There were two spectacular events this past weekend. One was the royal wedding and the other was the Pacific County Marine Resource Council 2018 Annual Science Conference. I chose the science conference.
I joined 45 other interested citizens — a range of everyday “Janes and Joes” like me: shellfish growers, foresters, gardeners, foragers, politicos, and other assorted individuals with a tendency to science-geekiness. Kathleen Sayce, Kathleen Davies, Nancy and Phil Allen, Sydney and Nyel Stevens, Brian Sheldon, Eric Hall, Debbie Wells, Dean Takko, Tom Kollasch, Dave Ryan, Jess Helsley, Dale Beasley, Kim Patten, Doug Kess, Andy Appleby, Michael Spencer, Will Richey (among others) all attended — in short, the usual suspects.
Science was spoken; some hopeful, highlighting successes of the past years; some news not so bright. I’d like to focus on our amazing Willapa Bay and its watershed. (In the coming weeks, I’ll talk more about soil and trees.)
It’s not news that contemporary salmon runs are suffering (or have disappeared) compared with the bounty that existed before the Mighty Columbia was dammed to accommodate our region’s growing need for power. We exchanged cheap hydroelectric energy for salmon. June hogs were the first to go since the Grand Coulee Dam cut off the upper reaches of the Columbia River that wound its way hundreds of miles north into Canada; this was the spawning grounds of those giants, and no fish ladder was installed. Since no salmon could reach their spawning grounds — boom! — no more June hogs.
We got a little more charitable to our fishy friends on the Lower Columbia dams where fish ladders were installed; and now hatchery fry are even trucked around the dams to accommodate their return to natal streams.
Fish biologist Andy Appleby spoke about hatchery reforms. He was followed by Chinook salmon genetic analysis specialist Sewall Young. But let’s start with a quick review (lots of info here: https://tinyurl.com/y8l7gm8h). Female salmon lay in redds, nests they dig in the gravel of streams or rivers; each redd could contain between 1,000-17,000 eggs. However, “an average of three fish returning for every parent fish would be considered good production,” so salmon need all the help we can give them.
If those eggs hatch out (they’re called alevin) and don’t get eaten, aren’t buried too deeply, don’t get suffocated by silt, or die in water that’s too warm, etc., etc., they emerge as fry and begin their little lives moving downstream. Young says “they emigrate to the ocean as subyearlings, grow for between two to five years and return to their natal streams to spawn and die.”
“Natal isolation” or “natal fidelity reproduction” leads to local adaptation; that means that over long periods of time strains of salmon born in a particular stream or river develop their own characteristics and become genetically identifiable.
How salmon find their way back to their exact birth stream is one of nature’s wonders. Magnetic or celestial orientation, memory of their home stream’s smell, their sense of a circadian calendar — all these may be used to direct a salmon home. “The memory and smell centers in a salmon’s brain grow rapidly just before it leaves its home stream for the sea. A salmon can detect one drop of water from its home stream mixed up in 250 gallons of sea water.” Astonishing!
These days, tags — tiny wires .025 X 1.1 mm in size injected into hatchery fish — are helping scientists identify and track distinct salmon populations. As Young says, “Wild salmon are not tagged, so hatchery fish serve as surrogates for the wild population.” The bulk of our Chinook salmon seem to move north to the British Columbia coastal waters before returning to spawn; though there are a few renegades that end up in California.
Salmon are struggling. Dams can obstruct the salmons’ journey to their unique spawning grounds. Climate change can produce water too warm for optimum fry survival. The removal of log jams creates streams and rivers that flow too fast and don’t provide side channels and pools that fry can hide in while they grow. Or, the opposite could be true: no spring freshet means fry don’t get the message to head to the ocean at the right time.
Ocean acidification — especially the summer dead zone called the “Blob” — can have negative effects on the food chain and, therefore, the survival of salmon. As Appleby noted, “Salmon that spawn in spring or in glacially-fed streams are the populations we expect to see hit the hardest by climate change.”
The natural world is an intimately inter-relational and ever-changing environment. We are only beginning to understand how our behaviors — our structures, our needs for energy, agricultural products and roads — impact our salmon friends. There have been decades of solutions proposed, but none have made all stakeholders — farmers, fishermen and woman, environmentalists, recreational users — happy; nor have they had the desired effect of allowing our salmon to return to levels sufficient to their sustainability.
Those darn shrimp
Eric Hall, Taylor Shellfish, opened a discussion on burrowing shrimp and a relatively new technique for raising oysters that combats shrimp destruction of our tidelands. Taylor developed, and are continuing to refine, a system for cultivating oysters that allows them to mature in bags on a line rather than directly on tidelands. This “flip bag” or “tumble bag” process requires specialized equipment and training, but according to Hall can return an growers investment within a year. It also appears that spat grown initially in bags have a higher survival rate when placed on the bottom for the remainder of their lives.
The problem, as our WSU extension officer Patten and USDA representative Brett Dumbauld clearly illustrated, is that there is currently no approved solution for eradicating the shrimp (two varieties: ghost shrimp and mud shrimp) which burrow into the sand and change tidelands into mushy suffocating deathtraps.
As reported in the Chinook Observer, and elsewhere, the Washington State Department of Ecology (DOE) has disallowed the permit to spray Imidacloprid to eradicate shrimp (https://tinyurl.com/y7erk2tx). Patten outlined that it could be years until another solution might be available.
As Patten said, “If the oyster growers decide to sue the Department of Ecology, it would then go in front of the Pollution Control Board for a hearing. If they find in favor of Ecology, then it’s over as far as any chemical treatment. If they find against, it would go back to Ecology — and they would maybe look at the points the Hearing Board cited and try to address those concerns. Whether they could do that and still not issue the permit, we don’t know. Or there could be a law passed by the Legislature to move the permitting process from Ecology perhaps to the Washington Department of Agriculture. Then Ag would have to say, ‘Now it’s ours, here’s what we’re going to do.’ And they’d begin some kind of study. They have different restriction and laws to look at than Ecology has so the outcome could change. It’s a lot of money, and a lot of time, and a lot of unknowns.”
Meanwhile, our oyster growers have fewer and fewer acres of suitable tideland. Dombauld, who has been studying the shrimp for 30 years, notes that the population began increasing through the 1990s, then declined somewhat, but is now increasing again.
As grower Brian Sheldon says, “I don’t have an oyster bed anywhere in the bay that doesn’t have shrimp on it.” Sheldon thinks the shrimp, which prefer salt water, may be inhibited in southern bay tidelands because more fresh water pours into those areas. As he says, “In 1955 there was no problem about shellfish and burrowing shrimp. Something in the system has changed.”
Why are the shrimp increasing? Is it predators, the make-up of salt to fresh water, water temperatures, sedimentation? No one knows, and it may be years of trial and error before a solution can be found. What’s clear to me is that science is a handmaiden to both economic development and the retention of our beloved environment.
The natural world is an intimately inter-relational and ever-changing environment. We are only beginning to understand how our behaviors — our structures, our needs for energy, agricultural products and roads — impact our salmon friends.