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Originally published Friday, August 15, 2014 at 4:29 PM

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Guest: How to reverse decline of marine birds

How to reverse the troubling decline of marine birds in Puget Sound, according to guest columnist Trina Bayard.


Special to The Times

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@markseawa Mark, "Sea star" and "starfish" are both accepted common names for phylum Echinodermata, class Asteroidia. ... MORE

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Marine birds face a number of threats, and the region is already witnessing the ways that climate change exacerbates their plight.

It’s time to reverse the course of dwindling marine life in Puget Sound. Whether it is the absence of sea stars at our local beaches, or the drastic reductions of marine birds and other animals highlighted in a recent Times news story by reporter Craig Welch, community and state leaders must use their collective energy to secure the legacy of a bountiful Puget Sound.

The growing human population leads to increased pressure on natural systems. Increased shoreline development can destroy natural habitat, which impacts forage-fish spawning habitat. The shrinking of the forage-fish population weakens a critical link in the marine food web because these fish are an energy-rich food source for larger fish, marine mammals and birds.

The impetus to act in the face of such wide-ranging challenges is often overwhelmed by institutional and individual inertia, but we should start with fully implementing the management plans and regulations that already exist.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife drafted a forward-thinking forage-fish management plan in the late 1990s. Many still consider it a model example for how an ecosystem-based approach might work.

This plan prioritizes the ecological role that forage fish play as food for other fish and wildlife, rather than simply setting quotas based on estimates of fish abundance. To manage the ecosystem as the plan recommends, however, the state needs basic information.

More than 10 years later, the time and money to collect this information still haven’t materialized. Management of the forage-fish population is essentially operating in the dark. This is particularly true for species such as surf smelt and Pacific sand lance. Basic life-history information and the role of human stressors in limiting these populations is unknown.

Urge state legislators to fully fund the forage-fish management program. Funding to develop the programs, which would cost $2 million to $3 million a year, is a key step to ensure sufficient food resources for the larger fish, marine mammals and birds.

Loss of nearshore habitat is a major threat to Puget Sound ecosystems. The importance of this zone for fish and shellfish was recognized by the state Legislature in 1943, when it enacted the state Hydraulic Code.

This law requires that a Hydraulic Project Approval permit for shoreline construction projects that might impact fish or fish habitat. This code further dictates a “no net loss approach,” which means that the project must either avoid or mitigate loss of fish life or habitat.

There is widespread concern that the state Department of Fish and Wildlife has failed to implement the code according to its original intent. Repercussions are being felt across the food chain. The department is now amending the Hydraulic Project Approval permitting process. This is a timely opportunity to speak up in support of strengthening the permit process.

Management and stewardship of marine life and habitats are more than just environmental challenges. Numerous studies show that personal and economic well-being is closely tied to the health of the local marine environment.

Whether you simply enjoy the experience of spotting birds and other wildlife from the deck during ferry crossings or your job depends on Puget Sound marine life, help safeguard our marine heritage.

Trina Bayard is director of Bird Conservation at Audubon Washington.



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