On November 13, 1998, Congress authorizes the Northwest Straits Marine Conservation Initiative, an innovative grassroots and voluntary approach to marine conservation for northern Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Born out of a failed campaign to create a national marine sanctuary, the Northwest Straits Initiative pursues local and regional conservation projects to improve habitat, protect species, and educate Northwest residents about their marine environment. Relying on county-level volunteer marine resources committees (MRCs), the initiative works to protect and restore marine ecosystems.
Reversing Ecosystem Decline
Since time immemorial, the Salish Sea provided abundant marine resources on which Northwestern Tribes based their cultures and livelihoods. Soon after Europeans arrived, they began exploiting marine resources through market economies with long reaches. The profit motive, industrial technologies, and pollution diminished the quality of the marine environment and the abundance of marine species. For decades, various organizations and governments worked through laws and regulations to improve the situation without enough improvement. Conditions were worsening in the 1980s.
By the mid-1990s, environmentalists and politicians proposed a national marine sanctuary for the Northwest Straits, an area that included Puget Sound north of the southern tip of Whidbey Island and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Local tribes and all seven counties in the affected area opposed this idea, fearing a federal initiative might undermine treaty rights and local governments. Facing opposition and declining marine resources, advocates retooled.
Recommending a Novel Way Forward
In 1997, U.S. Senator Patty Murray (b. 1950), a Democrat, and U.S. Rep. Jack Metcalf (1927-2007), a Republican, appointed the Northwest Straits Citizens Advisory Commission to investigate options and propose solutions. After a year’s work, the diverse committee concluded that marine problems crossed jurisdictional lines and harmed communities and economies throughout the Northwest Straits. "Bottom fish, sea birds, invertebrates, salmon, and even some populations of marine mammals have declined precipitously since 1980," their report concluded (Report to Conveners, 2). They also acknowledged that existing laws and conservation strategies had lacked coordination and had so far been ineffective.
During their study, the Murray-Metcalf Commission recommended a novel structure. It identified the new San Juan County Marine Resources Committee (MRC) as a model to be duplicated. An MRC would be based in counties and advise county governments on marine conservation issues locally. They would rely on science and grassroots support, as well as education. The Murray-Metcalf Commission explicitly prohibited this initiative from having regulatory or planning power. Instead, it used a voluntary approach: "The Northwest Straits Commission will be established to use science and a collaborative, bottom-up approach to build support for restoration and protective measures" (Report to Conveners, 8).
These recommendations aimed to counter the opposition to the national marine monument. Within three months, Congress authorized the Northwest Straits Marine Conservation Initiative directly following the Murray-Metcalf Commission’s recommendations.
Launching the Initiative
Although not required, each of the seven counties – Clallam, Island, Jefferson, San Juan, Snohomish, Skagit, and Whatcom – established their MRCs within a year. Marine conservation projects, locally driven and voluntary, took off. A commission –the Northwest Straits Commission – as established to coordinate the seven county-level MRCs and be a liaison to other government agencies (e.g., the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) as necessary. It included a representative from each county, a Tribal representative, and up to five designees appointed by the governor.
Research and restoration helped improve the local waters almost immediately. MRCs and volunteers inventoried and mapped forage fish spawning sites as important habitat needing protection. They also helped remove derelict fishing gear – sbandoned nets and crab pots, for instance – that was harming the marine environment. Every activity provided an opportunity to educate the public about marine issues.
The congressional authorization required a full evaluation of the initative after five years. William D. Ruckelshaus (1932-2019), the first head of the Environmental Protection Agency and Seattle-area resident after 1976, chaired the eight-person evaluation committee in 2004. Acknowledging that five years was too early to measure all the benefits, the Ruckelshaus panel nevertheless praised achievements made so far, calling it "an excellent investment" (Five-Year Evaluation Report, ii). The evaluation urged Congress to reauthorize the initiative, increase its funding, and replicate it elsewhere.
Continuing the Work
The Northwest Straits Initiative continues its work, involving citizen scientists around the region. Local MRCs have developed voluntary no-anchor zones in eelgrass beds and been critical in monitoring kelp in Puget Sound. They continue to remove derelict gear, numbering in the many thousands, and they have expanded to remove derelict vessels as well. They work to remove the invasive European green crab. Public education remains a key goal, and sometimes they work in local schools to teach about marine conservation issues. The ecological pressures in the marine environment continue to be threatened by climate change and losses in biodiversity, but the initiative has broadened regional understanding and political support for conservation efforts.
In their work, MRCs and the Commission rely on collaborations and volunteers. A benefit of this approach has been to build networks of supporters.