Increased consumption of Chinook salmon by seals and sea lions in the Salish Sea “could be masking the success of coastwide salmon recovery efforts,” according to a new study published this week in the journal Scientific Reports. Endangered resident orcas are said to be declining in part due to a lack of available Chinook, the orcas’ preferred prey.
Ten years ago, then-governor Christine Gregoire set an ambitious goal to clean up Puget Sound by 2020. The discourse of that time is still familiar. Puget Sound’s gorgeous blue waters were in trouble then as they are now. Our resident orcas had diminished to dangerously low population levels and contaminants like PCBs and stormwater were well-known threats to the ecosystem.
Now, with 2020 less than three years away, we are learning that Puget Sound faces even more extensive problems than Governor Gregoire may have imagined. Ocean acidification was a mere blip on the radar in 2007. New climate change studies show a suite of increasing threats, from higher than expected sea-level rise to low creek flows for salmon. Population growth in the region has since accelerated to an astonishing 1000 new residents per week.
Talk has started to change from “cleanup” to “resilience.” The state’s Puget Sound Partnership, designated by Governor Gregoire to lead the cleanup efforts, now says “many 2020 recovery targets will not be met,” and the Puget Sound Leadership Council says it’s time for “an honest, clear-eyed review of where we are and where we are headed.”
The Partnership’s 2017 State of the Sound report released last week outlines the latest progress on the state’s designated indicators of Puget Sound health, or “Vital Signs.” Targets for shoreline armoring, shellfish beds and floodplains have seen mild improvement, but are not expected to meet 2020 goals. Stormwater results are “mixed” while key indicators like orca and Chinook populations have lost ground, as have Pacific herring and marine birds like the marbled murrelet.
That’s the bad news, but the report also points to important progress. After ten years, managers and scientists know a great deal more about what we are up against. New implementation strategies are being designed to take what has been learned and apply it. There is renewed urgency on some fronts such as Chinook and orca recovery, with expected announcements from Governor Jay Inslee and acceptance of a series of “bold actions” proposed by area tribes. There is also a healthy acknowledgement that a recovery project of this scale takes time.
The Puget Sound region is as large or larger than some small states. It is twice the size of Connecticut and includes thousands of species and about 2500 miles of winding shoreline. The 13-year timeframe proposed by Governor Gregoire was often seen as aspirational and according to the report is shorter than timelines for other ecosystem recovery efforts of similar scale.* The report puts Chesapeake Bay’s coordinated efforts at 42 years and counting, and San Francisco Bay’s at 35 years.
*[Blog update 11/9/17: Founder and former Executive Director of the group People for Puget Sound Kathy Fletcher offers a different perspective, writing in a blog for Salish Sea Communications that “the  goal was set more than 30 years ago by Washington State, in 1985 legislation that created the Puget Sound Water Quality Authority.” It is a fair point that Puget Sound recovery efforts have extended well beyond the past 10 years. Much of the language of 1985 and prior is echoed in the language of today, and you can see some of the origin and evolution of the state’s thinking in our collection of archived reports available in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.]
That doesn’t mean we should take the foot off the gas, say state leaders. “Course corrections must be identified and implemented soon to get Puget Sound on an acceptable recovery trajectory,” the Leadership Council writes. Given the current rate of habitat destruction and the growing threat of extinction for some species like Puget Sound’s resident orcas, there is an acknowledgement that managers don’t have the luxury of taking their time. The 2020 goal may have been aspirational, but the situation is no less urgent.
By Christopher Dunagan, Puget Sound Institute
Actions that could save Puget Sound’s killer whales from extinction have been placed on a fast track by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and the Puget Sound Partnership, which operates under a legal mandate to restore the health of Puget Sound.
Hand in hand with an intensified effort to save the whales comes a revised strategy to reverse the decline of Puget Sound Chinook salmon, the primary food supply for the endangered orcas.
In a special meeting Wednesday, the Puget Sound Leadership Council committed itself in a formal resolution to “both accelerate and amplify” efforts to recover Chinook runs on behalf of the orcas while meeting treaty obligations to native tribes.
The Leadership Council — the governing body of the Puget Sound Partnership — also approved a list of “regional priorities,” which will direct specific projects to protect and restore Puget Sound over the next four years. The priorities include recommendations for “bold actions” for Chinook recovery developed by Puget Sound tribes and later approved by the multi-jurisdictional Salmon Recovery Council.
The Leadership Council approved a few changes to the draft priorities, such as eliminating a controversial proposal dealing with water rights and streamflows. The original language from the tribes would favor water in streams to help salmon over water rights for new wells — essentially the same issue that stirred up a legislative battle following the controversial Hirst decision by the State Supreme Court.
Jay Manning, chairman of the Leadership Council, said the resolution on orcas approved Wednesday is “one small action” to be followed by a major initiative from the governor, who he described as “shocked and alarmed” by recent reports highlighting the growing risk of extinction for the Southern Resident killer whales.
The governor’s plan of action will address the major risks to orcas, including the lack of Chinook salmon, the number of ships and boats that produce excessive noise and disrupt the orca’s feeding efforts, toxic pollutants that can contribute to their poor health, and other concerns, Manning said.
“It will be issued in short order,” he said, “and we are excited to be part of what will be a strong action-oriented approach from the governor. Our job is to restore and protect Puget Sound. If we lose the Southern Resident orcas, we will have failed in our job, and we have no intention of doing that.”
During the meeting, held via telephone conference call, Jim Waddell, a retired Army Corps of Engineers employee, reiterated his position that breaching dams on the Snake River would be the quickest way to provide more Chinook salmon for the orcas. The whales feed at times off the mouth of the Columbia River.
Jerry Joyce, who served on a marine mammal advisory committee for the Partnership, said the key is to move quickly to address the known threats to killer whales and perhaps even some speculative threats before it is too late.
“If we wait for scientific certainty, we will have no whales left to protect,” he said.
Regional priorities approved Wednesday will provide ideas and guidance to agencies, nonprofit groups and others that wish to submit proposals to improve the Puget Sound ecosystem. The priorities grew out of 10 implementation strategies focused on restoring various ecological attributes, including freshwater quality, shellfish beds and toxic chemicals in fish.
Nearly 40 ideas have been proposed to implement the strategy for rebuilding Chinook runs, widely believed to be a critical step in the recovery of the orca population. The Chinook implementation strategy and regional priorities underwent an extensive review involving technical teams, tribal officials and the Salmon Recovery Council. The SRC includes representatives of federal, state and local governments, tribes and watershed councils, along with business and environmental groups.
Discussion of Hirst ruling
Language approved by the Leadership Council acknowledges the need to restore streamflows but stays away from the issue of water rights.
That may have cost the Leadership Council a vote from Council Member Russ Hepfer, a tribal official with the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe. Hepfer said denying permits for water withdrawals should be a “no-brainer” when the effect would be to harm salmon runs.
Manning said he knows it will be necessary to tackle “the most difficult problems” — including adequate streamflows. But the Leadership Council must balance many interests. As for the Hirst ruling, Manning said a plan is being developed to restore streamflows where necessary without affecting water rights or new individual wells.
If successful, the plan could clear a legislative logjam that has blocked passage of the state’s capital budget this year. Republican senators refused to approve the budget without a legislative response to the Hirst court ruling. As a result, the budget remains in limbo.
Meanwhile, a major focus of the Chinook Implementation Strategy is to improve salmon habitat through various means — from scientific studies to improved regulations to incentives for property owners.
The regional priorities approved Wednesday also include a provision to develop management options for controlling seals and sea lions, which are known to eat both juvenile and adult Chinook throughout Puget Sound.
Christopher Dunagan is a senior writer at the Puget Sound Institute.
A group led by two state agencies is asking for public comment on a draft strategy for removing hundreds of miles of seawalls and other structures along Puget Sound’s shoreline.
More than 27% — or about 675 miles — of Puget Sound’s shoreline is covered with anti-erosion structures known as shoreline armoring that scientists say diminish food and habitat for salmon and other species.
The EPA-funded strategy was developed by a group led by the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife and the state’s Department of Natural Resources. Partners in the effort include the Puget Sound Partnership, the Puget Sound Institute, and an interdisciplinary team of experts.
The Puget Sound Partnership has named shoreline armoring one of its ‘Vital Signs’ for Puget Sound health, and the state has set a target of removing more armoring than the amount constructed during the period 2011 to 2020. Progress toward reaching that target has so far been slow — declines in armoring have only occurred since 2014 and have been measured in mere feet per year — but the “Shoreline Armoring Implementation Strategy” as it is dubbed is an effort to accelerate the process. A draft of the strategy will be available for public review and comment from October 30 through November 30. For more information, visit the interagency Implementation Strategy website.
Climate change could cause sea levels to rise more than four feet in some parts of Puget Sound, leaving shoreline residents with some tough decisions. Experts say fighting the waves with conventional seawalls may not be the answer.
The Environmental Protection Agency last week announced the appointment of Alaskan Chris Hladick as new head of its Region 10 office based in Seattle. Hladick was appointed by EPA chief Scott Pruitt to serve as regional administrator overseeing environmental protection efforts in Alaska, Idaho, Oregon and Washington including Puget Sound.
Hladick is currently commissioner of the Department of Commerce, Community, and Economic Development for the State of Alaska, and earlier served as city manager for Unalaska and other cities within the state. According to a press release from the EPA, Hladick was a member of the Alaska Legislature’s Arctic Policy Commission and Northern Waters Task Force. Both groups were formed to explore economic development such as oil and gas drilling as well as resilience in response to “the opening of Alaska’s Arctic waters” due to global warming.
Hladick replaces interim Acting Regional Administrator Michelle Pirzadeh who took over for Dennis Mclerran earlier this year. Mclerran had served under the Obama administration and resigned on January 19th just prior to the inauguration of President Donald Trump.
EPA Region 10 oversees a variety of cleanup efforts in Puget Sound including several Superfund sites and regional tribal programs. It also distributes local research grants through the EPA’s National Estuary Program, which includes funding for the Puget Sound Institute.
The Puget Sound Partnership Salmon Recovery Council has posted a list of recommended priority actions for Chinook salmon recovery. The measures were proposed last spring by area tribes hoping to see stronger efforts to protect the region’s threatened Chinook populations.
The document summarizes nine recommendations approved by the Council at its September 28th meeting, including broad language on habitat protection, water quality, water quantity and management of predation of salmon by seals and sea lions. The actions are meant to inform state and federal implementation strategies for Chinook salmon recovery.
“Identifying these priority actions is only the first step,” reads the document. “Next steps will include working with a wide variety of partners – including but not limited to local governments, regulatory agencies, and other decision-makers – to identify responsible parties for many of these actions, and determine how to implement the actions and how to pay for them.”
While many of the actions involve more general recommendations such as standardization of habitat assessments and strategies for improved communications and fund-raising, some touched on legal issues like water rights and instream flows — topics that have been in the news due to the recent Hirst Decision. The recommendations call for “No authorization of new appropriations (including permit-exempt appropriations) if they would impair senior water rights (including state instream flow rights adopted by rule) or adversely affect fisheries resources.”
The document also recommends the creation of a white paper on recent scientific findings around predation of juvenile salmon by seals and sea lions, as well as modification of the Marine Mammal Protection Act. “As science continues to demonstrate the impact on salmon by marine mammals, modification of the Act to allow targeted management of pinnipeds on salmon should be pursued,” reads the Council’s document. That item follows recent scientific studies that show seals and sea lions are eating more Chinook salmon than previously known, in particular a high number of juvenile fish. Scientists say juvenile mortality is a major factor in Chinook declines, but federal law prohibits the harassment or killing of protected marine species like seals and sea lions.
The regional priorities are now under consideration for adoption by the Puget Sound Partnership Leadership Council. We’ll be following these actions more closely in our Salish Sea Currents series.
First there was “The Blob” that fed last year’s massive algae bloom in the Pacific Ocean. Now there is another monster getting our attention. You might call it “The slime that ate Lake Erie.”
The incredible images of Lake Erie’s expanding blanket of green show the familiar effect of nutrient pollution. Nutrients such as phosphorous and nitrogen have been flowing into the giant lake primarily from sources like agricultural fertilizer and wastewater. This has led to a 700-square-mile algae slick, alarming officials worried about potential buildups of dangerous algal toxins or areas of low oxygen known as “dead zones.”
This sort of thing is well-known in the Pacific Northwest. Decades ago, Lake Washington faced a similar problem due to unchecked dumping of human waste that made the lake un-swimmable and prone to green slime and bacteria. At one point, an estimated 20 million gallons of sewage per day flowed directly into Lake Washington. Then, in the 1960s the city of Seattle initiated tighter pollution controls that diverted sewage to treatment plants, cutting the amount of raw sewage entering the lake to virtually zero.
Lake Washington is often touted as a pollution control success story, and other water bodies like Puget Sound have followed suit. Despite occasional high profile overflows like last year’s massive sewage spill at the West Point Treatment Plant, most of the wastewater that flows into Puget Sound is now treated in some way. (The state is also taking comments on a rule that would make it illegal for boats to discharge treated or untreated waste into Puget Sound.) Parts of Canada still release raw sewage into our shared waters to the north, although Victoria, B.C. finally approved development of a tertiary sewage treatment plant last year.
Scientists will be quick to tell you that, at the very least, some sewage treatment is better than no treatment. It filters many of the potential pathogens that can come with raw sewage, and a whole lot more. But what about those nutrients?
What most of Puget Sound’s sewage treatment plants don’t remove — at least to a significant degree — are nutrients. At most normal levels, these nutrients are natural and essential for the health of the ecosystem. However, when there are too many of them, problems can occur not unlike the situation in Lake Erie.
For a long time, Puget Sound was thought to be big enough to handle the nutrient load from its wastewater treatment plants and other sources. Now, a new mathematical model shows that we are coming up against the limits of the system. The region is expected to grow by more than 1.5 million residents within the next two decades, putting huge strains on wastewater infrastructure. Add to that climate change that may lower stream flows that normally help to circulate and mix the water in Puget Sound. The model says these two factors will contribute to nutrient build-up and will likely mean increasing problems with water clarity and dissolved oxygen throughout the Sound.
The region is once again at a turning point. Officials say current levels of sewage treatment are not enough.
“Puget Sound’s health is degrading due to increasing levels of nutrients that are adversely affecting water quality,” reports the Washington Department of Ecology on its website. “We are finding that nutrients in Puget Sound are out of balance altering some of its fundamental physical, chemical, and biological functions.” The imbalance could affect sensitive plants like eelgrass as well as salmon and forage fish sensitive to low oxygen, Ecology says.
Ecology is now working on a nutrient source reduction project, and in 2018 is expected to use that research to help guide a collaborative “implementation strategy” related to the state’s Marine Water Quality “Vital Sign”. Watch for more coverage of nutrients here and in our online Encyclopedia of Puget Sound as the story develops.
The announcements are in and Puget Sound Institute researchers will be chairing or co-chairing at least five different special sessions at next year’s Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference in Seattle. The sessions will include subjects as varied as Contaminants of Emerging Concern, microplastics, Pacific herring, ecosystem modeling and the potential influence of the region’s technology industry on Salish Sea recovery. Watch this space in the coming months for more details on these sessions and for in-depth coverage of the conference as it develops.
A collaboration between the University of Washington Puget Sound Institute (PSI), Oregon State University, Northern Economics, and the Puget Sound Partnership has been selected by the Environmental Protection Agency to coordinate the region’s science program. The four-year cooperative agreement provides an anticipated $7.25 million to create and communicate timely and policy-relevant science to support and enhance new recovery strategies. The collaboration also strengthens monitoring and modeling programs and identifies and promotes regional science priorities.
The Puget Sound Partnership will receive and administer the primary award and other partners will receive sub-awards from PSP over the four-year project period.
“As Puget Sound continues to feel the impacts from a changing climate and a rapidly growing population, it is more important than ever that policy decisions are grounded in solid and accessible science” said PSI Director Joel Baker. “We will need the creativity and energy of the region’s diverse science community to meet the challenges of restoring and protecting Puget Sound.”
In addition to contributing targeted technical support, this award provides PSI and its partners the capacity to explore emerging issues, to combine thinking across topics, and to connect with other regional, national, and international ecosystem recovery efforts.
The new funding continues work already underway at PSI to connect the dots between scientific findings around the region. “The goal is to combine big picture, ecosystem-scale thinking with practical solutions,” Baker said. “Given the thousands of scientists and practitioners working to understand the health of Puget Sound, synthesis and analysis is a critical need.”
A strong area of focus will include the region’s newly established Implementation Strategies, a series of inter-agency recovery plans funded by the EPA’s National Estuary Program. The Puget Sound Partnership will help to integrate these strategies across a broad range of agencies and other groups.
The grant also expands the role of social science and communications. Partnerships with Oregon State University and Northern Economics will support an improved understanding of how humans interact and engage with the Puget Sound ecosystem. Social scientists with those organizations will work closely with Puget Sound’s Local Integrating Organizations to develop cost-benefit frameworks and other decision-making tools. Funding for communication supports continued development of informative science articles in PSI’s Salish Sea Currents magazine series on the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.
Funding for the collaboration begins in October 2017 and is slated to run through 2021.
The Puget Sound Institute was established at the University of Washington Tacoma in 2010 to identify and catalyze the science driving Puget Sound and Salish Sea ecosystem recovery. Since its founding, PSI has advanced our understanding of the region through synthesis, original research and communication in support of state and federal agencies, tribes and other organizations working in the region.
A strong economy driven by a world-leading technology industry is expected to draw millions of new residents to the Salish Sea region within decades. This changing population brings with it new strains on the environment but also new perspectives. Incoming residents may not see Puget Sound the same way as previous generations. Many will have different relationships to the natural world or come from other cultural backgrounds and traditions.
Technology will also play a role, not just as an economic driver, but as an influence on the way that people receive and share information. Our smartphones and digital lifestyles will have their own geography, and some say we will have to navigate and understand that virtual world as surely as we understand the bays and inlets of Puget Sound. Given this changing landscape, can Puget Sound recovery efforts adapt and keep pace? Puget Sound Partnership Science Panel member Robert Ewing says it’s absolutely critical.
Ewing is currently a visiting scholar at the UC Berkeley College of Natural Resources and is actively involved with strategic training for members of Seattle’s technology industry through the organization Pathwise, where he is Director of the group’s Fellows Program. He will be co-chairing a special panel with PSI at next year’s Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference titled “Can ‘Silicon Valley North’ change the way we think about Salish Sea recovery?” PSI spoke with Ewing earlier this year and asked him how he thinks the Puget Sound science community can reach the region’s changing population — particularly its technology sector — and why it matters.
PSI: In the broadest sense, who do we need to bring to the table?
Robert Ewing (RE): I think everybody who lives in the region is a potential constituent as well as visitors and others. I think we ought to be able to articulate the region’s importance in terms of the quality of life here, the reason that businesses locate here — the [conditions] that allow us to live in a healthy, natural environment. All those things are part of what we’re trying to accomplish and should have resonance for everybody in a sort of a civic, nonpolitical frame of mind.
PSI: How important do you think the technology sector and its economic engine are to the equation?
RE: If you really were doing some business model development and you looked at the distribution of brainpower and wealth in Puget Sound, you would quickly come to a conclusion that those are the people you should be talking to. And the management council for the [Puget Sound] Partnership is part of that community — Bill Ruckelshaus certainly was — so it’s not like there hasn’t been contact or thinking there. But if you were an objective observer looking at who lives in the Puget Sound region, you’d want to know how to deal with all those people and bring them to the table.
PSI: Do you think those folks — the Bill Gates’s and the Jeff Bezos’s — really care about the environment? Or do they care more about making money and building software?
RE: I’m doing some work with a leadership training group called Pathwise. I’m managing their fellowship program. Most of their students are Microsoft, Expedia, Gates Foundation professionals and engineers. And in dealing with them I find that most of them don’t think about the environment very much. But you don’t have to talk very long until they get quite interested.
I’ve been in a class with engineers [whose] whole world is about getting a search a nanosecond faster than Google. Just giving them a few minutes to think about where they are in the world with their family and so on can open a path to environmental discussions.
We are all so much more capable through intuition and emotion to understand the world we live in — and [to understand] that we are part of the natural world — but we don’t communicate in that way. That’s something Pathwise is trying to do and is doing pretty successfully. I’m not saying I’m an expert in these things, but I see it working.
PSI: So what should we do to bring these people in?
RE: There are a lot of people struggling with exactly how to do this. I think there’s a way of not putting all the action items within a bureaucratic framework. There are ways to think more experientially, and organically, about how to move forward. [We should] try more things. Be more open to ideas and changes. Be more adaptable. One of the reasons that I’ve wanted to be active on the science panel is I think we have to be able to answer the question you just posed. That’s going to take a collaborative effort, an open source effort if you will. This is where the brainpower of the region comes in. I mean, we have Amazon, the University and a variety of start-ups and a lot of smart people walking the streets. Collectively, I think the answer is there. We just need to figure out how to bring it all into action. My goal is to be around the people who can figure this out. And hopefully it’s younger, higher powered people with a lot of energy with some guidance from people with experience. My main goal is to try to have this dialogue go forward and find the resources we need to collectively involve the people who will give us the answer.
About Robert Ewing:
Robert Ewing was trained as an economist and holds a PhD in Wildland Resource Science. He has worked in both the private and public sectors and was Director of Timberlands Strategic Planning for Weyerhaeuser for 20 years. Before that, he was head of resource assessment and strategic planning at the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. He is currently a visiting scholar at the UC Berkeley College of Natural Resources and is Director of the Pathwise Fellows Program, which offers leadership training for business professionals. He is also a member of the Puget Sound Partnership Science Panel.
Related article: Urban lifestyles help to protect the Puget Sound ecosystem
PSI research scientist Andy James has been funded by the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Estuary Program to identify contaminants of emerging concern (CECs) in the waters of Puget Sound.
There are literally thousands of man-made chemicals known as CECs circulating in local waters, but very little is known about their impacts on wildlife. They are often found in tiny concentrations and can include residuals from pharmaceuticals and personal care products that are flushed through treated wastewater.
James’ project will extend through May 2019 and will focus on the non-targeted sampling of marine waters and shellfish, as well as selected streams in Puget Sound. James will use mass spectrometry to analyze samples with an eye toward identifying CECs that might have the potential to cause risk to aquatic organisms.
Collaborators include researchers at the University of Washington Center for Urban Waters, the Department of Ecology and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Funding Amount: $200,000.
Project duration: Now through May 2019.