7. Focus for the future: targets and success in Puget Sound

A catalog of ecosystem indicators is only useful in the extent to which it informs answers to the question “Is Puget Sound healthy?” In economics, it is not meaningful to report on the rate at which unemployment claims are filed unless it is known that an increase in that rate indicates a decline in the business cycle (The Business Conference Board 2001). Similarly, in the absence of reference levels, a list of values for indicators alone provides no insight into the status of the ecosystem relative to its desired state. Thus, establishing a target associated with each indicator is fundamental to the success of the Puget Sound Partnership’s ecosystem-based management efforts, for several reasons.

First, the articulation of targets associated with each indicator allows for a careful accounting of management successes and failures. Targets remove ambiguity from well-intended but vague policy goals and facilitate the development of a roadmap for new actions, policies, and management strategy evaluations. Pathways of ecosystem degradation may involve sequential losses of structural features (relative abundance of species), species, and functional components (all species responsible for particular ecological processes) (Briske et al. 2006). Awareness of this type of progression can provide justification for benchmark reference levels that track recovery along similar pathways (but in reverse) toward more ambitious, longer-term targets.

Second, as described in the Futures section above, creating targets for individual indicators brings into focus the notion of trade-offs. For instance, interactions among species, such as harbor seals and forage fishes, may render obsolete target reference levels instituted for each group individually because some combinations of abundance are ecologically impossible. Likewise, establishing targets for contaminant loads related to water quality may interact with desired states of human well-being. The use of conceptual and quantitative ecosystem models and other tools can help to reveal the spectrum of possible combinations of target reference levels for multiple indicators simultaneously.

Third, target reference levels can also be viewed as the antecedent of legal statutes and regulations. In other words, the formal establishment of targets sets up a system of EBM accountability. These reference levels can be used as a springboard for enacting and enforcing policies to ensure that human activities do not exceed levels that would prevent the achievement of ecosystem recovery goals (Mengerink et al. 2009).

Fourth, targets can serve a useful role if they are linked to decision criteria or control rules (Link 2005, Martin et al. 2009). In other words, it would serve the PSP’s interests if target values for indicators were associated with management responses. For instance, in the case of Chinook salmon in Puget Sound, achievement of the near-term recovery target of 1,600 spawners (Shared Strategy for Puget Sound 2007) might be linked to a control rule that influenced efforts to restore riparian vegetation and increase woody debris. Such built-in linkages would contribute to the efficient allocation of PSP financial resources and solidify a clear plan for active and adaptive management.

We have not yet attempted an exhaustive review of targets for each indicator evaluated in Section 4. A summary of existing targets specific to Puget Sound follows. For those indicators where targets or reference levels do not exist, it should be possible to determine appropriate targets using any of the three approaches outlined in Sections 5.5-5.7. Initially, it should suffice to define a reference direction for each indicator used to evaluate ecosystem status by identifying baselines, recognizing nonlinearities, or assessing social norms. Eventually, however, the PSP should strive to produce target reference points wherever possible. Key point: To be useful from a policy and management perspective, ecosystem indicators must be linked to reference levels. Reference levels provide context so that changes in indicator values can be interpreted relative to desired ecosystem states. Establishing targets for individual indicators brings into focus the notion of trade-offs among competing ecosystem services. The use of conceptual and quantitative ecosystem models can reveal the spectrum of possible combinations of target reference levels for multiple indicators simultaneously.