Back then, researcher Tom Carlson said it’s important to downsize the mechanical fish so that they can test what it’s like at dams smaller than those on the mainstem Columbia River.
“Everybody tries to imagine what it might be like to be a fish. I don’t think any of us do it very well,” said Carlson, who is now retired. “The experience of the fish may be quite different … They may not have the same sensation of water flow that we might imagine as humans when we’re swimming.”
This newest generation is even smaller than the models used two years ago, when testing found the sensors still worked well after facing up to 600 times the force of gravity – definitely something that’s hard to imagine.
The newest sensor fish are the same size as the juvenile salmon they’ll be sometimes be “swimming” alongside: about 3.5 inches long and 1 inch in diameter. (Researchers are developing other models to mimic more types of fish.)
“The earlier sensor fish design helped us understand how intense pressure changes can harm fish as they pass through dam turbines,” said scientist Daniel Deng, now in charge of the sensor fish project.
“And the newly improved sensor fish will allow us to more accurately measure the forces that fish feel as they pass by turbines and other structures in both conventional dams and other hydro power facilities. As we’re increasingly turning to renewable energy, these measurements can help further reduce the environmental impact of hydropower,” Deng said.
The new devices will be tested at three small hydro projects in the U.S., two conventional hydroelectric dams in the U.S., irrigation structures in Australia and a dam on the Mekong River in Southeast Asia. They can be used with several types of turbines and pumped storage plants.
As soon as you arrive in Sekiu, Washington, you get a whiff of salty ocean air laced with the unmistakable smell of fresh fish. The scent fills your nostrils as the gulls mew nearby, fighting for the remains of the day’s catch in the protective cove.
Located 20 miles east of Neah Bay by car, the fishing village has a long reputation for good salmon fishing. It’s also where we pick up the trail of the Lake Washington chinook. The subset of the Puget Sound salmon were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1999 and traced here by scientists who tag them.
The fish spend their adult lives in this open ocean before heading home to spawn in the Cedar River or in Bear Creek, or the state hatchery in Issaquah.
‘A Surprisingly Quiet’ Season
Pulling into Sekiu, one might expect a bustling fishing village with flotillas of boats hooking plenty of salmon, perhaps because the summer’s headlines have touted a record run of Columbia River chinook.
Towns like Westport have been booming with the projected return of 1.5 million chinook, also known as king salmon. Anglers at Buoy 10 on the river this year reportedly spent more time looking for a place to set up their gear than they did reaching daily limits, thanks to successful management of the dams, hatcheries and habitat down south.
Also often mentioned in the reports are favorable ocean conditions that have allowed more adult fish from the Columbia River system to survive. But those ocean conditions aren’t doing much for the fishing in Sekiu.
“It’s surprisingly quiet. Usually one of the peak times of the year is right now,” says veteran guide, Roy Morris, a life-long salmon fisherman who has kept a charter boat at the docks in Sekiu for 20 years.
Unusually Warm Water
Morris says there has been a steady decline in fish stocks. And this year, he says everyone there is reporting “one of the lowest year of catches for salmon, particularly Chinook.”
Roy Morris examines his line. (Justin Steyer/KPLU)
One reason, he suspects, is unusually warm water, which he says it’s been about 5 degrees hotter than normal.
“We’ve been seeing it on our instruments on our boat all year long. We couldn’t believe our instruments were correct when we saw 58 degrees, where usually it’s 49, 52,” he says. “And that changes the conditions for feed for the salmon as well as their desire to be in that warmer water.”
The warm water off the Northwest coast, which is linked to one of the hottest summers the region has ever seen, is what’s believed to have caused a record number of sockeye to bypass Sekiu and many other ports in Washington in favor of cooler waters in Canada. Morris says it probably hasn’t helped the chinook here, either.
“It is surprising, because I know there’s many people working together to try to improve conditions and survival for salmon, but it’s up and down from year to year within a decade, [and] this year is some of the lowest catches for Puget Sound chinook that we’ve ever witnessed,” he says.
‘We Have Only One Chinook In The Freezer’
Ocean conditions are a bit of a black box for scientists; they know that huge percentages of the young salmon that leave fresh water never return as adults, but information about why is scarce. The recent launch of an international research effort, the Salish Sea Marine Survival Project, seeks to fill the information gap.
But for Morris, it’s just one of many causes. For another, he cites the influence of hatchery fish that are released in droves and feed on limited food sources “like a herd of sheep” while wild fish trickle out gradually. But he links most of the fish’s decline to urbanization and development that destroys fish habitat.
He remembers the days of his youth in the 1950s and ‘60s when salmon fishing was such a popular family vacation that you could hardly find a place to park your boat in places like Ilwaco.
“Because it came with a bounty of fish that were canned and smoked and frozen, so that after your vacation you ended up with two or three hundred pounds of salmon,” he says. “Now, we have only one chinook in the freezer, where last year, we had 15, so we’ll be fishing hard [for the rest of the season].”
Why The Chinook Is King
Chinook hold a special status in the world of sport fishing.
Roy Morris’ wife, Nancy Messmer, holds up a chinook salmon she caught off the coast of Sekiu, Washington. (Courtesy of Nancy Messmer)
“[It’s] called the king because it’s the biggest and the most spectacular,” Morris says, noting that sometime his guests get frightened by how long and hard they’ll pull on a line. Morris calls them “the long distance runners.” He notes that Columbia River chinook traverse nearly the entire state and reach Canada before coming back home. And his favorites, the Puget Sound chinook, even climb mountains.
“They go right to the North Cascades,” he says. And they enjoy iconic status, with tourists coming from all over to seek them out. They’re also some of the tastiest, with firm flesh, he says, “because it chored higher and higher into the watersheds.”
And they get harder to catch at this time of year, when their bodies start changing with physiology that signals it’s time for them to head to home waters and spawn. They lose interest in food, presenting extra challenges for anglers who use special lures and techniques to hook them.
“There’s slang talk like ‘slack jaw’ and more formal talk is ‘waiting fish.’ They’re not so much chowing down to build their body,” he says. “Reproductive capabilities are being developed more than muscle tissue. And as that chemistry changes, their desire to return to the natal stream and spawn overrides their desire to hunt and feed.”
‘I’m Here As A Witness To The Process’
Roy Morris, left, and his wife, Nancy Messmer. (Justin Steyer/KPLU)
Morris is not just a seasoned salmon fisherman; he’s exceptionally passionate about saving the fish. He says he caught his first salmon when he was 5, helped his grandson catch one at age 4 and wants that lineage to continue. But does he ever think it would be better to stop hunting an endangered species?Yes, he says, but as long as the fishing is allowed, he wants to be part of it.
“I’m here as a witness to the process,” he says. “I’m not fishing greedily to catch the last salmon, but I am participating in the seasons and open times that you can enjoy the sport.”
By being out on the water 100 days a year and also volunteering on boards as a representative of sport fishermen, he feels his perspective is an important contribution to augment data sets collected by government agencies. And he sees part of his role as educating the public about endangered fish and the issues they face.
There’s Hope Yet
Nancy Messner looks out at her line. (Justin Steyer/KPLU)
“The chinook is one of the more fragile of the spectrum of salmon in the Northwest,” he says. He remembers when they were first listed 15 years ago and the fishery was closed. He thought it might never reopen, that their declines had gone too far.
“But where barriers are removed, they’re amazing the way that they’ll try to fight for their survival if they’re given half a chance,” he says.
One only needs to look to Issaquah Creek and its Salmon Days festival for evidence, he says. In places where habitat has been restored and fish protected with policies, the fish do come back.
“At one time, those stocks had dwindled to just such small numbers, people had never even seen them or knew they were in the river. Now they throng and there’s a celebration … with booths and festivals, and people hanging over bridges,” he says. “That just is testimony to that if you give’em a chance, they will survive.”
And he sees another ray of hope in the recent return of chinook to the Elwha River, where the nation’s largest dam removal has just been completed.
“We saw fish in a habitat that there had not been wild salmon in for 100 years,” he says. “It’s just evidence that fish can return if they’re given a chance and proper conditions.”
LUMMI NATION, Washington—At each stop on the totem pole’s journey, people have gathered to pray, sing and take a stand.
They took a stand in Couer d’Alene, Bozeman, Spearfish, Wagner and Lower Brule. They took a stand in Billings, Spokane, Yakama Nation, Olympia and Seattle. They took a stand in Anacortes, on San Juan Island, and in Victoria, Vancouver and Tsleil Waututh.
They’ll take a stand in Kamloops, Calgary and Edmonton. And they’ll take a stand at Beaver Lake Cree First Nation, where the pole will be raised after its 5,100-mile journey to raise awareness of environmental threats posed by coal and oil extraction and rail transport.
“The coal trains, the tar sands, the destruction of Mother Earth—this totem [pole] is on a journey. It’s calling attention to these issues,” Linda Soriano, Lummi, told videographer Freddy Lane, Lummi, who is documenting the journey. “Generations yet unborn are being affected by the contaminants in our water.… We need people to take a stand. Warrior up—take a stand, speak up, get involved in these issues. We will not be silent.”
The 19-foot pole was crafted by Lummi master carver Jewell James and the House of Tears Carvers. The pole and entourage left the Lummi Nation on August 17 for 21 Native and non-Native communities in four Northwest states and British Columbia. The itinerary includes Olympia, the capital of Washington State, and Victoria, the capital of British Columbia. The pole is scheduled to arrive at Beaver Lake Cree on September 6.
The journey takes place as U.S. energy company Kinder Morgan plans to ship 400 tanker loads of heavy crude oil each year out of the Northwest; a refinery is proposed in Kitimat, British Columbia, where heavy crude oil from Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline would be loaded onto tankers bound for Asia; and as Gateway Pacific proposes a coal train terminal at Cherry Point in Lummi Nation territory. Cherry Point is a sacred and environmentally sensitive area; early site preparation for the terminal was done without permits, and ancestral burials were desecrated.
In a guest column published on August 11 in the Bellingham Herald, James wrote that Native peoples have long seen and experienced environmental degradation and destruction of healthy ecosystems, with the result being the loss of traditional foods and medicines, at the expense of people’s health.
And now, the coal terminal proposed at Cherry Point poses “a tremendous ecological, cultural and socio-economic threat” to Pacific Northwest indigenous peoples, James wrote.
“We wonder how Salish Sea fisheries, already impacted by decades of pollution and global warming, will respond to the toxic runoff from the water used for coal piles stored on site,” he wrote. “What will happen to the region’s air quality as coal trains bring dust and increase diesel pollution? And of course, any coal burned overseas will come home to our state as mercury pollution in our fish, adding to the perils of climate change.”
James wrote that the totem pole “brings to mind our shared responsibility for the lands, the waters and the peoples who face environmental and cultural devastation from fossil fuel megaprojects.… Our commitment to place, to each other, unites us as one people, one voice to call out to others who understand that our shared responsibility is to leave a better, more bountiful world for those who follow.”
‘This Is the Risk That Is Being Taken’
Recent events contributed to the urgency of the totem pole journey’s message.
Two weeks before the journey got under way, a dike broke at a Quesnel, British Columbia, pond that held toxic byproducts left over from mining; an estimated 10 million cubic meters of wastewater and 4.5 million cubic meters of fine sand flowed into lakes and creeks upstream from the Fraser River, a total of four billion gallons of mining waste. A Sto:lo First Nation fisheries adviser told the Chilliwack Progress of reports of fish dying near the spill, either from toxins or asphyxiation from silt clogging their gills; and First Nation and non-Native fisheries are bracing for an impact on this year’s runs.
On July 24, a Burlington Northern train pulling 100 loads of Bakken crude oil derailed in Seattle’s Interbay neighborhood. The railcars didn’t leak, but the derailment prompted a statement from Fawn Sharp, president of the Quinault Indian Nation and the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians and Area Vice President of the National Congress of American Indians.
“People need to know that every time an oil train travels by, this is the risk that is being taken,” she said. “These accidents have occurred before. They will occur again. … The rail and bridge infrastructure in this country is far too inadequate to service the vast expansion of oil traffic we are witnessing.”
A year earlier, on July 6, 2013, an unmanned train with 72 tank cars full of Bakken crude oil derailed in a small Quebec village, killing 47 people. An estimated 1.5 million gallons of oil spilled from ruptured tank cars and burned; according to the Washington Post, it was one of 10 significant derailments since 2008 in the United States and Canada in which oil spilled from ruptured cars.
Some good news during the journey: As the totem pole and entourage arrived at the Yankton Sioux Reservation in Wagner, South Dakota, word was received that the Oregon Department of State Lands rejected Ambre Energy’s application to build a coal terminal on the Columbia River; the company wants to ship 8.8 million tons of coal annually to Asia through the terminal.
One of the concerns that communities have about coal transport is exposure to coal dust; those concerns are shared by residents of Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, where proponents of a coal terminal on the Mississippi River forecast an increase in Gulf Coast coal exports from seven million tons in 2011 to 96 million by 2030.
Dr. Marianne Maumus of Ochsner Health Systems told the New Orleans Times-Picayune that coal dust contains heavy metals including arsenic, cadmium and mercury, and can cause cancer, neurological, renal and brain-development problems.
“I think the risk is real. I think there is a lot of potential harm from multiple sources,” Maumus told the Times-Picayune.
James said there are alternatives to coal and oil—among them energy generated by wind, sun and tides.
“But we’re not going to move toward those until we move away from fossil fuels,” he said.
In his Nation’s territory, Yakama Chairman JoDe L. Goudy told videographer Lane he hopes the pole’s journey will help the voice of Native people “and the voice of those people across the land that have a concern for the well-being of all” to be heard.
“May the journey, the blessing, the collective prayers that’s [being offered] and the awareness that’s being created lift us all up,” he said, “lift us all up to find a way to come against the powers that be … whether it be coal, whether it be oil or whatever it may be.”
Albert Redstar, Nez Perce, advised young people: “Remember the teachings of your people. Remember that there’s another way to look at the world rather than the corporate [way]. It’s time to say no to all that. It’s time to accept the old values and take them as your truths as well.… They’re ready for you to awaken into your own heart today.”
To Unite and Protect
The totem pole journey is being made in honor of the life of environmental leader and treaty rights activist Billy Frank Jr., Nisqually. Frank, chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, walked on in May.
James said the pole depicts a woman representing Mother Earth, lifting a child up; four warriors, representing protectors of the environment; and a snake, representing the power of the Earth. The pole journey has been undertaken in times of crisis several times this century.
In 2002, 2003 and 2004, to help promote healing after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, James and the House of Tears Carvers journeyed across the United States with healing poles for Arrow Park, New York, 52 miles north of Ground Zero; Shanksville, Pennsylvania, where the hijacked United Airlines Flight 93 crashed; and Washington, D.C.’s Congressional Cemetery, seven miles from the Pentagon. And In 2011, James and a 20-foot healing pole for the National Library of Medicine visited nine Native American reservations en route to Bethesda, Maryland. At each stop on the three-week cross-country journey, people prayed, James said at the time, “for the protection of our children, our communities and our elders, and generally helping us move along with the idea that we all need to unite and protect the knowledge that we have, and respect each other.”
Members of a Western Washington tribe stopped Tuesday near the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Spokane, part of a “totem pole journey” to protest plans to build a coal export terminal north of Bellingham.
The proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal would be located at Cherry Point. According to the project’s website, it would be the largest shipping and warehouse facility on the West Coast, sending dry bulk commodities such as coal, grain and potash to Asian markets.
Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart and congressional candidate Joe Pakootas both spoke out against coal exports at the event, which included Native American songs and a 19-foot totem pole.
Stuckart said the companies and politicians advocating for more coal export terminals are “addicted to fossil fuels.”
He said Spokane serves as a major rail hub for the Inland Northwest and proposed new export terminals, including the Gateway Pacific Terminal, would add an additional 30 miles of trains carrying fossil fuels every day, which could create public safety risks and risk polluting the Spokane River.
Jewell James, with the Lummi tribe, said the terminal would contaminate lands surrounding Cherry Point with arsenic and mercury.
But officials involved in the project say they are taking environmental impacts into consideration.
Craig Cole, a consultant for the Gateway Pacific Terminal Project, said there has never been a more stringent environmental review of a project in the state’s history, and called some of the opposition to the project “nonscientific fear mongering.”
He encourages people to wait for results of an environmental impact statement in two years.
“We’re just saying: Why would you take the word, either of an opponent or proponent of the project, when you can wait for this very extensive environmental impact statement?” Cole said.
The project’s website claims it will provide more than $11 million per year in state and local tax revenue, as well as 1,250 jobs.
“Frankly, I’m more concerned about an overall movement in this state which is aimed at de-industrializing our economy,” Cole said. “There is a very dangerous trend toward opposing anything that has anything to do with industry or manufacturing.”
But James is skeptical.
“No matter what they promise you, it’s still just a promise. In the end, they’re more concerned with the bottom line: Profit,” James said.
Those opposing coal exports scored a victory last week in Oregon, when state regulators rejected a proposal for a coal terminal on the Columbia River that would have exported millions of tons of coal to Asia each year.
James and the Lummi tribe assisted tribes in Oregon in opposing the terminal. He is hoping for a similar result in Washington.
“I hope the people of Spokane and the tribe will start putting pressure on (Governor) Jay Inslee,” James said.
Stuckart said at the event Tuesday that it is unacceptable to use energy independence as a justification to destroy ancestral lands and for rail companies to spill coal in waterways. He said it’s no longer enough to make rail cars safer or to include the city in an environmental impact statement.
“The demand is simple: Leave it in the ground,” Stuckart said.