Detecting organic contaminants in highway runoff and fish tissue

Stormwater flowing into catch basin carries contaminants to our waterways. Photo: Ben McLeod (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) https://www.flickr.com/photos/benmcleod/420158390

Stormwater flowing into catch basin carries contaminants to our waterways. Photo: Ben McLeod (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) https://www.flickr.com/photos/benmcleod/420158390

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 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 how much automobiles contribute to the problem. Do the nastiest chemicals 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.”

Citation:

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.

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

Young adult herring from Puget Sound.Margaret Siple/University of Washington

Young adult herring from Puget Sound.Margaret Siple/University of Washington

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.

Citation:

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, https://doi.org/10.1093/icesjms/fsx094

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New website focuses on Puget Sound Implementation Strategies

https://pugetsoundestuary.wa.gov/

https://pugetsoundestuary.wa.gov/

Over the past year or so, the EPA has begun funding a new effort to speed up and prioritize Puget Sound recovery. A coalition of state agencies and other partners is developing a series of plans known as Implementation Strategies that take on some of the practical considerations and next steps for the Puget Sound Partnership’s Action Agenda.

We wrote about this last year in our magazine Salish Sea Currents, and have continued a series of stories about some of the science driving the process. We’ll be writing more stories in the coming year with funding from the EPA, and Puget Sound Institute scientists are among those collaborating in the overall effort.

In a sense, the Implementation Strategies are a prescription for Puget Sound health. While there are still many unknowns, scientists say we now understand — at least to some degree — many of the major problems facing the region. Those are being monitored as so-called “Vital Signs” established by the state, and range from the health of endangered orcas to water quality and human wellbeing. Knowing where to prioritize recovery efforts is a huge step forward, agencies and partners say. Now these groups want to apply the medicine where they can.

The leaders of the new Implementation Strategies include several state agencies. Among them are the Department of Ecology, the Department of Health, the Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Department of Natural Resources. The Puget Sound Partnership continues its role as a facilitator and organizer in the process, and other partners include regional tribes, the Puget Sound Federal Task Force and a variety of stakeholders and nonprofits.

If you want to get a better handle on just what the Implementation Strategies are and who is behind them, we recommend visiting the coalition’s new website at https://pugetsoundestuary.wa.gov/. The site launched earlier this month, and will include regular updates including blogs detailing the latest steps in the process.

The site’s most recent blog post is a great overview of the process and describes many of the priorities for the group over the next four years.

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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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Puget Sound science from A to Z

A screenshot of the EoPS homepage.

A screenshot of the EoPS homepage.

These days, you may know the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound as a news source. Our magazine stories and blogs cover science as it happens across the Salish Sea, from research on salmon recovery to toxic chemicals in the food web.

There is no other publication focusing strictly on Puget Sound science, and — we’ll be bold here — we strive to provide the best such coverage in the region. Not because we have the most stories or the biggest staff (we don’t), but because we report the news that you need to know.

We work closely with the scientists on the ground and often hear what’s happening before the major media outlets. We work hard to get the stories right, and we provide context that other publications can’t.

That context is one of the most important parts of the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound. We are a news source, but we are also a resource — an encyclopedia. If you want to know how scientists and policymakers view the ecosystem and how they are working to protect it, we have organized it from A to Z.

This August, as the dog days settle over Puget Sound and forest fires rage in the distance, we’ll continue to build the encyclopedia behind the scenes. Do you want to know more about toxic algae blooms or zooplankton? How about floodplains or the impacts of shoreline armoring? There’s plenty to discover. You can use the encyclopedia in your classes. Share it with policymakers. Identify thousands of species. Find out the age of a rock fish. Scope out local beaches. The website continues to get better every day, and we are glad to bring it to you.

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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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Shoreline armoring puts flood insurance at risk

Before and after composite view at the site of a 2013 bulkhead-removal project on the shore of Penrose Point State Park in Pierce County. Composite: Kris Symer, PSI; original photos: Kristin Williamson, South Puget Sound Salmon Enhancement Group

Before and after composite view at the site of a 2013 bulkhead-removal project on the shore of Penrose Point State Park in Pierce County. Composite: Kris Symer, PSI; original photos: Kristin Williamson, South Puget Sound Salmon Enhancement Group

Communities across Puget Sound must consider salmon-safe alternatives to shoreline armoring or risk losing their flood insurance, according to requirements established by FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program.

The requirements stem from a Biological Opinion issued by NOAA in 2008 finding that shoreline armoring and other development in the floodplain (so-called “Special Flood Hazard Areas”) can damage critical salmon habitat. The opinion protects threatened Chinook salmon, Hood Canal summer chum and endangered Southern Resident killer whales which rely on Chinook for much of their food. Newly-permitted shoreline structures are expected to demonstrate “no adverse effect” on species listed under the Endangered Species Act. Exceptions are allowed in some cases where property is at risk or additional permits are issued, according to NOAA.

Compliance with the FEMA requirement is voluntary, but without the endorsement of FEMA, flood insurance can be more expensive or difficult to obtain.

Shoreline armoring includes a variety of shoreline structures such as bulkheads and seawalls that are typically created to stave off beach erosion. New science shows that these structures interfere with natural processes critical to beach function and diminish food and habitat for a variety of fish species.

“If you’re a fish, it’s like living in a neighborhood where there is no grocery store,” says Janet Curran, a biologist at NOAA Fisheries. [You can read more about shoreline armoring in our series “Rethinking shoreline armoring” in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.] “You could starve trying to find food.”

Charting changes in Puget Sound shoreline armoring length (2005-2015)

Charting changes in Puget Sound shoreline armoring length (2005-2015)

Curran says that the Biological Opinion sets a higher standard for shoreline use and development by adding an additional layer of regulatory protection. “I would not say that it’s going to stop all shoreline armoring,” she said, “but it strengthens the toolkit for salmon protection.” Currently, the Puget Sound region adds the equivalent of a mile of new armoring per year, although that number is offset by the removal of old armoring. About 25% of Puget Sound is classified by the state as armored.

According to FEMA, 122 Puget Sound municipalities such as counties, cities and tribal governments are potentially affected. FEMA doesn’t enforce shoreline armoring regulations or permits, but asks local communities to certify that they are in compliance. A “community” in this case is defined by FEMA as any local government or collective responsible for issuing a permit.

FEMA says that all 122 such groups are currently in compliance with the National Flood Insurance Program, but that the agency is working closely with some groups that need special help meeting the “no adverse effect” requirement for shoreline structures. The FEMA standards are more stringent than “no net loss” requirements for state permits, which allow for some impacts as long as they are mitigated.

There are several options for meeting the FEMA standards. Known as “doors”, these pathways include review of structures on a case by case basis, or satisfaction of a checklist of requirements that meet the equivalent of the Biological Opinion. If communities don’t meet the requirements, they can be placed on probation, which includes an additional charge of $50 per year for insurance premiums and a year to satisfy the requirements. If a community is out of compliance for more than a year, it risks suspension, which means it would be ineligible to participate in the National Flood Insurance Program.

Although local governments are responsible for their own enforcement, FEMA works to correct minor violations through what it calls “community assistance visits,” says John Graves, floodplains management and insurance branch chief at FEMA, Region 10. “It’s like a tune-up on your car — preventative maintenance,” Graves says.

Marine Shoreline Design Guidelines report cover

Marine Shoreline Design Guidelines report cover

The goal, Graves says, is to correct potential violations and satisfy the Biological Opinion, not to put people on probation or deny endorsement for flood insurance.

“We provide technical assistance,” says Graves, “and teach that there are alternatives to hard armoring.” Ultimately, he says, it’s up to the local communities to decide how they want to respond.  “You can’t do it solely on the back of the FEMA Flood Insurance Program,” he says. “We need to have people understand that hard armoring isn’t always the solution.”

FEMA and NOAA often refer communities and developers to the state’s Marine Shoreline Design Guidelines for information about salmon-safe shoreline development. Removal of shoreline armoring is designated as a key “vital sign” of Puget Sound health by the state’s Puget Sound Partnership. It is part of a new series of Implementation Strategies funded by the Environmental Protection Agency aimed at Puget Sound recovery.

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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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Eelgrass declines pose a mystery

Eelgrass at Alki Beach, Seattle. Report cover photo: Lisa Ferrier

Eelgrass at Alki Beach, Seattle. Report cover photo: Lisa Ferrier

New in Salish Sea Currents: Scientists want to know why eelgrass is on the decline in some areas of Puget Sound and not others. The answer will affect future strategies for protecting one of the ecosystem’s most critical saltwater plants.

Read the full story from contributing writer Rachel Berkowitz in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound. 

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