Tag Archives: Environmental issues in Puget Sound

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

Amusing Monday: A quiz for you based on the ‘Puget Sound Fact Book’

Two years ago, I worked with a group of Puget Sound researchers and environmental writers to produce the “Puget Sound Fact Book” (PDF 27.6 mb) for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound and Puget Sound Institute. The project was funded by the Environmental Protection Agency to provide a quick reference for anyone interested in the Puget Sound ecosystem.

I have pulled out some of the facts (with excerpts from the fact book) to create a 15-question quiz for this “Amusing Monday” feature. The answers and quotes from the book can be found below the quiz.

1. Puget Sound averages 205 feet deep. What is its greatest depth?

A. 300 feet
B. 600 feet
C. 900 feet
D. 1,200 feet

2. It is said that Puget Sound was carved out by a series of glaciers. What was the name of the last ice glaciation some 15,000 years ago?

A. Vashon
B. Cascade
C. Blake
D. Olympia

3. One river is responsible for at least one-third of all the freshwater flowing into Puget Sound. What river is it?

A. Snohomish
B. Skagit
C. Skokomish
D. Puyallup

4. How much water is contained in the main basin of Puget Sound, which includes all of the inlets south of Whidbey Island?

A. 5 cubic miles
B. 10 cubic miles
C. 40 cubic miles
D. 80 cubic miles

5. How many Washington counties have shorelines that front on Puget Sound, including the Strait of Juan de Fuca and waters around the San Juan Island? (That’s the definition of Puget Sound used by the Puget Sound Partnership.)

A. Six
B. Eight
C. Ten
D. Twelve

6. What percentage of the total Washington state population lives in counties with shorelines on Puget Sound?

A. 58 percent
B. 68 percent
C. 78 percent
D. 88 percent

7. Puget Sound is part of the Salish Sea, which extends into Canada. How many marine mammals are considered by researchers to be “highly dependent” on habitats in the Salish Sea?

A. 10
B. 20
C. 30
D. 40

8. Three types of killer whales spend their lives in and around the Salish Sea. “Residents” specialize in eating chinook salmon, and “transients” specialize in eating marine mammals. What do the so-called “offshore” killer whales specialize in eating?

A. Sharks
B. Squid
C. Plankton
D. Birds

9. Rockfish are a long-lived species that live in rocky areas of Puget Sound. How many species of rockfish can found in the waterway?

A. Four
B. 12
C. 21
D. 28

10. What is the length of shoreline in the main basin of Puget Sound, which includes all inlets south of Whidbey Island?

A. 246 miles
B. 522 miles
C. 890 miles
D. 1,332 miles

11. Bulkheads and other shoreline armoring disrupt the ecological functions of natural shorelines. What percentage of the Puget Sound shoreline is armored with man-made structures?

A. 7 percent
B. 17 percent
C. 27 percent
D. 37 percent

12. How many dams could be counted in 2006 in the greater Puget Sound region, including the Elwha dams on the Olympic Peninsula?

A. 136
B. 236
C. 336
D. 436

13. Puget Sound Partnership tracks the attitudes and values of Puget Sound residents. What percentage of the population believes that cleaning up the waters of Puget Sound is an “urgent” priority?

A. 40 percent
B. 50 percent
C. 60 percent
D. 70 percent

14. Climate change can be expected to result in significant changes in the Puget Sound region. Which of the following is something we are likely to see over the next 40 years?

A. Higher 24-hour rainfall totals
B. Higher peak flows in streams with more flooding
C. Α small change in annual rainfall totals
D. All of the above

15. Climate change also affects sea life through ocean acidification. Few species in seawater are expected to avoid impacts. Some of the greatest concerns are being expressed for which animals?

A. Shellfish
B. Sharks
C. Salmon
D. Sea lions

Answers:

1. Puget Sound averages 205 feet deep. What is its greatest depth? Answer: C, 900 feet

“Puget Sound averages 205 feet deep, with the deepest spot near Point Jefferson in Kitsap County at more than 900 feet.”

2. It is said that Puget Sound was carved out by a series of glaciers. What was the name of the last ice glaciation some 15,000 years ago? Answer: A, Vashon

“Puget Sound, as we know it today, owes much of its size and shape to massive ice sheets that periodically advanced from the north, gouging out deep grooves in the landscape. The most recent glacier advance, about 15,000 years ago, reached its fingers beyond Olympia. The ice sheet, known as the Vashon glacier, was more than a half-mile thick in Central Puget Sound and nearly a mile thick at the Canadian border.”

3. One river is responsible for at least one-third of all the freshwater flowing into Puget Sound. What river is it? Answer: B, Skagit

“The annual average river flow into the Sound is about 1,174 cubic meters per second, and a third to a half of this comes from the Skagit River flowing into Whidbey Basin. It would take about 5 years for all the rivers flowing into the Sound to fill up its volume … “

4. How much water is contained in the main basin of Puget Sound, which includes all of the inlets south of Whidbey Island? Answer: C, 40 cubic miles

“Chesapeake Bay, which filled the immense valley of an ancient Susquehanna River, covers about 4,480 square miles — more than four times the area of Puget Sound (not including waters north of Whidbey Island). But Chesapeake Bay is shallow — averaging just 21 feet deep. In comparison, Puget Sound averages 205 feet deep… Consequently, Puget Sound can hold a more massive volume of water — some 40 cubic miles, well beyond Chesapeake Bay’s volume of 18 cubic miles.”

5. How many Washington counties have shorelines that front on Puget Sound, including the Strait of Juan de Fuca and waters around the San Juan Island? (That’s the definition of Puget Sound used by the Puget Sound Partnership.) Answer: D, twelve

“The Puget Sound coastal shoreline lies within 12 of Washington state’s 39 counties: Clallam, Island, Jefferson, King, Kitsap, Mason, Pierce, San Juan, Skagit, Snohomish, Thurston and Whatcom. An additional two counties (Lewis County and Grays Harbor County) are also within the watershed basin, although they do not have Puget Sound coastal shorelines….”

6. What percentage of the total Washington state population lives in counties with shorelines on Puget Sound? Answer: B, 68 percent

“As of 2014, the 12 Puget Sound coastal shoreline counties accounted for 68 percent of the Washington State population — 4,779,172 out of 7,061,530, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.”

7. Puget Sound is part of the Salish Sea, which extends into Canada. How many marine mammals are considered by researchers to be “highly dependent” on habitats in the Salish Sea? Answer: C, 30 marine mammals

“Thirty-eight species of mammals depend on the Salish Sea. Of the 38 species of mammals that have been documented using the Salish Sea marine ecosystem, 30 are highly dependent, 4 are moderately dependent, and 4 have a low dependence on the marine or intertidal habitat and marine derived food when present.”

8. Three types of killer whales spend their lives in and around the Salish Sea. “Residents” specialize in eating chinook salmon, and “transients” specialize in eating marine mammals. What do the so-called “offshore” killer whales specialize in eating? Answer: A, sharks

“Three ecotypes of killer whales (Orcinus orca) can be found in the Salish Sea. These distinct population segments or designatable units are classified as fish-eating Residents (both the Northern and Southern Resident populations), marine-mammal-eating transients (West Coast Transients), and fish eaters that specialize in sharks called Offshore Killer Whales.”

9. Rockfish are a long-lived species that live in rocky areas of Puget Sound. How many species of rockfish can found in the waterway? Answer: D, 28 species

“The Puget Sound has 28 species of rockfish. Rockfish are known to be some of the longest lived fish of Puget Sound. Maximum ages for several species are greater than 50 years. The rougheye rockfish can live up to 205 years.”

10. What is the length of shoreline in the main basin of Puget Sound, which includes all inlets south of Whidbey Island? Answer: D, 1,332 miles

“The coastline around Puget Sound is 2,143 km (1,332 miles) long. It would take about 18 unceasing days and nights to walk the entire shoreline if it were passable — or legal — everywhere. Note: this distance refers to Puget Sound proper and does not include the San Juan Islands or the Strait of Juan de Fuca.”

11. Bulkheads and other shoreline armoring disrupt the ecological functions of natural shorelines. What percentage of the Puget Sound shoreline is armored with man-made structures? Answer: C, 27 percent armored

“The amount of artificial shoreline has increased by 3,443 percent since the mid- to late-1800s. For example, shoreline armoring — such as bulkheads and riprap — has been constructed on an average 27 percent of the Puget Sound shoreline, but as high as 63 percent of the central Puget Sound shoreline.”

12. How many dams could be counted in 2006 in the greater Puget Sound region, including the Elwha dams on the Olympic Peninsula? Answer: D, 436 dams

“As of 2006, there were 436 dams in the Puget Sound watershed. Dams alter the water flow of rivers and trap sediment, which affect deltas and embayments at the mouths of these rivers and streams. For example, there was nearly 19 million cubic meters of sediment trapped behind the Elwha and Glines Canyon Dams on the Elwha River ¬ enough sediment to fill a football field to the height of the Space Needle more than 19 times.”

13. Puget Sound Partnership tracks the attitudes and values of Puget Sound residents. What percentage of the population believes that cleaning up the waters of Puget Sound is an “urgent” priority? Answer: C, 60 percent

“A related, ongoing survey has been gauging the attitudes and values of individual Puget Sound residents, beginning with the first survey in 2008. Since the survey’s inception, more than 60 percent of the population has held to the belief that cleaning up the waters of Puget Sound is an ‘urgent’ priority.”

14. Climate change can be expected to result in significant changes in the Puget Sound region. Which of the following is something we are likely to see over the next 40 years? Answer: D, all of the above

“Projected changes in total annual precipitation are small (relative to variability) and show increases or decreases depending on models, which project a change of −2 % to +13 % for the 2050s (relative to 1970-1999) ….

“More rain in autumn will mean more severe storms and flooding. Annual peak 24-hour rainfall is projected to rise 4 to 30 percent (depending on greenhouse emissions levels) by the late 21st century. Hundred-year peak stream flows will rise 15 to 90 percent at 17 selected sites around Puget Sound. In the flood-prone Skagit Valley, the volume of the 100-year flood of the 2080s will surpass today’s by a quarter, and flooding and sea-level rise together will inundate 75 percent more area than flooding alone used to.

“At the other extreme, water will become scarcer in the spring and summer…. By the 2080s, average spring snowpack in the Puget Sound watershed is projected to decline 56 to 74 percent from levels 100 years earlier. The decline will reach 80 percent by the 2040s in the headwaters of the four rivers (the Tolt, Cedar, Green, and Sultan) serving the cities of Seattle, Tacoma, and Everett — reflecting the fact that their snowpacks are already very low, hence vulnerable. By the 2080s, April snowpack will largely disappear from all four watersheds, leaving Puget Sound’s major rivers low and dry in summer.”

15. Climate change also affects sea life through ocean acidification. Few species in seawater are expected to avoid impacts. Some of the greatest concerns are being expressed for which animals? Answer: A, shellfish

“Another factor has also made the Northwest a frontline for acidification: the importance of its shellfish industry, together with the special vulnerability of one key component, larval oysters. University of Washington researchers recently identified worrisome effects on other species with vital commercial or ecological importance. Acidification affects the ability of mussels to produce byssus, the tough adhesive threads that anchor them to their rocks against waves and surf — a life-and-death matter for a mussel. The native bay mussel (Mytilus trossulus) also loses byssal strength when water temperatures surpass 20 degrees C., whereas Mediterranean mussels (M. galloprovincialis) grow more byssus as the waters warm. This suggests a potential species succession, from native to introduced mussels, as Puget Sound becomes warmer and more acidic.

“Potentially more ecologically devastating are acidification’s effects on copepods and krill, small swimming crustaceans at the base of the marine food web….. Krill also inhabit deeper, more acidic waters than copepods, compounding their exposure. Their loss would be grievous for the fishes, seabirds and whales that depend on them.”

Puget Sound: Hopeful signs shine through complex cleanup effort

While putting the final touches on a two-year, 10-part series about the Puget Sound ecosystem, I couldn’t help but wonder about the true character of Washington state and its citizens.

Kitsap Sun photo by Meegan M. Reid
Kitsap Sun photo by Meegan M. Reid

How much do people really care about salmon and rockfish, eagles and herons, killer whales, cougars, and many lesser-known species in and around Puget Sound? Do we have a political system capable of supporting the needed efforts — financially and legally — to correct the problems?

After interviewing hundreds of people over the past few years, I have a pretty good feeling about this state, especially when considering other parts of the country. There is hope that we can save some of the remaining gems of the Puget Sound ecosystem while restoring functioning conditions in other places.

Puget Sound Partnership, which is overseeing the restoration efforts, still has the support of many people and organizations — including many conservatives and business-oriented folks. That support comes despite ongoing struggles by the partnership to find a proper place within the state’s political system. Review my latest story in the Kitsap Sun (subscription).

“Let science lead the way” remains the refrain of both critics and supporters of the partnership. But that is easier said than done — even if you could take politics out of the equation.

Scientists in almost any field of research don’t always agree on the fundamental problems, and there is a competition among scientific disciplines for limited research dollars. Are endangered fish more important than endangered birds or endangered whales, or should we be studying the plankton, sediments and eelgrass that form the base of the food web?

Really, where should we focus our attention and tax dollars? That’s a key question. The correct answer is, and always has been, “All of the above.”

When it comes to funding, the decision-making becomes widely disbursed, and I’m not sure whether that is good or bad. At the local level, we have Lead Entities and Local Integrating Organizations. At the state level, we have the Salmon Recovery Funding Board, the Recreation and Conservation Funding Board and agencies themselves.

Then there is the Puget Sound Partnership, with its seven-member Leadership Council and 28-member Ecosystem Coordination Board, along with its science advisory panel. The partnership establishes an Action Agenda to guide funding decisions by the others.

One would never want an individual man or woman deciding where the money should go. But do the various groups help identify important problems, or do they diffuse attention from what could be a focused strategy? I believe this will always be somewhat a philosophical question.

One thing I confirmed in the final installment of the 10-part series “Taking the Pulse of Puget Sound” is that nobody was ever serious about a deadline established in the law creating the Puget Sound Partnership. Restoring Puget Sound by the year 2020 remains on the books as a goal that needs to be changed.

If officials acknowledge that the goal cannot be met, will the Legislature and the public continue their support for the current level of funding or perhaps increase support?

That gets back to my wondering about the true character of Washington state and its citizens. Based on past legislation, this state is clearly a leader in ecosystem protection. We have the Shoreline Management Act, the Growth Management Act (with its urban-concentration and critical-areas protections), Municipal Stormwater Permits, Forest Practices Act and more.

Are we ready to go all the way, by setting interim goals for 2020 and looking to the long term? We will need to better track progress, which means gathering more data in the field — monitoring, if you will.

Monitoring is not as inspiring as restoring an important estuary. But think of all the time and money spent on forecasting the weather, which relies entirely on monitoring with costly investments in satellites and equipment, all needing continual improvements.

Envision a significant role for experts who can describe changes in the ecosystem and help us decide if our money is being well spent. If weather reporters can hold a central role on the evening news, why shouldn’t we have ecosystem reporters discussing environmental conditions.

I wouldn’t mind hearing a report on the news something like this: “We are seeing improved conditions in southern Hood Canal, with scattered salmon spawning at upper elevations, and a 90 percent chance that oyster beds will be opened in Belfair.” (Just kidding, of course.)

Puget Sound Partnership’s proposed budget, as submitted by the governor, contains more than $1 million for assessing Puget Sound recovery. That could be an important step to providing information about how the ecosystem is responding to the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on protection and restoration so far.

In writing about the future for the final part of the “Pulse” series, I described a 2008 report from the University of Washington’s Urban Ecology Research Lab. The report identified the primary “drivers” of change that would determine the future of the Puget Sound region.

It was interesting to learn that if we are lucky about climate change — or even if we’re not so lucky — the future is largely in our hands. How will we react to economic ups and downs? How will we address land use with millions of new people coming in? Will we embrace technology as the final solution or look to nature for answers?

The report describes six remarkably different scenarios, though others could be constructed. Perhaps the worst one is called “Collapse,” in which warning signs of ecological problems are ignored and economic challenges are met by relaxing environmental regulations and allowing residential sprawl. In the end, the ecosystem cannot withstand the assault. Shellfish beds are forced to close, and hundreds of species — including salmon and orcas — disappear.

Two scenarios hold more hopeful outcomes. One, called “Forward,” includes public investments to purchase sensitive areas, including shorelines. Growth becomes concentrated in cities, and people learn to fit into the ecosystem. The other, called “Adaptation,” includes grassroots efforts to save water and resources and improve people’s ecological behavior. Protecting shorelines, floodplains and wildlife corridors help reduce flooding and protect species that could have been wiped out. Check out “Scenarios offer glimpses of a possible future for Puget Sound,” Kitsap Sun (subscription).

Joel Baker, director of Puget Sound Institute, capped off my “futures” story with a sense of optimism, which I find contagious. I don’t know if Joel was thinking of the Frank Sinatra song, “New York, New York” which contains the line, “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.” But Joel told me something like, “If we can’t make it here, we can’t make it anywhere.”

Here are his exact words:

“As an environmental scientist, I find it interesting that things are starting to come together. We continue to grow economically, so we have the money.

“Energy is lining up with the environment, and we’re forcing the restoration program to think holistically. It’s as much about transportation as it is about sewage-treatment plants.

“The Pacific Northwest is technologically savvy; we have smart people here; and we have the collective will to get things done. So I’m optimistic about cleaning up Puget Sound. If we can’t do it here, God help the rest of the country.”

Puget Sound Science Panel completes two-year plan

I wonder if anyone has noticed that I’ve been away from this Water Ways blog for a time. Aside from visiting my youngest daughter in Yakima, where she had her first baby, I’ve been occupied with breaking news for the Kitsap Sun.

There is no shortage of things to talk about, however, and I’d like to start with the recently approved two-year Science Work Plan for the Puget Sound Partnership.

Joe Gaydos

In developing a plan to investigate science-related questions, the Partnership’s Science Panel set out to identify weaknesses in our overall understanding of the Puget Sound ecosystem. The panel chose to be strategic about filling the gaps in our knowledge.

“We want to know everything, of course,” chairman Joe Gaydos told me. “But just because there’s a gap in our knowledge does not mean we should go out and do a study.

“The real question is, where does the lack of science hinder our ability to make decisions? We’re not just doing science for science’s sake but to help us make better decisions.”

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Let’s keep an eye on the shellfish initiative

It is interesting to contemplate how the new National Shellfish Initiative, announced in June, and the Washington Shellfish Initiative, announced last week, could change things in Puget Sound.

Newton Morgan of the Kitsap County Health District collects a dye packet from Lofall Creek in December of 2010. This kind of legwork may be the key to tracking down pollution in Puget Sound.
Kitsap Sun photo by Meegan Reid

As I described in a story I wrote for last Saturday’s Kitsap Sun, the principal goals are these:

  • Rebuild native Olympia oyster and pinto abalone populations.
  • Increase access to public tidelands for recreational shellfish harvesting.
  • Research ways to increase commercial shellfish production without harming the environment.
  • Improve permitting at county, state and federal levels.
  • Evaluate how well filter-feeding clams and oysters can reduce nitrogen pollution, with possible incentives for private shellfish cultivation.

To read more about the initiatives, check out:

One of the most encouraging things is an attempt to expand Kitsap County’s Pollution Identification and Correction (PIC) Program to other counties, with increased funding for cleaning up the waters. Check out the story I wrote for last Friday’s Kitsap Sun, in which I describe the search-and-destroy mission against bacterial pollution.

As most Water Ways readers know, I’ve been following the ongoing monitoring and cleanup effort by the Kitsap County Health District for years with the help of Keith Grellner, Stuart Whitford, Shawn Ultican and many others in the district’s water quality program. In fact, just two weeks ago, I discussed what could be a turnaround for a chronic pollution problem in Lofall Creek, a problem that has taken much perseverance to resolve. (See Kitsap Sun, Dec. 2.) Unfortunately, the story is far from over.

I’ve talked about the importance of old-fashioned legwork in tracking down pollution, and I’ve suggested that other local governments use some of their stormwater fees or implement such fees for monitoring of their local waters. See Water Ways, June 30, for example.

Water free of fecal pollution has benefits for humans and other aquatic creatures. Thankfully, Washington State Department of Health’s shellfish program is careful about checking areas for signs of sewage before certifying them as safe for shellfish harvesting. Maybe the new shellfish initiative will allow the state to open beds that have been closed for years. That’s what happened in Yukon Harbor, where more than 900 acres of shellfish beds were reopened in 2008. (See Kitsap Sun, Sept. 25, 2008).

Certifying areas as safe for shellfish harvesting means that waterfront property owners are safe to enjoy the bounty of their own beaches. It also offers an opportunity for commercial growers to make money and contribute to the state’s economy.

Of course, this does not mean that intensive shellfish-growing operations ought to be expanded to every clean corner of Puget Sound, any more than large-scale crop farming or timber harvesting should be allowed to take over the entire landscape.

Some environmentalists have expressed concern that the Washington Shellfish Initiative could become a boondoggle for commercial shellfish growers. Laura Hendricks of the Sierra Club’s Marine Ecosystem Campaign sent me an e-mail noting these concerns about the expansion of aquaculture:

“Washington State has more native species listed as endangered than any other state in the USA. We see no mention of the adverse impacts in this initiative on nearshore habitat, birds and juvenile salmon.

“Governor Gregoire and the various speakers failed to mention that ALL of the pending shoreline aquaculture applications they want to ‘streamline’ are for industrial geoduck aquaculture, not oysters. Red tape is not what is delaying these applications…

“Shellfish industry lobbyists who pushed for this expansion are silent on the following three serious threats to our fisheries resources, forage fish, birds and salmon:

“1. Shellfish consume fisheries resources (zooplankton — fish/crab eggs and larvae) according to peer reviewed studies. A DNR study documented that forage fish eggs did not just stay buried high on the beach, but were found in the nearshore water column. Continuing to allow expansion of unnatural high densities of filtering shellfish in the intertidal “nursery,” puts our fisheries resources at risk.

“2. The shellfish growers place tons of plastics into Puget Sound in order to expand aquaculture where it does not naturally grow…

3. Mussel rafts are documented to reduce dissolved oxygen essential for fish and are known in Totten Inlet to be covered in invasive tunicates with beggiatoa bacteria found underneath…”

Ashley Ahearn of KUOW interviewed Laura Hendricks, and you can hear her report on EarthFix.

In her e-mail, Laura recommended the video at right. She also pointed to a blog entry by Alf Hanna of Olympic Peninsula Environmental News. Hanna suggests that environmental advocates who go along with commercial aquaculture may become the oysters that get eaten in Lewis Carroll’s poem “The Walrus and the Carpenter.”

Have intensive shellfish farms in Puget Sound gone too far in their efforts to exploit the natural resources of our beaches? Can shellfish farmers make money without undue damage to the environment? Which practices are acceptable, which ones should be banned, and which areas are appropriate for different types of aquaculture?

It would have been nice if these answers were known long ago, and in some cases they are. But at least this new shellfish initiative recognizes that more research is needed to answer many remaining questions. Research is under way in Washington state on geoduck farming, which involves planting oyster seed in plastic tubes embedded into the beach. Review “Effects of Geoduck Aquaculture on the Environment: A Synthesis of Current Knowledge” (PDF 712 kb) or visit Washington Sea Grant.

Other research in our region is needed as well, although it is clear that environmental trade-offs will be part of the deal whenever commercial interests cross paths with natural systems. For a discussion about this issue, check out the executive summary of the NOAA-funded publication Shellfish Aquaculture and the Environment (PDF 4.2 mb), edited by Sandra E. Shumway.

Needless to say, we’ll be keeping an eye on this process for years to come.

Puget Sound targets will stretch restoration efforts

Last week, the Puget Sound Partnership completed work on its ecosystem targets, the first time in history that goals have been established for the restoration of Puget Sound. See the story I wrote for Saturday’s Kitsap Sun.

Early in her first term, Gov. Chris Gregoire established a goal of restoring Puget Sound to health by the year 2020. What we have learned since then is that nobody can define precisely what that means. There is no battery of tests to be given to the waterway that would allow a team of doctors to declare their patient in fine condition.

In human terms, one can say a healthy person is one free of serious disease. But for some people that is not enough. Some are satisfied with nothing less than top athletic form. It’s even more complicated for Puget Sound, where some parts of the water body can be pristine while others are in need of intensive care.

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Predicting salmon runs — and reporting the issues

Before salmon managers begin to focus on harvest quotas and seasons for salmon fishing, they must work out predictions about the number of salmon coming back to each management area throughout the Northwest.

Those are the numbers released this week during the annual kickoff meeting for the North of Falcon process held in Olympia. Check out my story in yesterday’s Kitsap Sun.

So how do the managers go about predicting this year’s salmon runs? It gets pretty technical, but it is basically a combination of counting the number of salmon smolts that leave selected streams and then calculating a rate of survival to determine the number of adults that will come back.

Mara Zimmerman
WDFW photo

Numerous conditions affect whether eggs and fry will survive to smolt stage and make it out of a stream, just as many factors can cause the death of the young fish after they leave freshwater. I’m tempted to describe these factors here, but instead will defer to Mara Zimmerman, who heads the Wild Salmonid Production Evaluation Unit. Her well-written report on the “2011 Wild Coho Forecasts…” (PDF 376 kb) provides an excellent education into how coho are estimated. Check it out.

I was one of three newspaper reporters who attended Tuesday’s meeting in Olympia. It was easy to tell the difference between my handling of this story and the approaches by Jeffrey P. Mayor, who writes for the Olympian and the News Tribune in South Puget Sound, and Allen Thomas, who writes for the Columbian in Vancouver (Clark County).

The biggest difference is that those guys are sports or outdoor reporters, mainly interesting in telling their readers what fishing will be like this year. As an environmental reporter, my primary focus is to describe how the salmon are doing ecologically — although I do recognize that many readers of my stories are anglers who also want to know about fishing.

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The PSP Interviews: Gerry O’Keefe

Now this is a coincidence. When I wrote my recent progress report on the Puget Sound Partnership, my story included little more than brief quotes and snippits of information from a variety of informed people. That’s why I began this series called “The PSP Interviews.” I was preparing to write up this interview with Gerry O’Keefe this weekend when I learned that Gov. Chris Gregoire had named him as the permanent director of the Puget Sound Partnership on Friday.

Gerry O’Keefe’s first impressions of the Puget Sound region came shortly after he began graduate school work at the University of Washington in 1984.

“Some of my first memories are of riding the #44 bus across 45th Street and looking out the window and seeing the mountains,” he said.

O’Keefe worked in the state budget office from 1989 to 1997 and then became engaged in budget issues at the Washington Department of Ecology. Before he left Ecology in 2008, he had tackled major water-resource discussions focused on the Columbia River. Coming up with an overall agreement on water resources required him to bring together diverse interests, including local government, business owners and tribes.

In 2008, O’Keefe went to work for the Grant County Public Utility District, where he oversaw a $1-billion environmental program, largely an effort to mitigate for the effects of dams on salmon populations.

“I like to be oriented around solutions and trying to help people get their money’s worth,” O’Keefe told me.
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Puget Sound restoration is an adventure in science

It appears the Puget Sound Partnership will remain busy the rest of the year with a variety of critical activities, many of them mandated by state law.

I reported on last week’s meeting of the Leadership Council in a story published in Saturday’s Kitsap Sun. The meeting focused on approving a new Strategic Science Plan (PDF 11.8 mb) and efforts to identify indicators for measuring progress toward restoring Puget Sound. Helping write upcoming budgets for the state’s natural resource agencies and crafting new legislation will occupy significant time.

One of the interesting discussions about indicators was the question of whether jellyfish or herring should be used as an indicator of ecosystem health. Herring were said to be a broader measure, since they are eaten by far more species than jellyfish. At the same time, changes in herring population are harder to relate to a specific cause. The balance could be tipped toward herring, since so much historical data are available.

The council reviewed a new organizational structure (PDF 2.8 mb), which puts science squarely into the picture. There was a general agreement that vacant positions on the science staff need to be filled as soon as possible. Especially important is the science program director, who will direct day-to-day work at the partnership, and the natural resource scientist, who is seen as a liaison with the broader scientific community. Another important post is the oil spill research analyst, which is also vacant.

Jan Newton, a member of the Puget Sound Science Panel, made an impression on me when she pointed out how unique a place Puget Sound is.

“It’s not Chesapeake Bay; it’s not the Gulf,” Jan said. “We’re dealing with population change. We’re not on a static playing field. We need to recognize that.”

Puget Sound Partnership must not be limited by studies that have been done in the past. The organization has the horsepower to call for new research in its quest to figure out how the ecosystem really works.

After hearing Jan’s talk, I turned to the chapter in the Strategic Science Plan called “Puget Sound: Unique Ecosystem, Unique Community,” where I found this instructive language:

“Puget Sound is the second largest estuary in the United States, with over 3,000 kilometers of shoreline. Carved by retreating glaciers at the end of the last ice age 11,000-15,000 years ago, the fjord-like geomorphology of Puget Sound is somewhat unique in the United States. Most estuaries in this country are coastal plain or drowned river estuaries, lacking significant restrictions to the coastal ocean and lacking the great depths and strong tidal currents well known in Puget Sound. The average depth of Puget Sound is 62 meters with a maximum depth of 280 meters.” (Compare that to Chesapeake Bay in the charts below.)

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