Current Projects

 

The SeaDoc Society funds and conducts important scientific research that helps shape future management and policy decisions in the Salish Sea. It is a crucial part of what we do, and we’re deeply thankful for the donor support that makes this work possible. Browse some of our current research projects below.

 
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Southern Resident Killer Whale Skin Disease Epidemiology

Led by Joe Gaydos, SeaDoc Society
Collaborators include the
Center for Whale Research, SeaWorld, Vancouver Aquarium, and the University of British Columbia

Biologists and whale watchers often notice skin disease on Southern Resident Killer Whales. At times they look minor, other times concerning. Working with more than 6,000 photos taken for photo identification that show signs of skin disease, this project is classifying the different types of disease syndromes and will analyze which syndromes are associated with sickness or death in animals. Ultimately this could be used as a tool to evaluate health in individual animals.

By Joe Gaydos

By Joe Gaydos

UNDERSTANDING NOVEL FUNGAL INFECTIONS IN MARINE MAMMALS

Led by Jessie Huggins at Cascadia Research Collective

What factors predispose wildlife in the Salish Sea to infection? This study will look specifically at a fungal infection called mucormycosis, which recently killed a Southern Resident Killer Whale and has killed multiple harbor porpoise.

We don’t know much about these fungi and this study will help us understand how infections are acquired, their possible sources, which animals are at risk, and how to minimize the chances of an animal getting the disease. The results will increase our ability to predict and mitigate this disease in cetaceans.

By Gerry Tomasen

By Gerry Tomasen

Killer whale electronic medical records and health index

Led by Joe Gaydos, SeaDoc Society
Collaborators include the
National Marine Mammal Foundation, NOAA Fisheries, SeaWorld, Center for Whale Research, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and many more

Detailed individual health records for killer whales not only help us understand the health of individual animals, a large database also helps to analyze trends for entire populations, compare health between populations or ecotypes, and evaluate factors that may contribute to disease.

By John Lowman

By John Lowman

Large whale disentanglement

Led by Doug Sandilans, SR3
Collaborators include
Cascadia Research Collective, NOAA Fisheries, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, SeaDoc Society, and The Whale Museum

This project surveys for and documents large whales like humpbacks and gray whales that are entangled with fishing gear. Teams are trained to thoroughly document the entanglement and remove the gear. Like with the pinniped disentanglement project, detailed data on gear type is collected so that fishing practices can ultimately be modified to prevent this problem, which is not only a serious animal welfare issue, but also a population health concern in some species.

By David Hicks

By David Hicks

Pinniped Disentanglement

Led by Martin Haulena, Vancouver Aquarium
Collaborators include the SeaDoc Society,
SR3, NOAA Fisheries, Fisheries and Oceans Canada and the Whale Museum

This project surveys for and documents sea lions and harbor seals that are entangled with human products including packing straps and fishing gear. The goal is to sedate these animals and remove the gear, while collecting detailed data on what is causing the entanglements so that these items can be modified in the future to prevent this serious animal welfare issue.

By Bob Friel

By Bob Friel

UNDERSTANDING ANTIMICROBIAL RESISTANCE IN THE SALISH SEA AND ITS WILDLIFE

Led by Peter Rabinowitz of the University of Washington Center for One Health Research

Bacteria can become resistant to antibiotics, creating a problem when trying to treat humans or animals infected with them. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria have been found in killer whales and harbor seals, but we don’t understand how antibiotic resistance moves among different inhabitants of the Salish Sea.

Are human beings doing something that is increasing the spread of antibiotic resistance? Understanding how resistance spreads will help prioritize potential intervention points and allow the development of potential solutions to reduce the burden of antibacterial resistance in the region.

By Brian Guzzetti/Alaska Stock .

By Brian Guzzetti/Alaska Stock.

Tufted Puffin winter habitat mapping

Led by Joe Gaydos, The SeaDoc Society
Collaborators include the
University of Puget Sound, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the San Diego Zoo

Tufted Puffin populations have declined 77 percent in Washington State over the last century. As a result, the puffin was recently listed as Endangered by Washington State. Their decline is poorly understood, but one concern is that they could be suffering high mortality when they go out to the open ocean during the winter. Unfortunately, we have no idea where they spend the winter, making it difficult to determine if they could be getting caught in squid gillnets or suffer other mortality factors.

We are placing small solar-powered satellite transmitters on tufted puffins to track where they go at the end of the breeding season. This will give us data on winter movement, distribution and habitat use. This information will be crucial for recovery, as it will give insights into how potential at-sea factors such as changing oceanic and climatic conditions, changes in prey availability, and acute chemical contamination may interact with wintering puffin populations.

By Madison McNutt

By Madison McNutt

INVESTIGATING DISEASES IN SEABIRDS

Led by Greg Frankfurter of the UC Davis Karen C. Drayer Wildlife Health Center

One-third of the birds that use the Salish Sea are listed as threatened or endangered. With so many bird species in decline, it is critical that we know what the important causes of death are for them.

This project is a major first step in understanding what diseases are impacting birds in the Salish Sea. We know birds are dying and many species are in decline, but what are the specific causes of death? This is the first comprehensive study of its type, and it establishes a mechanism for answering that very question.

By Ingrid Taylar

By Ingrid Taylar

Effects of the parasite Nanophyetus salmincola on steelhead health

Led by Michael Schmidt, Long Live the Kings
Collaborators include the
United States Geological Survey and UC Santa Barbara

Steelhead, a threatened species, are experiencing low survival once they migrate from rivers into the Salish Sea. One possible contributing factor could be disease caused by the parasite Nanophyetus salmincola. Using a mixture of laboratory and field experiments, this project will determine the degree that this parasite contributes to their high mortality and will show us where these parasites tend to naturally concentrate in streams. Ultimately this project will help us develop adaptive disease management strategies to mitigate the impacts of this parasite in south Sound steelhead populations.

By Cathleen Wilson

By Cathleen Wilson

EXPLORING THE EFFECTS OF OIL AND GAS PRODUCT EXPOSURE ON PACIFIC HERRING

Led by Andrew Whitehead of UC Davis Environmental Toxicology Department

How does exposure to petroleum-based chemicals during early development impact the long-term health and fitness of Pacific herring? Specifically, does it make them more susceptible to disease?

Herring are a critical part of the Salish Sea food web. They are rood for everything from salmon, lingcod, marine birds and marine mammals. Some stocks of herring are not doing well and understanding how multiple factors could play a role in these declines is important. This study will use genetic tools to understand how different genes are expressed after exposure to hydrocarbons to help us ultimately understand how multiple stressors interact with one another to impact herring survival.

By Janna Nichols

By Janna Nichols

Young of the Year Rockfish Habitat Identification

Led by Dan Tonnes, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association
Collaborators include the SeaDoc Society,
REEF Environmental Education Foundation and numerous SCUBA clubs in the region

Rockfish hold their eggs inside their body until they hatch, and then give birth to live young. But they don’t give birth every year. Instead they have what scientists like to call jackpot recruitment, which means they produce a large amount of offspring on rare occasions. This sudden and unexpected burst of young helps ensure that not all of the babies get eaten by predators.

We do not have a good understanding on when they give birth and where the new baby fish, called recruits, go to mature. This study will help us better understand the type of ocean habitats that rockfish need to grow up and ultimately will help us identify areas that we need to protect to help recover rockfish.

By Eli Wolpin

By Eli Wolpin

Annual subtidal monitoring of fish and invertebrates

Led by Janna Nichols, with REEF Environmental Education Foundation
Collaborators include the SeaDoc Society

This citizen science monitoring program uses trained SCUBA divers to collect data on the presence and abundance of fish and a big suite of marine invertebrates. It provides essential data on the decline or recovery of important species of concern like rockfish and abalone. It also helps gather data on species that are not regularly monitored, but could become scarce. For example, data from this monitoring work helped us understand which species of sea stars were susceptible to the devastating sea star wasting disease and to monitor their recovery, or in the case of the giant sunflower star, lack of recovery.

Individual divers collect data every time they go for a recreational dive. To collect annual pulses of high quality and high quantity data, every fall, a highly trained team of volunteer divers conduct 100 or more surveys in the San Juan and Gulf Islands. Data are available freely to the public online. You can join for free and contribute to this project. Snorkelers, free divers and scuba divers are all welcome to participate.

By Josh Bauma

By Josh Bauma

Modeling Northern abalone outplants needed to recover Washington's pinto abalone

Led by Josh Bauma, Puget Sound Restoration Fund
Collaborators include the
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, SeaDoc Society, NOAA, and Virginia Tech

Wild pinto abalone populations in Washington State are functionally-extinct. Despite a complete ban on harvest in 1994, abundance has declined nearly 90 percent since 1992. While early declines were the result of harvest (legal and illegal), remaining populations are just not reproducing because of their sparse density. Captive breeding is the best hope for recovering this species. This project uses extensive records of abalone survival after hatchery release to determine how many animals we’ll need to re-introduce into the environment to recover this imperiled species.

Photo by Mira Castle

Photo by Mira Castle

Eelgrass filtration of pathogens

Led by Drew Harvell, Cornell University
Collaborators include
Washington Department of Natural Resources and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

Does eelgrass filter out drug resistant bacteria that move from land to ocean? A previous study in tropical climates showed that closely related seagrasses actually filter out over half of bacteria that can cause disease in humans and marine organisms. Interestingly, they also showed that coral reefs close to these functioning seagrass meadows showed half as much disease as coral not buffered by seagrass.

This study will see if the Salish Sea’s eelgrass also can filter harmful bacteria, specifically drug-resistant bacteria that have been found in humans, birds and even killer whales. Scientifically demonstrating the value of eelgrass as a natural filter of bacteria would help increase priority for funding and protection of eelgrass beds. Eelgrass could even become part of an integrated sewage and stormwater hygiene strategy and capture overflow pollutants during high run-off periods.

Photo courtesy of Nina Bednarsek

Photo courtesy of Nina Bednarsek

Biological vulnerability of Ocean Acidification in the Salish Sea

Led by Nina Bednarsek, Southern California Coastal Water Research Project
Collaborators include the
Washington Department of Ecology

Acidification of the waters of the Salish Sea is negatively affecting marine species. This study will help us understand where and when animals that make shells (calcifiers) will be at risk from ocean acidification. Specifically, this project will identify thresholds where calcifiers are affected, unravel the relative contributions of natural versus human made carbon dioxide, and examine how land-based nutrients make ocean acidification worse. Ultimately this work will help inform management decisions related to local land-based nutrients and how we could help reduce the effects of ocean acidification.