'Tis the Season...For Plastic

Did you know that Americans generate 25% more trash around the holidays?

Holiday presents, parties, and packaging create a lot of waste
– and a lot of that is in the form of plastic. It’s not easy to rethink how to cut down on plastic use when everything seems to be double wrapped and sealed in plastic in all its varied forms. And yet, with more and more plastic ending up in our environment, maybe its time to start thinking about how to lower plastic use and consumption over the holidays. Here's a few ideas to think about:
  1. First and foremost: Recycle. If you are hosting a party or gathering – clearly mark a bin for recyclables so that your guests know where to throw away their recyclable trash. If you aren’t sure what is recyclable in your area – here’s some general guidelines and in Anacortes - check this out.
  2. Don’t use single-use plastic. What's wrong with regular plates and utensils? If that won't work, there are great compostable plates, utensils and cups out there. Consider what you can do to serve food that makes recycling easier. Sure, you might have a bit more clean up but just think what stays out of the landfill!
  3. Did you know that Anacortes has a place where you can dispose of packing materials (and rechargeable batteries)? Collected at the City of Anacortes Operations facility at 37th St. and D Avenue, the City will accept large foam packing materials, foam packing peanuts and bubble wrap. Please bag all material and tie closed.
  4. Gift Buying: If you are buying last minute gifts why not make choices that aren’t made from plastic or double wrapped in plastic?  Think about the gift of an experience – Adopt a Whale through the Whale Museum in Friday Harbor or an otter via the Zooparent program at Woodland Park Zoo.

It only takes a walk on one of our local beaches to see what ends up in our marine ecosystem. Bottle caps, broken plastic, styrofoam – it’s all there interspersed with the kelp, shells and rocks.
The most important thing any of us can do is to simply be very conscientious of not only what we give but also how our giving will live on after the holiday is over. Whether it’s a party, a family gathering or a gift to your favorite barista in town, think about what will happen to all the packaging and waste afterwards.

Have a wonderful holiday and let's make the new year greener!

More information on how to reduce waste at the holidays

The Moon's Voice

"The Tide is another kind of eloquence. It's the moon's voice on earth, spoken in perfect synchrony. What the moon does, the tide does. What the moon is, the tide is. Shifting by day but repeating a larger pattern, the tide mirrors the moon's paradox of change and changelessness. In its repetition, it personifies eternity. In its constant flux, it reminds us of what we can't control. It reminds us that our fortresses are impermanent."  - Jonathan White*

I found Jonathan White's book, Tides: The Science and Spirit of the Ocean, fascinating. Most of us have noticed somewhere and at some time that tides are integral to way we understand large bodies of water. Not just oceans and seas, but also large lakes like Michigan or Superior. I've spent hours pouring over tide and current charts plotting navigational way-points; I've sat on beaches waiting for tides to shift for diving. I've walked the mile long spit that appears when the tide is low outside my back windows. And over all these years, I've thought I knew as much as I needed to know. The most important thing I knew was that the tides are an implacable and unforgiving force that anyone who spends time on the sea ignores at one's own peril.

White's book certain punctuates that statement - and explores and expands the layman's understanding of tidal forces not onlyfor our navigation needs but also the ways in which the tides impact the planet itself. He visits points around the globe were the tides are not a whisper in the background but a full tilt, center stage player that demands respect and caution. Tidal bores in China, 50+ tidal ranges in Canada, 60 foot waves off the coast of California, and 18 knot currents in Skookumchuck Narrows in our own B.C. backyard. The author interweaves his globetrotting observations with the science, myth and history of tides while also sketching the human lives impacted by these tidal forces.

Personally, I enjoyed deepening my understanding of all the variants that actually create our tides. It's not just about the sun and moon. The notion that even in the Pacific - the eastern side of this great expanse of water is about three feet higher than the western side. (Those trade winds really do push the water around).  He talks about resonance and all the permutations of alignment, weather, pressure, underlying structure - how all of this goes into the computations for tides - and it still can be wrong. Its fascinating how natural systems adapt and continue to change in relation to tidal forces.

And yes, he talks about climate change in a way that tries to address whatever side you choose regarding human impact. "The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), published a report in 2013 that predicts a sea level rise of ten to thirty-two inches by this century's end" (p. 268).
This is a very conservative consensus, but because it represents the research of thousands of scientists, like any scientific truth, it is seen as authoritative. What makes science different than a belief system is that it does depend on agreement, critical thinking, and sometimes contentious dialogue - but consensus it is. What is also accepted in this consensus is that we have signed on for a roller coaster ride with rising temperatures and rising tides for the next few centuries - and that is IF we made drastic changes today.

That is dire and yet, the earth has gone through cataclysmic changes over its existence before. Life, in some form of another, survives. Whether or not humans can continue to live on this planet will be something for future generations to discover. What I do think is happening - what shocks us, makes us deny, has us arguing, is what I would call a paradigm shift. Paradigms - a way of looking at the world - doesn't change over night. It takes thousands of outlying data points to deal with the inertia of beliefs. For the first time, the generations living right now (about 3 or 4 by my count) are becoming aware that we, humans, actually have the capacity to not only wipe out most every living creature current abiding here but we can also change the planet's ability to be an conducive environment for our species future. The earth's carrying capacity seemed infinite, resources seemed infinite, food sources, energy sources, safe places to live - infinite. We've counted on our species ingenuity and adaptability to control the natural systems that we like to think we are no longer part of.

Until the tide comes in.

*pg. 55
Tides: The Science and Spirit of the Ocean by Jonathan White.

Boater beware

The local headline news: Boat hits whale near Whidbey Island

The news story above is infuriating. This isn't a case of a recreational boat owner just getting a little too close to the whales - this is a case of complete and utter disregard for safe and intelligent boat handling.

I've talked to various boat owners over the years about what they think of the current regulations governing whale encounters are and, to be frank, I've gotten more shrugged shoulders and laissez-faire comments than an acknowledgement that the regulations should be complied with.

I get it. I really do. I've been a boat out on the water that suddenly finds itself surrounded by surfacing Orcas. I've been a boat that wasn't exactly sure what 200 yards looked like over the water and I've been on whale watching boats that 'accidently' get a little too close. I've also been that boat that didn't slow down as I saw whales and their entourage of sightseers off in the distance.

That was before. Here's the thing: I've learned over the years WHY those regulations are critically important. I've also learned that we humans may have already done enough to ensure that the Southern Resident Killer Whales won't survive at all. Gray whales have been doing better as a whole but it sure doesn't help to have boat running over them while they are trying to feed and rest.

Most recreational boaters care. They want to see whales and catch fish and enjoy the beautiful inland waters of the Salish sea. In order to enjoy all those sights and flavors of this amazing marine environment also means that recreational boaters also need to be leading the efforts of responsible stewardship. These inland waters may look vast. This sea - this fjord (because that is what the puget sound is) may look like no one is going to notice a leaky holding tank or care if you catch one too many crabs - but with over 7 million people living along the Salish sea, that impact of one person ripples out into the ability of many species to survive.

Naturalist and Stewardship Training

Walking Padilla Bay
Last spring I spent my weekends in April and May commuting by ferry over to Friday Harbor to participate in the Whale Museum's Marine Naturalist training course. With a class of over twenty five, we learned all about species and habitats, geology and conservation - and yes, lots of information on whales. By volunteering a certain amount of hours and agreeing to continuing education, I was certified as a Salish Sea Marine Naturalist.

A naturalist with a huge learning curve.

That was okay, I like learning curves and spent as much time as I could being a docent at the Whale museum where I had to look up as many answers as I actually knew. I've learned over the years that in order to really claim knowledge, I have to be working with it, speaking it, talking with others, grappling with how to share it and never come to the conclusion that I'm an expert.

This spring, I signed on for a slightly different volunteer training course - the Salish Sea Stewards
program run by the Coastal Volunteer Partnership out of the Padilla Bay Interpretive Center. Meeting Tuesdays for ten weeks, this class brings in representatives from all sorts of different research and community groups to educate our group on the great big estuary that we call the Salish Sea. Whether its the NW Straits Foundation talking about beach restoration at Bowman Bay or Skagit Fisheries Enhancement Group filling us in on Salmon restoration projects, the information keeps filling in all sorts of corners to a larger picture that the naturalist training last year didn't have a chance to delve into. On the other hand, the hands-on habitat and species education that the naturalist program does so well has helped me see just how imperative it is that people pay attention to what we do in our own backyards.

Forage Fish Egg Survey Training
Both programs have a shared focus - to educate folks who engage with the public regarding this ecosystem - whether that is as a volunteer or as an employee. Both programs go about this learning in different, yet complimentary ways. These two training courses bring in researchers and community stakeholders who share their data and expertise which exposes the students to a large network of ecologically minded organizations. There's been a little overlap between the two programs but that has only reinforced how important the work is that is being done by all of these stellar non-profit organizations on behalf of a healthy, vibrant Salish Sea.

The ecosystem here in Western Washington is a vast canvas painted with the broad and intricate strokes of varied needs and interests. It is a complex system with multiple and layered nested systems. The Naturalist training programs and the Steward training both start adding not only details and data to the overall picture but links and connections as well.

My awareness expands, my connections build as I plug different research and knowledge into my overall understanding of this incredible watershed and sea we live along the shores of.

The learning curve just got bigger.

Living on the Edge

I live on the edge of wilderness.

I forget that sometimes. When I sit out on the deck with the sun shining, water calm. When I watch paddle boarders out on Burrows Bay, when kids are playing on the beach near the marina. When I sit at my computer, in the comfort of my house, with the heat on and food in the refrigerator.

I forget.

It doesn't take much to remind me.

The storm tracks into the Puget Sound. The water is glassy, the sky leaden with a hint of light to the north. I hear the wind begin to move through the trees far above my roof and as I move out to the deck, I can see the gusts of wind dancing across the water. One direction, glancing off the hill, then moving in the other direction. I watch a particularly strong gust as it skims along the surface towards me - and then it touches my face, it moans through the trees.

Within minutes - minutes - the wind gusts have started moving the water. Where there were no swells there are many. Small at first, almost languid. Within the hour, the swells are four to five feet high. Now it matters where the tide is at. The swells hit the sandbar and become waves. The waves roll and crash with the hollow sound of thunder into the rock below my house. The salt spray coats my windows.

Now it begins to rain. Bands of rain. Within minutes all the pine needles on my roof are now blocking my gutters. Water pours off the roof, saturating the sharp cliff closest to the foundation. Pine cones fall, shattering against the concrete roof tiles like gunshots. The cats are now hiding under the bed. I want to join them.

I learned long ago that the sea is not benign. Like any wild place, it can be incredibly hazardous to the unwary. And yet, it is also a landscape that embodies such peace and tranquility. Not during stormy weather. Not when you are caught in a particularly strong current or tide. Water lays claim to this planet like no other element.

And I've chosen to live right up against it.

Sometimes it is exhilarating and other times I am nervous living on a bank overlooking the sea. There is no way to be lulled into complacency or forget that I, too, am but a small speck of life clinging to the shoreline. This place demands acquiescence.  It demands acceptance of my frail tenacity.

And it is in that acceptance that I connect to this wild place and fall in love all over again.

Ecotourism - a dilemma

 When I was sitting in the first class for my marine naturalist training, the speakers that day talked about Place. Place in the San Juan Islands is predicated on the unique ecosystem that is found here. One of the speakers talked briefly about ecotourism as an important part of the local economy. She spoke about ecotourism as a positive force that helps people appreciate aspects of the natural environment. In the San Juan Islands this has everything to do with the killer whales, our resident (and transient) Orcas. But I wondered about the increasing impact of the tourist industry in this area just as I wondered what qualified any tour operator to be "ecotourist" friendly.
So I started doing some research on ecotourism as an industry.

Image result for pictures of whale watching san juan islands
As you can imagine, promoting travel based on the natural environment, native species/habitat, or indigenous populations has had - and can have - incredible impact on those resources, cultures, and communities. Look back to the early days of Yellowstone National Park, the Galapagos Islands more recently, and any number of regions that promote tourist activity today in and near awe-inspiring ecosystems, and we see loss of those resources, damage and erosion, and irrevocable changes brought on by the infrastructures needed to support the tourist activities. And yes, we see conservation, education and research dollars created as well.

Governance and management over these resources are doing their best to balance protecting the resources and helping the public engage with that resource. Engagement is critical to the protection of these natural resources because people support (with their dollars) what they have a connection to - what they feel part of. However, it is equally impossible to keep large numbers of humans from having a detrimental impact on those resources.

Ecotourism - just the word itself - causes part of the problem. No one agrees on a definition. And yet, everyone (who benefits from its marketing power) uses the term to get people to use their services. Ecotourism often means one thing to a customer (tourist) and something else to the service provider. Also, Ecotourism is socially constructed - which basically means that it is a term that is going to mean something different in varied corners of the country and larger world.

As I sat pondering ecotourism in the San Juan Islands, especially how it relates to  unique habitats and species that make their homes here, I wondered what our regional definition is.

The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) put this definition out in 2015:
Ecotourism is "responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people and involves interpretation and education."

One of the main principals that TIES puts out is that authentic ecotourism has minimal impact on the resources that are the subject of the tourist activity. It is also interesting to note that "interpretation and education" are explicitly highlighted as key to ecotourism.

How then, can the whale watching industry claim to be an ecotourism activity? Sure, they have naturalist often on board to educate - but their impact is not minimal. (UW News Summary).

This is a dilemma: On the one hand, the efforts to engage the public in appreciating the various whales that use the Salish Sea as prime habitat has promoted changes in policy and protection for not only whales but salmon species and other habitats throughout our region. Naming the whales, promoting research and sharing that research has brought in critical funding to protect the whole ecosystem. Standing on the bow of a whale watching tour boat and seeing the orcas breaching and playing in the waters off San Juan Island is something most people never forget. I've had folks straight off the tour coming to the Whale Museum and 'adopting' the whale that they had seen with their own eyes. We humans love stories - and these whales now have histories and stories along with names.

On the other hand: All of that continued research has also given us irrevocable proof that boat engine noise is putting continual stress on the pods of whales as they try to find the decreasing supply of salmon. Whale researchers are the first to acknowledge that they don't know all there is to know yet about the Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKW) and their habits but what they are learning about the impact of boat traffic is troubling.

"A variety of human interactions, such as exploitation, habitat degradation, and pollution, are known to have negative effects on wildlife populations, while even non-lethal human disturbance, such as wildlife viewing, can be perceived by observed animals as a predation risk and result in energy costs and effects on survival and reproduction [4]. Therefore, it is important to better understand the extent of human use of the environment so that negative consequences on animal populations can be assessed and mitigated." (Research Article) * 

"Such ship noise has the potential to mask odontocete signals, especially in coastal environments where shipping lanes are close enough to the shoreline (<10 km) that high frequency sound is not fully absorbed. In the summertime habitat of the endangered SRKWs ship noise may interfere not only with SRKW communication (vocalizations) but also foraging and navigation (echolocation clicks)"(Link to study) **

Both of the above studies took place in the last five years. What has spurred the flurry of research?

The whale watching industry has increased exponentially in the last ten years and Haro Strait freighter traffic (including oil tankers) has increased as well. While the U.S. registered tour boats follow the regulations regarding distance and sound, the Canadian tour operators don't have the same rules. With the Orcas traversing the boundary waters between Washington State and British Columbia as their primary hunting grounds, there is only so much regulation that can be enforced. We could also talk about all the pleasure boat captains who don't think those regulations apply to their yachts - and suddenly what is being marketed as a major part of an eco tour destination is anything but.

The more we learn about killer whale behavior and feeding strategies, the more it becomes obvious that boat traffic is detrimental to an already endangered species ability to thrive (see above articles). Maybe that statement goes farther than some folks in our area would put out there, but we are talking about a species population (SRKW) that is less than 100 and has yet to recover from the exploitation and capture of population back in the 70's. Sure we have other pods of killer whales in the area that seem to be doing well, but our resident killer whales are struggling. How do the varied tour companies manage which pods they follow? Can they? Would they?

It is a hard balancing act in the face of the research. How do we continue to promote engagement with the natural world (which whale watching tours can do in a wonderful way) while also promoting sustainable conservation? I've talked to park rangers and enviromentalists all over the west in regards to this question and the answers aren't unanimous.  People want to connect to the natural world and people want to make a living guiding those experiences - and other people want to utilize some of the funds created from that partnership for research and conservation. We could probably expand out that list to include all the varied industry and services that profit from supporting the desire to see our extraordinary world. If you have been to Moab, UT over the last thirty years, you understand what I'm talking about when a community explodes to exploit all the tourists coming in to wander through Arches and Canyonland National Parks.

From my own experiences over the years, I would wish for two things:
  • A guiding definition of Ecotourism that establishes a certificate with a list of criteria for any company wishing to use that designation for marketing purposes. If a tour operator wants to market itself as ecotourist friendly then they will have to comply with a list of principals as set forth by the certificate. This is done in so many other industries  - and I think there are folks out there trying to do this - but enforcing it has been difficult. It's got to mean something to the consumer of this product. The National Park Service, as a regulatory management practice, tries to do this in its own backyard, but outside of their jurisdiction, how do we really craft ecotourism that actually works? We first and foremost have to educate the consumer in regards to why it is so important to follow guidelines that promote conservation with minimal impact. We, as consumers, have to buy-in to the importance behind changing some of our behaviors in order to preserve the resources/habitats/species that we are there to appreciate.
  • My other wish has everything to do with moderation. Our voracious consumerism is a cultural paradigm that needs to shift in order to sustain our ecosystems. We, as the consumer, need to shift our expectations because no industry out there is going to shift their priorities regarding profit. Again, the consumer needs to look for the tour operators who embrace sustainability, conservation and education equally. Corporate america doesn't work that way. Small, independent businesses might be able to -  and, perhaps, also market themselves accordingly. 
My opinion?

Ecotourism, right now, is a catch phrase used to entice a certain segment of the tourist population into 'feel good' travel. How it is defined by the operator and the customer don't have to line up to capture a market share of ecologically minded travelers. The onus is on us, the traveler to do our research and ask questions of the various providers of these tourist activities.

Here in the Salish Sea, it is going to become increasingly important that educators and stewardship programs like Soundwatch host a conversation with service providers regarding sustainability and oversight. They are working hard, hand in hand with so many great tour operators here in our area to create a community of stewardship. It is too bad that a few less mindful groups and private boaters make it harder for everyone to help keep these resources accessible.

Here is a list of principals for ecotourism*** that we can all watch for:
  • Minimize physical, social, behavioral, and psychological impacts.
  • Build environmental and cultural awareness, and respect.
  • Provide positive experiences for both visitors and hosts.
  • Produce direct financial benefits for conservation.
  • Generate financial benefits for both local people and private industry.
  • Deliver memorable interpretative experiences to visitors that help raise sensitivity to host countries' political, environmental, and social climates.
  • Design, construct and operate low-impact facilities.

*Houghton J, Holt MM, Giles DA, Hanson MB, Emmons CK, Hogan JT, et al. (2015) The Relationship between Vessel Traffic and Noise Levels Received by Killer Whales (Orcinus orca). PLoS ONE 10(12): e0140119. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0140119

** Veirs S, Veirs V, Wood JD. (2016) Ship noise extends to frequencies used for echolocation by endangered killer whales. PeerJ 4:e1657 https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.1657

European Green Crabs

At the Friends of Skagit Beaches Annual Meeting this past week, Emily Grason, PhD, came and spoke to us about the European Green Crabs that have been found in our area. She works for WA Sea Grant - a program run by the College of Environment at the University of Washington.

Why is this important?

Because the European green crab is one of the worst invasive species on the planet. They disrupt and threaten our native species habitats - and these little guys aren't ever going to be hunted for their tasty flesh. They are little - think about a woman's fist as the size of the shell at their largest size.
photo by E. Grason

Here's a link to Emily's Crab Team

I've been hearing about the green crabs over the last year - especially last summer when 4 were found in Padilla Bay. The first green crab in the inland waters of the Salish Sea was caught over in Westcott Bay on San Juan Island earlier last year. Link to press release

The European green crab came over to the east coast of the United States early in the 19th century. That population is still increasing its territory. The east coast green crabs were found in San Francisco bay in 1989. They knew where these greens came from due to genetic testing.  It has been theorized that El Nino events in the Pacific have brought the green crabs up the coast to the Pacific Northwest.

It was in 2012 that a well established colony in Sooke Bay was discovered.

The Crab Team started up in 2015 with the goal to use citizen science to monitor habitats that the green crabs like. They have 26 sites up and down the sound with 100 volunteers. The volunteers use baited traps, molt searches and habitat (soils) monitoring.

It's not easy to catch these little guys - and they are little compared to our full-size Dungeness and Rock crabs. They do take over habitats of the little hairy crabs - those muddy, salt water embankments and eel grass beds.
Shore crabs the Hairy shore crab and (bottom) the
Purple shore crab
"Both native shore crabs can be green in color but have only 3 marginal teeth (from eye heading back on the carapace)." - from Crab Team webpage

Crab team gets a lot of calls about our little friends to the left - so its good to know how to identify our native shore crabs against the characteristics of the European green crab - who preys on these guys as well as the juvenile dungeness crabs that like the same habitats for growth and nourishment.


The green crabs that turned up in Westcott and Padilla bay most likely washed into the Strait of Juan de Fuca about a year ago as a larvae group - possibly from Sooke. It is illegal for ships to clear their ballast tanks in the NW - which is probably how the crabs came across the Atlantic years ago. There isn't any sign of colonies establishing themselves.

Dr. Grason laid out Where Do We Go From Here?

  1.  If we do nothing: There is a high likelihood that we will see a hit in our seafood and not just because they are eating little dungeness crabs. Crabs like shellfish - a lot. They also destroy eel grass beds. Our grass is a bit different then what is off the Atlantic, but the damage would still be felt in all the other species that utilize eel grass as a habitat. We're talking forage fish that salmon eat and the other critters up the food chain.
  2. How to manage this invasive species: Trapping is still the best option. Some other ideas have been floated that - things like introducing a parasite that stops them from breeding - but unfortunately those options would impact other crabs as well. It was also be helpful if British Columbia @ Sooke took the invasive colony seriously and attempted to control it.
  3. Best Next Steps: To continue with volunteer monitoring. She proposes to make sure residents and shellfish growers stay vigilant.

What to do if you think you spot one? TAKE PICTURES ONLY, take down as detailed of location as you can (coordinates on a phone compass are great) and report it to crabteam@UW.edu.

Humpback, Gray, and Blue Whales - oh my!

Did you know that they can identify Humpback whales by the underside of the flukes (the whale tail)?

Did you know that you can see where the gray whales are feeding off of Everett Washington on Google earth?

The 2017 Lecture Series hosted by Friends of Skagit Beaches started on Friday, January 20th with research biologist John Calambokidis who works with the Cascadia Research Collective.

Dr. Calambokidis put on a great presentation detailing some of the latest findings on the other whales that utilize the Salish Sea.

Regarding Humpback Whales:

The SPLASH study - Structure of Populations, Levels of Abundance, and Status of Humpbacks -  involved over 400 researchers from 10 different countries between 2004 and 2006 in the Pacific Oceans. It was the largest collaborative study of its kind and its goal was to expand the working knowledge around migratory patterns for Humpback whales. Using photo identification (those flukes) and genetic studies some very interesting data was unearthed.

For your own reading: SPLASH study information

First of all, the study identified approximately 20,000 animals.  Dr. Calambokidis described one of the primary patterns that they discovered was that humpback "herds" stayed loyal to certain feeding areas. You might have multiple "herds" in Hawaii but they would travel to different areas in Alaska or the Bering Sea for feeding.

Researchers have been able to identify 14 distinct populations around the world. Some of these populations have been delisted from the Endangered Species Act, while some are listed as threaten or endangered. As an example, the Hawaii population has been delisted, while the Mexico population is listed as "threatened" and the Central Americal population is listed as "Endangered." All of these population migrate north and feed in the cold waters off of Alaska.

A question: How do we apply conservation where it is needed?

Another question that has arisen due to the fact that the number of whales seems to have leveled off - has the Pacific reached its carrying capacity for Humpbacks?

As a matter of fact, there have been areas of expanded territories - which includes San Francisco Bay and the Salish Sea. In the Salish Sea, the estimated abundance has gone from about 100 - 500 from 1995 to 2016.

The fact is, however, that the humpbacks are returning to the Salish Sea - they were here before. They were abundant enough that in the early 1900s there was a whaling station off the south end of Vancouver Island. That whaling station decimated the humpback population. It is hypothesized that it has taken this long for the humpback whales to recolonize this region.

More on Humpback whales

And then there are the Gray Whales:

The Eastern Pacific gray whales breed off the coast of Baja and travel up along the coast to the Artic waters. There are many subsets of this group that are designated by their feeding areas. The subset of most interest to us here in the Salish sea has the designation PCFA (Pacific Coast Feeding Aggregation) - but the feeding areas are further broken down into SJF (Strait of Juan de Fuca), NWA (North Washington Coast), and SVI (Southern Vancouver Island). Only a small number - estimated around 200 - gray whales are sticking around the Salish Sea over the summer months (sighted between June 1 and November 30th) while most migrate much farther north. Read the study.
(And if I have some of my facts wrong or confused, let me know!)

A question the Macah tribe needs to currently answer is which population they can take their yearly quota of whales from.

One of the most interesting activities Dr. Calambokidis talked about was the high risk feeding strategy that some gray whales are engaged in here. Off the east side of Whidbey Island where the muddy sediment is rich with ghost shrimp, these gray whales are feeding in sometimes six feet of water.

Gray whale feeding pits off of Everett courtesy of Google Earth

Findings have found that the years when the number of gray whales is higher who practice this off-migration feeding corroborates data on gray whale strandings and mortality events. This makes sense given how shallow the waters are in the specific area where the whales are feeding. Dr. Calambokidis and his team were asked to come in and determine whether the whales were feeding in any other areas and through the use of tag sensor data, they found out that the gray whales were exclusively going after the ghost shrimp in the shallow waters.

One of the things that seemed to come out of this gray whale study - or at least the impact I felt - was that by collecting data on the activity of the whales helped answer a very specific question regarding the needs of the animal - and helped humans craft a response.

Dr. Calambokidis then spent some time talking about different tagging strategies that have been used. Satellite tags are anchored in muscle and last longer but the the data collected is very limited. Limpet tags have a more medium duration and again, are invasive - thru the skin. There are concerns and issues with both of these types of tags especially after one of the southern killer whales washed up on shore after being tagged with the limpet tag. Dr. C and his team use suction cup tags that record a ton of data but may only stay on for a day at most. Retrieval has been tricky on a few tags but the amount of archival data - including video - has been phenomenal.

Here's a video of his team tagging a humpback - with video off the whale's tag: Video Tag Deployment

Dr. C, in talking about the different types of tags, says you have to consider whether or not the impact of the tag is worth the invasiveness; you have to weigh the worth of what you are trying to learn against that impact.

He talked about some of the work they've done with the NRDC and the Navy regarding sonar and whales. I've got some ready to do on those studies. Another way that the collection of data has led to some limited human change was done in a study of blue whales off the coast of Los Angeles. The areas that the blue whales feed and travel was directly under the shipping lanes. After determining that the whales were not responding to shipping traffic by getting out of the way - and they travel quite slowly - the shipping lanes were moved a kilometer. Same in San Francisco. Small steps - but at least they responded.

The takeaways from the lecture, in Dr. C's words were this:

  • Migration patterns are much more complex than we have known. 
  • Humpback whales stay loyal to regions and will switch prey before leaving those regions while...
  • Gray whales move with the krill and respond to conditions - which is why some of them practice the high risk ghost shrimp strategy.
My takeaways:
  • There are ways to incorporate the needs of other species into our human world of shipping lanes and naval maneuvering. 
  • We can't do that without the research and data that groups like Cascadia Research provide.
  • When we see the complexity of behavior in another species, it becomes increasingly difficult to not see how our human actions impact these amazing creatures. It becomes very difficult to relegate other species to the 'dumb animal' category.
  • It also becomes increasingly difficult to simply shrug the shoulders and say - these animals will simply adapt to changing conditions. By studying behavior and the ecosystem within which they move, we see how some species may attempt new adaptation strategies - but are hamstrung by human behavior such as noise pollution, sonar, toxins in the water.
  • Basically, the more we know about these complex creatures and the ecosystems that overlap with our own the more we humans can understand how we are just one of many creatures who depend on a healthy environment to thrive. 

Calambokidis, J., J.L. Laake, and A. Klimak. 2010. Abundance and population structure of seasonal gray whales in the Pacific Northwest, 1998-2008. Paper SC/62/BRG32 presented to the IWC Scientific Committee.

The Naming of the Salish Sea

Turn Point Light House - right on the border

When I first heard that the Puget Sound and inner coastal waters of Vancouver Island in B.C. were being given a new name - the Salish Sea - I was excited. The United States Board on Geographic Names and the Geographic Names of Canada made the designation in 2009. I immediately embraced the Salish Sea as a wonderful way to describe this rich bio-region. I liked the idea of the United States and Canadian government coming together and identifying these waters as a unique sea that spans the border between our two countries. I remember hoping that perhaps with a common body of water, both the U.S and Canada would begin to identify mutually beneficial practices and regulations that promoted a healthy thriving ecosystem.

A little history:
Marine biologist Bert Webber is credited with coming up with the term Salish Sea in 1988. He didn't want to replace the existing names of the various bodies of water - he wanted a term that complemented them AND encompassed them as a whole. His intention in adopting the term was to promote awareness of the overall ecosystem, how to take care of it, how to talk about it. The process took twenty years - but it succeeded much on the merits of research that continually put forth the uniqueness of this particular region.

I have to say, its to the British Columbia side of the Salish Sea that I look for more drastic changes. With raw sewage still being pumped into the waterways and lax enforcement of regulations with the fish farming and whale watching industry - the impact of these practices is certainly felt mere miles away in U.S. waters. On both sides of the border, decisions on oil pipelines, oil tankers traversing the inner water ways, boat regulations, watershed protection impact not only our human livelihood but the multitude of species we co-exist with. It makes sense to me that we approach the dilemmas facing our industry needs in an ecosystem that is becoming increasingly fragile and vulnerable. We need to address these environmental and economic concerns with all the players at the table.

But what makes sense to me doesn't necessarily mean it makes sense to someone else.

In conversation, I refer to the waters of this area as the Salish Sea. On more occasions than not, I hear push back on the name change from what it was - the Puget Sound - here on the Washington side of the sea. Young and old, people want to cling to the old for reasons of comfort and a strange solidarity. "That's what I grew up calling it, I'm not changing now."...or ... "Salish sea - just more political correctness!"

I haven't quite figured out the resistance. Is it because "Salish" is a First Nations designation and honors the indigenous Coast Salish people who lived on and along side these waters long before Europeans started searching for a Northwest passage? Are folks remiss to give up the name Puget? The Puget Sound was named after Peter Puget, a naval officer and companion of George Vancouver in 1792 - and was originally designating the waters south of the Tacoma narrows.

There is a sense of lost identity by renaming anything. And, I suspect, renaming a body of water with an indigenous honor and getting rid of the colonizing western term can bring up the ways in which we culturally privilege and marginalize a certain power deferential. To name this sea "Salish" is to privilege that which our cultures have historically marginalized for centuries. Allowing "Puget" to fade away is to acknowledge the fading power of western white colonialism. It forces us to acknowledge that colonialism was forged on exploiting resources and meeting/creating the voracious needs of the dominant culture. Money and power. That's what colonialism comes down to - and its what brought so many white settlers - my ancestors included - to the northwest in the first place.

Is part of this vanishing Puget Sound identity a sense of lost power and entitlement? What does someone give up by changing the designation of these waters? What has to shift for them to let go of an insular image and explore a larger vision?

The renaming of Puget Sound to the Salish Sea marks a paradigm shift - so of course there is resistance. To embrace "Salish Sea" is to open oneself up to rethinking a belief - a story about territory and power and - yes - interconnection. To say "Salish Sea" is to understand that your actions on either side of the international border matter to the other side - that your actions have impact on the wildlife, the land, and the health of the region. We need this paradigm shift - not just for decisions regarding whether or not pleasure boats should be allowed to empty their holding tanks anywhere - but for catastrophic situations like oil spills. Washington state has well developed response plans for oil spills. B.C does not. Well, they are trying with new legislation - but many say that lack of resources will make the new rules hard to enforce ( New Rules Coming). Considering what could happen to the waters south of the border makes Canada's lack of thorough planning a catastrophic disaster in the making. When we acknowledge that there is no proverbial fence between our waterways - that the actions or lack of action by our neighbor will absolutely impact our home - then we can start to develop collaborative plans to mutually aid and support each other.

Look, Humans like to name things. We like to name something and then claim it. We have been doing this to land probably since the first time we gathered around a fire. A name means nothing to an island or a whale or a lake. But name them we do and always in the spirit of the time and place and at the whimsy of whomever is there with enough power to get the name to stick.

In this time and place, I want this new officially designated Salish Sea naming to stick hard. I want conferences like the Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference to become powerful incubators for collaborative and generative dialogue promoting sustainable ecosystem health - which includes humans as well. I want to see more international dialogue like what the Oil Spill Task Force is doing but on a bigger scale (They work on small spill education). I'd like to see Canadian and U.S. regulations regarding whales and salmon and fish farms work towards similar goals. We can start stepping towards those types of difficult discussions when we all acknowledge that we are talking about the same ecosystem and leave the arbitrary boundaries behind.

I'd love more insight into the mindset of resistance. I'd really like to hear what that stance believes. I want to know what the fear is, the loss, the problem with a new name. If we don't listen the differences into conversation, we'll never find each other in the middle.

What I learned today as a Whale Museum Docent - August

Every time I go into the Whale Museum to tend the display floor and answer questions - I end up learning new things about whales.


Question: Did you know that whale's have growth rings on their teeth? In a very similar fashion to growth rings on a tree, a whale's age can be roughly determined by how many growth rings there on a tooth.

Question: How do whales get fresh water?
Well, they are mammals, afterall. This question was asked by the new education curator with a sparkle in her eye.
We talked about it and then I looked it up. Sure enough, whales get fresh water from what they eat. It isn't just that what they are eating have H2O in them, but one of the byproducts of eating the other critters is - you guessed it - water.
One of the articles I read said that many sea mammals - like whales - have very large livers that help them process the salt in the water they digest. Most sea mammal's urine has a very high concentrate of saline.

Being Part of the Ecosystem

The years that I have spent gunk-holing around the inland waters of the Puget Sound and beyond - these waters that are now designated the Salish Sea - have always brought Williams' words to mind. There is a dynamic aliveness to how the land, with its rock, trees, grass and underbrush meet the nutrient rich depths of deep moving water. Coming up Haro Strait puts you ten yards off shore - and in 800 feet deep water.

There is something about these islands and the waterways that separate them.

Both have been carved, shaped and given personality by the constant expansion and contraction of glacier ice. The Puget Sound, with British Columbia islands and mainland as well, is an incredible rich landscape that first drew many of the First Nations tribes to settle and live. And then the europeans came, with western world settlers to follow. Today, the Salish Sea ecosystem is the address for approximately 7 million people.

As humans, we are a community that needs to 'meet and integrate' with our very unique environment. It is my sense, that human beings rarely consider their ecological identity. Our footprint on the lands we call home are lost within the cacophony of sound and fury that feeds into our lives. We've focused on the socially constructed divisions - on who we are versus who they are - instead of exploring how our diversity can bring a deeper, richer wisdom of what it means to be a members of the human race on this particular planet. Whether it is the concrete world we never leave; the messages of fear, scarcity, and impotence fed to us daily; or the TV/Computer that we lose ourselves in every day for hours on end, human beings have become disconnected from one small fact: The earth doesn't need us to survive. We, however, need a healthy environment in order to continue to live.

Becoming aware of how our human community interacts with any given ecosystem is going to be in direct correlation with the well-being and survival of our species. We can't ignore the interface. We need to find our way back into relationship with this planet for many reasons. Perhaps the most important reason right now is so that we can find our way back into connection with those that we like to label "them" or the "other." Those human beings that you've closed ranks against. The cultures, religions, genders, sexual preferences, political positions that you lock out of your world. We won't find peace, we won't thrive as a species until we recognize that we are all homo sapiens: an indigenous life form on this planet.

I do not mean to disrespect the term indigenous as I do believe it has been incredibly important for indigenous peoples to hold that term as a defining attribute for their cultural communities. However, as long as the rest of us human beings don't grok the fact that we are a unique species of this one, particular planet in the vast galaxies of space, we will continue to violently express our singular visions of sanctioned humanity. Oh what we as a species could learn from the indigenous peoples of our planet!

Look, what I'm trying to say is this: we can't lose sight of what we are. Human beings are biological creatures (surprise!). We are mammals, warm blooded, bipedal and big brained. We depend on water, air, and all the minerals, vitamins, fats, calories that are found within and on the soil, in the atmosphere, and in the water that surrounds us. Our bodies are miracles of biological evolution - right along with all the other millions of living animal and plant species on this planet. That's why its so important to get outside - to find that edge, to breathe in the borders of our constructed world with the planet that actually exists. Its uncomfortable, humbling, scary - and yet it gives us back a sense of self that makes it impossible to ignore the reality of what we humans all have in common...


Humans need to actually 'meet' - to take in, see, pause within, explore or simply breathe in - the natural world, we have to be willing to connect with some part of it.

To connect, we navigate the borders - and find ourselves. We remember that the term "ecosystem" more often than not includes us in the mix.

Look around you, find the landscape. Stop and watch a bird. Go out and experience the awe of a whale breaching or an eagle gliding over the water. Listen to the wind in the trees and walk the rocky beaches that line our sea. Find that piece of agate that skips perfectly across the water. Just get out and connect. Find the place where the being that is you meets the implacable, bewildering power of this planet. Find the creative edge and explore what dwells there.


'Tis the Season...For Plastic

Did you know that Americans generate 25% more trash around the holidays? Holiday presents, parties, and packaging create a lot of waste ...