SeaDoc in the News

Orcas High School senior class chooses SeaDoc for $2,500 donation


The senior class at Orcas High School awarded $2,500 to SeaDoc as part of the 2014 grants program of the Orcas Island Community Foundation. Each year a generous donor gives $5,000 to the graduating class at the high school for them to pass on to one or more non-profits; sort of a primer on philanthropy. The students discuss and debate which non-profits they would like to support.

We were thrilled when seniors Lindsay Lancaster and Brigid Ehrmantrout named SeaDoc to receive a $2,500 donation to recognize not only our work protecting the marine environment but also our efforts to educate people about the cutting-edge science that's being done to protect wildlife. As Joe Gaydos said to the local newspaper reporter who was there, "What an honor to have this donation, and even more importantly, this vote of confidence from tomorrow's leaders!"

Our thanks and congratulations go out to the graduating seniors!

See more in The Islands' Sounder.

Orcas Issues also covered the event:

The Celebration was capped off by the surprise announcement of the Youth Philanthropy Awards. The OISD Senior High School class was given the opportunity to distribute $5000. They researched their options, exploring their priorities and values, and debated the merits of many sectors and programs. This year, the class selected the Friends of Moran and SeaDoc, organizations that help preserve the natural environment of the island and surrounding waters. Each organization received a $2500 grant.

Intern Jacq Zier wins presentation prize at Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference


As highlighted in The Islands Sounder, SeaDoc intern Jacq Zier won first place in the undergraduate category at the Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference for her presentation on the 2013 Species of Concern in the Salish Sea paper she co-authored with Joe Gaydos.

Read the article.

You can access the 2013 Species of Concern paper for free below.

Canada, U.S. urged to unite efforts, focus on species at risk in Salish Sea

The number of species at risk has doubled over the past decade in the Salish Sea, generating calls for a special international body to co-ordinate research and conservation issues in the 17,000-square-kilometre area that includes the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the Strait of Georgia and Puget Sound.

Joe Gaydos, a wildlife veterinarian with the SeaDoc Society based in the San Juan Islands, said the latest scientific snapshot of species at risk in the Salish Sea should be a wake-up call to Canada and the U. S. to better co-ordinate their efforts. SeaDoc is a program of the University of California Davis Wildlife Health Center.

See the full article by Larry Pynn in the Vancouver Sun.

What killed orca L112?

Joe Gaydos conducting the necropsy by Sandy Buckley

Joe Gaydos conducting the necropsy by Sandy Buckley

What killed the 3-year-old killer whale that washed up in Southern Washington a couple of years ago? Joe Gaydos was one of 15 investigators who studied the whale to try to understand what happened to it. Their report was published February 25, 2014.

Joe was quoted in the Associated Press article about the report:

"This whale was killed from a blunt-force trauma, but [despite] every effort possible, we couldn't tell if it came from another ship or whale," said Joseph Gaydos, a co-author of the report and wildlife veterinarian with SeaDoc Society, a program of the Wildlife Health Center at the University of California, Davis' School of Veterinary Medicine. "The evidence doesn't support that it was a sonar episode or explosion."

See the full article by Phuong Le at the Seattle Times.

L112 Stranding Final Report

The Southern Resident Killer Whales Recovery Plan makes responding to standings of killer whales a priority. The Northwest Marine Mammal Stranding Network has nearly completed its investigation of the stranding involving southern resident L112 (Sooke) on Long Beach, Washington, February 11, 2012. Based on findings from the gross examination and the absence of conclusive histopathology or ancillary test results The Network team found that blunt force trauma was the primary consideration for the acute death of the animal. Weather and sea surface data for coastal Oregon and Washington, and drift patterns for the Columbia River plume suggested that L112 had likely been carried for some days in the Columbia River eddies or drifted from the south before being cast on Long Beach. Sonar and small underwater explosive activities were confirmed by the Royal Canadian Navy on February 4, 5, and 6, 2012 in Canadian waters off Vancouver Island and in the Strait of Juan de Fuca but no marine mammals were observed during the activities. The activities occurred too far to the north and downwind of the stranding location to be a consideration in the stranding.

You can find the final draft of the report and background documents at the NOAA website.

KUOW: Mass Starfish Die-Off May Be Headed For Washington


John Ryan of KUOW reported on the efforts in the United States and Canada to understand a starfish die-off.

“Every population has sick animals,” said SeaDoc Society wildlife veterinarian Joe Gaydos, on a boat off Orcas Island between research dives. “Are we just seeing sick animals because we’re looking for it, or is it an early sign of a large epidemic that may come through and wipe out a lot of animals?”

The timing of this news coincided with SeaDoc's first year of monitoring subtidal fish and invertebrates at 10 sites in the San Juan Islands. This project, done in conjunction with REEF and Friday Harbor Labs, is a multi-year study to track understudied populations in the Salish Sea. It's exactly the kind of effort that's needed if we're to have the right data to understand mortality events like these.

Gaydos cautions, "Despite the headline, we're not certain that a mortality event is heading into Washington State. During our 120 dives we saw many more healthy animals than sick ones. We collected samples and they will be tested microscopically and for infectious agents and a parasites."

Read the complete text or listen to the piece as broadcast:

Evasterias troschelii (sick)

Also see this article on featuring the work of the Seattle Aquarium: Biologists search for cause of sea star deaths.

Joe Gaydos was also interviewed for an article on KVAL in Eugene, OR.

Older news items

These news items are from before October of 2013.

Habitat protection proposed for endangered rockfish in Puget Sound
Kitsap Sun, August 6, 2013

Nearly 1,200 square miles of Puget Sound has been proposed as critical habitat for three endangered species of rockfish. Joe Gaydos is quoted as saying, "It is a joy to see [proposals like this] coming out because it means we are moving forward." He added, "To have both the federal and state groups working on this collaboratively is itself a small success story, because we don't always see things go this smoothly."

Harbor porpoises now a common sight in Puget Sound
Seattle Times, July 8, 2013

According to the SeaDoc Society’s Joe Gaydos, harbor porpoises are one of the few cetaceans that are a resident of the Salish Sea year round. A decline in gill-net fisheries and increased cleanup of industrial pollution may be a factor in their recovery. As the population has risen, so have strandings. “Is that just because the population is increasing?” Gaydos asks in the Times piece. “Or is there something else going on? If they are dying of something and we are missing it, that is really serious. And we don’t have enough data to tell us that.”

Starting up the Harbor Seal pupping season
Islands Sounder, June 24, 2013

Our summer interns contributed an article on stranded harbor seal pups and the work of the Marine Mammal Stranding Network to the local paper on Orcas. Also in the San Juan Islander.

Killer Whale strandings reveal much about health of species
Vancouver Sun, June 7, 2013

Larry Pynn covered our paper on Killer Whale strandings. Also covered on, NewsPoint Africa, Huffington Post Canada, Nature World News,, Yahoo! Canada News,, Victoria Times Colonist, The Province, Leader Post, Truro Daily News, Journal Pioneer, e! Science News, Bright Surf, Science Codex, Alaska Native News, Science Blog, the Globe and Mail,, and others. Joe Gaydos was interviewed on

Vanquishing zombie fishing nets in Puget Sound
EarthFix, May 21, 2013

Ashley Ahearn reported on the Northwest Straits Foundation's efforts to remove derelict fishing gear from the Salish Sea. The article referenced the SeaDoc Society's work to analyze how much revenue is lost from bycatch in derelict nets.

Saving sea lions in distress goal of workshop at Vancouver Aquarium
Times Colonist, May 21, 2013

Judith LaVoie covered a sea lion disentanglement workshop that SeaDoc participated in. The article featured quotes from Vancouver Aquarium veterinarian Marty Haulena, who serves on the SeaDoc science advisory board.

The mysterious decline of Puget Sound herring
Crosscut, March 27, 2013

Lisa Stiffler writes about the importance of herring to the Puget Sound ecosystem. Joe Gaydos quoted on the connection between declines in Western grebe populations and Cherry Point herring stocks.

Joe Gaydos interviewed on Good Morning America about killer whales trapped in ice
Good Morning America, January 10, 2013

When a group of 11 killer whales were trapped in the ice in northern Canada, Good Morning America called Joe Gaydos by Skype for comments. (After the whales got to freedom, GMA released a revised video that no longer features Joe, but his quotes are still in the body of the article.)

Rehabilitated seals exhibit wanderlust: Transmitters on wild specimens show they tend to stick closer to home
Vancouver Sun, December 30, 2012

Larry Pynn of the Vancouver Sun wrote about SeaDoc's study of 10 wild and 10 rehabilitated harbor seal pups. The study showed significant differences between the two cohorts. Pynn also discussed a separate study of rehabilitated seals undertaken by the Vancouver Aquarium.

Human Values Count in Puget Sound Recovery
Kitsap Sun, November 24, 2012

Christopher Dunagan of the Kitsap Sun wrote about the importance of indicators of human health and well-being in the work of the Puget Sound Partnership. Joe Gaydos, as chair of the PSP's Science Panel, is quoted discussing the importance of setting up indicators that track the underlying health of the sound, such as plankton biomass. (Joe's comments are at the bottom of the article)

Massive Octopus Among the Wonders of the Salish Sea
Everett Herald, October 14, 2012

Sharon Wootton of the Herald wrote about octopuses, anemones, and other extraordinary animals of the Salish Sea, with extensive quotes of Joe Gaydos.

Achievement of grand proportions
Islands Sounder, August 22, 2012

The Sounder marked the 1,001st spay/neuter performed by Dr. Joe Gaydos at the Orcas Animal Shelter since he started working there in 2003. Joe does one 3-hour shift a week, most weeks. The article also highlighted SeaDoc's summer interns, Christine and Karisa, who have also assisted at the shelter this summer.

Mapping the Underwater Wonderland of the Salish Sea
Seattle Times, July 25, 2012

Lynda Mapes of the Seattle Times wrote about SeaDoc's underwater habitat mapping lab.

Stranded Seal Pups are Being Tagged, Monitored
Islands Sounder, July 16, 2012

SeaDoc interns Karisa Tang and Christine Parker were featured in a story about seal pup stranding. This year the rescued pups are being tagged with little hat tags in addition to flipper tags for easier identification from a distance. The tags are glued onto the pups' hair and will fall off when the pups molt.

Defenders of the Salish Sea
UC Davis Magazine, July 2012

The UC Davis alumni magazine recently featured SeaDoc in a piece titled "Defenders of the Salish Sea." The article succinctly tells the story of SeaDoc and has generated a bunch of interest in SeaDoc from UC Davis alumni in Washington State and around the world. Check it out for yourself or email it to a friend.

Looking for Kinks in the Food Web
Kitsap Sun, June 17, 2012

Christopher Dunagan wrote a detailed piece about the importance of forage fish and research into the shoreline processes that enable them to thrive. He quotes Joe Gaydos, ""We are just starting to make the bridges between shoreline processes and the impacts on marine life," Gaydos said. "Are salmon going to have enough food as time goes on? There is a lot for us to learn.""

What Killed Orca Victoria? Some Point to Naval Tests
NPR All Things Considered, May 16, 2012

Earthfix's Ashley Ahearn reported for NPR on the investigation into L112's death. (Just to be clear, Joe Gaydos is not suggesting Navy involvement at this time.)

Report Inconclusive on What Killed Orca L112
EarthFix/KUOW, May 15, 2012

Earthfix's Ashley Ahearn interviewed Joe Gaydos for a story on the investigation. The story, titled "Report Inconclusive on What Killed Orca L112" quotes Joe acknowledging that it's challenging for everyone that they can't yet pinpoint a cause of death.

Puget Sound Science Panel completes two-year plan
Kitsap Sun, May 4, 2012

Christopher Dunagan interviewed Joe Gaydos in his role as chair of the Puget Sound Partnership Science Panel. “We want to know everything, of course,” chairman Joe Gaydos told me. “But just because there’s a gap in our knowledge does not mean we should go out and do a study. The real question is, where does the lack of science hinder our ability to make decisions? We’re not just doing science for science’s sake but to help us make better decisions.”

Coastal Waterbirds in B.C. Slipping Away
Vancouver Sun, April 19, 2012

Reporter Larry Pynn wrote about the declines in marine bird species, and referred to SeaDoc's ongoing marine bird study by Nacho Vilchis.

Marine Mammals Coming Back
Vancouver Sun, April 19, 2012

Reporter Larry Pynn tracked the recovery of many marine mammal species, and balanced it against species that are not recovering well. Pynn referred to the SeaDoc study of Species of Concern that found 113 species that were listed or candidates for listing as threatened or endangered.

Experts sleuth out what killed Puget Sound orca
Huffington Post via Associated Press, April 12, 2012

"Joe Gaydos, a wildlife veterinarian with SeaDoc Society who has been working with a team of experts to understand what killed the whale, said they're considering all possible scenarios, including a strike from another animal, sonar activity, an explosion and other possibilities.

'Right now everything is on the table,' he said, adding that 'as scientists, we have to weigh all the evidence before we come to a conclusion.'

Gaydos and a team of biologists dissected the orca's head and examined the skull and brain during a necropsy last month. They found no fractures of the skull or jaw, indicating that the trauma or the force was dispersed over a larger area and not likely caused by a boat strike. They also found hemorrhaging and bleeding in the back of the orca's head.

'When something is shaken up, you'll have trauma at multiple locations,' Gaydos said."

Keynote address at Sound Waters examines impact of marine science
South Whidbey Record, January 24, 2012

"Gaydos will explain how science is not a panacea, but it can and does play an important role in efforts to design a healthy ecosystem. The presentation will examine the merits and limitations of science while proposing realistic options for citizens to participate in, understand and use science as efforts continue to improve the health of the Salish Sea."

UC Davis Veterinarian Elected Chair of Science Panel for Major Ecosystem Restoration Effort
Good News For Pets, January 7, 2012

Also published at

SeaDoc's Western Grebe tracking project covered in Argos Forum magazine
Argos Forum #73, December 2011

Kyra Mills-Parker of the Oiled Wildlife Care Network at UC Davis covered the Western Grebe transmitter project in an article entitled, Oil and Seabirds Don't Mix: New Techniques for Tracking Western Grebes After Oil Spills. Download the PDF. Here's the link to the publication of the surgical technique: Short-term survival and effects of transmitter implantation into Western Grebes using a modified surgical procedure.

SeaDoc Society director Joe Gaydos elected chair of Puget Sound Partnership Science Panel
Islands Sounder, December 20, 2011

SeaDoc Society regional director Joe Gaydos has been elected Chair of the Science Panel of the Puget Sound Partnership, the Washington State agency charged with restoring Puget Sound by 2020.

Salish Sea pH is dropping as carbon dioxide levels rise
Islands Sounder, December 5, 2011

The Sounder covered research into ocean acidification funded by the SeaDoc Society. Meredith Griffin's article explains what this research means and how to understand it. She quotes SeaDoc scientist Ignacio Vilchis: "What long-term effects in response to these drops in pH mean for ocean life is the million dollar question, but we are certain that some shelled organisms are going to be affected."

Abalone Research
Islands Sounder, Nov. 25, 2011.

The Islands Sounder covered the publication of abalone research funded by SeaDoc.

Derelict Gear in California
San Jose Mercury News, Oct 31, 2011.

SeaDoc executive director Kirsten Gilardi was quoted in a Mercury News article about derelict fishing gear in Monterey Bay.

"We've seen a lot of beautiful rocky reef habitat covered in nets. They essentially smother the reefs," said veterinarian Kirsten Gilardi, associate director of the Wildlife Health Center at UC Davis. "They just drape over the reef like big bags," she said. "The kind of animals that are supposed to live there can't. The things that fish feed on can't grow. We've even found tires and old toilets dumped on a reef a couple of miles offshore off Malibu."  

In 2007 and 2008, UC Davis researchers removed more than 1 million feet of fishing line and thousands of hooks from the waters around 15 piers between Santa Cruz and Imperial Beach. They also left recycling containers for old plastic fishing line on the piers, but grants to do more cleanup work ran out.

So far, researchers have found that Monterey Bay contains far less debris than waters off Southern California and nearshore waters around piers. In Southern California and other places, the gear actually continues to catch fish, lobsters, crabs and other species, a practice known as "ghost fishing."

Species of Concern Almost Double

The 2011 Species of Concern paper written by Joe Gaydos and Nick Brown, and presented by Brown at the Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference, showed that the total number of species of concern has jumped from 64 in 2008 to 113 by January of 2011. The story was picked up by the Associated Press (by environmental reporter Phuong Le) and reprinted widely in outlets like the Seattle Times, Bellingham Herald, Kitsap Sun, several local television channels

Other publications on this topic include Meredith Griffin's piece in the Islands Sounder, and Curtis Cartier's piece in the Seattle Weekly, where he quoted Joe Gaydos: "Still, Gaydos says that economics is a crucial point to remember when thinking about the importance of species preservation. 'Wildlife watching employs about 21,000 people in Washington state,' he says, citing Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife numbers. 'That might not be more than Boeing, but it's more than Microsoft.'"

Elk at Mount St. Helens
Oregon Public Broadcasting, October 2011

Joe Gaydos was the support vet for some of the elk operations featured in this video and appears a couple of times. Note: this work is not funded by SeaDoc and Joe's time was paid for by the agencies involved. Video here.

SeaDoc interns monitor elephant seal stranded at West Beach
Islands Sounder, August 30, 2011

SeaDoc's summer internship program was featured in an article in the Islands Sounder by Meredith Griffin. The article covered the interns' response to a possible stranding of an immature male elephant seal. In addition to responding to marine mammal strandings as part of the Marine Mammal Stranding Network, the interns, who are third-year veterinary students, also do weekly necropsies on dead mammals. 

Born to be wild: Rehabbed and wild seal pups behave differently
Seattle Times, August 3, 2011

Lynda Mapes wrote about preliminary results from SeaDoc's tracking study of wild-weaned and rehabilitated harbor seal pups. 

"We were blown away," said Joe Gaydos of the SeaDoc Society, a non-profit research and conservation society based on Orcas Island. "It was pretty dramatic, we were amazed to see that those guys don't behave like wild seals."

"It is as if you had a group of people go out for a walk, and half of them go too far. Why?" Gaydos said. The researchers' hypothesis is that the rehab seals missed out on three or four weeks of instruction from their mothers, in which they would have leaned how to hunt by watching her, even though they would have still been nursing.

Barnacle-nibbling bears: New Salish Sea checklist links land & sea
Seattle Times, July 5, 2011

Joe Gaydos and SeaDoc were featured in an article by Sandi Doughton on the Field Notes blog.

"If you want to restore an ecosystem, it's really important to know what is there, or what has been there historically," said Joe Gaydos, SeaDoc's Orcas Island-based regional director.

Salish Sea Change
Canadian Geographic, June 2011

Joe Gaydos provided background for an article by Isabelle Groc on how the name change from the Puget Sound/Georgia Basin area to the Salish Sea is important for conservation efforts.

Puget Sound Partnership steadfast in science-based solutions to environmental threats
Kitsap Sun, February 5, 2011

Christopher Dunagan wrote about the Puget Sound Partnership and quoted Joe Gaydos extensively on the role of the Science Panel.

Since its inception, the partnership has struggled with what it means to restore Puget Sound to health by the year 2020 — a goal promoted by Gov. Chris Gregoire. Many people wanted the Science Panel to provide the answer.

But there is no single answer, said Joe Gaydos, a veterinarian with the SeaDoc Society who serves as vice chairman on the Science Panel.

"There are degrees of health, as it is with people," he said. "For some people, that means being able to run a four-hour marathon. For others, it means walking down and getting the mail. As scientists, we can tell you that if you want to run a four-hour marathon, you need to do this and this and this. If you want to get the mail, you have to do this."

A child may like killer whales and wish there would be 500 of them in Puget Sound, he said, but scientists can tell from the number of females and their reproductive capacity whether that is possible. Science can help identify factors, such as food and habitat, needed to reach ecological goals.

What will it take to restore salmon populations? What creatures would be helped by restoring an extra three miles of eelgrass or removing dams or dikes? Given budget limitations, the questions need to be carefully considered, Gaydos said, and that takes a partnership between scientists and policymakers.

Baby seals saved, returned to wild — then what? Scientists now track them
Seattle Times, October 25, 2010

Linda Mapes wrote about rehabilitation efforts for stranded and abandoned harbor seal pups, and the study, run by SeaDoc with funding from the National Marine Fisheries Service, that aims to find out whether rehabilitation efforts are successful. 

Joe Gaydos is quoted discussing the role that abandoned pups might play in the ecosystem. "They have big eyes and big whiskers, and they are cute," said Joe Gaydos, regional director and chief scientist for the SeaDoc Society, a nonprofit science and conservation group that is leading the study. Nobody, he noted, has much appreciation for the predators [the seal pup] might feed, if left to die on the beach. "We don't remember that they are supposed to feed some eagle's baby, or some crabs."

State board adds Salish Sea to region's watery lexicon
Seattle Times, October 31, 2009

Lynda Mapes wrote about the approval of the "Salish Sea" as a name for the inland waters of Washington State by the Washington State Board on Geographic Names. (Approval for this also came shortly afterward from the US Board of Geographic Names and its counterpart in Canada.) 

Mapes wrote: Advocates of the name celebrated Friday. "It's an ecological victory," said Joe Gaydos, chief scientist for the SeaDoc Society, a nonprofit marine-science group that has used the name for years. "We talk about place-based conservation, but how do you do that without a name for the place or a sense of place? The border doesn't mean anything for the killer whales and the Pacific salmon that cross it every day."

Beyond Puget Sound: Ten ideas for saving the Salish Sea
Seattle Times, March 26, 2009

In a guest column for the Seattle Times, Joe Gaydos wrote about the solid foundation of ecological principles that can be used for designing a healthy ecosystem. (It's a great introduction to the underlying philosophy of the SeaDoc Society.)

Puget Sound Research Conference Begins Monday
Kitsap Sun, February 8, 2009

Christopher Dunagan's article highlights the Salish Sea Science Prize, awarded in 2009 to Ken Balcomb, who pioneered the photo identification of killer whales. The population information from Balcomb's annual census "has proved invaluable in understanding orca longevity and the effects of disease and toxic chemicals on the population, said Joe Gaydos, regional director of the SeaDoc Society. The census was the basis of an analysis that led to the listing of the killer whales as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. "Ken's life work has been scientifically rigorous and has fundamentally changed the way we think about killer whales and marine wildlife," Gaydos said. "He really epitomizes the intent of the award.""

Scientists Discuss Salmon Runs in Wake of Orca Deaths
Kitsap Sun, November 18, 2008

Christopher Dunagan covered the "strategic convening" moderated by Joe Gaydos to bring together fisheries and marine mammal biologists, oceanographers, toxicologists and behavior biologists to discuss the deaths of 7 killer whales in 2008.

"I think what surprised me the most," said Gaydos, "is that there are so many good things going on in the realm of salmon recovery." It was equally surprising to some, he said, to hear about the major efforts going into understanding killer whales and their vulnerabilities. It seems that the orcas do better when salmon runs are abundant, Gaydos said, but to say the animals starved to death is not yet supported by the data. "Vessel traffic and noise, contaminants and other factors are probably all playing a role," he said. Some salmon runs are up this year and some are down, Gaydos said. The big question is whether the fish are plentiful when the whales need them. For example, lactating females require more than twice the normal energy to feed their calves. One big question is whether the orcas are getting enough food in the winter when they spend more time in the Pacific Ocean. The animals range from British Columbia to California, but they could be using up their last energy reserves if they can't find enough food along the way. L pod, which seems to range farther than J or K pods, seems to be having the most trouble recently, Gaydos said.

Dead Orca Calf Could Provide Answers
Kitsap Sun, August 5, 2008

Christopher Dunagan's article describes the stillborn orca calf found on Henry Island and the information about the animal's toxic burden that might be gleaned from a forthcoming necropsy.

Planning Could Save More Birds Caught in Oil Spills
Kitsap Sun, March 29, 2008

After the Nov 2007 Cosco Busan spill in San Francisco Bay, Washington State rushed to improve its planning for oil spill response. Christopher Dunagan quoted Joe Gaydos: "In San Francisco, they were prepared," said Joe Gaydos, a veterinarian and regional director of the SeaDoc Society on Orcas Island. "They have been working on this for many years, and it kind of brought the message home."

Grebe Experiment on Road to Success
March 22, 2007

Christopher Dunagan wrote about surgical procedures developed with Western grebes from the Kitsap Peninsula that could help save the species. Joe Gaydos is quoted extensively. (Note: future work with the same surgical technique made possible the 2010/2011 grebe tracking study by SeaDoc.) Also see: Solving the Mystery of the Missing Birds, a March 5, 2007 article by Dunagan about the capture of the Western grebes. 

Defenders of the Salish Sea

This story first appeared in UC Davis Magazine, Volume 29 · Number 4 · Summer 2012

At a UC Davis outpost in the Pacific Northwest, wildlife veterinarians work to heal an ocean.

seadoc staffEASTSOUND, Wash. — "Watch out for the otter scat," warns UC Davis wildlife veterinarian Joe Gaydos, as he points to several tidy pink-crustacean-tinged piles on a dock. A glance over the edge of the dock reveals a world of anemones and algae swaying in the incoming tide. And overhead, a pair of courting bald eagles circles above the cedars in a gray February sky.

These stunning views — on shore, under water and in the air — offer glimpses of the expansive "laboratory" of the SeaDoc Society, an outpost of the UC Davis Wildlife Health Center on Orcas Island, the largest of Washington state's San Juan Islands. Through science and education, SeaDoc is working to protect the health of marine wildlife and their ecosystems 700 miles north of Davis in the Salish Sea. One of the world's largest inland seas, it covers more than 10,500 square miles, encompassing Washington's Puget Sound, the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the San Juan Islands, as well as British Columbia's Gulf Islands and the Strait of Georgia.

"The Salish Sea is one of the most amazing places on Earth and people who live here want to pass on a healthy ecosystem to future generations," says Gaydos. "SeaDoc's work is to make sure there will still be amazing wildlife, abundant fish and shellfish to eat and clean water for people and for wildlife far into the future."

The waters and shores of the Salish Sea are the shared home of 37 species of mammals, 172 species of birds, 247 species of fish, more than 3,000 species of invertebrates and nearly 6 million people. This lush ecosystem includes killer whales, bald eagles, Pacific salmon, abalone, crabs and clams. Indeed, the species count is one example of SeaDoc's work here — a report that Gaydos co-authored in 2011 included the first compilation of birds and mammals that depend on the Salish Sea.

But a growing number of those species are in decline — another SeaDoc finding. Since 2002, SeaDoc has tracked the overall number of wildlife species that are listed as threatened or endangered in the Salish Sea; from 2008 to 2011, that number nearly doubled, from 64 to 113.

A powerful partnership

How and why the UC Davis Wildlife Health Center established the SeaDoc Society so far from campus is a testament to the center's reputation as well as a local couple's commitment to restoring the health of the Salish Sea.

In the late 1990s, philanthropists Ron and Kathy McDowell of the San Juan Islands began looking for an institutional partner with the right credentials — high-caliber academics and a good history of working on ecosystem-level problems — to study and enhance the health of the Salish Sea. Impressed with the School of Veterinary Medicine's talented faculty and its Wildlife Health Center's applied, problem-solving approach to conservation and health, the McDowells considered the school a perfect partner for developing a new program — one that would apply the veterinarian's patient-oriented skills, not on individual animals, but on the whole ecosystem.

Then-Dean Bennie Osburn reasoned that if the veterinary school could run programs in Africa, it certainly could run one in Washington state. Osburn tapped the Wildlife Health Center for the program. Veterinarian Kirsten Gilardi was named director; Gaydos, a veterinarian specializing in medical microbiology and wildlife diseases then working at the University of Georgia, was brought on as regional director and chief scientist.

Gilardi and Gaydos quickly established what today has evolved into a unique marine ecosystem health program — one that combines new research into critical questions about the management of the Salish Sea, science translation that ensures that the information is getting into the hands of policymakers and the public, and the close involvement of citizens providing input and support. The SeaDoc Society recently celebrated its 10th birthday, and in this short time has become a key player in marine conservation in the Salish Sea.

"To me, the most interesting thing about SeaDoc is the fact that it's a private/public partnership," says Gary Davis, chair of SeaDoc's board of directors and a former senior scientist with the National Park Service. "It's a small group of citizens interested in collectively doing something to improve the environment. It's a powerful combination when supported by an institution like the University of California, particularly the Wildlife Health Center and the School of Veterinary Medicine. It means you can do things in a different way."

With just five employees at the Orcas Island headquarters, and a shoestring annual budget of about $500,000, SeaDoc depends on citizens' involvement, Gilardi says. "SeaDoc is largely funded by private gifts and most of our donors are local, so they feel incredibly connected to — and partly and rightfully responsible for — the success of SeaDoc's work in the Salish Sea," she says. "It's what makes SeaDoc unique: the university working hand-in-hand with concerned citizens to get essential science done that conserves wildlife and helps to heal the ocean."

One Sea, One Health

Even the name of the Salish Sea reflects the work of the SeaDoc Society. Formerly known as Puget Sound and Georgia Basin, the inland sea was renamed by the U.S. and Canada in 2010 in honor of the Coast Salish, the people who have inhabited the region for millennia.

"SeaDoc really pushed for adopting the new name 'Salish Sea' because it drives home the concept that this is a whole ecosystem, regardless of political boundaries," says Gaydos.

Since international borders are invisible to fish and other wildlife, the SeaDoc Society recognized that healing Washington's inland waters was going to require an approach that "treated" the inland waters as a whole entity, rather than as a sum of parts, much as a veterinarian approaches an individual patient.

This holistic view of the marine region, and the people and animals that live in it in a connected interdependence, is in keeping with the Wildlife Health Center's focus on One Health, a philosophy that recognizes that the health of the environment is essential for the health of wildlife, domestic animals and people — and vice versa.

Informing policy

SeaDoc's success in translating science is evident in the growing number of policymakers who seek its help. Groups like the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, the Washington governor's office, Washington State Legislature and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife regularly ask SeaDoc to provide the current state of science on a particular issue so that a sound management or policy decision can be made.

As Gaydos says, "Science is great because it gives us the facts that help us make good decisions and inspire people to want to care — to want to save a place."

For more than eight years, SeaDoc has hosted a winter lecture series. Gaydos, who was hired as a translational scientist, gives an average of two professional presentations a month. He also sits on a number of science panels, including the Puget Sound Partnership Science Panel, which is charged with restoring Puget Sound by 2020. Martha Kongsgaard, chair of the Puget Sound Partnership, says "SeaDoc plays a unique role in not only producing essential science, but, as importantly, in integrating that science into environmental policy."

Gaydos and his collaborators conduct research on how disease impacts wildlife populations. In addition, using privately donated funds, SeaDoc awards competitive grants to scientists to focus on the marine ecosystem or on the threatened and endangered species that live in it. Those species include the following:

River otter, northern abalone and Western grebeRiver otters Those telltale signs of otters on the dock provide evidence for a scientific study on how the predators, which eat up to 15–20 percent of their body weight in food every day, could affect salmon and rockfish populations.

Northern (pinto) abalone A number of funded studies looked at why the population of this native mollusk had not recovered, but rather declined, since Washington and British Columbia banned their recreational harvest in the 1990s. One project examined genetics, another looked at hatchery release techniques, a third studied interactions of pinto abalone with other species, and a fourth explored whether aggregating animals left in the wild helps them breed.

The results: the discovery of a subspecies that improved hatchery breeding, and a finding that hatchery young are less likely to become merely crab bait if placing in the sea is delayed until they grow to about 1 inch in diameter. These and other scientific discoveries formed the foundation for what is now an active statewide recovery program.

Western grebe A bird so aquatic that it can't even walk on land and builds floating nests, the Western grebe has declined by 95 percent over the past several decades in the Salish Sea. Although once there were flocks of 3,000 to 5,000 in Bellingham Bay, Gaydos and his colleagues now get excited when they see 50. Gaydos and collaborators have improved a surgical procedure to allow scientists to implant transmitters in these birds to track their migratory patterns and better understand their decline.

Karin Higgins (UC Davis)Killer whales Three distinct types of killer whales, or orcas (Orcinus orca), live in the Salish Sea. The most commonly encountered are the fish-eating "resident" orcas. These whales are salmon eaters, preferring Chinook, as shown in recent studies. Less commonly seen are the marine mammal-eating "transient" killer whales. Occasionally, "offshore" killer whales are spotted in the Salish Sea and are thought to be fish and shark-eaters. All three ecotypes of killer whales are state and federally listed as endangered.

Killer whales from the Salish Sea are some of the most contaminated marine mammals in the world, and pollutants are considered a factor in causing the decline of the southern resident population. The Salish Sea has very high levels of legacy PCBs, chemicals once widely used in manufacturing electrical equipment and a variety other products. SeaDoc has ensured critical research to look at contaminants in salmon and how they affect the killer whales that eat them. SeaDoc has also conducted research examining the role of disease in the declining killer whale population.

On the other hand, one species that is doing well is the harbor seal, and its story is a testament to what can be done when species-appropriate action is taken. In 1972, following studies that had shown a precipitous decline in the harbor seal population, the U.S. passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which has enabled the Salish Sea's population of harbor seals to bounce back and stabilize, from about 2,000 to around 12,000 animals. The Salish Sea population is now one of the most dense harbor seal populations found anywhere in the world. Stories like this can move the public to advocate for measures that will give other species a chance.

Far-reaching impacts

SeaDoc's ability to assess the ocean's ills, diagnose ecosystem health ailments and propose solutions or cures for them has resonated well beyond the Salish Sea. The group also sponsors research along the California and Baja California coasts and coordinates a West Coast program to clean up derelict fishing gear, which kills marine life.

That's not to say there aren't frustrations for the SeaDoc team. "Sometimes it does get hard. You get frustrated that recovery isn't moving fast enough or worried that we're not raising more money," Gaydos says, "because we know the amount of work that still has to be done.

"But one good part of my job is that I get to see all the good work that is happening — on salmon and killer whale recovery, on restoring estuaries. So, we're making progress, and a lot of people really do recognize the importance of SeaDoc's work. That's hugely gratifying."


Alison Kent is publications coordinator for the Wildlife Health Center.