Category Archives: Puget Sound

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.

Getting rid of this bulkhead can’t be considered a major restoration project, yet it is one more step in improving the critical shoreline habitat for marine species, according to Brittany Gordon, habitat biologist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

As we walked along the shore near the bulkhead, Brittany told me that it isn’t clear why the bulkhead was built in the first place. It appears there might have been a house on the site at one time, given the ornamental and fruit trees nearby. The property is now owned by the Department of Fish and Wildlife, which maintains a pullout for cars plus a primitive trail from Highway 166 (Bay Street).

Ross Point, Sinclair Inlet

Ross Point and nearby Ross Creek, as well as most of the Sinclair Inlet shoreline, were important to Native Americans before the arrival of settlers, according to Leonard Forsman, chairman of the Suquamish Tribe.

“I’m not sure if there was a winter village there,” he told me, “but it is one of the many places that people camped for a few days to a week at a time.”

The area was called Scusad, meaning “Star” in the Lushootseed language, he said, adding that the tribe supports the bulkhead removal.

Beginning in October, one can usually see cars parked along the roadway as fishers go down to catch their share of the smelt spawning on Ross Point, which is about 1.3 miles west of Port Orchard City Hall and about 2 miles east of Gorst. WDFW provides a fact sheet on smelt and smelt fishing (PDF 1.6 mb). A new regulation requires a license (saltwater or combination) when fishing for smelt in saltwater.

Access to the Ross Point beach will be closed from Aug. 12 to 19, provided the removal project goes according to schedule.

Surf smelt are an important food for salmon as well as being prized by some humans.
Photo: WDFW

Heavy equipment will be operated from the uphill side of the bulkhead without going down on the beach, Brittany said. Once the concrete structure is removed, experts will assess how the fill material behind it should be managed. If it is naturally clean dirt, it could be allowed to erode freely with the tides. Other options including removing some of the fill and overtopping with clean sediment.

The bulkhead removal is estimated to cost $40,000, including studies and design. The money comes from the ASARCO settlement fund — the result of compensation for natural resource damages from the Tacoma smelter. The money, managed by the Department of Ecology, was originally allocated to the Harper Estuary restoration in South Kitsap, but funding fell short for construction of a bridge that is still needed to complete that project.

The length of the concrete bulkhead is 60 feet parallel to the shore. At each end, the wall extends 12 feet back perpendicular to the shore, for a total of 84 feet. Around the ends, the dirt has been scoured away at high tide, creating a further threat to small salmon following the shoreline.

The location of the bulkhead along the high-tide line places it within the prime spawning area for surf smelt, which lay their eggs in gravel. See the WDFW document “Forage fishes and their critical habitat” (PDF 415 kb).

Like all bulkheads, the one at Ross Point also blocks natural shoreline erosion, which is how the beach obtains a continuing supply of sand and gravel. Those materials are essential for spawning by forage fish, including surf smelt and sand lance. The lack of sand and gravel results in a hardened substrate overlain by nothing but rocks that don’t wash away.

The bulkhead to be removed from Ross Point is 60 feet across the front with a 12-foot perpendicular section on each end. // Photo: Christopher Dunagan

The Ross Point project provides a chance for the Department of Fish and Wildlife to practice what it preaches.

“We try to be good stewards of the lands we own,” Brittany said. “It is a challenge because of our limited resources.”

Environmental agencies encourage shoreline property owners to remove bulkheads wherever feasible. For many properties in Puget Sound, bulkheads are not needed, because the rate of erosion is so slow. In some cases, spawning habitat can be restored to a more natural condition while limiting erosion by replacing a bulkhead with “soft shore” techniques, such as logs and large rocks along the upper edge of the beach.

I’ve talked to many shoreline property owners who, following restoration, are thrilled to have a naturally sloping beach where they previously confronted a sudden dropoff.

A program called Shore Friendly Kitsap can provide experts for free to help property owners assess the benefits and risks of bulkhead removal and offer grants up to $5,000 for design, permitting and construction. “Shore Friendly” services may be different in other counties, so check out “Resources in your area.”

For information about the Ross Point bulkhead removal, contact Fish and Wildlife officials:

  • Brittany Gordon, 360-620-3601, Brittany.Gordon@dfw.wa.gov, or
  • Doris Small, 360-902-2258, Doris.Small@dfw.wa.gov

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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Ghost-net busters are entering a new era of hunting and removal

My mind is unable to grasp, in any meaningful way, how much death and destruction was caused by fishing nets that were lost and abandoned through the years.

Filmed in 2007, this KCTS-9 video describes the problem of ghost nets and a project that would eventually remove nearly 6,000 nets.

Nearly 6,000 of these so-called “ghost nets” have been pulled from the waters of Puget Sound over the past 17 years. Until removed, they keep on catching fish, crabs and many more animals to one degree or another.

We can support responsible fishing, but those of us who care about Puget Sound must never again allow lost nets to be forgotten, as if “out of sight, out of mind” ever worked for anyone.

The latest concern, as I reported last month in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, is that 200 or more ghost nets are still lurking at depths below 100 feet, which is the level considered safe to operate by divers with normal scuba gear. Remotely operated vehicles (unmanned submarines) are being developed to go after nets remaining in deep water, where they are killing crabs and many other deep-water species — including rockfish, some of which are listed under the Endangered Species Act.

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Laura Blackmore takes over as director of Puget Sound Partnership

Laura Blackmore, deputy director of Puget Sound Partnership, will slide into the agency’s executive director position when she comes into work next week.

Laura Blackmore

Laura has built a reputation as a facilitator, helping to meld diverse ideas into cohesive policies. That experience should serve her well in the director’s post, where she will take on the primary role of shaping the direction of the Partnership for the coming years.

“Puget Sound is in trouble, and we know what we need to do to fix it,” Laura told me. “It took us 150 years to get into this mess, and it will take us awhile to get out. What we need is the political will to keep going.”

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A new federal law recognizes Washington’s maritime heritage

The Maritime Washington National Heritage Area — which now encompasses about 3,000 miles of saltwater shoreline in Western Washington — was created yesterday within a wide-ranging lands bill signed into law by President Trump.

Maritime Washington National Heritage Area encompasses most of the saltwater shoreline throughout Western Washington.
Map: Maritime Washington NHA feasibility study

Created to celebrate the maritime history and culture of Puget Sound and Coastal Washington, the Maritime Washington NHA is the first designated area of its kind in the United States to focus entirely on maritime matters.

The designation is expected to provide funding to promote and coordinate maritime museums, historic ships, boatbuilding, and education, including discussions of early marine transportation and commerce in Washington state.

“We are thrilled about this,” said Chris Moore, executive director of the nonprofit Washington Trust for Historic Preservation. “The stories we want to convey are important to so many people.

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Salmon report mixes good and bad news, with a touch of hope

The story of salmon recovery in Washington state is a mixture of good and bad news, according to the latest “State of the Salmon” report issued by the Governor’s Salmon Recovery Office.

It’s the usual story of congratulations for 20 years of salmon restoration and protection, along with a sobering reminder about how the growing human population in our region has systematically dismantled natural functions for nearly 150 years.

“We must all do our part to protect our state’s wild salmon,” Gov. Jay Inslee said in a news release. “As we face a changing climate, growing population and other challenges, now is the time to double down on our efforts to restore salmon to levels that sustain them, our fishing industry and the communities that rely on them. Salmon are crucial to our future and to the survival of beloved orca whales.”

The report reminds us that salmon are important to the culture of our region and to the ecosystem, which includes our cherished killer whales. It is, however, frustrating for everyone to see so little progress in the number of salmon returning to the streams, as reflected in this summary found in the report:

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Salmon treaty designed to boost spawning count and feed the orcas

Allowable fishing for chinook salmon in the waters of Canada and Southeast Alaska will be cut back significantly this year as a result of a revised 10-year Pacific Salmon Treaty between the United States and Canada.

Chinook salmon // Photo: NOAA Fisheries

The goal of the updated treaty is to increase the number of adult chinook returning to Washington and Oregon waters, where they will be available to feed a declining population of endangered orcas while increasing the number of fish spawning in the streams, according to Phil Anderson, a U.S. negotiator on the Pacific Salmon Commission.

Most chinook hatched in Washington and Oregon travel north through Canada and into Alaska, making them vulnerable to fishing when they return. Changes to the treaty should reduce Canadian harvests on those stocks by about 12.5 percent and Alaskan harvests by about 7.5 percent, Phil told me. Those numbers are cutbacks from actual harvests in recent years, he said, so they don’t tell the complete story.

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New online magazine describes life in and around Puget Sound

John F. Williams, a Suquamish resident who has been creating dramatic underwater videos for years, recently launched a new online publication called Salish Magazine. Its goal is to help people to better understand the ecosystem in the Puget Sound region.

For those of us who live in the region, John and his Still Hope Productions have helped us visualize and understand what lies beneath the waves and up the streams of Puget Sound. The video “Is this where Puget Sound starts?” (shown below) is a good example of the video production. Other videos can be found on Still Hope’s website.

The new online publication shifts to the use of more words, along with photos and videos, to explain the connections among living things. The first issue includes extensive articles on sea anemones, barnacles, sea stars, mussels and glaciation, spiced up with art, poetry and personal stories. Download the magazine as a huge PDF (56.6 mb) file or open it in iBooks.

The second issue of Salish Magazine is about the importance of forests, with articles on forest character, forest restoration, barred owls and more, as well as poetry, essays and lots of photos, all combined in a web design that combines variable scrolling with pull-down menus.

As John describes it, “A key focus of the magazine is to illustrate the interconnectedness woven through our ecosystems, using lenses of history, science, and culture.”

The first two issues are free, although a subscription is expected to be announced next year. Meanwhile, one can sign up for newsletters on the Subscribe webpage. Salish Magazine is published by the nonprofit firm SEA-Media.

Speaking of environment news, I hope everyone is familiar with Puget Sound Institute and its online newsletters. The December issue includes a quiz on Pacific herring and articles on rockfish, Puget Sound vital signs, the Clean Water Act and recent research papers.

Puget Sound Institute, an independent organization affiliated with the University of Washington, strives to advance an understanding of Puget Sound through scientific synthesis, original research and communication. PSI receives major funding from the Environmental Protection Agency.

One can subscribe to the PSI newsletter, blog and alerts to articles in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound on the Subscribe webpage.

Full disclosure: I am employed half-time by Puget Sound Institute to write in-depth articles about scientific discoveries and ecological challenges in the Puget Sound region.

Further note: A previous version of this post stated incorrectly that Still Hope Productions is a nonprofit company.

McNeil Island becoming known for fish and wildlife, not just prison

If you’ve heard of McNeil Island, you are probably thinking of a former federal or state prison in South Puget Sound — not the rare and exclusive habitat that has won high praise from fish and wildlife biologists.

A derelict boat, estimated at 100 years old, is removed from the McNeil Island shoreline.
Photo: Monica Shoemaker, DNR

I never realized that McNeil Island was such a gem until I learned about state restoration plans that could lead to near-pristine conditions for the island, located about seven miles southwest of Tacoma.

To be sure, more than 90 percent of the island’s 12-mile-long shoreline remains in a natural state, including large trees bending over the water . The restoration — the result of a longtime planning effort — will focus on discrete areas that have been highly degraded by human activities, some for more than a century.

The first project, completed this week, was the removal of shoreline armoring, creosote pilings and debris in six locations. Close to 1,000 tons of concrete was hauled away by barge along with 55 tons of scrap metal and more than 51 tons of pilings. A 557-foot bulkhead was pulled out along with a derelict boat.

“You can already see how much better the habitat appears with all that armoring and debris gone,” said Monica Shoemaker, restoration manager for the Department of Natural Resources’ Aquatic Restoration Program.

“I’m super excited about it,” she added, as she wrapped up the site work. “It takes a lot of planning and permitting, and when you work on something awhile, it is great to see it completed.”

Metal anti-submarine nets, added years ago to McNeil Island’s shoreline, were hauled away during the removal project.
Photo: Monica Shoemaker, DNR

The concrete debris included what looked like an old building, demolished and tossed down the bank, Monica told me. What appeared to be ceramic tiles from a bathroom were scattered among the pieces of concrete. Metal debris included multiple layers of twisted and tangled anti-submarine netting, apparently brought to the site following World War II.

The accomplishment goes well beyond appearances. The shoreline is important rearing habitat for juvenile salmon, including threatened Chinook. Portions of the beach will provide excellent spawning habitat for forage fish, such as surf smelt and sand lance, according to Doris Small of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Much of the island contains moderate to low-bank waterfront, with about 25 percent identified as “feeder bluffs,” which provide sand and gravel to keep the beaches suitable for forage-fish spawning. Wetlands across the island provide habitat for a multitude of species.

Doris said the ongoing restoration effort has been the result of exceptional collaboration between DNR, WDFW and the state Department of Corrections.

McNeil Island served as the site a federal penitentiary from 1875 to 1979. It was the first federal prison in Washington Territory. In 1981, after the federal government decided it was too expensive to operate, the facility was leased by the state of Washington.

In 1984, the state Department of Corrections took ownership of the prison site with 1,324 acres used for buildings and infrastructure. The remainder of the island’s 4,413 acres was dedicated as a permanent wildlife sanctuary under control of WDFW. The deed also transferred ownership of Gertrude and Pitt islands to the state for conservation purposes.

The prison was upgraded during the 1990s with new buildings to serve up to 1,300 inmates. But in 2011 the prison was closed as a cost-cutting measure. Today, the facility houses about 300 inmates in a Special Commitment Center for sexually violent offenders who have been civilly committed.

McNeil, Gertrude and Pitt Islands remain closed to public access to protect breeding populations of wildlife. A 100-yard safety zone goes out into the water with warning signs for boaters.

In 2011, DNR established the Nisqually Reach Aquatic Reserve, which edges up against Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge and includes Anderson Island, McNeil Island and surrounding waters. The idea is to protect shoreline ecosystems in the reserve.

A feasibility report (PDF, 6.3 mb), developed by WDFW and DNR, includes a shoreline survey that identified 10 sites where debris removal would improve the nearshore habitat. Although contractors removed more material than originally estimated for the first six sites, bidding was favorable and costs were held to about $450,000, Monica said. Funding is from DNR’s aquatic restoration account.

The next project, to get underway in January, involves removal of a concrete boat launch, concrete debris and log pilings from the so-called Barge Landing Site at the southern tip of McNeil Island. Funding will come from an account that provides money from a pollution settlement with Asarco, a company that operated a Tacoma smelter that released toxic chemicals over a wide area.

Other projects on McNeil Island involve removing road embankments constructed across three estuaries along with work to restore natural functions. Estuaries provide rearing habitat for salmon and other aquatic species. State or federal restoration grants are needed to proceed with those projects. For ongoing information, check out DNR’s website about McNeil Island.