Hood Canal remains restricted
Some areas of the canal are on the mend, but others are still starved for oxygen, according to the latest monitoring results.
The low oxygen levels triggered a massive fish and shellfish die-off in mid-October from the Potlatch area north to Hoodsport.
About 40 percent of the more than 30 water samples gathered last week by a citizen-based monitoring program showed oxygen levels below 5 parts per million, which is stressful to fish.
On Monday, Gov. Gary Locke diverted $25,000 from his emergency fund to identify and start taking action on human sources of pollution contributing to low dissolved oxygen levels in Hood Canal.
"To hear the words 'dead sea' associated with any of our state's water bodies is shocking," Locke said. "We must work to understand the canal's dynamics, identify the human contribution to the problem and develop an action plan to address the issue. The fish are in no position to wait for these answers."
The money was forwarded to the governor's Puget Sound Action Team to work with federal, state, tribal and local groups already involved with the low dissolved oxygen problems.
Jerry Erlich, a recreational diver from Olympia, said he has never seen anything like the early October die-off of rockfish, octopus, perch, crab, shrimp and other aquatic life in 20 years of diving in Hood Canal.
Diving at Sund Rocks near Hoodsport this past weekend, Erlich said the fish and marine life were once again well-distributed in the water column and did not appear to be under stress.
"The fish are pretty well back to their typical depths," Hoodsport area resident Bob Sund said.
When oxygen levels were at their lowest in October, fish were massing near the surface in search of oxygen.
Developing a complete picture of what's happening will take a sophisticated computer model and about three years of data gathering, state Department of Ecology oceanographer Jan Newton said.
"There's a $3 million price tag to really do it right," she said.
In November, Congress allocated $350,000 to work on the Hood Canal study.
The oxygen problem is tied to both natural and human causes.
Nutrients in the water from human and pet waste, stormwater runoff and fertilizers have contributed to plankton and algae blooms that decompose and rob the water of oxygen.
Hood Canal, a 60-mile long fjord-like body of water, also suffers from poor water circulation and slow flushing activity, which compounds the problem. Changes in ocean conditions also influence oxygen levels in the canal.
Add this year's unusually warm summer, and all the conditions were in place for a disaster.
This marks the second year in a row the state Department of Fish and Wildlife has closed the canal to most fishing in the fall.
With any luck, the state agency might be able to reopen fishing in the canal this month so anglers can take advantage of the smelt run, said Greg Bargmann, marine fish manager for state Fish and Wildlife.
Locke gave the Puget Sound Action Team until April 1 to come up with a plan for reducing human-caused pollution to the canal.
"Marine life in Hood Canal faces a life and death struggle to simply breathe each summer," said Brad Ack, director of the action team. "These early action measures are one step of a much longer journey to protect marine life in Hood Canal."
John Dodge covers the environment and energy for The Olympian. He can be reached at 360-754-5444 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Locke promises fight vs. oxygen deficiency - An environmental group is asked to help solve the deficiency that has killed thousands of fish
December 9, 2003
Shocked by the prospect of Hood Canal becoming a "dead sea,"
Gov. Gary Locke pledged Monday to deal with the low-oxygen problem
that has killed thousands of fish the past two years.
"To hear the words 'dead sea' associated with any of our state's marine waters is shocking," Locke said in a prepared statement. "We must work to understand the canal's dynamics, identify the human contribution to the problem and develop an action plan to address the issue."
Congress this year appropriated $350,000 for starting a three-year study to determine why the deadly low-oxygen conditions have grown worse the past several years. But Locke wants something done now.
"The fish are in no position to wait for these answers," he said.
Puget Sound Action Team will convene a panel of experts to consider all available information about the types and amounts of nutrient pollution that could be triggering the low-oxygen levels.
Adding new programs or strengthening existing programs may be needed to encourage people to help save Hood Canal, said Brad Ack, director of the Action Team.
"Marine life in Hood Canal faces a life-and-death struggle to simply breathe each summer," Ack said. "These early-action measures are one step of a much longer journey to protect marine life in Hood Canal."
The low-oxygen problems in the fall have been associated with an explosive growth of plankton in the summer.
Excessive nutrients in the presence of sunlight triggers the growth of plankton, which then die and decay, sucking up oxygen in the process.
Ack said Hood Canal is a high priority, due to its vast ecosystem and natural resources now in crisis.
In the short term, the Action Team hopes to focus on human impacts to the canal -- including stormwater, septic pollution, agricultural practices and other sources of nutrients, Ack said.
"By March or April, we should have a pretty focused plan about where to beef up corrective actions," he said.
Even though the exact sources of nutrients have not been identified, people can take steps to limit the impacts.
He compared Hood Canal's low-oxygen problem to the issue of global warming: More studies are needed, he said, yet enough is known about the problem to take the first steps to reducing the crisis.
As of last week, oxygen levels in Hood Canal remained too low to allow fishing except for salmon, according to Greg Bargmann of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
The fishing closure started Sept. 12 and has continued through the peak of the smelt run two or three weeks ago, he said. Fishing could be allowed as early as next week for the end of smelt season, he added, but bottom fishing will remain off limits until more normal conditions return.
Bob Hager, chairman of the Lower Hood Canal Watershed Committee who helped coordinate the response to the low-oxygen problem, welcomed the involvement of the governor and the Puget Sound Action Team.
"I think this is great," he said. "Anything that emphasizes work in this area is extremely important."
The state's congressional delegation helped obtain $350,000 to start building a computer model to explain why dissolved oxygen disappears each fall in Hood Canal.
How that money will be spent has not yet been worked out, he said.
Meanwhile, the Puget Sound Action Team can play an important role in increasing understanding about the problem and educating the public, he said.
"No matter how many studies or meetings you hold, nothing will change until you get the public involved," Hager said.
Numerous state, federal and local officials are working together on the problem.
Duane Fagergren, a longtime staffer for the action team who owns a home in Mason County, has been assigned as point person for the action team and governor's office.
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