Making the Salish Sea a “Particularly Sensitive Sea Area”

By Stephanie Buffum, FRIENDS of the San Juans

As the gateway to Washington, oil spill prevention is a top ranking Near Term Action (“NTA”) for the San Juan County’s Local Integrating Organization’s Action Agenda.

With multiple projects proposed that will expand coal and oil exports from ports in British Columbia and Washington, oil spill risks are escalating rapidly. Currently, around 11,000 large vessels and oil barges transit past the San Juan Islands each year. Around 4,300 of these large vessels are destined for United States’ ports in Puget Sound. The other 6,250 make for Canadian ports. The Vessel Traffic Risk Assessment for Northern Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca found that if all currently proposed projects are approved, vessel traffic will increase by 21%, accident frequency by 18%, and oil spill loss by 68%. In Haro Strait/Boundary Pass, along the San Juan Islands National Monument and in critical habitat for endangered orca whales and Chinook salmon, the threat of oil spill loss will increase by 375%.

PSSA MapIncreased risk of oil spill from international shipping compelled the San Juan LIO to complete a feasibility assessment to designate the Salish Sea as a Particularly Sensitive Sea Area (PSSA) under the International Maritime Organization (IMO).

A PSSA is “an area that needs special protection through action by the IMO because of significance for recognized ecological, socioeconomic or scientific reasons and because it may be vulnerable to being damaged by international shipping activities”. A PSSA Designation is a tool that the global community can adopt to protect an area from the threats posed to it by international shipping. PSSA’s go beyond what the Coast Guard can do through federal laws and have been set up in 14 areas world-wide, with two in the United States, one near Hawaii and the other in the Florida Keys.

Salish SeaIn 2014, Friends of the San Juans, with support from the Samish Indian Nation, completed a Feasibility Report to designate the Salish Sea as a Particularly Sensitive Sea Area. The goal of the NTA is to strengthen protections for fishing, culture and the marine environment of the region through the development of a nomination for a Salish Sea Particularly Sensitive Sea Areas Designation. Members of the San Juan LIO will utilize its strong trans-boundary relationships with tribes, government, industry, and non-governmental partners to achieve this goal.

The San Juan County LIO will be looking at a Phase II of the PSSA NTA to develop the PSSA nomination paper with input from stakeholders throughout coastal communities in Washington and British Columbia in 2016/2017. Project results will install new oil spill prevention measures where necessary and create global recognition that the Salish Sea is a high value and high risk area.
Preventing a catastrophic oil spill is vital to the over seven million people in the Salish Sea that rely upon the environment for jobs, food, recreation, and culture.

Stephanie Buffum, MPA/MURP, is the Executive Director of FRIENDS of the San Juans.


Implementation Committee Meeting:

Bimonthly first Thursdays, 11:00 am -1:00 pm, 7/1, 9/2, 11/4
See San Juan County website Agenda Center for agendas and meeting links

Accountability Oversight Committee Meetings:

Schedule pending

Padilla Bay National Estuarine Reserve, 10441 Bayview Edison Road, Mount Vernon



San Juan County Oil Spill Risk Consequences Assessment and Emergency Response Towing Vessel Cost Evaluation, March 2019