The University of Washington Puget Sound Institute is sponsoring up to 10 student writers to report short (500-word) stories about science findings presented at the upcoming Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference. The conference will be held online April 26-28. We are offering $200 per story and can cover conference registration costs. Successful writers will publish their work in our magazine Salish Sea Currents. Writers will also be encouraged to promote their work through social media. The project will include a two-hour pre-conference orientation meeting in late March or early April.
Preference will be given to graduate students with an interest in science writing. Those who would like to be involved can send a CV and two writing samples directly to Jeff Rice at: jeffrice @ uw.edu. Spots will fill up quickly, so we encourage students to contact us as soon as possible.
The University of Washington Puget Sound Institute (PSI) is seeking a highly motivated stakeholder engagement and science communication manager, with experience working with municipal staff and their stakeholders in wastewater or stormwater, marine/aquatic resources, or other interdisciplinary environmental management and planning areas. The position will expand current PSI capabilities to synthesize and communicate scientific results in a compelling way for managers, stakeholders and the general public seeking to understand complex water quality challenges in Puget Sound, and scientifically valid solutions. See the Salish Sea Modeling Center website for an example of scientific products and results. This position is housed at the Center for Urban Waters in Tacoma, Washington. The person hired will be expected to work in person with the potential for some teleworking, with additional meetings with partners throughout the metropolitan areas. This full-time position with benefits has a preferred start date in February 2022, and is currently funded for one year with expectation of continued funding.
Read the full job description and apply for the position at the University of Washington Human Resources website.
Search for Req #: 202722
A series of reports from the Puget Sound Institute will synthesize key findings from close to 100 projects funded over the past five years by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Six years ago, the EPA authorized more than $20 million dollars for projects to protect, restore and study critical habitats like beaches and floodplains in Puget Sound. The result is what PSI research scientist Aimee Kinney describes as a treasure trove of new information that will help guide future Puget Sound recovery efforts.
“These are the big ideas of the last five years,” says Kinney who will pull together what the grant recipients found and what they want to share with managers and decision makers. Kinney’s work will continue for two years and will examine the outcomes of 97 different projects on topics ranging from zooplankton to shoreline armoring.
The funded projects were part of a 2015 initiative driven by what state and federal agencies have termed Implementation Strategies. The strategies identify areas of focus for funding in Puget Sound and provide a detailed roadmap for future research and planning.
Kinney’s work is supported by the Washington State Departments of Fish and Wildlife, Natural Resources, and Commerce, which teamed up to distribute the grants on behalf of the EPA’s National Estuary Program. That money was distributed over a five-year period from 2016 – 2020. Now, in 2022, most of the projects have been completed and managers are hoping to apply what they learned. “This is a good time to look back on what worked well and how we can move it forward,” Kinney says. “This gives us a chance to see how the research connects.”
Kinney describes the synthesis work as daunting in scale “but incredibly interesting because the projects are all so different and creative.” The work largely focuses on Puget Sound habitats and runs the gamut from beach restoration to scientific research.
One major project highlighted in the study includes the continued development of a Puget Sound-wide zooplankton monitoring program. Zooplankton, tiny creatures at the base of the food web, are critical to the survival of salmon and most species living in Puget Sound. Other projects include public outreach such as the Shore Friendly program which educates shoreline homeowners about alternatives to environmentally damaging shoreline armoring. A full list of projects is available here.
Once Kinney and her team have completed their overviews, the Puget Sound Institute will report the results to a wide audience of stakeholders and policymakers. The study will also include analyses and recommendations for funders and future research.
“We’ll look at who needs to know about these findings and then figure out the most effective ways to reach them,” Kinney says. “You shouldn’t just get a report from a project and put it on a shelf and be done with it. You need to connect it to other research to learn from it.”
Reports from the study will be ongoing throughout 2022 and 2023 and will conclude in early 2024. When completed, the syntheses will cover topics related to Implementation Strategies for shoreline armoring, floodplains and estuaries, land development and cover, Chinook salmon, and oil spills. The project is sponsored by the EPA-funded Habitat Strategic Initiative. Related: Implementation Strategies will target Puget Sound ‘Vital Signs’ (Encyclopedia of Puget Sound)
The Salish Sea Modeling Center was established at the Center for Urban Waters, UW Tacoma with support from the Puget Sound Institute in June 2020 to advance the use of hydrodynamic models for understanding the Salish Sea ecosystem. The center will initially focus on expanding the capabilities of the Salish Sea Model, an advanced computer simulator developed over the past decade. The Salish Sea Model accurately describes how water, sediments, and nutrients enter and cycle through the Salish Sea, and is widely used by resource and regulatory agencies in the region. The model was developed by Dr. Tarang Khangaonkar and his team at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL). The center is supported by the Environmental Protection Agency and other regional water quality partners. Read an announcement about the center.
Mission & Vision
Vision: The Salish Sea Modeling Center (SSMC) is a computational platform for the Salish Sea community of scientists and engineers engaged in basin-wide water quality protection and ecosystem restoration efforts.
Our vision of complex hydrology, hydrodynamic, water quality, and ecosystem models on a single platform is realized by eliminating the challenges associated with computational power and storage, access to established regional models and associated analytical software, and availability of skilled modelers for research and development support.
Mission: SSMC will provide access and use of Salish Sea basin-wide models of hydrology, hydrodynamics, circulation, transport, water quality, biogeochemistry, and ecosystem (food web) to our community for a wide variety of marine environmental applications.
SSMC’s broad mission is to foster research and development using Salish Sea basin-wide state-of the-art comprehensive aquatic fate and transport models. SSMC was established with a focus on supporting researchers from various state and federal agencies engaged in efforts related to ecosystem management and restoration of the Salish Sea. These include assessing impacts from issues such as population growth, increasing nutrient loads, watershed runoff and pollution, and shoreline development that require hydrodynamic and water quality information.
Our short-term goal is to make the Salish Sea Model (SSM) and previously computed solutions available over the shared SSMC space on the University of Washington HYAK supercomputer. The SSMC will provide model development and data analysis support to facilitate the use of available computational resources, models, and software. SSMC scientists are also available to participate in interdisciplinary research on grants and projects as Co-PIs.
In addition to the SSM, the center will also work with other organizations to combine information from computer simulations such as NOAA’s Atlantis food web model and EPA’s VELMA watershed model.
Research & Collaboration
The Salish Sea Modeling Center modeling team will conduct numerous applications of this model on behalf of our collaborating partners to assist with nearshore habitat restoration planning and design, analysis in support of re-establishment of fish migration pathways, and assessment of basin-wide water quality impacts.
Use of SSMC resources may be arranged by entering into a contractual arrangement with SSMC at the Puget Sound Institute (PSI) in the form of (a) an Interagency agreement with SSMC at PSI, or (b) a Time and Materials contract with PSI. Through these mechanisms, clients may arrange for the use of SSMC at four different levels:
Reserved use of SSMC computational core-hours and storage space
Technical support with the installation of proprietary software requested by the client or with the use of SSMC models and software
Training and technical support with the use of Salish Sea Model and post processing of stored solutions
Contract with SSMC to conduct a research and development for a client funded project.
Occasionally, this space includes reports and essays from guest writers on the subject of Puget Sound ecosystem recovery. Biologist and author Eric Wagner has this look at the controversy surrounding a recent study of salmon numbers in the Salish Sea. By Eric Wagner
A couple of weeks ago, the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences published a research article from the Marine Mammal Research Unit at the University of British Columbia (UBC). The article, first-authored by a hydroacoustician named Mei Sato, looked at the abundance of Chinook salmon during two summers at two straits in the Salish Sea region that populations of resident killer whales frequent. In short summary, the researchers found that the Strait of Juan de Fuca (seasonal home to the southern residents) had four to six times as many Chinook salmon as Johnstone Strait (home to the northern residents).
As is now the convention when a university lab publishes a paper, the UBC news office put out a press release to tout it. “No apparent shortage of prey for southern resident killer whales in the Salish Sea during summer,” the release’s headline read.
On the surface, this whole process had been fairly straightforward and routine: conduct a study, publish the study, announce the study to the world, maybe talk about it to a local media outlet or two. But that would turn out not to be the case where Sato’s article was concerned, because when it comes to the southern resident killer whales, it’s what is going on under the surface that counts. Now, to the critical questions of how Chinook salmon abundance affects the southern residents and what to do about it, Sato and her co-authors have added a couple of more: What is more important—what an article says, or what an article about an article says? An unexpected result
As of September 20, 2021, the southern resident population sits at 73 individuals, a number that has stayed stubbornly low despite the whales being listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act in the United States. (In Canada, the southern residents have been protected under Species At Risk Act since 2003.)
Why the southern residents are doing so poorly is thought to be due to a suite of causes, among them pollution, vessel noise, and so on. But the main cause researchers have focused on for years is a shortage of food, especially in the late spring and summer months, when the southern residents historically come to the Salish Sea. Obligate eaters of fishes, the southern residents are known to prefer Chinook salmon, hunting them almost exclusively at times. As Chinook runs have declined throughout the region, many scientists believe the southern residents have declined with them, to the point that they are spending less and less time in the area.
It was with that view in mind that Sato, Andrew Trites, the director of the Marine Mammal Research Unit, and Stéphane Gauthier, a research scientist with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, undertook their work. “In Canada,” says Sato, now an assistant scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, “you always hear of the relationship between the drop of the southern residents and their prey shortage. But nobody had tested this hypothesis before.”
Chinook salmon returns are usually determined when they enter rivers on their way to spawning streams; less is known about their abundance and distribution in the larger, more open waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Sato wanted to see the prey densities the southern residents face in the strait. To measure them she used multifrequency echosounders, which are akin to the fish-finders fishers mount on their vessel bottoms. Timing her surveys to when Chinook migration was at its predicted peak, she sailed out in July and August in 2018 and 2019, surveying pinch points where the salmon were likely to be funneled. So she could compare whatever she found in the Strait of Juan de Fuca with other orca waters, Sato also did surveys in the Johnstone Strait.
The northern resident killer whales that spend the summers in Johnstone Strait number about three hundred animals. The population is generally understood to be much healthier than the southern residents. Sato thus thought she would see a bounty of salmon in Johnstone Strait and peanuts in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Instead, she saw the opposite: while Chinook salmon were patchily distributed and of similar size in both straits, the patches in the Strait of Juan de Fuca had four to six times as many Chinook as those in Johnstone Strait.
“We didn’t expect this result at all,” Sato says. “We came in believing the food hypothesis too.” But the numbers were the numbers. As she and her co-authors wrote at the close of their paper, “This suggests that other factors such as spatial and temporal mismatches between killer whales and prey presence, shortages of prey outside of the Salish Sea, reduced energy content of individual Chinook salmon, and reduced prey accessibility due to vessel traffic may be more consequential to southern resident killer whales than previously considered.”
To say that the results were controversial is an understatement. Two days after the paper’s release, a consortium of scientists who study the southern residents, headed by Monika Wieland Shields of the Orca Behavior Institute, released a strong critique. “The new paper by Sato et al. describes a new methodology for surveying for Chinook salmon in the oceanic environment,” the scientists wrote, “but includes too many unknowns and is too small of a data set to come to such a broad-sweeping conclusion.”
Whale researchers responding in the press were even more critical. “They are making a lot of assumptions and my concern is that once you stitch all those assumptions together, you can end up with an answer that is incorrect,” Brad Hanson, a biologist at NOAA, told the Seattle Times. Others were even less inclined to be polite. Ken Balcolm of the Center for Whale Research called the paper “a nice little fish thing,” while Deborah Giles, a biologist at the University of Washington and research director for Wild Orca, told the Times, “To say the southern residents are getting four to six times as much salmon as the northern residents is just silly. And here we are, trying to find a nice way to say that.” Parsing the reactions
Here, though, it becomes necessary to parse whether the killer whale research community was reacting to the paper or to the press release about the paper. The release says the UBC researchers “debunked” the hypothesis that southern residents are facing a food shortage. Sato and Trites say they make no such claim; they don’t dispute that the southern residents are showing up thin, or that Chinook populations are in general decreasing. “Just because we found that there are more salmon in the Strait of Juan de Fuca doesn’t mean the killer whales necessarily have access to those salmon,” Trites says. “We didn’t look at interference from vessels, or underwater noise, or things like that.”
When asked about the science the paper itself describes, Shields, the author of the critique, is more measured. “It was a novel application of technology for how we survey salmon in the ocean,” she says. “I thought that was fascinating and super cool.” Her concern was more with the way the science became embellished during promotion. “As advocacy groups and marine educators we work very hard to get correct information to the public. One of the messages the research community has supported is that this is a prey-limited species. For the headline to be Prey’s not a problem here anymore! deflects from a really big issue that we need to focus on.”
Hanson echoed this when he told the Times he was worried the findings could be “weaponized” by parties with an interest in promoting more fishing, or aquaculture practices blamed for playing a part in declining salmon returns. At least one online publication has used the findings to attack other research on Chinook declines. “Anti-salmon farm activists have long been trying to link the apparent lack of Chinook salmon prey for British Columbia’s resident killer whales to the region’s marine aquaculture operations,” pronounced SeaWest News, a publication run by a self-described media agency with clients from British Columbia’s seafood industry. “But that theory, like many others trotted out by the activists, has been debunked by a new study led by scientists at the University of British Columbia,” the article said.
Trites approved the press release before it went out, “but in retrospect I shouldn’t have, given how muddled things have gotten.” Some of the vitriol and derision in the responses took him aback. “People should focus on the science,” he says, “rather than try to infer motive.” Although he expected the paper to make waves because it questions an orthodoxy, he shares the concern that the results could be misinterpreted or, worse, misapplied. “I can tell you one thing,” he says. “When we get a result we don’t expect, we dig really hard, we look under every little rock.” He feels the paper’s message is getting lost a little in the fuss over the press release, which has become a sort of object-lesson in how, in trying to amplify a scientific result, the result is instead obscured, and commenting on it becomes a professional game of Telephone.
“To me, the take-home isn’t about whether or not there’s a food shortage, it’s about where the food shortage is occurring,” Trites says. “Everyone is focused on the Salish Sea, but the southern residents are only here part of the time, and they need food every day of the year. What we want this paper to do is get people to ask whether there are sufficient prey to support southern resident killer whales during winter and spring when they are south of here. The conversation needs to go beyond the Salish Sea if we are going to save the southern resident killer whales from extinction.” Eric Wagner writes about science and the environment from his home in Seattle, where he lives with his wife and daughter. His writing has appeared in Smithsonian, Orion, The Atlantic and High Country News, among other places. He is the author of “Penguins in the Desert” and co-author of “Once and Future River: Reclaiming the Duwamish.” His most recent book is “After the Blast: The Ecological recovery of Mount St. Helens,” published in 2020 by University of Washington Press. He holds a PhD in Biology from the University of Washington.
Announcing Two Science and Monitoring Funding Opportunities from the Puget Sound Partnership
The Partnership is pleased to announce two solicitations for collaborative proposals to inform and accelerate Puget Sound recovery: Puget Sound Scientific Research and Monitoring to Accelerate Recovery. Projects are expected to begin early fall and continue through June 30, 2023 (or September 30, 2023 for a subset of ‘Monitoring’ projects). The two solicitations are complementary in nature. In addition to advancing Puget Sound recovery, both recognize the importance of and seek to advance management-relevant science; biophysical and social sciences integration; justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion; and climate change considerations.
Letters of Intent are due May 14th, 2021 and Full Proposals are due August 6, 2021 for both solicitations.
The Partnership seeks proposals from those leads and team members who encompass a range of backgrounds, disciplines, and career stages. Project leads must be affiliated with an organization, agency, or tribal government that is licensed to do business in the state of Washington. The Partnership is committed to building an inclusive program that serves all people including those with unique needs, circumstances, perspectives, and ways of knowing. Eligible applicants of all ages, races, ethnicities, national origins, gender identities, sexual orientations, abilities, cultures, religions, citizenship types, marital statuses, job classifications, veteran status types, and socioeconomic statuses are encouraged to apply.
Puget Sound Scientific Research funds will focus on advancing the Priority Science Work Actions identified in the 2020-2024 Science Work Plan, which included human-biophysical interactions, effectiveness of recovery interventions, ecological conditions and effects, and science-based decision-support topics. A total of $1.7 million will be allocated towards two project types:
Integrated Social Ecological Systems Awards are larger in scope and co-developed across disciplines—1-2 awards anticipated for a total of $600,000 to $1,200,000
Targeted Research Awards should be designed to address critical gaps in knowledge or advance innovate approaches—8-12 awards anticipated for a total of $500,000 to $1,100,000
The two orca calves born to J pod in September are still alive and doing well, according to Mark Malleson of the Center for Whale Research, who spotted J pod on Monday near the Canadian city of Victoria. (Check out Mark’s encounter report.)
This is good news, of course, for the highly endangered southern resident killer whales, which frequent Puget Sound and the Salish Sea. But winter months still lie ahead, so we hope that they can find enough food to make it through their first winter, a challenging time for young orcas.
When sighted Monday, the calves, J57 and J58, were swimming close to their mothers, J35 (named Tahlequah) and J41 (named Eclipse), respectively. Review my report on this year’s orca census, Water Ways, Sept. 15.
J pod has been visiting Central and South Puget Sound in recent weeks, as they often do when their primary prey, Chinook salmon, decline in numbers during the summer months. The orcas then begin to rely on fall chum salmon, their secondary prey species.
J pod began its forays into South Puget Sound near the end of September, with sightings as far south as Kingston and Edmonds. By mid-October, they had made one run all the way to the south end of Vashon Island, and they returned to that area again in early November. That venture was followed by an overnight trip in mid-November, when they may have been accompanied by K pod, according to sighting reports from Orca Network.
“The one observation I would make is that the whales have been very spread out,” said Howard Garrett of Orca Network. “In almost every report, it is miles between the leaders and the trailers. That is an indication that they are searching everywhere for fish.”
In other words, if the whales had been bunched closer together, it would be a sign that they were finding plenty of fish, he said.
The chum run in Central and South Puget Sound has been low the past two years. Early this year, experts predicted that about 200,000 chum would be coming into South Sound this fall, compared to an eight-year annual average of just under 550,000. The final count for this year is expected to be even lower than the prediction.
The chum run was low last year, too, and still the whales were finding fish somewhere, as they traveled widely from Puget Sound into Canada and along the West Coast. Successful births provide evidence that something is going right for a change.
Nevertheless, the overall population of the three southern resident pods has remained at a low level, currently just 74 whales — barely above the recorded minimum, as shown in a graph from the Center for Whale Research.
Howie and I kicked around the highly speculative notion that the orcas might be extending their diet to other fish. He mentioned the “regime change” resulting from the death of Granny (J2), who had been the leader of J pod for as long as researchers have been studying the whales. Granny was believed to be older than 100 when she died nearly four years ago.
It’s not clear who is leading J pod now or even if there is a new leader so far, Howie told me. Understanding the thinking of these intelligent underwater animals has always been a challenge for us land-based creatures. Why do the whales go one way, then turn around, and sometimes turn around again? If the hunt for Chinook and chum salmon becomes less fruitful, could the whales shift to other salmon species or even non-salmon types of fish? Could a new leader change the travel patterns?
Sp far, this year’s travels into and out of Central and South Puget Sound have been similar to last year’s. That could mean one or more trips south before the end of the December. When that happens, people often go out to watch the orcas safely from shore after learning about their location on Orca Network’s Facebook page.
Sighting locations are shown on maps created by Orca Network for the Puget Sound region and the Whale Trail for locations farther away. I subscribe to the idea of leaving the orcas to themselves in winter rather than watching from a boat — with an occasional exception for licensed researchers. On another website called OrcaSound you may hear the whales calling to each other. One can also sign up for notifications when whale calls and other interesting sounds are detected on the hydrophones.
Like whale watching from shore, observing chum salmon swimming upstream to spawn is another good family outing. Most of the chum coming this year have moved upstream by now, and dead fish are littering the stream banks, according to Jon Oleyar, who walks the streams for the Suquamish Tribe to estimate the size of salmon runs. Still, he said, there are a few stragglers to be found on some streams.
Jon said the recent ongoing, yet light, rains were “perfect” for the salmon. But before that streamflows were low and fish were congregating in the lower reaches of the streams. Public concerns were running high.
“I was fielding calls from people worried about beaver dams and the fish getting upstream,” Jon told me. “Once the rain came, the fish were up into all the tributaries and spread out through all the streams. I haven’t seen that in years, if ever.”
In Kitsap County, Chico Salmon Park is a good location to see salmon at this time. You may spot some fish from a late run of chum in Gorst Creek, where colorful coho are also on the move through Bremerton’s Otto Jarstad Park.
A few years ago, I produced a map for the Kitsap Sun with videos of salmon-viewing spots in Kitsap County. See also Kitsap Salmon Tours. The Seattle PI has some suggested spots for Seattle, while Parent Map magazine has a list of salmon-viewing sites in East King County and a separate list for South King County. Feel free to add your favorite salmon-viewing spots in the comments section below.
The natural cycle of salmon and orcas is truly a wondrous sight to watch. For good or bad, the fates of these animal are tied to human efforts to protect and restore the conditions that allow them to thrive.
We can celebrate the two new orca calves born in September, along with two young survivors from last year, and possibly another young orca on the way (Times Colonist, Oct. 24, 2020). But our celebration must be tempered with the realization that an equal number of whales have died in the same time period — and it will take many, many more births to bring the Southern Residents back from the brink of extinction.
Ongoing findings about the chemical Bisphenol A has further inflamed a debate about whether the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is adequately protecting people’s health when it comes to products containing BPA.
Meanwhile, a year-old state program, called Safer Products for Washington, may avoid some of the regulatory pitfalls people are seeing at the FDA by simply asking whether safer chemicals are available and whether it would be reasonable to use them instead.
BPA, which can disrupt normal hormonal function, has been a concern of mine since 2008, when I informed readers of Watching Our Water Ways that I was searching for and throwing away many of my old drinking-water bottles. Last year, I related that history and confessed that I had been trusting the FDA for too long when it comes to BPA (Water Ways, Sept. 12, 2019).
The dilemma, according to Patricia Hunt of Washington State University and other academic researchers, is that toxicologists working for regulatory agencies refuse to account for findings that show how endocrine-disrupting compounds may harm the body in ways that don’t fit traditional models.
For most regulated chemicals, toxic effects can be seen at high levels, and thus the goal is to lower the dose until a no-harm threshold is observed. But with endocrine disruptors, harmful effects seen at high levels may disappear at somewhat lower levels, allowing regulators to think that their work is done. They often don’t look for problems at still lower levels, where hormonal effects may operate in different ways, as described by many academic researchers.
The FDA expressed a willingness to confront this dilemma in a wide-ranging — and expensive — research project called CLARITY, which stands for Consortium Linking Academic and Regulatory Insights on Toxicity of Bisphenol A.
“Although, ideally, a consensus between the approaches should be possible,” states an article in “Nature Reviews: Endocrinology,” “differences in research culture made the CLARITY effort akin to expecting a group of folk and punk rock musicians to pick up their instruments and play together in harmony.”
In fact, conclusions drawn from the academic side of the consortium have yet to be formally released six months after they were scheduled to be made public. As a result, many of the researchers involved in the project worked together to publish their own report last week in “Reproductive Toxicology.” They found, by looking in a coordinated fashion across “multiple organ systems,” that significant low-dose effects of BPA could be seen on the brain, prostate gland, urinary tract, ovary, mammary gland and heart.
The new report and its implications are described in far more detail in a rather enticing article titled “More bad news for BPA: Novel analysis adds to evidence of chemical’s health effects” published in “Environmental Health Perspectives.” It’s a good summary of the current state of affairs.
Sometimes it is nice to go back to the basics of a problem to develop a deeper understanding. Such is the approach taken in an entertaining podcast on “Cited” called “The Poison Paradigm,” which I highly recommend as well.
The dilemma with BPA may well apply to other endocrine-disrupting chemicals, some well known and others with dangers yet to be discovered. As some endocrinologists tell the story, safe levels for some compounds may not exist, because they affect the body in subtle ways. The best we can do in such cases is describe the effects seen at various exposure levels and try to find reasonable ways to reduce the risks.
That’s the approach behind the Safer Products for Washington program, created last year by the Legislature. The law calls on the Washington Department of Ecology to designate “priority chemicals” found to harm humans and the environment, identify products that create exposure risks, then decide if safer alternatives are available and feasible. Only then will regulations be proposed to phase out the harmful compounds.
In the first round of study, BPA was listed in a class of chemicals called phenolic compounds, which also includes BPS and other potentially harmful substitutes for BPA. Priority products deemed to potentially affect human health and the environment are food and drink can linings designed prevent corrosion, along with thermal papers commonly used to provide printed receipts in stores. BPA from can linings can be ingested with food and drinks, while BPA in thermal papers can be absorbed through the skin.
As described in a 200-page report released this month, other priority chemicals and priority products being studied at this time are:
Flame retardants: plastic housings used for electronic equipment, and polyurethane foam used in recreational products,
Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs): paints and printing inks,
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS): carpets and rugs, leather and textile furnishings, and aftermarket stain and water-resistant treatments, and
Pthalates: vinyl flooring, and personal-care and hygiene products.
In addition to bisphenols in the class of phenolic compounds, a group of chemicals called alkylphenol ethozylates is under review as used in laundry detergents.
This first report to the Legislature includes a literature review of the first five classes of priority chemicals and their applications in various products. The next phase will involve an analysis of the safety and the feasibility of alternative chemicals, including information from manufacturers. Check out the “Safer Products for Washington” webpage for a timeline of the process.
“This alternative assessment framework is the crux of a lot of the work we are doing,” said Marissa Smith, a senior regulatory toxicologist in the program. “Instead of asking, ‘What is a safe level?,’ we focus on reducing the risk by avoiding certain chemicals. The question becomes, ‘Is there a safer chemical?’”
Safer Products for Washington includes four front-line staffers, including Marissa. The Legislature approved $1.2 million for the first two years of the program, which also covers the cost of key players in the Washington State Department of Health and Office of the Attorney General.
While much of the regulatory process is focused on human health, another critical goal is to keep harmful chemicals from being released into the environment, where they can disrupt the food web. Thus Marissa and her fellow researchers are considering the total amount of chemicals being used in Washington state and what happens after their use — including disposal and breakdown products in the environment.
In addition to regulating chemicals, the Safer Products program is designed to provide information that can help people make better choices for their families, Marissa told me.
“You shouldn’t need a PhD to pick out your products,” Marissa said. “We also want to make safer products available for everyone. We don’t want it limited by price and who can afford it or to those who have access to information.”
As we’ve seen with so-called “BPA-free” water bottles, consumer pressure can be as effective as regulations — but somebody needs to make sure that the replacement chemicals are safer. And then the question becomes: Can we do even better in the future?
Under the Safer Products program, the identification of reasonable alternatives is the key to the regulatory approach. “We can’t tell people what to use; we can only tell them what not to use,” Marissa noted.
The program is open for everyone to provide review, suggestions and comments as the experts conduct their analyses, propose regulations and move on to study further chemicals in the coming years. Check out Ecology’s “Committees, Boards and Work Groups” for public-involvement options.
UPDATE: July 23
The Great American Outdoors Act passed the House yesterday on a 310-107 vote. See Associated Press and news release from U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor.
It appears that the political stars are lining up for what some people are calling the most significant environmental legislation in decades. Billions of dollars have been laid upon the table for parks, recreation facilities and environmentally sensitive lands across the country.
The U.S. Senate has already passed the Great American Outdoors Act, which pairs two previous spending proposals: the Land and Water Conservation Fund with $900 million to be spent annually for the foreseeable future, and a new National Parks and Public Lands Legacy Fund with $9.5 billion to be spent over the next five years.
The House is poised to approve the measure when it returns to full session July 20, despite a last-minute effort by one Republican lawmaker to amend the bill. If successful, that could delay action for another year or more.
President Trump, who has consistently pushed for major funding cuts for conservation — including the Land and Water Conservation Fund — suddenly reversed course in March. Now he says he will enthusiastically sign the funding bill.
Trump’s Interior Secretary, David Bernhardt, expressed the administration’s support. “The enactment of the combination of these two proposals,” he said in an opinion piece, “would be the most significant conservation legislation in generations.”
On that point, he hasn’t gotten much argument from conservation groups.
“This is an historic deal reflecting the tremendous bipartisan support for our public lands and would mark the biggest conservation victory in over 100 years,” said Tom Cors of The Nature Conservancy, a spokesman for the Land and Water Conservation Fund Coalition.
Kabir Green, director of federal affairs at the Natural Resources Defense Council also agreed. “At a time when the outdoors is more important to public health than ever, a bipartisan majority is recognizing how badly the country needs to invest in its public lands and waters and ensure access to them.”
Their comments and many others were compiled by the Senate Republican Communications Center.
The Land and Water Conservation Fund has been on the books since 1964, providing nearly $19 billion for conservation projects across the country. The fund was first proposed by a federal commission, supported by President John F. Kennedy and ushered through Congress by Sen. Henry M. Jackson of Washington state, who chaired the Senate Interior Committee at the time.
Congress first authorized the fund for 25 years, then approved a 25-year extension. In recent years, however, political squabbling allowed the fund to expire twice: once in 2015, when it was revived for three years, and again in 2018, when its annual authorization of $900 million was made permanent.
Even so, perpetual authorization does not mean that Congress must spend the money.
That’s why the new Great American Outdoors Act is so significant, said Amy Lindholm, manager of the LWCF Coalition. In addition to the new funding piece to help eliminate a $12-billion maintenance backlog in national parks, the new legislation actually mandates that at least $900 million be spent each year for land purchases and recreation projects.
That mandate will make a real difference, Amy told me. Even though Congress has authorized spending at the $900-million level since 1978, it has spent less than half that amount. If the fund were a bank account — which it isn’t — it would contain a balance of about $22 billion, compared to withdrawals and spending of $18.9 billion through the years. Once the new law is enacted, it would take an act of Congress to stop the flow of money. Spending targets: LWCF
The Land and Water Conservation Fund derives its $900 million in annual credits mostly from federal royalties for offshore oil and gas drilling, which have generated a total of about $7 billion a year for the U.S. government in recent times.
Money in the LWCF goes for three major purposes:
Financial assistance to the states for recreational planning, acquisition of recreational lands and waters, and developing outdoor recreational facilities. States receiving funds must provide an equal amount of money.
In Washington state, two federal projects are riding high on the list for funding in the next budget: the Willapa National Wildlife Refuge and the Dewatto Headwaters Forest. Many grants to state agencies have been proposed but not yet been prioritized. Spending targets: National Parks
The National Parks and Public Lands Legacy Fund would direct up to $9.5 billion in revenues from on-shore, off-shore and renewable energy supplies to the following:
National Parks, 70 percent
U.S. Forest Service, 15 percent
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 5 percent
Bureau of Land Management, 5 percent
Bureau of Indian Education, 5 percent
Deferred maintenance in the national parks alone is estimated at $12 billion. The National Park Service would use its share of the fund to repair roads, buildings, campgrounds, trails, utility systems and other infrastructure.
National parks in Washington state are facing a backlog of more than $427 million in needed repairs, according to a report by Pew Charitable Trusts (PDF 223 kb). That includes $186 million at Mount Rainier and $126 million at Olympic. History of LWCF
The Land and Water Conservation Fund was created during the heyday of the environmental movement during the 1960s, when Sen. Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson played an instrumental role as chairman of the Senate Interior Committee. Legislation during his tenure included the Wilderness Act, creation of North Cascades National Park, National Trail System Act, Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and, perhaps most significant, the National Environmental Policy Act.
As the Senate prepared to vote on the LWCF for the first time, Jackson spoke to his fellow senators:
“I would like to remind you that it is mostly to the open areas that 90 percent of all Americans go each year, seeking refreshment of body and spirit,” he said. “These are the places they go to hunt, fish, camp, picnic, swim, for boating or driving for pleasure, or perhaps simply for relaxation or solitude.”
The vote was 92-1.
The original funding came from the sale of federal property ($50 million a year), motor boat fuel tax ($30 million), new entrance and user fees ($65 million) and $60 million over eight years to be paid back to the treasury. The new user fees never raised more than $16 million, so the oil and gas revenues were added in 1968 and soon became the major source of funding.
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Authorized spending was increased to $200 million a year in 1968, then to $300 million in 1970, and then to $900 million in 1977 — although spending reached that annual level only twice (see chart).
Jackson’s successors who occupied that same Senate seat — Dan Evans, Slade Gorton and Maria Cantwell — have all been supporters of the LWCF, with Cantwell working especially hard in recent years to strengthen the law.
“Public lands are a great driver of our economy and an essential aspect of American life, and this vote says we’re going to continue to invest in them,” Cantwell said in a news release after the Senate approved the Great American Outdoors Act on a 73-25 vote. “It couldn’t be a more important investment, and it couldn’t give America a bigger return.” (Check out her speech on video, this page.) Today’s politics
Until this year, President Trump showed little interest in acquiring more federal lands or creating new recreation areas. Congress consistently overruled his proposed budgets to gut the funding for the LWCF.
On March 3, Trump appeared to change his tune with this tweet: “I am calling on Congress to send me a bill that fully and permanently funds the LWCF and restores our national parks. When I sign it into law, it will be HISTORIC for our beautiful public lands. All thanks to @SenCoryGardner and @SteveDaines, two GREAT conservative leaders!”
Some have speculated that Trump’s change of heart is designed to improve the election prospects of the named Republican senators, Cory Gardner of Colorado and Steve Daines of Montana, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell insists it was not a political move.
“It’s in proximity to the election, but nobody said you ought to quit doing things just because there’s an election,” McConnell was quoted as saying in “The Hill.”
Given Trump’s sign-on and with supportive Democrats in control of the House, the chances of approving the long-term funding appear good. But that hasn’t stopped Utah Sen. Rob Bishop, a Republican, from raising alarms about a confusing provision in the bill that would remove restrictions about where the money can be spent for land purchases. Reporter Emma Dumain describes the situation in E&E News.
“Eastern states deserve equality in federal land ownership as Congress intended,” Bishop wrote in a letter to 154 House members. “A last-minute ‘conforming amendment’ … eliminated this requirement, siphoning critical LWCF funds away from Eastern states in perpetuity. It’s not right.”
Stepping into the fray, a spokeswoman for Republican Sen. Daines played down the controversy.
“The conforming amendment makes no change to the status quo,” Katie Schoettler was quoted as saying in the E&E News article. “Congress and the agency have consistently approved and funded Western LWCF projects to meet needs and fulfill congressional intent behind the program. Eliminating this arbitrary cap just ensures LWCF is carried out as it always has been.”
If Bishop can dredge up enough votes to pass his amendment, all sorts of trouble could follow, and the bill would need a new vote in the Senate — which might not happen soon. Most House Democrats are expected to stay away from that “Pandora’s box,” as writer Dumain describes it, but in recent years turmoil has never been far from the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Further reading
Researchers studying the killer whales that frequent Puget Sound are growing increasingly concerned that a dangerous virus or other disease-causing organism could spread through the population and hasten extinction of these critically endangered southern resident orcas.
Without dramatic changes to their environment, extinction is already considered the likely future for the southern residents, as they continue to face shortages of food, high levels of chemical contamination and stress from the noise around them. Their numbers have declined from 98 animals in 1995 to 72 today.
New research suggests that extinction could come sooner if the whales were to become infected with a novel pathogen, such as cetacean morbillivirus, which has killed thousands of Atlantic bottlenose dolphins on the U.S. East Coast but has not been seen in the Pacific Northwest.
“Given its fragile state, it is unlikely that this population would recover from the sudden increase in mortality that would result from a majority of the population becoming infected with CeMV,” states the new report.
Michael Weiss, a researcher with the Center for Whale Research and lead investigator on the study, said the prospect of CeMV in the southern residents can be compared in some ways to the recent outbreak in humans from the novel coronavirus: Just as humans lack immunity to the new coronavirus, the orcas have no history of exposure to CeMV, thus they are vulnerable to the worst effects of the organism.
“When I think of risks to the southern residents, I think the main risk is not getting enough food to remain nutritionally healthy,” said Weiss, a doctoral candidate at the University of Exeter in England. “But an outbreak of cetacean morbillivirus would be a nuclear meltdown. It has a low probability of happening, but the results would be absolutely catastrophic.”
Southern residents eat fish, primarily Chinook salmon — another species at risk of extinction. The lack of food, chemical contamination and stress can be thought of as contributing to the disease process among the whales. A high rate of inbreeding in this population also can affect their immunity.
“The misconception is that these animals are starving to death,” said Joe Gaydos, a veterinarian with the SeaDoc Society. “You need to look at the bigger picture of what these animals are dying from” — and the causes are varied.
In the realm of infectious disease, an orca may not be able to fight off an infection if it is already weak from lack of food, Gaydos said. If the infection persists, the animal could have a hard time catching fish to eat; it could become disinterested in food; or it might even be unable to adequately process the food that it does eat.
Toxic chemicals, particularly the polychlorinated biphenyls found in killer whales, can reduce an animal’s immunity, as can stress from noise or other causes. A whale in a weakened condition is more likely to succumb to any number of problems, including disease, congenital problems or trauma, such as being struck by a boat.
Strong social bonds among the southern resident killer whales can increase the opportunity for disease transmission, according to the new study published in the journal Biological Conservation. While CeMV is not the only organism that could threaten the population, Weiss said, the disease is frequently discussed as a significant threat.
Cetacean morbillivirus exists within a family of viruses that cause human measles, canine distemper and related diseases among cats and ruminants, such as goats, sheep and camels. The disease caused by the virus is highly contagious and can be spread through airborne droplets from the breath of an infected animal. Based on studies of other populations, CeMV is likely to kill 70-80 percent of the orcas that become infected, the new report says.
The study examined how infection could spread from one whale to another. In the wild, several orcas often surface together, exhaling plumes of mist that can be inhaled by a nearby whale. In the study, the frequency of close contact actually observed by whale researchers was factored into a new model, which can be used to predict how any infection could spread through the population from a single individual.
The initial infection could come from another species. Southern residents have been known to interact with harbor porpoises, humpback whales and Pacific white-sided dolphins — all thought to be susceptible to CeMV, making them potential sources for an outbreak.
Killer whales travel in family groups, led by an elder female and her descendants. Groups of these so-called matrilines make up socially related pods — specifically J, K and L pods among the southern residents. The new study showed that this modular organization could help reduce the spread of infection — but only minimally compared to groups of animals that interact in a more uniform pattern.
Using a variety of assumptions, the new model showed that occasionally the disease would fail to spread much beyond the initially infected individual, but in most cases about 90 percent of the orcas would come down with the disease and about 70 percent of those would die.
A vaccine to protect against cetacean morbillivirus has been tested, but not deployed, in bottlenose dolphins. If a vaccine were to be developed for the killer whales — and there are many challenges — one would need to vaccinate at least 42 of the 72 southern residents to substantially reduce the risk of a major outbreak, according to the analysis.
“The logistical challenges of vaccinating and monitoring individuals at sea and the potential stress these activities may cause the animals likely make the prospect of wide-scale vaccinations impractical, as well as potentially unethical,” the report concludes.
Other stories about disease in Puget Sound species include the three-part series “The Orca Docs: Can medical interventions help?” See also the entire section on disease in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound. Note: The word “novel” was removed from the headline, since CeMV is not new to some parts of the world.