Scientists tally damage a day after fish die-off in troubled Hood Canal

HOODSPORT, Mason County — Only a day before, Bob Pacunski had watched through a diving mask as the underwater death throes of Hood Canal fish happened all around.

Deep-water rockfish, wolf eels and lingcod had hovered near the surface Tuesday, listless and gasping. The carcasses of perch, sand lance and sculpin drifted in the surf. On the shore nearby were the massive bodies of 10 lingcod, their toothy mouths gaping.

Wednesday, rockfish and eels still clustered near the surface, but they were swimming. Only one fresh lingcod carcass had appeared near the dive spot north of Hoodsport, along with five older carcasses they hadn't seen Tuesday.

"What a difference a day makes; it's amazing," Pacunski said from the deck of a boat on Hood Canal, water dripping from his orange-and-black dry suit. Only a day after thousands of suffocated fish washed ashore in the southern hook of Hood Canal, the immediate danger appeared to have eased. The conditions that apparently triggered the third major fish die-off here since 2002 had diminished. The oxygen levels in the water, which plummeted late Monday, had risen to a point that fish could survive near the surface.

"I wouldn't say we're out of the woods necessarily. It could repeat itself," cautioned Jan Newton, a University of Washington researcher. "It's anybody's guess about where we're going to go from here."

Even so, a glance over the side of the boat Wednesday was enough to tell state researcher Wayne Palsson that something was different. On Tuesday the water near shore had been clear and unusually cold, suggesting that deep, oxygen-starved water had suddenly risen to the surface. Wednesday, the water was murkier and warmer as a steady rain fell and wind whipped the water's surface.

"It's the weather," Palsson said.

Wednesday afternoon, Palsson and two state biologists plunged into the frigid fjord to further assess the damage. They were among several government and tribal officials and local residents who had converged on the canal.

One of them was Larry Alf, a local fisherman who crunched over oyster shells on the Hoodsport beach and counted dozens of tiny stickleback and perch, along with flounder, sole, sculpin and even a chinook salmon, left by the tide to rot. "I just can't believe that there's this much, killed that fast," said Alf. "This just breaks my heart to see all this."

Ron Ault, co-owner of Hood Sport 'n Dive, a local diving shop, seemed resigned that this die-off was only the latest episode for the afflicted waterway.

"We about expect it every September," he said.

Since the first fish kill in 2002, scientists have found that the canal water frequently suffers from lethally low oxygen levels. Researchers are trying to figure out why.

A leading theory is that nitrogen, whether from leaking septic tanks, stormwater or the ocean, is combining with sunny weather to trigger algae blooms. When the algae die, the bacteria that consume the algae also suck oxygen from the water.

While the problem usually is confined to deeper water, it periodically reaches the surface, triggering fish kills. Newton, the UW scientist, said scientists hope to know by today why the low-oxygen water suddenly pushed to the surface late Monday.

The latest incident isn't the canal's only problem.

Skokomish tribal researchers said they discovered a "dead zone" in the southern reaches of the canal, between Belfair State Park and Twanoh State Park, this summer. At depths below 50 feet, they found mats of a white, jellylike bacteria covering the canal bottom, but no other signs of life, said David Herrera, the tribe's fisheries-policy representative.

In other locations, a new invasive species called a tunicate or sea squirt has been spreading. The creatures are siphon feeders like barnacles that can cover stationary objects underwater.

Warren Cornwall: 206-464-2311

Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife research scientists collect dead fish to demonstrate the damage caused by Tuesday's fish kill in Hood Canal. Fish and Wildlife scientists surveyed north of the Hoodsport Wednesday afternoon to determine the health of fish in the area after thousands of marine creatures washed ashore Tuesday. (ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES)