The Puget Sound is a well known and well loved destination for anything from boating to scuba diving. Many people make their homes near or on its waters, while others look to it as the source of their livelihood. Salmon swim in it every year, chased by seals. Oysters grow and harden their shells on its shores. The Puget Sound houses massive amounts of aquatic life, from tiny microplankton all the way up to huge killer whales. With the importance of the Puget Sound to all facets of the Pacific Northwest, it seems that it would be imperative to our continued success to keep it as healthy and clean as possible.
Unfortunately, that is not the case. Under the water’s serene veneer, a horrific combination of ocean acidification, chemical pollution, and sewage have been stewing in the Puget Sound for years. On almost every beach, signs warn that touching or going into the water could be dangerous. Health officials recommend people avoid the ocean unless they want to put themselves in danger.
However, humans aren’t the only ones at risk of poisoning themselves. The sea creatures of the Puget Sound are taking the brunt of the mess, to the point where many are completely unable or unwilling to survive. Fish are being poisoned; mollusk shells are melting before they’re even fully formed, and animals are eating trash and being soaked in chemicals.
Despite the dire situation the Puget Sound faces, we are not without hope. The government has made several attempts in recent years to pass laws to ban things like sewage dumping or chemical pollution.
Along with politicians, there are many small groups of self proclaimed environmental stewards (ES) who have been working in non profits or small companies to do their own part in stopping pollution for years. If these two groups can work to bolster and uphold the laws that are already in place–either by changing the current laws or adding new ones that support them–and also give citizen run groups the funding that they need to work alongside these laws and make their own improvements, then there may still be hope for the Puget Sound.
The first issue the Pacific Northwest needs to address if we are going to fix the situation they have gotten into is the problem of ocean acidification. Long before the Industrial Age and humans harnessing fossil fuels, the earth established reservoirs for the excess carbon in the atmosphere. The ocean, rocks, and the atmosphere are all carbon reservoirs. However, with the amount of fossil fuels being burned, the carbon that is released is too much for the earth to handle. In the article “Dealing With Ocean Acidification: the Problem, the Clean Water Act, and State and Regional Approaches,” the author Robin Craig explains that “Rocks, the ocean, and the atmosphere are all carbon reservoirs, balancing the location and reactivity of carbon on Earth at any given time.
Importantly, removing carbon (including carbon dioxide) from one reservoir simply shifts it to a different reservoir. Viewed from this global earth science perspective, humans using fossil fuels actively disrupt the normal balance of carbon cycle components, accelerating the return of carbon to the atmosphere from oil and coal deposits through the very fast processes of mining, drilling, and burning…” (Craig).
This means that the amount of carbon dioxide in the ocean has become too much for it to handle, to the point where pH levels have dropped far below what is healthy. Craig goes on to explain that “As the global ocean continually absorbs much of the anthropogenic carbon dioxide produced through the burning of fossil fuels, its pH is dropping, causing a plethora of chemical, biological, and ecological impacts. These impacts immediately threaten local and regional fisheries and marine aquaculture; over the long term, they pose the risk of a global mass extinction event” (Craig). After looking at Craig’s research, it seems obvious why sea creatures dealing with how ocean acidification affects their homes are struggling badly.
Unfortunately, ocean acidification is not the only issue the Puget Sound is facing. The other problem that is affecting the water and wildlife of the area is the toxic pollution and urban runoff coming from the cities and homes that are scattered all around the water. Pollution anywhere from human sewage to the copper that squeaks off car brakes is being picked up and carried into the ocean and other bodies of water by the PNW’s near constant rainfall. According to an article written in 2011 by the US Fed News Service titled ‘Preventing Toxic Pollution Key for Protecting Puget Sound, New Scientific Assessment Shows,” “When rain hits roofs, roads, and other hard surfaces in developed areas, it picks up and carries toxic chemicals with it. This polluted water then runs into storm drains and goes, mostly untreated, directly into area lakes, streams and rivers, as well as Puget Sound. Toxic pollutants can threaten environmental and human health. Most don’t break down easily, and they stay in the environment a long time.
They can enter the Puget Sound food chain and wind up in the bodies of fish, seals, orca whales and people” (“Preventing…”). The words “toxic pollutants” certainly sound scary enough to make anyone want to stop polluting. But what exactly is a toxic pollutant? Around the same time this article was published, the Pacific Northwest did a study on the chemicals running into our waterways titled the Puget Sound Toxics Assessment, and researchers found many chemicals, such as “Copper [urban pesticide use, brake pads and boat paint] cadmium, zinc and phthalates from roofing materials. Phthalates are a group of chemicals commonly found in plastics…
Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) from creosote-treated wood, wood smoke and vehicle exhaust. PAHs are known to harm fish, [and] Petroleum-related compounds from motor oil drips and leaks from our cars and trucks, as well as routine fuel and oil spills on land and to the water” (“Preventing…”). With the variety of chemicals that all have different effects being brought into the water through rainfall and runoff, it’s no surprise that the Puget Sound is struggling as badly as it is. Not only are these chemicals harmful, they are long lasting. Chemical components of plastic and oil will be around to affect our ecosystems long after the people who put them passed away, which is why it’s so important that people put a stop to runoff pollution now.
The pollution of Puget Sound isn’t just affecting the water quality and the aquatic life. Many companies profit off of the area, for a multitude of different reasons. Unfortunately, some of these groups are seeing the effects of Puget Sound’s pollution more than others.
One of the most affected groups are shellfish farmers. According to Craig, “Shell-forming organisms, which are most vulnerable to ocean acidification, constitute over 30% of the Puget Sound’s marine species and thus, a significant proportion of Washington’s marine life. Moreover, Washington’s economy is directly impacted by the negative effects ocean acidification has on these species, because ‘Washington is the country’s top provider of farmed oysters, clams, and mussels.’ Washington provides about 85% of annual farmed shellfish sales in the western United States, and shellfish aquaculture is worth about $270 million annually to the state, employing 3200 people” (Craig). With the obvious importance of shellfish to the Washington State economy, it’s obvious why companies that sell shellfish–such as Taylor Shellfish Farms, which is located right here in Shelton, Washington–are so affected.
The water that they need to grow their product isn’t just poisoned from runoff or too unsafe to gather oysters from. Currently, the water in the Puget sound is so corrosive and toxic that it is “eating away at the oyster shells before they can form” (Craig). Obviously, this creates a large issue. If the Pacific Northwest is trying to sell shellfish, whose shells are extremely sensitive to changes in the acidity of the water, out of what scientists are finding out is some of the worlds most corrosive waters (Craig), then this won’t just affect the aquatic life or the shellfish industry; it has the potential to to cost Washington thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars of profit.
Luckily–or not so luckily–shellfish are not the Puget Sound’s only attraction. Another species that is vital to economics and the environment are the salmon that run through the Pacific Northwest every year. Before they go back to their mating streams, salmon spend a large chunk of their development in the ocean. This is supposed to be an important time for them. They grow stronger, eat lots of fish, and learn to dodge prey. The ones that survive are the best and strongest, so they are the ones that return to hatch the next generation.
However, the chemical runoff in the Puget Sound has been severely impairing salmon’s ability to return back to their stream. Specifically, the copper–often from car brakes–that is caught in the runoff is affecting salmon’s sense of smell. In the article “Preventing Toxic Pollution Key for Protecting Puget Sound, New Scientific Assessment Shows,” environmental toxicologist Jay Davis explains that “Many chemicals in polluted runoff, such as copper, directly harm salmon and other fish. Copper interferes with the ability of salmon to smell. They need their sense of smell to avoid being eaten by predators, navigate back to their natal streams to spawn and to find mates.
‘We’ve learned that adult Coho salmon are dying prematurely in large proportions when they return from the ocean to spawn in Puget Sound urban streams” (“Preventing…”). Salmon are an important part of the ecosystem of the Pacific Northwest. If they can’t use their sense of smell to guide them to food, they will die. More importantly, if they can’t use that same sense of smell to get themselves back to the streams where they were born so they can find mates and reproduce, then the amount of salmon will drop hugely. One salmon not making it back to its natal stream isn’t a big deal; but when large groups of salmon become confused and unable to reproduce, then the Puget Sound is looking at massive die offs of the salmon population.
These are some of the biggest issues, but they aren’t the only ones that the Puget Sound is facing. There’s strain from rising water levels, climate change, and a multitude of others. In ‘Relationship between Epibenthic Invertebrate Species Assemblages and Environmental Variables in Boston Harbor’s Intertidal Habitat,” Elizabeth Eddy et al. predict that “given anticipated climate-change impacts such as sea-level rise and ocean warming, and other stressors associated with the urban environment, the critical ecosystem functions (i.e., species habitat, food-web support)…have been and will likely be further altered” (Eddy et al.). So what is the solution? How can people fix the issues plaguing the Puget Sound? There seem to be several possibilities.
First off, it is important to note that the pollution has not been completely ignored. There have been many attempts to solve these problems, both worldwide and in the Puget Sound. In fact, in 2018 the Puget Sound was declared a No Discharge Zone (“Puget…”). Other federal laws, such as the Clean Water Act (Craig) have also been put into place to prevent pollution to various bodies of water.
Even though there have been attempts made to fix the issues that the Puget Sound is facing, it’s not enough. We are creating laws, but the impact isn’t what it needs to be. Puget Sound being declared No Discharge Zone took place in 2018, but even that simple law took years to pass, and, according to the article “Puget Sound Officially Designated No Discharge Zone” “There is no change to grey water requirements” (“Puget…”).
We are making steps, but they aren’t enough. Making sure that we can’t pump sewage into the Puget Sound seems like an obvious solution, but even that is contended. In an article written by the Targeted News Service in 2019 called “’Greenest’ Gov. Inslee Refuses to Modernize Puget Sound Sewage Treatment”, they say that “Gov. Inslee declined to order changes in state rules sought by Northwest Environmental Advocates (NWEA) to require the removal of nutrient and toxic pollution. Instead, the region’s sewage treatment plants will continue to use the century-old, outdated technology known as ‘secondary treatment’ despite a Washington state that law requires use of the best available treatment technology” (“Greenest…”). This is unacceptable. If we have people in power who can’t or won’t make the changes that we need to, then the next step is to turn to the people. In the last ten years, citizens have started putting research into nonprofit and privately owned organizations that are doing environmental work.
Kathleen Wolf is the author of the article ‘Environmental Stewardship Footprint Research: Linking Human Agency and Ecosystem Health in the Puget Sound Region.’ According to her, there are large groups of environmental stewards in Washington who are doing their own work through groups or non profits. She did an assessment of these groups, and found that “The rapid assessment process identified 588 organizations conducting environmental stewardship in the greater Seattle/Tacoma area (51% exclusively in King County, 16% exclusively in Pierce County, and 33% in both. Most organizations are active in multiple sites, the types of ES organizations are varied, and activity on waterways and water bodies was prevalent.
Non-profits comprise 64% while private, environmentally oriented business interests represented 13% of the tally” (Wolf). 588 groups of ES is a lot. So why not rely on them? So far, the government has made steps, but they haven’t been quite right. What if we gave the power to those who are already making change instead of pressuring people who haven’t put in the effort? Instead of forcing the government to pass new laws, we put work into making sure that the groups–especially the nonprofits–get the funding that they need to support the laws that are already in place.
They can work with the government to get larger federal grants. Wolf says that “Program and project managers have particularly direct experiences of stewardship, yielding understandings that may differ from scientists’ observations” (Wolf). If we can put those two different groups together, it could be great. We could create something like the Environmental Protection Agency–a federal agency focused on cleaning up the environment–but on a smaller scale, specifically focused on the Puget Sound area. Although creating a group specifically designed to fund environmental nonprofits could be complex, this idea is not new. These two groups have been working independent of each other for years, and nonprofits run largely off of federal grants anyway. If we could find some way to connect them and create a more official form of funding, than we could be extremely successful.
This plan has pros and cons. Combining the forces of the government–who has the power to enact laws and the funding to start projects– with people who have been working by themselves in different situations will pool together different resources and experiences to create a unique opportunity that could be extremely beneficial for the health of the Puget Sound. It is also easier to improve or enforce the laws that are already in place than to create an entirely new group of laws that may take years to pass. Puget Sound had to wait 5 years for something as seemingly simple as the No Discharge Zone law, and that only really covered a small portion of the pollution actually affecting the Puget Sound. If both ES groups and the Washington government have been working separately for years with some success, then combining forces could be the answer we need.
Unfortunately, there are some possible issues as well. Creating a group that could work to fund the nonprofits and connect government efforts to the environmental stewardship groups could take a long time, and it would require the cooperation of the Washington government and the Environmental Protection Agency. It took 5 years for the Puget Sound to become a No Discharge Zone, and that one law wasn’t as big as this. Governor Inslee has also shown resistance to taking steps forward in fighting pollution, despite his environmental stance. On top of that, we would also likely have to do more research and find a specific small group of the most successful independent ES groups, as it would be unreasonable to fund 588 separate groups of citizens.
No plan is perfect, but the time to act is now. We have been waiting and planning for years, taking timid baby steps toward success while the Puget Sound hurtles toward a level of pollution that we might not be able to come back from. Ocean acidification and toxic runoff aren’t going to wait for us to be ready to fight them before they pollute our waters and kill our animals. Salmon and shellfish aren’t going to die less just because we agree that we want change. We have to take steps NOW, because soon it will be too late. The time for partial successes and wringing our hands is over.
The Pacific Northwest has too much tied to the Puget Sound for us to lose it for good. If the people of Washington wait too long or act too late, they aren’t just losing a beautiful and important body of water and piece of history; they would lose thousands of jobs, hundreds of millions of dollars worth of income, and many more resources. Don’t wait for the change. Be the change. Uphold the laws that have already been passed while striving for even better improvements. Puget Sound isn’t going to wait for us to be ready, so we have to move with the tide, and make change as necessary.