Shoreline stewardship in the San Juans | Guest Column


In February 2002, I joined the San Juan County Forage Fish Project as program manager.

The project, a locally based, public-private partnership developed to fill a recognized marine research need, embodied the best of the “do it ourselves” island attitude. We don’t expect (or desire) others to solve our problems, and we develop creative solutions to get the job done ourselves with limited resources.

Over the course of the multi-year project to identify and map surf smelt and Pacific sand lance spawning beaches (two of the forage fishes important to marine food webs), Friends of the San Juans, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Marine Resources Committee and the U.W. Friday Harbor Labs worked with hundreds of private shoreline landowners, 125 community volunteers and more than 600 local students toward this shared purpose. The County Commission directed all county departments to apply forage fish results as best available science.

The project was completed in 2003 and final reports and maps were distributed to more than 200 local and regional scientists, planners and managers, to inform and improve management decisions.

Since that time, many public processes have produced additional reports and recommendations with direct shoreline management implications for our county. A few examples of these include the 2005 Puget Sound Chinook Salmon Recovery Plan, our state’s locally based response to the listing of chinook salmon under the Endangered Species Act. In this plan, the top strategy in San Juan County’s chapter (our local responsibility) of the plan is protection of remaining high quality nearshore habitat.

Another relevant document is the San Juan County Marine Stewardship Area Plan, locally developed by the Marine Resources Committee and adopted by the County Council in summer 2007. This plan, the result of a three-year technical and public conservation planning process, identifies the cumulative impacts of ongoing shoreline modification in the top three largest threats to marine ecosystem recovery and includes improved land management as a priority strategy.

Most recently, the San Juan Initiative reiterated the importance of local shoreline habitat and recommended an array of changes to voluntary and regulatory programs to improve protection.

So how are we doing, in 2009?

New docks continue to be permitted and constructed over eelgrass. New bulkheads continue to be permitted and constructed on forage fish spawning beaches, even when no structure is threatened by erosion.

Our local development code is out of sync with the community’s stewardship ethic. Local protections are inconsistent with the piles of science and stakeholder driven reports that gather dust, awaiting implementation.

And last week, our County Council voted (4-2 with Pratt and Myhr dissenting), to further delay any improvements to the shoreline sections of our local code that protects critical nearshore marine habitats for three or more years.

And that sense of shared purpose, of a strong, locally driven community response that was such a positive part of my work on the Forage Fish Project? Sadly, it has been overshadowed by polarization and finger pointing about who is really to blame for the at risk status of so many of our marine dependant species.

I’m optimistic that a strong stewardship ethic remains in this community, although currently quieted by the budgetary unrest and a debate characterized by a stark lack of civility that goes unquestioned. I’m also ready to step up with others in my community to do what I can locally to ensure that future generations experience restored salmon, rockfish, seabird and marine mammal populations in the waters of the San Juans.

I hope you’ll join me.

— Tina Whitman is science director at Friends of the San Juans and a member of the San Juan County Marine Resources Committee. She lives on Orcas Island with her husband and son.

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