The removal of shoreline armor is vital for Puget Sound recovery – but new armoring is being built faster than it can be removed. Fortunately, land trusts across the Sound are helping to lead the way.
Armoring is a common sight along Puget Sound shorelines: the bulkheads, large chunks of rock, and seawalls installed with the intent to protect coastal property. Historically, armoring has been very popular as a means to slow natural erosion and define clear lines between the land and the Sound. Over 25% of Puget Sound shoreline has been armored with the intent of protecting property, including about fifty percent of Vashon Island and 92% of Seattle marine shoreline. However, according to the Washington State Department of Ecology, armoring structures such as bulkheads are normally unnecessary for erosion control.
New understanding of coastal ecosystems shows that shoreline armoring negatively impacts the health of Puget Sound. It restricts the flow of sand to beaches, eventually causing the beach to erode away without replenishment.
Ultimately, this results in pebbly, steep shorelines that make poor habitat for beach-spawning species like surf smelt, sand lance, and other forage fish. And armoring leaves juvenile herring and salmon without the sand that their life cycle relies upon. This disruption in the food chain has cascading effects, all the way out to orca.
Thankfully, land trusts are helping to remove armoring along Puget Sound to restore and steward these vital beach habitats.
The Bainbridge Island Land Trust recently completed the removal of a whopping 1,340 tons of bulkhead, covering a third of a mile, on a protected property owned by the Powel family — the largest shoreline restoration project ever completed on private property in Puget Sound!
If all goes according to plan, the Land Trust estimates that the project will increase the healthy intertidal area by nearly three-fold. That’s very good news for the juvenile Chinook salmon and other marine species that will gain back lost salt marsh, intertidal habitats, and marine riparian habitats.
Further south, Vashon-Maury Island Land Trust is working in partnership with King County and the Puget Sound Partnership to restore the island’s beaches. The Piner Point Natural Area — located at the southernmost tip of the island — is home to one of the larger bulkhead removal projects undertaken back in 2009. That’s just the beginning: there are three bulkheads slated for removal on the Maury Island Aquatic Reserve this summer, and two more planned for next year.
All of these projects contribute to the goals of the Puget Sound Shoreline Conservation Collaborative, a project of WALT aiming to accelerate the pace and scale of Puget Sound conservation and restoration.
However, there is much work to be done. In 2016 the average rate of new armor construction exceeded the average rate of removal.. Despite scientific recommendations to halt shoreline armor construction, the length of armor along the Sound has actually increased by 4357 feet since 2011. Alarmingly, a large portion of the bulkheads being built are unpermitted.
Much of this continued construction is due to private landowner actions; many still have a sentimental attachment to the sense of security and aesthetic which seawalls provide to coastal homes. Fortunately, attitudes are changing as the general public learns more about the importance of shoreline habitats.
“Growing up with a seawall on my beach, my parents and neighbors had to invest money in repairing or re-filling the wall multiple times,” recalls Vashon Island resident Ian McWhirter. “However, after consulting with a coastal engineer, we began to let the beach return to its natural state.”
“This decision ultimately made the most economic and ecological sense.”
Removing armoring and bulkheads is one of the many ways that land trusts help to restore regional landscapes. This is especially important in Puget Sound as armor removal is essential for the protection of endangered marine species and their natural habitats. Protecting and restoring shorelines is vital for recovering the long term health of Puget Sound, and land trusts are leading the way.
Kaia Boonzaier is a senior at the University of Washington Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies. A student of climate change and energy policy, she is passionate about researching and resolving international resource conflicts. Kaia is from Vashon Island, and lives in Seattle.