The Kelp of August

Kelp Under Tacoma Narrows Bridge

Fly fishing in Puget Sound in August often means high temperatures (as has been true the past weeks) and hazy skies from distant forest fires (as was true last year). But there is another consistent issue in parts of Puget Sound in August and that is the kelp forests that often cause casting from the beach to become a source of frustration due to frequent hookups of the bull kelp floats.

For some time, I had been thinking a sinktip line would work from the beach in the deeper waters under the Tacoma Narrows bridges during the high and low slack periods. I wanted to get the fly down to fish that might be lurking several feet down in the slack waters.

I had looked at a number of sinking and sinktip lines and bought the Rio Intouch 24 Foot Sinktip in 200 grains (for a six-weight rod). The line has a 35 foot head with a 24-foot sinking section. I thought the line would work both here and as a streamer line in Montana. In comparison to other lines, once I started casting it in the backyard I recognized it was also easy casting. But casting in an actual fishing situation is really the only way to see how a line works.

Wednesday mid morning there was an extra low slack on the ebb, meaning I could get out before the day turned hot. I brought my net along just in case some fish – hopefully a coho salmon – decided to jump on whatever fly I was using.

As expected, there were fields of bull kelp along the majority of the beach up to and past the Narrows Bridges. But I was there and I decided to look for places I could cast between patches of the kelp under the bridges.

The line worked perfectly. I found none of the kick I’d found in other lines. With the heavy sinking head, shooting line was effortless. About the only problem, as is typical of Rio lines, was the running line tangled. I had brought my stripping basket, so that might have eliminated at least some of the tangles. Unfortunately, there were no fish – well at least none that were interested in my chartreuse and pink woolly buggers.

Then as I started working my way back to Narrows Park I found no patches of clear water and decided to call it a day. Along the way I did catch one empty plastic water bottle (with cap on) that was floating in the tidal current. Someone must have been careless. I tossed it into a trash can.

As I looked back down the beach, I knew it would have been a good deal more fun if the kelp hadn’t been there.

But then I remembered reading an article about how bull kelp (Nereocystis luetkeana) in Puget Sound is in decline. Scientists are concerned because the kelp provides habitat for juvenile salmon, rockfish, sea urchins and other species. It is an annual plant – meaning it starts fresh every year. Starting as a microscopic plant in spring, bull kelp can grow to 30 to 40 feet tall by mid summer. The bull kelp then begin to decline and disappear in early to late autumn.

The causes for its decline are the same many of the other threatened species in Puget Sound – warming water temperatures and toxic pollution. In addition, changes to the shoreline and sedimentation are also suspected.

The bull kelp is another reminder that the chain from microorganisms to humans is long and complex. Disturbing the kelp imperils the salmon, which as can be seen in local news, imperils the resident Orca population.

Ultimately, it will be humanity that pays the price for its actions.

You can read more about efforts to restore bull kelp here.

The Last Orca

Orca with Dead Calf

The above picture was posted online in the last several days. It shows a dead newborn Orca calf being carried around on its mother’s back near Victoria, British Columbia.

As heart-breaking as the image is, it’s even more disturbing when one realizes this was the first Orca calf born in three years to the three pods of what are called the southern resident population that swim in Puget Sound waters. Normally, four to five new calves are born each year.

The three pods (J, K, and L) now number 75 whales – down from 98 in 1995, with 8 members lost in the last two years. A related, and ominous threat is that reproducing females are ageing out of their calf rearing years. Some researchers believe that within five years there will be no longer any female Orcas within the pods capable of giving birth – spelling extinction of the southern resident Orcas.

Resident Orcas are different from other more transient Orcas that eat marine mammals. Resident Orcas eat salmon – specifically Chinook salmon. Historically, they follow the salmon in the Salish Sea (Strait of Georgia in British Columbia, Strait of Juan DeFuca, and Puget Sound in Washington) from northern British Columbia to as far south as Seattle – in summer, it has been a common occurrence to see them in our local waters.

And Chinook salmon they follow and eat are also in decline. It’s estimated a mature Orca eats 30 Chinook salmon a day. Without those fish, they starve.

But it’s more than just salmon decline, which in itself may be another symptom of a marine ecosystem in collapse.

Puget Sound waters are incredibly polluted – no matter how pristine the waters look in photographs, from shore, or from a ferry boat. The waters around Seattle, Tacoma, and other urban areas are contaminated with industrial and municipal waste. Given the basin structure of Puget Sound, it’s not possible to believe all that waste is swept out to the Pacific Ocean. That in itself begs the question that even it was, what is that doing to the ocean.

And as I mentioned in another post (see here), salmon in Puget Sound swim through a toxic soup of pharmaceutical drugs.

Those drugs are absorbed by the salmon and then concentrate in the tissues of the Orcas that consume them. The result for the Orcas are compromised immune systems. It’s also likely the concentration of the toxins are resulting in reduced fertility in female Orcas.

Add the stress of tour boats, which inhibit the sonar capability of the Orcas and it’s not difficult to see why they are in crisis.

Jay Inslee, Washington State’s governor, convened a Southern Resident Orca Task Force in March 2018; the task force is composed of state, tribal, provincial and federal officials, and is tasked to find ways to stem the decline of the Orcas.

It is too early to say how successful the group can be. But if history is any indicator, any proposals made will be either watered down or face stiff opposition from various vested interests. And even if strong proposals are made, a good part of the required actions will require Federal action – something not likely given the Trump Administration’s hostility and willful ignorance on environmental issue.

The loss of Puget Sound Orcas may be little noticed beyond the Pacific Northwest. But the loss of these awe-inspiring mammals should be a tolling of the bell in terms of human extinction for many of the same reasons as their decline.

The Fish That Destroyed the Yellowstone Ecosystem

Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout

National Geographic has a troubling article on how one fish has, and is, changing the ecology of Yellowstone National Park (YNP).

The introduction of lake trout into Yellowstone Lake has led to the demise of the native cutthroat trout (see photo above). That in turn has led to a cascading effect in various food chains.

The absence of cutthroat that no longer swim up creeks to spawn means grizzly bears, that used to feed on them, are now killing more elk calf – more than are taken by wolves. Also impacted are river otters, as well as bald eagles and other fish-eating birds.

The presence of osprey has decreased dramatically. In the early 1990’s there were 62 osprey nests documented around Yellowstone Lake; last year (2017) there were three. Scientists believe the osprey, being fish eaters, left the area and have gone elsewhere.

But it is the bald eagle that has had the devastating impacts on YNP’s birds. As opportunistic feeders, they have turned to eating various species of native birds such as cormorants, loons, pelicans, swans, and terns. And the local extinction of some of their prey species appears to be near.

The number of loons has declined by 50 percent since 1990. Just 18 breeding pairs remain in Wyoming, with 70 percent of those in YNP.

Efforts have been underway to reduce the numbers of lake trout; elimination appears to be impossible. The result has been to somewhat stabilize the cutthroat populations. However, it could take decades – if even then – to increase cutthroat population to the point they can again be a food source for bears, eagles, and other animals.

Combine that with the increasingly obvious impacts of climate change and the future does not look bright. And this is Yellowstone National Park, where efforts have always been about preserving a complete ecosystem.

A question might be how did the non-native lake trout get into Yellowstone Lake? Evidence suggests they were illegally introduced sometime in the 1980s. No one knows who or why. But the suspicion is that someone decided they wanted to increase the numbers of fish for fishing.

Perhaps it was only one bucket of lake trout fry; maybe more. But in any case, that single act has led to a cascade of effects that may forever have changed a major ecosystem.

Our individual actions do have consequences.

You can read the article here.

Twelve Minutes to Life

Plastic Bags

Twelve Minutes.

That’s the average length of time a single-use plastic bag is used.

Five hundred years or more.

That’s how long it takes that single-use bag to biodegrade. And even that might be overstating it.

And what’s left after any biodegradation?

Plastic particles that exist in the environment indefinitely.

Plastic particles that accumulate up the food chain.

Plastic particles that humans may now be ingesting in seafood.

The plastic in the world’s oceans that may outweigh all the fish by 2050.

Recycling is not going to do any good if single-use plastic continues to be used.

Think about that, and next time you go to a grocery store bring your own re-usable bags.

Read more here and here.

Montana Fly Fishing and Climate Change

Montana is the iconic face of fly fishing.

Trips to its famous rivers are the on the bucket list of many, if not most, fly fishers. What exists in preconception – to those who dream of fly fishing in the state – is more than matched by the reality of vistas of distant mountains, wildlife, and superb fishing for species such as cutthroat trout, rainbow trout, and brown trout. I’ve been a number of times and can’t wait to go back.

And yet, Montana more than other states may now be seeing adverse impacts of climate change that will threaten, if not destroy, the storied fisheries. For example, Montana’s average temperature in 2016 was 3.5 degrees F above its 20th century average – that’s double the planetary average for the same year.

Montana, and nearby states, have recently seen winter temperatures rise rapidly in early Spring to those more common in summer – resulting in rapid snow melt. For those not aware, in the West the slow melt of mountain snowpack is what provides the late summer stream flows of colder water needed to keep water temperatures at a tolerable level for fish.

Those who work the rivers daily, fly-fishing guides, observe the snow melt (called runoff), changes in water temperatures, and the timing of insect hatches and see the effects of climate change.

Yet, as is true of most Montanans, most of them are hare-core Republicans and Trump supporters who do not acknowledge the impacts of humans on that change. At the same time, there a few – though of similar politics – who have listened to scientists and have come away with an understanding that climate change is being caused by human activity, specifically the burning of fossil fuels.

But one wonders: what causes people, whose livelihood depends on cold-water fisheries that are at risk from climate change, to refuse to acknowledge even the possibility that human activity is a causal factor?

I believe it’s due to one of the most destructive trends I’ve seen over the last thirty years. That is the embrace of political ideology as self-identity. Ideological values are internalized and substituted for critical analysis. News organizations and other mass media reinforce one’s prejudices to the exclusion and the demeaning of other points of view.

It is the embrace of a death cult.

Some studies indicate that almost half of trout fisheries in the interior West, including Montana, will be gone in the next 60 years. Many fish species will go extinct.

And it will not only be fish and the wildlife that depend on them. Montana is also iconic as the land of the Big Sky, the land of ranches and cattle. Climate change may cause that way of life to go extinct also.

High Country News has republished an article from InsideClimate News that interviews a number of guides and fisheries biologists on the state of fisheries and climate change.

Montanans refer to their state as the Last Best Place. I wonder if that slogan may ultimately become ironic.

You can read the article here.

Pebble Mine Consortium – the Beast That Will Not Die

McNeil River

I’ve written about the Pebble Mine in a number of posts.

It had seemed that the consortium’s efforts to build an open pit mine that would have threatened Alaska’s Bristol Bay were over after the final major partner pulled out.

However, it appears they’re planning another environmental disaster.

Now the consortium has applied for a permit to mine gold, copper, and molybdenum in land 200 miles south of Anchorage – the sought permit will be in an area as close as several hundred yards from the boundary of the McNeil River State Game Reserve and Sanctuary.

If you’ve not heard of the McNeil River you’ve undoubtedly seen photos of tourists safely watching nearby large Alaskan brown bears hunting and feeding on salmon. For 51 years humans and bears have been able to develop a sense of trust in the other as humans can get very close to bears that would tower over NFL defensive tackles – in all that time no human has been killed or injured by the bears.

Now this proposal, if approved, could destroy the sanctuary as the mining and roads will destroy habitat, increase pressure for legal hunting and certainly increase poaching.

There is still time to fight this. The Army Corps of Engineers is accepting public comment until June 29th.

You, or I, may never visit the McNeil River sanctuary. But as Wallace Stegner noted, knowing that wild places exist – whole and untamed and apart from us, is sometimes just enough.

You can read more here.

Pebble Mine Update: Another Major Player Drops Out

No Pebble Mine

Another major mining company has dropped out of the proposed Pebble Mine project. First Quantum Minerals joins the list of Mitsubishi Corporation, Anglo American, and Rio Tinto who determined the project is a bad investment. Only one small exploration company remains: Northern Dynasty Minerals.

This is a great development that may soon bring an end to the controversial project that threatens Bristol Bay, Alaska.

You can read more here.

Land of the Free

Buffalo Skins Pile

I’ve lived and traveled in the western United States for over 40 years. In that time, I’ve traveled parts of the Oregon Trail and the Lewis and Clark Trail. I’ve been to the areas where Indian wars were fought and the mountain men trapped for beaver. And along the way, I’ve learned a good deal of history of the region – mostly from reading.

The West is the mythos of the land of the rugged individualist. Whether it is the free trapper working alone in the high mountains to trap beaver; the small rancher struggling against both hostile nature and hostile humans; or the miner digging deep or working a stream to strike it rich – all were supposedly able to take just enough from the land to give them the freedom and independence they sought.

However, those myths are mostly false. The true story of the West is one of big government and big business, with individuals reduced to economic pawns supporting a much darker reality: one about destruction of land; extermination of wildlife and native peoples; and the poisoning of rivers and streams.

And by the end of the nineteenth century, before the myths had been developed and enabled by popular culture, the truth of what had been done in the West drove the American people to demand that lands and streams be protected as public lands.

Unfortunately, cynical politicians of today, working for the modern versions of those corporate interests, are trying use the myths to undo the protections put in place so long ago. In doing so, they want to return lands once held in the public trust to private ownership where exploitation becomes inevitable.

Hatch Magazine has a well-written article that details the movement to protect our natural heritage and the threats they face.

You can read the article here.

Montana FWC Rejects Madison River Proposal

In a recent post, I wrote of a proposal to limit the number of commercial guiding operations on the Madison river as well as limiting use of boats on some segments of the river.

Yesterday, the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission voted 4-0 to reject the proposal.

The outfitters who would be impacted were most outspoken in speaking against the proposal. One of the valid points made by the outfitters was that the majority of fly fishers on the Madison are non-commercial anglers who would not have been impacted by the proposed rule changes.

In addition, at least one of the commissioners noted that the proposed plan was not fully vetted as other rivers’ plans had been.

Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks will watch for public reaction to the decision before deciding on how to proceed with a revised plan.

You can read more here.

Save Bristol Bay…Again

Bristol Bay Salmon

Bristol Bay is the easternmost part of the Bering Sea, and is north of the Alaskan Peninsula. It is home the world’s largest salmon run, and includes all five species of Pacific salmon (King, Coho, Sockeye, Pink, and Chum). And it is again threatened by the Pebble Mine proposal.

The Pebble Mine is an exploratory project in the Bristol Bay watershed. The project is funded by the Rio Tinto Group and Mitsubishi. The ore deposit of the proposed mine is rich in copper, molybdenum, and gold, and is thought to be the second-largest deposit of its kind in the world.

Due to the size of the required operation, there has been opposition due to the downstream risks to the watershed, salmon, and other fisheries. Much of the efforts to stop the mine has been through grass-roots efforts, including members of recognized Native American tribal councils in Alaska.

Every apparent victory in stopping the mine is met by a new challenge. And now the mine has filed for one of the permits needed to proceed with mining. Public comments are now being accepted.

You can read more about the Pebble Mine project here.

You can submit comments on the latest proposal here.