Endangered Species Act: a 40-year fight to save animals

Photo courtesy Howard Garrett / Orca Network, JuneMembers of L pod, one of the Salish Sea's resident orca pods, heads north up Boundary Pass to Georgia Strait.

Photo courtesy Howard Garrett / Orca Network, June
Members of L pod, one of the Salish Sea’s resident orca pods, heads north up Boundary Pass to Georgia Strait.

By Bill Sheets, The Herald

Forty years after the passage of the federal Endangered Species Act, the state and Snohomish County remain squarely on the edge of that preservation frontier.

More than 40 animal species in Washington are listed by the federal government as either endangered or threatened under the law, signed by President Richard Nixon on Dec. 28, 1973. Many others are listed as species of concern.

Among creatures found in waters in and around Snohomish and Island counties, seven species of fish or marine mammals are listed under the act.

Southern resident killer whales and bocaccio rockfish are listed as endangered. Puget Sound chinook salmon, Puget Sound steelhead, bull trout, yelloweye rockfish, canary rockfish and Pacific smelt are threatened.

Nationwide, 645 species of animals and 872 plants or trees native to the U.S. are listed as threatened or endangered, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Of the local fish species and orcas, salmon and bull trout were listed in 1999, the killer whales in 2005 and the other fish species in 2010.

Reasons cited for the decline of the fish are many, including pollution, overfishing and loss of habitat. In the case of killer whales, dwindling supply of their diet staple — chinook salmon — is a major contributing factor, officials say.

Supporters claim many success stories for the Endangered Species Act, with bald eagles and peregrine falcons among the more prominent examples.

Gray whales were taken off the list in 1994 and steller sea lions just this year.

According to U.S. Fish and Wildlife, 99 percent of the hundreds of species listed since the Endangered Species Act became law have been prevented from going extinct.

The law protects species by preventing them from being harmed or captured and by regulating human activity in their habitat areas.

Perhaps the best feature of the Endangered Species Act, some say, is that it keeps the species’ problems in the public spotlight.

“It has pulled people together to talk about what to do,” said Daryl Williams, environmental liaison for the Tulalip Tribes.

Recovery for many species, however, is slow and not guaranteed.

“Listing is a way of sort of planning for recovery, if you will,” said Brent Norberg, a marine mammal biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service in Seattle.

The southern resident orca population, for example, had 88 whales in 2004, the year before it was listed under the ESA. The population now is down to 80, according to the Orca Network, a Whidbey Island-based group that tracks the whales.

“Because they’re so long-lived and their recruitment is so slow and their numbers are so small, it’s going to be quite a lengthy process,” Norberg said.

William Ruckleshaus, the first director of the Environmental Protection Agency under Nixon in the early 1970s, is 81 and lives in Medina.

The EPA was created and Endangered Species Act was passed after pollution and declines in species had reached alarming levels, Ruckleshaus said. The Cuyahoga River in northeast Ohio, for example, famously caught fire in 1969.

“The public demanded something be done about it and the president responded,” he said.

He said the endangered species law might have overreached.

“We passed laws that promised levels of perfection that probably weren’t possible. It’s hard to do it, to be honest with you,” Ruckleshaus said. The law has been refined over time, he said.

Ruckleshaus works part-time for Madrona Venture Group, a venture capital firm, and has served on the boards of the Puget Sound Partnership Leadership Council and the Salmon Recovery Funding Board.

“The motivation behind the ESA couldn’t have been any higher — we want to preserve all living things on Earth. Who’s against that?” Ruckleshaus said.

“I think it’s been very positive overall,” he said. “It’s shown how what we believe to be innocent acts can have devastating effects on species.”

The Endangered Species Coalition, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental group, has issued a report titled “Back from the Brink: Ten Success Stories Celebrating the Endangered Species Act at 40.”

Among those stories is perhaps the most high-profile recovery: the national symbol, the bald eagle.

The eagle’s numbers in the 48 contiguous states declined from roughly 100,000 in the early 19th century to only 487 nesting pairs in 1963, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife website.

Several measures were taken to help the eagle, beginning with the 1940 Bald Eagle Protection Act, which made it illegal to kill an eagle. The pesticide DDT, found to have thinned the eggshells of eagles and other birds, was banned in 1972.

Still, “listing the species as endangered provided the springboard” for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to accelerate recovery through captive breeding, law enforcement and nest-site protection, according to the agency’s website

Bald eagles rebounded and they now number about 10,000. The eagles were taken off the list in 2007.

The Endangered Species Act’s effect on salmon is not so clear, the Tulalips say.

Development that destroys habitat is not restricted enough to offset the losses, Williams said.

“We’re still losing habitat faster than we’re gaining it from restoration,” he said.

The problem is inconsistency in rules among various agencies involved in environmental protection, said Terry Williams, fisheries and natural resources commissioner for the tribes.

Also, because of the ESA, some habitat restoration projects have to jump through the same hoops as other construction, causing delays in measures that could help fish, Daryl Williams said.

“I kind of have mixed feelings about it,” he said.

Those restrictions may be a necessary evil, said Norberg, of the fisheries service.

For example, if creosote-soaked logs are being removed from a waterway, if it’s not done properly, it could result in creosote finding its way back into the water, “so it does as much harm as it does good,” he said.

Restrictions also can affect landowners’ use of their property. This not only angers some property owners but can defeat the intent of the law, said Todd Myers, environmental director for the Washington Policy Center, a right-leaning think tank in Seattle.

Because the law governs use of land where a listed species is found, some landowners take steps to eliminate habitat for a species on their property so it won’t be seen there, Myers said.

“You get a regulatory stick that puts landowners at odds with habitat recovery,” he said.

A better way, he said, is to reimburse landowners for measures taken to preserve or promote habitat, he said.

“That at least takes a step toward making a landowner a partner as opposed to an opponent.”

Despite the ESA’s flaws, “it is working well in terms of bringing all the various parties together to talk and to plan accordingly,” Norberg said.

The decline of the salmon might not be reversed without it, Ruckelshaus said.

“It is an extraordinarily complex problem,” he said. “But for the ESA I doubt we would have paid the attention to it we have, and I think that is absolutely necessary for it to recover.”


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.

‘Killer Whale Tales’ returns Saturday

Source: The Herald

EVERETT — Researcher and professional photographer Jeff Hogan brings back his “Killer Whale Tales” to the NW Stream Center in Snohomish County’s McCollum Park, 600 128th Street SE, Everett.

The show is at 11 a.m. Saturday.

Hogan will show surface and underwater photos and videos. After attending this show, people will be able to identify when a whale is swimming to get to another location, hunting for salmon or just playing.

Hogan will also discuss the sleeping habits of orcas: Their brains are so large that they put half their brain to sleep, but use the other half to keep on the move.

Hogan also will provide a unique view of what it is like to swim with the San Juan orcas, thanks to a research webcam that was temporarily attached to a very large male killer whale’s dorsal fin.

He also will provide news on the baby orca that was born earlier this year and bring along a whale skull for people to examine.

Cost is $5 for Adopt A Stream Foundation members, $7 non-members. Proceeds benefit the Adopt A Stream Foundation’s Streamkeeper Academy.

Call 425-316-8592 now to register. Space is limited.

Good news for penguins: World’s largest marine reserve could be established around Antarctica

John Upton, Grist

Antarctica’s penguins could benefit from proposals to create huge international marine preserves in their ‘hood.

Antarctica’s penguins could benefit from proposals to create huge international marine preserves in their ‘hood.

Plans to protect more than 1.5 million square miles of ocean around Antarctica are getting serious consideration this week — and that could be a big benefit for whales, seals, birds, fish, krill, and other wildlife in the region.

The idea is akin to creating a vast national park, except that it would be an international park. And it would be larger than most nations. And it would be entirely soggy.

From USA Today:

On July 16, the members of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) — 24 nations and the European Union — will vote on two proposals for marine reserves, each one bigger in size than the state of Alaska. A U.S.-New Zealand one would set aside roughly 876,000 square miles in and around the frozen Ross Sea, a home for penguin nurseries and source of nutrients throughout the Pacific Ocean. A second European and Australian one would set aside a more than 700,000-square-mile string of protected marine reserves around Eastern Antarctica.

NPR has more, including a comparison to another big U.S. state:

“The total size of the marine protected area we are proposing is roughly 3 1/2 times the size of Texas,” says Ambassador Mike Moore, the former prime minister of New Zealand, who was talking up the joint U.S.-New Zealand proposal in Washington this spring. “So to misquote the vice president of the United States, ‘this is a big deal.’” …

But because these two areas are in international waters, creating marine preserves will require consensus from all of the nations in the pact known as CCAMLR …

When the group met to discuss the issue last fall, it couldn’t reach agreement. Russia, China and Ukraine were concerned about losing fishing rights in these seas. But they agreed to [a] meeting in Germany to try again.

That meeting is happening today and tomorrow in Bremerhaven, Germany.

The New York Times weighed in with an editorial over the weekend, urging the commission members to support the conservation proposals:

The biggest obstacle is Russia, which has expressed resistance to these reserves. It is joined by Ukraine, China, Japan and South Korea. Their hope is to manage fishing in the Antarctic much as it is managed elsewhere, with limits and restrictions. But the state of fisheries around the globe makes it clear that the most effective antidote to declining fish populations is the creation of totally protected marine reserves.

The Obama administration has expressed strong support for the idea of such protections in Antarctica, and many delegates to the Bremerhaven meeting are hopeful that sooner or later the Russians and other opponents can be brought on board. But when it comes to protecting ecosystems, sooner or later often means later, which often means too late. The time to protect the Antarctic Ocean is now.

Here’s hoping that these five reluctant countries, all of which are located in the Northern Hemisphere, don’t continue to pour cold water over proposals that could help stabilize the world’s fish stocks — and protect one of the world’s last big wild areas.

See gray whales in Puget Sound now

A few whales found good feeding grounds in the ’80s and they apparently spread the word.

Mike Benbow, The Herald

Mike Benbow / For The HeraldA gray whale surfaces in the Port Gardner bay area near Mission Beach recently. Gray whales migrate between Mexico and Alaska every year. From March through May, they're headed north. About a dozen whales venture into Possession Sound, Port Gardner and Port Susan to stop and feed.

Mike Benbow / For The Herald
A gray whale surfaces in the Port Gardner bay area near Mission Beach recently. Gray whales migrate between Mexico and Alaska every year. From March through May, they’re headed north. About a dozen whales venture into Possession Sound, Port Gardner and Port Susan to stop and feed.

Residents of the Puget Sound area have their own special group of gray whales, and they have the lowly ghost shrimp to thank for it.

Ghost shrimp, also called sand shrimp, live in the sandy flats of bays along the Pacific Coast from Baja to Alaska. That, coincidentally, is the range for migrating gray whales, who have their young in the warmer, saltier waters of Baja, Mexico, and then swim some 5,000 to 6,000 miles to feed in the rich waters of the Arctic.

The migration of some 22,000 whales is under way and a number of them have been reported in the Sound and in the straits of Washington and British Columbia, according to the Pacific Whale Watch Association.

For a growing number of the whales, the Sound is a reliable pit stop where they can refuel while en route from Baja to the Bering and Chukchi seas.

In Baja, the whales fast for three to five months while giving birth to their young, and that’s where the Sound comes in.

Sometime in the late 1980s a whale or two started coming into Puget Sound regularly and found plenty of sand shrimp around the bays along Whidbey and Camano islands and along Mission Beach and Kayak Point in Snohomish County.

“They couldn’t make it through their (blubber) reserve, and they came into Puget Sound searching for food,” said John Calambokidis, a co-founder of Cascadia Research in Olympia, who has been studying gray whales in Washington state since 1990.

He said the local trip may have been promoted by a poor feeding season in Alaska, followed by a fasting period in Mexico that left them emaciated. “They needed to feed on something to help them pull the motor,” Calambokidis said.

His nonprofit group mostly does research for state and federal agencies. Whales are a big part of its work, and one thing Cascadia does is provide photo identification of specific whales.

Calambokidis said there isn’t a huge amount known about gray whales. For example, scientists don’t know old they get.

“The aging techniques aren’t very good at measuring maximum age,” he said.

The whales had been expected to live “30 to 40 to 60 years,” he said. But he noted that some bowhead whales were recently found with ancient harpoon points inside them that haven’t been used for more than 100 years.

So grays could last a lot longer than people thought.

That’s important because the feeding whales in the Sound are apparently teaching others, certainly their young, to stop here for a snack on their way north.

Calambokidis said that from one or two grays, the group feeding around Whidbey has expanded to six whales that come every year in February and March and leave in May or June. The first of this year’s group was spotted in February off Mission Beach on the Tulalip Indian Reservation.

“Eleven or 12 different individuals” were sighted in the Sound (last year),” Calambokidis said. “Of those, 10 animals we know and one or two were new.”

The Puget Sound whales are a little different from other grays that migrate along the Pacific Coast each year, Calambokidis said. He said what’s called the Pacific Coast feeding group moves up from Washington’s coast to Vancouver Island to feed.

But not the Puget Sound whales. “When they leave, (the Sound) you don’t encounter them,” he said. “They move out of the area. I suspect they move up to traditional feeding areas in Alaska.”

While some whales have been found stranded and have died in Washington, grays in general have made a remarkable comeback. He noted that before whaling days, there were an estimated 15,000 gray whales.

During whaling, they were hunted to near extinction. “Now this population has completely recovered and exceeds the numbers prior to whaling,” Calambokidis said.

He noted that the Puget Sound whales seem to have a high survival rate. “Feeding a month or so before migration has kept them in good health for the last 20 years,” he said.

A gray whale found dead off Whidbey last year was not part of the group identified as a regular feeder in the Sound, he said.

Whales feeding on ghost shrimp during higher tides come surprisingly close to shore. The whales, which grow to 40 or 50 feet in length and can weigh 60,000 to 80,000 pounds, sometimes swim along Mission Beach about a body’s length away from the beachfront homes.

Parts of their tails and fins come out of the water as they roll in the sand, using their snouts to stir up a slurry of sand, water and ghost shrimp. They eject the water and sand through baleen filter plates in their upper jaw, swallowing the shrimp.

The whales leave behind holes in the sand that at low tide make the beach look like a golf course filled with divots.

But homeowners don’t mind.

The whales are welcome visitors, and word spreads quickly each year when they’re first sighted.

Jerry Solie, whose family has had a home on Mission Beach since 1937, first noticed the whales in 1989.

“They kept us awake all night,” he said, referring to feeding whales spouting water in the air below his bedroom window.

Solie said he looks forward to the annual visit.

“They come so close, and they’re so big,” he said. “It makes it hard to get any work done because if they’re there, you have to watch them.”

He said the giant mammals are unusually friendly to the point where you wonder who’s watching who.

“Twice I’ve had them come up right along my boat and look at me,” he said. “They’re watching me too.

Whale tours

Island Adventures, Everett: www.island-adventures.com/. Call 800-465-4604.

Deception Pass Tours, Oak Harbor: www.deceptionpasstours.com/. Call 888-909-8687.

Mystic Sea Charters, Langley: www.mysticseacharters.com/. Call 800-308-9387.

WSU Island County Beach Watchers: Fund-raising tour departs at 4 p.m. April 6 from Langley Marina. Call 360-331-1030 or signup online at beachwatchers.net/events/whales. The three-hour cruise includes appetizers, beverages and onboard naturalists for $75 a person.