Of Orcas and Oysters

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A seminar on endangered orcas is just one way UW Tacoma is engaged with the Puget Sound ecosystem.

Millions of people live their lives on and near the shores of the Salish Sea, as the international body of water that includes Puget Sound is known. On a sunny day, we may see it from afar or up close and marvel at the beauty. Shimmering light dancing on the waves, enrobed by emerald greenery, majestic mountains as the backdrop—it all looks so healthy and pristine.

Only relatively recently have many of us learned how fragile it is, how interconnected, and how much what we as humans do or don’t do affects it. That’s the thing about an ecosystem: it knows no boundaries. All the individual activities of living things in the ecosystem are totaled into an equilibrium. And that equilibrium will shift as one or another of those inputs comes and goes.

The fragile and shifting equilibrium of the Puget Sound and the larger Salish Sea ecosystem includes everything from oysters to orcas. Aside from the alliteration, why single out those two living creatures? Because they are windows into the ways the South Sound community is engaged with ecosystem research and restoration.


UW Tacoma is the venue for a talk about orcas organized by Citizens for a Healthy Bay, on May 17. The event, titled “Hope for Orcas,” features Ken Balcomb, an expert on Southern resident killer whales (SRKW), as some of the orcas that frequent Puget Sound are known. Joining Balcomb will be Jim Waddell, a retired civil engineer.

Balcomb and Waddell will discuss a range of actions in the Salish Sea and in the Columbia/Snake River system that could improve the outlook for the survival of orcas. Balcomb is the founder and chief scientist with the Center for Whale Research, an organization that has been collecting detailed demographic data on the SRKW population for over 40 years. Among other findings, they have determined that the so-called “resident” population of orcas in Puget Sound spends as much as 95% of their time outside the waters of the Salish Sea. To a greater extent than previously known, their reliance on Chinook salmon as a food source includes salmon that originate in the Columbia/Snake Rivers system.

Jim Waddell uses historical and empirical evidence and information from government agencies to show that it is immediately feasible to decommission and breach the four hydroelectric and navigation dams in the Snake River, a position he outlined in a 2016 Seattle Times op-ed.

The talk will be in William W. Philip Hall on the UW Tacoma campus. It is co-sponsored by the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium, the Center for Whale Research, Damsense, Friends of the Earth, Orca Network and the Endangered Species Coalition.

 Killer whale image courtesy Center for Whale Research.

Orcas II

The Tokitae Totem Pole Journey is an indigenous-led movement to return an orca, Tokitae, that was captured from Puget Sound waters almost 50 years ago. The orca, now at the Miami Seaquarium and known there as Lolita, has been the subject of return efforts for 25 years. The Lummi Nation, near Bellingham, is mounting a journey of totem poles down the West coast ending at the Miami Seaquarium. The 9,000-mile, 23-day journey stops in Seattle, Tacoma, Portland, San Diego, Austin, Tex., and Houston, and ends in Miami on May 27.

UW Tacoma senior Amy Boucher, who is majoring in Urban Studies, has been involved with planning for the Tacoma stop of the journey, on May 11, at Tacoma’s First Methodist Church. Although the immediate call to action is the return of Tokitae, the journey highlights at each stop local indigenous-led actions for restoration and protection of ecosystems such as the Salish Sea.

The Miami Seaquarium has been the home for 45 years of "Lolita," a Southern Resident Killer Whale.


UW Tacoma Associate Professor Bonnie Becker and her students are working to return Olympia oysters to Puget Sound. Olympias are the only oyster native to the west coast of North America, and used to range widely throughout bays and estuaries up and down the coast, including the Salish Sea.

A combination of overfishing, poor water quality and shoreline changes led to the commercial extinction of the oysters from most west coast locations in the 19th century, and from Puget Sound by the 1940s. Small populations of oysters still existed, especially in the South Sound, but not at densities that could sustain commercial use.

The decline of native oyster populations in the Sound has an effect on the ecosystem. Oysters are natural water filters. Each oyster will filter up to 2.5 gallons of water per hour, improving water quality. Oysters gather together in reefs, which harbor other marine life and protect shorelines from erosion.

Dr. Becker and her students have been researching whether efforts to restore Olympia oysters are resulting in sustainable populations. They are using a method of tracking the movements of oyster larvae through “trace elemental fingerprinting,” which allows researchers to track a much greater volume of larvae much more efficiently than other methods, such as staining.

Oysters II

If it isn’t obvious yet, one point of this story is that humans are an integral part of the Puget Sound ecosystem. The impact comes from the accretion of the myriad of individual activities of people as they go about their lives.

But there’s not much that’s compelling about an aggregate mass. It’s the individual stories that make us sit up and take notice.

One such story is Hozoji Matheson-Margullis. She’s a research tech in Dr. Bonnie Becker’s lab (see above). She was a commercial geoduck diver. She is also a well-known drummer from rock band Helms Alee and alt-metal band Lozen. She is an emerging marine scientist and a future student in UW Tacoma’s environmental science program. And she is a member of the Puyallup Tribe of Indians, UW Tacoma’s tribal sponsor.

A recent profile in Motherboard, VICE Media’s science and tech site, tells her story.

Hozoji Matheson-Margullis,research tech in UW Tacoma's Becker Lab


A UW Tacoma outpost on the Thea Foss Waterway, the Center for Urban Waters is home to an inter-disciplinary team of research scientists and staff who examine the sources, pathways and impacts of chemical pollutants in urban waterways, which feature prominently (both the pollutants and the waterways) in the Puget Sound ecosystem.

Akin to the old saying about the flapping of butterfly wings in Brazil leading ultimately to tornados in Texas, the grimy, soapy water from washing your car in front of your house might end up as toxic substances accumulating in salmon, and ultimately the fatty tissue of animals like orcas at the top of the food chain.

Your car-wash water is one example of toxic runoff, the most prevalent and the hardest of all the kinds of urban water contamination to control and reduce. There may be hundreds or thousands of chemicals present in just one sample of runoff. One of the greatest challenges is even knowing what the chemicals are, and what toxic effects they may have in the ecosystem.

This is where the Center for Urban Waters is making a difference. The Center houses some highly sensitive analytical equipment that scientists can use to do a range of things, from confirming the presence of a suspected substance in a sample (something like finding a needle in a haystack), to teasing out all the different chemicals present (something like tracing all the strands in the haystack back to their source fields).

The analytical techniques they use go by names such as HRMS (high-resolution mass spectrometry) or LC/QTOF (liquid chromatography/quadrupole time-of-flight mass spectrometry). The research at the Center using these techniques is breaking new ground in urban stormwater research in the U.S.

A dying female coho salmon in the Lower Duwamish spotted by Puget Soundkeeper volunteers in October 2017. Photo: Kathy Peter

Written by: 
John Burkhardt / May 9, 2018
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or johnbjr@uw.edu