Salmon and the San Juan Islands
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70% of San Juan County is
forested and 9% of its land lies within 200 feet of the
shoreline; primary land use is for agriculture followed
by low-density residential housing.
include San Juan, Orcas, Shaw and Lopez.
growth rate for San Juan County is projected to be
48 % by 2020.
The planning area for San Juan under the
state Watershed Management Act is Watershed Resource
Inventory Area (WRIA) 2.
San Juan County has over 400
miles of marine shoreline, more than any other county
in the United States.
Located north of Puget Sound, San Juan County is a chain of four
major islands - San Juan, Orcas, Lopez and Shaw - and more than
170 smaller islands. The islands are located in the banana belt of
the Northwest, so they see the sun 247 days of the year, and average
only about 18-28 inches of rain annually. San Juan is the smallest
county in Puget Sound but boasts 414 miles of shoreline, the most
of any county in the United States. Despite 80 percent population
growth in the last 20 years, the population in the San Juan Islands
remains relatively small at just over 14,000. The Islands’ rural
charm and character attracts tourists from around the world seeking
rest and relaxation in the moderate climate and stunning vistas
offered throughout the year.
The waters of the San Juan Islands are home to an abundant sea
life population. Dall's porpoise, seals, Stellar sea lions, otters,
and a variety of fish including salmon, lingcod and rockfish live
in its waters. The most famous residents of these waters are the
Orca Whales and salmon are one of their favorite foods.
Of 90 freshwater streams on the Islands, fewer than a dozen of
them offer access to salmon and no listed populations spawn in them.
Nevertheless, the Islands’ healthy shoreline habitat is used
for refuge, rest and feeding by threatened Chinook and other salmon
species from watersheds throughout Puget Sound and British Columbia.
Only 20 percent of the shorelines of the San Juan Islands and the
Eastern Strait of Juan de Fuca have been modified and the islands’ beaches
are believed to be at historic levels and still provide eelgrass
meadows, kelp beds and tidal marshes. Many of these beaches provide
critical habitat for spawning forage fishes such as sand lance and
Pacific surf smelt. Forage fishes are a major food source for salmon.
Major Policy or Actions Needed to Recover Salmon
The major contribution San Juan County offers Puget Sound salmon
recovery efforts is high-quality nearshore habitat critical to salmon
and their prey. Eelgrass meadows, kelp beds and tidal marshes still
persist. However, the San Juans have one of the highest projected
growth rates in Puget Sound at 48% over the next twenty years and
most of the undeveloped parcels of land in the Islands are along
their shorelines. Therefore, acting now to protect nearshore-marine
habitat is important, as well as educating property owners about
salmon friendly alternatives for shoreline development or modification.
Depending on the age, size and life strategy of particular salmon
populations, they will use different parts of the nearshore and
marine environments. In general, the smaller, younger salmon are
more likely to stay in shallower waters. Further analysis of existing
data, in combination with support from regional salmon experts,
will help the county to identify and protect key habitats. Further
research will enhance and refine their understanding of how various
salmon populations use the county’s nearshore areas and key
habitats such as eelgrass meadows and kelp beds.
Making Progress—Some Accomplishments
The San Juan Preservation Trust and the San Juan County
Land Bank have purchased conservation easements or
bought outright key shoreline habitat areas. These
purchases will help protect or restore natural ecological
processes that in turn will benefit salmon in the nearshore.
Over 12 miles of forage fish spawning habitat are protected
under state code (see forage fish project below). San
Juan County’s shorelines support eelgrass prairies,
a critical habitat, also protected under state ‘no
net loss’ regulations.
San Juan Communities
Five percent of the county’s shorelines are fully
protected and 26 percent partially protected. In 1999,
73 percent of county voters renewed the San Juan Land Bank
for an additional 12 years to continue its mission of preserving
the Islands’ natural heritage for present and future
generations. Created in 1990 The Land Bank is funded by
a one percent real estate tax on property purchases in
the county. Additionally, the San Juan Preservation Trust,
a private, non-profit, tax-exempt corporation founded by
local residents, counsels property owners on preservation
techniques and on tax benefits which might be available
to them from donations of land or easements. Preservation
efforts are accomplished by accepting donations of conservation
easements, gifts of land, or financial contributions donated
for the purchase of easements or property.
A Sound Resource
At the forefront of public-private partnerships, the
San Juan County Forage Fish Project has surveyed
and mapped critical habitat areas which sustain the
marine life that salmon depend on. Project results
include 12.6 miles of nearshore spawning habitat
now protected under current Washington State Code
and a baseline assessment of forage fish spawning
habitat and eelgrass habitats in San Juan County.
All results are public and shared with coastal planners,
managers and landowners. Project partners include
state agencies, the University of Washington, Friends
of the San Juans and the San Juan County Marine Resource
Committee. Information from the San Juan County nearshore
habitat assessments is currently being applied to
the prioritization of shoreline protection and restoration
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