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Puget Sound fish and wildlife populations fall short of 10-year recovery goals

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A final report on the 2020 ecosystem-recovery goals for Puget Sound outlines habitat improvements for some streams, shorelines and wetlands, but it also describes ongoing declines among fish and wildlife populations that use those habitats.

The latest State of the Sound report, released this week by the Puget Sound Partnership, summarizes the status of 52 individual ecosystem indicators used to measure the health of Puget Sound.

While 11 indicators point in a positive direction, suggesting that conditions are getting better for Puget Sound, 22 indicators tell us that things are not getting better. In fact, five of them are listed as “getting worse.” Nine indicators offer “mixed results” with measurements of both improvement and decline. Another 10 lack enough information to determine a trend.

“Some dimensions of the ecosystem are improving,” says a joint statement (PDF 168 kb) from the Partnership’s 18-member Science Panel, “but at the whole system level we have not seen the needle move as much. For that to happen, we need to make hard choices about the future we want.”

These indicators, created about a decade ago, were recommended by teams of scientists to help reveal the status of Puget Sound’s water quality, water quantity, habitat, species populations, human health and human quality of life. They were adopted by the Puget Sound Leadership Council, the body that oversees the Puget Sound Partnership and coordinates the recovery of Puget Sound.

In a similar fashion, after the indicators were established, the Leadership Council adopted ambitious goals, or “targets,” for 31 of the indicators. The hope was that these targets could be reached by the year 2020.

The latest State of the Sound report announces that five indicators were reached or came near their 2020 targets, but 23 fell short. Three others lacked data for a final conclusion. With 2020 in the rearview mirror, this will be the last report specifically describing these 31 targets.

Click on image to bring up Vital Signs wheel with links to extensive information about indicators, including key messages, strategies, background documents and other resources. Info: Puget Sound Partnership

The five indicators that essentially reached their targets involve:

  1. reductions in the rate of losing forestland to development,
  2. protections of ecologically important lands,
  3. net reduction of shoreline armoring,
  4. efforts to remove armoring from feeder bluffs that provide sands and gravels, and
  5. improvements in sediment chemistry in saltwater areas.

All of these are related to habitat conditions. Other habitat improvements were seen with the restoration of floodplains, estuarine wetlands and streamside vegetation, but these failed to meet their targets.

The five indicators that are getting measurably worse are:

  1. population of Southern Resident killer whales,
  2. populations of Pacific herring,
  3. populations of terrestrial birds,
  4. recreational harvest of Dungeness crab, and
  5. marine water quality.

Chinook salmon abundance, an indicator assessing 22 populations of wild Chinook, was listed as “not improving,” because most stocks have remained near their low baseline levels for 20 years.

The only positive sign in the category “species and food web” comes as a mixed result in the indicator for marine birds. Although populations of pigeon guillemots and rhinoceros auklets have gone up and down, they are generally considered stable and healthy. On the negative side, marbled murrelets, a threatened species, declined nearly 5 percent, and various species of scoters declined by about 2 percent, both reflecting changes from 2001 to 2020.

“This State of the Sound report shows that we are not where we need to be — not by a long shot,” said Jay Manning, chairman of the Leadership Council. “We’ve got to make some changes. We’ve got to invest more and be willing to make hard decisions and be much more focused on protecting and restoring the ecosystem.”

Major challenges ahead

While scientists have learned a great deal about the Puget Sound ecosystem and the needs of many species, there is a realization that habitat improvements don’t always help to rebuild populations of fish and wildlife.

Endangered Southern Resident killer whales // Photo: Puget Sound Partnership

“This goes to the complexity of what we are trying to do,” Jay told me in a telephone interview. “These are complicated ecosystems. You can take certain actions and think that it is going to make a difference, but I don’t think it is super-straightforward.”

Manning said some of the targets may have been unrealistic in terms of a 10-year time frame, but it is discouraging that so many of the indicators are simply not improving or are headed in the wrong direction.

“I would feel very differently if we were closing the gap,” he said, “but some of the most important measures — such as orca and Chinook salmon — are getting worse.”

He noted that a few salmon populations — including runs of Hood Canal summer chum — have been improving. But the 2020 targets for salmon are focused on Puget Sound Chinook, a threatened species that has shown no signs of recovery. Meanwhile, the recovery of Southern Resident orcas, listed as endangered, may be impaired by a shortage of Chinook, not only in Puget Sound but throughout their range in British Columbia and along the West Coast.

Even where improvements are being made in some parts of Puget Sound, forces are at work causing problems in particular areas and across the region.

“We are not sitting in a stationary position,” Jay said. “We have these growing pressures.”

Beyond historical damage, Manning is speaking of climate change and population growth. Climate change is already altering the temperature of the water, changing streamflows, increasing damage from flooding, and undermining forest ecosystems with droughts and fires. Increasing numbers of people are taking up more land, increasing stormwater flows, producing more wastes and using more chemicals.

“We can’t put down a couple million people and not think it will have an impact on the ecosystem,” Jay said, “and climate is probably an even bigger problem.”

After months of discussion, years in some cases, a new set of indicators (PDF 131 kb) has been adopted by the Leadership Council to provide better measures of ecosystem health, as well as progress. New targets are under discussion to provide a path forward for the next 10 years and beyond.

Human health and well-being

From the inception of the Puget Sound Partnership in 2007, the Legislature recognized that humans are part of the ecosystem and that human health and well-being should be measured along with other indicators of Puget Sound health.

Children of staffers for Puget Sound Partnership explore the beach at Dash Point State Park near Tacoma during a low tide. // Photo: Chase Nuuhiwa

Effects on health from Puget Sound range from the air that people breathe to the fish and shellfish that people eat, all directly affected by the quality of the environment.

State and local health authorities struggle to protect shellfish beds from pollution as some areas are closed permanently, others are closed temporarily and some, thanks to diligent efforts, are reopened to the benefit of recreational, commercial and tribal harvesters.

“Between 2007 and 2020, more acres of shellfish beds were upgraded than downgraded across all classifications,” according to the new report. “The result was a net increase of 6,659 acres of harvestable shellfish beds, a sizable fraction of the 2020 target of 10,800 acres.” (See Our Water Ways.)

Because of unacceptable levels of toxic chemicals in fish, official health advisories call for people to limit their diets of fish known to be contaminated. For communities involved in traditions dependent on fish and shellfish, such as Indian tribes, these environmental conditions have inequitable impacts on their members. This issue of environmental justice is gaining increasing attention among state agencies.

Surveys by the Puget Sound Partnership have shown that many people rely on the natural environment for their personal ways of life and feelings of well-being. For many, access to Puget Sound forests, streams and beaches are important to their personal and family lives. (Check out Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.)

“Residents with a strong sense of place are more likely to engage in stewardship behaviors,” the report says. “Over one-third of the Puget Sound population engages in stewardship behaviors that benefit the environment at least once a week.”

While the state’s relative dependence on natural resources — such as timber, fish and shellfish — has declined over time, the growth in tourism and recreation has increased steadily every year since 2010, according to the report.

While the indicators of human well-being show no improvement or mixed results, the so-called Sound Behavior Index — a measure of 28 ways that people are helping or hurting Puget Sound — has been increasing, “meaning that individuals have engaged in more environmentally friendly practices over time,” the report says.

“In 2019, SBI values for one-third of the 12 Puget Sound counties reached their highest values since surveying began (Kitsap, Mason, Pierce and Snohomish counties),” the report says. “On the other hand, two counties reported their lowest SBI values (Eastern Jefferson and San Juan counties)… Meaningful, directional change in behavior is best detected over the long-term.”

Comparison to the pandemic

In its comments (PDF 168 kb), the Science Panel says the global pandemic has provided lessons that can help researchers, decision-makers and all people in the Puget Sound region to better shape the approach to recovery. First, in response to the coronavirus, research and technology has led to vaccines and innovations to defeat the virus, just as science provides an understanding of the problems in Puget Sound and points toward reasonable answers.

“This last year, we marveled at the rigorous science that allowed for the identification of 6PPD, a chemical used in tire manufacturing, that was rapidly lethal to coho salmon once it entered the waters in which they live,” the panel stated. (See Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.) Now, the challenge is to find safer chemicals to protect tires from degradation.

In the same way that behavioral changes were needed to defeat the pandemic, people can change their ways to restore the ecosystem and build resilience to address climate change, the Science Panel says.

“It is encouraging that over 75 percent of Puget Sound residents ‘agree’ or ‘strongly agree’ that Puget Sound plays a role in their identity, pride and attachment,” the panel said, citing a study of attitudes in the Puget Sound region.

The pandemic has also revealed inequities in health care and the unequal distribution of vaccines needed to protect against the virus, just as some groups bear a greater burden in a declining ecosystem and make greater sacrifices in the tradeoffs for restoration. Leaders in the Puget Sound region should make sure that the sacrifices are not shifted to those groups already over-burdened and under-represented in society, the Science Panel says.

“Our current state is shaped by past events, and how we move forward will be shaped by unanticipated future events,” the panel states. “But we are always moving forward. Puget Sound recovery does not mean returning to a Sound that existed in 1950, in 1850, or 10,000 years ago.

“With our presence, actions and decisions, we have fundamentally changed the ecology of Puget Sound, and we need to move forward towards a healthy and sustainable ecosystem from where we find ourselves now, guided by history but not attempting to recreate the past… Though we will need to make tradeoffs, we need not think of recovery as jettisoning the things we most value regarding our quality of life.”

Ongoing support

A concluding chapter of the State of the Sound report offers hope, because of the increased attention on Puget Sound from the federal government, the Legislature, other “partners” and the people themselves.

“The leadership of the Washington congressional delegation makes us hopeful, as does the dedication of our federal partners, and we are grateful to both our delegation and our federal partners for their commitment to Puget Sound recovery,” the report says.

“Funding for the Puget Sound Geographic Program and the National Estuary Program totaled $28.5 million in 2019, increasing to $33.75 million in 2020. Over the last eight years, the Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund has invested $124 million statewide, including over $14 million in the last two years for projects and administration in Puget Sound.”

This year, the Washington Legislature had a “banner session,” according to the report, with transportation laws to reduce carbon emissions and other laws to support greenhouse gas reductions and adaptations to changing conditions. Other bills focused on environmental justice, shoreline restoration and endangered species.

The Legislature nearly doubled spending for Puget Sound recovery in the 2021-23 budget, the report says, with significant increases for the removal and replacement of fish barriers, such as culverts. Overall, about $1.3 billion will be spent over the next two years for some aspect of Puget Sound recovery.

The next Puget Sound Action Agenda, the blueprint for recovery, is expected to focus on higher-level strategies, actions and policies and, for the first time, “explicitly address human well-being and responses to climate change.” The next Action Agenda is scheduled for release in June.

Finally, the State of the Sound report outlines a call to action from the Puget Sound Leadership Council to each of these entities: the Legislature, state agencies, local governments, Congress, federal agencies, non-governmental organizations, Puget Sound Partnership, business, the public and the tribes.

The Leadership Council lists five “bold actions” that should be taken now:

  1. Work with the Governor’s Office to make Puget Sound and salmon recovery the cornerstone of Governor Inslee’s third term;
  2. Establish a new funding source and increase funding for habitat restoration, road retrofits that reduce polluted runoff, and wastewater treatment systems;
  3. Revise the state’s Growth Management Act and Shoreline Management Act with a “Net Ecological Gain” standard;
  4. Broaden the coalition demanding a healthy Puget Sound; and
  5. Implement systems of accountability to ensure our investments in Puget Sound recovery deliver the results we need.

“Each of us can, and must, do more to accelerate recovery, and we are committed to our partnership with you,” the report concludes. “We must redouble our efforts to combat climate change and the effects of a growing population that threaten ecosystems and disproportionately affect vulnerable communities. Together, as we look to the future, let us be bold in our intent and actions to build a healthy, resilient, and economically prosperous Puget Sound for all.”