If a report falls into Puget Sound and no one notices, has it really fallen? The Puget Sound Partnership's first-ever State of the Sound Report came out on Tuesday to virtually no attention from the local press and no ringing declarations by an (otherwise-occupied) governor, who launched an ambitious save-the-Sound crusade just three years ago.
To be fair, the report contains no big surprises. In a nutshell, it says that some things are better, while others are worse. "Because the Puget Sound ecosytem is complex," the Partnership's press release explains, "it is not surprising that some parts of it may improve while others decline."
In the improved category, the release lists "shellfish harvest areas upgraded, increases in shellfish harvest, increases in Chinook salmon and Hood Canal summer chum run size, slight slowing in the rate of loss in forested land, improvement in sediment quality in Elliott Bay and improvment in freshwater quality."
Specific bright spots included a "reopening of 1,309 acres of shellfish beds for commercial and recreational harvest" and "restoration of 3,800 acres of habitat," which includes the 762 acres of the Nisqually Delta reopened, after a century, to the tides.
Decliners include: "fin fish harvest, conversion of forest land, orcas, herring spawning biomass, agricultural lands converted to development, eelgrass area, stream flows in major rivers, and flame retardant chemicals in harbor seals and herring."
Some of the news is downright dismal. Herring, a key prey species, may be circling the drain. "Many species of seabirds, marine mammals,and finfish, including Chinook and coho salmon, depend on herring as an important prey item," the report explains. And those species may want to think about Plan B, because "(f)or the 2007-08 period, less than half (47 percent) of Puget Sound herring stocks were classified by (the state Department of Fish and Wildlife) as healthy or moderately healthy. This is the lowest percentage of stocks meeting these criteria since development of the stock status summary in 1994; although similar to the status breakdown for the previous 2-year periods (2003-04 and 2005-06)."
Herring-fancying Puget Sound chinook were listed as a threatened species in 1999. The report says that chinook runs are larger now than they were at the end of the 1990s, but warns that "spawning biomass remains far below recovery targets." And, somewhat undercutting the good news, it notes that the runs may be larger because of ocean conditions, not anything done closer to home.
It also acknowledges that Puget Sound's officially-endangered orcas eat chinook salmon, and there may be a connection between the lack of predators and the lack of prey. "To better protect this (southern resident killer whale) population," it says, "we need to know the total nutritional requirement for a 'recovered and sustainable' population, and provide for that requirement in our fisheries management programs and environmental planning." Unfortunately, that is a connection never explicitly drawn, much less dealt with, in the harvest management plan for Puget Sound chinook, which will be renewed in April for another five years. (Likewise, the nutritional requirement issue is glossed over in the current biological opinion for operation of the federal Columbia River system dams.)
This all "leaves a critical question unanswered," writes People for Puget Sound executive director Kathy Fletcher in a blog. "Are we on track to restore the Sound to health by the year 2020?" Well, no. The current financial picture would be a whole lot bleaker without the one-shot contribution of federal stimulus funds. The report itself says there's not enough money to do the job. "To achieve recovery by the 2020 deadline," it says, "additional resources will be needed."
Fletcher writes, “If we aren't on track yet to restore the Sound to health by 2020, and I don't think we are, we need to get on track. ... Will the Partnership get the job done? I sure hope so, because Puget Sound is running out of time."
Amen, although to be fair, the Partnership can't do it alone. Maybe next year the legislature can focus on Puget Sound. And maybe the governor will remember — and remind us — that this is her crusade.
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