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Perspective: Puget Sound Needs a Network of Effective MPAs and No-Take Marine Reserves

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By Jamie Glasgow

[Editor's note: Jamie Glasgow is director of science for the Wild Fish Conservancy (www.wildfishconservancy.org), an NGO dedicated to the recovery and conservation of wild-fish ecosystems in the Pacific Northwest region of the US.]

Puget Sound is a complex marine estuary that encompasses an area of 2600 km2 in the northwestern US state of Washington.  The Sound supports an astounding diversity of fish, seabirds, marine mammals, plants, and invertebrates.  It is also adjacent to a major metropolitan center that is home to over four million people, where the population is expected to increase to seven million by 2020.  (This includes the cities of Seattle, Bellevue, Everett, Tacoma, and Olympia.)


Puget Sound faces challenges typical of an ecosystem surrounded by millions of humans.  We have experienced a relatively recent but thorough legacy of resource exploitation that includes: overfishing (by commercial, Native American, and recreational users); expansive hatchery fish production intended to prop up collapsing fisheries; net-pen aquaculture of non-native Atlantic salmon; substantial shellfish aquaculture; nearshore and estuary habitat loss; and upland development that compromises the quantity and quality of freshwater delivered to the Sound.  Compounding these resource management challenges are impacts associated with climate change, including changes in ocean acidification, water temperature, and hydrology.


Not surprisingly, these cumulative impacts have taken a huge toll on the ecological integrity of Puget Sound.  The abundance, population structure, and life-history diversity of many of the marine organisms that rely on Puget Sound are degraded.  Four Puget Sound salmonid populations are federally listed as threatened with extinction.  Groundfish abundance in Puget Sound is on a decline that started in the early 1980s, largely attributable to unsustainable fishing pressure.  Fourteen out of seventeen species of rockfish in the North Sound and eleven out of fifteen species in the South Sound are at risk.  Three of these Puget Sound rockfish species are listed as either threatened or endangered.  Marine bird populations that feed on fish near the surface or in open water have declined 80-95% in numbers.  And in 2005, Puget Sound orcas were added to the federal government's list of endangered species.


Substantial public will and resources have been aimed at "saving Puget Sound".  State and federal agencies have spent more than US $230 million annually on Puget Sound restoration since 2008, and many millions more have come from private foundations.  The majority of these funds have been spent on laudable habitat restoration projects, with notably fewer resources going toward meaningful harvest and hatchery reform.  And what about marine protected areas, you ask?  Well....

Just 0.07% of Puget Sound protected


Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), the state agency that regulates non-tribal commercial and recreational fishing, manages a total of 25 MPAs within Puget Sound.  Notably, these MPAs were sited opportunistically rather than based on an overarching design with coordinated objectives.  Most of them limit commercial, but not tribal or recreational, fishing.  At present there are just nine no-take marine reserves in Puget Sound that in total cover 425 acres.  This amounts to just 0.07% of Puget Sound's surface area.  (That is not seven percent; it is seven one-hundredths of one percent.)  There are 16 additional "marine preserves" that do not restrict hook-and-line fishing (http://wdfw.wa.gov/fishing/mpa/).


Why the paucity of MPAs in Puget Sound?  Why is there no science-based MPA network?  It is not for lack of lip service.  MPAs are identified as fundamental but as-yet-unrealized tools in the WDFW Groundfish Management Policy, in the WDFW Draft Puget Sound Rockfish Conservation Plan, and in Fish and Wildlife Commission Policies on groundfish and marine protection areas.  Workgroups, committees, and action agendas have identified the need and opportunity for an effective Puget Sound network of MPAs for the past 15 years, yet we are not measurably closer to implementation.


The lack of progress stems from multiple obstacles.  Despite struggling groundfish populations that would substantially benefit from MPAs, local and national sportfishing groups view a Puget Sound reserve network as a slippery slope toward reduced fishing opportunities.  They have effectively lobbied state government to maintain the status quo.  WDFW is charged with setting fishing regulations and restrictions to protect weak stocks, yet its operations are funded in part through the sale of fishing licenses, a conflict of interest that creates a disincentive to eliminate fishing in certain areas or take a position counter to vocal fishing lobbies.  Despite policies that commit to the precautionary principles of conservation, WDFW is disinclined to restrict harvest via MPAs where stock status and trend data are sparse or inconsistent; the burden of proof in favor of a conservation need is often placed on conservationists.  Western Washington Treaty Tribes, co-managers of Puget Sound fisheries, are cautious to embrace MPAs until conventional fishing regulations have been proven to be inadequate and there is a demonstrated need for conservation via reduced harvest.  The National Marine Fisheries Service, the federal agency under the US Department of Commerce charged with recovering threatened marine species, has done little to actively encourage development of an MPA network in Puget Sound.


Restoring the fundamental ecology of Puget Sound will require a commitment to a scientifically rigorous MPA network that encompasses a significant portion of the Sound, clearly defined objectives, and a commitment to enforcement, monitoring, and adaptive management.  There is also urgent need for public outreach and education.  For while WDFW's written fish management policies embrace MPAs as a tool for managing the weakest stocks, an effective MPA network is a significant and necessary departure from conventional Puget Sound fisheries management. 

For more information: Jamie Glasgow, Wild Fish Conservancy, Duvall, Washington, US. Email: jamie [at] wildfishconservancy [dot] org

Note: The current issue of MPA News' sister newsletter Marine Ecosystems and Management features an interview with Anthony Wright, executive director of the Puget Sound Partnership, an inter-agency and multistakeholder initiative to address several stressors on Puget Sound: www.meam.net/MEAM28.html.

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