Roots of the Northwest Straits Initiative

Despite its rich ecological heritage, the marine resources of the Northwest Straits have shown indications of serious decline over the last 20 years. Recognizing the national and international environmental significance of the area and the environmental degradation that was occurring, Congress authorized a study of the Northwest Straits region in the mid-1980s for potential inclusion in the National Marine Sanctuary system.

From the beginning, the sanctuary proposal was met with mixed regional support and strong resistance in many local areas. During public meetings, citizens voiced their concerns that a sanctuary would be administered in a top-down fashion, with staff in Washington D.C. making decisions without local input. In 1994, all seven of the county legislative authorities voiced formal, strong opposition to the sanctuary proposal, and the process was officially terminated in 1996. Resistance to the proposal was clearly linked to fears that as a federally administered program, a sanctuary program would not meaningfully engage the community or respond to local needs.

The Murray-Metcalf Commission

In the aftermath of the proposal's demise, there remained a commitment among many diverse leaders to create a new and different program that could help restore and protect the marine resources of the Northwest Straits. While protection of Northwest Straits resources clearly had a strong existing federal and state regulatory framework, what was missing was a way to harness the energy and expertise of local citizens and provide them with opportunities to actively protect and restore the marine resources.

In 1997, U.S. Senator Patty Murray and U.S. Representative Jack Metcalf established a blue-ribbon committee (known as the Murray-Metcalf Commission) to explore alternative models for protecting and restoring marine resources in the Northwest Straits. The Murray-Metcalf Commission unanimously agreed that the Northwest Straits marine ecosystem and its marine resources were in serious trouble, citing declining populations of bottomfish, sea birds, invertebrates, salmon and some populations of marine mammals as prime examples. After a year of research and discussion, The Murray-Metcalf Commission published a report, known as the Report to the Convenors, which laid the groundwork for what was to become the Northwest Straits Initiative. The report concluded that a coordinated effort, blending well-founded science with grassroots consensus building, would be the best approach. The result is the Northwest Straits Marine Conservation Initiative, authorized by Congress in 1998.

Program Evaluation: 2004

In 2004, a panel chaired by Bill Ruckelshaus  evaluated the Northwest Straits Initiative. The Murray-Metcalf report mandated that the Initiative undergo a thorough, independent program review at the end of its initial six-year term.

The 8-person Northwest Straits Evaluation Panel held four days of hearings. The panel found that the Initiative has achieved success in key areas, including:

  • Mobilizing broad citizen support for marine conservation.
  • Bringing people together to work cooperatively on issues
  • Increasing voluntary compliance with conservation goals
  • Tapping local energy to generate on-the-ground projects
  • Contributing to scientific understanding of the marine ecosystem
  • Spreading innovative ideas between counties
  • Creating a model of marine governance that can be adapted to other locations

The evaluation panel's recommendations included:

  • Congressional reauthorization for 8-10 years
  • Increased federal funding to $1.6 million
  • Replication of this model elsewhere
  • Establish strategic priorities for the future

The evaluation panel encouraged the Commission to review and modify the current benchmarks and take on focused strategic planning. In 2005, the Commission and the MRCs finalized a set of revised goals and benchmarks. Click here to read the evaluation panel's final report.