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Thursday, February 26, 2015

Why Now Is The Time To Breach The Snake River Dams

This morning I got the welcome news that the Southern Resident population increased by one more, with the birth of L121 to L94, spotted by NOAA researcher Brad Hanson on the outer coast research cruise that's currently underway. This is fantastic, the third calf in less than two months after we went over two years without a birth. Yet the fact remains that these endangered orcas number just 80 whales, down from 87 at the time of their endangered listing ten years ago.

There are those who would like to dispute this because it's a complicated problem to tackle, but it is clear that generating more Chinook salmon for these whales is the number one way we can increase their chances of survival. The other major risk factors - toxins and vessel effects - are compounded by a lack of food. When the whales aren't getting enough to eat, they metabolize their pollutant-filled fat stores and compromise their immune system and reproductive capacity. When there aren't enough fish, any noise from boats might make it harder for the whales to find the few fish that are there. Increase the number of salmon, and both these other problems decrease as well.

The big question is how to generate more fish. A series of workshops and several years of data analysis by NOAA and DFO determined that increasing fishing regulations wouldn't be enough of an impact. Population modeling has shown that even if we stop fishing, the amount of fish that makes available to the whales isn't significant enough to stimulate population recovery. Fishing is just one piece of an already small pie (where the pie is the number of salmon out there). We need to make a bigger pie.

K25 Scoter with a salmon in his mouth
Luckily, we have a potential action before us that could drastically increase the amount of salmon in the Pacific Northwest. Not by tens or even hundreds of thousands of fish, but by millions of fish. Remove (or breach) the four lower Snake River dams.

At first, you may wonder what role the Snake River, way over there in eastern Washington and Oregon (and Idaho and Wyoming) has to do with food for Southern Residents. It is now widely known that the primary summer food source of Southern Residents is Fraser River Chinook, but what are they eating the rest of the year? It makes sense that while they spend time on the outer coast in the winter, they're feeding on fish from the Columbia River, the largest salmon-producing river on the west coast. The Snake River is the largest tributary to the Columbia.

NOAA's 2008 Southern Resident Killer Whale recovery plan states, "Perhaps the single greatest change in food availability for resident killer whales since the late 1800s has been the decline of salmon from the Columbia River basin." Fecal and prey samples from the outer coast are hard to gather and so far are small in number, but two samples thus far have shown conclusive evidence that Southern Residents are feeding on Upper Columbia and Snake River Chinook in the winter months. Dr. Rich Osborne, long-time orca and salmon scientist, said, "Restoring Columbia River Chinook is the single most important thing we can do to ensure the future survival of the Southern Resident Community of killer whales." According to Save Our Wild Salmon, removing the four lower Snake River dams would open up over 15 million acres of prime salmon habitat.

A vessel track of the Bell Shimada.  NOAA's research team is spending three weeks following the Southern Residents to study their winter habits. Here they are zig-zagging back and forth off the mouth of the Columbia River on February 19, 2015.
During the 1990s, 13 Snake River fish stocks were listed as threatened or endangered. This led to an expensive study about how to improve the Snake River for salmon, examining different alternatives including breaching the dams. The environmental impact statement included in the report said the highest probability of restoring the endangered salmon runs was by dam breaching, but the economic analysis showed this to be an unfavorable option, and in 2002 the Walla Walla District of the Army Corps of Engineers chose to pursue other options. This decision was contentious at the time, but it's become even more so now.

Civil engineer Jim Waddell, who was featured in the documentary DamNation, has spent hundreds of hours reanalyzing the report and has confirmed what many have long suspected - that the economic analyses was seriously flawed.  The estimates weren't just off by a million dollars here or there, but the underlying assumptions that went into their figures were wrong, leading to a drastic difference in results. The 2002 Army Corps report concluded that the four lower Snake River dams generate $246 million dollars a year in net revenue. Jim's corrected analysis (including omitted data, fixing miscalculations, and brought forward to 2015), shows the dams are actually costing us $217 million dollars a year to maintain. 

These numbers are staggering and the data behind them is hundreds of not thousands of pages long, but here is one example of where the numbers were off. The Army Corps report stated that breaching the dams would result in $82 million dollars of increased revenue per year based on increased opportunities for rafting, fishing, etc. If you delve into the report to discover where this number came from, it came from an economic analysis that listed the projected economic benefit of increased recreation as ranging from $82-350 million per year. They chose the lowest possible number from that range to include in their data. Jim's updated analysis uses a more realistic figure of $158 million per year - still below the mid-point of the projection, but more realistic based on studies that show recreation on public waters is the biggest single category of recreational spending in Washington state and that salmon sport fishing may produce more economic benefit than any other type of river recreation.

Other examples of the errors in their initial economic analysis are failing to factor in adequate costs of maintaining the dams, maintaining hatcheries, and dredging the river as required for navigation and transport. If you want to read further details about the economic data I can get you plenty to read on the subject, but after the few hours I've spent reading up on it, I can tell you I'm convinced that these dams are costing us - the taxpayers - money.

The main benefits provided by these dams are transportation of freight and hydroelectric power. Over the past 20 years the volume of freight transported on the lower Snake River has declined by 69%. The current volume of freight transferred is so low that it is considered, by definition, a waterway of negligible use. 

Over the past 10 years, the four lower Snake River dams have only been producing about a third of their capacity. This has to do with the timing of stream flow relative to the needs of the power grid; the main power output from these dams occurs when we don't need the power. These dams contribute about 4% of the power needed in the Pacific Northwest, but it is feasible to replace these power needs via wind turbines (output of which is constantly growing in the northwest) along with energy conservation and efficiency upgrades.

Especially when I look at Jim's 100 year projections of the economic costs, it is clear to me that these dams will come down. It's just a matter of when. These dams were built over 60 years ago and are at or nearing their anticipated lifespans. It will take a lot of money to maintain them, and doing so just doesn't make sense when our needs for them for transport and electricity are diminishing and the benefits of removing them are so high. Here is why now is the time to breach these dams:

  • The dams are costing tax payers money every year, and will continue to do at an increasing rate over the next 100 years
  • The dams are at or near their life spans. There are 24 turbines that will need to be replaced in the next 10-15 years, with the first three in the process of being replaced now. Let's let these obsolete structures go now rather than investing more money into their repair.
  • Removing these dams is the single most significant action we can take to help the endangered Southern Residents recover. The orcas can't wait dozens of years for this dam removal to happen - they need more fish now.
  • With all the uncertainties climate change poses for our future, it is clear that if we want wild salmon to survive we need to protect and preserve our salmon strongholds. We need large, healthy populations of fish capable of adapting to changing circumstances. Removing these dams would seriously bolster Columbia River salmon runs and make this river basin a true salmon stronghold.
  • All the questions about whether or not dam removal would be successful have been answered by the Elwha River. The river is returning to health (and the fish are returning to the river) faster than anyone could have anticipated. Dam removal has indisputable results for restoring an ecosystem

I haven't wanted to bog this post down with citations and links, but I hope I have convinced you of the importance of removing these dams, and that the sooner we do it the better. Again, if you want to look directly at the sources I'm happy to point you in the right direction. The next question, of course, is what we can do to make this happen. Oregon and Washington have long been states that idolize hydropower as part of their heritage and their future. While it may have been true for us at one point, the times have changed, and only myths are maintaining that idea. We have to change the political will in our region towards dam removal in general, and for these dams in particular. Politicians and other policy makers have heard for decades about the negative effects dams have on salmon, but there are two new pieces to the story here that have been receiving more and more media attention: the economic reanalysis that shows these dams are costing us money, and the fact that removing these dams could be critical to the recovery of our endangered orcas. We need to spread this message far and wide, both to politicians and to the general public. Whether this means sharing posts like this one through social media or talking to your family and friends is up to you. Here are some other concrete actions you can take:

  • If you are local, attend one of the upcoming town hall meetings with Representative Rick Larsen. He hasn't taken a stance on the removal of these dams yet, but we want plenty of people present to tell him how important it is to us. He is holding a meeting on San Juan Island on Tuesday, March 10th from 3:30-5:00 at the Friday Harbor House, plus a meeting March 12 in Bellingham, and March 14 in Everett, Langley, and Mount Vernon.
  • If you are regional (Oregon and Washington), write to your politicians about this issue. Hand written letters are taken the most seriously, followed by typed letters printed out and mailed in. E-mails and phone calls are good, too. We need to raise awareness about this issue to everyone from the governors and senators to our local representatives.
  • Regardless of where you are, sign and share this petition. The group I'm working with, the Southern Resident Killer Whale Chinook Salmon Initiative (or SRKW CSI), is behind the petition and we've already gathered over 10,000 signatures. I have it on the authority of some of the lobbyists that went to Washington DC a few weeks ago that there are people in power keeping an eye on how much traction this petition and others like are getting.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

A Sunset From Serenity

After a very gray January, the weather has been unbelievably mild this February, with lots of sunshine and temperatures in the 50s. That means I've done a bit more birding, though the year list has only creeped up a little bit. I heard a barred owl (85) at home, and added Virginia rail (86) and Cooper's hawk (87) at Three Meadows Marsh. A drive around the center of the island last Saturday turned up lesser scaup (88) and western meadowlarks (89), then Monday morning when leaving for work I heard a brown creeper (90).

The weather has also been conducive to getting out a lot on our new boat, Serenity. While I'm always hopeful for whales, I haven't had another orca encounter since February 12th (though one morning we went out looking after J-Pod had been heard on the hydrophones before sunrise and just missed them!) Still, it's been awesome to be on the water and there's been plenty of great wildlife and scenery.

Sunrise in San Juan Channel

Steller sea lions in Spieden Channel

Bald Eagle on Spieden Island

Mouflon sheep ram on Spieden Island
One of the best boat trips yet came last Sunday on February 22nd when I went out with some friends late in the afternoon.

Monika, Julie, Katie, and Traci on Serenity - thanks for the photo Traci!

After looping around Stuart Island looking for cetaceans (we did find a few harbor porpoise) we could tell by the clouds to the west that things were shaping up for a good sunset. We decided to hang out in Haro Strait to watch it, and that was a very good decision! At first the waters were glassy calm.

We cruised slowly down the shoreline looking at wildlife as the colors kept getting brighter.

Pelagic cormorant hitching a ride on driftwood

Harbor seals
A bald eagle perched above its nest
As the Lime Kiln Lighthouse came into view, we couldn't believe our eyes: in clear weather we can see Mt. Rainier from the San Juans (about 130 miles from Lime Kiln as the crow flies), but I have never seen it like this! It was much clearer (and seemingly much larger) than usual.

Then as we cruised back up north, that's when the colors of the sunset really started to take off. It's been a long time since I've taken this many sunset photos! One reason it was so unique is that it wasn't just the oranges, pinks, and yellows, but there was still a lot of blue in the sky, too!

The reflections in the water were a worthy photographic subject in their own right:

It was my first sunset from Serenity, and it was a perfect one. We just sat floating in the strait taking it all in, and taking tons of pictures!

Even when it was finally time to go in, one more breath-taking sight awaited us.

A great blue heron silhouetted against the sunset

I'm sure loving this whole boat thing, and so far we've only had it from November-February, which are supposedly the "worst" months!

Saturday, February 14, 2015

February 12: Meeting J50 and J51!

Some faint calls were heard on the Lime Kiln hydrophones on February 12th, and when they didn't get louder some friends and I concluded the whales were probably heading south into Puget Sound. WRONG! Luckily someone gave me a head's up they were close to shore along San Juan Island and I got to Lime Kiln just as the first whales were passing by.

First Southern Resident breach of 2015!
It's been interesting to follow J27 Blackberry's satellite tag these last few weeks. (It's still transmitting and you can see the latest reports here.) We're learning that J-Pod is using almost exclusively inland waters even this time of year - their ocean ventures are to just outside the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and not really along the outer coast much at all.

J27 Blackberry (and a cormorant drying its wings in the background)

It was great to see everyone - like catching up with old friends after several months of having not seen J-Pod.

From left to right J49 T'ilem I'nges, J37 Hy'shqa, and J14 Samish

J26 Mike

What was amazing was how much driftwood was floating around out there! The whales didn't seem to have any qualms about swimming right through it.

It's rare enough to see orcas from Lime Kiln this time of year, but I'd say it's even rarer to see them close to shore. This passby was short but sweet - it felt like summertime with the J17s coming by right off the rocks!

J17 Princess Angeline

J46 Star

The timing was perfect to jump out in Serenity again with a couple friends, and we met up with Js again a little further north in Haro Strait.

L87 Onyx

The whales looked like they had really spread out after passing Lime Kiln; we saw some more way offshore and decided to head out to investigate. As a side note, while motoring out there this freighter came by - look at how much water it's displacing off its bow!

Turns out the whales offshore were some of the J16s! That means I got to meet new little calf J50 was born in the end of December.

J16 Slick with calf J50

J16 Slick with calf J50
J16 Slick with baby J50

While watching this spunky little gal (sure seems like mom has her hands full keeping this little one in line), we got word from the Center for Whale Research that their boat was with another new calf!!! It was too tempting not to go and take a peak. J19 Shachi is the mom of J51, and Shachi's daughter J41 Eclipse was right there as well.

Tiny orca! J51 swims after older sister J41 Eclipse
This is a distant blurry shot, but I love it because it shows the close formation this little family group was keeping. Mom J19 Shachi is on the left and the little bump just to the right of her is the new calf J51. J41 Eclipse, Shachi's daughter, was on the outside, so the little one was safely tucked between them at all times.

J19 Shachi, J51, and J41 Eclipse

The whales had been quite spread out for a while, but now a group of them formed up and started traveling north at a more steady clip.

This group included the J14s, J19s, and J11s minus J27 - all the J-Pod big boys were traveling together somewhere else. We ended up getting a better look at the calf in this group:

Mama J19 Shachi with newborn

From left to right little J51, J19 Shaci, and J49 T'ilem I'nges

They were out in the middle of Haro Strait, and then started angling over towards Stuart Island. J39 Mako came a little closer to check us out on his way by:

J39 Mako

There was a lot of driftwood up here, too. Looking ahead I thought for sure this was a logging whale, but it was just a log! Very good dorsal fin impression, though.

A logging....log
We cruised over to Spieden Island on our way home, where the J17s were hanging out. Spieden was sure looking pretty, and quite different from its summer yellow/brown grass phase that's more common:

Spieden Island - looking green!

The birth of J51 brings the Southern Resident population back up to 79 whales after dipping to 77 a few months ago. Will Ks and Ls have any other little surprises for us when they next return? After over two years without a successful birth, we are all both excited and worried about these two little ones. The bottom line is these whales need enough salmon, and we've gone through some very thin years of Chinook returns recently. I'm working with a campaign to remove the four Lower Snake River Dams, which are largely obsolete and are costing tax payers money, but would be the most effective dams to remove to increase salmon to the Columbia River Basin. Learn more about our efforts from the Southern Resident Killer Whale Chinook Salmon Initiative.

Friday, February 13, 2015

A Transient Superpod - on February 10th!

My blog posts have fallen off in the last month, and that was directly correlated to our dismal weather (nearly three weeks straight of rain) and poor wildlife sightings. That's all turning around in a hurry, however, as I've had two amazing killer whale encounters this week, a real surprise and treat for February!

On Tuesday afternoon I jumped aboard the Western Explorer with a few fellow naturalists after hearing there was a group of orcas heading for San Juan Channel. We barely left Friday Harbor when we saw them. With initial reports of 10-12 whales, we weren't sure who we were going to encounter, but with the very first dorsal fin I saw I knew they weren't Southern Residents! This is the whale I saw, who turned out to be T100C:

13 year-old male T100C
This family group was the T100s, who I last saw in 2008. Interestingly enough they were involved the first time I saw a transient "superpod" of several family groups totaling over 15 whales.

T100C seven years ago in the Strait of Juan de Fuca....awww, he's grown so much!!

The T100s weren't the only ones present today, either, as while they were the leaders, we could see at least two more groups of whales behind them! The T100s were going up the middle of the channel. Further towards the east side of the channel we found the T124As.

31 year-old mama T124A followed by two of her offspring, T124A5 (a year old) and T1242 (14 years old)
Across the channel to the west were more blows illuminated by the sun (the sun! as rare of a sight as the orcas so far in 2015). The T124s and T86As!

16 year-old male T124E - look at the height on those blows!
If you're wondering about the matriline names, T124A is indeed the first offspring of T124. But since she's an adult female with her own offspring, she's split off and regularly travels away from the other T124s, which is not uncommon in transients. Today, though, the whole extended family was together!

In the wake of this western group of Ts we saw a huge oil slick in the water and lots of gulls actively picking scraps off the surface of the water. The whales continued north, so we drifted closer to investigate, and we could smell the remnants of the actually smelled like watermelon! I found out from a researcher friend of mine that this smell is associated with porpoise kills, and judging by the size of the oil slick I was pretty sure they had killed something larger than a harbor seal, so this all matched up!

Gull comes down to grab a meat morsel - the sheen you see on the water is oil from a harbor porpoise

As we moved to catch up with the whales, the groups were starting to converge. We caught sight of a beautiful line-up as a bunch of whales surfaced in synchrony:

From left to right: T124A1, T86A1, T124D, T124D1 (less than a year old!), T86A

Let's get a closer look at that little baby...

T124D with her first calf T124D1, and on the right is T86A


As cumbersome as a name as T124D1 is, it contains his/her matrilineal history right in its name, which is handy for keeping track of transients who are more fluid in their social associations. T124D1 is the first offspring born to T124D, who was the fourth offspring (A, B, C, D) born to T124.

The lighting was just amazing for seeing the blows all day - this is another shot of T86A, T124D, and T124D1

In this whole group of over 20 Ts, there was only one adult male - it was almost all females and juveniles. In fact, at least seven of them were under 10 years old! Perhaps it was time for the little ones to learn about harbor porpoise hunting or maybe this is just what family meal time looks like, but all the whales converged and were prey sharing. There was lots of converging at the surface and surface activity - it was clear we were only seeing part of the picture as they tore up and shared the meat!

When we see Southern Residents in these roly-poly surface groups we sometimes call them "cuddle puddles" (sometimes social in nature, the residents are probably prey sharing in some of these instances too); in this case, where the surface activity was accompanied by the occasional splash of blood or glimpse of red meat, the name "carnage cluster" seemed more appropriate.

What's the best angle to get a bite....right side up? From the left?

Upside down from the right?

Or perhaps straight down from the top?

They were converging on it from all sides....

Look carefully in the middle - the pinkish red is porpoise meat (click to see a larger version)

Every once and a while amid the tail-slapping we'd see a tiny tail pop up. With two calves a year old or less, we thought at first it was a baby orca tail, til someone pointed out it was a little too small even for that. Turns out we were seeing the porpoise tail being waved up into the air by the whales!

The T124s, T124As, and T86As were all together in this group, while the T100s were on the opposite side of the boat. Again with the amazing lighting....

Turns out the T100s took out another porpoise of their own. This is one them (maybe T100B?) carrying a porpoise in its mouth - the blip you see at the front of its head is the porpoise fluke sticking out:

Oh, which way to look? (Such a problem to have, I know.) Maybe it was time to celebrate the kills?

The fun thing about days like this is that they only people out there are total whale fanatics like myself. In addition to my friends on our boat, there were three other boats on scene - all of them just captains, naturalists, and/or whale researchers.

Friends on another boat, doin' what we do
It was time for us to head back, and right before we left it looked like the whales shifted into travel mode as well. Given that they were headed to Spieden Channel I figured my whale-watching day might not be done just yet - my boat is moored not far from there! After returning to Friday Harbor I jetted over to the other side of the island where I met up with some different friends and we took Serenity out. We caught up with the whales again northwest of Battleship Island. The T100s were already several miles ahead, but all the rest were in one big group. No more hunting or playing - it was clearly travel time now.

T124A (left) and T124C (right)

Four year-old T86A3 with the Turn Point Light Station in the background

It was such a beautiful sight to see them all traveling in such a tight group that it was hard to leave, but they were cruising at such a fast pace all too soon it was time to let them continue on into Canada alone. One last nice look:

T124C - regular blog readers may remember this was the lone male (kinda a short guy for an adult male) I saw in Georgia Strait in May - see more photos of him here.

I went home grinning and with over 700 photos to sort through, ready to ride this whale "high" for several weeks if necessary til my next encounter, because this time of year especially you just never know. Little did I know at the time that I was just 48 hours away from another fantastic whale afternoon, this time with Southern Residents!