Just when I thought we were beginning to understand how the Salish Sea ecosystem functions, new surprises have begun to pop up. In the past few months there have been reports of very large flocks of common murres and ancient murrelets in the Strait of Georgia. Both these species occur here but the number of birds has birders abuzz. In Puget Sound a Bryde’s whale, ringed seal and repeated sightings of pilot whales are creating a stir. What puzzles me is whether unusual species and sightings such as these reflect more eyes on the water, a greater interest in marine life, or some ecological change taking place.
To answer these questions requires at least two important things to happen. First, we need to have more information on a regular basis of our marine life. Much of that information in the past has been collected by scientists but with the electronic age upon us, there has been a resurgence of the role of the amateur marine biologist. Programs such as Bird Studies Canada’s Coastal Waterbird Survey, Orcanet and the Vancouver Aquariums’ cetacean sighting network are a few examples. Engaging the public in citizen science projects such as these can be of great help in collecting data over wide geographical areas. There are issues about data collection protocols and the data that one can and should expect amateurs to collect but those can be overcome.
Second, we need a better understanding of the ecology of the ocean to put these changes in perspective. Our understanding of marine ecosystems is in its infancy. The analysis requires a high level of skill best done by professionals in government, university and private labs. There is some resistance between these groups but I am seeing a willingness to explore collaborations. It could prove fruitful ground for both groups and for all of us.