Dr. Willows is guest at Discovery Speaker Series | Environmental Briefs

Dr. Willows is guest
at Discovery Speaker Series

Dr. Dennis Willows, former director of the U.W. Friday Harbor Labs, is the guest at this week's Spring Street School Discovery Speaker Series presentation.

The event is free and open to the public. Date and venue: Thursday, 7 p.m., Friday Harbor House San Juan Conference Room.

The Discovery Speaker Series is a monthly exploration into the lives of those who have achieved great things.

Willows, a neuroscientist and research biologist, will be interviewed by Grant Schwinge, Spring Street International School, grade 12; Robin Lohrey, Spring Street International School, grade 10; and Austin Scheffer, Friday Harbor High School, grade 12.

After getting a Yale University degree in physics and a PhD in neuroscience at University of Oregon, Willows focused his research lab on how brain cells interconnect and communicate chemically, to generate coherent patterns of electrical/chemical activity that drive behavior.

After a stint as director of the Neurobiology Program at U.S. National Science Foundation in Washington, D.C., and later as Jacob Javits Scholar at the National Institutes of Health, he gained a sense of the roles of the federal government in support of research in the United States. He has been awarded a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, a William Hoar Lectureship (University of British Columbia), and is a University of Oregon Distinguished Alumnus.

Killer whales raise voices
above underwater noise

A new research paper published by researchers working closely with The Whale Museum shows that the endangered Southern resident killer whales raise their voices in direct proportion with increasing underwater noise, and that increasing underwater noise correlates with increasing numbers of vessels in the neighborhood of the whales.

This past fall, seven of these endangered killer whales went missing, presumed dead, leaving a total population of about 83 animals. On an average summer day, about 20 vessels are near the whales throughout the daylight hours. It is not uncommon to find 50 vessels surrounding these whales during summer weekends and holidays, the paper states.

The Southern resident orcas' underwater vocalizations were recorded with an array of hydrophones. The recorded data were used to calculate how much energy vocalizers put into each of their calls. In addition, the number of vessels within 1,000 meters of the research boat were counted.

According to the researchers, this is the first report of killer whales responding to increased noise by increasing the volume of their calls. Humans are familiar with the effect, called the Lombard effect, as we also raise our voices in noisy situations.

This paper concludes: "The potential costs of such vocal compensation are important to consider. For example, increasing vocal output to compensate for noise might have energetic costs, lead to increased stress levels, or degrade communication among individuals which could affect their activity budget. At some level, background noise could also completely impede the use of calls by killer whales for communicative functions."

The research paper is titled “Speaking up: Killer whales (Orcinus orca) increase their call amplitude in response to vessel noise.” It was authored by Marla M. Holt, Dawn P. Noren, Val Veirs, Candice K. Emmons, and Scott Veirs and published in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America 125, Jan. 1, 2009.

In partnership with the National Marine Fisheries Service, Beam Reach, OrcaSound and others, The Whale Museum operates the Seasound Hydrophone Network with five hydrophones deployed throughout the Salish Sea region.

'Earth-friendly' products
could kill marine life

In our search for earth-friendly products, we may inadvertently be poisoning our marine environment.

So say local researchers, who offer workshops on the topic Feb. 28 and March 28, 2-5 p.m., in the U.W. Friday Harbor Labs Commons. The workshops are presented by the San Juan Nature Institute and KWIAHT, The Center for the Historical Ecology of the Salish Sea, under the auspices of the state Department of Ecology.

The focus of the workshops: to demonstrate the relative toxicity of familiar herbicides and pesticides, and of soaps and other cleaning products in common use. Water samples will be analyzed. Lists of the toxicity of herbicides and pesticides will be offered to each participant. Learn how detergents and pesticides are killing aquatic wildlife, and how to stop the trend.

The workshops are free to the public; participants are encouraged to bring an example of a "safe" product and a water sample from their well, or a nearby stream, for testing. Call 378-3646 to reserve a place.

Council member asks businesses:
Don't dump buckets in storm drains

Friday Harbor Town Council member Anna Marie deFreitas issued this e-mail regarding use of town storm drains.

"On behalf of the Town Council: As you know, we have been grappling with the problem of intermittent stormwater runoff and detergent blooms generated from downtown businesses. We wanted to educate the businesses in the downtown corridor.

"I don't think many businesses realize that the storm drains are not connected to the sanitary sewers, but dump right into the bay. All it takes is one dirty mop bucket emptied into the street to cause a detergent bloom in the bay. In terms of keeping our island green, we all need to help."

DeFreitas included these environmentally friendly tips:

— Pour wash water into a janitorial sink or down the toilet so it goes into the sanitary sewer.
— Use dry methods for spill cleanup (sweeping, rags, cat litter, etc). Don’t hose down spills.
— Clean floor mats, filters and garbage cans in a mop sink or floor drain.
— Recycle grease and oil. Don’t pour it into sinks, floor drains, parking lots or streets.
— Keep your dumpster clean and the lid closed. If it leaks, ask for a new one.
— Use a low-toxic or biodegradable cleaner. Try cleaning products that are Green Seal certified.

It is illegal to discharge water containing detergents, cleaning products, grease or soaps into storm drains or onto the street.

San Juans are 'critical'
to salmon recovery

Abundant numbers of young salmon are using our local beaches and shorelines for food and shelter, confirming that the San Juans play a critical role in the recovery of Puget Sound salmon.

Those were the findings of leading fishery experts gathered at a Salmon Recovery Technical Workshop held Jan. 26 and 27 at the U.W. Friday Harbor Labs.

Eighty scientists, state and federal government agency staff, stewardship group members, tribal representatives, local project sponsors and interested citizens gathered to hear presentations on recent research and projects related to salmon health. The workshop was organized by Barbara Rosenkotter, San Juan County Salmon Recovery coordinator.

“San Juan County is on the cutting edge of salmon recovery and I’m thrilled that many people came from all over the Sound to hear about our recent project results," she said. "Great science is answering some important questions about salmon usage of the nearshore, specifically in the San Juans, and local scientists are leading much of the research.”

Studies conducted by Eric Beamer of the Skagit River System Cooperative, and Kurt Fresh and David Teel of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries, evaluated juvenile salmon in the islands. They found that shorelines are providing nursery habitat to a wide variety of fish species, including juvenile salmon, forage fish, and others (greenling, lingcod, true cods, and flatfish ). They also found that juvenile salmon were present in all months, in all regions, and in all shoreline types.

KWIAHT, a research organization based on Lopez Island, sought to identify what juvenile chinook salmon eat while they are in the nearshore waters of the county. By examining the stomach contents of sample fish, researchers found a reliance on freshwater insects that originate on land and fresh water — indicating that riparian vegetation, streams and wetlands supply an important source of late-summer nutrition for juvenile chinook.

Ken Balcomb receives
first Salish Sea Science award

Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research is the first recipient of the Salish Sea Science Prize, a $2,000 cash award given to recognize a scientist whose work has resulted in the improved conservation of marine wildlife and the Salish Sea marine ecosystem.

The Salish Sea Science Prize will be bestowed biennially by the SeaDoc Society, a non-profit organization dedicated to improving the Salish Sea ecosystem. The award is given in recognition of, and to honor the spirit of, the late Stephanie Wagner, who loved the region and its wildlife.

Collaborating with Canadian colleagues, Balcomb pioneered the use of photo identification to study and individually identify killer whales and has conducted an annual census of the Southern resident killer whales since 1975.

Balcomb’s annual census was the basis of the population assessments that ultimately led to the Canadian and U.S. listing of the Southern resident killer whale community as endangered. His work served as a foundation for our understanding of resident killer whale longevity, toxics loading in killer whales, and the implications of disease on the long-term viability of this population.

Other findings stemming from Balcomb’s work included facts that today are understood by scientists and school children alike: 1. Killer whales can be individually identified. 2. Salish Sea killer whales belong to two ecotypes: fish eaters and marine mammal eaters. 3. Resident fish-eating whales have a non-dispersing matrilineal society.

“Ken’s life work has been scientifically rigorous and has fundamentally changed the way we think about killer whales and marine wildlife. He really epitomizes the intent of the award,” said Joe Gaydos, regional director of the SeaDoc Society, which sponsors the award. “We’re going to need a lot more science like this as we work to design a healthy Salish Sea.”

Ranker takes leading role
in 'Clean Energy, Green Jobs' package

Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-San Juan Island, is playing a pivotal role to address climate issues and improve energy efficiency in Washington state.

Ranker, a member of the Senate Environment, Water and Energy Committee, is sponsoring Senate Bill 5560, which seeks to reduce state agency emissions of greenhouse gases and increase the energy efficiency of the state’s vehicle fleet and buildings.

“In 2008, the Legislature set a statewide greenhouse gas limit that asks everyone to help reduce emission levels to the 1990 level by 2020,” Ranker said.

Ranker’s bill requires state agencies to meet emission reduction targets at an accelerated pace beyond the overall state limits adopted in the 2008 legislation. The schedule includes reductions to the 1990 level by 2017, with an additional 25 percent reduction by 2025 and the lower of either 50 percent below 1990 levels or 70 percent below business as usual projection by 2035.

Ranker’s bill also requires state motor pool fleets to reach an average fuel economy of 36 miles per gallon by 2015 and for state buildings to reduce energy consumption by 20 percent between 2011 and 2017.

Ranker's proposal was a key part of a legislative package announced by Senate Democrats centering on energy, climate and the creation of green jobs. Among the others were:

— Senate Bill 5161 to extend tax breaks for sources of renewable energy.
— Senate Bill 5185 to provide increased incentives for solar energy investment.
— Senate Bill 5418 to provide tax breaks and incentives for electric cars, batteries and infrastructure.

To watch a video clip of Ranker commenting on his bill, CLICK HERE.

Climate change impacts birds
across state and country

Like canaries in coal mines, birds across America are giving early warning signs of what climate change portends for our landscapes and, ultimately, ourselves, according to new reports issued by the National Audubon Society and Audubon Washington.

The study by Audubon scientists examines 40 years of avian data and shows that nearly 60 percent of species that winter in North America have moved northward or inland — sometimes by hundreds of miles — most likely in response to climate change.

“Climate change is exacerbating the threats that already exists for our birds, as well as raising new ones,” said Don McIvor, science coordinator for Audubon Washington, a state field office of the national organization.

Five years ago, Audubon Washington’s first State of the Birds analysis showed that Washington’s growing human population and fragmentation of habitat have severely affected natural places critical to many bird species.

The most direct effects of climate change are changes in precipitation and temperature – which, in turn, drive alterations of entire ecosystems. Birds shift their ranges to find food, shelter, nesting areas, and other conditions necessary for survival.

What was once important wildlife habitat may become inundated by seawater, negatively altered by wildfire patterns, too hot or too cold, too dry or too wet, and no longer able to support plants and organisms necessary to resident or migratory populations, according to Audubon. Wildlife that depends on this habitat will need to shift its range, or not survive.

Among Washington bird species that have significantly shifted their ranges in the past decades are Marbled Murrelet, Western Scrub-Jay, Lincoln's Sparrow, and Say's Phoebe.

Projections show that the Pacific Northwest will lose 32 percent of the bird species but will gain new species as some move into the rearranged climate and habitats of the region, resulting in a net loss of 16 percent of our total number of bird species, according to Audubon. Birds most at risk from habitat loss are those specialized in their habitat needs, including those restricted to islands, alpine zones or coastal beaches for critical parts of their life cycles.

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