Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary
2008 Condition Report

Photo of a sea stars

Pressures on the Sanctuary

Human activities and natural processes both affect the condition of natural and archaeological resources in marine sanctuaries. This section describes the nature and extent of the most prominent human influences upon Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary.

Commercial Development

With advances in technologies and changes in our society's needs come proposals for new projects, many of which could not have been anticipated at the time of the sanctuary's designation and are not addressed in the existing management plan. The design of these developments and their potential impacts must be carefully considered to assess their compatibility with the sanctuary's primary goal of resource protection.

Fiber Optic Telecommunications 

In 1999-2000, a pair of trans-Pacific fiber optic telecommunication cables, called the Pacific Crossing-1 (PC-1) system, was laid across the northern portion of the sanctuary en route from Mukilteo, Washington, to Japan. Submarine cable installation involves substantial seafloor disturbance along a narrow swath as a plow cuts about a meter into the substrate to bury and protect the cable and to avoid future entanglement with anchors, fishing gear or organisms. Although successful cable burial was reported, surveys of the PC-1 cables in the sanctuary conducted in 2000 revealed that substantial portions of each cable were not buried at a sufficient depth to avoid risks, and in many places the cables were unburied and suspended above the seafloor. In this condition, the cables could be physically damaged by fishing trawl gear and require repairs that could repeatedly disturb seafloor communities. Additionally, where unburied and suspended, the cables pose a serious safety concern for fishers employed in bottom contact fisheries who could snag gear on an exposed cable, a risk that limits access of Native American tribal fishers to portions of their treaty-reserved fishing grounds. In light of these risks, the cable owners agreed to recover and re-lay the cables in the sanctuary, an effort that was completed in late summer 2006 (NOAA 2005, Tyco 2006).

Proposed Ocean Wave Energy Project 

The Makah Bay Offshore Wave Energy Pilot Project has been in development for several years and is currently undergoing environmental review and permitting approvals. In December 2007, this project was issued a conditional license by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission; this is the first federal license for an ocean energy project in the U.S. This one-megawatt demonstration project would test a novel technology and deliver power to the Clallam County Public Utility District's grid from a renewable, "green" energy source — ocean waves. As proposed, the project includes four interconnected, floating buoys tethered to the ocean floor with a complex anchoring system and a submarine electrical transmission cable laid across the seabed to the shore and routed underground past sensitive nearshore habitat. Authorization from the sanctuary will be required, but the project proponent has not yet applied for a sanctuary permit.

The in-water portion of the project is within Olympic Coast sanctuary boundaries, and the shore-based facilities are on tribal land of the Makah Indian Nation. The development company, Finavera Renewables, has conducted preliminary site evaluation studies and is developing final designs and plans for the installations. Federal, state and tribal representatives are working with Finavera to develop maintenance and monitoring plans to mitigate and assess potential environmental impacts of this new technology, including damage to seafloor habitats and threats to marine mammals and seabirds (FERC 2007).

Open-Ocean Aquaculture

NOAA's Aquaculture Program is currently exploring possibilities for open-ocean or offshore aquaculture production in federal waters, which include all sanctuary waters more than three nautical miles (5.5 kilometers) off the Washington coast. Open-ocean aquaculture is a controversial issue for some segments of the public and raises regulatory concerns with regard to pathogens, nutrient loading, fishing area restrictions and habitat and ecosystem impacts. To date, no projects have been proposed for open-ocean aquaculture in the sanctuary. Although sea conditions are dynamic and challenging in the sanctuary, technological developments in anchoring and structural design may make such development feasible in the sanctuary in the future. If projects are proposed for the sanctuary, it will be necessary for sanctuary staff to investigate potential environmental impacts and weigh these against sanctuary goals and mandates while making permitting decisions.


Commercial and recreational fishing are important components of the coastal economy and provide valuable food resources to the Northwest and beyond. Fishing occurs within the sanctuary, and commercial, tribal and recreational fishers are significant stakeholders in the health of the fisheries. However, some aspects of fishing practices and regulations are under scrutiny from co-managers for their potential negative impacts to habitat and to ecosystem functions.

In recent years, the NOAA Fisheries Service has implemented regulations on the West Coast to restore stocks of overfished species and prevent physical damage to Essential Fish Habitat . Research has documented damage to deep coral and sponge communities by bottom contact fishing gear around the world (Fosså et al. 2002, Morgan et al. 2005, Rogers 2004, Morgan et al. 2006). The distribution of existing and historic deep coral and sponge communities in the Olympic Coast region is poorly known, as is the extent of impact to those areas (Brancato et al. 2007).

Rough waters and complex seabed features of the sanctuary increase the potential for fishing gear entanglement and loss. Studies from Puget Sound and beyond reveal that abandoned fishing gear can remain for decades, potentially entangling and killing species that encounter the gear (NRC Inc. 2008). This phenomenon has been called "ghost fishing," where derelict gear continues to fish by attracting, trapping and killing a wide variety of marine mammals, seabirds, shellfish and other invertebrates, and fish. Dead organisms attract other feeding animals, thus perpetuating the cycle of unintended mortality. A direct economic impact of ghost fishing is the reduction of fishery stocks otherwise available for commercial and recreational fishers. Accumulations of gear on critical spawning and rearing habitat can significantly impact fishery stocks. Derelict fishing gear also can threaten human safety, restrict other legitimate sanctuary uses — such as regulated fishing, anchoring and operation of vessels — and diminish the aesthetic qualities for activities such as scuba diving.

Millions of liters of seawater are routinely carried around the world as ballast aboard oil tankers and other commercial vessels to increase stability. If ships empty their ballast tanks of water transported from other regions there is a risk of introducing non-native fish, invertebrates and plants, many of which can alter ecosystems, sometimes in catastrophic ways. Washington state recently implemented regulations to minimize this risk by requiring ballast water treatment or exchange in offshore waters beyond the sanctuary. Still, invasive species can also be introduced through hull fouling, smaller commercial and recreational vessels, aquaculture practices, release of captive animals and plants (e.g., aquarium specimens), floating marine debris, or range expansion.

Several established and emerging non-indigenous invaders, such as the invasive alga Sargassum muticum and the European green crab, Carcinus maenas, threaten both critical habitat and important commercial species in the Pacific Northwest. There is widespread recognition that invasive species can affect fisheries, waterways and facilities operating adjacent to waterways, as well as the functioning of natural ecosystems. The introduction of aquatic invasive species into the coastal waters of the Pacific Northwest poses serious economic and environmental threats recognized by resource managers, the aquaculture industry, non-governmental organizations and concerned citizens. Coastal estuaries in Washington, which provide critical habitat for many commercially important species such as Dungeness crab, shellfish and many marine fish species, are particularly susceptible to rapid development of aquatic invasive species populations.

Oil Spills

As one of North America's major gateways to Pacific Rim trade, the Strait of Juan de Fuca is one of the busiest waterways in the world, with vessel traffic going to several busy ports in Washington state and Vancouver, British Columbia. Every year, approximately 5,000 vessels greater than 300 gross tons transit the northern part of the sanctuary on approach to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and a comparable number of outbound transits occur immediately north of the sanctuary in Canadian waters.

Figure 15. Primary transportation routes and quantities of petroleum products transported in Washington state, with specific routes scaled in thousands of barrels per day. (Source: Washington State Department of Ecology)
Figure 15. Primary transportation routes and quantities of petroleum products transported in Washington state, with specific routes scaled in thousands of barrels per day. (Source: Washington State Department of Ecology)

Washington is also one of the nation's primary petroleum refining centers. Tank vessels inbound to Puget Sound are primarily moving crude oil to Washington's refineries. Large quantities of crude oil also come into refineries through the Trans Mountain Pipeline from Canada. Refined products are exported from Washington to other western states primarily through pipelines, barges and tankers. These transportation corridors are at greatest risk to major spills (Figure 15) (WDOE 2007). Cargo, fishing and passenger vessels involved with Pacific Rim commerce can also hold substantial quantities of petroleum products in their fuel tanks.

Oil contamination of marine mammals and seabirds can cause eye irritation, impairment of thermal regulation, loss of buoyancy, toxicity, reproductive abnormalities, and ultimately death. Oil spills can deplete food sources and destroy habitat characteristics essential for survival of vertebrate species. A spill could wipe out at least one generation of a population, and in a worst-case scenario, extinguish multiple species on a local or regional scale. Sea otters and many species of seabirds that inhabit or utilize the ocean's surface are particularly susceptible to damage from oil in nearshore environments.

Oil spills can have lethal as well as long-term, sub-lethal effects on fish (e.g., behavioral changes, reproductive abnormalities) and can also contaminate fish targeted for human consumption. Some sectors of the fishing and shellfish industries could be shut down for years by an oil spill, causing long-term negative effects on the economy of local tribes and other coastal fishers. Nearshore habitats, critical for survival of juvenile fish, can also be severely impacted by oil spills that smother or poison kelp, sea grasses and other marine plants. Oiling of intertidal areas can cause significant damage to invertebrates, with negative impacts that can linger for many years (Downs et al. 2002).

The Washington coast has endured the damages of several oil spills in recent times, including the 1988 Nestucca barge spill, which released 231,000 gallons of fuel oil into waters off Grays Harbor, impacting many kilometers of coastline as far north as Canada. In 1991, a fishing vessel, Tenyo Maru, spilled 100,000 gallons of diesel fuel that spread as far south as Oregon but most heavily impacted the Makah Indian Reservation and Olympic National Park wilderness coast. Although state and federal oil spill prevention and response policies are continually improving, the potential for severe environmental damage remains a strong concern in the region.

Increased Human Use

Long-time residents as well as day-use visitors are drawn to the many recreational opportunities of the Olympic Coast, including sport fishing, kayaking, surfing, wildlife viewing, clamming and beachcombing. Recreational use can sometimes cause unintended pressures to the coastal ecosystem. Motorized and non-motorized recreational boaters and sight-seeing pilots can inadvertently disturb wildlife, often with devastating consequences. Although human access to most seabird colonies is restricted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's WA Maritime Refuge Complex regulations (USFWS 2007), wildlife on the refuge islands is vulnerable to disturbance from low-flying aircraft that do not comply with the 2,000-foot elevation requirement established by the sanctuary. Cliff-nesting seabirds can abandon their nests if frightened, leaving eggs and nestlings exposed to avian predators. Resting pinnipeds can abandon their haulout sites for the water when disturbed, often at a large energetic cost, especially to young animals. Beach users such as bird watchers, dog walkers, ATV users and surfers can displace foraging migratory birds at important resting and staging areas. Popular intertidal areas show signs of trampling in localized patches.

Watershed alterations from increased land use such as timber harvesting may affect water quality by increasing sediment loads and nutrient runoff. Excessive sediment introduced to the nearshore environment can suffocate benthic marine life and reduce water clarity. Some persistent industrial chemicals, even those no longer in use in this country such as DDT, have found their way into marine food webs and can be detected in tissue samples of higher-order predators (Brancato et al. 2006, Ross et al. 2000, Ross 2006). Some are carried from land to sea through watersheds, while others may be transported via air currents.

Garbage and lost fishing gear — particularly items composed of non-biodegradable products like plastic — are elements of what is collectively called marine debris. The amount of marine debris in open-ocean and coastal systems is on the rise throughout the world. Impacts from marine debris include entanglement and drowning of animals, inadvertent ingestion of plastics by mammals, turtles and birds, transfer of diseases from land-based sources to marine wildlife, fouling of active fishing gear, and benthic habitat degradation.

Military Activities

In or adjacent to the sanctuary, the military has pre-established training areas that are part of the Northwest Training Range Complex. These training areas include two warning areas (W-237A and W-237B) and two military operation areas (MOA Olympic A and B) that are designated training and operating areas for the Pacific Fleet air and surface forces (Figure 16). Military activities in these areas consist of subsurface, offshore surface, aerial training activities, and other military operations as discussed in the sanctuary's original environmental impact statement (NOAA 1993). Military operations that are exempt from sanctuary regulations include:

Figure 16. Operations areas for the U.S. Navy off the northern Washington coast. The green line is the boundary of OCNMS.
Figure 16. Operations areas for the U.S. Navy off the northern Washington coast. The green line is the boundary of Olyimpic Coast National Marine Sanctuary.
  • Hull integrity tests and other deepwater tests;
  • Live firing of guns, missiles, torpedoes and chaff;
  • Activities associated with the Quinault Range including the in-water testing of non-explosive torpedoes; and
  • Anti-submarine warfare operations.

The Navy's Underwater Warfare Center (NUWC) Division Keyport operates and maintains the Quinault Underwater Tracking Range located in Navy Operations Area W-237A. This range is instrumented to track surface vessels, submarines and various undersea vehicles. It is the policy of NUWC Division Keyport not to test in the presence of cetaceans. The Navy has proposed expansion of the Quinault Range's area more than 50-fold to support existing and future needs in manned and unmanned vehicle programs development. The proposed geographic expansion would include a surf-zone landing site.

Potential effects associated with Navy research, development, testing and evaluation, and fleet training activities are currently being evaluated in separate environmental impact statements (EIS) via the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process. The Navy has proposed extending the Quinault Range site activities and geographic boundaries to support existing and future needs in manned and unmanned vehicle programs development. The extension would coincide with the existing W-237A Military Warning Area and one surf-zone access site. The Navy has no plan under this EIS to extend any permanent bottom-mounted instrumentation by the proposed action, but has proposed temporary installations on the seafloor. The fleet training activities are being evaluated under a separate, ongoing NEPA process. During scoping, the Olympic Coast Sanctuary Advisory Council requested that this review consider a wide variety of issues, including: disturbance to birds, fish, and mammals from increased activity and noise; damage to seafloor habitats and wildlife from cables, anchors, targets, torpedoes and unmanned undersea vehicles; accidental discharges of pollutants; interference with tribal fishing and subsistence harvest activities; and restrictions on the ability of sanctuary and affiliated scientists to conduct research.

The level of noise pollution in the oceans has increased dramatically during the last 50 years. The primary source of low-frequency ocean noise is commercial shipping (NRC 2003). Although impacts to wildlife in the Olympic Coast sanctuary have not been documented, underwater noise pollution in other locations has been linked to disturbance and injury. Many marine mammals respond to noise by altering their breathing rates, spending more time underwater before coming up for air, changing the depths or speeds of their dives, shielding their young, changing their vocalization content and durations, and swimming away from the affected area (Richardson et al. 1995). Acute sound intensities may cause marine mammals and other organisms to undergo temporary or permanent hearing loss. The disorientation and hearing loss may account for some cases in which ships collide with marine mammals that are apparently unaware of the approaching vessel. Most strikes occur in coastal waters on the continental shelf, where large marine mammals concentrate to feed. High levels of noise could also affect predation efficiency for marine mammals that use sound to hunt or capture prey. Underwater noise has also been found to negatively affect social behaviors in fish because many species rely on vocalizations when courting potential mates, and most detect sound vibrations that can be used to localize food or avoid predators (Myrberg 1990). In extreme cases, such as air guns used for seismic exploration, extensive damage was reported in laboratory study to the sensory epithelia of fish ears with no subsequent repair or replacement of damaged sensory cells (McCauley et al. 2003).

Climate Change

Over the next century, climate change is projected to profoundly impact coastal and marine ecosystems on a global scale, with anticipated effects on sea level, temperature, storm intensity and current patterns. At a regional scale, we can anticipate significant shifts in the species composition of ecological communities, seasonal flows in freshwater systems, rates of primary productivity, sea level rise, coastal flooding and erosion, and wind-driven circulation patterns (Scavia et al. 2002). Rising seawater temperatures may give rise to increased algal blooms, major shifts in species distributions, local species extirpations, and increases in pathogenic diseases (Epstein et al. 1993, Harvell et al. 1999). A better understanding of ocean responses to global scale climatic changes is needed in order to improve interpretation of observable ecosystem fluctuations, such as temperature changes, hypoxic events and ocean acidity, that may or may not be directly coupled to climate change.