Saturday, April 28, 2012


Gray whales have been swimming past Piedras Blancas, giving visitors a good view. We watched two cow-calf pairs swim by on Thursday while we were on the bluff. Visitors were thrilled. I usually wait for visitors to approach me with questions, but I made a point of telling them to look up from the beach and look for whales spouting.

In the case of mother-calf pairs, it's easy to see a small spout and a much larger one. At this time of year, mothers are migrating north from Mexico with their calves, which were born there.

A more troubling story is of an entangled whale first spotted off San Onofre.The Whale Entanglement Team was able to remove some of the fish netting that it was snarled in, but the whale wasn't willing to stick around for more of that. It swam off, with buoys attached. It has since been spotted north of Pidreas Blancas, at Gorda. I'll keep posting as news is reported.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Gray whale washes ashore

A dead gray whale just over 30 feet long was discovered on the beach south of San Simeon on Saturday.

By Monday morning, the leviathan was reportedly already fairly decomposed and stinky. It’s on a State Parks beach about 300 yards south of Vista Del Mar, the southernmost street in San Simeon’s motel and residential areas, and approximately a mile north of San Simeon Creek.

The whale appears to be a 2-year-old female, according to Wayne Perryman, leader of the Cetacean Health and Life History Program for Southwest Fisheries Science Center of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

He said there’s no obvious cause of death, as the marine mammal appears to be of healthy weight, and there’s no sign of it being hit by a ship or a recent killer-whale attack.

“There are signs of an entanglement scar on the caudal peduncle, but they look old and partially healed,” Perryman said.

Attacks by killer whales caused the most recent reported beachings of dead whales on the North Coast. A 20-foot gray whale washed ashore south of Cambria in May 2011, and a 23-foot gray whale calf ended up north of Cayucos in May 2007.

Officials from the Marine Mammal Center and Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History decided preliminarily not to do a full-scale necropsy to determine the cause of death, according to Perryman.

Nick Franco of State Parks said they would leave the whale on the beach and “let nature take its course.” He advised beach walkers to leave the carcass alone and to leave their dogs at home, because the dead whale is “really stinky.”

Read more here:

Friday, April 20, 2012

Watch for a tagged seal

Sarah Peterson, PhD student in Dan Costa's lab at UC Santa Cruz, is looking for a seal with tags:

 "I am currently running our field efforts up here at Ano Nuevo with elephant seals," she writes. "A tagged seal should be showing up at Piedras Blancas anytime now.  She is an adult female that was tagged at Ano Nuevo and has a GPS tag, a time-depth recorder tag, and a VHF tag on her.  She also has the number U444 on her (written using hair dye) so she should be very visible. If any of the docents or visitors report seeing an elephant seal that matches that description, I would love to know when and where she was seen.  Thank you so much for any assistance you can provide us!"

We'll keep an eye out for her, Sarah. Such a distinctive seal will be spotted, even on this crowded beach.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Ocean floor videos

James Lindholm presented his imaging project of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary at Saturday's NOAA Sanctuary Currents symposium. They sent Remotely Operated Vehicles, tethered  robots with a whole lot of instruments in front down for nine to eleven hours at a time, taking video. They also used cameras on sleds that could pan and tilt. The videos are amazing, and available to all. Click and watch.

He compared trolling the oceans to learn what's there to learning about the land by dragging a net from a helicopter in the fog. So much remains unknown, but these videos help.

I often reflect on what life is like from the elephant seal's point of view. One of the students working on this project told me that they almost never get a marine mammal in the video. If they do, it's fleeting, just a fast pass and gone. She thinks the noise and unusual movement probably scare seals away. 

Another way in which it's difficult for us to know what it's like to live in the ocean.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Earth Day 2012

I'll be the first speaker at 11 am Sunday April 22 at San Luis Obispo's Botanical Garden Earth Day celebration. The presentation is Raising Urban Chickens: A Guide to Backyard Poultry, so I'll have pictures of as many traditional breeds as I can put into my PowerPoint. I'll also talk about incorporating chickens into sustainable gardening.

This relates more to ocean health than is immediately obvious: waste from commercial poultry farms has polluted Chesapeake Bay beyond reclamation and contributes to pollution around the world. raising chickens in small flocks and using them to consume food waste and create topsoil is important in moving toward sustainable food networks. It's all connected.

My presentation is followed by Beach COMBERS' What Happens When Sea Life Encounters Plastic Pollution. An elephant seal with blue plastic strapping around her neck is on the beach at Piedras Blancas. Plastic pollution is a critical issue for marine life. Limiting plastic use and disposing of plastic safely is important to clean and healthy oceans.

Come out and spend the day with us at the botanical garden/ Lots more going one.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Gray whales are swimming by!

Friday April 20 and Saturday 21 at Piedras Blancas Light Station, National Marine Fisheries Project Leader Wayne Perryman will lead a sunset viewing/whale watching tour, 6:30 - 8:30 pm. This is one of the bst places to see these magnificent giants swim past. Wayne leads the team doing the Gray Whale Cow-Calf Census, which is done from the light station.

He'll present his latest findings, Gray Whales: What We Know and What We Thought We Knew, will begin at 7:45.

$25, reservations required, 805-924-1807.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Sea lions killed to protect salmon

Julie Raefield-Gobbo reports in the Hood River News:

Somewhere in the Pacific, just off the mouth of the Columbia River are 30 sea lions, annual visitors to Bonneville Dam and the fish ladders, whose future has been dictated by a recent federal court ruling.
On March 22, following a March 15 NOAA kill authorization and a follow-up protest, a federal judge turned down the Humane Society request to halt the authorized killings of sea lions at Bonneville Dam.

The upside for the Bonneville sea lion population is that the authorization now only provides for 30 to be killed versus the original maximum target of 92. And, instead of being shot, they must now be euthanized by lethal injection.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced March 15 an authorization for the states of Idaho, Oregon and Washington to permanently remove the specific California sea lions eating salmon and steelhead that congregate below Bonneville Dam as they head up the Columbia River to spawn.

The ruling would have allowed the states to remove (euthanize or relocate) up to 92 animals annually.
The NOAA authorization was scheduled to become effective on March 20 and would stay in effect until the end of May 2016.

On March 19, the Humane Society of the United States, Wild Fish Conservancy and two individual plaintiffs filed suit in federal court, seeking to stop the law from taking effect. They also have asked for a restraining order, at least temporarily halting the scheduled kill program's start.

The protest suit argued that the government agency erred in its assessment of the impact caused by the sea lions predation on endangered species.

NOAA has argued that the amount of salmon and steelhead taken by the animals amounted to significant obstacle to the restoration of imperiled species.

The Humane Society, who has succeeded twice before in stopping NOAA kill orders with lawsuits, used data on fisherman take and impacts from introduced predatory sports fishery species (walleye and bass) to provide counter-balance to NOAA's case.

According to the Human Society suit, Columbia River fishermen are allowed to take up to 17 percent of salmon passing over the dam.

NOAA's data indicates that sea lion predation peaked in 2010, when about 6,000 adult salmon were eaten - equating to about 4.2 percent of the fish passing over the dam.

Last year, about 3,600, or just over 1½ percent of the returning adult population, were eaten.
Walleye and bass both feed on other fish eggs and fry but were introduced for sport fishing without consideration about the impact to endangered salmon, argues the Humane Society.

NOAA first authorized the states to euthanize California sea lions starting in 2008. The program was suspended in 2010 as a result of a court order, based on a Humane Society lawsuit.

Up to that date, the states had trapped and removed 38 California sea lions under various agency authorizations. Ten were relocated to captive display facilities and 28 were euthanized.

NOAA estimated that between 25-30 animals will be taken each year, based on the conditions of the authorization, far fewer than the total authorized take of 92 animals per year.

Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, states can request permission to kill individually identifiable California sea lions or seals that are having a "significant negative impact" on at-risk salmon and steelhead, and NOAA's Fisheries Service can grant that permission if certain legal standards are met.

For the past several years, NOAA's Fisheries Service and other state, tribal and federal agencies have employed a wide range of deterrence methods, including using firecrackers and rubber buckshot, to discourage the sea lions from foraging at the dam. These efforts have been largely unsuccessful.
State and federal biologists estimate that California sea lions have eaten between 1½-4 percent of returning adult salmon at Bonneville Dam each year during the past eight years.

This estimate is based on expert observations by federally trained biologists.

Most of the fish eaten were spring chinook or steelhead, and almost a third of the salmon and steelhead eaten by the sea lions are from stocks listed under the Endangered Species Act.

Under the authorization provided on March 15, the states may euthanize individually identified California sea lions if no permanent holding facility, typically aquariums, for them can be found.
The agency's authorization responds to a request last summer from the three states to "lethally remove" predatory sea lions under a provision of the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

The March 22 ruling will allow the states to target only individual sea lions that continue to eat salmon after deterrence methods have proven unsuccessful.

According to NOAA, the current estimated West Coast population of California sea lions is almost 300,000, and biologists estimate that more than 9,000 animals could be removed from that population through human-caused actions such as ship strikes or entanglement in fishing nets, without harming the species.

In a typical year, about 430 California sea lions die from human-caused actions.

California Watch is skeptical about the need to kill sea lions when fishermen take so much more salmon than the sea lions:

A third salmon-eating California sea lion was captured and killed yesterday at the Bonneville Dam in Washington.

Two sea lions were captured and chemically euthanized at the Columbia River dam by Washington state officials last week.

And while Oregon, Washington and federal wildlife officials say the killings are necessary to preserve endangered salmon populations, California officials expressed skepticism.

Citing predictions for record-high numbers of Chinook salmon this year along the Pacific coast, Andrew Hughan, a spokesman for the California Department of Fish and Game, said his agency was "perplexed" by the killings.

“We know salmon is a huge part of the Oregon economy, but is eliminating a couple of sea lions really going to make a difference?” Hughan said.

Officials estimate that a California sea lion eats about seven salmon a day. According to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, the two California sea lions were captured and then chemically euthanized last week after ignoring repeated hazing techniques, such as fireworks and non-lethal explosives.

A federal law requires that sea lions targeted for death must be individually identifiable, have been observed eating salmon for five days (even if those days occurred over several years) and have not responded to hazing.

Craig Bartlett, a spokesman for Washington’s Department of Fish and Wildlife, said his agency and Oregon’s Department of Fish and Wildlife sought permission to kill the protected marine mammals because of the states’ overriding concern for salmon.

“Yes, there are predictions that we will have record numbers of salmon this year, but that hasn’t happened yet,” he said.

The peak salmon run generally occurs toward the end of April and beginning of May. But because of recent rain, the rivers are swollen, and the salmon migration has been slow to start, Bartlett said.

“Our chief concern is the wild salmon,” he said, which tend to migrate far up the river, to the Bonneville Dam. He said hatchery fish tend to split off onto tributaries further down the river.
According to Bartlett, 30 percent of the fish below the dam are wild.

The Humane Society of the United States filed a lawsuit last month against the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which authorized the states to kill the protected mammals. The society argued that the killings violate the Marine Mammal Protection Act and that the government has failed to show that sea lions, which are natural salmon predators, kill a significantly large number of salmon.

"Especially when you compare them to other sources of mortality," said Sharon Young, Humane Society marine issues field director. Young said sea lions have been documented to take anywhere between 0.4 percent and 4.2 percent of the salmon run, while commercial fishing is closer to 17 percent, and the dam takes about 10 percent.

Young added that the states' stocking of non-wild fish, such as bass and walleye, in the river has had a significant impact on the survival of salmon. The non-wild fish eat small or juvenile salmon.
And in any case, she added, the salmon run has been stable or growing over the past several years.

"There is just no justification for killing the sea lions," she said. "It's just a red herring. It looks like something easy to solve, but they should really be addressing the bigger issues, like non-native fish."

The society also sought a temporary restraining order to prevent the killings, but that order was rejected by a federal judge. Currently, the states are authorized to kill up to 92 sea lions per year for the next five years. However, in response to the Humane Society’s suit, a judge ruled that only 30 could be killed this year.

Thursday, April 5, 2012


Piedras Blancas hosted a distinguished visitor last week: Peter Lovenheim, author of Cuesta College's Book of the Year, In the Neighborhood: The Search for Community on an American Street, One Sleepover at a Time. He writes about his Rochester, New York neighborhood.

My husband and I attended his talk Tuesday evening and purchased the book. As he signed it, I mentioned the elephant seals. His interest was piqued, and the following day he accepted our invitation to show him Piedras Blancas. As that was to be his final day on the Central Coast, we showed him other sights: Hearst Castle's Visitor Center and the otters of Morro Bay.

As we were driving north on Highway 1, we rounded the curve leaving Morro Bay, where Morro Strand State Park, currently scheduled for closure, stretches out to Morro Strand State Beach. "Do you ever get blase about where you live," he asked with a note of awe. We assured him that we appreciate this beautiful area every single day.

And I loved the book. He followed his heart into the homes and lives of his neighbors, after being shocked by a neighborhood tragedy. Reading it made me think more about getting to know my neighbors better. I invited two of them for dinner.

Thanks for writing this book, Peter and being willing to accept a stranger's invitation.