Notes from the Salish Sea Conference, Seattle, April 30-May 2, 2014

Salish Sea. Photo credit: Flickr user fletcherjcm

Every two years the Salish Sea Conference brings together scientists, First Nations and tribal government representatives, resource managers, community/business leaders, policy makers, educators and students, and even the occasional environmental lawyer, to share the latest research on protecting and restoring the Salish Sea ecosystem. This year I was privileged to be one of well over 1,000 attendees at this exciting conference, held in Seattle from April 30 to May 2. It was organized by the Fraser Basin Council, Western Washington University and the Puget Sound Partnership.

The Conference was held at the Seattle Convention Centre, and Chief Leonard Forsman of the Suquamish Tribe officially opened the proceedings on Coast Salish territory. Grand Chief Edward John of the First Nations Summit and Hereditary Chief of Tl'azt'en Nation gave the opening plenary address. We were reminded about Chief Seattle, and his famous words: “The Earth does not belong to us. We belong to the Earth.”

After the opening, we all headed off to the sessions, and I had to choose among eight different streams, and over 400 presentations! Having an up-to-date understanding of what’s going on in an ecosystem is critical for managing it well, and the conference provided an important opportunity for information sharing, across borders and across sectors.

A strong First Nations and Tribal presence at the conference emphasized that for Coast Salish peoples, the US/Canada border is a recent phenomenon and their millennia of experience and knowledge in living prosperously, and sustainably, in and around the Salish Sea must be honoured and respected as we tackle current challenges.

I can’t possibly capture the entire range of important issues explored at the conference. But here are a few highlights:

  • A front-page story in the Seattle Times on the opening day of the conference reported on a new scientific study that documents how the ocean has been absorbing some of the excess CO2 we’ve been pumping into the atmosphere, with the result that certain coastal “hot spots” have already become so acidic that the shells of species like sea snails are dissolving. Several full sessions of the conference were devoted to presentations about ongoing research and monitoring of acidification and its impacts, taking into account scientific research and traditional knowledge about shellfish harvesting.
  • Hearing from scientists directly was a reminder of some of the practical challenges they face: they often struggle to find adequate funding for their research projects, and need to be champions for their work, and it may also take time to find qualified peer reviewers who can provide the necessary seal of approval for scientific rigour. This can mean delays of years or more before new research becomes accessible to policymakers.
  • Natural science has understandably been the foundation of ecosystem research in the Salish Sea, but social science is emerging as an important complement. The Puget Sound Partnership Science Panel now has a Vice-Chair who is a social scientist, Katharine Wellman (she’s an economist), and she was on hand to welcome us at the opening of the conference, setting the stage for several packed sessions that explored how to integrate natural and social science approaches. Traditional knowledge is also increasingly recognized as vital information. From an environmental law perspective, these were perhaps the most interesting sessions--demonstrating how science and traditional knowledge could be translated into policy and decision making. For example, Andrew Day described how West Coast Aquatic has worked with First Nations and local communities on the west coast of Vancouver Island to identify ecological, social, economic and cultural values and to develop indicators that can be used to inform planning decisions.
  • Another presentation by Phil Levin, a marine ecologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service, National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration, looked at how to get community input into eelgrass protection targets, when community interest in eelgrass itself was hard to quantify. Rather than focusing on eelgrass directly, he and his team developed visual representations of different levels of community development on a landscape that would be possible with corresponding eelgrass protection targets. Instead of being asked about eelgrass protection in isolation, community members were asked to choose among the different development/protection scenarios.
  • A lunchtime conversation with a Washington Department of Ecology manager provided interesting information about coastal management at the state level. Unlike British Columbia, the State of Washington has a Shoreline Management Act, which promotes a partnership approach with local governments to managing state shorelines. The Act requires that local governments with shorelines along the sea must prepare and adopt, with guidance and assistance from the state, a Shoreline Master Program that is essentially a local area plan for the shoreline, including zoning regulations and a development permit system. SMPs must meet a standard of no net loss of shoreline ecological functions from approved developments. At West Coast Environmental Law, our work with local governments in BC has shown that having jurisdiction over shorelines shared among several levels of government and agencies creates barriers to ensuring ecosystem protection and coastal resilience to sea level rise.  While acknowledging that the Washington model doesn’t accommodate our four levels of government, perhaps we can still learn from this more integrated approach.
  • Floodplain management experiences in Puget Sound were also discussed in several presentations. As with coastal management, there is a different legal regime and division of responsibilities among different levels of government. The US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) carries out floodplain mapping. In BC, while this was formerly a joint federal-provincial responsibility, it was shifted to local governments in 2003. The need to update existing floodplain maps in light of climate change and sea level rise is proving now to be a financial and political challenge for many communities in BC.
  • Other sessions explored the benefits of shoreline ecosystem services with regards to storing carbon, reducing erosion, and supporting community resilience to sea level rise – a topic that is directly relevant to my own work on helping communities adapt to climate change. Research from organizations like the Nature Conservancy is helping to demonstrate the benefits of green infrastructure on the coast, making a business case for protecting coastal habitat.
  • From an urban perspective, a large waterfront redevelopment initiative in Seattle is incorporating innovative green solutions based on scientific research about the impacts of different shoreline armouring (hardened structures that stabilize the shoreline from erosion) on aquatic species and habitat, with the objectives of supporting ecosystem function and enhance community livability. In Bellingham, the Port is working on a proposed waterfront redevelopment that aims to convert a presently vacant and contaminated industrial site into a revitalized area with new economic drivers and community waterfront access. Each of these waterfront initiatives may ultimately provide lessons that will be useful for coastal communities in BC, many of which face similar circumstances with aging shoreline infrastructure and shifting economic opportunities.

For those who are interested in more information about the conference and its proceedings and presenters, including slides and other materials, they will eventually be available as an archive at the Salish Sea Conference site. The Puget Sound Institute at the University of Washington is also compiling an Encyclopedia of Puget Sound that will include reports and stories from the conference.

West Coast Environmental Law has been working with local governments, and with the provincial government, to help give BC communities tools that address the impacts of climate change by increasing resilience. The Salish Sea Conference provided a rich offering of ideas and contacts that will help us in that work. 

By Deborah Carlson, Staff Lawyer