Seals and sea lions may be slowing salmon recovery, hurting orcas

A young resident killer whale chases a chinook salmon in the Salish Sea near San Juan Island, WA. Sept 2017. Image obtained under NMFS permit #19091. Photo by John Durban (NOAA Fisheries/Southwest Fisheries Science Center), Holly Fearnbach (SR3: SeaLife Response, Rehabilitation and Research) and Lance Barrett-Lennard (Vancouver Aquarium’s Coastal Ocean Research Institute). (CC BY-SA 2.0) https://flic.kr/p/21wV8rV

A young resident killer whale chases a chinook salmon in the Salish Sea near San Juan Island, WA. Sept 2017. Photo by John Durban (NOAA Fisheries/Southwest Fisheries Science Center), Holly Fearnbach (SR3: SeaLife Response, Rehabilitation and Research) and Lance Barrett-Lennard (Vancouver Aquarium’s Coastal Ocean Research Institute). (CC BY-SA 2.0) https://flic.kr/p/21wV8rV

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.

Read the article by PSI senior writer Christopher Dunagan in Salish Sea Currents.

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With sea-level rise, waterfront owners confront their options

A house and bulkead (circa 2013) before it was moved to make room for sea-level rise. Photo courtesy: John Vechey

A house on Orcas Island (circa 2013) before it was moved back to make room for sea-level rise. Photo courtesy: John Vechey

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.

Read the story in our online magazine Salish Sea Currents

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PCBs in fish remain steady while other toxics decline

English Sole (Parophrys vetulus) in Puget Sound. Photo: biodiversityguy https://biodiversityguy.smugmug.com/Underwater/Reference-List-Photos-of/i-3GgD5hB/A

English Sole (Parophrys vetulus) in Puget Sound. Photo: biodiversityguy https://biodiversityguy.smugmug.com/Underwater/Reference-List-Photos-of/i-3GgD5hB/A

A new study shows a surprising decline in some toxic chemicals in Puget Sound fish, while levels of PCBs increased in some cases. Scientists say the study shows that banning toxic chemicals can work, but old contaminants remain a challenge as they continue to wash into Puget Sound.

Read our story in Salish Sea Currents. 

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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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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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Program envisions fewer floods and more salmon

2016 aerial view of completed Calistoga Reach levee project in Orting, WA. Image courtesy: CSI Drone Solutions and Washington Rock Quarries, Inc. Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2H_NK6U2_zw

2016 aerial view of completed Calistoga Reach levee project in Orting, WA. Image courtesy: CSI Drone Solutions and Washington Rock Quarries, Inc. Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2H_NK6U2_zw

This week in Salish Sea Currents: PSI senior writer Christopher Dunagan reports on a new approach to flood control in Puget Sound. Rivers, scientists say, can be contained by setting them free. Conservationists hope this is good news for salmon recovery.

The story is part of our ongoing series on the science of Puget Sound recovery. Funding for the series is provided by the Environmental Protection Agency.

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PSI study links happiness to interactions with nature

Lani Matthews, 13, is chased down the Buckley Cemetery hill by her dog, Kona, in February. A study finds a link between interactions with nature and happiness for people in the Puget Sound area. Drew Perine dperine@thenewstribune.com Read more here: http://www.thenewstribune.com/news/local/article143536044.html#storylink=cpy

Lani Matthews, 13, is chased down the Buckley Cemetery hill by her dog, Kona, in February. A study finds a link between interactions with nature and happiness for people in the Puget Sound area. Drew Perine dperine@thenewstribune.com

Can nature make you happy? Science weighs in. A recent study by PSI social scientist Kelly Biedenweg found that Puget Sound residents reported increasing happiness the more they engaged with the natural environment.

“We (in the Pacific Northwest) are pretty much the leaders in trying to understand how happiness and integration with the environment relate to each other,” Biedenweg told The News Tribune, which featured the study in its April 7th edition. Biedenweg has been working with the state of Washington to identify indicators of human well-being such as happiness, physical and psychological health and economic prosperity for the Puget Sound region.

The study was published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology and was funded by The National Science Foundation and the Environmental Protection Agency. It was based on online surveys of 4,418 area residents across eleven Puget Sound counties.

A version of The News Tribune story was also published on April 9th in The Olympian. 

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Finding a strategy to accelerate Chinook recovery

Fir Island Farms habitat restoration monitoring in Skagit County. Project provides rearing habitat for young threatened Chinook salmon along with other wildlife. Copyright: Bob Friel

Fir Island Farms habitat restoration monitoring in Skagit County. Project provides rearing habitat for young threatened Chinook salmon along with other wildlife. Copyright: Bob Friel

New in Salish Sea Currents: We continue our series on Puget Sound’s EPA-funded Implementation Strategies. This week we take on Chinook recovery.

As threatened Chinook populations continue to lose ground, the state is looking to new strategies to reverse the trend. In the Skagit watershed, the scientists — and the fish — are among those leading the way.

Puget Sound-area writer Bob Friel reports from the newly-established Fir Island Farms Reserve where he witnessed the discovery of the very first Chinook to be found at that restoration project.

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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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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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Will Ballard Locks withstand a major earthquake?

Ballard Locks from the air. Photo: Jeff Wilcox (CC BY-NC 2.0) https://www.flickr.com/photos/jeffwilcox/4805933588

Ballard Locks from the air. Photo: Jeff Wilcox (CC BY-NC 2.0) https://www.flickr.com/photos/jeffwilcox/4805933588

Concerns are growing that an earthquake or major ship accident could cause a failure that would halt ship traffic — or, worse, drop water levels in Lake Washington and Lake Union by up to 20 feet. That could mean stranded boats, disabled bridges and big problems for salmon restoration.

Read the story in Salish Sea Currents on the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound. 

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