Wildlife Health
Olympic Coast

killer whales swimming
Key species, such as killer whales, can provide indications about the health of the region’s ecosystem. Credit: OCNMS, NOAA

Why is it a concern?

For "key" species in marine sanctuaries (keystone species, foundation species, indicator species, other focal species) measures of population health or condition can be important in evaluating the likelihood these species will persist or recover, and continue to provide vital ecosystem functions and services. Measures of health may include growth rates, fertility, recruitment, age-specific survival, tissue contaminant levels, pathologies (disease incidence, tumors, deformities), injuries and the presence and abundance of critical symbionts or parasite loads.

Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary's 2008 Condition Report identifies sea otters, killer whales, rockfish, and Common Murres as key species that provide indications about the health of the region's ecosystem. The sea otter population is growing but has been exposed to several pathogens, although demonstrable effects have not been identified.  Washington's sea otters have relatively low levels of chemical contaminants. Other top predators, such as killer whales, can carry high contaminant loads (e.g., PCBs and PBDEs) in their blubber, which has been linked to compromised immune systems and reproductive success.

Because they are targeted by fisheries, rockfish generally have reduced numbers of larger, older fish, which produce significantly more eggs per female than younger adult females and larvae with higher growth rates and greater ability to withstand starvation. In recent years, overfished stocks of some rockfish have shown signs of population recovery following implementation of fishery management measures to reduce overfishing.

Common Murres have experienced disturbance, reduced breeding success and mortality from oil spills and predation by raptors and gulls. Breeding failures in some years have been attributed to low food supply during critical breeding periods. Marbled Murrelets, an ESA-listed species that nests in old growth trees and forages in marine waters, had low nesting success in recent years, which may inhibit or slow the rate of their population recovery.

Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary is working with partners to develop a robust and functional set of indicator species, which should be available to inform the next Condition Report.

Overview of Research

Research conducted by sanctuary scientists and partners provides critical information to address existing and emerging resource conservation and management issues. The Overview of Research highlights some, but not necessarily all, of the research activities completed or ongoing at the sanctuary.

Project Name PI and contacts Links

Sea Otter census



http://www.fws.gov/wafwo/pdf/WA%20NSO%20SAR_Aug2008_final.pdf (stock assessment report)

http://wdfw.wa.gov/publications/00314/ (2004 sea otter recovery plan)

Seabird ecology


http://wdfw.wa.gov/conservation/research/projects/seabird/marbled_murrelet_population/ (Marbled Murrelet population trends)

Orca health





common murres gather at breeding grounds
Past research on the condition of Common Murres have shown that breeding failures in some years have been attributed to low food supply during critical breeding periods. Credit: OCNMS, NOAA

Science Needs and Questions

The best available science is used by sanctuary scientists and managers working to address priority resource conservation and management issues. As priorities change and new issues emerge, each sanctuary develops new science needs and questions and works with partners to address them.

  • What is the suite of indicator species for which data exists or can be obtained to monitor the condition of various habitats of the sanctuary? 
  • What are existing levels of anthropogenic noise, and what impacts to marine wildlife occur because of a degraded acoustic environment?
  • What are the primary constituent elements of habitats that are necessary to support healthy populations of key species?
  • How are oceanographic dynamics, including upwelling and productivity, linked to seabird colony breeding success and other seabird population dynamics?
  • Can unmanned aircraft systems be employed effectively for wildlife census work to minimize the risk of aircraft operations to researchers and reduce the disturbance to marine wildlife?
  • Are fisheries management measures leading to recovery of overfished species and sustainable fisheries? 

Education and Outreach Material

Please refer to the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary website to learn more about education and outreach materials.


Berkeley, S.A., C. Chapman, and S.M. Sogard. 2004. Maternal age as a determinant of larval growth and survival in a marine fish, Sebastes melanops. Ecology Letters 85: 1258-1264.

Brancato, M. S., J.W. Davis, R. Jameson. C.E. Bowlby, and L. Milonas. 2006. Chemical Contaminants, Pathogen Exposure and General Health Status of Live and Beach-Cast Washington Sea Otters (Enhydra lutris kenyoni). Lacy, WA, Department of Interior, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Region 1: 175.

Lance, M.M., S.A. Richardson, and H.L. Allen. 2004. Washington state recovery plan for the sea otter. Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Olympia. 91 pp.

Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. 2008. Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary Condition Report 2008. U.S. Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, Silver Spring, MD. 72 pp.

PFMC (Pacific Fishery Management Council). 2014. Status of the Pacific Coast Groundfish Fishery. Stock Assessment and Fishery Evaluation. December 2014. Pacific Fisheries Management Council, Portland, OR.

Raphael, M.G. and T.D. Bloxton. 2008. Breeding ecology of the Marbled Murrelet in Washington State. Project update 2004-2007. Report to U.S.D.A. Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station. Olympia, WA. 32 pp.

Ross, P.S., G.M. Ellis, M.G. Ikonomou, L.G. Barrett-Lennard, and R.F. Addison. 2000. High PCB concentrations in free-ranging Pacific killer whales, Orcinus orca: Effects of age, sex and dietary preference. Marine Pollution Bulletin 40(6): 504-515.

Warheit, K.I., and C.W. Thompson. 2003. Common Murre Uria aalge. Pages 12-11 - 21-13 in E.M. Larsen, J.M. Azerrad, and N. Norstrom, editors. Management Recommendations for Washington's Priority Species - Volume IV: Birds. Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Olympia, WA.