Category Archives: Research

Farewell to Cassini, which found wondrous worlds not so far away

I’d like to take a moment to celebrate the discoveries of NASA’s Cassini spacecraft — including the finding of water on Saturn’s moons Titan and Enceladus.

Water vapor escapes from geothermal vents on Saturn’s moon Enceladus. // Photo: NASA

The 13-year mission ended Friday when Cassini, running out of fuel, was directed to self-destruct by burning up in the atmosphere of the ringed planet.

“This is the final chapter of an amazing mission, but it’s also a new beginning,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said in a story on NASA’s website. “Cassini’s discovery of ocean worlds at Titan and Enceladus changed everything, shaking our views to the core about surprising places to search for potential life beyond Earth.”

Cassini was launched from Florida’s Cape Canaveral in 1997 and reached Saturn in 2004. NASA extended the mission for two years and then again for seven years, as new findings continued to emerge, with a later focus on Saturn’s moons. An amazing surprise came when a subsurface ocean was found on Enceladus.

“Cassini may be gone, but its scientific bounty will keep us occupied for many years,” said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “We’ve only scratched the surface of what we can learn from the mountain of data it has sent back over its lifetime.”

The video on this page reveals some of the feelings that welled up and lingered among the Cassini team after the spacecraft came to its fiery end on Friday.

If you are interested in space discoveries, I recommend a glance at the text, photos and videos shared on NASA’s website. I also enjoyed the “most inspiring, beautiful, and historic” photos taken during the mission and pulled together by Brian Resnick for Vox Media’s website.

As Linda Spilker aptly described it, “Things never will be quite the same for those of us on the Cassini team now that the spacecraft is no longer flying. But we take comfort knowing that every time we look up at Saturn in the night sky, part of Cassini will be there, too.”

Travels to the front lines of restoration throughout Puget Sound

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Washington State Magazine

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

Video extras

Southern Resident orcas make it back to Puget Sound in good condition

Killer whale observers were gleefully surprised this week when all three pods of Southern Resident orcas came into the Salish Sea — and all were in reasonably good shape.

K-25, a 26-year-old male orca named Scoter, is seen breaching Monday when a large group of Southern Residents arrived in the Salish Sea.
Photo: Ken Balcomb, Center for Whale Research

Remember, these same whales have been missing from Puget Sound for practically the entire summer — a period when they traditionally remain in and around the San Juan Islands while feasting on salmon. This summer has generated concern among those who understand the ways of whales. Some observers have feared that the orcas, wherever they were, might not be getting enough to eat (Water Ways, Aug. 18).

That fear has largely disappeared, said Ken Balcomb, director of the Center for Whale Research who has been studying these animals for more than 40 years.

“There were no fat whales among them,” Ken told me, “but they had to be finding something (to eat) out there.”

Ken’s only concern was with a couple of young calves, 2 and 3 years old. They remain small for their age. (Ken calls them “runts.”) They probably have not received complete nutrition, given that the whales don’t seem to be finding chinook salmon in their regular feeding grounds.

“We know that there is a problem with juvenile and infant survival,” Ken said, but there is hope that these calves will make it.

Before they entered the Salish Sea this week, the three pods must have met up in the Strait of Juan de Fuca if not the Pacific Ocean, as all were together when they were spotted Monday morning near the south end of Vancouver Island by whale observer Mark Malleson.

The Center for Whale Research sent out two boats. Ken and Gail Richard boarded the Shachi and met up with the leading group of orcas just east of Secretary Island. Ahead of the pack was J-19, a female orca named Shachi, who appears to have taken over the leadership role from Granny, or J-2, the elder matriarch that led J pod for decades before her death.

Read Ken’s full report of the encounter on the Center for Whale Research website. For some observations about Granny, check out these Water Ways reports:

On Monday, J-pod whales were clustered in their family groups along the Vancouver Island shoreline, while those in K pod were farther offshore and trailing J pod, according to Ken’s report. Not all of L pod was there, but those in the area were spending time in their family groups, or matrilines, even farther behind and farther offshore.

Some of the whales were sprinting into tidal waters to catch salmon close to shore on the incoming tide of Monday afternoon, Ken said.

“The salmon tend to move into the Salish Sea with the flood tides and hang back in nearshore eddies and bays in ebb tides,” Ken wrote in his report, “so the whales foraging and traveling east suggested that there were at last sufficient numbers of salmon to bring them all of the way in.”

As the whales captured fish, their social interactions with each other increased, at least among the family groups, Ken told me.

Meanwhile, the second boat from the Center for Whale Research, Orcinus with Dave Ellifrit and Melisa Pinnow aboard, met up with the whales just west of Discovery Island east of Victoria. After a breakaway by the Shachi crew to transfer photos from Mark Mallinson, both boats continued to follow the whales until sunset. At dusk, the entourage ended up right in front of the center’s shoreline base on San Juan Island.

Spurred on by this rare (for this year) sighting of all three pods, the five photographers in the three boats shot more than 3,500 photos in one day, Ken reported. Some of the best portraits and ID photos are shown with notes of the encounter. Other photos and expressions of excitement can be seen on Orca Network’s Whale Sighting Report.

The researchers reported that all the whales in J and K pods were present — except for K-13, who had been reported missing (Water Ways, Aug. 18). Of the 35 orcas in L pod, 22 were seen on Monday. The missing whales are not a concern, Ken said, because the 13 not spotted were all members of matrilines that apparently were somewhere else.

“It is not unprecedented for L pod matrilines to be very widely separated at times — e.g., part of the pod in Puget Sound while others are off California!” Ken noted in his report. “All of the whales today appeared to be frisky and in good condition, though we clearly have a few runts in the youngest cohort of whales – probably having been in perinatal nutritional distress due to recent poor salmon years in the Salish Sea.”

The next day, Tuesday, the whales were spread out in small groups in Georgia Strait on the Canadian side of the border. Yesterday, they traveled back through Haro Strait in the San Juan Islands, then headed on west toward the Pacific Ocean. It will be interesting to see what happens next, as these fish-eating orcas continue to hunt for chinook salmon and then switch this fall to chum salmon when the chinook grow scarce.

The Center for Whale Research’s efforts to keep track of the Southern Residents is funded in part by the federal government, but the center’s other work involving orcas depends on donations and memberships. Go to “Take Action for Orcas” for information.

Amusing Monday: Splendid underwater images from EV Nautilus

Exploration Vessel Nautilus has completed its journey north to the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, where the research team captured plenty of intriguing video, including a close look at the sunken submarine USS Bugara (first video below). All videos are best in full screen.

EV Nautilus, operated by Ocean Exploration Trust, conducts scientific research along the sea bottom throughout the world, specializing in biology, geology and archeology. Education is a major part of the effort, and school curricula are built around live and recorded telecasts from the ship. In addition, a select group of educators and students are invited to go on the expeditions each summer.

This year’s expedition began in May in California, where the ship took data for high-resolution maps of offshore areas never surveyed before. That was followed by an examination of the Cascadia Margin, a geologically active area off the Oregon Coast where the researchers identified bubbling seeps with multibeam sonar.

Dives using remotely operated vehicles began in June when the ship arrived off the Canadian Coast west of Vancouver Island. One dive, which went down to 2,200 meters, captured images of a hydrothermal vent, where water gets expelled after being superheated by the Earth’s magma. Watch the video saved on the Nautilus Facebook page. In another video, the temperature at one vent got so hot that the researchers found themselves cheering as the temperature at the probe kept going up.

I am easily amused, but I have to say that I was intrigued by a 9,000-year-old living reef made of glass sponges that was discovered off the coast of Galiano Island, British Columbia (second video this page).

One amusing video was created while watching a six-gill shark in the Channel Islands off California. Suddenly, a crab came into view carrying another crab (third video below). “It’s an Uber crab!” one researcher commented. “Is that lunch?” another wondered.

Another great shot from the Channel Islands showed a big ball of shimmering anchovies along with a select group of predators, including several fish, a six-gill shark and a sea lion. This video can be seen on the Nautilius Facebook page.

The examination of the submarine Bugara (first video on this page) occurred Aug. 25 off Cape Flattery in Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary. The event was live-streamed with commentary from scientists, archaeologists and historians, as well as veterans who served on the submarine. Bugara was built during World War II and later became the first American submarine to enter the Vietnam War after Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.

After its decommissioning in California, Bugara was being towed to Washington state to serve as a target for a new weapons system. On June 1, 1971, the submarine took on water during transit and sank to the bottom, where it has rested ever since. No injuries occurred during the incident. For historical details, go to Bugara.net, which was set up for former sailors and others associated with the submarine.

A longer 1.5-hour video of the Bugara inspection by ROV can be viewed on the Nautilus Facebook page. This is basically what was viewed online in real time by observers — including a group gathered at Naval Undersea Museum at Keyport.

Another interesting video shot in Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary shows a siphonophore, a colony of specialized organisms that work together to form a chain of individuals that together are capable of swimming, stinging, digesting and reproducing. Researchers working the 4-to-8-p.m. shift were able to observe more than their share of these interesting colonies, so the group became known as the “Siphono4-8” (video below).

Nautilus currently is moored in Astoria, Ore., where it is scheduled to begin the next leg of its expedition on Wednesday. The goal is to search near Oregon’s Heceta Bank for ancient coastal landscapes that may have been above sea level 21,000 to 15,000 years ago. More live sessions and archived video are planned. Follow these Nautilus links for details:

The Ocean Exploration Trust was founded in 2008 by Robert Ballard, known for his discovery of RMS Titanic’s final resting place. The 2017 Nautilus expedition, which will continue into November, marks the third year of exploring the Eastern Pacific Ocean. The expedition has been covered by these news media:

Some toxic chemicals increase; others decline in Puget Sound fish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lights could be creating problems for salmon, seabirds and more

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lake Washington chinook

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other species

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

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

Where are the orcas? It’s hard to say, as the latest death is confirmed

I hate to say it, but summer is beginning to wind down. Even more disturbing for killer whale observers is an awareness that Puget Sound’s iconic orcas have pretty much avoided Puget Sound altogether this year.

The patterns of travel and even the social structure of the endangered Southern Resident killer whales have been disrupted the past several years, and this year is the worst ever, according to Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research, who has been keeping track of these whales for the past 40 years.

For decades, we could expect all three pods of Southern Residents to show up in June, if not before. They would mingle and socialize and generally remain through the summer in the San Juan Islands, feasting on the chinook salmon that migrate to Canada’s Fraser River.

Skagit, K-13, who recently died, is seen in this 2011 photo swimming behind her daughter Deadhead, K-27.
Photo: Ken Balcomb, Center for Whale Research

In recent years, the large orca pods have broken into smaller groups of whales that keep coming and going, as if searching for scattered schools of salmon. This year, the Southern Residents have made few appearances in Puget Sound, barely enough for Ken to complete his annual census report to the federal government.

The latest official count is 77 orcas among the three pods. That reflects the death of K-13, a 45-year old female named Skagit. Ken did not announce her passing, mainly because it is based on limited encounters. Ken tells me that K-13 was the only whale missing during an encounter with her close relatives in February in Puget Sound and then later off the coast.

Normally, he would like to have more encounters before declaring a missing animal deceased, but Skagit has always been a central figure in her family group, which sometimes traveled separately from the rest of K pod.

Under the original protocols for counting whales, one would wait a year before listing the death, Ken told me, but now people are keeping track of the current population as orcas are born and die. His official census count is made on July 1, and he was confident that the missing Skagit would not turn up later.

K-13 was the mother of four offspring: K-20, a 31-year-old female named Spock; K-25, a 26-year-old male named Scoter; K-27, a 23-year-old female named Deadhead; and K-34, a 16-year-old male named Cali. Skagit was the grandmother to Spock’s 13-year-old calf, K-38 or Comet, and to Deadhead’s 6-year-old calf, K-44 or Ripple.

The question now is how the remaining whales in the family group will respond. In a matriarchal society, groups are led by elder females whose extended family generally stays with them for life. Will one of Skagit’s female offspring assume the leadership role? Will the family group remain as independent as it has been in the past?

“It’s a big question,” said Brad Hanson of NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center. “These animals are so long-lived. How do you sort out the loss of an animal like J-2, who has had a leadership role for so many years? Do they keep doing the same thing, or do they do something different?”

J-2, known as “Granny” was estimated to be more than 100 years old when she died last year. The oldest whale among the Southern Residents, she was known as the leader of the clans. Check out these posts in Water Ways:

The effect of losing Skagit’s leadership is hard to measure, but it comes on top of the fragmenting social structure among the Southern Residents. As the remaining orcas seem to be wandering around in search of food, we are likely to see fewer births and more deaths.

Studies have shown a strong correlation between births and prey availability, Ken told me, and the absence of the orcas alone is an indicator that fewer salmon are coming through the San Juan Islands. Whether the whales are finding adequate salmon runs somewhere else is hard to say, because nobody really knows where they are.

“I think they are out there intercepting whatever runs are coming down from the Gulf of Alaska,” Ken said. “Most of the salmon up there are destined for down here. They (the whales) are tough, and they will survive if they can.”

While the fish-eating Southern Residents have been absent from Puget Sound, the seal-eating transient killer whales are making themselves at home in local waters. It appears there is no shortage of seals, sea lions and harbor porpoises for them to eat, and transients are being spotted more often by people on shore and in boats.

Meanwhile, the Southern Residents typically head into Central and South Puget Sound to hunt for chum salmon during September, sometimes October. Although the migrating chum return to hundreds of streams all over Puget Sound, the orcas have become less predictable in their travels during the fall as well as the summer.

“I am hoping that the fall chum runs are strong and the whales will come in,” Ken said, “but I’m not holding my breath.”

The total count of 77 Southern Resident killer whales consists of 24 whales in J pod, 18 whales in K pod and 35 whales in L pod. Those numbers do not include Lolita, who was captured in Puget Sound as a calf and still lives in Miami Seaquarium in Florida.

No end in sight for dispute over pesticide injury to salmon

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

Chlorpyrifos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are we winning or losing the ongoing battle for salmon habitat?

It has been said that the Puget Sound ecosystem would be far worse off today were it not for the millions of dollars spent on restoration projects over the past 25 years.

Undoubtedly, that’s true, but I think most of us are hoping that these costly efforts will eventually restore salmon populations while improving conditions for other creatures as well. Shouldn’t we be able to measure the progress?

Juvenile chinook salmon
Photo: John McMillan, NOAA

This basic question became the essence of my latest story published in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound: “Are we making progress on salmon revovery?”

As I describe in the story, what seems like a simple question becomes tangled in the difficulties of measuring population and ecological changes. It turns out that you can’t just count the fish to see if restoration is working. That’s because natural variabilities of weather, ocean conditions and predator/prey populations cause salmon populations to swing wildly from year to year no matter what you do.

While researching this story, I learned a good deal about freshwater habitat conditions needed to help various species of salmon to thrive. Habitat improvements resulting from restoration projects are no doubt helping salmon in significant ways. On the other hand, one cannot ignore human development that continues to degrade habitat — despite improved regulations designed to reduce the damage.

I’ve heard some people say that wild salmon would come back in larger numbers if everyone would just stop fishing for them. This may be true to some extent, especially for high-quality streams that may not be getting enough salmon to spawn. But the key to the problem is understanding the “bottlenecks” that limit salmon survival through their entire lives.

A stream may have plenty of adult spawners, but that does not mean the salmon runs will increase if the eggs are buried in silt or if food supplies limit the number of fry that survive. There may be multiple limiting factors that need to be addressed to ensure healthy ongoing salmon populations.

Small improvements in habitat may actually boost the productivity of salmon in a stream, meaning that more salmon will survive. But the benefits of small projects on large streams may be difficult to distinguish from natural variation. Statistical analysis is used to determine whether increases or decreases in salmon populations are more related to habitat changes or natural variation. It takes a fairly dramatic change to link cause to effect in a statistically significant way.

One ongoing experiment is measuring changes in fry populations in several streams within the same watersheds. One stream is left alone — the “control” stream — while habitat improvements are made in others. Because the streams are closely related, biologists hope to attribute population increases to habitat improvements with a high level of certainty. See Intensively Monitored Watersheds on the website of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The same issue of statistics applies to the aquatic insects that salmon eat. It appears that food supplies are improving in many salmon streams as a result of restoration, but not all benthic invertebrates are responding in the same way. For many streams, it will take more time to get enough data to determine whether the increased bug populations are statistically significant. This happens to be one issue that I side-stepped in the latest story, but I will be returning to it in the future. For background, check out an earlier story I wrote for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, “Healthy Streams, Healthy Bugs.”

While habitat restoration is ongoing, so too is human development, which continues unabated at what appears to be an accelerating pace. New regulations are designed to result in “no net loss” of important habitats, including shorelines, streams and wetlands. But questions remain about whether local regulations themselves and/or enforcement of the regulations are adequate.

Biologists at NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center are conducting research to determine whether habitat changes are for better or worse, especially with regard to chinook. We should see some results within the next few years, as the agency prepares to draft the next five-year status report for Puget Sound’s threatened chinook population.

Winter chum salmon in South Puget Sound fail test for uniqueness

Sam Wright, who has been remarkably successful in getting various fish species protected under the Endangered Species Act, has learned that his latest ESA petition — possibly his final petition — has been rejected.

Sam, who retired from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife after years of studying salmon and other fish, would like to get special recognition for a unique population of chum salmon that return to South Puget Sound in the winter.

Nisqually River near Interstate 5 bridge
Photo: ©2006 Walter Siegmund/Wikimedia Commons

The Nisqually-Chambers Creek run of winter chum is the only population of chum salmon in the world that spawn as late as February, with some fish entirely missing the worst floods of December and January, Sam told me. His petition to the federal government was designed to get these winter chum recognized as a distinct population segment — much as the threatened summer chum population in Hood Canal has been designated as separate from the fall runs of chum throughout Puget Sound.

Being a small population, the Nisqually-Chambers Creek winter chum would probably qualify for threatened or endangered status, he said, but first it would need to be recognized as distinct. If not listed initially as threatened or endangered, those decisions could follow if the population crashes, he said.

“The petition was meant to correct what was, from my perspective, a mistake made 20 years ago when they made a coastwise series of reports assessing the chum salmon populations,” said Sam, who is now 81 years old.

“In the entire range of chum salmon — both in North America and Asia — there are 3,500 streams with chum salmon,” he continued, “but there is only one single winter-run chum salmon, and that is the Nisqually.”

Sam’s petition (PDF 4.2 mb), filed more than two years ago, was subject to a 90-day review by the National Marine Fisheries Service, also known as NOAA Fisheries. Sam was told that the petition had been misplaced all this time. Last week, he got the news that the Nisqually-Chambers Creek winter chum would not be recognized as a distinct population, nor would it be considered for further review without new information being brought forward.

In rejecting Sam’s petition, NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center reviewed available data — including a 2015 genetic study on chum populations — and concluded that the original analysis done in 1997 was still valid. That analysis concluded that the winter-run chum are closely related to the fall-run chum in Puget Sound and Hood Canal and that “there is no clear genetic evidence to support the idea that the winter-run chum salmon in Puget Sound are substantially reproductively isolated from other chum salmon populations in southern Puget Sound.” See “Listing Endangered or Threatened Species …”

Sam argues that the winter chum remain genetically isolated from fall chum populations because of their unusual spawning schedule. That is demonstrated by annual population counts, which go up and down independently of fall chum numbers in South Puget Sound.

“They are reacting to different environmental conditions,” Sam explained.

Studies are needed to show the differences, Sam said, but they may have an advantage over fall chum by avoiding most of the winter floods, which can displace salmon eggs incubating in the gravel or else smother them in silt.

Incubation time is based on temperature, so the late-arriving chum are subject to warmer water and faster incubation. The winter chum fry are only a little behind the fall chum fry, Sam said.

One of the most productive areas for winter chum is Muck Creek, a tributary of the Nisqually River that runs through Joint Base Lewis McCord, where the Army conducts military exercises, according to Sam.

“We’ve had decades of battles with Fort Lewis over whether to use Muck Creek as part of their firing range,” Sam told me, adding that he suspects that pressure from the military played a role in NOAA’s original decision to lump the winter chum together with the fall chum.

Personally, I don’t know anything about such conflicts, but Muck Creek has been the site of a major restoration effort involving JBLM, the Nisqually Tribe and other groups. In 2011, reporter Ingrid Barrentine wrote about the annual salmon homecoming for Northwest Guardian, a JBLM publication.

As for the habitat in Muck Creek, Sam told me something else that was surprising. The stream is spring-fed with freshwater bubbling up from below and providing stable flows, he said. That helps the eggs to survive. Unlike many streams in which only 10 percent of the chum eggs grow into fry headed for saltwater, Muck Creek has had a 90-percent survival rate.

One reason that Sam is so concerned about the Nisqually-Chambers Creek winter chum is the uncertainty about what is coming in the future. Climate change is likely to bring higher stream flows in winter, he said, and chum runs that come later may hold the keys to survival of the species.

“To me, the last thing we want to do is throw away that particular piece,” Sam said, paraphrasing Aldo Leopold, whose exact quote is this:

“If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.” (Round River)

Sam Wright’s persistence has paid off in the past when he has asked for reconsideration and finally received threatened or endangered status for various populations of salmon, steelhead, rockfish and other marine species. This time, he may or may not provide additional information and ask the agency to reconsider its position. In any case, Sam told me that he has no new petitions in the works, and this may be his last effort.

Whether Nisqually-Chambers Creek winter chum — or any salmon population — is considered distinct rests on NOAA’s definition of species, 16 U.S.C. 1531, which includes two criteria:

  1. The population must be substantially reproductively isolated from other nonspecific population units; and
  2. The population must represent an important component in the evolutionary legacy of the species.

In turning down Sam’s petition, reviewers pointed to genetic studies that supported the finding that summer chum in Hood Canal and the Strait of Juan de Fuca were distinct from other chum runs. A second grouping included the remaining fall, summer and winter runs in Puget Sound, with a third grouping of fall chum from the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the Washington Coast and Oregon.

The reviewers also pointed out that the Nisqually River and Chambers Creek to the north are not geographically isolated from the rest of South Puget Sound.

As for “evolutionary legacy,” Sam contends that loss of the winter chum would be forever, as with extinct summer chum in many river systems including Chambers Creek. That critical issue, he said, is the very definition of legacy.

The reviewers of his petition found, like the 1997 review team, that winter and summer runs in Puget Sound only showed “patterns of diversity within a relatively large and complex evolutionarily significant unit,” known as an ESU.

“Both the Nisqually River and Chambers Creek watersheds have supported both summer- and fall-run chum salmon in the past, along with winter-run chum salmon,” concluded the agency’s written findings, “so there is nothing unique preventing these watersheds from supporting multiple chum salmon runs.”