Tag Archives: Hood Canal

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

It’s time to get out and watch the salmon

This year’s return of chum salmon to Hood Canal remains on track to break the record, coming in with four times as many fish as predicted earlier this year.

Watching salmon at Poulsbo's Fish Park Photo by Tristan Baurick
Watching salmon from a bridge in Poulsbo’s Fish Park
Photo by Tristan Baurick

Last week, I reported that the total run size for Hood Canal fall chum appeared to be about 1.4 million fish, according to computer models. See Kitsap Sun, Oct. 30 (subscription). The modern-day record is 1.18 million, set in 2003. If conditions hold, this year’s run will easily exceed that.

The large Hood Canal run also is expected to provide an economic boost of some $5 million to $6 million for commercial fishers, not including fish processors and stores that sell the fish.

The forecast models are based largely on commercial harvests. Data collected since I wrote the story only tend to confirm the record-breaking run, according to salmon managers. Final estimates won’t be compiled until the end of the season.

The chum run in Central and South Puget Sound also are looking very good. The latest data suggest that the run could reach 700,000, or nearly twice the preseason estimate and well above average.

Meanwhile, the large chum runs are attracting Puget Sound’s orcas to the waters off Bainbridge Island and Seattle, as chinook runs decline in the San Juan Islands and elsewhere. As I described in a story on Sunday, it has been an odd year for the whales, which may have spent most of the summer chasing chinook off the coast of Washington. See Kitsap Sun, Nov. 2 (subscription).

A chum salmon crosses a log weir at Kitsap Golf and Country Club. Photo by Meegan Reid
A chum salmon crosses a log weir in Chico Creek at Kitsap Golf and Country Club.
Photo by Meegan Reid

The large chum run also promises to provide some great viewing opportunities for people to watch the salmon migration in their local streams. I would direct you to the interactive salmon-viewing map that Amy Phan and I completely revamped last year for the Kitsap Sun’s website. The map includes videos describing salmon streams across the Kitsap Peninsula.

Speaking of salmon-watching, everyone is invited to Saturday’s Kitsap Salmon Tours, an annual event in which biologists talk about the amazing salmon and their spawning rituals. One can choose to visit one or both of the locations in Central Kitsap. For details, check out the Kitsap Public Utility District’s Website.

One of the locations, now named Chico Salmon Park, is undergoing a major facelift, thanks to more than 100 hours of volunteer labor over the past two weekends — not to mention earlier work going back to the beginning of the year. See the Kitsap County news release issued today.

Volunteers working on the park deserve a lot of credit for removing blackberry vines, Scotchbroom and weeds from this overgrown area. This property, which has Chico Creek running through it, is going to be a wonderful park someday after native trees and plants become established. (See Kitsap Sun, Feb. 2, 2013)

If you’re into kayaking, there’s still time to watch from the water. See Olympic Outdoors Center or check out the tips by reporter Tristan Baurick, Kitsap Sun, Oct. 21, 2013 (subscription).

Here’s my final word: If you live on the Kitsap Peninsula — or anywhere around Puget Sound — you should visit a salmon stream to learn what all the fuss is about — and be sure to take the kids.

Purse seine boats working on major chum salmon run on Hood Canal. Photo by Larry Steagall
Purse seine boats make the best of a major chum salmon run on Hood Canal last week.
Photo by Larry Steagall

Navy extends easement plans to Kitsap County

The Navy is continuing its efforts to control commercial over-water structures in Hood Canal. The idea is to buy subtidal conservation easements from the Washington Department of Natural Resources, which owns these deep-water areas.

Proposed Navy easement in Jefferson County
Proposed Navy easement in Jefferson County

The first easement was proposed for the Jefferson County side of Hood Canal (map at right). The easement application is now working its way through a formal review process. The proposal received a lot of attention when it was announced in May, in part because of the potential to derail the controversial pit-to-pier project. A story I wrote for the Kitsap Sun on May 15 describes the overall goals of the Navy’s program and its potential effects.

After that initial announcement, I was surprised that the Navy and DNR seemed reluctant to talk about the next phase, which turned out to be a second easement along the Kitsap County shoreline from the Hood Canal bridge to the county line near Holly. I described that proposal in a story I wrote for the Kitsap Sun yesterday (subscription).

Both proposed easements fall under the Department of Defense Readiness and Environmental Protection Initiative (REPI).

Liane Nakahara, spokeswoman for Navy Region Northwest, said the need for the Kitsap easement, like the one in Jefferson County, relates to protections of Navy operations, including testing and training in legally defined ranges:

“The proposed restrictive easement over the bedlands would protect these ranges from incompatible development that may limit the Navy’s ability to use the approved ranges and continue operations in the future. In addition to the protection of the Navy’s military operating areas, the proposed easement will provide new protections for sensitive marine ecosystems.”

I’m not sure where the Navy will go with its next easement proposal. Work continues on upland properties in some areas. See reporter Ed Friedrich’s story about a related agreement two years ago, when the Navy began buying easements in the Dabob Bay area of Hood Canal (Kitsap Sun, Oct. 8, 2011). Officials are saying almost nothing about the next steps. But I have seen a map that purportedly shows the “area of interest” regarding the Navy’s REPI efforts. The area outlined includes all of Hood Canal and the regions around Indian Island, Keyport and Bremerton.

The Navy had an initial allocation of $3 million in 2011 for encroachment protection, and additional funds were added in 2012 and 2013, according to Liane Nakahara. Partners in the endeavor so far include DNR, The Nature Conservancy and the Trust for Public Lands. For background on how the partnership works, check out “Partner’s Guide to the Department of Defense’s Readiness and Environmental Protection Initiative” (REPI)(PDF 1.9 mb).

For the Jefferson County easement, the DNR issued a “determination of nonsignificance” during the environmental review. An appraiser has been hired to estimate the value of the easement and determine what the Navy should pay the state for lost revenue.

Thorndyke Resource, which proposed the pit-to-pier project, has been pushing for increased environmental review, rather than the limited review undertaken so far by the DNR. It appears that if the proposal moves forward, the Navy and DNR are likely to face a lawsuit from the company.

Here are three recent documents related to the proposed Jefferson County easement:

Octopus protection was a compromise move

The decision to outlaw octopus hunting at seven select diving spots in Puget Sound was a compromise between those who wanted a complete closure throughout Puget Sound and those who wanted no closure at all.

Giant Pacific octopus at Pinnacle Rock, Hood Canal. Photo by Janna Nichols
Giant Pacific octopus at Pinnacle Rock, Hood Canal.
Photo by Janna Nichols

Janna Nichols, a leader in the local scuba diving community, told me that nearly all scuba divers who spoke out wanted a complete ban on killing the giant Pacific octopus in Puget Sound. But scientific arguments were presented that the octopus population was healthy and could tolerate a limited harvest.

Janna is outreach coordinator for Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF). She has led many dive surveys of marine species and served on the octopus advisory committee appointed by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“From what I saw in the diving community, about 99 percent were in favor of closing all of Puget Sound to harvest, and they were a little disappointed in the outcome,” she said.

Janna said she knows divers who go spear-fishing but has only heard of divers who harvest octopuses.

“They are worth more than gold,” she said. “I have lots of diver friends who are avid spear-fishermen, but they would be really mad if someone took an octopus. They are our friends, intelligent creatures.”

The ban on taking octopuses at seven recreational dive sites went into effect Monday after action by the Fish and Wildlife Commission. The new rules make viewing octopus a priority at the dive sites, said Craig Burley, manager of the Fish Management Division at Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. He added:

“Puget Sound is one of the most popular dive destinations in the nation, and giant Pacific octopuses are one of its main attractions. These new areas provide additional protection for the species and a greater chance for divers to see these fascinating animals.”

The new restrictions were proposed after a diver legally killed a giant Pacific octopus at Seacrest Cove 2 in West Seattle. The incident was widely publicized, and many people expressed outrage, saying they had no idea it was legal to hunt the gentle and intelligent octopus.

More than 400 comments were received on the proposal to restrict the hunting of Octopuses in Puget Sound.

After working with the advisory committee, WDFW proposed a variety of options for greater or lesser protection of the octopus. In August, the Fish and Wildlife Commission approved a closure at the seven dive sites.

Conspicuously missing from the list are any locations in Hood Canal, which has several popular dive sites for spotting octopus. Hood Canal was bypassed for increased protection, because the entire waterway is currently closed to fishing for nearly all species except salmon. That’s because of the extreme stress that most deep-water species are experiencing as a result of low-oxygen conditions.

If conditions ever improve to the point that marine fish are allowed to be harvested, I would expect that the Fish and Wildlife Commission will examine which species need ongoing protection — and the octopus issue could come up again. Sund Rock and Octopus Hole, both south of Lilliwaup, are two popular dive spots to view octopus. Both are designated as marine conservation areas and will continue to protect all species from fishing.

A map of the seven new octopus protection areas along with existing marine protected areas in Puget Sound can be found on a WDFW website called “Diving with Octopuses.”

Seattle Aquarium CEO Robert W. Davidson issued a statement this week in support of the new octopus-protection areas:

“Protecting our native animals enriches our experience of life in the Sound. Scientists, sport fishers, divers and the public at large, we all have an interest in a rich marine world.

“The giant Pacific octopus is one of Puget Sound’s signature species. We look forward to continue working with the state, city, diving and fishing communities to conserve our marine environment and this magnificent octopus.”

For a fascinating description of an octopus, see my Amusing Monday piece published last May and titled “Diving with the yellow eye.” Check out “John dips below” from the program “Here Be Monsters.”

It became clear to me through this process of creating octopus-protection areas that many observers would like to see more marine protected areas for all species. Everyone agrees that such areas can be a benefit if the areas are selected carefully after adequate study and planning. The problem, as in many conservation issues, is a lack of money to perform the necessary background work.

I wrote about this issue in my ongoing series called “Taking the Pulse of Puget Sound” (subscription required). Here’s an excerpt from the story on marine protected areas:

“We have these marine protected areas,” noted Jamie Glasgow of the environmental group Wild Fish Conservancy, “but there are many different objectives and sometimes no objectives at all among the 10 or 12 agencies involved.”

Glasgow said he is frustrated by the lack of action in assessing and coordinating existing MPAs and setting up new ones. The issue has not received the attention it deserves from the Puget Sound Partnership or WDFW, he said.

“The Puget Sound Partnership tends to prioritize the issues that are less contentious,” Glasgow said. “Sport-fishing groups and tribes don’t want to give up fishing in certain areas, which makes this issue contentious, so nothing gets done.”

Will Hood Canal experience a fish kill this year?

UPDATE, Sept. 26
The Hoodsport monitoring buoy was placed back online yesterday. The dissolved oxygen levels at the surface are much higher now than they were two weeks ago, coming up to about 9 milligrams per liter at a 10-foot depth. But oxygen levels in the middle layer remain about the same — about 2.5 milligrams per liter. And the middle layer still contains less oxygen than levels close to the bottom, which is getting an infusion of heavy seawater from the ocean.

A south wind could still bring low-oxygen waters to the surface, but I don’t believe the levels are low enough to cause a fish kill. Still, the low-oxygen water could force deep-water fish to move upward in the water column. I’m waiting to hear from divers if they are seeing anything unusual, and I’ll let you know if conditions take a turn for the worse.
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Are we about to see one of the infamous fish kills that we have observed in Southern Hood Canal in past years?

I am unable to sound any alarms at this time, but if you live in the Hoodsport-Potlatch area or are scuba diving nearby, you might want to watch for dead fish on the surface, rockfish or shrimp swimming in shallow water, or wolf eels and octopuses acting strangely.

Low 02 9-17

Usually, we can look to the monitoring buoy offshore of Hoodsport to answer questions about whether fish are starving for oxygen. The buoy tells us about dissolved oxygen levels at all depths. I watch this buoy every fall for clues about dangerous conditions, such as when the surface and middle layers of Hood Canal become depleted of oxygen.

Unfortunately, the Hoodsport ORCA buoy has been down for most of the past 10 days. University of Washington technicians are trying to get it back in operation, but it appears to be an Internet/local-network problem at the moment.

As of Sept. 10, the surface layer at 10 feet deep was down to less than 2 milligrams per liter, an alarming level, and conditions were not much better at 66 feet. (See chart.) That means there is a lot of low-oxygen water that could be brought to the surface when we get a wind blowing out of the south. Well, we’ve had some moderate south winds today, and I’m wondering what is happening out there right now.

South winds blow the surface layer away and bring low-oxygen water up from the depths. Fish may come to the surface seeking better conditions, but they may find oxygen levels even worse as they go up — and the fish have no idea that better conditions may lie below.

So far, I have not seen any concerns posted on the Facebook pages of divers who may have gone out recently. Feel free to post a comment to this blog or send me an email (cdunagan@kitsapsun.com) if you see or hear anything that can contribute to the discussion.

A statewide hotline used to report oil spills also will take your calls and alert biologists to reports of dead fish. That number is (800) OILS-911.

With some luck, the UW folks will have the Hoodsport buoy back on line in the next couple days and we’ll see if conditions have improved or gotten worse. For now, we’ll just have to wait. The chart is generated by the Data Explorer at the Northwest Association of Networked Ocean Observing Systems (NANOOS). (Click on “regions” to get to Puget Sound.)

Two events for learning about Hood Canal

Long Live the Kings is holding two events that will give people some special insight into the restoration of Hood Canal, and possibly Puget Sound as a whole.

The first, tomorrow evening, begins with a free film that will lead into a discussion about Hood Canal restoration. The second, on Saturday, is a rare open house at LLK’s salmon and steelhead hatchery on Lilliwaup Creek.

Jacque White, executive director of the group, told me that he likes to show the film “Ocean Frontiers” because it provides a hopeful view about protecting marine ecosystems. It shows how a variety of people with diverse interests can work together. I’ve embedded the trailer for the film on this page.

Jacques said people clearly want to protect the rich ecosystem of Hood Canal. The Hood Canal Coordinating Council has developed an integrated watershed plan that connects the uplands to the shoreline to the deep marine waters of the canal.

Joining him in a panel discussion after the film will be Dave Herrera of the Skokomish Tribe and Terry King of Washington Sea Grant.

The film and discussion will be tomorrow (Friday) from 6 to 8 p.m. at Alderbrook Resort and Spa in Union.

The open house on Saturday will be from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Lilliwaup Hatchery on Lilliwaup Street, off Highway 101 north of Hoodsport. (Look for balloons along the highway near Lilliwaup.)

The hatchery is a supplementation operation designed to restore stocks of threatened Hood Canal summer chum, Puget Sound steelhead and Puget Sound chinook. The event will be an opportunity to view the hatchery and understand the supplementation program, but it is also a chance to talk to people involved in numerous Hood Canal restoration programs.

“The issues in Hood Canal are about the land-sea connection,” White said, adding that he feels hope for the canal when people are willing to learn about the ecosystem and attempt to understand different viewpoints.

Two other events planned by Long Live the Kings:

  • A presentation by Jacque White with an emphasis on early marine survival. See “Water Ways” Aug. 22, 2013. The presentation will be Sept. 12 from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at Orcas Center on Orcas Island.
  • A benefit dinner for Long Live the Kings, Oct 17 at Seattle Aquarium.