Life abounds in Port Gamble Bay despite lingering contamination

From left, Katie Eiring, Hans Daubenberger, Jessica Coyle and Julianna Sullivan of the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe’s Department of Natural Resources haul in a beach seining net Wednesday on the east shore of Port Gamble Bay. Sampling helps the tribe track fish populations and identify critical habitat. - Tad Sooter/Staff Photo
From left, Katie Eiring, Hans Daubenberger, Jessica Coyle and Julianna Sullivan of the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe’s Department of Natural Resources haul in a beach seining net Wednesday on the east shore of Port Gamble Bay. Sampling helps the tribe track fish populations and identify critical habitat.
— image credit: Tad Sooter/Staff Photo

PORT GAMBLE — The herring larvae squirming in a beach net on Port Gamble Bay Wednesday were about the size of a pinky finger and almost perfectly transparent.

Though delicate, the tiny fish represent a building block of the larger Puget Sound ecosystem. In coming months, they will gorge on plankton and fill their bodies with fat and protein before becoming food for a cross section of marine life.

During a beach seining trip Wednesday, Port Gamble S'Klallam Tribe biologists pulled in 30 squirming herring larvae with a single pull of a net, some of the many thousands hatched in the bay this spring. The herring population is strong in Port Gamble, though struggling in many areas of Puget Sound.

"It's not common for us to find these outside of the bay," said tribal biologist Hans Daubenberger, who leads the twice-weekly beach seining missions.

Port Gamble Bay is considered the second-most important Pacific Herring spawning ground in the Puget Sound region, but it's not just forage  fish that thrive along its sandy shores. Despite 150 years  of  industrial use, the bay is still home to salmon, a host of marine birds and rich fields of shellfish. It also bears deep cultural and economic significance to members of the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe, whose ancestors have lived on the bay for thousands of years.

It’s the relative vitality of the bay — rather than its level of contamination — that spurred the state Department of Ecology to pursue its cleanup, said Kevin MacLachlan, who is overseeing the state’s restoration plans for Port Gamble this year. Compared to many embattled Puget Sound inlets, Port Gamble Bay is functioning well.

“It had the wood waste and the industrial impact, but you could still look around the bay and see what it must have been like 200 years ago,” MacLachlan said. “It was an opportunity for Ecology to use its resources to preserve one of the last vestiges of native land.”

Tribal scientists agree conditionally. The bay is massively productive for shellfish and forage fish, said Paul McCollum, director of the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe’s Natural Resources Department. But it’s still critical the state fully address pollution hotspots in the bay, McCollum said.

“It’s amazingly productive for the environmental threat it’s been exposed to,” he said. “We want to make sure the cleanup is done in the best way possible.”

Critical habitat for forage fish

Port Gamble Bay stretches 2.5 miles from its forested head to its mouth on Hood Canal, at depths of up to 60 feet.

Before logging began in the mid-1800s, the uplands surrounding the bay supported vast stands of old-growth trees. Those areas are still important for retaining clean groundwater and preventing runoff into the bay.

“There’s so little groundwater available that these recharge areas are critical,” McCollum said.

Freshwater trickles into Port Gamble Bay in many places, including Port Gamble Creek and Martha John Creek, near the head of the bay. Both are salmon-bearing streams, and juvenile coho have been trapped in Martha John Creek as recently as last week.

The tribe raises hatchery chum salmon on Little Boston Creek and coho in nets in the middle of the bay, releasing roughly 1 million fish into Hood Canal each year. The sheltered bay is also used by transient salmon working their way from their spawning stream to the open sea. The tribe is using beach-seining samples to determine just how many salmon use the bay and in what areas.

Muddy beaches extend along each shore of the bay, supporting patches of eelgrass. This is critical habitat for forage fish, including one of Port Gamble Bay’s most prolific denizens, the Pacific herring. Herring begin congregating at the mouth of the bay in late January and early February and spawn along its beaches through April. Port Gamble’s herring population is estimated at 2,400 tons, eclipsing most Puget Sound spawning grounds. The herring become a feast for a cross section of Puget Sound marine life, including bottom fish, diving birds, mammals and salmon.

“They are truly a keystone species,” McCollum said. “There’s a whole ecosystem based on herring.”

Herring populations have declined in Port Gamble Bay every year since 2006. McCollum said the tribe believes toxins from creosote-treated pilings is damaging herring embryos but more studies are needed.

“It’s still very productive,” he said. “Our challenge is to get them back up.”

In many areas, forage fish share beaches with fields of shellfish. Oysters as big as hands grow in spiky fields along the shore. The tideflats yield clams and cockles that remain an important element of the tribe’s cultural celebrations. Shellfish feeds are central to community gatherings, ceremonies and Canoe Journey hosting.

“It lets us teach a way of life we’ve carried on for thousands of years,” S’Klallam Chairman Jeromy Sullivan said. “If there was a closure or an event happened where we couldn’t harvest shellfish, it would be taking away our history and our culture currently.”

A fresh flow of water at the mouth of the bay supports a 187-acre field of geoduck, an estimated 2.8 million pounds. In the last harvesting year, which ended in March, the tribe pulled 55,000 pounds of geoduck from the tract, tribe shellfish manager Tamara Gage said. Geoduck grow so large in the mouth of the bay that some fishermen prefer to sell them locally rather than ship them overseas.

“They’re huge,” Gage said. “They always amaze.”

‘Nature has a way of coming back’

There are no herring counts or eelgrass surveys from before the Pope and Talbot mill began operation, and no one has a clear idea of how much damage was done to the bay’s ecology.

The tribe is interviewing elders to help piece together a historical picture of fish populations. State scientists will study the issue as cleanup plans progress.

Some of the impact is obvious. Near the mill site, wood chips and debris are spread across 300 acres on the bottom of the bay, blotting out habitat for eelgrass and shellfish. The manmade breakwater on the site slows the flow of seawater into the bay, McCollum said.

Scientists have learned much more about the toxic legacy left by the mill and other industries.

Sampling near the millsite and along the west side of the bay has uncovered low levels of arsenic, cadmium, cancer-causing hydrocarbons and dioxins. The hydrocarbons may be leaching from the hundreds of pilings that still dot the shoreline. Ecology has found toxins in shellfish in the middle of the bay, including some with levels that could be dangerous to human health if they were eaten regularly.

Ecology is preparing a plan to clean these sites that could include a combination of dredging, sediment capping and monitoring.

The toxin levels in Port Gamble are many times lower than what has been found at other harbors with industrial history, including Sinclair Inlet and Port Ludlow, MacLachlan said. Pollution has closed shellfish in those areas.

MacLachlan said Ecology is encouraged by how much Port Gamble Bay has improved in the 16 years since the mill closed. Pope Resources has excavated toxic areas on the uplands above the bay and some wood waste dredging has been completed near the millsite. The state believes toxin levels are already dropping in some areas and ecosystems are rebuilding.

“Nature has a way of always coming back,” MacLachlan said.

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