Saving the coast worth the cost

By Andrew Jokela - Staff Reporter

Restoring natural coastline is hard work.

Dr. Tish Conway-Cranos, nearshore science manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, spoke about coastline restoration efforts at Highline's Marine Science and Technology (MaST) Center on Saturday, April 7 as part of the Science on the Sound speaker series. 

The Puget Sound Nearshore Ecosystem Restoration Project embarked on a nearly 15-year project to identify all areas of coastline in need of restoration in the Puget Sound area. During this time, several locations presented immediate need for action. 

"There was no reason to wait to start restoration,"Dr. Conway-Cranos said.

The Puget Sound area has 16 giant river deltas (places where the river meets the ocean) and more than 800 individual sections of coastline, called shoreline units. These areas provide habitats, or homes, for sea creatures, plants, and wildlife. 

Sadly, these habitats are being destroyed. Over the years, industrial advancement and human-led shoreline modification has decreased the amount of habitat for natural flora and fauna significantly, particularly in places like Whidbey Island, she said. 

For example, Nisqually River Delta has seen natural habitat shrink to only 2,000 acres in 2004, down from 4,000 acres in 1900. 

Without this vital habitat, plants and wildlife are not able to flourish in the area. The Nisqually Delta has seen a 95 percent decline in the total amount of freshwater and a 77 percent decline in vegetative habitats. 

In Washington state, nearly one third of beaches have rock armor or seawalls installed to prevent erosion. These abatements are typically installed on private property to prevent coastline erosion. However, such measures often interfere with the flow of sediment, tides, and detritus (decaying plant material), Dr. Conway-Cranos said.

"Sometimes, detritus is picked up in one place and deposited in another," continued Dr. Conway-Cranos. For example, a saltwater marsh near Olympia may produce plant matter which gets picked up by the tide and strewn along a beach near Bremerton. If coastal armor was installed, flora would not accumulate on the shoreline, and microorganisms would be unable to use it as a habitat. 

The goal of restoration is to create self-sustaining ecosystems, which can function indefinitely with minimal human intervention. To achieve this, natural processes such as tidal flow, sediment transport, and detritus transport must be allowed to happen. 

According to, a website run by the United States Environmental Protection Agency, most counties in Washington offer tax breaks as incentives for private landowners to remove coastal armor on their property. The website offers several alternatives to traditional rock armor that mitigate erosion while still allowing for natural processes to occur. 

Even once armor is removed, one of the hardest parts of the process is waiting to see how intervention affects the habitats, and consequently, the inhabitants. 

"We don't just build our thing and walk away," said Dr. Conway-Cranos, smiling. "We measure everything we can." Sometimes, this involves counting the number of tiny invertebrates and determining if the intervention caused a change in the population. 

"Go see a restoration project in action," Dr. Conway-Cranos said.

Active restoration projects can be seen at the Nisqually River Delta near Olympia, or Leque Island and Smith Island Estuary, which are both north of Seattle. 

For more information, please visit the Puget Sound Nearshore Ecosystem Restoration Project's website,

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