The Salish Sea

photo by: European Space Agency 2021

The Salish Sea watershed is a phenomenal place — one of the world’s largest and biologically rich inland seas.

The facts are impressive*:

  • Over 6,500 square miles of sea surface
  • A watershed covering nearly 42,000 square miles
  • One of the finest estuaries in North America. Estuaries — places where freshwater and saltwater merge — are among the most biologically productive places on earth
  • Over 4,600 miles of coastline and 419 islands
  • The lowest point is over 2,000 feet deep
  • Estimated number of marine animal species: 37 mammals, 172 birds, 253 fish, and more than 3,000 invertebrates
  • Number of animal species listed as at-risk or vulnerable to extinction: 126, including many forage fish, salmon, and southern resident orcas
  • Home to nearly nine million people in two countries, including over 50 tribes and First Nations

* Information adapted from the SeaDoc Society, a marine science organization in the Salish Sea.

Map adapted from, and courtesy of, Dr. Aquila Flower. From “State of the Salish Sea” by Kathryn L. Sobocinski
photo by: source test

Since 1982 we have introduced hundreds of thousands of people to the wonders of the Salish Sea in our exhibits and programs at Fort Worden State Park. Why? Because these waters are amazing—beautiful, dynamic, and brimming with life—and because humans and oceans are interconnected. Our survival depends on healthy seas and oceans worldwide.

We believe humans have a responsibility to be better stewards of our marine environment. And we know this is possible.

Nearshore habitats

The Port Townsend Marine Science Center has always paid special attention to our nearshore habitats. Why? Because these narrow zones, where land and sea meet, are critical to the health of the entire watershed. Twice daily ebb and flood tides set a rhythm along the 4,600 miles of shoreline, supporting an astonishing diversity of life.

Visit our Aquarium and Museum in Fort Worden State Park to learn more.

Tidal flats

Water slows as it enters the bays, inlets, and estuaries of the Salish Sea, depositing fine sediments that cover the gently sloping seafloor, creating mudflats and sand beds. While many animals thrive here, the estuarine mudflats were once dominated by the only oyster native to the Pacific Northwest, the Olympia oyster.

Whidbey Island
photo by: USGS/Shawn Harrison

One of the most ecologically important species of seagrass is eelgrass. In addition to providing habitat to diverse marine life, its decomposing leaves contribute significant amounts of organic nutrients, boosting productivity in surrounding areas. Eelgrass slows water
movement and wave action, protecting the shoreline and capturing marine nutrients.

Bainbridge State Park
photo by: USGS/David Ayers
Rocky intertidal

At low tide, intertidal animals are exposed to hot sun or freezing temperatures while seagulls, otters, and other scavengers patrol for a meal. Crabs and fish take refuge in pools or under rocks to avoid exposure, while
anemones and barnacles close up tightly for protection against the sun and predators.

photo by: Wendy Feltham

Pilings, piers, and docks dot developed coastlines, in many areas dominating natural habitats. Marine animals have found ways to make these artificial structures their homes. Gaze under a dock and you’ll discover a beautiful world.

photo by: Bobbee Davidson
Surge zone

Below crumbling bluffs and along rocky points, waves crash against the shore. The plants and animals living here are tenacious, each possessing an extraordinary
ability to cling tightly and keep from being swept away.

Lime Kiln Point State Park, San Juan Island
photo by: LoweStock
Seagrass meadows

If you glance over a pier railing outside, you may see grass growing underwater in one of the most productive and valuable habitats in the biosphere — a seagrass meadow. These underwater meadows provide nursery habitat for fish and food for invertebrates. They also stabilize sediment, filter harmful bacteria,
and absorb carbon and nitrogen.

Kelp forest

Kelp forests are one of the most remarkable ecosystems in the world! Found in cool marine waters around the globe, kelp forests’ diverse communities are
comparable to coral reefs and rainforests. In North America, kelp forests provide habitat for over 1,000 species of plants and animals such as fish, invertebrates, sea otters, sea lions, and whales.

photo by: Florian Graner Sealife Productions
Rocky reef

Below the stresses of the dynamic intertidal, but still within reach of the sun’s rays, the rocky reefs are home to countless species of fish, invertebrates, and seaweed. Boulders and rocks create refuges from strong currents and provide hard surfaces for invertebrates to attach to.

photo by: Florian Graner Sealife Productions
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