New Project: San Juan Islands Herring Recovery

Pacific herring (Clupea pallasii), a major forage fish species in the eastern Pacific Ocean, are key prey for many marine species throughout their range, including for threatened salmonid species in Puget Sound. Puget Sound herring spawning stock biomass has been declining locally over the past 40 years, including the San Juan Island spawning populations. Salmon in the area of the San Juan Islands have been found to be particularly reliant upon herring for prey. At present, while there are many hypothesized causes of herring declines, there is little agreement on the primary cause or, therefore, the best management or policy actions for recovery. Lead Ecologist Tessa Francis is leading a 3-year effort to address this gap in understanding through 3 primary activities: (1) convene an expert elicitation workshop to evaluate key threats to San Juan Island herring; (2) quantify changes in the abundance and distribution of eelgrass used as spawning habitat for San Juan Island-spawning herring using historical data; and (3) monitor herring spawning sites to measure early-life-stage (i.e. embryonic) mortality rate.


In November 2017, Francis, with colleagues from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, convened an expert workshop to evaluate hypotheses about declines in herring in the Salish Sea, including the San Juan Islands. At present, Francis is developing a Qualitative Network Model to evaluate the relative support for different hypotheses about what is causing herring declines.


Habitat modeling, based upon a spatial model developed by NOAA scientist and PSI collaborator Ole Shelton, will be conducted in 2018. Field work is planned for the herring spawning season in 2019.




Fig. 1. Site-scale changes in eelgrass area at herring spawning sites in Puget Sound. This project supports the analysis of these patterns in the San Juan Islands. From Shelton et al. 2017.





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New Project: Salish Sea Herring Assessment and Conservation

Pacific herring (Clupea pallasii) are an abundant and foundational species in the Salish Sea. Presently, monitoring, assessment, and management efforts treat Salish Sea herring as two separate groups: a Puget Sound herring stock, and a Strait of George herring stock. Building on my previous work to evaluate limits to Puget Sound herring recovery, I have teamed up with Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife staff to evaluate the state of knowledge and provide recommendations on the conservation and management of Salish Sea herring.

We first formed a trans-boundary technical team comprised of tribes and First Nations scientists, agency scientists, and university scientists. Our team started by collecting leading hypotheses about the factors influencing changes in herring abundance and distribution in the Salish Sea. Those hypotheses, including shoreline development, contaminants and pollutants, and food web changes, were used to develop a conceptual model of Salish Sea herring, including key ecological connections and influencing factors. A public workshop was held at the Canada House of Western Washington University to review the conceptual model with additional experts from both sides of the border.

At present, I am developing a Qualitative Network Model, based on the conceptual model and the workshop results, which can be used to test the relative support for different hypotheses about key influences on herring abundance and distribution in the Salish Sea.

This work is funded by the SeaDoc Society and WA DFW collaborators are Dayv Lowry, Todd Sandell, and Phil Dionne.

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New Project: Nearshore restoration effectiveness

Starting this spring, I will be collaborating with researchers at NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center to assess the effectiveness of shoreline restoration projects for species and habitat beyond the beach and intertidal zones, including key species such as salmonids and Pacific herring.

The removal of hard armor from Puget Sound shorelines has become a high priority for the Puget Sound restoration program, with expected benefits for beach and intertidal communities, following reconnection of the terrestrial and marine habitats. However, connections between shoreline restoration and habitats and species deeper than intertidal habitats are presently largely ignored in monitoring efforts, even though beach-intertidal-subtidal processes are tightly linked. Restoring shorelines likely has impacts on multiple ecosystem endpoints found in deeper waters, including eelgrass, salmon, and herring.

In 2018 and 2019, we’ll be conducting monthly SCUBA, snorkel (even in March… brrr!), and seine surveys at existing armor removal sites, along with paired reference and armored sites, to monitor the effects of armor removal for subtidal habitats and species. This work is funded by a National Estuary Program-funded grant from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, and conducted with in collaboration with Dr. Jameal Samhouri at NOAA.


About me

I am an aquatic ecologist, and my research focuses on food webs and ecosystem dynamics. I’m interested in the important associations between terrestrial and aquatic habitats, and how watershed dynamics impact aquatic food webs and ecosystems.

At PSI, I am engaged in linking Puget Sound science to policy, and I lead a research program focused on ecosystem-based management of forage fish in Puget Sound, including Pacific herring; and food web dynamics, including trade-offs among trophically-linked recovery targets (e.g., salmon and herring).

I am also the Managing Director of the Ocean Modeling Forum, a joint project between UW’s School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences and NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center focused on improving the usefulness of models in ocean ecosystem management, using multi-model approaches.

I am also the Ecosystem-based Management Editor for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, and have worked in theater, film and television.

Ocean Modeling Forum – making models matter

Since the summer of 2014 I have been the Managing Director of the Ocean Modeling Forum, a joint project between the UW’s School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences and NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center. The Ocean Modeling Forum (OMF) supports ad hoc working groups formed around single ocean management issues (fisheries management, ocean acidification, spatial planning, energy, etc.). Our aim is to improve the usefulness of models in ocean ecosystem management – by bringing multiple models to bear on the same issue at once. Working groups are comprised of modelers, empiricists, managers, resource users, and stakeholders, and meet several times over the course of 1+ years.

The OMF is in start-up mode, and I’ve been wearing multiple hats: developing the agenda, hiring the facilitator, navigating the politics, and booking the caterer. It reminds me of working in fringe theater in the mid-1990s: everybody worked the box office, danced on stage, designed costumes, and painted the set.

Our final meeting of our first working group, focused on Pacific sardine, takes place later this month. Next week, we start our 2nd working group, focused on incorporating human dimensions and traditional knowledge into formal fisheries assessment processes, using Pacific herring as a case study. That working group with launch with a Herring Summit next week in Richmond, B.C.

The Summit in Richmond will be a rich, fascinating and hopefully productive meeting. We will have over 100 attendees, representing First Nations and tribes, NGOs, state/provincial and federal agencies, universities, industry, and the media. We will discuss issues ranging from the role of humpback whale predation on herring, to archaeological evidence of historical herring abundance, to how to measure equity and self-determination, and how those are influenced by fisheries management processes.

One thing is for sure — I’m going to learn a ton.

Follow the Ocean Modeling Forum on Twitter: @oceanmodeling and on our website

Herring Country Safari

Hood Canal never disappoints me.

We’re in year 2 of our herring habitat study, asking whether Puget Sound herring populations are limited by the availability of spawning habitat. Does egg mortality vary by spawning substrate? Is eelgrass a better place to put your eggs than, say, invasive brown algae? In year 1, we learned that egg mortality was the same across spawning substrate types: eelgrass, invasive brown algae, red algae — you name it. Substrate type doesn’t matter. What does matter, we found, is where that substrate occurs. We found greater differences in egg mortality among spawning sites — Elliott Bay versus, say, Hood Canal — than among spawning habitat within sites.

This year, we’re looking closely at why herring egg survival varies among spawning sites. Is it shoreline development? Is it water quality? Is it predation? This last one – the predation question – is by far the most fun to sample! We’re dropping cages on top of herring spawn and comparing egg loss rates (the number of eggs found on day 1 minus the number of eggs found on day 10, for example) inside and outside of cages. Big cages. Big old sablefish traps, in fact, thanks to our collaboration with NOAA Fisheries.


So last week we returned to our sampling site in Quilcene Bay on Hood Canal, following a tip from the Department of Fish & Wildlife that the herring were going nuts. And indeed they were, along with everything else!

The sun came out as our boat arrived on the spawning site, which had the tell-tale sign that eggs were in the water: birds. Hundreds of egg-eating birds: scoters, pigeon guillemots, mergansers, grebes. And the fish-eating types, too: cormorants and gulls.

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We soon discovered why: the spawning herring were still on site, 2 days after the report came in. Which meant there were both eggs and fish available for feasting, and so we were treated to a real Lion Country Safari, Puget Sound style. In addition to the diving birds and gulls, we counted 24 bald eagles on site, chasing after herring when they came to the surface.

Invertebrates were chowing down, too. This fella came on board attached to some red algae:

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I know it’s not cool, but I have to confess that what made me the happiest was watching no fewer than 2 dozen California sea lions chasing after herring, forcing the fish to flip out of the water in an effort to escape predation. [As evidence of exactly how uncool I behave when I see wildlife action, check out this video. Listen at your own peril!]   It was pretty amazing watching the gulls, eagles and sea lions chase after and fight over the fish. The divers were kind enough to bring me evidence of the massacre!


After gorging on fatty forage fish, the sea lions gathered in rafts out in deeper waters and basked, raising their flippers in the air. Not exactly sure what’s going on there, but they seemed fat, happy, and lazy.


As one colleague said to me after hearing about my day: “I guess the Sound isn’t toast after all.”

Plus, none of the sea stars we saw showed signs of wasting syndrome.

I gotta say, it was a good day.


A feathered feeding frenzy Friday

Well, we finally did it. We got onto some herring spawn at Birch Point (Cherry Point), home to the most dramatically declining herring sub-population in Puget Sound. We’d been waiting and waiting, and even got skunked on a hunt last week. But today, armed by a tip from our collaborators at Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, we hit gold. Herring gold. And we weren’t the only ones, as the photo attests. We saw hundreds of scoters, harlequin ducks, Bonapartes gulls, and other birds feasting on the fresh spawn. Diving, picking – there was constant action all around us.

We got some transects set, collected some eggs, and we’ll be back to do the same thing again next week. With any luck, it will be another gorgeous day.

Does the road to recovery for Puget Sound herring go through eelgrass?

I’m currently conducting my first field-based project in three years – it feels great! In collaboration with colleagues at the Northwest Fisheries Science Center (NOAA Fisheries) and the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), we are investigating the extent to which Pacific herring, which are declining around Puget Sound, are limited by spawning habitat. As noted in this post in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, herring spawn on nearshore vegetation, including eelgrass. Eelgrass patches are shrinking in some areas of Puget Sound, leading to questions about the links between declining herring populations and spawning habitat availability. We are estimating egg mortality rates across all spawning substrate types, in the field and in the lab, to dig deeper into this question. Stay tuned!

Field assistant for hire!

The Puget Sound Institute is hiring a research assistant position, to be filled ASAP. We’re looking for field and lab assistance with a Puget Sound herring project, beginning in February 2013. The project is a collaboration between the Puget Sound Institute (UW Tacoma) and NOAA.

We for sure need full-time help in late winter-early spring (Feb-April), and potentially part-time help for several months afterwards. There is also potential for part-time employment in 2014. The field work will include measuring herring egg mortality and collecting herring eggs in Puget Sound, and measuring egg mortality in a common garden lab experiment in the NOAA Manchester lab. Our ideal candidate will have boat experience and field experience.

The aim of the project is to determine spawning habitat limitation of herring in Puget Sound. It’s a 2-year project, and a mixture of field work, lab work and likely some analyses as well, depending on experience. Mainly, we need help with the field and lab work.

Interested parties should contact: Tessa Francis, tessa-at-uw-dot-edu.