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The Salish Sea was once an ecosystem with abundant wild Pacific salmon that supported fresh and saltwater ecosystems, thriving fisheries and Indigenous cultures. Beginning in the late 1970s, marine survival rates for Chinook, Coho, and steelhead, meaning the number of fish that survive migration from river to ocean and return as adults, mysteriously and sharply declined. Efforts to reduce harvest, restore habitat, and improve hatchery practices have not led to recovery. In partnership with US-based Long Live the Kings, the Pacific Salmon Foundation launched a five-year transboundary effort with more than 60 different entities to understand the interlocking ecosystem factors that were limiting salmon production.
The initiatives within the Marine Science Program are based on the culmination of those findings and identification of urgent priority areas for advancing recovery.
Our Marine Science programs include many new and ongoing initiatives. These are detailed below and you can learn more by visiting one of our Marine Science sites.
Resilient Coasts for Salmon
Traditional approaches to protecting coastal communities from ocean waves and erosion have involved hardening shorelines with structures like dykes, seawalls and jetties. However, these artificial structures may cause more problems than they solve. The Resilient Coasts for Salmon Program will provide education and training to the public and shoreline professionals which we hope will result in greater adoption of nature-based solutions on Vancouver Island’s East Coast. The goal is to increase the naturalization and greening of shorelines, with associated benefits of reduced flood risk and erosion, retention of forage fish habitat, and promotion of healthy shoreline ecosystems on high-value salmon habitat.
Resilient Coasts for Salmon will focus on Victoria up to Port McNeill where urgent action is needed. These communities are becoming more exposed to risk and habitat loss as climate change increases the frequency and intensity of heavy precipitation and storms.
Manmade structures actually exacerbate erosion because they deflect energy from pounding waves to other parts of the shoreline. They also take away key habitat like spawning beaches for forage fish, crucial for the marine food chain including Pacific salmon. In contrast, nature-based approaches using natural substrates and plants beautify shorelines, increase resilience to climate impacts and can be cheaper to build and maintain. They also create habitat for fish and wildlife, filter out pollutants from stormwater before it reaches the aquatic environment, and help to store carbon that would otherwise contribute to global warming.
The key components of the program include:
Nearshore & Estuary Programs
Nearshore marine habitats such as estuaries are highly productive habitats, playing a vital role for salmon throughout their life cycle. However, these highly sensitive habitats also tend to be hotspots for industrial and recreational activities that damage kelp and eelgrass meadows. That’s why the Pacific Salmon Foundation has developed the Nearshore and Estuary Program to restore and research estuaries surrounding the Strait of Georgia.
Eelgrass and kelp provide critical habitat for juvenile salmon and help stave off climate change impacts. Eelgrass improves water clarity by filtering polluted runoff, reduces negative impacts of ocean acidification, and protects shorelines from erosion by absorbing wave energy and helping to mitigate sea level rise. Kelp forests are a key component of the salmon highway – the interlocking succession of habitat salmon use to hide from predators and feed on their journey to the ocean. Kelp and eelgrass also sequester carbon in underlying sediments. In B.C., roughly 400 km2 of salt marsh and seagrass meadows stash away the equivalent of the carbon emissions from 200,000 cars.
While eelgrass restoration has been successful, progress has been hampered by damage from anchors and anchor chains, dock building, acitivities like seawalls that harden shores, and marine debris which fragments eelgrass beds.Also, due to impacts from climate change, rising ocean temperatures are thought to be a major contributor to kelp declines. This multi-faceted program will include using satellite imagery to map kelp loss and identify areas of resilient kelp populations. The data will be used to identify genetic strains of eelgrass and kelp that appear more resilient to warming waters and can be stored in a new “biodiversity bank”.
Key components of this program include:
Bottlenecks to Survival Project
The Pacific Salmon Foundation (PSF), together with the British Columbia Conservation Foundation (BCCF), are investigating survival bottlenecks for salmon and steelhead throughout the Salish Sea and Southern BC regions
Chinook and Coho salmon and steelhead trout abundances have all declined precipitously in recent decades throughout southern British Columbia resulting in numerous ecological, economic, and cultural impacts in the Province. Indeed, unprecedented restrictions on commercial, recreational, and First Nations fisheries and even the poorer health of Southern Resident Killer Whales have all been linked to recent declines in these species.
Now there is growing consensus that the first year of marine life plays a key role in regulating productivity for juvenile salmon, and that predation, competition, and climate change all contribute to poor salmon and steelhead returns in southern BC, particularly on Vancouver Island. Understanding the mechanisms and relative contributions of the factors that may be limiting Chinook, Coho, and steelhead productivity is a key cultural, economic, and ecological priority in the Province.
Furthermore, as wild salmon and steelhead abundance continues to decline or remain at historic lows, there is growing recognition that traditional hatchery mitigation is not meeting conservation and recovery objectives for wild stocks. For enhancement programs to effectively contribute to both harvest and conservation, the performance of hatchery fish must be similar to that of wild fish.
Recent research conducted during the Pacific Salmon Foundation’s (PSF) Salish Sea Marine Survival Program in the Cowichan River on juvenile Chinook salmon using Passive Integrated Transponder (PIT) technology highlighted the importance of critical mortality periods during both the early marine period and the first winter of marine life, and the much lower survival of hatchery-produced salmon relative to wild counterparts. In light of these observations and the need for a much broader assessment, PSF, together with the British Columbia Conservation Foundation (BCCF), applied for and received funding from the BC Salmon Restoration and Innovation Fund to investigate survival bottlenecks throughout freshwater and marine regions of the Salish Sea and Southern BC. Our goals for this study are to: (a) develop the monitoring and evaluation framework and infrastructure to determine survival bottlenecks for wild and hatchery Chinook, Coho and Steelhead, (b) conduct research, monitoring, and evaluation that will maximize the performance of hatchery and wild stocks, and (c) implement the infrastructure to allow for adaptive management of hatchery programs for harvest, conservation, and sustainability objectives. The aim of this project is to provide new information on survival bottlenecks for Chinook, Coho, and steelhead in both freshwater and marine environments.
Every year roughly 300 million fish are released from B.C. hatcheries to enhance dwindling stocks and sustain fisheries. Despite overwhelming investments of time and money, little has been done to fully review the effectiveness of salmonid enhancement and impact on wild populations in BC. The Hatchery Effectiveness Review is aimed at optimizing hatchery practices, improving the efficiency of enhancement strategies and ultimately contributing to a more sustainable future for wild salmon.
Results to date from our Marine Science Program highlighted the poor survival of hatchery fish from Cowichan River Hatchery, which consistently survive at less than half the survival rates of wild fish from the same system. While hatcheries and enhancement techniques will likely continue to be a necessity for the sustainability of wild Pacific salmon, there is room for improvement. This is particularly important given the ongoing fisheries restrictions necessitated by the very poor status of some Chinook and Coho salmon stocks, as well as the push for more production of Chinook salmon to meet prey needs for endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales.
The primary components of the program include:
Citizen Science Projects
Citizen Science is the involvement of volunteers in collecting relevant scientific information, usually within their communities. Citizen Science enabled the Pacific Salmon Foundation to cost-effectively study the entire Strait of Georgia in real-time and continues to be the foundation for three key research initiatives within the Marine Science Program.
There is great value in partnering with volunteers on scientific endeavours including: maximizing information collection in cost-effective ways; developing capacity through scientifically competent citizens; and, broader awareness and understanding of issues and the need for stewardship within communities. We are incredibly grateful to all of our citizen scientists who participate in programs. and encourage you to get involved by reaching out at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Three key citizen science programs continue to provide significant information for our Marine Science Program:
Now in its seventh year, this program engages trained volunteers with boats who collect oceanographic data —such as sea temperatures — in defined areas of the Strait of Georgia.
Usually ocean monitoring is conducted by large, expensive research boats which provide snapshots in time. By using a fleet of community operated small boats, we can cost-effectively provide a consistent stream of precise, almost real-time data on the entire Strait. The information provides a better understanding of ocean conditions that drive food availability for Pacific salmon stocks. The program is a partnership between PSF, Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Ocean Networks Canada.
The method is straightforward: citizen scientists use a “CTD” to collect and store information on water conductivity, temperature and depth. Two auxiliary sensors are also used to measure fluorescence and oxygen content. The data collected are transmitted via a custom smart phone app and uploaded to an oceanographic database at Ocean Networks Canada where it is validated and archived. Four other elements of the work are done by hand to assess water quality (collecting nutrients, chlorophyll, harmful algae, zooplankton). Currently we are also collecting water samples to assess biotoxins). Collecting oceanographic measurements this way allows us to be “everywhere at once” and make accurate, consistent data comparisons like never before.
A study of adult Coho and Chinook stomach contents to understand changes in marine ecosystems, particularly those of key diet components such as forage fish. Data collection is being conducted by volunteer anglers.
Forage Fish are a source of food for an extensive array of larger fish and animals in the marine ecosystem but their populations are difficult to monitor. As climate change and sea level rise threaten their shoreline spawning habitat, there is an urgent need to better understand where these critical spawning habitats are located.
Strait of Georgia Data Centre
When it comes to understanding how salmon are actually doing, and how we can help them – good data are crucial. But what happens when data are in a thousand different places – sitting on dusty shelves, stored in disconnected databases, or filed away in people’s heads? That’s why the Strait of Georgia Data Centre was launched; to make data available 24/7 to anyone who is interested.
With information from hundreds of data records and more than 12,000 different documents, the data centre is a one-stop-shop for information on ecology, the environment, and human use in the Strait of Georgia.
Information is made available through the Data Centre’s Marine Data Portal and brought to life visually through a variety of different mapping tools including story maps. Story maps combine mapping elements with photos and video to educate on issues like invasive European Green Crabs and how to eradicate them, the importance of forage fish and more.
Indigenous knowledge is a valuable piece of the puzzle that staff at the Data Centre are working to better represent. Currently, the Tsleil-Waututh Nation and Strait of Georgia Data Centre are partnering to make data for the Burrard Inlet region more accessible. Our staff are grateful for this partnership and welcome future opportunities to collaborate with First Nations.
Access to publicly archived data is a fairly recent development made possible by advances in information technology and communication. There are many benefits to sharing data both for the researchers and species that benefit including personal visibility and recognition, wider distribution of findings, reduced duplication of work, stronger collaboration amongst researchers for advancement of science and informed policy…and the list goes on.
Behind every dataset are people. The staff at the Data Centre want to work with you and your team to make your marine data more accessible to the aquatic conservation community at large and we are always actively seeking opportunities to collaborate. To stay in the loop, join our Facebook Group or sign up for e-news here. To learn more about collaboration opportunities, contact: email@example.com
Seal - Salmon Interactions
Most anglers have a story of tussling with a seal over an adult salmon. But what about their impact on juvenile salmon?
Harbour seal abundance has increased seven-fold in the Salish Sea since receiving protection under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972. Since then, there has been a lot of finger-pointing at seals backed by correlated declines in marine survival of Chinook, Coho and Steelhead. But, until now, there hasn’t been any concrete evidence that seals are a significant factor in salmon declines.
Although juvenile salmon only comprise a small component of the overall seal diet (roughly 2 – 5%), the high abundance of seals and the sheer volume they consume can result in a significant impact. In the Strait of Georgia, our Marine Science Program developed estimates that harbour seals are consuming between 37%-43% of all hatchery and wild juvenile Chinook, and 47%-59% of all Coho. While this is a big issue, harvesting these creatures is not necessarily a solution.
Salmon and seal interactions were studied in the Cowichan because a solid baseline of data already exists there. The study revealed some key findings:
Salish Sea Marine Survival Project
In 2009 the Pacific Salmon Foundation was asked to figure out why Chinook, Coho and steelhead in the Strait of Georgia abruptly crashed in the 1990’s and never recovered. Catches that had once numbered in the hundreds of thousands shrunk to a mere one-tenth of those levels. The Strait of Georgia is part of the shared US/Canadian Salish Sea ecosystem. The Salish Sea Marine Survival Project brought together more than 60 different entities from the US and Canada to examine all facets of the ecosystem impacting salmon to answer to two key questions: what happened and what can we do about it? The initiatives within the Marine Science Program are based on the culmination of those findings and identification of urgent priority areas for advancing salmon recovery.
Past efforts to understand what happened to salmon in the Salish Sea have been hampered by fragmented studies. Salmon are the proverbial ‘canary in the coalmine.’ Their health is a reflection of the various interacting ingredients that make up an ecosystem. The Salish Sea Marine Survival Project sought to examine the Salish Sea ecosystem as a whole with the Pacific Salmon Foundation leading Canadian efforts and Long Live the Kings leading efforts in the U.S. To do this we essentially needed to be ‘everywhere all at once.’ Enter the Citizen Science Oceanography Program – one of the most successful legacy initiatives to come out of this Project.
By training volunteers with personal vessels, we have continued to monitor defined territories of the entire Strait of Georgia. The data collected provide a snapshot of what’s happening at a point in time across the Strait’s entire ecosystem so that we can see impacts to ocean conditions and the food chain.
While the Project helped us prioritize key areas of restoration and further study in the marine environment, it also highlighted the need to better understand salmon’s time in the open ocean. Our nearshore activities through the Marine Science Program will link PSF’s community-based activities in freshwater, and research on the open ocean, to achieve a full picture of the salmon lifecycle and what we can control to help them recover.
Salmon Ecological Health
Salmon ecological health captures the connection between the components of an ecosystem and how it impacts the health of salmon and their ability to survive and reproduce. The Strategic Salmon Health Initiative was a partnered research effort with DfO and Genome BC. Launched over a decade ago, the Initiative examined factors impacting salmon health including the role of open-net-pen aquaculture. Still in its nascent stages, PSF’s Salmon Ecological Health Program will build on findings from the Initiative and focus on understanding where and when Pacific salmon face challenges that affect their health and survival. Studies focus on factors such as disease, high water temperatures, low oxygen, other environmental stressors, or combinations of these factors.
Using salmon health monitoring tools and technologies, we will identify where along the coast salmon are the most – and least – compromised. In addition to measuring the “stressors” mentioned above, we will use environmental (e)DNA to identify the biological features of different habitats. This eDNA technology captures cellular and genetic debris present in the ocean from across the salmon food chain (from salmon, predators, prey, competitors, harmful algae, and pathogens). This information will help characterize salmon ecosystems, and inform management, conservation and restoration planning and priorities.
Partnering with many other groups and using Fit-Chips, and other tools at our disposal, we are building a program to help ensure wild salmon are healthy and have the brightest possible future by:
High Seas Research
What happens to salmon in the open ocean significantly affects their overall survival and returns. It makes sense as salmon spend the majority of their lifecycle there. However – until now – this period of their migratory journey has remained a relative mystery as open ocean research is expensive and challenging. The Pacific Salmon Foundation’s Gulf of Alaska Expeditions are an international partnership with Pacific Rim countries: Unites States, Russia, Japan and the Republic of Korea. Our findings there will help us better understand the consequences of future environmental conditions and extreme climate events, to ultimately improve forecasting and salmon management in a rapidly changing environment.
About 1/3 of all Pacific salmon are thought to spend their winters in the Gulf of Alaska. Factors there can impact salmon from around the Pacific Rim. The Expeditions were organized by PSF Science Advisor, Dr. Brian Riddell and Dr. Richard Beamish, as a banner initiative of the International Year of the Salmon.
It is believed that fish that grow faster, survive better and the ‘readiness’ of juvenile salmon to survive winters in the Gulf of Alaska may be determined during the first months at sea. The 2020 voyage tested this hypothesis. Meet the team and read about findings from the last voyage here.
The next voyages launch in winter of 2022 with scientists from Canada, Japan, the Republic of Korea, the Russian Federation, and the United States. Organized through the North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission (NPAFC), this effort will be the first cross-Pacific study in more than 50 years and will involve up to four vessels fishing simultaneously to study the distribution and health of Pacific salmon. In collaboration with NPAFC, PSF is also supporting an additional vessel to expand research, looking at factors such as potential competitors and predators for salmon in the open ocean.
These studies will link to our findings from the Bottlenecks to Survival project as to give us a complete picture of what’s impacting salmon survival.