MAKING WAVES, August 2004 issue: Table of Contents     
Madeira photos
Northwest Salmon Beaches

By Kevin Ranker and Pete Stauffer

Shoreline habitats in Washington State are crucial to the health of Pacific Northwest marine ecosystems. Sandy beaches, rocky shores, and eelgrass beds throughout Puget Sound and Washington's outer coast help to sustain a diverse assemblage of life. Numerous species of fish, shellfish and seabirds in the region utilize these habitats for feeding, resting, or reproductive activities during different stages of their life.

Washington's shoreline has particular importance to local salmon populations. Notable in the Pacific Northwest because of their commercial and cultural importance — as well as their protected status under the Endangered Species Act — salmon species depend on the nearshore environment both directly and indirectly. After migrating out from freshwater streams, juvenile salmon are known to reside in sand, gravel, and eelgrass habitats throughout the Puget Sound basin. These shoreline habitats provide sanctuary from predators during early life-stage development, and offer an abundance of food sources including invertebrates and fish larvae.

The shoreline of Washington State also functions as spawning habitat for forage fish — a major category of prey for salmon. Pacific herring, sand lance, and surf smelt all utilize shoreline habitats for their reproductive activities. Pacific herring lay their eggs on nearshore vegetation such as eelgrass, while sand lance and surf smelt deposit their eggs high in the intertidal zone of sandy beaches. Recently completed surveys suggest that 20% or more of the shoreline in the Puget Sound basin may support the spawning of one or more forage fish species.

The reproductive success of these small schooling fishes is particularly relevant, given their importance to predators in Washington's marine environment. Pacific herring, sand lance, and surf smelt all function as major food sources within the region's food web. In addition to sustaining salmon populations, forage fish constitute a significant portion of the diet of rockfish and cod. Forage fish are also an important prey item for marine mammals such as seals and sea lions, and for numerous species of seabirds. Finally, forage fish indirectly support the feeding of resident orca populations through sustaining the prey base they depend on for survival.

Eelgrass provides a safe spawning area for many fish species

Surfrider Foundation created habitat maps to help analyze island shorelines for future protection Photo courtesy of Heather Owe/NOAA

   Above: Beautiful beaches like this abound along the Pacific Northwest coastline. Photo: Kevin Ranker

Unfortunately, nearshore habitats in the Pacific Northwest are increasingly being impacted by human development. In Puget Sound, approximately one-third of the shoreline has already been modified through the construction of seawalls and bulkheads. Such armoring of the shoreline promotes the loss of intertidal habitat and prevents the erosion of bluffs that provide new sources of beach sediment. Docks, jetties, and piers that extend seaward from shore also are damaging to nearshore ecology. These overwater structures inhibit the growth of nearshore vegetation and disrupt important physical and biological processes. Finally, development in coastal uplands can cause run-off of pollution and create future justifications for shoreline armoring.

A Unique Partnership

In response to growing concerns over such nearshore habitat degradation, the Surfrider Foundation, the Northwest Straits Commission, and the Tulalip Tribes initiated the Northwest Salmon Beaches Project in 2003. The pilot project seeks to identify priority habitats in San Juan and Island Counties, Washington that should be targeted for spatial protection. This focus on habitat protection represents an ´ecosystem-based' approach to managing living marine resources in Washington State. Clearly, single-species management is not sufficient to adequately protect salmon stocks and other commercially important populations. Accordingly, the project aims to transcend the traditional fisheries management paradigm, and incorporate broader considerations related to ecosystem health.

The project also provides an opportunity for the Tulalip Tribes to exercise their role as co-managers of the living marine resources in Washington State. The Tulalip Tribes — along with 19 other tribal nations in Washington — have treaty-reserved rights to harvest and manage fish stocks in their usual and accustomed (U&A) fishing grounds. Therefore, the project seeks to facilitate tribal participation in decisions that relate to the management of U&A habitats.

To identify nearshore habitats that should be prioritized for protection, Surfrider staff and tribal biologists have assembled relevant data sets on juvenile salmon, forage fish spawning grounds, nearshore habitat type, and jurisdictional boundaries. Where possible, this information has been incorporated into a computer GIS product to facilitate spatial analysis. Additionally, future field studies are being designed to fill existing data gaps and verify the ecological importance of habitats being targeted for protection.

Following the completion of these studies, formal recommendations will be developed for a network of nearshore protected areas in San Juan and Island Counties, WA. These will be presented to the Tulalip Tribal Council for ratification, and subsequently to the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission to be adopted as policy. Parallel to these processes, public meetings will be held in both counties to develop community-based support for the project's recommendations. Finally, the proposed network of nearshore protected areas will be presented to the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission to be recognized as state policy.