Category Archives: Fish

Understanding disease as a major ecological force

Working as an environmental reporter for more than 30 years, I’ve covered hundreds of topics — from sewage-treatment plants to killer whales. I’ve learned a great deal through the years, but I’m always striving to learn more about the environment, and I enjoy sharing new information with others.

Mist from the breath of killer whales is collected at the end of a long pole then tested for dozens of different types of bacteria. Photo: Pete Schroeder
Mist from the breath of killer whales is collected at the end of a long pole then tested for dozens of different types of bacteria. // Photo: Pete Schroeder

Recently, I found myself immersed in a fascinating subject that I knew almost nothing about, at least from a scientific perspective. What I learned in my reporting was enough to alter my thinking about the ecological forces that shape our world.

I’m talking about the role of disease, a force that can decimate populations, affect predator-prey relationships and disrupt social communities. So many animal diseases overlap with human diseases that we can no longer consider ourselves separate.

As Joe Gaydos of SeaDoc Society told me, “The crazy thing about disease is that it isn’t really on people’s radar. It is a smoldering factor in our environment, but one that can break out at any time.”

My recent stories featured potential diseases in killer whales, herring and salmon, animals that are related to each other through the food web. I wrote the stories for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, which is managed by the Puget Sound Institute, where I work part-time. The stories were reprinted in the Kitsap Sun, where I spent most of my career as an environmental reporter.

I owe a debt to Joe Gaydos and the other folks mentioned in my stories for helping me grasp the significance of disease in all animals, including humans. Scientists who understand the complexities of disease are now coordinating with the Puget Sound Partnership to increase awareness among other scientists and among people who live in the region.

It was only a couple years ago that sea star wasting disease burst into the news with unappealing pictures of melting sea stars that were losing their limbs and turning to mush. Review entries in Water Ways, Jan. 20, 2015, Nov. 22, 2014, and June 17, 2014. It is amazing how quickly the disease decimated the sea star population and altered tidal and subtidal ecosystems in many areas along the West Coast.

Disease does not need to cause death directly to affect individual animals. In my stories, I showed how diseases in herring and steelhead might make them more susceptible to predation, which can have the same end result.

Pollution may be affecting the immune systems of many marine animals and making them more susceptible to disease. Changing water temperatures, influenced by climate change, can have a similar effect.

The field of disease ecology is far from new, but I believe we will be hearing more about it, as growing evidence suggests that disease could be playing a major role in shaping populations. It is a fascinating subject when you learn about how disease organisms spread from one animal to another or cross over into other species.

For example, disease pathogens can be divided into two modes of transmission. “Density-dependent” pathogens tend to spread when the host population gets too crowded. If a threshold density is not reached, the disease tends to die out. “Frequency-dependent” pathogens tend to spread when the percentage of infected animals is high, regardless of density.

When germs are spread by coughing or sneezing, disease will spread more quickly when the individuals are close together (density-dependent). Sexually transmitted diseases are more likely to spread when more individuals are infected (frequency-dependent). Many diseases are a combination of the two, depending on conditions.

Interestingly, pathogens that are the most dangerous to a population are mostly the ones with intermediate virulence. That’s because highly virulent pathogens are likely to kill the host before the disease can spread to others. Low virulence will result in almost 100 percent survival.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now recognizes that the health of humans is connected to the health of animals and the environment. The CDC program is called One Health. Research is rapidly expanding into zoonotic diseases, which are those than can pass from animals to humans.

By thinking of connections between humans and animals, new diseases can sometimes be identified before they create a major outbreak in humans. In other cases, protection of humans can involve treatment in animals.

One example is Rift Valley fever in East Africa, as reported by the CDC. The viral disease, spread by mosquitoes, can kill livestock — including sheep, goats and cattle. It can also cause serious problems in humans, including blindness and brain swelling.

While there is no vaccine against RVF for humans, researchers were able to develop a vaccine for livestock. Treating livestock prevented transmission to mosquitoes and thus reduced disease in humans.

Amusing Monday: Photo contest shows variety
of wildlife images

Winners in this year’s National Wildlife Photo Contest range from an image showing a vast school of fish dwarfing a human swimmer to a picture catching the gaze between a female gorilla and her baby.

Fish

Now in its 45th year of competition, the contest garners thousands of entries from throughout the world as well as from people’s own backyards. I am always pleased to feature the winners of the contest, which is sponsored by “National Wildlife” magazine and National Wildlife Federation.

Judges base their selections on originality, technical execution and true-to-nature accuracy.

The first picture on this page, taken by Chris Schenker of Hopkinton, Mass., took first place in a category called “Connecting people with nature.” Schenker caught the image of the swirling mass of bohar snappers off Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. The diver, who was taking pictures of the fish, added an appropriate perspective to the scene.

“The fish come to these waters in massive schools every year to mate,” said Schenker, a college student who was quoted on the “National Wildlife” website. “It was an absolutely thrilling experience.”

Bird

At the other end of the size scale, a black-capped chickadee was caught getting a drink from a garden hose by photographer Linda Krueger. Krueger was washing her car when she noticed several birds flying in. She propped up the hose and grabbed the shot when the bird landed on the end of the hose. The photo took second place in the “Backyard habitat” category.

Krueger and her husband Kevin participate in the Certified Wildlife Habitat program, sponsored by National Wildlife Federation. They own 20 acres with native plants, bird feeders, nest boxes and a backyard pond in Hastings, Minn.

Lois Settlemeyer’s photo of the Aurora Borealis shining among the trees in northern Alaska won first place in the “Landscapes and plant life” category.

Aurora

“It was a night I’ll never forget,” said Settlemeyer, a retired corporate technician who lives in Camas, Wash. “As the clouds parted briefly, I was able to take one good shot of the dancing light.”

The gorilla mom and baby I mentioned above along with other contest winners can be viewed on the website of the “2015 National Wildlife Photo Contest Winners.”

EPA’s ‘virtual hearing’ will address proposed water quality standards

Five years ago, I could not have predicted that Washington state would end up in a serious conflict with the federal government over water-quality standards to protect people’s health. But it has happened, and there’s no clear resolution in sight.

logo

The federal Environmental Protection Agency will hold a “virtual hearing” on this issue in December. Read on for details, but let me first provide some recent history.

In November 2010, I wrote about the Department of Ecology’s newest undertaking, as the agency embarked on an effort to define “how clean is clean” in protecting public health in state waters. See Water Ways Nov. 4, 2010, and also Kitsap Sun Nov. 2, 2010.

It was obvious at the time that the state would need to increase its existing fish-consumption rate of 6.5 grams per day — a key factor in the formula used to calculate the allowable concentration of toxic chemicals in the water. After much discussion and delay, the state eventually proposed a rate of 175 grams per day — 27 times higher than the existing rate.

The controversy arrived when the state proposed a cancer risk rate of one in 100,000 — a risk 10 times higher than the existing rate of one in a million. The higher cancer risk rate would somewhat offset the effect of the much higher fish-consumption rate. Other factors were changed as well, as I described in the second of a two-part series in the Kitsap Sun, March 11, 2015.

When Gov. Jay Inslee announced the state’s newly proposed standards, he also proposed new legislation to study and reduce the sources of toxic chemicals of greatest concern. The Legislation failed to gain enough support for passage during the past legislative session.

The governor has since pulled back from the original proposal and agreed to return to a cancer risk rate of one in a million. A new proposal is expected to be announced after the first of the year, Meanwhile, the EPA is moving forward with its own proposal, probably more stringent than what we’ll see from the state. I outlined the likely differences in Water Ways on Oct. 8.

On Dec. 15 and 16, the EPA will hold what it’s calling a “virtual hearing” on the proposed water-quality criteria that the agency developed for Washington state. The web-based call-in format is designed to save considerable money, according to Erica Slicy, contact for the event. Given interest across the state, multiple in-person hearings in numerous locations would be needed to accomplish what two phone-in hearings can do, she said.

People will be able to watch the virtual hearing and/or testify by registering on EPA’s website. The event will be recorded and transcribed so that people will be able to review the comments later. Written comments will be taken until Dec. 28.

If the state comes up with proposed water-quality standards, as expected, the EPA could put the federal proposal on hold while the state’s proposal undergoes considerable scrutiny. Meanwhile, I’m sure supporters of the more stringent standards — such as Indian tribes and environmental groups — will continue to be frustrated by more delays.

New publications provide fascinating info about local sea life

Those interested in the creatures that inhabit our local waterways may find themselves enthralled by two recent publications — one describing the many species of fish found in the Salish Sea and the other examining the lifestyles of crabs and shrimps living along the Pacific Coast.

The new fish report (PDF 9.2 mb), published by NOAA Fisheries, documents 253 species found in the Salish Sea, including 37 additional species not listed in the previous comprehensive fish catalog, now 35 years old.

Fourhorn poacher Illustration: Joe Tomelleri
Fourhorn poacher // Illustration: Joe Tomelleri

What caught my immediate attention in the report were the beautiful illustrations by Joe Tomelleri, who has spent the past 30 years capturing the fine features of fish from throughout the world. Check out the ornate fins on the fourhorn poacher and the muted colors of the spotted ratfish. I never realized that common ratfish wwere so beautiful.

The new report offers a preview of a much-anticipated book by Ted Pietsch, retired fish curator at the University of Washington’s Burke Museum, and Jay Orr, a biologist at NOAA’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center. The book, “Fishes of the Salish Sea,” will provide extensive descriptions as well as illustrations of all known species — including some early discoveries that came to light after publication of the new NOAA report. The book could be 600 pages or more.

Spotted ratfish Illustration: Joe Tomelleri
Spotted ratfish // Illustration: Joe Tomelleri

I interviewed author Ted Pietsch of Seattle and illustrator Joe Tomelleri of Leawood, Kans., for a piece incorporated into the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

The other book, “Crabs and Shrimps of the Pacific Coast” by Greg Jensen of Bremerton, pulls together information about 300 of these various crustaceans. The book, which has been on my review list for more than year, has won acclaim from experts in the field as well as casual observers of nature. The book comes with an associated computer disc of the book’s text, which allows one to link to other articles and reports. One can also load much of the book onto a smart phone, which can be taken to the shoreline and used as a field guide.

Book cover

“My goal was to make a book that would appeal to someone who just wants to learn about this stuff and would also be valuable to someone, like myself, who is a specialist in the field,” Greg told me.

I enjoy Greg’s light writing style, as he tells little stories in sidebars, shares brief biographies of key scientists and clears up myths and confusion. One sidebar, for example, tells us that the lines between shrimp and prawns have become blurred.

In Great Britain, he said, Crangonids, “with their stout, somewhat flattened form, were called ‘shrimp,’ while palaemonids were known as prawns.” In other places, prawns are considered larger than shrimp. Sometimes prawns refer to freshwater versus saltwater species.

Spot shrimp Photo: Greg Jensen
Spot shrimp // Photo: Greg Jensen

“Bottom line: There is no formal definition separating the two. Like the Queen’s English, once they left home for America and Australia, they became bastardized beyond recognition,” he wrote.

Greg, a scuba diver, shot about 90 percent of the pictures shown in the 240-page book. If nothing else, he told me, the book provided an excuse for him to dive in waters all along the coast.

“It was like a big scavenger hunt,” he said. “You look through the literature and you have this list (of crabs and shrimps). You dig up anything and everything about where to find them.”

Pacific rock crab Photo: Greg Jensen
Pacific rock crab // Photo: Greg Jensen

Like Ted Pietsch has done for fish, Greg has gone back to the original references about crabs and shrimp, taking pains to correct mistakes passed down through scientific literature. It has taken years to track down the many references to ensure accuracy and give credit to the right people, he said.

Greg, who grew up in Bremerton, was in grade school when a field trip took him to Agate Passage on a low tide, where he became intrigued by crabs. He soon started an extensive collection of dried crab shells. Looking back, Greg credits marine biology instructors Ted Berney at East High School and Don Seavy at Olympic College for helping him pursue his interests, eventually launching his career at the University of Washington.

Today, Greg still lives in Bremerton, researching, writing and teaching at the UW School of Aquatic and Fishery Science.

The book can be purchased directly from Greg Jensen, from Amazon and from Reef Environmental Education Foundation.

Gov. Inslee yields on cancer risk, pushes new water-quality plan

Gov. Jay Inslee has given in to critics who argued that the state’s updated water-quality standards should not increase the cancer-risk rate for people who eat a lot of fish.

But it appears that a new state proposal, to be made public by early next year, is not likely to satisfy tribal and environmental groups striving for the most stringent water-quality standards, such as those in effect in Oregon.

The Environmental Protection Agency has proposed standards that could be imposed on Washington state, but the agency has committed to holding off if the state comes up with acceptable standards.

In a statement issued today, the governor said he has been pressed to develop a state rule and not let the EPA have the final say:

“My goal all along has been to update Washington’s clean water rule with one that assures the health of Washington’s people, fish and economy. The number one thing I hear over and over when talking with people is how critical it is that we maintain control over creation of this rule to ensure that we’re protecting human health while providing businesses and local governments sensible tools to comply with the stricter standards.”

Efforts to update the state’s water-quality standards have been the focus of a confusing debate for the past several years. The goal of protecting human health has sometimes been forgotten, as I tried to point out in a two-part series published in March in the Kitsap Sun.

Anticipating where this issue is headed, I’m watching three key issues:

1. The formula used to establish the water-quality criteria

Numerical concentrations are established in a mathematical formula applied to about 100 priority pollutants. The first debate was over the fish-consumption rate, or the daily amount of fish that a person might eat. It was generally agreed that the current rate of 6 grams (0.21 ounce) a day was ridiculously low and should be raised to 175 grams (6 ounces) a day.

To balance the effect of that 29-fold increase, Inslee proposed increasing the cancer risk rate from 1 in a million to 1 in 100,000 — a rate approved by the EPA in some states and allowed by EPA guidance. Inslee also included a “no-backsliding” provision, so that none of the current standards would be relaxed (except for arsenic). The EPA has made it clear that 1 in 100,000 was not acceptable, so Inslee consented to go back to the current rate of 1 in a million.

It is important to understand that the formula includes other factors that affect the allowable chemical concentrations. One is the “relative source contribution,” for non-cancer-causing chemicals. The RSC considers how much chemical exposure a person gets from water and fish consumption versus other exposure pathways, such as through the lungs and skin. EPA’s RSC is generally five times lower than the state’s proposal, which means the state would allow a chemical concentration five times higher than EPA. The state intends to stick to its previously proposed RSC, according to Ecology’s Kelly Susewind, a water policy adviser.

The state also uses a bioconcentration factor, which considers the uptake of a chemical from water, whereas EPA uses a bioaccumulation factor, which considers the uptake from all sources. The EPA method produces a more stringent standard.

The state and EPA now seem consistent on most other factors, including body weight, drinking water consumption and toxicity factors, but those two inconsistent factors will make EPA’s proposed standards more stringent than the state’s.

2. Implementation tools

The water quality standards are used as a starting point for issuing permits for discharges from point sources of pollution, such as industrial and sewage-treatment outfalls. Special consideration can be given when proven technology is not available to meet the approved standards.

When the standards cannot be met with reasonable approaches, the state may approve a variance to either reduce the requirements or allow a long time for compliance. A “compliance schedule” is another tool that allows a more limited time for a facility to meet the standards.

Another implementation tool that could be approved is the intake credit. This could be used when a facility draws water from a specific water body and returns its wastewater to the same location. The idea is that a discharger should not be required to make the wastewater cleaner than the waters it is going back into.

3. The problem chemicals: PCBs, mercury and arsenic

The state proposes keeping the current water-quality standards for polychlorinated biphenyls and mercury, which come from many sources other that discharges from pipes. Mercury, for example, can be released into the air by coal-fired power plants, travel across the ocean and become deposited into local waterways. PCBs, which are widespread through the food web, can come from unregulated stormwater and sediments deposited years ago.

Arsenic, on the other hand, can occur naturally in levels higher than what would be allowed under water-quality standards calculated in the normal way. The state proposes to set the water-quality standard for arsenic at the level allowed for drinking water.

For these problem chemicals, Inslee said dischargers cannot reasonably be held accountable for chemical levels beyond their control.

Cleaning up the rest

Going into this year’s legislative session, Inslee proposed a bill to go after the worst nonpoint pollution in concert with newly proposed cleanup standards. The legislation included a process and funding for conducting chemical investigations and developing chemical action plans, but it failed to pass the Legislature.

Since then, the EPA released its own rule with the proviso that it would consider another state proposal if one is submitted before EPA completes its review process.

Inslee said he is still concerned that the new clean water standards address only limited pollutants, and in many cases not even the right ones.

“The proposed rule only regulates 96 chemicals, yet there are hundreds of toxics that come from everyday products,” he said. “The toxics package we sent to the Legislature would have helped us take a hard run at those to make a much more meaningful difference in making our water safer and healthier.”

Tribal and environmental concerns

Tribal and environmental officials were skeptical of the governor’s latest approach.

“Tribes were pleased to hear today that Gov. Inslee now supports maintaining the current state cancer risk rate to protect us all from toxins in our state’s waters,” said Lorraine Loomis, chairwoman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.

Tribes remain concerned, however, that Inslee’s proposed standards will not be as protective as the EPA’s.

“We believe that the EPA’s proposed standards are based on the best available science and offer strong protection in a timely manner,” Loomis said. “We expect state standards to be measured against the bar that EPA has set.”

Chris Wilke, executive director of Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, said his concern is that Ecology’s approach won’t result in any meaningful efforts to clean up the state’s waterways.

“Ecology must not return to its earlier failed approach of giving the appearance of protection while riddling the rule with loopholes,” Wilke said in a preopared statement. “Governor Inslee must do everything possible to protect the most vulnerable from the devastating effects of neurotoxins such as mercury and other harmful chemicals.”

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





ANSWERS
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.

SCORING
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.

Amusing Monday: Listen and learn about all kinds of underwater sounds

Years ago, people living near Quilcene in Jefferson County reported an eerie humming sound that kept them awake at night. Since Quilcene is located near the Navy’s acoustic-testing range in Dabob Bay, some folks speculated that the Navy was up to something.

Plainfin midshipman Photo: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife
Plainfin midshipman // Photo: Wash. Department of Fish and Wildlife

Some people thought it might be some kind of frog, and a few advanced theories of extra-terrestrials. Finally, an acoustic biologist heard a recording of the sound and concluded that it was a midshipman, a bottom-dwelling fish often called a bullhead. (Click on the arrow below to listen.)

      1. Plainfin midshipman


I have not been able to locate the story I wrote about the incident, but it appears the fish created similar confusion three years ago in Seattle, according to a story by Ryan Grenoble in the Huffington Post. I wonder how many other people have heard a similar humming noise that they could not identify.

What I’m leading up to is an amusing webside called Discovery of Sound in the Sea, which allows you to check out all kinds of underwater sounds. Did you know that some sea urchins can form a chorus of sound while grazing on vegetated rocks?

      2. Sea urchin

“Discovery of Sound in the Sea,” or DOSITS, is packed with information about the science of underwater sound, including jobs in the field and equipment used by researchers. There’s even a list of activities, which can be used to teach children about sound.

I find that the most engaging part of the website is the Audio Gallery, a list of recorded sounds that can be selected and played. The list consists of eight different baleen whales; 17 toothed whales, porpoises and dolphins; 10 seals and sea lions; a manatee; four invertebrates, including the sea urchin; 21 fish; seven natural nonbiological sounds, such as rain under water; and 12 man-made sounds from wind turbines to torpedoes.

The website is associated with the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography and Marine Acoustics, Inc., of Middletown, RI. Contributors include independent researchers, school teachers and others. The U.S. Office of Naval Research has provided financial support.

Here’s a sample of some interesting sounds. I’ve included the sound of the fin whale, a species seen in Puget Sound last week for the first time in decades. Check out the report by King 5 TV. If you visit the DOSITS website, you’ll get details about each recording and what is making the sound.

A killer whale mother and calf calling to each other in Johnstone Strait in British Columbia

      3. Killer whale
Baleen whales
      4. Gray whale
      5. Humpback whale
      6. Fin whale
Man-made sounds
      7. Cargo ship
      8. Torpedo

Low-oxygen scenario following unusual course this year in Hood Canal

Death came early to Hood Canal this year, demonstrating just how odd and unpredictable ocean conditions can be.

Fish kills caused by low-oxygen conditions in southern Hood Canal usually occur in late September or October. That’s when low-oxygen waters near the seabed are pushed upward by an intrusion of heavier water coming in from the Pacific Ocean and creeping along the bottom. Winds out of the south can quickly blow away the surface waters, leaving the fish with no escape.

That’s basically what happened over the past month, as conditions developed about a month earlier than normal. South winds led to reports of fish dying and deep-water animals coming to the surface to get enough oxygen, with the worst conditions occurring on Friday. Check out the video on this page by Seth Book, a biologist with the Skokomish Tribe, who found deep-water ratfish swimming near the surface.

The story of this year’s strange conditions actually begins about a year ago and involves a 1,000-mile-long “blob” of unusually warm ocean water off the West Coast. State Climatologist Nick Bond, who coined the term “blob,” explains its formation in an article in Geophysical Research Letters with a summarized description by Hannah Hickey in UW Today.

The warm, low-density coastal waters related to the blob came into Hood Canal on schedule last fall, but they were not dense enough to flush out the low-oxygen waters, according to University of Washington oceanographer Jan Newton.

Hood Canal entered 2015 with the least-dense waters at depth over the past 10 years. They remained in a hypoxic state, meaning that levels were below 2.5 parts per million. Sea creatures unable to swim away can be unduly stressed and unable to function normally at that level. Conditions worsened into the summer, when the hypoxic layer at Hoodsport grew to about 300 feet thick.

By then, the annual intrusion of deep seawater with somewhat elevated oxygen levels was on its way into Hood Canal, spurred on by upwelling off the coast. This year’s waters are more normal in density, though their arrival is at least a month early. By August 9, the hypoxic layer at Hoodsport was reduced from 300 to 60 feet, pushed upward by the denser water.

It’s always interesting to see this dynamic play out. The layer of extreme low-oxygen water becomes sandwiched between the higher-oxygen water pushing in from the ocean and the surface water, which ordinarily stays oxygenated by winds and incoming streams. Without south winds, the middle low-oxygen layer eventually comes up and mixes into the surface layer.

If south winds come on strong, however, the surface layer is blown to the north, causing the low oxygen water to rise to the surface. Fish, shrimp and other creatures swim upward toward the surface, trying to stay ahead of the rising low-oxygen layer. When the low-oyygen layer reaches the surface, fish may struggle to breathe in the uppermost mixing layer. Unfortunately, the fish have no way of knowing that safer conditions lie down below — beneath the low-oxygen layer and within waters arriving from the ocean.

Jan Newton reported that the low oxygen levels in southern Hood Canal earlier this year were the most extreme measured over the past 10 years. So far, however, the fish kills don’t seem as bad as those in 2003, 2006 and 2010, she said.

The graph below shows how the deep layer coming in from the ocean at 279 feet deep contains more oxygen than the middle layer at 66 feet deep. The surface layer, which normally contains the most oxygen, dipped to extremes several times near the beginning of August and again on Friday, Aug. 28. These data, recorded from a buoy near Hoodsport, are considered unverified.

Graph

Swimming a river called Green/Duwamish to open our eyes to the promise

By swimming the entire Green/Duwamish River in King County, Mark Powell hopes to show that the river’s full length — roughly 85 miles from the mountains to Puget Sound — is a single system worthy of protection and restoration.

I believe that most people have heard about the Duwamish Waterway in Seattle, a channelized, industrialized section of the lower Duwamish River where decades of pollution are being cleaned up, one step at a time. But how much does anyone know about the upper end of the river, which begins as a trickle of crystal clear water in the Cascade Mountains south of Snoqualmie Pass?

Mark Powell
Mark Powell

“Almost nobody knows the river well, not even the people who live along the river,” Mark told me.

Mark, the Puget Sound Program director for Washington Environmental Council. said the idea of swimming the entire river came to him during the kickoff of a new Green/Duwamish Watershed Strategy by King County and Seattle. The plan is to identify all the significant problems in the watershed (map, PDF 1.1 mb) and to increase restoration efforts where needed.

“I thought this would be an interesting way to connect with people,” Mark said. “I’m a guy who likes to get outdoors, so this is a personal commitment I could make.”

Mark swam around Bainbridge Island in the winter of 2008-09. ““By swimming the whole coastline, I’m not just diving to the pretty spots. I’m forced to look at the gross parts,” he told reporter Michelle Ma in a story for the Seattle Times.

So far, Mark has been swimming the upper and middle portions of the Green/Duwamish River. He said his biggest surprise is finding pockets of good habitat everywhere he goes.

Earlier this month, he was accompanied on the river by Sheida Sahandy, executive director of the Puget Sound Partnership, and Martha Kongsgaard, chairwoman of the partnership’s Leadership Council. A few days before they swam the river near Auburn, the Leadership Council approved new “vitals signs” indicators for “human health” and “human well-being” to emphasize the human connection to the Puget Sound ecosystem. See “Water Ways” July 30.

The human connection was still on Sheida’s mind when I talked to her about a week after her trip to the Green River. The most “eye-opening” part of the swim for her was the condition of “this incredibly beautiful natural element coursing through a very urban landscape.”

She saw evidence of people living along the river in less-than-desirable conditions, she said. There were barbecues and trailer houses but no suggestion that people had any connection to the river — except that some individuals apparently were using it as a toilet, she said.

“I haven’t quite wrapped my head around that, but it feels very right that we are considering human well-being,” she explained. “On the one hand is what we have done to the river. On the other hand is what we have done to ourselves. We need to figure out how it all links together.”

Mark’s adventures on the river are chronicled in a blog called “Swim Duwamish.” He hopes to swim every section of the river where he is allowed to go and be safe. A portion of the Green River controlled by the city of Tacoma has no public access, because it is a source of the city’s water supply. Rapids in the Green River Gorge are said to be dangerous, so Mark will look for a guide to help him. And because of heavy marine traffic in the Duwamish Waterway, he may use a boat to escort him on his approach to Seattle’s Elliott Bay.

The Green/Duwamish River may be the most disjointed river in Puget Sound, both physically and psychologically. People who have seen the industrialized lower river find it hard to visualize the near-pristine salmon stream spilling clean water down from the mountains. It is the upper part that provides the inspiration to clean up the lower part, Mark told me.

“If there was a reason for sacrificing a river, you could find it in the Duwamish,” he said. “But we can’t afford to sacrifice even one river. To me, this is what protecting Puget Sound is all about. By the time the pollution gets to Puget Sound it is too late.”

If salmon can make it through the gauntlet in the lower river, they may have a fighting chance to spawn and produce a new generation of Green River fish. Improving their migration corridor is not an impossible dream.

I suggested to Mark that the name of the river be officially changed to “Green/Duwamish” or “Green-Duwamish” to help people recognize that this is a single river from the mountains to Puget Sound. After all, the name “Salish Sea” has helped some people realize that we share an inland waterway with Canadians. The other name-change option would be to call it Duwamish all the way.

Until I started reading about the Duwamish, I didn’t realize how this river once captured water from the Black River and the White River as well as the Green River and the Cedar River. But the system has changed drastically over the past century or so.

Map

As you can see in the map on this page, the Green River once joined the White River and flowed north, picking up waters from the Black River. The Black River, which took drainage from Lake Washington, picked up water from the Cedar River.

Where the Black River merged with the White River, it became the Duwamish all the way to Puget Sound.

Two major events changed the rivers’ flow and subsequently the nomenclature. In 1906, a flood diverted the White River to the south into the channel of the Stuck River, which flowed into the Puyallup River. Shortly after that, the White River was artificially confined to keep it flowing south. Because the river flowing north contained water only from the Green River, the name “White” was changed to “Green” downstream to where the Duwamish began.

The other big event was the construction of the Lake Washington Ship Canal in 1917 to connect the lake with Puget Sound. The construction lowered the lake by more than 8 feet, with the lake level controlled by the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks. The Black River, which had taken the discharge flow from Lake Washington before construction, then dried up. The Cedar River, which had flowed into the Black River, was diverted into the lake.

Following those changes, the Green River and the Duwamish became essentially the same river, with the total flow perhaps one-third as much as it had been before the changes. If you are interested in this history and other geological forces at work in the area, check out the 1970 report by the U.S. Geological Survey (PDF 53.1 mb).

Long-running effort to remove deadly ghost nets reaches major milestone

More than 466,000 animals — from seals to sea birds to salmon to crabs — were found dead during the retrieval of “ghost nets” over the past 12 years by the Northwest Straits Foundation, which celebrated a major milestone today. In recognizing the end of a significant program, I’d like to add a little personal history.

Photo:Northwest Straits Maritime Commission
Photo: Northwest Straits Commission

The celebration in Everett marks the completion of the intense effort to retrieve nets lost from fishing boats in less than 105 feet of water — because the vast majority of the nets have been removed. Future roundups may be planned if more nets are found or reported by commercial fishers, who are now required to report lost gear.

The removal program has pulled out more than 5,660 derelict fishing nets and more than 3,800 crab and shrimp pots blamed for killing all those marine mammals, birds, fish and other creatures, according to statistics kept by the organization.

Photo: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife
Photo: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

“Removing these nets restores marine habitat forever.” Joan Drinkwin, interim director of the Northwest Straits Foundation, said in a news release. “Marine mammals like porpoises, diving birds, and fish can now swim and dive in Puget Sound without the risk of being entangled in these dangerous derelict nets.”

Northwest Straits Foundation stepped up and tackled the huge ghost-net-removal project with the first grant from the Washington Legislature in 2002. Through the years, other funding came from the federal government, foundations, fishing groups, tribes, corporations and private individuals. In a separate project, U.S. Navy divers removed derelict nets from selected underwater locations.

“Just about every agency and organization in Puget Sound that works to protect and restore our marine waters has contributed to this effort,” Drinkwin said. “We have many people to thank, so this is a celebration not just of our work, but of collaboration and pulling together to achieve great things.”

I’d like to add some personal notes, giving a bit of early credit to Ray Frederick, who headed up the Kitsap Poggie Club in 2000, when Ray first called my attention to the ghost net problem.

It was right after a state initiative to ban non-Indian gillnets failed at the ballot box, leaving many sport fishermen upset with what they viewed as the indiscriminate killing of fish, including salmon listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

Ray called me and said gillnet fishing will continue, but something should be done about the ghost nets. I think that was the first time I had ever heard the term. Here’s how I began the first of many stories (Kitsap Sun, June 30, 1999) I would write about this subject:

“In the murky, undersea twilight of Puget Sound, scuba divers occasionally come face to face with the tangled remains of rotting fish. Nearly invisible in the dim light, long-lost fishing nets continue to ensnare fish, birds, seals, crabs and other creatures that happen along.

“Divers call these hidden traps ‘ghost nets.’

“”It’s a little eerie, seeing fish like that,’ said Steve Fisher, an underwater photographer from Bremerton. ‘You can see that something has been eating on them, and the fish are a pretty good size — bigger than you would normally see.’”

I reported that a few net-retrieval operations had been conducted since 1986, but state officials were warning against any ad hoc operations following the death of a volunteer scuba diver, who became tangled in fishing gear and ran out of air.

Ray got involved in a campaign to seek state and federal funding to eliminate ghost nets. He wrote to Gov. Gary Locke and select legislators. I located one of Ray’s letters, which expressed frustration about the lack of action to remove the derelict gear he knew was killing sea life in Puget Sound.

State Sen, Karen Fraser, D-Lacey, who had been pushing for funding, was joined by then-Rep. Phil Rockefeller, D-Bainbridge Island, the late-Sen. Bob Oke, R-Port Orchard, and other legislators to push through funding to develop new guidelines to safely remove derelict gear. The Northwest Straits Commission, which wanted to remove ghost nets in and around the San Juan Islands, was chosen to conduct the study, which led to “Derelict Fishing Gear Removal Guidelines” (PDF 2.3 mb).

Now that most of the nets have been removed in water less than 105 feet deep, the effort must turn to removing nets in deeper water, where they are likely to snare threatened and endangered rockfish species in Puget Sound.

NOAA Fisheries and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife have listed abandoned nets as threats to rockfish and recommend action. The most promising method of removal is remotely operated vehicles. A report by Natural Resources Consultants (PDF 1.4 mb) spells out the various options.