Please select your home edition
Edition
Selden

What is nearshore habitat and why does it matter to orcas?

by NOAA Fisheries 28 Jun 15:14 UTC
Young salmon © NOAA Fisheries

There is an especially valuable environment in Puget Sound made up of the beaches, bluffs, inlets, and river deltas: the nearshore.

Nearshore habitat matters to Southern Resident killer whales because their primary prey, Chinook salmon, need them to grow and find safety when they are young. Unfortunately, we have been losing these habitats in Puget Sound to industrial and residential development and agriculture.

Southern Resident Killer Whales eat salmon, primarily Chinook salmon. The whales search out and rely upon the ever-changing abundance of many different Chinook salmon runs up and down the Pacific Coast. Puget Sound Chinook salmon are one of the most important of these for the Southern Residents' recovery. Puget Sound Chinook salmon, however, are themselves threatened with extinction.

Killer whales eat Chinook salmon when the fish have grown into adults three years old and weighing close to 30 pounds. The salmon are headed back from the ocean through Puget Sound to their home rivers to lay their eggs. To make it to adulthood, though, these fish need to survive their adolescence as "juveniles" or "fry." That's where the nearshore zone comes in.

Tiny young Chinook salmon emerge from the gravel where they hatched from eggs in the rivers of Puget Sound and the Salish Sea—the Skagit, Elwha, Nisqually, and others. Then the young fish follow one of several different strategies to grow as juveniles before heading out to the ocean. They can rear in the river and freshwater floodplains or head downstream to the great tidal river deltas. They can also head all the way out into Puget Sound looking for safety along the shore in pocket estuaries, kelp and eelgrass beds, coastal creeks, or lagoons.

"Restoring good habitat to support all of these different juvenile life history variations is really important for recovering salmon populations in Puget Sound," says Correigh Greene, Research Biologist with NOAA Fisheries' Northwest Fisheries Science Center.

Good habitat for juvenile Chinook salmon means hiding spots from predators, such as birds and other fish. It also means lots of space to grow without competition for food from other young salmon, explains Greene. "We need more Chinook salmon surviving the early life stages, making it through the gauntlet of predators," says Greene. Larger juveniles that have grown in rich rearing habitat have a better chance of avoiding predation.

Decades of profound alteration to the shorelines and estuaries of Puget Sound, however, has resulted in the loss and degradation of these habitats. They no longer provide enough safety and space for juvenile salmon. We have drained tidal deltas for agriculture, developed industrial ports and marinas, and armored our beaches, reducing the food they contribute to nearshore ecosystems. More than 30 percent of the Puget Sound shoreline has bulkheads or other "hard armor" instead of a natural waterfront. This data comes from Shore Friendly, a collaboration between Washington State Departments of Fish and Wildlife and Natural Resources and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

What are we doing to restore Nearshore Habitats?

Partners across Puget Sound are working to restore the nearshore environment on the massive, comprehensive scale that will make a difference.

The Puget Sound Nearshore Ecosystem Restoration Project coordinates with a range of government agencies, universities, tribes, and environmental organizations. They are working to bring restoration to many corners of the 2,500 miles of shoreline in Puget Sound. Washington State's Estuary and Salmon Restoration Program, is administering $10 million in funding for 24 projects across Puget Sound for 2019 to 2020. Projects will include:

  • Removing levees along estuaries
  • Removing armoring on beach shorelines to allow for lower-energy more natural beaches
  • Restoring tidal channels through salt marsh that will provide foraging habitat and refuge for juvenile salmon
NOAA Fisheries has a special role in protecting and restoring nearshore habitat because it is so important to species listed under the Endangered Species Act. It is also crucial for fish stocks important to commercial, recreational, and tribal fisheries managed under the Magnuson-Stevens Act. We review actions by other federal agencies that affect nearshore habitat and helpthem find ways to offset, or mitigate, the effects of those actions.

NOAA Fisheries also supports salmon habitat restoration through its Restoration Center and by administering the Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund. These programs invest millions of dollars a year in restoring nearshore habitat, especially in estuaries that are especially important to Puget Sound Chinook salmon. We work with partners, such as the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. We use the latest science to focus restoration funding where it will do the most good for Southern Resident killer whales.

In the coming weeks, we will share examples of successful nearshore restoration occurring around Puget Sound and what you can do to help.

Southern Resident Connections

Southern Resident killer whales are icons of a vibrant but struggling marine ecosystem that is important to us all. Join us in exploring the ecological connections that tie this system together, and the ways we are protecting and working to recover the whales we all care so much about.

Read more entries

Related Articles

North Atlantic right whales classification updated
There are about 400 individuals remaining, and likely fewer than 100 breeding females The International Union for Conservation of Nature recently changed its Red List Category for North Atlantic right whales from Endangered to Critically Endangered. Posted today at 10:53 am
Returning rescued sea turtles to the wild
Learn about the operations that go into rescuing, rehabilitating and releasing protected sea turtles We work with organizations along the Atlantic coast to help rescue and rehabilitate protected animals such as sea turtles. A successful rescue takes months of work and coordination between many partners. Posted on 27 Jun
Twentymile river whale update
It lingered in the river for more than a week The gray whale that was first reported in Twentymile River near Girdwood, Alaska on Memorial Day has likely died. It had lingered in the river for more than a week before swimming back into Turnagain Arm. Posted on 27 Jun
Celebrating sea turtle conservation
Conserving and protecting sea turtles is a part of our core mission at NOAA Fisheries NOAA Fisheries is committed to the protection, conservation, and recovery of sea turtles. We conduct research to inform conservation management actions and we work closely with our partners to advance conservation and recovery of these amazing animals. Posted on 22 Jun
Large whale entanglements report confirmed in US
More than 100 large whale entanglements were confirmed nationally in 2018 Many large whale populations are increasing in the United States, but entanglements in fishing gear or marine debris are a growing threat to the continued welfare and recovery of these species. Posted on 20 Jun
Autonomous vehicles help scientists estimate fish
An innovative scientific approach to survey Alaska pollock this year Scientists are capitalizing on existing technological capabilities and partnerships to collect fisheries data. This will help fill the information gap resulting from the cancellation of FY20 ship-based surveys due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Posted on 5 Jun
Newly weaned seal pup needs community help
NOAA and partners are requesting beach goers and ocean users keep their distance A recently weaned female Hawaiian monk seal pup has been resting along the shoreline and swimming in the waters along O'ahu's Kaiwi Coastline. She has appeared near some busy beach areas and hauled out in areas with a lot of vehicle activity on the beach. Posted on 30 May
Researchers probe orca poop for microplastics
What are microplastics and why are researchers looking for them in whale feces? You might worry about your toddler chewing on a plastic toy with toxic chemicals. Some orca researchers are beginning to worry about whales ingesting a gut full of microplastics, and what that might mean for their health. Posted on 29 May
Busy Atlantic hurricane season is expected
Multiple climate factors indicate above-normal activity is most likely An above-normal 2020 Atlantic hurricane season is expected, according to forecasters with NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, a division of the National Weather Service. Posted on 24 May
Team frees entangled humpback whale
Multiple sets of fishing gear were so heavy, they 'anchored the whale in place' A trained response team on Monday freed a humpback whale in Monterey Bay. It had become so severely entangled and weighed down by commercial dungeness crab fishing gear that it could not move. Posted on 23 May
Grapefruit Graphics 2019 - FooterCyclops Marine 2020 - FOOTERNorth Sails 2019 - NSVictoryList - Footer