It’s an interesting time for researchers to begin writing a blog
about ocean conditions off Oregon and Washington, an area
undergoing some fascinating changes in oceanography and
Scientists from NOAA Fisheries and Oregon State University
launched their new website,
“Newporter Blog,” last week. It’s named after the Newport Line,
an area of study off the Oregon Coast where researchers have
monitored changes for the past 20 years.
“This year, the ocean has been very different,” wrote blogger
Jennifer Fisher in the blog’s first post on June 23. “Anomalously
warm surface water dubbed the ‘warm blog’ moved onto the
continental shelf off Newport in September 2014. A very large
harmful algal bloom (HAB) spanning from British Columbia to
California is occurring off the coast right now. El Niño conditions
are occurring at the equator, and NOAA is forecasting a 90-percent
chance that an El Niño will persist through the Fall.”
The next blog post last Thursday was by researcher Cheryl Morgan
from the Canadian fishing vessel FV Frosti “somewhere off the coast
of the Pacific Northwest,” where researchers are looking to see how
juvenile salmon are doing. They were taking note of anything picked
up in their nets in the upper 60 feet of water.
“Watching the trawl come in is like the anticipation of opening
a Christmas gift,” Cheryl wrote. “What could be in there? How many?
How big? Have we ever caught any of them in the net?
“We always hope for some juvenile salmon, since that is the main
point of the survey, but we also like to see something different,
strange, or unusual to spice things up,” she continued.
The next post on Monday revealed that fish being caught were of
a kind seen in Northwest waters only when the temperatures rise.
They included pompano and jack mackerel. The researchers were
especially surprised to find bottom-dwelling flatfish in their net
some several hundred feet off the bottom.
“What is a fish that lives on the bottom, one side down, doing
in the water column?” she asked. “Perhaps they are lost, could not
find the bottom or they are chasing some dinner. Most strange,
however, was the catch of nearly 3,330 Pacific sanddabs … in ONE
trawl. That was a first for even the fishing crew.”
The team also brought up a juvenile red octopus, a species
normally found among rocks on the bottom — “another creature that
is a long way from home.”
The research fishing will continue from Newport to the upper
corner of Washington state. The scientists are taking note of any
birds preying on fish before they begin their daily trawl. Plankton
also are scooped up to see what the fish might be eating and to
provide new data about the harmful algal bloom.
The work is being funded by NOAA and Bonneville Power
The researchers/bloggers said they would share their findings as
they go along. I, for one, look forward to learning about ocean
conditions and how the warm water is affecting all sorts of sealife
along the West Coast.
A census of the killer whales that frequent Puget Sound is due
today, and it appears that the total population of the three
Southern Resident pods is 82, up from 79 last year at this
But that’s not the end of the story, because two small groups of
orcas have not been seen recently — so a final count must wait,
according to Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research, which
conducts the annual census.
The three Southern Resident pods, well defined years ago, are no
longer the same, Ken told me. The tendency the past few years is
for the whales to split up into smaller groups of one or more
families, known as matrilines. Immediate families tend to stay
together, but larger groupings such as pods and subpods are
becoming less certain.
“They’ve decided to mix it up,” Ken said. “This is definitely
different. If we were trying to determine pod structures right now,
we couldn’t do it. It’s all mix and match.”
The Center for Whale Research records the annual census on July
1 each year and reports it to the federal government by
Four orca births can be reported since the last census was
J-50 a female calf born to J-16, named Slick, last
J-51 a male*
calf born to J-41, named Eclipse, in February
L-121 a male*
calf born to L-94, named Calypso, in February
J-52 a female
male calf born to J-36, named Alki, in March
*Update: Sexes not confirmed by Center for Whale
Research, and J-51 likely a male. (See comments.) I’ll update
These were the first births among Southern Residents to be
reported since August of 2012. Some people see these newborns as a
hopeful sign for the future of the population, which is listed as
endangered under the Endangered Species Act.
So far, one death has been confirmed over the past year. That
was J-32, an 18-year-old female named Rhapsody, who was found dead
on Dec. 4 floating near Courtenay, B.C. The young whale was
pregnant, and experts believe that the death of the fetus inside
her body could have led to her death as well. For more details ,
see Water Ways from
Dec. 7 and from
While there is no reason to believe that any other deaths have
occurred over the past year, nobody can be sure, at least not until
the last two groups of whales can be observed. If any animals are
truly missing after their family groups are carefully observed, we
could see one or more whales added to the death list.
In all, nine whales have not been seen this spring or summer
since returning to the San Juan Islands. One of the two groups of
whales was spotted off the Washington Coast in February, when all
the whales were present. One of the uncertain groups was reported
yesterday near San Juan Island, but I have not heard whether any
“missing” whales were identified.
Since the census report is not due until October, there is time
to see whether any more whales have died this past year. If any
more deaths are identified, the researchers will need to make a
judgment about whether the death occurred before or after the July
1 census cutoff. We can certainly hope that all the whales will be
Ken suspects that the pod groupings are becoming less distinct
because of the changing pattern of available prey, primarily
chinook salmon. When large schools of wild chinook head back to the
rivers, killer whales can work together to herd the fish and gain
Ken says hatchery chinook may not school together as much as
wild chinook, so the advantage goes to smaller groups of orcas if
the majority of salmon are from hatcheries.
“The prey field has changed for them,” he said. “Back when we
named the pods, the bulk of the fish were wild, and they were
coming through in pulses. All these fish were related and from the
same river system. Now with the hatchery program, there are less
pulses and the fish are more spread out.”
The chinook also are much smaller than they used to be, he said,
so it takes more effort to get the same nutritional benefit.
The Center for Whale
Research, now in its 40th year, conducts its census work in
Puget Sound under a grant from the National Marine Fisheries
Service. The grant is fairly limited, so the center began offering
memberships a few years ago to raise money for additional
This year’s membership drive is nearly halfway toward its goal
of 750 members, with 329 members signed on as of yesterday. An
individual membership costs $30 a year. For details and special
member benefits, go to “Supporting the
Center for Whale Research.”
In a related development, Ken recently took a trip into Snake
River country in Eastern Washington, the source of upstream habitat
for many of the salmon that come down the Columbia River. His
experience and what he has learned about the Snake River dams has
placed him among advocates for dam removal in this hotly contested
“Until recently, dam removal was against my conservative
“In truth, already well known to others but not to me, these
four Snake River dams are obsolete for their intended purposes and
are being maintained at huge taxpayer expense for the benefit of a
very few users. Plus, they are salmon-killers in a former river
(now a series of lakes) that historically provided spawning and
rearing habitat for millions of chinook salmon…”
“The technological fixes for the dams have not improved wild
salmon runs, and there is nothing left to try. As a nation, we are
dangerously close to managing the beloved Southern Resident killer
whale population to quasi-extinction (less than 30 breeding
animals) as a result of diminishing populations of chinook salmon
upon which they depend…
“Returning the Snake River to natural condition will help salmon
and whales, and save money. Please do not wait until all are gone.
Call or write your representatives today!”
The beautiful and powerful brown bears have arrived at Brooks
Falls in Katmai National Park and Preserve in Alaska, and everyone
in the world can enjoy the convenience of watching these giant
bears and other amazing wildlife live from the comfort and safety
of their home.
Lots of people have been going out to falls this year to watch
the bears from nearby viewing platforms, but I get the feeling that
far more people have been watching them from home via the
live webcams. I say that because of the number of
comments generated on the website. More than a few commenters
seem to know the area well and even call the bears by their
nicknames. (Park biologists use a numbering system, identifying
each bear by coat and claw colors, scars, body size and shape, ear
size and shape, sex, facial features and disposition.)
Brooks Falls is one of the first streams in the region where the
bears have easy access to bright salmon soon after they leave the
saltwater and before spawning. The falls provide a partial barrier
to their travels, making fishing easier for the bears. By sometime
in August, the fish runs will dwindle and the bears will be
Operators of the multiple live webcams do a good job of zooming
in when something interesting happens. Occasionally, so much is
going on that they don’t know what to show. Other times, we wait
and watch the beautiful scenery, which is especially dramatic at
sunrise and sunset.
When the bears are actively fishing for salmon, I find it hard
to break away and get back to daily life. One video trick I’ve
learned: If you don’t see anything interesting in the live view,
you can use your cursor to scan across the timeline to see what has
happened for the past few hours and watch that instead.
Park officials have identified the various fishing methods used
by the bears in an interesting
Q&A section on the national park’s website.
Birds and marine mammal cams
Besides watching bears, it’s a good time of year to watch other
wildlife as well via live webcam. Birds are typically active on
their nests, raising their young.
Chesapeake Conservancy is featuring the osprey couple,
Tom and Audrey, who perennially nest on Kent Island in
Maryland. Audrey has taken up with a new “Tom” this year and
produced three babies. They also received two foster chicks from
nearby Poplar Island, according to information on the website.
Another good osprey cam was installed this year in Belwood Lake
Conservation Area near the Great Lakes in Ontario, Canada. Three
eggs reportedly hatched, but I see only two chicks in the nest.
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife also has an osprey
cam that updates still photos every 12 seconds.
cam at Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge in Maine shows a
fuzzy chick tucked into a burrow where its mother comes and goes to
feed her baby. Other views shows puffins on a ledge where they
often hang out. Wildlife biologists are trying to establish a new
colony at this location after hunters wiped out the puffins in the
If you would like to see a colony
of walruses, (also in video player below) check out the live
camera installed on Round Island, Alaska. Sometimes only a few of
the large mammals can be seen. Other times, like this morning,
large numbers were pushing and shoving each other for space. The
comments are often entertaining.
Hood Canal Coordinating Council is made up of county
commissioners from Kitsap, Mason and Jefferson counties, along with
leaders from the Skokomish and Port Gamble S’Klallam tribes.
When planning efforts began five years ago, the idea was to
create an “integrated” plan that would recognize all the ecological
functions taking place in the Hood Canal watershed and create a set
of strategies for addressing all the various problems.
The effort got off to a good start by identifying many of the
problems, ranging from declining fish populations to fragmented
upland habitats. But the complexity of those problems, the
variability of conditions and the numerous agencies responsible for
data and decisions eventually overwhelmed the planners. It was as
if they were trying to complete a jigsaw puzzle containing a
The coordinating council decided to refocus the effort on issues
that are under its purview while maintaining the long-term vision
of a sustainable Hood Canal ecosystem that benefits humans in a
variety of ways.
“Ideally, we will eventually get to all the issues,” said Scott
Brewer, the council’s executive director. “The board decided it
wanted to focus on something that would be the first strategic
priorities and then pick up the other things over time.”
In this context, the plan identifies five focal components:
Commercial shellfish harvesting,
Also, four major “pressures” are called out for special
Commercial and residential development,
Transportation and service corridors,
Climate change and ocean acidification, and
Wastewater discharges and stormwater runoff.
These are issues that the county and tribal leaders were already
addressing in one way or another, either through local actions or
through the Hood Canal Coordinating Council, which is recognized
under state law.
The new website OurHoodCanal.org highlights the connections
between human well-being and natural resources. The first findings
focus on three natural resource indicators — one each for
shellfish, forests and salmon — plus five indicators for human well
being — positive emotions, communication, traditional resource
practices, communities, natural resource industries and access to
last year, for example, showed that Hood Canal generates
positive emotions (at least most of the time) for the vast majority
of respondents, yet most Hood Canal residents say they don’t often
work together to manage resources, prepare cultural events or solve
“This is a work in progress,” Scott said about the planning
effort and related website. “We can start by telling a really good
story about what is happening in Hood Canal, then going on to make
connections and asking whether we are doing the right things.”
The first strategies identified in the plan involve:
Working together on local land-use planning,
Identifying failing septic systems and other sources of
Continuing projects to restore healthy runs of salmon,
Furthering a mitigation program to fully compensate for the
effects of development,
Finding ways to adapt to climate change, and
Developing a regional plan to reduce stormwater problems.
Meanwhile, the coordinating council has developed a new ranking
system for setting priorities for salmon restoration. Refinements
will come later, Scott said, but the system is currently being used
to identify restoration projects to be proposed for funding later
Under the Salmon
Recovery Prioritization (see “guidance” document) projects will
be given more consideration if they help highly rated salmon
stocks, such as fall chinook in the Skokomish River, summer chum in
the Big Quilcene and so on. Projects are given points for
addressing specific habitat types and restoration actions deemed to
be the most important.
If successful, this approach will result in funding the most
important restoration projects, as determined through a more
precise ranking process than ever used before, although it does
leave room for judgment calls.
While the Hood Canal Coordinating Council works on projects in
Hood Canal, other groups continue with similar efforts in other
“Everyone is prioritizing one way or another,” Scott told me,
“but they haven’t looked at it like we have.”
Scott said agencies and organizations that grant money for
salmon recovery or ecosystem restoration could call for an improved
ranking process throughout Puget Sound.
“A lot of money gets spread everywhere,” he noted, “but there
are some key spots throughout Puget Sound that need it more than
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.
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
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
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
“Fishing for pink salmon should be excellent in Puget Sound,
including in Hood Canal and Dungeness Bay,” Lothrop said in a
For details on the fishing seasons, check out the North of Falcon
webpage, which will be updated as new information becomes
I’m amused by this looping video, which shows a bear waiting for
a fish to appear. In the background, a wolf reaches down
nonchalantly, bites into a large salmon and carries it away.
Not long ago, it was widely believed that bears love salmon but
that wolves prefer deer, elk, moose and related animals whenever
they can find them. Now we know, from careful observations in
Alaska, that wolves will go after salmon when they get the
Researcher Dave Person of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game
says wolves will seek out tidally affected streams where they can
find salmon passing through shallow water and trapped in pools.
“They’re not as skillful as bears at fishing,” Person told Riley
Woodford, reporting for
Alaska Fish and Wildlife News. “Each year, they spend over a
month in estuary areas, with the pups. It’s right in middle of pink
and chum runs, and we watch them eat salmon all the time. There are
lots of places they could go; I think they go there for the
Based on the video, I would have to say that wolves are pretty
good at catching fish upstream as well.
Salmon may have gone unnoticed as a staple in the wolves’ diet,
because the entire salmon, bones and all, are digested by wolves,
leaving no signs of fish in their scat — unlike the bones and fur
discovered after they eat a deer or other mammal.
Another Alaskan biologist, Shelly Szepanski, has been studying
the stable isotopes of carbon and nitrogen in wolf bones to see
whether the bones are made of elements that come from the land or
the sea. She found that salmon appeared to make up as much as 20
percent of the diet of wolves living in coastal areas of Southeast
Alaska, compared to 10 percent of those living farther inland.
As I continued to look at the video of the bear and wolf fishing
for salmon, I wondered if they ever interacted and how things might
turn out in a head-to-head fight. I was able to find a video that
demonstrates that a bear might get the best of a wolf in a
one-on-one battle, but we can never forget that wolves often travel
in packs. If you watch to the end, you will see who takes charge of
the meal in question.
Speaking of fights, I am still amazed at the video below, which
shows a leopard swimming across a stretch of water, grabbing onto a
crocodile and dragging it back into the water. I never would have
guessed that a croc could be defeated in or around water like that
— but it looks like he never saw the cat coming until it was too
At Harper Estuary in South Kitsap, the question of “bridge or no
bridge?” has become, “How long should the bridge be to protect the
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
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
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
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.
For the past few years, I’ve been hearing that Washington’s
water-quality standards are grossly out of date, especially when it
comes to assumptions about how much fish people eat. Water-quality
standards are a set of criteria used to determine when a body of
water is “impaired” and to establish limits for discharges from
industrial facilities and sewage-treatment plants.
It was hard to understand how the Department of Ecology could
assume that an average person was eating just 6.5 grams of fish a
day. That’s less than a quarter-ounce. A typical meal of fish is
commonly considered to be eight ounces (226.8 grams). So the
assumption was that people were eating one meal of fish every 35
The water quality standards come from an equation established to
ensure that if you consumed a certain amount of fish, then your
health would be protected. So it would seem logical that if you ate
more than that amount, your health might be at risk.
That’s what got me started looking into the nuances of this
discussion about water-quality standards and eating fish,
especially fish from Puget Sound. The result was a two-part series
published Sunday and Monday in the Kitsap Sun (subscription) —
Part 1 and
Part 2 — and reprinted with permission on the website of
Investigate West — Part
1 and Part
I’ll talk about my new relationship with InvestigateWest at the
bottom of this page, where I’ll also report on a new study about
the protective effects of eating fish even when mercury levels are
The first thing to understand about water-quality standards is
that the state has been relying on an equation created by the
Environmental Protection Agency. That equation resulted in water
quality standards used since 1992 across the nation and still in
some states (PDF 429 kb). The problem was that the EPA has not
updated the nationwide standards, known as the National Toxics
Rule, even while the federal agency has been pushing for states to
come up with their own standards.
Obviously, the fish consumption rate was no longer valid, if it
ever was. State and federal guidelines call for people to eat at
least two or three meals of fish each week for health reasons. It
is not uncommon for Native Americans to eat a meal of fish or more
each day. Protecting the treaty rights of tribal members, which
includes safely eating fish from their “usual and accustomed
areas,” is a responsibility of the state and federal governments,
Fish consumption is not the only issue, however. Other factors
in the equation are also out of date. The EPA has updated estimates
of toxicity for many of the 100 or so chemicals for which
water-quality standards are listed. The weight of a person’s body
in the equation also was changed.
Perhaps the most controversial change in the formula, as
proposed by Gov. Jay Inslee, is to increase the cancer risk rate
for human health from 1 in a million to 1 in 100,000.
I won’t go deeper into the calculation here, since you can read
my story for more details, or look into the state’s
“Overview of key decisions in rule amendment” (PDF 6.4 mb). But
understand that all the assumptions taken together changed the
final number for each of the 96 chemicals under review for
Washington state. Also note that the vast majority of these
chemicals are not even detectible in fish down to parts per
Under Inslee’s proposal, the final number generated by the
equation would be the new water-quality standard for a chemical if
the number were lower (more protective) than the existing standard.
For chemicals in which the number was higher (less protective), the
old standard would remain.
The result was that 70 percent of the standards would become
more stringent under Inslee’s proposal and 30 percent would stay
the same, according to Ecology officials. To see the proposed
changes between the old and new standards and whether the change in
cancer risk would make a significant difference, check out “Human
Health Criteria Review Documents” (PDF 2.9 mb).
Out of the 96 chemicals on the list, two create the greatest
concerns for human health in Puget Sound waters. They are
polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and mercury. For these chemicals,
Inslee’s proposal would keep the water-quality standards the same.
This is controversial, but his thinking is that these chemicals are
widespread in the environment, and reducing their concentrations in
effluent would have little effect on improving the safety of
The governor has proposed a separate planning process with
funding from the Legislature to track down and reduce the sources
of pollution that cause the greatest health concerns — including
some chemicals not on the EPA’s list.
Eating fish is especially important for pregnant mothers and
young children, as I described in the first part of the series.
Omega-3 fatty acids found in fish tissue are considered essential
for the proper development of the brain and neurological system,
including memory and performance, as well as other health
Health advisories tend to balance the beneficial effects of
eating fish with the risks of getting too much PCBs, mercury and
other harmful chemicals. The goal is to choose fish that are
relatively low in toxic chemicals, knowing that practically all
fish, meats and dairy products contain some contaminants.
New study on protective effects of fish
A new study in the Seychelles, an island country where people eat a
lot of fish, suggests that polyunsaturated fatty acids in fish may
provide some protection against the health risks of mercury,
including neurological problems.
The study was published in the “American Journal of Clinical
Nutrition.” The report’s co-author, Edwin van Wijngaarden,
associate professor at the University of Rochester’s Department of
Public Health Sciences, had this to say in a news
“These findings show no overall association between prenatal
exposure to mercury through fish consumption and neurodevelopmental
outcomes. It is also becoming increasingly clear that the benefits
of fish consumption may outweigh, or even mask, any potentially
adverse effects of mercury.”
Because the findings are so new, I chose to stick to the
standard health advisories in my Sunday story.
Laura Riley, medical director of labor and delivery at
Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, said the advice to limit
fish intake may not be warranted after all. But she is not ready to
drop the cautionary approach, according to a story by Dennis
“More study needs to be done before you can convince me that the
fish is actually protective,” she said. “I want to see the
As most of you know, I have retired from the staff of the Kitsap
Sun, but I’m still writing this blog and occasional stories for the
newspaper, including the two-part series this week.
I was recently asked by InvestigateWest, a nonprofit
journalism group, to cover some environmental issues being debated
in the Washington Legislature. I started this new assignment this
week and expect to continue coverage to the end of the legislative
session. My work is being funded through a crowd-sourcing
website called Beacon. All contributions are appreciated.
Climate change appears to be altering the flow characteristics
of Puget Sound salmon streams, and the outcome could be an
increased risk of extinction for chinook salmon, according to a new
I’ve long been interested in how new housing and commercial
development brings more impervious surfaces, such as roads,
driveways and roofs. The effect is to decrease the amount of water
that infiltrates into the ground and to increase surface flows into
Stormwater experts talk about how streams become “flashy,” as
flows rise quickly when it rains then drop back to low levels,
because less groundwater is available to filter into the
The new study, reported in the journal “Global
Change Biology,” suggests that something similar may be
happening with climate change but for somewhat different
Climate models predict that rains in the Puget Sound region will
become more intense, thus causing streams to rise rapidly even in
areas where stormwater is not an issue. That seems to be among the
recent findings by researchers with NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries
Science Center and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife:
“Over the last half century, river flows included in our
analysis have become more variable — particularly in winter — and
these changes are a stronger predictor of chinook population growth
than changes in average winter flows or climate signals in the
“While other impacts to this ecosystem, such as habitat
degradation, may be hypothesized as responsible for these trends in
flow variation, we found support for increasing flow variation in
high-altitude rivers with relatively low human impacts.”
Joseph Anderson of WDFW, an author of the report, told me that
chinook salmon, listed as threatened under the Endangered Species
Act, may be particularly vulnerable to dramatic changes in
streamflows. That’s because spawning chinook tend to show up before
winter storms arrive — when the rivers at their lowest levels. The
fish are forced to lay their eggs in a portion of the river that
will undergo the most forceful flows once the rains begin to
High flows can scour eggs out of the gravel and create serious
problems for emerging fry, Joe said. Other factors may come into
play, but the researchers found a strong correlation between the
sudden variation in streamflows and salmon survival.
In the lower elevations, where development is focused, flow
variability could result from both impervious surfaces on the land
and more intense rainstorms. Efforts to infiltrate stormwater into
the ground will become even more important as changes in climate
bring more intense storms.
Stormwater management is an issue I’ve written about for years,
including parts of last year’s series called “Taking the Pulse of
Puget Sound.” See
Kitsap Sun, July 16, 2014. Rain gardens, pervious pavement and
infiltration ponds are all part of a growing strategy to increase
groundwater while reducing the “flashiness” of streams.
Other strategies involve restoring rivers to a more natural
condition by rebuilding side channels and flood plains to divert
excess water when streams are running high.
According to the report’s findings, the variability of winter
flows has increased for 16 of the 20 rivers studied, using data
from the U.S. Geological Survey. The only rivers showing less
variability were the Cedar, Duwamish, Upper Skagit and
The effect of this streamflow variability was shown to be a more
critical factor for chinook survival and growth than peak, total or
average streamflow. Also less of a factor were ocean conditions,
such as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation and related ocean
Eric Ward, of Northwest Fisheries Science Center and lead author
on the study, said many researchers have focused attention on how
higher water temperatures will affect salmon as climate change
progresses. High-temperature and drought conditions in California,
for example, could damage the organs of salmon, such as their
Salmon swimming up the Columbia River and its tributaries could
encounter dangerously warm waters as they move east into areas
growing more arid. Some salmon species are more vulnerable to
temperature, while streamflow may be more important for others.
Coho salmon, for example, spend their first summer in freshwater,
which makes extreme low levels a critical factor.
Eric told me that further studies are looking into how various
conditions can affect each stage of a salmon’s life, conditions
that vary by species. One goal is to build complex life-cycle
models for threatened species, such as chinook and steelhead, to
determine their needs under the more extreme conditions we can
expect in the future.
While funding for Washington’s “basic education” remains a
potential budget-buster, some legislators are beginning to worry
about a $2.4-billion financial pitfall involving culverts and
In 2013, a federal judge ordered Washington state to replace
nearly 1,000 culverts that block or impede fish passage along
Western Washington streams. The $2.4-billion cost, as estimated by
the Washington State Department of Transportation, amounts to about
$310 million per biennium until the deadline of 2030.
Nobody has even begun to figure out how to come up with that
much money, although the WSDOT has pretty well spelled out the
problem for lawmakers.
In the current two-year budget, the state is spending about $36
million to replace fish-passage barriers, according to Paul Wagner,
manager of the department’s Biology Branch. That’s not including
work on major highway projects.
WSDOT is asking to shift priorities around in its budget to
provide $80 million per biennium for fixing culverts.
Meanwhile, Gov. Jay Inslee’s 12-year transportation plan calls
for increasing revenues to provide money for various improvements
throughout the state, including $360 million for culverts spread
over the 12-year period.
Even if all that funding comes to pass, the state would only
make it about halfway to the goal set by the court when the 2030
Although funding is a serious matter, the effect of fixing the
culverts sooner rather than later could boost salmon habitat and
help with salmon recovery, transportation officials
As of 2013, the agency had completed 282 fish-passage projects,
improving access to nearly 1,000 miles of upstream habitat. Another
10 projects were added in 2014.
Because the lawsuit was brought by 21 Western Washington tribes,
the court order applies to 989 Western Washington culverts, of
which 825 involve significant habitat. The case is related to the
Boldt decision (U.S. v Washington), which determined that tribes
have a right to take fish, as defined by the treaties, and that the
state must not undermine the resource.
The court adopted a design standard for culverts known as the
“stream simulation” model, which requires that the culvert or
bridge be wider than the stream under most conditions and be sloped
like the natural channel.
In an effort to gear up for culvert work, the Department of
Transportation established four design teams to prepare plans for
34 fish-passage projects for the next biennium and scope out
another 75 projects. State officials hope that by having teams to
focus on culverts and bridges, design work will become more
efficient. Agencies also are working together to streamline the
In Kitsap County, the Highway 3 culvert over Chico Creek
presents a real challenge for the department, Paul Wagner told me.
Everyone recognizes the importance of Chico Creek, the most
productive salmon stream on the Kitsap Peninsula. But replacing the
undersized culvert with a new bridge would cost more than $40
million — more than the entire budget for culverts in the current
“There are a lot of culverts,” Wagner said, “and our challenge
is that those on the state highway system are more complicated and
Not only are the state highways the largest, he said, but they
usually cannot be shut down during construction. State highways
typically have more complicated utilities and drainage systems, and
work may require buying new right of way.
Those are all issues for Chico Creek, which was rerouted when
the highway was built in the 1960s. The stream was directed into a
new channel parallel to the highway, crossing under the roadway at
a 90-degree angle.
The new design would restore the original channel, crossing
under the road at a steep angle that makes for a longer bridge. The
new route also could involve changing the interchange at Chico
“That project is definitely one we need to get at,” Wagner said,
“but it eats up a lot of the money we need for other projects.”
Removal of a county culvert under Kittyhawk Drive has increased
interest in removal of the state highway culvert, which lies
immediately upstream of the newly opened channel where the county
culvert was removed. See
Kitsap Sun (subscription), Aug. 26, 2014.
The Legislature will determine how much money will be allocated
to culverts and to some extent which ones get replaced first. New
taxes could be part of the equation for the entire transportation
budget, a major subject of debate this session.