Oxygen in Hood Canal reaches dangerous levels

I hate to be the voice of doom, but low-oxygen conditions in Hood Canal have never been worse — if you can believe the data gathered since the 1950s, alongside more intense monitoring the past several years.

In the southern portion of Hood Canal, you only need to go down about 30 feet to begin to see stressful oxygen levels in the range of 2 milligrams per liter. For current conditions at Hoodsport, go directly to the Hood Canal Dissolved Oxygen Program’s website, which lists data sent back from the Ocean Remote Chemical Analyzer (ORCA).

Sea creatures are beginning to show signs of stress, according to scuba diver Janna Nichols, who described her findings to me Wednesday after a dive in Hood Canal. She talked about fish “panting” as their gills moved in and out rapidly. Some fish, shrimp and other sealife had moved into shallower water. Watch Janna’s video of a wolf eel and other visuals she captured on the dive.

When low-oxygen conditions are that close to the surface, the danger is that a south wind will blow away the surface layer and bring low-oxygen water right to the surface, leaving fish with no place to go.

Of course, I have no desire to see a massive fish kill, but we already know that fish are probably dying in deep water due to the stressful conditions. I collect this information and offer these reports so that people can alert researchers when something happens. Being on the scene when fish are dying could provide important information about the nature of the low-oxygen problem. For details, please check out my stories in the Kitsap Sun Sept. 7 and Sept. 15 as well as the more technical report from Jan Newton on Sept. 7 (PDF 320 kb).

The phone number to report fish kills or oil spills is (800) 258-5990 or (800) OILS-911

If you haven’t heard, the worst low oxygen conditions normally occur in the fall after a summer of burgeoning numbers of plankton, encouraged by nitrogen and sunlight. By fall, much of the plankton has died and dropped to the bottom, where decay consumes the available of oxygen.

While there are plenty of natural sources of nitrogen in Hood Canal, computer models have demonstrated that human inputs from septic systems and stormwater can push things over the edge in the fall.

Officials are hoping that a new sewage-treatment plant in Belfair will begin to reduce the inputs of nitrogen into Lynch Cove. Another treatment plant is being planned in Potlatch. Stormwater upgrades also are being proposed for Belfair and other areas.

In addition to the low-oxygen problem, Hood Canal was closed to the harvest of oysters after people became sick from vibriosis, a natural bacteria that multiplies in warm conditions. See Kitsap Sun story Sept. 10 and Washington Department of Health maps.

The orange triangles represent this year's composite oxygen levels for the south half of Hood Canal. The latest reading, near the end of August, is the lowest ever seen.

14 thoughts on “Oxygen in Hood Canal reaches dangerous levels

  1. “low-oxygen conditions in Hood Canal have never been worse”

    Really? in the 10,000 years since glaciers carved most of the geo structures hereabouts, low-oxygen conditions in Hood Canal have never been worse? No, let’s just look at 50 years in a totally predictable cycle and incite panic!!!!!

    You’re a funny guy, Chris. Maybe you could get job in talk radio.

  2. DSHS: If you don’t give us more tax money PEOPLE ARE GOING TO DIE!

    The State’s myriad and duplicative environmental agencies: If you don’t give us more tax money, THE PLANET IS GOING TO DIE!

    I expect the “voices of doom” are only going to get more plaintive.

  3. More important, BlueLight… FISH ARE GOING TO DIE!!!!! Maybe ORCAS for cryin’ out loud. That’s it… SALMON and ORCAS and TEDDY BEARS are going to DIE. Oh, the humanity.

    Let’s hire more consultants. Give David Dicks a fancier car!

  4. Right-sizing state government isn’t going to be painless, Stone. Somebody’s ox will be gored. But it has to be done. Stay the course. We can do it. Even without our fourth estate.

  5. Stone and BlueLight,

    Thanks for your thoughts, but here’s the bottom line for me: Do you have any desire to know that oxygen levels in Hood Canal may be the worst they have been in 50 years? These are observations that come with the help of researchers, scuba divers and others who actually go out and try to understand these kinds of things.

    For me, this blog entry was not about raising alarms or calling for government action. I just wanted to make a few observations about the state of Hood Canal today.

  6. BlueLight — You may have look to ultra-conservative KUOW-FM for that kind of reporting. http://kuow.org/specials/pugetsoundpartnership.php

    Christopher — I’m just sayin’ that 50 years is an irrelevant time frame for a discussion about natural cycles. OK, this is the lowest O2 level in 50 years. Do the “researchers, scuba divers, and others” have any idea whether this is low on a more significant time scale?

    Let’s say there is a fish kill on the horizon. It will be NASTY for the folks who live there, but we all know that the fish will be back… or we would if that was part of the story. How about talking to an old timer who witnessed the last Hood Canal fish kill? …or the last several?

  7. Stone,

    Do we really know that the fish will be back?

    One thing to consider is that rockfish populations took a significant hit during recent fish kills, which researchers say have grown more frequent since the 1950s. Rockfish are long-lived and take many years to recover. Consider that some species of rockfish have been placed on the Endangered Species List.

    Also consider that some kinds of sea creatures cannot move, so the problem goes deeper than just fish kills. I’m waiting to get more information about this year’s conditions, but I’ve heard that the bottom of Hood Canal near Twanoh is devoid of sealife. White bacterial mats have taken over in anaerobic conditions. I should have more to report about this soon.

    I appreciate your questions about long-term cycles, and I’ll see if I can put this into better perspective when I get a chance. But there’s no reason to dismiss concerns about the potential of another fish kill this year.

  8. Christopher — You ask, “Do we really know that the fish will be back?” I would say that we do, since there have been previous fish kills in fjords all over the world and fish came back in time.

    In the case at hand, there have been fish kills in Hood Canal before and there are fish there now. So, yes… I will wager that they will be back. Will they be the same species of fish (and other affected organisms), I don’t know.

    PBS and others tell us that 99.9% of the species we know about are extinct. Is this a shame?Perhaps, but it does seem to be Nature’s way. The strong survive, the weak die. Evolution.

    Nature doesn’t play favorites. That goes for homo sapiens, too. We evolved from previous species and it seems inevitable that we will disappear, to be replaced by one or more evolved species. So it goes.

  9. Stone – I think while your questions about looking at the data in the context of natural fluctuations over a long, historical period of time are valid, it is also valid to ask how significant anthropogenic inputs are during that time.

    While you may be content with losing species as they will be replaced with other species, other people in the state may not be so content, particularly if their livelihood relies upon those species. If you were a fisherman in the Gulf, and BP said “Don’t worry, the shrimp are all gone, but they will be replaced by something else.” – well, how would you feel? Just shrug your shoulders and think “Well, PBS said it was Nature’s Way…”

    Yes, I agree Stone. Our species does disappear to be replaced by more evolved species. In other words, Stone, you will die, and your kids will take over…and their homes will eventually all be on city sewer instead of gravity based septic systems….That’s evolution.

  10. Yes, sewer would be better. The state has almost no money, so what would you cut? Education? Social services? The courts, police and fire? Maybe there’s another way.

    I think anyone with a leaking septic who can’t afford to fix it, should be helped. A loan collateralized with a lien on the property would do quite nicely. Anyone with a leaking septic who can afford to fix it and chooses not to, should be fined. Inspections should be mandatory, conducted by local authorities and paid for by the fines.

    Good septic systems work very well. Broken septics or sewers don’t. That said, I agree that leaking septics contribute to low-oxygen conditions, but fish kills happened long before the first human settled on the banks of our local fjord.

  11. GroovyJoker wrote: “Stone, you will die, and your kids will take over…and their homes will eventually all be on city sewer instead of gravity based septic systems….That’s evolution.”

    And Stone’s kids will hear the plaintive cries of government “scientists” bemoaning the water that is no longer infiltrating down to local aquifers.

  12. Well, Stone, there is nothing that you stated which I disagree with. Looking at both the historical context of these fluctuations, and how humans have changed is, are both important to understand.

    With funding – a suggestion to your question about where to get money to fix problems we do identify.

    Isn’t that what the Puget Sound Partnership should help us with?

    BlueLight – be gone with you.

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