Covers general descriptions focusing on single or multiple species (such as WDFW reports for species of concern, etc.).
Northern elephant seals were hunted heavily in the 19th century and believed to be extinct by 1892. However, a small remnant population (~50–100 animals) off the western coast of Mexico grew to populations in the United States and Mexico to at least 220,000 individuals as of 2010. Elephant seals are distributed in the central and eastern North Pacific Ocean, from as far north as Alaska down to southern Baja California. Sightings of elephant seals were once considered rare in the Salish Sea, but increasingly single individuals are known to haul out onto sandy beaches on Smith, Protection, and Whidbey Islands. In 2010, a local breeding population established itself along the lower west side of Whidbey Island in Puget Sound.
Harbor seals were hunted from the 1870s to 1970s until they were protected in the United States by the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act and in Canada under the 1970 Marine Mammal Regulations in the Fisheries Act. The inland Washington harbor seal stock is estimated to be over 12,000, while the Strait of Georgia sustains approximately 39,000 harbor seals. Key threats include human disturbance, habitat degradation, loss of prey, and interaction with fishing gear and boats.
Steller sea lions use Puget Sound as a feeding area from autumn through spring when they are not breeding in British Columbia and Alaska during summer. While the Western Stock of the species is considered Endangered under the US Endangered Species Act (ESA), the Eastern Stock, which occurs in Puget Sound, is increasing in numbers and not listed under the ESA.
California sea lions have become common in Puget Sound in non-summer months. The overall trend for the population has been a dramatic increase in numbers since the species was protected in 1972. They are opportunistic feeders that often target herring and juvenile salmon and steelhead species in Puget Sound.
Fall’s chill is in the air (finally!), leaves are turning colors, and skeletons and spider webs are popping up in yards all over town. Meanwhile, under the mud of Puget Sound, there’s a strange critter that stays in its ethereal costume all year long – the burrowing ghost shrimp.
With their square heads and antennae that look a bit like pointy ears, it makes sense why the catworms, or marine segmented worms in the family Nephtyidae, would be named after cats. But their antennae are more like a cat’s sensory whiskers than ears, allowing them to feel their way through the mud as they crawl and burrow. Nephtyids are strong diggers, and can even hold their own in the water, rapidly wiggling their smooth, pale bodies in order to swim.
A series of beluga whale (Delphinapterus leucas) sightings in southern Puget Sound in October 2021, added a new set of records for the species in this region. The 2021 event represents the longest period of time a beluga has been observed so far south of Alaska, in the eastern North Pacific. This may have just been an isolated event of a single extralimital individual. Alternatively, it may suggest a potential range expansion that could portend future increased visits by this species in the Pacific Northwest, especially if warming of Arctic waters continues.
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.
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).
There are more than a half dozen species of skeleton shrimp in Puget Sound. The Washington State Department of Ecology profiles this unusual crustacean in its Eyes Under Puget Sound series.
The Orange Sea Pen, also called the Fleshy Sea Pen or Gurney’s Sea Pen, resembles a colorful autumn tree waving in the “breeze” of moving water currents. Article courtesy of the Washington Department of Ecology's Eyes Under Puget Sound series.
The genus Sternaspis is comprised of sedentary invertebrates with short and thick anterior setae. The dumbbell worm (Sternaspis affinis) can be found on the West Coast of North America, from Alaska to the Gulf of California.
The Doto is a species of sea slug, also known as a nudibranch. It is a marine gastropod in the family Dotidae. This species was first discovered in British Columbia and has been reported as far south as Santa Barbara, California.
Priapula are a small phylum of small, worm-like animals found in Puget Sound. They occur in most seas, both tropical and polar, at a variety of depths, from shallow coastal waters to as far down as 7,200 meters.
Sea pens are marine cnidarians that belong to the order Pennatulacea. They are colonial organisms, composed of specialized polyps.
With its striking plumage and brilliant orange bill, the Tufted Puffin is an iconic seabird well known to native peoples, fishermen, and coastal communities throughout its range in the temperate and sub-arctic North Pacific. Though pelagic in winter, puffins gather on islands and headlands during spring and summer to breed and raise their young. They are members of the auk family, with stocky bodies adapted to “flying” underwater as they dive in pursuit of a wide range of fish and invertebrate prey. Nesting Tufted Puffins range up to 100 km from their breeding colonies to forage for their nestlings, and are famed for carrying 20 or more small fish at one time, neatly lined up and carried crosswise in their large, brightly colored bills.
Harbor seals (Phoca vitulina) are the most commonly seen marine mammals in the Salish Sea and can be found throughout the region year round. They have been intensively studied within the Salish Sea and this species profile provides an overview of what is known about them. It was produced for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound by the SeaDoc Society.
Can Puget Sound claim a new species? Ribbon seals were not previously thought to venture into the Salish Sea, but a series of sightings in Puget Sound in 2012 expands their potential range. Scientists are keeping an eye out for future sightings.
This article was originally published by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife as part of its annual report Threatened and Endangered Wildlife in Washington
Eelgrass (Zostera marina L.) is an aquatic flowering plant common in tidelands and shallow waters along much of Puget Sound’s shoreline. It is widely recognized for its important ecological functions, and provides habitat for many Puget Sound species such as herring, crab, shrimp, shellfish, waterfowl, and salmonids.
This is the executive summary from a technical report produced for the Puget Sound Nearshore Partnership on Valued Ecosystem Components (VEC). The entire document is included as a PDF with this summary.
Canadian and U.S. governments differ on special status for bocaccio in the Salish Sea.
The following is an alphabetical list of marine invertebrates occurring in Puget Sound and adjacent regions. It is taken from the book Keys to the Marine Invertebrates of Puget Sound, the San Juan Archipelago, and Adjacent Regions by Eugene N. Kozloff. This list is provided with permission of the author.
The Encyclopedia of Puget Sound species library now includes a list of species of concern in the Salish Sea watershed. The list was created by Joe Gaydos and Jacqlynn Zier of the SeaDoc Society, and was released as a paper presented as part of the Proceedings of the 2016 Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference in Vancouver, BC.
Three distinct groups of killer whales (Orcinus orca) occupy the coastal waters of the northeastern Pacific. These groups—northern and southern residents, transients, and offshores—are distinguished by diet, behavior, morphology, and other characteristics. Among these, southern resident and transient killer whales commonly are found in Puget Sound. Northern residents and offshore killer whales rarely enter Puget Sound (Wiles 2004, Kriete 2007), and therefore are not described in detail here.
Harbor seal numbers were severely reduced in Puget Sound during the first half of the twentieth century by a state-financed population control program. This bounty program ceased in 1960, and in 1972, harbor seals became protected under the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act and by Washington State.
The Puget Sound region has the highest densities of bald eagles in Washington. Breeding pairs initiate nesting activities in January or February.
More than 70 bird species regularly utilize Puget Sound during some or all stages of their life histories, but only a portion of these are actively being investigated.
Fish in the family Salmonidae (salmon, trout, and charr) play potentially integral roles in the upland freshwater, nearshore and pelagic marine ecosystems and food webs of Puget Sound.
Approximately 27 species of rockfish are reported from Puget Sound, spanning a range of life-history types, habitats, and ecological niches.
Bentho-pelagic fish utilize both bottom habitats and shallower portions of the water column, often feeding in shallow water at night and moving to deeper water to form schools during the day.
Recent worldwide increases in the abundance of some jellyfish have been associated with human-caused disturbances to the environment such as eutrophication, overfishing and climate warming.
Dungeness crabs are an important resource in Puget Sound for recreational, commercial, and tribal fisheries. They utilize a variety of habitats over the course of their lives, and are vulnerable to shifts in ocean temperature and water quality.
Pinto abalone are the only abalone species found in Washington State.
Many types of bivalves, both native and non-native, flourish in Puget Sound. These species are a crucial part of the Puget Sound ecosystem and are also important for commercial fisheries.
GIANT PACIFIC OCTOPUS (Enteroctopus dofleini) is the largest species of octopus in the world. It is found in the northern Pacific Ocean from the northwest coast of the continental United States to Japan, including Puget Sound.
Forage fish occupy every marine and estuarine nearshore habitat in Washington, and much of the intertidal and shallow subtidal areas of the Puget Sound Basin are used by these species for spawning habitat.
The Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, in cooperation with the USGS, has developed a list of terrestrial vertebrates occurring within the Puget Sound basin.