Fishes of the Salish Sea

Dragons and Vipers and Opahs, Oh My!

Sailfin sculpin by Joseph R. Tomelleri
Sailfin sculpin by Joseph R. Tomelleri

The Salish Sea's famed salmon have a lot of interesting company beneath the surface. From the gumdrop-size spiny lumpsucker to the world's second-largest fish, the basking shark, we've long known our inland sea was home to an amazing range of fish species. However, it wasn't until an exhaustive new SeaDoc-funded study set out to document every species of local fish that we fully understood the diversity of these rich waters.

The study, by Ted Pietsch and Jay Orr, revealed more than three dozen fish species not previously known to inhabit the Salish Sea, adding such notables as the leopard shark, Pacific hagfish and lowcrest hatchetfish, and raising the number of local fish species to 253. Another "new" native, the opah, is a freckled orbicular oddity and one of the only known warm-blooded fish.

Beyond the wonder of knowing we share our Salish Sea with the opah and other fantastical creatures like the ribbonfish and daggertooth, and that our abyssal depths twinkle with such bioluminescent stars as the flashlight fish and viperfish, we now have a definitive list that allows us to more accurately choose which fishes best serve as indicator species — the canaries in the aquatic coal mine — to track the health of the entire ecosystem. It will also tell us when invasive species invade, and if any native fishes disappear.

This important paper proves once again that when it comes to restoring the Salish Sea, good science and SeaDoc donors really count.

Download the paper

Fishes of the Salish Sea is an open-access publication of NOAA, available for download from the SeaDoc website or from the NOAA website.

The PDF includes about a dozen incredible drawings of local fish.

More details about the study

This study is part of a long-term effort by SeaDoc to document the fish and wildlife that inhabit the Salish Sea.

In 2011, Joe Gaydos and Scott Pearson published "Birds and Mammals that Depend on the Salish Sea: A Compilation" in Northwestern Naturalist. That paper established a baseline list of species, and has been cited numerous times in both peer-reviewed and technical papers.

Now we have a complete list of fishes. At some point we hope to take on the daunting task of cataloging the 3,000+ species of macro-invertebrates.

Knowing which species use an ecosystem and how they make their living is fundamental to restoring it.

Why is this so important? With this list, scientists will be able to document the occurrence of new species and the disappearance of existing ones. The list will be a key baseline for Salish Sea recovery. At the same time it will help scientists select particular species as indicators of ecosystem health, and it will provide a basis for identifying the mechanisms responsible for marine fish declines.

Funded by private citizens

Like many SeaDoc projects, this one was funded by individuals with a commitment to the health of the Salish Sea. Thanks to our forward-thinking donors for understanding the importance of this effort and making it possible.

 Blacktail snailfish by Joseph R. Tomelleri

Blacktail snailfish by Joseph R. Tomelleri