Tag Archives: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

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.

Voluntary no-go area on San Juan Island stirs conflict over orcas

Fishermen in the San Juan Islands are being asked to make sacrifices this summer to help Puget Sound’s fish-eating killer whales. Whether the voluntary actions will make much difference is open to speculation.

A voluntary “no-go zone” for boats cruising the western shoreline of San Juan Island has been announced by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. Boaters are asked to stay one-quarter mile offshore for most of the island’s west side. A half-mile protective zone around Lime Kiln Lighthouse is part of the voluntary no-go zone. (See map.)

“This voluntary no-go zone is a good step in helping to reduce human impacts in an important foraging area for Southern Resident killer whales,” Penny Becker, WDFW’s policy lead on killer whales, said in a news release.

Years ago, the western shoreline of San Juan Island was a primary hangout for whales, which eat mostly chinook salmon during the summer months. In recent years, however, declines in chinook runs have reduced the time spent by the whales in any one location, so the effects of the voluntary closure are likely to be muted.

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Sen. Kevin Ranker breathes new life into Orca Protection Act

The proposed Orca Protection Act, which was declared dead last week in the Washington State Senate, has sprung back to life with the addition of a budget provision that offers a new chance of passage.

Photo: Capt. Jim Maya, 2013

The newly resuscitated bill, approved by the Senate Ways and Means Committee, is nearly identical to the original bill, which includes special protections for the endangered Southern Resident killer whales. If approved by both houses, the legislation would impose new restrictions on boaters and drone pilots, increase on-water patrols by state law-enforcement officers and support studies regarding what people can do to save the whales.

The original legislation died on Feb. 14 when the Senate failed to approve it before a deadline passed for bills that had no budget impact, as I described in Water Ways last Saturday. The bill was revived this week when its sponsor, Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, used a procedural maneuver to add a new budget provision.

Specifically, Ranker proposed a $5 increase in the cost of special vehicle license plates that depict endangered species, including orcas. The extra money would be used by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife for marine patrols and other orca-related activities.

As a result of Ranker’s maneuver, the original bill, SB 6268, will get a new bill number, SB 5886, which is a bill originally submitted by Ranker in March 2017 with no text. A wholesale amendment on Thursday planted the text of the Orca Protection Act into SB 5886, which still carries the title “Relating to natural resources.”

Dave Pringle, Democratic policy analyst who works closely with Ranker, told me that the senator heard support for the maneuver from fellow legislators who wanted a chance to vote on the bill. Ranker expects it to pass the Senate with strong support from fellow Democrats as well as a number of Republicans. Action on the Senate floor could come next week, when the bill would move on to the House.

The bill describes the 76 Southern Resident orcas as “critically endangered” with a population falling to a 36-year low. The whales are important to the ecosystem and to the culture of Washington tribes. The Southern Residents also provide the foundation of a $60-million tourist industry, according to the bill.

The legislation calls for at least 100 law-enforcement patrols during whale-watching season. Remotely controlled aircraft, known as drones, would not be allowed to come within 200 yards of any Southern Resident orca — which is the same limitation for vessels under existing law. The bill also would require vessels to slow to 7 knots within 400 yards of a whale. Current law has no speed limit.

The revised bill adds an exception from the requirements for distance and speed when vessel operators cannot tell that they are too close to the whales because of fog, rain or other weather conditions.

The bill also would require the Department of Fish and Wildlife to make recommendations about what further actions could be taken by the Legislature and state agencies to help restore the orca population. It also calls for meetings and collaborations with wildlife officials in British Columbia to discuss protecting and restoring the orcas.

Orca protection bill stumbles and dies on state Senate floor

State legislation that would increase protection for Puget Sound’s killer whales died this week amidst confusing action on the Senate floor.

Now, orca advocates are pushing a narrower bill approved by the House to limit remote-controlled aircraft around whales, while they also hope for a $3-million budget appropriation to support other orca protection measures.

J pod, one of the three Southern Resident killer whale groups, has recently spent time in the San Juan Islands.
Photo: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research, taken under federal permits: NMFS:15569-01, DFO SARA: 388.

Whether people should be allowed to fly a drone around the endangered Southern Resident orcas seems to be the issue stirring up the most attention in the Legislature — although it is a small part of the overall effort.

Current law prohibits a “vessel or other object” from approaching the Southern Residents closer than 200 yards. Using that language, state fisheries enforcement officers have issued at least two citations to people flying their drones over orcas in the San Juan Islands, according to Sgt. Russ Mullins of Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

In one case filed in 2015, a Mercer Island photographer appealed the citation, saying the law does not apply to drones. The prosecutor in San Juan County eventually dropped the case while requesting a legal clarification from the state Attorney General’s Office.

The opinion from the AG’s Office says the 200-yard limitation for “other objects” should apply to drones flying over the killer whales. The final word, however, would need to come from a judge in a state court.

To eliminate any confusion, Rep. Kristine Lytton, D-Anacortes, last year introduced a bill that would prohibit “unmanned aerial systems” from approaching orcas closer than 200 yards in any direction. The one exception would be if the drone inadvertently flies over the whales while traveling to an unrelated destination. See info for HB 1031.

“My intention is to keep drones away from an icon of our state and to prevent the almost harassment, as some people in my district feel, of our orca whales,” Rep. Lytton testified after submitting her bill.

The concern is not so much about one or two drones, although any could crash and harm a whale, Sgt. Mullins told me. But if the rules do not keep drones away from the whales, it will be only a matter of time before lots and lots of whale watchers bring their drones out to photograph the orcas up close while watching from a boat.

“There is already enough drama and confusion out there,” he said. “We don’t need someone driving his boat as well as his drone around these whales.”

Some lawmakers, including Rep. Jeff Morris, D-Mount Vernon, said they would prefer to broaden the legislation to keep drones from operating around any threatened and endangered species. But no changes have been made so far, perhaps because the specific law being revised is focused entirely on the protection of killer whales.

The bill to protect orcas from drones passed the House last week on a vote of 67 to 31, with all Democrats in support of the legislation along with about a third of the House Republicans.

In the Senate, Democrats decided to take a broader approach to the issue of orca protection. Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, introduced a bill to complement Gov. Jay Inslee’s proposed orca protection and restoration initiative.

The legislation, SB 6268, would more than double the number of marine patrols around the orcas, essentially protecting the animals from aggressive boaters and drone operators anytime the whales are in Puget Sound. Studies have shown that the mere presence of patrol boats leads to greater compliance with the rules, which are designed to allow the whales to find food more easily and to engage in more normal social interactions. The patrols also serve to educate boaters about how to act around the whales.

The cost for the nearly full-time patrols is estimated at about $475,000 per year. If the patrols help save the whales from extinction, it would allow a continuation of the multi-million-dollar tourism industry, not to mention the ecological importance of orcas and the joy that people experience when seeing whales.

Other provisions of the bill would require boaters to slow down to 7 knots anytime they come within 400 yards of a Southern Resident orca. Also included are proposed studies to see how human-generated noise affects the orcas, along with at least one meeting to better coordinate protection and recovery strategies between Washington state and British Columbia in Canada.

The Senate bill appeared to be sailing through the Legislature until Wednesday — the last day to approve bills that originated in the Senate. Democrats were anxious about approving two bills before the end of the day — one dealing with student debt and the other with basic education funding. They thought the so-called Orca Protection Act would be approved with barely a bump in the road.

The first amendment offered to the orca bill was the “ominously numbered amendment 666,” as Lt. Gov. Cyrus Habib dubbed it while calling on the amendment’s author, Sen. Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside. The hostile amendment would remove any prohibition against using drones around killer whales.

“The orcas are a really a big tourism attraction in the Puget Sound,” Honeyford told the chamber. “This would allow those tourists who have unmanned aircraft or drones or whatever you want to call them to be able to fly them. They are electric, and they are quiet, and they can take pictures. I believe it would be a great increase in tourism.”

With an eye toward the clock, the Democrats decided not to fight the amendment. They knew that the House bill was coming later to deal with drones, and they apparently hoped to get quick approval of the Orca Protection Act. After all, everyone was still speaking in favor of it.

As you can see in the video above, the Democrats were talking fast. But Republicans along with Sen. Tim Sheldon, a right-leaning Democrat from Hoodsport, appeared to be taking their time. Democrats finally gave up and pulled the bill, essentially killing it for this year.

The original bill to limit drones around the orcas, which originated in the House, is still alive after House passage. It is scheduled to be heard on Feb. 20 by the Senate Committee on Energy, Environment & Technology.

Some aspects of the Senate bill, such as the extra patrols around the orcas, could be implemented through the budget, according to Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, who chairs the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

The House bill is titled, “Concerning the use of unmanned aerial systems near certain protected marine species.” That title does not leave much leeway to resuscitate the Senate bill by heavily amending the House bill, Sen. Rolfes told me.

Still, other efforts to protect the orcas could be accomplished with legislative funding of Gov. Inslee’s Southern Resident killer whale recovery program. He is seeking $3 million from the general fund for the next two years.

The governor’s proposal goes well beyond the idea of extra patrols around the whales. Included is increased hatchery production of chinook salmon, the orcas’ primary food; restoration of chinook salmon habitat in streams and estuaries; and steps to reduce seal and sea lion predation on chinook, which are also on the Endangered Species List.

Inslee’s budget proposal also calls for developing oil spill plans to help the orcas in an emergency, since many experts believe that an oil spill could drive the whales to extinction faster than any other problem they face.

“Funding orca recovery is an urgent issue that cannot wait another legislative session,” said Mindy Roberts, director of People for Puget Sound, a division of Washington Environmental Council. “Our region knows all too well the pressures the orcas face. They are starving because they don’t have enough salmon to feed on; toxics in their bodies are released when they go hungry; and vessels are interfering with their abilities to feed and communicate.”

As she told me in an email, “We will be looking for ways to provide emergency funding for short-term solutions identified in the bills that died and in the governor’s budget proposal.”

Puget Sound Partnership may confront net pen controversy

Puget Sound Partnership may take a stand on whether fish farms should be allowed to remain in Puget Sound waters.

The partnership is charged by the Legislature to oversee the restoration of the Puget Sound ecosystem. On Wednesday, the partnership’s governing body, the Puget Sound Leadership Council, received an update on last month’s collapse of a net pen containing 305,000 Atlantic salmon near Cypress Island in northern Puget Sound.

About two-thirds of the escaped fish have been accounted for so far, with about 146,000 found dead or alive in the damaged net pen and about 55,000 caught by fishermen. (All but about 5,000 of those were caught by tribal fishers in Puget Sound.)

This video, taken by a private party and released by state agencies, shows the collapse of the Cypress Island net pens on Aug. 19

About 100,000 Atlantic salmon apparently escaped and have not been caught by people, although most of those probably were eaten by predators, experts say. Officials continue their efforts to figure out where any remaining fish have gone, specifically any that swam up into the streams, according to Amy Windrope of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The Atlantic salmon, an exotic species in Puget Sound, don’t appear to be eating anything, let alone young native salmon, Windrope said, and there is not much concern that they will breed with native fish. The greatest concern is that they might somehow disrupt the spawning behavior of native salmon, whose populations are already stressed by adverse conditions in both marine and fresh water.

The Atlantic salmon appeared to be healthy and free of parasites at the time of the release, she said, but they became less and less healthy as starvation set in.

In addition to Windrope, the presentation to the Leadership Council included reports from representatives of the state Department of Natural Resources, which leases the seabed where the pens are located, and the Department of Ecology, which issues permits under water-quality laws.

Puget Sound tribes are about to release a position statement opposing salmon farms in Puget Sound, said Russell Hepfer, a member of the Leadership Council and vice chairman of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribal Council. He did not elaborate, except to say that the non-native fish don’t belong here.

According to Windrope, the tribes see Atlantic salmon as weeds in the garden of Puget Sound. Such cultural viewpoints should be taken into account in the overall discussion, she added.

Soon after the Cypress Island net pen collapse, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz issued a moratorium blocking further net pen approvals until an investigation is complete.

Maradel Gale, a resident of Bainbridge Island, addressed the Leadership Council at Wednesday’s meeting near Port Gamble, saying the Bainbridge Island City Council has effectively limited the expansion of net pens at the south end of the island and would like to get rid of net pens altogether.

She said Cooke Aquaculture, which owns all the net pens at four locations in Puget Sound, receives the benefits of using the public waterways and placing the ecosystem in peril while taking very little risk upon itself.

Dennis McLerran, a member of the Leadership Council who has worked for various environmental agencies, said Washington state law has long provided a preference for aquaculture over many other shoreline uses. Like it or not, he said, those preference are “baked into state policies” that direct state agencies to support aquaculture, including salmon farms.

“That is where the Leadership Council should have some discussion,” McLerran said. “Are those preferences in state law appropriate?”

The state of Alaska prohibits salmon farms, while California’s complex regulations allow them only under specific conditions related to water supplies, said Kessina Lee of Ecology.

Jay Manning, chairman of the Leadership Council and former director of the Washington Department of Ecology, said the Legislature will no doubt want to hear a complete report on the Cypress Island net-pen collapse, and he urged the agency officials to be fully prepared to answer questions from lawmakers.

“You will be asked, when the Legislature comes back, ‘How big a deal is this?’” Manning said, noting that he has heard from some people that it is a very big deal, while others say it is nothing at all.

Windrope noted that native salmon populations are already struggling, “and this is one more injury to the salmon.” But since the escaped Atlantic salmon don’t appear to be competing for food, the question comes down to whether they are affecting native fish in other ways. That question is not fully answered, she said.

“For DNR, this is a very big concern,” said Dennis Clark, who helps manage aquatic leases for the agency. “We have a contract with a multinational company, and they failed to adhere to it.”

DNR serves as the landlord for the Puget Sound net pen operations, he said. The aquatic leases run out at various times, from 2022 to 2025, and the agency is taking a closer look at the net pen structures to see what should be done from both a scientific and landlord perspective. Commissioner Franz is taking a special interest, he added.

“We are trying very hard to learn from this (incident),” Clark said, “and we understand that we may need to devote more resources.”

Rich Doenges of Ecology said the Atlantic salmon that got away are considered a “pollutant” under Washington state law. While no long-term effects have been seen following previous escapes of Atlantic salmon, there is some risk to native salmon. The key is to quantify that risk and determine if it is low enough to make the operations worthwhile. If necessary, he said, compliance orders can be issued and state water-quality permits can be amended to require additional safety measures.

Seattle attorney Doug Steding, representing Cooke Aquaculture, said he wanted to convey “sorrow and regret” from the company over the potential impacts of the escape.

“We want to make right with respect to this terrible accident,” he said, adding that the company is committed to working with investigators into the cause of the escape and finding ways to make sure that it never happens again.

Steding noted that Cooke recently acquired the Puget Sound facilities and did not own the Cypress Island net pens when the fish were placed in them. The company should have shared more information with the public about plans to upgrade the facilities, he said.

“You have an important task sorting through the difficult science and integrating with the values of the people of Washington,” Steding told the Leadership Council, adding that Cooke hopes to remain a part of the discussion.

Green crab invaders settle in on Dungeness Spit, Olympic Peninsula

An invasion of the European green crab, which started last summer in northern Puget Sound, appears to be continuing this spring with 16 green crabs caught in traps at one location on Dungeness Spit near Sequim.

European green crab
Photo: Gregory C. Jensen, UW

The new findings are not entirely unexpected, given that invasive green crabs have established a viable population in Sooke Inlet at the southern end of Vancouver Island in Canada. From there, young crab larvae can move with the currents until they settle and grow into adult crabs. Last summer and fall, green crabs were found on San Juan Island and in Padilla Bay.

The big concern now is that a growing population of invasive crabs could spread quickly to other parts of Puget Sound, causing damage to commercial shellfish beds and disrupting the Puget Sound ecosystem.

“It knocks the wind out of your sails for sure,” said Emily Grason when I asked how she felt about the latest discovery. “You feel kind of powerless, and you want to get out there and start doing things.”

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More coho salmon are expected, but fishing will remain limited this year

Total returns of coho salmon to Puget Sound this year are expected to be significantly higher than last year, and that should help smooth negotiations between state and tribal salmon managers working to establish this year’s fishing seasons.

But critically low runs of coho to the Skagit and Stillaguamish rivers in Northern Puget Sound could limit fishing opportunities in other areas, as managers try to reduce fishing pressure on coho making their way back to those rivers.

In any case, both state and tribal managers say they are confident that they can avoid the kind of deadlock over coho they found themselves in last year, when a failure to reach agreement delayed sport fishing seasons and threatened to cancel them altogether. See reporter Tristan Baurick’s stories in the Kitsap Sun, May 4 and May 28.

“We’re in a much better situation than we were last year,” Ryan Lothrop, a salmon manager with Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, told a large gathering of sport and commercial fishermen yesterday in Olympia.

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Amusing Monday: New steelhead license plate enhanced by inspiration

plate

Washington Department of Licensing has embraced a stylistic work of art in its new steelhead license plate, which became available for purchase last week.

The new license plate, which focuses on the eye and head of a steelhead trout, is an obvious departure from previous wildlife license plates that feature realistic images of animals. Derek DeYoung, the artist who created the new plate, specializes in what he calls abstract paintings of fish faces and flanks, as well as whole fish. The original steelhead painting is called “Abstract Steelhead — Horizon Eye.”

Derek, based in Livingston, Mont., is a rare combination of expressive artist and skilled angler.

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Invasive species need to be on Legislative agenda

With invasive green crabs entering Puget Sound from the north and invasive mussels discovered in Montana to the east, the Legislature will be called on to make some critical funding decisions to ward off potential invaders.

Zebra mussels cover a native mussel in the Great Lakes. Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Zebra mussels cover a native mussel in the Great Lakes. // Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Green crabs and freshwater zebra and quagga mussels are not the only aquatic invasive species of concern. As I described in a story published in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, state officials worry about the potential import of all sorts of harmful species via ballast water and the hulls of vessels.

To fully address the threats through prevention and enforcement, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife estimates that $5.2 million per year is needed. That would move Washington ahead of Oregon and Idaho in addressing the problems. Each of those states spent about $1.3 million in 2014, while California spent about $10.7 million. Washington’s current budget for dealing with aquatic invasive species is one of the lowest in the country at $900,000 a year.

Increases in the program would be phased in over six years, increasing from $900,000 a year in the current budget to $2.3 million in the next biennium, according to a proposal to be submitted to the Legislature. It would go to $4.7 million five years from now.

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Interactive map brings together extensive salmon information

When I first started covering the environment for the Kitsap Sun in the early 1980s, I convinced a state fish biologist to make me a copy of a notebook containing information about salmon streams on the Kitsap Peninsula.

Winter steelhead streams in Puget Sound from SalmonScape. Map: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife
Winter steelhead streams in Puget Sound, as shown in SalmonScape, a GIS-based interactive map.
Map: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

Hand-drawn maps of streams, both big and small, along with field notes about the migration of salmon, stream blockages and other information were listed in that notebook. Through the years, the information was updated, combined with other data and eventually transferred to electronic databases for wider access.

A few years ago, much of this little-known information was digitized into a map that could be accessed by anyone from a web browser. The map, using a geographic information system, is such a valuable tool that I wanted to make sure that readers of this blog are aware of it.

It was given the name SalmonScape, and the map shows salmon streams across the state (click “hydrography”); salmon migration by species (“fish distribution”); stream blockages (“fish passage”); and hatcheries, fish traps and major dams (“facilities”).

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