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Proceedings of the 2005 Puget Sound Georgia Basin Research Conference

Press Summary

KPLU (NPR): Marine Conference
The Associated Press: Researcher - NW apparently as far as some migrating whales go
Tacoma News Tribune: Gregoire vows to save Sound
Kitsap Sun: 'New thinking' needed to save Puget Sound
Vancouver Sun: Up to 63 species at risk off BC coast, study says
United Press International: Puget Sound chinook salmon has PCB buildup
Tacoma News Tribune: State's chinook packed with PCBs
Seattle Weekly - BRAIN CITY (Calendar Listing
Seattle Times: Toxic chemicals found in Puget Sound sea life
Tacoma News Tribune: Abnormal flame retardant levels in Sound fish

KPLU (NPR): Marine Conference
Length - 1:02 minute
By Steve Krueger

SEATTLE, WA (2005-03-30) The Puget Sound is in trouble and hundreds of scientists are gathering this week in Seattle to discuss why and what can be done to fix the problem. KPLU environment reporter Steve Krueger has this preview of what lies ahead.

The Associated Press: Researcher - NW apparently as far as some migrating whales go

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By Peggy Andersen
March 29, 2005

SEATTLE - During the great annual gray whale migrations between feeding grounds in the north Pacific and breeding spots off Mexico, about 200 individuals apparently take up "seasonal residence" in the Pacific Northwest, scientists say.

Six gray whales, for example, have been spotted around Whidbey Island nearly every spring since 1991, says biologist John Calambokidis of Olympia-based Cascadia Research. Other small groups of gray whales return annually to preferred spots along the coasts of Oregon and British Columbia.

"In recent years, we've done a much better job identifying these seasonal resident animals," Calambokidis said. In some cases, "we have evidence they don't go to Alaska. They migrate south to the breeding grounds but seem to make this their primary feeding area."

Also, he said, unusually high numbers of beached grays reported in the spring of 1999 and 2000 apparently did not mark the start of a population decline for gray whales.

"The mortality since then has been very low," he said.

Calambokidis presented recent research about grays as the Puget Sound Georgia Basin Research Conference got under way Tuesday at the downtown Washington State Convention Center. The three-day session, featuring scores of scientists on a range of topics, is sponsored by the state's Puget Sound Action Team and Environment Canada.

In a brief luncheon address, Gov. Christine Gregoire said she's making "real science" a priority in making decisions about the environment. There need not be a conflict between business and the environment, she said - businesses are drawn to the region for its quality of life.

Historically, Calambokidis said, gray whales that ventured inland were likely more vulnerable to shore-based hunters than those that swam farther offshore, churning all the way north to the Bering and Beaufort seas of Alaska and the Chukchi Sea off Siberia.

A gray whale calf emerges to be touched by tourists in Ojo de Liebre lagoon in Baja California Sur, Mexico, in March 1999 during the great annual gray whale migration between feeding grounds in the North Pacific and breeding spots off Mexico.
(Associated Press file photo)

The ones that stop in the Northwest tend to not have as many young as the larger population, he said. Determining the gender of the seasonal residents is a work in progress, but females with calves tend to start the migration late and inland stops "may not be advantageous" for them, Calambokidis said.

Some of the returnees move on in early summer and may in fact head north, he said. Some only drop in once or twice. Grays seen farther inland, in central and south Puget Sound, tend to be stragglers foraging for food - sometimes desperately - that rejoin the migration if they can.

There was a surge in reports of dead, beached gray whales five years ago, when population estimates peaked at about 27,000 and the Makah Indian Tribe moved to reaffirm its whaling rights under an 1855 treaty.

While most whale deaths occur in the ocean, the 50 carcasses found on Washington state shores alone in 1999-2000 may have marked a converging of two extremes, Calambokidis said: The whale population reaching its maximum carrying capacity and a natural downturn in the cyclical availability of food and prey.

Many researchers believe both the high population number and the big die-off were "blips," Calambokidis said.

"That's why there was a dramatic event, instead of a gradual tapering off." Records from around the Northwest indicate that the "major mortality event" was a very isolated incident, he said.

On average, Washington state has four gray whale beachings a year, based on reports from the regional stranding network that has been in place since the 1970s, Calambokidis said.

"We haven't really changed our response to strandings," he said. A beached whale carcass as long as 40 feet is hard to miss in a populated area, while dead whales on remote stretches of beach may go unnoticed.

Gray whales, the first creature listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act, were decimated by commercial whaling that peaked in the late 19th century.

Recent gray whale counts conducted along the migration route suggest the population may have settled at about 17,000 animals - roughly the pre-whaling total, Calambokidis said.

The grays' removal from the Endangered Species List in 1994 prompted the Makah to reclaim whaling rights after 70 years. The issue has been bogged down in federal court appeals since the tribe killed a single whale in May 1999.

Antiwhaling activists characterized "resident" gray whales as a separate population that warranted special protection. Some definitions of Makah whaling grounds limited the tribe to offshore whales, while others allowed whaling some distance into the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the waterway that divides the United States and Canada before making a sharp right into Puget Sound.

"Now that we have accurate evidence of their abundance ... it would allow someone to make estimates of what level of kills could come from that group," Calambokidis said. "We have a much more solid basis of information for either side in that debate."

On the Net:

Puget Sound Action Team

Cascadia Research

Tacoma News Tribune: Gregoire vows to save Sound
Governor proposes $31.5 million over two years to clean up pollution

March 30th, 2005

Gov. Christine Gregoire promised Monday to take action to protect and restore Puget Sound.

She told a gathering of 600 environmental scientists and others at a U.S.-Canadian research conference that the Sound's health is both central to Washington's future prosperity and a legacy important to future generations.

"Only if we redouble our efforts will we succeed," she said.

Gregoire wants to boost spending on what she described as scientifically based solutions to problems such as pollution and environmental degradation.

She proposes to spend $31.5 million over the next two years to clean up mercury contamination, control the spread of toxic flame retardants, restore polluted shellfish beds and remove spartina, an invasive beach grass, among other things.

Her proposal includes $7.5 million for continuing scientific monitoring.

"We are going to invest and we are going to deliver," she said.

Gregoire has already proposed spending $5 million on the Hood Canal, where pollution has been blamed for an oxygen imbalance that has killed fish.

Gregoire's pledge to save the Sound came during luncheon speech at the Puget Sound Georgia Basin Research Conference, a three-day event at the Washington State Trade & Convention Center in Seattle.

The annual conference brings together U.S. and Canadian scientists who present new scientific findings on some of the most pressing environmental problems facing the region.

Kathy Fletcher, executive director of the environmental group People for Puget Sound, was in the audience.

"It's music to my ears," she said of Gregoire's promise of action. "She's been around this issue long enough to know we need to do a lot more than studies and research."

The governor described the state's continuing population boom as a threat.

"We have met the enemy and the enemy is us," Gregoire said. "Our robust population leads directly to the health problems of the Sound,"

Over the past decade, Washington's population has grown by about 1 million, a 20 percent increase that means more sewage, more road runoff and more pressure on sensitive resources, she said.

Perhaps anticipating objections from the business community, Gregoire underscored the value of Washington's quality of life as a lure to enterprise.

She praised the work of scientists who have focused on both problems and solutions.

"Real science has got to be the key to our decisions with respect to the environment," she said. "Every time we make decisions based on science, the environment is always the winner."

Also Monday, she announced the reappointment of Brad Ack as director of the Puget Sound Action Team, which sets the state's environmental protection priorities for Puget Sound.

During her speech, she endorsed the team's seven-point plan for 2005-2007, which was released last December.

Gregoire told the Seattle audience her first brush with international environmental controversy came in 1988 when she was in charge of the state Department of Ecology. The barge "Nestucca" spilled 230,000 gallons of fuel oil that contaminated beaches from Grays Harbor County to Vancouver Island.

The oil spill roused the state's attention to the damage associated with the risks of oil transport. It also affected Gregoire's family, she said.

The governor recalled bringing her daughter Michelle, now 20, along when she visited a bird rescue operation.

It was "heart-wrenching," Gregoire said.

But the grim scene also influenced Michelle, who is now a college student majoring in environmental science.

What the plan would do

To view the strategy endorsed by Gov. Christine Gregoire to restore and conserve Puget Sound, go to Priorities_05_review.htm.

Gregoire made a commitment Monday to fund a two-year, seven-point action plan developed last year by the Puget Sound Action Team.

The team was created in 1996 to set priorities for Puget Sound environmental protection.

The seven-point plan would:
Clean up of contaminated sediments
Reduce toxic pollution and prevent more
Reduce damage from stormwater runoff
Prevent pollution human sewage and animal manure
Protect shorelines
Restore damaged aquatic habitat
Save killer whales, salmon, forage fish and groundfish from extinction

Susan Gordon: 253-597-8756

Kitsap Sun: 'New thinking' needed to save Puget Sound,2403,BSUN_19088_3661372,00.html

By Christopher Dunagan, Sun Staff
March 30, 2005

SEATTLE-- With science as a guiding light, political leaders must "redouble" their efforts to reverse a dangerous decline in the Puget Sound ecosystem, Gov. Christine Gregoire said Tuesday.

Gregoire expressed concerns about the deadly low-oxygen conditions that plague Hood Canal, and she said similar "dead zones" could develop in southern Puget Sound if people don't take appropriate action."

"We can do better," the governor said, addressing the Puget Sound and Georgia Strait Research Conference. "My friends, we have no choice. We have to do a lot better. It is not too late - but only if we redouble our efforts."

More than 700 scientists, policy makers and concerned individuals attended the first day of a three-day conference addressing scientific issues in Puget Sound and Canada's Georgia Strait. Close to 200 separate research topics are on tap for discussion at the event, which takes place every two years.

Gov. Christine Gregoire says pollution will create more 'dead zones' in Puget Sound unless action is taken now.

(AP Photo/John Froschauer)

Gregoire, former director of the Washington Department of Ecology, said Washington state residents are engaged in a fight against pollution, habitat destruction and declining fish and wildlife populations. But it simply isn't enough. Over the past 20 years, the state's own studies show that for every environmental success, there are new or growing problems for Puget Sound.

"We have a million more people putting demands on that fragile ecosystem," she said, "... and we will add a million more people."

Business owners want to come to Washington because they love the quality of life here, she said. But the challenge is for everyone to work together to improve the environment and leave things better for the next generation.

Gregoire told the scientists that research is essential. Because of dedicated scientific work, "we have a grasp today of the problems and some of the solutions."

She has called on the Legislature to create a new Washington Academy of Sciences to bring together the best minds in the state to provide answers to vexing questions.

"There were bright people who preceded me," she said, "and they couldn't solve the problem. We need new thinking ... When we make our decisions based on science, the environment is always the winner."

But Gregoire does not want to wait for the scientists to answer all the questions - which is why she demanded that the "action plan" for Hood Canal include projects for reducing nitrogen, believed to be at the heart of the problem.

The research conference, held at the Washington State Convention and Trade Center, has been one of the few venues to bring together a cross-section of the scientific community studying Puget Sound. Issues range from killer whale behavior to the chemistry of sewage.

One group of researchers at Tuesday's session described an intensive effort to characterize the existing ecosystem in the Elwha River on the Olympic Peninsula. It will be important, they said, to study the changes after two dams on the river are removed in 2007.

One thing the research has revealed, said Jonathan Warrick of the U.S. Geological Survey, is that the river above the dams is starved for nutrients, essential to the entire food chain. In rivers without blockages, adult salmon carry nutrients in their bodies from the ocean to the upper watershed.

When salmon die, they feed organisms from the bottom of the food chain, as well as eagles and bears that then distribute the nutrients over a broader area.

Other sessions on Tuesday included a discussion of how climate change could alter salmon populations, a talk about gray whales and humpback whales visiting Puget Sound in recent years, and a presentation about an advanced computer model used to describe the movement of pollutants in Bremerton's Sinclair Inlet.

Reach Christopher Dunagan at (360) 792-9207 or e-mail

Copyright 2005, All Rights Reserved.

Vancouver Sun: Up to 63 species at risk off B.C. coast, study says

By Larry Pynn
March 29, 2005

The shared waters of the Strait of Georgia and Puget Sound are home to 63 marine species at risk, with over-harvesting, habitat loss, and pollution rated as the biggest threats, according to a research study being released at an international conference starting today.

The study by Joseph Gaydos and Nicholas Brown also finds that the four jurisdictions responsible for protecting marine species -- B.C., Washington state, and the Canadian and U.S. governments -- cannot reach consensus on the level of threat facing all of those 63 species.

Of the 63 species, Washington officially considered 73 per cent of them at risk, B.C. 50 per cent, the Canadian government 36 per cent, and the U.S. government 31 per cent.

As an example, B.C. lists 12 seabirds that neighbouring Washington state does not list, even though it is common for various species to fly back and forth across the international boundary.

The high number of species at risk in the region's marine waters are evidence of "ecosystem decay," the report's authors conclude, and reflect the need for the various levels of governments to work harder on conservation and to adopt an international ecosystem approach.

Gaydos and Brown are with the SeaDoc Society, a marine ecosystem health program administered through the University of California, Davis, Wildlife Health Centre, and based in Washington's San Juan Islands.

As of September 2004, the 63 species at risk consisted of 27 fish, 23 birds, nine mammals (including the grey whale, harbour porpoise, humpback whale, and killer whale), three invertebrates, and one reptile.

Within the Puget Sound-Georgia Basin marine ecosystem, the number of invertebrate species is much greater than vertebrate species, yet only three invertebrates are listed at risk -- Newcomb's littorine snail, Olympic oyster, and northern abalone -- suggesting the category is not receiving as much attention as it should.

The results of the study are being presented at the Puget Sound Georgia Basin Research Conference running today through Thursday in Seattle and co-sponsored by Environment Canada.

Commenting on the study, Tony Pitcher, a professor at the University of B.C. Fisheries Centre, said in Vancouver that governments have been slow to adopt an ecosystem approach to marine management.

And while states and provinces can have different mandates, he agreed that the international border poses a political obstacle to good management of marine species, not just between B.C. and Washington, but between B.C. and Alaska on our north coast.

Pitcher also agreed that more research is needed on invertebrate species such as crabs, squid and octopus, and the roles they play in the greater ecosystem.

He added that despite the need for more work by Canadian and American authorities to reverse a decline in the health of our marine ecosystem, local waters are still in relatively good shape compared with other coastal areas in the Pacific Rim, including China, Vietnam, and Indonesia.


The shared waters of Puget Sound and the Strait of Georgia are home to 63 marine species that are at risk, with overharvesting, habitat loss and pollution rated as the biggest threats, according to a study being released at an international conference today.

The results show "ecosystem decay" and reflect the need for B.C., Washington state, Canada and the U.S. to work together to adopt an international, cooperative ecosystem approach. The statistics below show the differing levels of risk to some species, assigned by just two of those jurisdictions.

  B.C. Washington state
Invertebrates 0 3
Fishes 2 22
Reptiles 1 1
Birds 21 11
Mammals 8 9
TOTAL 32 46

Source: The SeaDoc Society, The Vancouver Sun FISH, REPTILES, BIRDS AND MAMMALS ON THE AT-RISK LIST:
Invertebrate species of concern in the Georgia Basin-Puget Sound marine ecosystem:
Newcomb's littorine snail
Olympia oyster
pinto (northern) abalone
Pacific cod Puget Sound
Pacific hake Puget Sound
Pacific herring Cherry Point
Pacific herring Discovery Bay
black rockfish
bocaccio rockfish
brown rockfish
canary rockfish
china rockfish
copper rockfish
greenstriped rockfish
quillback rockfish
redstripe rockfish
tiger rockfish
widow rockfish
yelloweye rockfish
yellowtail rockfish
chinook salmon
chum salmon
coho salmon
sockeye salmon
spinynose sculpin
bull trout
pollock walleye Puget Sound
Reptile species of concern in the Georgia basin:
leatherback sea turtle
Avian species of concern:
Aleutian Canada goose
American golden plover
ancient murrelet
bald eagle
Caspian tern
Cassin's auklet
common loon
common murre
Brandt's cormorant
double-crested cormorant
Pelagic cormorant
Forster's tern
great blue heron
Pacific long-billed curlew
long-tailed duck (old squaw)
marbled murrelet
Peal's peregrine falcon
northern/red-necked phalarope
short-billed dowitcher
surf scoter
tufted puffin
western grebe
Mammalian species of concern in thne Georgia Basin:
grey whale
harbour porpoise
N. Pacific humpback whale
offshore killer whales
S. resident killer whales
N. resident killer whales
transient killer whales
northern sea otter
Steller sea-lion (eastern population)

United Press International: Puget Sound chinook salmon has PCB buildup

Also posted on:

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Big News Network

March 24, 2005

Tacoma, WA, Mar. 24 (UPI) -- Concentrations of the banned chemical PCB are at least three times higher in Puget Sound chinook salmon than in that from other areas, a report says.

That finding, from Sandie O'Neill, a scientist with the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife, measured chinook salmon from Alaska, British Columbia, Oregon, coastal Washington and the Columbia River.

Her report prompted the state to begin its own research. Officials say there is no immediate cause for alarm, the Tacoma News-Tribune said Thursday.

O'Neill presented preliminary data to the state Fish & Wildlife Commission last October and plans to unveil more comprehensive research at the 2005 Puget Sound Georgia Basin Research Conference next week in Seattle.

"The food chain in Puget Sound is significantly contaminated with PCBs and flame retardants," said Jim West, another state scientist.

PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, are banned industrial compounds that build up in the food chain and can cause developmental and behavioral problems in children.

Tacoma News Tribune: State's chinook packed with PCBs
New health advisory due soon about risks of salmon from Puget Sound waters

SUSAN GORDON; The News Tribune
Last updated: March 24th, 2005 07:09 AM (PST)

Concentrations of banned chemicals that are particularly threatening to children are at least three times higher in Puget Sound chinook salmon than in chinook from other areas.

In light of that finding by a state Department of Fish and Wildlife scientist, state Health Department officials are conducting their own research. While they say there is no cause for alarm, health officials acknowledge they might revise fish consumption warnings in a few months.

"I don't think the data is clear enough yet," said Rob Duff, the Health Department's environmental health director.

Sandie O'Neill, a state Department of Fish and Wildlife scientist, has found PCB concentrations in Puget Sound chinook are three times higher than what others have measured in chinook salmon from Alaska, British Columbia, Oregon, coastal Washington and the Columbia River.

O'Neill has studied PCBs in salmon since 1992. But comparable data from other researchers weren't available until recently, she said.

She first presented preliminary data to the state Fish & Wildlife Commission last October and plans to unveil more comprehensive research at the 2005 Puget Sound Georgia Basin Research Conference next week in Seattle.

O'Neill's results underscore the persistence of dangerous contaminants in Puget Sound.

"The food chain in Puget Sound is significantly contaminated with PCBs and flame retardants," said Jim West, another state Fish and Wildlife Department scientist.

He recently discovered both pollutants in herring, a key component of the salmon diet.

PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, are banned industrial compounds found worldwide that build up in the food chain and can cause developmental and behavioral problems in children.

Testing store-bought fish

Although PCBs are found in meat and dairy products, some health experts believe humans are most at risk from eating contaminated fish.

However, because fish are nutritious and contain fatty acids that lower cholesterol, many experts are reluctant to suggest consumption limits based on PCBs.

"These contaminants are in every fish and every person on the planet," Duff said.

Current state Health Department advisories warn about contaminated fish or shellfish in eight tainted locations around Puget Sound, including Tacoma's Commencement Bay.

But that advice, which doesn't mention salmon, is complicated and might not be sufficient, Duff said.

So Health Department researchers are testing store-bought fish for PCBs, mercury and flame retardants. The sampling list includes chinook salmon, catfish, pollack, red snapper, halibut, cod and flounder, Duff said.

After that analysis, due in about three months, state health officials could revise statewide fish consumption recommendations, Duff said.

PCBs, which cause cancer, are highly toxic compounds that can be transferred from mothers to children through breast milk. Once used to cool and insulate transformers and other electrical equipment, PCBs have been banned in the United States since 1977.

Because PCBs don't break down over time, they persist in air, water and soil. The PCBs also build up in the food chain, so top predators harbor high concentrations. Because of PCBs, orca whales are some of the world's most contaminated marine mammals.

In Puget Sound chinook, O'Neill measured average PCB concentrations of 53 parts per billion. That's like a spoonful of poison in a railroad tanker car full of water, but scientists believe the toxicity of the compound makes it notable.

In Puget Sound coho, O'Neill measured average PCB concentrations of 31 parts per billion.

"These are not screamingly high levels," Duff said.

Concentrations found in Great Lakes salmon have been many times higher.

But Puget Sound chinook, also known as king salmon, are far more contaminated than other types of salmon, such as pinks, sockeye and chum, O'Neill said. That might be because young chinook spend more time in the estuaries than other young salmon, which also feed lower on the food web.

Also, O'Neill said concentrations of PCBs in Puget Sound chinook are comparable to what others have measured in farmed Atlantic salmon from Norway and Scotland.

Confining contamination

For years, scientists have known about excessive concentrations of PCBs in bottom-dwelling Puget Sound fish, particularly those inhabiting polluted industrial areas such as Commencement Bay in Tacoma and the Seattle waterfront.

For example, state researchers have found PCBs in concentrations of 121 parts per billion in rockfish and 62 parts per billion in English sole. Both were caught in Seattle.

Harbor seals also are contaminated.

The new research suggests that efforts to confine contaminated sediments in polluted areas such as Commencement Bay might not prevent PCBs from recycling through plankton and fish, said West, O'Neill's colleague at the Fish and Wildlife Department.

"We need to better understand the dynamic between contaminants trapped in sediments and those entrained in the (salmon) food web," O'Neill said.

Bill Sullivan, environmental director for the Puyallup Tribe of Indians, said he wouldn't be surprised if contaminants leak out of disposal sites.

"Obviously, we have something very wrong in the interior Puget Sound," he said.

If state officials revamp fish consumption recommendations, Duff said special outreach efforts will be made to tribes and immigrant groups of Asians and Pacific Islanders. They often eat lots of fish and might be more vulnerable to injury than the mainstream population, he said.

Most Washington residents eat no more than two fish meals a week, and that's probably not enough to cause harm, he said.

On the net:

For state Health Department fish consumption recommendations, visit

Susan Gordon: 253-597-8756

Seattle Weekly - BRAIN CITY (Calendar Listing)
Belles of the Jump Ball

March. 23-29, 2005
By Neal Schindler

Puget Sound Georgia Basin Research Conference: Literally hundreds of scientists and scholars converge on the Washington Convention and Trade Center for this environmental confab. The Wednesday evening forum, led by a panel of researchers and policymakers, is open to the public. 800 Convention Pl., 206-694-5000. Free. 7-9 p.m. Wed., March 30.

Seattle Times: Toxic chemicals found in Puget Sound sea life

By Warren Cornwall
Seattle Times staff reporter
Thursday, March 31, 2005

A prolific and potentially toxic fire retardant is showing up in Puget Sound marine life ranging from tiny herring to massive killer whales, raising alarms among scientists who warn it could become the next big toxic threat to underwater animals.

"We've got fireproof killer whales," said Peter Ross, a research scientist with the Institute of Ocean Sciences in Canada and an expert in toxic chemicals in marine animals. "We're concerned about this."

The problem appears greatest in south and central Puget Sound - where fish, seals and whales had higher levels of chemicals called polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs.

Since the early 1980s, levels of those chemicals in southern Puget Sound harbor seals have soared, a sign of an emerging threat to local killer whales that also feed on fish, Ross said. The whales are on the verge of being listed as a threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act.

"I'm surprised at the rate of increase [of contamination]," said Sandie O'Neill, a research scientist with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. "This is definitely an increasing concern, and that's what's getting everybody's attention."

Scientists are unsure how the chemicals are affecting marine life, or what threat is posed to people who eat contaminated fish. The state Department of Health hasn't established safety thresholds for food containing PBDEs.

A bromine-industry spokesman questioned whether the presence of PBDEs was cause for concern.

Production of some versions of the chemicals ended in 2004 because of health concerns. The most widespread version now is considered far less toxic, or not toxic at all, said John Kyte, executive director of the industry-backed Bromine Science and Environmental Forum.

"To simply say, 'We've found PBDEs' ... it's hard to make any meaningful judgment about whether this means anything."

But marine biologists worry the chemicals, used to fireproof everything from computers to mattresses, could interfere with neurological development or throw off an animal's hormones or immune system. PBDEs can linger in the environment for years, increasing the risk they will travel up the food chain as one animal eats another.

Toxic chemicals are considered one of the chief threats to the southern orcas. Their numbers have fallen from 99 in 1999 to 85 in 2004.

New research suggests those orcas may absorb much of the chemicals through the chinook salmon they eat. Puget Sound chinook had between three and five times higher levels of PBDEs and PCBs, a longstanding contaminant, compared with chinook from elsewhere, O'Neill said. This Puget Sound hot spot affects a number of marine creatures, according to studies by state, federal and Canadian agencies discussed yesterday at the Puget Sound Georgia Basin Research Conference, a Seattle meeting of scientists studying the waters shared by Washington and British Columbia.

The fire retardant may wind up in Puget Sound through storm-water runoff; or after floating into the air and then falling into the water, where they can be absorbed by animals scouring the sediment for food; or by plankton, O'Neill said. PBDEs also have been found in house dust and in women's breast milk.

The state Department of Ecology last year called for a ban on PBDEs, except in cases where no replacement flame retardant is available. But the ban proposal has stalled in the state Legislature this year.

Warren Cornwall: 206-464-2311 or

Tacoma News Tribune: Abnormal flame retardant levels in Sound fish

Scientists find high concentrations of harmful flame retardants in Puget Sound fish and marine mammals. They say action is needed now.

SUSAN GORDON; The News Tribune
Last updated: March 31st, 2005 06:32 AM

U.S. and Canadian scientists have found abnormal levels of harmful flame retardants in Puget Sound fish and marine mammals, including orca whales.

Scientists who presented their findings at the Puget Sound Georgia Basin Research Conference in Seattle on Wednesday said the results confirm the region's vulnerability to contamination from the unstable but increasingly common chemical compounds.

The findings also underscore the need for a safe substitute for the flame retardants frequently used in consumer electronics, upholstery and carpeting, they said.

The problem is polybrominated diphenyl ethers, also known as PBDEs. The chemicals cause learning and behavioral problems in laboratory rats and mice and might have a similar effect on people, health officials say.

Peter Ross, a Canadian marine mammal toxicologist, and Sandie O'Neill, a Washington fish biologist, said new research highlights the need for government action. O'Neill and Ross compared flame retardants to polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, a banned industrial compound that poses similar health threats.

Similar research, first reported last week by The News Tribune, will be presented today at the conference that shows unusually high concentrations of PCBs in Puget Sound chinook salmon.

"It's a no-brainer. We banned PCBs and it's time to do something about PBDEs. If we wait to see health effects on fish, whales or people, it'll be too late," O'Neill said after her presentation. "We've got to turn off the tap now."

PBDEs break down over time, don't stick to the products in which they are used, attach to dust particles and wind up in foods such as fish and meat.

Ross, for his part, commended Washington state's effort to reduce the risks, saying action is necessary to protect the health of the region's dwindling population of orca whales, already heavily contaminated by PCBs.

Last year, then-Gov. Gary Locke ordered the state Department of Ecology to work with health experts to reduce the threat of harm from flame retardants.

Recently, state lawmakers introduced bills to ban PBDEs, but the measures have failed to move beyond legislative committees.

Earl Tower, a lobbyist for a coalition of chemical manufactures, said the two most controversial forms of the chemical - Penta and Octa - are no longer manufactured. The third, Deca-BDE, is used in the casings for computers, TVs and wiring. It is required by federal law to be used in airplanes and automobiles.

"Deca is not toxic. It's not bioaccumulative. There are no cases noted of any ill effects related to Deca," said Tower, who represents the industry-funded Bromine Science and Environmental Forum.

The proposal to ban Deca is "based on the precautionary principle that we don't know if it's a problem but it might be," Tower said, adding, "It's the most understood and most tested flame retardant."

O'Neill and Ross on Wednesday shared new evidence of abnormal levels of PBDEs in Puget Sound harbor seals, English sole, rockfish, herring, coho and chinook salmon.

O'Neill said she didn't find excessive amounts of the chemical in chum or pink salmon, which spend more time in the open ocean than in the Sound.

Ross presented results of research on harbor seals done in conjunction with Steven Jeffries, a state Fish and Wildlife Department marine mammal expert. Harbor seal pups captured on Gertrude Island, near Tacoma, also show higher levels of PBDE contamination than samples collected from other groups of seals in the north Puget Sound and British Columbia, Ross said.

Ross and O'Neill said their PBDE findings are consistent with a pattern of bioaccumulation high in the food chain previously seen in research on PCBs.

The United States banned PCBs almost 30 years ago because of the health risks.

Flame retardants are troublesome in part because they are unstable, said Denise Laflamme, a state Department of Health toxicologist who also spoke at the conference.

Flame retardants accumulate in fat, have been found in human breast milk and can be passed from mothers to their babies.

Since Locke's call for action in January 2004, Ecology Department officials have proposed a PBDE ban, but have not put it into place.

One lingering question is what would substitute for PBDEs now on the market, said Cheri Peele, an Ecology Department official working on the problem.

Flame retardant-to-human path unclear

Human health experts believe people are not exposed to the same high levels of flame retardants as have been proved to harm laboratory mice and rats, said Denise Laflamme, a state Department of Health toxicologist. But toxicologists also haven't figured out how the chemicals get into people, she said.

Polybrominated diphenyl ethers, known as PBDEs, are present in many consumer products. Because flame retardants easily bind to dust, good housekeeping can reduce exposure, Laflamme said.

While fish is the most likely dietary source of flame retardants, they also have been found in meat and dairy products, she said. And despite the presence of flame retardants in breast milk, health officials still recommend breast feeding.

Health officials are studying the presence of flame retardants and other chemicals in fish and say they might change their advisories about fish consumption in the next few months.

On the Net

  • For information about Washington's interim action plan to reduce exposure to flame retardants:
  • For the industry's take on the issue:
  • For information about legislation in Olympia: (enter 5515 or 1488 under "Bill Search" to view information about the Senate and House bills, respectively).
  • Susan Gordon: 253-597-8756