Statutory Goal: A healthy human population supported by a healthy Puget Sound that is not threatened by changes in the ecosystem.


Air Quality

Exposure to impaired air quality

Drinking Water

Nitrate concentration in source water

Index of Vulnerability for Elevated Nitrates in Groundwater

Local Foods

Locally harvestable foods

Bivalve harvester-days

Recreational Dungeness crab catch

Onsite Sewage Systems

Inventory, inspection, and repair of onsite sewage systems

Percent of unsewered shoreline that has inspection program

Outdoor Activity

Nature-based recreation

Nature-based work

Condition of swimming beaches
Shellfish Beds

Area of harvestable shellfish beds

A few indicators of the Healthy Human Population goal have recovery targets, none were met

While the indicators did not meet their targets for 2020, some trended in a positive direction, while others stayed the same or grew worse. More shellfish beds are available to harvest commercially. Local health jurisdictions continue to make advances in inventorying and inspecting septic systems, which ultimately helps to reduce harmful bacteria that pose a risk for human health. Some indicators, like the condition of swimming beaches and drinking water, are not improving, but are in good shape overall. Poor air quality in some years and low crab harvest are concerning. Harvesting local foods provides valuable health and cultural benefits; however, toxics and other pollutants limit the amount of seafood people can safely eat.

  • Between 2007 and 2020, more acres of shellfish beds were upgraded than downgraded across all classifications. The result was a net increase of 6,659 acres of harvestable shellfish beds, a sizable fraction of the 2020 target of 10,800 acres.
  • There is a long-standing tradition of harvesting clams and oysters along the beaches of Puget Sound. Most people harvest shellfish at beaches in the Hood Canal or North Sound regions. Pollution limits people’s access to shellfish harvest at many beaches in Central and South Sound.
  • Over 200,000 people purchase a license to harvest Dungeness crab in Puget Sound each year. However, an increasing number of harvest closures due to low crab populations have been in effect in South and Central Puget Sound since 2015. Total harvest and endorsements issued have also declined.
  • A survey of Puget Sound residents suggests wildlife viewing and birding, gardening, and walking or hiking on paths and trails are the most frequently practiced outdoor activities.
  • In addition to gathering high quality food, harvesting and hunting are opportunities for people to make meaningful connections with Puget Sound’s natural resources. Plants, berries, and mushrooms are more likely to be harvested than fish, shellfish, or game species.
  • Most groundwater supplying large public water systems in Puget Sound is not contaminated by nitrates. However, Whatcom, Island, and Clallam counties had higher nitrate levels compared to other Puget Sound counties.
  • The severity of local and regional wildfires has been the main cause of Puget Sound residents’ exposure to unhealthy air quality in recent years.

For more details about ecosystem conditions relating to this goal, please see our Story Map on Puget Sound Info.

Climate change directly impacts human health

Climate change poses a high risk to all of the Vital Signs related to Healthy Human Population (Siemann and Binder 2017).

  • increased wildfire frequency and extent; and
  • increased allergen intensity and season length.
  • lower summer water availability;
  • warmer water temperatures and increased sediment loading that reduce surface water quality;
  • heavier rain events that may flood and damage supply systems; and
  • sea level rise and saltwater intrusion in some coastal areas.
  • negative impacts to shellfish and finfish; and
  • shifts in availability of terrestrially harvested foods.
  • heavier rain events;
  • sea level rise; and
  • increased groundwater saturation in winter.
  • degraded water quality at beaches due to warmer water temperatures and increased recreational use;
  • heavier rain events that erode and washout roads and trails;
  • increased wildfires that impede access to recreation areas or make them less desirable to visit following a burn;
  • reduced snowpack and shortened winter seasons that limit snow-based recreation; and
  • extreme heat events that affect the health and safety of outdoor workers.
  • ocean warming;
  • ocean acidification; and
  • heavier rain events.

Signals from the 2020 State of Our Watersheds Report

Commercial Shellfish Growing Conditions Remain a Concern in the Puget Sound Region: Since 2014, there has been an increase of nearly 6,000 acres of approved or conditionally approved commercial shellfish growing areas in the Puget Sound Region due to improved water quality conditions. However, there remains a considerable amount of prohibited and restricted growing areas across the region. Of the over 280,000 total acres of growing areas in 2020, 34% (98,052 acres) had either prohibited or restricted status. This prompts concerns about water quality issues across the region.

Why is human wellbeing important for Puget Sound recovery?

Puget Sound plays a big part in residents’ wellbeing. While human behaviors can often damage the environment, ecosystem recovery lessens those effects and improves residents’ wellbeing. Integrating human dimensions in planning—like human wellbeing through social sciences—opens possibilities for leveraging new partners, ideas, strategies, tools, concepts, and even funding sources to help address shared problems.

People and Puget Sound are intertwined and mutually reinforcing

A healthy and vibrant Puget Sound depends on healthy and vibrant communities. The Partnership sees Puget Sound’s health as a social-ecological system: humans are a part of and not apart from ecosystems.

People interact with the environment in complex ways:

  • as beneficiaries of nature’s contributions to health and quality of life;
  • as pressures on natural systems; and
  • as implementers of recovery efforts.

These interactions can damage or improve the health of the Puget Sound ecosystem.

The Partnership’s considerations of human wellbeing also help to bring attention to issues of diversity, equity, inclusion, and environmental justice.

Human wellbeing surveys help us understand people’s connections to Puget Sound

In 2018, the Partnership, working with Oregon State University, embarked on a project gauging residents’ wellbeing using regional surveys. The first two surveys were conducted in 2018 and 2020. We will repeat surveys in the future to track changes.

With these surveys we want to know about residents’ perceptions of sense of place, stewardship, recreation, access to local foods, cultural wellbeing, and governance (Fleming and Biedenweg 2018).

The surveys cover a range of aspects of human wellbeing that relate to Puget Sound recovery. The surveys reveal the vital relationships residents have with Puget Sound and its natural resources. Such surveys measure attitudes, feelings, actions, and connections to Puget Sound. For example, the survey gauges how often residents take part in activities to care for the environment. These surveys establish the first baseline of subjective measures of human wellbeing. The baseline is useful as the region faces continued population growth that will alter not only demographics and physical landscapes, but also likely the health of Puget Sound’s ecosystem.

Results show strong sense of place

Survey results show that Puget Sound residents have a strong sense of place associated with Puget Sound’s natural environment (Fleming et al. 2020). For example, 75 percent of respondents strongly agree or agree they feel responsible for taking care of Puget Sound’s natural environment. A strong sense of place links to the residents’ psychological wellbeing, which suggests that residents’ use of the outdoors contributes to their mental health. This sense of place also builds upon residents’ outdoor activities, like wildlife viewing, birding, and use of local foods, like shellfish.

Survey response patterns did vary by certain factors, including by place of residence. Shellfish in particular is a local food that is culturally, commercially, and recreationally important among Puget Sound residents, with differences in public access due to bed closures from hazards or other concerns (Poe et al. 2016). Many of the region’s Indigenous communities see shellfish and the act of harvesting as key to their health and wellbeing (Donatuto et al. 2011; Poe et al. 2016).

More sense of place, more stewardship

Residents with a strong sense of place are more likely to engage in actions that help improve the ecosystem (Trimbach et al. 2020). Residents also vary in their opinions of environmental governance in the region. This shows that in some places, decision-makers might need do more to build trust and include residents in planning efforts. Decision-makers could also help foster people’s connections to Puget Sound to improve beliefs about environmental governance and recovery overall (Kibler et al. 2018).

Puget Sound as a place of healing during the Covid-19 pandemic

The human wellbeing Vital Signs and their survey findings show that Puget Sound’s natural environment and health are crucial to the region’s residents. The Covid-19 pandemic has made residents’ connections to Puget Sound even clearer. Residents rely more than ever on the region’s natural environment, notably public parks and green spaces (Shirley 2020; Stinchcombe 2020). As public and private spaces closed due to the pandemic, many Puget Sound residents opted for outdoor recreation (Banse 2020). Residents’ use of the outdoors shows that outdoor recreation is a key economic sector for the state and region (Mojica 2020). A 2020 report from Earth Economics states that outdoor recreation accounts for 264,000 or six percent of total jobs in the state (Mojica 2020).

The Covid-19 pandemic may have influenced residents’ answers to the human wellbeing survey, signaling changes to their wellbeing and interactions with Puget Sound. For example, residents’ weekly stewardship actions decreased in 2020 (35 percent) from 2018 (~50 percent), possibly caused by the short-term closures of nonprofit or stewardship groups and delays in activities. While Covid-19 may have affected stewardship actions among, residents still went out to enjoy Puget Sound’s natural bounty (Stinchcombe 2020). Such increases in outdoor activities show that Puget Sound is not just a place for recreation and play, but a place that gives residents a sense of awe, escape, sanctuary, calm, and healing during an uncertain time. Residents’ reliance on Puget Sound during Covid-19 highlights the power of this place and the need to ensure its health and recovery for future generations.