The Salish Sea is just one of the many natural wonders of the Pacific Northwest and is located in southwest British Columbia and northwest Washington state. This sea is made up of a few more commonly known aquatic areas like the Puget Sound, the Strait of Georgia, and the Juan de Fuca Strait. There are many communities right along the Salish Sea shores (like Seattle in Washington and Vancouver in British Columbia) and even more animals that call this sea home.
- The Salish Sea Institute at WWU in Bellingham, WA
Salmon are one of the iconic animals of the Salish Sea and these animals play an important part in both the ecological health of the sea and local economy, as there are many people who rely entirely on catching wild salmon to sell. Salmon are anadromous, meaning that they’re born in fresh water, move to the sea, and eventually return to the same freshwater to reproduce. For Pacific Salmon, all will die within weeks of reproducing.
Appearance, length, weight, and lifespan will all differ based on the type of salmon and while salmon are found in several places around the world, there are several vital salmon species within the Salish Sea and Pacific Northwest area. These species include: pink, sockeye, coho, chum, chinook, steelhead, and chuttroat.
There are a few factors that have greatly impacted the population and health of salmon in the Salish Sea. The chinook salmon (Onchorhychus tshawytscha), for example, are the largest salmon but are greatly impacted by habitat changes like rising ocean temperatures and harvest rates. Plus, the populations of farmed salmon have also affected wild salmon populations and over this past summer, thousands of invasive Atlantic salmon escaped a fish farm just off of Cypress Island near Anacortes, Washington.
Salish Sea Orcas
Another iconic Salish Sea species is the orca (Orcinus orca), also known as the killer whale. Orcas primarily live in pods (family groups) that travel and hunt all together. These pods are led by the oldest females and up to five generations have been seen living all together (as calf orcas never leave their mothers!). These pods play a vital role in everyday life for orcas, as research has actually shown that these animals have an evolved, complex culture that differs from pod to pod. One pod’s vocalizations will sound slightly different from a neighboring pod and orcas that are father away will sound drastically different. Different pods of orcas will also have completely different diets, even if they live in the same general area.
Transient orcas in the Salish Sea will eat marine mammals like harbor seals but for the orcas known as the southern residents, they rely on salmon for most of their diet. So as the salmon populations decrease in the area, orcas are also greatly impacted and with only around 76 southern residents left, there’s not much wiggle room left for this species. Orcas are also impacted by pollution and noises and disturbances from boat traffic.
- Campaign launched to save killer whales that are running out of food, Alison Morrow King5News
Pacific White-sided Dolphins
Pacific white-sided dolphins aren’t only found in the Salish Sea, as they’re also found throughout the north Pacific Ocean. But it wasn’t until a few years ago that these animals were spotted again by whale watchers in the Salish Sea area and off the coast of Alaska. These dolphins are aptly named for how they look – their sides and underneath are white while dark gray on top.
Like orcas, pacific white-sided dolphins spend a lot of their time in groups, often referred to as lags. But these groups can often be very large, as there are some groups that number in the thousands. In British Columbia, there’s an estimated 25,000 pacific white-sided dolphins that live along the shores but there have been issues attempting to see the same dolphin again. The SeaDoc Society has actually sent out a call for people to help track the population of these dolphins in the Salish Sea.
As far as age, these dolphins have a life span range of 37-46 years old and have been spotted hanging out with other animals like northern right white dolphins, Risso’s dolphins, common dolphins, and even a few whales. However, these dolphins aren’t friendly with all other animals, as their predators include transient killer whales and in some parts of their range, sharks.
Back in September, I wrote about the Sea Otter Awareness Week. These animals are found in the coastal areas of the North Pacific Ocean and have a range from the shores of Japan, along the coast of Alaska, and all the way down the coast of North America to Baja, California. Similar to salmon, these animals are important to the ecological health of an ecosystem because they’re a keystone species and help to maintain the surrounding environment.
All of these animals are just a few that call the Salish Sea home. This area is home to a wide range of coastal waterways and animals, all of which are important to the ecosystem and culture of the Pacific Northwest.