State of the Sound: Progress in Whatcom County, but poor marks for the Salish Sea

November 15, 2017

By Tim Johnson. Published in Cascadia Weekly on November 15th, 2017

As the number of endangered Southern Resident orca whales continues to decline and Puget Sound Chinook salmon remain threatened, officials say the need to save the two species is becoming dire.

A leading theory is the whales are starving because they cannot find enough Chinook salmon, the endangered fish that the resident orcas eat almost exclusively. Concerns are increasing that the iconic whales are on a path to extinction.

The leadership council for the state’s Puget Sound Partnership passed a resolution last week recognizing the connection between the fish and whales, and committed to accelerating the recovery of both species. The Puget Sound Partnership is the state agency leading the region’s collective effort to restore and protect the Salish Sea.

The Partnership also released last week a 2017 State of the Sound report that for the first time acknowledges that the goals the state Legislature laid out when it formed the partnership 10 years ago will not be met by the target of 2020. The seven-member council includes representatives from throughout the Puget Sound region and is the governing body of the state agency. The report calls for expedited action to continue working toward a healthy Puget Sound beyond 2020.

Policymakers thought they were being realistic but tough when they set the recovery target goal when the former director of the state Dept. of Ecology, Christine Gregoire, was governor. Now that goal looks to be unrealistic, even naive.

Puget Sound Partnership Leadership Council Chair Jay Manning told the Skagit Valley Herald he believes the expertise of local organizations will be key in moving salmon and orca recovery forward, and in achieving the larger goals of Puget Sound recovery. Manning was the director of Ecology during Gregoire’s administration.

“I think that question is going to be asked: ‘What can and should be done locally?’” Manning said. “I’m very eager to have that conversation with the local folks. They know the watershed best, and I know they care about Chinook and orca recovery.”

The report urges Puget Sound residents to support state and local efforts “as they go about the extraordinarily difficult task of preventing projects and activities that will harm the Sound.”

“Recovering a large, complex estuarine system is a complicated business,” leadership council authors acknowledge in their report. “We have done many good things, but the system has not yet responded positively.”

Local Successes

As one of the organizations working to prevent pollution from harming the Sound, RE Sources agrees with the report’s fundamental message.

“Restoration alone isn’t enough,” said RE Sources clean water program manager Ann Russell. “The need to identify and stop sources of pollution are critical, and will become even more important as our region continues to grow.” The report notes that an estimated 1,000 people every week are moving into the Puget Sound basin.

At the same time, RE Sources was heartened that the report called out several projects in Whatcom County that have made a positive difference. The report specifically cites the reopening of shellfish beds in Drayton Harbor and efforts to use natural infrastructure to filter polluted stormwater runoff entering Lake Whatcom, Bellingham’s drinking water source. RE Sources played a role in these successful projects.

For decades, Drayton Harbor provided ideal growing conditions for shellfish and created jobs for many in the local community. But by 1995, much of Drayton Harbor was classified as prohibited for shellfish harvesting because fecal bacteria from livestock, on-site sewage systems, boats and marinas, and the local sanitary sewer system were contaminating the shellfish beds. After 25 years of community-led hard work and dedication, 810 acres of shellfish beds in Drayton Harbor were reclassified as “approved” for shellfish harvest. Harvests resumed for the first time in 22 years.

For Lake Whatcom, three projects noted in the report reduced the pollution carried by stormwater runoff. These projects restored a stream channel to naturally filter out pollution and involved building swales, stormwater vaults, and rain gardens to slow the water and remove pollution. Stormwater runoff was treated for 150 acres. This was a joint stormwater retrofit program between Whatcom County and the City of Bellingham and was funded in part by an Ecology stormwater financial assistance grant. RE Sources’ clean water program championed these efforts.

“It’s a tough challenge,” Russell said. “And we know from experience that when the people of Whatcom County work together to stop pollution, we get results that everyone who cares about the Salish Sea can own and be proud of.”

Global Concerns

In 2007, the state legislature found that the degradation of and risk to the Puget Sound ecosystem warranted the formation of an entity focused on restoring and protecting the Sound. The formative statute of the Puget Sound Partnership notes that it is the “goal of the state that the health of Puget Sound be restored by 2020.”

Ten years after the statute was enacted, the region has succeeded in forming regional and subregional plans and management systems to make recovery happen. Thousands of projects have been successfully completed and more are underway.

“Unfortunately, our collective efforts have been insufficient,” Leadership council authors admit. “While we are making important progress in some areas, many key indicators of ecosystem health are not showing improvement. Worse yet, some key indicators, such as resident orca and Chinook salmon populations, remain in a perilous state. Despite the efforts of so many, it is time to admit that we will not recover Puget Sound to good health by 2020—the goal that was set 10 years ago when the Partnership was created.

“This is obviously disappointing,” the authors note, “and we need to examine our program to identify needed improvements. We must be willing to conduct an honest, clear-eyed review of where we are and where we are headed. Course corrections must be identified and implemented soon to get Puget Sound on an acceptable recovery trajectory.”

Of nearly two dozen metrics that gauge the health of Puget Sound, only three are on or near their 2020 targets, according to the report. These noted successes include slowing the rate of forest loss to development and shoreline management to discourage the erosion of bluffs. Areas of alarming declines include chinook salmon and herring populations, and the impacts on food web to dependent indicator species like orcas.

As of September 2017, the Southern Resident killer whale population has only 76 individuals; recovery depends on increasing its main prey, chinook salmon; reducing the load of toxins entering Puget Sound; and minimizing the impacts and risks of vessel traffic. Pacific herring, small schooling fish that are important prey for salmon and other species, continue to show signs of decline.

Marine scientists suspect the rate of decline in orca population exceeds the slow improvements to the Puget Sound ecosystem, making the extinction of Southern Residents inevitable without improved action.

“If we lose Southern Resident orcas, we will have failed in our job,” Todd Hass, a conservation biologist who serves on the Partnerhsip’s leadership council, stated. “We need to bring the orcas back to stable numbers and to do that we need to bring Chinook salmon back to stable numbers.”

The leadership council resolution recognizes the connection between the fish and whales, and committed to accelerating the recovery of both iconic species.