Detecting organic contaminants in highway runoff and fish tissue

This much we know: Stormwater is nasty stuff. The state of Washington has called it one of the leading threats to the Puget Sound ecosystem. It can kill salmon within hours and it contributes to all kinds of health problems for species ranging from orcas to humans. What we don’t know, however, is exactly what’s in it.

Rain and snowmelt wash an untold number of toxics into our waterways, but there is no such thing as typical stormwater. Its chemical makeup varies from place to place and depends on local pollutants, from petroleum to PCBs.

That’s a problem for scientists who want to understand how the chemicals in stormwater affect area wildlife. Knowing what’s in a particular mix of stormwater could help explain exactly which chemicals are lethal, or why some species of salmon die after exposure and not others. It could also provide a better understanding of where the chemicals come from. How much do automobiles contribute to the problem? Do the nastiest chemicals then come from leaking oil or car tires, or the asphalt from the roads themselves? Or somewhere else? The questions are seemingly infinite.

To meet this challenge, several scientists at the Puget Sound Institute and the University of Washington Center for Urban Waters are developing new techniques for analyzing stormwater’s chemical composition.

They recently published a paper outlining some of these techniques in the journal Environmental Science: Processes & Impacts. The paper was co-authored with collaborators from NOAA and the Washington Stormwater Center. The authors used “time-of-flight” mass spectrometry to identify novel compounds in runoff and fish tissues that were present in amounts as small as the parts per billion. Work is still underway, but so far the authors have found compounds ranging from the usual suspects like petroleum products to DEET and caffeine. “Further characterization of highway runoff and fish tissues,” the paper reads, “suggests that many novel or poorly characterized organic contaminants exist in urban stormwater runoff and exposed biota.”


Du, B., Lofton, J. M., Peter, K., Gipe, A. D., James, C. A., McIntyre, J. K., Scholz, N.L., Baker, J.E. & Kolodziej, E. P. (2017). Development of Suspect and Non-Target Screening Methods for Detection of Organic Contaminants in Highway Runoff and Fish Tissue with High-Resolution Time-of-Flight Mass Spectrometry. Environmental Science: Processes & Impacts.


Measuring health and happiness in Puget Sound: A case study

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.


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.


Increasing adult mortality in Puget Sound herring may contribute to population declines

PSI’s lead ecosystem ecologist Tessa Francis is co-author of a 2017 paper linking increasing adult mortality of Puget Sound herring with regional population declines in the species. The authors report that natural mortality among herring four years and older has doubled in Puget Sound since 1973, suggesting a possible connection to declines at spawning sites near Cherry Point and Squaxin Pass.

The article is published in the ICES Journal of Marine Science and is co-authored by Margaret Siple (lead author) of the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences at the University of Washington (UW SAFS), Andrew Shelton of NOAA Fisheries, Tessa Francis of PSI, Dayv Lowry and Adam Lindquist of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, and Tim Essington of UW SAFS.


Margaret C. Siple, Andrew O. Shelton, Tessa B. Francis, Dayv Lowry, Adam P. Lindquist, Timothy E. Essington; Contributions of adult mortality to declines of Puget Sound Pacific herring, ICES Journal of Marine Science, , fsx094,


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. 


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.


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:


Paper looks at social–ecological approaches to herring management

Graphic from 'Thirty-two essential questions for understanding the social–ecological system of forage fish: the case of Pacific Herring'

Graphic from ‘Thirty-two essential questions for understanding the social–ecological system of forage fish: the case of Pacific Herring’

A new paper co-authored by PSI’s Tessa Francis connects social and ecological factors influencing herring management in the Salish Sea. The paper, published in the journal Ecosystem Health and Sustainability, grew out of a three-day workshop held last year in British Columbia. The workshop was sponsored by The Ocean Modeling Forum, a collaboration between the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences at the University of Washington and NOAA Fisheries. It brought together a variety of herring experts, from commercial fishermen to scientists, regulators and members of regional tribes. NOAA’s Phillip Levin was the paper’s lead author, with Nathan Taylor of Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Tessa Francis, lead ecosystem ecologist at PSI, as co-authors.


Levin, Phillip S., Francis, Tessa B., Taylor, Nathan G. (2016) Thirty-two essential questions for understanding the social–ecological system of forage fish: the case of Pacific Herring. Ecosystem Health and Sustainability. 2(4):e01213. doi: 10.1002/ehs2.1213.

Related article:

Ocean Modeling Forum to bring human element to herring fishery, others (UW Today)


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.


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


New papers look at ‘zombie’ steroids

They are sometimes called ‘zombie’ chemicals. Some compounds thought to be safe and inactive can change into dangerously active forms when they are exposed to the environment. Two recent papers co-authored by PSI collaborator Ed Kolodziej look at some of the ways that regulators may need to account for these transformations.

Cole, EA, McBride, SA, Kimbrough, KC, Lee, J, Marchand, EA, Cwiertny, DM, Kolodziej, EP. (2015). Rates and product identification for trenbolone acetate metabolite biotransformation under aerobic conditions. Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry. Volume: 34, Issue: 7, pgs. 1472-1484; DOI: 10.1002/etc.2962.

Read the full paper.

Ward, AS, Cwiertny, DM, Kolodziej, EP, Brehm, CC. (2015). Coupled reversion and stream-hyporheic exchange processes increase environmental persistence of trenbolone metabolites. Nature Communications. Volume: 6, Article Number 7067; DOI: 10.1038/ncomms8067.

Read the full paper. 


Assessing microplastics in the world’s oceans

Microplastics in the Ocean: A Global Assessment

Microplastics in the Ocean: A Global Assessment

Our Director Joel Baker recently co-authored Microplastics in the Ocean: A Global Assessment, an international report commissioned by GESAMP (The Joint Group of Experts on Scientific Aspects of Marine Environmental Protection). GESAMP is an inter-Agency Body of the United Nations, comprised of a group of independent scientists providing advice to UN Agencies on a wide variety of ocean matters. The report examined the global distribution of micro plastic particles, their known and hypothesized effects on marine organisms, and evaluated potential solutions.

Download the report. 


Impacts of diving ducks on herring populations


Herring productivity in relation biomass (Francis et al.).

Puget Sound Institute Lead Ecologist Tessa Francis attended the 2015 meeting of the International Congress for Conservation Biology earlier this month in Montpellier, France. She presented results from her recent work with colleagues at NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center evaluating the impacts on Puget Sound herring populations of herring egg predation by seabirds and other predators.

The group is evaluating the causes of local declines in herring subpopulations, or “stocklets,” and suspect that heavy egg predation by diving ducks, especially scoters, may be preventing some herring populations that are already at low levels from recovering. Using a combination of in situ incubations and predation exclusion devices, Francis and her colleagues estimated that predation accounted for between 75 and 99.6% of egg mortality in several Puget Sound stocklets, including the sharply declining Cherry Point herring stocklet. They further found that high egg mortality rates are associated with stocklets that have been declining in recent years or decades.

Pacific herring are a foundational species in Puget Sound, owing to their critical position in the marine foodweb, and the Puget Sound Partnership has set recovery targets for herring. These results suggest that an assessment of the impacts of early life stage mortality on population trends, and prospects for recovery, warrants further investigation.