Category Archives: Puget Sound

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.

Email notifications for blog posts are back following disruption

Some of you may have noticed that you were no longer receiving email notifications of posts to the blog “Watching Our Water Ways.” Somehow, around the middle of October, this function just disappeared. I’ve been trying to get it back, and now, thanks to some behind-the-scenes work, email notification of new blog posts is back in operation.

I’ll concede that some people probably never noticed the lapse, and others might have been happy to avoid the email. But I’m pleased that many people continued to read the blog and offer their comments. This email function, along with RSS, allows people to quickly see a topic and decide if they would like to continue reading.

If you want to sign up for email notifications, simply type your email and zipcode into the box in the right column under the recent comments.

As always, my primary goal is to focus on issues related to Puget Sound, but I’m open to conversations about anything water-related. Each Monday, I try to feature something a little off-beat, humorous, artful or amazing.

I’m always open to comments and suggestions. If you have a moment, please let me know if you think this blog is worthwhile, and let me know what kind of topics you would like to me to write about.

Here are some of the Water Ways headlines (with links) from the past six weeks that you might have missed:

Amusing Monday: Sea otters often play a key role in kelp forests

Last week was National Sea Otter Awareness Week, recognized by many aquariums, marine educators and environmental groups across the country. Although I was on vacation last week, I thought I could still bring up some interesting facts about these amusing and ecologically important creatures.

I guess I should mention first that sea otters are rarely spotted in Puget Sound. If you do see an otter — whether in saltwater or freshwater — it is most likely a river otter. I’ll outline some differences between the two further on in this blog post.

Occasionally, sea otters have been sighted in Puget Sound as far south as Olympia, but their historical range is described as the outer coast from Alaska to California — including the Strait of Juan de Fuca west of Port Angeles, according to a new report (PDF 1.4 mb) by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

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Puget Sound Action Agenda makes a shift in restoration strategy

Puget Sound Partnership has honed its high-level game plan for restoring the Puget Sound ecosystem, including a sharp focus on 10 “vital signs” of ecological health.

The newly released draft of the Puget Sound Action Agenda has endorsed more than 600 specific “near-term actions” designed to benefit the ecosystem in various ways. Comments on the plan will be accepted until Oct. 15. Visit the Partnership’s webpage to view the Draft Action Agenda and access the comments page.

The latest Action Agenda for 2018-2022 includes a revised format with a “comprehensive plan” separate from an “implementation plan.” The comprehensive plan outlines the ecological problems, overall goals and administrative framework. The implementation plan describes how priorities are established and spells out what could be accomplished through each proposed action.

Nearly 300 near-term actions are listed at Tier 4, the highest level of priority, giving them a leg up when it comes to state and federal support, according to Heather Saunders Benson, Action Agenda manager. Funding organizations use the Action Agenda to help them determine where to spend their money.

The greatest change in the latest Action Agenda may be its focus on projects that specifically carry out “Implementation Strategies,” which I’ve been writing about on and off for nearly two years. Check out “Implementation Strategies will target Puget Sound ‘Vital Signs’” in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

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Less boater pollution allows more shellfish harvesting near marinas

State health officials have reduced shellfish-closure areas around 20 marinas in Puget Sound, allowing more commercial shellfish harvesting while inching toward a goal of upgrading 10,800 acres of shellfish beds by 2020.

In all, 661 acres of shellfish beds were removed from a long-standing “prohibited” classification that has been applied around marinas, based on assumptions about the dumping of sewage from boats confined to small areas.

Poulsbo Marina // Photo: Nick Hoke via Wikimedia

“We have seen pretty significant changes in boat-waste management,” said Scott Berbells, shellfish growing area manager for the Washington Department of Health, explaining how the upgrades came about.

New calculations of discharges from boats in marinas and the resulting risks of eating nearby shellfish have allowed health authorities to reduce, but not eliminate, the closure zones around the marinas.

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Is there any hope for coming together on climate change?

Not long ago, I was having dinner at a restaurant with some friends. We were talking about environmental concerns when someone mentioned climate change.

“There’s nothing to worry about,” said the man seated to my right. “We are actually going into the next ice age, and the weather is getting colder.”

Stunned, all I could say was, “I don’t even know how to respond to that.” I was not in the mood to give a scientific lecture, nor did it seem like the time to engage in an angry debate — so I changed the subject.

Ever since, I’ve been wondering what I should have said. I’m sure I could have discussed whether humans are to blame for the fact that temperatures are becoming more extreme. For example, the average annual temperature has exceeded the 138-year average every year since 1976. (See NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information.) The evidence of human influence is pretty compelling, but even if you find fault with the data or want to blame natural causes, the warming trend is clear.

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Amazing stories of place are retold at Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference

The Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference opened in Seattle yesterday with a reflection on people’s intimate, personal relationships with nature. The mood was heightened by an elaborate welcoming ceremony from Native American leaders who live on the shores of Puget Sound.

I would like to share an idea I had, but first let me report that Gov. Jay Inslee and former Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell offered their own personal experiences at the beginning of the conference. Please check out the story I wrote for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

The conference this year has attracted more than 1,300 scientists, policymakers and other interested people. About 700 presentations are scheduled.

The welcoming ceremony yesterday began with an Indian song accompanied by drumming. Tribal leaders continued the ceremony by presenting Indian blankets to “witnesses” who have played important roles in protecting the Salish Sea.

Personal stories told by members of the local tribes have a special significance. For native people, telling stories is part of an oral tradition that goes back thousands of years. Their strong “connection to place” reaches back well beyond anyone’s own memory.

Leonard Forsman, chairman of the Suquamish Tribe, said he is pleased to work with scientists and various officials on the problems facing the Salish Sea. Chief Seattle, a member of the Suquamish Tribe, was a boy when Capt. George Vancouver first explored Puget Sound in 1792. Vancouver anchored his ship for several days near the south end of Bainbridge Island. His crew was hungry for fresh meat, having been limited to dried rations during the long journey, Leonard said.

The Suquamish people brought the English men a deer to feast on, he said. Chief Seattle carried that experience of sharing with white settlers throughout his life until he led his people to sign over their lands in exchange for a promise that hunting and fishing would go on.

“We’re still fighting to get the government to honor that promise,” Leonard said. Still, much has been accomplished the past few years as portions of the Salish Sea ecosystem have undergone restoration, he added.

The land and water have spiritual significance, Leonard said. “Our ancestors are with us here. We have a covenant with the land and water.”

At the end of his talk, Leonard noted that he had a few minutes left on the schedule, so he asked Bardow Lewis, vice chairman of his tribe, to speak three minutes — no more. Bardow asked if people would rather have a speech or a story. Many people shouted, “story.”

Bardow began a condensed version of his tale by describing Doe Kag Wats, a near-pristine estuarine marsh near Indianola in the northern part of the Kitsap Peninsula. The name means “place of deer.” To tribal members, it remains a “spiritual place,” he said, just as it has been since ancient times.

One evening as the sun was going down, Bardow said he was digging clams with his daughter, who he could observe by watching her long shadow without having to look up. He kept his head down, focusing on the clams buried in the beach at Doe Kag Wats.

Out of the corner of his eye, Bardow saw a deer approaching, but he kept his head down to keep from frightening the animal away.

The deer kept approaching until she was standing right next to him, he said. She nudged him with her head, which alarmed him, but he kept digging until she nudged him again, practically pushing him over. Bardow got up, and when the deer started walking away, he followed her. She led him to the stream that feeds the estuary. There, stuck in the mud, was a baby deer.

Bardow said he was able to free the fawn from the mud, and a wonderful feeling came over him. “I cried — in a joyful way,” he said. “I learned more that day than I did in my lifetime.”

The event has opened his eyes to the possibility of other experiences, Bardow said., But his three-minute time limit was up before he could share another story.

“I think I might have been a deer in a previous life,” he said. “We have to keep these beautiful places and spread that out to all places where you live.”

While I may never enjoy such a profound experience, I would like to think that I would be open to that. Still, I would think that everyone who has spent meaningful time on or around the Salish Sea probably has had at least one experience to share.

One of my own favorite stories was from a dark night in 1997, when I was out in a boat on Dyes Inlet with whale researcher Jodi Smith. I was watching the lights of Silverdale when we were suddenly immersed in the sound of orcas speaking to us over a hydrophone. You can read the story as I originally wrote it on the Kitsap Sun website, and you can listen to the recording that Jodi made that night (below).

      1. whale

I know that many researchers presenting their work at the Salish Sea conference have exciting findings to convey, and I listen with keen interest, even though the talks are sometimes dry. I also know that the speakers feel a bit rushed to explain everything in 12 to 15 minutes. But wouldn’t it be nice if they could find a way to reduce their discussion about scientific methods — such as how they control for variables — and tell us a brief story?

I don’t think we lose our scientific or journalistic credibility if we allow ourselves to be captivated by a special moment that we have experienced in the Salish Sea.

Learn about ecosystem indicators and the quest for Puget Sound health

More than 100 people tuned in today to an online presentation regarding the Puget Sound Partnership’s Vital Signs indicators and the quest for ecological health.

While there was not much breaking news, the session turned out to be a very nice summary of progress toward restoring ecological functions in Puget Sound — or rather, in too many cases, the ongoing declines in species and habitats.

One can review the entire two-hour webinar, in which a variety of our leading Puget Sound experts chime in on their areas of expertise. Go to Puget Sound Partnership’s webpage and click on “Vital Signs Webinar.”

Because of the linkage between Vital Signs and Implementation Strategies, many of the issues under discussion relate to stories that I have been writing for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound over the past two years. Check out 16 stories by various writers on topics of ecosystem health found on the Puget Sound Institute’s website.

Other key documents on this subject:

One emerging issue brought up during the question-and-answer portion of today’s webinar was what will happen to the Vital Signs indicators and targets as the year 2020 approaches. The targets were all established with a notion that if we could meet certain goals by 2020, Puget Sound would be in pretty good shape. As it turns out, almost none of the targets will be met by 2020, so the struggle must go on.

Sometime this year, work will begin on a possible overhaul — or at least a major update — of the Vital Signs indicators and targets, according to officials with Puget Sound Partnership. Some indicators, for example, reflect the success of restoration projects by reporting the number of acres restored with no accounting for acres lost somewhere else.

The targets were originally established with a sense of optimism but without a clear understanding of what it would take, nor was there any commitment of funds for improving a specific type of habitat. As I see it, the uncertainty of financing will remain a problem until the Legislature comes up with a dedicated funding source.

Even if the targets remain the same, the target date of 2020 will need to be changed when we get to that year, if not sooner. I discuss some of the benefits and pitfalls of changing the indicators in a Water Ways post I wrote in November while going over the 2017 State of the Sound report.

The Puget Sound Science Panel, a team of expert advisers within the Puget Sound Partnership, is expected to play a primary role in revising the indicators and targets. I’m sure the discussion will address implementation strategies, adaptive management and a process to get Puget Sound on a more certain path to recovery.

Remembering Dan O’Neill, who focused on things as they are

I was pleased to see the tribute story about Dan O’Neill written by Arla Shephard Bull, a regular contributing reporter for the Kitsap Sun.

Dan O’Neill
Photo: Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group

Dan, who played a key role in Puget Sound restoration, died in October at age 81. A celebration of his life is scheduled for Saturday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Salmon Center in Belfair.

Dan was a longtime board member for the Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group based at the Salmon Center. He also served on the Washington State Transportation Commission and was a member of the Leadership Council, the governing body of the Puget Sound Partnership.

I thought Mendy Harlow, executive director of the enhancement group, described the Dan I knew in Arla’s story: “He was really focused on the facts, the science and the truth, which was something I appreciated in him as an individual, but also as a board member,” Mendy said. “He was someone who looked at the reality and not at dreams.”

I don’t remember Dan ever saying anything flashy, but I could always count on him for an honest assessment of various situations. He looked at all sides of an issue. His comments were thoughtful and down to earth.

His unique role on both the Transportation Commission and Leadership Council put him in a good position to address some serious environmental issues. We talked about stormwater runoff from highways and salmon-blocking culverts. He was downright practical about these matters, even when funding measures inexplicably fell into legislative cracks.

“The Legislature right now is dealing with all kinds of issues,” Dan told me in the midst of the culvert lawsuit pitting tribes against the state. “From a transportation standpoint, revenues are down. Gas taxes aren’t producing as much revenues, because people are driving less or using more efficient cars or whatever.”

On the Leadership Council, Dan was always looking for ways to help the public understand the issues better. He once told me that he learned from my stories about the environment, which was nice to hear.

During this time, Dan served on the board of The Greenbrier Companies, a publicly traded railroad car leasing and manufacturing company. He was also a founder of and investor in PowerTech Group, Inc., a business security software company. Sheida Sahandy, executive director of the Partnership, said she appreciated his business sense.

“Dan’s unique perspective from the business community enabled the Leadership Council and the Partnership to make more balanced and broadly informed choices about Puget Sound recovery,” Sheida said in a written statement. “He spoke eloquently on behalf of business interests, but he also kept protection and recovery of Puget Sound at the top of his priority list.”

Dan’s obituary can be found in the Kitsap Sun.

What would it take to restore the legendary Chinook salmon?

Giant Chinook salmon of 50 pounds or more have not yet faded into legend, as operators of a salmon hatchery in Central British Columbia, Canada, can tell you.

Ted Walkus, a hereditary chief of the Wuikinuxv First Nation, holds a Chinook salmon caught this year for the Percy Walkus Hatchery on the Wannock River in Central British Columbia.
Photo: Percy Walkus Hatchery

The annual spawning effort at the Percy Walkus Hatchery on the Wannock River involves catching Chinook as they move upstream rather than waiting for them to arrive at the hatchery. This year, fishing crews brought home a remarkably large fish that has lived long and prospered. The progeny of this fish will be returned to the river from the hatchery to continue the succession of large Chinook.

These big fish compare to the massive Chinook that once made their way up the Elwha River and other major salmon streams of Puget Sound. Knowing that these big fish still exist provides hope that we might someday see such large salmon on the Elwha, following the recent removal of two dams and ongoing habitat restoration.

Large, powerful Chinook are suited to large, powerful streams. Big chinook can fight their way through swifter currents, jump up larger waterfalls and protect their eggs by laying deeper redds. Experts aren’t sure that the conditions are right for large Chinook to return to the Elwha, but many are hopeful. I explored this idea in a story I wrote for the Kitsap Sun in 2010.

As for the two-year-old Percy Walkus Hatchery, big fish are not uncommon in the Wannock River, as you can see in the hatchery’s Facebook photo gallery. By spawning both large and smaller salmon, the hatchery hopes to rebuild the once-plentiful numbers of Chinook in the system. Involved in the project are the Wuikinuxv First Nation along with Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans and others.

Ted Walkus, a hereditary chief of the Wuikinuxv and the man featured in the photo on this page, said the largest fish need to remain part of the gene pool for the hatchery and the river. That’s why volunteers go out into the river to take the brood stock. This year, 47 males and 47 females were spawned to produce more than 300,000 fertilized eggs.

“If you catch a 60-pound salmon and you keep it without breeding, that part of the gene pool eventually gets wiped out,” Walkus was quoted as saying in a CBC News report.

For similar reasons, some anglers choose to release their catch alive, if possible, after getting a photo of their big fish. The hope, of course, is that the fish will continue on and spawn naturally. In the hatchery, the genes will be passed on to more salmon when the progeny are released. Unfortunately, I was unable to quickly locate a facility management plan for the Percy Walkus Hatchery to see if anyone has projected the long-term effects of the hatchery.

Chet Gausta, middle, shows off the big fish he caught off Sekiu in 1964. Chet's younger brother Lloyd, left, and his uncle Carl Knutson were with him on the boat.
Photo courtesy of Poulsbo Historical Society/Nesby

Big fish are genetically inclined to stay at sea five, six or seven years rather than returning after four years. They must avoid being caught in fishing nets and on fishing lines during their migration of up to 1,000 miles or more before making it back home to spawn.

Perhaps you’ve seen historical black-and-white photos of giant Chinook salmon taken near the mouth of the Elwha River. Like the giant Chinook of the Wannock River, some of these fish are nearly as long as a grown man is tall. Catching them with rod and reel must be a thrill of a lifetime.

Some of those giants — or at least their genes — may still be around. The largest Chinook caught and officially weighed in Washington state dates back to 1964. The 70-pound monster was caught off Sekiu by Chester “Chet” Gausta of Poulsbo, who I wrote about upon his death in 2012. See Water Ways, Feb. 3, 2012. His photo is the second on this page.

There’s something to be said for releasing salmon over a certain size, and that goes for commercial fishing as well as sport fishing. Gillnets, for example, target larger fish by using mesh of a certain size, say 5 inches. Smaller fish can get through the nets, spawn in streams and produce the next generation — of smaller fish.

The genetic effects of removing the larger fish along with the effects of taking fish during established fishing seasons artificially “selects” (as Darwin would say) for fish that are smaller and sometimes less fit. Some researchers are using the term “unnatural selection” to describe the long-term effects of fishing pressure. I intend to write more about this soon and also discuss some ideas for better managing the harvest to save the best fish for the future.