The health and wellbeing of thousands of species, and millions of people, is tied to the health and wellbeing of Puget Sound. So what are its vital signs? And how are they trending?

The Puget Sound Ecosystem Monitoring Program (PSEMP) Marine Waters Workgroup is a collective of researchers that supports monitoring efforts in Puget Sound and facilitates communication among scientists, decisionmakers, and other stakeholders. PSEMP’s fundamental goal is to assess progress toward the recovery of the health of Puget Sound. Each year, PSEMP compiles a report on the state of the Puget Sound Marine Waters.

Seattle Audubon contributes to these yearly assessments through our ongoing Puget Sound Seabird Survey (PSSS), a community science program that relies on trained volunteer observers who identify and count marine birds from shore using standardized protocols.

During Seattle Audubon’s 2019-2020 PSSS survey season, a total of 154 volunteers conducted 904 surveys at 155 sites. The data our volunteers collected are summarized in this year’s report. 

Read the Full Puget Sound Marine Waters Report

Seattle Audubon's PSSS and other surveys

Report findings overall

Despite the unusual conditions affecting the human population in 2020, environmental conditions were less anomalous. There were few extreme weather or ecological events in 2020, but overall, conditions in Puget Sound were generally warmer, sunnier, and wetter than in typical years. The report further reveals patterns and trends in numerous environmental parameters, including plankton, water quality, climate, and marine life. The observations in this report collectively provide both a comprehensive long-term view and current assessment of the Puget Sound marine ecosystem.

Specific findings related to wintering marine birds

One hundred and seventy-two bird species rely on the Puget Sound/Salish Sea marine ecosystem either year-round or seasonally. Of the 172 species, 73 are highly dependent upon marine habitat (Gaydos and Pearson 2011). Many marine birds (seabirds such as gulls and auklets, sea ducks such as scoters and mergansers, and shorebirds such as sandpipers and plovers) are at or near the top of the food web and are an important indicator of overall ecosystem health. Marine birds need sufficient and healthy habitat and food to survive.

All Species
The number of marine birds counted per PSSS survey ranged from 1-1,063 (median=32). Monthly averages were similar to the previous five seasons, but represented six-year lows in December, January, and February, and March (Figure [All Species chart]). A total of 59 species were detected, including diverse foraging guilds and both resident and migratory species.

Forage Fish Specialist
Diving forage fish specialists, which include alcids and grebes, have been identified by Vilchis et al. (2014) as a foraging guild that is vulnerable and declining in the Salish Sea. As is typical for birds in this system, we expected bird numbers to increase over the year and stabilize in the mid-winter months, reflecting migration and settlement into the system. However, in the 2019-2020 season, PSSS counts of forage fish specialists peaked in October and declined steadily through March (Figure [Forage Fish Specialists chart]). Counts of forage fish specialists in December, January, and February of the 2019-2020 season were the lowest of the last six seasons, and February counts were the lowest since PSSS began in the winter of 2008. Still, no clear seasonal pattern in forage fish specialist numbers emerges from year to year, possibly reflecting the dynamic and local variability in forage fish distribution and abundance.

As is the case for previous seasons, scoter counts were relatively stable from November to February, with mean numbers generally within the range of the previous five years (Figure [Scoters chart]).

Gull and Puget Sound | Stephen Pawlawski

Western Grebe | Mick Thompson | Eastside Audubon

Surf Scoter

Data: Seattle Audubon’s Puget Sound Seabird Survey (PSSS) – Peter Hodum (University of Puget Sound), Toby Ross, and Joshua Morris (Seattle Audubon)

Note: PSSS surveys were cancelled in April 2020 as part of Seattle Audubon’s pandemic response. Data for that month do not appear in the figures.

Rhinoceros Auklet

The full report also includes detailed information on the long-term reproductive success of another seabird, the Rhinoceros Auklet. Read the full report to learn more. 

Rhinoceros Auklet | Nikki Ginsert