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.
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.
In this issue: Searching for newborn rockfish, wooden hats for harbor seals, thanks to our hardworking interns, make an automatic monthly donation, harbor porpoise spotting days.
When you have fish that can live from 80 to 200 years, depending on the species, recovery can be a slow process.
That’s the case with some of the 27 different rockfish (Sebastes spp.) in the Salish Sea. Many species were over-harvested and are now in need of recovery.
One important strategy is protecting the old females who produce copious young. But rockfish don’t birth a big crop of babies every year. (Yes, rockfish give birth to live baby fish.) Instead they seem to have periodic “bonus” years when numerous rockfish babies are born. As a result, it is really important to know when these massive birth years of young rockfish occur and understand the type of habitats those juvenile fish need to survive.
SeaDoc is working with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, REEF, and others to help NOAA design a citizen-driven project where SCUBA divers can collect data to help us learn more about newborn rockfish, known as “young of the year.”
Last month, NOAA project lead Dr. Adam Obaza came up to the San Juans to dive with SeaDoc to test out the new dive protocol. Joe Gaydos, Dr. Obaza, and Jen Olson dove in kelp forests, eelgrass, flat muddy bottom sites and rocky reef sites to look for young rockfish and test out the survey methodology.
Young rockfish are rare, but we did manage to find one young of the year rockfish – a baby Copper rockfish hanging out in some Laminaria sp. kelp near a rocky shore. As things are with science sometimes, it was in the last few minutes of the last dive of the weekend.
We will keep you posted as NOAA rolls out this volunteer SCUBA opportunity in case you or friends want to be involved.
There’s convincing science that no-take marine reserves help recover rockfish, abalone, and other threatened or endangered species that call these rocky habitats home. But what are the economic costs and benefits of marine reserves?
Most of the existing data is about the costs of marine reserves. For example, marine reserves limit fishing, and therefore have a negative effect on the commercial and recreational fishing industry.
But very little is known about the economic benefits of no-take marine reserves.
A new SeaDoc project will quantify the economic benefit of appropriately designed no-take marine reserves to the SCUBA diving industry and local economies.
Over 100 dive shops in Washington and British Columbia train and equip thousands of divers annually. These recreational divers spend handsomely to maintain their certification, purchase equipment, travel to dive sites, procure lodging, and pay for dive charters. But no one has ever conducted an economic valuation of SCUBA diving in the Salish Sea.
Resource decisions are often a trade-off between benefits to the target species and economic impacts to the people that rely on them to make a living or for recreation. Missing from this trade-off is a proper accounting for the extra economic activity that can be created by an effort to save fish and wildlife.
Project results will have a direct impact on efforts by NOAA Fisheries and the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife as they consider the merits of establishing a network of no-take reserves for rockfish recovery. Results will also be shared with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in Canada as they re-evaluate the effectiveness of their Rockfish Conservation Areas.
This project is sponsored by a generous private contribution, without which it would not be possible.
Photo by Janna Nichols.
Sharon Wootton wrote a nice piece in The Everett Herald on SeaDoc’s recently-published peer reviewed paper on river otter diet. The concern was that river otters might be hampering rockfish recovery. Turns out while river otters do eat some juvenile rockfish, they primarily eat other intertidal and shallow subtidal fish.
Get the full story: http://www.heraldnet.com/article/20141012/LIVING/141019875
Abstract: The effectiveness of marine protected areas (MPAs) and their effects on the predators of target species have been a matter of discussion for some time. In the Salish Sea, a number of MPAs protect several species of rockfish (Sebastes spp.), three of which are currently listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA); however, the role of coastal river otter (Lontra canadensis) predation on rockfish populations is poorly understood. This study describes the scarcely studied diet of river otters in the San Juan Islands, Washington, as a first step in assessing the potential effect of these predators on rockfish. Using frequency of occurrence (% FO), we described coastal river otter diet for San Juan, Orcas, and Fidalgo Islands during the summer of 2008. River otters consumed a variety of both fish and invertebrate species. Fish occurred most frequently in their diet at all three islands, including gunnels (Pholidae) (present in 83.6 to 97.3% of scats), sculpins (Cottidae) (79.5 to 97.3%), and pricklebacks (Stichaeidae) (58.9 to 78.1%). Rockfish were present in 2.7 to 21.9% of river otter scat with the highest occurrence at San Juan Island (21.9%). Scat also contained a higher occurrence of juvenile rockfish vs adult specimens. Although rockfish consumption by river otters at San Juan Island has increased since the summer of 1999, consistent with the establishment of MPAs, we cannot attribute the establishment of MPAs as the cause or address the positive or negative potential effects of river otter predation on rockfish recovery. However, this information may assist future studies that use more modern techniques in assessing these effects on rockfish populations.
We kicked off our long-term subtidal intelligence gathering effort with 120 survey dives in October 2013.
Here are some beautiful photos of some of the creatures that live under the water in the Salish Sea: dironas, butterfly crabs, sea pens, rockfish, and a whole lot of starfish. (The slideshow can take a while to load…)