Puget Sound’s growing nutrient problem

An algae bloom covers a huge section of Lake Erie. Photo courtesy of NASA.

An algae bloom covers a huge section of Lake Erie. Photo courtesy of NASA.

First there was “The Blob” that fed last year’s massive algae bloom in the Pacific Ocean. Now there is another monster getting our attention. You might call it “The slime that ate Lake Erie.”

The incredible images of Lake Erie’s expanding blanket of green show the familiar effect of nutrient pollution. Nutrients such as phosphorous and nitrogen have been flowing into the giant lake primarily from sources like agricultural fertilizer and wastewater. This has led to a 700-square-mile algae slick, alarming officials worried about potential buildups of dangerous algal toxins or areas of low oxygen known as “dead zones.”

This sort of thing is well-known in the Pacific Northwest. Decades ago, Lake Washington faced a similar problem due to unchecked dumping of human waste that made the lake un-swimmable and prone to green slime and bacteria. At one point, an estimated 20 million gallons of sewage per day flowed directly into Lake Washington. Then, in the 1960s the city of Seattle initiated tighter pollution controls that diverted sewage to treatment plants, cutting the amount of raw sewage entering the lake to virtually zero.

Lake Washington is often touted as a pollution control success story, and other water bodies like Puget Sound have followed suit. Despite occasional high profile overflows like last year’s massive sewage spill at the West Point Treatment Plant, most of the wastewater that flows into Puget Sound is now treated in some way. (The state is also taking comments on a rule that would make it illegal for boats to discharge treated or untreated waste into Puget Sound.) Parts of Canada still release raw sewage into our shared waters to the north, although Victoria, B.C. finally approved development of a tertiary sewage treatment plant last year.

Scientists will be quick to tell you that, at the very least, some sewage treatment is better than no treatment. It filters many of the potential pathogens that can come with raw sewage, and a whole lot more. But what about those nutrients?

What most of Puget Sound’s sewage treatment plants don’t remove — at least to a significant degree — are nutrients. At most normal levels, these nutrients are natural and essential for the health of the ecosystem. However, when there are too many of them, problems can occur not unlike the situation in Lake Erie.

Image from the Salish Sea Model. Courtesy of the Pacific Northwest National Lab, the Washington State Department of Ecology and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Image from the Salish Sea Model. Courtesy of the Pacific Northwest National Lab, the Washington State Department of Ecology and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

For a long time, Puget Sound was thought to be big enough to handle the nutrient load from its wastewater treatment plants and other sources. Now, a new mathematical model shows that we are coming up against the limits of the system. The region is expected to grow by more than 1.5 million residents within the next two decades, putting huge strains on wastewater infrastructure. Add to that climate change that may lower stream flows that normally help to circulate and mix the water in Puget Sound. The model says these two factors will contribute to nutrient build-up and will likely mean increasing problems with water clarity and dissolved oxygen throughout the Sound.

The region is once again at a turning point. Officials say current levels of sewage treatment are not enough.

“Puget Sound’s health is degrading due to increasing levels of nutrients that are adversely affecting water quality,” reports the Washington Department of Ecology on its website. “We are finding that nutrients in Puget Sound are out of balance altering some of its fundamental physical, chemical, and biological functions.” The imbalance could affect sensitive plants like eelgrass as well as salmon and forage fish sensitive to low oxygen, Ecology says.

Ecology is now working on a nutrient source reduction project, and in 2018 is expected to use that research to help guide a collaborative “implementation strategy” related to the state’s Marine Water Quality “Vital Sign”. Watch for more coverage of nutrients here and in our online Encyclopedia of Puget Sound as the story develops.

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Measuring health and happiness in Puget Sound: A case study

Human wellbeing indicator wheel.

The story of how PSI social scientist Kelly Biedenweg and her collaborators put together a list of human wellbeing indicators for Puget Sound is outlined in a new paper in the journal Ecology and Society. The paper is co-authored by Biedenweg with Kari Stiles of the Puget Sound Partnership and Haley Harguth of the Hood Canal Coordinating Council. It is written as a case study of the indicator selection process and examines how human wellbeing is connected to the health of the environment.

Citation:

Biedenweg, K., H. Harguth, and K. Stiles. 2017. The science and politics of human well-being: a case study in cocreating indicators for Puget Sound restoration. Ecology and Society 22(3):11. https://doi.org/10.5751/ES-09424-220311

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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. 

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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. 

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Salmon council debates new priorities proposed by tribes

Chinook salmon. Image courtesy of NOAA.

Chinook salmon. Image courtesy of NOAA.

The Puget Sound Partnership’s Salmon Recovery Council last Thursday gave preliminary approval to six of the seven proposed recovery priorities known as “bold actions” to improve Chinook salmon numbers in Puget Sound. One of the actions calling for “a net gain in ecosystem function and habitat productivity” for salmon was tabled for ongoing discussions in August and September.

The actions were proposed last May by regional tribes dissatisfied with a state-proposed salmon plan known as the Chinook Implementation Strategy. Tribes felt that the strategy didn’t go far enough and called for a series of seven specific actions designed to stem the ongoing decline of Puget Sound Chinook salmon listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

Two of the action items, one responding to high amounts of predation of juvenile Chinook by seals and sea lions and another on climate change appeared to pass through the council unchanged, but several of the proposed priorities are undergoing a series of amendments that were debated at the council meeting. The Puget Sound Partnership is now sharing an edited version of the actions among members of the council for refinement in “mid to late August,” according to the Partnership’s deputy director Laura Blackmore. Versions of the proposed actions can also be found in a new solicitation of funding by the Puget Sound Partnership (starting on page 19).

In all, the seven proposed actions include protection of habitat, improvements in water quantity and water quality, predation and mortality of young salmon, funding, communication, climate change and oil spill preparedness.

Council member Dave Herrera of the Skokomish Tribe expressed frustration over the delay in approving all of the items, but said he remained optimistic about the efforts. “I feel like we know what the issues are,” he said. “If we can act on these, we have a fighting chance.”

The proposed action concerning habitat protection remains up for debate and may be the most controversial item among those discussed on Thursday. The item would protect “all remaining salmon habitat by implementing land use policy changes that optimize a net gain in ecosystem function and habitat productivity.” It would also “build a region-wide accountability system,” according to a briefing document presented to the council.  Representatives of the agricultural community have called the language in the provision too broad and say it puts too many burdens on farmers that are already dealing with legal challenges and environmental regulations. Tribal representatives say the provision is central to salmon recovery.

“We are still losing ground faster than we are restoring it,” Herrera said. “We have been putting all of our eggs in the restoration basket, but we’re not going to restore our way out of this. We can’t keep up with what we’re losing.”

The council also tabled for later discussion water quantity issues in one of the actions potentially impacted by last year’s Washington Supreme Court ruling known as the Hirst decision. The Salmon Recovery Council is scheduled to meet to continue its discussion of the proposed priorities on September 28th in Edmonds. 

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House committee approves funding for Puget Sound cleanup

Bucking a proposed White House budget that would have cut EPA’s Puget Sound funding entirely, the House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday voted to approve $28 million for Puget Sound in fiscal year 2018. The amount matches last year’s appropriation for the region, although the bill still faces a vote on the House floor. The Senate will consider its own spending plan and may further revise the numbers.

House Democrats Denny Heck and Derek Kilmer of the Puget Sound Recovery Caucus earlier said that they were encouraged by the budget after successfully fending off a proposed $3 million cut that appeared in the original version of the bill. (You can read their amendment on page number 8 of the bill’s Committee Markups. The original allocation for Puget Sound is shown here.)

The budget is part of a $31.4 billion appropriations bill for several federal agencies, including the EPA and the Interior Department. While the House committee voted to maintain Puget Sound cleanup at its current level of EPA funding, the EPA as a whole fared less well. Overall, the bill would cut EPA’s yearly budget from 8.06 billion to 7.5 billion. That’s less than the 31% cut proposed by the Trump administration, but still steep according to some Democrats who wrangled over the proposed legislation.

“A cut of this magnitude endangers our nation’s natural and cultural resources,” said Rep. Betty McCollum of Minnesota, the Interior and environment subcommittee’s ranking Democrat, who spoke to EE News. “Once again, the Environmental Protection Agency is hardest hit by the cuts recommended in this bill. The EPA is slashed by $528 million, shouldering a whopping 64 percent of the subcommittee’s overall cut.”

House Appropriations Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen, a Republican from New Jersey disagreed, saying in a press release that the cuts were responsible. “This legislation responsibly supports the agencies and offices we rely on to preserve our natural resources for future generations,” he said. He added that the funding “prioritizes our limited funding to programs that protect environmental safety,” and will “rein in the federal bureaucracy… to stop many harmful and unnecessary regulations that destroy economic opportunity and hinder job creation.”

Puget Sound is one of several Geographic Programs that depend heavily on EPA funding from the proposed legislation. Among them is Chesapeake Bay, the nation’s largest estuary, which received a proposed cut in the bill of $13 million from its $73 million fiscal 2017 allocation. The Puget Sound Institute is among the organizations that would receive funding from the legislation, which is directed through EPA’s National Estuary Program.

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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.

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.

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Identifying chemical suspects in stormwater

Adult coho salmon returning to Seattle-area urban streams are dying prior to spawning, as indicated by female carcasses with nearly 100% egg retention. The above example is an adult female that returned from the ocean to spawn in Longfellow Creek (West Seattle) in the fall of 2012. Photo credit: Jenifer McIntyre.

Adult coho salmon returning to Seattle-area urban streams are dying prior to spawning, as indicated by female carcasses with nearly 100% egg retention. The above example is an adult female that returned from the ocean to spawn in Longfellow Creek (West Seattle) in the fall of 2012. Photo credit: Jenifer McIntyre.

Researchers know that stormwater can be extremely toxic. It can kill exposed fish such as coho salmon within hours. But figuring out exactly what is in stormwater has been a complex puzzle that has so far confounded scientists. Many of the chemical compounds in it remain unidentified.

Is there such a thing as typical stormwater, or is it so variable that patterns can’t be detected? That has been the subject of research by Center for Urban Waters research scientist and PSI collaborator Ed Kolodziej, who will be presenting some of his findings at the Northwest Fishery Sciences Center on May 18th. New analytical techniques using time of flight mass spectrometry are making it easier to identify and localize sources of contaminants.

When and where:

Thursday, May 18, 2017 at 11:00 AM in the Northwest Fisheries Science Center Auditorium: 2725 Montlake Blvd. E., Seattle WA 98112.

Visit the Northwest Fisheries Science Center website for more information. 

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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 study links happiness to interactions with nature

Lani Matthews, 13, is chased down the Buckley Cemetery hill by her dog, Kona, in February. A study finds a link between interactions with nature and happiness for people in the Puget Sound area. Drew Perine dperine@thenewstribune.com Read more here: http://www.thenewstribune.com/news/local/article143536044.html#storylink=cpy

Lani Matthews, 13, is chased down the Buckley Cemetery hill by her dog, Kona, in February. A study finds a link between interactions with nature and happiness for people in the Puget Sound area. Drew Perine dperine@thenewstribune.com

Can nature make you happy? Science weighs in. A recent study by PSI social scientist Kelly Biedenweg found that Puget Sound residents reported increasing happiness the more they engaged with the natural environment.

“We (in the Pacific Northwest) are pretty much the leaders in trying to understand how happiness and integration with the environment relate to each other,” Biedenweg told The News Tribune, which featured the study in its April 7th edition. Biedenweg has been working with the state of Washington to identify indicators of human well-being such as happiness, physical and psychological health and economic prosperity for the Puget Sound region.

The study was published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology and was funded by The National Science Foundation and the Environmental Protection Agency. It was based on online surveys of 4,418 area residents across eleven Puget Sound counties.

A version of The News Tribune story was also published on April 9th in The Olympian. 

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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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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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