Farmers and Fish in Puget Sound: Choosing a Future for Both

By Dan Calvert, Ecosystem Recovery Coordinator

Puget Sound farmers face increasing economic pressure, squeezed by the economics of global commodities, a growing population hungry to develop open land, and the impacts of climate change. Farmers are also caught in an environmental dilemma. On one hand, they are critical in maintaining the open space that healthy ecosystems rely on. On the other, most of the productive farmland in Puget Sound was once the deltas, estuaries, and floodplains that represent critical habitat for populations of endangered Chinook salmon, which are the main food source for endangered Southern Resident orcas. Puget Sound farmers and salmon are both in trouble, and their fates are intertwined.

It’s undeniable that farming has had a major impact on the ecosystems upon which salmon depend. It’s also undeniable that farms can be managed to support salmon recovery and produce high quality, locally grown food. The tension between farms and fish creates the false assumption that we must choose one or the other. But the reality is that we can have vibrant agricultural economies and local food systems, as well as robust salmon runs. It comes down to the choices we make as a society.

In Puget Sound, local groups have moved past the false choice of “fish or farms”, to work together in building a better future for people, salmon, and orcas:

· The Snohomish County Sustainable Lands Strategy has a strong record of developing projects that support agricultural viability and salmon recovery while also reducing the impacts to human communities of flooding.

· In Whatcom County some farmers are partnering with salmon recovery groups, taking steps to manage riparian areas, increase stream flows, and reduce harmful runoff.

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· The Floodplains for the Future program in Pierce County works to balance farm, fish, and flood management values by providing a safe place to voice varied opinions and needs, and to advance mutually developed projects.

State and county level agencies are also doing their part to help both fish and farmers. Supporting farmers, salmon, and orca recovery is a priority for the Washington State Conservation Commission (WSCC) and the 12 Puget Sound Conservation Districts. Conservation Districts work statewide with private landowners and agricultural producers through non-regulatory, incentive based conservation programs to effectively implement natural resource improvement projects and build landowner engagement and commitment.

The current population of the Puget Sound area and the future growth coming to the region means we’ll never be able to recreate the historical ecosystem conditions under which salmon and orca once flourished. As a society we need to carefully consider our priorities and recognize how our choices will impact future generations of people, salmon, and orca. The reality that people, salmon, and orca all need food and a place to live is an opportunity to bridge the urban-rural divide and equally share our responsibility to manage the ecosystems we all depend on.

Instead of looking back, we need to look forward and enable farms to grow food and salmon runs to thrive. Farmers can produce the local food that we all want to eat and also be important partners in Puget Sound recovery efforts.