Puget Sound Partnership credits will fund nearshore conservation

Photo of herring swimming through eelgrass. Photo credit: Florian Graner. The Partnership Nearshore Credits program provides options for projects in nearshore habitat to move forward, while also protecting the habitat from further losses. It does this by offsetting impacts to nearshore habitat with an equivalent amount of habitat improvement elsewhere.

The people, animals, and plants of Puget Sound depend on its nearshore ecosystem for their survival and well-being. The Puget Sound Partnership is launching an initiative which will help protect and restore this crucial area.

The nearshore ecosystems within Puget Sound provide diverse habitat to a wide range of plant and animal species. Nearshore ecosystems often include areas of terrestrial habitat, like beaches and bluffs, freshwater habitat from rivers and inlets, and marine habitat, like salt marshes and kelp and eelgrass beds. Puget Sound’s nearshore ecosystems are some of the most productive and biologically varied areas in the region, providing habitat for shellfish, salmon species, forage fish, invertebrates, and other wildlife.

Photo of Puget Sound nearshore. Photo credit: Bernt Rostad.

Nearshore areas are also important for people. The nearshore is where we fish from piers, launch our boats from marinas, and build our shipping terminals. We use nearshore areas throughout Puget Sound for recreation, transportation, and commerce. The population growth in the Puget Sound region means that more people are using nearshore areas, and human needs must be balanced against the need to protect nearshore ecosystems.

The Puget Sound Partnership is launching the Partnership Nearshore Credits program, with technical assistance from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), and in collaboration with the Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Washington State Recreation and Conservation Office. The program facilitates the permitting process for building and repairing residential or commercial in- and over-water structures and protects habitat for Endangered Species Act (ESA)-listed species within the nearshore ecosystem. The program provides options for projects in nearshore habitat to move forward, while also protecting the habitat from further losses. It does this by offsetting impacts to nearshore habitat with an equivalent amount of habitat improvement elsewhere.

“We’re pleased that the Puget Sound Partnership is contributing to this solution that provides a path for sustainable development while avoiding further losses of nearshore habitat,” said Jennifer Quan, branch chief for South Puget Sound in NOAA Fisheries’ West Coast Region. “Salmon and many other species depend on this habitat, so it is important that we conserve what little we have left.”

How the Partnership Nearshore Credits program works

A conservation calculator developed by NOAA Fisheries scientists and informed by habitat research objectively assesses the impacts of individual maintenance and development projects on nearshore habitat. That informs project proponents whether their project results in a net loss of nearshore habitat values, and, if so, how much of a loss. Then applicants can consider different ways of offsetting that loss, which could include modifying the project to reduce its impacts, adding on-site habitat improvements to the same project, or working with other landowners to improve habitat. Another option is to purchase credits that represent shares of habitat improvements elsewhere. The improvements must take place in the same general area of Puget Sound, so that the restoration benefits threatened salmon and other marine life near the habitat loss that it is compensating for.

Photo of Little Fish Trap Estuary. Photo credit: South Puget Sound Salmon Enhancement Group.

“We have lost so much valuable nearshore habitat already, by doing nothing we will have nothing left,” said Kim Kratz, assistant regional administrator in NOAA Fisheries’ West Coast Region. “Sustainable development is important for economic growth and resiliency. This approach provides for that while also conserving nearshore habitat that is also important to the economy.”

The Puget Sound Partnership selects the conservation projects to generate credits, tracks their progress, and reports on those projects. The Partnership sells the credits and assumes responsibility for the conservation work. By aggregating resources from multiple different credit sales, the Partnership can take advantage of economies of scale and help strategically plan conservation at a regional level to achieve significant gains in the restoration of Puget Sound.

Permitted nearshore work will be offset with conservation projects in the same service area. Graphic from Beechie et al.,(2017). “Monitoring Salmon Habitat Status and Trends in Puget Sound: Development of Sample Designs, Monitoring Metrics, and Sampling Protocols for Large River, Floodplain, Delta, and Nearshore Environments.”

The funded conservation projects will initially entail the removal of creosote-treated pilings or piers. These projects are cost-effective and provide benefits for human health, water quality, shoreline habitat, forage fish, and the marine food web (with benefits to salmon and orcas).

“Puget Sound’s nearshore environments serve as vital migratory pathways and essential nurseries for small forage fish which larger species depend on,” said Lee Corum, endangered species biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “The benefits of a healthy nearshore will bubble up through the food chain and nourish imperiled fish, seabirds, and marine mammals.”

Removing creosote pilings, a “toxic cocktail” for people and wildlife

Photo of creosote-treated pilings. Photo credit: Washington State Department of Natural Resources.

Creosote has been used as a wood preservative for more than a century to prevent the decay of pilings and overwater structures in the aquatic environment. Creosote is a toxic mixture of over 300 chemicals, of the greatest concern are Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). The chemicals can leach from a piece of creosote-treated wood for its entire lifecycle.

We see the legacy of creosote in the tens of thousands of derelict pilings and overwater structures on Puget Sound shorelines. Over time derelict structures break apart and the toxic debris ends up in sensitive shoreline habitat. PAHs in the aquatic environment accumulate in sediment and negatively affect aquatic species. PAHs are harmful to herring, salmon immune function and growth, and cause liver tumors and reproductive problems in English sole. PAHs are a human carcinogen and the public can be exposed to creosote on beaches where the debris can accumulate.

The DNR Creosote Removal Program has been working to remove derelict creosote-treated pilings for the last thirteen years. It’s important to remove these derelict structures before they become so decayed the pilings are difficult to remove and end up as debris on your favorite Puget Sound beach.

“Creosote threatens the nearshore habitat that is critical for both wildlife and the communities who rely on a thriving maritime economy,” said Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz, leader of the Washington State Department of Natural Resources. “We’re thankful for partnerships like this that push forward innovative ways to speed up our efforts to remove this toxic cocktail from our shorelines.”

An example of the Partnership Nearshore Credits process

An applicant might need a federal permit to repair an aging pier for their business. If the pier will affect nearshore habitat crucial for ESA-listed Chinook salmon, the applicant can quantify those impacts by using the conservation calculator. The applicant might choose to offset those impacts themselves onsite, find and fund their own conservation project elsewhere, or utilize the Partnership Nearshore Credits program. Through the Partnership Nearshore Credits program, the applicant can purchase conservation credits to offset the adverse impacts of permitted work. The Partnership then uses those funds to remove creosote pilings in a nearby waterway, monitors the progress of the removal project, and reports on the project’s status.

The Partnership Nearshore Credits program supports expedited regulatory compliance while conserving vital habitat

Ensuring that adverse habitat effects from projects are fully offset by conservation activities secures healthier habitat for the survival of endangered species. That balancing of impacts with benefits, along with the standards the Partnership Nearshore Credits program will adhere to, give the regulatory agencies the confidence they need to quickly analyze how construction projects will affect ESA-listed species. By halting the continued decline of these habitats through the Partnership Nearshore Credits program, other Puget Sound initiatives which are implementing restoration actions to advance recovery of ESA-listed species will have added impact by increasing the quality and amount of these important habitats.

One of the other advantages of this approach is that it provides a method for restoration work to happen close to the permit site. Creosote-treated piers and pilings are widespread throughout Puget Sound, so the conservation projects funded by the sale of credits through the Partnership Nearshore Credits program will be located in the same area as the permitted project.

Photo of creosote-treated pilings near Tacoma. Photo credit: Puget Sound Partnership.

“We’re enthusiastic about the Partnership Nearshore Credits program because it leverages the considerable expertise of the Puget Sound recovery network and lets everyone play to their strengths,” said Ahren Stroming, special projects assistant at the Puget Sound Partnership. “As a backbone organization for recovery for all of Puget Sound, the Partnership is well-suited to act as a liaison between all the relevant parties in this process. And by taking on the administrative responsibilities, we allow conservation project sponsors to focus on what they do best: implementing projects. That collaboration ensures that we are making science-based decisions that get us the biggest conservation bang for our buck and investing in projects that are priorities for communities.”

The future of the Partnership Nearshore Credits program

The Partnership looks forward to the continued evolution of the Partnership Nearshore Credits program. If successful, the program may expand to include other types of conservation projects besides creosote removal. In addition, the Partnership may eventually be able to utilize a performance-based procurement model to select those conservation projects that guarantee the most efficient and effective restoration, which in turn will allow the Partnership to fund even more of the work critical to Puget Sound recovery.

Photo of Puget Sound nearshore. Photo credit: Puget Sound Partnership.

Ultimately, the Partnership’s goal is more restoration projects in the ground (or water, in this case). While the Partnership is well-suited to identify and fund relevant conservation work, there may be cases in which another entity is better suited to generate and sell the requisite credits — which is why the Partnership hopes that a robust credit marketplace will develop in the coming years.

Follow along on Puget Sound Info, where the Partnership will track the projects (and their conservation benefit) funded through this initiative.

“The Partnership Nearshore Credits program is an innovative way to fund more conservation projects throughout the Puget Sound,” said Laura Blackmore, executive director of the Puget Sound Partnership. “This initiative helps protect more of the nearshore ecosystem that’s so crucial for wildlife and people.”