Health of Port Susan Bay at risk

Two local American Indian tribes want to add an extra layer of protection for the Western sandpipers, snow geese, short-eared owls, Chinook salmon and other species that thrive in Port Susan Bay.

The Tulalip and Stillaguamish tribes want Snohomish and Island counties to designate the bay a Marine Stewardship Area. The designation won’t carry any new regulations, but it will create a partnership between the counties and the tribes to protect the area.

“The idea is to get people together to figure out what strategies and actions are best going to protect this ecosystem,” said Kit Rawson, a fisheries biologist for the Tulalip Tribes.

A stewardship designation, which would allow fishing and other activities, is different than a protection designation, which could result in the ban of boats and other uses, said Terry Williams, an environmental policymaker with the Tulalip Tribes.

The salmon that skitter into the bay from the mouth of the Stillaguamish River may be at risk from contaminants, but local tribes also want to protect their right to responsibly catch those fish, he said.

“We talked about making it a Marine Protected Area, but in that case you close up all the fishing and everything else,” Williams said. “What we need is to protect the habitat, but we don’t want to close down state or tribal fisheries.”

The partnership’s first goal would be to determine the specific factors that threaten the health of Port Susan, he said. From there, the counties and tribes would create a plan to protect the area.

Port Susan Bay is at the mouth of the Stillaguamish River in northern Snohomish County, sheltered between the arch of Camano Island and the mainland.

The bay is the state’s southernmost biological “hot spot,” said Stef Frenzl, a Snohomish County employee who specializes in environmental protection. The area is prized for the abundance and diversity of the species that live there.

“Here we have an opportunity to keep it a biological hot spot, if we plan wisely,” he said.

Port Susan Bay is bordered by a 4,000-acre preserve managed by The Nature Conservancy, an international nonprofit that works to protect the environment. Trips to the preserve are infrequent and carefully planned to minimize the impact on the land.

But the water that laps up toward the preserve is at constant risk of damage due to pollutants found in the Puget Sound region, Rawson said.

“The impacts of increased population and habitat modifications bring contaminants that come into the land,” he said. “It all affects the marine ecosystem.”

Both tribes have begun meeting with Marine Resource Committees from Island and Snohomish counties to create a plan to protect the area. The process is in its earliest stages, but officials on all sides hope they ultimately can determine the threats to the bay and make the Marine Stewardship Area designation official.

It’s unclear how long the process could take, Frenzl said.

Rawson, on behalf of the interests of the Tulalip Tribes, helped San Juan County officials designate the entire county as a Marine Stewardship Area in 2004. That process began in 1996, when that county formed a Marine Resources Committee that organized meetings with local agencies and community members.

It wasn’t until last July that the San Juan County Council approved a Marine Stewardship Area plan.

The San Juan plan, which identified oil spills, climate change, invasive species and other factors as threats, doesn’t limit fishing or boating. Instead, the plan suggests actions, including reducing the harvest of greenling and rockfish, creating customer demand for “green” products and increasing monitoring of upland activities that affect the marine ecosystem.

The San Juan plan likely will be used as a model for the Port Susan Bay plan, Rawson said.

The tribes aren’t ignoring other areas, Williams said.

“Overall, we’re looking at the fact that the Puget Sound is in trouble,” he said. “This is one step in looking at the broader issue.”

Reporter Krista J. Kapralos: 425-339-3422 or

Marine Stewardship Area

A Marine Stewardship Area designation for Port Susan would allow local officials to decide on specific protections instead of a general ban on boating, fishing and other marine activities that sometimes accompany a designation as a federal Marine Protection Area.

Last year, San Juan County and local tribal officials designated that county a Marine Stewardship Area.

Highlights of the San Juan County Marine Stewardship Area:

n A community and county partnership determines the area’s environmental priorities.

n Businesses will be certified with Enviro-Stars to create demand for local “green” products.

n A local oil spill response team is in development.

n Gaps between programs that protect shorelines are being assessed.

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