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Puget Sound Integrated Science

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The Puget Lowland, located between the Cascade Mountains on the east and the Olympic Mountains on the west, has formed over several million years in response to tectonic forces acting along the western edge of the North American Plate. The modern landscape, however, results primarily from the last advance of the continental ice sheets, between 20,000 and 15,000 years ago. The glaciers left behind a gently rolling lowland terrain, dissected by an extensive network of deep and irregularly-shaped glacial troughs. Rising sea level during the early Holocene flooded these troughs, along with larger depressions and an intricate series of smaller channels, to form the precursor of the modern coastline. Since sea level began to stabilize about 5,000 years ago, rivers and streams have built deltas and estuaries at their mouths. Wave action has eroded the coastline and transported sediment along the shore to form the mosaic of coastal bluffs and barrier beaches observed today.

Puget Sound is biologically productive and rich in its species diversity. For instance, Puget Sound is home to 200 species of fish, 100 species of birds, 26 different marine mammals, and perhaps 7,000 species of marine invertebrates. Among the marine invertebrates, Puget Sound is inhabited by the world’s largest octopi and more than 70 species of sea stars. The beauty and richness of Puget Sound belie real environmental problems, however. Multiple fish and wildlife populations – including orcas, Chinook (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) and chum salmon (Oncorhynchus keta), diving birds, rockfish, and Pacific herring (Clupea pallasii) – have experienced dramatic declines. The representation of species in decline from many trophic levels in Puget Sound, and a widespread shift in biotic community structure since the mid-1970s suggests systemic rather than isolated problems. Because nine of the 10 threatened and endangered species in Puget Sound rely on nearshore environments, it seems likely that the declines are, at least in part, related to problems in coastal areas of transition between freshwater and marine ecosystems.

The environmental quality of Puget Sound has been, and continues to be, affected by the region's rapid urbanization. Changes in coastal processes and habitat conditions in the Sound, extending along about 2,500 miles of shoreline from the Canadian border, through the heart of the Sound and out to Neah Bay near the Pacific Ocean, are critical factors in the apparent decline of overall ecosystem health. The ecological roles of coastal processes in the maintenance and restoration of critical nearshore habitats and regional fish and wildlife populations remain poorly understood and are the focus of integrated USGS science.

Strategic restoration and effective management of nearshore ecosystems require an improved understanding of the interactive effects of multiple restoration, preservation, and other management actions and an increased ability to predict these effects. Incremental effects are those that emerge as a series of successive management actions begin to build on each other. In some instances, it may be necessary to take initial actions to reinitiate ecosystem processes that are required to support future actions. Cumulative effects are those that result from the interaction between actions, either successive or simultaneous. These effects may emerge as synergistic, being greater than or different from the additive effects of multiple actions considered separately. To date, evaluations and modeling of effects of restoration actions have been focused largely on single actions and the resultant effects within the boundaries of the project area. Expanded evaluations and predictive modeling are needed that include short- and long-term effects at scales ranging from project areas to the greater Puget Sound estuary.

Specific objectives are:

  1. Understand nearshore ecosystem processes and linkages to watershed and marine systems.
  2. Understand the effects of human activities, including climate change, on nearshore ecosystem processes.
  3. Predict the incremental and cumulative effects of restoration and preservation actions on nearshore ecosystems.
  4. Understand the effects of social, cultural, and economic values on restoration and preservation of the nearshore.
  5. Understand the relationship of nearshore processes to human health, at-risk species, and other emerging issues.
  6. Understand the roles of information--its representation, conceptualization, organization, and interpretation--related to nearshore ecosystem processes on the preservation and restoration potential of Puget Sound.
  7. The WFRC scientific contributions to integrated science will be in technical areas associated with fish biology, ecology and aquatic ecosystems.

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