The remote and rugged Olympic Coast of Washington state is a place of stunning beauty, where Indigenous peoples have long recognized the reciprocal relationship between humans and the environment during thousands of years of continuous residence. Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary (OCNMS) was established in 1994 and includes 3,188 square miles of marine waters off the rugged Olympic Peninsula in northwest Washington state. The sanctuary covers much of the continental shelf and several major submarine canyons, with upwelling that supports locally abundant marine life and supports seasonal populations of marine mammals and seabirds. Along its shores are thriving kelp and intertidal communities, teeming with fishes and other sea life. In the darkness of the seafloor, scattered communities of deep-sea coral and sponges form habitats for fish and other marine wildlife.
In addition to important ecological resources, the Olympic Coast has a rich cultural and historical legacy. The sanctuary is located within the boundaries of the legally defined usual and accustomed (U&A) fishing areas of four coastal tribes with reserved treaty rights. U&A fishing areas were acknowledged by the United States via treaties with the Hoh Tribe, Makah Tribe, Quileute Tribe, and Quinault Indian Nation in 1855 and 1856, long before OCNMS was designated. The vibrant contemporary communities of these tribes, known as the Coastal Treaty Tribes, have forged inseparable ties to the ocean environment, maintaining traditions of the past while navigating the challenges of the present and future.
There are over 200 shipwrecks reported within OCNMS, which provide evidence of the extensive use of the area for fishing, transport of goods to support inland Washington, and transport of logging products from local markets.
The purpose of this condition report is to use the best available information to assess the status and trends of various components of the sanctuary's ecosystem, as well as the maritime heritage resources within the sanctuary. The report is structured around a management-logic model called the DPSER model, which stands for Drivers-Pressure-State-Ecosystem Services-Response. This model enables the sanctuary to comprehensively document the many factors that affect management responses, including the influence of societal drivers on the levels of pressures on resources, the effects of those stressors on the condition of resources, and the effects of changing conditions on the services they provide to society.
The first condition report for OCNMS was released in 2008. This is the second comprehensive update of the status and trends of sanctuary resources, covering the broad categories of water quality, habitat, living resources, and maritime heritage resources. This report also includes the status and trends of ecosystem services—the ways humans derive benefits from different ecosystem attributes that they care about for their lives and livelihoods. Ecosystem services evaluated in this report include consumptive and non-consumptive recreation, science, education, heritage, sense of place, commercial and subsistence harvest, and ornamentals.
The report documents the condition of sanctuary resources and ecosystem services between 2008 and 2019, unless otherwise noted. Throughout the report's development, sanctuary staff worked with numerous partners to identify and compile information, including traditional knowledge. To that end, we attempted to improve on the first condition report and better integrate Indigenous voices and perspectives, and in doing so, represent both traditional and modern-day aspects of the reciprocal relationship between humans and the ocean, as well as the existence of continued and contemporary rights, management responsibilities, and tribal jurisdictions and authorities.
The report also identifies gaps in current monitoring efforts, as well as factors that may require monitoring and potential remediation through management actions in the coming years. The ratings and conclusions in this report generally represent the shared perspective of sanctuary managers and subject matter experts on prior changes in resource status, and will inform future management, primarily through the management plan review process, to address significant challenges stemming from pressures like increasing coastal visitation and ocean commerce. Some of the greatest yet least manageable challenges may relate to climate change, which most agree is increasing the frequency and intensity of marine heatwaves, harmful algal blooms, hypoxic events, and ocean acidification. This may be particularly troublesome for Indigenous communities, who rely heavily on a healthy ocean to exercise place-based rights as co-managers of resources in OCNMS.
State of the Resources
OCNMS is located within the northern California Current Ecosystem, a highly productive coastal ecosystem fueled by seasonal upwelling of cold, nutrient-rich water that supports the marine food web. During the assessment period for this condition report (2008–2019), the coastal ocean within OCNMS experienced profound changes associated with global climate change, particularly with respect to unusual ocean conditions that included marine heatwaves, worsening ocean acidification, seasonal low oxygen events, and toxic harmful algal blooms. Independently, each of these changes can cause detrimental impacts to the marine ecosystem, and when operating together, they may produce additive or synergistic impacts.
Particularly noteworthy, the California Current Ecosystem experienced exceptional climate variability that affected OCNMS over the last ten years, including an unprecedented North Pacific marine heatwave between 2014 and 2016, coupled with a robust El Niño event in 2015–2016 that was followed by a flux of cool, coastal waters and intense storms in the winter of 2016–2017. By the end of 2018, minimal flux of cold, nutrient-rich subarctic water from the North Pacific Gyre caused below-average productivity in OCNMS and the California Current Ecosystem in general. In the summer and fall of 2019, another major marine heatwave affected approximately 8.5 million km2 of the Northeast Pacific over a period of 239 days, but dissipated by late January 2020.
Six major habitat types are present in OCNMS: rocky shores, kelp forest, sandy beach, sandy seafloor, deep seafloor, and pelagic. The sanctuary's remote location and shorelines, buffered by the Olympic National Park and tribal reservations, offer protection from coastal development and other direct anthropogenic disturbances to habitats. Therefore, overall, the sanctuary's habitats are relatively undisturbed and in good condition, with stable or improving trends. However, the dominant habitat, the pelagic zone, is an exception, as it is experiencing worsening trends due to climate impacts like marine heatwaves, ocean acidification, and seasonal hypoxic events. Also of importance, although kelp habitats within OCNMS remain stable, there is uncertainty about their future given that kelp forests are sensitive to changing ocean conditions, such as increasing ocean temperatures, declines in sea stars, and increasing sea urchin abundance.
OCNMS is a productive marine ecosystem with stable or increasing populations of keystone (giant and bull kelp, purple sea urchins, northern sea otters) and foundation species (phytoplankton, copepods, northern anchovy, and Pacific hake). However, declines and increases in populations of some of these species are likely to have changed community structure and ecosystem function. One of the most notable population declines has been in the abundance of sea stars, specifically purple and sunflower sea stars, which declined due to sea star wasting diseases spanning the years 2013–2020.
With the exception of Southern Resident killer whales, the populations of all marine mammal species that use OCNMS have remained stable or increased since 2008. The recovery of Southern Resident killer whales is a concern because they face several threats, including environmental contaminants, low prey abundance, sound pollution, and vessel disturbance; the species is in danger of extinction.
Some groundfish stocks were overfished pre-2008; however, successful collaboration between Coastal Treaty Tribes, West Coast states, the Pacific Fishery Management Council, NOAA Fisheries, and fishers resulted in the successful rebuilding of stocks of canary rockfish, bocaccio, darkblotched rockfish, and Pacific Ocean perch. Unfortunately, some runs of Pacific salmon and steelhead face a range of threats. These fish are critically important species for subsistence, recreational, and cultural purposes in Washington. Some salmon and steelhead stocks in the Pacific Northwest have declining numbers or are listed under the Endangered Species Act, while other salmon runs are stable or increasing. In 2015 and 2016, fishery disasters were declared for ocean salmon that resulted in millions of dollars in lost income for local communities.
In 2017, the invasive European green crab gained a foothold on the Olympic Coast and has since spread rapidly. Furthermore, a major tsunami in Japan in 2011 washed tons of marine debris onto Olympic Coast beaches, along with hundreds of non-indigenous marine species.
Impacts from these ecosystem fluctuations have created unprecedented challenges for coastal communities. Both economic security and cultural practices are threatened by closures of recreational, commercial, and tribal shellfish harvests due to unsafe neurotoxins, fisheries disasters (including some within the valuable Dungeness crab fishery), and declining stocks of commercially and culturally important runs of salmon and steelhead.
Maritime Heritage Resources
Maritime heritage can encompass a wide variety of cultural, archaeological, and historical resources. Archaeological and historical resources are material evidence of past human activities and include vessels, aircraft, structures, habitation sites, and objects created or modified by humans. Cultural resources may include specific locations associated with traditional beliefs or where a community has traditionally carried out economic, artistic, or other cultural practices important to maintaining its historic identity. Cultural resources can also include natural resources. The majority of existing information about maritime heritage resources at OCNMS describes shipwreck resources, and even then, there are only partial data on these resources. There are 197 reported vessel losses in the sanctuary; nine have been located, and seven have been assessed.
There is a desire to assess additional classes of resources that are highly valued by Indigenous communities, including paleo-landscapes, ancient canoe runs, and traditional canoe routes, some possibly unchanged since contact with Euro-American explorers and traders. These routes are still used by Olympic Coast tribes as part of annual Tribal Canoe Journeys.
State of Ecosystem Services
Ecosystem services include the tangible and intangible benefits people derive from a place. Nine types are discussed in this report.
Activities that result in removal or harm to natural or cultural resources include fishing and razor clam harvesting, neither of which OCNMS manages. Fishing has remained stable or increased for most species, with some significant achievements by federal, state, and tribal co-managers in rebuilding some rockfish populations. However, some important or iconic salmon stocks remain depressed, with harvest at a fraction of what it was in the 1970s–1980s.
The stable or increasing popularity of shore-based activities, like wildlife viewing, sightseeing, and water-based sports, has some concerned about their sustainability. This is due to uncertainty about the effects of increasing use on resources and the quality of recreational experiences at some locations.
Though decades of significant research has occurred in OCNMS, persistent information gaps point to the need for enhanced capacity and infrastructure. But new and growing regional partnerships are expanding the breadth of science in the sanctuary, particularly regarding ocean acidification, deep-sea exploration, kelp forest surveys, and ocean sound. Furthermore, increasing use of traditional knowledge of the four Coastal Treaty Tribes significantly enhances the collective understanding of the Olympic Coast.
Services that provide intellectual enrichment are considered acceptable and improving, based largely on the many successful and broad-ranging education and outreach programs offered by OCNMS.
There continues to be a strong recognition of the benefits of Olympic Coast resources to the region's historic and heritage value, and cultural practices of coastal communities, particularly the Coastal Treaty Tribes.
Sense of Place
The Olympic Coast has been inhabited by the four Coastal Treaty Tribes for thousands of years and non-Indigenous people for about two hundred years. Subsequent arrivals by a diversity of inhabitants and visitors defies a collective description of sense of place. Nevertheless, the many special designations within the region reflect the Olympic Coast's reputation for unfathomable natural beauty and power, with unmatched biodiversity and heritage, the latter owing to vibrant tribal communities; many have shared aspects of their cultural heritage through public visitor centers and ceremonies.
High productivity of the Olympic Coast region is the key factor supporting commercial fisheries and the communities and economies that depend on them. Most targeted fish stocks were stable or increasing, although some were in decline. Other stocks exhibited unprecedented high variability, attributable to changing ocean conditions. This variability is showcased by both high catches and fishery disasters, which could force some to leave the fishery. The effects on tribal communities could be particularly devastating, given their dependence on these resources for food and cultural practices, as well as income.
The non-commercial harvesting of food and utilitarian products has always been a common practice of the Coastal Treaty Tribes. Some stocks, such as blueback sockeye salmon from the Quinault River, have been limited or unavailable in recent years, and others may have declined (hard shell clams and octopus). Recent fishery disaster declarations impact food security and highlight the vulnerability of species and communities in this region to changing conditions. Fortunately, trends for some important species, including Pacific halibut and gray whales, have increased in OCNMS, and others, like razor clams, have remained stable.
These resources continue to be collected from OCNMS for decorative, aesthetic, and ceremonial purposes, but shifts in distribution and abundance have occurred for some species in recent years, and the status of some is unknown.
This report describes a variety of issues and human activities occurring within and beyond OCNMS that warrant attention, tracking, study, and, in some cases, specific management actions. Addressing any of these issues requires participation by and coordination with a variety of agencies and organizations. OCNMS is fortunate to be able to work with many entities that contribute to managing human activities and addressing marine conservation issues. Central to that collaborative approach are the Olympic Coast Intergovernmental Policy Council (IPC) and the OCNMS Advisory Council.
The IPC was formed in 2007 to provide an effective and efficient forum for communication, exchange of information, and policy recommendations regarding the management of marine resources and activities within the boundaries of OCNMS. The IPC is a forum where sovereigns with regulatory jurisdiction over marine resources and activities within the boundaries of OCNMS meet to enhance their communication, policy coordination, and resource management strategies. Membership includes the Hoh Tribe, Makah Tribe, Quileute Tribe, Quinault Indian Nation, and the state of Washington.
The OCNMS Advisory Council was established immediately after the sanctuary's 1994 designation, under the authority of the National Marine Sanctuaries Act. It was formed to serve as a forum for consultation and deliberation among its members and as a source of advice and recommendations to the sanctuary superintendent. The advisory council includes governmental (tribal, state, local, and federal agencies) and non-governmental (education, conservation, research, fishing, tourism, industry, marine resources committee, citizen at large) seats.
In addition to these groups, OCNMS also consults on a government-to-government basis with the Coastal Treaty Tribes individually.
Following the completion of the 2008 OCNMS condition report, a new management plan and changes to OCNMS regulations were drafted. These management actions included the drafting of 20 action plans and new regulations prohibiting cruise ship discharge. Other significant responses include investigations into changing ocean conditions, such as a report, Climate Change and the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary: Interpreting Potential Futures (Miller et al., 2013), and the designation of OCNMS as a sentinel site for ocean acidification.
This condition report provides the public with an overview of the condition and trends of resources and ecosystem services in OCNMS. It is intended to inform individuals who may be interested in providing recommendations to OCNMS during the revision of its management plan. The information in the report will also be used to inform various management efforts, including a climate vulnerability assessment for the sanctuary, immediately followed by the development of the new management plan. That plan will guide future work and resource allocation decisions at OCNMS by describing strategies and activities designed to address priority issues, fill information gaps identified here, and advance core sanctuary programs. The update to the sanctuary management plan will begin in 2022, building on the 2011 management plan, and will involve significant tribal and agency consultation, public input, and environmental compliance work, and, depending on the complexity of actions proposed, may take one to three years to complete.