Category Archives: Puget Sound

Facing challenges that could save chinook salmon from extinction

Nineteen years ago this month, then-Governor Gary Locke made a bold declaration about salmon that would echo through time: “Extinction is not an option.”

Juvenile chinook salmon depend on high-quality habitat for their survival.
Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

It was a call to action that would lead to major protection and restoration efforts throughout Puget Sound. Still, today, chinook salmon have not experienced a population rebound, as many people had hoped. The failure to thrive has been a disappointment to many, yet we are often reminded that it took 150 years to push salmon to the brink of extinction and it will not be easy to ensure their future.

Last week, concerns about the survival of chinook salmon prompted a coalition of Puget Sound tribes to propose a series of “bold actions,” as I reported in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, later reprinted in the Kitsap Sun.

“The way we are managing lands is not working,” stated salmon expert Dave Herrera, speaking for the tribes. “It may be working for people, but it is not working for fish.”

The bold actions, spelled out in a three-page proposal (PDF 380 kb), include greater controls on the use of land and water, among other things. I won’t describe the details, which you can read in the memo. The ideas were prompted by a new Chinook Salmon Implementation Strategy, designed to accelerate an increase in the Puget Sound chinook population.

The tribes complained that the proposed strategy, as drafted, mostly mimicked the 10-year-old Puget Sound Salmon Recovery Plan. That plan has made limited progress in restoring wild salmon runs, despite millions of dollars spent to protect and restore habitat while limiting fishing and controlling hatchery production.

In his speech of June 1998, Gov. Locke worried about the risk of extinction for these migratory fish, which are an economic asset as well as a celebrated symbol of the Northwest.

Former Gov. Gary Locke

“In several Puget Sound watersheds, our wild salmon have less than a decade to live, unless we act now,” Locke said in 1998. “And in many more rivers and streams, if the status quo continues, our wild salmon will be gone before my daughter Emily graduates from high school. So we just don’t have any time to waste. For better or for worse, we are about to make history.”

Locke’s speech was indeed historic, as he launched an unprecedented endeavor to rebuild salmon runs at great financial cost. The governor seemed to understand the challenge, as I noted at the time in my coverage of the speech before more than 100 county officials in Tacoma:

“Locke appears to be glancing over his shoulder, ready to duck for cover, as he talks about the financial and political commitments required to keep salmon from disappearing in various parts of the state,” I wrote.

“We need to wake up every morning ready to challenge the status quo,” Locke said, adding that basic changes are needed in the way businesses and average citizens use their land and water resources.

“There is a risk,” Locke said, “in just delivering that message, let alone acting on it.”

The following year, the Washington Legislature created the Salmon Recovery Funding Board to prioritize state and federal funding for salmon recovery. And the next governor, Chris Gregoire, ushered in an even greater ecosystem-recovery effort under guidance of the Puget Sound Partnership.

Wetlands are critical habitat for salmon.
Photo: Eric Grossman, U.S. Geological Survey

Today, I can’t help but wonder what would have happened without these salmon- and ecosystem-recovery efforts. Would the salmon be gone, as Locke predicted? It’s hard to say, but researchers have learned a great deal about what salmon need to survive, and the money is being better targeted toward those needs. As a result, it is understandable why some people are both disappointed with the past and hopeful for the future.

One of the great challenges facing public officials today is to find ways for local governments to truly live up to the standard of “no net loss” of ecological function — a standard required by the state’s Growth Management Act. When new developments affect “critical areas” — such as fish and wildlife habitat — they must include vegetated buffers and stormwater controls to minimize the damage. Then they must enhance degraded habitat — either on-site or off-site — to make up for losses that cannot be avoided.

I used to believe that this goal was unachievable, and I have questioned many state experts about it. How can any developer construct a commercial or residential development and walk away with no net loss of habitat function? The answer is to include a serious restoration component.

One example is the Hood Canal Coordinating Council’s In-Lieu Fee Program, which I wrote about last month in Water Ways (May 19). This program was started on a large scale to mitigate for construction at the Navy’s submarine base at Bangor, but it also works on a small scale, as I mentioned in that blog post.

When an older site is redeveloped, there may be no ecological loss, since the damage was done in the past. But when a developer builds in a new location, the local government is charged with measuring the loss, coming to terms for mitigation and making sure the mitigation is carried out. The concept of “no net loss” works only if the mitigation is permanent — another major challenge in many areas.

If no net loss can be achieved while major restoration efforts continue, we will see a net increase in salmon habitat in the Puget Sound region, and that will be a cause of celebration. One success has been in the program Floodplains by Design, which improves critical off-channel habitat for salmon while reducing flooding problems for nearby residents. Checkout the story I wrote for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound and the blog post in Water Ways, April 15.

Washington State Department of Commerce, which oversees the Growth Management Act, is in the process of updating its Critical Areas Assistance Handbook (PDF 6 mb), which serves as guidance for local regulations. New information about how to protect habitat for all life stages of salmon will be a key addition to a revised version, soon to be released for public review. See the CAO page on the Department of Commerce website.

Local governments in every part of the state must become part of the discussion if we expect them to carry out the mandate of protecting habitat for salmon. Money for planning and regulatory enforcement must be worked out. One idea I’ve heard is a regional approach that involves a group of compliance officials working to enforce the rules for multiple counties and cities.

No doubt the salmon-recovery effort must be improved. Challenges remain for issues including fishing, predation by marine mammals and climate change. But if the protection and restoration of salmon habitat can outpace unmitigated damage from development, we may be justified in believing that extinction is not an option.

Environmental efforts, including Puget Sound, hanging in the balance

I must admit that I have an uneasy curiosity to see how Congress will manage programs that protect human health and the environment now that Republican legislators are in control of both the House and Senate with no concerns about a budget veto.

Photo: Matt H. Wade via Wikimedia

Most environmental laws and programs are the result of hard-fought compromise between Democrats and Republicans who somehow agreed on ideas to make the world a safer place for people and wildlife. Do Republican members of Congress really want to back away from those advances? Do they want to explain to their constituents why clean air, clean water and safe food are not as important as they once were?

I was fascinated to read that Republican senators and representatives in the Great Lakes states could be a key to saving federal funding for Chesapeake Bay — and, by the same token, Puget Sound, the Gulf of Mexico and other major restoration projects.

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New game lets you travel with wacky steelhead as they try to survive

In a new game open to everyone, 48 colorful cartoon fish will soon follow the wandering paths of real-life steelhead that have been tracked during their migration through Puget Sound.

Just like their counterparts in the real world, some of the young steelhead in the game will survive the trip from South Puget Sound or southern Hood Canal — but many will not. The game’s basic tenet is to choose a fish that you feel will be lucky or cunning enough to make it through a gauntlet of hazards from predators to disease. You then watch and learn about the needs and threats to salmon and steelhead as the game progresses over 12 days, beginning May 8.

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Hope is alive for restoration of Puget Sound shellfish beds

Officials in Washington state’s Shellfish Program have identified a clear pathway to meet a state goal of restoring 10,800 net acres of shellfish beds to a harvestable condition by 2020.

The 10,800-acre target, established by the Puget Sound Partnership, was considered overly ambitious by many people when the goal was approved in 2011. Many still believe that the shellfish restoration effort will go down in flames, along with other goals, such as increasing chinook salmon and killer whale populations by 2020.

In reporting on the Shellfish Implementation Strategy, a document still under development, I’ve learned that the goal is within reach if enough of the ongoing recovery efforts around Puget Sound continue to make progress. Please check out my latest stories “Bringing the shellfish back” and “Closing in on the magic number in Samish Bay,” both published in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

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Puget Sound and other estuaries are facing the federal chopping block

Federal funding to restore Puget Sound and other large U.S. estuaries would be slashed by more than 90 percent under a preliminary budget proposal coming from President Trump’s administration.

Funding for Puget Sound restoration would be cut by 93 percent, from the current budget of $28 million to just $2 million, according to figures cited by the Portland Oregonian and apparently circulated by the National Association of Clean Air Agencies. Here’s the list.

The Great Lakes, which received a big boost in spending to $300 million in the current biennium, would be hammered down to $10 million. Chesapeake Bay, currently at $73 million, would be reduced to $5 million.

Much of this money goes for habitat protection and restoration, the kind of effort that seems to be kicked to the bottom of the priority list, at least in these early budget figures. The new EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, appears to be focusing on upgrading water infrastructure, cleaning up toxic sites and reducing air and water pollution, although everything is cut deeply and details remain murky.

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Petition seeks to revoke Department of Ecology’s clean-water authority

Citing pollution problems in Puget Sound, an environmental group is asking the Environmental Protection Agency to revoke Washington state’s authority to enforce the federal Clean Water Act.

Northwest Environmental Advocates, based in Portland, says a review of 103 discharge permits issued by the Washington Department of Ecology shows a failure to control nitrogen pollution. Excess nitrogen reduces oxygen levels in the water and triggers algae blooms, resulting in serious problems in Puget Sound, according to a petition submitted to the EPA.

“Ecology determined that over 80 percent of the human sources of nitrogen in Puget Sound comes from cities and towns, but it continues to issue discharge permits as if it were completely ignorant of these facts,” Nina Bell, the group’s executive director, said in a news release.

“It’s just flat out illegal to issue permits that contribute to harmful pollution levels,” she added. “These permits are the walking dead, existing merely to create the impression that the state is doing its job to control water pollution when it is not.”

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Seals and sea lions may be undercutting chinook and orca populations

Seals and sea lions can no longer be ignored in the effort to recover our threatened Puget Sound chinook salmon or our endangered killer whales.

A new study shows that seals and sea lions are eating about 1.4 million pounds of Puget Sound chinook each year — about nine times more than they were eating in 1970, according to the report. Please read the story I wrote for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, also published in an abridged version in the Kitsap Sun.

Harbor seals rest on the breakwater at Poulsbo Marina. // Photo: Meegan Reid, Kitsap Sun

Seals and sea lions in Puget Sound get the first chance to catch the chinook as they leave the streams and head out to the ocean. Since they are eaten at a very young age, these small chinook, called “smolts,” never grow into adults; they never become available for killer whales or humans.

Based on rough estimates, as many as one in five of these young fish are getting eaten on their way out of Puget Sound. If they were to survive the seals and sea lions and one factors in the remaining mortality rate, these fish could translate into an average of 162,000 adult chinook each year. That’s twice the number eaten by killer whales and roughly six times as many as caught in Puget Sound by tribal, commercial and recreational fishers combined, according to the study.

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Stream ‘bugs’ will help guide funding for future stream restoration

One of the goals established by the Puget Sound Partnership is to improve freshwater quality in 30 streams throughout the region, as measured by the Benthic Index of Biotic Integrity, or B-IBI.

Benthic invertebrates range in size from those easily seen with the naked eye to those that cannot be spotted without the use of a microscope. Photo: C. Dunagan
Benthic invertebrates range in size from those easily seen with the naked eye to those that cannot be spotted without the use of a microscope. // Photo: C. Dunagan

Simply described, B-IBI is a numerical measure of stream health as determined by the number and type of bottom-dwelling creatures that live in a stream. My latest article published in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound describes in some detail how this index works. Here’s the basic idea:

“High-scoring streams tend to have a large variety of ‘bugs,’ as researchers often call them, lumping together the benthic species. Extra points are given for species that cannot survive without clean, cool water. On the other hand, low-scoring streams are generally dominated by a few species able to survive under the worst conditions.”

Because benthic invertebrates have evolved over time with salmon and other fish, many of these important “bugs” are primary prey for the fish that we value highly. Said another way, “healthy” streams — as measured by B-IBI — tend to be those that are not only cool and clean but also very good habitats for salmon.

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Report: It’s time to shift the deadlines for Puget Sound restoration

Restoring Puget Sound to a healthy condition by the year 2020 is an unrealistic goal that needs to be addressed by the Puget Sound Partnership, according to the latest performance audit by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee.

Structure

It’s a issue I’ve often asked about when talking to people both inside and outside the Puget Sound Partnership. What’s the plan? Are we just going to wait until the year 2020 and say, “Ah shucks; I guess we couldn’t reach the goal.”?

Puget Sound Partnership, the organization created by the Legislature to coordinate the restoration of Puget Sound, is on the right track in many ways, according to the preliminary audit report. But the Partnership needs to address several “structural issues” — including coming up with realistic goals for restoration.

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Federal Action Plan coming together
for Puget Sound

A draft of a Federal Action Plan to protect and restore Puget Sound is scheduled for completion before Donald Trump takes office on Jan. 20, according to officials involved in developing the plan.

Colvos Passage from Anderson Point on the Kitsap Peninsula Photo: Lumpytrout, Wikimedia Commons
Colvos Passage from Anderson Point on the Kitsap Peninsula // Photo: Lumpytrout, Wikimedia Commons

The plan will help demonstrate that Washington state and nine federal agencies are aligned in their efforts to recover one of the most important waterways in the nation, according to leaders involved in a new Federal Puget Sound Task Force.

The task force was created in October by President Obama, who essentially elevated Puget Sound to a high-priority ecosystem, on par with Chesapeake Bay, the Florida Everglades and the Great Lakes, according to a news release from the White House.

A memorandum of understanding (MOU) signed among federal agencies replaces a less structured MOU that was scheduled to expire next year. The new agreement calls for a five-year action plan to be completed by June 1, but a draft should be ready by Jan. 18, according to Peter Murchie, who manages Puget Sound issues for the Environmental Protection Agency and chairs the task force.

“Part of the goal is to have something in front of the transition folks … that they can then shepherd through individual budget and prioritization processes that they’ll be doing with new leadership,” Murchie told the Puget Sound Partnership’s Leadership Council two weeks ago.

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