The Puget Sound is the second largest estuary in the United States. Its numerous glacier-carved channels and branches are fed by freshwater from over 10,000 rivers and streams that flow down from the Olympic and Cascade Mountains to the wetlands, salt marshes, and bays of the Sound. The Puget Sound's climate, extensive shoreline, nutrient-rich waters, and diverse habitats sustain a variety of wildlife. It is also a place of tremendous natural beauty, with its mountains, rugged coastline, and evergreen forests.
People and Puget Sound
The Puget Sound region is home to over 4 million people, including the cities of Seattle and Tacoma, Washington. The economy of the region is largely tied to the Sound and its natural resources, such as lumber, shellfish, and recreation. Washington is among the top shellfish-producing states in the nation, with its famous Dungeness crab and geoduck clams. The Puget Sound includes some of the country's busiest ports, including Seattle, Tacoma, Anacortes, Everett, Port Angeles, and Olympia. In addition, hundreds of thousands of people come to the Sound for its wildlife, natural beauty and recreation opportunities, such as boating, kayaking, whale watching and fishing.
Wildlife in Puget Sound
The Puget Sound ecosystem is rich in marine, freshwater and wetland species, including invertebrates, birds, fish, mammals, underwater plants like eelgrass, and tiny aquatic organisms, called plankton.
Invertebrates: Puget Sound has over 3,000 species of invertebrates, including geoduck clams, oysters, octopuses, sea urchins, Dungeness crabs and sea stars.
Fish: There are over 200 species of marine fish in the Sound, including many species of salmon, steelhead, herring, and groundfish like Pacific cod, spiny dogfish and many species of rockfish.
Birds: The Puget Sound has hundreds of species of sea birds, shorebirds and waterfowl, including the tufted puffin, bufflehead, western sandpiper, bald eagle, pigeon guillemot, common loon, harlequin duck, rhinoceros auklet, cormorants, scoters, and grebes.
Mammals: Marine mammals of the sound include orcas, sea lions, sea otters, gray whales, humpback whales and harbor seals.
Aquatic vegetation: Underwater plants provide food, breeding areas, nurseries and resting places for wildlife in the Sound. 26 species of kelp provide habitat for young rockfish, sea otters and birds and food for sea urchins and other species. Beds of seagrass, called eelgrass, are spawning grounds for herring, important corridors for migrating salmon, and a food source for waterfowl.
Threats to Puget Sound
Global warming is melting glaciers and ice fields and heating ocean waters, causing them to expand. The result is rising sea levels.
Over the last 2,000 years, sea levels did not change significantly. However, this past century has seen average global sea levels rise by over six inches. Furthermore, scientists with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change believe the rate of sea-level rise is going to accelerate in the coming decades.
Predicted impacts of sea-level rise on the Puget Sound:
- Beaches and tidal flats – important stopover and wintering habitat for migratory shorebirds and habitat for shellfish – will be inundated.
- The loss of beaches will make the coast most susceptible to storm surges.
- Some freshwater marshes--habitat for thousands of wintering waterfowl--will be inundated by saltwater.
- Changes in tidal wetlands could diminish the capacity of those habitats to support salmon, particularly young Chinook and chum salmon.
- Habitat changes could force wildlife into new areas or put threatened species under even more stress. Some species may be able to respond to sea-level rise by finding other habitats or food sources, but others will not. The larger the changes and faster those changes occur, the harder it will be for most fish and wildlife species to adapt.
Although scientists are still studying how sea-level rise will affect the Puget Sound, we do know how important coastal habitats are to the regional ecology and economy. Sea-level rise is likely to have a ripple effect felt by wildlife and people alike. These impacts will likely be exacerbated by dikes, seawalls and other human-caused changes to the coastline that prevent beach replenishment and make it harder for coastal habitats to shift inland to adjust to sea-level rise.
National Wildlife Magazine Articles:
Orca Numbers Down in Puget Sound
Orcas on the Edge
Where Wild Salmon Still Spawn
Coloring Communities Evergreen
State of the Sound 2007 (PDF)
NWF Sea-level Rise and Coastal Habitats in the Pacific Northwest report (PDF)
National Estuary Program Coastal Condition Report
Focus on Puget Sound, Economic Facts
Puget Sound Partnership
State of the Sound 2007 (PDF)
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fourth Assessment Report, "The Physical Science Basis"