Puget Sound Science Panel completes two-year plan

I wonder if anyone has noticed that I’ve been away from this Water Ways blog for a time. Aside from visiting my youngest daughter in Yakima, where she had her first baby, I’ve been occupied with breaking news for the Kitsap Sun.

There is no shortage of things to talk about, however, and I’d like to start with the recently approved two-year Science Work Plan for the Puget Sound Partnership.

Joe Gaydos

In developing a plan to investigate science-related questions, the Partnership’s Science Panel set out to identify weaknesses in our overall understanding of the Puget Sound ecosystem. The panel chose to be strategic about filling the gaps in our knowledge.

“We want to know everything, of course,” chairman Joe Gaydos told me. “But just because there’s a gap in our knowledge does not mean we should go out and do a study.

“The real question is, where does the lack of science hinder our ability to make decisions? We’re not just doing science for science’s sake but to help us make better decisions.”

For the Puget Sound Partnership, the most important questions are related to restoration and recovery. The Science Panel came up with 48 actions in three focus areas, taking guidance from the Puget Sound Action Agenda:

  • Protect and restore terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems (12 actions)
  • Protect and restore marine and nearshore ecosystems (9 actions)
  • Reduce and control sources of pollution to Puget Sound (16 actions)

Another focus area looks to the future:

  • Emerging issues — ocean acidification (3 actions)
  • Scientific tools for informing policy (3 actions)
  • Coordinated ecosystem monitoring (1 action)
  • Human dimensions in ecosystems (4 actions)

For a quick summary of these science projects, see Priority Science Areas (PDF 152 kb).

At the highest level, the Science Panel has been stressing the need to develop analytical tools to help policy makers decide on specific restoration projects.

For example, a lot of shoreline-restoration projects are under way in Puget Sound, but how do we know we are spending our money on the right ones? We are restoring habitats, but are they the most important habitats to the overall ecosystem of Puget Sound?

The two-year plan notes:

“Valuable information is available on the status and historical changes in physical structure of marine and nearshore shorelines. However, information and analytical tools … need to be improved.”

Important improvements include:

  • “Incorporating additional physical attributes as well as biogenic structures like eelgrass, kelp or coastal forest condition into estimates of ecosystem services provided by shorelines.
  • “Assessing the impacts of barrier features on embayments.
  • “Increasing understanding of the effects of protection and restoration at different spatial and ecological scales, ranging from local domains (e.g., marshes, beaches, drift cells) to process domains (e.g., geomorphic units and salinity regimes) to landscape domains …
  • “More robustly incorporating rare forms, species, and processes in understanding landscape composition.
  • “Including landscapes and habitats used by target species.
  • “Incorporating threats to ecosystem services and potential for protection.
  • “Incorporating human use and values.”

“What we don’t want to do,” Joe told me, “is pretend we have a science-based restoration effort when we are actually going out and restoring places where people want to go.”

Besides creating analytical tools, the Science Panel believes that helpful new findings can be developed by compiling and analyzing unrelated monitoring reports and scientific studies in ways nobody has done before.

Of the 48 science actions in the plan, one-third rely on existing information; nearly one-fourth are focused on trends and effectiveness monitoring; and less than half (44 percent) require new research to better understand ecological mechanisms and relationships.

Unlike the work plan from two years ago, the latest plan will be tracked carefully to see if the research efforts get done, Joe said. The first step is to visit with leaders of agencies and organizations already doing research to determine if the priority science projects can be incorporated into work already being done.

A meeting on Monday will begin to determine who should be responsible for what actions.

“What are the items that the Partnership is responsible for?” Joe queried. “What are the things we can expect the University of Washington to do or the Department of Ecology to do?

“We’ll be taking our list around to the different agencies. A big role of the Partnership is to coordinate all these efforts. We want to get the work done that can answer the questions and have the whole effort be science based.”

Last, but not least, the Science Panel will work with environmental educators to help bring scientific knowledge to the people of Puget Sound, without whose support the restoration effort would surely grind to a halt.

In August, the Puget Sound Leadership Council is scheduled to tackle the question of how to fund the two-year science plan.

Download the full two-year Puget Sound Science Work Plan (PDF 2.2 mb).

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