Olympic Natural Resources Center

ONRC was created in 1989 to serve as the regional platform for research on sustainable alternatives that would advance forest and marine resource protection and utilization. The marine component was detailed in enabling legislation (RCW 43.30. 810). The formation of the College of the Environment on June 12, 2008 created the administrative structure to realize the initial intent of the legislature – to encourage and facilitate cross disciplinary research.

As a “place based” program with a defined service delivery area, ONRC is uniquely positioned to provide students and faculty with the means to test hypotheses and conduct studies in the context of a place where natural resource management matters a great deal.

Our challenges are of the same character as earlier controversies: reconciliation of local economic needs with protection of important ecosystems. Some of the “last best” landscapes in the state are in the Olympic Region. Coastal communities of the Olympic Region continue to be more reliant on exploitation of natural resources than are urban communities. The fundamental challenge remains the same: to identify options and opportunities to integrate the production of commodities with the preservation of ecological values.

ONRC’s Aquatic Program has pursued projects that exemplify ONRC’s Criteria for Project Selection. Our projects: focus on under-served interests; bring to the table pragmatic problem-solving; are of high priority; are of ecological importance; offer potential for building bridges among constituents; serve long-term and short-term goals; and make a noticeable difference.

Strategic Priorities

The importance of integrating economic and environmental values is nowhere more evident than in the region’s estuaries. Estuaries serve as the critical nursery grounds for almost all commercially valuable living marine resources including oysters, crabs, clams, and many finfish. They are vital to the area’s wildfowl and marine mammal populations. At the same time, estuaries tend to be the most easily accessible coastal area for human habitation and economic activities. They are extremely attractive places to establish communities; they provide safe harbors for landing fish and shellfish and carrying on economic trade. As lower energy environments, estuaries also tend to be especially vulnerable to impacts of upland activities as well as to vessel-source oil spills. Contaminants that would quickly be diluted or degraded in a high energy environment are likely to remain for long periods in the slower moving waters of the estuaries. In addition, the concentration of wildlife found in estuaries presents the opportunity for greater damage than would be posed to more dispersed populations found offshore.

The strategic survey revealed that one of the most serious threats to Washington’s coastal estuaries has been growing rather inconspicuously since the turn of the century. For decades, spartina– a cordgrass that is native to the east coast– has been taking root, spreading, and displacing native habitat. In Willapa Bay it now threatens to eliminate productive oyster and clam beds. The pace of spread has accelerated. Outlier infestations have been found in intertidal areas of Grays Harbor and in north and south Puget Sound. The hardest hit estuary, Willapa Bay, is also the center of important marine-resource industries. The loss of extensive areas of Willapa Bay’s habitat used by migratory wildfowl, fish and shellfish is considered imminent. Other stressors to coastal and inland estuaries are apparent from the survey. Population pressure, nutrient and sediment inputs, residential run-off and pollution threaten the continued productivity of the Strait of Juan de Fuca’s and Hood Canal’s wealth of intertidal and subtidal areas.

Applying the criteria established above, it becomes evident that estuarine issues are both pressing and ecologically significant. They have not been extensively studied, and do present ample opportunities for pragmatic contributions. Many of the greatest threats to the sustainability of the region’s marine-resource industries involve degradation of estuarine processes. Many of the solutions to these problems will require inter-agency cooperation and public consent based on credible scientific information about estuaries, how they function, and how their productivity can be restored and maintained.

Another high priority area will be the exploration of important interrelationships and interactions between terrestrial and marine ecosystems. In light of the forestry-related research mission of ONRC, special attention will be given to the potential impacts of forestry practices on downstream marine resources. For example, recent studies have looked at a potential connection between large woody debris structures on beaches and reduced rates of beach erosion. The role of decaying salmon carcasses in providing nutrients available to the riparian environment has also been raised as a subject for further exploration. Of interest also is the issue of possible impacts of sediment inputs on nearshore kelpbeds and the impacts of silvicultural fertilizers and pesticides on aquatic and estuarine water quality. Research on the health and abundance of endangered or threatened species that utilize both environments presents another opportunity for valuable contributions. The impact of land-based discharges on downstream shellfish operators should also be explored.

Perhaps, the most important challenges for ONRC’s integrated studies are those associated with the management of anadromous fish stocks. Regulatory decisions must be made in the face of a long tradition of commercial and recreational fishing, shared management regimes, habitat losses, and large-scale variations in ocean productivity. The economic and political importance and complexity of salmonid issues reduce the likelihood of reaching a prompt resolution. ONRC recognizes that it must select projects carefully to hope to achieve a measurable contribution in the short term. ONRC is committed to addressing the most pressing social priorities. It recognizes salmonid issues as carrying overriding importance. ONRC will explore meaningful long-term research commitments coupled with an effort to disseminate useful information in the near term.

Application of the selection criteria underscores the importance assigned to this category of effort. Little work is currently being done to investigate marine terrestrial interactions. ONRC also recognized the scale of the challenges attending integrated research: the lack of baseline data about marine systems, the scarcity of multi- disciplinary tools, and the very distinct research approaches and interests of marine and terrestrial scientists. The contentious nature of the debate over the impacts of forest activities on marine resources also creates a difficult context for developing and maintaining neutrality and objectivity, both in fact and in appearance. Because trust and credibility are essential to its success, ONRC is committed to using the highest standards of professionalism and scientific rigor in the selection and administration of integrated research and education activities.

The shellfish industry is faced with a distressing array of problems. Some are long-term problems with complex histories and no easy solutions. Others are new problems that may be solved very quickly. Burrowing shrimp “infestations” offer an example of a long-standing problem with no simple or non-controversial resolution in sight. After years and years of pest management control efforts, burrowing shrimp populations continue to threaten the commercial productivity of large areas of coastal estuaries. Study after study has yielded no effective alternative to pesticides. Yet chemical control techniques will probably remain contentious. More recently, attention has focused on the identification of chemical agents that more precisely target burrowing shrimp alone and can be used during the shrimp’s most vulnerable life stage.

An example of a newer and perhaps more tractable problem occurred last year when a mysterious new condition caused oysters to appear to bleed several days after packing. A local researcher was quickly able to determine that a bloom of harmless plankton was causing the phenomenon. For years, the University of Washington SeaGrant Program has sponsored research on shellfish-related issues to help growers meet some of the challenges mentioned above. These efforts notwithstanding, a great deal is unknown. Opportunities abound for providing important information critical to improved management in the near term as well as the long term.

In 1991, the Washington Legislature indicated its special interest in partnerships between the University of Washington and Grays Harbor and Peninsula Colleges when it amended ONRC’s enabling legislation to include language mandating collaboration in the development of the marine program. More recently, the President of the University of Washington announced that delivery of services to distant communities was to be one of his highest near-term priorities. ONRC has recognized the special role of community colleges in delivering educational opportunities to coastal communities. For young people growing up in the Olympic Region’s communities, Peninsula or Grays Harbor Colleges are often the first step towards a four year degree. Community colleges provide a quality education at an affordable cost. The community colleges also serve as the primary vehicles for offering continuing education opportunities to the general public, to professionals with career development goals, and to aspiring entrepreneurs.

The resources of coastal community colleges are limited and under great pressure to provide more services. Community college students face particular difficulties in seeking research opportunities and mentors for professional development. ONRC will work with the community colleges to expand the educational opportunities available to residents of the Olympic region. Working together, improved curriculum for natural resource courses will be developed. Short courses, seminars and symposiums will be organized. Internships and student research projects will be made available. Special emphasis will be directed towards the development of technical training courses on computer-based geographic information systems.