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.

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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 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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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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Shifting ground: climate change may increase the risk of landslides

Landslides, which all too often kill people, destroy homes and disrupt transportation networks, could increase in the coming years as a result of climate change. A new report commissioned by the Puget Sound Institute looks at what we might expect in the region, especially during the winter months when rains and flooding reach their peak. PSI senior writer Christopher Dunagan brings us part one of a three-part series on some of the report’s findings.

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State report says lack of funding is a major barrier to Puget Sound recovery

StateoftheSound2015_reportcoverThe 2015 State of the Sound report from the Puget Sound Partnership points to lack of funding as one of the leading barriers to Puget Sound recovery. The report looks at ongoing progress to restore the health of the ecosystem, but according to the Partnership’s Executive Director Sheida Sahandy, “The rate at which we as a community are continuing to damage Puget Sound is greater than the rate at which we are fixing it.”

Overall, funding has fallen far short of critical needs, the report argues. Projects described in the state’s recovery plan as ‘Near Term Actions’, would have required $875 million to carry out during the years 2014 – 2015, but as of last June had received only $67 million. The period from 2012-2013 had a shortfall of 57%.

funding_NTAs_screenshot

The State of the Sound also describes a lack of significant progress on several key areas of focus for state and federal recovery efforts. The agency tracks a series of ‘Vital Signs’ such as numbers of orcas or fluctuations in herring populations—there are 21 vital signs in all—as indicators of Puget Sound health. “The majority of Vital Sign indicators are, at best, only slowly changing. Few are at—or even within reach of—their 2014 interim targets,” reads the report.

Some vital signs have seen modest improvement, however. The Partnership says that in 2014 removal of shoreline armoring such as seawalls and bulkheads exceeded permits for new armoring structures. Goals for habitat restoration also made some steps forward.

The State of the Sound report includes a series of funding recommendations ranging from continuation of existing allocations to support of legislation that would direct additional funds to key areas like habitats, stormwater and restoration of shellfish beds.

Download the 2015 State of the Sound report.

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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. 

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