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
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
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.
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.)
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.
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
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.
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
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.”
Nobody was really talking about designating an official
“Washington state oyster” until 14-year-old Claire Thompson came
along. Now the state Senate has approved a bill, on a 47-1 vote, to
list the Olympia oyster as the state’s official oyster.
Claire is an eighth grader at Olympia’s
Nova School, which requires a yearlong project involving
something that students care deeply about and can make a
difference. Claire, who hopes to become a marine biologist or
oceanographer, developed a sense of history for the once-prominent
Olympia oyster, as we learned from her testimony before the Senate
Governmental Operations Committee.
The full testimony on SB
6145 falls between 40:00 and 51:00 in the
video on this page.
“Pollution near historic beds caused many closures of the
fishery and rallied the oyster farmers to fight for the earliest
pollution control regulations for clean water and cleanup,” Claire
told the committee.
Ostrea lurida, the scientific name for the Olympia
oyster, is the only native oyster to the region. The Pacific
oyster, imported from Japan in the 1920s, makes up most of the
production today, but the tiny Olympia is making a comeback as a
unique delicacy with natural ties to the region.
Claire talked about ocean acidification, caused by excess carbon
dioxide in the atmosphere, and its ongoing threat to the ecological
health of Puget Sound, Hood Canal and other bays and estuaries.
“Ostrea lurida,” she said, “stands as a living symbol
of Washington’s history, from the earliest Native Americans through
the pioneers down through statehood to the present day, deserving
protection as our native oyster. Please join me in fighting to
protect not only our native oyster but our waters as well.”
Claire is the daughter of Rowland Thompson, lobbyist for Allied
Daily Newspapers of Washington, who encouraged her to develop her
project and speak before the Legislature.
Jim Jesernig of Pacific Coast Shellfish Growers Association said
he supports the bill, even though it came as a surprise to his
“We have been very pleased working with Claire,” Jesernig said.
“It’s very interesting. From the industry, we did not see this. We
were working on derelict vessels and a whole bunch of things going
on. Claire has worked with folks in Willapa Harbor and the South
Sound. We would like to support this in any way.”
If next approved by the house, the Olympia oyster will become
the official state oyster, joining:
The orca, the official marine mammal;
The Olympic marmot, the official endemic mammal;
The willow goldfinch, the official bird;
The steelhead trout, the official fish; and
The common green darner dragonfly, the official insect.
Since then, Puget Sound Restoration Fund has helped rebuild
native oyster populations in many bays, with one of the greatest
successes in Liberty Bay near Poulsbo. Betsy Peabody, executive
director, told me this morning that her group has great hopes for
success in Dyes Inlet near Silverdale and in Port Gamble Bay in
North Kitsap. A new oyster hatchery in Manchester is expected to be
in operation later this year.
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has developed a
long-term restoration plan for the Olympia oyster with 19 areas
listed for habitat restoration:
Bellingham Bay (South) Shoreline, Portage Island, and Chuckanut
Port Gamble Bay
Union River/Big and Little Mission Creek(s) deltas
Liberty Bay and sub-inlets
Dyes Inlet and sub-inlets
Point Jefferson-Orchard Point complex of passages and inlets
Harstine/Squaxin Islands complex of passages and inlets
U.S. officials say they have not heard a word from Chinese
health authorities since the Washington State Department of Health
sent test results showing that geoducks from Puget Sound are safe
A ban on shellfish imports from the Northwest continues. By all
accounts, it appears that U.S. shellfish exporters will miss a
chance to provide geoducks, oysters and other shellfish to China
during lucrative Chinese New Year celebrations next week.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has sent the
health department’s test results to China, NOAA spokeswoman Connie
Barclay told me yesterday. “We will continue to work with folks to
see if we can resolve this issue,” she said.
Meanwhile, Chinese Central Television (CCTV), a
government-sponsored TV network in China, has produced a video
describing the issue, including the economic effects on shellfish
growers. It’s a pretty straightforward piece, but offers no hint
about what further steps may be taken by the Chinese
Sunday marked the halfway point in my ongoing series “Taking the
Pulse of Puget Sound,” which examines the health of our waterway
and asks the question, “With all the money being spent on
restoration, are we making any progress?”
For me, the series so far has been an adventure and a learning
experience, thanks to abundant help from the many great scientists
and smart policy makers we have in this region.
The first half of the project has focused largely on species,
including humans; herring and organisms at the base of the food
web; salmon and marine fish; marine mammals; and
Sunday’s piece on birds (subscription).
Still to come are stories about marine water quality, freshwater
quality, upland habitat, water quantity and the future.
As a reporter, I regret that everyone can’t read all these
stories immediately without a subscription to the Kitsap Sun, but I
have to trust that these kinds of business decisions will allow me
to keep doing my work. Still, many of the stories, photos and
graphics in this series are available now with or without
subscription, starting with the lead page, “Taking
the Pulse of Puget Sound,” and moving through the series:
Some of the larger points from the latest seabird
Puget Sound has about 70 common species of marine birds. Many
populations are in decline but some appear to be stable and a few
The winter population is about four times as large as the
summer population, reaching a peak of roughly half a million
Because birds can fly from one place to another, their choices
of location can tell us something about the health of one place
compared to another in Puget Sound.
If the population of a wintering bird species is in decline,
you need to know something about its migration route and nesting
area before you can conclude that conditions in Puget Sound are to
The marbled murrelet, a “threatened” species, is an odd bird,
first identified by early explorers in the late 1700s but whose
nesting habits weren’t discovered until 1974.
Researchers are trying to learn why two similar birds — tufted
puffins and rhinoceros auklets — are faring differently in Puget
Sound. Steep declines are seen for tufted puffins, which may be
headed for an endangered species listing, while rhinoceros auklets
are on the increase. Their varying behaviors are at the center of
Ecosystem indicators for birds, as chosen by the Puget Sound
Partnership, are more involved than most other indicators. They
focus on the densities of four bird species and also consider food
supply and reproductive success.
It was shocking to hear that China had banned imports of clams
and oysters from most of the U.S. West Coast, This announcement
came after Chinese health inspectors reported high levels of
paralytic shellfish poison and arsenic in two shipments of geoducks
coming into that country. (KUOW
had the initial report.)
It turns out that one shipment of geoducks came from Poverty Bay
near Federal Way in Puget Sound, and the other one came from
Washington state government as well as the state’s extensive
shellfish industry pride themselves on a monitoring program
designed to ensure that PSP levels for harvested geoducks remain
well within safe limits. I frequently report PSP (“red tide”)
closures when they occur on recreational beaches — and commercial
shellfish are checked even more frequently.
The monitoring program for Washington state shellfish is
recognized worldwide for its ability to keep unsafe shellfish off
initial memo (PDF 33 KB) from the Chinese government said
inspectors had found levels of PSP at 30.2 mouse units per gram.
Mouse units? I had never heard of such a measurement, although I
know that live mice are often used in the monitoring tests. I
learned that “mouse units” was an older standard of measurement,
replaced by micrograms of toxin per 100 grams of shellfish
The use of mouse units was the first issue that threw everybody
off. I received an explanation from Jerry Borchert of the state’s
Office of Shellfish and Water Protection, and I offered this
explanation in a story I wrote for
today’s Kitsap Sun (subscription):
“The Dec. 3 letter imposing the shellfish embargo stated that
paralytic shellfish poison was found in concentrations of 30.2
mouse-units per gram. Mouse-units are an older standard, based on
the amount of poison it takes to kill a mouse. The more common
measurement today is micrograms of toxin per 100 kilograms of
shellfish tissue, Borchert said.
“‘We need to know what conversion factors they used,’ he said.
‘Based on the best information we have, which is sketchy, the
levels were between 600 and 1,500 micrograms per 100 grams.’
“In contrast, reports on geoducks from the Poverty Bay tract
were no greater than 62 micrograms between Sept. 26 and Oct. 24,
according to a health investigation completed Friday. The most
likely harvest date was found to be Oct. 5.
“Authorities will close an area when the toxin level reaches 80.
In fact, the high toxin levels suggested by the Chinese memo might
not have been reached in geoducks found anywhere in Puget Sound
this year, Borchert said.”
Confusion over the toxin levels found by the Chinese inspectors
has created a great deal of anxiety throughout state government and
the shellfish industry in Washington state. Nobody wants to say
that the Chinese made a mistake, especially when the only data
available is a terse finding in a
memo (PDF 33 KB) transmitted to U.S. authorities. In fact,
everyone I have talked to has been careful not to say anything
negative at all until the facts are all in.
The chance that the shellfish exported to China exceeded the
international standard of 80 micrograms per 100 grams seems
possible, given that samples sent to state officials reached 62.
That could invoke a response, even though the action level of 80 is
considered within a significant margin of safety. But if the
Chinese inspectors are reporting toxin levels higher than 600, that
raises other issues.
What about poaching? I think it would be hard to rule out the
possibility that somebody illegally sold geoducks from another area
where PSP levels were higher and said they were from Poverty Bay.
Whether that could happen depends, at least in part, on how well
officials are able to track the geoducks through the market.
John Weymer of the Puyallup Tribe told me that officials were
able to track the geoducks in question back to a specific boat
working in Poverty Bay. Since it was a harvest by the Puyallup
Tribe, tribal inspectors were on hand to make sure that the
harvested geoducks were accounted for until sold to an independent
buyer, he said. There is no doubt, he added, that the geoducks sold
from the bay in October met health standards.
Although numerous areas of Puget Sound showed toxin levels above
80 micrograms in some types of shellfish, I’m told that the number
of areas that reached 600 to 1,500 in geoducks were rare, if that
happened at all. Such a finding would create more doubt about the
accuracy of the Chinese testing.
One of the things I wondered about was whether the Chinese could
be acting in retaliation for ongoing U.S. actions regarding the
safety of foods imported from China. Bans on Chinese chicken were
imposed and then lifted, amid Chinese complaints to the World Trade
Organization. Questions of food safety have become entangled in
issues of fair trade between the two countries.
I’ve raised this question of a trade battle with several people.
Most tell me that if this were a trade issue, the Chinese would
have used the opportunity to make a political statement. Instead,
the Chinese memo was limited in scope, although the financial
impact to the Washington shellfish industry could be
Some people are quietly speculating that the Chinese have taken
this action to manipulate prices. If geoduck harvesting is shut
down in Washington state, the price of wild geoducks from the U.S.
will drop and markets will improve for Canadian and Mexican
geoducks. I’m told that the Chinese can make more money operating
in those countries, although I have been unable to verify that so
Long Live the Kings is holding two events that will give people
some special insight into the restoration of Hood Canal, and
possibly Puget Sound as a whole.
The first, tomorrow evening, begins with a free film that will
lead into a discussion about Hood Canal restoration. The second, on
Saturday, is a rare open house at LLK’s salmon and steelhead
hatchery on Lilliwaup Creek.
Jacque White, executive director of the group, told me that he
likes to show the film “Ocean
Frontiers” because it provides a hopeful view about protecting
marine ecosystems. It shows how a variety of people with diverse
interests can work together. I’ve embedded the trailer for the film
on this page.
Jacques said people clearly want to protect the rich ecosystem
of Hood Canal. The Hood Canal Coordinating Council has developed an
integrated watershed plan that connects the uplands to the
shoreline to the deep marine waters of the canal.
Joining him in a panel discussion after the film will be Dave
Herrera of the Skokomish Tribe and Terry King of Washington Sea
The film and discussion will be tomorrow (Friday) from 6 to 8
p.m. at Alderbrook Resort and Spa in Union.
The open house on Saturday will be from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the
Lilliwaup Hatchery on Lilliwaup Street, off Highway 101 north of
Hoodsport. (Look for balloons along the highway near
The hatchery is a supplementation operation designed to restore
stocks of threatened Hood Canal summer chum, Puget Sound steelhead
and Puget Sound chinook. The event will be an opportunity to view
the hatchery and understand the supplementation program, but it is
also a chance to talk to people involved in numerous Hood Canal
“The issues in Hood Canal are about the land-sea connection,”
White said, adding that he feels hope for the canal when people are
willing to learn about the ecosystem and attempt to understand
Two other events planned by Long Live the Kings:
A presentation by Jacque White with an emphasis on early marine
“Water Ways” Aug. 22, 2013. The presentation will be Sept. 12
from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at Orcas Center on Orcas Island.
A benefit dinner for Long Live the Kings, Oct 17 at Seattle
About $22 million in state and federal grants were awarded last
week for Puget Sound ecosystem restoration, another installment in
the struggle to nurse Puget Sound back to health.
About $12 million in state and federal funds came through the
Estuary and Salmon Restoration Program, or ESRP, under the
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. As the name suggests,
these funds are focused on improving nearshore and ecosystem
Another $10 million came from the Puget Sound Acquisition and
Restoration (PSAR) Fund, which is focused mainly on salmon
restoration. More of those funds will be awarded before the end of
Reporter Tad Sooter and I wrote about the West Sound projects in
Friday’s Kitsap Sun (subscription required), focusing a good
deal of our attention on a key acquisition of property on the
Bainbridge Island shoreline along Agate Passage.
The property includes 4.5 acres of tidelands, including 550 feet
of undeveloped beach, along with 7.5 acres of upland woods and
meadows, all to be preserved by the Bainbridge Island Land
Brenda Padgham, stewardship director for land trust, told Tad
that this property is one of the last intact nearshore habitats on
Bainbridge Island. “The whole reach is so pristine,” she said.
Of the $1.2 million provided for the Bainbridge Island purchase,
$810,000 came from the PSAR funds and $396,000 came from the
Betsy Lions, who manages the ESRP for the Department of Fish and
Wildlife, said most of that money this year will go toward removing
unnecessary bulkheads, replacing culverts that block salmon passage
and restoring tidal functions.
The salmon recovery money was approved Thursday by the Salmon
Recovery Funding Board. In a news release
yesterday, Gov. Jay Inslee stressed the economic value of
preserving the state’s salmon runs:
“These projects will increase salmon populations while giving a
boost to the economy. Salmon are important economically to
Washington state and these projects will provide construction jobs
and help countless numbers of Washington families and businesses,
including tackle shops, charter operators, restaurants and hotels,
that rely on the world-renowned Pacific salmon.”
David Troutt, chairman of the SRF Board and natural resources
director of the Nisqually Tribe, made this comment:
“Puget Sound Chinook are about one-third as abundant as they
were a century ago. As we have developed our urban and rural
landscapes, we’ve damaged many of the estuaries, floodplains and
rivers that salmon need to survive. These projects have been
selected as ones that will make big impacts on Puget Sound and
salmon recovery. Those two things go hand in hand. Puget Sound
needs healthy salmon, and salmon need a healthy Puget Sound.”
The 11 PSAR projects are outlined in a
document (PDF 106 kb) on the state Recreation and Conservation
Office’s website. By the way, projects in Hood Canal were held up
until October, as members of the Hood Canal Coordinating Council
continue discussions about priorities.
A new research program, announced yesterday, will work to
untangle the mystery of what is killing young salmon after they
leave their natal streams. The program is being coordinated in both
Washington state and British Columbia — by Long Live the Kings on
the U.S. side and by Pacific Salmon Foundation in Canada. See
Kitsap Sun (subscription required).
I have conducted hundreds of interviews about salmon through the
years. Biologists can usually explain what makes a good salmon
stream: clean water, sufficient gravel, vegetation to provide food,
woody debris to provide protection and so on.
What they cannot explain very well is what young salmon need to
survive in saltwater. Is it clean water, as in freshwater
environments? Is it a particular kind of plankton for food, or
maybe natural shorelines to provide protection during migration? Is
the increased marine mortality of salmon the result of disease or
predators? All may be factors, but which ones really count?
When asked to explain why salmon runs are coming in larger or
smaller than predicted, salmon managers typically fall back to two
words: “ocean conditions.” Conditions may be good or bad in a given
year, but what makes good or bad conditions cannot be answered very
Biologists who predict salmon runs talk about the “black box”
that salmon swim into when they leave the streams and swim back out
of when they return. It’s a way of saying that the computer models
used to predict salmon runs have a blind spot when it comes to the
deep, dark ocean — which we now believe includes the estuary at the
edge of the stream, where the salmon change from being a freshwater
fish to being a saltwater fish.
“What is currently recognized as a black box appears to be a
black hole for salmon recovery,” Jacques White, executive director
of Long Live the Kings, told me yesterday in an interview. “If we
don’t know what is going on, we can’t make decisions for salmon
recovery. It makes it difficult to manage the stocks coming
That’s where the cross-border research program comes in, and
it’s no wonder that salmon biologists are excited about the
prospect of breaking into the black box. It won’t be easy to track
the tiny fish after they leave the streams or to figure out where
things are going wrong, but new technology will help. The project
is proposed for $10 million in the U.S., with an equal amount in
Meanwhile, efforts to improve estuarine and shoreline conditions
will continue, using natural conditions as a guide. On Monday, I
covered the final step in the Union River estuary restoration,
which involved breaching an old farm dike in two places. I watched
as the waters of Hood Canal, held back for a century, began to
reclaim 32 acres of saltwater march. Check out the story and video
Kitsap Sun (subscription required).