The following article appeared in the Anacortes American, Wednesday, December 29, 1999

 Habitat help coming for Fidalgo Bay


American staff writer

 In the past century, Fidalgo Bay has served more as an industrial waterway than an incubator for fish and shellfish species, although the latter fed an industry as well as the local population.

Now, the bill is coming due.  With the listing of Chinook salmon on the Endangered Species List and a whole new approach to environmental stewardship, Anacortes now finds itself at the cusp of direct action.

What that means in immediate terms is an initial modest project to identify low-cost and easily-managed habitat restoration in and around the bay.  Later, the cost could ratchet upward, and likely will mean direct financial support from City Hall and other jurisdictions.  In fact, the edict from federal and state agencies is more like a mantra – from no-net-loss of habitat to net gain.  In other words, salmon stocks will not recover nor grow if shoreline communities don’t take aggressive action to restore what’s been lost over the past several decades.

“We are really talking about restoration, where you increase the carrying capacity of the habitat,” Bob Everitt, regional director of state Fish and Wildlife, said.

To that end, the Anacortes City Council members approved last week a $40,000 project to identify habitat-restoration projects in Fidalgo Bay.  Battelle Northwest will conduct the study.  The state Department of Community , Trade and Economic Development (C-TED) has award the city $25,000 toward the project, and the Port of Anacortes will consider adding $7,5000 more.  The city will pick up the $7,500 balance in the 2000 budget.

“This is a new (environmental) standard than the one for the past 15 years.  Fish and Wildlife can’t support our Fidalgo Bay plan unless we have that restoration component,” city planning director Ian Munce said.  Although the ESA list is driving the discussion somewhat, Munce said a more aggressive environmental approach has been coming for some time, and one that will require cities and counties pay a proportionate share.

The plan calls for inventorying the bay and coming up with workable plans to restore habitat, such as clearing intrusive (and illegal ) riprap form the shoreline, clearing wood waste and debris from beach areas and pinpointing areas where sand lances spawn, Munce said.  As well, Battelle also will connect habitat areas to species, and develop projects the city can work on for the next 20 years.

“We hope to follow up, to actual get permits to do those project,” Munce added.

The Fidalgo Bay planning process, nearly complete, calls for development, restoration and mitigation.  The first would allow new and continued marine development, new industry on the shoreline and the like, while the latter provides a framework to earn “points” toward development.  The latter usually is pegged to eelgrass beds, and a project is ready to use that would allow six acres for eelgrass propagation.  A private party, however, needs to take on that aspect.

For restoration, formerly the least discussed of the three-pronged approach, the path is more problematic because it encompasses environmental damage decades or more old.  Munce said private companies already have paid toward restoration in Washington state, such as timber firms, so they can do business.  Now he said, cities and counties have to be more directly accountable.

Everitt agreed.  He spoke at a recent Fidalgo Bay public hearing and re-stated his concerns about habitat restoration and impact on the bay.  He said what must be done, and what can be done, to restore salmon to he Pacific Northwest rather than just following the status quo.  In fact, when the federal National Marine Fisheries formally lists the Chinook, cities and counties will need to demonstrate they will not detrimentally impact salmon habitat, or they can be denied permits to do business.

“With ESA, there is a prohibition in the law.  It can be determined that (an impact) would constitute a ‘taking’,” much like private property, Everitt said,.  “But NMF also can issue a permit to allow a ‘take,’ especially if there is a (restoration) program in place.”

With NMF’s ruling on the ESA Chinook listing coming up soon and federal permits already pretty much in limbo awaiting that edict, Anacortes city officials decided they need to get ahead of the curve.

“We know we can’t do things we’ve done in the past.  We live on this island, and the quality of life is important to us,” Mayor Dean Maxwell said, adding that Evergreen Islands has supported this latest endeavor to clean up the bay.

I’m hopeful we will have benefits in the long run, though personally I think the estuaries in my lifetime have gotten cleaner,” Maxwell added.

Initially, Maxwell said the city likely will pay modest amounts toward restoration, “not a huge budgetary issue.”  But, also, Maxwell said it’s urgent that any studies done not end up on the shelf because of budget shortfalls or other concerns.

“The real issue is what the community will look like in 25 year,” Maxwell said, adding that he was a skeptic before he came into office six years ago.  “Now I’m convinced perseverance and patience will work it out in the long run.”

But others say it will take considerable time and unknown dollars to get there, much as it has for the Fidalgo Bay planning project.  Rich Aschieris, Port of Anacortes director, said the Port supports bay restoration and will do what it can as part of that effort.

“The Port has looked at the Fidalgo Bay plan as a partnership with the city.  And we agree we need to go through and identify restoration projects, and decide what we want to do now,” Achieris said.

“The Port and the city will be working closely together and figure out what the next step will be.”

Much of that will depend on criteria set out by NMF for Chinook listing, and whether the city and Port can comply with some or parts of that at the outset.  If so, it could move the city faster into compliance, a critical element for further funding.  Munce said he expects community volunteers and the usual contractors with heavy equipment to be part of a “help” pool to keep costs low, particularly when moving concrete slabs and debris from shoreline area.  Everitt said the city has demonstrated its willingness to move forward before, and he expect it will do so again.

“Anacortes is doing a great job for a city this size; they are ahead of the curve.  There is good leadership in this community, and the city will be in a good position (once the listing takes effect),” Everitt said.

But no one is taking a Pollyanna stance, especially because salmon-restoration still remains a contentious mystery – even among the scientists.  At least for the bay, Munce said Ron Thom of Batelle is a plus because he and his non-profit lab are well-known for their scrupulous field work.

It’s what comes after that, though that could be more of a problem.  And Anacortes residents won’t know for sure until sometime next year.