Volume 6 of Evotis focuses on a special ecosystem called the Salish Sea, which sits at the border of the United States and Canada in the Pacific Northwest. We explore everything from the toxins, disease and underwater noise affecting local killer whale populations to the ways in which national boundaries can hinder conservation efforts. We also give a glimpse at what’s happening on the seafloor and spotlight some important people who are working to ensure the Salish Sea’s future. For future volumes, subscribe!
Many photos featured in this volume were originally published in The Salish Sea: Jewel of the Pacific Northwest.
You would be hard-pressed to find a more charismatic species in the Salish Sea than the killer whale. They are beloved by locals and tourists alike, but despite their acclaim, they are struggling amid a confluence of major obstacles. The endangered southern resident killer whale ecotype – a staple of the Salish Sea – has it especially tough.
There are three types of killer whales in the Salish Sea, and each one has a distinct diet: The transients eat marine mammals, the offshores specialize in eating sharks and the residents (both northern and southern) eat fish – typically salmon.
Unlike transient and offshore killer whales, which usually only pass through the area in search of food, southern resident killer whales generally remain in the Salish Sea from late spring through the fall. Their population has been carefully monitored for decades, and in the late 1990s it dropped by 17 percent over the span of just four years. The decline has continued, although at a less severe rate.
The SeaDoc Society has teamed up with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and other organizations to investigate why these remarkable creatures are in decline and what can be done to help them.
When considering whale health, it’s helpful to think about what makes a healthy human.
“It’s rare that we get sick when we're taking good care of ourselves,” said Dr. Joe Gaydos, Director and Chief Scientist of the SeaDoc Society, which is a program of the Karen C. Drayer Wildlife Health Center at UC Davis. “But when you're sleep-deprived and haven’t had enough of the nutritious food your body needs, you’re more likely to get sick, especially when you come into contact with someone who has a cold. Disease often works in concert with these other compromising factors.”
Such is the struggle of the southern resident killer whale: food scarcity, noise sensitivity and harmful toxins have all made killer whales more susceptible to disease.
“You really have to put everything together to understand what’s affecting these whales,” said Dr. Stephen Raverty, Director of the Marine Ecosystem Health Program in Vancouver and Veterinary Pathologist with the British Columbia Animal Health Center.
SeaDoc, along with Dr. Raverty and Dr. Judy St. Leger, a veterinary pathologist with Sea World, has developed a standardized necropsy protocol to assess how disease might play a role in the population's decline. The protocol allows researchers to efficiently gather specific information from every stranding, which is vital, because each death, however sad, is an opportunity to learn something.
Population estimates suggest that the southern resident killer whale population was as high as 200 individuals at the start of the 1900s, but it plummeted in the 1960s and 1970s when 36 southern residents were captured for marine parks. The population has fluctuated ever since.
Canada listed southern resident killer whales as endangered in 2004 and the United States followed suit in 2005, highlighting the obvious truth that conservation issues like this one transcend political boundaries.
There are three family groups of southern resident killer whales. They are identified as J, K and L pods. According to census data from the Center for Whale Research, the southern resident killer whale population is currently estimated at 81 individuals.
Exciting side note: There were 78 when we started this story, but three babies were recently born!
Frequent whale strandings have prompted scientists to look deeper into what could be making the Salish Sea a difficult environment for the whales. They are conducting cause-of-death investigations that they hope will demystify the life-threatening issues the whales are facing.
“The most striking thing we find from these necropsy examinations is that all of the elements of life – from the food these animals eat to the environment they live in – have an effect on them,” says Dr. St. Leger. “The richness of the information we can collect is both remarkable and critical.”
But despite the increase in research and conservation efforts over the past ten years, the population on the whole has continued to decline.
Southern resident killer whales eat many types of fish, but their preferred diet is Chinook salmon. Unfortunately, many populations of Chinook are endangered due to overfishing and habitat loss or degradation.
“You have one endangered species that must feed on another endangered species to survive,” said Gaydos. “That’s a big challenge. Scarcity of food definitely has an effect on the health and fitness of the whales.”
In addition to the low Chinook supply, southern resident killer whales are dealing with significant underwater noise in the Salish Sea, which makes it difficult for them to echolocate their prey.
“They live in an acoustic world,” said Gaydos. “They navigate and find food with their ears, but noise caused by boat traffic can inhibit their ability to effectively do that.”
Whales rely on special calls to communicate with other members of their pod, but the noise from vessel engines has forced them to vocalize slower and louder when the boats are nearby, just like when people speak slower and louder in a noisy room.
“The vessel traffic also diminishes their ability to detect salmon,” added Gaydos. “So not only is their food source endangered, but noise obstructs their ability to find the shrinking supply of fish that remains.”
On top of the high noise levels and low salmon availability, southern residents face yet another danger, and it might be the most challenging of the three: toxins.
“These are legacy chemicals that we’ve dumped into the ecosystem,” said Gaydos. “They are persistent chemicals, so they remain in the sea for a very long time and are having an effect on killer whales.”
Though the use of certain chemical toxins like PCBs and DDT is now illegal, chemicals remain in the water from past usage. Those chemicals can depress killer whales’ immune systems, making them more susceptible to diseases.
Washington has gone a step beyond federal law and banned some forms of flame-retardants (called PBDEs) that may pose health risks for killer whales and other marine life. While such decisions are undoubtedly good for the future, they don’t do anything about the toxins that are already in the system.
Since southern resident killer whales are at the top of the food chain, those legacy toxins accumulate in their blubber at high concentrations. The toxins also concentrate in the fat-rich milk of mothers, meaning female whales pass the chemicals on to their offspring, possibly compromising health and development from an early age.
Necropsies have revealed high levels of PCBs and DDT compounds in stranded whales. In some cases, high contaminant burdens are believed to have depressed whales' immune systems, making them more susceptible to infectious disease.
The SeaDoc Society approaches the study of killer whales the same way it approaches all other wildlife in the Salish Sea: they consider the problem as it relates to the ecosystem as a whole. The health and behaviors of animals, people and the environment are collectively weighed as Gaydos and his team work toward healing the sea.
Taking this One Health approach, SeaDoc has helped illuminate the role disease plays in killer whale deaths. A decade ago, Gaydos and his collaborators were surprised to learn that only four diseases had ever been written about in wild killer whales.
“At the same time we looked at elk, which had almost 200 diseases,” said Gaydos. “We know it’s not that killer whales don’t get diseases; it’s that we just hadn’t learned about them.”
But in the decade that followed, much has been learned. The number of known diseases in wild killer whales is growing, as is the understanding of how those diseases affect recovery. This work has spawned action that could help alleviate the struggle moving forward.
Some runs of Chinook salmon that southern residents prefer to eat are now listed as endangered, which will help prevent overfishing of the whales' primary food source. Recent regulations require that vessels stay a minimum of 200 yards away from the whales to reduce impact on their ability to communicate and find food. Banning contaminants that are known to be harmful to killer whales and other animals in the ecosystem will limit future exposure to toxins that weaken their immune systems.
In addition to those signs of progress, the standardized necropsy protocol has already led to the collection of more reliable and consistent data from killer whale deaths, which has made it easier for scientists to share their findings across organizations.
“It’s important because, when an animal dies, you want to learn as much as you can from that experience,” said Gaydos. “Information gathered from one animal’s death could prevent another animal from dying in the future.”
There are only 81 southern residents, so every single one matters.
The Salish Sea is a 17,000 square kilometer ecosystem with an arbitrarily drawn dividing line directly through its center. While that line (the United States/Canada border) is largely invisible to the naked eye, it is a serious hindrance on the conservation and study of the ecosystem as a whole. Here are some ways in which the border has made research and protection of the Salish Sea uniquely challenging and how the SeaDoc Society, which is part of the Karen C. Drayer Wildlife Health Center, is making progress in spite of that obstacle.
In Washington state they called it Puget Sound and in Canada they called it the Georgia Basin. It wasn’t until 2009 that the whole ecosystem was given an all-encompassing name: The Salish Sea. Here’s why that was a huge step.
Researchers on both sides of the border wanted to come together and talk about possible population declines in forage fish — the small fatty fish that many other animals depend on for food. But neither government could facilitate work across the border to have that meeting. So they met at a place called the Peace Arch. They even had to enter through separate doors.
Most human beings are accustomed to borders as territorial dividing lines. Most harbor porpoises, on the other hand, are not. That's a problem when trying to conduct an accurate count of the population.
Audrey DeLella Benedict is a biologist, writer and passionate advocate for the conservation of the global ocean as well as Arctic and alpine environments throughout the world. She is founder and director of Cloud Ridge Naturalists, a nonprofit natural-history educational organization that is now in its fourth decade. She is co-author of The Salish Sea: Jewel of the Pacific Northwest, which was released in Spring of 2015 and can be purchased at independent bookstores in the Pacific Northwest as well as online.
Audrey's training in geology and biology inspired a 45-year love affair with high mountains and the global ocean realm. That love affair has taken her from the Arctic to the Antarctic, as well as up and down the North and South American Cordillera.
She is currently a member of the board of the SeaDoc Society, which is a program of the Karen C. Drayer Wildlife Health Center, and served for nearly a decade as a trustee for the Colorado chapter of The Nature Conservancy, from which she received the prestigious One Conservancy Award in 2003 for her work in Ecuador.
Audrey splits her time between her home at 9,000 feet along the Colorado Front Range and her off-grid cottage on Frost Island in the San Juans.
Ever wondered about the creatures living beneath the surface of the sea?
Now you can find out what aquatic wildlife is residing in just about every nook and cranny of the San Juan Islands – all with the click of a mouse. REEF, a nonprofit based out of Florida, has been connecting divers across the globe through its online database of marine sightings.
“They are our eyes underwater,” said Joe Gaydos, chief scientist for the SeaDoc Society, which is part of the Karen C. Drayer Wildlife Health Center and has been partnering with REEF’s diving program since 2002.
With varying levels of training, the divers are able to record the fish and invertebrates they encounter. The data are organized by region and sighting frequency. While some of the local data are collected by islanders, many of the surveys are completed by visiting divers. Gaydos says the database is a great tool for gathering information as well as creating stewards of the environment within the diving community. SeaDoc intends to use the data to publish papers, report to the San Juan County Marine Resources Committee and foster community awareness.
“It is really cool that average citizens can participate, but there is also so much scientific and outreach potential,” he said.
Anyone can view the data on www.reef.org. You pick the region and there are detailed findings – including color photos – of species spotted in the San Juans. Whether it’s near Bell Island or Doe Bay or Lime Kiln, you are likely to find what is living under the water right outside your door.
Janna Nichols, based in Vancouver, Wash., is the northwest coordinator for REEF. She runs a website and teaches classes to Washington divers who are interested in being part of the program.
“The biggest stumbling block for divers is knowing how to identify species – so REEF also offers what they call ‘fishinars’ online for people to learn what to look for,” Gaydos said.
The data that divers collect are categorized by their education – level one is considered “novice” and level five is “expert.” Both deep-sea divers and snorkelers can contribute to the findings. As Gaydos says, there is marine life at all levels of the ocean. Since the program started in 1993, divers have logged 1,500 dives and 1,100 hours of survey time in the San Juans. Some of the most commonly seen fish are kelp greenlings, copper rockfish and lingcod. In the invertegrate catergory, California sea cucumbers, sunflower stars and the orange sea cucumber are the most common.
For the second year in a row, SeaDoc has invited expert-level divers to spend time in the San Juans and work with its monitoring program. Gaydos chooses 10 divers who perform 100 surveys in one week around the islands. SeaDoc pays for the boat time and housing and the divers bring their own equipment. This year, people from Canada, Oregon and California participated.
“Underwater is the hardest place to see change, but through REEF we are already seeing differences – like a decrease in the sea star population,” Gaydos said. “We used to not see black rockfish or yellowtail rockfish and now they are coming back.”
When you look down on the Salish Sea from the top of Mount Constitution on Orcas Island, the view before you is something special. But as beautiful as it may be, it only captures a fraction of what the Salish Sea has to offer. That’s because so much of the action is happening at the bottom.
“Most people aren't aware of how much is going on below the surface,” said Joe Gaydos, Chief Scientist of the SeaDoc Society, which is a program of the Karen C. Drayer Wildlife Health Center at UC Davis. “It’s important to give people that information, because it's a crucial part of the ecosystem even if it's not seen by everybody.”
Below you’ll find four habitat maps that describe the seafloor in various parts of the Salish Sea. We asked Gaydos to help highlight some cool stuff in each map below.
To use the maps below, click and drag the line back and forth to compare the satellite maps to the corresponding seafloor maps.
The seafloor maps were produced by a large collaboration including Gary Greene and John Aschoff of SeaDoc Society's Tombolo mapping laboratory. Other collaborators include the Center for Habitat Studies at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, Natural Resources Canada and the Canadian Hydrographic Service. The satellite images were provided by Kate Thomas using Esri World Imagery Layer.
There are two really cool things to point out on this map.
On the map below, pull the slider almost all the way over to the right. Along the shore of San Juan Island you will see a very narrow band of the maroon, rocky-type habitat, and then the sea floor just drops off into a very deep channel. Southern resident killer whales use this undersea “wall” to hunt salmon. They will actually use it as a barrier and will push schools of salmon up against it to make it easier to catch them. Pretty flipping cool.
It's actually the geology here that makes the west side of San Juan such a skookum spot to watch whales. The salmon come down the strait of Juan de Fuca and almost run into San Juan Island before turning north toward Canada or south toward Puget Sound. The whales are waiting there and they use the wall to help catch the salmon.
BONUS: Almost exactly between Vancouver Island on the west and San Juan on the east, there is a range of sea floor “mountains” coming up from the deep. If you look across the body of water on the surface you would assume it was just flat as a pancake. The maroon red represents the high, rocky habitat of these "seafloor mountains.” They are ideal for rockfish!
— Joe Gaydos
Pull the slider a bit to the right and check out the strip of brown. Geologists call this a “hummocky unconsolidated sediment” type of habitat. It is found at the bottom of the deep trough. The salmon actually make this turn heading northeast to return to the Fraser River. It is known locally as “turn point” off the northwest end of Stuart Island. The whales, of course, follow the salmon along that path.
This is basically the same channel and turn that oil tankers and cargo ships travel as they head to the city of Vancouver, BC. — Joe Gaydos
Take a look at the habitat surrounding Sucia Island.
The maroon color represents high-relief bedrock habitat. These are sedimentary-type rocks that have differentially eroded and provide a nice habitat for endangered rockfish and northern or pinto abalone. There is a lot of this kind of habitat around Sucia.
By comparison, if you look inside the curve of Sucia at Fossil Bay, you’ll see a blue area that represents a mud bottom habitat. There is no place for rockfish or abalone to hide here. You could look all day, but you wouldn’t find them. You’re more likely to find flatfish camouflaged on the surface of the mud seafloor in this embayment. — Joe Gaydos
Let’s talk about the sand waves on this map.
If a person was to walk across the sea floor, he/she would hike up and down huge sand dune after huge sand dune, as if they were walking the beaches of the North Carolina coast. The water movement has created these massive sand-wave fields. Scientists have learned that a small forage fish called Pacific Sand Lance love to bury themselves into this sand to escape predators. The cool thing about Sand Lance is that they convert plankton into fat and they are important prey items for other fish (like salmon and lingcod), marine birds and marine mammals. — Joe Gaydos
Passion for nature has been a part of Kathleen McDowell’s life since as long as she can remember. That’s what led her and her late husband, Ron, to dream up the concept of the SeaDoc Society and team up with the Karen C. Drayer Wildlife Health Center to make it happen in the late 1990s. Kathleen and Ron felt compelled to care for the wide array of wildlife in the Salish Sea, which had just become their new home.
Kathleen spent her childhood in New Jersey, but later lived in California before moving on to the University of Nevada, Reno, where she received her degree in Art and Design. From Nevada, Kathleen and her family relocated to the San Juan Islands, which is where she and her husband’s brainchild – the Sea Doc Society – became a reality. Since that time, SeaDoc has grown into one of the top marine research groups in the Pacific Northwest.
I spoke with Kathleen by phone this spring. We talked about the inspiration behind the SeaDoc Society, her favorite wildlife of the Salish Sea and how she feels about the future of the ecosystem.
WHAT INSPIRED YOU AND RON TO START A PROGRAM LIKE THE SEADOC SOCIETY?
I was in Nevada. I was fortunate enough to start a foundation that was dedicated to science, nature and education – the three things that I’m passionate about. Then in 1996, Ron and I were in the process of moving to the San Juan Islands. It was a place that I had been before. Ron grew up in Alaska, so he was happy to be back in that kind of environment and he would say that the San Juans were like Alaska without the mosquitoes. So it was perfect for him!
We spent a lot of time coming up here, looking around and talking to people. They would speak of the abundance of salmon, rockfish, shellfish, huge colonies of birds and the large kelp beds and eelgrass beds that are nurseries for many species. All of this was disappearing at an alarming rate and we wanted to find out why and what we could do about it. That's when we contacted UC Davis, because they have one of the finest veterinary schools in the world and they had a wildlife program.
HOW DO YOU SEE YOUR ROLE AS A LEADER OF SEADOC?
Well I'm not a scientist, so I think my role as a leader is to make a connection between science, nature and the community so that we can all learn how to thrive together. I'm sort of the connection between the science and the community.
WHAT WERE SOME OF THE CHALLENGES YOU FACED WHILE CREATING SEADOC?
Opening up communication lines between the scientists who were separately doing work. SeaDoc Society brought those scientists together and collaborated on the larger picture – and to bring that back to the community and voice those things. It looks so beautiful here that people don't think there is a problem until you start looking closer. That was the challenge.
WHAT WERE SOME OF THE REWARDING MOMENTS ONCE YOU GOT SEADOC ON ITS FEET?
Seeing that some of these endangered species are being looked at by government agencies because we've done the science to prove that they are endangered. We have provided critical information so that policy makers can make those decisions.
WHICH SEADOC PROJECTS ARE MOST IMPORTANT TO YOU FROM THE PAST 15 YEARS?
They did a huge sea bird counting that I think was fabulous because nobody else was doing that. I also think the habitat mapping we have done and will continue to do is valuable. How do you know what's under your ocean unless you map it? These are habitats where the fish and mammals around here live. They have specific needs and wants. To be able to map that and to be able to protect them is enormously important. Studying the declining species is also very important, and connecting with the community.
DO YOU HAVE ANY FAVORITE WILDLIFE SPECIES IN THE SALISH SEA?
It’s hard to pick one, but I think my favorite right now is the tufted puffin. They are a fascinating bird and we used to have huge colonies in this area. Now, there are just a few very small colonies. We've done a study saying that this is a species to watch and now the government is looking at putting them on the Endangered Species List. I am delighted that we are finally going to protect these birds. I think they are the poster child of what's happening in this area.
Editor's note: The Washington Fish & Wildlife Commission listed tufted puffins as a state endangered species at their meeting on April 10 – just weeks after our interview with Kathy. A Scientific Status Review that was funded and co-written by SeaDoc played a pivotal role in this action.
HOW HAS THE ORCAS ISLAND COMMUNITY SUPPORTED SEADOC?
They are hugely supportive and very interested in what's going on. It took a while for people to understand what we were doing, but the educational component has absolutely become one of the most important things that we do. We have an auction every year that is wonderfully supported.
WHAT DO YOU HOPE TO SEE IN SEADOC’S FUTURE?
Looking forward, we would like to expand. Relying only on Orcas Island and some of the other nearby islands is not enough to support everything that we want to do. This work is for everybody; it's not just for us on these islands. We're working hard to open up and reach out to the areas beyond the San Juan and the Salish Sea to make everybody aware of this. We're all connected.
The SeaDoc team is a dedicated group. I give them the credit for doing all of the hard work, because they do work very hard. We love them.