Tag Archives: Washington State University

A difference between chum and coho salmon may be in their blood

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 other 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.

In this photo taken two years ago, Jenifer McIntyre describes her discoveries about rain gardens at the Washington Stormwater Center in Puyallup. Photo: Meegan Reid, Kitsap Sun
In this photo taken two years ago, Jenifer McIntyre describes her discoveries about rain gardens at the Washington Stormwater Center in Puyallup.
Photo: Meegan M. Reid, Kitsap Sun

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. (Kitsap 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.

Jen’s findings and related stormwater issues were described in a story I wrote two years ago for the Kitsap Sun, “Stormwater solutions key in fight for Puget Sound.” The story is part of a two-year project we called “Taking the Pulse of Puget Sound.”

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 same.”

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 embryonic development.

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:

The ongoing adventures of an enviro reporter

I recently spent an afternoon with Eric Sorensen, former science writer for the Seattle Times who now works for the Washington State University News Bureau.

As we drove up and down the back roads of the Kitsap Peninsula, I showed Eric some of my favorite places, and I dredged through my memory banks for stories I’ve covered through the years. I found myself babbling nonstop, talking about one environmental issue after another, trying to tie together the geography and history of our peninsula.

Somehow, Eric was able to create a nice biographical story about me from our discussion and his review of my stories. You can read his piece, titled “Bearing witness to the sights and smells of our soggy backyard,” in WSU’s alumni publication “Washington State Magazine.”

His story begins, “If you cover the waterfront the way Chris Dunagan does, you have to expect a fair amount of smells. There’s the fresh, tangy scent of estuary and the mild musk of beach wrack. There’s the stench of rotting shellfish during the great Oyster Rescue of 2010 and the outsized rot of a beached gray whale….”

It seems Eric had some fun with this story, even if my reputation as a smelly type of reporter needed no help. Anyway, I think he did a wonderful job of capturing some of my adventures.

I found a brief bio and humorous photo of Eric in an announcement of a talk he was giving journalism students at the University of Idaho, just across the state line from WSU.

Eric has captured many wonderful stories related to the research and personalities of folks associated with WSU. You can find a list of his recent work on this search page of “Washington State Magazine.”

When “Washington State Magazine” went online, he wrote a thoughtful “Dear Reader” piece about magazines, the art of reading and the flow of information. Thanks to the Internet version of the magazine, anyone can read Eric’s story about me.

UW and WSU try to integrate environmental programs

Washington state’s two largest universities are struggling to reorganize their natural resources departments into ways that make sense in the modern world. It has been argued that the way universities structure their studies can influence scientific thinking and political actions across the state.

These recent initiatives are borne out of a recognition that environmental sciences have connections across the various disciplines. Forestry, aquatic resources, hydrology, oceanography, wildlife ecology, marine biology and so on have been specialties in themselves for many years. In the real world, however, these areas of study no longer stand alone, if they ever did.

The University of Washington Board of Regents recently approved a new College of the Environment, but it remains just a shell of an idea at this time.

Washington State University is going through an even larger reorganization that could consolidate departments across the entire campus.

Brian Boyle, former commissioner of public lands, suggests that the UW needs a new institute, not a new college. As he suggests in Tuesday’s CrossCut magazine:

The UW could have much more influence on how the region and nation address environmental issues through science by creating institutes for Human Ecology and Environmental Sciences…. This could be done by creating a virtual environment, with porous walls, for teaching, research, outreach, and collaboration that involves every person at the UW with expertise in environmental interactions.

Whoever says collaboration has to take place in the same room, the same building, the same college, hasn’t been paying attention to what’s been going on in bioengineering, nanotechnology, surgery, or even Facebook.

Exploring these possibilities would be better than just rearranging boxes on organizational charts and demoting existing academic units. Done right, with all 400 faculty and 50 programs able to play a role, a UW Center for Human Ecology and Environmental Sciences could be a flexible reflection of the multidisciplinary approach of the new century, rather than a recapitulation of old models and old failures.

At WSU, a new Provost report calls for a major restructuring of the entire university course program. According to a news release issued in May, the report calls for the creation of an “area” focused on environmental sustainability. To start with, it would include resources from the School of Earth and Environmental Science, the Department of Natural Resource Sciences and the Department of Community and Rural Sociology.

“In some areas, structures have been created that no longer make sense in an era where both research and teaching are increasingly interdisciplinary,” WSU Provost and Executive Vice President Robert Bates said in the news release.

It seems Boyle’s idea may already be part of the thinking at WSU, but it may need further investigation.

Check out the full report on WSU’s Web site.