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Out of 44 “vital signs,” which measure ecosystem health, six are getting better, five are getting worse and 23 show no trend.

Puget Sound ecosystem holding on, but recovery remains uncertain, says latest status report

Efforts to restore ecological health to Puget Sound have largely failed to meet recovery goals, yet fish and wildlife populations are still hanging on, according to a new report that describes many struggling populations as neither increasing nor decreasing to a significant extent.

The latest State of the Sound report, released last week by the Puget Sound Partnership, reveals the ongoing difficulty of recovering the Puget Sound ecosystem in the face of rapid population growth, climate change and a legacy of pollution and habitat damage. Yet the report, produced every two years, also confirms an ongoing human determination to save Puget Sound, with commitments reflected in public attitudes and in greater financial investments in restoration efforts.

“While the signals from the Puget Sound ecosystem tell us that we need to act with urgency and consideration, the signals we see from the recovery effort give me hope that we can meet the challenges we face,” wrote Laura Blackmore, executive director of the Puget Sound Partnership, in an introduction to the document.

The new 2023 report is the first assessment to use a revised set of “vital signs indicators” that measure environmental conditions and vitality among plants and animals — including humans. The 2021 report from two years ago was the final document that assessed the original indicators, some now retired, as well as goals that were to be accomplished by the year 2020. (See Our Water Ways, Nov. 3, 2021.)

In summary, out of 44 vital signs described in the new report, six are getting better, five are getting worse, and 23 show no trend for better or worse. Of the remainder, seven indicators show mixed results (with both good and bad outcomes), and three did not yet have enough data to determine a trend. The latest status of 23 environmental conditions and their related vital signs can be examined by clicking on the graphic or top-line heading on the Partnership’s interactive website.

Laura says the ability to measure progress has been steadily improving since the Puget Sound Partnership was created by the Legislature in 2007. The new vital signs outlined in this year’s report represent an advancement in understanding how the ecosystem works and reporting on its status.

“I’m really proud of this report and all the work that our team has put into it,” Laura told me, adding that many of the new indicators were not ready in time for this year’s report, because experts from multiple agencies and organizations are still working to get them right.

As for overall progress, “I would love to have a report that says all of our indicators are getting better,” she said. “We are working super hard, but the goal posts keep moving. With population growth and climate change, the window (for success) is closing. I would say the ‘state of the Sound’ is hopeful urgency.”

A recent boost in both state and federal funding for Puget Sound adds new momentum to the recovery effort, she noted.

“We are not where we want to be,” Laura added, “but I shudder to think where we would be without all this work (on ecosystem recovery).”

Improving conditions

Some measurable improvements have been observed in key habitats that support fish and wildlife populations, including estuaries, floodplains and streams.

Tidal marsh at the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge in Puget Sound. Photo courtesy of USFWS.
Tidal marsh at Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge // Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Since 2006, some 3,420 estuarine acres have been restored in Puget Sound’s large river deltas., principally in the Snohomish, Nisqually, Skagit, Stillaguamish and Skokomish estuaries. While that is measurable progress and the work continues, the result is far short of the original goal established in 2011, which was to restore 7,380 acres by 2020.

Floodplains, which provide wetland habitats, ensure stream integrity and protect water quality, have increased by 3,567 acres since 2011 thanks to restoration efforts. Still, this change represents less than 1 percent of the total floodplain area, “and extensive portions of historical habitat remain lost or degraded across Puget Sound,” the report states.

Water quality in streams may be improving, as indicated by populations of invertebrates that live in the sediments. At least 10 years of sampling at 188 freshwater sites has shown improvements at 22 percent of the sites, declines in 2 percent, and no significant change in 76 percent.

“While development has increased in the region, stream health appears to have improved in more than one of five streams and declined in only one of 50 streams,” the report says. “This may be due in part to stream and riparian restoration as well as historic and ongoing actions that aim to control and treat stormwater.”

Other improving conditions include the acreage of beaches where shellfish have been determined safe to eat. Since 2007, more acres of shellfish beds have been approved for harvesting than have been declared unsafe by the Washington Department of Health. This is largely the result of locating and reducing sources of upstream pollution.

On the downside, conditions have reversed the past two years, when more acres have been downgraded than upgraded. This demonstrates the need for an ongoing battle against pollution, the report says.

Among the fish and wildlife populations showing significant changes, the summer chum salmon of Hood Canal are clearly on the mend, although they are still listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Since their listing in 1999, the total number of wild-origin adults returning to Hood Canal has increased dramatically. A separate Strait of Juan de Fuca population (also part of the Hood Canal ESA listing) remains at a higher risk of extinction.

The Hood Canal summer chum are a rare bright spot among salmonid populations. On average, spawner abundance across Puget Sound remains largely unchanged for three indicator species: Chinook, coho and steelhead, despite more than a billion dollars invested in salmon habitat.

“For Chinook and steelhead, which are federally listed as threatened, this means we see little to no sign of recovery,” the report says. “On the other hand, most populations have not decreased significantly in abundance since the time of listing, with some exceptions…

“We are challenged,” the report continues, “to provide enough suitable habitat, preserve sufficient prey and decrease contaminant exposure while also balancing the needs of the more than 4.3 million people living in the Puget Sound region. If salmon are going to survive, bold leadership and innovative changes in how people live on the landscape … need to be implemented at a rate that outpaces human population growth impacts.”

One other condition, an indicator of human behavior, was reported as improving in the latest report. The Sound Behavior Index tracks 28 human activities, including home, yard and septic system maintenance, along with practices involving motor vehicles, boats and livestock.

“Survey results from 2019 show that residents significantly improved in over half of the behaviors measured (16 out of 28), compared to past survey years. In 2019, residents engaged more frequently in 73 percent of positive behaviors (such as planting native plants on their property and checking vehicles for fluid leaks) and less frequently in 38 percent of harmful behaviors (such as using chemical products to control or kill insects and weeds in their yard),” the report says.

Worsening conditions

Animal populations in decline include Dungeness crabs, a situation that has resulted in reduced harvest levels for recreational crabbers. The amount of Dungeness crab harvested for personal use is listed as an indicator of a “healthy human population” along with shellfish harvests and other “locally harvestable foods.” The latter two categories both registered no measurable change.

Dungeness crab harvest // Photo: Dave Parker via Wikimedia Commons

More than 200,000 people participate in the annual recreational Dungeness crab harvest, as shown by the number of licenses issued by the state. Harvest levels peaked in 2015, followed by a series of harvest closures in Central Puget Sound and Hood Canal, the result of decreasing crab populations. Some of these areas have reopened to limited harvesting, but the overall decrease in the harvest turned this indicator to a negative status.

Another indicator going the wrong direction is one for terrestrial birds, mainly those  living in forests. Estimates from the North American Breeding Bird Survey show a steady decline since 1968 in terrestrial birds used in the survey count. In contrast, birds associated with humans, such as crows, pigeons, sparrows and starlings, have remained fairly stable, with recent increases in house sparrows.

An indicator for marine birds is listed as “mixed results.” This indicator specifically measures the abundance of marbled murrelets, rhinoceros auklets, pigeon guillemots and scoters. Marbled murrelets, a threatened species, have declined by nearly 5 percent per year since surveys began in 2000. Scoter density has declined by 2 percent per year, largely driven by declines in surf scoters but offset by an increase in black scoters. Populations of pigeon guillemots and rhinoceros auklets appear to be stable, but the report notes a recent decline in rhinoceros auklets.

The plight of Puget Sound’s killer whales also is listed as a negative indicator of ecological health. Since 1998, the number of whales has declined from 98 to 75 at present. A shortage of Chinook salmon, their primary prey, is seen as a major factor for decline along with vessel noise and toxic chemicals. A recent study revealed a high level of inbreeding among the whales, which could contribute to their low rate of reproduction and survival. This orca population, known as Southern Residents, is listed as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act.

The extent of floating kelp, which supports a marine food web, is another indicator of ecological health. Over the past 100 years, kelp has disappeared from about 80 percent of the marine shorelines where it once existed. Up to half of the kelp beds today are considered stable, but recent losses in some locations suggest an overall negative trend. Climate change, marine heat waves, nutrient imbalances and urbanization could contribute to future declines, the report says.

Eelgrass, another critical marine habitat, was registered in the report as “no trend,” with a total area of about 55,000 acres. Soundwide, eelgrass showed an increasing trend from 2004 to 2016, followed by a declining trend from 2016 to 2020. The amount of change is small compared to the total area.

“The relative stability (in eelgrass) is reassuring and sets Puget Sound apart from many other developed areas where substantial system-wide declines are ongoing,” the report states.

A more local eelgrass indicator shows “mixed results,” with significant losses in the San Juan Islands and Strait of Juan de Fuca, while most other areas are in a stable condition.

Another negative factor in Puget Sound’s recovery is a change in streamflows, including a measurable decline in low flows during dry summer months when stream habitat becomes limited. More developed watersheds in the Puget Sound region have led to more surface runoff and less groundwater input to streams, although new stormwater regulations are helping to slow the damage. Consecutive years with below-normal summer flows have increased since 1985 and especially since 2015.

State of the science

“Scientifically, we have powerful tools to help recovery planners and decision-makers that did not exist a decade ago,” according to a statement from the Puget Sound Science Panel, which provides expert advice for the recovery effort. “These range from comprehensive, spatially explicit models to new ways of monitoring.”

For example, scientists can now estimate populations of numerous species using advanced genetic techniques, and they can now track habitat changes with remote-sensing equipment, reducing the extent of costly field studies.

A new modeling project is designed to link together multiple models that predict various ecological conditions, including food-web dynamics, according to Scott Redman, director of science and evaluation for the Puget Sound Partnership. The result could lead to a better understanding of why some populations are doing better than others under Puget Sound’s constantly changing conditions.

Recent information gathered on zooplankton — tiny free-drifting animals — may be critical to understanding the success or failure of higher animals, such as herring, which feed Chinook salmon — which, in turn, feed the killer whales. New vital sign indicators for zooplankton showed high levels of total biomass in 2015, declining to above-average levels by 2017, increasing somewhat in 2019, then declining to low levels in 2020 and 2021. As a result, all three indicators for zooplankton were listed as “no trend.”

Each species in the food web has its own prey and predators. Modeling can show how plankton as well as harbor seals and other species influence fish populations, with findings verified by studying some select species in the wild.  

“Years ago, we were mostly reliant on fisheries to tell us how many fish are out there,” Scott said. “Now, we are developing monitoring approaches that can report on the number of ground fish, for example, without having a fishery.”

Such efforts can help people focus their attention on actions that can make the most difference in the recovery of salmon and other species, Scott said. It can also help people understand that some factors, such as ocean temperatures and distant fisheries, affect local species but cannot be managed by local officials alone.

“Our influence (at the Partnership) is not always what we would like it to be,” he noted. “To achieve our goals, we may need to step up in boldness and maybe in scope. I am heartened by what we can see, but the system is a bit overwhelmed.”

How quickly policymakers respond to new scientific knowledge depends on actions needed in response, Scott said. For example, a major scientific breakthrough came in 2020 when researchers discovered that a single chemical used in automobile tires can be deadly to coho salmon. Nobody knows how many fish may have been killed over the past half-century in streams polluted with road runoff. It turns out that the chemical, called 6PPD, is used in nearly all tires because it is highly effective at reducing tire wear (Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, Dec. 3, 2020).

Scientists throughout the world quickly responded to the discovery. Some labs are now studying the effects of the chemical on other species; some are trying to sort out the chemical’s physiological effects; and others are looking for alternative compounds to reduce tire wear. Scientists have also learned that filtering stormwater through natural compost can practically eliminate the chemical, although the astonishing cost of widespread road retrofits has slowed real-world applications.

Even before the discovery of 6PPD effects, the importance of controlling stormwater with its multitude of toxic contaminants was well recognized, thanks to research. Over time, stricter stormwater controls have been required to protect Puget Sound’s aquatic populations in new developments, with older systems gradually being upgraded with the help of government funding.

Progress and specific accomplishments

Some of the original vital signs for Puget Sound were moved into a new category called Action Agenda progress indicators, allowing the vital signs to remain primarily measures of ecosystem health. For example, inspecting more septic systems could theoretically improve water quality, but the number of inspections per year is more a measure of progress rather than ecological condition. Likewise, removing bulkheads can improve shoreline habitat, but the amount of bulkhead removed becomes a measure of progress.

Progress indicators provide short-term measurements regarding the actions being taken to meet long-term recovery goals, according to the State of the Sound report. “They help to identify whether businesses, governments, and residents are adopting desired behaviors and whether the adverse effects of human activity on the ecosystem are decreasing.”

Numerous progress indicators are currently under development but not yet adopted. Some should be finished with available data when the next State of the Sound report is issued in 2025, according to the current schedule.

A major new section in the 2023 State of the Sound Report delves into a variety of restoration projects as well as management efforts to provide an inside-out glimpse at the overall recovery effort. The section begins on page 99 of the report.

“We want people to know that Puget Sound is in trouble, but there is a lot going on to save it,” Laura Blackmore said.

The 23 projects profiled in the report were chosen to represent the variety of work taking place to improve the Puget Sound ecosystem. They range from dam removal on the Nooksack River to new methods of identifying toxic chemicals in streams to a three-year “environmental justice” initiative to better engage South-Central Puget Sound communities in decisions affecting their environment.

The Puget Sound Partnership is among seven state agencies that fall under the Healthy Environment for All (HEAL) Act,  approved by the Legislature in 2021. When developing policies and projects that affect the environment, the law requires agencies to give thoughtful consideration to the values and desires of all people, particularly “overburdened communities” whose needs may have been ignored in the past.

Environmental justice principles are being incorporated into the Puget Sound Partnership’s strategic plan and HEAL Act Implementation Plan, which include measures and funding for meeting environmental justice goals.

“We see human wellbeing, environmental justice, and diversity, equity, and inclusion work as key to ecosystem recovery,” states the State of the Sound report. “Human health and quality of life depend on a healthy Puget Sound. As a recovery community, we must acknowledge and address inequities and injustices that exist within our recovery system.”

The 2022-2026 Action Agenda for Puget Sound, which guides recovery efforts, incorporates strategies for human wellbeing, tribal treaty rights, environmental justice and climate justice.

 Local issues and concerns have been part of the planning process since the beginning of the Puget Sound Partnership, when Local Integrating Organizations (LIOs) were formed to represent various areas throughout Puget Sound. Each of the 10 active LIOs has developed an ecosystem-recovery plan with strategies and actions particular to its region. For the past two years, the Partnership has worked to strengthen the role of the LIOs, according to the State of the Sound report.

A new community engagement coordinator has been hired to reach out and encourage greater involvement of communities throughout Puget Sound, particularly those that may not have been fully involved in past planning efforts, Laura said.

Local governments, city and county, are on the front lines when it comes to managing population growth while protecting the environment. The state’s Growth Management Act calls for directing growth into urban areas while largely protecting forests and farms from development. Local ordinances manage the details, including special protections for “critical areas,” such as streams, shorelines and wetlands.

“We know that (undeveloped) lands are being converted to subdivisions,” Laura said. “We are very fortunate to have these local ordinances, which do a pretty amazing job of protection.”

Without these various levels of protection, she said, important habitats throughout the region would have been lost years ago.

Funding for change

Since 2019, the Puget Sound Partnership has gathered extensive financial information regarding recovery efforts from every available source, with reports issued every two years. Spending on Puget Sound recovery by state agencies grew from about $788 million in the 2015-17 biennium to $934 million in 2017-19, to $1.1 billion in 2019-21, to $1.8 billion in 2021-23, according to the State of the Sound report.

The $1.8 billion in the last biennium represents 1.2 percent of the entire state budget, up from 0.9 percent in the 2019-21 biennium, the report says.

About 73 percent of the spending in the last biennium went to ecological restoration, up from previous years. About 20 percent went to “enabling conditions,” such as planning, science, coordination and technical assistance. About 7 percent went to changing human behaviors to further recovery efforts in the forms of education, incentives and compliance efforts.

The 2021-23 budget distribution for ongoing activities // Graphic: Puget Sound Partnership

Funding for recovery comes out of three parts of the state budget: operating, capital and transportation. In the past biennium, 45 percent of the funding came from the capital budget, 31 percent from operating and 25 percent from transportation. In the previous biennium, transportation was at just 16 percent.

“The large rise in the transportation budget is due to continued sharp increases in the Washington State Department of Transportation’s Fish Barrier Correction Program,” the report notes. “In May 2017, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed that the state must accelerate work to remove, replace, and repair fish-passage-blocking culverts. This decision was subsequently affirmed by the Supreme Court of the United States in June 2018. The state increased funding for fish-barrier-removal projects in Puget Sound from $178 million in the 2019-21 biennium to an estimated $456 million in the 2021-23 biennium.”

Funding by state government makes up the majority of money spent on Puget Sound recovery, the report says. State funding over the past two biennia accounts for about 77 percent of ongoing programs, while the federal government provided about 20 percent. Other sources — including local and tribal governments, nonprofit groups and private companies — provided about 3 percent.

Large increases in state and federal funding have occurred over the past four biennia, especially over the past two biennia, when state funding increased by 40 percent and federal funding increased by 60 percent (both adjusted for inflation).

“The bulk of these increases can be accounted for by raised funding levels for some of the largest programs.” The report states. “These include the three largest programs by funding, Washington State Department of Ecology’s water quality financial assistance program, the Washington State Department of Transportation’s Fish Barrier Correction Program and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s fishery, hatchery science, and management work.”

The fish barrier program alone received $100 million in federal coronavirus stimulus funds. And in the coming months, major federal investments in infrastructure and climate-change response will be seen during implementation of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021 and the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022.  

 “The landscape of the recovery effort has changed enormously, thanks to the leadership and decisive action of the Washington State Legislature and our congressional delegation,” said Laura Blackmore in her written statement. “With the increase in funding from the state and the federal government, we can complete big projects that benefit the whole Puget Sound ecosystem. This begins to approach the level of funding we need to make progress at the speed that’s required, and the success of our efforts will depend on all of us working together to put our recovery funding to smart use.”

One Reply to “Puget Sound ecosystem holding on, but recovery remains uncertain, says latest status report”

  1. I was most happy to see that the executive summary and the various committee/director letters and calls to action are generally aimed at about 8th – 10th grade (according to a readability analyzer) compared to college level as they have always been in the past!

    Maybe more of the general public will better relate to some of the report.

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