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.

Christopher Dunagan wrote the article for us 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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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.

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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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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.

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PSI is visiting D.C. for Puget Sound Day on the Hill

A Southern Resident killer whale leaps into the air. The Southern Residents are an endangered population of fish-eating killer whales. Credit: NOAA

An endangered Southern Resident killer whale leaps into the air. Credit: NOAA

PSI will be visiting Washington, D.C. next week as part of Puget Sound Day on the Hill. The event is planned for May 2nd, and it is a chance to talk with D.C. policymakers about the importance of protecting the Puget Sound ecosystem.

On one hand, that’s not such a hard sell. Few people would come out and say that they don’t like Puget Sound. Who doesn’t like orcas — or salmon, or sunrises over the Cascades? But opposing Puget Sound? Why, that would be like opposing oxygen or the air we breathe. We’re all fans. We get it.

On the other hand, we tend to assume that there will be enough oxygen for us to breathe tomorrow and the next day. We support the concept, but we don’t necessarily worry about it.

It’s time to start worrying. In some ways, the oxygen is running out. Despite its postcard-ready scenery, the ecosystem is in real danger. Climate change, habitat loss and water pollution threaten to squeeze the life out of Puget Sound and its species. We report on this almost every day in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, and as strong as the ecosystem is, you need only to count the region’s 70-plus endangered Southern Resident orcas to understand that its capacity to withstand this squeeze is not boundless.

Puget Sound is vital to our health and wellbeing, to the economy, and to the species that live in it. It’s not enough to be in favor of it. We have to provide the resources to protect it.

We will be joining with organizations like the Puget Sound Partnership and the Puget Sound Recovery Caucus, and you can read more about some of the events on the Puget Sound Partnership website.

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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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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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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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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 the amount of 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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