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.
Illuminating our connection to the local ecosystem and inspiring action.
From ridge-top creeks to swift rivers, to estuaries and bays, and finally out to the open ocean, the flow of water connects habitats that are seemingly independent of one another, and connect humans to wildlife in unexpected ways.
Watershed Sentinels is a visual tapestry illustrating these overlaps. The stories of the indicator species living within our watersheds, many of which are species of conservation concern, aim to engage the public, inspire involvement in local policy initiatives for sustainable industry practices, and empower community members to be environmental stewards.
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, Watershed Sentinels highlights the importance of our connection to our local environment.
The watersheds of the Oregon Coast face a variety of conservation challenges. These include:
- clear-cut forestry practices that speed soil erosion and siltation of rivers and estuaries
- pollution entering our waterways
- development of habitat for human use
- an influx of invasive species
- an ongoing loss of biodiversity
- aerial spraying of pesticide and herbicides
- the storage and distribution of biosolids
Each of these issues require collaboration and creative thinking for smarter, more ecologically-sound solutions that balance economic health with ecological health. Local indicator species help to reveal the extent to which we are impacting our ecosystem, and can guide us upstream to the cause of the problem and the beginning of a conversation.
Not only do these watershed sentinels provide us with insights, they also stimulate action.
Charismatic flora and fauna are vehicles for sparking curiosity and motivating citizens to understand where their water comes from, what activities impact their watersheds, and the larger story of an ecosystem.
Using a visual experience of wildlife and their world, Watershed Sentinels seeks to bring more participants to the table and form solutions-based strategies that consider the needs of all community members – land owners, business owners, outdoor enthusiasts, families and many others.
Through investigation and education, industry and living practices that affect our watersheds become larger, far more involved conversations that move away from an Us-Them mentality and instead take everyone into account – human and non-human alike.
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.
The Oregon Coast is a hub for science, industry, tourism, and tight-knit communities. It is the home of industrial logging, fishing and farming companies, a base for research including Hatfield Marine Science Center and NOAA Marine Operations Center-Pacific, and the nucleus of conservation organizations large and small. It is wildlife- and resource—rich, and an ideal location to closely study the tenuous balance of watershed issues and the species that live in the crosshairs of human activities.
All the species featured in this project are photographed within a 50-mile radius of Newport, Oregon, spanning habitats from the forests of the Coast Range to the open ocean.
This habitat diversity underscores the interconnectivity of our watersheds, and the long journey water takes from mountaintop to ocean.
Indicator species living within these watersheds help us monitor the heartbeat of this most critical element of life and in turn, assist us in determining the future we shape for ourselves and our communities.
This image is the first thing viewers see, and will be the leading component to draw them in to a much deeper, surprising and complex visual story about their wild neighbors.
Understanding the species means understanding the ecological role it plays, as well as other species that influence its survival whether predator or prey.
Delving deeper, the documentary process will illustrate the issues that most directly impact each species.
Research, restoration, outreach and other beneficial actives affecting each species are a critical part of the story and will also be documented.
The goal is to photograph 15 Sentinels. New essays, images and other materials will be added to each profile as work is completed.
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