'Once There Were Thousands:' WWU's John Bower researching the declining numbers of Salish Sea marine birds

Once there were thousands, now there are hundreds.

The number of marine birds in Salish Sea have been greatly reduced over recent decades, according to research by John Bower, a professor at Western Washington University’s Fairhaven College of Interdisciplinary Studies.

Bower’s research reveals an alarming drop in many seabird populations; since 1979, 25 out of the 37 species he surveyed have shown population declines. Out of those 25 species, 12 of them lost more than 60 percent of their populations between 1979 and 2005.

“You could go out in the 1970s in the winter and see thousands of Western grebes every day. Now you are lucky if you see 100,” Bower said. “When you realize that this part of the world has only been settled by non-native peoples for 150 years, it is startling how quickly we have caused major declines in the numbers of marine birds in the Salish Sea.”

Bower’s research compares data collected by multiple studies: the Marine Ecosystem Analysis (MESA) in 1978 and 1979, Puget Sound Ambient Monitoring Program (PSAMP) from 1990 to the present, and his own data from 2003 to the present.

Other birds that Bower’s research show to be in decline locally also include the common murre, red-throated loon, marbled murrelet, Bonaparte’s gull and Brandt’s cormorant.

“There has been some research showing major declines, and my research is designed to independently test that research,” Bower said. “I knew there were declines, but when we did our work and continue to do our work, we mostly corroborate those findings. There are about 13 species of the 40 or so species that are common in our water showing very significant declines. So, yes, it is a little shocking.”

Bower conducted his research by counting birds along ferry paths and from points along the shoreline from Whidbey Island all the way up to near Vancouver, B.C.  He counted birds with the help of about a dozen Western Washington University students, over a two-year period. In each research team, two of the students used binoculars and scopes to count bird species and two interns recorded the census data. Between 2003 and 2005 they conducted 1584 counts at 111 shore locations in northern Puget Sound and counted from three ferries every month. Bower chose the locations and ferry paths to match MESA’s methodology.

Marine bird research is important because these species are vital indicators of overall ecosystem health, the proverbial "canary in a coal mine," a point echoed by Nathalie Hamel, the Puget Sound Partnership’s Vital Signs reporting lead.

“These species are very sensitive to changes in their ecosystems,” Hamel said. “A decrease in the population of an indicator species could be due to a decrease in their food supply, quality of food, their nesting environment being destroyed or disturbed, overhunting by predators, or changing ocean conditions."

Hamel added that reductions in Salish Sea marine bird populations does not necessarily mean they are dying off, which data outside the area seems to support for some species, a point that Scott Pearson, a project lead and senior research scientist for Washington’s Department of Fish and Wildlife, agreed with.

“Some species have redistributed themselves,” said Pearson. “The Western Grebe is a species that has declined locally by at least 90 percent. But at the same time, its population has shifted south out of the state, all the way to California.”

Bower said it is hard to tell what the impact of a fluctuating population might be on the ecosystem, or what has occurred to either kill off local populations or drive them south.

“My research is about finding out which species we have to worry about, which species we don’t have to worry about, and looking at the health of these particular bodies of water over a period of time,” he said.


Editor’s Note: This is the first installment on a serious of summer articles focusing on faculty research in Western’s Fairhaven College of Interdisciplinary Studies.