Past Projects

Canadian / US failure of collaboration puts Salish Sea at risk

“We need to deal with the impacts of new energy projects at the level of the ecosystem, not just project to project," says wildlife veterinarian Dr. Joe Gaydos, lead author of a new paper analyzing the combined threats posed by six fossil fuel transportation projects in the Salish Sea.

The new study by SeaDoc and the Swinomish Tribe was recently published in the international journal PLoS ONE.

What did they find? Canada and the US need to do a better job collaborating on Salish Sea issues.

The study evaluated the threats posed by each project to 50 species that are important to the Coast Salish people. These include endangered humpback and killer whales, and key food species including seaducks, salmon, clams, and Dungeness crabs.

Gaydos says, “When you look at these projects cumulatively, they have a high possibility of affecting the Coast Salish and everybody else. The environmental impact statements aren’t looking at the threats collectively.”

Although the Salish Sea is an integrated ecosystem, it is shared by Washington, British Columbia, and indigenous Coast Salish governments. When US and Canadian governmental bodies evaluate proposed developments, they rarely take into account projects occurring outside of their jurisdictions.

Coast Salish have long looked at the ecosystem as a whole. “We walk as one with our resources, as they are the spirit within us,” said First Nation Summit Co-Chair and Chemainus First Nation member Ray Harris. “Each day is a blessing when we see our scientists and traditional knowledge teachers sharing and incorporating one another’s information. We see the removal of barriers happening all over the Salish Sea, and this respect of one another allows us to take care of this beautiful place we all call home.”

Rectifying the problem

A solution is within reach. Brian Cladoosby, Swinomish Chairman, says, “For more than 150 years, we have lived with the destruction of our resources and environment by a pollution-based economy. It is time for a change, and this can only happen if we work together.”

This study makes it clear that managers need to establish a mechanism for addressing transboundary threats.

Transboundary ecosystems like the Salish Sea, which exist around the world, are vulnerable to cumulative pressures when there is no mechanism for collaborative decision-making.

In the Salish Sea, there is no governing body that requires multiple proposed projects be evaluated for their cumulative impact. As noted in the paper, “This is a failure in coastal ecosystem management that stands to have a direct impact on the Coast Salish and likely on most of the 7 million other people that also depend on this ecosystem.”

Six years ago the Salish Sea was named. It is now time for the governing bodies responsible for the Salish Sea to create an effective system for evaluating threats across the entire ecosystem.

Read the full study at PLoS ONE.

News coverage is here.

For more background, see an article by Lynda Mapes at the Seattle Times, Northwest tribes unite against giant coal, oil projects.



Banner photo: bulk carrier and killer whales share the Strait of Juan de Fuca southeast of Victoria, British Columbia. Photo courtesy of Jim Maya, Maya’s Images.

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

Eelgrass disease study investigates vulnerability to Labyrinthula

Eelgrass (Zostera marina) plays a key role in the health of the Salish Sea ecosystem. It stabilizes sediments, reduces the impact of wave action, provides habitat, and is an important nursery and foraging area for multiple species, some of which are endangered. SeaDoc's involvement in eelgrass issues goes back to 2003, when we convened a meeting of eelgrass experts, resource managers, and land-use specialists to analyze the sudden disappearance of 35 acres of eelgrass in San Juan Island's Westcott Bay.

Eelgrass can be damaged by pollutants, by shading from docks and structures, and by physical damage from improper anchoring or badly placed moorings. It's also susceptible to disease, particularly from a slime mold-like organism called Labyrinthula zosterae. And it’s no small threat. This disease wiped out 90% of the eelgrass along the Atlantic coasts of North America and Europe in the 1930s.

We know that the organism is found in the Salish Sea, but the mere presence of a pathogen does not always mean disease. So what are the other factors? A recent publication by Maya Groner and numerous colleagues (supported in part by SeaDoc) used field surveys and experimental manipulations to find out how the age of eelgrass leaves impacts disease prevalence.

The upshot: mature beds and shallow eelgrass beds could be especially susceptible to outbreaks of wasting disease.

View the publication here.



Banner photo from NOAA Photo Library via Flickr.

Surf Smelt Recreational Harvest Study

Surf Smelt Recreational Harvest Study

SeaDoc is funding a creel survey project to determine the size of the recreational harvest of Surf Smelt.

Why not just have anglers report their catch like we do with salmon and crab?

Strangely enough, Surf Smelt is the one marine fish that you DON'T need a state fishing license to catch.

As one of our very important forage fishes, smelt have a critical place in the Salish Sea food web. Knowing the recreational catch is important so we can determine if harvest is impacting smelt populations or the other fish, birds and mammals that depend on smelt for food.

A creel survey is pretty straightforward: staff from the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife go out to popular fishing spots, interview smelt anglers and examine their harvest to find out how much they cought. Joe Gaydos reports, anecdotally, that most of the people he chatted with were happy to talk to him, already had fishing licenses, and used their catch for food.

Want to learn see pictures and video of the smelt harvest or learn more about forage fish issues? Read on!

Learn more about SeaDoc's work on forage fish at the following pages:

Video (11 seconds; opens in new window):


Alternate link:


smelt fishing

smelt fishing




smelt fishing

All video and photos by J. Gaydos.

Hide and Seek Seabirds

Hide and Seek Seabirds

Marine birds are important sentinel species for ecological conditions and to track them, scientists often count the birds at the breeding colonies, which tells us the number of adults trying to breed. But for seabirds that nest in burrows like Rhinoceros Auklets and Tufted Puffins, it's hard to know how big the colony is because the birds, eggs, and chicks can be 15 feet down underground.

Salish Sea Marine Bird Project

Peer-reviewed publication:

Vilchis, L. I. C. K. Johnson, J. R. Evenson, S. F. Pearson, K. L. Barry, P. Davidson, M. G. Raphael, and J. K. Gaydos. 2014. Assessing Ecological Correlates of Marine Bird Declines to Inform Marine Conservation. Conservation Biology. doi: 10.1111/cobi.12378. (Open access publication)

Where have all the birds gone?

The last 30 years have seen precipitous declines in many of the bird species that visit the Salish Sea during the winter.

Bird Studies Canada seabird survey

Using various tools, private money and strategic collaborations, SeaDoc made a substantial investment to understand the problem of declining marine birds. We recently completed research demonstrating that diving birds that eat schooling forage fish are the species most likely to be in decline.

Salish sea map

Tackling such a big issue is not easy. Understanding how we worked through this issue gives you a good idea of how SeaDoc can address what might seem to be insurmountable obstacles to healing the Salish Sea. It also shows you how private support makes our work possible.

Step 1: Identify the information gap

In 2005, SeaDoc brought researchers and managers from the US and Canada together to talk about the state of marine bird populations in the Salish Sea. It became clear that we were facing a big problem. Birds were declining in different jurisdictions, but it wasn’t clear how steep the declines were, which species were involved or what factors were behind these declines.

Because no one took a big-picture approach, bird restoration efforts were focused on one species at a time. But was there something going on at the ecosystem level causing multiple species to be declining?

We realized we needed an ecosystem-level look at which species were in decline and why.

Step 2. Get around transboundary roadblocks

Decades worth of data had been collected in Washington and British Columbia by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), Audubon, and Bird Studies Canada. But the organizations used different survey techniques and geographic scales so people had not been able to look at the data to get a perspective for the entire ecosystem.

Surf scoters and white-winged scoters are diving ducks in decline in the Salish Sea

SeaDoc was the ideal group to take on the challenge of merging these differing data sets from two different countries. State, provincial, and federal governments rarely have the time for this kind of effort. Also they have political constraints and pressures that make it hard to see past their borders.

Step 3. Hire a scientist to do the work

Collaborating with multiple groups, merging complex data sets and analyzing decades of data is a full time job for several years. Stephanie Wagner, a woman who loved the Salish Sea and its creatures, made a legacy gift to SeaDoc before she died. This gift provided the funding that allowed us to hire Dr. Nacho Vilchis to lead this important work.

Step 4. Use an epidemiological approach

Dr. Vilchis' first task was to get the data sets to “talk to each other.” WDFW conducts aerial transects from a plane. Bird Studies Canada and Audubon use point counts. Both are good techniques, but they produce surveys that are difficult to compare.

Spotters conducting an aerial survey for the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife. Photo: Joe Evenson/WDFW

Nacho, who has a background in the statistical manipulations of large data sets, found a way to combine and use the three surveys in one overall analysis. Then he trimmed the set down to just 39 core species, removing the occasional visitors and the birds for which he didn’t have enough data to draw robust conclusions.

He also used GIS maps of the Salish Sea to connect each data point not only to a geographical area but also to major habitat characteristics, such as water depth.

Drawing heavily on the “Doc” part of SeaDoc, we used an epidemiological approach to find a likely diagnosis. Just as the family doc quizzes you for risk factors for diabetes or heart disease, SeaDoc found that two lifestyle factors among seabirds correlated to a very high risk of population decline.

Step 5. Translate results into recovery

The work, published in the internationally-acclaimed peer-reviewed journal Conservation Biology, showed that birds that dive to find food are much more likely (11 times as likely) to be in decline compared to non-divers.

Surf smelt are an important  source of food for birds and other predators. Photo: J. Gaydos

But it’s worse if you’re a diver on a restricted fish diet. Diving birds that focus their efforts on small schooling fishes called forage fish were 16 times as likely to be in decline. Forage fish are small schooling fish that convert plankton into fat and are eaten by other fish, birds and mammals. These include herring, smelt, anchovies, eulachon, sardines, and sand lance.

But publishing a paper is not the end. It actually is just the beginning. This paper is now being used by scientists, managers and policy makers as evidence for the need to recover marine birds. Recovering forage fish will not just benefit birds, however. Because forage fish turn plankton into fat that’s available for other animals, they are a key part of the ecosystem and their recovery will benefit salmon, lingcod, rockfish, harbor porpoise and many other species within the Salish Sea.

Four key factors made this project successful.

1. Good data

Dr. Vilchis could not have conducted this analysis without scientists and citizens having already spent decades collecting rigorous data. The collection of these data took money, persistence, and forethought.

2. Collaboration

Photo: J. Gaydos

From the beginning, this project has been a story of collaboration. From the individuals collecting data over two decades to the senior scientists who worked out a way to share their data, it’s taken the work of many people working in different jurisdictions to make this happen. Our collaborators shared three huge datasets collected on two sides of an international border. They only did so because they were confident that SeaDoc would be able to use the data to produce robust scientific results.

3. Working on the level of the ecosystem, not the politics

This was the first study to look at bird declines across the entire Salish Sea marine ecosystem.

Most Canadian or US maps stop at the border, but the Salish Sea does not. Too often, the mandates and responsibilities of the people who work at the various state, provincial, and federal agencies tasked with keeping wildlife populations healthy also stop at the border.

View from the WDFW seabird spotting plane. Joe Evenson/WDFW

SeaDoc, being privately supported by people like you who understand how important it is to treat the ecosystem as a whole, works across the entire ecosystem.

4. An extraordinary legacy gift

In the end, one person's financial gift made this project possible.

Without Stephanie Wagner’s legacy gift, this project would have been just a good idea that never got done. Instead, we made it someone’s job to find the truth that was hidden in the data.

Stephanie Wagner’s thoughtful gift enabled us to point clearly to a hidden problem affecting the productivity of the entire Salish Sea ecosystem. With her gift we were able to do good science that will make a difference in how scientists and managers work on healing the Salish Sea.

Put plainly, money can change the world for the better.

Please contact SeaDoc or your financial advisor if you’re interested in including SeaDoc in your will so you can leave a legacy for the health of the Salish Sea.

Photo: Karen Barry/Bird Studies Canada

Alien Invaders: Invasive tunicates and shellfish aquaculture

Alien Invaders: Invasive tunicates and shellfish aquaculture

While headlines about invasive tunicates have at times reached the breathless pitch of ads for campy horror films, there was legitimate concern because invasive tunicates in other regions of North America have severely impacted the aquaculture industry. Our Pacific Northwest shellfish industry annually pumps millions of dollars into the local economy. Introduced tunicates could potentially cause ecological and financial disaster.

Bears and Barnacles: The Land - Sea Connection

bear cub eating barnacles-Jim Braswell



Why make a list of all the birds and mammals that depend on the Salish Sea? Joe Gaydos explains. (1:18)


Part 2: Why has this never been done before?


In Part 3, Joe talks about:

  • the challenges in assembling the list,
  • how it can help scientists (including SeaDoc's own Dr. Nacho Vilchis),
  • how the list indicates when and how heavily different species use the ecosystem,
  • how they tracked down citations for each and every species, and how fox and beaver have been shown to use the intertidal zones.

At about minute 4:30 Joe talks about how the tidal marsh beavers not only use the marine resources, but also contribute to the health of salmon populations. Pretty interesting stuff.

Click to see a picture of a beaver dam in the Skagit River delta.

Get the Checklist

We've created a printable checklist of all the bird and mammal species that depend on the Salish Sea.

Download a copy

You can print the checklist on two sides of a single sheet of paper and take it with you on your travels.

Read the scientific paper

Click here to go to the citation page where you can find a link to the scientific paper.

The Photographer

Big thanks to Jim Braswell for sharing his extraordinary images. Please visit Jim's nature photography site at where you can see more of his photographs and learn about his photography & photo editing workshops. 

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River Otters, Sea Otters, and Toxoplasma gondii

For several years we’ve been working to better understand what impacts the health of river otters in the Salish Sea. While the Pacific Northwest is fortunate to have a robust river otter population, more than 20 states are spending millions of dollars to bring back wild river otters.