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You Shall Not Pass

Chinook Salmon

Removing Fish Barriers

In 1969, a burning river helped draw attention to the polluted state of many United States waterways. Since then, much progress has been made to clean them up, allowing wildlife to thrive in habitats that were once dead. It’s only more recently that attention has migrated (pun intended) to fish passage problems.

According to NOAA, In the United States, more than 2 million dams and barriers block fish from migrating upstream to spawning and rearing habitat. The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) says that a little under two thousand culverts block fish passage along Washington highways. As of last year, WSDOT completed 319 fish passage projects, but there is still much to accomplish.
Read on for an example of a recent project, what services are needed to clear the way, and information about Washington, Oregon, Hawaii, and Alaska organizations that are trying to make a difference.

Example of a Fish Passage Project—Rue Creek

Before construction

Rue Creek before construction.

After construction

Rue Creek after construction.

The Pacific Conservation District received a Washington Coastal Restoration Initiative grant from the Washington State Recreation and Conservation Office. Hart Crowser supported the Pacific Conservation District with design and development of two culvert replacements on Rue Road in Pacific County.

Fish passage and flow conveyance capacity were restored by removing the existing culverts and overlying fill, and installing a 50-foot bridge that met design requirements in the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Water Crossing Design Guidelines and Washington State Department of Transportation’s Standard Specifications for Road, Bridge and Municipal Construction and Design Manual. Staff then used the stream simulation approach (one of the methods to size and design culverts that is an option in the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Water Crossing Design Guidelines) to design the pattern, dimensions, and other features of the stream channel at the crossing, which would enable safe passage of juvenile and adult salmonids both upstream and downstream. An added benefit was that the replacement should prevent the creek from flooding Rue Creek Road and nearby residences.

Services Needed for Fish Passage Projects

These projects can require:

  • Hydraulic engineering
  • Geotechnical engineering
  • Stream reach assessment
  • Wetland delineation
  • Permit applications to comply with Section 404 of the Clean Water Act, Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act, and other federal, state, and local permit requirements. For the Rue Creek example above, this included preparation of a JARPA, SEPA checklist, ESA Section 7 Biological Assessment, Essential Fish Habitat assessment, and Stewardship Plan.

Action on the Local Level

Washington

In 2014, the Washington State Legislature created the Fish Passage Barrier Removal Board to develop a coordinated barrier removal strategy and provide the framework for a fish barrier grant program. Its stated mission is to “identify and expedite the removal of human-made or caused impediments to anadromous fish passage in the most efficient manner practical through the development of a coordinated approach and schedule that identifies and prioritizes the projects necessary to eliminate fish passage barriers caused by state and local roads and highways and barriers owned by private parties.”
The board has monthly meetings; agenda and meeting handouts are available on its website. It advanced its first project list to the legislature, which has been funded.

Oregon

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife has a nine-member Fish Passage Task Force, which “advises the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Fish and Wildlife Commission on matters related to fish passage. These matters include, but are not limited to, rulemaking to implement statutes, funding and special conditions for passage projects, and exemptions and waivers.” The most recent agendas and minutes are at the link above; older ones are here.

Hawaii

The Pacific Islands Fish and Wildlife Office of The US Fish and Wildlife Service says that the Hawaii Fish Habitat Partnership “is composed of a diverse group of partners that have the capacity to plan and implement a technically sound statewide aquatic habitat restoration program. The partnership is committed to implementing aquatic habitat restoration in the appropriate landscape scale to achieve conservation benefits.”

They list “instream structures and barriers including stream diversions, dams, channel alteration, and road crossings” as one of eight key threats to freshwater species and habitat.
See the Pacific Islands Fish & Wildlife Office annual report for fiscal year 2017 for more information.

Alaska

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has a fish passage inventory database with information about 2,500 stream crossings. They have partnered with other organizations to complete at least 33 culvert replacements.

You Shall Pass

A blocked river isn’t as dramatic as a burning river, which makes it harder to draw attention to the plight of the remaining blocked fish. But the hope is that continued effort will forward the progress that is already being made.

STEM for Future Generations

Jessica teaching about salmon

Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) schools in our area and across the country are working to improve the way our students learn in these subject areas. These STEM-focused schools offer a more hands-on approach to teaching, from using objects students can physically manipulate to working with resources and companies in the area to bring in experts to teach the students more about these fields.

This is why Jessica Blanchette, a marine biologist at Hart Crowser, volunteered her time to educate the 4th graders of Odyssey Elementary on the life cycle of salmon, a crucial element of the ecological community of the Pacific Northwest.

Using multiple instructional strategies, including hands-on activities and colorful presentation materials, Jessica captivated Mukilteo School District students with her knowledge of fry, parr, and smolt—the salmon life cycle. Students had many questions and Jessica had plenty of answers!

Jessica led a thoughtful discussion about the human relationship with salmon, our impacts on them, and ways in which we can promote a successful co-existence. There was excitement in the classroom as the lesson wrapped up: not only because of the activities and new knowledge, but also because the students were beginning to see that one day they, too, can be scientists.

When scientists like Jessica share their time to promote STEM, it has a positive and lasting impact in the community. Hopefully, with more endeavors such as this, local scientists will make a positive difference in our world and for future generations.

Salmon Life Cycle

Mussels Reveal Impact of Puget Sound Stormwater

Bay Mussels

Native mussels (Mytilus trossulus) like these were used to evaluate the degree of contamination in Puget Sound nearshore habitats. Photo: Brewbooks

The mission of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) is to preserve, protect and perpetuate fish, wildlife and ecosystems while providing sustainable fish and wildlife recreational and commercial opportunities. An important initiative is evaluating the impacts to nearshore aquatic areas from stormwater discharges. Mussels sieve the water as they feed, and their tissues absorb and retain chemicals and pathogens, so the WDFW led a study using mussels as an indicator organism. They got help from so many organizations and volunteers, the list fills nearly an entire page. It includes the Snohomish County Marine Resources Council (Mike Ehlebracht, Hart Crowser geochemist, volunteers for the MRC), the Washington State Department of Ecology, other governmental agencies, native American tribes, and various non-governmental organizations. The work was funded under the new Stormwater Action Monitoring (SAM) program that is paid for by municipal stormwater permit holders.

How Was the Study Done?

As part of this study, the WDFW and volunteers placed “clean” caged mussels at over seventy locations across Puget Sound, including highly industrial areas (such as Smith Cove and Salmon Bay), urban areas like the Edmonds waterfront, and rural areas (such as the San Juan Islands). They left the caged mussels in the water for several months, then retrieved them, often in the dark, in cold and blustery weather. They tested them for stormwater-related contaminants including PAHs (produced by burning coal, fossil fuels, wood, and garbage), PCBs (used in electrical apparatuses, surface coatings, and paints; banned in the US in 1979), metals, PBDEs (used in flame retardants), DDTs (insecticides; banned in the US since 1972), and others.

And the Results…

The study showed that stormwater discharges continue to impact the nearshore aquatic environment, particularly in industrial and highly urbanized (paved) areas. PAHs and PCBs were the most ubiquitous, problematic chemicals detected in the mussels, with some of the highest concentrations found in Elliott Bay (particularly Smith Cove).

Puget Sound is a large, complex, and diverse estuary. This data will be critical in determining best management practices and providing recommendations for environmental remediation. The next round of sampling will occur this fall, with updated data available in another year or two.

Download a copy of the Stormwater Action Monitoring 2015/16 Mussel Monitoring Survey: Final Report.

Questions? Contact Mike Ehlebracht.

Placing caged mussels

Snohomish County Marine Resources Council volunteers and staff place caged mussels.

Preserving Eelgrass While Remediating Legacy Contamination

Eelgrass

What do you do when the State requires you to take action, yet prohibits that action? It’s a conundrum that takes imagination and determination.

The Setup

For over 100 years, several companies used the nearshore at the former Custom Plywood site for processing and manufacturing wood-related materials that would be used nationwide. They filled the tideland with wood, ash, bricks, metal, and sediment. They left a tug, boiler ash, scrap metal, barrels and drums, aluminum cans, scrap wood, paper, sawdust and creosote-treated pilings. As if that wasn’t enough, in 1992 a fire destroyed the mill, adding dioxin (a carcinogen) to the sediment.

The Conundrum

The Washington State Department of Ecology and Hart Crowser removed most of the contamination from the property and tidelands. Despite this, there are many acres of tidelands that are still peripherally contaminated with dioxins, much of which contains healthy eelgrass habitat. The eelgrass is not affected by the dioxin contamination; the problem is that it serves as a potential pathway for human exposure (i.e., shellfish consumption). By State mandate eelgrass must be protected. (See our earlier post about the importance of eelgrass). This means that the State requires that something be done about the contamination but not at the expense of the valuable eelgrass habitat. Our current options for dealing with dioxin contamination are to either dig up the contaminated material, or immobilize/cover it to prevent the exposure to the benthic community. Either action would potentially destroy the eelgrass. What to do?

The New Approach

The solution? Remediate the sediment in place by covering the eelgrass habitat, but not burying it. Eelgrass, unlike other species of seagrass, can only tolerate a very small level of burial. We needed to determine if the eelgrass at the former Custom Plywood site could withstand deposition of very fine layers of sand that would act as a barrier (cap) to the contamination in order to protect the benthic community and the habitat overall. Our team conducted a two-year pilot study to see whether the eelgrass could tolerate a four- or eight-inch layer of sand (applied two inches at a time), rather than a single layer application that would ordinarily be used for remediation. As part of this study, our team also investigated if adding a layer of carbon could increase the cap performance so that the cap could be as thin as possible.

Diver

Diver with eelgrass/sediment sample. Photo courtesy of Research Support Services.

The Result

The data clearly showed that eelgrass at the former Custom Plywood site can survive a four-inch cap if implemented in multiple thin layers. This means that the preferred alternative for cleaning up the residual contamination is potentially feasible. The next step is to design a large scale application using the information and data gathered from the pilot study. Eventually we hope to finally cleanup the former Custom Plywood site while leaving the existing eelgrass habitat in place and functioning.

 

Chase the Rainbow (Smelt)

Kuskokwim River

Kuskokwim River

Individual Rainbow Smelt Eggs

Individual Rainbow Smelt Eggs

We got the call at 3:30 in the afternoon that they were 10 miles below Kalskag. At 6 a.m. the following morning we were on plane, bound for the Alaskan Bush on the Kuskokwim River in search of spawning rainbow smelt. These are river spawners and an important subsistence species for remote Alaskan villages. Concerns that proposed increases in barge traffic may disrupt or scour spawning areas prompted a study to identify where fish spawn and the types of habitats they use. And on the Kuskokwim, they travel fast; getting there in time to study them is one of the biggest challenges.

Rainbow smelt begin their spawning migrations shortly after the ice breaks up in spring. Through word of mouth, Alaskan villagers begin fishing as smelt move upstream. In 2014, smelt moved rapidly, moving upstream from village to village for nearly 200 miles at rate of about 30 miles per day. They spawn just as quickly and immediately leave the river for the ocean. Scientists must plug themselves into this word of mouth network and be ready to fly to remote areas on a moment’s notice.

Upon arriving, we began helicopter and boat surveys covering over 50 miles of river to find and follow the fish, and document the uppermost extent of the migration. This lasted a mere two days before the fish were gone, presumably having spawned and moving back downstream. Next, discrete spawning grounds needed to be identified in a river that flows more than 50,000 cubic feet per second. Eggs are also tiny (0.5 millimeter). Sampling included collecting and examining fish for spawn condition, collecting substrate samples, and sieving substrates for eggs and grain size to determine spawning locations and substrate preferences. All studies needed to be conducted in as little as two weeks before the eggs hatched and all traces of the fish were gone.

Despite all of the challenges, field efforts were successful. Results show that fish spawn on large, low gradient gravel bars in water between 5 and 14 feet deep. Gravel to cobble substrates were most commonly used. Data will be used to better define the potential impacts of barge routes and as a tool to help manage the resource. The ultimate goal is to allow the safe transport of commerce in the river while minimizing impacts to this unique resource for native Alaskans in this remote part of the state.

Rainbow Smelt

Rainbow Smelt

Eelgrass—Nowhere to Hide

Bay Pipefish in Eelgrass

Bay Pipefish (Syngnathus leptorhynchus)–one of many species that depend on eelgrass habitat for survival.

A marine ecologist in Hart Crowser’s Anchorage, Alaska office, overheard a recent complaint, “When I go fishing I can’t stand all this ‘eelweed’ getting in my prop and fouling my lines.”

“Then why do you fish where there is eelgrass?” asked the marine ecologist.

“Because that is where fishing is best.”

That was the crucial connection. Eelgrass is essential fish habitat. Without it, even migratory fish (including our beloved salmon), don’t have a place to call home.

Eelgrass (Zostera marina) is native to shallow waters of most temperate oceans and seas, including Puget Sound, Oregon, northern California, British Columbia, and Alaska. It is not a seaweed like kelp, but a flowering plant that evolved from terrestrial flora (similar to what you might find in your front yard).

Eelgrass is important to many fish and invertebrates. Juvenile salmon, rockfish, and Dungeness crab find shelter in eelgrass meadows in early life. Herring, in particular, spawn on eelgrass, making it crucial to its survival. Many species (including commercially important ones) use it to live, eat, spawn, and hide from predators.

Eelgrass is also very good at converting carbon dioxide into tissue that may get buried, taking it out of the system (blue carbon). An acre of eelgrass can remove nearly 150 kg of carbon from the atmosphere every year, making it important to the issues of ocean acidification and global climate change.

Eelgrass is pretty hearty, dealing with coastal storms, being exposed at low tide, and spending part of each year under sea ice (in northern areas). Yet, as hearty and important as eelgrass is, it is on the decline, leaving fish and invertebrates that depend on it with nowhere to hide. Stay tuned for the reasons why, and what’s being done about it.