Tag: Noise

An endangered southern resident orca leaps out of the water in Puget Sound. Photo courtesy of NOAA.

Research in the time of the coronavirus

As the state’s stay-at-home order drags on, much of the work to recover Puget Sound has shifted online. Funding schedules for the state and federal Strategic Initiatives remain on track and events like the Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference are going virtual next week with presentations by video conference.
But researchers face an entirely different situation as labs are shuttered and field work is cancelled almost across the board.
Megan Dethier, director of the University of Washington’s Friday Harbor Laboratories calls the situation at her lab fairly typical. Friday Harbor, known for its hands-on research among the tide pools of San Juan Island, is in “maintenance mode” as scientists work out which projects are critical and which ones can go on hold for the near future.
“Right now, we’re mostly trying to keep things from dying or crumbling,” Dethier said. On any given day, she told PSI over the phone, one scientist ventures into the office to exercise the valves on her electron microscope. Others come in to feed the captive fishes, but few are doing active research. The field study classes that have made Friday Harbor famous as a place for experiential learning have been cancelled as university courses go online.
“You just can’t do that virtually,” Dethier explains. “A quarter abroad in Rome is not the same as watching a bunch of videos about Rome.”
Dethier hopes that more field research will proceed later in the spring or summer if restrictions lift, but for now, as for most scientists, it is a good time to write papers and crunch old data.
Jenna Judge, monitoring lead for the Puget Sound Partnership says members of the Puget Sound Ecosystem Monitoring Program have been meeting to discuss ways to continue studying Puget Sound environmental conditions while staying safe and complying with the state’s social distancing mandates.
With exceptions for research deemed critical to safety or conservation needs, Judge says, most scientists at state and federal agencies and universities are not allowed to go into the field to do their studies. “We’re assuming that most field research is shut down right now,” she says. That means huge amounts of monitoring data for the spring — from herring counts to water sampling — are expected to be lost. At the same time, scientists are hoping to study what the global decrease in human activity might reveal about human pressures on the ecosystem.
The report that impacts from the virus have, temporarily at least, reduced the global carbon footprint is one dramatic example. Carbon emissions dropped by 18 percent in China between February and mid-March during the height of that country’s coronavirus lockdown and regions all over the world are reporting cleaner air.
Amy Snover, director of the University of Washington’s Climate Impacts Group told KIRO News, “We are seeing reduced emissions for really horrible reasons,” but she hopes that society can use this as a wakeup call “that actions that I take today will affect the impacts on you tomorrow.”
Fewer cars on the road and airplanes in the sky have also meant less noise in the environment. Seismologists have even observed a drop in vibrations on the Earth’s crust. 
One remaining question is whether the coronavirus shutdown has influenced noise in the oceans. Vessel disturbance has been a big problem for Puget Sound’s endangered southern resident orcas because it has interfered with the whales’ ability to use echolocation to hunt for scarce salmon. Could ocean noise be declining as well?
One source on this is the Orcasound hydrophone network run by orca scientist Scott Veirs. While Veirs, too, is staying at home, “We have acoustic data that continues to come in as long as those hydrophones don’t break,” he says.
Veirs suggests that now is a great time to listen to the hydrophone network that streams live sounds 24 hours a day from beneath the waters of Puget Sound. The network listens for the sounds of marine mammals such as Puget Sound’s orcas and other whales, but also captures shipping noise.
While the number of large vessels crossing Puget Sound has not decreased much during the COVID-19 crisis — the current numbers actually exceed those from just five years ago, according to the Marine Exchange — anecdotal reports from around Puget Sound suggest the number of smaller vessels may have declined. “That’s what my ears tell me, anyway,” says Veirs, “although we haven’t analyzed the data.”
If indeed small vessel activity and related noise levels have decreased, Veirs wonders how this might affect the southern residents. The orcas are not currently known to be in Puget Sound, but if they arrive, Veirs hopes scientists will be ready to analyze their behavior in this brave new environment.
“If the southern residents come back, the whales are potentially going to be in a very different situation. My gut tells me it is almost surely a good thing for the southern residents to not have all those boats out there,” Veirs says. But will there be observers out on the water to record what happens? Scientists can only hope.

Southern resident killer whale breaching. Image courtesy of NOAA

Orca task force releases recommendations

By Jeff Rice
The governor’s Southern Resident Orca Task Force released its final report and recommendations today, focusing on three key threats to Puget Sound’s endangered orcas: Lack of food, disturbance from noise and vessel traffic, and toxic contaminants. In all, the report makes 36 recommendations for recovering the fast-declining orca population, which now stands at 74 animals.
“The extinction of these orcas would be an unacceptable loss,” reads the report, which identifies a wide variety of potential actions that will require extensive funding and long-term commitment on the part of state and federal agencies. The task force met six times between May and November of this year and received more than 18,000 comments from the public.
Of the 36 recommendations, the first and most extensive is the improvement of habitat for Chinook salmon, the orcas’ primary source of food, including habitat acquisition and additional funding in support of ongoing restoration efforts. The report also calls for an increase in the production of hatchery Chinook and recommends establishing “a stakeholder process to discuss potential breaching or removal of the lower Snake River Dams” seen as a barrier to Chinook spawning. Other measures would include bolstering forage fish populations, which Chinook eat in abundance. Several of the recommendations, such as improved enforcement of habitat protection would require legislative action.
Among the potentially sensitive issues addressed by the report are new studies showing high predation of juvenile Chinook salmon by seals and sea lions, in particular Puget Sound’s  booming harbor seal population. The report recommends a study to determine the potential impact of pinniped predation on Chinook to “evaluate potential management actions” such as the removal of some animals or the altering of select haul out sites.
Task force members voted 33 to 1 to approve the recommendations, with six members abstaining and seven absent from the vote. The lone dissenting vote was cast by a representative on behalf of the Pacific Whale Watch Association which objected to the task force’s recommendations to curtail commercial whale watching for the next 3 to 5 years.
“The association feels strongly that Recommendation 28 restricting viewing on the Southern Residents was not properly vetted and the implementation will lead to unintended consequences,” the Pacific Whale Watching Association wrote in a statement. “PWWA is working in partnership with the scientific community to develop a science-based vessel management plan to mitigate risk of harm to the Southern Residents.”
Many of the threats listed in the report are well-known, such as the impacts of toxic chemicals including PCBs and PBDEs that accumulate in Chinook and have led to a high incidence of miscarriages among southern resident orcas [for more on this subject, read our story in Salish Sea Currents, “For declining orcas, food is fate”]. The task force is encouraging  legislative action in 2019 “for a program that incentivizes the accelerated removal of primary legacy sources of PCBs, PAHs, PBDEs and per and polyfluoroalkyl substances present in the built environment in the central Puget Sound.” It also calls for improvements in the effectiveness and enforcement of permits for the discharge of toxic chemicals harmful to orcas.
The task force is expected to continue its work into 2019 and will prepare a follow-up document assessing its progress by October 1, 2019.