Science, Salmon, and Environmental Justice in Uncertain Times

George Thomas Jr. carefully balances on a floating wetland “BioBarge” to deploy a handheld probe to capture water quality data on the Duwamish River, about eight miles south of downtown Seattle. The river provides critical habitat for endangered juvenile salmon and other aquatic life. However, decades of urban growth and industrialization, enabled by settler-colonialism, has produced a heavily polluted river, negatively impacting aquatic life as well as Native people and others in the community, who fish along the river. (Photo credit: Samantha Klein.)


I’m supposed to be writing about my summer adventure, but, this summer–this year–has been a bit of a disheartening adventure for many. While a novel coronavirus upended our everyday lives, scientists watched as their research was abruptly halted, postponed, or disrupted.

Fortunately, those of us involved in the Floating Wetlands capstone project at the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs remained healthy and, though predominantly isolated, we were able to gather some data in the field under strict COVID-19 protocols. We also worked with community scientists and two Doris Duke Scholars, without whom our data gathering efforts truly would have been fruitless.

Floating wetlands are artificial, “novel ecosystems” typically used to capture and remove contaminants and improve water quality. Our project examines whether floating wetlands also can help juvenile salmon survive in the critical early life stages. Our project is composed of four floating “BioBarges,” each 10 feet wide and 20 feet long. Each BioBarge contains cubes of substrate called “Biofilters” that were planted with a variety of sedges (grass-type plants) native to the region and suited for wetland environments. The idea is that the growing plants will attract insects to create a food source for juvenile salmon.

The Duwamish Floating Wetlands team performs a data collection test run on the BioBarges at the Waste Management facility in March, before the official start of the project and before the COVID-19 shutdown. From left to right: SMEA students Sam Klein, James Lee, Charlotte Dohrn, Daniel Roberts; project manager Leann Andrews; George Thomas Jr.; and community science coordinator Ashley Mocorro Powell. Photo credit: Jenn Engelke.


In March the BioBarges were deployed: two at a heavily industrialized site (pictured above) about 3.5 miles from Elliott Bay, and two farther upriver, adjacent to a private dock in a serene stretch of the river, where both banks are covered in plants. Our research assessed the performance of our floating wetlands four different ways:

  1. Fish: Did juvenile salmon or other fish species benefit from these novel ecosystems?
  2. Plants: Did our floating structures allow native wetland plants to flourish?
  3. Invertebrates: Did the plants and the Biofilter substrate attract animals upon which juvenile salmon feed?
  4. Water quality: How did these structures affect water quality? Did the plants remove harmful metals from the water? How did they affect water temperature, oxygen levels, and light availability, which are all critical to the survival of juvenile salmon?

Essentially, we wanted to see if our BioBarges would create pockets of usable habitat for juvenile salmon in industrialized, polluted rivers that further challenge their survival. As the water quality lead, my role was to gather water quality data weekly from March through July.

However, like many in the scientific community, we had to adapt as COVID-19 disrupted our field research. As Washington state gradually eased some restrictions, the university made allowances for essential field research within strict COVID-19 protocols: a limited number of people on site, physical distancing, personal protective equipment, and hand sanitizer when needed. Our community science lead, Ashley Mocorro Powell, coordinated community scientists, who gathered data from the field, primarily for fish and plant monitoring. Collectively, our field research builds upon findings of our predecessors, other SMEA grad students who launched the project in 2019 with a bevy of collaborators. Many of these collaborators continued with the project this year, along with some new SMEA students: James Lee, Sam Klein, Daniel Roberts, and myself.

Inclusivity and Community Science

Incorporating community scientists in research and restoration efforts facilitates community participation, giving residents a voice in how projects are implemented. The university’s Urban Environmental Justice Initiative was created to support collaborative interdisciplinary work with local and regional marginalized communities. The community scientists collaborating with our capstone live in the South Seattle and Tukwila neighborhoods where we deployed the BioBarges.

Plant growth emerges on a BioBarge deployed in the industrialized lower reaches of the Duwamish River at the Waste Management site. Adding Biofilters to the outside edges of the BioBarges was the biggest change from the 2019 prototypes. We frequently spotted fish of all sizes near the Biofilters, including several different species of juvenile salmon, juvenile stickleback, and adult perch. Photo credit: James Lee.

The Settler-colonial Desecration of the Duwamish River

Seattle is among the largest marine cargo ports along the U.S. west coast. But lost amidst the container ship traffic,towering cranes, and acres of stacked containers is the narrow mouth of the Duwamish River, which empties into Elliott Bay’s south end. The river, at least near the city, is officially called the “Lower Duwamish Waterway”–a settler-colonial euphemism for “a once-meandering healthy river flowing into a sprawling estuary that was deliberately straightened into a waterway to accommodate heavy industry, with little regard to community impact.”

The Duwamish River and estuary (left) in its natural state, before the arrival of settler-colonialists. The once meandering Duwamish since has been straightened (right), and the vast estuary filled in to serve container ship traffic and other industrial activities. Source: Burke Museum.


A newly published book by B.J. Cummings, The River That Made Seattle, definitively chronicles regional history and how colonists “resettled” Puget Sound away from the Indigenous peoples. The ensuing decades of industrialization heavily polluted the Duwamish, which negatively impacts us all.

When I moved to Seattle I had no idea the Duwamish once was a massive estuary, instead of a narrow channel dredged for vessel traffic of today. Before the COVID-19 restrictions, my commute to the UW took me across the Duwamish River just as it empties into Elliott Bay, but I was not mindful of the fact I was traveling within the traditional lands of the first people of Seattle, the Duwamish People past and present. Acknowledging and pledging to honor with gratitude the land itself and to support the Duwamish Tribe are steps toward environmental justice.

Floating Wetlands Successes, and Other Restoration Efforts

Since COVID-19 limited most of our field research to June and July, the data we’re analyzing now may not be as robust as intended, but we and community scientists saw juvenile salmon and many other fish species taking advantage of the BioBarges. We all watched as plant growth flourished, attracting insects as a potential food source for the fish. We know from sensors continually monitoring water quality that temperature and oxygen levels consistently indicated an environment nurturing for juvenile salmon. As we wrap up the data analysis, we’ll begin the policy phase of our capstone, getting additional feedback from Tribal and community members and policy makers about the potential for novel ecosystems in the Duwamish.

Seattle has been the fastest growing city in the U.S. for the past two years, creating additional stresses on the regional environment. With a dozen species of salmon listed as endangered, salmon habitat restoration has reached a level of increased urgency. Just two years ago, regional Tribal leaders launched the Pacific Salmon Summit to build a coalition with state and local officials to expedite salmon recovery efforts. And the Duwamish Tribe, inhabitants of the Seattle region since time immemorial, are actively pursuing salmon habitat restoration projects in the industrialized Lower Duwamish Waterway. Tribes around the region, in fact, are leading many habitat restoration projects, some costing millions of dollars.

By mid summer, BioBarge plants flourish at our Tukwila, WA location, about five miles from the mouth of the Duwamish River. Photo credit: James Lee.


Earlier this year, Currents published interviews with environmental stewards working around the Duwamish Valley. And prior to the kickoff of Phase II of our Floating Wetlands project, our team joined a tour of the Lower Duwamish Waterway, led by the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition.

Our participation in this capstone project actually has led Sam, James and me to join a related project in Seattle’s Delridge neighborhood: Co-creating an Adaptive Community-Science Network: Supporting Tribal and Grassroots Action through the Puget Creek Watershed Assessment. Funded by a UW Urban@UW Spark Grant, our interdisciplinary team will work with the Duwamish Tribe and other community members “to address gaps in urban research through co-created community-driven assessment, visioning, and dissemination ”

I spoke to a friend recently about how we were navigating our COVID-19 anxiety and uncertainty, and he noted humans are nothing if not adaptable. Our ability to adapt has led humanity to dominate the planet to the extent we’ve created our own geological era: the Anthropocene. As a result, the climate emergency conversation tends to focus on greenhouse gas emissions from gasoline engines and factory emissions, but land use also plays an important role in carbon sequestration. Locally, settler-colonists transformed a naturally balanced estuary into an industrialized, heavily polluted waterway, eventually resulting in Seattle’s very own Superfund site. Settlers have forced Puget Sound wildlife to adapt to us, at great cost to the environment and communities that rely on the river, whether for fish sustenance or the enjoyment of natural beauty. Our capstone project is an effort to help restore what was lost, but it’s a small step for what is left to be done.