Tag Archives: Puget Sound

Salmon managers reduce Puget Sound fishing
to protect chinook

I missed the annual trek to Olympia this year to meet with state and tribal salmon managers, recreational and commercial fishermen and others involved in setting fishing seasons. The event, held in March, is both a reunion and the official start of some serious talks about salmon.

Each year, fishermen head to the Skokomish River to catch chinook that have made it all the way through Hood Canal. This year, more restrictions are in store. Kitsap Sun file photo
Each year, fishermen head to the Skokomish River to catch chinook that have made it all the way through Hood Canal. This year, more restrictions are in store.
Kitsap Sun file photo

I’ve always enjoyed the discussions about the number of various salmon stocks expected to return to diverse areas of Puget Sound, the Washington Coast and the Columbia River. Years ago, I observed much more horse-trading — or rather salmon-trading — as experts made decisions about how far inland the fish should be allowed to swim before being caught.

Saving enough fish to make it back to the streams to spawn has always been the goal of the negotiating process, known as “North of Falcon” — so named because the discussions are focused on an area north of Cape Falcon in Oregon. I have to say, however, that the discussions began to change after Puget Sound chinook were declared “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act and conservation measures became even more important.

Chinook recovery has not been going well, even after major reforms in harvest management, hatchery operations and habitat restoration. So the need to protect the salmon from fishing pressures grows ever greater and the opportunities to catch fish in particular areas continue to decline.

Such was the case this year, when salmon managers decided to forego fishing for chinook in the popular fishing area known as Area 10 between Bremerton and Seattle. Other salmon can still be caught there, but all chinook — even those reared in a hatchery — must be released.

I was not around to observe how the negotiations went this year, having retired from the staff of the Kitsap Sun in October. (I’m now doing some in-depth reporting for the Sun and currently covering the Legislature for InvestigateWest.) It appears that recreational and commercial fishers believe that the salmon managers could have carved out some fishing seasons in the area without risking survival of the species.

“We fought hard just to keep what we had last year, and then to get the rug pulled out from under us is totally incomprehensible,” said Tony Floor of the Northwest Marine Trade Association, quoted in a story by Seattle Times reporter Mark Yuasa.

“With increasing (licensing) fees and the declining fishing opportunities, it makes it really difficult,” said Karl Brackmann, a Puget Sound Anglers board member, quoted in a story by Kitsap Sun reporter Tristan Baurick.

Even though sophisticated computer models try to determine how many salmon will be coming back to a given area, it’s still a guess. Deciding how many fish can be safely caught is always a judgment call. I guess this year managers have concerns not only for the wild chinook but also the marked hatchery chinook. The hatchery chinook, marked by removing the adipose fin, are normally considered free for the taking as long as unmarked wild chinook are released.

Lorraine Loomis, chairwoman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, said fishing reductions were especially painful for tribal and state managers this year, but the cutbacks were necessary. Salmon returns were poor last year, she said, and managers were concerned about ocean conditions and a low snowpack that could lead to increased stream temperatures.

“Because of these conditions we may see an increase in pre-spawning mortality of salmon this year, which required the tribal and state co-managers to be extra cautious in setting seasons,” Loomis said in a news release.

Anglers will still have good opportunities to catch coho, pink and Skagit River sockeye, according to Ryan Lothrop, Puget Sound recreational fishery manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“Fishing for pink salmon should be excellent in Puget Sound, including in Hood Canal and Dungeness Bay,” Lothrop said in a news release.

For details on the fishing seasons, check out the North of Falcon webpage, which will be updated as new information becomes available.

Reducing toxics in fish involves politics, maybe more than science

When it comes to eliminating toxic pollution from our waterways and the foods we eat, almost everyone agrees that the best idea is to track down the chemicals, find out how they are getting into the environment and then make decisions about how to handle the situation.

Fish

It’s all common sense until politics comes into play.

If the chemicals are really hazardous and if substitutes for the chemicals are available, then a ban on their use may be the right decision. That has happened with pesticides, such as DDT, and solvents, such as PCBs.

In the case of PCBs, banning these chemicals is not enough, because they were used so widely and continue to hang around, both in old products still in use and in the open environment. Waiting for them to break down and disappear is not a practical approach.

The solution involves conducting chemical detective work to find out how the chemicals are traveling through the environment and ultimately getting into people and animals. Some toxic sinks for PCBs, such as old electrical equipment, can be identified and destroyed before the chemicals begin leaking out. Others, such as contaminated sediments at the bottom of Puget Sound, pose a more difficult problem.

Even when chemicals are banned, the ban is enforced with limits on concentration, below which the chemical can still be used. That’s the case with very low levels of PCBs found in some types of inks and dyes. So when paper is recycled, the PCBs may escape into the environment. We know that PCBs, which mimic hormones and can wreak havoc on the body, can build up in fish, killer whales and humans over time. The question for regulators becomes which sources are the most important to eliminate.

In Washington state, chemical detectives tackle the toxic compounds one at a time, compiling their findings into a chemical action plan. The chemical action plan for PCBs was completed earlier this year. Others have been done for mercury, lead, toxic flame retardants and polyaromatic hydrocarbons.

I bring all this up because Gov. Jay Inslee and Department of Ecology would like to increase the pace of studying potentially toxic chemicals, including finding out what harm they are doing, how they get into the food web and whether alternative chemicals are available.

New chemicals are finding their way into household products, cosmetics and other materials all the time, and studies continue to raise concerns about old chemicals that we have lived with for a long time. Some chemicals are the subject of vigorous and ongoing scientific debate.

The Washington Legislature has been asked by the governor to fund Ecology for up to two chemical action plans per year. The other question before lawmakers is how much authority to give Ecology for banning chemicals and considering whether alternatives are available. These are issues I covered in a story last week for InvestigateWest, a nonprofit journalism group. The story was carried by the Kitsap Sun on Sunday.

This issue of chemical action plans has gotten tangled up with the need for Washington state to update its water-quality standards, required under the federal Clean Water Act. These standards, now under review by Ecology, determine which water bodies in the state are considered clean of toxic substances and which should be labeled “impaired.”

The standards also are used to develop discharge permits for industrial facilities, sewage-treatment plants and occasionally stormwater outfalls. The general implication is that if a discharge from a pipe meets the state’s water quality standards, then it won’t pollute the receiving waters.

Years ago, when most water pollution came from industrial and sewage discharges, the program was successful in making the waters substantially cleaner. More than 100 chemicals remain on the Environmental Protection Agency’s priority pollutants list. All these chemicals are still tested by dischargers, although the vast majority are not detectible in fish caught in Puget Sound. Meanwhile, other chemicals of growing concern are not on the list — so they are not subject to testing, let alone regulatory control.

We now know from various studies that most of the toxic pollution entering Puget Sound comes from stormwater, not discharges from pipes, while other toxics are still sitting on the bottom of Puget Sound. It will take a lot of money and a lot of time to address these sources. The effort is moving in that direction, but funding continues to be debated, including the current session of the Legislature.

Efforts to update the antiquated rules in the Clean Water Act to provide for a more rationale approach have been started and stopped many times. I suspect that environmental advocates fear that with the anti-government mood in Congress the result could be even less-effective controls on pollution — so we live with regulations structured more than 30 years ago.

Gov. Inslee tried to shift the focus of toxic cleanup from the federal approach to the state’s new approach with chemical action plans. While newly proposed water-quality standards are more stringent for 70 percent of the chemicals (PDF 392 kb) on EPA’s list, they would have been 10 times more stringent if his proposal had not changed a key factor in the equation that determines the standards. Going up against environmental advocates, Inslee proposed increasing the cancer-risk rate in the equation from one in a million to one in 100,000.

In other words, if a body of water barely meets the pollution standard for a given chemical, 10 in a million people — rather than 1 in a million — could develop cancer from eating a maximum assumed level of fish from the water. This is the increased lifetime risk from that one chemical.

Everyone agrees that we should do what we can to reduce our risk of getting cancer, and cutting down toxics in fish is an important step. In a two-part series I wrote for the Kitsap Sun in March, I began by describing the risks and benefits of eating fish from Puget Sound and other areas, then I proceeded to talk about the alternative approaches to cleaning up the water.

Increasing the excess cancer risk from one in a million to 10 in a million is worth discussing. That change is not insignificant. But getting to some kind of bottom line is not easy. Keep in mind that the overall risk of getting cancer from all causes is about 433,000 in a million (43.3 percent) for men and 228,000 in a million (22.8 percent) for women, according to the American Cancer Society.

Environmental and tribal officials would like the risk of eating fish to be as low as possible. Many are angered by 15 years of delay by state officials in updating the standards, which were based on poor estimates of how much fish people eat. The newly proposed change assumes a daily consumption of 175 grams (about 6 ounces) of fish, compared to the previous 6.5 grams (about a quarter of an ounce.) Tribal officials say many people in their communities eat more than 175 grams.

On the other hand, businesses operating industrial plants and local governments running sewage-treatment plants are worried about what it will take to comply with new standards if the cancer risk remains at 1 in a million. Increased costs for their treatment systems, ultimately passed along to their customers, are a primary concern.

So far, the regional office of the EPA has made it clear that it does not like the idea of increasing the cancer-risk rate from the level currently used by Washington state and most other states. See the agency’s comments dated March 23 (PDF 6.4 mb). The EPA seems to be taking the approach that if the technology does not exist or is too expensive to reduce chemical concentrations to levels demanded by the new standards, then dischargers should be given a variance or allowed additional time to come into compliance.

It isn’t clear how these issues will be resolved, and there are many technical and legal aspects to be considered. Washington state is on a course to complete its update to the standards by August, when the EPA could release its own plan for bringing the state into compliance.

Amusing Monday: ‘BirdNote’ telling stories for the past 10 years

Saturday will be the 10th anniversary of “BirdNote,” a public radio program about birds from all over the world, with frequent references to Puget Sound and the Pacific Northwest.

The well-produced audio segment resembles “StarDate,” which was the inspiration for the show, as founder Chris Peterson describes in a program to be aired this week. Check out the page “BirdNote at 10: 10 years of stories about birds and nature!” or listen to this clip:

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Marty, the marsh wren, is BirdNote's mascot. Click image for info about his travels.
Marty, the marsh wren, is BirdNote’s mascot. Click for info about his travels.

BirdNote originated in 2005 at a single station — KPLU in Tacoma — and expanded to 50 participating stations by 2010 with about 200 stations today, according to a list of facts put together for the anniversary. Birdnote began as a once-a-week segment before expanding to daily segments in 2008.

The searchable archive covers more than 1,200 shows, featuring more than 650 species of birds. Besides the daily audio clips, each webpage links to related sources — including photos or videos; a little history or biography; scientific explanations; occasional notes or blogs; and often more information about the featured birds.

In honor of the 10th anniversary of BirdNote, and since this is a blog about water issues, I’ve picked out 20 clips from the past two years or so that I think you will enjoy:

Marbled murrelets: As fish go, so go the murrelets (December 2012)

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Winter on the Columbia: It may be winter, but there’s a lot to see… (December 2012)

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Seabirds in decline: What’s become of them? (January 2013)

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Red-throated Loons of Deception Pass: They can’t walk on land, but they’re graceful in flight! (March 2013)

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Double-crested cormorant: What are they doing with wings like that? (April 2013)

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Probing with sandpipers: The right tool for the job (April 2013)

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Citizen scientists monitor pigeon guillemots: Dedication, information, and …. a tattoo? (September 2013)

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Tony Angell reflects on nature: From Puget Sound through an artist’s eye (October 2013)

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Buffleheads in Winter: Our smallest duck returns from the north! (December 2013)

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The Ballet of the Grebes: Birds do the strangest things! (May 2014)

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Monitoring Rhinoceros Auklets on Protection Island: Auklets are fascinating research subjects! (June 2014)

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Amazing aquatic American dipper: What’s that bird doing in the river? (August 2014)

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The heron and the snake: It’s a rough world for a young blue heron (September 2014)

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Chorus line in the sky: sandpipers in elegant fashion (October 2014)

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Gull identification: Black, white, gray… how do you sort them all out? (October 2014)

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The oystercatcher’s world: Life in the wave zone! (November 2014)

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The music of black scoters: A mysterious, musical wail… (November 2014)

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Diving birds — below the surface: If only we could see them under water! (December 2014)

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A swirl of snow geese: Barry Lopez and Snow Geese (January 2015)

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What happens when birds get wet? Their rain shell shields their down layer (January 2015)

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J pod killer whales still making the rounds, mostly up to the north

UPDATE, Jan. 30, 2 p.m.
K pod was in Rich Passage and heading toward Bremerton when I talked to Brad Hanson of the Northwest Fisheries Science Center. He did not know the location of J pod at that time.
—–

Over the past week, J pod continued to hang out in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and general San Juan Islands area, as revealed by a satellite transmitter attached to J-27, a 24-year-old male named Blackberry.

For the past month, J pod has remained in the inland waterways, traveling from the mouth of the Strait up into the Canadian Strait of Georgia, approaching Campbell River. J pod is one of the three orca pods that frequent Puget Sound. The location of K and L pods remains largely unknown among whale researchers.

J pod travels, Jan. 21-25 Map: Northwest Fisheries Science Center
J pod travels, Jan. 21-25
Map: Northwest Fisheries Science Center

Since my last report in Water Ways on Thursday, Jan. 22, the Northwest Fisheries Science Center has posted two maps showing the travels of J pod. See “2015 Southern Resident Killer Whale Satellite Tagging.”

From Wednesday, Jan. 21, to Friday, Jan. 23, the pod stayed mainly in the outer portion of the Strait of Juan de Fuca west of Sekiu, venturing a short way into the open ocean, before turning back and shooting up past Saturna Island, north of the San Juans, by the next afternoon.

J pod travels, Jan. 24-27 Map: Northwest Fisheries Science Center
J pod travels, Jan. 24-27
Map: Northwest Fisheries Science Center

The whales traveled south through the San Juans Saturday night and were back in the Strait on Sunday. At that point, the satellite tag was automatically switched off to conserve its batteries. When it came back on Tuesday, the whales were at the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, where they meandered about for nearly for a day.

As of this afternoon, there were indications that J pod and possibly K pod were coming past Port Townsend on their way into Puget Sound. Some people are reporting visual sightings of unidentified orcas, while others are reporting orca calls on the Salish Sea Hydrophone Network. I’ll update this as new information comes in. Orca Network’s Facebook page is usually the place to go for the latest.

Update on the travels of J pod along with new calf

map 1-12

J pod crossed the Canadian border and came into Puget Sound over this past weekend, allowing Brad Hanson and his fellow researchers to meet up with whales.

Brad, of NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center, was able to locate the killer whales from a satellite transmitter attached to J-27, a 24-year-old male named Blackberry.

As you can see from the chart, the whales swam south, then turned back north near Vashon and Maury islands. The researchers met up with them Saturday morning on their return trip past Seattle’s Elliott Bay, according to an update on the project’s website.

The newest baby in J pod, designated J-50, was spotted with J-16, according to the report from Hanson and crew. Other reports have indicated that J-36 was also nearby, so it appears that the new calf’s mother still is not certain. Researchers agree that the mom is either J-36, a 15-year-old orca named Alki, or else Alki’s mother — 42-year-old J-16, named Slick.

The researchers collected scraps of fish left behind by the orcas’ hunting activities. Fecal samples also were collected. Those various samples will help determine what the whales were eating.

Orca Network published photos taken by whale observers near Edmonds north of Seattle as well as from Point No Point in North Kitsap.

Yesterday, J pod headed out into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The map shows them at the entrance to the strait going toward the ocean at 6:15 this morning.

Orca Network reports that K and L pods apparently headed into Canada’s Strait of Georgia on Friday, as J pod moved into Puget Sound. It sounds like the two pods missed each other. We’ll see if they meet up in the next few days.

Meanwhile, at least one group of transient killer whales has been exploring South Puget Sound for more than 50 days, according to the Orca Network report. That’s a rare occurrence indeed. A second group of transients has been around for much of that time as well.

Puget Sound: Hopeful signs shine through complex cleanup effort

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are his exact words:

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

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

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

Amusing Monday: Video shows transformation
of Seattle’s waterfront

I’ve always heard that downtown Seattle and its waterfront area were built on a massive amount of fill, but I never knew how massive until I viewed the video on this page.

According to the researchers involved, Seattle is “one of the most dramatically re-engineered cities in the United States.”

The video was completed two years ago, but I had not heard of it until I read a recent blog post by archeologist Peter Lape, researcher Amir Sheikh, and artist Don Fels, who together make up the Waterlines Project. The three have collaborated to study the history of Seattle by focusing on how the shorelines changed over time. As they state in the blog post for the Burke Museum:

“For more than ten years, we’ve worked as an informal group, known as the Waterlines Project, to examine Seattle’s past landscapes. Drawing from data gathered by geologists, archaeologists, historians and other storytellers, we are literally unearthing and imagining our collective pasts…

“What have we found? Among other things, Seattle is one of the most dramatically re-engineered cities in the United States. From the dozen or so settlers who founded it on Coast Salish land in 1851 to its current status as America’s fastest growing city, hardly a decade has gone by without its residents taking on some major ‘improvement’ projects affecting its shorelines.”

The maps and photos collected during the Waterlines Project will take you back to another time. Thanks to photographer Asahel Curtis, much of the history of our region has been preserved for us to see. Some of his notable photographs on the waterfront theme:

K pod makes rare spring visit to South Sound

K pod, one of the three pods of orcas that frequent Puget Sound, came south through the San Juan Islands yesterday and were spotted in South Puget Sound late this afternoon.

It’s quite unusual to see K pod coming into Puget Sound this early in the year, noted killer whale researcher Brad Hanson of the Northwest Fisheries Science Center.

K pod contains 19 orcas and is often seen with other pods, but not this time. If history is any indication, they will soon be heading back out to the ocean. They are more likely to begin hanging out in the San Juan Islands in late May or early June.

Susan Berta of Orca Network told me that whale researcher Ken Balcomb had been out with the whales Sunday and was able to account for all the animals (no deaths), but there were no new babies either.

Brad said his crew collected two fecal samples, but they may not be representative of ocean feeding, since the whales have been around for more than a day. Research has been focusing on what Southern Resident orcas eat when they are in the ocean.

The whales may have been spotted first this morning by a crew on one of the Seattle ferries. The report to Orca Network was a single killer whale a mile north of Alki Point, about mid-channel, at 7:30 a.m.

The K pod reports came amidst other reports of transient killer whales heading north from Point No Point about 9:30 a.m., passing Whidbey Island an hour later and off Everett in the early afternoon, according to reports on Orca Network. Another group of transients was reported on the other side of Whidbey in Admiralty Inlet and later seen heading west in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Because of the multiple transient reports, Brad said he was caught by surprise this morning when he went out and found all of K pod swimming south in Colvos Passage off South Kitsap.

Normally, resident orcas first pass Vashon Island on the east side and come north through Colvos Passage.

“We kept getting all these weird reports,” said Susan, who was kept busy posting updates to Orca Network’s Facebook page. “We heard about one lone orca off Alki, then another group, and I said, ‘I wonder if that is K pod all strung out down there.’ We were not expecting that.”

Susan said it is rare, but not unprecedented, for residents to come into Puget Sound in early spring. In March 2006, K and L pods arrived together and went all the way south to Olympia.

Water quality is defined by its effect on sea life

We just completed another group of stories in the ongoing series we’re calling “Taking the Pulse of Puget Sound.” This latest story package is about marine water quality and marine sediments. (The stories themselves require a subscription.)

Noctiluca, a type of plankton that could disrupt the food web, has grown more prevalent in recent years. Photo by Christopher Krembs, Eyes Over Puget Sound
Noctiluca, a type of plankton that could disrupt the food web, has grown more prevalent in recent years.
Photo by Christopher Krembs, Eyes Over Puget Sound

For all my years of environmental reporting, I have to say that I’ve never really understood the meaning of water quality. Keeping the water free of chemicals and fecal bacteria is one thing. Safe levels of oxygen, temperature, acidity and suspended sediment are other important factors.

But in the real world, you never find ideal conditions. You take what you get: physical conditions dictated by weather, climate and bathymetry; a strange brew of toxic chemicals; and a mix of nutrients and organic material, all drifting through complex cycles of life and death.

Water quality means nothing without the context of living things. More than 1,000 species of tiny organisms live in or on the mud at the bottom of Puget Sound. In many areas, sensitive species have disappeared. We are left with those that can tolerate harsher conditions. Why are they dying off? What can be done about it?

Some plankton species are becoming more dominant, and the effects on the food web are unknown. When water quality is poor, Jellyfish are displacing forage fish, disrupting the food supply for larger fish.

We know that toxic chemicals are spilling into Puget Sound in stormwater and getting into the food web, first touching the tiniest organisms and eventually causing havoc for fish, marine mammals and humans. Compounds that mimic hormones are affecting growth, reproduction and survival for a myriad of species. Because of biomagnification, some chemicals are having serious effects at concentrations that could not be measured until recently.

Puget Sound can’t cleanse itself by flushing its chemicals and waste out to sea, as most bays do. Puget Sound is long and narrow and deep, and the exchange of water takes a long time. Most of the bad stuff floating in the water just sloshes back and forth with the daily tides.

We can’t forget that some of the good stuff floating around are microscopic plants that feed the food web, along with a variety of larvae that will grow into fish, shellfish and many other creatures. But many of these planktonic life forms are vulnerable to chemicals, which can reduce their ability to survive against predators, tipping the balance in unknown ways.

Understanding water quality is not so much about measuring what is in the water as understanding the effects on living things. Which species are missing from a given area of Puget Sound, and what killed them off?

Biological monitoring has been around for a long time, but we may be entering a new phase of exploration in which we begin to connect the dots between what takes place on the land, how chemicals and nutrients get into the water, and what that means for every creature struggling to survive.

We have some brilliant people working on this problem in the Puget Sound region. I would like to thank everyone who has helped me gain a better understanding of these issues, as I attempt to explain these complexities in my stories.

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While I was looking into the sediment story, Maggie Dutch of Ecology’s sediment monitoring team introduced me to a huge number of benthic invertebrates. In a blog she calls “Eyes Under Puget Sound,” she talks about the monitoring program and offers a slideshow of some of the bottom creatures. See also Ecology’s Flickr page.

For some amazing shots of polychaete worms, check out the work of marine biologist and photographer Alex Semenov who took these colorful pix in Russia and Australia.

Washington now has an official state oyster

Washington state now has an official state oyster, thanks to the lobbying efforts of 14-year-old Claire Thompson, who raised the prominence of the Olympia oyster as part as a school project. That’s assuming, of course, that the governor signs the bill.

I talked about Claire’s effort, along with Olympia oyster restoration projects, in a previous Water Ways post on Feb. 14.

The bill designating Ostrea lurida as the state oyster first passed the Senate Feb. 13 on a 47-1 vote. It was approved March 5 in the House, 94-4, after an amendment expanded the language of the bill to this:

“This native oyster species plays an important role in the history and culture that surrounds shellfish in Washington state and along the west coast of the United States. Some of the common and historic names used for this species are Native, Western, Shoalwater, and Olympia.”

The Senate then agreed to the amendment and passed the bill into law today, again on a 47-1 vote. Michael Baumgartner, a Republican from Spokane, was the only dissenting voice in the Senate.

Opponents in the House were Reps. Richard DeBolt, Chehalis; Brad Klippert, Kennewick; Jason Overstreet, Lynden; and Rep. Elizabeth Scott, Monroe. All are Republicans.

When Claire testified on the Senate bill in the House Government Operations and Elections Committee, she looked toward the future. When she testified on the earlier House version, she was looking to the past. You can hear her testimony in the viewer on this page, or at 56:40 on TVW.

Here’s what she said, in part, to the House committee:

“The last time I came to testify I talked about the history of this oyster. This time I would like to talk to you about what I hope is the future of this oyster…

“I am only 14 and most of my life still lies ahead. To make my future and the futures of all the kids who live around Puget Sound better, I would like you to not only pass this bill but get as many of these and other bivalves seeded and into the Puget Sound as quickly as possible. This is because these oysters filter the water and can help regulate harmful algal blooms, including the red tide. By keeping algae down, they increase the overall oxygen content for fish and crustaceans and all the other animals.

“In the large numbers that Puget Sound needs, these oysters can link together to build coral-reef-like structures that provide an ecosystem habitat of room and hiding for young sea animals and all the kelps and sea plants that we are losing… Oyster beds this thick keep sediments anchored and the entire Puget Sound in balance.”