Ecological assessments in the Salish Sea

Ecological assessments (sometimes referred to as "conservation assessments") typically identify and evaluate the ecological attributes of an ecosystem. There is no single type of ecological assessment, but the following list includes an informal inventory of related efforts in the Salish Sea. This list does not include Ecological or Environmental Impact Assessments, which are targeted to specific land uses. This is a living document and will be updated as more information becomes available and as needs arise. 

Graphic of the IEA loop. Credit: NOAA
The IEA loop: Define goals, develop indicators, assess ecosystem, analyze risk, evaluate strategies, implement action, monitor indicators, evaluate outcomes.

Types of ecological assessments

  • Ecological Integrity Assessment (EIA) is a methodology designed by NatureServe and The Nature Conservancy that uses a metrics-based approach to measure the conditions of plant associations and ecological systems. There are three levels of measurement: (1) remote sensing, (2) rapid ground-based, and (3) intensive ground-based. All three measure how far a particular system deviates from the natural range of variation (NRV) and rate the system using a numeric scale. 
  • Rapid Ecological Assessment (REA) was developed in 1980, and is referred to as a “flexible, accelerated and targeted survey of vegetation types and species.” It focuses on biodiversity. The BLM uses a Rapid Ecoregional Assessment, which is very similar. Their method uses only existing data and has a shorter timeframe than more intensive conservation assessments.
  • Conservation Assessment and Prioritization System (CAPS) was developed at the University of Massachusetts and is used to assess ecological integrity and prioritize habitat and biodiversity conservation measures. UMass also refers to an Index of Ecological Integrity (IEI) , a database they’ve developed for the state of Massachusetts. There is an established Benthic Index of Biotic Integrity for Puget Sound, and other IBIs elsewhere.
  • The Integrated Ecosystem Assessment (IEA) differs from all of these by bringing human dimensions into the assessment process. An IEA is fundamentally linked with ecosystem-based management and looks at how management decisions will impact an entire ecosystem. It is considered to be “a synthesis and integration of information on relevant physical, chemical, ecological, and human processes in relation to specified management objectives," (Levin et al. 2008, 2009). The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is conducting IEAs in five regions of the United States including Puget Sound.
  • Inventory projects are ecosystem-scale inventories and descriptions. While not necessarily assessing the health of environments, inventories can serve as a framework for land use decisions. The Washington State Department of Natural Resources, for example, assesses "the abundance and distribution of marine and estuarine habitats" through the Washington State Shorezone Inventory

Ecological assessments in the Salish Sea

Biennial Science Work Plan

The Puget Sound Partnership's Biennial Science Work Plan specifies the use of the IEA framework "to
efforts." The plan is prepared every two years by the Puget Sound Partnership to identify priority science needs and actions for Puget Sound recovery. A draft of the 2014 plan is now available for public review.

Encyclopedia of Puget Sound

See Puget Sound Science Review.

Envision Skagit

Community-sourced recommendations Skagit County.

Lead entity reports

Lead Entities are local organizations in Puget Sound that develop salmon recovery strategies and priorities for the region on a watershed-based scale. Their most recent reports are listed below.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

NOAA conducts Integrated Ecosystem Assessments in five regions of the United States, including Puget Sound. 

The Nature Conservancy

Floodplains by Design is an ongoing project to identify floodplains in Puget Sound with multiple benefit potential and use information on flood risk to inform ecosystem restoration. The initiative is in line with IEA principles – integrating human need with sound environmental practices. The Nature Conservancy is also working on a Pacific Northwest Marine Ecoregional Assessment and a GAP analysis for all marine areas in Washington.

Northwest Association of Networked Ocean Observing Systems (NANOOS)

NANOOS is a network of regional ocean observation systems, providing data on marine operations, ecosystem assessment, fisheries and biodiversity, coastal hazards, and climate. 

Pierce County Environmental Health Indicators Project

In 2010, Pierce County prepared a report focusing on six environmental health indicators "to better understand and communicate" important environmental conditions in the area. The report looked at connections between these conditions and "health, economics, and personal and policy actions."

Puget Sound Ecosystem Monitoring Program (PSEMP)

The PSEMP website provides physical, chemical, and biological information from various monitoring programs in Puget Sound. 

Puget Sound Nearshore Ecosystem Restoration Project (PSNERP)

PSNERP produced the Envisioning Puget Sound Final Report, which analyzes three scenarios for future growth: continuing with the status quo, managed growth, and unmanaged growth. Technical reports on their website provide a detailed look at changes in the the nearshore environment, its history, and proposed steps for protection and restoration. These reports include a restoration and protection planning model and suggestions for how to incorporate their data in restoration planning, a synthesis of changes in the nearshore ecosystem and the implications for the future, and an explanation of Valued Ecosystem Components (VECs) which can be used in ecosystem assessments.

Puget Sound Science Review

A comprehensive reporting and analysis of science related to the ecosystem-scale protection and restoration of lands, waters, and human social systems in Puget Sound. The Review is housed on the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound and is based upon the integrated ecosystem assessment (IEA) decision framework.

Puget Sound Watershed Characterization Project

A coarse-scale, systematic characterization of different areas within the Puget Sound watershed, aimed at providing a framework for land use discussions. Volume 1 is an overall framework and includes details of water resource assessments for both water flow and water quality. Volume 2 deals with habitat assessments for freshwater, terrestrial, and marine habitats and landscape-level planning. Volume 3 will be an explanation of how to synthesize these results. Additional site-specific information is necessary to apply this information to a particular project.

Salish Sea Conservation Plan

The Salish Sea Conservation Plan is a project of the Natural Areas Conservation Program established in 2007 by the Canadian government, which helps non-profit, non-government organizations protect sensitive areas. The process involves selecting biodiversity targets and determining measures of conservation success.

San Juan Islands Best Available Science Synthesis 2011

A summary of data on ecosystems designated as Critical Areas (formerly Environmentally Sensitive Areas) in San Juan County, including recommendations for management.

Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife 

The WDFW website includes specific climate change reports and habitat reports that pertain to Puget Sound. These include detailed information on climate change in four habitats: forest/alpine/prairie, freshwater aquatic/riparian, marine/coastal, and shrub-steppe/grassland. 

Washington Department of Natural Resources

The Washington DNR report Priority Marine Sites for Conservation in the Puget Sound identifies habitats with the highest conservation value in nine sub-regions of inland marine waters in Washington. The information is available to groups with management responsibilities or a marine resource focus, and will be used by DNR to choose sites and develop priorities for the Aquatic Reserves Program. DNR and the Washington National Heritage Program have also produced Ecological Integrity Assessments for 67 of Washington’s 99 ecological systems.

West Coast Governors’ Alliance IEA

The governors’ alliance is a team of organizations working to compile a comprehensive IEA for the entire West Coast. The larger report will be made up of six regional IEAs (R-IEAs) designed to identify initial projects and priorities. The R-IEAs will evaluate a range of management objectives and establish “a harmonized set of standards and indicators for ocean health, including metrics for ecological integrity, ecosystem services, and socioeconomic conditions.” The Puget Sound Science Update is the first iteration of the Puget Sound R-IEA. The Governors’ Alliance is working with the West Coast Ecosystem-Based Management Network, a partnership that includes six community-based initiatives focused on implementing EBM on the Washington, Oregon, and California coasts. The San Juan Initiative, part of the West Coast EBM Network, lasted from 2007-2009 and produced a Final Report assessing necessary actions to restore and preserve ecosystem function in the San Juan Islands.

Willamette Valley-Puget Trough-Georgia Basin Ecoregional Assessment

The Willamette Valley-Puget Trough-Georgia Basin Ecoregional Assessment considers 833 conservation targets identified by expert teams, proposing that if those targets are represented in an ecoregion, a majority of species, including those which lack data, will be included. For each target, the teams gathered all available records of location and status and set goals identifying the numbers and distribution that indicate a healthy population. Finally, they identified 372 priority conservation areas. The assessment is intended as a tool for conservation planners.


Selected references

NOAA reports:

A mass-balance model for evaluating food web structure and community-scale indicators in the Central Basin of Puget Sound

Integrated Ecosystem Assessments

Evolving an Ecosystem Approach to Science and Management through NOAA and Its Partners


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