Tag Archives: Puget Sound

Can volunteer trappers halt the green crab invasion in Puget Sound?

The war against the invasive European green crab continues in Puget Sound, as this year’s Legislature offers financial support, while the Puget Sound Crab Team responds to crabs being caught for the first time in Samish Bay in North Puget Sound and at Kala Point near Port Townsend.

In other parts of the country where green crabs have become established, the invaders have destroyed native shoreline habitat, diminished native species and cost shellfish growers millions of dollars in damages. See Environmental Protection Agency report (PDF 1.3 mb).

European green crab trapping sites in Puget Sound.
Map: Washington Sea Grant

In Puget Sound, it’s hard to know whether the crabs are being trapped and removed rapidly enough to defeat the invasion, but so far humans seem to be holding their own, according to Emily Grason, who manages the Crab Team volunteer trapping effort for Washington Sea Grant.

“The numbers are still in line with what we saw the past two years,” Emily told me. “Since the numbers have not exploded, to me that is quite a victory. In other parts of the world, they have been known to increase exponentially.”

The largely volunteer Crab Team program is focused on placing baited traps at 56 sites in Puget Sound, as shown in the first map on this page. About 220 trained volunteers are involved in that work, with various federal, state and tribal agencies adding about 40 additional people.

Last year, 69 78 crabs were caught in the traps. All but eight of those were on or near Dungeness Spit, where officials with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have increased their trapping in an effort to catch every crab willing to crawl into a trap. The agency manages the Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge.

In Samish Bay, east of the San Juan Islands in North Puget Sound, three green crabs — including a female bearing eggs — were captured in January while shellfish growers were tending to shellfish beds in the bay. This was the first time that green crabs have been caught in the winter, when they usually move offshore, according to Emily. For that reason, the overall trapping program begins in April and ends in September. But far out on the mudflats, during a low tide, the crabs might be found by those working the shellfish beds. See Emily’s Crab Team blog post from Jan. 23.

Staffers at Padilla Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve added a fifth trapping site in an extremely muddy area of Samish Bay, an area that would be tough for volunteers to monitor, Emily said.

A new Port Gamble site was added in an effort to detect any crabs that may have arrived during their larval stage and begun to grow. Port Gamble on the Kitsap Peninsula is considered to be in the proximity of Kala Point near Port Townsend, where a single green crab was found in September, just before the end of the trapping season. Further extensive trapping located another green crab in nearby Scow Bay between Indian and Marrowstone islands. See Emily’s Crab Team blog post from Sept. 25.

The monitoring at Point Julia in Port Gamble Bay will be managed by the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe, which may propose additional sites in the area.

Based on research since the Crab Team was formed in 2015, more crabs are caught in May than any other month, Emily told me, so everyone is waiting to see what shows up this month. As the waters warm and the crabs go out in search of food, they may become more vulnerable to trapping. So far this spring, 16 green crabs have been trapped along Dungeness Spit with one from nearby Sequim Bay.

Another big trapping month comes in August, before the crabs move offshore, she said.

The trapping effort is geared to catching as many crabs as possible at a young age, because a large population of breeding adults in any location could threaten to spread the infestation throughout Puget Sound. Having Crab Team volunteers putting out their traps in strategic locations increases the probability that green crabs will be found before they get established. If needed, larger eradication or control efforts can be launched with the help of other agencies.

As part of the effort, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife added a staffer last year to do spot checking in vulnerable areas not regularly trapped. That increases the chances of detecting an invasion.

For the first time this year, the Legislature funded the Crab Team’s operating budget, which allows Emily and other Crab Team leaders to focus on finding crabs, rather than spending their time searching for funding to keep the program going.

The hope, of course, is that fewer crabs will be caught this year, as an indication that the population is being held in check. It would be nice to think that all the major infestations have been found.

“We hope that this is going to be an easier year,” Emily said, “but we don’t get to determine that. We have to be responsive to whatever happens.”

Officials working along the Washington Coast, led by the Makah Tribe, have their hands full with an invasion that may have started as early as 2014 and has resulted in more than 1,000 green crabs being caught. Check out the story on the website of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.

The interactive map below allows for selection of trapping sites, locations where crabs have been found and areas with suitable habitat for invaders. For those who would like to get involved in the Crab Team’s efforts, check out Sea Grant’s website and the “Get Involved” page.

This blog post was revised from an earlier version to correct changes in the total number of green crabs found last year and to clarify the overall effort.

Sponsor of state oil-spill-prevention bill recalls Exxon Valdez disaster

State Rep. Debra Lekanoff, D-Bow, grew up in the small town of Yakutat, Alaska, where her entire family and most of her friends hunted and fished, following Native American traditions passed down from their ancestors.

Rep. Lekanoff carries with her that indelible perspective, as she goes about the business of law-making. Like all of us, her personal history has shaped the forces that drive her today. Now, as sponsor of House Bill 1578, she is pushing hard for a law to help protect Puget Sound from a catastrophic oil spill.

KTVA, the CBS affiliate in Anchorage, presented a program Sunday on the 30th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. // Video: KTVA-TV

In 1989, Debra, a member of the Tlinget Tribe, was about to graduate from high school when the Exxon Valdez ran aground in Prince William Sound, some 220 miles northwest of her hometown. The spill of 11 million gallons of crude oil ultimately killed an estimated 250,000 seabirds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, 250 bald eagles and up to 22 killer whales, along with untold numbers of fish and crabs, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (PDF 11.5 mb). That was 30 years ago this past Sunday.

After graduation, many of Debra’s classmates went to the disaster area and took jobs picking up dead and dying animals covered in oil. While Debra did not visit the devastation, she listened to the terrible stories and read letters written by her friends.

“These were boys who grew up hunting and fishing,” she said. “They knew the importance of natural resources. I can only imagine how they felt picking up the dead animals. We lost a whole pod of orcas from that spill, and today you can still turn over the rocks and find oil underneath.”

The Exxon Valdez oil spill “woke up the state of Alaska” to the devastating threats posed by oil transport, she said, and it triggered an ongoing investment in oil-spill prevention.

Lekanoff moved to Washington state, where she graduated from Central Washington University and eventually went to work for the Swinomish Tribe in North Puget Sound, where she works as government affairs director.

Last year, she was selected by Gov. Jay Inslee to serve on the Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force, trying to find ways to save the critically endangered orcas from extinction. One measure promoted by the task force — and supported by outside studies — was to take additional steps to reduce the risks of an accident involving a tanker or barge.

Debra tells me she has one word that guides her views on the subject of oil transportation: “prevention-prevention-prevention,” which reinforces the idea of redundancy. Tug escorts and “rescue tugs” for oil tankers and barges are part of the redundancy called for in HB 1578. Other recommendations from the Department of Ecology include extra personnel aboard the vessels to watch out for developing conditions.

Computer models can be used to calculate the risks of a catastrophic oil spill in Puget Sound, something I recently wrote about for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound. But the real world does not run on computer models. So it becomes difficult to decide how much risk is acceptable when considering the potential loss of incalculable values, such as fish, wildlife and the Northwest lifestyle.

Rep. Lekanoff, 48, who was first elected to the Legislature last year, said Washington state needs to move away from a pollution-based economy, which has already decimated a vast abundance of salmon while pushing our cherished orcas to the brink of extinction.

The Skagit River in North Puget Sound is the only river left in the Lower 48 states able to sustain all five species of salmon, she said, and now even that river is threatened by proposed mining operations and changing streamflows caused by climate change.

Lekanoff said she sees her role as a person who can build strong relationships between the state, federal and tribal governments to protect and restore natural resources in our region.

“We need to build a better future for the generations to come,” she told me, and that requires looking past short-term gains to consider the long-term results of legislative actions.

As sponsor of HB 1578, a bill drafted and heavily promoted by the Governor’s Office, Lekanoff said the challenge has been to engage with various interest groups, share scientific information and seek out common interests.

“This bill,” she said, “is a clear example of what we can do together. We needed everyone at the table.”

For tanker traffic traveling through Rosario Strait near the San Juan Islands, Lekanoff’s bill would require tug escorts for vessels over 5,000 deadweight tons along with studies to determine what other measures are needed. Currently, tug escorts come into play only for tanker ships over 40,000 deadweight tons, and there are no escort requirements for barges of any size.

The next step will be to get everyone at the table again to discuss the risks of tanker traffic traveling through Haro Straight, a prime feeding ground for orcas in the San Juan Islands, Lekanoff said. Prevention-prevention-prevention — including the potential of tug escorts — will again be a primary topic of discussion.

Lekanoff’s bill passed the House March 7 on a 70-28 vote and moved out of the Senate Committee on Environment, Energy and Technology on Tuesday. The bill will make a stop at the Senate Ways and Means Committee before going to the floor for a vote by all senators.

Orcas gain increasing clout during fishing season discussions

Puget Sound’s endangered killer whales are becoming fully integrated into annual planning efforts that divide up the available salmon harvest among user groups — including sport, commercial and tribal fishers.

An orca mother named Calypso (L-94) nurses her young calf Windsong (L-121) in 2015.
Photo: NOAA Fisheries, Vancouver Aquarium under NMFS and FAA permits.

The southern resident killer whales should be given priority for salmon over human fishers, according to a fishing policy adopted for 2019-2023 by the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission. The new policy calls for “proper protection to SRKW from reduction to prey availability or from fishery vessel traffic …”

The problem with allocating a specific number of salmon to the orcas is that the whales cannot tell us when or where they would like to take salmon for their own consumption. The result, now in the planning stages, is to limit or close fishing in areas where the orcas are most likely to forage during the fishing seasons.

As revealed yesterday during the annual “North of Falcon” forecast meeting, fewer chinook salmon — the orcas’ primary food — are expected to return to Puget Sound this year compared to last year, but more coho salmon should be available for sport and tribal fishermen. The challenge, according to harvest managers, is to set fishing seasons to take harvestable coho without unduly affecting the wild chinook — a threatened species in Puget Sound.

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Salmon treaty designed to boost spawning count and feed the orcas

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

Chinook salmon // Photo: NOAA Fisheries

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

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

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New online magazine describes life in and around Puget Sound

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

King Tides don’t always follow the tide tables

UPDATE: Dec. 19

An app used for reporting King Tides can also be used to report marine debris along the shoreline. Check out the news release issued today by the Washington Department of Natural Resources.
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Higher-than-predicted marine waters, brought about in part by recent weather conditions, have given us unexpected “King Tides” in many areas of Puget Sound.

I noticed that the waters of Hood Canal seemed exceedingly high this afternoon, as I drove along Seabeck Highway where the road hugs the shoreline. The waters were not supposed to be this high, according to tide tables developed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, so I checked some actual levels recorded at nearby locations.

High-water levels measured on the waterfronts in Seattle, Tacoma and Port Townsend were nearly 1½ feet higher than what had been predicted by NOAA for those areas. For example, in Seattle the preliminary high-water level was listed at a tidal elevation of 12.98 feet at 12:54 p.m. today, compared to a predicted high tide of 11.56 feet.

This is the season for King Tides, a name given to the highest tides of the year. High tides, mostly generated by the alignment of the sun and the moon, are predicted for Christmas Eve, rising higher to the day after Christmas and then declining. But, as we’ve seen this week, as well as on Thanksgiving Day, predicted high tides can be dramatically boosted by heavy rains, low atmospheric pressure and onshore winds.

As one can see by looking at observed and predicted tidal levels in Seattle, the actual tidal level has exceeded the predicted level more often than not over the past 30 days — and lately it has been higher by quite a lot (shown in chart at bottom of this page). Actual levels are measured in real time in only 14 places in Washington state. One can access the charts from NOAA’s Water Levels — Stations Selections page.

King Tides are promoted as an event by Washington Sea Grant and the Washington Department of Ecology, because today’s extreme tides provide a reference point for sea-level rise caused by climate change. The highest tides of today will be seen more often in the future, and even higher tides are coming. Check out the blog post on Water Ways from Jan. 3 of this year. See also the website “Washington King Tides Program.”

Washington Sea Grant has posted a list of dates when high tides are expected in various areas, called King Tides Calendar. Sharing photos of high tides hitting the shoreline is part of the adventure, so sign up for MyCoast to share your pictures or view images posted by others, or download the cellphone app to make the connection even easier.

The chart shows the actual tidal water levels in Seattle (red) compared to the predicted levels (blue). Click to go to NOAA’s website.
Chart: NOAA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Email notifications for blog posts are back following disruption

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

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

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

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

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

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

Increase in harbor porpoises shifts Puget Sound’s food web

Most of us have heard that harbor seals eat Chinook salmon, which are the preferred food for our beloved Southern Resident killer whales, an endangered species whose long-term survival could hinge on getting enough Chinook.

The number of harbor seals in the inland waters of Washington state now totals somewhere around 10,000 or slightly higher, according to the latest estimates by Steve Jeffries, a marine mammal biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Harbor porpoise surfing in a boat wake in Burrows Pass, off Fidalgo Island.
Photo: ©Cindy R. Elliser, Pacific Mammal Research

But did you know that harbor porpoises, which eat many of the same things as harbor seals, now number around 11,000 in the same general area? That’s according to a recent study for the Navy led by research consultant Tom Jefferson.

I have to say that those numbers came as a major surprise to me, and I began to ask questions about what all these porpoises in Puget Sound might be doing to the food web, which involves complex interactions between salmon, seals, porpoises, orcas and many other species.

The result of my inquiry is a story published this week in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

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Efforts continue to retrieve orca Lolita, despite legal setback

Although the Endangered Species Act may encourage extraordinary efforts to save Puget Sound’s killer whales from extinction, it cannot be used to bring home the last Puget Sound orca still in captivity, a court has ruled.

A 51-year-old killer whale named Lolita, otherwise called Tokitae, has been living in Miami Seaquarium since shortly after her capture in 1970. Her clan — the Southern Resident killer whales — were listed as endangered in 2005, but the federal listing specifically excluded captive killer whales.

In 2013, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) successfully petitioned the National Marine Fisheries Service to have Lolita included among the endangered whales. But the endangered listing has done nothing to help those who hoped Lolita’s owners would be forced to allow a transition of the whale back into Puget Sound.

This week, the U.S. Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta reiterated its earlier finding that Lolita has not been injured or harassed to the point that her captivity at the Miami Seaquarium violates the federal Endangered Species Act, or ESA.

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