September 8, 2010

Surrounded by Acres of Clams: Talking Shellfish with Justin and Bill Taylor

Bill Taylor (left) and Justin Taylor stand on one of the Taylor Shellfish Company's beaches on LIttle Skookum Inlet on south Puget Sound. Photo by Liam Moriarty

The Salish Sea has hundreds of miles of shoreline that are suitable habitat for oysters, clams and other shellfish. The region’s native people relied heavily on shellfish, as did early settlers. This week Liam Moriarty goes to the south end of Puget Sound to talk with Bill Taylor and his 88-year-old father Justin. The Taylor family has been growing shellfish there for over a century.

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Justin Taylor: I’m Justin Taylor.
Bill Taylor: And I’m Bill Taylor.
Liam Moriarty: Where are we standing right now?
Bill: We’re standing on beaches of Little Skookum Inlet down in south Puget Sound.
Liam: Looks like tide’s going out.
Bill: Yep. Tide’s going to be low here in about two hours.
Liam: Smells like the tide’s going out too.
Bill: Yeah; it does. The smell’s … got a little bit of mud, and you can smell the water and kind of hear the clams squeaking on the beach as the water drops out.
Liam: Justin, tell me; how did your family come to this part of the Salish Sea?
Justin: My family actually came here in a covered wagon, the earliest of them. They’ve been working around the tidelands and that since the 1890s anyway.
Liam: Folks have been harvesting oysters from this part of the water for a long time. They were doing that quite a lot even when you were a kid, weren’t they?
Justin: In fact, at that time it was the native Olympia oyster and things were really booming at that time.
Liam: The oystermen always depended on having clean water. That became an issue as early as the 1920s.

Squaxin Island Tribe member Cecelia Bob dries shellfish in the traditional manner. Photo courtesy of the Squaxin Island tribe.

Justin: It did. The pulp mill in Shelton started in the late 20s and it ran for about 30 years and actually just about devastated the Olympia oyster business.
Liam: Because the pollution from the mill was killing off the native Olympia oysters, the oystermen brought in another species of oyster that was able to stand up under the pollution better; is that what happened?
Justin: That is correct; yes.
Liam: There was a conflict about the mill and the water between the oystermen and other folks, wasn’t there?
Justin: There were lawsuits. At that time the State had no protection at all. The one offshoot that came from this, the State developed a pollution control commission, what evolved into the Ecology Department now., but when we were first having our problems, there was nothing in this state that protected us.
Liam: The sort of industrial pollution issues, the pulp mills and that sort of thing, you don’t have as much of that sort of a problem anymore. Most large industrial sources of pollution have been addressed in various ways. But you have other water quality issues, don’t you?
Justin: One of them is pollution from septic tanks and that, bacterial pollution. There are so many more people around the sound. They have pets and that sort of thing, and it all adds to runoff into the water.
Liam: There’s also an issue that folks are just starting to become aware of, that’s associated with climate change, and that’s acidification of the water. Are you guys seeing the impact of that?

Bill: In our hatchery we have in Quilcene, we’ve had the last several years very low productivity of our Pacific oyster larvae because of corrosive water, low pH water.
Liam: I would think that puts you guys in a difficult situation. In Justin’s day when the problem was being caused by a pulp mill down at the end of the bay, you could do something about that, clean it up. If we’re dealing with something that is part of a large global climate change phenomenon, that’s not going to be amenable to the same sort of approach. Where does that leave you guys?
Bill: Well, it makes us at least look at different ways to solve the issue, at least in our hatcheries.
Liam: I know I’ve heard people complain about – especially geoduck — harvesting and feeling like people just come and tear up the beach. Is that an issue?
Bill: Certainly some people feel it’s an issue. Folks have questions about the environmental effects. There are studies going on and at least from our perspective and watching tidelands for a long time, we don’t see the impacts that they claim that there is.
Liam: Bill, this is a business that seems almost uniquely dependent on water quality, and that’s something you really don’t have control over because everyone shares the water. Can you talk a little about that?
Bill: We actually spend a lot of time working on water quality issues. We’re involved in everything from land use planning to making sure that there’s adequate regulations for septics, storm water issues. So we’ve been very involved both at the legislature and here at the local levels in the counties.
Liam: Both of you guys have grown up on these beaches, and have spent your lives walking these beaches and working these beaches. I would think that’s a real sense of connection, especially in a day when most people are from somewhere else.
Bill: I think probably anybody that’s grown up in a family that’s got a long tradition of doing something, you have a sense of pride. A lot of effort has gone into trying to make sure that we leave this place a good place for our kids when they come along. My niece who actually runs — operates this farm here, is our fifth generation to start working in the family business, and we’re – we want to see that legacy go forward and we want conditions to be here so that the family can continue to work in the shellfish industry and be prosperous.

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August 31, 2010

Freeing the River: Barb Maynes and the Elwha River Restoration

Wearing her 'Last Dam Summer' pin, Barb Maynes stands atop the soon-to-be-demolished Glines Canyon Dam on the Elwha River. Photo by Liam Moriarty

The Elwha River that flows out of the Olympic Mountains into the Salish Sea was once a celebrated salmon fishing ground. About a hundred years ago, two dams were built on the river. The dams generated electricity to power the mills of Port Angeles, but they decimated the salmon runs. Now, the dams are about to be taken down and the river restored.

This week Liam goes to Olympic National Park where he talks with Park spokesperson and longtime Port Angeles resident Barb Maynes about what’s likely the largest restoration project ever undertaken in the Pacific Northwest.

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Liam Moriarty: We’re up at the Glines Canyon Dam, which is the taller of the two dams on the Elwha River and the one that’s further upstream.

Glines Canyon Dam -- at 210 feet tall -- will be the tallest dam ever removed in the U.S. Photo by Liam Moriarty

Barb Maynes: We’re looking out across Lake Mills which is the reservoir behind Glines Canyon Dam, looking up into, I think. one of the most scenic views of the Elwha Valley. You really get a sense, I think, from here, of how huge this watershed is, and the scope from the high snow-capped peaks all the way down to the river’s mouth where we were a little while ago.

Liam: I want to ask about that actually because right there, I guess on the eastern side of where the river comes out, is where the lower Elwha Klallam Tribe has their reservation. Like most of the tribes in the Salish Sea area, shellfish were a big part of that; salmon and shellfish were two of their big things.

Putting the dam in did serious damage to both of those. We’re going to see shellfish back down at the mouth of the river again once this all settles out?

The lower Elwha River, below the dams. The vision is for the rest of the river's length to look like this once the restoration is complete. Photo by Liam Moriarty

Barb: That’s one of the exciting things about this project; that it’s truly a restoration from headwaters all the way out to the sea. Not only — we’ll see salmon all the way up — way, way upstream in the Elwha, at higher elevations — and we’ll see the beaches and the shellfish and the salmon coming back to the beaches along the Strait too. All of that is of utmost importance to the tribe. I don’t think there’s anybody who’s more eager than the tribe to see the dams come out, to see the fish come back, to have access to their cultural sites again.

Liam: A big issue with this is that you’ve got 100 years worth of silt and sediment built up behind that dam. How does that get managed?

Barb: Basically by the river itself. As the river enters the upstream end of Lake Mills, that’s when the river is carrying its load of silt and sediment. When it gets to the still waters of the reservoir, the silt and sediment settle out on the bottom. There’s a big delta there now. Basically what will happen as the water in the reservoir lowers, as we start notching down the dam, the river will just erode that delta away.

Liam: What about the electricity from the dams? Are we going to miss that? I mean, I’m sure somebody figured that, but what’s the calculation there?

Barb: All the electricity from these dams now goes into the regional Bonneville (Power Administration) grid. And the BPA has told us that, no, it won’t be missed. It’s a small amount, about 19 megawatts a year. And that will simply be absorbed. The loss of this 19 megawatts will just be absorbed by other sources throughout the region.

Liam: Restoring an ecosystem like this; there’s a lot of moving parts in something like this. What has to be done in order to rehabilitate the habitat in a way that the salmon will come back and be happy?

Barb: A part of what makes this project so special, is that really, the only thing that’s wrong with this ecosystem, that’s wrong with this watershed, is that the dams are here. We’re in Olympic National Park. It’s been protected. It’s pristine. This area here, we don’t have impacts from development, from any kind of harvest, any kind of agriculture, and so the habitat is here. All we have to do is let the salmon get to it.

A sport fisher on the Elwha River before the dams were built. Courtesy Washington's National Park Fund Flickr stream

Liam: Can we just basically take the dams out and let the system find its own equilibrium; is it that simple?

Barb: You know, it pretty much is. It pretty much is. Take the dams out, and obviously there are years worth of planning, there are years worth of engineering and research that have gone into designing the best possible techniques for removing the dams, for managing the sediment, but it really boils down to take the dams out, let the salmon come back to their habitat, and that’s it. It’s tremendously exciting.

Liam: You talk about how the river connects things. That’s an interesting observation. That must be a pretty cool thing to anticipate happening.

Barb: It is really cool. I was thinking the other day it kind of feels like the river’s just been holding its breath for a long time. If you think about the salmon returning, the watershed, the ecosystem here, inhales deeply. The salmon come back in, it takes a deep breath in, the eggs are laid, the young hatch out, and they head back to sea. The sediment and the silt heads out to sea, and the river breathes out. The river’s been holding its breath for 100 years, and it’s about to start breathing again.

Liam: Barb, thank you for showing me your river.

Barb: Thanks for coming.

Construction on the Elwha Dam began in 1910. Photo by Liam Moriarty

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August 25, 2010

Living on the Edge: Micah McCarty and the People of the Cape

Micah McCarty is a Makah tribal council member. Photo by Liam Moriarty

At the western edge of the Salish Sea sits Cape Flattery, where the Strait of Juan de Fuca meets the Pacific Ocean. Nearby is Neah Bay, the traditional home of the Makah Indian tribe, who call themselves the People of the Cape. This week in our series “Reflections on the Water,” KPLU environment reporter Liam Moriarty goes to Neah Bay to speak with tribal council member Mikah McCarty.

Liam Moriarty: How long have the Makah lived in this place; do know?

Micah McCarty: We’re taught that we’ve been here since the beginning of time, and the beginning of time for us means that’s when we were placed on earth from somewhere out in the stars. Archeological evidence has us here more than 4,000 years.

Liam: One of the things that strikes me sitting here on this beach, just around the corner from Cape Flattery, which is like the northwest tip of the continental U.S., is that it’s very open here. The Salish Sea is an inland sea. Everywhere else, you’re looking at land as you look across the water but here, we’re looking out — mostly it’s wide open.

Modern Makah paddlers in a traditional-style canoe. Courtesy of

Do you suppose that having been in this place for this long, that that openness and that expanse of the ocean has helped carve who the Makah are as a people?

Micah: It’s definitely a defining factor. Early Indian agents would write about us and say better canoe people on the ocean than Makah probably never existed.

Because we’re at the confluence of the western Juan de Fuca and our economy and our traditional relationship with the ocean meant that we lived out there. And so for generations and even today still we have multiple generations of Makah still living out on the ocean, harvesting its bounties.

Liam: Speaking of that, the sockeye season’s been pretty good this year, hasn’t it?

Micah: It’s been really excellent and tasty too. We’re all enjoying sockeye. It’s one of our favorite fishes that swim through this area.

Cormorants preen themselves on a rock near Neah Bay. Photo by Liam Moriarty

Liam: The state’s oil spill prevention rescue tug is stationed right here in Neah Bay. The tribe has also been involved in other oil spill prevention efforts. Can you talk about that?

Micah: For us as a modern tribal government, we are resource trustees. It’s my responsibility to make sure that my people have a sustainable access to traditional resources and to protect those is an utmost priority for us.

One of the things as a place-based people, you know; that we also feel we bring a value to the table in oil spill response; is that oil spill trajectory is an incredibly important thing to be able to understand —

Liam: You mean once the oil hits the water, where it’s likely to go because of winds and tide and that sort of thing?

A relief carving by Makah artist Alex McCarty, brother of Micah McCarty.

Micah: Yeah; and our fishermen are probably second to none in understanding those dynamics in real time.

Liam: The Makah are situated out here on the western edge of the Salish Sea but the tribe is actually not a part of the Salish linguistic group like the other tribes.

Micah: Yeah; the tribes on the outer coast of Vancouver Island are the ones who we’re closely related to – Nuu-chah-nulth.

Liam: What does that mean?

Micah: Nuu-chah-nulth is a word that all the different tribes with the same linguistic background and similar histories — associated themselves by our proximity to mountains along the ocean.

Makah whalers hunting a whale, probably circa 1920s. before the tribe voluntarily gave up whaling because of declining whale populations along the west coast. Courtesy of

Liam: One of the things sets the Makah off from other tribes, is your tradition of the whale hunt which is something you do share with the other Canadian tribes but in the U.S., at least the continental U.S., the Makah are the only ones with a right to the whale hunt written into that treaty of 1855.

What place does that have in your sense of yourselves as a people?

Micah: My understanding of that would be every Makah can say we came from a house of a whaler, and the whalers — they were the apex of a hunter gathering society.

Liam: That had to be incredibly dangerous, done out of canoes and with hand made weapons.

Micah: Well, the danger factor was always there but the spiritual and the mental preparedness part was such a discipline that some whalers lived like priests, in a manner that the society of hunted whales would accept this new spirit because it had been properly taken care of. So when we usher the spirit of a whale into the next world, we do that in a way that’s accepted by all those that came before. That’s something I think has been sort of a guiding principle, and setting a pretty high standard of what traditional values are for Makah people.

Y’know, “Forgive me, brother; I must take you” — all the way from salmon to whale.

A rocky beach along the Strait of Juan de Fuca near Neah Bay. Photo by Liam Moriarty

Liam: Being of a people with ancient roots in this place, and going into the 21st century, what do you bring forward from the past that will carry you successfully into the future?

Micah: Well, for one, I don’t think many of us suffer from an identity crisis. And I think what we have is a strong sense of place and a strong sense of stewardship.

Liam: It’s quite remarkable out here, Micah, and thanks for spending time with me, and thanks for inviting me out to see your place.

Micah: No problem; I enjoyed it. Happy trails.

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August 18, 2010

Life is Her Oyster: Walking the Tide Flats with Betsy Peabody

Betsy Peabody heads the Puget Sound Restoration Fund, a non-profit that -- among other projects -- is working to restore native Olympia oysters. Photo by Liam Moriarty

In the 1920s, the hardy Pacific oyster was introduced into Puget Sound to replace the more-delicate Olympia oysters, whose numbers were being diminished by pollution. Now, the once-abundant native shellfish are down to less than 4 percent of their historical numbers.

This week Liam walks the tide flats of Case Inlet in south Puget Sound with Betsy Peabody. Peabody heads the Puget Sound Restoration Fund, which is setting the stage for the comeback of the Salish Sea’s native oysters.

Liam Moriarty: What are we up to today, Betsy?

Betsy Peabody: Okay; I’ve brought you to a place where we’re going to search for Olympia oysters. I want you to get a look at them before we head out to search for them because these are very tricky critters to find.

Liam: You’re showing me this little disc that’s maybe about the size of an old silver dollar. It’s grey and pebbly looking and you could easily miss that this is an actual creature.

Betsy: You also want to know where to look for it. This oyster is sort of finicky in terms of where it settles. This one you’re going to find in places that are moist and protected because it’s not very big and it has a pretty thin shell. That’s what we’re going to go out and look for on this scavenger hunt.

Liam: Cool. Alright; let’s go find some oysters!

Betsy: Okay!

Liam: Let’s talk a little bit about the Olympia oysters. They’re the native oyster that was here before anybody else showed up.

Betsy: Exactly. And they’re not extinct in this area or along the West Coast. You can still find them in lots of places —

Liam: In the wild?

Betsy: In the wild, and throughout their historic range. But you find them in sparse numbers. It’s really the dense, self-sustaining populations that really provide a big ecosystem benefit for the buck. That’s what we’re trying to rebuild.

Liam: Why are they important? You could say that okay; there aren’t that many of them around because they were the wimps; they couldn’t take it and folks brought in the big, beefy Pacific oysters, they can handle the rough knocks so why are we concerning ourselves with the Olympic oysters?

Betsy: One, they do filter and clean the water because they’re filter feeders.

Liam: What does that mean, exactly?

Betsy: The way that they feed, is that they pull water into their system and they filter out the bits of algae and plankton.

Liam: That’s their food.

Betsy: That’s their food but from our perspective, it increases light penetration and helps support eel grass beds, and we really need good, natural filtration to help maintain healthy estuaries so the water filtration is one reason why we do this. Another is that beds of oysters, those kinds of structured beds I was describing —

Liam: They’re almost like reefs when they all build together…

Betsy: Exactly. Exactly, and they provide a living space for other critters because you can imagine space in between the shells, under the shells, where lots of little copepods — shrimp-like creatures — can nestle, little juvenile crabs … They also provide a good feeding area because again, nestled, in the interstices of these shell, are all sorts of little prey species.

Liam: Fair enough. Let’s go.

Betsy: Okay. We’re going to keep walking but we’re starting to get to denser numbers.

Liam: We’re getting warmer…warmer…

Betsy: Okay — warmer —

Liam: And this is where the hula hoop comes in —

Betsy: Yes; exactly.

Betsy Peabody, hula hoop in hand, is decked out to walk the tide flats, looking for oysters. Photo by Liam Moriarty

Liam: I was wondering; what’s with the hula hoop, Betsy?

Betsy: The hula hoop I brought along because generally when you try to estimate a population, you have a given area …

Liam: Sure.

Betsy: Usually, you’re using a square shaped …

Liam: A grid — I’ve seen — I’ve been out on the beach with researchers using a grid shape.

Betsy:Perfect. But a hula hoop functions in the same way, in the sense that you throw it down, and then you count the number of oysters that you have within that hula hoop. You’ve got one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve. This is a good thing. You don’t find this in many places, and I suppose you have to know that to really appreciate this particular population.

Liam: You guys have gone to considerable lengths, your organization, to foster these guys. How is that working so far?

Betsy: It’s working really well in some places. There are places where we’ve been working since 2005 testing out these habitat enhancement approaches in Liberty Bay, and we’ve sort of doubled the population of Olympia oysters there. It’s working well, and we’re ready to increase the scale of it so that we can try to achieve 10% of Olympia oyster populations in the next ten years.

Liam: Cool.

Betsy: So that is what we’re all searching for; to be able to get this density of oysters really healthy and going strong in other parts of Puget Sound, so that people know there’s something out there that’s been out there for a long time, and there are things we can do on the land to ensure that this place continues to support populations that have fed us for thousands of years.

Liam: Betsy, this has been a lot of fun. Thanks for having me out today.

Betsy: Thanks for coming out.

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August 10, 2010

Birds of Stone: Salish Sea Wildlife Through the Eye of Tony Angell

Artist Tony Angell sculpts a sea bird out of white marble at his studio in Lake Forest Park.

Art has power to move people in deep and enduring ways. For decades, sculptor and painter Tony Angell has created images of the birds, fish and other wildlife of his adopted Salish Sea.
This week, Liam Moriarty visits Angell in his Seattle-area studio to talk about what inspires his work and how it can inspire others.

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Liam Moriarty: You were raised on southern California, around Los Angeles?

Tony Angell: I was out in the San Fernando Valley. At the time, when I was a kid, there was still a wild area there that a youngster could roam around in. I started drawing and painting the subjects that I would see in the California foothills or along the beaches.

By the time I finished high school, I had seen that whole area change dramatically. So when I came to the Northwest at 17 to attend the University of Washington, I had already, I think, cut my teeth a little bit on not only being out in nature but also understanding that that’s not something you can take for granted because I’d seen it disappear there.

Sunning Magpie, 1990, stone

Caspian Terns, 1982, lithograph

Liam: How did that influence your artwork?

Tony: Most of my subject matter that occupies this region; everything from the fish that I’ve seen diving in Puget Sound or the falcons and owls that come here in winter along the Skagit or the Samish.

Liam: We’re here in your studio, and you’re working on a bird right now on your table. Could we look at that – talk about that?

Tony: Yeah; what you’re looking at is a plover. It’s a carving in stone.

Liam: It’s sort of lying there as though in the sand, and it’s got one wing sort of laid out on the sand. You can see each feather and each of the cuts. It’s a gorgeous –

Tony: Thank you.

It’s a gesture; that’s the emphasis. Even though I think I do address matters of detail and I am generally sensitive to accuracy of my detail, I don’t put a lot of it into my work. What I am trying to do is emphasize the spiritual side of the subject.

Liam: When you are bringing something like this plover out of the stone, what’s that process? I suspect there’s – I suspect there are certain technical considerations in terms of the stone and the tools and things like that – but how does that process work for you?

Forest Hawk, 2008, bronze

Lazarus, 2007, stone

Sojourners, stone

Tony: I’ll go out into the field. And, there are times that I go out, knowing even before I get there, I’m going to see something, even to the point of knowing what I’m going to see. Part of it is being familiar with the area. Part of it is understanding the time of year that I ought to see it, knowing the favorite haunts of that subject – but there’s more to it than that.

It’s taken my entire life to realize that there’s something that may never come into consciousness that we are equipped with as people. Because it doesn’t come into consciousness, sometimes you deny the opportunity to employ it.

I don’t know what it is. I really don’t know what it is and I’m not going to try to analyze it. I just want to keep it.

Liam: Are there ways in which your representations of the creatures that live in the Salish Sea encourages or opens the door to people seeing things about the local waters that perhaps they might

Tony: I think sculptural art invites a lot of engagement because it’s not only visual, it’s tactile. It’s kinesthetic because there’s a gesture there, and you start stretching your wings, so to speak. It has a sound to it. You tap it with a chisel and you can hear the sound.

When this piece is finished and I put a coat of wax on it, you could probably lightly tap the bill with a pencil and it would ring like a piece of ceramic.

Liam: It invites you to touch it, too.

Tony: Well, it does.

Liam: Given the challenges that the Salish Sea faces as an ecological system, we’ve all heard all the bad news and the scientific studies and declines of species and pollution and all that sort of stuff. It’s hard a lot of times for people to want to hear more of that.

Do you think that the artistic images of creatures and other aspects of the natural world can kind of keep people open to an engagement that otherwise they might kind of shy away from because of all the bad news?

Tony: Absolutely. I think that was the premise that I put this last book together, “Puget Sound Through an Artist’s Eye,” and the People for Puget Sound, citizens’ group, had used the book in a variety of venues to introduce people to Puget Sound rather than with a threat – you’re going to lose this, you’re going to lose that – as true as it may be, as you say, people are turned off by it. They seal themselves up with a video and forget the world outside.

This is an invitation to enjoy the world artistically, and in a way, inspire other people to be artists. Because there are plenty of people out there who can use art as their avenue of discovery and action and commitment and enjoyment of living here.

Once you do that, you’ve invested in what’s here.

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August 6, 2010

Living on Island Time: Gabriola Islander Sheila Malcolmson

Sheila Malcomson

Sheila Malcolmson stands on the shoreline near her home on Gabriola Island, in the Gulf Islands east of Nanaimo. Photo by Liam Moriarty

There are more than a thousand islands in the Salish Sea. Some of them are home to good-sized towns, others are inhabited only by wildlife. Either way, the island experience is one of the signatures of this region.

This week in our series “Reflections on the Water,” KPLU environment reporter Liam Moriarty takes a ferry to Gabriola Island, in British Columbia, population about 4,000. He talks with Sheila Malcolmson about the joys and challenges of island living.″

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Liam Moriarty: It’s a rainy, misty, November Salish Sea sort of day. I’m on Gabriola Island in a very cozy little house on the shoreline with the fire going and I’m sitting here with Sheila Malcolmson.

How you doing, Sheila?

Sheila Malcomson: Really good, Liam.

Liam: What’s the community like up here?

B.C. Ferry

The B.C. ferry is a vital link between Gabriola Island and the much larger Vancouver Island. Gabiola Islanders call Vancouver Island "the mainland." Vancouver Islanders don't. Photo by Liam Moriarty

Sheila: It’s a real mix. You can actually look at the cars at the ferry line-up and get a pretty good sense of where we’re from. There’s lots of people on bikes and scooters. You’ve got trades coming back and forth, and really high end, really expensive cars, and lots of beat up rusted out Subarus with kayaks on the roof.

Liam: I lived on Orcas Island for 16 years from the mid-80s until 2002 or so, and island communities are different, even different from other small rural communities. How does that play out in the composition of your community on Gabriola?

Sheila: I guess people need to make a commitment to get here. They have to choose a certain amount of both isolation from the mainland and also lack of privacy or anonymity.

Liam: One thing I noticed when I moved to Orcas was that if you make an enemy of somebody, you’re going to see them at the post office, you’re going to see them at the grocery store, you’re going to see them at the community center. That creates an imperative where you kind of have to nurture your relationships more carefully than you might in a larger, more anonymous place.

Sheila: No question. People are passionate about issues, whether it’s development decisions or anything. So strong words can be said but I do believe people make a special effort not to make it so personal that they make it uncomfortable at the next pot luck dinner.

Another thing, though, beyond being just a small community, I think on an island we have a real reminder all the time that we have to be inter-reliant in case of an emergency. Power goes down a lot. If there ever is the big earthquake or the huge wildfire that means we have to evacuate the island. So it’s not just we have to get along when we end up pumping gas next to each other at the gas station, but we are vulnerable if we’re not a tight community.

The lighthouse on Entrance Island

The lighthouse on Entrance Island, off the northeast tip of Gabriola, has been in service since 1876. It is one of only two manned lighthouse remaining in Gulf Islands. Photo by Liam Moriarty

Liam: Do you find that islands tend to attract people who come here to kind of get away from other places, you know; and perhaps they get so passionate about defending the place because they feel like their back’s against the wall – this is where they came and there’s just nowhere else to go.

Sheila: For sure. I work in local government. We see that kind of passion and that kind of commitment to protecting the place all the time. We certainly have a lot of examples of other islands that have just become completely overrun and damaged. But as well, there’s another side to that; there’s a lot of people who have moved here to escape rules. So it’s very interesting to bump into both the passion to protect the place but also the very strong resistance to being regulated and told to protect the place.

Liam: Regulate the other guy but not me.

Sheila: We hear that all the time. All the time.

Liam: You work with the Islands Trust. Can you explain a little bit what that is?

Sheila: Islands Trust is a unique governance structure; doesn’t exist anywhere else in Canada. It was put in place 36 years ago when the Gulf Islands were under huge development pressure. Governments in Vancouver and Vancouver Island were just allowing subdivision to just go out of control. So the provincial government put in place the Islands Trust Act which had a mandate to preserve and protect.

Liam: Are there things that island communities have to teach mainland communities?

A view from Drumbeg Provincial Park on Gabriola Island

A view from Drumbeg Provincial Park on Gabriola Island. Photo Courtesy of Islands Trust

Sheila: I think we have a lot of great examples to show of self sufficiency, of resiliency, of living conservatively and lightly on the land; on trying to make tough decisions in a civil manner that means we can retain our relationships and all get along after the fact.

Liam: Everybody who comes to an island has a story. How did you end up here?

Sheila: Yeah; it was random. I came out the year that I graduated from university; came west. I’d never been beyond Manitoba at that point; came on the train. It was all very romantic. Did a bunch of wilderness-based trips, and then with friends that I met on a kayak trip in the Queen Charlottes, they said why not come back to this great island where we live. If you’re just still traveling, we can get you a little work when you’re there and so I drove on to Gabriola and was instantly enchanted. Almost stayed at that point. It actually took me about five years to extricate myself from the rest of my life.

Liam: You seem pretty happy here.

Sheila: How could you not be? Look at this place! It’s gorgeous.

Liam: Well, Sheila; you’ve got a lovely island here. Thanks for inviting me out and thanks for sitting and talking to me today.

Sheila: Thanks for making the trip, Liam.

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August 4, 2010

The Little Creek That Could: Chris Carrel and the Return of the Hylebos

Chris Carrel is a life-long resident of the Hylebos Creek watershed. For many years, he headed Friends of the Hylebos, and led efforts to restore the damaged creek.

For decades, residential and industrial development has degraded the habitat that the Salish Sea’s iconic salmon need to survive. The listing of many salmon runs as threatened or endangered drew attention – and money – to efforts to restore damaged rivers and creeks.

This week Liam Moriarty tours Lower Hylebos Marsh with Chris Carrel. Carrel grew up in the watershed that drains into Tacoma’s Commencement Bay and for years he led efforts to bring the creek back to life.

Click to listen to the story

Liam Moriarty: One of the things that strikes me about being here is that I’m hearing all these natural sounds. I’m hearing the creek. I’m hearing the wind in the trees. I’m hearing birds. At the same time, there’s this constant overlay of aircraft and machinery and sirens and trucks going by and things. You’re very aware that this is not a pristine area. This is a place that is on the edge of a major industrial zone.

Chris Carrel: Yeah; due to the restoration project that was created here, we’ve created a little pocket of nature right next to a busy industrial port.

Liam: Let’s get real basic. This is about restoring salmon.

Chris: Yeah.

Liam: Talk about that.

Hylebos Creek -- a painting by Xan McCallum

Chris: The Hylebos Creek, back when I was a kid, back, say, in the early 1970s, was one of the most productive small salmon streams in the central Puget Sound region. I used to watch the returning salmon runs – coho salmon, chum salmon – we even had chinook salmon – and it was incredible. Here was this fairly small creek and we’d see these huge fish coming back. I remember as a kid just being astounded at seeing these wild fish returning from the ocean and coming back to the place where I lived.

Liam: Show me around.

Chris: Sure. This is a long term process, obviously. We’re trying to create something that’s going to be mature in 70, 100, 150 years so we’re just seeing it in its infancy. The wildlife has come back. It’s being used by wildlife.

Liam: We saw some rabbits scooting across the trail just a moment ago.

Chris: Yeah; there are surely coyotes out here as well, following them.

Liam: They did seem to be in a hurry.(laughter)

Chris: Do you mind popping down through the trees?

Chris Carrel standing on a wooden bridge crossing Hylebos Creek. The area on the left has been restored to a more natural state.

Liam: No; sure.

Chris: We can see the marsh?

Liam: Lead on.

Chris: Obviously, nobody’s been back here.

Liam: (laughs) We’re kind of bushwhacking a little here.

This is getting pretty marshy through here.

Chris: Yeah.

Liam: There we go; a little pond. What function does this perform?

What is it that a pond like this off the main channel of the creek – what does that do?

Chris: Off channel habitat is very important for juvenile salmon. It provides them a place to forage; to get out of the mainstream and get away from predators. It gives them a chance to grow a little bit bigger which increases their chances of survival.

One of the cool things that happened here; I was out here on a site tour with some folks, and we were busting through the trees like you and I just did, and then we came through the trees and the water level was much higher than it should have been. We kind of did the, what’s going on here; something’s not right.

What we discovered was beavers had –

Wildflowers flourish in the restored Lower Hylebos Marsh

Liam: Beavers! I knew that was coming. (laughter)

Chris: I know some people are not happy when beavers move in. We were delighted. Beavers are a really important part of creek systems like this. They provide great habitat for juvenile salmon and really, they would enhance the work that’s already been done here.

We kind of set the plate for them and they came in and refined our work. The beavers have since moved on but it gives me hope that we’ll see beavers come back again.

Liam: You know, this is not the wilderness; clearly. This is on the edge of a fairly busy industrial area. Does it make sense to put this much effort and this much money into trying to restore places that are so far gone, that are that urbanized?

Left shows the preserved property in 1998 (prior to the mission change of the FOH). The right shows total preserved (green), identified as potential acquisitions (yellow), and the WSDOT SR167 highway project preservation/restoration area (blue)

Chris: There’s a debate about whether it’s wise to invest in preservation or restoration of places like this. There are some people who look at that and say Hylebos is toast. We shouldn’t invest any money there. It makes more sense to invest in more pristine watersheds – the Skagit, the Nisqually – you know – places where we know we can save them before they get to what Hylebos Creek looks like.

But I always come back to the fact that this is where the people are. We’ve got to show people that nature can exist in their backyards where they live. Because when times get tough, and times are tough right now, it’s the people that we’re going to have to go back to and say we need you to support this. If they don’t have a reason to support places like the Lower Hylebos Marsh, we could lose a lot more.

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July 27, 2010

VIDEO: How the Niqually Delta estuary was restored

Adding to last week’s post, this video explains the process of how the estuary was restored. It also includes some great time-lapse footage as the water moves in.

July 20, 2010

Welcoming Back the Tides: In the Nisqually Delta with Jean Takekawa

Jean Takekawa is manager of the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. She oversaw the estuary restoration project that opened the river's delta to Puget Sound tides for the first time in over a century.

In the late 1800s, a five-mile-long earthen dike was built where the Nisqually River enters southern Puget Sound. It created fertile farm land out of salt marsh. Now — more than a century later -– the tides of the Salish Sea are again flowing over that land. This week Liam walks the newly-restored estuary with Jean Takekawa, manager of the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge.

Click to listen to the story

Liam Moriarty: This is quite the vista. What are we looking at?

Jean Takekawa: We’re looking out at a changing landscape. The tides are once again moving in and out twice a day, into this large area. It’s really fun to come at high tide. It’s very, very dramatic because the high tide can come right up to the base of this new lake that we’re standing on. It looks rather lake-like and you really are a part of Puget Sound then.

Liam: So this area, then, that we’re looking at, this broad, flat area that’s sort of brown – where basically these are fresh water plants that are dying now because salt water comes in here. So this is in the process of shifting from a fresh water habitat to a salt water habitat; is that right?

Jean: That’s right. It’s really a land in transition; as those fresh water plants die and the nutrients actually are contributing into the system. Then slowly it will convert to mud flats. We already are seeing small sprigs and pieces of salt marsh vegetation coming back in.

Liam: Why is that a good idea?

A great blue heron in the estuary at the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Mark Gamba

Jean: You know, one of the things that we struggle with in Puget Sound, is that we lost a lot of our estuaries. More than 80% of Puget Sound’s estuary habitat was lost to various sources of development. So this is one of those rare chances to bring back that habitat in a large way.

Liam: What’s the value of restoring the natural estuary function?

Jean: Estuaries are really unique because they are the place where fresh water of rivers mix with the salt water of Puget Sound, and create this very diverse mosaic of habitats. They are one of the richest, most diverse kinds of habitats there are.

This is really what we are looking at now; the heart of the estuary.

So when it was diked for farming, it removed a great majority of the salt marsh of the estuary, and that’s an important part of the engine that drives an estuary. So by being able to restore that heart of it, we are going to have an intact ecosystem that contributes a lot more to all of Puget Sound, not just to this local watershed or this local area.

Liam: What we call wetlands now, the settlers called swamp, and farm land was a lot more valuable than swamp, as far as they were concerned.

An aerial photo of the north end of the Nisqually delta taken during high tide in Nov. 2009, after the dikes were removed. The outline of the dike is visible in the foreground, then goes off into the distance on the left. Photo by Steve Liske

Jean: That’s right. I think they recognize that there were some great soils out here, and I will say that it was quite a feat of ambition and engineering that they built a more than five mile long dike by hand, with carts and mules. That dike was used to hold back the tides so the lands could be developed for farming.

Liam: This is historically salmon country. How does salmon restoration fit into this?

Jean: This project was actually identified as the top priority to recover Chinook salmon in the Nisqually watershed because of its large scope and scale, and the importance that estuary habitat plays for juvenile salmon; for them to move out into the estuary and grow in size and transition into that marine environment that they need to live in.

Already some of the studies are showing a great response by those juvenile fish. They’re feeding in the site.

Liam: Have you seen personally salmon come back?

Jean: I’ve seen adult Chum in the weeks after we removed the last of the dikes. Seeing those first tides come in was an incredible moment, knowing that it had been more than 100 years. Then to see in the coming days after that, how quickly things changed and how fast the tides took over the restoration process.

Liam: Why is a project like this important?

Jean: You know, if we’re going to restore Puget Sound and the Salish Sea, we’re going to have to do some really big things, and make some big commitments of both what we’re willing to do with our landscape or how we live, and also where we’re going to spend our money.

I think the thing this project represents, is what is possible if people work together.

Liam: You’re the manager here at the Natural Wildlife Refuge. Not to put too fine a point on it, you’re a federal bureaucrat. But I get the sense that this is more than just a job for you.

What lights you up about this?

Jean: I’ve had people tell me how moved they are to see the tides moving across the estuary again. I’ve had people, you know, be brought to tears when they came out and saw the first tide. That is a very moving thing.

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July 7, 2010

“Sharing a Little Window in Their Day”: Whale watch operator Shane Aggergaard

Island Adventures owner Shane Aggergaard in the wheelhouse of the whale watch boat Island Explorer III

More than two dozen companies run whale watching tours in the Salish Sea, from Vancouver to Port Townsend. Over the years, these outfitters have given several million people a personal reason to care about the region’s killer whales and the marine environment. But as the orcas struggle with declining salmon runs and the toxic impacts of pollution, increased vessel traffic of all kinds — and the resulting underwater noise — is being looked at as one possible factor stressing the whales. In this installment of our series “Reflections on the Water,” KPLU environment reporter Liam Moriarty talks with Anacortes whale watch operator Shane Aggergaard, aboard his boat Island Explorer III.

Click to listen to the story

Liam Moriarty: You talk about your first close encounter with an orca; you were quite young. Tell me about that.

Shane Aggergaard: Yeah; we were fishing at Pile Point on the west side of San Juan Island, and these killer whales went right under the boat. I looked over the side of the boat, and there was that rollover – the eye contact that felt like the whale was looking right through you but it was definitely intentional. But as a small boy, leaning over the side of the boat, seeing that whale looking at me, it was something I’ll never forget. And I could see that there was no aggression. It was all curiosity.

Liam: You were how old when that happened?

Shane: I was about three. It’s one of my first memories.

Liam: Did that change you? Did that experience mark you?

Shane: I think in my direction in life, I still make a living showing people killer whales. So yeah; I would say at that point, it set a life path.

Liam: You are recent past president of the Pacific Whale Watch Association, and you obviously care a great deal about these animals. As you know the southern residents have been in decline. They’re listed as endangered. One of the issues that gets raised is all these whale watch boats that are out there.
I remember when I was living out in the San Juans some years ago, that there was one summer day when there was counted more than 103 boats — most of them were private but a lot of commercial as well — around J-Pod. And people started saying,”Hey; is this having an effect?”
How do you guys fit into that?

Shane: You say whale watching – it’s kind of a slip of the tongue because it’s what we do – but it’s vessel traffic in general is how we have to look at it. It does not matter whether you’re a research boat, an oil tanker, a Washington State Ferry or a whale watching boat.
When we’re engaged in whale watching, in a parallel viewing sequence at 150 yards, the Island Explorer III, the big, mighty powerful Island Explorer III, 2000 horsepower, oh my goodness, creates less sound than the ambient sound of rain. We’ve had it tested.

Liam: Is there any indication that the whales are bothered by noise from your boats?

Shane: We haven’t seen any effects from noise. There’s the precautionary principle which a lot of people are hanging their hat on. We all love these animals, and if there is a possibility of effect, we want to find out what it is and we want to minimize that. But right now the state law says we must maintain 100 yards from southern resident killer whales.
There is a proposed rule that may up that to 200 yards. To move the viewing distance from 100 to 200 yards, to me, is the equivalent of cutting the speed limit on I-5 in half. You could make a great argument why that makes sense; less fuel burned, safety, the roads would last longer. But for the general person, it just doesn’t make any sense.

Shane Aggergaard

Island Adventures owner Shane Aggergaard, with his whale watch boat Island Explorer III at the dock in Cap Sante Marina in Anacortes

Liam: What do you think is the value to getting people out there and having them see these animals?

Shane: Part of it is that we’re dealing with people from around the world. And if they leave with more respect for the planet than they came with, we’ve done our job.

Liam: What about local folks who go on your tours?

Shane: They should leave with a respect for the water, the birds, the bait fish, the understanding of the entire food chain, the understanding that what they put on their lawns may have an effect on the killer whales.
They are going to have to vote correctly. They are going to have to put politicians in office who believe in the value of salmon enhancement. That’s to me, the biggest value that people have from going on a whale watching trip; is what they can do after they leave the whale watching trip.

Liam: These aren’t just a bunch of anonymous animals out there. I mean you recognize all these individuals, and you’ve interacted in various ways with many of these individuals. Can you describe just what that relationship is like?

Shane: It is special. One of my favorite stories is J-26. We’re on Lummi Island on an evening trip. It’s one of those really hot, warm evenings. You could skip a stone to Orcas Island. I mean, it was flat, calm. The sun was going down. And J-26, coming down with the rest of the group, and he comes up and he hits a log. I mean intentionally; he bumps it. Well, that’s interesting. I got everybody looking. I said check this out; he’s playing with a log, you know.
He pushed the log on the surface. We’re dead still in the water, and he pushed the log within 10 feet of the boat, all the way over, rolls over, looks at everybody, slaps his pec[toral] fin in the water, comes out, does about 3 breeches, and continues on his way.
That whale came up and interacted with every single person on that boat that day, and that’s something they will never, ever forget. So yeah; it is great to have a personal connection to the individual whales so you’re not just looking at killer whales doing tricks. You’re actually sharing a little window in their day. The nice thing for us is we get to do it again tomorrow and the next day and the next day.

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