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Northwest Straits Initiative

Case Authors

Colin Hume, Julia Wondolleck and Steven Yaffee, University of Michigan


The Northwest Straits Marine Conservation Initiative was formed in 1998 to provide a bottom-up, community-based approach to address declines in the marine ecosystem of the Northwest Straits area of Puget Sound, Washington State.

The initiative provides coordination and funding for seven community-based Marine Resources Committees that are appointed by county councils in the Northwest Straits region. The committees are autonomous and independent. They establish their own priorities and conservation projects.

Although the initiative does not have regulatory authority, it has established partnerships and enjoyed broad-based citizen involvement. It has funded restoration and education efforts, and supported the creation of voluntary regulations in sensitive areas.

It struggles to achieve ecosystem-wide coordination of activities and work with state regulatory agencies, but its unique structure provides lessons for marine practitioners.

MEBM Attributes

  • Scale: Focus on improving the ecosystem of the Northwest Straits through restoration projects and voluntary actions.
  • Collaboration: Providing a forum for collaborative decision-making among local communities.
  • Complexity:Seeking to base management policies on sound science.

Mission and Primary Objectives


The mission of the Northwest Straits Marine Conservation Initiative is to protect and restore the marine waters, habitats and species of the region to achieve ecosystem health and sustainable resource use.


The following objectives have been established:

  • Empower local citizens through Marine Resources Committees and the initiative structure to identify and resolve marine environmental concerns.
  • Design and initiate projects driven by science, local priorities, community-based decisions and the ability to measure results.
  • Build awareness, stewardship and make recommendations to improve the health of the Northwest Straits marine resources.
  • Maintain and expand diverse membership and partner organizations.
  • Expand partnerships with tribal governments and continue to foster respect for tribal cultures and treaties.

Key Parties

Lead Organizations


  • Northwest Straits Commission

Local Partners

  • Marine Resources Commissions representing the counties of Clallam, Island, Jefferson, San Juan, Skagit, Snohomish, and Whatcom.

Key Parties


  • National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration


  • Gubernatorial Representatives
  • Puget Sound Partnership
  • Washington Department of Ecology
  • Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife
  • Washington Department of Natural Resources


  • Tribal Representatives


Program Structure

The Northwest Straits Marine Conservation Initiative relies on existing governmental authority and community volunteers to implement locally-defined projects. Initiative staff members coordinate regional projects throughout the Northwest Straits.

Northwest Straits Commission

The Northwest Straits Commission manages the Northwest Straits Initiative and acts as a board of directors of the Marine Resources Committees (MRCs). The commission includes 13 members, including one member of each MRC. Five commission members are appointed by the governor of Washington to provide technical advice or stakeholder perspective. One member of the commission is a tribal representative appointed by the Secretary of the Interior. The position of commission chairman rotates annually between the gubernatorial appointees and MRC representatives. Decisions are made by consensus.

Northwest Straits Foundation

The Northwest Straits Foundation is a non-profit organization that seeks funding for education, restoration and scientific projects. It is a separate but complementary body with its own director of development.

Marine Resource Committees

County ordinance established Marine Resource Committees in the seven counties of the Northwest Straits. Each committee is composed of volunteer members appointed by county commissions. The members are scientists, local and tribal government officials, and represent local conservation, economic and recreational interests. Each MRC names its representative to the Northwest Straits Commission. MRCs use a consensus-based process to make decisions.


Motivations for Initiating Effort

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration proposed a National Marine Sanctuary for the Northwest Straits region in the 1980s, but Congress put a stop to the proposal due to strong local opposition.

A diverse group of residents still wanted to address declines in the ecosystem. Two local officials, a county commissioner and port commissioner in San Juan County, worked together to create the concept of a Marine Resources Committee composed of community stakeholders. The committee received local support because it would provide advice to the San Juan County Council and keep authority over the resource in local hands.

The San Juan MRC quickly became the building block of the Northwest Straits Conservation Initiative. U.S. Rep. Jack Metcalf, R-Wash., and U.S. Senator Patty Murray, D-Wash., created a commission to study the problems of the region and recommend solutions that would be palatable to local residents. After the publication of the report, Congress established the Northwest Straits Conservation Initiative.


Ecosystem Characteristics and Threats

The Ecosystem

The Northwest Straits region includes the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the San Juan Islands and Northern Puget Sound. It is home to approximately 220 species of fish, 100 species of sea birds, 26 species of marine mammals, and thousands of species of invertebrates.

The region supports more than seven million residents and is expected to grow by another 1.4 million people by 2025. Within the seven counties that constitute the Northwest Straits region, 15 Native American tribes and dozens of local governments share jurisdiction over activities in the marine ecosystem.

The rich resources supported a thriving Native American population with a culture based largely on marine resources and their extraction. The influx of white settlers brought a booming commercial fishing industry, busy shipping lanes, rapid population increases, and development of tourism industries. As of 2004, 63 species of concern were listed or designated by one or more of the agencies with jurisdiction in the region. Populations of herring, killer whales, rockfish, salmon, scoters, and native oyster and clam have declined notably.


The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has cited three primary reasons for the decline of marine species:

  • Increased development and its impacts resulted in the loss, degradation and fragmentation of habitat.
  • Intensive industrial activities resulted in pollution and chemical contaminants entering the ecosystem.
  • Commercial and recreational harvesting over-exploited marine resources.


Major Strategies

Key strategies include: 

  • Restoration projects
  • Stewardship areas and voluntary regulations
  • Education and outreach to shoreline communities and resource users
  • Generate needed information for decision-makers.
  • Benchmarks to guide progress
  • Strategic funding
  • Training and capacity building
  • Communication and collaboration

Monitoring, Assessment and Evaluation

Establishing baseline ecosystem data has been a large focus of the Marine Resources Committees and activities of the Northwest Straits Marine Conservation Initiative. Partnerships with state environmental agencies have mobilized citizens to participate in monitoring activities. Data is used in management decisions.


Accomplishments and impacts of the Northwest Straits Marine Conservation Initiative include:

  • Increased visibility of problems facing the near-shore and marine environment.
  • Greater sense of stewardship among community members.
  • Increase in baseline environmental data.
  • Creation of partnerships to address marine problems.
  • Development of a national model for the removal of marine debris.

Factors Facilitating Progress

The Northwest Straits Marine Conservation Initiative has been facilitated by key factors, including:

  • Consistent Funding: The initiative’s champion was U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), whose strong position in the Senate and personal investment in the initiative allowed it to receive consistent funding through Congressional appropriations. Consistent funding filters down to the Marine Resources Committees and facilitates partnerships with state agencies, tribes, local governments and non-governmental organizations in the region. A loss of consistent funding to the MRC projects would likely dissolve the partnerships that have formed.



Several challenges have limited the progress of the Northwest Straits Marine Conservation Initiative in implementing ecosystem-based management, including:

  • Achieving Protection with Voluntary Regulation: Efforts to develop Marine Protected Areas with regulatory teeth largely have been put on the back-burner in favor of less contentious voluntary regulations and stewardship areas. The effectiveness of those voluntary efforts is in question.
  • Working with State Agencies: Relationships with state-level agencies have been slow to form, particularly when regulations are being discussed. Often, the Marine Resources Committees (MRCs) lack the desire to work with state agencies and their respective interests and restrictions, preferring to focus on local matters.
  • Coordinating Activities at an Ecosystem Scale with MRCs: The autonomy of MRCs lead to difficulties in coordinating actions at an ecosystem scale. Projects are often small and haphazard, suiting local desires for conservation, rather than the needs of the entire ecosystem.


Lessons Learned

The experience of the Northwest Straits Marine Conservation Initiative offers lessons for other projects, including:

  • Importance of Benchmarks: Without the initiative defining benchmarks, projects might be conducted in a more haphazard manner. The benchmarks provide enough specificity to guide activities to address important deficiencies in the ecosystem. At the same time, the benchmarks allow volunteer members of Marine Resources Committees to design and implement projects to suit local needs, constraints, and priorities. This is essential given the volunteer base of the initiative.


Website Links

Northwest Straits Marine Conservation Initiative:

San Juan County Marine Resources Committee:

Clallam County Marine Resources Committee: