Recent scientific studies show how resident orca populations are affected by diminishing chinook runs and—critically—why the chinook are disappearing.
By David Broadland (Originally published in the July-August 2018 edition of Focus Magazine)
RIVERS RUNNING INTO PUGET SOUND have perennially low returns of chinook salmon—currently estimated at just 10 percent of their historic levels—even though many of them are enhanced with hatcheries. Last year, scientific research connected this decline to secondary sewage treatment plants discharging partially-treated effluent into Puget Sound.
Last June, a group of Washington scientists published a study showing the extent to which the decline in the birth rate of the Southern Resident Killer Whale population, listed as “endangered” by both the Canadian and US federal governments, is linked to the precarious state of the Salish Sea’s chinook salmon. Puget Sound chinook, which were given “threatened” status under the US Endangered Species Act in 1999, have become a cross-border issue.
Recovery of both Puget Sound chinook and the Southern Resident Killer Whale population would require investment of many billions of dollars by Washington State in new sewage treatment infrastructure. While taking action to protect both the orca and chinook is required by US federal law, Washington State currently has no plans to make that investment. Is our southern neighbour ignoring its responsibility to be a good environmental steward?
Killer Whales can be long-lived (“Granny,” above, lived past 100), but their birth rate is dependent on chinook salmon, a threatened species in Puget Sound. (Photo: markmallesonphotography.com)
LAST JUNE, A BRILLIANT SEVEN-YEAR-LONG STUDY that correlated the declining birth rate of the Southern Resident Killer Whale population with falling chinook salmon numbers, mercilessly compared what’s happening to the remaining orcas to the mass starvation of the Dutch population at the hands of German Nazis during World War II.
The authors stated: “The Nazis closed off the borders of Holland between October 1944 and May 1945, causing massive starvation over a 5–8 month period, with good food conditions before and after. There was a one-third decline in the expected number of births among confirmed pregnant woman during the under-nutrition period. Conceptions during the hunger period were very low. However, women who conceived during the hunger period had higher rates of abortion, premature and stillbirths, neonatal mortality and malformation. Nutrition had its greatest impact on birth weight and length for mothers experiencing hunger during their second half of gestation, when the fetus is growing most rapidly.”
The inclusion of the word “Nazis” in a peer-reviewed scientific study on the reproductive dynamics of an endangered whale population may strike some as odd, but the Dutch Famine, as the above events are known, was highly unusual: it took place in a well-developed, literate population that kept excellent health records and the vast majority of those affected survived. Thus it was one of the first events in human history for which scientists had accurate, reliable records to help them understand what health impacts occur when a population of mammals is starved.
The orca scientists found that a similar dynamic between food availability and birth rate has been impacting the Southern Resident Killer Whale (SRKW) population, but with one big difference: For the orca, this is not a one-time event. For them, a months-long famine now occurs almost every year.
Dr Samuel Wasser, the study’s lead author, is a research professor of conservation biology at the University of Washington. Wasser’s team gathered evidence from 2008 to 2014. They found that 69 percent of detectable pregnancies in the SRKW population failed during that period. Of those failed pregnancies, the scientists found, “33 percent failed relatively late in gestation or immediately post-partum, when the cost is especially high.” That high cost included an increased risk of mortality for the would-be mother.
The scientists observed: “Low availability of chinook salmon appears to be an important stressor among these fish-eating whales as well as a significant cause of late pregnancy failure, including unobserved perinatal loss.” They added: “However, release of lipophilic toxicants during fat metabolism in the nutritionally deprived animals may also provide a contributor to these cumulative effects.”
In other words, not only are the orca being starved, but when a starved, pregnant orca begins burning off her fat reserves in response to the scarce supply of food, toxins bioaccumulated in her fat reserves—such as PCBs and PBDEs—begin to have more of an impact on her health, such as a reduced ability to fight infections. This could contribute to the demise of the fetus and increase the risk to the mother’s life.
As a consequence of these conditions, the study found “the 31 potentially reproductive females in the SRKW population should have had 48 births between 2008–2015. Yet, only 28 births were recorded during that period. The 7 adult females in K pod have not had a birth since 2011, and just two births since 2007. The 24 females in the remaining two pods (J and L) have averaged less than 1 birth per pod since 2011, with no births in 2013, but had 7 births in 2015. One of the two offspring born in 2014 died.” As of this writing, the population has dwindled to 76 whales. As recently as 1996 there were 98 orca in the 3 pods.
How did the scientists determine that 69 percent of all pregnancies failed? After all, many of the pregnancies terminated early on, and there would have been no visible signs that the females had been pregnant. How does one detect whale pregnancies? Detection dogs.
Tucker, one of Wasser’s orca poop detection dogs (Photo: University of Washington)
Over the seven years of the study, the scientists intermittently followed J, K and L pods through the Salish Sea and used specially-trained dogs stationed at the bow of the research vessel to sniff for orca poop, and then point out its location to the scientists. The poop was collected and later genotyped (associated with a known individual whale) and analyzed for hormone measures of pregnancy occurrence and health. The scientists also looked for chemical indicators of nutritional and disturbance stress in the poop. By making the same measurements over time, they were able to distinguish between nutritional stress caused by low availability of chinook salmon, and disturbance stress caused by the presence of nearby boats.
Fisheries scientists had previously estimated that 70 to 80 percent of the SRKW population’s year-long diet consists of chinook salmon. The whales are thought to prefer chinook over other species of salmon partly because they use echolocation to find their prey. Since adult chinook are physically larger (they can weigh as much as 55 kilograms) than adults of other salmon species, chinook might be easier for orca to find. As well, there are runs of chinook returning to spawn in different river systems in the spring, summer and fall (sockeye, coho and chum return only in the fall). In the past that meant a reliable, almost year-round supply of chinook. And chinook may be preferred by the orca simply because of its higher fat content compared to other salmon. Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) estimates that reliance on chinook rises to 90 percent during July and August as the resident orca target returns to the Fraser River and rivers flowing into Puget Sound.
Although the link between the abundance of chinook salmon in the Salish Sea and the physical health of the southern resident population was known, Wasser’s research provides the first confirmation that low availability of chinook is suppressing the population’s birth rate and endangering the health of reproductive females.
Wasser included comparison over the seven years of the study of the two main chinook runs that are keeping the southern orcas alive: the Columbia River early spring run and the Fraser River summer and fall runs. Depending on the timing of those runs, and how many fish were in them, the southern resident orca experienced more or less intense famines through the winter months and between the spring and summer runs.
Estimating how many more chinook would need to be in the Salish Sea to make up for the southern orcas’ nutritional deficit wasn’t part of Wasser’s research. But in 2010, DFO estimated the nutritional requirement of the southern resident orca population, which then numbered 87, at about “1200 to 1400” chinook per day. Over the five-month period the orca occupy their critical habitat in the Salish Sea each year, that would amount to 180,000 to 210,000 chinook.
Wasser’s research shows the whales weren’t catching enough chinook in 2010 and the deficit is threatening the population. Yet in the Salish Sea in 2010, the total number of chinook caught by commercial and sport fisheries, plus the number of chinook that escaped to spawn, was about 500,000 fish. (These numbers are from the US EPA and the Pacific Salmon Commission.) Of those, 320,000 returned to their natal rivers to spawn. The 180,000 fish taken by commercial and sports fishers were split roughly in half between Canada and the US, even though 94 percent of the spawning fish were headed for the Fraser River in Canada. Only 6 percent were headed for rivers in Puget Sound. Note that the total catch taken by humans is roughly equivalent to the catch required by orca.
The quickest way to end the orca famine would be to end the commercial and sports fisheries for chinook in the Salish Sea, and Canadian scientist David Suzuki called for that action following the release of Wasser’s study. To recover chinook populations, however, will require a deeper understanding of why they are declining. A comparison of the Southern Resident Killer Whale population with their northern cousins helps in that understanding.
Wasser noted the “significantly lower” fecundity rate of SRKW compared to the Northern Resident Killer Whale (NRKW) population. From a 2011 study by Ellis, Tower and Ford, we know that in 1974 there were 120 whales in the NRKW population; by 2011 that had risen to 262. According to Canada’s Species at Risk Registry, the population grew to 290 by 2014. DFO used this number in its 2017 reports.
Above: Both NRKW and SRKW populations feed primarily on chinook, but one population of whales is growing while the other has stagnated since 1974. Data from DFO and The Center for Whale Research.
Over that same period, though, the SRKW population went from 70 to a high of 98 in 1996 and then dropped to the current 76. Although both resident groups experienced a decline in population after 1996-1997 following significant declines in chinook runs, the northern population then recovered and grew steadily while the southern population has languished.
As mentioned above, scientists have determined that both orca populations prey heavily on chinook as they return to spawn. It’s also known that, while their territories overlap, the northern orca rely on chinook returning to spawn in rivers north of the Salish Sea. The relative strength of the northern population compared to the southern, then, suggests the low availability of chinook that’s limiting growth of the southern orca population is a result of something that’s happening to the southern chinook that’s not happening to the northern chinook. What could that be?
The most dangerous period in a chinook salmon’s life, according to fisheries scientists, is its first year. Research scientist Dr James Meador, an environmental toxicologist with the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (Fisheries) in Seattle, estimates the current first-year survival rate of Pacific Northwest ocean-type juvenile chinook salmon at 0.4 percent. That’s four-tenths of one percent. Another way of stating that is that 99.6 percent of ocean-type chinook salmon die in their first year. That year is spent in their natal river, their natal estuary and marine waters not too far from that estuary. Since this is where almost all of the mortality occurs, it follows that any substantial recovery of chinook numbers would require conditions in these areas to improve. A doubling of the current rate of survival in that first year—so that only 99.2 percent of them die—could double the number of fish that return to spawn. We’ll come back to Meador later.
Wasser and his University of Washington team concluded their paper with this noteworthy comment: “Results of the SRKW study strongly suggest that recovering Fraser River and Columbia River chinook runs should be among the highest priorities for managers aiming to recover this endangered population of killer whales.”
What about Puget Sound, where chinook runs are listed as “threatened”? Historically, according to Jim Myers of the Northwest Fisheries Science Centre in Seattle, the Puget Sound chinook runs were about 25 percent greater than the Fraser River’s. But in 2010, according to the US EPA and Pacific Salmon Commission, Puget Sound returns were only 6 percent of Fraser River returns. The much bigger hole in chinook numbers is in Puget Sound. Shouldn’t international attention be focussed there?
Instead of accepting responsibility for the role it has played in the orca famine, Washington State has shifted public attention away from its lack of action, thereby reducing the chances of the Southern Resident Killer Whales’ survival. Now the situation is getting critical. The EPA recently downgraded the endangered whales’ survival status from “neutral” to “declining.” Time is running out.
Wasser, on sabbatical, was unavailable to explain why the recovery of Puget Sound chinook stocks shouldn’t be a priority in the effort to recover the southern population of killer whales. However, an examination of two scientific studies published by Meador shed light on why Wasser and other fisheries researchers might not regard recovery of the Puget Sound runs as a likely prospect to save the orca.
The decline of the Southern Resident Killer Whales may be linked to the low survival rate of juvenile Chinook salmon in contaminated Puget Sound estuaries. (Photo by Roger Tabor, US Fish and Wildlife Service)
IN 2013, DR JAMES MEADOR published the study “Do chemically contaminated river estuaries in Puget Sound affect the survival rate of hatchery-reared chinook salmon?” Meador was with the Ecotoxicology and Fish Health Program at the Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle. NFSC is a division of NOAA.
In that study, Meador observed: “Ocean-type chinook salmon that rear naturally or are released from a hatchery migrate in the spring and summer to the estuary as subyearlings (age 0+) and reside there for several weeks as they adjust physiologically to seawater and increase in size and lipid content before moving offshore to marine waters… Conversely, juvenile coho salmon spend their first year in freshwater and migrate to the estuary in the spring or summer as yearlings (age 1+), generally spending only a few days in the local estuary before proceeding to more open waters. This major difference in life history can have a large effect on the degree of toxicant exposure in contaminated estuaries, which can affect fish in several ways, including impaired growth, altered behavior, higher rates of pathogenic infections, and changes to physiological homeostasis, all of which can lead to increased rates of mortality.”
The physiological process of a juvenile salmon acclimatizing to saltwater is known as “smolting.” The juveniles become “smolts.”
Meador examined the records from hatcheries on major rivers flowing into Puget Sound over the 36 years between 1972 and 2008. Some of the rivers had contaminated estuaries while others were considered uncontaminated. He determined the difference in the chinook smolt-to-adult return rate between rivers with contaminated estuaries and those with uncontaminated estuaries. Meador noted that the smolt-to-adult return rate is the “primary metric to assess life-cycle success.”
He did the same analysis for hatchery coho in these rivers. Coho pass quickly through their natal estuaries and so would be far less impacted by contaminants in that estuary. The coho data, Meador clarified, “was used as another line of evidence to test the hypothesis that contaminated estuaries are one of the main factors determining the rate of survival for chinook.” And that’s what he found: Coho survival was not substantially impacted by contamination in their natal estuary.
Meador noted that “Salmonid survival is dependent on a large number of factors, many that co-occur. The analysis presented here is simplistic, but highlights an important relationship between hatchery chinook survival and contaminated estuaries. Because this analysis examined the smolt-to-adult survival rate in fish from a large number of hatcheries and estuaries over several years in one geographical location, many of these factors were likely accounted for and therefore had less of an effect on the overall results.”
As mentioned earlier, mortality in the first year of an ocean-type chinook is high. Meador described this as follows: “Survival for first-year ocean-type chinook in the Pacific Northwest has been estimated at 0.4 percent. Rates of survival over successive years are considerably higher for 2-, 3-, 4-, and 5-year-old fish at 60 percent, 70 percent, 80 percent, and 90 percent, respectively. Clearly, first-year survival is important for chinook, and most of the mortality for first-year ocean-type chinook is attributed to predation, poor growth, pathogens, starvation, and toxicants.”
Meador determined whether or not a particular estuary was “contaminated” or “clean” based on existing records of contaminants found in juvenile chinook tissue in that estuary, records of sediment contamination, and whether or not the estuary had been listed as a contaminated site.
He noted that most of the data on contaminants he was able to access had focussed on polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).
The scientists did not make their own measurements of contaminants in the estuaries, nor did they speculate on the possible sources of such contamination. They simply compared the statistical differences in survival rates for chinook smolts between apparently contaminated estuaries and apparently uncontaminated estuaries.
Meador concluded that “when all data were considered…the mean survival for juvenile chinook released from hatcheries into contaminated estuaries was 45 percent lower than for fish outmigrating through uncontaminated estuaries.” In other words, a contaminated natal estuary causes a nearly two-fold reduction in survival compared with uncontaminated estuaries.
Wow. That was quite a discovery: A single factor that doubled the mortality of a threatened species of fish that was known to be the cornerstone of the diet of an endangered species of whale.
Meador’s data was confined to juveniles that came from hatcheries. Does his conclusion apply to river-reared chinook? Meador’s study reported that, except for the Skagit River, Puget Sound rivers are all dominated by hatchery-bred chinook. But, for juveniles whose parents spawned in rivers, the effect of contaminants may be even greater than for hatchery-bred fish. Meador noted that “wild juvenile chinook spend approximately twice as long in the estuary as do hatchery fish, which would likely increase their exposure to harmful chemicals.”
If the incidence of a contaminated natal estuary was limited to one or two of Puget Sound’s smaller rivers, this effect might not be of too great consequence. But that’s not the case. Some of the Sound’s largest river systems have contaminated estuaries. For example, the Snohomish and Puyallup rivers have the second and third largest drainage areas in the Puget Sound Basin, an indication of their potential for rearing chinook. Two forks of the Snohomish—the Skykomish and the Snoqualmie—have, according to Washington fisheries scientists, the potential for up to 84,000 spawners. But over the last four decades these rivers have been averaging only 4,500, a mere 5 percent of this river system’s potential. Meador’s research suggests this and other rivers’ collective capacity to provide nourishment for a healthy Southern Resident orca population is being cut in half, year after year, by the contamination in their estuaries. But what contamination?
The Puyallup River—which once hosted one of the largest chinook salmon runs in Puget Sound—now hosts the Tacoma Central Wastewater Treatment Plant, which is permitted to discharge up to 10,000 kilograms of suspended solids per day into the river’s estuary, habitat critical to juvenile chinook.
IN 2016, MEADOR PUBLISHED “Contaminants of emerging concern in a large temperate estuary” in the scientific journal Environmental Pollution. The CECs targeted in the study included a long list of pharmaceutical and personal care products, hormones, and a number of industrial compounds. Many of these substances, the authors observed, “are potent human and animal medicines.” They considered their targets to be just a “representative subset” of CECs in the environment, not a comprehensive list of what’s actually there. The scientists estimated there are over 4000 CECs leaking out into the ecosphere.
Meador referenced his earlier study, noting that “juvenile chinook salmon migrating through contaminated estuaries in Puget Sound exhibited a two-fold reduction in survival compared to those migrating through uncontaminated estuaries.” His choice of targets suggests that he suspected secondary sewage treatment plants might be the source of the contamination that is causing that two-fold reduction in juvenile chinook survival. He noted that “some CECs are poorly removed by wastewater treatment plant processing or are discharged to surface waters, including streams, estuaries, or open marine waters due to secondary bypass or combined sewer overflows.” Having found no other research by other scientists along this line of investigation, Meador noted that “bioaccumulation and comparative toxicity to aquatic species constitutes the largest data gap in assessing ecological risk” posed by CECs.
Meador’s team targeted 150 contaminants. They focussed on three estuaries, two considered to be contaminated and one uncontaminated. The two contaminated estuaries (Puyallup River and Sinclair Inlet) each had one or more secondary sewage treatment plants discharging treated effluent into the rivers on which they were located. The third, the Nisqually River estuary, which doesn’t have a sewage treatment plant above it, was intended as a reference—an uncontaminated estuary to establish the extent to which the other two were contaminated.
The researchers took water samples from the estuaries and effluent from the treatment plants and analyzed each for the 150 target contaminants. As well, they netted juvenile chinook and Staghorn sculpin from the estuaries and whole-body tissue analyses for contaminants were performed.
Eighty-one of the CEC’s were found in effluent being discharged from the treatment plants; 25 were detected in the estuaries. To the surprise of the researchers, nine (9) of the CECs were detected in the water column of the Nisqually estuary, which they had supposed was uncontaminated. Their data indicated an even more disturbing situation: “Collectively, we detected 42 compounds in whole-body fish. CECs in juvenile chinook salmon were detected at greater frequency and higher concentrations compared to Staghorn sculpin.” Finding more CECs in fish tissue than estuary water meant juvenile chinook were quickly bioaccumulating the CECs. Moreover, the chinook were absorbing a higher dose of toxins in just a few weeks than were the Staghorn sculpin, which spent their entire life in the estuary.
Of the targeted contaminants, 37 were found in chinook. This included, from A to Z: Amitriptyline, Amlodipine, Amphetamine, Azithromycin, Benztropine, Bisphenol A, Caffeine, DEET, Diazepam, Diltiazem, Diltiazem desmethyl… well, you get the picture.
How might multi-contaminant doses lower the survival rate of juvenile chinook? The scientists found “several compounds in water and tissue that have the potential to affect fish growth, behavior, reproduction, immune function, and antibiotic resistance,” all of which could lead to early mortality. But they also noted that even if individual contaminants weren’t at a lethal level in tissue or organs, the cumulative effect of so many different contaminants in the juvenile chinook at the same time could very well be lethal—the drug-cocktail effect that so many humans experience, sometimes with fatal results.
The scientists put this finding in the context of Puget Sound as a whole: “The greater Puget Sound area contains 106 publicly-owned wastewater treatment plants that discharge at an average total flow about 1347 million litres per day (Washington Department of Ecology (2010)). Our study examined two of these with a combined total of 71 million litres per day. The output for these two wastewater treatment plants alone was on the order of kilogram quantities of detected CECs per day into estuarine waters of Puget Sound. Considering the low percentage of commercially available pharmaceutical and personal care products analyzed in this study and the amount of effluent discharged to Puget Sound waters, it is possible that a substantial load of potentially harmful chemicals are introduced into streams and nearshore marine waters daily. If the concentrations from the two studied effluents are representative of that from other wastewater treatment plants in Puget Sound, then it is reasonable to assume that inputs to streams and nearshore waters are substantial and likely on the order of 121 kilograms per day (approximately 44,000 kilograms annually) and even higher if secondary treatment bypass, permitted flows, maximum outputs, unmeasured compounds, septic system contributions, and transboundary contributions are considered.”
Some of Puget Sound’s largest secondary sewage treatment plants. There are 106 publicly-owned sewage treatment plants in the Puget Sound Basin. Many are located on or near to the natal estuaries of threatened chinook salmon runs. All of Puget Sound is considered to be an estuarine ecosystem.
The data the scientists collected contained another ominous finding. The concentrations of the targeted contaminants found in the effluent from the treatment plants were unexpectedly high, by American standards. Meador found that “a large percentage of the chemicals detected in Puget Sound effluents are among the highest concentrations reported in the US, which may be a function of per capita usage of these compounds or the treatment processes used at these wastewater treatment plants.”
One final, noteworthy point: In the estuary that was thought to be uncontaminated—the mouth of the Nisqually—the researchers found 9 of the targeted contaminants in estuary water and 13 in chinook. Meador observed, “Based on our water and fish data, the Nisqually estuary was more contaminated than expected, which highlights the difficulties of establishing suitable non-polluted reference sites for these ubiquitously distributed CECs.”
This observation has an interesting implication with respect to Meador’s earlier study, mentioned above, in which he was comparing the survival rates of juvenile chinook between contaminated estuaries and those considered uncontaminated. The Nisqually estuary was on the “uncontaminated” side of the ledger in that study, but on investigation it was, in reality, merely less contaminated. Would Meador’s finding of double the rate of mortality have risen if he actually had a number of pristine estuaries to compare with those that are contaminated?
IN AN EARLIER STORY (“Washington’s phony sewage war with Victoria,” Focus, May 2016) we reported on the 32.4 million kilograms of suspended solids permitted to be discharged by 77 of Puget Sound’s largest wastewater treatment plants each year. Attached to those solids are many contaminants, including PCBs and PBDEs, not targeted by Meador’s study, but known to have a negative impact on the health of fish and their sources of food.
The additional impact on chinook smolts, after they leave their natal estuaries and migrate through this near-shore chemical soup—dubbed “Poisoned Waters” by the 2005 PBS film of that name—is hinted at by the Puget Sound Basin’s 10-fold decline in chinook returns from historic numbers. As the urbanization of Puget Sound’s shores has spread, and the daily recontamination of marine and estuarine waters has grown, the chinook and the Southern Resident Killer Whales have been pushed closer and closer toward extinction.
This intense urbanization—right beside the critical habitat of both whales and their prey—is not occurring for the Northern Resident Killer Whale population, and that difference may be the deciding factor in the different birth rates of the two populations.
Given the seriousness of the situation and the headlines in the media about drugged fish in Puget Sound, one might have reasonably expected that Washington State’s political leaders would respond to Meador’s findings. After all, what Everett-Seattle-Tacoma residents were flushing down their toilets into Puget Sound by way of sewage treatment plants was doubling the rate of mortality of a fish already listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
They did respond, but apparently only to deflect attention away from Puget Sound’s contamination from sewage plants. To do that they pointed at…Victoria.
Just two days after an embarrassing drugged-chinook story appeared in the Seattle Times, Washington State Representative Jeff Morris boldly announced a proposal to ban Washington State employees from claiming travel expenses for trips made to Victoria until Victoria built a sewage treatment plant just like the ones around Puget Sound.
A week later, Morris sent a letter to Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps claiming that “chemical loading” from Victoria’s marine-based sewage treatment system poses a “long-term risk” to “our shared waters.” Morris’ letter was signed by 36 other Washington legislators whose districts border on Puget Sound.
The legislators’ letter informed Helps: “We recognize the shared risk in short-term loss of tourism activity on both sides of the border from publicity surrounding [Victoria’s lack of secondary sewage treatment]. However, we believe the long-term damage to marine mammals, in particular, but all marine wildlife, does more long-term damage to ecotourism.”
Washington State Representative Jeff Morris
Morris’ idea that extinctions should be prevented because they’re bad for tourism highlights the gap between a politician’s level of understanding of this critical issue and the depth of knowledge that has been created by scientists like Wasser and Meador. If State legislators were drawing up an action plan for the recovery of Puget Sound, they could do worse than to put on their list: “Read some science about contamination.”
The Washington legislators’ proposal to discourage State employees from travelling to Victoria—a move they didn’t follow through on—wasn’t the only action precipitated by Meador’s science.
There was a bureaucratic response as well. The Puget Sound Partnership (PSP), which describes itself as “the State agency leading the region’s collective effort to restore and protect Puget Sound,” undertook two related “actions” after Meador’s study had been published. One of those was “Action 0156,” which directed the University of Washington to conduct an “analysis of impacts…from Victoria, BC sewage.”
Nowhere to be found on PSP’s long list of actions was any analysis of the impacts from the 106 publicly-owned sewage treatment plants around the Sound that are permitted to discharge over 32.4 million kilograms of suspended solids each year.
The PSP also committed to “Action 0048,” which was “Identifying sources of contaminants harmful to juvenile salmon.” PSP reports that after the expenditure of $273,000, the project is “off-schedule.” Contacted by Focus, the Washington State Department of Ecology—the agency responsible for undertaking the analysis—clarified that the study “was not actually funded.”
It appears that little else on the “Action” list for the Sound’s recovery is funded, either. PSP estimated its list of “Actions” for 2016 would cost $130 million, but acknowledged that only $17 million of that had been found.
Washington’s Department of Ecology confirmed that, as of 2016, the State had no plans to upgrade or relocate any of the existing large sewage treatment plants on Puget Sound.
Washington State says it’s commited to the recovery of Puget Sound. That would require the State to act on its scientists’ findings about the ecological impacts of ongoing contamination from its sewage treatment facilities. Unfortunately, the State’s current course doesn’t appear likely to produce anything that the Southern Resident Killer Whales will be able to chew on.
David Broadland is the publisher of Focus Magazine.