Ecosystem Threats,  Featured,  Land Pollution,  Ocean Pollution,  Water Pollution

Quality Water, Quality Life: Aquatic Health and Contaminants in the Midcoast Oregon Salmon Watersheds

A guest post by Ray Kinney

From ridge tops to reefs, environmental degradation has caused many salmon populations to decline to one to ten percent of former numbers. Young salmon survival in freshwater is only 2 to 5% from egg to smolt phase just before entering the ocean phase of their life cycle. Many causative effects for this decline are known, but many remain to be clarified. Politics often prevents adequate investigation of contaminant effects for water quality. Chronic low dose accumulative effects of toxic contaminants take a toll that is generally unrecognized by fisheries managers.

Our benevolent rainfall flows down out of the Coast Range to become, once again, part of the sea and the productivity of the salmon cycle of the near-shore ocean. Nutrients from the ocean, in the form of salmon and lamprey spawner carcasses, had fertilized our forests, streams, and rivers like an incoming tide for thousands of years. Our forest garden grew rich because of this tide of nutrients. Reduced numbers means reduced nutrients, which reduces development, growth, and survival abilities of the fish.

Photo credit: Harry Morse, CC BY 2.0

The land also nourishes the sea. Freshwater flows down out of the mountains, past our farms and towns, through the jetties, and out over the continental shelf. These nutrient tides over land and sea have been shaping salmon for thousands of years, providing diversity, fitness, and resilience to the young fish and other stream organisms that support the salmon cycle complexity.

For many hundreds of years humans have increasingly affected the quality of this complexity in ways that have stressed the fish. In the last two hundred years we have greatly increased pollution. Fish harvest levels increased unsustainably, while beaver and timber harvests altered the landscape stressing the salmon cycle. Increasing pollutants have contaminated the flow to the sea. Copious leaching rainfall and snowmelt dissolve and transport nutrients and contaminants down the river out of the Coast Range. Calcium and iron ride the waters downstream and out over the shelf during the winter, enriching the sea floor mud.

As upwelling conditions increase in the summer, much of this iron distributes northward with the currents and combines with nitrates to fertilize plankton blooms that feed the food chain for the salmon. Iron and nitrate are in shorter supply over much of the ocean and limit productivity in many parts of the ocean. Here, off of the Oregon coast, the iron leached from our soils provides an important key to salmon ocean productivity.

Large quantities of nitrate ride downstream through the freshwater, from red alder tree vegetation cover concentrations in our timberland. The red alder ‘fix’ nitrogen out of the air providing fertilizer to nearby trees increasing productivity. A large concentration of alder can produce too much nitrogen for close by trees to use and can then ‘spill over’ into the streams altering stream chemistry. This process can increase soil and stream acidity to accelerate leaching of exchangeable calcium and essential micronutrients out of the system too fast, resulting in deficiencies in the adjacent soils and water. These localized deficiencies can negatively affect sensitive forest and aquatic life which can then have detrimental impacts on salmon habitat and salmon population recovery. The helpful forest management of red alder needs to include improved ‘best management practices’ to avoid harmful ‘spillover’ of nitrate and hydrogen ions into our salmon habitat waters. Too much of a good thing can become more of a problem than a help to forest health and aquatic health. Human-caused increases of acidification pressures are increasing pollutant effects in salmon habitat more frequently and severely than the prehistoric aquatic conditions that the salmon ecology has been adapted to. The increased stresses pressure the salmon to change too rapidly for their plasticity and resilience to keep up with. The pace of our pollution has been too fast. Monitoring of contaminants is very important for understanding salmon decline pressures.

If we continue to allow toxic lead from lost fishing sinkers, bullets, boat anchors, and huge quantities of degrading lead paint flakes from bridges to flow down out of our low calcium watersheds, to contaminate the productivity of our freshwater, near-shore marine habitat, and marine protected areas, we will only continue to harm salmon in our waters from ridge tops to reefs. Sinkers get ground up in bedrock riverine potholes, exponentially increasing surface area for dissolving in the slightly acidic water.

If we continue to allow agricultural lands to add herbicides and other pesticide contaminants to our waters, and unfiltered stormwater pollutants from road runoff, we will continue to degrade the aquatic health and salmon recovery. If we don’t continually improve our questions, we are destined to have to live with decreasing quality of life. Does the affinity of lead for iron in the water cause them to bind together to carry the lead as colloid out to the iron-rich productive areas, causing toxic effects? Does the lead colloid passing down the river expose salmon gill and gut acidic microenvironments to increased uptake and toxic effects in these sensitive tissues? Lead exposure reduces fitness of salmon to survive in the ocean phase of their life cycle. Does the lead affect calcium utilization in pteropods and cocolithophores to make it even harder for these prey species to grow and reproduce in the face of increasing freshwater and ocean acidification?

We need to carefully monitor what contaminants flow out between the jetties to pollute the productivity of the near-shore ocean that we rely on for the economic, ecologic, and human health of our mid coast watersheds. And, we need to pointedly investigate contaminant effects in the high risk freshwater developmental life phase of the young salmon.

See: Concentrations of Metals in Water, Sediment, Biofilm, Benthic Macroinvertebrates, and Fish in the Boulder River Watershed, Montana, and the Role of Colloids in Metal Uptake: Aida M. Farag, David A. Nimick, Briant Kimball, Stanley Church, David Harper, William G. Brumbaugh (all with USGS). Arch. Environ. Contam. Toxicol. 52, 397-409, 2007


opal rayAbout the Author: Ray Kinney is a director for salmon habitat environmental assessment and restoration in the coastal mountains of Oregon. He has a driving interest in providing mountains and rivers for all of our children to play and learn in. His contributions to The Global Fool — posts and comments — are intended to represent his own personal views as a private resident of the Siuslaw watershed, and do not necessarily represent the views of either the Siuslaw Watershed Council or the Siuslaw Soil and Water Conservation District.

Author photo is by Bob Walter.


  • Doug Firstbrook

    Ray et al, thanks for informative article and your commentators caring and informed responses. Having engaged in many of these issues with the formation of the Lower Nehalem Watershed Council in 1997 and the Lower Nehalem Community Trust in its creation in 2003, there are times when the issues become overwhelming in number and complexities. To those of us who feel that the drive for protecting and restoring clean air and clean water should be self evident to everyone, we seemed destined to suffer from perpetual disappointment. It is a very slow slog to begin to comprehend intellectually the interdependence of all species and the often unintended but no less fatal consequences of our actions. Climate change will likely serve as a profound and disturbing opportunity for graduate studies that few of us are prepared for. The planet, its livability and its specie survivability will be greatly diminished as a consequence of inaction Plummeting salmon populations are the proverbial canary and one on a long list of heartbreaks we will likely endure if we keep on the path we are currently traveling. However as all of you have discovered, probably to our sometime mutual chagrin, awareness comes with responsibility so keep on keeping on friends. If we don’t raise our voices to sing the salmon home, it might be that no one else will either. The north coast is still working it as is the mid-coast, as are our fellow travelers coast to coast. If not, as Cat Steven’s once said, “where are our children going to play.”

  • John Pearson

    Ray, thanks for your work on this issue. Have you worked with the NW Steelheaders? I think an education program aimed at them could be fruitful. They do a lot to promote Salmon and Steelhead habitat buy I haven’t heard them raise this issue, but perhaps I just missed it. I imagine you’re aware of them and the work they do?

    BTW. I recently began a conversation with you thru PSR and it occurred to me I should do a little homework and so checked this site.

    • Ray Kinney

      Thanks John. Yes, sending information to the steelheading groups is on my to do list…. somewhere…. Your comment will spur me to scroll down the list and move it up as a priority. I appreciate your interest and comments. I would hope that PSR eventually takes a long look at the tack box lead contamination issue on a national level, as well as a regional level.

      • Ray Kinney

        Megan Gerber posted a question, later in this thread, about less toxic materials for alternative sinkers. Thanks Megan. There are alternative sinkers manufactured that are less toxic, bismuth, heavy ceramics, and several less toxic materials are used in some sinker designs. However, local salmon stream sport fishing people say that the types of fishing here are more demanding of sinker design than most other waters across the nation, and alternative designs appear inadequate to meet their expectations. Some sinker designs do begin to approach adequacy but only a few people have reported using them instead. The use of ‘pencil lead’ sinkers are very popular, but they are designed to be sacrificially lost more easily than the rest of the rigging, and they are more often pulled loose from snags than most sinker designs. Manufacturers could have a special market of some substantial size if they could come up with a better alternative.

  • Mark Safry

    Feel compelled to bring up the Atlantic salmon, which is also in trouble. Salmon is in trouble on both sides of the continent. In addition to chemical pollution, one important stressor for Atlantic salmon is provided by alien species. For example, the American signal crayfish, which is indigenous to North America, has been introduced in Scottish rivers, where causes problems by altering the foodchain. Not sure what role invasive species play in the decline of Pacific salmon, but it’s something to consider.

  • Micron

    While the described contaminants are heavily contributing to the decline of salmon, we can’t forget the damage done by climate change, which leads to increased water temperatures. The optimum water temperature range for most salmonids is 55-64 degrees Fahrenheit, and massive fish kills have occurred at or above 71.6 degrees. Furthermore, higher stream temperatures make salmon more susceptible to predators, parasites and diseases, which I guess is something that contaminants also do. It’s scary to think that contaminants and increased temperatures could act in a synergistic way against salmon.

    • Ray kinney

      Micron, yes, thermal pollution is taking a heavy toll on fish and supportive species in many salmon waters, largely due to the increased respiration rate passing more water over the gills, which also means that more contaminants in the water also pass over the gills.

      • solange

        Thanks for bringing up the gills. There is scarce awareness of the role that gills play in adsorbing chemicals and pollutants. The inside scoop on gills is that toxic chemicals play with them in the same way they play with human kidneys. I wish it was really play, most of the time it’s toxic and deadly effects.

  • Ray Kinney

    Rachel and Jean, thanks for your thoughtful posts, they do evoke Crosby,Stills, Nash, Young, and Gary Snyder too. Yes, ‘Teach the children well’ has to be at the top of the to do list. Yes, I do believe that some of the toxic low dose accumulative effects of contaminants are recognized, but what we know is just a drop in the bucket of what we need to know. The deeper the researchers look, the more subtle adverse effects they find for most toxic pollutants we could be sampling for (should be sampling for). Often salmon habitat waters have numerous toxic contaminants at very low dose (prozac, lead, mercury, caffeine, nicotine, cadmium, atrazine, etc.) in additive and even synergistic effects combinations in the water quality reality. science is pretty good at detecting and assessing adverse effects of single toxicants, but not so good at understanding the mixtures. Dan weber, in Wisconsin, has demonstrated chronic low dose adverse effects of lead exposures in fish that affect (food acquisition, predator avoidance problems, etc.)at environmentally relevant concentrations, yet that is just one of the toxics in the stew we are dumping into many salmon habitat waters, at very young developmental stages.
    Yes, we habitually ‘turn a blind eye’ to adequate sampling and assessment, maybe not so much because of personal gain, but mostly because agencies can’t afford to make too many waves politically. If they discover new water quality problems needing to be fixed, they are very reluctant to approach unsupportive legislatures for funds to fix them. Don’t look, don’t tell. The legislature sees environmental monitoring as being inherently politically and fiscally subversive. Agencies are tied by the politic. NOAA Fisheries contaminants people do what they can to deal with clarifying some of this, but it is tough getting adequate funding in the face of the politic. Universities do some as well, but really it is a drop in the bucket for the need, if we are going to be in time. Chronic low dose effects of just the lead in many waters would be population decline pressure, but start adding in the rest of the co-contaminants and the problems multiply if you are a young fish trying to be the best you can be, and possibly making it into the 2 to 5% of freshwater survivors.Lead is about the most-studied, and that is bad enough.In addition to the contaminants, there is a local trend toward increasing freshwater acidification pressures that potentiates the bioavailability and toxic effects of many contaminants. Many acidification pressures are brought on by our activities, and we could at least learn how to deal better by altering some behaviors to lessen the adverse effects.
    Thanks for your thoughtful posts.

  • Rachel Mirpour

    As I read your post, this image came to my mind. Talk of watersheds, runoffs and continental shelfs produced nostalgia of my undergraduate marine biology class. This recollection brought me to a state of curiosity and sadness. For a moment, I was unselfish and I became curious about a life cycle process other than the one that most of us only care about — homo sapiens — and sadness for the disregard of life and the type of planet we will be leaving our future generations. Before I could make an educated response, I had to research the salmon life cycle and I must say that it is very intricate; therefore, very delicate. Do you believe that these “low dose accumulative effects of toxic contaminants” are truly unrecognized or are they [managers] putting into practice the old adage of “turning a blind eye” possibly for the sake of personal gain in the form of a monetary value? From what I understand, both state and federal government are in charge of managing forests in the Coast Range and the major industry, in both government owned and privately owned forests, is logging. One would think that with all of that management — fishery managers, state government, and federal government — that water quality, along with thriving ecosystems both on land and in water, would be of high importance. I mean, what are they managing? So my question to you would be: which [of the known] causative action and/or agent do you believe should be first on the list for regulation, reduction, and/or abstinence — in order to increase the survival rate of salmon during the early phases of their life cycle (alivens, fry and smolt)? I’m thinking that education just may need to be the first step? If you can get kids involved, and excited, then there may be slight hope for the future? I ran across a really great lesson plan for teachers to use as an aid in educating our future generations the important background knowledge necessary to formally understand the impact of human mindlessness and greed. This type of education initiative could be followed by request for policy change through student interaction with their local government for local bill support such as the Conservation Opposition to O&C Forest Bill. Thoughts?

    • Ray Kinney

      Rachel, The Siuslaw Watershed Council (Oregon) website is an example of how we can initiate and innovate concerning your question:
      I’m thinking that education just may need to be the first step? If you can get kids involved, and excited, then there may be slight hope for the future? A lot does get done by natural resource partners within the mid coast watersheds, but the tough questions such as need for much more water quality monitoring to inform the saving of money is harder to incorporate adequately into the process… perhaps some of these young students will go on to ‘get er done’.

      • Rachel Mirpour

        Ray – I’ve had experiences working with the youth in Metro-Atlanta and a lot of the educational topics I have brought up have been about taking care of our environment. It is important for kids to be excited about science and their environment, but they first need to understand the concepts. Have you thought about starting an educational initiative at a local school near you?

        • Ray Kinney

          Rachel, Yes, I’m a board member of the watershed council and the Soil and Water Conservation District locally, and we do have programs with the schools for natural resource conservation education/Stream Team work, and outdoor summer camps. It is so satisfying to see the excitement build as they really begin to see how the classroom science is applied out in the field to solve mysteries and understand that knowledge always leads toward asking better quality questions with which to solve the next mystery.

    • Ray Kinney

      Rachel, great lesson plan. Young students trained by the plan might be able to go on to educate fisheries managers in the salmon nation by demonstrating how common fishing methodologies utilizing lead fishing sinkers might be contaminating spawning and rearing gravels. Usually, there are fewer lost sinkers in upper watershed habitat than in the more highly-fished mid to lower watershed stream segments, however, the presence of fewer sinkers within the gravel pore spaces sheltering the young salmon life stage can be even more toxicologically significant because of the refugia having reduced flow dilution of any lead that dissolves in the gravel habitat, resulting in higher concentrations for exposure at critical developmental stages that shape future survival abilities of the fish. Many fisheries managers seem unaware of such detail in habitat assessment, perhaps out of guilt from supporting fishing regulations that promote the continuing pollution even as we pour millions of dollars into salmon restoration. We poison what we love.. out of ignorance, habit, and ego. We are unwilling, or less capable, of being educated than our young students are. Perhaps some of these young students will go on to make substantial innovative regulatory change in best management practices… where we have so far failed to get it done.

        • Ray Kinney

          Hi Megan, sounds like a good approach, through the kids to help teach parents about the sinker issues of contaminated tackle boxes. There are alternative sinker manufacturers that produce ceramic sinkers that are far less polluting than lead sinkers. Sinker design would have to try to at least equal the functional aspects of the lead sinkers that are currently used (largely ‘pencil’ style sinkers. Most mid coast Oregon fishers say that the alternative sinker designs are not well adapted to local needs of typical fishing methodologies. Perhaps manufacturers can be persuaded to work a little more to adapt better to the local fishers needs.

  • Jean Russeau

    When looking at the silver, green and red beauty swimming upstream through the clear depths of a river, I can’t help but think how further decline of salmon populations could forever change not only one of the richest ecosystems on earth, freshwater and estuarine, but also the livelihood of many people. Activities such as mining and dam building are incompatible with salmon health. And think of the damage done by forest clear-cutting. What else is there in addition to lead? How many combined toxic substances harm salmon, trout, steelhead, and char? I’m wondering whether or not harmful levels of these toxic substances are routinely measured across the coastal ecosystems? How much variation is there across the seasons? How much lead and other poisons are there during salmon runs? Over-harvest is no longer the major driver of salmon decline, the poisonous substances introduced in the ecosystem may well be. These toxic substances need to be measured, but maybe not in the water, rather in salmon tissue. Plus, habitat loss is now dramatic. We need to think hard how to preserve salmon habitat before the loss becomes irreversible.

    • Ray Kinney

      Jean, Yes, and we can’t even seem to figure out how to stop using lead fishing sinkers and use the alternative sinkers that are manufactured instead. We have known of the toxicity of lead for a thousand years, it has done vast societal damage, we should have a better handle on safe use by now. Sinkers roll around in tackleboxes rubbing against each other to produce a lot of fine particulate that contaminates all surfaces, then gets on hands, on lunches, beer bottles, cooler ice, boat bottoms, and fish mucus to be taken home to put into the frying pan to expose the whole family on repeated basis. If we can’t see fit to alter this human behavior to benefit our family, how can we ever expect that we will adequately monitor and assess the ecotoxicologic devastation created by scattering this highly potent toxin throughout freshwater salmon habitat waters?

      • Jean Russeau

        I think in many instances we are not aware of the environmental damage we cause with our daily actions. For instance, I never thought sinkers could lead to such problems. I bet most boaters/fishermen have no clue their sinkers are polluting the water, and they don’t know that whatever is released from their sinkers comes to our dinner tables!

        • Ray Kinney

          Jean, there is a very strong base of scientific literature out there about lead toxicology, and about exposure routes. When reports of project results are turned in to regulatory agencies, those agencies drop that information into a black hole (as best they can), because they don’t want to be seen by legislators as being too confrontational with the politic. Funding prioritization tends to reduce to those agencies as they try to stick their necks out to try to support the science reported to them.This all results in a very tight stranglehold on any pointedly investigative attempts to fund and accomplish water quality sampling that would demonstrate environmental degradation from a specific source. A lot of WQ ‘monitoring’ is done to try to show that they are doing due diligence for investigation and regulatory purposes, but is designed more to avoid finding the real problems that could make more waves with the politic. A lot of ‘work’ gets done, but is biased toward avoiding pointedly investigative intent with integrity. That is the sad state of environmental assessment that so many field people are trying get past in order to fund and clarify risk causation and societal harm from pollution. Agencies are staffed with the best intentioned people, but their agency political side is almost always ruling. Even universities can’t escape a strong influence from this funding bias either. NGO’s often must also greatly limit their investigatory intent, due to their partnership ties (and funding source ties)with government/industry. Lead fishing sinker use (and harm) IS a political issue that perpetuates the harm to people that fish and to the greater society. IMHO

          • Megan Gerber

            Ray, are clay sinkers an alternative? A grade school class project could easily incorporate making clusters of sinkers as gifts for kids to give at Christmas or other events… and an ink or paint fish-rubbing to go with it! Seems like that kind of local craft would spur discussions among family members, getting it to that fish-eating dinner table! Tying together tangible and intangible, those arts and sciences, you know…!

    • Ray Kinney

      Jean,here is another example of the kind of environmental assessment deficiencies that are studiously ignored by regulatory processes for non point pollution in our local aquatic habitat for the ESA-listed coho salmon. In the first decade of the 1900’s seven railroad bridges were built over the Siuslaw River on the mid coast of Oregon. They were supposed to be painted again every four years to maintain protective coatings over the top of the essential base coat of almost pure lead (95 to 98% red lead)to prevent the leaching and flaking of this protective layer to expose the steel to rusting and structural damage. The painting was not done, the coatings degraded, and massive pollution directly falls into the river each time it rains. The rainwater is often pH 5.6, and down to as low as pH 4 with fine mist and fog condensation. The lead is leaching and fine particles are exfoliating into each rivulet from each bridge member. A sample was taken. Time for rain to run down the bridge member was less than one minute. The lab results came back being greater than sixteen thousand times the EPA and state of Oregon criterion for lead pollution as it cascaded into the riverwater of hardness of 11 (CaCO3 mg/l). This is just one sample, one rivulet, one point in time over more than a century of weathering into a major coho salmon producing stream through which all outmigrant presmolt must pass on their way to the estuary to smolt in preparation for life in the ocean. Vast sums of money are spent to try to get these young salmon numbers up in the upper watershed, yet we completely turn a blind eye to fisheries management acknowledgement of poisoning them as they journey toward the ocean. I have pointed out lead pollution sources in these waters for decades, citing the fiscal scientific, and legal irresponsibility of the lack of logic in this funding prioritization process for the salmon restoration paradigm. None of this blatant non point source pollution has ever shown up as a required 303d listing of all polluted waters to EPA by the state. The process is badly flawed. The politic prevents environmental assessment that is essential if we are ever to claim ‘best available science’ as a basis for our salmon population and diversity recovery effort. Something is very wrong with environmental assessment as a guide for fisheries management responsibility if the science is so pervasively restricted by the politic.

      • Jean Russeau

        This is very sad. It sounds like a disaster with no voice to be heard. It reminds me of how people ignore the pollution problem they create, unknowingly, by using toxic cleaning products in their houses. It seems little, but when taking into account the number of households that use these products, it becomes huge. Same for these bridges, it may seem little, but counting that lead is released almost non-stop, it becomes huge. If this happens mostly when it rains, I can understand how big the problem is. My understanding is that in Oregon it rains very often. Maybe more effort should be placed in convincing those responsible for painting the bridges to actually paint them. Or maybe have volunteers to paint them? Some nonprofit to pick up the costs?

        • Ray Kinney

          Each of the seven bridges will be a very substantial expense to carefully remove the old coatings, keeping the paint waste contained within a giant envelope for proper disposal. human exposure during the renovation needs to be carefully protected. The same publically owned railroad passes over rivers and lakes in other watersheds. Similar, highly degraded conditions there mean that other salmon runs and aquatic species that support the salmon are exposed across many watersheds. None of this pollution gets official recognition as salmon, river mussels, and lamprey continue population decline. All of this is not going to be easy or inexpensive, but ultimately important for a more sane future. Prevention of such pollution in the future is primary, and the least expensive option to protect the vast ecosystem service values of clean air, water, breastmilk, and brains. A lot of Oregon residents and visitors are being physically harmed by all of this pollution from fishing sinker and bridge paint lead exposure. If it never gets proper inclusion into the funding prioritization and regulatory process it will continue to cost us dearly and remain fiscally irresponsible, as well as ethically irresponsible. Our government leaders need to become better educated about the essential responsibility of non point source pollution prevention and abatement as a means to SAVING us from ourselves. These issues are not just Oregon issues, but legislative responsibility could start here.

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