The Puyallup is one of the most polluted rivers in the Puget Sound area, and the contaminants are hurting the river’s salmon.
Scientists from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife recently released their Vital Signs report, which details the health of different aspects of the Puget Sound area.
In 2016 they measured a host of different indicators, including toxins in different fish populations.
Juvenile chinook in the Duwamish River had the highest levels of PCBs, toxic chemicals which can impact the fish’s ability to grow and fight off diseases. Juvenile chinook in the Puyallup River had the second highest levels of PCBs.
“The second most contaminated river in the whole Puget Sound area is the Puyallup,” said Sandra O’Neill, lead biologist at the Department of Fish and Wildlife.
The researchers are planning a followup study focusing specifically on the Puyallup. They hope to determine the source of the river’s contamination.
“Based on the Sound-wide assessment, we target areas we know are a problem,” O’Neill said.
The researchers will meet with the Puyallup Tribe and other interested parties this fall to plan the focused study. They want to nail down exactly where fish are getting exposed to the chemicals, which will lead them to the source of contamination.
“The fish themselves will tell you where they’re getting exposed,” O’Neill said.
PCB’s started being produced in the United States in 1929, the Vital Signs website explains. They were used in industrial and commercial products until being banned in 1979. They’re still present in small amounts in some products today, including paint and toothpaste.
Because they’re so toxic, they still continue to cause damage when they enter the water system, O’Neill said. They enter rivers primarily through stormwater.
Once PCBs enter an animal’s system, it’s hard to get them out. Animals like orcas will continue to accrue PCBs until they die. If females give birth, they’ll pass along some of the chemicals to their offspring, O’Neill said.
For orcas, PCBs have double the negative impacts. They shorten the lifespans of salmon by making them more susceptible to disease. That leaves less food for orcas to eat. If orcas then ingest salmon with high levels of PCBs, the chemicals will enter their system and have ill effects.
Puget Sound has one of the highest levels of PCB contamination on the coast.
“Puget Sound is 3 to 5 times more contaminated with PCBs than other areas up and down the coast,” O’Neill said.
Salmon who stay in Puget Sound for the majority of their lives end up accruing such high levels of PCBs that in 2006 the state Health Department issued a warning telling people to limit their consumption of local salmon, The Seattle Times reported.
The Vital Signs assessment also showed that the Puyallup River has high levels of PBDEs, another toxic chemical which can hurt the health of salmon.
PBDEs are used as flame retardants in electronics, plastics, foam, textiles and other products. The upcoming focused study will address the areas of high PBDE concentration as well, O’Neill said.
A host of other less studied but potentially dangerous substances, called “contaminants of emerging concern,” also exist in the Puyallup River, recent studies have shown. They’re often present in medications and end up in the river when people flush extra medicine down the drain.
“The Puyallup is the worst-case scenario for waste water,” O’Neill said.
‘All of it’s concerning’
Andrea Carey, another Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist who worked on the study with O’Neill, said that increasing water temperatures also impact fish in the region.
“Increasing temperatures in the water increase their susceptibility to disease,” Carey said. “The fish are exposed to more diseases because the water is warmer. The fish are dying and not making it to the ocean.”
Lisa Crozier, a scientist at NOAA, just published an assessment of how salmon in different regions on the West Coast will react to climate change. She studied salmon in the Puget Sound area as part of her study.
The study classified types of salmon in different regions based on whether they would have low, moderate, high or very high vulnerability and exposure to climate change.
The study also looked at salmon’s adaptive capacity, basically their ability to change their behavior to deal with climate change.
The assessment found that steelhead, coho and chinook salmon in the Puget Sound area will have high vulnerability and high exposure to the impacts of climate change.
Because fish in the Puget Sound are very diverse, Crozier said the Puget Sound salmon also had high adaptive capacity.
“Basically, we’re likely to see a change in the behavior of Puget Sound salmon,” she said. “Either a change in timing or a change in location.”
She explained that salmon will either change the time in which they migrate to the ocean to adapt to warmer waters, or they’ll stop using certain river pathways to get to the ocean. But adaptive capacity doesn’t mean all types of salmon are likely to survive, she added.
“We’re not likely to see them go extinct,” she said, “but that doesn’t mean you won’t lose existing diversity.”
In other areas of the West Coast, it’s more likely that salmon populations could go extinct.
“All of it’s concerning,” Crozier said.
Salmon need cold, clear, clean water to thrive, Crozier said, as well as shaded and protected river areas where they can spawn.
“We need to identify which current stressors we can remove, and assemble collective will and coordination,” she said.
The South Puget Sound Salmon Enhancement Group, an organization which undertakes river restoration projects in the South Sound, plans to begin a $4.5 million restoration project in Pierce County over the next year.
The project, which has been in the works for decades, will restore a half-mile long channel in South Prairie Creek, part of the Puyallup watershed.
The area used to be a historic dairy farm, and trees were removed from the river’s flood plain, which removed areas that salmon use to spawn and also eliminated shading in the river which reduced the water temperature.
The project plans to put habitat that salmon can use to spawn back in the river. Kristin Williamson, a salmon restoration biologist for the organization, says that restoration efforts in Pierce County need much more funding.
“The efforts are woefully underfunded,” she said.