I remember my rubber boots squishing through the saltwater and mud as I watched bright red brittle stars scurry across the ground and irritable crabs snap their claws at me. The moment I knew I wanted to be a scientist was my junior year of high school exploring the vibrant tide pools of the San Juan Islands in Washington State. I was on a conservation expedition to engage in environmental stewardship, cultivate a sense of community and discover the Puget Sound’s diverse and productive ecosystem. This early fascination flourished in college where I conducted multiple research projects around the Puget Sound. My appreciation for the coast inspired me to pursue a career in conservation as a Roger Arliner Young Marine Conservation Diversity Fellow, to protect the ecosystems that my community and home depend on.
Healthy estuaries support coastal communities and livelihoods. For instance, estuaries are nurseries for commercially harvested marine life, including more than 75% of commercially caught fish in the U.S. and support recreational fisheries too. Acting as natural safeguards, estuaries filter sediments and other pollutants before river water reaches the ocean. During storms, estuaries stabilize shorelines and protect coastal areas from flooding. Over half of the U.S. population lives along the nation’s coast, making healthy estuaries and coastal zones integral to our sense of place and cultural wellbeing.
The Puget Sound of Washington State is a huge estuary stretching from the Olympic Mountains in the West to the Cascade Mountains in the east and from the Canadian border in the north to Mount Rainier in the south. This local estuary is home to bustling wildlife like iconic salmon, orca and Great Blue Herons. However, with two-thirds of the state’s population living around the Puget Sound, it faces many human and environmental challenges that jeopardize the economic and social prosperity of the community.
In a state where heavy rain is common, many pollutants enter the Puget Sound through stormwater runoff. Salmon habitat, shellfish beds, swimming areas, drinking water and other invaluable resources to people, are put at risk from stormwater runoff. Around 2008, shellfish growers along the West Coast experienced mass die offs of oyster larvae from changes in ocean chemistry. In 2015, the state’s shellfish industry brought in over $226 million in sales, but water pollution often causes shellfish growing areas to close. Threats like stormwater pollution and ocean acidification put local businesses at risk and impede the state’s obligation to uphold treaty rights.
Action at all levels of decision-making is essential to preserving these important natural resources. Fortunately local organizations, state agencies, and tribal governments are collaborating with farmers, leaders, businesses, and communities to protect the coast. At the federal level, estuary champions in Congress introduced the National Estuaries and Acidification Research Act (NEAR) of 2018 to investigate how these multiple stressors will interact with each other in nearshore areas so managers can continue to make the coast more resilient.
Beyond the benefits for all, the importance of the Puget Sound hits close to home for me. Having the opportunity to use this beloved estuary as my classroom was a privilege and catalyst for a future in environmental protection. Although my fellowship has come to an end, I’m motivated more than ever to be a champion for the coast and the communities that most depend on it. We need to defend these ecosystems so that future generations are afforded the same opportunities to explore their own curiosities, heritage and stewardship.