Category Archives: Fish

Amusing Monday: Wacky steelhead return for new ‘Survive the Sound’ game

“Survive the Sound,” an online game that features cute little fish swimming for their lives, is back for a second year with some new additions, including free participation for students and teachers in the classroom.

The basics of the game remain as I described them last year. You pick out a wacky cartoon steelhead and then receive daily reports as the fish makes its way through a perilous Puget Sound over a 12-day period. The journey starts May 7, and signups are now open. See Water Ways, April 29, 2017.

As in real life, many fish will not make it to the ocean because of the effects of disease and pollution along with the constant risk of predation. But a few lucky steelhead will survive, and the winners will be recognized.

Individuals join the game with a $25 donation to Long Live the Kings, which will use the money to further research, ecosystem restoration and education. This year, anyone can start a team and encourage others to participate, sharing the joy or heartbreak of the salmon migration. Prizes will be awarded to the winning teams.

This year, teachers can sign up their classrooms for free and play the game while learning about the Puget Sound ecosystem. Extensive educational materials have been developed to go along with the game. Check out “Bring ‘Survive the Sound’ to your Classroom!”

The game is based on the real-life travels of steelhead, which have been tracked using implanted acoustic transmitters. Some fish swim faster than others and some even reverse course. This year, participants will be able to watch the progress of all of the fish making the journey, according to Michael Schmidt of Long Live the Kings.

Last year, more than 1,100 people joined the game, and organizers hope for even greater participation this year.

If nothing else, you should check out the cartoon fish and the clever things they have to say by clicking on the individual steelhead in the “Survive the Sound” fish list.

If you would like to learn more about the person who turned the concepts for these odd and wonderful fish into creative works of art, check out “Meet the Artist Behind Survive the Sound.” To see more of Jocelyn Li Langrand’s work, go to her website, her Instagram page or Facebook.

Nitrogen and plankton: Do they hold the missing keys to the food web?

In a way, some of Puget Sound’s most serious ecological problems have been hiding in plain sight. I have been learning a lot lately about plankton, an incredibly diverse collection of microscopic organisms that drift through the water, forming the base of the food web.

Sources of nitrogen in Puget Sound (click to enlarge)
Graphic: Washington Department of Ecology

To put it simply, the right kinds of plankton help to create a healthy population of little fish that feed bigger fish that feed birds and marine mammals, including the endangered Southern Resident killer whales. On the other hand, the wrong kinds of plankton can disrupt the food web, stunt the growth of larger creatures and sometimes poison marine animals.

OK, that’s a bit of an oversimplification, but Puget Sound researchers are just beginning to understand the profound importance of a healthy planktonic community to support a large part of the food web. That’s one of the main points that I try to bring out in five stories published today in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound. I am grateful to the many researchers who have shared their knowledge with me.

Average daily nitrogen coming in from rivers and wastewater treatment plants (1 kg = 2.2 pounds)
Graphic: Washington Department of Ecology

These stories tie together several major issues all related to nutrients — mainly nitrogen — that feed the marine phytoplankton, which use their chlorophyll to take energy from the sun as they grow and multiply. In the spring and summer, too much nitrogen can mean too much plankton growth. In turn, excess plankton can lead to low-oxygen conditions, ocean acidification and other significant problems.

The complex interplay of planktonic species with larger life forms in Puget Sound is still somewhat of a mystery to researchers trying to understand the food web. As part of the effort, the Washington Department of Ecology is working on a computer model to show how excess nitrogen can trigger low-oxygen conditions in the most vulnerable parts of the Salish Sea, such as southern Hood Canal and South Puget Sound.

Areas of Puget Sound listed as “impaired” for dissolved oxygen (click to enlarge)
Graphic: Washington Department of Ecology

Stormwater is often cited as the most serious problem facing Puget Sound, and we generally think of bacteria and toxic chemicals flowing into the waterway and causing all sorts of problems for the ecosystem. But stormwater also brings in nitrogen derived from fertilizers, animal wastes and atmospheric deposits from burning fossil fuels. Stormwater flows also pick up natural sources of nitrogen from plants and animals that end up in streams.

Sewage treatment plants are another major source of human nitrogen. Except for a few exceptions, not much has been done to reduce the release of nutrients from sewage-treatment plants, which provide not only nitrogen but also micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals. Some experts suspect that nutrients other than nitrogen help to determine which types of plankton will dominate at any given time.

I plan to follow and report on new scientific developments coming out of studies focused on the base of the food web. Meanwhile, I hope you will take time to read this package of related stories:

Can carefully planned fishing seasons help the endangered orcas?

Salmon harvests in Puget Sound have been shared between Indian and non-Indian fishermen since the 1970s, when the courts ruled that treaties guarantee tribal members half the total catch.

Now a third party — Puget Sound’s endangered orcas — could take a seat at the negotiations table, at least in a figurative sense, as their shortage of food becomes a critical issue.

It isn’t at all clear how fishing seasons could be structured to help the Southern Resident killer whales, but the issue was discussed seriously at some length yesterday, when the 2018 salmon forecasts were presented to sport and commercial fishers. Thus began the annual negotiations between state and tribal salmon managers to set up this year’s fishing seasons.

General areas, in blue, where fishing closures in British Columbia are planned to provide extra salmon for Southern Resident killer whales.
Map: Department of Fisheries and Oceans

Penny Becker, a wildlife manager with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said a steady decline in the body mass of the Southern Residents has been observed, as the population fell to a 30-year low of 76 animals. People are calling for emergency measures, she said, noting that both Gov. Jay Inslee and the Legislature are working on ideas to protect the whales. See Water Ways Feb. 23 and Water Ways Feb. 17 and the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, Nov. 2, 2017.

Concerns are running equally high in British Columbia, where the orcas spend much of their time in the Strait of Georgia. The Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans has proposed an experiment with fishing closures this year in four areas frequented by the orcas:

  • Mouth of the Fraser River
  • West side of Pender Island
  • South side of Saturna Island, and
  • Strait of Juan de Fuca

“The primary objective of the proposed measures is to improve chinook salmon availability for SRKW by decreasing potential fishery competition, as well as minimizing physical and acoustic disturbance in key foraging areas to the extent possible,” states a “discussion paper” (PDF 1.9 mb) released Feb. 15.

The closures would be in place from May through September this year, with increased monitoring to measure potential benefits to the whales. Comments on the proposal are being taken until March 15.

Canadians also are working with ship owners to see if noise can be reduced significantly by slowing down large vessels moving through the Salish Sea. Previous studies have shown that noise reduces the ability of whales to communicate and to find food through echolocation. Experts are compiling the results of the “Haro Strait Vessel Slowdown Trial” conducted last year.

One bill in the Washington Legislature would require boaters to slow down to 7 knots when in the vicinity of killer whales.

Limiting fishing in specific areas of Puget Sound, such as the west side of San Juan Island, could be implemented through state-tribal negotiations, Penny said. The closures would occur during summer when chinook salmon — the orcas’ primary prey — are in the area. One option would be to implement the closures on certain days of the week.

Some people have talked about giving the orcas a clean break from whale watchers, and that could involve excluding whale-watch boats from salmon-rich areas at the same time as the fishing closures.

“We’re looking for creative solutions to make this work within our constraints,” Penny told the group.

One fisherman at the meeting said every person on the water should automatically turn off his motor and sit still when whales are approaching. It’s a courtesy to help the killer whales find fish, he said, and anyway the fish are not going to bite on one’s line while whales are around. Generally, they don’t stay long in one place.

One bill in the Legislature would help the Southern Residents by increasing hatchery production of chinook salmon in Puget Sound. Reaction to the idea has been mixed, because hatchery salmon have been known to affect the fitness and genetic makeup of wild salmon. If approved, the boost in hatchery production would likely be a temporary solution.

Sport fishermen generally like the idea of increased hatchery production, because they would be encouraged to catch all the hatchery fish not eaten by killer whales.

The hatchery bill, HB 2417, was approved unanimously by the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee. No further action has been taken so far, but its provisions could be attached to the supplementary budget with funds specified for hatchery production.

Tuesday’s meeting in Lacey launched the beginning of the negotiations between state and tribal salmon managers, a process known as North of Falcon. The name comes the fishery management area from Cape Falcon in Oregon north to the Canadian border. The full schedule of meetings and related documents can be found on the WDFW website.

Forecasts approved by WDFW and the tribes predict poor returns of several salmon stocks this year in Puget Sound, the Pacific Ocean and the Columbia River, resulting in limited fishing opportunities.

“We will definitely have to be creative in developing salmon fisheries this year,” Kyle Adicks, salmon policy lead for WDFW, said in a news release. “I encourage people to get involved and provide input on what they see as the priorities for this season’s fisheries.”

Warm ocean conditions and low streamflows in recent years affected several salmon stocks returning this year. As ocean conditions return to normal, experts hope for improved salmon runs in years to come.

A total of about 557,000 coho returning to Puget Sound is about 6 percent below the average over the past 10 years. Extremely low numbers predicted for the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Snohomish River are expected to force managers to limit fishing in those areas.

While hatchery chinook returning to Puget Sound are expected to be 38 percent higher than last year, the need to protect “threatened” wild chinook could mean ongoing fishing restrictions in many areas.

Next month, NOAA, which oversees threatened and endangered species, is expected to provide guidance for managing this year’s fisheries, including possible discussions about protecting Southern Resident killer whales.

A 10-year “Comprehensive Management Plan for Puget Sound Chinook” is scheduled to be resubmitted this summer in response to comments received from NOAA on the first draft.

Plans for protecting Puget Sound chinook and Southern Resident killer whales have begun to overlap in major ways, as saving one involves saving the other.

Amusing Monday: The secret to the midshipman’s song

Among the wonders of nature in Puget Sound is a chunky little fish with bulging eyes called a plainfin midshipman. The species includes two very different types of males, and one type tries to attract a mate by emitting a continuous humming sound for up to an hour before stopping.

An hour-long mating call is rather remarkable, considering that most animals use short intermittent bursts of sound followed by periods of rest. Until recently, scientists were not sure how the midshipman could keep its call going so long.

When large numbers of midshipman are calling at the same time, the effect can be disconcerting. Years ago, folks living near Quilcene on Hood Canal reported an eerie humming sound that kept them awake at night. Since Quilcene is located near the Navy’s acoustic-testing range on Dabob Bay, some speculated that the Navy was up to something.

Other people living along the shores of Puget Sound have reported the same strange humming sound from time to time. Midshipman appear to be the primary prey of bald eagles that congregate along Big Beef Creek near Seabeck each spring before the first salmon runs provide larger fish to eat. Do you remember the award-winning photo by Bonnie Block featured in the Kitsap Sun?

Plainfin midshipman caught in a beach seine off Bainbridge Island while surveying for surf smelt // Photo: U.S. Geological survey

Hums produced by Type-I males can be heard great distances underwater, all the better to attract mates in murky waters. The sound is created when the fish contracts and relaxes the muscles around its swimbladder, causing the gas-filled organ to vibrate.

The contractions in the midshipman are extremely rapid, up to 100 times per second, or some 360,000 times during an hour-long call, according to Lawrence C. Rome, professor of biology at the University of Pennsylvania who has published a new paper in the Journal of General Physiology.

“The midshipman swimbladder muscle generates more contractions per hour than any other known vertebrate muscle,” Rome commented in a news release from Rockefeller University Press.

Muscle contractions are triggered by the release of calcium ions into the muscle tissue. In other species, the calcium ions are pumped back into storage before the next contraction. But the speed of the contractions in the midshipman has forced researchers to look for another explanation. The secret turns out to be the tiny amount of calcium needed to cause a contraction — just one-eighth as much as in the Atlantic toadfish, a related species.

“The small amount of calcium released per stimulus is the key element that permits the calcium pumps in midshipman swimbladder muscle to keep up over long periods of high-frequency stimulation,” Rome said. “The combination of fast calcium pumping and small calcium release permits the midshipman to maintain the correct balance of calcium ions during its long-lasting mating call.”

One mystery still remains, he added. How do such low calcium levels cause the swimbladder to contract with enough force to generate the distinctive hum heard over great distances?

For a more detailed explanation of the physiology, review the news release or read the research paper (subscription required).

The name midshipman apparently comes from having a series of photophores — light=producing organs — along its sides used to attract prey. Someone apparently thought they looked like buttons on a naval uniform, according to an entry in Wikipedia.

Midshipman fish are nocturnal, swimming just above the seabed at night and burying themselves in the mud or sand during the day. When out of water, these unusual fish have the ability to breathe air.

While type-I males use sound to attract females, type-II males have a different reproductive strategy. Their sex organs are seven times larger than those of their type-I counterparts.

Bringing modern technology to an age-old pastime called fishing

Fishing, which I hear was fairly straightforward in days gone by, has grown more and more complicated in today’s modern world, with growing concerns about fish extinction, poaching and the protection of natural resources.

Technology cannot return us to a simpler time, but there is an event scheduled for next weekend that is designed to make life easier for those interested in fishing, research or environmental protection.

Known as Fishackathon, the two-day event brings together thousands of designers, software developers and fishing experts. Seattle is one of about 40 locations throughout the world where experts will put their heads together to invent technological solutions to some fishing-related problems.

Seattle Fishackathon, which is Saturday and Sunday, Feb. 10 and 11, is still looking for developers who can design and code/build a project, mentors who have expertise in fishing and outdoor issues, and volunteers who can help run the event. Teams can organize in advance and bring any hardware if they plan to build a device.

On Sunday afternoon, spectators are free to watch the demonstrations of projects developed during the weekend. The location is Epicodus vocational school, 1201 Third Ave., in downtown Seattle.

Among the 11 formal “challenges” are these problems looking for solutions:

Easy access to rules: With all the regulations governing fishing today, it is easy to get confused. Wouldn’t it be nice when you’re out in a boat to pull out your smart phone and obtain the fishing rules for that exact location? To meet the challenge, designers are expected to use GPS to map the location on the phone and link to local rules. Among other things, the app would be capable of sounding an alarm if the boat drifts into a closed area.

The worldwide winner of the 2016 Fishackathon was a team from Taipei, Taiwan, which developed an inexpensive sensor that can alert authorities to spawning activities by invasive Asian carp.

Fish identification: For people who have trouble telling one fish from another, this proposed app would use “facial recognition” technology to convert a picture from a smart phone into a positive identification. By stamping the time and location onto the photo, volunteer observers or anglers themselves could help build a database to assist fisheries managers.

Illegal fishing detectors: The goal is a network of small, unobtrusive and inexpensive floats containing electronic equipment that could be deployed over large areas where poaching is suspected. The equipment would include a listening device and software able to distinguish the sound of fishing activity. It could make an audio recording and transmit its location via satellite. A network of such devices would allow for triangulation to the location of the fishing boat, allowing enforcement officials to determine whether the fishing is legal. The equipment could make ocean patrols by authorities far more efficient.

Condition alerts: Fishers and other outdoor enthusiasts would have access to an app for sharing environmental information with authorities and each other in real time. For someone who wants to make a report, the app would call up the location on an interactive map for the person to mark the extent. One could report environmental problems, including algae blooms, fish kills, oil spills, invasive species, and high wind and waves. It could also be used to report conditions at boat ramps, crowded parks, availability of restrooms and poaching activity. The app could also receive reports from others.

Teams may come up with their own concepts, provided they follow the guidelines spelled out on the Fishackathon website.


In 2016, a team from the Monterey Bay Aquarium developed a basic app for helping fishermen follow local regulations in the Philippines.

Fishackathon is coordinated by HackerNest, a nonprofit organization of 75,000 technically inclined people in communities throughout the world. The event was originally supported by the U.S. State Department, which turned it over last year after three annual events, according to Colombe Nadeau-O’Shea, an organizer for HackerNest.

The event is run entirely on donations, and the group is always looking for sponsors, whether it be for the national program or local events, she said.

Amazon Web Services, a primary sponsor, is offering $5,000 to the top winner in each city and $25,000 to the global winner selected among all the city winners. Other prizes are offered at the global level and in some cities.

Pesticides and salmon: Can we see a light at the end of the tunnel?

Once again, the National Marine Fisheries Service has determined in official findings that three common pesticides — chlorpyrifos, diazinon and malathion — raise the risk of extinction for threatened and endangered salmon.

A crop duster sprays pesticide on a field near an irrigation ditch.
Photo: NOAA/USFWS

By extension, for the first time, the agency also concluded that those same pesticides threaten Puget Sound’s endangered orca population by putting their prey — chinook and other salmon — at risk.

This politically and legally charged issue — which has been around for more than 15 years — has gone beyond a debate over potential harm from pesticides. It also raises uncomfortable questions about whether our society will follow science as we try to solve environmental problems.

The immediate finding of “jeopardy” — meaning that the three pesticides pose a risk of extinction — comes in a biological opinion (PDF 415.6 mb) that is more than 3,700 pages long and covers not just salmon but, for the first time, dozens of other marine species on the Endangered Species List.

The report follows a scientific methodology for assessing the effects of pesticides that arises from suggestions by the National Academy of Sciences. The NAS report (PDF 14.2 mb) attempted to reconcile differing methods of assessing risk that had been used by the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and NMFS.

EPA’s original assessment raised no concerns about the effect of these pesticides on the survival of salmon populations. The original lawsuit by environmental groups forced the EPA to “consult” with NMFS, as required by the Endangered Species Act. The result was the first jeopardy finding in 2008. For background, see Water Ways, Aug. 11, 2008, in which I reported that the long wait for regulatory action on pesticides may be about over. Little did I know.

The biological opinion, or BiOp for short, examines both the direct harms to species exposed to pesticides — such as effects on behavior, reproduction and immune function — as well as indirect effects — such as whether the pesticides wipe out insects needed for the fish to eat.

The new BiOp is considered a pilot study for future pesticide assessments.

“Notably,” states the document, “this Opinion represents the first consultation using newly developed approaches and the first to assess all listed species throughout the U.S., its territories, and protectorates. Future Opinions regarding pesticides may utilize different analyses and approaches as the interagency consultation effort proceeds.”

The next step is for the EPA to restrict the use of the pesticides to reduce the risks for salmon and other species. Among suggested measures, the BiOp says those who use pesticides must limit the total amount of chemicals applied in high-risk areas, such as streams. No-spray buffers or similar alternatives are suggested.

Interim no-spray buffers, established by the courts, will remain in effect until the EPA takes action. The interim buffers were put on, taken off, and are back on as a result of the lengthy court battle between the agencies and environmental groups. Pesticide manufacturers have weighed in, arguing about the need for pesticides without undue restrictions.

The Trump administration asked the court for a two-year delay in the release of the BiOp, but NMFS ultimately met the deadline when the judge failed to rule on the request in time to make a difference.

I discussed some of the ongoing intrigue and a bit of history in a Water Ways post last August, after EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt reversed course on an impending ban on chlorpyrifos. The proposed ban, approved during the Obama administration, came in response to studies that showed how the chemical could adversely affect children’s brains.

Although it took legal action to get to this point, agency and independent scientists have worked together to study the problem and come up with solutions. The question now is whether policymakers and politicians will take reasonable steps to reduce the risks based upon these findings, which are complex, evolving and rarely definitive for all time.

As I was going back through the blog posts I’ve written about pesticides, I recalled that President George W. Bush wanted to limit scientific consultations in an effort to streamline the regulatory process — much as President Trump’s people are doing today. Check out Water Ways from March 4, 2009, which shows a video of President Obama reversing the Bush policy and speaking out for increased input from scientists.

When it comes to human health and the environment, it is good to remember that without the work of scientists, many species throughout the world would have been wiped out long ago. Human cancer, disease and brain impairment would be far worse today without regulations based on scientific findings. Science can tell us about the risk of pesticides and other threats to salmon and orcas. But knowledge is not enough. People must take reasonable actions to protect themselves and the environment. And so the story goes on.

Last week, Earthjustice, which represents environmental groups in the legal battle, released the biological opinion, which had been sent by NOAA as part of the legal case. The group posted links to the document and related information in a news release. As far as I know, nobody in the Trump administration has spoken about the findings.

Amusing Monday: Bainbridge baker designs cakes with imagination

Baker Christine Chapman of Bainbridge Island creates fanciful as well as fancy cakes in her home kitchen, the headquarters for a one-person business known as Crumbs Cakery.

“Becoming Aquatic” // Source: Christine Chapman

A few photos of her sculptured cakes designed on water themes are shown on this page.

A native of Austria, Christine was trained as a construction engineer and spent the early part of her career working for architectural firms in Austria and Germany. She jokes that some of her more elaborate cakes, such as a 2.5-foot Lego Batman cake, require a bit of structural design.

Christine’s life changed course when she met her future husband, an investor, at a wedding in Austria. They eventually moved to California for a short time before deciding to raise their family on Bainbridge Island, moving there in 2001.

“Swim Olivia” // Source: Christine Chapman

Her early cake-baking projects were done for her children, who loved cakes that looked like real objects, sometimes telling a story.

“The first cake I ever made was an airplane cake,” Christine told me. “It was very simple.”

For the most part, she is a self-taught baker. In 2012, Washington’s new Cottage Foods Law went into effect, allowing people to sell products made in home kitchens — provided the sales were direct to consumers.

“I thought this would work, so in 2014 I started my official business with a website, and I started to get some cakes out there,” she said.

Since then, she has made about 200 cakes — from collections of cupcakes to large wedding cakes to a variety of sculpted cakes. Through the years, she has studied cookbooks and taken a few classes, some online and some in person.

“Otter” // Source: Christine Chapman

“I’m still learning with every single cake,” she said, adding that she loves working with customers and leaning on her creativity to turn their ideas and color schemes into works of art. One or more sketches usually precedes the baking itself.

The first cake shown on this page combines a book with a variety of sea creatures. The cake was created for a young woman graduating from a creative-writing school, according to Christine. For her final thesis, the woman wrote about her relationship to marine life and tide pools. She titled the paper “Becoming Aquatic,” and that became the title for the cake.

“Great Blue Heron” // Source: Christine Chapman

The second cake, “Swim Olivia,” was a birthday cake for a swimmer name Olivia who was involved in a swim team. Christine started with a photo of the person diving into the water.

The otter cake is one of many similar cakes that Christine made through the years for fundraisers at Ordway Elementary School, which her children attended. The great blue heron cake was made for a fundraiser for West Sound Wildlife Center.

Christine says she is still having a lot of fun baking the cakes and intends to stay busy with the work. Other cakes she has made can be seen on her Gallery webpage, and she can be reached through her contact page.

Previous blog posts on Water Ways about water-related cakes:

Puget Sound report tells the environmental story that took place in 2016

The year 2016 may be regarded as a transition year for Puget Sound, coming between the extreme warm-water conditions of 2014 and 2015 and the more normal conditions observed over the past year, according to the latest Puget Sound Marine Waters report.

Click on image to view report
Photo: Todd Sandell, WDFW

The report on the 2016 conditions was released this past week by the Marine Waters Workgroup, which oversees the Puget Sound Ecosystem Monitoring Program (PSEMP). The report includes data collected in 2016 and analyzed over the past year.

Some findings from the report:

  • Water temperatures were well above normal, though not as extreme as in 2015.
  • A warm spring in 2016 caused rapid melting of mountain snowpack and lower streamflows in late spring and summer.
  • Dissolved oxygen levels were lower than average in South Puget Sound, Central Puget Sound and Hood Canal, with the most intense oxygen problems in southern Hood Canal, although no fish kills were reported.
  • It was a year for the growth of Vibrio parahaemolyticus, a bacteria responsible for 46 laboratory-confirmed illnesses, including intestinal upset, among people who ate oysters in Washington during 2016.
  • Paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP), diarrhetic shellfish poisoning (DSP) and domoic acid (DA) resulted in shellfish closures in 18 commercial and 38 recreational growing areas. But no illness were reported in 2016.
  • DSP was detected at 250 micrograms per 100 grams in blue mussel tissues sampled from Budd Inlet near Olympia last year. That is the highest level of DSP ever detected in Washington state.
  • Overall, zooplankton populations were high in 2016 compared to 2014, but generally not as high as in 2015.

Conditions, known or unknown, were responsible for various effects on fish and wildlife in 2016:

  • It was the worst year on record for the Cherry Point herring stock, which has been decline for years along with more recent declines in South and Central Puget Sound. Five local stocks had no spawn that could be found in 2016. Herring were smaller than average in size.
  • The overall abundance and diversity of marine bird species in 2015-16 were similar to 2014-15.
  • Rhinoceros auklets, however, were reported to have serious problems, which experts speculated could be related to a low abundance and size of herring. On Protection Island, breeding season started out normal, but fledgling success was only 49 percent, compared to 71 percent in 2015. Auklet parents were seen to feed their chicks fewer and smaller fish than usual.
  • Including the Washington Coast, more than 1,000 carcasses of rhinocerous auklets were found by volunteers. The primary cause of death was identified as severe bacterial infections.

If you are an average person concerned about environmental conditions in and around Puget Sound, the two-page summary and four-page highlights section near the beginning of the report will leave you better informed. To dig deeper, peruse the pages that follow.

The report is designed to be easily compared with previous years:

Could we ever reverse the trend of shrinking Chinook salmon?

Much has been said about the decline of Puget Sound Chinook salmon. Often the discussion focuses on how to increase the salmon population, but I believe a good case can be made for increasing the size of these once-mighty “kings.”

Chinook salmon // Photo: NOAA Fisheries

There are plenty of reasons why we should strive for larger Chinook, not the least of which is the pure joy of seeing — and perhaps catching — a giant salmon. But I’m also thinking about our endangered Southern Resident killer whales, which don’t seem to find Puget Sound very hospitable anymore. As we know, the whales favor Chinook over any other food.

While it might take more energy for a killer whale to chase down a large Chinook versus a smaller one, the payoff in nutrition and energy far outweighs the expenditure, according to Jacques White of Long Live the Kings, who has been thinking about the size issue for some time.

In terms of competition, a giant returning Chinook might be difficult for a harbor seal to handle, and that could give the orcas a special advantage. Still, we are learning that harbor seals create problems for the Chinook population by eating millions of tiny smolts migrating to the ocean before they get a chance to grow up.

Perhaps the major reason that Chinook have declined in size is the troll fishing fleet off the coast of Alaska and Northern Canada, Jacques told me. It is almost simple math. It takes six, seven or eight years to grow the really large Chinook in the ocean. Today’s fishing fleet goes out into the middle of the Chinook-rearing areas up north. The longer the fishing boats stay there, the more likely it is that they will catch a fish that could have grown into a really big one.

Years ago, the fishing boats did not travel so far out to sea, Jacques said. There was no need to travel far when plentiful runs of salmon came right into the shore and swam up the rivers.

“In the old days,” he said, “you didn’t have people risking their necks off Alaska trying to catch fish in all kinds of weather and seas.”

In additional to the trollers, plenty of sport fishermen have taken the opportunity to catch and take home nice trophy fish, putting extra pressure on the biggest members of the fish population. Fishing derbies, past and present, challenged people to catch the biggest Chinook.

Long Live the Kings, a conservation group, once held fishing derbies, Jacques noted. But, after giving it some thought, everyone realized that the effort was counterproductive. “Long Live the Kings is now out of the derby business,” he said.

Gillnets, once common in Puget Sound, entrap fish by snagging their gills. Gillnets tend not to catch the truly giant salmon, because of the mesh size, but they do catch the larger salmon. Often only the smaller ones make it through to spawn — and that breeds another generation of small fish.

Fishing is not the only factor that tends to favor the survival of small fish, but it tends to be a big factor, according to Tom Quinn, a University of Washington professor of aquatic and fishery sciences. The issue is complicated, and every salmon run has its own characteristics, he said.

Hatcheries, dams and habitat alterations all tend to favor fish that can compete and survive under new conditions, and often those conditions work better for smaller fish. Changes in the food web may create a nutritional deficit for some salmon stocks, and competition at sea with large numbers of hatchery fish may be a factor. Check out the study in the journal Plos One by researchers for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

With the removal of two dams on the Elwha River, I’m hoping that experts can make sure that the conditions will be right for larger fish — if they can survive to make it home.

Quinn, along with doctoral student Michael Tillotson, recently published a paper showing how fishing seasons alone can alter the genetic makeup of a population along with the behavior of individual fish.

Although these characteristics are not necessarily related to the size of fish, it directly affects the fitness of the population. When people are fishing on wild stocks during open season, a fish has the best chance of survival if it shows up before the fishing season begins or after the fishing season is over. But that is not nature’s way.

Through evolution, the greatest number of fish tend to come back when environmental conditions are optimal for migration, spawning and smolt survival. If fishing seasons are timed for the peak of the run, that will reduce the percentage of fish taking advantage of the best conditions. Over time, the population gets skewed, as more fish come back during times when conditions are less than optimal.

The result is likely a lower survival rate for the overall population. The real crunch could come in the future as a result of climate change. If temperatures or streamflows become more severe, the fish may be in a no-win situation: If they show up at the most optimal time, they are more likely to get caught. if they come early or late, the environment could kill them or ruin their chances of successful spawning.

“We are reducing the ability of fish to find good environmental conditions,” said Michael Tillotson in a UW news release about the new paper. “We’re perhaps also reducing the ability of fish to adapt to climate change.”

Certain behaviors are bred into wild fish over many generations, and some traits are connected to their timing. Whether they feed aggressively or passively can affect their survival. Some salmon will wait for rain; others will wait for the right streamflow or temperature. Some smolts will stay in freshwater for extended periods; others will move quickly to saltwater. It’s not a great idea when fishing seasons, rather than environmental conditions, dictate fish behavior.

The move to mark-selective fishing — which involves removing the adipose fin of all hatchery fish before they are released — can help solve some problems for wild fish, Tom told me. Under selective fishing rules, fishers are allowed to keep the hatchery fish with a missing fin, but they must release the wild ones that still have all their fins. Some of the wild fish die from injury, but most of them survive, he said.

The key to the problem is a better understanding of the genetic makeup of the individual stocks while increasing the effort to maintain a high-level of genetic diversity. That’s an insurance policy that allows the fish to survive changing conditions.

The genes for giant Chinook have not been lost entirely, as I pointed out in Water Ways on Nov. 25. If we want to have larger Chinook, we must protect the individual Chinook that are larger. That could mean reduced ocean fishing, selective fishing for hatchery populations, and requirements to release fish larger than a certain size. Perhaps it would even be possible to selectively breed larger Chinook in a hatchery for a limited time to increase the size of the fish.

It won’t be easy, because these notions involve messing with billions of dollars in the fishing industry, not to mention complicated international relations. I will save discussions about the Pacific Salmon Treaty for another day. I will just say that this treaty is supposed to be between the U.S. and Canada. But negotiations involve tradeoffs among Washington, Canada and Alaska. Even the Endangered Species Act can’t always protect wild Puget Sound Chinook from being caught in Alaska, with the ultimate outcome that fewer fish make it home to spawn.

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.