Since 2008, a team from the UW School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences has been commissioned by the City of Seattle to work on creating a new seawall design for the waterfront.
The goal is to have the new Elliott Bay seawall — a protective wall that prevents the beach from washing away, located from South Washington Street to Broad Street — be more habitat-friendly, allowing a supportive environment for the endangered juvenile salmon that migrate near its shores. But Jim Karr, professor emeritus in aquatics and fisheries, said focusing efforts on salmon means taking a risk on the waterfront’s larger ecosystem.
“Salmon are definitely a focus and at the forefront of the work that we’re doing,” said Jennifer Wieland, seawall project-manager of the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT).
However, she added that they hope to gain a greater diversity of species in the waterfront as well; one goal is creating a surface that would support algae growth.
“We’ve really tried to make sure that we’re looking holistically,” Wieland said. “Obviously salmon is just one piece of the puzzle. To make the ecosystem function well for salmon, you have to have the whole picture of broadening the range of species as well.”
Under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), passed by Congress in 1973, endangered or threatened species are protected from harm against any significant habitat modifications, such as the design of the new seawall. Since the planning process began, the City of Seattle wished to gain input from the UW team to preserve the endangered salmon habitat.
Karr said there has been improvement in keeping the scientific community involved in major environmental-design changes such as the seawall, proven by how involved the UW researchers have been in the design project since the beginning. But Karr said the city needs to be doing more than simply taking the ESA into account.
“We often … pick a favorite species and we say, ‘OK we’re going to design this and make it salmon-friendly,’” Karr said. “It’s best for salmon when it’s the best for everybody. … Can we sustain all the components rather than picking a favorite species?”
Karr said that while the government is required to follow the ESA guidelines, the Clean Water Act (CWA), passed in 1972 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), offers a better look at preserving general biological systems in the United States.
“The Clean Water Act is the major legislation that tells us something about how we should behave in reaction to the water,” he said. “The goal of the Clean Water Act was to preserve the biological conditions in the United States. And in order to do that, you need a broader perspective than just making more salmon.”
Design considerations put into the seawall to support juvenile salmon include making the surface material supportive to algae growth, creating a light treatment for the salmon to be able to find their way through obstructions, and ensuring that the surface of the water remains shallow enough.
“Our city, like others, does what is required to operate, but is not inclined to do extra work because unspecified species may be helped,” James Anderson, a UW aquatics and fisheries professor, wrote in an email. “In other words, decisions on environmental restoration are mostly driven by existing laws and regulations that target very specific species and pollutants.”
Wieland said salmon are important to Seattle in more ways than just keeping ESA requirements — salmon are also historically significant in the Pacific Northwest. For Native American tribes around the area especially, Wieland said the fish are an important part of the local economy and culture.
Jeff Cordell, principal researcher for the seawall design, said the conflicting interests in the parties involved make the design challenging. The light treatment, for one, may be too expensive for it to be implemented despite its benefits to the salmon population.
“The biggest challenge is trying to integrate habitat into an industrial landscape, where there’s a lot of competing interests in using that shoreline,” he said. “The challenge is, how can you integrate habitat into this complex urban landscape and have it actually make a difference?”
In 1981, Karr created the Index of Biotic Integrity (IBI), a tool he used to evaluate the conditions of ecological systems. He said it is difficult to accurately assume what salmon need, since systems are generally more complex than they seem.
While Karr said the city’s effort to be proactive about preserving salmon habitat is a step in the right direction, he’s been waiting to see a government that puts in more effort to preserve the overall biological system of the water.
“That’s evidenced by the fact that the school of fisheries is a participant of this process because historically that would not have been the case,” Karr said. “[Forty years ago] I would have said the glass is fully empty, and now the glass is half-full.”
Reach Development Editor Hayat Norimine at email@example.com. Twitter: @HayatNorimine
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