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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Young orca calves take part in fall excursions into South Puget Sound with their mothers (11/27/2020) - The two orca calves born to J pod in September are still alive and doing well, according to Mark Malleson of the Center for Whale Research, who spotted J pod on Monday near the Canadian city of Victoria. (Check out Mark’s encounter report.) This is good news, of course, for the highly endangered southern resident killer whales, which frequent Puget Sound and the Salish Sea. But winter months still lie ahead, so we hope that they can find enough food to make it through their first winter, a challenging time […]
New online magazine focuses on the stories behind Puget Sound recovery efforts (11/13/2020) - “Making Waves,” a new online magazine from the Puget Sound Partnership, promises to bring us the stories behind the many efforts to protect and restore the Puget Sound ecosystem. The first issue of “Making Waves” — published this week — contains five stories. Jon Bridgman, communications manager, conceived of the magazine format and pushed the idea forward. “This was Jon’s brainchild; he believes in the power of storytelling,” said Laura Blackmore, executive director of the Partnership, a state agency created by the Legislature to coordinate the ongoing recovery of Puget […]
Copper is being phased out of brake pads to reduce harm to salmon, other creatures (11/6/2020) - Manufacturers of automobile parts are facing their first deadline for removing copper from brake pads. Most seem to be well prepared to meet the new requirements under Washington state law. In 2010, Washington was the first state in the nation to outlaw copper in brake pads, after scientists discovered that the metal can severely affect the behavior of salmon. California soon followed, and by 2015 the industry came together with a nationwide agreement to phase out copper in brake pads. By the end of this year, new brake pads must […]
Puget Sound Restoration Fund meets 10-year, 100-acre goal for restoring native oyster beds (10/30/2020) - A heartfelt congratulations goes out to Betsy Peabody, her staff at Puget Sound Restoration Fund, and the dozens of partner organizations working to restore our native Olympia oyster to Puget Sound. PSRF recently fulfilled its ambitious 10-year goal of enhancing habitat for the petite, succulent oysters across 100 acres of Puget Sound tidelands, establishing a foothold for future regeneration of even greater populations. I first met Betsy as the Olympia oyster project was getting off the ground in 1999. Her enthusiasm and vision for the future caused me to fall […]
Controversy flares up over proposed policy revisions for state salmon hatcheries (10/23/2020) - UPDATE: NOV. 10, 2020 Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission is seeking comments on a slightly revised draft of a new Hatchery and Fishery Reform policy. For details, please read the news release issued yesterday. —- A state policy revision that could boost salmon production at fish hatcheries in Washington state has raised red flags among scientists and environmental groups worried about potential damage to wild salmon runs. The proposed hatchery policy (PDF 264 kb), under review by the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission, could derail a 20-year effort to implement […]
Minor bridge modifications could help young steelhead escape from Hood Canal (10/16/2020) - Help could be on the way for migrating steelhead and salmon in Hood Canal, where many young fish are killed each year by seals and other predators that lie in wait at the Hood Canal floating bridge. As many as 50 percent of the steelhead migrants perish as they arrive at the bridge, where predators pick them off one by one. The bridge is supported by floating concrete pontoons, forming a nearly solid barrier across the waterway. Young steelhead generally swim near the surface, making them especially vulnerable to predation, […]
Do we know enough to do anything about all the seals and sea lions in Puget Sound? (10/1/2020) - Scientists have known for years that Chinook salmon are important to southern resident orcas, but Chinook are not the only fish the whales eat. At the moment, chum salmon are returning to Puget Sound, and recent orca sightings suggest that the whales may now be feeding on chum. Harbor seals also eat Chinook salmon, but also chum, coho and other fish. They seem fond of smaller fish like herring and juvenile salmon. Oh, what a tangled food web we weave… Can we really say that seals are stealing the lunch […]
Orca census: One death in January, but no births were reported until September (9/15/2020) - UPDATE, Oct. 6 The newest calf among the Southern Resident killer whales was officially designated J58 after being seen alive and healthy on Sunday. The calf is the offspring of J49, a 15-year-old female named Eclipse who has one surviving calf, J51 or Nova. Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research had been withholding the official designation until CWR staffers could be sure the newborn had survived and was healthy. In Sunday’s encounter off San Juan Island, CWR staffers Dave Ellifrit and and Katie Jones reported, “Both J41 and […]
Western Washington avoids community-leveling conflagration — for now (9/8/2020) - Yesterday evening, high winds out of the east brought unwelcome smoke to the Puget Sound region. Living in the woods — which are very dry at this time — I became somewhat alarmed; I won’t deny it. This past spring, I wrote about the historic wildfires of Western Washington and the likelihood that climate change could bring massive destruction to thousands of homes built in wooded areas. I did not want to see an affirmation of my story’s title, “Fire danger returning to Western Washington.” Did we have the ingredients […]
A look at future ocean conditions and how they could affect coastal communities (9/3/2020) - Scientists tell us that climate change is probably increasing the frequency of extreme events, such as hurricanes, droughts and wildfires. As time goes on, we might expect even more dramatic shifts in the ecosystem, as some species move to more suitable locations and others die out. The Pacific Fishery Management Council, which oversees fishing along the West Coast, has launched an effort to become more nimble and responsive to changing conditions with regard to estimating fish populations and approving sport and commercial fisheries. One effort is to describe how the […]
Does the public have a right to walk across a private beach? The answer is still unresolved (8/21/2020) - Even before Washington became a state in 1889, Puget Sound beaches had been exploited as log dumps, farmed for shellfish, occupied as homesites and enjoyed for recreation. But today, after 131 years of statehood, residents of this region still don’t know if they have a legal right to walk across a privately owned beach at low tide. That’s because neither the Washington State Supreme Court nor the Legislature has ever clearly spelled out the limits of the Public Trust Doctrine — an ancient legal principle that provides for common citizens […]
Art contests help to carry the clean-water message to people around Puget Sound (8/8/2020) - I’m impressed with artists who combine their passion for nature with a message about protecting the environment and how we all have a role to play. This week, I’d like to share winning artwork from two recent contests. One is a poster competition inspired by the “We are Puget Sound” (Water Ways) book and campaign. The other is a project that involves placing whimsical pictures of sea life on storm drains in Kitsap County. The “We are Puget Sound” poster contest, which received dozens of entries from King County residents, […]
Safe hiking and other outdoors activities could improve mental health in pandemic (8/3/2020) - Outside seems to be the answer, in more ways than one. Virologists tell us that, aside from isolation, we are less likely to be infected with COVID-19 if we go outdoors and stay away from crowds. Psychologists have known for decades that getting out in nature can improve our mental health, something that many of us need at this time. Taking a hike can be a great cure for cabin fever. But to maintain safety in a pandemic, we must be careful not rush out to the most popular locations […]
BPA debate rages, while state program seeks safer chemicals for many common products (7/24/2020) - Ongoing findings about the chemical Bisphenol A has further inflamed a debate about whether the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is adequately protecting people’s health when it comes to products containing BPA. Meanwhile, a year-old state program, called Safer Products for Washington, may avoid some of the regulatory pitfalls people are seeing at the FDA by simply asking whether safer chemicals are available and whether it would be reasonable to use them instead. BPA, which can disrupt normal hormonal function, has been a concern of mine since 2008, when I […]
‘Outdoors Act’ would repair national parks, protect land and address recreation needs (7/10/2020) - UPDATE: July 23 The Great American Outdoors Act passed the House yesterday on a 310-107 vote. See Associated Press and news release from U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor. —– It appears that the political stars are lining up for what some people are calling the most significant environmental legislation in decades. Billions of dollars have been laid upon the table for parks, recreation facilities and environmentally sensitive lands across the country. The U.S. Senate has already passed the Great American Outdoors Act, which pairs two previous spending proposals: the […]
Absent orcas: Most of the whales simply are not around to be counted at this time (7/2/2020) - UPDATE, JULY 3: Two new reports worth checking out: Center for Whale Research Encounter #31 Orca Network Whale Sighting Report, July 2 —– “So far, no new babies to report.” That’s the latest word from Ken Balcomb regarding the southern resident orcas, the three pods of endangered whales that once frequented Puget Sound but lately seem hard to find. July 1 marks the date of the annual killer whale census, a project carried out by Ken and his fellow researchers at the Center for Whale Research. Each year, Ken accounts […]
State officials scramble to protect streams and wetlands in wake of federal rule (6/24/2020) - Federal protections for millions of small streams and wetlands across the country were eliminated on Monday, following an unsuccessful legal effort to block new regulations that redefine “waters of the United States.” Officials with the Washington Department of Ecology are scrambling to make sure that nobody proceeds to fill wetlands or damage waterways, now protected solely by state law. A major concern is the potential need for many more staffers to write permits and enforce state water-quality laws, according to Curt Hart, spokesman for Ecology. “We’re still in the process […]
Everything counts when helping young salmon survive their risky journey to the sea (6/16/2020) - When considering the amazing migration of salmon, we often talk about their long journey from the ocean, guided by smell, to the very stream where they first emerged from the gravel. But if we’re talking about salmon recovery — such as avoiding extinction for Puget Sound Chinook — we must focus equally on the first leg of their journey — from stream to ocean. That’s when vulnerable young fish die by the millions. The survival rate for juvenile salmon depends to a large extent on the physical condition of the […]
Funding for Puget Sound projects envisioned as part of a national stimulus package (6/8/2020) - Puget Sound recovery efforts could get a boost from a newly proposed five-year, $494-billion economic stimulus package, according to U.S. Reps. Denny Heck, D-Olympia, and Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor. The two Washington congressmen, known for their efforts to help restore the Puget Sound ecosystem, spoke online Friday to more than 160 people during the first Virtual Puget Sound Days on the Hill forum. The event was sponsored by the Puget Sound Partnership, the agency coordinating the recovery of Puget Sound. While the bill’s future is uncertain, this so-called “Invest in […]
Hornets, crabs and rodents: setting traps to locate and contain invasive species (6/5/2020) - While media reports were raising alarms about an invasion of dangerous “murder hornets,” Washington state entomologists were quietly planning a trapping program, which will mark the beginning of a search-and-destroy mission against the Asian giant hornets. Trapping has become a primary tool in the early detection of invasive species. Traps are often used to control or reduce breeding populations of destructive pests — from insects such as the gypsy moth to rodents such as nutria to aquatic organisms such as the European green crab. Officials with the Washington Department of […]
‘Days on the Hill’ will go online this year, widening audience for Puget Sound talks (5/29/2020) - Folks who care about salmon, killer whales and the Puget Sound ecosystem will get a chance to participate in the annual discussion known as Puget Sound Day on the Hill. But this year the event will be called “2020 Virtual Puget Sound Days on the Hill,” as the talks go online. Online meetings with Washington’s congressional lawmakers will be held each Friday in June. Putting the meetings online will allow anyone interested to listen to the discussion, which generally focuses on upcoming legislation and funding for Puget Sound. Loved by […]
Western Washington wildfire: What are we facing this year and beyond? (5/22/2020) - Trying to predict the likelihood that Western Washington will be scorched with severe forest fires this summer must be an overwhelming job for our region’s meteorologists. In the midst of a pandemic, fire managers and fire crews desperately would like to know what kinds of fire conditions they will face this year, not only in Western Washington but wherever they might be sent. Will firefighters be able to ward off the COVID-19 disease as they battle one blaze after another? How many times might they be called out to fight […]
New steelhead strategy would include increased fishing and more hatcheries (5/15/2020) - Strategies to keep steelhead fishing alive while restoring steelhead populations to rivers in Puget Sound are spelled out in the “Quicksilver Portfolio” (PDF 2.3 mb), a document unveiled today before the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission. After three years of study, the Puget Sound Steelhead Advisory Group announced that it was ready to solicit public and political support for an experimental approach that includes monitoring the effects of fishing and increased hatchery production as part of a steelhead-recovery effort. “Together, we can conserve wild steelhead, restore fishing opportunities, provide economic […]
Young artists show creativity in a plea to reduce harmful trash in the ocean (5/7/2020) - Student artists from across the country are calling attention to the hazards of human trash that washes into the ocean, killing sea creatures large and small. Each year, hundreds of young artists submit colorful drawings and paintings in the annual Marine Debris Art Contest, sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Debris Program. I’ve selected a few of my favorite pictures for this page, including one from a young Seattle artist, but you can see all 13 winning entries on the Art Contest Winners page. To enlarge, click […]
Washington has received big money from federal wetlands grants program (5/1/2020) - A little-known funding program to protect and restore coastal wetlands across the United States has been very, very good for Washington state. Over the past five years, Washington state has received $26.9 million to purchase and restore wetland properties as part of the National Coastal Wetlands Conservation Grant Program. That’s a surprising 28 percent of the $95 million made available to 20 states situated along the U.S. coasts and Great Lakes. Not only has Washington state received more money than any other state every year for the past five years, […]
Warm-water ‘blobs’ significantly diminish salmon, other fish populations, study says (4/25/2020) - It’s no secret that salmon and other Northwest fish populations are expected to shrink as a result of a warming Pacific Ocean. But a new study suggests that the resulting decline in commercial fishing by 2050 could be twice as great as previously estimated by climate scientists. The higher estimates of population declines were calculated by researchers at the University of British Columbia, who took into account occasional “marine heat waves” that can play havoc with the ecosystem. A recent example is the warm-water event known as the “blob,” which […]
Earth Day events go online because of virus (4/17/2020) - Canceled! Canceled! Canceled! Participants in this year’s Earth Day activities won’t be rallying in large groups, participating in environmental festivals or coming together to clean up the Earth. On the 50th anniversary of Earth Day — Wednesday of next week — the environmental movement will be uniquely digital, with many people celebrating from their home computers. Before the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, this year’s Earth Day was being promoted as the “largest environmental mobilization in history,” as Forbes magazine trumpeted in a headline. Millions of people were being mobilized. Now […]
Salmon expeditions challenge old beliefs (4/9/2020) - Long-held assumptions about where salmon go during their years of swimming in the Pacific Ocean may need to be revised, according to Dick Beamish, a Canadian salmon researcher who helped organize two scientific expeditions into the Pacific Ocean. For example, sockeye salmon have been caught in nets farther south than conventional wisdom would suggest, Beamish said, while fishing was hit-and-miss in the same area at different times, suggesting that pink and chum salmon were schooling more than expected. The second International Gulf of Alaska Salmon Expedition ended Tuesday after nearly […]
Time to spare? Why not conduct some real online research to advance science (4/2/2020) - If you are looking for something constructive to do in this stay-at-home period of our lives, I might suggest joining a team of scientists conducting real online research. Zooniverse, a clearinghouse of about 100 active crowd-sourced science projects, has added educational materials for all age groups. Students learning at home can assist professional researchers as they seek answers to real scientific questions. For a few other stay-at-home ideas, skip to the bottom of this page. One interesting Zooniverse project is “Penguin Watch,” in which citizen scientists are asked to look […]
Sewer operators worry that toilet paper shortage will lead to more nasty clogs (3/19/2020) - With a multitude of people scrambling to buy toilet paper, and some going without, sewer utility officials across the country are worried about the possible repercussions of the TP shortage — such as clogged sewer lines. Toilet paper and wipes of all kinds have become the subject of a complex, wide-ranging and controversial debate. The issue was even argued this year in the Washington Legislature. But for hard-working public employees who clean out the sewers, the bottom line is simple: DON’T FLUSH ANYTHING BUT TOILET PAPER (unless it’s human waste, […]

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