Category Archives: Puget Sound

Puget Sound restoration: two steps forward, one back — or vice versa?

Measuring the progress of Puget Sound restoration is a very difficult thing to do.

Vital signs

Millions of dollars have been spent to restore streams, wetlands, estuaries and shorelines. Millions more have been spent to improve stormwater systems and to clean up contaminated sediments.

At the same time, billions of dollars have been spent by commercial and residential developers in the Puget Sound region. The results are ongoing changes to the landscape and unknown alterations to ecosystems.

In the overall scheme of things, are we taking two steps forward and one step back, or is it two steps back and one step forward?

Gov and Leg

Puget Sound Partnership’s biennial “State of the Sound Report,” released this week, attempts to tell us how things are going in the effort to restore Puget Sound to a healthy condition. Progress is being made in restoring habitat, according to a news release about the report, but “measures for chinook salmon, Southern Resident Killer Whales, herring and other native species show a decline, and local improvements in water quality still don’t add up to improvements at the regional scale.”


“These mixed results are the reality of working in a complex ecosystem that is under tremendous pressures right now,” said Sheida Sahandy, the partnership’s executive director. “It’s why we need to make smart, timely investments in our partners’ hard work to restore and protect habitat, prevent stormwater pollution and reopen shellfish beds,”

Puget Sound Partnership has developed 37 ecosystem indicators for tracking progress. They are organized under 21 categories called the Puget Sound “vital signs.” If you want understand the latest information, you must look to the new “Report on the Puget Sound Vital Signs (PDF 9.9 mb).

Key findings, as reported in the news release:

  • Four indicators are meeting — or nearly meeting — regionally identified targets, including those related to inventorying septic systems, slowing forest loss, and two measurements showing improvements in the quality of marine sediment.
  • All indicators for habitat restoration are making incremental progress.
  • None of the indicators for species or food-web health are making progress.
  • While there has been local-level progress in some indicators, the results do not add up to regional progress. For example, while marine water quality is relatively good in some bays (making them safe for harvesting shellfish and for swimming), other bays have very poor water quality and are not meeting standards.

Pulse logo

I believe these vital signs can help us understand the functions of the Puget Sound ecosystem and give us an idea about the progress in restoration. I even used them as a broad outline for my two-year investigation into the health of Puget Sound and the species found in the region. If you haven’t done so, I urge you to take a look at the series, “Taking the Pulse of Puget Sound.”

At the same time, these 37 indicators often fail to capture many of the nuances of Puget Sound health, such as species distribution, population dynamics and primary productivity — all aspects of ecosystem health.

A pod of Southern Resident orcas travels south past Point No Point in North Kitsap early this afternoon. Typically, the three Southern Resident pods move into Central and South Puget Sound to hunt for chum salmon in October, but this year they have stayed away until now. Photo: Meegan Reid, Kitsap Sun
Southern Residents in Puget Sound
Photo: Meegan Reid, Kitsap Sun

Southern Resident killer whales, for example, are now fewer than when the ecosystem indicators were approved. That could be related to the number of chinook salmon — the orca’s primary prey — which also are in decline. But what are the problems facing the chinook? Lack of spawning habitat? Increased predation by seals and other marine mammals? Not enough forage fish, such as herring, surf smelt and sand lance? In turn, what is limiting the growth of the forage fish populations? The amount or right type of plankton to eat, spawning habitat, predation, or something else?

It is often said that the ongoing development of Puget Sound is damaging the ecosystem faster than it is being restored. But I have not seen convincing evidence to show which way things are going. The vital signs indicators are not adequate to answer this question. Lagging indicators — especially population counts — don’t tell the whole story. But one thing is certain: Without the investment we have all made in Puget Sound restoration, conditions would be far worse than they are today.

Over the past few years, the Puget Sound Partnership is getting better at establishing priorities that will make the most difference. But it is still mind-boggling to think of the number of places that have been degraded over 150 years of development, all needing work to bring things back to a functioning part of the Puget Sound ecosystem.

Getting the priorities right and getting everyone working together is an enormous challenge. Coordination must involve federal, state, tribal and local governments, private businesses and conservation groups. That was why the Legislature created the Puget Sound Partnership and issued a special mandate. It seems to me that the people leading the restoration effort understand their responsibility.

It was nice to see a recognition of this coordination problem by U.S. Reps. Derek Kilmer and Denny Heck, who introduced the Save Our Sound Act, designed to coordinate federal actions with those of the Puget Sound Partnership, which tries to involve all segments of society. This SOS bill is now supported by all of Washington state’s congressional delegation. Check out a summary of the bill on Heck’s congressional website; read the story by Tristan Baurick in the Kitsap Sun; or review the op-ed piece by Heck and Kilmer in The News Tribune.

The role of local governments in the restoration effort cannot be over-stated. As restoration continues, damage from ongoing development must be limited. Concepts of “no net loss” and “best-management practices” are important — but the key is to locate development where it will do the least ecosystem damage, then use construction techniques that will cause the least disruption of ecological functions.

Jenifer McIntyre studies the effects of stormwater at the Washington State University Puyallup Research & Extension Center. Photo: Meegan Reid, Kitsap Sun
Jenifer McIntyre studies the effects of stormwater at the Washington State University Puyallup Research & Extension Center. // Photo: Meegan Reid, Kitsap Sun

Breakthroughs in scientific understanding and new solutions to old problems can make a big difference. Jen McIntyre of Washington State University finally published her findings about the effects of stormwater on coho salmon. More importantly, she and her colleagues revealed how to solve the problem by filtering the stormwater through compost — or essentially the natural material found on the forest floor. The study was published in the Journal of Applied Ecology (PDF 338 kb).

I’ve talked about these findings several times in the past, including an expanded story about stormwater in the “Pulse” series in July of last year. For stories written since the report was published, see Tristan Baurick’s piece in the Kitsap Sun or Sandi Doughton’s story in the Seattle Times or the news release by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Development regulations by local government have always been a weak link in the effort to restore Puget Sound. I have been discouraged by the lack of progress in some cities and counties. In the face of uncertain science, it has been too easy for local officials to do the minimum required by state government then turn around and blame the state when local residents complain about the higher costs of development.

On the other hand, I am encouraged that more and more local officials are taking scientific studies to heart, learning how to judge scientific uncertainty and taking actions to help save the ecosystem. Stormwater regulations have been a bitter pill to swallow for many local officials, but creative approaches, such as I described in the “Pulse” series could be one of the best things that local government can do. Another major role of local government is to protect and restore shorelines, about which I will have more to say in the near future. (“Water Ways, Aug. 15, 20115.)

Overall, when I see the beauty of Puget Sound and consider the combined energy of thousands of people who really care about this waterway, I can’t help but remain optimistic that the effort to save Puget Sound is on the right track.

A quiz, based on the new ‘Puget Sound Fact Book’

A new publication called “Puget Sound Fact Book” has been released online by the Puget Sound Institute, an affiliation of the University of Washington, Environmental Protection Agency and Puget Sound Partnership.

Fact book

Like its name suggests, the fact book contains detailed information about Puget Sound — from the geology that created the waterway to creatures that roam through the region, including humans. The fact book has been incorporated into the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

Working for the Puget Sound Institute, I became part of a team of about 25 researchers and writers who compiled the facts and produced essays about various aspects of Puget Sound. I wrote an introductory piece titled “Overview: Puget Sound as an Estuary” and a conclusion called “A healthy ecosystem supports human values.”

One can download a copy of the fact book from the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound webpage.

Just for fun, I thought I would offer a multiple-choice quiz from the book. Answers and scoring are at the bottom.

1. Chesapeake Bay on the East Coast covers about four times the area of Puget Sound. The total volume of water in Chesapeake Bay is roughly how much compared to Puget Sound?
A. Twice the volume of Puget Sound
B. Equal to the volume of Puget Sound
C. Half the volume of Puget Sound
D. One-fourth the volume of Puget Sound

2. Puget Sound was named by Capt. George Vancouver, honoring one of his officers, Lt. Peter Puget. Where was the northernmost boundary of the original Puget Sound?
A. The Canadian border
B. The northern edge of Admiralty Inlet near present-day Port Townsend
C. The southern edge Whidbey Island
D. The Tacoma Narrows

3. How deep is the deepest part of Puget Sound?
A. 86 meters = 282 feet
B. 186 meters = 610 feet
C. 286 meters = 938 feet
D. 386 meters – 1,266 feet

4. Washington State Department of Health has classified 190,000 acres of tidelands in Puget Sound as shellfish growing areas. How much of that area is classified as “prohibited,” meaning shellfish can never be harvested there without a change in classification.
A. 36,000 acres
B. 52,000 acres
C. 84,000 acres
D. 110,0000 acres

5. In the late 1800s, experts estimate that Puget Sound contained 166 square kilometers (64 square miles) of mud flats. Development has reduced that total to how much today?
A. 79 square kilometers = 30 square miles
B. 95 square kilometers = 36 square miles
C. 126 square kilometers = 49 square miles
D. 151 square kilometers – 58 square miles

6. How many bird species depend on the Salish Sea, according to a 2011 study?
A. 45
B. 102
C. 157
D. 172

7. Resident killer whales eat mainly chinook salmon. What do transient killer whales mainly eat?
A. Pink salmon
B. Marine mammals
C. Birds
D. Sharks

8. Most fish populations in Puget Sound have been on the decline over the past 40 years. What type of marine creature has increased its numbers 9 times since 1975?
A. Rock crabs
B. Jellyfish
C. Herring
D. Dogfish sharks

9. Rockfish are among the longest-lived fish in Puget Sound. How many species of rockfish can be found in Puget Sound?
A. 8
B. 18
C. 28
D. 38

10. Puget Sound’s giant Pacific octopus is the largest octopus in the world. The record size has been reported at what weight?
A. 200 pounds
B. 400 pounds
C. 500 pounds
D. 600 pounds

1. C. Chesapeake Bay contains about half the volume of Puget Sound, some 18 cubic miles compared to 40 cubic miles.
2. D. Tacoma Narrows.
3. C. The deepest spot in Puget Sound — offshore of Point Jefferson near Kingston — is 286 m, although one spot in the larger Salish Sea (Strait of Georgia) reaches a depth of 650 m. or 2,132 feet.
4. A. 36,000 acres are prohibited shellfish beds
5. C. Total mudflats today total 126 square kilometers
6. D. 172 bird species
7. B. Transients eat marine mammals.
8. B. Jellyfish
9. C. 28
10. D. 600 pounds is said to be the record, although more typical weights are 50 to 100 pounds.

Most of these questions are pretty tough. If you got five right, I would say you know Puget Sound pretty well. Six or seven right suggests you have special knowledge about the waterway. More than seven correct answers means you could have helped compile the facts for this new book.

Have we turned the corner on Puget Sound bulkhead construction?

It’s hard to describe the surprise I felt when I first glanced at a new graph plotting bulkhead construction and removal along Puget Sound’s shoreline since 2005.

On the graph was a blue line that showed how new bulkhead construction had declined dramatically the past two years. But what really caught my eye was a green line showing an increase in bulkhead removal. Amazingly, these two lines had crossed each other in 2014, meaning that the total length of bulkheads removed had exceeded the total length of bulkheads built last year.

Graphic: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife
Graphic: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

Not only was this the first time this has ever happened, it was totally unexpected. Few people really believed that bulkhead removal could exceed construction anytime soon. I was happy to write up these new findings in the latest newsletter for the Puget Sound Institute, where I’m now employed part-time.

“It was pretty shocking — in a good way,” said Randy Carman of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, who coordinated the data based on state permits. “It makes me optimistic going forward.”

Randy helped develop the “vitals signs indicator” for shoreline armoring, along with a “target” approved by the Puget Sound Partnership. The target called for the total length of armoring removed to exceed the total length constructed for the 10-year period from 2011 through 2020.

Like many of the vital signs indicators, this one for shoreline armoring was far from a sure thing. In fact, like most of the indicators, the trend was going in the wrong direction. Some people believed that the Puget Sound Partnership was setting itself up for failure.

These were “aspirational” targets, Randy recalled, and meeting them would be a tremendous challenge for many individuals, government agencies and organizations.

As I described in some detail in the article for PSI, the number of new bulkheads has declined, in part because of new government rules. Meanwhile, the number of bulkheads removed has increased, in part because of government funding.

But something else may be afoot, as pointed out by Sheida Sahandy, executive director of the Puget Sound Partnership, and David Price, habitat program manager for WDFW. A new “culture” may be taking hold in which people realize that bulkheads are neither good for the environment, attractive nor functional when it comes to people enjoying their own beach.

Before and after composite view of a 2013 bulkhead-removal project at Penrose Point State Park in Pierce County. Original photos: Kristin Williamson, South Puget Sound Salmon Enhancement Group
Before and after composite view at the site of a 2013 bulkhead-removal project on the shore of Penrose Point State Park in Pierce County.
Composite: Kris Symer, PSI; original photos: Kristin Williamson, South Puget Sound Salmon Enhancement Group

When talking to shoreline property owners who have removed a rock or concrete bulkhead, often the first thing they tell me is how much nicer their beach has become. No more jumping or climbing off a wall. No more rickety stairs. One can walk down a slope and plop down a lawn chair wherever the tide tells you is the right spot.

“The factors are all in place for a paradigm shift,” Sheida told me. “When people see the geotech reports for their own beach, they can see there is a different way. People can take off their shoes and put their toes in the sand.”

Getting contractors and real-estate agents to understand and support new methods of beach protection and restoration is one strategy being considered. Personally, I was impressed with the change in direction by Sealevel Bulkhead Builders. Check out the story I wrote for the Kitsap Peninsula Business Journal.

It takes a little land to create the right slope to dissipate wave energy without any man-made structure. In some cases, large rocks and logs — so-called “soft shore protection” — can help reduce erosion. In some situations where land is limited and wave energy is high, a solid wall may be the only remedy. No matter which option is used, one must consider the initial cost and long-term maintenance — including consideration of sea-level rise caused by global warming.

“The secret,” said Dave Price, “is less about the strong arm of regulation and more about helping people understanding what they are getting.”

Scientific evidence about the damage of bulkheads has been building for several years. Among the impacts:

  • Loss of beach and backshore, which reduces the area used for recreation, shellfish, bird habitat and forage-fish spawning.
  • Loss of slow, natural erosion, which helps maintain the quantity and quality of sand and gravel along the shoreline.
  • Alteration of wave action, which can impede natural movement of sand and gravel and scour the beach of fine sediment, leaving hardpan and scattered rocks.
  • Increased predation of juvenile salmon by larger fish where high tides leave deep water along the bulkhead, plus fewer insects for food caused by loss of shoreline vegetation.

See Washington Department of Ecology’s Frequently Asked Questions (PDF 640 kb)

Bulkheads can cause a coarsening of a beach over time, with harder and harder substrate becoming evident. Damage from one bulkhead may be slow and limited, experts say, but alterations to more than 25 percent of the shoreline, as we see today, has taken a serious toll in some parts of Puget Sound.

Dave told me about the time he stood next to a concrete bulkhead and watched the tide coming in. Large fish, such as sculpins, were able to swim right up to the wall.

“I stood there and watched these fish come right in next to shore,” he said. “These were big fish, and they came up right next to the bulkhead. There was nowhere for the juvenile salmonids to get out of there.”

The cartoon below was part of this week’s “Amusing Monday” feature, and it illustrates the situation that Dave described. I could say much more about changing trends in bulkheads, given new studies funded by the Environmental Protection Agency, but that can wait for future blog posts.

Vital sign indicators revised to reflect human values for Puget Sound

When it comes to restoring the Puget Sound ecosystem, human beings really do matter — in some ways that are obvious and in some ways that are fairly subtle.

The Puget Sound Leadership Council, which oversees the restoration of Puget Sound, acknowledged this fact yesterday when adopting a new set of ecosystem indicators to measure how Puget Sound influences the health and well-being of humans.

It’s often said that people have damaged the Puget Sound ecosystem through years of abuse. They say it will take years of restoration — by people — to return things to a healthy condition. But why do we care? Are we spending millions of dollars on restoration just to benefit fish and wildlife, or are we doing it for ourselves?

The answer, which comes from studies of economics and human behavior, appears to be that helping fish and wildlife — by putting the ecosystem back together — also benefits humans in a variety of ways.

When the Washington Legislature told the Puget Sound Partnership to go forth and lead the way toward restoring Puget Sound to health, our lawmakers understood that people would be the primary beneficiaries. The first two goals assigned to the partnership, as articulated by RCW 90.71.300:

  • A healthy human population supported by a healthy Puget Sound that is not threatened by changes in the ecosystem;
  • A quality of human life that is sustained by a functioning Puget Sound ecosystem;

The other three goals are related to native species, habitats and water supplies.

Sometimes goals related to human values conflict with goals to restore ecological functions. For example, one cannot build a house on undeveloped land without altering the ecosystem in some negative ways. Sometimes human values are aligned with ecological values, such when we reduce pollution to clean up streams and drinking water. In any case, these new ecosystem indicators will help people understand the tradeoffs and opportunities of various actions.

As I pointed out last month in Water Ways, the Hood Canal Coordinating Council has completed a plan and associated website that highlights connections between human well-being and natural resources in the Hood Canal region. Hood Canal became a pilot project for the indicators approved yesterday for all of Puget Sound. Some of the same folks — including social scientist Kelly Biedenweg of the Puget Sound Institute — were involved in creating nine new “vital signs” with indicators to track human-related changes in the Puget Sound ecosystem.

Unlike the original human health and human well-being indicators adopted in 2010, these new indicators have undergone an extensive review by scientists and other experts to ensure their validity and reliability. That is, these new indicators have real meaning in connecting human beings to the ecological functions of Puget Sound.

In yesterday’s meeting, Martha Kongsgaard, chairwoman of the Leadership Council, said the human dimension is often ignored in favor of empirical science.

“This is a hard thing to do,” she said about developing the new indicators. “This is sort of a brave new world, and I think it is true that we live in this world whether we call it out like this or not.”

Council member Stephanie Solien said she would like to see more discussions about human health and well-being issues — not because they are more important than species and habitats, but because they make connections to average people.

“People are self-interested,” she said. “They care about their health, their family’s health, the health of their communities. The more we can draw those connections to Puget Sound and healthy watersheds, I think we will be more successful in our work around ecosystems and saving species.”

Hear the full discussion on TVW in the video player on this page, and download the resolution and backup documents (PDF 2.9 mb) from the Puget Sound Partnership’s website.

Here are the four new vital signs and associated indicators related to human health:

1. OUTDOOR ACTIVITY: Measured by 1) Percent of swimming beaches meeting bacterial standards (one of the existing indicators), 2) Average hours people spend having fun outdoors, 3) Average hours people spend working outdoors.

2. AIR QUALITY: Indicators to be determined from existing data.

3. LOCAL FOODS: Availability of wild foods, such the ability to catch fish, collect shellfish, harvest plants and hunt for game.

4. DRINKING WATER: Indicators to be determined from information about water systems.

Here are the five new vital signs and associated indicators related to human well-being:

5. ECONOMIC VITALITY: Measured by 1) Value of natural resources produced by industry, including commercial fishing, shellfish harvesting, timber production, agriculture, mining and tourism; 2) Value produced by natural-resource industries compared to gross domestic product of all other industries in the region; 3) Number of jobs in natural-resource industries.

6. CULTURAL WELL-BEING: Percent of residents who feel they are able to maintain traditions associated with the natural environment.

7. GOOD GOVERNANCE: Percentage of people who feel they have 1) the opportunity to influence decisions about Puget Sound, 2) the rights and freedom to make decisions about managing natural resources, 3) trust in local and regional governments to make the right decisions about Puget Sound, 4) been well represented by government leaders, 5) access to information about natural-resource issues.

8. SENSE OF PLACE: Percentage of people who feel: 1) a positive connection to the region, 2) a sense of stewardship for the watershed, 3) a sense of pride about being from Puget Sound.

9. PSYCHOLOGICAL WELL-BEING INDEX: Percentage of people who experience: 1) inspiration from being in nature, 2) reduced stress, calm or relaxation from being in nature, 3) Overall life satisfaction based on criteria in national studies.

A new vital sign wheel will add indicators for human health and well-being. Graphic: Puget Sound Partnership
A new vital sign wheel will add nine indicators for human health and well-being. Two indicators were moved to another area.
Graphic: Puget Sound Partnership

Leadership Council member Jay Manning, former director of the Washington Department of Ecology, said he supports the indicators. His only concern is that some are beyond the control of the Puget Sound Partnership, and some may have nothing to do with people’s connection to Puget Sound.

Jay makes a good point, but the social scientists who developed the indicators stressed that there will be no targets or goals associated with human values. What will be interesting to watch is whether people feel better or worse about the restoration effort as time goes on, and how the leaders choose to respond to any changes in public opinion.

Much of the information that will fit into the new indicators will be the result of phone surveys yet to be conducted. Other information will be teased out of ongoing research studies. The partnership has received funding from the Environmental Protection Agency to hire a consultant to continue work on the human-related indicators until the numbers are finalized.

None of the new information about human health and well-being will be included in the State of Puget Sound report to be issued later this year, according to Kari Stiles, staff scientist for the partnership. But some information could go into the Vital Signs wheel within the next year.

A few random thoughts about reporting and environmental science

After leaving the staff of the Kitsap Sun, I was profoundly thrilled and honored this year to have my environmental reporting career recognized by two organizations that I greatly respect.

The two awards got me to thinking about the role that environmental reporters can play in bridging the gap between scientists studying the Puget Sound ecosystem and residents wishing to protect this beloved place.

Great Peninsula Conservancy, which plays a central role in acquiring and protecting vital ecosystems on the Kitsap Peninsula, chose to honor me with its Conservationist of the Year Award. The award is especially humbling, because I see myself as a storyteller, not a conservationist. But I was reminded that stories can help bring people together to accomplish great things. One major project that involves GPC and its many partners is the Kitsap Forest and Bay Project, a major land-acquisition effort in North Kitsap.

gpc logo

When I attended GPC’s annual fund-raising dinner in April, it felt like some sort of reunion. People I had known for years from all sorts of organizations and agencies came up to shake my hand. Some I knew very well. For nearly everyone, I could look back over more than 35 years of reporting and recall their connection to one or more environmental stories. It was a bit overwhelming.

The second award, from the SeaDoc Society, was equally satisfying, since it recognized my work across the Puget Sound region. The Octopus Award acknowledges groups and individuals outside SeaDoc who have advanced the organization’s goal of protecting the health of marine wildlife.

seadoc logo

SeaDoc’s director and chief scientist, Dr. Joe Gaydos, a veterinarian, has a rare ability. He not only conducts research with a precision required to advance science, but he also communicates general scientific knowledge in ways we can all understand. I cannot count the times I’ve asked Joe to help me put some ecological issue into perspective.

Joe teamed up recently with author Audrey DeLella Benedict to write an informative and entertaining book about the inland waterway that extends from Olympia, Wash., to Campbell River, B.C., including Puget Sound and the Strait of Georgia. The title is “The Salish Sea: Jewel of the Pacific Northwest.”

Unlike my experience at the GPC dinner, I knew only a handful of people at SeaDoc’s annual fund-raising auction on Orcas Island two weeks ago. I was able to become acquainted with many wonderful people who seemed interested in all aspects of the Puget Sound ecosystem. I was SeaDoc’s guest for the entire weekend, which turned into a much-needed mini-vacation. It was the first time I’ve been able to get away this year.

For whatever success I’ve had in my career, I owe a debt to all the scientists willing to give their time to help me understand their research. Science is a journey of discovery, and I’ve been privileged to hitchhike with all sorts of researchers on their way to understanding how the world works.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the teaching of science and the need to encourage future researchers. Although I have a degree in biochemistry, I’ve never worked as a scientist — unless you count the year I toiled as a lab assistant growing tomato plants. It was a research project designed to figure out how the plants protect themselves from damaging insects.

I grew up believing that science was a particular set of facts that explained the workings of nature. For the longest time, I failed to see that the most important thing about science was formulating the right questions about things we don’t know. Science teachers should, of course, convey what is known, but I believe they should also lead their students to the edge of the unknown, revealing some of the questions that scientists are attempting to answer right now.

That is what much of my reporting on Puget Sound has been about. We’ve known for years that the health of the waterway is in decline. It has been rewarding to help people understand why things have been going wrong and what can be done to reverse the downward trends. While there is much work to do, we’re at a point where we can expect Puget Sound residents to limit their damage to the ecosystem and become part of the restoration effort.

Finally, I have some advice for science reporters and scientists alike. I feel like I’ve been lucky to be able to connect well with researchers, though I’ve heard it said that the relationship between reporters and scientists can be rough at times.

I’ve known reporters who are more interested in getting a scoop than in learning, more interested in getting to some perceived conclusion than in understanding the whys and hows. I’ve also known scientists who are convinced that their research is too complex for reporters to grasp, not to mention write about accurately.

For myself, it has always worked to follow my curiosity wherever it takes me. Gathering far more information than I need for today’s story, I find that this wandering gives me a better understanding of the big picture while identifying future stories. Thanks to those who have tolerated my detailed questioning.

Scientists also can take steps to make sure they are well understood. Spell out key points for reporters, go over the essential elements more than once, and even put information in writing if a reporter seems to need some extra help.

When this kind of collaboration is successful, the result is a story that captures the imagination, provides accurate information and sometimes even changes the way people see the world.

Amusing Monday: Comedians share their thoughts about water

Actors and comedians are talking about water in a new video campaign to raise awareness about the value of clean water and the importance of keeping pollution out of waterways.

Waterkeeper Alliance brought together celebrities to share their feelings and memories about water uses. They include Neil Patrick Harris, Susan Sarandon, Bobby Moynihan, Taran Killam, Ray Romano and Brad Garrett.

Locally, Puget Soundkeeper Alliance is affiliated with the national Waterkeeper Alliance. Puget Soundkeeper Chris Wilke, based in Seattle, is featured in an earlier video that explains the goals of Waterkeeper Alliance and the actions of the various affiliates across the United States and throughout the world.

The new campaign, called “Keep it Clean” is directed by Rachael Harris and produced by Kids at Play.

“We want to get people thinking about what water pollution means to them — to their drinking water, their surf break, their favorite fishing spot,” Harris said in a prepared statement. “But it’s a dirty and heavy topic! So we brought together some of the most brilliant and passionate voices in entertainment to put their own spin on it, to get a little silly, to make people think about why this issue is important, and what they can do to help.”

The videos presented here were announced as the “first round” of the campaign, which I presume means that more will be coming later. The three videos shown in players are compilations of comments on three themes:

  • What’s your favorite use of water? (top video)
  • Heartfelt memories (middle)
  • What does Waterkeeper Alliance do? (bottom)

The other videos show either celebrities speaking alone or with a partner:

Salmon managers reduce Puget Sound fishing
to protect chinook

I missed the annual trek to Olympia this year to meet with state and tribal salmon managers, recreational and commercial fishermen and others involved in setting fishing seasons. The event, held in March, is both a reunion and the official start of some serious talks about salmon.

Each year, fishermen head to the Skokomish River to catch chinook that have made it all the way through Hood Canal. This year, more restrictions are in store. Kitsap Sun file photo
Each year, fishermen head to the Skokomish River to catch chinook that have made it all the way through Hood Canal. This year, more restrictions are in store.
Kitsap Sun file photo

I’ve always enjoyed the discussions about the number of various salmon stocks expected to return to diverse areas of Puget Sound, the Washington Coast and the Columbia River. Years ago, I observed much more horse-trading — or rather salmon-trading — as experts made decisions about how far inland the fish should be allowed to swim before being caught.

Saving enough fish to make it back to the streams to spawn has always been the goal of the negotiating process, known as “North of Falcon” — so named because the discussions are focused on an area north of Cape Falcon in Oregon. I have to say, however, that the discussions began to change after Puget Sound chinook were declared “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act and conservation measures became even more important.

Chinook recovery has not been going well, even after major reforms in harvest management, hatchery operations and habitat restoration. So the need to protect the salmon from fishing pressures grows ever greater and the opportunities to catch fish in particular areas continue to decline.

Such was the case this year, when salmon managers decided to forego fishing for chinook in the popular fishing area known as Area 10 between Bremerton and Seattle. Other salmon can still be caught there, but all chinook — even those reared in a hatchery — must be released.

I was not around to observe how the negotiations went this year, having retired from the staff of the Kitsap Sun in October. (I’m now doing some in-depth reporting for the Sun and currently covering the Legislature for InvestigateWest.) It appears that recreational and commercial fishers believe that the salmon managers could have carved out some fishing seasons in the area without risking survival of the species.

“We fought hard just to keep what we had last year, and then to get the rug pulled out from under us is totally incomprehensible,” said Tony Floor of the Northwest Marine Trade Association, quoted in a story by Seattle Times reporter Mark Yuasa.

“With increasing (licensing) fees and the declining fishing opportunities, it makes it really difficult,” said Karl Brackmann, a Puget Sound Anglers board member, quoted in a story by Kitsap Sun reporter Tristan Baurick.

Even though sophisticated computer models try to determine how many salmon will be coming back to a given area, it’s still a guess. Deciding how many fish can be safely caught is always a judgment call. I guess this year managers have concerns not only for the wild chinook but also the marked hatchery chinook. The hatchery chinook, marked by removing the adipose fin, are normally considered free for the taking as long as unmarked wild chinook are released.

Lorraine Loomis, chairwoman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, said fishing reductions were especially painful for tribal and state managers this year, but the cutbacks were necessary. Salmon returns were poor last year, she said, and managers were concerned about ocean conditions and a low snowpack that could lead to increased stream temperatures.

“Because of these conditions we may see an increase in pre-spawning mortality of salmon this year, which required the tribal and state co-managers to be extra cautious in setting seasons,” Loomis said in a news release.

Anglers will still have good opportunities to catch coho, pink and Skagit River sockeye, according to Ryan Lothrop, Puget Sound recreational fishery manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“Fishing for pink salmon should be excellent in Puget Sound, including in Hood Canal and Dungeness Bay,” Lothrop said in a news release.

For details on the fishing seasons, check out the North of Falcon webpage, which will be updated as new information becomes available.

Reducing toxics in fish involves politics, maybe more than science

When it comes to eliminating toxic pollution from our waterways and the foods we eat, almost everyone agrees that the best idea is to track down the chemicals, find out how they are getting into the environment and then make decisions about how to handle the situation.


It’s all common sense until politics comes into play.

If the chemicals are really hazardous and if substitutes for the chemicals are available, then a ban on their use may be the right decision. That has happened with pesticides, such as DDT, and solvents, such as PCBs.

In the case of PCBs, banning these chemicals is not enough, because they were used so widely and continue to hang around, both in old products still in use and in the open environment. Waiting for them to break down and disappear is not a practical approach.

The solution involves conducting chemical detective work to find out how the chemicals are traveling through the environment and ultimately getting into people and animals. Some toxic sinks for PCBs, such as old electrical equipment, can be identified and destroyed before the chemicals begin leaking out. Others, such as contaminated sediments at the bottom of Puget Sound, pose a more difficult problem.

Even when chemicals are banned, the ban is enforced with limits on concentration, below which the chemical can still be used. That’s the case with very low levels of PCBs found in some types of inks and dyes. So when paper is recycled, the PCBs may escape into the environment. We know that PCBs, which mimic hormones and can wreak havoc on the body, can build up in fish, killer whales and humans over time. The question for regulators becomes which sources are the most important to eliminate.

In Washington state, chemical detectives tackle the toxic compounds one at a time, compiling their findings into a chemical action plan. The chemical action plan for PCBs was completed earlier this year. Others have been done for mercury, lead, toxic flame retardants and polyaromatic hydrocarbons.

I bring all this up because Gov. Jay Inslee and Department of Ecology would like to increase the pace of studying potentially toxic chemicals, including finding out what harm they are doing, how they get into the food web and whether alternative chemicals are available.

New chemicals are finding their way into household products, cosmetics and other materials all the time, and studies continue to raise concerns about old chemicals that we have lived with for a long time. Some chemicals are the subject of vigorous and ongoing scientific debate.

The Washington Legislature has been asked by the governor to fund Ecology for up to two chemical action plans per year. The other question before lawmakers is how much authority to give Ecology for banning chemicals and considering whether alternatives are available. These are issues I covered in a story last week for InvestigateWest, a nonprofit journalism group. The story was carried by the Kitsap Sun on Sunday.

This issue of chemical action plans has gotten tangled up with the need for Washington state to update its water-quality standards, required under the federal Clean Water Act. These standards, now under review by Ecology, determine which water bodies in the state are considered clean of toxic substances and which should be labeled “impaired.”

The standards also are used to develop discharge permits for industrial facilities, sewage-treatment plants and occasionally stormwater outfalls. The general implication is that if a discharge from a pipe meets the state’s water quality standards, then it won’t pollute the receiving waters.

Years ago, when most water pollution came from industrial and sewage discharges, the program was successful in making the waters substantially cleaner. More than 100 chemicals remain on the Environmental Protection Agency’s priority pollutants list. All these chemicals are still tested by dischargers, although the vast majority are not detectible in fish caught in Puget Sound. Meanwhile, other chemicals of growing concern are not on the list — so they are not subject to testing, let alone regulatory control.

We now know from various studies that most of the toxic pollution entering Puget Sound comes from stormwater, not discharges from pipes, while other toxics are still sitting on the bottom of Puget Sound. It will take a lot of money and a lot of time to address these sources. The effort is moving in that direction, but funding continues to be debated, including the current session of the Legislature.

Efforts to update the antiquated rules in the Clean Water Act to provide for a more rationale approach have been started and stopped many times. I suspect that environmental advocates fear that with the anti-government mood in Congress the result could be even less-effective controls on pollution — so we live with regulations structured more than 30 years ago.

Gov. Inslee tried to shift the focus of toxic cleanup from the federal approach to the state’s new approach with chemical action plans. While newly proposed water-quality standards are more stringent for 70 percent of the chemicals (PDF 392 kb) on EPA’s list, they would have been 10 times more stringent if his proposal had not changed a key factor in the equation that determines the standards. Going up against environmental advocates, Inslee proposed increasing the cancer-risk rate in the equation from one in a million to one in 100,000.

In other words, if a body of water barely meets the pollution standard for a given chemical, 10 in a million people — rather than 1 in a million — could develop cancer from eating a maximum assumed level of fish from the water. This is the increased lifetime risk from that one chemical.

Everyone agrees that we should do what we can to reduce our risk of getting cancer, and cutting down toxics in fish is an important step. In a two-part series I wrote for the Kitsap Sun in March, I began by describing the risks and benefits of eating fish from Puget Sound and other areas, then I proceeded to talk about the alternative approaches to cleaning up the water.

Increasing the excess cancer risk from one in a million to 10 in a million is worth discussing. That change is not insignificant. But getting to some kind of bottom line is not easy. Keep in mind that the overall risk of getting cancer from all causes is about 433,000 in a million (43.3 percent) for men and 228,000 in a million (22.8 percent) for women, according to the American Cancer Society.

Environmental and tribal officials would like the risk of eating fish to be as low as possible. Many are angered by 15 years of delay by state officials in updating the standards, which were based on poor estimates of how much fish people eat. The newly proposed change assumes a daily consumption of 175 grams (about 6 ounces) of fish, compared to the previous 6.5 grams (about a quarter of an ounce.) Tribal officials say many people in their communities eat more than 175 grams.

On the other hand, businesses operating industrial plants and local governments running sewage-treatment plants are worried about what it will take to comply with new standards if the cancer risk remains at 1 in a million. Increased costs for their treatment systems, ultimately passed along to their customers, are a primary concern.

So far, the regional office of the EPA has made it clear that it does not like the idea of increasing the cancer-risk rate from the level currently used by Washington state and most other states. See the agency’s comments dated March 23 (PDF 6.4 mb). The EPA seems to be taking the approach that if the technology does not exist or is too expensive to reduce chemical concentrations to levels demanded by the new standards, then dischargers should be given a variance or allowed additional time to come into compliance.

It isn’t clear how these issues will be resolved, and there are many technical and legal aspects to be considered. Washington state is on a course to complete its update to the standards by August, when the EPA could release its own plan for bringing the state into compliance.

Harper Estuary moving toward restoration, including a new bridge

At Harper Estuary in South Kitsap, the question of “bridge or no bridge?” has become, “How long should the bridge be to protect the ecosystem?”

It’s a story I’ve been covering since 2001, when Harper resident Chuck Hower first told me about an old brick factory that operated in Harper during the early 1900s. He was dismayed by the massive amount of fill dirt later brought in to build roads across what had been a beautiful salt marsh. See Kitsap Sun, Feb. 12, 2001.

Although state and federal agencies were convinced that restoration of the estuary would be a wonderful thing for fish and wildlife, funding proposals came and went until two years ago. That’s when the Legislature decided that the Harper project should receive $4.1 million. The money was from a $142-million settlement with ASARCO related to pollution from company-owned smelters in Tacoma and Everett. More than $8 million was earmarked for environmental restoration. Check out this story, Kitsap Sun, Jan. 14, 2014.

Once the money was approved, the project got rolling. Planners had to decide how much of the fill material could be removed with the available money and what to do with Olympiad Drive, built on an earthen causeway across the upper portion of the estuary.

Biologists generally agreed that the best thing for the ecosystem was to take out Olympiad Drive entirely, although that would force area residents to take an alternate route on Nokomis Road to Southworth Drive. The result would be only one road in and out of the community east of the estuary, and that did not sit well with folks in the area.

Local fire officials were not happy with that arrangement either, according to Kathy Peters, salmon recovery coordinator for Kitsap County. They said it would cut down response time to the neighborhood.

In addition, she said, county engineers determined that the width of Nokomis Road would not meet design standards if the majority of area traffic began using the road. Widening the road would create other complications, such as buying right of way and tearing down some buildings.

“For all these reasons, everyone agreed that we can’t abandon the road,” Kathy told me.

What then resulted was a question of how long to make the bridge. Often, a longer bridge means greater ecosystem integrity. But there’s always the matter of cost.

What then ensued behind the scenes was a lot of haggling among biologists, engineers and other county officials, as well representatives of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Suquamish Tribe. I’ve been hearing about these difficult discussions for months.

Finally, a resolution came when Kitsap County’s new public works director, Andy Nelson, suggested that the county proceed with preliminary design studies, as it would for any bridge, but include ecosystem restoration as a primary design criteria. Nobody could find any reason not to go that way, Kathy said.

The county is now contracting for a consultant to do preliminary design, which will include various options, how much they will cost and how close they can come to a fully functioning natural system.

Meanwhile, WDFW is moving forward with its plans to restore the estuary and get that project under construction. Much of the work will involve removal of fill on both sides of Olympiad Drive and along the shoreline to bring the estuary back to a semblance of what it once was. A boat launch will be relocated.

A few other details, including the biological value of estuaries, can be found in a fact sheet on the county’s Harper Estuary website. Officials are pulling together additional information in preparation for a public meeting April 6 from 5 to 6:30 p.m. at Colby United Methodist Church.

Community involvement in the project is important, according to Kathy Peters, who wants people to enjoy the waterway and be able to observe as a variety of plants and animals recolonize the estuary.

Removing the fill is expected to unearth a huge number of old bricks, which were dumped into the estuary after the Harper Brick and Tile Factory went out of business in the 1930s.

Jim Heytvelt, who lives near the estuary, said neighbors have been discussing gathering up the bricks and forming them into some kind of monument.

“We have a pretty tight community,” Jim said. “We have neighborhoods on both the east and west sides of the estuary who want to get involved.”

He said most everyone is excited about the restoration, which has been a long time coming.

Agency lists critical habitat for endangered Puget Sound rockfish

National Marine Fisheries Service has designated more than 1,000 square miles of Puget Sound as “critical habitat” for rockfish — a colorful, long-lived fish decimated by over-fishing and environmental problems.

Canary rockfish Photo by Tippy Jackson, NOAA
Canary rockfish // Photo by Tippy Jackson, NOAA

In Hood Canal, we know that thousands of rockfish have been killed by low-oxygen conditions, and their populations have been slow to recover because of low reproductive rates. Elsewhere, rockfish are coming back with mixed success, helped in some locations by marine protected areas.

The final designation of critical habitat was announced today in the Federal Register for yelloweye rockfish and canary rockfish, both listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, and bocaccio, listed as “endangered.”

The critical habitat listing includes 590 square miles of nearshore habitat for canary rockfish and bocaccio, and 414 square miles of deepwater habitat for all three species. Nearshore areas include kelp forests important for the growth and survival of juvenile rockfish. Deeper waters are used for shelter, food and reproduction by adults.

Yelloweye rockfish Photo by Kip Evans, NOAA
Yelloweye rockfish
Photo by Kip Evans, NOAA

Potential critical habitat was reduced by 15 percent for canary rockfish and bocaccio and by 28 percent for yelloweye rockfish. Most of the excluded area was deemed already protected, either by tribes near their reservations or by the military near Navy and Army bases and their operational areas.

The designated habitat overlaps in large part with existing critical habitat for salmon, killer whales and bull trout. The only new areas added without overlap are some deep-water areas in Hood Canal.

Under the law, federal actions within designated habitat must undergo consultations with the National Marine Fisheries Service. Such actions — which include funding or issuing permits for private development — cannot be approved if they are found to be detrimental to the continuing survival of the species.

Catherine Kilduff of the Center for Biological Diversity offered this comment about the habitat designation in a news release:

“Saving rockfish from extinction requires protecting some of the most important places they live, and that’s exactly what’s happening now in the Puget Sound. These habitat protections will not only give rockfish a fighting chance at survival but will help all of the animals that live in these waters.”

Critical habitat for rockfish in Central Puget Sound NOAA map
Critical habitat for rockfish in Central Puget Sound
NOAA map from Federal Register

The three species of rockfish were placed on the Endangered Species List in 2010, following a series of petitions by biologist Sam Wright. Last year, the Center for Biological Diversity notified the National Marine Fisheries Service of its intent to file a lawsuit over the agency’s delay in designating critical habitat.

Federal and state biologists are now working on a recovery plan. I have not heard whether they still hope to get the plan completed next year.

Rockfish are unusual among bony fishes in that fertilization and embryo development are internal. Female rockfish give birth to live young. After birth, the larval rockfish may drift in shallow waters for several months, feeding on plankton. Among the listed species:

  • Canary rockfish can reach up to 2.5 feet in length. Adults have bright yellow to orange mottling over gray, three orange stripes across the head and orange fins. They can live to be 75 years old.
  • Bocaccio can reach up to 3 feet in length. They have a distinctively long jaw extending to the eye socket. Adult colors range from olive to burnt orange or brown. Their age is difficult to determine, but they may live as long as 50 years.
  • Yelloweye rockfish can reach up to 3.5 feet in length and 39 pounds in weight. They are orange-red to orange-yellow in color and may have black on their fin tips. Their eyes are bright yellow. They are among the longest lived of rockfishes, living up to 118 years.

A 2011 plan for saving the rockfish was written by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife with assistance from a group of experts. The report, “Puget Sound Rockfish Conservation Plan” (PDF 706 kb), identifies the cause for the population declines:

“These declines have largely been caused by historical fishing practices, although several other stress factors play a part in their decline. Rockfish in urban areas are exposed to high levels of chemical contamination, which may be affecting their reproductive success. Poor water quality in Hood Canal has resulted in massive periodic kills of rockfish as well as other species. Lost or abandoned fishing nets trap and kill large numbers of rockfish.”

The plan identifies these objectives to restore the population:

  • Place the highest priority on protecting and restoring the natural production of indicator rockfishes to healthy levels,
  • Promote natural production through the appropriate use of hatcheries and artificial habitats,
  • Protect and restore all marine habitat types for all rockfish species,
  • Manage all Puget Sound fisheries to ensure the health and productivity of all rockfish stocks,
  • Protect and restore existing functions of rockfish in the complex ecosystem and food web in Puget Sound,
  • Conduct monitoring of indicator stocks to evaluate stock status and management actions,
  • Implement new research to understand the diversity, biology and productivity of indicator rockfish, and
  • Conduct a strategic outreach and education program to inform Washington citizens of the value of rockfish stocks and to promote ecotourism.