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 a sunrise over the Cascades. 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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Year in review: 2016

Winter sunset alpenglow on Mt Baker and the North Cascades. Copyright: LoweStock

Winter sunset alpenglow on Mt Baker and the North Cascades. Copyright: LoweStock

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.

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Implementation strategies will target Puget Sound ‘Vital Signs’

Implementation strategies are a framework to improve the heartbeat of Puget Sound

Implementation strategies are a framework to improve the heartbeat of Puget Sound

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.

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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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Removing Puget Sound’s ‘Great Wall’

before-afterCan 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.

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