Pacific Mammal Research uses grants to study marine mammals of the Salish Sea

Community News

Anacortes, Washington, Foundation, Sustainability
A harbor porpoise riding the wake of a boat in Burrows Pass, Salish Sea. While not as commonly seen compared to dolphins, this behavior is more common than previously thought for this species. Photo credit: Cindy R. Elliser, Pacific Mammal Research
  • Cindy Elliser, PhD, founded Pacific Mammal Research (PacMam) in 2014, focusing on studying harbor porpoises and harbor seals to support their conservation in the Salish Sea.
  • PacMam conducts long-term research, including photo-identification and behavioral surveys, to understand the life history, behavior, and ecology of these marine mammals.
  • Marathon Petroleum’s grants totaling $40,000 from 2022 to 2023 have been instrumental in supporting PacMam's efforts, allowing them to continue their vital work in the field.

A young girl with a dream to work with dolphins grew up and is now leading research to support conservation efforts of harbor porpoises and harbor seals in the Salish Sea of the Pacific Northwest.

“I have loved marine mammals since I was little,” said Cindy Elliser, PhD, Research Director for Pacific Mammal Research (PacMam). “I have always been drawn to them since before I can remember and have been conducting research now for almost 25 years.”

Dr. Elliser founded PacMam in 2014. Since then, the nonprofit organization in Anacortes, Washington, has focused on studying harbor porpoises and harbor seals to contribute to greater conservation measures of the marine mammals.  

A female harbor porpoise named Raindrop and her calf in Burrows Pass, Salish Sea. Raindrop is a regular to PacMam’s study sight and has been seen with multiple different calves over the years. Photo credit: Cindy R. Elliser, Pacific Mammal Research

“Good conservation requires knowledge of the species, including understanding their behavior, ecology, distribution, and movement patterns,” said Dr. Elliser. “This knowledge comes from monitoring the populations over a long period of time. If we don't understand the species, then we can't make the conservation decisions that will help them the most.”

Dr. Elliser says that marine mammals like dolphins, humpback whales and killer whales have been intensely monitored for decades, but other species like the harbor porpoise do not have long-term data.

Harbor seals often pop their heads above the water to take a look around. Their coloration can vary from light with dark spots to dark with light spots and everything in between. Photo credit: Cindy R. Elliser, Pacific Mammal Research

“When changes occur, like a decline in population, we may not recognize them if we weren't monitoring them prior to the change,” said Dr. Elliser. “We all depend on a healthy ecosystem, and a healthy ecosystem requires healthy populations of the many animals, plants and algae that call the Salish Sea home. It is important for people to know who their non-human neighbors are, what their needs are, and how we can all live together.”

Katrina MacIver, MRes (Master of Research), is the Assistant Research Director of PacMam. MacIver is part of the team that conducts long-term photo-identification and behavioral surveys to learn more about the life history, behavior and ecology of harbor porpoises and harbor seals.

“We learn about the populations by understanding the individuals that comprise them,” said MacIver. “We also educate the public through presentations, engage the community in our research with our volunteer and community science programs, and provide invaluable experience to young scientists through our internships.”

Marathon Petroleum’s Anacortes refinery awarded the organization $40,000 total in grants from 2022 to 2023 to support the growth of the programs. As PacMam approaches its 10th anniversary, Dr.  Elliser credits Marathon Petroleum’s support for helping them continue their work.

“The work we do hinges on our staff and the ability to get out into the field, which we do year-round,” said Elliser. “Without these funds it would have been near impossible to continue the work we are doing at the same level we are now, or even at all. We so appreciate that Marathon sees the value in local community nonprofits like us and gives us the chance to continue our work.”

PacMam is one of the first organizations to conduct long-term photo-identification on harbor porpoises. This harbor porpoise is named Comet. The pigmentation patterns, along with any scars or dorsal fin markings, are unique and used to identify individuals. Photo credit: Cindy R. Elliser, Pacific Mammal Research