Category Archives: Pollution and spills

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.

Amusing Monday: Fascinating videos score high in E360 contest

Last month, “Yale Environment 360” announced the winners of a video contest with a focus on environmental themes. I found the videos fascinating and very well done, although they may not fit my normal definition of “amusing.” I think you’ll enjoy them.

Click on image to view “A Red Dirt Town," the second-place winner in the Yale Environment 360 contest.
Click on image to view “A Red Dirt Town,” second-place winner in the Yale Environment 360 contest.

“Yale Environment 360,” or “E360” for short, is a thoughtful online publication published by the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental studies. It is filled with reports and opinions on many environmental issues.

Clicking the image on this page will take you to the second-place winner in the contest, titled “A Red Dirt Town: An Enduring Legacy Of Toxic Pollution in Southern Waters.” Producer Spenser Gabin tells how the community of Anniston, Alabama, has been forced to cope with a legacy of PCB pollution from a Monsanto plant located upstream.

Gabin focuses on two main characters, Frank Chitwood, the Coosa Riverkeeper, who is attempting to get the rivers and lakes posted with warnings, and David Baker, a community activist who was one of the first to begin cleanup at the Monsanto site. Baker’s brother, who played in a PCB-contaminated area as a child, died at age 16 from cancer of the brain and lungs.

“A Red Dirt Town” was actually my favorite of the three.

The winning video in the contest is “Badru’s Story: Inside Africa’s Impenetrable Forest,” an account of Badru Mugerwa, who manages a network of cameras to document the loss of biodiversity and effects of climate change on Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. The film was produced by Benjamin Drummond and Sara Joy Steele.

The third-place winner is “Peak to Peak: An Intimate Look at
The Bighorn Sheep of the Rockies.”
Produced by Jeremy Roberts, the video captures images of Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep and their playful lambs, while biologist Jack Hogg talks about their behavior and describes how climate change may affect their future.

The contest rules prevent the entrants from showing their videos anywhere but on “E360” for at least 60 days, So I’m not able to embed the videos at this time.

Contest judges included “E360″ editor Roger Cohn, “New Yorker” writer and “E360″ contributor Elizabeth Kolbert, and documentary filmmaker Thomas Lennon.

Another fascinating video produced for “E360″ is “The Colorado River: Running Near Empty,” which takes award-winning photographer Pete McBride back to his home area in Colorado. From there, he follows the Colorado River until it runs dry short of its historic delta in the Sea of Cortez.

Remember the “Raise the River or Move the Ocean” blog from earlier this year? It featured Robert Redford and Will Ferrell feigning a debate about the future of the Colorado River. I still get a laugh from those videos, which manage to help educate us about the issue.

Related websites:

Raise the River Facebook page

Save the Colorado

Three videos take us upstream, where it all begins

John F. Williams of Suquamish, known for his brilliant underwater videos, has worked his way upstream from Puget Sound and into the freshwater streams of the Kitsap Peninsula.

His latest video project began somewhat haphazardly, John told me. But the end result is nothing less than an entertaining and educational series that anyone can enjoy. It helps that each video is just a little over four minutes. In such a short time, John was able to tell a story while packing in a lot of information.

“It all started,” John said, “when Ron (Hirschi) invited me to come film him taking some preschool kids down to the South Fork of Dogfish Creek. He thought that would be fun.”

Ron Hirschi, who grew up around Port Gamble, worked as a biologist for years before becoming a successful children’s author. He tells stories of nature in simple and endearing ways. In the first video on this page, you’ll see Ron reading from one of his books.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Ron and I have known each other for more than 30 years. He was an early mentor for me as I was learning about streams and shorelines in Western Washington, and I still rely on him for advice from time to time. He was an important voice in the book “Hood Canal: Splendor At Risk.”

Anyway, it was nice to see the two storytellers — John and Ron — link up on a project together.

“At the time, we had no idea where this was going,” John said.

A member of the Kitsap Environmental Education Program, John learned that some money was available for education projects through the “Puget Sound Starts Here” campaign.

“It occurred to me that what I was doing with the streams fit into what they wanted,” he said, “so I pitched the idea of doing several movies about streams and people’s interactions with them. I wanted people to understand that these streams, which are hidden behind the trees, are part of their lives.”

John completed the video with Ron Hirschi, showing a visit to a forgotten stream, Poulsbo Creek, as well as the well-known Dogfish Creek, both in North Kitsap. John also obtained leads for stories about Olalla Creek in South Kitsap and Chico Creek in Central Kitsap.

His contact in South Kitsap was teacher Lisa Wickens at Ollalla Elementary School. It so happens that I had worked with Lisa on a story about elementary school children building a rain garden to prevent dirty water from getting into Olalla Creek. Check out “Olalla students learn science with a rain garden,” Kitsap Sun, Dec. 13, 2013 (subscription).

John was blown away by the intellectual and scientific skills of this younger generation.

“I was sitting in Lisa’s classroom one day, and she was giving her second-graders an assignment to write a persuasion piece,” John noted. “She wanted them to persuade someone to take care of the Earth. I said I would love to come and film the kids reading their papers… It was so amazing.”

You’ll get a feeling for their abilities in the second video.

For the third video, John connected with Maureen McNulty, a teacher at Klahowya Secondary School who was organizing the students to build a rain garden. It turned out that older students were teamed up with younger ones on the project, so that everyone learned something.

John also traced the path of a stream from the school wetlands into the adjoining forest and encountered Frank Sticklin, the chief guru for Newberry Hill Heritage Park. Frank educated John about beaver dams.

“I had never seen beaver ponds, and he showed me these incredible things,” John said.

In reality, John probably had seen beaver ponds and beaver dams without knowing that beavers were responsible. After Frank’s tour, he went for a walk south of Port Gamble and encountered something that he immediately recognized as a beaver dam. Once you’ve seen one, you know what to look for.

“I think of this as a metaphor of what I do with my movies,” John told me. “I help people see things that they haven’t seen before and to look at the world in a new way.”

John’s videos have been recorded onto DVDs and distributed to nearly 200 schools and environmental organizations throughout the area.

He’s now working on some projects involving the Puget Sound shoreline. I’ll let you when they are done. Meanwhile, you may wish to check out his websites, Still Hope Productions and Sea-Media.org.

Map points toward safe — and hazardous — shellfish

A highly informative map, just released by state shellfish officials, can show you at a glance where it is safe to harvest shellfish in Western Washington.

Shellfish_map

Besides pointing out the locations of public beaches where recreational harvesters may safely gather clams and oysters, the new map provides links to information about the approved seasons and limits, with photographs of each beach. One can choose “map” or “satellite” views, as well as enhanced images to simplify the search.

If you wish, you can track down locations by searching for the name of a beach, nearby landmarks or the address. You can obtain the latest information about entire shorelines as well as specific beaches.

The map was created by the Office of Shellfish and Water Protection, a division within the Washington State Department of Health.

Jim Zimny, recreational shellfish specialist at Kitsap Public Health District, said he expects the map to be updated immediately when new health advisories are issued.

“It’s a great resource, very easy to use,” Jim said.

Jim works with state shellfish officials to collect shellfish samples and report results, including findings of paralytic shellfish poison, a biotoxin. Closures are announced when high levels of PSP or dangerous bacteria are found. Hood Canal, for example, is covered with the letter “V,” meaning one should cook shellfish thoroughly to kill Vibrio bacteria, which can lead to intestinal illness.

Since I generally write the geographic descriptions of shellfish closure areas, I can assure you that looking at a map will be a better way to see what is going on.

A news release about the new map points out that the risk of eating shellfish increases in summer. That’s why it especially important in summer to follow the three C’s of shellfish safety: “check, chill and cook.”

Those three C’s refer to checking the map for health closures and looking on the beach for warning signs; chilling the shellfish to avoid a buildup of bacteria; and cooking to 145 degrees to kill pathogens. (Cooking does not destroy PSP and other biotoxins, so it’s important to avoid closed areas.)

For additional information about recreational shellfish harvesting, including a “Shellfish Harvest Checklist,” visit the Department of Health website.

Stormwater: Can we stop the menace we created?

I’ve completed the seventh story package in a 10-part series examining the Puget Sound ecosystem, with a special focus on indicators of ecological health. We’re calling the project “Taking the Pulse of Puget Sound.”

Jenifer McIntyre of the Washington Stormwater Center studies the effects of stormwater after it passes through filters made of compost and soil materials, such as what is used in rain gardens. The filters are working, even though the most dangerous pollutants remain unidentified. Photo by Meegan M. Reid
Jenifer McIntyre of the Washington Stormwater Center studies the effects of stormwater after it passes through filters made of compost and soil materials, such as what is used in rain gardens. The filters are working, even though the most dangerous pollutants remain unidentified. / Kitsap Sun photo by Meegan M. Reid

The latest stories, which ran Sunday and Monday, addressed freshwater quality. The opening piece looked at the huge amounts of pollution coming into our streams via stormwater — one of the highest priorities for cleanup, yet one of the most difficult to deal with.

As the Puget Sound Partnership’s executive director Sheida Sahandy told me, industrial discharges are still a concern, but they are no longer the biggest problem.

“Now we’re dealing with stormwater, which is trickling in here and trickling in there, and everybody has a finger in it,” she said.

Solutions are many, and the goal should be to shut off pollution at the source, beginning with removing dangerous chemicals from everyday products. Since the sources of pollution are numerous, everyone needs to play a part — from cleaning up pet wastes to properly using of household chemicals to reducing the use of lawn and garden pesticides. (Those who don’t subscribe to the Kitsap Sun may still find value in the graphics on the Freshwater Quality page.)

I led off the first story by showing the increased efforts by city and county governments to better manage their stormwater systems, such as pumping out their catch basins, sweeping their streets and converting outdated stormwater ponds into filtration systems, commonly known as “rain gardens.”

I also introduced readers to the Washington Stormwater Center, a research facility in Puyallup where scientists are testing the effectiveness of rain gardens and pervious pavement. Jenifer McIntyre, a Washington State University researcher, has demonstrated that stormwater from highway runoff is 100 percent effective at killing adult coho salmon. Yet that same stormwater filtered through soil — such as in a rain garden — is cleaned up enough that fish can survive, apparently unaffected.

Monday’s story addressed the increasing use of benthic invertebrates — water bugs — to measure the health of streams. The bugs are doing double duty, since they are both a measurement of stream quality and a critical part of the food web for the freshwater ecosystem.

Some 27 local governments and organizations are involved in collecting data on benthic invertebrates from about 850 stream locations throughout Puget Sound. For results, check out Puget Sound Stream Benthos.

When I began this project on freshwater quality several weeks ago, I thought it was going to be easier than some of the other story packages I have done, such as on fish, birds and marine mammals. If anything, this issue is more complex. I’ll admit that I’ve neglected this blog while pursuing these issues, and soon I will be moving into the issue of freshwater quantity.

Overall, I must say that I’ve been impressed by the many people dedicated to finding answers to the mysterious problems brought on by pollution and by those finding solutions even before the questions are fully identified.

Amusing Monday: Flushing out a Macklemore tune

It’s a serious message, but now King County’s Wastewater Treatment Division hopes their humorous approach will get people thinking about the “F word.”

The word, of course, is “flushing,” and the county was given permission to borrow Macklemore’s catchy tune from “Thrift Shop” (warning: language) to bring the message home to people: Don’t flush anything down the toilet except human waste and toilet paper. Check out the first video player to see what the creative folks came up with.

The campaign, called “Flushing Awesome,” uses music and simple cartoon videos. King County officials hope it will get the message across better than previous warnings, which seem to have had little effect.

Another video, also shown on this page, is built around the song “One (Singular Sensation)” from the long-running Broadway play “Chorus Line.”

I understand the urge to flush things and get them out of sight, but I was not fully aware of this enormous problem until 1998. That’s when Bremerton City Councilman Carlos Montgomery talked about a giant “rag ball,” 2 to 3 feet wide and 30 feet long caught in Bremerton’s sewer system. Read the full story in the Kitsap Sun, April 1, 1998.

For other great toilet tunes, including “Don’t Flush the Baby (Wipes)” and “Dope in the Water,” check out the music of Steve Anderson of Portland’s Clean Water Services. You can listen to five of his sewer songs on my “Water Ways” entry from Dec. 19, 2011, which also features the holiday favorite, “O Christmas Grease.”

I’m pleased that King County is taking a light-hearted approach to the subject of flushing, but I have to hand it to Heather Graf of King 5 News, who went behind the scenes at the county’s West Point Treatment Plant to show us some stark video of why this is so important.

Says Graf: “The sign out front says nothing about this place being a landfill, but one look inside King County’s wastewater treatment plant and you’ll see most people act like it is… It’s not just gross, it’s expensive — $120,000 a year in ratepayer money just to haul all this trash to the landfill.”

Only time will tell if Macklemore and his music will help in a roundabout way to solve a messy problem for King County and other sewer operators in the region.

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

Rolfes named ‘Legislator of Year’ by enviro group

Washington Conservation Voters has named state Sen. Christine Rolfes as its 2014 “Legislator of the Year.”

Rolfes was praised for her deft legislative work in this year’s session and “for being one of the state’s strongest environmental leaders,” according to a statement from the political organization.

Christine Rolfes
Christine Rolfes

“In the Senate, Sen. Rolfes fought for real action to protect Puget Sound and the public from the threat of dangerous and increasing oil traffic in our state,” said Joan Crooks, CEO of Washington Conservation Voters, in the news release. “She proved time and again that she is an effective champion who isn’t afraid to take on industry and the Big Oil lobby to protect our environment and communities.”

Rolfes was recognized for submitting and promoting legislation designed to improve the safety of oil transport in and around Puget Sound. See Senate Bill 6262, the “Oil Transportation Safety Act” — one of only two priorities put forth this year from the Environmental Priorities Coalition.

The bill was blocked by legislative leaders in the Senate in favor of a bill proposed by the oil industry, Crooks said.

“In the 2014 Senate’s most dramatic moment on the floor, Sen. Rolfes skillfully used a rare procedural motion to set the industry bill aside,” stated the news release. “Her leadership resulted in the bill’s eventual demise; it was a deft and dramatic maneuver for this environmental champion.”

Rolfes’ predecessor in the Senate from the 23th District, Phil Rockefeller, also from Bainbridge Island, was named Legislator of the Year by WCV in 2007. That’s the year he served as chief architect of the bill to create the Puget Sound Partnership and pushed through the legislation. The partnership has since taken on the role of coordinating the restoration of Puget Sound. Rockefeller left the Senate when he was appointed to the Northwest Power & Conservation Council in July 2011.

Streamlined name is simple: ‘Clean Water Kitsap’

I can’t begin to estimate the number of times I’ve typed “Kitsap County Surface and Stormwater Management Program” over the past 20 years in stories about pollution in Kitsap County and the need to clean up local waterways.

Kitsap County Commissioner Linda Streissguth, left, along with Commissioner Rob Gelder and water quality manager Mindy Fohn reveal the new name on a truck used to clean out storm drains. Photo courtesy of Kitsap County
Kitsap County Commissioner Linda Streissguth, left, along with Commissioner Rob Gelder and water-quality manager Mindy Fohn reveal the new name on a truck used to clean out storm drains. / Photo courtesy of Kitsap County

But my typing fingers are already offering thanks for a new, shorter name, which will no doubt save some ink as well.

We won’t be talking about the “swim program” anymore when trying to pronounce the abbreviation, SSWM. I hope we won’t need any abbreviation for the new name, which is “Clean Water Kitsap.”

“Clean Water Kitsap” nicely wraps up the goals and image of the long-running program with just three words. It’s a good name with an up-to-date style.

This is the program that collects stormwater fees from properties in unincorporated Kitsap County and uses the money to track down pollution, reduce stormwater and help people do the right thing. The spirit of the program is captured in a new video you can see on this page.

Four agencies receive portions of the stormwater money and coordinate their efforts to clean up our local waters. Here is a short summary of what they do:

Kitsap County Public Works (Stormwater Program): Maintenance of public stormwater systems, inspection of private systems, upgrades to regional systems, street sweeping, watershed monitoring and public education.

Kitsap Public Health District: Countywide monitoring of streams, lakes and bays; pollution identification and correction programs; pollution advisories; public-health investigations; and septic system education.

Kitsap Conservation District: Farm-management assistance and planning; rain garden and green infrastructure grants and assistance; and backyard habitat grants.

WSU Kitsap Extension: Training for stream stewards, beach watchers and rain garden professionals; and coordination of various volunteer projects.

I wrote about the newly approved name Clean Water Kitsap in November (Kitsap Sun, Nov. 29, 2013, subscription), when officials began planning on how they would roll out the new name and logo. Some people wanted to start using the name right away, but organizers kept a lid on it.

logo

As of today, the new name is official and will be used with a new logo. A new website is coming.

I wrote a brief story for tomorrow’s newspaper (Kitsap Sun, May 22), but I could not attend today’s dedication because of other reporting commitments.

From a news release from the county, we get these quotes:

Kitsap County Commissioner Linda Streissguth:
“It seems fitting that we are making this change in 2014, at the 20-year mark of this innovative and nationally-recognized program. It is built upon partnerships between agencies, volunteers and community groups.”

Kitsap County Commissioner Rob Gelder:
“Our community may not know what their stormwater fees pay for or think about stormwater management every day. But, Kitsap residents benefit every day – rain or shine.”

The site of the dedication was an overhauled stormwater pond north of Silverdale. The pond, with 2,000 young plants, will increase stormwater storage by 20 percent and provide habitat for birds and other wildlife.

Chris May, manager of the county’s Stormwater Program, speaking of the revamped pond :
“Thanks to the Public Works crews for transforming this ‘water prison’ to a water quality improvement project for Clear Creek and a community amenity. As we move to greener stormwater solutions, it’s facilities like this that will help restore our streams and Puget Sound.”

County Commissioner Rob Gelder joins the planting effort at a stormwater pond at Quail Hollow north of Silverdale. Photo courtesy of Kitsap County
County Commissioner Rob Gelder joins the planting effort at a stormwater pond at Quail Hollow north of Silverdale. / Photo courtesy of Kitsap County

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.