By Joe Gaydos
On August 19 and 20, a net pen owned by Cooke Aquaculture Pacific collapsed, releasing an undetermined number (estimates range from 4, 000 to 185,000) of the 305,000 Atlantic salmon being raised there into the waters around Cypress Island, just northwest of Anacortes, Washington.
In a region where vast amounts of money and effort have been spent attempting to restore wild salmon runs, this mass escape of non-native fish has caused a public uproar. How could this happen? Will the Atlantic salmon spread disease to wild fish? Will they outcompete native salmon for food or freshwater spawning habitat?
To try and answer the questions, it’s valuable to look at the established science. Unfortunately, salmon spills like this are not new events in the Pacific Northwest.
People have been farming Atlantic salmon in Washington since 1982, and in British Columbia since 1985 (McKinnell and Thompson, 1997). Despite assurances from the aquaculture industry, wherever there are fish farmed in sea pens there are escapes.
In fact, on July 2, 1996 high tidal flows destroyed seven net pens at an Atlantic salmon farm near Cypress Island, releasing or killing 101,000 Atlantic salmon (McKinnell and Thompson, 1997). Sound familiar? The lessons from that and other releases should inform us about the risk that farmed Atlantic salmon pose for the Salish Sea’s five species of native salmon.
The first concern is the potential for released farmed salmon to transmit disease to wild salmon. Farmed Atlantic salmon can carry viruses, bacteria and parasites like sea lice that can infect wild salmon (e.g., Jones et al., 2015). The release of thousands of salmon that were actively experiencing a disease outbreak could have huge ramifications for wild salmon.
In Washington State, all public and private growers of salmon, including Atlantic salmon hatchery operators, are required to adhere to strict disease control polices (Waknitz et al., 2003). While we have not seen data on the health or disease status of the released Atlantic salmon, it was reported that they were treated for a bacterial infection called yellow mouth in July 2016 but were believed to be disease-free at the time they escaped.
Without detailed disease testing data it is difficult to know what the potential for disease transmission could be in this most recent release. An evaluation of the risk of disease transmission from farmed Atlantic salmon to wild Pacific salmon conducted over a decade ago (Nash 2003) classified the risk as low due to existing disease testing protocols and the State’s prohibition of bringing new Atlantic salmon stocks or eggs into Washington (which limits new diseases from entering).
As to whether released farmed salmon will compete with native salmon for food and breeding or spawning space, studies (Jonsson and Jonsson, 2006) have shown that while their performance and reproductive success in nature vary, farmed Atlantic salmon often are outcompeted by wild salmon of similar size.
Between 1987 and 1996, 10,609 Atlantic salmon were caught in the North Pacific representing 4.2% of the total number reported to have escaped since Atlantic salmon farming began in Washington and British Columbia (255,554 escapees reported; McKinnell and Thompson, 1997). Interestingly, this includes Atlantic salmon caught in Alaska, even though Alaska does not allow Atlantic salmon farming, proving that the fish are capable of surviving and moving great distances after escaping.
Of the Atlantic salmon caught during that time period, stomachs were examined in 813 animals. Empty stomachs occurred in almost 77% of ocean-caught Atlantic salmon and 62% of those caught in freshwater. Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has examined the stomach contents of about a dozen of the recently escaped Atlantic salmon and all of their stomachs have been empty. Additionally researchers and volunteers from the non-profit KWIAHT dissected 31 Atlantic salmon caught in Watmough Bight last week and found empty stomachs with the exception of two fish that each had one small mussel shell and a few crumbs of fish chow pellets. This suggests that while released farmed Atlantic salmon will compete with wild salmon for food, many also don’t make the transition from being fed pellets in farms to catching and eating wild food. For those that do, though, stonefly nymphs found in the stomachs of Atlantic salmon caught in the Salmon River (Vancouver Island) suggest that escaped Atlantic salmon also can be predators in freshwater as well as in ocean ecosystems (McKinnell and Thompson, 1997).
Although the probability is low, escaped adult Atlantic salmon have the potential to colonize and exist as self-sustaining introduced species. In 1998, scientists captured twelve juvenile Atlantic salmon (and observed, but did not capture another 28) in the Tsitika River on Vancouver Island (Volpe et al., 2000). Genetic analysis confirmed that these were Atlantic salmon that were the products of natural spawning by released Atlantic salmon. More recent survey work and modeling looking at Atlantic salmon use of freshwater streams in British Columbia showed that 97 % of streams in British Columbia with high native salmon diversity were occupied by Atlantic salmon and that Atlantic salmon can occupy these rivers for multiple years (Fisher et al., 2014). Colonization can occur.
The only potential positive from this large release of Atlantic salmon is that these farm-raised fish should serve as easy prey for seals, sea lions and eagles, maybe taking some predation pressure off wild salmon.
On balance, though, the science looking at past net pen releases of Atlantic salmon in this region suggests that there can be negative impacts to native salmon including disease transmission, competition for food and breeding habitat, and the potential for long-term establishment of an introduced Atlantic salmon run.
Science informs decisions, it does not set public policy: the people and their representatives do. So while the science does not suggest that this spill will likely be catastrophic to wild salmon, in looking at the public reaction to this net pen release and the outcry against Cook Aquaculture Pacific, it seems evident that the people of the Salish Sea value native salmon runs more than they do the salmon farming industry.
The message from the public appears clear: With the billions of dollars we’ve invested to protect and recover native wild Pacific salmon, any introduced risk like farmed Atlantic salmon is unacceptable.
For daily updates, please visit the Washington Department of Natural Resources website on this incident.
To report your catch of Atlantic salmon or see where these escaped farm fish are being caught, visit the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Catch Map.
Fisher, AC, JP Volpe, JT Fisher. 2014. Occupancy dynamics of escaped farmed Atlantic salmon in Canadian Pacific coastal salmon streams: implications for sustained invasions. Biological Invasions 16:2137-2146. doi 10.1007/s10530-014-0653-x
Jones, SRM, DW Bruno, L Madsen, EJ Peeler. 2015. Disease management mitigates risk of pathogen transmission for maricultured salmonids. Aquaculture Environment Interactions 6:119-134. doi 10.3354/aei00121
Jonsson B, N Jonsson. 2006. Cultured Atlantic salmon in nature: a review of their ecology and interaction with wild fish. ICES Journal of Marine Science 63:1162-1181. doi 10.1016/j.icesjms.2006.03.004
McKinnell S and AJ Thomson. 1997. Recent events concerning Atlantic salmon escapees in the Pacific. ICES Journal of Marine Science 54:1121-1125.
Nash, CE. 2003. Interactions of Atlantic salmon in the Pacific Northwest VI. A synopsis of the risk and uncertainty. Fisheries Research 62:339-347.
Volpe JP, EB Taylor, DW Rimmer, BW Glickman. 2000. Evidence of natural reproduction of aquaculture-escaped Atlantic salmon in a coastal British Columbia River. Conservation Biology 14:899-903.
Waknitz FW, RN Iwamoto, MS Strom. 2003. Interactions of Atlantic salmon in the Pacific Northwest IV. Impacts on the local ecosystems. Fisheries Research 62:307-328.
Note: if you would like to read any of these peer-reviewed papers and do not have access to them, please contact SeaDoc.
By Markus Naugle
Can you hear me up there? It’s gotten so noisy down here I can hardly hear myself breathe. I’m also having a hard time seeing over distance and the water feels a bit different. My quillback rockfish family and I have seen a lot of change over the past 100 years, and much of it makes me wonder if we’ll live to see another century more. But I know there’s hope.
The SeaDoc staff, its volunteers and veterinary interns, the Board of Directors and Scientific Advisors, and the Karen C. Drayer Wildlife Health Center at the University of California Davis School of Veterinary Medicine have been helping to understand and heal our Salish Sea ecosystem through science over the past 15 years. We celebrate your dedicated effort to educate, connect, restore, and protect this place we call home; with your ownership and tireless work, we swim hopefully toward new waters. But some of my friends are still threatened or disappearing at an alarming rate.
From down here, it’s difficult to see exactly what is causing the problem. Tanker and container ship traffic, unsustainable fishing techniques, waste water and sewage runoff…at the core of our problems is a growing population of humans who need to eat and work. So please use your creativity and human connection in making every effort to educate and include them as part of the solution, rather than alienating them as part of the problem.
We’re immensely grateful down here for the SeaDoc Society funders and concerned citizens who provide resources to understand our precarious web of life, and the elusive, shifting balance that is necessary for its viable future. With your support, the scientific and academic communities can seek and find objective information with new insights into the extent of human impact, leading to development of strategies that support sustainability. Government entities at the municipal, state, federal, and tribal levels use these scientific findings to define new regulations, policies, and procedures that manage and protect, helping to ensure that their constituents and Salish citizens enjoy a quality of life that breeds health and happiness as a foundation for peaceful coexistence.
While my friends and I swim, fly, and move freely, many of the two-leggeds are flummoxed by those imaginary black lines that define countries, states, and tribal nations, impeding progress towards area-wide solutions that preserve our home. To the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) who are working in harmony to find trans-boundary solutions, we give thanks for your focus on connection and sharing to implement solutions that will restore and protect our Sea.
My hauled-out pinniped friends and spy-hopping cetacean residents share that they see myriad outdoor enthusiasts cycling to Lime Kiln, paddling sea kayaks, and peering wide-eyed over rails of all shapes of bi-national boats, funding Salish Sea tourism and commerce such as restaurants, hotels, and guesthouses as well as the advertisers, printers, and web developers who publicize their services, and airlines, car rental agencies, and collective transporters who deliver them to our teeming waters. Businesses and the residents whom they employ in the San Juan and Gulf Islands, and entire Salish Sea depend, in some capacity, on our fragile existence.
The employees, stockholders, and billions of worldwide customers of thriving Seattle corporations, such as Amazon, Microsoft, Boeing, Starbucks, and REI, also benefit from our Salish existence. They attract high quality, diverse workers for not only career opportunities and financial benefits but also this magnificent natural backyard playground that supports their health, well-being, and quality of life.
In fact, all of the human population of approximately 8 million people in the Salish Sea can be considered stakeholders in our shared future. Like the San Francisco Bay Area during the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, diverse, abundantly rich, natural resources and unparalleled beauty are fueling creativity and the development of industries such as high tech, biotech, and money management with entrepreneurship becoming a regional norm. It would be difficult to find a person or group within the Salish Sea region that does not hold a direct interest or shared investment in our sustainability.
But perhaps the biggest stakeholders of all, should we choose to acknowledge fully our interconnected sacred balance, are the 38 species of mammals, 172 species of birds, 253 species of fish, 2 species of reptiles and more than 3,000 macro-invertebrates who call the Salish Sea home. Without us, without clean water, air, earth and falling sun rays that support our critical viability, there is no jewel of the Pacific Northwest. So, on behalf of my rockfish kin and all the creatures that inhabit the Salish Sea, we thank you from our depths and urge you to keep going. We need each and every one of you to invest in our shared future and keep this jewel sparkling.
By Bob Friel
Science CAN be a walk in the park.
Or a stroll on the beach. Or a dive in the sea.
From astronomy to zoology, there has never been as much opportunity for “regular” people to actively take part in science. Citizen scientists, data collectors with day jobs, retiree researchers, whatever you want to call them: folks without advanced degrees are out there every day doing invaluable work to advance science. And for anyone with a passion for the environment, our vibrant Salish Sea is the perfect place to join in.
BEACHING FOR THE BIRDS
“Science is a team sport,” says Julia Parrish, University of Washington professor and founder/director of COASST, the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team. “Citizens are the boots on the ground, collecting information and sending it to scientists who do the analysis.”
Parrish says that the information collected by volunteers like her 800-plus COASSTers is “broad extent, fine grain and, when done right, high quality data that isn’t obtainable any other way.”
To make sure it’s done right, folks interested in COASST attend at least one day-long session where, in exchange for a $20 deposit and a promise to survey their chosen beach at least once a month, they’re given the training and tools to enable them to identify beach-cast birds (there’s an additional session for those also interested in collecting data on marine debris).
“COASST’s materials are very impressive,” says Markus Naugle, SeaDoc’s director and a brand-new COASSTer. “Using their intuitive field guide and measuring tools, you learn how to identify seabirds to family and possibly even down to species level based solely on finding parts—even just a foot or a wing—cast up on the beach.”
With our region recently suffering unusual mortality events involving Cassins and Rhinoceros auklets, data gathered on COASSTers’ scientific beach strolls have contributed vitally important baseline measurements of seabird health as well as useful information advancing many other conservation and resource management issues.
WHO YA GONNA CALL?
Another citizen science program that gives you a reason to get to the beach is the Marine Mammal Stranding Network (MMSN), which is permitted by NOAA to respond to both live and dead strandings of seals, dolphins, whales, and all other animals managed under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
“I LOVE volunteering with the stranding network!” says Erin Shackelford, a responder for the San Juan County chapter based out of the Whale Museum in Friday Harbor. “I get to work with a great group of people, it’s an incredible opportunity to learn about the environment up close, and when I respond to a call, I really feel as if I’m making a difference.”
Most of the stranding calls in the Salish Sea are for harbor seal pups that have either become separated from their mothers or washed ashore deceased. For live animals, volunteers monitor, tag, collect data, and sometimes, if they’ve been injured due to human contact, collect the pups for rehabilitation. “But even when the stranding involves a dead animal,” says Erin, “I know I’m helping to gather information that’s important to the health and future of the Salish Sea.”
In San Juan County, SeaDoc’s lead scientist Joe Gaydos performs necropsies on specimens collected by the stranding network. “The information we can gather from an animal that’s washed ashore,” says Joe, “whether it’s died from disease, malnourishment, entanglement, or any other reason, is critical to understanding what’s going on in the ecosystem. The stranding network is an invaluable resource.”
Data from the MMSN and its related necropsies have been used in many peer-reviewed studies—quite a few in partnership with SeaDoc, including the bizarre find of the first-known case of a harbor seal with equally developed conjoined twins, and another that investigated a murder mystery involving a Salish Sea serial killer!
Local chapters of the MMSN cover the entire Salish Sea (find yours here) and offer free training and yearly refreshers.
Counting Birds at Christmas
The longest-running citizen science program in the United States is the Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count (CBC), which started with 27 birders spotting 90 species on December 25, 1900. These days, tens of thousands of volunteers fan out within thousands of defined 15-mile diameter “count circles” to collect data that assesses the health and guides the conservation of hundreds of bird species. And now you don’t have to be an expert birder or miss unwrapping your presents to take part.
The “Christmas” bird count actually takes place anytime between December 14 and January 5 in order to collect status and trend data for the winter season. Each local circle is managed by an official Count Compiler (like Count Dracula, but for birds), who signs up volunteers and makes sure each group has at least one expert birdwatcher on hand.
The Environmental Protection Agency, US Fish & Wildlife, and others all use CBC data. Audubon itself used the crowd-sourced science in their disturbing 2014 report that predicts that 314 of the 588 North American species studied will lose more than half of their current climate range by 2080 due to climate change.
To find a circle near you and to join the next Christmas Bird Count, check out Audubon’s CBC site.
DOWN BELOW WHERE IT COUNTS
What began 27 years ago as a sort of Audubon Society for fish, REEF (Reef Environmental Education Foundation) has grown into one of the most respected participatory marine science programs in the world, with more than 213,000 underwater surveys completed by its sea of bubbling volunteers.
Chuck Curry, a long-time SeaDoc supporter from Bainbridge Island, WA, started scuba diving more than 30 years ago, but didn’t realize there was a way for him to combine his love of diving with his passionate support of science until he heard about REEF at a SeaDoc event in 2013.
“SeaDoc announced a partnership with REEF on a ten-year subtidal monitoring project that would use volunteer divers to collect the data,” says Chuck. His reaction was immediate: “I want to do that!”
Chuck joined REEF, began doing underwater surveys, quickly earned his expert rating in identifying Salish Sea fish and invertebrates, and now gets to work on that monitoring project. It was local REEF divers like Chuck that collected the baseline data and then served as the early warning system that alerted researchers to SSWD, Sea Star Wasting Disease. These citizen Cousteaus are also crucial to our ongoing efforts to identify the scope and severity of the outbreak.
“I appreciate how fortunate I am as a diver to see the marine environment firsthand,” says Chuck. “Doing REEF surveys not only helps me stay intimately connected to the Salish Sea, they also give me the opportunity to collect meaningful data for scientists working on conserving a place I love.”
This ethos of giving back is common in citizen science. We all have a stake in a healthy Salish Sea, and when in addition to supporting SeaDoc’s professional scientists you can also get out there and actively contribute to conservation, it can be even more gratifying.
As Julia Parrish of COASST says, “Volunteers are directly involved in collecting information about an ecosystem they’re connected to and want to know more about. This is experiential learning at its best! It deepens their connection and makes them advocate for the science that we do together. Who could ask for more than that?”
By Bob Friel
Everybody loves the Salish Sea’s killer whales, playful porpoise, and puppy-like seals. Birders flock here to see such feathered favorites as rhinoceros auklets, tufted puffins, and marbled murrelets. And no fish anywhere is as exalted as our Chinook, the king salmon, appreciated as sport fish, table fare, and cultural icon.
But where’s the love for the sand lance? Who here is a herring hugger?
Forage fish are the Rodney Dangerfields of the sea—they get no respect. Even that catchall name for the many different species of small schooling fish suggests they exist only to serve as self-propelled snacks. However, without these little fish that feed at the base of the food web, converting plankton into silvery packets of energy, there wouldn’t be any of those other more charismatic critters. No auklets, no puffins, and no king salmon. And without king salmon, of course, the Southern Resident Killer Whales disappear.
It’s impossible to exaggerate the importance of forage fish to the overall health of the Salish Sea. Unfortunately the research and, where needed, recovery work on these vital species hasn’t been commensurate with their value. So SeaDoc is investing in forage fish by funding two new projects, one on sand lance and the other on herring.
With everything from seabirds to sea lions hunting them, Pacific sand lance (Ammodytes personatus) have evolved an ingenious survival strategy. Whenever they’re not grazing on plankton in the water column, they tuck themselves into the sandy seabed to hide from predators and wait for their next feeding opportunity.
We know that Pacific sand lance nourish myriad crucial Salish Sea species, and a recent Northwest Straits Initiative / SeaDoc study showed smaller sand lance are widely distributed in our near shore waters year round, with population peaks in the summer. But we still don’t know the answers to some basic questions about these fascinating little fish, such as: Where exactly do they like to hide? How many of them are there? And, are their populations stable?
Now, we’re funding a new project that will use underwater video and a bottom-biting oceanographic tool called a Van Veen Sampler to ascertain the exact types of sea floor where the sand lance prefer to bury (too silty and they can’t breathe; too gravelly and they can injure themselves while tunneling). Co-investigators Drs. Cliff Robinson (Pacific Wildlife Foundation / University of Victoria) and Doug Bertram (Environment and Climate Change Canada) and their team will precisely map those habitats, build an improved model for predicting seafloor use by sand lance, and re-sample study sites monthly to look at population health and seasonal variability.
Compared to our knowledge base on sand lance, we know quite a bit about Salish Sea herring. As the foundational forage fish—the energy source that spins a huge part of our food web—healthy herring populations are considered so critical that the Puget Sound Partnership lists them as one of our “vital signs.” Simply checking the dwindling numbers of many herring stocks on the Washington State side of the Salish Sea, tells you that the ecosystem is in trouble.
The herring stock that spawns at Cherry Point, site of the state’s largest oil refinery, was once the most prolific in all of Puget Sound. Since 1973, the Cherry Point population has crashed by more than 93 percent. While this stock and others on the U.S. side are faltering, in British Columbia’s Strait of Georgia they’re currently booming. With your support, our research is designed to find out reasons why some stocks are hurting and how to recover them as soon as possible.
Helping herring will never be as sexy as salmon conservation, but it’s every bit as important to the health of our ecosystem. So SeaDoc is jumpstarting the recovery process for Puget Sound herring by funding a joint US / Canadian team co-led by Drs. Tessa Francis (Puget Sound Institute, UW Tacoma) and Dayv Lowry (WA Department of Fish and Wildlife) that will act as the nexus for relevant data and expertise. This project will determine the specific threats harming the southern herring populations, assess all of the stocks, and evaluate the state of the science, policies, and ongoing recovery efforts in order to ultimately produce a comprehensive Salish Sea herring conservation and management plan.
Thanks to your support, both new projects continue the SeaDoc Society’s mission to provide the science that’s helping to heal our Salish Sea.
This holiday season, show some love to the lowly forage fish. Go ahead: hug a herring.
NOAA’s Draft Plan recommends actions to recover our endangered local rockfish
By Bob Friel
Rockfish are remarkable animals. The genus includes 28 of the Salish Sea’s 253 fish species, and their slow-growing, late-maturing, long-living, stay-at-home lifestyle is ideally adapted to our deep, rugged underwater habitats. With cryptic coloration and poisonous spines helping to keep them safe from predators, adult rockfish also have a low natural mortality rate, allowing them plenty of time (some species live more than 100 years!) to grow into large, prodigious breeders.
Unfortunately, rockfish ran into a snag when humans came along. They’re easy to catch, taste delicious, and those same life strategies that make them so successful under natural conditions also make them very vulnerable to overfishing. The biggest, fattest, oldest fish that serve as the best babymakers are also the lunkers so highly prized by fishermen. Since the mid-60s, our overall rockfish population has crashed by 70%.
Wildlife managers recognized the problem decades ago and began attempts to halt the decline. SeaDoc has long been heavily involved with rockfish issues and we continue to work closely with recreational fishermen, charter guides, and scientists from our local tribes, universities, NGOs, and all levels of government on both sides of the border in order to provide the best science possible to inform management decisions.
After looking at the science, thirteen rockfish were listed as Species of Concern by Washington State, which enacted commercial and recreation fishing bans. In British Columbia, the government set aside Rockfish Conservation Areas (RCAs). At the U.S. federal level, the big guns were pulled out in 2010 when three species of Salish Sea rockfish—yelloweye, Boccaccio, and canary—were listed under the Endangered Species Act. DNA research has since shown that our canary rockfish are part of the same population as the coastal canaries so they’ll likely be removed from ESA protection, but our yelloweye (Sebastes ruberrimus) and Boccaccio (Sebastes paucispinis) Distinct Population Segments remain listed, respectively, as threatened and endangered.
ESA listing requires NOAA Fisheries to come up with a plan to keep the affected species from going extinct. Drawing on studies (by SeaDoc and many others), they’ve come up with a Draft Rockfish Recovery Plan. The plan includes about 45 recommended actions, including doing a lot more research to better understand the rockfishes’ critical life stages (see our monthly update where divers are finding YOYs) as well as the threats they’re facing such as death by accidental bycatch and derelict fishing gear, water quality problems like persistent organic pollutants and low oxygen levels, and habitat issues including kelp restoration.
While all the stakeholders agree they want to see the return of healthy rockfish populations, if there’s one aspect of the plan sure to be a hot-button issue, it’s the call to start the separate public process for creating RCAs, MPAs (Marine Protected Areas), or some other form of marine reserves in the San Juan Islands and eastern Strait of Juan de Fuca where NOAA has identified a high risk of rockfish bycatch.
Marine reserves have been shown to help fish populations, especially with long-lived, resident species like rockfish, but some recreational fishermen believe the regulations already in effect do enough to protect the yelloweye and Boccaccio.
What do you think? NOAA wants to hear from you, and you can comment on their plan here until November 14. Along with taking comments, NOAA will be holding public meetings on the rockfish plan (more information and meeting schedule here). To arm yourself with all the info before you comment or attend a meeting, settle back, put your fins up and dive into the complete 157-page plan and its 83 pages of implementation appendices. It’s interesting reading, and chock full of facts about rockfish and their Salish Sea habitat.
By Bob Friel and Joe Gaydos
The National Marine Fisheries Service has proposed to delist the Puget Sound / Georgia Basin Canary Rockfish (Sebastes pinniger) from the list of threatened species under the US Endangered Species Act. The delisting isn’t based on an increase in the Rockfish population, but on the results of recent genetic findings that show our local canaries are genetically the same as those living on the Washington coast and that they’re not, as previously thought, a Distinct Population Segment (DPS). Incidentally, Canary Rockfish on the Pacific Coast were considered overfished in 2000 and thanks to a rebuilding plan, were determined to be “rebuilt” in 2015.
Similar testing showed that Yelloweye Rockfish (S. ruberrimus) within the Salish Sea are different from those on the coast and thus form a DPS. Not enough Boccacio (S. paucispinis) could be sampled to determine if it is a DPS. Since both Yelloweye and Boccaccio Rockfish remain protected under the ESA, delisting canaries will have no effect on the stringent fishing regulations put in place to try and recover all our local Rockfish species.
After reviewing the supplementary scientific information provided by NOAA, SeaDoc submitted a formal comment in support of this decision (acknowledging that the science supports the decisions being made). Comments are due Sept. 6, 2016. Click here to read the details of the science behind this proposed rule change and/or to submit a formal comment.
A report for the SeaDoc Society prepared by Wild Fish Conservancy, Long Live the Kings, Kwiaht, and the Washington Dept. of Fish and Wildlife Molecular Genetics Lab.
By Bob Friel
The stories tended towards misty remembrances and “You should have been here yesteryear” yarns of island fishermen who told tales of streams in the San Juan Islands flush with glittering, jewel-like fish sporting bold, blood-red slashes below the jaw that endowed them with the piratical name of coastal cutthroat trout.
Old-timers swore that these “cutts” once spawned in the small creeks that drained into the Salish Sea. And in recent years there have been tantalizing sightings by both fishermen and researchers. The chance that the islands hosted any self-sustaining populations of cutthroats was considered so small, however, that when the Washington State Department of Fish & Wildlife did their last statewide survey, they didn’t even bother sampling the San Juans.
So SeaDoc funded a study to prove once and for all whether or not these fabled fish still exist. We worked with the Wild Fish Conservancy, Long Live the Kings, Kwiaht, and the WDFW Molecular Genetics Lab, and sent scientists armed with underwater cameras and “electrofishers” to several creeks on Orcas and San Juan Islands. The researchers pulled on their waders and sloshed from the sea to the streams’ fresh headwaters in search of hardy bands of cutthroats.
Coastal Cutthroat Trout (Oncorhynchus clarki clarki) are the least studied of all the salmonoid species, overshadowed by the much larger and higher-profile Pacific salmon: Chinook, sockeye, coho, chum and pink. Cutts, similar to their better-known cousins, are anadromous—able to migrate from saltwater to fresh in order to reproduce—though some spend their entire lives in fresh water. Also like other Salish Sea salmon, coastal cutthroats are under intense pressure throughout their range from development, resource extraction, pollution from agriculture and stormwater runoff, and anything else that effects the riparian environment where they build their spawning nests, called redds, and where the newly born fish live the first parts of their lives.
While the San Juan Islands are renowned for being one of the Salish Sea’s most pristine areas, even they are not immune to human impact. And coastal cutthroats are especially vulnerable in places like the islands where freshwater habitat is limited. So, as our scientists set out upstream, they couldn’t be sure what they’d find.
There are, of course, other fish living in the island creeks, so shadows flitting across the streambeds could have been anything. It wasn’t until we saw the underwater footage and collected DNA from fish we photographed, measured, and then gently released that the results were clear: at least three streams on Orcas and San Juan Islands do indeed have successfully breeding resident populations of coastal cutthroat trout!
Even more exciting is that two of the streams studied are home to fish endemic to the islands, including one fascinating cutthroat community in Orcas Island’s Doe Bay Creek that has the lowest genetic diversity of any cutthroat population ever tested in Washington State. These beautifully speckled little fish may have been isolated and sustaining themselves in this very limited and unpredictable environment for more than 4,000 years. Talk about hardy!
Garrison Creek on San Juan Island also has a surviving stock of natives despite water diversions, culverts, and livestock crossings that have fragmented the watershed and restricted stream flows. Searching Cascade Creek on Orcas revealed more resident fish, but they proved to be genetically influenced by the mainland hatchery cutthroats regularly released into Mountain Lake..
Finding these fish, in particular the remarkable natives that have held out for so long, was both thrilling and a great example of successful field work. The troubling part was that we didn’t find many of them. Each cutthroat stock we found consists of only about 25 breeding fish. Already constrained to thin slices of suitable habitat, these scant populations are vulnerable to any number of random events that could potentially kill off the entire stock.
The flip side is that since they have survived in such a confined environment, the opportunities to restore their habitat and rebuild their numbers are relatively clear-cut. The study’s authors put forward a set of common-sense conservation ideas, and SeaDoc will be staying involved and working to study and preserve these hardy bands of island cutthroats that live in our own backyard.
Read the entire report here, and as always it’s thanks to your support that we’re able to continue our work to heal the Salish Sea.
In this issue: Finding sand lance hidden in salmon data – Should we be concerned when a seal gives birth to a two-headed pup? – How disease could impact the Salish Sea – Four new SeaDoc board members – SeaDoc-funded scientist honored by Seattle Aquarium – Serge Dedina speaks February 24th