Pacific Northwest
Olivia Vanni / The Daily Herald

WA - Small Fish, Big Barriers: A County Confronts Climate Change

Island County has 196 miles of shoreline to protect as sea levels rise. And erosion is only one of the challenges.

COUPEVILLE — Island County doesn’t need a canary in the coal mine to warn of advancing climate change. It already has sea lance and surf smelt.

The small fish are silvery links in the chain of Puget Sound life, eaten by many marine animals. They can’t survive without beaches and shallow water. Both habitats are in short supply because humans have armored shorelines with boulders, concrete bulkheads and dikes. Climate-driven sea level rise and storm surge can only make matters worse, said Lisa Kaufman, nearshore program manager for the Northwest Straits Foundation.

“Usually, bulkheads are sitting right on top of where forage fish spawn,” she said. “As sea levels rise, it will get deeper and deeper and there’s not going to be a beach.”

Restoring shorelines to their natural state can protect waterfront homes as well as fish. But even Island County residents without million-dollar views may find climate change at their figurative doorsteps. That could be because they pay taxes, drink water, run a government, serve in the Navy, serve shellfish, guide tourists. Or perhaps they simply thrill at the sight of endangered orcas — which eat endangered salmon, which eat sand lances and smelt.

Climate change concerns have made their way into public debate and county documents, notably this year’s expected updates of the Shoreline Master Plan and Hazard Mitigation Plan.

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