In Our View: Taking Care of a Treasure

Puget Sound shows a couple of wildlife triumphs, but concerns persist

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For a couple of centuries, uninformed or neglectful humans showed many signs of loving Puget Sound to death. For the past couple of decades, we appear to be nurturing it back to better health.This is good news for all Washingtonians, including Clark County residents who explore recreational, tourism or second-home opportunities around the sprawling, spectacularly scenic waterway that's just a couple hours' drive to the north.

Before we expand on that point, we must acknowledge that the environmental advancements (the result of increased industrial regulations and tighter stormwater runoff policies) are accompanied by a few significant concerns. Bluntly speaking, Puget Sound waters remain far more polluted than any Washingtonian should tolerate. The waterway's numerous tentacles are as ecologically fragile as ever.

One example emerged recently in a state Department of Ecology report about sediment health in the central Sound, from just south of Whidbey Island to the Tacoma Narrows. A decline in sediment-dwelling invertebrates has been detected in samples taken from the bottom of the Sound in 2008 and 2009. Scientists are unsure if this decline is caused by natural influences such as normal population cycles, sediment movement or changes in dissolved oxygen.

"We don't measure everything. We measure dozens and dozens of chemicals we are concerned about," said DOE Program Manager Robb Duff in an Associated Press story, but "there are thousands and thousands of chemicals in commerce today." And those include emerging contaminants such as pharmaceuticals and personal care products.

All of which helps explain the need for continuing, amply funded research of Puget Sound water quality. The payoffs -- both potential and proven -- are just too important to ignore. The AP story describes decreases in recent years in concentrations of lead, mercury, silver, tin and other toxic substances in central Sound sediment.

Other studies show highly industrialized and heavily populated areas are not pumping the same amount of pollutants into Puget Sound as in the past. Of course, when the water is cleaner, the habitat is more inviting for wildlife.

And that's where we've got two encouraging revelations to report. According to seattlepi.com, one of our favorite mammals, ol' lovable Megaptera novaeangliae, has returned to Puget Sound. More often, he answers to the name humpback whale, and he's been missing from the Sound for decades. But whale watchers around Orcas Island regularly spotted five humpback whales for about 10 days in May, causing cruise operator Tom Averna of Deer Harbor to proclaim: "I don't recall having humpbacks in the Islands like this in the 25 years I've been running trips."

Second, harbor seals, as many tourists and Puget Sound residents have noticed, are making a huge comeback. The Seattle Times reports that the harbor seal population in Puget Sound had dwindled to as few as 4,000 to 5,000 by the 1970s. Now, though, that number has soared to about 32,000 harbor seals that might appear clumsy on land but possess the skills to race up to 23 mph underwater and can dive as deeply as 1,500 feet.

This mixed bag of news about Puget Sound water and habitat quality should serve as both a warning and a reward. The unique treasure that helps define our state will become as clean and biologically robust as we choose to make it.