It’s an interesting time for researchers to begin writing a blog
about ocean conditions off Oregon and Washington, an area
undergoing some fascinating changes in oceanography and
Scientists from NOAA Fisheries and Oregon State University
launched their new website,
“Newporter Blog,” last week. It’s named after the Newport Line,
an area of study off the Oregon Coast where researchers have
monitored changes for the past 20 years.
“This year, the ocean has been very different,” wrote blogger
Jennifer Fisher in the blog’s first post on June 23. “Anomalously
warm surface water dubbed the ‘warm blog’ moved onto the
continental shelf off Newport in September 2014. A very large
harmful algal bloom (HAB) spanning from British Columbia to
California is occurring off the coast right now. El Niño conditions
are occurring at the equator, and NOAA is forecasting a 90-percent
chance that an El Niño will persist through the Fall.”
The next blog post last Thursday was by researcher Cheryl Morgan
from the Canadian fishing vessel FV Frosti “somewhere off the coast
of the Pacific Northwest,” where researchers are looking to see how
juvenile salmon are doing. They were taking note of anything picked
up in their nets in the upper 60 feet of water.
“Watching the trawl come in is like the anticipation of opening
a Christmas gift,” Cheryl wrote. “What could be in there? How many?
How big? Have we ever caught any of them in the net?
“We always hope for some juvenile salmon, since that is the main
point of the survey, but we also like to see something different,
strange, or unusual to spice things up,” she continued.
The next post on Monday revealed that fish being caught were of
a kind seen in Northwest waters only when the temperatures rise.
They included pompano and jack mackerel. The researchers were
especially surprised to find bottom-dwelling flatfish in their net
some several hundred feet off the bottom.
“What is a fish that lives on the bottom, one side down, doing
in the water column?” she asked. “Perhaps they are lost, could not
find the bottom or they are chasing some dinner. Most strange,
however, was the catch of nearly 3,330 Pacific sanddabs … in ONE
trawl. That was a first for even the fishing crew.”
The team also brought up a juvenile red octopus, a species
normally found among rocks on the bottom — “another creature that
is a long way from home.”
The research fishing will continue from Newport to the upper
corner of Washington state. The scientists are taking note of any
birds preying on fish before they begin their daily trawl. Plankton
also are scooped up to see what the fish might be eating and to
provide new data about the harmful algal bloom.
The work is being funded by NOAA and Bonneville Power
The researchers/bloggers said they would share their findings as
they go along. I, for one, look forward to learning about ocean
conditions and how the warm water is affecting all sorts of sealife
along the West Coast.
This year’s research project tracing the movements of Southern
Resident killer whales has ended after 96 days of tracking L-84, a
25-year-old male named Nyssa.
It was the longest period of tracking among the Southern
Residents since the satellite-tagging studies began in 2012. The
transmitter carried by L-84 lasted three days longer than a similar
deployment on K-25 in 2013. The satellite tags, which are attached
to the dorsal fins of the whales with darts, often detach after
about a month.
The nice thing about this year’s study is that it covered the
entire month of April and much of May, according to Brad Hanson,
project supervisor for NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center.
That tells the researchers something about the movement of the
whales later in the year than previous deployments have
A satellite tag on J-27 (Blackberry) in late December extended
the total tracking period to more than four months.
Looking back through the
tracking maps since February, it is clear that L-84 and his
entourage have spent much of their time moving up and down the
Washington and Oregon coasts. They seem to favor hanging out near
the mouth of the Columbia River. On a few occasions, they have
ventured into Northern California.
On May 6, they took their only jaunt north into Canadian waters,
reaching Estavan Point (halfway up Vancouver Island) two days
later. They continued north another day, nearly reaching Brooks
Peninsula (about three-fourths up Vancouver Island) on May 9. Then
they headed back south, ending this year’s tracking program near
the Columbia River.
Just before the satellite tag fell off, biologists from Cascadia
Research Collective caught up with the whales on May 21 south of
the Columbia River. The researchers noticed that the tag was
loosening, and no further satellite signals were picked up.
The tracking studies, combined with efforts to collect samples
of feces and fish remains, are designed to identify where the
whales are spending their time in winter months and what they are
finding to eat when salmon are more scarce. All of this could lead
to a major expansion of their designated “critical habitat” and
increased protections in coastal waters. As of now, critical
habitat for the whales does not extend into the ocean, and NOAA has
concluded that more information is needed before changing the
designated protection area.
Within the next month or so, all three Southern Resident pods
should head into Puget Sound, congregating in the San Juan Islands,
as chinook salmon return to Canada’s Fraser River and other streams
in the Salish Sea.
Meanwhile, J pod seems to be hanging out in waters around the
San Juans, possibly waiting for the other pods to show up. Plenty
of observers have been filing some great reports and related photos
That link also includes recent reports of seal-eating transient
killer whales that have traveled as far south as the
Bremerton-Seattle area, perhaps farther. A few humpback whales have
been sighted in northern Puget Sound.
A couple weeks ago, I wrote about a a new deep-sea observatory
being built off the West Coast. I noted that Washington and Oregon
researchers are thrilled to monitor the eruption of an underwater
volcano called Axial Seamount.
Soon, new equipment and a fiber optics cable will allow these
researchers to widely share discoveries involving the unique
geology and unusual plants and animals living at the bottom of the
ocean. People will be able to watch in real time via the Internet.
Water Ways, May 6.
Now, a new lawsuit filed by the Center for Biological Diversity
has me thinking about the commercial value of the deep ocean. Can
society safely mine the seafloor for valuable minerals used in a
wide variety of consumer products? Can huge mining equipment
operate in water two or three miles deep without destroying the
unique ecosystem at the bottom of the ocean?
For decades, researchers have been aware of high concentrations
of minerals lying on and beneath the sea floor. But nobody was
worried about the environmental damage of mining, because the costs
of commercial recovery were too great.
The high profitability of mining sector companies;
A decline in the tonnage and grade of land-based nickel, copper
and cobalt sulphide deposits; and
Technological advances in deep seabed mining and
The new technology involves giant robotic machines that either
excavate the seafloor or scoop up clumps of polymetallic nodules.
Over the past few years, 26 permits have been issued to mining
corporations, mostly for operations in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone
of the Pacific Ocean, about halfway between Hawaii and Mexico.
“Deep-sea mining is an emerging threat to our oceans that has
the potential to irreparably harm underwater ecosystems before we
even have a chance to fully study its impacts,” declares the
Center for Biological Diversity, adding:
“Life on the deep ocean floor is still a mysterious realm that
scientists have only just begun to fully understand and inventory…
What mountaintop-removal coal mining has done in Appalachia,
deep-sea mining has the potential to do in the Pacific Ocean,
affecting the ecosystem and food web in ways that scientists say
they don’t yet fully understand.”
Last week, the environmental group filed a
lawsuit (PDF 162 kb) against the U.S. government for issuing
exploratory permits without the requisite environmental studies.
Said Emily Jeffers, the attorney who filed the case:
“Deep-sea mining should be stopped, and this lawsuit aims to
compel the government to look at the environmental risks before it
leaps into this new frontier. We need to protect the ocean wildlife
and habitat, and the United States should provide leadership for
other nations to follow before more projects get underway.”
The lawsuit, filed in Washington, D.C., challenges two
exploratory permits issued to OMCO Seabed Exploration, LLC, a
subsidiary of Lockheed Martin, the defense contractor. The original
permits for work in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone expired in 2004.
Jeffers says the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
should have considered the environmental effects of the mining plan
before renewing the permits in 2012.
“If we aren’t careful, this new gold rush could do irreparable
harm to the basic building blocks of life. The federal government
has a moral duty, as well as a legal one, to understand the full
environmental impacts before the mining industry scrapes away our
Besides tearing up the sea floor, mining operations can stir up
sediment, which can smother organisms living on the bottom,
according to the lawsuit. Cloudy water can reduce productivity, and
clouds of sediment may contain toxic metals that reduce
reproductive success of sea life. Light and noise from ships and
vessels can disrupt seabird behavior and affect whales and other
marine mammals, the suit claims.
Other permits have been issued to various countries in Europe
and Asia by the International
Seabed Authority, which hopes to approve environmental
standards by the end of next year. The U.S. is not subject to those
rules and cannot demand compliance from other countries, because
the U.S. has not ratified the United Nations’ Convention on the Law
of the Sea, a treaty that establishes the International Seabed
Researchers are quite excited about the eruption of Axial
Seamount on the Juan de Fuca Ridge, about 300 miles off the Oregon
Coast. In following the story, I found that John Delaney of the
University of Washington not only explained the findings well but
he also put science itself into perspective.
interview with KUOW’s Ross Reynolds, Delaney discussed the
results of 25 years of work to create an ocean observatory where
the volcano is erupting. In the coming months and years, scientists
will be able to direct video cameras and instruments into the
volcanic storm to record temperatures, measure chemicals and reveal
unusual life forms. Researchers will drive unmanned submarines in
and around the dense plume spewing from the volcano — all
controlled remotely from shore.
The USA Today video provides a good overview, but Delaney goes
even deeper in his talk at the bottom of this page.
Already, the sounds of the volcano are being recorded on
underwater hydrophones — sounds that Reynolds shares with listeners
at the beginning of the interview.
Said Delaney, “I’m tremendously excited about the fact that we
have a wired volcano underwater that is very restless, and it looks
like it is going to continue being restless for quite a long
Reynolds then asked Delaney about the value of such research,
and Delaney took a step back into the nature of scientific
“The unknown is what drives scientists,” he said, but on
occasion they make discoveries that have “profound influence on the
well-being of the society.”
The deep-sea research off the West Coast could bring new
findings about whale migration, fish stocks and ocean
acidification, he said. As with many scientific endeavors, the
outcome may be all sorts of unexpected findings — “some of which
have societal fascination, some of which have societal value, some
of which are just probing the unknown to find out how things
The ultimate value of scientific findings cannot be predicted,
which is why I’m reluctant to ridicule even the craziest-sounding
The deep-sea observatory — part of the
Ocean Observatories Initiative — will move beyond scientific
discovery to become a powerful tool for educating and inspiring
When I was in grade school and junior high, I recall science
being presented as a collection of interesting facts, based on
years of discovery going back centuries. What I don’t remember is a
teacher who took students to the edge of discovery, showing them
where scientists are probing into the unknown. I believe this is
changing. I know teachers today who are helping their students
understand the known while revealing the questions yet to be
With respect to Axial, the formation provides an ideal
observatory, not only because of its location near the coast but
also because of its overall structure, said Bill Chadwick of Oregon
State University in a
news release about the latest activity there.
“Because Axial is on very thin ocean crust, its ‘plumbing
system’ is simpler than at most volcanoes on land that are often
complicated by other factors related to having a thicker crust,”
said Chadwick, an adjunct professor in OSU’s College of Earth,
Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences. “Thus Axial can give us insights
into how volcano magma systems work – and how eruptions might be
By studying the movement of magma, researchers are learning how
to predict an eruption. The recent eruption was predicted with more
precision than the last one in 2011, as explained in an
OSU news release at that time.
If you’d like to learn more about this fascinating subject,
which even extends to other planets, I advise watching John
Delaney’s 2011 TEDx talk performed in Dublin, Ireland, and called
Submarine Vulcanism On Earth & Beyond. Click on the video
L-84, a 25-year-old male orca named Nyssa, has been carrying a
satellite transmitter for more than two months now, allowing
researchers to track the movements of Nyssa and any whales
traveling with him.
Nyssa, the last survivor of his immediate family, tends to stay
around L-54, a 38-year-old female named Ino, and Ino’s two
offspring, L-108 (Coho) and L-117 (Keta). Often, other members of L
pod are with him, and sometimes K pod has been around as well,
according to observers.
The satellite tracking is part of an effort to learn more about
the three pods of Southern Resident killer whales, which are listed
as “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act. That means they
are headed for extinction without changes that increase their rate
The Navy, which has long been training off the West Coast, has
been supporting some of the research in hopes of finding ways to
reduce inadvertent harm from its active training in that area,
Since L-84 was tagged on Feb. 17, the whales have been generally
traveling up and down the Washington and Oregon coasts. At various
times, researchers — including biologists from Cascadia Research —
have been able to get close enough to collect fecal samples from
the whales and scales from fish they are eating. The goal is to
determine their prey selection at this time of year. Chinook salmon
are their fish of choice, but they will eat other species as
Winter storms and waves create challenging conditions to study
the whales, but the satellite-tagging program has helped
researchers find them, said Brad Hanson, who is leading the study
for NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center.
Brad told me that he is thrilled that the satellite tag on L-84
has remained in operation so long, allowing more and more data to
be collected. Satellite tags are designed to fall off after a time,
and the compact batteries will eventually run out of juice.
“This is the latest (in the season) that we have had a tag on a
Southern Resident,” Brad said. “Who knows how long it will last?
The battery will probably make it until the end of May, and the
attachment looked good the last anyone saw the tag.”
The research is not just about figuring out where the whales
travel, Brad said. It is about finding out which areas are
important to them.
While tracking the whales by satellite, the research is being
expanded with the use of acoustic recording devices deployed in key
locations along the coast. The goal is to find ways to track the
whales with less intrusion. But how does one know where they are
located during periods when the whales go silent — sometimes for
days at a time? Those are the kind of questions that researchers
hope to answer by correlating the acoustic and satellite data
together, Brad said.
With Navy funding, 17 recorders are now deployed along the
coast, including one recorder many miles offshore to pick up whales
that get out into the deep ocean.
“We have certainly reduced a lot of the mystery,” Brad said.
“The main issue — and what the Navy is interested in — is how they
mitigate for marine mammal presence.”
Knowing that killer whales can be silent, the Navy has largely
relied on visual sightings to determine the presence of the
animals. During high waves, that may not be a reliable method of
detection. The answer, based on tracking the whales, could be to
move the training operations farther offshore — beyond the
continental shelf, since the Southern Residents appear to rarely go
out that far.
The Southern Residents are among the most studied marine mammals
in the world, yet it is not entirely clear why their population is
not recovering. An upcoming effort will begin to look at whether
new information about the health condition of the whales can be
teased out of existing fecal and biopsy samples or if new methods
of study are needed to assess their health.
Meanwhile, raw data from various studies continue to pour in,
challenging NOAA researchers to focus on specific questions,
complete their analyses and share the findings in scientific
reports. According to Brad, ongoing staff cutbacks makes that final
step even harder than it has been in the past.
Offshores are a mysterious, little-understood group of orcas
that roam the West Coast. They are related to the more familiar
resident and transient killer whales, but they are genetically,
physically and socially distinct. The name “offshore” sort of tells
the story; they often remain miles off the coast, out of sight and
out of mind for most researchers as well as the public.
Scientists cannot tell us if their population is increasing or
decreasing, though it appears to be generally stable. It is not
clear whether human activities are disrupting their behaviors. And
without good data, these animals remain in a kind of limbo status,
while the highly studied Southern Residents of Puget Sound remain
solidly on the Endangered Species List with widespread concerns
about their welfare.
While it is true that regulations protecting Southern Residents
also protect offshores to a degree, more studies are needed to
ensure the future of these unique orcas. As the new recovery
strategy points out:
“Offshore killer whales face both anthropogenic and natural
threats, limitations or vulnerabilities, including reductions in
prey availability; contaminant exposure from prey; spills of
substances harmful to the marine environment; acute and chronic
acoustic disturbance; physical disturbance; interactions with
commercial fisheries and aquaculture; direct killing; climate
change; disease agents; fixed dietary preferences and natural
decreases in prey supply; inbreeding depression; tooth wear; and
mass stranding or natural entrapment.
“The small population size and typically large groupings of
offshores makes the population particularly vulnerable to
Offshores were first identified in Canadian waters in 1988.
Since then, they have been confirmed in about 240 sightings in the
U.S. and Canada, and their population has been estimated at roughly
300 animals. Although the full extent of their range remains a
mystery, they seem to have moved to inland waters more frequently
in recent years. The report notes:
“Although it is thought that their seemingly recent presence in
inshore waters may reflect a shift associated with oceanographic
conditions and/or distribution of prey, the data are also
confounded by gradually increasing survey effort and public
Like the resident killer whales (Southern and Northern
Residents), the offshores appear to be primarily fish eaters, with
a specialization in eating sharks. They are known to prey on
Pacific sleeper sharks, blue sharks, North Pacific spiny dogfish,
chinook salmon and Pacific halibut — with sharks making up a
significant portion of their diet.
Sharks are a good source of the fats needed for the high
metabolism of orcas, but sharks live longer and tend to contain
more contaminants. Consequently, offshores tend to have higher
levels of PCBs and other contaminants than salmon-eating residents.
Studies have revealed that PCB levels appear to be closer to those
of transient orcas, which eat marine mammals. Offshores have
significantly higher concentrations of DDT and PBDEs (toxic flame
retardants) than either residents or transients. From the
“A high DDT to PCB ratio is found in offshores, characteristic
of waters and sediments off the California Coast, where DDT
comprises a more significant portion of contaminants and where prey
may be exposed to elevated concentrations of contaminants relative
to higher latitude waters; this shared characteristic ratio is
thought to be an indication of offshore killer whales’ frequent
occurrence off California.
“There are many sources of these persistent substances, often
from urban and agriculture runoff, along the West Coast of North
from urban areas is especially troubling in California, where
offshores are regularly sighted in the winter, often near large
“Of particular concern is offshore killer whales’ apparent
targeting of the liver of at least one of their preferred prey, the
Pacific sleeper shark. The liver is a lipid-rich meal, but is also
a reservoir of heavy metals. All three shark species known to be
consumed by offshores have a high mercury content, likely
increasing the severity of heavy metal consumption and accumulation
in offshore killer whales.
“Killer whales are thought to have evolved the ability to
detoxify heavy metals such as mercury; however, it is unknown
whether detoxification in offshore killer whales functions
effectively enough to deal with their apparent diet preference for
livers from intermediate-to-high trophic level prey, and exposure
to an elevated contaminant environment.”
While shark populations along the West Coast appear to be stable
at the moment, the number of sharks may have been greater
historically, according to the report. In addition, basking sharks
may have been an important prey source historically, and a steep
decline in basking sharks may have affected the offshore orca
One of the greatest risks to the offshores is a spill of oil or
other harmful substances. Killer whales have no sense of smell and
make no apparent effort to avoid spills. The report notes:
“As described previously, the threat of oil spills and
discharges holds risk for offshore killer whales, due to their
grouping behavior. With multiple current proposals involving
increased marine transport of petroleum products and other
hazardous substances to and from British Columbia, an increase in
large vessel traffic (e.g. tankers) in these waters heightens the
risk of potential spills of substances harmful to the marine
environment, and to offshores and their prey.”
Another significant risk is disease among offshore killer
whales. Their high toxic loads can reduce their immune response,
and their highly social nature increases the risk of disease
exposure. According to the report:
“This highly social nature heightens the risk of rapid,
pervasive infection and pathogen dispersal throughout the entire
population… With an extensive geographic range adjacent to many
large urban centers and intensive agricultural activity, offshore
killer whales are exposed to numerous sources of emerging pathogens
particularly near river and runoff outlets, where concentrations of
infectious agents may be introduced into the marine
Offshore killer whales also are known to have extreme tooth
wear, probably caused by their preference for eating sharks with
their sandpaper-like skins. In some cases, teeth are worn to the
gum line, which could open a route of exposure for infection.
Other risks include noise generated from human operations,
including military sonar and seismic surveys, as well as chronic
noise from shipping operations. Because of the close grouping among
offshores, noise is likely to disrupt their feeding and social
The Canadian report articulates recovery strategies, primarily
focused on learning more about the needs and threats to offshores —
including studies on their population and cultural attributes, prey
availability and toxic exposure, and response to various types of
In the U.S., offshore killer whales are protected under the
Marine Mammal Protection Act, but they have not been provided any
status (PDF 493 kb) for additional protection or focused
L-84, a 25-year-old male killer whale named Nyssa, continues to
transmit his location and that of his traveling companions who keep
moving north and south along the West Coast, going as far south as
Here’s a quick update, going back to when the orca was first
A satellite transmitter was attached to L-84 on Feb. 17 by
researchers from NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center during a
research cruise focused on the Southern Resident whales. Since
then, the orca — often see with whales from K and L pods — moved
south past the Columbia River into Central Oregon before turning
back north on Feb. 21.
On Feb. 25, the researchers were following the whales in the
research vessel Bell M. Shimada off Westport in Washington when
another group of L pod whales showed up. It was at that time that a
new calf was spotted with L-94, a 20-year-old female named
The whales headed south and reached Tillamook Head in Northern
Oregon on Feb. 27, then they turned north and reached La Push in
Washington on March 1. For the next eight days, the whales moved
back and forth in the north-central areas of the Washington Coast
before moving south to Grays Harbor on March 12.
On March 13, they began an excursion to the south, reaching the
Columbia River on March 14, Cape Falcon on March 15, Depoe Bay on
March 16, Coos Bay on March 18, and the California border on March
At that time, marine mammal researcher Jeff Jacobson, based in
Northern California, caught up with the whales and confirmed that K
pod and a portion of L pod remained with the tagged whale L-84. The
whales kept moving south to Cape Mendocino (south of Eureka,
Calif.) on March 22 (Sunday), before turning back north, reaching
the Rogue River (just north of the Oregon state line) on
The tracking effort provides information about the whale’s
travels and where they may be catching fish. Work from research
vessels often involves collecting fecal samples and pieces of dead
fish to identify what the whales are eating during the winter and
Starfish that live symbiotically inside a tube sponge were long
believed to assist the sponge with its cleaning activities, while
the starfish received a protective home for being such a helpful
companion. This type of mutually beneficial symbiosis is called
But this long-held assumption — that both the brittlestar and
gray tube sponge were benefitting from the deal — turned out to be
wrong when researchers took a close look at the relationship.
The video describing this whole affair and the research behind
it became a finalist in the Ocean 180 Video Challenge, judged by
37,795 students in 1,600 classrooms in 21 countries. Ocean 180 is
all about connecting science to people, and the video challenge is
designed to help scientists turn their discoveries into
I really like the concept of this contest. Joseph Pawlik, one of
the researchers involved, did a good job telling the story of the
starfish and the sponge in the video production, assisted by Jack
Koch of the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. They called
the video “The maid did it! The surprising case of the
I won’t give away who killed whom, but answers to the murder
mystery are revealed toward the end of the 3-minute video.
A much more extensive research project involves monitoring the
largest active volcano off the coast of Oregon, a location called
Axial Seamount. University of Washington researchers and students
conducted the research and produced the video about the equipment
used in an extreme environment and how the data are transmitted
back to land via a fiber optic cable.
While the videos of the starfish-and-sponge and offshore volcano
were among the top 10 finalists, neither were among the top award
First-place winner Kelly Jaakkola of the Dolphin Research Center
said Ocean 180 is a way to make a connection with the next
generation of ocean scientists:
“For a lot of students, science can have a negative, scary
image. They picture people in white lab coats talking about topics
that nobody understands in the most boring, unimaginative way
possible. If we want to get kids excited about science, we need to
change that image.”
Third-place winner Charles Waters said some of the most
inspiring science writing uses analogies, metaphors and similes to
describe the scientific process and research findings:
“Video helps lift images from print, and the message comes
closer to being an experience for the audience in contrast to a
mere information stream.”
The Ocean 180 Video Challenge is sponsored by Florida Center for
Ocean Sciences Education Excellence.
For the past few years, I’ve been hearing that Washington’s
water-quality standards are grossly out of date, especially when it
comes to assumptions about how much fish people eat. Water-quality
standards are a set of criteria used to determine when a body of
water is “impaired” and to establish limits for discharges from
industrial facilities and sewage-treatment plants.
It was hard to understand how the Department of Ecology could
assume that an average person was eating just 6.5 grams of fish a
day. That’s less than a quarter-ounce. A typical meal of fish is
commonly considered to be eight ounces (226.8 grams). So the
assumption was that people were eating one meal of fish every 35
The water quality standards come from an equation established to
ensure that if you consumed a certain amount of fish, then your
health would be protected. So it would seem logical that if you ate
more than that amount, your health might be at risk.
That’s what got me started looking into the nuances of this
discussion about water-quality standards and eating fish,
especially fish from Puget Sound. The result was a two-part series
published Sunday and Monday in the Kitsap Sun (subscription) —
Part 1 and
Part 2 — and reprinted with permission on the website of
Investigate West — Part
1 and Part
I’ll talk about my new relationship with InvestigateWest at the
bottom of this page, where I’ll also report on a new study about
the protective effects of eating fish even when mercury levels are
The first thing to understand about water-quality standards is
that the state has been relying on an equation created by the
Environmental Protection Agency. That equation resulted in water
quality standards used since 1992 across the nation and still in
some states (PDF 429 kb). The problem was that the EPA has not
updated the nationwide standards, known as the National Toxics
Rule, even while the federal agency has been pushing for states to
come up with their own standards.
Obviously, the fish consumption rate was no longer valid, if it
ever was. State and federal guidelines call for people to eat at
least two or three meals of fish each week for health reasons. It
is not uncommon for Native Americans to eat a meal of fish or more
each day. Protecting the treaty rights of tribal members, which
includes safely eating fish from their “usual and accustomed
areas,” is a responsibility of the state and federal governments,
Fish consumption is not the only issue, however. Other factors
in the equation are also out of date. The EPA has updated estimates
of toxicity for many of the 100 or so chemicals for which
water-quality standards are listed. The weight of a person’s body
in the equation also was changed.
Perhaps the most controversial change in the formula, as
proposed by Gov. Jay Inslee, is to increase the cancer risk rate
for human health from 1 in a million to 1 in 100,000.
I won’t go deeper into the calculation here, since you can read
my story for more details, or look into the state’s
“Overview of key decisions in rule amendment” (PDF 6.4 mb). But
understand that all the assumptions taken together changed the
final number for each of the 96 chemicals under review for
Washington state. Also note that the vast majority of these
chemicals are not even detectible in fish down to parts per
Under Inslee’s proposal, the final number generated by the
equation would be the new water-quality standard for a chemical if
the number were lower (more protective) than the existing standard.
For chemicals in which the number was higher (less protective), the
old standard would remain.
The result was that 70 percent of the standards would become
more stringent under Inslee’s proposal and 30 percent would stay
the same, according to Ecology officials. To see the proposed
changes between the old and new standards and whether the change in
cancer risk would make a significant difference, check out “Human
Health Criteria Review Documents” (PDF 2.9 mb).
Out of the 96 chemicals on the list, two create the greatest
concerns for human health in Puget Sound waters. They are
polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and mercury. For these chemicals,
Inslee’s proposal would keep the water-quality standards the same.
This is controversial, but his thinking is that these chemicals are
widespread in the environment, and reducing their concentrations in
effluent would have little effect on improving the safety of
The governor has proposed a separate planning process with
funding from the Legislature to track down and reduce the sources
of pollution that cause the greatest health concerns — including
some chemicals not on the EPA’s list.
Eating fish is especially important for pregnant mothers and
young children, as I described in the first part of the series.
Omega-3 fatty acids found in fish tissue are considered essential
for the proper development of the brain and neurological system,
including memory and performance, as well as other health
Health advisories tend to balance the beneficial effects of
eating fish with the risks of getting too much PCBs, mercury and
other harmful chemicals. The goal is to choose fish that are
relatively low in toxic chemicals, knowing that practically all
fish, meats and dairy products contain some contaminants.
New study on protective effects of fish
A new study in the Seychelles, an island country where people eat a
lot of fish, suggests that polyunsaturated fatty acids in fish may
provide some protection against the health risks of mercury,
including neurological problems.
The study was published in the “American Journal of Clinical
Nutrition.” The report’s co-author, Edwin van Wijngaarden,
associate professor at the University of Rochester’s Department of
Public Health Sciences, had this to say in a news
“These findings show no overall association between prenatal
exposure to mercury through fish consumption and neurodevelopmental
outcomes. It is also becoming increasingly clear that the benefits
of fish consumption may outweigh, or even mask, any potentially
adverse effects of mercury.”
Because the findings are so new, I chose to stick to the
standard health advisories in my Sunday story.
Laura Riley, medical director of labor and delivery at
Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, said the advice to limit
fish intake may not be warranted after all. But she is not ready to
drop the cautionary approach, according to a story by Dennis
“More study needs to be done before you can convince me that the
fish is actually protective,” she said. “I want to see the
As most of you know, I have retired from the staff of the Kitsap
Sun, but I’m still writing this blog and occasional stories for the
newspaper, including the two-part series this week.
I was recently asked by InvestigateWest, a nonprofit
journalism group, to cover some environmental issues being debated
in the Washington Legislature. I started this new assignment this
week and expect to continue coverage to the end of the legislative
session. My work is being funded through a crowd-sourcing
website called Beacon. All contributions are appreciated.
Wyland Foundation’s annual “Water is Life” mural and art
challenge always seems to attract a sizable number of entries —
some 3,500 last year, according to organizers.
I’m always impressed with many of the winners in the individual
competition for grades 1-12 along with collaborative work on a
variety of murals.
Last year’s theme for the contest was “Our Ocean.” The
foundation provided 100 packages of art supplies, including a large
canvass. Also included were educational materials for students and
teachers to study ocean issues and work together to paint a
Theme for the 2015 contest will be “Our Coast and Climate.” For
details about entering individual entries and qualifying for free
art supplies, visit Wyland’s
website. The deadline for this year’s contest is Nov. 25.
Below are more of the individual winners along with the winning