Study shows alarming decline in Bellingham Bay marine life

 by John  Stark

Creatures that live on the bottom of Bellingham Bay are showing clear signs of stress that is probably linked to toxic pollution.

So says a new report from the Washington Department of Ecology, relying on extensive survey of bay sediments and the creatures that live in them. The survey tests found “unusually low” numbers of clams, snails, sea stars, crabs, shrimp and other sea life, according to an Ecology press release. The surveys also found that organisms least sensitive to pollutants were the most abundant, while the most sensitive organisms were scarce.

“This is a strong indicator that the sediment quality in the bay is declining,” said Valerie Partridge, lead author of the Ecology report.

The survey involved samples of the top inch of sediment at 30 locations in the bay. The sediment samples were checked for chemical content, toxicity, and population of marine life. About two-thirds of the samples had some degree of toxicity, Partridge said.

The tests were conducted in 2010. When the population of clams, snails, crabs, shrimp and brittle stars were compared to a 1997 survey, those populations showed measurable declines. But similar problems already were evident in a 2006 survey, leading researchers to conclude that conditions may have changed between 1997 and 2006.

Partridge said it is by no means clear what is causing the problems for marine life in the bay.

“We can’t rule out natural cycles or large-scale oceanographic processes, nor can we rule out human-caused changes,” Partridge said in an email. “One thing of concern is that we have noticed increased amounts of area with adversely affected benthos (marine life) in other bays and geographic regions of the Salish Sea, albeit not as extreme as in Bellingham Bay.”

Wendy Steffensen, North Sound baykeeper with RE Sources for Sustainable Communities of Bellingham, said the test results indicate the need for still more study. She noted that marine life populations are damaged all across the bay, including areas where contamination appears to be minimal.

“It’s a mystery that really deserves more investigation,” Steffensen said. “Something bigger is going on.”

That “something bigger” could be changes in water temperature and acidity resulting from climate factors not related to things that Bellingham residents have dumped in the bay for the last hundred-plus years, Steffensen said. But the data from Ecology’s study also reveals chemicals in the sediments that were put there by people.

That includes metals, industrial chemicals, antihistamine, the diuretic drug triamterene, and triclocarban, an antibacterial chemical found in some hand soaps.

“Cleanup and water treatment standards probably are not sufficient because we are still seeing toxicity,” Steffensen said.

Steffensen said everyone can do their part by thinking before they dump anything down the drain, and by avoiding lawn chemicals and fertilizers that wash into the bay when it rains. Stormwater runoff also carries oil and other pollutants from cars into the bay. If people reduce driving, they are reducing bay pollution.

“Stormwater is the biggest carrier of pollutants that we know of,” Steffensen said.

The study also may demonstrate the need for even more intense – and costly – efforts to clean up industrial pollution in and around a redeveloping waterfront.

“Part of it comes down to willpower,” Steffensen said. “Do people care enough to make sure that the bay is healthy? It also comes down to political willpower and funding. … Our waters are life-sustaining. It’s where our fish come from.”


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