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A large river delta in Puget Sound. Photo courtesy of Puget Sound Nearshore Ecosystem Restoration Project

The mosaic of deltas and other estuarine ecosystems in Puget Sound

The diversity and complexity of estuarine ecosystems is vital to the overall health of Puget Sound. This summary fact sheet focuses on the current state of estuarine ecosystems in Puget Sound—large river deltas, embayments, their interconnecting beaches, and rocky coasts—and the historical changes that have occurred since the development of the Puget Sound coastline. Additional emphasis is placed on the historical losses of tidal wetlands within these estuaries. 

RECENT ARTICLES

Image from report cover
3/21/2020

Social scientists analyze public reactions to orca crisis

Social scientists at Oregon State University have been analyzing a trove of more than 17,000 public comments sent to the Washington state governor's southern resident orca recovery task force. The researchers have added the comments to a keyword database to look at public emotions and perceptions around the issue of orca declines.

Ocean Outbreak" cover courtesy of University of California Press.
3/17/2020

A conversation with "Ocean Outbreak" author Drew Harvell

When Cornell University ecologist Drew Harvell wrote her book "Ocean Outbreak," she couldn't have known that 2020 would be the year of COVID-19. But even as people around the world grapple with the effects of that disease, scientists are keeping watch on potential disasters from viruses and other pathogens for species in the world's oceans. As the oceans warm due to climate change, scientists expect incidences of disease to increase in marine ecosystems including the Salish Sea. We asked Harvell about her new book and the need to address this rising challenge.

A geoduck farm near Totten Inlet between Shelton and Olympia. Photo: KBCS (CC BY 2.0) https://flic.kr/p/8gHRA8
3/13/2020

Digging the mighty geoduck: A history of Puget Sound's 'boss clam'

The geoduck has earned an honored place as Puget Sound's largest and most distinctive native clam, but how much do we really know about it? Often seen as a culinary curiosity, the geoduck has only been commercially harvested on a large scale since the 1970s, and the clam's current popularity is based mostly on demand from Asian markets. Nevertheless, this deep-burrowing mollusk has always been a signature part of the Salish Sea ecosystem. 

Researchers led by veterinarian Pete Schroeder capture the breath of orcas in a search for pathogenic organisms from 2007 to 2009. // Photo courtesy of Pete Schroeder
3/10/2020

Virus related to measles could push Puget Sound orcas to extinction, study says

Researchers studying the killer whales that frequent Puget Sound are growing increasingly concerned that a dangerous virus or other disease-causing organism could spread through the population and hasten extinction of these critically endangered southern resident orcas.

Salmon smolts. Photo courtesy of Governor's Salmon Recovery Office
3/5/2020

Warming ocean conditions fuel viruses among species in the Salish Sea

As officials struggle to track and contain the outbreak of the novel coronavirus known as COVID-19, ecologists say widespread impacts from viruses and other pathogens are also a growing threat to the species of the Salish Sea ecosystem.

Snowmelt on Hurricane Ridge, Olympic Mountains, WA. Photo: Beth Jusino (CC BY-NC 2.0) https://flic.kr/p/9WRS8J
2/26/2020

Puget Sound's 'warm snow’ makes region vulnerable to climate shifts

Climate models project that if carbon emmisions continue as they are now, the vast majority of watersheds feeding Puget Sound will receive more rain and far less snow by 2080, causing increased flooding and other dramatic changes to the freshwater ecosystem. We look at the past and possible future of the region's snowpack and what this might mean for salmon and other species — including humans. 

Smokestacks in sunlight. Photo: Joe Brusky (CC BY-NC 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/)
1/15/2020

Air contaminants, such as mercury and PCBs, undermine the health of Puget Sound

High levels of mercury and other toxic chemicals are showing up in seemingly remote and pristine parts of the Puget Sound watershed, the result of atmospheric deposition. Scientists talk about a “dome” of pollution hanging over urban areas, leading to a never-ending cycle of persistent compounds working their way through the air, onto the land and into the water.

Report cover
1/8/2020

Eyes Over Puget Sound: 2019 Year in Review

The Washington State Department of Ecology has prepared a summary review of its Eyes Over Puget Sound surface condition reports from 2019. The year started with snow, and a summer drought kept river flows low. As a result, salinities in Puget Sound were elevated year round. Warmer surface water temperatures in spring gradually extended to greater depth by late summer. The spring bloom was strong, and South Sound provided optimal conditions for anchovies that showed up in high numbers. A coccolithophore bloom stained Hood Canal turquoise, and Port Angeles and Discovery Bay were colored red-brown by strong blooms. Noctiluca and macroalgae, both known eutrophication indicators in coastal regions, were abundant in Central Sound, and extended into South Sound and Whidbey Basin. Large numbers of jellyfish occurred in Quartermaster Harbor, Sinclair Inlet, and parts of Orcas Island.

Harbor porpoise. Photo: Copyright Cindy R. Elliser, Pacific Mammal Research.
1/6/2020

Status and trends of harbor porpoises in the Salish Sea

Harbor porpoises declined dramatically in the Salish Sea in the 1970s but their populations have since rebounded, increasing by more than 10% per year in recent decades. A 2020 report for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound examines harbor porpoise status and trends, natural history and recent policy considerations for the species.

In laboratory experiments, a pteropod shell dissolved over the course of 45 days in seawater adjusted to an ocean chemistry projected for the year 2100. Photo: NOAA Environmental Visualization Laboratory
12/15/2019

Rate of ocean acidification may accelerate, scientists warn

Last summer, scientists met at the University of Washington to address alarming findings concerning the rapid acidification of the world's oceans. Experts at that symposium warned that wildlife in the Salish Sea, from salmon to shellfish, may start to see significant effects from changing water chemistry within the next 10 to 20 years. This article summarizes the symposium's key findings and was commissioned and edited by the Washington Ocean Acidification Center which hosted the gathering. Funds for the article were provided by the Washington state legislature. [A version of this article was originally published by the Washington Ocean Acidification Center.]

Rhinoceros auklets near Protection Island. Photo: Peter Hodum
12/6/2019

A health check for seabirds

Scientists are still trying to understand what caused the deaths of thousands of rhinoceros auklets in the Salish Sea in 2016. Some studies point to disease as a central factor in that incident and potentially other large seabird die-offs along the coast. That is prompting a deeper look at what makes these birds sick, and how local populations are faring. We followed a group of researchers as they gave a health checkup to a breeding colony of rhinoceros auklets on Protection Island.

Cutthroat trout (Oncorhynchus clarki clarki). Photo: NOAA Fisheries West Coast
12/5/2019

Genetic composition and conservation status of coastal cutthroat trout in the San Juan Islands, Washington

The watersheds of Washington’s San Juan Islands were thought to be too small to support wild salmonid populations, and many streams flow only seasonally. But a 2019 article in the journal Conservation Genetics reports that at least five watersheds in the region support populations of coastal cutthroat trout (Oncorhynchus clarki clarki). Genetic analysis of the cutthroat trout in three of the watersheds suggest two support native populations. The findings are important for understanding the conservation status of these previously unknown populations. 

Image from State of the Sound Report website
12/3/2019

2019 State of the Sound Report

The 2019 State of the Sound is the Puget Sound Partnership’s sixth biennial report to the Legislature on progress toward the recovery of Puget Sound by 2020. The document reports on both the status of the Partnership's recovery efforts and the status of a suite of ecosystem indicators.

Report cover
11/25/2019

Eyes Over Puget Sound: Surface Conditions Report - October 30, 2019

After a dry early summer followed by more than expected rain, rivers mostly remained lower than in 2018. In October air temperatures dropped, but water temperatures remained warm enough for spawning anchovies in South and Central Sound and herring and salmon optimal growth in Whidbey Basin. By the end of October many red-brown blooms vanished, yet the waters of South Sound are still green, adorned with rafts of organic debris in many places. Read what happened the year before in the Puget Sound Marine Waters 2018 Overview.

Volunteer Vernon Brisley surveys a bull kelp bed near Ebey’s Landing on Whidbey Island as part of the Island County MRC regional monitoring project. Photo: Rich Yukubousky
11/22/2019

Kelp crisis? Decline of underwater forests raises alarms

They rival tropical forests in their richness and diversity, but Puget Sound's kelp beds have declined steeply in recent decades. Scientists are just starting to understand the extent of these losses. What they are finding is bringing kelp to the forefront of Puget Sound's environmental concerns.

11/13/2019

2018 Puget Sound Marine Waters Overview

A new report from the Puget Sound Ecosystem Monitoring Program says climate change altered the base of Puget Sound's food web in 2018, diminishing microscopic phytoplankton necessary for marine life. Scientists also observed lower abundances of fish, seabirds, and marine mammals.

Harbor seals, San Juan Islands. Photo: Mick Thompson (CC BY-NC 2.0) https://flic.kr/p/JVtiJy
11/5/2019

The occurrence of heavy metals in harbor seals of the San Juan Islands

A 2019 article in the Journal of Wildlife Diseases looked at trace element concentrations of heavy metals in the livers of harbor seals that died and stranded in the San Juan Islands. The study indicated exposure to trace elements (naturally occurring, human-introduced, or both) in the Salish Sea; however, the study reports that trace element toxicity is not a major threat to harbor seal health.

Bigg's killer whales. Photo: copyright Monika Shields, with permission
10/24/2019

Status and trends for West Coast transient (Bigg’s) killer whales in the Salish Sea

Officially known as West Coast transients but increasingly referred to as Bigg’s killer whales, these marine mammal-eating orcas (Orcinus orca) are spending increasing time in the Salish Sea to consume their marine mammal prey including harbor seals, Steller sea lions, and harbor and Dall’s porpoise. They range from Southeast Alaska to California, but over the last 15 years more members of the population are spending increasing time in the inland waters of Washington State and British Columbia (Houghton et al. 2015, Shields et al. 2018). They have no predators (except perhaps occasionally other Bigg’s killer whales - see Towers et al. 2018), but are at risk from anthropogenic effects, including toxics and noise pollution (Ford et al. 2007).

Stone maze on the shore next to the ocean. Photo: Cyclist https://flic.kr/p/46AVrL (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
10/21/2019

Enhancing the resilience of Puget Sound recovery: A path through the maze of resilience thinking

A 2019 report from the University of Washington Puget Sound Institute examines the application of 'resilience thinking' to Puget Sound protection and restoration.

Report cover
10/21/2019

Coastlines and communities: A preliminary glance at the relationship between shoreline armoring and sense of place in Puget Sound

A 2019 report from Oregon State University examines how community members, including non-property owners, value shorelines in Puget Sound. The report emphasizes the impacts of shoreline armoring on survey respondents' sense of place in the region.

Sheryl and Todd Ramsey with Gretchen Waymen-Palmer in the wood zone of Point No Point beach. Photo: Eric Wagner
10/18/2019

Tracking the trash: Inside a marine debris survey

Volunteer researchers are tracking the plastic and other debris washing up on Puget Sound's beaches. They hope the data can be used to protect sea creatures from the growing amounts of trash littering the world's oceans. [A version of this article first appeared in the COASST blog.]

Eugene and Dorothy Collias.  Photo courtesy of Collias estate
10/14/2019

History of UW Oceanography by Eugene Collias

Notes and biography about the history of the department of oceanography at the University of Washington (1903-1980) as reported by oceanagrapher Eugene Collias. Report courtesy of the Collias estate.

Report cover
9/26/2019

Eyes Over Puget Sound: Surface Conditions Report - September 12, 2019

This year, air temperatures were warmer than in previous years, and this pattern is predicted to continue. Precipitation was low and is now improving, yet river flows remain low. By August, Puget Sound surface water temperatures were 0.6 °C warmer across all regions; this could have shifted the timing of optimal temperatures for some marine organisms. In September, blooms are limited to inlets. Jellyfish are abundant in Sinclair Inlet, and anchovies reside in Eld Inlet. Macroalgae are still plentiful. Learn about the benefits of beach wrack and a DNA barcoding project supported by Ecology.

Caption: Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) swimming upstream. Photo: Ingrid Taylar (CC BY-NC 2.0) https://flic.kr/p/dmbyre
9/25/2019

'Early migration gene' tied to unique population of Chinook

Spring and fall Chinook salmon were thought to be alike until researchers discovered a gene for early migration. Now, federal biologists and legal experts are struggling to decide if spring Chinook should be granted their own legal protection under the Endangered Species Act.

Fishes of the Salish Sea book cover
9/24/2019

Of ratfish, Loch Ness monsters and stuffed sharks: A conversation with the authors of the book “Fishes of the Salish Sea”

The first comprehensive guide to the fishes of the Salish Sea is the culmination of more than 40 years of research by University of Washington authors Ted Pietsch and Jay Orr. The new, three-volume set includes descriptions and illustrations for every fish species known to have been documented within the Salish Sea, all gathered from an exhaustive search of libraries, aquariums, fish collections and even one restaurant.

Freshwater habitat in King County. Photo by Jeff Rice. All rights reserved.
8/22/2019

Connections between terrestrial, freshwater, and marine habitats

Freshwater habitat in the Puget Sound region consists of rivers, marshes, streams, lakes and ponds that do not have any saltwater input. Many species depend on these freshwater resources, including salmon, salamanders, frogs, and beavers.

8/21/2019

Story map: Seeking softer shores on Puget Sound

A 2019 story map produced by the University of Washington Puget Sound Institute in collaboration with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife shows how shoreline armoring can often be replaced by softer, shore-friendly features.

Eyes Over Puget Sound report cover
8/7/2019

Eyes Over Puget Sound: Surface Conditions Report - July 29, 2019

In July, the recent trends of warm, dry conditions lessened; however, river flows remain low. Extensive macroalgae drifted through South and Central Sound and washed up on beaches. Macroalgae growth is fueled by excessive nutrients and sunshine. When it washes onto the beach, it is called beach wrack, and it can be a health risk to beachgoers because of bacteria it can harbor. From our aerial photography, we saw that Southern Hood Canal looks tropical because of a bloom of coccolithophores coloring the water turquoise. Schools of fish congregate in South Sound and southern Hood Canal. Jellyfish are abundant in Quartermaster Harbor.

Herring fishing boats in the Strait of Georgia, BC
7/19/2019

Ancient harvests: A history of Salish Sea herring

Scientists believe that herring have been a staple of Salish Sea food and culture since humans first arrived here at least 12,500 years ago. That importance has continued into modern times, even as herring numbers have declined in parts of the region. 

Predicted annual average Δ in surface temperature and salinity over (a) the entire Salish Sea domain, as well as (b) in the nearshore intertidal regions of the Snohomish River estuary (see Khangaonkar et al. 2019 for details).  Image courtesy of Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans.
7/15/2019

Salish Sea Model looks at climate impacts on the nearshore

A 2019 paper in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans outlines how the Salish Sea Model describes the impacts of climate change, sea level rise and nutrient loads on the region's nearshore environment.

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