Monitoring the tiny creatures at the base of the food web can have a big impact

Zooplankton are a diverse group of small organisms that drift in marine and freshwater and feed on phytoplankton (plant plankton) and other zooplankton. This group includes jellyfish and comb-jellies, small crustaceans like copepods and krill, the larval forms of crabs and oysters, the larval or juvenile forms of some fish, and many other organisms.

The Puget Sound zooplankton monitoring program—a collaborative effort by a dozen partners—samples zooplankton at 16 different locations throughout Puget Sound, from Cowlitz Bay in the San Juan Islands, to Sisters Point in the Hood Canal, to Dana Passage in the South Sound.

The program gathers data about where and when different types of zooplankton species occur in the Sound—and how abundant they are—and shares that information with partners for scientific and management purposes. Program partners take water samples from designated locations in Puget Sound either once or twice a month, then send the samples to the University of Washington for analysis.

“Pretty much anything that comes out of the ocean is eating something that eats zooplankton or is eating zooplankton directly.”
— Phillip Dionne

The program aims to build a long-term dataset on Puget Sound zooplankton to help gauge ecosystem health and diagnose changes in fisheries.  “When we’re increasing understanding of the health of Puget Sound, it lets people know what needs to be addressed,” said Jed Moore, salmon recovery biologist with the Nisqually Indian Tribe. “Good policy starts with good science.”

Zooplankton are part of the base of the marine food web. Phillip Dionne, forage fish research and management lead for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said, “Pretty much anything that comes out of the ocean is eating something that eats zooplankton or is eating zooplankton directly.” Monitoring zooplankton can help us understand how natural and man-made stressors are affecting the health of the ecosystem and the creatures that depend on it—including juvenile salmon.

The program grew out of the zooplankton monitoring done in 2014 as part of the Salish Sea Marine Survival Project, which was an international collaborative research project, led by Long Live the Kings and the Pacific Salmon Foundation, that investigated the factors influencing the survival of juvenile Chinook, coho, and steelhead in the Salish Sea marine environment.

“My hopes for this monitoring program are that we can learn a lot about what zooplankton might be available for fish and juvenile salmon to eat,” said Kimberle Stark, senior water quality planner with King County. “As well as combining our data with Canadian folks, so we can really get an understanding, Salish Sea-wide, of what is happening with zooplankton.”

With monitoring programs like the Puget Sound zooplankton program, one of the biggest challenges lies in obtaining funding—but the longer the program can operate consistently, the better idea we’ll have of changes in the ecosystem. “These types of programs are rare, but their value really builds over time and as more data is accumulated,” said Dionne.

Thanks to all the partners who contribute to the Puget Sound zooplankton monitoring program:

  • Lummi Nation
  • Kwiaht
  • National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
  • Stillaguamish Tribe of Indians
  • Tulalip Tribes
  • Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe
  • Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife
  • King County
  • Nisqually Indian Tribe
  • Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group
  • Washington State Department of Ecology
  • Long Live the Kings
  • University of Washington

Microscopic photos of zooplankton by Lyndsey Swanson, environmental scientist with King County Environmental Lab.

Related story from Long Live the Kings

A Changing Ecosystem: Modeling the future of the salmon food web

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Making Waves is the Puget Sound Partnership’s online magazine. Making Waves features stories from the people protecting and restoring Puget Sound.