Salish Sea

The Salish Sea extends across the U.S.-Canada border, and includes the combined waters of the Strait of Georgia, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Puget Sound Basin and the San Juan Islands.

Water Resource Inventory Areas (WRIA). Map: Kris Symer. Data source: WAECY.

OVERVIEW

Geographic boundaries of Puget Sound and the Salish Sea

The boundaries of Puget Sound and the Salish Sea are not always consistently defined by scientists and government agencies. This article clarifies the distinctions between oceanographic and watershed-based definitions of these geographic areas. 

RELATED ARTICLES

Adult harbor seal with pup. Photo: Mark Ahlness (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
9/14/2020

Interannual differences in postrelease movements of rehabilitated harbor seal pups (Phoca vitulina richardii) in the Salish Sea

A study published in Marine Mammal Science in June 2020 followed the movements and behavior of rehabilitated harbor seal pups after being released into the Salish Sea. The results suggest that although their movements differ from wild pups that have been weaned, the rehabilitated pups do successfully make the transition.

A harbor seal skull in a box
9/8/2020

History of food web found in harbor seal skulls

Tiny bone samples show that seals alter their diets as conditions change. The findings could help scientists understand whether seals are contributing to local salmon declines.

Harbor seal photographed by Andreas Trepte. Available through a Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 2.5 license.
9/8/2020

Probing for answers to control seal populations

Last month's federal authorization to kill more than 700 sea lions to protect salmon runs along the Columbia River is prompting discussions of similar actions for harbor seals in Puget Sound. But experts say the situations are very different with many unanswered questions. 

Map showing a marine heat wave known as "the blob" which spread across the northeastern Pacific Ocean from 2014 to 2016. Image: Joshua Stevens/NASA Earth Observatory, Data: Coral Reef Watch
7/24/2020

'The blob' revisited: Marine heat waves and the Salish Sea

Years after the appearance of the devastating marine heat wave known as "the blob," scientists are still working to understand how it has affected the Salish Sea. In some ways, they say, it is like the blob never left.

Southern resident killer whales. Photo by Candice Emmons/NOAA Fisheries (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
7/16/2020

Orcas without borders

The Salish Sea’s endangered southern resident orcas travel freely across the U.S.-Canada border, unconstrained by political boundaries. But while they don’t require passports, they can still face differing policies and conditions as they go back and forth between nations. We look at some of the ways that the United States and Canada compare in their efforts to protect the whales.

The mouth of the Elwha River along the Strait of Juan de Fuca in 2016. Photo by Dave Parks and CWI (with permission). All rights reserved.
7/14/2020

Seawall removal reaps benefits of Elwha recovery

The Elwha River has become famous as the site of the largest dam removal project in U.S. history. Several years ago, scientists began knocking down another barrier about a mile away from the river's delta. They removed a large seawall along the Salish Sea shoreline and discovered that sediment from the dam removal had huge benefits for their project.

Harbor Porpoise (Phocoena phocoena). Bellingham Bay, WA. Photo: Andrew Reding (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
7/9/2020

Fungal disease a rising concern for local marine mammals

A 2020 paper published in Frontiers in Marine Science describes details of the fungal disease Mucormycosis which has caused the death of harbor porpoises, harbor seals and one orca in Puget Sound in recent years. The authors discuss the implications for local marine mammals, specifically the endangered southern resident killer whale population.

Human-built clam gardens are found in the lower intertidal zone and characterized by a level terrace behind a rock wall. Photo: Amy S. Groesbeck
7/1/2020

How to plan a clam garden

The revival of an Indigenous aquaculture practice has come to the southern Salish Sea. Clam gardens could help First Nations in British Columbia and Washington state address issues of climate change and food sustainability.

Sharon Riggs from Padilla Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve sets a Fukui trap to monitor European green crabs. Photo: Emily Grason/WSG
5/21/2020

Search for invasive green crab continues during pandemic

The state's stay-at-home order has halted much of the field research that would normally be underway in Puget Sound this spring, but a small group of scientists and volunteers have been able to continue their search for an invading marauder along the shoreline. Their work has been classified as critical by the state.

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. 

Smokestacks in sunlight. Photo: Joe Brusky (CC BY-NC 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/)
1/14/2020

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.

Harbor porpoise. Photo: Copyright Cindy R. Elliser, Pacific Mammal Research.
1/5/2020

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.

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. 

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
11/21/2019

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.

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).

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.]

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.

Harbor seals, Lopez Island, WA. Photo: Bethany Weeks (CC BY-NC 2.0) https://flic.kr/p/6Mnq5k
6/14/2019

Fine-scale variability in harbor seal foraging behavior

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. 

An image from "Salish Sea Wild." Video courtesy of the SeaDoc Society.
6/6/2019

Video series features science and adventure in the Salish Sea

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? 

Salish Sea basin and water boundaries. The Salish Sea water boundary (blue) includes the Strait of Georgia, Desolation Sound, The Strait of Juan de Fuca, and Puget Sound. The larger watershed basin (green) is the area that drains into Salish Sea waters. WA Water Resource Inventory areas (WRIA) boundary lines are shown for reference. Map: Kris Symer. Data: Stefan Freelan; WAECY.
5/20/2019

Survey illustrates a lack of familiarity with the Salish Sea

Washington and British Columbia residents are largely unfamiliar with the Salish Sea. A recent study conducted by the SeaDoc Society and Oregon State University reveals a need to improve geographic literacy and familiarity with the Salish Sea among those communities who share and live alongside this integrated transboundary ecosystem. This summary was provided by two of the collaborators on the survey, David Trimbach of Oregon State University and Joe Gaydos, Science Director at the SeaDoc Society.

Cover of 2018 Salish Sea Toxics Monitoring Synthesis: A Selection of Research
3/31/2019

2018 Salish Sea toxics monitoring synthesis: A selection of research

A 2019 report from the Puget Sound Ecosystem Monitoring Program presents an overview of selected recent monitoring and research activities focused on toxic contaminants in the Salish Sea. 

Photo by Brandon Cole. All rights reserved. Courtesy of Explore the Salish Sea: A Nature Guide for Kids.
6/8/2018

New book helps kids discover the Salish Sea

Kids around the region are learning about the Salish Sea thanks to a new book that is being offered — in many cases free of cost — to Washington schools and libraries. Explore the Salish Sea by Joe Gaydos and Audrey Benedict inspires the next generation to appreciate and perhaps someday protect the environment close at hand. 

The shared marine waters of British Columbia and Washington report cover
7/28/2015

The shared marine waters of British Columbia and Washington

A scientific assessment of current status and future trends in resource abundance and environmental quality in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Strait of Georgia, and Puget Sound 

Book cover for The Salish Sea: Jewel of the Pacific Northwest
4/20/2015

New book focuses on the natural history of the Salish Sea

The Salish Sea: Jewel of the Pacific Northwest brings together more than 230 extraordinary images of the Salish Sea. But don't call it a coffee table book. Its lush photos are backed by a serious scientific perspective on this complex and fragile ecosystem.

Screenshot of 2013 Health of the Salish Sea Ecosystem Report
7/19/2013

Report: 2013 Health of the Salish Sea Ecosystem Report

The 2013 Health of the Salish Sea Ecosystem Report was prepared jointly by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Environment Canada. View the complete report, or read the Executive Summary below.

 

Salish Sea map my Norm Maher. Courtesy of the SeaDoc Society.
4/2/2013

The Salish Sea

The Salish Sea extends across the U.S.-Canada border, and includes the combined waters of the Strait of Georgia, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Puget Sound Basin and the San Juan Islands (see map).

The name Salish Sea was proposed by Bert Webber in 1989 to reflect the entire cross-border ecosystem. Both Washington State and British Columbia voted to officially recognize the name in late 2009. The name honors the Coast Salish people, who were the first to live in the region.

Locations of shellfish beds in the Salish Sea (left) compared to regions predicted by the Salish Sea Model to have high microplastic accumulation (right). Maps: PNNL
3/30/2010

Ecosystem models expand our understanding of the Salish Sea

Scientists are using computer models to address complex issues in the Salish Sea like the rise of harmful algal blooms and the movement of toxic PCBs. LiveOcean, Atlantis and the Salish Sea Model are three systems that are changing the game for ecologists and other researchers.