Could how much fish you eat have a bearing on where Boeing will build its 777X?

By Jerry Cornfield, The Herald

OLYMPIA — Three months after a dispute over how much fish Washington state residents eat nearly derailed the state budget, a panel of lawmakers revisited the controversial subject Monday in a more peaceful fashion.

But that doesn’t mean the fighting is over.

Members of the Senate Energy, Environment and Telecommunications Committee got a progress report on revising the state’s water quality standards, a process that ties the amount of fish each resident eats with the levels of contaminants allowed in water discharged from industrial facilities.

This matter ignited a political tiff in the second special session in June when Senate Republicans insisted a comprehensive study of individual fish-eating habits be done before serious work began on rewriting the rules.

They were acting at the behest of the Boeing Co., which is concerned an increase in the consumption rate could lead to stricter discharge rules. That could require the company to spend millions of dollars in renovations at its facilities, and some Republicans contend it will convince Boeing to undertake its 777X program in another state.

Senate Republicans, who ultimately conceded on the study, organized Monday’s hearing partly to send a message to the Department of Ecology, which is writing the rules.

“We want to let them know we’re paying attention,” said Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, who led Monday’s 90-minute work session. “I think the people of South Carolina are paying attention to this rule, too.”

He said he may push again for a comprehensive study in the 2014 legislative session.

“My feeling is we’re going to work with the department because we have to,” he said, adding that he wants another update in November. “We’ll take a look and see what’s happened.

Environmental groups are watching closely, too, though none was allowed to speak to the committee during Monday’s work sesssion.

Two months ago, a coalition filed a notice of its intent to sue the federal Environmental Protection Agency to force the state to enact more stringent standards.

Kelly Sussewind, water quality program manager for the state Department of Ecology, said the threat of a lawsuit “keeps the pressure on us” to stick to the timeline for making a decision.

Under the timeline, the department would propose changes early next year, hold hearings and adopt changes at the end of the year.

The standards are to ensure rivers and major bodies of water are clean enough to support fish that are safe for humans to eat, Sussewind explained. Whatever is adopted needs to be approved by the federal government.

Since 1992, the state has assumed the average amount of fish eaten each day is 6.5 grams, which works out to about a quarter of an ounce per day or 5.2 pounds per year

Regulators are considering an increase to at least 17.5 grams a day, or about 14 pounds a year, to be in line with current federal guidelines.

Sussewind told lawmakers the state is not required to do anything, but the federal government might not approve the new rules without a higher rate.

A Seattle attorney who did testify Monday said the state is going to have to do a good job explaining itself.

“There is a lot of emotion around this issue,” said attorney James Tupper, who said he represents firms which would be affected by the changes. “I think Ecology and the state have some really difficult policy choices to make. “The question is how will they come down on them?”

Yakama Nation demands clean up of Columbia River following release of fish consumption advisories

Source: Pyramid Communications

TOPPENISH, Wash.—Yakama Nation Chairman Harry Smiskin today said state and federal governments must act to clean up polluted sections of the Columbia River that are contaminating fish. The call for action followed the release of fish consumption advisories by the Oregon Health Authority and Washington Department of Health.

“The fish advisories confirm what the Yakama Nation has known for decades,” he said. “State and federal governments can no longer ignore the inadequacy of their regulatory efforts and the failure to clean up the Columbia River.”

In the Treaty of 1855, the Yakama Nation retained fishing rights throughout the river. The Yakama Nation repeatedly identified contaminated sites along the Columbia, expressing concerns for the health and culture of the Yakama people and calling upon the state and federal agencies for cleanup actions that would protect the tribe’s resources.

“The new advisories once again pass the burden of responsibility from industry and government to Tribes and people in the region,” Chairman Smiskin said. “Rather then addressing the contamination, we are being told to reduce our reliance on the Columbia River’s fish,” “This is unacceptable. The focus should not be ‘Do not eat’—it should be ‘Clean up’ the Columbia River.”

For more information visit

Sea otters, who already had us at hello, will now help clean up the ocean

By Ted Alvarez, Grist

Turns out sea otters do much more than just explain discount rates with aplomb: The adorable little buggers also clean up our oceanic messes. Nitrogen and phosphorous runoff from agricultural pollution creates algal blooms that choke the life out of estuaries — unless these thoughtful, fuzzy Dysons are around. With sea otter populations expanding into California habitats like Elkhorn Slough, where they haven’t been seen for 100 years or more, scientists are watching sea grass and kelp ecosystems return, even though humans are still proverbially shitting the proverbial waterbed. Sci-blogger-genius Ed Yong has more:

Sea otters grab shellfish and other prey from the sea floor and smash them open on the surface, using rocks as hammers and their own bellies as anvils. This makes it very easy for scientists to record what they’re eating, and Hughes used decades of such records to show that the Eklhorn sea otters are crab-specialists. “We estimate that they can easily remove 400,000 crabs per year in an area the size of 7 football fields,” he says. “That’s a huge effect, which cascades down to affect the seagrass.”

The crabs eat other animals including an orange sea slug and a shrimp-like isopod, both of which graze on algae. So by killing the crabs, the otters inadvertently protect the slugs and isopods, which in turn protect the seagrass by nibbling away at encroaching algae. This complicated four-part chain reaction (or “trophic cascade”) is what keeps Elkhorn Slough in its current healthy state.

To make sure the otters were responsible, researchers ran otter simulations — which sadly did not include grad students in discount otter suits bought from the local Furry-in-a-Hurry outlet. Ahem:

His team ringed off small areas of estuary and added fixed amounts of seagrass, slugs and isopods. Then, they added either the small crabs you find when sea otters are around, or the large ones you get when the otters are absent. The bigger crabs did indeed eat more grazers, leading to more algae and less seagrass.

Sea otters are near the top of their food chain, and it’s not surprising that they exert a strong top-down influence upon other local animals. In iconic studies during the 1970s, James Estes established them as classic examples of keystone species – those that are disproportionately influential for their numbers. They protect kelp forests by eating the sea urchins that would otherwise raze them down. With otters, you get underwater jungles of wavy green kelp. Without the otters, you get bare “urchin barrens”.

“The really interesting discovery here is that otters counter the detrimental impact of eutrophication,” says Estes.  In other words, their top-down influence is strong enough to nullify the bottom-up effects of nutrients entering the slough.

As sea otter populations expand into their historic range, their tidy aftershocks could help rehabilitate ecosystems all the way to Baja California. If this also means I can get to Mexico by hugging one ultra-plush otter belly after another instead of waiting behind grinding I-5 traffic, I fully support redirecting the entire federal budget to an emergency militarized otter reintroduction plan. (What? It just makes fiscal sense, people.)

Aww, you adorable sea otters — you shouldn’t have. (Wait, no, you should!)

It’s time for civil rights and environmental activists to join hands

Brentin Mock, Grist

Somehow environmental justice got lost at the rally commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Freedom & Jobs. The 50-plus speakers at the Aug. 24 gathering, which drew tens of thousands of people to the nation’s capital, spoke out about restoring voting rights, fighting “stand your ground” laws, and pushing for stronger worker wages. But little was said about how people of color suffer disproportionately from polluted air and water, and are the first to suffer because of climate change.

That was unfortunate. Whether the organizers of last weekend’s rally knew it or not, the 1963 March on Washington inspired some of the pioneering activists who created the modern-day environmental movement. Some of those environmentalists participated in the civil rights movement that birthed the 1963 March. Since that time, however, the environmental and civil rights movements have never fully gelled together, despite some efforts to make that happen along the way.

There were signs that the organizers of last weekend’s rally were again trying to connect the dots. The National Action Network, the civil rights organization that lead the 50th anniversary rally, listed environmental justice as one of the issues motivating the march:

In Los Angeles, African Americans are twice as likely to die in a heat wave. 68% of African Americans live within 30 miles of a coal plant and this creates more incidences of asthma. Latino children are twice as likely to die from an asthma attack as non-Latino children.

Rev. Lennox Yearwood of the Hip Hop Caucus made climate change and the proposed Keystone XL tar-sands pipeline cornerstones of his short speech, and U.S. Senate-hopeful Cory Booker touched on the environment. The Sierra Club and Greenpeace supported the march, both individually and through the Democracy Initiative, a coalition of progressive policy groups that also includes the NAACP.

But those two speakers were but a tiny sub-set of a sub-set of speakers, and the green posters of the Sierra Club were but small ponds among the ocean of attendees. Organizers largely missed an opportunity to recognize the longstanding connection between civil rights and environmental protection, and to forge a stronger alliance moving forward.

To be fair, environmental protection wasn’t a registered demand at the 1963 march. Those organizers were justifiably more concerned with the frothing, attack-trained fangs of Jim Crow. But the 1963 march is in many ways responsible for at least midwifing the event that brought the modern-day environmental movement into existence: the national Earth Day “teach-in” of 1970.

The concept for the April 22 Earth Day rally came from Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson. But the committee that brought it into fruition was made up of seven people, most of them students, and most either civil rights organizers or people with strong ties to the civil rights movement.

One of them, Arturo Sandoval, was a Chicano activist from New Mexico who was completely clear about racial justice in the new environmental organizing. As a student at the University of New Mexico, he worked to establish a Mexican-American students union and a Chicano Studies program, and fought discrimination against minority workers at the college. He led the Earth Day rally in the barrios of his home city of Albuquerque, where sewage plants and pollution-heavy factories besieged poor communities.

In his Earth Day speech, Sandoval schooled the crowd on the concept of “la raza,” or “the race,” which he said didn’t just apply to Chicano Americans. “We command ‘la raza’ to live, because humanity is dying,” he said. “And America — white America — has lost its ability to cry, and laugh and sing and love and live.”

Steve Cotton, the national Earth Day committee’s press outreach person, had left Harvard to work for the Southern Courier, a civil rights newspaper in Alabama started by Freedom Summer activists. Sam Love, the group’s Southern coordinator, was a Mississippi State University student who helped register black voters in the state where three white Freedom Summer students were murdered. In 1968, Love joined Fannie Lou Hamer and civil rights leaders at the Democratic National Convention, where they challenged Mississippi’s sitting delegation. The national Earth Day coordinator, Denis Hayes, was an ecologist who wanted to marry science with social justice activism.

In the lead-up to the first Earth Day, some African Americans criticized the effort, saying that a day of environmental protests would distract people from the civil rights injustices that were still occurring. But Hayes addressed those concerns upfront. In a press conference, Hayes said that organizers’ “goal is not to clean the air while leaving slums and ghettos, nor is it to provide a healthy world for racial oppression and war.”

At an Earth Day event in Washington, D.C., black civil rights activist Channing Phillips said he was participating “out of a deep conviction that racial injustice, war, urban blight, and environmental rape have a common denominator in our exploitive economic system.”

Of course, the 1963 March on Washington led the way to the passage of the Civil Rights Act, and later the Voting Rights Act and Fair Housing Act, and helped elevate the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development into a Cabinet-level agency. The 1970 Earth Day helped win to passage of the Clean Water Act, a new Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Given what each of these movements produced independently, it’s scary to think about what they might produce in unison.

This week, I spoke with Quentin James, national director of the Sierra Club Student Coalition, who has also worked with the NAACP. During the week-long March on Washington 50th anniversary events, he co-convened a climate justice workshop, training young people to launch campaigns in their own communities that address climate change and the right to vote. Previous to this, he brought 10,000 students to a rally at the White House to urge President Obama to address climate change and stop construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. He also helped organize a college student-led campaign that successfully pushed 20 universities across the nation to switch from coal plant-powered energy to renewable energy sources. He has effectively married the best of both March on Washington and Earth Day worlds and achieved results.

James told me he was not bothered by the lack of environment mentions from the speakers at the Aug. 24 rally. While the connections between civil rights and the environment weren’t made at the podium, he said they are being made in communities, where it counts.

“Sure, we could have had 10 speakers on climate and environmental justice issues” on stage on Saturday, James said. “But it’s not about words and speeches, it’s about the actions. We do need a groundswell of communities to uplift our work, but I know that that work is already happening, so I don’t need someone to speak about it on stage to know that it’s real.”

Still, the two movements couldn’t need each other more than they do right now. As Rev. Yearwood said, standing before the Lincoln Memorial at the 50th anniversary rally, with “#NOKXL” stitched in his baseball cap, “The issue of the 20th century was equality, but the issue of the 21st century is existence.”

Or, as he told me when I caught him shortly after his speech, “Climate change may not have been a problem in 1963, but it certainly will be a problem in 2063.”

Study launched to examine declining salmon runs

Bill Sheets, The Herald

Millions of dollars have been spent to restore fish habitat in Western Washington.

Property owners pay taxes to local governments to control stormwater runoff.

State government and tribal fisheries have put huge investments into hatcheries.

“While all that has been going on, we’ve seen a precipitous decline in the survival rate of both hatchery fish as well as wild fish,” said Phil Anderson, director of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

That’s why the department, along with the Tulalip Tribes and 25 other organizations, are beginning a five-year study to determine why some species of salmon and trout are having trouble surviving their saltwater voyages.

The Salish Sea Marine Survival Project, as it’s called, is an international effort. Canadian groups are agreeing to pay half of the estimated, eventual $20 million cost of the study.

The decline has been seen in fish runs both in Washington and British Columbia.

“The fish don’t know there’s a border,” said Mike Crewson, fisheries enhancement biologist for the Tulalip Tribes.

The marine survival rate for many stocks of Chinook and coho salmon, along with steelhead, has dropped more than 90 percent over the past 30 years, according to Long Live the Kings, a Seattle-based non-profit group formed around fish preservation.

Numbers for sockeye, chum, and pink salmon have varied widely over the same time period.

For some reason, many of these anadromous fish — those that spawn in fresh water and spend most of their lives at sea — are not doing well in saltwater, particularly in the inland waters of Western Washington.

The Snohomish and Skagit river systems have been hit particularly hard, Crewson said.

While there’s a solid understanding of the factors affecting salmon survival in fresh water, according to Long Live the Kings, the issues in the marine environment are more complex.

From what is known so far, the survival problem has been traced to a combination of factors. Pollution, climate change, loss of habitat and increased consumption of salmon by seals and sea lions are all playing a part, Tulalip tribal officials have said.

Tribes and government agencies have been collecting information on their own, but it hasn’t yet been put together into context, Crewson said.

That will be one benefit of the new study — synthesizing the work done so far, he said. More research will be done as well.

The Tulalips, for example, have two smolt traps they use to catch young fish to track their progress and survival rates. The tribe already spends about $500,000 per year on fish survival programs and will increase their sampling efforts as part of this study, Crewson said.

Other studies more focused on certain areas, such as a joint effort between the Tulalips and the Nisqually tribe focusing on the Snohomish and Nisqually river systems, will be folded into the larger effort, Crewson said.

“The survival’s especially poor in Puget Sound (as opposed to the open ocean),” he said. “We’re trying to figure out what’s different in Puget Sound.”

The state recently appropriated nearly $800,000 toward the new study. The Pacific Salmon Foundation, a Canadian group, has raised $750,000 to support project activities north of the border. That group is serving as the organizer for efforts there, as is Long Live the Kings on the American side.

The Pacific Salmon Commission, a joint Canadian-American organization formed to implement treaty agreements, is putting in $175,000.

The rest of the money will be raised as the study progresses, officials said. A report and action plan is expected after five years.

Time to Move Forward on Fish Consumption Rate

By Billy Frank, Jr., Chairman, Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission

OLYMPIA – The Washington state legislature deserves thanks for not caving in to demands from Boeing and others to require yet another study of fish consumption rates in Washington to tell us what we already know: Our rate is too low and does not protect most of us who live here.

It wasn’t easy. A Senate measure requiring another study before beginning rulemaking on a new rate was tied to passage of the state budget, and nearly led to a government shutdown. Boeing and others have been trying to stop or delay development of a new rate because they say it would increase their cost of doing business.

The fish consumption rate is part of the human health standards used by state government to determine how much pollution is allowed to be put in our waters. The 20-year-old rate of 6.5 grams per day – about one eight-ounce seafood meal per month – is supposed to protect us from more than 100 toxins that can cause illness or death.

It’s a sad fact that Washington has one of the highest seafood-eating populations, but uses one of the lowest fish consumption rates in the country to regulate water pollution and protect human health. Another study could have delayed development of a new rate for three years or more.

Tribes have been reaching out to business and industry to discuss implementation of a new fish consumption rate. We are sensitive to possible economic impacts of a higher rate, and we want to continue working together to create a meaningful path forward. But those efforts have largely been ignored, and that’s too bad, because we have solved bigger issues than this by working together.

We are encouraged, however, by the actions of Dennis McLerran, regional Environmental Protection Agency administrator. He has stepped forward to express his agency’s commitment to protecting water quality and human health in Washington.

In a recent letter to Maia Bellon, director of the state Department of Ecology, McLerran pledged to support the state in developing a more accurate fish consumption rate. He made it clear, however, that if the state can’t or won’t get the job done, he will use his authority to establish a new rate. “The EPA believes there are scientifically sound regional and local data in Washington that are sufficient for Ecology to move forward in choosing a protective and accurate fish consumption rate at this time,” McLerran wrote.

Ecology director Bellon has said that we could have a more accurate fish consumption rate adopted by late 2014, and we intend to hold her to that. Oregon has increased its fish consumption rate to a more realistic 175 grams per day; we think Washington residents deserve at least that much protection.

We’re spending too much money, time and effort to clean up and protect Puget Sound and other waters to let business and industry continue to pollute those same waters. Right now we are paying for our state’s low fish consumption rate with the cost of our health, and that’s not right.

Developing a more accurate fish consumption rate isn’t about jobs versus the environment. It isn’t just an Indian issue. It’s a public health issue and needs to be treated that way. We can’t allow politics to trump common sense when it comes to protecting our own health and that of future generations.

If you want to learn more, visit the Keep Our Seafood Clean Coalition website at

Navajos Launch Direct Action Against Big Coal

Photo by Black Mesa Water Coalition
Photo by Black Mesa Water Coalition

Sarah Lazare, June 21, 2013, Intercontinental Cry

Navajo Nation members launched a creative direct action Tuesday to protest the massive coal-fueled power plant that cuts through their Scottsdale, Arizona land.

After a winding march, approximately 60 demonstrators used a massive solar-powered truck to pump water from the critical Central Arizona Project (CAP) canal into barrels for delivery to the reservation.

Flanked by supporters from across the United States, tribe members created a living example of what a Navajo-led transition away from coal toward solar power in the region could look like.

Participants waved colorful banners and signs declaring ‘Power Without Pollution, Energy Without Injustice’.

“We were a small group moving a small amount of water with solar today,” declared Wahleah Johns with Black Mesa Water Coalition. “However if the political will power of the Obama Administration and SRP were to follow and transition NGS to solar all Arizonans could have reliable water and power without pollution and without injustice.”

The demonstration was not only symbolic: the reservation needs the water they were collecting.

While this Navajo community lives in the shadow of the Navajo Generating Station—the largest coal-powered plant in the Western United States—many on the reservation do not have running water and electricity themselves and are forced to make the drive to the canal to gather water for cooking and cleaning.

This is despite the fact that the plant—owned by Salt River Project and the U.S. Department of Interior—pumps electricity throughout Arizona, Nevada, and California.

Yet, the reservation does get one thing from the plant: pollution.

The plant is “one of the largest sources of harmful nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions in the country,” according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

While plant profiteers argue it brings jobs to the area, plant workers describe harrowing work conditions. “We are the sweatshop workers for the state of AZ, declared Navajo tribe member Marshall Johnson. “We are the mine workers, and we are the ones that must work even harder so the rest don’t have to.”

These problems are not limited to this Navajo community. Krystal Two Bulls from Lame Deer, Missouri—who came to Arizona to participate in the action—explained, “We’re also fighting coal extraction that is right next to our reservation, which is directly depleting our water source.”

The action marked the kickoff to the national Our Power Campaign, under the banner of Climate Justice Alliance, that unites almost 40 U.S.-based organizations rooted in Indigenous, African American, Latino, Asian Pacific Islander, and working-class white communities to fight for a transition to just, climate friendly economies.

(Photo by Black Mesa Water Coalition)

(Photo by Black Mesa Water Coalition)

Website funds UW Bothell researcher’s coal-train dust study

A UW-Bothell researcher turned to a crowd-sourcing website to fund his study of trains’ emissions and dust.

By Sharon Salyer, The Herald

BOTHELL — Ask just about any scientist. They have far more ideas for things they want to investigate than they can ever get the funding to explore.

That’s the conundrum that Dan Jaffe, a researcher at the University of Washington’s Bothell campus, found himself in last month.

Jaffe is a professor of chemistry and atmospheric sciences. He wanted to study just how much emissions and tiny particles called particulate matter are being produced by passenger and freight train exhaust as well as coal dust from trains in Western Washington.

Little currently is known about the environmental effects caused by the passing trains.

His interest was triggered by a proposal to build a $650 million terminal north of Bellingham to export coal, grain and other material to Asia.

The proposal eventually would create up to 450 jobs, backers say. The trade-off: It also would bring more trains through Western Washington — up to 18 each day through Snohomish County, opponents say.

Jaffe thought there was a fairly simple way to conduct his experiment: Install an air-quality monitor that could measure which particles were caused by diesel exhaust and which from the larger coal dust particles over a four- to six-week period this summer.

A web camera also would be installed to document which trains were passing as the emissions occurred.

With the help of some UW students, he figured the experiment could be conducted for a little more than $18,000.

Compared to multi-million dollar research projects, that’s chump change. Nevertheless, Jaffe was getting little more than a swing-and-a-miss trying to drum up financial interest in the project.

Government agencies weren’t too encouraging, he said. “I was getting a little bit discouraged. I was pretty close to giving up.”

That’s when someone suggested he take a look at an online site,, where researchers make public pitches for donations to fund their projects. Musicians, artists and others have used similar “crowd-sourcing” websites, such as Kickstarter, to support their projects.

“I was kind of skeptical at first,” Jaffe said.

His pitch outlining the project, with a promise that donors would be credited in the research, was posted on April 29.

Much to his surprise, on Thursday evening, just 11 days after his project was posted, he was notified that the goal had been met, with 236 people pledging a total of $18,055.

Publicity over his project and the way he raised money to do it have generated a lot of interest, he said.

“I’ve had emails from people telling me how to do it better,” Jaffe said. Their suggestions included adding additional monitoring sites or doing an analysis of the chemistry of coal dust.

He said he’s also had some interest from an environmental agency in a coal-producing state.

With the pledge goal reached far earlier than the July 1 online deadline, Jaffe said on Friday that he’s moving up the start of his research.

Assisted by two or three students at the University of Washington’s Bothell campus, he said he hopes to begin collecting information in July.

Measurements may be taken at two different sites. By moving the equipment, information can be collected on whether there are more diesel particulates when trains are moving slowly or if there is any coal dust left behind when the trains are going fast, he said.

Results are expected nine months after the project begins.

“I’ll be pretty mum on releasing it much earlier than that,” Jaffe said. “When the data come in, we have to think about what it means. That’s how science is.

“We need the first shot at it to figure out what it means and to do it in the quiet of the labs.”

Although the fundraising goal has been reached, donors can still make contributions. If enough do, Jaffe said he’s considering adding an additional monitoring site near the Columbia River Gorge.

“There have been reports of coal dust there,” he said. “I think scientific measurements would be very useful.”

County beekeepers adjust to causes of colony collapse

County’s beekeepers continue to see threat to agriculture

Nick Adams / The HeraldQuentin Williams checks over his bees in the back yard of his Snohomish home on May 5. Williams, the manager of Beez Neez, has six hives with two breeds of bees. A federal report suggests that parasites, malnutrition and pesticide exposure are behind the decline in bee colonies nationwide.
Nick Adams / The Herald
Quentin Williams checks over his bees in the back yard of his Snohomish home on May 5. Williams, the manager of Beez Neez, has six hives with two breeds of bees. A federal report suggests that parasites, malnutrition and pesticide exposure are behind the decline in bee colonies nationwide.

By Bill Sheets, The Herald

Last fall, hobbyist beekeeper Jeff Thompson had nine hives of honeybees. “I only had two hives make it through the winter,” said Thompson, who keeps bees at his home in Edmonds and also in Mill Creek.

Dave Pehling, who keeps hives at his home near Granite Falls, lost all his honeybees over the winter.

Neither was surprised to hear about a report regarding one of the more mysterious recent environmental problems: the sharp decline of honeybees.

A U.S. Department of Agriculture and Environmental Protection Agency report issued a week ago cites a complex mix of problems contributing to honeybee colony declines, which have accelerated in the past six to seven years.

Factors include parasites and disease, genetics, poor nutrition, pesticide exposure and farming practices, according to the report.

“It’s just a combination of stresses,” said Pehling, an assistant with the Washington State University cooperative extension in Snohomish County. He has a zoology degree and has been keeping bees since the 1970s, he said.

The recent report warns that even with intensive research to understand the cause of honeybee colony declines in the United States, losses continue to be high and could pose a serious threat to meeting the pollination demands for some commercial crops. Growers in California have had trouble pollinating almond trees in the winter, for example, and blueberry farmers in Maine face similar pressures.

Many bee experts have focused on pesticides recently, Pehling said. While he agrees that’s a factor, he doesn’t think it’s the biggest one.

The varroa mite, native to Southeast Asia, was introduced to North America in the 1980s.

In about 1987, it reached Snohomish County, Pehling said.

“That’s when I started losing bees,” he said.

The mite lays eggs on young honeybees and the larvae feed off the living bees’ blood, weakening them and making them more susceptible to illness from other factors, Pehling said.

In Asia, the mites feed off the bees as well but those bees are smaller, providing less space and food for the mites and keeping the relationship in balance, he said.

Pesticides can temporarily control the mites but the chemicals collect in the wax in the hives and erode the bees’ health.

“It’s not an acute effect, but it can affect the immune system and shorten life of an adult bee,” Pehling said.

Now, beekeepers are experimenting with “softer” chemicals such as Thymol and essential oils, he said.

“I think there’s a multitude of issues why the bees are declining,” said Thompson, vice president of the Northwest District Beekeepers Association, based in Snohomish.

He said that whether pesticides are the major cause of bees’ problems or not, they worry many beekeepers.

Neonicotinoids are synthesized, concentrated forms of nicotine made into pesticides.

“These are very long-acting products” that get absorbed into plants and in turn by bees, Thompson said.

“That’s the beekeepers’ big concern right now, they don’t like it,” he said.

Honeybees are not native to North America but have been here since the 17th century, Pehling said. They have managed to mostly live in balance with other species, he said.

Dozens of bees are native to Washington state, including some variety of bumblebees, he said. Pehling keeps bumblebee hives as well as honeybees, he said.

One species, the western bumblebee, has experienced some decline in recent years but “most of (the native species) are doing OK,” he said.

Because of honeybees’ role as prolific pollinators, their decline could spell serious trouble for American agriculture, experts say.

The USDA estimates that a third of all food and beverages are made possible by pollination, mainly by honeybees. Pollination contributes to an estimated $20 billion to $30 billion in U.S. agricultural production each year.

A consortium will study the problem this year with the hopes of putting in place measures to help reduce bee deaths next growing season, said Laurie Davies Adams, executive director of the San Francisco-based Pollinator Partnership, which is overseeing the project.

Farmers, beekeepers, pesticide manufacturers, corn growers, government researchers and academics will study this summer ways to address the corn dust problem by changing the lubricant used in the machinery, as well as trying to improve foraging conditions for bees at the same time the pesticides are applied.

“It’s not in anybody’s interest to kill bees,” she said. “It just isn’t.”

Erika Bolstad of the McClatchy Washington Bureau contributed to this story.