‘Bold actions’ to save Puget Sound salmon gain qualified support

The Puget Sound Salmon Recovery Council wants the opportunity to clarify the meaning of a new tribal proposal.

By Christopher Dunagan, Puget Sound Institute

Chart courtesy of Environmental Protection Agency

Chart of Chinook harvests courtesy of Environmental Protection Agency

Native American tribes in the Puget Sound region are calling for “bold actions” to reverse the decline of Puget Sound Chinook salmon, listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

Such actions would include:
— Protecting all remaining salmon habitat in and around Puget Sound with more consistent and enforceable land-use regulations;
— Preventing water uses that would limit salmon recovery;
— Improving management of predators, including the seals and sea lions that eat Chinook; and
— Increasing dramatically the current spending on salmon recovery — some 50- to 100-fold — with perhaps additional new funding sources to be added.

The ideas were presented to the Puget Sound Salmon Recovery Council on Thursday by tribal representative Dave Herrera, speaking for the Puget Sound Tribal Management Conference.

“The way we are managing lands is not working,” Herrera said. “It may be working for people, but it is not working for fish.” Continue reading

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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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Special report for Puget Sound policymakers

2016-17 Special Report for Puget Sound Policymakers

Download the 44-page 2016-17 Special Report for Puget Sound Policymakers (PDF)

It used to seem easier to spot the polluters. There were the usual suspects: Industrial pipes pumped toxic chemicals into the water; dams blocked the way for salmon; natural resources were over-harvested. Those problems still persist, but ecosystem management in Puget Sound has become increasingly complicated since the 1970s and 1980s.

Scientists now recognize that what happens on the land is intricately tied to the health of the water. We face climate change and unprecedented population growth, and scientists have identified thousands of different human-caused pressures on the ecosystem. The headlines include new threats like stormwater, emerging contaminants and widespread declines in species and habitats. Given limited resources, how can managers and policymakers make informed decisions about where to focus their recovery efforts?

To help with this, we have created a new collection of stories from Salish Sea Currents. This is our second booklet of this type, and it includes reporting on new and emerging science that we believe everyone should read. The stories are wide-ranging, but, like an ecosystem, are connected in important ways.

We start with a look at the impacts of seals and sea lions on the region’s threatened Chinook populations. As many as one in five juvenile Chinook are eaten before they can migrate to open waters. That means many fewer are maturing to adulthood and returning to spawn. It also means significantly less food for the region’s endangered killer whales, which depend on Chinook for about 81% of their diet.

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

It is a classic illustration of the food web. Seals and sea lions have been increasing due to federal protections, but they have always had a healthy appetite for salmon. Are they the villains here, or is something else at play? Scientists suspect a variety of threats make the Chinook more vulnerable to what should otherwise be a normal pressure. Contaminants in the water as well as habitat loss from shoreline armoring are just two examples of threats that could be weakening Chinook, and we have several stories in this collection that intersect.

Not everything is bad news. We close out the collection with a story about the return of the harbor porpoise. Known as “the puffing pig,” the harbor porpoise had all but disappeared from Puget Sound in the 1970s due to factors like gillnetting and industrial pollutants. The species is still considered to be at risk in the Salish Sea, but its population is on the rise and it is hoped that Puget Sound cleanup efforts can ensure healthy numbers in the future. It is just one reminder that we can make a difference if we understand the ecosystem’s problems and their causes. Good science reporting can help to build that understanding, and we hope this collection of stories continues that tradition.

You can download the 44-page report as a PDF, or contact us if you would like a print version. We’ll also have many new stories in the coming months on the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound. Funding for the report was provided by the Environmental Protection Agency.

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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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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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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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PSI Director talks climate with News Tribune

The impact of the record heat and lack of precipitation has made Mount Rainier much less snow covered in recent years. LEE GILES III Puyallup Herald file

The impact of the record heat and lack of precipitation has made Mount Rainier much less snow covered in recent years. LEE GILES III Puyallup Herald file

Puget Sound Institute Director Joel Baker was interviewed by the The News Tribune in Tacoma this week as part of the paper’s coverage of climate change in Puget Sound. The article features a new University of Washington report commissioned by the Puget Sound Institute that provides the most comprehensive look to date at expected climate impacts in the region.

New Puget Sound climate study: Older projections coming true, more changes ahead 

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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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Coping with climate change: local farmers face uncertain future

Puget Sound’s shifting climate may mean big changes for the region’s farmers, according to a new report commissioned by the Puget Sound Institute. New patterns of droughts and floods, along with changes in the growing season will influence the way crops are grown — and even the types of crops that thrive in the region. Christopher Dunagan brings us part two of our series on the report’s findings.

Aerial view of flooding of the Snoqualmie River Valley in December 2010. Photo: King County

Aerial view of flooding of the Snoqualmie River Valley in December 2010. Photo: King County

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New report details the broad sweep of climate change in Puget Sound

PS-SoK_2015_cover_0A new report commissioned by the Puget Sound Institute and the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound provides the most comprehensive assessment to date of the expected impacts of climate change on the Puget Sound region.

The report was produced by the University of Washington Climate Impacts Group, and is meant as an easy-to-read summary that covers topics such as increasing landslides, flooding, sea level rise, impacts on human health, agriculture and rising stream temperatures for salmon. Partners in the report include NOAA, The Nature Conservancy, the Puget Sound Partnership, the WWU Huxley Spatial Institute and others including dozens of contributing scientists. Major funding for the report was provided by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Download: “State of Knowledge: Climate Change in Puget Sound” 

You can also read highlights from the report in a three-part series from Puget Sound Institute senior writer Chris Dunagan. This week’s story covers the potential increase in landslides, something of special concern during the winter rainy season. Continue reading

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