Tag Archives: Puget Sound

Foot by foot, shoreline bulkhead removal outpaces construction

It’s always nice when I can report a little good news for Puget Sound recovery. For the second year in row, we’ve seen more shoreline bulkheads ripped out than new ones put in.

Graphic: Kris Symer, Puget Sound Institute
Graphic: Kris Symer, Puget Sound Institute / Data: WDFW

After officials with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife completed their compilation of permit data for 2015, I can say that 3,097 feet of old armoring were removed, while 2,231 feet were added.

Scientific evidence is mounting that bulkheads cause considerable harm to the shoreline environment, affecting salmon and many other species integral to the Puget Sound food web.

As I pointed out in a story published this week in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, we cannot say whether the armoring removed has restored more valuable habitat than what was destroyed by new structures. But we can hope that’s the case, since state and federal governments have targeted restoration funding toward high priority habitats. They include shorelines used by forage fish, such as surf smelt and sand lance, as well as feeder bluffs, which deliver sands and gravels needed for healthy beaches.

One problem with the data, which officials hope to improve in the future, is that we don’t know whether the new bulkheads being built are the standard concrete or rock bulkheads or the less-damaging “soft-shore” projects. Unlike hard armor, soft-shore projects are designed to absorb wave energy by sloping the beach and placing large rocks and logs in strategic locations. It’s not a perfect solution, but it is a reasonable compromise where armoring is truly needed.

Graphic: WDFW
Graphic: WDFW
Note: Chart excludes adjustment of 400-foot increase in removals in Jefferson County

Dave Price, restoration division manager for WDFW, said he was encouraged by the amount of bulkhead removal versus construction, but he acknowledged that a lot more work is needed. The answer is to convince waterfront property owners that the problem is real and to enlist their help in boosting habitat over time. The Shore Friendly program is part of the effort.

“Some shorelines are armored right in front of bluffs that have no houses or the houses are set way back,” Dave told me. “I see that all over the place. A little sediment coming off these hillsides can be a very good thing for fish, and I don’t think they are a problem for landowners.”

Sheida Sahandy, executive director of the Puget Sound Partnership, said the issue is not about government requiring these changes but about people deciding that they want more natural conditions where possible.

“We should frame this so that people see the possibility of having a nice beach, a place where you can walk down and put your feet in,” she said, adding that people who have installed soft-shore protections often rave about their easier access to the shore.

As I mentioned, 2015 is the second year in a row that more armoring was removed than constructed. Last year, I reported on the historical turnaround — the first time that removal exceeded new construction. See Puget Sound Institute, Aug. 13, 2015. In my latest story, I brought out a few more nuances in the effort to restore shorelines and prevent further damage. Check out the sidebar titled “Shoreline planning calls for separate goal of ‘no net loss.’”

Graphic: WDFW
Graphic: WDFW
Graphic: WDFW
Graphic: WDFW
Note: Chart excludes adjustment of 400-foot increase in removals in Jefferson County

Second invasive green crab discovered in northern Puget Sound

A second European green crab has been found in Puget Sound, this one in Padilla Bay — about 30 miles southeast of where the first one was discovered about three weeks ago.

A second European green crab has been found in Puget Sound, this one in Padilla Bay. Photo: Padilla Bay Reserve
A second European green crab has been found in Puget Sound, this one in Padilla Bay.
Photo: Padilla Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve

Green crabs are an invasive species known to devour a variety of native species and alter habitats where they have become established. Keeping green crabs out of Puget Sound has been a goal of state officials for years.

After the first green crab was caught in a volunteer trapping program three weeks ago, experts mounted an intensive trapping effort to see if other green crabs were in the area around Westcott Bay in the San Juan Islands. (Water Ways, Sept. 3). No live crabs were found, but one cast-off shell (molt) was discovered nearby (Water Ways, Sept. 15).

The second green crab was found by Glen Alexander of the Padilla Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve while overturning rocks with a group of students.

The latest find is a young female crab, 34 millimeters across, which may have grown from a larva dispersed last winter.

“We were relieved to find very little evidence of a larger population of invasive European green crab in Westcott Bay,” Emily Grason of Washington Sea Grant said in a news release (PDF 371 kb). “But finding an additional crab at a site more than 30 miles away suggests that ongoing vigilance is critical across all Puget Sound shorelines. WSG’s Crab Team is committed to continuing the efforts of volunteer monitoring as resources allow, but we also rely on beachgoers to keep a watchful eye out for this invasive species.”

A second rapid-response effort will get underway Monday with more traps being deployed over a larger area than last time. The goal is to locate any crabs that may have made a home in the area and determine where the crabs might be gaining a foothold.

The advice for beachgoers remains the same:

  1. Learn how to how to identify green crab. Check out the Crab Team webpage at wsg.washington.edu/crabteam or Facebook and Twitter @WAGreenCrab.
  2. Take a photo and report sightings to the WSG Crab team at crabteam@uw.edu.
  3. Shellfish collected in one location should never be released or “wet stored” in another location unless authorized by WDFW.
  4. Clean, drain and dry recreational gear or other materials after beach visits.

If you haven’t seen it, you may want to review a series I wrote on invasive species for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, including a story about green crabs and the volunteer monitoring program.

Finding answers for dangerous decline of Puget Sound steelhead

Harbor seals have become prime suspects in the deaths of millions of young steelhead trout that die each year in Puget Sound, but the seals may not be working alone.


Disease and/or various environmental factors could play a part, perhaps weakening the young steelhead as they begin their migratory journey from the streams of Puget Sound out to the open ocean. Something similar is happening to steelhead on the Canadian side of the border in the Salish Sea.

More than 50 research projects are underway in Puget Sound and Georgia Strait to figure out why salmon runs are declining — and steelhead are a major focus of the effort. Unlike most migratory salmon, steelhead don’t hang around long in estuaries that can complicate the mortality investigation for some species.

The steelhead initiative was launched by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and Puget Sound Partnership with funding from the Legislature. The steelhead work is part of the Salish Sea Marine Survival Project, which is halfway through its five-year term, according to Michael Schmidt of Long Live the Kings, which coordinates the effort in the U.S. The larger project involves at least 60 organizations, including state and federal agencies, Indian tribes and universities.

A new report on research findings for steelhead (PDF 9.8 mb) describes the most significant results to date for our official state fish, which was listed as “threatened” in 2007. While steelhead populations on the Washington Coast and Columbia River have rebounded somewhat since their lowest numbers in the 1980s, steelhead in the Salish Sea remain at historical lows — perhaps 10 percent of their previous average.

“Because steelhead are bigger and move fast through the system, they are easier to study (than other salmon species),” Michael told me. “It has been a lot easier to feel confident about what you are finding.”


Steelhead can be imbedded with tiny acoustic transmitters, which allow them to be tracked by acoustic receivers along their migration routes to the ocean. It appears that the tagged fish survive their freshwater journey fairly well, but many soon disappear once they reach Puget Sound. The longer they travel, the more likely they are to perish before they leave the sound.

While steelhead are susceptible to being eaten by a few species of birds, their primary predators appear to be harbor seals. These findings are supported by a new study that placed acoustic receivers on seals and observed that some of the transmitters embedded in steelhead ended up where the seals hang out, suggesting that the fish were probably eaten.

In a different kind of tagging study, Canadian researchers placed smaller passive integrated transponder (PIT) tags in a large number of coho salmon and attached devices to read the PIT tags on coho salmon.

“What is most interesting to date,” states a new report from the Pacific Salmon Foundation,“ (PDF 4 mb), “is that we only have confirmed feeding on tagged coho salmon by four of the 20 seals equipped with receivers. This suggests that feeding on juvenile salmon may be an opportunistic behavior acquired by a limited number of seals.”

New studies are underway to confirm steelhead predation by looking at fecal samples from seals in South Puget Sound. Researchers hope to figure out what the seals are eating and estimate steelhead consumption.

As I mentioned at the outset of this blog post, it may be more than a simple case of seals eating steelhead. For one thing, seal populations may have increased while their other food choices have decreased. Would the seals be eating as many steelhead if Puget Sound herring populations were close to their historical averages?

Other factors may be making young steelhead vulnerable to predation. A leading candidate is a parasite called Nanophyetus salmincola, which can infest steelhead and perhaps increase their risk of predation. The parasite’s life cycle requires a snail and a warm-blooded animal, as I described in a story I wrote for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound — part of a larger piece about disease as a powerful ecological force. Anyway, the snail is found only in streams in South Puget Sound, which might help explain why steelhead deaths are higher among these South Sound populations.

Experiments are underway to compare the survival of two groups of identical steelhead, one group infested with Nanophyetus and one not.

Depending on funding and proper design, another experiment could test whether treating a stream to temporarily eliminate the snail — an intermediate host — could increase the survival of steelhead. If successful, treating streams to remove these snails could be one way of helping the steelhead. For these and other approved and proposed studies, check out the Marine Survival Project’s “2015-2017 Research Work Plan” (PDF 9.3 mb).

Other factors under review that could play a role in steelhead survival are warming temperatures and pollution in Puget Sound, which could help determine the amount and type of plankton available for steelhead and salmon. Could a shift in plankton result in less food for the small fish? It’s a major question to be answered.

I’ve mentioned in Water Ways (3/15/2010) that transient killer whales, which eat seals, sea lions and harbor porpoises, may be helping their distant cousins, the Southern Resident killer whales, which eat fish. Those smaller marine mammals compete for the adult salmon eaten by the Southern Residents. By clearing out some of those competitors, the transients could be leaving more salmon for the Southern Residents.

It may be too early to draw any firm conclusions, Michael Schmidt told me, but transient killer whales may be helping steelhead as well. Last year, when transients ventured into South Puget Sound and stayed longer than usual, the survival rate for steelhead from the nearby Nisqually River was the highest it has been in a long time.

Were the whales eating enough seals to make a difference for steelhead, or were the seals hiding out and not eating while the whales were around. Whether there were benefits for the steelhead, we could be seeing what happens when a major predator (orcas) encounters an abundance of prey (seals).

Orca population remains uncertain on census day

The annual census of killer whales that frequent Puget Sound is supposed to be based on a population count for July 1 each year, but this year the count has barely begun as we move into July.

J-40, named Suttles, breaches in the latest encounter reported by Ken Balcomb. Photo: Ken Balcomb, taken under U.S. and Canadian permits
J-40, named Suttles, breaches in the latest encounter reported by Ken Balcomb.
Photo: Ken Balcomb, under U.S. and Canadian permits

For years, all three pods of Southern Resident orcas typically wandered into Puget Sound in late May or early June, but things have been changing. So far this year, most of the whales have remained somewhere else, probably somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. And that even goes for J pod, the most resident of the resident pods.

Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research, who is responsible for the census, said the Fraser River chinook run has been so low this year that the whales have stayed away. He may not be able to get a complete count until September, he told me.

Of course, Ken and his associates will take attendance as the whales come into the Salish Sea. Some assumptions will have to be made about the timing of any births or deaths. But whales won’t be counted as missing until they are not seen with their family groups during multiple encounters.

“We’re not going to be able to say that somebody is dead at the end of July because we have not seen them,” Ken said, “since there is a low probability of seeing them between now and September.”

As with this year, the census could not be completed at this time last year. But, unlike this year, only two small groups of whales had not been seen going up to census day on July 1 last year. See Water Ways, July 1, 2015.

As the whales have stayed out to sea longer each year, Ken has requested additional federal funding to search for them and get an early indication of their condition, but his requests have been denied. Those who wish to support his ongoing efforts may purchase a membership in the Center for Whale Research.

On Monday, Ken caught up with a small group of J pod orcas that are led by the matriarch J-2, known as Granny. It was only the second time that J pod whales have been seen in inland waters during the entire month of June. On Saturday, a large group of orcas was spotted by observers near the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. But most of them apparently stayed in the open ocean.

Ken speculates that Granny and the others were following an aggregation of salmon when he caught up with them at Turn Point near the Canadian border. He posted a report today with this information:

“J19 and J41 were the west-flanking whales, and J14, J37 and J49 were the east-flanking whales, while J2 and L87 charged in a zig-zag pattern down the middle of the tide rips that shot up vertically like haystacks of water, dousing the boat and camera. The others (J40 and J45) were here and there in the swirls, surfacing with no particular pattern. It was quite challenging to take photographs in such conditions, but it was important to get some documentation of their occurrence and activity, since they had not spent much time in the Salish Sea so far this year.”

The abundance of chinook in the Fraser River — which produces much of the fish in the San Juan Islands — is tracked by prescribed fishing in Canada’s so-called Albion Test Fishery. As you can see from the graph, the catch per unit effort is considerably lower than the long-term average, barely making a blip at the bottom of the chart.

This year's catch per unit effort in the Albion Test Fishery is much lower than the long-term average. This year's fishery did not begin until April 26. Graphic: Canadian DFO
This year’s catch per unit effort in the Albion Test Fishery is much lower than the long-term average. This year’s fishery did not begin until April 26.
Graphic: Canadian DFO

Meanwhile, the abundance of chinook off the Washington Coast is predicted in pre-season forecasts to be slightly above the 10-year average. Forecasts for this year’s chinook runs are higher than last year’s forecast but not as high as the surprisingly high numbers of chinook that ultimately came back last year. See 2016 chinook forecast (PDF 135 kb).

Considering the apparent difference between the number of chinook in the ocean and those coming to the Fraser River, it is no wonder that the whales still remain off the coast.

Given the low salmon runs, Ken says he will be surprised if the annual census does not include some mortalities. One small group of whales, known as the L-12s, have not been seen for months. Meanwhile, four births were recorded since July of last year, with the latest report coming in December. And, as far as anyone can tell, eight of the nine orcas born since December 2014 are still living. It would be remarkable if we are still able to say that when the official census for 2016 is finally reported in September.

Leadership Council adopts ‘leaner’ Action Agenda for Puget Sound

Puget Sound Partnership continues to struggle in its efforts to pull everyone together in a unified cause of protecting and restoring Puget Sound.

This week, the Puget Sound Leadership Council, which oversees the partnership, adopted the latest Puget Sound Action Agenda, which spells out the overall strategies as well as the specific research, education and restoration projects to save Puget Sound.

Some 363 projects, known as near term actions, are included in the latest Puget Sound Action Agenda. They line up with three strategic priorities. PSP graphic
Some 363 projects, known as near-term actions, are included in the latest Puget Sound Action Agenda. They line up with three strategic priorities. // PSP graphic

The goal of restoring Puget Sound to health by 2020 — a date established by former Gov. Chris Gregoire — was never actually realistic, but nobody has ever wanted to change the date. The result has been an acknowledgement that restoration work will go on long after 2020, even though restoration targets remain in place for that date just four years away.

A letter to be signed by all members of the Leadership Council begins to acknowledge the need for a new date.

“As the scope and depth of our undertaking expands along with our understanding, federal and state funding is on the decline,” the letter states. “We’re increasingly forced into a position where we’re not only competing amongst ourselves for a pool of funding wholly insufficient to accomplish what needs doing, but we are also feeling the impacts of cuts to programs supporting other societal priorities as well. If we continue at our historic pace of recovery, which is significantly underfunded, we cannot expect to achieve our 2020 recovery targets.”

The cost for the near-term actions total nearly $250 million, with most going for habitat restoration. PSP graphic
The cost for the near-term actions in the Action Agenda total nearly $250 million, with most going for habitat restoration.
PSP graphic

This is not necessarily an appeal for money to support the Puget Sound Partnership, although funds for the program have been slipping. But the partnership has always been a coordinator of projects by local, state and federal agencies, nonprofit groups and research institutions — where the on-the-ground work is done. That much larger pot of money for Puget Sound efforts also is declining.

“These are threats that compel us to action, fueled by our devotion to place,” the letter continues. “We at the Puget Sound Partnership, along with our local, tribal and regional partners, have a vision of a resilient estuary that can help moderate the increasing pressures of a changing world.

“How we aim to accomplish our vision is found in this updated Action Agenda. For the next two years, this is the focused, measurable and scientifically grounded roadmap forming the core of the region’s work between now and 2020 and beyond.”

The newly approved Action Agenda is the outcome of a greater effort to reach out to local governments and organizations involved in the restoration of Puget Sound. Priorities for restoration projects were developed at the local level with an emphasis on meeting the priorities and strategies developed in previous Action Agendas.

Who will do the projects? Most are to be done by *local groups, including cities, counties, special purpose districts, local integrating organizations and lead entities. PSP graphic
Who will do the projects? Most are proposed by *local groups, including cities, counties, special purpose districts, local integrating organizations and lead entities. // PSP graphic

The latest document is divided into two sections to separate overall planning from the work involved parties would like to accomplish over the next two years. The two parts are called the “Comprehensive Plan” and the “Implementation Plan.”

As determined several years ago, upcoming efforts known as “near-term actions” are focused on three strategic initiatives:

  • Stormwater: Prevent pollution from urban stormwater runoff, which causes serious problems for marine life and humans.
  • Habitat: Protect and restore habitat needed for species to survive and thrive.
  • Shellfish: Protect and recover shellfish beds, including areas harvested by commercial growers and recreational users.

Actions are focused on 29 specific strategies and 109 substrategies that support these ideas. Projects, which may be viewed in a list at the front of the “Implementation Plan,” are aligned with the substrategies.

“This leaner, scientifically grounded strategic recovery plan is a call to action,” the letter from the Leadership Council states. “We know that our restoration efforts are failing to compensate for the thousands of cuts we continue to inflict on the landscape as our population grows and habitat gives way to more humans.

“We know that salmon, steelhead and orcas — the magnificent beings that in many ways define this corner of the world — are struggling to persist as we alter the land and waters to which they’re adapted,” the letter concludes. “And we know that warming temperatures and acidifying seawater are moving us toward a future that we don’t fully understand and are not entirely prepared for. Hard decisions are ahead, and we’re past the point where additional delay is acceptable.”

Puget Sound restoration depends on shorelines

The Encyclopedia of Puget Sound has published the final two parts of a seven-part series on shorelines, bulkheads and nearshore ecosystems.

As we researched the series, I was able to interact with a lot of interesting people — from coastal geologists to property owners. Today’s experts in shoreline ecology credit the late Wolf Bauer with many of the ideas that have become commonplace in shoreline restoration. I was pleased when Washington Sea Grant produced a video tribute to Wolf, who died in January at 103 years old.

One story I wrote, which was published today, involved a boat ride along the eastern shoreline of North Kitsap, which was the perfect setting for describing the geology and natural forces that shape the shoreline. I must thank Hugh Shipman of the Washington Department of Ecology and Paul Dorn of the Suquamish Tribe for their expertise. Check out “Sources of Sand.”

On an earlier boat ride, I joined up with a group of shoreline property owners who were learning about nearshore ecology and the benefits of bulkhead removal. The boat trip, sponsored by the Shore Friendly Kitsap program, is part of a pilot project to introduce the idea of removing bulkheads.

The tour departed from Brownsville and went up through Liberty Bay near Poulsbo, where we observed a mixed assortment of houses and associated shoreline structures. Some of these waterfront homes were protected with massive rock bulkheads; some featured stubby wooden walls; and some were surrounded by vegetation with no bulkhead at all.

“Taking this boat ride lets you see what the natural shoreline should look like,” said Lee Derror, a Tracyton resident who has been contemplating whether to remove her bulkhead, built of creosote timbers.

Cost of removal is a major obstacle for many property owners — unless their bulkhead is already failing. The other major concern is whether alternative “soft shore” protection will be enough to protect their shoreline from excessive erosion.

Leaving Liberty Bay, the boat headed to Port Madison on Bainbridge Island to examine the Powel family property, where a bulkhead was removed in 2013. The 1,500-foot bulkhead removal is believed to be the largest private removal so far in Puget Sound. (See Kitsap Sun, Aug. 29, 2013, or the Shore Friendly webpage.)

Jim Brennan, a consulting marine biologist, told the passengers that accommodations were made to protect a historic boathouse on the Powel property by placing large rocks around the foundation. Also, the beach was sloped back to absorb incoming waves. Other than that, the shoreline is expected to eventually look much the way it did in the 1800s, with a reconnected salt marsh providing food and protection for migrating salmon.

Lee Derror told me that property owners should take a look at their shoreline from the water side, especially if they plan to remove their bulkhead. The Kitsap tour was especially helpful, she said, “because you get to rub elbows with the experts.”

Kitsap’s Shore Friendly pilot project — one of five projects in the Puget Sound region — will help property owners determine if bulkhead removal is right for them. It includes with a visit from a volunteer, followed up by an assessment from an independent geotechnical engineer. The last time I checked, county officials were hoping to offer additional boat rides in the future.

Pilot projects operating in other counties have taken somewhat different approaches, as I described last week in the story “Shoreline Restoration Turns to Private Property Owners.” The second video is from efforts on San Juan Island.

The state’s Shore Friendly website includes web links for people to connect with outreach efforts in their own counties. Go to “Resources in Your Area.”

Below are the seven shoreline stories written by science writer Eric Scigliano and myself for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound and the online magazine “Salish Sea Currents.” These are published by the Puget Sound Institute, which is associated with the University of Washington. Funding came from the Environmental Protection Agency.

Amusing Monday: Colbert talks drugs with Sammy the Salmon

Stephen Colbert: “Environmental scientists — this is true — have tested salmon in the Puget Sound out around Seattle. And they found that, because those salmon are near all these wastewater-treatment plants, the salmon are full of drugs, including Prozac. I don’t blame them, because if I spent all my life living in wastewater, I would definitely need a mood stabilizer.”

Stephen Colbert dedicated a portion of his “Late Show” with a humorous take on a recent scientific report about how drugs are passing through people’s bodies and ending up in Puget Sound, where they can affect fish, including salmon. This video has been viewed about 216,000 times since it was posted last Tuesday.

In the four-minute video, Colbert goes on to have a conversation with Sammy the Salmon, who seems clearly affected by the drugs he has been consuming.

On the serious side, you can read about the study from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in a Kitsap Sun story by reporter Tristan Baurick. Tristan’s story inspired me to write a “Water Ways” post about one possible solution being studied: building enhanced treatment processes into existing wastewater plants.

In other humorous news, perhaps you’ve seen the new SeaWorld commercial called “The new future of SeaWorld.” The ad promotes SeaWorld’s decision to quit breeding killer whales and to halt its theatrical shows with orcas but not to move them out of their tanks. Recall Water Ways, March 17.

PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, quickly posted a parody that you can watch in the second video player on this page.

If SeaWorld Ads Told The Truth

What if SeaWorld's new commercial told the truth? "Because you know what whales hate? The ocean." #LOL

Posted by PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) on Tuesday, March 29, 2016

One other bit of humor came out in print last week as an April Fool’s joke from the Center for Biological Diversity. Here’s a quick sample from “Endangered Earth online.”

  • “The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service this week confirmed rumors that the comb-over wilderness atop the pate of presidential contender Donald J. Trump is indeed “critical habitat” for more than 300 endangered species.”
  • “The Center’s innovative ‘Take Extinction Off Your Plate’ campaign — aimed at reducing meat consumption for the sake of people’s and the planet’s health — announced today it would be baking 10,000 kale-lentil muffins and delivering them to needy gray wolves across the West.”
  • “The Center went to federal court this week to challenge the Environmental Protection Agency’s recent finding that smooth jazz is ‘perfectly safe’ for people and wildlife.”

A chance to talk
on televison about the wonders of Puget Sound

More than 50 people came together at the beginning of this month in Washington, D.C., to share their stories and concerns about Puget Sound. The annual event is becoming known as Puget Sound Day.

The group included leaders from local government, tribes, non-profit groups, businesses and state agencies, noted U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, who organized the get-together and discussion about federal legislation and funding.

Kitsap County Commissioner Charlotte Garrido, who is involved in these issues, asked me to share my thoughts about Puget Sound on the public access television program “Commissioner’s Corner.” If you haven’t seen the show, you can view it on BKAT the next two Mondays at 8:30 p.m. and Tuesdays at 2 p.m., or click on the video above.

I have to say that speaking off the cuff in front of a television camera is a lot different from writing a story or blog post, but I was pleased to be invited. The broadcast includes Kathy Peters of the county’s Natural Resources Division.

Charlotte wanted to give credit to Rep. Kilmer and Rep. Denny Heck for launching the Puget Sound Recovery Caucus, a group of federal legislators working on Puget Sound issues in the “other Washington.” Review a summary of the effort (PDF 1.1 mb) or other information on the Puget Sound Partnership blog.

Derek Kilmer
Derek Kilmer

Three years ago, a newly elected Rep. Kilmer picked up on Puget Sound issues where former Rep. Norm Dicks left off. Through the years, Norm was able to secure funding for many Puget Sound projects — ranging from the removal of Forest Service roads that were smothering salmon streams with sediment to extensive studies of Hood Canal’s low-oxygen problems.

Derek is now promoting a bill known as Puget SOS Act, which calls for greater federal coordination with state, local and tribal partners, as well as formal recognition of Puget Sound as a “great water body’ under the Clean Water Act. Check out the story in the Kitsap Sun by reporter Tristan Baurick.

This month, Kilmer and Heck introduced a new bill, the Green Stormwater Infrastructure Investment Act, to help communities reduce the flow of toxic stormwater into streams and ultimately Puget Sound. The basic idea is to use natural infiltration to reduce stormwater at the source, before it can pick up toxic pollution. This approach has been given the name “green stormwater infrastructure” or GSI.

Denny Heck
Denny Heck

“If our legislation passes,” Derek said in a news letter to constituents, “local communities would be able to access dedicated funding within the Environmental Protection Agency for water quality projects that utilize GSI. Our hope is that this can increase the number of breakthroughs that are happening in places like Tacoma to help protect these vital waterways.”

He offered more details in a news release:

“Stormwater runoff is the top contributor to pollution in Puget Sound, but our nation’s largest estuary isn’t the only place impacted by stormwater. Across the country, in every community, rain mixes with chemicals, oils and other harmful pollutants to flood into our waterways. A stronger federal investment in the prevention of runoff allows for the implementation of cutting-edge solutions and puts our communities on a course towards healthy waters for everyone.”

Experts agree: Coho fishing must be reduced this year to save species

Fishing seasons for coho salmon in Puget Sound are expected to be cut back severely this year, as the latest forecasts of salmon returns predict that coho runs will be less than a third of what was forecast for 2015.

Salmon managers faced some tough facts recently when they read over results from a computer model used to predict the effects of various fishing scenarios. After they plugged in last year’s fishing seasons and this year’s coho forecast, the computer told them that essentially no fish were left to spawn in Stillaguamish River in northern Puget Sound. Things were hardly better for the Skagit or Snohomish rivers or for streams in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Hood Canal.

Coho forecast

“With last year’s fisheries, you will catch every fish out there,” said Doug Milward, who manages salmon data for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. “All the fisheries will have to change to protect the Stillaguamish (coho) — from the ocean fisheries to inside (Puget Sound).”

Last year’s fishing seasons are not even a good starting point, as negotiations begin between salmon managers for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and Western Washington tribes. Under federal court rulings, the two sides must agree on fishing seasons, and the goal remains a 50-50 split of the various stocks that can be safely harvested. NOAA Fisheries plays a role in setting seasons for chinook, which are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Coho are not listed, although some people argue that they should be.

2015 coho returns

By April 14, if things go as planned, the two parties will reach agreement on when and where salmon fishing will take place — for tribal and nontribal, sport and commercial fishers.

“Unfavorable ocean conditions led to fewer coho salmon returning last year than we anticipated,” John Long, salmon fisheries policy lead for WDFW, said in a news release. “We expect to see another down year for coho in 2016 and will likely have to restrict fishing for salmon in a variety of locations to protect wild coho stocks.”

It seems the tribes have a slightly different take on the situation.

2016 coho forecasts

“There likely will be no coho fisheries in Western Washington this year, as returns are expected to plummet even further than last year because of poor ocean survival,” Lorraine Loomis, chairwoman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, stated in a column published online.

She said that when last year’s coho returns are finally tallied, they may be as much as 80 percent below preseason forecasts. The Nisqually Tribe last year canceled its coho fishery when less than 4,000 of the anticipated 23,000 fish returned to the area, she said.

Tribes fish at the end of the line, after all the other fisheries — from up the West Coast to the inside of Puget Sound. Because the treaties require tribes to fish within their “usual and accustomed areas,” agreements on fishing seasons must allow for salmon to return to their natal streams with numbers large enough for tribes to take their share, Lorraine said.

“Every year we must wait and hope that enough fish return to feed our families and culture,” she said. “Faced with low catch rates last year, however, most tribal coho fisheries were sharply reduced or closed early to protect the resource. The state, however, expanded sport harvest in mixed stock areas last year to attempt to catch fish that weren’t there. That’s not right. The last fisheries in line should not be forced to shoulder most of the responsibility for conserving the resource.”

Chinook forecast

The annual negotiations between the state and the tribes were kicked off Tuesday at a public meeting where the salmon forecasts were discussed with sport and commercial fishers.

In addition to a poor return of coho to Puget Sound, the forecast for Puget Sound chinook also shows somewhat lower numbers than last year.

One bright spot is for people who like to fish in the ocean. About 951,000 fall chinook are expected to return to the Columbia River. That’s higher than the 10-year average but lower than last year’s modern record of 1.3 million. About 223,000 hatchery chinook are expected to return to the lower Columbia River. These fish, known as “tules,” make up the bulk of the recreational harvest.

2015 chinook returns

Another bright spot is the prediction of a fair number of sockeye returning to Baker Lake on the Skagit River, possibly allowing a fishing season in the lake and river.

Norm Reinhardt, who heads up the Kitsap Poggie Club, has been involved in advisory groups on salmon fishing and participates in discussions about the seasons.

“This year, we have a significant challenge in the coho fishery, and we will have to base decisions on conservation needs,” Norm told me following Tuesday’s meeting.

Despite lower chinook numbers, there could be ways to work out some opportunities to fish for hatchery chinook, he said. Catch-and-release is one option on the table, but it is not popular among sport fishers.

2016 chinook forecast

Anglers are still smarting from last year’s sport-fishing closure in Area 10, a designated fishing area between Bremerton and Seattle. Fishing for chinook was prohibited in that area at the insistence of the Muckleshoot Tribe to protect hatchery chinook returning to the Issaquah Creek hatchery.

Fishing should have been allowed at some level — with the release of wild chinook — under an agreed management plan, Norm says, but state managers yielded to the tribe at the last minute in order to hasten a final agreement. On Tuesday, Norm told state salmon managers that he doesn’t want to see that happen again.

“In area 10, our argument is going to be that if we have adequate chinook, we should be allowed to fish on our fish — unlike last year,” he said.

sockeye forecasts

The reduced number of coho returning to Puget Sound has been blamed on ocean conditions, including higher water temperatures off the coast and a mass of warm water called “the blob,” which stayed around for two years. Studies have shown that warmer water alters the species of plankton available for fish to eat. The result is that the fish are consuming a plankton lower in fat content, causing coho to be thinner and fewer.

The 2016 forecast of about 256,000 Puget Sound coho is about 40 percent of the average return over the past 10 years and 29 percent of the number predicted for 2015 — a prediction that turned out to be too optimistic. Because of the failed coho forecast last year, everyone is expected to be more cautious about aspects of the computer modeling this year.

Charts on this page were presented during Tuesday’s meeting. The new charts make the presentation easier to understand, compared to the tables of data discussed at previous meetings. The data tables are still available when one needs to dig into the finer details. The new maps use colors to describe how streams are doing. Poor (red) is if the run or forecast for a stream is less than 75 percent of the 10-year average. Good (green) is if the run or forecast for a stream is more than 125 percent of the 10-year-average. Neutral (blue) is if the run or forecast falls between 75 percent and 125 percent.

Anyone may attend the meetings where the ongoing negotiations and possible tradeoffs are discussed. Allowing more fishing in one place often results in less fishing somewhere else, and there’s always the question about whether enough salmon are being left for spawning in the streams.

“We’re going to have to be creative in order to provide fisheries in some areas this year,” John Long said. “We would appreciate input from the public to help us establish priorities.”

Information about the salmon forecasts, the meeting schedule and methods of commenting are available on WDFW’s North of Falcon website.

On March 14, various parameters for ocean fishing will be set by the Pacific Fishery Management Council, a group empowered by the federal government to manage fish in the ocean. The PFMC will adopt ocean fishing schedules and harvest levels during its April 8-14 meeting, at which time state and tribal salmon managers are expected to approve fishing seasons for the inland waters.

Stealthy steelhead still survive across parts
of the Kitsap Peninsula

More than three years after first proposed, “critical habitat” has been designated for Puget Sound steelhead, a prized fish whose population has declined drastically in the Puget Sound region.

The new designation, announced last week, is the first time that critical habitat has ever been designated on the east side of the Kitsap Peninsula.

Critical habitat for steelhead (click to enlarge)NOAA map
Critical habitat for steelhead (click to enlarge)
NOAA map

Steelhead were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 2007, and this critical habitat designation is required under federal law to protect habitats — in this case streams — that are considered essential to the recovery of the species.

Under the law, any federal actions that could affect critical habitat becomes subject to careful review to avoid degradation of the habitat. In most areas, this high-level review would apply to alteration of streams, wetlands or estuaries, or any construction covered by federal grants or permits — such as transportation projects.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has designated many Puget Sound streams as critical habitat for one or more listed species — such as Puget Sound chinook, Hood Canal summer chum or bull trout. But this is the first time the agency has provided federal protection for streams on the eastern side of the Kitsap Peninsula.

Interestingly, the marine shoreline all around the peninsula has been designated as critical habitat for chinook. Although the numerous streams are considered too small to support chinook spawning, the shorelines are critically important for juvenile chinook, which must find places to feed, grow and escape predators on their migration to the ocean.

The designation of East Kitsap as critical habitat for steelhead could bring increased scientific scrutiny to this area along with possible funding for the restoration of habitat, as I outlined in a Kitsap Sun story when the habitat was first proposed in 2013. See Kitsap Sun, Jan. 14, 2013, and Water Ways, March 15, 2013.

Even though steelhead were listed as threatened eight years ago, knowledge remains sparse about the number of steelhead coming back to the Kitsap Peninsula or the habitat needs of the fish, local biologists tell me. Steelhead are stealthy fish, not easily found in the streams, although some information is being revealed by a handful of fish traps used by researchers to measure steelhead productivity.

Acoustic tags help researchers track the movement of steelhead in Puget Sound.
Acoustic tags help researchers track the movement of steelhead in Puget Sound.
Photo: Kitsap Sun

Steelhead can still be found in Kitsap streams, but in numbers far below what old-timers talk about. Many Kitsap streams have become “flashy,” meaning that streamflows rise and fall suddenly with the rains, because so much of the landscape has been paved or otherwise hardened. Those conditions limit the habitat, especially for fish like steelhead and coho, which make their way far upstream in Kitsap’s numerous little creeks. One difference between the two species is that coho die after spawning, while steelhead often head back to the ocean to spawn again on their next journey.

As for the designation of critical habitat, the Suquamish Tribe was able to convince NOAA Fisheries to maintain closer jurisdiction over 90 miles of steelhead streams on the Kitsap Peninsula where they were originally proposed for exclusion from the designated critical habitat.

In all, more than 2,000 miles of streams throughout the Puget Sound region were finally designated as critical habitat, but more than 1,500 miles of stream escaped the formal designation. That’s because the habitat was said to be protected in other ways or because the cost of protecting the habitat outweighed the benefits.

The Lake Washington watershed was excluded under the cost-benefit rationale, but most of the excluded streams are on private and state forestlands managed under approved habitat conservation plans, which protect a variety of species. About 28 miles of streams on military bases were excluded because they fall under “integrated natural resource management plans.” About 70 miles of streams on tribal lands were excluded out of respect for tribal sovereignty and the role of the tribes in conservation.

While many of the forestlands on the Kitsap Peninsula come under existing habitat conservations plans, the Suquamish Tribe argued that even greater oversight is needed. Streams subject to the HCP are not clearly delineated, nor are areas that would not be regulated by HCPs, the tribe argued. Kitsap County is undergoing urbanization, and these forests are threatened with conversion to residential and commercial development, the tribe said. NOAA Fisheries accepted the tribe’s point of view.

In practice, the listing of Kitsap forests as critical habitat won’t have much effect, since forestland owners are already subject to state rules that are highly protective of stream habitat, said Adrian Miller, policy and environment manager for Pope Resources, the largest forestland owner in Kitsap County. Besides, Adrian told me, federal oversight only kicks in when there is a federal action — such as a new road or stream alteration, and these are rare on working forests.

For Puget Sound, most areas designated as critical habitat are considered “occupied” by fish at this time. One exception is the Elwha River, where steelhead have been moving into areas not occupied by anadromous fish since the Elwha Dam was built in 1910. Since removal of the Elwha Dam and the Glines Canyon Dam upstream, biologists have not fully documented the full extent of the habitat used by steelhead.

Since much of the upstream habitat is within Olympic National Park, I’m not sure the habitat needs special protection under the Endangered Species Act. But it is nice to know that steelhead habitat in the Elwha is protected at the highest level and just waiting for steelhead to arrive.

For information, see the formal listing of Puget Sound steelhead habitat in the Federal Register. Other documents about habitat can be found on NOAA Fisheries website.

NOAA continues to work toward a recovery plan for Puget Sound steelhead. Documents can be found on NOAA’s website about steelhead recovery. Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has issued reports on Puget Sound steelhead populations.

Two weeks ago, five conservation groups filed a lawsuit against NOAA Fisheries for not completing the recovery plan within a reasonable time. See Wild Fish Conservancy news release, which includes a link to the legal documents.