A Shallow Water Dead Zone In Puget Sound

Screen shot 2014-11-19 at 10.19.50 PM10 Nov, 2014

By Ron Shimek with illustrations by Jan Kocian


Over the past many years when I have spoken to many aquarists, students, and other audiences about modern and ancient biology, one of the implicit themes for my discussions has been the ubiquity of death as a biological factor.  This may seem odd, for after all, the word “Biology” is defined as the study of life.  Nevertheless, it has many times been noted that “death” is the price we pay for being alive.  Death is the reason for evolution, the less-fit die… leaving those animals that are more fit.

The ways in which organisms perish may run the gamut from the singular, everyday, ultra-mundane and almost meaningless death – meaningless except, of course, to the creature involved, which leaves the world much as it was before; to being a minor part of a huge array of dying, referred to as “a mass extinction event” that may radically change the world’s remaining array of living creatures.

In our explorations of the natural world, we often see – and often are the cause – of the timely or untimely end of some creatures.  Sometimes these events are welcome, such as the delightful revenge swat terminating the existence of a female mosquito while she is trying to procure a blood meal for the development of her eggs.  More often, the events are essentially inconsequential; such as the perishing of innumerable members of the aerial insect plankton as they impact with the teeth of innumerable smiling, speeding motorcyclists.   And some deaths are apparently meaningless, and perhaps all the more tragic for that, as the many organisms that perish over a large area for no apparent reason other than bad luck, when nature serves up a plate of natural disaster, such as the unimaginably humongous volcanic eruptions of the Siberian traps of about 251 mllion years ago; eruptions that nearly brought multicellular life to an end, or the somewhat lesser, but much faster, and probably much more visually exciting, cosmic Croquet crash of 65 million years ago that left only the birds as living dinosaurs.

At the other end of the scale are the more local extinctions that impact every ecosystem now and then, or periodically.  Such local extinctions range from the drying up of a mud puddle, which may have thriving populations of many microbes, to the death and destruction wrought upon many suburban monocultural grassy meadows when they are mowed weekly in the summer, to the massive death and destruction in the clear cutting of a forest, finally to those much more serious events in marine ecosystems referred to as “Dead Zones”.

Dead zones are just what the name implies, areas where life is lacking, either permanently or on some sort of transitory scale.   The largest dead zones are in enclosed oceanic basins where the bottom is permanently anoxic and the waters are full of sulfides.  Given the name of “Euxenic zones” because the largest such is found in the bottom of the basin containing the Euxenic ( = Black) Sea, these areas are totally devoid of aerobic life, although they generally have thriving communities of anoxic bacteria and archaea.  Euxenic zones are generally permanent.  However, there are many types of transient dead zones.

Short-Term Marine Dead Zones

Some of the more “classic” of marine dead zones were characteristically of short duration and caused by the superimposition of several physical events coupled with some unfortunate biological events.

Commonly referred to as “red tides”, these events occur regularly along many shorelines, and although the resulting mortality events tend to look the same from above the water’s surface, the causes are often different from place-to-place and are quite often difficult to determine.  In the dim, dark, ancient days of legend and mythos when I was but a mere studentling, I took a class from an esteemed, exalted and venerated professor of classical rank whose words, like those of the acclaimed Aristotle in the not too distant past, were absolutely unquestioned.   Although his reputation has faded somewhat as times have passed, many of his studies remain classics from the founding days of population ecology.  About the time of my birth, he was one of the first researchers to hypothesize a cause for red tides that appeared to be reasonable and met the test of experimental validation.

However, almost 20 years later, while taking a course at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, I listened to him characterize his search for the cause of red tides in Florida, as a search looking for some event or factor that wasn’t there, which he realized should be easy to find as it wasn’t there in large quantities.  So all one had to do to find the cause of these red tides was to evaluate the ecosystem in question and then find was what was missing in the largest quantities from that ecosystem.  That, in turn, would lead you to the yellow brick road, and eventually to the answer you were seeking (Slobodkin, 1953).  As an aside, this fellow’s lectures were all suffused with similar logic.  It made taking notes and subsequently rereading those notes to try to understand what had been said in the lecture a real joy, and we students were universally glad that this class was graded on a simple credit/no credit system.   Basically, if you showed up for the class, you got credit.  Ah… Sigh….

Red tides may or may not have a primary human cause or may simply, and misleadingly, appear to have such a cause.   When a dead zone appears in close proximity to a metropolitan area, or a source of agricultural runoff, probably the first cause of the event is considered to be some sort of pollution; and this is justifiably so.  However, in all such cases, the actual cause of the event needs to be examined much as a forensic examination needs to be done in the case of a criminal investigation.   And just as the forensic examinations portrayed in television “dramas” are only tangent to reality, the biological forensic examinations of a marine “event” are very different than what is thought to occur by even the well-educated public.  Probably the biggest difference is the speed by which things don’t occur.  Many of the necessary examinations require a great deal of time and painstakingly detailed work to reach a result.  For even a small and simple event, it may take from weeks to months to analyze samples and get definitive results.  Nevertheless, the process is an interesting and quite amazing one.

Right NOW!!!

Presently, several different investigations of biological problems are being investigated in virtually every major estuary in the United States, including the Puget Sound of the Pacific Northwest.   These include, in no particular order, studies of changes occurring due to global climate change; studies investigating the effects of introduced species, particularly with regard to their effects on native species that are important in commercial and sports fisheries; studies examining the natural history of ecologically important species, such as, in Puget Sound, all the species of salmon, as well as other fishes and various crustaceans such as Dungeness crabs, and important mollusks such as geoducs, and of course, marine mammals such as killer whales, and sea lions.  Also, there is an emergency study or series of studies trying to get some sort of handle on the immense mortality that is presently being seen in many sea star species along the entire West coast of the U. S. and Canada.

Jan Kocian, diving photographer extraordinare, and my co-author for this blog, has been actively surveying several marine subtidal areas in northern Puget Sound for some time, with the objective of obtaining photographic evidence of, particularly, the sea-star wasting disease epidemic.  As is often the case in a study such as this, serendipity will rear its head, and wholly unexpected observations will be made.

Screen shot 2014-11-19 at 10.24.25 PM

On 18 September, 2014, Jan had just finished his weekly survey dive at the wharf at Coupeville on Whidbey Island, Washington.  He reported that “The many mottled sea stars (Evasterias trochellii) which until recently escaped the wasting disease now were now gone, having died off, and those few survivors didn’t look all that healthy, either”.  Leaving his normal survey area near the pier, looking for better water clarity, he started seeing things he had never previously observed.  At depths from about 7.5 m  to 9 m ( about 25 feet to about 30 feet), there were many animals lying exposed on the sandy sea floor, looking limp, sick or dead.  Red sea cucumbers (Cucumaria minata) were flaccid and dead, while several Aleutian Moon snails (Cryptonatica aleutica) were in odd postures.  Proceeding a bit further, brittle stars, which had always been buried deep in the sediments showing only their arms waving in the light current, had crawled out of the sediments and were lying wholly exposed all over the surface of the muck, showing their entire bodies.  A few were even uplifted as if they were starting to spawn.  In the midst of the stars were some pink/yellow worms, another rare or unusual sight.  These worms were Polycirrids, a group recently split off from the Terebellids.  Also dozens and dozens of Nuttall’s cockles (Clinocardium nuttallii) were on the sediment surface with their siphons out, instead of being buried as they normally are.

Screen shot 2014-11-19 at 10.27.58 PM

Screen shot 2014-11-19 at 10.28.37 PM

Screen shot 2014-11-19 at 10.29.00 PM

Screen shot 2014-11-19 at 10.29.13 PM

Returning to the site two days later, on the 20th of September, to survey the site and to do some wide angle photography he found the impacted area was now covered with a layer of cloudy or milky water.  Water clarity was reduced to only a few feet which rendered wide angle photography difficult.  After examining the site, with regard to the extent of the dead zone, it appeared that depth didn’t seem to be a critical factor, at least on the shallow side of the site and topography didn’t seem to have enough differences to cause the changes, either.

On a return to the site on 22nd September, the area containing dying animals was not only still present it was spreading; whatever seemed to be the cause was still doing its dirty work.  Documenting the milky water was difficult, as the layer was not particularly well defined, nevertheless, there was a lot of flocculent material floating in it.  The sites he had previously photographed were now wholly within “the Milky Way” which made photography difficult.  However, outside the cloudy water, the many tube dwelling worms in the area’s sediments were apparently unaffected.   The milky water appeared to be created from within the sediments.  The water was not cloudy like this when he first found all the infaunal creatures on the surface.

Screen shot 2014-11-19 at 10.34.23 PM

Screen shot 2014-11-19 at 10.34.32 PM

Screen shot 2014-11-19 at 10.34.48 PM

Three days after this, on 25th September, upon returning to the site, conditions had changed considerably.  The milky water layer was gone, although there still was flocculent material in the water.  Strong winds in the previous couple of days appear to have blown the milky, possibly stagnant, water mass away or mixed it with cleaner offshore water.  The brittle stars on the surface were gone, possibly blown away in currents,  although there were some arms waving above the sediments, indicative of a few stars still living below the surface.  Whether these were the same stars that had been on the surface or others that had remained below the surface is unknown.  The clams were not visible on the surface, but the horse clam siphons were visible in their normal postures.  Most other animals, such as the worms, were no longer visible on the surface.  The exceptions were the red sea cucumbers, Cucumeria miniata, where many specimens were lying fully exposed, and apparently dead, on the surface.  As their tissues contain a lot of toxic saponins, scavengers tend to leave these deadCucumaria miniata alone.  It may take several weeks for their bodies to slowly decompose.

Jan continued his regular dives on the 29th of September.  While visibility in shallow water was still good, upon entering the area of the dead zone, the visibility was much worse than in the surrounding area, but the water was not milky.  A few livingCucumaria were acting oddly, not quite dead, but just slightly responsive to touch.  The horse clams buried in the sediment were extending their siphons and apparently feeding.  These could have been clams that had not extended their siphons through the event and finally tried feeding again, or they could have been clams that had been on the surface and subsequently reburied.  Some more brittle stars were found on the surface, many with autotomized arms.  Numerous green sea urchins were found with their spines in abnormal postures, definitely not looking healthy.

At this time, Jan was not looking too healthy either, having caught a cold.  He was unable to return to diving until the 12th of October.  When he could return to the site, in shallow water, it appeared that all was back to normal, the Cucumaria miniata was feeding as usual and the brittle stars were extending their arms from the sediments apparently feeding normally.  However, the water clarity was poor; only about 1.1m to 1.5m (four to five feet).

Screen shot 2014-11-19 at 10.37.40 PM

Dropping down to 40 feet (12 m) the seabed was black instead of its usual grey-brown, and it was covered with a white bacterial mat.  This white mat is often referred to as Beggioatoa, which is a bacterial genus that is found in hydrogen sulfide rich environments.  It is a typical pollution marker for areas that have been rendered anoxic, killing much of the infauna.  Typically in areas such as these, the environment will be aerobic during the day, due to algal photosynthesis, but because of the amount of organic matter in sediments, once the sun goes down, so does the oxygen concentration and the sediments become anaerobic or anoxic.

Over the next week, on dives until the 19th of October, the dead zone appeared to be evident.  The full extent of the dead area, and the reason for the mortality, remain indeterminate.  Typically in Puget Sound, the benthos is very rich, so that a mortality event such as this may take several months for even partial recovery.  Although the substrate will appear to recover in a few months, quantitative sampling will show the benthos make take two or more years before it has returned to normal.


de Matos Nogueira, J. M., Fitzhugh, K., & Hutchings, P. 2013. The continuing challenge of phylogenetic relationships in Terebelliformia (Annelida: Polychaeta). Invertebrate Systematics, 27(2), 186-238.

Long, E. R., Dutch, M., Aasen, S., Welch, K., & Hameedi, M. J. (2005). Spatial extent of degraded sediment quality in Puget Sound (Washington State, USA) based upon measures of the sediment quality triad. Environmental monitoring and assessment111(1-3), 173-222.

Shimek, R. L. 1992. North Beach High Intertidal Biota in the Area of Proposed Beach Modifications: Sediment Infauna and Beach-Wrack or Drift Biota. Pages 1-67. Parametrix, Inc., Seattle. Shimek, R. L., T. Thompson, and D. Weitkamp.  1991. Slag, benthos, and bioassays: poor correlation of bioassay predictions and the benthos. In:  Chapman, P., F. Bishay, E. Power, K. Hall, L. Harding, D. McLeay, M. Nassichuk and W. Knapp (Eds.)  Proceedings of the seventeenth annual aquatic toxicity workshop, November 5-7, 1990, Vancouver, B. C.  Canadian Technical Report of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences. No. 1774. Vol. 2:1046.

Shimek, R. L., T. A. Thompson, T. H. Schadt, and D. E. Weitkamp.  1992.  Interpreting conflicting biological and chemical results from a Puget Sound sediment data set.  Puget Sound Water Quality Authority. Puget Sound Research ’91, Proceedings. 2:546-552.

Slobodkin, L. B. 1953.  A possible initial condition for red tides on the coast of Florida. Journal of Marine Research, 12(1): 148-155.

Screen shot 2014-11-19 at 10.39.37 PM

Posted in miscellaneous | 2 Comments

Effects of Ocean Acidification on Marine Species & Ecosystems

Screen shot 2014-11-12 at 7.55.05 PM

Oceana/Juan Carlos Calvin

Oceana acidification may cause many negative effects on a variety of marine species and ecosystems, which would have rippling consequences throughout the entire ocean. One of the most devastating impacts of rising ocean acidity could be the collapse of food webs

Marine animals  interact in complex food webs that may be disrupted by ocean acidification due to losses in key species that will have trouble creating calcium carbonate shells in acidified waters. Some species of calcifying plankton that are threatened by ocean acidification form the base of marine food chains and are important sources of prey to many larger organisms.

Tiny swimming sea snails called pteropods are considered the ‘potato chips of the sea’ as they serve as a critical part of the arctic marine food web, ultimately feeding whales and other top predators. Pteropod shells are expected to dissolve in acidity levels predicted by the end of this century and may not be able to survive. Population crashes or changes in the distribution of pteropods would have serious implications for some of the most abundant marine ecosystems.

Other important calcifying species have been witnessed to have troubles in acidified waters.

Sea urchins are important grazers and can help to protect coral reefs from encroaching algae. Young sea urchins have been observed to grow slower and have thinner, smaller, misshapen protective shells when raised in acidified conditions, like those expected to exist by the year 2100.  Slower growth rates and deformed shells may leave urchins more vulnerable to predators and decrease their ability to survive. Furthermore, under acidified conditions the sperm of some sea urchins swim more slowly, this reduces their chances of finding and fertilizing an egg, forming an embryo and developing into sea urchin larvae.

Brittle stars, which are important burrowers and prey items for flatfish, appear to be very vulnerable to increasing ocean acidity both as adults and larvae, which could result in severe population declines in the future. In acidified conditions, adult brittle stars lose muscle mass when regenerating their arms and many if not all brittle star larvae will not survive.

Even marine animals that do not create calcium carbonate shells or skeletons may be threatened by the increasing acidity of the oceans.

Squid are the fastest invertebrates in the oceans and require high levels of oxygen for their high-energy swimming. Increasingly acidic oceans interfere with the acidity of a squid’s blood and consequently the amount of oxygen that it can carry. Squid are important prey for many marine mammals, including beaked and sperm whales. Squid fisheries are also the most lucrative fishery in California accounting for 25 million dollars in revenues in 2008.

Some marine fishes have also shown vulnerability to acidification. While adult fish may be relatively insensitive to ocean acidification, their eggs and larvae may not be able to develop properly due to changes in ocean chemistry. Clownfish and damselfish larvae have shown a reduced sense of smell in acidified conditions which led to riskier swimming behavior. Increased levels of carbon dioxide have been associ­ated with these fish being more active, swimming further away from shelter and not responding to threats such as predators. In studies, five to nine times more fish died because of their risky behavior than those not in acidified conditions.

As the acidity of the ocean increases, they are simultaneously getting warmer due to climate change. These factors, when combined, may create even more problems than either would create independently. For example, increased temperature combined with the acidity levels expected by the end of this century proved lethal for one species of cardinalfish tested in the laboratory.

There will likely be some species that are able to flourish in an acidified ocean, either because increased carbon dioxide levels benefit them directly or because their competitors are directly harmed by it. The only problem is that the species that appear to be best suited to prosper in high-carbon dioxide conditions, such as jellyfish and algae, are those that we currently see as nuisance, or weedy species.

In an acidified ocean there will be ecological winners and losers, but overall, marine ecosystems may change for the worse. They may become less vibrant and diverse, devoid of the animals we love and depend upon and full of those that present less value.

As ocean chemistry continues to change, the many goods and services they provide could dwindle, forcing millions of people to find new food sources, new homes and new sources of income. Adapting to these losses will take huge resources from the global community and in some cases adaptation will not be possible. A smarter future is one where we reduce carbon dioxide emissions, transition to cleaner, renewable sources of energy and prevent the need for large-scale adaptation.

Posted in miscellaneous

The Daily Troll: Baby orca thought to be dead.

Screen shot 2014-10-23 at 8.00.49 PM

Orca baby: Oh, no

Puget Sound’s newest baby orca whale was declared deceased by the Orca Conservancy today. The calf, designated L120, wasn’t spotted with its mother over the weekend. It’s suggested the calf may have starved. The conservancy says lactating females burn calories quicker than other whales. If they aren’t getting enough food, producing enough milk to feed their calf is difficult. . One potentially hopeful note: The item suggests that Hood Canal is producing more fish than in the past – but orcas haven’t rediscovered it yet.

Posted in miscellaneous

Seven-week-old Orca calf in Puget Sound has died

Screen shot 2014-10-23 at 7.51.13 PM

Screen shot 2014-10-23 at 7.52.19 PMSeven-week-old Orca L120 has died, the Orca Conversancy said in a press release.

Screen shot 2014-10-23 at 7.52.09 PMThe calf was born to L86 in September. L86 was seen Friday, Saturday and Monday without L120, according to Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research.

L120 apparently died while its pod was in the open ocean off Washington or British Columbia, the Center for Whale Research said.

The pod was offshore for a week to 10 days, and the orca designated L-120 might have been lost in a storm in the middle of last week, Balcomb said.

The calf’s birth was heralded in September, as the South Resident population has dropped to 78, the lowest count in more than a decade.

The Puget Sound killer whales primarily eat fish, rather than other marine mammals. Offspring tend to stay with their mothers for life.

Fish runs are much stronger in Hood Canal than they were 30 years ago, Orca Conservancy said, but the South Resident Killer Whales haven’t rediscovered it since restoration.

When food is hard to find, it’s hard for lactating females to produce enough milk to support a calf, according to Orca Conservancy.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Posted in miscellaneous

Celebrated baby orca, first born in area since 2012, dies

Screen shot 2014-10-23 at 7.30.50 PMScreen shot 2014-10-23 at 7.30.32 PMA killer whale calf born about seven weeks ago in the Salish Sea off the south coast of B.C. has died, says Orca Conservancy, a Washington-based volunteer group working to protect orcas and their habitat.

Called L120, the calf was celebrated as the first born in the area since 2012, and its death leaves 78 southern resident killer whales in a declining population considered endangered under Canada’s Species at Risk Act.

“I’m pretty bummed,” said Shari Tarantino, president of the conservancy.

The group had heard from scientist Ken Balcolm of the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor, Washington, that the calf had been absent for nearly a week. The mother, L86, was photographed Friday, Saturday and Monday without the calf and it was not seen with its brother or aunt.

“The whole family is there, except the baby, so it’s gone. They don’t stay away from their families that long,” Tarantino said.

Balcolm said the calf would have weighed about 180 kilograms.

Dr. Peter Ross, a marine toxicologist at the Vancouver Aquarium, said the death left him “discouraged but I won’t say panicked.” Thirty per cent of orca calves die before their first birthday, so the death could have been from natural causes, he said.

However, L120’s mother is one of only 18 female breeding southern resident killer whales.

For every southern resident orca, there are 100,000 people in B.C. and Washington, he said, which makes it imperative not to harm them by what we put into drains and toilets. These orcas are among the world’s most PCB-contaminated marine mammals as well as the most studied, he said.

L120 was a sibling of calf L112, named Victoria and born off the Ogden Point breakwater in 2009. It was killed by bluntforce trauma of unknown origin in the Juan de Fuca Strait in 2012.

A healthy male was born in 2005.

Tarantino said L120’s death could have been due to an inadequate milk supply, given that lactating females need up to four time more calories and there weren’t enough available Chinook salmon.

Other major dangers include noises from seismic testing and ocean traffic that impede the orcas’ communication, Ross said.


Posted in miscellaneous

Seven-week-old orca calf has died, group says

Screen shot 2014-10-23 at 7.02.40 PM

Screen shot 2014-10-23 at 7.01.37 PM

Screen shot 2014-10-23 at 7.01.55 PM

The southern resident population has dipped to 78, which is less than it was in 2005 when NOAA added the southern resident orcas to the Federal Endangered Species List.

Researcher Ken Balcomb with the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island said to be healthy the southern resident pods need to produce four or five babies a year. He believes a lack of salmon for the orca to eat is weakening the animals, and if salmon numbers don’t improve, the orcas could be in serious trouble.

Other scientists say the orca bodies are so contaminated that the mothers are feeding toxic milk to their babies.

The Puget Sound killer whales primarily eat fish, rather than other marine mammals. Offspring tend to stay with their mothers for life.

Fish runs are much stronger in Hood Canal than they were 30 years ago, according to the Orca Conservancy, but the South Resident Killer Whales haven’t rediscovered it since restoration. When food is hard to find, it’s hard for lactating females to produce enough milk to support a calf, according to Orca Conservancy.

Posted in miscellaneous

Send in the Drones….


Screen shot 2014-10-23 at 6.39.00 AMScreen shot 2014-10-23 at 6.40.01 AM


Mobly, a customer-built hexacopter, is noisy. (You can hear it buzzing in the video above.) Mobly is much quieter, however, than a helicopter and can get much closer to whales swimming in the ocean—close enough, even, to spot individual whales’ distinctive markings.

Flying a drone just about anywhere can be fraught with challenges. Yet one group of marine researchers braved the paperwork and regulations to capture some footage of killer whales swimming along the northeast coast of Vancouver Island. Mobly hovered over pods of orcas and snapped good quality photos of 77 different whales over a few weeks in late August, reports Robbie Gonzalez for io9.com.

Killer whales love to each Chinook salmon, but researchers think that poor salmon seasons and fishing may be effecting the health of the whale populations. This drones’-eye view will help the team identify individuals and figure out how healthy the whales are.

A collaboration among Vancouver Aquarium,  NOAA and a company called Ariel Imaging Solutions, the project aimed to measure orcas’ weight to see how the whales were faring. When orcas loose weight, they “replace much of the fat in their blubber layer with water in order to maintain a firm, streamlined shape,” writes cetacean researcher Lance Barrett-Lennard in a blog post. Changes in body shape like this aren’t visible from the side, but the team suspected that it might be visible from above.

Barrett-Lennard describes what they found:

That first day was memorable not only for images of whales, but for the amount of high-fiving that took place….The images of the whales were stunning, and revealed right away that we weren’t going to have difficulty distinguishing robust and thin whales. We could readily identify individuals based on scratches and scars on theirs saddle patches, which were easier to see from above than I expected, and we could positively identify pregnant females. Most importantly, the whales didn’t react to Mobly visibly; not only did they not appear disturbed, they didn’t seem to notice him at all.

A good salmon season this year meant that most of the whales are doing well. However two orcas, an older male and a female who had lost a calf earlier this year, were very thin. Both were missing by the end of the short study.

The drone’s footage also captured some less serious footage—young orcas playing, lots of social interaction within groups and dolphins hanging out with the killer whales.

Barrent-Lennard notes that he looks forward to more drone-aided whale research, and, indeed, other teams are also working on this same idea. One group from Olin College and the whale conservation nonprofit Ocean Alliance hopes to use a drone to fly through whale ‘blow,’ the spray cetaceans spout from their blowhole. Mucus, hormones and microbes in the blow could help the researchers monitor whale health another way. That group has yet to get all the permits, but perhaps the success of the Vancouver-based Mobly can smooth the way.

Posted in miscellaneous

7-Week-Old Baby Orca Missing, Presumed Dead

Screen shot 2014-10-21 at 6.41.34 PMScreen shot 2014-10-21 at 6.42.02 PMAssociated Press and Seattle Times staff

FRIDAY HARBOR — A killer whale born to much hope in early September apparently died while its pod was in the open ocean off Washington or British Columbia, the Center for Whale Research said.

The baby was the first known calf born since 2012 to a population of endangered orcas that frequent Puget Sound in Washington.

It has not been seen since its pod returned in recent days to inland waters of western Washington, said center’s Ken Balcomb.

“The baby is gone,” he said Tuesday.

The pod was offshore for a week to 10 days, and the orca designated L-120 might have been lost in a storm in the middle of last week, Balcomb said.

“A baby would not be without its mother for that long of a period. They generally stick right with its mother,” said Shari Tarantino, president of the board of directors at Orca Conservancy, a Seattle-based non-profit.

The baby’s body has not been found, she said, but it would be hard to find unless it washes ashore.

The baby was a member of “L pod,” one of three closely tracked families within the dwindling Puget Sound population.

Researchers observed the pod, but not the baby, on Friday in Puget Sound, on Saturday in the eastern Strait of Juan de Fuca, and on Monday in Haro Strait, between San Juan Island and Victoria, British Columbia.

The mother is there, aunt’s there, big brother,” Balcomb said. “The baby didn’t make it.”

That leaves 78 killer whales in the Puget Sound population.  In 2005, the group was protected under the Endangered Species Act.

The newborn was spotted in the first week of September off San Juan Island. Two other whales are presumed dead after disappearing earlier this year, so the birth was hailed.

“We were being guardedly optimistic that a turning point had been reached, but that is not the case,” Balcomb said.

The unique population numbered more than 140 animals decades ago but declined to a low of 71 in the 1970s, when dozens were captured for marine parks and aquariums. Then orcas were listed as endangered in 2005.

The striking black and white whales have come to symbolize the Pacific Northwest. Individual whales are identified by slight variations in the shape of their dorsal fins and distinctive whitish-gray patch of pigment behind the dorsal fin, called a saddle patch.

The Puget Sound killer whales primarily eat fish, rather than other marine mammals. Offspring tend to stay with their mothers for life.

Posted in miscellaneous

L120 Declared Deceased / Center for Whale Research Reporting

Monday, October 20, 2014.

Contact: Shari Tarantino, President – Board of Directors @ 216-630-5177 / orcaconservancy@gmail.com

Orca Conservancy regrets to inform you that seven week old L120 of the endangered population of Southern Resident Killer Whales has been declared deceased.

Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research said, “L86 was seen and photographed on Friday, Saturday, and Monday, all without L120.”

Screen shot 2014-09-08 at 10.23.19 PM

(photo credit: Center for Whale Research)

….Survivorship from near the time of birth to about 6 months of age was estimated to be about 60% through 1987 (estimated a few different ways, none of which were very precise, but all giving the same answer within a few percent).

Lactating females burn two-four times as many calories as other females. It’s hard to produce enough milk when food is hard to find, and it’s hard for a calf to survive when it does not get enough to eat.

Hood Canal used to be an important feeding area for SRKWs, but they lost interest in it while restoration was in progress. Fish runs are much stronger there now than they were 30 years ago but SRKWs haven’t rediscovered it.

In about 15 years, SRKWs should see benefits from the Elwha Dam removal. We hope we’ll still have enough of them left then that it will matter. We need to be doing a lot of additional restoration work to get population growth back in the 3%/yr neighborhood that we know is feasible.

Posted in miscellaneous

VICTORY FOR SRKWs – PUD Abandons Tidal Energy Project



Contact: Shari Tarantino, President – Board of Directors, Orca Conservancy / (216) 630-5177

October 1, 2014

Snohomish PUD Announces:  Admiralty Inlet Tidal Power Project not to advance due in part by opposition from Washington tribes, Pacific Whale Watch Association, and Conservation Groups lead by the Seattle based Orca Conservancy.

The announcement came on news that the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has decided not to fund 50 percent of the project as originally planned. SnoPUD announced Tuesday that it can’t move forward without those federal dollars.

Most, however, point to a growing wave of opposition by Washington tribes, whale watch operators and conservation groups to the siting of these four massive, perilously exposed and extremely loud turbines in sensitive wildlife habitat as the reason the DOE pulled the funding.

“We’ve said from the beginning there clearly wasn’t enough information about the effects that these experimental turbines would have on wildlife,” explains Orca Conservancy’s President Shari Tarantino. “And, with 79 Southern Resident Killer Whales left, that just wasn’t a gamble we were willing to take.”

The Snohomish PUD, by its own admission, hoped to place these turbines squarely in the path of orcas and 12 other federally protected species listed under the ESA.  Other possible sites were explored, but the Admiralty Inlet location was chosen primarily to save money in installing, maintaining and, in the event of approaching whales, manually braking the turbines to avoid injuries. The PUD estimates the time between a report of incoming wildlife and a diver-initiated shutdown of the blades at approximately five hours. Orcas are the fastest marine mammals on the planet, capable of speeds of about 35 miles per hour.

The turbines not only posed a threat to any creature coming into contact with them, they’re also dangerously loud. SnoPUD admits that the blades would have produced noise source levels up to 180dBs, and that research has shown that killer whales react strongly to a received level of 135dBs – the pain threshold.

“We’re absolutely ecstatic,”  continued Tarantino. “It’s a victory – and we’ll take it – especially for this endangered population.”

Posted in miscellaneous | Tagged , , | 1 Comment