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.

Scientists 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.

Where and when:

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. 


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.


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.


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 Read more here:

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

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. 


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.


Study of seals and sea lions gains interest

Seal vs Salmon. West End, Vancouver, BC. Photo: cesareb (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Seal vs Salmon. West End, Vancouver, BC. Photo: cesareb (CC BY-NC 2.0)

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.


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)

Sea lion sunbathing between meals in Seattle’s Eliott Bay. Photo: Johnny Mumbles (CC BY 2.0)

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.


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.


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.


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.


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. 


Second invasive green crab found in Puget Sound

Carcinus maenas. Photo: Brent Wilson (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Carcinus maenas. Photo: Brent Wilson (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

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.


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.


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.


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