About Jeff Rice

Jeff Rice is Managing Editor at the Puget Sound Institute, where he also oversees the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, an online compendium and review of scientific literature focusing on the Salish Sea ecosystem.

Special report for Puget Sound policymakers

2016-17 Special Report for Puget Sound Policymakers

Download the 44-page 2016-17 Special Report for Puget Sound Policymakers (PDF)

It used to seem easier to spot the polluters. There were the usual suspects. Industrial pipes pumped toxic chemicals into the water; dams blocked the way for salmon; natural resources were over-harvested. Those problems still persist, but ecosystem management in Puget Sound has become increasingly complicated since the 1970s and 1980s.

Scientists now recognize that what happens on the land is intricately tied to the health of the water. We face climate change and unprecedented population growth, and scientists have identified thousands of different human-caused pressures on the ecosystem. The headlines include new threats like stormwater, emerging contaminants and widespread declines in species and habitats. Given limited resources, how can managers and policymakers make informed decisions about where to focus their recovery efforts?

To help with this, we have created a new collection of stories from Salish Sea Currents. This is our second booklet of this type, and it includes reporting on new and emerging science that we believe everyone should read. The stories are wide-ranging, but, like an ecosystem, are connected in important ways.

We start with a look at the impacts of seals and sea lions on the region’s threatened Chinook populations. As many as one in five juvenile Chinook are eaten before they can migrate to open waters. That means many fewer are maturing to adulthood and returning to spawn. It also means significantly less food for the region’s endangered killer whales, which depend on Chinook for about 81% of their diet.

Seal vs Salmon. West End, Vancouver, BC. Photo: cesareb (CC BY-NC 2.0) https://www.flickr.com/photos/cesareb/8620647452

Seal vs Salmon. West End, Vancouver, BC. Photo: cesareb (CC BY-NC 2.0) https://www.flickr.com/photos/cesareb/8620647452

It is a classic illustration of the food web. Seals and sea lions have been increasing due to federal protections, but they have always had a healthy appetite for salmon. Are they the villains here, or is something else at play? Scientists suspect a variety of threats make the Chinook more vulnerable to what should otherwise be a normal pressure. Contaminants in the water as well as habitat loss from shoreline armoring are just two examples of threats that could be weakening Chinook, and we have several stories in this collection that intersect.

Not everything is bad news. We close out the collection with a story about the return of the harbor porpoise. Known as “the puffing pig,” the harbor porpoise had all but disappeared from Puget Sound in the 1970s due to factors like gillnetting and industrial pollutants. The species is still considered to be at risk in the Salish Sea, but its population is on the rise and it is hoped that Puget Sound cleanup efforts can ensure healthy numbers in the future. It is just one reminder that we can make a difference if we understand the ecosystem’s problems and their causes. Good science reporting can help to build that understanding, and we hope this collection of stories continues that tradition.

You can download the 44-page report as a PDF, or contact us if you would like a print version. We’ll also have many new stories in the coming months on the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

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Bringing the shellfish back: How Drayton Harbor overcame a legacy of pollution

Prime Drayton Harbor oyster. Photo: Steve Seymour

Prime Drayton Harbor oyster. Photo: Steve Seymour

New in Salish Sea Currents: After a long struggle with pollution, Drayton Harbor has reopened to year-round commercial oyster harvesting for the first time in 22 years. Here’s how the community cleaned up its act, potentially showing the way for shellfish recovery throughout Puget Sound.

Read the full article on the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound. 

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PSI-sponsored session at CERF

CERF 2017 banner

CERF 2017 banner

The Puget Sound Institute is sponsoring a session at the November 2017 meeting of the Coastal & Estuarine Research Federation (CERF) in Providence, Rhode Island. The session will focus on technical support for ecosystem management and is now accepting abstracts for presentations.

Session title:

From objectives to actions: technical support for ecosystem management planning

Lead Convener: Tessa B Francis
Co-Convener: Aimee Kinney

Visit the CERF website for more information. 

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PSI hosts modeling workshop

A big thanks to everyone in the house and on the webinar for the february 15th workshop: Modeling in Support of Ecosystem Recovery. Photo by Kris Symer.

A big thanks to everyone who attended our February 15th workshop, ‘Modeling in Support of Ecosystem Recovery.’ Photo by Kris Symer.

The Puget Sound Institute is hosting a workshop on “Modeling in Support of Ecosystem Recovery,” on February 15, 2017, from 10am – 4pm, at the South Seattle Community College Georgetown Campus, 6737 Corson Avenue South, Seattle, 98108.

This workshop brings together modelers, Strategic Initiative Leads, Implementation Strategy (IS) team members, PSP Science Panel members, PSP Leadership Council members, EPA, tribes, and key stakeholders to discuss how to support Puget Sound recovery planning and implementation with modeling. We will take a multi-scale perspective, and use the Estuaries Implementation Strategy (IS) as a case study of how models can be used within ISs, and as a way of helping advance the Estuaries IS. We will also discuss modeling at the system scale, including needs and capacity.

Space is limited, so PLEASE RSVP. Remote attendance will be possible (via WebEx), but all attendees should RSVP to ensure they receive information as it becomes available.

View the workshop agenda. 

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Study of seals and sea lions gains interest

Seal vs Salmon. West End, Vancouver, BC. Photo: cesareb (CC BY-NC 2.0) https://www.flickr.com/photos/cesareb/8620647452

Seal vs Salmon. West End, Vancouver, BC. Photo: cesareb (CC BY-NC 2.0) https://www.flickr.com/photos/cesareb/8620647452

Our story last week about the impacts of predators on Chinook salmon populations in Puget Sound continues to gather strong interest from our readers. Several thousand viewed it after it came out last Thursday, and it was reprinted in the Kitsap Sun on Monday.

The story was written by PSI senior writer Christopher Dunagan and reports on a new study showing that area seals and sea lions are eating a much higher amount of threatened Chinook than previously known. Many questions still remain, but it is the first time that a peer-reviewed study has attempted to quantify these predator impacts to such a degree and in such detail.

Here are a few highlights: As many as one in five young Chinook are eaten before they can make it out of Puget Sound into the open ocean. Area seals and sea lions eat twice as many Chinook as do Puget Sound’s endangered orcas, and six times the annual commercial and recreational catches from local fishermen combined. Scientists attribute the large numbers to an increase in seals and sea lions since the 1970s after the animals were protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Not surprisingly, scientists and policymakers will have to look more closely at these numbers to determine what to do. Seals and sea lions are rightly protected, and old (and undesirable) policies of hunting the animals to protect salmon are not an option. Scientists say that even if such policies were possible, there is no saying that they would actually protect the salmon population.

The fact is that the seals and sea lions are just doing what they do naturally, and while their populations are healthy, there aren’t necessarily more of them than there should be. Some would argue that this study is a reminder that we need to continue to recover habitat and create better conditions for the salmon to withstand what are essentially normal pressures from the environment. Historically, Puget Sound’s Chinook and predators co-existed just fine, but that was before millions of humans started destroying the local streams and floodplains, degrading beaches and polluting the water. See a harbor seal with a salmon in its mouth? That can also be seen as a sign of Puget Sound’s health.

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Study says predators may play major role in Chinook salmon declines

Sea lion sunbathing between meals in Seattle's Eliott Bay. Photo: Johnny Mumbles (CC BY 2.0) https://www.flickr.com/photos/mumbles/3283168713

Sea lion sunbathing between meals in Seattle’s Eliott Bay. Photo: Johnny Mumbles (CC BY 2.0) https://www.flickr.com/photos/mumbles/3283168713

A new study shows that increased populations of seals and sea lions are eating far more of Puget Sound’s threatened Chinook than previously known, potentially hampering recovery efforts for both salmon and endangered killer whales.

Read the story in Salish Sea Currents.

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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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