The Salish Sea is home to more than three thousand species. Among them are 253 fish, 172 birds, 38 mammals and two reptiles.
“Believe it or not we’re actually within the range for green and Pacific leatherback sea turtles,” Joe Gaydos told me in an email.
A large-animal vet by training, Gaydos is the Science Director at the SeaDoc Society on Orcas Island and a wealth of information about the flora and fauna of the region. He co-authored a glossy coffee table book called The Salish Sea – Jewel of the Pacific, which contains those statistics along with hundreds of color photos.
SeaDoc’s mission is to protect the health of marine wildlife and their ecosystems in the Salish Sea through science and education. An example from earlier this year is an ongoing survey of sea lions that get ensnared in plastic trash, which can kill them.
“This is something we’re seeing more and more now,” Gaydos said. “They’re curious, so they’ll swim through, they’ll pick up a plastic packing strap around their neck. It’s not a problem, and they’ll go off. But then as days and weeks go by, they’ll actually grow into this thing and it will slowly strangle them.”
I rode with him in the SeaDoc’s research vessel, the Molly B, through an area called Whale Rocks, off the South end of Lopez Island in the San Juan archipelago. As we talk, we see 13 sea lions on one side of the rocks and they’re big.
“They are monsters. I call them the grizzlies of the Salish Sea,” Gaydos said. “But the reality is a big grizzly bear may be 800 pounds. One of these big guys can be close to 2000 lbs at this time of year.”
Gaydos says as tragic and gruesome as the entanglements are, they’re actually less of a problem than many other issues in the Salish Sea. He says maybe one percent of the population is strangled, and their population is growing. But calling attention to the problem is a good way to educate the public about the hazards of plastic trash.
“The fact that it’s our trash that’s around them, that’s an animal welfare concern, and that’s what inspires people to want to make a difference because you see actually you’re impacting the individual. It’s something that we did,” he says.
He wants people to see that they can make a difference, with their choices, every day.
“I think a lot of times we feel like we’re not empowered. But really, by every action that we make in the day, we affect the ocean, we affect the things that we love,” he said.
Gaydos co-authored a paper in 2011 that was the first compilation of all the birds and mammals that depend on the Salish Sea. He says writing his book was a logical extension of that.
“When Scott Pearson and I wrote that paper, we were just trying to say, you know, what’s in the ecosystem? And the book is just taking that on the next scale, saying, you know, what is this place? How was it formed? What are the things that we love about (it,) how does it work?” Gaydos said.
He says knowing what’s in it and how it works is a necessary first step for protecting it.
“It’s an amazing ecosystem. And this book is really designed to get people to know this place and to connect with it. And our goal is that once you know a place, and you connect with it, then you want to protect it, you want to take care of it,” he said.
They’re also working on a children’s version of the book, which they were inspired to make after people showed them lots of pictures of themselves reading the book to kids.
“And we said you know, we need to get this in the hands of kids at a level that they can read. So we’re doing one now for fifth and sixth graders. And it’s going to come out this spring,” he said.
Gaydos has also tracked the overall numbers of species in the Salish Sea that are declining. It’s a bleak picture. In one paper he noted that from 2008 to 2011, the number of threatened and endangered species nearly doubled, from 64 to 113.
“Yeah, it’s really striking,” Gaydos said. “And some of that is because people were doing more work to identify them. But, basically what that shows us is that, despite the fact that we love this place, we’re not doing a very good job of taking care of it. And things are getting worse. We need to amp up our efforts.”
Perhaps the most iconic example of that in the Salish Sea right now is the decline of the Southern Resident Killer Whales, which depend on endangered Chinook salmon, their preferred prey.
The scarcity of salmon is now recognized to be accelerating the demise of the whales. In 2005, the count of local killer whales stood at 88. As of September this year, the population had dropped to 76.
“Frightening,” Gaydos says of the number. “We actually have a crisis. People are really afraid that we’re going to lose them on our watch.”
A silver lining of the crisis, perhaps, is that it galvanizes action. Gaydos says science has been telling us for a long time that the two biggest things that need to be addressed to help the local killer whales are salmon availability and underwater noise, which keeps the orcas from finding their prey.
Now, work groups are forming on both sides of the border to work on these issues and find solutions.
Gaydos says the division created by the arbitrary international boundary has prevented meaningful work on such solutions in the past.
“And so it’s encouraging to see that when we are worried about this iconic species, the Southern Resident Killer Whales, the United States and Canada can both come together and work on this problem. Because that’s the only way we’re really going to solve a lot of big issues, is if we work on it from an ecosystem perspective,” he said.
Gaydos says that doesn’t mean restoring the ecosystem to a pristine state of how it once was. But it does mean maintaining what we have, designing healthy standards, improving where we can and working hard to get there.
“The ecosystem is like our bodies. It’s always changing. And you can be a healthy six-year-old and you can be a healthy 66-year-old. And the ecosystem will change,” Gaydos says. “But that doesn’t mean it can’t change and still be a great place.”
Gaydos says he knows that saving the Salish Sea will be a monumental task. It won’t be easy, because if it were easy, we would have already done it.
“It’s going to take increased public pressure. It’s going to take increased personal decisions on what we can do to make a difference,” he said. “And it’s going to take an upscaling of all the things we’re doing right now. We have to do them better, faster and more completely than we’re doing them right now.”
He ends his book with a vision for how to make that happen: By inspiring people to become as familiar with all of the species in the Salish Sea as they are with the corporate logos in their daily lives.
“And we need to watch this place, watch the ecosystem as well as we now watch the weather, or the Dow Jones Industrial Average, or our bank accounts,” Gaydos says. “And then we need to take care of this place as if our lives and our livelihood depended on it – because they do.”
Joe Gaydos' suggested readings:
- Audrey D. Benedict, Joseph K. Gaydos. The Salish Sea: Jewel of the Pacific Northwest. Seattle, Wa. Sasquatch Books. 2015.
- Jim Lynch. The Highest Tide. London. Bloomsbury Publishing. 2014.
- Jonathan White, Peter Matthiessen. Tides: Science and Spirit of the Ocean. San Antonio, TX. Trinity University Press. 2017.