Tag Archives: Puget Sound

Facing challenges that could save chinook salmon from extinction

Nineteen years ago this month, then-Governor Gary Locke made a bold declaration about salmon that would echo through time: “Extinction is not an option.”

Juvenile chinook salmon depend on high-quality habitat for their survival.
Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

It was a call to action that would lead to major protection and restoration efforts throughout Puget Sound. Still, today, chinook salmon have not experienced a population rebound, as many people had hoped. The failure to thrive has been a disappointment to many, yet we are often reminded that it took 150 years to push salmon to the brink of extinction and it will not be easy to ensure their future.

Last week, concerns about the survival of chinook salmon prompted a coalition of Puget Sound tribes to propose a series of “bold actions,” as I reported in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, later reprinted in the Kitsap Sun.

“The way we are managing lands is not working,” stated salmon expert Dave Herrera, speaking for the tribes. “It may be working for people, but it is not working for fish.”

The bold actions, spelled out in a three-page proposal (PDF 380 kb), include greater controls on the use of land and water, among other things. I won’t describe the details, which you can read in the memo. The ideas were prompted by a new Chinook Salmon Implementation Strategy, designed to accelerate an increase in the Puget Sound chinook population.

The tribes complained that the proposed strategy, as drafted, mostly mimicked the 10-year-old Puget Sound Salmon Recovery Plan. That plan has made limited progress in restoring wild salmon runs, despite millions of dollars spent to protect and restore habitat while limiting fishing and controlling hatchery production.

In his speech of June 1998, Gov. Locke worried about the risk of extinction for these migratory fish, which are an economic asset as well as a celebrated symbol of the Northwest.

Former Gov. Gary Locke

“In several Puget Sound watersheds, our wild salmon have less than a decade to live, unless we act now,” Locke said in 1998. “And in many more rivers and streams, if the status quo continues, our wild salmon will be gone before my daughter Emily graduates from high school. So we just don’t have any time to waste. For better or for worse, we are about to make history.”

Locke’s speech was indeed historic, as he launched an unprecedented endeavor to rebuild salmon runs at great financial cost. The governor seemed to understand the challenge, as I noted at the time in my coverage of the speech before more than 100 county officials in Tacoma:

“Locke appears to be glancing over his shoulder, ready to duck for cover, as he talks about the financial and political commitments required to keep salmon from disappearing in various parts of the state,” I wrote.

“We need to wake up every morning ready to challenge the status quo,” Locke said, adding that basic changes are needed in the way businesses and average citizens use their land and water resources.

“There is a risk,” Locke said, “in just delivering that message, let alone acting on it.”

The following year, the Washington Legislature created the Salmon Recovery Funding Board to prioritize state and federal funding for salmon recovery. And the next governor, Chris Gregoire, ushered in an even greater ecosystem-recovery effort under guidance of the Puget Sound Partnership.

Wetlands are critical habitat for salmon.
Photo: Eric Grossman, U.S. Geological Survey

Today, I can’t help but wonder what would have happened without these salmon- and ecosystem-recovery efforts. Would the salmon be gone, as Locke predicted? It’s hard to say, but researchers have learned a great deal about what salmon need to survive, and the money is being better targeted toward those needs. As a result, it is understandable why some people are both disappointed with the past and hopeful for the future.

One of the great challenges facing public officials today is to find ways for local governments to truly live up to the standard of “no net loss” of ecological function — a standard required by the state’s Growth Management Act. When new developments affect “critical areas” — such as fish and wildlife habitat — they must include vegetated buffers and stormwater controls to minimize the damage. Then they must enhance degraded habitat — either on-site or off-site — to make up for losses that cannot be avoided.

I used to believe that this goal was unachievable, and I have questioned many state experts about it. How can any developer construct a commercial or residential development and walk away with no net loss of habitat function? The answer is to include a serious restoration component.

One example is the Hood Canal Coordinating Council’s In-Lieu Fee Program, which I wrote about last month in Water Ways (May 19). This program was started on a large scale to mitigate for construction at the Navy’s submarine base at Bangor, but it also works on a small scale, as I mentioned in that blog post.

When an older site is redeveloped, there may be no ecological loss, since the damage was done in the past. But when a developer builds in a new location, the local government is charged with measuring the loss, coming to terms for mitigation and making sure the mitigation is carried out. The concept of “no net loss” works only if the mitigation is permanent — another major challenge in many areas.

If no net loss can be achieved while major restoration efforts continue, we will see a net increase in salmon habitat in the Puget Sound region, and that will be a cause of celebration. One success has been in the program Floodplains by Design, which improves critical off-channel habitat for salmon while reducing flooding problems for nearby residents. Checkout the story I wrote for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound and the blog post in Water Ways, April 15.

Washington State Department of Commerce, which oversees the Growth Management Act, is in the process of updating its Critical Areas Assistance Handbook (PDF 6 mb), which serves as guidance for local regulations. New information about how to protect habitat for all life stages of salmon will be a key addition to a revised version, soon to be released for public review. See the CAO page on the Department of Commerce website.

Local governments in every part of the state must become part of the discussion if we expect them to carry out the mandate of protecting habitat for salmon. Money for planning and regulatory enforcement must be worked out. One idea I’ve heard is a regional approach that involves a group of compliance officials working to enforce the rules for multiple counties and cities.

No doubt the salmon-recovery effort must be improved. Challenges remain for issues including fishing, predation by marine mammals and climate change. But if the protection and restoration of salmon habitat can outpace unmitigated damage from development, we may be justified in believing that extinction is not an option.

Puget Sound Partnership improves, but some changes still needed

Puget Sound Partnership, created by the Legislature to coordinate protection and restoration of Puget Sound, has improved its operations over the past four years, according to a state audit report, which also makes recommendations for further improvements.

One area where the Partnership is not meeting its legal mandate is to identify partner organizations — including state agencies and county governments — that are not living up to their responsibilities under the Puget Sound Action Agenda, which guides the overall restoration effort.

Likewise, the Partnership has not been calling out partners that have made outstanding progress in their efforts to protect and restore Puget Sound, according to the audit, which was approved last week by state legislators who make up the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee, or JLARC.

The video below shows the portion of the JLARC meeting addressing the audit report on the Puget Sound Partnership.

The one legal deficiency involves the old carrot-and-stick approach, shaming those who are failing to protect Puget Sound while praising those doing a bang-up job. One concern I’ve heard is that shaming may be counter-productive, since the Partnership has no legal authority to force anybody to do anything. Nevertheless, the approach is required by state law.

The three primary recommendations coming out of the audit:

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Transient killer whales make themselves at home in Puget Sound

Transient killer whales are gallivanting around Puget Sound like they own the place — and maybe they do.

For decades, transients were not well known to most observers in the Salish Sea. But now these marine-mammal-eating orcas are even more common than our familiar Southern Residents, the J, K and L pods. In fact, transients are becoming so prevalent that it is hard to keep track of them all. Some observers say up to 10 different groups of transients could be swimming around somewhere in Puget Sound at any given time.

“This is nuts!” exclaimed Susan Berta of Orca Network, a nonprofit organization that keeps track of whale sightings. “This is more than we have ever seen!

“Alisa Lemire Brooks coordinates our sighting networks,” Susan told me. “She is going nuts trying to keep track of them. It has been so confusing. They mix and merge and split up again.” (See also Orca Network’s Facebook page.)

This video by Alisa Lemire Brooks shows a group of transients taking a California sea lion at Richmond Beach in Shoreline, King County, on Monday. Much of the close-up action begins at 6:30.

If you’ve followed the news of the J, K and L pods and you think you know something about killer whales, you may need to refine your thinking when talking about transients. In fact, some researchers contend that the physical, behavioral and genetic differences between transients and residents are so great that the two kinds of orcas should be considered separate species.

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Protecting the Puget Sound ecosystem involves urban planning

I often write about Puget Sound restoration, sometimes forgetting to include the word “protection.” It really should be “Puget Sound protection and restoration” — with protection getting the first billing and the highest priority in our thinking.

Puget Sound from space // Image: NASA

Protection isn’t very exciting — not like restoring hundreds of acres of degraded estuaries, floodplains and wetlands. Of course, restoration is absolutely necessary to gain back lost habitat, but the immediate result is never as good as habitat that avoided damage in the first place. Even restored habitat generally needs to be protected for a long time before it functions as well as an undisturbed site.

These are issues I have been pondering as I wrote the latest story in a series about Implementation Strategies — a focused effort to make a measurable improvement in the Puget Sound ecosystem. For details, check out the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

If we could freeze everything in place, then habitat restoration would help rebuild the fish and wildlife populations that require special conditions. But we cannot stop time, and we are told that 1.5 million more people will soon be living in the Puget Sound region.

Where can all these future people find homes without further degrading the environment? Will they choose to live in places that minimize the ecological damage or will it even matter to them? Needless to say, this remains an open-ended question — a question that is both public and very personal, touching on issues of freedom and property rights.

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New game lets you travel with wacky steelhead as they try to survive

In a new game open to everyone, 48 colorful cartoon fish will soon follow the wandering paths of real-life steelhead that have been tracked during their migration through Puget Sound.

Just like their counterparts in the real world, some of the young steelhead in the game will survive the trip from South Puget Sound or southern Hood Canal — but many will not. The game’s basic tenet is to choose a fish that you feel will be lucky or cunning enough to make it through a gauntlet of hazards from predators to disease. You then watch and learn about the needs and threats to salmon and steelhead as the game progresses over 12 days, beginning May 8.

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Hope is alive for restoration of Puget Sound shellfish beds

Officials in Washington state’s Shellfish Program have identified a clear pathway to meet a state goal of restoring 10,800 net acres of shellfish beds to a harvestable condition by 2020.

The 10,800-acre target, established by the Puget Sound Partnership, was considered overly ambitious by many people when the goal was approved in 2011. Many still believe that the shellfish restoration effort will go down in flames, along with other goals, such as increasing chinook salmon and killer whale populations by 2020.

In reporting on the Shellfish Implementation Strategy, a document still under development, I’ve learned that the goal is within reach if enough of the ongoing recovery efforts around Puget Sound continue to make progress. Please check out my latest stories “Bringing the shellfish back” and “Closing in on the magic number in Samish Bay,” both published in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

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Puget Sound and other estuaries are facing the federal chopping block

Federal funding to restore Puget Sound and other large U.S. estuaries would be slashed by more than 90 percent under a preliminary budget proposal coming from President Trump’s administration.

Funding for Puget Sound restoration would be cut by 93 percent, from the current budget of $28 million to just $2 million, according to figures cited by the Portland Oregonian and apparently circulated by the National Association of Clean Air Agencies. Here’s the list.

The Great Lakes, which received a big boost in spending to $300 million in the current biennium, would be hammered down to $10 million. Chesapeake Bay, currently at $73 million, would be reduced to $5 million.

Much of this money goes for habitat protection and restoration, the kind of effort that seems to be kicked to the bottom of the priority list, at least in these early budget figures. The new EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, appears to be focusing on upgrading water infrastructure, cleaning up toxic sites and reducing air and water pollution, although everything is cut deeply and details remain murky.

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More coho salmon are expected, but fishing will remain limited this year

Total returns of coho salmon to Puget Sound this year are expected to be significantly higher than last year, and that should help smooth negotiations between state and tribal salmon managers working to establish this year’s fishing seasons.

But critically low runs of coho to the Skagit and Stillaguamish rivers in Northern Puget Sound could limit fishing opportunities in other areas, as managers try to reduce fishing pressure on coho making their way back to those rivers.

In any case, both state and tribal managers say they are confident that they can avoid the kind of deadlock over coho they found themselves in last year, when a failure to reach agreement delayed sport fishing seasons and threatened to cancel them altogether. See reporter Tristan Baurick’s stories in the Kitsap Sun, May 4 and May 28.

“We’re in a much better situation than we were last year,” Ryan Lothrop, a salmon manager with Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, told a large gathering of sport and commercial fishermen yesterday in Olympia.

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Crab Team training will foster the upcoming hunt for green crab invaders

A European green crab invasion may be taking place in Puget Sound, and Washington Sea Grant intends to enhance its Crab Team this summer with more volunteers looking in more places than ever before.

The second European green crab identified in Puget Sound was found in Padilla Bay, where three others were later trapped.
Photo: Padilla Bay Reserve

Training is about to get underway, and anyone with an interest in furthering science while being exposed to the wonders of nature may participate. It’s not always good weather, but I’ve been inspired by the camaraderie I’ve witnessed among dedicated volunteers.

The work involves going out to one or more selected sites each month from April into September with a team of two to four other volunteers. It is helpful to have folks who can carry the crab traps, plastic bins and other equipment. For details, check out the Washington Sea Grant website.

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Petition seeks to revoke Department of Ecology’s clean-water authority

Citing pollution problems in Puget Sound, an environmental group is asking the Environmental Protection Agency to revoke Washington state’s authority to enforce the federal Clean Water Act.

Northwest Environmental Advocates, based in Portland, says a review of 103 discharge permits issued by the Washington Department of Ecology shows a failure to control nitrogen pollution. Excess nitrogen reduces oxygen levels in the water and triggers algae blooms, resulting in serious problems in Puget Sound, according to a petition submitted to the EPA.

“Ecology determined that over 80 percent of the human sources of nitrogen in Puget Sound comes from cities and towns, but it continues to issue discharge permits as if it were completely ignorant of these facts,” Nina Bell, the group’s executive director, said in a news release.

“It’s just flat out illegal to issue permits that contribute to harmful pollution levels,” she added. “These permits are the walking dead, existing merely to create the impression that the state is doing its job to control water pollution when it is not.”

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