For years, I have been told the story of how PCBs and other
toxic chemicals cling to soil particles and tiny organic debris as
polluted water washes off the land.
Eventually, the PCB-laden particles are carried into Puget
Sound, where they settle to the bottom. From there, they begin
working their way into marine animals, disrupting their normal
functions — such as growth, immune response and reproduction.
The idea that contaminants settle to the bottom is the story
I’ve been told for as long as I can remember, a story long accepted
among the scientific community in Puget Sound and across the U.S.
So I was surprised when I heard that leading scientists who study
toxic chemicals in Puget Sound were questioning this long-held idea
about how dangerous chemicals get into the food web.
Puget Sound may be different from other waterways, they
“When you look at the concentrations in herring and the
concentrations in the sediments, something does not line up,” Jim
West told me. “The predictions are way off. We think there is a
Jim is a longtime researcher for the Washington Department of
Fish and Wildlife. I have worked with him through the years on
various stories about the effects of contaminants on marine
organisms. But now he was talking about changing the basic thinking
about how chemicals are transferred through the food web.
Jim postulates that many of these PCB-laden particles that wash
down with stormwater never sink to the bottom of Puget Sound.
Instead, they are taken up by tiny organisms floating in the water.
The organisms, including bacteria and phytoplankton, are eaten by
larger plankton and become incorporated into fish and other
free-swimming creatures — the pelagic food web.
Jim presented his findings at the Salish Sea Ecosystem
Conference last month in Vancouver, B.C. Sandie O’Neill, another
WDFW researcher, presented other new information about the transfer
of contaminants through the food web — from plankton to herring to
salmon to killer whales.
My stories about the studies conducted by Jim and Sandie (with
help from a team of skilled scientists) were published today in the
Puget Sound, where you can read them. These are the first of at
least 10 story packages to be to written by a team of reporters
working for the Puget Sound Institute.
The Salish Sea conference was attended by more than 1,100
people, including 450 researchers and policymakers who talked about
new information related to the Salish Sea — which includes Puget
Sound in Washington, the Strait of Georgia in British Columbia and
the Strait of Juan de Fuca on the U.S./Canada border.
When I first heard about Jim West’s idea regarding the fate of
toxic chemicals circulating in Puget Sound, I thought one result
might be to shift restoration dollars away from cleaning up
sediments to cleaning up stormwater. After all, if the majority of
PCBs aren’t getting into the sediments, why spend millions of
dollars cleaning up the stuff on the bottom? Why not devote that
money to cleaning up stormwater?
In fact, the worst of the contaminated sediments in Puget Sound
have been cleaned up, with some cleanups now under way. That helps
to ensure that toxic chemicals won’t get re-suspended in the water
and taken up into the pelagic food web all over again. A few
hotspots of contaminated sediments may still need some
As far as putting the focus on stormwater, that’s exactly what
the Puget Sound Partnership has done with support from the
Department of Ecology and other clean-water agencies. It is now
well established that the key to reducing pollution in Puget Sound
is to keep toxic chemicals out of stormwater or else create
settling ponds, rain gardens, pervious pavement and other methods
to capture the PCB-laden particles before they reach Puget
I noticed that Ecology just today
announced a new round of regulations to control stormwater in
King, Pierce, Snohomish and Clark counties. Proposed changes
include updating stormwater programs for new construction projects
and for redevelopment. An appendix will describe Seattle’s plan to
reduce stormwater pollution in the Lower Duwamish River, where PCBs
are a major problem. For more on stormwater regulations, go to
As Sandie told me during our discussions, all the work on fixing
habitat in Puget Sound streams is not enough if we can’t control
the discharge of PCB’s — which were banned in the 1970s — along
with newer contaminants still working their way into our beloved
waterway. Any measure of healthy habitat must include an
understanding of the local chemistry.
After decades of in-depth studies and anxious waiting,
restoration of the Skokomish River ecosystem took a major step
forward today, when a committee of the U.S. Senate endorsed the
$20-million effort as part of a larger legislative package.
The Skokomish restoration was one of many projects that sailed
through the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee as it
passed a $9-billion authorization bill on a 19-1 vote. The bill
must still be approved by the full Senate and House, but supporters
of the Skokomish restoration were thrilled with the light at the
end of the tunnel.
Rich Geiger, project engineer for the Mason Conservation
District, has been shepherding the Skokomish effort for as long as
I can remember. I asked him how it feels to finally see some action
“It feels really really good,” he said slowly, emphasizing each
The restoration program consists of five separate projects along
the Skokomish River. Although not designed for flood control, these
projects for improving ecological health are expected to reduce
flooding along one of the most frequently flooded rivers in the
The restoration effort has received support from far and wide.
As Rich likes to point out, experts generally agree that Puget
Sound cannot be restored without restoring Hood Canal, and Hood
Canal cannot be restored without restoring the Skokomish River.
Sen. Patty Murray has been a strong advocate for the
“The waters of Hood Canal and Puget Sound are essential to the
Washington state environment, economy, and our way of life,” the
senator said in an email, “so I am proud to fight for investments
in the restoration of the Skokomish River. This critical work will
restore habitat and wetlands and improve fish passage, which in
turn supports salmon recovery — all necessary to maintain our
precious natural resources.”
U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, said improving the health
of the Skokomish River would be a boon for Mason County and the
entire region. He said he applauded the efforts of the Skokomish
Watershed Action Team, the Skokomish Tribe and area residents who
worked together to shape the restoration program.
“This project ensures we can better protect critical species
like salmon … while restoring more natural areas for folks to
explore,” Kilmer said in an email. “That will help bring more
visitors to recreate in this watershed while protecting it for
The bipartisan endorsement and near-unanimous support offers
hope that the needed money will be approved in a future
appropriations bill tied to the budget, Rich Geiger told me. He is
also optimistic that the 35-percent state/local match will be made
available through state grants or a legislative appropriation.
“Now that have an approved plan, we are coming to Washington
state with a funding request that is much larger than normal,”
Geiger said. “This is a little unprecedented.”
The federal share for the project would be about $13 million and
the state share nearly $7 million.
Some money has already been provided for engineering work, Rich
said. If things go well, the final designs can be ready for the
start of construction in October of 2019.
These four projects would come first:
Confluence levee removal: This levee was built
with old cars at the confluence where the North Fork flows into the
mainstem of the Skokomish. Some 5,000 feet of the levee would be
removed. A small channel would be created to allow water from the
mainstem to flow into the North Fork and return at the existing
confluence. Large woody debris would help direct water into the
channel. Estimated cost: $7.5 million.
Wetland restoration at river mile 9: The
existing levee would be breached in four locations, and a new levee
would be built some 200 to 300 feet farther away. The levee would
allow for minor over-topping but would not increase the flood risk.
Estimated cost: $2.4 million.
Wetland restoration near Grange: Larger
breeches are planned for the levee near the Grange hall at river
mile 7.5 to 8. A new levee, up to 10 feet tall and 2,900 feet long,
would be constructed 1,200 feet farther back with no increase in
flood risk. Locations are still under discussion. Estimate cost
Side channel connection near Highway 101: An
old remnant channel between river mile 4 and 5.6 would be restored
to take water from the mainstem at high flows. Woody debris would
help define the inlet and outlet to the channel, which would become
a ponded wetland at low flows. Estimated cost: $3.1 million.
The fifth project would be constructed over two years in
Large woody debris: Upstream of the confluence
with the North Fork, large woody debris would be installed. Large
clusters of trees with root wads, as well as some single trees,
would be placed between river mile 9 and 11, as measured from the
estuary in Hood Canal. Estimated cost: $3.2 million.
The original plan for the Skokomish, as developed in an early
report by the Army Corps of Engineers, called for more projects and
would have cost closer to $40 million.
Some of those other projects are being funded through other
programs, such as the Salmon Recovery Funding Board. For example,
the reconnection of a stagnant section of Weaver Creek to the
free-flowing Purdy Creek is scheduled for this summer using SRF
In addition, numerous man-made logjams are being planned to
create salmon habitat, reduce sediment flows and stabilize the
stream channel. Also, preliminary designs and discussions are
underway to relocate Skokomish Valley Road, a main route into the
Olympic Mountains. Moving the road would allow for the removal of
levees, river bank restoration and a reconnection to about 60 acres
The Eco-Comedy Film Competition was created to get people
thinking about the environment by reaching them through
entertainment instead of a heavy-handed message.
“Clean Water” is the theme for this year’s competition,
sponsored by The Nature Conservancy and American University’s
Center for Environmental Filmmaking.
More than 80 short films were entered into this year’s contest.
Everyone is eligible to vote online for the People’s Choice Award
by selecting from among the seven finalists. Watch those seven
videos on the
Eco-Comedy Film Competition website, and vote using the form
beneath the video players. Make sure you click in the lower right
corner to go full screen. I’ve posted a couple of my favorites on
this page, but please don’t let that influence your own choice.
The winning video will be selected by a panel of judges. The
Grand Prize winner will be announced March 22 and will be awarded a
Overall, the Kitsap Peninsula is expected to have enough water
for people and fish for many years into the future, as long as the
water is managed well, according to a groundwater model developed
by the U.S. Geological Survey.
The model offers reassuring findings for residents of the Kitsap
Peninsula. It is also encouraging to see local water, sewer and
public works officials working together to plan for infiltrating
stormwater along with recycling wastewater for irrigation. Those
efforts will not only protect the peninsula’s water resources but
will save money for water customers.
Lonna Frans of the U.S. Geological Survey met this week with
members of WaterPAK — the Water Purveyors of Association of Kitsap
— to discuss the conclusions of a five-year, $1.4 million study of
water resources across the Kitsap Peninsula. Lonna said a final
written report should be available in about a month. (See website
The most impressive part of the groundwater model is the mapping
of geology across the entire peninsula, based on more than 2,100
well-driller logs that describe the type of soil at various depths.
Putting that information together provides a three-dimensional
picture of the underground structure, including sand and gravel
deposits, which contain water, along with layers of clay and
compressed soils, which slow down the water movement.
By monitoring water levels in 66 wells over time and accounting
for rainfall and groundwater withdrawals, the computer model
provides a dynamic picture of what happens under various
conditions. The model can be used to predict what will happen to
Kitsap’s aquifers under various rainfall scenarios, including long
periods of drought.
The model also can predict what will happen to streamflows under
various rainfall scenarios. The Kitsap Peninsula has no mountain
snowpack to supply the streams with water during dry summer months,
so the water must come from slow-moving underground supplies.
Now that the model is complete, it can be run for almost any
pattern of rainfall or drought that one wishes to dream up. For
example, running the model with average rainfall and no pumping at
all (close to a predevelopment condition) would bring the average
groundwater level up about 25 feet — although groundwater levels in
some places would be raised more than in other places.
Streamsflows under the no-pumping scenario would be an average
of about 2 percent higher — although this would be difficult to
measure with current instruments. Nobody would really notice the
If pumping across the peninsula were increased by 15 percent,
there would not be much difference in aquifers near the surface and
only a two- or three-foot drop in aquifers around sea level.
Streamflows would go down by a fraction of a percent but not enough
Decreasing groundwater recharge by 15 percent, such as paving
over the landscape with new roads, houses and parking lots, would
have a greater effect on streamflows.
Again, not all areas on the peninsula will see the same effects.
The model can be used to zero in on specific streams and their
watersheds — although the smaller the area of study, the less
accurate the prediction is likely to be.
Bob Hunter, manager of Kitsap Public Utility District, said the
model can be used to predict the effects that new wells would have
on streamflows as the population grows. The model could advise
managers whether it would be advisable to pump certain wells at
certain times of the year and hold back at other times.
Kathleen Cahall, water resources manager for the city of
Bremerton, said the model can also be used to make sure
aquifer-recharge areas are protected and that industrial facilities
that store large quantities of chemicals are not located where a
spill could contaminate a major underground water supply.
Morgan Johnson, general manager of Silverdale Water District,
said he would like to use the model to predict what will happen
when highly treated effluent from the Central Kitsap Wastewater
Treatment Plant is used to irrigate ball fields and other areas in
Central Kitsap. Efforts between the water districts and Kitsap
County might lead to greater infiltration of water and greater
groundwater supplies to be pumped from existing wells throughout
The USGS provided half the costs for the study. The other half
was shared among Kitsap PUD; Silverdale Water District; West Sound
Utility District; North Perry Water District; Manchester Water
District; the cities of Bremerton, Port Orchard, Poulsbo and Gig
Harbor; Washington Water, a private utility; and the Suquamish and
Port Gamble S’Klallam tribes.
More than 50 people came together at the beginning of this month
in Washington, D.C., to share their stories and concerns about
Puget Sound. The annual event is becoming known as Puget Sound
The group included leaders from local government, tribes,
non-profit groups, businesses and state agencies, noted U.S. Rep.
Derek Kilmer, who organized the get-together and discussion about
federal legislation and funding.
Kitsap County Commissioner Charlotte Garrido, who is involved in
these issues, asked me to share my thoughts about Puget Sound on
the public access television program “Commissioner’s Corner.” If
you haven’t seen the show, you can view it on BKAT the next
two Mondays at 8:30 p.m. and Tuesdays at 2 p.m., or click on the
I have to say that speaking off the cuff in front of a
television camera is a lot different from writing a story or blog
post, but I was pleased to be invited. The broadcast includes Kathy
Peters of the county’s Natural Resources Division.
Three years ago, a newly elected Rep. Kilmer picked up on Puget
Sound issues where former Rep. Norm Dicks left off. Through the
years, Norm was able to secure funding for many Puget Sound
projects — ranging from the removal of Forest Service roads that
were smothering salmon streams with sediment to extensive studies
of Hood Canal’s low-oxygen problems.
Derek is now promoting a bill known as
Puget SOS Act, which calls for greater federal coordination
with state, local and tribal partners, as well as formal
recognition of Puget Sound as a “great water body’ under the Clean
Water Act. Check out the story in the
Kitsap Sun by reporter Tristan Baurick.
This month, Kilmer and Heck introduced a new bill, the
Green Stormwater Infrastructure Investment Act, to help
communities reduce the flow of toxic stormwater into streams and
ultimately Puget Sound. The basic idea is to use natural
infiltration to reduce stormwater at the source, before it can pick
up toxic pollution. This approach has been given the name “green
stormwater infrastructure” or GSI.
“If our legislation passes,” Derek said in a
news letter to constituents, “local communities would be able
to access dedicated funding within the Environmental Protection
Agency for water quality projects that utilize GSI. Our hope is
that this can increase the number of breakthroughs that are
happening in places like Tacoma to help protect these vital
“Stormwater runoff is the top contributor to pollution in Puget
Sound, but our nation’s largest estuary isn’t the only place
impacted by stormwater. Across the country, in every community,
rain mixes with chemicals, oils and other harmful pollutants to
flood into our waterways. A stronger federal investment in the
prevention of runoff allows for the implementation of cutting-edge
solutions and puts our communities on a course towards healthy
waters for everyone.”
UPDATE, March 10, 2016
I’ve added links for three previous reports related to the
degradation of pharmaceuticals and personal care products.
Concerns are growing about medications and person-care products
that pass through sewage-treatment plants and into Puget Sound,
where the chemicals can alter the physiology and behavior of fish
and other organisms.
Almost everywhere scientists have looked, they have found drugs
that people have either flushed down the drain or passed through
their bodies. Either way, many active pharmaceutical compounds are
ending up in the sewage at low levels. Conventional
sewage-treatment plants can break down up to 90 percent or more of
some compounds, but others pass through unaltered.
Now, researchers are working on a process that would use
specialized bacteria to break down pharmaceutical compounds at
existing sewage-treatment plants. The idea, developed by
researchers at the University of Washington, is ready for a limited
pilot project at one of the treatment plants in the Puget Sound
Studies into this issue began more than 20 years ago, when it
became clear that all sorts of compounds were passing through
sewage-treatment plants and getting into the environment. Among the
early findings was that male fish exposed to artificial
birth-control hormones were changing into female fish. Later
studies showed that common antidepressant medications seemed to be
changing the behavior of fish, making them easier targets for
In addition to estrogens and antidepressants, researchers have
found blood thinners, cholesterol-reducing drugs, various heart
medications, several hormones and painkillers, along with caffeine,
cocaine and various cosmetic and cleansing chemicals.
A study funded by the
Environmental Protection Agency looked for 56 active
pharmaceutical compounds in sewage effluent from 50 major treatment
plants around the country, finding significant levels of many
A new study by NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center and the
University of Washington looked at 150 compounds coming from two
sewage treatment plants in Puget Sound. They were Bremerton’s plant
on Sinclair Inlet and Tacoma’s plant on Commencement Bay. They also
tested the local waters along with juvenile chinook salmon and
Pacific staghorn sculpin to see if the fish were picking up the
According to a
NOAA news release, the study “found some of the nation’s
highest concentrations of these chemical compounds and detected
many in fish at concentrations that may affect their growth or
behavior.” For additional reporting on that study, check out the
Kitsap Sun story by Tristan Baurick and the
Seattle Times story by Lynda Mapes.
These chemicals could be having effects on various animals in
the food web — from benthic organisms that live in the sediments to
marine mammals — but more study is needed. Complicating the
situation is that multiple pharmaceutical chemicals may work
together to create different effects, depending on their
concentrations and the affected organism.
Many people would argue that we have enough information to
dramatically increase our efforts to remove these compounds from
wastewater going into Puget Sound. Drug take-back programs have
been started in many cities and counties throughout Puget Sound to
encourage people not to flush unused pills down the toilet or
drain. See the
Take Back Your Meds website. Still, Washington state has yet to
develop a comprehensive statewide program that would cover
Meanwhile, nobody can say what percentage of the drugs going
into the treatment plants were dumped down the drain versus being
excreted from the human body. But it wouldn’t matter as much if the
chemicals could be eliminated at the sewage-treatment plant.
More than a decade ago, Heidi Gough of the UW’s Department of
Civil & Environmental Engineering began working on the
development of bacteria that could break down these chemicals of
concern. She and her colleagues have isolated cultures of bacteria
that can break down triclosan, an antimicrobial; bisphenol A, a
plasticizer; ibuprofen, an anti-inflammatory drug; 17β-estradiol, a
natural hormone; and gemifibrozil, a cholesterol-lowering drug.
The process of isolating helpful bacteria and boosting their
numbers could theoretically be used to break down almost any
chemical of concern. To be suitable, the bacteria must 1) break
down the target chemical to a very low level, 2) grow well in
common growth media without the target chemical, 3) break down the
chemical even when other nutrient sources are abundant, and 4) work
quickly within the normal rate of sewage treatment.
Nicolette Zhou, a former UW graduate student, worked with Heidi
to successfully develop a bench-top treatment plant to test the
process. Nicolette also produced a computer model of how the
operation would perform at a large-scale treatment plant. She
completed her analysis and received her doctorate degree last fall.
Her latest findings are now awaiting publication in a scientific
Degradation of triclosan and bisphenol A by five bacteria,
Cultivation and characterization of bacteria capable of
degrading pharmaceutical and personal care products, Pub Med.
Other systems have been proposed for breaking down complex
pharmaceuticals, such as advanced oxidation or other chemical or
physical treatment. But biological breakdown offers the most hope
in the short term,
because it is how most
sewage-treatment plants workcan be implemented quickly without
major modifications and appears to be economical on a large
scale, Nocolette told me.
In a large-scale system, the first step would be to identify the
specific contaminants to be reduced and then select the bacteria.
Some bacteria will break down multiple chemicals, she said.
The bacteria would be grown in a tank and be fed into the sewage
preferably in a continual flow. Multiple chemicals of concern might
require several tanks for growing different bactieria.
If the process is successful and adopted by many treatment
plants, an alternative process could be developed. Instead of
growing the bacteria onsite, where conditions could be difficult to
control, all sorts of bacteria could be grown in an industrial
facility. The industrial plant would isolate the actual enzymes
needed to break down the chemicals and ship them to the treatment
plants. The enzymes could be stored and fed into the treatment
process as needed.
The research into this treatment process has progressed to where
the next step is a small-scale pilot project at a sewage-treatment
plant in the Puget Sound area, Nicolette said. A portion of the
actual wastewater would be diverted to the pilot plant, where
sewage would be subjected to the specialized bacteria and tested
for the level of treatment.
Ultimately, more studies are needed to establish a safe
concentration for the various chemicals that come from
pharmaceuticals and personal-care products. That way, one could
culture the appropriate bacteria and establish a reasonable
effluent limit for chemicals going into Puget Sound.
Painting large murals of endangered species on exterior walls
across the U.S. is a way of “fostering connections between people
and the other forms of life that surround them,” according to Roger
Peet, a Portland artist who is leading the project, commissioned by
the Center for Biological Diversity.
The latest mural, painted on a building in Los Angeles, shows a
blue whale breaching off the coast of an urban area with an
industrial skyline. The mural was painted from a massive stencil by
Brooklyn street artists Icy and Sot, who are brothers, according to
“Brooklyn Street Art.” The mural is designed to inspire
protection for the whale and reduction of ocean pollution, the
artists said in an interview.
The Center for Biological Diversity is perhaps best known for
suing the federal government to list and protect declining species,
but it has also been committed to public outreach, including the
condoms featuring endangered species. The organization launched
the mural project to call attention to at-risk wildlife specific to
local communities where the murals are painted, according to the
CBD’s website on the mural project.
The first mural in the series, featuring a mountain caribou, was
painted in Sandpoint, Idaho, northeast of Spokane. This area of the
Selkirk Mountains is the last remaining territory for the caribou
in the lower 48 states. Mural artists Mazatl and Joy Mallari worked
with Peet on the project.
“The city of Sandpoint unanimously approved the mural project
for a prominent downtown building and passed a resolution
supporting recovery of the caribou and augmentation of the southern
Selkirk herd — exactly the kind of local support for endangered
species our project is designed to foster,” states the CBD’s
The second mural, painted by Peet last summer in Butte, Mont.,
shows the Arctic grayling, a fish in the salmon family that was
once common in Northern Montana, the headwaters of the Missouri
River. Because of river diversions and pollution, the fish
population has declined dramatically. In the lower 48 states, the
fish survives only in a stretch of the Big Hole River near Butte.
Montana Standard has the story.
A monarch butterfly on a wall in South Minneapolis, Minn., is
the third mural in the series. In late summer, monarchs undergo
metamorphosis in Minnesota and other northern regions before
migrating to Mexico for the winter and then to the southern U.S.,
where they lay their eggs. Pesticide and development have taken a
toll on the monarch habitat and reduced their population by 80
percent over the past 20 years, according to the CBD website. Peet
worked with Barry Newman on the mural.
In November, a mural featuring the watercress darter was
completed in Birmingham, Ala. This small, brilliantly colored fish
is found only in the Birmingham area. Peet worked with Birmingham
artists Merrilee Challiss and Creighton Tynes on the mural.
“Birmingham was selected as the site of darter mural because
Alabama is a world hotspot for freshwater animal diversity, and the
center is working to protect hundreds of Alabama species from
extinction,” says a
news release from the Center for Biological Diversity.
Upcoming murals include a mussel — the pink mucket — in
Knoxville, Tenn., an aquatic salamander — the Ozark hellbender — in
St. Louis, Mo., multiple fish of the Colorado River on the Navajo
reservation in Arizona, and bull trout in Oakridge, Ore. Organizers
say more murals could be painted with additional funding and
support from local artists.
Painter Roger Peet, who continues to manage the mural project,
says the effort is built upon the biodiversity of individual
“Those species embody an area’s natural history and contribute
to what makes it irreplaceable. They also have something to say
about the future, as many are in danger of going extinct. And when
we lose species, the places and lives we live become poorer and
shallower places as a result.
“To help bring these species into the light, we decided to paint
them on the walls… Whether that’s a fish in a river, a butterfly
flitting from plant to plant or a caribou chewing lichen off a tree
trunk, we’re bringing together artists and communities to create
big, bold images that will become part of the neighborhoods where
they’re created, making it a little easier for people to care about
the native species struggling to survive in their midst.”
All photos courtesy of the Center for Biological
In the underwater world, where hearing can be more important
than sight, whales are being bombarded by a cacophony of sounds,
which started cluttering up their lives when the first steamships
were launched into the ocean.
Now, after 200 years, people are beginning to care about the
kinds of noise imposed upon marine mammals and other creatures. To
a limited extent, research can now answer this important question:
How are humans affecting marine life with noise coming from our
ships and boats, our ocean exploration and construction, and our
It is time to think about how we can apply new scientific
knowledge in a more meaningful way than current regulations, which
depend on putting a “safe” distance between one vessel and one
A month ago in
“Amusing Monday,” I featured the music of Dana Lyons, who wrote
a song about sound from the perspective of the whales. The song got
me to thinking about how the sailing ships of yesteryear must have
been so much more pleasant for the whales — assuming, of course,
that they weren’t whaling ships.
Scott Veirs, an oceanographer, joined forces with his dad,
physicist Val Veirs, to operate a hydrophone network based in the
San Juan Islands, where they study the sounds of whales, ships and
anything else that makes sounds in the waters of the Salish
“We are trying to get a statistically significant
characterization (of sound),” Scott told me. “For me, the question
is: Does this make a difference for certain species? To be honest,
I’m seeing lots of evidence in the emerging literature that ship
noise really does make a difference.”
Scott and Val, along with acoustics expert Jason Wood, recently
published a research paper in the journal “Peer J.,” in which they
describe their acoustic encounters with more than 3,000 ships
passing by their hydrophones. Through careful calibration of their
instruments, they were able to calculate sound levels at the source
— which can tell us which ships and boats produce the most noise
before attenuation of the sound through the water. Check out the
news release, or read the entire article.
It has long been known that cargo ships and other large vessels
produce low-frequency sounds that can travel great distances in
seawater. That adds to an overall background noise that seems to be
increasing over time. For baleen whales, who communicate with
lower-frequency sounds, this changing soundscape could be something
like the difference between a person living downtown in a busy city
and a person living in the country.
In an interesting but unplanned study after the 9/11 attacks of
2001, researchers were able to show that right whales in Canada’s
Bay of Fundy had lower stress hormone levels immediately after the
attacks. That’s when ship traffic — and noise — were significantly
lowered. The findings were limited to the short time frame that
ship traffic diminished, but the researchers were fortunate that
fecal samples from another study could be used to measure stress
hormones before and after 9/11. Review the paper:
Evidence that ship noise increases stress in right whales.
It was not a big surprise that large ships can affect baleen
whales, but Scott and his colleagues were able to show that large
ships produce not only low-frequency sounds but also high-frequency
sounds in the hearing range of killer whales.
“The noise does extend up into the range where whales hear well,”
Scott told me, “but that does not answer whether it matters to
He said the challenge for orcas is to hear the reflection of
high-frequency clicks sent out by an orca to locate chinook salmon
and other prey. The echolocation clicks are loud as they leave the
whale, but the return signal they are attempting to hear can be
faint unless the fish are very close, Scott said. If other high
frequency sounds, such as from nearby boats, interfere with their
hearing, then the whales may struggle to locate their prey, he
“My greatest concern is how much a single container ship might
decrease the range that a killer whale would be able to hear the
echo,” Scott said. “The impact in terms of decreasing their
foraging range is really kind of scary.”
Studies of various ships might identify what is causing the
high-frequency sounds and lead to a technological solution to the
problem, Scott said. Military ships are designed to be quiet, and
some of that technology could be transferred to commercial vessels.
If the noise from just 10 percent of the noisiest vessels could be
reduced, it could lead to a significant improvement in the noisy
The question of how much high-frequency noise reaches the killer
whales was the focus of a study conducted by researchers from the
University of Washington and NOAA Fisheries. Researchers used
suction cups to temporarily attach digital acoustic recording tags,
or d-tags, to killer whales to measure the level of sound. They
also used laser-positioning equipment operated from a research boat
to measure the size, speed, location and type of vessel emitting
“The goal was to understand this missing but assumed link
between what we see at the surface and what the whales experience
at depth,” said Juliana Houghton, a recent UW graduate and lead
author of the study, who was quoted in a
UW news release.
A key finding was that the number of propellers on a vessel
influenced the sound volume, but the most important factor was the
speed of the vessel — with higher speeds producing significantly
more high-frequency noise. The findings were published in the
journal PLOS ONE.
Taking these and other studies together could help chart a path
toward quieter vessels, less noise around whales and ultimately a
better outcome for marine mammals dependent on underwater
communication and echolocation.
Port Metro Vancouver in British Columbia has taken these ideas
one step further with a hydrophone listening station installed in
the inbound shipping lanes in the Strait of Georgia north of the
U.S. border. The listening station is part of a program called
Enhancing Cetacean Habitat and Observation (ECHO). The listening
station will monitor the noise of identified ships passing through.
news release from the port.
The video below shows the deployment of the listening station in
the Strait of Georgia in British Columbia.
From what I know about the system, it could potentially lead to
an individual sound profile for each ship entering Canadian waters,
and authorities could investigate whether slowing certain vessels
could reduce noise for whales in the area.
“The ECHO program’s long-term goal is to develop mitigation
measures that will lead to a quantifiable reduction in potential
threats to whales as a result of shipping activities,” Duncan
Wilson, vice president of corporate social responsibility at Port
Metro Vancouver, said in an op-ed piece in the Vancouver
“These mitigation measures may include incentives for the use of
green vessel technology, changes to operational activities of
ocean-going vessels, a certification program for quiet vessels,
and/or the development of noise criteria for vessels entering the
port,” he added.
2013 report by World Wildlife Fund–Canada (PDF 2.6 mb) makes
the case for developing tools to better manage noise. The 96-page
report, which came out of a 2012 workshop on ocean noise in Canada,
concluded that the ability to profile individual ships could lead
to these ideas for reducing noise:
“Use existing data on noise output from different sizes and
classes of vessels, and establish percentage criteria below which
ships should fall. Vessels above the criteria would face pecuniary
consequences, e.g., higher port fees…
“Shipping noise should not be allowed to reduce whale
communication space beyond a certain percentage … Masking is a
significant threat to marine animals.
“Establish a cumulative noise exposure level…, rather than only
maximum event-based exposure criteria for individual
“Develop a report card system that identifies the noisiest 10%
of vessels passing over a noise monitoring station. In the absence
of legislation, letters could be sent to vessel owners advising
them of their noisy ships, and a list of worst offenders could be
published. Letters could also be sent to the owners of quiet ships,
congratulating them on their reduced contribution to the
“Ports could adopt maintenance requirements for noisy ships, as
poor vessel maintenance is the source of extraneous noise on
approximately 10 percent of merchant ships.
“A mandatory phased-in program could be established to
incentivize quietening technologies for retrofitted vessels.
Proposed new projects could require quietened ships.”
Although the United States began regulating the effects of ocean
noise earlier than most countries — as early as the 1980s — U.S.
agencies have been slow to keep up with the best available science,
according to Michael Jasny of the Natural Resources Defense
Council, who wrote a chapter in the WWF report,
Be honest about estimating effects: U.S. sound
thresholds for marine mammals assume that 120 decibels of
“continuous” noise or 160 decibels of “intermittent” noise have an
adverse behavioral effect, while noise above 180 decibels is
considered injurious. But these numbers fail to account for
differences in species, bias in observed impacts and masking
effects. This makes the thresholds “outdated” and “insufficiently
Think cumulatively: Regulators and managers
should look beyond the effects of a single sound exposure to the
effects of noise over time on the population of animals from all
sources of noise.
Evolve beyond the near field: The traditional
approach has been a “safety zone,” in which sound sources are
powered down when marine mammals get within a specified range. The
U.S. has begun to move beyond this simple idea to habitat-based
management, including area closures for important habitats when
marine mammals are likely to be present. Also under review are
technical alternatives to reduce noise from ships, airguns (used in
seismic studies) and pile-driving equipment.
If you write about “all things water,” as I do, sooner or later
you must write about toilets. On the serious side, we’ve discussed
the issue of sanitation and the lack of clean water in many areas
of the world. On the humorous side, toilet jokes seem to have
claimed a spot on many television sitcoms — but we don’t need to
get into that.
The word “toilet,” by the way, originated not from the device
used to eliminate waste nor from the room where this device was
located. It came from the French toile, the word for “cloth,” which
was draped over a lady’s or gentleman’s shoulders when their hair
was being dressed, as explained by Wikipedia. Eventually, the
entire ensemble of the dressing table, mirror, powders and brushes
came to be known as the toilette, as I described in an
Amusing Monday post in October of 2013.
I’ve covered funny signs to direct people to the appropriate
restroom. Visit the Chive
gallery for 14 of these amusing signs.
I don’t believe I have ever taken a close look at toilet seats
and their lids, but it turns out that many are available for
purchase on the Internet. On a related note, my wife Sue and I have
a bathroom decorated in a Seahawks theme. The green-and-blue lid on
the toilet seat celebrates the Super Bowl victory two years ago. It
was a gift from her brother.
Here are some of the amusing toilet seats I found. Click on the
image to find at least one place where the item is sold.
A school play about climate change, featuring a worried mother
polar bear and evil villains named “Mr. Carbon” and “Mr. Methane,”
have captured the imaginations of elementary and junior-high-school
students across the country.
The program, called “Cool the Earth,” includes
follow-up activities that encourage the young students to bring
climate-saving ideas home with them.
The first video on this page shows a play performed by teachers
at Spring Valley Science School in San Francisco. I love the
laughter of the children in the background. The second video shows
an NBC News story from 2011.
The “Cool the Earth” program was developed in 2007 by Carleen
and Jeff Cullen, parents in Marin County, Calif., who became
inspired to take action on climate change after viewing Al Gore’s
documentary “An Inconvenient Truth.” Showing the film to others
failed to gain the action they desired, so they expanded their
horizons by developing an easy-to-understand message that could be
shared with kids and their parents.
The program was launched at Bacich Elementary School in
Kentfield, Calif., and has grown to involve more than 200 schools
across the country, though most are in California. See the list at
Schools and Troops.”
An article on the Green Schools
Initiative website quotes Heather Dobbs, a parent coordinator
at Alexander Hamilton School in Morristown, N.J., who says “Cool
the Earth” explains climate change in a meaningful way:
“The kids love the play because the teachers playing the parts
are big hams. It tugs at the kids’ heart strings when they hear
about polar bears in danger. Kids can take in that story more
easily than just hearing about carbon emissions.”
Students then take home coupon books offering 20 ideas for no-
or low-cost actions that they can do on their own or with their
parents to earn points and sometimes prizes, such as earth-friendly
Carleen Cullen explains the program in the video below.