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.

Lower Elwha Tribe studies wood movement in Elwha River


By: Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission

The Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe is tagging large woody debris to follow it as it moves through the newly restored Elwha River system.

“We’re tracking over 2,000 logs and tree stumps with silver tree tags, from the upstream end of Lake Mills to the river mouth,” said Vivian Leung, a doctoral student of geomorphology at University of Washington.

She’s been working with the tribe since 2012 to study how large wood debris (LWD) has affected the river during and after the removal of the river’s two-fish blocking dams.

“Not only did the dams completely block the supply of sediment downstream, but they also altered the transportation of large wood,” said Mike McHenry, the tribe’s habitat manager. “Both elements are critical for habitat forming processes not only in the river but in the nearshore. The fate of wood is relevant to the recovery of the river and its aquatic resources, especially salmon.”


Silver tags are attached to log and stumps throughout the Elwha River so scientists can track their movements as the river changes during restoration.

Silver tags are attached to log and stumps throughout the Elwha River so scientists can track their movements as the river changes during restoration.


As the dams came down, the lake Aldwell and Mills reservoirs were drained, leaving behind thousands of logs and tree stumps that had been buried under sediment and water for the past century. The natural action of the river is transporting the logs and stumps throughout the new riverbed, changing the dynamics of the river and creating better salmon habitat.

Leung is interested in how logjams form and affect channel patterns, how wood is transported through rivers and how the pools they create provide places for salmon to rest, feed and spawn.

“Surprisingly, there’s still a lot of research to be done to understand how large wood debris interacts with river systems,” she said. “So far we have found that logjams and salmon habitat are forming significantly faster in Aldwell than we expected.”

The large logs and rootwads also are aiding revegetation efforts of the lakebeds. The tribe hired a heavy-lift helicopter recently to relocate 500 unmarked logs around Mills. The logs were moved from the former reservoir pool elevation to terraces along the river’s floodplain.

These logs are expected to help stabilize steep slopes and provide sheltered areas for young plants to survive during planned revegetation efforts in the coming years, McHenry said. During 2014-2015, 100,000 woody plants will be planted into the former Mills reservoir surface.

Scientists On A Quest For Knowledge About Coal Dust Risks

By Ashley Ahearn, KUOW

WASHOUGAL, Wash. — Coal had been transported around the country by rail for decades before the recent push to bring it by train to ports in the Northwest.

And yet, scientists don’t really know how much coal dust could escape from rail cars, how far it might travel, and what coal-borne mercury and other contaminants might do to aquatic life.

With the permitting process moving forward for two large coal terminals in Washington, a team of scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey is trying to find out how the chemicals in coal might interact with the environment.

“We really don’t know what the effects are and whether it is an issue,” says Bob Black, a scientist with the USGS.

Black is the lead scientist on the new study, which has him squelching through the muck at the Steigerwald Wildlife Refuge near Washougal, Washington. The refuge is sandwiched between the Columbia River to the south, and train tracks to the north.

Black and his team are gathering data for a first-of-its kind scientific study of coal and its potential impacts on wetland ecosystems. As he sloshes through the shallow marsh’s waters to plant minnow traps, Black says he knows that he’s also wading into a controversial issue.

“There are communities that are economically interested in this and then there are suggested environmental impacts and ultimately I can have my own personal views but I can’t let those come into play and essentially that’s our role. We can’t let that be part of our science,” Black says.

The team fans out across the marsh as a BNSF Railway train screeches along tracks less than a quarter-mile away. This train is not hauling coal. Right now, roughly one coal train per day travels along the Columbia River before turning north and following the shoreline of Puget Sound to service Canadian coal terminals. But if terminals are built in Longview and near Bellingham, that number could jump to more than 20 coal trains per day.

Some coal does escape from trains, as BNSF has testified publicly in the past. Environmental groups have sued BNSF Railway for violating the Clean Water Act by allowing coal and coal dust to escape from trains and get into waterways along tracks in the Northwest. A judge ruled this month in favor of local groups in Seward, Alaska after they sued a nearby coal terminal for similar Clean Water Act violations. However, supporters of coal exports have called the coal escapement issue a red herring, used by anti-coal environmental groups to spark public alarm.

Looking For Coal Clues

The USGS is gathering samples of muck, fish and insects from two sites in this wildlife refuge, one close to the tracks, the other farther away. The goal is to find out whether more mercury and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are showing up near the train tracks and how those contaminants are behaving in the environment.


Collin Eagles-Smith hunts for dragonfly larvae at Stiegerwald
Lake National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: Ashley Ahearn


Collin Eagles-Smith, an ecologist with USGS, stands thigh-deep in the marsh, net in hand. He’s sifting through handfuls of black muck, looking for dragonfly larvae. When he finds one, he opens his palm to display the specimen before putting it in a little plastic baggy to take back to the lab for analysis. Eagles-Smith says dragonflies can serve as vectors to transmit mercury contamination out of the aquatic environment and into land-based ecosystems because they feed on all kinds of plankton and other tiny organisms. When they grow up and fly out of the muck they are in turn eaten by birds, frogs, fish and other animals, potentially transferring mercury contamination up the food chain.

“So what we’re looking at is essentially, is there mercury in this dragonfly and then we’re going to be using a fairly sophisticated approach to fingerprint the isotope ratios of the mercury to see if we can say whether the mercury in this dragonfly was from coal dust,” he explains.

By comparing dragonfly larvae, sediment and fish samples from this site with those from another site farther from the tracks, the team hopes to see how far contamination from coal trains could travel. But Eagles-Smith says there are still a lot of questions about how active the mercury in coal might be if it gets into the environment. Mercury is believed to be inert and less harmful to the environment until it goes through a complex biological process known as mercury methylation.

“I like to think of it as activating the mercury, and it makes it more biologically available, more toxic. Do you smell that rotten egg smell?” Eagles-Smith asks from his mucky perch. “That is the smell of tiny organisms breaking down organic material. Those same organisms are the ones that take the mercury, the less toxic form of mercury, and convert it into the methyl mercury.”

Once it’s methylated, mercury has been shown to be a potent neurotoxin, Eagles-Smith explains. “It can influence stress hormones, thyroid hormones, and sex hormones so it can impact wildlife reproduction, fish behavior, their survival, their ability to hunt for prey or their ability to avoid predation.”

The unique rotten-egg decaying process that takes place in low-oxygen marshy environments like this means that wetlands could be hotspots for transforming inert mercury from coal into a more toxic and biologically-available form that can then make its way up the food chain, the scientists worry.

Emerging technology is helping scientists zoom in on more specific sources of mercury pollution in the environment. Mercury can travel in air pollution for thousands of miles. But scientists want to know if coal trains that pass through wetlands like this might serve as a sort of direct deposit of mercury pollution.

The USGS expects to have preliminary results within the next 6 months, though the researchers caution that this is a small sample size and more study is needed. The results will be shared with the state and federal agencies that are studying the environmental impacts of the two proposed coal terminals in the Northwest.

Study Evaluates Young Native Adults’ Connection to Tribal Lands


By: Andrea Kelly, Arizona Public Media


University of Arizona master’s student Aurora Trujillo is a member of the Taos Pueblo nation in New Mexico, a full-time resident of Tucson during the school year, and is working at an internship in Montana this summer.

She is representative of other young adults who do not live on the tribal reservation land of their native nation, and two UA researchers are hoping to find out how people in a similar situation stay connected with their culture.

Jennifer Schultz and Stephanie Rainie are asking 18- to 29-year-olds from Indian Country to share information about their off-reservation lives. They work at the Native Nations Institute at the UA. The institute’s projects aim to study tribal governance and share adaptable models of success among various tribes.

They chose the topic of study after hearing tribal leaders express an interest, Rainie said.

“Trying to engage those citizens and seek their input and have them be viable, active members in the community, even when they’re gone is something that a lot of tribal leaders have been thinking about,” she said.

People in the age range the two hope to hear from are making important decisions, and will shape the future of their native nations, Schultz said.

“The period between the ages of 18 and 29 is really important for identity formation, for making choices about life partners, for making choices about jobs, for choosing where you’re going to live, ultimately,” she said.

More than 50 percent of the country’s native population does not live on reservations, Schultz said.

“Over the past several decades, native nations have made a lot of great strides culturally, economically, and in other respects,” she said. “One of the questions we still don’t know a lot about is the experience of tribal citizens, especially young people, and it continues to be a population of great interest to tribes.”

While the study has a specific focus: young adults’ connection, or lack of, to native lands, the goals are broad and will inform other research, Schultz said.

“This project was developed to serve the needs of native nations by facilitating the exchange of ideas, stories of what’s working and to basically be a general resource for tribes in dealing with this issue,” she said.

Trujillo is a graduate research assistant at the Native Nations Institute. She grew up on and near the Taos Pueblo reservation, and attended Bureau of Indian Affairs schools.

This summer she is working on the Blackfeet reservation in Montana, as part of her education toward a master’s degree in public health. When she’s in Tucson for the academic year, she makes the 600-mile, 10-hour drive to her nation for ceremonies and dances.

She feels a responsibility and an honor in doing so, she said.

“Our traditions are thousands of years old and it makes me feel really good to be part of that. It makes me feel like I am connected to the land you know by blood. I feel connected even though I’m not there. I still know who I am and know where I came from,” Trujillo said.

It’s also her identity.

“It’s who I am, and it feels good to belong to that, so I want to keep it going. I like how strong it is, we’re a very traditional culture. It makes me feel good to be a part of something that’s larger than myself.” she said.

The researchers want to look beyond the state of young adults’ relationships with their tribal nations. Through follow-up interviews, Schultz said she and Raine hope to ask participants for suggestions for changes in tribal communication to improve connectedness with those living away from the reservations.

“On the one hand we hope to come up with stories of what’s working, but also stories of what might work, and utilize the creativity of these young people in the service of their nation,” Schultz said.

Academic work with tribal communities sometime lacks data, Rainie said, so the responses to these questions will inform the Native Nations Institute for a while.

“This is a start, a pilot project,” Rainie said. They are “trying to gather initial data to focus and refocus where we’re going with this project.”

One such suggestion for future projects is to help tribes find a way to improve economic opportunities for young adults, Trujillo said. The nations can be good at encouraging young people to move away for education and opportunity, but the message to come back is not as loud, Trujillo said. She said she thinks a big part of that is lack of opportunity to draw people back to their native lands.

She speaks Tiwa, the language of her Taos Pueblo. Every time she goes home, it’s a challenge to refresh her language skills, she said. The language is not written, only spoken, and she said she would like to help herself and others study it from afar.

“Maybe if we recorded some languages, you know some phrases, and sent the recording to a student or somebody who was living off the reservation and they could keep learning while they were away and then of course practice when they come back home,” she said.

The researchers are also interested in the connections young American Indians make in their non-reservation communities. Trujillo said she has formed valuable connections in Tucson, even though there are not many Pueblo Indians in town.

She said she makes those connections at the Tucson Indian Center.

“They have a walking club every Wednesday and it’s with some elderly ladies,” she said. “Even though they’re not from my tribe, it’s sort of like they fill a bit of an auntie/grandmotherly void.”

That void is notable when she is not at home in New Mexico, she said.

“I grew up surrounded by women and I feel like I need that sometimes and it feels really good to be around them,” Trujillo said.

She wants to continue to be connected to tribal lands, even if they are not the ones she experienced as a girl.

“Of course everybody wants to go back and serve their reservation, but I also feel part of the larger Indian Country community, so I’d hope that I can use my education to serve anybody,” she said.

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Study finds oil from BP spill impedes fish’s swimming

A ship floats amongst a sea of spilled oil in the Gulf of Mexico after the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster. By kris krüg via Wikimedia Commons
A ship floats amongst a sea of spilled oil in the Gulf of Mexico after the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster. By kris krüg via Wikimedia Commons


MIAMI — In a lab on Virginia Key, a group of baby fish are being put through their paces on a tiny fish treadmill.

The inch-long mahi-mahi, being used as part of a study to assess damage caused by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill that spread crude across the Gulf of Mexico for 87 days in 2010, were exposed when they were embryos to oil collected during the cleanup. Now, at 25 days old, the oil is doing exactly what scientists suspected it would do: hamper the swimming of one of the ocean’s fastest fish.

And significantly so. Young mahi usually swim at a rate of five body lengths per second. For perspective, imagine a 6-foot man swimming 30 feet in a second. The fish, struggling against a current in a little tube attached to a propeller called a swim tunnel, can only muster three body lengths.

For a fish that needs speed to survive, this could mean bad news. Mahi, one of the most popular fish on menus, is already heavily fished. So losing a generation to an oil spill could take a toll. It also suggests that other fish suffered from the spill.

“Any life form is optimized compromise,” Martin Grosell, one of the study’s authors, said as a way of explaining physiology perfectly evolved to maximize speed. And if you mess with that treaty of parts, he said, “you’re going to increase its vulnerability.”

The treadmill study marks the second in recent months by the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science that has found that oil from the largest spill in U.S. history damages young pelagic fish, the large predators found in the open ocean. In March, UM researchers working with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists determined that the BP oil also damaged the hearts of tuna embryos, a condition that likely killed them in the wild.

Both studies – disputed by BP – are worrisome because tuna, whose numbers have dropped by as much as 75 percent in the last 40 years, and mahi began their spring spawning just as the spill occurred, sending fragile embryos across warm surface waters and into a patchwork of oil slicks that covered more than six square miles.

These newest findings, published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, build on that earlier report by looking at fish as they age.

BP says the study is invalid because, according to the company, the tests used concentrations of oil not found in the Gulf during or after the spill. Researchers also failed to look at adult fish, spokesman Jason Ryan said in a statement.

“The tests only looked at impacts to fish under one year of age,” he said. “Even if there had been an effect on a single-year class of such fish, the study does not provide any evidence to show that an effect on that group of fish would have had a population-level impact.”

After the spill, NOAA began enlisting scientists to investigate the damage it caused – so far, the studies range from the acoustic damage done to endangered sperm whales to oil in fiddler crabs. For pelagic fish, which are particularly sensitive to changes in their near-constant deep-water environment, scientists want to know how much oil it takes to affect the fish and what those effects are.

To test the mahi, researcher Ed Mager first mixed oil from the spill and seawater in a Waring blender at concentrations replicating the spill. He exposed one group of embryos to the mix for two days and then raised them in clean seawater. Another group was raised in clean water and exposed to oil when they reached about 25 days.

Mager also wanted to ensure that no other factors stressed their performance. Like all babies, the mahi startle easily. So he wrapped the treadmill – a clear, four-inch swim tunnel outfitted with a propeller and immersed in a two-foot tank – in black plastic. Mager, who studied deadly respiratory viruses in premature human babies before he switched to fish, then curtained off the area and monitored his little subjects with a video camera.

Mahi are carnivores and foragers, so they swim fast. But when he turned on the treadmill, Mager was surprised to see that the outwardly healthy fish swam much slower. The ones exposed as embryos swam 37 percent slower. Those exposed as juveniles dropped 22 percent.

Because they are so sensitive to change, pelagic fish – and particularly fragile embryos and juveniles – can act as a kind of canary in a coal mine. So the information that Mager and the team have collected for the study, one of several ongoing at the school, will be fed to modelers to determine a more expansive view of the ecosystem after the spill and help figure out the limits for how much oil it can tolerate before damage happens.

“We’ll be a little closer to knowing what to look for and how bad when, I cynically say, the next spill happens. Because it will,” Grosell said.

Read more here: http://www.miamiherald.com/2014/06/24/4197992/study-finds-oil-from-bp-spill.html#storylink=cpy

Fish consumption rate: Why 20 years of studies is enough

Source: Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission

Over at Keep Our Seafood Clean, we’ve taken a look at the current debate in the state legislature over funding a new study on fish consumption rates in Washington. This isn’t a new debate, but after twenty years of study, some are still calling for “more study.”

Catherine O’Neill’s broad piece on the fish consumption rate has a great explanation on all of the attacks on previous fish consumption studies and why decades of work is enough.

Throughout the process of updating the FCR in Washington, there have been broadsides on the science that supports increased rates.

Although the relevant surveys of tribal fish consumption were carefully conducted to ensure their scientific defensibility, and have consistently been found to meet EPA’s (and sister states’) standards in this regard, their validity has nonetheless continued to be challenged by industry and individuals.

Ecology’s initial (Fish Consumption Rate Technical Support Document) FCR TSD considered three studies of tribal fish consumption and one study of Asian and Pacific Islanders in King County, finding each of these four studies to be scientifically defensible. In its FCR TSD, Ecology developed a set of criteria to determine the technical defensibility of fish consumption survey data, to be used in assessing the data’s relevance and appropriateness to the regulatory context in Washington, i.e., for use in standards for water quality, surface water cleanup, and sediment cleanup. …

As documented at length in the FCR TSD, each of the tribal studies considered… was found to have “satisfied” Ecology’s measures of technical defensibility.

The support for the previous studies has been deep and wide:

Moreover, the scientific defensibility of each of the tribal studies had previously been considered and affirmed in various assessments by EPA and by sister states. After an evaluation of the surveys according to five criteria, including the study’s “soundness,” “applicability and utility,” “clarity and completeness,” its handling of “uncertainty and variability,” and whether the study’s methods and information were “independently verified, validated, and peer reviewed,” EPA selected each of the tribal studies for inclusion in its general guidance document for conducting exposure assessments, the Exposure Factors Handbook. EPA Region X, moreover, recommends the Tulalip/Squaxin Island and Suquamish studies in its guidance for cleanups in Puget Sound, giving “highest preference” to these “well-designed consumption surveys.” Oregon’s independent Human Health Focus Group conducted an extensive year-long review and found each of these studies to be scientifically defensible, deeming them both “reliable” and “relevant.”

But, yet:

Still, the scientific defensibility of the tribal studies has been questioned, repeatedly, by individuals and industry as part of the Washington process. Some commenters asked that the tribal survey data be “verified” or sought additional “peer-reviewed studies generated through traditional means.”

Some people have asked that all the year’s of previous study be treated differently that other studies:

Some commenters called for the raw data (as opposed to the studies summarizing the survey results) to be “turned over” for “independent review” – a highly unusual request in general, given the ethical protocols that govern studies with human subjects, and a request in this context that is at the very least insensitive, given tribal populations’ understandable mistrust of handing over their raw “data” to outsiders.

To the credit of the state, the pushback against questioning these studies has been consistent. For example, in terms of turning over the “raw data”:

Ecology also called upon experts at the University of Washington School of Public Health to explain the standard practice in the field with respect to custody of survey data – an explanation that confirmed the inappropriateness of requests that the raw data be turned over to the public.

Even as late as last fall, Ted Sturdevant, then director of the Washington Department of Ecology told a house committee: “I’m confident that the studies that we’re relying on were done with all appropriate scientific rigor.”

So, why the need for even more study?