Home Editorial 30th Anniversary Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference

30th Anniversary Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference

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Editorial and Photos By Roy Mulder 

Seattle hosted the 30th Annual Salish Sea Conference, a trans-boundary initiative to focus on the Salish Sea that is shared by Canada and the United States. This conference respects that the ocean knows no borders and that conservation requires a combined effort on both sides of our modern borders. This conference also respects the indigenous peoples who inhabited this area historically. Long before the settlers arrived, this part of the Pacific Northwest held a thriving ocean. 

The Salish Sea is the unified bi- national ecosystem that includes Washington State’s Puget Sound, the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the San Juan Islands, as well as British Columbia’s Gulf Islands and the Strait of Georgia. The name recognizes and pays tribute to the first inhabitants of the region: the Coast Salish. 

Much of the conference focused on areas that are being returned to a more historically natural state. The mix of marine conservation groups and scientists in the same sessions leans itself to cooperation. Using science, conservation groups are able to implement programs that help restore environmental health. It is clear that past use has had a severe impact on the Salish Sea’s health. 

One of the cross border concerns of the participants is the state of the southern resident orcas. The concerns seemed split between the existing and potential increased shipping in the area inhabited by this pod. The other grave concern is the reduced numbers of Chinook salmon, which provide their sole food source. It is clear that there is no easy solution to maintaining a pod of less than one hundred orcas. Unfortunately humans are also competing for this food source and measures will be required to provide adequate stocks for both humans and the orcas. In recent history, the mortality rate of newborns has been poor and most of the newborns have been males. Through scientific examination we also know that these orcas have some of the highest concentrations of PVCs of any animals on our coast. We have to examine the role humans have played in this population, which was originally decimated by harvest by humans for captive viewing. Most attendees showed a true concern to see what can be done to ensure that the southern residents can survive. There seemed to be some delegates who considered them a lost cause, and theorized that they would eventually be replaced by northern resident orcas. Anecdotally it seemed that the majority were in favour of doing all that is possible to keep the southern residents alive. 

One of the divergent topics at the conference concerned the salmon farming industry. Washington recently has taken action to see that their fish farms are all land based and that no fish farms will be in the open ocean. A large escape in the fall spurred conversation in Washington and they moved swiftly in their decision to eliminate open net cage salmon from their waters. Canada still has around 80 active fish farms and is still debating moving farms out of the ocean. This goes contrary to recommendations by the Cohen Commission, which recommends getting them out of the open ocean. There still seems to be a debate about the risk of a piscine reovirus, yet the Canadian government is still not acknowledging that this risk exists. As many of the leases are up for renewal, this would be a very good time to consider moving the farms out of the ocean.. It seems that the scientific community is in favour of getting the farms out, while the political will seems to want them to remain in Canadian waters. It remains to be seen how this policy difference will affect relations between our two countries. 

There were some success stories like the removal of the Elwha Dam. The removal of the dam will now allow for salmon stocks to replenish and will see the restoration of an entire watershed. This may be a good example of the direction that science is leading the ability of conservation groups to work towards improving fish stock health. Initially it will take a while for habitat conditions to return to the point where fish stocks will replenish, it seems a reasonable assumption that salmon stocks will be able to once again inhabit the river. 

Other areas where conservation is moving forward is in the removal of old creosote dock pilings that have been used for foreshore protections (referred to as armoring) and other uses. Once again citizen- based initiatives in partnership with academics has yielded results in the restoration of natural shorelines. The theme of citizen science seems to be an ever-growing movement and beneficial relationships between academics and concerned citizens are moving many efforts forward. 

Anecdotally there seemed to be a much larger contingent of U.S. participants at the conference than Canadians. It seemed like the U.S. although guardedly optimistic with recent political changes, is still moving ahead with many positive 

marine initiatives. Much of this is driven by indigenous and grass roots initiatives. Although Canada is moving forward with more political will than the previous government, it is still lagging behind the U.S. with active ocean programming. Hopefully the Department of Fisheries recent bout of hiring and changes to the Canadian Fisheries Act, will see Canada playing a greater role in marine conservation. 

As this is an article in a diver magazine it is important to acknowledge the role of divers in science and marine conservation. A vast number of the initiatives at the conference were dependent on divers to collect the critical data to make the right decisions. Divers still remain to be one of the best ways to observe in situ and contribute knowledge. That said, there were some incredibly sophisticated technologies on display at the conference. The ability to monitor ocean acoustics and create maps has never been better. Using in water hydrophones we can study everything from whale movements to ship’s noise. 

The conference did a good job of holding sessions on communications that allow for a clearer message to get out effectively. As Seattle is a technology oriented city, the conference drew some cutting edge communicators who shared their wisdom. One of the observations of the attendees was that although there are some very successful high tech companies, they don’t seem to contribute back to the local marine conservation community. Given that a vast number of conservationists use these technologies every day, perhaps it is time we asked why these tech companies aren’t giving back. Many of the conservation initiatives suffer from the ability to garner sustainable funding to be effective. The bands and tribes of the first peoples of the Salish Sea Conference provided the backbone of the conference. Their stories and historic information are a critical part of the overall marine view. Their very culture is dependent on the marine life. In the words of Billy Frank Jr. “As the salmon disappear so do our tribal cultures and treaty rights. We are at a crossroads and we are running out of time”. These words embody how important marine issues are to the original people of an area they always viewed as one, the Salish Sea. Representatives of both sides of the border provided wonderful stories and expressed their desire to unify both sides of the border to work on increasing marine health. 

In summary the Salish Sea Conference demonstrated how cooperation across cultures and borders can move efforts forward. It was a pleasure to see that much is being done and that efforts are continuing to maintain and increase the marine health of the Salish Sea.