Messages from Puget Sound Partnership’s Executive Director and Boards

Windy day at Golden Gardens. Photo Credit: Jon Bridgman


Dear people of Puget Sound,

Laura Blackmore, Executive Director, Puget Sound Partnership. Photo Credit: Jon Bridgman

On the surface, Puget Sound looks beautiful, but it’s in grave trouble. Southern Resident orcas, Chinook salmon, steelhead, and many other species are listed under the Endangered Species Act; toxic chemicals and pharmaceuticals continue to pollute our waterways; and shellfish beds are routinely closed to commercial and recreational harvest due to fecal contamination. Despite a significant investment of energy and resources from federal, tribal, state, and local governments and non-governmental partners, habitat degradation continues to outpace restoration. While this situation at times seems impossibly bleak, the thousands of passionate people who are devoted to seeing the return of a healthy and resilient Puget Sound give us hope.

Scientists say that we can still recover Puget Sound, but only if we act boldly now. We know what we need to do (2018-2022 Action Agenda for Puget Sound). The primary barriers between us and more food for orcas, clean and sufficient water for people and fish, sustainable working lands, and harvestable shellfish are funding and political fortitude.

The single greatest step we could take to ensure a durable, systematic, and science-based effort to recover Puget Sound is to fully fund the implementation of habitat protection and restoration, water quality protection, and salmon recovery programs.

We also know that federal, state, and local governments can act boldly now, without additional funding, to improve our recovery system. We can work together to improve how we apply existing regulations and policies, strengthen the regulatory environment, develop new tools to make the recovery choice the easy choice, and share local and regional stories of recovery more broadly. The Puget Sound Partnership is committed to this work, and to the Call to Action in this report.

But we can’t do this alone. Success requires investment of human and financial resources from all sectors of society. The stories in the 2019 State of the Sound illustrate this clearly: each story involves many partners and funding sources, working hard to bridge divides, and trying new approaches to solve old problems. Our partners in recovery are a tremendous source of strength, inspiration, innovation, and political will.

Failure is not an option. Last summer’s 1,000-mile swim of mourning by the Southern Resident orca Tahlequah, carrying the body of her dead calf, drove this point home—sharply and poignantly—to millions of people around the world. We hold the future of Puget Sound in our hands. We can act now to protect this place we love, for our sake, for our children’s sake, and for the sake of all the creatures that depend upon it.

Join us.


Laura L. Blackmore, Executive Director


As part of the Puget Sound Partnership’s work to accelerate the effort to protect and recover Puget Sound, we present the 2019 State of the Sound. On the doorstep of 2020—the legislature’s target date for restoring Puget Sound to good health—we must face the reality that our collective efforts have not been at the scale or pace sufficient to that task.

We look to our Vital Signs for more detailed information on how the ecosystem is doing, and soberly observe this year that the number of Southern Resident orcas, biomass of spawning Pacific herring, and an index for marine water conditions are evaluated as “getting worse”. Other key indicators of ecosystem health, such as Chinook salmon and eelgrass, are not showing improvement.

At the same time, important progress is being made. We’ve seen gains in harvestable shellfish beds, improvements to floodplains, and considerable increases in the number of septic systems that have been inspected and repaired. We’ve also seen reductions in permitted shoreline armoring and in the conversion of ecologically important lands. These are meaningful, positive changes that give us hope and help chart the course ahead.

These positive changes are the result of the work of the dedicated coalition of tribes, cities, counties, businesses, state and federal agencies, and other residents of Puget Sound who run the programs, raise the funding, and implement the projects. The collective gains include more production and jobs in Washington’s shellfish industry, improvements in the health of waterways that provide us with recreation and food, and more resilient shorelines and floodplains that protect biodiversity and property. When engaged with our partners in recovery, we remain optimistic that this vast network of people and programs is capable of a successful restoration effort, when we’re all pulling in the same direction.

In the same breath, we must acknowledge that the status quo will not lead to a resilient and healthy Puget Sound. Looking ahead, we see that the threats and challenges to the ecosystem are growing, asking even more of the coalition committed to regional recovery and resilience. Puget Sound is one of the most spectacular places on earth to live, work, and play. We can expect that people will continue to be drawn here for good jobs and easy access to mountains, forests, and beaches—and in ever-increasing numbers. Current growth projections predict a doubling of the region’s population by 2050 with significant potential impacts to the region. In addition, we are already experiencing climate impacts such as ocean acidification, changes to stream flows and ocean warming. These are harbingers of greater changes. If we are truly to heed the advice of our science advisors, tribes, and other partners that we can only recover Puget Sound by acting boldly now, some of our most important actions come sharply into focus:

  1. We must fully fund the Puget Sound Budget, which will include programs and budget requests that protect and restore habitat, water quality, and species recovery, as well as the scientific research that enables us to understand which of our investments yield the greatest results.
  2. We must identify and—most importantly—make changes to our regulatory system to protect and restore habitat, water quality, and species. This includes federal and state policies and programs, as well as supporting local governments to accelerate protection and recovery.
  3. Perhaps most significantly, we must dive head-first into challenging conversations about the consequences that climate change and population growth are having and will have on our ecosystem and quality of life—and the trade-offs that we’re making when we shy away from discussing how and where that growth should occur.

We face a pivotal point in time. We know that with each passing day, the course to recovery becomes more challenging. We also see around the region a broad coalition of engaged citizens who recognize that the work to protect and recover Puget Sound is everlasting, with no end date. This 2019 State of the Sound report provides an opportunity for reflection, assessment, and deciding whether we’re up for some difficult conversations on how we can recover Puget Sound to health and long-term resilience, despite what we’re facing. We look forward together to take the actions needed to ensure a resilient Puget Sound—one that can adapt to the impacts of climate change and the pressures of a growing human population while meeting the needs of its native creatures. Now is the time—OUR time—to act.


Jay Manning, Chair
Stephanie Solien, Vice-Chair
Russell Hepfer, Member
Deborah Jensen, Member
Dennis McLerran, Member
Toby Murray, Member
Jim Wilcox, Member



The Partnership’s enabling legislation directs the Science Panel to offer comments on progress in implementing the Action Agenda, as well as findings arising from the assessment and monitoring program.


The Puget Sound region faces increasing pressures from accelerating population growth, development and climate change. To ensure the Puget Sound ecosystem can recover from disturbance and maintain and enhance the benefits it provides to people and nature across the region, we must increase the magnitude of action.

In its recovery efforts, the Puget Sound Partnership will always be confronted with the need to accomplish recovery and protection now while ensuring the actions we take are the most cost-effective and successful. The Puget Sound Partnership Science Panel acknowledges the progress made building the enterprise to “do it now” and implement the Action Agenda and we ask the important follow-up question, “Can we do it better?” Specifically, we ask:

With increasing pressures facing Puget Sound, is the current level of planning and effort to recover the Puget Sound ecosystem matched to the magnitude of action needed to achieve goals for a resilient Puget Sound?

We conclude that the elements of a science-based recovery enterprise that we developed to “do it now” are also what we need to “do it better.” To do that, we recommend:

  • Invigorating the dialogue between scientists and decision makers to improve clarity around critical decisions and the scientific information needed to inform them
  • Integrating goals, recovery targets, and ecosystem indicators by focusing on resilience
  • Communicating about linkages between actions and results by making science more accessible and collaborative
  • Continuing to build sustainable capacity for new science to guide our actions
  • Strategically testing the best path forward using scenarios and leveraging best available science

In 2009, shortly after the adoption of the first Action Agenda to recover Puget Sound, the Puget Sound Partnership Science Panel observed that our recovery efforts would always be caught between the dual needs to “do it now” and “do it better.” In our subsequent reviews in 2012, 2013, 2015 and 2017, we focused on the progress of building the capacity to “do it now”. More specifically, we discussed a framework for science and policy dialogue to guide priorities; an integrated system of goals, recovery targets, and ecosystem indicators to guide actions; opportunities to refine and communicate what we know about linkages between actions and results; and building sustainable capacity for collecting new information and analyses. A decade later, we have a science-based recovery enterprise, built on these elements, that is capable of getting needed actions done now. But do we need to do it better? In this review, we acknowledge the progress we have made building the enterprise to implement the Action Agenda and we ask the important follow-up question:

With increasing pressures facing Puget Sound, is the current level of planning and effort to recover the Puget Sound ecosystem matched to the magnitude of action needed to achieve goals for a resilient Puget Sound?


Elsewhere in this 2019 State of the Sound report, the Partnership presents encouraging stories of positive efforts contributing to improvements in ecosystem condition. The Partnership also identifies other areas where the recovery is not progressing or the ecosystem is worsening, and provides evidence that we continue to struggle to implement the planned recovery activities that we need to do now.

Progress in recovering the ecosystem is mixed. The Partnership has 52 Vital Signs that are key parts of the ecosystem that let us track the ecosystem’s health and our recovery progress. Of these, 29 have indicators with data good enough to assess progress relative to baseline conditions. In this year’s report, ten show improvements, three show declines or degradation, seven are not improving, and nine have mixed results (i.e., trends differ among indicator components or areas). Of the 31 indicators for which the Partnership established recovery targets to be achieved by 2020, four are reported to be at or near the target, and 27 are well below their target.

These results reflect the underlying forces of long-standing and extensive human influences on the Puget Sound ecosystem that are not yet counterbalanced by current approaches to Puget Sound recovery, protection and responsible redevelopment. The following explanations help us understand our apparent lack of progress for many of the indicators:

  • We are not implementing all the right actions in the right places or at the right times
  • We are taking the right actions but not enough of them
  • We have not implemented a monitoring system that can detect progress at meaningful management scales
  • We are taking the right actions, but detecting ecosystem response will take longer
  • Increasing environmental pressures and stressors are offsetting benefits gained from restoration actions

While we know that the near-term actions (NTAs) do not encompass all of the actions needed to achieve the goals for a resilient Puget Sound, our review of implementation of NTAs alone clearly indicates that we are not doing enough. More than half-way through the anticipated implementation period of NTAs from the 2016 Action Agenda, only 23% of the 362 actions are fully implemented or on schedule. Additionally, proponents of recovery actions indicate that they struggle to implement their planned activities because of a lack of funding, staff resources and expertise (83% of actions); need to revise scope and approach of efforts (11% of actions); lack of social, political, or management support (5% of actions); and regulatory barriers (2% of actions). Importantly, however, we are not aware of any cases where lack of scientific knowledge is limiting how much we can do.

The Science Panel has highlighted ways to address the first four explanations of impediments to progress (above) in previous comments and documents. For this year’s report, we address the last explanation that “increasing environmental pressures and stressors are offsetting benefits gained from restoration actions”.


Are we poised to address increasing environmental pressures and stressors? Present-day and anticipated future drivers of change present further challenges for a resilient Puget Sound ecosystem. The continued growth of the region’s human population and development of land for residential, commercial, and industrial uses threaten to further degrade habitat, pollute marine and fresh waters, and impair the viability of a number of species such as salmon and orca whales. Impacts from a changing climate and ocean—including higher temperatures, more intense weather, new patterns of high and low stream flow, rising sea levels, and acidification of marine waters—only add to our challenge.

The state Office of Financial Management projects that Puget Sound population will reach over 5.7 million by 2030, an increase of 18.2% from 2014 population estimates. The ecosystem will also be challenged by a warming and more variable climate. With this, the capacity of the ecosystem to absorb increasing pressures and disturbances will be further compromised, potentially overwhelming our collective attempts to restore Puget Sound. Avoiding this outcome requires us to consider both addressing past impacts, as well as increasing the resilience of Puget Sound to absorb new disturbances from population growth, increasing habitat loss, and climate impacts. Consideration of both ecosystem recovery and increasing regional resilience is essential to avoiding the vicious cycle of future disturbances overwhelming our recovery actions.

The Science Panel concludes that we need to improve the elements of a science-based recovery enterprise that we developed to “do it now” in order to ensure we “do it better”. These elements include:

  • science and policy dialogue to guide priorities
  • an integrated system of goals, recovery targets, and ecosystem indicators to guide actions
  • opportunities to refine and communicate what we know and learn about linkages between actions and results; and
  • building sustainable capacity for collecting new information and analyses

In the following sections, we explain why we need to improve these elements, how the Partnership and Science Panel has started, and what is needed as we continue this work to achieve a resilient Puget Sound.

Science-Policy Dialogue and Clarity of Leadership

The science is clear that as questions become more complex (i.e., unable to be solved by technical solutions alone), science-policy dialogue is increasingly important because the kind of information that scientists need to bring will be different and they will need to communicate findings in new ways. We acknowledged the need for this dialogue in “Our Vision and Guiding Principles” in the Puget Sound 2018-2022 Action Agenda. When policy makers and scientists co-develop tools, such as scenario modeling, robust qualitative models, systems analyses, and visualization, we are more successful at yielding more enduring solutions.

Setting realistic and meaningful priorities needs to be a two-way street between policy makers and scientists. Leadership gives direction on how scientific information can be used to create opportunities for change and identify policy windows, (i.e., circumstances that lend themselves to policy change, where science is needed). Scientists can describe current and potential future conditions and elucidate the relationship between system components and external pressures (e.g., climate change) or actions (e.g., restoration or land-use).

Together, scientists and policy makers can identify the issues that people care about, how people make choices, and the collective future we strive to achieve. The Partnership’s sponsorship of policy-science workshops, involving the Leadership Council, Ecosystem Coordination Board, and the Science Panel, is a good start. To “do it better”, we will need to develop and implement best practices for regular, deliberate, effective engagement between policy makers and scientists. We should also engage in unplanned opportunities, such as the Governor’s convening of a task force to address the perilous condition of the Southern Resident Killer Whales. It is essential that we encourage effective dialogue to ensure scientists focus on and communicate information most relevant for improving Puget Sound resilience.

Focusing on Resilience: Integrated System of Goals, Recovery Targets, and Ecosystem Indicators to Guide Actions

In its contribution to the 2017 State of the Sound, the Science Panel recommended a shift away from using restoration endpoints and targets and to instead focus on resilience as our desired outcome. The Panel argues that the Puget Sound recovery community needs to view resilience—which we define as being adaptive to environmental challenges through restoration and protection and their respective targets—as a way to support and sustain resilient landscapes, species and economies and have an ecosystem that can bounce back from disturbance. With this emphasis, interim progress measures are all the more important towards understanding advancements.

In December 2017, the Science Panel convened a science-policy workshop to inform the Partnership’s efforts and to bring the concept of resilience out of the academic realm and into general use as a frame for Puget Sound recovery. Presentations and interdisciplinary discussions at this workshop explored attributes of ecosystem function and condition that confer and indicate resilience (building from Timpane-Padgam et al. 2017); applying resilience concepts to institutional, social, and ecological domains; and the critical shift to managing for change rather than static conditions. Social science perspectives, including the guidance to be clear about “resilience from what and for whom” (as raised in Olsson et al. 2015), were prominent in these exploratory discussions. Collectively, the science-policy workshop focused on the ways in which the institutional, social, and ecological domains can be strengthened to support building conditions to allow the ecosystem to bounce back from disturbance. As well as accounting for the system being transformed to a different set of conditions from cumulative or major perturbations.

At this point, only limited progress has been made in framing specific resilience-focused strategies. At its core, resilience thinking presents an approach for managing natural and environmental resources that acknowledges that human and natural systems are linked, complex and continually adapting through cycles of change, with time lags that are both short and long for different system elements. For example, floodplain reconnection projects restore ecological processes rather than individual ecosystem components. In doing so, they provide benefits to salmon, but also to human communities who gain greater protection from flooding and climate change. The Science Panel is working on strengthening the focus on resilience within the Partnership and the broader Puget Sound recovery community through the implementation and improvement of the strategies delineated in the 2018-2022 Action Agenda.

Communicating What We Know About Linkages between Actions and Results: Making Science More Accessible and Collaborative

What we know about the Puget Sound ecosystem grows by hundreds of research reports each year. Given the scope of the research, the large number of participants in the recovery effort that might use this information, and the growing complexity of scientific studies, we all benefit in having scientific findings communicated quickly and in ways easily accessible to a wide range of policy makers and restoration-practitioners. Collaboration between scientists and non-scientists has proven to be especially effective in making new information accessible and useful.

Numerous formats are available for communicating new information such as technical reports, peer-reviewed articles, conferences, general audience fact sheets and articles, online websites and other formats. Each has advantages and disadvantages. In the appendix to this letter we highlight several venues and means for disseminating the science of Puget Sound. The compilation represents examples not a comprehensive listing.

Building Sustainable Capacity for New Information

In addition to being explicit about objectives, policy makers can strengthen science by providing adequate funding for research. For the first time, the governor and legislature made a very encouraging statement in the 2019-2021 operating budget by providing $2.222 million of ongoing funding to the Partnership for Puget Sound research. The intent of funding Puget Sound scientific research dates to the creation of the Partnership in 2007, (see RCW 90.71.110), but no appropriation for this purpose had been made until 2019. The budget expresses that a competitive, peer-reviewed process be used for soliciting, prioritizing and funding projects and stipulates that additional monitoring be conducted by the Puget Sound Ecosystem Monitoring Program (PSEMP). The budget further specifies that the initial research be focused on the Salish Sea Marine Survival Project, effectiveness of Chinook recovery efforts, and effectiveness of actions to restore shellfish beds. These three topics are included on the Science Panel’s list of fourteen top priority work actions.


The Science Panel concludes that the elements described above and priorities identified in the 2016 Biennial Science Work Plan combine to allow us to strategically test the best path forward for increasing Puget Sound resilience. In the Work Plan, the Science Panel identified priority work actions including (1) conduct scenario-based analysis of ecosystem vulnerability, (2) develop and apply an integrated ecosystem model; and (3) develop and apply tools to support decision making. Scenario-based analysis provides an opportunity and process for scientists and decision-makers to work together toward solutions and strategically test the alternatives to achieve them. For example, scenarios can be used to explore how business-as-usual or specific policy actions affect mutually determined indicators of resilience. Scenarios invigorate this dialogue by fostering collaborative conversations about how the actions we take now affect outcomes in the future as well as the characteristics of the future we collectively envision.

To meet the demand for objective evaluations and comparisons, the scientific community is developing collaborations to integrate modeling across the Puget Sound. The Science Panel envisions utilizing advancements in Visualizing Ecosystem Land Management Assets (VELMA) and the Salish Sea Model with a Puget Sound application of Atlantis to integrate watershed and freshwater systems, marine circulation and water quality, and marine food webs.1 The collaboration will link the ecological models with an agent-based modeling subsystem (e.g., Envision) that allows decision-makers to be represented in whole-basin simulations. The ability to integrate ecological and human systems as part of a scenario process will facilitate discourse among stakeholders, enabling them to compare the ecological, social and economic consequences of alternative choices. In doing so, modeling provides an effective decision support tool for understanding and addressing recovery of high priority endpoints, such as the Vital Signs and measures of ecosystem resilience.

These analyses, scenario formation, and the issues considered throughout this letter will raise other questions that the Science Panel believes are important for the Puget Sound recovery community, such as:

  • Can we make long-term decisions? Do we have a long-term vision that can serve as the context for making and evaluating long-term decisions?
  • Do we have alternative future scenarios to inform our long-term vision?
  • Interconnectedness and networks are thought to be a key characteristic of ecological and social resilience. Do we understand what these are, how they can be developed, and how they work in the Puget Sound?
  • What are good examples of stories that convey, in practical and accessible terms, the value of and need for adopting a resilience approach?
  • Are there clear opportunities to revise or change course in policy, restoration, and recovery work?
  • Does the organization’s structure allow for innovation and bold ideas?

Support and resources for this approach are gaining traction. Modeling investigators are competing well for project funding (e.g., from EPA Region 10, Washington Sea Grant). The Science Panel is working closely with the Ecosystem Coordination Board to examine the impact of a range of population growth and climate solutions on salmon, habitat, and other variables. This process specifically will provide usable information for elected officials and other local policy makers. The Science Panel looks forward to working with policy makers, including the Orca Task Force and its successor, to secure resources for integrated ecosystem modeling and the development and analysis of scenarios (and other modes of strategic testing) that provide insights about how ecosystem recovery planning and effort can be adapted to achieve the goals for a resilient Puget Sound.

Our recovery efforts must be science-based and science-driven, and to address a problem of this magnitude we must aim for close integration of the efforts of a variety of stakeholders, including researchers across the natural science and social science disciplines; federal, state and local policy-makers; tribal governments; local integrating organizations and the residents of the Puget Sound region. This close integration of efforts is crucial to ensure we achieve our shared objectives for a resilient Puget Sound.


John Stein, Chair

Ken Currens and Robert Ewing, co-Vice Chairs

Joel Baker, Member

Bob Bilby, Member

Nick Bond, Member

Nives Dolšak, Member

Colin Grier, Member

Edward Kennedy, Member

Bill Labiosa, Member

Paul Mayer, Member

Jan Newton, Member

Timothy Quinn, Member

Theresa Satterfield, Member

Ruth Sofield, Member

Eric Strecker, Member

Trina Wellman, Member

1 For example, note the multiple food web modelling tools used by Kaplan et al. 2019 to understand the role of Pacific sardine in California Current.