Category Archives: Research

Purchase of Big Beef Creek property preserves habitat, research projects

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amusing Monday: A slime mold named ‘Blob’ becomes a hit in Paris

A zoo in Paris, Parc Zoologique Paris, captured headlines and incited fits of laughter while announcing a new exhibit called “The Blob,” which is also the name of a particular slime mold that zookeepers have boldly placed on display for the public to see.

Yes, the zoo is proudly showing off a yellow slime mold, whose name is causing people to remember a 1950s horror movie, “The Blob,” starring Steve McQueen. The zoo’s website has stirred up passions and attracted visitors with this promotion:

“Sheltered in dark and humid habitats, Blob knows how to be discreet. This unicellular being is surprising by its unusual abilities. Even though he has no mouth, stomach or eyes, he is perfectly able to detect the presence of food (spores of fungi, bacteria and microbes) and to ingest it.

“Devoid of legs or wings, it moves up to 1 centimeter per hour while stretching its membrane. Cut it into pieces, the blob will heal in two minutes! He does not have two different sexes, but around 720, so reproduction is not a problem for him.

“The most amazing is his ability to solve problems, present different personalities, and even communicate, while being devoid of brains!”

You may have seen reports on television (videos this page) or heard NPR commentator Scott Simon’s interview Saturday with Audrey Dussutour of the French National Center for Scientific Research.

“If it were right in front of me on the bathroom floor, what would it look like?” Scott asks.

“Scrambled eggs; it would look exactly like scrambled eggs,” came the reply.

“Oh, but don’t mistake it for such,” Scott says, “This blob has been called a genius. What makes a blob with no brain a genius?”

The answer is based on years of scientific research into this eukaryotic organism called Physarum polycephalum, “the many headed slime.” Once considered a fungus, slime molds are not plants, animals or fungi but are grouped in the kingdom Protista, along with paramecia and amoebae.

Years ago, scientists realized that slime molds have a way of growing and moving to optimize their access to food sources. They can even find their way through a maze. Because slime molds don’t have a brain, their decisions are based on chemistry and physics. As researchers learned more about them, they came to realize that if the movements of the Blob can be explained mathematically, they might form the basis of a computer program.

In 2004, a group of Japanese researchers described how the slime mold was able to build a network of tubes through which chemicals and nutrients are transported, resulting in an impressive communications network. See Proceedings of the Royal Society – Biological Sciences.

Two years ago, a team of researchers based at Harvard University were able to simulate the observed responses of a slime mold with a mathematical model. Their hypothesis was that an unidentified chemical drives the response.

As they describe in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, ““A stimulus triggers the release of a signaling molecule. The molecule is initially advected by fluid flows but also increases fluid flows, generating a feedback loop and enabling the movement of information throughout the organism’s body.”

If you were wondering about the 720 different sexes, that is based on the large number of variants of three possible sex genes, with two genes making up an individual. Many combinations are possible. Check out the paper on genetics by two University of Tokyo researchers.

By the way, researchers have been referring to slime molds as “blobs” or “goo” for at least a decade, probably much longer. Basic information about these interesting creatures and how they are being studied can be seen in the bottom two videos on this page.

Most interesting of all perhaps is the video at this top of this page, which I found while searching for research on slime molds. It is a musical piece by Eduardo Miranda produced through the sonification of a slime mold as it searches for food.

I can’t say I understand all the steps taken to produce the music or the visualization that we see on the video, but you can read the 17-page paper written on the subject, including this tidbit:

“The instrumental part and the synthesized sounds are musifications and sonifications, respectively, of a computer simulation of Physarum goo foraging for food. A visual animation of the simulation that generated the materials for the composition is displayed during the performance, but the images are twisted by the musicians as they play: The music controls software that manipulates the animations in real-time. Each instrument holds a microphone, which relays the sound to a system that controls the images.”

Perhaps it is better to just enjoy the music.

After all the recent talk about slime molds, some people are wondering if the Blob would make a good pet. Sure, why not? An Internet search turns up a variety of do-it-yourself projects, and I even found a “Slime Mold Growing Kit” designed for classroom use.

Audubon warns that bird species are threatened by changing climate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amusing Monday: Pacific Research Expedition shown live on video

Deep-sea corals and sponges are the focus of an intense research program now exploring the seabed along the West Coast. Live video from the bottom of the ocean can be viewed via the research ship Reuben Lasker, owned by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

I’ve posted the two primary video feeds on this page, or you can link to the video pages associated with the 29-day expedition, which began a week ago and will continue until Nov. 7. Previous video recordings are often shown when live video is not available.

The research cruise is exploring the seabed off the Washington, Oregon and California coasts, as shown in the map below. Researchers are using Yogi, a tethered remotely operated vehicle (ROV), as well as SeaBED, an untethered autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV), to collect samples of corals and sponges and observe changes in previously surveyed sites.

“Recent advances in deep-ocean exploration have revealed spectacular coral gardens in the dark ocean depths, far from the sunny, shallow reefs most of us associate with corals,” states a description of the mission. “Similar explorations have revealed new and familiar species thriving where we once expected little activity.”

Proceeding from north to south, the sites to be surveyed (green dots) are Willapa Canyon head, North Daisy Bank, Sponge bycatch Oregon shell, Brush Patch, Humboldt and Mad River, and Mendocino Ridge before a layover Oct. 19-22, followed by Cordell Bank/Farallones, Cabrillo Canyon, West of Carmel Canyon, Monterey Bay, wind site, Santa Lucia Bank, Channel Islands and Catalina Basin.

One goal is to characterize habitats at 12 specific sites along the West Coast. That information could help the Pacific Fishery Management Council modify fishing regulations while protecting essential fish habitat. Survey data may also suggest feasible locations — and locations to avoid — when developing offshore wind power and other energy projects.

The expedition is a collaboration of NOAA, the Global Foundation for Ocean Exploration, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM). The expedition consists of two legs: from the Washington Coast to San Francisco, where a public event will be held at the Exploratorium Museum, followed by the second leg from San Francisco to San Diego.

“With every survey I’ve been a part of there’s a frantic flurry of last-minute logistics getting the expedition together and loading the ship,” Elizabeth Clarke, co-leader of the voyage, said in a news release. “Once we start the expedition, however, things settle down and we start each day excited, wondering what new discoveries we will find.”

As of today (Monday, Oct. 14), poor weather conditions had delayed activities on the bottom since last night. “We are looking to get back in the water tomorrow (10/14) evening, weather permitting,” states last night’s Twitter feed, @Discover_GFOE, which is the best way of keeping track of the voyage. You can also use Twitter #expresscruise.

Additional information:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amusing Monday: Ig Nobel prizes make us laugh, then think

True-life research catching the attention of humorists this year includes studies on the health benefits of pizza — but only in Italy, the psychological needs of scratching an itch, and figuring out which countries have money that is more likely to carry dangerous bacteria.

Of course, I’m talking about the Ig Nobel Prize, which holds an annual ceremony to celebrate seemingly off-the-wall research published in actual scientific journals. Judges reward researchers whose studies first make them laugh and then make them think.

Marc Abrams, who founded the event, served as master of ceremonies for the “29th First Annual Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony” Sept. 12 at Harvard’s Sanders Theatre. Abrams is editor of the “Annals of Improbable Research,” a publication that seeks out oddball investigations in science and other fields.

Researchers really do have a sense of humor, as you can see in the amusing video on this page. Winners show up at the ceremony, smiling as others subject their work to good-natured ridicule. Acceptance speeches are sometimes funny, sometimes serious, but always short — thanks to antics of a little girl who keeps track of the time.

This year’s theme was “Habits,” which led to a variety of stunts, demonstrations and musical numbers, all shown in the video.

I’m listing the winning research projects as they were described in announcing the winners. Links to the actual research papers along with the names of the authors can be found on the website “Ig Nobel Prize Winners for 2019,” which also includes winners from previous years.

The 2019 Ig Nobel Prize Winners
  • Medicine Prize: Researchers in Italy and the Netherlands awarded for collecting evidence that pizza might protect against illness and death, if the pizza is made and eaten in Italy.
  • Medical Education Prize: U.S. researchers awarded for using a simple animal-training technique — called “clicker training” — to train surgeons to perform orthopedic surgery.
  • Biology Prize: Researchers from various countries awarded for discovering that dead magnetized cockroaches behave differently than living magnetized cockroaches.
  • Anatomy Prize: French researchers awarded for measuring scrotal temperature asymmetry in naked and clothed postmen in France.
  • Chemistry Prize: Researchers from Japan awarded for estimating the total saliva volume produced per day by a typical five-year-old child.
  • Engineering Prize: An Iranian researcher awarded for inventing a diaper-changing machine for use on human infants (patent application).
  • Economic Prize: Researchers from Turkey, the Netherlands and Germany awarded for testing which country’s paper money is best able to transmit dangerous bacteria.
  • Peace Prize: Researchers from various countries awarded for trying to measure the pleasurability of scratching an itch.
  • Psychology Prize: A German researcher awarded for discovering that holding a pen in one’s mouth makes one smile, which makes one happier — and for then discovering that it does not.
  • Physics Prize: Researchers from various countries awarded for studying how, and why, wombats make cube-shaped poo.

Orcas return to Puget Sound; critical habitat proposed for coast

It appears that the southern resident killer whales have begun to travel into Central and South Puget Sound for their annual fall feast of chum salmon, according to past experience and dozens of reports from shoreside observers.

The northern section of the proposed critical habitat for southern resident killer whales.(click to enlarge)
Map: National Marine Fisheries Service

Meanwhile, the federal government has proposed extending their designated “critical habitat” beyond Puget Sound to the outer coast of Washington, Oregon and Northern California.

The critically endangered orcas have mostly been away from Puget Sound this summer, as their frequency of visits has declined in recent years. During the spring and summer, their primary prey is chinook salmon. But they tend to follow schools of chum salmon in the fall, and it is possible that recent rains got the chum moving a little faster toward their many home streams.

It appears the whales came in and traveled as far south as Seattle and the southern end of Bainbridge Island Thursday and were headed back north today. They could make another loop of Puget Sound, or they could head out to sea and return later. Check out Orca Network’s Facebook page for ongoing sighting reports. Kitsap Sun reporter Jessie Darland describes their arrival.

The expanded critical habitat, proposed by the National Marine Fisheries Service, totals 15,627 square miles along the continental shelf of the Pacific Ocean. When finalized, federal agencies will be required to protect the orcas’ habitat as well as the orcas themselves.

Photo: Capt. Jim Maya

By 2014, scientists at NMFS had been gathering data for several years in support of such an expansion when the Center for Biological Diversity filed a petition (Water Ways, Jan. 19, 2014) urging the government to finally take action. The agency agreed to move forward but continued to delay until after the group filed a lawsuit, which led to this week’s proposal.

Notably, the proposal does not include the Center for Biological Diversity’s idea to include safe sound levels as an important quality of the killer whale habitat. The group wanted to make sure the whales could hear well enough to use their echolocation to hunt fish, and they wanted to keep the animals from experiencing sounds that could cause partial or total deafness.

The agency looked at the issue but concluded that it does not have a way to establish a threshold sound level that could be considered harmful, although non-quantitative noise levels have been used to protect Cook Inlet beluga whales and Main Hawaiian Island false killer whales. For now, NFMS kept the essential habitat features for killer whale habitat to three things:

  1. Water quality to support growth and development,
  2. Prey species of sufficient quantity, quality and availability to support individual growth, reproduction, and development — as well as overall population growth, and
  3. Passage conditions to allow for migration, resting, and foraging.

Based on experience, NMFS said its biologists could already address adverse effects of man-made noise under the habitat categories of prey and passage. If noise were to affect the whales’ ability to hunt, for example, the problem could come under “prey species.” If noise were to discourage them from traveling to or resting in a specific area, it could come under “passage conditions.”

The Navy’s Quinault Range Site, where sonar and explosives are used in testing and training operations off the Washington coast, was excluded from the critical habitat designation following an evaluation by NMFS. Also excluded was a 10-kilometer (6.2-mile) buffer around the range.

“The Navy argued that there would be national security impacts if NMFS required additional mitigation that resulted in the Navy having to halt, reduce in scope, or geographically/seasonally constrain testing activities to prevent adverse effects or adverse modification of critical habitat,” NMFS noted in its findings.

The Navy has developed operational procedures to limit the harm to killer whales and other marine life, as required by the Endangered Species Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act and court rulings. While NMFS agreed to exclude the Quinault Range Site, it did not extend the exclusion to other Navy operational areas on the Washington coast.

Julie Teel Simmonds, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, told me that officials in her group will carefully scrutinize that proposed exclusion area.

“Their decision to exclude is discretionary,” she wrote in an email, “but we will be evaluating their analysis during the public comment period, particularly given the plight of the orca and the concerns we have with some of the Navy’s activities, particularly certain harmful sonars.”

Brad Hanson and other marine mammal biologists at the NMFS’ Northwest Fisheries Science Center spent years evaluating where the orcas traveled in the ocean and what they were eating. They tracked the whales by attaching satellite transmitters, recorded their sounds on hydrophones along the coast, and collected sighting reports from a variety of people.

Duration of visitation to various areas by K and L southern resident pods. Darker coloration represents longer durations.
Model output: National Marine Fisheries Service

They learned that when the three pods of southern resident orcas were on the coast they spent more than half their time off Washington state, often between Grays Harbor and the Columbia River. Their travels often corresponded with an abundance of salmon.

While K and L pods have been observed in coastal waters every month of the year, J pod ventured to the coast infrequently and only in northern waters. All three pods spent nearly all their time within about 20 miles of shore and in waters less than 650 feet deep.

Through the years, I have written extensively about these studies. Here are a few blog posts:

Although the southern residents frequent the waters of British Columbia, the proposed critical habitat was limited to U.S. waters, because of the extent of U.S. jurisdiction. A single confirmed sighting of southern residents in Southeast Alaska in 2007 was not considered adequate to add any area to the north.

As a result of the expanded critical habitat, a number of activities will come under federal review with respect to protecting habitat as well as animals. They include salmon fishing, salmon hatcheries, offshore aquaculture, alternative energy development, oil exploration and drilling, military activities, and onshore activities that could create pollution.

NMFS was unable to identify any specific construction projects or maritime activities that would be affected significantly beyond the existing reviews required by the Endangered Species Act. The total additional cost of reviewing permits and analyzing potential impacts of projects was estimated at $68,000 a year.

Comments on the proposal may be submitted until Dec. 18. For information, check out the various documents on NMFS’ Southern Residents Critical Habitat website.

I confess: When it comes to toxic chemicals, I trusted the FDA too long

Bisphenol A has been creating a dilemma for me since I first heard that it could disrupt normal hormone function in people and animals.

BPA chemical structure

BPA, as the chemical is known, is produced in large quantities, sold around the world, and used in many products — including food cans, plastic bottles, toys and even sales receipts you might be handed at a retail store. Exposure is widespread, with detectable levels of BPA found in at least 93 percent of Americans who are 6 years old or older.

As part of my daily routine, I check out research reports on a variety of environmental and water-related subjects. It seems like there is a never-ending stream of reports, numbering in the thousands, that continue to find problems with even low exposures to BPA.

And there’s the root of my dilemma. The federal Food and Drug Administration, which is responsible for protecting us from tainted food and drink, keeps telling us that BPA is safe at current levels of exposure. Check out the statement from the FDA’s Deputy Commissioner Stephen Ostroff.

In 2008, I informed readers (Water Ways, April 11, 2008) that I was searching for and throwing out my drinking-water bottles likely to contain BPA. My actions were based on alarms raised by researchers, including those at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. For years, I’ve wanted to provide firm, up-to-date advice about BPA, but I guess I’ve been unduly stymied by my faith in the FDA.

With those thoughts in mind, I called Patricia Hunt, a researcher at Washington State University’s Center for Reproductive Biology. Pat has studied the science of BPA for many years. One of the problems leading to the FDA’s position, she told me, is that government officials don’t want to give up the long-held toxicological approach to regulating chemicals.

Under the old-fashioned system, the more exposure one receives to a harmful chemical, the worse the health problems are likely to be. So the FDA determines a safe level and expects everyone to comply. But that system does not always work for hormones or for chemicals that act like hormones — such as BPA.

When would a higher dose of a chemical produce a lesser effect? Hormones often work in partnership with a receptor — like a key in a lock — to produce a biological response. A chemical that mimics a hormone may produce an inappropriate and even harmful biological response. Starting at extremely low doses, things may get worse as the dose is increased. But at some level the hormone receptors may become saturated, causing the biological effect to diminish as doses continue to increase.

This is just an example, but hormones and related synthetic chemicals may not react in the same way. Their dose-response curve may even be different for different organs of the body.

That is one problem with the toxicological system under which the government operates, according to Pat Hunt and two other researchers who wrote an opinion piece in the journal “Nature Reviews: Endocrinology.” In the article, she and the other authors praise an extensive — and expensive — research project launched by the federal government to identify the harmful effects of BPA. The project goes by the hopeful name CLARITY, which stands for Consortium Linking Academic and Regulatory Insights on Toxicity of Bisphenol A.

The project was insightful, they argue, but only if FDA officials are willing to look at the limitations of the study’s design and avoid rejecting findings from academic researchers that might not fit an expected pattern.

“Although, ideally, a consensus between the approaches should be possible,” their article states, “differences in research culture made the CLARITY effort akin to expecting a group of folk and punk rock musicians to pick
up their instruments and play together 
in harmony.”

Low-dose effects were found in the data of many studies and should have set off alarm bells, they say. Exposure for animals in the developmental stages are particularly concerning, and the effects may not show up until the animal becomes a sexually mature adult.

“Taken together, these data suggest that low-dose BPA exposure induces subtle developmental changes that act to impair the endocrine, reproductive, neurobiological and immune system of adult rats,” states the article, which goes into far more detail than I can cover here.

BPA has gotten a lot of public attention, which has encouraged manufacturers to replace BPA with other chemicals and advertise their products as “BPA free.” The problem is that the substitutes may be just as bad or worse, according to researchers. In fact, some of the substitutes have been banned in Washington state, so companies are off to the next replacement chemicals.

The problem is that the modern world is filled with chemicals that have not been adequately tested for safety, Pat told me. Ideally, the chemicals would have been tested before they went on the market, but that’s not how things were done in the past. Now the government is challenged to identify chemicals on the market that cause health problems even while people are being continually exposed.

The current Trump administration seems to have little interest in this topic, even though a new federal law signed in 2016 by former President Barack Obama was designed to address the problem. I wrote about this for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound in 2016, along with a story about “rogue chemicals” in the environment.

“A lot of us feel that, to come up with a safe level of exposure, some of these chemicals should not even be in the products they are in,” Pat said.

In explaining this difficult problem to the parents of young children, she sometimes holds up a package of birth-control pills and asks, “How much of this should I be allowed to give your child?” Parents don’t want their child to have any, she said, yet we live in a world in which children are ingesting such chemicals, like it or not.

I had thought that the FDA had at least banned BPA in baby bottles, sippy cups and other products that could increase exposure to children at a critical time of their development. But that was not the case. The agency had simply “abandoned” its approval of such uses, because companies had changed their products voluntarily.

“An amendment of the food additive regulations based on abandonment is not based on safety but is based on the fact that the regulatory authorization is no longer necessary,” the FDA emphasized in a fact sheet.

In other words, the FDA has never changed its stance on BPA. Meanwhile, a number of states have taken steps to protect children. Some — like Washington — have gone further to protect more of the population. But others have done nothing.

So what can people do about BPA and other chemical concerns?

“You can ask for what you want,” Pat said. “I always tell consumers that they can vote with their pocketbooks.”

Personally, I have cut back on canned foods, because BPA is used to reduce metal corrosion, although it can leach into foods — especially acidic foods. I no longer heat food or drinks in plastic containers, and I’m slowly converting to glass for storing food on the shelf and in my refrigerator.

For more information and tips about what you can do, check out these sources:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other information:

Yearlong pumping test will help define aquifers across Kitsap Peninsula

An unprecedented yearlong pump test of a deep water well in Central Kitsap is expected to provide a wealth of new information about our underground water supplies.

Joel Purdy, hydrogeologist for Kitsap Public Utility District, checks the flow at Newberry Hill Well 2, which is being pumped at 1,000 gallons per minute for a full year. // Photo: Christopher Dunagan

The 900-foot-deep well, off Newberry Hill Road, will be pumped continuously for a year, drawing water at a rate of 1,000 gallons per minute. Drawdown effects of the high pumping rate will be measured in 56 other wells — including those operated by Silverdale Water District, Kitsap Public Utility District, the city of Bremerton, North Perry Water District, Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor and others.

The pump test is designed to better define the extent of aquifers throughout Central Kitsap while increasing the accuracy of a groundwater model developed to predict water supplies across the Kitsap Peninsula.

“This is going to be one of the best data-gathering tests,” said Joel Purdy, hydrogeologist for Kitsap Public Utility District. “Hydrogeologists dream of doing this kind of aquifer test.”

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