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Environment | Water

EarthFix Conversations: So, How's Puget Sound?

A new report brings together data collected from all around the Sound in 2011. It’s got information on river inputs, seawater temperature, salinity, nutrients, dissolved oxygen, ocean acidification, phytoplankton, biotoxins, bacteria, pathogens, shellfish…. Whew…

EarthFix’s Ashley Ahearn turned to Stephanie Moore. She’s a biological oceanographer with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the lead editor of the report.

EarthFix: Why was this report necessary?

Stephanie Moore: This report was necessary because there is so much information that is being collected in Puget Sound with regard to marine water conditions and we really needed a way to bring all that information together so we could start connecting the dots and drivers of variability in some of these parameters and in the Puget Sound ecosystem and really help the managers and the scientists better understand what’s going on underneath the waters of Puget Sound.

EarthFix: Were there any surprises?

Stephanie Moore: There were some interesting facts that came out and connections that came out of this effort. For example, 2011 started off being very cold. It was one of the coldest, wettest cloudiest springs that we have on record for this region and that was reflected in colder than usual water temperatures in Puget Sound and that then went even further to affect the spring bloom of the phytoplankton in the sound and in many areas of the sound we saw a delayed spring bloom because of those colder than usual temperatures. There were a number of interesting connections that came out of this effort from pulling together all of the information that we were able to gather from the various monitoring programs and agencies and groups that are doing these efforts in Puget Sound.

EarthFix: There was a lot of information in the report on climate and weather patterns. Why does that matter for water quality?

Stephanie Moore: For example, having this really cold spring, it resonates through the sound. It shows up in patterns of marine water quality, which then go on to affect other parts of the Puget Sound ecosystem such as shellfish production and fisheries so understanding how these weather patterns influence precipitation and snow pack that can change salinity patterns in the sound can change temperature patterns and all of these physical properties of Puget Sound go on to affect the phytoplankton, the fish, the shellfish, the birds and even the marine mammals.

EarthFix: So what are the major problem areas for Puget Sound, looking down this list?

Stephanie Moore: Well, for example 2011 was very unique for harmful algae in Puget Sound.

There was one species of harmful algae that we have seen in Puget Sound for years now but it’s never been known to produce this toxin that can cause shellfish to become toxic for humans when they eat it. This one particular species of harmful algae, for whatever reason, in 2011 started producing that toxin and it resulted in the first confirmed illness in humans in all of the United States.

So that is definitely an area of concern that we need to focus on so we can better manage these outbreaks in the future.

EarthFix: Ok, if we have more snowpack, if it was a colder year, more freshwater coming in, what does that do to temperature and salinity throughout Puget Sound? Does it make everything colder? It’s not that simple.

Stephanie Moore: Well, it’s not that simple. The waters in Puget Sound are in constant flux. They mix with the waters from the ocean through the Strait of Juan De Fuca in Admiralty Inlet and it’s always moving and always changing. It’s a very dynamic system but we definitely do see these patterns in the regional climate resonate in the water column and we do see with higher snowpack and higher river flow we do see lower salinity especially in areas of Puget Sound that are closer to the areas where big rivers empty into the sound and with a colder spring we saw much colder water temperatures at the surface where the air is contact with the water.

So we do see these links that resonate through. The real trick is to figure out then how that is going to impact the other organisms in the sound and this report we hope is a start to making those connections and figure those things out and we hope that it will be a valuable resource for many other academics and managers that are working in Puget Sound and are trying to make those connections to their own work.

EarthFix: So let’s talk about nutrients. What kind of nutrient inputs are we seeing in Puget Sound and how did that look in 2011?

Stephanie Moore: Well some of the authors of this report have found that the level of nutrients in Puget Sound that come from a non-oceanic source — so that means humans — has increased in the past ten years. This is important to know because nutrients such as nitrates and phosphates and things like that really drive algal growth so with higher levels of nutrients in the sound, particularly those nutrients that aren’t coming in from the oceans, can cause excessive algal growth when that algal growth decomposes it can use up a lot of oxygen in the water column. So this is a very important finding and it’s a reminder to all of us to try and reduce what we put on our lawn and flush down the drain and things that can end up increasing nutrients in Puget Sound.

EarthFix: How about pH? Let’s talk about the acidity of Puget Sound. The report says the waters of Puget Sound can be corrosive in some parts. Tell me more about that finding.

Stephanie Moore: Another of the authors of the report has conducted a sound-wide survey of the pH levels throughout Puget Sound and what they found was that the levels that are in Hood Canal are actually quite low and can be corrosive. This is definitely an area of concern and it warrants further surveys of Puget Sound to keep track of this and this is a finding that will be discussed in much more detail with the release of the recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Panel for ocean acidification in the next month or so.

EarthFix: There have been some correlations between acidity and dissolved oxygen levels in water. Can you tell me a little bit more about what we know about the oxygen levels in Puget Sound?

Stephanie Moore: So there are a few areas in Puget Sound that have been found to have lower dissolved oxygen compared to other areas and these are problem areas that some of the authors of the report are monitoring very intensely. In particular South Puget Sound and Hood Canal experienced problems with dissolved oxygen. Listeners will remember the fish kills that have occurred in the past in Hood Canal. So we also do see this link in Hood Canal with lower pHs associated with lower dissolved oxygen and it’s all a linked system and it definitely warrants some investigation.

EarthFix: Any surprises in Dissolved Oxygen levels? Was that new data or did we know we had a dissolved oxygen problem in parts like Hood Canal?

Stephanie Moore: That’s been known for a while.

What this compilation for 2011 is really starting to do is link a lot of these different patterns and sometimes problems together so we can have a more holistic view of what’s going on in Puget Sound. Puget Sound is such an economic lifeline for Western Washington and the more that we can understand how all of these conditions are connected and how they drive variations in other parts of the ecosystem the better we’ll be able to manage this really unique ecosystem.

EarthFix: So biotoxins, bacteria, pathogens, what do you see as the emerging threats to Puget Sound. What have we missed in talking about this giant report?

Stephanie Moore: One important thing to remember is that this report is really just covering the marine water conditions so a lot of this is the physical properties such as temperature, salinity, dissolved oxygen, nutrients and up to biotoxins, pathogens and shellfish since they’re such good indicators of marine water quality and water conditions.

There are a number of other work groups that are part of the Puget Sound Ecosystem Monitoring Program and Puget Sound Partnership and some of these other work groups are looking into other threats to Puget Sound, such as toxics, marine forage fish, stuff like that. So it will be really important to check in with those other groups and hopefully this report will help them in their efforts to try to better understand what’s going on in Puget Sound and help identify these threats and what needs to be done to track them, monitor them, and hopefully minimize them.

EarthFix: So it’s the first year this report is put together. I would think it’s an amazing baseline from which to start and continue collecting more information but what does it tell us about how Puget Sound is doing right now?

Stephanie Moore: So right now Puget Sound, it gets a mixed report card.

There are some areas in 2011 where we saw improvement. For example the quality of shellfish growing areas in Puget Sound actually improved a little bit in 2011 and there are other areas where things aren’t looking so good in terms of nutrients and ocean acidification but we really hope that this report will provide a way that we can help track the progress to recover Puget Sound.

It will improve data transparency and sharing amongst the various groups and agencies and groups that are collecting data in Puget Sound. This will help the Puget Sound Partnership to expand and update their dashboard indicators that they use to track the health of Puget Sound and we really hope that it will be ongoing and we can really start to connect the dots and find out how the Puget Sound ecosystem is responding to some of these changes in the marine water conditions and move forward with a much deeper understanding of the Puget Sound ecosystem.

Stephanie Moore is a biological oceanographer with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the lead editor of the report.

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