Governor signs executive order to help protect southern resident orcas

Seattle Aquarium President & CEO Robert W. Davidson and Aquarium staff joined Governor Inslee, regional and tribal leaders, and environmental advocates at the Daybreak Star Cultural Center in support for our native southern resident orca population this past Wednesday.

The event marked the signing of a new plan by the governor that outlines a series of actions to help protect both our southern resident killer whales and chinook salmon—the primary food source of orcas native to the Salish Sea.

In his speech, the governor emphasized the cultural and economic importance of both species and the challenges they face. In Puget Sound, the population of southern resident orcas has declined from 98 in 1995 to just 76 today. Further the orcas’ primary food source, the chinook salmon, have also seen declines in their populations and are listed on federal and state endangered species lists.

The executive order forms a task force of stakeholders to make new recommendations on how we can better protect our orcas and salmon. The order also instructs seven state agencies to immediately boost orca recovery and outline long-term steps to better address factors leading to population decline. The order instructs the taskforce and agencies to work with leaders in British Columbia, Oregon, California, Idaho and Alaska to ensure strategies are coordinated and working together.

Governor signing order

As Gov. Inslee noted at the event, “Washington is lucky enough to have two iconic animals: orcas and salmon, whose destinies are both intertwined and in peril.”

Seattle is the world’s only major metropolitan area with a resident population of orcas and the fate of our three orca families, J, K and L pod, is linked to all of us. Human influences on the ocean ecosystem affect whales everywhere. Our southern resident orcas were listed as endangered in 2005. The Center for Biological Diversity has analyzed our local resident orca population and, if trends continue, our local pods could go extinct within 100 years—possibly as soon as 30 years from now.

The time to act is now, and we are excited to see Gov. Inslee, tribal leaders, local officials and many others taking steps to ensure we protect these incredible animals. If you would like to read Gov. Inslee’s executive order, you can view it here. Want to learn more about orcas? Check out some of the educational resources on our website, or visit the orca Family Activity Center the next time you’re at the Aquarium.


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Creature feature: amazing, long-lived rockfish

There are more than 100 different species of rockfish around the world; 68 of those are found along the Pacific coast of North America; 24 of them live in the waters of Puget Sound; and about 14 different species can be seen at the Seattle Aquarium!

All in the Scorpaenidae family

All rockfish species share some physical characteristics—such as jutting lower jaws and large dorsal fins with well-developed spines— but there are significant differences between the species as well. They can be anywhere from six inches to three feet long. They may be red, orange, black or green—and splotched or striped. They’re found at depths ranging from 40 to 2,000 feet. And they may group together in large schools or live solitary lives in their rocky homes.

Old timers

Compared to most other fish species, which live from two to 10 years, some rockfish species live very long lives—100 years or more! But there’s a downside: many longer-living rockfish don’t begin breeding until they’re nearly 20 years old. Because they’re susceptible to overfishing, that means that some rockfish don’t have a chance to reproduce before they’re caught and put on a dinner plate. That’s why most rockfish are listed as a species to avoid in sustainable seafood consumer guides.

Rockfish at the Seattle Aquarium

The rockfish pictured in our matching game below were collected by Aquarium staff last summer at Neah Bay on Washington’s outer coast. Regardless of where we collect rockfish, though, we focus on younger fish. Why? Choosing young fish gives you a chance to watch them grow through each of their different life stages. More importantly, some rockfish populations are threatened— and by leaving older, larger rockfish in the wild to reproduce, we limit our impact on their populations.

Research to understand rockfish population sustainability

Rockfish are listed as species of concern in Washington state, and some are listed as threatened (yelloweye) and endangered (bocaccio) under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). Understanding long-term population stability and young-of-year (YOY) recruitment events is important to the effective management of these species. With support from members and donors like you, the Seattle Aquarium has been documenting rockfish at five different research stations in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, just southeast of Neah Bay, since 2004. Since 2009, we’ve expanded the number of survey sites to include nine in Puget Sound, for a total of 14 sites that we survey semiannually to quarterly to gain insight into both seasonal and annual differences in rockfish numbers, and to document significant YOY recruitment events.

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Seattle Aquarium 2018 Hawaii reef research report: part 2 of 2

2018 marks the tenth consecutive year that Seattle Aquarium staff members have conducted Hawaiian reef fish and coral health research along the northwestern side of the Big Island of Hawaii. Follow along as Seattle Aquarium Curator of Conservation Research Shawn Larson recaps the experience. To read part 1, click here (link to first blog post).

Day 4: Thursday, January 25—a very fishy day!

Today we headed south to Kona to meet up with Mark Johnson, who took us out on his boat to survey site 8 south of Kona and just north of Captain Cook, where the acropora corals are. We can only survey this site by boat, and it was a perfect day to be on the water.

Site 8 was very fishy, but the corals here also bleached in 2016 and still haven’t recovered. We hope they look better the next time we’re there.

We motored back up north and surveyed sites 3 and 4, off Old Kona airport. They were very fishy—at least over 1,000 fish at each site. Awesome!

After our dives we stopped by the Division of Aquatic Resources (DAR) office to say hi to our partners there, Dr. Bill Walsh and his crew.

Day 5: Friday, January 26—a change of pace

Today we headed over to Hilo to give our talk at the University of Hawaii Hilo. It was attended by 30 students and locals, and went very well. We again shared information about the Aquarium, our plans for the future, and the results of our research. The students were very interested—our talk was 40 minutes long and they asked questions for nearly 30 minutes afterward! Back to Puako if the afternoon to have dinner with our past-years hosts, Dom and Marie Addario.

Day 6: Saturday, January 27—shark sighting!

Today we got to do some exploratory dives to see if there are areas that we could survey if we had more time. We explored areas north of site 1 and deeper that we hadn’t been to before. We found lots of schools of fish, garden eels and wire corals.

Then we drove south back to Kona to dive Crescent Beach, an area just south of the harbor. Here there were many fish and lots of healthy-looking corals. We even saw a tiger shark! Then we headed into town for dinner with our boat captain Mark and his wife April.

Day 7: Sunday, January 28—wrapping up

We couldn’t dive today as we are flying tomorrow, so all gear got an extra rinse and a complete dry for packing tomorrow. We returned all of our tanks and weights to Kohala Divers in Kuawahai and went back to Mike Budd’s house to relax. Later in the evening, we had dinner with Narrand and his wife Urmila, former owners of the Puako general store and super nice folks.

Day 8: Monday, January 29—all good things must come to an end

Time to say goodbye to Mike and Puako. It was a very successful trip—we were able to get all our surveys done, gave two talks, and made more partnerships and connections. Back to Seattle to start counting fish!

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Seattle Aquarium 2018 Hawaii reef research report: part 1 of 2

2018 marks the tenth consecutive year that Seattle Aquarium staff members have conducted Hawaiian reef fish and coral health research along the northwestern side of the Big Island of Hawaii. Follow along as Seattle Aquarium Curator of Conservation Research Shawn Larson recaps the experience.

Day 1: Monday January 22—arrival!

Landed in Kona at 5pm. Made a short stop to get gear totes and drove north about 30 miles to Puako, where we’ll be staying at the home of Mike Budd. Very nice place. We unloaded our bags and went shopping for food. Went to bed early as tomorrow we need to set up gear, get tanks and start surveys.

Day 2: Tuesday, January 23—first dives

Gear set up and tank run in the morning. The waves at Puako are 2–3’, which isn’t bad compared to past years when the surf was 4–6’. We checked the conditions and site 1 at Puako looked divable from shore. We jumped in and were able to get four underwater surveys done by lunchtime.

Puako is a fish replenishment area (FRA) which means there is no fish collecting for aquariums and fishing is limited to traditional methods such as throw and spears. The fish are doing well here but the coral is still recovering from a bleaching event in 2015–2016.

After lunch we headed north to Mahukona to get sites 6 and 7 done. This is an area open to all types of fishing and collecting but since 2009, when we first started coming here, the fish numbers are increasing!

Day 3: Wednesday, January 24—surf’s on our side

We have three sites done and it’s only our second day! Today we remained diving in Puako to survey site 2 and site 5 at the end of Puako road. The waves were 1’ today and that was great because both sites 2 and 5 are very difficult to dive from shore if the waves are 4–6’. Three times in the past 10 years we’ve had to dive these sites from boats—not shore. But not this year! We got site 5 done before lunch and site 2 done after lunch. Both were beautiful and full of fish!

In the evening we gave a talk to the Puako homeowners association at the old Puako church. About 20 homeowners attended our discussion about the Aquarium’s history with Hawaii fish, which we’ve been exhibiting for over 35 years; our plans for expansion with the new Ocean Pavilion showcasing Coral Triangle biodiversity; and the results of our research, which shows many species of fish increasing at all of our sites. We also shared the results from our first year of water quality testing, which shows water quality at depth where our surveys are is relatively good compared to surface water samples.

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Sea turtle Coral lands in sunny San Diego

As you may remember, last fall the Seattle Aquarium began rehabilitating an olive ridley sea turtle that had stranded along the Oregon coast (read our original blog post for all the details). We’re happy to report that, after months of expert care at the Aquarium, Coral recovered to the point that she was healthy enough for the next phase of her rehabilitation, at SeaWorld San Diego.

Coral sea turtle

In late January, she was safely transported—by the U.S. Coast Guard on board a C-27 cargo jet, no less!—to southern California. Accompanying her on the flight were Lab Specialist Amy Olsen of the Seattle Aquarium and Dr. Clarke from SeaWorld. After arriving, Coral quickly settled into one of the SeaWorld’s large, outdoor turtle pools, and began receiving care in the capable hands of SeaWorld’s staff.

Olive ridleys are considered to be the most abundant sea turtle species on Earth—but their numbers are declining, due largely to human impacts, and they are now protected under the Endangered Species Act. Their average life span in the wild is 50 years, and Senior Veterinarian Caitlin Hadfield estimates that Coral was between 18 and 25 years old, and very nearly fully grown. Which means that, assuming she recovers to the extent that she’s able to be released back into the wild, Coral should have many years to live her life in the open ocean. We at the Seattle Aquarium wish her all the best!

Olive ridley sea turtle fast facts:

What’s in a name?

The “olive” in this turtle’s name provides a clue—it refers to the species’ greenish skin and shell.

Home and (not) dry

Olive ridley sea turtles generally spend their lives in warmer waters (including the southern Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans), but they are also found further north. Solitary animals, they prefer the open ocean and may migrate thousands of miles across the sea every year.

Land ho!

Healthy olive ridleys don’t often come to shore—except during nesting season, when females gather on beaches to lay their eggs.

Small wonders

Along with their close relatives, Kemp’s ridley sea turtles, olive ridleys are the smallest sea turtle species: fully grown, they reach about two feet in length and weigh up to 100 pounds.

Dinner is served!

Olive ridley sea turtles eat mostly carnivorous diets composed of crabs, shrimp, jellyfish and snails.

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