Collaborative science, policy development and program implementation in the transboundary Georgia Basin / Puget Sound Ecosystem

The transboundary Georgia Basin Puget Sound ecosystem is situated in the southwest corner of British Columbia and northwest comer of Washington State. While bountiful and beautiful, this international region is facing significant threats to its marine and freshwater resources, air quality, habitats and species. These environmental challenges are compounded by rapid population growth and attendant uiban sprawl. As ecosystem stresses amplified and partnerships formed around possible solutions, it became increasingly clear that the shared sustainability challenges in the Georgia Basin and Puget Sound required shared solutions. Federal, state and provincial institutional arrangements were made between jurisdictions, which formalized small scale interest in transboundary management of this ecosystem. Formal agreements, however, can only do so much to further management of an ecosystem that spans international boarders. A transboundary regional research meeting, the 2003 GB/PS Research Conference, opened the doors for large-scale informal cross-boarder cooperation and management. In addition to cooperation, continued efforts to stem toxic pollution, contain urban growth, and protect and restore ecosystems, require a commitment from scientists, educators and policy makers to better integrate research and science with decision-making.

Species of Concern within the Salish Sea: Changes from 2002 to 2011

Species of concern are native species, sub-species or ecologically significant units that warrant special attention to ensure their conservation. The number of species of concern within an ecosystem can be used as a crude measure of ecosystem health and it illustrates where cross-jurisdiction work is needed to recover declining species. Within the Salish Sea, four jurisdictions assess which species require special initiatives to ensure protection and survival of the population: the Province of British Columbia, the State of Washington, the Canadian Federal Government, and the United States Federal Government. As of January1, 2011, one or more of these jurisdictions listed 113 species of concern. This is almost twice the 64 species identified on September 1, 2008 when this metric was last evaluated. This represents new listings and also reflects an increase in the number of birds and mammals known to use the Salish Sea for some part of their life history. Since 2008, 23 new additions were made to the list due to a recent listing by one or more jurisdiction and not because of an expanded understanding of species using the ecosystem. Newly listed species include 5 fish species and 18 bird species. The addition of 23 newly listed species representsthe greatest jump in species of concern since this list was first established in 2002. This is good news in that it signifies that declining species are getting much needed attention through the listing process, but it also reinforces a downward trend in declining species in the region. In light of projected increased population growth, on-going habitat modifications and expected climate change, the number of species of concern for this ecosystem is likely to increase if listing efforts remain consistent for all four jurisdictions. Increased and improved bi-national efforts to recover declining populations of species and recover this ecosystem are urgently needed to stop the insidious loss of species and ecosystem decay.

Salish Sea Marine Bird Project

Peer-reviewed publication:

Vilchis, L. I. C. K. Johnson, J. R. Evenson, S. F. Pearson, K. L. Barry, P. Davidson, M. G. Raphael, and J. K. Gaydos. 2014. Assessing Ecological Correlates of Marine Bird Declines to Inform Marine Conservation. Conservation Biology. doi: 10.1111/cobi.12378. (Open access publication)

Where have all the birds gone?

The last 30 years have seen precipitous declines in many of the bird species that visit the Salish Sea during the winter.

Bird Studies Canada seabird survey

Bird Studies Canada seabird survey. Photo by Karen Barry/BSC

Using various tools, private money and strategic collaborations, SeaDoc made a substantial investment to understand the problem of declining marine birds. We recently completed research demonstrating that diving birds that eat schooling forage fish are the species most likely to be in decline.

Salish sea map

The Salish Sea extends from Campbell River, BC, to Olympia, WA

Tackling such a big issue is not easy. Understanding how we worked through this issue gives you a good idea of how SeaDoc can address what might seem to be insurmountable obstacles to healing the Salish Sea. It also shows you how private support makes our work possible.

Step 1: Identify the information gap

In 2005, SeaDoc brought researchers and managers from the US and Canada together to talk about the state of marine bird populations in the Salish Sea. It became clear that we were facing a big problem. Birds were declining in different jurisdictions, but it wasn’t clear how steep the declines were, which species were involved or what factors were behind these declines.

Because no one took a big-picture approach, bird restoration efforts were focused on one species at a time. But was there something going on at the ecosystem level causing multiple species to be declining?

We realized we needed an ecosystem-level look at which species were in decline and why.

Step 2. Get around transboundary roadblocks

Decades worth of data had been collected in Washington and British Columbia by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), Audubon, and Bird Studies Canada. But the organizations used different survey techniques and geographic scales so people had not been able to look at the data to get a perspective for the entire ecosystem.

Surf scoters and white-winged scoters are diving ducks in decline in the Salish Sea

Surf scoters and white-winged scoters are diving ducks in decline in the Salish Sea. Photo: J. Gaydos

SeaDoc was the ideal group to take on the challenge of merging these differing data sets from two different countries. State, provincial, and federal governments rarely have the time for this kind of effort. Also they have political constraints and pressures that make it hard to see past their borders.

Step 3. Hire a scientist to do the work

Collaborating with multiple groups, merging complex data sets and analyzing decades of data is a full time job for several years. Stephanie Wagner, a woman who loved the Salish Sea and its creatures, made a legacy gift to SeaDoc before she died. This gift provided the funding that allowed us to hire Dr. Nacho Vilchis to lead this important work.

Step 4. Use an epidemiological approach

Dr. Vilchis’ first task was to get the data sets to “talk to each other.” WDFW conducts aerial transects from a plane. Bird Studies Canada and Audubon use point counts. Both are good techniques, but they produce surveys that are difficult to compare.

Spotters conducting an aerial survey for the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife. Photo: Joe Evenson/WDFW

Spotters conducting an aerial survey for the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife. Photo: Joe Evenson/WDFW

Nacho, who has a background in the statistical manipulations of large data sets, found a way to combine and use the three surveys in one overall analysis. Then he trimmed the set down to just 39 core species, removing the occasional visitors and the birds for which he didn’t have enough data to draw robust conclusions.

He also used GIS maps of the Salish Sea to connect each data point not only to a geographical area but also to major habitat characteristics, such as water depth.

Drawing heavily on the “Doc” part of SeaDoc, we used an epidemiological approach to find a likely diagnosis. Just as the family doc quizzes you for risk factors for diabetes or heart disease, SeaDoc found that two lifestyle factors among seabirds correlated to a very high risk of population decline.

Step 5. Translate results into recovery

The work, published in the internationally-acclaimed peer-reviewed journal Conservation Biology, showed that birds that dive to find food are much more likely (11 times as likely) to be in decline compared to non-divers.

Surf smelt are an important  source of food for birds and other predators. Photo: J. Gaydos

Surf smelt are an important source of food for birds and other predators.

But it’s worse if you’re a diver on a restricted fish diet. Diving birds that focus their efforts on small schooling fishes called forage fish were 16 times as likely to be in decline. Forage fish are small schooling fish that convert plankton into fat and are eaten by other fish, birds and mammals. These include herring, smelt, anchovies, eulachon, sardines, and sand lance.

But publishing a paper is not the end. It actually is just the beginning. This paper is now being used by scientists, managers and policy makers as evidence for the need to recover marine birds. Recovering forage fish will not just benefit birds, however. Because forage fish turn plankton into fat that’s available for other animals, they are a key part of the ecosystem and their recovery will benefit salmon, lingcod, rockfish, harbor porpoise and many other species within the Salish Sea.

Four key factors made this project successful.

1. Good data

Dr. Vilchis could not have conducted this analysis without scientists and citizens having already spent decades collecting rigorous data. The collection of these data took money, persistence, and forethought.

2. Collaboration

Photo: J. Gaydos

Common murres are diving birds that depend on forage fish. They are in decline in the Salish Sea. Photo: J. Gaydos

From the beginning, this project has been a story of collaboration. From the individuals collecting data over two decades to the senior scientists who worked out a way to share their data, it’s taken the work of many people working in different jurisdictions to make this happen. Our collaborators shared three huge datasets collected on two sides of an international border. They only did so because they were confident that SeaDoc would be able to use the data to produce robust scientific results.

3. Working on the level of the ecosystem, not the politics

This was the first study to look at bird declines across the entire Salish Sea marine ecosystem.

Most Canadian or US maps stop at the border, but the Salish Sea does not. Too often, the mandates and responsibilities of the people who work at the various state, provincial, and federal agencies tasked with keeping wildlife populations healthy also stop at the border.

View from the WDFW seabird spotting plane. Joe Evenson/WDFW

View from the WDFW aerial survey plane. Joe Evenson/WDFW

SeaDoc, being privately supported by people like you who understand how important it is to treat the ecosystem as a whole, works across the entire ecosystem.

4. An extraordinary legacy gift

In the end, one person’s financial gift made this project possible.

Without Stephanie Wagner’s legacy gift, this project would have been just a good idea that never got done. Instead, we made it someone’s job to find the truth that was hidden in the data.

Stephanie Wagner’s thoughtful gift enabled us to point clearly to a hidden problem affecting the productivity of the entire Salish Sea ecosystem. With her gift we were able to do good science that will make a difference in how scientists and managers work on healing the Salish Sea.

Put plainly, money can change the world for the better.

Please contact SeaDoc or your financial advisor if you’re interested in including SeaDoc in your will so you can leave a legacy for the health of the Salish Sea.

Photo: Karen Barry/Bird Studies Canada

Photo: Karen Barry/Bird Studies Canada