Orcas Need Land

Conserving delicate coastal habitats supports a critical food web.

Puget Sound’s Beaconsfield area—about four miles west of SeaTac—is a mere 2.6 acres cobbled together from 13 privately owned lots that Forterra acquired in 2008. Undeveloped King County waterfront like this is a rarity. While small in size, Beaconsfield’s conservation value is more than the water that laps on its shores. It’s the shore itself. A slowly eroding 1,000-foot feeder bluff keeps this sliver of coastline supplied with sediment needed for plants like eelgrass.

As is the way of ecosystems, one thing leads to another: Nutrient-rich sediment creates healthy nearshore marine habitat, which hosts the forage fish, which feed the salmon, which sustain one of Puget Sound’s most beloved and endangered residents—the orca. While some ecosystems thrive with rocky shores, others need these small grains of sand to support a much larger food web. Helping orca survive in the face of climate change, warming waters, and salmon decline requires strategy, one that understands how careful conservation choices, no matter how small—like the sand at Beaconsfield—can lead to a healthy orca calf.

Orca watercolor stay connected

Conserving Puget Sound shoreline

Forterra has helped conserve 17 parcels along the Puget Sound shoreline, most of them quite a bit larger than Beaconsfield. The 320-acre Maury Island Natural Area, initially proposed to be a gravel mine pit, is now the longest remaining piece of undeveloped shoreline in King County. The 1,500 acres of land and waters conserved at Port Gamble Bay have provided fundamental cultural, spiritual, and subsistence resources to the Port Gamble S’Klallam and Suquamish Tribes. And then there is the peninsula on Anderson Island in Pierce County, which provides vital habitat for salmon species like Chinook, chum, and pink.

A food web begins at this sand and gravel substrate, one that works its way up to salmon and ends with orca.

Facing the loss of property from erosion, many landowners install armoring structures such as bulkheads, reducing the already limited number of environments hospitable to aquatic plants and spawning fish. Disrupt the sediment transfer process and the cascading effects are tragic. With insufficient prey, salmon populations decline and orca, who feed on salmon, go hungry.

Today, only about 70 orca exist in Puget Sound. The females often are too weak to support a pregnancy, and the calves they do produce fare poorly. Noise from boat traffic and pollution in our waters also pose dangers. But with the latter at least, shoreline conservation can help. High functioning wetlands filter polluted water entering the Sound. Cleaner water also means salmon with lower levels of contaminants, a much healthier food staple for orca who have the unwelcome distinction of carrying the highest concentration of PCBs recorded in a wild animal.

An ecosystem worth conserving

In this context, stretches of undeveloped shoreline, buffered by upland forest, are all the more important. One acquisition or another might seem a modest achievement. But taken together, these 17 conservation areas constitute real progress. There are 2,500 miles of Puget Sound shore, a delicate necklace of beaches, bluffs, inlets, and estuaries, one third of which already has been altered by development. Every bit of coast is an opportunity, whether through collaborative conservation efforts or the stewardship of individual property owners, to help ensure the survival of orca.

Every bit of coast is an opportunity, whether through collaborative conservation efforts or the stewardship of individual property owners, to help ensure the survival of orca.

Over four million people live in the region surrounding Puget Sound. Some of us live within easy travel to its shores. Perhaps you have a favorite tide pool or fishing spot, the memory of a cold water swim, or a cherished view from a daily ferry commute. Others of us have more tenuous ties. No matter. Look further inland. Keep going as far as the Cascades or the Olympics. Conservation and stewardship at these outer reaches of the Puget Sound basin also impact the health of the Sound. Feeder bluffs, like those at Beaconsfield, do not work alone. Every year, 12 trillion gallons of fresh water flow into the Sound and nearby waters from the region’s rivers and streams, delivering 70% of shoreline sediment. Perhaps you know one of these waterways from its mountain headwaters, or a tributary traversing Seattle or Tacoma. Perhaps sand on a Puget Sound beach once passed through your inland stomping ground. So many of Washington’s disparate and distant lands are connected. Those 17 projects along Puget Sound are part of a statewide conservation plan, comprising 150,000 interlocking land parcels completed since Forterra’s founding 30 years ago.

A global pandemic has kept us apart and largely indoors. But when you do get outside and return to the lands that you love, consider the sand in your shoe after a walk on the beach or a wet boot from a bungled stream crossing, and think of orca.