Active Projects

Searching for young of the year rockfish

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.

Jen Olson, Dr. Adam Obaza & Dr. Joe Gaydos

Jen Olson, Dr. Adam Obaza & Dr. Joe Gaydos

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.



Banner photo: young of the year Copper rockfish (less than 5cm). Courtesy of Janna Nichols.

Studying contaminants in edible seaweed from the Salish Sea

How safe is wild-harvested seaweed to eat?

Seaweeds are a nutritious source of protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals. The harvest and consumption of various species of seaweed has historically been, and continues to be, important for the Coast Salish, and is gaining in popularity with non-tribal citizens interested in wild foraging.

Unfortunately very little data are available on the levels of contaminants in local seaweeds, leaving native and non-native consumers of this food source in the dark about whether they are harvesting healthy nutritious food or are being exposed to potentially harmful contaminants.

A new SeaDoc Society study, funded by generous private donations, will test for the presence and concentration of three classes of contaminants:

  • heavy metals
  • organochlorine pesticides and pollutants (like DDT, PCBs, and PBDEs)
  • polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)

Samples will be collected from sites considered safe and those considered potentially hazardous. They will be analyzed at the California Animal Health and Food Safety Laboratory at UC Davis.

Results will be shared with volunteers, tribes, and the Washington Department of Health.

Jennifer Hahn, author of the famous wild foraging book Pacific Feast (also an Adjunct Professor at Western Washington University) and SeaDoc's Joe Gaydos are collaborating with Robert Poppenga, a toxicologist at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, on this project.



Banner photo: Bull kelp by Dan Hershman via Flickr Creative Commons 2.0

Economic benefits of SCUBA diving in no-take marine reserves

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.



Banner photo courtesy of Janna Nichols.

Coastal cutthroat trout in the San Juan Islands

Coastal-Cutthroat-by-J.-Galasow-562-326 (1)Coastal or sea-run cutthroat trout are freshwater fish that also move into the marine waters to feed and are an important recreational fishery in many parts of the Salish Sea. Many people don't think of the San Juan Islands when they think of cutthroat trout, but they were historically caught in the area. Long-standing residents recall a time when these rare fish were much more abundant. While recent work documented cutthroat trout in some streams in the San Juan archipelago, little is known about the current status of coastal cutthroat trout in this area.

Thanks to funding raised from private donors, the SeaDoc Society just awarded a grant to Long Live the Kings to analyze the abundance of coastal cutthroat trout in the San Juan Islands.

With collaborators at the Wild Fish Conservancy, Kwiáht, and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Long Live the Kings also will analyze the genetics and spawn-timing characteristics of cutthroat trout from multiple streams in the San Juan Islands to determine if there are unique stocks within each of the multiple watersheds and whether coastal cutthroat trout in the San Juans are a unique stock complex. This work will provide the basis for determining and prioritizing appropriate recovery efforts and measuring results after recovery begins.

Video of juvenile and adult coastal cutthroat trout in streams in the San Juan Islands:

Photo: J. Glasgow, Wild Fish Conservancy

Sea Star Wasting Disease


Update January 21, 2016

SeaDoc recently spent 2 days at a sea star wasting disease summit hosted by the Seattle Aquarium.

Scientists from all over the US and Canada who are studying this disease came to share their research and learn from each other.

We still have a lot to learn about this disease, but data presented support: (1) this is an unsual mortality event, (2) the disease hits a wide range of sea star species, and (3) it affects different species of sea stars differently. Species that seem have been hit hard both in the wild and in captivity include the mottled star (Evasterias troschelii; pictured here), sunflower star (Pycnopodia heliantoides), spiny pink star (Pisaster brevispinus) and the ochre sea star (Pisaster ochraceus).

Joe Gaydos notes, "I'm impressed with and inspired by all of the great scientific minds working to unravel this mystery!" evasterias sea star j. gaydos

Update November 17 2014

SeaDoc was among dozens of collaborators that recently published a paper linking a virus to sea star wasting disease. The paper showed that a virus was involved in the massive outbreak that, since June 2013, has killed millions of sea stars (including more than 20 different species) along the west coast of North America.Interestingly, the same virus was found in museum specimens of sea stars collected 72 years ago, suggesting that a mutation in the virus (as has been seen with closely related viruses) could have triggered the outbreak.

Work is continuing to better understand the other factors involved in this outbreak and how this massive loss of predators will reshape the marine ecosystem.

Understanding emerging threats to the health of our oceans is a key part of SeaDoc's work, and donations to SeaDoc make it possible.

Read the paper by Ian Hewson, et al.:

Earthfix covered the study, noting that this virus is different from all known viruses infecting marine organisms. (Another little-known fact: a drop of seawater contains about 10 million viruses.)

Read it: Scientists find out what's killing west coast starfish

Smithsonian Magazine also has a good article about the study and what it means.

Update October 2014

The San Juans were largely skipped by the wasting disease outbreak last fall, but this summer they were hit hard. Drew Harvell's lab at Friday Harbor Laboratories did investigations all summer long, and were able to watch as the disease swept across the archipelago. For example, the Eastsound waterfront area experienced approximately 95% wasting disease prevalence. Water temperature appears to play a large role in the disease. Researchers have also worked to identify genetic factors that appear to make it possible for some sea stars to survive the disease.Collaborators Morgan Eisenlord and Drew Harvell recently published a summary of their summer's work on sea star wasting disease in the San Juan Islands in the the Friday Harbor Labs Tide Bites newsletter.

The article is well-worth a read, and here's a video from it:

Update June 2014

Scientists are closer to having an answer to what's causing the mortality outbreak in sea stars. Drew Harvell of Cornell University and Friday Harbor Labs is working with a team that has traced the cause.

Read the latest article from KUOW's EarthFix team about the current status of the outbreak. There's also a terrific video on that page featuring Drew Harvell.

Sunflower Sea star (1)

Sea stars in various parts of the Salish Sea are experiencing a mass-mortality event. We're not sure of the cause, but we're working on it. (So are many other groups in the area.)

In October we looked for healthy and diseased sea stars during our dives for our new subtidal survey project. (See what else we found on those dives here.) During early November, we returned to two of the REEF monitoring sites from October where we saw the highest density of sea stars to see if sea star wasting disease has shown up since were were there last month. Fortunately we saw numerous sea stars and numerous species of sea stars and they all looked healthy. We will continue dives this weekend to look for more signs of disease.

Photos of diseased sea stars

Seastar expert Neil McDaniel, ( has graciously shared his photos showing the progression of the disease over a short period of a few weeks. This can give you an idea of what you're looking for. The before-and-after photos are pretty shocking. View the photos at Janna Nichols' SCUBA photo page.

Report sick and healthy sea stars

If you're a diver or a beach-walker and you see sea stars (healthy or diseased), report them at the Vancouver Aquarium's Sea Star Wasting Syndrome web page.

That page at the Vancouver Aquarium's website also has an overview of the outbreak.

Also see these media articles:

Vancouver Sun: scientists narrow in on the wasting disease (May 2014)


The Vancouver Aquarium made a time-lapse video of a sea star disintegrating. Watch it here:


Seattle Aquarium veterinarian Lesanna Lahner was interviewed on Science Friday on NPR on December 5, 2014.

Other items:

The Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission posted a blog entry about how the Puyallup Tribe is tracking sea star wastage in the South Sound.

Scientist Drew Harvell and diver Laura James wrote a blog post for the Nature Conservancy about the outbreak. In it, Harvell, who is one of the scientists doing genetic research on possible disease vectors, makes the case for better funding of scientific investigations of disease in the ocean.


Page updated on December 10, 2014

Tracking changes in underwater fish and invertebrate populations

Tracking changes in underwater fish and invertebrate populations

This month, SeaDoc kicks off a project using trained citizen scientists to help study changes in subtidal fish and invertebrate populations. This ambitious multi-year intelligence-gathering effort will use recreational SCUBA divers -- trained and certified by the REEF Environmental Education Foundation as experts in identifying fish and invertebrates -- to get a long-term view of what's happening at multiple sites in the San Juan Islands.

Lost Fishing Gear Recovery Project


Lost fishing gear is commercial and recreational fishing gear -- nets, traps, pots, line -- that becomes lost or is discarded in the water.

The gear ends up sitting on the sea floor, getting caught on rocky reefs, or floating in the water column.

The majority of this lost gear does not decompose in seawater and can remain in the marine environment for years.

Lost gear impacts the marine environment in several ways:bird in derelict net

  • it can continue to "catch" marine animals, which become entangled or trapped;
  • it can damage the habitat upon which it becomes entangled or upon which it rests;
  • it can pose an underwater hazard for boaters, entangling boat propellers and anchors;
  • and it can similarly endanger humans, especially divers.

Lost gear is also a visual blight, diminishing the natural aesthetic quality of the seafloor and rocky reef habitat for underwater enthusiasts.

Common dolphin skullSeaDoc works on derelict fishing gear in California and in the Salish Sea.


Our executive director, Kirsten Gilardi, runs the California Lost Fishing Gear Recovery Project out of the Wildlife Health Center offices at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. (Dr. Gilardi is also co-director of the Mountain Gorilla One Health Project and the Envirovet Summer Institute.)

Click here for details on the California program.

crab in netSalish Sea

SeaDoc provides technical assistance and support for derelict gear removal in the Salish Sea. We have worked closely with the Northwest Straits Commission to analyze data from recovered nets to determine the economic impact of lost gear and its removal. 

The results showed a clear return on investment for removing nets. For example, we calculated that an abandoned net might kill almost $20,000 worth of Dungeness crab over 10 years. Cost to remove? $1,358.00.

Click here to learn more about the economic impact of derelict gear.

Photos by Jen Renzullo. Video by Mike Neil.