Category Archives: Stormwater

Hood Canal blooms again, as biologists assess role of armored plankton

In what is becoming an annual event, portions of Hood Canal have changed colors in recent days, the result of a large bloom of armored plankton called coccolithophores.

Coccolithophore from Hood Canal’s Dabob Bay viewed with scanning electron microscope.
Image: Brian Bill, Northwest Fisheries Science Center

Teri King, a plankton expert with Washington Sea Grant, has been among the first to take notice of the turquoise blooms each year they occur.

“Guess who is back?” Teri wrote in the blog Bivalves for Clean Water. “She showed up June 24 in Dabob Bay and has been shining her Caribbean blueness throughout the bay and spreading south toward Quilcene Bay.”

Yesterday, I noticed a turquoise tinge in Southern Hood Canal from Union up to Belfair, although the color was not as intense as I’ve seen in past years.

The color is the result of light reflecting off elaborate platelets of calcium carbonate, called coccoliths, which form around the single-celled coccolithophores. The species in Hood Canal is typically Emiliania huxleyi.

Seth Book of the Skokomish Tribe lowers an instrument to measure light levels during a coccolithophore bloom this week in Dabob Bay.
Photo: Tiffany Royal, Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission

In the past, coccolithophore blooms seem to appear when the waters of Hood Canal are calm and sunny. The organisms are said to out-compete other types of plankton when nitrogen diminishes in surface waters. Nitrogen, a key nutrient for phytoplankton, can be used up in Hood Canal during periods of calm, dry weather. It will be interesting to see how the plankton population changes after recent rains may have infused a bit more nitrogen.

Meanwhile, biologists with the Skokomish Tribe have begun to investigate how the coccolithophore blooms could be affecting shellfish in Hood Canal. In recent years, shellfish growers have reported higher-then-usual oyster mortalities around the time of these blooms.

In 2017, Blair Paul, the tribe’s lead shellfish biologist, conducted a dive survey of the vast underwater geoduck beds in the midst of a coccolithophore bloom. Blair said he noticed that the geoducks weren’t eating, and the light levels appeared to be reduced.

Tiffany Royal, a public information officer for the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, wrote about his finding, quoting Blair in a news release: “Now we want to know two things: if there is a correlation between low crab and shrimp abundance when there is a coccolithophore bloom, and if there is reduction in food production in the water column for all shellfish nutrition.”

Tribal biologists are taking samples of water for concentrations of plankton while also looking at water chemistry. They are also testing for light levels inside and outside the plankton blooms.

Since the coccolithophores seem to dominate the waters after other major plankton species have declined, it is important to know whether shellfish will eat the coccolithophores, Blair said. They aren’t toxic, but their shells may be too abrasive for the shellfish to consume, he noted.

Seth Book, a tribal biologist who coordinates with the federal Environmental Protection Agency, told me that he is interested in the ecological role that coccolithophores play in Hood Canal, which is known for its low-oxygen conditions and occasional fish kills.

“We are concerned with potential reduction in primary productivity due to reflection and light attenuation, which means less food for shellfish,” he wrote in an email. “We have started to call it an ecosystem-disrupting harmful algal boom. Not toxic that we know of, but it appears to have impacts other than pretty water.”

Increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere also complicates the picture. Since coccoliths are made of calcium carbonate, they might play a significant role in the carbon chemistry of Hood Canal — given their sheer number during a major plankton bloom.

The investigation of coccolithophores in Hood Canal is funded by a grant from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. A report is expected in the fall, and the tribe will follow with a mitigation plan that considers how to reduce damage to shellfish resources.

“The tribes have been here thousands of years and will continue to be here,” Seth said in the news release. “It could be a natural cycle, but what we’re seeing is having implications to shellfish and treaty resources. It could possibly spread to other parts of Puget Sound as well.

Amusing Monday: SeaDoc followers go wild with new video series

“Salish Sea Wild” is a new video series by the SeaDoc Society designed to transport the viewer right up close to the living creatures that occupy the underwater and terrestrial realms of the Salish Sea.

The videos portray the beauty of our inland waterways as well as the excitement and occasional amusement of diving down into the ecologically rich waters that many people know only from the surface. The host for the series is wildlife veterinarian Joe Gaydos, science director for SeaDoc.

“Amid the wealth of biodiversity in our backyard, we’ll discover trees that eat fish, fish that mimic plants, plants that grow two feet a day, and animals that bloom like flowers,” Joe says in an introductory video (the first on this page). “We’ll focus on scientists working to preserve and restore the Salish Sea and to save its iconic species like salmon and our beloved orcas.”

The underwater world has already been the source for some remarkable video for the series, but the producers say they will also head to the mountains to visit terrestrial creatures as well as those that thrive in the coastal upwellings of the Pacific Ocean — from bears to giant octopus, from seabirds to ancient rockfish, along with various plants and seaweed that support the intricate food web.

SeaDoc, based on Orcas Island, is a nonprofit organization affiliated with the University of California, Davis, and dedicated to science and education in and around the Salish Sea. Producing the video series along with SeaDoc is Bob Friel, award-winning writer and documentary filmmaker who lives on Orcas Island.

This ambitious video project was launched in January with a 12-minute video that compares steller sea lions to grizzly bears, with the crew of Salish Sea Wild encountering a bunch of frisky stellers in the icy waters off Hornby Island, which is not quite halfway up Vancouver Island’s inner coast in British Columbia.

I wanted to wait until a few more videos were produced before promoting it here, and we’re now at that point. The next video, 14 minutes long, takes viewers in a submarine to the bottom of the Salish Sea. A massive school of sand lance is one of the captivating clips in the video shot near the San Juan Islands. Joe’s excitement is contagious as he eagerly boards the submersible that dives deeper than a scuba diver can go.

In the next video, the SeaDoc research team heads to the coast to describe seabirds — including the endangered and mysterious marbled murrelets. It reminded me of the first time I met Joe Gaydos, who was at the time studying Western grebes off the Kitsap Peninsula. See Kitsap Sun, March 5, 2007.

If you are as eager as I am to see what comes next, you can sign up for notification of each new video on SeaDoc’s YouTube channel. The videos also can be viewed on www.SalishSeaWild.org and on SeaDoc’s Facebook page and Instagram feed.

The last video on this page includes some amusing outtakes from the ongoing adventures of Salish Sea Wild. Could Joe Gaydos be the next Jacques Cousteau? Check out “Zee Undersea World of Jeaux Gaydeaux.”

Finally, just for younger people, SeaDoc recently launched the Junior SeaDoctors program, designed to connect young adventurers with their wild surroundings. Read about killer whales, ocean circulation and stormwater on the home page of Junior SeaDoctors, where one can signup to join the club. The program includes a curriculum for teachers who wish to use the materials in their classroom to meet Next Generation Science Standards.

European Union charges forward to reduce dangerous plastic litter

By 2021, the 28 countries in the European Union are expected to ban single-use plastics — including straws, plates, cutlery and drink stirrers, as well as plastic sticks for cotton swabs, balloons and candy.

The latest development, announced this past week, involves the approval of a provisional agreement by the European Parliament and Council of the European Union. Formal approval is expected next. The ban carries through on an initiative launched in May that also seeks to limit the use of plastic drink cups, food containers, grocery bags and candy wrappers. Review Water Ways, May 31,2018, or take a look at this EU brochure.

World production of plastic materials by region (2013). Click to enlarge // Source: European Union

Most plastic in Europe is landfilled or incinerated, rather than being recycled, which is a loss to the economy, according to EU documents contained in the European Strategy for Plastics. In the environment, many plastics take hundreds of years to break down, and the amount of plastic getting into the ocean has raised alarm bells throughout the world.

“When we have a situation where one year you can bring your fish home in a plastic bag, and the next year you are bringing that bag home in a fish, we have to work hard and work fast,” Karmenu Vella, EU commissioner for environment, maritime affairs and fisheries, said in a statement released Wednesday. “So I am happy that with the agreement of today between Parliament and Council. We have taken a big stride towards reducing the amount of single-use plastic items in our economy, our ocean and ultimately our bodies.”

“This agreement truly helps protect our people and our planet,” said First Vice-President Frans Timmermans, responsible for sustainable development. “Europeans are conscious that plastic waste is an enormous problem and the EU as a whole has shown true courage in addressing it, making us the global leader in tackling plastic marine litter.”

The measures are expected to reduce litter by more than half for the top-10 plastic litter items, saving 22 billion Euros (about $25 billion) by 2030 and avoiding 3.4 million metric tons (3.75 million U.S. tons) of carbon dioxide emissions by 2030, according to a fact sheet.

The United Nations has launched a campaign to reduce plastic pollution.
Source: UN

Peter Harris, a graduate of North Kitsap High School who is working on an environmental assessment for the United Nations, told me in June that plastics pollution is one of the three greatest problems facing the world’s oceans. The others are the bleaching of coral reefs caused by global warming and overfishing, which is driving some species to extinction. See Water Ways, June 6, 2018.

The European Union has carefully examined how plastics affect the ocean. EU countries should be recognized for their courage in tackling the problem in Europe, not waiting for a worldwide agreement before taking action. Non-European countries would be wise to consider their own plastic impacts on the environment.

So far, actions in the United States have been limited to a relatively small number of cities and counties, along with a few states. Because plastics wash downstream in stormwater and into rivers before reaching the ocean, every American has a role to play in the problem. Whether we address the challenges internationally, nationally or locally, everyone should take time to understand this serious issue, consider practical solutions and support actions that can save marine life before it’s too late.

Some salmon take the low road to get back home to spawn

“Why did the salmon cross the road?”

OK, I’ll admit that I used this line once in a story many years ago when I first observed the Skokomish River overflowing its banks. I was amazed at the number of chum salmon swimming through farm fields and across pavement in the Skokomish Valley as they tried to get back to their spawning grounds.

Despite extensive work in the Skokomish River estuary, the waters still back up and fish still swim across roads during heavy rains and floods.

I was not the first to bend the old joke to ask, “Why did the salmon cross the road?” And I was definitely not the last, as two new videos went viral the past few days, resulting in news reports across the country. Hundreds of thousands of people must have been surprised to see Puget Sound salmon skittering across the pavement in a most unnatural way.

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Salmon migration on display during Saturday’s Kitsap Salmon Tours

Recent rains are bringing chum salmon into numerous streams on the Kitsap Peninsula, according to Jon Oleyar, biologist for the Suquamish Tribe. But more rains are needed to help the salmon reach the upper tributaries and fully seed the system, he added.

Chum salmon swim up Chico Creek on Thursday (11-1). // Photo: Emma Jeffries

“The fall fish are right on schedule,” Jon told me, “but I wish they had more water, especially for the tributaries.”

Folks attending the Kitsap Salmon Tours this Saturday should be able to see fish in most locations on this year’s list. Read on for details.

The fall chum themselves seem larger than average this year, Jon said, which means the streams need a little more water than usual for the fish to easily swim upstream.

Salmon can move quickly upstream and become stranded in too-shallow water after a downpour followed by a dry period, he said. In a worst-case scenario, fish may die before spawning. Once the rains have saturated the soil, the risk of low flows is reduced, but as of today we’re not at that point yet. Heavy rains last Saturday brought many fish into the streams, he added, but streams levels have dropped somewhat since then.

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Legal settlement could help protect salmon eggs incubating in gravel

Washington Department of Ecology has agreed to take steps to protect wild salmon eggs incubating in gravel by developing entirely new water-quality standards to control fine sediment going into streams.

The new standards, yet to be developed, could ultimately limit silty runoff coming from logging operations, housing construction and other operations that can affect water quality. The idea is maintain adequate oxygen to salmon eggs, thus increasing the rate of survival as well as the health of the young fish.

The legal agreement with Ecology grew out of a lawsuit brought by Northwest Environmental Advocates against the federal Environmental Protection Agency. NWEA claimed that the EPA had failed to consult with natural resource agencies while reviewing changes in state water-quality standards, as required by the Endangered Species Act.

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Ongoing lack of rainfall raises concerns for chum, coho salmon

We’ve just gone through one of the driest five-month periods on record in Kitsap County, yet the total precipitation for entire water year was fairly close to average.

Water year 2018, which ended Sunday, offers a superb example of the extreme differences in precipitation from one part of the Kitsap Peninsula to another:

  • In Hansville — at the north end of the peninsula — the total rainfall for the year reached 35.2 inches, about 3.5 inches above average.
  • In Silverdale — about midway from north to south — the total rainfall was recorded as 43.1 inches, about 5 inches below average.
  • In Holly — near the south end — the total rainfall came in at 82 inches, about 3.3 inches above average.

The graphs of precipitation for the three areas show how this year’s rainfall tracked with the average rainfall through the entire year. The orange line depicts accumulated rainfall for water year 2018, while the pink line represents the average. Click on the images to enlarge and get a better view.

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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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Focus on chinook salmon creates troubles for Southern Resident orcas

I’ve often wondered how well Puget Sound’s endangered orcas would be doing today if these whales had not grown up within a culture of eating chinook salmon.

Photo: NOAA Fisheries

In Iceland, some killer whales apparently feed on both fish and seals, depending on the time of year, according to researcher Sara Tavares of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. The same animals have been seen among large groups of orcas as they pursue schools of herring in the North Atlantic, she writes in her blog, Icelandic Orcas.

The Icelandic whales have a different social structure than the fish-eating Southern Resident killer whales that frequent the Salish Sea. Both groups are also quite different from the marine-mammal-eating transient killer whales that have been visiting Puget Sound more frequently in recent years.

It is now widely accepted that groups of killer whales each have their own culture, passed down from mothers to offspring, with older relatives playing an integral role in the lessons. Culture is simply learned behavior, and the message delivered from the elders to the young is: “This is the way we do it.”

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