Section 1. Introduction

The Puget Sound Partnership (PSP) is charged with the task of reversing the decline in the ecological condition of Puget Sound and restoring its health by 2020 (Puget Sound Partnership 2008a). Since the creation of the PSP and the publication of the Puget Sound Partnership Action Agenda, the Puget Sound ecosystem has become a national example of implementation of ecosystem-based management (EBM; Ruckelshaus et al. 2009). As the Puget Sound region considers the dozens of near-term actions for ecosystem recovery, policy makers, resource managers, and scientists must be able to answer two key questions about the state of the ecosystem: 1) where are we going?, and 2) how do we know when we get there? Answering the question of what constitutes a healthy Puget Sound requires a thoughtful articulation of what the future of Puget Sound should be and scientifically rigorous means for measuring progress towards this desired future. This is the aim of this chapter.

Terminology and Concepts

Open Standards

Open Standards for the Practice of Conservation, a set of adaptive management steps developed by the Conservation Measures Partnership as a framework for planning and implementing conservation action. The Open Standards methodology is being used by the PSP to put the Action Agenda into a performance management framework.

Results Chain

One component in the Open Standards framework being used by the PSP. A tool showing how a particular action taken will lead to some desired result. Diagrams link short-, medium- and long-term results in “if... then” statements. The three basic elements are a strategy, expected outcomes, and desired impact.

Management Strategy Evaluation (MSE)

Conceptual framework that enables the testing and comparison of different management strategies designed to achieve specified management goals

Performance Management

A system to track implementation and communicate progress of a conservation project or program

For more information and links to references, see Glossary.

A properly designed monitoring program is essential for determining progress towards a desired future ecosystem state. Monitoring encompasses the routine measurement of ecosystem indicators to assess the status and trends of ecosystem structure and function. Successful monitoring requires consideration what we should monitor and why we are monitoring it. Broadly, there are two goals for monitoring in the Puget Sound ecosystem. The first goal is to monitor status and trends of the ecosystem. This may take the form of snapshots of specific regions, or, more usefully, status monitoring tracks variability in carefully selected indicators over time. Status monitoring is fundamentally concerned with documenting spatial and temporal variability in ecosystem components and thus ideally relies on consistent long-term monitoring in a network of sites.

A second aim of monitoring is to evaluate the effectiveness of management strategies. Effectiveness monitoring thus aims to detect changes in ecosystem status that are caused by specific management actions. Effectiveness monitoring is ideally informed by a conceptual or numerical system model. Such models can be used to generate predictions or hypotheses of how management actions might shift the system towards a desired state. A carefully crafted plan for effectiveness monitoring requires indictors of 1) compliance with regulations; 2) ecosystem pressures (the object of management action); and, 3) status of the ecosystem affected by these pressures. Such a plan for effectiveness monitoring allows a determination of how well predictions about appropriate management strategies performed, and provides a formal means for learning about the system and how management actions influence the system.

In the 2008 Action Agenda, the PSP established five priority strategies, one of which includes developing a performance management system to track and assess progress towards an ecologically healthy Puget Sound (Puget Sound Partnership 2008a). To this end, the PSP has adopted the Open Standards for the Practice of Conservation (Conservation Measures Partnership 2007) as a framework for implementing and tracking the progress of the Action Agenda. The Open Standards describe steps in the design, implementation and monitoring of conservation projects, two components of which are the identification of ecosystem components and indicators for those components; and development of “Results Chains,” diagrams that map specific management strategies to their expected outcome (e.g., reduction of a threat) and their impact on key components of the ecosystem using a series of “if...then” statements (Puget Sound Partnership 2009a). The Open Standards is thus a tool that can be used to articulate “where we want to go”, and inform both status and effectiveness monitoring to determine if we reached our goal.

In this section of the Puget Sound Science Update (PSSU), we first critically review published reports that describe desired future states of the Puget Sound ecosystem, and suggest ways to incorporate new information generated by such future visions into the results chain model. We next introduce a flexible framework for selecting indicators of the biophysical components of the ecosystem (the human components are addressed in Chapter 2 of this document), and establish transparent criteria for judging an indicator’s ability to reliably track changes in ecosystem status. Using these criteria, we then provide an evaluation of 270 candidate ecosystem indicators. Finally, we review targets and benchmarks for ecosystem indicators in Puget Sound; where they are found wanting, we describe a number of approaches that could be applied to scientifically inform the development of management targets and benchmarks. It should be noted here that while the PSP and the authors of this document consider the Puget Sound ecosystem to be inclusive of humans, this section develops indicators for the biophysical components of the ecosystem, and therefore in those sections, the term “ecosystem” refers exclusively to the biophysical components.

1. Ecosystem Health

Rapport and colleagues (1985) suggested that the responses of stressed ecosystems were analogous to the behavior of individual organisms. Just as the task of a physician is to assess and maintain the health of an individual, resource managers are charged with assessing and, when necessary, restoring ecosystem health. This analogy is rooted in the organismic theory of ecology advocated by Clements over 100 years ago, and is centered on the notion that ecosystems are homoeostatic and stable, with unique equilibria (De Leo and Levin 1997). In reality however, disturbances, catastrophes, and large-scale abiotic forcing create situations where ecosystems are seldom near equilibrium. Indeed, ecosystems are not “superorganisms”—they are open and dynamic with loosely defined assemblages of species (Levin 1992). Consequently, simplistic analogies to human health break down in the face of the complexities of the non-equilibrial dynamics of many ecological systems (Orians and Policansky 2009). Even so, the phrase “ecosystem health” has become part of the lexicon of EBM and resonates with stakeholders and the general public (Orians and Policansky 2009). And, “ecosystem health” is peppered throughout the PSP Action Agenda. Thus, while we acknowledge the flaws and limitations of the phrase, we use it here because it is a familiar phrase that is salient in the policy arena.


Conservation Measures Partnership. 2007. Open Standards for the Practice of Conservation, Version 2.0.

De Leo, G.A. and S. Levin. 1997. The multifaceted aspects of ecosystem integrity. Conservation Ecology 1(3).

Levin, S.A. 1992. ORCHESTRATING ENVIRONMENTAL-RESEARCH AND ASSESSMENT. Ecological Applications 2(2):103-106.

Orians, G.H. and D. Policansky. 2009. Scientific Bases of Macroenvironmental Indicators. Annual Review of Environment and Resources 34:375-404.

Puget Sound Partnership. 2008a. Puget Sound Action Agenda, Protecting and Restoring the Puget Sound Ecosystem by 2020. Olympia (WA).

Puget Sound Partnership. 2009a. Using Results Chains to Develop Objectives and Performance Measures for the 2008 Action Agenda.

Rapport, D.J., H.A. Regier, and T.C. Hutchinson. 1985. Ecosystem Behavior Under Stress. American Naturalist 125(5):617-640.

Ruckelshaus, M., T.E. Essington, and P.S. Levin. 2009. Puget Sound, Washington, U.S.A.  In K.L. McLeod and H. Leslie, Editors. Ecosystem-based management for the oceans. Washington, DC: Island Press. p. 201-226.