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
May 4 and
“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.
Seals and sea lions can no longer be ignored in the effort to
recover our threatened Puget Sound chinook salmon or our endangered
new study shows that seals and sea lions are eating about 1.4
million pounds of Puget Sound chinook each year — about nine times
more than they were eating in 1970, according to the report. Please
read the story I wrote for the Encyclopedia
of Puget Sound, also published in an abridged version in the
Seals and sea lions in Puget Sound get the first chance to catch
the chinook as they leave the streams and head out to the ocean.
Since they are eaten at a very young age, these small chinook,
called “smolts,” never grow into adults; they never become
available for killer whales or humans.
Based on rough estimates, as many as one in five of these young
fish are getting eaten on their way out of Puget Sound. If they
were to survive the seals and sea lions and one factors in the
remaining mortality rate, these fish could translate into an
average of 162,000 adult chinook each year. That’s twice the number
eaten by killer whales and roughly six times as many as caught in
Puget Sound by tribal, commercial and recreational fishers
combined, according to the study.
Detailed planning and design, followed by thoughtful
construction projects, have begun to tame the stormwater menace in
Clear Creek, an important salmon stream that runs through
Silverdale in Central Kitsap.
Stormwater has been identified as the greatest pollution threat
to Puget Sound. In Kitsap County, many folks believed that the
dense development pattern in and around Silverdale has doomed Clear
Creek to functioning as a large drainage ditch for runoff into Dyes
But reducing stormwater pollution is not beyond the reach of
human innovation, as I learned this week on a tour of new and
planned stormwater facilities in the Clear Creek drainage area. The
trick is to filter the stormwater by any means practical, according
to Chris May, director of Kitsap County’s Stormwater Division and a
key player in the multi-agency Clean Water Kitsap program.
Projects in and around Silverdale range from large regional
ponds of several acres to small filtration devices fitted into
confined spaces around homes and along roadways.
When I first started covering the environment for the Kitsap Sun
in the early 1980s, I convinced a state fish biologist to make me a
copy of a notebook containing information about salmon streams on
the Kitsap Peninsula.
Hand-drawn maps of streams, both big and small, along with field
notes about the migration of salmon, stream blockages and other
information were listed in that notebook. Through the years, the
information was updated, combined with other data and eventually
transferred to electronic databases for wider access.
A few years ago, much of this little-known information was
digitized into a map that could be accessed by anyone from a web
browser. The map, using a geographic information system, is such a
valuable tool that I wanted to make sure that readers of this blog
are aware of it.
It was given the name SalmonScape, and the map
shows salmon streams across the state (click “hydrography”); salmon
migration by species (“fish distribution”); stream blockages (“fish
passage”); and hatcheries, fish traps and major dams
Early and continuing rains in October have increased streamflows
and brought coho and chum salmon into their spawning territories
ahead of schedule this year.
I was out and about today, taking a look at some of the streams
in Central Kitsap. I couldn’t pass up the chance to enjoy the sunny
and warm weather, and I was pleased to encounter a lot of other
folks doing the same thing. Adults of all ages, some with children,
were out looking for the elusive salmon. That’s not something I
ever saw 10 years ago while making my rounds to public
I believe the growing interest in salmon may result from ongoing
promotions of salmon watching by governmental and volunteer
organizations, as well as the news media. Why shouldn’t we go out
to watch salmon swimming upstream and possibly, if one is lucky,
catch a glimpse of spawning behaviors? After all, we live in one of
the best areas for this enjoyable pastime.
On the outside, chum and coho salmon don’t seem all that
different from one another, not when you consider the variety of
fish in Puget Sound — from herring to halibut along with dozens of
odd-looking creatures (EoPS).
But we know that if you place coho in stormwater taken from a
heavily traveled roadway, the coho are likely to die within hours.
But if you do the same thing with chum, these hardy fish will
barely notice the difference.
Researchers began to observe the varying effects of pollution on
different species of salmon years ago. In 2006, I reported on
studies by researcher Nat Scholz of the National Marine Fisheries
Service, who discovered that coho would swim into Seattle’s heavily
polluted creeks to spawn, but they wouldn’t get very far. Within
hours, they would become disoriented, then keel over and die.
Sun, June 10, 2006)
Later, Jenifer McIntyre, a researcher with Washington State
University, collaborated with Scholz to refine the studies,
exposing adult coho and later young coho to stormwater under
controlled conditions. Much of that work was done at the Suquamish
Tribe’s Grover’s Creek Hatchery in North Kitsap. The researchers
also measured the physiological effects of pollution on zebrafish
embryos during their early stages of development.
Working at the Washington Stormwater Center in Puyallup, Jen
made a remarkable discovery that has dramatically changed people’s
thinking about stormwater treatment. She found that if you run the
most heavily polluted stormwater through a soil medium containing
compost, the water will no longer have a noticeable effect on the
sensitive coho. Rain gardens really do work.
Now, Jen, who recently joined the faculty of WSU, is beginning a
new phase of her research, probing deeper into the physiological
responses of coho salmon when exposed to polluted stormwater. She
told me that the varying responses of coho and chum offer clues
about where to look for problems.
“It is very interesting,” she said. “As biologists, we
understand that there is variability among species. But we would
expect, at least among salmon, that things would be pretty much the
Researchers in Japan have discovered that different kinds of
fish have different subunits in their hemoglobin, which are the
proteins in red blood cells that carry oxygen to the vital organs.
Since coho and other salmon may have different forms of hemoglobin,
oxygen transport in the blood is a good place to start this
investigation, she said.
From there, the issues of blood chemistry get a little
technical, but the ability of red blood cells to carry oxygen can
depend not only on the form of hemoglobin but also on the pH
(acidity) of the blood, she said, and that can be altered by drugs
and other chemicals.
Another thing that researchers may be seeing is “disseminated
intravascular coagulation,” a condition that results from clotting
in the lining of the capillaries. DIC can reduce or block blood
flow where it is most needed and eventually cause organ damage.
That’s an area for more research, Jen said, noting that these
investigations are moving forward in collaboration with researchers
at NMFS and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Meanwhile, Jen is working with chemists at the University of
Washington’s Center for Urban Waters in Tacoma to figure out which
substances — out of hundreds of chemicals found in stormwater —
could be causing these deadly effects on fish.
If isolating the dangerous compounds proves too difficult,
researchers might be able to start with the original toxic sources,
perhaps exposing fish to chemicals found in tires, oil, antifreeze
and so on, Jen said. For those effects, it might be good to begin
the investigation with the well-studied zebrafish embryos, which
are transparent and can be observed closely throughout their
Needless to say, this is a field of intense interest. If
researchers can discover what is killing coho, they might begin to
understand why the recovery of chinook salmon in Puget Sound has
been so slow. Chinook, which could be added to Jen’s studies, are
listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act and
are the preferred prey of Puget Sound’s killer whales, which are
listed as endangered.
Two recent articles discussed the relative hardiness of the chum
compared to coho salmon:
I have some bleak news to share about our Southern Resident
killer whales, which normally frequent Puget Sound at this time of
J-14, a 42-year-old female named Samish, has gone missing and is
presumed dead, while J-28, a 23-year-old orca mom named Polaris,
may be living out her final days.
“Things are shaping up to be pretty bad,” said Ken Balcomb of
the Center for Whale
Research, who keeps tabs on the orca population. “J-28 is
looking super-gaunt, and I would say she is within days of her
The saddest part of my conversation with Ken this morning was to
hear him say that Polaris’ 7-month-old calf would become an orphan
and probably will not survive without his mother. That’s the
typical outcome for an orphan of that age, Ken said, although there
is a chance that the young male will be adopted by his
The calf, J-54, is still nursing, but he is close to weaning,
Ken noted. He is the newest calf born into the three Southern
Resident pods and is part of the “baby boom” of nine orcas born
between December 2014 and December 2015. So far, only one of those
calves, J-55, has died.
After my conversation with Ken, the Center for Whale Research
posted a news release about the death of Samish. Orca observers on
the water have known that she was missing for some time now.
As of today, J pod was on its way out through the Strait of Juan
de Fuca, no doubt searching for food. The chinook salmon run has
been very low this summer.
“Historically, at this time of year, we would see nice little
bunches (of orcas) swimming back and forth in front of the house,”
said Ken, who lives on the west side of San Juan Island. But this
year, the whales have broken up into small family groups and are
traveling around in seemingly random patterns, presumably in search
of whatever salmon they can find.
“Even the fishermen aren’t getting much this year,” Ken
To gauge a killer whale’s condition, researchers consider the
overall shape of its body. Without adequate fish — primarily
chinook salmon — an orca grows thinner as the body fat declines. As
conditions grow worse, a depression develops behind the blow hole.
This sunken condition — which Polaris has developed — is called
“peanut head.” So far, none of the other animals have been observed
in such a dire condition.
I’ve often been told by medical experts that when a killer whale
loses weight it can be a sign of a major problem, such as a disease
that makes them incapable of hunting to their normal ability. But a
shortage of food can exacerbate the condition.
“We have been telling the government for years that salmon
recovery is essential for whale recovery,” Ken said.
He blames the salmon decline on longtime mismanagement of wild
salmon stocks — including damage to habitat, over-fishing and
excess hatchery stocks in both Canada and the U.S. One of the
quickest ways to increase the chinook population for these whales
is to take out the Snake River dams, he said.
Rebuilding salmon runs on the Elwha River will help, Ken said,
but the number of fish is small compared to the potential of the
Snake River, which flows into the Columbia and produces salmon that
can be caught in the ocean.
“I’m trying to get the marine mammal people to talk to the
salmon people,” Ken said. “Fish have been a political problem for a
long time, and we are not solving the salmon issue.”
Money spent on law enforcement to make sure whale watchers don’t
get too close to the orcas would be better spent on education —
specifically on educating lawmakers about the needs of salmon and
killer whales, he quipped.
As of July 1 — the date of the annual orca census — the
population of the three Southern Resident pods stood at 83. That’s
the number that will be reported to the federal government. Since
then, Samish has gone missing, so the ongoing count falls to 82,
pending the status of Polaris and her son.
Samish was considered part of the J-2 (“Granny”) family group.
Her living offspring are Hy’shqa (J-37), Suttles (J-40) and
Se-Yi’-Chn (J-45). Samish was the grandmother to Hy-Shqa’s
4-year-old son T’ilem I’nges.
Polaris is the first offspring of Princess Angeline (J-17), who
is still living. Her first offspring, a female named Star (J-46),
is now 7 years old. J-54 is her second offspring.
Big Beef Creek, which flows into Hood Canal near Seabeck, will
soon undergo a major wetland renovation that should improve the
survival of coho salmon and steelhead trout.
Other work, which started last year, involves placing large
woody debris in the stream to create deep pools for salmon to cool
off and rest before continuing their migration. The wood also will
help to form new spawning areas for coho, fall chum and the
threatened summer chum of Hood Canal.
Big Beef Creek is an unusual stream, one with a personal
connection for me. In the late 1970s, I lived at Lake Symington, a
man-made lake built years before by impounding Big Beef Creek. A
few years ago, my wife and I bought a home with a tiny tributary of
Big Beef Creek running through the property.
To get a lay of the land, I ventured along the stream and
through the watershed in 1999, meeting many people along the way
and gaining a new respect for Big Beef Creek — known as the longest
stream contained entirely within Kitsap County. Check out my story
for the Kitsap Sun called
“The Watershed.” Much later, I wrote a
Water Ways blog post about the creek beginning with, “It is the
best of streams; it is the worst of streams,” with apologies to
Today, the $1.2 million habitat transformation is taking place
in the lower portion of the stream, just upstream from the estuary
where people go to watch bald eagles soar. (Check out this week’s
“Amusing Monday.”) The project is on property owned by the
University of Washington’s Big Beef Creek Research Station. Work is
under the direction of Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group, a
division of Pacific Northwest Salmon Center.
Site work will expand an 11-acre wetlands by five acres and
reconnect the wetland complex to the stream channel. Coho, which
remain in freshwater for the first year of life, will find a safe
place to stay during the low flows of summer and the fierce floods
“Coho rely on streams with complex habitat, including pools and
shade with good water quality,” said Mendy Harlow, executive
director of the salmon center. “In this project, we are focusing on
the lower one mile of stream.”
Removing an access road along with 1,600 cubic yards of fill
will restore two of the five acres of wetlands and open up the
floodplain. The other two acres come from excavating some 4,500
cubic yards of fill from an elevated area where old storage
buildings were removed last year.
In last year’s work, 10 man-made logjams were created where
excavators could reach the creek. At the end of this month,
helicopters will be used to place another 13 logjams in sections of
the stream that could not be reached by land.
In a coordinated fashion, the helicopters also will be used to
place logjams in Little Anderson Creek, which drains into Hood
Canal just north of Big Beef. Little Anderson Creek, which
Newberry Hill Heritage Park, previously received several loads
of wood in 2006 and again in 2009.
Both Big Beef and Little Anderson are part of an
“intensively monitored watershed” program, in which experts are
attempting to measure the extent to which habitat improvements
increase salmon populations. It is not an easy thing to figure out,
since salmon runs vary naturally from year to year. Still, over
time, the improved spawning and rearing conditions should be
Other restoration work is planned on Seabeck Creek, while Stavis
Creek will remain unchanged as the “control stream” for the Hood
Canal complex of intensively monitored streams.
Fish traps placed in the streams monitor the out-migration of
young salmon smolts, while a permanent fish trap at Big Beef Creek
is used to count both smolts and returning adults. For each stream,
biologists also count the number of redds — mounds of gravel where
salmon have laid their eggs — to determine if conditions are
The improved wetlands and floodplain on Big Beef Creek will
allow the stream to move among several historical stream channels
as sediment loads build and decline over time. Strategically placed
wood will provide complexity wherever the stream chooses to go,
according to Mendy, who has been working toward this project since
“I’m really excited about it and look forward to the changes,”
she said. “The phase of work going forward this summer is the
Sarah Heerhartz, habitat program manager for Hood Canal Salmon
Enhancement Group, said improving the wetlands will not only help
fish but also birds that favor wetlands. The stream will have room
to move and spread out, she said, and some of the sediment from
upstream sources will drop out before reaching the estuary.
“The floodplain is going to be a big boost for coho fry to smolt
survival, because that will open up a lot of rearing habitat for
juvenile coho,” Sarah told reporter Ed Friedrich in a story written
The stream restoration is not expected to affect work at the UW
research station, which continues to play a role in salmon studies,
including efforts to improve hatchery conditions. In 1999, I wrote
about the efforts to restore a run of summer chum on Big Beef
Creek. Take a look at
“Reviving a salmon run.” Unfortunately, the resuscitation
effort has not been entirely successful, but there are new hopes
that this summer’s stream repairs will give a boost to the summer
chum as well as the coho.
I’m certainly no highway engineer, but I’ve been thinking about
the difference between building roads in Kansas, where I was born,
and building roads in the Puget Sound region.
Kansas has its streams and wetlands to be sure, but nothing like
the density of natural features that we find in the Puget Sound
watershed, where land elevations change constantly and roadways
must cross streams and wetlands at every turn.
For many years, road construction in the Puget Sound region
involved filling wetlands and burying pipes just big enough to pass
the water. It was assumed that salmon would make it through. But
based on our current knowledge of salmon migration, we realize that
these shortcuts took a major toll on the populations of salmon and
This week, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a
lower court ruling requiring state agencies to correct decades of
road-building mistakes that impaired salmon passage on state
highways and on state forest roads. Check out
Monday’s story in the Kitsap Sun.
The lawsuit, filed by 21 Indian tribes, was based on the idea
that undersized and poorly functioning culverts severely affected
the total salmon runs in violation of treaties signed in the 1850s,
which promised Native Americans the right to fish forever in
The lawsuit did not address culverts owned by the federal
government, local governments or private property owners, but the
same principles apply. Steps are now being taken to improve salmon
passage based on standards developed by the Washington Department
of Fish and Wildlife.
Meanwhile, a state advisory committee, known as the Fish Barrier Removal
Board, has been working to establish priorities with top-ranked
projects providing the greatest improvement in salmon habitat.
Kitsap County Engineer Jon Brand, who serves on the board,
described a two-pronged approach to set the priorities. One is to
focus on priority watersheds, with the idea of making major
improvements in a variety of streams in a given area. (See map
above and board
materials (PDF 50.4 mb), Oct. 20, 2015.) The second approach is
to coordinate planning for top-priority streams, with the idea of
working on entire stream systems at once. Obviously, it does not
make sense to replace a culvert upstream if a downstream culvert
continues to block salmon passage. Check out the list of
top-30 ranked projects (PDF 57 kb).
The Fish Barrier Removal Board is putting together a funding
package to be submitted to the Legislature. As Jon pointed out,
some of the most effective projects for salmon passage are not in
the Puget Sound region nor subject to the federal court ruling. The
list also goes beyond state roadways and includes a mix of
ownerships based on the watershed and stream priorities mentioned
State lawmakers face some difficult funding decisions. With the
court order hanging over their heads, along with a 2030 deadline,
they may choose to do only culvert-removal projects in the Puget
Sound region, even though projects in other areas could get a
greater bang for the buck. And will there be money left over to
support local governments trying to improve salmon passage in their
I asked Jon about the expediency of early road-builders who must
have given little consideration to salmon when they filled
wetlands, carved out drainage ditches and installed pipes to carry
the flow of water. It was not always that way, Jon told me.
That method of road-building arrived with the invention of large
earth-moving equipment, he said. In the 1800s and early 1900s,
filling a stream and inserting a culvert was more difficult than
building a bridge of logs, given the vast quantities of timber on
the Kitsap Peninsula.
Those early log bridges no doubt caused fewer problems for
salmon, but they did not last. Eventually, nearly every bridge was
replaced, often by dumping fill across the stream and allowing a
small culvert to carry the water.
As for my misguided notion that Kansas can ignore stream
crossings because the state has no serious environmental problems,
I found this language in “Kansas
Fish Passage Guide” (PDF 2.3 mb), a document written for
“In Kansas, fish passage issues caused by culverts were not
recognized by road officials until about 2010, when … research
indicated that culverts and low-water crossings were a significant
cause of habitat fragmentation in the Kansas Flint Hills.
“Many of the threatened and endangered fish in Kansas are a type
of minnow or minnow-size fish. Small fish typically are not strong
swimmers, so waterfalls, water velocity and turbulence can be a
barrier to passage upstream. Culverts are dark and have an atypical
channel bottom that may also discourage fish passage. Lack of water
depth through the culvert can restrict passage during low-flow
“Stream barriers reduce habitat range and can adversely affect
fish populations upstream and downstream of the stream crossing. A
severe event like a drought or oil spill in a stream segment can
wipe out a species, and the species cannot repopulate the stream
because of the barrier.”
Kansas has begun to prohibit blocking culverts and to address
existing fish-passage issues. As the above-referenced publication
states, “On the Great Plains, it’s usually easy to design and
construct a stream crossing for a two-lane road to provide fish
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
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
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
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.”