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The Orange Sea Pen -

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Rhinoceros auklets near Protection Island. Photo: Peter Hodum

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

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

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

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

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 through mapping projects and consultations with local tribes. What they are finding is bringing kelp to the forefront of Puget Sound's environmental concerns.


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

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

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).


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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.


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

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

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.

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.


Pigeon guillemot taking flight over water. Photo: Patty McGann (CC BY-NC 2.0) https://flic.kr/p/opywhG

Pigeon guillemots have attracted relatively little scientific attention compared to other seabirds in Puget Sound. That may be because their population is generally stable, but a group of citizen scientists is helping to put guillemots on the conservation radar. They hope the birds can be used as an indicator of Puget Sound health.


Harbor seals, Lopez Island, WA. Photo: Bethany Weeks (CC BY-NC 2.0) https://flic.kr/p/6Mnq5k

A 2014 paper in the journal PLoS ONE examines differences between foraging behavior of harbor seals based on haulout site locations, seasons, sexes and times of day. The authors hypothesize that these factors may help explain the variability in diet among harbor seals observed at different haul-out site groups in the Salish Sea. 


Eyes Over Puget Sound report cover

Warm and dry conditions this spring are predicted to persist into summer, resulting in saltier and warmer than normal Puget Sound water conditions. Early upwelling and a premature melt of the snowpack means nutrient-rich ocean water likely already entered Puget Sound. This sets the stage for a lot of biological activity. From the air, it is obvious that the productive season is in full swing. We saw large algae blooms in Central Sound along with abundant Noctiluca.  Huge numbers of anchovies were documented in Case Inlet and other finger inlets in South Sound, attracting hundreds of marine mammals.


An image from "Salish Sea Wild." Video courtesy of the SeaDoc Society.

A new video series follows local scientists into the water, capturing the adventure behind the research. "Salish Sea Wild" is entering its second season and we interviewed the series host and producers. Among our burning questions: What's it like to have a Steller sea lion chew on your head? 


Glaucous-winged gulls in flight at Protection Island National Wildlife Refuge. Photo: Peter Davis/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

An unintended consequence of the recovery of bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) has been the impact on seabirds. The authors of a 2019 paper published in Ecology and Evolution suggest that the effects of bald eagle activity on a large glaucous-winged gull (Larus glaucescens) colony on Protection Island in the Strait of Juan de Fuca include the possibility of coexistence but also the possibility of gull colony extinction.