Saving the Salish Sea

by E. Haskell Maxwell, Guest Writer

Salish Sea

Even packed in a four-word headline, the problem looms large. The beautiful seascape seen from Port Ludlow is merely a sliver of a vast ecosystem that stretches from Olympia, WA, in the south to the Campbell River in Canada. It encompasses more 10,500 square miles of sea, more than 4,600 square miles of land, a human population nearing nine million, and an animal population of nearly 450 different species (not including those without a backbone).

“All of this – plus more than 3,000 varieties of worms, mollusks, mosquitos, leeches et al – is under attack.”

Says Janine Boire, executive director of the Port Townsend Marine Science Center (PTMSC, ptmsc.org), “The science bears out what the issues are: the Salish Sea is in peril. The main threat is the rapid rate of change on the planet. Our ecosystems that have evolved over millennia aren’t prepared to respond in a stable way.”

Thus, factors such as air pollution, ocean acidification, the rapidly changing climate, human intervention, etc., have led to a situation where, according to the latest EPA count, a total of 126 Salish Sea marine creatures are at risk of extinction. Among these are different varieties of such iconic creatures as orcas, salmon, puffins, and sea otters.

So, the Salish Sea is in trouble. That, in turn, means trouble for those who live near it or make their living from it. There are, however, glimmers of hope. These come via a wide variety of organizations, partnerships, educators, and special interest groups which have banded together to help find solutions for the problems besetting this area. Consider, for example, the plight of the pinto abalone. Once plentiful in the Salish Sea, these small creatures were rendered virtually extinct by a combination of sport diving and illegal harvesting. Enter the pinto abalone grow-out program, a multi-group effort headed by the Puget Sound Restoration Fund. After more than a decade of effort, this program has begun to return the pinto to its rocky, kelpy habitat by “growing them out from seeds until they got big enough to plant out in colonies,” notes Dianne Quinn, the PTMSC’s program director.

Similar projects are well underway for dozens of other species. However, the success of these projects largely requires the buy-in of local residents and organizations. To get that, Boire notes, we need to find ways “to communicate without paralyzing people” about the scope of the problems.

Communication is a key focus for the PTMSC. Thanks to its museum and aquarium, Quinn notes, “We have a unique feature in that we have a public space.” The PTMSC uses this space to help showcase the many programs designed to boost the health of the Salish Sea, to provide both information and volunteer opportunities for residents, and to give local children hands-on experience about the problems and potential of this area.

Programs for children include classroom visits to the PTMSC, opportunities to run their own tests on issues such as water acidification, and even a joint Water World project with Centrum (centrum.org/water-world-grades-5-6), designed to help children experience marine issues through both artistic and scientific lenses.

For adults, the PTMSC offers a variety of online lectures and activities. One current example is a one-hour video on the problems created by microplastics, which was created by NOAA and jointly funded by the PTMSC and the Jefferson County Marine Resources Committee. (See separate article in this issue.) In addition, the PTMSC currently boasts more than 300 volunteers, and while volunteer activities have been scaled back during the Covid pandemic, there are still a number of opportunities for webinar training and specific projects.