Protecting our Salish Sea, the salmon and the southern resident orcas

Jessica Janes helps clean up the coast.

By Kalvin Valdillez, Tulalip news

The traditional Tulalip story, the Seal Hunting Brothers told by Martha Lamont, is the story of two young Tulalip men who lived at Priest Point. The brothers would travel the Salish Sea hunting for seals, salmon and shellfish for the entire community. The brothers prepared and delivered plates of fresh seafood to the elders as well as to their sister and her family, informing their sister to save some food for her husband, who was a carver and often away from home. The sister, however, disregarded her brother’s advice and distributed her husband’s share amongst herself and her children.

When the carver returned home, there was no food in sight. He asked his wife if her brothers dropped off any food for the family while he was away, to which she replied no. Upset at this news, the carver constructed a lifelike seal carved from cedar and enchanted the structure with magic to trick the brothers. They took the bait. The brothers harpooned the cedar seal statue while on a hunt and were pulled deep into the ocean only to wash ashore days later, miles away from home. Realizing what their brother-in-law did, they began their long journey home where they were presumed to be dead.

Upon their return to Tulalip, the brothers shared their story with their family and decided because of the complexities of the situation, they should live away from the tribe. They chose to begin a new life upon the waters that long provided food for their community, the Salish Sea, and became killer whales. Their descendants are said to be the southern resident orcas that still frequent the Salish Sea waters searching for Chinook salmon.

Similar stories of the brothers are shared within Indigenous communities all along the waterways of the Salish Sea, comprised of the waters now known as the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Puget Sound and Strait of Georgia. As the story goes, the brothers chose to stay close to home and often provided seafood to the Coast Salish peoples in times of famine.  The story teaches many important values of the Northwest tribes as well as explains our strong connection with the orca, who is often honored within the culture through stories and artwork.

The southern resident orcas are intelligent, sociable mammals who share a lot of the same values and traditions of the Coast Salish people. For instance, the southern resident orcas are known to perform ceremonial practices during social gatherings when all three pods, J, K and L, meet up, which is known as a superpod. The most recent superpod was held last week in the waters near Vancouver Island where footage of the gathering was caught by the locals and tourists of Victoria, British Columbia. The orcas also travel with the same pod for their entire life, relying on each other’s strengths within a multi-generational family, much like many Native communities.

Another similar interest we share with the orcas is our love for salmon. The importance of salmon to Coast Salish people has been well documented over the years and is integral to each tribe’s way of life. The tribes of Washington State were guaranteed fishing rights when signing the treaties with the United States Government in exchange for land. Since the Fish Wars, the Boldt Decision, and even up until today, tribes exercising that right have been met with a number of challenges.

Over recent years, the salmon population has seen a dramatic decline. A number of manmade dams and blocked culverts are preventing salmon from swimming upstream during spawning season and less salmon are returning each year. In fact, many tribes opted not to fish this season in hopes more salmon will spawn and increase salmon population. Pollution remains another constant concern for aquatic life in the Salish Sea with chemicals and waste pouring into the waters from storm water runoff and local ferries traveling the straits. The lack of salmon has caused tribes to stray from their traditional diets and therefore more tribal members are faced with health concerns.

The same can be said about the southern resident orcas. The lack of salmon and polluted waterways caused some serious health concerns for the whales including reproduction. The orcas are crying out for help. This past summer’s heartbreaking story about southern resident orca, Tahlequah (J35), carrying her dead newborn calf for seventeen days on a ‘tour of grief’ caused tears across the entire nation. And the recent proclamation of Scarlet’s (J50) death is further evidence that we need to take immediate action.

In the sixties and seventies, a third of the southern resident population were hunted at a young age and held captive at marine life amusement parks like SeaWorld. Orcas often live well past their eighties, but unfortunately all but one of the orcas captured have died at a young age. Tokitae, the last remaining poached orca, resides at the Miami Seaquarium and the Lummi tribe has been fighting for years to return the whale to the Salish Sea.

As a result of starvation, theme park poachings and pollution, the southern resident orcas were placed on the endangered species list in 2005 after a significant drop in population of nearly twenty orcas over the course of a decade. Since then, the number of orcas has been steadily declining. With the passing of Scarlet, only seventy-four orcas remain.

Because of the recent news, Washington State Governor Jay Inslee established a southern resident orca task force whose main focus is orca protection and recovery. Members of the task force include representatives from Washington state, a handful of tribes and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The passing of both J35’s calf and J50 is opening up an important conversation about respecting Mother Earth and taking care of the environment. More and more citizens are participating at rallies in support of the salmon and orca such as the Festival of the Steh-Chass in Olympia and the Salmon Celebration in Seattle. The most recent effort united over thirty communities throughout Washington state and British Columbia.

September 15 marked International Coastal Cleanup day, where seaside communities participated in clearing their local beaches of any trash or harmful products. Communities of the Salish Sea, along with a number of non-profits like 350 and the Orca Network, banned together to tailor International Coastal Cleanup day to the Pacific Northwest communities by organizing Salish Sea Day of Action, which provides information and resources about the state of the Salish Sea, the southern resident orcas and the salmon habitat at the cleanup events.

Citizens of Tacoma, Port Townsend, Edmonds, Shoreline, Bellingham, Lopez Island and Mount Vernon, as well as Victoria and Vancouver, gathered in their respective hometowns to clean the beaches, offer prayer, honor and thank the water for its plentiful resources on the rainy Saturday morning.

“Today is a day of action for the Salish Sea and we wanted to join in,” says Amanda Colbert of the Orca Network at the Action for Orcas event in Mount Vernon. “It’s also International Costal Cleanup so there are quite a few events all up and down the coast with multiple organizations. Orca Network decided we wanted to be a part of this because, as you know, any trash, pesticides and chemicals that wind up in any of our rivers eventually leads to the ocean. I’ve run a beach cleanup once out here before and I just thought that this would be another wonderful opportunity to jump in and get the community on board.”

The Orca Network event attracted many participants and the sands of the Bayview State Park in Mount Vernon were trash free in no time. During the cleanup, attendees passionately spoke of protecting the environment and the southern resident orcas.

Ryan Rickerts, volunteer.

“The oceans are definitely in trouble,” says Ryan Rickerts of Bellingham. “Most of the planet is covered by water, it’s our source of everything. Coming here today is a way for me to connect and give back a little bit. The orcas are in real big trouble, so I wanted to be around likeminded people that care about the ocean, the orcas and wanted to do something to help. Hopefully we keep this up; good energy is building. With the orcas that have been dying, hopefully that creates a sense of urgency for people to get together. The Swinomish hosted the orca task force meeting a couple weeks ago and I think it’s good for people to come together to keep talking about it and try to find solutions. We have to take action and it helps to have conversations and get everybody at the same table because it’s going to take everyone.”

Tulalip tribal member and Water Protector, Kayah George, hosted a prayer service the day following Salish Sea Day of Action where she shared spiritual and cultural teachings about the water during Sunday worship at the Woodland Park Presbyterian Church.

“What concerns me about what’s happening in the Coast Salish Sea is the same thing that has been concerning my people for hundreds of years,” Kayah passionately expressed in a video leading up to Salish Sea Day of Action and her prayer service. “It is the disrespect. The utter and complete lack of respect for our brothers and sisters in the sea and for the sea itself. It’s not seen as a living thing; they see it as something that’s disposable.”

The number of supporters at the Salish Sea Day of Action events shows that people are beginning to listen to the calls for help by the beautiful coastal killer whales. And through a combined effort, we can all make a difference in protecting the orcas by restoring the salmon habitat, and that begins with the removal of dams, culvert repairs and environmental awareness.

“There are plenty of ways that people can start,” shares Amanda. “A lot of it is being focused on what you buy at the grocery stores. There are cleaner, greener products out there that are biodegradable. We have to move away from single use products. A lot of what was picked up here today was plastic wrappers, straws and cups that are only used once. So it’s helpful anytime anybody can pick up a water bottle or a green bag. If you don’t want to give up straws, there are companies making reusable metal or BPA-free plastic straws. What we treat our lawns with also has a huge impact. We get a lot of rain here so a lot of things end up in the storm drains. I’m thankful for all the volunteers that came out today and for the opportunity to reach and talk to people about our southern residents and what they’re going through.”

To stay up to date on the southern resident orcas, please visit or check out the Department of Ecology at to find out more about the Orca Task Force, Salish Sea spills and cleanups, salmon recovery and upcoming meetings and events.

Feds studying how to expand protections for endangered orcas


Photo: Center for Whale Research
Photo: Center for Whale Research



By Associated Press; KOMO News 


SEATTLE (AP) – The National Marine Fisheries Service is studying how to revise habitat protections for endangered orcas that spend time in Washington state waters.

The federal agency said Monday it is responding to a petition by the Center for Biological Diversity. The group wants to expand protections for southern resident killer whales to include offshore waters from Cape Flattery, Wash., to Point Reyes, Calif.

The agency says it didn’t have enough data or analyses yet to propose revisions requested in the petition. It would publish a proposed rule in 2017 after collecting more data and completing studies.

Spokesman Michael Milstein says the agency is outlining a process to determine whether an expansion of critical habitat is warranted.

The federal government has already designated inland waters of Washington as critical to orca conservation. Such a designation requires federal officials to limit activities that harm the whales.

Navy Seeks Permits To Expand Testing Off Northwest Coast

Sailors unloading sonobouys from a Sea Hawk helicopter. The Navy wants to expand its permit to deploy vessels and sonobouys off the Washington, Oregon and northern California coastline.U.S. Navy
Sailors unloading sonobouys from a Sea Hawk helicopter. The Navy wants to expand its permit to deploy vessels and sonobouys off the Washington, Oregon and northern California coastline.
U.S. Navy


By Ashley Ahearn, KUOW


SEATTLE — For the past several years the Navy has been in the process of renewing the permits it needs under the Marine Mammal Protection Act to continue detonating explosives and performing sonar tests and other military activities along a large swath of the Northwest coast, from Northern California to the Canadian border.

Starting Monday, the Navy is asking for public comment on asupplement to its initial environmental impact statement. The supplement includes consideration of an increase in escort vessels and other traffic and anti-submarine warfare training using sonobuoys. Sonobuoys are 3-foot long buoys that are dropped from aircraft into the ocean. The devices use active sonar to detect submarines beneath the surface. The sonar is harmful to whales and dolphins.

Marine mammals like porpoises, gray and fin whales and endangered orcas travel through the Navy’s training range. That’s raised alarm among marine mammal advocates who have voiced concerns about the Navy’s activities. EarthJustice and others conservation groups are opposed to the Navy’s desire to conduct testing and training within the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary.

The Navy says it will keep a lookout for marine life during the exercises.

The public has until Feb. 2 to submit comments.

Upcoming public meetings:


Grays Harbor College HUB
1620 Edward P. Smith Drive
Aberdeen, WA 98520


Isaac Newton Magnet School Gym
825 NE 7th St
Newport, OR


Eureka Public Marina, Wharfinger Building, Great Room
1 Marina Way
Eureka, CA 95501

Pipeline proponents consider explosives in ocean to scare whales from potential oil slicks

By Stanley Tromp, the Globe and Mail


The proponents of two controversial pipelines to British Columbia’s coast say they would consider deploying underwater firecrackers, helicopters and clanging pipes, among other methods, to ensure whales don’t swim toward any disastrous oil spill that might result from increased tanker traffic carrying bitumen to Asia.

It’s called hazing and documents obtained by The Globe and Mail show the methods have been studied carefully by U.S. scientists before and since the disastrous Exxon Valdez oil spill killed 22 orcas in 1989. Last month, the Washington State Department of Ecology asked Trans Mountain to describe any plans it might have to help whales in a spill. In the preamble to its request filed with the National Energy Board, the department notes the proposed expanded pipeline would contribute to “potential cumulative effects on sensory disturbance,” something that “was determined to be significant for southern resident killer whales.”

“NOAA [National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration] identified oil spills as an acute extinction threat to the southern resident killer whales,” the U.S. department says in its request for information from the pipeline project.

“Please describe any Trans Mountain plans to minimize the direct acute threat to marine mammals in general and southern resident killer whales in particular by applying techniques such as the use of ‘hazing’ to drive the animals out of areas heavily affected by surface oil slicks,” says the request for information.

On June 18, Trans Mountain replied that some hazing methods “have historically worked well with killer whales,” and it might consider endorsing them in consultation with Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans, the lead Canadian response agency.

“The need for and use of marine mammal deterrence activities would be considered prior to or during emergency response operations,” Trans Mountain writes.

It then lists the techniques that might be available, including fire hoses directing streams of water at whales, boat traffic to generate noise, helicopters to make noise and stir up water and other acoustic deterrents.

The response notes that NOAA has approved use of metal pipes called Oikomi pipes for noise and a kind of low-frequency bomb in the event of an oil spill, but Trans Mountain cautions: “No single deterrence technique will work in all situations.”

Northern Gateway’s submission to the National Energy Board last year discussed hazing for three pages, adding “oil response plans (including a marine mammal hazing plan) will be developed with DFO and certified responders before operations.”

Fisheries and Oceans did not reply to The Globe’s questions about hazing.

If both pipelines are approved, tanker traffic plying the B.C. coast would increase by more than 600 ships a year, raising concerns from aboriginals, environmentalists and U.S. officials about the increased potential for a spill on the Pacific coast.

U.S. authorities have closely examined hazing for years. One 1994 study found Oikomi pipes – 2.4-metre-long reverberant metal pipes hung from a vessel and hit to produce a ringing sound – could be deployed from boats spaced 180 metres apart to create an acoustic fence to move whales away.

Underwater firecrackers, also called seal bombs, have also been studied. They are small explosives inside a cardboard tube. When weighted, set with an eight-second fuse, and tossed into the sea, they sink and explode with an acoustic signal. A report of 1986 said they have been used successfully in hazing non-whale marine species.

But despite all the studies, Don Noviello, an oil spill response specialist at Washington State’s Department of Fish and Wildlife and author of reports on hazing, said it’s not clear whether the techniques will work.

“I am unaware that any whale hazing techniques have been, or will be, scientifically tested on actual whales,” Mr. Noviello said.

Added Vancouver Aquarium whale specialist Lance Barrett-Lennard: “I do think that hazing might be appropriate in some circumstances.”

Special to The Globe and Mail

EarthFix Conversation: Puget Sound Whales For Sale

A young orca captured in Penn Cove in 1970, which is believed to be Lolita, an orca that whale activists have been fighting to have set free in Puget Sound after 44 years in captivity at the Seaquarium in Miami. | credit: Dr. Terrell Newby
A young orca captured in Penn Cove in 1970, which is believed to be Lolita, an orca that whale activists have been fighting to have set free in Puget Sound after 44 years in captivity at the Seaquarium in Miami. | credit: Dr. Terrell Newby


By: Ashley Ahearn, KUOW


The resident killer whales of Puget Sound are an endangered species. There are about 80 of them left.

But there was a time, not too long ago, when people were catching these whales and selling them into captivity.

In the 1960s and ‘70s an estimated 35 orcas were taken from Puget Sound. 13 were killed in the process.

Sandra Pollard has documented the history of orca capture in Puget Sound in a new book: Puget Sound Whales For Sale: The Fight To End Orca Hunting.

She spoke with EarthFix’s Ashley Ahearn about this dark period in orca history.

Ashley Ahearn: Let’s go back in time here a little bit, why did people start catching orcas?

Sandra Pollard: I think there was probably an element of the trophy hunter there but also they didn’t like whales very much in those days, particularly the orcas, because they thought they were taking the salmon. And in the ‘60s the Navy used them as target practice for strafing runs and many of the whales that eventually turned up in marine parks had bullet holes in them.

So they were not respected. They were disliked. The people who did revere and respect them were the Native American people and they’re on their tribal crests and they looked up to them and they still do.

Ahearn: So it’s been almost 50 years since the first captive orca arrived in Seattle. Can you tell me about that whale and what happened, what was his story?

Pollard: That’s correct. The first whale was called Namu and a man called Ted Griffin had an aquarium down in Seattle, the Seattle Marine Aquarium, and he’d always wanted to have a killer whale and two whales actually washed up in British Columbia at Warrior Cove. They got caught in nets when a couple of fishermen abandoned their nets to get away from a storm. So they had two whales up there. One a bull and one a calf. The calf escaped but unfortunately the bull did not.




So Ted Griffin flew up to Warrior Cove and secured the whale, but then of course, he had to get it back to Seattle. So, with the help of fishermen, he built a three-sided pen with a net on one side and steel bars on the other and they brought Namu, as he was then called, down to Seattle in that three-sided pen. That was a 400-mile journey which took 18 days, and made a glorious entrance into Seattle to go-go dancers and great jubilation. But at the same time there were people there who didn’t like what they were seeing and there were protesters waiting with “Save The Whales” signs even back then. But that was how it all started.

Ahearn: And there was a Canadian biologist who went along for the trip and he describes the separation of Namu from his family. Can you read that section?

Pollard: Yes. The biologist was called Gil Hewlett and this is what he had to say.

“When they are within 300 yards of the pen, Namu lets out a terrifying squeal, almost like a throttled cat. He leaps out of the water and crashes against the left corner of the pen. There is terrific thrashing and he is making all kinds of sounds. Then they are there again, the same family of the cow and two calves. They came straight up behind the pen to about 10 feet away, tremendous squealing going on. Namu seemed to lose all coordination in the pen. He kept getting swept against the cargo net and swimming vigorously forward. The family unit circles around towards the end of the pen.”

Ahearn: Now the family unit follows him a certain distance but then they stop. What happens?

Pollard: Yes the female and the two calves follow him to an area called Seymour Narrows up in British Columbia near Campbell River and then they gradually fell back. And it has been found that the Seymour Narrows area is really the dividing line between the northern residents and the southern residents.

Ahearn: What was the public sentiment around orcas that were being captured and taken into captivity for entertainment? How were people responding at the time?

Pollard: For the most part I think they were thrilled to see this exotic creature up close and personal and impressed by the abilities it had because they are such intelligent creatures that they learn tricks for food. But I think the general consensus was more one of wonder. But there were still those creeping suspicions that this wasn’t right.

Ahearn: It seems that in terms of public sentiment changing about orca capture the most notorious, the most well known capture, occurred in Penn Cove on Whidbey Island in 1970. Can you tell me what happened on that day?

Pollard: That was on either August the 7th or 8th, 1970 and the three pods of Southern Resident orcas known as J,K and L were going north, probably back to the San Juan Islands, and Ted Griffen and Don Goldsbury and the capture team they went out in boats and started to turn them back towards Whidbey Island and the idea was to drive them into Holmes Harbor, which is a sheltered place on Whidbey Island. And they used seal bombs, which are loud explosive devices. And they also used buzzing aircraft.

But they didn’t get them into Holmes Harbor. The whales are very clever and they brought in their diversionary tactics. The mothers and the calves headed up for Deception Pass and the males did a decoy action by going in the opposite direction. But it was too late. The boats outstripped them and they turned the mothers and the calves back and drove about 100 whales into Penn Cove on Whidbey Island. And they were held there in nets until they went through the selection process, which would be to corral the mothers away from the calves and split them up, because it was the calves that they wanted. They were smaller. They easier to transport. And they were easier to train.

The capture net pens in Penn Cove on Whidbey Island 1970.

And the rest of the whales that were turned away that they didn’t want, they stayed around. They’re a family unit. They’re highly social and they stay together for life. There is no dispersal, other than by death or human interference. So those whales stayed with the whales in the capture pens and eventually seven whales were selected for marine parks, which were already waiting around the world. Four calves were drowned and there also had been a female who had died. She had charged the net to try to get to her calf, so she also died during the process, as well. And this caused an uproar and a lot of feeling against the captures. And that started to be the turning point.

And the last whale to be taken from Penn Cove was Lolita and she remains at the Miami Seaquarium where she has been for 44 years.

Ahearn: Sandra, when did we stop taking orcas out of Puget Sound to sell to marine parks around the world?

Pollard: We stopped doing that in March, 1976 when six orca were driven into Olympia and the seal bombs were used and it caused a great hue and cry. There were protesters on the water. There were protesters on land. And there was a lawsuit, as well. So after a couple of weeks there were only two whales left because three had escaped. One had been turned away because it was too big and the two whales were turned over to the University of Washington to be radio tagged and tracked for as long as possible. I don’t think they were tracked for very long, but there was a lawsuit which stopped the captures in Washington state and Seaworld were not able to come back into Washington state and capture orca again and that was the last capture in Washington state.

Ahearn: So really the end of a very dark era for the orca in Puget Sound.

Pollard: It certainly was. And one wonders if that hadn’t happened how much longer the captures would have continued and how many more whales we would have lost.

Sandra Pollard is the author of Puget Sound Whales for Sale: The Fight To End Orca Hunting. You can find out about upcoming stops on her Northwest book tour here.


Key To Saving Endangered Orcas: Chinook Salmon, Says Local Expert

FILE -- In this file photo provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and shot Oct. 29, 2013, orca whales from the J and K pods swim past a small research boat on Puget Sound in view of downtown Seattle.AP Photo/NOAA Fisheries Service, Candice Emmons
FILE — In this file photo provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and shot Oct. 29, 2013, orca whales from the J and K pods swim past a small research boat on Puget Sound in view of downtown Seattle.
AP Photo/NOAA Fisheries Service, Candice Emmons


By Bellamy Pailthorp, KPLU

Following the release of a federal report on the state of endangered orcas, one local researcher says there’s one factor that matters more to the whales’ wellness than toxins and vessel traffic: fish.

Ken Balcomb, whom many regard as the godfather of whale conservation, is the director of the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor. For almost 40 years now, the center has been keeping track of every individual whale in the three pods that make up the southern resident population of the iconic orcas that live in Puget Sound.

Balcomb says among the risk factors outlined in the report summarizing a decade of research, the orcas’ food is what matters most. They are very picky eaters, and scientists now know that about 80 percent of their diet consists of chinook salmon, another endangered species. So, if we want to recover orcas, says Balcomb, we need to focus on recovering that specific species of salmon.

“They need food. And that’s where the emphasis should be, is on enhancement of the chinook salmon stocks in the Salish Sea and the whole eastern Pacific,” he said. “We’re just not going to have a predator population without a sufficient food population.”

The research also shows the orcas hunt less and call louder when vessels are in the area, and they head to the outer coast during the winter, foraging as far south as central California. Toxins are also a factor in whale mortality, says Balcomb; high levels are found in their blubber.

But he says transient orcas are surviving in growing numbers despite these conditions, because their diet includes seals and porpoises, and they have plenty to eat. The toxins only become a critical factor when the whales are going hungry and living off their fat, triggering the toxins’ release, according to Balcomb.

Feds Weigh Protecting Orcas In West Coast Waters

NOAA Fisheries said Thursday it would consider a petition by the Center for Biological Diversity seeking to expand the critical habitat for southern resident killer whales. | credit: Dave Ellifrit/Center for Whale Research
NOAA Fisheries said Thursday it would consider a petition by the Center for Biological Diversity seeking to expand the critical habitat for southern resident killer whales. | credit: Dave Ellifrit/Center for Whale Research


SEATTLE (AP) — A federal agency is weighing whether to protect endangered orcas in the waters off the West Coast.

NOAA Fisheries said Thursday it would consider a petition by the Center for Biological Diversity seeking to expand the critical habitat for southern resident killer whales.

NOAA has already designated inland waters of Washington as critical to orca conservation, but the group’s petition says offshore areas from Cape Flattery, Wash., to Point Reyes, Calif., should now be added as critical habitat. Such a designation would require federal officials to limit activities that harm the whales.

Orcas are frequently seen in Puget Sound during the summer, but scientists have been trying to better understand their winter movements. Federal biologists have tracked the orcas as they traveled extensively along the coast.


EarthFix Conversation: 25 Years Later, Scientists Remember The Exxon Valdez

Killer whales swimming in Prince William Sound alongside boats skimming oil from the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Scientists report that orca populations there have not recovered and oil is still being found. | credit: (State of Alaska, Dan Lawn) | rollover image for more
Killer whales swimming in Prince William Sound alongside boats skimming oil from the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Scientists report that orca populations there have not recovered and oil is still being found. | credit: (State of Alaska, Dan Lawn)



By Ahsley Ahearn, OPB

25 years ago today the Exxon Valdez, an oil tanker bound for Long Beach, Calif., ran aground in Prince William Sound.

11 million gallons of oil spilled out, polluting 1,300 miles of Alaska’s coastline.

At the time it was the largest oil spill in U.S. history.

Gary Shigenaka and Alan Mearns responded to the Exxon Valdez, and they’ve been studying oil spills ever since. They’re scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Seattle.

They told EarthFix’s Ashley Ahearn about their experience responding to the Exxon Valdez all those years ago.

Alan Mearns: Some places we’d go ashore and you’d see starfish that looked like they were sick, they were just kind of drifting around in the surf. And you could smell the oil too, in the places where there was plenty of it. It smelled like benzene, like you’re pumping gas at the gas station and you sniff that little bit of benzene as you pull the hose out of your car.

EarthFix: Gary, how were orcas impacted by the spill?

Gary Shigenaka: Two groups that frequent Prince William Sound crashed immediately after the spill. So since the time of the oil spill those populations have continued to be monitored and we can follow the trends and for the AB pod — the resident pod – there’s been a slow recovery. For the AT1 group, which is the transient pod, it’s been declining ever since the spill and the orca specialist for Prince William Sound, Dr. Craig Matkin, has predicted that that particular group is going to go extinct. It continues to decline with time. So it’s an unfortunate longterm legacy from the spill.

EarthFix: Some people thought the orcas would swim away, would avoid the oil spill itself, but that wasn’t actually the case, was it?

Shigenaka: What we all thought was that orcas are so smart. They will simply avoid the oiled waters. But we’ve got very good photographic evidence that shows that indeed they did not.

One photograph, an aerial photograph, shows orcas cutting through a slick and you can see where they’ve come to the surface right through the oil. There’s another shot of a pod of orcas right at the stern of the Exxon Valdez, right at the tanker.

EarthFix: What creatures were the most impacted or most harmed by the Exxon Valdez spill?

Mearns: Oh, birds. We’re talking about 200 to 300,000 I think, Gary.

Shigenaka: Yeah.

Mearns: Seabirds, mainly seabirds and some shorebirds. And of course that was the big thing you’d see in the news almost every day: pictures of an oiled bird, somebody picking it up, taking it to a wildlife rehabilitation station where they’d clean them and then hold them until they could be released.

Birds killed as a result of oil from the Exxon Valdez spill. Credit: Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council.


EarthFix: SO for people who weren’t alive, weren’t reading the paper when the Exxon Valdez spill happened, what were those animals going through? What happens to a bird when it interacts with an oil slick?

Mearns: Well, first of all, even though it’s in the spring and summer it’s still cold up there. If it’s not killed by being smothered by gobs and gobs of oil, if it’s a little bit of oil, it will succumb eventually to things like pneumonia-type diseases and things like that, so it suddenly causes birds that had good insulation not to have insulation and start suffering the effects of cold conditions.

Shigenaka: And the same holds true for another of the iconic wildlife species in Prince William Sound: the sea otters. They insulate themselves with that nice thick fur pelt and they are affected in the same way by oil disrupting their ability to insulate themselves during a spill.

EarthFix: 25 years later, how is Prince William Sound? What species have recovered, how does the place look?

Mearns: Well, 14 or 15 species or resource values have recovered. The recovery started a few years after the spill with things like bald eagles. A number of them were killed off but their population rebounded. The most recent recovery was just announced was of the sea otters that we were just talking about. So between 1991-92 when we started seeing reports of recovery of a few bird species and now we’ve had about 14 or 15 species recover but there’s still some others that haven’t yet.

EarthFix: Which ones are you most concerned about, Alan, or scientists are following most closely with concern?

Mearns: The orcas are really the ones we’re most concerned about now.

EarthFix: Is the oil gone?

Mearns: No. There are still traces of oil in the shorelines. When you go out at low tide and go into some of these back bay areas with gravel and sand overlying bedrock and dig down maybe a foot sometimes you’ll hit spots with oil that is still actually fairly fresh. We’ve encountered that at a few sites that we’ve monitored over the past 25 years.

Shigenaka: That’s been one of the 25-year surprises for us is that there are pockets of relatively fresh oil remaining both in Prince William Sound and along the coast of the Alaska Peninsula and that’s something that I don’t think any of us expected 25 years later.

EarthFix: What did this spill mean for your careers? You guys were both young bucks when this happened. And now, 25 years later, when you look back, what did it mean, the Exxon Valdez?

Shigenaka: I think overall, just the notion that we have a responsibility, both as responders and as scientists to try to communicate what we do and what we know in a way that’s understandable to the people who are affected.

EarthFix: There is more oil moving through this region now – more oil coming from the tar sands of Alberta and coming from the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota to refineries here in Washington state. If I talk to you guys 25 years from now, what do you hope we’re talking about?

Mearns: One thing that I worry about and I think Gary has some other things that he worries about is a lot of this new oil is going to be going through the Aleutian Islands, the great circle route, more and more tankers leaving here or in Canada and heading across. And in the Aleutian Islands, we thought Prince William Sound was remote, well the Aleutian Islands are even more remote. Getting equipment there, getting staff, we’ve had a few experiences with spills. I guess I’m concerned that there will be more spills in that region from this increased traffic out there.

EarthFix: Or elsewhere.

Mearns: Yeah.

Shigenaka: 25 years from now I’m hoping that we have a much better handle on how these novel new oils like the tar sands oil and the Bakken crude oil from North Dakota, how they behave in the environment and what their potential impacts are to exposed organisms because frankly right now we don’t really know how the stuff behaves, both types of oil, once it gets loose in the environment and we’re only beginning to understand what potential impacts there might be for the exposed communities.

Gary Shigenaka and Alan Mearns are scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Seattle. They responded to the Exxon Valdez spill 25 years ago.

Whales abound this fall


By on December 26, 2013, Three Sheets Northwest

If you’ve been surprised by the flurry of newspaper articles and Facebook posts about whale sightings in the Salish Sea this fall, it’s no fluke… there really have been an unusual number of unusually close encounters with the massive cetaceans in our waters this year.

The Vancouver Sun has the full story. Both recreational and professional whale watchers have been seeing an unusual amount of humpback and orca whales this season.

Some Canadian whale-watching businesses have been holding off from performing annual maintenance haul-outs because business has been so good in this traditional “off” season. Orcas, both transients and members of the Southern Resident pods, have been sighted almost daily off of Victoria.

At the same time, other orca pods have been ranging south through Puget Sound, escorting a ferry carrying artifacts from an archeological site of the Suquamish tribe, bouncing around between Admiralty Inlet and President Point, and generally making their presence known to mariners and waterfront communities through the north Sound. Humpbacks have popped up all up and down the coast, rubbing against whale watching boats here, and even nosing around a sensitive oil removal operation from a sunken hulk in Grenville Channel on the central BC coast.

Although this winter is seeing an unusual surge in whale encounters, the overall trend in the local orca population has been relatively stagnant. From an estimated level of around 200 individuals in the late 1800s, the local resident pod numbers dipped into the upper 60s by the late 1960s, and have slowly climbed to around 90 whales and stayed there for the past decade.

And increased orca sightings may not be a positive indicator overall; the surge in whale activity has coincide with a spike in local harbor seal populations. More food here may be drawing transients in from places where fewer prey than normal are available.

Humpback sightings, on the other hand, are a more unalloyed good sign. The huge mammals have not been widely hunted locally since 1966. The fact that they have returned to local waters in such numbers, says the Pacific Whale Watch Association, may indicate that some of the natural apprehension of human encounters has begun to fade. Several of the huge mammals have approached whale watching craft closely enough that the boats have been forced to shut down their engines and just drift until the whales have lost interest and moved on… anywhere from 15 minutes to two hours. One whale spent the time rubbing its face along the hull of an inflatable.

Whatever the reasons for the visits, it’s been a happy holiday season for the normally slow whale-watching trades.

Puget Sound orcas circle ferry carrying artifacts

About a half-dozen orca whales swim and splash close to a small research vessel following the group near Bainbridge Island in the Puget Sound Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2013, as seen some miles away from Seattle. The whales were among about 20 or more, believed to be from the resident J and K pods, seen traveling through the passage Tuesday afternoon. Photo: Elaine Thompson, AP
About a half-dozen orca whales swim and splash close to a small research vessel following the group near Bainbridge Island in the Puget Sound Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2013, as seen some miles away from Seattle. The whales were among about 20 or more, believed to be from the resident J and K pods, seen traveling through the passage Tuesday afternoon. Photo: Elaine Thompson, AP

SEATTLE (AP) — A large pod of orcas swam around a Washington state ferry in an impressive display as it happened to be carrying tribal artifacts to a new museum at the ancestral home of Chief Seattle, and some people think it was more than a coincidence.

Killer whales have been thrilling whale watchers this week in Puget Sound, according to the Orca Network, which tracks sightings.

But they were especially exciting Tuesday when nearly three-dozen orcas surrounded the ferry from Seattle as it approached the terminal on Bainbridge Island. On board were officials from The Burke Museum in Seattle who were moving ancient artifacts to the Suquamish Museum.

The artifacts were dug up nearly 60 years ago from the site of the Old Man House, the winter village for the Suquamish tribe and home of Chief Sealth, also known as Chief Seattle. The Burke, a natural history museum on the University of Washington campus, is known for Northwest Coast and Alaska Native art.

Also on board the state ferry was Suquamish Tribal Chairman Leonard Forsman who happened to be returning from an unrelated event. As the ferry slowed near the terminal, it was surrounded by the orcas, Forsman said Wednesday.

“They were pretty happily splashing around, flipping their tails in the water,” he said. “We believe they were welcoming the artifacts home as they made their way back from Seattle, back to the reservation.”

The killer whales have been in Puget Sound feeding on a large run of chum salmon, he said.

“We believe the orcas took a little break from their fishing to swim by the ferry, to basically put a blessing on what we were on that day,” he said.

Forsman believes there’s a spiritual tie between the tribe and the orcas. “They are fishermen like we are,” he said.

It was an auspicious arrival for about 500 artifacts that The Burke Museum had held for nearly 60 years, Suquamish Museum Director Janet Smoak said.

They include tools, decorative items and bits of bone and rock that date back 2,000 years.

The Old Man House — the largest known longhouse on the Salish Sea — was located at Suquamish on the shore of Agate Passage, about 13 miles northwest of Seattle. Chief Sealth, for whom Seattle is named, is buried there.

The longhouse was burned down by the U.S. government in the late 1800s. The artifacts were collected by a University of Washington archaeological investigation in the 1950s, according to the Burke museum.

In 2012, the tribe completed its new museum, which includes a climate controlled environment. The artifacts will be displayed to illustrate Suquamish culture in an exhibit called Ancient Shores Changing Tides.

Everyone was talking about the orcas at the Tuesday museum blessing ceremony and feast, Smoak said.

“Everyone was really excited and moved by the event,” she said.

The orcas, identified from their markings as members of the J and K pods, were seen this week along several routes between the Seattle area and the west side of Puget Sound, according to Howard Garrett of the Orca Network at Freeland.

He thought their intersection with the ferry carrying tribal artifacts was uncanny.

“I can’t rule out somehow they could pick up on the mental energy that there is something special there. Or it could be a coincidence,” he said. “I don’t know.”