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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Can we really wait 700 years to remove all of the armoring along Puget Sound’s shoreline? Let’s do some of the math.
Senior Writer Christopher Dunagan reports in Salish Sea Currents this week that armor removal now exceeds new creation by somewhat less than a mile per year. At first glance, that’s a good thing. It is a reversal in a 100-year trend that has added more than 700 miles of bulkheads and other anti-erosion structures to Puget Sound beaches. It happened for the first time in modern memory in 2014 and the trend continued in 2015. But consider that number: 700 miles.
In the simplest terms, less than a mile per year of net removal adds up to a timeline of more than 700 years. That doesn’t tell the whole story, of course. The fact is, not all of the region’s shoreline armoring is meant to be removed, nor should it be. Some of it is considered necessary. No one is expecting to breach the downtown seawall, or surrender endangered houses to the waves. But it does give a sense of the scale of the project.
Recent peer-reviewed studies show that armoring clearly and unambiguously causes damage to the ecosystem, giving increasing urgency to the need to remove it wherever possible. Just how much of it is vital and how much can stand to be removed or replaced with more environmentally sensitive structures is not yet clear, but what is clear is that 700 miles of it — more than 25% of Puget Sound’s shoreline — is hurting the environment. Put another way, 700 miles adds up to a ‘Great Wall’ stretching further than the ocean-facing coasts of Washington and Oregon combined. It’s going to have an impact.
So why not just get rid of it? That’s easier said than done. For example, between 2012 and 2016 the state of Washington, with support from the EPA, spent about $8 million dollars on seven armor removal projects. They were just some of the many such projects underway across the region, but were bundled together as part of a series of grants from the state’s Marine and Nearshore Grant Program [also a funder of some of the work at the Puget Sound Institute]. Those projects did more than just remove concrete bulkheads. They restored beaches and in some cases added new ‘softshore’ structures that took the place of more damaging ones. But simply measured by linear feet, total armoring removal in those projects added up to less than a mile. It is clear that it will be difficult and expensive for state and federal agencies to simply engineer their way out of the problem, and those agencies recognize that other strategies have to be considered as well.
One approach is to look at where most of the armoring is occurring. Studies show that about 57% of Puget Sound’s shoreline is privately owned, and that is where the state believes much of the change will happen. State-sponsored efforts such as Shore Friendly provide information to shoreline owners and building contractors on alternatives to armoring. The state is also looking at ways to ramp up enforcement against un-permitted, illegal shoreline armoring. Removal numbers may be modest so far, but the hope is that once the roller coaster crests the hill, it will start to roll faster down the other side.
Read our series ‘Rethinking shoreline armoring’ for more background.
Last month, Puget Sound Institute senior writer Christopher Dunagan’s series on invasive species in Puget Sound highlighted some of the state’s worries about the arrival of the European green crab. The article noted that “the threat could be just around the corner.” It could not have been more timely.
Several weeks after the article was published, volunteer crab spotters led by Washington Sea Grant made the region’s first green crab sighting. The crab was found on San Juan Island and it led to a rapid response coordinated by the state to find out if others had spread further. This week, another crab has been spotted in Padilla Bay.
Emily Grason of Sea Grant said in a news release that there is little evidence so far of a larger population of the invasive crabs on San Juan Island, “but finding an additional crab at a site more than 30 miles away suggests that ongoing vigilance is critical across all Puget Sound shorelines.”
Green crabs are listed as one of 12 aquatic animals of greatest concern by the Washington Invasive Species Council. They cause an estimated $22 million each year in damage to fisheries on the East Coast and have started to disrupt fisheries in California as well.
Scientists suspect that green crabs may be spreading because of warming temperatures, but little is known for sure. Green crab larvae can also survive in the ballast water of ships entering Puget Sound, a major—and at times unregulated—pathway for a variety of invasive species. You can catch up on green crabs and other emerging threats from invasive species in our August series in Salish Sea Currents.
After an almost complete collapse in the 1970s, harbor porpoise populations in Puget Sound have rebounded. Scientists are celebrating the recovery of the species sometimes known as the “puffing pig.” Eric Wagner reports for Salish Sea Currents.
Need even more harbor porpoise facts? Read an in-depth profile from the SeaDoc Society prepared for inclusion in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.
A story this week in Salish Sea Currents delves into the connection between environmental change and culturally important foods. Writer Sarah DeWeerdt interviewed social scientists at the 2016 Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference about how this affects the spiritual and physical health of Salish Sea tribes and first nations. “The loss of subsistence and cultural identity cannot be estimated,” Joe Schumacker of the Quinault Department of Fisheries told her. In some cases, the yearning to eat culturally important foods can even override health when foods may be hazardous due to toxins from pollution. Read the story on the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.
Some of the most important fish in the Salish Sea food web are also the most mysterious. Researchers have only begun to understand how many there are, where they go, and how we can preserve their populations for the future. University of Washington researcher Margaret Siple reports on the secret lives of forage fish in the latest issue of Salish Sea Currents.
Invasive species are among the three greatest threats to the environment worldwide, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Species ranging from microscopic viruses to larger creatures like rodents and non-native fish can alter the balance of entire ecosystems. The threat is well-known in Puget Sound and the Salish Sea, which face their own unique challenges.
This week, our magazine Salish Sea Currents looks at some of the ways that invasive species get into local waters. Senior writer Christopher Dunagan reports on two leading pathways that have caught the attention of regulators. Studies show that many invaders are literally shipped into our ports. They arrive as stowaways in ballast water, or attach themselves to the outer hulls of boats and ships, a condition known as biofouling.
Despite this knowledge, there remain significant gaps in regulations of these two pathways. Most ships are required to exchange their ballast water in the open ocean, which offers some protection. But in the case of ships coming from the mouth of the Columbia River — a known hot-spot for potential invaders — ballast water can still be dumped directly into Puget Sound. Researchers worry that this could open the door for species of concern such as the green crab, or tiny crustaceans known as copepods that may already be interfering with the Puget Sound food web. The other major pathway, biofouling, is almost entirely unregulated.
Officials are just starting to develop—and debate—plans to address these issues. You can read the entire series on the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.