Research Goals & Objectives

  • Monitor harbor porpoises and harbor seals using photo-identification (photo-ID) and behavior surveys from land-based observation point in Burrows Pass and boat based surveys of surrounding waters.
  • Create and maintain a photo-ID catalog and sighting database of harbor porpoise and harbor seal individuals for Burrows Pass and the surrounding waters.
  • Collaborate with other research organizations, naturalists and public to collect photos from different locations in the Salish Sea to create an online repository where photos and sighting data can be easily uploaded to be included in our database.
  • Collect data on underwater environmental and anthropogenic sounds using passive acoustic monitors, and correlate with marine mammal presence and behavior.
  • Publish scientific papers and present at scientific conferences, public events, and community groups.

Meet The Mammals

The harbor porpoise (Phocoena phocoena vomerina) is a year-round resident of the Salish Sea. It reproduces quickly (in comparison with other cetaceans) at one calf per year and is top predator feeding on small forage fish.  It is sensitive to environmental and anthropogenic changes, making it an ideal indicator species. However, there is surprisingly little information on this cetacean, now relatively high in abundance in local inland waters.

Harbor seals (Phoca vitulina richardii) are abundant, year-round residents of the Salish Sea.  They are top predators that reproduce on a yearly basis.  Previous studies on abundance, distribution, food habits, contaminant levels, disease, and life history have all shown measurable changes over time,  indicating susceptibility of this species to environmental and anthropogenic changes. These attributes make them a valuable indicator species.  However, much of this information has been collected on a larger scale, with less focus on the long-term monitoring of individual animals and local populations.

Long-Term Monitoring

Harbor Porpoises

PacMam has successfully adapted traditional photo-ID techniques for the harbor porpoise.  This has not been the subject of many identification studies previously due to their lack of obvious natural markings.  We use features such as pigmentation, coloration, scars, and dorsal fin markings to identify harbor porpoise individuals and track them over time.

We created a unique identification matrix that includes 8 categories of markings, with 3-6 variables for each, allowing a standardized way to describe different identification marks.  We have identified and re-sighted individuals over days, weeks, months and years and currently have over 90 identified individuals in our catalog.

Meet Jaws! One of our favorites, this female harbor porpoise has distinctive coloration on her flank that reminds us of a great white shark. We have seen her many times, including with a calf.

This porpoise was named Dodge, as it looks like it dodged a bullet! It is another regular to Burrows Pass, and has many scars and abrasions from a few ‘close calls’. Dodge is one of the first porpoises we identified!

In the complex societies of marine mammals, knowing individuals allows researchers to better understand many aspects of their society such as site fidelity, behavior, grouping, habitat use, and association and movement patterns. This is particularly important for the harbor porpoise, which is a very poorly understood species.

Harbor Seals

Although photo-ID of harbor seals was determined possible in the 1990s, little work on individual identification has been conducted in the Salish Sea. Given the documented usefulness of photo-ID studies in many species, such research could offer unique insights into harbor seal population parameters, site fidelity and behavior.

Harbor seals are identified by distinct pelage patterns on their neck and sides.  We have just begun identifying and re-sighted individual seals.  Additionally, a matrix is being constructed which will be standardized for each body part, similar to the porpoise identification matrix. 

This is Treasure, named for the “X” mark on its back (“X marks the spot”!).

Hedwig is one of our favorite seal names, named after the owl from the Harry Potter series. This young seal was seen within a few days apart in Burrows Pass.

Passive Acoustic Monitoring

To learn more about the soundscape these animals live in, PacMam deployed a fixed passive acoustic monitoring (PAM) system designed for long-term monitoring of natural and anthropogenic sounds. This underwater ‘microphone’ will allow us to learn more about the habitat these animals choose to use on a regular basis, and may even let us record their vocalizations!

We plan to create an online portal where you can listen to some of the sounds we record, and to learn more about the underwater soundscape of Burrows Pass. Sign up for our Newsletter to keep updated on this exciting new project!

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Harbor Porpoise STaRS

In conjunction with The Salish Sea School, PacMam is proud to host upcoming researchers through the Harbor Porpoise STaRS Program.

STaRS (Student Training as Research Scientists) is a year-long marine science field research training program culminating in a project presentation of the research experience. Students can choose from several project options, each hosted by local researchers.

In Harbor Porpoise STaRS, students will work with Dr. Cindy Elliser and PacMam to conduct their own land-based projects on harbor porpoises. Through a combination of virtual lectures and in-person field work at our Burrows Bay field site, students will learn about the thought processes and considerations for scientific projects;  from the initial question through field work to analysis and presentation.

Environmental DNA (eDNA)

PacMam’s newest project focuses on the revolutionary technique of collecting DNA material from an animal’s environment. To collect this so-called environmental, or eDNA, we will scoop a sample of seawater where a harbor porpoise just dove, which will contain sloughed off skin cells and other genetic material from the porpoise.

This unique methodology means we can collect genetic material to learn more about the population structure of the Salish Sea harbor porpoises, without touching the animals.

If you would like to support this latest venture or any of PacMam’s research efforts, head to our Donate page to make a tax-deductible donation!

Read Our Publications

Learn what we’ve found out so far about Salish Sea harbor porpoises and much more! Read our scientific publications here.