Category Archives: Salmon

Amusing Monday:
Flying fish for increased survival, savings and fun

The “salmon cannon,” a pneumatic-tube device destined to replace some fish ladders, got plenty of serious attention this fall from various news organizations.

You may have seen demonstrations by the inventor, Whoosh Innovations of Bellevue, that showed adult salmon shooting unharmed through flexible tubes. For dramatic effect, some videos showed the salmon flying out the end of the tube and splashing into water. Among those who found the device amusing were commentators for “CBS This Morning” and “Red Eye” on Fox.

For a laugh, comedian John Oliver recently took the idea in a different direction, aiming his personal salmon cannon at celebrities including Jon Stuart, Jimmy Fallon and… Well, if you haven’t seen the video (above), I won’t spoil it for you.

All this attention has been a surprise for Vince Bryan, CEO for Whooshh, who told Vancouver Columbian reporter Eric Florip that he has spoken with hundreds of news organizations and potential customers from throughout the world.

“It was a nice boost because it says one thing, that people care a lot about the fish, and two, that there really is a need,” Bryan was quoted as saying.

A good description of the potential applications for the “salmon cannon” was written by reporter Laura Geggel of Live Science. Meanwhile, Reuters produced a nice animation showing how the tube works. And a video on the Whooshh Innovations YouTube channel, shown below, provides a clear demonstration how the transport system can work for both humans and fish.

Kitsap rains: not too much, not too little for salmon and aquifers

The on-and-off rains over the past two weeks are nearly perfect for both spawning salmon and for recharging shallow groundwater supplies, experts say.

Chum salmon in Chico Creek. Kitsap Sun photo
Chum salmon in Chico Creek.
Kitsap Sun photo

For October, total rainfall ranges from about 5 inches at Hansville to 12 inches at Holly, according to rain gauges managed by the Kitsap Public Utility District. Fortunately, those rains have not been delivered to us in only a few days.

The intermittent nature of October rains has allowed the streams to maintain their flows without flooding. They’ve also allowed infiltration into the ground without excessive runoff.

“It is the good kind of rain,” said Bob Hunter, interim manager of Kitsap PUD. “We’ve had a couple of days when we’ve had 2-plus inches, but we haven’t seen the streams flash.”

In other words, the streams have not risen excessively fast. Bob attributes that to how dry the ground was before the rains began. Soils were able to absorb much of the early rainfall before stormwater runoff began to increase. Pauses between the rainstorms allowed more of the water to soak into the ground.

“It just goes to show you the variability that we have around here,” Bob told me.

October marks the beginning of the 2015 “water year.” Although we are just a month into the start of the year, the rainfall has been closely tracking all-time highs at some rain gauges — including Holly, which has been monitored since 1999. (See charts below.)

Meanwhile, the rain pattern in October was nearly perfect for salmon, said Jon Oleyar of the Suquamish Tribe, who walks the East Kitsap streams to count migrating salmon as they arrive.

“It seems like we’ve had storms coming in every couple of days, so they are not right on top of each other,” Jon said. “That gives the streams some time to recede.”

When there is not adequate flow, the salmon often wait for the streams to rise. On the other hand, too much flow can wash salmon eggs out of the streambed.

Last week’s rains got the chum salmon moving into most of the East Kitsap streams, Jon told me.

“I checked Chico Creek on Wednesday, and there were almost 11,000 fish in there and going up about as far as they can get,” he said.

A good escapement for the Chico Creek system is between 12,000 and 15,000 chum, and there is still more than a month left — assuming a typical timing of the run, he said. But things are looking a little different this year, he noted, and the bulk of the run may have arrived already.

One indication that timing could be different this year is that Gorst Creek already has a fair number of chum salmon — perhaps 500 — yet the Gorst Creek run usually comes in later and continues well into December.

Is it possible that all or most of the salmon runs are coming in early? It’s a question that only time will answer.

Jon told me that he’s a bit water-logged at the moment, trying to count fish in the rain with the streams running high.

“I’m pretty happy about it,” Jon said. “I have my fish up where they need to be, but it’s just hard to count them right now. If you’re a fish, this is really working for you.”

In the charts below, found on the Kitsap PUD’s website, you can see that October’s rainfall has been tracking the record high rainfall at these stations. Of course, the “water year” has barely begun, so anything can happen. (Click on images to enlarge.)

Rain-Holly

Rain-CK

Rain-Hansville

Experts to talk salmon and habitat at Poulsbo Fish Park on Saturday

Poulsbo’s Fish Park will have a variety of experts on hand Saturday to talk about the salmon run in Dogfish Creek and other North Kitsap streams, as well as restoration efforts taking place throughout the region.

salmon viewing

Fun and educational activities for kids are part of the event, which will go from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. My description of salmon-viewing events on Saturday had the wrong date for the event. Check out the flyer posted by Poulsbo Parks and Recreation.

Paul Dorn, a biologist with the Suquamish Tribe, said the best bet to see salmon in the creek will be earlier in the day, as the tide will be incoming. Natural organic compounds called tannins tend to color the water brown, so it is not always easy to spot migrating salmon in the lower part of Dogfish Creek. If you miss them at Fish Park, it may be worth a trip to Valley Nursery off Bond Road, where I’ve often had luck seeing salmon.

“We just finished a wonderful restoration project,” Paul told me, describing the installation of woody debris and gravel on a tributary of Dogfish Creek at Fish Park. It’s a small stream, he said, but it’s good rearing habitat for juvenile coho salmon and cutthroat trout, and adult salmon can go up the stream when the flows are high.

Salmon events are scheduled the following Saturday, Nov. 8:

  • Cowling Creek Center, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., 20345 Miller Bay Road.
  • Chico Salmon Viewing Park, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., adjacent to Kitsap Golf and Country Club, www.ext100.wsu.edu/kitsap.
  • Mountaineers Rhododendron Preserve, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., with walking tours at 10 a.m., 11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m., www.ext100.wsu.edu/kitsap.

For a map of accessible salmon-viewing locations with videos that describe each spot, go to Kitsap Peninsula Salmon Watching. While there, check out the tips for successful salmon-viewing.

It’s salmon-watching time on Kitsap Peninsula

The salmon are coming! The salmon are coming!

The recent rains have done the job; the streams have risen; and chum salmon are moving swiftly into Chico Creek — and probably other streams on the Kitsap Peninsula.

Click on image to open interactive map.
Click to open interactive map.

I stopped by Chico Salmon Viewing Park today and observed chum in all portions of the stream and moving upstream at the bridge on Chico Way. The park, where volunteers have made significant improvements, is adjacent to Kitsap Golf and Country Club. Park officials say it is OK to walk around the chain-link fence and enter the park, but please stay on the trails once you are inside.

I also noticed a large number of salmon at the mouth of Chico Creek, milling around the culvert under Highway 3. The old culvert on Kittyhawk Drive has been torn out, so it is no longer an obstacle. The stream channel has been reconfigured to look and function like a natural stream. See Kitsap Sun, Aug. 26.

At least a dozen anglers were fishing out beyond the mouth of the stream, where they should be. Fishers and other observers are asked to stay on the trail, be careful not to trample recent plantings, and stay out of the stream channel. No fishing is allowed upstream of the high-tide mark down on the beach.

I recently wrote about how killer whales of the Salish Sea have begun to follow the chum salmon into Central and South Puget Sound. Chum are a primary prey species for the orcas, after chinook runs decline. See Kitsap Sun, Oct. 20.

I have to admit that I still get excited when I see energetic salmon finding their way upstream, swimming around rocks and logs, rushing through shallow riffles and hanging out in deep pools. If you visit the major salmon streams, such as Chico Creek, over the next week or two, you’ll avoid the smell of rotting salmon that generally comes later. As for me, I like to watch the salmon during all portions of the run.

For a map of accessible salmon-viewing locations with videos that describe each spot, go to Kitsap Peninsula Salmon Watching. While there, check out the tips for successful salmon-viewing.

If anyone gets a decent photo of salmon in the streams, please send it to my email address and I’ll post it on this blog. I tried to get photos today, but I didn’t have enough light.

If you’d like to learn about salmon from fisheries biologists, consider attending this year’s Kitsap Salmon Tours on Saturday, Nov. 8, at four locations:

  • Cowling Creek Center, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., 20345 Miller Bay Road.
  • Poulsbo Fish Park, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., on Lindvig Way in Poulsbo, www.city of poulsbo.com/parks/parks_events.htm.
  • Chico Salmon Viewing Park, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., adjacent to Kitsap Golf and Country Club, www.ext100.wsu.edu/kitsap.
  • Mountaineers Rhododendron Preserve, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., with walking tours at 10 a.m., 11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m., www.ext100.wsu.edu/kitsap.I

Hope of seeing larger orca population dashed by calf’s death

A seven-week-old baby orca born to our Southern Resident pods was reported missing and presumed dead today. This was the newborn orca who brought so much hope and excitement to our area, being the first reported birth in more than two years.

The baby orca, L-120, with its mother a few weeks ago while still alive. The calf is reported missing and presumed dead. Photo courtesy of Carrie Sapp.
The baby orca, L-120, with its mother a few weeks ago while still alive. // Photo courtesy of Carrie Sapp.

When I called Ken Balcomb this morning, he was in a “subjective” state of mind, as he put it. Ken, of the Center for Whale Research, has been keeping track of the three Southern Resident pods since 1976, and he’s clearly worried that these whales may be headed for extinction.

As we talked on the phone, Ken was peering through the large windows of his home on San Juan Island and watching a large purse seine vessel scooping up chum salmon and possibly other species as bycatch.

“I look at this every day, and I’ve seen this for almost 40 years,” Ken said. “There is no letup on the human part. Virtually no fish are getting past the outlet. We know the Fraser River runs are in poor shape, and our management doesn’t seem to take any kind of ecosystem approach.”

Salmon biologists set the sport and commercial fishing seasons based on an estimate of the number of fish returning. They update that estimate during the season based on harvest numbers caught in the nets.

“Whatever they are doing, it obviously has not worked, since we’ve seen run after run not doing well,” Ken said. “I get subjective about it and wonder when our society is going to do something to get more prey (for the whales).”

Ken said there was much hope for the seven-week-old orca, designated L-120, the third known offspring of the 23-year-old mother designated L-86.

“I was optimistic,” he told me. “When we first saw the baby, it had a squished-looking head, but even human babies can be born with a flattened head.

“Within a week, it was filling out well and was energetic,” he continued, and there was no reason to believe the calf would die.

The Southern Residents are known to bear a heavy burden of toxic chemicals, but transient killer whales are even more contaminated. The difference may be that transients, which eat marine mammals, may be getting enough food. Was the orca mom unable to nurse her baby? Did the toxic chemicals cause an immune deficiency? Or was there another problem? We’ll probably never know.

All three orca pods were probably out in the ocean when the youngster disappeared. The mom was seen with other whales on Friday, Saturday and Sunday without the calf — something that would not happen if the baby were alive.

L-120 was the third calf born to L-86. Her second calf, L-112, washed up dead at Long Beach in February 2010. After much investigation, researchers concluded that L-112 had died of blunt force trauma, but what caused the injury was never determined. Ken suspects some kind of explosive detonation, although that cause was discounted by investigators.

Howard Garrett of Orca Network said the orcas have faced a shortage of food, toxic chemicals, routine shooting with guns and a series of captures that depleted the population.

“We haven’t treated these magnificent orcas well at all,” Howie said in a news release. “As a society we are not successfully restoring this orca community, despite the many warnings and legal declarations.

“Our challenge is clear: Bountiful salmon runs must be restored and protected or we won’t see resident orcas in the Salish Sea in coming years,” he added.

The latest population count places the total number at 78, the lowest number since 1986, according to records by the Center of Whale Research.

Final explosion frees Elwha River at Glines Canyon

I believe it is important to commemorate the final day of the Glines Canyon Dam — even though only a relatively small chunk of the structure had been left in place since February, when flows in the Elwha River covered over the last 30 feet.

In a massive explosion on Tuesday, that last 30 feet of concrete was blasted away. Almost immediately, the river began to flow freely, at basically the same elevation it was before the dam was built in the 1920s.

The video above was shot by John Gussman, who has done an amazing job documenting the restoration of the natural river. See John’s Facebook page and check out a preview of the film “Return of the River.”

Olympic National Park officials say it will take several weeks to clear away the rubble dislodged by the final blast, but dramatic changes have been taking place downstream of the former Glines Canyon Dam — the second dam on the river, built eight miles upstream of the Elwha Dam.

Researchers are carefully monitoring sediment distribution and salmon migration, officials say. During the past three years, the Elwha River has experienced unusually low flows, so experts are waiting for more typical winter flows to move around some of the larger boulders in the stream.

Since last fall, salmon have been swimming upstream of the Elwha Dam site. The dam, built without a fish ladder, blocked salmon migration into some 70 miles of near-pristine habitat. Now, biologists expect all five species of Northwest salmon to recolonize the river.

In a story in today’s Peninsula Daily News, reporter Arwyn Rice quoted Robert Ellefson, restoration manager for the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe: “It’s a good day… It has been the dream of tribal members for a hundred years.”

The tribe will have something special to celebrate come next July, when members hold their annual welcoming ceremony, acknowledging the return of chinook salmon to the Elwha River.

What we know and don’t know about killer whales

This week’s report about Puget Sound’s endangered killer whales contained little new information, but the intent was not to surprise people with important new findings. The report (PDF 14.3 mb), published by the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, was a nice summary of 10 years of research and ongoing efforts to unlock the secrets of the mysterious Southern Residents.

NOAA also released the video, at right, which sums up the report with great visuals. Make sure you go full-screen.

On Wednesday, I participated in a telephone conference call to link reporters with killer whale experts in our region. On the line were Lynne Barre, Mike Ford and Brad Hanson, all with NOAA Fisheries out of Seattle. I’ve been wrapped up with other reporting assignments, so the Kitsap Sun’s editors chose to run a solid story by Associated Press reporter Phuong Le. See Kitsap Sun, June 25.

Let me make a few quick observations:

Lynne Barre said one of the greatest mysteries, to her, is why killer whales suddenly go missing. It’s a vexing problem, and I always get a little nervous when the whales return in the spring. One year, six of the Southern Residents failed to show up. It was a real blow to the close-knit orca community and to the struggling population, and I’ve never forgotten the dismay of everyone who cared about these animals.

Healthy killer whales seem to go missing as often as elderly or sick ones. Only a few bodies ever wash up on the beach. Even when one is found, the cause of death often remains uncertain, as in the case of L-112, found to have died of “blunt-force trauma” from some unknown object.

Much more needs to be learned about disease in the animals, Lynne said. Future research could involve more tissue biopsies and breath samples in an effort to identify early signs of disease.

For Brad Hanson, another mystery is the whales’ seemingly unpredictable behavior and their “fundamental relationship with prey.” We all assume that their primary goal in life is to find fish to eat, but how good are they at this essential task? Pretty good, I would guess. Often before we learn that chinook are abundant off the Washington Coast, we find out that the killer whales are already there.

Maybe the reason the whales have been spending so much time away from Puget Sound the last couple years lies in the lower returns of Fraser River chinook, which pass through the San Juan Islands in the summer. Scale and fecal samples have shown that Fraser River chinook are the most consistent prey of the resident orcas.

In previous conversations, Brad has told me that he would love to communicate with the whales, to find out who is in charge and why a group of animals may suddenly turn around and go in the opposite direction. Howard Garrett of Orca Network recalls a time when all three Southern Resident pods were in the Strait of Juan de Fuca heading into Puget Sound. Suddenly K and L pod turned back, while J pod continued on. Howie says it was as if they knew there were not enough fish for the entire population, so J pod went on alone, saying, “See ya later.”

Mike Ford wants to know why the population has not increased more than it has. Could it be some limitation in the ecosystem, such as the fact that other marine mammals — such as seals and sea lions — have been increasing and taking a sizable bite out of the available salmon population? We know that Northern Residents, who also eat fish, don’t overlap territories much with the Southern Residents. Living up north, the Northern Residents have better access to some salmon stocks — including those that originate in Puget Sound. If the Northern Residents get to them first, the fish are not available for the Southern Residents — or so goes one hypotheses. The Northern Resident population has tripled in size, while the Southern Residents have stayed about the same.

Oddly enough, this potential competition for chinook salmon reminds me of exactly what is taking place with regard to commercial fishing enterprises. Washington fishermen complain that the Canadians are taking salmon that should get back to Washington. Canadian fishermen complain that Alaskans are taking salmon bound for Canada. Only Alaskan fishermen — and those who go to Alaska to fish — can catch a portion of the salmon going into Alaskan rivers as well as some destined to travel south.

One of the new things that did come up in Wednesday’s conference call was a renewed effort for U.S. killer whale biologists and managers to work with their counterparts in Canada. “We will be partnering with them on issues of salmon fisheries and how that may affect the whales,” Lynn said, adding that other cross-border efforts could involve vessel regulations and targeted research efforts.

During Wednesday’s conference call, nobody talked about the potential effects of military activities and the possible injury from Navy sonar until a reporter brought up the issue. The question was referred to NOAA Fisheries headquarters in Silver Spring, Md., where officials review the Navy’s operations and issue incidental take permits. That was the end of that discussion.

I know the Navy is conducting research in an effort to reduce harm to killer whales and other marine mammals. I get the sense, however, that more could be done immediately if connections were made between knowledgeable killer whale researchers in our region and those making decisions on the opposite side of the country.

SouthernResidentKillerWhalePhoto

Taking time to remember Billy Frank Jr.

UPDATE, July 24, 2014
The latest issue of “Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission News” (PDF 1.1 mb) is dedicated to the late Billy Frank, who served as chairman of the commission for nearly 40 years. The issue includes numerous tributes from those who worked with Billy through the years. Print copies are available by emailing Tony Meyer or Emmet O’Connell at NWIFC.

UPDATE, June 11, 2014
Jeromy Sullivan, chairman of the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe, wrote a tribute to Billy Frank that is worth reading. Jeromy mentions three admirable attributes of Billy Frank and gives examples of each. They are words to live by.

  • Stand up for what you believe in … even when no one else will.
  • Treat people with respect even if you’re on opposite sides.
  • It’s the big and small things that make your community a better place.

Read Jeromy’s entire column, written for the Port Gamble S’Klallam Newspaper.
—–

The affection and admiration expressed for Billy Frank Jr. has been somewhat overwhelming in recent days. I thought it would be nice to pull together some of the tributes — including the memorial service — that talk about this man who was an irrepressible voice for salmon recovery, environmental restoration and Native American rights.

Billy, 83, a member of the Nisqually Tribe and chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, died last Monday, May 5, at his home. As I said in Water Ways last Tuesday, I believe Billy will remain an unforgetable force.

An estimated 6,000 people attended his memorial service Sunday at the Squaxin Island Tribe’s Skookum Creek Event Center, located at Little Creek Casino Resort near Shelton.

The service was recorded by Squaxin Streams and posted on the Livestream website, which is the video player on this page.

Billy Frank’s own words, “Nobody can replace my life,” speak of the changes from one generation to the next. Billy knew as well as anyone that we can’t go back, but he asked people to help determine a better environmental future. Secretary of State Legacy Project.

 

 

Tributes, statements, news

William D. Ruckelshaus, former chairman of the Puget Sound Partnership’s Leadership Council, of which Billy was a member. Published in Crosscut, May 8.

Martha Kongsgaard, current chairwoman of the Puget Sound Partnership’s Leadership Council. Published on the partnership’s website, May 6.

Gov. Jay Inslee, statement from the Governor’s Office

President Barack Obama, statement from the White House

U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, VIDEO, speech on Senate floor, May 12.

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, VIDEO, speech on Senate floor, May 12.

U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, VIDEO, speech on House floor, May 9.

Former U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Bremerton. Statement, Van Ness, Feldman.

Kitsap Sun editorial cartoon by Milt Priggee
Kitsap Sun editorial cartoon by Milt Priggee

John Dodge, reporter for The Olympian. Published in the Olympian, May 8.

E3 Washington, Education, Environment, Economy. Website, May 7.

Indian Country Today Media Network

Leonard Forsman, chairman of the Suquamish Tribal Council, and Jeromy Sullivan, chairman of the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribal Council, in Kitsap Sun, May 5.

To many, Billy Frank will remain an unforgetable force

To reporters in Western Washington, Billy Frank Jr. was the essential interview when it came to reporting on fish and shellfish issues.

Billy Frank Jr. greets Interior Secretary Sally Jewell 10 days ago in Suquamish. Kitsap Sun photo by Rachel Anne Seymour
Billy Frank Jr. greets Interior Secretary Sally Jewell in Suquamish.
Kitsap Sun photo by Rachel Anne Seymour

Always gracious and enthusiastic, Billy would take my calls at just about any time of day, sometimes between conferences in Washington, D.C. He was willing to talk about anything, from environmental problems to court rulings. You name it.

Usually, he was not the best person to discuss the rigorous details I might need for a story. He left that to others. But one could always count on Billy to passionately expound upon the needs of salmon and how a particular policy or legal agreement would further the cause.

At 83 years old, Billy had watched the rapid rise of modern development and the sad decline of salmon populations throughout Puget Sound. He was at the center of the battle to restore tribal treaty rights and claim a place at the table where decisions are made regarding natural resource policies.

It didn’t matter to Billy if you were a concerned citizen, a U.S. senator or the president himself. He would greet people with a hug and thank them for their efforts. During his off-the-cuff speeches, he would urge everyone to keep working together, no matter what conflicts needed to be overcome.

Billy, chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, was in Kitsap County — Suquamish to be specific — 10 days ago to meet with Interior Secretary Sally Jewell. Kitsap Sun reporter Rachel Seymour heard him address the issue of salmon hatcheries. See Kitsap Sun, April 24 (subscription).

“Our hatcheries are under attack,” he said, saying that Puget Sound had become “poison” to the salmon. “The hatcheries are there because the habitats are gone. Big business says it costs too much to have clean water.”

That was classic Billy Frank, shooting straight into the heart of the matter.

I knew Billy on a professional level, but he had this rare trait for making everyone feel like a friend. Of all the stories I wrote, Billy was particularly pleased that I kept following the culvert lawsuit years after it seemed forgotten by most people — even the judge. In that case, the court ruled that Washington state has a duty under the treaties to fix highway culverts that impede the passage of salmon.

Billy appeared comfortable in most settings. He would plead and demand, calling on people to do the right thing, his speech peppered with occasional profanity. He was easily excited at reports of progress, but always disappointed at the extremely slow pace of ecosystem recovery.

His vision was to restore salmon populations to some semblance of their glory when people could still make a living from the bounty of nature. Without thinking, I always believed that Billy would be around to see his vision fulfilled, no matter how long it took.

Martha Kongsgaard, chairwoman of the Puget Sound Leadership Council, recalled hearing Billy speak last Thursday at the Salish Sea tribal dinner.

“Billy assured us that he would be here for at least another decade — he had so much work to do,” Martha wrote in a thoughtful tribute to Billy. “He mentioned that his father lived to be 104 and his mother 96 and that he hoped to split the difference. He was on fire, naming names, calling us all to the cause, to come together. He was as powerful as any in the room had ever heard him.”

As was his habit, Billy got up Monday and got dressed after his shower. He sat down on his bed and didn’t get back up. His son Willie found him a short time later.

It will be up to others to continue the fight to protect and restore salmon to Puget Sound. We can be sure that there will never be another Billy Frank. But those who knew him or heard him speak can still be empowered by the indomitable passion that made him such an unforgettable force.

Read Martha Kongsgaard’s full tribute to Billy Frank.

Kitsap Sun/Associated Press story, “Tribal rights pioneer Billy Frank Jr. dies,” includes statements from Leonard Forsman, chairman of the Suquamish Tribe, and Jeromy Sullivan, chairman of the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe.

Tidal power supply coming to Puget Sound

A multi-million-dollar tidal energy project in Admiralty Inlet, north of the Kitsap Peninsula, has been approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Tidal turbines for Admiralty Inlet are to be provided by OpenHydro. Graphic courtesy of OpenHydro
Tidal turbines for Admiralty Inlet are to be provided by OpenHydro.
Graphic courtesy of OpenHydro

The Snohomish County Public Utility District, which was granted a license for the double-tidal-turbine pilot project, says it will be the first “grid-connected array of large-scale tidal energy turbines in the world.” The twin turbines are designed to produce 600 kilowatts of electricity, enough to power several hundred homes.

“Anyone who has spent time on the waters of Puget Sound understands the power inherent in the tides,” PUD General Manager Steve Klein said in a news release. “In granting this license, the FERC acknowledges the vigilant efforts of the PUD and its partners to test the viability of a new reliable source of clean energy while at the same time ensuring the protection of the environment and existing uses.”

The federal commission acknowledged concerns for fish and wildlife brought forth by area tribes, whale-watch operators and environmental groups. But the pilot project has precautionary measures built in, according to the commission’s order (PDF 503 kb) issued yesterday:

“For these new technologies, where the environmental effects are not well understood, the risks of adverse environmental impacts can be minimized through monitoring and safeguard plans that ensure the protection of the public and the environment.

“The goal of the pilot project approach is to allow developers to test new hydrokinetic technologies, determine appropriate sites for these technologies, and study a technology’s environmental and other effects without compromising the commission’s oversight of a project or limiting agency and stakeholder input…

“A pilot project should be: (1) small; (2) short term; (3) located in non-sensitive areas based on the commission’s review of the record; (4) removable and able to be shut down on short notice; (5) removed, with the site restored, before the end of the license term (unless a new license is granted); and (6) initiated by a draft application in a form sufficient to support environmental analysis.”

Among tribes that fish in the area, the Suquamish Tribe raised concerns about the likelihood of underwater turbines violating tribal treaty rights to fish. The turbines have the potential for killing or injuring fish, according to the tribes, and they could become a point of entanglement for fishing nets and anchor lines.

Tidal turbine location in Admiralty Inlet
Tidal turbine location in Admiralty Inlet

“Though we respect the tribes’ perspective and concerns, we disagree that licensing this project will adversely affect their treaty rights,” the commission stated in its order. The license contains no restrictions on fishing, and it requires measures to protect the fish.

Suquamish Tribal Chairman Leonard Forsman said tribal officials have not had time to review the license conditions in detail but will do so over the coming days. He said he would consult with legal and technical advisers before laying out possible actions for consideration by the tribal council.

Michael Harris, executive director of the Pacific Whale Watch Association and a board member for Orca Conservancy, said he was disappointed that more people have not recognized the problems that can be created by these turbines — especially in Admiralty Inlet, a primary route for killer whales and many other species.

The turbines will create unusually loud and potentially painful underwater noise, Harris said. This installation is being developed at a time when researchers are coming to understand that noise can disrupt the behavior of killer whales and other marine mammals.

The turbines themselves have open blades that can injure any curious animal getting too close, he noted. And if the turbines become a serious threat, someone must swim down and mechanically stop the blades from turning, something that could take four days.

“I’m not against green energy,” Harris said when I talked to him this morning. “But let’s not put blinders on. I would like to see these turbines located in another spot. Why not Deception Pass?”

Harris said it is critical for people to pay close attention to the pilot project if it goes forward. Everyone should be prepared to stop the experiment if it proves costly to sea life.

The order by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission maintains that conditions of approval will protect killer whales and other marine mammals:

“The Near Turbine Monitoring and Mitigation Plan requires detection of fish and should provide observation of nearby killer whales. Those observations combined with the hydrophone monitoring required under the Marine Mammal Protection and Mitigation Plan will allow detection and observation of killer whales if they come near the turbines.

“The adaptive management provisions of the Marine Mammal Protection and Mitigation Plan will also allow adjustments to project operation if potential harm to killer whales is detected or, in the very unlikely event, a whale is injured….

“This license also contains noise-related requirements that will ensure the project does not have detrimental effects on killer whale behavior. The Acoustic Monitoring and Mitigation Plan of this license requires that if the sound level from turbine operation exceeds 120 dB at a distance greater than 750 meters from the turbine … the licensee shall engage the turbine brake until modifications to turbine operations or configuration can be made to reduce the sound level.”

According to several Internet sources, 120 dB is what someone might hear standing near a chainsaw or jack hammer. That level is considered close to the human threshold for pain.

In the Admiralty Inlet area, at least 13 local species are listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

  • One plant: golden paintbrush, threatened
  • One bird: marbled murrelet, threatened
  • Two marine mammals: Southern Resident killer whales, endangered, and North Pacific humpback whale, endangered
  • Nine fish: Puget Sound Chinook salmon, threatened; Hood Canal summer chum, threatened; Puget Sound steelhead, threatened; bull trout, threatened; green sturgeon, threatened; bocaccio rockfish, endangered; canary rockfish, threatened; yelloweye rockfish, threatened; and Pacific eulachon, threatened.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service have concluded that none of the species would be in jeopardy of extinction because of the pilot project.

Experts have concluded that marine mammals, including killer whales, could be subjected to Level B harassment (behavioral shifts) as a result of noise from the turbines. That would be in violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act without incidental take authorization. That means the Snohomish PUD must undergo consultations with the National Marine Fisheries Service and possibly change its plans before moving forward.

The PUD chose Admiralty Inlet for its swift currents, easy access and rocky seabed with little sediment or vegetation. A cable-control building for connecting to the power grid will be located on Whidbey Island near Fort Casey State Park. The turbines will be located in about 150 feet of water about a half-mile from shore.

The turbines are manufactured by OpenHydro of Dublin, Ireland. Each turbine measures about 18 feet in diameter, with a 414-ton total weight.

According to the PUD, these turbines have been used in ecologically sensitive areas in other parts of the world. One location is Scotland’s Orkney Islands, which features a diverse and productive ecosystem that is home to numerous species of fish, dolphins, seals, porpoises, whales and migrating turtles.

The pilot project has been supported with about $13 million in grants from the U.S. Department of Energy and Bonneville Power Administration along with federal appropriations.

Partners in various aspects of the project include the University of Washington, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Sound & Sea Technology and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.