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 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.

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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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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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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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Marine Waters report provides overview of 2015 conditions in Puget Sound

Marine Waters 2015 report cover

Marine Waters 2015 report cover

The Puget Sound Ecosystem Monitoring Program released its fifth annual Marine Waters Report today. The report provides an assessment of marine conditions for the year 2015 and includes updates on water quality as well as status reports for select plankton, seabirds, fish and marine mammals.

According to the report, water temperatures broke records throughout Puget Sound. The year was also the worst on record for two distinct stocks of Pacific herring. You can read the full report on the Puget Sound Partnership website. 

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Second invasive green crab found in Puget Sound

Carcinus maenas. Photo: Brent Wilson (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) https://www.flickr.com/photos/59048895@N06/5409329320/

Carcinus maenas. Photo: Brent Wilson (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) https://www.flickr.com/photos/59048895@N06/5409329320/

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.

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A comparative study of human well-being indicators across three Puget Sound regions

Puget Sound Institute social scientist Kelly Biedenweg has published a comparative study of three well-being indicators in the Puget Sound region. The article appears in the August issue of the journal Society & Natural Resources.

Abstract:

Simple frameworks that generalize the best metrics of human well- being related to the natural environment have rarely been empirically tested for their representativeness across diverse regions. This study tested the hypothesis that metrics of human well-being related to environmental change are context specific by identifying priority human well-being indicators in distinct regions. The research team interviewed 61 experts and held 8 stakeholder workshops across 3 regions to identify and prioritize locally relevant indicators. Results from the three regions were compared to determine the degree of geographic and demographic variability in indicator priorities. The team found broadly similar domains and attributes of human well- being across the regions, yet measurable indicators were specific to the contexts. Despite this, the congruence of overarching domains suggests that a high-level framework of human well-being can guide a holistic assessment of the human impacts of environmental change across diverse regions.

Citation:

Biedenweg, Kelly. (2016). A Comparative Study of Human Well-Being Indicators Across Three Puget Sound Regions. Society & Natural Resources. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/08941920.2016.1209606.

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New theory rethinks spread of PCBs and other toxics in Puget Sound

Puget Sound's orcas are among the most contaminated marine mammals in the world. Photo: Minette Layne (CC-BY-2.0) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Killer_whale#/media/File:Orca_porpoising.jpg

Puget Sound’s orcas are among the most contaminated marine mammals in the world. A new theory rethinks how PCBs and other toxics enter the food web.Photo: Minette Layne (CC-BY-2.0)

Last month, more than 1100 scientists and researchers converged on Vancouver, B.C. to attend the Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference. The biennial conference is the region’s largest gathering on the state of the ecosystem, and we sent a group of reporters to bring back some of the highlights. Over the next several months, we’ll be collecting those highlights into a new series on the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound. We kick things off today with a must-read story from Christopher Dunagan. He reports that scientists may be changing their view of how PCBs and other toxics enter the Puget Sound food web. Read the story in Salish Sea Currents.

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Herring fishery’s strength is in the sum of its parts, study finds

Young adult herring from Puget Sound.Margaret Siple/University of Washington

Young adult herring from Puget Sound.Margaret Siple/University of Washington

The online publication UW Today reports on a recent paper co-authored by PSI research scientist Tessa Francis. The paper, published in the journal Ocealogia, describes how individual herring populations in Puget Sound exhibit a portfolio effect, collectively influencing and stabilizing the region’s population as a whole. Francis teamed up with the paper’s lead author UW doctoral student Margaret Siple to analyze more than 40 years of herring data on 21 subpopulations in Puget Sound.

Read the feature in UW Today.

Citation:

Siple, M. C., & Francis, T. B. (2016). Population diversity in Pacific herring of the Puget Sound, USA. Oecologia, 180(1), 111-125.

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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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The question of unpermitted shoreline armoring in Puget Sound

Chart: Local shoreline changes in King County (2012-13). Source: King County, 2014

Chart: Local shoreline changes in King County (2012-13). Source: King County, 2014

Last year, we reported on an exciting trend related to shoreline armoring in Puget Sound. For the first time, state agencies actually noted a decrease in new armoring in which removal of these controversial beach structures outpaced new permits for development.

That was good news for state and federal agencies trying to reverse more than 100 years of near constant development along Puget Sound’s shoreline. Armoring such as seawalls, bulkheads, revetments and the like is meant to protect beaches and property from erosion, but increasingly, the science shows that such structures harm the ecology and in many cases are simply unnecessary.

That’s why the Puget Sound Partnership has set removal of armoring as a key recovery target, and its 2014-2015 Action Agenda seeks a net loss of these structures by 2020. From that perspective, the figures showing a decline in permits in 2014 seemed to be heading in the right direction. There was little debate on the numbers. In 2014, permits showed that 1,530 feet of armoring was constructed in the 12 Puget Sound counties. Meanwhile 3,710 feet of armoring was removed. That’s a significant decline—more than 2 to 1—that had not been seen in the region in modern times. But the story gets more complicated.

While the decline in permits may be accurate, it doesn’t take into account the number of un-permitted structures. New studies funded by the EPA’s National Estuary Program show that unauthorized construction may be more of an issue than previously thought. Research conducted in two Puget Sound counties identified un-permitted armoring in up to half of the study sites, while many of the permitted structures were found to be out of compliance. The study’s authors say they are cautious and that more work needs to be done—2 out of 12 Puget Sound counties is far from an exhaustive survey, they say—but the results do raise some questions. Among them: Just how much shoreline armoring is not being counted across Puget Sound, and how significant are the permit violations?

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Climate change will reshape Puget Sound’s biodiversity, report says

As world leaders meet this week in Paris to discuss global climate change, a new report from the University of Washington looks at expected climate impacts in the Puget Sound region. Christopher Dunagan wraps up his three-part series on the report’s findings with a focus on the region’s species and habitats.

Coast Range Subalpine Fir groves in meadow near Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center, Olympic National Park, WA. Photo: Wsiegmund (CC-BY-SA-3.0) https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:HurricaneRidge_7392t.jpg

Coast Range Subalpine Fir groves in meadow near Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center, Olympic National Park, WA. Photo: Wsiegmund (CC-BY-SA-3.0) https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:HurricaneRidge_7392t.jpg

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