Puget Sound Action Agenda makes a shift in restoration strategy

Puget Sound Partnership has honed its high-level game plan for restoring the Puget Sound ecosystem, including a sharp focus on 10 “vital signs” of ecological health.

The newly released draft of the Puget Sound Action Agenda has endorsed more than 600 specific “near-term actions” designed to benefit the ecosystem in various ways. Comments on the plan will be accepted until Oct. 15. Visit the Partnership’s webpage to view the Draft Action Agenda and access the comments page.

The latest Action Agenda for 2018-2022 includes a revised format with a “comprehensive plan” separate from an “implementation plan.” The comprehensive plan outlines the ecological problems, overall goals and administrative framework. The implementation plan describes how priorities are established and spells out what could be accomplished through each proposed action.

Nearly 300 near-term actions are listed at Tier 4, the highest level of priority, giving them a leg up when it comes to state and federal support, according to Heather Saunders Benson, Action Agenda manager. Funding organizations use the Action Agenda to help them determine where to spend their money.

The greatest change in the latest Action Agenda may be its focus on projects that specifically carry out “Implementation Strategies,” which I’ve been writing about on and off for nearly two years. Check out “Implementation Strategies will target Puget Sound ‘Vital Signs’” in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

Jeff Rice, managing editor at Puget Sound Institute, suggested that we compare Puget Sound to a sick patient. It is not enough for a physician to diagnose a patient’s illness; the doctor must prescribe a treatment and make sure that the patient gets better. Like a prescription, Implementation Strategies are designed to improve Puget Sound’s Vital Signs through coordinated actions directed at what is causing the problems.

Regional and local actions include restoration, protection, research, education and community engagement. Vital signs that will get the most attention over the next four years are:

  • Estuaries
  • Shorelines with armoring
  • Floodplains
  • Land development and cover
  • Freshwater quality
  • Marine water quality
  • Toxics in fish
  • Chinook salmon
  • Shellfish beds
  • Summer streamflows

Many of the proposed actions benefit multiple vital signs. For example, improving floodplains, estuaries and freshwater quality can all benefit Chinook salmon populations in a given location.

Puget Sound’s killer whales have has been receiving a lot of attention lately, since a newborn calf died and was carried by its mother for 17 days. Meanwhile, another young whale struggles with malnutrition as experts intervene with antibiotics. Today, people seem more aware than ever that these Southern Resident orcas are at a high risk of extinction. Two Implementation Strategies — increasing the Chinook salmon population and reducing toxic chemicals in fish (under development) — are expected to benefit the orcas and many other creatures.

Southern Resident orcas // Photo: Jim Maya

Sheida Sahandy, executive director of the Puget Sound Partnership, writes about the orcas in her introduction to the draft Action Agenda.

“This document explains the plight of our orca in greater detail,” Sheida says. “It is important to remember that even the great orca is but one indicator of the broader health of Puget Sound. The orcas are a top predator and, like humans, their survival depends on our ability to maintain a functioning ecosystem.

“Those graced with the experience of seeing a breaching orca know that it is a glimpse into eternity, producing a sense of awe and wonder that at times is in short supply in our modern lives,” she continues. “Whether you are 6, 16, or 60, if you share a moment with an orca, you will be reminded in the depths of your soul that we are all playing but a small role in a much larger picture.”

Everyone should insist on a future with clean water, fishing, recreation, edible shellfish and sustainable commerce on the water, Sheida says. But it will take a major investment to heal the ecosystem and make sure that population growth does not overwhelm the natural systems.

“Will we realize — before it is too late — that in saving the orca and the salmon and Puget Sound, we are really saving ourselves?” she asks.

When the Legislature created the Puget Sound Partnership, it set a goal of restoring Puget Sound to a healthy condition by the year 2020. It was an aspirational goal but not very realistic. Some people have regretted setting a time frame for success. Still, the date cannot be easily erased.

Key steps in adaptive management to advance Puget Sound recovery actions
Graphic: Puget Sound Partnership

As 2020 approaches, the Leadership Council, which oversees the partnership, has approved a vision statement for moving beyond 2020, including a call to act with urgency.

Over the next four years, a Vital Signs Revision Team will review the existing Vital Signs indicators to see if there are better ways to measure ecological conditions, said Scott Redman, director of science and evaluation for the partnership. New targets and dates for reaching the targets may be proposed, he said, and 2020 will come and go before the next Action Agenda comes up for review.

Recommendations for revised indicators have been made by:

Finding ways to improve long-term “resilience” of critical habitats could help more species survive through adverse conditions brought about by climate change and other human influences, Scott said. It could be a challenge to come up with general prescriptions for resiliency, because conditions vary from place to place. Still much has been learned about habitat restoration through the years, with successes from completed projects incorporated into the designs for upcoming projects.

Meanwhile, the Leadership Council’s “Vision and Commitment for a Resilient Puget Sound” renews a commitment to unite people in a singular cause:

“For decades, many partners have worked to rescue this estuary of national significance. We have made progress, but our efforts have not been at a scale or pace sufficient to restore Puget Sound to health by 2020. We face a pivotal point in time. We know that saving Puget Sound will never be as achievable or affordable as it is today. With each passing day, the road to recovery becomes harder. We have the power to prevent Puget’s Sound decline. This is our moment to define what our future can look like, and to fight to make it a reality.”

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