Liam Moriarty started with KPLU in 1996 as our freelance correspondent in the San Juan Islands. He’s been our full-time Environment Reporter since November, 2006. In between, Liam was News Director at Jefferson Public Radio in Ashland, Oregon for three years and reported for a variety of radio, print and web news sources in the Northwest. He's covered a wide range of environment issues, from timber, salmon and orcas to oil spills, land use and global warming.
Liam is an avid sea kayaker, cyclist and martial artist.
Map of the Salish Sea & Surrounding Basin, Stefan Freelan, WWU, 2009
About the Series
The waters of Puget Sound, Georgia Strait and the Strait of Juan de Fuca define the natural boundaries of the maritime Pacific Northwest. Known collectively as the Salish Sea, it also defines the people who’ve lived in this place from centuries past to the present.
I’ve lived with the Salish Sea for nearly 24 years now. I’ve fished in it, kayaked on it, sailed on it, raised my kids on it. I’ve had close encounters with eagles and otters and herons and killer whales. I’ve paddled myself into a few dangerous situations and lived to tell the tale; and I’ve attended the funeral of a friend who didn’t. This amazing body of water – with all its many moods and seasons – has gotten deeply into my blood.
In this series, I travel all across the Salish Sea, from Olympia to Neah Bay to Campbell River and a lot of places in between, talking with people who have deep connections here: scientists, fishermen, artists, tribal members, waterfront property owners, aquaculturists and a lot more. They tell me their stories, they take me to their special spots, they share what this place has taught them. And we talk about the ways in which we help — and harm — these waters.
I’d love to hear from you about what you think about the series, and any suggestions about people I should meet and places I should go. Just drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bert Webber, a retired WWU biology professor, coined the term "The Salish Sea" and led a 20-year effort to make the name official
In the first installment of our series “Reflections on the Water,” KPLU environment reporter Liam Moriarty sits along the shore of Bellingham Bay. He speaks with retired biology professor Bert Webber who coined the Salish Sea name and led a 20-year effort to get it officially adopted.
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Liam Moriarty: Tell me about how the Salish Sea got its name.
Bert Webber: Well, I think back as far as I can, when I was a kid, I used to go to White Rock and spend the summers with my grandmother, and I remember sitting on the beach – still a memory I have – looking out at Orcas Island and wondering where I was and what I was looking at. But I didn’t really start thinking seriously about the Salish Sea, I think until the early 1970s when I was teaching at Huxley College in Bellingham.
That was just before the oil from the North Slope was being brought into the inland waters to go to the refineries at Cherry Point and down in Puget Sound. There were meetings about the concerns that there might be. I remember one meeting in Mt. Vernon, the bureaucrats from Olympia were talking to the audience about “Northern Puget Sound.”
At one point, this grizzly old tugboat captain got up and said, ‘I’ve been running tugs here for over 20 years and I’ve never heard of Northern Puget Sound. What are you talking about?’
That sensitized me to the importance of names; that the name should have some clear meaning, and that for our bodies of water here, we are not very clear about the meanings of the names that we use.
Liam: Well, the geography doesn’t help any. You’ve got a couple of straits, you’ve got a fjord, you’ve got kind of an indefinite area in the middle where it’s kind of hard to tell what’s fish and fowl. So it’s not like it’s a singular geographical entity that you can point to and say ‘yep, that’s the – whatever it is.’
Bert: That’s true but what you also have, and I think which is of paramount importance, is this line that goes down the middle of it; the 49th parallel and then the zig zag out to the coast that designates Canada and the United States.
You don’t think about unity when you have something like that dividing this body of water. But in the late 1970s, NOAA, National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, started to gather information about what the potential of an oil spill might be.
They brought together a bunch of different people from various disciplines to look at how this ecosystem was structured. I was part of that program. It became clear in talking with the researchers, that we were dealing with a system that had much larger boundaries and included the Strait of Georgia, the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Puget Sound.
Liam: You mean an ecological system?
Bert: An ecological system; right. An ecosystem. So it became clear in the late 70s and 80s that there was this ecosystem. Being a biologist, I thought well here is something that hasn’t been described. It needs a name. So that led to thinking of a name that would be appropriate for this body of water.
Liam: How did you come up with that?
Bert: I did know superficially that the inland waters were the home to the Salish people; that virtually all of the indigenous tribes around Puget Sound and the Strait of Georgia have links to the inland Salish, and probably have a common origin. So I thought most of the indigenous people here are of a Salish background. So it seems like it would be appropriate to call this the Salish Sea.
Liam: I think there was something about that phrase that just connected. Because as you said, people had recognized before that there was a need for a unitary name. And the only ones that had come up with, were perhaps technically descriptive but were long and awkward, and they weren’t something you could put on a brochure. They weren’t something you could use in conversation. Something about the Salish Sea just grabbed ahold of people.
Bert: It seemed to fit, for sure. As far as I could tell, there was no single unifying name that the indigenous people used for what the Salish Sea ecosystem is. They had their own descriptive terms for smaller parts of it. So there wasn’t even an indigenous name that we could go back and try to apply to this area. It just simply had not been named.
In a way, too, the indigenous people didn’t need a name. The natural resource base that supported them was more localized, and they got along just fine without putting a name on this larger area.
But it’s clear that the seven million people or so that we have around the perimeter of the Salish Sea, have caused incredible insult to that ecosystem and in order to successfully restore and manage it, you need to know what it is you are dealing with. Focusing on this entity, the Salish Sea, gives us a sense of place that allows us to put these natural resource issues in better perspective. That would be the best thing that could happen.
Liam: Well, Bert; thanks for coming out and talking to us today.
Ken Balcomb stands on the deck of the Center for Whale Research on the western shore of San Juan Island. For more than three decades, Balcomb -- and later, other researchers -- has kept track of the killer whales that swim the Salish Sea.
These are examples of the photos killer whale researchers use to tell the whales apart.
Researchers give each animal an alphanumeric designation, indicating their pod (J, K, or L) and their individual number.
L87, Left Side
L72, Right Side
K21, Left Side
J42, Right Side
J14 Left Side
Note that the photos are labeled as being of the animal’s right or left side. Researchers use shape and color variations in the white “saddle patch” across the back — as well as the shape of the dorsal fin, including nicks, cuts or scars — to identify each whale.
Possibly the best-known residents of the Salish Sea are the orca whales that call these waters home. In this installment of our series “Reflections on the Water,” KPLU environment reporter Liam Moriarty travels to the San Juans to talk with Ken Balcomb, who heads the Center for Whale Research and was one of the first researchers to study the local killer whales.
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Liam Moriarty: We’re sitting out here on the porch of the Center for Whale Research on the west side of San Juan Island.
What are we looking out at here?
Ken Balcomb: The water mass out in front of us here is Haro Strait. That’s the main thoroughfare for the southern resident killer whales, and the transient killer whales, for that matter. I came here because the whales were here. This is Mecca.
Liam: You spend a lot of time around these animals.
Ken: Um hmmm.
Liam: I know that anthropomorphizing is like one of the cardinal sins of scientists; thinking of them as more than animals or thinking of them as people in some sense. All the time you’ve spent around them, do you see something other than just specimens of a species out there? What’s your experience of these animals?
Ken: I’m humbled in their presence, that they’re not only very aware of all the things in the ocean; they’re aware that I’m curious about them, and they’re just as curious about me. That’s pretty neat.
Liam: When you started studying them up here, what led up to that?
Ken: Well, in 1976 I was asked to count up all the killer whales in Puget Sound and Southern B.C., to report to the federal government. There were captures of these whales in the 60s and early 70s for marine parks; a few of them for research. There was some concern – we don’t really know how many are here so we don’t know how many we could catch.
Liam: I would think if you’re going to count animals in the wild, we have to start being able to tell one killer whale from another. How do you do that?
Ken: Well, we take very good photographs of the dorsal fin and the so-called saddle patch, the pigment area on the back, and we look for nicks and scratches and marks and patterns.
It’d be kind of like going through your – I went to a high school where we had 900 kids and you know, you have an annual album – they’re all different. Well, same with whales.
Liam: The southern residents are officially endangered. What are we dealing with there, do you think?
Ken: Well, they eat salmon. Salmon are their preponderant dietary item. Not only that, but Chinook salmon. Wild salmon stocks, particularly Chinook stocks, are all pretty much predicted to be extinct by the year 2100.
Fish farming is sort of the way that Canada is kind of going. On the U.S. side, we don’t have as many fish farms. But we all enjoy electricity and dams have obviously been a major factor in reducing the habitat available for wild salmon.
Liam: Another possible contributing cause is pollution both in the waters and in the prey.
Something else that’s been looked at as a possible contributing factor is vessel noise. These are animals that rely on sound to navigate, to hunt, to communicate. What do you see in that area?
Ken: I had the good fortune of spending eight years in the Navy. We monitored the ocean noise, listening for submarines, documenting the various levels of sound produced by all kinds of things. And ambient noise in all of the oceans is increasing due to manmade noise of vessels.
It would be like if we were – you know, we’re visual animals. And if the birds would start using strobe lights and everything that they did was strobing us –
Liam: That could get confusing, couldn’t it.
Ken: Well, yeah; just think. Well, that’s probably about as good an analogy as we can make. Some other creature starts using strobes and it’s always flashing and we can’t see anymore.
Liam: It’s always sort of occurred to me that it’s amazing that they seem to bear us no malice, because certainly they have reason to.
Ken: That’s always amazed me too from day one. In ’76 when we started the study, they had just stopped the captures, and not only were we feeling like we were just accepted in the whale pods but what’s even more amazing is they’re getting more friendly. I mean, they certainly have no problem recognizing not only our boat but our faces and our presence.
They’ll come over and show us the babies. They know we want to take a picture of the new babies.
Ken: Yeah; really. I’m convinced that these new mothers out here, when they see Orca Survey coming along, they know that we’re there to get a picture of the new baby. They’ll put ‘em right up against us.
Liam: Show ‘em off.
Ken: Show ‘em off; yeah.
Liam: That’s amazing.
Ken: Yeah. You could say that’s anthropomorphizing but look at the pictures. They’re showing them off.
Click below and listen to a collection of killer whale calls made by Southern Resident orcas
Coast Salish elder George Harris wears his traditional woven cedar hat on a beach in the territory of the Stzuminus First Nation on Vancouver Island. Photo by Liam Moriarty
The term “Salish Sea” recognizes the original inhabitants of the lands that surround the inland waters of Puget Sound, the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Georgia Strait. In Canada, those people are known as the First Nations. This week in our series “Reflections on the Water,” KPLU environment reporter Liam Moriarty stands on a beach on the east side of Vancouver Island with Coast Salish elder George Harris.http://stream.publicbroadcasting.net/production/mp3/kplu/local-kplu-934147.mp3″
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GEORGE HARRIS: I’d like to welcome you, Liam, to the shores of the Salish Sea, the shores of the Stzuminus First Nation.
LIAM: Could you talk about – describe where we are sitting and what we are looking at?
GEORGE: Across the water we have the Gulf Islands. That’s the Lyackson right here in front of us. That’s Penelakut Nation over to our right. And the Halalt up the channel at south, and north of us is the Snuneymuhw First Nation. We’re all Coast Salish people. The kinship ties throughout Coast Salish territory are such that they’ve existed for countless thousands of years, actually. Our elders used to tell us, we never put the border in that divides Canada and USA. Our relatives at Lummi, Tulalip, Swinomish, LaConnor, are all our relatives and we’re related. Kinship ties with aunties, uncles, cousins that are down in the States.
Coast Salish men circa 1930s play a traditional gambling game using bones and specially carved tally sticks. (Courtesy Royal BC Museum archives)
LIAM: You’re wearing a hat right now that I’m imagining is a traditional sort of hat and it looks like it’s woven out of some sort of natural fiber.
GEORGE: I wore this hat today because it’s a cedar hat. Cedar is really a strong tree for us. Most parts of the cedar tree are used for different purposes. This hat I’m wearing now is the bark of the cedar tree, and it’s woven into a hat.
LIAM: You were raised in a somewhat more traditional way, I think, than a lot of Native folks were; more in touch with the traditions and the values. Could you talk about that?
GEORGE: I spent lots of time listening to my grandmother who never spoke any English at all. She spoke only Hul’q’umi’num’. She would teach me different things about our culture and traditional ways of our people; teach me how to follow the disciplines and the teachings.
LIAM: What are some of the principles that she imparted to you growing up?
GEORGE: One of the things she always said is be proud of who you are as a person. But never be proud at the expense of another person. Be humble as you walk on this Earth. She said we’re poor people. On the face of the Earth we’re living among our fellow human beings and our creatures, sea, the oceans, our environment. She said respect everything. Respect your neighbor. Respect your wildlife. Don’t take any more than you need. Put back as much as you can. Help out other people when you can to take care of them. It’s called Tsetswu’ut – that’s helping each other. And she taught me when I was a very young age, how to be respectful to the women, ladies in my life; my wife. I have daughters and grandkids.
A traditional potlatch ceremony, circa 1920s. The hosts stand on a platform (upper left) and shower their guests with blankets and other gifts. (Courtesy Royal BC Museum archives)
LIAM: Now, you’ve been working to make the young people aware of traditions, and you’ve been working in the prisons to do that too.
GEORGE: Yes, we are very much so disproportionately represented in the prisons. We represented probably five percent in the province of B.C. in population but we’re up to 20-25% of our inmates inside the prisons are First Nations.
I know that lots of the problems that exist within each of the individuals that are there is because they are disconnected from their family; disconnected from their community; disconnected from their nation and they don’t have the value sets or the teachings – what we call Snuw’uy’ulh — that’s the traditional teachings of our ancestors that helps to guide them as they live in the outside world in the communities. So they end up doing wrong things and they end up in prisons.
LIAM: What do you do with these guys in the prison?
Sailing boat races held on Kuper Island by the Penelakut First Nations, circa 1930s. (Courtesy Royal BC Museum archive)
GEORGE: I sing songs to them. I say prayers. I tell them stories. I always keep saying to them, “I’m not trying to change you if you’re not acceptable to that change; you have to give yourself permission to make that change but I’ll tell you who I am and the things I was taught and how we live here in Stzuminus Nation.”
LIAM: How was that message received — when you’re working with the young men who are incarcerated?
GEORGE: I give one example. One person who is very aggressive and strong and really made up his mind how he is as a person; that’s the way he is going to be. Nothing’s going to change his life. I said listen to me. And after 20 minutes of talking to him, I stopped and he looked up at me and he said, “I wish that I heard all those things that you told me now when I was a child. I never heard any of those things.” And today, I have more hope for him that I did when I first seen him.
You know, I’m really proud to be Coast Salish. My ancestral name is Whul-qul-latza. It comes from that island right there. And that’s where my great great grandfather came from and that’s the name I carry. I have a sacred inheritance that came from him and I hope to pass that on to my son.
LIAM: Thanks for inviting me to your country, George. Thanks for sitting and talking with me this morning.
GEORGE: Thanks, Liam. Thank you for making the journey here. Huy’ch’qa cmsiem.
The early days of exploration and commerce on the Salish Sea were powered by sail. These days, one of the few tall ships you’ll see on these waters is the schooner Adventuress. Nearly a century old and more than a hundred feet long, the tallest of her two masts towers eleven stories above the water. For nearly 20 years, Adventuress has been operated by Sound Experience, a non-profit that leads environmental education programs from the classic wooden boat.
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In this week’s “Reflections on the Water,” KPLU environment reporter Liam Moriarty goes aboard Adventuress to speak with her captain, Daniel Evans, about his years on the Salish Sea.
Daniel Evans, captain of the schooner Adventuress
Liam Moriarty: Are there ways in which a vessel like this enhances the environmental education; getting people in touch with the elements and in touch with each other?
Daniel Evans: Boats have a feel to them. You can have steel boats. You can have fiberglass boats. You can have wood boats. There’s an organic feel, there’s a harmonious feel to sailing on a wooden boat. That organic feeling to me, and that feeling of something that is wood, that has been living, that has come naturally to this place is, I think ,a really important aspect in creating that environment for coming to understand those things.
You know, some of this wood is from 1913. Some of this wood was harvested out of these forests. When those students talk about it, we can talk about the history of it, and it sets that setting of learning that we’re trying to encourage.
Liam: By putting folks on an organic vessel like this, and having them out on the water, up close and personal with the elements; what does that do for people?
by John Masefield, 1878-1967
I must go down to the seas again,
to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship
and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song
and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face
and a grey dawn breaking.
I must go down to the seas again,
for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call
that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day
with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume,
and the sea-gulls crying.
I must go down to the seas again
to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way
where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn
from a laughing fellow rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream
when the long trick’s over.
Daniel: A lot of, say, our younger students, they come from the land of X-Box 360. They come from a lot of concrete. They come from building-to-building, car-to-car. They’re all of the sudden getting on something that most people think is a pirate boat.
Daniel: Aarrrgh; exactly. They ask me where the cannons are, and I say well, no; we don’t have cannons. It’s not that kind of boat. They’re getting on a boat that doesn’t have showers, that doesn’t serve meat, that takes them out in the weather.
It becomes like going into a different solar system for people. Once they understand that they are far stronger and more capable than they ever imagined when they were sitting on the couch, they are willing to start to reach out and learn. I think that’s the moment when you see them kind of turn outward from themselves, and to begin to look around them.
Liam: What are some of the qualities of sailing in an inland sea like this that are different from sailing in other places around the country and around the world?
Daniel: Puget Sound is so unique because it’s such a dynamic environment. There is a complexity here that I don’t find in other places. It’s not just about the currents, though they are very complex here; some of the most complex in the world. But it’s that there is such an overlay of the natural history and the human history. There’s such an overlay of what’s happened geologically here; the Ice Ages; the way they’ve carved things out. It’s created a unique environment in that way, so that we can go from one place to another and have an entirely different place to live in because of that history.
Liam: So how did you come to skipper Adventuress?
Daniel: When I first started, I was actually rock climbing at the time, and someone mentioned that there was an Outward Bound base camp that was opening up in Anacortes, and that they were going to pay me to go sailing with a bunch of people. I thought well, that’s crazy. Who’s going to pay me to go – I’ll be happy to do it. I’m gone. These were also replicas of (Captain George) Vancouver’s ships launches; you know, open boats, rowing, sailing boats, no engines, and we would live on them for 12 days. It was there I discovered how tangible I can find my own joy, my own spirit, in the area around me.
It was only from there that, through encouragement from others, that I began working on larger vessels, that I finally got my license to go onto these larger schooners. I ended up working in the Caribbean. I ended up working a lot on the east coast, up in the Great Lakes, and found my way on schooners there, but have known for a very long time that that was only a means to get me back here in a place that I really wanted to be.
And I think, like a lot of people finding their way, I had to go far to come home.
Liam: What’s your favorite thing about being skipper of the Adventuress?
Daniel: (laughs) What’s my favorite thing about being skipper of Adventuress? That’s a difficult question …
This is a big one. I went to school at Evergreen, and I studied Environmental Studies and Literature. It was a time when I bought my own boat. I was living out in a marina, Fiddlehead Marina, in downtown Olympia. It was a foggy day. I was rowing to school; light rain and fog. And I row up – you know when you row and you’re facing the opposite direction you’re going, and as I’m rowing up, this vessel comes looming up on my side, and it’s all wood. I look over and I think what is this boat? I come pulling up, and it’s Adventuress.
I didn’t know anything about Adventuress at the time. I looked at that boat and I thought, ‘I want to be on that boat. Someday I’m going to be on that boat.’ I was 19 at the time; what, 21 years later, I got to be on that boat. It was a huge triumph in my life to be able to have a goal that I set, and be able to meet it.
Liam: Well, Daniel; thanks for having me aboard Adventuress.
Daniel: It is absolutely my pleasure; thanks for coming.
Laura James, after a dive from Seacrest Park in West Seattle. Seacrest is a popular beach for divers. Photo by Liam Moriarty
Laura diving off Alki in West Seattle. Photo by Kees Beemster Leverenz
Most of us admire the Salish Sea from the shore. Lots of us enjoy it from boats. But only a handful of us get to experience these waters from below the surface.
This week KPLU environment reporter Liam Moriarty chats with veteran scuba diver Laura James. She answers Liam’s first question from 30 feet below the surface …
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Liam Moriarty: I’m standing on the beach in Seacrest Park in West Seattle. I’m looking east over Elliott Bay and across the bay is downtown Seattle. And I’m speaking with Laura James. I’m on the beach but Laura, where are you?
Laura James (on intercom speaker): I’m swimming through an amazing school of different types of small fish. There’s hundreds of them, and they’re swimming along with me.
Liam: Laura, why don’t you come in to the beach and we’ll talk some more.
Laura: Roger that.
Liam: Welcome ashore, Laura.
Laura: Thank you, Liam!
Liam: That looks like a huge amount of fun.
Laura: It is unbelievable. It’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever done.
Liam: It occurs to me that when you’re diving, you’re seeing the Salish Sea in a way that very few people do. What were you seeing down there?
Laura: Visibility was just gorgeous. I was able to swim right to the octopus den. And there was one very large octopus home. You know, I was able to peek in and get a look at the very, very large suckers. It’s a huge octopus. They kind of accept the fact that I’m peering in its den. They don’t seem tremendously bothered.
Liam: What’s the appeal?
A juvenile wolf eel near Alki in West Seattle. Photo by Laura James
A red octopus near Alki. Photo by Laura James
Laura: It’s seeing all the creatures in their environment. Aquariums are great for introducing kids to different sea creatures, but it’s so much different to actually be out there in their world. You’re a visitor on their planet.
Liam: What’s their world like?
Laura: So, there’s little animals like the barnacles that when they’re babies, they float around in the water column and then they plant themselves on a rock or a piling and they spend their whole life just cleaning the water in their area. You’ve got other animals that swim hundreds of miles, porpoises and our six-gill sharks and things …
Liam: Not to mention the salmon …
Laura: I’ve actually seen salmon out here. You can see them swimming along underneath the big balls of herring. And then they dart up into the ball of herring and you’ll see the herring scatter and the herring will usually swim and they’ll hit me and they’ll be like pummeling me and the salmon will go for ‘em. Some of the animals actually learn to utilize the divers for their hunting.
I remember when I was a brand new diver and I was out at the Edmonds oil docks, or Marina Beach as we used to call it. And was seeing one of my first little ruby octopus, little red octopus, and my dive instructor kind of threw it up into the water so I could see it floating down and get a really good look at it. And I was shining my light on it. And all of a sudden, out of nowhere, came this bigger fish, came across and went “gulp” and my little octopus that I was so mesmerized by was suddenly gone!
Liam: It had joined the food chain (chuckles) …
Laura: It had joined the food chain, for sure! (laughs)
Liam: Now, how long have you been diving in these waters?
Laura: For about 20 years.
Liam: Over those 20 years, have some things changed? Are you seeing things different, are you experiencing it differently?
Laura: I think there is a tremendous garbage problem. Too many people, they look at the pretty beaches and they think, “Oh, it’s so nice!” But they can’t see what’s under there.
Laura spoke to Liam Moriarty from under 30 feet of water. The white wire is the underwater intercom system she used to communicate with Liam on the beach.
Liam: What kinds of things do you see?
Laura: Plastic bottles and cans, old car batteries, tarps, clothing, towels … If you read the articles about that gray whale that washed up on the beach …
Liam: That whale washed up on West Seattle not long ago, right?
Laura: Yeah, correct. And they looked in its stomach, and in that whale’s stomach was a huge amount of human trash, including, like, a pair of sweat pants … People will protect what they love. But they won’t fall in love with something they don’t know. That’s why I go out and shoot pictures and take video is so that I can show it to people , I can teach people about how amazing it is.
Liam: Now you said that you’ve been diving near storm drains when it’s been raining. And all the rainwater that comes off the buildings, off the streets, off the sidewalks, it all washes into the storm drains. What does that look like when it comes out?
Laura: It’s gray, it’s billowing, it just looks incredibly dirty. And then after a rain storm, if you go out near those areas, you’ll see this kind of film of tire rubber and brake pad and washer fluid and road grime covering the bottom around the storm drains.
Laura checks her SCUBA equipment before diving at Seacrest Park. Photo by Liam Moriarty
Liam: The rest of us, when we want to go into the wilderness, we get in a car or whatever and we’ve gotta drive 50, 80, 100 miles, and then go walking out to try to get away from civilization and see something in it’s natural state. We’re sitting here in West Seattle but you head under the water and there’s a way in which you’re kind of in the wilderness, arent’ you?
Laura; Oh, absolutely, And that’s one of the beautiful things about it. I can go out and kind of commune with nature without having to drive basically anywhere.
Liam: Well Laura, thanks for inviting me out and letting me have this little window into your underwater world.
Mike Schiewe at his home in Hansville, on the northern tip of the Kitsap Peninsula. Photo by Liam Moriarty
By the 1990s, Northwest salmon were declared to be on the road to extinction. Fishing was cut back, development was curtailed, and dam and hatchery operations were improved to save the salmon. Are the efforts to turn it around working?
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This week KPLU environmental reporter Liam Moriarty talks with Mike Schiewe, a long-time salmon fisherman. He’s also one of the biologists behind the Endangered Species listings.
Liam Moriarty: I’m sitting on a bluff in Hansville, which is on the northern edge of the Kitsap Peninsula. We’re looking across Admiralty Inlet at Double Bluff on Whidbey Island, and I’m sitting with Mike Schiewe … Now, you’re a sports fisherman. You’ve done a fair amount of fishing around here.
Mike Schiewe: I have. For the last 40 years, first with my father in law and then later with friends, we fished literally all over Puget Sound.
The lighthouse at Point No Point in Hansville became operational in 1879. It was the first light house in Puget Sound. This is also the place where in 1855 Washington's first territorial governor Isaac Stevens signed a treaty with the S'Klallam, Skokomish and other Indian tribes to cede their land - much of the Olympic Peninsula - to the government. That treaty, and others like it, was the legal basis for the 1974 Boldt decision that affirmed Native fishing rights. Photo by Liam Moriarty
Liam: How has that changed; how did you see that change?
Mike: It’s been pretty darn remarkable. Early on the salmon season was year-round. Just about any day of the year you could head out, weather permitting, and find fish in some location. The 1990s brought much constraint and limited seasons because of the Endangered Species Act listings.
Liam: I guess it’s a little ironic because you were one of the prime scientists that did the research that led to those listings. Tell me about that.
Mike: I worked for the National Marine Fisheries Service. In the early 90s we started to receive petitions asking us to list various populations of salmon, pretty much throughout the Northwest. We set up what I would characterize as a scientific jury process where we convened panels of experts for each of the species. We launched a comprehensive survey of all populations of salmonids, all five species: Chinook, Coho, Sockeye, Pink and Chum, and we also did the anadromous form of Rainbow Trout – the Steelhead.
We ended up identifying — I believe it was 26 populations, ultimately, that we considered to be either threatened or endangered.
Liam: Now, take me back, say, to the 1970s. What was happening with Puget Sound salmon in that period of time?
Chinook salmon fishing circa 1900. Photo courtesy North Cascades National Park archives
Mike: I think for the most part the commercial harvest was starting to wind down. There were fisheries on Coho in the fall – purse seiners. There were gill netters still operating.
In a cultural, political, legal way, the fishing was changing because the tribes were beginning to exert their fishing rights when the Boldt decision came down. That drastically altered the fishery with the idea that the fishery had to be divided roughly 50/50 between the tribes and the non-tribal fisheries. The non-tribal fishery at the time was a very much declining commercial fishery. It was still a full blown sport fishery. It just slowly – the fishing abundance – the levels came down and there just wasn’t much work to be had.
Liam: Was there a sense at the time of what was happening; what was going on there to cause that?
Mike: Shoreline development – not only on the shorelines of Puget Sound but certainly all the rivers that salmon depend on as nursery areas were being lined with houses, roads, road run-off, storm water. The population of the Puget Sound basin in general was literally exploding. Basically as much as you can contribute, for example, the demise of fish in the Columbia River to harvest and dams, I think Puget Sound was sort of harvest and habitat loss.
I would be remiss in not I guess calling attention to the fact that this was a time of great growth in hatcheries. Hatcheries are a great tool for producing mass, large numbers of fish that can help maintain harvest at a high level, but they basically mask the decline of the wild population.
Looking across Skunk Bay to Foulweather Bluff in Hansville, WA. Photo by Liam Moriarty
Liam: At what point did folks start connecting those dots?
Mike: I think it’s a fair question to ask why the agencies weren’t doing anything on their own initiative. But frankly they weren’t. It took the push by some of the conservation community and fishing groups to change that dynamic.
Liam: In the subsequent 15 years since the salmon stocks were all listed, what’s been achieved; where are we at now?
Mike: I think we’re now just beginning to see some of the progress. Puget Sound is perhaps a fairly difficult environment to measure some of that progress.
The problem is very, very dispersed. It’s a very complex process of land use and counties and municipalities making changes in how we do those things.
Liam: Are we seeing the sort of progress that we would have hoped to be seeing when the fish were listed 15 years ago?
Mike: Habitats that support productive, sustainable fish populations don’t return to their higher state in just a matter of a couple of years or even a decade. It’s very likely going to take 30-40 years of sustained better management to see those things turn around.
It’s the old death by a thousand cuts which brought us to this point. Those thousand cuts slowly have to heal over.
Personally, I’m a very firm believer that humans are part of the ecosystem and they need to be on the table in their needs at the same time as the needs of their environment. There is no reason why they are mutually exclusive.
Sockeye salmon returning to spawn in the Cedar River. Photo courtesy blogs.kcls.org
Liam: Well, Mike; thanks for having me out.
Mike: Thank you for coming out. I enjoyed the opportunity to talk with you.
Bruce Coughlan is the lead singer, songwriter and guitarist of The Tiller Folly.
The recorded history of the Salish Sea is filled with stories of heroes and scoundrels, triumphs and tragedies. Bruce Coughlan turns these human dramas into songs deeply rooted in the history of the Pacific Northwest. Coughlan is the singer and songwriter for the Canadian folk band “Tiller’s Folly.”
This week KPLU environment reporter Liam Moriarty sits on a Vancouver beach with Coughlan and explores that history, and the music it inspires.
Click to listen to the story
Liam Moriarty: Tell us about where we’re sitting right now.
Bruce Coughlan: Well, we’re sitting on Jericho Beach, looking out over English Bay. Just around the corner there to the west, is Spanish Banks. Directly ahead of us is the bay where the Spanish and English explorers first met back in 1792.
Basically, here they were trying to claim this land for their respective countries. So the fact that they met on friendly terms and not aggressive terms was pretty interesting to start with.
(Lyrics from song)
I walked the road to Spanish Banks…
And where the cliffs rise over sandy shoals below.
I wondered how it appeared to them
Two hundred years ago…
Bruce: The Spanish were giving places all the Spanish names – you know, Strait of Juan de Fuca, Galiano and Gabriola Islands – the English were doing the same – English Bay, Howe Sound, Mt. Baker – all these points of land throughout the Pacific Northwest.
The Tillers Folly (L to R) Bruce Coughlan: vocals, guitar - Nolan Murray: fiddle, mandolin - Lawrence Knight: electric bass
(Lyrics from song)
…venturing on to each new horizon, charting as they sailed.
What if they had seen the years unfolding?
Would they have believed a world so changed?
Could they have foreseen in all their wildest fantasies
This place that bears their name?
Liam: You mention in the song, Spanish Banks, you have a line, “Names that leap from my atlas pages were present on that day.” I thought that was an interesting observation. When you look at a map, you see all these names, and they were there.
Bruce: They were there. A lot of the people were aboard. Quadra Island was named after Quadra – he was the captain.
Liam: One of the historical based songs that you guys do that I got a big kick out of was Steamboating Jamiesons, which is basically about five brothers named Jamieson who were renowned steamboat pilots throughout the Northwest, and each of them met an untimely end.
A medley of Tiller’s Folly historical songs
(Lyrics from song)
There were five brothers Jamieson, pride of the great Northwest,
When it came to steamboat piloting, well, the Jamiesons were best.
Their story’s told of the captains bold who plied the Northwest chuck.
The steamboating Jamiesons had the hardest luck!
It’s said the trouble all began back in 1854
When the first of the fated Jamiesons was standing on the wharf.
Oh, Canamah town heard a frightening sound and a great horrific roar,
The Gazelle was flung into kingdom come and that left only four.
Four steamboat Jamiesons, the pride of the great Northwest…
Liam: Were they actual characters or were they just sort of guys you’re having fun with?
Bruce: Absolutely true.
Bruce: Absolutely true story. As a matter of fact, when we toured Scotland six years ago, we visited their home; a place called Broddick. And we discovered that there had been a sixth brother who had had the good sense to stay at home. The night we played at the Alpine Hotel in Broddick, Scotland, we had three generations of non-steamboating Jamiesons in attendance.
Liam: Really… (chuckles)
Singing folk music or folk-inspired music about people long dead and livelihoods that no longer exist; it seems to be an invitation for modern people to put themselves in another human’s shoes 100, 150, 200 years ago and kind of walk around in those shoes for a while. Is that a part of what goes on with you?
Robbie McBeath video
A member of the famed Scottish regiment the Seaforth Highlanders, Robert McBeath was decorated for bravery and survived the carnage of World War I to emigrate to Canada.
He joined the Vancouver Police Department, only to be killed while making an arrest in 1922. Tiller’s Folly performs this tribute with the Vancouver Police Pipe Band.
Bruce: That’s the intrigue for me, is to be able to see things with one extra dimension; with that dimension of time I can look out at this bay and imagine it without the big tankers. I can imagine it without all the high-rises on the far shore.
Can you imagine what it was like? The creaking of the sails and the rigging, coming around the corner and spying another expeditionary force from a rival country. The hearts would have been thumping at that time. People would have been crying out commands. They were going to come alongside and figure out what was what.
That moment in history defined who we are today as Pacific dwellers.
Liam: Well, Bruce; thank you for inviting me out on this walk today.
Bruce: Thanks, Liam. It’s been a lovely day. It didn’t rain.
Liam: That’s always a good day when it doesn’t rain in the Pacific Northwest.
Thanks a lot.
Bruce: Cheers; take care.
(Lyrics from song)
Yes! The steamboating Jamiesons had the hardest luck!
Bob Shrewsbury is co-owner with his brother Ric of Western Towboat Company based in Seattle's Ballard neighborhood. Photo by Liam Moriarty
The Salish Sea is known for its vast natural beauty. It’s also a busy marine highway, used to deliver millions of tons of goods each year from around the world. A lot of those goods – from gravel to construction equipment – are moved by tug boats. This week Liam Moriarty spends a morning on Seattle’s Elliott Bay with Bob Shrewsbury of Western Towboat Company.
Click to listen to the story
Liam Moriarty: I’m on the tugboat “Triumph.” We’ve just come down through Salmon Bay, through the Hiram Chittenden locks here in Seattle and we’re out on Puget Sound. Bob, what are we up to today?
Bob Shrewsbury: Just boat delivery. So the other crew will show up at 1400 and take her to Alaska.
Liam: Your dad started Western Towboat not long after World War II, right? Tell me about how that happened …
Bob: 1948, started with one little wooden boat, 50-foot tug.
Liam: You must have grown up on those boats.
Bob: Yeah, I was born in ’53 and been around them all my life. Only job I’ve ever had. I made my first trip to Alaska with my dad when I was 7, and by the time I was 18 I was running boats as a captain to Alaska. Started out, we used to do it seasonally, and by the time we were 21 years old we were doing it year-round and I did that till about 10 years ago. Then I started taking more time in the office and now I’m hard to get out of the office.
The tug Trumph is one of 20 tug boats run by Western Towboat Campany, many of which the company has built itself. Photo by Liam Moriarty
Liam: You haul gravel barges, and some other stuff up to Alaska? Those are those barges I see being towed that have like a big pile of containers on one end and it kind of slopes down and a big pile of containers on the other end … are those the one’s we’re talking about?
Liam: So what are you hauling up to Alaska?
Bob: Heavy equipment, rail cars, machinery, lots of refrigerated vans, food and pretty much everything you need to live your life.
Liam: You talk about those runs up to Alaska. You guys run year-round. I would imagine the weather gets pretty snotty there, in the winter especially.
Bob: Oh, yeah. We’ve seen our share of bad weather. I mean, we’re had boats out there for a few hours in a freak storm and heavy winds and they’re going backwards at four knots and hoping that the wind quits before they get blown on the beach. So you’ve got to be on your toes all the time.
Liam: I’d think that down here on the inside waters, Puget Sound, Salish Sea, that it doesn’t get that bad.
Bob: No, no. I mean we get nasty weather once in a while where different kinds of problems develop; a barge breaks loose from a buoy, or … you know, you have smaller equipment, it’s all proportionate to size. You can get in trouble in the Strait of Juan de Fuca as easy as the Gulf of Alaska on a small boat if you’re out there and it blows 50 westerly and you’re not set up for it. It doesn’t matter where you are, you’ve got to pay attention to the weather and the current and tides and all that stuff.
Liam: I would think that, working on these waters for as long as you have, you’ve got a pretty good handle on the things like the currents and the tides and how that works in here.
The tug Triumph approaches the industrial zone of Harbor Island near the mouth of the Duwamish River in Seattle. Photo by Liam Moriarty
Bob: Oh, yeah. But we’ve been going through the Tacoma Narrows for 57 years with gravel barges so you know the places you go, And you can’t buck big times out of the Narrows but you learn where you can go to get out of the current.
Liam: Now, I’ve always thought of tug boats as essentially being all about muscle. You know, it’s just one big muscular boat. It that pretty much what’s going on with these?
Bob: Yeah, it’s an engine room with fuel tanks surrounding it, so it’s a lot of horsepower for the size of the boat.
Liam: They carry an incredible amount of fuel.
Bob: Our Titan Class tugs that we tow the freight barges with, they carry from 160,000 to 190,000 gallons of fuel. Typical 10-day southeast Alaska trip will use 40,000 gallons of fuel.
Liam: You grew up in this family and you’ve been out on the water here for a long time … What kind of changes do you see over the decades?
Bob: It’s more regulation but …
Liam: That’s a change. (laughter)
Bob Shrewsbury at the helm of the tug Triumph in Eliott Bay. Photo by Liam Moriarty
Bob: When I first started going there wasn’t near so many lights on the beach, that’s for sure. Now it’s like street lights when you’re going around Puget Sound. But there’s a lot more traffic. Different traffic. Bigger traffic, bigger ships. Everything’s gotten bigger.
Liam: And more complicated. I imagine the business you run is a lot more complicated that the business your dad ran.
Bob: Oh, yeah. Electronics and the tools we have to work with now, and the complications the new regulations of emissions and all that have brought in. The engines, you’ve got to be an electrician to work on the engine and not just a mechanic anymore. It’s a different world than it was back when I started, that’s for sure.
Liam: You still enjoy it?
Bob: Some days … Some days.
Liam: Did you ever consider doing anything else?
Bob: No, I really didn’t have any other desire to do anything else. You know, it’s something that gets in your blood, I guess …
Liam: You have another generation of your family coming up to work in the business?
Bob: Oh yeah, my two sons are both working on tugs. One of them’s a captain right now, one’s a mate. My brother’s daughters are in the office and hopefully we hang around a little while longer.
Liam: Bob, thanks for taking me along with you this morning.
Guemes Island resident Rachel Benbrook heads the Spartina Survey Program for People for Puget Sound. Photo by Liam Moriarty
Invasive species of plants are usually introduced to an area to solve one problem, but often end up causing other, bigger problems. In the Salish Sea, one of these headache is spartina grass.
This week in our series “Reflections on the Water,” KPLU environment reporter Liam Moriarty meets up with Rachel Benbrook. She heads a program that recruits volunteer sea kayakers to help eradicate spartina. Liam and Rachel paddle through the Swinomish Channel in Skagit County in search of the noxious weed
Click to listen to the story
Liam Moriarty: So we got some over there?
Rachel Benbrook: Yes; I see some spartina in this marsh right here.
Liam: Okay; let’s get in on that … Hi,Rachel!
Rachel: Hey, Liam!
Liam: Where are we at right now?
Rachel: What we are looking at right now is a really beautiful native, Salish Sea salt marsh. There’s lots of the pickle weed grass, the arrow grass and other native species in here. But unfortunately there’s also some invasive spartina.
Rachel Benbrook displays a sample of invasive spartina grass. Photo by Liam Moriarty
Rachel Benbrook logs the GPS coordinates of a patch of spartina grass in Swinomish Channel near LaConner. Photo by Liam Moriarty
Liam: Tell me about spartina grass.
Rachel: Spartina is a family of invasive grasses that has found its way here into Puget Sound. The grass was actually deliberately planted in the Puget Sound in the Stanwood area in the 1960s to help stabilize the dikes there. It happens to hold a lot of sediment in its roots which means it’s really good at doing that. But it’s also invasive.
Liam: What does it do?
Rachel: Once spartina gets established, it spreads really, really quickly. I’ve seen plants double in size in one growing season.
Liam: It just kind of takes over …
Rachel: It takes over and unfortunately, the habitat that it prefers are really high quality estuary and marsh and mudflat habitats.
Liam: So when spartina takes over one of those habitats, is it basically just not good for much of anything else?
Rachel: Eventually it starts to become nothing but a spartina meadow and it is only good for more spartina seeds that continue to spread through the really active currents of Puget Sound. In fact, from that original infestation site in the Stanwood area, we found spartina as far south as Vashon Island and all the way out west on Neah Bay. It’s also spreading up into British Columbia.
Liam: Point the spartina out to me; what does it look like?
Rachel: Alright; it’s right here. I’m just going to kind of stick my paddle by it so you can see it.
Liam: Okay. It looks like something you might see in your lawn.
Rachel: Right; that’s one of the things that drives spartina surveyors crazy because you see it everywhere. It’s a plant with attitude, kind of; once you learn to recognize it, those sharp leaves kind of stick up out of the marsh.
Liam: You’re in charge of a program – it’s kind of a citizen science program having to do with spartina grass; can you talk about that?
A kayakers-eye view of a salt marsh near the south end of Swinomish Channel in Skagit County. Photo by Liam Moriarty
Rachel: I’m with People for Puget Sound, and have the incredibly cool job as a sea kayaking biologist, of working with volunteer kayakers to get them out on the water, and train them how to do surveys for the spartina grass.
We work with regular citizens of Puget Sound to get them out there doing science and collecting data for the researchers who are then applying that and getting out here and dealing with the spartina that’s out here in the Sound.
Liam: I’m a paddler myself, and it occurs to me that there are a number of ways in which, by the nature of the craft and the way paddlers get around, that they could be actually pretty useful gathering field data for scientists.
Rachel: For one thing, a kayak only draws about three inches of water, so we can be in these super shallow areas such as the mudflats and deltas where we see a lot of spartina. We’re able to get into areas in a really, really low impact way, right up along the shoreline and the vegetation line where the spartina is going to be, and in areas that have been systematically surveyed by other methods for years, when the kayakers go in, we tend to find something that has been missed.
I was a sea kayak guide and I realized that nobody knows the local waters like the paddlers who are paddling those shorelines, spending a lot of time with those eyes on the water.
Liam: Once you’ve identified it; okay, we’ve got a patch of it over here – what do you do with that information.
Rachel: Our volunteers will take coordinates – GPS coordinates for where that plant is located. Then they provide that data for me. That allows me to then take that data and I produce these really cool maps out of it. I share those maps with — sometimes it’s state crews, sometimes it’s county – and sometimes it’s tribal, depending on where you are.
We had some spartina that we located here in the channel earlier in the season. I sent that data and two days later that plant was treated. So it’s really neat to hear them come out and control this stuff right away.
Liam: Has it really gotten to the point where we are literally looking at individual plants?
Rachel: It really has. It’s kind of a hard thing to wrap your head around; is we’re trying to find every single one of these plants. But spartina is that dangerous to the habitats of the Salish Sea.
What’s really cool about the spartina fight, is this is one of the very few invasive species stories that we are actually winning this fight. At peak infestation in the mid-90s, there was thought to be several thousand acres of spartina in Washington State. At this point we have got it down to under about 40 acres.
Liam: Rachel, I guess we’re done looking for spartina for the day; shall we paddle on back to LaConner?
Rachel: Yeah; why don’t we start to cruise on back and enjoy a little bit more time out on the Salish Sea.
Ken Kirkby heads the Nile Creek Enhancement Society in Bowser, B.C., on the east side of Vancouver Island. Photo by Liam Moriarty.
Human activity has taken a heavy toll on the Salish Sea. And efforts are underway across the region to restore depleted stocks of everything from salmon to eelgrass.
This week KPLU environment reporter Liam Moriarty visits a project in the little town of Bowser, British Columbia. He sits on a beach with Ken Kirkby, who heads an innovative community non-profit that’s been restoring a crucial type of habitat: underwater forests of bull kelp.
Click to listen to the story
Liam Moriarty: We’re looking east across Georgia Strait. What are those islands that we’re looking at a little bit to the north, Ken?
Ken Kirkby: The island directly to our northwest is Denman. Then there’s a channel and the next island is Hornby.
Liam: Now, you came to Bowser quite some years ago.
Ken: I come from one of those ancient families, 1,100 years of mayhem in Europe. I was never comfy there. Didn’t want to be part of it. Wanted to have a new life, my own life. So in September ’58, I managed to make my way to Vancouver with a map of how to get to the village of Bowser, and I fell in love with this place. I’d never seen a real true forest. I’d never seen giant kelp beds. I’d never seen salmon. But then I left after two weeks, promising that I would one day live here.
Liam: So after many years, you came back to Bowser, and things had changed a lot.
Ken: I found the great abundance was gone. The river was void of fish. The kelp beds were gone. The eelgrass was almost gone. So we decided to actually grow kelp.
Liam: Why are the kelp beds important?
Ken: What happens with kelp is that, it’s a primordial thing. It actually bleeds itself perpetually into the ocean, putting all manner of nutrients in that feed the tiny, tiny organisms on which other, larger creatures depend. When the small salmon leave the river, they need a place to go and be while they’re acclimatizing themselves to get on the long journey. Likewise when those larger adult salmon are on their way home, they also need a place to hide out.
Liam: How do you re-establish kelp forests? You can’t just replant them the way you would trees or whatever; how do you do that?
Ken: In large part, as all nature, it’s a numbers game. If we could get enough spores in the ocean and let them travel on the currents, and find substrates that are suitable
Liam: That they could attach to on the bottom.
Ken: Precisely. Our first attempts were as rudimentary as you could possibly get. Imagine onion bags; you put a rock in it, take a piece of spore patch, put it in there, and toss it overboard.
Liam: Let her rip.
Ken: Yeah; and keep doing it. You cannot get simpler than that.
Liam: How did that work out?
Kelp beds often form mats on the surface. The air-filled bulb floats leaf-like blades near the surface to get sunlight, while a "holdfast" anchors the algae to solid surfaces on the sea floor. (photo credit: echoforsberg/Flickr)
Ken: We were blown away in that there was kelp. Now, we found out there was a concrete block maker, cinderblocks, north of us here. In the making of those, there are a lot of duds. Those duds cannot be used for construction and they have to be crushed and disposed of. That costs a lot of money. So we cut a deal with him; if we take them away, can we have them? He said any day you want. We chose these blocks that had been weathered for five years, and we ferried out in front here.
Liam: Out where those buoys are right now?
Ken: Exactly. Right out there. We started building small reefs. And sure enough, the kelp immediately started to grow. We planted some there with divers Then it did re-seed itself.
Liam: Now that you’ve been establishing these new kelp beds that seem to be self-sustaining, are they developing the kinds of colonies of critters that you would expect in a naturally spawning bed?
Ken: When divers went down and we took a look, we couldn’t believe it. In a five month, up to eight month period, the kelp beds that are out in front here were fully populated with five varieties of rock cod; ling cod, kelplings, greenlings, octopus – we’ve got 42 octopus living out here now. We know each one now.
Liam: Have you given them names yet?
Ken: No, no; they said look, this human need to give names to things, can you back off on that one? (laughter) We have squid; lots and lots of herring back. And we’re trying to convince folks to leave this area alone and let the kelp and the herring and all the other things work together, and give it a chance. Let’s give this a ten year window. We can get a really good picture in ten years of how this affects everything. And we’re making progress. We’ve gone to a number of the fisherman who come here, the fishers; we’ve sat them down, human, face to face, and explained to them what we’re doing, include them in it, and ask for their support, and it’s amazing what happens.
Liam: It sounds like that was actually helping to cultivate relationships in the human community here, too.
Winter storms wash masses of bull kelp onto the shore. (photo credit: Ed Bierman/Flickr)
Ken: It has actually made a community. An old fashioned kind of community. People who before probably didn’t even know each other, some who did and didn’t like each other, have been asked to leave their political guns at the door. It’s created a major sense of well being. The greatest beneficiary of this, quite frankly, is the human factor.
Liam: Ken, thanks for taking me out and showing me what you’ve got. This is a beautiful place and you’re doing very interesting things.
Ken: Thanks for being interested, and thanks for coming all this way.