Seals and sea lions may be slowing salmon recovery, hurting orcas

A young resident killer whale chases a chinook salmon in the Salish Sea near San Juan Island, WA. Sept 2017. Image obtained under NMFS permit #19091. Photo by John Durban (NOAA Fisheries/Southwest Fisheries Science Center), Holly Fearnbach (SR3: SeaLife Response, Rehabilitation and Research) and Lance Barrett-Lennard (Vancouver Aquarium’s Coastal Ocean Research Institute). (CC BY-SA 2.0) https://flic.kr/p/21wV8rV

A young resident killer whale chases a chinook salmon in the Salish Sea near San Juan Island, WA. Sept 2017. Photo by John Durban (NOAA Fisheries/Southwest Fisheries Science Center), Holly Fearnbach (SR3: SeaLife Response, Rehabilitation and Research) and Lance Barrett-Lennard (Vancouver Aquarium’s Coastal Ocean Research Institute). (CC BY-SA 2.0) https://flic.kr/p/21wV8rV

Increased consumption of Chinook salmon by seals and sea lions in the Salish Sea “could be masking the success of coastwide salmon recovery efforts,” according to a new study published this week in the journal Scientific Reports. Endangered resident orcas are said to be declining in part due to a lack of available Chinook, the orcas’ preferred prey.

Read the article by PSI senior writer Christopher Dunagan in Salish Sea Currents.

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The State of the Sound: Looking ahead to 2020

2017 State of the Sound report cover

2017 State of the Sound report cover

Ten years ago, then-governor Christine Gregoire set an ambitious goal to clean up Puget Sound by 2020. The discourse of that time is still familiar. Puget Sound’s gorgeous blue waters were in trouble then as they are now. Our resident orcas had diminished to dangerously low population levels and contaminants like PCBs and stormwater were well-known threats to the ecosystem.

Now, with 2020 less than three years away, we are learning that Puget Sound faces even more extensive problems than Governor Gregoire may have imagined. Ocean acidification was a mere blip on the radar in 2007. New climate change studies show a suite of increasing threats, from higher than expected sea-level rise to low creek flows for salmon. Population growth in the region has since accelerated to an astonishing 1000 new residents per week.

Talk has started to change from “cleanup” to “resilience.” The state’s Puget Sound Partnership, designated by Governor Gregoire to lead the cleanup efforts, now says “many 2020 recovery targets will not be met,” and the Puget Sound Leadership Council says it’s time for “an honest, clear-eyed review of where we are and where we are headed.”

The Partnership’s 2017 State of the Sound report released last week outlines the latest progress on the state’s designated indicators of Puget Sound health, or “Vital Signs.” Targets for shoreline armoring, shellfish beds and floodplains have seen mild improvement, but are not expected to meet 2020 goals. Stormwater results are “mixed” while key indicators like orca and Chinook populations have lost ground, as have Pacific herring and marine birds like the marbled murrelet.

That’s the bad news, but the report also points to important progress. After ten years, managers and scientists know a great deal more about what we are up against. New implementation strategies are being designed to take what has been learned and apply it. There is renewed urgency on some fronts such as Chinook and orca recovery, with expected announcements from Governor Jay Inslee and acceptance of a series of “bold actions” proposed by area tribes. There is also a healthy acknowledgement that a recovery project of this scale takes time.

The Puget Sound region is as large or larger than some small states. It is twice the size of Connecticut and includes thousands of species and about 2500 miles of winding shoreline. The 13-year timeframe proposed by Governor Gregoire was often seen as aspirational and according to the report is shorter than timelines for other ecosystem recovery efforts of similar scale.* The report puts Chesapeake Bay’s coordinated efforts at 42 years and counting, and San Francisco Bay’s at 35 years.

*[Blog update 11/9/17: Founder and former Executive Director of the group People for Puget Sound Kathy Fletcher offers a different perspective, writing in a blog for Salish Sea Communications that “the [2020] goal was set more than 30 years ago by Washington State, in 1985 legislation that created the Puget Sound Water Quality Authority.” It is a fair point that Puget Sound recovery efforts have extended well beyond the past 10 years. Much of the language of 1985 and prior is echoed in the language of today, and you can see some of the origin and evolution of the state’s thinking in our collection of archived reports available in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.]

That doesn’t mean we should take the foot off the gas, say state leaders. “Course corrections must be identified and implemented soon to get Puget Sound on an acceptable recovery trajectory,” the Leadership Council writes. Given the current rate of habitat destruction and the growing threat of extinction for some species like Puget Sound’s resident orcas, there is an acknowledgement that managers don’t have the luxury of taking their time. The 2020 goal may have been aspirational, but the situation is no less urgent.

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Plans being developed to save both orcas and Chinook salmon

By Christopher Dunagan, Puget Sound Institute

A Southern Resident killer whale leaps into the air. The Southern Residents are an endangered population of fish-eating killer whales. Credit: NOAA

A Southern Resident killer whale leaps into the air. The Southern Residents are an endangered population of fish-eating killer whales. Credit: NOAA

Actions that could save Puget Sound’s killer whales from extinction have been placed on a fast track by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and the Puget Sound Partnership, which operates under a legal mandate to restore the health of Puget Sound.

Hand in hand with an intensified effort to save the whales comes a revised strategy to reverse the decline of Puget Sound Chinook salmon, the primary food supply for the endangered orcas.

In a special meeting Wednesday, the Puget Sound Leadership Council committed itself in a formal resolution to “both accelerate and amplify” efforts to recover Chinook runs on behalf of the orcas while meeting treaty obligations to native tribes.

The Leadership Council — the governing body of the Puget Sound Partnership — also approved a list of “regional priorities,” which will direct specific projects to protect and restore Puget Sound over the next four years. The priorities include recommendations for “bold actions” for Chinook recovery developed by Puget Sound tribes and later approved by the multi-jurisdictional Salmon Recovery Council.

The Leadership Council approved a few changes to the draft priorities, such as eliminating a controversial proposal dealing with water rights and streamflows. The original language from the tribes would favor water in streams to help salmon over water rights for new wells — essentially the same issue that stirred up a legislative battle following the controversial Hirst decision by the State Supreme Court.

Jay Manning, chairman of the Leadership Council, said the resolution on orcas approved Wednesday is “one small action” to be followed by a major initiative from the governor, who he described as “shocked and alarmed” by recent reports highlighting the growing risk of extinction for the Southern Resident killer whales.

Governor’s plan

The governor’s plan of action will address the major risks to orcas, including the lack of Chinook salmon, the number of ships and boats that produce excessive noise and disrupt the orca’s feeding efforts, toxic pollutants that can contribute to their poor health, and other concerns, Manning said.

“It will be issued in short order,” he said, “and we are excited to be part of what will be a strong action-oriented approach from the governor. Our job is to restore and protect Puget Sound. If we lose the Southern Resident orcas, we will have failed in our job, and we have no intention of doing that.”

During the meeting, held via telephone conference call, Jim Waddell, a retired Army Corps of Engineers employee, reiterated his position that breaching dams on the Snake River would be the quickest way to provide more Chinook salmon for the orcas. The whales feed at times off the mouth of the Columbia River.

Jerry Joyce, who served on a marine mammal advisory committee for the Partnership, said the key is to move quickly to address the known threats to killer whales and perhaps even some speculative threats before it is too late.

“If we wait for scientific certainty, we will have no whales left to protect,” he said.

Regional priorities approved Wednesday will provide ideas and guidance to agencies, nonprofit groups and others that wish to submit proposals to improve the Puget Sound ecosystem. The priorities grew out of 10 implementation strategies focused on restoring various ecological attributes, including freshwater quality, shellfish beds and toxic chemicals in fish.

Nearly 40 ideas have been proposed to implement the strategy for rebuilding Chinook runs, widely believed to be a critical step in the recovery of the orca population. The Chinook implementation strategy and regional priorities underwent an extensive review involving technical teams, tribal officials and the Salmon Recovery Council. The SRC includes representatives of federal, state and local governments, tribes and watershed councils, along with business and environmental groups.

Discussion of Hirst ruling

Language approved by the Leadership Council acknowledges the need to restore streamflows but stays away from the issue of water rights.

That may have cost the Leadership Council a vote from Council Member Russ Hepfer, a tribal official with the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe. Hepfer said denying permits for water withdrawals should be a “no-brainer” when the effect would be to harm salmon runs.

Manning said he knows it will be necessary to tackle “the most difficult problems” — including adequate streamflows. But the Leadership Council must balance many interests. As for the Hirst ruling, Manning said a plan is being developed to restore streamflows where necessary without affecting water rights or new individual wells.

If successful, the plan could clear a legislative logjam that has blocked passage of the state’s capital budget this year. Republican senators refused to approve the budget without a legislative response to the Hirst court ruling. As a result, the budget remains in limbo.

Chinook salmon. Image courtesy of NOAA.

Chinook salmon. Image courtesy of NOAA.

Meanwhile, a major focus of the Chinook Implementation Strategy is to improve salmon habitat through various means — from scientific studies to improved regulations to incentives for property owners.

The regional priorities approved Wednesday also include a provision to develop management options for controlling seals and sea lions, which are known to eat both juvenile and adult Chinook throughout Puget Sound.

Christopher Dunagan is a senior writer at the Puget Sound Institute. 

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Salmon council approves new priorities for Chinook recovery

The Puget Sound Partnership Salmon Recovery Council has posted a list of recommended priority actions for Chinook salmon recovery. The measures were proposed last spring by area tribes hoping to see stronger efforts to protect the region’s threatened Chinook populations.

The document summarizes nine recommendations approved by the Council at its September 28th meeting, including broad language on habitat protection, water quality, water quantity and management of predation of salmon by seals and sea lions. The actions are meant to inform state and federal implementation strategies for Chinook salmon recovery.

“Identifying these priority actions is only the first step,” reads the document. “Next steps will include working with a wide variety of partners – including but not limited to local governments, regulatory agencies, and other decision-makers – to identify responsible parties for many of these actions, and determine how to implement the actions and how to pay for them.”

While many of the actions involve more general recommendations such as standardization of habitat assessments and strategies for improved communications and fund-raising, some touched on legal issues like water rights and instream flows — topics that have been in the news due to the recent Hirst Decision. The recommendations call for “No authorization of new appropriations (including permit-exempt appropriations) if they would impair senior water rights (including state instream flow rights adopted by rule) or adversely affect fisheries resources.”

The document also recommends the creation of a white paper on recent scientific findings around predation of juvenile salmon by seals and sea lions, as well as modification of the Marine Mammal Protection Act. “As science continues to demonstrate the impact on salmon by marine mammals, modification of the Act to allow targeted management of pinnipeds on salmon should be pursued,” reads the Council’s document. That item follows recent scientific studies that show seals and sea lions are eating more Chinook salmon than previously known, in particular a high number of juvenile fish. Scientists say juvenile mortality is a major factor in Chinook declines, but federal law prohibits the harassment or killing of protected marine species like seals and sea lions.

The regional priorities are now under consideration for adoption by the Puget Sound Partnership Leadership Council. We’ll be following these actions more closely in our Salish Sea Currents series.

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Are we making progress on salmon recovery?

Dean Toba, a biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, operates the agency’s screw trap on the Skagit River. The trap helps biologists estimate the number of juvenile salmon leaving the river each year. Photo: Christopher Dunagan, PSI

Dean Toba, a scientific technician with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, operates the agency’s screw trap on the Skagit River. The trap helps biologists estimate the number of juvenile salmon leaving the river each year. Photo: Christopher Dunagan, PSI

In recent decades, hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent to restore habitat for Puget Sound salmon. This month, PSI senior writer Christopher Dunagan looks at how scientists are gauging their progress. Are environmental conditions improving or getting worse? The answer may depend on where you look and who you ask.

Read the article in Salish Sea Currents. 

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Salmon council debates new priorities proposed by tribes

Chinook salmon. Image courtesy of NOAA.

Chinook salmon. Image courtesy of NOAA.

The Puget Sound Partnership’s Salmon Recovery Council last Thursday gave preliminary approval to six of the seven proposed recovery priorities known as “bold actions” to improve Chinook salmon numbers in Puget Sound. One of the actions calling for “a net gain in ecosystem function and habitat productivity” for salmon was tabled for ongoing discussions in August and September.

The actions were proposed last May by regional tribes dissatisfied with a state-proposed salmon plan known as the Chinook Implementation Strategy. Tribes felt that the strategy didn’t go far enough and called for a series of seven specific actions designed to stem the ongoing decline of Puget Sound Chinook salmon listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

Two of the action items, one responding to high amounts of predation of juvenile Chinook by seals and sea lions and another on climate change appeared to pass through the council unchanged, but several of the proposed priorities are undergoing a series of amendments that were debated at the council meeting. The Puget Sound Partnership is now sharing an edited version of the actions among members of the council for refinement in “mid to late August,” according to the Partnership’s deputy director Laura Blackmore. Versions of the proposed actions can also be found in a new solicitation of funding by the Puget Sound Partnership (starting on page 19).

In all, the seven proposed actions include protection of habitat, improvements in water quantity and water quality, predation and mortality of young salmon, funding, communication, climate change and oil spill preparedness.

Council member Dave Herrera of the Skokomish Tribe expressed frustration over the delay in approving all of the items, but said he remained optimistic about the efforts. “I feel like we know what the issues are,” he said. “If we can act on these, we have a fighting chance.”

The proposed action concerning habitat protection remains up for debate and may be the most controversial item among those discussed on Thursday. The item would protect “all remaining salmon habitat by implementing land use policy changes that optimize a net gain in ecosystem function and habitat productivity.” It would also “build a region-wide accountability system,” according to a briefing document presented to the council.  Representatives of the agricultural community have called the language in the provision too broad and say it puts too many burdens on farmers that are already dealing with legal challenges and environmental regulations. Tribal representatives say the provision is central to salmon recovery.

“We are still losing ground faster than we are restoring it,” Herrera said. “We have been putting all of our eggs in the restoration basket, but we’re not going to restore our way out of this. We can’t keep up with what we’re losing.”

The council also tabled for later discussion water quantity issues in one of the actions potentially impacted by last year’s Washington Supreme Court ruling known as the Hirst decision. The Salmon Recovery Council is scheduled to meet to continue its discussion of the proposed priorities on September 28th in Edmonds. 

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Update: Killer whale miscarriages linked to low food supply

In this high-resolution image taken from a remotely operated hexacopter, a Southern Resident killer whale named Slick (J16) is about to surface with her youngest calf, Scarlet (J50). Scarlet, born in December 2014, was the first calf in the so-called “baby boom” — nine orcas born between December 2014 and January 2016. These images are used to measure the length and width of orcas within an inch or two, allowing for ongoing observations of their physical changes. Photo: NOAA Fisheries, Vancouver Aquarium under NMFS research permit and FAA flight authorization.

In this high-resolution image taken from a remotely operated hexacopter, a Southern Resident killer whale named Slick (J16) is about to surface with her youngest calf, Scarlet (J50). Scarlet, born in December 2014, was the first calf in the so-called “baby boom” — nine orcas born between December 2014 and January 2016. These images are used to measure the length and width of orcas within an inch or two, allowing for ongoing observations of their physical changes. Photo: NOAA Fisheries, Vancouver Aquarium under NMFS research permit and FAA flight authorization.

Our 2016 article “Killer whale miscarriages linked to low food supply” provided an early look at a study published this week in the journal PLOS ONE.

PSI senior writer Christopher Dunagan wrote the article based on research that was presented at the 2016 Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference, and it remains a helpful summary of the newly published findings.

Scientists have found that Puget Sound’s endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales are experiencing a high rate of miscarriages in large part because they are not getting enough food. The whales depend primarily on diminished populations of Chinook salmon and this scarcity magnifies other existing threats ranging from toxic PCBs to noise pollution.

The PLOS ONE study was co-authored by Samuel K. Wasser , Jessica I. Lundin, Katherine Ayres, Elizabeth Seely, Deborah Giles, Kenneth Balcomb, Jennifer Hempelmann, Kim Parsons, and Rebecca Booth. Dunagan’s article summarizing their findings is available on the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

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‘Bold actions’ to save Puget Sound salmon gain qualified support

By Christopher Dunagan, Puget Sound Institute

Chart courtesy of Environmental Protection Agency

Chart of Chinook harvests courtesy of Environmental Protection Agency

Native American tribes in the Puget Sound region are calling for “bold actions” to reverse the decline of Puget Sound Chinook salmon, listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

Such actions would include:
— Protecting all remaining salmon habitat in and around Puget Sound with more consistent and enforceable land-use regulations;
— Preventing water uses that would limit salmon recovery;
— Improving management of predators, including the seals and sea lions that eat Chinook; and
— Increasing dramatically the current spending on salmon recovery — some 50- to 100-fold — with perhaps additional new funding sources to be added.

The ideas were presented to the Puget Sound Salmon Recovery Council on Thursday by tribal representative Dave Herrera, speaking for the Puget Sound Tribal Management Conference.

“The way we are managing lands is not working,” Herrera said. “It may be working for people, but it is not working for fish.” Continue reading

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Finding a strategy to accelerate Chinook recovery

Fir Island Farms habitat restoration monitoring in Skagit County. Project provides rearing habitat for young threatened Chinook salmon along with other wildlife. Copyright: Bob Friel

Fir Island Farms habitat restoration monitoring in Skagit County. Project provides rearing habitat for young threatened Chinook salmon along with other wildlife. Copyright: Bob Friel

New in Salish Sea Currents: We continue our series on Puget Sound’s EPA-funded Implementation Strategies. This week we take on Chinook recovery.

As threatened Chinook populations continue to lose ground, the state is looking to new strategies to reverse the trend. In the Skagit watershed, the scientists — and the fish — are among those leading the way.

Puget Sound-area writer Bob Friel reports from the newly-established Fir Island Farms Reserve where he witnessed the discovery of the very first Chinook to be found at that restoration project.

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‘Bold actions’ to be discussed in a revised Chinook Implementation Strategy

Chinook salmon. Photo courtesy of NOAA.

Chinook salmon. Photo courtesy of NOAA.

By Christopher Dunagan, Puget Sound Institute

A desire to come up with “bold actions” for rebuilding Chinook salmon runs in Puget Sound has slowed approval of the first Chinook Implementation Strategy designed to accelerate recovery efforts for the threatened species.

The Puget Sound Salmon Recovery Council, which oversees salmon-related planning, was scheduled to adopt the Chinook Implementation Strategy at its March meeting. The strategy underwent 14 months of study, discussion and review, and council staffers said it was ready for approval.

Before the meeting, however, representatives of Puget-Sound-area Indian tribes disagreed with that assessment, saying the proposed strategy was not specific enough about actions needed to save salmon. The document, they said, failed to provide enough direction to agencies and nonprofit groups working on salmon-restoration projects. Continue reading

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Study of seals and sea lions gains interest

Seal vs Salmon. West End, Vancouver, BC. Photo: cesareb (CC BY-NC 2.0) https://www.flickr.com/photos/cesareb/8620647452

Seal vs Salmon. West End, Vancouver, BC. Photo: cesareb (CC BY-NC 2.0) https://www.flickr.com/photos/cesareb/8620647452

Our story last week about the impacts of predators on Chinook salmon populations in Puget Sound continues to gather strong interest from our readers. Several thousand viewed it after it came out last Thursday, and it was reprinted in the Kitsap Sun on Monday.

The story was written by PSI senior writer Christopher Dunagan and reports on a new study showing that area seals and sea lions are eating a much higher amount of threatened Chinook than previously known. Many questions still remain, but it is the first time that a peer-reviewed study has attempted to quantify these predator impacts to such a degree and in such detail.

Here are a few highlights: As many as one in five young Chinook are eaten before they can make it out of Puget Sound into the open ocean. Area seals and sea lions eat twice the amount of Chinook as do Puget Sound’s endangered orcas, and six times the annual commercial and recreational catches from local fishermen combined. Scientists attribute the large numbers to an increase in seals and sea lions since the 1970s after the animals were protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Not surprisingly, scientists and policymakers will have to look more closely at these numbers to determine what to do. Seals and sea lions are rightly protected, and old (and undesirable) policies of hunting the animals to protect salmon are not an option. Scientists say that even if such policies were possible, there is no saying that they would actually protect the salmon population.

The fact is that the seals and sea lions are just doing what they do naturally, and while their populations are healthy, there aren’t necessarily more of them than there should be. Some would argue that this study is a reminder that we need to continue to recover habitat and create better conditions for the salmon to withstand what are essentially normal pressures from the environment. Historically, Puget Sound’s Chinook and predators co-existed just fine, but that was before millions of humans started destroying the local streams and floodplains, degrading beaches and polluting the water. See a harbor seal with a salmon in its mouth? That can also be seen as a sign of Puget Sound’s health.

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Study says predators may play major role in Chinook salmon declines

Sea lion sunbathing between meals in Seattle's Eliott Bay. Photo: Johnny Mumbles (CC BY 2.0) https://www.flickr.com/photos/mumbles/3283168713

Sea lion sunbathing between meals in Seattle’s Eliott Bay. Photo: Johnny Mumbles (CC BY 2.0) https://www.flickr.com/photos/mumbles/3283168713

A new study shows that increased populations of seals and sea lions are eating far more of Puget Sound’s threatened Chinook than previously known, potentially hampering recovery efforts for both salmon and endangered killer whales.

Read the story in Salish Sea Currents.

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