Our Water Ways

Photographic portrait of Chris Dunagan

Puget Sound Institute senior writer Christopher Dunagan discusses the challenges of protecting Puget Sound and all things water-related. As the very first environmental reporter for the Kitsap Sun, he has been a respected voice in the region for more than 25 years. He has been covering science-related stories for the Puget Sound Institute since 2015.

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Remembering Ken Balcomb and his extraordinary life with killer whales (1/3/2023) - I’m still adjusting to the world of killer whales without Ken Balcomb. Ken, who died Dec. 15 at age 82, was a constant presence throughout my career as an environmental reporter. His presence inspired many others among the so-called “killer whale community,” made of experts, observers and those who simply love and follow the stories of our beloved orcas. Ken, who I called the dean of killer whale research, founded the Center for Whale Research and established an amazing 46-year record of every birth and death among the Southern Resident […]
As winter approaches, salmon and orcas are still a commanding presence (12/10/2022) - With salmon and orcas still on the move and facing ever-changing weather conditions, I thought it might be time for a brief update to my blog post of Nov. 21. At the time of the last report, the Puget Sound region had gone through a 13-day dry spell, which followed a period of brief and limited precipitation. Low stream flows were making it tough for chum and coho salmon to go upstream when they should have been at their peak of spawning. Many unfortunate fish were dying before they could […]
Low rainfall leads to an odd and changing year for salmon, killer whales and people (11/21/2022) - It has been an interesting year for observing the behavior of Southern Resident killer whales, chum salmon and humans in the Puget Sound region. Weather played a significant role. Two weeks ago, all three pods of endangered orcas spent four days together in Puget Sound, something we have not seen in years. Chum salmon, which the whales feed upon in the fall, appeared to be on a stop-and-go migration schedule because of the unusual rainfall pattern. And, as always, the activities of people must be noted within this ecological context. […]
Lawsuit seeks to block Southeast Alaska troll fishing to increase salmon for orcas (11/4/2022) - How much should Alaskan fishing be curtailed to provide more food for the endangered Southern Resident killer whales? It is an important question, enmeshed in conflicting federal priorities and provoked by a lawsuit brought by Wild Fish Conservancy, a Seattle-based conservation group. A federal court ruled in August that the National Marine Fisheries Service had violated the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act in its approval of salmon harvests in the Southeast Alaska troll fishery. That fishery harvests Chinook salmon originating from streams as far south as […]
Scientists dig into massive data collected during international high-seas expedition (10/14/2022) - Questions about where salmon go and how they survive when traveling far out into the Pacific Ocean have puzzled scientists for 200 years. But a new vision for piecing together this intricate puzzle has begun to emerge, thanks to sophisticated research tools deployed during an international expedition this past winter. Last week, scientists got together in Vancouver, British Columbia, to share their preliminary findings and to brainstorm the next steps in a collaborative effort to solve some of the great mysteries of Pacific salmon. Researchers from multiple countries provided wide-ranging […]
Killer whale census shows another down year, with three deaths and two births (9/27/2022) - Three deaths and two births. Over the past year, the endangered Southern Resident killer whale population has declined by a total of one, according to the annual census report submitted yesterday by the Center for Whale Research. Now the number of whales in all three pods stands at 73, down from 74 last year and declining from 98 animals the past 25 years. The births of J59 last February and K45 in May have been widely reported, along with the death of the much-loved K21, a 35-year-old male named Cappuccino. […]
Add-on structure will begin to address steelhead crisis at the Hood Canal Bridge (9/14/2022) - The Hood Canal Bridge, which connects the Kitsap and Olympic peninsulas, has proven to be a dangerous impediment to juvenile steelhead trout. As many as half of the young migratory steelhead in Hood Canal may get picked off by seals, birds and other predators as the fish try to pass under the floating highway, according to studies. While a permanent solution may be years away, the first step at reducing predation at the bridge may be just around the corner, as construction crews prepare to fabricate a floating structure that […]
New film about spring Chinook delves into history, culture and science in unique habitats (8/29/2022) - A new film, titled “The Lost Salmon,” opens with a video montage that takes us through some wondrous scenes: A wide aerial shot of California’s majestic Salmon River, moving to an underwater view of salmon swimming through the clear water and then to an action spectacle of wild salmon practically flying through the air to surmount a rushing cascades. The filmmaker, Shane Anderson of Olympia, merges passion, culture and science in this documentary that premieres tomorrow on public television. The project culminates years of investigation and filming, as Shane follows […]
New orca calf confirmed amid serious health concerns and actions to protect the whales (7/12/2022) - A surprise visit by K pod on Saturday near Vancouver Island led to the official confirmation of a new orca calf born into the Southern Resident killer whale community. The new calf, designated K45, is the second baby born to the Southern Residents this year, as recorded by the Center for Whale Research, which maintains the official census. For K pod, this is the first confirmed calf to be born since 2011. The youngster was first reported on April 28 by a fishing guide cruising off the Oregon Coast. The […]
Green crabs in Hood Canal raise questions about invasion; further response is coming (7/1/2022) - For the past six years, a volunteer crew has been diligently visiting Nick’s Lagoon near Seabeck on Hood Canal, checking the waters for the destructive European green crab. The three citizen scientists have caught and released lots of native crabs — including thousands of hairy shore crabs. But, until May of this year, they never saw even one invasive green crab, known for its potential disruption of shellfish beds and destruction of native habitat. The discovery of a green crab in Central Hood Canal was fairly shocking for those involved. […]
BPA toxicity debate approaches regulatory decisions at both state and federal levels (6/14/2022) - As Washington state authorities get ready to ban the chemical bisphenol A (BPA) from drink cans and customer sales receipts, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has agreed to take a fresh look at the potential dangers of BPA. Washington Department of Ecology has issued its “Regulatory Determinations to the Legislature,” which specifies that safer chemicals are available and could be banned from a dozen applications where toxic chemicals are widely used — from flame retardants in electronic equipment to stain-resistant compounds in carpets. Coming next are actual regulations to […]
New Puget Sound Action Agenda will include revised ‘targets’ to express recovery goals (5/9/2022) - UPDATE, TUESDAY, MAY 17 / WEDNESDAY, MAY 18 Environmental review has been completed for the draft 2022-2026 Puget Sound Action Agenda, and the Puget Sound Partnership announced a public comment period for the SEPA checklist (PDF 818 kb) and determination of nonsignificance (PDF 134 kb), as required by the State Environmental Policy Act. Comments will be taken until May 30, as described in the DNS. Also, the revised Vital Signs and their indicators are described by the Puget Sound Partnership in a May 18 news release. —– As the Puget […]
Governor’s renewed salmon strategy faces decisive period in the current Legislature (2/16/2022) - State legislation designed to enhance salmon habitat by requiring protective buffers along streams has been set aside pending further discussions over the coming year. Meanwhile, several other salmon-protection measures proposed by the governor could move forward with decisive funding from the Legislature. The buffer bill (HB 1838), named the Lorraine Loomis Act, would prohibit degradation of streamside habitat while encouraging restoration within prescribed “riparian management zones” on both public and private lands. Such requirements would apply to farmland, areas destined for development and even properties undergoing redevelopment. The bill is […]
North Pacific expedition gets underway aboard four ocean-going research ships (2/3/2022) - A North Pacific research expedition is underway, with projects said to be bigger, bolder and more scientifically sophisticated than cruises in 2019 and 2020. Four research vessels carrying more than 60 scientists from various countries will span out across the Pacific Ocean to increase their understanding of salmon — including migration, environmental stresses, availability of prey and risks from predators. Researchers aboard a U.S. ship operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration left from Port Angeles this morning. There has never been a research cruise as involved as this […]
Scientists look for answers in methane bubbles rising from bottom of Puget Sound (1/21/2022) - In 2011, sonar operators aboard the ocean-going Research Vessel Thomas G. Thompson inadvertently recorded a surprising natural phenomenon, as the 274-foot ship traversed through Puget Sound while returning to port at the University of Washington. At the time, researchers on board were focused on a host of other projects. They might not have known that the ship’s multi-beam sonar was even turned on. They certainly didn’t realize that the sonar was picking up images that would later be interpreted as multiple plumes of methane bubbles rising from the bottom of […]
Ecology, EPA now under the gun to adopt new water quality criteria for aquatic creatures (12/31/2021) - Long delays in updating state water-quality standards to protect orcas, fish and other aquatic species appear to have finally caught up with the Washington Department of Ecology and its federal counterpart, the Environmental Protection Agency. In a court ruling this week, U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman of Seattle found that Ecology has “abdicated its duties” to update certain water-quality standards, as required by the federal Clean Water Act. Meanwhile, she said, EPA has failed to meet its legal oversight obligations to ensure that adequate water-quality standards are protective of aquatic […]
Understanding the cold-water needs of salmon and helping them to survive (12/20/2021) - Salmon need cold water. This general statement is something I’ve been hearing since I first began reporting on these amazing migrating fish years ago. Cold water is a fact of life for salmon, known for their long travels up and down streams, out to saltwater and back. But colder is not always better. Questions about why salmon need cold water and how their habitat might grow too warm or too cold led me into an in-depth reporting project. I ended up talking to some of the leading experts on the […]
Recovery of Puget Sound species could hinge on better understanding of ecosystems (11/19/2021) - A recent report from the Puget Sound Partnership helps us understand the difficulty of restoring the Puget Sound ecosystem. What caught my attention in the State of the Sound report was that after 20 years of protecting and restoring streams, wetlands, shorelines and estuaries, we have not increased overall fish and wildlife populations, and some remain in a downward spiral. (Our Water Ways, Nov. 3). Several reasons have been given for the disappointing findings, including ongoing habitat losses from an increasing human population in the Puget Sound region. Clearly, there […]
Puget Sound fish and wildlife populations fall short of 10-year recovery goals (11/3/2021) - A final report on the 2020 ecosystem-recovery goals for Puget Sound outlines habitat improvements for some streams, shorelines and wetlands, but it also describes ongoing declines among fish and wildlife populations that use those habitats. The latest State of the Sound report, released this week by the Puget Sound Partnership, summarizes the status of 52 individual ecosystem indicators used to measure the health of Puget Sound. While 11 indicators point in a positive direction, suggesting that conditions are getting better for Puget Sound, 22 indicators tell us that things are […]
Puget Sound meets 2020 bulkhead-removal goal; new indicators will chart the future (10/28/2021) - In a turnabout that offers hope for Puget Sound’s nearshore ecosystem, old bulkheads are now being removed faster than new bulkheads are being constructed, according to permit figures provided by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. In fact, officials with Puget Sound Partnership recently announced that the agency’s 2020 goal for reducing shoreline armoring had been reached — just barely — by the end of last year. Specifically, the goal, or target, was to remove more bulkheads, seawalls and other armoring (measured in length) than what was added from […]
Orca census shows some improvement, but many whales still die before their time (9/21/2021) - The annual census of the endangered Southern Resident killer whales, submitted yesterday to the federal government, shows three births and one death from mid-2020 to mid-2021. Along with the new census report, Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research sadly confirmed the death of L47, a 47-year-old female named Marina, who has been apparently missing since early summer. Marina was last seen by CWR biologists on Feb. 27 in Swanson Channel, north of the San Juan Islands, Ken told me. She was later missing from observations by Canadian biologists […]
Plunging into a jungle of weather statistics to find the footprints of climate change (9/16/2021) - “Augusts in Seattle are getting hotter, leading to a change of 3.5°F since 1970.” This was the sentence that caught my eye while reading an email from Peter Gerard, director of communications for Climate Central, an organization that prides itself on helping news reporters tell an accurate story of climate change. I wondered immediately: Is there something special about the month of August? It turns out that there is, at least for Seattle and most areas around Puget Sound, but I needed to see the evidence for myself. Thus began […]
Discovery of tire-related chemical that kills coho salmon sparks widespread response (8/26/2021) - Scientists, legislators and manufacturers are responding in various ways to the recent groundbreaking discovery of a deadly chemical derived from automobile tires, a chemical that can rapidly kill coho salmon swimming in urban streams. Researchers are trying to better describe the chemical signature and biological function of the newfound chemical, 6PPD-quinone, along with related compounds. One major goal is to find an alternative chemical that can prevent dangerous cracking in tires without poisoning the environment. Tire manufacturers acknowledge that they had no idea that 6PPD-quinone even existed, although the chemical’s […]
Can biologists estimate the massive loss of shellfish caused by low tides, high temps? (7/13/2021) - The putrid smell of rotting shellfish on some beaches in Puget Sound and elsewhere along the West Coast were a clear sign that large numbers of clams, mussels, oysters and other intertidal creatures were killed from exposure to extreme low tides, record-breaking temperatures and a blazing hot sun. The total losses of shellfish that perished late last month may be difficult to estimate, but experts are beginning to piece together evidence from shoreline residents, state and tribal biologists, and commercial shellfish growers. Their goal is to describe what took place […]
Young orcas appear to develop friendships, not unlike primates — including humans (7/1/2021) - UPDATE, FRIDAY, JULY 2: K pod arrived in the San Juan Islands yesterday, so the wait is over for the Southern Residents to arrive this summer. The whales came south through Rosario Strait yesterday morning, according to reports, and then they traveled along the south side of Lopez Island and over to the west side of San Juan Island. How long the K pod whales will stay in inland waters — and when they might be joined by J and L pods — is anyone’s guess. (See “Orca census” below, […]
Puget Sound Partnership takes closer look at human well-being and environmental justice (6/21/2021) - Amid the struggle to save salmon and orcas and restore the Puget Sound ecosystem comes a renewed effort to consider not only how humans affect the environment but how the environment affects the lives of humans. The Puget Sound Partnership, which is overseeing the recovery of Puget Sound, has been developing a series of strategies to acknowledge and enhance the cultural, economic and psychological values that can come from a healthy natural environment. These new strategies, along with related actions, are to be incorporated into the 2022-26 Puget Sound Action […]
Voluntary removal of BPA from food cans leaves state regulators with a key decision (6/10/2021) - As Washington state regulators contemplate a ban on the chemical BPA from food and drink cans, a manufacturers organization insists that BPA has already been removed voluntarily from nearly all food cans. Washington Department of Ecology is engaged in Phase 3 of the Safer Products for Washington program, which is evaluating five groups of chemicals known to cause health effects. Agency toxicologists are studying whether safer alternatives are practical and should be required as a matter of state law. One of the compounds under review is bisphenol A (BPA), which […]
Mercer Island student honored in national art contest for her painting of Arctic char (5/28/2021) - A 16-year-old Mercer Island High School artist, Jingyi “Alana” Yang, received multiple awards this month in the annual Art of Conservation Fish Art Contest, sponsored by the conservation group Wildlife Forever. Her painting showed an Arctic char in its natural cold-water surroundings. Alana said she was inspired to paint the colorful fish during a family trip to Alaska, where a tour guide told her about the unique Arctic char, a migratory fish related to salmon and trout that resides in the northern regions of the world. “I thought it was […]
As in a pandemic, the battle against invasive species may well depend on early actions (5/24/2021) - As Americans, we have become all too familiar with the spread of a deadly virus and the terrible consequences of a delayed response to an outbreak. As a result of our experience, I’m wondering if some of us might have a more visceral sense about the need to control invasive species. I’m not saying that the ecological, economic and cultural disturbances wrought by invasive species are on par with a massive loss of human life. But the common denominator is a biological perturbation that occurs suddenly and threatens to expand […]
A mile of shellfish beach near Hoodsport has been declared safe for harvesting (5/12/2021) - Efforts to clean up the waters near Hoodsport in southern Hood Canal are paying off with increased shellfish-harvesting opportunities for the Skokomish Tribe, private property owners and recreational harvesters. The final step in the cleanup effort involved tracking down sources of pollution, including eight failing septic systems, which then were either repaired or replaced. After four years of improving water quality, the Washington Department of Health has upgraded 66 acres of tidelands from “prohibited” to “approved,” certifying that the clams and oysters near Hoodsport are now safe to eat. That’s […]

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