

Continued calls to Governor Inslee's office are very important (360-902-4111), and you do not need to be from the state of Washington. Tell them you support breaching the four Lower Snake River dams, and that it is not a federal issue - the science is done and dam breaching could start this year with support from Inslee, Murray, and Cantwell. For Washington residents, call Murray (206-553-5545) and Cantwell (206-220-6400) too - they have not released statements on the Snake River dams and we heard today they're closely watching the public attention on the issue and may make a statement in the near future, so keep those calls going. Tell them you want to hear publicly what their opinion is on saving the endangered Southern Residents and on breaching the four Lower Snake River dams.

Finally, tell the task force what you think! They have recently launched the ability to submit public comments NOW via their website, before they release their draft proposal on October 1. Check out their online survey here. Tell them which of the above action items you support and don't support and why, and which actions you want to see on the table that aren't there. This is a very critical time to give input as they will be refining their list of actions at the August 28 meeting in Anacortes - and please attend that meeting too if you can! There was a great turnout here in Wenatchee but we know there will be even more people in Anacortes; let them know we are watching, see the process for yourself, and prepare a short statement to share about what's most important to you during the public comment time. 

I'll admit, I started the day disappointed with what I was seeing, but I ended hopeful at the change public outcry can induce. J35 and her calf turned the spotlight on this issue in a way no human could have; we have to seize that momentum and help the task force realize they need to do what should have been done 20 years ago.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Turning Heartbreak into Action

This was my follow up to my previous blog post, written on Facebook written July 26th, about how to not let J35's vigil be in vain. I want to document it here so it remains a reference. We must learn something from her about the strength of love and unwillingness to give up. Somehow feels fitting that after 10 years of blogging, this marks my 1000th blog post.

Two and a half days later and J35 is still carrying her dead baby girl, what would have been a much needed boost to this critically endangered population. Two and a half days later, and my heartbreak is turning into outrage, especially after hearing a reporter pitch the important questions to Governor Jay Inslee this afternoon on Q13 Fox News, and hearing his lame responses. (You can watch the whole segment here: It is beginning to look like the task force will result in more of the status quo: keep boats further away, cull seals, and increase hatchery production. I will tell you right now that none of those things will make a serious difference to these whales. If we want to change the story, we have to get involved. Here are my immediate suggestions.

Attend the task force and working group meetings and ask the hard questions there, face to face. Go to every one you can. There clearly has not been enough public involvement in this process. I haven't been myself and I know it's hard to interrupt regular life to go and participate. But we MUST participate. Here is the meeting schedule.

Governor Inslee is very misinformed about the Lower Snake River dams. Much of what he said today is false. Here is the truth: We don't need to wait for the science to tell us whether breaching the dams is the most effective thing we can do to recover endangered salmon and endangered orcas. The science has already been done. The US Army Corps of Engineers did an expensive and exhaustive five year study that was published in 2002, concluding that breaching the dams was the most likely option to meet salmon recovery criteria on the Snake River. The lengthy environmental impact statement process currently underway is a delay tactic. Inslee also claimed that dam breaching is a federal issue, because it would require appropriations from Congress to proceed. Also not true. Bonneville Power Association, who owns the dams, could pay for the breaching and get credit on their federal debt for the dams. Finally, Inslee claimed dam breaching was a long-term issue and short-term actions were needed. There is little else that would have a larger impact faster than dam breaching, and the process could be started within a year. The earthen berms at the dams can be removed to restore a free-flowing river, leaving the concrete structures in place, and it could happen in a matter of months, not years. He needs to be called out on these false facts - give his office a call at 360-902-4111. They received a lot of calls today. Let's keep it going. (You do not have to be in Washington to call! They don't even ask where you are from.)

While you're at it, give Senators Murray and Cantwell a call, too. We have heard behind the scenes that some people at the federal level will publicly support dam breaching if the big three of Washington (Inslee, Murray, and Cantwell) state their support. All three have stated they want to protect the whales they claim are icons of Washington State. Let's make them prove it. Seattle office numbers for Murray: 206-553-5545, Cantwell: 206-220-6400. Tell them about J35. Enough is enough.

Finally, do NOT let them divide us. I have seen so much finger pointing from whale people blaming fishermen and fishermen blaming whale people. It has been boiling over, because people are rightfully pissed off, but let's not forget the ultimate goal, which is not to take away the livelihood of our neighbors. I have read the science and been in the field and I can tell you with certainty that neither whale-watching nor recreational fishing are to blame for the mess we are in. To have a loud enough voice to be heard we must set aside our disagreements on the lesser issues and focus on the big ticket items that will get more fish for everyone, such as dam breaching, fighting fish farms, and major habitat restoration.

If you have more suggestions let's hear them. If I've learned something from J35 in the last few days it's that I will not give up without a fight.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

On Grieving Whales

J35 Tahlequah and her son J47 Notch on July 15, a little over a week before Tahlequah gave birth to a calf that lived for less than an hour.

“I just heard on the radio that there’s a whale pushing a dead baby.”

That was the message from a friend accompanying the news that J- and K-Pods had returned to inland waters on the morning of July 24th. Bizarrely, the confirmation of this tragic news didn’t come from the Center for Whale Research directly, but from a news reporter who made a Facebook post stating a new calf was seen alive with J35 Tahlequah for less than an hour before dying.

I’m sitting on the rocks at Lime Kiln watching members of J- and K-Pods go both north and south when the news hits, and my phone starts buzzing with notifications in my backpack. It’s almost not surprising anymore for this population that can’t seem to catch a break. This year it seems every time they return to inland waters after an absence there is another hit to take. L92 Crewser is deceased. J50 Scarlet is emaciated. Now J35 has lost a baby.

We’re coming up on three years without a successful birth into this critically endangered population. The last calf born that is still alive is L123 Lazuli, first seen near the end of 2015. 2015 was a baby boom year, but only five of the eleven known calves born in that 13-month period are still alive. Prior to that, it had been another 2+ years without any successful births.

Where is the hope? The baby boom at least showed us they are capable to having calves when they have the nutritional resources to do so, but what actions are we taking to give them that chance? Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research summed it up this way to the Seattle Times: The (Southern Residents) have very little reproductive potential left, and we are wasting it in a process that cannot succeed unless thinking leaves the box. We have to call it quits or fight like hell to restore wild salmon in as many ecosystems as possible as soon as possible.”

He and many others have been sounding the emergency alarm on this population since their endangered listing more than a decade ago, but what have we really done to give them a shot at recovery? A lot of important research has been done. I understood the need for NOAA to gather the data about many things we already knew about the whales, such as where they travel when they’re not in the Salish Sea and just how much salmon they are eating and from where. The abundant scientific data wasn’t there, and that data would be needed to defend the endangered listing of the Southern Residents in court and advocate for the hard line actions they need to recover. But at this point it’s hard not to agree that we are studying these whales to death. Thirteen years after their endangered listing and their population has declined further to a 30 year low. We know better than ever where they roam yet their critical habitat has not been expanded. We know better than ever what they eat and yet salmon numbers continue to decline. The latest claim, in what is perhaps a veiled effort to derail controversial efforts that are gaining momentum such as breaching the four lower Snake River dams, is that no one action and no one salmon run is going to recover these whales. Okay, fine. So what action is going to recover these whales? If you’ve got an idea of something we can do that will recover Chinook salmon abundance coast-wide like these whales need, we are all ears. But until that happens, I say we do the drastic, big ticket items now that will dramatically improve Chinook runs on certain rivers. Breach those damn dams already.

But no, we have to form a committee to talk about it some more. I haven’t yet given up hope on the Governor’s Task Force because for the first time it is bringing all the right interest groups to the table with a clear mandate, a short time line, and buy-in from at least the state level government. But when the main action items you’re hearing about are culling seals, further limiting fishing, and keeping whale watch boats even further away, it does not inspire confidence that the discussion has truly changed at all.

Meanwhile: let’s collect more data! I realize my cynicism on this front is a bit hypocritical, since I’m a researcher collecting data on these whales, too. The science-trained part of me knows that policy decisions should be based on science. That’s why we assembled public sightings records to show how much less the Southern Residents are using the Salish Sea, to try and add more weight to the push for an expanded critical habitat designation. But part of my appreciation for these whales has always transcended science, and for that part of me, a new line is emerging for where we have no right to conduct more studies and collect more data and intrude on what is sacred to and for and about these whales.

I started to realize where this line was when a research team went out to collect a breath sample from J50, who has been obviously ill for over a month. It was an action that garnered much popular support, because the hope from many is that we might find out what is wrong with her and intervene to bring her back to health. I think playing God in this way is a slippery and dangerous slope regardless; this is a young whale who likely experienced a difficult birth and has not been growing normally, being very small for her age. Will we medically support her her entire life? And what if our intervention makes it worse, and the stress kills her? Who are we to say that now, this whale, is the one we will try to save? Where was our human hand of God when L95 Nigel was killed by a satellite tag? Where was it when J28 Polaris slowly died before our eyes, followed by her son J54 Dipper? We see tragedy after tragedy unfold and nothing is enough for us to act and do anything to fix the underlying symptoms of this ailing population. I don’t think we have the right to try and put a band-aid on the painful experience of watching J50 wilt away so we have something positive to say about our actions. We have not given her a world in which to thrive: why should we feel okay about that?

I completely respect the research team that was on the water, as well as their motivations and care for these whales. But it did not sit well with me to see the J16s approached to get the breath sample. J50 Scarlet along with her mother J16 Slick and sister J42 Echo has been spread out and foraging for over half an hour. As soon as the boat approached, the whales took up flanking position, with mom and sister on either side of the Scarlet, and started steadily traveling. I am willing to go on record and say I don’t believe the whales usually react to boats, but to me this felt like whales who didn’t want to be approached. Another researcher agreed that the J16s have been mostly unapproachable on the water recently. What do we need that breath sample for? We know she’s sick. We know she’s likely going to die. Is knowing what particular strain of whatever disease is killing her going to suddenly spur us to action? I doubt it, so let’s just leave her and her family alone.

The line I don’t feel comfortable crossing got even clearer to me with the death of J35’s calf. Many members of the whale community started saying that they hoped we would recover the body, to learn more about why it died. Again, I ask: does it matter? We know from the last decade of study that up to 70% of the pregnancies in this population are failing, many of them late in the pregnancy or shortly after birth. We know that nutritional stress in the form of not enough Chinook salmon is a serious contributor to this problem, worsened by the toxic load these whales are carrying and passing along to their offspring. What will taking this precious little body that should have been a hope for the future and cutting it up in the lab teach us that we don’t already know? As I write this it has been more than 24 hours since the newborn died, and J35 is still carrying the carcass with her. Let me say that again: a grieving mother has been carrying the dead body of her child for more than a day. After what we have done to these whales, we have no right to take and study that body.

Perhaps my words sound harsh. Maybe they should be, because I’m angry. Enough is enough. I fell in love with these whales at a young age because of their innate charisma, their often playful personalities, their amazing life histories. I study them and write about them and share photographs of them out of that love, but also out of a sense of duty to protect what I love; I don’t know what else to do, or how else to do it. But this population is clearly at a breaking point, and the outlook does not look good. The governments on either side of the border have taken no actions of the magnitude needed, and it doesn’t look likely that they will. The Endangered Species Act is already failing to adequately protect these whales and it is under attack to be severely weakened. I pin my hope upon the task force because I have to, because I will not give up. Surely these passionate people can come together in the midnight hour and do what needs to be done, even if it is ten years too late. As I think of Tahlequah out there carrying another dead whale, I cannot express the heartbreak that I feel. Please, whoever is listening, do what needs to be done. I will witness whatever plays out, because I owe the whales that. But I don’t know how or if we would survive counting these whales to zero.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

July 12-17 with Js and Ks

After another nearly two week absence, some of the Southern Residents returned to the Salish Sea on the morning of July 12. It was all of J-Pod, and this time they brought K-Pod with them for their first visit to the Salish Sea since March! I saw a few Js in the morning head north then south off Land Bank.

There's been a lot of focus in the region on whale watch and private boats, while the largest and noisiest vessels (one of which is shown here beyond J19 Shachi on July 12) fail to get as much attention
That evening, most of whales somewhat bizarrely headed north up San Juan Channel towards the Fraser, a route I'm not sure I've seen them take in that direction before! A mixture of Js and Ks stayed on the west side, but were mostly too far away to view from shore. On July 13, the whales that had stayed south snuck north in the early morning to meet the others, and over the course of 10 hours all the Js and Ks came down in three very, very spread apart groups. Most of the whales were in the first group which I missed, but that's okay, because the later groups were the K13s and then the K14s, which gave me a chance to get my first good look at members of K-Pod in 2018!

K27 Deadhead heading south past Lime Kiln on the afternoon of July 13
In the evening, the K14s came down, and we heard some great vocalizations from them. You can listen to a clip of their chatter here.

K26 Lobo heading south on the evening of July 13
The Js and Ks did more west side shuffling on July 14, and we spent three hours in the evening watching the J16s, J17s, and K12s go back and forth off Land Bank. It truly felt like one of the "good ol' days" with playful whales just hanging out and going back and forth on the west side. The J17s gave us the closest and most active pass of the night:

Ahhh....sunset whales.

K33 Tika

One of the J16s in the orange glow of a San Juan summer sunset
The only thing that compares to sunset whales is early morning whales, which we were lucky enough to get the very next day! When calls were heard on the hydrophones by friends of ours, we headed out to Lime Kiln, expecting to see Js and Ks again. Most of them had actually headed back out west, and it turned out just the J16s and J17s had stayed! But they took their sweet time going slowly north past Lime Kiln against a strong ebb tide, so we got several hours of viewing time.

J26 Mike

J36 Alki

J17 Princess Angeline

From left to right: J44 Moby, J53 Kiki, and J17 Princess Angeline

J35 Tahlequah and J47 Notch
You can see a video clip I took of the J17s passing off the Lime Kiln Lighthouse here.

Interestingly, J46 Star was not with them. After the tragic death of her mom and little brother in 2016, she's started spending a bit less time with her closest living family in the J17s. I was a little worried until other whale watchers confirmed that she did indeed go west with the rest of J-Pod! She has been spending a lot of time with J31 Tsuchi and J40 Suttles, two other young females who have lost their mothers, a fact which really pulls at the heart strings!

After spending the day up north on the 16th, the J16s and J17s were back to doing the west side shuffle on July 17th. When in the evening I heard that they had gotten up to County Park and flipped back south, we decided to head out to Land Bank to try and catch them. I was very surprised when we got there to instead see the K22s foraging off Land Bank! We ended up seeing the K12s and K13s head back south, with many more fins and blows way offshore in the middle of Haro Strait, so it looked like the rest of J-Pod and K-Pod had snuck back in undetected!

K37 Rainshadow on the evening of July 17
Right as the trailing orcas were heading south, we were surprised by a humpback whale heading north!

It sure has been great having Js and Ks around daily over the last week; we just hope they're finding enough salmon to keep sticking around!