Charting a Hopeful Course for Salish Sea

The Salish Sea from space.
photo: photo: NASA 2021

by Ken Brusic

Second of two parts

Ginny Broadhurst has a superpower.

“My friends and I have a funny conversation sometimes about what’s your superpower,” she said. Her son, Ethan, maintains that a superpower is akin to what one percent of the population can do better than the rest.

“My superpower is being able to reduce (lots of) words down to a small amount,” she said. Another way to express that: she distills clarity out of complexity.

It’s a critical skill for Broadhurst, director of the Salish Sea Institute at Western Washington University.

The Salish Sea is a vast, complex estuary, nurtured by inland rivers whose fresh water flows into its two primary basins, Puget Sound and the Strait of Georgia. Massive volumes of Pacific Ocean seawater flow primarily in and out of the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

This tidal interaction along with movement of the warmer, less dense fresh water and the denser, colder salt water creates circulation within the Salish Sea. It also provides fuel for life.

The Salish Sea sustains a complex, interdependent web of living organisms — plants, birds and sea creatures from the microscopic phytoplankton communities to the salmon to orcas.

And, it is in trouble.

“When the effects of global change in our oceans are combined with the increasing disruption from local urbanization, the Salish Sea estuarine ecosystem will continue to degrade,” according to the “State of the Salish Sea,” a report commissioned by Broadhurst in 2019 and released in May 2021.

“The Salish Sea is under relentless pressure from an accelerating convergence of global and local environmental stressors, and the cumulative impacts of 150 years of development and alteration of our watersheds and seascape,” the report states.

Responsibility for the management of the inland sea is as complex as its biodiversity. 

The sea crosses an international border, so the laws and governance by the United States and Canada both apply, but only on their sides of the border. The state of Washington and the province of British Columbia share a cooperation agreement signed in 1992, but both sides have their own priorities. Jurisdictions and interests abound: multiple counties on the U.S. side; regional districts in Canada; rights of the indigenous people, including more than 65 sovereign Tribes and First Nations in the regions; local governments; laws, acts, treaties, regulations; scientists, local and national environmental organizations. It all creates a bureaucratic stew as complex as competing factions within the United Nations General Assembly.

Broadhurst’s job is to navigate these treacherous waters, use her superpower and provide clarity and coherence out of this complex web of problems and interests.

New Jersey Roots
Ginny Broadhurst grew up in Ridgewood, New Jersey, a small village close to North Jersey’s urban sprawl and about 25 miles northwest of New York City.

“I somehow knew growing up that I was going to leave,” she said, “to seek greener pastures.”

The path led first to the University of New Hampshire and a Bachelor of Science degree in environmental conservation. One of her college advisors told her that job prospects with that degree were slim. Probably wise to think about a future graduate degree.

Restless, after a summer job in Maine, she decided to explore the Pacific Northwest, a place she knew primarily through National Geographic magazine.

“So a friend and I just got in my Volkswagon Rabbit and drove out,” she said. They stayed with some college friends who had moved to Seattle and slept on their apartment floor. Another friend had settled in Sequim, a small city near the base of the Olympic Mountains, close to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Broadhurst went to visit.

While on a bike ride there, she saw the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. “And I was like, ‘Oh, look at that. That’s pretty cool.’ And I literally asked if they had any job. And they did.”

She moved from New Jersey and spent about a year at the lab before having mixed feelings  about living so far from her family. She went back East, but, after about nine months, missed the cool, lush green Pacific Northwest forests and the environmental ethos. She returned to Seattle, then enrolled and studied at the University of Washington for two years, earning a Masters of Marine Affairs (MMA).

It took her a while, but she determined her calling was to be a bridge between science and policy.

“I’ve pretty much followed that path of being that bridge,” she said, “kind of an interpreter of science and looking at ways to make changes in the world of policy, and also just getting people to better understand where they live, what’s their role here, what’s their role as stewards.”

She honed her skills working for the Puget Sound Action Team (now called the Puget Sound Partnership) in Olympia and then spent 14 years at the Northwest Straits Commission, a conservation initiative that brings together scientists and community volunteers in seven counties in northwest Washington. She served first as its marine program manager and then executive director for 10 years.

An example of her work there was a project that received national recognition for the removal of hundreds of abandoned fishing nets lying on the sea floor of Puget Sound. Broadhurst employed tribal divers as well as volunteers to remove the nets that were lost or discarded years ago, but still killed massive quantities of fish, birds and other animals.

Through her work and her years in the Pacific Northwest, she knew this was the place she wanted to be.

“I felt at home here in a way that I never have felt before,” she said. The place became part of her.

She recounts this story from sometime around 1990.

“I was flying back from Alaska. And when you fly back from Alaska on a clear day, and they come in low, you’re coming from the north. I was looking out the window, and I thought about how much I knew the geography of the land and all the places that I had been. This is home.”

First Director
In 2017, a job opportunity in Bellingham led her farther north. By then she was married to Don Hunger and had two children, daughter Maya, now 27 and son Ethan, 24. Her husband is the executive director of the Northwest Straits Foundation.

Western Washington University hired Broadhurst to become the first director of the Salish Sea Studies Institute on June 5.

Its home is the Canada House, a place that was once the home of university presidents, but now provides offices for those focused on transboundary studies and issues.

It sits atop a bluff on a corner of campus overlooking Bellingham Bay. Four massive conifers line the southwest side, one with a circumference of 11 ½ feet, a testament to its age and endurance.

Broadhurst and Natalie Baloy, associate director of Transboundary Initiatives, have offices here. Broadhurst’s is an airy space on the second floor. A whiteboard dominates one wall. It is covered with Salish Sea Institute plans and dreams.

An early dream was to commission a report detailing the state of the Salish Sea, a kind of narrative medical chart for the patient, as well as the rest of us, to see the overall health of the entire body. Only this body spans 6,874 miles. Its boundaries are the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the west, the southern ends of Puget Sound and the Hood Canal to the south, and an area just beyond the Strait of Georgia to the north. It also encompasses vast inland areas and watersheds that feed into the Salish Sea.

The medical chart had a big gap. No comprehensive health report had been undertaken since “The Shared Waters Report” in 1994. So how was the patient doing? Someone had to sort through the mass of existing information to find out.

Report’s Lead Author
In late 2018, Kathryn Sobocinski was winding down a postdoctoral fellowship at the NOAA Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle. Broadhurst had issued a request for a proposal.

“It passed my desk many, many times,” Sobocinski said. “Finally, I said, ‘Okay, fine. I should at least talk to her and see what she wants.’”

Sobocinski did some homework and presented a few ideas for how the project could move forward. Broadhurst and a small advisory committee liked what they saw and heard, and signed on Sobocinski to be the report’s lead author. Broadhurst and colleague Natalie Baloy helped shape the report, provided ongoing support and coedited it.

“I said over and over and over again, this is going to be a huge headache,” Sobocinski said. “It was. It’s also been a really interesting experience.

“You know, as scientists, we tend to write papers that go into journals and are read by like 25 other people that have our expertise. This was much more public facing. And overall, I’m really proud of it. And, I think Ginny and the Salish Sea Institute folks are, too. But, it is by far the hardest thing I’ve done in my career.”

She was well prepared: a Ph.D. in marine science, College of William & Mary (Virginia Institute of Marine Science); an M.S. in aquatic and fishery sciences, University of Washington; and a B.A. in environmental studies, Connecticut College. She is now an assistant professor in WWU’s department of environmental sciences and the marine and coastal science program.

In developing the scope of the study, Broadhurst, Baloy and Sobocinski made these assumptions:

 Focus would be on the estuary rather than the interconnected adjacent land and watersheds

 Audience would be typical participants of the Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference, a biennial information exchange among educators, scientists, students and interested community members

 It would be written primarily for a learned — though not necessarily technical — audience, and it would contain detailed citations to papers and studies

 It would be a synthesis of existing work rather than attempting new studies or focusing on policy

 It would concentrate on “two pervasive drivers of ecosystem change — urbanization and climate change”

All the fact gathering, collaboration and writing occurred during the pandemic.

In some ways, it made concentrated research and writing time easier. Sobocinski hunkered down at home and plowed through the material, writing late into the evenings. It also presented challenges.

“You know, doing the report during the pandemic actually made me realize how challenging some of the environmental issues are,” she said. “We couldn’t even really get our heads around a major public health problem, which had all the evidence pointing to certain things being solutions, or at least (ideas) that would help us overcome our current situation. 

“And we couldn’t rally behind it. So, I started thinking a lot about climate change, and how it’s so hard to galvanize people to take action.”

Catalog of Problems, Opportunities
Taking action. Moving forward. Tackling big ideas. The final printed report, weighing in at 275 pages and 2.7 pounds, is a catalog of problems and opportunities facing the Salish Sea.

“We have an important mission,” Broadhurst said. “It’s a puzzle to figure out how to make progress.” Especially during waves of increasing Covid-19 infections when people were so isolated.

“It’s been really hard during the pandemic to do this work” she said. “I need to network. I need to be in British Columbia. I need to be having face-to-face meetings. It’s just been excruciatingly difficult.”

She is also frustrated by lack of progress with environmental indicators that are going the wrong way, among them:

 Increasing urbanization with a population surrounding the sea approaching nine million

 Declining salmon and orca populations

 Loss of 70 percent of wetlands in the Fraser River delta

 Loss of 90 percent of tidal forests

 Vast shoreline hardening

 Wastewater contamination

 Plastic and microplastic pollution

 Pilings that leach creosote

 Increasing vessel traffic and more underwater noise

“We know a lot of the solutions to a lot of these problems,” she said. “We need to rise up and do it.”

What is in the way? What’s stopping progress? Many things. A complex web of underlying problems that belies the natural beauty of the place. And then there’s this:

“Layers of laws, treaties, regulations, and jurisdictions make for a complicated and even fragmented approach to Salish Sea governance, exacerbating challenges from global climate change to local lack of enforcement and funding,” the report states.

Biggest Threat to Salish Sea
Christianne Wilhelmson, the executive director of the Georgia Strait Alliance, a Canadian environmental group based in Vancouver, B.C., has some thoughts about that.

She enjoys a variety of outdoor activities. One of them is kayaking in the waters of the Strait of Georgia.

“It connects you to place in a way like no other,” she said. “There are no barriers. Your ability to physically experience the ocean, seeing things close up, being close to the water, it just breaks down the barriers.”

That is until you get to the 49th parallel, the border between Canada and the United States.

“That border is the biggest threat to the health of the Salish Sea by far,” she said in a telephone interview. “We have yet to have a truly collaborative, out-of-the-box-thinking commitment on both sides of the government to not just share information, but to collaborate and coordinate so that we have a holistic approach to protecting, to honoring and to taking action on the threats of the region.

“You know, I’ve been doing this work for almost 20 years, and we’re still having the same conversations around the Salish Sea that we were having 20 years ago.”

She has seen signs of progress, but they tend to be small, incremental “patchwork” solutions rather than dealing with big, systemic change.

Natalie Baloy, Broadhurst’s colleague at the Salish Sea Institute who holds a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology from the University of British Columbia, sees an ethical dilemma taking place. It has to do with the principle of “do no harm,” a concept at the forefront in medicine.

She said she wonders whether her colleagues in indigenous studies or environmental disciplines or the public at large have a do-no-harm ethic in place.

“I don’t think we’re operating on that principle as a collective,” Baloy said. “Sometimes we’re invited to do that individually — let’s not throw batteries in the bay or whatever. Fine, but you know what? What does it mean to have increased tanker traffic through the Salish Sea? What does it mean to be paving over surfaces and creating more stormwater runoff?

“How is an ethic of ‘do no harm’ being applied through social-, political-level decisions? It’s not clear to me that ethics is at the center of those conversations. I think it’s often an afterthought.”  

The Hope Gap
At the top of the whiteboard in Ginny Broadhurst’s Canada House office is a note to develop an idea that Elin Kelsey expressed during a recent virtual Salish Sea Institute symposium.

Kelsey conducts research into the emotional responses of children, environmental educators and conservation biologists to the culture of “hopelessness” that permeates environmental issues. She received her Ph.D. in Science Communication/International Environmental Policy from Kings College in London.

She has written the book, “Hope Matters: Why Changing the Way We Think Is Critical to Solving the Environmental Crisis.” Broadhurst said that thinking needs to be applied to problems facing the Salish Sea.

Kelsey talks about a hope gap, where a majority of Americans believe there’s a climate crisis, but fewer than 20 percent of them believe the problem can be solved.

In an extreme manifestation of environmental frustration, three New Zealand scientists called on climate scientists earlier this year to stage a mass walkout until their work was taken more seriously.

“Is what we’re doing with our lives really making a difference?” the scientists asked. “How can we get elected officials to act on the threats we’ve so clearly identified?”

Broadhurst understands that frustration. It sometimes weighs her down, forcing herself to be publicly positive while bubbling with concern because major environmental progress in the Salish Sea seems so sluggish and remote.

The “State of the Salish Sea” is a bright spot. She is buoyed by Sobocinski’s “brilliant” work. “She’s wonderful to work with,” Broadhurst said.

Sobocinski, Baloy and Broadhurst all find great passion, persistence and hope embodied in many of the serious students they work with. These young people are smart, dedicated and caring, they say.

Baloy, the anthropologist, offers an additional perspective:

“I think that there’s some lessons to be learned from the past, in the ways that the Salish Sea has been cared for and lived in and modified by Coast Salish people for thousands of years. I think there’s just a lot of lived experience in place and a lot of deep knowledge in place that’s already very present. 

“And we would all do well to be paying attention and learning and listening.”

Then there is Kelsey’s message:

“Acceptance of what is, is not the same as fatalism about what comes next. Hope is a powerful political act.

“Hope is wild and contagious. My hope is that you will nurture the wild and contagious hope that lives inside of you and actively spread it to everyone you know.”

Broadhurst is trying. 

 In less than five years, the Salish Sea Institute started a new minor in Salish Sea Studies with several graduates and 30 current students.

 The “State of the Salish Sea” has been widely praised and downloaded about 4,000 times. Hundreds of printed copies have been sold.

 Its findings have been dissected, discussed and debated by the many participants of the third Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference held last month,

 People are assimilating the three “Opportunities for Improving Assessment and Understanding of the Salish Sea” listed in the report, and

 They are reflecting on the report’s Call to Action, discussing the six questions listed there and asking some of their own.

 Salish Sea Fellows are being chosen to examine and seek answers to 10 questions posed by the institute to deepen knowledge and spur action.

 Aquila Flower, a WWU associate professor of geography in the environmental studies department, continues to build an open access digital book containing maps, illustrations, interpretive text, and downloadable geospatial datasets addressing cultural and environmental themes across the Salish Sea bioregion.

 Through it all, the institute raised more than $1 million for projects and conferences.

All of that is cause for pride. And for hope. 

Ginny Broadhurst just needs to continue to focus her superpower so we can all imagine the possibilities and take action.

Ken Brusic is the former longtime editor of The Orange County Register, a Pulitzer-prize winning daily newspaper that serves 34 Southern California communities with a total population of 3.3 million. He also holds a USCG 100-ton near coastal captain’s license.


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