Dead canaries and the Critical Areas Ordinance | Guest Column


In a talk with a leader of CAPR (Citizens’ Alliance for Property Rights) it was suggested that I stick to facts, and not philosophy. That is advice that I will take in this letter.

I am arguing in favor of leaving as much protection as possible between households and the shoreline. Certainly more than is suggested by CAPR. The reference to “canaries” refers to the canary that dies in an unsafe mine, providing a warning signal. Animals dying in the Spring Street Aquarium may be offering a similar warning.

Here are some facts:

“Canaries” are dying in the Spring Street Aquarium. The latest one, a flounder, was last week. Any fish that does not have a swim bladder to keep it off the bottom will die. In the last year we have lost this and another flounder, a greenling, and a sailfin sculpin. Now there are no bottomfish. There are several species of anemone that cannot now survive.

On the other hand, there is a lined perch (stays off the bottom) in the aquarium that I captured when the aquarium was first started, about 10 years ago.

Detergents (surfactants) are polluting stormwater from the Spring Street stormwater outfall. Surfactants from stormwater lock onto silt. Silt settles out in low current areas, like the aquarium and the bottom of Friday Harbor.

Surfactants harm sensitive surfaces of marine animals, like gills. Our testing of the aquarium and Friday Harbor show high toxicity for surfactants. Our tests are confirmed by town tests, and lethal doses are established by certified labs.

High concentrations of surfactants exist in many household products: Weed and Feed, rose spray, herbicides, deer repellent, and more. We are currently evaluating samples of these from local shops. There are no barriers or controls for the use of these products.

San Juan County has uniquely thin soils, with a minimum of soil microbes. Surfactants traveling over and through these soils do not “naturally” break down. We don’t need a peer-reviewed study to add up these points. Households near the shore in critical areas will put surfactants, in some amount, into marine waters.

I have restricted this argument to surfactants. A lot of other harmful chemicals are put in stormwater and ground water by households — that’s a problem for another time.

Currents along the shore are high — unless they are not. There are eddies, caves, any number of nooks and crannies that have low or negligible current. In those places, if silt is around, it will accumulate.

Silt from homes near critical shores, especially with crumbling banks, will be surfactant-loaded. Can we (do we want to?) tell these homeowners they are not allowed to have a large lawn, chemically fertilized and weeded? I don’t think so. But, in this situation, there will be surfactant/silt, and poisonous places where there is no current. I have seen these places while diving on the west side. Appropriate set backs will allow natural treatment.

If these safety margins are not enacted and enforced, homes will ever after pollute the near-shore. Can we all just slow down for a minute, and compromise?

I don’t like writing letters like this. I’m supposed to be retired. But I love the ocean, and as long as I can, I’ll be puttering on the docks, tide pools, boating and SCUBA-diving. It makes me sad to see all that we are losing (why did we come here?) through ignorance and stubbornness.

— Mike Kaill has a PhD in vertebrate zoology from Cornell University. He is a retired research supervisor for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

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