Healthy stream, healthy bugs

Benthic invertebrates range in size from those easily seen with the naked eye to those that cannot be spotted without the use of a microscope. Photo: Christopher Dunagan

Benthic invertebrates range in size from those easily seen with the naked eye to those that cannot be spotted without the use of a microscope. Photo: Christopher Dunagan

Many groups have been formed around the goal of saving salmon, but few people talk about a concerted effort to save microscopic creatures. Whether or not a pro-bug movement catches on, future strategies to save salmon are likely to incorporate ideas for restoring streambound creatures known as benthic invertebrates. Read our latest story in Salish Sea Currents. 

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Study of eelgrass shows populations steady across Puget Sound

Eelgrass provides critical habitat for many Puget Sound species. Photo courtesy of NOAA and the Seattle Times

Eelgrass provides critical habitat for many Puget Sound species. Photo courtesy of NOAA and the Seattle Times.

Although eelgrass populations have declined in some parts of Puget Sound, overall numbers for the aquatic plant have remained steady ecosystem-wide, according to an analysis of 41 years of data from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The study, published in the Journal of Ecology, was co-authored by Puget Sound Institute lead ecosystem ecologist Tessa Francis and was aided by a team of University of Washington student assistants who sorted through more than 160,000 notebook entries to parse out survey findings.

The data comes from long-time surveys of Pacific Herring, which also included the detailed observations of eelgrass abundance. (We first wrote about this treasure trove of hand-written notebooks in a PSI blog focusing on its implication for herring studies.) The paper was co-authored by a team of scientists from NOAA, PSI, Earth Resource Technology, The Nature Conservancy, WDFW and the University of Washington School of Environmental and Forest Sciences.

The researchers say the findings give some hope that eelgrass meadows may be more resilient than expected to pressures such as climate change, but they caution that sharp declines in some areas are a source of concern.

“The fact that eelgrass has been stable over the last 40 years tells you that things are probably not getting worse, but it doesn’t mean that things are good,” study co-author Phil Levin, of the University of Washington and The Nature Conservancy told the Seattle Times today.

PSI’s Francis was also quoted in the Seattle Times story and called the findings “promising in terms of recovery, because it’s a lot easier to think of what we might do on a local scale, than to think of what we might do on a grand, ecosystem scale.”

Eelgrass is an aquatic flowering plant that provides important habitat for young salmon, herring, Dungeness crabs and many other species. You can read about efforts to restore eelgrass beds in Puget Sound in our magazine series Salish Sea Currents.

Read more about the new eelgrass paper in The Seattle Times and UW Today.

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Year in review: 2016

Winter sunset alpenglow on Mt Baker and the North Cascades. Copyright: LoweStock

Winter sunset alpenglow on Mt Baker and the North Cascades. Copyright: LoweStock

This year has been as busy as any we have had since our founding in 2010. As we look forward to year seven (!) of our organization, we have put together a sort of highlight reel of accomplishments.

At various points, PSI scientists worked to prioritize emerging contaminants in our waterways. We studied the health of forage fish populations, analyzed eelgrass abundance and brought together key scientific findings for Puget Sound’s marine and nearshore. 

Most recently, our team began helping to develop new state and federal Implementation Strategies that will prioritize future Puget Sound cleanup efforts (you can read more about the Implementation Strategies in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound).

Through it all, we have kept you informed with dozens of articles in our magazine Salish Sea Currents, as well as many new papers in scientific journals. After a strong 2016, we believe that science is more vital than ever to Puget Sound recovery. We look forward to building on our accomplishments in 2017.

View some of PSI’s research and products.

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Implementation strategies will target Puget Sound ‘Vital Signs’

Implementation strategies are a framework to improve the heartbeat of Puget Sound

Implementation strategies are a framework to improve the heartbeat of Puget Sound

When a scientist wades into an eelgrass bed or measures the weight of a Chinook salmon, their connection to the environment is clear. Much of what we know as the ‘scientific process’ takes place on the ground at a local scale. Measurements and observations are made and extrapolated. Scientists get their feet wet.

But what do you do when you are studying an entire ecosystem? In the case of Puget Sound, you can’t wade — or even see – the whole thing. To some degree, such a large system is an abstraction. It is infinitely complex and unknowable, with thousands of species and countless other variables.

Here at the Puget Sound Institute, our scientists conduct plenty of on-the-ground research, but we also look at this big picture. In the fall of 2016 our team began working closely with other scientists funded by the EPA to establish what are known as Implementation Strategies. These strategies will identify and apply solutions to improve Puget Sound’s overall Vital Signs, a series of indicators established by the Puget Sound Partnership to measure the region’s health.

It is part of a “learn and adjust” approach known as adaptive management (read more about adaptive management on the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound). Adaptive management is gaining traction for ecosystem conservation worldwide and has played a central role in state and federal Puget Sound cleanup efforts since 2007.

PSI’s role will help to synthesize and analyze the state of the science for many of the Vital Sign indicators, and will provide recommendations for science-based solutions aimed at improving them. Watch for stories about the process in our Salish Sea Currents series in the coming weeks and months.

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New funding for Salish Sea herring research

Rhinocerus auklet with sand lance by Phil Green/The Nature Conservancy

Rhinoceros auklet with sand lance by Phil Green/The Nature Conservancy. Photo courtesy of SeaDoc.

PSI’s Tessa Francis is co-leader of a joint US and Canadian team that has received funding to analyze threats to Pacific Herring in the Salish Sea. Funding of just over $89,000 was granted by the SeaDoc Society and will help the group develop a comprehensive Salish Sea herring conservation and management plan.

Francis teams up with project co-leader Dayv Lowry of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. Additional collaborators include USGS, NOAA, Oregon State University, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the Lummi Tribe, the Cowichan Tribe, The Nature Conservancy, and Q’ul-lhanumutsun Aquatic Resources Society.

Read more about the project at SeaDoc’s website. 

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Adaptive Management: What, why, and how?

Steps in the Adaptive Management cycle. Figure 1 from the article.

Steps in the Adaptive Management cycle. Figure 1 from the article.

A “learn and adjust” strategy known as adaptive management plays a central role in state and federal Puget Sound recovery efforts. It is an approach that is gaining traction for ecosystem management worldwide. An article this week from the Puget Sound Institute provides an overview of the concept and how it is being applied locally.

Download the article on the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound. 

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Jay Manning will take over for outgoing Leadership Council Chair Martha Kongsgaard

Puget Sound Partnership Leadership Council Chair Martha Kongsgaard has announced that she will be stepping down from her post this year. Jay Manning will take over as chair on December 7th.

Kongsgaard has served on the council for nearly a decade and spent more than five years as its chair. During that time, she was a regular presence in Washington, D.C. where she advocated for increased federal funding to bring Puget Sound in parity with other major estuaries such as Chesapeake Bay.

Under Kongsgaard’s leadership, the Puget Sound Partnership made significant strides in establishing a science-based plan for environmental recovery, something that continues to influence many of the region’s conservation efforts.

Kongsgaard says she will continue to advocate on behalf of Puget Sound in various other capacities. “My heart, my passion, lie with this great estuary,” she wrote in a resignation letter to Governor Jay Inslee earlier this week. In addition to her longstanding work with the Puget Sound Partnership, Kongsgaard is president of the Kongsgaard-Goldman Foundation and serves on numerous boards and foundations in the region including the Puget Sound Institute Advisory Board.

Jay Manning takes over as one of the Leadership Council’s most experienced members. He is currently the council’s Vice Chair and was one of the original co-chairs of the Puget Sound Partnership, with Billy Frank, Jr. and Bill Ruckelshaus.

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The impacts of rogue chemicals on Puget Sound

In early 2016, scientists at NOAA made headlines when they reported finding 81 different man-made chemicals in the tissues of juvenile Chinook salmon in Puget Sound. Among those chemicals were drugs such as cocaine and Prozac.

This was the first time scientists had made these findings for the region’s salmon, but it has been well-understood that marine waters the world over are becoming an alphabet soup of rogue chemicals. In varying degrees, these chemicals are settling into the bodies of every species analyzed in Puget Sound, including humans.

Many are pharmaceuticals that pass through sewage treatment plants. Others, such as flame retardants (also known as PBDEs) can bind to the dust and blow out to sea. Some simply persist in the environment and pass through the food chain. Often these chemicals occur in vanishingly small traces, sometimes in the parts per trillion.

The big question, scientists say, is not whether these chemicals are in the environment, but which of them are the most dangerous. Could something in such trace amounts cause harm? And what happens when more than four million residents of the region all contribute to the problem?

That is the topic of our latest story in Salish Sea Currents. Christopher Dunagan reports on some of the effects of chemicals known as contaminants of emerging concern. The story covers a range of contaminants, from pharmaceuticals like Prozac and birth control to industrial chemicals. Some of the findings are surprising — tiny amounts of birth control in the water can actually change the sex of some fish species — and in other cases the ramifications are unknown but potentially disturbing. Take a read and you will never look at wastewater and our chemically-dependent culture the same way.

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Removing Puget Sound’s ‘Great Wall’

before-afterCan we really wait 700 years to remove all of the armoring along Puget Sound’s shoreline? Let’s do some of the math.

Senior Writer Christopher Dunagan reports in Salish Sea Currents this week that armor removal now exceeds new creation by somewhat less than a mile per year. At first glance, that’s a good thing. It is a reversal in a 100-year trend that has added more than 700 miles of bulkheads and other anti-erosion structures to Puget Sound beaches. It happened for the first time in modern memory in 2014 and the trend continued in 2015. But consider that number: 700 miles.

In the simplest terms, less than a mile per year of net removal adds up to a timeline of more than 700 years. That doesn’t tell the whole story, of course. The fact is, not all of the region’s shoreline armoring is meant to be removed, nor should it be. Some of it is considered necessary. No one is expecting to breach the downtown seawall, or surrender endangered houses to the waves. But it does give a sense of the scale of the project.

Recent peer-reviewed studies show that armoring clearly and unambiguously causes damage to the ecosystem, giving increasing urgency to the need to remove it wherever possible. Just how much of it is vital and how much can stand to be removed or replaced with more environmentally sensitive structures is not yet clear, but what is clear is that 700 miles of it — more than 25% of Puget Sound’s shoreline — is hurting the environment. Put another way, 700 miles adds up to a ‘Great Wall’ stretching further than the ocean-facing coasts of Washington and Oregon combined. It’s going to have an impact.

So why not just get rid of it? That’s easier said than done. For example, between 2012 and 2016 the state of Washington, with support from the EPA, spent about $8 million dollars on seven armor removal projects. They were just some of the many such projects underway across the region, but were bundled together as part of a series of grants from the state’s Marine and Nearshore Grant Program [also a funder of some of the work at the Puget Sound Institute]. Those projects did more than just remove concrete bulkheads. They restored beaches and in some cases added new ‘softshore’ structures that took the place of more damaging ones. But simply measured by linear feet, total armoring removal in those projects added up to less than a mile. It is clear that it will be difficult and expensive for state and federal agencies to simply remove armoring, and those agencies recognize that other strategies have to be considered as well.

One approach is to look at where most of the armoring is occurring. Studies show that about 57% of Puget Sound’s shoreline is privately owned, and that is where the state believes much of the change will happen. State-sponsored efforts such as Shore Friendly provide information to shoreline owners and building contractors on alternatives to armoring. The state is also looking at ways to ramp up enforcement against un-permitted, illegal shoreline armoring. Removal numbers may be modest so far, but the hope is that once the roller coaster crests the hill, it will start to roll faster down the other side.

Read our series ‘Rethinking shoreline armoring’ for more background.

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White House announces blueprint for agency cooperation in Puget Sound

White House CEQ managing Director Christy Goldfuss speaking at a press conference in Seattle today.

White House CEQ managing director Christy Goldfuss speaking at a press conference in Seattle today. Photo by Jeff Rice.

The Obama administration today approved the establishment of a new federal task force to prioritize agency actions for Puget Sound recovery.

The announcement came from Christy Goldfuss, the managing director of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

“We understand we have a critical role to play here in Puget Sound,” said Goldfuss, speaking at a press conference in Seattle. The new task force will serve as a blueprint for increased federal cooperation and is part of a memorandum of understanding signed today by the White House and nine federal agencies.

Goldfuss was joined at the conference by Washington governor Jay Inslee, congressmen Derek Kilmer and Denny Heck of the Puget Sound Recovery Caucus, Suquamish Tribe Chairman Leonard Forsman, Tulalip Tribes Chairman Mel Sheldon and several state and federal administrators.

Also announced was a recommendation by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to commit $452 million dollars to the Puget Sound Nearshore Ecosystem Restoration Project. The money will support three estuary recovery projects, including the Duckabush River Estuary project, the Nooksack River Delta restoration and the North Fork Skagit River Delta project.

Final funding for the estuary projects must still be approved by congress, but Governor Inslee was optimistic that the funds would be forthcoming. “Once you have laid the keel of the ship, the ship tends to get built,” he said.

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CUW scientists among first to receive Amazon Catalyst grants

geekwire_story_screenshotCenter for Urban Waters engineers are among the first to receive a University of Washington Amazon Catalyst Grant. Dr. Andy James (also a member of the Puget Sound Institute) and Alex Gipe received $50,000 from Amazon to improve a process to remove phosphorous from stormwater pollution. Phosphorous can cause increased algal growth in lakes and ponds which in turn can poison fish and other species.

The Center for Urban Waters is the Puget Sound Institute parent organization and is affiliated with the University of Washington Tacoma.

The Amazon Catalyst program began in 2015 and 12 projects across the University of Washington have been selected for grants so far. The program supports innovation at universities, and encourages “people in all fields to think big, invent solutions to real-world problems, and make a positive impact on the world,” according to the program’s website.

Read more about the grant in GeekwireAmazon ‘Catalyst’ program reveals the first university projects it’s backing.

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Marine Waters report provides overview of 2015 conditions in Puget Sound

Marine Waters 2015 report cover

Marine Waters 2015 report cover

The Puget Sound Ecosystem Monitoring Program released its fifth annual Marine Waters Report today. The report provides an assessment of marine conditions for the year 2015 and includes updates on water quality as well as status reports for select plankton, seabirds, fish and marine mammals.

According to the report, water temperatures broke records throughout Puget Sound. The year was also the worst on record for two distinct stocks of Pacific herring. You can read the full report on the Puget Sound Partnership website. 

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