bob friel

Dollars and the Senses: The Economics of Wildlife Watching

By Bob Friel

Half a century into the Digital Age it sometimes feels like we’re evolving from animals to house plants, rooted to our chairs and sustained only by the light of glowing screens. Americans, though, are traditionally outdoorsy types, and the latest survey from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) proves that omnipresent electronic devices have not killed our desire to get outside.

USFWS’s National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation is completed every five years to gauge the economic impact of certain outdoor activities. The most recent figures show that 35.8 million Americans over the age of 16 fished, and 11.5 million of them hunted in 2016. Those are impressive numbers, and hunters and fishers have long done a good job of using their economic clout to lobby for laws and regulations that benefit their pursuits—and, often, to protect the natural areas they use.

Less organized are those who fall under the “Wildlife-Associated Recreation” segment. The survey doesn’t tally anyone under this column if they’re headed outside to bike or run or kayak or camp; it counts only those Americans who say they specifically go out to find and observe wildlife.

These are the birdwatchers, whale watchers, bug lovers, tide poolers, scuba diving fish watchers, wildlife photographers and other critter hounds among us. And whether we’re simply enjoying backyard hummingbirds, watching orcas from a rocky bluff, or off on a bucketlisted trek up a salmon stream to see grizzlies, there are a whole lot of us out there.

The USFWS reports that, in 2016, 86 million Americans ventured out to look for wildlife (the cutoff at age 16 means that’s certainly an undercount). And those wildlife voyeurs spent $75.9 billion just to watch, which is almost three times what hunters spent and nearly $30 billion more than recreational fishers.

Perhaps even more surprising to find out, in today’s digital parlance, wildlife watching is trending! Since the last study, overall participation is up 20% and expenditures are up 28%.

As SeaDoc’s recent study on the money generated locally just by our Salish Sea scuba divers shows, the monetary value of having functional ecosystems filled with watchable wildlife is enormous.

Billions of dollars and thousands of supported jobs aside, wildlife watching is proven to benefit—mentally and physically—anyone willing to uproot and unplug for a dose of the outdoors. People living around the Salish Sea normally cite the region’s natural attractions as a primary benefit of living here.

However, not everyone calculates value the same way. Some might say it’s not worth saving a wild salmon run when there are farmed fish at the market. Others might think a pipeline or refinery is worth more than the increased risk of extinction to our Southern Resident Killer Whales. For the folks motivated by dollars and cents, the USFWS reports that there are at least 75.9 billion reasons to protect wildlife in the United States.

Here at SeaDoc, we and our supporters like you understand that even if the value of a healthy Salish Sea can be counted in dollars, it’s better measured with the senses. The well-being, the quality of life, the effects on human health, the satisfaction of being part of a vibrant and vital ecosystem are all priceless.

Besides, we like to watch.

 

 

Banner photo courtesy of Joe Gaydos.

Are Southern Resident Killer Whales Starving?

By Bob Friel

On March 6, the SeaDoc Society together with the National Marine Mammal Foundation and NOAA Fisheries assembled top U.S. and Canadian marine mammal experts for an urgent consultation on the nutritional condition of our Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKW), the fish-eating orcas that have historically "resided" in the Salish Sea.

After 2015’s encouraging “baby boom,” 2016 was a disastrous year for SRKW, which suffered seven deaths, reducing the total population of our three pods—J, K and L—to just 78 individuals.

Along with dangerously low numbers and wild swings in their reproductive success, another troubling sign is that instead of staying organized in their full pods, the killer whales have recently been observed fragmenting into smaller groups, most likely because they’re having a harder time finding prey, especially the large Chinook salmon that are their most important source of food.

Concerns about our Southern Residents have led NOAA to declare them one of eight “Spotlight” species (out of 1,652 on the Endangered Species list) considered most at risk of extinction unless immediate action is taken to stabilize and recover their populations.

With the pressing need to act butting up against science’s necessarily slow, painstaking process of collecting, analyzing, challenging and retesting data and hypotheses, SeaDoc and collaborators jumped in to help move killer whale conservation forward as quickly as possible.

We asked the gathered researchers to share their most recent data—work that may not be published in peer-reviewed papers for several years—to see if we could find the answers needed right now to expedite recovery actions.

To ensure the proceedings maintained the greatest scientific validity, SeaDoc also convened an independent panel of three world-renowned marine mammal experts: Craig Matkin, founder and Executive Director of Alaska’s North Gulf Oceanic Society; Michael Moore, Senior Scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution; and Frances Gulland, Senior Scientist at California’s The Marine Mammal Center.

This prestigious panel was charged with overseeing the workshop, reviewing all materials, and producing a review paper that is already circulating among U.S. and Canadian regulatory agencies.

A full day of presentations and sidebar meetings offered a fascinating look at cutting-edge research along with a sobering view of the state of our Southern Residents. After a second day of discussion and deliberation, the panel was able to conclude that multiple lines of evidence indicate poor body condition in SRKW, a state that is “associated with loss of fetuses, calves and adults.” They also determined that although the overall causes are complex and complicated by random tragedies like ship strikes, “food availability, contaminant burden, and noise and vessel stress would all appear to be acting in concert causing the decline of this population.”

The bad news is that things are not looking good for our Southern Residents. The good news is that the issues impacting them are all caused by human activities and thus are in our power to remedy. We can help our beloved, iconic killer whales recover—if we have the will to act.

The US and Canadian Federal Agencies tasked with managing Southern Residents are actively reviewing management options for their recovery. Thanks to private donations, SeaDoc and collaborators will continue to develop an electronic medical record keeping system for killer whales that will enable us to tease out complex relationships between threats like nutrition, contaminants, sound, and disease.

Forty-three scientists took time out of their busy schedules to make this killer whale workshop a success. The SeaDoc Society gratefully acknowledges them and their sponsoring organizations, including the Center for Whale Research, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, National Marine Mammal Foundation, NOAA Fisheries, North Gulf Oceanic Society, Sea World, Sealife Response, Rehabilitation and Research, The Marine Mammal Center, University of British Columbia, University of Washington, Vancouver Aquarium, and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

 

 

Banner photo: southern resident killer whale L41 surfaces. Courtesy of the SeaDoc Society.

A New Science Advisor and the Science Behind the Salish Sea's Ancient Bonds

By Bob Friel

At the SeaDoc Society, we always talk about the importance of preserving the health of the Salish Sea for the benefit of both the environment as well as the people who live here and depend on it for everything from the economy and recreation to the philosophical satisfaction of existing amid such inspiring natural beauty.

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SeaDoc’s newest addition to our all-star team of Science Advisors, Dr. Jamie Donatuto, understands that linking of people and place so deeply that she’s helped redefine the concept of ecosystem “health” for other scientists who’ve traditionally studied human and wildlife systems separately.

After earning her Environmental Science degree, Jamie went to work for the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, a Tribe comprised of Coast Salish peoples who originally inhabited the Skagit and Samish River valleys, and Puget Sound coastline and islands.

“The Tribe asked me to write a project proposal to study toxics in locally-harvested shellfish,” says Jamie. It was an ideal project for her since she wanted to work in toxicology. And though it was her first try at writing a grant, not only was it accepted but also it was the largest grant ever awarded to a Native American tribe at that time.

Then, two years into her project, after completing the initial human health risk assessment, came the real beginning of Jamie’s education on ecosystem interconnectedness.

“I presented the draft results to the governing Tribal Council,” she says. “There was a long pause before the Chairman finally asked, ‘Where in these numbers are our definitions of health?’”

While Jamie and every other scientist working on issues like this had approached them by simply measuring potential poisons in the environment then describing human risk in biological terms of exposure to x micrograms of whatever toxins, the Swinomish had more profound ideas about defining and prioritizing health.

“Shellfish are an important traditional food for the Swinomish,” says Jamie. “But they taught me that the importance goes way beyond subsistence calories. For them, shellfish are imbued with deep connections to the health of their people through creation stories, ceremonies, tools, and the passing down of ancient ecological knowledge.”

It was an “Aha” moment for Jamie, who realized that the scientific tools available for human health assessment were inadequate to address the needs and values of tribal communities.

“I also found that in regards to health, scientists studied risks and impacts to natural ecosystems as if they existed in a wholly separate world from risks and impacts to human ecosystems.” This didn’t make sense to the Coast Salish or to Jamie. “Human and natural systems are inextricably connected and need to be assessed that way.”

Jamie realized that she’d have to create her own scientific study mechanisms, and used her revelations to inform her doctoral thesis: “When Seafood Feeds the Spirit Yet Poisons the Body: Developing Health Indicators for Risk Assessment in a Native American Fishing Community.”

It’s this kind of outstanding insight and experience that we prize in our SeaDoc science advisors, and we’re proud to now have Dr. Jamie Donatuto as part of the team.

Alongside her continuing work with the Swinomish Tribe, Jamie maintains her personal interconnectedness with the Salish Sea by swimming in it and hiking the trails on Orcas Island with her kids. And not only is she a high-flying environmental/social scientist, Jamie is also an aerial artist, performing acrobatic dance while suspended above the ground on a ribbon of silk!

Thanks for your continuing support, and please help us welcome Jamie aboard!

To see a list of all SeaDoc's Science Advisors, visit our Team page.

Shorebirds Share in Farm-to-Table Trend

By Bob Friel

Results from a recent SeaDoc Society-funded study show that agricultural lands adjacent to Puget Sound estuaries are surprisingly important sources of nutrients for over-wintering shorebirds.

Dunlins are busy little shorebirds you’ve probably seen probing and plucking along the shoreline. When their flocks are startled or attacked by a falcon, they erupt into a beautifully synchronized swarm that flashes and wheels above their feeding grounds.

The Dunlins natural winter habitats in the Salish Sea are the estuaries where our rivers meet and mix with the marine environment. These rich and complex ecosystems serve a crucial role for many birds that use them as refueling sites during long migrations—nature’s truck stops for shorebirds and ducks.

Unfortunately for the birds (and a lot of other wildlife), 75% of the tidal wetlands in Puget Sound river deltas have been lost due to human impacts like conversion to industrial areas and farmland. In this study, SeaDoc-funded scientists Keith Hobson (Environment Canada), Gary Slater (Ecostudies Institute), David Lank and Rachel Gardener (both Simon Frasier University), and Ruth Milner (Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife) looked at the Skagit and Stillaguamish River deltas. In both places, more than 85% of the wetland habitat has been converted to agriculture.

Dunlin feeding in uplands

Dunlin feeding in uplands

So, with most of their former foraging area given over to raising grass and clover for cattle feed, what do the Dunlins eat to keep them alive during the winter and provide enough energy to continue their migrations to and from their breeding grounds on the arctic tundra?

No, they don’t go vegetarian and start eating clover—they’re strict carnivores—but as the research team from both Washington State and British Columbia discovered, the approximately 60,000 Dunlins that winter on the Skagit and Stillaguamish estuaries do make good use of the farmlands.

Scientists used mist nets to capture 171 Dunlins. They took blood samples and then used radio telemetry to track the birds’ habitat use. They also ground up samples of the shrimp, mollusks and other goodies the birds eat in the intact marshes and shorelines, and the juicy earthworms they can find on farmlands, and then used stable isotopes of carbon and nitrogen to measure where the Dunlins were getting their nutrients.

While it was clear that the Dunlins preferred the natural estuary, especially the tidal flats and low marshes, they obtained a significantly greater portion (62%) of their protein from the agricultural areas. The later it got in winter, the more the birds depended on the farms.

Does this mean we should turn all our natural estuaries into cropland? Of course not. We need to prevent the loss of a single additional acre of wetland, and to restore as much of it as possible so the estuaries can serve the many purposes they provide to a healthy ecosystem. In fact, estuaries are so important, the Puget Sound Partnership identified estuary restoration as one of their vital signs and goals for Puget Sound Restoration.

Splashing dunlin

Splashing dunlin

What this study does show is that we need to be especially vigilant about letting any agricultural land adjacent to our estuaries get converted into usages like residential or commercial developments. The shorebirds may be able to hunt nightcrawlers on croplands, but they won’t find much to eat on parking lots.

This SeaDoc-funded science not only further proves the extreme interconnectedness of our terrestrial and marine environments, but at a practical level it will help inform future decisions about the management of lands surrounding our critical estuaries. Thank you for supporting science that makes a difference.

 

 

Banner photo caption: Dunlin eating in an estuary. Photos courtesy of Samantha Franks.

Taking Care of the Little Things

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.

 

 

Banner photo: Rhinocerus auklet with sand lance. Courtesy of Phil Green, from The Nature Conservancy.

Video: SeaDoc in High-Definition

By Bob Friel

Using a high-definition “Deep Blue” camera and special face masks, SeaDoc divers can feed live video and narration to topside audiences who get to enjoy all the underwater action while staying warm and dry.

SeaDoc has performed these extremely popular “virtual dives” for several years using borrowed video gear, but thanks to a generous donation from the Benedict Family Foundation, we now have our own upgraded camera equipment that we’ve modified to better showcase and record marine creatures big and small. The next step is to acquire the capability to stream our virtual dives over the internet to reach even larger audiences for education, research, and fundraising opportunities.

If you think you have the right setting—waterfront home, marina, or large boat—and an audience that wants to support SeaDoc’s work and see the wonders beneath the Salish Sea without getting wet, ask us about organizing a virtual dive.

 

 

Underwater video by Bob Friel

Our hardy bands of cutthroats

By Bob Friel

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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.

Coastal Cutthroat by J. Glasgow
Coastal Cutthroat by J. Glasgow

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.

Up to our grasses in science

SeaDoc Helps Shed Light on Mysterious Pathogen That Endangers Essential Habitat

By Bob Friel

White-line eelgrass photo by Minette Layne
White-line eelgrass photo by Minette Layne

How do you fight a threat when you don’t even know the enemy? That’s the question SeaDoc and other researchers asked when diving into the DNA of a microscopic pathogen once responsible for killing off 90% of the eelgrass in the North Atlantic—the same kind of seagrass that makes up one of the Salish Sea’s most critical environments.

Our inland sea features many different marine habitats, from towering kelp forests to deep-sea sand waves, and from dramatic seamounts to placid tide pools. Perhaps its most vital, though, are the lush green prairies of eelgrass that edge long sections of shoreline and blanket some shallow bays.

Though not as flashy as the tropic’s coral reefs, the Salish Sea’s home turf plays the same crucial roles as reefs do for many important kinds of local fish, invertebrates, and plants. Providing a spawning ground for Pacific herring, a nursery for young salmon, a hideout for molting Dungeness crabs, a food for waterbirds, and a complex habitat that supports myriad other species, the Salish Sea’s eelgrass meadows are among the world’s most productive ecosystems.

What we call seagrasses are actually flowering plants and more akin to lilies than to your front lawn. Remarkably, as long as the water is clear enough so sunlight can reach them to power photosynthesis, seagrasses can thrive in salinities that would deep-fry any land plant. This salty sod reproduces by cloning itself—effectively making some seagrass pastures a single organism thousands of years old—and also spreads by releasing seeds into the water column. Seagrass roots and rhizomes provide the huge ecological—and economically beneficial—function of stabilizing bottom sediments and protecting shorelines.

Eelgrass, known to scientists as Zostera marina, is so crucial to the Salish Sea’s overall health that Washington State protects it as both a species of concern and as a critical habitat. Most of the threats to this indicator species, including shoreline and nearshore disruption, water quality and clarity, and sea-level rise and warming, are well documented. But perhaps the greatest danger—Eelgrass Wasting Disease caused by a single-celled slime creature called Labyrinthula—remains an enigma. Labyrinthula’s ability to devastate eelgrass, however, is no secret, and the North Atlantic epidemic of 1931 not only mowed down the seagrass beds, but wreaked havoc on fish, shellfish, and bird populations that depended on the habitat.

Eelgrass Wasting Disease is already present in isolated spots in the Salish Sea, and Labyrinthula is common everywhere. So why haven’t we had a serious outbreak? To begin to answer that question, SeaDoc participated in and helped fund a study to collect the parasite from different kinds of seagrass in various locations. Once we’d compared DNA along with ecological metadata of the specimens, lead author Dan Martin and associates were amazed to find that while molecular taxonomists had before described only a single species of Labyrinthula, our new research confirmed that there are at least 15 separate kinds!

We also discovered that just because they’re all microscopic monsters wallowing in an ooze of ectoplasm, not every Labryinthula is a bad guy. Two thirds of these critters don’t seem to cause disease to the seagrasses they live on. The other five, though, appear to constitute a serious threat.

This is groundbreaking science and a huge step forward in our basic knowledge of a critical habitat. And with seagrass populations worldwide declining at up to 5% a year, the study has global implications.

Great science, of course, is about answering a series of questions. The next step in this important line of research is finding out what causes the pathogenic species of Labyrinthula to suddenly turn from a rather benign eelgrass epiphyte to a virulent killer that causes major epidemics and complete loss of eelgrass meadows.

The answers may include environmental conditions that put the eelgrass prairies under stress and make them more vulnerable to disease. If those conditions are under our control, we’ll have found another way to protect and restore our Salish Sea.

When it comes to at-risk species, we're bailing a leaky boat

By Bob Friel

Every two years, SeaDoc scientists catalog all of the Salish Sea species that are listed as endangered or otherwise considered at-risk by the four governmental bodies charged with protecting the inland sea’s wildlife. Before we launched our biennial study back in 2002, no one was comparing the lists maintained at the U.S. federal level (via NOAA and the US Fish and Wildlife Service), locally by Washington State agencies, and across the border by both the province of British Columbia and the Canadian federal government.

Surprisingly, each of the four lists is very different, making SeaDoc’s Marine Species at Risk compilation an invaluable tool for ecosystem managers on both sides of the border. According to Cecilia Wong and Michael Rylko of Environment Canada and the US Environmental Protection Agency, respectively, and co-chairs of the Transboundary Ecosystem Indicators Project, SeaDoc’s work “provides a unique, long-term perspective on the Salish Sea, and fosters multilateral collaboration toward restoration and conservation.”

Since our study looks at the status of fish, mammals, birds, and invertebrates throughout the Salish Sea, top to bottom, it offers a “state of the sea” view on the entire ecosystem relative to recovery efforts. Unfortunately, our most recent report shows the continuation of a troubling trend.

First the good news: Five natives were removed from the list, including Pacific ocean perch, the Georgia Strait population of coho salmon, the belted kingfisher, cackling goose, and snowy owl. The bad news is that over the last two years, 12 more animals, including the longfin smelt, gooseneck barnacle, and black-legged kittiwake, were added to the list, bringing the total to 125 species of concern. Disturbingly, this is the eighth straight study with more species hitting the list than graduating off it. As SeaDoc co-authors Jacquelyn Zier and Joe Gaydos conclude, this negative movement “suggests ecosystem recovery efforts are being outpaced by ecosystem decay.”

Listing species does bring the animals and their critical habitats more attention, but when it comes to restoring the overall health of the Salish Sea, these ever-expanding lists show that we’re still trying to bail out a leaking boat.

To see the Health of the Salish Sea Report where the SeaDoc Society’s Marine Species at Risk study is used by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Environment Canada as a transboundary indicator, visit the EPA website.

 

 

Banner photo: while the Georgia Strait population of Coho salmon has graduated from our Species At Risk list, 12 more species have been added. Courtesy of U.S. FWS/Pacific Region.