River otters are charismatic animals. Not only filled with curiosity and playfulness, they also act in an important role as an apex predator in riparian ecosystems. Their need for abundant and diverse prey requires an overall healthy habitat and transforms this key species into sentinels of the health of the watersheds where they live. When humans track the health of river otter populations we learn a great deal about the health of our own environment as well.
The river otter is just one of many animals and plants that are canaries in an aquatic coal mine. Their presence or absence speaks volumes about the health of a watershed. Species that provide such insights to the workings of an ecosystem are called indicator species. Here on the coast of Oregon, indicator species provide invaluable information about the interconnectedness of our forests and ocean – a connection that can often be difficult to see, just like the species themselves.
From mountain ridges to creeks, rivers to estuaries and bays, and finally out to the open ocean, the flow of water is the flow of life. Watersheds connect habitats that at first glance seem independent of one another, and connect humans to wildlife in unexpected ways.
Indicator species have surprising stories. There’s a robin-sized seabird that tells us about the effects of logging practices far inland, an ancient jawless fish that informs us about the impacts from dams hundreds of miles up river, a giant salamander that keeps tabs on the ebb and flow of silt in streams running through conifer forests. The biographies of indicator species contain threads so long and intricate that suddenly the number of small fish living near our shores and the width of boughs on centuries-old trees are two key elements of a single plot line.
Through visual stories of species dependent on connected, healthy and functioning watersheds, the Watershed Sentinel Project highlights the importance of our connection to our local environment.
Noticing, studying and appreciating the animals and plants living in the same areas we inhabit sparks curiosity about what we, as humans do to these shared spaces. Industries and living practices that are connected by and impact our watersheds – from logging to fishing, development to tourism – become larger, far more involved conversations than we ever realized.
The sentinel species featured here are those that help us monitor the heartbeat of this most critical element of life – our waters from ridge to sea – and in turn, predict the health of the future we shape for ourselves and the world around us.
Watershed Indicator Species of Oregon's Central Coast
This project is focused on the indicator species of Oregon’s central coast watersheds. All the species featured in this project are photographed within a 50-mile radius of Newport, Oregon – from north to south, from the Coast Range out to sea. New species profiles will be added regularly, and each species profile will be added to as photography efforts continue.
Support this project
My goal with this project is to create a collection of powerful storytelling images of the watershed sentinels of the Oregon Coast that will become tools to inform and empower citizens to protect and conserve their local watershed habitats and the species that rely upon them. This will include:
- an interactive website
- a large format book
- a traveling educational exhibit
- visual presentations provided to researchers and educators
- and other helpful resources
This work is funded primarily through grants and donations. If you would like to support Watershed Sentinels, please consider making a donation via PayPal. All donations received go directly to field work specific to Watershed Sentinels, including travel costs, printing, outreach, specialized equipment, and other needs. Please note that donations are not tax-deductible.
What is a watershed?
A watershed is an area of land that drains water toward a stream, lake, river, bay or other body of water. Essentially, all land is part of a watershed.
A healthy watershed is critical to maintaining high quality water, as its condition directly affects the water that we ultimately rely upon. Factors both natural and human-generated – such as topography, erosion, pollution, logging or mining, and many other issues – all affect streamflow and quality.
Everyone lives in a watershed, and watersheds matter to everyone. Learning more about watersheds helps a citizen understand where their drinking water comes from, what human activities impact their watersheds, and the larger story of an ecosystem.
How can I learn more about my local watersheds?
This project focuses on indicator species utilizing the watersheds of Oregon’s central coast. The best resource for learning more about these local watersheds is the MidCoast Watershed Council.
What is an indicator species?
An indicator species is an organism that provides a measure of the environmental conditions of an area. Whether a species is particularly abundant or has declined, the health of individuals of that species, or how that species is changing in an area over time all are ways that it can indicate to us what is going on in an ecosystem.
For example, willow indicates the presence of water, since it is a moisture-loving plant. Apex predators indicate abundant prey populations, which is often a sign of good health in an ecosystem. Frogs succumb easily to pollutants in water, and so are an indicator species for water quality. Meanwhile, lichens are highly sensitive to pollutants in the air, and declining lichen populations can indicate poor air quality. Many species around the world are indicator species for one or several aspects of an ecosystem’s health.
This project’s focus is species whose presence, absence, or overall health reveal information about the condition of our watersheds. In addition, the ecology of many of the highlighted species informs us of the connection watersheds create between land and sea, and how our use of watershed habitats can be improved to ensure the highest water quality for both us and our wild neighbors.
What species will be included in your project?
The species I focus on all have an intricate and compelling connection to watershed health. I will include a range of plants and animals living in different habitats – from forest and meadow, down through valleys, along creeks, rivers and marshes, into estuaries and bays, and finally out into the sea. The list is subject to change (or rather, to grow) as research progresses, but the species I’m currently focused on photographing as Watershed Sentinels include:
- American dipper
- North American river otter
- North American beaver
- Marbled murrelet
- Pacific lamprey
- Coho salmon
- Coastal giant salamander
- Cascade Head catchfly
- Oregon silverspot butterfly
- Black petaltail
- Mole crab
- Western ridged mussel
Follow the visual story of indicator species, learn more about species you might not realize are your neighbors, and walk the winding paths of Oregon’s coastal watersheds.