Aquarium: What do you do with a dead canary? | Guest column

By Mike Kaill

The sea surface can be a barrier, keeping us from “seeing,” in the way we would “see” in a forest or meadow. We started the Spring Street Aquarium in order to reveal the abundant nature to be found under that surface.

Recently, we found a dead canary in the mine (or in this case, a dead anemone in the aquarium). We found high levels of detergent, associated with a die-off of bottom animals. But association does not mean cause and effect. So we need to know more. We are hoping to get a project started to look into this.


— Evaluate products. Which ones are red, and which are green. We need to look at cleaning products, but also lawn care products, herbicides, and more. (We are working on this, but our work must be preliminary and subsidiary to a proper, scientifically designed project).

— Evaluate shoreline sites. Which are clean, and which are polluted.

— Identify sources. Where is this coming from?

— Stimulate enforcement of existing laws. Codes are not followed on many building projects.

Why not control water run-off, just on principle? Rain gardens, berms etc. are not that hard to do, especially when designed into the project at the outset.

In the large view, we need to realize that water quality is a problem for all of us. Finger pointing is corrosive and counter-productive.

San Juan County has educated, motivated, often opinionated people. Some of these people serve on boards and committees, so that citizens can have a say in how the county is run. We should support these people.

Or if there is disagreement, it should be expressed early in the game. If every citizen took an interest in one committee, say the Marine Resources Committee, and followed it, differences could be worked out early. It is unfortunate, but typical in most communities, that there is a small group of cynical, antigovernment grumps. If we give these folks too much power, we are going to lose valuable parts of what we care about in this county. And we will lose important programs that serve to protect what we value: like the storm water program, and shoreline management, and the Aquatic Reserve Program.

It is worth noting that much of the grant money that is available for this kind of thing is not available to San Juan County. We don’t qualify, because we are out of compliance (and have been for some time) with the Growth Management Act. A careful reading of the Act will reveal a solid approach for sustained quality of life in a community like ours. So why are we out of compliance? See above.

If each citizen is even somewhat informed, we can tell the difference between a sound, necessary program, and paranoia brought on by a few loud voices.

We have lost some opportunities. I hope some animals dying in an aquarium will serve to remind us that we have a lot more to lose if we don’t act as good stewards of our lands and waters. On May 13, 2008, a sample from the stormwater outfall at Spring Street contained 1.4ppm of detergent. A concentration of 1.6ppm will kill rainbow trout in 96 hours.

— 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.