Research

Category: Research

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.

Understanding the cold-water needs of salmon and helping them to survive

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 subject of stream temperature. Thanks to their fascinating research, I learned that temperature and food supply go hand-in-hand to dictate salmon metabolism, growth and survival. You can read my report, “Taking the Temperature of Salmon,” in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

Middle Fork of the Snoqualmie River, near Mount Si trailhead
Photo: Christopher Dunagan

Later in this blog post, I will touch on some new developments regarding temperature and stream conditions — including Gov. Jay Inslee’s latest initiative to help salmon by proposing new laws and regulations along with $187 million in next year’s budget request.
In the Northwest, we almost never need to worry that salmon streams will get too cold. Logging, farming and development have removed large amounts of streamside vegetation, allowing the sun to warm the waters, often to excessive degrees. While sunlight can increase the growth of tiny organisms and boost the food web, higher temperatures also accelerate metabolic rates, increase stress hormones and alter behavioral responses, as I described in my story.
When a section of a stream grows too warm, fish will seek out cooler water, often by swimming upstream to areas cooled by springs or snowmelt. As a change in temperature alters metabolism and behavior, the result can be problems with finding food and with increased threats of predation.
“Anybody who does stream work soon learns that fish are amazing,” Jonny Armstrong, a University of Oregon researcher, told me. “They don’t just accept the habitat they are given; they do all kinds of things to game the system.”
Jonny’s work in Alaska documented how a run of coho salmon moved into cool water to feed on sockeye salmon eggs. After getting their fill, the fish returned to warmer water to digest the food and grow faster.
I’m especially indebted to Aimee Fullerton, who helped me understand a multitude of biological processes related to temperature, as I searched for ways to explain the complex findings. Aimee is a research fishery biologist with NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center. She has been working in the Snoqualmie River, where temperatures grow warm enough at times to impair the growth and development of salmon and sometimes kill them if they cannot escape into cooler waters.
The prospects of climate change raise concerns about even higher temperatures in the future. Careful temperature measurements, combined with computer modeling, have helped researchers predict future temperature changes. Other experts are developing new strategies for maintaining cooler temperatures to protect salmon, as I outlined in the story.
Just last week, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee announced a new initiative that he will take to the Legislature next year. He hopes to boost salmon populations by improving stream habitat, replacing culverts and other impediments, and cleaning up polluted waters. Inslee also intends to address harvest, hatcheries and hydropower along with critical issues of predation and food availability.
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“There is no time to waste,” the governor said in a news release. “We have a choice between a future with salmon or a future without them. Salmon need immediate and urgent action to ensure their survival. That’s why, for the 2022 legislative session, salmon recovery is a top priority and have both policy and funding to help protect them.”
One of the key ideas that the governor mentioned during his news conference on Tuesday is to build and/or protect streamside corridors based on the height of trees, which provide shade to cool streams. (See video, embedded on this page, at 11:03-14:30.) The riparian corridor is also important in reducing toxic pollutants, bacteria and fine sediments that enter a stream.
The so-called Governor’s Salmon Strategy Update (PDF 1.4 mb) includes provisions for riparian buffers on agricultural lands, which has been a concern of Indian tribes throughout the region. Details have yet to be proposed, but a combination of regulations and financial support are likely.
The latest initiative grew out of the 2019 Centennial Accord meeting between state agencies and tribal salmon experts led by the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.
“This is the first time we have seen legislation that would require landowners to protect riparian habitat,” said Dave Herrera, NWIFC commissioner and Skokomish Tribe policy representative who was quoted in a news release. “It is also groundbreaking because it includes incentives for landowners to create and maintain riparian zones, as well as regulatory backstops when compliance isn’t voluntary.”

Next year’s salmon-recovery legislation will be called the Lorraine Loomis Act, named for the late chairwoman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission who promoted cooperative efforts to save salmon. Budget details are included in a policy brief (PDF 1.4 mb) released by the Governor’s Office.
“We know the status quo isn’t working when it comes to salmon recovery,” Lorraine wrote in a column last year. “We know what the science says needs to be done, and we know that we must move forward together.”
On the regulatory front, the federal Clean Water Act calls for standards that protect aquatic life, such as salmon. Where temperatures are not maintained within an approved range, the waters are considered “impaired” — just as they are when bacteria become too numerous or oxygen levels drop too low for the aquatic species of concern.
Although I did not address regulatory issues in my story about temperature, it is worth noting that numerous federal and state clean-water regulations are undergoing changes. Some changes are the result of lawsuits; some follow statutory requirements; and some stem from the coming and going of the Trump administration’s efforts to reduce environmental rules.
For example, the Environmental Protection Agency recently withdrew its approval (PDF 402 kb) for how the Washington Department of Ecology handles high temperatures in certain stream segments that grow naturally warm. The basic idea is that regulatory agencies need not seek out mitigation measures to cool such waters — even in areas too warm for salmon — if it can be shown that high temperatures represent the natural condition of the streams and that humans are not to blame.
The group Northwest Environmental Advocates first brought a lawsuit over such “natural conditions criteria” in Oregon, where NWEA contended that the state was allowing streams to remain dangerously hot by discounting the effects of humans. In this way, the group argued, Oregon was establishing new and higher temperature standards than allowed by existing regulations without going through a public review process. The higher temperatures should be subject to public review and federal oversight, including effects on endangered species, the group said. Federal courts agreed with that reasoning.
Although the Washington Department of Ecology rarely invokes natural conditions criteria for temperature, it must now review its practices and undergo federal oversight where experts believe that the natural condition of a water body would exceed established water-quality standards. Besides temperature, the review will cover criteria for dissolved oxygen. In some areas of Puget Sound, Ecology has determined that numerical water-quality standards would not be met even if no humans were around.
The methods of determining what the water temperature or oxygen level would be in the absence of human activity can become an elaborate exercise involving computer modeling. But Nina Bell, executive director of NWEA, argues that the process is important and should be open to public scrutiny. After all, she said, the outcome can determine whether unhealthy temperatures or oxygen levels persist or are reduced through mitigation efforts.
Other ongoing water-quality matters:

Recovery of Puget Sound species could hinge on better understanding of ecosystems

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 is a need to find ways to accommodate growth while protecting the remaining functional habitats.

Click on image to bring up Vital Signs wheel with links to extensive information about indicators, including key messages, strategies, background documents and other resources.
Info: Puget Sound Partnership

At the same time, I would like to focus some attention on the restoration side of the equation. It seems we may not yet understand what it takes to restore habitats in ways that allow the food web to thrive, thus allowing increasing numbers of higher predators, such as birds, salmon and killer whales.
I recently wrote about some bug-seeding experiments underway in several streams that flow through urban areas in Seattle (Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, Oct. 21). For some reason, populations of aquatic insects known to provide food for salmon were not recovered to the degree expected, given efforts to restore the stream channel, remove invasive weeds, plant native vegetation and reduce pollution to improve water quality. As a result, researchers launched a project of transplanting important insects from a healthy stream. So far, results are mixed.
Katherine Lynch, urban creeks biologist for Seattle Public Utilities, points out that restoration projects are often limited in scope and extent.
“The reality,” she told me, “is that when you go in and do restoration work, you are only doing a short reach. These projects (in Seattle) are a way of exploring what works and what doesn’t.”
To restore or improve salmon habitat in a stream, the challenge is to understand what has been broken in a complex interactive system. Factors include water quality, water flow, clean gravel, and the intricate interactions of the food web — from microscopic organisms to large fish, including predators that eat young salmon.
Emily Schwabe, left, and other members of King County’s bug-seeding team transplant rocks with attached invertebrates to Seattle’s Taylor Creek this past August. // Photo: King County

Take water quality, for example. Until recently, nobody knew what was killing adult coho salmon that found their way into urban streams. Scientists tracked the problem to stormwater entering the waterways from roads and highways. Then last year, thanks to advanced analytical tools, researchers were able to identify the killer compound, which comes from a chemical found in tires. Until then, nobody seemed to know anything about this chemical, let alone thinking that tires might have lethal properties. (EoPS, Dec. 3, 2020).
The discovery opened a lot of eyes to questions about how to identify “clean” water and the prospect that unknown chemicals may be causing unidentified problems in waterways throughout Puget Sound and across the country. The tire-related compound has been found to have lesser effects on steelhead and Chinook but no apparent effects on chum or sockeye. Work continues on varieties of species that might be exposed to road runoff, not just in urban areas but practically everywhere.
The discovery that dying coho could be linked to a tire chemical, known as 6PPD, and its deadly oxidation product, 6PPD-quinone, raises even more questions about the sublethal effects of other chemicals not yet identified. Standard water-quality tests cannot capture the toxicity of unknown chemicals in a stream. Even biological tests, such as using aquatic invertebrates (EoPS), may not reveal the toxic effects on vertebrates — such as fish, birds and humans.
Besides water quality, water flow may be a critical ingredient in stream restoration. I’ve been hearing a lot lately about hyporheic flow — the flow through gravel beneath a stream bed — and its effects on temperature (EoPS, Aug. 19) and oxygen supply, even its ability to filter contaminants.
In Seattle’s Thornton Creek, an understanding of hyporheic flow led to an engineered design in which the stream channel was dug out — up to 8 feet in some places — and replaced with gravel, according to Paul Bakke, owner of a firm called The Science of Rivers who monitored the physical functioning of the project. Rocks and logs were lodged in the streambed along with an impermeable barrier that forced the flowing water deep into the underlying gravel. The water plunges down into deep gravel, coming back up and diving down again several times in each of two reconstructed portions of the stream. The gravel helps filter fine sediments from the stream, but the configuration of the channel allows these fines to be washed on downstream during high flows, Paul explained. Organic chemicals in the water adhere to deeper gravel, where large fractions of chemicals are broken down by microbes.
A restored section of Seattle’s Thornton Creek soon after construction in 2014.
Photo: Seattle Public Utilities

A team of researchers affiliated with the Center for Urban Waters in Tacoma evaluated the fate of 83 chemicals moving downstream in Thornton Creek. Included were the toxic tire chemicals. The hyporheic flow path substantially improved water quality, according to the findings published in 2019 in the journal Water Research.
After construction of the hyporheic zone, Paul found that the vertical flow rate in the new gravel was 89 times higher than in the previous streambed, which had been impounded by a heavy sediment load. In fact, the fresh gravel produced a flow rate 17 times higher than in a forested stream in the mountains of Idaho.
The newly engineered stream also included a floodplain, created by removing flood-prone houses from the area. During high flows, sediment-containing water moves from the stream channel into the floodplain, where lower water velocities allow the sediment to settle out. That helps to protect the stream channel from excess sediment.
According to Paul, the key to success was rebuilding the stream by carefully choosing the width and depth of the channel and floodplain. The new configuration balances the forces of erosion and deposition, thus maintaining the channel in a more natural condition. In addition to Paul, the lead channel designer was Mike “Rocky” Hrachovec, owner of Natural Systems Design. For details of the design, check out the article in Research Outreach or the more technical article in the journal Water.
In October 2018, a pair of Chinook salmon spawn in a restored section of Thornton Creek. // Photo from GoPro video: Chapin Pier, Seattle Public Utilities

The ability of the restored sections of Thornton Creek to clean themselves, increase oxygen levels and mediate temperatures has led to a healthier condition, despite the urban setting in North Seattle.
In 2018, four years after construction, a female Chinook salmon swam warily upstream. With a male Chinook standing by, she deposited her eggs, which were quickly fertilized by the male.
“They spawned,” Katherine said. “We had never seen salmon spawn in the project region.”
A lack of funding and the COVID-19 pandemic have prevented further in-person monitoring of salmon movements, but new methods of testing for the presence of salmon are being developed. Seattle officials hope that salmon populations will increase in Thornton Creek, where beavers have established a new dam on the project site.
Along with new research into stream ecology come better methods of stream restoration and the chance that salmon and other species will find a suitable home. The same can be said for such “adaptive management” in relation to shoreline, wetland and estuary projects that bring us closer to a true recovery of our native species.

Recovery of Puget Sound species could hinge on better understanding of ecosystems

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 is a need to find ways to accommodate growth while protecting the remaining functional habitats.

Click on image to bring up Vital Signs wheel with links to extensive information about indicators, including key messages, strategies, background documents and other resources.
Info: Puget Sound Partnership

At the same time, I would like to focus some attention on the restoration side of the equation. It seems we may not yet understand what it takes to restore habitats in ways that allow the food web to thrive, thus allowing increasing numbers of higher predators, such as birds, salmon and killer whales.
I recently wrote about some bug-seeding experiments underway in several streams that flow through urban areas in Seattle (Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, Oct. 21). For some reason, populations of aquatic insects known to provide food for salmon were not recovered to the degree expected, given efforts to restore the stream channel, remove invasive weeds, plant native vegetation and reduce pollution to improve water quality. As a result, researchers launched a project of transplanting important insects from a healthy stream. So far, results are mixed.
Katherine Lynch, urban creeks biologist for Seattle Public Utilities, points out that restoration projects are often limited in scope and extent.
“The reality,” she told me, “is that when you go in and do restoration work, you are only doing a short reach. These projects (in Seattle) are a way of exploring what works and what doesn’t.”
To restore or improve salmon habitat in a stream, the challenge is to understand what has been broken in a complex interactive system. Factors include water quality, water flow, clean gravel, and the intricate interactions of the food web — from microscopic organisms to large fish, including predators that eat young salmon.
Emily Schwabe, left, and other members of King County’s bug-seeding team transplant rocks with attached invertebrates to Seattle’s Taylor Creek this past August. // Photo: King County

Take water quality, for example. Until recently, nobody knew what was killing adult coho salmon that found their way into urban streams. Scientists tracked the problem to stormwater entering the waterways from roads and highways. Then last year, thanks to advanced analytical tools, researchers were able to identify the killer compound, which comes from a chemical found in tires. Until then, nobody seemed to know anything about this chemical, let alone thinking that tires might have lethal properties. (EoPS, Dec. 3, 2020).
The discovery opened a lot of eyes to questions about how to identify “clean” water and the prospect that unknown chemicals may be causing unidentified problems in waterways throughout Puget Sound and across the country. The tire-related compound has been found to have lesser effects on steelhead and Chinook but no apparent effects on chum or sockeye. Work continues on varieties of species that might be exposed to road runoff, not just in urban areas but practically everywhere.
The discovery that dying coho could be linked to a tire chemical, known as 6PPD, and its deadly oxidation product, 6PPD-quinone, raises even more questions about the sublethal effects of other chemicals not yet identified. Standard water-quality tests cannot capture the toxicity of unknown chemicals in a stream. Even biological tests, such as using aquatic invertebrates (EoPS), may not reveal the toxic effects on vertebrates — such as fish, birds and humans.
Besides water quality, water flow may be a critical ingredient in stream restoration. I’ve been hearing a lot lately about hyporheic flow — the flow through gravel beneath a stream bed — and its effects on temperature (EoPS, Aug. 19) and oxygen supply, even its ability to filter contaminants.
In Seattle’s Thornton Creek, an understanding of hyporheic flow led to an engineered design in which the stream channel was dug out — up to 8 feet in some places — and replaced with gravel, according to Paul Bakke, owner of a firm called The Science of Rivers who monitored the physical functioning of the project. Rocks and logs were lodged in the streambed along with an impermeable barrier that forced the flowing water deep into the underlying gravel. The water plunges down into deep gravel, coming back up and diving down again several times in each of two reconstructed portions of the stream. The gravel helps filter fine sediments from the stream, but the configuration of the channel allows these fines to be washed on downstream during high flows, Paul explained. Organic chemicals in the water adhere to deeper gravel, where large fractions of chemicals are broken down by microbes.
A restored section of Seattle’s Thornton Creek soon after construction in 2014.
Photo: Seattle Public Utilities

A team of researchers affiliated with the Center for Urban Waters in Tacoma evaluated the fate of 83 chemicals moving downstream in Thornton Creek. Included were the toxic tire chemicals. The hyporheic flow path substantially improved water quality, according to the findings published in 2019 in the journal Water Research.
After construction of the hyporheic zone, Paul found that the vertical flow rate in the new gravel was 89 times higher than in the previous streambed, which had been impounded by a heavy sediment load. In fact, the fresh gravel produced a flow rate 17 times higher than in a forested stream in the mountains of Idaho.
The newly engineered stream also included a floodplain, created by removing flood-prone houses from the area. During high flows, sediment-containing water moves from the stream channel into the floodplain, where lower water velocities allow the sediment to settle out. That helps to protect the stream channel from excess sediment.
According to Paul, the key to success was rebuilding the stream by carefully choosing the width and depth of the channel and floodplain. The new configuration balances the forces of erosion and deposition, thus maintaining the channel in a more natural condition. In addition to Paul, the lead channel designer was Mike “Rocky” Hrachovec, owner of Natural Systems Design. For details of the design, check out the article in Research Outreach or the more technical article in the journal Water.
In October 2018, a pair of Chinook salmon spawn in a restored section of Thornton Creek. // Photo from GoPro video: Chapin Pier, Seattle Public Utilities

The ability of the restored sections of Thornton Creek to clean themselves, increase oxygen levels and mediate temperatures has led to a healthier condition, despite the urban setting in North Seattle.
In 2018, four years after construction, a female Chinook salmon swam warily upstream. With a male Chinook standing by, she deposited her eggs, which were quickly fertilized by the male.
“They spawned,” Katherine said. “We had never seen salmon spawn in the project region.”
A lack of funding and the COVID-19 pandemic have prevented further in-person monitoring of salmon movements, but new methods of testing for the presence of salmon are being developed. Seattle officials hope that salmon populations will increase in Thornton Creek, where beavers have established a new dam on the project site.
Along with new research into stream ecology come better methods of stream restoration and the chance that salmon and other species will find a suitable home. The same can be said for such “adaptive management” in relation to shoreline, wetland and estuary projects that bring us closer to a true recovery of our native species.

Puget Sound fish and wildlife populations fall short of 10-year recovery goals

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.
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While 11 indicators point in a positive direction, suggesting that conditions are getting better for Puget Sound, 22 indicators tell us that things are not getting better. In fact, five of them are listed as “getting worse.” Nine indicators offer “mixed results” with measurements of both improvement and decline. Another 10 lack enough information to determine a trend.
“Some dimensions of the ecosystem are improving,” says a joint statement (PDF 168 kb) from the Partnership’s 18-member Science Panel, “but at the whole system level we have not seen the needle move as much. For that to happen, we need to make hard choices about the future we want.”
These indicators, created about a decade ago, were recommended by teams of scientists to help reveal the status of Puget Sound’s water quality, water quantity, habitat, species populations, human health and human quality of life. They were adopted by the Puget Sound Leadership Council, the body that oversees the Puget Sound Partnership and coordinates the recovery of Puget Sound.
In a similar fashion, after the indicators were established, the Leadership Council adopted ambitious goals, or “targets,” for 31 of the indicators. The hope was that these targets could be reached by the year 2020.
The latest State of the Sound report announces that five indicators were reached or came near their 2020 targets, but 23 fell short. Three others lacked data for a final conclusion. With 2020 in the rearview mirror, this will be the last report specifically describing these 31 targets.

Click on image to bring up Vital Signs wheel with links to extensive information about indicators, including key messages, strategies, background documents and other resources. Info: Puget Sound Partnership

The five indicators that essentially reached their targets involve:

  1. reductions in the rate of losing forestland to development,
  2. protections of ecologically important lands,
  3. net reduction of shoreline armoring,
  4. efforts to remove armoring from feeder bluffs that provide sands and gravels, and
  5. improvements in sediment chemistry in saltwater areas.

All of these are related to habitat conditions. Other habitat improvements were seen with the restoration of floodplains, estuarine wetlands and streamside vegetation, but these failed to meet their targets.
The five indicators that are getting measurably worse are:

  1. population of Southern Resident killer whales,
  2. populations of Pacific herring,
  3. populations of terrestrial birds,
  4. recreational harvest of Dungeness crab, and
  5. marine water quality.

Chinook salmon abundance, an indicator assessing 22 populations of wild Chinook, was listed as “not improving,” because most stocks have remained near their low baseline levels for 20 years.
The only positive sign in the category “species and food web” comes as a mixed result in the indicator for marine birds. Although populations of pigeon guillemots and rhinoceros auklets have gone up and down, they are generally considered stable and healthy. On the negative side, marbled murrelets, a threatened species, declined nearly 5 percent, and various species of scoters declined by about 2 percent, both reflecting changes from 2001 to 2020.
“This State of the Sound report shows that we are not where we need to be — not by a long shot,” said Jay Manning, chairman of the Leadership Council. “We’ve got to make some changes. We’ve got to invest more and be willing to make hard decisions and be much more focused on protecting and restoring the ecosystem.”

Major challenges ahead

While scientists have learned a great deal about the Puget Sound ecosystem and the needs of many species, there is a realization that habitat improvements don’t always help to rebuild populations of fish and wildlife.

Endangered Southern Resident killer whales // Photo: Puget Sound Partnership

“This goes to the complexity of what we are trying to do,” Jay told me in a telephone interview. “These are complicated ecosystems. You can take certain actions and think that it is going to make a difference, but I don’t think it is super-straightforward.”
Manning said some of the targets may have been unrealistic in terms of a 10-year time frame, but it is discouraging that so many of the indicators are simply not improving or are headed in the wrong direction.
“I would feel very differently if we were closing the gap,” he said, “but some of the most important measures — such as orca and Chinook salmon — are getting worse.”
He noted that a few salmon populations — including runs of Hood Canal summer chum — have been improving. But the 2020 targets for salmon are focused on Puget Sound Chinook, a threatened species that has shown no signs of recovery. Meanwhile, the recovery of Southern Resident orcas, listed as endangered, may be impaired by a shortage of Chinook, not only in Puget Sound but throughout their range in British Columbia and along the West Coast.
Even where improvements are being made in some parts of Puget Sound, forces are at work causing problems in particular areas and across the region.
“We are not sitting in a stationary position,” Jay said. “We have these growing pressures.”
Beyond historical damage, Manning is speaking of climate change and population growth. Climate change is already altering the temperature of the water, changing streamflows, increasing damage from flooding, and undermining forest ecosystems with droughts and fires. Increasing numbers of people are taking up more land, increasing stormwater flows, producing more wastes and using more chemicals.
“We can’t put down a couple million people and not think it will have an impact on the ecosystem,” Jay said, “and climate is probably an even bigger problem.”
After months of discussion, years in some cases, a new set of indicators (PDF 131 kb) has been adopted by the Leadership Council to provide better measures of ecosystem health, as well as progress. New targets are under discussion to provide a path forward for the next 10 years and beyond.

Human health and well-being

From the inception of the Puget Sound Partnership in 2007, the Legislature recognized that humans are part of the ecosystem and that human health and well-being should be measured along with other indicators of Puget Sound health.

Children of staffers for Puget Sound Partnership explore the beach at Dash Point State Park near Tacoma during a low tide. // Photo: Chase Nuuhiwa

Effects on health from Puget Sound range from the air that people breathe to the fish and shellfish that people eat, all directly affected by the quality of the environment.
State and local health authorities struggle to protect shellfish beds from pollution as some areas are closed permanently, others are closed temporarily and some, thanks to diligent efforts, are reopened to the benefit of recreational, commercial and tribal harvesters.
“Between 2007 and 2020, more acres of shellfish beds were upgraded than downgraded across all classifications,” according to the new report. “The result was a net increase of 6,659 acres of harvestable shellfish beds, a sizable fraction of the 2020 target of 10,800 acres.” (See Our Water Ways.)
Because of unacceptable levels of toxic chemicals in fish, official health advisories call for people to limit their diets of fish known to be contaminated. For communities involved in traditions dependent on fish and shellfish, such as Indian tribes, these environmental conditions have inequitable impacts on their members. This issue of environmental justice is gaining increasing attention among state agencies.
Surveys by the Puget Sound Partnership have shown that many people rely on the natural environment for their personal ways of life and feelings of well-being. For many, access to Puget Sound forests, streams and beaches are important to their personal and family lives. (Check out Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.)
“Residents with a strong sense of place are more likely to engage in stewardship behaviors,” the report says. “Over one-third of the Puget Sound population engages in stewardship behaviors that benefit the environment at least once a week.”
While the state’s relative dependence on natural resources — such as timber, fish and shellfish — has declined over time, the growth in tourism and recreation has increased steadily every year since 2010, according to the report.
While the indicators of human well-being show no improvement or mixed results, the so-called Sound Behavior Index — a measure of 28 ways that people are helping or hurting Puget Sound — has been increasing, “meaning that individuals have engaged in more environmentally friendly practices over time,” the report says.
“In 2019, SBI values for one-third of the 12 Puget Sound counties reached their highest values since surveying began (Kitsap, Mason, Pierce and Snohomish counties),” the report says. “On the other hand, two counties reported their lowest SBI values (Eastern Jefferson and San Juan counties)… Meaningful, directional change in behavior is best detected over the long-term.”

Comparison to the pandemic

In its comments (PDF 168 kb), the Science Panel says the global pandemic has provided lessons that can help researchers, decision-makers and all people in the Puget Sound region to better shape the approach to recovery. First, in response to the coronavirus, research and technology has led to vaccines and innovations to defeat the virus, just as science provides an understanding of the problems in Puget Sound and points toward reasonable answers.
“This last year, we marveled at the rigorous science that allowed for the identification of 6PPD, a chemical used in tire manufacturing, that was rapidly lethal to coho salmon once it entered the waters in which they live,” the panel stated. (See Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.) Now, the challenge is to find safer chemicals to protect tires from degradation.
In the same way that behavioral changes were needed to defeat the pandemic, people can change their ways to restore the ecosystem and build resilience to address climate change, the Science Panel says.
“It is encouraging that over 75 percent of Puget Sound residents ‘agree’ or ‘strongly agree’ that Puget Sound plays a role in their identity, pride and attachment,” the panel said, citing a study of attitudes in the Puget Sound region.
The pandemic has also revealed inequities in health care and the unequal distribution of vaccines needed to protect against the virus, just as some groups bear a greater burden in a declining ecosystem and make greater sacrifices in the tradeoffs for restoration. Leaders in the Puget Sound region should make sure that the sacrifices are not shifted to those groups already over-burdened and under-represented in society, the Science Panel says.
“Our current state is shaped by past events, and how we move forward will be shaped by unanticipated future events,” the panel states. “But we are always moving forward. Puget Sound recovery does not mean returning to a Sound that existed in 1950, in 1850, or 10,000 years ago.
“With our presence, actions and decisions, we have fundamentally changed the ecology of Puget Sound, and we need to move forward towards a healthy and sustainable ecosystem from where we find ourselves now, guided by history but not attempting to recreate the past… Though we will need to make tradeoffs, we need not think of recovery as jettisoning the things we most value regarding our quality of life.”

Ongoing support

A concluding chapter of the State of the Sound report offers hope, because of the increased attention on Puget Sound from the federal government, the Legislature, other “partners” and the people themselves.
“The leadership of the Washington congressional delegation makes us hopeful, as does the dedication of our federal partners, and we are grateful to both our delegation and our federal partners for their commitment to Puget Sound recovery,” the report says.
“Funding for the Puget Sound Geographic Program and the National Estuary Program totaled $28.5 million in 2019, increasing to $33.75 million in 2020. Over the last eight years, the Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund has invested $124 million statewide, including over $14 million in the last two years for projects and administration in Puget Sound.”
This year, the Washington Legislature had a “banner session,” according to the report, with transportation laws to reduce carbon emissions and other laws to support greenhouse gas reductions and adaptations to changing conditions. Other bills focused on environmental justice, shoreline restoration and endangered species.
The Legislature nearly doubled spending for Puget Sound recovery in the 2021-23 budget, the report says, with significant increases for the removal and replacement of fish barriers, such as culverts. Overall, about $1.3 billion will be spent over the next two years for some aspect of Puget Sound recovery.
The next Puget Sound Action Agenda, the blueprint for recovery, is expected to focus on higher-level strategies, actions and policies and, for the first time, “explicitly address human well-being and responses to climate change.” The next Action Agenda is scheduled for release in June.
Finally, the State of the Sound report outlines a call to action from the Puget Sound Leadership Council to each of these entities: the Legislature, state agencies, local governments, Congress, federal agencies, non-governmental organizations, Puget Sound Partnership, business, the public and the tribes.
The Leadership Council lists five “bold actions” that should be taken now:

  1. Work with the Governor’s Office to make Puget Sound and salmon recovery the cornerstone of Governor Inslee’s third term;
  2. Establish a new funding source and increase funding for habitat restoration, road retrofits that reduce polluted runoff, and wastewater treatment systems;
  3. Revise the state’s Growth Management Act and Shoreline Management Act with a “Net Ecological Gain” standard;
  4. Broaden the coalition demanding a healthy Puget Sound; and
  5. Implement systems of accountability to ensure our investments in Puget Sound recovery deliver the results we need.

“Each of us can, and must, do more to accelerate recovery, and we are committed to our partnership with you,” the report concludes. “We must redouble our efforts to combat climate change and the effects of a growing population that threaten ecosystems and disproportionately affect vulnerable communities. Together, as we look to the future, let us be bold in our intent and actions to build a healthy, resilient, and economically prosperous Puget Sound for all.”

Discovery of tire-related chemical that kills coho salmon sparks widespread response

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.
[iframe align=”right” width=”560″ height=”315″ src=”https://www.youtube.com/embed/IwVQV8MzlY0″%5D

U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources, Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, holds a hearing on the toxic chemical associated with tires, July 15, 2021

Tire manufacturers acknowledge that they had no idea that 6PPD-quinone even existed, although the chemical’s parent compound, 6PPD, has been touted as essential to tire safety and used in nearly every tire on the market. Without 6PPD, tires are readily attacked by ozone, and the resultant cracking increases the danger of tire failure, manufactures say.
This ozone attack is what adds oxygen to 6PPD in tires to produce the more toxic compound 6PPD-quinone, according to researchers at the Center for Urban Waters, affiliated with University of Washington-Tacoma. The findings were published in the journal Science in January.
I described the 20-year search for this deadly chemical and the final sprint to the finish in a story for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound. (The Center for Urban Waters is the parent organization of Puget Sound Institute.)
Now, the search for a replacement chemical has become a high priority, involving state and federal governments, research institutions and tire companies. At the same time, other efforts are focused on methods that might be able to remove the chemical from stormwater that washes off roadways, carrying the toxic chemical into nearby streams.
Washington state
In both Washington and California, state agencies responsible for protecting the environment from damage caused by toxic chemicals are beginning to spearhead investigations into the problems with 6PPD-quinone and looking at potential solutions.
Earlier this year, the Washington Legislature appropriated $718,000 to the Washington Department of Ecology to fund studies and analyses of the 6PPD-quinone problem. Of that, $195,000 will be used “solely for the department to carry out an assessment of potential hazards of 6PPD and other chemicals or chemical classes and breakdown products used as anti-oxidants and/or anti-ozonants in tires…” A report is due to the Legislature by Dec. 1.
Ken Zarker, manager of Ecology’s Pollution Prevention Section, said the assessment will include a first look at nine “chemicals of interest” that may or may not become safer additives for tire manufacturers to use in new tires. The nine chemicals will be assessed for their toxicity by putting them through the established “GreenScreen” program, which rates a chemical’s hazards to human health and the environment.
Washington State Capitol, Olympia

“That will give us a snapshot of the toxicity of the chemicals,” Ken told me, adding that full alternative assessments could come later.
At this time, 6PPD-quinone in automobile tires is not eligible for review under the Safer Products for Washington program, because automobiles are exempt under the law, Zarker said. The Safer Products program is busy with a host of other chemical assessments, as I described in “Our Water Ways” on June 10.
The remaining $523,000 appropriated by the Legislature is to be used by Ecology to work on roadway infrastructure and “best management practices” to study ways to reduce and treat toxic runoff. That work will involve a partnership with frontline researchers from UW Tacoma’s Center for Urban Waters and Washington State University’s Puyallup Research and Extension Center, along with the Washington Department of Transportation. One goal is to develop a standard laboratory method for measuring 6PPD-quinone and related chemicals in various media, such as soil, water and sediments. That report is due to the Legislature by Nov. 1, 2022.
“Now we can begin testing and treatment for it,” said Brandi Lubliner, coordinator of Ecology’s Stormwater Action Monitoring program. “A suitable alternative is the primary long-term goal.”
Future projects could involve assessing where 6PPD-quinone can be found on the landscape, what other sources may exist, and how the chemical moves through the environment under various conditions, Lubliner said. Other questions include how strongly 6PPD-quinone and possible substitutes bind with soils and how well street sweeping can remove these chemicals from roads.
A 6PPD Subgroup has been established within Ecology’s ongoing Stormwater Workgroup, which is focused on the problems of stormwater pollution.
Many environmental organizations in the Northwest are joining the effort to find solutions to the 6PPD-quinone problem, according to Mindy Roberts, Puget Sound Program director for Washington Environmental Council. Because the discovery of 6PPD-quinone was announced just before the start of the last legislative session, supporters for additional research had to work quickly to obtain special funding in the last session, she said.
Even before the discovery of 6PPD-quinone, a wide variety of experts and interest groups were involved with the Washington Department of Transportation in proposing stormwater projects that could reduce pollution coming from highways. Now, officials are preparing to shift those priorities, as needed, in light of the new findings about 6PPD-quinone.
Studies in biochemistry
The ongoing research is a mixture of lab studies and field studies to figure out how these tire-related chemicals and similar compounds are changed in the environment and affect living organisms, said Ed Kolodziej, who is leading the studies at the Center for Urban Waters.
[iframe align=”right” width=”560″ height=”315″ src=”https://www.youtube.com/embed/vxmojuC_dJE”%5D
“Most of the work is focused on 6PPD,” he said. “We need to understand the chemistry much better.”
Jen McIntyre, based at the WSU’s Puyallup research center, continues to be largely focused on the biological effects of 6PPD-quinone. She and other researchers suspect that the chemical is causing injury to coho via the circulatory system, based on studies involving toxic stormwater.
“What we know so far about the mechanism of toxicity is that this chemical disrupts the blood-brain barrier,” McIntyre told a congressional panel in July. “We injected a tracer dye into the heart of fish and allowed it to circulate through the blood vessels and then rinsed it out with clean saline water.
“In the control fish in clean water, none of the dye was left behind. But in runoff fish (exposed to the toxic chemical), the dye was found in various organs after the rinse-out and could be seen leaking from the gills during circulation,” she told a subcommittee of the House Committee on Natural Resources.
Jen said the tracer dye was able to get into the brain of fish exposed to the toxic chemical, something that should never happen under normal conditions. “That’s what the blood-brain barrier is for,” she noted during her testimony, which begins at 22:30 in the top video on this page.
The findings about leakage across the blood-brain barrier are outlined in a scientific paper published by McIntyre and her colleagues in February in the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences. (Lead author: Stephanie Blair.)
One of the intriguing, yet unanswered questions, remains why coho are affected to such a severe degree, while chum salmon get by seemingly unscathed in the same waters.
A major question for McIntyre and researchers across the globe is whether 6PPD-quinone causes one or more toxic effects that are more difficult to observe than sudden death. That question of sublethal toxicity stands front and center, not only for salmon but for other fish and a multitude of aquatic organisms.
The uncertainty about toxicity in humans is another great concern, given the potential for exposure from playfields that use recycled tires as a base.
In previous studies, researchers were able to remove what were then unknown toxic compounds by filtering toxic road runoff through ordinary organic compost. While it would be extremely costly to filter all stormwater from roads and freeways, filtration offers at least one alternative for solving the toxic problem. Such a solution might prove useful in selective locations, considering that a replacement chemical could be years away.
California efforts
Meanwhile in California, the state’s Department of Toxic Substances Control has designated tires as a “priority product” under its Safer Consumer Products program. The decision to review 6PPD came with the full support of the U.S. Tire Manufacturers Association, as described in a letter to DTSC (PDF 69 kb).
[iframe align=”right” width=”560″ height=”315″ src=”https://www.youtube.com/embed/OZwXNWYCoy4″%5D
The rationale for reviewing tire chemicals is outlined in a June “discussion draft” of a “Product-Chemical Profile for Motor Vehicle Tires Containing (6PPD).” The 88-page document (PDF 2.8 mb) covers the chemical properties, potential exposure routes, potential for harm, regulatory background, potential alternatives and other state-of-the-science issues. Public comments on the draft are being accepted until Sept. 17.
California’s three-year work plan for priority products covers a number of products besides tires. The analysis of each product involves screening, public engagement, product-chemical profile and rulemaking. The result can be a requirement that manufacturers conduct an alternatives analysis before the agency decides whether other chemicals, methods or actions should be required to better protect human health and the environment.
At the end of July, the Department of Toxic Substances Control held an online workshop covering various aspects of the problem involving toxic chemicals involving tires. That presentation is shown in the third video on this page with supporting information on the DTSC website.
Tire manufacturers
The U.S. Tire Manufacturers Association has emphasized that member companies are greatly concerned about their impact on the environment, but the association has also raised many questions about the newly discovered transformation product, 6PPD-quinone — which, they stress, is a chemical that was never actually put into tires.
Sarah Amick, senior counsel for the USTMA, has said 6PPD-quinone may not be long-lived in the environment, based on a report that researchers were unable to measure the compound directly in stormwater runoff.
To identify gaps in knowledge and to develop a plan to fill those gaps, the global tire industry formed a task force that includes the USTMA, the European Tyre and Rubber Manufacturers Association, and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development’s Tire Industry Project, Amick said in written testimony (PDF 685 kb) for a subcommittee of the House Committee on Natural Resources.
The Tire Industry Project, which has long been focused on the environmental effects of tires, is conducting its own studies into 6PPD-quinone, Amick said. Scientists involved in the research are expected to publish peer-reviewed studies on the subject sometime next year.
The USTMA is not only supporting California’s in-depth review of 6PPD-quinone, she said, the association suggested that the Department of Toxic Substances Control take up the matter, as described in a letter last December (PDF 69 kb), Amick said.
In her congressional testimony, Amick explained why the industry wanted California to conduct the review: “A review of 6PPD in tires under the Safer Consumer Products Regulations provides a rigorous, transparent, scientific, regulatory framework to analyze whether alternatives exist that will enable tire manufacturers to meet Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards as established by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.” See also the USTMA factsheet on 6PPD.
In an online workshop put on by the California agency at the end of July (third video), Howard Colvin, an independent technical consultant to the tire manufacturers, emphasized the importance of an array of chemicals used to make tires. He explained that tires are carefully formulated to produce a particular performance — depending on the use of the tire. Today’s formulations also ensure vehicle safety by preventing the breakdown of the rubber through oxidation and ozonation, he said.
“The antioxidants help to keep the tire from breaking down due to temperature and oxygen effects,” Colvin said. “The antiozonants are used to impede the exposure to ozone, which is in our atmosphere and on the surface of the tire.”
The compound 6PPD prevents the breakdown of rubber from both oxygen and ozone under dynamic conditions when the tire is rolling at high speed on the highway, as well as under static conditions when the vehicle is standing still.
“Without the use of this material and materials like this,” he said, “the tire will crack and degrade very rapidly, potentially leading to a catastrophic failure.”
A compound used as an anti-ozonant must be able to diffuse through the rubber and come to the surface of the tire, where it reacts with ozone, he noted. It must diffuse and react fast enough to protect the rubber from ozone but not so fast that it is used up before the tire comes to the end of its useful life. Also, the chemical must be one that that will not cause problems during the manufacturing process, as the rubber is formed into a tire.
Congress
U.S. Reps. Marilyn Strickland, D-Tacoma, and Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, have been seeking federal funding in support of studies dealing with the toxic-tires problem.
Strickland was able to gain support in the House for a $1-million appropriation for research on the tire chemicals within the Interior and Environment “minibus” appropriations bill. It’s called “minibus,” as opposed to “omnibus,” because the overall appropriations legislation rolls together several smaller bills.
As Congress works through these spending packages and possible budget reconciliation, Strickland and Kilmer are calling on top congressional leaders to support $1.5 million for research into 6PPD-quinone within the reconciliation package. A letter — also signed by Reps. Suzan DelBene (D-Medina), Pramila Jayapal (D-Seattle), and Adam Smith (D-Bellevue) — expresses urgency about the need to get answers through research.
“Biologists have observed coho salmon dying from mysterious symptoms in Pacific Northwest urban streams for decades,” the letter (PDF 146 kb) states. “However, it is only in the past year that a team of scientists from the University of Washington’s Center for Urban Waters and Washington State University’s Washington Stormwater Center discovered the cause: a toxic chemical called 6PPD-quinone, created when a commonly used antiozonant in tires interacts with ozone. This chemical runs into local streams when it rains, entering the bloodstream of coho salmon and killing them…
“Including dedicated funding to accelerate research into this toxic chemical in the reconciliation package is an essential part of our coordinated strategy to recover salmon, uphold our treaty and trust obligations to tribal nations, and ensure that our children can enjoy the same extraordinary ecology and biodiversity that makes the Pacific Northwest unique,” the letter concludes.
The breakdown in proposed spending:

  • $900,000 “to sharpen laboratory-based surveillance methods to conduct further research on the occurrence and impacts of novel consumer product chemicals in U.S. coastal waters.”
  • $250,000 to study the impacts of tire chemicals on aquatic species. “Although the tire chemical break-down product 6PPD-quinone has been found to be toxic to coho salmon, we don’t know if this or related chemicals are toxic to other organisms.”
  • $250,000 to develop and refine stormwater treatment technologies for the removal of 6PPD and 6PPD-quinone from stormwater.
  • $125,000 to empower communities, and in particular historically underrepresented communities, with accessible Puget Sound simulation modeling tools.

Comments provided in a related news release:
Rep. Marilyn Strickland: “Salmon are an integral part of our history, culture, economy, and way of life in the Pacific Northwest, especially for our Tribal nations. Our salmon are dying now, and we cannot afford to wait another two decades for the next research breakthrough. We must robustly fund research into 6PPD-quinone today, which is why Rep. Kilmer and I are urging Congress to take action now to save our salmon before it’s too late.”
Rep. Derek Kilmer: “We know that toxic stormwater runoff is one of the biggest threats facing Puget Sound salmon recovery. That’s why Rep. Strickland and I are working to secure federal support for critical research that will help scientists and researchers understand the link between tire debris and the health of our Sound — as well as the species that depend on it. I am grateful for Rep. Strickland’s leadership and partnership as we work to advance this urgent priority.”
Joel Baker, professor and science director at University of Washington Tacoma’s Center for Urban Waters: “There is still so much we don’t know about 6PPD-quinone, the impact of this toxic chemical on Washington’s coho salmon, and how other species are impacted in other geographies. Science must lead the way. We thank Congresswoman Strickland for her advocacy and bringing this issue to Congress.”
John Stark, director of Washington State University’s Washington Stormwater Center: “The funding proposed in this letter would dramatically accelerate research of 6PPD-quinone and its impact on Washington wildlife and waters. We are grateful to Congresswoman Strickland for listening to the science, taking action, and fighting to put this issue on the national radar in Congress. We look forward to working with her on this important research.”
The budget process is more confusing than ever this year, but Strickland promises to keep pushing for research to get answers about 6PPD-quinone. As Katrina Martell, her press secretary, wrote in an email: “As Congress negotiates spending packages and reconciliation, Rep. Strickland will continue to pursue every opportunity to direct funding to research the toxic chemical endangering coho salmon.”

Discovery of tire-related chemical that kills coho salmon sparks widespread response

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.
[iframe align=”right” width=”560″ height=”315″ src=”https://www.youtube.com/embed/IwVQV8MzlY0″%5D

U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources, Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, holds a hearing on the toxic chemical associated with tires, July 15, 2021

Tire manufacturers acknowledge that they had no idea that 6PPD-quinone even existed, although the chemical’s parent compound, 6PPD, has been touted as essential to tire safety and used in nearly every tire on the market. Without 6PPD, tires are readily attacked by ozone, and the resultant cracking increases the danger of tire failure, manufactures say.
This ozone attack is what adds oxygen to 6PPD in tires to produce the more toxic compound 6PPD-quinone, according to researchers at the Center for Urban Waters, affiliated with University of Washington-Tacoma. The findings were published in the journal Science in January.
I described the 20-year search for this deadly chemical and the final sprint to the finish in a story for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound. (The Center for Urban Waters is the parent organization of Puget Sound Institute.)
Now, the search for a replacement chemical has become a high priority, involving state and federal governments, research institutions and tire companies. At the same time, other efforts are focused on methods that might be able to remove the chemical from stormwater that washes off roadways, carrying the toxic chemical into nearby streams.
Washington state
In both Washington and California, state agencies responsible for protecting the environment from damage caused by toxic chemicals are beginning to spearhead investigations into the problems with 6PPD-quinone and looking at potential solutions.
Earlier this year, the Washington Legislature appropriated $718,000 to the Washington Department of Ecology to fund studies and analyses of the 6PPD-quinone problem. Of that, $195,000 will be used “solely for the department to carry out an assessment of potential hazards of 6PPD and other chemicals or chemical classes and breakdown products used as anti-oxidants and/or anti-ozonants in tires…” A report is due to the Legislature by Dec. 1.
Ken Zarker, manager of Ecology’s Pollution Prevention Section, said the assessment will include a first look at nine “chemicals of interest” that may or may not become safer additives for tire manufacturers to use in new tires. The nine chemicals will be assessed for their toxicity by putting them through the established “GreenScreen” program, which rates a chemical’s hazards to human health and the environment.
Washington State Capitol, Olympia

“That will give us a snapshot of the toxicity of the chemicals,” Ken told me, adding that full alternative assessments could come later.
At this time, 6PPD-quinone in automobile tires is not eligible for review under the Safer Products for Washington program, because automobiles are exempt under the law, Zarker said. The Safer Products program is busy with a host of other chemical assessments, as I described in “Our Water Ways” on June 10.
The remaining $523,000 appropriated by the Legislature is to be used by Ecology to work on roadway infrastructure and “best management practices” to study ways to reduce and treat toxic runoff. That work will involve a partnership with frontline researchers from UW Tacoma’s Center for Urban Waters and Washington State University’s Puyallup Research and Extension Center, along with the Washington Department of Transportation. One goal is to develop a standard laboratory method for measuring 6PPD-quinone and related chemicals in various media, such as soil, water and sediments. That report is due to the Legislature by Nov. 1, 2022.
“Now we can begin testing and treatment for it,” said Brandi Lubliner, coordinator of Ecology’s Stormwater Action Monitoring program. “A suitable alternative is the primary long-term goal.”
Future projects could involve assessing where 6PPD-quinone can be found on the landscape, what other sources may exist, and how the chemical moves through the environment under various conditions, Lubliner said. Other questions include how strongly 6PPD-quinone and possible substitutes bind with soils and how well street sweeping can remove these chemicals from roads.
A 6PPD Subgroup has been established within Ecology’s ongoing Stormwater Workgroup, which is focused on the problems of stormwater pollution.
Many environmental organizations in the Northwest are joining the effort to find solutions to the 6PPD-quinone problem, according to Mindy Roberts, Puget Sound Program director for Washington Environmental Council. Because the discovery of 6PPD-quinone was announced just before the start of the last legislative session, supporters for additional research had to work quickly to obtain special funding in the last session, she said.
Even before the discovery of 6PPD-quinone, a wide variety of experts and interest groups were involved with the Washington Department of Transportation in proposing stormwater projects that could reduce pollution coming from highways. Now, officials are preparing to shift those priorities, as needed, in light of the new findings about 6PPD-quinone.
Studies in biochemistry
The ongoing research is a mixture of lab studies and field studies to figure out how these tire-related chemicals and similar compounds are changed in the environment and affect living organisms, said Ed Kolodziej, who is leading the studies at the Center for Urban Waters.
[iframe align=”right” width=”560″ height=”315″ src=”https://www.youtube.com/embed/vxmojuC_dJE”%5D
“Most of the work is focused on 6PPD,” he said. “We need to understand the chemistry much better.”
Jen McIntyre, based at the WSU’s Puyallup research center, continues to be largely focused on the biological effects of 6PPD-quinone. She and other researchers suspect that the chemical is causing injury to coho via the circulatory system, based on studies involving toxic stormwater.
“What we know so far about the mechanism of toxicity is that this chemical disrupts the blood-brain barrier,” McIntyre told a congressional panel in July. “We injected a tracer dye into the heart of fish and allowed it to circulate through the blood vessels and then rinsed it out with clean saline water.
“In the control fish in clean water, none of the dye was left behind. But in runoff fish (exposed to the toxic chemical), the dye was found in various organs after the rinse-out and could be seen leaking from the gills during circulation,” she told a subcommittee of the House Committee on Natural Resources.
Jen said the tracer dye was able to get into the brain of fish exposed to the toxic chemical, something that should never happen under normal conditions. “That’s what the blood-brain barrier is for,” she noted during her testimony, which begins at 22:30 in the top video on this page.
The findings about leakage across the blood-brain barrier are outlined in a scientific paper published by McIntyre and her colleagues in February in the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences. (Lead author: Stephanie Blair.)
One of the intriguing, yet unanswered questions, remains why coho are affected to such a severe degree, while chum salmon get by seemingly unscathed in the same waters.
A major question for McIntyre and researchers across the globe is whether 6PPD-quinone causes one or more toxic effects that are more difficult to observe than sudden death. That question of sublethal toxicity stands front and center, not only for salmon but for other fish and a multitude of aquatic organisms.
The uncertainty about toxicity in humans is another great concern, given the potential for exposure from playfields that use recycled tires as a base.
In previous studies, researchers were able to remove what were then unknown toxic compounds by filtering toxic road runoff through ordinary organic compost. While it would be extremely costly to filter all stormwater from roads and freeways, filtration offers at least one alternative for solving the toxic problem. Such a solution might prove useful in selective locations, considering that a replacement chemical could be years away.
California efforts
Meanwhile in California, the state’s Department of Toxic Substances Control has designated tires as a “priority product” under its Safer Consumer Products program. The decision to review 6PPD came with the full support of the U.S. Tire Manufacturers Association, as described in a letter to DTSC (PDF 69 kb).
[iframe align=”right” width=”560″ height=”315″ src=”https://www.youtube.com/embed/OZwXNWYCoy4″%5D
The rationale for reviewing tire chemicals is outlined in a June “discussion draft” of a “Product-Chemical Profile for Motor Vehicle Tires Containing (6PPD).” The 88-page document (PDF 2.8 mb) covers the chemical properties, potential exposure routes, potential for harm, regulatory background, potential alternatives and other state-of-the-science issues. Public comments on the draft are being accepted until Sept. 17.
California’s three-year work plan for priority products covers a number of products besides tires. The analysis of each product involves screening, public engagement, product-chemical profile and rulemaking. The result can be a requirement that manufacturers conduct an alternatives analysis before the agency decides whether other chemicals, methods or actions should be required to better protect human health and the environment.
At the end of July, the Department of Toxic Substances Control held an online workshop covering various aspects of the problem involving toxic chemicals involving tires. That presentation is shown in the third video on this page with supporting information on the DTSC website.
Tire manufacturers
The U.S. Tire Manufacturers Association has emphasized that member companies are greatly concerned about their impact on the environment, but the association has also raised many questions about the newly discovered transformation product, 6PPD-quinone — which, they stress, is a chemical that was never actually put into tires.
Sarah Amick, senior counsel for the USTMA, has said 6PPD-quinone may not be long-lived in the environment, based on a report that researchers were unable to measure the compound directly in stormwater runoff.
To identify gaps in knowledge and to develop a plan to fill those gaps, the global tire industry formed a task force that includes the USTMA, the European Tyre and Rubber Manufacturers Association, and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development’s Tire Industry Project, Amick said in written testimony (PDF 685 kb) for a subcommittee of the House Committee on Natural Resources.
The Tire Industry Project, which has long been focused on the environmental effects of tires, is conducting its own studies into 6PPD-quinone, Amick said. Scientists involved in the research are expected to publish peer-reviewed studies on the subject sometime next year.
The USTMA is not only supporting California’s in-depth review of 6PPD-quinone, she said, the association suggested that the Department of Toxic Substances Control take up the matter, as described in a letter last December (PDF 69 kb), Amick said.
In her congressional testimony, Amick explained why the industry wanted California to conduct the review: “A review of 6PPD in tires under the Safer Consumer Products Regulations provides a rigorous, transparent, scientific, regulatory framework to analyze whether alternatives exist that will enable tire manufacturers to meet Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards as established by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.” See also the USTMA factsheet on 6PPD.
In an online workshop put on by the California agency at the end of July (third video), Howard Colvin, an independent technical consultant to the tire manufacturers, emphasized the importance of an array of chemicals used to make tires. He explained that tires are carefully formulated to produce a particular performance — depending on the use of the tire. Today’s formulations also ensure vehicle safety by preventing the breakdown of the rubber through oxidation and ozonation, he said.
“The antioxidants help to keep the tire from breaking down due to temperature and oxygen effects,” Colvin said. “The antiozonants are used to impede the exposure to ozone, which is in our atmosphere and on the surface of the tire.”
The compound 6PPD prevents the breakdown of rubber from both oxygen and ozone under dynamic conditions when the tire is rolling at high speed on the highway, as well as under static conditions when the vehicle is standing still.
“Without the use of this material and materials like this,” he said, “the tire will crack and degrade very rapidly, potentially leading to a catastrophic failure.”
A compound used as an anti-ozonant must be able to diffuse through the rubber and come to the surface of the tire, where it reacts with ozone, he noted. It must diffuse and react fast enough to protect the rubber from ozone but not so fast that it is used up before the tire comes to the end of its useful life. Also, the chemical must be one that that will not cause problems during the manufacturing process, as the rubber is formed into a tire.
Congress
U.S. Reps. Marilyn Strickland, D-Tacoma, and Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, have been seeking federal funding in support of studies dealing with the toxic-tires problem.
Strickland was able to gain support in the House for a $1-million appropriation for research on the tire chemicals within the Interior and Environment “minibus” appropriations bill. It’s called “minibus,” as opposed to “omnibus,” because the overall appropriations legislation rolls together several smaller bills.
As Congress works through these spending packages and possible budget reconciliation, Strickland and Kilmer are calling on top congressional leaders to support $1.5 million for research into 6PPD-quinone within the reconciliation package. A letter — also signed by Reps. Suzan DelBene (D-Medina), Pramila Jayapal (D-Seattle), and Adam Smith (D-Bellevue) — expresses urgency about the need to get answers through research.
“Biologists have observed coho salmon dying from mysterious symptoms in Pacific Northwest urban streams for decades,” the letter (PDF 146 kb) states. “However, it is only in the past year that a team of scientists from the University of Washington’s Center for Urban Waters and Washington State University’s Washington Stormwater Center discovered the cause: a toxic chemical called 6PPD-quinone, created when a commonly used antiozonant in tires interacts with ozone. This chemical runs into local streams when it rains, entering the bloodstream of coho salmon and killing them…
“Including dedicated funding to accelerate research into this toxic chemical in the reconciliation package is an essential part of our coordinated strategy to recover salmon, uphold our treaty and trust obligations to tribal nations, and ensure that our children can enjoy the same extraordinary ecology and biodiversity that makes the Pacific Northwest unique,” the letter concludes.
The breakdown in proposed spending:

  • $900,000 “to sharpen laboratory-based surveillance methods to conduct further research on the occurrence and impacts of novel consumer product chemicals in U.S. coastal waters.”
  • $250,000 to study the impacts of tire chemicals on aquatic species. “Although the tire chemical break-down product 6PPD-quinone has been found to be toxic to coho salmon, we don’t know if this or related chemicals are toxic to other organisms.”
  • $250,000 to develop and refine stormwater treatment technologies for the removal of 6PPD and 6PPD-quinone from stormwater.
  • $125,000 to empower communities, and in particular historically underrepresented communities, with accessible Puget Sound simulation modeling tools.

Comments provided in a related news release:
Rep. Marilyn Strickland: “Salmon are an integral part of our history, culture, economy, and way of life in the Pacific Northwest, especially for our Tribal nations. Our salmon are dying now, and we cannot afford to wait another two decades for the next research breakthrough. We must robustly fund research into 6PPD-quinone today, which is why Rep. Kilmer and I are urging Congress to take action now to save our salmon before it’s too late.”
Rep. Derek Kilmer: “We know that toxic stormwater runoff is one of the biggest threats facing Puget Sound salmon recovery. That’s why Rep. Strickland and I are working to secure federal support for critical research that will help scientists and researchers understand the link between tire debris and the health of our Sound — as well as the species that depend on it. I am grateful for Rep. Strickland’s leadership and partnership as we work to advance this urgent priority.”
Joel Baker, professor and science director at University of Washington Tacoma’s Center for Urban Waters: “There is still so much we don’t know about 6PPD-quinone, the impact of this toxic chemical on Washington’s coho salmon, and how other species are impacted in other geographies. Science must lead the way. We thank Congresswoman Strickland for her advocacy and bringing this issue to Congress.”
John Stark, director of Washington State University’s Washington Stormwater Center: “The funding proposed in this letter would dramatically accelerate research of 6PPD-quinone and its impact on Washington wildlife and waters. We are grateful to Congresswoman Strickland for listening to the science, taking action, and fighting to put this issue on the national radar in Congress. We look forward to working with her on this important research.”
The budget process is more confusing than ever this year, but Strickland promises to keep pushing for research to get answers about 6PPD-quinone. As Katrina Martell, her press secretary, wrote in an email: “As Congress negotiates spending packages and reconciliation, Rep. Strickland will continue to pursue every opportunity to direct funding to research the toxic chemical endangering coho salmon.”

New NSF grant supports toxics research

Researchers at our affiliate organization the Center for Urban Waters have received a $797,107 National Science Foundation grant for the purchase of new equipment to identify toxic contaminants in Puget Sound. Ed Kolodziej is the project’s principal investigator. Co-principal investigators include David Beck, Allison Gardell, Jessica Ray, and Andy James.
The funds were awarded on July 8th and will cover the cost of a new Liquid Chromatograph-High Resolution Mass Spectrometer, an ultra-sensitive device that identifies molecules by their atomic weight. The spectrometer can measure the presence of chemical compounds at amounts in the parts per trillion and is a critical tool for finding what scientists refer to as contaminants of emerging concern. Those contaminants include compounds such as pharmaceuticals or industrial byproducts that enter Puget Sound through wastewater or stormwater. Some may occur in only trace amounts but have potentially significant effects on wildlife and humans.
The new spectrometer will replace an older model of the instrument that has been in use at the lab for the past seven years. That model contributed to several high-profile discoveries at the Center*, including last year’s identification, led by Kolodziej, of a previously unknown chemical from tire wear particles called 6-PPD-quinone. That compound has now been implicated in the deaths of large numbers of spawning coho salmon in Puget Sound and was the subject of congressional hearings earlier this month in Washington D.C.
The scientists anticipate that the new device will continue to support extensive collaborations with other groups working to unravel chemical mysteries in the region. Over the past several years, scientists at the lab have identified thousands of contaminants in Puget Sound waters ranging from opioids to birth control pills and flame retardants.
“This project will use advanced instrumentation to characterize contaminants in the environment and biological systems, enabling the design of appropriate mitigation strategies,” reads the grant’s project summary. The equipment will also “support undergraduate, graduate, and professional education and training in environmental and analytical chemistry, environmental engineering, environmental health, and data science.”
More details about the grant are available at the National Science Foundation website.
*The Center for Urban Waters is the Puget Sound Institute’s parent group and is housed at the University of Washington Tacoma.
Project summary (published as part of the NSF award)
Pollution discharged by industrial processes impacts human health and the health of ecosystems, and mitigating their effects requires considerable cost in time, effort, and dollars. This project will use advanced instrumentation to characterize contaminants in the environment and biological systems, enabling the design of appropriate mitigation strategies. It will support undergraduate, graduate, and professional education and training in environmental and analytical chemistry, environmental engineering, environmental health, and data science; and (3) foster new collaboration and community engagement opportunities, especially with the regional Native American communities, local and state government agencies, and industries impacting stormwater quality. UW-Tacoma is a primarily undergraduate institution, a non-PhD granting institution, an urban serving, a Carnegie community engaged, and an Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander Serving Institution. It has a student body comprised of many underrepresented minorities, veterans, and first-generation college students.
The system to be acquired is a Liquid Chromatograph-High Resolution Mass Spectrometer, specifically an Agilent 6546 UPLC-QTOF-HRMS instrument. The instrument will be used to understand and improve management of various forms of pollution, especially for stormwater and roadway systems, innovative treatment materials development, ecotoxicology and bioassay development, and water disinfection. For example, the instrument will be used to identify toxic transformation products from stormwater and quantify sources. Another use is to study the oxidation of persistent organic compounds in urban stormwater using ferrate-coated sand media and PFAS defluorination. Yet another study focuses on the fate of organic pollutants in the aquatic environment and their occurrence and impacts in the marine environment. With so many potential environmental pollutants, high throughput, analytical capacity, and reliability are critical limiting factors to research effectiveness. Because of the richness, depth and breadth of the data generated, screening techniques employing high resolution mass spectrometry have now become key methodologies for environmental chemistry and engineering studies.

Young orcas appear to develop friendships, not unlike primates — including humans

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, and report from Center for Whale Research.)
—–
Captured on video from drone (2019): A 4-year-old female orca named Kiki (J53) slowly circles and weaves through the water as a younger female, Tofino (J56), swims closely behind her and then alongside her before gliding up face-to-face.
Such intimate contact might be expected if the whales were close relatives, but that’s not the case — other than both orcas being members of J pod.
[iframe align=”right” width=”560″ height=”315″ src=”https://www.youtube.com/embed/ClzXdHvUWyQ”%5D
While social bonds among the Southern Resident killer whales appear to be complex, they are not random, according to researcher Michael Weiss of the Center for Whale Research, who used an unoccupied aircraft system (drone) to record more than 800 such encounters and then quantified his observations with statistical analysis.
Michael found that numerous whales — generally of the same sex and close to the same age — have formed enduring social bonds that could be described as friendships.
“These are strong social relationships,” he said. “I wouldn’t hesitate to describe them as friendships.”
His findings about orca relationships were reported June 16 in “Proceedings of the Royal Society — Biological Sciences.”
How these relationships affect the orcas’ hunt for food, energy conservation and ultimately survival may one day be determined through close observations, such as with drones. Aerial videos allow researchers to observe orca behaviors taking place underwater as well as on the surface — and with greater precision than using traditional boat-based platforms.
A few years ago, at least some of the Southern Resident orcas — now numbering 75 — would have been swimming through the San Juan Islands by this time of year. They would be hunting for spring Chinook salmon returning to the Fraser River and streams in Northern Puget Sound.
As of today — census day for the Southern Residents — the whales are still away, probably because the salmon runs are now dangerously low. For the latest news about their present locations, read on to the section “Orca census” below.
In the video mentioned above, an older male, 9-year-old Notch (J47) seems to be standing by and watching, a behavior that researchers sometimes describe as “babysitting.” The youngest whale in the video, Tofino, was less than a year old when the video was shot near San Juan Island, yet her mother is nowhere to be seen when the clip begins.
Suddenly, the missing mother, 24-year-old Tsuchi (J31), swims up powerfully from the depths and into the center of the video frame while carrying a fish in her mouth. Tofino wastes no time getting close to her mother. She sticks like glue to Tsuchi, who swims away rapidly while biting the fish in half and leaving some of the food for the trailing whales.
Social structure of orcas
From the earliest days of orca research, scientists have known that killer whales live in matriarchal societies, in which individual whales generally stay with their mothers for life. Family groups, led by elder females, may consist of several generations. These groups are called matrilines, with members tied together by blood and tradition.

Three types of interactions were measured in the study of J-pod orcas.
Image: Michael Weiss

J pod, the subject of Michael’s study, consists of multiple matrilines that often travel together and share a common vocal dialect. The goal of the study was to measure the social connections between members of different family groups, as well as those within the same group. Based on years of observation, the research team decided to focus attention on three types of interaction:

  • Association, in which groups of killer whales are seen together, providing the opportunity for interaction;
  • Physical contact, in which the whales come close, often with extensive touching that could result in tactile, possibly emotional, responses; and
  • Synchronous surfacing, in which the whales move together, surfacing and blowing at the same time, sometimes even moving left and right as one.

Over a period of 10 days on the water in 2019, a total of 10 hours of video footage was shot from a drone (DJI Phantom 4 Pro V2) at an altitude of 100 to 400 feet and positioned to the side or behind the whales to avoid disturbance. The drone, launched from a 21-foot research boat, was flown by licensed pilots under federal permits.
As expected, the most common associations were observed among family members. Less predictably, the researchers found that females and especially young whales seemed to play a central role within the groups, as observed by the physical contact of whales gathered together. In general, the older the whale, the less socially connected.
The relationships among individual whales became quite noteworthy. This was something discerned by observing the contacts of every animal, not by looking only to see which whales were grouped together.
Why males tend to be more distant from the observed groups is open to speculation, but one idea is that the larger males must spend more time foraging to meet their energy needs. On the other hand, young animals may find their energy needs met by nursing or by receiving fish from their elders, giving the youngsters more time to socialize.
Like other social mammals
The social interactions among members of J pod has led to comparisons with other social animals, including humans and other primates. For example, the whales were seen to become less social with age, a trait observed in observations of great apes. Humans and orcas are among the relatively few species that remain active and influential past their reproductive lives.
Researchers may eventually find that touch among the whales has evolved into psychological benefits, as it has in humans, although such benefits are not always easy to measure.
“It feels nice to interact with our friends,” Michael said, “and touch gets a lot of good brain chemicals going. Ultimately, social interactions are important to a sense of trust, in finding food and in survival itself.”
Beyond the social aspects of these findings, the study suggests that young and female orcas may be involved in more synchronous surfacing as well as direct contact with each other, raising the specter of disease transmission. As Michael Weiss showed in a previous study, the effects of disease could be devastating to the Southern Residents. See Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, March 10, 2020.
The drone research builds on years of study by the Center for Whale Research, led by Ken Balcomb, who told me that he has observed these kinds of social interactions while watching the whales through the years. The beauty of Michael’s study, he said, was the creation of a statistically relevant set of observations that can be tested over time.
Darren Croft, a co-author of the study, credited CWR for its 45 years of work with the orcas. Darren is affiliated with the Centre for Research in Animal Behaviour at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom, where Michael earned his doctorate degree last year.
“This study would not have been possible without the amazing work done by CWR,” Croft said in a news release. “By adding drones to our toolkit, we have been able to dive into the social lives of these animals as never before.
“In many species, including humans, physical contact tends to be a soothing, stress-relieving activity that reinforces social connection,” he continued. “We also examined occasions when whales surfaced together — as acting in unison is a sign of social ties in many species. We found fascinating parallels between the behavior of whales and other mammals, and we are excited about the next stages of this research.”
Other questions to study
Although 10 hours of video accumulated from short segments seems like a lot, it is not enough to draw conclusions about more subtle social behavior, such as the sharing of food and cooperation in chasing down fish, Michael said. These critical behaviors may be based on social relationships, but they are rarely seen.
On the other hand, aggressive behaviors, including rare incidents of biting, may also be important clues to the social relationships among whales, he said. Many more hours of drone video may be needed to further the understanding of all sorts of social interactions, he added.
Previous reports have discussed the importance of collective knowledge among the whales, including the memory of where to find food when the salmon runs are small. Social bonds, as shown in these studies, could play a role in how older whales teach the younger ones to survive. See Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, April 2, 2019.
Some of the most interesting findings are related to the individual relationships between unrelated orcas, as seen in the drone footage.
“There’s J49 and J51,” Michael said, referring to a 9-year-old male named T’ilem I’nges (pronounced Teelem Eenges) and a 6-year-old male named Nova. “In the drone footage, they can’t get enough of each other.”
It turns out that young male friends are fairly common among the whales in J pod, he said, adding that any future competition for females probably will be “indirect” without much conflict between them.
Other researchers involved in various aspects of the drone project are affiliated with the University of Washington, Seattle; University of York, UK; and Institute of Biophysics, Italy. The study was partly funded by the Natural Environment Research Council in the UK.
Orca census
For the third year in a row, the Southern Residents failed to return to Puget Sound before the annual orca census date of July 1. For many years, one or more of the pods would be seen swimming through the San Juan Islands and into southern Strait of Georgia in Canada as early as mid-May.
The last sighting of Southern Residents in Puget Sound was on April 10, when J pod was observed in San Juan Channel on the east side of San Juan Island (Center for Whale Research encounter.) They have not returned since, even though J pod typically comes and goes more often than the other two pods.
The date of the Southern Residents’ arrival for the summer seems to come later and later each year, said Ken Balcomb, who maintains the census under a contract between the federal government and his Center for Whale Research.
This year’s census is likely to include three orca babies, including two J pod calves born last September — too late for last year’s count. The new whales are Crescent (J58), a female born to 16-year-old Eclipse (j41), and Phoenix (J57) a male born to 23-year-old Tahlequah (J35). If you recall, Tahlequah became famous and touched the hearts of many people in 2018 when, in apparent mourning, she pushed her dead calf around for 17 days.
The two newest calves in J pod appear to be healthy and strong, Ken told me, referring to the April 10 encounter report from CWR’s field biologist Mark Malleson.
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As Mark wrote in his report, “The whales were in one large, loosely spread group traveling very slowly to the point of going pretty much nowhere. J57 and J58 were enjoying themselves while playing with one another.”
The last unofficial report of J pod was this past Friday near Tofino, off the West Coast of Vancouver Island in Canada, as reported with photos to Orca Behavior Institute.
The third calf to be added to this year’s census will be L125, born to 30-year-old Surprise! (L86) in February. While there are no recent reports of the mother-calf pair, there is no reason to believe that they are missing, according to Ken, who is waiting for further reports of L pod.
Mark Malleson got a look at some of the L-pod whales in an encounter June 7 near Swiftsure Bank at the mouth of the Strait of Juan de Fuca in the Pacific Ocean. Because of rough water, he and observer Joe Zelwietro were unable to see all the whales that may have been present. It is also possible that Surprise! and her calf were elsewhere.
The unnamed L-pod calf is about to get a name from The Whale Museum in Friday Harbor, which conducted a public vote on three possible names for the offspring of Surprise!. The choices were Confetti, Current, Element (as in Element of Surprise!) and Eureka!. The announcement of the name could come as early as today.
UPDATE: The latest whale in L pod has been named Element, based on the voting.
A group of whales tentatively identified as K pod was spotted yesterday in Knight Inlet near Johnstone Strait between Vancouver Island and the mainland of British Columbia. If the whales are indeed K pod, they could be headed south into U.S. waters, Ken told me, referring to past experiences with those animals. Will they be the first Southern Residents to make an appearance this summer? We will know soon, and I will update you in this space.
Because the three pods of Southern Residents have not been seen long enough to conduct a proper survey, it is possible that other new calves may show up with the pods. It is also possible that a complete survey could reveal that one or more whales are sadly missing, but any presumption of death would likely wait for several additional sightings. With luck, we will be able to report that all the whales have survived for another year.
Check out Our Water Ways, as posted on last year’s census date, and later in September when the final tallies were made for the federal government,
Based on the best available information, there are now 75 orcas in the three Southern Resident pods — not including Lolita, also known as Tokitae, who was taken from Puget Sound and now lives at the Miami Seaquarium. J pod contains 24 whales, K pod 17, and L pod 34.
Steep population declines since 1996, when the Southern Resident population stood at 97, led to their listing as an endangered species in 2005. For information about recovery efforts, check out NOAA’s website on the Southern Residents.

Young orcas appear to develop friendships, not unlike primates — including humans

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, and report from Center for Whale Research.)
—–
Captured on video from drone (2019): A 4-year-old female orca named Kiki (J53) slowly circles and weaves through the water as a younger female, Tofino (J56), swims closely behind her and then alongside her before gliding up face-to-face.
Such intimate contact might be expected if the whales were close relatives, but that’s not the case — other than both orcas being members of J pod.
[iframe align=”right” width=”560″ height=”315″ src=”https://www.youtube.com/embed/ClzXdHvUWyQ”%5D
While social bonds among the Southern Resident killer whales appear to be complex, they are not random, according to researcher Michael Weiss of the Center for Whale Research, who used an unoccupied aircraft system (drone) to record more than 800 such encounters and then quantified his observations with statistical analysis.
Michael found that numerous whales — generally of the same sex and close to the same age — have formed enduring social bonds that could be described as friendships.
“These are strong social relationships,” he said. “I wouldn’t hesitate to describe them as friendships.”
His findings about orca relationships were reported June 16 in “Proceedings of the Royal Society — Biological Sciences.”
How these relationships affect the orcas’ hunt for food, energy conservation and ultimately survival may one day be determined through close observations, such as with drones. Aerial videos allow researchers to observe orca behaviors taking place underwater as well as on the surface — and with greater precision than using traditional boat-based platforms.
A few years ago, at least some of the Southern Resident orcas — now numbering 75 — would have been swimming through the San Juan Islands by this time of year. They would be hunting for spring Chinook salmon returning to the Fraser River and streams in Northern Puget Sound.
As of today — census day for the Southern Residents — the whales are still away, probably because the salmon runs are now dangerously low. For the latest news about their present locations, read on to the section “Orca census” below.
In the video mentioned above, an older male, 9-year-old Notch (J47) seems to be standing by and watching, a behavior that researchers sometimes describe as “babysitting.” The youngest whale in the video, Tofino, was less than a year old when the video was shot near San Juan Island, yet her mother is nowhere to be seen when the clip begins.
Suddenly, the missing mother, 24-year-old Tsuchi (J31), swims up powerfully from the depths and into the center of the video frame while carrying a fish in her mouth. Tofino wastes no time getting close to her mother. She sticks like glue to Tsuchi, who swims away rapidly while biting the fish in half and leaving some of the food for the trailing whales.
Social structure of orcas
From the earliest days of orca research, scientists have known that killer whales live in matriarchal societies, in which individual whales generally stay with their mothers for life. Family groups, led by elder females, may consist of several generations. These groups are called matrilines, with members tied together by blood and tradition.

Three types of interactions were measured in the study of J-pod orcas.
Image: Michael Weiss

J pod, the subject of Michael’s study, consists of multiple matrilines that often travel together and share a common vocal dialect. The goal of the study was to measure the social connections between members of different family groups, as well as those within the same group. Based on years of observation, the research team decided to focus attention on three types of interaction:

  • Association, in which groups of killer whales are seen together, providing the opportunity for interaction;
  • Physical contact, in which the whales come close, often with extensive touching that could result in tactile, possibly emotional, responses; and
  • Synchronous surfacing, in which the whales move together, surfacing and blowing at the same time, sometimes even moving left and right as one.

Over a period of 10 days on the water in 2019, a total of 10 hours of video footage was shot from a drone (DJI Phantom 4 Pro V2) at an altitude of 100 to 400 feet and positioned to the side or behind the whales to avoid disturbance. The drone, launched from a 21-foot research boat, was flown by licensed pilots under federal permits.
As expected, the most common associations were observed among family members. Less predictably, the researchers found that females and especially young whales seemed to play a central role within the groups, as observed by the physical contact of whales gathered together. In general, the older the whale, the less socially connected.
The relationships among individual whales became quite noteworthy. This was something discerned by observing the contacts of every animal, not by looking only to see which whales were grouped together.
Why males tend to be more distant from the observed groups is open to speculation, but one idea is that the larger males must spend more time foraging to meet their energy needs. On the other hand, young animals may find their energy needs met by nursing or by receiving fish from their elders, giving the youngsters more time to socialize.
Like other social mammals
The social interactions among members of J pod has led to comparisons with other social animals, including humans and other primates. For example, the whales were seen to become less social with age, a trait observed in observations of great apes. Humans and orcas are among the relatively few species that remain active and influential past their reproductive lives.
Researchers may eventually find that touch among the whales has evolved into psychological benefits, as it has in humans, although such benefits are not always easy to measure.
“It feels nice to interact with our friends,” Michael said, “and touch gets a lot of good brain chemicals going. Ultimately, social interactions are important to a sense of trust, in finding food and in survival itself.”
Beyond the social aspects of these findings, the study suggests that young and female orcas may be involved in more synchronous surfacing as well as direct contact with each other, raising the specter of disease transmission. As Michael Weiss showed in a previous study, the effects of disease could be devastating to the Southern Residents. See Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, March 10, 2020.
The drone research builds on years of study by the Center for Whale Research, led by Ken Balcomb, who told me that he has observed these kinds of social interactions while watching the whales through the years. The beauty of Michael’s study, he said, was the creation of a statistically relevant set of observations that can be tested over time.
Darren Croft, a co-author of the study, credited CWR for its 45 years of work with the orcas. Darren is affiliated with the Centre for Research in Animal Behaviour at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom, where Michael earned his doctorate degree last year.
“This study would not have been possible without the amazing work done by CWR,” Croft said in a news release. “By adding drones to our toolkit, we have been able to dive into the social lives of these animals as never before.
“In many species, including humans, physical contact tends to be a soothing, stress-relieving activity that reinforces social connection,” he continued. “We also examined occasions when whales surfaced together — as acting in unison is a sign of social ties in many species. We found fascinating parallels between the behavior of whales and other mammals, and we are excited about the next stages of this research.”
Other questions to study
Although 10 hours of video accumulated from short segments seems like a lot, it is not enough to draw conclusions about more subtle social behavior, such as the sharing of food and cooperation in chasing down fish, Michael said. These critical behaviors may be based on social relationships, but they are rarely seen.
On the other hand, aggressive behaviors, including rare incidents of biting, may also be important clues to the social relationships among whales, he said. Many more hours of drone video may be needed to further the understanding of all sorts of social interactions, he added.
Previous reports have discussed the importance of collective knowledge among the whales, including the memory of where to find food when the salmon runs are small. Social bonds, as shown in these studies, could play a role in how older whales teach the younger ones to survive. See Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, April 2, 2019.
Some of the most interesting findings are related to the individual relationships between unrelated orcas, as seen in the drone footage.
“There’s J49 and J51,” Michael said, referring to a 9-year-old male named T’ilem I’nges (pronounced Teelem Eenges) and a 6-year-old male named Nova. “In the drone footage, they can’t get enough of each other.”
It turns out that young male friends are fairly common among the whales in J pod, he said, adding that any future competition for females probably will be “indirect” without much conflict between them.
Other researchers involved in various aspects of the drone project are affiliated with the University of Washington, Seattle; University of York, UK; and Institute of Biophysics, Italy. The study was partly funded by the Natural Environment Research Council in the UK.
Orca census
For the third year in a row, the Southern Residents failed to return to Puget Sound before the annual orca census date of July 1. For many years, one or more of the pods would be seen swimming through the San Juan Islands and into southern Strait of Georgia in Canada as early as mid-May.
The last sighting of Southern Residents in Puget Sound was on April 10, when J pod was observed in San Juan Channel on the east side of San Juan Island (Center for Whale Research encounter.) They have not returned since, even though J pod typically comes and goes more often than the other two pods.
The date of the Southern Residents’ arrival for the summer seems to come later and later each year, said Ken Balcomb, who maintains the census under a contract between the federal government and his Center for Whale Research.
This year’s census is likely to include three orca babies, including two J pod calves born last September — too late for last year’s count. The new whales are Crescent (J58), a female born to 16-year-old Eclipse (j41), and Phoenix (J57) a male born to 23-year-old Tahlequah (J35). If you recall, Tahlequah became famous and touched the hearts of many people in 2018 when, in apparent mourning, she pushed her dead calf around for 17 days.
The two newest calves in J pod appear to be healthy and strong, Ken told me, referring to the April 10 encounter report from CWR’s field biologist Mark Malleson.
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As Mark wrote in his report, “The whales were in one large, loosely spread group traveling very slowly to the point of going pretty much nowhere. J57 and J58 were enjoying themselves while playing with one another.”
The last unofficial report of J pod was this past Friday near Tofino, off the West Coast of Vancouver Island in Canada, as reported with photos to Orca Behavior Institute.
The third calf to be added to this year’s census will be L125, born to 30-year-old Surprise! (L86) in February. While there are no recent reports of the mother-calf pair, there is no reason to believe that they are missing, according to Ken, who is waiting for further reports of L pod.
Mark Malleson got a look at some of the L-pod whales in an encounter June 7 near Swiftsure Bank at the mouth of the Strait of Juan de Fuca in the Pacific Ocean. Because of rough water, he and observer Joe Zelwietro were unable to see all the whales that may have been present. It is also possible that Surprise! and her calf were elsewhere.
The unnamed L-pod calf is about to get a name from The Whale Museum in Friday Harbor, which conducted a public vote on three possible names for the offspring of Surprise!. The choices were Confetti, Current, Element (as in Element of Surprise!) and Eureka!. The announcement of the name could come as early as today.
UPDATE: The latest whale in L pod has been named Element, based on the voting.
A group of whales tentatively identified as K pod was spotted yesterday in Knight Inlet near Johnstone Strait between Vancouver Island and the mainland of British Columbia. If the whales are indeed K pod, they could be headed south into U.S. waters, Ken told me, referring to past experiences with those animals. Will they be the first Southern Residents to make an appearance this summer? We will know soon, and I will update you in this space.
Because the three pods of Southern Residents have not been seen long enough to conduct a proper survey, it is possible that other new calves may show up with the pods. It is also possible that a complete survey could reveal that one or more whales are sadly missing, but any presumption of death would likely wait for several additional sightings. With luck, we will be able to report that all the whales have survived for another year.
Check out Our Water Ways, as posted on last year’s census date, and later in September when the final tallies were made for the federal government,
Based on the best available information, there are now 75 orcas in the three Southern Resident pods — not including Lolita, also known as Tokitae, who was taken from Puget Sound and now lives at the Miami Seaquarium. J pod contains 24 whales, K pod 17, and L pod 34.
Steep population declines since 1996, when the Southern Resident population stood at 97, led to their listing as an endangered species in 2005. For information about recovery efforts, check out NOAA’s website on the Southern Residents.