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Category: Water quality

North Pacific expedition gets underway aboard four ocean-going research ships

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.

The NOAA Ship Bell M. Shimada

There has never been a research cruise as involved as this expedition, scheduled from now into April, according to Laurie Weitkamp, chief U.S. scientist for the 2022 Pan-Pacific Winter High Seas Expedition. The geographic reach is much larger than during similar expeditions in 2019 and 2020, Laurie told me. Advanced research equipment will help to improve data-gathering, and the analyses are growing ever more sophisticated.
Many salmon populations in the North Pacific have been declining since the 1990s. An important goal of the expedition is to better understand how physical and biological conditions can affect marine survival, especially during this critical winter period. Understanding the causes of poor marine survival could lead to better management of the ocean resources, experts say.
It will be interesting to follow the movement of the four ships in real time, as displayed on the Live Vessel Tracking Map.
The Live Vessel Tracking Map shows the location of the NOAH Ship Bell M. Shimada after leaving Port Angeles this morning. // Map: International Year of the Salmon

In addition, anyone interested can learn about shipboard activities as they are reported on social media:

“It is incredibly exciting to be part of such an amazing scientific expedition,” said Weitkamp, a salmon biologist with NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Newport, Ore. “This is definitely a once-in-a-career opportunity, and I am really looking forward to all the discoveries we will collectively make. It’s been a long road putting it all together, but I am confident this cruise will change how we think about salmon in the ocean. It’s Darwin’s voyage of the Beagle of our time.”
“This is an exciting time for salmon science,” agreed Brian Riddell, science adviser for Canada’s Pacific Salmon Foundation. “For the first time in decades, international cooperation across the North Pacific will provide an invaluable snapshot of salmon distributions, their health, and their environmental conditions in these times of changing climate. I expect these results will be foundational as we also begin a much larger study under the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science.”
For these and other prepared statements, check out the news release about the expedition.
The research fleet for the 2022 expedition consists of the NOAAS Bell M. Shimada from the United States, the CCGR Sir John Franklin from Canada, the RV TINRO from Russia, and a Canadian commercial fishing vessel, the FV Raw Spirit. This year’s expedition was originally planned for last year but was delayed because of COVID-19.

The Canadian Coast Guard vessel Sir John Franklin

To cover a major section of the ocean, the ships will travel in strategic patterns within assigned zones, as shown on the map above.
The North Pacific expedition involves a variety of government, academic, industry and non-governmental groups. It is part of a five-year endeavor called the International Year of the Salmon, which strives to understand the role of salmon in a worldwide ecosystem affected by human activities. The hemispheric partnership is led by the North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission and the North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organization.
Some areas of study:
Distribution of various salmon species: A key question has been where the salmon can be found at various times and places in the ocean. After the 2019 expedition, researchers were raising questions about the location of pink salmon, because so few were caught in deep waters where more had been expected, as I reported in Our Water Ways, March 22, 2019. On the other hand, the researchers had expected to catch fewer coho than they did that year, because they thought coho would be closer to the coast.
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In 2020 (without U.S. scientists because of COVID), the research vessels found more pink and chum salmon early in the expedition than they did later in the same area, suggesting that the fish were schooling more than expected from previous Russian studies. See Our Water Ways, April 9, 2020.
Also, besides covering more area of the ocean at one time, the researchers will deploy gillnets as well as trawl equipment to see whether different types of fishing gear catch different fish in the open ocean. Varying environmental conditions during all three years of research could help to identify what causes the fish to move to particular places.
Expanding use of environmental DNA: The technique of identifying what species are present in a given area by testing for DNA in the water has undergone major advancements. Now, thanks to a more extensive genetic baseline, researchers are able to identify many different populations of salmon as related to their streams of origin. Studies in 2019 and 2020 showed that the presence of salmon observed by using eDNA techniques was quite similar to the actual fish caught in the nets.
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These eDNA techniques also can determine the presence of species that only come to the surface at night, such as squid, or species that tend to avoid the ships, such salmon sharks and Dall’s porpoises, noted Christoph Deeg, postdoctoral fellow at the University of British Columbia, explaining the preliminary results from the 2019 and 2020 expeditions during an online seminar. Using eDNA to locate species that eat salmon, compete with them for prey, or provide them nutrition can help define the dynamic interactions taking place in the oceanic food web. Check out the online seminar featuring Deeg and Kristi Miller-Saunders, head of molecular genetics at Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans.
Health and condition of salmon: The health of the salmon can be judged in part by their size at a certain age. In 2019, chum salmon seemed skinny and their stomachs were often empty, compared to coho salmon which seemed in better shape. The question of where the coho were finding prey not consumed by chum remained an open question. Measuring salmon stomach contents and analyzing fatty acids will continue to provide clues about what different salmon are eating.

New genomic techniques are being used to screen for pathogens in salmon, including a variety of bacteria and viruses. Non-lethal sampling involves using a swab on salmon gills, not unlike testing for the COVID virus in humans, according to Kristi Miller-Saunders. Preliminary analyses from the 2019 expedition revealed 21 pathogens in coho, chum, pink, and sockeye salmon.
Genetic techniques also can be used to identify chemicals produced by salmon under stress, with specific biomarkers determining the type of stress: temperature, low oxygen, viral disease and so on. The expedition is expected to result in the most comprehensive study of salmon health ever conducted in the winter, leading to insights into ocean mortality among salmon.
Ocean conditions: Besides traditional equipment that can measure ocean temperature, salinity, oxygen levels and other measures, the 2022 expedition will deploy underwater gliders, shaped like torpedoes, which monitor conditions as they move along. Gliders can be equipped with active and passive acoustic sensors to help locate marine creatures with sonar and identify species by the sounds they make. (Read the article by Caroline Graham, including glider routes, on the Year of the Salmon website.) Expedition ships also will deploy Argo floats that will drift with the currents and record various water quality data, including oxygen levels.
Plankton production and distribution: Since phytoplankton form the base of the food web, it is important to understand what limits their growth. Measuring levels of different types of phytoplankton and the surrounding physical conditions — from temperature to trace metals to stratification — could help explain the factors that limit primary production and ultimately the food for salmon. Studies of what drives the growth and consumption of different types of zooplankton in the ocean is another important piece of the puzzle.
As for financing the expedition, multiple sources of funding came together, including contributions of ship time by the U.S. and Canada as well as additional financial resources from agencies of the two governments. In addition, donations came from the North Pacific Research Board, the Great Pacific Foundation, the Pacific Salmon Foundation, the Russian Federal Research Institute of Fisheries and Oceanography, Japan Fisheries Research and Education Agency, the North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission, the North Pacific Fisheries Commission, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Tula Foundation, the University of Alaska Fairbanks, the University of British Columbia, Oregon State University, and the University of Washington.

Ecology, EPA now under the gun to adopt new water quality criteria for aquatic creatures

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 creatures.
The lawsuit, brought by Northwest Environmental Advocates, followed a petition filed by the group in 2013 seeking to get EPA to revise Washington’s water quality standards for aquatic species. The petition followed years of delay by the state. The standards, including numeric aquatic life criteria, place limits on toxic chemicals found in the state’s waterways. It took four years, but EPA eventually denied the petition, refusing to make a determination about whether or not the state’s existing water quality standards were consistent with the Clean Water Act.
In its denial and later court pleadings, EPA stressed its desire to support Ecology’s efforts to update aquatic life criteria. Ecology had discussed the update and even proposed it as part of the agency’s 2015-2020 strategic plan, but the work was never started. EPA admitted that Washington’s aquatic life criteria had not been updated for most chemicals since 1992, even though formal reviews and updates are required every three years, noted Judge Pechman in her ruling.
The judge’s order, issued Wednesday, requires EPA to determine within 180 days if the state’s current water quality standards are consistent with the Clean Water Act or if they need to be revised. If they are determined to be inadequate, the act itself requires EPA to promptly promulgate new regulations — unless the state adopts acceptable standards in the meantime.
Ecology officials acknowledge that the agency has been slow to adopt new aquatic life criteria. In fact, the required three-year “triennial review” has not been conducted since 2010. Ecology currently is going through a new triennial review, and the agency’s draft work plan lists the update to aquatic life criteria as a priority over the next four years.
“We have not conducted a triennial review since 2010 because we were in continual rulemaking efforts for the water quality standards,” states the introduction to the draft work plan (PDF 494 kb).
No doubt Ecology dedicated a lot of time and effort to other water-quality rules the past decade. Much public attention — including a legislative battle — was focused on human exposures to toxic chemicals, as Ecology worked through the long development of new human health criteria. The discussions largely revolved around fish-consumption rates for people who eat a lot of fish, along with what was considered an allowable cancer risk.
In a controversial move after Ecology completed its work, EPA refused to accept some of the state’s human health criteria, imposing stronger restrictions than Ecology proposed. The criteria were later reversed by President Trump’s EPA. Even today, the issue is not yet resolved, with a revised rule in the works from EPA in the midst of a lawsuit. (See Ecology’s timeline along with other background.) I have been following these issues since their inception in 2010, including a 2015 article in the Kitsap Sun newspaper.
Some of the rule-making that Ecology says contributed to delays:

Since EPA is in charge of enforcing the provisions of the Clean Water Act, Judge Pechman focused her attention on EPA’s failure to take charge of the situation, other than to encourage Ecology to get moving on the aquatic life criteria:
“The CWA (Clean Water Act) operates on a principle of cooperative federalism where states take the lead in setting WQS (water quality standards) with the goal of eliminating pollutant discharge into navigable waters to protect and enhance human and aquatic life,” the judge wrote in her order (PDF 228 kb). “States must create WQS specific to aquatic life and review them every three years to determine whether new or revised standards are necessary.
“But while states play a lead role in setting WQS, EPA serves as a backstop,” she continued. “Not only does EPA have to review state-adopted WQS, but it must also ‘promptly prepare and publish’ new WQS for a state ‘in any case where the administrator determines that a revised or new standard is necessary to meet the requirements of this chapter.’…
“So while EPA wanted to ‘work in partnership to efficiently and effectively allocate resources to address pollution and accelerate state adoption of new and revised criteria,’ nothing in the record showed that Washington was a willing partner. And certainly nothing in the record supports EPA’s belief that inaction would be an efficient or effective way of ensuring adequate WQS or complying with the goals and requirements of the CWA.”
The judge calls out specific criteria that EPA has recommended for updates, based on scientific studies, including aquatic life criteria for ammonia and copper. She did not accept EPA’s excuse that Ecology may have higher priorities or that EPA lacks the resources to undertake the rulemaking.
“This wait-and-see approach appears particularly ill-conceived in light of EPA’s recognition that copper pollution has an ‘adverse impact on salmonids,’ whose health impacts ‘critically important and endangered species throughout the Pacific Northwest,’” she stated.
Pechman noted that the letter denying the petition for rule-making contains no explanation about how EPA was “marshaling its limited resources to protect Washington’s waters or why simply waiting for Washington to act would be reasonable to meet the CWA’s goals. This undermines EPA’s position.”
The judge also rejected EPA’s argument that the update to Washington’s human health criteria — a related set of standards — would protect aquatic life. She cited EPA’s own recommendations for copper, which are 1,200 micrograms per liter for humans but a maximum of 4.8 micrograms per liter for aquatic life. Under those recommendations, what is considered safe for humans is 250 times higher than what is considered safe for protecting salmon from acute toxicity. (Chronic levels are considered even lower for aquatic life.)
Further, the judge points out, EPA should not assume that its national recommendations would be adequate for the unique species of Washington state — “such as Puget Sound’s Southern Resident orcas who are some of the most contaminated marine mammals in the world due to bioaccumulation through the food stock, particularly through Chinook salmon.”
The judge ordered EPA to make a determination on the adequacy of the state’s aquatic life criteria within 180 days, but she agreed to allow additional time if EPA can provide “specific, detailed explanations of why additional time is necessary and what tasks remain to be performed.”
How that will mesh with Ecology’s time schedule is yet to be seen. Most relevant staffers with Ecology as well as EPA were out this week for the holiday. I will invite them to contribute comments, concerns and additional context when they return.
Ecology’s draft work plan covering the next four years does not lay out a specific timetable for adopting aquatic life criteria. The agency has taken comments on four possible approaches to adopting new water quality standards:

  • Option 1: Stagger three rule-making by group (metals, organics, non-priority)
  • Option 2: Stagger two rule-making by group (all metals, all organics)
  • Option 3: Rule-makings for different groups of chemicals based on highest priority
  • Option 4: Review and update all necessary criteria in one rule-making

In bringing its lawsuit, Northwest Environmental Advocates said Washington state has revised aquatic life criteria for some toxic chemicals since 1992, but many remain less protective than EPA’s recommended levels. For 14 chemicals, Washington has no aquatic life criteria at all, whereas EPA has established maximum levels in freshwater to avoid acute or chronic toxicity, according to NWEA. In saltwater, Washington has no criteria for 11 chemicals for which EPA provides recommended standards, the group says.
Under the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service have reviewed the adequacy of aquatic life criteria for the states of California, Oregon and Idaho. (USFWS covers freshwater species, while NMFS covers saltwater species.) For a number of chemicals, the agencies have found that criteria adopted by the states and approved by EPA are likely to jeopardize the continued existence of a threatened or endangered species, the so-called “jeopardy” finding.
To show that Washington’s standards are outdated, NWEA listed more than two dozen chemicals for which the state uses numeric criteria that are either higher or close to the levels found to be in violation of the Endangered Species Act.
“Levels of these and other toxic pollutants are among the reasons that EPA has long been concerned about the health of one of Washington’s most important waterbodies, Puget Sound,” states the legal complaint (PDF 490 kb). “EPA features the toxic contamination of Southern Resident killer whales, Pacific herring and harbor seals in Puget Sound on its website as evidence of its ongoing concerns about toxic pollution of Washington’s waters.”