Can island dodge federal salmon crackdown?
June 9, 2008 · Updated 2:53 PM
"Bainbridge's beachfront homes don't look very pretty from under water.At least, not from the perspective of endangered Chinook salmon. Their habitat and food sources have been decimated, along shorelines damaged by bulkheads and contaminated with toxic chemicals seeping off lawns.We're degrading the near-shore habitat, said Bainbridge City Councilman Michael Pollock, a science and policy analyst for the U.S. Department of Commerce. This could mean problems for many shoreline dwellers, because the federal government will soon require implementation of new measures aimed at rescuing the Chinook from extinction. Near-shore habitat is really where Bainbridge Island will be the most affected, agreed Kitsap County Commissioner Chris Endresen, who with other local officials is developing a county-wide response to the federal call to action.If the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) approves the county's forthcoming Habitat Management Plan - to be released in draft form for public comment on Feb. 22 - then the local response will effectively head off federal intervention. But that's easier said than done, say local officials. I'm cautiously optimistic (NMFS will approve the plan), Endresen said this week. I hope they will, let's put it that way.Kitsap meets ESAKitsap County is required to draw up a plan protecting the Chinook salmon, because last March, NMFS added that fish to the endangered species list.This means that the fish qualify for protection under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA), which makes some activities that harm protected species illegal.After listing the Chinook under the ESA, NMFS scientists studied what types of activities harm salmon, and then drew up what are now known as 4(d) rules. These provisions outline actions - such as building bulkheads or applying pesticides and herbicides in sensitive areas - that NMFS will regulate, if local governments fail to draw up acceptable salmon protection plans of their own.Federally-approved plans confer an important advantage - if NMFS believes a local government's protection program will halt the salmon's regional decline, individuals or groups engaging in specific activities that harm salmon are indemnified from federal prosecution or lawsuits.Thus, home-grown plans are preferable.Kitsap's strategy is to gain exemption (from NMFS jurisdiction), Endresen said. Not only for the county, but also for citizens who really want to have a permit to develop.In lieu of an approved local plan, residents and local governments like Bainbridge Island could face scrutiny from NMFS for any salmon-harming action, unless they applied directly to the agency for specific exemptions known as an incidental take permits.This could be a daunting task, because myriad aspects of life in the Northwest impact the imperiled fish: boat wake disturbs shoreline feeding grounds; roads cause runoff that contaminates aquatic habitat; new construction leaches sediments into spawning areas; water use sucks streams dry.Kitsap has been working on its own habitat management plan for about a year, in conjunction with council members from Bainbridge and the county's other three incorporated cities. Given the scope of the challenge, Kitsap's plan must address a wide array of issues, yet resources are scarce. There's not going to be enough money to do everything, Endresen said, so we're going to have to prioritize and be creative.The county's natural resource coordinator, Keith Folkerts, said he has had trouble determining what NMFS is looking for in a plan.It has been difficult to figure out what kind of rock they want us to bring them, he said.Kitsap will discover if its rock is solid sometime before June, when NMFS will accept or reject the county's habitat protection plan. Island responseIn adjusting local land use policies to save salmon, Bainbridge Island will face a different set of issues than most of Kitsap County.Unlike many Kitsap rivers, none of the island's nine salmon streams have historically supported the Chinook. However, Bainbridge shorelines provide crucial habitat for the imperiled species.These areas are regulated by the city's Shoreline Management Master Program - and soon may fall under the jurisdiction of a new shoreline plan drawn up by the state. But these measures may not be enough, Pollock said.We on Bainbridge Island are probably going to have to come up with laws that better protect those areas, he said.And there are plenty of potentially destructive activities to regulate.For example, bulkheads truncate the natural slope of the beach and prevent accumulation of gravel deposits. This destroys key habitat for important salmon food sources - smelt, herring and gravel-dwelling crustaceans, scientists say.Such food sources also suffer from wake generated by ferries and water skiers, which damages sensitive shorelines.Some that organisms salmon eat accumulate high concentrations of chemicals that come in stormwater runoff from streets and lawns. Many of these common chemicals are endocrine disrupters, that affect fishes' ability to detect predators. Young salmon can't smell the type of chemicals that get released when predation is going on, Pollock said, and they just sit around near the top of the water and get picked off one by one.City Councilwoman Christine Nasser, who has been working with the county on the new Habitat Management Plan, said Kitsap has discussed an educational program for lawn chemical use, but there are people who would like to see a regulation on that.Until the draft plan is released on Feb. 22, it remains unclear what regulatory proposals it will include.But Nasser said it could also be modified dramatically during the subsequent period of public comment.Regardless of the plan's specifics, Nasser said Bainbridge Island can't count on money from the state to implement new regulations, because the island doesn't have any Chinook streams to protect. The assumption is that we will be getting no money to do any of our work, she said.That could change next year, though, when NMFS will probably place Coho salmon on the endangered species list, said island fisheries biologist Wayne Daley. Bainbridge streams do support Coho, and the listing could lead to a whole new set of land-use issues for the island.The island's streams are very degraded systems, Pollock said. There just simply hasn't been good habitat management.Nasser said that generally speaking, Bainbridge is ahead of the curve.Because we've been doing watershed planning for the last decade, she said, our Critical Areas Ordinance and Shorelines Management Plan are really good.Pollock disagrees.I can't say the laws I've seen suggest a large degree of environmental progress, he said. I think we're more in the middle of the road, and maybe a little bit on the conservative side in terms of implementing these laws.The ultimate judge of that will be the federal government. Until NMFS gives or withholds its stamp of approval about four months from now, city and county officials can only speculate if their Habitat Management Plan will cut it."