Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 9, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: Puget Sound -- Washington State's unique inland sea -- is rapidly approaching an ecological tipping point.]

By Robert McClure and Lisa Stiffler

Peter Lang and his buddies like to go diving by Blake Island, just across Puget Sound from West Seattle, where they can scoop up delectable Dungeness crabs.

But when they showed up last spring, the lush meadows of eelgrass where crab like to hide were nearly gone. In the sandy expanse below, they could pick out just a cell phone and an old car radio.

Where they normally spotted scads of crabs and fish, they saw just one sick-looking Dungeness -- with only one claw. It didn't bother to run from them.

The place -- within sight of Tillicum Village, where tourists savor salmon and celebrate the Sound's bounty -- had turned into an underwater desert.

In three other places where Lang and his friends expected to chase after bountiful sea life, they instead found a barren expanse.

"The shallows of Puget Sound are mostly dead," asserts Lang, who has been diving here since 1988. "Something's drastically changed in the last two years."

Lang's story and similar anecdotes match the findings of scientists who study the Sound. Their conclusion: Marine life is disappearing, and fast.

Seabird populations are plummeting. The state's largest seabird- nesting colony last year saw a catastrophic failure. In the south Sound -- years after fishing was cut way back for Pacific cod, whiting and walleye pollock -- populations are still in critical condition.

Salmon stocks stand at perhaps 10 percent of their historic abundance, and individual fish are much smaller.

The orcas that eat those salmon are the highest predator trying to eke out a living in Puget Sound. The federal government last year awarded local orcas the strongest protection available for species slipping toward extinction. Later this year, federal scientists will announce which areas of the Sound must be preserved to keep the population afloat. Whale lovers wonder if the effort will be enough.

The orcas are victims of decades of politicians' broken promises, industries' resistance to stricter regulations and -- perhaps most damagingly -- the inability to convince residents to live and work more gently on the shores of the Sound. It all has resulted in a failure to turn the environmental tide in favor of the salmon on which the orcas depend -- much less launch the broad-based rescue of Washington's unique inland sea that scientists say is necessary to prevent the loss of species.

Warnings are dire.

Recent studies show that Puget Sound's herring -- a key link in the food chain -- contain higher contamination levels than those in Europe's highly polluted Baltic Sea. In May, leading federal and state scientists reported that the "food web of Puget Sound appears to be more seriously contaminated than previously anticipated."

And orcas now are among the more chemically contaminated marine mammals in the world's oceans.

What's causing the disappearance of the eelgrass and crabs, the birds and fish? Hard to say.

Research "has not been as robust or as consistent as it should be," said Tracy Collier, manager of the National Marine Fisheries Service's ecotoxicology program in Seattle.

"Saying why things are happening is difficult because we haven't been spending enough time and effort on it."

For example, systematic state eelgrass surveys were started just five years ago. They cover just 3 percent of the shoreline and one-fifth of the bays where eelgrass might be found.

The tale told by Lang and his diving buddies is one of several recent anecdotes that raise questions about whether we are witnessing a widespread decline in the Puget Sound ecosystem.

Jenny Black came back from college for summer break to find greatly reduced numbers of sea anemones and sea urchins off Bainbridge Island. Where many types of sea stars once thrived, a single species has taken over.

"It's definitely changed a lot. It's drastic," said Black, a Brigham Young University junior who scuba dives and studies marine biology. "I'm kind of bummed out. When you have too much of one thing, you know something's going wrong with the ecology."

These anecdotal reports from central Puget Sound raise the specter of the "dead zones" that have turned up in recent years off the Washington coast and in Hood Canal.

The news is not all bleak. Some sewage pollution and industrial contamination spots have been brought under control, at great cost, in Seattle. Tacoma's Commencement Bay is cleaner than it has been in decades. And state and federal officials have started spending millions to unravel reasons behind the increasingly desperate decline of Hood Canal -- which saw its most extensive fish kill in history last month.

But progress is slow. Despite promises to clean it up, the foul concoction known as stormwater flows into the Sound after every good rain. Shorelines crucial to marine health continue sprouting docks and waterfront owners reinforce walls that wreck the shallow-water ecology, despite a shoreline protection law that dates to 1971. And an ambitious federal effort to help Puget Sound's shoreline has been routinely underfunded.

Politicians have promised for years to save Puget Sound, starting with the chinook salmon that are orcas' main food source.

"We're concerned about the future of marine life in Puget Sound," former Gov. Gary Locke said in 2003, at least five years after he started promising to save the salmon. "We... need that road map of things we can do that will make an immediate and substantial benefit in the health of Puget Sound."

Nearly three years later, that road map still isn't finished. The sweeping actions that experts say are needed to save Puget Sound are still in their infancy.

Laws dealing with many of the problems are on the books, but enforcement is spotty.

"In our meetings with the citizens, we found out the first thing they want us to do is enforce existing law," said Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., a leader in efforts to save the Sound. "They don't think existing law is being enforced."

Gov. Chris Gregoire is credited by longtime observers with trying to bring a sense of urgency to the effort, prodding extra money from the Legislature and appointing an all-star, bipartisan committee to devise a way to save the Sound. But well-intentioned plans in the past have flared and then fizzled.

"The whole system is under stress," activist Stephanie Raymond told representatives of the Puget Sound Partnership, the high-powered group organized by Gregoire to map out a Sound rescue plan. "This isn't the first or the second or even the fourth time a set of people got together and said, 'How can we help Puget Sound?'

"So I urge this group to look at it with fresh eyes."

Time is critical. WHAT YOU CAN DO

You live, work, play here. You can help.

* Buy seafood that's sustainably harvested. * Fish responsibly. Avoid overfished species. * Help collect scientific data on the Sound through scuba surveys. * Maintain vegetation on shorelines to slow erosion and provide shade and food sources for small fish. * Build away from bluffs. Prevent erosion with log barriers instead of concrete walls. * Volunteer for beach restoration projects. * Support the creation of marine protected areas where fishing is restricted.


The Puget Sound Partnership: Gov. Chris Gregoire-appointed group with 21 members representing diverse public, private and non-profit interests. Their purpose is to craft a plan for recovering the Sound's health by 2020. Draft plan to be released Friday for public comment.

Puget Sound Action Team: State agency overseeing the protection and restoration of the Sound. Issues biannual report cards on progress.

People for Puget Sound: Non-profit group dealing with marine-related education, restoration projects and lobbying.

Puget Soundkeeper Alliance: Non-profit group with strong focus on stormwater pollution and patrols of marine industrial activities.

P-I reporter Robert McClure can be reached at 206-448-8092 or P-I reporter Lisa Stiffler can be reached at 206-448-8042 or

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