Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary in good condition, though climate change a growing concern

As you stand along the coast of Washington taking in the beauty around you—miles of sandy shoreline, rocky cliffs, colorful tidepools and lush rainforests — you gaze out at the Pacific Ocean. Beneath the cold, blue waters in Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary lies a different world rich in diverse habitats, abundant marine life, history, and Native American culture.

Indigenous peoples in the area have forged inseparable ties to the marine environment here and have long recognized the reciprocal relationship between humans and nature. Honoring this delicate balance, the latest condition report for Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary (available at sanctuaries.noaa.gov/science/condition/ocnms) assesses the status and trends of the sanctuary’s ecosystem, as well as the natural, maritime and cultural heritage resources within the sanctuary that support many lives and livelihoods.

Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary was established in 1994 and includes 3,188 square miles of marine waters off the rugged Olympic Peninsula in northwest Washington state.

Habitats within the sanctuary range from towering kelp forests to deep-sea coral and sponge communities, and there are more than 200 reported shipwrecks. Twenty-nine species of marine mammals and more than 100 bird species reside in or migrate through the sanctuary, and it contains some of the most productive habitats for fish in the world.

NOAA uses sanctuary condition reports as a standardized tool to assess the status and trends of national marine sanctuary resources. This condition report for Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary is an update from the 2008 edition.

The report concludes that overall, most habitats within the sanctuary are in good condition, but there are some growing concerns about the effects of climate change — especially for open ocean habitats.

Climate change

Across the globe, our ocean is facing many changes — climate change, marine debris, invasive species, increased ocean noise, and more. Effectively managing and protecting iconic ocean places such as Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary now and in the future involves evaluating the health of the resources now, while considering changes that are taking place.

The six major habitats within the sanctuary are mostly protected from major human disturbances such as coastal development and agriculture, in part because the sanctuary shares a border to the east with Olympic National Park (which is about 95 percent wilderness area), and four sovereign Coastal Treaty Tribes.

As a result, the condition report found that most habitats are in good condition, and show signs of stable or improving trends over time.

However, the report also finds that “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 (low dissolved oxygen) events, and ocean acidification.”

Marine heatwaves

As humans continue burning fossil fuels, excess carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere at rates and in amounts that the Earth system cannot manage without changing. Because of this, the global average sea surface temperature has been rising steadily for decades.

On top of that, natural temperature variability in the ocean can differ from place to place, and some places, such as the U.S. West Coast, have experienced extreme temperature irregularities in ocean environments known as “marine heatwaves.”

During the assessment period for this condition report, the California Current Ecosystem experienced an impressive marine heatwave from 2014–2016, combined with an El Niño-Southern Oscillation event that impacted the Olympic Coast, followed by another heatwave event in 2019.

Warmer waters hold less dissolved oxygen, which amplifies the widespread seasonal hypoxia observed throughout the region. The warmer waters also contributed to the spread of sea star wasting disease, which caused notable population declines in some species of sea stars, and fueled harmful algal blooms that led to the closure of the Dungeness crab fishery in 2015 and repeatedly prevented razor clam harvests that are prized by recreational fishers and deeply significant to tribal communities.

Ocean acidification

The ocean absorbs about 30 percent of the carbon dioxide that is released into the atmosphere. As a result, the ocean is becoming more acidic, which can impede some organisms’ natural ability to build shells and stony skeletons.

The waters within Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary are especially susceptible to ocean acidification, because these waters are naturally more acidic than most of the ocean, thanks to seasonal upwelling of deep ocean waters onto the continental shelf.

Ecologically, economically and culturally important resources such as Dungeness crab, deep-sea corals, mussels, oysters, and pteropods (tiny sea snails) are considered at risk from ocean acidification, and some species are already being impacted.

Pteropods are a food source for Pacific salmon, and due to the inhibited shell growth of pteropods, combined with a range of other stressors, some salmon species are being affected. According to the report, fishery disasters were declared in 2015 and 2016 for some ocean salmon and Dungeness crab fisheries due to changing ocean conditions, resulting in millions of dollars in lost income for local communities.

These events highlighted how fishery disasters impact food security in the area and also how vulnerable this region is to changing ocean conditions.

“So far, most resilient marine ecosystems have been able to recover after climate related stressors,” said Jenny Waddell, research coordinator at Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary.

“But when we see different stressor events happening at the same time, or becoming more frequent, intense, or long lasting, we become more concerned about the combined long term impacts to species and ecosystems and less confident about their ability to recover from such disruptions.”

This is why multi-stressor research and management is a growing area of focus for the Olympic Coast.

While these climate change threats are concerning for environmental and economic reasons, they are particularly troublesome for Indigenous communities, who rely heavily on a healthy ocean to exercise place-based rights as co-managers of resources in the sanctuary.

Indigenous voices, perspectives

For many Indigenous communities, natural resources are cultural resources—inextricably tied to tribal heritage. The Hoh, Makah, and Quileute Tribes, and the Quinault Indian Nation (Coastal Treaty Tribes) have inhabited the Olympic Peninsula since time immemorial.

Long before the sanctuary was designated, the Coastal Treaty Tribes signed treaties with the United States government and reserved hunting, fishing, and gathering rights to access resources within their traditional lands and waters in perpetuity.

The marine ecosystem and associated resources of the Olympic Coast are part of the economic, cultural, and spiritual foundations of the Coastal Treaty Tribes.

“Having access to our ocean places allows us to protect our living culture. We understand that both traditional and scientific knowledge remain essential if we are to preserve and protect our sense of place and the environmental dynamics within,” said Russell Svec, director of Makah Fisheries Management.

In order to represent both traditional and modern-day perspectives of the relationship between humans and the ocean, this updated condition report better incorporates the voices and knowledge of Indigenous people.

NOAA and its partners are grateful to the Tribal Councils, tribal members, and participating staff from the four Coastal Treaty Tribes for their many contributions to this report.

A collaborative effort

Throughout the report’s development, sanctuary staff also worked with numerous other partners to identify and compile information, including state and federal agencies, academic and non-governmental organizations, partners, funders and researchers.

In particular, NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science (NCCOS) provided two years of support in collecting, integrating, and evaluating data to support report development. This work also would not have been possible without the contributions of NOAA’s California Current Integrated Ecosystem Assessment (CCIEA) team.

This expertise and the collaborations with NCCOS and CCIEA were instrumental to the success of this project. Bryan Costa, a research ecologist with NCCOS and project manager during the initial stages notes that “this collaborative effort brought together experts from a range of organizations with diverse backgrounds and perspectives. That diversity of experience was critical to the success of the condition reporting process, and NCCOS was honored to be a key partner.”

Looking forward

This condition report identifies gaps in current monitoring efforts, and looks at where additional investments may be needed to continue protecting sanctuary resources — information that will guide sanctuary staff and partners as they embark on a process to review and update the 2011 management plan.

The condition report also serves as an informational resource for scientists, resource managers, local community members, and the general public who may be interested in providing recommendations during the upcoming management plan revision process.

Given the threat that climate change poses to the region, a Sanctuary Advisory Council working group has been established to lead the process of piloting a climate vulnerability assessment that will leverage information from the condition report.

Using the condition report and climate vulnerability assessment as tools to inform the future management plan ensures that data can be translated into action.

The report will also support the efforts of the Ocean Acidification Sentinel Site, which was established in 2019.

“The condition report is an invaluable resource,” said Dr. Jan Newton, an external reviewer for the report from University of Washington.

“The Olympic Coast, its four Coastal Treaty Tribes, other coastal communities, and highly productive ecosystems are on the front lines of climate change. Marine heat waves, hypoxia, ocean acidification — all of these stressors occur and will increasingly challenge the system as climate change progresses.

“It is essential that we collectively have access to the best scientific knowledge regarding current conditions and future projections for this region.”

This incredible sanctuary off the remote Washington coast supports a variety of ecosystem services that benefit local communities, and captures the hearts and minds of adventure seekers across the world.

Thanks to the dedicated work of staff, the Coastal Treaty Tribes, partners, and support from the local community, the sanctuary has succeeded in protecting the treasured resources there for the past three decades.

This condition report is the first step in ensuring that this status continues.

Rachel Plunkett is the writer/editor for NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.