State of the Sound

New report indicates additional marine stress

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

On the surface, the Salish Sea looks beautiful, but it is in grave trouble. Southern Resident orcas, Chinook salmon, steelhead, and many other species are listed under the Endangered Species Act. Toxic chemicals and pharmaceuticals continue to pollute our waterways. Shellfish beds are routinely closed to commercial and recreational harvest due to fecal contamination. More indicators point in the direction of continued decay than in the direction of recovery, but the picture is not entirely without hope.

“Despite a significant investment of energy and resources from federal, tribal, state, and local governments and non-governmental partners, habitat degradation continues to outpace restoration,” warns Laura Blackmore, executive director of the Puget Sound Partnership. “While this situation at times seems impossibly bleak, the thousands of passionate people who are devoted to seeing the return of a healthy and resilient Puget Sound give us hope.”

The Puget Sound Partnership, the state agency leading the region’s collective effort to restore and protect the Salish Sea, released their biennial State of the Sound Report this week. The report stresses that “we can still recover Puget Sound, but only if we act boldly now.”

The report is clear that Puget Sound remains in grave trouble. The damaging effects of pollution, habitat degradation and disturbance persist. Human well-being is also affected, the report notes, by reducing fishing opportunities and threatening human health. Climate change impacts and continued population growth stand to increase pressures on an ecosystem already in peril.

An indicator species of precipitous decline, critically endangered orcas have fallen to a 30-year low. Just 73 animals remained in August 2019, following the death of several individuals in 2017, 2018 and 2019, according to the Center for Whale Research.

“This alarming decline signals that the Southern Resident population is in severe jeopardy and at risk of extinction if no action is taken,” the report authors note.

Using data collected from a variety of sources, the Partnership tracks more than 50 indicators of ecosystem condition, including human well-being. The report also details a number of recovery efforts underway to reduce the effects of increased urbanization in Puget Sound.

The state Office of Financial Management projects that Puget Sound population will reach over 5.7 million by 2030, an increase of 18.2 percent from 2014 population estimates. The ecosystem will also be challenged by a warming and more variable climate, scientists who contributed to the report noted in their assessment. With this, the capacity of the ecosystem to absorb increasing pressures and disturbances will be further compromised, potentially overwhelming collective attempts to restore Puget Sound, those scientists warned.

“At the same time, important progress is being made,” members of the Partnership’s leadership council noted in their statement. “We’ve seen gains in harvestable shellfish beds, improvements to floodplains, and considerable increases in the number of septic systems that have been inspected and repaired. We’ve also seen reductions in permitted shoreline armoring and in the conversion of ecologically important lands. These are meaningful, positive changes that give us hope and help chart the course ahead.

“These positive changes are the result of the work of the dedicated coalition of tribes, cities, counties, businesses, state and federal agencies, and other residents of Puget Sound who run the programs, raise the funding, and implement the projects,” leadership council members said. “The collective gains include more production and jobs in Washington’s shellfish industry, improvements in the health of waterways that provide us with recreation and food, and more resilient shorelines and floodplains that protect biodiversity and property. When engaged with our partners in recovery, we remain optimistic that this vast network of people and programs is capable of a successful restoration effort, when we’re all pulling in the same direction.

“In the same breath, we must acknowledge that the status quo will not lead to a resilient and healthy Puget Sound,” the leadership council warned. “Looking ahead, we see that the threats and challenges to the ecosystem are growing, asking even more of the coalition committed to regional recovery and resilience.”

To access the complete report,

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