An ecosystem of concern

By Judith Lavoie, June 2014

The Salish Sea’s inhabitants are facing unprecedented threats.

From a float plane high above the Salish Sea, it’s an idyllic picture: Small islands dotting the ocean, sail boats, freighters, surf breaking on rocks, deserted beaches framed by massive Douglas firs, and two beautiful big cities—Seattle and Vancouver—and dozens of smaller towns, including our own, scattered around its shores.

At sea level, however, a troubling picture is emerging and scientists, documenting unmistakable signs of a struggling ecosystem, are calling for a concerted effort to save the Salish Sea.

Every two years, the SeaDoc Society, a program of the University of California Davis Wildlife Health Center, compiles a list of Salish Sea species at risk. Seadoc’s Jacqlynn Zier told the Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference in Seattle last month that the number of Salish Sea species deemed at risk by one or more of the jurisdictions of Canada, BC, the US and Washington State, has almost doubled in the last decade to 119. Between 2011 and 2013, five new species in decline were added to the list: American shad, North Pacific spiny dogfish, Pacific Ocean perch, buff-breasted sandpiper, and Baird’s beaked whale. 

Seadoc’s list of threatened species now includes one-third of the mammals, one-third of the birds, 17 percent of the fish and 100 percent of reptiles in the area. “It’s a huge proportion of the total species. It suggests ecosystem decay throughout the Salish Sea,” Zier said as she presented the paper to some of the 1200 scientists and environmental groups at the conference.

For Joe Gaydos, director and chief scientist with the SeaDoc Society and co-author of the Salish Sea report, the keyword is ecosystem. “It is time to consider the Salish Sea as an ecosystem of concern,” Gaydos said, pointing to economic as well as scientific reasons for pulling out all stops to improve the health of the ocean that surrounds us. “We need to be thinking about the whole ecosystem and that’s a paradigm shift,” he said.

There are a couple of hurdles, at least, noted Gaydos. First, people are far more likely to spring to the aid of a single species in danger, but saving an entire ecosystem can seem overwhelming, he said.

That’s partly due to the need to work collaboratively across the many jurisdictions, said Gaydos—which is especially important given threats to the Salish Sea ranging from species extinction, climate change, and habitat destruction to ocean acidification, excess noise from vessels, and the prospect of massive increases in tanker and freighter traffic.

But the mish-mash of jurisdictions responsible for the health of the Salish Sea is daunting. Any overseeing body would have to include agencies such as the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, provincial ministries, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife, and First Nations on both sides of the border—and that’s just for starters.

It’s a tough proposition, especially during times of government cutbacks when there is a tendency to avoid extra responsibilities. Yet, said Gaydos, it is the only sensible way to approach the problems of an ailing Salish Sea, and could also save time and money. He believes what is needed is a credible, respected body to organize an international commission dealing with trans-boundary endangered and threatened species. He points to the Pacific Salmon Commission as an example of both countries and First Nations working together. It would need cooperation, but no one would be asked to change their laws, said Gaydos. “There’s no reason it can’t be done. This is not a Middle East peace process.”


THE SALISH SEA, which includes the Strait of Georgia, Juan de Fuca Strait, and Puget Sound, is one of the world’s largest and most biologically rich inland seas. The sea surface, dotted with 419 islands, covers almost 17,000 square kilometres, and the watershed takes in 110,000 square kilometres.

More than seven million people—three million Canadians and four million Americans—live around the edges and many make their living from the ocean or rely on it for recreation. “Not a single patch of this ocean is untouched by human activity,” said WWF-Canada marine science officer Hussein Alidina in a 2010 study of the cumulative impact of human activity.

Now, scientists are trying to piece together information indicating how much more activity the Salish Sea can take. It’s a question of increasing urgency with the proposed Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion, which would bring up to 10 tankers a week through the fragile area (up from one or two a week).

Add to that the numerous applications for increased coal and crude oil exports in the US, all of which would add more tanker and bulk carrier traffic, and the future looks crowded and potentially dangerous.

Organizations from both sides of the border are calling for a coordinated response to the applications, but, so far, there seems to be little appetite for collaboration.

“Large corporations propose the unprecedented construction or expansion of roughly 20 coal or crude oil terminals or refineries in Washington, Oregon and British Columbia,” says an information sheet put out by a coalition of US environmental groups including the Friends of the San Juans. “With so much at stake, permitting agencies must stop considering these proposals in a piecemeal fashion and conduct regional cumulative studies of rail and vessel traffic,” it says.

But, few mechanisms exist for such joint enterprises and federal and BC government policies make it clear that decisions must first be made in Canada. As well, cumulative impacts are not even necessarily considered under BC’s Environmental Assessment Act, although consideration of cumulative effects of multiple applications has been part of US environmental assessments for decades.

The poster children for the Salish Sea are the endangered southern resident killer whales. Papers presented at the Seattle conference made it clear that the whales are already suffering from their own cumulative impacts. Recovery strategies on both sides of the border have pinpointed the lack of chinook salmon—the preferred diet of resident killer whales—along with pollution and noise as major hindrances to the whales’ recovery. 

But the population continues to dwindle. This year there are 80 surviving animals in three pods, the lowest number in more than a decade. The only calf born last year washed up dead and no births have yet been reported this year.

It could get worse for the orca. Scientists at the Seattle conference pointed out that vessel noise is hindering the whales from communicating and finding fish. Vocalizations among group members play a key role in hunting for food. With noise bombardment increasing if various coal terminal and pipeline proposals are approved, the whales’ ability to successfully communicate and feed themselves will face even greater challenges. “Ships dominate the soundscape of Puget Sound,” said Scott Veirs, professor and coordinator of Beam Reach Marine Sciences and Sustainability School. “At least one ship is present about 40 percent of the time and, when that ship is going through, it reduces the range that whales can communicate by 68 percent,” Veirs said. That means the whales miss about 37 percent of calls and, if traffic doubles, as it could if all coal and pipeline proposals are approved, it’s estimated the whales will miss 44 percent of calls, he said.

In 2013, it was noticed that the behaviour of the killer whales changed significantly. Jenny Atkinson, executive director of the Whale Museum in Friday Harbour, explained that the Whale Museum documented sightings in the Salish Sea and found that, especially during the summer, when the whales typically spend their time around Juan de Fuca Strait, Haro Strait and the Strait of Georgia, the animals spent more time off the west coast of Vancouver Island and did not get together to socialize in their traditional areas. She said it’s not known whether the behaviour changes are connected to salmon runs or noise, but the result is that no one is observing the greeting ceremonies or the three pods coming together in a superpod. This is a concern, she explained, because it means, “They’re not spending too much time socializing and making babies.”

Gaydos, who described whales as a red flag as they are top of the food chain, remains hopeful that the health of the Salish Sea can be restored: “I think this is reversible,” he said, adding, “if everyone works together.”

Award-winning journalist Judith Lavoie has been an environment and First Nations reporter for many years. Twitter @LavoieJudith.