Kudos to Washington’s Puget Sound Action Team (PSAT), which today released its State of the Sound 2004 report. The report contains 14 indicators of Puget Sound’s ecological health, including everything from fish populations to habitat loss to toxic contamination. PSAT’s work is encouraging, not because the findings point to flourishing ecosystems (they don’t), but because Cascadians now have good—and accessible—science to evaluate the health of at least one major ecosystem.

Monitoring ecosystems is devilishly difficult because ecosystem dynamics are so complex. Throw in the natural variability of weather and of species’ populations and you’ve got a recipe for confusion. So good science and long-term investigation are important when it comes to understanding ecological changes. That’s what PSAT offers: solid science to help set priorities.

And just what is the state of the Sound? It’s a mixed bag.

  • On the bright side, Puget Sound has less severe concentrations of toxic heavy metals, less invasive spartina grass, and growing stocks of herring. Orcas, shellfish, and PCB concentrations are holding their ground. But in a few other arenas, Puget Sound is struggling. Three trends that ought to be of particular concern to Washington’s leaders are:

    • Marine birds are "dramatically declining;" in fact, their populations have plummeted 50 percent over the last three decades. Numbers of Western grebes have been slashed by fully 95 percent.
    • Rockfish are clinging to just 10 percent of their historic numbers, though recent trend data are not available. 
    • Lowland habitat loss is getting worse. Widespread development in central Puget Sound impairs aquatic systems.

    It sounds like we Cascadians have our work cut out for us. In an encouraging note, Governor Gregoire is taking the report seriously.

    It’s also worth mentioning another scientific effort to monitor local ecosystems: the trans-boundary Georgia Basin-Puget Sound Ecosystems Indicators Report. This report takes a similar approach to PSAT’s release, but widens the geographic scope to include the inland seas and  watersheds of southwestern British Columbia. A new version will be appearing soon.

    UPDATE (January 19, 2005): PSAT’s report picked up some great media coverage around the Sound. Check out articles in the Seattle Times, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the Kitsap Sun (registration require), and the Olympian.