Hood Canal: A battle on two fronts

UNION —A lone recreational boat floats atop Thursday morning’s tranquil waters of the south end of the Hood Canal carrying three members of the Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group. The three sat, mesmerized by a family of purple martins on a piling. Through a set of binoculars, the group observed the male and female had caught dragonflies and were feeding their young.

“We’re interested in more than just the fish,” biologist Dan Hannafious said.

As a biologist, Hannafious is staging two battles: In the first, he is one of many trying to figure out what’s going on in the Hood Canal. In the second, he is trying to get residents and recreational users of the estuary to understand the impact their actions have on the Hood Canal. Neither one is an easy task.

The Hood Canal has biologists stumped. Its dissolved oxygen levels are at an all-time low at its southern end. The dissolved oxygen levels have caused major fish kills in some areas of the canal.

In a usual year, the oxygen levels are lower in the summer and fall months, then replenish in the winter months. In the last two years, the dissolved oxygen levels, particularly in the southern end of the canal (Mason County) have not replenished. Information on the dissolved oxygen levels dates back to 1952.

To make it more complex, it is generally the dissolved oxygen levels in the deeper waters that’s affected.

“The upper layer (30 feet and above) are fairly well oxygenated,” he said.

Research is pointing out there may be three contributing factors to the dissolved oxygen levels: Inefficient water circulation; That the layers of water are cold on the bottom and warm up as they reach the surface, keeping the colder water on the bottom; And human interference.

The inefficient water circulation is a result of the biology of the estuary. There are so many drop offs in the estuary that some of the water is trapped by higher land levels. At some points, the estuary is more than 400 feet deep. In addition, the levels of nitrogen in the water, brought on by sources like increased septic tank usage (all the homes on the southern stretch of the Hood Canal are on septic systems) and yard waste and fertilizer, also are affecting the oxygen levels.

“It’s a challenge to get everyone to understand the complexity of the matter,” he said. He added that the week before while he was out on his boat, he saw a man dumping yard clippings into the water.

The Hood Canal is a mecca for wildlife, as well, which is a draw for both recreational and commercial fishermen. The Hood Canal is home to halibut, lingcod, herring, smelt, squid, octopus, sea cucumbers and many other species, to name a few.

The main problem is that there is no overall picture of the how the fish and wildlife and the contributing factors affect the canal.

That’s what Hannafious finds frustrating about the process: there are many pieces to the puzzle, but the puzzle hasn’t ever been put together.

And some of the pieces they do have are confusing.

Every week, Hannafious and whatever volunteers he can recruit put together a portable laboratory — two ice coolers and a white box packed with enough equipment to make a high school biology teacher jealous — and go out on the Hood Canal in a small powerboat. Together, the team takes water samples to test the water for oxygen and nutrients.

The water is tested at various depths and the information is forwarded to the University of Washington and goes into a scientific model. The information has to be collected meticulously because “a model is only as good as the information you put into it,” Hannafious said. While oxygen levels continue to decline and some fish and wildlife are dying, other species seem to actually be thriving.

Richard Bambans, who owns a home on the shore of the Hood Canal in Mason County, stood on his back porch while Hannafious and Mendy Tarwater, a volunteer, took samples from the estuary.

Bambans told Hannafious that about 50 dead jellyfish recently washed up near his home.

“I never thought I’d be sad about a jellyfish, but when you see 50 of them,” Bambans said, before adding with a smile “the red ones I don’t mind.”

The red jellyfish, also known as Lion’s Mane jellyfish, are notorious for handing nasty stings to anyone unfortunate enough to come into contact with one.

After a fish kill last October, local divers told Hannafious there have been more wildlife than in recent memory under the surface.

“There’s chinook in some of these streams. We haven’t seen stream chinook for years,” Hannafious said.

For now, the only thing that is certain is that there are no certainties in the Hood Canal. In the meantime, agencies are working together to try to assess and correct the problem.

Puget Sound Action Team, the group that is acting as the cornerstone for all the agencies working on the Hood Canal problem, is offering up to $600,000 to groups or individuals with “innovative and effective projects to help improve dissolved oxygen levels in the Hood Canal,” said Mary Getchell, PSAT communications manager.

The grants, some of which are matching funds grants, run from $10,000 to $100,000.

“Now that we know what the problems are, we need creative solutions and new ways of doing old business,” said Brad Ack, director of PSAT. “This funding is comparable to venture capital in how it will develop new approaches and processes that can be expanded and replicated in the canal.”

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