Puget Sound may be breathtakingly beautiful from above, but looks can be deceiving with review by expert ecologists, tribes and public agencies all pointing to an imperiled ecosystem.
Our beloved orcas are at risk of becoming extinct. Salmon stocks are a fraction of historic levels. Critical forage fish populations like the Cherry point herring stock are nearly gone altogether.
And even with tremendous restoration efforts and the more than $200 million dollars spent each year on recovery efforts, we are losing ground – leaving Puget Sound on the brink.
Here’s one big reason why…Decades of Regulatory Failures.
We know… That’s a wonky term that might make it sound like a dull issue without much impact. But the truth is, it’s one of the greatest threats to Puget Sound because when the laws put in place to protect nearshore ecosystems are ignored by the agencies responsible for making sure they are applied to development projects – habitat is lost with every permit issued.
In Washington State, our primary law governing nearshore habitat protection is called the Hydraulic Code, and any in-water development work requires a permit called an HPA which is under the jurisdiction of the State Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW). Unfortunately, there are significant gaps in the WDFW administration of the law with the department approving every permit, regardless of scale or impact. Similarly, issued permits are commonly missing important environmental regulations developed to protect fish life and habitat.
Multiple parties, including environmental groups, public agency employees and the Northwest Treaty Tribes have all raised concerns related to habitat loss as a result of WDFW administration of the HPA permit program. Even WDFW has documented this issue with internal program evaluation finding only a small portion of HPAs reviewed were appropriately protecting important ecosystem functions.
This means that nearshore habitat is lost every day with each new dock, bulkhead, marina, dredging operation or export facility permit issued without appropriate environmental regulations. Eelgrass beds that were once vast ribbons of green are shaded out until they’re gone. Forage fish spawning grounds are decimated. Important sedimentation processes that nourish beaches and give them life are choked off.
Until We Fix This... We Can’t Save Puget Sound.
This is why Sound Action stepped up to bring about some much - needed change by acting in a watchdog role and reviewing every nearshore development permit issued by WDFW. When science-based information is missing or overlooked by WDFW, we unabashedly present detailed documentation on species and habitats present as well as impacts of the proposal. And if a permit is approved without appropriate provisions or in violation of state law, we take legal action by appealing the permit.
Keep reading to learn about additional layers of strategy and to see how this bold work of taking the battle for nearshore habitat to the ground level, where it is won or lost with each permit issued – is making a difference in Puget Sound recovery efforts.
Acting as a regulatory watchdog group is the prime work of Sound Action. Every bulkhead permit. Every dock permit. Every marina, float or buoy permit. Every dredging proposal and every export facility permit... we review them all and take action if the permit issued didn’t have proper habitat protections or when required regulations weren’t applied. Each year we review more than 500 permits and have filed dozens of appeals, with most having a positive resolution.
This interactive map shows the locations of the HPA permits issued by WDFW since 2016... a view into the death by a thousand cuts. Zoom all the way in to put your virtual eyes on the beach then click on the red marker to see a pop-up of the general project information.
Forage fish like herring, surf smelt and sand lance are truly the backbone of a healthy Puget Sound. All these fish are critically important to the ecosystem, because they provide a food source for larger fish species like salmon which in turn are critical for the survival of orcas.
Little Fish + Big Fish = Orca.
Two of Puget Sound's principal forage fish, Pacific Sand Lance and Surf Smelt, deposit their eggs in the upper intertidal zone, which puts them at significant risk from development and construction impacts.
The good news is that the Hydraulic Code which governs the HPA permits specifically calls for the protection of these spawning areas when considering permit decisions.
The bad news is that WDFW has very little information on where these spawning areas actually are because less than 5% of the approximately 2500 miles of Puget Sound shoreline have ever been physically surveyed.
And unfortunately, the department outright refuses to apply important forage fish protections to a permit unless the site is what they call a “documented” spawning area – meaning at some point in time a spawning survey was conducted at that shoreline reach and eggs were found. Nevermind the presence of suitable spawning substrate and the near certainty of biologists that forage fish are spawning there... WDFW regulatory staff argues against including protective conditions.
This means the vast majority of permits, particularly for shoreline armoring – are being given a free pass to impact spawning habitat and to disturb spawning activity. And that’s a big problem for Puget Sound.
So in 2014, we took action to start fixing the problem by bringing a top notch legislative expert to the Sound Action team who went to Olympia and helped us find a creative pathway to acquire the funding to immediately implement a WDFW led forage fish spawning survey program in the South Puget Sound area – which has a high rate of development and the least known about spawning areas. We gave birth to this idea in January and by June there were boots on the ground with more than 1100 new surveys conducted by years end, resulting in what we estimate is approximately 10 miles of newly documented spawning sites.
These surveys are just the first step of what will be multi-year work to establish a comprehensive baseline of forage fish spawning habitat so that we know what to protect and where.