Locals in small operation take on 'tall order' in marine ecosystem - Salish Current
September 22, 2023
Locals in small operation take on ‘tall order’ in marine ecosystem
Adam M. Sowards

Volunteer power is vital in protecting and restoring resources and habitat in the Salish Sea. Participating in a Skagit Marine Resources Committee project monitoring bull kelp at Coffin Rocks in Bowman Bay are (back to front) Taylor Umetsu, Vashon Nature Center; Jeff Whitty, Northwest Straits Commission project coordinator; and volunteers Steven Olsen and Catherine Houck (not pictured) (Photo courtesy Ron Larson, Skagit MRC).

September 22, 2023
Locals in small operation take on ‘tall order’ in marine ecosystem
Adam M. Sowards

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Thirty years ago, advocates pushed for a national marine sanctuary for the Salish Sea. Accelerating degradation of habitat and diminishing populations of birds, fish and invertebrates since 1980 raised alarms. The scale of the problems seemed to require intervention of the sort possible in a federally designated protected area. 

Instead, the idea sank.

The seven counties around the Strait of Juan de Fuca and north Puget Sound (Clallam, Jefferson, Island, Snohomish, Skagit, Whatcom and San Juan) opposed the sanctuary, worrying about top-down decision-making overriding local interests. Tribes opposed it, concerned the sanctuary might jeopardize the exercise of treaty rights.

Yet the ecological state of the Northwest Straits still warranted attention to protect and restore marine resources. In 1997, Sen. Patty Murray (D) and Rep. Jack Metcalf (R-2nd) convened a commission to look for alternatives and design a solution. The resulting Northwest Straits Marine Conservation Initiative launched in 1998 through of an act of Congress. Unlike a sanctuary, it included no regulatory powers.

For a quarter-century, the initiative has worked to improve two problems, one ecological and one political. The first addresses the deteriorating marine ecosystem in the Salish Sea due to toxic pollution, marine species in decline, and loss of critical nearshore habitats. The second addresses the gridlocked and top-down nature of politics and regulation. To make advances for the former issue, the Northwest Straits Initiative developed significant capacity in the latter. 

Engaged at a young age: San Juan Islands Youth Conservation Corps members promote the Be Whale Wise initiative and the Whale Warning Flag, at the Port of Friday Harbor. (Photo courtesy San Juan MRC)

“It’s a small operation, but they’re doing big work,” said Cecilia Gobin, the tribal delegate to the Northwest Straits Commission and a conservation policy analyst with the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. The sentiment is shared by many who have seen the work up close.

Advocating for recovery

In the 1990s, Kathy Fletcher, a lifelong environmentalist, was advocating for “the health and the recovery of Puget Sound and the straits” and thought the marine sanctuary seemed “very promising.” Fletcher was frustrated “that so little had been done in a systematic way to address the whole set of issues that led to the decline of our marine environment. Pollution, mismanagement of resources, loss of habitat, all those things together.” She was disappointed when the sanctuary idea, with its potential to treat those things together, collapsed.

The collapse “seemed to be born out of the resistance to regulatory action,” Fletcher recalled. “It’s impossible to do what’s needed for a marine resource without a regulatory component.”

Despite her skepticism toward a voluntary program, Fletcher accepted an appointment to the Murray-Metcalf Commission to assess the condition of the Northwest Straits and to the develop an alternative action plan.

Locally grown alternative

At the time of the sanctuary proposal, Tom Cowan served as a San Juan County commissioner. Counties around the Salish Sea worried “that decisions would be made back in Washington, D.C., instead of locally,” said Cowan. Such an attitude can be an excuse for inaction, but San Juan County wanted to improve the marine environment. It developed a Marine Resources Committee (MRC) that could drive marine conservation locally.

The MRC model attracted the attention of the Murray-Metcalf Commission, which made it a centerpiece of the Northwest Straits Initiative that Congress adopted.

Each county appoints an MRC, constituted by volunteers and representing many marine interests from science and recreation to commercial activities.

“It’s an amazing melting pot of perspectives,” said Sam Whitridge, San Juan County’s marine program coordinator and staff for the county’s MRC.

A representative from each of the seven county MRCs serves on the Northwest Straits Commission, along with five appointees by the governor and one tribal delegate appointed by the secretary of the interior. A scientific advisory committee ensures scientific quality, and in 2002, the Northwest Straits Foundation was organized as a nonprofit arm to manage money.

In contrast to the marine sanctuary idea, this approach enjoyed widespread support. The tribes supported it, providing a “big lift,” in Gobin’s words, to getting it established. And within a year of congressional approval, all seven counties established their MRCs, a step that was not required. All these different bodies have worked to meet the initiative’s purpose of protecting and restoring marine resources. 

The conservation issues were dire at the outset. The Murray-Metcalf Report characterized the marine ecosystem as in “serious trouble.” At the same time, a report about Puget Sound’s health noted 13 species in decline and warned of invasive species and “widespread distribution of toxic contaminants.”

But because the initiative was experimental, the legislation authorized a limited trial and required a program evaluation. In 2004, William Ruckelshaus, the first head of the Environmental Protection Agency, chaired the evaluation process, which recommended the Northwest Straits Initiative be reauthorized and replicated.

Lummi Nation Natural Resources staff give students an up-close, in-person view of beach seining to gather data on salmon habitat restoration, in a Whatcom Marine Resources Committee project at Boulevard Park in Bellingham. (Photo courtesy Dana Flerchinger, Whatcom MRC)

Neither has happened, although Murray has managed to keep funding over the years, including $3 million in each of the last two fiscal years. 

Priority for local issues

To Cowan, the “beauty” of the MRC model is that each county’s residents can prioritize local marine issues. This allows the diverse geography and economy, not to mention interests of locals, to drive the action.

Nan McKay has been working on marine issues in Puget Sound since the 1980s and currently holds one of the governor-appointed positions on the Northwest Straits Commission. She also sits on the foundation board. According to McKay, at root of the initiative’s work is improving the marine environment, but that happens by “involving citizens, organizing so that citizens can have a strong say in what projects are pursued.” This deliberate structure is “part of the magic” that makes the initiative work.

The “locally driven, grassroots” process creates “a lot more engagement across the state,” said Whitridge, who used to work on salmon recovery in Oregon. “Washington just has a massive marine restoration conservation infrastructure … because of this bottom-up structure.” This seedbed helps advise policymakers, typically through the county governance. Whitridge explained that the San Juan MRC makes recommendations to the county council about policy issues, “and then that feeds up to our state representatives,” he said.

The current director of the Northwest Straits Commission, Lucas Hart, credited the “bottom-up consensus-driven model” with helping obtain “really quick buy-in” on local issues.

Driving action

The volunteers on the MRCs have helped drive action and change from local to regional scales.

Removing derelict vessels and derelict gear have been signature programs that have expanded throughout Puget Sound, as the initiative has removed sunken boats and nets and other gear that have polluted Salish Sea waters for decades and caused untold damage.

Citizen science initiatives have also shaped conservation activities. Forage fish, such as Pacific herring and surf smelt, are key food for salmon. Wherever their eggs are spawned must be protected, once documented. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife did not have the budget or personnel to do this. So starting with San Juan County, MRCs trained citizens to do this documentation, effectively extending the protection of forage fish and improving salmon habitat. 

Gobin cited this nearshore work as especially meaningful to tribes as one method to build resilience as sea level rises.

A decade ago, an MRC member noticed kelp beds disappearing in Island County and wanted to figure out and reverse the trend. The Northwest Straits Commission worked with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the local MRCs to develop a protocol for monitoring kelp beds. It spread from that single county MRC and eventually NOAA asked the commission to develop the Puget Sound Kelp Conservation and Recovery Plan.

Activities through Whatcom County’s MRC have reached into elementary schools. Fourth graders in Bellingham learn about salmon and then observe a beach seine used and help gather data. According to Austin Rose, a marine planner for Whatcom County and staff for its MRC, the event shows that “citizens of all ages can participate in gathering data and contributing to real science.”

It’s never too early to help take care of the Salish Sea, as youngsters participating in the annual San Juan Marine Resources Committee Great Island Cleanup with marine scientist Frances Robertson of Plastics Free Salish Sea demonstrate. (Photo courtesy Frances Robertson)

This drives home a basic function of the initiative: education. Whether it is fourth graders learning about salmon migration or boaters learning about the damage their anchors do to eelgrass beds, MRC-driven work enlightens and helps change behavior. 

‘A tall order’

Although as an environmentalist Fletcher had been skeptical at the outset, she served on the commission for a dozen years as the governor’s appointee, retiring in 2010. Today, she notes that orcas are on the brink, salmon runs are not recovered and climate change complicates all these issues. Still, she recognizes the initiative’s role in restoring habitats and raising awareness. “They have done tremendously good work,” she said, “and it should continue. It should be strengthened. It should be funded.” 

The initiative is not designed to accomplish everything, but it has strengthened voluntary action. The relationships built sitting around tables over these decades, according to Fletcher, have yielded “really good ideas and positive things that have happened over the years.” 

Hart, the current director, knows the task before him and for the straits is steep. “We have over a hundred years of degradation on Puget Sound that we have to try to recover from,” he said. “That’s a tall order.”

Those working on marine conservation cite climate change and salmon recovery as critical issues, adding population growth and stormwater as other big issues. These issues have not improved over the course of the initiative’s span, and working on them in the future requires stability, something reauthorization would establish.

Murray remains steadfast in her support and is proud of the work the commission has accomplished. “I look forward to reintroducing my legislation to reauthorize the Northwest Straits Commission this fall, and as Chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee,” she said in a statement. “I’m going to keep working to secure the federal dollars we need to protect our state’s incredible natural resources for generations to come — the Northwest Straits Commission is such an important part of that effort in Washington state.”

Local citizens have fueled the success of the Northwest Straits Initiative, according to those who worked on marine conservation for the last generation. 

“If we’re serious about protecting these things,” said Gobin, “if we’re serious about recovering these things, if we’re serious about restoring the Salish Sea and Puget Sound, then we need to have the adequate policy and financial support and means to do that. And that takes everybody. You know, it’s not just on the backs of tribes and the MRCs and things like the Straits Commission. It’s everyone from our congressional delegation down to our citizen scientists, you know, and I think that’s the importance of this commission and this initiative’s work.”

Want to be part of the solution? A fun way to engage in this volunteer conservation effort is to check out the Northwest Strait Commission’s “Speed Dating With Scientist” program.

Information on local Marine Resources Committees is at:

— Reported by Adam M. Sowards

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