Dangers Await Upstream for Local Salmon

With damns coming down and the battle over “Frankenfish” heating up, what lies ahead for local salmo

Trolling with a guide off Malcolm Island near the northern end of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, we watch the rod tip, hoping for a strike. It’s 6:30 a.m., and the sky over the Coast Mountains looks like the underbelly of a salmon. The rod tip dips sharply, and I let out the line, trying to keep the fish on. I don’t want to blow it; I haven’t caught a lot of salmon lately. Regional salmon fishing has been inconsistent over the last decade, spiking in 2010 when 30 million sockeye salmon returned to the Fraser River, the best run in a century, with similarly strong runs returning along the West Coast. ¶ That run was great news for fishermen and everyone concerned about the iconic species of the Pacific Northwest, but it’s been a mixed bag of good and bad news for local salmon of late. The past year or so has brought significant developments for salmon on several fronts—including some serious threats.

The Good News

The region’s salmon fishery got an historic boost last fall with the removal of older dams along the Elwha River. In mid-September, contractors began the three-year process of simultaneously removing the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams in order to restore a free-flowing river. That project—the largest of its kind in U.S. history—will reopen more than 70 miles of pristine spawning and rearing habitat in the Elwha River and its tributaries at a cost of more than $324 million. Salmon populations there should increase from 3,000 to nearly 400,000 as all five species of Pacific salmon return to one of the region’s most productive salmon streams.

“The removal of the Elwha dams is very good news,” says Tony Floor, director of fishing affairs for the Northwest Marine Trade Association and a former Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife spokesman. “[In the past,] the Elwha produced some of the largest king salmon known to man, fish up to 100 pounds.”

In addition to growing large kings, the increased habitat will improve the health of the state fishery. “It will open up tremendous spawning areas,” says Jim Aggergaard at Catchmore Charters in Anacortes. “As soon as the dam is removed, they can pass the lower four miles, up to Lake Sutherland and tributary streams.”

The weather appears to be on the salmon’s side as well. “La Niña conditions are great for skiing and salmon,” Floor says. “The lower temperatures trigger a higher survival rate for salmon, which makes for outstanding fishing. We just experienced one of the biggest king runs on the Columbia in the last 50 years.”

And, for now, local salmon appear to have dodged one very dangerous bullet: Reports that infectious salmon anemia (ISA)—a pathogen linked to aquaculture that has killed millions of farmed salmon in Europe and Chile—was detected in British Columbia could not be confirmed. That’s a huge relief, at least for now, but leading researchers and scientists continue to stay on high alert.

In fact, our state gets high marks from Floor for battling other dangerous viruses; he says state officials have dealt swiftly with viruses in hatchery fish, destroying fingerlings in the case of outbreaks. But he sees the recent ISA scare as an example of what can happen if governments don’t pay attention. “When salmon farming got started, Washington allowed only 13 permits in Puget Sound,” he says. “British Columbia went wild, issuing hundreds of permits.” Our state, says Floor, is more vigilant: “Canada took a much more liberal approach. They have learned by baptism by fire: virus outbreaks or sea lice explosions. I’m a proponent of hatchery salmon and farmed fish, but I think hatcheries and farmed salmon need to be scrutinized. I think Washington has done a good job with this.”

The Bad News

Some worry about the ecological impacts of local farmed salmon, which, like farmed Atlantic salmon, can escape and compete with wild salmon for habitat. Farming has also taken an economic toll on Northwest wild salmon fisheries.

And while the Fraser River run fueled optimism about wild salmon recovery around the region, not all areas or species have enjoyed such a resurgence. The reasons for that aren’t clear; despite extensive fish-tagging and research efforts, the data is still incomplete. Wild chinook salmon in Puget Sound remain on the threatened species list. Coho salmon runs in Puget Sound have stagnated, surviving at low levels. The regional salmon fishery represents a very complicated picture, with some species—such as sockeye and pink salmon—booming, while other species—sometimes, king and coho—struggle, at least in the Puget Sound region.

Fears for Northwest salmon are leading some state lawmakers, including Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, to take a firm stance against another threat that’s brewing: genetically modified Atlantic salmon. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is considering whether to approve the AquAdvantage salmon, which would be the very first modified animals on American dinner tables. Many are concerned that these so-called “Frankenfish,” modified with a growth-hormone gene to grow larger and faster than natural salmon, are as yet untested, and could contribute to certain cancers in humans. There is also the worry that the fast-growing fish will flood the market, harming our state’s fishing industry. While the FDA is considering the issue, two pieces of legislation are making the rounds: one to ban genetically modified fish outright; the other, to require labeling. In February, consumer groups urged the FDA to require rigorous testing of the fish before approval. The issue remains a hot topic for lawmakers, environmental and consumer groups, and the Canadian company AquaBounty Technologies, which created the AquAdvantage salmon. There is no word yet on when the FDA will make its decision.

Despite the threats to their survival, salmon runs persist—occasionally even thrive. My fish, for one, is a fighter, taking out line, making angry rushes back toward the kelp bed. But slowly and carefully, I work it into the boat. The beautiful 12-pound king thrashes as my guide slips it into a net.

“Welcome aboard,” he says to the fish. “You’re the guest of honor at a dinner party in Seattle.”

Are High-Rise Wood Buildings in Seattle's Future?

Are High-Rise Wood Buildings in Seattle's Future?

Is Seattle ready for high-rises built of wood after 80 years of concrete-and-steel buildings?

When architect Joe Mayo walks into his office, he’s steeped in Seattle history. Mahlum Architects is located in Pioneer Square’s 1910 Polson Building, which served as a warehouse for gold mining equipment during the Klondike Gold Rush. Over the past 100 years, the building has also housed offices and artists’ lofts, and survived two arson fires. So it’s remarkable to see the original old-growth Douglas fir columns still rising from the floor and spanning the ceilings. “It creates a pretty amazing environment,” says Mayo.

Large buildings framed with wood from big trees were commonplace in Seattle and in other parts of the country in the early 1900s. But changing building codes and diminishing availability of large timber put an end to this style. Today, wood buildings are usually one- or two-story houses, while our apartments, hotels and office buildings are nearly all built from concrete and steel. The six-story Bullitt Center on Capitol Hill, which opened in 2013, is the first mid-rise building in Seattle constructed of wood in the past 80 years.

With the advent of a new wood building material called cross-laminated timber (CLT), it might one day become one of many such structures. Proponents say the benefits of building with CLT could be significant. CLT can be used to create buildings that are as tall as 30 stories (and beyond, some architects say) that are better for the environment and aesthetically pleasing, and can be quickly built, help create jobs in economically depressed regional timber towns and are as long-lasting as other buildings. Some research even suggests that wooden buildings offer health benefits for occupants.

Mayo says the material makes sense for our region. “Architecture should feel like it’s a part of a place,” he says. “We’re in the great Northwest, with some of the tallest trees in the world and the best timber in the country, and we have a long history of building with wood.”

But while building codes in Europe and in some other countries have changed to embrace the new material, and CLT buildings as tall as 10 stories are in use in Australia and London, U.S. building codes lag behind. Seattle recently became the first city to allow the use of CLT in construction, but that use is currently limited to five stories for residential buildings and six stories for office buildings.

“The City is open to proposals on larger buildings, but we do have to verify that fire safety and seismic issues have been addressed in the designs,” says Bryan Stevens, spokesperson for the City of Seattle’s Department of Construction and Inspections. That’s because, while these issues have been resolved for buildings in other parts of the world, the U.S. requires domestic testing if building codes are to change.

Washington State University is one participant in a multi-institutional program with the National Science Foundation and the Network of Earthquake Engineering Simulation that is testing how mass timber systems like CLT fare in earthquakes. Hans-Erik Blomgren, a structural engineer in the Seattle offices of the international engineering firm Arup who is a participant in the research program, believes engineers can solve this puzzle. “There’s no technical reason we shouldn’t be designing a building with this material,” he says.

U.S. fire codes have also long prevented the use of combustible materials such as wood in mid- and high-rise buildings, but engineers say code changes to allow for the use of CLT are also achievable. To understand how resistant to fire large pieces of wood can be, proponents suggest thinking of how hard it is to start a bonfire with really big pieces of wood. Not only are such pieces hard to light, but they burn slowly.

In theory, developers could propose larger CLT buildings before codes are changed, but they would have to invest time, money and coordination to get this new building type through Seattle’s Department of Construction and Inspections, with no guarantee that their designs would be approved. “It takes a very special project and specific client and certainly a very ambitious design team to take it on,” says Mayo.

Unless that client steps forward, builders will be waiting for the International Code Council (ICC) to work through the fire and earthquake issues and develop the necessary code changes before mid-rise and higher CLT buildings spring up in the city. 

“We know there’s been a lot of interest in this construction type,” says Stevens, “so we’re trying to be responsive to the demand without giving up safety.”

As with so many innovations, another problem for developers is that material costs for CLT can be high because there are so few North American CLT manufacturers. Developers wait for the price to go down, but manufacturers need more demand for a product. To alleviate this problem, some businesses and legislators are working to help bring CLT mills to Washington state. An Oregon lumber company, D.R. Johnson Lumber, in Riddle, Oregon, recently became the first certified manufacturer of CLT for construction material in the U.S.

Clt was developed in the 1990s by researchers in Austria and Germany who were looking for a use for pieces of surplus wood. The material is created by layering smaller pieces of wood together into a kind of sandwich that offers the strength and insulation found in the massive timbers of the past, and that can be used for the walls, floors, roof beams and posts that make up a building. 

One of the most touted aspects of this material is its role in fighting carbon emissions. Trees absorb carbon and use energy from the sun to grow, which makes them a lower carbon choice than concrete or steel, which not only don’t absorb carbon, but require much more carbon-emitting energy to manufacture. Trees are also a renewable resource, as long as they are harvested from a sustainably managed forest. And CLT can be made from otherwise underused or damaged woods, such as the vast forests of domestic pine that have been killed by mountain pine beetles.

Another selling point, particularly in urban areas, is that CLT panels are prefabricated—bring them to the building site, and your building goes up quickly, with less noise, pollution and traffic delays than with other materials. The eight CLT stories of London’s nine-story Murray Grove apartment building went up in nine weeks.

But building with CLT is not all about practical considerations, says Susan Jones, who owns the Seattle architecture firm Atelierjones and designed her family’s home as the first (and so far only) CLT home in Seattle’s Madison Valley in 2015. The material itself—in the case of her house, CLT primarily from white pine and left unpainted—is a sensual pleasure, from the quality and patina of the wood to the subtle pine smell in the house.

“It’s been incredibly satisfying to live with it,” Jones says. “That’s what architects are asked to do—we create beautiful spaces for people. What’s better than to immerse yourself into this incredibly rich natural environment of wood?”

Here in Washington, there’s enough raw material to immerse us all in that environment. But only a handful of projects in the state have used the material so far—for example, in Jones’ CLT house, in the walls of the Bellevue First Congregational Church sanctuary designed by Atelierjones and on a building project at Washington State University in Pullman. In Oregon, Joe Mayo recently worked on the design for what is to be the first use of U.S.-made CLT on a two-story building project, using panels manufactured by Oregon’s D.R. Johnson.

There are a few other regional CLT building projects in the design process now. In June, Washington state granted design-build contracts to several architects, including Susan Jones of Atelierjones and Joe Mayo of Mahlum, for 900-square-foot classrooms at several elementary schools in western Washington, to be constructed by the end of 2017. 

Another building, Framework, a 12-story building with retail, offices, and housing in Portland, Oregon, is currently in the design process, after a team, which includes Blomgren as its fire and earthquake CLT engineering specialist, won a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) tall wood building competition created to encourage innovation with the material. Winners for 2015, including the Portland team and a team in New York City, each received $1.5 million for the research and development phase of creating buildings using CLT and other engineered wood materials.

At the University of Washington, associate professor of architecture Kate Simonen is leading another USDA-funded study to determine the relative environmental impact of using mass timber in commercial office buildings in Seattle, which follows on other studies indicating that this kind of building will have a lower carbon footprint than other building materials. 

While she’s cautious about reaching premature conclusions in her study, Simonen thinks it might not be a bad idea to start working now to get the structures built in our region. 

“We don’t have all the answers now, but in order to get those answers we need to help lead innovation,” she says. “It makes sense to take some risks in our region to advance a building material that supports our region.”