Mukilteo lab seen as key in aiding fish

MUKILTEO – If headway is made in rebuilding salmon stocks in the Northwest, a set of ramshackle buildings on the waterfront here could play a key role.

The main building is a weathered, gray house, behind a chain-link fence at the end of the road. It’s not only at the edge of the water, but on the frontier of research into the effects of pollution on fish, employees say.

“This facility has national importance,” said Paul Plesha, who manages the research station at 10 Park Ave. for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Officials with NOAA say with new buildings they could do even more. Plesha has submitted a $15 million request for more and better equipment.

“As the fish get bigger you need bigger tanks to handle bigger numbers,” Plesha said.

The reactions of the fish to pollutants added to their holding tanks in Mukilteo is recorded and shared with agencies such as the state and federal regulatory agencies.

“Pretty much any federal agency that can have an impact with a specific action comes and talks with us. Every day,” said Scott Hecht, an ecotoxicologist with NOAA near Olympia who works with Mukilteo scientists and officials in Washington, D.C.

The NOAA buildings, built in 1947, sit on 1.1 acres of land once owned by the U.S. Air Force. NOAA has used them for about 30 years.

Most of NOAA’s toxicology research is done in the Northwest at labs such as Mukilteo, said Usha Varanasi, science and research director for the environmental agency in Seattle. The Mukilteo buildings are under the umbrella of the Seattle research center, one of six in the nation.

Four staff members are employed full-time in Mukilteo, five are part-time and others come and go on a contract basis, Varanasi said. The station’s annual budget is about $500,000, she said. About 20 people are working there right now, Plesha said.

They also do field work. Some of the Mukilteo scientists went out on boats in the Gulf of Mexico after Hurricane Katrina to study the hurricane’s effects on fish and shellfish.

After the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, Plesha was one of several scientists from Mukilteo who visited that area to study how fish were affected in the long term.

In the Mukilteo station’s early years, its work focused on the behavior of shellfish, Varanasi said. The research then turned to the effects of pollution on shellfish and, later, bottom fish.

Recently, the work has focused on salmon, of which some runs have been listed as a threatened species by the federal government. About 20 studies are currently underway.

Water from Possession Sound is pumped to the site and circulated through the tanks. Plesha built the system himself.

It’s the sea water that makes the Mukilteo site useful. It’s among the cleanest saltwater in the Northwest, officials say.

That likely has something to do with flushing action in the 600-foot deep channel between Mukilteo and Whidbey Island, Plesha said.

The low level of pollutants in the water eliminates variable factors in the studies, researchers said. It also enables researchers to keep fish “in a much better condition for a longer time,” Varanasi said.

In one of the buildings, slender salmon up to 3 and 4 years old swarm in holding tanks. Soon pollutants will be introduced into their tanks to see how their ability to reproduce is affected, research biologist Frank Sommers said.

“We’re getting them so they’re all full of eggs and sperm,” he said.

Other research includes testing herring embryos for their reaction to petroleum oil, and field studies on the relationship between salmon populations and the condition of neighboring shorelines.

The results of the studies aren’t all in, but so far, they’re showing that pollution, most of which now comes from storm-water runoff, is damaging fish in ways that don’t necessarily kill them outright but affect their ability to survive and reproduce, researchers said. For example, if a pollutant affects a fish’s sense of smell, it may be less able to detect predators.

If the Mukilteo research station is expanded, it could join in on regional studies of the effects on pollution on marine mammals, including the endangered orca whales, Varanasi said.

Current educational programs, centered around student field trips, could be expanded, officials said. Walkways and open space are part of the plan.

The entire 22-acre waterfront strip is being turned over to the Port of Everett for redevelopment. Discussions between the port and the city of Mukilteo have revolved around open space, shops and condominiums. No formal plans have been proposed.

Port officials support NOAA’s rebuilding plans, deputy director Ed Paskovskis said.

Mukilteo city officials have talked with Democratic U.S. Sen. Patty Murray’s office in support of the rebuilding plans. A spokesman for Murray’s office said the outcome of the funding request isn’t known.

Mukilteo Mayor Joe Marine said an expanded NOAA station would be a major asset to the city.

“We think having them there is going to be a help to draw people to the waterfront,” Marine said. “They do good work, and the citizens will have an opportunity to see what they do.”

Reporter Bill Sheets: 425-339-3439 or

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