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Originally published March 26, 2009 at 3:57 PM | Page modified March 26, 2009 at 4:18 PM

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Guest columnist

Beyond Puget Sound: Ten ideas for saving the Salish Sea

The best way to save the Puget Sound is to think larger — the Salish Sea — and more holistically, argues guest columnist Joe Gaydos, regional director of the SeaDoc Society. Here he offers 10 principles to save an ecosystem that includes the 17,000-square-kilometer inland sea shared by Washington state and British Columbia.

Special to The Times

IF it were easy to save an ecosystem from deterioration, people would have already done it. Billions of dollars have been spent restoring Chesapeake Bay and the Florida Everglades with limited success. Even without a successful model to follow, we do have a solid foundation from which to work.

As described in a paper just published in the international journal EcoHealth, there are well-accepted ecological principles for designing healthy ecosystems.

First, we need to stop talking about saving Puget Sound and start talking about saving the entire Salish Sea, a 17,000-square-kilometer inland sea shared by Washington and British Columbia. The international political boundary dividing this ecosystem is invisible to fish and wildlife and irrelevant to the oceanographic processes that shape the system.

Second, we need to pay attention to the wildlife, places and activities that are connected to this ecosystem. Species like gray whales and salmon, which migrate thousands of miles to and from the Salish Sea, matter. Nonlocal demand for local fisheries matters. And our robust shipping industry, which links the Salish Sea to most of the world, matters.

Third, we need to better understand the food web and use this information for better management. For example, we manage salmon fisheries for a sustainable yield, but we fail to account for the needs of the 136 vertebrate species that rely on salmon or salmon carcasses.

Fourth, we need to stop fragmenting the habitat, above and below the water. Disconnecting the linkage between the land and the ocean by building seawalls or removing vegetation is just as damaging as trawling the sea floor. Such actions fragment important processes. For example, removing shoreline vegetation takes away the insects that fall from trees and feed juvenile salmon, and increases beach temperatures so that fish eggs laid on the beach die instead of hatch.

Fifth, we need to respect the integrity of the ecosystem by keeping all the parts of the system without adding new ones. This means not just keeping all the species, but also not introducing nonnative invasive species or toxic materials.

Sixth, we need to do things that support the system's resiliency; things that will allow it to take hard punches and bounce back. This can be as simple as maintaining a diversity of species and a diversity of genetics within those species.

Seventh, we need to better appreciate the economic and monetary value of a healthy ecosystem. Even in its current condition, the fish and wildlife of the Salish Sea are a major source of income. People pay a lot of money to watch them or harvest them.

In Washington, on-the-water activities such as sailing, kayaking, whale-watching, and SCUBA diving generate 80 percent of all dollars spent on tourism annually. The ecosystem also helps filter toxins and prevent floods. Improving these functions by improving natural processes is cheaper and lasts longer than fixing them with man-made technology.

Eighth, we need to better monitor the health of the ecosystem's wildlife. Not only are humans and wildlife affected by the same toxins, but animals — particularly wildlife — are thought to be the source of more than 70 percent of all emerging human infectious diseases. Understanding what affects the health of the Salish Sea's wildlife is good for recovering endangered wildlife populations and is a simple way to better protect human health.

Ninth, we need to do a better job of planning for extreme natural events. Storms and floods are going to happen and actually benefit the ecosystem when they do. Our attitudes and our policies on land use and design and construction of buildings need to reflect this.

Finally, people are an integral part of the ecosystem. Widespread public education is needed to help citizens understand how a healthy ecosystem supports their own physical, mental and economic well-being. Additionally we need political leaders who have the vision and stamina to pursue a long-term focus on creating a healthy Salish Sea in the face of difficult economic times.

Following these principles offers our best opportunity to design a healthy Salish Sea and create a successful model that people around the world will follow.

Joseph K. Gaydos is regional director of the SeaDoc Society, a program of the UC Davis Wildlife Health Center that has a regional focus on improving the health of the Salish Sea. The full paper described can be viewed at www.seadocsociety.org

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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