Puget Sound restoration is an adventure in scienceJune 21st, 2010 by cdunagan
It appears the Puget Sound Partnership will remain busy the rest of the year with a variety of critical activities, many of them mandated by state law.
I reported on last week’s meeting of the Leadership Council in a story published in Saturday’s Kitsap Sun. The meeting focused on approving a new Strategic Science Plan (PDF 11.8 mb) and efforts to identify indicators for measuring progress toward restoring Puget Sound. Helping write upcoming budgets for the state’s natural resource agencies and crafting new legislation will occupy significant time.
One of the interesting discussions about indicators was the question of whether jellyfish or herring should be used as an indicator of ecosystem health. Herring were said to be a broader measure, since they are eaten by far more species than jellyfish. At the same time, changes in herring population are harder to relate to a specific cause. The balance could be tipped toward herring, since so much historical data are available.
The council reviewed a new organizational structure (PDF 2.8 mb), which puts science squarely into the picture. There was a general agreement that vacant positions on the science staff need to be filled as soon as possible. Especially important is the science program director, who will direct day-to-day work at the partnership, and the natural resource scientist, who is seen as a liaison with the broader scientific community. Another important post is the oil spill research analyst, which is also vacant.
Jan Newton, a member of the Puget Sound Science Panel, made an impression on me when she pointed out how unique a place Puget Sound is.
“It’s not Chesapeake Bay; it’s not the Gulf,” Jan said. “We’re dealing with population change. We’re not on a static playing field. We need to recognize that.”
Puget Sound Partnership must not be limited by studies that have been done in the past. The organization has the horsepower to call for new research in its quest to figure out how the ecosystem really works.
After hearing Jan’s talk, I turned to the chapter in the Strategic Science Plan called “Puget Sound: Unique Ecosystem, Unique Community,” where I found this instructive language:
“Puget Sound is the second largest estuary in the United States, with over 3,000 kilometers of shoreline. Carved by retreating glaciers at the end of the last ice age 11,000-15,000 years ago, the fjord-like geomorphology of Puget Sound is somewhat unique in the United States. Most estuaries in this country are coastal plain or drowned river estuaries, lacking significant restrictions to the coastal ocean and lacking the great depths and strong tidal currents well known in Puget Sound. The average depth of Puget Sound is 62 meters with a maximum depth of 280 meters.” (Compare that to Chesapeake Bay in the charts below.)
The chapter goes on to describe the ridges and sills that lie at the bottom of Puget Sound, disrupting tidal currents. It also mentions the characteristics of summer upwelling that brings cold, salty water up from the depths, carrying nutrients along with low-oxygen content.
“The marine nearshore, at the nexus of the aquatic and terrestrial environments, provides habitat for many species, some for their entire life cycle and others for critical life stages. Many of these species are economically important (e.g., geoduck and other clam species, Pacific oyster, Dungeness crab) or ecologically important (e.g., sea grasses, kelp, forage fish). Nearshore habitats are created and maintained by processes involving transfers of sediment, nutrients, water, and other constituents. These attributes make the nearshore zone an extremely important in maintaining ecosystem function in Puget Sound. It is also the location where much human development has occurred.
“The glacial and tectonic processes that formed the Puget Sound basin resulted in a steep-sided estuary with a relatively narrow fringe of shallow, nearshore habitat. In contrast, most estuaries in the United States are shallow and support anchored vegetation over a much greater portion of the estuarine seabed. An implication of the morphology is that because nearshore habitat is relatively limited in spatial extent in this narrow, steep-sided estuary, removing or degrading a portion of the nearshore habitat in Puget Sound has a disproportionate impact on ecosystem sustainability compared to a shallow, flat estuary.”