Category Archives: Research

Interactive map brings together extensive salmon information

When I first started covering the environment for the Kitsap Sun in the early 1980s, I convinced a state fish biologist to make me a copy of a notebook containing information about salmon streams on the Kitsap Peninsula.

Winter steelhead streams in Puget Sound from SalmonScape. Map: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife
Winter steelhead streams in Puget Sound, as shown in SalmonScape, a GIS-based interactive map.
Map: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

Hand-drawn maps of streams, both big and small, along with field notes about the migration of salmon, stream blockages and other information were listed in that notebook. Through the years, the information was updated, combined with other data and eventually transferred to electronic databases for wider access.

A few years ago, much of this little-known information was digitized into a map that could be accessed by anyone from a web browser. The map, using a geographic information system, is such a valuable tool that I wanted to make sure that readers of this blog are aware of it.

It was given the name SalmonScape, and the map shows salmon streams across the state (click “hydrography”); salmon migration by species (“fish distribution”); stream blockages (“fish passage”); and hatcheries, fish traps and major dams (“facilities”).

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New toxic chemical law begins to review most-dangerous compounds

The first 10 toxic chemicals to be reviewed under the amended Toxic Substances Control Act were announced this week by the Environmental Protection Agency. After review, these chemicals could be banned or significantly restricted in their use.

Photo:André Künzelmann, Wikimedia commons
Photo:André Künzelmann, Wikimedia commons

As specified by law, the first 10 chemicals were chosen from 90 listed in the TSCA Work Plan, based on their high hazard and the likelihood of human and environmental exposure.

Incidentally, seven of the 10 chemicals to be reviewed are contaminants that have reached sources of drinking water at various sites across the country. Six of the seven are known or suspected of causing cancer in humans.

These are the seven chemicals known to contaminate drinking water:

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What comes next under water-quality standards imposed by the EPA?

The Environmental Protection Agency approved new water-quality standards for Washington state this week, overriding a plan approved by Gov. Jay Inslee and the state Department of Ecology.

It was a rare posture for the EPA. Now the state will be pressured to appeal the EPA standards to federal court. Cities and counties as well as some industrial organizations are clearly unhappy with the EPA’s action, while environmental and tribal representatives got most of what they wanted.

The basic structure of polychlorinated biphenyls, where the number and location of chlorine atoms can vary.
The basic structure of polychlorinated biphenyls, where the number and location of chlorine atoms can vary.

The EPA action is especially unusual, given that this state is known for some of the strongest environmental regulations in the country. After much dispute, Ecology finally agreed to much higher fish-consumption rates without increasing the cancer-risk rate, leading to more stringent standards for many of the chemicals. But Ecology had its own ideas for the most troublesome compounds with implications for human health. They include polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), arsenic and mercury. For background, see Water Ways, Oct. 18, 2015.

Some news reports I saw this week said EPA’s action will lead to salmon that are safer to eat. But that’s not at all certain, and opponents say it is unlikely that the revised limits on chemical pollution will have any practical effect on compounds that affect human health.

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Understanding how rogue chemicals affect people and marine life

Scientists are just beginning to understand the profound impact that synthetic chemicals are having on humans and other animals in the Puget Sound region.

As a major predator, harbor seals accumulate more than their share of toxic chemicals, including flame retardants. A legal ban on certain chemicals seems to be reducing levels in their tissues. Photo: hj_west, www.flickr.com/photos/hjwest/
As a major predator, harbor seals accumulate more than their share of toxic chemicals, including flame retardants. A legal ban on certain chemicals seems to be reducing average levels in their tissues.
Photo: hj_west

My latest story for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound addresses so-called chemicals of emerging concern. Please check out “Concerns rise over rogue chemicals in the environment.”

While talking to researchers and investigating a variety of biologically active compounds, I began to realize the complexity of the body’s internal chemistry. I thought I knew something about the endocrine system, but I never fully considered how one hormone can trigger responses in multiple organs, including the release of additional hormones, even creating feedback loops.

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Amusing Monday: Mysterious ocean sounds are not always ‘creepy’

Some underwater ocean sounds remain a mystery, while other sounds are well understood by NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory.

PMEL’s acoustic division continues to find unusual sounds within its long-term mission of recording and measuring ocean noise and assessing potential problems created by noisy humans.

Sounds ranging from whale calls and volcanoes to cargo ships and airguns are monitored by the Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory with the help of 11 Ocean Noise Reference Stations from Alaska to the South Pacific. Graphic: NOAA's Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory
Sounds ranging from whale calls and volcanoes to cargo ships and airguns are monitored by the Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory with the help of 11 Ocean Noise Reference Stations.
Graphic: NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory

I remain intrigued by ocean sounds, and I can’t help but worry about sensitive marine creatures, such as whales, that must live in our modern world of noisy ships and machinery.

One mysterious sound nicknamed “Upsweep” was present when PMEL began recording on the Navy’s SOSUS (Sound Surveillance System) array in August 1991. The sound, which consists of a series of upsweeping sounds, is loud enough to be heard throughout the Pacific Ocean, according to PMEL’s website. This sound was speeded up 20 times to be more easily heard.

      1. Upsweep-PMEL

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Death of female orca with young son raises worries about the future

It has been hard to take the news that J-28, a 23-year-old female killer whale named Polaris, is now missing and presumed dead — even though I knew this news has been coming since August. It now appears likely that her 11-month-old son J-54, named Dipper, will not survive either.

On Oct. 2, J-28, named Polaris, was photographed with an indentation behind her blow hole, a condition known as “peanut head.” Polaris has now been confirmed as dead, and her son is probably dead as well, researchers say.
On Oct. 2, J-28, named Polaris, was photographed with an indentation behind her blow hole, a condition known as “peanut head” and related to malnutrition. Her 11-month-old son, shown with her, also was struggling to survive. Polaris has now been confirmed as dead, and researchers say her son is probably dead as well.
Photo: Ken Balcomb, Center for Whale Research

I sadly reported on Polaris’ “super-gaunt” condition in Water Ways (Aug. 24) after talking to Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research. Until recently, various whale-watching folks, including CWR researchers, have reported that Polaris was still alive. She was generally seen moving slowly and in poor shape, but at times she seemed to have more energy, raising hopes that she might recover. But the last sighting of Polaris was Oct. 19 in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

During a press conference Friday, Ken announced the death of Polaris, as he spoke out to raise awareness about the plight of Puget Sound orcas.

Ken said Dipper’s sister and aunt were attempting to care for the young orphan, but no other lactating females have moved in to provide milk, so he likely will die if he is not already dead.

Ken read a personally penned obituary for Polaris, noting that she was popular with whale watchers, in part because she was easily identified by a nick in her dorsal fin. She acquired the distinctive mark when she was nine years old.

At the press conference, Ken talked about the most concerning problem facing the orcas: a shortage of chinook salmon, their primary prey. The food shortage is exacerbated when the whales burn fats stored in their blubber, causing the release of toxic chemicals from their blubber into their bloodstream. Chemicals can affect the immune and reproductive systems, as well as other hormonal systems.

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Rainfall records are beginning to fall across the Kitsap Peninsula

Water Year 2017, which began on Oct. 1, got off to a rip-roaring start this month in terms of rainfall, and now records are falling for October rainfall totals across the Kitsap Peninsula.

holly

As shown in the three charts on this page, the graph started climbing steeply above the lines shown — including the green lines, which denote the highest annual precipitation recorded for the past 25 to 33 years.

So far this month, 19.5 inches of rain have fallen at Holly, which has averaged about 7 inches in October for the past 24 years. As you can see in the annual rainfall map at the bottom of this page, Holly lies in the rain zone on the Kitsap Peninsula — the area with the greatest amount of rainfall in most years. With four days left in the month, Holly has about an inch to go to break the record of 20.5 inches going back to 1991.

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Orcas starting to follow chum salmon into Central Puget Sound

Chum salmon are beginning to make their way into Central and South Puget Sound, which means the orcas are likely to follow.

Given this year’s dismal reports of chinook salmon in the San Juan Islands, we can hope that a decent number of chum traveling to streams farther south will keep the killer whales occupied through the fall. But anything can happen.

Data from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife
Data from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

On Oct. 2, orcas from J and K pods — two of the three Southern Resident pods — passed through Admiralty Inlet and proceeded to Point No Point in North Kitsap, according to reports from Orca Network. The whales continued south the following day and made it all the way to Vashon Island, according to observers.

On Tuesday of this week, more reports of orcas came in from Saratoga Passage, the waterway between Whidbey and Camano islands. See the video by Alisa Lemire Brooks at the bottom of this page. By yesterday, some members of J pod were reported back of the west side of San Juan Island.

The movement of chum salmon into Central Puget Sound began in earnest this week, as a test fishery off Kingston caught just a few chum last week, jumping to nearly 1,000 this week. Still, the peak of the run is a few weeks away.

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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.

More invasive crabs found; wider search will resume next spring

Padilla Bay, an extensive inlet east of Anacortes in North Puget Sound, could become known as an early stronghold of the invasive European Green crab, a species dreaded for the economic damage it has brought to other regions of the country.

Trapping sites for crabs (gray markers) during this week’s rapid assessment in Padilla Bay. The red markers show locations where invasive European green crabs were found.
Trapping sites for crabs (gray markers) during this week’s rapid assessment in Padilla Bay. Red markers show locations where three more invasive European green crabs were found.
Map: Washington Sea Grant

After one young green crab was found in Padilla Bay on Sept. 19 (Water Ways, Sept. 24), three more crabs were found during an extensive trapping effort this past week. All four crabs were captured at different locations in the bay. These four live crabs followed the finding of a single adult green crab in the San Juan Islands — the first-ever finding of green crabs anywhere in Puget Sound. (Water Ways, Sept. 15).

With these new findings in Padilla Bay, the goal of containing the crabs to one area has become a greater challenge. Emily Grason, who coordinates a volunteer crab-surveillance program for Washington Sea Grant, discusses the difficulty of putting out enough traps to cover the entire bay. Read her report on the fist day of trapping:

“Similar to our trip to San Juan Island, we are conducting extensive trapping in an effort to learn more about whether there are more green crabs in Padilla Bay. One difference, however, is scale. Padilla Bay is massive, and it’s hard to know exactly where to start. On San Juan Island, the muddy habitats where we thought crabs would do well are well-defined, and relatively limited. Padilla Bay, on the other hand, is one giant muddy habitat — well, not all of it, but certainly a huge portion. We could trap for weeks and still not cover all of the suitable habitat!”

In all, 192 traps were set up at 31 sites, covering about 20 miles of shoreline. The crab team was fortunate to work with the expert staff at the Padilla Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, a group of folks who know the area well and had worked with shoreline owners to get approval for access.

Three of the four green crabs caught in Padilla Bay were young, probably washed into the bay during last winter’s warm currents, Emily said in her wrap-up report of the effort.

“All of the detections of European green crabs occurred on the east portion of the bay,” she wrote. “Though the sites varied somewhat in the type of habitat, all of the crabs were found relatively high on the shore, in high salt marsh pools, or within a few meters of the shore.

The first of four European green crabs found in Padilla Bay. Photo: Padilla Bay Reserve
The first of four European green crabs found in Padilla Bay.
Photo: Padilla Bay National Estuarine Reserve

“Padilla Bay has about 20 miles of shoreline, and, at last count in 2004, there were 143 acres of salt marsh habitat in the bay,” she continued.”These numbers suggest that there are a lot of places European green crabs could live in Padilla Bay, and protecting the bay from this global invader will undoubtedly require a cooperative effort.”

Yesterday, the response team held a conference call to discuss what to do next. Team members agreed that no more intensive trapping would take place this year, Sean McDonald of the University of Washington told me in an email.

Winter is a tough time to catch crabs. Low tides shift from daytime hours to nighttime hours, making trapping more difficult. Meanwhile, crabs tend to lose their appetite during winter months, so they are less likely to go into the traps to get food, experts say.

Researchers, shellfish growers and beach walkers are being asked to stay alert for the green crabs, not only in Padilla Bay but also in nearby Samish and Fidalgo bays.

The Legislature will need to provide funding to continue the citizen science volunteer monitoring program, which provided an early warning that green crabs had invaded Puget Sound. Whether the crabs will survive and in what numbers is something that demands more study and perhaps a major eradication effort.

Meanwhile, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife would like to expand its overall Aquatic Invasive Species Program with additional efforts to prevent invaders from coming into Puget Sound. For information, check out my story on invasive species in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound — specifically the section titled “Biofouling still mostly unregulated.”