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The current Vital Signs wheel. Image courtesy of the Puget Sound Partnership.

Puget Sound Leadership Council revises list of ‘Vital Sign’ indicators

It was ten years ago this summer that the Puget Sound Partnership first established what it called Puget Sound’s ‘Vital Signs,’ 25 indicators of Puget Sound health ranging from levels of toxic chemicals in fish to the abundance of Chinook salmon and southern resident orcas. Those indicators have now been revised and expanded, setting off a new chapter for Puget Sound recovery efforts. 

The Vital Signs and their indicators have been central to Puget Sound policy since their inception in 2010. They were designed to help scientists and policymakers measure the health of something seemingly unmeasurable: A giant estuary the size of a small state with thousands of different species and more than a thousand miles of winding shoreline.

Scientists knew it would be impossible to measure every aspect of the environment— Puget Sound was just too complex — so they began looking for ways to track what might be considered the ecosystem’s most vital components. In much the same way that a doctor will take a person’s pulse to see if that person’s heart is healthy, scientists began looking for the pulse of Puget Sound. Could an abundance of forage fish indicate the overall health of the food web? Could cleaner water and healthier beaches translate to more and healthier salmon? Tracking these indicators would help officials tell the public how their work was going, but it would also be used to direct funding and other resources. From the beginning, however, there was a debate about which and how many indicators to include.

Chinook salmon are among the original Vital Sign indicators established by the Puget Sound Partnership. Photo: Michael Humling, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

“In my experience, there has always been a lot of tension about whether you can pick just a few things and be specific or whether it is such a large ecosystem that you need more measures,” says Scott Redman, the Partnership’s science and evaluation program director. Some scientists argued that more measures would be more accurate while others argued that too many would be unwieldy.

Some of the tension grew out of the Vital Signs’ dual purpose to both inform the public and to inform the recovery efforts themselves. “This is what drives what you do,” says Ron Thom, the Partnership’s senior science advisor who called the process of picking the Vital Signs “pretty darn critical.”

From a communication perspective a smaller number of indicators was seen as easier to explain and understand. While some in the region called for more than a hundred — something similar to recovery plans for other large ecosystems such as the Great Lakes — others, including members of the Leadership Council, advocated for as few as ten. Eventually, the Partnership landed somewhere in the middle, identifying the 25 biophysical indicators that have become familiar on its Vital Sign wheel and addressed every two years in the agency’s State of the Sound report.

But debate over the number of indicators persisted. Some indicators proved hard to measure and there were gaps for certain key species. Not all salmon were included, for example, just the endangered Chinook, causing some disconnects with the region’s other salmon recovery work. In 2012, the Washington State Academy of Sciences (WSAS) recommended that the agency take another look at the Vital Signs, prompting a nearly eight-year process of re-scoping and evaluation by the Partnership.

Earlier this month, on June 10th, the review process concluded with the unanimous approval of a revised set of Vital Signs by the Partnership’s Leadership Council [view related materials].  The scientists involved with the revisions say the new indicators focus more on ecological function than specific pressures and more closely align with the recommendations from the WSAS.

Bull Kelp (Nereocystis luetkeana), the only surface canopy species in the Puget Sound, observed in March 2018. Photo: Brian Allen
Kelp has been added to the revised list of Puget Sound Vital Sign indicators. Photo: Brian Allen

The number of biophysical indicators has increased from 25 to 36, with 17 more indicators under consideration for future adoption. Most previous habitat, water quality and species Vital Signs were maintained. The more recently established Human Wellbeing Vital Signs were not considered in the revision process and also remained intact.

“By working with the expert community, we really came to the conclusion that if we wanted these to be the shared measures, we needed to add more,” says Redman. The fact that most of the indicators were maintained also “affirmed the decade ago selection in almost every case,” Redman says. “It’s not like we made bad decisions in the past. We have just added more indicators.”

Some areas of the Vital Signs were also recategorized or combined. Notable changes include:

  • A new “beaches and marine vegetation” Vital Sign, which combines eelgrass and shoreline armor removal as well as pocket estuaries into a single category. The new marine vegetation category will continue to include eelgrass but will allow for the inclusion of other critical species such as kelp.
  • The Chinook salmon category will now include all of the region’s salmon species.
  • Overall, the number of species and food web indicators was expanded to include groundfish, benthic invertebrates, forage fish and zooplankton.
  • The category for measuring toxics in fish became ‘Toxics in Aquatic Wildlife’ to be more inclusive of other species.
  • The indicator for onsite sewage was removed.

The new Vital Sign indicators also more directly address the impacts of climate change and rising CO2. The Water Quality Vital Sign now measures river and stream temperatures, a significant factor for spawning salmon. The Habitats and Water Quantity category now has an indicator for frequency of flood events, and an ocean acidification indicator has been added to the category for Marine Water Quality.

One of the most significant changes coming out of the revision process will not be seen in the indicator list itself, but in the way that the indicators are measured. Sandra O’Neill, a research scientist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife who has been advising the Partnership on the Vital Signs revisions since 2013, was enthusiastic about the adoption of what are known as “intermediate progress measures,” which she called “the missing link” for the adaptive management cycle. She said some indicators such as the numbers of southern resident orcas don’t typically change quickly enough for managers or scientists to know if recovery work is having an effect. Vital Signs and indicators are meant to describe “ultimate outcomes,” according to the Partnership, but if some of those goals take many years to achieve, that may not be a helpful measure for day to day recovery efforts.

The new system will now include better ways of measuring progress in the short term, O’Neill said. Instead of simply focusing on a recovery goal of 94 orcas, for example, scientists could also measure conditions that benefit orcas along the way, such as diminished ocean noise or measurable increases in food supply. These sorts of intermediate goals have not yet been established, but “this is the first time that the process has really been formalized,” O’Neill said.

The Partnership says the next step in the revision process will be to bring in more scientists to monitor the indicators and to evaluate where assessment and reporting will be needed. The Partnership will start reporting on the new indicators after monitoring of the old Vital Signs is completed in 2022.