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.

Share

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

Share

U.S. EPA commits funding to support PSI’s role in Puget Sound science

The Puget Sound Institute and Puget Sound Partnership are located at the Center for Urban Waters on the eastern shore of Tacoma's Thea Foss Waterway.

The Puget Sound Institute and Puget Sound Partnership are located at the Center for Urban Waters on the eastern shore of Tacoma’s Thea Foss Waterway.

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.

Share

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. 

Share

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.

Share

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. 

Share

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.

Share

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.

Share

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. 

Share

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%. Now 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.

Share

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.

Share

New report shows high impact of toxic pollution on the Salish Sea

Report cover

Report cover

A new report about toxics in the Salish Sea brings together findings from over 40 research programs and includes case studies of Chinook salmon, shellfish and killer whales, among other species:

The report from the Puget Sound Ecosystem Monitoring Program and co-edited by PSI’s Andy James highlights trends for toxics during 2016. While some of the news was positive, such as gradual declines in contaminants in sediments, much of the report shows severe and continuing impacts from a wide variety of harmful chemicals.

Already threatened species such as Chinook salmon may be especially vulnerable. According to the report, a third of juvenile Chinook migrating through Puget Sound pick up enough contaminants in their bodies to damage their health. Scientists say that could explain some of the higher than expected death rates among juvenile Chinook in Puget Sound, or could make them more vulnerable to predators such as seals and sea lions.

On the bright side, management efforts over the past 25 years have led to declines in PCBs, DDT and PAHs in some more rural parts of Puget Sound. Contaminants are still high in the central and south basins, but have declined in herring in certain areas, and select populations of juvenile Chinook are seeing similar declines.

The 68-page report also looks at potential impacts of contaminants on humans, and includes some of the findings from studies that were used to determine Washington Department of Health advice for consumption of Dungeness crab and spot prawns.

You can read all of the findings on the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

Citation:

PSEMP Toxics Work Group. 2017. 2016 Salish Sea Toxics Monitoring Review: A Selection of Research. C.A. James, J. Lanksbury, D. Lester, S. O’Neill, T. Roberts, C. Sullivan, J. West, eds. Puget Sound Ecosystem Monitoring Program. Tacoma, WA.

Share