Tag Archives: Hood Canal

Hood Canal council names winners of environmental awards

Beards Cove Community Organization and Newberry Hill Heritage Park Stewards are this year’s winners of the Hood Canal Environmental Achievement Awards.

The awards, sponsored by the Hood Canal Coordinating Council, recognize people and groups that have taken actions and fostered relationships to improve the health of the Hood Canal environment.

The 500 property owners in the Beards Cove community were credited with developing relationships with Great Peninsula Conservancy and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to restore an estuary near the Union River on the North Shore of Hood Canal.

The Beards Cove Restoration Project completes the final segment of 1.7 miles of unbroken saltmarsh along the shoreline. The project removed 45,000 cubic yards of fill, derelict structures and a septic system. The work included reconfiguring the shoreline and planting the area with native vegetation, all to enhance salmon habitat.

The Beards Cove project was described in a Kitsap Sun story by Arla Shepherd Bull and in a Water Ways blog entry I wrote about the history of the Beards Cove development leading to the need for restoration.

Stewards working to improve Newberry Hill Heritage Park are protecting fish and wildlife in the area, which includes the Anderson Creek watershed, which drains to Hood Canal. The group built a fence to protect a beaver dam, which provides habitat for coho and other fish, along with a foot bridge that maintains access to a flooded trail. The group helped develop a forest-management plan to restore ecological health to the park. Members are known for expanding their knowledge about forests, streams and wetlands.

When writing the 10-part series “Taking the Pulse of Puget Sound,” I talked to steward Frank Stricklin, who probably knows the park land better than anyone else. The specific story, titled “Health of forests plays key role in health of Puget Sound,” focused on forests and other upland areas.

The awards will be presented Friday at a conference that will celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Hood Canal Coordinating Council. Speakers will include Donna Simmons, one of the council’s founders who will describe the history of the organization. U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer will discuss his Save Our Sound legislation and how to move forward with ecosystem restoration. I will contribute to the discussion by talking about my reporting career as it relates to Hood Canal.

The event will be held at Lucky Dog Casino Event Center. Those who would like to attend should contact Robin Lawlis at the coordinating council, (360) 394-0046 or rlawlis@hccc.wa.gov. For information, check the fact sheet on the HCCC’s website.

The Hood Canal Coordinating Council was established in 1985 to improve the water quality of Hood Canal. It has expanded its mission to include improving the ecological health of the canal. The group is made up of the county commissioners in Kitsap, Mason and Jefferson counties along with the Port Gamble S’Klallam and Skokomish tribes.

Making amends for mistakes that damaged our natural world

Preservation is cheaper than restoration. If you need proof, one place to look is the Beard’s Cove estuary-restoration project on Hood Canal, about a mile outside of Belfair.

The project, nearing completion, is re-establishing 7.3 acres of saltwater wetlands by excavating and removing about 4,000 dumptruck loads of old fill dirt from an area originally built as a private park for the Beard’s Cove community.

Belfair and Lynch Cove as depicted on this map created in 1884 by the U.S. Office of Coast Survey. Colors were added, and the label “1973 fill area” shows the site of the current restoration. Image: Beard’s Cove restoration file.
Belfair and Lynch Cove as depicted on a map created in 1884 by the U.S. Office of Coast Survey. Colors were added, and the label “1973 fill area” shows the site of the current restoration.
Image: Beard’s Cove restoration file

It is a rare restoration project, because essentially the same dirt used to fill the wetlands in 1973 is being taken out and put back where it came from — across North Shore Road from the development. The cost is estimated at $1.1 million, as reported by Arla Shephard in a story in the Kitsap Sun.

Filling in the salt marsh was part of the development plan for the Beard’s Cove plat, approved by the Mason County commissioners a few years before construction began. The voter-approved Shoreline Management Act and other environmental regulations were just coming on the scene.

Hood Canal Environmental Council, a fledgling group at the time, testified against the Beard’s Cove project. Phil Best, a young lawyer who would later become Kitsap County commissioner, was a founder of that organization.

“We were concerned that this project would set a precedent,” Phil told me. “If you start filling in all these marsh areas, you would be destroying a lot of salmon habitat throughout Hood Canal.”

Although scientists today know much more about the value of estuaries, Phil said there was plenty of evidence at the time about the damage that would be caused by this kind of project. Much of the scientific information was provided by researchers at the University of Washington’s Big Beef Creek Research Station. That facility, near Seabeck in Kitsap County, is still used for salmon research.

In the end, the Beard’s Cove developer prevailed with the county commissioners and the courts, and the fill was dumped into the estuary to create a park. Today, of course, a project like this would not even get off the drawing board.

Aerial photo from 1973 during construction of the Beard’s Cove development, a portion of which was built on fill going out into Hood Canal. Image: Beard’s Cove restoration file.
Aerial photo from 1973 during construction of the Beard’s Cove development, a portion of which was built on fill going out into Hood Canal.
Image: Beard’s Cove restoration file.

“We’re finally getting to where things should be,” Phil said, “but it is unfortunate that we have to spend millions of taxpayer dollars, when the permit for this should have been denied in the first place. There is a lesson to be learned here: It is better to err on the side of caution when it comes to environmental issues.”

For every restoration project we know about, someone could have avoided the cost by not doing the damage in the first place. We must recognize that we are paying for many mistakes made by our forefathers.

At the same time, we must face the fact that — despite all we have learned — we are still doing damage to the ecosystem. Some damage is inevitable, as more development is needed to accommodate a growing population. But we should be as careful as we can, so our descendants don’t have to undo what we have done.

The alternative, of course, is far more dreadful. If we cannot turn the tide on our ecological destruction and find a way to live within the natural world, Puget Sound is doomed to ecological collapse. Future generations might live on a large, sterile pond and wonder what it once was like. They might as well live on the moon.

The 540 or more families who live in the Beard’s Cove Community today had nothing to do with the mistakes that were made. Who could blame them for using the park and swimming pool developed for their use? People who grew up in Beard’s Cove cherish the memories of that park. I would suggest that it is of little value to blame anyone for past mistakes, since society as a whole sanctioned all sorts of activities that we would not allow today.

The Beard’s Cove community should be congratulated for breaking with the past and allowing the restoration to take place. It may be true that the decision was easier after the park fell into disrepair. Someone apparently destroyed the old swimming pool by draining it during an extreme high tide, causing it to “float” up out of the ground — or so the story goes, says Louena “Louie” Yelverton, president of the Beard’s Cove Community Organization.

Louie says the community supports the restoration of the marsh and looks forward to seeing a more natural shoreline.

“it is nice to be part of a restoration project, realizing that this is a small part of a 700-acre project that is going to help salmon,” she said. “As a society, we are starting to learn that we need to give forethought to the future. It might not affect us, but it will be there for our grandkids and future generations. I am glad to be part of this.”

Louie credits Kate Kuhlman of Great Peninsula Conservancy for helping to generate goodwill in the community. Her concerns for the people as well as the steadfast promotion of the science helped get the project to construction. GPC coordinated the grants to get the work done with some land left for community use.

“She has been a trooper through everything,” Louie said. “Now we are going to have a park, and the shoreline is going to be good for salmon. I am super-excited that we are toward the end of this and will get to see what all the hard work has accomplished.”

Wetlands along the North Shore of Hood Canal have been undergoing protection and restoration for 30 years. This is where I chose to write the opening chapter of the book “Hood Canal: Splendor at Risk.”

The Beard’s Cove project, including a permanent conservation easement, fills in the final gap in a full 1.7 miles of unbroken estuarine habitat to be preserved in perpetuity, thanks to GPC and its North Mason predecessor, Hood Canal Land Trust, along with Pacific Northwest Salmon Center, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and the North Mason School District.

The project includes the construction of 2,530 feet of newly formed tide channels, 1,200 feet of graveled beach and large woody debris habitat structures.

Marsh areas like this are among the most productive places on the planet, supporting a rich food web that includes salmon species such as Puget Sound chinook, Puget Sound steelhead and Hood Canal summer chum, all listed as “threatened” on the Endangered Species List.

Low-oxygen scenario following unusual course this year in Hood Canal

Death came early to Hood Canal this year, demonstrating just how odd and unpredictable ocean conditions can be.

Fish kills caused by low-oxygen conditions in southern Hood Canal usually occur in late September or October. That’s when low-oxygen waters near the seabed are pushed upward by an intrusion of heavier water coming in from the Pacific Ocean and creeping along the bottom. Winds out of the south can quickly blow away the surface waters, leaving the fish with no escape.

That’s basically what happened over the past month, as conditions developed about a month earlier than normal. South winds led to reports of fish dying and deep-water animals coming to the surface to get enough oxygen, with the worst conditions occurring on Friday. Check out the video on this page by Seth Book, a biologist with the Skokomish Tribe, who found deep-water ratfish swimming near the surface.

The story of this year’s strange conditions actually begins about a year ago and involves a 1,000-mile-long “blob” of unusually warm ocean water off the West Coast. State Climatologist Nick Bond, who coined the term “blob,” explains its formation in an article in Geophysical Research Letters with a summarized description by Hannah Hickey in UW Today.

The warm, low-density coastal waters related to the blob came into Hood Canal on schedule last fall, but they were not dense enough to flush out the low-oxygen waters, according to University of Washington oceanographer Jan Newton.

Hood Canal entered 2015 with the least-dense waters at depth over the past 10 years. They remained in a hypoxic state, meaning that levels were below 2.5 parts per million. Sea creatures unable to swim away can be unduly stressed and unable to function normally at that level. Conditions worsened into the summer, when the hypoxic layer at Hoodsport grew to about 300 feet thick.

By then, the annual intrusion of deep seawater with somewhat elevated oxygen levels was on its way into Hood Canal, spurred on by upwelling off the coast. This year’s waters are more normal in density, though their arrival is at least a month early. By August 9, the hypoxic layer at Hoodsport was reduced from 300 to 60 feet, pushed upward by the denser water.

It’s always interesting to see this dynamic play out. The layer of extreme low-oxygen water becomes sandwiched between the higher-oxygen water pushing in from the ocean and the surface water, which ordinarily stays oxygenated by winds and incoming streams. Without south winds, the middle low-oxygen layer eventually comes up and mixes into the surface layer.

If south winds come on strong, however, the surface layer is blown to the north, causing the low oxygen water to rise to the surface. Fish, shrimp and other creatures swim upward toward the surface, trying to stay ahead of the rising low-oxygen layer. When the low-oyygen layer reaches the surface, fish may struggle to breathe in the uppermost mixing layer. Unfortunately, the fish have no way of knowing that safer conditions lie down below — beneath the low-oxygen layer and within waters arriving from the ocean.

Jan Newton reported that the low oxygen levels in southern Hood Canal earlier this year were the most extreme measured over the past 10 years. So far, however, the fish kills don’t seem as bad as those in 2003, 2006 and 2010, she said.

The graph below shows how the deep layer coming in from the ocean at 279 feet deep contains more oxygen than the middle layer at 66 feet deep. The surface layer, which normally contains the most oxygen, dipped to extremes several times near the beginning of August and again on Friday, Aug. 28. These data, recorded from a buoy near Hoodsport, are considered unverified.


Port Gamble sewage plant to protect shellfish, recharge groundwater

The historic town of Port Gamble is about to get a new-fangled sewage-treatment plant, one that will allow highly treated effluent to recharge the groundwater in North Kitsap.

Port Gamble

The old treatment plant discharges its effluent into Hood Canal, causing the closure of about 90 acres of shellfish beds. After the new plant is in operation, those shellfish beds are likely to be reopened, officials say.

The new facility will be built and operated by Kitsap Public Utility District, which owns and manages small water systems throughout the county. The Port Gamble plant will be the first wastewater operation to be managed by the KPUD, which views the project as a step toward reclaiming more of Kitsap County’s wastewater by putting it to beneficial use, said manager Bob Hunter.

The PUD already manages the Port Gamble water system, which will undergo a future renovation, he said. Dealing with the community’s sewage is the next logical step.

“Nobody can do reclaimed water without the sewage-treatment part of the equation,” Bob told me, “and it seems potentially more efficient to have one entity do it.”

In a related development, the district is expected to ask Kitsap County voters for authority to own the plant as well as operate it. Under its current authority, the district can own water utilities but not sewer utilities.

A $2-million state grant to eliminate the discharge of sewage into Hood Canal requires that a public entity own the sewer system. To comply with that requirement, Mason County PUD 1 will take over ownership until Kitsap PUD obtains the needed authority, Bob noted.

The KPUD commissioners are expected to decide on Tuesday whether to place a measure on November’s ballot. Hunter said he doesn’t expect opposition, but he hopes to address any concerns people may have. The commissioners meet at 9:30 a.m. in their Poulsbo office.

The new treatment plant will be a membrane bioreactor, a type of filtering system capable of producing effluent close to the quality of drinking water. The plant, which comes assembled, will treat up to 100,000 gallons of sewage per day. That’s enough capacity to serve the existing homes in Port Gamble. And if the town’s redevelopment is approved (Kitsap Sun, Jan. 24, 2013), as proposed by owner Pope Resources, the plant could serve up to 350 homes — provided the old sewer pipes are replaced to reduce the amount of stormwater that leaks in.

The plant will be located on 1.3 acres near Carver Drive, south of Highway 104. Effluent will be pumped to a new drainfield at the top of a nearby hill. Eventually, water from the plant could be used to irrigate forestland or else lawns and ballfields in the town.

Construction is expected to get underway soon, with the system operational by May of next year. The entire project, including the treatment plant, pumping system, pipes, drainfield and site work, is expected to cost $5 million with most of the cost paid by Pope Resources.

The KPUD has no plans to operate other sewer systems at this time, Hunter said, but the district hopes to be in a position to respond to community needs, as it as done with failing water systems. Small sewage-treatment plants could be feasible where a lot of septic systems are failing, he noted, but state law precludes the use of sewers in rural areas except during a health emergency. Even then, the systems must serve only existing needs, not future growth, he noted.

Without snowpack, Kitsap Peninsula is entirely dependent on the amount of rain that falls on the peninsula. With limited storage, future water supplies can be bolstered by recharging the groundwater with high-quality sewage effluent or by using effluent to replace drinking water used for irrigation and industrial processes.

The Central Kitsap Wastewater Treatment Plant, which produces an average 3.2 million gallons of water each day, is undergoing a major upgrade to produce water that can be used for a variety of uses in nearby Silverdale. In preparation, Silverdale Water District has been installing a new piping network to bring the reclaimed water into the community.

“We have been talking for a long time about getting water into the ground instead of dumping it into Puget Sound or Hood Canal,” said Bob Hunter. “With this project in Port Gamble, we can learn and be prepared when other situations come along.”

New website reveals strategies for improving Hood Canal ecosystem

If you want to know how the Hood Canal Coordinating Council is working to protect and restore Hood Canal, take a look at a new website created by the council. It is called OurHoodCanal.org.


The website is an attractive and functional companion to the “Hood Canal Integrated Watershed Plan” (PDF 325 kb), a five-year strategic plan focused on programs that can be accomplished by the coordinating council and its members.

Hood Canal Coordinating Council is made up of county commissioners from Kitsap, Mason and Jefferson counties, along with leaders from the Skokomish and Port Gamble S’Klallam tribes.

When planning efforts began five years ago, the idea was to create an “integrated” plan that would recognize all the ecological functions taking place in the Hood Canal watershed and create a set of strategies for addressing all the various problems.

The effort got off to a good start by identifying many of the problems, ranging from declining fish populations to fragmented upland habitats. But the complexity of those problems, the variability of conditions and the numerous agencies responsible for data and decisions eventually overwhelmed the planners. It was as if they were trying to complete a jigsaw puzzle containing a million pieces.

The coordinating council decided to refocus the effort on issues that are under its purview while maintaining the long-term vision of a sustainable Hood Canal ecosystem that benefits humans in a variety of ways.

“Ideally, we will eventually get to all the issues,” said Scott Brewer, the council’s executive director. “The board decided it wanted to focus on something that would be the first strategic priorities and then pick up the other things over time.”

In this context, the plan identifies five focal components:

  • Shellfish,
  • Commercial shellfish harvesting,
  • Forests,
  • Forestry, and
  • Salmon.

Also, four major “pressures” are called out for special attention:

  • Commercial and residential development,
  • Transportation and service corridors,
  • Climate change and ocean acidification, and
  • Wastewater discharges and stormwater runoff.

These are issues that the county and tribal leaders were already addressing in one way or another, either through local actions or through the Hood Canal Coordinating Council, which is recognized under state law.

The new website OurHoodCanal.org highlights the connections between human well-being and natural resources. The first findings focus on three natural resource indicators — one each for shellfish, forests and salmon — plus five indicators for human well being — positive emotions, communication, traditional resource practices, communities, natural resource industries and access to local food.

A survey last year, for example, showed that Hood Canal generates positive emotions (at least most of the time) for the vast majority of respondents, yet most Hood Canal residents say they don’t often work together to manage resources, prepare cultural events or solve community challenges.

The website also includes a section about what people can do to help Hood Canal.

“This is a work in progress,” Scott said about the planning effort and related website. “We can start by telling a really good story about what is happening in Hood Canal, then going on to make connections and asking whether we are doing the right things.”

The first strategies identified in the plan involve:

  • Working together on local land-use planning,
  • Identifying failing septic systems and other sources of bacterial pollution,
  • Continuing projects to restore healthy runs of salmon,
  • Furthering a mitigation program to fully compensate for the effects of development,
  • Finding ways to adapt to climate change, and
  • Developing a regional plan to reduce stormwater problems.

Meanwhile, the coordinating council has developed a new ranking system for setting priorities for salmon restoration. Refinements will come later, Scott said, but the system is currently being used to identify restoration projects to be proposed for funding later this year.

Under the Salmon Recovery Prioritization (see “guidance” document) projects will be given more consideration if they help highly rated salmon stocks, such as fall chinook in the Skokomish River, summer chum in the Big Quilcene and so on. Projects are given points for addressing specific habitat types and restoration actions deemed to be the most important.

If successful, this approach will result in funding the most important restoration projects, as determined through a more precise ranking process than ever used before, although it does leave room for judgment calls.

While the Hood Canal Coordinating Council works on projects in Hood Canal, other groups continue with similar efforts in other watersheds.

“Everyone is prioritizing one way or another,” Scott told me, “but they haven’t looked at it like we have.”

Scott said agencies and organizations that grant money for salmon recovery or ecosystem restoration could call for an improved ranking process throughout Puget Sound.

“A lot of money gets spread everywhere,” he noted, “but there are some key spots throughout Puget Sound that need it more than others.”

Five big projects planned for the Skokomish River

The Army Corps of Engineers is moving forward on a $40-million restoration program along the Skokomish River, as I mentioned in Water Ways last week.

According to Rachel Mesko of the Army Corps of Engineers, two major projects have been dropped from the “tentatively selected plan” for the Skokomish, which flows into the south end of Hood Canal. That leaves five major projects to advance forward for a likely recommendation to Congress.

Skok watershed

Rachel presented a status report on the program during a recent meeting of the Skokomish Watershed Action Team.

It’s hard to remember how long I’ve been writing about the Army Corps of Engineers’ involvement in the Skokomish. So I looked it up. The agency completed a flood analysis in 1988, considered dredging options in 1995 and began work on the current “general investigation” in 2000.

Before I talk about the projects being proposed, I’d like to recall what is at stake in the Skokomish, often cited as the most frequently flooded river in Washington state. Many people believe that the restoration of Hood Canal, a gem of an ecosystem, cannot be successful without first fixing the Skokomish, where individual restoration projects have been underway for years.

Here’s a brief description of the problems from the feasibility report on the Skokomish River Basin Ecosystem Restoration (PDF 5.3 mb).

“High sediment load, reduced flows and encroachment on the floodplain by man-made structures are causing continued degradation of natural ecosystem structures, functions, and processes necessary to support critical fish and wildlife habitat throughout the basin.

“The decline in populations has resulted in the listing of four anadromous fish species under the Endangered Species Act — chinook salmon, chum salmon, steelhead, and bull trout — that use the river as their primary habitat.

“The impaired ecosystem has adversely affected riverine, wetland, and estuarine habitats that are critical to these and other important fish and wildlife species such as bears, bald eagles and river otters to name a few.”

Let me list some of the specific problems:

  • Historical removal of large woody debris has simplified the stream, wiping out pools, eliminating places for young fish to hide and reducing nutrients, which feed aquatic insects and support an entire food web.
  • Logging along the river has eliminated the supply of large woody debris, the shade to cool the stream and the overhanging vegetation, a key part of the food web. Logging also has increased erosion which prevents new vegetation from taking hold, smothers salmon eggs and fills in pools, where salmon can rest.
  • Levees built to protect farmland from flooding halted the natural movement of the river, known as channel migration, and prevented the formation of new habitats.
  • Logging upstream in the South Fork of the Skokomish River and Vance Creek increased erosion and movement of sediment into the lower river, cutting off fish access to side channels, wetlands and other aquatic habitats.
  • The Cushman Dam Project blocked 25 percent of the mainstem habitat and 18 percent of tributary habitat available for salmon in the North Fork of the Skokomish River. Reduced flows below the dam increased sedimentation in the lower Skokomish. As a result, about a mile of the river dries up about two months each summer, blocking salmon migration.
  • Highways 101 and 106 disrupted natural floodplains that can be used by fish to find food and to escape high flows and then find their way back to the river.

Five projects designed to reduce these problems are being proposed by the Army Corps of Engineers:

Car body levee removal: This levee was built with old cars at the confluence where the North Fork flows into the mainstem of the Skokomish. Some 5,000 feet of the levee would be removed. A small channel would be created to allow water from the mainstem to flow into the North Fork and return at the existing confluence. Large woody debris would help direct water into the channel. Estimated cost: $7.5 million.

Large woody debris: Upstream of the confluence with the North Fork, large woody debris would be installed. Large clusters of trees with root wads, as well as some single trees, would be placed between river mile 9 and 11, as measured from the estuary in Hood Canal. Estimated cost: $3.2 million.

Setback levee at river mile 9: The existing levee would be breached in four locations, and a new levee would be built some 200 to 300 feet farther away. The levee would allow for minor over-topping but would not increase the flood risk. Estimated cost: $2.4 million.

Grange levee: Larger breeches are planned for the levee near the Grange hall at river mile 7.5 to 8, compared to the levee at river mile 9. A new levee, up to 10 feet tall and 2,900 feet long, would be constructed 1,200 feet farther back with no increase in flood risk. Locations are still under discussion. Estimate cost $3.3 million.

Side channel connection near Highway 101: An old remnant channel between river mile 4 and 5.6 would be restored to take water from the mainstem at high flows. Woody debris would help define the inlet and outlet to the channel, which would become a ponded wetland at low flows. Estimated cost: $3.1 million.

The costs above were taken from the feasibility study and do not include design, planning and related costs.

You might note that the River Mile 9 levee and the Grange levee fit the concept of “Floodplains by Design,” an idea supported by The Nature Conservancy and funded by the Washington Legislature with $44 million. Check out the Associated Press story.

After discussions with nearby property owners, two projects were removed from the preliminary list. They involve excavation work on both Hunter and Weaver creeks to restore the tributaries to more nature flows.

Rich Geiger, engineer for Mason Conservation District, said the Skokomish restoration program seems to have wide support among landowners in the Skokomish Valley as well as among interest groups, including the Skokomish Watershed Action Team. As a result, he expects that the project will maintain momentum all the way to Congress.

“It is fairly rare to have a watershed working together,” Rich said at the SWAT meeting. “The ones that are difficult are when you have two parties, one saying ‘yes’ and other saying, ‘Don’t you dare.’

“There is support (for the Skok project) through the Corps chain of command and all the way up to the national level,” he added.

If things go well, a final plan for the Skokomish could be ready by late next summer, according to Rachel Mesko.

By the way, I would like to publicly thank the SWAT for the “certificate of appreciation” I was given for my reporting on Skokomish River through the years. It’s an honor to be associated with this group of men and women who are fully committed to seeing the Skokomish River restored to a healthy ecosystem.

Virus connected to sea star wasting syndrome, but questions remain

I’ll never forget my visit this past summer to the Lofall dock and nearby beach on Hood Canal in North Kitsap. It was a scene of devastation, in which starfish of all sizes were losing their limbs and decomposing into gooey masses.

Barb Erickson and Linda Martin examine young sea stars for signs of wasting disease at Lofall pier last summer.
Barb Erickson and Linda Martin examine young sea stars for wasting disease at Lofall pier last summer.
Kitsap Sun photo by Meegan M. Reid.

My guides on the excursion were three women who had been watching for changes in sea stars as part of a volunteer monitoring program being conducted up and down the West Coast. The three were shocked at what they saw on the trip, as I described in a story for the Kitsap Sun as well as in a blog post in Water Ways.

Now, researchers are reporting that a virus, known as densovirus, appears to be playing a central role in the devastation of millions of sea stars from Alaska to Mexico. Their findings were reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PDF 1.1 mb).

Many questions remain about the mysterious affliction known as “sea star wasting syndrome.” For one, why were the sea stars affected over such a wide area, all at about the same time?

As described in the report, the researchers went to museums with sea stars preserved in alcohol and found that the virus was present in specimens collected as long ago as 1942 at various West Coast sites. Minor outbreaks of the wasting syndrome have been reported through the years, but obviously something much bigger is taking place now.

Sea star near Lofall
Sea star near Lofall

A change in the environment, such as ocean acidification, has been suggested as one possibility. A change in the virus, such as we see for the flu virus in humans, is another idea. It could also be related to an over-population among the sea stars themselves.

Jeff Adams of Washington Sea Grant, who is leading the local monitoring program in Kitsap County, said it is good that researchers have found something to go on, but other causative factors are yet to be discovered.

“Why and where; those are two of the things still on the table,” Jeff told me. “What are the environmental factors that drove this much larger die-off? Was it something that made the virus more prevalent or something that made the sea stars weaker?”

Jeff noted that the cause of death may not be the virus itself but rather opportunistic pathogens that attack the sea stars after their immune systems are weakened by the virus.

“Density may have played a factor,” he said. “Sea star populations have been thick and strong over the past 12 years. When you get a lot of individuals in close proximity, you can get sudden changes. Marine populations fluctuate quite a bit naturally.”

Jeff hopes to maintain the volunteer monitoring program for years to come, not just to track the disease but to understand more about the cycles of marine life. Of course, he would like to be able to report on an ongoing recovery of sea star populations from their current state of devastation. Will the recovery occur in patches or uniformly at all monitored sites?

“Ideally, this will run its course, and we will start seeing juveniles showing up over the course of the summer,” he said. “How many of them will disappear?

“Ideally, we will be able to maintain some sites for much longer. For me, as a naturalist, there are lots of questions about natural historical cycles that have not been addressed. A lot of critters are facing challenges (to their survival).”

In Puget Sound, these challenges range from loss of habitat to pollution to climate change, and the predator-prey balance will determine whether any population —and ultimately entire species — can survive.

Linda Martin, one of the volunteers who gave me a tour of the Lofall beach, said she was glad that researchers have identified a viral cause of the sea-star devastation, but it remains unclear how that is going to help the population recover.

Because of the timing of low tide, the three women have not been to Lofall since early October, when the population was “completely depleted,” according to Linda. But they are planning to go back next weekend.

“We are anxious to go out and see if there is anything there,” she said. “We have not seen any juveniles for a long time. Originally, when we started out, we were seeing uncountable numbers of juveniles.”

As for the new findings, I thought it was interesting how the researchers removed tissues from diseased sea stars then filtered out everything down to the size of viruses. After that, they exposed one group of healthy sea stars to a raw sample of the fluid and another group to a heat-treated sample. The raw sample caused disease, but the heat-treated sample did not.

They then used DNA techniques to identify the virus, which was found in larger and larger concentrations as the disease progressed. Check out the research report in the Proceedings of the NAS (PDF 1.1 mb).

Jeff Barnard of the Associated Press interviewed researchers involved in the study and others familiar with the problem.

Agency lists critical habitat for endangered Puget Sound rockfish

National Marine Fisheries Service has designated more than 1,000 square miles of Puget Sound as “critical habitat” for rockfish — a colorful, long-lived fish decimated by over-fishing and environmental problems.

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

In Hood Canal, we know that thousands of rockfish have been killed by low-oxygen conditions, and their populations have been slow to recover because of low reproductive rates. Elsewhere, rockfish are coming back with mixed success, helped in some locations by marine protected areas.

The final designation of critical habitat was announced today in the Federal Register for yelloweye rockfish and canary rockfish, both listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, and bocaccio, listed as “endangered.”

The critical habitat listing includes 590 square miles of nearshore habitat for canary rockfish and bocaccio, and 414 square miles of deepwater habitat for all three species. Nearshore areas include kelp forests important for the growth and survival of juvenile rockfish. Deeper waters are used for shelter, food and reproduction by adults.

Yelloweye rockfish Photo by Kip Evans, NOAA
Yelloweye rockfish
Photo by Kip Evans, NOAA

Potential critical habitat was reduced by 15 percent for canary rockfish and bocaccio and by 28 percent for yelloweye rockfish. Most of the excluded area was deemed already protected, either by tribes near their reservations or by the military near Navy and Army bases and their operational areas.

The designated habitat overlaps in large part with existing critical habitat for salmon, killer whales and bull trout. The only new areas added without overlap are some deep-water areas in Hood Canal.

Under the law, federal actions within designated habitat must undergo consultations with the National Marine Fisheries Service. Such actions — which include funding or issuing permits for private development — cannot be approved if they are found to be detrimental to the continuing survival of the species.

Catherine Kilduff of the Center for Biological Diversity offered this comment about the habitat designation in a news release:

“Saving rockfish from extinction requires protecting some of the most important places they live, and that’s exactly what’s happening now in the Puget Sound. These habitat protections will not only give rockfish a fighting chance at survival but will help all of the animals that live in these waters.”

Critical habitat for rockfish in Central Puget Sound NOAA map
Critical habitat for rockfish in Central Puget Sound
NOAA map from Federal Register

The three species of rockfish were placed on the Endangered Species List in 2010, following a series of petitions by biologist Sam Wright. Last year, the Center for Biological Diversity notified the National Marine Fisheries Service of its intent to file a lawsuit over the agency’s delay in designating critical habitat.

Federal and state biologists are now working on a recovery plan. I have not heard whether they still hope to get the plan completed next year.

Rockfish are unusual among bony fishes in that fertilization and embryo development are internal. Female rockfish give birth to live young. After birth, the larval rockfish may drift in shallow waters for several months, feeding on plankton. Among the listed species:

  • Canary rockfish can reach up to 2.5 feet in length. Adults have bright yellow to orange mottling over gray, three orange stripes across the head and orange fins. They can live to be 75 years old.
  • Bocaccio can reach up to 3 feet in length. They have a distinctively long jaw extending to the eye socket. Adult colors range from olive to burnt orange or brown. Their age is difficult to determine, but they may live as long as 50 years.
  • Yelloweye rockfish can reach up to 3.5 feet in length and 39 pounds in weight. They are orange-red to orange-yellow in color and may have black on their fin tips. Their eyes are bright yellow. They are among the longest lived of rockfishes, living up to 118 years.

A 2011 plan for saving the rockfish was written by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife with assistance from a group of experts. The report, “Puget Sound Rockfish Conservation Plan” (PDF 706 kb), identifies the cause for the population declines:

“These declines have largely been caused by historical fishing practices, although several other stress factors play a part in their decline. Rockfish in urban areas are exposed to high levels of chemical contamination, which may be affecting their reproductive success. Poor water quality in Hood Canal has resulted in massive periodic kills of rockfish as well as other species. Lost or abandoned fishing nets trap and kill large numbers of rockfish.”

The plan identifies these objectives to restore the population:

  • Place the highest priority on protecting and restoring the natural production of indicator rockfishes to healthy levels,
  • Promote natural production through the appropriate use of hatcheries and artificial habitats,
  • Protect and restore all marine habitat types for all rockfish species,
  • Manage all Puget Sound fisheries to ensure the health and productivity of all rockfish stocks,
  • Protect and restore existing functions of rockfish in the complex ecosystem and food web in Puget Sound,
  • Conduct monitoring of indicator stocks to evaluate stock status and management actions,
  • Implement new research to understand the diversity, biology and productivity of indicator rockfish, and
  • Conduct a strategic outreach and education program to inform Washington citizens of the value of rockfish stocks and to promote ecotourism.

Kitsap County acquires prime forest, shoreline

It’s official. Kitsap County has become the proud owner of 535 acres of prime lowland forest, including 1.5 miles of shoreline on Port Gamble Bay. See the story I prepared for tomorrow’s Kitsap Sun (subscription).

Port Gamble Bay shoreline // Photo by Don Willott
Port Gamble Bay shoreline // Photo by Don Willott

This is prime property, both from an ecological and recreational viewpoint. It is extremely rare to find a place where so much shoreline belongs to the public, especially in a populated area like Kitsap County. With restoration work and time for nature to respond, this property could return to a near-pristine condition.

This is the first property sale completed by the Kitsap Forest & Bay Project. More than two years ago, I attended a kick-off meeting to launch the fund-raising effort. It all began with an option agreement to buy up to 7,000 acres of forestland from Pope Resources. See Kitsap Sun, Oct. 19, 2012.

The effort followed a disbanded plan by the county to trade the land for increased housing density near Port Gamble. (See Kitsap Sun, Jan. 19, 2010.)

The new effort was spearheaded by Cascade Land Conservancy, now called Forterra. CLC President Gene Duvernoy spelled out the task ahead as he announced that Michelle Connor, a vice president of CLC, would be put in charge. Duvernoy declared:

“This is probably the most important project we can accomplish to save Puget Sound… Anytime we have a real thorny project, we hand it to Michelle to make it happen… This option agreement is a reason to celebrate, but now we need to get serious. Now, we can look at all the financing and funding possibilities. Until today, we were unable to do that.”

Other acquisitions are expected to be completed soon, but it remains unclear how much of the 7,000 acres can be acquired from Pope.

In celebration of the completed sale, I would like to share the statements made in a news release by a variety of people involved in the project:

Kitsap County Commissioner Rob Gelder:

“This acquisition has been years in the making and the beginning of a series of great things to come in 2014. We are lining up funding to protect additional lands from Kingston to Port Gamble as part of this preservation effort.”

Michelle Connor, Forterra’s executive vice president:

“Conservation of these lands will help sustain the cultural heritage and health of our communities, the functioning of our environment and diversity of our economy. Moving the whole effort forward is a testament to the leadership of local residents, Kitsap County, the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe, the Suquamish Tribe, and the state of Washington.”

Suquamish Tribal Chairman Leonard Forsman:

“The public purchase of the shoreline block at Port Gamble Bay is an accomplishment worth celebrating. The Suquamish Tribe is grateful that this critical marine habitat will be protected for time immemorial and help in efforts to protect the water quality of Port Gamble Bay.”

Jeromy Sullivan, chairman of the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe:

“One of my tribe’s ongoing priorities is to ensure that Port Gamble Bay remains productive and healthy for future generations. The conservation of this property furthers that goal by protecting water quality, preventing development and limiting stormwater runoff and other associated impacts.”

Jon Rose, president of Olympic Property Group, Pope Resources’ real estate subsidiary:

“We are proud to be working with the community to protect these forests, beaches and trails for future generations. This purchase is a prize that has been earned through nearly a decade of dedicated efforts by the local community.”

Sandra Staples-Bortner, executive director of Great Peninsula Conservancy, a key player in the acquisition:

“The many community partners involved in the Kitsap Forest & Bay Coalition have dedicated countless hours to help achieve this historic land purchase, handing out trail maps, speaking to community groups and marching in parades. And when it came down to the wire, the coalition raised over $10,000 in three days to fill the final funding gap.”

Maia Bellon, director of the Washington Department of Ecology:

“Restoring and sustaining the ecological systems that support Port Gamble Bay is critical for Hood Canal, Puget Sound, and all of us who call Washington home.”

Corps completes draft plan for Skokomish River

UPDATE, Jan. 27
The Army Corps of Engineers published a news release today about tentatively selected plan. It lists the total cost of the projects at $41 million. This information was not available when I wrote my story for Sunday’s Kitsap Sun.

Residents in and around the Skokomish Valley have demonstrated incredible patience, along with some frustration, while waiting for the Army Corps of Engineers to develop a plan to restore the Skokomish River.

Map courtesy of Skokomish Watershed Action Team
Map courtesy of Skokomish Watershed Action Team

I was pleased to announce in today’s Kitsap Sun (subscription) that top officials in the corps have now approved a “tentatively selected plan.” This plan will now undergo extensive review inside and outside the agency. Two public meetings are being planned, although they have not yet been announced.

I’ve been following the development of this plan for many years, actually long before I wrote a four-part series in 2009 about the past and future of the Skokomish River. See “Taming the Skokomish,” Kitsap Sun.

As Rich Geiger of Mason Conservation District told me last week:

“We are very glad to be at this point, because we are talking about a physical project moving forward and not just more planning. We asked the Corps to produce a single integrated restoration plan, and they did.”

Rich did not slam the Army Corps of Engineers for taking so long. He and I did not discuss — as we have in the past — how restoration of the Skokomish River plays an important part in the restoration of Hood Canal as a whole.

But we did talk about dredging, which many area residents believe is the only answer to cleaning the river channel, clogged by sediment and flooded more frequently than any river in the state. The corps has determined that dredging is too expensive for the benefit provided and would require ongoing maintenance. I look forward to reading the analysis by the corps and hearing the discussions that follow. I’m sure there is plenty to be said.

Before the agency releases the tentative plan, a final check must be made by corps officials to ensure completeness of the documents, which will include a feasibility report and an environmental impact statement, according to project manager Mamie Brouwer.

The plan includes these specific projects:

  • Car-body levee removal: Years ago, junk cars were used to construct a levee where the North Fork of the Skokomish flows into the main river. Although the course of the North Fork has changed, the old levee continues to impair salmon migration through the area, Brouwer said. This project would remove the levee and restore the natural flows at the confluence.
  • Side channel reconnection: Restoring a parallel channel alongside the Skokomish would give fish a place to go during high flows and flooding. In recent years, migrating salmon have been washed out of the river and into fields and ditches, where they struggle to survive. A side channel, about 4 miles upstream from where the Skokomish flows into Hood Canal, could provide refuge from the raging river.
  • Nine mile setback levee: A new levee is being proposed nine miles upstream to allow an existing levee to be breached, increasing the flood plain in that area. The new levee would be several hundred feet back from the old one and would allow for new pools and vegetation along the river.
  • Grange levee: Like the nine-mile setback levee, a new levee would be built about 8 miles upstream near the Skokomish Valley Grange Hall. The levee could be set back about 1,000 feet from the river, greatly expanding the flood plain in that area.
  • Large woody debris: Creating log jams in the river would increase the complexity of the channel, adding meanders, gravel bars and pools. Such structure is considered important for the survival of juvenile salmon. Several dozen log jams are proposed in the initial plan, but that could change in the final design.
  • Hunter Creek: Continual springs maintain summer flows in Hunter Creek, a tributary of the Skokomish considered excellent fish habitat. But with few side channels or complexity, the stream has limited spawning habitat and fish can be washed away during high flows. The project would alter the channel for better function.
  • Weaver Creek: Similar to Hunter Creek, Weaver Creek has great potential for increased spawning and rearing habitat along with refuge from high flows. The project would alter the channel to improve natural functions.
In 2009, members of the Skokomish Watershed Action Team observed how high flows in the Skokomish River had washed away vegetation and left huge deposits of gravel.
In 2009, members of the Skokomish Watershed Action Team observed how high flows in the Skokomish River had washed away vegetation and left huge deposits of gravel.
Kitsap Sun file photo