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.

Puget Sound science from A to Z

A screenshot of the EoPS homepage.

A screenshot of the EoPS homepage.

These days, you may know the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound as a news source. Our magazine stories and blogs cover science as it happens across the Salish Sea, from research on salmon recovery to toxic chemicals in the food web.

There is no other publication focusing strictly on Puget Sound science, and — we’ll be bold here — we strive to provide the best such coverage in the region. Not because we have the most stories or the biggest staff (we don’t), but because we report the news that you need to know.

We work closely with the scientists on the ground and often hear what’s happening before the major media outlets. We work hard to get the stories right, and we provide context that other publications can’t.

That context is one of the most important parts of the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound. We are a news source, but we are also a resource — an encyclopedia. If you want to know how scientists and policymakers view the ecosystem and how they are working to protect it, we have organized it from A to Z.

This August, as the dog days settle over Puget Sound and forest fires rage in the distance, we’ll continue to build the encyclopedia behind the scenes. Do you want to know more about toxic algae blooms or zooplankton? How about floodplains or the impacts of shoreline armoring? There’s plenty to discover. You can use the encyclopedia in your classes. Share it with policymakers. Identify thousands of species. Find out the age of a rock fish. Scope out local beaches. The website continues to get better every day, and we are glad to bring it to you.

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Are we making progress on salmon recovery?

Dean Toba, a biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, operates the agency’s screw trap on the Skagit River. The trap helps biologists estimate the number of juvenile salmon leaving the river each year. Photo: Christopher Dunagan, PSI

Dean Toba, a scientific technician with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, operates the agency’s screw trap on the Skagit River. The trap helps biologists estimate the number of juvenile salmon leaving the river each year. Photo: Christopher Dunagan, PSI

In recent decades, hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent to restore habitat for Puget Sound salmon. This month, PSI senior writer Christopher Dunagan looks at how scientists are gauging their progress. Are environmental conditions improving or getting worse? The answer may depend on where you look and who you ask.

Read the article in Salish Sea Currents. 

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Salmon council debates new priorities proposed by tribes

The Puget Sound Partnership’s Salmon Recovery Council last Thursday gave preliminary approval to six of the seven proposed recovery priorities known as “bold actions” to improve Chinook salmon numbers in Puget Sound. One of the actions calling for “a net gain in ecosystem function and habitat productivity” for salmon was tabled for ongoing discussions in August and September.

The actions were proposed last May by regional tribes dissatisfied with a state-proposed salmon plan known as the Chinook Implementation Strategy. Tribes felt that the strategy didn’t go far enough and called for a series of seven specific actions designed to stem the ongoing decline of Puget Sound Chinook salmon listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

Two of the action items, one responding to high amounts of predation of juvenile Chinook by seals and sea lions and another on climate change appeared to pass through the council unchanged, but several of the proposed priorities are undergoing a series of amendments that were debated at the council meeting. The Puget Sound Partnership is now sharing an edited version of the actions among members of the council for refinement in “mid to late August,” according to the Partnership’s deputy director Laura Blackmore. Versions of the proposed actions can also be found in a new solicitation of funding by the Puget Sound Partnership (starting on page 19).

In all, the seven proposed actions include protection of habitat, improvements in water quantity and water quality, predation and mortality of young salmon, funding, communication, climate change and oil spill preparedness.

Council member Dave Herrera of the Skokomish Tribe expressed frustration over the delay in approving all of the items, but said he remained optimistic about the efforts. “I feel like we know what the issues are,” he said. “If we can act on these, we have a fighting chance.”

The proposed action concerning habitat protection remains up for debate and may be the most controversial item among those discussed on Thursday. The item would protect “all remaining salmon habitat by implementing land use policy changes that optimize a net gain in ecosystem function and habitat productivity.” It would also “build a region-wide accountability system,” according to a briefing document presented to the council.  Representatives of the agricultural community have called the language in the provision too broad and say it puts too many burdens on farmers that are already dealing with legal challenges and environmental regulations. Tribal representatives say the provision is central to salmon recovery.

“We are still losing ground faster than we are restoring it,” Herrera said. “We have been putting all of our eggs in the restoration basket, but we’re not going to restore our way out of this. We can’t keep up with what we’re losing.”

The council also tabled for later discussion water quantity issues in one of the actions potentially impacted by last year’s Washington Supreme Court ruling known as the Hirst decision. The Salmon Recovery Council is scheduled to meet to continue its discussion of the proposed priorities on September 28th in Edmonds. 

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House committee approves funding for Puget Sound cleanup

Bucking a proposed White House budget that would have cut EPA’s Puget Sound funding entirely, the House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday voted to approve $28 million for Puget Sound in fiscal year 2018. The amount matches last year’s appropriation for the region, although the bill still faces a vote on the House floor. The Senate will consider its own spending plan and may further revise the numbers.

House Democrats Denny Heck and Derek Kilmer of the Puget Sound Recovery Caucus earlier said that they were encouraged by the budget after successfully fending off a proposed $3 million cut that appeared in the original version of the bill. (You can read their amendment on page number 8 of the bill’s Committee Markups. The original allocation for Puget Sound is shown here.)

The budget is part of a $31.4 billion appropriations bill for several federal agencies, including the EPA and the Interior Department. While the House committee voted to maintain Puget Sound cleanup at its current level of EPA funding, the EPA as a whole fared less well. Overall, the bill would cut EPA’s yearly budget from 8.06 billion to 7.5 billion. That’s less than the 31% cut proposed by the Trump administration, but still steep according to some Democrats who wrangled over the proposed legislation.

“A cut of this magnitude endangers our nation’s natural and cultural resources,” said Rep. Betty McCollum of Minnesota, the Interior and environment subcommittee’s ranking Democrat, who spoke to EE News. “Once again, the Environmental Protection Agency is hardest hit by the cuts recommended in this bill. The EPA is slashed by $528 million, shouldering a whopping 64 percent of the subcommittee’s overall cut.”

House Appropriations Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen, a Republican from New Jersey disagreed, saying in a press release that the cuts were responsible. “This legislation responsibly supports the agencies and offices we rely on to preserve our natural resources for future generations,” he said. He added that the funding “prioritizes our limited funding to programs that protect environmental safety,” and will “rein in the federal bureaucracy… to stop many harmful and unnecessary regulations that destroy economic opportunity and hinder job creation.”

Puget Sound is one of several Geographic Programs that depend heavily on EPA funding from the proposed legislation. Among them is Chesapeake Bay, the nation’s largest estuary, which received a proposed cut in the bill of $13 million from its $73 million fiscal 2017 allocation. The Puget Sound Institute is among the organizations that would receive funding from the legislation, which is directed through EPA’s National Estuary Program.

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Shoreline armoring puts flood insurance at risk

Before and after composite view at the site of a 2013 bulkhead-removal project on the shore of Penrose Point State Park in Pierce County. Composite: Kris Symer, PSI; original photos: Kristin Williamson, South Puget Sound Salmon Enhancement Group

Before and after composite view at the site of a 2013 bulkhead-removal project on the shore of Penrose Point State Park in Pierce County. Composite: Kris Symer, PSI; original photos: Kristin Williamson, South Puget Sound Salmon Enhancement Group

Communities across Puget Sound must consider salmon-safe alternatives to shoreline armoring or risk losing their flood insurance, according to requirements established by FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program.

The requirements stem from a Biological Opinion issued by NOAA in 2008 finding that shoreline armoring and other development in the floodplain (so-called “Special Flood Hazard Areas”) can damage critical salmon habitat. The opinion protects threatened Chinook salmon, Hood Canal summer chum and endangered Southern Resident killer whales which rely on Chinook for much of their food. Newly-permitted shoreline structures are expected to demonstrate “no adverse effect” on species listed under the Endangered Species Act. Exceptions are allowed in some cases where property is at risk or additional permits are issued, according to NOAA.

Compliance with the FEMA requirement is voluntary, but without the endorsement of FEMA, flood insurance can be more expensive or difficult to obtain.

Shoreline armoring includes a variety of shoreline structures such as bulkheads and seawalls that are typically created to stave off beach erosion. New science shows that these structures interfere with natural processes critical to beach function and diminish food and habitat for a variety of fish species.

“If you’re a fish, it’s like living in a neighborhood where there is no grocery store,” says Janet Curran, a biologist at NOAA Fisheries. [You can read more about shoreline armoring in our series “Rethinking shoreline armoring” in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.] “You could starve trying to find food.”

Charting changes in Puget Sound shoreline armoring length (2005-2015)

Charting changes in Puget Sound shoreline armoring length (2005-2015)

Curran says that the Biological Opinion sets a higher standard for shoreline use and development by adding an additional layer of regulatory protection. “I would not say that it’s going to stop all shoreline armoring,” she said, “but it strengthens the toolkit for salmon protection.” Currently, the Puget Sound region adds the equivalent of a mile of new armoring per year, although that number is offset by the removal of old armoring. About 25% of Puget Sound is classified by the state as armored.

According to FEMA, 122 Puget Sound municipalities such as counties, cities and tribal governments are potentially affected. FEMA doesn’t enforce shoreline armoring regulations or permits, but asks local communities to certify that they are in compliance. A “community” in this case is defined by FEMA as any local government or collective responsible for issuing a permit.

FEMA says that all 122 such groups are currently in compliance with the National Flood Insurance Program, but that the agency is working closely with some groups that need special help meeting the “no adverse effect” requirement for shoreline structures. The FEMA standards are more stringent than “no net loss” requirements for state permits, which allow for some impacts as long as they are mitigated.

There are several options for meeting the FEMA standards. Known as “doors”, these pathways include review of structures on a case by case basis, or satisfaction of a checklist of requirements that meet the equivalent of the Biological Opinion. If communities don’t meet the requirements, they can be placed on probation, which includes an additional charge of $50 per year for insurance premiums and a year to satisfy the requirements. If a community is out of compliance for more than a year, it risks suspension, which means it would be ineligible to participate in the National Flood Insurance Program.

Although local governments are responsible for their own enforcement, FEMA works to correct minor violations through what it calls “community assistance visits,” says John Graves, floodplains management and insurance branch chief at FEMA, Region 10. “It’s like a tune-up on your car — preventative maintenance,” Graves says.

Marine Shoreline Design Guidelines report cover

Marine Shoreline Design Guidelines report cover

The goal, Graves says, is to correct potential violations and satisfy the Biological Opinion, not to put people on probation or deny endorsement for flood insurance.

“We provide technical assistance,” says Graves, “and teach that there are alternatives to hard armoring.” Ultimately, he says, it’s up to the local communities to decide how they want to respond.  “You can’t do it solely on the back of the FEMA Flood Insurance Program,” he says. “We need to have people understand that hard armoring isn’t always the solution.”

FEMA and NOAA often refer communities and developers to the state’s Marine Shoreline Design Guidelines for information about salmon-safe shoreline development. Removal of shoreline armoring is designated as a key “vital sign” of Puget Sound health by the state’s Puget Sound Partnership. It is part of a new series of Implementation Strategies funded by the Environmental Protection Agency aimed at Puget Sound recovery.

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Update: Killer whale miscarriages linked to low food supply

In this high-resolution image taken from a remotely operated hexacopter, a Southern Resident killer whale named Slick (J16) is about to surface with her youngest calf, Scarlet (J50). Scarlet, born in December 2014, was the first calf in the so-called “baby boom” — nine orcas born between December 2014 and January 2016. These images are used to measure the length and width of orcas within an inch or two, allowing for ongoing observations of their physical changes. Photo: NOAA Fisheries, Vancouver Aquarium under NMFS research permit and FAA flight authorization.

In this high-resolution image taken from a remotely operated hexacopter, a Southern Resident killer whale named Slick (J16) is about to surface with her youngest calf, Scarlet (J50). Scarlet, born in December 2014, was the first calf in the so-called “baby boom” — nine orcas born between December 2014 and January 2016. These images are used to measure the length and width of orcas within an inch or two, allowing for ongoing observations of their physical changes. Photo: NOAA Fisheries, Vancouver Aquarium under NMFS research permit and FAA flight authorization.

Our 2016 article “Killer whale miscarriages linked to low food supply” provided an early look at a study published this week in the journal PLOS ONE.

PSI senior writer Christopher Dunagan wrote the article based on research that was presented at the 2016 Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference, and it remains a helpful summary of the newly published findings.

Scientists have found that Puget Sound’s endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales are experiencing a high rate of miscarriages in large part because they are not getting enough food. The whales depend primarily on diminished populations of Chinook salmon and this scarcity magnifies other existing threats ranging from toxic PCBs to noise pollution.

The PLOS ONE study was co-authored by Samuel K. Wasser , Jessica I. Lundin, Katherine Ayres, Elizabeth Seely, Deborah Giles, Kenneth Balcomb, Jennifer Hempelmann, Kim Parsons, and Rebecca Booth. Dunagan’s article summarizing their findings is available on the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

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Eelgrass declines pose a mystery

Eelgrass at Alki Beach, Seattle. Report cover photo: Lisa Ferrier

Eelgrass at Alki Beach, Seattle. Report cover photo: Lisa Ferrier

New in Salish Sea Currents: Scientists want to know why eelgrass is on the decline in some areas of Puget Sound and not others. The answer will affect future strategies for protecting one of the ecosystem’s most critical saltwater plants.

Read the full story from contributing writer Rachel Berkowitz in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound. 

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‘Bold actions’ to save Puget Sound salmon gain qualified support

The Puget Sound Salmon Recovery Council wants the opportunity to clarify the meaning of a new tribal proposal.

By Christopher Dunagan, Puget Sound Institute

Chart courtesy of Environmental Protection Agency

Chart of Chinook harvests courtesy of Environmental Protection Agency

Native American tribes in the Puget Sound region are calling for “bold actions” to reverse the decline of Puget Sound Chinook salmon, listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

Such actions would include:
— Protecting all remaining salmon habitat in and around Puget Sound with more consistent and enforceable land-use regulations;
— Preventing water uses that would limit salmon recovery;
— Improving management of predators, including the seals and sea lions that eat Chinook; and
— Increasing dramatically the current spending on salmon recovery — some 50- to 100-fold — with perhaps additional new funding sources to be added.

The ideas were presented to the Puget Sound Salmon Recovery Council on Thursday by tribal representative Dave Herrera, speaking for the Puget Sound Tribal Management Conference.

“The way we are managing lands is not working,” Herrera said. “It may be working for people, but it is not working for fish.” Continue reading

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Saving the last estuaries

The Qwuloolt estuary hydrology restored by breaching a century old levee. WRP easement land in the foreground. Photo: USDA

The Qwuloolt estuary hydrology restored by breaching a century old levee. WRP easement land in the foreground. Photo: USDA

When rivers spill into Puget Sound, they provide some of the most productive habitat in the ecosystem. The ebb and flow of the tides creates a perfect mix of fresh and salt water critical for young salmon. But over the past 100 years, the region’s tidal wetlands have declined by more than 75%. A coalition of state and federal agencies has a plan to bring them back.

Encyclopedia of Puget Sound contributing writer Eric Wagner reports on the status of several estuary restoration projects and how they fit into ecosystem recovery region-wide.

Read the story in Salish Sea Currents.

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Identifying chemical suspects in stormwater

Adult coho salmon returning to Seattle-area urban streams are dying prior to spawning, as indicated by female carcasses with nearly 100% egg retention. The above example is an adult female that returned from the ocean to spawn in Longfellow Creek (West Seattle) in the fall of 2012. Photo credit: Jenifer McIntyre.

Adult coho salmon returning to Seattle-area urban streams are dying prior to spawning, as indicated by female carcasses with nearly 100% egg retention. The above example is an adult female that returned from the ocean to spawn in Longfellow Creek (West Seattle) in the fall of 2012. Photo credit: Jenifer McIntyre.

Scientists know this much about stormwater: It can be extremely toxic. It can kill exposed fish such as coho salmon within hours. But figuring out exactly what is in stormwater has been a complex puzzle that has so far confounded scientists. Many of the chemical compounds in it remain unidentified.

Is there such a thing as typical stormwater, or is it so variable that patterns can’t be detected? That has been the subject of research by Center for Urban Waters research scientist and PSI collaborator Ed Kolodziej, who will be presenting some of his findings at the Northwest Fishery Sciences Center on May 18th. New analytical techniques using time of flight mass spectrometry are making it easier to identify and localize sources of contaminants.

When and where:

Thursday, May 18, 2017 at 11:00 AM in the Northwest Fisheries Science Center Auditorium: 2725 Montlake Blvd. E., Seattle WA 98112.

Visit the Northwest Fisheries Science Center website for more information. 

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Herring talk May 15th at UWT

Herring eggs. Photo by Tessa Francis.

Herring eggs. Photo by Tessa Francis.

PSI’s Tessa Francis will be presenting a lecture on Puget Sound’s Pacific herring as part of the University of Washington Tacoma Environmental Seminar series on May 15th. The seminar is open to the public and will be held from 12:30 P.M. to 1:30 P.M. on the UWT campus in the Science Building in room SCI309. The talk will look at why some local herring stocks are in decline and what might be done to protect Puget Sound’s herring in the future.

View a poster for the talk. 

 

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Urban lifestyles help to protect the Puget Sound ecosystem

The University of Washington Tacoma has spurred sustainable urban development including re-purposing of historic buildings, new housing, a museum and retail district, multi-use trails, and light rail transit. Photo courtesy: UW Tacoma

The University of Washington Tacoma has spurred sustainable urban development including re-purposing of historic buildings, new housing, a museum and retail district, multi-use trails, and light rail transit. Photo courtesy: UW Tacoma

The state of Washington estimates that the Puget Sound area will grow by more than 1.5 million residents within the next two decades. That is expected to have profound effects on the environment as more and more people move to undeveloped areas. The race is on to protect this critical rural habitat, but planners say what happens in the cities may be just as important.

Read the story in Salish Sea Currents.

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