Roots of the Northwest Straits Initiative

Despite its rich ecological heritage, the marine resources of the Northwest Straits region in Washington state have shown serious decline. Recognizing the environmental significance of the area and the environmental damage that was occurring, a National Marine Sanctuary was proposed for the region in the mid-1990s.

The sanctuary proposal was met with strong local resistance. During public meetings, residents voiced concerns that a sanctuary would be top-down, with staff in Washington D.C. making decisions without engaging the community or responding to local needs. The sanctuary proposal was eventually dropped. The Northwest Straits Initiative emerged as a unique approach to help restore and protect marine resources in the area. The Initiative was designed to harness the energy and expertise of local residents and empower them with opportunities to actively protect and restore marine resources.

Since 1998, the Northwest Straits Initiative has worked as a community-led collaboration to protect and restore the marine environment of northwest Washington state. The Northwest Straits Initiative includes seven county-based Marine Resources Committees (MRCs) that are made up of volunteers representing diverse perspectives in their communities. They serve as local advisory groups to county government. They also lead locally based marine conservation efforts. The Northwest Straits Commission serves as a regional coordinating body for the MRCs.

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.