Category Archives: Planning

Hood Canal awards honor local efforts to improve ecosystem

Mike Anderson, chairman of the Skokomish Watershed Action Team, and Thom Johnson, a leading expert in the recovery of Hood Canal summer chum salmon, have been named recipients of this year’s Hood Canal Environmental Awards.

Other recipients of the awards, which are sponsored by Hood Canal Coordinating Council, are Shore Friendly Mason and Shore Friendly Kitsap, two programs that actively enlist waterfront property owners in the protection and restoration of their shorelines.

Hood Canal // Photo: Dale Ireland
Hood Canal // Photo: Dale Ireland

I learned this afternoon that the awards ceremony on Nov. 4 will be dedicated to Rich Geiger, the longtime district engineer for Mason Conservation District. Rich, who died unexpectedly on Sept. 22, held the “technical vision” for the restoration of the Skokomish River watershed, according to Mike Anderson. (See Water Ways, Oct. 8.)

Rich had already been honored with a Hood Canal Environmental Award, but a lot of people have been asking that he receive some special recognition at this year’s ceremony, said Scott Brewer, executive director of the Hood Canal Coordinating Council.

“Rich was instrumental in working in the Skokomish watershed, but he certainly left his mark on other watersheds around Hood Canal,” Scott told the coordinating council, which is made up of county commissioners in Kitsap, Mason and Jefferson counties along with tribal leaders for the Skokomish and Port Gamble S’Klallam tribes. The council endorsed the special recognition for Rich Geiger.

The awards ceremony will recognize individuals and groups whose actions have improved the Hood Canal environment and community. The event will be at Kitsap Conference Center at Bremerton Harborside on Friday, Nov. 4, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Guest speakers include Sarah Spaeth of Jefferson Land Trust, who will talk on “Fish, Farms and Forests of the Chimacum Watershed,” and Lissa James of Hama Hama Company, whose talk is titled “Natural Resources and the Sustainability of Place in the Northwest.”

Anyone may attend. Reservations should be made by Oct. 31 by contacting Robin Lawlis, or 360-394-0046. For information, check the website of the Hood Canal Coordinating Council.

Winner of the Hood Canal Environmental Awards “embody the spirit of fostering cooperation, collaboration and lasting relationships to achieve a healthy Hood Canal,” according to organizers. Winners will have time to talk about their experiences during the ceremony.

Mike Anderson, who has been with the Wilderness Society since 1985, has been coordinating the Skokomish Watershed Action Team since its inception 10 years ago. Mike’s energy and collaborative skills have kept this team of diverse interests moving forward toward the ultimate restoration of the Skokomish River watershed. A major accomplishment was the recent congressional approval of a $19-million restoration project by the Army Corps of Engineers, but that is just the latest of many projects involving the U.S. Forest Service, Skokomish Tribe, state agencies, Green Diamond Resource Company, Tacoma Public Utilities and others.

Thom Johnson, environmental program manager for the Point No Point Treaty Council, has been a longtime leader in the recovery of salmon, most notably Hood Canal summer chum. He got his start on the summer chum project in the 1990s, when he worked for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. Thom also has been a key participant in recovery efforts, including the Lead Entity Citizens Group and the Technical Advisory Group for the Hood Canal Coordinating Council. Through the years, he has been a valuable adviser to council members on many issues.

Shore Friendly Kitsap and Shore Friendly Mason each involve numerous organizations working together under an umbrella program organized by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Washington Department of Natural Resources and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Local groups include Mason Conservation District, WSU Kitsap County Extension, Washington Sea Grant, Futurewise and QWG Applied Geology.

Shore Friendly has helped people understand how they can improve their shorelines, including the removal of bulkheads and restoration of natural shoreline features, including native plants. The program also provides financial incentives and assists people with permits to restore functioning shoreline habitat. See Shore Friendly Kitsap and Shore Friendly Mason.

Honorable mentions in this year’s Hood Canal Environmental Awards program:

Jay and Susie Allen for their years of restoration efforts and stewardship on their land in the Tahuya River watershed. It has been said that whenever the Allens are approached about a project or idea, their only question is how they can help.

Roma Call ensures that cleanup, restoration and important environmental regulations and protections are established to conserve valuable resources and ecosystems for the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe. Roma’s collaborative efforts gain the support of many partners.

Clear Creek Elementary Student Garden Project sponsored by Barbara Bromley, a fourth-grade teacher. This project began with a pitch at an ECO Net meeting of environmental educators. It grew with the help of a grant from the Department of Defense Education Activity with local support from the USS Michigan crew, Spectra Laboratories and The Brothers Nursery.

Kitsap Forest & Bay Coalition for work with Kitsap County to create a stewardship plan for the new 535-acre Port Gamble Forest Heritage Park on Port Gamble Bay, which includes several projects involving hundreds of volunteers, community groups and businesses.

Michelle Myers with the Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group, who works tirelessly across multiple dimensions to develop adult outreach programs and youth educational activities. Efforts involve restoring habitat, pursuing stakeholder engagement and supporting Hood Canal Watershed Education Network projects.

Rich Geiger held the ‘restoration vision’ for Skokomish ecosystem

It is hard to imagine the restoration of the Skokomish River ecosystem without the involvement of Rich Geiger, a longtime engineer for Mason Conservation District. Rich had a way of explaining technical aspects of environmental restoration, and he was a tremendous help to me through the years.

Rich Geiger, engineer for Mason Conservation District, explains the dynamics of the Skokomish River in this 2009 file photo. Rich died Sept. 22. Photo: Kitsap Sun
Rich Geiger, engineer for Mason Conservation District who died Sept. 22, explains the dynamics of the Skokomish River in this 2009 file photo. // Photo: Kitsap Sun

Rich, who was 59 years old, died unexpectedly two weeks ago.

I got to know Rich in 2008 and 2009 while working on a series of stories about the Skokomish River. My research involved interviews with members of the Skokomish Tribe, farmers, loggers and longtime residents of the area. For the final story, I talked to Rich about what was wrong with the river and what needed to be done to reduce the flooding and restore the ecosystem. He taught me a lot about river dynamics.

The Skokomish, if you didn’t know, is the largest river in Hood Canal, and it exerts a great influence on the long, narrow waterway with its amazing diversity of habitat.

“Something has bothered me about this river for a long time,” Rich said, as quoted in my story for the Kitsap Sun. “I have been doing a great deal of reading about river systems and sediment transport,” he continued. “To boil it down, the sediment is too heavy to be moved by the depths we think are there in the Skokomish.”

Fast and deep water contains the force to move larger rocks, he told me. Somehow the river was able to move large gravel out of the mountains, but it never made it all the way to Hood Canal. Digging into the gravel bars, Rich found layers of fine sediment wedged between layers of larger rock — evidence that the energy of the river had changed suddenly at various times.

Rich collaborated with engineers from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. Geological Survey and Army Corps of Engineers. Eventually, they came to understand the river well enough to develop a plan for restoration. Throughout the process, Rich was willing to take time to help me understand every aspect of the restoration alternatives. I will always be grateful for his expertise and patience.

in January 2014, the plan was completed and accepted by ranking officials in the Army Corps of Engineers. I called Rich for his reaction to the important milestone.

“We are very glad to be at this point, because we are talking about a physical project moving forward and not just more planning,” he told me. “We asked the Corps to produce a single integrated restoration plan, and they did.” To review a brief summary of the plan, see Water Ways Jan. 26, 2014.

The final plan by the Army Corps of Engineers became incorporated into the Water Resources Development Act, including $19 million proposed for the Skokomish project. The bill was approved, first by the U.S. Senate and then by the House. A few details still need to be worked out, but after years and years of planning, the Skokomish project became virtually assured of funding just a week after Rich died.

Mike Anderson, chairman of the Skokomish Watershed Action Team, said Rich had always been the “brains of the collaborative.”

“Rich was the holder of the technical vision of the watershed restoration,” Mike noted. “He understood how all the different parts of the watershed — from the mountains down to the estuary and beyond — work together.

“When we started out, he acknowledged that he did not know what the answers would be for the valley. One of his great achievements was getting the GI (general investigation) completed and the … support for authorization. He felt rightly proud of completing that difficult study.”

U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer introduced a statement into the Congressional Record (PDF 9.3 mb) on the last day the House was in session. It includes this observation:

“Mr. Speaker, Richard was not only an environmental advocate and steward, he was also a leader in the community. He excelled at fostering collaboration and consensus among diverse community stakeholders, including private landowners, businesses, Native American Tribes, and local, state, and federal agencies, to achieve common goals.”

Rich was born April 12, 1957, and graduated from Billings Senior High School. He attended Gonzaga University in Spokane, where he became an ROTC Cadet and earned a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering. After graduation, he served as a lieutenant in the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division and advanced to rank of major.

In 1994, he took a job with Mason County Public Works Department, where he held a variety of engineering positions. In 2001, he joined the Mason Conservation District as district engineer.

The family has suggested that memorials be made to the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation, a non-profit organization committed to alleviating the suffering caused by mental illness. The foundation awards grants aimed at making advances and breakthroughs in scientific research.

Amusing Monday: On location with music for a warming Arctic Ocean

As chunks of the Wahlenbergbreen glacier break off and crash into the sea next to him, Italian pianist and composer Ludovico Einaudi plays on, performing a piece he wrote for this moment.

As seen in this video, Einaudi’s piano is situated on a floating platform surrounded by small pieces of floating ice. He came to Norway this past June on the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise to make a statement about the need to protect the Arctic Ocean. The composition, “Elegy for the Arctic,” fits the time and place.

“The ice is constantly moving and creating,” he told Sara Peach, a writer for Yale Climate Connections. “Every hour there is a different landscape. Walls of ice fall down into the water and they create big waves.”

Because of global warming, the Arctic is losing its ice, changing this remote ecosystem. Environmentalists are concerned about the increasing exploitation of minerals and fish in this fragile region. Greenpeace is among the groups pushing for international protections.

Supporting the cause, Einaudi performed with his grand piano on an artificial iceberg, 33 feet by 8.5 feet, made of 300 triangles of wood attached together.

“Being here has been a great experience,” he said in a Greenpeace news release issued at the time. “I could see the purity and fragility of this area with my own eyes and interpret a song I wrote to be played upon the best stage in the world. It is important that we understand the importance of the Arctic, stop the process of destruction and protect it.”

“If you haven’t heard the music of Ludovico Einaudi, then it’s probably because you don’t know it’s by Ludovico Einaudi,” writes Tim Jonze, music editor for The Guardian. “For years, his muted piano music has been stealthily soundtracking TV shows and adverts, seeping into our collective consciousness while the mild-mannered Italian behind it stayed out of the limelight.”

He has written songs for numerous soundtracks, including the trailer for “The Black Swan.” He has collaborated with other artists in theater, video and dance. Besides a long list of albums, his credits include multiple television commercials in Europe and the U.S.

In March, Einaudi released a music video, “Fly,” for Earth Hour (second video on this page). In my annual story about Earth Hour, I noted that the event may be losing its appeal in the U.S. but is still going strong in other countries. See Water Ways, March 16.

In the third video on this page, Einaudi discusses his latest project, an album titled “Elements.”

New protections planned for Devils Lake and Dabob Bay natural areas

In 1991, accompanied by botanist Jerry Gorsline, I visited Devils Lake for the first time. I remember being awestruck — in part by the beauty of the place but also because of the many unusual native plants that Jerry raved about. Not one invasive species had reached this place.

“Visiting Devils Lake,” I wrote, “is like stepping back in time, perhaps 200-300 years, to a period when civilization had not yet carried the seeds of foreign plants to the Pacific Northwest. At one end of the lake lies an enchanted world — a rare bog, where the sound of distant bubbles accompanies each footstep in the spongy moss.”

Proposed expansion of Devils Lake Natural Resources Conservation Area Map: DNR
Proposed expansion of Devils Lake Natural Resources Conservation Area // Map: DNR

Jerry worried that telling the story of Devils Lake would bring irresponsible people to the lake, people who could destroy the fragile ecosystem. But he also worried that not telling the story would lead to a massive clearcut on this state-owned land and that this wonderland would slip away. You can read this story online in Chapter 10 of the book “Hood Canal: Splendor at Risk” (PDF 5.2 mb).

Jerry and others were successful in limiting the logging, in part because of increasing environmental awareness and a new program called the Timber, Fish and Wildlife Agreement. In 2002, 80 acres containing the lake were permanently set aside as a natural resource conservation area.

Now Public Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark wants to add another 415 acres to the NRCA before he leaves office. The added property, now held in trust for state school construction, would extend the protected habitat to the western shore of Quilcene Bay. To gain special protections, the land would need to go through a process to compensate the trust for the loss of land and timber values.

Proposed expansion of Dabob Bay Natural Resources Conservation Area. Map: DNR
Proposed expansion of Dabob Bay Natural Resources Conservation Area. // Map: DNR

Nearby, the 2,771-acre Dabob Bay natural area — which includes the highly valued natural area preserve and the surrounding NRCA — would increase by 3,640 acres under the expansion plan. About 940 acres is held by the state in trust status. Private lands, totaling 2,700 acres, could be purchased by the state but only from willing sellers.

Basic details are provided in a fact sheet from DNR (PDF 318 kb). Peter Bahls, executive director of Northwest Watershed Institute, wrote an article about the plan for Olympic Forest Coalition.

Two public meetings have been scheduled at Quilcene High School to discuss the plan:

  • Informational discussion: Wednesday, Sept. 28, from 6 to 8 p.m.
  • Public hearing for comments: Thursday, Oct. 13, from 6 to 8 p.m.
  • Written comments: Information available at the link above.

Information on the previous Dabob Bay NRCA expansion and request for related funding can be found in the DNR publication “Dabob Bay Coastal Conservation” (PDF 12.3 mb).

Extensive floodplain restoration brings new hope to Clear Creek

A giant piece of a cedar log stands erect in a barren landscape north of Silverdale, where a new channel for Clear Creek stands ready to receive water.

An old cedar log was recovered during excavation for a new channel for Clear Creek. Photo: Dunagan
An old cedar log was recovered during excavation for a new channel for Clear Creek.
Photo: Christopher Dunagan

Well, maybe this channel won’t be entirely new. Designers working to restore this portion of Clear Creek studied old maps. They tried to align the new man-made channel to the meandering stream that existed 150 years ago, before farmers diverted the creek around their fields.

During excavation, workers uncovered buried gravel — remnants of the old streambed — along with chunks of cedar that had lain along the edge of the stream. Buried and cut off from oxygen, these pieces of wood survived for decades underground, while cattle grazed in the fields above.

Workers excavating for the new channel used their heavy equipment to pull out what remained of a great cedar log. They stood the log vertical and buried one end in the ground — a monument to the past and future of Clear Creek.

A restored Clear Creek floodplain (before plantings) north of Waaga Way in Central Kitsap. Photo: Kitsap County Public Works
A restored Clear Creek floodplain (before plantings) north of Waaga Way in Central Kitsap.
Photo: Kitsap County Public Works

Chris May, manager of Kitsap County’s stormwater program, showed me the new channel this week. He said it was rewarding to uncover some buried history and realize that the stream would be restored in roughly the same place.

“We found the old channel,” Chris told me, pointing to a deposit of gravel. “We are pretty confident that we got it right.”

This $3-million project has been conceived and designed as much more than a stream-restoration project. The elevations of the land around the stream have been carefully planned so that high flows will spill into side channels and backwater pools. That should reduce flooding in Silverdale and help stabilize the high and low flows seen in Clear Creek.

Before photo: This was the farmers field as it appeared before restoration. Photo: Kitsap County Public Works
Before photo: This was the farm field as it appeared before restoration. // Photo: Kitsap County Public Works

The engineers did not calculate the reduced frequency of flooding, but floodwater storage is calculated to be 18.4 acre-feet, the equivalent of a foot of water spread over 18.4 acres or 29,700 cubic yards or 6 million gallons.

In all, about 30,000 cubic yards of material have been removed across 21 acres, including the former Schold Farm on the west side of Silverdale Way and the Markwick property on the east side. Native wetland vegetation will be planted along the stream and in low areas throughout the property. Upland areas will be planted with natural forest vegetation.

The topsoil, which contained invasive plants such as reed canarygrass, was hauled away and buried beneath other excavated soils to form a big mound between the new floodplain and Highway 3. That area will be planted with a mixture of native trees.

Graphic showing area before restoration. Graphic: Kitsap County Public Works
Graphic showing area before restoration.
Graphic: Kitsap County Public Works

Plans call for removal of 1,500 feet of an existing road with upgrades to two aging culverts. Adding meanders to the straightened channel will create 500 feet of new streambed that should be suitable for salmon spawning.

Plans call for adding 334 pieces large woody debris, such as logs and root wads to the stream. Some of that wood will be formed into structures and engineered logjams to help form pools and gravel bars.

Graphic showing area after restoration. Graphic: Kitsap County Public Works
Graphic showing area after restoration. Notice stream meanders near beaver pond habitat
Graphic: Kitsap County Public Works

“This will be one of the first streams to meet the Fox and Bolton numbers,” Chris told me, referring to studies by Martin Fox and Susan Bolton of the University of Washington. The two researchers studied natural streams and calculated the amount of woody debris of various kinds needed to simulate natural conditions, all based on the size of a stream. (Review North American Journal of Fisheries Management.)

The elevations on the property were also designed so that high areas on opposite sides of the stream would be in close proximity in several locations.

“Beaver will pick that spot,” Chris said, pointing to one location where the stream channel was squeezed by elevated banks on each side. “We want to encourage beaver to come in here.”

Beaver ponds will increase the floodwater storage capacity of the new floodplain and provide important habitat for coho salmon, which spend a year in freshwater and need places to withstand both high and low flows. Because the county owns the flooded property, there won’t be any complaints about damage from beavers, Chris noted.

Aerial photo showing project area with Silverdale in the background, Silverdale Way to the left and Highway 3 to the right. Photo: Kitsap County Public Works
Aerial photo showing project area with Silverdale in the background, Silverdale Way to the left and Highway 3 to the right. // Photo: Kitsap County Public Works

Clear Creek Trail (PDF 390 kb), which begins on the shore of Dyes Inlet, will be routed along the higher elevations as the trail winds through the property. Three new bridges will provide vantage points to watch salmon after vegetation obscures other viewing areas from the trail. Viewing platforms, as seen along other parts of Clear Creek Trail, were not included in this project but could be subject to further discussions.

Count me among the many people — experts, volunteers and users of Clear Creek Trail — who are eager to see how nature responds when water (now diverted) returns to the new stream channel. For decades, the lack of good habitat has constrained the salmon population in Clear Creek. The stream still has problems related to its highly developed watershed. But now a series of restoration projects is providing hope for increased coho and chum salmon and possibly steelhead trout as well as numerous other aquatic species.

In a story in the Kitsap Sun, Reporter Tristan Baurick described work this week on the Markwick property, where fish were removed in preparation for final channel excavation.

Here are some details (including photos) of various Clear Creek projects, as described in the state’s Habitat Work Schedule for restoration projects:

Washington Department of Ecology provided $2 million for the project. Kitsap County’s stormwater and roads programs each provided $500,000.

Harper Estuary project nears fall construction; bridge to come later

A new Harper Estuary bridge is being planned with a trail to the water. Graphic: Kitsap County Public Works
A new Harper Estuary bridge is being planned with a trail to the water. // Graphic: Kitsap County Public Works

The Harper Estuary restoration project is finally coming together, with one contractor being hired for culvert removal, others bidding for the excavation work and engineers completing the designs for a new bridge.

Since June, the first phase of the project has been divided into two parts. The first actual construction will involve the replacement of a 24-inch culvert that carries Harper Creek under Southworth Drive. The new structure will be a three-sided, open-bottom culvert that spans 16 feet across the stream.

A larger culvert will carry Harper Creek under Southworth Drive. Graphic: Kitsap County Public Works
A larger culvert will carry Harper Creek under Southworth Drive. (Click to enlarge.)
Graphic: Kitsap County Public Works

Bids were opened, and a contractor has been preliminarily selected, said Doris Small, project coordinator for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. A meeting has been scheduled for Tuesday to iron out the final details and award the contract, she said.

The work must be completed by Oct. 15, so things will progress rapidly, she said. An announcement will be made soon regarding a temporary detour on Southworth Drive.

The remainder of the first phase involves the excavation of dirt and other debris used to fill in the estuary years ago. The project has been reduced slightly in size from the original design, reducing water contact in certain spots, Doris told me. Also, an analysis of the soils to be removed concluded that some of the fill material is contaminated at such a low level that it can be used as fill elsewhere or sent to a composting facility.

Olympiad Drive crosses Harper Estuary. Photo: Kitsap County Public Works
Olympiad Drive crosses Harper Estuary.
Photo: Kitsap County Public Works

Bids will be taken on the excavation project until Sept. 13, and the work must be done before the middle of February.

The design of a new 120-foot-long bridge on Olympiad Drive is between 60 and 90 percent complete. Applications have been submitted for several grants to complete the project, primarily construction of the new bridge. The bridge will replace a 36-inch culvert where the road crosses the estuary. The design includes access for people to walk down to the water, and it can be used to launch small hand-carried boats.

As I described in Water Ways in June, the existing makeshift boat launch must be removed to allow the restored estuary to function properly. I am told, however, that county officials are still looking for a nearby site to build a new boat launch with access for trailered boats.

If grants are approved to cover the cost, the bridge could be under construction next summer, Doris said. The total estimated cost of the entire restoration is now $7 million, with $4.1 million approved from a mitigation fund related to contamination from the Asarco smelter in Tacoma.

For information:

Looking backward, then forward on actions in Skokomish watershed

Through the years, I’ve written a lot about the Skokomish River, which begins in the Olympic Mountains and flows into the south end of Hood Canal. The wide, productive estuary might be described as the elbow of this long, narrow waterway that bends up toward Belfair.


I’ve heard it said that Puget Sound cannot be restored to health without a healthy Hood Canal, and Hood Canal cannot be restored to health without a healthy Skokomish River. Whether that is true remains to be seen, but I have no doubt that the Skokomish River watershed is coming out of a dark period of abuse with hope of becoming one of the most productive streams in the region.

Much of the credit for the transformation goes to a group of men and women from a variety of agencies, occupations and ways of life who came together with an understanding of the historic value of the Skokomish River and a vision for what the river could become again. This was the Skokomish Watershed Action Team, or SWAT, which celebrated its 10th anniversary last year.


To be sure, it was basically loads of money that began to transform the abused Skokomish River watershed to a much more productive system. But the people in charge of the federal, state, local and private dollars were able to see the Skokomish as a worthy cause, thanks to the groundwork laid by the SWAT. Disappointments have been few, as one project after another brings this long lost river back to life.

Yes, I have written a lot about the Skokomish River, its history and its future. That’s why I was glad to see the 10-year update to the Skokomish Watershed Action Plan (download, PDF 113 mb). The document contains an extensive account of the projects completed and the milestones passed through the years. Whether you are intimately involved in the watershed or just want to know what the heck I’m talking about, take a look at the report released this week.

Logjam soon after installation in 2010. Photo: U.S. Forest Service
Logjam soon after installation in 2010.
Photo: U.S. Forest Service

Since 2005, nearly 50 restoration projects were completed — from removal of old logging roads high in the mountains to the re-establishment of tidal channels in the lower estuary. Salmon are being reintroduced to the North Fork of the Skokomish River, including the dammed-up Lake Cushman, thanks to a legal settlement between Tacoma and the Skokomish Tribe.

After establishment, a deep pool forms behind the logjam. Photo: U.S. Forest Service
Later, a deep pool forms behind the jam.
Photo: U.S. Forest Service

About 12 miles upstream in the South Fork of the Skokomish, a series of 30 logjams were installed and almost immediately began to restore the channel to a more natural habitat for fish and other aquatic creatures. This area was part of a four-mile stretch that was heavily logged in the 1950s for a reservoir that never happened.

Once the logjams were in place, the area began to store massive loads of sediment, which always created problems as they washed downstream into the lower river. The river’s characteristic problem of spreading out and slowing down was reversed, as width-to-depth ratios decreased and the average depth in the middle of the river increased by two feet. The number of pools deeper than five feet doubled from three to six, and the piles of wood grew larger by capturing logs floating downstream.

The new report also lays out plans for the watershed in the coming years, including projects identified in a major study by the Army Corps of Engineers. A Corps proposal to fund $20 million in restoration projects is now before Congress, as I described in Water Ways in April and June. Other projects have been proposed for separate funding, as outlined in the new report.

Demanding international changes to help protect marine mammals

After 43 years and some legal prodding, the United States is preparing to use its economic and political power to protect whales, dolphins and other marine mammals around the world.

On Monday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is scheduled to publish regulations that will set up a system to ban imports of seafood from any country that fails to control the killing of marine mammals in its fishing industry.

Photo: Daniel Schwen, Wikimedia Commons
Photo: Daniel Schwen, Wikimedia Commons

To avoid a ban, foreign controls must be as effective as standards adopted by the United States to reduce the incidental death and injury to marine mammals in the U.S. fishing industry. Harvesting nations that wish to continue selling fish and fish products to U.S. markets will have five years to implement their marine mammal protection programs, if they have not already done so.

When it was first approved by Congress in 1972, the Marine Mammal Protection Act included provisions that would ban imports of fish caught in commercial fisheries where the “bycatch” of marine mammals exceeded U.S. standards. But the law was largely ignored until environmental groups filed a lawsuit against NOAA two years ago. The lawsuit was eventually settled, with NOAA agreeing to approve new rules by August of this year.

NOAA estimates that 650,000 marine mammals are killed each year in fishing operations. Meanwhile, U.S. consumers obtain 94 percent of their seafood from a growing import market valued at $33 billion in 2013.

“The new regulations will force countries to meet U.S. conservation standards if they want access to the U.S. market, saving thousands of whales and dolphins from dying on hooks and in fishing nets around the world,” said Sarah Uhlemann, international program director for the Center for Biological Diversity. “The U.S. government has finally recognized that all seafood consumed in the United States must be ‘dolphin-safe.’”

Comments were made in a joint news release from the Center for Biological Diversity, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Turtle Island Restoration Network — the three groups that brought the lawsuit.

Graphic: NOAA
Graphic: NOAA

The new regulatory program on imports calls on NOAA Fisheries to issue a “comparability finding” after harvesting nations demonstrate that they have a regulatory program that meets U.S. standards for protecting marine mammals. Each program must prohibit the incidental killing or serious injury to marine mammals in all fisheries, estimate numbers of marine mammals on their fishing grounds and find ways to reduce harm if established limits are exceeded.

Over the next year, the regulations call for NOAA Fisheries to request information on marine mammal bycatch from countries that export to the U.S. On a list of foreign fisheries, each fishery will be classified either as “export” or “exempt.” Exempt fisheries are determined to have a remote chance of killing marine mammals, so they are not required to have a regulatory protection program. Those fisheries likely to impact marine mammals and those lacking information about impacts are placed in the export category. All fisheries must prohibit intentional killing of marine mammals to receive certification.

At the end of the five-year period, NOAA Fisheries will publish a list of fisheries that will not receive a comparability finding along with a list of fish banned from import. Those countries will receive information about why they were denied certification and are eligible to reapply at any time. Other details are outlined in a fact sheet from NOAA Fisheries.

The U.S. Marine Mammal Commission, a group appointed by the president to advise the government on the Marine Mammal Protection Act, welcomed the long-overdue regulations to protect marine mammals throughout the world, but said the five-year implementation period is too long. See comments, Nov. 9, 2015. (PDF 1.4 mb):

“Inasmuch as this is an ongoing, long-standing statutory requirement, the Commission does not see a legal basis for deferring implementation. To the extent that any delay can be countenanced, it should be kept to the absolute minimum necessary to secure the required information from exporting countries.

“The Commission is concerned that the proposed delay would result in at least another six years during which seafood could continue to be imported into and sold in the United States, despite unacceptably high levels of marine mammal bycatch, unbeknownst to U.S. consumers, and during which U.S. fleets would face unfair competition from foreign fleets with little or no accountability to follow comparable marine mammal conservation measures.”

In 1988, while the U.S. was developing new fishing standards to protect marine mammals, U.S. fishermen were required to report the type of gear they were using and any incidental catch of marine mammals, the Marine Mammal Commission noted. Fishermen also were required to allow observers on their boats while the agency developed stock assessments and new rules to protect various species of marine mammals. Those kinds of interim measures should be required of foreign fleets as well, the commission said.

Among its many comments when the rule was first proposed last year, the commission criticized the plan for placing too much burden on NOAA Fisheries to gather the information, rather than requiring the importing countries to document their protections for marine mammals.

“The Commission further recommends that the final rule clearly specify that nations be issued a CF only if they meet the U.S. standards, rather than be issued a CF unless it is shown that they do not meet the applicable requirements.”

As far as I can tell, the final rule failed to incorporate most of the commission’s suggestions. Still, using the economic and political power of the U.S. to protect marine mammals around the world is a considerable leap.

While the new regulations are expected to level the playing field for U.S. fishermen who must comply with marine mammal protections, we have yet to see the full response from other countries. At some point, a ban on U.S. imports is likely to trigger a challenge based on existing international trade agreements. I haven’t seen much written about the legal implications of the new marine-mammal-protection rules, but we have seen what can happen. Review the article by Mark J. Robertson about “dolphin-safe” tuna rules in a report for the International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development.

The proper use of crab pots means extra crabs for the dinner plate

“Catch more crab!”

This is a campaign slogan going out to Puget Sound crabbers. It is a positive message, built upon the goals of:

  • Helping people avoid losing their crab pots,
  • Reducing the number of crabs that go to waste, and
  • Increasing the number of crabs available for harvest.


We’ve talked about the problems of lost crab pots that keep on catching crabs on the bottom of Puget Sound. About 12,000 crab pots are lost each year in Puget Sound, killing an estimated 178,000 legal-sized Dungeness crabs that would otherwise be served up for dinner. In January, I described some simple alterations to crab pots that allow crabs to escape when a pot gets lost. See Water Ways, Jan. 28.

Even more basic, however, are proven techniques that help people select equipment and place their crab pots so they don’t get damaged or lost in the first place.

The Northwest Straits Initiative, authorized by Congress in 1998, has been working on the problem of derelict gear for years, including the retrieval of thousands of lost nets and crab pots from Puget Sound. When it came to enlisting the public’s help in prevention, campaign organizers realized that everyone was on the same side, said Jason Morgan of the nonprofit Northwest Straits Foundation.


“We previously focused on the doom and gloom of it, talking about so many crabs killed each year,” Jason told me.

Working with sociologists, campaign organizers realized that “the better way to reach people is not to talk about dead crabs but to say we want you to catch more crabs and keep your crab pots.”

The Northwest Straits Foundation has developed a three-year plan of action, including education for the public; improved communication among crabbers, vessel operators and government officials; and recommendations for improving regulations.

The plan was put together by a working group of 35 people involved in various aspects of crab harvesting, boat traffic and resource protection.

“It was a great collaborative process,” Jason said. “There was no butting of heads or anything like that.”

The “Puget Sound Lost Crab Pot Prevention Plan” (PDF 996 kb) states:

“Crab pots are lost for a variety of reasons. Causes for loss generally fall into three categories:

  • Vessel interaction (both recreational and commercial vessels);
  • Improperly configured gear, including improperly tied knots; and
  • Improperly placed gear.

“All these categories usually include a degree of user error, either on the part of the crabber, or on the part of the boater or vessel operator.”

The plan includes at least 25 strategies for reducing conflicts between vessel traffic and crab pots, reducing tampering and sabotage, improving crabbing equipment and pot configuration, and removing abandoned crab pots during non-crabbing days.

One of the interesting ideas is to require online registration for recreational crab endorsements on fishing licenses. Applicants would take a short quiz to make sure they know the rules.

Rich Childers, shellfish manager for Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said the various regulatory proposals in the plan are under advisement. One idea, which has proven effective, is to reduce the size of allowable escape cord (“rot cord”) that opens an escape hatch for the crabs to get out. Studies have shown that approved escape cord takes between 30 and 148 days to disintegrate, and most people use larger cord to last longer.

The time that crabs are trapped and dying on the bottom could be reduced if the rules were changed to require smaller cord. Any rule changes would include a grace period, Childers said, and it would be nice if crabbers could obtain the smaller cord for free.

With crab season underway, a series of videos on the theme “Catch more crab!” couldn’t come at a better time:

A longer video shows how to modify a crab pot to make sure that crabs can escape when a crab pot is lost:

“Modify your crab pot: adding bungee cord & modifying escape ring”

The video below provides basic information for first-time crabbers. Meanwhile, outdoors writer Mark Yuasa offered a nice instructional story last week in the Seattle Times.

To check on crab seasons and legal requirements, visits the Recreational Crab Fishing webpage of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Canary rockfish likely
to be removed from Endangered Species List

One of the three species of rockfish listed as threatened or endangered in the Puget Sound region is about to be pulled off the Endangered Species List, following recent scientific findings.

Canary rockfish Photo by Tippy Jackson, NOAA
Canary rockfish
Photo by Tippy Jackson, NOAA

Genetic studies carried out with the help of fisherfolk from Kitsap County have determined that canary rockfish are not a discrete population from those found off the Washington Coast. An official comment period on the delisting is open until Sept. 6, as described in the Federal Register.

I first discussed early evidence of this genetic finding a year ago. Kelly Andrews, a genetics expert with NOAA Fisheries, confirmed that limited genetic samples of canary rockfish from coastal areas appeared no different from samples taken from Puget Sound. Kelly wanted to review analyses from additional samples before drawing firm conclusions. See Water Ways, June 18, 2015.

Removing canary rockfish from the Endangered Species List will have no effect on yelloweye rockfish, listed as threatened, or bacaccio, listed as endangered. The change also is expected to have no immediate effects on fishing rules, which are designed to protect all rockfish in Puget Sound.

Rockfish are considered an important part of the Puget Sound ecosystem. Understanding the causes of their decline and finding ways to rebuild their populations could help with the recovery of a variety of other marine species, experts say.

A five-year review (PDF 15.1 mb) on the status of the three species of rockfish was due last year, but it was delayed until April of this year to include the new genetic information. In addition to a proposal to delist canary rockfish, the report discusses the difficulty in gathering population data. The authors were able to report:

“The data suggest that total rockfish declined at a rate of 3.1 to 3.8 percent per year from 1977 to 2014 … or a 69 to 76 percent total decline over that period. We did not find evidence for subpopulations with different population growth rates.”

Those involved in the scientific effort expressed appreciation to the anglers who went out with them to track down rockfish and take fin clips for genetic sampling. The effort also included information from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, where researchers surveyed rockfish areas with divers and remotely operated vehicles.

“Without the expertise of experienced fishing guides, anglers, and WDFW’s rockfish survey data, it would have been difficult to find the canary rockfish and yelloweye rockfish to collect the fin clips needed for the study,” according to a question-and-answer sheet from NOAA Fisheries (PDF 534 kb).

The local fishing experts were able to take the researchers to the hotspots where rockfish have always been found.

During the sampling, fishers were careful to release the rockfish with “descending devices” to get them safely back to deep water, where they reside. That is a technique recommended for all anglers who catch rockfish while fishing for other species. For details, see “Bring That Fish Down” (PDF 673 kb) by California Sea Grant and “Protecting Washington’s Rockfish” by WDFW.

Among those helping with the survey were Ray Frederick, a longtime leader in the Kitsap Poggie Club, a local fishing group, and Randy Jones, a charterboat operator from Port Orchard.

Ray recalls catching rockfish decades ago while fishing for salmon and other fish. “I considered myself lucky if I caught a rockfish and brought it home, because they’re really good eating,” Ray said in a story written by Ed Quimby, a former NOAA writer. “I prefer salmon,” Ray added, “but my wife likes rockfish better.”

Efforts to develop a recovery plan for rockfish continue for yelloweye rockfish and bocaccio as required by the Endangered Species Act. Details can be found on NOAA’s webpage “Rockfish in Puget Sound/Georgia Basin.”