Category Archives: Pollution and spills

Toxic flame retardants gain attention of U.S. consumer commission

Ongoing studies into flame retardant chemicals have raised a serious question: Are ANY of the polybrominated or polychlorinated flame retardants safe enough to be used in household products?

It’s a question I’ve been asking for several years while writing about these chemicals, many of which are known to disrupt hormonal functions in humans and animals. Among them are the familiar polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs.

Now the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission is weighing in on the question by proposing new regulations that would ban this entire class of chemicals containing bromine or chlorine — now referred to as nonpolymeric organohalogen flame retardants. If these regulations are eventually adopted, they would prohibit the use of organohalogens in four types of products:

  • Any children’s product, including toys and baby furniture, except for car seats,
  • Any type of seat cushion or upholstered furniture,
  • Any mattress or mattress pad, and
  • Any plastic case containing an electronic device, including computers and televisions.

Banning an entire class of chemicals is a fairly radical step, because each chemical in this large group of compounds has its own toxicity profile. Even the staff of the Consumer Product Safety Commission recommended against such a broad regulation. If you are up for some dense reading on the subject, check out the 535-page briefing report (PDF 78.7 mb) or just read the summary in National Law Review.

Despite the opposition by CPSC staff, three out of five commissioners were convinced of the dangers imposed by this broad class of chemicals. They voted, 3-2, to move ahead with a total ban. Convincing documents included a petition for rulemaking (PDF 63 mb) from 12 diverse groups, ranging from the American Academy of Pediatrics to the International Association of Fire Fighters to Consumers Union. The commission also heard formal testimony from these groups and many others. (Review the videos on this page.)

“It is imperative that CPSC’s regulation cover all organohalogen flame retardants as a class when used in consumer products,” states the petition. “This class of chemicals is foreign to the mammalian body and inherently toxic, due to its physical, chemical and biological properties.

“Industry has historically responded to the dangers posed by one organohalogen flame retardant by replacing it with one or more other organohalogens that are, by virtue of their chemical properties, also harmful,” the petition continues. “This exposes consumers to a series of ‘regrettable substitutions’ from one harmful flame retardant to another… The way to end this cycle of toxicity is to ban all products in the categories at issue here if they contain any organohalogen flame retardant.”

A total ban was ultimately the position taken by the commission, although formal rulemaking will take time and may not come to pass. At least two commissioners asked on several occasions if even one of these flame retardants has been proven safe. They never received an answer that satisfied them.

After the vote, Commissioner Elliott Kaye, an attorney, issued a strongly worded written statement (PDF 262 kb): to explain why he agreed to take such a strong action.

“As a policymaker and, more importantly, as a parent, I am horrified and outraged at how chemicals are addressed in this country,” he said. “It is completely irrational that we wait for children to be poisoned before the government is allowed to step in.

“Rational and thoughtful public policy in this area would involve the government and industry coming together to agree which chemicals are safe for human exposure, especially for pregnant women and children, and which ones are not. And more importantly, rational and thoughtful public policy would have these assessments occur before these chemicals are permitted to come onto the market. Waiting to assess the safety of chemicals after they are already in consumers’ homes and our children’s bloodstreams is totally irrational public policy.”

Commissioner Robert Adler, an attorney, seemed to be troubled that he went against the commission’s staff, and he wanted to explain his position.

“As a starting point, let me say that I have little serious disagreement with staff on the science aspect of the issues,” he said in a written statement (PDF 136 kb). “To the extent that there was disagreement, it was over the legal and policy issues arising from the science.

“I note that a large part of the staff’s recommendation rested on their misgivings about treating OFRs as a broad class of chemicals given OFRs’ differing levels of toxicity and exposure to which consumers are subject. I grant staff’s point about the differing levels of toxicity for these flame retardants. But what I have not heard from staff, nor from any of the witnesses at our hearings, is credible evidence demonstrating that there are any ‘safe’ organohalogen flame retardants.”

He said all the chemicals in the class seem to have common characteristics. For example, they pass into cells freely, do not metabolize easily, inhibit a cell’s defense system, bioaccumulate in the tissues and cause harm that can be linked to the chemical structure.

“There are certainly a number of OFRs where we have no studies to provide us with proof of harm, but years of experience confirm that every time we get sufficient data to evaluate the risk of harm of any specific OFR, we always find it to be so toxic that we start to remove it from our products. In other words, the more evidence that accumulates, the stronger we see the case against the use of these chemicals.”

As part of the coming regulatory process, the Consumer Product Safety Commission agreed to convene a chronic hazard advisory panel to assess the risks of flame retardants, drawing on all available information.

Meanwhile, the commission also issued a “guidance document” that calls on manufacturers, distributors and retailers to voluntary ensure that their products do not contain added flame retardants. Consumers, especially those who are pregnant or have young children, are advised to make sure products they purchase are free of such chemicals.

While the commission appears to be moving on a course of tough action, the regulatory process can be long and filled with potential delays. In fact, through normal appointments of commission members, President Trump will be able to change the direction of the commission over the next four years if he so chooses.

Commissioner Anne Marie Buerkle, whose term was extended by seven years in February when Trump named her to chair the commission, does not support the commission’s decision on flame retardants.

“My Democrat colleagues claim that there is ‘overwhelming scientific evidence’ of toxicity across the class; indeed, we heard witnesses at our hearing last week maintain that every organohalogen that has been adequately studied has been found to cause adverse effects,” Buerkle said in a statement (PDF 626 kb). “Even if that claim is accepted at face value, do all such adverse effects result from prevailing exposures? We know that substances as benign as oxygen and water — two of the most essential requirements for human existence — can cause death when too much is inhaled or imbibed. Is there something exceptional about organohalogens such that the dose becomes unimportant?”

Buerkle said she supports formation of a chronic hazard advisory panel, but she believes the results should be available to the commission before moving forward with regulations.

As for chemical manufacturers, it appears that they are not going down without a fight over flame retardants. A statement from the American Chemistry Council (PDF 86 kb), which represents the industry, says it will inform manufacturers and other businesses that the commission’s action has no binding effect.

“The value chain should feel confident that they can continue to use these chemistries in certain applications consistent with existing national and international regulations while CPSC conducts its further analysis of these substances,” says the statement.

Environmental and consumer groups say they will push retailers not to sell products with flame retardants, and “Consumer Reports” magazine offers recommendations about how people can avoid toxic flame retardants.

Meanwhile, Washington is among a growing number of states that have banned certain flame retardants. Based on findings from the state Department of Ecology, the Legislature approve a ban on the worst chemicals in 2008, followed by others last year. See Ecology’s webpage on the PBT Initiative.

For further reading, here are some stories from the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound:

Facing the possibility of extinction for the killer whales of Puget Sound

Southern Resident killer whales, cherished by many Puget Sound residents, are on a course headed for extinction, and they could enter a death spiral in the not-so-distant future.

It is time that people face this harsh reality, Ken Balcomb told me, as we discussed the latest death among the three pods of orcas. A 2-year-old male orca designated J-52 and known as Sonic died tragically about two weeks ago.

Two-year-old J-52, known as Sonic, swims with his mother J-36, or Alki, on Sept. 15. This may have been the last day Sonic was seen alive.
Photo: Ken Balcomb, Center for Whale Research

The young orca was last seen in emaciated condition, barely surfacing and hanging onto life near the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca on Sept. 15. Ken, director of the Center for Whale Research, said the young whale was attended to by his mother Alki, or J-36, along with a male orca, L-85, known as Mystery — who may have been Sonic’s father, but more about that later.

Extinction, Ken told me, is “very real” — not some ploy to obtain research dollars. The population of endangered Southern Residents has now dropped to 76 — the lowest level since 1984. Most experts agree that a shortage of chinook salmon — the primary prey of the orcas — is the greatest problem facing the whales.

Last week, the Leadership Council — the governing body of the Puget Sound Partnership — discussed what role the partnership should play to “accelerate and amplify efforts” to restore chinook salmon runs and save the orcas. Chinook themselves are listed as a threatened species.

Graph: Center for Biological Diversity

Puget Sound Partnership is charged by the Legislature with coordinating the restoration of Puget Sound, including the recovery of fish and wildlife populations.

The Leadership Council delayed action on a formal resolution (PDF 149 kb) in order to allow its staff time to identify specific actions that could be taken. Although the resolution contains the right language, it is not enough for the council to merely show support for an idea, said Council Chairman Jay Manning.

Sonic was one of the whales born during the much-acclaimed “baby boom” from late 2014 through 2015. With his death, three of the six whales born in J pod during that period have now died. No new calves have been born in any of the Southern Resident pods in nearly a year.

Meanwhile, two orca moms — 23-year-old Polaris (J-28) and 42-year-old Samish (J-14) — died near the end of 2016. Those deaths were followed by the loss of Granny (J-2), the J-pod matriarch said to have lived more than a century. Another death was that of Doublestuf, an 18-year-old male who died last December.

Three orcas were born in L pod during the baby boom, and none of those whales has been reported missing so far.

Ken believes he witnessed the final hours of life for young Sonic, who was lethargic and barely surfacing as the sun set on the evening of Sept. 15. Two adults — Sonic’s mother and Mystery — were the only orcas present, while the rest of J pod foraged about five miles away.

Sonic seen with his mother in June.
Photo: Ken Balcomb, Center for Whale Research

That was the last time anyone saw Sonic, although his mother Alki as well as Mystery were back with J pod during the next observation four days later. Ken reported that Alki seemed distressed, as often happens when a mother loses an offspring.

Ken admits that he is speculating when he says that Mystery may have been Sonic’s father. It makes for a good story, but there could be other reasons why the older male stayed with the mother and calf. Still, researchers are engaged in studies that point to the idea that mature killer whales may actually choose a mate rather than engaging in random encounters. I’m looking forward to the upcoming report.

I must admit that this issue of extinction has been creeping up on me, and it’s not something that anyone wants to face. Food is the big issue, and chinook salmon have been in short supply of late. It will be worth watching as the whales forage on chum salmon, as they are known to do in the fall months.

“This population cannot survive without food year-round,” Ken wrote in a news release. “Individuals metabolize their toxic blubber and body fats when they do not get enough to eat to sustain their bodies and their babies. Your diet doctor can advise you about that.

“All indications (population number, foraging spread, days of occurrence in the Salish Sea, body condition, and live birth rate/neonate survival) are pointing toward a predator population that is prey-limited and nonviable,” he added.

The Center for Biological Diversity, which was involved in the initial lawsuit that led to the endangered listing for the whales, is calling upon the NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service to move quickly to protect orca habitat along the coasts of Washington, Oregon and California. Currently designated critical habitat is limited to Puget Sound, even though the whales are known to roam widely along the coast.

“The death of another killer whale puts this iconic population on a dangerous path toward extinction,” Catherine Kilduff of CBD said in a news release. “If these whales are going to survive, we need to move quickly. Five years from now, it may be too late.”

How fast the whales will go extinct is hard to determine, experts say, but the current population is headed downward at an alarming rate, no matter how one analyzes the problem.

“I would say we are already in a very dangerous situation,” said Lance Barrett-Lennard, senior marine mammal researcher at the Vancouver Aquarium. “If this trajectory continues and we lose two or three more from deaths or unsuccessful birth, we will be in a real spiral,” he told reporter Richard Watts of the Times Colonist in Victoria, B.C.

A five-year status review (PDF 4.3 mb), completed last December by NMFS, takes into account the number of reproductive males and females among the Southern Residents, the reproductive rates, and the ratio of female to male births (more males are being born). As the population declines, the risk of inbreeding — and even more reproductive problems — can result.

Eric Ward of NOAA, who helped write the status report, said the agency often estimates an extinction risk for endangered populations, but the actual number of Southern Residents is too small to produce a reliable number. Too many things can happen to speed up the race toward extinction, but it is clear that the population will continue to decline unless something changes.

As Ken describes it in simple terms, Southern Resident females should be capable of producing an offspring every three years. With 27 reproductive females, we should be seeing nine new babies each year. In reality, the average female produces one offspring every nine years, which is just three per year for all three pods. That is not enough to keep up with the death rate in recent years. To make things worse, reproductive females have been dying long before their time — and before they can help boost the population.

Experts talk about “quasi-extinction,” a future time when the number of Southern Residents reaches perhaps 30 animals, at which point the population is too small to recover no matter what happens. Some say the population is now on the edge of a death spiral, which may require heroic actions to push the population back onto a recovery course.

As described in the five-year status review, prey shortage is not the only problem confronting the Southern Residents. The animals are known to contain high levels of toxic chemicals, which can affect their immune systems and overall health as well as their reproductive rates. Vessel noise can make it harder for them to find fish to eat. On top of those problems is the constant threat of a major oil spill, which could kill enough orcas to take the population down to a nonviable number.

The graph shows the probability that the Southern Resident population will fall below a given number (N) after 100 years. Falling below 30 animals is considered quasi-extinction. The blue line shows recent conditions. Lines to the left show low chinook abundance, and lines to the right show higher abundance.
Graphic: Lacy report, Raincoast Conservation Foundation

Despite the uncertainties, Robert Lacey of Chicago Zoological Society and his associates calculated in 2015 that under recent conditions the Southern Resident population faces a 9 percent chance of falling to the quasi-extinction level within 100 years. Worsening conditions could send that rate into a tailspin. See report for Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

What I found most informative was how the probability of extinction changes dramatically with food supply. (See the second graph on this page.) A 10 percent decline in chinook salmon raises the quasi-extinction risk from 9 percent to 73 percent, and a 20 percent decline raises the risk to more than 99 percent.

On the other hand, if chinook numbers can be increased by 20 percent, the whales would increase their population at a rate that would ensure the population’s survival, all other things being equal. Two additional lines on the graph represent a gradual decline of chinook as a result of climate change over the next 100 years — a condition that also poses dangerous risks to the orca population.

The close links between food supply and reproductive success are explored in a story I wrote last year for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

At last Wednesday’s Puget Sound Leadership Council meeting, members discussed a letter from the Strait (of Juan de Fuca) Ecosystem Recovery Network (PDF 146 kb) that called on the Puget Sound Partnership to become engaged in salmon recovery efforts outside of Puget Sound — namely the Klamath, Fraser and Columbia/Snake river basins.

“Such collaborative efforts must be done for the benefit of both the SRKW and chinook fish populations, without losing sight of the continuing need to maintain and improve the genetic diversity of these fish populations …” states the letter.

A separate letter from the Puget Sound Salmon Recovery Council (PDF 395 kb) also asks the Puget Sound Partnership to become more engaged in orca recovery. The group is calling on the partnership to support salmon recovery statewide, “relying on each region to identify strategies to restore robust salmon runs.”

Rein Attemann of Washington Environmental Council said salmon on the Columbia and Snake rivers, as well as he Fraser River in British Columbia, are “vitally important” to the recovery of the Southern Resident killer whales, and Puget Sound efforts should be coordinated with other programs.

Jim Waddell, a retired civil engineer with the Army Corps of Engineers, spoke forcefully about the need to save chinook salmon and the Southern Residents, starting by tearing down dams on the Snake River.

“We are out of time,” Waddell said. “The Corps of Engineers have it within their power to begin breaching the dams within months…. The orcas cannot survive without those chinook.”

An environmental impact statement on chinook recovery includes the option of breaching the dams, something that could be pushed forward quickly, he said.

“Breaching the Snake River dams is the only possibility of recovery,” Waddell said. “There is nothing left.”

Stephanie Solien, a member of the Leadership Council, said speaking up for orcas in the fashion proposed is not something the council has done before, but “we do have a responsibility to these amazing animals and to the chinook and to the tribes.”

The council should work out a strategy of action before moving forward, she added, but “we better get to moving on it.”

Puget Sound Partnership may confront net pen controversy

Puget Sound Partnership may take a stand on whether fish farms should be allowed to remain in Puget Sound waters.

The partnership is charged by the Legislature to oversee the restoration of the Puget Sound ecosystem. On Wednesday, the partnership’s governing body, the Puget Sound Leadership Council, received an update on last month’s collapse of a net pen containing 305,000 Atlantic salmon near Cypress Island in northern Puget Sound.

About two-thirds of the escaped fish have been accounted for so far, with about 146,000 found dead or alive in the damaged net pen and about 55,000 caught by fishermen. (All but about 5,000 of those were caught by tribal fishers in Puget Sound.)

This video, taken by a private party and released by state agencies, shows the collapse of the Cypress Island net pens on Aug. 19

About 100,000 Atlantic salmon apparently escaped and have not been caught by people, although most of those probably were eaten by predators, experts say. Officials continue their efforts to figure out where any remaining fish have gone, specifically any that swam up into the streams, according to Amy Windrope of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The Atlantic salmon, an exotic species in Puget Sound, don’t appear to be eating anything, let alone young native salmon, Windrope said, and there is not much concern that they will breed with native fish. The greatest concern is that they might somehow disrupt the spawning behavior of native salmon, whose populations are already stressed by adverse conditions in both marine and fresh water.

The Atlantic salmon appeared to be healthy and free of parasites at the time of the release, she said, but they became less and less healthy as starvation set in.

In addition to Windrope, the presentation to the Leadership Council included reports from representatives of the state Department of Natural Resources, which leases the seabed where the pens are located, and the Department of Ecology, which issues permits under water-quality laws.

Puget Sound tribes are about to release a position statement opposing salmon farms in Puget Sound, said Russell Hepfer, a member of the Leadership Council and vice chairman of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribal Council. He did not elaborate, except to say that the non-native fish don’t belong here.

According to Windrope, the tribes see Atlantic salmon as weeds in the garden of Puget Sound. Such cultural viewpoints should be taken into account in the overall discussion, she added.

Soon after the Cypress Island net pen collapse, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz issued a moratorium blocking further net pen approvals until an investigation is complete.

Maradel Gale, a resident of Bainbridge Island, addressed the Leadership Council at Wednesday’s meeting near Port Gamble, saying the Bainbridge Island City Council has effectively limited the expansion of net pens at the south end of the island and would like to get rid of net pens altogether.

She said Cooke Aquaculture, which owns all the net pens at four locations in Puget Sound, receives the benefits of using the public waterways and placing the ecosystem in peril while taking very little risk upon itself.

Dennis McLerran, a member of the Leadership Council who has worked for various environmental agencies, said Washington state law has long provided a preference for aquaculture over many other shoreline uses. Like it or not, he said, those preference are “baked into state policies” that direct state agencies to support aquaculture, including salmon farms.

“That is where the Leadership Council should have some discussion,” McLerran said. “Are those preferences in state law appropriate?”

The state of Alaska prohibits salmon farms, while California’s complex regulations allow them only under specific conditions related to water supplies, said Kessina Lee of Ecology.

Jay Manning, chairman of the Leadership Council and former director of the Washington Department of Ecology, said the Legislature will no doubt want to hear a complete report on the Cypress Island net-pen collapse, and he urged the agency officials to be fully prepared to answer questions from lawmakers.

“You will be asked, when the Legislature comes back, ‘How big a deal is this?’” Manning said, noting that he has heard from some people that it is a very big deal, while others say it is nothing at all.

Windrope noted that native salmon populations are already struggling, “and this is one more injury to the salmon.” But since the escaped Atlantic salmon don’t appear to be competing for food, the question comes down to whether they are affecting native fish in other ways. That question is not fully answered, she said.

“For DNR, this is a very big concern,” said Dennis Clark, who helps manage aquatic leases for the agency. “We have a contract with a multinational company, and they failed to adhere to it.”

DNR serves as the landlord for the Puget Sound net pen operations, he said. The aquatic leases run out at various times, from 2022 to 2025, and the agency is taking a closer look at the net pen structures to see what should be done from both a scientific and landlord perspective. Commissioner Franz is taking a special interest, he added.

“We are trying very hard to learn from this (incident),” Clark said, “and we understand that we may need to devote more resources.”

Rich Doenges of Ecology said the Atlantic salmon that got away are considered a “pollutant” under Washington state law. While no long-term effects have been seen following previous escapes of Atlantic salmon, there is some risk to native salmon. The key is to quantify that risk and determine if it is low enough to make the operations worthwhile. If necessary, he said, compliance orders can be issued and state water-quality permits can be amended to require additional safety measures.

Seattle attorney Doug Steding, representing Cooke Aquaculture, said he wanted to convey “sorrow and regret” from the company over the potential impacts of the escape.

“We want to make right with respect to this terrible accident,” he said, adding that the company is committed to working with investigators into the cause of the escape and finding ways to make sure that it never happens again.

Steding noted that Cooke recently acquired the Puget Sound facilities and did not own the Cypress Island net pens when the fish were placed in them. The company should have shared more information with the public about plans to upgrade the facilities, he said.

“You have an important task sorting through the difficult science and integrating with the values of the people of Washington,” Steding told the Leadership Council, adding that Cooke hopes to remain a part of the discussion.

Travels to the front lines of restoration throughout Puget Sound

In the Puget Sound region, the front lines in the battle for clean water, healthy species and safe seafood include experts from Washington State University Extension and University of Washington Sea Grant.

These are the folks who help property owners understand how their lives are intertwined with natural systems. These are the folks who lead armies of volunteers to monitor changes in the ecosystem and help the rest of us understand how we can improve the environment in our own way.

These folks in the Extension and Sea Grant offices seem to have a special connection with average citizens, and they are some of my favorite people.

I was pleased to see an article in Washington State Magazine about the role that WSU Extension offices play in the Puget Sound region. The article, by Rebecca Phillips, highlights the close relationship between Extension and Sea Grant, especially in Kitsap County.

With artful writing, Becky juxtaposes the beauty of Puget Sound with the ongoing perils that have disrupted the ecosystem. She describes the efforts to turn things around and save this magnificent waterway that so many people call home.

“From Puyallup to Bremerton, Port Townsend to Everett, WSU Extension and research centers are immersed in Puget Sound revitalization through a combination of investigation, stewardship and educational outreach programs,” Becky writes.

She goes on to talk about the various programs — not the least of which is the Puyallup Research and Extension Center and the associated Washington Stormwater Center, which is doing great work to figure out how to remove pollution from toxic runoff coming from roads and developed areas.

The cooperative extension system was established in 1914, linking the U.S. Department of Agriculture to land grant colleges, such as WSU. Traditionally, every county in the country had a local extension office, but in some areas county offices have been consolidated into regional centers.

The National Sea Grant College Program, established by Congress in 1963, is a network of 33 Sea Grant colleges supported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The goal is to promote the conservation and responsible use of the nation’s waterways.

I have covered most of the issues mentioned in Becky’s article, often in some depth, but her story touches on the essential elements of various restoration projects taking place throughout Puget Sound. It was nice to see such a comprehensive story involving the important problems of our time, with a special emphasis on the frontline folks addressing the issues. For some people, the article may serve as an introduction to the problems of Puget Sound. For others, it is a reminder of the local efforts taking place across the landscape.

Washington State Magazine is a product of the WSU Communications Office. Full disclosure: I am a graduate of WSU and worked in that office one summer while I was a student at the university.

Washington State Magazine

Streaming Solutions: Below the glimmering waters of Puget Sound lie invisible problems

Video extras

Some toxic chemicals increase; others decline in Puget Sound fish

The importance of long-term environmental monitoring is driven home in a new study by toxicologists who have spent years examining chemical contamination in Puget Sound fish.

English sole sampling locations include both urban and rural areas of Puget Sound.
Archives of Env. Contamination and Toxicology

After 28 years of monitoring, researchers have confirmed that it is extremely difficult to remove polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) from the Puget Sound food web. In some locations, PCBs are actually increasing in bottom fish some 38 years after these chemicals were banned in the United States.

“Across the board, we’ve seen either no decline or even increases in our English sole, which is really kind of shocking considering all the remediation that has been going on,” said Jim West, a toxicologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife who I interviewed for a story in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

The report, published in the Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, provides some bleak news about PCBs, but there are hopeful signs for other chemicals. For example, researchers were pleasantly surprised to find that toxic flame retardants containing polybrominated diphenyl ethers seem to be disappearing rapidly from the ecosystem less than a decade after the most toxic forms of PBDEs were banned in Washington state.

The study went to some lengths to make sure the decline in PBDEs in Pacific herring was not related to other factors — such as size, since the average herring is getting smaller over time.

“I now feel like this is a solid trend, and that’s really exciting,” Jim told me. “I believe it is related to our efforts in source control.”

Of course, we wouldn’t know about these long-term trends in chemical contamination were it not for long-term monitoring efforts. I discussed the importance of monitoring with Sandie O’Neill, a research scientist with WDFW. She is an author of the new study along with Jim West and Gina Ylitalo of NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center. See the related story “Monitoring helps to reveal hidden dangers in the food web” in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

“We are changing people’s perspectives about contaminants throughout the (Puget Sound) watershed, including how such contaminants get into the food web,” Sandie told me.

As Sandie describes it, monitoring is needed in many aspects of ecosystem health. It can tell us whether nature is healing itself and whether restoration projects by humans are improving fish and wildlife habitat as well as human health.

Collapsed fish pens could shift the debate over Atlantic salmon farms

UPDATE: Aug. 30

Democratic members of Washington state’s congressional delegation are calling on federal agencies to take immediate steps to minimize damage from the net pen collapse and release of Atlantic salmon near Cypress Island. Read the news release.

“Pacific salmon are central to our economy, our culture, and our environment in the Pacific Northwest and are a critical part of marine and estuarine ecosystems in Washington state,” the letter states. “Most concerning is the threat farmed Atlantic salmon pose to the wild Pacific salmon populations stocks in Puget Sound. Farmed salmon tend to be larger and could outcompete wild salmon for critical resources, such as prey and preferred habitat, which is important for spawning. Tribes, fishermen, and state agencies are working to respond to the escapement, but the scale of the release calls for immediate and direct federal response….”

Meanwhile, a public hearing about the expansion of the Port Angeles net pen operation has been cancelled at the request of the owner, Cooke Aquaculture. Read the letter from Steve Gray (PDF 155 kb), Clallam County’s deputy planning director.
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The recent collapse of salmon pens near the San Juan Islands could become a turning point in the war against salmon farming that is being waged by environmental groups in Puget Sound.

Yesterday, Gov. Jay Inslee and Commissioner of Public Lands Hillary Franz announced a moratorium on new state leases or permits for any fish farms using Atlantic salmon. The moratorium will remain in place until state officials can fully review the escape of more than 300,000 Atlantic salmon from net pens near Cypress Island, according to a joint announcement (PDF 107 kb).

The video, by Glenn Farley and Travis Pittman of KING 5 News, was posted Friday.

The owner of the pens, Cooke Aquaculture, has applications pending to move and expand its net pen operation near Port Angeles to an area 1.8 miles offshore in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Cooke, a family-owned company, acquired all of the salmon farms in Puget Sound from Icycle Seafoods last year. The deal was touted as a way to infuse capital and modernize operations on the West Coast.

“The deal will enhance the family’s investments in both the wild fishery and the aquaculture sectors, making them leaders in the U.S. salmon farming sector and a major player in the Alaskan salmon fishery,” said a news release about the acquisition. See the story by Cliff White in “SeafoodSource.”

Perhaps the company did not have time to upgrade its facilities to reduce the risk of the net pens collapsing at Cypress Island and other farming operations. In a news release (PDF 251 kb), Cooke said it had applied for permits to update its Cypress Island site. Still, this latest incident cannot instill confidence in the company nor the salmon farming industry as a whole.

In fact, one could argue that that the company’s extensive “Fish Escape Prevention Plan” (PDF 1.4 mb) and Operations Plan (2.4 mb) should have raised red flags for the company. Cooke cited unusual tides and currents as contributing factors in the pens’ collapse, despite the fact that these tide levels are seen several times each year and stronger currents can be anticipated at times.

Cooke proudly proclaims its commitment to the environment on the company’s home page. But shooting itself in the foot on Cypress Island will leave a bad feeling for many Puget Sound residents. For environmental groups, this event will provide ammunition in their effort to stop the expansion of net pens in Puget Sound and phase out their use entirely.

It is often pointed out that Washington is the only state on the West Coast that allows salmon farming. (See “Our Sound, Our Salmon.” Meanwhile, a serious debate over the pros and cons of industrial-scale aquaculture goes on and on in British Columbia, where more than 100 salmon farms are well established. Take a look at reporter Gordon Hoekstra’s story in the Vancouver Sun.

The war on salmon farms has been waging for years on both sides of the border. While battles ought to be won or lost based on credible information, I’ve seen facts distorted to fit political goals on both sides of the argument.

Now the Cypress Island incident will raise the profile of the debate in Washington state. Let’s hope that the investigation called for by Gov. Inslee and Commissioner Franz will lead to findings that go beyond the question of why the net pens collapsed and look at the overall risks and benefits of keeping these salmon farms around.

Kurt Beardslee, executive director of Wild Fish Conservancy, told me in an email that he is working today to sample 50,000 pounds of Atlantic salmon that escaped from the Cypress Island net pens. Experts will be looking for viruses, parasites and stomach contents.

I believe the information about stomach contents will be particularly valuable, because of concerns that the escaped fish could be consuming wild salmonids — including young chinook and steelhead, both of which are listed as threatened species. Obviously, we don’t have enough out-migrating chinook and steelhead as it is. (You may wish to review my recent story about salmon recovery in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.)

Meanwhile, Wild Fish Conservancy, a staunch opponent of salmon farming, has filed notice that it intends to sue Cooke Aquaculture for violations of the Clean Water Act.

“The Conservancy is deeply disheartened by Cooke Aquaculture’s glaring negligence, negligence which has led to an environmental disaster of epic proportion,” states a news release (PDF 115 kb) from the organization. “The needless escape of up to 305,000 Atlantic salmon into Puget Sound represents a dire threat to already imperiled wild fish populations, beloved marine mammal species, and the fragile Puget Sound ecosystem at large, and Wild Fish Conservancy fears impacts to these critical aspects of our region will be felt for years to come.”

The 60-day “letter of intent” (PDF 1.9 mb) from Wild Fish Conservancy outlines a number of alleged violations of federal law resulting from the release of Atlantic salmon and the management of debris. The group says it will seek monetary penalties of up to $52,000 a day, as provided by law, and “injunctive relief to prevent further violations.”

When I asked Kurt what he thought the lawsuit could accomplish, he wrote, “Simply speaking, I believe It’s in the best interest of our sound, our salmon and future generations to pursue all legal avenues to quickly remove Atlantic salmon net pens from Washington’s waters.”

The group — which is part of Our Sound, Our Salmon — is planning an on-the-water protest off the south end of Bainbridge Island on Sept. 16. See “Flotilla: saying no to Atlantic salmon net pens.”

In response to the Cypress Island incident, an “incident command” structure has been set up by the Washington state departments of Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife, and Ecology, along with the Office of the Governor and Emergency Management Division. The idea is to share information and make joint decisions about the cleanup operation.

“The release of net pen-raised Atlantic salmon into Washington’s waters has created an emergency situation that has state agencies working together to protect the health of our salmon…,” Gov. Inslee said in a statement. “Tribes and others who fish Washington waters deserve a comprehensive response to this incident, including answers to what happened and assurances that it won’t happen again.

“I believe the company must do everything it can to stop any additional escapes and to recover as many fish as possible, including adequate compensation for those working to remove Atlantic salmon from our waters,” he added.

A new website called “Cypress Island Atlantic Salmon Pen Break” will be the distribution point for public information — including “situation updates” from Cook Aquaculture, “Next steps” from DNR, minutes from agency conferences, news releases and other documents.

The Clallam County Hearing Examiner will hold a hearing on Sept. 7 regarding the proposed relocation and expansion of the Port Angeles net pens. Many documents related to that application and Cooke Aquaculture operations can be found on the website titled Clallam County Online Permit System. Click on the permit number for American Gold Seafoods.

Lights could be creating problems for salmon, seabirds and more

Bright lights that affect the behavior of birds, fish and other wildlife are emerging as a significant environmental concern.

Endangered Hawaiian Petrel
Photo: B. Zaun, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Yesterday, for example, two environmental groups filed a lawsuit against the Hawai’i Department of Transportation for bright lights the agency controls at piers and airports. The groups say three species of seabirds on the Endangered Species List have been circling the lights until the birds drop from exhaustion, and some birds have died.

Meanwhile, in Lake Washington and the nearby Cedar River in King County, there is evidence that threatened chinook salmon are at greater risk from predators because of lights on the two floating bridges as well as industrial facilities in Renton.

In Florida, researchers have discovered that female turtles avoid coming ashore to lay their eggs where bright lights are present, and in Virginia salamanders have delayed their feeding efforts in the glare of lights.

The lawsuit in Hawaii was filed by lawyers for Earthjustice out of concern for three species of seabirds: Newell’s shearwater, a threatened species, and Hawaiian petrels and band-rumped storm petrels, both endangered species.

The Hawai’I Department of Transportation has failed to protect the birds, as required by the Endangered Species Act, according to the lawsuit filed on behalf of the Hui Ho‘omalu i Ka ‘Āina, Conservation Council and the Center for Biodiversity. Because the lighting is injuring and killing listed species, the state agency must obtain an incidental take permit and initiate actions to minimize harm, the lawsuit says. For details, see the complaint for declaratory and injunctive relief (PDF 1.4 mb).

Lights at airports and harbor facilities have been documented as the greatest source of injury and death to the seabirds, which migrate at night and become disoriented by the artificial lights, the complaint asserts. Some birds crash into buildings, while others end up on the ground where they may be struck by vehicles or eaten by predators.

Since the 1990s, the Newell’s shearwaters have declined by 94 percent and the Hawaiian petrels on the island of Kauai have dropped by 78 percent.

“Our ancestors depended on the ‘a‘o (Newell’s shearwater), ‘ua‘u (Hawaiian petrel) and ‘akē‘akē (band-rumped storm-petrel) to help locate schools of fish, to navigate from island to island and to know when the weather is changing,” Kauai fisherman Jeff Chandler was quoted as saying in a news release from Earthjustice.

According to the news release, the Department of Transportation dropped out of talks with state and federal wildlife agencies that are developing a habitat conservation plan to protect the seabirds. After Earthjustice filed a notice of intent to sue, the agency rejoined the talks.

“That’s a good start, but talk alone will do nothing to save these rare and important animals from extinction,” said Earthjustice attorney David Henkin. “It’s long past time for the department to take action, not only on Kauai, but everywhere in the state that its operations illegally kill seabirds.”

Lake Washington chinook

As for the lights on and around Lake Washington, I have not heard of any proposed lawsuits to protect the threatened Puget Sound chinook, but concerns continue to simmer.

Lights on the Highway 520 bridge
Photo: Washington Dept. of Transportation

Jason Mulvihill-Kuntz, salmon recovery manager for the Lake Washington/Cedar/Sammamish Watershed, told me that the next regional chapter of the chinook recovery plan will call for further study into the effects of lights on juvenile chinook migrating down the Cedar River and through Lake Washington.

“The technical folks have identified light as a potential emerging issue,” Jason said. “We don’t have a good handle on what the impacts are.”

Lights on Lake Washington may be creating a double whammy for young chinook, Jason said. First, the lights attract the fish, which slow down their migration to Puget Sound. Second, the lights keep them visible to predators at night, so the fish may be eaten 24 hours a day.

“Juvenile salmon don’t have a nighttime respite,” Jason said. “At least that’s the hypothesis.”

Nonnative predatory fish include bass, walleye and northern pike. Native predators include cutthroat trout and pike minnow. Predatory birds include the western grebe and great blue heron.

An updated chinook recovery plan for the Lake Washington region is under review and could be finalized this fall. Predation is getting some additional attention this time around, Jason said, and the issue of lights is something that needs more study.

Experts at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have identified potential concerns with lighting along Lake Washington in a series of studies going back more than 10 years. It still isn’t clear, however, how much the known problems with predators are exacerbated by bright lights. That’s why more studies are needed.

Following complaints from residents of Laurelhurst near the Highway 520 bridge, the Washington Department of Transportation reduced the amount of illumination coming off that bridge, and further investigation is underway. Check out the King-5 News report below.

Other species

With regard to other species, lights are known to have a variety of effects. Reporter Sharon Guynup outlined the problems for birds, turtles, amphibians, mammals and even insects in a revealing story in National Geographic News, April 17, 2003.

A group of British researchers from the University of Exeter compiled a list of the known effects of light on various species while considering the role of artificial lighting. See “The ecological impacts of nighttime light pollution; a mechanistic appraisal” in Biological Reviews.

No end in sight for dispute over pesticide injury to salmon

It has been 15 years since a federal judge ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency and National Marine Fisheries Service must consider whether pesticides increase the risk of extinction for Northwest salmon populations.

Chlorpyrifos

Since 2002, NMFS (also called NOAA Fisheries) has determined that some pesticides do indeed pose a significant risk to the ongoing existence of salmon listed under the Endangered Species Act. Yet, after all these years, permanent protective measures have not been imposed by the EPA, which is responsible for regulating pesticide use.

One could argue that progress has been made in the face of litigation from environmental groups. The EPA has acknowledged its responsibility under the Endangered Species Act, and the agency has adopted a new and evolving methodology for measuring the risk to listed species.

After its initial assessments were thrown out by the courts, NMFS has agreed to complete new biological opinions for five pesticides that pose some of the highest risks. Studies for chlorpyrifos, malathion and diazinon are scheduled to be done by the end of this year, followed by carbaryl and methomyl by the end of next year.

What we don’t know is whether President Trump’s anti-regulatory efforts and pledge to dismantle the EPA will slow or stop the process of protecting salmon. When it comes to pesticides, environmental activists will tell you that the Trump administration has already taken steps to undermine not only salmon but also human health.

For example, the insecticide chlorpyrifos was scheduled to be banned by the EPA after a new analysis found that its ongoing use on food crops could pose unsafe risks for people, especially young children whose brain development could be impaired.

In March, just before the ban was to go into effect, Trump’s new EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, reversed EPA’s course, saying the U.S. Department of Agriculture disagrees with the methodology used by the EPA in developing the ban.

Environmental groups, which had already obtained a court order to force the EPA to reconsider its approval of the pesticide, were outraged. They filed yet another lawsuit, as described in a news release from Earthjustice.

“EPA’s stunning reversal on chlorpyrifos in the face of overpowering scientific evidence of harm to children signals yet another dereliction of duty under the Trump administration,” Kristin Schafer, policy director for Pesticide Action Network, said in the news release.

After the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals refused to force the EPA to take immediate action on chlorpyrifos, nine U.S. senators stepped in to draft legislation that would ban the chemical. See news release and video from Tom Udall, D-New Mexico, and a separate statement from Earthjustice.

Chlorpyrifos is among numerous pesticides that can harm salmon directly and indirectly in a variety of ways, including destroying salmon’s ability to make their way upstream to spawn and killing off the insects they eat.

In its latest biological evaluation released in January, the EPA looked at more than 1,400 toxicity studies before concluding that chlorpyrifos in all its various uses could be expected to have an adverse effect on all threatened and endangered species throughout the U.S. — including killer whales in Puget Sound. Check out the news story by Adam Wernick, Living on Earth.

Of course, chemical manufacturers and farming groups — including apparently the USDA — are not easily convinced that certain pesticides are harmful. They want to go on selling and using these chemicals, as they have for many years. Consequently, they want the EPA to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a chemical is causing damage. But federal law actually requires that all chemicals on the market be proven safe, so any doubt should trigger a reduction of pesticide use or at least greater restrictions on their application.

It is easy to complain about the adequacy of any scientific study. In fact, a disputed difference in methodology between the EPA and NMFS led to a National Academy of Sciences Review, which eventually made suggestions for unifying the agencies’ different scientific approaches.

Through the years, one thing that I have found remarkable is that chemicals rarely appear to get safer with time. For most pesticides, more study raises more concerns, and when you mix pesticides together you never know what you’ll get.

In 2008, shortly after I started writing this blog, I reported on a study by Nat Scholz, a NOAA toxicologist in Seattle who has been studying the effects of chemicals on salmon and other species. This particular study examined mixtures of chlorpyrifos and four other pesticides.

The biggest surprise, Nat told reporter Erik Stokstad of Science magazine, was the strength of the synergistic punch from the pesticides diazinon and malathion. Together, the two chemicals killed all the salmon exposed to them. Even at the lowest concentration, fish were extremely sick.

“It was eye-opening,” Nat was quoted as saying. “We’re seeing relatively dramatic departures” from what happens with each pesticide by itself. See Water Ways, Feb. 19, 2008.

Such findings raise questions about the adequacy of all studies conducted on single pesticides. Pending final reports on pesticide effects on salmon, the courts have imposed 60-foot no-spray buffers along streams (300 feet for aerial spraying) to reduce chemical exposure to salmon and other species.

Nobody can say for sure if those buffers are adequate, but biological opinions from NOAA due out at this end of this year could shed new light on the problem. Meanwhile, chemical manufacturers are hoping those court-mandated reports never see the light of day — and they are putting pressure on the Trump administration to slow down the process.

In a letter to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, a lawyer for the three companies — Dow AgroSciences, ADAMA and FMC — called on the EPA to withdraw its biological evaluation, saying the analysis is flawed in several ways. The lawyer also wrote to other federal officials, asking the National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to delay their biological opinions. According to the lawyer, the court-imposed deadlines are not legally binding.

Reporter Tiffany Stecker of Bloomberg BNA does a nice job describing various viewpoints surrounding this complicated issue. She also describes a close relationship between Dow and the Trump administration.

“The company donated $1 million to President Donald Trump’s inaugural committee,” she wrote. “Trump appointed Dow Chairman and CEO Andrew Liveris to head the White House American Manufacturing Council.”

Dow spent more than $13.6 million on lobbying efforts last year, according to Michael Biesecker, environmental reporter for the Associated Press.

“When Trump signed an executive order in February mandating the creation of task forces at federal agencies to roll back government regulations, Dow’s chief executive was at Trump’s side,” Biesecker wrote.

“’Andrew, I would like to thank you for initially getting the group together and for the fantastic job you’ve done,’ Trump said as he signed the order during an Oval Office ceremony. The president then handed his pen to Liveris to keep as a souvenir,” according to the AP report.

Patti Goldman, managing attorney for Earthjustice’s Northwest Regional Office, said Dow executives are doing everything they can to suppress the science surrounding chlorpyrifos and other pesticides — including hiring their own scientists to raise doubts and delay proposed bans for these toxic chemicals.

“We have a person (Pruitt) in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency who really doesn’t believe in the mission of the agency,” Patti told me.

Turmoil over pesticides has been heightened by the Trump administration just when the EPA and NMFS appeared to be coming together to resolve long-held conflicts over how to assess risk and reduce harm to salmon, she said.

Now, after 15 years of court battles, the end of the conflict appears far from over.

“I think we have had incremental progress, because we’ve gotten the agencies to look at this,” Patti said. “Some chemicals are no longer on the market, and some are on the market for only particular uses.”

While there is plenty of disagreement over whether controls on pesticide use are working, for now the no-spray buffers remain in place as a temporary protection.

Amusing Monday: Videos by students try to convince climate skeptics

“How do you convince a climate-change skeptic?” That’s the question posed to high-school film producers in a contest sponsored by the University of Washington’s School of Environmental and Forest Sciences.

I find it interesting that the challenge to create a two-minute video does not include a reason that climate-change skeptics might need convincing. No doubt this was intentional, giving young filmmakers more leeway to be creative. It may result from a recognition that so-called skeptics are not all of one mind when it comes to talking about climate change.

In fact, I’ve observed varying points of view among people who disagree with widely held findings among climate scientists. Consider these types of skeptics:

  • First, there are some people who do not believe that the scientific method could ever produce meaningful answers about climate change.
  • Others accept the methods of science, but they believe the evidence actually shows that the climate is not warming and may even be cooling.
  • Some accept scientific evidence that the climate is warming, but they believe that this is a natural phenomenon and that human-produced greenhouse gases have nothing to do with it.
  • Some accept scientific evidence that climate is warming and that humans are having an effect, but they believe that climatologists have miscalculated the rate of warming.
  • Finally, there are those in the policy realm who admit that they don’t know what is causing climate change, but they believe that the costs of addressing the problem are too great or that government should not be involved.

So I was interested to see how high school filmmakers would address the skeptics of climate change. The winner, Tiamo Minard of Roosevelt High School, simply laid out the facts, as they are best known by climate scientists.

Second place went to a team from Lynwood High School, whose approach was highly personal, showing how people’s everyday actions contribute to climate change. The team included Saron Almaw, Hani Ghebrehiwet, Brittaney Hong, Kristen Nguyen and Jasmine Pel.

Third-place winner, Hazel Camer of Lynnwood High School, simply pounded home the fact that climate change is real and that the consequences for the human race could be severe. One man on the video pooh-poohed the notion that climate change is a liberal conspiracy. Then, surprisingly, the next person on the video is U.S. Rep. Suzan DelBene, a Washington Democrat who is not likely to convince many skeptics.

I found the winning videos entertaining and at times amusing, and I can’t argue with their arguments. But I doubt that they will convince any of the climate-skeptic types that I outlined above. This was truly a difficult challenge, yet one that seems worthwhile. Even professional media experts have trouble addressing this issue, although humor may be helpful. See, for example, the blog post, “Ontario employs humor in climate discussion,” Water Ways, May 15, or “‘Don’t fret,’ says new celebrity video for climate deniers,” Water Ways, Dec. 14, 2015.

Other finalists:

Judging the contest were Laura Jean Cronin, producer/director of award-winning short films currently involved with B47 studios in Seattle; Melanie Harrison Okoro, water quality specialist and the aquatic invasive species coordinator for NOAA Fisheries, West Coast Region; Cody Permenter, social media manager for Grist, an online news magazine; and Ethan Steinman, an Emmy-nominated filmmaker who owns Seattle-based production company Daltonic Films.

A report on last year’s contest can be found on Water Ways, June 27, 2016. It is great to see the work of local filmmakers, and I hope the contest continues.

Facing challenges that could save chinook salmon from extinction

Nineteen years ago this month, then-Governor Gary Locke made a bold declaration about salmon that would echo through time: “Extinction is not an option.”

Juvenile chinook salmon depend on high-quality habitat for their survival.
Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

It was a call to action that would lead to major protection and restoration efforts throughout Puget Sound. Still, today, chinook salmon have not experienced a population rebound, as many people had hoped. The failure to thrive has been a disappointment to many, yet we are often reminded that it took 150 years to push salmon to the brink of extinction and it will not be easy to ensure their future.

Last week, concerns about the survival of chinook salmon prompted a coalition of Puget Sound tribes to propose a series of “bold actions,” as I reported in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, later reprinted in the Kitsap Sun.

“The way we are managing lands is not working,” stated salmon expert Dave Herrera, speaking for the tribes. “It may be working for people, but it is not working for fish.”

The bold actions, spelled out in a three-page proposal (PDF 380 kb), include greater controls on the use of land and water, among other things. I won’t describe the details, which you can read in the memo. The ideas were prompted by a new Chinook Salmon Implementation Strategy, designed to accelerate an increase in the Puget Sound chinook population.

The tribes complained that the proposed strategy, as drafted, mostly mimicked the 10-year-old Puget Sound Salmon Recovery Plan. That plan has made limited progress in restoring wild salmon runs, despite millions of dollars spent to protect and restore habitat while limiting fishing and controlling hatchery production.

In his speech of June 1998, Gov. Locke worried about the risk of extinction for these migratory fish, which are an economic asset as well as a celebrated symbol of the Northwest.

Former Gov. Gary Locke

“In several Puget Sound watersheds, our wild salmon have less than a decade to live, unless we act now,” Locke said in 1998. “And in many more rivers and streams, if the status quo continues, our wild salmon will be gone before my daughter Emily graduates from high school. So we just don’t have any time to waste. For better or for worse, we are about to make history.”

Locke’s speech was indeed historic, as he launched an unprecedented endeavor to rebuild salmon runs at great financial cost. The governor seemed to understand the challenge, as I noted at the time in my coverage of the speech before more than 100 county officials in Tacoma:

“Locke appears to be glancing over his shoulder, ready to duck for cover, as he talks about the financial and political commitments required to keep salmon from disappearing in various parts of the state,” I wrote.

“We need to wake up every morning ready to challenge the status quo,” Locke said, adding that basic changes are needed in the way businesses and average citizens use their land and water resources.

“There is a risk,” Locke said, “in just delivering that message, let alone acting on it.”

The following year, the Washington Legislature created the Salmon Recovery Funding Board to prioritize state and federal funding for salmon recovery. And the next governor, Chris Gregoire, ushered in an even greater ecosystem-recovery effort under guidance of the Puget Sound Partnership.

Wetlands are critical habitat for salmon.
Photo: Eric Grossman, U.S. Geological Survey

Today, I can’t help but wonder what would have happened without these salmon- and ecosystem-recovery efforts. Would the salmon be gone, as Locke predicted? It’s hard to say, but researchers have learned a great deal about what salmon need to survive, and the money is being better targeted toward those needs. As a result, it is understandable why some people are both disappointed with the past and hopeful for the future.

One of the great challenges facing public officials today is to find ways for local governments to truly live up to the standard of “no net loss” of ecological function — a standard required by the state’s Growth Management Act. When new developments affect “critical areas” — such as fish and wildlife habitat — they must include vegetated buffers and stormwater controls to minimize the damage. Then they must enhance degraded habitat — either on-site or off-site — to make up for losses that cannot be avoided.

I used to believe that this goal was unachievable, and I have questioned many state experts about it. How can any developer construct a commercial or residential development and walk away with no net loss of habitat function? The answer is to include a serious restoration component.

One example is the Hood Canal Coordinating Council’s In-Lieu Fee Program, which I wrote about last month in Water Ways (May 19). This program was started on a large scale to mitigate for construction at the Navy’s submarine base at Bangor, but it also works on a small scale, as I mentioned in that blog post.

When an older site is redeveloped, there may be no ecological loss, since the damage was done in the past. But when a developer builds in a new location, the local government is charged with measuring the loss, coming to terms for mitigation and making sure the mitigation is carried out. The concept of “no net loss” works only if the mitigation is permanent — another major challenge in many areas.

If no net loss can be achieved while major restoration efforts continue, we will see a net increase in salmon habitat in the Puget Sound region, and that will be a cause of celebration. One success has been in the program Floodplains by Design, which improves critical off-channel habitat for salmon while reducing flooding problems for nearby residents. Checkout the story I wrote for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound and the blog post in Water Ways, April 15.

Washington State Department of Commerce, which oversees the Growth Management Act, is in the process of updating its Critical Areas Assistance Handbook (PDF 6 mb), which serves as guidance for local regulations. New information about how to protect habitat for all life stages of salmon will be a key addition to a revised version, soon to be released for public review. See the CAO page on the Department of Commerce website.

Local governments in every part of the state must become part of the discussion if we expect them to carry out the mandate of protecting habitat for salmon. Money for planning and regulatory enforcement must be worked out. One idea I’ve heard is a regional approach that involves a group of compliance officials working to enforce the rules for multiple counties and cities.

No doubt the salmon-recovery effort must be improved. Challenges remain for issues including fishing, predation by marine mammals and climate change. But if the protection and restoration of salmon habitat can outpace unmitigated damage from development, we may be justified in believing that extinction is not an option.