Communities around Puget Sound have invested about $150 million over the past two decades to clean up the water and improve habitat for endangered salmon. Yet we continue to lose ground when it comes to a crucial part of that environment. King County watershed managers recently hosted a guided boat tour to spread the word about the importance of restoration work in recovering the so-called ‘nearshore.’
The nearshore environment is the place where the water meets the land. That intertidal area is hugely important for the biology of Puget Sound. Authorities say it’s a gathering place for 22 Chinook populations that swim in from every watershed around. It forms the base of the food chain. Tiny forage fish that salmon eat lay their eggs in the sandy shallows of the beaches. But there’s a problem.
“People will use just about anything to try and stop erosion,” said King County senior ecologist Kollin Higgins.
He was one of the featured panelists during the boat tour, which highlighted several successful restoration projects, including Burien’s Seahurst Park and the pocket beach at Seattle’s Olympic Sculpture Park, where concrete walls have been removed to allow the shoreline to return to a more natural state.
But Higgins says most of the 100 miles of the county’s nearshore is on residents' private land. And people like to put up bulkheads to wall off their beaches.
“There’s one out on Vashon that they actually used bed springs from old mattresses as their bulkhead,” Higgins said. “We have one that we just replaced in the Snoqualmie River that’s made out of cars called the Car Body Curve. There’s one in the Duwamish that’s made out of old tires.”
King County is encouraging landowners to take out the bulkheads and restore habitat for fish.
Among those who have responded is longtime Maury Island resident Pat Collier, who also spoke during the boat tour. She said it was learning about the ecosystem that finally convinced her to follow through. Now she enjoys regularly seeing evidence of everything from otter and deer to forage fish returning to her beach.
“And it’s just a good feeling to see it … the species, the vegetation, all of the wild critters around are the ones that belong in that spot,” Collier said.
She got support from local governments, as well as technical assistance from the now-defunct non-profit People for Puget Sound. But she still estimates she spent about $40,000 of her own money on the restoration.
With thousands of property owners still to convince, it’s likely more incentives will be needed to restore the rest of Puget Sound’s nearshore. Authorities say about 64 percent of the shoreline is still armored or walled in. As more and more people move to the area – ironically, often attracted by the beauty of the natural surroundings such as the Sound – environmental workers are struggling to keep up.
“We continue to lose nearshore habitat faster than we are getting it back through restoration projects,” said Jay Manning, vice-chair of the Puget Sound Partnership’s leadership board and a keynote speaker on the boat tour.
“That’s unacceptable. Everything from starfish to sea anemones to salmon to orcas are largely dependent on the health of that nearshore area,” he said.
Participants on the boat tour received a list of state and federal legislative priorities, detailing billions of dollars of work to be done in the years ahead.