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Environmental reporter Christopher Dunagan discusses the challenges of protecting Puget Sound and all things water-related.
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Tidal power supply coming to Puget Sound

Friday, March 21st, 2014

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.


Larry Rutter’s legacy connected to salmon recovery

Thursday, February 27th, 2014

I was saddened to hear of the death of Larry Rutter, senior policy assistant in the Sustainable Fisheries Division at the National Marine Fisheries Service and a U.S. commissioner on the Pacific Salmon Commission.

Larry Rutter

Larry Rutter

Larry, 61, was one of the folks who taught me the basics of salmon management more than 20 years ago. He kept me informed through some difficult negotiations over salmon harvest allocations between the U.S. and Canadian governments.

Technically, he was very sharp. Personally, he was patient and kind.

I am pleased that Long Live the Kings has created a Larry Rutter Legacy Fund to carry out his wish for remembrances connected to the Salish Sea Marine Survival Project, an effort he helped coordinate across the border between LLTK and the Pacific Salmon Foundation in Canada.

“It was due in no small part to Larry’s influence that LLTK and PSF were awarded a $5-million grant from the Pacific Salmon Commission’s Southern Fund Committee in 2013 for the Salish Sea Marine Survival Project,” said LLTK Executive Director Jacques White in a statement. “Without his vision and dedication, we simply would not be where we are today.”

To donate to the Larry Rutter Legacy Fund, scroll to the bottom of the Long Live the Kings page on the topic.

Larry was a graduate of South Kitsap High School and the University of Washington. He worked for the Point No Point Treaty Council and Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission before taking the job with NMFS (NOAA Fisheries). His obituary in The Olympian says Larry died last Thursday of pancreatic cancer.

To read about the Salish Sea Marine Survival Project, go to Long Live the Kings or check out a story I wrote for the Kitsap Sun (subscription) last August followed by a blog entry, Watching Our Water Ways.


Amusing Monday: Flipping for the bird

Monday, February 17th, 2014

In case you missed this letter to the editor from Richard C. Yerk of Suquamish, I will repeat it here:

Print by Phil Jones. Click on image to purchase.

Print by Phil Jones // Click image to purchase

“I would like to suggest a common-sense approach to protect the endangered salmon and steelhead in the Columbia River Basin (‘Terns to be driven from islands,’ Feb. 9).

“The Caspian terns that nest on the man made islands apparently have a voracious appetite for juvenile steelhead salmon. The Army Corps of Engineers plans a test planting of willows to the open ground the terns favor for nesting.

“A more viable and cost-effective solution would be for the federal officials to plant marijuana, not that it’s legal. Those of us who remember the 1960s warnings from the National Institutes of Health of the personality changes associated with pot would surely endorse such a plan. The terns would nest among the plants, develop an insatiable appetite for the buds, and perhaps eventually wean themselves off salmon.

“I believe, to ensure future runs of endangered salmon, that it is incumbent that federal officials leave no tern unstoned.”

I have heard the phrase “no tern unstoned” before but never with such a strong connection to current events, including efforts to save endangered salmon and marijuana legalization. That was a nice touch.

Here are some more bird jokes:

Vultures on a plane: Two turkey vultures were preparing to migrate north for the summer but, after talking about it, they decided they were too old to fly all that way, so they decided to take a plane. When they were about to board the aircraft, the flight attendant, noticing that both buzzards were carrying a dead armadillo, asked, “Would you like to check those armadillos through as luggage?” “No thanks,” the buzzards replied, “they’re carrion.” WildBirds.com

Penguins on the loose: This guy in a station wagon is riding down the road with the back full of penguins. A cop sees him and pulls him over and says, “I want you to take those penguins to the zoo right now!” The guy says, “O.K.” Next day the cop sees this same guy going down the road with the penguins in the back. This time the penguins are wearing sunglasses. He pulls the guy over again and says,”I thought I told you to take those penguins to the zoo.” The guy answers, “Yeah, that’s right, we went and had a helluva time. We’re going to the beach today!” WildBirds.com

Crow or raven: I understand that a crow has one less pinion feather than a raven. Therefore, how can you tell a crow from a raven? It’s a matter of a pinion. WildBirds.com

Watch parrot: A postal carrier is working on a new beat. He comes to a garden gate marked BEWARE OF THE PARROT! He looks down the garden and, sure enough, there’s a parrot sitting on its perch. He has a little chuckle to himself at the sign and the parrot there on its perch. The mailman opens the gate and walks into the garden. He gets as far as the parrot’s perch, when suddenly, it calls out: “REX, ATTACK!” Planned Parrothood

Three riddles from Funology:

Q: When should you buy a bird?
A: When it’s going cheep!

Q: Why does a stork stand on one leg?
A: Because it would fall over if it lifted the other one.

Q: Why did the chicken cross the road, roll in mud, then cross the road again?
A: He was a dirty double crosser!


Corps completes draft plan for Skokomish River

Sunday, January 26th, 2014

UPDATE, Jan. 27
The Army Corps of Engineers published a news release today about tentatively selected plan. It lists the total cost of the projects at $41 million. This information was not available when I wrote my story for Sunday’s Kitsap Sun.
—–

Residents in and around the Skokomish Valley have demonstrated incredible patience, along with some frustration, while waiting for the Army Corps of Engineers to develop a plan to restore the Skokomish River.

Map courtesy of Skokomish Watershed Action Team

Map courtesy of Skokomish Watershed Action Team

I was pleased to announce in today’s Kitsap Sun (subscription) that top officials in the corps have now approved a “tentatively selected plan.” This plan will now undergo extensive review inside and outside the agency. Two public meetings are being planned, although they have not yet been announced.

I’ve been following the development of this plan for many years, actually long before I wrote a four-part series in 2009 about the past and future of the Skokomish River. See “Taming the Skokomish,” Kitsap Sun.

As Rich Geiger of Mason Conservation District told me last week:

“We are very glad to be at this point, because we are talking about a physical project moving forward and not just more planning. We asked the Corps to produce a single integrated restoration plan, and they did.”

Rich did not slam the Army Corps of Engineers for taking so long. He and I did not discuss — as we have in the past — how restoration of the Skokomish River plays an important part in the restoration of Hood Canal as a whole.

But we did talk about dredging, which many area residents believe is the only answer to cleaning the river channel, clogged by sediment and flooded more frequently than any river in the state. The corps has determined that dredging is too expensive for the benefit provided and would require ongoing maintenance. I look forward to reading the analysis by the corps and hearing the discussions that follow. I’m sure there is plenty to be said.

Before the agency releases the tentative plan, a final check must be made by corps officials to ensure completeness of the documents, which will include a feasibility report and an environmental impact statement, according to project manager Mamie Brouwer.

The plan includes these specific projects:

  • Car-body levee removal: Years ago, junk cars were used to construct a levee where the North Fork of the Skokomish flows into the main river. Although the course of the North Fork has changed, the old levee continues to impair salmon migration through the area, Brouwer said. This project would remove the levee and restore the natural flows at the confluence.
  • Side channel reconnection: Restoring a parallel channel alongside the Skokomish would give fish a place to go during high flows and flooding. In recent years, migrating salmon have been washed out of the river and into fields and ditches, where they struggle to survive. A side channel, about 4 miles upstream from where the Skokomish flows into Hood Canal, could provide refuge from the raging river.
  • Nine mile setback levee: A new levee is being proposed nine miles upstream to allow an existing levee to be breached, increasing the flood plain in that area. The new levee would be several hundred feet back from the old one and would allow for new pools and vegetation along the river.
  • Grange levee: Like the nine-mile setback levee, a new levee would be built about 8 miles upstream near the Skokomish Valley Grange Hall. The levee could be set back about 1,000 feet from the river, greatly expanding the flood plain in that area.
  • Large woody debris: Creating log jams in the river would increase the complexity of the channel, adding meanders, gravel bars and pools. Such structure is considered important for the survival of juvenile salmon. Several dozen log jams are proposed in the initial plan, but that could change in the final design.
  • Hunter Creek: Continual springs maintain summer flows in Hunter Creek, a tributary of the Skokomish considered excellent fish habitat. But with few side channels or complexity, the stream has limited spawning habitat and fish can be washed away during high flows. The project would alter the channel for better function.
  • Weaver Creek: Similar to Hunter Creek, Weaver Creek has great potential for increased spawning and rearing habitat along with refuge from high flows. The project would alter the channel to improve natural functions.
In 2009, members of the Skokomish Watershed Action Team observed how high flows in the Skokomish River had washed away vegetation and left huge deposits of gravel.

In 2009, members of the Skokomish Watershed Action Team observed how high flows in the Skokomish River had washed away vegetation and left huge deposits of gravel.
Kitsap Sun file photo


‘Pulse of Puget Sound’ series halfway done

Thursday, December 19th, 2013

Sunday marked the halfway point in my ongoing series “Taking the Pulse of Puget Sound,” which examines the health of our waterway and asks the question, “With all the money being spent on restoration, are we making any progress?”

food web

For me, the series so far has been an adventure and a learning experience, thanks to abundant help from the many great scientists and smart policy makers we have in this region.

The first half of the project has focused largely on species, including humans; herring and organisms at the base of the food web; salmon and marine fish; marine mammals; and Sunday’s piece on birds (subscription).

Still to come are stories about marine water quality, freshwater quality, upland habitat, water quantity and the future.

As a reporter, I regret that everyone can’t read all these stories immediately without a subscription to the Kitsap Sun, but I have to trust that these kinds of business decisions will allow me to keep doing my work. Still, many of the stories, photos and graphics in this series are available now with or without subscription, starting with the lead page, “Taking the Pulse of Puget Sound,” and moving through the series:

Some of the larger points from the latest seabird story:

  • Puget Sound has about 70 common species of marine birds. Many populations are in decline but some appear to be stable and a few are increasing.
  • The winter population is about four times as large as the summer population, reaching a peak of roughly half a million birds.
  • Because birds can fly from one place to another, their choices of location can tell us something about the health of one place compared to another in Puget Sound.
  • If the population of a wintering bird species is in decline, you need to know something about its migration route and nesting area before you can conclude that conditions in Puget Sound are to blame.
  • The marbled murrelet, a “threatened” species, is an odd bird, first identified by early explorers in the late 1700s but whose nesting habits weren’t discovered until 1974.
  • Researchers are trying to learn why two similar birds — tufted puffins and rhinoceros auklets — are faring differently in Puget Sound. Steep declines are seen for tufted puffins, which may be headed for an endangered species listing, while rhinoceros auklets are on the increase. Their varying behaviors are at the center of discussion.
  • Ecosystem indicators for birds, as chosen by the Puget Sound Partnership, are more involved than most other indicators. They focus on the densities of four bird species and also consider food supply and reproductive success.

It’s time to get out and watch the salmon

Wednesday, November 6th, 2013

This year’s return of chum salmon to Hood Canal remains on track to break the record, coming in with four times as many fish as predicted earlier this year.

Watching salmon at Poulsbo's Fish Park Photo by Tristan Baurick

Watching salmon from a bridge in Poulsbo’s Fish Park
Photo by Tristan Baurick

Last week, I reported that the total run size for Hood Canal fall chum appeared to be about 1.4 million fish, according to computer models. See Kitsap Sun, Oct. 30 (subscription). The modern-day record is 1.18 million, set in 2003. If conditions hold, this year’s run will easily exceed that.

The large Hood Canal run also is expected to provide an economic boost of some $5 million to $6 million for commercial fishers, not including fish processors and stores that sell the fish.

The forecast models are based largely on commercial harvests. Data collected since I wrote the story only tend to confirm the record-breaking run, according to salmon managers. Final estimates won’t be compiled until the end of the season.

The chum run in Central and South Puget Sound also are looking very good. The latest data suggest that the run could reach 700,000, or nearly twice the preseason estimate and well above average.

Meanwhile, the large chum runs are attracting Puget Sound’s orcas to the waters off Bainbridge Island and Seattle, as chinook runs decline in the San Juan Islands and elsewhere. As I described in a story on Sunday, it has been an odd year for the whales, which may have spent most of the summer chasing chinook off the coast of Washington. See Kitsap Sun, Nov. 2 (subscription).

A chum salmon crosses a log weir at Kitsap Golf and Country Club. Photo by Meegan Reid

A chum salmon crosses a log weir in Chico Creek at Kitsap Golf and Country Club.
Photo by Meegan Reid

The large chum run also promises to provide some great viewing opportunities for people to watch the salmon migration in their local streams. I would direct you to the interactive salmon-viewing map that Amy Phan and I completely revamped last year for the Kitsap Sun’s website. The map includes videos describing salmon streams across the Kitsap Peninsula.

Speaking of salmon-watching, everyone is invited to Saturday’s Kitsap Salmon Tours, an annual event in which biologists talk about the amazing salmon and their spawning rituals. One can choose to visit one or both of the locations in Central Kitsap. For details, check out the Kitsap Public Utility District’s Website.

One of the locations, now named Chico Salmon Park, is undergoing a major facelift, thanks to more than 100 hours of volunteer labor over the past two weekends — not to mention earlier work going back to the beginning of the year. See the Kitsap County news release issued today.

Volunteers working on the park deserve a lot of credit for removing blackberry vines, Scotchbroom and weeds from this overgrown area. This property, which has Chico Creek running through it, is going to be a wonderful park someday after native trees and plants become established. (See Kitsap Sun, Feb. 2, 2013)

If you’re into kayaking, there’s still time to watch from the water. See Olympic Outdoors Center or check out the tips by reporter Tristan Baurick, Kitsap Sun, Oct. 21, 2013 (subscription).

Here’s my final word: If you live on the Kitsap Peninsula — or anywhere around Puget Sound — you should visit a salmon stream to learn what all the fuss is about — and be sure to take the kids.

Purse seine boats working on major chum salmon run on Hood Canal. Photo by Larry Steagall

Purse seine boats make the best of a major chum salmon run on Hood Canal last week.
Photo by Larry Steagall


Two events for learning about Hood Canal

Thursday, August 29th, 2013

Long Live the Kings is holding two events that will give people some special insight into the restoration of Hood Canal, and possibly Puget Sound as a whole.

The first, tomorrow evening, begins with a free film that will lead into a discussion about Hood Canal restoration. The second, on Saturday, is a rare open house at LLK’s salmon and steelhead hatchery on Lilliwaup Creek.

Jacque White, executive director of the group, told me that he likes to show the film “Ocean Frontiers” because it provides a hopeful view about protecting marine ecosystems. It shows how a variety of people with diverse interests can work together. I’ve embedded the trailer for the film on this page.

Jacques said people clearly want to protect the rich ecosystem of Hood Canal. The Hood Canal Coordinating Council has developed an integrated watershed plan that connects the uplands to the shoreline to the deep marine waters of the canal.

Joining him in a panel discussion after the film will be Dave Herrera of the Skokomish Tribe and Terry King of Washington Sea Grant.

The film and discussion will be tomorrow (Friday) from 6 to 8 p.m. at Alderbrook Resort and Spa in Union.

The open house on Saturday will be from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Lilliwaup Hatchery on Lilliwaup Street, off Highway 101 north of Hoodsport. (Look for balloons along the highway near Lilliwaup.)

The hatchery is a supplementation operation designed to restore stocks of threatened Hood Canal summer chum, Puget Sound steelhead and Puget Sound chinook. The event will be an opportunity to view the hatchery and understand the supplementation program, but it is also a chance to talk to people involved in numerous Hood Canal restoration programs.

“The issues in Hood Canal are about the land-sea connection,” White said, adding that he feels hope for the canal when people are willing to learn about the ecosystem and attempt to understand different viewpoints.

Two other events planned by Long Live the Kings:

  • A presentation by Jacque White with an emphasis on early marine survival. See “Water Ways” Aug. 22, 2013. The presentation will be Sept. 12 from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at Orcas Center on Orcas Island.
  • A benefit dinner for Long Live the Kings, Oct 17 at Seattle Aquarium.

Puget Sound grants continue ecosystem restoration

Tuesday, August 27th, 2013

About $22 million in state and federal grants were awarded last week for Puget Sound ecosystem restoration, another installment in the struggle to nurse Puget Sound back to health.

About $12 million in state and federal funds came through the Estuary and Salmon Restoration Program, or ESRP, under the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. As the name suggests, these funds are focused on improving nearshore and ecosystem processes.

Another $10 million came from the Puget Sound Acquisition and Restoration (PSAR) Fund, which is focused mainly on salmon restoration. More of those funds will be awarded before the end of the year.

Reporter Tad Sooter and I wrote about the West Sound projects in Friday’s Kitsap Sun (subscription required), focusing a good deal of our attention on a key acquisition of property on the Bainbridge Island shoreline along Agate Passage.

The property includes 4.5 acres of tidelands, including 550 feet of undeveloped beach, along with 7.5 acres of upland woods and meadows, all to be preserved by the Bainbridge Island Land Trust.

Brenda Padgham, stewardship director for land trust, told Tad that this property is one of the last intact nearshore habitats on Bainbridge Island. “The whole reach is so pristine,” she said.

Of the $1.2 million provided for the Bainbridge Island purchase, $810,000 came from the PSAR funds and $396,000 came from the ESRP.

Betsy Lions, who manages the ESRP for the Department of Fish and Wildlife, said most of that money this year will go toward removing unnecessary bulkheads, replacing culverts that block salmon passage and restoring tidal functions.

The 20 ESRP grants are described in a news release from Fish and Wildlife.

The salmon recovery money was approved Thursday by the Salmon Recovery Funding Board. In a news release yesterday, Gov. Jay Inslee stressed the economic value of preserving the state’s salmon runs:

“These projects will increase salmon populations while giving a boost to the economy. Salmon are important economically to Washington state and these projects will provide construction jobs and help countless numbers of Washington families and businesses, including tackle shops, charter operators, restaurants and hotels, that rely on the world-renowned Pacific salmon.”

David Troutt, chairman of the SRF Board and natural resources director of the Nisqually Tribe, made this comment:

“Puget Sound Chinook are about one-third as abundant as they were a century ago. As we have developed our urban and rural landscapes, we’ve damaged many of the estuaries, floodplains and rivers that salmon need to survive. These projects have been selected as ones that will make big impacts on Puget Sound and salmon recovery. Those two things go hand in hand. Puget Sound needs healthy salmon, and salmon need a healthy Puget Sound.”

The 11 PSAR projects are outlined in a document (PDF 106 kb) on the state Recreation and Conservation Office’s website. By the way, projects in Hood Canal were held up until October, as members of the Hood Canal Coordinating Council continue discussions about priorities.


Why are salmon dying when they reach saltwater?

Thursday, August 22nd, 2013

A new research program, announced yesterday, will work to untangle the mystery of what is killing young salmon after they leave their natal streams. The program is being coordinated in both Washington state and British Columbia — by Long Live the Kings on the U.S. side and by Pacific Salmon Foundation in Canada. See today’s Kitsap Sun (subscription required).

At high tide, water now covers what had been a farmer’s field after an old farm dike was breached in two places on Monday. Two bridges allow continued access along a trail across the dike. Photo by Steve Zugschwerdt

At high tide, water now covers what had been a farmer’s field for decades on the Union River estuary near Belfair. On Monday, an old farm dike was breached in two places. Estuaries are considered important for salmon survival. / Photo by Steve Zugschwerdt

I have conducted hundreds of interviews about salmon through the years. Biologists can usually explain what makes a good salmon stream: clean water, sufficient gravel, vegetation to provide food, woody debris to provide protection and so on.

What they cannot explain very well is what young salmon need to survive in saltwater. Is it clean water, as in freshwater environments? Is it a particular kind of plankton for food, or maybe natural shorelines to provide protection during migration? Is the increased marine mortality of salmon the result of disease or predators? All may be factors, but which ones really count?

When asked to explain why salmon runs are coming in larger or smaller than predicted, salmon managers typically fall back to two words: “ocean conditions.” Conditions may be good or bad in a given year, but what makes good or bad conditions cannot be answered very well.

Biologists who predict salmon runs talk about the “black box” that salmon swim into when they leave the streams and swim back out of when they return. It’s a way of saying that the computer models used to predict salmon runs have a blind spot when it comes to the deep, dark ocean — which we now believe includes the estuary at the edge of the stream, where the salmon change from being a freshwater fish to being a saltwater fish.

“What is currently recognized as a black box appears to be a black hole for salmon recovery,” Jacques White, executive director of Long Live the Kings, told me yesterday in an interview. “If we don’t know what is going on, we can’t make decisions for salmon recovery. It makes it difficult to manage the stocks coming back.”

That’s where the cross-border research program comes in, and it’s no wonder that salmon biologists are excited about the prospect of breaking into the black box. It won’t be easy to track the tiny fish after they leave the streams or to figure out where things are going wrong, but new technology will help. The project is proposed for $10 million in the U.S., with an equal amount in Canada.

Review the Long Live the Kings website for other information about the Salish Sea Marine Survival Project. To go deeper into the ideas behind the project, download the proceedings, notes and other information from November’s Salish Sea Workshop Series.

Meanwhile, efforts to improve estuarine and shoreline conditions will continue, using natural conditions as a guide. On Monday, I covered the final step in the Union River estuary restoration, which involved breaching an old farm dike in two places. I watched as the waters of Hood Canal, held back for a century, began to reclaim 32 acres of saltwater march. Check out the story and video in the Kitsap Sun (subscription required).


Tours will help people understand Elwha restoration

Thursday, July 25th, 2013

Guided tours of the empty reservoir behind Elwha Dam near Port Angeles will be offered on Saturdays beginning Aug. 3 and continuing through Sept. 7.

The Elwha River flows through what had been the Lake Aldwell reservoir, fully drained after removal of the Elwha Dam.

The Elwha River flows through what had been the Lake Aldwell reservoir, fully drained after removal of the Elwha Dam.
Photo by Steve Zugschwerdt

Rangers from Olympic National Park will lead the tours and talk about the massive dam-removal project. This will be a wonderful service for visitors who wish to get up close and understand one of the largest ecosystem-restoration projects in the world.

Instead of wandering aimlessly in what many would consider a wasteland, visitors will gain an appreciation for the shifting and eroding sediments and understand how the gravel is moving as the river reclaims its channel. They will view newly established vegetation and hear what it takes to restore native species to the area. They will stand alongside the mighty stumps of old-growth trees buried within the lakebed until the sediments began washing away.

The hour-long walks will begin at 1 p.m., leaving from the boat launch at the end of Lake Aldwell Road. Turn off Highway 101 just west of the Elwha River Bridge. Explorers should wear boots or sturdy walking shoes and plan for windy conditions with no shade. For information, contact the Elwha Ranger Station, (360) 452-9191.

Earlier this year, I wrote a story for visitors interested in the Elwha restoration. Given that the tours of Lake Aldwell will last about an hour, you may wish to visit some of the other viewpoints while you’re there. See “Visiting the Elwha: Explore a River Transformed.” Also, check out a few of my observations in Water Ways, April 30, 2013.

Meanwhile, officials at Olympic National Park posted a new entry to the Dam Removal Blog yesterday. It describes how aerial surveys are being used to measure changes in the sediments during this period of low flows on the river. The entry also discusses the revegetation effort, pointing out that sediments along the river are drying out faster this year than last.

Elwha River visitors guide


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Food for thought

"In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught."Baba Dioum, Senegalese conservationist

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