Category Archives: Restoration efforts

Shoreline habitat improves after owners remove old bulkheads

Puget Sound’s shoreline habitat is slowly being restored to a more natural state, thanks to the ongoing removal of old bulkheads from private property, one after another.

The latest “State of the Sound” report from the Puget Sound Partnership reports that the amount of bulkhead removed from important “feeder bluffs” has nearly reached the 2020 goal established by the partnership.

For shorelines in general, it appears that the tide has turned in a positive way, with removal of old bulkheads outpacing new bulkhead construction. At the same time, efforts to protect shorelines from erosion have become more focused on natural “soft shore” techniques, as opposed to concrete, wood or rock walls.

The overall effort at removing shoreline armoring from Puget Sound has fallen somewhat short of the Puget Sound Partnership’s nine-year goal to remove more miles of bulkheads than what gets constructed between 2011 and 2020. A major reason for the shortfall is the amount of bulkhead constructed during the early years of the effort — 2011 to 2013 — as shown on a graph in the State of the Sound report.

Things might be a bit better than the graph indicates, because the data do not adequately reflect improvements in shoreline habitat from replacing old-fashioned bulkheads with natural structures — such as carefully placed logs. Man-made installations, even when natural, are still counted as armoring.

The trouble with hard bulkheads below the high-tide line is that they reduce spawning habitat for forage fish, such as surf smelt. Bulkheads also increase the risk that juvenile salmon will be eaten by predators as they migrate through deeper water. And shoreline armor also can block the movement of sand needed to maintain healthy beaches, as described by coastal geologist Hugh Shipman in the video on this page.

In Kitsap and Clallam counties, nearly two miles of shoreline armor have been removed starting in 2011, according to the report. That accounts for 43 percent of the total armor removed in Puget Sound during that time.

Thanks to grants from the Environmental Protection Agency, most Puget Sound counties have joined the state’s Shore Friendly program, which provides incentives for private property owners to remove their bulkheads. Each of Puget Sound’s 12 counties have developed individual programs to suit the needs of their residents. One can locate specific county programs on the Shore Friendly page managed by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

One of the latest ideas for encouraging shoreline restoration is to create a program that can offer low-interest loans to shoreline property owners who wish to remove bulkheads, install soft-shore stabilization or move their houses back from shore as the sea level rises. The feasibility of the program is being studied by research scientist Aimee Kinney of Puget Sound Institute.

As proposed, the program would establish a revolving loan fund, which would be replenished as shoreline property owners pay back the loans, as Jeff Rice of PSI describes in a blog post. The program might operate like Washington’s low-interest loan program for septic system repairs and replacements.

Meanwhile, many of the 12 Puget Sound counties still provide assistance through the Shore Friendly program as funding becomes available. Shore Friendly Kitsap, for example, offers free site assessments to determine the risk of erosion, along with $5,000 to help with design, permitting and construction of a shoreline project.

Over the past three years, Shore Friendly Kitsap has helped with 15 shoreline projects. Bulkhead removals range from 15 feet of armoring in Liberty Bay to 222 feet in Dyes Inlet. In all, 1,177 feet of armor have been removed, according to statistics provided by Christina Kereki, environmental planner for the Kitsap County Department of Community Development.

Before and after photos are available for many of the projects.

A recent shoreline success story (1.6 mb) — including trials and tribulations along the way — is told in writing by property owners Sheri and Michael Flynn, who live on 200 feet of waterfront on Miller Bay in North Kitsap. As they say, their project was “a lesson in patience, persistence and perseverance,” but the outcome will be favorable both to them and the environment.

Mason County shoreline owners also have restoration stories, and I was pleased to help them tell their stories in a project for the Mason Conservation District. See Living Along the Waterfront.

As part of my work for Puget Sound Institute, I’ve written extensively about shoreline armoring and nearshore habitat. Please check out some of our in-depth stories in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, including a piece called “Shoreline restoration turns to private property owners” along with “Sources of sand.”

Hopes still rising for ecological benefits from a new Duckabush bridge

A major bridge-replacement project over Hood Canal’s Duckabush River is advancing toward a final design, and a growing number of people are thrilled with the ecological benefits expected from the estuary restoration. Construction could begin within four years.

Bridge over Duckabush River
Photo: Jayedgerton, Wikimedia Commons

The project, estimated to cost roughly $90 million, is being designed to improve the migration and survival of salmon and trout native to the Duckabush River, which flows out of the Olympic Mountains. Special attention is being given to Hood Canal summer chum, Puget Sound Chinook and Puget Sound steelhead — all listed as threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. The project also will aid coho salmon, a federal species of concern, and pink salmon.

Washington’s Salmon Recovery Funding Board last week approved $2.8 million toward design of the bridge and purchase of needed properties. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will take the lead in designing a renewed 38-acre estuary, including excavation to restore historic stream and tide channels. In all, $14 million has been approved for design, including $8 million authorized by Congress.

The funding supports completion of the preliminary design, which will be subject to public review, as well as final detailed drawings needed for construction, according to Mendy Harlow, executive director of the Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group, which applied for the state funding.

The new bridge, about 2,100 feet long, will replace two aging bridges totaling about 970 feet. Likely to be higher than the old bridges, the new one is expected to benefit wildlife, such as elk, in their approach to the estuary.

Major selling points among area residents are a decreased risk of flooding and an increased assurance of earthquake safety. Unlike the old bridges, the new bridge is likely to survive a major earthquake that would otherwise halt traffic on the most important thoroughfare on the Olympic Peninsula.

About 120 people attended a meeting on the project last July, Mendy told me. While a few expressed reservations about the cost, “a lot of people are really excited about the project.”

The restoration effort is gaining increasing support from state and federal agencies and Indian tribes who keep pushing it forward, said Theresa Mitchell, environmental planner for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

While the cost is significant and there are no guarantees of final approval, it appears that the project remains on track for both congressional and legislative appropriations in the coming years, she said.

The Duckabush restoration is one of the top projects identified through the Puget Sound Nearshore Ecosystem Restoration Project, or PSNERP, a collaboration among WDFW, the Corps and other partners to determine where restoration dollars would best be spent. I wrote about these projects in Water Ways on on Dec. 17, 2016 and again on April 24 of this year.

While the Corps will pay 65 percent of the bridge removal and estuary restoration, the state must pick up the cost for the new bridge and related roadway costs. Transportation infrastructure is not covered by the Corps’ aquatic restoration program.

Design of the Duckabush bridge is the second-largest out of 96 salmon-improvement grants approved across the state by the Salmon Recovery Funding Board. The total expenditure by the board in this round will be $26 million. After last week’s approvals, the board, now in its 20th year, has surpassed $1 billion in total investments — including matching funds from grant recipients.

“The work being done across the state on salmon recovery is critical,” Gov. Jay Inslee said in a news release. “These grants for on-the-ground projects will help us restore salmon to healthy levels that allow for both protection and a robust fishery. We must do everything we can to restore this beloved Washington icon and help orcas, which are starving due to lack of salmon, before it is too late.”

“These grants,” added Phil Rockefeller, chairman of the SRF Board, “create many other benefits for local communities, such as better water quality, less flooding, more resiliency to climate change and a boost to our statewide economy.”

Other funding approved in the Hood Canal region includes a $289,000 grant for purchase of 30 acres of historic floodplain in Moon Valley along the Big Qulicene River and $191,000 for removing invasive knotweed and restoring native vegetation along the Union, Tahuya, Dewatto, Dosewallips, and Big and Little Quilcene rivers as well as Big Anderson and Big Beef creeks. Both projects are under management of the Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group.

Another project in Hood Canal involves the purchase of two acres of land on the Big Quilcene River followed by the removal of structures and the planting of native vegetation along the river. Jefferson County government will receive the $139,000 grant and oversee the project.

And in Mason County, Great Peninsula Conservancy will receive $511,000 to purchase about 100 acres of lowland forest and shoreline near Dewatto Bay on Hood Canal. The land includes about 0.6 mile of saltwater shoreline, 1.2 miles of streams and 8.45 acres of tidelands. The land includes habitat for salmon and surf smelt, as well as eelgrass beds, feeder bluffs, streams and forest. GPC will contribute $721,000 from a federal grant and donations of cash.

Among other major projects approved in the Puget Sound region:

  • Chico Creek: Kitsap County will receive $266,000 to improve habitat along Chico Creek following culvert removal and bridge construction on Golf Club Hill Road off Chico Way.
  • Cedar River: King County will receive $817,000 to reconnect portions of the 52-acre Riverbend floodplain along the Cedar River by removing a half-mile of levee, excavating 180,000 cubic yards of fill, rebuilding side channels and planting native vegetation. The county will add more than $1 million to the project from other grants.
  • Cedar River: Seattle Public Utilities will receive $424,000 to reconnect and enhance floodplain habitat by removing a berm, fill and riprap and adding large logs along the bank of the Cedar River in Maple Valley.
  • Skagit River: Skagit Land Trust will receive $748,000 to buy at least 62 acres of high-quality salmon habitat in the upper Skagit River near Marblemount. A portion of the funding will be used for evaluating other properties for potential purchase. The grant is actually the repayment of a loan issued from a new Rapid Response Fund, which was used to set up the purchase when the property became available. It is the first loan in the new program.
  • Skagit River: Skagit River System Cooperative will receive $750,000 for final design and construction of the long-awaited first phase of the Barnaby Slough restoration project, which includes removing man-made barriers to juvenile salmon and opening up nearly a mile of off-channel rearing habitat.
  • Skagit River: Skagit Fisheries Enhancement Group will receive $286,056 to reconnect Britt Slough with 7.8 acres of forested floodplain wetlands. The project will improve rearing habitat for Chinook salmon and create an exit from the wetland to the South Fork of the Skagit River. The enhancement group will contribute $125,000 from a federal grant, and the Skagit Conservation District will provide engineering support.
  • Stillaguamish River: The Stillaguamish Tribe was granted $159,000 to help purchase 248 acres of former wetlands at the mouth of the Stillaguamish River in Snohomish County. The land had been diked and drained for farming in the late 1800s. The tribe’s goal is to move the levees back to restore wetland habitat. The tribe will contribute $1.3 million in other state and federal grants to the purchase.
  • Nooksack River: The Nooksack Tribe will receive $579,000 to build 27 log structures to restore side-channel habitat in the North Fork of the Nooksack River near Maple Falls. Native trees and shrubs will be planted on the structures. The tribe will contribute $102,000 from a federal grant.
  • Deschutes River: South Puget Sound Salmon Enhancement Group will receive $595,000 to add root wads and logs along 0.3 mile of the Deschutes River in Thurston County. Vegetation will be planted along a side channel. The group will contribute $105,000 from another grant.
  • South Prairie Creek: Forterra will receive $393,000 to buy 34 acres along South Prairie Creek in Pierce County and design a restoration project. Forterra will contribute $568,000 from a conservation futures grant.

For the complete list of projects approved last week, visit the website of the Recreation and Conservation Office (PDF 472 kb).

Puget Sound people, places featured in book ‘We Are Puget Sound’

Some of my favorite people are reflected in the new book “We Are Puget Sound,” which offers an overview of the geography, history and natural environment of our inland waterway.

Lead author David Workman does a wonderful job pulling together facts from the far-flung corners of Puget Sound, providing a realistic sense of the place where we live. But I was most captivated by the stories of the local people who have made a difference in protecting, restoring or otherwise improving our region.

The book provides only a sampling of the people doing good things, of course, but I enjoyed reading about people who I have long admired. Through the years, I’ve written about many of them, but not in such detail.

The people of Puget Sound were always a part of the writing project, said Mindy Roberts, who helped coordinate the “We are Puget Sound” project.

“We realized from the start that there are a lot of people doing inspiring things,” Mindy said. “We wanted to talk about the people who are doing things that everyone should know about.”

Mindy Roberts

Folks recognized for their work in special sections of the book include Betsy Peabody, who is leading a group that restores Olympia oysters and other native species; scuba diver Laura James, who has documented the effects of pollution on sea life; former Secretary of State Ralph Munro, who played a key role in ending the commercial capture of killer whales in the 1970s; and former U.S. Rep Norm Dicks, who secured federal funding for many Puget Sound projects, including the removal of two dams on the Elwha River.

Also featured are Native American leaders, including Joseph Pavel of the Skokomish Tribe, Sally Brownfield of the Squaxin Island Tribe, and Ron Charles and Jeromy Sullivan of the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe, all involved in protecting Puget Sound’s natural resources — including salmon and shellfish, guaranteed to the tribes by the federal government.

“My biggest takeaway (from the book project) is how much good is happening out there,” said Mindy, who leads the People for Puget Sound program for Washington Environmental Council. “There are a lot of amazing people doing a lot of amazing things.”

I’m going to keep this new book alongside my copy of “The Salish Sea: Jewel of the Pacific Northwest” by Audrey DeLella Benedict and Joseph Gaydos. Both books are filled with high-quality photographs of people, places and sea life. But where Workman profiles people, Benedict-Gaydos offers intimate portraits of sea creatures and their habitats.

David Workman

The book “We Are Puget Sound” also includes a chapter that describes more than 30 usual and unusual places around Puget Sound that are worthy of exploration. The chapter, written by former Seattle Times travel writer Brian Cantwell, has inspired me to visit several places I have never been and to take a fresh look at places that I have not seen in recent years.

Release of the book last week in Seattle marked the start of the “We are Puget Sound” campaign, which calls on people to go beyond their daily routines to think about what they can do to help recover Puget Sound. As part of the project, Mindy interviewed at least 20 people (including me) to come up with ideas for a section of the book called “Ten things you can do.”

The 10 actions form the basis of the campaign, which will include meetings starting in the Seattle area and continuing in communities throughout the Puget Sound region during 2020. One can follow upcoming meetings and other developments on the “We Are Puget Sound” website and the Facebook page “We Are Puget Sound: Discovering & Recovering the Salish Sea.”

Sea kayaks waiting to go out, Henry Island in the San Juan Islands // Photo: Brian Walsh

“The book is the foot in the door for a lot of people,” Mindy said. “We have an Instagram account called “I Am Puget Sound” in which people can take a picture of themselves maybe in their favorite place or perhaps with a ballot in hand.”

Voting in local, state and federal elections is actually the first item on the list of things that people can do to help Puget Sound. Other items include supporting businesses that protect Puget Sound, eating locally grown foods, reducing impacts in your home and sharing your delights of the outdoors with others. See the full list on the website.

Purchase of Big Beef Creek property preserves habitat, research projects

Nearly 300 acres along Big Beef Creek near Seabeck will be protected from development and could maintain its research facilities, thanks to a $3.5-million land purchase arranged by the Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group.

Sky view of Big Beef Creek Research Station, showing the Big Beef estuary and Hood Canal at the top.
Photo: Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group

The property, owned by the University of Washington, contains the Big Beef Creek Research Station, known for its studies of salmon and steelhead. The UW purchased the land, including most of the estuary, in 1965. Various research projects have continued there, despite the university’s decision to sell the property.

Mendy Harlow, executive director of the Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group, said she has been working with multiple funding agencies and nonprofit groups for two years to finalize the acquisition.

“Some funding sources only want to pay for estuary habitat,” she said. “Some don’t want to have any buildings on the site. Others have other priorities. But everybody had a great can-do attitude, and they all wanted to make this work.”

The future of the research station will depend on a feasibility study, which will assess who wants to use the facilities and how proposed operations can be accommodated along with plans to restore the ecosystem.

Land purchased from the University of Washington involves 13 parcels along Big Beef Creek, with Hood Canal at top.
Map: Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group

“We realize that we can’t have full restoration with buildings located in the flood plain,” Harlow said, “but people are already calling me to see if they can work with us. I feel the possibilities are very broad.”

The research station has multiple buildings, including some being used as office space. One building houses incubators designed to hatch salmon eggs. Nine large tanks are available for rearing fish of all sizes.

The facility also has an artificial spawning channel, used during the 1990s to observe salmon behavior. Freshwater ponds, once built for rearing chinook salmon, will undergo scrutiny for potential uses versus restoration back to a more natural condition, Harlow said.

The property is closed to the public, but planning efforts will consider public uses, including trails and recreational activities such as bird watching and fishing.

Big Beef Creek is also under consideration for an effort to restore a natural run of summer chum, a population that disappeared from Big Beef Creek in 1984. A decade later, the entire population of Hood Canal summer chum was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

In the late 1990s and into the 2000s, biologists attempted to restore the salmon run by using summer chum from the Quilcene River on the other side of Hood Canal. That experiment failed, despite successful restoration in other Hood Canal streams. Experts are still assessing the cause of the Big Beef Creek failure and may try again, perhaps with a different stock under different conditions — including better habitat, thanks to stream restoration in 2016 and 2017.

Although the Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group now owns the Big Beef property, a fish trap operated by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife will continue to be used by the agency to count salmon coming and going from Big Beef Creek. Those counts are used to predict salmon runs and set harvest levels in Hood Canal.

The property acquisition involved grants totaling $1.9 million from grant programs administered by the Recreation and Conservation Funding Board, the Salmon Recovery Funding Board and the Office of Estuary and Salmon Restoration. Another $980,000 came from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Fortera, a nonprofit organization, provided $152,000 for the initial purchase and used a loan guarantee from the Russell Family Foundation to buy two remaining parcels. Those properties will be transferred to HCSEG after about $400,000 is raised for the final purchase.

With the acquisition of the research station property, 90 percent of the land along Big Beef Creek below the Lake Symington dam is in public ownership or conservation status, Harlow said. The goal is to acquire more property to continue streamside restoration from the dam to Hood Canal while continuing to improve salmon habitat above the dam.

Without the purchase of the research station property, an important part of Hood Canal could have been lost to development, Harlow said.

“We have been involved with Big Beef Creek for a couple of decades now,” she said. “It is really wonderful to see things working out this way.”

Audubon warns that bird species are threatened by changing climate

Birds in Kitsap County and across the globe are telling us that the world is changing — and rarely in ways that benefit our avian friends.

Loss of habitat is affecting even our most common birds, according to a study published this month in the journal Science. Bird populations across North America have dropped by nearly 3 billion since 1970, a decline of 29 percent, the study says. Writer Rachael Lallensack of Smithsonian magazine does a good job putting the issue into perspective.

Coming on the heels of that abundance study is a forward-looking report by the National Audubon Society that focuses on the future of bird species, particularly with respect to climate change.

“Two-thirds of America’s birds are threatened with extinction from climate change,” said National Audubon President David Yarnold in a news release, “but keeping global temperatures down will help up to 76 percent of them.”

The Audubon report, called “Survival by Degrees: 389 Bird Species on the Brink” (PDF 3.9 mb), holds out hope, Yarnold said, “but first it’ll break your heart if you care about birds and what they tell us about the ecosystems we share with them. It’s a bird emergency.”

Being relatively mobile creatures, birds are good indicators of habitat changes, as they generally move north to seek temperatures suitable for their kind. They may find their new habitats already occupied, squeezed by space or not quite as conducive to reproductive success, given the stresses they face. The result is often a shrinking of their overall range.

“We never saw California scrub jays this far north,” said Gene Bullock, president of Kitsap Audubon Society. “Now they are nesting all along our coasts.

“We never saw Anna’s hummingbirds in the winter,” he added. “Now they are coming to winter feeders as far north as Cordova, Alaska.”

On the other hand, Gene told me, birds such as common nighthawks — identified by their nightly calls of “peent … peent … peent” as they move about — are largely gone from the Kitsap Peninsula.

The new report shows photographs of 22 “highly vulnerable species” for most of Kitsap County, 50 “moderate vulnerable speces,” 29 “low vulnerable species” and 37 “stable species.” The Rufus hummingbird, for example, is expected to disappear from the lowlands of Puget Sound as it loses 39 percent of its range in Western Washington and Western Oregon while increasing its range by 26 percent in Northern British Columbia, Canada. That’s under the best climate scenario that we can hope for at this point.

Adding to the climate-change problems for birds is the loss of forests to development throughout the Puget Sound region, Gene said. A decline in insect populations — in part because of pesticides — constrains the populations of some birds, while a dwindling number of forage fish constrains others.

“Audubon scientists are showing us pretty clearly that habitat loss is huge,” Gene said, “but in the long run climate change will be the number-one culprit as the ranges of birds continue to shrink. It’s affecting all of our species across the board.”

Brooke Bateman, senior climate scientist for National Audubon, led the study of climate-related effects, including sea level rise, urbanization, cropland expansion, drought, extreme spring heat, fire weather and heavy rain. The scientists examined 140 million bird records, including observational data from amateur bird watchers as well as professional field biologists.

“Birds are important indicator species, because if an ecosystem is broken for birds, it is or soon will be for people too,” she said. “When I was a child, my grandmother introduced me to the common loons that lived on the lake at my grandparent’s home in Northern Wisconsin. Those loons are what drive my work today, and I can’t imagine them leaving the U.S. entirely in summer — but that’s what we’re facing if trends continue.”

To help people understand the potential effects on birds where they live, Audubon experts created a zip-code-based tool call “Birds and Climate Visualizer.” The result is a listing of vulnerable species based on location and whether the temperature rises by 1.5, 2 or 3 degrees Celsius. Without major change, the temperature is certain to rise by 1.5 degrees by 2050, expert say.

The Audubon website also includes a report for each state. The Brief for Washington (PDF 4.2 mb), for example, predicts a major shakeup in the state’s biological communities. Changing the plants that will grow in a particular place changes the diversity of wildlife, including birds.

“By the end of the century under a 3-degree C (5.4-degree F) global warming scenario, approximately 30 percent of the state of Washington will transition to a different biome,” the brief states. “At present, the largest biome in the state is conifer forest, covering 59 percent of the state. By the end of the century, conifer forest will cover approximately 46 percent of the state.”

The report ends on a note of optimism: “We have the ability to reverse the direction of this massive threat. We can adapt, improve, and innovate; we can protect birds, the planet, and ourselves. We can power our cars, homes, cities, factories, farms, communities and economy with clean energy —without contributing to climate change.”

While striving to reduce climate change, people can take steps to improve the resilience of habitats, so that changes occur more slowly and birds have a chance to survive. Restoring coastal wetlands, for example, can provide refuge for birds as sea-level rise wipes out nesting areas. Cleaning up pollution and protecting floodplains can help birds adapt to increasing drought and extreme rain events, according to the report.

Gene Bullock, who has been involved in Kitsap Audubon for more than 15 years, says he has never seen stronger support for the organization, which is growing in membership and financial strength. Thanks to generous donations, Kitsap Audubon is playing an important role in preserving habitats throughout Kitsap County, including the Kitsap Forest and Bay Project (PDF 1.5 mb).

I expected Gene to tell me that concerns about climate change have become a central part of everything that Kitsap Audubon does — but that’s not the case. Aside from specific presentations and discussions about the threats to birds, the organization remains focused on learning about birds, watching them in the wild and having fun with fellow bird-watchers.

Monthly educational programs and field trips near and far are mainstays of the organization. Check out the Kitsap Audubon Society website and “The Kingfisher,” the monthly newsletter of Kitsap Audubon.

Gene says his organization is environmentally oriented, but members also realize that there is a risk from the “Chicken Little syndrome.”

“People are tired of hearing about apocalyptic gloom and doom,” he said. “You have to offer them hope and point the way to things they can do to help — and there are a lot of things you can do in your own backyard.”

To help birds in your neighborhood, he suggests that people stop using toxic chemicals, keep bird feeders clean, use decals to reduce window strikes and keep cats indoors.

In terms of climate change, the National Audubon Society makes these suggestions:

  • Reduce your use of energy, and ask elected officials to support energy-saving policies.
  • Ask elected officials to expand clean energy development, such as solar and wind power.
  • Encourage innovative and economic solutions to reduce carbon pollution, such as a fee on carbon in fuels and specific clean-energy standards for appliances and other devices.
  • Advocate for natural solutions, such as increasing wetlands and protecting forests and grasslands, which provide homes for birds. Grow native plants on your own property.

Spring Chinook take on high flows because of ‘early-migration gene’

It’s a bit mind-boggling to think that a single, tiny fragment of genetic material determines whether a Chinook salmon chooses to return to its home stream in the spring or the fall.

Photo: Ingrid Taylar (CC BY-NC 2.0) https://flic.kr/p/dmbyre

I’ve been following the scientific discoveries about spring chinook since 2017, when Mike Miller’s lab at the University of California, Davis, published research findings showing the location of this “early-migration gene” on chromosome 28.

In a story published this week in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, I wrote about some of the latest discoveries surrounding spring Chinook. I also thought it worthwhile to describe the importance of these fish to the ecosystem and to the native people of the Puget Sound region.

Up until the past two years, I never gave much thought to spring Chinook, nor apparently have most people, including many biologists. These are the salmon that often struggle to reach the upper reaches of the rivers when the streams are swollen with spring snowmelt. Much of these upper spawning grounds have been destroyed by human activity, and more than half the spring chinook runs in Puget Sound have gone extinct.

The more I learned about spring Chinook the more fascinated I became. The southern resident killer whales used to arrive in Puget Sound in April or May to feast on spring Chinook from Canada’s Fraser River, but those salmon runs have declined along with many fall runs of chinook. The result is a major change in behavior and migration patterns by the whales.

Spring Chinook were at one time an important food for bears coming out of hibernation, for eagles who had scavenged for food through the winter, and for native people who looked forward to fresh fish after a season of dried foods.

As I researched this story, I learned about the history of spring Chinook in the Skokomish River of southern Hood Canal and how a once-plentiful fish became extinct. I was pleased to describe the success of current efforts to create a new run of spring Chinook with the help of a hatchery in the North Fork of the Skokomish, where adult spawners are showing up nearly a century after the fish disappeared.

Spring Chinook in Salmon River, California
Photo: Peter Bohler, via UC Davis

Genetics is a fascinating field, and advances are coming rapidly in the studies of many species, including humans. The idea that a single gene can completely change the migration timing of a Chinook by four months raises many scientific and legal questions — including whether spring Chinook should get their own protection under the Endangered Species Act. As things stand now, Chinook salmon in Puget Sound — both spring and fall together — are listed as threatened under the ESA. But that could change as things shake out with the ESA in Oregon and California.

Ongoing genetic studies — including those involving various salmon species — are causing biologists and legal experts to re-examine the criteria for listing populations as threatened or endangered, as they teeter on the edge of extinction. No matter what the extinction risk is judged to be, spring Chinook are now recognized as something very special.

Native Olympia oysters expected to gain a new foothold in Sinclair Inlet

A massive amount of oyster shell — some 1,500 cubic yards — will be dumped into Sinclair Inlet near Gorst next week to lay the groundwork for a healthy population of native Olympia oysters.

Native Olympia oysters are smaller and can easily fit inside the more common Pacific oyster shell. // Photo: Kitsap Sun

Limited numbers of Olympia oysters have been growing in Sinclair Inlet, hanging on since long ago, said Betsy Peabody, executive director of Puget Sound Restoration Fund, which is managing the operation. Existing oysters probably just need the right substrate for their larvae to attach, grow and ultimately expand the native oyster population.

The $300,000 project — which will deposit the equivalent of 150 dump-truck loads of Pacific oyster shells — will be the largest one-time application of shells anywhere in Puget Sound, Betsy told me. Her organization has undertaken similar projects in other areas, including Liberty Bay near Poulsbo, Dogfish Bay near Keyport, Dyes Inlet near Bremerton and Port Gamble Bay on Hood Canal.

The yellow area marks the location in Sinclair Inlet where oyster shell will be placed.
Map: Puget Sound Restoration Fund

The shells, which came from commercial oyster farms, will be washed off a 200-foot barge using a jet of water beginning Tuesday and taking up to four days, according to the current schedule. The shell will cover some 15 acres of tidelands toward the middle of the inlet where Highway 166 branches off Highway 16.

This washing process typically creates a patchwork of shell covering about 80 percent of the bottom while 20 percent remains bare, according to plans for the project. The thickness of shell on the bottom will vary, reaching up to 3 inches in some places. No eelgrass or other sensitive vegetation was found during surveys of the tidelands to be covered. The property is owned by Kitsap County.

Historic locations of major Olympia oyster beds in Puget Sound. (circa 1850)
Map: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

In the early 1900s, Sinclair Inlet was used as an 122-acre oyster reserve for protecting seed stock, which could be purchased by commercial oyster growers. Oyster reserves throughout Puget Sound were largely forgotten after Pacific oysters — a different species imported from Japan — began to dominate the oyster market.

Olympias went extinct in some areas, killed by pollution, shoreline development or other factors. In a few areas, habitat was largely undisturbed and the original oyster species persevered. But many embayments, including Sinclair Inlet, were able to support only a fraction of their historic populations.

“Olys evolved in this area and managed to maintain a foothold in the most surprising areas, despite what we’ve thrown at them over time,” Betsy said. “They are tough little critters. You can even find them in places where everything else is plastic. Building back their densities seems like a good thing to do.”

Oysters have a number of good qualities besides being a favorite food of many people. They can filter out plankton that can trigger low-oxygen conditions. Plankton also reduce sunlight needed for critical vegetation, such as eelgrass.

The 19 areas in Puget Sound declared a high priority for Olympia oyster restoration.
Map: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has designated Sinclair Inlet as one of 19 priority restoration sites for Olympia oysters in the Puget Sound region. See “Plan for Rebuilding Olympia Oyster (Ostrea lurida) Populations in Puget Sound…”(PDF 559 kb)

In natural oyster beds, young oysters are able to set and grow on the shells of their ancestors, often forming oyster beds or reefs that help perpetuate the substrate for future generations. Sedimentation and damage to the shoreline can interrupt the process and eliminate the substrate needed for the oyster to survive. Putting down a lot of shell to create new substrate has proven to be the best way to boost the population in most areas of Puget Sound.

If the Olympia oysters do well in Sinclair Inlet, eventually more shell could be brought in to expand the growing area, Betsy said. If, however, natural production of oyster larvae is not enough, PSRF could develop a broodstock program by utilizing its shellfish hatchery near Manchester, as has been done for other areas. If that were to happen, adequate numbers of Olympia oysters from Sinclair Inlet would be used to produce the oyster seed, thus maintaining the genetic diversity of the inlet.

In 2010, Puget Sound Restoration Fund established a goal of restoring 100 acres of Olympia oyster habitat with shell placed in bays where the native oysters are expected to do well. The Sinclair Inlet project will bring the total to 85 acres, with other areas in the planning stage to help the group meet its goal by the end of next year.

About half of the $300,000 being used for the Sinclair Inlet project came from the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service, with other funding from the Washington Department of Ecology, Kitsap County and PSRF. The Suquamish Tribe also participated in the project.

Other information:

Old bulkhead to be removed on Ross Point, a major surf smelt beach

Ross Point, the most popular fishing spot for surf smelt in Kitsap County, will become a little more friendly to the little fish following the removal of a concrete bulkhead along the shore of Sinclair Inlet.

Brittany Gordon, habitat biologist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, examines an old bulkhead about to be removed from Sinclair Inlet.
Photo: Christopher Dunagan

The bulkhead removal, scheduled to begin Aug. 12, will create more spawning area for surf smelt, an important food source for salmon and other fish. Smelt also are favored eating by some people, who typically catch them with dip nets.

In addition to increasing smelt habitat, the project will enhance the migration of young salmon along the southern shore of Sinclair Inlet. Like most bulkheads built in the tidal zone, this 84-foot-long structure forces juvenile salmon to swim into deeper water out from shore, making them more vulnerable to predators.

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Leaders from ‘national estuaries’ seek increased funding from Congress

Laura Blackmore, executive director of the Puget Sound Partnership, was among six leaders from so-called “national estuaries” who spoke to Congress last week about the need for increased funding.

Laura Blackmore, Puget Sound Partnership

The natural beauty of Puget Sound and its recreational opportunities have attracted people and businesses, including 11 of the nation’s Fortune 500 companies, Laura told the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

“Unfortunately,” she added, “Puget Sound is also slowly dying. Southern Resident orcas, chinook salmon and steelhead are all listed under the Endangered Species Act. We continue to pollute our waterways and our shellfish beds, and habitat degradation outpaces restoration.”

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New facts and findings about the European green crab invasion

The ongoing story of the European green crab invasion offers us scientific, social and even psychological drama, which I would like to update by mentioning four new developments:

  1. The somewhat mysterious finding of a partially eaten green crab on the Bellingham waterfront,
  2. A “story map” that spells out much of what we know about European green crabs in Puget Sound, including maps, photos and videos.
  3. Information about Harper Estuary in South Kitsap and other areas where groups of citizen scientists are on the lookout for green crabs, and
  4. Reports of a new breed of European green crab in Maine that attacks people and may prove to be more destructive than the green crabs that have lived in the area for a very long time.

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