Nearshore Habitat Studies

There are several key projects in this category and several others are currently under consideration.

1. Estuarine and Coastal Restoration in the Salish Sea

Team: Nikki Wright, Executive Director, SeaChange Marine Conservation Society, Leanna Boyer, B.Sc., M.A. Jamie Smith, WCB SCUBA diver, photographer, videographer, Justin Bland, WCB SCUBA diver, Sarah Verstegen, WCB SCUBA diver, dive tender, SeaChange Operations Manager, Keith Erickson, R.P. Bio, Galiano Conservancy Association, Anuradha Rao, B.A.Sc., M.Sc., R.P. Bio., David F. Polster, B.Sc., M.Sc., R.P. Bio. , Doug Biffard


The purpose of this project is to continue to restore estuarine and coastal ecosystem resiliency and health in the Salish Sea for all species of salmonids and the marine food web upon which they depend.


This project is part of the bottom-up approach to improving food webs and nearshore habitats for juvenile salmon within the context of the Salish Sea Marine Survival Project. Eighteen sites are presently monitored for transplant density and coverage. For 2015-2017, the goal was to continue and expand this work. Three new components to the project will be added. The first is to add monitoring devices within their transplant sites to understand such parameters as annual sediment flows, water velocities, light availability and temperature. The second is to restore nearshore riparian vegetation in areas identified as critical nearshore marine habitats for juvenile salmon. The third is to begin research through a local university or college on mitigation methods that can be utilized to increase eelgrass growth in former log boom areas on a small landscape scale.

Sites identified for the above works included the Cowichan Estuary and Genoa Bay, Squamish River Estuary, Salt Spring Island (Burgoyne Bay), and Burrard and Sechelt Inlets. Video footage is taken of all monitored and newly transplanted sites.

Eelgrass and riparian vegetation will be mapped in areas considered critical nearshore and coastal nursery habitats for salmon in the southern and central areas of the Salish Sea. Restoration of eelgrass (Zostera marina) will continue using a well- established science based methodology. Riparian shoreline areas will be restored where feasible.  Environmental indicators used to gauge the project’s success will include the number of potential restoration sites located through inventories, area increase in eelgrass habitat as measured in meters square, measurement of transplanted eelgrass shoot densities and metres square of nearshore riparian areas restored.

Activities in all locations will be conducted in consultation with First Nations. Where possible, training in habitat mapping and restoration will occur in these communities to increase capacity to conserve nearshore marine habitats. Presentations, field tours and school programs focused on the high value of nearshore salmonid habitats will continue to be an important stewardship component of this project.


Eelgrass (Zostera marina) restoration and conservation in the Salish Sea aligns with the SSSMSP objectives by 1) identifying management actions to increase the survival of Salish Sea wild and hatchery salmon and steelhead, and  2) reducing uncertainty of the role of the nearshore marine environment for salmon and steelhead survival. The project addresses both objectives by monitoring all critical nearshore salmon habitats of eelgrass transplant sites every 6 months for area extent and shoot density, monitoring water quality, sediment characteristics and quality, and advancing research of organics in sediments that might be limiting factors for eelgrass survival in former log storage areas.

In 2015, seven transplants were undertaken; totaling 581m², and four marine riparian areas were restored. In 2016, eleven transplants were completed, totaling 866m². Three of the eleven sites are in BC Provincial Parks, as backshore development threats are reduced through protected area designation.

Because there is a dearth of research data about the limiting factors of the impacts of log storage on these impacted marine subtidal environments to salmon habitat, a student was recruited, under the supervision of Dr. Leah Bendall, (Dept. of Marine Ecology and Ecotoxicology Simon Fraser University) to research levels of organics and sulfides in sediments affecting eelgrass productivity.

Eelgrass conservation activities included presentations during conferences and to municipalities and the public. Eelgrass surveys were undertaken in Boundary Bay, in collaboration with Friends of Semiahmoo Bay, and the Oak Bay Municipality. Maps were created of both areas to use for education and developing public policy conservation actions.

Monitoring data from 2014 through 2016 of all 23 transplant sites will be posted on the Strait of Georgia Data Centre. Video, photos and data are presently being collated and will be placed on a Google platform to make the restoration story and its relevance to salmon survival accessible to the public.

A new collaboration was developed with the Hakai Institute so that research, especially that which can be applied in the field to improve conservation and can be shared amongst researchers and practitioners.

Summary of key results:

  • A total of 9,238m² of eelgrass habitat was restored during 2015-6. Site locations included Sechelt , Burrard and Saanich Inlets, Cowichan Bay (Genoa Bay), Maple Bay, Squamish, Mill Bay, Pender and Mayne Islands, and three sites within BC Parks (Montague Harbour, Wallace and Gambier Islands).
  • Four marine riparian areas (Tod, Burrard and Sechelt Inlets and Mayne Island) were re-vegetated to increase salmon feeding grounds and forage fish spawning areas on the nearshore.
  • HOBO units and sediment traps were installed in Genoa and Mill Bays and Squamish estuary; sediment samples were collected from 23 transplant sites.
  • 50km² was mapped in Boundary Bay and an Eelgrass Report was produced for the Municipality of Oak Bay after eelgrass habitat was mapped surrounding the township.
  • A total of 170 community volunteers of all ages participated in restoration activities.
  • Over 2500 people heard about the value of eelgrass habitats to salmon survival during several conferences, presentations and public tours. Educational brochures were produced in partnership with Parks Canada.
  • Videos of all “before and after transplant” sites are available for viewing.
  • SeaChange is participating in the newly rejuvenated Burrard Inlet Water Quality Working Committee as they feel they can contribute to improving water quality for salmon through restoration of eelgrass habitats and water quality monitoring.

The movie below shows a juvenile salmon’s view of a kelp bed in Cowichan Bay.

2.     Mapping, Protection and Enhancement of Forage Fish spawning habitat

Team: Ramona deGraaf (BMS), BC Shore Spawners Alliance & volunteers


  1. Determine the spatial extent of spawning habitat and suitable habitats for surf smelt and Pacific sand lance in the Salish Sea
  2. Protection of forage fish resources (secondary capacity) in the Salish Sea
  3. Development of operational statements and best management practices for forage fish spawning/rearing habitats and marine riparian habitats for local government and stakeholders.


The forage fish specialists and communities working with the BC Shore Spawners Alliance (BCSSA) are interested in protecting the health of marine ecosystems and the productivity of forage fish to benefit marine populations.

Herring, Pacific sandlance, and surf smelt are the most abundant marine forage fishes in the Strait of Georgia/Puget Sound. Pacific sandlance may represent a greater trophic biomass for marine species than herring (D. Penttila, personal communication).  Forage fish represent a valued ecosystem component essential to marine food chains, connecting zooplankton to a host of secondary predators.

Protecting critical beach spawning and rearing habitats of surf smelt and Pacific sand lance is necessary to sustain forage fish biomass and the predator species reliant on them.

Sandlance and surf smelt require near-shore habitats for their survival. Departments approving development permits lack up-to-date information and are largely unaware of the impact of shoreline development on the survival of forage fish. Protecting beach spawning habitat for Pacific sandlance and surf smelt has resulted in strict shoreline protection policies in Washington State. Yet in British Columbia little has been done to inform land-use policies to protect these crucial beach habitats. The majority of important departments and biologists in agencies know very little about intertidal beach spawning forage fishes. Educating agencies responsible for coastal land-use planning in British Columbia about these critical fish species is imperative. Already, vast areas of shoreline in southern British Columbia have been altered and historical spawning grounds lost.

The work of the BC Shore Spawners Alliance (BCSSA) is a result of the growing realization that throughout the Strait of Georgia and in other rapidly developing BC coastal communities, intertidal forage fish spawning habitat was being degraded or lost. Stewardship groups such as the Friends of Semiahmoo Bay Society, Wreck Beach Preservation Society and the West Vancouver Shoreline Preservation Society and Stanley Park Forage Fish Friends are actively working on forage fish surveys, beach restoration and enhancement, and surf smelt recreational fishing issues.

Sea Watch society’s project focusses on the declining habitat quality for two key forage fish species, surf smelt and Pacific sand lance, and coastal marine rearing habitat for juvenile salmon.

These projects seek to advance the goal of the SSMSP to support the recovery of wild salmon and sustainable fisheries by identifying major factors affecting the survival of juvenile salmon in the Salish Sea by undertaking research activities that protect and restore critical salmon habitats.  Critical salmon habitats include those habitats that support spawning and rearing of prey species vital to salmon recruitment as defined by WA State ecosystem-based management principles for forage fish management and the BC Wild Salmon Policy.

Along shoreline units that have been heavily degraded, restoration/enhancement recommendations will be made to aid habitat restoration projects to recover and protect declining Strait of Georgia surf smelt stocks, protect Pacific sand lance spawning habitats, and enhance juvenile salmon coastal rearing habitats.  The maps and data will also assist in allocation of oil spill remediation resources.   Such a project is vitally important to protect and conserve critical marine fish habitats within the project locations.


Spawning Surveys by Sea Watch and Community Monitoring Efforts have been carried out for over 10 years. In total, approximately 280 beaches monitored. Of these, 50 are positive for Pacific Sand lance, 52 for Surf smelt, and 4 mixed Surf smelt/Pacific sand lance.  Over 30km of spawning beds have been monitored.  In addition, studies have been underway to elucidate the Surf smelt spawning stock structure- both in the summer, winter and year-round.  Strait of Georgia Surf smelt spawning stock structure is similar to that in Puget Sound with summer, fall/winter and year-round spawning.  Work continues to define the geographic boundaries and/or overlap of these stocks within the Strait.

With respect to the Forage Fish Spawning Habitat Suitability Model, 12 Islands Trust islands have been completed and project is ongoing with 3-4 islands being undertaken for 2017-2018.  The Lower Mainland project consists of Howe Sound; English Bay/Burrard Inlet; and Delta/Surrey.  The Howe Sound project was delayed and will recommence in 2017.  The other components of the Lower Mainland project have been completed.

Working with partners in Puget Sound, a beach condition model has been completed.  The matric allows for the consistent assessment and scoring of marine shorlines as to their current condition (health) of marine shorelines which are important as spawning/rearing habitats for Surf smelt, Pacific sand lance and neustonic insect prey for juvenile salmonids.  This model has been applied to English Bay/Burrard Inlet.  A technical report and potential journal publication of the model is being pursued with project partners.

Other areas of progress include the development of the English Bay/Burrard Inlet Surf smelt Habitat Technical Review and Restoration Plan. This Plan will provide science-based recommendations to

  • Protect critical forage fish resources
  • Prioritize marine shoreline habitat Prioritize restoration areas
  • Model the impact of sea level rise on setting conservation targets
  • Prioritize enhancement of marine riparian vegetation

Further Case Studies will include Denman Island and the Capital Regional District.

3. Spatial temporal distribution of Nereocystis luetkeana (bull kelp) and use by juvenile salmonids in the Salish Sea

Team: Maycira Costa, UVic; Nikki Wright, SeaChange Marine Conservation Society; Leanna Boyer, SeaChange Marine Conservation Society; Sarah Schroeder, Graduate student, UVic; and various collaborators


The objectives are: (1) to define the surface extent of bull kelp beds by using satellite imagery (present and historical) associated with sea-kayak surveys for several regions of the Gulf Islands (Salt Spring, Saturna, North and South Pender, and Mayne), and Comox and Cowichan estuaries, in collaboration with several environmental stewardship community organizations and First Nation groups. (2) To initiate a robust study on the use of kelp habitat by juvenile salmon in the Salish Sea.


Kelp, specifically Nereocystis luekeana (bull kelp), form extensive forests in rocky habitats along the subtidal zone of the coast of British Columbia. Kelp forests provide important habitat for juvenile salmon attracting their preferred food and providing protection from predators. Of particular interest to the Salish Sea Marine Survival Project (SSMSP), kelp habitats have been shown to provide optimal feeding and refuge conditions for Chinook and Coho in the Strait of Juan de Fuca (Shaffer, 2003). Declines of Cowichan juvenile Chinook are largely attributed to their high mortality within the first four months in the southern Gulf Islands. One method of improving Chinook production is to find a way of improving kelp production (Beamish et al. 2011). However, there is a dearth of information of the existing populations and distribution of these kelp habitats in the southern Gulf Islands. As such, the need for kelp bed distribution for the Salish Sea was one of the main data gaps identified at the Salmon Habitat meeting in July 2014. Other research initiatives related to this proposal are the successful Kelp Mapping project using Satellite Technology and the Estuarine and Coastal Restoration in the Salish Sea.

At present, the majority of kelp mapping is conducted manually via transects and aerial photography. Though effective, the strategy is labour-intensive, requires large time investment, and is limited by the areas surveyed. During 2015 Costa et al. carried out a successful short pilot project (3 months) to evaluate and define methodologies to use satellite imagery (present and historical) to map the aerial extent of kelp beds on BC coastal waters. The 2015 pilot project is now finished and the full project goal for 2016-2017 is to apply the developed methods to the BC coastal waters and work together with local communities and First Nations in collaboration with SeaChange to improve data collection and the use of satellite imagery.


This project was begun in early summer 2016 with a new MSc graduate student, Sarah Schroeder, in the Costa Lab. In the summer of 2016 an intense field survey was conducted in Cowichan Bay, Mayne Island, and Pender Island in collaboration with SeaChange and local communities. Satellite imagery from Spot 7 (6 m spatial resolution) and WorldView 3 (2 m spatial resolution) satellites were acquired at the time of sea kayak field survey. Further, after receiving the acquired imagery, a second phase of field survey was conducted in August/September to better characterize the main nearshore habitats.

Digital manipulation of the WorldView 3 image shows a strong ability to map kelp beds. The DigitalGlobe historical archive was surveyed and images acquired from 2004 to present will be requested for free as part of a submitted application to DigitalGlobe.

Imagery analysis is ongoing as is the kelp bed sea kayak survey processing.

The next steps will focus on data integration with the other nearshore habitat projects. Also, planned collaboration with Hakai Institute will allow this project expand to a larger spatial scale, which is required to understand the health of the nearshore habitat in the BC coast. This will be important to understand trends in the large-scale distribution of kelp habitats, which are known to provide shelter and food to numerous species including Coho and Chinook salmon. This project may provide the scientific basis to quantify changes in a long temporal scale, which are deemed important for understanding environmental dynamics and provide rationales for regulation

4. Evaluating seagrasses as habitats for juvenile salmon

Team: Laura Kennedy, MSc student, UVic, Dr. Rana El-Sabaawi, UVic, Dr. Francis Juanes, UVic.


To determine the impact of eelgrass density on invertebrate communities, and to determine the importance of prey originating from eelgrass ecosystems to juvenile salmon diets.


The primary goal of the SSMSP is to identify the most significant factors affecting the marine survival of juvenile salmon in the Salish Sea marine environment. Currently, they do not understand how juvenile salmon in the Salish Sea use nearshore environments in their early marine life, and how habitat complexity, degradation, or restoration of nearshore environments affects the availability of important juvenile salmon habitats. Shore development and climate change have led to the loss and degradation of nearshore ecosystems including seagrasses, which have been shown to be critical for juvenile salmon in many coastal ecosystems. The goal of this study is to assess the value of seagrass ecosystems as foraging grounds for juvenile salmon, and to quantify the effects of seagrass damage and restoration on the availability of high quality salmon diets.


Ms. Kennedy’s project had two objectives: 1. to compare the availability of invertebrates along a gradient of seagrass health, and 2. to assess whether seagrass meadows provide prey for juvenile salmon. A pilot in the Cowichan Bay estuary showed that the seagrass habitats in the bay were not suitable objective 1 (no discernable seagrass gradients, and most meadows only accessible using snorkeling surveys). As a result, her sampling location was moved to the Comox estuary, which has a high abundance of accessible seagrass habitat containing a gradient of dense to sparse beds.

Laura has now successfully completed her MSc at the University of Victoria. Her study showed that eelgrass habitat supported a variety of prey items for juvenile salmon. Prey abundances increased with increasing eelgrass abundance, but did not change in composition across eelgrass density. Juvenile Chum and Chinook salmon diet was dominated by approximately 80% of benthic diet items, all found in eelgrass habitat, supporting the hypothesis that eelgrass habitat can provide foraging grounds for juvenile salmon. Juvenile Chum salmon isotope signatures closely reflected those of eelgrass invertebrates, indicating juvenile Chum salmon utilized eelgrass invertebrates from the Comox Estuary, BC.

Lessons learned include:

  • Eelgrass habitat may provide important foraging grounds for juvenile salmon. Higher-density eelgrass habitat provides increased prey abundance, but even sparse habitat may be an important habitat feature, as it may provide a unique invertebrate community targeted by juvenile salmon.
  • Eelgrass habitat should be protected in near-shore habitats, especially those frequented by juvenile salmon, or close to salmon-bearing streams. Restoration practices should continue, with increased monitoring of the status of natural and restored to better understand how the success of these habitats can influence juvenile salmon feeding.

This project reduces uncertainty around the role of near-shore habitat for juvenile salmon. Specifically, it indicates that the conservation of eelgrass habitat may protect foraging opportunities for juvenile Pacific salmon during a vulnerable life history stage, when growth is critical.

5. Diversity and structure of coastal eelgrass communities and their importance for maintaining juvenile Pacific salmon

Team: Dr. Josie Iacarella, post-doc, UVic, and Dr. Julia Baum, UVic.


On the coast of British Columbia, both eelgrass meadows and Pacific salmon species are declining, yet eelgrass community dynamics and reliance of juvenile salmon on these communities are poorly understood. They will assemble the first large-scale dataset from monitoring efforts of coastal BC organizations in order to assess eelgrass community diversity and structure across environmental and human disturbance gradients (including boating, fishing, and non-native species). The final outcome of this research will be an index of eelgrass ecosystem health for all monitored meadows based on their ability to provide ecosystem services including provision of habitat for juveniles of salmon and other commercially-important fishes.


Since beginning her Postdoctoral Fellowship in November, 2016, Josie assembled a working group of 20+ individuals who are involved in surveying fishes across the coast of BC. Partner organizations and groups include: Nootka Sound Watershed Society, Parks Canada, West Coast Aquatic, Uu-a-thluk, Raincoast Conservation Foundation, Hakai Institute, Project Watershed Society, Nile Creek Enhancement Society, UBC labs, and the UVic Baum lab. The working group has been framed within a larger network that is forming, Seagrass BC, led by Hakai Institute and SeaChange Marine Conservation Society.

In February, they held a workshop for working group partners to discuss research questions and field methods. They decided to focus on 2 projects: (1) an assessment of juvenile salmon use of eelgrass vs. non-eelgrass habitats throughout the outmigration period, paired with gut content analysis and invertebrate prey surveys at the paired habitat sites, and (2) an assessment of fish diversity in eelgrass habitats across coastal gradients of human disturbance.

The juvenile salmon project was conducted in 5 regions (Tahsis Inlet, Bedwell Estuary, Fraser Estuary, Bowser Lagoons, and Koeye Estuary). The surveys began end of April/early May and continued through the summer, generally on a biweekly basis. They conducted beach or purse seines (depending on the region), invertebrate dip net sweeps, and collected some salmon juveniles (species and amount depending on region). They will use these data to compare abundances of juvenile salmon and their invertebrate prey in eelgrass vs. non-eelgrass (generally sandy or rocky) habitats; gut content analysis will be used to determine if the prey collected in each habitat matches what the juvenile salmon are consuming.

The fish diversity project was conducted from mid-June through July 2016 in 12 regions spanning the mainland from the Fraser Estuary – Calvert Island – Skeena Estuary, and covering a large spatial extent of Vancouver Island. This project involves a one-time survey of approximately 6-12 eelgrass sites per region. They sampled beach seining sites and characterized the eelgrass meadows (e.g. shoot density, percent cover, epiphyte load). Following the surveys, Josie and an Honour’s student at UVic gathered functional trait information on the fishes that are caught (including morphometric analysis), and worked to quantify human disturbance levels at the surveyed sites. Human disturbance includes measures of distance to human-made structures, boating activity levels, and adjacent human population densities; they will also be preparing eelgrass samples to analyze δ15N to determine if they can distinguish anthropogenic nutrient inputs from natural inputs. Josie will also be assessing whether there is evidence of biotic homogenization (reduced beta-diversity) of fish communities among regions with higher levels of human disturbance.


The Eelgrass Fishes Network was established to facilitate a collaborative effort in surveying eelgrass fishes across the coast of BC in summer 2016. Two workshops were held with 20+ attendees, the first to discuss research questions and survey methods, and the second to review preliminary analyses and plan publications. Network partners collaborated on two projects, (1) the impact of human disturbance on diversity of eelgrass fishes (one-time survey, 9 regions with a total of 89 sites), and (2) the role of eelgrass versus non-eelgrass habitats for juvenile salmon diets and refuge (generally biweekly surveys April – August, 5 regions with two sites each).

In terms of results, there is evidence of decreased species richness and biotic homogenization of eelgrass fishes in highly disturbed regions (sites within Fraser Estuary, Comox Estuary, southern Vancouver Island). Rockfish species, in particular, were an indicator species of low disturbance regions (sites within Clayoquot Sound, Barkley Sound, Central Coast, and Skeena Estuary), whereas threespine stickleback were most associated with high disturbance regions. The higher diversity (within and among sites) of the fish community and the importance of commercially-valuable rockfish species within the community at low disturbance sites exemplifies the need to maintain eelgrass habitat in low disturbance areas.

In addition, the results generally indicate that juvenile salmon use eelgrass habitat more than vegetated habitats, and were most often found to have harpacticoid copepods in their diets – a species associated with eelgrass. The role of eelgrass for juvenile salmon appears to vary by region, potentially in part dependent on the scale of the estuary (e.g. Fraser Estuary versus Bowser Lagoons).

This project contributes to a better understanding of (1) whether coastal human activities are impacting fish communities and (2) the relative contribution of eelgrass habitat to the diet and refuge of juvenile salmon. The results will have implications for the importance of habitat restoration and protection of habitats in low human disturbance areas and/or key outmigration locations.

Josie has taken on a new post-doctoral position so this project was ended approximately 10 months earlier than expected (Jan 2017). However, Josie intends on completing two publication based on the results to date.

6. Remote Sensing Methodology to examine the relationships between eelgrass distribution, upland land use and water quality.

Team: Dr. Maycira Costa, UVic and students/technicians.


The goal of this research is to use historic aerial photography and contemporary UAV imagery to investigate the long-term trends in eelgrass habitat distribution in the Salish Sea, and to investigate the potential impact of coastal development in the region on eelgrass habitats.


Nearshore marine habitats are of great ecological and economical importance. Specifically, eelgrass meadows are one of the most productive and sensitive nearshore habitats. Part of their importance is to provide shelter and food to numerous species including Coho and Chinook salmon, and forage fish such as sand lance and herring. These habitats are threatened by human activities. Specifically, in the Salish Sea, as human population continues to grow, eelgrass beds have been documented as decreasing. However, there is a lack of understanding of the relative threats that are causing the decrease of eelgrass beds in this region. Current mapping efforts are underway to identify the occurrence of eelgrass and potential restoration areas

Aerial photography is a valuable tool for monitoring landscape and ecosystem change. Archived air photos may date back as far as the 1920s, providing the longest available time series in remote sensing data with high spatial resolution and tonal detail making it suitable for mapping temporal change in small habitat units such as seagrass meadows. The goal of this project is to quantify the temporal and spatial dynamics of eelgrass habitats and associated adjacency catchment area land use change over time to further understand temporal changes and associated disturbance/environmental forcing. They are analyzing a long time series of aerial photos (1950-2004) and more recent satellite images for defining eelgrass cover change and land use change in the drainage basin at different scales from the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve and adjacent areas.


Field work conducted for this project included acquisition of aerial photography of the study sites for 2016 using a small Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) (2 cm spatial resolution) to complete the time series and kayak survey in the spring/summer 2016. In Village Bay a total of 1.5 hectares of eelgrass was delineated using object segmentation on the UAV image.

The time series was used to define methodology for long-term eelgrass mapping methodology using historic aerial photography from 1932-2014. Initial results for Village Bay, Mayne Island, indicates some variability of the eelgrass habitats between years and associated temporal land cover change. Further investigation will examine the possible impact of shoreline and watershed alterations on eelgrass distribution at several study sites around Mayne Island and Saturna Island.

Progress so far:

  • The time-series of aerial photos is organized and data quality and environmental variables dictated the areas where the study is focused.
  • Aerial photos are digitally pre-processed and subjected to an object-oriented classification model for definition of temporal eelgrass beds. On-going analysis
  • Aerial photos are being processed for classification of land use change products.
  • Intense field work was conducted in the spring/summer of 2016 and included acquisition of aerial photography of the study sites for 2016 using a small Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) (2 cm spatial resolution) and sea kayak survey with underwater videography. On-going analysis.

After the first steps of this project, (1) data organization and meetings to collate/examine available data and (2) initial processing of the aerial photos, they decided that more detailed field data for the different focused study sites was deemed required for accomplishing their goals. An intense field data acquisition comprised of imagery acquired with an UAV (Unnamed Aerial Vehicle) and sea kayak-based videography was conducted at several sites in the Gulf Islands during the spring/summer of 2016. These data are presently under analysis to be integrated with the historical aerial photos. Given the large amount of acquired field data and the time required to conduct the analysis and integration with historical data, this project will continue until the end of 2017, but within the planned budget.

The next steps will involve data integration with the other nearshore habitat projects. Also, planned collaboration with Hakai Institute will allow this project expand to a larger spatial scale, which is required to understand the health of the nearshore habitat in the BC coast. This will be important to understand trends in the large -scale distribution of eelgrass habitats, which are known to provide shelter and food to numerous species including Coho and Chinook salmon. This project may provide the scientific basis to quantify changes in a long temporal scale, which are deemed important for understanding environmental dynamics and provide rationales for regulations.

7. Restoration Research on Kelp Forest Habitats in the Salish Sea

Team: William Heath, Ph.D (Nile Creek Enhancement Society & Project Watershed Society); Sherryl Bisgrove, Ph.D (Simon Fraser University), Braeden Schiltroth (MITACS student SFU


Objectives of this project include the following:

1) Estimate the extent of kelp forest cover/loss in the northern Salish Sea in recent decades and identify sites in need of restoration that would be of benefit to juvenile salmon

2) Identify kelp stocks capable of growing at sites with stressful conditions (high temperature and/or low pH) by correlating sites that have retained kelp with recorded oceanographic conditions available from online databases (e.g. lighthouse SST databases on DFO Pacific website).

3) Compare bull kelp growth and survival, faunal (fish and invertebrate) presence and detailed oceanographic conditions at 5 experimental sites and at a reference site.

4) Examine the effect of density thinning of sea urchins on kelp abundance at a monitoring site

Longer term objectives:

1) To identify sources of thermal stress-resilient genetic stocks of bull kelp (Nereocystis luetkeana) in the Salish Sea that can be grown in significant quantities to restore historical kelp beds as habitat for refuge and feeding of juvenile salmon.


This project is aimed at restoration research on critical nearshore bull kelp habitats for use by juvenile salmon in the Salish Sea. It builds upon and extends the findings of research funded by the SSMP in 2015 (Heath et al. 2015) which has established: 1) an experimental system for environmental sampling as well as planting and analysis of bull kelp performance in the field; 2) the role of prolonged warm temperatures (>16C) and herbivore grazing in restricting bull kelp survival; and 3) methods for assessing stress-resiliency of bull kelp populations.

In 2016, the extent of kelp forest cover/loss in the northern Salish Sea in recent decades will be estimated and sites will be identified for potential restoration that would be of significant benefit to juvenile salmon.

The experimental kelp system will be used to compare the growth and survival of bull kelp originating from Sansum Narrows (S. Gulf Islands) and Campbell River areas at 5 planted sites. At a long-term monitoring site on S. Denman Island, thinning of red and green sea urchin densities will be examined as a treatment for restoring a natural kelp bed that has diminished, but persisted.


Diving observations and sonde casts were conducted on February 22, March 29, May 2, 24 and 25, June 11, 27, July 23, 24, August 16 and October 10, 2016.

The growth of the bull kelp was excellent (2-5m) at the Maude Reef grid and outer sites, but slower at the other sites, following the pattern observed last year. They noted some Nereocystis settlement and growth on their mooring lines at three sites.  They also found a culture line at Cape Lazo shoal that had broken loose at one end, but was heavily stocked with “wild” bull kelp. Development of the kelp plants proceeded to maturity with sori production at Maude and Cape Lazo sites during June and July, lasting until October 11 at Maude Reef outer site (last visit). Water temperatures remained in a favourable range (under 18 C) during this period, in contrast to conditions in 2014 and 2015.

Genetic samples for a collaborative population genetics study with Dr Filipe Alberto were collected from seven sites, including three of their experimental sites, as well as Sansum Narrows, Quadra Island, Stanley Park and northeast Vancouver Island. Preliminary results regarding genetic variability of bull kelp populations from California to Alaska suggest that the populations in the central Strait of Georgia are genetically different from those in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Using sea surface temperature data from NOAA’s thermal satellite imagery they identified a large “hot zone” in the central Strait of Georgia and a “cold zone” in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Kelp collected from two sites situated in the cold (French Beach) and warm zones (Stanley Park) zones are now being tested for thermal tolerance in the lab at SFU. Additional sites of future interest include: Stanley Park, Comox/Denman Island, Campbell River, Mayne Island, Sansum Narrows, Victoria, and French Beach near the Jordan River in the Strait of Juan De Fuca. Preliminary testing revealed that spore release was higher from reproductive sori collected form Stanley Park, compared to French beach. Additionally, they found that gametophyte development differed during exposure to warm (20°C) and cold (10°C) temperatures for both Stanley Park and French Beach populations. Finally, they are collaborating with Rob Underhill and Stephanie Hurst of the Mayne Island Conservancy Society who have been monitoring kelp populations around Mayne Island. This area represents a site where kelp is exposed to temperatures that are slightly cooler that Stanley Park but warmer than sites in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.