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Subject: FW: The State of Willapa Bay--2015 by Ross P. Barkhurst
Date: Wed, 25 Feb 2015 18:25:13 -0500
The ecological status of Willapa Bay, Washington, has changed rapidly in the last fifteen years, and not for the better. All of its iconic wild species of animals and plants are in a deteriorated state. These changes are impacted by action of state agencies, recently at an accellerated pace. While the bay suffers from long term neglect of salmon management standards and habitat protection statutes, recent actions are piling on losses at a more alarming rate. Where goals exist, they are not being met. " No net loss of ecological function" is the law of the state. Unmonitored net loss, or monitored with no effective corrective action, has been the practice in Willapa Bay.
A major invasion of the plant spartina proceeded over several decades. It was displacing eelgrass and needed to be removed. Suddenly, about year 2000, excess caution was replaced with no caution and a massive spray campaign ensued. As a result, spartina was largely removed, and by 2008 large, collateral damage resulted. Chum salmon and waterfowl immediately declined. During the bulk of spartina removal, eelgrass net loss was not monitored, in keeping with tradition. Only one aerial survey of eelgrass can be found, published in 2007. Even this late survey shows Zostera marina where it is now absent and has never returned. None have been published since. Waterfowl surveys were suspended during the entire spartina campaign. The larger eelgrass, Zostera marina, and the smaller eelgrass, Zostera japonica, which we call "duckgrass" suffered major collateral damage. Pacific Brant, which rely on marina, have never recovered, nor has marina. Duck grass recovered more rapidly in the more suitable areas, as did the ducks that depend on it. Waterfowl surveys, reinstituted in 2012, showed good numbers for two years, followed by a crash in 2014 with the onset of a spray campaign directed at eelgrass. Chum and Chinook salmon escapement of Natural Origin Spawners (NOS) failed to meet WDFW goals starting one spawning cycle after the spartina program did, and have never recovered. The NOS Chinook do not show up in acceptable numbers, and those that do are genetically, statistically, overwhelmed on the spawning beds by by more numerous hatchery fish that are less reliant on bay habitat to survive the juvenile portion of their life cycles. This is now true for every major river in the Willapa Drainage. In the North River they are essentially gone. This is one of the two rivers earmarked for NOS Chinook recovery several years ago, when there were many more present. Poorly situated overharvest finished the job on North River. Endangered Green Sturgeon and white sturgeon are gone fron Willapa Bay. We have new leadership in WDFW. It is concentrating on harvest. We have hope. Still, WDFW seems to have little to say about habitat, the other root cause. This must follow.
Historically both species of eelgrass were protected by a state " no net loss" requirement. Their restoration was required, and this was not monitored or enforced. In 2011, WDFW removed duckgrass from protected habitat status. This was the enabler for a chain of events involving multiple state agencies which ended in early 2014 with issuance of a Department of Ecology NPDES permit to chemically remove duckgrass, along with marina on the bed being treated. In keeping with tradition, this permit requires no monitoring on net loss of marina, and no restoration. It is backed by an Environental Impact Statement that assumes waterfowl forage requirements one thousand times less than truth. The major math "error" that caused this has been pointed out, and remains uncorrected. At the request of the state Departent of Ecology, an appeal of this permit has been delayed until October 2015, allowing another year of wide open spraying. In 2014, waterfowl numbers crashed again in Willapa Bay. Along the Long Beach peninsula, where there are normally several thousand ducks at peak, there were 32 widgeon and zero pintail observed. The bay wide peak average of 85,000 over the previous two years dropped to 22,000 in 2014. Such a drop has not been counted in thirty years. In 2014 flyway numbers were above average, but not in Willapa Bay. In Puget Sound eelgrass is being restored, while it is being removed in Willapa Bay. Both species are protected in Puget Sound, although Ecology has now asked them not to.
To the casual observer, it must seem shocking that things can happen so fast, with spraying that "should" be diluted by tides and carried out to sea. This was the claim of the state permit's impact statement. Actually, bad things can happen fast because Willapa Bay has a peculiar circulation pattern which moves seawater and pollutants with a net inflow on the west side. It goes south of a dispersion or low flushing zone and stays there for many weeks. The average age of water south of Nahcotta and Bay Center is 45 to 60 days. Eventually this water and contents are carried back out on the east side to the North. When a certain seasoned oceanographer pointed this out, the state attorney general labelled him unqualified to speak. Back in the day, such estuarine types were called Vertical Boundary Estuaries. Today a more recent UW paper on Willapa Bay has different labels, but has shown exactly the circulation of such an estuary. It contains exquisite detail, makes the same points about flushing and circulation, and receives the same state consideration, i.e. none. Apparently DOE has repealed density gradients and Coriolis Force, along with fish biology and waterfowl carrying capacity math. Chemicals that, in minute concentrations, can retard plant growth without killing or deforming, are circulated and retained in a situation that should be alarming. The ducks knew the condition of their food, ate what little was there, and left. Salmon and sturgeon are stuck in this cycle. With any overharvesting, they just disappear.
After ten years of " no targeted harvest", chum salmon, which used to fill a bay with a carrying capacity of 80,000 to 200,000 now cannot make an escapement goal of 35,000 fish. Chinook have made their escapement goal once in fifteen years. Brant are almost gone. Ducks are at a 30 year low. Sturgeon are gone, with zero retention allowed. Green sturgeon are endangered. After a few decades of removal of their favorite forage, burrowing shrimp, it is over for them. We now can see that carrying capacity, in addition to harvest control, is the key to all of the above and the bay has lost much carrying capacity for our iconic species. They all depend directly or indirectly on eelgrass. This key habitat is being removed under state permits and negligence of our own standards.
The waters of Willapa Bay were put here by the world's great flood. Under the waters are the eelgrasses. Under the grass are their words. How long will these words haunt us?
Posted on Sun, May 31, 2015
by Dave Hamilton