The State of the Sound: Looking ahead to 2020

2017 State of the Sound report cover

2017 State of the Sound report cover

Ten years ago, then-governor Christine Gregoire set an ambitious goal to clean up Puget Sound by 2020. The discourse of that time is still familiar. Puget Sound’s gorgeous blue waters were in trouble then as they are now. Our resident orcas had diminished to dangerously low population levels and contaminants like PCBs and stormwater were well-known threats to the ecosystem.

Now, with 2020 less than three years away, we are learning that Puget Sound faces even more extensive problems than Governor Gregoire may have imagined. Ocean acidification was a mere blip on the radar in 2007. New climate change studies show a suite of increasing threats, from higher than expected sea-level rise to low creek flows for salmon. Population growth in the region has since accelerated to an astonishing 1000 new residents per week.

Talk has started to change from “cleanup” to “resilience.” The state’s Puget Sound Partnership, designated by Governor Gregoire to lead the cleanup efforts, now says “many 2020 recovery targets will not be met,” and the Puget Sound Leadership Council says it’s time for “an honest, clear-eyed review of where we are and where we are headed.”

The Partnership’s 2017 State of the Sound report released last week outlines the latest progress on the state’s designated indicators of Puget Sound health, or “Vital Signs.” Targets for shoreline armoring, shellfish beds and floodplains have seen mild improvement, but are not expected to meet 2020 goals. Stormwater results are “mixed” while key indicators like orca and Chinook populations have lost ground, as have Pacific herring and marine birds like the marbled murrelet.

That’s the bad news, but the report also points to important progress. After ten years, managers and scientists know a great deal more about what we are up against. New implementation strategies are being designed to take what has been learned and apply it. There is renewed urgency on some fronts such as Chinook and orca recovery, with expected announcements from Governor Jay Inslee and acceptance of a series of “bold actions” proposed by area tribes. There is also a healthy acknowledgement that a recovery project of this scale takes time.

The Puget Sound region is as large or larger than some small states. It is twice the size of Connecticut and includes thousands of species and about 2500 miles of winding shoreline. The 13-year timeframe proposed by Governor Gregoire was often seen as aspirational and according to the report is shorter than timelines for other ecosystem recovery efforts of similar scale.* The report puts Chesapeake Bay’s coordinated efforts at 42 years and counting, and San Francisco Bay’s at 35 years.

*[Blog update 11/9/17: Founder and former Executive Director of the group People for Puget Sound Kathy Fletcher offers a different perspective, writing in a blog for Salish Sea Communications that “the [2020] goal was set more than 30 years ago by Washington State, in 1985 legislation that created the Puget Sound Water Quality Authority.” It is a fair point that Puget Sound recovery efforts have extended well beyond the past 10 years. Much of the language of 1985 and prior is echoed in the language of today, and you can see some of the origin and evolution of the state’s thinking in our collection of archived reports available in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.]

That doesn’t mean we should take the foot off the gas, say state leaders. “Course corrections must be identified and implemented soon to get Puget Sound on an acceptable recovery trajectory,” the Leadership Council writes. Given the current rate of habitat destruction and the growing threat of extinction for some species like Puget Sound’s resident orcas, there is an acknowledgement that managers don’t have the luxury of taking their time. The 2020 goal may have been aspirational, but the situation is no less urgent.


Plans being developed to save both orcas and Chinook salmon

By Christopher Dunagan, Puget Sound Institute

A Southern Resident killer whale leaps into the air. The Southern Residents are an endangered population of fish-eating killer whales. Credit: NOAA

A Southern Resident killer whale leaps into the air. The Southern Residents are an endangered population of fish-eating killer whales. Credit: NOAA

Actions that could save Puget Sound’s killer whales from extinction have been placed on a fast track by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and the Puget Sound Partnership, which operates under a legal mandate to restore the health of Puget Sound.

Hand in hand with an intensified effort to save the whales comes a revised strategy to reverse the decline of Puget Sound Chinook salmon, the primary food supply for the endangered orcas.

In a special meeting Wednesday, the Puget Sound Leadership Council committed itself in a formal resolution to “both accelerate and amplify” efforts to recover Chinook runs on behalf of the orcas while meeting treaty obligations to native tribes.

The Leadership Council — the governing body of the Puget Sound Partnership — also approved a list of “regional priorities,” which will direct specific projects to protect and restore Puget Sound over the next four years. The priorities include recommendations for “bold actions” for Chinook recovery developed by Puget Sound tribes and later approved by the multi-jurisdictional Salmon Recovery Council.

The Leadership Council approved a few changes to the draft priorities, such as eliminating a controversial proposal dealing with water rights and streamflows. The original language from the tribes would favor water in streams to help salmon over water rights for new wells — essentially the same issue that stirred up a legislative battle following the controversial Hirst decision by the State Supreme Court.

Jay Manning, chairman of the Leadership Council, said the resolution on orcas approved Wednesday is “one small action” to be followed by a major initiative from the governor, who he described as “shocked and alarmed” by recent reports highlighting the growing risk of extinction for the Southern Resident killer whales.

Governor’s plan

The governor’s plan of action will address the major risks to orcas, including the lack of Chinook salmon, the number of ships and boats that produce excessive noise and disrupt the orca’s feeding efforts, toxic pollutants that can contribute to their poor health, and other concerns, Manning said.

“It will be issued in short order,” he said, “and we are excited to be part of what will be a strong action-oriented approach from the governor. Our job is to restore and protect Puget Sound. If we lose the Southern Resident orcas, we will have failed in our job, and we have no intention of doing that.”

During the meeting, held via telephone conference call, Jim Waddell, a retired Army Corps of Engineers employee, reiterated his position that breaching dams on the Snake River would be the quickest way to provide more Chinook salmon for the orcas. The whales feed at times off the mouth of the Columbia River.

Jerry Joyce, who served on a marine mammal advisory committee for the Partnership, said the key is to move quickly to address the known threats to killer whales and perhaps even some speculative threats before it is too late.

“If we wait for scientific certainty, we will have no whales left to protect,” he said.

Regional priorities approved Wednesday will provide ideas and guidance to agencies, nonprofit groups and others that wish to submit proposals to improve the Puget Sound ecosystem. The priorities grew out of 10 implementation strategies focused on restoring various ecological attributes, including freshwater quality, shellfish beds and toxic chemicals in fish.

Nearly 40 ideas have been proposed to implement the strategy for rebuilding Chinook runs, widely believed to be a critical step in the recovery of the orca population. The Chinook implementation strategy and regional priorities underwent an extensive review involving technical teams, tribal officials and the Salmon Recovery Council. The SRC includes representatives of federal, state and local governments, tribes and watershed councils, along with business and environmental groups.

Discussion of Hirst ruling

Language approved by the Leadership Council acknowledges the need to restore streamflows but stays away from the issue of water rights.

That may have cost the Leadership Council a vote from Council Member Russ Hepfer, a tribal official with the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe. Hepfer said denying permits for water withdrawals should be a “no-brainer” when the effect would be to harm salmon runs.

Manning said he knows it will be necessary to tackle “the most difficult problems” — including adequate streamflows. But the Leadership Council must balance many interests. As for the Hirst ruling, Manning said a plan is being developed to restore streamflows where necessary without affecting water rights or new individual wells.

If successful, the plan could clear a legislative logjam that has blocked passage of the state’s capital budget this year. Republican senators refused to approve the budget without a legislative response to the Hirst court ruling. As a result, the budget remains in limbo.

Chinook salmon. Image courtesy of NOAA.

Chinook salmon. Image courtesy of NOAA.

Meanwhile, a major focus of the Chinook Implementation Strategy is to improve salmon habitat through various means — from scientific studies to improved regulations to incentives for property owners.

The regional priorities approved Wednesday also include a provision to develop management options for controlling seals and sea lions, which are known to eat both juvenile and adult Chinook throughout Puget Sound.

Christopher Dunagan is a senior writer at the Puget Sound Institute. 


Killer whale miscarriages linked to low food supply

A Southern Resident Killer Whale is about to surface with her young calf. Photo: NOAA Fisheries, Vancouver Aquarium under NMFS research permit and FAA flight authorization.

A Southern Resident Killer Whale is about to surface with her young calf. Photo: NOAA Fisheries, Vancouver Aquarium under NMFS research permit and FAA flight authorization.

New techniques for studying orcas have been credited with breakthroughs in reproductive and developmental research. Drones and dogs are helping scientists connect declines in food supply with low birth rates and poor health.

Read the story this week in Salish Sea Currents. 




New theory rethinks spread of PCBs and other toxics in Puget Sound

Puget Sound's orcas are among the most contaminated marine mammals in the world. Photo: Minette Layne (CC-BY-2.0)

Puget Sound’s orcas are among the most contaminated marine mammals in the world. A new theory rethinks how PCBs and other toxics enter the food web.Photo: Minette Layne (CC-BY-2.0)

Last month, more than 1100 scientists and researchers converged on Vancouver, B.C. to attend the Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference. The biennial conference is the region’s largest gathering on the state of the ecosystem, and we sent a group of reporters to bring back some of the highlights. Over the next several months, we’ll be collecting those highlights into a new series on the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound. We kick things off today with a must-read story from Christopher Dunagan. He reports that scientists may be changing their view of how PCBs and other toxics enter the Puget Sound food web. Read the story in Salish Sea Currents.


Going viral: Concerns rise over potential impacts of disease on the ecosystem

Mist from the breath of killer whales is collected at the end of a long pole then tested for dozens of different types of bacteria. Photo: Pete Schroeder

Mist from the breath of killer whales is collected at the end of a long pole then tested for dozens of different types of bacteria. Photo: Pete Schroeder

From orcas to starfish to humans, disease affects every living creature in the ecosystem. Scientists are increasingly alarmed by its potential to devastate already compromised populations of species in Puget Sound.

Read the story in our Salish Sea Currents series.