Category Archives: Salmon

Finding answers for dangerous decline of Puget Sound steelhead

Harbor seals have become prime suspects in the deaths of millions of young steelhead trout that die each year in Puget Sound, but the seals may not be working alone.

Trends

Disease and/or various environmental factors could play a part, perhaps weakening the young steelhead as they begin their migratory journey from the streams of Puget Sound out to the open ocean. Something similar is happening to steelhead on the Canadian side of the border in the Salish Sea.

More than 50 research projects are underway in Puget Sound and Georgia Strait to figure out why salmon runs are declining — and steelhead are a major focus of the effort. Unlike most migratory salmon, steelhead don’t hang around long in estuaries that can complicate the mortality investigation for some species.

The steelhead initiative was launched by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and Puget Sound Partnership with funding from the Legislature. The steelhead work is part of the Salish Sea Marine Survival Project, which is halfway through its five-year term, according to Michael Schmidt of Long Live the Kings, which coordinates the effort in the U.S. The larger project involves at least 60 organizations, including state and federal agencies, Indian tribes and universities.

A new report on research findings for steelhead (PDF 9.8 mb) describes the most significant results to date for our official state fish, which was listed as “threatened” in 2007. While steelhead populations on the Washington Coast and Columbia River have rebounded somewhat since their lowest numbers in the 1980s, steelhead in the Salish Sea remain at historical lows — perhaps 10 percent of their previous average.

“Because steelhead are bigger and move fast through the system, they are easier to study (than other salmon species),” Michael told me. “It has been a lot easier to feel confident about what you are finding.”

Abundance

Steelhead can be imbedded with tiny acoustic transmitters, which allow them to be tracked by acoustic receivers along their migration routes to the ocean. It appears that the tagged fish survive their freshwater journey fairly well, but many soon disappear once they reach Puget Sound. The longer they travel, the more likely they are to perish before they leave the sound.

While steelhead are susceptible to being eaten by a few species of birds, their primary predators appear to be harbor seals. These findings are supported by a new study that placed acoustic receivers on seals and observed that some of the transmitters embedded in steelhead ended up where the seals hang out, suggesting that the fish were probably eaten.

In a different kind of tagging study, Canadian researchers placed smaller passive integrated transponder (PIT) tags in a large number of coho salmon and attached devices to read the PIT tags on coho salmon.

“What is most interesting to date,” states a new report from the Pacific Salmon Foundation,“ (PDF 4 mb), “is that we only have confirmed feeding on tagged coho salmon by four of the 20 seals equipped with receivers. This suggests that feeding on juvenile salmon may be an opportunistic behavior acquired by a limited number of seals.”

New studies are underway to confirm steelhead predation by looking at fecal samples from seals in South Puget Sound. Researchers hope to figure out what the seals are eating and estimate steelhead consumption.

As I mentioned at the outset of this blog post, it may be more than a simple case of seals eating steelhead. For one thing, seal populations may have increased while their other food choices have decreased. Would the seals be eating as many steelhead if Puget Sound herring populations were close to their historical averages?

Other factors may be making young steelhead vulnerable to predation. A leading candidate is a parasite called Nanophyetus salmincola, which can infest steelhead and perhaps increase their risk of predation. The parasite’s life cycle requires a snail and a warm-blooded animal, as I described in a story I wrote for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound — part of a larger piece about disease as a powerful ecological force. Anyway, the snail is found only in streams in South Puget Sound, which might help explain why steelhead deaths are higher among these South Sound populations.

Experiments are underway to compare the survival of two groups of identical steelhead, one group infested with Nanophyetus and one not.

Depending on funding and proper design, another experiment could test whether treating a stream to temporarily eliminate the snail — an intermediate host — could increase the survival of steelhead. If successful, treating streams to remove these snails could be one way of helping the steelhead. For these and other approved and proposed studies, check out the Marine Survival Project’s “2015-2017 Research Work Plan” (PDF 9.3 mb).

Other factors under review that could play a role in steelhead survival are warming temperatures and pollution in Puget Sound, which could help determine the amount and type of plankton available for steelhead and salmon. Could a shift in plankton result in less food for the small fish? It’s a major question to be answered.

I’ve mentioned in Water Ways (3/15/2010) that transient killer whales, which eat seals, sea lions and harbor porpoises, may be helping their distant cousins, the Southern Resident killer whales, which eat fish. Those smaller marine mammals compete for the adult salmon eaten by the Southern Residents. By clearing out some of those competitors, the transients could be leaving more salmon for the Southern Residents.

It may be too early to draw any firm conclusions, Michael Schmidt told me, but transient killer whales may be helping steelhead as well. Last year, when transients ventured into South Puget Sound and stayed longer than usual, the survival rate for steelhead from the nearby Nisqually River was the highest it has been in a long time.

Were the whales eating enough seals to make a difference for steelhead, or were the seals hiding out and not eating while the whales were around. Whether there were benefits for the steelhead, we could be seeing what happens when a major predator (orcas) encounters an abundance of prey (seals).

Hormonal studies link orca miscarriages to low chinook salmon runs

An orca mother named Calypso (L-94) nurses her young calf in this high-resolution photo
An orca mother named Calypso (L-94) nurses her young calf in this high-resolution photo taken from a drone. Lactation takes an energetic toll on orca moms. Future images may reveal whether Calypso is getting enough food to support herself and her calf.
Photo: NOAA Fisheries, Vancouver Aquarium, under NMFS permit and FAA flight authorization.

It is fairly well known that the three pods of killer whales that frequent Puget Sound are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. It is also well known that their primary prey — chinook salmon — are listed as threatened.

It can’t be good that the whales are struggling to find enough to eat, but we are just beginning to learn that the situation could be dire for orca females who become pregnant and need to support a growing fetus during times of a food shortage.

Sam Wasser, a researcher known for figuring out an animal’s condition from fecal samples, recently reported that about two-thirds of all orca pregnancies end in miscarriage. And of those miscarriages, nearly one-third take place during the last stage of pregnancy — a dangerous situation for the pregnant female.

In a story published today in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, I report on Sam’s latest studies, along with other work by a team of biologists who are using unmanned aircraft (drones) to keep track of the physical condition of the Southern Resident orcas, including pregnant moms.

Sam’s latest study involves measuring hormones in killer whales, which can tell us a lot about a whale’s condition. The story of how hormones change under varying conditions is a little complicated, but I hope I was able to explain in my article how this works. When adding the effects of toxic chemicals that mimic hormones, we begin to understand the conditions that may be critical to the whales’ long-term survival or their ultimate extinction.

One longtime assumption, which may be shot down by the hormone studies, is that the whales’ most difficult time for food comes in winter, when salmon are generally scarce. These new studies by Sam and his colleagues suggest that the greatest problem comes in the spring, when the whales return to Puget Sound to discover that spring runs of chinook salmon can no longer be found — at least not in significant numbers.

The work with a drone carrying a high-resolution camera is providing precise measurements about the length and width of each killer whale. Pregnant females are especially interesting, and it will be important to document whether physical changes observed in the drone study can be correlated with hormonal changes seen in the other study.

“We’ve moved toward some great sophisticated technology,” Lynne Barre told me. “These great technologies combined can tell us more than any one method can … such as when and where food limitations might be affecting their health and reproduction.”

Lynne heads NOAA’s Protected Resources Division in Seattle and oversees recovery efforts for the endangered Southern Residents.

By the end of this year, NOAA is expected to release its five-year status report on the Southern Resident orcas. In addition to reporting on many new findings, the document will re-examine the risk of extinction for these killer whales and consider whether actions proposed to help them have been carried out.

Last year, the Southern Residents were listed among eight endangered species across the country that are headed for extinction unless recovery actions can be successful. The eight, selected in part because of their high profiles, are known as “Species in the Spotlight.” In February, five-year action plans were released for all eight species.

The plan called “Priority Actions for Southern Resident Killer Whales” (PDF 2 mb) focuses on three primary factors affecting the whales’ survival: a shortage of food, high levels of toxic chemicals and effects of vessels and noise. The concise 15-page document describes some of the work being carried out on behalf of the whales, although new ideas are coming forth all the time.

Orca population remains uncertain on census day

The annual census of killer whales that frequent Puget Sound is supposed to be based on a population count for July 1 each year, but this year the count has barely begun as we move into July.

J-40, named Suttles, breaches in the latest encounter reported by Ken Balcomb. Photo: Ken Balcomb, taken under U.S. and Canadian permits
J-40, named Suttles, breaches in the latest encounter reported by Ken Balcomb.
Photo: Ken Balcomb, under U.S. and Canadian permits

For years, all three pods of Southern Resident orcas typically wandered into Puget Sound in late May or early June, but things have been changing. So far this year, most of the whales have remained somewhere else, probably somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. And that even goes for J pod, the most resident of the resident pods.

Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research, who is responsible for the census, said the Fraser River chinook run has been so low this year that the whales have stayed away. He may not be able to get a complete count until September, he told me.

Of course, Ken and his associates will take attendance as the whales come into the Salish Sea. Some assumptions will have to be made about the timing of any births or deaths. But whales won’t be counted as missing until they are not seen with their family groups during multiple encounters.

“We’re not going to be able to say that somebody is dead at the end of July because we have not seen them,” Ken said, “since there is a low probability of seeing them between now and September.”

As with this year, the census could not be completed at this time last year. But, unlike this year, only two small groups of whales had not been seen going up to census day on July 1 last year. See Water Ways, July 1, 2015.

As the whales have stayed out to sea longer each year, Ken has requested additional federal funding to search for them and get an early indication of their condition, but his requests have been denied. Those who wish to support his ongoing efforts may purchase a membership in the Center for Whale Research.

On Monday, Ken caught up with a small group of J pod orcas that are led by the matriarch J-2, known as Granny. It was only the second time that J pod whales have been seen in inland waters during the entire month of June. On Saturday, a large group of orcas was spotted by observers near the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. But most of them apparently stayed in the open ocean.

Ken speculates that Granny and the others were following an aggregation of salmon when he caught up with them at Turn Point near the Canadian border. He posted a report today with this information:

“J19 and J41 were the west-flanking whales, and J14, J37 and J49 were the east-flanking whales, while J2 and L87 charged in a zig-zag pattern down the middle of the tide rips that shot up vertically like haystacks of water, dousing the boat and camera. The others (J40 and J45) were here and there in the swirls, surfacing with no particular pattern. It was quite challenging to take photographs in such conditions, but it was important to get some documentation of their occurrence and activity, since they had not spent much time in the Salish Sea so far this year.”

The abundance of chinook in the Fraser River — which produces much of the fish in the San Juan Islands — is tracked by prescribed fishing in Canada’s so-called Albion Test Fishery. As you can see from the graph, the catch per unit effort is considerably lower than the long-term average, barely making a blip at the bottom of the chart.

This year's catch per unit effort in the Albion Test Fishery is much lower than the long-term average. This year's fishery did not begin until April 26. Graphic: Canadian DFO
This year’s catch per unit effort in the Albion Test Fishery is much lower than the long-term average. This year’s fishery did not begin until April 26.
Graphic: Canadian DFO

Meanwhile, the abundance of chinook off the Washington Coast is predicted in pre-season forecasts to be slightly above the 10-year average. Forecasts for this year’s chinook runs are higher than last year’s forecast but not as high as the surprisingly high numbers of chinook that ultimately came back last year. See 2016 chinook forecast (PDF 135 kb).

Considering the apparent difference between the number of chinook in the ocean and those coming to the Fraser River, it is no wonder that the whales still remain off the coast.

Given the low salmon runs, Ken says he will be surprised if the annual census does not include some mortalities. One small group of whales, known as the L-12s, have not been seen for months. Meanwhile, four births were recorded since July of last year, with the latest report coming in December. And, as far as anyone can tell, eight of the nine orcas born since December 2014 are still living. It would be remarkable if we are still able to say that when the official census for 2016 is finally reported in September.

Culverts: Lawmakers face dilemma to fund improved fish passage

I’m certainly no highway engineer, but I’ve been thinking about the difference between building roads in Kansas, where I was born, and building roads in the Puget Sound region.

Kansas has its streams and wetlands to be sure, but nothing like the density of natural features that we find in the Puget Sound watershed, where land elevations change constantly and roadways must cross streams and wetlands at every turn.

For many years, road construction in the Puget Sound region involved filling wetlands and burying pipes just big enough to pass the water. It was assumed that salmon would make it through. But based on our current knowledge of salmon migration, we realize that these shortcuts took a major toll on the populations of salmon and other fish.

This week, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court ruling requiring state agencies to correct decades of road-building mistakes that impaired salmon passage on state highways and on state forest roads. Check out Monday’s story in the Kitsap Sun.

Priority watersheds chosen by the Fish Barrier Removal Board. Puget Sound: Pilchuck Creek, Pysht River, Goldsborough Creek; Coast: Newaukum; Lower Columbia: Lower Cowlitz; Yakima River: Wilson/Cherry; Snake River: Grande Ronde Tribs, Snake River Tribs; Upper Columbia: Okanogan.
Priority watersheds chosen by the Fish Barrier Removal Board. Puget Sound: Pilchuck Creek, Pysht River, Goldsborough Creek; Coast: Newaukum; Lower Columbia: Lower Cowlitz; Yakima River: Wilson/Cherry; Snake River: Grande Ronde Tribs, Snake River Tribs; Upper Columbia: Okanogan.

The lawsuit, filed by 21 Indian tribes, was based on the idea that undersized and poorly functioning culverts severely affected the total salmon runs in violation of treaties signed in the 1850s, which promised Native Americans the right to fish forever in traditional locations.

The lawsuit did not address culverts owned by the federal government, local governments or private property owners, but the same principles apply. Steps are now being taken to improve salmon passage based on standards developed by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Meanwhile, a state advisory committee, known as the Fish Barrier Removal Board, has been working to establish priorities with top-ranked projects providing the greatest improvement in salmon habitat.

Kitsap County Engineer Jon Brand, who serves on the board, described a two-pronged approach to set the priorities. One is to focus on priority watersheds, with the idea of making major improvements in a variety of streams in a given area. (See map above and board materials (PDF 50.4 mb), Oct. 20, 2015.) The second approach is to coordinate planning for top-priority streams, with the idea of working on entire stream systems at once. Obviously, it does not make sense to replace a culvert upstream if a downstream culvert continues to block salmon passage. Check out the list of top-30 ranked projects (PDF 57 kb).

The Fish Barrier Removal Board is putting together a funding package to be submitted to the Legislature. As Jon pointed out, some of the most effective projects for salmon passage are not in the Puget Sound region nor subject to the federal court ruling. The list also goes beyond state roadways and includes a mix of ownerships based on the watershed and stream priorities mentioned above.

State lawmakers face some difficult funding decisions. With the court order hanging over their heads, along with a 2030 deadline, they may choose to do only culvert-removal projects in the Puget Sound region, even though projects in other areas could get a greater bang for the buck. And will there be money left over to support local governments trying to improve salmon passage in their areas?

I asked Jon about the expediency of early road-builders who must have given little consideration to salmon when they filled wetlands, carved out drainage ditches and installed pipes to carry the flow of water. It was not always that way, Jon told me.

That method of road-building arrived with the invention of large earth-moving equipment, he said. In the 1800s and early 1900s, filling a stream and inserting a culvert was more difficult than building a bridge of logs, given the vast quantities of timber on the Kitsap Peninsula.

Those early log bridges no doubt caused fewer problems for salmon, but they did not last. Eventually, nearly every bridge was replaced, often by dumping fill across the stream and allowing a small culvert to carry the water.

As for my misguided notion that Kansas can ignore stream crossings because the state has no serious environmental problems, I found this language in “Kansas Fish Passage Guide” (PDF 2.3 mb), a document written for road-builders:

“In Kansas, fish passage issues caused by culverts were not recognized by road officials until about 2010, when … research indicated that culverts and low-water crossings were a significant cause of habitat fragmentation in the Kansas Flint Hills.

“Many of the threatened and endangered fish in Kansas are a type of minnow or minnow-size fish. Small fish typically are not strong swimmers, so waterfalls, water velocity and turbulence can be a barrier to passage upstream. Culverts are dark and have an atypical channel bottom that may also discourage fish passage. Lack of water depth through the culvert can restrict passage during low-flow seasons…

“Stream barriers reduce habitat range and can adversely affect fish populations upstream and downstream of the stream crossing. A severe event like a drought or oil spill in a stream segment can wipe out a species, and the species cannot repopulate the stream because of the barrier.”

Kansas has begun to prohibit blocking culverts and to address existing fish-passage issues. As the above-referenced publication states, “On the Great Plains, it’s usually easy to design and construct a stream crossing for a two-lane road to provide fish passage.”

If only that were the case in Western Washington.

Upper Skokomish designated as ‘properly functioning’ watershed

More than 20 years of removing and reconstructing old logging roads in the Skokomish River watershed has finally paid off with measurable improvement to water quality and habitat, according to experts with Olympic National Forest where millions of dollars have been spent on restoration.

In a U.S. Forest Service project nicknamed “the Big Dig,” contract crews removed nearly 100 vertical feet of road in the South Fork of the Skokomish watershed to remove an eight-foot culvert. The work allowed a mountain stream to flow freely into the Skokomish River. Photo: Kitsap Sun, Steve Zugschwerdt.
In a U.S. Forest Service project nicknamed “the Big Dig,” contract crews removed nearly 100 vertical feet of road in the South Fork of the Skokomish watershed to remove an eight-foot culvert.
Photo: Kitsap Sun, Steve Zugschwerdt

The U.S. Forest Service this week declared that the upper South Fork of the Skokomish is now a “properly functioning” watershed, and the major road-restoration projects are complete.

After writing for years about horrendous problems with sediment washing out of the upper watershed, this news comes as a nice surprise. I’ve been hearing experts talk about water-quality improvements, but this new declaration is a major milestone in the restoration of the entire Skokomish River ecosystem.

“This is a proud and historic occasion for the Forest Service and our many partners who have worked very hard for over two decades to restore this once badly degraded watershed,” Reta Laford, supervisor for Olympic National Forest, said in a news release.

In 2010, the Forest Service classified the South Fork Skokomish as an “at-risk” watershed during a nationwide effort called the Watershed Condition Framework. Several other watersheds in Olympic National Forest also received this designation. See the map at the bottom of this page or download (PDF 5.3 mb) from the Forest Service website.

In 2012, Olympic National Forest designated the upper and middle South Fork Skokomish sub-watersheds as “priority watersheds.“ Forest Service officials pushed forward with action plans containing a list of restoration projects designed to put the watersheds on a path to ecological health.

For your review:

Completion of the key restoration projects in the upper South Fork allowed for the new designation as a “properly functioning” watershed. This marks the first time that any watershed in Olympic National Forest has been upgraded due to completion of all essential restoration projects. Watershed conditions and aquatic habitat will continue to improve as natural processes roll on.

Restoration in the South Fork actually began in the early 1990s, when the Forest Service acknowledged that the region was criss-crossed by a damaging network of logging roads. At nearly four miles of road for every four one square mile of forest, it was one of the densest tangles of roads in any national forest.

In 1994, the Forest Service designated the South Fork Skokomish as a “key watershed” in the Northwest Forest Plan, which called for major cutbacks in logging and received support from President Bill Clinton. Between the early 1990s and 2005, Olympic National Forest completed $10.6 million in restoration work, including $7.9 million for road decommissioning, road stabilization and drainage improvements.

In 2005, the Skokomish Watershed Action Team (SWAT) was formed among a coalition of more than 20 government agencies, environmental organizations and business groups with diverse interests. The SWAT developed a unified front for promoting restoration projects and seeking funds. Members agreed that the focus on roads should begin with the upstream segments, later moving downstream, while other work was coordinated on the estuary near Hood Canal. Much of the lower area was owned or acquired by the Skokomish Tribe, a critical partner in the SWAT.

Between 2006 and 2015, the Forest Service continued with $13.2 million in restoration projects in the South Fork, including $10.9 million on road problems. In all, 91 miles of roads were decommissioned, closed or converted to trails, and 85 miles of roads were stabilized or improved with new culverts and drainage features.

In 2008, I wrote about the problems and response of the SWAT in a Kitsap Sun story: “Taking (Out) the High Roads to Save the Skokomish.”

Much of the road restoration work was funded by Congress through the Forest Service’s Legacy Roads and Trails Program. Former U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks was instrumental in creating that program, and congressional support has continued under the leadership of Norm’s successor, U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, and U.S. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell.

Key funding for restoration also has come from the Forest Stewardship program, which uses receipts from commercial timber thinning on forest lands. Other financial support — especially in the lower watershed — has come from the state’s Salmon Recovery Funding Board and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

In 2009, I wrote a story for “Wilderness” magazine about how these programs were bringing “green jobs” to the region.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completed an in-depth study of the river’s ecosystem last year and is now seeking funding from Congress for a series of projects in the watershed. Check out Water Ways, April 28, 2016.

To celebrate this milestone for Olympic National Forest, the SWAT will recognize the work at its general meeting Friday at the Skokomish Grange Hall, 2202 W. Skokomish Valley Road. The meeting begins at 9 a.m., and the public is invited.

Map

Time to rethink how contaminants get into Puget Sound food web

For years, I have been told the story of how PCBs and other toxic chemicals cling to soil particles and tiny organic debris as polluted water washes off the land.

Richard Henderson of the Skagit River System Cooperative uses a beach seine to catch juvenile chinook salmon near the Skagit River delta. Fish from this rural area were found to be less contaminated than fish taken from urban areas. Photo: WDFW
Richard Henderson of the Skagit River System Cooperative uses a beach seine to catch juvenile chinook salmon near the Skagit River delta. Fish from this rural area were found to be less contaminated than fish taken from urban bays. // Photo: WDFW

Eventually, the PCB-laden particles are carried into Puget Sound, where they settle to the bottom. From there, they begin working their way into marine animals, disrupting their normal functions — such as growth, immune response and reproduction.

The idea that contaminants settle to the bottom is the story I’ve been told for as long as I can remember, a story long accepted among the scientific community in Puget Sound and across the U.S. So I was surprised when I heard that leading scientists who study toxic chemicals in Puget Sound were questioning this long-held idea about how dangerous chemicals get into the food web.

Puget Sound may be different from other waterways, they said.

“When you look at the concentrations in herring and the concentrations in the sediments, something does not line up,” Jim West told me. “The predictions are way off. We think there is a different mechanism.”

Jim is a longtime researcher for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. I have worked with him through the years on various stories about the effects of contaminants on marine organisms. But now he was talking about changing the basic thinking about how chemicals are transferred through the food web.

Jim postulates that many of these PCB-laden particles that wash down with stormwater never sink to the bottom of Puget Sound. Instead, they are taken up by tiny organisms floating in the water. The organisms, including bacteria and phytoplankton, are eaten by larger plankton and become incorporated into fish and other free-swimming creatures — the pelagic food web.

Jim presented his findings at the Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference last month in Vancouver, B.C. Sandie O’Neill, another WDFW researcher, presented other new information about the transfer of contaminants through the food web — from plankton to herring to salmon to killer whales.

My stories about the studies conducted by Jim and Sandie (with help from a team of skilled scientists) were published today in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, where you can read them. These are the first of at least 10 story packages to be to written by a team of reporters working for the Puget Sound Institute.

The Salish Sea conference was attended by more than 1,100 people, including 450 researchers and policymakers who talked about new information related to the Salish Sea — which includes Puget Sound in Washington, the Strait of Georgia in British Columbia and the Strait of Juan de Fuca on the U.S./Canada border.

When I first heard about Jim West’s idea regarding the fate of toxic chemicals circulating in Puget Sound, I thought one result might be to shift restoration dollars away from cleaning up sediments to cleaning up stormwater. After all, if the majority of PCBs aren’t getting into the sediments, why spend millions of dollars cleaning up the stuff on the bottom? Why not devote that money to cleaning up stormwater?

In fact, the worst of the contaminated sediments in Puget Sound have been cleaned up, with some cleanups now under way. That helps to ensure that toxic chemicals won’t get re-suspended in the water and taken up into the pelagic food web all over again. A few hotspots of contaminated sediments may still need some attention.

As far as putting the focus on stormwater, that’s exactly what the Puget Sound Partnership has done with support from the Department of Ecology and other clean-water agencies. It is now well established that the key to reducing pollution in Puget Sound is to keep toxic chemicals out of stormwater or else create settling ponds, rain gardens, pervious pavement and other methods to capture the PCB-laden particles before they reach Puget Sound.

I noticed that Ecology just today announced a new round of regulations to control stormwater in King, Pierce, Snohomish and Clark counties. Proposed changes include updating stormwater programs for new construction projects and for redevelopment. An appendix will describe Seattle’s plan to reduce stormwater pollution in the Lower Duwamish River, where PCBs are a major problem. For more on stormwater regulations, go to Ecology’s website.

As Sandie told me during our discussions, all the work on fixing habitat in Puget Sound streams is not enough if we can’t control the discharge of PCB’s — which were banned in the 1970s — along with newer contaminants still working their way into our beloved waterway. Any measure of healthy habitat must include an understanding of the local chemistry.

Hope for Burley Creek rises with help from Army Corps of Engineers

Andy Nelson, who took over as Kitsap County’s public works director two years ago, quickly proved his worth to the local environment when he proposed federal funding for three major ecosystem-restoration efforts.

One project begins with a proposed $350,000 study of South Kitsap’s Burley Creek watershed — an important stream that probably has never received the attention it deserves. The other projects are in Silverdale and Hansville.

Burley Creek Photo: Kitsap County Public Works
Burley Creek // Photo: Kitsap County Public Works

I stumbled on Kitsap County’s proposal for Burley Creek buried within a U.S. Senate bill to authorize water-related projects across the country — the same bill that would authorize the $20-million Skokomish River ecosystem restoration in Mason County. (See Water Ways, April 28.)

How did a relatively small Kitsap project find its way into a massive public works bill? You could say it was because Andy was aware of a congressional effort to seek out local partnerships with the Army Corps of Engineers. That effort, which began in 2014, came about in part as response to the elimination of old-fashioned earmarks, by which members of Congress could promote their favorite local projects.

Andy came to Kitsap County after retiring from the Army Corps of Engineers, where he held the rank of colonel and was deputy commander for the South Pacific Division. That’s the Corps’ regional office for California and the other Southwest states. (See Kitsap County news release.)

“Kitsap County is a great place, and we chose to come here because of Puget Sound and the nearby mountains,” Andy told me. “With the amount of saltwater shorelines, I anticipated there would be ongoing Army Corps work taking place in Kitsap County.”

In fact, there were no projects in Kitsap County proposed in partnership with the Army Corps. The Corps had previously done studies on Harper Estuary in South Kitsap and on Carpenter Creek in North Kitsap, but funding was never available for the actual restoration work.

Andy put his head together with staffers in Kitsap County Public Works (his department) and the Department of Community Development. They came up with three projects to be submitted to the Corps for consideration. In the end — and to Andy’s great surprise — these three Kitsap projects were the only ones submitted from Washington state during the first year of the solicitation.

The Burley Creek project is one that Tim Beachy, an engineer for Kitsap County Public Works, had been considering in a more limited way.

“We were looking at the replacement of a barrier culvert on Bethel-Burley Road,” Tim told me. “It looked like a bridge upstream on Fenton Road could be impacted by the culvert replacement, and there was a private bridge upstream of that.”

Dan Wolfe of Kitsap County Public Works conducts an annual inspection of the Spruce Road Bridge over Burley Creek. Photo: KC Public Works
Dan Wolfe of Kitsap County Public Works conducts an annual inspection of the Spruce Road Bridge over Burley Creek.
Photo: Kitsap County Public Works

A barrier culvert is one identified as blocking or impeding the passage of salmon. Replacing a culvert can alter the grade of the stream channel, affecting bridges and culverts upstream and/or downstream and potentially leading to unanticipated consequences for salmon migration.

It turns out that Burley Creek contains spawning beds used by Puget Sound chinook and Puget Sound steelhead, both listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. It also contains important spawning and rearing habitat for other salmon species.

At Andy’s direction, a study was proposed to look at salmon passage at four bridges in close proximity on Burley Creek, to consider the effects of flooding and storm damage on the roads and bridges, and to propose further actions that might reduce pollution affecting shellfish downstream in Burley Lagoon.

County officials met with the Corps to discuss the idea. The Corps accepted it as a worthwhile project and proposed it for funding. Congress will have the final word on the study, which would be done by the Corps. If the project moves to construction, local and state funding — probably a 35 percent match — would be needed.

The Burley Creek study requires congressional authorization because it is somewhat unique and does not fit under the “continuing authority” that allows the Corps to investigate issues such as shoreline restoration, shoreline stabilization, ecosystem restoration or navigation, Andy told me. The Corps does not have authority to address water-quality projects per se.

The other two projects are still being evaluated, but they will not need congressional approval since they fall under existing authority of the Corps.

One would be a close look at Silverdale’s waterfront at the head of Dyes Inlet, including Clear Creek and the pocket estuary near Hop Jack’s and Silverdale Beach Hotel. The study would look at ways to restore ecological processes and biological diversity, including shorelines used by forage fish, salmon, resident and migratory waterfowl, and diverse species found in both freshwater and tidal marshes. The project would address stormwater alternatives and consider ways to improve passive recreation.

The last project — which was actually the first in a letter to the Corps — would involve the restoration of freshwater and saltwater marsh habitats in and around Point No Point County Park. The study would look at the longterm effects of sea-level rise, including flood control and potential damage to houses, roads, park facilities and the historic Point No Point Lighthouse. The project could create a more natural setting and enhance intertidal connectivity.

“Nothing prevents two or even all three of these projects from competing for funds and getting funded,” Andy said. “We may determine that the work is not for the Army Corps of Engineers, but we could still use the science and engineering that comes out of these studies. To get a Kitsap County creek in the (Water Resources Development Act) is a big deal.”

Amusing Monday: Colbert talks drugs with Sammy the Salmon

Stephen Colbert: “Environmental scientists — this is true — have tested salmon in the Puget Sound out around Seattle. And they found that, because those salmon are near all these wastewater-treatment plants, the salmon are full of drugs, including Prozac. I don’t blame them, because if I spent all my life living in wastewater, I would definitely need a mood stabilizer.”

Stephen Colbert dedicated a portion of his “Late Show” with a humorous take on a recent scientific report about how drugs are passing through people’s bodies and ending up in Puget Sound, where they can affect fish, including salmon. This video has been viewed about 216,000 times since it was posted last Tuesday.

In the four-minute video, Colbert goes on to have a conversation with Sammy the Salmon, who seems clearly affected by the drugs he has been consuming.

On the serious side, you can read about the study from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in a Kitsap Sun story by reporter Tristan Baurick. Tristan’s story inspired me to write a “Water Ways” post about one possible solution being studied: building enhanced treatment processes into existing wastewater plants.

In other humorous news, perhaps you’ve seen the new SeaWorld commercial called “The new future of SeaWorld.” The ad promotes SeaWorld’s decision to quit breeding killer whales and to halt its theatrical shows with orcas but not to move them out of their tanks. Recall Water Ways, March 17.

PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, quickly posted a parody that you can watch in the second video player on this page.

If SeaWorld Ads Told The Truth

What if SeaWorld's new commercial told the truth? "Because you know what whales hate? The ocean." #LOL

Posted by PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) on Tuesday, March 29, 2016

One other bit of humor came out in print last week as an April Fool’s joke from the Center for Biological Diversity. Here’s a quick sample from “Endangered Earth online.”

  • “The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service this week confirmed rumors that the comb-over wilderness atop the pate of presidential contender Donald J. Trump is indeed “critical habitat” for more than 300 endangered species.”
  • “The Center’s innovative ‘Take Extinction Off Your Plate’ campaign — aimed at reducing meat consumption for the sake of people’s and the planet’s health — announced today it would be baking 10,000 kale-lentil muffins and delivering them to needy gray wolves across the West.”
  • “The Center went to federal court this week to challenge the Environmental Protection Agency’s recent finding that smooth jazz is ‘perfectly safe’ for people and wildlife.”

Amusing Monday: Climate science finds artistic expression

A graph showing the rise in global temperature or the increase in ocean acidity is really just ink on paper. Emotionally, the impact is minimal, unless a person truly understands the meaning behind the lines and numbers shown on the chart.

Clownfish

That’s why I am thrilled and amused with the work of artist Jill Pelto, who has uniquely bridged the gap between scientific charts and living creatures. Jill has incorporated real climate data — charts and graphs — into the backgrounds of her paintings, which also tell compelling stories about the changing environment.

Take the water-color painting of clownfish (first on this page), for example. The anemone in the background is outlined by pH data from 1998 to 2012, as Jill explained to me in an email.

Ocean acidification results when atmospheric carbon dioxide dissolves in the water to form carbonic acid. Higher-than-normal levels of acidity can affect the brains of some fish, leading to disorientation and a reduction in their ability to avoid predators.

“The clownfish in my watercolor are grouped in confusion, separated from the anemone in which they live,” Jill told me. “The oceans may be vast, but if the pH drops globally, there is literally nowhere marine life can go. They are confined to the water.”

The decline in pH, along with a further explanation of ocean acidification, can be found on Climate Central’s website WXshift (pronounced “weather shift”).

The greatest effects of climate change are being experienced in the polar regions. Data describing the melting of Arctic sea ice from 1980 to the present are expressed in Jill’s painting of the Arctic foxes.

Foxes

“Rapid warming in the Arctic has caused the sea ice area to decline so quickly that species cannot adjust,” Jill wrote. “The Arctic fox is small and extraordinarily resilient to the most severe cold. They can withstand the frigid north and thus have this corner of the world in which to hunt. But when the temperatures mellow, competition from larger species could overcome them, as other species move farther north to escape their own warming environment.

“I painted the Arctic foxes to look cornered and skittish. One is hunched and defensive; the other is yowling in panic. The sea ice, from which they are separated, is spaced out by large expanses of dark blue water absorbing the sun’s heat.”

Changes in sea ice are described in Climate Central’s website WXshift.

Jill has studied both art and science, graduating in December from the University of Maine with a double major in studio art and Earth science.

“I have always loved the outdoors and want to use my creative skills to communicate information about extreme environmental issues with a broad audience,” she says on her website, Glaciogenic Art. “I see nature as a work of art and the origin of my observational skills. I enjoy cross-country and downhill skiing, reading, running, camping and spending time with my friends and family. I make art inspired by all of these experiences.”

Jill’s father, Mauri Pelto, a professor in environmental science at Nichols College in Dudley, Mass., has studied glacier recession in Washington’s Cascade Mountains for decades. He founded the ongoing North Cascades Glacier Climate Project in 1983. Jill has assisted with research on that and other projects around the country since high school.

Salmon

Mauri’s 2008 research paper on the North Cascade glaciers (PDF 1.6 mb) contains these unsettling observations: “All 47 monitored glaciers are currently undergoing a significant retreat, and four of them have disappeared.” He goes on to add that this glacial retreat is “ubiquitous, rapid and increasing.”

Experiencing such environmental changes first-hand has helped shape Jill’s future.

“To me, it’s really dramatic and it means a lot because it’s something I personally experienced,” she told Brian Kahn of Climate Central. “Seeing signs of climate change that were more evident inspired me to pursue science at the same time as art.”

The decline in salmon inspired Jill to incorporate a graph of coho population data into one painting. Receding glaciers, last year’s lack of snowpack and a shortage of rainfall contributed to real problems for salmon. Streams were too low and too warm, reducing the amount of spawning.

“Seeing the rivers and reservoirs looking so barren was frightening,” Jill said. “The salmon are depicted swimming along the length of the graph, following its current. While salmon can swim upstream, it is becoming more of an uphill battle with lower streamflow and higher temperatures. This image depicts the struggle their population is facing as their spawning habitat declines.”

Suns

Read more about the decline of salmon in Mauri Pelto’s blog on the American Geophysical Union Blogosphere.

The final example on this page captures multiple measures of climate change occurring across the globe, such as glacier mass balance, sea level rise and temperature increase.

“I wanted to convey in an image how all of this data must be compared and linked together to figure out the fluctuations in Earth’s natural history,” Jill said. “One of the reasons scientists study what happened in the past is to understand what may happen now as a result of human-induced climate change.

“I represented this by illustrating that glaciers are melting and calving, sea levels are rising and temperatures are increasing. The numbers on the left y-axis depict quantities of glacial melt and sea level rise, and the suns across the horizon contain numbers that represent the global increase in temperature, coinciding with the timeline on the lower x-axis.”

Jill offers these references on sea level rise, the “disastrous year” of 2015, and the annual climate report by NOAA and NASA.

I am really looking forward to seeing more of Jill’s work in the future, as she continues her academic pursuits at the University of Maine. Prints of her paintings are available for sale, and Jill can be contacted through her website.

Experts agree: Coho fishing must be reduced this year to save species

Fishing seasons for coho salmon in Puget Sound are expected to be cut back severely this year, as the latest forecasts of salmon returns predict that coho runs will be less than a third of what was forecast for 2015.

Salmon managers faced some tough facts recently when they read over results from a computer model used to predict the effects of various fishing scenarios. After they plugged in last year’s fishing seasons and this year’s coho forecast, the computer told them that essentially no fish were left to spawn in Stillaguamish River in northern Puget Sound. Things were hardly better for the Skagit or Snohomish rivers or for streams in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Hood Canal.

Coho forecast

“With last year’s fisheries, you will catch every fish out there,” said Doug Milward, who manages salmon data for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. “All the fisheries will have to change to protect the Stillaguamish (coho) — from the ocean fisheries to inside (Puget Sound).”

Last year’s fishing seasons are not even a good starting point, as negotiations begin between salmon managers for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and Western Washington tribes. Under federal court rulings, the two sides must agree on fishing seasons, and the goal remains a 50-50 split of the various stocks that can be safely harvested. NOAA Fisheries plays a role in setting seasons for chinook, which are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Coho are not listed, although some people argue that they should be.

2015 coho returns

By April 14, if things go as planned, the two parties will reach agreement on when and where salmon fishing will take place — for tribal and nontribal, sport and commercial fishers.

“Unfavorable ocean conditions led to fewer coho salmon returning last year than we anticipated,” John Long, salmon fisheries policy lead for WDFW, said in a news release. “We expect to see another down year for coho in 2016 and will likely have to restrict fishing for salmon in a variety of locations to protect wild coho stocks.”

It seems the tribes have a slightly different take on the situation.

2016 coho forecasts

“There likely will be no coho fisheries in Western Washington this year, as returns are expected to plummet even further than last year because of poor ocean survival,” Lorraine Loomis, chairwoman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, stated in a column published online.

She said that when last year’s coho returns are finally tallied, they may be as much as 80 percent below preseason forecasts. The Nisqually Tribe last year canceled its coho fishery when less than 4,000 of the anticipated 23,000 fish returned to the area, she said.

Tribes fish at the end of the line, after all the other fisheries — from up the West Coast to the inside of Puget Sound. Because the treaties require tribes to fish within their “usual and accustomed areas,” agreements on fishing seasons must allow for salmon to return to their natal streams with numbers large enough for tribes to take their share, Lorraine said.

“Every year we must wait and hope that enough fish return to feed our families and culture,” she said. “Faced with low catch rates last year, however, most tribal coho fisheries were sharply reduced or closed early to protect the resource. The state, however, expanded sport harvest in mixed stock areas last year to attempt to catch fish that weren’t there. That’s not right. The last fisheries in line should not be forced to shoulder most of the responsibility for conserving the resource.”

Chinook forecast

The annual negotiations between the state and the tribes were kicked off Tuesday at a public meeting where the salmon forecasts were discussed with sport and commercial fishers.

In addition to a poor return of coho to Puget Sound, the forecast for Puget Sound chinook also shows somewhat lower numbers than last year.

One bright spot is for people who like to fish in the ocean. About 951,000 fall chinook are expected to return to the Columbia River. That’s higher than the 10-year average but lower than last year’s modern record of 1.3 million. About 223,000 hatchery chinook are expected to return to the lower Columbia River. These fish, known as “tules,” make up the bulk of the recreational harvest.

2015 chinook returns

Another bright spot is the prediction of a fair number of sockeye returning to Baker Lake on the Skagit River, possibly allowing a fishing season in the lake and river.

Norm Reinhardt, who heads up the Kitsap Poggie Club, has been involved in advisory groups on salmon fishing and participates in discussions about the seasons.

“This year, we have a significant challenge in the coho fishery, and we will have to base decisions on conservation needs,” Norm told me following Tuesday’s meeting.

Despite lower chinook numbers, there could be ways to work out some opportunities to fish for hatchery chinook, he said. Catch-and-release is one option on the table, but it is not popular among sport fishers.

2016 chinook forecast

Anglers are still smarting from last year’s sport-fishing closure in Area 10, a designated fishing area between Bremerton and Seattle. Fishing for chinook was prohibited in that area at the insistence of the Muckleshoot Tribe to protect hatchery chinook returning to the Issaquah Creek hatchery.

Fishing should have been allowed at some level — with the release of wild chinook — under an agreed management plan, Norm says, but state managers yielded to the tribe at the last minute in order to hasten a final agreement. On Tuesday, Norm told state salmon managers that he doesn’t want to see that happen again.

“In area 10, our argument is going to be that if we have adequate chinook, we should be allowed to fish on our fish — unlike last year,” he said.

sockeye forecasts

The reduced number of coho returning to Puget Sound has been blamed on ocean conditions, including higher water temperatures off the coast and a mass of warm water called “the blob,” which stayed around for two years. Studies have shown that warmer water alters the species of plankton available for fish to eat. The result is that the fish are consuming a plankton lower in fat content, causing coho to be thinner and fewer.

The 2016 forecast of about 256,000 Puget Sound coho is about 40 percent of the average return over the past 10 years and 29 percent of the number predicted for 2015 — a prediction that turned out to be too optimistic. Because of the failed coho forecast last year, everyone is expected to be more cautious about aspects of the computer modeling this year.

Charts on this page were presented during Tuesday’s meeting. The new charts make the presentation easier to understand, compared to the tables of data discussed at previous meetings. The data tables are still available when one needs to dig into the finer details. The new maps use colors to describe how streams are doing. Poor (red) is if the run or forecast for a stream is less than 75 percent of the 10-year average. Good (green) is if the run or forecast for a stream is more than 125 percent of the 10-year-average. Neutral (blue) is if the run or forecast falls between 75 percent and 125 percent.

Anyone may attend the meetings where the ongoing negotiations and possible tradeoffs are discussed. Allowing more fishing in one place often results in less fishing somewhere else, and there’s always the question about whether enough salmon are being left for spawning in the streams.

“We’re going to have to be creative in order to provide fisheries in some areas this year,” John Long said. “We would appreciate input from the public to help us establish priorities.”

Information about the salmon forecasts, the meeting schedule and methods of commenting are available on WDFW’s North of Falcon website.

On March 14, various parameters for ocean fishing will be set by the Pacific Fishery Management Council, a group empowered by the federal government to manage fish in the ocean. The PFMC will adopt ocean fishing schedules and harvest levels during its April 8-14 meeting, at which time state and tribal salmon managers are expected to approve fishing seasons for the inland waters.