North Puget Sound GRP

  • Interim update: April 2024
  • Last full update: 2021
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Table of Contents


Site Description

This section provides a description of the physical features, hydrology, climate, and winds found within the North Puget Sound (NPS) region and includes an overview of the oil spill risks in the region. The North Puget Sound GRP boundaries are, generally, Point Roberts and the Canadian Border to the north, Fidalgo Island to the south, Rosario Strait and Orcas Island on the west, and mainland Washington to the East. This region includes Boundary Bay, Semiahmoo Bay, Drayton Harbor, Birch Bay, Lummi Bay, Bellingham Bay, Padilla Bay, Fidalgo Bay, Burrows Bay, Swinomish Channel, and portions of the Samish, Nooksack, and Lummi Rivers.

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The communities of Blaine, Birch Bay, Ferndale, Bellingham, the Lummi Indian Nation, the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, the Samish Indian Nation, and Anacortes are located within the boundaries of this planning area, as well as portions of Whatcom, Skagit, and San Juan Island counties in Washington.

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Physical Features

The North Puget Sound GRP planning area encompasses a variety of bays, shoreline types, islands, and land mass. North Puget Sound’s bays consist of tidal flats, marshes, and some sections of exposed rocky headland. North Puget Sound shoreline includes the following shoreline habitats: exposed rocky headlands, pocket beaches along exposed rocky shores, wave-cut platforms, sand beaches, sand and cobble beaches, sand and gravel beaches, exposed tidal flats, sheltered tidal flats, and marshes. The outer islands are mostly exposed rocky headlands, sand and gravel beaches, and areas of exposed tidal flats (NOAA ESI Puget Sound Map). Much of the land within the planning area is rural or agricultural with a few urban centers, most notably Bellingham, Blaine, and Anacortes (National Land Cover Database, web viewer).

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A number of areas within the planning area are of note. First is the National Estuary and Reserve in Padilla Bay. An environmentally sensitive area, Padilla Bay is home to many different kinds of birds, invertebrates, and sea mammals. Padilla Bay is near the March Point refineries, and therefore of particular concern. The San Juan Island National Wildlife Refuge, and other protected islands (primarily Bureau of Land Management) also are within the boundary area. The most ecologically valuable islands are Willamson Rock (west of Fidalgo Island), Viti Rocks (south of Lummi Island), and Lone Tree and Little Sisters Islands (between Lummi and Orcas Islands). Detailed maps are provided in the Resources at Risk section. Additionally, the planning area contains three aquatic reserves, managed by the Washington State Department of Natural Resources: the Cherry Point, Fidalgo Bay, and Cypress Island Aquatic Reserves. The aquatic reserves protect sensitive terrestrial, aquatic, and intertidal habitats throughout the Puget Sound. The Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve is also just north of the Cherry Point and Ferndale Refinery docks. Six state parks are within the planning area as well: Peace Arch, Birch Bay, Larrabee, Bay View, Deception Pass, and Saddlebag Island. Due to their ecological importance, a number of small islands within the planning area are managed by US Fish and Wildlife, Washington State Department of Natural Resources, and other public and private land managers, the largest being Cypress Island.

A number of bays and islands in the planning area not protected by state, federal, or local entities also contain sensitive resources. Bellingham Bay has man-made features along its shores, but also has areas of tidal flats, marshes, and nesting grounds for seabirds. Samish Bay is also ecologically rich and has several areas of oyster and clam mariculture. See the Resources at Risk section for more information on sensitive resources in the planning area and a map of the publicly managed islands in the planning area.

The planning area is within the geologic province of the Puget Lowland. Thick glaciers sculpted the sound, creating long, narrow hills along the coastline and deep, u-shaped channels in the Puget Sound. Glaciation also resulted in the deposit of glacial till and outwash throughout the area. Glacial till is comprised of poorly sorted clay, sediment, rock, and other material, while glacial outwash is comprised of sorted silts and clays. These materials make up a majority of the surface geologic layers. However, many of the islands in the planning area contain surface bedrock, including sedimentary, volcanic, and metamorphic outcrops (WA Department of Natural Resources).

In addition, the Puget Sound, renowned for its stunning beauty and spectacular history, supports tourism in the area, providing a wealth of recreational opportunities for hiking, fishing, mountain biking, windsurfing, whale watching, kayaking, and other maritime activities.

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The North Puget Sound GRP area consists of marine waters east of Orcas and James Islands to the mainland, and the waters from the US/Canada border to Fidalgo Island in the south. Drayton Harbor, Birch Bay, Lummi Bay, Lummi Pond, Bellingham Bay, Samish Bay, Padilla Bay, Fidalgo Bay, Rosario Strait, and Guemes Channel reside within the geographic boundaries of this plan.

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Puget Sound is generally a two-layer system where the less saline surface water, with freshwater inputs from land, have a net seaward flow, and denser bottom water flows landward. Bottom water currents move southward toward Puget Sound through Rosario Strait and surface waters move southward. The net surface current within the Georgia Strait is towards land; however, it does flow seaward out of Bellingham Bay. Vertical mixing occurs in many of the shallow straits and bays of this region, therefore it is possible for pollutants to return or stay in the confined estuaries. Tidal currents greatly affect the entire region.

The planning area resides within Water Resource Inventory Area Nooksack River (WRIA 1), and Lower Skagit-Samish (WRIA 3).

Nooksack River (WRIA 1): The Nooksack River Watershed is situated in the northern part of the Puget Sound east of the San Juan Islands. It comprises the entirety of Whatcom County and the northern portion of Skagit County, and extends into Canada. Lummi Island and some smaller offshore islands are also included in the WRIA 1 watershed. In addition to the Nooksack River, the watershed also includes Lake Whatcom and the Sumas River watersheds (WA Dept. of Ecology).

Yearly precipitation ranges from as little as 15-20 inches in the coastal area to over 70 inches in the mountain areas. Most of this precipitation arrives during the winter months when water demand is low. During the summer irrigation season, the snowpack is gone and there is little rain. Stream and river flows are dependent on groundwater inflow during the dry summer months.

Lower Skagit (WRIA 3): The Lower Skagit watershed is situated in the northern part of Puget Sound east of the San Juan Islands. It comprises the western part of Skagit County and small portions of Snohomish and Whatcom Counties. Fidalgo, Guemes, Cypress and other smaller offshore islands are also included in the WRIA 3 watershed. In addition to the Skagit River and its delta, the watershed includes Lake Samish and the Samish River watersheds.

Yearly precipitation ranges from as little as 15-20 inches in the coastal area to over 70 inches in the Cultus Mountains. Most of this precipitation arrives during the winter months when water demand is low. During the summer irrigation season, the snowpack is gone and there is little rain. Stream and river flows are dependent on groundwater inflow during the dry summer months.

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Climate and Winds

The planning area has a maritime climate with cool, dry summers and mild, wet winters. The annual precipitation is between 26 and 40 inches (Western Regional Climate Center, precipitation summary table). Average maximum winter temperatures range from 41 to 45 degrees F and average minimum temperatures range from 28 to 32 degrees F. Summer temperatures range from an average maximum of 73 degrees F to a minimum average of 50 degrees F (Western Regional Climate Center, narrative). Wind speeds average between 5-8 mph in the planning area (Western Regional Center, wind speeds summary tables). Additionally, Squamish Winds, gales of up to 50 miles per hour, may occur in localized areas on clear winter days. Storms are common during the fall through spring with winds from a generally southern direction (US Coast Pilot, NOAA).

Tides and Currents

The tidal currents within North Puget Sound bays are weak and variable. Currents tend to increase in the narrow channels including Guemes and Bellingham Channels.

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  • Bellingham Channel
    Tidal Range: -2.8 ft, 9.8ft
    Currents: -5 knots, 5.3 knots
  • Rosario Strait
    Tidal Range: -2.8 ft, 9.3ft
    Currents: -4.8 knots, 4.0 knots
  • Guemes Channel
    Tidal Range: -3.0 ft, 9.5 ft
    Currents: -4.6 knots, 3.0 knots (west entrance); -3.5 knots, 4.2 knots (east entrance)
  • Swinomish Channel N Entrance
    Tidal Range: 12 ft; -3ft
    Currents: Current flows north 2.5-4 hours before and after high tide, south 2.5-4 hours before and after low tide, and slack tide occurs 2.5-4 hours after a high or low tide. Currents dependent on tidal exchange, river flow, and time of year (Port of Skagit).


A note about the Swinomish Channel: It connects Padilla Bay and Skagit Bay. Both of these Bays have significant tides, and they are out of sync with each other. The currents in the channel are driven by the difference in the tidal height at the two ends, making it a “progressive wave”, which is not in sync in the usual way with the change in tidal heights. To make things more complicated, it takes a while for the progressive wave to travel the length of the channel. In short, There is little way of predicting the timing or strength of the currents in the channel.

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Risk Assessment

The North Puget Sound planning area is plentiful in natural, cultural, and economic resources, all at risk of injury from oil spills. Potential oil spill risks include, but are not limited to commercial vessel traffic, road systems, rail transportation, aircraft, recreational boating, and other oil spill risks. This section briefly discusses these risks and how they could impact the GRP planning area.

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Oil Types: Both refined petroleum products and crude oil are transported in bulk within this planning area. Crude oil and refined products contain a mix of hydrocarbons with varying properties; different types of crude oil and refined products will behave differently when spilled. Recent changes in oil production have led to an increase in the movement of Bakken light crude transported through the planning area via rail, and diluted bitumen from Canada transported through the planning area via pipeline and, to a lesser extent, rail.

Crude oil from the Bakken fields in North Dakota has properties similar to gasoline or diesel, and poses a higher risk of fire because much of it will evaporate quickly into flammable vapors. Unlike gasoline, the heavier hydrocarbons in the crude oil will persist in the environment after the light ends evaporate or burn. Bitumen from the oil sands in Alberta, Canada, is heavy, almost asphalt-like, until it is mixed with lighter oil products known as diluents to create diluted bitumen. Once mixed, the diluted bitumen will initially float on water after being spilled. Environmental conditions, such as the density of the receiving waters and sediment load of the receiving waters, will affect how long diluted bitumen floats. As the light diluents evaporate, the remaining heavy constituents may sink into the water column (link). There are specific response actions recommended for non-floating oils, detailed in the Non-Floating Oil Spill Response Tool in the Northwest Area Contingency Plan (NWACP), Section 9412.

Commercial Vessel Traffic: Commercial port facilities in the North Puget Sound planning area include the Port of Bellingham and the Port of Anacortes. The Port of Bellingham is located in Bellingham Bay and contains a shipping terminal, cruise ship terminals, and the Alaska Ferry Terminals. The Port of Anacortes, located on the north and west sides of Fidalgo Island, contains a marine terminal, a wharf, and other maritime businesses. Additionally, the four major refineries (two near Cherry Point and two on March Point) have marine docks for tank vessels to unload and load product.

A shipping lane, Rosario Strait, falls along the western boundary of the planning area. Rosario Strait falls between Lopez and Fidalgo Island to the south and between Lummi and Orcas Islands to the north. Vessels transiting to the Cherry Point refineries, the Port of Bellingham, and Canada may use this route. Additionally, a popular mooring area for large vessels is north of Samish Island. Tanker vessels waiting to unload product at any of the four northern refineries may anchor here.

The potential for vessel allisions, collisions, or groundings presents a significant spill risk. Commercial vessels, including tug and barge systems, can carry significant amounts of heavy and blended fuel oils and other petroleum products, increasing the risk for sensitive resources to be impacted if an oil spill were to occur.

Road Systems: Vehicle traffic on roadways pose an oil spill risk in areas where they run adjacent to the shoreline or cross over lakes, rivers, creeks, and ditches that drain into the Puget Sound. Interstate 5 runs north south on the eastern boundary of the planning area, crossing a number of rivers. Additionally, Hwy 20 runs east west between Anacortes and the mainland, crossing the Swinomish Channel at the northern entrance. A vehicle spill onto one of these bridges or roadways can cause fuel or oil to flow from hardened surfaces into a river flowing toward Puget Sound. Commercial trucks can contain hundreds to thousands of gallons of fuel and oil, especially fully loaded tank trucks, and may carry almost any kind of cargo, including hazardous waste or other materials that might injure sensitive resources if spilled. Smaller vehicle accidents pose a risk as well, a risk commensurate to the volume of fuel and oil they carry.

Rail Transportation: Rail companies transport oil via both unit trains and manifest trains in this area. Unit trains include: up to four locomotives, buffer cars, and 118 loaded tank cars transporting oil in 714-barrel (29,998 gallon) capacity USDOT-approved tank cars. Manifest trains include up to four locomotives, a mix of non-oil merchandise cars, and one or more 714-barrel (29,998 gallon) capacity USDOT-approved tank car carrying refined oil products, such as diesel, lubrication oil, or gasoline. These trains may include emptied tank cars, each with residual quantities of up to 1,800 gallons of crude oil or petroleum products. Every train locomotive typically holds a few hundred gallons of engine lubrication oil, plus saddle tanks that each have an approximate capacity of 5,000 gallons of diesel fuel. Manifest trains may also transport biological oils and non-petroleum chemicals.

Unit trains carrying crude currently operate on specific routes. Unit trains carrying crude from the Bakken Formation in North Dakota enter Washington State near Spokane, continue along the Columbia River to Vancouver, and then head north along I-5. These trains transport crude and refined products to the four northern refineries. The main BNSF railroad in the area runs along I-5 toward Bellingham and then runs along the water north of Samish Bay into Bellingham. Just north of Bellingham the railroad meets back up with I-5 and continues north into Canada. A rail line also runs along highway 20 into Anacortes crossing the Swinomish Channel at the northern rail trestle and south into the Cherry Point refinery near Custer WA.

Aircraft: Several airports are located within or with flight paths over the North Puget Sound planning area including the Anacortes Airport, Skagit Regional Airport, Bellingham International Airport, and Orcas Island Airport. Landing strips at these airports are used for recreational, commercial, and transit purposes. With airports in the area, the potential exists for aircraft failures during inbound or outbound flights that could result in a spill with a release of jet fuel to the Puget Sound.

Recreational Boating: Accidents involving recreational watercraft on the Puget Sound have the potential to result in spills of anywhere from a few gallons of gasoline, up to hundreds of gallons of diesel fuel. Examples of such accidents include collisions, a vessel grounding, catching on fire, sinking, or exploding. These types of accidents, as well as problems with bilge discharges and refueling operations, the most typical types of spills to occur, have a negative impact on sensitive resources.

Other Spill Risks: Other potential oil spill risks in the area include: road run-off during rain events, on-shore or near shore construction activities where heavy equipment is being operated, and the migration of spilled oil through soil on lands adjacent to the Sound or along creek or stream banks feeding into the planning area.

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Resources at Risk

This section provides a summary of natural, cultural, and economic resources at risk in the planning area, including those resources at risk from oils with the potential to sink or submerge.  It provides general information on habitat, fish, and wildlife resources, and locations in the area where sensitive natural resource concerns have been identified.  It offers a summary of cultural resources that include fundamental procedures for the discovery of cultural artifacts and human skeletal remains.  General information about flight restrictions, wildlife deterrence, and oiled wildlife can be found near the end of this section.  A list of economic resources in the area is provided in the table of contents.

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This section is purposely broad in scope and should not be considered comprehensive.  Some of the sensitive resources described in this section cannot be addressed in Response Strategies and Priorities because it is not possible to conduct effective response activities in these locations.  Additional information from private organizations or federal, state, tribal, and local government agencies should also be sought during spills.

This material is presented with enough detail to give general information about the area during the first phase of a spill response.  During an actual incident, more information about resources at risk will be available from the Environmental Unit in the Planning Section.

Note: specific resource concerns related to areas that already have designated protection strategies may be found in the “Resources At Risk” column of the matrix describing the individual strategies.

The information provided in this section can be used in:

  • Assisting the Environmental Unit (EU) and Operations in developing ad hoc response strategies.
  • Providing resource-at-risk “context” to responders, clean-up workers, and others during the initial phase of a spill response in the GRP area.
  • Briefing responders and incident command staff that may be unfamiliar with sensitive resource concerns in the GRP area.
  • Providing background information for personnel involved in media presentations and public outreach during a spill incident.
  • Providing information on benthic and water column species or cultural resources present to assist in planning for oils with the potential to sink or submerge.

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Natural Resources at Risk – Summary

This area contains a wide variety of aquatic, riparian, and upland habitats, including a number of islands. These habitats support many of Washington’s anadromous salmonid species as well as a complex diversity of other wildlife including mammals, birds, and amphibians. Due to their life histories and/or behaviors, some of these species are unlikely to become directly oiled during a spill incident but may be disturbed by other operations such as cleanup, reconnaissance, or fire suppression activities. Some of the bird species are resident throughout the year, but many others seasonally migrate outside of the area.

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A number of the species found in this area have been classified under the Federal Endangered Species Act or by the Washington State Fish and Wildlife commission.

Classification types are:

  • Federal Endangered (FE)
  • Federal Threatened (FT)
  • Federal Candidate (FC)
  • State Endangered (SE)
  • State Threatened (ST)
  • State Sensitive (SS)

Federal and State listed species that may occur within this area include:


  • American white pelican [ST]
  • common loon [SS]
  • marbled murrelet [FT/SE]
  • northern spotted owl [FT/SE]
  • sandhill crane [SE]
  • tufted puffin [SE]


  • gray whale [SS]
  • humpback whale (Central American population) [FE/SE]
  • humpback whale (Mexican population) [FT/SE]
  • killer whale (southern resident) [FE/SE]


  • bocaccio rockfish [FE]
  • bull trout [FT]
  • chinook salmon (Puget Sound) [FT]
  • green sturgeon [FT]
  • steelhead (Puget Sound) [FT]
  • yelloweye rockfish [FT]


  • pinto (northern) abalone [SE]


  • Oregon spotted frog [FT/SE]


  • island marble (butterfly) [FC]
  • Taylor’s checkerspot (butterfly) [FE/SE]


  • golden paintbrush [FT]

Critical habitats are the specific areas, occupied by an endangered or threatened species at the time it was listed, that contain the physical or biological features that are essential to the conservation of that species – and that may need special management or protection. Critical habitat may also include areas that were not occupied by the species at the time of listing but are essential to its conservation.The following species have federally designated critical habitats within this area:

  • bocaccio rockfish
  • bull trout
  • canary rockfish
  • chinook salmon (Puget Sound)
  • killer whale (southern resident)
  • steelhead (Puget Sound)
  • yelloweye rockfish

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General Resource Concerns


  • Shallow intertidal and subtidal habitats occur in bays throughout the region and are rearing areas for juvenile salmon, Dungeness crab, hardshell clams and other fish and shellfish.  These habitats are also often important feeding areas for marine birds, shorebirds, and herons.
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  • Sandy/rocky shorelines can be found throughout the region. These areas support marine mammal haulout and pupping, nesting for birds, spawning habitat for forage fish. Extensive areas of eelgrass are distributed throughout the region, particularly in Padilla, Samish, Bellingham (northern portion) and Lummi Bays. Eelgrass serves as important nursery and foraging areas for crab, salmonids, other fishes, and waterfowl. The kelp beds are present in nearshore areas along much of this region’s rocky shoreline. These habitats provide critical nursery areas for juvenile rockfish and other fish and shellfish as well as important spawning habitat for herring and feeding areas for waterfowl.
  • Offshore islands and rocks provide nesting and roosting sites for seabirds and shorebirds, as well as haulout sites for harbor seals and sea lions.
  • Salt marshes occur in sheltered areas throughout the region. These habitats support a diverse array of fish and wildlife species.
  • Many rivers and streams throughout this region provide spawning and rearing habitat for various salmonid species. The sloughs and river deltas of the Lummi, Nooksack and Samish Rivers provide a variety of key habitats for fish, shellfish, waterfowl, harbor seals, and other species. The associated riparian scrub and woodlands play a crucial role in supporting a large diversity and abundance of passerine species as breeding, migrating, and overwintering habitat.
  • The open waters of the region are important as foraging areas for large numbers of seabirds and for marine mammals. Tide rips, typically associated with passages between islands, are particularly important feeding areas for marine bird concentrations.
  • A variety of subtidal habitats exists within this area, each of which supports a different assemblage of wildlife species as described below:
    • Soft sediment: This category includes areas of clays, mud, sand and gravel, which typically possess relatively low vertical relief. Animals that tend to live on the surface in these habitats can include sea cucumbers, sea stars, crustaceans such as crab and shrimp, and bottom fish such as skate, cod, and the flat fishes. These soft sediment habitats also support shellfish and other invertebrates including bivalves, worms, brittle stars, shrimplike crustaceans whose burrowing or foraging activities can penetrate up to one meter below the subsurface bottom. In deeper waters, this habitat type may also include the deep sand fields that are necessary overwintering habitat for sand lance.
    • Rock reefs: These areas serve as important habitat for a wide range of species including mobile invertebrates (such as snails, sea slugs, sea cucumbers, sea stars, etc.) and immobile species (such as anemones, barnacles, shellfish, sponges, tubeworms, etc.). Macro algae and kelps also widely utilize the structure that this type of habitat provides. The crevices and overhangs associated with these reefs serve as valuable habitat for a wide variety of other species such as crabs, shrimp, octopus, wolf eel, rockfish, and lingcod. These areas are important foraging areas for birds and marine mammals if located within their ability to dive.
    • Boulder and cobble fields: Larger, relatively stable boulders provide many of the same ecological functions described for rock reefs while the spaces between boulders offer enhanced refuge areas for bottom dwelling invertebrates and fish. The relative instability of the smaller cobble makes them less valuable than reefs or boulders to immobile marine life. Nonetheless, many marine organisms may live on or between the cobblestones and predatory species often utilize these habitats as foraging areas.  As with the rocky reefs, these habitats may also serve as important foraging areas for birds and marine mammals if they are located within a species ability to dive. Depending on how much sediment the currents move through the area, the spaces between the rocks may be filled with sediment that can also support bottom dwelling life forms.
    • Water column: Much of the primary marine productivity in this region occurs in the upper 30 meters of the water column due to limited light penetration and nutrient availability. This upper part of the water column tends to concentrate the planktonic larval forms of fish (such as rockfish, etc.) and a wide range of invertebrates (such as crabs, clams, etc.), particularly during the spring plankton blooms. The deeper water column serves as habitat for wide-ranging fish such as salmon, forage fish (herring, smelt, and sandlance), sharks, as well as a wide variety of birds and marine mammals that utilize this habitat as foraging areas.

Fish and Shellfish:

  • All Northwest salmonid species are present in this region, with spawning occurring in rivers (Nooksack, Samish, and Lummi) and numerous smaller streams.  Juvenile salmonids of several species, including threatened Puget Sound chinook and Puget Sound steelhead, use shallow nearshore areas extensively for feeding and rearing.
  • Forage fish) spawning occurs throughout the region.  Herring spawning occurs in all major bays of the region, on the north half of Lummi Island, and along the shoreline between Lummi Bay and the Canadian border.  Small pockets of spawning habitat for sand lance and surf smelt occur on sand and gravel beaches throughout the region.
  • Dungeness crab are widely distributed throughout the region, with shallow subtidal habitats providing critical habitat for all life stages of this species.
  • Hardshell clams are particularly abundant in the Birch Bay/Birch Point area and along the shorelines bordering Bellingham, Samish and Fidalgo Bays. Additional shellfish/invertebrate concerns include abalone, sea cucumbers, and sea urchins in rocky subtidal areas. Shrimp are present in deeper subtidal areas.
  • Geoduck clams are found in commercial abundance on select sandy bottom areas in the region, including Alden Bank, Eliza Island, and other isolated patches.


  • This region supports some of the largest migratory and overwintering waterfowl and shorebird concentrations in Washington, particularly in Padilla, Fidalgo, Samish, Lummi and Birch Bays and in Drayton Harbor.
  • Great blue heron nesting colonies are associated with all major bays from Birch Bay south to Padilla Bay, and include one of the largest in western North America which is located in the southwest corner of Padilla Bay.  The shallow waters of these bays are critical feeding habitat for herons.
  • Seabird nesting in this region is limited to a few colonies in the southern half of the region, with the most significant colonies occurring on Viti Rocks (south of Lummi Island) and Williamson Rocks (south end of Burrows Bay).
  • Bald eagles nest abundantly throughout the area and Peregrine falcons nest from Lummi Island south to Padilla Bay.
  • Concentrations of marbled murrelet occur in the waters around Cypress Island and in the vicinity of Burrows Bay.
  • Harbor seals are common in this area, with numerous haulout areas scattered throughout the region, both in the larger bays and on offshore islands and rocks. These areas may also be used occasionally by sea lions.
  • Southern Resident killer whales may be present in the region, especially from April through September. Dall’s and harbor porpoises, and humpback and minke whales are also present throughout this area.
  • A wide variety of terrestrial and semi-aquatic mammals (such as raccoons and river otters) are present throughout this area and forage within the intertidal areas.

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Specific Geographic Areas of Concern – Overview

(Note: May include sensitive sites in adjoining GRP regions – see area map at end of section)

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Vicinity of North Puget Sound:

  1. Drayton Harbor: Eelgrass and estuarine wetland habitats. Herring and surf smelt spawning habitat. Salmonids. Dungeness crab and hardshell clams. Shorebird and waterfowl concentrations (fall through spring). Great blue heron nesting area. Riparian areas along California and Dakota Creeks support increased presence of passerine birds. Harbor seal haulouts. County Park.
  2. Birch Bay: Eelgrass habitat. Herring, surf smelt, and sand lance spawning habitat. Dungeness crab and hardshell clams.Shorebird and waterfowl concentrations (fall through spring).  Great blue heron nesting area. Harbor seal haulouts. State Park.
  3. Cherry Point: Kelp habitat.  Herring and surf smelt spawning habitats.  Waterfowl concentrations (fall through spring). Aquatic Reserve.
  4. Alden Bank: Kelp habitat, shallow, soft sediment. Animals that tend to live in/on these habitats can include sea cucumbers, sea stars, crustaceans such as crab and shrimp, bottom fish such as skate, cod, and the flat fishes, shellfish, and other invertebrates including bivalves, worms, brittle stars, etc. Commercial geoduck tract.
  5. Patos Island: Kelp, eelgrass, and pocket beach habitats. Subtidal shellfish habitat. Dungeness crab. Shorebird nesting and seabird roosting habitat. Raptors. Seal haulouts. State Park.
  6. Sucia Island (Shallow, Echo, and Fossil Bays): Kelp, eelgrass, and pocket beach habitats. Subtidal shellfish habitat. Dungeness crab. Shorebird nesting and seabird roosting habitat. Raptors. Seal haulouts. State Park.
  7. Matia Island (includes Puffin Island): Kelp, eelgrass, and pocket beach habitats. Dungeness crab. Seal haulouts. State Park. National Wildlife Refuge and National Wilderness Area.
  8. Lummi Bay: Shorebird and waterfowl concentrations (fall through spring)Herring spawning habitat. Dungeness crabEelgrass and salt marsh. Lummi River delta riparian habitat supports increased presence of passerine birds.  Tribal lands and resources.
  9. Hale Passage/Portage Bay: Seasonal waterfowl concentrations.  Spawning habitat for herring, sand lance and surf smelt.  Dungeness crab  Tribal lands and resources.
  10. Bellingham Bay: Waterfowl and shorebird concentrations (fall through spring). Spawning habitat for forage fish (sand lance, surf smelt, and some herring).  Dungeness crab Nooksack River delta riparian area supports increased presence of passerine birds.  Salt marsh habitat.  Tribal lands and resources.
  11. Eliza Island, offshore areas: Shallow, soft sediment. Animals that tend to live in/on these habitats can include sea cucumbers, sea stars, crustaceans such as crab and shrimp, bottom fish such as skate, cod, and the flat fishes, shellfish, and other invertebrates including bivalves, worms, brittle stars, etc. Commercial geoduck tract. Eliza rocks to south designated as National Wildlife Refuge and National Wilderness Area.
  12. Rosario Strait: These waters provide a travel corridor for Southern Resident killer whales (orca) and serve as a major feeding area for seabirds. Seabird nesting colonies and scattered harbor seal haulouts in the offshore rocks and islands in the strait. Bird, Boulder, Peapod, and The Sisters rocks (and others along the strait) are designated as National Wildlife Refuges and National Wilderness Areas.
  13. Cyprus Island: Estuarine and marine wetlands. Kelp, eelgrass, and pocket beach habitats. Subtidal shellfish habitat. Surf smelt spawning. Dungeness crab. Raptor and seabird nesting. Harbor seal haulouts. Public lands, state park, and aquatic reserve.
  14. Samish Bay: Samish River mouth and adjacent tide flats and sloughs. Waterfowl concentration area.  Dungeness crab.
  15. Padilla Bay: National Estuarine Research Reserve. One of the largest concentrations of wintering waterfowl in Washington. Extensive eelgrass habitat supports herring spawning and serves as nursery area for juvenile fish and shellfish. Dungeness crab.   Bald eagles, peregrine falcons and great blue herons present year round. Large, regionally significant heron rookery in SW corner of Bay. Tribal lands and resources.
  16. Fidalgo Bay: Eelgrass and salt marsh habitats. Waterfowl concentrations. Great blue heron concentrations. Dungeness crab. Spawning habitat for forage fish (herring, sand lance and surf smelt). Tribal lands and resources.
  17. Similk Bay: Wetland, eelgrass, intertidal mudflat, and salt marsh habitats. Forage fish spawning. Salmonid spawning and rearing. Dungeness crab and shellfish. Major waterfowl concentration area (fall through spring). Resident bald eagles. Harbor seal haulout area. Tribal lands and resources.
  18. Deception Pass: Wetlands, eelgrass, and kelp habitat. Salmonids. Forage fish spawning. Dungeness crab and shellfish. Waterfowl and marine bird concentrations (including marbled murrelets). Heron and bald eagle nesting. State (and federally) endangered Taylor’s checker spot (butterfly) populations and designated critical habitat along coastline. Deception Pass State Park
  19. Burrows Bay (W side Fidalgo Is.): Seabird nesting colony on Williamson Rocks. Marbled murrelet concentration area.  Eelgrass habitat. Seabird nesting colony on Williamson Rocks. These rocks are also designated as a National Wildlife Refuges and National Wilderness Area.
  20. South Lopez Island (Davis Point to Cape St. Mary): Nearshore areas contain important kelp and subtidal shellfish habitats. Concentrated sea urchin harvest area. Eelgrass. Significant seabird nesting, roosting and foraging areas, including concentrations of marbled murrelet. Spawning habitat for sand lance and surf smelt. Island marble butterfly upland habitat. Numerous haulout sites for harbor seal and occasional Steller sea lion. National monument and county preserve. Several offshore islands designated as National Wildlife Refuges and National Wilderness Areas.
  21. National Wilderness Areas: A large number of the rocks, reefs and islands found within the San Juan Islands National Wildlife Refuge, located within this GRP region, are federally designated wilderness areas. The Wilderness Act directs that any proposed activities within wilderness areas require the review and approval of the Wildlife Refuge staff prior to initiation, including any cleanup or response activities (See Figure 2).


Figure 1: Areas of concern within the North Puget Sound GRP area (see text for details).
Figure 2: Designated Wilderness within the North Puget Sound and the San Juan Island planning areas.

Cultural Resources at Risk – Summary

Culturally significant resources are present within the planning area.  Information regarding the type and location of cultural resources is maintained by the Washington Department of Archeology and Historic Preservation (WDAHP).  This sensitive information is made available to the Washington Department of Ecology for oil spill preparedness and response planning.  The Tribal Historic Preservation Offices (THPOs) or Cultural Resource Departments of local tribes (see Cultural Resources Contacts Table) may also be able to provide information on cultural resources at risk in the area and should be contacted, along with WDAHP, through normal trustee notification processes when significant oil spills, or smaller spills above reportable thresholds, occur in the area.

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During a spill response, after the Unified Command is established, information related to specific archeological concerns will be coordinated through the Environmental Unit.  In order to ensure that tactical response strategies do not inadvertently harm culturally sensitive sites, WDAHP should be consulted before disturbing any soil or sediment during a response action, including submerged soils or sediments.  WDAHP and/or the Tribal governments may assign a person, or provide a list of professional archeologists that can be contracted, to monitor response activities and cleanup operations for the protection of cultural resources at risk.  Due to the sensitive nature of such information, details regarding the location and type of cultural resources present are not included in this document.

In addition to the listed Tribes and Nations, there may be additional Tribes with “Usual and Accustomed” fishing and hunting rights, including Canadian First Nations. Please consult the Tribal Coordinator or Liaison Officer within Unified Command for more information. WDAHP’s tribal consultation tools, including an area of interest map, may help identify additional tribal (US) government contacts during a spill (

Table 6-1: NPS-GRP Cultural Resources Contacts:

Contact Phone Email
Washington Department of Archeology and Historic Preservation (WDAHP) 360- 586-3080
Lummi Nation, THPO (360) 312-2257

(360) 961-7752
Muckleshoot Tribe, Archaeologist (253) 876-3272
Nooksack (360) 592-5176
(360) 305-9126
Samish Nation, THPO (360) 293-6404
Sauk-Suiattle (360) 436-0347
Stillaguamish Tribe of Indians (360) 652-3687 x14
Suquamish Tribe, THPO (360) 394-8529
Swinomish Tribe, THPO (360) 466-7352
Tulalip Tribes (425) 239-0182
Upper Skagit (360) 854-7009

Discovery of Human Skeletal Remains

Any human remains, burial sites, or burial-related materials that are discovered during a spill response must be treated with respect at all times (photographing human remains is prohibited to all except the appropriate authorities).  Refer to National Historic Preservation Act Compliance Guidelines (NWACP Section 9403) during an emergency response.

Procedures for the Discovery of Cultural Resources

If any person monitoring work activities or involved in spill response believes that they have encountered cultural resources, all workers must stop immediately and notify the Unified Command and Cultural Resource Specialist.  The area of work stoppage must be adequate to provide for the security, protection, and integrity of the material or artifact(s) discovered.

Prehistoric Cultural Resources (May include, but are not limited to, any of the following items):

  • Lithic debitage (stone chips and other tool-making byproducts)
  • Flaked or ground stone tools
  • Exotic rock, minerals, or quarries
  • Concentrations of organically stained sediments, charcoal, or ash
  • Fire-modified rock
  • Rock alignments or rock structures
  • Bone (burned, modified, or in association with other bone, artifacts, or features)
  • Shell or shell fragments
  • Petroglyphs and pictographs
  • Fish weirs, fish traps, and prehistoric water craft
  • Culturally modified trees
  • Physical locations or features (traditional cultural properties)
  • Submerged villages sites or artifacts

Historic cultural material (May include any of the following items over 50 years old):

  • Bottles, or other glass
  • Cans
  • Ceramics
  • Milled wood, brick, concrete, metal, or other building material
  • Trash dumps
  • Homesteads, building remains
  • Logging, mining, or railroad features
  • Piers, wharves, docks, bridges, dams, or shipwrecks
  • Shipwrecks or other submerged historical objects

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Economic Resources at Risk

Socio-economic sensitive resources are facilities or locations that rely on a body of water to be economically viable.  Because of their location, they could be severely impacted if an oil spill were to occur.  Economically sensitive resources are separated into three categories: critical infrastructure, water dependent commercial areas, and water dependent recreation areas.  This appendix provides a list of economic resources for this GRP area.

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General Information

Flight Restriction Zones: The Environmental Unit (Planning Section) may recommend flight restriction zones to minimize disturbance or injury to wildlife during an oil spill. Pilots/operators can decrease the risk of aircraft/bird collisions, prevent the accidental driving of wildlife into oiled areas, and minimize abandonment of nests by keeping a safe distance and altitude from these identified sensitive areas.

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The Air Operations Branch (Operations Section) will manage all aircraft operations related to a response and will coordinate the establishment of any Flight Restriction Zones as appropriate. Environmental Unit staff will work with the Air Operations Branch Director to resolve any conflicts that arise between flight activities and sensitive resources.

In addition to restrictions associated with wildlife, Tribal authorities may also request notification when overflights are likely to affect culturally sensitive areas within reservations.  See Oil Spill Best Management Practices (NWACP Section 9301) for more information on the use of aircraft and helicopters in open water and shoreline responses.

Wildlife Deterrence: The Wildlife Deterrence Unit within the Wildlife Branch (Operations Section) manages wildlife deterrence operations. These are actions intended to minimize injuries to wildlife by keeping animals away from the oil and cleanup operations. Deterrence activities may include using acoustic or visual deterrent devices, boats, aircraft or other tools. The Wildlife Branch works with state and federal agencies, and the Environmental Unit (Planning Section), to develop deterrence plans as appropriate.

For more information see the Northwest Wildlife Response Plan (NWACP Section 9310) and Northwest Area Wildlife Deterrence Resources (NWACP Section 9311).

Oiled Wildlife: Capturing oiled wildlife may be hazardous to both personnel and the affected animals. Incident personnel should not try to approach or capture oiled wildlife but should report any observations of oiled wildlife to the Wildlife Branch (Operations Section).

For more information see the Northwest Wildlife Response Plan (NWACP Section 9310).

Wildlife Refuges and Wilderness Areas:

The following are located within this region:

  • Skagit Wildlife Area (WDFW)
  • Whatcom Wildlife Area (WDFW)
  • Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve
  • Cypress Island Aquatic Reserve
  • Fidalgo Bay Aquatic Reserve
  • Padilla Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve

Aquatic Invasive Species: The waters of this region may contain aquatic invasive species (AIS) – species of plants and/or animals that are not native to an area and that can be harmful to an area’s ecosystem. If so, preventative actions may be required to prevent the spread of these species as a result of spill response activities and the Environmental Unit is able to recommend operational techniques and strategies to assist with this issue.

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